MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
An abandoned rifle lay in the dust, but Imogene didn’t dare stop walking to retrieve it. Colonel Bychkov and one of her men with a sniper rifle were watching from the rim of Borda’s crater. No way the flimsy emergency suit they’d given her would stop even a single bullet from that.
The base looked even more bleak than before. Black lines of char and rough sheet metal patches marred the once pure silver dome. She almost missed the entrance Aaron had cut. It was solid now, plated over with scrap from the ruined garage.
General Slate’s people had made some repairs, but this was definitely new.
The frozen airlock had been unjammed, and slid open when she thumbed the button. Air hissed in around her. She flipped open her visor and coughed once before slamming it shut again. There might be air, but whatever oxygen it contained was choked with so much soot and filth it hardly mattered.
The inner door opened, spilling dim light from the airlock into the dark corridor.
“Hello? This is Private Haartz, UNA. Anyone here?” She sent the call out over both comms and her suit’s external speaker. A distant thump and clanking drifted through the darkness, but no reply came. Picking her way to the center of the dome, she tried again.
“Imogene?” Aaron’s voice drawled over her comm moments before the grizzly’s blue pressure suit appeared at the end of a corridor. He set down a cutting torch and shuffled towards her. “Didn’t expect to see you back so soon.”
Dragging Aaron into this added another dozen kilos to the weight already crushing her heart. But protecting Bruce and the others came first.
“Me either,” she said. “Is there anyone else here? I need to see about disarming that detonation trigger we left you with.”
Aaron’s helmet bobbed. “Just me and a skunk with a busted leg. He’s got the trigger downstairs.”
Two people. Not enough to mount a serious defense. Imogene frowned, reshuffling the half-formed plans she’d worked out on the walk into the crater.
She followed Aaron down and through the second airlock into the lower levels. Their headlamps gave the only light, but the air tasted surprisingly fresh. The dank smell of standing water was gone, and when they passed the stairwell to the power room, only a bathtub ring of oil remained on the now dry steps.
“You managed to pump out all the water?” she asked.
The bear’s muzzle pulled into a sheepish grin. “Yeah. Set up a siphon. Stick a hose in the water and throw the other end out the airlock. Sucked it right out clean. I just feel stupid I didn’t think of it sooner.”
“Any luck with the generators? I assume that’s why you did it?”
“Nah. I tried, but everything’s still too blurry. I can see to weld okay, but messing with electronics is out.”
They turned into the dome’s ring corridor, where a pale radiance shone from an open doorway. Aaron stepped into the light “Hey, Norman, relief has arrived.”
She followed him into the room where a skunk reclined on a broken office chair. His beady black eyes peered at her over a leg propped up and wrapped from ankle to thigh in yellow thermoset.
“Thank the gods,” he said. “About time the general sent someone back for us.” He straightened in the chair, arching his eyebrows at Imogene. “How’d the PAF hunt go?”
“We found them, all right.” Her gaze darted from his eyes to the cluttered crate-table beside him. She took a step forward. “Do you have the detonation trigger?”
“Yeah.” The skunk rummaged in the litter of half-eaten ration trays and pulled out a small matte black box. “Why? The general want us to blow the fuel bunkers?”
“No—” She snatched the trigger from him before his thumb could drift too near the firing button. Her own thumb found the smaller reset button and held it until the remote chirped, signaling the detonation codes were erased. She set down the now useless device and met the skunk’s eyes.
“General Slate lied to you. The whole base is rigged to blow, not just the bunkers.”
“What?” The skunk’s tail twitched. “Why? And where is the general, anyway?”
Imogene shrugged. “He probably wanted you to take any nearby PAF with you.”
“But General Slate helped us,” Aaron said. “He wouldn’t just let us kill ourselves like that.”
“Yeah?” She angled her muzzle at a grill on the wall above the skunk. “Why don’t you take the cover off that vent and find out?”
Aaron did, sliding his claws through the grate and yanking it off to reveal a block of blue putty explosive. He dropped the grate and backed away. “Damn,” he growled. “I’m gonna beat the crap out of him, two-star general or not. Setting us up like that!”
Imogene shook her head. “You won’t have to. He’s dead. So are most of his troops, and there’s a PAF unit up on the ridge waiting for me to defuse the explosives.”
“PAF? Waiting for you?” The skunk’s muzzle bunched, beady eyes narrowing to slits. “You sold us out, didn’t you?”
Rocco had said the same thing. Was it any less true now? She had to hope so.
“Would you really rather have died in the blast? I’m sorry it has to be like this. But I do have a plan.” She turned to Aaron. “Is there anywhere you guys can hide?”
Aaron’s bloodshot eyes held hers. She struggled to return that red gaze, willing the grizzly tech’s amiable nature and logical outlook to keep him focused forward rather than back.
After a long moment, he nodded. “There’s a crawlspace under the generator room.”
“Perfect.” She forced confidence into her tone. “They’ve got four of my squadmates prisoner too, but there’s only ten or twenty PAF soldiers. The rest are medics and wounded. With you on the outside to spring us, we can wait until they settle in and lower their guard, then take them out.” She nodded at the skunk’s cast. “He’s probably out of the fighting, but that’s still six of us. Combine that with surprise and we can turn the tables.”
She glanced from skunk to grizzly and back. They didn’t have time for an argument, and while the plan wasn’t nearly as certain as she’d made it sound, at least it was something.
Aaron hitched his massive shoulders. “Better than anything I can think of.”
Both of them turned to the skunk.
The white stripe between his eyes narrowed as he glowered at Imogene. “You better make this right. The general might have screwed us, but at least we’d have died doing our duty.”
“I’ll do my best,” she said. He’d probably never believe her, but right now all that mattered was his cooperation.
She sought Aaron’s gaze. “Get any weapons you have and whatever else you’ll need to hide for a day or two. That goes in the crawlspace. I also want a couple sets of tools and datapads to hide in the most likely places they’ll keep us, so we can call you to coordinate, and as a backup. Can you take care of that?”
“Good.” She reached up and took the block of explosives from the vent. “We don’t have much time, and I’ve got to pull out enough of the charges to make a good show.”
Fifteen minutes later she had an impressive looking stack of blue explosives. Less than two thirds of what she and Jared had deployed in the dome alone, but the PAF didn’t have to know that. She helped Aaron move the skunk downstairs, then hurried back up to the surface, barely ahead of the deadline.
She gave the agreed upon signal, and seconds later the Fire Ant crested the crater rim. Dust roostertailed from the skirtless treads as the armored personnel carrier sped down the narrow road to the dome. The crawler stopped and its infantry swarmed out, weapons ready. They flattened themselves against the dome on either side of the airlock, prepping for a hostile entry.
“There wasn’t anyone inside,” Imogene said over an open channel. “They must have bugged out on their own.”
The PAF sergeant’s visor snapped towards her, then he waved his troops inside without acknowledging her comment.
Imogene fought the urge to pace. The colonel’s sniper was probably still watching her, and if the base was as empty as she’d claimed, there was no reason for her to be nervous.
Her shifting hooves had beaten a small crater into the fine dust before the sergeant reappeared. He gave a beckoning wave to the colonel’s position on the rim, then turned to Imogene.
Another PAF trooper waited in the airlock, and with his rifle held ready, escorted her back into the lower levels. The basement airlock opened, and she saw Aaron being marched deeper into the base. Her hope drained away in a defeated sigh. At least he was okay.
As they approached the power room, a whiff of acrid musk curled Imogene’s nose. The trooper prodded her down the stairs, and her stomach knotted.
The skunk’s black and white striped body lay in the middle of the corridor, a smeared trail of blood showing where he’d been dragged from the crawlspace. She didn’t want to look, but was unable to turn away.
The trooper nudged her with his weapon. “Take him outside. Before the smell worsens.”
Hesitantly, she complied, wrapping her gauntlets around those limp, black-furred hands. She tried to avoid the dead skunk’s eyes, but his glazed mudpuddle pupils sought her out. Rage contorted his features, and she could almost hear his question: “Why? Why did you betray us?”
With a shudder, she ripped her gaze away. She hadn’t betrayed him. She’d done everything she could. Hadn’t she?
His dead eyes caught hers again. Silent. Accusing.
No. There was no justification that could ever excuse what she’d done to him.
Outside, she laid his now swollen and rapidly freezing corpse beside the other dead removed from the dome. Amid the pile, Jack’s white suit caught her eye. She’d killed him too, hadn’t she? A more personal betrayal than the treason she’d delivered General Slate or the skunk, but betrayal none the less.
Colonel Bychkov’s crawlers pulled up into a tight huddle beside the dome. Imogene and the trooper watching her stood by as the colonel and a few others entered the base. Minutes later they reemerged, the colonel gesticulating as she issued orders.
One of the supply trucks backed right up to the airlock, while the hospital crawlers disgorged a small swarm of medics. Everyone bore a carton or stack of bedding, all heading for the dome.
The combat vehicles were moving too, the damaged tank settling into a defensive position while the Fire Ant and Komodo rolled back up towards the crater rim.
“Go,” the trooper behind Imogene said. “You will help unload.” He pointed to where Imogene’s companions had appeared beside the waiting supply truck. He followed her long enough to make sure she wouldn’t try to disappear, then bounded off to join his squadmates trekking for the ridgeline.
“How did things go?” Bruce asked when he saw her.
“Not great. Aaron’s eyes are getting better. He’s inside somewhere.” She didn’t mention the skunk. He could just accrue alongside all her other private guilt.
The truck’s front compartment opened and a familiar figure stepped out. “Come on,” Omar said. “Door is unlocked. Start unloading.”
William and Bruce undogged the cargo hatch while Omar strode closer. He’d picked up a bandolier of grenades somewhere along the line, and hefted an assault rifle. Imogene snorted. With the odds the way they were, he hardly needed a weapon to keep his labor detail in line.
They formed a living conveyor, shifting crates of food and munitions from the truck into the dome’s airlock. When the first truck was empty another pulled up to take its place.
While Imogene’s group hauled freight, the medics moved wounded into the dome. Some could still walk, while others were carried in coffin-like pressurized stretchers. After the second truck was empty, Omar shifted them over to the coffin-bound patients and medical supplies piling up around the hospital crawlers.
The stretchers were coming back out to be refilled, and on the sixth trip Bruce cast a long look at the blood smeared and much bandaged mongoose inside. He looked up and over at Omar. “You’re unloading all the wounded? I can understand a few to make more room, but Borda’s no medical center. This guy would be better off in the crawler.”
Omar shook his head. “He will be safer here. The crawlers are going north again, to pick up more wounded.”
“As if these aren’t enough,” Alexei huffed from where he and Lauren struggled with a bear-size stretcher. “And where are they gonna find anyone still lively enough to need help anyway?”
The silver tint of Omar’s visor hid his expression as he weighed Alexei’s question. “Before Ming-Xue and I joined the colonel, several of her vehicles were disabled in a rock slide. And no, I do not know how many or where. Now be quiet and work.”
By the time all the wounded were inside, Imogene’s arms and legs ached. The low gravity might help, but a convoy’s worth of supplies made for a lot of lifting. It had been a long time since she’d had any proper sleep either, and every blink fell with a leaden weight.
A pair of PAF soldiers relieved Omar and herded Imogene and the others into the dome. Her lip twisted in irony when they reached their destination: the very same makeshift cell where they’d held Ming-Xue and Omar. Their processing went about the same, too, stripped of their suits and forced at gunpoint into the small inner storeroom. Aaron already waited inside, and with six of them the room felt crowded.
The door slid shut, and Lauren spat a frothy wad against it. “This just gets better and better, you know that?” Her yellow eyes flashed in the dim light. She turned on Imogene. “You’re sure you’re on the right side of the door? You were in here alone for almost an hour, and all you managed to do was exactly what Colonel Bitch asked? Pathetic.”
Imogene flicked one ear but didn’t reply. She knelt and pulled open the service panel beside the door, revealing a handful of tools and a datapad. “There would have been more,” she said, “but things didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped.”
Lauren’s eyes widened. She lunged after the datapad, then retreated into a corner, eyes locked on the tiny screen.
A smile twisted its way across Imogene’s muzzle, then died. Proving Lauren wrong was about all the pitiful supplies were good for now.
She glanced at Aaron. “What happened?”
His jowls hardened into an unhappy line. “They smelled Norman, and you saw what he was like. Rather die than surrender.”
Imogene sighed. Even if Aaron and the skunk hadn’t been discovered, the corridors were crawling with enemy troops. How could she have deluded herself into thinking they had a chance of turning the tables?
Bruce knelt to inspect the tools, giving Imogene a good view of the crusted blood along the side of his face and the ragged chunks missing from his ear. Her jaw clenched tight and her throat closed. No cache of hidden tools could ever repair the harm she’d done.
The stag returned the pliers and screwdrivers to their concealment. He smiled up at her, warmth struggling to push the weariness from his eyes.
“Good job. This is more than we had any right to hope for.” He started to rise, then winced and held his side where the guards had beat him. Sliding back to the floor, he leaned with his shoulders propped against the service panel.
Imogene sat beside him, taking his hand between her own. She took a breath to steady her nerves and instead tasted the growing staleness of the base’s overtaxed life support systems.
Her tools might have bought them a chance, but she wondered if the dying base would give them time enough to take it.
* * *
The grating sound of the door sliding open roused Imogene from a fitful sleep. The air tasted thicker already. She coughed, then looked up at the door.
Omar stood in the opening, brown fur and rumpled green fatigues replacing his gray armor.
“Bear, stag, come.” He waved them to stand. “You are both mechanical. You will help repair the base.”
Aaron blew a lungful of the fetid air out in a snort. “Strangely familiar, huh?”
Bruce nodded, then shot Omar a sidelong glance. “Not as easy as it seems being in charge, is it?”
The hare’s muzzle tightened. “No. But come. Now the crawlers have gone north, if the base dies, we all die with it.”
“And I’ve got a good idea who’ll be first in line if we don’t help.” Bruce rose to his hooves, and with a quick glance and tight smile towards Imogene, he followed Aaron out of the cell.
Imogene watched him until the closing door cut off her view. With the power room dewatered there might actually be some hope of fixing the generators. That prospect should have lifted her spirits, but they were all dead anyway, one way or another. At least if the air supply gave out she wouldn’t have any more opportunities to betray her friends.
She fumbled in her breast pocket and took out her family photo. Dry toothpaste still covered most of it, and with her thick fingernails she scraped off the remaining crust.
Standing under a maple, Josh and their mother smiled up at her. And sandwiched there between them, Imogene smiled too.
Her year-and-a-half ago self stood clean and proud in her pressed-perfect khakis, ready to go out and do what was expected of her. Things had made so much more sense then. Twelve months compulsory service, then back to Helsinki and a settled, stable life where the worst thing she’d have to worry about was a cheating ex-boyfriend. Not whether her boyfriend would be tortured, or if her decisions would condemn dozens of people to death.
The lights went out, then blinked fitfully back to life.
Lauren dropped the datapad into her lap with a growl. “Damn, I was almost in that time.” Her eyes flicked up to Imogene’s. “Your boyfriend’s got a real knack for timing his power cuts. Next time pick a pad that’s already got admin privileges.”
“At least you’ve got something to do,” Alexei said. “Just sitting here is driving me nuts.” He scooted across the floor to where Imogene sat beside the door’s service panel. She moved aside as he pulled it open and removed their cache of tools.
He peered into the space beyond for a moment, then turned to Imogene. “Did you get a good look at what Ming and Omar did to jimmy it?”
“Hmm.” He looked back into the opening. “What’d Bruce say? A screwdriver stuck in the locking mechanism?”
William edged forward to kneel beside the white rabbit. “Yeah, that would work, but it’s better to disable the lock altogether. We’ve got doors like this at my station. Let me give you a hand.”
Imogene watched them with less than half her attention. They were wasting their time, just as much as Lauren with her comms and computers. There was no way they’d get out of the base unnoticed. All they could do was try and suffer as little as possible before Colonel Bitch terminated their existence. Her jaw tightened at the thought of the tiger. She hoped Bruce and Aaron couldn’t fix the generators. That the PAF colonel died with the rest of them, choking on her own waste gasses.
William and Alexei finished their work and restored the tools and service panel to their proper places. Lauren continued poking at her datapad, cursing every time the lights flickered. That cursing and the rattle from the ventilation system coughing out an irregular stream of mostly stale air were the only signs of the passing hours.
Eventually Imogene drifted into an uneasy half-sleep where oily black clouds of fear roiled, occasionally curdling into enough coherence for her to worry about where Bruce was.
Imogene never planned to become a lunar commando. Not before her ex broke her heart and left her jobless.
Now she’d better learn fast.
A soldier’s first duty is to her country, but when black and white fade to dusty gray, the lines between friend and foe blur. As everything Imogene ever believed in crumbles, she must decide if some orders should never be obeyed.
Chapter thirty-three, wherein we see what often comes of good intentions.
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