MoonDust: Falling From Grace © 2015 Ton Inktail
Waiting was the hardest part of any plan.
They’d picked oh-two-hundred hours to launch their assault, but shortly after midnight the door rasped open. Startled out of her brooding, Imogene looked up at three heavily armed and armored soldiers: Ming-Xue, Omar, and a ferret.
“I am still confused about your orders,” the ferret guard said. “The medic I understand, but why the caribou? And why at this hour?”
Omar gave the ferret a patronizing look. “Take a deep breath. Fresh air would be good, yes? The colonel has our best interests at heart. We are taking them outside. For fresh air. We do it at night so questions will not be asked.”
The deadly meaning behind Omar’s words sent a jolt of panic down Imogene’s spine, but it took the ferret several moments to figure it out. His dark brows knotted together, then his eyes shot back to Omar.
“Questions are bad,” Omar said. “Stag, caribou, come.”
Imogene’s gaze darted around her allies. Could they launch their plan early? But all three PAF were alert and in full combat regalia. Desperate as she was, she could see the difference between a suicide mission and just plain suicide. Once whatever happened to her and Bruce happened, Lauren and the others might still be able to carry out the plan.
Wordless, Bruce rose slowly and helped Imogene to her hooves.
She cast a last frantic look at William and Alexei. The rabbit’s ears folded flat against his skull, while William just watched, brown eyes heavy with pained sympathy.
Lauren gave a tight-lipped nod.
Then they were out in the dimly lit corridors, following Omar with Ming-Xue behind them, her rifle ready.
Imogene’s heart pounded. Every step took an eternity, as if the moist, stale air had turned to jelly. Bruce hadn’t relinquished his hold, and she clutched his hand. Glancing back, she caught Ming-Xue’s eyes.
“Please, you can’t do this.”
The rat met her gaze, then quickly looked away. “Quiet.”
Boots and hooves clicked against the lithcrete stairs. At the top, Omar led them away from the makeshift medical unit and towards the airlock. The airlock, and the fatal emptiness beyond.
Omar thumbed the cheery green open button, then jerked his rifle at the doorway. “Inside.”
It took everything Imogene had to force herself into the airlock. Decompression was better, she told herself. Getting shot could drag out. When she turned to look back out of the airlock, Ming-Xue had vanished, leaving Omar alone.
“You don’t have to do this,” Bruce said, voice low and earnest. “Just give us our suits back and we’ll vanish. I swear you’ll never see us again.”
Imogene’s throat tightened. That plea was a grim sort of hope indeed. She’d seen how vast the empty spaces of the moon were. There was no chance they’d survive longer than it took their power packs to run out.
“Unlikely.” Omar tugged at the bandoleer of grenades circling his chest. “You two are like moon dust. You get into everything and are impossible to remove.”
Ming-Xue stepped back into the corridor and thrust a pair of emergency suits towards Imogene. “We couldn’t find your armor. Please hurry.” She cast a look over her shoulder. “We must leave now.”
Clutching the suits’ stiff material, Imogene’s hands shook. Her breath caught as the icy block of tension that had replaced her heart began to thaw.
“You’re letting us go?”
Omar nodded. “There are...words among the troops. They say twelve patients died last night.” He cast a sharp look at Bruce.
“And we all know why they died.” Omar spat onto the deck plates.
Beside him, Ming-Xue’s tail twitched. “The colonel may have sold her honor, but we will not. I still have the access codes for the supply truck. We will be gone before anyone knows.”
Bruce took one of the suits from Imogene and started yanking it on. “What about William and Alexei?”
“He’s right.” Imogene paused in pulling on her own suit. “We can’t leave without them. And Lauren.”
Omar narrowed his dark eyes. “She tried to kill you. And us. More than once.”
Imogene crossed her arms. “I don’t like her any more than you do, but she’s UNA. I won’t leave anyone who’s that easy of a target for Colonel Bitch.”
Omar’s lip quirked at their name for the colonel, but he shook his head. “Our bluff will not work a second time. We have delayed too long already. We are leaving. Now.”
The command in his tone set her fur prickling. This was one order she had no qualms in ignoring.
“Then go without us. We’ll give you a good head start, then try to get our friends out on our own.”
He blinked, then arched his brows at Ming-Xue.
She cast him a disgusted look. “No.” Her clear blue eyes locked on Imogene. “But he is right about the risk. If trouble starts, do not wait for us. Get out and go east. We will do our best to meet up with you.”
Bruce frowned. “Shouldn’t we stick together?”
“No. If you return with us, the guard will know something is wrong. Stay here. Out of sight.”
Bruce glanced at the darkened doorway where she’d gotten the suits.
“Fine.” Omar shook his head hard enough the helmet swivels clicked. “We still must hurry.” He and Ming-Xue turned to leave, but Imogene caught the white rat’s elbow.
“Ming-Xue, I...thank you.”
Ming-Xue gave a tight smile. “Thank me when it works.”
* * *
Crouched in the dark storeroom amid piles of suits, they waited. Imogene gnawed her lip, fighting the urge to check her suit’s chronometer. Thirty seconds since the last time? Maybe?
Beside her, in the shelter of a suit-draped desk, Bruce shifted.
She glanced over at his dark silhouette and grimaced. Yet again, her ethics were putting him in danger. But this time she knew she was right. Abandoning your squadmates wasn’t an option. Not for any kind of person she wanted to be.
And neither was giving up and committing some sort of glorified suicide. Bychkov might be darkness incarnate, but that didn’t mean the wounded under her care deserved to die. How close Imogene had let herself be pulled to that final mistake drove shivers back and forth beneath her fur. Some lines should never be crossed, and if that belief made her weak or a traitor, then so be it.
Claws and boots scraped outside the door, and her muscles tensed. Had it been long enough? Or too long? She sucked in a breath, readying herself to spring at whoever opened the door if it wasn’t Ming-Xue.
The door slid open and light flooded in, along with the familiar shapes and scents of Alexei, William, and Lauren.
Ming-Xue followed, rifle clutched tight and whiskers twitching. “Hurry. Please, hurry.”
They needed no second urging. William slithered into the nearest suit, Alexei and Lauren only seconds behind him. Ming-Xue and Omar hovered in the doorway, splitting their attention between the escapees and the still empty corridor.
Imogene and Bruce moved up beside them, and with the others close behind, advanced out into the corridor.
A giddy relief rose in Imogene’s chest. The welcoming maw of the airlock lay just ahead. She wrapped her fingers around Bruce’s glove. They were going to make it out and away. All of them, together and alive.
Lauren shouldered her way between them, breaking their hold.
The lynx stumbled, lurching towards Omar, grabbing at him for support. He gave a muffled exclamation but she was already backing away, a grenade clenched in her fist.
Ming-Xue squeaked. Omar cursed and fumbled after his rifle.
“Don’t.” Lauren yanked out the pin.
A feral grin split Lauren’s muzzle. “That’s right, PAF. Now back up into the airlock. Both of you.” Her slitted yellow eyes darted to Imogene. “Those explosives of yours, is there any special trick to setting them off?”
“No,” Imogene said tightly. “That grenade should do just fine. But I’m not telling you where they are.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Lauren tossed the pin away. “You better get going. I’m not giving you a head start.” She backed several metres from the group, then spun and bounded away into the shadowy passages.
Imogene’s jaw clenched. After everything, it still came down to this. She turned and drove her fist into the airlock door. “Damn it.”
Bruce laid a hand on her arm. “You tried. Who knows? She may not find one before the PAF find her. Right now, we’ve got to go.” His comforting hand turned to an insistent tug, and Imogene let herself be pulled into the airlock.
To hope Lauren might get shot left a bitter taste in Imogene’s mouth. But Lauren had made her choice, and better she die alone than adding more names to whatever monument might someday be raised to this madness.
The charges were well hidden. Now she just prayed they were well hidden enough.
Ming-Xue’s codes got them into the supply truck and rolling north with every scrap of speed available.
Imogene hunkered on her crate, hand wrapped tight around Bruce’s. There was no guessing the blast radius if all the fuel in Borda’s bunkers detonated, but every klick of gray, dusty soil they put behind them increased their odds of survival. Just as every second without an explosion decreased the odds Lauren would complete her final mission.
After twenty minutes and perhaps half as many kilometres, the tension in her shoulders eased. She drew a deep breath and gave Bruce’s hand a little squeeze.
Then the now-familiar white light of an antimatter explosion seared the landscape.
Bruce grabbed her as the truck skidded to a stop. The vehicle bucked and trembled under an assault of flying rocks and debris, but after the first flash of panic, Imogene couldn’t bring herself to care.
She’d failed again.
General Slate had gotten his way. A small mountain of fuel cubes were forever safe from enemy hands, a few vehicles destroyed, and an insignificant lunar valley rendered even less hospitable than it was before. All at a bargain price of noncombatants, enemy wounded, and one loyal lynx.
Her chest collapsed in on itself, and she buried her face in Bruce’s shoulder. Tears pressed against the backs of her eyes, but refused her the relief of being shed. There had to be something she could have done better or different. Some way to stop the fires that were consuming everything she’d ever known or held dear. There had to be, but she didn’t know what it was.
Bruce held her, smoothing the fur of her head and neck, whispering that everything would be okay.
* * *
The truck didn’t restart in the wake of the EM pulse. Not until Omar crawled shoulder-deep into the engine compartment to reset a tripped breaker. With the lights back on and ventilation system humming, he spun the driver’s chair to face the rest of the compartment.
“I presume that settles any question of pursuit by the colonel. Then what path do we steer?” His dark eyes flicked towards Ming-Xue. “You are more familiar with this region than I.”
“Which says little.” She flattened one ear at him. “There is the radar site at Bellot. Other bases farther north and east...”
Omar rejected her with a shake of his head. “Those are all UNA bases. We will be imprisoned again, or worse. I say we strike northwest, into the mare. There must be other PAF forces still operational.”
Alexei let out a low growl, and Imogene’s brow knotted. She leaned forward. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
William cleared his throat. “I might be able to suggest something in the middle: my geology station at Goclenius. It is UNA, but we’re all scientists. No military.” He leveled an earnest look at Omar. “I can’t guarantee anything once law and order are reestablished, but until then I’ll see you’re treated the same as the rest of us.”
Omar nodded cautiously, and William continued. “The other big point is that as of two weeks ago the station was still intact. Plenty of food, fuel, and water.”
Ming-Xue twitched her whiskers thoughtfully. “Goclenius is north and east, in Fecunditatis, yes?”
“Right. Maybe five hundred klicks, give or take. I know a few small bases that are closer, including Bellot, but I’ve got no idea what shape they’re in now.”
She glanced over at Omar. “Goclenius is acceptable?”
The hare shrugged. “I have no better ideas.”
“It is decided then. You must show the way when we are close,” she said to William.
He gave a weary smile. “Sounds fair.”
Imogene half expected them to meet General Slate, or perhaps more PAF stragglers, but there was no one. The kilometres crawled past in an endless procession of empty roads and barren valleys, until late the next day when William led them off the main track and into the hills.
The trail they followed twisted up into the mountains, leading at last to the lip of a small crater. Across the crater’s floor spread a tangle of modular housing and laboratory units. There were crawlers too, most of them drilling rigs or old transports like the one William and Louie had driven. Everything was painted reflective white or silver, and fairly glowed in the bright sunlight.
“There it is.” William waved one hand towards the viewport. “Goclenius Station. Not much, but right now there’s nothing I’d rather see.”
Imogene peered forward, taking in the view. “I’ll go along with that. Quiet, out-of-the-way, just the kind of place to lie low and let the world sort itself out.”
Alexei frowned. “Isn’t that deserting, or something?”
“At least we’ll be in good company.” William reached over and clasped Omar’s shoulder. The hare snorted, but didn’t shrug off the geologist’s hand.
“Besides,” Imogene added, “I’m not sure there’s much of an army left to desert from. And if there is, it’s not like we’ll be hiding from them. No one could blame us for doing our best to stay alive.”
Ming-Xue flicked one ear in agreement, then cast a measuring look down at the base. “That, I suspect, is all anyone will be doing for a long while now. Trying to stay alive.”
“We’ll manage.” Surprised at her own firmness, Imogene glanced around at her companions—old and new alike. Bruce met her eyes with a tender smile. She squeezed his hand, then followed Ming-Xue’s gaze down to the shining silver base.
A smile crossed her lips, and she nodded. “Somehow we’ll manage. Together.”
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.
And there we have it, the final chapter. Imogene is safe--for now--and will return in book two, Critical Failure, as soon as I get all these squiggly little lines on my screen to fit together into a coherent story.
If you enjoyed reading MoonDust, please do consider picking up a copy on Amazon. The e-book version is only 2.99 USD, 70% of which does go to the author. It always makes my day if there's been a sale, and gives me extra enthusiasm for working on the sequel.
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Anyhow, thank you all for reading, and for your faves, comments, and support. I'll look forward to seeing you all again for book two! :3