Battle Luna – Snippet 09

He’d expected the escaping gas to blow the dust into a fine mist. Instead, the whole puddle exploded into a roiling tornado-like swirl of powder and rock chips. Pappy bounded out of the foxhole, the spare oxy tank cradled in his arms, and set off in short, quick hops toward the ridge. He passed his foxhole, briefly coming into a partial clear, then disappeared behind another dust cloud as he bounced behind Morgan’s position. She was doing an even better job than KC, systematically sweeping her oxy tank back and forth to create an entire wall of dust that reached from the edge of Pappy’s own foxhole all the way to Waffle Ridge. Pappy reached the ridge, bent his knees, and leaped as high up along the side as he could, landing on a slab of rock jutting out from the rest of the slope.

And flailed for balance as the slab promptly broke off beneath him.

Frangible, KC had said. Damn rotten balsa wood, he might have warned.

The first casualty was Pappy’s left knee — the one on his bad leg, naturally — as it banged against the remains of the ledge hard enough to be felt through the suit. The second casualty was the oxy tank, which went flying as Pappy scrambled for handholds. He managed to hang onto the cutting torch as he regained his balance, found another even more marginal bit of footing, and leaped again. Two more jumps from equally fragile footholds and he was finally at the top.

He caught a slender spire and redirected himself over the sharp-edged crest. The footing on the other side was even more treacherous, and this time the torch also went flying as he grabbed at everything available in an effort to slow himself down. He succeeded, mostly, and landed on the ground with a jolt. For a moment he crouched there, wincing at the sharp pain in his knee and watching for signs that the Ueys might have spotted him. He had no idea how high Morgan’s dust cloud had gone, but there was a fair chance he’d come out of its protection before he cleared the crest.

But whether they’d spotted him or not, he still had the initiative. Retrieving the torch, he got back to his feet and started hopping toward the Ueys.

He’d made note of the distinct rock pattern at the top of the ridge beside the tank, and while rock patterns didn’t always look the same from different angles this one was unique enough to show when he arrived. Unlike the spot by the foxholes, the slope here was somewhat gentler, and he was able to climb it with a minimum of trouble and no false steps. He reached the crest and eased his helmet over for a look.

It was quickly apparent that the Ueys hadn’t caught his mountain goat act. The scene was exactly as he’d left it, with two trios of shieldbearers standing guard against anything thrown from the Loonie side of the arena, two machinegunners in their cages — apparently the one had managed to get his Kord cleaned enough to function again, or else had had a spare — and the rest of the team working at getting the monofil out of the front axles.

He felt his lip twist as that first bit belatedly registered. Two trios of shieldbearers. There had been only one such team when he’d set off a few minutes ago.

And that was going to pretty much ruin his plan of throwing two vac cement bombs in rapid succession. If the Ueys were on their toes, two teams meant they’d be able to intercept both of them.

Still, if Pappy did his job here, the bombs might not be necessary. He eased his head up far enough to see the tank’s rear axles, noted the corresponding spot below him on the ridge, and lowered himself out of view. Moving as quickly as he could, he worked his way sideways to that place.

As he’d already discovered to his detriment, the ridge was largely composed of loose and breakable rock. About a meter below the crest he found a conveniently placed indentation. It wasn’t quite big enough, but by extending his air hose to its fullest length he was able to use the bottom of his oxy tank to hammer out enough rock to make the hole big enough for what he needed.

On Earth he would never have gotten away with something like that — the racket of metal on rock would have brought the enemy down on him in double-quick time. But here, in the near-vacuum of Luna, the Ueys on the far side of the ridge wouldn’t hear a thing.

And best of all, odds were that that potential weakness hadn’t even occurred to them. Maybe there was something to KC’s Winter War analogy, after all.

Of course, like everything else in warfare, Luna’s vacuum was a two-edged sword. Now that Pappy had silently gouged out his hole, he needed something to fill it with. And with the loss of his extra oxygen tank, there was only one option.

According to the specs, a modern spacesuit held enough air on its own to keep its wearer alive for ten minutes if heavily active and half an hour if completely passive. Pappy wasn’t sure exactly where in that range he would end up, but probably dangerously close to the front. Taking a few deep breaths, he jammed the tank into the hole in the rock, wedged the torch underneath it and locked it on, and unfastened the hose. Then, with the ominous sense of a timer counting down in his head, he bounced his way down to ground level and headed back toward the Loonie foxholes.

Every couple of hops he glanced back to see what was happening with his pressure bomb. On the fourth such glance, he saw the oxy tank explode, blowing the top of the ridge into a vertical avalanche and raining slow-falling rocks across the whole area.

Probably none of them would be close enough to give Pappy any trouble. Just the same, he turned his attention forward again and picked up his pace. Flying rocks or furious Ueys aside, his air was still running out.

The spot where he’d first crossed the ridge, at least, was obvious from the scattering of freshly broken rock at the base. He took a moment to visually pick out his route, and started up.

Luck, recent experience, and the fact that he now had both hands free combined to get him up the rock wall without falling. He peered over the top, confirmed that the ground below him was clear, and started down.

And lost his balance completely as the top of the ridge beside him splintered in a spattering of gunfire.

He tried to catch himself as he toppled toward the ground, or at least slow his fall. But the useful handholds were few and far between, and in the end his efforts didn’t make much difference in his impact speed. But he did at least manage to turn himself upright, enabling himself to land on his feet instead of his side or back.

Which turned out not to be much of a gain. His bad left leg, freshly stressed by the earlier thump against his knee, collapsed under him as he hit the ground, sending him toppling into a bouncing impact on his left side.

He had rolled over onto his stomach and was starting to push himself back to his feet when another burst of chips blasted from the ground just in front of him. He dropped back to the ground, spun around onto his right side, and looked behind him.

Just in time to see the soldier who’d apparently followed him back from the Dunsland topple backwards off the ridge, his flailing gun the last thing to disappear from sight. Pappy rolled back onto his stomach and again started to push himself back up.

And once again dropped flat as a second explosion of rock chips erupted from the ground in front of him.

Damn, damn, double damn. Pappy pressed himself as close to the ground as he could, cursing to himself as another bunch of chips and dust popped from the ground along his path. He’d assumed from the Ueys’ previous behavior that they had orders either to go easy on the Loonies, to conserve ammo, or both. Clearly, those orders had now gone by the boards. Whatever his oxy tank bomb had done, it had apparently made a nice mess of things.