Finding Space – Chapter Five

Energy blasts arced across the sky, blue hints against the permanent dark yellow. Someone was apparently fighting someone. Ian was laying on his back, gazing upwards. He briefly shut his eyes, yearning for some blessed relief from the ever-present light. Space is supposed to be dark he argued to himself.

They’d moved far more than two klicks. It had been more like ten kilometers until they’d made first contact with troop. They’d barely been able to swing aboard the battle-scarred transport that they were now riding on, the drivers didn’t dare stop it for fear of being attacked and hulled. The bodies of the dead had been hoisted up onto the roof of the dun-colored transport that hovered just a few feet above the surface of the planet. But it was a transport, nonetheless, and they all lounged back with the distinct and indescribable happiness of soldiers from any era. 

Ian glanced over at the forms on the roof of the transport, slightly shaking from the vibrations of the craft, as if they were going to rise up and return to the line. Ian suddenly choked back a sob, stifling it, shoving it back down, deep, into a place that he didn’t dare look. He hadn’t looked into that place for years now. Had in fact avoided it, walking mental miles around it so as to never have to encounter what lay within. He knew his troops often talked about those who were gone, but for him, it was not possible. To do so would make it all real, to solidify that there was no chance of a reunion. Even their graves – the few he had seen – did not seem real. Some dim memorials for men and women who he would see again, after their intermittent posting to some other planet, perhaps.

He was not a religious man and found no solace in the idea of a life after death, although he did often find that he yearned for the certitude of his religious-minded soldiers. Was there, in fact, a purpose to all this? He’d believed it once, with a fierce conviction. But that was before Jeanette had disappeared…gone dark on a distant colony with no attempt to talk to him. That was the first of many blows to his ideals.

He shook himself away from the vast and swirling gulf of emotions and turned back to the practical application of warfare. Sergeant First Class Li was back, and had resumed his care for the platoon with the usual efficiency. Ian had seen the repair packages for their exoskeletons, the bulging water packages, the piles of ration kits. No more mortar tubes would be forthcoming until they could get in touch with the squadron and get one of the 3D printers to render one, Li had reported to Ian. Li was the portrait of efficiency and Ian had felt a massive weight lift off his chest the moment that he saw him. It was a small return to normalcy from the bizarre routine they’d just come from.

“Sir.” It was Looper. The boy had just run a comms check. His face – tan, as they all were from the unceasing sun – was a shade of pale. Ian groaned, inwardly, and pushed himself up. He only wanted this one moment without a crisis. Just one moment.

“What’s up, Loop?” he forced his mouth to say.

“Squadron’s gone,” said Looper, in a dead voice. They stared at each other.

“Gone,” echoed Ian. “Gone.”

“Yessir,” said Looper, gazing at the end-all and be-all of his trust. A year of being the comms right-hand-man of the platoon leader had led him to believe several things: one, that the Army made no sense; two, that squadron was always wrong but always there; and three, that this LT always knew what to do. Right now, these beliefs were crashing into each other like so many bowling balls back on the brigade transport MWR center.

Ian pondered this. Well, squadron was always a pain in the ass as it was. However, that’s where they got support from. So…what now?

“What happened?” he asked. Looper looked down at the screen projecting from his chest, squinted, went pale, and said, “Uh, sir, they were boarded by an unknown ship about two miles upsurface and cleaned out.”

“Cleaned out?” Ian asked.

“Ship fight,” said Looper. “Room to room.” Ian swallowed a dry feeling. So. That was it. The worst fear. Dying in space. No grave. No memorial. Just your name on a list. He felt a raw anger jet upwards and spike in his consciousness. What the hell was this new race of being that was killing his friends? His mind raced across the names of his peers up at squadron and once again he glanced away from the lunging grief; too sudden, too close. 

The summons from his troop commander was not a surprise. He’d been expecting it from some time. He rose to his feet with a grunt, staggered a bit from exhaustion – he’d only taken a caffeine ingest just a few moments before – and began walking forward to where Captain Jess Ingram was waiting for him up at the front of the transport that was gliding along. Ducking under the muzzle of a 20mm gun manned by a trooper from headquarters, Ian presented himself to Captain Ingram with a weary salute and a “Hi, Ma’am.” She answered with a look of exhaustion that Ian thought was impossible for a human to have. Then he magnified his own problems times four and realized what his troop commander was going through. He gulped, realizing that in his own self-pity he’d forgotten that Ingram had been fighting a wide-ranging reconnaissance battle in an effort to prevent these…things…from getting at the true nature of the division’s strength in this area of operations. He suddenly realized why he’d been left out to fight his own battle: he was screening the main body, keeping information safe. 

“Lieutenant Tollinger,” she said. It was a statement more than anything else. As if she was giving him life by stating his name. And well she might. One of her platoon leaders was dead. Another was wounded severely. Only Ian and Hershel Lisk were still effective. The four platoon system was a true blessing at this point, giving Ingram the ability to continue to screen for the 6th Cavalry Division, which was, in turn, screening for the 15th Army. Bravo Troop was rated highly in the 3d Battalion, 17th Cavalry Regiment. Ingram meant to live up to that reputation. After all, it had been Bravo Troop that fought nearly to the last trooper on Leto 9, those years ago, where they’d brought an interplanetary war to a crashing close. Ingram hadn’t been in the troop then, but Ian had, and this hung over them. Why is he still a lieutenant she often wondered.

The answer came back the same, always: the Bridge Incident. The insubordination to the fleet commander. The shouting. The way in which he’d stormed off the bridge, throwing down the metallic badge on his shoulder that was the indication of an officer. She’d been the one who picked it up, who’d hurried after him, convinced him to return and beg forgiveness; to salvage a ruined career. But it was too late, the damage had been done. The rear-admiral of the US Navy was so affronted by Ian’s blistering attack on the lack of close air support that he’d never yielded in his ire, so now Ian had a general letter of reprimand in his file. And captain would be not soon in coming. So much for joint operations she thought, annoyed.

All this cruised past her mind in a flash, and she quickly shifted her mind back to the present. 

“How’s your platoon,” she asked. She was familiar with his numbers, Ian knew; she was asking about the intangibles. 

“They’re…well, they will be ready when needed,” he said, after a quick pause. The wind whistled past them as the transport rolled on, a thin sheen of dust settling over everything. Ingram passed a cloth wipe over her face shield, brushing away a layer of grime. Her dark eyes scrutinized Ian. 

“The need is now,” she said. “I can barely field two platoons as it is. I’m giving you a squad from 1st Platoon, since Reels is dead. That should help bring you closer to full strength. I can’t help with the mortar problem but I can give you…” She scrolled down the flickering tablet in her hand. “How about another heavy weapons team?” Ian shook his head.

“That would slow me down, ma’am. I’m good for firepower with all the captured stuff I’ve got, I just need something to break up the bastards – some high explosives.” Ingram silently scrolled. 

“Want a dedicated Thunder?” she asked. Ian grinned, in spite of himself. The Thunder was the troop’s latest piece of unmanned weaponry, able to fire direct and indirect, both from the ground and from the air. The powerful 155mm gun could break apart enemy attacks at range in a way the mortars could not. Sure, it had to go back to rearm and refuel, but that’s where the unmanned feature came in handy. And since their new opponents didn’t seem to be jamming, it was almost too easy.

“That would be terrific, ma’am,” said Ian. “Absolutely terrific.” 

“Good,” said Ingram, not looking him in the face, “because I’m sending you back out in three hours. Enemy spotted to the northwest. We’re all division has to get eyes-on. They’re planning a major strike and they need intel. Briefing in an hour.” Ian nodded. He’d figured the peace couldn’t last too long. 

“I’ll get them moving, Ma’am,” he said. “One last thing…I know this is irregular, but I lost some good NCOs in the last fights..I’d like to promote Corporal Stennerly to sergeant. She kicked some…well, she’s really excellent, and I need more NCOs like her. I figure with her as squad leader, and some more rank to back her up, that will get things moving a little faster.”

“Done,” said Ingram, barely looking up as her hands flew across the screen in front of her. “I’ll let the XO know.”

“Thanks, Ma’am,” said Ian. “I’ll be back soon.” He ducked out of the small cabin – the only sheltered space on the transport, made his way around the 20mm gun, exchanged a few words with SFC Li, and dropped down onto the rear corner of the transport where Stennerly was sitting, dangling her legs. She glanced up to see who it was and quickly tried to hide the fact that she’d been crying recently. Ian looked down suddenly, embarrassed – not for her, but for himself, that he hadn’t been able to muster even this basic reaction to their losses.

“I brought you this,” he said, holding out the metallic three-chevron device that indicated the rank of sergeant. “We should do this in formation, but I don’t think we’ll see one of those for a while.” Her eyes widened and a beginning of a smile formed. He reached over to the shoulder of her armpiece, pulled off the magnetic corporal’s stripes and replaced them with those of sergeant. 

“It’s not much, but at least you’re nearly to the rank of the position you’re holding as squad leader.” She had been looking down at her new rank on her shoulder and now she suddenly darted her glance back to his face.

“Sir? Bilder has time in grade on me to take the squad.”

“Yeah, but now that you’re the same rank, I can shuffle things around,” he said. “You’ll do a great job.” She began to mutter something about “thank you,” but he waved it off and directed her to SFC Li, who had appeared and was simultaneously congratulating her on the promotion and giving her directions on what needed to be done. Well, I’ve ticked off Bilder right and proper, Ian thought, but now I’ve got squad leaders I can rely on. Looks like I’m going to need them.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare. Support this blog’s Patreon here.

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