Finding Space – Chapter Six

There had been dancing that night. The room had shimmered with the glorious hues of the dress uniforms, the stunning jewels flashing when ladies turned with their partners — the colorful dresses flaring. It was a warm night, he recollected. Warm and seasonable for Reon at that time of year. That was where they had attempted to make as much of the planet like earth as was humanly and technologically possible. And they’d succeeded, up until the point that they altered the planet’s surface just a little too much, and then they’d cause a massive natural disaster that wiped out about 30% of the population. But that was in the future.

Ian’s mind was on the night of the commissioning ball, where he had walked in with his gold second lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders and a lump of fear in his throat. She’d been there, of course; he’d seen her right off. The incandescent lamps lighting up her burnished dirty blonde hair, her dangling earrings sparking dazzling firefights whenever she moved. She’d glanced over her shoulder when he’d walked in, and given that soft, quick, gentle smile that she always kept for him. The lump of fear disappeared at that, and he suddenly found that he could do anything. Even make bland small talk with the other new lieutenants. If only he could fight his way through the mass of people to see her.

He was pushing through the crowd, full of unutterable urgency to get to her, before the smile disappeared. Before that gilded head became just another stranger in the crowd. Almost there now, he could just see her shoulder through the space between the academy commandant and the ambassador. One more push, and — he was being shaken by the arm, his throat was dry, his feet hurt, and there again was the dull ache in his chest.

“C’mon, sir, rise and shine,” said SFC Li. “War doesn’t rest, neither can we.” Ian grunted angrily; partially from his annoyance at Li’s favorite aphorism, partly because this time, he had been so close to seeing her, in what was now his recurring nightmare. Living the night of the commissioning ball over and over, without the actual experience of it, where they had both danced until they were silly and then…no, he couldn’t let himself think of that. He tore his mind away from the warm and twisted sheets of that night, with her blissful half smile as she drifted off to sleep, and put it back in the present.

It had been three weeks since they’d left the transport. It had been three weeks of blistering attacks, feints, defensive stands, and periods of stark boredom. But mostly attacking. Ian’s platoon was superb at finding the enemy — and once 6th Cav Division realized this, they kept sending them out, over and over. They would move on an azimuth perpendicular to one of the enemy’s tunnels, the sappers would find it with ground penetrating radar and blast a new entrance to it, and then the platoon would go into defensive positions and await the enemy attack. It always came. It was as if they had sensors built into their tunnel networks which let them know anytime there was a breach. 

Every attack was the same, but that never took away from the sheer momentary terror of seeing the earth erupt into a boiling mass full of crazed hulks. The Thunder had been a big help during these missions, smashing up the enemy’s first deployment with HE and shrapnel so that the platoon only had to deal with those few that managed to escape. Then it was just a matter of triangulating enough fire to bring them down. They always did.

By now, it was a battle drill: sappers breach; Thunder disrupts; platoon mops up remnants. Rinse and repeat, day after day. Once the initial enemy counterattack had been defeated, the platoon would remain on overwatch of the site until they could hand it over to another unit from 6th Cav to exploit. Then it was on to the next mission.

In the back of Ian’s brain, he dimly realized that he was at the front of a military campaign that was making history. He also dimly realized that they were fighting some beings only because those beings had fought them. He wondered if there had been any type of diplomatic overtures made to them. He wasn’t exactly sure how that would work, but he supposed there were people smart enough out there to make it happen. His brow furrowed; maybe not. Because those were the people who kept sending his one small platoon out to make contact without ever giving them a break. 

He shook his head to dispel the fuzzy thoughts and rose to his feet. Doc came over and gave him a caffeine shot. This was so routine now that he didn’t even register it. He began the morning rounds — checking on each squad. Weapons, ammo, personnel, equipment, supplies. SFC Li gave him the slant report of how they were sitting for food, water, ammo, and spare parts. Doc gave him the rundown of the wounds, bumps, bruises, and odd diseases that were present in the platoon (“Private Jakes seems to have another hand growing out of his arm, but radiation treatment is going well, it’s already receding, but it would’ve been really fun to just let it go, sir”). Ian sat with Looper and ran down the litany of reports that needed to be sent, as well as doing a full comms check up and down the platoon. Once all this was complete, he’d sit with SFC Li and his squad leaders to go over the plan for the day. 

Today’s mission had just come down from company: move about five kilometers east to establish contact with enemy in that zone in order to allow 3-98 Infantry to secure their right flank. This was the third movement to contact that Ian’s platoon had done for 3-98, and no one was very happy about it. The infantry battalion commander didn’t really understand what was going on and always tried to commit the platoon as if it was a heavy infantry unit rather than light scouts. This meant that Ian would spend a lot of time over the next few days pretending that his comms were cutting out. It wasn’t the right thing to do, he knew, but it was the only way that he could keep his troops alive from an interfering higher headquarters.

They moved out under the blazing twin suns, recon drones shimmering on their flanks. Ian was always glad that the enemy didn’t have any type of jamming system. They were tough ground fighters, but as long as you guaranteed combined arms against them, you’d be OK. He knew that they were decently sophisticated in the air, using fairly basic but effective cloaking mechanisms to mask their movement, but he’d never encountered anything like that on land.

He was keeping an eye on Sergeant Bilder. After the slight that he’d given him by making Stennerly squad leader, he wasn’t sure what the malignant man would do. But over the past few weeks, he’d been fairly docile. Not competent, but docile. It was the small things, reflected Ian. Any regrets he might’ve had about offending Bilder were absolutely wiped out by Sergeant Stennerly’s performance. She was probably the most effective NCO he had, minus Li, and she managed to best even him when it came to tactical innovation.

For three hours, they moved on in a silent patrol. No radio communications came across the net, because there was really nothing to say. Nothing to report and nothing to talk about. Each trooper was running off caffeine shots from Doc — as well as some more illicit types of stimulants, Ian figured, acquired on their last trip back to the squadron’s transports. Of course, now those were gone, and Ian suddenly realized that although he was living an essentially groundhog day situation, everything he had ever known about Army life was changing.

Somewhere in the back of his brain he knew that they would need a new squadron commander, new staff, and so on, and so the troops would be pillaged of officers and NCOs to fill these vacancies. That still did not prepare him for the shock he felt when the commlink buzzed and told him that he was now in command of Bravo Troop. SFC Li turned and looked back at him, his face a study of dismay and – was that pride? Ian wasn’t sure. Ian shrugged and gave the hand signal to keep moving. He hadn’t received anything that said change of mission, and 3-98 still needed a hole blasted in the ground. The only difference was that the troop commander was now moving into direct contact with the enemy. There would be time later to figure out what the actual hell had just happened.

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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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