Finding Space – Chapter Seven

3rd Platoon blasted another hole. The suns shone down. Ian got his last caffeine injection. These were all truths, as best as he could put them together. And they were about all that his brain could actually handle at the moment. He was sitting on the rear slope of a ridge-line, trying to write his report from the last contact but something was shorting in his brain. Up above, on the top of the ridge, his troopers had collapsed back and were watching 3-98 Infantry slam into the breach they had created. He could hear Stennerly making sarcastic comments about the infantry’s inability to maintain a perimeter, while the sounds of violence from the far side of the ridge punctuated the air. These were but backdrops to his fog.

He forced his eyes to focus on the screen in front of him. He tapped out a few words, stared at them dumbly, and then shook his head. If that was really his last caffeine injection, he needed to get some sleep soon. Because he was toast. He looked down at his armored hand, tried to count on his fingers how many days it had been since he’d slept. Too many by far. 

He was torn out of this reverie by Bilder, who was making some sort of noise that was a cross between a panicked jackrabbit and a dying hamster. Ian was about to tell him to can the noise when he saw that other troopers were looking in the same direction as Bilder, pointing, and making unintelligible noises. He glanced behind him. There, about three or four kilometers out, perfectly visible on the wide and arid plain, was one of their capital ships – a frigate – slowly toppling from a cloud bank. The massive ship was hull down, drifting recklessly towards the surface of the planet. It was obvious that there was no one at the helm. Explosions blinked and flickered from the sides, making the cloud appear like it was wreathed with lightning. 

It was at once so fantastical that he could not help but stare, mesmerized. It could not possibly be real, it was just too huge. But then his brain kicked into gear and he realized that it was incredibly real, shockingly real, and that he was witnessing one of the worst disasters to befall the U.S. Navy in recent history. Sure, they’d lost corvettes, brigs, and sloops by the dozen but never a frigate…not like this. Not one going down with zero signs of life on board.

They were still staring as the massive frigate crashed into the ground, still floating as if in slow motion. A rolling cloud of dust engulfed the hull as explosions flared through the haze. Ian’s comms began to light up as units reported the disaster happening in front of them. The military discipline took effect again, pushing the tragedy from the emotional realm towards the realm of reality. And Ian knew there had to be a rescue mission. He scanned the map, looking to see which unit was the closest. He didn’t know why he even bothered; he knew instinctively that of course his platoon was. He checked himself. His *troop.* 

He hadn’t even had time to take charge as the troop commander. Captain Ingram had sent him a quick message with the essential details – where everyone was, who was still alive, what resources he had available to him – but that was it. She was somewhere up above the haze, directing the squadron right now. Ian wondered if she’d be safer on the surface, given the beating that the fleet and transports were getting. But he focused, looking to see where his other two platoons were. He had one nearing his location and another about two kilometers off to the left. He quickly pounded out a message to both, ordering them all to concentrate at the crash site. Then he looked around for SFC Li.

Ingram had told him that he could have his choice of first sergeant, since she was taking the troop first sergeant with her to be command sergeant major. Ian had immediately picked Li. And that wasn’t just favoritism; Li was simply the best NCO in the company. Li was now already kicking the squads into gear, getting them to fan out in open order, checking loads and water levels. He caught Ian’s eye and nodded. They were good to go. Ian gave the order and the platoon moved down the edge of the ridge, skirting boulders and craggy knolls as they went. The din of 3-98 faded into the background.

Ian would never forget that movement. The plain was so wide that he could spot each of his platoons as they closed in. Small formations of plodding troopers, their shadows cast long and narrow over the flat surface. Marching lines of statues that moved inexorably on, never stopping, never wavering. It was his troop. He felt a surge of pride that overcame his weariness and he moved with a distinct purpose. 

The kilometers slipped by without any distraction. He saw 3-98 take up positions on the ridge they had vacated, their mission clearly over. The hulks of the mechanized infantry looming large in the blasted land. Overhead, drones flew back and forth. I thought the future was all going to be in AI he mused as he walked, letting his mind slip into a semi-alert state of awareness. Everything would be by robot or drone. No more of this marching around. The problem, he reflected, was that everything became hackable. All it took were a few tanks, a few convoys, a few fighters to be picked off and turned around for the defense industry to back away from AI like a jilted lover. And that, kids, is how you got manned recon again and suddenly there was your dad, walking across some ass-backward planet, waiting to get shot at. He smiled to himself, wondering if that moment of telling tall tales to his children would ever come into his grasp.

They’d all had those relatives, the ones that told them the stories. His own grandfather told him the stories of his great-grandfather: the harsh mountains and wadis of Afghanistan. Of being a trooper in a country where cavalry meant little. Of constant patrols, of firefights at 5,000 feet, of experiencing death in small places with names he could not pronounce. Those were, Ian supposed, to have been stories to keep him away from the military. And yet they had drawn him in. His grandfather, sitting stiff and sore on the edge of his chair, his voice thin and dark, lost in his own memories. The stories had come out, as they always did in the evening, and Ian sat wrapped in them, his eyes alight with imagination. So he’d joined up. To do his part. To be a trooper like his great-grandfather. And here he was, experiencing death in small places with no names.

His eyes glimpsed that they had grown closer to the hulk now, and the platoon was on edge. Personal drones could be seen flitting this way and that as troopers identified their own sectors of fire and tried to eliminate any dead space – any area that they could not get direct eyes-on. Ian shook himself back into the present, checked the movement of the platoons, and ordered 2nd Platoon to form a rear cordon while 1st Platoon closed up. Headquarters Platoon moved with 2nd, their co-opted transport swinging into position to cover the sides and rear of the element with the two 20mm guns. Ian had no idea how Ingram had managed to get her hands on it, but he blessed her for it.

They were inside the crash zone now. Debris and detritus of all kinds littered the landscape. Ahead, the frigate stood like a monument, hull down and nose up. A massive great shape in the dust and smoke. Ian flashed out orders to the platoon leadership: “HQ establish comms link, base of fire, casualty collection point in order to provide support to line platoons. 1PLT moves into defensive positions along the six o’clock of HQ in order to provide security. 2PLT acts as QRF on frigate in order to provide reinforcement to DO. DO for this mission is 3PLT, which moves to secure crash site and conduct site exploitation in order to identify survivors/cause of crash. CMD element moves with DO. Ack.” Ian’s screen lit up with acknowledgements from the platoons even as he saw the movement beginning. 

The frigate was still smoking but it did not seem in imminent danger of explosion, Ian noted, thankfully. Each squad fanned out, lights piercing the dust and smoke, stabbing into unseen corners. Nothing yet. No bodies. Only debris. They made entry through a jagged gash in the frigate’s side. Ian ordered 2nd Platoon to close up and secure the entry point.

“Got one,” said Stennerly, on point. Ian rushed forward. There was a body. Navy. Dead just inside the first bulkhead. 

“Looks like the crash killed him,” said Li, peering around Ian’s shoulders. Ian nodded. Li collected the sailor’s ID token and they moved on again. Through the second bulkhead, the corridors fanned off on either side. They were walking on the walls at this point, since what had been the floors were now effectively the walls. Further movement into the ship would require climbing. A lot of climbing. Ian looked around. He wasn’t sure if his small troop was the best suited for this mission. And then he remembered that they were all that was available. He looked down – he still had comms. That was a blessing. Maybe there was still a repeater running inside this thing.

“Looper, get on the horn and tell 1st and 2nd to get in here. Have them leave their mortars and snipers with HQ to beef up the perimeter security. HQ can move up to replace 2nd. 2nd is going to take the right hallway, 1st the left, and we’ll go up the middle.” Looper nodded, eyes wide inside his face shield, and Ian could hear the transmission go out.

“Sir, is that the best bet?” asked Li, in a low voice that only Ian could hear. “If something happens to this thing, we lose the whole troop.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ian replied. “But it’s that or we get gobbled up one platoon at a time inside this thing by whatever brought it down. Or we stay on site forever as one platoon tries to scale every wall in here.” Li nodded.

“I’ll check to see how many troopers still have magnetic soles,” he said. “I mean, it should be everyone, but people throw them away because of the extra weight. Damn soldiers.” He walked off, muttering.

The platoons began the long climb now. The hulk rang and echoed with the clank of armor, the clash of weapons, and the shouts of troopers as they found bodies or other evidence of life. In all cases so far, of past life. They were being loud, louder than normal. And Ian would’ve stopped this type of thing normally, but this wasn’t a normal mission. He knew that the troopers were being intentionally loud to stop their fears; to act as a bulwark against the ominous silence. And so he allowed it.

His party reached a crew cabin and halted to take it in. Blood was smeared in great tracks across the floors and walls. Bodies were gathered in a small clump where they had fallen in the crash. They had clearly died fighting. Ian pulled one over. Energy weapon wound in the torso and slash marks on her arm. But she’d not died without taking something from her enemy, he noticed: one hand held a boarding axe, the other, a brown, stumpy arm. She’d cleaved it from the body of its owner. The same type of arm Ian had seen again and again from their enemies. He looked about for its owner, and found him wedged into a corner. He…she…it… had bled out. Recently, it seemed. If you prick me do I not bleed he thought, and shoved the quotation away.

So they’d been boarded. That was it. Boarded and taken from the inside, where they could not call on the massive firepower of other ships for help. He pushed down a shudder and gave the order to move on. 

Flashlights pierced the gloom, lit with flickers of electrical pulses from the walls. This thing could still have power thought Ian. They climbed higher and higher. Ian was aiming for where he thought the control room must be, where the captain might have made a last stand. They cut through bulkheads where they had to, the sappers wielding their cutting torches like lightsabers in the darkness. Once again Ian wondered why science fiction never prepared him for this moment.

They cut into a heavy bulkhead, climbed over the threshhold, and found themselves staring at the ship’s con. Here, at last, were signs of life. Low groans met them from several corners as stunned and wounded sailors gasped for life. Ian realized that the air controls on the ship must be failing and sent for every available medic in the troop, with every spare oxygen mask they could find. Doc Sellers was already tearing masks out of an emergency compartment on the wall and slapping them over the faces of the wounded and injured. 

No enemy had pierced this sanctum, but the crash had rendered the occupants of the room unconscious and sorely hurt. Ian looked through the cracked windows out into the haze. It lit the room with a curious yellow-brown light that only added to the surreal quality of the scene before him. The medics were lining the sailors up along the wall, dragging them into sitting positions. They were groggy but consciousness was coming back. And with it, pain, panic, realization of what had happened. Ian searched the line of faces, looking for anyone familiar.

“Paul?” he suddenly said, eyebrows raised in surprise, looking down over a tall Navy officer whose long form was slouched out over the ground. The officer looked up, eyes in a daze, and slowly focused.

“Ian, is that you?” he gasped through his mask. He shook his head, as if to rid himself of the dream-like quality of the space. Ian crouched down to be at his friend’s level, taking his hand as if to prove that he was real. The two had gone through their cadet training together, back when Paul Krian had wanted to be an Army officer. But instead, he’d gone for the Navy, after seeing the giant frigates for the first time back on Mars during a field training exercise. Ian hadn’t seen him for at least a year or two, and mentioned as much. Paul smiled slightly, a kind expression cracking his dust-covered face.

“Yeah, been a little while,” he croaked. “Last time I saw you, you were yelling at an admiral, I think.” Ian laughed, the first time he’d felt a genuinely happy emotion in who knew how long. 

“That was a day to remember,” he said, grinning. “At least, that’s a day I’d like to forget but the Army will always make sure I remember.” His smile faded as he looked at his friend with concern. “Paul, what the hell happened?” Paul coughed, the effort wracking his whole body. 

“Ian, I don’t even really know,” he got out. He took a deep breath, composing his features; military bearing was returning. “It’s hard to really recollect everything. I…oh!” He stopped, staring at his friend with extreme intensity. He reached into his breast pocket and felt around, coming out with a slip of paper. He did not hold it out all at once.

“Ian,” he said slowly, “this is something I swore I would pass on to you, come life or death. I saw Jeanette.” Ian’s face clouded and he could feel his heart rate quicken.

“Oh,” was all that he could say. His stomach tightened.

“She told me to give you this,” said Paul, not taking his eyes off Ian. “I know how much it hurt when she left and I tried to get her to tell me what was going on, what had happened, but she wouldn’t say. She was on the ship just last week, making a stop before moving out into Deep. She talked with the captain for a while…something about intel, I don’t really know. I just bumped into her in the hallway and was so shocked I didn’t really know what to do. She barely said anything, just asked if I had seen you and scribbled down this as I told her it had been a while. Handed it to me, told me that if I didn’t give this to you she’d hunt me down and beat me senseless.” They both smiled at this memory of her; she was nothing if not emphatic. Paul held out the note.

Ian reached out and hesitantly took it. Kneeling back, he slowly opened it. His heart thundered as he saw her familiar handwriting: 

I know not how the end of history will be written, but I think that I would like to write it with you he read. His eyes seared suddenly with tears. She was alive. She was out there. And she’d left this for him.

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“Finding Space” is a serialized story appearing solely on this site. It is an experiment at writing science fiction as well as a method to keep the author on task. Tune in for new additions to the story as they are written.

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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