Ian gazed out the window. Around him, he could hear the familiar ship-board sounds: the dull hum of voices, the clank and clash of mechanics at work, the intercom buzzing with announcements. They had been a part of his life as far back as he could remember and were now as comforting and familiar to him as a mother’s touch.
His brain had reverted to that state of mind as soon as he’d come on board USS Goliath, now the squadron headquarters while still being an active sloop of war. And even though space was no longer a place of safety as it once had been, he couldn’t stop the sense of belonging that he’d felt. Odd, he thought, how I, a terrestrial being, find the quiet of space more calming than being on terra firma.
He was sprawled out on the deck, back propped against his armor, his rifle and helmet by his side. The whole of B Troop was here, taking up the entire bay. They’d only been aboard about twelve hours, so it was largely quiet as the troopers slept off the last three weeks since they’d debarked. Three weeks of life-changing events, in which the troop had suffered heavy losses. Ian knew that he had a meeting with Ingram – now promoted to major – to go over the casualty lists and to ensure that they’d written letters to everyone’s family.
He held that in his mind, considered it, and pushed it away. His eyes were fixed on a bright, azure nebula, far off, which was just visible between the stern of USS Arkansas – a heavy battleship – and the bulk of USS Jacksonville. Is that where she is he wondered, idly, eyes half-closed in reverie. Is she out there in the Deep Space, just…waiting? He shook himself. That kind of thinking wouldn’t do. He’d always heard the tales of the men whose wives or sweethearts had run off, who chased them into Deep Space, thinking that was where they all went. Most of those foolhardy souls were never heard from again.
The infrastructure of life had not yet pushed into Deep Space – hence its name. There were no life support colonies established by governments or even private corporations. The best one could hope for would be some small outpost put together by disgruntled folks who wanted to set up on their own, away from civilization. And those people would just as soon shoot you as help you. No, Deep Space held an allure to be sure, but…she wouldn’t go there. She was too smart for that.
He tugged at the paper from the corner of his pocket, read it again. For the millionth time, perhaps. Her handwriting was still clear. He ran his naked fingers over it, just to be in the same space as her again, with only the interference of time in the way. So she was still writing. She’d always done so, back when they were together. She wrote – actual paper and ink, a ridiculous idea when most messages were beamed to each other via brainwaves. Military encryption had not caught up with this, hence the touchpads that they had to use. But it was coming, Ian knew.
Well, would have been coming. After his intel briefing yesterday, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect anymore. All equipment upgrades had been halted and the only fleet traffic allowed were reinforcements and necessary supplies. Ground fighting was going well but the Navy was having a hard time coming to grips with an enemy that moved in small, cloaked vessels and was exceedingly good at boarding. The US Navy hadn’t faced a threat like this in ages. All of its ships were built to combat smuggling or to face off against one of the monster battle cruisers from another peer competitor. To say that the last two weeks had been a shock as great as that felt on December 7, 1941 would not to be putting too fine a point on it.
After the briefing – which had told him little that he did not already know – Ian had stumbled to the bay and collapsed into sleep. It was the sleep of the dead. Or, of one saved from the dead. He awoke bleary and confused – but alive. Now he just simply gazed. It was a moment of respite before they went back in. He sighed, and tucked the paper away into its small waterproof case, and slipped it into his pocket.
Ian glanced around. First Sergeant Li was messing with his gear a few paces away. Private Looper, now the troop’s radioman, was snoring in a bulkhead, his small form tucked away. Doc Sellers and Sergeant Stennerly were playing some sort of gambling game; it might’ve been poker, but Ian couldn’t make it out. Doc appeared to be losing, as was normal. He scanned the group for his officers. Well, for his one officer. The XO had gone to command one of the other troops. Reels, of 1st Platoon, was dead. Just Lieutenant Salaman remained. He was “Sal” to his friends and “Salamander” to everyone else. His bright eyes would light up during battle, two glowing specks in his dark face. Bindan Salaman was notoriously good at everything: paperwork, combat, dancing, and piloting. He was also notoriously ruthless. And incredibly unlucky in love.
At the current moment, Salaman was checking in on his squad leaders. Ian nodded approvingly at this, to himself, and his gaze moved on. It caught the pinched face of Sergeant Bilder and stayed on it. Bilder was sitting by himself, staring away into nothing, with a face of intense anguish. Ian thought of going and talking to the man but it was clear that he did not want any company. That’s one I’ve got to watch on board ship thought Ian. That’s when things could turn sour, with a little down time.
“Sleeping on the job again?” asked Major Ingram, appearing in his line of vision. Ian cursed loudly while pulling himself to his feet.
“Sorry, ma’am, someone should’ve called the room to attention,” he said, glaring at the silent form of his first sergeant. She shrugged it off.
“I told them to be quiet, everyone needs their rest,” she said. “Just wanted to link with you. We’ve got a new tasking in 48 hours.” He sighed. Of course they did. Well, that would keep everyone out of trouble.
“Sounds good,” he said aloud, automatically taking out his tablet to jot down some notes.
“This one’s going to be a bit…different.” Her voice lingered on the last word, rolling it over to him as if he should catch her meaning. He glanced up.
“There’s a freighter that’s supposed to be inbound with weapons, ammo, and replacements. Basically, everything that we badly need. But we’ve lost comms with it. As well as the two escort ships. So, obviously, everyone is getting a little worried.” Her voice dropped lower and she stepped closer. “Ian, there’s something else. It carried rations, too. And we’re…well, we’re tight.”
“Tight?” asked Ian, matching her low tone. “That’s not something we were told, we were told to draw full rations.” Ingram nodded.
“Of course you were,” she said. “To tell you otherwise would mean that our supply lines were cut and we were out here on our own. Just 8th Army and 7th Fleet, hanging loose in the system, no ammo, no food, no water…ripe for the taking.” They looked intensely at each other, Ingram willing him to accept the implications of what she was telling him. He understood, and understood all too well.
“Ma’am, are we also short on water?” She looked around. Nodded.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s close-hold, but things are not looking good. We can fight just fine, but we can’t sustain in space. So…” She shrugged. Ian thought a moment.
“There’s water somewhere down below,” he said. Ingram raised an eyebrow. “There were trees. Living trees. And if there’s trees, there’s some way of getting the water to the surface. Hang on…there…I just sent you the navpoint for where we’d spotted vegetation.”
“I’m impressed,” she said.
“Why?” he asked. “We were just doing our job. Scouting. Identifying resources. The engineers were the ones marking the sites as we moved along. You might be able to get more info from them, if you like.” He called over the sapper squad leader, Sergeant Gyles Sasmont, who reported to the squadron commander that yes, his troops had identified points of interest. Major Ingram sent him off to talk with the squadron engineer officer, and from there, up to division.
“Well done,” she said. “If this works out, you might have bought us some time. But that still leaves your mission.”
“Hmmm, let me guess, ma’am,” he said. “It’s a death-or-glory mission to go find this supply transport, seize it from its captors, and save the whole force?” She smiled.
“Yes, lieutenant, that’s exactly what it is. Briefing is in three hours. Report to the commander of USS Essex as his boarding party.”
“But what about the Marines?” protested Ian, stung out of his sarcasm.
“Mostly dead,” said Major Ingram, turning to leave. “Most went down with USS Chesapeake, the same frigate you rescued. Just a few left around the fleet. Not enough to form a boarding party.”
“Leave it to the Army to always be picking up their slack,” grumbled Ian, shoving his tablet away. Ingram stopped and turned to look at him; an icy glare.
“Don’t forget, lieutenant,” she said, sounding out his rank with precision, “that it was the Marines that pulled your ass off Leto 9, with the same lack of close air support that you were insubordinate about. If you want to bitch, go for it, but most of those same Marines are now dead in the line of duty. So find something else to complain about.” She walked off, leaving Ian glaring shamefully at her retreating back.
She was right, of course. He’d have been dead on Leto 9 as well. The Greater Chinese and Russian People’s Co-Prosperity League didn’t care to leave survivors around. But he and his small force had been rescued when the Marines showed up. Amazing how he’d nearly forgotten that. Shaking himself out of his reverie, he called for his platoon leadership. Bleary eyes opened, staring about them, sergeants staggering to their feet. Lieutenant Salaman gave a last minute order to a squad leader and began walking over.
Ian turned and looked back out the window again. The brilliantly blue nebula he had been watching was now hidden from his view by ships of the US Navy. Figures he thought. War blots out all that is beautiful.
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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.