Finding Space – Chapter Nine

There had been little fuss when he’d told the troop of their mission. The leadership seemed to understand the gravity of the situation in a way that Ian hadn’t expected. Maybe he was the only one naive enough to think that their logistical issues were all being handled. The briefing went quickly, the platoons conducted their rehearsals, and now they were all on board USS Essex, awaiting clearance to depart fleet control. Commander Tellus Rafario was on the bridge when Ian walked in, his hands on the rail and his fingers drumming impatiently.

“It’ll be any minute now, lieutenant,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. He motioned out the window towards the immense flagship of the 7th Fleet, USS Lincoln. Ian could see what seemed like countless vessels leaving and entering the massive bays on board her. She was half battlecruiser, half carrier. Indeed, it seemed like most of the ships in the fleet were some sort of hybrid. Even the swift Essex carried a small complement of single-seater fighter spacecraft. 

These had become even more vital in the past two weeks, where sensors alone could not be trusted to keep the fleet safe. Attack and observation spacecraft were learning the importance of combat patrols once again, as leaders tried to figure out how to sustain the force so that they could always have an air umbrella of protection. It was a different way of fighting than they had learned at their academies and war colleges. But you either learned or you lost your ships. So they learned.

Ian leaned back against the rear bulkhead of the bridge, enjoying the feeling of being free of his exoskeletal armor for the moment. Commander Rafario returned his gaze to the flagship, willing it to give the signal. And then it came, off the port signal station: the visual indicator to proceed to space. It was relayed at the same time via the internal message systems aboard the fleet, appearing on the chiron running across the top of the bridge.

“Good old fashioned redundancy,” said Rafario, turning to Ian with a relieved smile on his face. “As much as we’re state of the art, we can’t seem to get away from the old ways of signal flags. Maybe that’s a good thing?” 

“Can’t say, sir,” said Ian, entirely out of his depth in the Navy. “But redundancy of comms systems is always good.” Rafario nodded.

“I hear you helped save the crew of Chesapeake,” he said, a statement less than a question. Ian nodded.

“Had a lot of good friends aboard her,” Rafario continued, staring out into the rapidly expanding blackness as the ship turned her prow out to empty space and left the protection of the fleet. “A lot of friends. Never really lost that many friends out here before…” His voice trailed off. A flight of six fighters passed them by, flashing Good hunting in code before they disappeared to starboard. Rafario gave Ian a sheepish glance.

“I know that’s a silly thing to say to someone who has lived with the reality of death for so long,” he said. “It’s just been a different war for us…different wars, really. We carry you around…fly support missions. Sometimes get into ship actions where we rarely lose, since we’ve had naval superiority ever since, hell…damn, I dunno, when the GCRPCL lost half its production assets when it tried nuclear thrusters in space.”

Ian nodded. He’d remembered hearing about that as a boy of nine or ten. It had been some sort of big disaster, he knew, but since the Greater Chinese and Russian People’s Co-Prosperity League kept so much behind closed doors and wouldn’t allow reporters in, no one knew just how bad it was. Not until the great power race for control of resources beyond the Milky Way began. And then everyone saw how much of a hollow shell the GCRPCL was. 

Oh, they’d made up for it by financing every half-baked smuggler from Mars to Pluto, selling weapons to every disgruntled colonist they could find, and generally doing all in their power to undermine the spread of Planet Earth Defensive Pact – PED-P – which was the outgrowth of the old North Atlantic Treaty Organization. PED-P was supposed to have been the great cooperative agreement that united all the nations on Earth to form a mutual defensive pact. It had worked for a few years, until Russia and China managed to gain enough satellite nations to their cause and begin their own operations into space. Then the separatist wars began, and exploration began to play second fiddle to security operations.

Ian passed a hand over his brow. By the time he’d come onto the scene, war was sort of a normal mode of existence in space. Not any type of declared war, but a slow boil of conflict. Always simmering, always just under the surface, ready to break out. Only back on some of the planets in the Milky Way could you actually experience true peace. But he hadn’t been back there since the academy days. The politics of it all made his head hurt.

But Rafario was right. The Navy hadn’t suffered as much in all those decades of war as much as they’d suffered in the past two weeks. Ian felt for the man, who was clearly carrying unaddressed grief and had no time to grieve. Maybe didn’t even know how to grieve. It was not as if the Army had taught Ian how to deal with loss, but since it was so common, it was almost an institution of the service. He tried not to confront the implications of it and shoved the larger issue out of his mind.

“Sir, how soon do we expect to make contact with the transport?” he asked. Rafario shook himself out of his reverie and glanced down at the closest overlay. 

“Could be anytime between tomorrow and a week, really,” he said, tracing his finger over the intercept route. He stood up, stretching his tall and lanky frame out and stifling a great yawn. “It’s no secret that this mission is of vital importance. But that’s what they always say. So we’re not exactly expecting that the intelligence we’ve been given is going to be any more correct than it has in the past. I’ll be honest: don’t get your hopes up. Get some sleep and we’ll let you know if anything comes in sight.” Ian nodded and left the bridge, unsure if he was supposed to salute or not. But no one yelled at him, so he figured he was in the clear.

The troop was crowded into three separate bays, arranged in the order of how they planned to board the transport. Ian went over the plan again with the leadership, one more time.

“First up will be Sal and 1st Platoon, with Sergeant Sasmont and most of the sappers. Their job is to get us a way into that freighter, whether it means finding a door or making a new one. 

Then comes 3rd Platoon to exploit the foothold and get us a secure area to operate out of. Sergeant Stennerly, you’ve got lead on this.” Bekka Stennerly looked excited, pleased, and somewhat terrified that she was somehow leading the whole platoon now. Ian caught Bilder’s black and angry glare. As the senior NCO, Bilder should’ve been the leader but Ian just couldn’t trust him not to mess the whole thing up. He made a mental note to remind Stennerly to put him somewhere she could keep an eye on him.

“Lastly comes 2nd Platoon. SFC Crice, I’ll be moving with you, so as soon as we make link up with 3rd, we’ll figure out the situation and you all will become the assault element. At that point, the sappers and snipers will move with you.” SFC Sara Crice nodded her head, glancing over at Sergeant Sasmont, her ex-husband. They would make it work. 

“Once we get inside, the biggest priority is to figure out just what we’re dealing with. Having working comms is going to be key. I want comms checks during every phase of the operation.” 

Each leader talked through their portion of the mission, going over contingency plans in the event of unforeseen obstacles. Once he was satisfied, Ian dismissed them. “Get some rest.”

Ian walked back to his little compartment, where a small sliding door just off the main bay gave him some semblance of privacy. The perk of being in command. He kept his frame tall until the partition slid shut, and then he collapsed in a heap on top of his gear, allowing himself the freedom to relax. It was an uncommon type of feeling. 

Thudding boots and raised voices brought him back to reality. His body felt cramped and sore. It was a few moments until he realized that he’d fallen asleep on top of his gear. He twisted himself up, removing the foregrip of his rifle from the small of his back and massaging his aching legs. Sliding the door open, he could see signs of subdued excitement from the naval personnel while his own troops looked on hopefully. He walked swiftly up towards the bridge, where he found Commander Rafario deep in conversation with his staff. 

Outside, Ian could see the cause of conversation. Eight single-seat fighters from Essex were flying tightly controlled passes over a hulking freighter that was drifting in space, immobile, showing no signs of propulsion. Small flickers of light could be seen from the freighter but no one was answering the hails from Essex. Ian couldn’t see any signs of the freighter’s escorts, either

Rafario looked up. “Good to see you, lieutenant, just in time for the fun. As you can see, we’ve found the freighter.”

“Any signs of enemy activity, sir?” asked Ian, still staring out, looking for signs of wreckage or anything that might give him a hint as to what he would be walking in to.

“Not really,” said Rafario. “Nothing on radar or sensors. We’ve got three combat patrols out, one over the freighter and the other two searching the space where the escorts should be. No signs of wreckage from either of them, and no signs of physical damage to the freighter. It’s just not moving at all.”

“I guess that’s a good sign,” said Ian. 

“It is,” assented Rafario. “Aliens like to blast a visible hole and hop into it. Nothing like that on that rusted bag of bolts over there.” Ian looked at the freighter again. They were close enough now that he could make out the entry port where their shuttle would have to dock. He’d done one or two boarding missions before, but nothing like this. Turning to Rafario, he said, “Look, sir, is there any chance we can get one or two ships to escort the shuttle over? Last thing I want is to get zapped in space before we can board.” Rafario nodded.

“Not a problem at all. We’ll have the flight that’s covering the freighter detach an escort for you all. Are you going to move in three transports or just the one?”

“Three, sir. Reduces the chances of a total failure if this thing goes sideways.”

“Good call. How much time do you need?”

Ian checked his watch. “Give me half an hour, sir, and then we’ll be ready to move.”

“Good luck, lieutenant,” said Rafario, his green eyes gleaming with the excitement of the unknown. “I’m not gonna say we’re all counting on you, but we’re basically all counting on you.” Ian grinned, shook the commander’s outstretched hand, and ran off down the gangway towards his troop.

Thirty minutes later, all the troopers were loaded up. Ian called up their numbers to the bridge and got the go-ahead to pull off. The three transports detached from Essex and floated out into the depth of space, three tiny little dots in the blackness. Almost at once, the sleek forms of the friendly escort ships could be seen out of the observation ports as their pilots checked in.

So far, so good thought Ian. Air cav for the win. And as he thought this, a shuddering blast of fire slammed against the nose of the shuttle, skewing it off trajectory and throwing troopers to the ground. Smoke filled the small space, there was frantic traffic on comms as fighters deployed rapidly, and suddenly it all went dead. They had no comms. No power. They were drifting in space.

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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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