Ian pushed aside the stunned pilot as he entered the nose of the shuttle where the controls were. His medics hauled the pilot and co-pilot back out of the now-exposed cabin, since the main window had been smashed through.
“Looper, get me the f**k up on comms!” he yelled back, as the young man frantically wrestled with the shuttle’s signal booster. Headquarters personnel were rushing around, putting out fires, closing airlocks, rerouting what power was left to try to get some sort of a signal with the rest of the fleet. Ian dropped himself into the pilot’s chair, aware that his people were doing their best to get the ship moving again. But he froze motionless at the scene now unfolding before him.
Sal’s shuttle had reached the freighter and docked, looking like a small bug on the side of large animal. Ian couldn’t tell if they’d breached the hull yet or not, but he did see that some of the troopers had fastened a line to the second shuttle to bring it in.
Which was good, because everything else was going to complete hell around them. The fighter spacecraft from Essex were engaged in a sharp combat with what seemed like more fighters than Ian had ever seen. They were coming in by the dozen, in close formations, concentrating most of their fire on Essex rather than on her fighters. As a dozen ships flashed by at top speed, Ian was able to get a glimpse of their faces. He noted, with shock, that they were human not alien.
The dashboard in front of him suddenly lit up.
“We’ve got aux power online!” called a trooper, from somewhere in the bowels of the ship. Ian grabbed at the controls and quickly pushed down on the accelerator. He felt a lurch, and the ship was now gliding forward at a slow pace. But it was something, and what was more, it was gathering speed.
“Be prepared for a hard landing!” he called behind him. “SFC Crice, what’s the casualty count look like in your platoon?”
“Just three banged up, sir,” she called back. “They’ll be fine. Let’s just get this piece of sh*t to some place where we’re not a sitting duck.” Ian grumbled something in assent and as the shuttle pitched up and down, he tried to get it to move faster.
They were getting closer to the giant transport now, and he could see that Sal had an entryway into it. The second shuttle had docked and troopers were awkwardly scrambling inside, desperate to get out of the remarkable vastness of outer space. He couldn’t blame them. He never became used to being anywhere near the infinity of it all. Right now, his only aim was to get his own small craft docked and his people inside that transport. Fighters were still shimmering by, barely noticing this small and lumbering craft. Occasional energy blasts would strike the hull, as if to remind the occupants that they were in very grave danger of becoming space debris. Thankfully, the hull held.
Ian’s mind could not get away from the fact that the fighters were piloted by humans. All different types of humans, to be sure, and with no definitive markings on the craft, but humans all the same. There were probably at least 150 that he could see, but that was a conservative estimate. The battle seemed to be hanging in the balance but – he noted – as the shuttles cleared the space between Essex and the transport, the anti-spacecraft guns on Essex now came into play. And it was clear that Rafario had conducted this kind of drill before with his pilots. The guns fired in concentrated arcs, creating a zone of destruction, while the fighters flew patterns that deliberately stayed out of this zone while also using the fire to mask their movements. Even more incredible, from Ian’s standpoint, was that every maneuver seemed to put the friendly fighters in just the right spot to take advantage of the chaos and disruption caused by the burst of anti-spacecraft fire.
How long he watched this complex choreography, he couldn’t say. Certainly the fire from enemy vessels was greatly reduced. Far fewer bright orange streaks of light crossed in front of him, as he closed in on the transport.
“Stand by to brace for impact!” he called back. The controls for docking were not answering their commands; he attempted to manually engage the outriggers. His heel pushed down on the lever with all his might; he felt the sweat collecting in the small of his back and beading downwards as he strained to get some slight movement. It meant the difference between an unharmed platoon and a platoon that was half-knocked silly. Not to mention that the impact now would crush the cockpit, of which he was an inhabitant. He tried not to think about that aspect, but his pressure on the lever definitely increased.
About 300 meters from the massive wall of the transport, Ian felt something give way under his heel, and suddenly he saw the outriggers pop out on either side of his field of vision. He collapsed back into the seat, gasping, as the craft crossed the intervening space in just a few seconds and met the wall with a thud. The outriggers took all the impact, and anchored the shuttle to the wall. Ian stared straight in front of him, eyeing the steely gray surface that might have been his final resting place. What a silly way to die that would have been he thought to himself.
Behind him, he hard the competent and firm voice of SFC Crice.
“On your feet, troopers, get ready to board! Sergeant Elliot, your squad goes in first. Corporal Parker, you’re next.” She glanced over at Ian, who was extricating himself from the cockpit. “Where are you in this gaggle, sir?”
“I’ll move with you, Crice,” said Ian, trying to push back the overwhelming sense of exhaustion that he felt threatening him.
“Sounds good, sir,” she replied, hefting her rifle. “Elliot, get your ass in gear. Engage magnetic soles, all troopers splice up.” At this order, each trooper connected a cable from their tac belt to that of the trooper in front of them, forming a tight line. Ian connected to Crice. Corporal Parker stared at him for a moment before timidly offering his cable. Ian took it and snapped it onto his tac belt.
“You’ve got this, Parker,” he said. “Just make sure no one nips us in the ass.” Parker, a slight man with wispy blonde hair and a fair complexion, tried to smile back. Ian could see that the young man was terrified at the responsibility that he had. “I mean it, Parker,” he said, turning on the trooper. “You’ve never once let us down.” Parker just stared at him. Ian sighed. Sometimes it just took action to bring soldiers out of themselves.
Crice completed her last minute checks, the hatch was opened, and Sergeant Elliot led the way out of the shuttle, tramping down the hatchway and onto the surface of the transport. Ian followed the line of troopers out into the weird haze of space. Neither dark nor light, it was a gray zone that alarmed him more than anything else that he had ever encountered. Dim light from stars and from the flashes of the ongoing fighting cast odd elongated shadows out over the wall of the transport, giving the line of plodding troopers an oddly terrifying look.
Around them, the fighters swirled and danced. Ian noticed that Essex seemed to have regained dominance of firepower. He escort fighters were less in number, but still active. Craters and jagged cuts in her outer shell could be seen, witness to the ferocity of the enemy attack. The batteries were maintaining a wicked volume of fire, however, and it appeared as though the damage to the whole ship had passed. Now the batteries were concentrated on preventing enemy fighters from attacking the small shuttles of B Troop. Enemy fighters had abandoned their attack on Essex and were now going for the next best thing.
From the corner of his eye, Ian spotted six single-seater craft come flying in over the edge of the transport. Low and deadly. The situation changed in an instant. Elliot’s squad had made the safety of the bulwark and was pulling everyone inside as quick as they could. Crice was nearly to the breach that 1st Platoon had made, as Ian turned to see this new approaching peril. Parker had already turned and with the six troopers in his squad was forming a cordon.
“Get in here!” screamed Ian, pulling on his cable to get Parker to fall back with them. The enemy ships were beginning to fire, kicking up metallic debris and shrapnel all around them. One of Parker’s troopers was hit and torn to bits by enemy fire, head and shoulders knocked clear off, the remainder latched on to their neighbor via the cable. Ian was tugging violently on the line, trying to get the corporal’s attention. But Parker was directing the fire of his squad, their weapons blazing, trying to cause the ships to veer off course.
“Stop it, you idiot, we’re all to safety!” yelled Ian. Energy bolts flickered and flared through the air and Ian saw another trooper vanish, this time completely gone. Nothing left. The heavy fire of the troopers was having an effect, though, and Ian saw one enemy ship lurch, the nose turned right, struck its neighbor, and then two of them spun out, striking another. All three crashed downwards towards the deck of the transport. The impact shook the troopers loose, despite their magnetic soles. It was this that probably saved them from total annihilation, because now Crice could simply pull them all back inside, because the cables were mercifully still attached. All five troopers and Ian came thudding into the bulwark, along with the remains of the trooper who had been hit first.
“Last man!” called Parker, collapsing, and a trooper slammed a makeshift door closed over the breach. Ian looked around. There were troopers everywhere, in what appeared to be a massive bay. Lights glinted and beamed into corners and hallways.
“This is Mustang 6, radio check, over,” he said into his mic. Voices crackled into his ear as the platoons checked in. He saw Sergeant Stennerly coming towards him, her tall figure easy to pick out.
“Good to see you, sir,” she said, throwing a mock salute at him with a half smile. They both knew this was no time for saluting but they also both knew that they were incredibly lucky to be alive.
“You too, Stennerly,” he said. “What we got?”
“1st Platoon got through with no casualties,” said Stennerly, adjusting her shoulder harness for her rifle. “They’re about 500 meters in, still visible on nav. We took one casualty coming in, just wounded though. Doc is checking on his leg. We’re getting security in here. As you can see, it’s easier said than done because this place is more cavernous than a hooker’s…than a…well, it’s big, sir,” she finished. Ian smiled to himself. No matter the occasion Bekka Stennerly could be trusted to find some particularly filthy analogy. Now that she was the senior NCO of the platoon, however, she’d begun to check herself.
“Nice work, sergeant,” was all that Ian said. He checked in with headquarters, which had occupied a good defensive positions and was setting up comms and resupply points. 3rd Platoon completed its security check and reported that all was clear. Sal had radioed back that they were closing in on the cockpit and it would be a good time for 2nd Platoon to come up.
“Roger, Sal, I’ll get Crice and we’ll start coming to you,” said Ian. He nodded to Crice, who had been watching him.
“On your feet, Second,” she said. Again came the brisk check of weapons and equipment. And again they were off, Stennerly nodding to Ian as she counted them out of their perimeter.
“Relay any messages coming in from Essex,” said Ian, as they passed. She nodded.
The transport was large and cavernous. And surprisingly empty.
“If this thing had supplies, they’re somewhere else,” said Crice, echoing his thoughts. They tramped on, the echoes of their footfalls jarring him. From a scout life where silence was security, this noise made him feel vulnerable and exposed. He was relieved when, after about twenty minutes, they made contact with 1st Platoon. Sal was waiting for him.
“So,” he said. “No supplies visible anywhere.” Ian nodded. He suspected as much. Something had been off since they started. This just sort of fit the bill. He had two troopers killed in action, another few wounded or bruised up. They’d been lured into what was clearly a trap. And he wanted to know why. He said as much to Sal, who shrugged, nodding. It was easy to see.
“I want some answers, and our best bet is going to be in the cockpit and cabin,” said Ian. “With any luck, some of the recording equipment will still be there.”
“With any luck, whoever set this trap put all their money on the fighter attack and not on booby-trapping this place,” said Sal, quietly. Ian glanced sideways at him.
“You really think?” he said. Sal nodded. Ian sighed. It was what he’d do, and he had to expect it was what his enemy would do. They were fighting humans again, he recalled. He’d let his guard down. A changing enemy meant changing perils.
They set the platoons up, with snipers in overwatch of all the avenues of approach and sappers beginning the task of scanning for explosives. The doors to the bridge and cockpit were open, but Ian didn’t want to risk them being rigged with demo. He let the sappers work. In the meantime, he called back to Stennerly.
“Mustang 3-7, what’s your status?”
“6, this is 3-7. We’ve got a bit of a problem here.”
“3-1 is missing.” 3-1. That was Sergeant Bilder.
“Missing as in…” asked Ian.
“Missing as in, he made it in here with us, he was here when I was putting the squads into perimeter security, and now he’s f*cking gone.” Ian could hear the harsh anger and frustration in her voice.
“Roger,” he said back. “Sit tight, we’re going to complete the search of the cabin and bridge and then we’ll move back to you. Keep a tight perimeter and watch for anything that seems suspicious. Like, check everything to make sure it isn’t rigged to blow up or anything.”
“Not my first op, sir,” she said, testily. “I’ve got it. We’ll see you soon.”
“6 out,” he said. He turned. Sergeant Sasmont gave him the thumbs up.
“All clear, sir,” he said. Ian nodded to Sal. Sal and another trooper braced on the doors, and pulled them open. The bridge was in front of them. Empty.
Empty save for one person; a sailor, crawling across the vast expanse of deck, dragging her bleeding and mutilated legs behind her.
“Please…don’t…kill me,” she gasped, staring at them groggily. Sal didn’t even have to call for a medic, two were already running up and they steadied her as the troopers rushed past to sweep the bridge and cabin.
“It’s okay, sailor,” said Doc. “You’re gonna be ok.” She screamed in pain as they shifted her onto her back, but the pain meds were flowing in a moment. Ian stood over her, watching Sal secure the area and rummage around looking for clues. He was barely listening to what the sailor was saying but his attention shifted back to her when he heard her mutter, “Goddam Russians. Never even had a chance. They had all our codes.” He turned on her quickly but she had already slipped away, unconscious. Doc Sellers looked up.
“Did she say they had our codes?” he asked, puzzled. Ian was already talking away at top speed on his mic.
“Indigo, indigo, indigo,” he yelled, typing on his keypad as well, sending the signal for compromised communications around the troop and back to Essex. There were only two explanations for this: the fleet had been hacked. Or there was a traitor.
And Bilder was missing.
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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.