Finding Space – Chapter Eleven

Light flickered in and out of the cabin where Ian sat, gazing across at the frigate just a few kilometers away. A frigate that was unresponsive. Sure, there were signs of life in it, and Ian felt confident that Rafario still had control of his ship. That being said, they still couldn’t talk to each other. After the communications security had been compromised, they’d just been drifting in the dark, neither of them very sure what was going on.

Ian’s squads had been combing the freighter from top to bottom, trying to find any clues as to the whereabouts of the attackers. Stennerly was literally hunting Bilder. Ian had seen her just before he went to the cabin, and she carried the same look she always did when she was on the trail of an enemy: the flushed complexion, eyes alight with energy, and rapid step. 

He wished her well. If Bilder had indeed turned traitor…Ian couldn’t process that. Traitor. The word wasn’t in his own personal lexicon. Lazy, sure. He could be lazy. He might not always follow all the regulations to the letter, or even the paragraph. But to turn traitor on the soldiers you served with, on the men and women you worked with every day? No. That, he couldn’t understand. But then, he’d never really understood Bilder or his soured and angry attitude. If you didn’t like what you did, why be here?

Ian was squatting in the corner of the bridge, head down, his pose of Please leave me the hell alone for at least five minutes. First Sergeant Li was very familiar with this body language and even though his head was lowered, Ian could tell that Li was keeping people back. Giving his boss some space. Even so, it seemed like mere seconds before Li was standing over him.

“Sir,” was all he said. Ian glanced up.

“This is some sh*t, top,” Ian said. To Ian’s surprise, Li laughed. It was a light laugh, not the kind you’d expect out of a senior non-commissioned officer, but it was one of Ian’s favorites. It normally came out in some bar or frigate’s mess, after a few drinks. But here was Li laughing almost uncontrollably, bending down to get his breath.

“Hoo boy, sir, that’s a good one,” he said. “Yeah, this is, as you say, some sh*t, but, like, what hasn’t been some sh*t on this whole damn op? We got ambushed by space moles with high tech weaponry, took command of the company, rescued a downed frigate, then get sent on a top-secret mission to find supplies out in open space – that’s not exactly what I’d call normal, if ya get my meaning, sir.” He stood up straight, stretching and still chuckling. Ian couldn’t help grinning. He was right, of course, nothing about this was normal. So why should he expect it to be?

“Thanks, first sergeant,” Ian said. “Guess I needed a little perspective.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” said Li. “And to let you know that Stennerly found a small cache of supplies down on one of the lower decks. Not much, but enough to at least keep Essex and us from starving. If we can ever get back over there, that is. And if we can’t, well, we can survive on board here for a while.” The ever-pragmatic first sergeant, thought Ian. Thinking through all contingencies, even the ones I don’t want to let in my brain.

“Got it,” was all he said. He hefted himself to his feet, balancing for a moment on his toes, feeling the rushing blood catch up with his swift movement. He rocked back down on his heels, exhaled, and asked, “Okay then; any sign of Bilder? Any movement from the frigate?” 

“Comms are still dead,” said Looper. “I’ve initiated the last COMSEC compromise protocol but I don’t think it got synchronized between the Army and Navy.”

“So much for joint ops,” snorted Li. “You’d think we’d be able to figure this kind of sh*t out by now.”

“You’d think,” sighed Ian. “No shuttles from Essex, even?”

“Nothing, sir,” said Li. 

“We tried visual signals yet, Looper?” asked Ian. 

“You mean like…Morse code?” asked Looper.

“Yeah, anything. Light flashes. Hand waving. Painting letters on the sides of this damned hulk.” Ian was growing frustrated. 

“I’ll give it a shot,” said Looper, hesitantly. “I think I’ve got something in a databank about Morse code.”

“Come here, kid,” said Li, smiling. “I might have a few tricks I can show you from the old days.” Li led Looper off to a window where Ian soon saw flashes of light. He glanced back at the bridge. Sal was meeting with his squad leaders, getting briefed on their patrols. The little normal routines like this could help keep troopers from going mad in the uncertainty of all this mess.

There was a bumping and thrashing noise, coming from the approach hatch to the bridge. Feet stamped and thudded, mingled with cursing. The whole room came alive, rifles raised, trained on the hatchway. Stennerly suddenly appeared through it, literally dragging a bound form: Sergeant Bilder. Her helmet was off, and her auburn hair, normally in a neat bun, was falling in angry wisps about her, making her look like Medusa in all her wrath. Stennerly’s face was set in grim determination but Ian could see reddening around her left cheek and eye, as if she’d recently been punched. He glanced down at her prisoner: it was Bilder.

This asshole,” she said, tossing the furious sergeant down in front of Ian, “was hiding in one of the escape hatches. And he had this.” She tossed a commlink to Ian. Ian stared. The writing on it was not in English: it was Russian. His eyes turned a dark, cold gray as he stared down at the writhing sergeant. Bilder met Ian’s eyes and stopped suddenly. He held his gaze for a few seconds and then dropped his eyes. His body went limp, the fight suddenly out of him.

“Sergeant Bilder,” said Ian, squatting down to his level and holding out the commlink. “You want to go ahead and explain to me what’s going on here.” Bilder was sweating. Ian could see that he had two rapidly forming black eyes. Ian glanced up at Stennerly, who was still pale with anger.

“Sergeant Stennerly, did you strike this soldier?”

“Of course I did,” she said, indignantly. “See this?” She pointed at the left side of her face, now clearly swelling. “This is what he gave me when I poked my head into the escape hatch. Two solid shots to the face, just as I was going to ask him if he was okay.”

“That’s a lie!” growled Bilder. “I was just sitting there and she attacked me.” Ian glanced behind Stennerly to Private Hernandez, who was clearly trying to stay out of sight behind his platoon sergeant.

“Hern, were you there?” he asked. Hernandez cleared his throat, glancing nervously at his furious platoon sergeant and his former platoon leader.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“What did you see?” asked Ian.

“I saw Sergeant Stennerly step halfway into the hatch, heard her say something like, ‘Oh, there you are,’ but that was cut off like someone had tried to put a hand over her mouth. Her body kinda jerked back twice and then, well…”

“Go on,” said Ian.

“Well, then she got inside and I ran up to help but she’d already laid out Sergeant Bilder with two buttstrokes of her rifle.” Ian suppressed a smile. Yes, that was the Stennerly way all right. Bilder went silent.

“So.” Ian’s voice was low. “Blut Bilder, this had better be a phenomenal explanation of why you assaulted a superior and are in possession of enemy materiel.” Bilder twisted his face.

“These are all lies!” he spat. “I thought she was some sort of invader and didn’t realize it was her until after my first initial reaction. I can’t control my reflexes, sir, you know me, I’m a fighter like that. I can’t help it. And that old piece of junk, that’s just something I picked up on patrol, and was going to bring in to you as evidence, but then she cornered me and beat the sh*t outta me which is abuse, and you should charge her, sir! It’s abuse! She dragged me all the way here, made me be bound up like this and it’s not right, sir!” He was panting with anger and frustration.

Ian stared at him, still holding the commlink. “Looper!” he yelled. The man came running; there had been no question in the commander’s voice. “You familiar with this tech?” Looper nodded. “Can you get me the last transmission information?” Looper nodded again. Ian handed over the commlink. Looper messed with it for about thirty seconds. Thirty seconds of silence where Ian studied the faces around him: Bilder, self-righteous and angry. Stennerly now flushed with fury, eyes flashing. Eddie Li, impassive as always. But Ian saw the way he glanced at Bilder; the flicker of disgust. Diffused light streamed through the slats on the windows, casting everything in a dim glow. 

The air suddenly came to life, crackling with noise, as everyone on the bridge heard Bilder’s voice come out of the commlink: “Captain Sorosky, this is Blut Bilder – the transport is full of the Americans and the communications are down. You can come and pick them up, but approach from the west or Essex will see you. I’m in escape hatch 10. Payment will be as agreed on.”

Every eye on the bridge turned to Bilder who was now pale, sweating, and gasping for air. He could say nothing. Ian knew him to be nothing but a coward, and was shocked at the man’s arrogance of thinking he could get away with this. 

But the impact of the last transmission suddenly sunk in.

“Look alive, we’ve got incoming Russians!” yelled Ian. “First Sergeant, get this piece of trash someplace where he can’t escape. Sal, Stennerly, get your platoons into defensive positions! Sergeant Sasmont – I want your sappers setting up as much evil-minded sh*t as you can think of for these guys, the sky’s the limit, just don’t blow us up into space. Someone run and let SFC Crice know that we’re about to have company! Looper, find someone, anyone, get them in a transport back to Essex and let them know what’s going on.” The bridge flew into a flurry of activity with troopers rushing around to their assigned positions.

Ian drew a deep breath and walked up to Stennerly, who was directing the positioning of her remaining troopers.

“That was some good work, sergeant,” he said. She looked at him with fiery eyes.

“Just doing my job, sir.” She paused. “I almost killed him, you know.”

“I know.”

“I did buttstroke him. Twice. Controlled. I wanted to crush his skull.”

“I know.”

“Glad I didn’t, I guess,” she said. “Maybe squadron or brigade intel can get something out of him. If we ever get back to them.”

“One step at a time,” he said. “Can’t believe he’d try to sell us out.”

“He was always a little prick, sir,” she said. “You know it as much as I do. His heart was never in this. No one even really knew why he joined.” 

“Hell, why did any of us join,” he muttered to himself. He thought. Stennerly grinned.

“Heard that one, sir,” she said. “Your inner monologue is getting out again. Gonna have to watch that once they make you go to all those squadron meetings.” Ian groaned.

“Maybe I’d rather stay out here in this mess after all,” he said.

“We may not have a choice,” she said cheerfully, adjusting her armor. “Looks like we’re going to have some visitors who want to make this a more permanent solution.”

“Well, let’s just make them a little impermanent,” said Ian. 

“Gladly, sir,” replied Stennerly. “Gladly.” 

“Got word to Essex, sir!” yelled Looper. “And they replied! Morse code! They acknowledge that we’ve been betrayed and have enemies incoming; what should I reply?” Ian ran over to the window and gave brief, hurried instructions on what to send. Looper began furiously transmitting the message, just as there was a loud thud on the western side of the transport.

“Looks like the company has arrived,” said Li, checking his rifle. “Always hated unwanted guests. Let’s give them a hearty welcome, troopers,” he called out. Silence fell. Looper whispered something to Ian. Ian nodded. The lights stopped flickering back and forth the vessels. From far off came the sound of cutting metal. Then silence.

They waited.

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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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