One thing Ian could always be sure of, and that was that when things seemed at their worst or darkest, his troops would find someway to make the best of it. Years ago, back when he’d first come into the Army, he was stuck on a mounted patrol on some outlying moon. It was more of a training mission than anything else. Just to get the new kid out there where there was a little risk. It was pretty basic but it had gone all wrong. For whatever reason, three of the scout vehicles – basic rovers – had broken down. They were in a comms deadzone, of course, so Ian had sent two vehicles back up to high ground to get comms while he kept one vehicle back for emergency casualty evacuation.
Sitting in the little bowl of craters, they’d come under fire from some space bandits. Nothing personal, as Ian would later find out. Just some interplanetary smugglers who found some vulnerable members of the law and order ilk and who decided to make an investment in their future. Pinned down, without comms, and with zero experience, Ian had thought this was curtains for him. That is, until he’d found three troopers in the back of one of the armored rovers playing cards, while the fourth manned the remote gun system via battery pack and returned fire.
“We’ve gotta move, troopers!” 2nd Lieutenant Tollinger had yelled, peering into the hatch.
“Got time for one more hand, sir,” said one trooper, nonchalantly. “They’re not firing anything with enough caliber to bust through our vehicle armor and Childers up there will keep their heads down until we get a mortar up. Then it’s just not even fair.”
It wasn’t, either. They did indeed play one more hand, before popping open the hatch of one of the other trucks, elevating the mortar tube, and hanging three rounds. That was all it took. As the sounds of the explosions faded, Ian could hear that the small arms fire had ceased. He felt sheepish for having been so concerned.
“Don’t worry, sir, we wouldn’t let ya fail,” said one of his NCOs, seeing the look on his face. “You actually listened to us, so we’ve got your back. Plus, you’ll know it’s bad if we break out the cribbage board. Hell, we were just playing spades is all.”
Ian smiled at this memory. Sergeant Yon Movis, a squad leader in Sal’s platoon caught sight of Ian in this moment, saw the smile, and assumed that the C.O. was preparing something especially bad for the invaders. He felt reassured as he went back to check on his troopers, verifying their sectors of fire. “We’re gonna kick some ass today, kids,” said Movis. “The ol’ man got a plan.”
While Ian did in fact have a plan, it was not as devious as Movis was assuming. His plan was simple: canalize the enemy into one corridor with obstacles and well-aimed fire, permit them to establish a foothold in that corridor, and then pressure lock the corridor from the bridge. Live captives were what he needed, if they were ever going to get to the bottom of what the hell was going on.
It had been ten minutes since they had heard the sounds of specialized tools cutting into the ship’s hull. No sounds could be heard right now. Each platoon was posted in their battle positions, sealing off the four corridors leading to the hull breach. Sergeant Sasmont had posted motion detectors once the freighter had been seized, and the sensor on the southwest corner was going nuts at the moment. Sasmont nodded to Ian. Their guesses had been on the money.
Ian glanced at the time on his HUD: fifteen minutes had now passed. He mentally put himself in the shoes of his counterpart. The breach team commander would have handed the breach off to the assault team. Commandos, most likely, equipped with state of the art technology that would soon pick up the heat signatures of the defenders. Ian smiled at this thought, since he’d set up about fifty dummy signatures around one corridor to dissuade the invaders not to use it. And if they did, they’d just give away their position by firing.
Sasmont flashed two fingers. The sensor in the second corridor had gone off. There would be a point team, exploring out the corridor, thought Ian. They’d be checking for mines and booby traps. They’d find a few, just to lend a sense of superiority and overconfidence. And to pull them in deeper. Sasmont flashed five fingers. Sensor five, in the middle of the second corridor had gone off. This was Ian’s trigger. He turned to Looper.
“Seal corridor two in two mikes.”
Looper crept off to the bridge.
Suddenly, the sound of gunfire erupted from corridor two. This would be the point team running into 2nd Squad of 3rd Platoon – Corporal Lia Pike’s five troopers. Ian had given the directions as clearly as he could: open fire when you first see them, get their heads down, disengage in pairs, everyone comes back. Corporal Pike had repeated it back. Her eyes dark with excitement.
Scrambling boots now and here came the first pair of troopers, tumbling out of the corridor and taking covering positions at the corners, crouched low.
“One up!” one of them yelled. More firing, the sound of bullets ricocheting. Huh, thought Ian, They’re using ballistics instead of energy weapons. They want to keep the ship intact. He shoved the thought away as the second pair of troopers emerged, taking high cover over their comrades. “Two up!”
More firing, the sound of a heavy gun, and bullets smacked and pinged off the surface of the corridor. They were very close. Come ON, thought Ian, Get the hell outta there. More heavy gunfire. Ian had his hand up, eagerly watched by the weapons team from 2nd Platoon, who were to lay down some murderous fire as soon as his hand dropped. But Ian wanted to give Pike every change to get out of there. He glanced at the time. Pike had about ten seconds before they sealed the corridor off completely.
“Sh*t,” he breathed. Running feet now, and then a scrabbling of boots on the hard surface and a crash as Pike landed facedown, through the doorway, hauling the bleeding body of Private Arvan Jones. She was followed closely by an attacker, lunging through, heavily armored and wielding a short axe, the type used for close-in spaceship boarding actions. He was on Pike’s back in an instant, axe raised for the kill.
Ian’s hand had fallen the second that he spotted the prostrate forms of his troopers and the heavy gun open up, tearing the attacker into three distinct pieces. Shards of body armor and bone filled the air for a few seconds until the gun went silent as the blast-proof door slowly raised out of the floor to seal the corridor off. Pike and Jones were covered in blood. Ian couldn’t be sure whose.
“Doc!” he yelled.
“Sir, right here, chill,” said Sellers, already getting Pike’s vitals. “She’s good.”
“I’m good, sir,” said Pike, clearing blood off her helmet and trying to sit up. “But I don’t think Jones is.” Sellers was already at work on the young man, pierced with multiple bullet wounds.
“Gotta get a MEDEVAC back to Essex” grunted Sellers, glancing at Ian. Ian nodded.
“Not till we get secure air,” said Ian. Looper was at his side. Grinning like an idiot.
“What the hell, Loop,” said Ian, exasperated.
“Got ‘em all, sir,” said Looper.
“ALL?” asked Ian. “Define all.” Looper grinned again until he saw the bloody bodies, faltered, and then said, “Well, Sergeant Sasmont did a scan and the only heat signatures are all locked in this corridor, and we’re observing them on camera and they’re pretty pissed.”
“That’s all well and good but you know they can cloak their heat signatures, and those guys are gonna get pretty frosty with explosives here in a minute,” barked Ian. “Stennerly, run a sweep with your platoon! Crice, grab the snipers and heavy weapons from HQ again and cover this corridor. Sal…stand by to go hand to hand, this could get ugly if these guys don’t want to come quietly.”
Sal grinned. “No offense, sir, but I’m really hoping they don’t go along with your plan.”
Ian turned and ran the twenty paces back up to the bridge. Looper held a commlink out to him.
“This will get the audio link to corridor two, sir,” he said. “Sorry for earlier.”
“Shake it off, Loop,” said Ian. He took a deep breath. Now or never. He looked at the video feed from the corridor. The attackers – he counted thirty, at least – were pounding on the sides with breaching tools and he thought he saw someone prepping some explosives. He also saw a lot of oxygen masks had been removed. Possibly so that their owners could give more expression to their rage. They were properly trapped. For now.
“Do any of you speak english.” Ian’s voice boomed around the corridor. Three enemies slowly raised their hands.
“Good,” said Ian, hoping that his voice didn’t betray his nervousness. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Ian Tollinger, 17th Cavalry Regiment, U.S. Army.” He ignored Looper’s look of amused astonishment and continued. “I’ve got three troops of U.S. cavalry in here, and they really don’t feel kindly to you. However, if you drop your weapons and come peaceably, we can come to an agreement.” Ian saw whispering from the commandos. He turned to Looper.
“Tell Essex to do it now,” said Ian. “I don’t like being a liar.” Looper ran to the window and signalled to Essex, which replied with an affirmative. Eight of her fighters arced around the far side, knocked out the two Russian escort fighters and turned their troop transport into space dust. The blast was evidently heard by the prisoners in the corridor, as they had begun yelling frantically.
“I’ve just neutralized your ship,” said Ian. “You’re stuck here. You can either keep prepping that charge, which is going to result in me cutting your little force to bits, or you can be smart and spend some time in a military brig, where at least you’re not going to end up bleeding out on the deck of some space junk.” This seemed to get the attention of several of the leaders, who began arguing vigorously. Work also kept going with the charge, Ian noted. He also noted that the men setting it had no masks on.
“You really don’t want to be setting that charge,” warned Ian. He was ignored.
Ian looked at Looper. “This feels like murder,” he said. Looper shrugged. First Sergeant Li spoke up: “Sir, if they blow that charge, some of our folks are gonna die trying to scrounge these assholes out of the corners of this freighter. You gave them fair terms.” Ian nodded. He placed his hand over the switch that would drain the corridor of oxygen. Then he paused.
“Looper, run to Crice and tell her ‘Fish in a Barrel, drop one.’ She’ll know what it means.” Looper disappeared and Ian stared at the screen again. They seemed to be having a hard time finding initiators for the charge. Within thirty seconds, Looper was running back and there was a simultaneous crack. On the screen, they watched as the man leaning over the charge fell dead from a sniper’s bullet.
“Keep working on that charge and I’m going to keep taking out your men,” Ian said into the commlink. The enemy stared at the dead man, then down the hallway, where Ian knew they could just see the blast door lowered a few inches and the sniper rifle barrel peeking over it. There was a hurried discussion. Then the weapons dropped. Hands went skywards.
“Good choice,” said Ian, breathing again. “Top, get Sal to round those guys up. Loop, have Essex begin a MEDEVAC for Jones and whichever of the enemy need it. Tell ‘em to get a brig ready. And see if they’ve got new COMSEC for us.” Looper ran off.
Ian leaned on the bridge control panel in relief. He wanted to rest. But not until he figured out what in the hell was going on.
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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.