There were forty-two prisoners at final count, including the wounded. Doc was already treating the wounded as 3rd Platoon scoured the rest of the ship for any other boarders who might have escaped. Transports were coming over from Essex, carrying additional troops and more sensor equipment for hull scans. COMSEC was established and so information was coming in thick and fast.
For once, Ian wasn’t needed. Things just seemed to be happening all around him. He could see more and more ships around them, outside, in the infinity of space. U.S. craft, mostly. And there were officers. Many officers. Many of whom wanted to talk to him, and most did. He gave his report as best he could be he was filled with an overwhelming sense of weariness.
Eventually he had found a cubby, gave orders to Looper to shoot anyone who tried to wake him up, and crashed in a corner. First Sergeant Li and Sergeant Stennerly found him here. Looper nervously looked and them and then glanced at Ian’s now snoring form. Li smiled.
“It’s okay, Looper, you won’t have to shoot us,” he said.
“How did you know that’s what he said, Top?” asked Looper. Li grinned.
“It’s what every tired officer says,” chuckled Li. “They are like small children when they get tired.” He glanced down at his sleeping commander. “But hell, I guess this kid’s okay.”
“He’s pretty f***ing good,” said Stennerly. “Wonder what he’s dreaming about?” All three stared at him.
But Ian was no longer in this system. His bone-deep sleep was speeding him far across the stars, far away to where his heart was unconsciously drawing him. Far away to her.
She was waiting for him. She always was, it seemed. The opposite of real life. But here, in his dreams, suffused in a golden yellow light, she sat. She was wearing what she normally wore. Not the evening gowns from the academy dances. Not even the crisp uniform of headquarters staff, where she’d been repeatedly assigned. No, now she wore her blazing orange jacket over her worn and beat-up armor. Her helmet was down at her feet. She was lounging back, staring up at the stars. Ian couldn’t make out what she was slouching on. Maybe it was a cloud, but he couldn’t tell.
She glanced at him. Her eyes were a deep hazel. Penetrating. Reddish-brown hair was tiedup into a messy knot, slips of it tucked behind her ears. He mentally nodded. This checked out. This was her. And yet…
“You’re thinking there’s a distance,” she said, looking up again, head resting on interlocked hands behind her. “You’re thinking that I’m not really here.”
“Am I wrong?” he asked.
“You’re bitter, Ian,” she said, almost reproachfully.
“Of course I am!” He was suddenly angry. “I go all across space searching for you! I don’t even know who I am anymore! The only thing I want, the only thing I desire is you! And you’re leaving me cryptic messages saying that you think you love me, and what the hell am I supposed to do with that?” He was breathing heavily, could even feel – dreamlike – the rage coursing through him.
She was still looking up, and he felt unseen, ghostlike. But suddenly she was up and how, he didn’t know, she was so close to him that he could feel her breath on his neck as she looked up at him.
“I’m running,” she breathed. Lips were closer. Ian could smell her. It was an exhilarating and comforting scent, all at once. “But not from you. Never from you.” She pulled herself into him and he felt her lips search out his own, entwining them, her hands now in his own as she lifted herself to him.
His hands ran up her sides, caressing every curve, resting on her neck and then were deep into her hair when they finally got him awake.
Looper dodged the first punch but the second one felled him with a thud.
“Battalion commander wants you,” he wheezed. Ian had got him right in the stomach.
“Battalion commander can f**k off,” muttered Ian, still trying to realize that her scent was no longer in his nostrils. He wanted to weep. She had been right there, so close, so real, so imminent…and now. Looper.
“I can, can I?” said Major Ingram from the door. Ian started and looked up.
“Oh sh*t, ma’am,” he exclaimed, trying to get to his feet.
“Chill out, Ian,” she said, walking in. “I’m just messing with you. Came to see what you needed.”
“Ma’am, I…” he paused. What he needed. What he needed could not be found in a single Army supply listing. But he knew she was aware of that. He shook himself. Stretched his jaw, sore from riding on his armor while he slept.
“I could really use an XO, ma’am,” he said. “Hard doing it all between the first sergeant and myself. Could use some platoon leaders, too. That would make life a little easier. Or not,” he said, after a pause, remembering his own performance. “But, yeah, we could use a refit. As you know. Got a lot of vacancies.”
“I’d agree,” she said, leaning against the bulkhead. “But.”
Ian groaned. “Why does the Army always qualify every single sentence? Why can’t it be easy?”
“If it were easy, anyone could do it,” retorted Igram.
“Haven’t heard that line since the Academy,” he shot back. She stiffened.
“There’s no reason to be a prick about it.”
“My head hurts.”
“And how the hell do you think mine feels?” she demanded, voice rising. I’ve got you, plus three other headaches. You think you were the only mission happening in the last 24 hours? I’ve got one other abandoned freighter to deal with and one whole troop which, so help me, I cannot find. Apparently the cavalry is not very good at finding itself. So, yeah, I’ve got a headache, too.”
Ian was silent. He’d forgotten about everyone else out there. All those other units, those lives, those stories. Everyone trying to find themselves or someone else or their stuff or someone else’s stuff. Just trying to live. And in this world, trying to live took some effort. He glanced up at Major Ingram. She looked…worn. When she was his commander, he’d noted that she sometimes seemed stretched too thin. Now…it was like only part of her was here.
Later on, after he’d apologized and they’d rapidly developed a plan for B Troop to refit, Ian sat with Eddie Li.
“She’s all different, top,” said Ian, pausing in the middle of a supply requisition form. “Harder. But less…present.”
“As if you haven’t changed at all,” said Li, going over his kit. It was something that he did at the end of every day. Ian had watched him time and again, go over his ammunition loadout, his grenades, spare batteries, water, food, medkit, commo systems. Checking and rechecking everything. Li saw that Ian was watching him, and rocked back on his heels.
“It’s like this rig, sir,” he said, gesturing at his gear. “It’s well-made. Paid top dollar for a lot of this stuff. Some of it, well, maybe I got it off of someone who needed it a little less than I did. Or rather, their time for needing it was gone.” He rubbed grease off one of the commlinks. Then he glanced at Ian out of the corner of his eye. “Point is, this is good s**t. But even though it’s good equipment, I still have to check it. Double check it. Clean it. Repair it. Keep it in good order. Now, sir. You’re good s**t. But when was the last time you took some time to yourself?”
“Hey, if it comes to that, what about you?” replied Ian. Li smiled.
“Every good NCO knows to take a break. The very good NCOs know how to do it without officers even noticing.” Ian dissolved into exhausted laughter, which infected Li to a brief chuckle.
“But seriously, sir, you need a f**kin break.”
“Yeah, I know, but so do they,” said Ian, gesturing vaguely to where most of the troop was racked out in a few bays in Essex. Lumps and sacks of humanity, the forms of the tired troopers simply draped over what was available. “Their whole lives have changed, the world has changed! Nothing makes sense anymore!”
Li looked at him with a steady gaze. “It’s what we joined for, no? What we expect?”
“You expected aliens, first sergeant?” Ian asked, eyebrows raised.
“Sir, I enlisted with the full expectation of seeing aliens,” laughed Li. “I would’ve felt cheated if I’d never seen any. But…” He paused. Looked up. “The one single surprise to me is that out here, in all this vast mess of space, where it’s hard enough just to breathe, let alone live, you’ve got all these people who just want to make life s**t for everyone else. Maybe I’m not so much as surprised as disappointed, but every time I see it, it pisses me right off.” Ian nodded.
“I always thought we’d be out protecting settlements from the elements, bringing in supplies, maybe keeping off a few bad elements. Didn’t expect to be fighting pirates, raiders, not to mention nations. And now, aliens.” He shrugged, sat down on a jumpseat that he pulled down from its place on the wall, leaning back into it and propping his feet up on his gear. Li gave a silent shrug as well. It was the way. Things happened, and you reacted to them. To react too much would be spend your energy before you needed it.
To Ian’s surprise, nothing happened for several days, despite what Major Ingram had said. There were three days of peace, glorious peace, where they got a full resupply of food, water, and ammo. Looper got a refit of his comms gear from a grateful sailor on Essex. The troop slept. It ate. It slept again. A glorious cycle, which – for the young – restores all vitality as if it were magic.
For Ian, it was another matter. Three days of quiet left him unnerved.
“What in the everloving hell is going on?” he muttered aloud, hands in his pockets, pacing back and forth across the bay. Li, Crice, Sal, and Stennerly were all playing cards. Sal was losing, badly, but his temperament never seemed to change.
“I’m filling up the first sergeant fund with the gracious gifts from Lieutenant Sal, sir,” replied Li, without looking up.
“I thought we said no gambling,” said Ian, irritably.
“We also said no alien attacks,” said Stennerly.
“And that the Convention of Jupiter forbade attacks by state actors on other state actors in space,” rumbled Sal.
“What we’re saying is,” said Crice, dealing a hand, “is that these are unparalleled times.”
“Which call for unparalleled measures,” said Stennerly, upping the ante right off the bat. “And sir, it’s not like we’re actually gambling with privates or something.”
“Or like we can ever spend the money anywhere,” said Crice.
“Fine, fine, forget I asked,” muttered Ian. He continued to pace, sometimes casting a glance out the small windows towards the flagship, where the Russian prisoners were being held. As well as Bilder. He’d been shuffled off in shackles. The last Ian had seen of him was when they’d been received from the transport. A detachment of heavily armed Marines had taken custody of Bilder and whisked him away. Ian had watched Stennerly flip the traitor off as he was marched past her. Not a muscle moved on Bilder’s face; perhaps he knew it was all over for him.
But that had been three days ago. And after the briefings, debriefings, and some more briefings, it was as if everyone up top had completely forgotten about B Troop. Ian voiced this thought now. Sal said that he liked it that way. Crice grunted and said that she wished she had a lieutenant to do all her paperwork for her and make smartass remarks. Sal put his cards down and glared at her, but was distracted when Li played a hand that Sal could actually beat. Only to lose to Stennerly, who cleaned the table.
Ian sighed and leaned against the bulkhead, feeling the cold metal against the side of his head. He glanced at his troops. Most seemed to be playing cards, some were watching movies – old ones, by the look of them – on some projectors. All were active, he noted. If they didn’t get a mission soon, it would be time to start a training regimen. Now would be the time to work on their ship boarding skills, Ian thought. They’d been sloppy back in the freighter. And he needed more troops; he should check the replacement lists.
He paced back, trying to bury the unsettling feeling that something was very wrong. Trying, but not succeeding. Because in all of this, he’d heard nothing about Bilder. Nothing about the prisoners he’d taken. Was the Captain Sorosky in that group? Had he – or her – been killed in the fighting? Where were the supplies? Why had they been baited in so carefully? Why *his* troop specifically? His feet methodically turned and led him back and forth, boots creaking slightly over the metal slats that covered the decking.
Something has to happen soon, thought Ian, or I’m going to start driving my troops crazy.
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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.