Two shots. Three. Six more, in quick succession. Ian woke with a start. Sharp cracks and deep echoes twanged in his ears, shaking him awake and out of his hammock. Even in sleep, he’d noted the familiar pattern of sounds that overlaid his subconscious. Nine shots in total. The bay was shrouded in complete darkness. And then he remembered: they weren’t in the bay anymore.
Momentary panic as he tried to recall the events of the last two weeks, the flight out to L-9, the shock of seeing actual trees, and then the fighting in and amongst the same trees. Tall, tall trees, shooting up beyond almost his ability to see, head thrown back and eyes squinted. Clumps of trees forming thick canopies with lush undergrowth beneath. They’d been perfect ambush locations. The aliens had nailed them right off. So it was back to the blast and shoot, blast and shoot nightmare. Once, during a firefight, when someone had told him the aliens were pulling back, he’d suddenly been struck that he was the alien here. He hadn’t slept well since then.
Until last night, that is. He’d been sunk down deep into a primeval sleep, deeper than his dreams dared to follow him. Just a blank space. Broken by this sudden uproar. Guns were going into action and his comms were alive with chatter. Li was calmly assessing the situation, donning his gear and approving or denying calls for indirect fire as they came in. Ian had yet to see the man be unsettled by anything they encountered.
Within 15 minutes, it was over. Just a brief firefight, no casualties. A patrol went out and found two human corpses – no identification on them. They were dumped in the sandy pit where the troop’s casualty holding area was placed. Li glanced at them, glanced at Ian, shrugged, and went back to his business of the day. It was light now, no point in trying to go back to sleep. Ian perched on an empty resupply pod, looking down at them, his helmeted chin on his hands. Thinking. No forms of ID. Basic weapons and armor, generic stuff that was commonly found out here on the edge of Deep. Their faces were barely recognizable as faces from the wounds they’d received. Both had been hit by mortar fire, and Ian made a mental note that they needed to reserve their precious mortar rounds for larger firefights. He’d have to talk to the platoon leadership about that.
So much to talk to them about. So much to do. So little time. He scrunched up his face as he tried to remember the last time the troop had its full complement of officers and NCOs. Time seemed to him to be a closed loop that centered around landing and shooting, landing and shooting. Rinse and repeat. He took a deep breath and stared up to where he imagined the horizon might be if the entire planet wasn’t covered in trees. He had a brief momentary flashback of reading about war on earth, how a British officer arrived to the North American continent in the 1760s took one look at the forested wilderness and declared “I do not see how one can make war in such a country.” Ian’s gaze took in the towering tan and olive-colored trunks, the ochre leaves. He couldn’t smell much through his facemask and air filtration system beyond stale breath and body odor, but he imagined that this place has its own distinct smell. Probably stank, he thought ruefully. Maybe of Ewoks.
He also thought about how much he’d really love to brush his teeth properly. And a shower. That would be good, too. The hot jets of water would help take his mind off the conundrum presented by these dead humans. A comms check with squadron revealed that every troop was finding this mixture of casualties: alien and human. And no one could figure out yet I’d they were somehow working together.
“Would be pretty incredible if they were,” mused Stennerly over the intercom, once they’d all downloaded the intelligence brief. “If someone could figure out how to communicate with those walking murder assholes – “
“Sorry, wait, ‘murder assholes?'” interjected Crice. “That’s a new one, even for me.” Stennerly shrugged, even though no one could see her since she was in an outpost – but they all sensed it.
“Hey, if the armor fits,” she said.
“But there’s a problem with that assumption of supremacy,” came the sleepy voice of Sal, who was supposed to be asleep right now and was actively trying to get that way in a hammock strung between two massive trunks. “Because we keep killing them.”
“Can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but the LT has a point,” said Li.
“Better societal communication has nothing to do with battlefield competency,” returned Stennerly, stung to anger. “They might still be working things out, or negotiating, or refining tactics. Superiority doesn’t lie in race, it lies with who’s got the better training.” Ian watched a flock of…birds? Animals? Definitely some sort of an animal. The universe was showing life, more and more now. Brown wings flapped and whirled and suddenly the flock vanished into the trees again. He shook his head. This new life would’ve shocked him just a short time ago. Now… now it was just another day. And another day without answers. Anyone who goes exploring galaxies should never expect peace and tranquility Ian reminded himself. But it would be really great to know a little bit more of what’s happening here.
He checked the intelligence brief again. Every unit in the area was experiencing attacks like this. Coordinated and probing. As if there was something on the other side just testing to see what was there. Something that was massive, larger than he could even comprehend; something that was knocking out entire supply convoys of inter-planetary freighters. Something that was just pushing on the edge of his consciousness to make itself known. He shook himself, trying to untangle the threads. Somehow – Deep Space, Jeanette, Bilder, the GCRCPL, these damned subterranean aliens – somehow, they were linked all together in his brain. He felt a stress headache coming on and popped an anti-stress injector on his arm – a rare luxury these days. Within seconds, complete relaxation flooded over his body, loosening his muscles, and permitting him to breathe again. Well he thought, this is as good a spot as any to get some answers. I’m a scout. Time to go scouting.
It was later that evening as Ian led a small patrol out from the troop’s assembly area, which had now become the site of the squadron’s forward area. It was already beginning to fill up with gear and equipment. Ian wanted some peace and quiet, and so he went looking for a fight.
Most of the members of the patrol were his old platoon-mates: Li, Stennerly, Sasmont, Looper, Doc Sellers, and three other troopers Ian could never remember the name of. Stennerly hand picked them, so they had to have been okay. The perpetual twilight on L-9 meant that they had a perfect patrolling environment. Sure, it was an advantage to the enemy, too, but the enemy didn’t have long range scanners. Or so Ian hoped. It helped his brain for him to begin to stretch out, long strides getting his blood pumping. This is what he’d missed, these long walks, time to clear his head. As commander, it was just one problem after another. Here, you could let yourself go free and…
Walk right into a goddam minefield he breathed, as Sasmont stopped them all dead with the universal callsign of “mines” across their HUDs.
“Well for s–t’s sake,” said Stennerly, in aggrieved tones. “This is just ridiculous.”
“So *this* is where I die,” said Sellers, looking at the trees around them. “Sorta pictured something more homey.”
“Dude, you joined the cav,” said Looper. “Comes with the territory. Dad pretty much prophesied that I’d die here in the cav. Well, he prophesied a lotta things, really. And by prophesied, I mean –“
“Would you all just chill and maybe pull security so that I can do my damn job?” rasped Sasmont. Ian glanced over to where the sapper was calmly sending a small drone out over every mine and hitting it with an energy pulse.
“Uh, Sasmont, that seems…” began Ian.
“Dangerous?” asked Sasmot. “Yeah, that’s how I feel every time you all take me on some crazy scouting adventure, but after a while, I learn to trust that you’ll bring me back alive. And yeah, while this isn’t exactly doctrine, it does the trick.” He paused, smiled, looked at Ian. “And I haven’t blown up yet!”
“Is that the sapper motto or something?” asked Ian.
“No, it’s ‘if something bad is happening, wait a second, something worse will come along,'” muttered Li. Ian stared at him in surprise.
“You were a sapper?” he asked. Li just nodded, and pointed up into the foliage, where light could be seen, far up into the branches. And there, in their scanners, were weapons pointing down at them. And some of those holding them were human, and some were not.
“Well, balls,” said Stennerly.
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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.