Finding Space – Chapter Sixteen

“Well this couldn’t have worked out better, Rislen,” said the admiral, chuckling. Ian’s blood went cold – then hot. Rislen. General Rislen Zaros was known all too well in the Army community. As a colonel, he’d led the massacre of an entire US Army scout platoon that had been overrun and had surrendered. No one survived. Word was that the GCRPCL had promoted him for it. And here he was, chumming it up with a full admiral of the US Navy. And Blut Bilder. Ian’s brain could not comprehend this.

The admiral was shaking hands with the guards, with no sense of irony that he was shaking hands with the enemy – when suddenly a deep chill went right down Ian’s spine. These weren’t mercs. Nor were the GCRPCL goons. These were…SEALs. Navy SEALs. Jesus, what the hell have I gotten into, thought Ian, eyeing them all again. Yes, that had to be the case. He’d done one or two ops where they’d been around, and they had the same movements, same gait, same calm assurance of being able to kill quickly and without remorse. 

Stennerly was still breathing heavily, still staring at Bilder. The admiral turned to Bilder.

“Well, Agent Bilder, are these the ones?” he asked, in a hearty, deep voice that Ian definitely recognized from somewhere. “Can you positively ID them for us?” 

“That’s them, sir,” muttered Bilder, eyeing Stennerly as though she were an unchained attack dog with the ability to rip his throat out. Which, Ian thought, was a fair assessment of an unfettered Bekka Stennerly. The admiral stepped forward, closer to Ian, searching his face with wide eyes. His blue armor wasn’t even in battle configuration; Ian recognized it as the Navy’s dress uniform. His mind went back to the wounded Paul Krian….to Rafario…surely they couldn’t be in on this.

“Well, lieutenant,” said the admiral, putting all the disdain that he could into the title. “Guess this about the end of the proverbial road for you, in case you hadn’t already realized that.” Ian stared back into those grey eyes. There was just no way this could be for real. “You realize, of course, who I am?” asked the admiral. Ian shook his head.

“Admiral Graves, of course,” he said, as if affronted. “C’mon, kid, you’ve seen me all over the news, across my ships. Hell, you’ve spent the last few weeks basically being a Marine for me. And believe me, that footage you fed back from that downed frigate, that played over great back on earth. I had Congress literally throwing money at me for new ships, something that in my 38 years in uniform I have never seen.” Ian’s jaw grew slack. His mouth was dry.

“You’re the Navy Chief of Staff, aren’t you,” he said. Graves smiled, but not with his eyes.

“Catching on quickly, huh,” he grumbled. “Good thing it took you this long. Wasn’t sure we were going to be able to pull this off. But luckily, you did us the favor of taking a walk in the woods. As soon as that came in over comms, everything else was just too easy. And now you’ll be another blip in the news cycle – heroic Army commander dies in fierce combat with our inhuman enemies who leave barely anything for mortuary affairs to clean up.” 

Eddie Li was breathing heavily. 

“Sir…” he gritted out, as if the word was wrung from him. “Are you saying all this fighting has been…a sham? I lost damned good troopers out there!” Admiral Graves leered at him. 

“Rislen, observe a genuine piece of Americana,” he said, turning to Zaros. “This is what will carry us forward despite everything that your people throw at us. Well, it would have, if it were not for our delightful friends here.” He gestured at the alien troops, who glanced at him with heavy eyes full of disdain. Ian got the distinct impression that they had a hatred for the admiral that outweighed their hatred for him. And he had killed…hundreds, of them, by now. A realization flashed across his mind: they were fighters, and saw him as a fighter, too. Graves and Zaros they saw as something to be disdained. Maybe….maybe there’s something here.

“Tollinger,” said Graves, turning back to him. “Thank you for your work in enlarging this war – for discovering this race” – gesturing again at the warriors – “that is such a convenient enemy. Without them, Rislen and I would have been left to pretend to hack at each other, and you know how humans are: at the end of the day, they don’t like it when humans are fighting humans out in space. Not a good story. But now, with these…well, it’s even better than planned. We managed to be able to communicate with them just after you made contact with them. Quite remarkable, really. And it’s all because of the work of a scientist that I think you might know. Dr. Savage? Jeanette Savage?”

Ian paled. His fists were already up before he knew what he was doing, but like Stennerly, he was shocked down to his knees. His forehead was beaded with sweat, his brain was in a rage, he just knew that he had to kill Graves. He just had to. He looked up, as the admiral smiled down on him. This was the killing blow, and they both knew it. When the SEAL would shoot Ian in the back of the head, he would already be dead from this.

“Admiral, as delightful as this, don’t we have work to do,” rasped Rislen, clearly bored. Most of his interactions involved shooting people, not talking to them. And he was obviously put out that no one had been shot yet. Graves collected himself and drew back from Ian. 

“We’re done here,” he said, curtly. To the SEALs: “Go ahead and kill them as soon as we’re gone. Let them do the work, if you want to.” He jerked his thumb at the stock-still creatures who were eyeing him with disgust. “Let’s go, Agent Bilder, let’s go get you that medal for valor and all that.” They were off in an instant, the shuttle scooting up and into atmo.

Ian watched them ascend and then turned. 

“Look, guys, you have to realize how fucked up this is,” he said to the closest SEAL. He glanced around at all of them. “Seriously? You’re going to kill us? We’re Americans for shit’s sake!” The closest SEAL shrugged.

“Not the first, not the last,” it said in the same clipped tones. And Ian suddenly realized that the SEAL program encompassed all types these days. Special ops in space required even more troops than special ops on earth, so recruiting was…generous. So that was that. The SEALs raised their weapons, clearly not about to let aliens do their work for them. Ian glanced at the others. Stennerly and Li gave him the same look. 

“Fuckit,” he said. Turning, he flung himself at the nearest enemy, even as his cuffs shocked his body into an immobile mass. It didn’t matter, because he was on top of the SEAL now, his weight pushing the fighter over, catching him off guard. Through stinging pain, Ian focused on pushing his cuffs onto the SEAL’s neck – they connected. The shock came again and Ian practically lost consciousness. But the SEAL caught it right to his neck, right where his comms link and life support connected from the torso to the helmet. Both shorted out completely, cutting off airflow and oxygen. The SEAL coughed, jerked, spasmed, and released his hold on Ian, who rose to do the same to the others. But he saw that his team was already doing the same thing – that Li somehow had his restraints off, and had seized a weapon. 

It was all over in seconds. Li quickly shot down three SEALs that had gunned down the three troopers who Ian didn’t know. The rest were all writhing in agony, suffocating. Li grabbed the restraint release off the belt of the nearest one, not even bothering to give notice to the suffering, and released everyone else. Ian grabbed up a weapon and turned to fight the aliens – who had gone. 

“Must have gone right into the ground as soon as the fight started,” said Stennerly. “Probably didn’t want to deal with us.”

“I dunno,” muttered Ian. “Something gives me the idea that they aren’t too keen on fighting us. I don’t think we were the only ones who realized that they had been lied to, today.”

They did what they could for the three troopers: Specialists Roberts, Livorno, and Jaurez. But they were either already dead, or on the way there. Stennerly and Doc Sellers stayed with each one until they died. Sellers beat the ground with his fist. There was nothing he could do without his equipment or without being able to send them back to the squadron aid station. Stennerly stood, eyes bright with tears and anger. 

“I am going to get my hands on Blut Bilder’s neck,” she said, fiercely. “And I won’t stop until I see the very last spark of life leave his worthless body.”

“That could be a bit of a problem,” said Eddie Li, calmly, looking about them. “Seeing as we’ve no idea where we are.” 

“Yeah, but we can explore our way back,” said Sasmont, pointing at the vehicles. “We can all fit into one.”

“I’m driving,” said Looper at once.

“The hell you are,” said Li, good nature returning briefly to his voice. “But Sasmont is right. We can load up and be back with the troop in a few hours, in all probability. Odds are they’ve got people out looking for us already. What d’you think, sir?” Ian was stock-still, staring up into the atmo. He paused for a long moment.

“No,” he eventually said. “No, we can’t do that. We go back, they know they failed. They know we know. And next time, they kill the whole troop.” Quiet spread around the little glade. Tall trees swayed slightly in what Ian believed was a breeze. He could never be quite sure on these planets.

“Hate to say it, but the sir is right,” said Stennerly, cocking her head to the side and looking at each of them in turn, as if weighing them up. “We can’t go back.”

“Sooooooo…” said Looper. “Uh, if we don’t go back, what do we do? Where do we go?” Ian glanced at Li. Li met his gaze, and nodded.

“We blow ’em up,” muttered Sasmont, practically under his breath, tinkering with one of the vehicles. Li jerked his head towards the diligent sapper.

“He reads my mind sometimes.”

“Yeah, I’m beginning to think that’s got to be our way,” said Ian, slowly. “To save our troop…hell, to save everything we’ve got, we have to take down these assholes. I don’t know what’s going on, really, but this is bigger than all of us. It’s…well, it’s why we joined up, isn’t it? To protect? And this guy just basically declared war on all of us.” They all looked at each other.

“I can’t order you to come with me,” added Ian, hastily.

“You don’t have to,” said Li. 

“You’d have to order us to stay here,” added Sellers.

“Let’s go bag us an admiral,” said Stennerly, a fierce grin on her face.

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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.

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