Finding Space – Chapter Seventeen

As much as Ian hated to admit it, operating outside the system was a lot more fun than operating inside the system. Granted, there were new challenges – it was a lot more difficult to move around inside Allied zones without clearances. However, once Looper was able to reverse engineer some of the comms equipment from the SEALs’ transports, things got a lot easier.

“Never realized how little the spec ops guys needed in the way of clearance codes,” said Ian from the passenger seat, after having been waved through yet another checkpoint. Looper’s trick had also allowed them to transmit the success signal that would mean Admiral Graves wouldn’t come hunting for them. To complete the appearance, they had all donned the fallen SEALs’ black and blue armor and equipment – or, as much as they could, given that they had damaged or destroyed a lot of it. 

“I guess it’s good that these guys are known for not being exactly uniform,” drawled Li, examining his mis-matched counterparts, as their transport rumbled past a supply dump that was being established at the main insertion site on the planet. Ian realized with a slight pang that it was his troop that had secured this site. He tried to push them out of his head, tried to focus on the mission at hand. 

“Oh shit…” said Sasmont, and hopped down from the turret. “Uh, sir, first sergeant, there’s a checkpoint up ahead and I don’t think we’re gonna clear it so easily.”

“Spec ops?” asked Ian, raising the holoscreen and zooming in. Then he groaned. “It’s Sal. That’s Bravo Troop manning the checkpoint up there.”

“Better hope you’ve got some good, acting, first sergeant,” said Stennerly, half laughing. For the first time since setting off the day before, their transport wasn’t getting the usual treatment of being waved on as soon as the guards saw the distinctive vehicle and armor. Ian felt a surge of pride for his troops – as well as a sense of dread. He was going to have to work hard to bluff his way through this one. 

Li slowly brought the transport to a halt. Ian waited to see what Sal would do. With two troopers covering both sides of the vehicle, Sal waved for Ian to dismount. That just wouldn’t do. Sal knew his movements all too well. Instead, Ian imperiously beckoned Sal over, thinking just how much that would irk Sal. He was right. The lieutenant banged angrily on the hull, and Ian cracked the door.

“Clearance code, asshole,” said Sal, bitterly, looking up at the forbidding figure in mottled gray-blue armor. Ian said nothing, but raised his armored forearm, to where Sal could clearly see the trident – the insignia for the Navy’s premier special operations organization. Sal stared at it for a few seconds, then looked back up. “As I said: clearance code.” 

Looper leaned forward from the back and wordlessly handed Ian his tablet. 

“Should be the latest,” he whispered. Ian took it from him and shoved it at Sal, putting as much arrogance into the action as he could. Sal didn’t even bother taking it from him, he just looked at the code and then looked back at Ian. 

“Your code’s good,” he said. Then paused. “Asshole,” he added. Without another word he turned and walked back to his post, waving the troopers to stand down. Ian could see Crice watching them, as well, with other members of the troops moving cargo and equipment sullenly into a weighting light freighter.

“Sal and Crice are in charge now,” said Li, as he began to ease the transport forward once Ian had pulled the heavy door shut with a hissing of air as the cabin pressurized once again. Ian nodded, suppressing the lump in his throat as he looked at his troopers. Everything he’d been taught, everything he’d trained for told him that his spot was with them – no matter what. But here he was, derelict in his duty. Abandoning his post of command in a time of active hostilities. Ian was foggy on the laws of war and all that, but was pretty sure this was generally frowned upon.

“Sir,” said Li, breaking Ian out of his reverie. “They’re gonna be alright. They’ve got good leaders. Crice and Sal know what they’re doing, they won’t let anything happen to them.” 

“I know,” said Ian, “but it still doesn’t feel right.”

“Would feel worse going back and knowing that we’d all get sacrificed in a cover-up,” said Stennerly. “I’ll feel a lot better once I’m crushing Bilder’s windpipe.”

“Sergeant, did anyone ever tell you that you’re frankly terrifying,” said Looper, glancing over at her. “Like, straight scare me shitless sometimes.” Bekka grinned.

“Loop, that’s one of the nicest things that anyone has ever said to me,” she replied. “I do what I can, you know. And I guess it’s sort of been a learned survival technique over the years. People don’t mess with you if they know that the consequence is going to be extreme physical violence.”

“That should be the title of your biography,” said Ian, from the front, laughing.

“Transport ahead, sir!” barked Sasmont from the turret. “Looks like the one we ID’d from the manifest Looper found. Should be able to get us into Fleet atmo and on board the flagship.”

“You really think this will work?” asked Sellars, who had been ransacking their vehicle for any medical supplies that he could get his hands on.

“What’s our other option?” replied Looper, double checking the access cards that he pulled off the dead SEALs. 

“I guess we could always shoot our way in,” considered Looper, thoughtfully. “Always works in the movies, ya know. You get that one dead-on shot that disables the door or whatever, and the plucky little crew runs in and destroys the Death Star or something.”

“You did not just refer to us as ‘plucky,’” said Bekka.

“Everyone just shut up and let Loop do his damn job,” barked Li from the front. They were quiet as Looper patched into the network. All they could hear were his fingers furiously moving over the keys, as well as quiet curses. Ian looked out over the massive marshalling yard of ships, coming and going. Freighters, transports, and pods were all stacked in tightly together, as more and more troops were offloaded on this planet. What the hell are they even fighting Ian caught himself thinking. The gray, black, and blue mass of ships seemed almost farcical to him now; almost as if from a tragic comedy. Which I guess is sort of what my life is now he reflected.

In a matter of minutes, they all came stomping off the transport, each one wearing the “Don’t even think about messing with me” attitude that First Sergeant Li had reminded them was the hallmark of “every SpecOp asshat I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with over my career.” Li was more calm than Ian had ever seen him, and Ian was beginning to think that constant chaos was Eddie’s wheelhouse. In their black and blue armor, faces darkened by the blacked-out face shields, bedecked with a crazy assortment of weaponry, they did indeed seem like people you wouldn’t want to ask too many questions of.

The sailors manning the small pax terminal – nothing more than some tablets on top of crates – that had been set up for transport on and off the planet did little more than glance at their credentials before waving them on. Ian took one last look at the planet, with its soaring trees and magnificent canopy, before ducking into the transport and looking around.

It was a pretty standard U.S. Navy troop transport. Room in the cargo bay for about twenty personnel and their kit. A few storage racks overhead and one pallet space on the ramp for larger supplies or equipment. A short corridor led to the cockpit where the pilot and co-pilot had their seats.

“This is one of the transports that the SEALs came in,” said Looper, patching into the main communications network aboard the transport. “Figured it would lend authenticity if we went back the same way ‘we’ came.” 

“Nice job, Loop,” said Ian, “I’m impressed. I mean, I always knew you were good, but I never suspected you were ‘pull a heist of galactic proportions’ good.”

“Don’t you know where they found Private Looper?” asked Li, from the cockpit, where he was clearly settling into the pilot’s seat even though no one had ever seen him fly anything into atmo before.

“Aw, c’mon, Top, do we have to tell this story?” moaned Looper.

“This was before your time, LT, but we were doing a raid,” continued Li, unabated. “It was on this weird compound that had been marked down as some sort of smuggling operation or separatist movement, or some such thing, I can’t even remember at this point. Anyways, the sappers blow in the front door, three dudes spill out, shooting like madmen, they all get shot the hell up. Meanwhile, Sasmont and I were on the roof, where Sas blew a nice neat hole for us to jump down. I’m the first one through -”

“First sergeant, aren’t you always telling us that platoon sergeants shouldn’t be in the action like that?” asked Stennerly in a peeved tone.

“I was still squad leader then,” said Li, “and I probably shouldn’t have been doing that either. But anyways, I hop in, looking to shoot up anyone I see, and there’s this kid in the corner, stoned out of his mind on God-knows-what, in this absolute disaster of a room. I lower my weapon and take a breath since obviously there’s no threat in here, and then BAM! Stoned kid somehow patches into our comms and starts giving all sorts of crazy orders sounding exactly like the LT! He’d broken through the crypto and had been listening to us the whole time. Took us forever to get everything sorted out, people running here and there, had to send a runner to tell the mortars not to plaster the house as Looper here had called in coordinates on our own location. Well, once we got things sorted, I tossed him in the back of the ship and waited for him to sober up; I didn’t send him off with the other prisoners that we took. Once he got back into his own head, I offered him a choice between spending the rest of his life in some nasty hole or flying around the stars, giving bad guys bad days.”

“Sometimes I wonder which was the better choice,” muttered Looper, as the laughter died down.

“But wait, you’ve been around a good bit,” said Ian. “Shouldn’t you be like a specialist or sergeant now?”

“Funny thing about that,” said Li, innocently, “he’s declined every promotion that came his way.”

“Why’s that, Loop?” asked Ian, turning to him. Looper flushed. 

“Didn’t wanna go serve in some platoon that wouldn’t let me do things my way,” he muttered. “And Sergeant Li – I mean, First Sergeant Li – told me that my ass would be lucky to survive anywhere else for longer than five minutes.”

“Probably pretty accurate assessment,” said Stennerly, examining the cargo racks for anything explosive. “Now, I hate to be the mood-killer in this situation, but does anyone actually know how to fly this thing? First Sergeant, I’m all for your inventive solutions, but, uh, this is space, after all.” All she got in return was a grunt from the front seat.

“I think that’s first sergeant’s way of saying that he’s got this under control,” said Sasmont, strapping himself into one of the jumpseats that lined the walls. 

“Stennerly, get up here,” called Li, “I know you’ve flown once or twice, you can’t keep me fooled.” Stennerly went forward and Ian stood behind them, watching them at the controls. Peering out the window, he could see the space traffic controller giving them the all-clear. Li  glanced back as the engines roared into life and said, “Might want to grab a seat, sir, this could get a tad bumpy.” Ian dropped into a seat as the transport shuddered and thumped under Li’s inexperienced hands.

“Sorry about that!” he called back. “OK, here we go!” In a low rumble, they were in the air, getting higher now, skimming the treetops. Ian glanced out and saw the forested canopy running like a smooth sea almost as far as the eye could see. And then it was gone, as Li punched the accelerator and the craft surged up into the expanding vista of space.

“Whooooeeeee,” breathed Stennerly, glancing over at Li. “Guess you can fly this thing. Might have to get you a spot as a pilot after this is all over.” Li grinned. Ian scanned the horizon, looking at the multitudes of ships of all kind.

“There!” he said, pointing suddenly to a massive frigate, with craft coming and going from it in streams. “That’s gotta be the flagship, it’s bound to be.”

“Well then that’s where we’re going,” said Li, grimly, steering the transport towards the in-bound lane of ships. “Got a plan to get us inside, sir?”

“Yeah, I think so,” said Ian, slowly. “Well, I’ve got three. In two of them, if we fail, we get shot.”

“I don’t like either of those plans,” said Stennerly. “I like it when we’re shooting other people. What’s this third plan of yours?”

“In the third plan,” said Ian, motioning to the emergency jetpacks on the walls, “we become space debris.”

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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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