Finding Space – Chapter Eighteen

They didn’t become space debris. Not this time anyway. With jetpacks mounted, they made the jump from the transport to the hull of the massive flagship, after giving the necessary SOS from the transport and sending it to the far side of the ship. That would keep people fairly busy, Ian had thought, and buy them time to make their way to one of the several small fuel ports on the flagship.

“No way in hell I’m swimming through fuel,” said Sasmont, when explained all this, as they hung off the side of the flagship. “I know too much about explosions.”

“We’re not swimming in it, we’re just going to use them for access,” said Ian. “They’re due to get fuel in about an hour. I highly doubt the fueling crew is going to ask a lot of questions to SEALs.” 

It went even more smoothly than they expected. The fuel ports were held down by manual latches that usually remained remotely locked, but they’d been disengaged by the control room. The tanker was just beginning to extend the boom to make contact with the flagship when they arrived. Ian gave a quick wave to the cockpit of the tanker as he landed on the fuel port deck, observed a tentative wave back, and then ducked inside the large hatchway. The others followed suit.

“Everyone good?” he asked, once inside. Nods all around. 

“Apparently walking in briskly with a gun is the equivalent of the old earth saying that if you had a hard hat and a clipboard, you could go anywhere in the world,” observed Li. Looper’s brow furrowed. 

“A hard hat, first sergeant?” Li sighed, a long and tired sigh, before patiently explaining that when he was a boy, there were still construction workers all over the place until their places had been taken by autonomous equipment. Looper listened with bemused puzzlement, finally asking, “Ok, sure, but…what’s a clipboard?” Li looked at him, glanced up to the ceiling in a mute appeal to the heavens, then hefted his rifle and turned away.

“Clipboards were just boards used to hold pieces of paper on them,” said Stennerly, trying to keep the laughter out of her voice. “It was easier to write while walking around, I guess. And there was a clip at the top to hold the paper. You know, a clip board.” 

“Why wouldn’t you just carry around an iPad?” continued Looper, who was intent on making Li as old as sin, until Ian finally interfered.

“Look, I’m not getting killed just because we had to explain some basic office supplies to the total nerd,” he grumbled. “Not sure if anyone here remembers, but we’re on mission right now – kind of in a rush, too.”

“Steady on,” said Li. “Where exactly are we even going? Even if we find Admiral Graves, what are you going to do, shoot him? That will definitely go over well.”

“Yeah, I don’t think we’d make too many friends that way,” agreed Bekka, glancing down the long hallway that ran off to the left, which connected to yet another hallway, as far as they could tell. “I think that’s the way we end up looking like the traitors.” 

“And dead,” added Looper, “didn’t want to forget to add that we’d also be pretty much on the deceased side of things.”

Ian’s head pulsed. Of course he knew this. Only…it had seemed like just getting on the flagship was going to be the risky part. It was almost unnerving how easily they’d been able to get inside. Of course, it helped to have a tech guy on the crew. But, once on board, he had little idea of where he was supposed to go or what he was supposed to do. He looked around. Bekka was still keeping watch down the hall, her head cocked as if to hear any single noise. A born hunter, Ian thought. And leader. They follow where she goes. He found himself realizing that he didn’t know all that much about her. She’d only just been a corporal a few months ago, with that traitor Bilder…

“Bilder,” he muttered under his breath. Yes, that was a start. If they could find him, they might get some more information, maybe even a confession, and that could lead them to…still being on this damn ship with nowhere to go. This plan was always a snowball’s chance in hell when it came to actually working. Ian knew that they all knew that. But he wasn’t sure he was ready to go ahead and have them give up their lives just so that he could prove a point. Perhaps, after all, discretion actually was the better part of valor? Maybe they just go back, keep their mouths shut, and try to keep their people safe. After all, wasn’t that what everyone in the world was doing anyways? Would he be so bad for doing that?

Ian found that Li was looking at him, with a half smile on his face.

“What?” asked Ian.

“You’ve got the look of a man who’s wrestling with his conscience and who thinks he’s managed to corner his conscience,” said Li, slowly, leaning up against the dark metallic wall. “Believe me, I know that look all too well. I’ve probably worn it a time or two. But -” he looked directly into Ian’s eyes, “it’s not a fight you’re going to win. Your conscience is about to roundhouse you to the floor if you try to do anything other than take down this traitor. We both know it.” He nodded towards Bekka, Sasmont, Sellars, and Looper. “They know it too. Hell, it’s why we’re all here. So go ahead and get a plan put together that will get us all killed. And then leave it to the NCOs to unf**k it and execute it to perfection.” There was a gleam in his eye. 

Ian exhaled sharply, and nodded. Glancing around he caught Doc Sellars’ eye, who gave him what Ian hoped was an encouraging nod. 

“Ok, here’s what we’re going to do,” said Ian. “Stay where you are if you’re pulling security, just listen up. Obviously, we can’t kill Graves. Not right now. What we need to start gathering is proof. Absolutely as much proof as we possibly can. And to my mind, before I go breaking into a four star’s quarters and going through his stuff, I’m gonna go for the little guy who no one cares about first: Bilder.” Bekka spat out some obscenities but was otherwise calm. Ian could imagine her tightening her finger on her trigger.

Ian quickly broke the plan down for them. Rather than moving all together, they were going to split up. “Better odds of success, less chance of total failure if one of us is caught,” he said. Each would take one part of the command ship. Ian, the most recognizable, would go to the hold. Looper to the conning tower and bridge. Stennerly to the living quarters. Sasmont to engineering, Doc to the medical bay. Li to the fighter control center. They would rally back at this site in four hours. If anyone didn’t make it back to the rendezvous site, they would attempt to send a message via the ship’s loudspeaker intercom, codeword, “yellow panel.”

“Good call, sir,” said Looper, “because I can’t guarantee comms security now that we’re this close to the Fleet’s main signal hub. It’s best to just assume that if you say anything at all, someone is going to be listening”

“Can they do voice analysis?” asked Ian. “Would something ping if our voices were heard over the network?” Looper paused.

“I mean, if they put out a tag on us, yeah,” he said, shrugging, “but if they did that, then we’re on a Fleet BOLO list, and we’ll get rolled up no matter what.”

“And if Graves does that,” added Bekka, “then he’s inviting a little too much scrutiny into his life than he wants right now, if I were a betting person.” Ian nodded. They’d take the gamble. Not that they had much of a choice. They each shook hands before they broke up. A quick nod, before turning and head off down the long corridors of the ship, keenly aware that one single mistake on their part could lead to them all rounded up and summarily shot. Or, Ian reflected as he walked along in what he hoped was a casual way, some new and ingenious method of killing people that he hadn’t thought about. Probably one that was stupidly painful. He shook his head and dropped down two ladders towards the hold.

The flagship was massive, and it was relatively easy to get lost amidst the hustle and bustle, especially if you were accustomed to military ways. Ian was good at looking busy; he had spent most of his time as a cadet looking busy. In fact, he’d been accused of that being his dominant personality point. But with Jenny…

He pushed her out of his head. No, he shoved her out. Now wasn’t the time to get distracted by her, or the way he felt when she touched his arm, or the softness of her lips, or her scent on him in the morning – it really was ridiculous how she was able to get into his head, he thought – and he lost track of where he was going and ran smack dab into a passing mechanic with a scuffed yellow hardhat of all things, who tripped – his tools scattering in a symphony of clanging across the metal deck. Ian winced at every noise. So much for stealth, you idiot, he thought, and bent down to help the mechanic pick up his tools.

Stammering apologies, he fished a few wrenches out from under a nearby weapons rack, and held them out to the mechanic, trying not to make eye contact. Luckily, the be-mustached mechanic seemed in a rush. He shoved his hardhat back on and muttered something about fools not treading lightly, grabbing his tools and shoving them into his satchel. He rushed off down the hallway, head down, while Ian looked around for the main cargo area. Finding it didn’t take too long. It was an utterly massive bay, with room for the flagship’s never-ending flow of supplies. Ian found himself wondering just how much stuff it took to supply this vessel. He shook his head in disbelief. War was expensive.

The place was teeming with people, from all over the fleet. There were cargo pilots, fighter pilots – easily identifiable as they never shut up – bomber pilots, well, really any pilot that Ian could think of. There were even soldiers and marines here and there – Looking about as at home in this lot as a dog in a gopher show, thought Ian. That idiom always puzzled him but he didn’t have time for that now. He slipped into the sea of blue, green, and tan uniforms and body armor. An odd assortment of colors and outfits, reflecting those who were so often on the front lines that they couldn’t sleep without their armor, and those for whom the “front” meant where they stood in the buffet line. 

At this, his stomach rumbled. Right. Food. He hadn’t had any of that for a while. He could probably get a protein injection if he knew how this damn suit worked, but with his luck, he’d end up overdosing on some sort of painkiller. Goodness knows what the SEALs put in their bodies. Ian slipped past a knot of marine officers talking about their last landing and gunfight. He felt a pang of loss – once, not even that long ago, he had been a part of a tight-knit group like that. He missed his troop. 

But missing things wasn’t going to solve problems. He had to see if Bilder was anywhere in this mess. Or see if anyone knew where he was. He contemplated striking up a conversation but had only made it past two opening lines in his head until the whole thing broke down. No, he realized, he wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this. Man, first sergeant would absolutely love it, he thought, eyeballing the crowd, knowing that I had to focus on listening instead of talking. 

He slid by some more pilots, dodged a group of staff officers who seemed to be mostly dazed and confused, and was on the verge of making his getaway out of the bay when the room’s noise suddenly dropped in volume in a way that only could mean that a senior officer was approaching. Ian glanced over the head of the nearest sailor to him, cursed silently, and ducked back behind a container, just as he heard, “Make a hole, there! Make a lane for the admiral, dammit, make a lane for Admiral Graves!” and nearly simultaneously heard the overzealous cry of Room, Attteeeeeeen-shun! from some poor soul nearby.

It had the effect. The room went dead quiet. All that could be heard was the click and thump of the boots of the admiral and his party. Ian, always adept at missing formations, slid further behind a container until he was entirely out of sight. He slowly exhaled, glancing up at the curving outline of the bay’s ceiling. No way out through there. And there was definitely no way out. Yep, he was stuck here all right. Stuck here with the guy who had ordered him executed and still thought he was dead.

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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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