Ian was stuck. Just absolutely stuck, and hoped fervently that if Admiral Graves himself were here, then that meant everyone else was having a much, much easier time of it. He tried to focus, to listen to what was going on. It appeared to be some sort of briefing. Was it an operational briefing for a mission? If it was, it wasn’t like anything that he’d heard before. For one, there just didn’t seem to be, well, any operation that was being briefed. The admiral’s aide was droning on about all the things the admiral had done over the past few months.
“Nice for him that he’s got someone to count all this stuff for him,” Ian overheard a marine whisper to one of the pilots.
“Yeah, no s**t, I’d just like some sleep once in a red moon,” replied the pilot. “Maybe he’s here to tell us why we’ve been running 24-hour ops almost constantly.”
But, it rapidly became clear that this was not, in fact, what was happening. Graves had taken over, and his voice boomed around the room, amplified by his mic. Ian’s mind trailed off after the beginning litany of familiar platitudes: greatest nation in the universe, greatest Navy, greatest Army, proud to fight for freedom, less than one percent of the one percent will serve, blah, blah blah, blah. Ian’s mind didn’t just wander off, it sprinted away. Maybe there’s a way to access the personnel manifest, Ian was thinking, once he got his mind under control, when something he heard jarred him back to reality. Graves was deep into his topic now, and was warming to it.
“Those brown scum that have brought down our ships, that have murdered our brothers and sisters, that have brought untold agonies to our families, to our friends. They must be made to suffer!” he roared. “They are an enemy unlike any that we have faced before. You know, our Navy is no stranger to evil. We faced down Imperial Japan and Nazy Germany 150 years ago, and we destroyed them! We put an end to the Soviet Union! And just sixty-five years ago, we crushed the Russian and Chinese fleets in the Battle of the South China Sea, becoming the most dominant power on earth. And so we set off into space, to bring peace, to bring freedom, to bring liberty! Our hopes were set on finding intelligent life. The kind of life we could commune with, and understand! The kind we could explore the galaxies with, and create a brighter future for the universe. To create a peaceful world. But what do we find?” He paused for effect.
“We find nothing but the same evil we left on earth, but now so powerful and distilled into such forms of madness that we can no longer brook their existence!” he shouted. “These aliens have destroyed lives, ships, tanks…the list goes on and on. But most of all, they have destroyed our faith in the hope of space. The hope that we had that there was something good and decent out here…I don’t feel it anymore.”
His voice had gone soft and low, and Ian could feel the room turning with him, people getting roped into the emotional power of what he was saying. And Ian himself, even though he knew the man was a fraud and a murderer, couldn’t help but think of the troops he’d lost when they’d made first contact. When they’d blundered into a….near ambush. An ambush…why would anyone know they were coming, and why would their first reaction be to launch an ambush? But Graves was going again, and Ian recognized the strident tone of a man who believes justice is on his side.
“But we will overcome our adversaries,” Graves said. “And we will overcome this setback, just as we have always overcome. But we cannot allow this murderous campaign to go on like this. We have lost too many good people. If there is any silver lining in all of this, it is that these creatures have shown us that no matter our culture or creed, humans must stand united. Which is why I’m pleased to announce that we in the Planet Earth Defense Pact have signed an armistice with the Greater Chinese and Russian People’s Co-Prosperity League.” Murmurs rippled the room at this bombshell and Ian stifled a whistle. That was one smooth way to tell everyone that their defenses were about to be dropped against their greatest enemy.
“But we will not stop there,” said Graves, his cadence rising. “It is time to make an end to this conflict. It is time to bring a permanent stop to these evildoers! Which is why I am ordering nothing but complete and utter annihilation of these alien thugs! No prisoners! We will completely eradicate these things from the galaxy, until someday, our children can live in peace and harmony, alongside each other. I know this is my dream. I hope it is yours, too.”
Ian’s head was spinning. Graves had just called for the genocide of an entire race. No questions asked. He slumped against the wall. Far from finding a solution, things seemed to have gotten far worse. The mood of the room was now entirely for Graves. He finished speaking and the room was a thunder of applause, cheering, whistling, stamping of feet, a complete tornado of emotional release. Well there goes any hope I had of taking him down, Ian thought. He slumped down into a seated position, despair coursing through him.
Out there, the admiral’s aide was trying to get people to calm down and listen. Slowly, the room began to grow more quiet. Which is when they all heard the admiral laughing.
Not the admiral on the stage. Clearly, he was standing there, looking as noble and grand as possible. He was definitely not laughing. And yet…that was his laugh, over the intercom, booming throughout the bay. Graves stared around, clearly shaken from his graven image stance and alive with worry. Then he – and everyone else – heard his voice speak.
“I’m telling you Rislen, this is the perfect plan.” The admiral’s voice boomed and bounced across the packed bay. “Utterly perfect! I wish I could get a medal for things like this, because it is utter perfection.”
“Maybe you’ll get that promotion,” said a smooth and accented voice, “or one of those medals of honor you people keep going on about.”
“Hey, that’s goddam Rislen Zaros!” shouted a voice from somewhere inside the throng. “That’s that Russian bastard!” Loud mutterings that dropped as the intercoms boomed again with the admiral’s laugh.
“Ahahahaha, that’s a good one, Rislen, but when we’re done, there won’t be a U.S. Navy anymore. There won’t even be a U.S. at all, if we do our jobs right. Just us, sitting on top of all the power in the world.” The actual Graves was screaming something unintelligible now, as Ian pushed himself back on his feet, life coursing through him. He looked around the container to peer across a sea of people – very confused people – over to where Graves was pale in the light on the small stage erected for him. Ian noted that his personal security detail – all SEALs – had tightened up. Their postures went from “vaguely bored” to “fight” in just a few seconds.
And well they might, because as the recording played on, with Graves spilling the whole plan to Rislen, and Rislen echoing it, the mood in the bay turned what Ian would consider “Friday-night-at-the-lunar-bar-when-they’ve-just-run-out-of-booze” ugly. A ghost of a smile flickered on his face. Maybe, just maybe, he had a chance after all. Must’ve been Looper, he thought, and made a mental note to promote, decorate, and hug that kid – and then get him some leave.
Graves’ PSD was on full alert now, weapons up, scanning the crowd. Ian pulled back into the shadows again, fully mindful that his uniform was the same as theirs and that right now, that had just become a massive liability. Still, he should use this time to slip away, as much as he wanted to see Graves’ ultimate comeuppance. He knew half the people here were armed – if not all of them. He’d already seen more than a few sidearms being unholstered. Time to scram.
Picking his moment, with the recording still playing, with Graves still screaming, and with the crowd closing in on the center of the room, Ian took his moment and made his way out of his hideaway and into the next hallway as quick as a flash. As the door shut behind him, he heard the unmistakable sounds of gunfire. He grimly hoped that Graves was getting his just desserts. But he needed to get out of there and meet his team. Looper should have all the evidence together, and they could present that, get their names cleared, and then go after Rislen. He hurried on down the passage, his mind full of next steps.
Ian was in the act of climbing the last ladder that would get him back on the same deck as his rendezvous, when he heard the ship’s intercom begin to buzz. It was the lockdown signal. The whole vessel was going to be shut down and compartmentalized. He cursed, and scampered up the ladder, springing onto the deck – where he collided with a figure in the ubiquitous yellow hardhat, slamming elbows and foreheads and knees, and sending them both down in a heap.
“Dammit, I’m sorry!” yelled Ian, realizing this was the second time today he’d run into the same mechanic, “But watch where you’re going, huh?” He raised himself onto his hands and knees, and reached for the incongruous hardhat when the words the mechanic had uttered the first time hit him in the face like an ungloved boxer. He’d been too wrought up to let them sink in, but they were: “If fools rush in lightly where angels fear to tread, then you’re my fool.”
Those words snapped him back out of time and into memory, into a rush of memories where she was, where they’d lain on a bank of flowers, laughing, kissing, his hands suddenly in her hair and her breath drawn in a gasp – back to the night after graduation, where she’d been up against the wall and his lips had been on her neck and then – and then there was the morning before he’d shipped out, where he’d gasped that he loved her – and she had said, every time, “my fool.”
Time sucked him back in, and there he was, still on all fours, alarms going off around them, and his arm outstretched with that ludicrous hardhat. He looked up and met her eyes.
“Yellow was always my favorite color,” Jenny said, leaning up on one forearm, a half smile spread across her face. He stared, jaw slightly open, until she said, “Please, Ian, just say something so I know that I didn’t accidentally knock you senseless.” He moved his mouth a few times but no words came out. Finally, he managed: “Your false mustache has half fallen off.”
Then he lunged forward and kissed her, and her laugh echoed over the wailing of the siren.
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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.