"You want me to kill the President of the United States," Jared asked, jaw dropping. In a way, he'd kind of expected it, but actually hearing the words flat out was a shocker. It was the kind of line you simply didn't hear. Ever.
"Yes," Admiral Beech nodded. "As I said, I'd prefer to capture him for arrest, but I just don't think that's practical. The man is a menace, and needs to be brought under control. Hell, assuming you could capture the man, you're just moving the date of his execution up; there is no doubt that he'd be convicted on capital charges if we could arrest him."
"I'm not an assassin," Jared snarled.
"No," Beech shook his head, "you're not. You're a soldier in a time of war, with a valid military target."
"I am no assassin," Jared argued angrily. "And this is an assassination you're talking about."
"Call it what you will," Admiral Beech shook his head. "You have to do it. No one else can. And if you don't do it, I'm forced to plan B."
"Which is?" Mathews asked, looking at Jared sadly.
Jared closed his eyes, knowing that he didn't want to know. "Claim the orbitals, and instead of dropping Jared, launch a large-scale HVM bombardment at every known nuclear launch facility and Washington DC. That will kill thousands, and the war that will follow will kill far more."
"I'm not an assassin," Jared sighed. "Damnit. Fucking hell!"
"Will you do it?" Beech asked.
"Was there ever a question," Jared complained. "I'm going to need some time to learn to use that damned suit, though. No way I can do it with more standard equipment. Hell, I don't know if I can do it with that fancy monkey-suit!"
"I'll need at least two weeks myself," Mathews nodded. "We did alright in our last battle, but we don't have the training or procedures for micro-jump combat. It's an effective tactic, but they'll be expecting it this time."
Beech nodded. "It'll take at least a week to get the suit fitted out, I'm told. Jared, I'm going to have some of my senior marines and the researchers involved in the project put you through training on the suit in that time."
Jared sighed. "Sounds good. I'll need someone to watch my kids; I managed to hire a sitter, but she's underage, and I'm going to need a full-time nanny it sounds like."
"Arrangements will be made," Beech nodded. "For now, the two of you go enjoy what's left of your leave. It'll take a few hours to get everything set up, and you deserve the time."
"Aye-aye sir," Mathews nodded and stood.
Jared waved crisply in lieu of the salute he'd have provided while in uniform, recognizing the dismissal for what it was.
"We're going to have to make the most of tonight," Mathews mused. "I hear there's a low-G mini-golf course on the station."
"You hate mini-golf," Jared blinked.
"But I bet the kids will love it," Mathews commented evenly. "They need the time just as much as I do."
Jared smiled as a warm feeling spread through him. "My kids, or our kids?"
"I think they get the deciding vote on that," Mathews sighed. "My die was cast a long, long time ago."
"If you weren't in uniform," Jared sighed, thinking about how much he wanted to hug the man.
"Unlike the US military, the Federation allows displays of affection while in uniform," Mathews commented, taking Jared's hand. "Holding hands, a quick hug, and the like. Nothing excessive, and not if both of us are in uniform."
Jared glanced around to make sure no one else could see them. "In that case," he growled before taking Mathews into a quick bear hug and kissing him thoroughly. He had to do it 'quickly', but that had never been a problem before.
"I have some on-station quarters that aren't far from here," Mathews started pulling Jared along. "And I think I need some time alone with you before we pick up the kids, after that little stunt."
"Going to teach me to behave?" Jared quipped.
"Oh yes," Mathews grinned. "I'm going to start by making you get on your knees and apologize for that!"
"My knees huh?" Jared grinned, remembering the 'apologies' they'd given each other as teenagers. They'd always enjoyed games like that.
Jared knelt down so that he was closer to his sons' heights. "I'm sorry kiddos, but I gotta go," he told them. They'd all enjoyed low-gravity mini-golf, even Mathews, but that was the night before. Now Jared was going back 'on duty'.
"But Daaaad!" Cody complained.
"I'm sorry," Jared told him, then looked at Davey. "I know I told you I'd never have to leave again, but things change. I'm sorry."
"Duty calls," Davey whispered, his eyes wet. "You have a job to do, and you do it well. You'll come home when you can."
"Yeah," Jared nodded sadly. "This time it's a job only I can do. No one else can do. And-" Jared's voice failed him, and he found himself saying something else instead. "I'll come home as soon as I can."
It hurt. It was like a knife twisting in his heart, but he couldn't tell them. He couldn't say 'goodbye'. Jared didn't care about the weapons they gave him, the tools they made for him, or the plans they were going to make. This was a suicide mission, a hail-Mary play to try and save lives. He couldn't set it aside, there were too many lives at risk to simply refuse. The pain of trying to explain that to his children was more than he could manage. This wasn't like his deployment in the African War, one soldier amongst many sent to risk their lives on behalf of their country. He wasn't going to come home sporting medals that showed how good he was, how many lives he'd saved, how many people he killed, or how many injuries he'd taken. He wasn't going to get another Navy Cross, or Silver Star, or Purple Heart, or any other award. At best, he was going in an unmarked grave. At worst, his kids might be able to watch him hang as a 'traitor' on national TV.
But he had his duty. He was his oath. He was bound to support and defend the Constitution, to bear true faith and allegiance to it. If Ellison weren't a murdering jackass who was himself an enemy, he'd be bound to obey the bastard's orders. But he wasn't, and Ellison was in fact the very enemy -- domestic, not foreign -- that he was sworn to defend against.
Jared could no more break his oath than he could breathe in a vacuum.
He'd wept for hours last night over this, his silent tears soaking Mathews' shoulder. But it had to be done. He had to do it, as others had had to do it for years. This was why men bought him beers when they saw his uniform, this was why he received military discounts at stores. This was why even when the military itself wasn't respected, it's members were.
This was the price he paid.
And God, it hurt. Just as it always had. He'd been able to be there for Cody's birth, but he'd missed his son's first words, his first steps. When he'd come home, he'd been a stranger, a voice sometimes heard on the phone, a face seen in photos, not a father. And Cody wasn't a baby, anymore, he'd grown up into a little boy with teeth and hair and a voice.
And, thanks to his mother, some serious behavioral issues that Jared had been forced to sort out, despite his own issues over all the pain and death he'd seen in Africa. He'd managed to sort the worst of them out before the boy went to school, but another deployment had kept him from taking his son in that day. So many things missed.
So many more things he was going to miss now. He had to say goodbye, really goodbye. But he couldn't, not yet. He had time. Not much, but a little.
"I'll be back later tonight guys," Jared told them. "You may be in bed before I get back, but I'll check in on ya." Jared took a deep breath. "And one way or another, before I actually deploy, I will talk to you again."
"Dad," Davey said hesitantly.
"Yes?" Jared asked.
"I love you," Davey hugged him. Cody pulled into the hug, turning it into a family affair as they started crying.
"I gotta go," Jared whispered. "I'll see you guys later."
The sentries outside didn't say anything about his wet face. They knew better.
The rest of the day was hectic, if nowhere near as emotional. He was quickly run through a boring series of briefings on the general situation, both ground-side and in space, then was introduced the capabilities of the 'Mark One Mod Four' (he knew better than to ask about Mods One through Three) 'Combat Powered Infantry Suit', or simply 'Powered Armor'. Essentially a human-shaped shell about fifteen centimeters thick, it was the modern solution to the increasing amount of mission-critical gear infantry were required to carry. Instead of cutting away at essential equipment, dividing it up amongst squad members and preventing them from being able to split up, it allowed one man to carry an immensely heavier weight than was otherwise possible. Better yet, it provided superior protection, enhanced his mobility, and allowed him to carry much nastier weaponry.
It didn't turn him into a tank, but he was better armored and armed than anything short of a tank, while retaining all the normal advantages of infantry. He could move through buildings and take cover, while wearing enough armor to ignore most small-arms fire. For heavier weapons, the suit incorporated a series of point defense systems, allowing it to shoot down incoming rockets and artillery. He wasn't outfitted as liberally as a full-up tank was, but he was also a much harder target to hit than a tank, a completely reasonable trade-off.
The suit also included an entire series of sensory systems, allowing him to scan almost the entire EM spectrum. He could visually enhance his view with infrared and ultraviolet overlays, or listen in to any unencrypted conversation across the majority of the radio bands. He could detect alpha, beta, and gamma radiation, and if need be localize it. Built-in computer systems could track, analyze, and provide reports about battlefield conditions, as well as handle a 'free-flow tac net' once the system was in mass production.
As for offensive capacities, the suit's built in weaponry was formidable. The equivalent of a modern battle rifle was integrated into the right arm, while the left arm could launch RPGs. The legs were loaded with a pop-out mortars, though they didn't carry a lot of ammo, and there were vertical launch shoulder mounted micro-missiles for AA work.
And, if he wanted, they'd designed a 'battle' rifle to go with the suit, with a selectable ammo system that could fire anything from armor-piercing rounds capable of taking out a modern tank to HE rounds to demolish buildings with. Much heavier than could be carried by hand, the suit's built in 'exo-muscles' allowed the marine inside to wield it with ease, or jump over low buildings with the assistance of the 'jump jets' the suit also sported.
Unfortunately, all of this came at a cost. The suit utilized an entire brand new generation of super-dense superconductive capacitors which allowed it to store it's energy, but once those were used up he'd be out of power. The suit simply took too much juice for him to simply 'plug in' to a standard civilian outlet and charge. Thankfully the capacitors themselves didn't give him away, but when the suit was running at full it had an EM signature detectable quite literally from orbit.
Jared already loved it, and he hadn't even had a chance to actually use it.
What really sweetened the pot was his augmentation. He'd already gotten used to the way it could assist him in combat, but thanks to the data he'd brought with him they were programming the suit to interface with his augmentation. Not only would he be able to move around in the suit with the systems offline, but he'd be able to interface with it so thoroughly that it would be like a literal second skin for him. The techs were already programming some new algorithms that would allow him to 'feel' tactile feedback from the artificial hands as if they were his own, and rather than using the normal visual feedback systems, the suit would simply feed the input from its exterior cameras directly to the visual center of his brain.
That, unfortunately, would take some getting used to. They'd managed to plug him into a simulator, and less than two minutes in he'd run for the restroom, ready to throw up. He kept at it doggedly, but it was incredibly disorienting to see with his eyes, and 'see' through the cameras they were providing.
Thankfully, someone came up with the idea of blindfolding him. It was still somewhat disorienting, but it didn't carry the horrific, nausea-inducing edge of trying to see so many things at once. His ability to handle the simultaneous input was improving rapidly, but the blindfold let him work on using the suit sensors as readily as he'd always used his mark one -- well, maybe mark two now -- eyeballs.
"I suspect that in the future, all marines will be trained to handle multiple inputs," one of the techs commented, "but we don't have the time for you to learn to handle it."
Despite his being 'not smart', Jared learned quickly. He almost sighed as this put one more nail in the coffin of his firm belief in his stupidity, but he kept plugging away. Within two days he had managed a basic control over all suit functions, proving himself able to rapidly select and use any feature he needed. By the fifth, he was able to use multiple functions simultaneously, with a speed and fluidity that allowed him to best 'regular' marines in simulated combat.
By the end of the week, he was taking on entire squads and winning, handily. He had survived the intense battles of the African War, and learned lessons most of these marines had never even dreamed of. Despite the increase in his bulk while wearing the suit, he could find cover in crannies they would never expect, and his ability to sense their presence was almost supernatural. Even without his augmentation he'd always been good at noticing the little details, seeing the sniper hidden in a window or the tripwire laid across the path. With it, he had an almost omniscient understanding of the battlefield around him, even in the simulator. While the suit wasn't ready for him to take it to the combat range, he still dropped by on several occasions just to keep his 'normal' skills sharp, and proved to the marines that it wasn't just 'luck' that let him win so handily in the simulator.
And then the techs had the suit ready for him.
He stepped backwards into it, shrugging his shoulders as if he was trying to get a coat off. Only instead of getting a coat off, he was stuffing his arms into the suit, which promptly closed around him. It was intensely uncomfortable to allow the machine to make the plumbing connections for him, but there was no practical way for him to do it himself. After all, he was wearing a modified version of the standard Federation Marine combat armor as he stepped into it. If he needed to, he could egress the armor at any time and still remain combat effective, especially since they'd custom-built his battle rifle so that he could wield it bare-handed if need be.
The thing weighed a ton, but he'd already put several thousand rounds through it on the practice range, and it was a thing of beauty. Unlike the gunpowder weapons he was familiar with, it was based on the same EM principles as Mathews' 'pulse pistol' had been, back when they had fought their way out of the air terminal. Instead of using the explosive force of gunpowder, a small spike was lifted into place on two rails. The super-dense capacitors used in the suit let the gun throw an immense spike of current through the rails, which, thanks to a long explanation involving electromagnetic force that Jared didn't understand, caused the spike to explode outwards violently, at several times the speed of sound. The spike was specially shaped with 'wings' that caused it to spin, stabilizing its flight and guiding it towards its target.
Better yet, the Federation had mastered the miniaturization of otherwise bulky technology. As small as those spikes were, they could be loaded with impact-detonators hooked up to HE or incendiary warheads, or vials of an immensely powerful acid that would eat away at armor. Use of the acid rounds on a human target was strictly forbidden, but Jared could kill a tank with a single well-placed shot if he needed to.
By the time the two weeks were up, Jared was death on two feet. He was still a long, long way from mastering the suit to his satisfaction, but he was good enough to try, and the mission couldn't wait.
President Ellison didn't know the details, but he knew they were coming for him. After all, sooner or later the Federation had to do something about him, and he had no intention of waiting for them to make the first move.
"Pass the potatoes," Jared asked, as he passed the meatloaf. It wasn't actually meat, but it was close enough to pass casual inspection, and Jared had already firmly told his kids not to ask what it really was. He wished he didn't know.
"Sure Dad," Davey took the meatloaf with one hand, as he grabbed the bowl of mashed potatoes with the other. In the middle of his juggling act, alarms suddenly began to howl. As he jumped, startled, he managed to send the food flying.
"All hands to battle-stations!" speakers blared. "All hands to battle-stations! Stand by to set condition Zulu throughout the station!"
"Fuck," Jared swore as the food spilled everywhere. "This had better not be a-" he cut off mid-sentence as the only possible reason for it not to be a drill penetrated. "Oh hell, scratch that, I hope it is!" An attack on the station would not be good.
"Priority message for Jared Warren! Emergency! Priority message for Jared Warren!" the com panel began to howl in counterpoint to the sirens.
"Activate!" Jared shouted, "maximum volume boost!"
"Jared, get your ass to the ship! Bring Davey and Cody to!" Mathews bellowed. "Agammemnon just reported in, and there is an entire shit-ton of fighters en-route for the station!"
"I thought they didn't have the range to get here!" Jared swore.
"They don't," Mathews snarled. "I don't have time to explain, just get on board the ship! We have five minutes to get out of here!"
"Cody, Davey, move!" Jared barked. "Leave everything behind!"
"Get here quick," Mathews told him as Jared ran for the door. "They're on a collision course, and if even one gets through the station is as good as dead."
"Understood," Jared bellowed over his shoulder as he chivied his kids out the door. "Fuck this," he swore. "Cody, hop on my back. Davey, I'm carrying you." Davey didn't have time to protest before Jared scooped him up, and Cody obediently hopped onto Jared's back, hands around the neck to hold on.
"We're going to the Nova Maria," Jared told the marine sentries.
"We'll get you there," their commander nodded. "Move!"
"Sorry, you can't keep up," Jared started running. The station's low gravity made it more difficult to control himself than it would have been on Earth, but sheer power let him pull ahead of the more experienced marines. Thankfully the corridor hatches weren't sealed yet, though the 1MC continually blared updates that promised they'd be sealed shortly.
And then, disturbingly, the speakers started blaring a new order. "Ditching stations! All personnel, evacuate! Evacuate the station immediately! Station destruction imminent! You have four minutes twenty seconds from mark... mark! Evacuate!"
"Jared Warren!" a spacer waved from beside a hatch. "In here! Now!"
Jared shifted course, and barreled through the hatch. On the other side of an airlock was something he recognized from his station tour. "I'm supposed to get to the Nova Maria," he informed the spacer.
"She'll pick us up," the spacer informed Jared as he sealed the hatch. "The shuttle I assume you were headed for had to launch, the commandant told us to keep an eye out for you and get you to the nearest exit point."
"I'll have to thank him," Jared said as he buckled his kids into the seats. "Shouldn't we wait for more people to get here?"
"One second," the spacer told him. "Crewmen Simmons reporting to Command, I've got the sergeant and his family in life pod 126-A-79."
"Eject immediately, do not wait for additional personnel," came the harsh order. "Get him out of here!"
"Understood," Simmons pressed a button. "Sealed and locked. Launching in fifteen seconds."
"God bless," the voice on the other end said before the line cut. Simmons hurriedly strapped himself into a seat, and Jared followed suit.
"What the hell is going on?" Jared swore. "I thought we'd get hours of warning before any attack!"
"We should have!" Simmons snarled before they launched. "Now hold on tight!" The conversation was cut off as an angry deity squeezed his fist around them, pressing into their restraints with bruising force.
Jared crunched his middle reflexively, and gazed helplessly at his sons. Thankfully, the pod had clearly marked which seats should be used for children, and he was glad he'd paid attention. While the pressure was pulling him against his restraints harshly, they were being pressed into the well-padded seat behind them. Kids being kids, they were overlooking the sheer terror of the moment in favor of the sheer exhilaration of the impromptu roller-coaster ride. "Wheeee!" Cody shrieked, laughing. Davey tried to maintain the gravitas suitable to a teenager, but it was clearly a losing battle.
"Nova Maria to station life pod 126-A-78," Mathews' voice crackled over the speakers. "We have your course plotted and locked. We'll bring you aboard as soon as we can."
"Jared, I know you've got questions, but for now all I can do is feed the divisional tactical channel to you. Hopefully it answers some of your questions," Mathews sighed. "See you soon."
Mathews' voice cut, and then a new channel opened up. "Launching missiles!"
"Remember, maximum dispersion with maximum yield," a voice cut through the background chatter. "We need to try and catch as many as we can before they blast past us. Keep firing until the last second, a near-miss with a nuclear blast will do less damage to the station than if one of those things gets past us."
"This is Odysseus, they're entering engagement range now. Engaging as directed," another voice reported.
"Station Commandant reports approximately ninety-three percent of personnel evacuated, including most of the civilians," another voice cut in. "They're trying to get the rest out, but no one expected this little warning."
"I estimate the first fighter will impact with the station in three minutes," another voice cut in. "Station defenses are acquiring it, but I don't think they'll be able to destroy it far enough out to keep the debris from holing them."
"All ships, do what you can," Admiral Beech broke in. "We don't have time to do this neat and by the book, but just keep firing. Nova Maria, I strongly advise you to micro-jump away from the station now."
"We need a few more seconds to get a decent jump plotted," Mathews told him. "Stand by..."
"What's taking so long?" Admiral Beech asked. "You don't take this long in drills!"
"We don't have to worry about catching a near-miss from a nuke if we miss a decimal place when we drill," Mathews told him. "Jumping now."
"You don't have to... what?" Admiral Beech sputtered. "Captain Mathews, report!"
"Shit! Missiles are acquiring Nova Maria!" Someone swore. "Tripoli to all ships, be aware that the Nova Maria has matched course and speed with enemy fighter swarm!"
"Mathews, what the hell are you doing?" Admiral Beech screeched. "Get out of there!"
"Nova Maria engaging fighters with energy weapons," Mathews reported calmly, his voice strangely slow. "Focusing on the fringes of the fighter cloud."
"Nova Maria, get out of there!" Beech ordered. "Captain Mathews, get your ship out!"
"All ships, please avoid targeting my vessel by accident," Mathews drawled. "I'm having trouble receiving tactical updates, our relativistic distortion is too high for the computer to correct inbound data transfers. Please adjust signal on your end to compensate. Please confirm outbound voice communication functional."
"Fuck! Somebody get an adjusted signal to them!" Admiral Beech snarled.
"This is Odin, we're acting as relay. Patching Mathews back into the network... now," another voice reported.
"This is Station Command," Commandant Hearns announced. "Our plot shows the nearest impact to be five minutes, and increasing. Nova Maria's tactic is working. I am continuing to evacuate the station as a precaution."
"Understood, station," Admiral Beech ground out. "Fine then Mathews, play it that way. Just get those damned fighters!"
"The station has been hit!" someone shouted. "I see air venting!"
"Debris impact," Commandant Hearns' voice was nearly drowned out by a low roaring. "I'm showing massive debris impact over much of the station. No significant damage yet, but my armor isn't stopping all of it. I'm abandoning my post; I can't coordinate anything over the noise of the impacts."
"This is Reliant, I've got eyeballs on the station. The armor is stopping a lot of the debris, but at C-fractional speeds even motes are enough to gouge through the armor. It's getting worn through, quick!"
"Nova Maria jumping out, will return ASAP to assist in S&R," Mathews' announced. "I'm sorry, Jack. Jumping... now."
Silence fell for a moment. "Direct hit by at least three fighters," someone announced after a moment. "Make that four intact fighters, and the debris from more. I estimate no survivors."
"This is Admiral Beech. Initiate search and rescue procedures."
"What just happened?" Jared asked Simmons.
"I'm not sure," Simmons shrugged out of his restraints as the life pod's engines cut out. "Sounds like somebody turned a bunch of fighters into missiles, and then aimed them at the station."
"Why couldn't they stop that?" Jared asked.
Simmons sighed. "Did you hear that bit about the fighters being C-fractional? Normally, you'd accelerate out halfway to your destination, then decelerate the rest of the way so that when you get there, you don't go flying off into space. The fighters just accelerated the whole way, so they reached a significant fraction of lightspeed. At that speed, they didn't even need to carry any weapons; they were weapons."
"What? How?" Jared shook his head.
Simmons shook his head. "Bullets are a lot smaller than a fist, but they do a lot more damage, right? It's because they move faster. Once you reach a significant fraction of lightspeed, relativity takes over, and you don't just have an impact. You have a massive energy transfer, also known as an explosion. A big explosion."
"Then the station..." Jared trailed off.
"You heard 'em," Simmons shrugged. "Gone. They'll do S&R, but the odds are against anyone making it."
"Fuck," Jared swore. "Do you think they got everyone off?"
"No," Simmons shook his head. "Close, from the sounds of it, but we just didn't have enough warning. No one expected anything like this. Bastards!"
"Lifepod, this is the Nova Maria. Stand by for docking," Mathews announced.
Simmons nodded. "Standing by. Shouldn't you guys be helping with S&R?"
"Precious cargo takes priority," Mathews told him. "Jared, we loaded your suit earlier today, but I'm not sure if we got all the drop pods. The mission may be a bust, but if it isn't we'll be launching tonight."
"Understood," Jared growled. "Think they'll try anything like this again?"
"They can't," Mathews voice was pained. "We're receiving signals from the few other stationary facilities, they didn't get as many fighters as we did, but they didn't have as many ships to help out with defense. They're out of commission. All that's left are our ships."
"So..." Jared shook his head. "That's not good, is it?"
"Our ships can keep going for a long time, but we need maintenance facilities," Mathews sighed. "We either win this thing in the next few months, or it's over. And we don't have any way to resupply until we regain control of the orbitals."
Jared shook his head. "Let me guess, my mission just got a lot more important?"
"Jared, your mission is probably our only hope now," Mathews sighed. "Without resupply, the Nova Maria just doesn't have enough weapons to do the attacks we had planned. We'll have to drop you, then jump out; we just can't take out enough fighters to make staying in orbit safe."
Jared sighed. Why was nothing ever easy.