Castle Roland

Trillion Dollar Family

by Rilbur

On Hold

Chapter 17

Posted: N/A

The massive capacitors which provided the large bursts of power the jump drive required took days to recharge after the Nova Maria's latest maneuvers. Jumping from one location to another took a fair bit of juice, but nothing absurd.

Matching velocity with objects moving at an appreciable fraction of lightspeed, as Mathews explained, was another matter entirely. "The drive can't create velocity from nothing," he explained to Admiral Beech. "I don't understand the physics of it, that's why we brought back those data chips, but the Enlightened Profit's navigator went over the consequences with me. The jump drive lets us 'skip' along the hyperspacial barrier, appearing to instantaneously disappear in one location, and appear in another. In fact, alien scientists have yet to measure any duration, and their instruments let them measure down to five Planck time units."

"There is no such thing as instantaneous travel," Beech complained. "We've known that for years!"

"Apparently the model needs adjusting," Mathews shrugged. "At any rate, while bouncing off hyperspace allows us to change location, orientation, and even velocity, it takes energy to do so. Location takes a little energy, orientation takes a bit more, and velocity is the worst. Small delta-V is easily managed, but the energy consumption increases with the cubic of the velocity desired with an asymptotic curve taking over as you exceed one half light speed. Had those fighters been traveling any faster, we probably couldn't have managed it without draining the capacitors dry. As it is, we're going to have to wait for at least three days if we want them fully recharged."

"Well, at least they can't hit us with another attack like that one," Beech sighed. "Of course, that's because they managed to destroy every single remaining static facility in our inventory. All we have left are ships."

"On the plus side of the equation, they can't have many fighters left," Mathews pointed out. "Enough to defend their mining and construction operations against normal attacks, and not much more."

"I know I'm not really supposed to be here for this part of the meeting," Jared broke in, "but could someone please tell me why you couldn't stop this from happening? From the sounds of it, it's like you never even considered it!"

Admiral Beech sighed. "That's because we didn't. We were totally unprepared for a war in the first place, that's why they did as much damage as they did. The Federation's ground forces are training as one hundred percent military, but our space forces aren't. We're police, essentially. Our ships are warships by technicality, because some bureaucrat decided it was a good idea. If you go over our actual equipment inventory, you'll see that all of our ships have massive, dedicated S&R divisions, marines equipped to board and assist merchant ships in distress, or land ground-side to deal with a local emergency. We train for ship-to-ship warfare, we're equipped to engage in ship-to-ship warfare, but that's not our purpose."

"We're a space-navy, so by default we're a military service, but we're a lot closer to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Navy in terms of actual mission," Mathews agreed. "We don't talk about it a lot, it's kind of embarrassing, but the fact is our status as the 'preeminent space military' is a joke. We're number one because no one else is allowed to exist."

Jared shook his head. "Are you seriously telling me you are... are some sort of... of... amateur military navy?" Jared couldn't believe the words coming out of his mouth.

Mathews nodded sheepishly. "We've got military training and setup, but we aren't like the U.S. Navy or Marines. Our duty is to be ready for space warfare, but we never expected to actually fight anyone. Except maybe some nut job trying to crash his ship into the planet or something equally screwy, and we are equipped to handle that. It's the reason we carry nuclear tipped missiles instead of relying on beam weapons."

Jared shook his head. "How come this is the first I'm-" Jared laughed. "OK, never mind, you just said it. It's embarrassing."

Mathews' eyebrows flicked upward momentarily in embarrassed amusement before his face darkened. "I'm just glad we were able to get almost everyone out," he sighed. "Damnit, I'm going to miss the Commandant."

"We all will," Admiral Beech nodded. "And since you did get here early, we might as well brief you on the mission."

"Call it blind luck or lady fortune smiling on us, your suit and most of your gear was already on board before the attack started," Mathews told him. "All of the technicians on the combat suit project got out before the station was destroyed, and transferred aboard immediately afterward. While we don't have all the equipment they want, they're busy rebuilding what didn't make it on board. Between the machine shops on board my ship, and the support from other ships, we'll have you ready to go in two or three days."

"Unfortunately," Admiral Beech took over, "with the destruction of the station and all of our other facilities, our ability to resupply has been slashed. Nova Maria can't remain in orbit indefinitely anymore, her magazines will run dry far too quickly. Since the jump drive requires capacitor driven power, she can't just jump in and out constantly, either. She'd have to charge up between jumps after a few hours, which would either leave her vulnerable or totally out of position to support you."

"That said, we did get her outfitted for a ground support mission," Admiral Beech tapped a command into the terminal, and a holographic display turned alive, displaying what was clearly the Nova Maria. "I want this tech," he muttered, shaking his head. "As you can see," he highlighted several sections of the ship, "we've removed several of her ship-to-ship energy weapons in favor of railguns. As anti-ship weapons, they leave a lot to be desired, but they'll be much more useful for the coming mission than energy guns."

"If America hadn't started throwing nuclear weapons around, we wouldn't even be talking about this, but they did and we are," Beech shook his head. "Railguns are primarily anti-ground weapons. You remember how much you bitched about having to learn to designate targets for remote artillery fire? Well, we didn't want to get your hopes up, but we got the bugs worked out. So long as the Nova Maria is in orbit, and you don't mind giving your position away by broadcasting, you can call down fire support from her cannons."

"Depending on the target," Mathews' lips were pursed with distaste, "we can fire a variety of rounds. Air targets move too fast for us to effectively engage, but we can provide fire for most other types of targets. We can also use bursting rounds to create an area of effect in excess of the actual impact detonation, though at the cost of overall effectiveness."

"Unfortunately, targeting is an issue," Beech glanced at Mathews repressively. "Simply put, we couldn't come up with a way for you to relay firing info up into orbit without giving your position away. You can probably get away with it once, maybe twice before they catch on and start looking for it."

Jared glared at Beech. "Given that the suit gives my position away in combat constantly, this is a problem how?"

"The suit has a large EM signature, but a full-up broadcast can be localized much more readily," Beech shook his head. "Your suit gives away your general location, and we've incorporated a variety of stealth techniques that make even that difficult. They'll know you're in the field, and an area of a few miles to search, but they won't be able to pinpoint you to a specific block, building, or room."

Jared sighed. "I'll deal with it, somehow. I assume my C-HUD is going to need an update?"

"The software is already built into the suit," Beech shook his head. "All we have to do is enable the option. Just select a target like you would for artillery or missile fire, and then select orbital support instead of your other options."

Jared nodded. "Sounds easy, though I'll want to practice doing it."

"The marine in the corridor outside will guide you to where the technicians are prepping your suit," Beech nodded. "I understand they brought a simulator chair onboard with the suit, so you could do final calibrations. We can't plug anyone else into the simulation, so you'll have to live with AIs, but it should get the job done."

"Anything else?" Jared asked.

"Not at this time," Beech glanced at Mathews. "On second thought, I'll let you two talk for a moment."

Jared frowned as the Admiral excused himself. "What is that about?"

"I told him you could figure it out for yourself, but he insists that I have to talk to you," Mathews sighed. "Our relationship," he hesitated, biting his lip. "I can't. Not on board ship. You understand?"

Jared smiled softly. "Where the hell would we, anyway?" he laughed. "My bed is neither private nor large enough for two, and I doubt yours is much better."

"Actually, the captain rates a real bed as well as a survival module," Mathews laughed. "Not much of one, but enough to get in trouble with."

Jared blinked in surprise. "Well, this isn't a good time anyway. We're both busy, and it's only going to get worse."

"I know," Mathews sighed. "Good luck. I'll see you again before you drop, but probably not before that."

Jared nodded. "No point in pushing the regs further than we have to," he agreed.

"Yeah," Mathews' voice was slightly hoarse as Jared showed himself to the door. The marine guided him quickly down the corridors, and the technicians just about swarmed over Jared once he arrived.

"Woah woah woah woah, slow down," Jared told them. "What's all this about?"

Wilkins, the lead engineer on the combat suit project, shouldered his way to the front and grabbed Jared by the arm, dragging him over to the suit. "Jacobs was talking to some of the engineers on this boat, and they came up with a few ideas that we want to incorporate into the suit. The aliens didn't leave any schematics, but when they added escape pods to the ship, they included miniature shield generators. They're worthless for ship to ship combat, but they're perfect for what we need to do."

"Slow down," Jared complained as he let himself be pushed into the suit. "I have no clue what you're talking about."

"The micro-shield generators are capable of blocking even weapons grade energy transfers," an engineer that Jared recognized as a member of the Nova Maria's crew explained. "They have inhibitors that keep us from using them for anything larger than an escape pod, and they won't activate before the pod is launched, but we can work around both of those. The drop pods these guys are trying to build are actually smaller than an escape pod, and your suit might just be able to slip through cracks in the programming."

"My suit?" Jared blinked in surprise.

"The power levels are impractical," Wilkins barked. "It's not worth the time-"

"If we activate it in bursts, we can block inbound fire that would otherwise overwhelm suit defenses," the engineer argued. "Oh, we probably can't get the software up and running in time for this mission, but it's worth examining in the long-term."

"Nonetheless, our focus is on this mission," Wilkins sneered. "Now, Sergeant, we just need you to bring the suits command systems online and interface with the drop pod. Since we keyed it to your augmentation, the rest of us can't run it."

"I remember your bitching about that," Jared smiled. He activated his augmentation, musing once again on how strange it was that he didn't even notice the visual overlays anymore. He knew they were there, but he had to go looking for them to see them. If he'd had to describe it, he'd have said that he was simply stretching out mental muscles to activate commands, not manipulating controls on a computer screen. It was natural, like the use of his hands. He simply knew what the augmentation was trying to tell him, and it did what he wanted it to do. There wasn't any thought about it, it was simply part of him.

The suit activated, and then tied into the pod instantly. "I've linked the to the pod's systems," Jared said, blinking in disorientation. He'd become used to his augmentation, and to the suit, but the pod was something new, something strange. "Thank you," Wilkins nodded. "Well?" he asked over his shoulder.

"Running diagnostics now, but it looks like everything is good," one of the techs frowned. "That's impossible, I've got a completely green board. Not one flaw, missed circuit, or misprogrammed algorithm."

Jared frowned. He'd been around tech people long enough to understand the technician's confusion. An experimental project like this one never got everything right on the first try. There was always some little detail to be missed. Always.

"Full diagnostic complete, no problems detected. The shield generator returned a refusal to activate, but the error code matches what we expected. It simply won't activate while it's still on board the ship."

"We'll have to tow the pod or something for the next test," Wilkins chewed his lip. "No way to run that one right now."

"We're going to be here a few days," Jared told him. "You've got plenty of time to run that test."

Wilkins nodded. "I heard, apparently the capacitors take days to charge."

"Pretty much," Jared nodded. "Do you need me in here anymore?"

"No," Wilkins shook his head. "Come on over here, I need to talk to you about a few things."

Jared disconnected from the suit, though not without a moment of regret. As he'd grown more used to the suit, its abilities had fused into his augmentation's more and more thoroughly. The sheer variety of sensors on it gave him what felt like an almost omniscient knowledge of the area, and the heady sense of power was something he never liked giving up.

Jared had warned all and sundry that the suits were going to be dangerously addicting if they ever reached general use. He wasn't sure anyone believed him. Sooner or later, they'd find out for themselves that he was right.

"Sit, Sergeant," Wilkins indicated a chair. "I've been reviewing the training logs, and I noticed a gap. We've always started from after you've hit atmosphere."

Jared frowned. "I didn't notice that, but you're right. I guess I always assumed that was the earliest I had to worry about."

"That, unfortunately, is exactly why the simulations start there," Wilkins sighed. "Unfortunately, you have to reach atmosphere, first. And even with the inertia granted by the mass driver system that ejects you from the ship, that takes time, especially since you'll have to drop from fairly far out."

"How much time?" Jared asked.

"We're looking at about fifteen, twenty minutes before you'll have to worry about doing anything," Wilkins frowned. "I don't know if you have any experience with combat drops, but you're going to be sitting around with nothing to do, your life totally dependent on others, while other people try to kill you."

"Sounds stressful," Jared nodded. "I've been in similar situations before. It's never fun."

"There are several options available, and I want you to think about them," Wilkins shook his head. "The first one is to do nothing. Not really my favorite, it'll just leave you lots of room to think."

Jared winced. "As I said, not fun. But is there really any other option?"

"Two. The system is designed to play music, or clips from entertainment videos, as a stress-release device. In theory, personnel could be loaded for hours prior to the actual drop, and stress can build up rapidly in those situations," Wilkins leaned forward. "My personal preference would be the musical option, either something relaxing, or something strong. Something that helps you focus on something other than the here-and-now, or something that helps you focus on why you're doing something that sounds utterly insane."

Jared smiled. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming the lord," he sang softly.

"Battle Hymn of the Republic," Wilkins nodded. "Good example; I know a professor who insists that one of the reasons the North won the American Civil War was because their battle hymn was better than the Confederacy's."

Jared opened his mouth to debate that, then decided not to. He knew the Battle Hymn of the Republic by heart, but didn't know anything about the South's hymn. That rather suggested that perhaps the professor had a point.

"The third option is to listen in on the tactical feed, " Wilkins continued. "It's a system that tunes in on the various fleet communication bandwidths, and attempts to isolate and play the communications that are either most informative or important at any given time. I'm not sure how useful it'll be in a single-unit action, but it should give you some information on how the battle is forming around you."

"Sounds like the third option is best, then," Jared commented.

Wilkins shook his head. "Fine. Not my preference, but it is your choice to make. And on some levels, I guess I understand it."

Jared nodded serenely. "Though..." he drew the word out thoughtfully. "Maybe I do have a few ideas, but they'd need a bit of programming to work."

"Oh?" Wilkins asked, eyebrow arching.

"Yeah," Jared nodded. "I think I'd like that, if you can manage it," he smiled. "Basically..."

"Jump, jump jump!" someone chanted in warning, and then the sudden disorientation struck again. Jared's stomach roiled in protest as the Nova Maria dislocated time and space. Using low-powered drive settings made the sensation worse, but what was really getting to him was the repetition. About one person in twenty on board displayed increasing signs of nausea and disorientation every time they jumped. The longer between jumps, the better off they were, so it looked like it was a reaction specifically to repeated jumps, but the basic fact was a good chunk of the crew was disabled by violent nausea for a few minutes after every jump. Captain Mathews was buying them all as much time as he could between jumps, but unless they gave up on their lightning assault on known fighter docking bases and construction facilities, there was nothing he could do.

And it was vital that they reduce as much of the U.S. space presence as possible before the enemy could adjust to their operational patterns, even if that did leave Jared and a number of other personnel stuck helplessly crouching over the head. Jared, at least, had his augmentation to dampen the nausea, the rest of the crew were stuck in a nearly continues wave of vomiting. Medical personnel were administering anti-nausea drugs with a heavy hand, but there were limits and everyone was reaching them.

Jared was lucky; so far, he'd managed to keep lunch down, but a few more jumps and even his augmentation wouldn't be able to keep the jump sickness at bay.

"How are they doing?" a familiar voice asked.

"We've pumped them full of anti-nausea drugs, and they're still projectile vomiting everything they try to drink," a worried doctor told Admiral Beech. "We're using IVs to keep them as hydrated as possible, but there are limits."

"And Warren?" the admiral asked. Jared felt his lips curl in disdain. You cared about all of your troops, not just the one or two that were important for the mission at hand. You might sacrifice some of them if you had to, but you didn't check on them simply to excuse yourself for checking in on the 'important' one. Every one of them was important.

"His augmentation has managed to hold the worst of the nausea at bay," the doctor told him. "It's incredible, really. You can tell he's just as sick as the others for an instant, then the augmentation adjusts his chemistry to compensate. He only needs to stay down here right when there's a jump, but with so little warning..." Jared heard the shrug in the doctor's voice.

"Understood. The next jump will be our last for a while, and I need him fully operational after that," Beech ordered the doctor.

Jared decided to risk poking his head out of the head. "I'll be ready, Admiral," he told the man. "I haven't even lost my lunch yet-"

"Jump, jump, jump," the warning repeated, and Jared felt the warning quiver as his augmentation warned him that this time, it wasn't a false alarm.

His augmentation made the following process even more vile, unpleasant, and downright violent than projectile vomiting usually was. The worst part was that Jared, as he'd discovered the one time he'd gotten food poisoning, was one of the minority of individuals with an unfortunate mutation. The miniature duct between his eyes and his nose was capable of letting fluid under pressure squirt through, and pressure there most assuredly was.

When he was finished losing his lunch, a doctor handed him a wet wipe. "They need you in the cargo bay," the doctor frowned. "Must be pretty damned important, they want you ASAP."

"Figures," Jared wiped his mouth. "You know how long we're going to be here?"

"They announced it as you were busy," the doctor nodded. "Twenty four hours, and then they'll try a small jump to make sure you guys can take it again before we resume any further operations."

"Sounds good to me," Jared swallowed. "Got any water? I think I can keep it down."

"Here," the doctor handed him a small paper cup filled with ice chips. "Go slow on that."

Jared nodded, "I'm familiar with the drill. I caught food poisoning once."

"Good enough," the doctor sighed. "They're waiting for you, and I don't think they want to be patient."

Jared frowned. "I wonder what could be so urgent," he wondered out loud. "I'd better get moving. See ya," he told the doctor.

In the cargo bay where the combat suit was being prepared, he found a roaring riot of arguing, contentious officers. "Jared!" Mathews snarled. "Did you know anything about this?"

"Anything about what?" Jared shouted back to be heard over the general din.

"The idiots brought antimatter on board my ship!" Mathews snapped. "Antimatter!"

Jared blinked in confusion. "Huh?" he asked.

"It's perfectly safe!" Wilkins broke in. "The antimatter is stored inside static micro-magnetic fields that can't be broken without physically destroying the container! It's no more dangerous than chemical explosives!"

"Chemical explosives won't destroy the damned ship!" Beech roared. "Why the hell didn't you tell me you were experimenting with that shit!"

"It was in the technical reports we sent you!" someone else shouted. "What, do we need to hold your hands while you read our reports?"

"No, but when experimenting with restricted technologies, you should damned well specifically let people know!" Beech threw his hands up. "You don't just bury that shit in a footnote and think people will notice it!"

"We had approval from Commandant Hearns!" another conversation broke in. "We didn't just start whipping this stuff up!"

"Commandant Hearns isn't the captain of this ship! You should have checked with our captain-" someone else shouted.

Something inside Jared snapped. It was stupid, it was insane, but they were behaving like children, not officers. "Shut up, every last one of you! Attention on deck!" Everyone snapped around to face Jared, shocked. "If you're going to behave like children, I am going to treat you like children," Jared said icily. "You're first. Explain!"

Wilkins glared at Jared's pointing finger for a moment, as if unable to believe he was being treated like a little boy. Then Admiral Beech started laughing. "You heard the man, Wilkins!" he giggled. "And, hell, he's right!"

Jared's finger moved. "You'll get your turn. Shut up."

Beech composed himself, but the occasional contagious giggling fit still escaped him, forcing Jared to shut the room up again several times as he worked his way through it. "We used a stabilized form of antimatter in some of the weapons in your combat suit," Wilkins started the process. "We had proper authorization and filled out full reports to all relevant officers. While the power of the resulting weapons is several orders of magnitude higher than could be managed with chemical weapons alone, the amount of antimatter is small enough to be below the WMD threshold even taken as an aggregate. The amount in each individual warhead is much lower, and there is no chance of an accidental release thanks to the micro-encapsulation technique used. Instead of the antimatter being held in a single, large magnetic bubble, we encapsulated it on a smaller scale in a series of static bubbles. Instead of generating a field around it, we take small bits of it and wrap magnetic materials around them. No power is required, and the only way to release the antimatter is to breach the bubbles, which can only happen through a direct physical impact at high velocities."

"Your turn," Jared pointed at Mathews.

"I don't want antimatter on my ship. As Captain, I am required to be informed when dangerous materials are brought on board, and anti-matter qualifies," Mathews growled, glaring at Wilkins. "I've never heard of this micro-encapsulation, but I do know that antimatter containment is inherently unstable, and any sizable quantity of antimatter is dangerous."

"You," Jared pointed out one of the technicians from the base.

"The micro-encapsulation is not unstable," the tech shrugged. "A regular magnetic containment bottle is, I will concede, unstable. However, this technique lets us avoid the instabilities of a magnetic bottle -- instabilities, I'd like to point out, that are just as present and dangerous in a fusion reactor. As for why the Captain wasn't informed, I don't know. We sent him a list of the materials we were bringing on board, cross-linked to the relevant descriptions."

"Admiral Beech, I'd grab you next but I think the Captain might like to address that last bit," Jared informed him.

"You're running this show, Sergeant," Admiral Beech smiled. "And a fine job you're doing, too!"

Jared looked at Mathews. "Well?"

"They did send me a list, and I glanced at it," Mathews nodded. "But antimatter is something they should have placed directly on the list, not left in an appendix I may or may not decide to read when I'm busy prepping for a major military action!"

"Admiral, do you have anything to say?" Jared asked.

"Actually, I think what needs to be said has been," Admiral Beech frowned. "I need to know more about this technique, and there are a few patently false details about that man's comparing a fusion reactor to antimatter containment, but assuming this micro-encapsulation works as specified, most of my complaints are resolved."

"Patently false details?" Jared asked.

"If your fusion reactor's magnetic bottle is unstable, you can cut the hydrogen feed," Beech shrugged. "Comparing that to antimatter, where if the bottle becomes unstable you have no way to avoid a breach is unrealistic."

"You want to comment on that?" Jared asked the technician."

"No," the technician shook his head, "he's right. A fusion reactor you can shut down if you detect instability before the breach itself occurs."

"Are there any other details we need to work out here?" Jared glared across the room. "Or maybe, just maybe you can all start acting like officers again, instead of little children?"

"I think we can manage that much," Wilkins answered through pursed lips.

"Good," Jared's lips curled in a sneer. "I'd hate to have to ask the local JAG to bring you up on charges of conduct unbecoming."

"If the situation recurs, I assure you I'll do so myself," Admiral Beech told Jared. "Thank you for helping us regain control the situation."

"Your welcome," Jared ignored the boundless irony of the moment with icy dignity. It wasn't every day a 'mere' Sergeant Major got to chew out a room filled with officers, and moderately senior officers at that! Even as he'd lost his temper, Jared had half expected to be brought up on charges himself.

"Oh, and Sergeant?" Beech added as Jared turned to leave.

"Yes?" Jared turned to look over his shoulder.

"Don't worry about this, there won't be any trouble," Admiral Beech smiled. "Our behavior was unsatisfactory, and you simply took reasonable and prudent measures to correct the situation. No one here is going to file charges, and that," Admiral Beech's voice hardened, "is an order."

"Aye-aye sir," the gathered officers rumbled.

"That said, I believe Wilkins needed you to link into the suit so he could run some more diagnostics on some software they finished," Admiral Beech glanced at Wilkins.

"There are a few bug patches, and some software updates, that we do need to test, Sergeant."

Jared nodded. "Alright," he turned around and walked to the suit. "You sure do seem to be spending a lot of time doing this."

"Software tests, programming, and repair is just as much a part of our maintenance routines as physical maintenance these days," Wilkins shrugged. "Computers are everywhere on board ships, or in your suit."

Jared shook his head. "The day is coming when a ground-pounder like me won't be able to get away with not knowing how to use a computer."

"Sergeant, in case you hadn't noticed, that day is already here," Wilkins smiled. "And as these suits reach general deployment, marines are going to need to learn how to handle maintenance and repair, as well as use if they want to get the most out of them."

"Well, one more mission and I'm out," Jared told him. "I'm not sticking around for those days, that's for sure!"

"Davey, Cody," Jared knelt to place himself as close to them as he could. "It's just about time."

Cody was crying his heart out and shaking his head, but Davey took it with a 'big boys' stoic silence, and Jared lent him the dignity of ignoring the wetness in his eyes. "Davey, I need you to watch out for Cody."

Davey nodded, swallowing. "Yeah, Dad. Just 'till you get home. Then the twerp's all yours."

"Cody, I need you to be a big boy, behave yourself for Mathews. Until I get back, he's in charge, and I want you to listen to Davey too," Jared blinked to clear his vision. He wasn't crying any more than Davey was. Nope. No way.

Cody shook his head, "Don' go!" he begged.

"Cody Daniel Warren, we've been through this," Jared said firmly. "I have to go. Behave for Mathews while I'm gone."

Jared had wanted Mathews to take care of them, but hadn't been sure how well that would work until he'd talked to the Captain, who was watching silently from the corner. "Quite frankly, Admiral Beech and I have been talking about this," Mathews had sighed. "The fleet isn't safe, but we don't have anywhere else to put them until we can get them down to Earth. The Nova Maria is probably the safest place to keep them. And I'm her captain, for now."

"Keep them safe for me," Jared had smiled at the captain. "Until I get home."

"My word, and my love, on it," Mathews had smiled back.

In the present, Cody scuffed his feet on the floor, looking down as tears continued to stream down him face. "I love you guys," Jared told them. "More than you can ever know. I have to do this, for you as much as anyone else."

Jared held his arms open in invitation, and the boys fell into them. "Farewell," he whispered into their ears. "Until we meet again, farewell. I will return," Jared mouthed the end of the phrase, unable to actually tell them "if I can." He looked up at Mathews, then nodded curtly. Pulling out of the hug, he stood. "Be good," he told them, then turned on a heel and walked out of the room.

No one tried to talk to him as he crossed the ship to the waiting cargo bay, and the technicians in the bay didn't say a word as he stripped out of his civilian clothes and dressed in the unpowered armor he would wear beneath the combat suit. Complete silence, save for the slap and click of the actions themselves, reigned as Jared attached grenades, ammo clips, and other equipment of war to the waiting receptacles. Jared checked his side arm before attaching it to his belt, an old-fashioned automatic pistol rather than a modern pulser. Pulser ammo would be a problem on the ground, acquiring pistol rounds would be much easier if he needed. The six inch combat knife wasn't the one he was familiar with, but a reasonable upgrade using Federation technology to create an edge that was even sharper than a razor's, capable of slicing through solid steel without losing it's edge.

A roll of duct tape when into one pocket, just in case he needed it, and a pair of last-ditch holdout weapons were tucked into his left boot and right sleeve respectively. Jared was stronger than any normal infantryman, and he took ruthless advantage of that to load himself down dangerously, strapping on clip after clip of ammunition for both the battle rifle and his pistol until they formed an ersatz layer of armor over the top of his real body armor. Testing the results, his flexibility and freedom of motion were unhindered, despite carrying half a platoons worth of weaponry.

Jared slipped into the waiting combat armor, and hands helped adjust him perfectly into place, testing every last connection and contact point. "Good?" someone asked. Jared nodded curtly, and the armor closed around him. Jared closed his eyes and waited in the darkness as he was lifted into the drop pod. Unidentified clangs and bumps formed an impromptu orchestra until his suit activated after its external power port was connected to the drop pod.

"External power supply detected, activating suit systems for initial test cycle," a mechanical voice announced. Jared listened as it chanted arcane rituals involving diagnostics and mechanical warm ups, disconnected from everything. Mathews' voice cut across everything at one point, "Ten minutes to jump! All hands to battle stations! Set condition Zulu throughout the ship!" Jared ignored the warning, unable to so much as scratch the itch on his back.

That was the one thing he hated about the suit. You couldn't scratch, and you always wound up itching.

"Jump in five minutes! All hands, stand by for jump!"

"All systems green, Sergeant," a technician called over the radio. "Loading you into the launch tube now."

Jared felt the loading mechanism grab the pod, jostling it as it achieved a firm grip, and then he was being lifted and smoothly loaded into the waiting launch mechanism. With a clunk he was placed, locked in a fetal position with his face pointed downward. The restraints held him so that his weight wasn't placed on his knees or hands, but it was still far from comfortable.

Hurry up and wait, the military life. All the activity, all the frantic energy, and now he simply had to wait. And wait. And...

"Jump!" Mathews' voice cracked across ship.

Data flashed across Jared's view as the computers calculated the ship's exact position relative to the Earth, then confirmed the targeting parameters against current conditions, and finally generated the necessary launch trajectory. "Launch in three, two, one," the mechanical voice chimed, and then Jared was pushed, hard, against his restraints. Instead of hanging upside down, he was on his back as he was shot out of the launch tube with a push that felt more like an elephant's kick, and additional sensors came to life, displaying the earth below him and the ship behind him.

Zero gravity claimed him for an instant before a shockwave started the pod rolling. "What the hell?" Jared swore as the pod began gyrating wildly.

Then he saw the ship behind him. The graceful curves of her gleaming hull were marred by black, scarred patches, and air belched through shattered sections of the hull. Static hissed across the radio spectrum, then Mathews' voice drilled into the night. "Mayday, mayday!" he called. "This is the Nova Maria! We have taken a direct hit by what appears to be a nuclear mine! Our engines are offline, weapons and defenses failing! We are abandoning ship! This is the Nova Maria to anyone who can hear us, we are abandoning ship!"

Jared watched as secondary explosions wracked the ship as its systems overloaded and detonated, it's weapons ejected under emergency protocols, and it's capacitors were shorted. The ship was tearing itself apart without any need for further engagement, and then the drop pod's alarms began to wail, alerting Jared to inbound missiles.

The pod automatically began to gyrate and twist, automatic evasion protocols activating to avoid the incoming missiles. None of them were headed for the pod, though. Even as badly damaged as she was, the Nova Maria kept fighting to keep her crew alive, weapons lighting up the night as her point defense systems activated on automatic. Jared watched as counter-missiles streaked away to impact and destroy missiles long before they could reach engagement range, and point defense lasers fluoresced the air streaming past them as they reached out to engage still more missiles.

If it hadn't been the nuclear mine, the Nova Maria wouldn't have been scratched, some part of Jared's mind noted. Even damaged her defenses handled the incoming missiles with sneering, contemptuous ease. Hatches began to open, preparing to jettison escape pods into the night, and then another shockwave struck as another nuclear mine drifted too close.

The pod's systems faltered for a moment before coming back online to show the shattered remnants of what used to be a ship, the debris of the once proud vessel drifting in space like the ghost of a corpse.

Jared let the pod fall to the Earth on autopilot, ignoring everything as he wept. Davey... Cody... Mathews...

Previous ChapterNext Chapter