tagSci-Fi & FantasyQueen of Jarilo

Queen of Jarilo

bySnekguy©

CHAPTER 1: SIEGE OF JARILO

The admirals sat around a circular table in the conference room, poring over the data readouts that were embedded in the polished mahogany, scrolling past field reports and fleet logistics with their white gloves. It was rare to see so many admirals assembled in one place, brought in from every corner of Coalition space, some better rested than others as they waited for the briefing to begin. The great wheel that gave Fort Hamilton its nickname and provided it with artificial gravity, rotated past outside the windows against the velvet black backdrop of space. The Pinwheel was the largest naval base in human territory, and security had been bumped up at the request of the security chief, as having so many high ranking officers in one place would present a juicy target. The engine trails of warships could be seen beyond the station as the metal behemoths drifted along their patrol routes.

One of them men stood, straightening his white dress uniform, his breast decorated with a dozen medals and insignias. He cleared his throat, and then tapped in a command on his touch screen, a hologram of a planet materializing in the center of the table. It was beautiful and verdant, with sparkling blue oceans and continents covered in green vegetation, wisps of white cloud floated across the landscape in familiar weather patterns. Had it not been for the shapes of the land masses, one might have mistaken it for Earth at a glance.

"Two days ago, a Russian Federation survey ship that was scouting contested space along the Coalition border, discovered a previously unknown Earth-like planet. They named it Jarilo."

He tapped at his monitor, the hologram crackling as it shifted, lines of text and graphs appearing to display more information as the admirals leaned closer to examine the display.

"Zero point nine eight Gs, an atmosphere composed of sixty seven percent nitrogen and thirty two percent oxygen, with the rest being argon and other traces gases. It has an active and very powerful magnetosphere that protects it from solar radiation, likely due to its iron core, and liquid water covers approximately sixty two percent of its surface. The planet has a native biosphere, with carbon based plant and animal life flourishing across its continents and oceans. It is a garden world, the most like Earth that we have ever come across."

"How did we miss this in our surveys?" One of the other admirals asked, visibly perturbed by the revelation. "I thought that we had mapped every habitable planet in Coalition space? We've been colonizing less and less desirable planets for years now because the astronomers and surveyors told us that we had run out of suitable targets. Hell, we've fought tooth and nail over planets like Kruger III and Hades, planets with only the barest capacity to support human life."

"The planet was hidden by the star's accretion disk. The system is a young one, but the presence of several large gas giants has kept it remarkably safe from debris. It was just bad luck, it was obscured relative to us on the galactic plane by this cloud of dust and asteroids," he said as he pointed towards a map of the system and its planets. "It took a ship entering the system to spot it."

"And why have you convened this meeting?" Another of the admirals asked, this one sporting a long, grey beard that obscured some of his regalia. "You cannot have brought us all together in one place to discuss what could have been announced through the usual channels." "You are correct," the admiral giving the presentation continued. "Along with the discovery of Jarilo, came the detection of a Betelgeusian fleet crossing into contested space, and making a beeline for the system. The Russian survey ship fled as soon as they detected the incoming vessels, but our best intelligence suggests that Jarilo may already be under occupation."

"This planet may be more suited to human life than even our own home world," another of the admirals added, "I need not impress upon you gentlemen the importance of securing it. This could become a second Earth, a spearhead in the fight against the Betelgeusians. The colonists there could thrive, rather than barely clinging to life, as has been the case in so many of our recent ventures."

"We cannot allow this planet to remain in Bug hands," the man sitting beside him confirmed, slamming his gloved fist on the table and causing the hologram to flicker for a moment. "We must stake our claim and deny the insects a foothold there by any means necessary."

There was a chorus of affirmations around the table.

"We must assemble a strike force, and they must reach Jarilo as soon as possible. Every day we spend preparing gives the Bugs more time to entrench and fortify their position. We have to hit them hard and fast, before they have an opportunity to make this planet a fortress."

"Can we spare the ships?" The admiral to his left asked, scratching his stubbly chin as he considered. "There are a dozen systems along the border where the Betelgeusians could make a push if we diverted ships from the front line, our fleets are stretched thin as it is."

"The Thermopylae is currently in dry dock on this very station," the man giving the presentation volunteered. "She's a carrier, just returned from quelling an insurrection on Hades. She's undergoing some minor repairs and then she's slated to be redeployed to the front."

"Then we'll give her new orders," the bearded admiral announced as he stood and leaned across the wooden table to glare at his colleagues. "The Thermopylae is to resupply and lead an invasion force to Jarilo, their mission is to capture the planet with extreme prejudice. Who is the captain?"

"That would be...one Captain Stavros."

"Stavros? I know the man, he's reliable. Make him the fleet commander on this one, and throw together whatever ships you can pull away from their duties. I know that I saw a battleship and some cruisers on the flight in. If it's docked at this station and it's space worthy, then I want it en route to Jarilo as soon as humanly possible."

***

Walker swam, his muscles burning as he reached the end of the lane, resting for a moment and catching his breath as the ropes to either side of him bobbed on their plastic floats in the blue water. He secured his white swimming cap, adjusted his goggles, then broke into a backstroke as he started another lap. He always liked to visit the pool whenever he had shore leave, there was something relaxing about letting himself float in the water, almost as if he was in zero gravity. It was great exercise too, cathartic, the water carrying away any sweat that he generated as he powered through it.

They didn't use chlorine on the Pinwheel, the Krell didn't like it, and so the Olympic sized pool had that fresh feel and taste that reminded him so much of swimming in the lakes and rivers of his youth. There were a few of the giant lizards floating in the adjacent lanes, like oversized, bipedal crocodiles. They were covered in spinach colored scales that could stop a bullet, around sixteen feet from nose to tail, inhumanly friendly and easygoing despite their fearsome appearance. They lazed, pushing themselves along slowly with their huge, oar-like tails. They weren't exercising, they just liked the water, one could argue that they were more at home inside the pool than out.

The rest of his squad mates had gone straight to the bar, but Walker liked to take care of himself. A weapon that was improperly maintained would fail you, and the human body was no different. As a scout sniper he was often put into unpredictable and physically demanding situations.

He rested for a few more moments, his arms crossed on the side of the pool, watching the Krell as they floated sluggishly. They tended not to stay in their lanes, as large as they were, he'd have to keep an eye out for errant aliens on his way back up.

He plunged back into the water, a breaststroke this time, trying to exercise as much of his body as he could. Swimming was preferable to running in that way, it involved so many more muscle groups, every kick and pull was like a miniature resistance workout in itself.

As he reached the deep end of the pool, he felt a surge in the water beneath his feet, as if some large mass was about to breach directly under him. Something grabbed his leg and pulled him beneath the surface, giving him barely enough time to take a gulp of air before he was submerged, and through his goggles he saw a Borealan grinning up at him from below.

She was eight feet tall, female judging by two breasts the size of his head that were barely contained by a two-piece swimsuit, the wet material black against her pale skin. She had strawberry blonde hair that was cut short in a bob, two round ears protruding from it, and eyes the color of amber with feline pupils that glinted with amusement as she grinned at him silently through the water. Her body was clean of fur save for her forearms and her legs below the knee, the same color as her hair and decorated with faded markings that reminded Walker of a leopard. Her fingers were clawed like those of a cat, and her digitigrade legs ended in paw-like feet that were similarly armed. Her long tail floated behind her like a furry snake, developed muscles bulging from beneath her skin, a product of the harsh gravity of her home world. They were colloquially known as 'Mad Cats' to military personnel, alien auxiliaries that were renowned for their combat prowess, not to mention their antagonistic nature.

She released his ankle from her fuzzy grip, bubbles escaping from her mouth as she laughed, exposing her sharp teeth. Walker swam to the surface, taking a deep breath, his assailant rising to float beside him.

"Your face Walker," she snickered, slapping the surface of the pool with her dinner plate sized hand and showering him with water. "For a scout, you're damned easy to sneak up on."

Her people were mischievous at best and belligerent at worst, their society was based around pack hierarchies, with members locked in a constant battle for dominance and status that was most often decided through violence. They were hard to get along with, but once you understood their way of thinking, they made firm friends.

"They should keep you guys in cages when you're on leave," he complained, and she grinned widely. "Besides Kaz, you're my spotter, keeping a lookout is supposed to be your job."

"Come on Walker, let's go to the recreation center, I'll let you buy me a drink."

She rubbed her flat, pink nose with the back of her furry forearm as she waited for a response, remarkably buoyant despite her sheer mass.

"You don't need me to buy you drinks, you can scarcely handle one beer, getting you wasted costs about five credits."

"Hey, how my species metabolizes alcohol is my own business, now are you coming or not?"

"Fine, fine, just let me go dry off."

Kaz had been assigned to him as his spotter, something about Borealans having better visual acuity than humans, and their sense of smell rivaled that of a bloodhound. They were certainly stealthy when they wanted to be, but crack shots they generally were not, and that was where Walker came in. A human and a Borealan alone in the field for long periods of time, things were bound to happen, they were sexual creatures and it was as much a part of their social interaction as polite conversation. Walker and Kaz had found a kind of equilibrium, it let off steam and reduced stress, and so there was nothing to complain about. It took a firm hand to keep a Borealan in check, but Walker was a UNN Marine, being a hardass was in his job description.

***

Kaz sipped from a shot glass filled with a pink beverage, 'raises the hair' they called it, some native Borealan drink that their bodies could tolerate without getting black out drunk. The recreation center was crowded with humans and aliens alike, laughing and joking as they played pool and card games The people sitting at the bar were packed shoulder to shoulder like sardines in a can.

Their jump carrier, the Thermopylae, had just unloaded its cargo of troops and auxiliaries after a pacification mission on Hades. It hadn't been much of a challenge. The local resistance had been comprised mostly of PDF conscripts, the majority of which had thrown down their weapons at the first sight of a Marine. Space travel was not expedient or easy however, and Hades was right on the fringe of inhabited space, they had spent weeks stuck in cramped crew quarters. Now they were on a well earned shore leave, the air was full of smoke from e-cigarettes, and the smell of pub food carried over from the tables where some of the Marines were having their first meal in weeks that hadn't come in a plastic packet. Kaz was sat next to Walker, the bar stools specially reinforced for the heavier aliens and rigged with springs that would sink the seat down level with the counter. He took a draw of his beer, not much of a drinker himself, listening to the bustle around him as they decided what to do next.

"We gonna get some food?" Kaz asked, nudging him with her massive fist and almost knocking him off his bar stool. "There's that food cart I like down in the tourist quarter, you know, the one that sells kebabs?"

"Are you kidding me? The last time we went down there you talked me into splitting the bill, and then I got a five credit sub and you bought sixty credits worth of kebab meat. I think you ran the poor guy out of business, I'm surprised he didn't just let you walk away with the entire spit."

"I'm a growing girl, I need my protein."

She rested her elbows on the wooden counter and leaned in close, her tone turning salacious as she whispered to him, barely audible over the noisy bar environment.

"I'm asking you on a date, Earth boy. We've not fooled around since we were out in the field, so let's blow our paycheck on some good food and then we can fuck until the sun lamps turn on, how about that?"

He choked on his beer a little, never any less surprised by how forward and vulgar she could be. Having a Borealan friend with benefits could be a handful, but nothing in life worth doing was easy.

"Well when you put it that way..."

She cackled, hopping off the stool and stretching her long arms above her head, her full figure practically exploding through her skin-tight UNN issue jumpsuit. Walker slammed the last of his beer, and stood to join her, but before they could set off they heard a man shout over the ruckus. The room went silent as he repeated it, all eyes turning to him.

"Crew of the Thermopylae, your shore leave has been canceled, you're shipping out again tomorrow. Everyone needs to report to their CO as soon as possible."

"Fuck," Walker breathed, Kaz's round ears drooping. "No rest for the wicked, eh?"

***

The Thermopylae broke through the fabric of space like a bullet, a shower of colorful gases expanding in a cloud behind it as it left superlight, a dozen support ships following in its wake like a pod of dolphins surfing the bow wave of a ship. Only the largest classes of ship were big enough to house the nuclear generators required to power the jump drives, the smaller ships relied on carriers to tow them into superlight. They drifted for a moment, their crews temporarily incapacitated by the wracking energies of higher dimensional travel, the flight computers taking control to protect the crew from any ambush or threat during the brief period of vulnerability. The ship was over three hundred meters long, a hundred thousand tons of streamlined steel, painted in the traditional ocean grey and dotted with recesses in the hull where attack fighters and landing craft were housed. Its belly and flanks bristled with offensive and defensive weaponry, ship to ship missiles, orbital railguns and point defense turrets.

Captain Stavros gripped the command console with his hand, gloved in white, the insignia of fleet commander joining the many medals and commendations that decorated his uniform. The more jumps you did, the easier it got, but you never really got used to it. Stavros' ability to stand during superlight was considered superhuman by many of his crew members, and he steadied himself as his faculties began to slowly return, his vision clearing and the spasms of his muscles abating as he looked through the main view port at the star field beyond. He was a swarthy man, with a dark beard adorning his face, a hat with a captain's wreath sitting proudly upon his head.

His bridge crew were strapped to their crash couches, plastic bits in their mouths to prevent them from biting off their own tongues, a few of them coming to and cradling their heads in their hands. The effects of superlight travel on the human body ranged from seizures to temporary insanity. It was like running your brain through a blender, but most people recovered after a few minutes.

"J-Jump successful," his helmsman stammered, rubbing his eyes as he examined the readout on his console. "We're just outside the area of operations, no enemy vessels on local scans. The fleet followed us through, all ships accounted for, but there's no sign of the-"

Before he could finish his sentence, the UNN Kartikeya popped into existence a few hundred meters to their starboard, a hulking mass of angular metal that housed enough weaponry to rival the rest of the fleet combined. It was a Martian battleship, one of the largest ever built, its tonnage nearing that of even the carriers. Where the Thermopylae was sleek and designed to handle limited atmospheric flight, the Kartikeya was a spacecraft through and through, it looked as if it had been welded together from giant pieces of sheet metal. The entire hull was split into two halves, built around a truly massive magnetic accelerator that served as a giant railgun, catapulting projectiles the size of a semi trailer at relativistic speeds. The crew were forbidden from firing that thing near Jarilo, one miss and it might impact the planet with the force of a meteorite strike. Accidentally killing the world they were supposed to be capturing would be an embarrassing field report to have to send home.

"Speak of the devil," the helmsman continued, "pride of Mars on our flank."

The great vessel sprang to life after a moment of lethargy, righting itself and joining the fleet formation as its thrusters pulsed with blue flame, the cloud of technicolor gas dispersing behind it as reality healed the wound that the ship had opened. Its arrays of turrets twisted on their axis, the bay doors of its missile batteries opening and closing, as if the vessel was itself flexing and stretching as it recovered from the jump.

The captain's voice came through on the comms, crackling with static.

"This is Captain Chopra of the Kartikeya, on station."

"Glad to have you with us Kartikeya," Stavros replied.

The dozen frigates and cruisers that had rode in with the Thermopylae floated nearby like a cloud of insects in comparison to the two flagships, missile destroyers and gunships readying their weapons for the engagement that was to come.

"All hands to battle stations," Stavros announced over the intercom, "get those CIWS frigates into position. I want a missile defense blanket covering the whole fleet, we all know how much the Bugs like their plasma torpedoes."

The formation of ships burned into position, their main engines firing to match velocity, moving further into the system as they reached cruising speed. It would take a good hour for them to close the distance and reach Jarilo orbit, but jumping in any closer could put them at risk. If the Bugs had established orbital defense platforms as they were known to do, then even the larger vessels might be shredded. It was better to keep the engagement at as long a range as possible, and in space that could mean hundreds of thousands of miles. There would certainly be an ugly brawl in high orbit, but with any luck they could use their missiles and torpedoes to take out the more dangerous vessels and structures before they reached spitting distance.

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