CHAPTER 7: HD-217107
“The findings of the probe confirm the claims of the aliens,” Campbell said, pacing in front of the table in the briefing room as a hologram of the system flickered above it. Jaeger was once again in attendance, along with Doctor Evans, some of the more senior personnel, and the Valbarans. The Captain was standing beside the engineer, his hands clasped behind his back as he examined the ghostly display. “There is a third planet in the HD-217107 system, between the orbits of the two gas giants. Its distance from the star is calculated to be one point two AU, with an orbital period of one point three Earth-standard years. Due to the luminosity of the star, approximately ten percent brighter than Sol and ninety-eight percent of its mass, it puts Valbara well within the habitable zone. Valbara appears to have a slightly lower mass than Earth, but not enough to have any serious impact on any potential ground operations.”
“What kind of activity did the probe pick up?” Fielding asked.
“Lots of radio chatter, lots of interplanetary and orbital traffic. It appears that the Valbarans have established outposts on several moons of the outer gas giant, which is likely where they mine the helium-3 that they use in their reactors. Interestingly, the inner gas giant orbits at point zero zero seven AU from the star, and its year lasts only point zero two standard, that’s a little over a week. It’s incredibly hot and fast, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Defenses?” Fielding asked.
“A series of orbital defense platforms using high-powered laser batteries, and several more carriers like the one we encountered. Their reactors are kicking out immense heat. Not the most practical orbital defense system, but I wouldn’t want to be in the aperture of those mirrors all the same. Personally, I don’t think they’d be able to burn through the hull of a hive ship at any significant range, even if they concentrated their beams. I don’t know how effective they’d be at holding off a Bug invasion. There’s radioactivity too, likely nuclear weapons. Those might be more effective, but their use is obviously limited. Their strategy might have been to bombard the Bug fleet at range with their nuclear warheads, and then finish off the stragglers with laser fire.”
“Did we miss anything?” Fielding asked, directing his question to Maza.
“No, Captain,” she replied. “I must admit, I am a little…perturbed by your ability to spy on us.”
Her language skills were now so good that she was very nearly fluent, she might have been mistaken for a human if it wasn’t for the pitch of her voice and the way that she seemed to hesitate before making a statement. It was remarkable to hear her speak so clearly after days of her parroting everything that she heard like…well, a parrot.
“It’s strictly for our own security, I assure you,” he replied.
“So your evaluation is that our defenses would have been inadequate?” Coza asked, glancing at Campbell. “Ever since our defeat at Ker’gue’la, we have known that the Bugs would come for Val’ba’ra, and that it was only a matter of time. We have been preparing to face them for twenty rotations.”
“There are a lot of holes in your defenses,” Fielding replied. It wasn’t a criticism, but a simple statement of fact. “Your defense stations lack the ability to take out small vessels, which would allow the Bugs to board and disable them. They would also slip between the stations and make landfall, effectively bypassing the majority of your firepower.”
“We would use the fighters housed on our carriers to counter that threat,” Coza protested, her feathers fluttering with what might have been frustration or embarrassment. “Our commandos would hold the defense platforms against boarding parties.”
“Have you ever seen what a Betelgeusian warrior can do in close quarters?” Fielding asked.
“N-no,” she admitted, her feathers drooping.
“They can turn even a Krell into strips of meat. We’ve seen the Bugs launch large dropships, small landers, even individual drones contained within drop pods during a planetary invasion. Your fighters would not be able to track and destroy them all. I don’t know what your people encountered at Kerguela, but there’s no guarantee that this fleet will have anything in common with that hive. The Bugs mutate and genetically engineer themselves to suit whatever situation they find themselves in.”
“With all due respect, Captain, it is…difficult to accept that all of our preparations have been for nothing,” Maza said as Coza glared at the flickering hologram. She more than any of the other aliens seemed to be shaken by the revelation.
“Not for nothing,” Campbell added, “we can make use of them to supplement the fleet’s firepower.”
“Then…you will not seek help from your homeworld?” Maza asked, surprised.
“We can’t,” Fielding explained, “it would take about a year to return to Coalition space and then make it back here with reinforcements. The Bugs are already probing the system for weaknesses.”
“My apologies, it’s just that your technology is so impressive to us. We assumed that you could communicate over great distances instantly, or perhaps travel faster than we can.”
“Don’t worry,” Jaeger said, trying to reassure her. “The Rorke and its fleet were sent out here with the aim of tracking down and killing Bugs. We’re equipped for this.”
Campbell grumbled under his breath, leaning across the table and staring at the hologram.
“Still, this fleet wasn’t assembled to defend an inhabited planet,” the surly engineer said. “We have only one carrier, we don’t have any battleships or cruisers, and our support fleet is fairly limited. We’ll be stretched thin if we try to maintain control of Valbara’s gravity well.”
“Then we rely on the Valbarans for support,” the Captain said, glancing in the flock’s direction. “They have a dozen carriers, numerous defense platforms, and an entire civilization’s worth of resources and manpower. With the right strategy, I’m confident that we can repel an invasion.”
Campbell didn’t look as convinced as the Captain, shooting Jaeger a sideways glance.
“Quartermaster, the first thing that I want is an inventory of everything we have onboard,” the Captain ordered. “I want to know about every surplus XMR and every extra missile that we can spare, we’re going to give the Valbarans the best chance that we can. I want information sharing to begin immediately, treaties and trade deals be damned. Transfer blueprints, plans, manufacturing techniques if necessary. I want them converting their current armaments and building new ones ASAP, and I want advisors on the ground to help them along.”
“Captain!” Doctor Evans exclaimed, “do you have any idea what kind of impact that might have on their society?”
“It might be a bit of a shock to their economy, but they can deal with the fallout if we survive this.”
“You’re just…giving us all of your technology?” Xico asked in disbelief, her feathers flashing in shades of excited yellow.
“You would risk your lives for ours?” Coza added.
“I’m under orders from the Admiralty to scour this sector for Bugs and to prevent them from establishing a foothold on the borders of Coalition space from which they could launch further incursions,” Fielding replied without faltering. “I’m just carrying out my duties, Ma’am.”
The aliens closed ranks and began to chitter to one another in their native language. Apparently, they hadn’t expected this kind of support. Campbell sighed loudly, running his fingers through his hair.
“Alright…well the defense platforms have reactors, and if they can power lasers, then they can power a railgun. That’s going to help with range and penetration. Assuming that the Valbarans have the lifting capability to get them into orbit, we can build some twenty-millimeter turrets and hook them up to the power grid. Ammo is easy enough, it’s just a matter of getting enough of it to where it will be most needed. We can equip the commandos stationed on the orbital platforms with surplus XMRs, and we can transmit the blueprints to build more. If they don’t have the battery technology required to power them, then we can teach them to manufacture those too. If they can mine lithium, and they can make graphene, then they can manufacture batteries.”
“We can plug some of the holes in their defenses with our CWIS frigates,” Fielding said, pacing around the table as he scrutinized the hologram. “Have them protect the defense platforms and prevent the Bugs from slipping through the cracks as best they can. What about their carriers?”
“I don’t think we can retrofit them,” Campbell said, bringing up a three-dimensional image of one of the Valbaran ships. The aliens again seemed disturbed by the ease at which the UNN was able to scan their technology and expose their military secrets. “One possibility would be to slave the targeting systems on those ships to the Rorke’s flight computer. I think they would be more effective filling in for the CWIS frigates than as ships of the line. If we can direct those laser batteries, then we can use them to shoot down incoming torpedoes and fighters. The same goes for the lasers on the defense platforms.”
“Can the Rorke’s computers handle that kind of load?” Fielding asked.
“Bandwidth might be an issue, but if we boost the capacity of the main comms array, then I think we’ll have enough throughput. We’ll need to write some new software to interface with the Valbaran computers, of course. We’re going to be kicking out a stupid amount of radio chatter, which is going to light us up like a beacon. The Bugs will know what we’re doing.”
“If I might interject, Sir,” Jaeger began. “How will we know when and where they’ll attack from? If we concentrate our defenses on one side of the planet, and they exit superlight on the other, we’ll lose time burning to them. Right now, they’re sniffing about in the Oort cloud, but they could jump in from any direction. We don’t have the numbers to cover the whole planet.”
“The defense platforms are spread out around the planet’s equator in high orbit,” Campbell replied, “we’ll have to relay the signal between them if we’re going to hijack all of them at once.”
“We will station the mainstay of the fleet in orbit above the North pole,” Fielding said, “that way we can waste the shortest amount of time burning to their entry point. There’s no reason for them to jump in at either of the poles, the Valbaran cities and manufacturing centers are mostly based around the equators, judging by their carbon emissions.”
“What do you require of us, Captain?” Maza asked. Perhaps the aliens were feeling left out.
“I need your team to contact your carrier, inform them of everything that you’ve learned during your time on the Rorke. We’ll be sending them some large data packets soon, so make sure that they’re ready to receive and store them. I also need you to ask them for jump coordinates, I don’t want to land the Rorke in the middle of a shipping lane.”
She nodded, another gesture that she had picked up from the humans.
“We must discuss this further, please excuse us.”
The aliens filed out of the room one by one, no doubt about to huddle again and come to a decision on what to do.
“You all have your orders,” Fielding said, clasping his hands behind his back as he glanced at each of the people sitting around the table in turn. “Let’s not waste any time, the Bugs could start their attack tomorrow, or in a month. The faster you work, the more we can prepare, and the better odds we’ll have of succeeding.”
There was a chorus of ‘yes sir’s‘, and then the personnel in attendance stood, making their way out into the corridor.
“Stay with the Valbarans,” Fielding said, stopping Jaeger as he made his way to the door. “It looks like fate has chosen you to be our ambassador, Lieutenant. You know these aliens better than anyone onboard. This is going to be jarring for them, I want to make sure that everything goes smoothly. Let me know if you anticipate any problems.”
“Lord knows that if an advanced species showed up out of nowhere and offered to take control of our entire military, I’d be nervous.”
“Maza understands what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Jaeger said, “I’m sure of that. The rest of her species though, is another matter.”
“You’ve done well so far, I know that none of this is in your job description. Keep it up.”
The Rorke left superlight just behind the Valbaran carrier, showering it in a cloud of colorful gas and particles, the rest of the support fleet dragged along in its wake. The vessels drifted for a moment as the miniature nebula spread and dissipated, the autopilots taking temporary control to prevent collisions as their crews endured the wracking energies of jump travel.
When they came to, before them was a gleaming jewel hanging in the blackness of space like some kind of beautiful bauble. There were shining oceans, their deep blue surfaces glittering under the light of the sun, swirling clouds cloaking continents of greenery. There was pink and purple too, odd colors for plants, staining the landscape like someone had spilled a giant cup of grape juice across the globe. The white hulls of the carriers and the defense platforms that were stationed in orbit shone brightly like beacons even at range, like motes of dust that ringed the equator. There were poles sheathed in white ice, but not much of it, they were small and reduced in comparison to those of Earth. It must be a warm planet.
The massive engines to the aft of the Rorke flared to life, belching blue flame as they propelled the behemoth towards Valbara. It was the largest thing in the sky, a whale swimming amidst a school of dolphins, the Valbaran carrier leading from the front like a tug guiding a tanker into port. The frigates that accompanied the giant vessel took up parade formation beside it, spread out in an impressive delta shape. The Captain’s orders were to awe the aliens, both to inspire hope, and perhaps to dissuade any potential hostilities.
“The Valbaran vessels are communicating, Captain. There’s a lot of radio chatter,” the comms officer announced. Fielding was standing in front of the large viewport at the front of the bridge, his arms crossed as he watched the planet slowly grow.
“Keep her steady, helmsman. Head for the North pole and park us in orbit. What’s the status on the ground team?”
“Ready to launch,” the comms officer replied, touching a finger to her ear as she communicated with the hangar crew. “Shall I give them the go-ahead?”
“No,” Fielding replied, “let’s wait until we’re a little closer first.”
As the planet ballooned in the viewport, a trio of carriers began to burn towards them, squadrons of fighters detaching from their hulls and taking defensive positions.
“They’re on an intercept course, Captain,” the weapons officer said as he looked up from his control bank. “Should we be worried?”
“No, keep our weapons cold. Remember, we’re guests here. How would you feel if an unidentified ship, larger than any that you’ve ever seen, suddenly showed up in your skies? It’s natural for them to be a little nervous.”
The ships neared until their spinning toruses were clearly visible, their long, segmented hulls glinting in the light of the system’s star. A formation of fighters did a fairly close flyby, their colored panels flashing as they buzzed the bridge. They came back around, matching velocity, guiding the Rorke in as their engines pulsed.
“See?” Fielding said with a wave of his gloved hand, “here’s our welcome party. Let’s send the ground crew down to the surface.”
“Beewolf two-zero-six and two-zero-niner, feeding coordinates to your flight computers, your orders are to follow the Valbaran lander down to the surface and make landfall. Ensure the safety of the dropships, they’re carrying the engineering and security teams.”
“Roger that, control,” Jaeger said as he spooled his engine. “You get all that, Baker?”
“Yep,” his wingman said, taxiing into position beside him as the heat shields rose out of the deck behind them. “I can’t believe this, I never thought they’d actually let us take shore leave on Valbara. Imagine all the crazy shit we’re about to see!”
“It’s not shore leave, we’re working.”
“Tropical climate, no orders once we get out of the cockpit besides lookin’ around and takin’ in the local culture, sure sounds like shore leave to me!”
Jaeger watched as the camouflaged Valbaran lander lifted off the deck on its thrusters, inching towards the glimmering force field as it battled against the gravity in the enclosed hangar. It edged its way out into space, the wheeled landing gear stowing as it drifted, the momentum of the Rorke carrying it along.
The indicator on Jaeger’s HUD turned from red to green, signifying that he was clear to launch, and he gunned the engine. Acceleration pressed him into the padding of his seat as he shot out into the void, using his forward thrusters to slow himself as he came back around and located the Valbaran ship. Baker shot out to his rear, flame trailing from his engine as he banked to take up formation beside him.
“You picking me up, Laserbird?” Jaeger asked as he tuned his radio to the frequency that the aliens used.
“I read you, Jaeger…and do refrain from calling me ‘Laserbird‘ over an open channel…”
“Negative on that last request, Laserbird.”
He watched as three UNN dropships left the hangar one by one, bulky craft with stubby wings that were painted the same ocean grey as the carrier, the cockpits placed high on their blunt noses. These were the main troop transports of the Coalition, able to hold a couple of dozen Marines or half as many alien auxiliaries, as armored as you could make something before piloting it became more akin to trying to make a breeze block fly. He had flown them during his training, and gliding during a simulated engine failure could be better described as controlled falling.
Everyone took up formation with the Valbarans, the camouflaged vessel firing its engines and leading them towards the planet. It was already so close that it was more of a curved horizon than a sphere, his flight computer tagging nearby alien vessels and satellites on his way in. He could see the massive defense stations, nowhere near the scale of the Pinwheel, but large enough to be impressive. The Valbarans weren’t half bad engineers. The stations were colored the same white as the carriers, their ring-shaped hulls dotted with stubby-barreled laser cannon batteries. There were two rings, an outer one that housed the weapons, and an inner one that rotated to simulate gravity. There was no central hub, the crew must work on the outer torus and then live on the inner, a compromise that was necessary for a species that lacked artificial gravity technology.
There were satellites everywhere, probably for global communications, and the carriers were spaced out all over the place. He was picking up a dozen in radar range alone.
“Match my trajectory,” Maza said, “we’ll be landing at the spaceport in Yilgarn city.”
He watched as her engines went cold, the lander rocking as it entered the atmosphere. Heat built up until flames licked across the canopy, leaving black smears where they came into contact with the heat tiles. Meanwhile, the two Beewolfs cut through the atmosphere like knives through butter, using their thrusters to brake as they glided effortlessly. The Valbaran ship looked so strained, like it was about to shake apart, the air currents buffeting it as it left a smoking trail through the cloud layer.
They soon emerged into open air, and Jaeger looked down past his feet to take in the landscape as it rushed past below them, zooming in with his visor to magnify the image from the camera feeds. As they dropped in altitude, he could make out what looked like lush forests, the trees resembling conifers and ferns. Large lakes and snaking rivers were everywhere, shining like bands of silver as they reflected the sunlight. There was purple too, patches of pink and violet that seemed to stain the landscape.
The fighters maintained their formation with the dropships as they flew in lazy circles, aerobraking to shed velocity, the flames of reentry fading. It seemed that the Valbarans were no longer making use of their main engines at all, they were simply gliding, like a spaceplane from humanity’s distant past. It was actually rather difficult to match speed with them, they were making the unwieldy UNN dropships look graceful and spry in comparison.
As they shot over the wilderness, Jaeger couldn’t help but feel confused.
“Hey Maza,” he said, switching to the open channel. “I thought you said that we were headed to a city?”
“We are,” she replied.
“Alright…but I’m not seeing any buildings yet. There’s no sprawl, no industry, I feel like we should have seen something by now.”
“Just wait,” she replied, “you’ll understand soon enough.”
His scope picked up a white glint in the distance, his sensors detecting the heat signatures of fusion reactors, even above the balmy thirty degrees centigrade of the local atmosphere. He zoomed in, but the heat haze made it hard to see much at such a great distance. As they neared it, the land below still devoid of anything remotely artificial, the city came into full view.
Amidst the rolling plains and pockets of dense forest, there was a white ring. It was a wall, it must have been about two hundred feet high, built from the same material as their orbital platforms it seemed. It was maybe twenty miles from side to side, with an area of perhaps a thousand square miles, and contained within it was Yilgarn.
Vast urban sprawl, ugly industrial centers, and towering financial districts characterized most human cities. They were overpopulated, with massive skyscrapers a mile tall that broke up the horizon, tens or even hundreds of millions of people packed as densely as they could manage over thousands of square miles. He had seen the domed cities of Mars, which were similarly overcrowded, and this construct was even larger than their glass bubbles.
The first thing that stood out to him about the walled city was the greenery. Within its boundaries, the flora continued to flourish, there were no concrete parking lots or asphalt roads to break it up. Rolling hills and carefully tended forests made it almost indistinguishable from what lay beyond its borders. Everything was laid out in concentric rings. The outermost of these bands was made up mostly of grassland, criss-crossed by pathways that threaded between patches of forest and purple plants, dotted with small streams and lakes. There were no buildings there of any kind, at least none that were visible. Was it some kind of nature park or botanical garden?
The next band was occupied by twelve massive towers spaced out at regular intervals around the circle, at least twelve hundred feet tall. The giant cylinders were made from the same snow-white material, rows of glass windows glittering as the sun bathed them in its glow. Each one was subtly different from the last, curved buttresses and artistically designed facades making each one an architectural marvel. Atop their domed roofs were laser batteries, clearly designed to be the air defense platforms for the city. At the base of the towers there were buttresses that were spread out in a regular pattern to reinforce them, like the outriggers of a crane, and surrounding them were more landscaped gardens and forests.
Deeper into the circle was a wide band that was populated by what looked like white pinheads, spaced out in a very random and organic manner, as though they had been scattered there by the hand of some clumsy giant. Pathways led between them, and they were surrounded by trees and lakes. Upon closer inspection, he realized that it was not random at all, but very thoughtfully arranged so that the hills and trees masked each of the small buildings from the view of its neighbors. These were dwellings, must be, the Valbaran equivalent of a suburb.
Further in still was another thin band of parkland, and then the nature finally gave way to something more recognizable. Rows of what looked like tower blocks occupied the next circle, shorter than the defense towers, but probably still six hundred feet high. Beyond them were skyscrapers, not as tall as those of Earth, but still imposing. They were built from white and silver metal, lined with large windows. What stood out to him most were the terraces, large balconies that extended from the sides of the high-rises at seemingly random intervals, blanketed with green and purple foliage like rooftop gardens. Each skyscraper was unique in its design, with odd and exciting architectural features, their curving and organic shapes making them feel as though they were a natural part of the surrounding landscape. It was as if someone had taken all of the most outlandish and unusual structures from London, Dubai, and Hong Kong, and then had crammed them all into one city center.
“Ritzy…” Baker muttered over the radio.
“Follow me down to the runway,” Maza said, banking her lander in the direction of the skyscrapers. The tips of her stubby wings left contrails in the air behind her, what looked like air brakes opening along the hull. As they rounded the cluster of towering structures, a long landing strip came into view, leading to what must be the spaceport. It was small by UNN standards, there was nowhere that the Rorke could have made landfall, or even one of the frigates. Could the Valbaran carriers not land on a planet? The more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed, they were shaped all wrong for atmospheric flight.
He watched as Maza glided down to the ground, deploying her wheels and touching down, bouncing for a few feet as the lander braked. It finally came to a stop, then it began to taxi towards a series of hangars that were off to the right.
“Let’s make a vertical landing on the runway,” Jaeger suggested, angling the nose of his Beewolf down. He thought he’d give the Valbarans something to gawk at, coming in hot and hitting his forward thrusters, slowing abruptly and hovering above the tarmac. He could see that there were bystanders near the hangars, zooming in on them to see aliens standing with their jaws agape and their feathers puffed up, shielding their eyes from the sun with their hands as they watched him.
Baker came in doubly hot, angling his nose up towards the sky as he used the thrusters on his belly to brake, pivoting towards the hangars as he kicked up a cloud of dust. The dropships came down after them, lowering themselves a little more gently, touching their gear down on the ground. Their grey hulls shone, their canopies reflecting the sun.
“Where do you want us, Maza?” Jaeger asked over the comms.
“Taxi into the nearest hangar,” she replied, her voice hissing with static. “And Jaeger, welcome to Val’ba’ra.”