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The Siege of Palatine: Part 1
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley
Date: 30 September 2005, 9:27 pm

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0000 Hours, October 15, 2552 (Military Calendar)/
Alpha Sierra System, Palatine II
In Orbit on board UNSC Frigate Indefatigable

       Word had just come. Earth was under attack. Everyone knew it was inevitable but it hardly dulled the shock they all had at the orders commanding almost all ships in the fleet to abandon their posts and come to defend the Home World at full speed. This was true most of all to the defenders of the Alpha Sierra System; many called the beautiful world of Palatine II their home. Yet all had strong ties to Earth as well, and all were aware of the Home World's strategic and symbolic significance. None had hesitated in obeying their orders.

       FleetCom had not completely neglected the rest of the surviving Inner Colonies, however. Two C class frigates remained behind at Palatine II: the Moskva and the Indefatigable. Both had a meager complement of eight archer missile pods and twelve 25mm chain gun turrets. Even together they doubtless could not even take down the shields of a single Covenant frigate. They might as well have left a letter in orbit politely asking the Covenant not to glass their planet.

       Commander Harris of the Indefatigable knew the situation well. He had been left to be a presence in the system, to maintain that a human force still existed in the Alpha Sierra System, to give the 350 million people on the planet below some small sense of security. It was all smoke and mirrors, however. The two frigates could do little more than waste the plasma of a Covenant vessel. They had been given strict orders to surrender Palatine II to its fate and assist in the defense of Earth if even a single alien ship entered the system. And so would end the people, culture, and history of an entire planet.

       Palatine II deserved better, Harris thought angrily. It had been the second planet to be colonized after Reach, being nearly the same distance from Earth. Unlike Reach, however, it had taken no terraforming to make it hospitable, and it would prove the only such case so far in the galaxy. Its position in the system made it ideal for habitation as well. It was a mere 125 million kilometers from the Alpha Sierra star, creating a wonderful environment to live in. The poles were expansive fields of lush green grass and the equator was all tropics. The majority of the planet's population lived in the upper Northern hemisphere where temperatures ranged seasonally from twenty to about thirty-five degrees Celsius. Indeed the planetary capital Tarentum, Harris's home, was located in this region. It truly was a gem, Harris pondered romantically. He prayed the Covenant would not come here.

       Harris glanced at the command screen. The clock turned midnight. Harris waited a few moments, his foot tapping violently on the hard metal floor of the bridge, before speaking. "Lieutenant Clarkson?" he asked of his navigations officer impatiently. With the danger at Earth so near it was protocol to receive reports hourly from the Alpha Sierra's relay station to monitor any ships passing within billions of kilometers of the system. Ostensibly it was for the protection of Palatine II but in reality the scans were being used to monitor any Covenant reinforcements on their way to Earth. Given their proximity and angle to the Home World, it was possible they could pick up a trace of an inbound fleet. Unlikely, but possible.

       "Lieutenant Clarkson!" Harris barked once more. Usually Clarkson was very good, but she was trained at navigation, not communications. Because C class frigates were designed to be support craft they tended not to have a communications officer since its need for it was usually limited to receiving orders. The role was delegated to a simple AI program to relay messages to the command screen but the delicacy of this operation called for a human touch.

       "Receiving probe scans now, sir," Clarkson said, her voice tinged with annoyance. Harris knew his temper was unwarranted but he could hardly help it. He found it more and more difficult to keep the feeling of hopelessness from overwhelming him. The Covenant had passed near enough to Palatine on their way to Earth to know there was a human presence here. Once they had glassed the Home World and ended the hopes of humanity, they would come here and destroy his planet, his home. What if this was all for nothing…

       "What did they find, Lieutenant?" Harris asked, quietly this time. She tapped a few commands on her console and looked at her screen. There was a pause as she stared for a few moments at the findings. This can't be good, Harris thought.

       "Sir, the probe picked up slipspace signatures of approximately fifteen Covenant ships passing on the outer edge of this system," she announced in a strained voice. "Analysis indicates they are all carriers."

       Harris closed his eyes. Fifteen ships would double the invasion force that currently threatened Earth. "Get Lord Hood on the horn, Clarkson. Appraise him of the situation."

       "That won't be necessary sir," she said, still staring at her screen as if she could not take her eyes from it. "They are not heading to Earth. They're coming here. They'll enter normal space in about five minutes."

       Silence filled the bridge like something tangible, something oppressive. It is over, Harris thought, misery drowning him. He thought of his apartment in Tarentum overlooking the bay, of his beautiful wife pregnant with their second child, of his five year old daughter who had just started school this year. He had been given orders to abandon them, all of them, to their deaths. How could that be asked of him? Of anyone?

       It was his weapons officer, the only person on the bridge who did not live on Palatine II, who finally broke the silence. "Orders, sir?" he asked in a small voice.

       The indecision that had paralyzed Harris lifted. He had to act. Thoughts raced violently through his mind until one finally made its way to his lips. "Clarkson, how certain are we that all the ships are carriers?"
       "Ninety percent, sir. They are close enough to negate most slipspace distortion. It is possible there is a warship with them, however." Clarkson knew better than to question her commander's reasoning.

       Harris nodded slowly in his chair. Even one carrier was more than a match for both frigates in orbit, but carriers had a far lighter armament than most Covenant warships. They were not exactly ideal for glassing a planet. They were ideal for invasion, however; one typical Covenant carrier could carry approximately eight thousand troops, dozens of vehicles, and many tons of equipment.

       "Get me Captain Miller on COM please, Lieutenant," Harris said, his newfound hope making his voice hard.

       "Aye sir, channel open," she said.

       Miller, CO of the Marines on his ship, was a good man, and more than that, he and all of his men hailed from Palatine II. C class frigates normally did not have a complement of Marines but with the possibly close quarter action at Earth they had each taken on fifty of the best men the planet had to offer. He had orders to keep them with him, but felt he had to do something to help his home and his family and right now orders were the last thing on his mind.

       "Captain Miller, we have a situation. Fifteen Covenant ships are about four minutes from our position." He gave Miller no time to absorb this information. "Now as far as we know they are all carriers suggesting they are here to invade Palatine II, not to glass it. If the math is right there could be upwards of 120,000 enemy troops on the surface in a couple of hours. They are gonna need all the help they can get. I'm giving you and your men the opportunity to defend your homes."

       There was a moment of silence on the other end before Miller responded. "Give me a moment to speak with my men, sir," he said at last.

       "Make it quick, Lieutenant," Harris said, though he could hardly deny the need for discussion. It was very likely he was asking fifty men to land on a planet that was about to be glassed.

       Miller indeed made it quick. He responded in less than a minute. "We are all agreed. We are heading to the surface. We'll need about five minutes to get loaded up, though."

       "We'll try to give it to you, Captain," Harris answered grimly. "Good luck." He closed the link and turned to Clarkson. "Lieutenant, contact Commander Hawking of the Moskva and tell him to relay the same message to his Marines." He settled back in his chair, feeling validated that he had at least taken this small action.

       "Commander!" Clarkson said sharply. "Fifteen Covenant ships have just entered normal space… confirmed, they are all carriers."

       Harris gave an inaudible sigh of relief. He had hoped as much. At least Palatine would have a fighting chance. "What is their position, Lieutenant?"

       "Eighty million kilometers out-system, near Palatine III sir," Clarkson answered. Palatine III had only a very thin atmosphere. It was incapable of supporting human life and had only a small research station on its surface. Maybe the Covenant don't know that, Harris thought. "They're turning around, sir, heading here in normal space. ETA twelve minutes." Whatever the reason for arriving there, it would buy them some time.

       Harris reopened the channel with Miller. "Captain, you need to haul ass. We have to jump to Earth ASAP."

       "We're ready, sir," Miller responded. Harris could hear the usual noise that accompanied the rushed mobilization of fifty Marines in the background. "We're just loading the Pelicans now."

       "I'm uploading the command codes to the shuttle bay to you, Captain," Harris informed him. "Launch when ready."

       "Aye sir." The channel closed.

       The Covenant ships were magnified and made visible on the command screen. They were massive, bloated beasts with thousands of heavily armed troops teaming in their bellies. They were moving at full speed toward Palatine II, though their lateral lines remained dark. They hadn't even powered up their weapons systems though they must have been aware of the two frigates' presence. This indifferent approach angered Harris even though he knew it was perfectly justified; they were but a couple of flies to a pack of bears.

       "Shuttle bay doors opening, sir," Clarkson said as a shudder racked the ship. On the view screen the crew could see the ship's two Pelican transports speed through the vacuum towards the emerald green and deep blue of Palatine II. Moments later two motes of light could be seen leaving the Moskva as they unloaded their Pelicans as well. It was encouraging to know that all of the hundred Marines of the two lonely frigates volunteered to fight the uphill defense of their planet even if their contribution would be negligible.

       "Set coordinates for Earth, Lieutenant," Harris commanded as the fiery exhaust of the Pelicans faded into the reflection of the vast ocean. The commander stood up and took one last look at Palatine II: the rolling hills, the expansive sea, the tropical forests. A tear pricked his eye and he looked away only after his ship turned around. He had a horrible feeling that he had just had his last glimpse of his home. "Take us out."

       And behind him one hundred Marines and one hundred and twenty thousand Covenant headed towards the surface of Palatine II.