Ragnarok

When I was 14 or 15 (circa 1975), I wrote the only science fiction story I have written of any length. I revised it a few years later, and then, at the urging of my son, again in early 2002, but without changing that much from what I wrote as a teenager. Having some sense of its many imperfections, I set it out here in case some of you find it entertaining. 


ct 1

Beta Hydri had set on the horizon of Minas Tirith.  In his palatial garden, Patrick Austen looked up at the stars.  The Universe still awed him after all his years of traversing it.  Man had hardly scratched the surface of God’s Creation.  Man had visited one hundred odd systems in a Galaxy of two hundred billion suns, and a universe of millions of galaxies.  Thinking of the almost limitless possibilities filled him with impatience, with a feeling of futility that he could not realize his dreams that moment.  In a galaxy to conquer, Patrick Austen had but on lifetime.

Patrick found Ursa Minor, and there, a drop falling into the dipper, found Sol, center of the Terran Empire.  He felt a quiet pride at his role in the formation of that empire, as commodore of a Squadron in subjugating the Cetian League, and as a Fleet Admiral in freeing Atlantis and Eriador from the Jacobites. 

Only three years ago he had entered Minas Tirith in triumph.  The people of Eriador, joyful of their freedom from Jacob Hamilton’s religion with its tithes and enforced observances had staged a fantastic celebration, fireworks, mock space battles and all the gimmickry of twenty-third century science.

After the loss of Eriador the Jacobites had disappeared.  He had made an attempt at search but had found nothing.  Nine months ago, the Jacobites had made a raid on Mordor, destroying all its installations.  The empire had renewed the search and had kept the entire Hydnan and Pavonian systems well protected.

Patrick broke his reverie and began walking back to his palace.  Theta projections surrounded the palace.  Any imaginable scene could be projected by variation of the theta beams, reactivity, resoundance, and strength.  Now, the computer projected a continuously changing, iridescent wall.  From time to time a recognizable form emerged to dissolve a moment later.  “In an empire of billions of people, its leaders are able to live well without undue strain on the populace”, Patrick thought wryly.

As he passed through the projected wall, the communicator implanted in his skull spoke.  “Emperor David Briant has been assassinated.  Imperialists under Andrei Petrovich now control the government.  Malcolm Johns – Emperor’s counselor, March 5, 2216.” 

A wave of despair coursed through him.  Then grief overcame him.  For the first time, Patrick realized the full extent of David Briant’s greatness.  David Briant, who had raised Terra from an anarchic wilderness, ravaged by intra-systemic war, to the seat of an empire of forty systems, David Briant, who had unified Terra in the face of an attack by Thor, who had shown that a united Earth was still a match for any other world.  David Briant, who for seventeen years had governed an empire for the benefit of all, and David Briant, who had recognized the talent of an obscure flotilla commander.

Now, he was dead.  Not just dead; murdered.  Suddenly a terrible anger and hatred of Petrovich and his imperialists consumed Patrick.  They had undoubtedly killed Briant because he was fair to the outsystems, treating all alike, and not, as the Imperialists wished, taxing away their strength to create greater megalithic monuments to adorn each Terran’s backyard, replacing oppression with oppression.  The hatred left Patrick as swiftly as it came, leaving only the grief.

In the midst of his mourning, his communicator again spoke.  Administrator Heath requests an immediate conference in his offices.”  Transforming his emotion into physical energy, Patrick sprinted into his palace, a castle taken straight from the Lord of the Rings.  As he passed through the entrance, two dragons swooped down, shot up again, executed a few aerial maneuvers, and gradually faded away.  Inside the entrance to the left, a door slid open at the touch of his hand.  He entered a small cubical, sitting on the chair within.  “Administrator’s offices” he intoned.  The transporter dropped down a few feet, then accelerated forward.  Twenty five seconds later, the chair turned around to prepare for deceleration.  The transporter came to a stop, then shot upward.  Patrick hung a few seconds in weightlessness as the transporter came to a halt.  The door opened to reveal the office of the administrator of Eriador with Heath, Lugano, the planetary defense chief, and Patrick’s four Squadron commanders seated around a mahogany table.  As Patrick took his place, Halladay, the Vice-Administrator, entered from another transporter. 

The Administrator began to speak.  He had a look of sadness in his eyes, but he spoke forcefully.  “A coup has overthrown the emperor and his government.  I called this conference to decide whether we should accept this new government or oppose it.”  His eyes swept over the conferees.

Black, one of the commodores, spoke.  “Recognizing Petrovich’s government after he caused the murder of the Emperor would exemplify the highest cowardice, bestowing on all the Universe the right to kill our leaders whenever they wish.  We must avenge this outrage.”

“Vengeance, oh sweet vengeance!  Poisoner of souls, destroyer of Men!”  Patrick derided.  “Enough have died, without our vengeance.”  Realizing how distraught he was, he paused for a moment, then continued in a quieter tone, “We cannot raise the dead with blooded swords.  I, too, favor opposition to Petrovich.  I fear he will destroy the Empire with his Regionalism.”

Deliberately, Heath proffered, “It is distasteful to me to submit to Petrovich.  But have we any chance of defeating him?  He has the might of Terra behind him.”

Thoughtfully Patrick answered, “Because of the razing of Mordor, we have fourteen capital ships, Atlantis has eleven.  In the entire empire, there are sixty-four.  I believe we have more popular support; the Imperialists will have to garrison everything.  They’d be on the defensive; if they lose Terra it would hurt them much more than our loss of Eriador…

The lines creasing the administrator’s face softened as he heard this.  He interrupted Patrick, “Does anyone else have objections to armed opposition?”  All shook their heads, except the Planetary Defense Chief.  After a slight hesitation, he also shook his head.  “We should have no trouble convincing the Assembly.  You can lift off as soon as they approve.” Heath instructed Patrick.

The council began to make some tentative plans.  When they began to disperse, Patrick and his commodores went to the Admiralty offices where they worked late into the night organizing the expedition.

Act 2

Eighteen days later, the Hydrian fleet approached Delta Pavonis.  In one second, each ship executed sextillions of microscopic quantum jumps.  Each jump displaced every particle in the vessel a fraction of a milli-micron without passing through any of the intervening space, just as electrons jump from one energy level to another without experiencing any intermediate states.

At normal cruising speed, the fleet covered about a light-year every two days.  Nevertheless, the true velocity remained exactly the same, unaffected by the quantum drive quasi-velocity.

The quantum drive magnifies the effect of tidal strain.  In each jump, gravity affects the ship as if it had moved that distance.  Otherwise, the quantum drive would break the law of conservation of energy.  Thus, at normal drive speeds, gravity and tidal strain are multiplied a millionfold.  In addition, the quantum drive unavoidably weakens nuclear cohesion.  As a result, starships must slow down in the vicinity of a star or planet, and, within a certain distance, totally refrain from using the quantum drive.

About 250 million kilometers from Delta Pavonis, the Hydrian fleet reached this boundary.  Its true velocity was already directed toward Atlantis.  The fleet decelerated at about 170 meters per second squared. 

Thirteen hours later, the fleet orbited Atlantis.  Obtaining permission to land, Patrick descended to New Berlin, the capital.  Ships of every type covered the spaceport, intra-systemic vessels, interstellar merchant ships, mapping shipsand warships.  Patrick easily picked out the warships by their mirror surfaces.  Each warship burned with reflected sunlight.  The mirror coating reflected most of the force of laser beams in battle.

Wilhelm Koenig, the Admiral of the Pavonian fleet, met Patrick at the foot of the ramp which had extended itself from the ship.  They entered an aircar.  As the computer controlled vehicle flew to the administrative offices of Atlantis, Patrick observed the city.  It was rather mundane compared to some cities.  It exhibited little of the elaborate domes and spires and fairy arches supported by strengthening energies.  To many people, these things were a sign of decadence, especially to those who cannot afford them. 

Their vehicle landed on the roof of the Administration building, a skyscraper in the center of the city.  A door slid open at Admiral Koenig’s touch.  The door responded to his unique cell frequency pattern.  They entered another executive council similar to the one Patrick had attended eighteen days earlier. 

Six hours later found the council still debating whether to join the venture.  Patrick became slowly desperate.  Without the help of Pavonis and its fleet, the counter-revolution had little chance of succeeding.  Patrick was once again enumerating the possible benefits and attempting to belittle the resks of the expedition.  The implanted communicators spoke.  “An incoming group of ships has been detected at 152/197/109.”  This threw the council into a furor.  This threw the council into a furor.  This resolution [?] doubts of the extent of Imperialist ambition swayed the council into deciding to support the counter-revolution.

Patrick had no time to celebrate.  The two admirals returned to Patrick’s flagship Alexander the Great and began to formulate an operational plan. 

Lloyd Zumbrennen, newly elevated Admiral of the First Expeditionary Fleet of Sol, considered the situation.  The Atlanteans had given no answer to his demand of surrender.  With his nineteen capital ships he could easily defeat the eleven capital ship fleets [?] that had garrisoned Atlantis before the revolution.  However, the strength of that fleet could have been augmented.  On a planet’s surface, ships are undetectable at all but the closest ranges.  The mundane emissions of Atlantis would even hamper deflection of anything in surrounding space.  A thousand ships could be grounded on Atlantis without knowing knowledge. [?] “Would Atlantis dare ignore his broadcast if it did not have enough strength to defend itself?” “Yes,” he answered himself, “if they thought they could bluff.”

When he actually attacked they could claim they had been attempting to compose a suitable reply.  “I have little choice in any case.  If I withdrew now, Petrovich would inevitably sack me on my return.” 

His fingers flashed over the communicator keys.  Automatically, he remembered the code formula transforming the binary digits of the message.  An arbitrarily chosen function of time and the message, the code was easy enough to remember but essentially impossible to break.  Because of the time argument, the same message was coded differently each time.

Glancing at the projected representation of local space, Zumbrennen noticed a light cruiser confrontation flare up.  He could do little about it.  Tactical conflicts cannot be effectively controlled across speed of light communication gap, which signals require seconds or even minutes to bridge.  Beyond a few million kilometers, ships must operate self-sufficiently.  Indeed, the main failing of battle computers is their inability to make decisions with the lack of data caused by the communication lag.

Zumbrennen ordered the light ships of his fleet to contract toward the flagship to avoid such contact, in which the enemy would have the advantage by concentration and dispersing before the rest of his fleet could be brought to bear.  He noted with pleasure that the Pavonians also drew their screen of light ships back.

As the Expeditionary fleet pressed forward, the Hydrian fleet, now formed up between Atlantis and the Imperialists, began to fall back towards Atlantis.  The Solarian fleet followed.  Suddenly, the atmosphere of Atlantis swarmed with Ships.  The Solarian fleet was committed by its momentum. The Hydrian fleet engaged it, making retreat even more difficult.  Within minutes, the Pavonian fleet came within [?] the confrontation began in earnest.  In the center of the conflict, the battleships hammered each other with laser cannons.  Cruisers, without the elaborate shielding and reradiation laser defenses of a battleship, used their greater acceleration and maneuverability to converge on selected battleships, or battled enemy cruisers attempting to accomplish the same thing.  Destroyer flotillas performed caracoles; charging in to loose their missiles, then swerving off to avoid annihilation by laser.

Patrick remembered well the development of these tactics in the last three wars.  The foremost problem had been to strike a balance between propulsion, defense, and the two weapon systems of missiles and lasers.  This had been accomplished by specialized ship types.  To hurl missiles, which have a shorter range than lasers, the destroyers had speed and expendability.  Cruisers were designed according to the dictum that swiftness increases effective strength since it allows a ship’s influence to be felt over a wider region in a given time period.  And finally, the battleship, a flying powerhouse, efficiently utilized the immense range and instantaneity of laser cannon.  This differentiation between ships and its associated tactics had a crucial role in the wars that had formed the empire.  But in the battle of Atlantis, both combatants had exactly identical fleets, composition, and doctrine.  [?]  Thus, the numerical advantage of the Hydrian-Pavonian force prevailed.

A squadron comprising two capital ships, ten cruisers and twenty-two destroyers swept in from its station at Mu, the next planet out from Atlantis, to administer the coup de grace.  [?]  Admiral Zumbrennen ordered withdrawal, the Expeditionary fleet commenced to acceleration out of the system.  The Hydrian and Pavonian fleets followed.  With the photon engines devouring the power produced by the bottle [?] ships of both factions, the fighting slackened off.  The lighter ships, with their greater power to mass ratios, continued to fight.  When the two forces neared the edge of the quantum drive forbidden zone, Patrick ordered a halt.  A fleet in quantum drive cannot be effectively followed.  Detection instruments limited by the speed of light are inadequate when dealing with velocities hundreds of times that of light.  The counter-revolutionary fleet dealt a parting barrage.  The retreating fleet, still expending energy for acceleration, could not retaliate.  In hopes of avoiding giving this advantage, Admiral Zumbrennen had waited longer to order a retreat than he otherwise would have. 

When it had passed the limit, the remnant of the first Solarian Expeditionary fleet vanished, moving too swiftly to create an image.  It had lost six capital ships destroyed, one damaged, fourteen cruisers destroyed, three damaged and twenty-six destroyers destroyed, four damaged; more than an entire flotilla.  The Hydrian and Pavonian fleets had lost only one battleship, three cruisers and six destroyers to vaporization.  None of the damaged ships were lost as they now controlled the battlefield. 

The two fleets returned to Atlantis to celebrate a triumph.  “When it requires weeks to travel between stars, a day or two makes little difference,” mused Patrick. 

Despite the gratification of victory, he did not sleep well that night.  Visions of nameless men asphyxiated or laser burned troubled his dreams.

Act 3

Admiral Koenig relinquished his fleet to Patrick in the interests of a unified command.  He declined to accompany the expedition, preferring to remain on Atlantis.  Patrick christened the combined fleet the First Tartarian Fleet, referring to the unofficial name used for the area once held by the Jacobites.  The name had more significance than just that this region occupied the lowest portion of most star maps.  The Jacobites had professed to a hell in the hereafter while providing one in the here-and-now.

Two days later, on the seventeenth of April, Terran Standard Time, the Tartarian fleet lifted from Atlantis.  It began cruising towards Epsilon Indi.  With one Imperialist fleet in retreat, Patrick had decided on a direct advance.  In his maproom, Patrick touched a few buttons to bring forth a projection of space.  Instantly, hundreds of tiny lights appeared, suspended in mid-air.  Beside each one glowed a label, a concise exposition of the most important data on that system.  Whichever direction he looked, the labels all faced him.  A light blue haze indicated the part of the empire still under Petrovich’s control.  The region loyal to Patrick, the legitimate continuation of the Solar Empire, was indicated by red.  To nadir, below the empire, yellow marked the suspected original domain of the Jacobites.  To zenith in green, lay the ambitious Sivan realm centered at Eta Cassiopeiae.  Patrick touched another button.  All but the empire vanished, and the unimportant systems dimmed.  The Empire contained nine planets with conditions suitable to unprotected men.  Patrick thoughtfully regarded each one of the corresponding lights.  To the west, eighteen hours right ascension, somewhat below the equatorial plane, Camelot and Olympus orbited 36 and 70 Ophiuchi, respectively.  Petrovich had undoubtedly already commandeered their meager fleets.  Above Sol, because of that regions dearth of sol-type stars, only Osiris circling 61 Cygni was habitable.  Four light years to nadir from Sol, Thor of Alpha Centauri, once second in only to Terra, now attempted to recover from Terra’s destruction of its industrial network.  Situated almost as far nadirward as Atlantis, to the southeast, way 82 Eridani and its satellite Korosh, which had voluntarily associated itself with the empire two years ago.  Patrick had sent a courier to Korash to enlist some little aid.  Since couriers travel about twice as fast as other ships or more than one light year each day it had reached Eridani a few days before. 

Patrick reviewed the strategic situation.  The fleet’s present destination, Quetzalcoatl in the Indian system, roughly equidistand from Terra and Asgard of Tau Ceti, the second most important planet of the empire, threatened both.  However, with the slow pace of communications and the inability to detect ships in quantum drive, he would not know which had been left more unprotected until he attacked one of the planets.  Even if he succeeded in capturing Terra or Asgard, as long as petrovich retained a larger fleet, recapture would easily follow capture.  Patrick needed a decisive battle. 

On the sixth of May, the counter-revolutionary fleet landed on Quetzalcoatl.  The counter-revolutionary fleet found the system entirely undefended.  The planet’s government readily surrendered, having no great sympathy for the Imperialists.  Zumbrennen’s retreating had left a day and a half before, taking the Imperialist garrison with it. 

After refueling and reprovisioning, the Tartarian fleet lifted from Quetzalcoatl.  Each squadron accelerated out in a somewhat different direction to attain a different true velocity vector, each according to Patrick’s strategy.  Once in interstellar space, a squadron of five capital ships and a proportionate number of lighter ships separated from the remainder of the fleet, heading toward Sol.

The rest of the fleet had to delay twelve days.  Patrick wanted news of Commodore black’s squadron’s appearance in the Solar System to reach Tau Ceti before he attacked there. 

Fifteen days later, the fleet entered the system of CD-360, only four light years from Epsilon Indi.  The system claimed one planet, Thoeris.  Thoeris is a small, frigid world, lit only by the wan light of a red dwarf.  It derived its only importance from its closeness to the route between Epsilon Indi and Tau Ceti.  It had little more than an anti-matter planet, producing the universal spaceship fuel from the fusion energy of the water extracted from the planet’s crust, and the facilities to sustain the operators of the anti-matter planet. 

Thousands of worlds are extimated to wander the galaxy without a sun which would serve refueling centers as the progeny of red dwarfs, but the immensity of interstellar space conceals them better than a thousand kilometers of rock.  Starships can cross interstellar space, but to search it, the distance they must cover is cubed.  So while CD-360 does not give Thoeris a livable temperature, it has great value in providing a beacon to guide man to it. 

Patrick’s main purpose in stopping at Thoeris was not refueling.  His ships had a range of at least fifteen light years.  The day after his fleet’s arrival there, a Korashan contingent of two ships equivalent to battleships and a number of accompanying lighter ships joined the Tartarian fleet as Patrick had requested.  Patrick was jubilant.  He had doubted that the Korashans would send anything.

Act 4

The twelfth of June found the counter-revolutionary fleet some forty billion kilometers from Tau Ceti.  The reception of a message indicating the Black’s arrival in the Solar System commenced flight towards Tau Ceti.  Less than an hour later, three fifths of the Tartarian fleet, twelve capital ships, descended upon Niflheim, the main interstellar transshipment point for the Cetian system, outside the systemic forbidden zone and too small to create much of one itself.

Two hours later, Patrick miled with satisfaction as he added an outgoing fleet from Asgard to his systemic map.  It seemed the Imperialist commander was not too enthused at the prospect of leaving Patrick in control of Miflheim.  Patrick had executed a double feint to both Terra and Niflheim, to draw off forces from his real target—Asgard.  The second feint was not crucial.  If the Imperialists had remained entrenched near Asgard, Patrick would still have attacked. 

When the Imperialist fleet neared the edge of the forbidden region, it became possible for the force holding Niflheim, with an essentially stationary true velocity, to reach Asgard, before the outward bound fleet, which would have to decelerate and regress.  In addition, the three squadrons still in quantum drive, with [?] high inward velocity, could arrive at Asgard even sooner, to take it if it were unprotected.

The Imperialist fleet maintained a cautiously low velocity.  When it began decelerating, Patrick set his fleets in motion.  The journey to the edge of the forbidden zone took twenty minutes.  Four squadrons, of three capital ships each, accelerated toward Asgard.  Three squadrons, already with a velocity of over seven thousand kilometers per second, decelerated in their mad rush towards Asgard.  The seventeen capital ship Imperialist fleet hastened its deceleration.

As the foremost Tartarian force approached Asgard, eight battleships, twenty-four cruisers, and thirty-seven destroyers appeared above the clouds.  The Tartarian vanguard hung back, waiting for the other force.  Its slight numerical advantage did not warrant an attack, when the Imperialists had the assistance of Asgard’s planetary and orbital defenses. 

The counter-revolutionary fleet recombined.  The inrushing Imperialist fleet allotted two hours to disperse Asgard’s defending fleet.

As the Tartarian fleet moved in for the assault, another force of six capital ships rose from Asgard.  Patrick groaned in dismay.  “Petrovich’s entire fleet is here in the Cetian system!”  Patrick still considered his position relatively good, but two more enemy squadrons certainly did not further his cause. 

Adrenalin began rising in his veins.  After the hours long systemic level duel of wits, he would now direct a tactical conflict, furious strife, often decided within minutes.  The battle computer actually handled the details of command.  His orders were only general directives to the computer.  Even so, short-range confrontations taxed his endurance.

Outnumbered by fifty percent, the Imperialist force began to retreat towards Asgard.  It made a stand for a while by Asgard’s orbital defenses, but finally dropped to the surface of the planet. 

Only then did Patrick realize the strength of Asgard’s orbital defenses.  In the three months since his coup, Petrovich had more than doubled their strength.  These defenses, relatively cheap non-motile weapon systems, were relatively easy to destroy, but, left intact, could wreak havoc on anything passing.  If the Tartarian fleet attempted to cross the defended region to attack the vulnerable grounded ships, any advantage it now had would be lost. 

Patrick ordered the clearing of the defended region.  He saw that it could not be completed in time.  Could he retreat now?  The fleet now on Asgard would hamper his fleet’s movement and the incoming fleet directly blocked his path.  Half despairing, his mind worked with feverish haste.  There was a way.  Even grounded ships could halt anything that could trickle through the defensive region, if it were directed at them.  But the horizon limited their ability to stop missiles aimed away from them.  In an atmosphere, the effects of an antimatter warhead extend for hundreds of kilometers.  The Imperialist fleet on Asgard could be destroyed.  But it would mean the decimation of Asgard, a literal Ragnarok. 

Savagely, as though possessed by the devil, his fingers flew over the keys to give the order.  Asgard must die, that an empire would not be ruined under the Imperialist heel.

In half an hour, it was done.  The fleet from Tartarus turned to meet the oncoming Imperialist force.  The battle began.  Patrick seemed to have inhuman discernment. Added to his numerical advantage, he still had nineteen capital ships, it began to overcome the Imperialists.  Then, the clear voice of a courier’s computer came over the communicator.  “Terra is captured—Black.”  Soon after, the Imperialists received the same message.  The Imperialist fleet surrendered. 

With the tension gone, Patrick collapsed with exhaustion.  With disconcerting clarity, his mind’s eye saw a gutted planet and seven hundred million corpses.  He remembered this scripture: “For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”…Matt. 16:26.

He thrust it out of his mind.  “I have much to do if I am to make Asgard’s destruction meaningful.” 

Postscript: Austen, Parick James—2177-2221—Patrick Austen was the third Terran Emperor.  Too often remembered only for his annihilation of Asgard in 2216, in his short eight-year rein he put the empire on a firm footing, accomplishing more than most of the emperors did in a lifetime…Encyclopedia of Terra interstellar copyright 2839.