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A Time to Kill



It was called Case Ragnarok, and it was insane. Yet in a time when madness had a galaxy by the throat, it was also inevitable.

It began as a planning study over a century earlier, when no one really believed there would be a war at all, and perhaps the crowning irony of the Final War was that a study undertaken to demonstrate the lunatic consequences of an unthinkable strategy became the foundation for putting that strategy into effect. The admirals and generals who initially undertook it actually intended it to prove that the stakes were too high, that the Melconian Empire would never dare risk a fight to the finish with the Concordiat—or vice versa—for they knew it was madness even to consider. But the civilians saw it as an analysis of an "option" and demanded a full implementation study once open war began, and the warriors provided it. It was their job to do so, of course, and in fairness to them, they protested the order . . . at first. Yet they were no more proof against the madness than the civilians when the time came.

And perhaps that was fitting, for the entire war was a colossal mistake, a confluence of misjudgments on a cosmic scale. Perhaps if there had been more contact between the Concordiat and the Empire it wouldn't have happened, but the Empire slammed down its non-intercourse edict within six standard months of first contact. From a Human viewpoint, that was a hostile act; for the Empire, it was standard operating procedure, no more than simple prudence to curtail contacts until this new interstellar power was evaluated. Some of the Concordiat's xenologists understood that and tried to convince their superiors of it, but the diplomats insisted on pressing for "normalization of relations." It was their job to open new markets, to negotiate military and political and economic treaties, and they resented the Melconian silence, the no-transit zones along the Melconian border . . . the Melconian refusal to take them as seriously as they took themselves. They grew more strident, not less, when the Empire resisted all efforts to overturn the non-intercourse edict, and the Emperor's advisors misread that stridency as a fear response, the insistence of a weaker power on dialogue because it knew its own weakness.

Imperial Intelligence should have told them differently, but shaping analyses to suit the views of one's superiors was not a purely Human trait. Even if it had been, Intelligence's analysts found it difficult to believe how far Human technology outclassed Melconian. The evidence was there, especially in the Dinochrome Brigade's combat record, but they refused to accept that evidence. Instead, it was reported as disinformation, a cunning attempt to deceive the Imperial General Staff into believing the Concordiat was more powerful than it truly was and hence yet more evidence that Humanity feared the Empire.

And Humanity should have feared Melcon. It was Human hubris, as much as Melconian, which led to disaster, for both the Concordiat and the Empire had traditions of victory. Both had lost battles, but neither had ever lost a war, and deep inside, neither believed it could. Worse, the Concordiat's intelligence organs knew Melcon couldn't match its technology, and that made it arrogant. By any rational computation of the odds, the Human edge in hardware should have been decisive, assuming the Concordiat had gotten its sums right. The non-intercourse edict had succeeded in at least one of its objectives, however, and the Empire was more than twice as large as the Concordiat believed . . . with over four times the navy.

So the two sides slid into the abyss—slowly, at first, one reversible step at a time, but with ever gathering speed. The admirals and generals saw it coming and warned their masters that all their plans and calculations were based on assumptions which could not be confirmed. Yet even as they issued their warning, they didn't truly believe it themselves, for how could so many years of spying, so many decades of analysis, so many computer centuries of simulations, all be in error? The ancient data processing cliché about "garbage in" was forgotten even by those who continued to pay it lip service, and Empire and Concordiat alike approached the final decisions with fatal confidence in their massive, painstaking, painfully honest—and totally wrong—analyses.

No one ever knew for certain who actually fired the first shot in the Trellis System in 3343. Losses in the ensuing engagement were heavy on both sides, and each navy reported to its superiors—honestly, so far as it knew—that the other had attacked it. Not that it mattered in the end. All that mattered was that the shot was fired . . . and that both sides suddenly discovered the terrible magnitude of their errors. The Concordiat crushed the Empire's frontier fleets with contemptuous ease, only to discover that they'd been only frontier fleets, light forces deployed to screen the true, ponderous might of the Imperial Navy, and the Empire, shocked by the actual superiority of Humanity's war machines, panicked. The Emperor himself decreed that his navy must seek immediate and crushing victory, hammering the enemy into submission at any cost and by any means necessary, including terror tactics. Nor was the Empire alone in its panic, for the sudden revelation of the Imperial Navy's size, coupled with the all-or-nothing tactics it adopted from the outset, sparked the same desperation within the Concordiat leadership.

And so what might have been no more than a border incident became something more dreadful than the galaxy had ever imagined. The Concordiat never produced enough of its superior weapons to defeat Melcon outright, but it produced more than enough to prevent the Empire from defeating it. And if the Concordiat's deep strikes prevented the Empire from mobilizing its full reserves against Human-held worlds, it couldn't stop the Melconian Navy from achieving a numerical superiority sufficient to offset its individual technical inferiorities. War raged across the light-centuries, and every clash was worse than the last as the two mightiest militaries in galactic history lunged at one another, each certain the other was the aggressor and each convinced its only options were victory or annihilation. The door to madness was opened by desperation, and the planning study known as Case Ragnarok was converted into something very different. It may be the Melconians had conducted a similar study—certainly their operations suggested they had—but no one will ever know, for the Melconian records, if any, no longer exist.

Yet the Human records do, and they permit no self-deception. Operation Ragnarok was launched only after the Melconian "demonstration strike" on New Vermont in 3349 killed every one of the planet's billion inhabitants, but it was a deliberately planned strategy which had been developed at least twelve standard years earlier. It began at the orders of the Concordiat Senate . . . and ended one hundred and seventy-two standard years later, under the orders of God alone knew what fragments of local authority.

There are few records of Ragnarok's final battles because, in all too many cases, there were no survivors . . . on either side. The ghastly mistakes of diplomats who misread their own importance and their adversaries' will to fight, of intelligence analysts who underestimated their adversaries' ability to fight, and of emperors and presidents who ultimately sought "simple" resolutions to their problems, might have bred the Final War, yet it was the soldiers who finished it. But then, it was always the soldiers who ended wars—and fought them, and died in them, and slaughtered their way through them, and tried desperately to survive them—and the Final War was no different from any other in that respect.

Yet it was different in one way. This time the soldiers didn't simply finish the war; this time the war finished them, as well.

—Kenneth R. Cleary, Ph.D.
From the introduction to Operation Ragnarok: Into the Abyss 
Cerberus Books, Ararat, 4056



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