Raymund Eich

A Mighty Fortress

Ebook

In this science fiction novella, Theodore and his team will transform a barren world into a refuge for life. Or die trying.

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“”

They will turn a barren planet into a refuge for life. Or die trying.

On board the interstellar ship, Theodore wakes from forty years of suspended animation, eager to transform a barren, rocky planet into a living world.

The plan: move an icy asteroid billions of miles, convert the ice into new seas and a breathable atmosphere, then seed the surface with life.

But some among the crew want to speed up the process. By taking risks with nuclear explosives. A dangerous revision, but one supported by the mission’s commander. Competing plans divide the crew into rival factions. With Earthly help over eight light-years away, Theodore must search alone for allies among oppressed workers, spiritual advisors, and the ship’s artificial intelligence to save the mission—and stop the commander from seizing absolute power. Scientists and politicians, ideals and tyranny clash when the hidden agendas of Theodore, his foes, his friends, and the ship’s AI reveal themselves in a riveting, ultimate confrontation.

Sample of “A Mighty Fortress”

A MIGHTY FORTRESS

Theodore woke from suspended animation as if the forty-three year journey passed in a single night. Spidery robotic arms at his bedside tended his body with cold injections and warm blankets. A smooth feminine voice spoke from a speaker hidden in the low ceiling. “Welcome, Theodore.”

“Melli.” His voice croaked. “We’re here?”

“We’re in a Kuiper-type belt about four billion miles from ’85.” A heart rate monitor thumped a slow rhythm. “Your post-awakening assessments will take about two hours. May I suggest you enter a virtual environment? The others will join you shortly.”

“Yes.” Hidden behind Theodore, a robot nestled a transcranial stim helmet on his head. His heart pumped faster as the suspan chamber fell away.

A virtual simulation of Melanchthon’s chapel surrounded him. Fifty feet by eighty, the chapel floor visibly curved up under the cloth-draped altar. The wall of sand-colored bricks behind the altar held a float-mounted cross. Below and to the sides of the cross, like the robbers on Golgotha, hung two video screens.

Theodore followed the plush beige carpet between the pews. Melanchthon’s rotation pressed his avatar’s feet to the floor at point-six-eight gees. His gaze jumped from screen to screen. Warmth glowed in his chest and bubbled through his smile. On the left screen, a medium shot: a glowing red ball, the red dwarf star Lalande 21185, 8.6 light years from Earth, and near it a tiny semicircle. The right screen showed a closeup. Not a semicircle: a planet half sunlit and half shaded. On the lighted side, impact craters pocked stretches of smoother terrain. The surface features rendered jagged the terminator, the dividing line between day and night.

Given the planet’s close orbit to ’85, the terminator would never move. Its sun would always hang low in the sky over the habitable zone. Imagine a house on the rim of a deep blue circular lake facing an eternal sunrise….

He closed his eyes. His fingers tingled. With hard but righteous work, they would build a new world—

They? “Melli, where are the others?”

Before the ship answered, sapphire sparkles heralded someone’s avatar. William, the expedition’s CEO. His avatar wore khakis and a deep blue polo shirt stretched over his belly. The shirt bore the rose-cross-and-starship logo used in his fundraising trips to Lutheran audiences from Stuttgart to St. Paul to Sydney. He studied the right-hand screen, then laughed and laid his paw of a hand on Theodore’s shoulder. “New Augsburg at last. And as it should be, we’re the first to see it.”

“Not alone the first,” Jonas said. His deep-set brown eyes regarded them and he walked their way on narrow feet. His reversed collar contrasted with his somber black shirt and pants. “Unless you prefer our expedition’s senior pastor be excluded from this moment?”

“No, no, of course not, Reverend,” William said. To Theodore, he quirked up his eyebrow. Senior pastor, yes, and respected as such; but not liked. Jonas had received a last-minute appointment to the mission as a result of some inter-faction horse-trading on the Lutheran Interstellar Terraforming Society’s board of directors.

Theodore lacked any urge to know the details. He did politics when necessary, and showered afterwards.

Jonas stood between them and peered at the left-hand screen. “Why did Melanchthon wake us so far from the planet?”

William rolled his eyes, then turned toward a stained-glass image of Simon helping the Savior carry the Cross.

“New Augsburg lacks an atmosphere,” Theodore said. His voice reminded him of teaching undergrads while earning his Ph.D. “Lalande 21185 burned much hotter when this system formed and boiled off the planet’s volatiles. The gas giants are too few and too small and failed to direct comets inward. Now Melanchthon must.”

Sapphire sparkled throughout the room. Dozens, scores, of avatars watched the screen, or the three men in the aisle.

Jonas scowled. “I know all that.” He glanced around the chapel and straightened his back. “Everyone’s avatar will soon be here. I must prepare for the convocation.” He nodded to William and Theodore, then trod toward the altar.

Theodore sniffed out a breath. “I’ve explained the science a dozen times—”

“He doesn’t need to understand,” William said. “His job is to bless our labors, just as your job is to terraform the planet.” He pressed on Theodore’s shoulder, indicating a pew closer to the altar, where waited their wives and grown children. “Just as mine is to lead.”

Three weeks later, surrounded by data streams from Melanchthon’s sensors and observers, Theodore reviewed the terraforming plans. First, find an icy asteroid of useful composition and the right size, about seventy miles across. Melli flagged three candidates observed during the ship’s deceleration into the ’85 system, and his team searched the sky for more. Second, rendezvous with the chosen icy asteroid and propel it into orbit over New Augsburg. Third, bombard the planet with chunks of the icy asteroid, turning the ices into gases, giving New Augsburg an atmosphere for the first time. A smile tightened Theodore’s cheeks. The expedition would let New Augsburg do most of the work in the third phase. Fourth, deploy on the planet chemical factories—stripped down versions of the fabricator that turned the crew’s exhalations, sewage, and garbage into food, clothing, and equipment—to optimize New Augsburg’s atmosphere for terrestrial life. Fifth, seed New Augsburg with grasses, trees, insects, and animals from the embryo banks and genetic engineering labs.

Theodore stepped back from the displays and stretched. Sixth, build a house of basalt block walls, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows facing plump red ’85 across a crater lake filled with paperbelly trout….

One phase at a time. He left his office for a strategy session with his team.

“Candidate Beta.”

Brandon had soft eyes, a narrow chin, and a shock of brown hair combed low across his forehead. Inspired by one of William’s presentations, he’d joined the expedition directly out of grad school in Austin. Smart, but he lacked the experience most older crew gained from the terraforming projects begun on Mars and Venus and ongoing climate management on Earth.

Behind Brandon, the room’s far wall, a video screen, showed a sunny afternoon in a zen garden. Sand raked like ripples around mottled stones made a calm contrast to Brandon’s intent face. “Candidate Beta has enough of all desired volatiles. It’s closest to our present location. It’s the obvious choice.”

Theodore glanced at a display on the side wall, full of data on the top five candidates, then shook his head. “Beta has more mass than we need, and it’s further from New Augsburg than the others.” Theodore hooked his thumb over his shoulder at another display, showing progress bars for ongoing surveys. Around the room, the others on the team nodded and shifted their shoulders toward him. “We will decide after we complete—”

“I thought we came here to terraform New Augsburg.” Brandon’s voice echoed through the room.

Theodore set his fists on his hips. “The survey is terraforming.”

“I heard William speak on Earth. Didn’t you? ‘Creating a new, habitable world is our highest duty, both to God and to humankind.’”

The others in the room—among them lanky Peter and clear-skinned Sonya, his wife—turned pensive gazes to the zen garden. One person, a young ecologist named Frederique, nodded.

“We will do that duty,” Theodore said, voice firm, “by completing the icy asteroid survey, then selecting a candidate.” He held his stare on Brandon until the other’s chest shrank, pulling down his face. Theodore went on. “Biology sub-team, how many frozen embryos passed the first quality control check…?”

Next day, Theodore met with William one-on-one. Luxuries festooned William’s office, from potted cactuses like swollen pine cones fast-grown by the biology team to a centuries-old hard copy of The Book of Concord. A video wall showed a clearing in a forest of oaks and birches, with New Augsburg in the sky like a gigantic moon.

After preliminary chit-chat about their families, their cramped apartments, and the proteinaceous goop extruded by the fabricators, William frowned through his beard. “I hear there’s needless delay in selecting an icy asteroid.”

Theodore crossed his arms. “Brandon’s talking out of turn?”

“I have an open door and won’t turn anyone away. He came to me yesterday and seemed very certain Beta was good enough. Is it?”

Charts and tables filled his mind’s eye. Honesty compelled his reply. “Yes.”

William’s mouth scrunched. “I nominated you for expedition CTO because you always seemed to know what you’re doing. But if we’ve got a good enough icy asteroid, shouldn’t we go get it?” In the video wall, a red-crested woodpecker raucously laughed.

Theodore raised his palm. “Beta is larger than we need and relatively far from New Augsburg. The survey could easily find a better one.”

“We want to terraform as quickly as possible. Right?”

“Yes, but….” Theodore shifted his weight to unstick his shirt from the small of his back. “If the survey takes another month, but finds a suitable candidate requiring two fewer months to transport to New Augsburg, we come out a month ahead.” He swallowed. What made him so nervous? Especially with so logical an answer—

Face craggy, William shook his head. “Technically, maybe, but this isn’t an engineering problem.”

“Then what is it?”

“We woke people from suspan to start terraforming. A month later and we haven’t started. For the sake of morale, we need to start now.”

Theodore shuffled back a half-step. “Other than Brandon, morale is fine—”

“Among your team. The fine points of terraforming elude the rest of the crew. They just want to get to work. God’s work, bringing life to a barren rock under a red sun. Do that for them.”

“I, I didn’t think of that.” Theodore angled his head down. “I’ll work up a flight plan to Beta and run it by Melli tomorrow.”

If the crew needed work to keep up its morale, it found plenty of labors in the next months. The journey to Beta took a few days and consumed a tiny sliver of Melanchthon’s ice shield, a deeply pitted cylinder five hundred yards in diameter and five hundred tall, carried from Earth as both fuel for the conversion drives and shielding against interstellar dust grains struck at 0.2 c.

Fusing the ice shield with Beta’s bulk of frozen water, methane, and ammonia took a few days more. The deceleration burn shone blinding light, the conversion drives’ exhaust, on Beta’s north pole. Light bright enough to melt ices to liquid water and outgassing methane.

Melanchthon yawed 180°. A nudge from the drives and the ice shield slid into the pool of melt water. The front attitude drives arrested the ship’s motion relative to Beta. The crew only needed to wait for the melt water to refreeze in the deep interplanetary cold before Melanchthon’s drives kicked in again.

Though the ship pushed Beta inward at the maximum acceleration the drives could safely generate, Theodore couldn’t feel the thrust. The delivery to New Augsburg orbit would still take eighteen months.

In every meeting with William, Theodore quickly ran through the many tasks remaining before Beta would be ready for the bombardment phase. Teams rode three-man crawlers—cramped globes with eight articulated legs and pitons instead of feet—across Beta’s surface and deployed small explosive charges and seismic arrays as they went. Tedious work, melting holes in the ice, inserting explosives and sensors, and waiting until the holes froze over before continuing their crawl. After the teams returned to the warmth and relative openness of Melanchthon, the geologists remotely detonated the charges and picked up transmitted data from the sensor arrays.

A week later, the geologists gave Theodore and his team a map of Beta’s interior.

A month later, the geologists gave them an estimated minimum safe duration of the bombardment phase.

“Twenty-three months?” Brandon said.

Theodore set his hands on his hips. “Are you blaming God for the tensile strength of ice?” he asked. One of his senior team members chuckled.

Brandon lifted his head and sighted down his nose. “No true member of our expedition would question what God has done, or will do. We know He has called us to terraform New Augsburg.” He leaned forward and his eyes gleamed like he held a game-winning card. “I question what men will do.”

“We worked out phase three before Melanchthon left Sol system.”

“I worked out a better one.” Brandon swept his shock of brown hair back from his eyes and strode to the meeting room’s main display.

The display held a schematic of phase three, updated with data from the geologists. Pocked gray New Augsburg hung in the center, ringed by a concentric dashed circle about 2.4 times larger—the planet’s Roche limit. A dotted line parallel to a tangent entered the dashed circle. Just barely inside, the dotted line held a green X. Lines of text next to the green X contrasted with the black, star-dusted background. vo = 3283 m/s. r = 10608.14 km.

Brandon stopped at the display, then turned to Theodore. He touched his hands together at the fingertips, then absently nodded to Theodore. “The original phase three was adequate. Disengage from Beta just inside the Roche limit and with not quite enough orbital velocity to maintain its altitude above New Augsburg.”

He touched the display. Beta appeared at the X and the display zoomed in. “The planet’s gravity does two things. First, its tidal force rips Beta apart. Second, its centripetal force spirals Beta in.” On the display, Beta elongated and shed chunks, and its center of mass crept slowly inward from the dashed circle, like a car drifting away from the lane markers on a country highway.

“Because we don’t want Beta to fall to New Augsburg in big pieces—too much kinetic energy might send some of our new atmosphere back into space, too much dust in our new atmosphere may reduce insolation for subsequent steps—we need to keep it in its decaying orbit long enough for the tidal force to rip it into small enough pieces. More than adequate, that’s… clever.”

Theodore’s gaze flicked from the screen to Brandon’s smug face. “It’s also the best plan we have.”

Brandon stared back. “We can speed up the process.” He turned to the display, stopped the animation. His fingers called up a video file while he talked over his shoulder. “A geologist friend and I looked at Beta’s interior map and found eight locations where sub-megaton fusion explosives could accelerate Beta’s disintegration, thus allowing faster deorbiting of its fragments.”

Gooseflesh swept over Theodore’s arms. “Back on Earth, we called ‘fusion explosives’ hydrogen bombs.”

“Earth is 8.31 light years away.”

“We can’t build hydrogen bombs—”

“Fusion explosives are feasible. The fabricator has specs for a hydrogen pelleter and implosion lasers, and Beta contains all the hydrogen we need.”

“You’ll neutron activate fragments of bomb casings and laser hardware. You’ll litter New Augsburg with fallout.”

“Scattered over the entire planet, any fallout would be nearly undetectable.”

Theodore stepped back. Darn it, Brandon had a point. Hydrogen bombs would release a fraction of the energy generated by the matter-to-energy conversion drives.

Still… conversion drives served a useful purpose. Hydrogen bombs…. Sonya turned aghast eyes on Brandon. The corners of Peter’s mouth curled down.

Hydrogen bombs? Handguns would use far less energy, yet none were found on Melanchthon. “Hydrogen bombs were a threat to all life on Earth. How can you even think this might be a good idea?”

“Is a fusion explosive good or evil? Or is men’s use of it what makes it good or evil?”

Theodore’s stomach churned. “The use, not the tool. But—”

“Terraforming New Augsburg is our highest purpose. The sooner we terraform it, the better.” Brandon swept the others with an expression of otherworldly confidence. “All true members of our expedition agree with me.”

Younger people in the room nodded. Markus, another senior team member, showed a tight face, indicating to Theodore he wrestled with Brandon’s words.

Theodore put his hand up between Brandon and himself. “Your proposal has some merit, but it’s a large deviation from the original plan. I have to discuss it with William before I can agree to it.”

Up flexed the corners of Brandon’s mouth. “Do what you must.”

William sat with his feet on his desk. He rotated in his broad hands a model of Melanchthon, built out of plastic slivers and modeling cement by a crewman and given to him as a gift, while Theodore spoke. “…technically, it’s feasible, but it’s a major change of plan.”

The model fixed into position. Bright mirrors, the parabolic reflectors of the conversion drives, dazzled Theodore’s eyes. “If it’s technically feasible,” William said, “and covers New Augsburg with an atmosphere faster, why resist it?”

“Why resist hydrogen bombs? Imagine the PR nightmare on Earth.”

“There’s no need to tell Earth. In the seventeen years the board of directors would take to tell us no, we’ll have a growing biosphere.”

“So you know the board would oppose it.”

William tossed the model onto his desk and swung his feet to the floor. He stood, taller than Theodore, and said, “Melli, switch the video wall to a live feed from the hull cameras.”

“Which one?” the ship’s feminine voice asked.

“Doesn’t matter.”

In Theodore’s peripheral vision, the display glow reflecting off the sidewalls visibly darkened. William moved like an iceberg, massive but quiet, around his desk. He laid his hand on Theodore’s shoulder and turned him toward the display.

Black space and Beta’s limb of dirty snowball gray, barely lit by the field of pinpoint stars like bright dust. The stars wheeled by from Melanchthon’s rotation.

“The board of directors is safe on Earth. Sunlight, fresh air, a community. Look what we have.” His voice deepened. “Look.” His broad hand pressed harder on Theodore’s shoulder. “A thin skin of nanotube alloy between us and hard vacuum. Help would take eight years to learn we were in trouble and four decades after that to come to our aid. The board can’t comprehend our position. We needn’t bind ourselves to what we think it prefers. I’m pleased the younger people are starting to see through that. We should learn from them.”

William’s hand weighed on Theodore’s shoulder. “You authorize hydrogen bombs.”

A chuckle answered, followed by a friendly slap on the back. “No, I authorize, what did Brandon call them? ‘Fusion explosives.’” William’s grin melted into his beard. “Go make them work.”

Theodore spent the rest of the week, Saturday included, poring over Brandon’s plan. Every challenge he raised—fabricator cycles and energy costs to build the bombs, effort and risk to deploy them—Brandon deflected with facts, figures, and youthful confidence. With the hydrogen bombs, four months to deorbit Beta in small enough chunks. Over a year and a half faster than the original plan.

Weary, late Saturday afternoon, Theodore entered the request for tunnelers and bomb construction equipment to the fabricator queue for delivery Monday morning. He watched Brandon’s back until the latter walked up Melanchthon’s curve out of sight, then went home to unwind.

Unwinding eluded him, despite the warm smells of protein schnitzel and red cabbage-flavored fiber strands. Family dinner with his wife, Helen, his daughter, Alexandra the doctor, still in scrubs from her shift, and his son-in-law, Daniel, soon devolved into bickering between Helen and Alexandra.

“We won’t be at home in this star system until we start having children,” Helen said.

Alexandra dropped her fork, leaned back, folded her arms. In the cramped apartment, her elbows brushed Daniel and the video wall. “It’s still about finally becoming a grandma, huh?”

Helen gasped. Theodore scowled. “Your mother is an early childhood education specialist without children to educate—”

“Dad—”

“Hey, everyone, why argue?” Daniel spoke next. The rejuvenation treatments provided to all crew made him look a decade younger than his age of thirty-four. “William asked the crew to practice family planning until after we can walk on New Augsburg and breathe its air. Lexa and I will have kids after Ted makes a biosphere. Which I hear will happen faster than the original plan,” he added to Theodore, then raised his beer mug.

“How?” Alexandra asked.

Daniel quirked his eyebrow and gestured at Theodore, you answer. Politeness or mockery?

Theodore cleared his throat. “Hy—fusion explosives.”

Helen’s eyes widened. “Do you mean, hydrogen bombs?”

“You can call them that.”

She knitted her brows, then nodded. “I’m glad to hear you can use swords as plowshares.”

For the first time in days, calm touched him. Helen never cared to know the details of his work, but she trusted that he knew them. Three awake decades together and her trust remained constant.

“It won’t irradiate the material for the new atmosphere?” Alexandra asked. An honest question, based on her tone of voice, and not some effort to stir up tension.

“Not enough to worry about.”

“I didn’t need to ask, did I, Dad?” She smiled at him, then leaned

“”

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Ebook

Writer

Raymund Eich

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