In the year 2034, the construction of the first United Nations space station reaches completion. This facilitated the construction of lunar mining bases and in the year 2050 the first of several Mars colonies. Soon afterwards, mining bases dotted Phobos and Deimos the moons of Mars.
It was in the year 2076 that a deep mining operation on Phobos stumbled upon the discovery of the ages. An ancient spacecraft buried deep under the moon's surface dated to 25 thousand B.C. Scientists studying this ancient alien ship discovered a great wealth of technological advances. However, it was not until the year 2152 that a breakthrough allowed the construction of the first successful jump-generator.
The jump-generator was too large to work on a ship. However, jump-gates using the jump-generator created stable wormholes allowing ships to cross great distances in space in a fraction of the time as tradition star travel. The age of generation and sleeper ships suddenly ended.
With the creation of jump-gates across the galaxy, an explosion of Earth colonization took place. Boom-colonies literally sprang up overnight on some planets and planetoids during the second half of the 22nd century. Lawlessness and chaos shortly followed.
In order to maintain law and order across the Federation of United Worlds the Federal Marshal Department under the Galactic Law Enforcement branch established the Star Rangers in the year 2257. Star Rangers specialize in apprehending federal fugitives, transporting federal prisoners, protecting federal witness that may be endangered and patrolling and scouting transportation routes and jump-gates. Often working alone these men and women have Federal authority to investigate any planet or solar system in Federation space. Their jurisdiction can cover anything from theft to piracy to scouting new solar systems.
In the year 2286, a Star Ranger vessel discovered a second Phobos-type craft (named Phobos-2) floating in space. This one appeared to be a large military vessel and was virtually intact. The Federation disassembled and started studying the ship's various components much as it did with the first Phobos craft.
Scientist finally cracked the language code on Phobos-2 in the year 2312. From its fragmentary records the Federation learned that the vessel belonged to a race now known as the Precursors. Many top scientists believe them now to be extinct.
Forty years later thanks to the discoveries from Phobos-2 -- and much trial and error -- ship-born jump-drives are now possible on large to medium sized ships. However, due to the delicate construction and prohibitive cost only military vessels have them. There are rumors that a few Star Ranger Long Range Patrol Crafts also carry an even smaller experimental jump-drive.
Date: March 29, 2352. 2304 Galactic Military Time.
Blaze Mason awoke to the loud buzzing of his navigational computer or NavCom aboard his Cobra Long Range Patrol Craft.
"What is it, TACAI?' Blaze asked the ship's central computer named TACAI for Turing Analog Cognitive Architecture Intelligence. Like the jump-drive engine aboard Blaze's Star Ranger Cobra, the TACAI was also highly experimental and top secret. The quicker and intuitive computations made this one of the first full production sentient computers. It was also essential for the delicate operation of the jump-drive. The name TACAI sounds very similar to the Earth Japanese word takai meaning expensive. It also sounds like the Donlani word T'Khi, meaning ‘Guardian spirit'. In this case, both are appropriate.
"There is a non-organic object at 34 by 82 by 156. It is on a collision course,' the calm female voice responded.
Blaze straightened himself up in his chair and began reviewing his various scanners on the instrument panel of the flight deck. The TACAI computer systems were notorious for their ability to be vague on some points. In this case, ‘non-organic' meant someone or something created the object in question.
"Scan it against known ship records,' Blaze ordered as he punched the NavCom's collision alarm override silencing the irritating buzzing.
While TACAI searched its records, Blaze altered the Cobra's course and speed to move it out of the object's path. Then he began to zoom in on the object with one of the Cobra's telephoto scanners.
As the Star Ranger watched, the small floating object grew in size as the scanner zoomed in. On recognition, Blaze and TACAI both proclaimed:
"It's the Serapis.'
"It can't be!' Blaze exclaimed in disbelief.
"The EFS Serapis launched in September 21, 2320. It carried the first experimental ship-born jump-drive. On activation the ship and crew disappeared without a trace,' TACAI's cold feminine voice replied. "Its whereabouts have been the source for many theories and even some phantom fictions...'
"Ghost stories,' Blaze corrected. One of Blaze's many jobs aboard the Cobra was to help TACAI's programming. One of her -- Blaze could not help thinking of the ship's computer as a female thanks to its voice modulator -- problems was with idioms.
"Thank you,' TACAI responded acknowledging the new program correction. "There are many well published ghost stories about the Serapis. If you want I can have them downloaded to a terminal in your quarters.'
"No thank you,' Blaze said. "TACAI, does Serapis have power?'
"Affirmative,' TACAI responded. "The engines are at full stop. However, the vessel is still generating sufficient power for full life-support.'
"They really put her together well if she is still operating after 32 years,' Blaze mused aloud.
"One of the many theories about the Serapis's disappearance is that it may have been caught in a time warp or even stuck in hyperspace between jump points. Time would be irrelevant if that was the case,' TACAI pointed out.
"TACAI, try to hail Serapis," Blaze ordered as he started preparing the Cobra to fly in for a closer look. "Maybe the crew survived.'
The black and gray Cobra slowly drew closer to the drifting Serapis. Blaze suppressed a shudder; there was something definitely unnerving about coming across a long lost ghost ship in space. The Serapis was a large spaceship, she had to be to hold the enormous jump-drives constructed thirty years ago. The crew numbered only 25 volunteers who were to only fly to Alpha Centauri and back to Earth. As soon as the ship reached the optimum power to operate the jump-drive something went wrong.
Blaze still remembered the recordings he had to study in history class at the Academy.
Captain Rice Jump-drive 95 percent. Lt. Wilson: 95 percent, aye. Captain Rice: Prepare to initiate. Lt. Wilson: Preparing to initiate. Commander Yang: Sir, we are getting irregularities... Captain Rice: Ab...
That was it. No one ever figured out what irregularities the chief engineer Commander Yang was referring. Many believe that Captain Rice was trying to abort the mission before the Serapis suddenly disappeared in a flash of white light and into history.
"No response from Serapis,' TACAI said interrupting Blaze's trip down memory lane.
"I guess that settles it,' Blaze said unbuckling himself from the pilot's seat. "I am going to have to go aboard. TACAI take the Cobra in for a landing. See if you can line it up with an access port.'
"Affirmative,' TACAI said. "Please, remember to take along your enviro-suit and your defensive weapon.'
"No need to remind me,' Blaze said, already stepping into the black enviro-suit that went over the red and black uniform of the Star Rangers. After suiting up, Blaze buckled his belt and holster around his waist which contained the standard issue Colt M2245 Vengeance blaster.
TACAI gently parked the Cobra upon the Serapis. Blaze secured his enviro-helmet onto his suit as he made his way to the airlock over the access port.
"Be careful, Commander Mason,' TACAI said in her usual cold voice.
"Thanks TACAI,' Blaze responded feeling uneasy as he stepped into the airlock.
The government of the Federation of United Worlds has three distinct branches. The Judicial branch contains the Galactic Supreme Court the highest court in the Federation. Next are the Federal Courts, dealing mostly with inter-system crimes and crimes against the Federation. Below that are the Planetary courts and finally Provincial Courts.
The next branch is the Executive branch. This contains the President and the presidential staff whose job is to make sure that the execution of the law is within the mandates of the Federation Constitution. The Executive branch appoints the Ambassadorial Council, the Presidential Cabinet, and the Service Council. However, all must meet with Congressional approval.
Finally, there is the Legislative branch whose job is to propose laws. The Galactic Congress is comprised of the Dome of Planetary Representatives and the Senate. On the planetary level, there is the Provincial Legislature.
The Federation of United Worlds' military is comprised of many different components. There is the Galactic Navy that contains the traditional space naval forces as well as the space marines and the long-range scouts. Then there is the Galactic Army that contains the traditional planetary assault and security forces as well as space rangers.
The System Patrol Guards are under planetary control with a federal budget to maintain security within the various solar systems making up the Federation. However, during times of war the System Patrol Guards become part of the Galactic military falling under the authority of the Galactic Navy.
The Federation's law enforcement, called the Galactic Law Enforcement is a branch of the Department of Justice. It contains the System Patrol Guards, the Federal Marshals, and the Galactic Department of Investigation (GDI). Within the Federal Marshals, which is the enforcement arm of the Galactic federal courts, are the Star Rangers.
The Star Rangers primary duties are to maintain law and order along Federation space. They can supplement the System Patrol Guards in protecting transportation routes including the security of the jump-gates. They can also assist system law enforcement with Federal crimes, as well as assist the Galactic military in investigating and combating piracy.
They often work alone. However, they do have the authority to deputize civilians in order to 'form a posse' to help them in their duties. Under the Posse Comitatus Act, Star Rangers cannot enlist military personnel to act in a law enforcement capacity within the Federation. The only exception to this is the System Patrol Guards. Only the Galactic Congress has the authority to authorize military personnel to act as law enforcement within the confines of Federation territory.
The access port opened up and Blaze stepped into the drifting ship's interior. The only light came from the different colored buttons on the corridor's control panel. This did not bother Blaze for his helmet could automatically adjust for low light and even use infrared capabilities. The Heads-Up Display (HUD) projecting inside the facemask of the helmet told Blaze that the air inside Serapis was toxic.
"TACAI, can you read me?" Blaze asked testing the helmet's transmission.
"That is affirmative," the cold unemotional female voice of the Cobra's computer responded.
"Good," replied Blaze. "The A. G. is still functional." The Star Ranger walked down the corridor.
"The ship's artificial gravity is reading at .9896. Well within safe operational levels," TACAI offered.
"Thanks, Captain Obvious," Blaze muttered under his breath.
"I am sorry, Commander. I am not aware that there was a Captain Obvious aboard the Serapis," TACAI responded.
"Never mind, it's an old Earth expression," Blaze said as he moved down a long dark corridor. "How are the telemetry relays on the Serapis."
"They are working satisfactory. I can read the Serapis's output. However, I am unable to perform any adjustments from here. You will have to reach the bridge and activate the control override."
"TACAI can you transmit a blueprint to my HUD?" Blaze asked. He really had no clue where he was or even heading inside Serapis.
"Affirmative," TACAI acknowledged.
Blaze sighed when the outlines of a blueprint of the Serapis projected upon his HUD. Blaze turned around and headed on his new course towards the bridge. Blaze always felt he had the knack of always going the wrong direction first.
The trek to the bridge was relatively uneventful. The halls were dark except for the blinking lights dotting the various control panels on the walls. Blaze stayed way from the elevators and opted for the security of the access ladders instead. The last thing he wanted was to end up stranded on a ghost ship in an elevator stuck between floors.
The large steel door leading to the bridge did not respond as Blaze approached. Usually the doors on ships tended to activate when a person approached. Blaze figured that the sensor must have burned out in the last thirty years.
"TACAI," Blaze transmitted. "Can you find the access code for the bridge door on the Serapis?"
"I will see what is in my records," TACAI said as casually as ever.
Blaze inspected the control panel to the bridge. It appeared to be in operational order. Some of the lights blinked on and off while others just illuminated the wall that contained them.
Blaze was starting to get impatient. His unease on being on the Serapis did not subside. A couple of times he was certain he heard snatches of whispering voices. Nevertheless, that was not possible and was certainly due to his imagination.
"Commander Mason," TACAI finally announced nearly startling Blaze to death. "The access code is 4-3-0-6-4."
"Thank you," Blaze acknowledged.
"Commander, are you okay?" TACAI asked in her clinical voice. "Your heart rate has increase as has your respiration."
"It is nothing. Just got a little spooked," Blaze responded as he punched in the code. The steel door finally slide back to allow Blaze access to the bridge.
The Star Ranger let out an audible gasp as he stepped into the interior. Although, he knew there was a good chance of finding them, Blaze still was not ready for the scene before him. The bridge crew sat in their chairs still in their yellow environmental suits. Their bodies slumped lifelessly over their control instruments.
One of the crew had managed to escape his safety harness. His body now lay at Blaze's feet near the door. The man's right arm lay outstretched towards the control panel for the door while the other clutched his throat.
Blaze knelt down near the body. He turned it over and read the name badge. This was Captain Rice. Blaze looked into the faceplate and felt a chill as the grinning face of Captain Rice's skull stared back.
In the year 2192, a new virus originating from a fringe colony on the outer reaches of Federation territory spreads like wildfire. The virus annihilates entire colonies. The Federation is desperate to contain the virus that people are calling the moon-flu.
The Galactic military quarantines infected planets as well as space stations with the distasteful order to destroy all ships trying to leave these worlds. The Federation even goes so far as to destroy the jump-gates to the fringe worlds effectively cutting them off, as one would amputate a gangrenous limb to stop the spread of disease.
Ironically, scientists on Earth discover a cure within a few weeks of the epidemic's outbreak. It is too late to help the now isolated fringe colony worlds.
In the year 2197, the battlecruiser Nimitz on deep patrol discovers a Donlanian ship infected with the moon-flu. The Donlani are a humanoid race and many Federation scientists believe the Precursors may have taken some of Earth's human ancestors and planted them on another planet. However, the moon-flu was even more devastating to the Donlani.
Fortunately, the vaccine works on the Donlani. The Donlani Star Republic and the Federation are quick to establish trade relations. Unfortunately, the moon-flu so devastates the Donlani that they are vulnerable to attack from its aggressive neighbor the insectoid Grikla. On the brink of collapse, the Donlani Star Republic officially joins the Federation of United Worlds in the year 2201. The former Donlani Star Republic brings 16 new races and 32 planets with it into the Federation. The Grikla are easily repelled.
The Federation is surprised to discover in the year 2217 that many of its former fringe colonies it thought destroyed by the moon-flu have actually survived. Thanks mostly to the use of eugenic engineering. The surviving worlds believed that the Federation itself had created the virus and had used the fringe worlds as a guinea pig. These former colonies had established their own government after the Federation abandoned them and declared themselves the Concordant of Fringe Worlds.
The hatred and mistrust the Concordant has towards the Federation is great. The two sides patrol their borders diligently.
Blaze spent a few minutes investigating the bridge. It appeared that the crew had succumbed to poisoning shortly after the jump-drive engaged. More than likely Blaze surmised by the corpses grasping their throats it was in the crew's enviro-suit air supply. Blaze was at a loss to explain it; the enviro-suit's air supply is independent from the ship's. Therefore, the malfunction should not have affected them.
"TACAI, give me a technical read-out of the ship's controls so that I can activate the control override," Blaze ordered over his communication unit in his helmet.
"Affirmative, commander," TACAI responded as she instantly displayed the requested information on Blaze's HUD.
Blaze quickly found the switch and shortly after initiating the control override, TACAI had telemetry control over the ship's functions.
"Let there be light," Blaze said in his communication unit.
"Affirmative," TACAI said in her emotionless female voice.
The bridge lit up and Blaze watched as the view monitors and control display screens all came to life.
"TACAI, search the ship's records for..." before Blaze could finish a few sparks flew from his helmet.
"Commander, your communication regulating modulator has shorted out," TACAI informed Blaze in a now statically voice.
"That's damn strange," Blaze replied. "Well, I can still read you. See if you can find anything in the ship's records that may tell us what happened."
"Affirmative, commander," TACAI responded.
Blaze walked back towards the bridge door as he waited. The door now slid open as he approached. However, the digital display near the door did not show the access code Blaze had to use to get in. It read 51773808.
"TACAI, I have a strange number on the door's control panel here on the bridge," Blaze informed his ship's computer. "Can you make anything of it?"
"It was the last thing the captain punched in before he died," TACAI responded. "Maybe he was not coherent enough as he was dying to put in the correct code."
Blaze was about to return to the bridge when down the hallway he saw someone in an enviro-suit disappear around a corner. Blaze instantly drew his Vengeance blaster and proceeded to hurry after the person.
"TACAI," Blaze spoke lowly. "I am not alone. I just saw someone takeoff down the corridor."
"Negative, commander," TACAI said. "Ship's sensors show only one life-sign and that is yours."
"Can you see anything on my helmet's camera?" Blaze inquired.
"Affirmative, you camera is operation. The image from the camera appears to be a blur," TACAI informed Blaze blandly. "Enhancements fail to show anything humanoid."
"I'm going to use the infrared scanners," Blaze said.
The HUD bathed the corridor in a spectrum of black and blue for the colder areas to yellow and red for the warmer. Blaze continued to jog after the person he saw a few moments before. At the end of the long metal hallway, Blaze stopped short at another door. Like the door to the bridge, this one did not open as well.
Blaze was about to punch in the code to open the door when he noticed the numbers 51773808 on the display.
"Commander," TACAI's statically and stoic voice intruded Blaze's thoughts. "I am picking up some strange unfiltered noises from you communication unit."
"Can you make anything out of it?" Blaze asked TACAI as he punched the numbers 43064 in the door's control panel.
"Affirmative," TACAI responded. "I will play it back."
The door slid open and Blaze cautiously entered the room. There in front of him stood the person. However, Blaze stopped cold as the expected red or warm for a living being displayed only a blue silhouette before completely disappearing simultaneously as the word "Sabotage" whispered through Blaze's helmet.
The Martian colonies become self-sufficient in the year 2084. By the year 2108, Mars petitions for self-government. It takes two years before Mars becomes a sovereign world in the year 2110; this is the birth of the Federation of United Worlds.
An Earth sleeper colony ship first enters the Alpha Centauri system in the year 2115. The ship establishes some colonies on the more hospitable planets and moons. The first jump-gate system is set up between the Alpha Centauri system and Earth in the year 2159. The next year Alpha Centauri becomes a sovereign world and joins the Federation.
In 2207 the aggressively insectoid race known as the Grikla attack a Donlani space station on the border of the Grikla Empire and the Federation. The destruction of the space station and the Federation patrol vessel Andassa starts the Grikla wars.
The Grikla sue for a peace treaty in 2215 after their ancestral enemies the Dehdan declare war on the Grikla. The reptilian Dehdan of the Dehdan Confederation will not stop short of sheer annihilation of the Grikla. The Federation is happy to end the bloody eight-year stalemate. The Federation and Grikla establish a neutral territory.
In 2218, the Federation sends emissaries to the Dehdan Confederation with a peace-treaty in mind. They return home with the message that as soon as the Dehdans are through destroying the last Grikla it will then bother with destroying the Federation. The Federation increases border patrols near Dehdan space.
The Federation encounters the Theocracies of Sen in the year 2220. The Theocracies is a religious state formed from many races including a large portion of Earth humans. The Theocracies of Sen not being interested in war, but in galactic harmony sign an alliance with the Federation in 2221.
The ongoing Grikla/Dehdan war spills over into the Theocracies' territory in the year 2230. This starts the Triangle war. The war ends four years later after the Theocracies and Federation forces ambush and destroy all Griklan and Dehdani ships in the Theocracies' space. Both Grikla and Dehdan governments recognize the Theocracies of Sen's and the Federation's borders.
"What the hell?" Blaze asked still stunned from the sudden disappearance of his quarry.
"That was the unfiltered noise," TACAI replied, not knowing that Blaze was speaking to himself.
"Uh, right," Blaze lamely said. The Star Ranger looked around the room. It was obviously set up as someone's quarters. Blaze sat down on chair next to a desk to sort out what was going on.
The more Blaze thought about it the more the hairs stood up on the back of his head. This was not possible. A haunted space ship was something told to scare children.
The monitor on the desk suddenly flickered to life sending more chills up Blaze's spine. An image of the crew preparing for the jump-drive test played out on the screen. Blaze watched in stunned fascination.
The bridge crew went about their business. Blaze fiddled with the volume button, but only silence greeted him. The show on the screen continued and Blaze watched as Captain Rice silently prepared his ship for the first ship-born jump-drive to go into action.
All of sudden the crew started to scramble at their controls. Captain Rice yelled something and then a flash enveloped the screen for a split second. Blaze could see the Serapis' view screen in the background change from the familiar constellations near Earth to another unfamiliar one.
Unfortunately, for the crew as the Serapis exited hyperspace they all began clutching their throats. Standard practice had all crewmembers on launch of an experimental spacecraft tied into their enviro-suit's air supply in case the there was a breach in the hull.
Captain Rice undid his straps and staggered towards the bridge door. Smoke started to fill the interior of the bridge. The captain still clutching his throat rapidly started to punch numbers into the control panel. Blaze could see the numbers clearly, 51773808.
As quickly, as it came to life the monitor suddenly went blank. Blaze stared at the screen. Did he just hallucinate?
"Commander," TACAI's cold scratchy voice reverberated in Blaze's ears. "Your heart rate is up again as is your respiration. The biosensors in your enviro-suit are telling me that you are also experiencing a rise in your adrenaline level. This corresponds with a sudden encounter with fear. Are you alright?"
Blaze took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself. "Yes, I am alright. I am at a loss at what is going on here.
"Did you perceive a vid showing the prelaunch preparations of the Serapis?"
"Negative," TACAI responded.
"TACAI, have you been recording the unfiltered noises from my communication unit?"
"Affirmative," the computer replied.
"TACAI, continue to record and instantly play it back so I can hear it," Blaze instructed the Cobra's computer.
"Affirmative," TACAI responded. "Commander, there is another unfiltered noise coming through now."
"Engine room," whispered into Blaze's ears.
The Federation has made cloning entire beings illegal. However, it is allowable to clone individual body parts for replacement. The vast majority of the population of the Federation feels it is immoral to clone entire living beings for the sole purpose of body part harvesting. Creating clones for the purpose of increasing the population is also repugnant to most of the Federation's citizens.
This is in direct opposition of the Concordance's philosophy. In order for the fringe worlds to replenish its population quickly it underwent a great eugenics program. The Concordance had the populace's genes altered to make them physically and mentally superior to the average human of the Federation. At least this was the case in the minds of the Concordance, there is no actually proof of this.
The Concordance manufactured clones for warfare as well as to replace aging or ailing leaders of the Concordance. When the first Fuehrer Jonathon Kesselman died due to assassination in 2223, the cloning procedure still needed perfection. Therefore, the Fuehrer died without continuing to oversee his empire's development.
The second and current Fuehrer Thomas Irons is a third generation clone. By his will and laws, any non-human races either become forced labor and/or are exterminated.
The citizens of the Federation are fearful of fully sentient robots. Many feel that it is possible for these thinking mechanical beings to rise up against them. Because of this, it is illegal to create fully sentient robots or computers in the Federation. Pre-sentient computers and robots are favored. Therefore, the sentient computers used by the military are strictly top secret.
President Edgar Mayors and vice president Robert Ellis have been fighting with congress for a change in this law. Especially since the Concordance does not feel the same way. Many of the Concordance troops are sentient robots. However, in most cases the self-awareness of the Concordance battle-bots is nominal only.
At this point and time, the Federation holds several advantages over the Concordance. The main advantage is in technology. The advantage in population the Federation has over the Concordance is offset by the latter's use of clones and robots.
Blaze followed the blueprint map on his helmet's HUD to locate the engine room. He was relieved that he did not encounter any more phantoms roaming the Serapis' halls. When the Star Ranger reached the door to the engine room, he was not surprised to see the numbers 51773808 on the digital readout of the control panel. Blaze just typed in the access code and the door opened for him.
Inside the large room, Blaze found a jumble of shredded enviro-suits mixed with the white bones of their former occupants smashed against a wall. One of the engines was a completely ruptured, burned up wreck. Obviously, shortly after the jump one of the two engines of the Serapis had exploded.
The other engine was still operating, even though sparks and bolts of electricity shot dangerously through the room. The grinding hum of the engine sounded ominously like it was about to join its neighbor in exploding. Blaze was about to turn and exit the Serapis and return to his Cobra when suddenly the room changed.
The engines were both in pristine condition. Several members of the crew were now moving back and forth doing routine checks on their instruments. Blaze started to walk backwards his heart was pounding hard in his chest.
A wall behind Blaze prevented him from moving any further away from the spectral scene playing out in front of him. The Star Ranger noticed that the threatening grinding engine was no longer making any noise. In fact, the room was deathly silent except for his heavy breathing.
One of the helmeted crewmembers looked up at Blaze. Blaze's blood turned to ice as the crewmember just stared at him. Then the phantom crewmember looked towards the engines and Blaze could only follow his gaze.
Another crewmember standing at a control board near the engines started to frantically push buttons and flip switches. The readings on the control board were fluctuating wildly. Instantly the room filled with a bright flash before returning to normal.
Crewmembers began to scramble about the room. Suddenly an explosion threw everyone against the wall near Blaze smashing and tearing them in the process. A fireball expanded and filled the room. Blaze covered his head protectively with his arms. However, there was no heat or concussion from the blast. When the fireball died out, mechanical and human wreckage filled the room. Most of the debris was against the wall next to him.
"Commander Mason, are you alright?" a cold unemotional female voice brought Blaze back. The room was again as it was when he entered it. Except that, the lone operating engine no longer sparked or groaned dangerously. Instead, it purred like a well-maintained machine.
"Yeah," Blaze gasped. He was still panting uncontrollably.
"Commander, I have been trying to get in contact with you for the last five minutes," TACAI informed Blaze. "You are in great distress. I fear that you are close to hyperventilating. Maybe you should return to the Cobra."
"TACAI," Blaze panted. "Did you record anything unusual from my helmet-cam?"
"Please specify," TACAI responded.
"Did you not see any sparks, or ghosts, or an explosion!" Blaze yelled.
"Negative," TACAI responded calmly. "However, I did discern several localized areas of cold air moving about the room on the infrared sensors. Would this be considered 'unusual' Commander Mason?"
"Yes," Blaze said finally regaining his composure. "Maybe you are right -- I should return to the Cobra," Blaze stated. He had about enough with ghost ships and its ghost crew.
Before Blaze could turn to leave, he heard someone whisper "Airlock" in his communication unit.
In the year 2192, the Federation quarantines the fringe colonies in order to stop the spread of the moon-flu. The Federation destroys many of its jump-gates to the fringe in a desperate measure to contain the deadly virus. Entire cities, space stations, and bases die off. Many military vessels and their crew cannot return to the Federation.
The moon-flu moves quickly and by 2193 it had run its course. Of the inhabitants of the fringe colonies, 60% are now dead. Regional governments collapse, military garrisons are abandoned. Either star ships are abandoned or they begin a hopeless search for a way back to the Federation.
The "Time of Anarchy" ran from 2192 to 2194. Warlords and despots rule various cities on devastated planets. These petty dictators often fight each other for meager resources or control for star ships, bases, and/or space stations.
Jonathon Kesselman of New Berlin on the planet Hindenburg unites the world under his leadership. Kesselman accomplished this by using 20th century Nazi Germany as his guide. Soon afterwards, propaganda spread that the Federation manufactured the moon-flu and used it on the fringe colonies to test it. This further helps Kesselman (now called the Fuehrer) consolidate his powerbase.
During the years of 2194 to 2196, Kesselman successfully uses abandoned Federation star ships and military equipment to either conquer or form alliances with the other fringe worlds. This is the creation of The Concordant of Fringe Worlds. Kesselman also institutes a program of genetic engineering to strengthen the survivors' already hardy gene pool.
The Fuehrer Kesselman institutes ambitious programs to advance science, increase population, and find new planets to colonize in the year 2197. The fringe worlds are quickly rebuilding and becoming prosperous again. The Fuehrer is very popular.
In the year 2203, the Concordant is ready for expansion. Although the population is still lower than it was 11 years previously, it is still able to conquer or colonize new planets. All non-human sentient beings are either enslaved or exterminated. Any Concordant citizen that protests these harsh actions simply disappear.
The Federation in the year 2217 creates new jump-gates to the fringe and discovers that not only have their former colonies formed their own government but that the Federation is not welcomed. The Concordant declares its independence and destroys the newly made jump-gates. The Federation is in no position to fight a new war, and so agrees to the Concordant's demands for independence.
The Concordant discovers a small alien star empire. During the years 2218 to 2223, the Concordant fights a war to conquer this threat. They are victorious. However, before Kesselman can savor his victory a dissident band of Concordant citizens assassinate the Fuehrer. Kesselman becomes a martyr. Mobs of angry people round up anyone believed to be a dissident or a traitor and kills them. Deputy Fuehrer Thomas Irons becomes the new Fuehrer.
Blaze felt compelled to follow the voice's instructions. Someone or something was showing him what had happened to Serapis shortly after the jump-drive engaged. However, many questions remained. Was it an accident? If so, what went wrong? Alternatively, as the voice indicated was it sabotage? If so, who was responsible?
Blaze stepped into the main corridor again. Blaze's HUD guided him down the hall towards the airlock. However, before he could get far, the scenery spontaneously changed again.
The Star Ranger found himself now in the middle of some type of reception or tour. Many men and women in business suits gathered around, shook hands, and talked to each other. Again, Blaze did not hear anything that was going on. Everything was purely visual.
Blaze recognized Captain Rice pointing out various parts of the vessel to those gathered in the hallway. One man struck Blaze as strangely familiar. However, he could not pull his name to mind.
The group moved down the corridor and Blaze started to follow. The man Blaze desperately tried to recall from history of thirty years before fell back from the crowd. Blaze decided he would follow this apparition.
The man looked over his shoulder at Blaze. The Star Ranger unconsciously ducked behind a reinforcement beam before he realized the man was not looking at him but at the receding party. The man, assured no one missed him, continued on his trek down the corridor.
Blaze followed the man back to the engine room. The strange man punched in the access code and the door slid open. Blaze followed the man in.
From the doorway, Blaze observed the man approach the first engine. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small device. The man kneeled down on his hands and knees and slid the device underneath the engine. Then he proceeded to jog out of the engine room.
"A bomb!" Blaze thought to himself. "So it was sabotage."
The Star Ranger continued to follow his prey down the corridor as the man rushed to return to the main party. The group of men and women was now in the airlock, again Captain Rice was pointing out various features of the ship. He even pulled one of the crew's enviro-suits off its rack. He began pointing out various features of the suit.
Rice then placed the enviro-suit on a bench and started to lead the men and women out of the airlock. However, two things went unnoticed by Captain Rice. The first was that the strange man who just planted the bomb did not follow. The second was that Rice had accidentally turned on the enviro-suit's helmet camera. The red recording light was on.
Evidently, the saboteur also did not notice the camera was on for he proceeded to attach a very small bead-size object to every enviro-suit's airtank regulator. "That was how the poison was administered!" Blaze thought.
The saboteur then left the room. Something made Blaze stay behind in the airlock. The Star Ranger unconsciously reached for the helmet before he realized it would only be a spectral image. However, Blaze's hand actually encountered the helmet. Blaze reached inside and pulled out the memory chip. He lifted it up to his faceplate and contemplated it before shoving it into one of his pockets.
Suddenly the ghostly image vanished and Blaze found himself alone in a dark room. His lowlight amplification and map on the HUD told him that he was in the airlock. The Serapis then began to rock and shake and Blaze stumbled around. His hand must have hit the airlock button because before he knew it he shot out the airlock's door into space.
The Serapis tumbled before him. Blaze was stunned and could do nothing but watch as the ghost ship trembled before disappearing in a flash of light.
"NO!!!" Blaze shouted as he realized that he was now alone adrift in space. His Cobra still attached to Serapis must have accompanied it as it jumped. This final shock was too much and Blaze blacked out.
Blaze spun clockwise around in a void. He could see the ghosts of Serapis gather around him. Each specter had a grinning skull behind the faceplate of his or her helmet. There was no sound. Otherwise, Blaze would have been sure they all were laughing at him.
A red digital read out of 51773808 spun counter-clockwise. The saboteur's face looked over his shoulder straight at Blaze. Then like magic, the numbers rested upside-down below the face of the saboteur.
Blaze bolted straight up. He hit his head on the shelf above his bed. A few cuss words filled the room. Rubbing his head, Blaze realized that he indeed was not dead and was in his bunk aboard the Cobra.
"It was only a damn nightmare," Blaze sighed although it felt all too real.
"Good afternoon, Commander Mason," The cold female voice of TACAI said from the monitor on his desk. "We are just landing back at headquarters."
"Headquarters?" Blaze said still rubbing his head. "Why are we here?"
"I thought it wise after rescuing you from the Serapis," TACAI continued.
"So it was real after all," Blaze sat back down on his bunk. "How did you rescue me? I thought for sure the Cobra went with Serapis when she jumped."
"Your biosensors were showing you were in a great state of distress. When you entered the Serapis's airlock, I had one of my remote maintenance-bots waiting outside when I overrode the airlock's door.
"Of course, I had the Cobra maneuvered close by," TACAI continued. "Otherwise, I am afraid your life functions may have ceased."
"Thanks TACAI," Blaze said with genuine gratitude.
Blaze saw his enviro-suit lying on a table next to him. He reached inside the pocket and produced the memory chip. Blaze put the chip in his computer and watched in horror and excitement as the saboteur went around planting the device on each helmet's air supply.
Retrieving the chip, Blaze got dressed. "TACAI?" Blaze asked after dressing. "Did you manage to retrieve anything from the ship's memory about the accident and anything happening before launch?"
"Affirmative," TACAI responded. "I have it all recorded on a memory chip for you."
Blaze sat in Colonel Redgrave's office. Colonel Redgrave was the regional chief for the Star Rangers. Even though the colonel was no longer in the field, he still looked like he could bend steel bars despite his gray hair.
Blaze explained the best he could about the Serapis. He presented his evidence all supporting his claim that the Serapis was lost due to an act of sabotage. He even had the name of the saboteur. When he concluded, the colonel just leaned back in his chair for a while. Finally, after a couple of agonizing minutes the colonel returned his gaze back towards Blaze.
"Hmmm...pretty damning stuff," Colonel Redgrave finally said. "This is dynamite, Commander. Pure dynamite and if we are not careful it could explode in our face."
"Yes sir," Blaze responded. "He was only a congressman at the time. However, he later became a lobbyist for the rival company that now makes the ship-born jump-drives we use today. His stock alone for this must be in the billions."
"Look, I believe you," Colonel Redgrave stated before hitting a button on his desk. "You've been unconscious for a couple of days according to your TACAI unit. So you probably did not hear."
Blaze spun around in his chair so he could look at the huge monitor on the colonel's wall. There was a reporter talking in front of the capitol building.
"Official reports say that there was a small explosion on Space-force 2. Vice president Bob Ellis was instantly killed.
"Sadly, some people are claiming that he was actually abducted by a 'Flying Dutchman'..."
The image went blank as Colonel Redgrave turned off the monitor.
"Officially he did die due to a small explosion on Space-force 2. Unofficially this is what happened," the colonel said before hitting another button.
The image was aboard Space-force 2 near the vice president's quarters. The colonel hit another button and the infrared scan revealed about 20 or more blue or cold spots moving towards the room. "We had this filtered," Colonel Redgrave said. "Damnedest thing I've ever seen."
The cold spots moved into Ellis's room only to reappear with the vice president walking in a daze between them. The power flickered a bit and lights in the corridor fluttered. Then the scene changed to an exterior shot of Space-force 2, the ship had obviously lost most of its power. It was helpless when a ship jumped out of hyperspace next to it.
Blaze gasped. It was the Serapis. A man in an enviro-suit floated over to the Serapis and entered her airlock. As soon as the outer door shut, Serapis flashed again out of existence. Blaze stared dumbfounded.
"What you just saw never happened," the colonel warned. "We will put your evidence in the records where they will be seal for twenty years. After that, if someone wants to make a flap about it they can.
"Until then this case is closed."
Blaze returned to the Cobra and sat in the pilot's chair. TACAI flew the ship off towards their patrol zone. Blaze started to doze off when TACAI woke him up.
"Commander Mason," she said. "You have a message. Shall I put it on the screen?"
"Yes," Blaze responded as he pulled himself up straight. It could be the colonel giving him an important mission.
The monitor flickered for a second before the image of a flight crew appeared. Blaze sat stunned as he recognized Captain Rice and the bridge crew at their posts on the Serapis.
No one was wearing his or her helmet. They were all smiling at Blaze, Captain Rice stood up and said, "Thank you."
Before the message ended, Blaze was sure he saw the crew disappear only to see their skeletons in their enviro-suits. A shiver ran up Blaze's spine.
"I believe you might call that a Floating Netherlander," TACAI said in her usual deadpan voice.
"Flying Dutchman," Blaze corrected.
"Thank you," TACAI responded.
"It was time the legend was updated anyway," Blaze mused aloud.