Fall and Riseoriginally written
by Christoph Zach
improved and expanded
There have always been wars. Civilizations have always sought to expand their borders; be they country, continent or planet. The longest chapters in the book of history have always focused on long wars, brutal battles and fallen heroes.
When the Keldon cruiser Explorer 5 landed on planet Skara, homeworld of the Ska'ari, both races found they were not the only intelligent species in the universe. The Ska'ari had not yet developed the warp drive, but after some slick diplomatic moves the Ska'ari traded raw materials and formulas for Heavy Plastics - needed to build high performance hand weapons - in exchange for Keldon warp drive designs.
Within a few years the Ska'ari became nearly as experienced as the Keldon in interstellar exploration and discovered the homeworld of the Rashkir. This race had been fighting a brutal civil war for generations. Nobody really remembers exactly when or why the war between the eastern and western continents had started, but at the time the Ska'ari arrived the hatred was so strong a westerner would rather have had his right arm cut off than shake hands with an easterner.
Meanwhile, the still-exploring Keldon had stumbled upon planet Earth, homeworld of the Human race. With the ever-expanding Ska'ari territories and increasing sightings of Rashkir craft a constant reminder of the consequences of sharing technology, the Keldon were reluctant to offer any assistance to Human space programs; instead offering only to trade in raw resources. The Humans, however, had different plans.
For many, many years all four races lived a more or less peaceful coexistence; some planets even being colonized by two or three races at once. But it was only a matter of time until the inevitable contentions about raw materials, trade routes and military power began.
When the Ska'ari attempted to seize control over one of the most important trade and supply routes of the Rashkir colonies, the first major battle occurred in open space. The Rashkir had retained many of the fighting skills and tactics developed during the generations of civil war, enabling them to once again fend off the much larger Ska'ari armada.
The proud - and because of their trading skills quite wealthy - Ska'ari could not live with this disgrace, and asked the Keldon for support against the Rashkir. The Keldon, who depended on the Ska'ari for many critical trade and raw material contracts, immediately began developing more advanced equipment for their new allies. Additionally, the Keldon had not forgotten the theft of their warp technology by the humans. After years of biding their time it seemed that, with the newfound support of the Ska'ari, the opportunity for revenge was finally at hand.
With one swift stroke the combined Ska'ari and Keldon forces wiped out one Rashkir and two Human colonies within two days.
The Humans were taken completely by surprise, but it was not long before they figured out what had happened. Forming a defensive alliance with the Rashkir, the Humans reestablished the intelligence organizations which had been so prevalent on Earth. The partnership with the Rashkir, touting slogans like "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", turned out to be very effective. The Rashkir were the most experienced warriors in the galaxy, and combined with Human strategies and covert operations the two races presented a formidable challenge to the Keldon and Ska'ari.
So the Great War began. For decades, battles were fought to gain control over trade routes, star systems or single planets. The military industry boomed and developed great space stations, heavy fighters and increasingly sophisticated weapons. Refineries and other important facilities were destroyed by opposing forces, civil trading became impossible due to rampant pirating as neither side could spare troops to fight petty crime. Both sides did anything and everything to win the war, with little regard for the consequences.
After decades of constant battles, the Keldon-Ska'ari alliance believed they had found a way to decisively end the war once and for all. Keldon medical scientists had developed a completely new weapon; one that should guarantee them victory. This "weapon" was a genetically engineered virus, designed to infect only Rashkir, sickening and ultimately killing them within 24 hours. Without the Rashkir fighting force, their Human allies would be easily defeated. In order to use this new weapon, however, battleships needed to be equipped with them - so the Ska'ari and Keldon pulled the majority of their remaining forces back to bases scattered throughout the Pardus cluster.
The Humans, however, thanks to their intelligence network, were immediately aware of the fleets retreating to the Pardus cluster. The Human-Rashkir alliance designed a complicated attack plan to destroy these pockets of enemy forces in what would be one of the biggest campaigns of the war. The operation began flawlessly, multiple attack forces entering the cluster - weapons ready, shields up and ready to fight - taking the Keldon and Ska'ari bases completely by surprise while crews were still working to fit new weapons and equipment on the ships. Having completed phase one of the assault, the Human-Rashkir forces regrouped and headed for the central Pardus sector. This, the largest and richest of all known sectors and location of the planets Pardus I and II, was where the Keldon-Ska'ari military headquarters were located.
In panic the Keldon fired the missiles and torpedoes that carried their super virus. At first it appeared to work. The Rashkir became sick six hours later and after 12 hours not a single Rashkir captain was still able to command a starship. But the conditions in open space had affected the virus in a way that the Keldon scientists had not predicted. The virus had mutated and was now a deadly threat to everyone on the battlefield. Nearly everyone was infected within 24 hours. When the crews realized that they were lost if they kept on fighting they tried to get out of the system. But the Human government, which had kept reinforcements near the wormhole to Pardus, ordered that every ship that came through this wormhole should be destroyed, regardless if they were friend or foe. Whenever the wormhole opened a salvo of torpedoes was fired into it, and not a single ship was able to leave the Pardus system. Some kept fighting until they collapsed in the influence of the virus, others landed on Pardus II to live out their last hours with solid ground under their feet and a blue sky above their heads.
Now scattered throughout the Pardus cluster, some pilots kept fighting half-heartedly until they collapsed under the influence of the virus. Others landed on nearby planets to live out their last hours with solid ground under their feet and a blue sky above their heads. Still others, wanting to get as far as possible for the source of their illness, sought to leave the Pardus cluster altogether.
Human and Rashkir forces had stationed reinforcements near the four wormholes leading to the Pardus cluster, in case the assault went awry in any way. As confused, panic filled reports came through from the battlefield, those on the outside gradually began to comprehend the true gravity of the situation. Reluctantly, but with no time to consider alternative options, orders were issued that all ships exiting the Pardus cluster were to be destroyed, regardless if they were friend or foe. Whenever a wormhole opened a salvo of torpedoes was fired into it; not a single ship made it through. The entire Pardus cluster was declared a quarantined area, and minefields were set up to close the wormholes leading into it forever.
This terrible loss of both life and the most resource-rich sectors in the known universe forced the warring civilizations to reconsider the consequences of war. After months of talks, negotiations and treaties written and revised, the universe found itself at peace once again.
Now was the age of traders and businessmen. Trading corporations, shipping agencies and countless other businesses were founded, and without galactic or racial borders they flourished. Pocket books and bank accounts grew fat and the situation seemed ideal for citizens everywhere; but, this was in fact only the first stage of a new kind of danger for the people of the universe. Corporations began their own wars; subtle at first, fought not with weapons and soldiers but with the power to manipulate supply and demand. In time over 90% of all raw materials, construction facilities and trade routes were owned by 5 super-corporations, who kept the prices high, working wages low, and profits for themselves.
One of these companies was the M.P.R. (Mobility, Power and Resources), headed by Shar'nok, a Ska'ari economy whiz who managed to take over two of the competing companies then force the remaining two out of business. In light of its growing power people made jokes that the M.P.R. should be pronounced "Empire". The jokes stopped being funny, however, when people began to realize they were at Shar'nok's mercy in nearly every aspect of their lives. He had now a monopoly on the vast majority of tradable goods in the universe and he set or changed the prices and wages at will. But Shar'nok was wise. It is true he piled up great riches, but he was careful to keep the most important goods affordable for everyone and his workers satisfied.
Even the greatest riches cannot stop nature's way of all living beings. When Shar'nok died he left behind two sons, Shar'klor and Lar'nak, along with a daughter, Li'nar. Shar'klor, Shar'nok's eldest son, was to inherit the M.P.R. Corporation. Shar'nok had not wanted to split the corporation between his children, in order to preserve its power, but he underestimated his daughter's greediness. She was his youngest child, filled with frustration and bitterness because as a female she could never hope to hold high position in Ska'ari society. With the aid of her brother Lar'nak, she devised a plot to kill Shar'klor. The murder was successful and the two became equal partners at the peak of M.P.R. Corporation's power. Lar'nak soon realized, however, that nobody would ever accept his sister in this powerful position, so he got rid of her with the help of a Rashkir mercenary.
Lar'nak proved to be reckless and brutal. Power, as it does to so many, corrupted him and poisoned his mind. It was not long before he used this power, along with a considerable sum of money, to have all remaining opposition - business or otherwise - eliminated. When Lar'nak was certain he had no one left to fear, he crowned himself emperor of the galaxy.
But even with all his power Lar'nak was unable to completely control the will of all dwellers of the universe. Brave but discontent citizens of all races began to rise against the self-appointed emperor, risking death or, more likely, unspeakable torture. At first these rebellions were small and unorganized, doing little more than simply annoying the emperor. Fortunately for the rebels there was one young man among them who was able to unite their scattered forces: Jeff Sheridan. Slowly and cautiously he created a secret network allowing the rebels to plan and coordinate their revolts.
After some time a hidden base was established in a thick nebula cloud in a dark corner of the universe. From there Sheridan coordinated attacks on imperial vessels and trained new pilots and intelligence officers. Over the years their strength and numbers grew steadily, now claiming entire planets and sectors. What was once a motley band of rebels was now a Federation; an organized, well-trained force to be reckoned with. The emperor nearly went insane with rage at his helplessness against the elusive Federation fighters, and, needing to reassure himself of his power, Lar'nak's cruelty towards the civilian population worsened. All this accomplished, however, was to drive more and more people into the welcoming hands of the Federation.
Forty years after Lar'nak crowned himself emperor, the new galactic war began in earnest. This new war was very different from the last, with the Empire controlling the vast majority of civil economy and possessing much greater numbers of fighting forces. But Federation pilots fought with the desperation of those who have nothing to lose, and often won battles with swift hit and run tactics. Rashkir squadron leaders were especially feared for their hard and tactically brilliant attacks, often victorious even when outnumbered two to one.
As always in times of war, the cruel and cunning materialized to profit from the suffering of others. Bands of pirates formed, attacking anything that appeared weaker than themselves. Smugglers became bolder, dealing weapons, slaves, drugs and information without a thought for those that suffered through their business. Scientists designed new weapons and military equipment, selling to both sides without conscience.
One of these scientists, a Keldon genius named Goron, invented a multi-phase cloaking device able to cloak nearly every small vessel in open space. Aware that this technology could be the deciding factor in the war, he decided not to sell it but rather to use it himself. He fixed the cloaking device to the ship of his oldest and most trusted friend, "Mad" Max Sheppard, a smuggler without fear or conscience. Together they transported missiles to the Empire, handguns to the Federation - and vice versa. Soon they had made considerable profits, which they used to build more cloaked vessels. With Sheppard's contacts in the underworld they soon had a small fleet which transported everything needed to keep both sides battling. From time to time when there was a lull in the fighting, they wiped out a small Federation outpost or Imperial colony to keep the hatred alive and the war raging.
This loose band of freelancers made huge profits and before long tight organization became necessary to keep their alliance secret and therefore safe for all members. Thus the secret "Union of Creative Free Traders" was formed. Though only boasting a few members in the beginning, they held a surprising amount of power as a result of their ability to trade with both fighting sides in the war. But their greed became their doom. Sheppard himself was particularly eager to recruit more members; one of these new recruits was John Sinclair - one of the Federation's best spies. For years Federation headquarters had suspected a third power active in this war, but without proof nothing could be done. Nothing, that is, except activate their top secret agent: John Sinclair.
John Sinclair was a bright human with the unique ability to be whatever he wanted to be. Disguised as a brutal young bounty hunter and smuggler, John Sinclair "happened" to meet Max Sheppard on an imperial space station near the Ska'ari home world. With his innate caution marred by the influence of too much alcohol, Sheppard countered Sinclair's boasts of small fortunes made from smuggling by telling Sinclair tales of Union adventures. Before the night was through Sheppard had extended the offer to join Union ranks, which Sinclair accepted.
For nearly a year the Union kept Sinclair stationed in a secret training camp in a far corner of the universe, with no way to reach his Federation superiors. It was only when he was assigned to his first Union mission that he had a chance to contact the outside. His orders were to lead an attack to destroy and loot a Federation hospital ship, transporting wounded Federal soldiers and medicines away from the dangerous front lines of battle. Sinclair and his squadron attacked as planned near the contested Imperial-Federal border, leaving behind not a single living witness. Sinclair did manage to send an encrypted transmission, and tried to console his guilt by telling himself the slaughter had been necessary to get proof of Union involvement to the Federation.
Federation headquarters received and decoded Sinclair's message, which included attack plans on an Imperial trading outpost. Top Federation officials arranged a meeting with one of the more receptive Rashkir ambassadors, at which time they presented the information. The Imperial official was untrusting and very dubious of the data; however, he delivered it to his superiors as his duty required. Imperial high command was equally suspicious of the supposed attack plans, but, unwilling to simply ignore the possibility it was in fact accurate, ordered a small fleet to take position near a seldom-used wormhole not too far from the trading outpost.
The trap worked.
When the unsuspecting Union fighters decloaked, the waiting Imperial forces jumped through the wormhole and opened fire. Even so, the well-trained Union pilots might have escaped the trap had not the Federation, unbeknownst to the Empire, also sent an elite ambush squad to wait near the outpost. The situation was very tense for all involved. Imperial and Federal forces were unsure which vessels they should target - those of their longtime enemy or this new, more or less unknown threat. Union fighters were trapped between forces which outnumbered and outclassed them in every way - and who were likely to become very, very angry any minute when they figured out exactly what the Union had been up to.
A Union captain tried to cloak his vessel - a fatal mistake. Nearly simultaneously both Empire and Federation ships opened fire, blowing the Union craft to pieces. Seeing no viable alternative, the remaining Union pilots surrendered. The captured crews were transported to secret holding locations where they were eventually interrogated until they told everything they knew about the Union and its leadership.
The Empire and Federation were weary of war. Though still mistrustful of each other they managed to negotiate a cease fire, which included a pact that no ship under a Union flag was allowed to enter either Federal or Imperial space, under penalty of death. John Sinclair never saw the growing peace between the longtime enemies. Unable to reconcile the guilt he felt over killing so many helpless federal soldiers during his attack on the hospital ship, early in the day on which the battle at the trading outpost took place he blew himself out of an airlock. He is still honored as one of the greatest heroes in the long war by citizens of both the Empire and the Federation.
Time passed, as it always has. Though still somewhat cautious of each other, with the lasting peace and passing of generations old grudges were gradually forgotten and pilots from all factions were able to move freely throughout the universe without fear of military reprisal. Trade routes sprang up from one end of the universe to the other and economies stabilized as residents everywhere began the long process of rebuilding. There were, of course, times of tension and the occasional skirmish, but nothing that could compare to the great wars of history. For the most part life was good and, as some of the more adventurous pilots might say, even mundane. But that was soon to change.
Almost everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing the day of the big announcement. The entire universe seemed to come to a standstill as GNN broadcast the unbelievable words, "...access to the Pardus cluster is once again possible...".
In a joint press conference, representatives of the Union, Empire and Federation released newly declassified information regarding the once secret 'Project PEAC' (Pardus Exploration And Colonization). It was disclosed that, in a collaborative effort involving high-ranking military officials from all three factions as well as the elusive neutral Galactic Council themselves, the four wormholes leading to the legendary Pardus Cluster had been reopened several years ago.
The project was kept under wraps until those involved with it could at least do some minimal exploration. This was easier said than done, however, as unsealing of the wormholes only revealed a more difficult - and certainly unexpected - obstacle to overcome before entering the Pardus cluster became possible.
To the astonishment of those involved with PEAC, passage through the newly-opened wormholes brought them face-to-face with military-style blockades of a type never before seen, seemingly impervious to all known weapon types and able to detect even the most advanced cloaking technology. Several years passed before members of the Galactic Council finally developed a method by which a craft could pass the blockades undetected. After years of delay the project was finally able to move forward once again.
A small team of hand-picked explorers was sent into the reopened cluster. The source behind the strange blockades quickly became apparent - the cluster was inhabited by an unknown race. It is now widely accepted that these mysterious beings are descendants of those unfortunate souls trapped within the cluster during the Great War - perhaps building the blockades in the bitter expectation that those who betrayed them would someday return. Either unwilling or unable to respond to attempts at communication, little is known about these beings other than the fact that they possess an impressive array of fearsome battleships. Dubbed the "Lucidi" for the faint glow their bodies emit even after death, these denizens of the Pardus cluster are hostile and extremely dangerous.
The Lucidi were only the first of many discoveries awaiting the explorers as they moved deeper into the Pardus cluster. Far from the desolate wasteland so many scientists expected, diverse life forms were encountered in every sector. Long-forgotten planets were rediscovered, teeming with life and practically overflowing with raw materials, just as the old stories described them. Surrounding space was rich with long-untapped resources.
After weeks of exploring the maze of historical sectors, the PEAC team finally arrived at their ultimate destination: the central Pardus sector itself; where the deadly virus was released into space so very long ago. The first thing the explorers noticed was the anomalous green fog that seemed to engulf the heart of Pardus. Cautiously accelerating towards the planets, Pardus I and II, the pilots wove through the maze of wreckage left behind from the Great War, dodging bizarre life forms - terrible, mutated versions of the creatures dwelling outside the sector, their bodies no doubt ravaged and reshaped by the virus released so long ago.
As they neared the first planet the team began to realize the dangers of the flying through the green haze. A bizarre mixture of virus, nebula gas and hydrogen, the resulting substance was highly corrosive and had been steadily eating through the armor of the exploring spacecraft. In a desperate attempt to escape the viral cloud, they headed full speed towards Pardus I - only to find the surface a barren wasteland, devoid of any sign of life or habitation. Hoping against all odds they might somehow make it back to the wormhole, the crew left the planet as quickly as they arrived. However, the strain of leaving orbit was too much for a few of the weakened vessels and they disintegrated into little more than a memory.
With no time to mourn the loss of their comrades, the rest of the team pressed on. Somehow arriving at the wormhole coordinates intact, their relief was short-lived when they were unable to open the wormhole. Quickly abandoning their futile attempts to force it open, they again set off, desperately searching for some way out of the death-trap. Only a few survived long enough to locate a working wormhole and return home to tell fantastic tales of what they had seen.
With most of the universe feeling the strain of centuries of mining and resource harvesting - and with populations only growing larger - the abundance found within the Pardus cluster is much needed. Equally important is the room for expansion, which these large clusters are ideal for. And of course there is much left to be explored there - who knows what forgotten treasures or fantastic discoveries are waiting?
The Galactic Council concluded the best way to fairly manage the vast amount of resources within the Pardus cluster is to open it to the private sector. Perhaps hoping to avoid some of the inevitable bloodshed in the race to claim territory, the Galactic Council has designated equal portions of the Pardus cluster to each faction. But, because faction influence is so weak in these areas, the designated clusters must remain populated by members of the assigned faction or they will likely revert back to neutrality.
Additionally, wanting to avoid overdevelopment and exploitation of the area, the Galactic Council has also decreed that only those pilots approved of by a special Project PEAC committee will be provided with the device enabling them to pass through the Lucidian blockades. Pilots interested in requesting clearance are instructed to visit Project PEAC (Pardus Exploration And Colonization) Headquarters.
Recolonization of the Pardus cluster, exploration of newly discovered sectors, and the daily struggle for survival occupied most spacefarers for many years. In spite of the occasional war between factions, unpredictable galactic events and the endless rise and fall of alliances, life in the Pardus universe was relatively uneventful. Then came an announcement claiming to herald change that would be felt even in deepest space.
It was unveiled through GNN that decades ago a small group of scientists had established themselves in a remote corner of space and proceeded to secretly begin experimentation in the field of neuro-technology. Eventually, as viable discoveries were made, the little band of researchers enlisted not only the financial aid of all three factions, but also their assistance in keeping the project covert. Thus it was a surprise to all when GNN proclaimed one would "soon witness a set of neuro-technological innovations which will change the economic and political laws of this universe as we know it".
Some looked forward eagerly to new technologies; others were horrified to learn their faction authorities condoned secret experimentation. All had to wait impatiently for the next press conference to discover exactly how, if at all, their lives would be impacted.
The secret of the so-called Neuro-Tech Innovation Drive, as it had been dubbed, was at last unveiled. At the official press conference, reporters and spectators alike listened in awe as leading scientists explained how the new Stim Chip worked, providing a safe and viable alternative to the dubious benefits of drug usage. To top it off, production of the Stim Chip fell well within legal and ethical standards for all three factions and neutral territories. While explaining the details of this proclamation, two additional press releases came out, causing an even more passionate storm of debates amongst observers universe-wide.
The first was that the Esteemed Pilots Syndicate (EPS) released a new piece of technology to its members, the EPS Contraband Drone, able to scan wormhole-jumping ships for illegal contraband. Immediately speculation began as to the likelihood that this discovery was completely independent - in fact many insiders take for granted that the EPS had a major role in the funding of the Neuro-Tech Innovation Drive. At the same time rumors began spreading about dark forces already working on countermeasures.
Secondly, star-journalist Rebecca Qrtyz announced the following scoop via hololeak: Secret communiques reveal that there was neither knowledge nor any assistance by any factions for the new neuro-technologies prior to the initial press release just days ago. Contrary to the statements of support made by representatives from all three factions over the last several days, Qrtyz reported they were merely "jumping on the Bandwagon" after their agents discovered the upcoming developments by accident shortly before release. Ensuing threats, bribes, and other such secret deals allowed faction officials to take partial credit for development of the new innovations.
Despite this embarrassing cover-up, all official faction voices are in support of the new technologies. On the other hand it is unclear how many of the unrecorded and undoubtedly corrupt forces yearn for the persistence of the highly lucrative shadow-economies of the drug and slave trades. Will the "good old days" of fast cash and brute power be dethroned by the new technologies? Can the old and new coexist? Or will the drug lords remain a major driving force in galactic economies? More than ever, the fate of this universe lies in the hands of its noble - and perhaps not-so-noble - inhabitants.