Space Fleet Sagas

Space Rangers Project

Backstory for the Novel CONTACT AND CONFLICT by Don Foxe. Space Fleet Sagas - Science Fiction Series

The Space Ranger Project

Copyright ©Don Foxe 2016

The Space Fleet Sagas begin with the launch and maiden voyage of the Space Fleet Patrol and Torpedo battleship, John F. Kennedy, SFPT-109. In the first novel of the series, CONTACT AND CONFLICT, I introduce Captain Daniel Marcel Cooper, the first commander of an Earth interstellar capable spaceship, and former US Army soldier, Ranger, Can-Am Ranger, Space Ranger, UEC Naval Pilot, test pilot, and Space-Capable vehicle test pilot.

Seems a strong resumé for one person? Possible because Coop was re-engineered, and during the experiment, a lifespan longevity gnome activated. He appears mid to late twenties, but is actually in his early fifties when the PT-109 takes flight.

Two other Space Ranger alumni are introduced in CONTACT AND CONFLICT.

For the Space Fleet Sagas to work, I needed human characters with meta-human attributes. THE SPACE RANGER PROJECT is a novelette, a format which allows me to take you back in the future, thirty-years before first contact, and twenty years following the discovery of the hangar and alien spaceship on Mars that jump-started Earth’s introduction to the rest of the galaxy. A format that provides the length to help explain how genetic engineering could occur, and the potential pitfalls. A length you can digest quickly.

Once you understand how the Space Ranger Project not only created, but brought together many of the major characters to appear and reappear in the Space Fleet Sagas, you will understand the fiber of the series. Humanity does not consist of one type of human, and aliens are not so different.

Don Foxe

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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The Space Ranger Project

The Beginning -

The Spanish Legionnaire raked her fingernails from Coop’s shoulders to the middle of his back, leaving a blood trail. It drove Coop deeper into her, which was the point. His weight on his elbows and thighs, and her legs crossed behind his low back. The two fought the coming orgasms, riding the tide. She arched, her breasts pushing into his chest, groaned, and they came in unison.

He lay on top of her for a long moment, their perspiration mingling, the heartbeats coming down together. When she uncrossed her legs, he slipped out and rolled over onto the bed. He lay there, eyes closed. If he watched her breasts rising and falling he would want to go again. This was their third orgasm, though the first to be reached in unison.

“I pray we do not have jump-school tomorrow,” Elie said, turning on her side to face him. “The thought of those straps between my legs, and how raw I’m gonna be. Ouch.” She laughed, then nuzzled his neck.

“I was just thinking about how the shower is going to sting when the water hits my back.”

“You were kind enough to help me wash the sand out of all the little places I could not reach. I will not make fun of you if you cry, when your little scratch gets wet.”

“In that case, I guess I can afford a few more scratches.”

Before The Beginning -

“This project seems premature,” Booth said. “We don’t have anything close to what anyone could call a spaceship. The advances in travel between Earth and Mars are remarkable, but a long way from SPACE travel.” At the word SPACE, the slender woman with long, tapered fingers, and bright blue fingernails, spread them in the air.

Melissa Booth, Canada’s representative to the United Earth Council, and, because Canada and the United States created the UEC, a Board of Governors member, sat in her new chair, in her new office, at the new headquarters for the UEC, north of downtown Toronto.

A man in a rumpled dark-blue suit stood in front of her desk, hands gripping the back of a chair. One of two placed there for guests. Neither of which enticed the over-excited man.

“Advances in the human gnome project have allowed geneticists to isolate a sequence of gene pairs they named the ‘Methuselah Sequence’. Four base pairs of genes within the 25,000 total genes, which create humans. The theory behind the sequence surmises that centuries ago, prior to the great flood, humans actually lived for hundreds of years. An environmental shift caused humans to lose longevity, but our DNA, or RNA, or whatever, stores gnomes, and kept the sequence.”

Turner Mattson-Grimes managed the fledgling UEC’s Marketing and Public Relations Department. Unifying the planet, following the Eastern Pandemic and the subsequent loss of half of the world’s population, remained an on-going challenge. Diplomatic reasoning and military force had been, and were still being used to accomplish the impossible. Mattson-Grimes' responsibilities included finding ways to bring the disparate people of Earth opportunities to bond.

Twenty-four, overweight, under-height, and married to his new job. He attacked disharmony the way special operators attacked bunkers. He was determined to find ways to bring the world together, peacefully.

Governor Booth’s responsibilities included managing Mattson-Grimes. Before his ideas reached a Council committee for review, they needed to pass inspection by her.

“Why were scientists looking for ways to extend lifespans,” She asked? “We have problems enough simply keeping people alive.”

“It actually happened when we were seeking a cure for the pandemic,” Mattson-Grimes explained. “One of those happy mistakes. No one pursued it until after a cure was discovered and dispersed.”

“So you have a gene proving humans once lived longer. So?”

The PR director continued his presentation.

“Genetic engineers, working with biochemists, developed artificial enhancement cocktails able to increase strength, speed, bone density and activate self-healing properties. Test animals have shown strength gains of nearly six-fold the average. The animals did not reject the cocktails because the ingredients within them were variations of material already found in natural organic matter. A complex variation, but one a host accepts as normal.”

“You have this all memorized, don’t you,” Booth remarked. She had slipped off her dress shoes, and was rubbing one foot against the other beneath her desk. Science stuff bored her.

“Of course. All of this is important. A bit boring, but essential. Our science teams want to create super-soldiers. I want to create unity.”

“Go on, Turner, but you might consider speeding this up. If you put me to sleep, I doubt you will get the committee excited enough to recommend funding for your project.”

“Speaking of funding, the massive amount of time, money, and expertise spent finding a cure for the world-wide pandemic, also resulted in associated research producing a serum capable of providing near immunity against bacterial and viral infections.

“The final ingredient necessary to make the Space Ranger Project actionable happened this year. Dr. Nathan Trent’s team decoded more files located in the Martian hangar. The original files helped scientist understand the engineering and technology used to build the space ship found within the hangar.”

“Everyone knows about the flying saucer and Dr. Trent, Turner. What’s your final ingredient?”

The short, squat man moved around and wiggled into his chair. This was his closer.

“The latest files hold much more information than just space flight specs. One set has to do with re-engineering humanoid bodies. The data closely parallels the same research currently being done on Earth. And, most importantly, Governor Booth, the files provided the final components for success. The ancient astronauts created an organic gel which is activated by a specific combination of lasers and electricity. Drop a body in the gel, zap it to absorb the necessary elements, and we re-engineer a functional human into a super-human.”

Mattson-Grimes had managed to capture her attention, and made the swelling in her feet inconsequential.

“Really? We can make super-humans?”

He had her. He reeled her in, telling her, “Scientists on Mars and Earth studied the data, and tested the gel on animals with complete success, once the proper use of lasers, and electricity was finally achieved.” He sat back. Time to replace emotion with reason.

“The only thing they need to add is activating the Methuselah Sequence. They are ninety-nine percent sure they can revive the RNA during the re-engineering process.

The UEC, hell, the people of Earth will have a Space Rangers Corps. The top recruits from the best military units from across the globe, joined together. Ready to protect the planet from any extraterrestrial threats. Ready to take our first ships into deep space to discover what lies beyond the solar system, and return. Representatives of Earth.”

“Turner, it may have stared out as a yawner, but you may have something,” Booth said. “But we are going to need more production and stage show if we expect the UEC to fund the Space Rangers Project. Here’s what you are going to do . . .”

Turner called the important scientists together for a symposium at UEC’s campus in Toronto. He invited others; scientists, and well-known media types unaware of the different projects, to attend and act as unbiased critics. For two weeks they reviewed data, discussed risks and rewards, and decided, by an eighty-two percent majority of opinion, science could re-engineer a human to be stronger, faster, healthier, resistant to disease and capable of regenerating at a cellular level to the point of an extended lifespan of potentially thousands of years. The advent of a true meta-human was possible.

Mattson-Grimes’ marketing staff made sure all UEC members were aware of the symposium. Several attended lectures, or dropped in on group discussions. PR people assured the representatives were given active roles in discussions, and not just left sitting on the sidelines.

Booth used her position to generate buzz. At the conclusion of the two weeks of round-robin meetings, once they had consensus, her office announced the UEC had created a way of making it possible for humans to endure the stress of extended space travel.

The Board of Governors, the real power behind the UEC, decided they wanted a military presence to secure the role of a proposed Space Fleet branch. The Space Ranger Project would create a company, 250 strong, to become the rock Space Fleet would build upon. People dedicated to their military roots, in the prime of physical fitness, with field experience and higher than average IQs would be recruited. They would need to be mentally strong with adventurous personalities. They would come from every corner of the globe.

At the UEC’s request, scientists, medical doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and military experts developed a profile as the template for a Space Ranger. Once it was completed and approved, the UEC issued a request for volunteers.

Turner Mattson-Grime’s public relations campaign launched. The Space Rangers’ Project made the news, everywhere.

Just After Before the Beginning, But Still Before the Beginning -

Captain Daniel “Coop” Cooper lazed on the front porch of his assigned on-base living quarters in Tunis, Tunisia. He was company leader for ninety-two soldiers of the North African Battalion of the Can-American Army Rangers. His butt in a rocker, and his feet on the porch railing. All was good at the moment.

His company completed five search-and-destroy missions, and another three rescue-and-recover missions in the previous twelve weeks. Currently in the middle of a seventy-two hour break, Coop contemplated the back of his eyelids. His field tablet, setting on the porch next to his rocker, alerted him to an incoming message.

The UEC dispatch requested volunteers for an experimental project. They wanted to create a company of Rangers for deployment in outer space. The experiment included the possibility of genetic enhancements, and carried a high degree of risk. The rewards included the opportunity to join the new Space Fleet branch, and actively engage in security and exploration of both the solar system and nearby star systems. The dispatch did not list the risks. If interested, complete the attached application and return it within one week.

With nothing better to do, Coop spent the lazy afternoon filling out the application. On the Martian morning Fairchild discovered the alien space ship on Mars, Coop was five-years old. Like every kid everywhere, he dreamed about space travel, aliens, and adventure. A resurgence of twentieth and twenty-first century sci-fi serials and movies catered to his young imagination. Turning in the form was a crap shoot, but worth the tiny effort, so he completed every question and hit the reply button.

The UEC dispatched 50,184 requests for application. Data-mining, based on the final profile, selected potential applicants from personnel files of military, police, and affiliated para-military groups. 20,801 applications returned. These were forwarded to the psy-ops specialists. Applications had embedded questions to help determine the mental readiness of the applicants, as well as potential emotional reactions to the genetic altering process. It required two months to pare the list to 11,980.

Five-months, twelve-days after Coop hit REPLY, and half the world away, a nondescript female psy-ops staffer stood before Booth, ready with updates, and prepared to answer questions.

“You may begin anytime,” the UEC rep told the staffer. She was engaged rubbing her left foot, left leg crossed, and her dark blue business skirt hiked up high enough to show panties, if the Governor had worn panties.

“Yes, ma’am.” The young woman focused on the portrait of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, hanging behind the actual woman. “11,980 readiness surveys were sent to commanding officers. These officers were asked to rate the volunteers under their command in several categories. It took two weeks to get all of the reports back, and another two weeks to evaluate them. From this step, the number of potential candidates dropped to 6,000.”

“Exactly 6,000?” Booth asked. “Round number, 6,000?”

The staffer’s eyes lowered to meet Booth’s eyes, dropped lower out of curiosity, and hurriedly returned to the portrait.

“Yes, ma’am. Exactly 6,000. Military experts, both current and retired, were tasked with the next step. They took the 6,000, and determined which ones excelled in most, if not all, of the following training programs, and how many had performed those programs while under battlefield conditions.”

Her eyes dropped again, but this time to a data pad. She read off:

SCUBA/Maritime Warfare

Arctic and Mountain Warfare

Sabotage and Demolitions

Parachute and HALO (High Altitude - Low Opening) techniques

Long Range Reconnaissance

Counter-terrorism and CQB, meaning Close Quarter Battle

Vehicle insertion

Sniping

Hand-to-Hand Combat

SERE, which stands for Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion.

Her eyes rose, discovered the world leader had dropped her leg and was no longer flashing. Able to make eye contact, she continued her report.

“Following two months of,” she read from her pad, “reading after-action reports, command reports, commendations, and recommendations for promotions and medals, plus all other reports collected by organizations on their personnel, two-thousand eighteen volunteers were selected to attend the Fleet Assessment Training in Nevada, USA.”

Almost To The Beginning -

Five-months, twenty-days after sending in his application, Coop’s field tablet alerted him to the message inviting him to begin Space Fleet Ranger training in Nevada in one month. His commanding officer and line of command copied the same alert. He received a four-week furlough to get his things, grab down time, and report to the designated airfield in Las Vegas, where he would be airlifted to the secure training facility.

Coop, dressed in comfortable but functional field clothing without rank or insignias, and his favorite desert boots, arrived at the appointed time (6:00am CMT), at the appointed place (Las Vegas Airfield). He, and two-thousand seventeen others, piled into unmarked, distinctly military, transport planes. At 6:15am they took off. At 6:45am they landed.

No one was allowed to grab their packs. Instead, groups of ten were placed on military transport hover-copters and flown into the Nevada badlands. It required twenty choppers ten trips each, plus a couple of extra, to take all of the volunteers into the desert and deposit them anywhere from fifty to sixty-miles from the staging area.

Coop’s group were sixty-miles out when their hover craft landed. The Gunny on the doorway railgun told them “Out.” When the final pair of boots hit the rocky ground, he yelled, “You have twenty-four hours to make it back to base. You don’t make it back, or you don’t make it back it under twenty-four, your gear will be on a transport taking you back where you came from. Or your body will be sent to next of kin.”

No other instructions were forthcoming. No comments or questions allowed. Gunny slammed the door shut and the chopper flew away. Coop noted the craft continued on the same heading flown to deliver them to the drop zone. The pilot was not going to provide a hint which direction the base was located.

“On me,” shouted a twenty-something US Marine: complete with jarhead haircut and wearing camo desert BDUs. “I am United States Marine Corps First Lieutenant Charles Hammond, and unless anyone objects, I will take command.” No one commented, including Coop, who outranked the Marine, but wanted to see him in action. “We have sixty miles to cover over desert terrain. We need to average three-miles-per-hour to insure we arrive well within our allotted time.”

He pointed east, where the sun was rising. “The chopper came in from that direction. I’ll take lead. Single file. Let’s motor people. I do not intend on returning to San Diego tomorrow.”

Hammond took off in a fast jog, followed by eight others. Cooper stayed back, watching as they disappeared over a rocky hill. He began walking in the same general direction, but twenty-degrees north of the L.T.’s line.

He travelled a quarter-mile, when he heard footsteps running up from behind. Looking over his left shoulder he found a female in khaki cargo pants, jump boots, and a black t-shirt was catching up to him. She wore a baseball cap, also black, pulled low over her eyes. Average height, and lean, she still made the t-shirt bounce as she ran. Once she caught up, she slowed to match his pace.

“¿Que pasa?” She asked.

“Nada,” Coop replied. “Why’d you leave the looey?”

“Wasn’t so much leaving him,” she answered in English, with no discernible accent, “as it looked like you might be smarter. So, are you smarter, amigo?”

“More observant,” Coop replied. “The chopper didn’t fly a straight line. It was subtle, but it made a soft arch, slipping south to southwest, before flying the last couple of minutes west. Probably added twenty miles, and took us over some unremarkable hilly terrain so we wouldn’t notice. Who are you?”

“Captain Elena Casalobos, Caballero Legionario Maderal Oleaga,” she replied, raising a two-finger salute to her cap’s brim.

“The Diecinueve,” Cooper said. “Spain’s 19th Special Operations group. You guys have a reputation older than Delta Force’s. Originally the Spanish Legion, if my memory serves. And a Captain. Why did you let United States Marine Corps First Lieutenant Hammond take command of the group?”

“Wanted to see him in action. I figure not everyone is going to make the cut, so better to shut up, and watch the competition,” she said with a smile. “When I noticed you weren’t behind me, I thought I’d see why.”

“And you didn’t bother to tell the person in front of you?”

“Nope. Figured if you were hurt, and couldn’t walk, I could catch back up. If you were as smart as you are pretty, maybe you had a better plan. You know my name and rank, soldier, so how about you.”

“Captain Daniel Cooper, Can-Am Rangers, recently North Africa Battalion,” he answered with a two-fingered return salute. “And not too many people have ever called me pretty.”

“So what’s the plan, Daniel?” she asked, continuing to match his pace.

“Coop,” he said. “Friends call me Coop, and the plan is to walk a little ways. I’m looking for a place to spend the hottest part of the day, and then we double time once it gets cooler.”

They walked in comfortable silence for five hours. The sun, and the temperature rising as their shadows grew shorter. Coop eventually spotted what he was looking for, and veered them left, forty-yards off their course. He stopped before a hillside with an overhang, rocky sides, and a sandy base. He picked up a dried stick from a long dead tree, and started poking around the sand under the overhang, near where the rocks came all the way to the ground. After a minute, he dropped to his knees, and began clearing away sand. He uncovered a rocky basin, with an inch-to-two of water.

“So do your other friends also call you Moses?” Casalobos asked.

“Desert trick. Rain water will follow the rocks down, and sometimes you have rock beneath the sand. If you’re lucky it forms a catch. The shade from the overhang keeps it from evaporating for a few days. The scrubby bush around here is a little greener, so it made sense to look. And there are footprints in the sand from coyote, or desert fox. Often you need to search several locations, and sometimes you never find water. Finding it on the first try is a combination of luck, and it must have rained in the last day or two.”

“Don’t think much about luck. You’ve been looking for this exact spot. What do we do about the sand in the water?” She asked.

“Give it a couple of minutes to settle. You can scoop from the top,” he explained. “We lay up in the shade, have some water, get some sleep, and in a few hours continue.”

“Sounds like a plan,” she said, gliding into a lotus position in the shade of the overhang. “Don’t you feel bad about leaving the other seven with the marine?”

“There’s an old saying about elections . . . who’s the bigger fool, the fool, or the fool who follows a fool?”

Coop dropped into a cross-legged sit, next to the Spaniard.

Nodding her understanding, and agreement, Elena closed her eyes, and soon lingered in a space between calm and sleep. Coop joined her.

Six hours later, with the desert sun casting long shadows stealing back to the East, the two drank a more water, then took off, returning to the line Cooper had set earlier. This time at an easy jog. When dark arrived it would come with a three-quarter moon, and while footing would be hazardous, there would be enough light for them to pick up the pace. Coop leading and Elena close behind.

According to Coop’s chronometer, it was 18:39pm CMT when they departed the water hole. He set a five-mph pace. Faster than he would have taken troops on a desert mission, but he did not need to fear booby-traps or snipers in the Nevada desert. He also wanted to see how Casalobos held up. Like she said, it was never too soon to evaluate the competition.

They picked up the faint lights of the base camp at 3:00am. At 3:32am they jogged onto the airfield, and were met by a medical team. They each had vitals measured and each provided a sample of blood. They were not the first to arrive, but they were back with three hours to spare.

A full-bird Can-Am Army Colonel approached, and both snapped to attention. “As you were,” he said. “Where’s the rest of your team?”

“We’re our team,” Casalobos said. “The other eight went a different direction.”

“And you let them?”

“Wasn’t part of the mission details,” Coop responded. “We were told to get back within twenty-four hours, not get everyone back in twenty-four hours.”

“Would you leave your people in the desert on a mission, Captain Cooper?”

The Colonel was not angry, just asking a question, while a medic handed him an old-fashion clipboard with paper sheets attached.

“Depends on the mission, sir,” Coop replied.

“Captain Casalobos, same question.”

“What he says,” she said, and added, “sir.”

“According to your med report, neither of you are very dehydrated for having spent a day in the desert.”

Since the statement had not been phrased as a question, neither replied.

When no explanation was forthcoming, the Colonel told them, “Your bags are over by the hangar. Find ‘em, go inside. An ensign will take you to your assigned bunks.” The two Captains came to attention. “Dismissed,” the Colonel said, then walked away to question another soldier.

The hangar was not only a hangar. The Navy ensign, a tall female with a by-the-book approach to life, led them to an elevator. Perhaps de-elevator a more appropriate description. They dropped at least four stories. The Ensign led Casalobos to room 404, and Cooper, further down the hallway, to 414. Elena gave Coop a half-wave, half-salute, which he returned before entering his new home.

He made a quick inventory. Over-sized bunk with linens folded on top, and two pillows; a desk, and chair with computer station; a closet, dresser, and a private head with shower and sink. He had lived with less.

He tossed his bag at the foot of the bed, and placed his dirty, sweaty baseball cap on the dresser. He looked forward to a shower, but before getting any neared the reward, a knock sounded at his door. Opening it, he found Captain Elena Casalobos, who smiled, came in without an invitation, and inspected his room.

“Same as mine,” she told him. She dropped a small go bag on his bunk, and began taking her sweat-stained t-shirt off. “And a friend would help me scrub this sand off. It’s gotten into some pretty tight spaces.”

Naked she turned on the water, and when it was no longer cold, stepped into the stall. Coop joined her.

The Middle -

1,683 volunteers returned to the base camp in time, or close enough, to continue. United States Marine First Lieutenant Charles Hammond, and those with him, were not part of the cut. Over the next six weeks, the goal, for those in charge, was cut the number of volunteers to a final two-hundred fifty. These special operators would comprise Earth’s first company of Space Rangers.

Week 1. Things Fall Down.

Flight insertion is the ability to start your parachute jump at a designated altitude, and end up within a targeted area. Originally, High Altitude and Low Opening, or Low Altitude and Low Opening training consisted of jumping from as high as 35,000 feet, with bail-out oxygen, then free falling to a couple of hundred feet above target, opening your chute, and landing quickly, quietly, and whole. Or, in LALO, do the same thing from a couple of thousand feet up, with no O2, and less free fall.

Each volunteer performed one HALO, one LALO, and one of the two picked by the Jump Master based on his opinion of their weakest attempt.

Eighty-four candidates were injured or failed to land within the target zone in any of their three attempts.

The remaining candidates hit the target in one, two, or all three jumps. Two modern variations were then added. Jumpers exchanged paraglide chutes for free-flight wing-suits. The latest incarnation of the wing-suit allowed a jumper to leave from heights up to 15,000 feet, without oxygen, or higher with it. They could either deploy a small parachute for the final segment of the flight and the landing, or, if sufficiently skilled or crazy or both, could actually bring themselves onto target without deploying the safety drag-parachute.

Coop accomplished the second longest jump, nearly ten-minutes in the air, hitting the fifty-foot target without deploying the drag-chute. The black ‘batwing’-suit flared at the last second, when he whipped his body out and up, landing upright.

Casalobos bettered his time by a full minute, and landed ten-feet closer to the center of the bull’s eye.

One-hundred twelve volunteers either refused to use the wing-suits, missed the target three of three tries, or were injured landing and could not continue.

The reward for the 1,571 remaining were motorized hover-chutes, and unsupervised time on the desert.

Week 2. Things Look Up.

1,487 began Week Two by loading into unmarked troop transport planes, and flying to a private airfield outside of Longmont, Colorado. From the strip, everyone could see Long’s Peak, rising 9,000 feet above the western edge of the Great Plains.

No one bothered to explain the eighty-four missing people. Could be illness, or discipline, or home-sickness. Some people just drop out. One thing for sure, it was not because of fraternization. Coop and Elena spent every free moment, including nights, together, and they were still present.

A Can-Am Army Ranger Master Sergeant, with the Mountain Unit Patch on his left shoulder, addressed the assembly.

“You will divide into teams of eight, with one team of seven. There are packs with climbing gear in the hangar to your left. Once you have teamed up, and have your gear, one person from each team will stick their hand in a hat, and select a direction. That will indicate which face of the mountain you will ascend. Another will then select a number; either number one, or number two. Finally another team member will pull a one, two, or three.” Master Sergeant waited, and was pleased when no comments were made.

“The first number, one or two, indicates whether you go today, or tomorrow. If today, you ride out. If tomorrow, you make camp here. Cots are in the hangar. The second number indicates whether your group ascends first, second, or third. There will be a half-hour lapse between teams. Each face offers multiple routes. You decide which one you team takes.

“Each route requires different options, and each option requires different degrees of expertise. Your team’s combination of choices and proficiency will result in differing amounts of time to ascend, and then descend from the peak. We have average times for each face as completed by a squad of Mountain Unit Rangers. You have to complete your climb, and descent within thirty-percent of the time set by the Rangers. Any team failing to meet that mark, everyone on that team will be sent home.” He hesitated again. Again, no comments.

“We have transport to the base of Long’s Peak, that big damn mountain over there [and he pointed]. At the top, it is 12,000 feet above sea level. There are fourteen different ascent routes available. Since it is late spring, you will not have to deal with too much snow or ice, but it is still wet, slick, and dangerous.”

The Master Sergeant turned away from the mountain. “Back here in thirty, as teams. Dismissed.”

Coop and Elena watched hundreds of others rush to the hangar to grab equipment. A young Japanese man joined them.

“I am Hiroshi Kimura. I would like to be on team with you,” and he actually bowed. Elena bowed back, but Coop offered his hand, which was taken.

“I’m Coop and this is Elie,” he said.

“Elie?” Casalobos queried, hearing the shortened version of her name for the first time.

“Nickname,” Coop replied. “Easier, quicker, and on a climb we need to communicate quickly. Okay?”

She shrugged, and looked back to Kimura, who had watched the exchange closely, deciding he liked the two gaijin. “Buenos Dias, I am Elie.”

“Please call me Hiro. It will be quicker,” he replied.

Another four volunteers walked up, asked about joining, and all were accepted.

One of them, a young woman with short blonde hair, asked, “Shouldn’t we get equipment?”

“The kits will all be the same, so first or last doesn’t matter,” Coop told her. “Right now, not getting trampled is more important.”

When half of the others returned to the air strip, and were trying to establish teams, Coop suggested they retrieve their kits.

Elie drew the first piece of paper from a bucket, not a hat. The draw would dictate from which direction they would attack the mountain. “East,” she said.

Hiro picked from the next bucket, and called, “One.”

The young, blonde female, a US Naval Rescue Swimmer named Samantha, selected from the third bucket, and called, “Three.”

Ground transports were marked according to locations, so the team boarded one marked ‘EAST’. Twenty-eight miles later, they stepped off at the eastern foot of Long’s Peak.

The East Face proved to be the steepest possible ascent to the peak. A one-thousand foot wall dominated the early ascent, and included routes named the Diamond, and the Lower East Face. All climbs here appeared technical, from 5.10 to 5.13. One face looked like an upside-down Diamond, thus the name.

From Coop’s position, facing the mountainside, it seemed possible to climb to the left of the Diamond’s face proper, using free-style only. There were numerous cracks, ledges for finger, and toe holds. The routes on the right side of the Diamond would require aids, like pitons and ropes. Climbers would require spending recovery time on the left wall, and the rocks there looked to be very wet.

“Left or right?” Elie asked.

“While the left side would be quicker, only a qualified climber should attempt that face,” Coop remarked. Cooper was qualified, and knew Elie could handle it, but was unsure of the other five. “We’re climbing against time, but speed will be determined by the weakest climber. Army Rangers would have taken the left side, and would have set times hard to beat by even experienced climbers.”

Cooper silently calculated variables, considering the effects of altitude and the alpine conditions, in addition to the difficulty. He made an educated guess at how long it would take him to free climb Diamond, and added thirty percent.

While he was considered a desert specialist, he did completed the mountain course for Rangers. In fact, his father had been the Commander in charge of the Mountain Training program in Dahlonega, Georgia, since Coop was five. Appalachian mountains were older, and smaller, but some of the climbs every bit as difficult as ones in the Rockies.

Joining Cooper would be Elena, a Spaniard, Hiro, the Japanese, an Israeli female named Ziva, a German male, Michael, and two Americans, Ken, and Samantha. He did not care where they were from, what they believed, or what sex they were. His only concern was their climbing experience. He discovered he, Elie, and Michael were military certified climbers, with experience. The others, not so much, though Hiro promised he was an excellent, if uncertified, climber.

Cooper checked the bags. They included sleeping nets. He had four team members with limited to zero mountain experience, so the decision was easy.

“We take the right side. Either Elie, Mike, or I will lead. We have compression pitons, so we will clamp them into cracks or crevices, and feed ropes back. There are climb aiders in the packs. If you have any trouble with hand-over-hand, just attach the aider, and use it like a ladder. The first half of the climb will be tough, but if everyone stays hooked in, there shouldn’t be anything so technical we all can’t make it.”

He turned to face the mountain, and pointed toward the top.

“We’ll take a rest about three-quarters up. There’s a small ridge there. If it’s wide enough, maybe we just sit, and let our lungs catch up. If it isn’t, we set the sleep nets, and rest for a couple of hours. The last section is the steepest. It will take the most strength, and probably as much time as the first three-quarters.”

“If we aren’t tired, we shouldn’t stop,” the American, Ken, said. “We’re against the clock.”

“If we get there, and your lungs, legs, and arms aren’t on fire from the work and the altitude, then you go right ahead,” the German responded. “In the mean time, we have an hour to wait, so we might as well rest.”

Coop and Elie grabbed packs, and did a thorough inventory of all supplies. Both wore heavyweight BDU’s, so they stashed smaller gear and nutrition bars in pockets. Backpacks received water, along with extra pitons, clamps, carabiners, and a wet-dry towel. As they uncoiled the 125-foot dry rope each had, the others took the clue, and began prepping for the climb.

An hour passed before the first group started up the right side. The seven watched their progress, and the line they decided to ascend. Thirty minutes later, an all-male team started up the left side. They carried two ropes, and minimal gear. They were free-climbing, relying on speed, and strength to get them up and over.

“They have the time bug,” Cooper said. “They’re hooked on making the best time possible, instead of making a time good enough. Wish ‘em luck.”

At 10:56am their group was called.

“It’s going to take eight to ten hours, so the last bit will be in dusk to dark. Keep that in mind. Conserve energy when, and where you can. Lead climber sets the pace. Hiro, please handle the six.” Seeing his lack of comprehension, he explained, “You are last man up.”

Three hours on course, they caught the first group up. The initial team on the face climbed in a line, taking an ascent to the right of the route Coop selected. They moved at a deliberate, cautious pace. Altitude, and early speed had caught up with at least two of the team. Now the entire group had to make the climb one step at a time. The free climbers to the left were visible, and two-hundred feet higher, making good time.

The flash-boom caught everyone by surprise.

Colorado is famous for apocalyptic lightning storms, especially those to roll in during the afternoons. The people in charge were either taken by surprise by the storm’s arrival, or they simply did not care about the weather.

Dark clouds from the West rolled over the top of the mountain. The peak had shielded the incoming storm from sight, until the first crack of lightning. The next bolt hit a ridge above them, and the boom that followed made teeth rattle. This was going to be a ground event; not sky-to-sky.

Cooper quickly pulled everyone up to his position. When Hiro arrived, the rain arrived with him. The wet rocks now ran with rain water, and the dark mountainside lit by strobes of deadly lightning.

Coop shouted to be heard. “You can’t outrun, or out climb a storm. Physics win every time. There is a rock fall about twenty-feet up, and to our right. It looks to be about thirty-five feet tall. If we can get within a cone of ten feet, lightning will be more likely to strike it than us.

“When the lightning hits, it will send a current through the ground. Try to keep your weight on your shoes. The rubberized soles will help insulate you. Do not grab cracks unless you absolutely have to. Leave the ropes. Wet ropes act like conductors. Drop your bags, and make sure all metal is in the bags. Pitons, carabineers, anything metal. Leave it in your bag, and tie it to the rope. Once we get over there, separate. Do not bunch together. Find a flat spot, and crouch down. Avoid anyplace where water is pooling. Get to it people.”

Each member removed any metal equipment, and stored it in their bags. They velcroed the bags to the rope. Slowly, because of the slippery rocks and the darkness, all seven made it to within fifteen feet of the outcropping. Coop made sure no one stopped in the gaps between the loose boulders where sparks could find them. He also checked to see there was space enough between them. If one person did get hit, they would not take anyone with them.

The seven remained crouched, with heads down, hoods up, and arms locked around knees for the forty minutes it took the storm to blow over. Ken started to get up, and Coop yelled at him.

“Wait another few minutes. The storm is over, but lightning can strike from as far away as five miles. Give it another twenty, and then we regroup.”

Twenty minutes later Coop reformed his group. He checked on the climbers who had been on their right, and got a thumb’s up when he yelled to them.

The free climbers on the left had not been as lucky. Two had slipped, sliding down over one-hundred feet. They hung one above the other, fingers desperately jammed into cracks. From his advantage, Coop could not see any finger or foot holds which would allow them to move up, down, left, or right. They were lucky to have stopped at all on the sleek surface of the face.

The other six were plastered against the wall, unable to help the two below.

Coop and Elie grabbed bags, and recovered ropes. They free-climbed the next one hundred feet. Mike and Hiro remained behind to tie-off with the two Americans and the Israeli. They followed at a safer pace.

Coop and Elie stopped parallel to the stranded climbers. After assessing the conditions from this angle, Coop scaled another twenty feet, and set a double piton into a crevasse. He swung over to the lower climber, grabbed him around the chest, and swung back, where Elie could grab both of them. He went up again so he would have the proper angle, and repeated the process with the second climber. By the time they had both men off the shear face, Mike arrived. They handed the two off. The two shaken climbers could join the others on rope-line, once the others arrived.

Coop, with Elie on his heels, climbed another hundred-feet to find a place to extract the remaining six free-climbers. The two began the exhausting repetition of climb, swing, grab, and recover six more times. Elie would have taken more of the load, but it required Coop’s strength to physically grab each stranded man, and then carry him on the swing to where she waited.

The following group arrived in time to assist Elie, grabbing Coop and his human baggage, the final two trips. Everyone helped get the six hooked onto the rope line. All eight turned out to be amateur rock climbers. They had decided to team up because of their shared experience. None had ever faced a challenge like the Diamond delivered. High altitude sapped their energy, and the storm had taken the fight out of them.

When they recovered, their added strength meant the two teams, working together, could make the final ascent without difficulty. It would just take time for them to rally. They could continue at a slow pace, allowing their lungs to adapt.

Coop was exhausted as well. He needed to rest, and not while on the move. Elie refused to leave him, so the two unelected leaders directed the others ahead. Hiro was the last to depart.

“I should stay,” he said. “It is not fair the two of you have done so much of the work, and, yet, will not make the time. I do not know if even we will make it.”

“Go,” Coop told him. “You still have to descend. We’ll catch you somewhere along the way.”

They watched Hiro climb. He was actually a very strong climber. They observed his efforts from their backs, lying on a tiny ridge together. They ate protein bars, drank water, and Elie said, “You know, we’ll never catch them.”

“Sleep is a weapon,” he said cryptically. “I’ll wake you in ninety minutes.”

Ninety-one minutes later, he said, “The most difficult part of the Diamond’s face are the overhangs down below. Once you get past them, it’s a fairly simple slope.”

“Are you suggesting we swing over to the other side, and free climb to the top?”

“Yep.”

“Cool,” she replied.

Soon both switched from the right side, to the left side of the mountain’s eastern face. Coop released the rope, and recoiled it. He had his backpack on, the rope around a shoulder. Elie did the same. They pulled chalk-bags from their packs, and snapped them onto their belts.

Two hours later, they caught the hybrid team to cheers, and a couple of friendly cat-calls. An hour more, and they stood at the crest. They waited, and rested two hours for the others to complete the more technical, but less physically taxing route.

Elie and Coop received bear hugs by their original team, and then again by the second team. Elie getting longer hugs by the second team’s members.

“It’s going to be a bitch getting back down,” Mike said. “We’re all tired, and it’s getting darker. Even the Army Rangers had to stop and rest before returning, don’t you think?”

“Probably,” Coop agreed, “but we aren’t going down that way.”

“We have to, or get disqualified,” a free-climber team member commented, having overheard the conversation.

“Nope,” Coop answered. “The Master Sergeant said specifically, we had to ascend the route selected. He didn’t say a damn thing about the descent. On the drive over, I noticed the northern face. Some civilian climbers were repelling down, and they were dropping straight, and fast. I say we hike over there, and do the same.”

“Anyone with a better idea,” Elie asked out loud, and with no response, or argument, the fifteen combined climbers followed a well-marked trail to the crest of Long’s north face.

“Damn,” the German said. “They have permanent pitons, and cable holds installed. Looks like they are set in all the way down. Look, a group is about half-way down.”

They descended the northern route, taking half the time it would have taken to traverse the eastern face. The two teams joined three groups of eight at the bottom for the crowded ride back to the base. Six climbers rode on top of the transport, which had been sent to collect twenty-four candidates, but returned with thirty-nine back.

Coop had been right. No one cared how they got down. Plus, he , Elie, and their team were given special recognition by the Master Sergeant for the rescue and recovery of the free-climbers.

On the third day after arriving, they boarded unmarked planes for the return trip to Nevada. Four people had been killed by lightning, another three killed during the climbs, and twenty-three badly injured. 656 climbers on 82 teams did not return within the thirty-percent time limit.

801 volunteers remained after just the first two weeks of trials.

Week 3. Things Go Boom.

Week three consisted of two days of training, followed by performance in sabotage, and demolition techniques. Since no one blew themselves up, while managing to successfully blow up a bunch of old junk, everyone passed. Nine people quit on their own.

During the week, Coop and Hiro discovered a mutual love of martial arts, and weapons. They agreed to meet in one of the training studios to practice. Practices soon became sparring matches.

Week 4. Things Get Close.

Close Quarter Battle (CQB) is either small teams fighting in tight locations, like trying to take an enemy hiding within a city, or the rescue of hostages from a space controlled by bad guys. It is small arms, and hand-to-hand combat, usually involving knives. Since every volunteer in the program was proficient at personal battle techniques, the Space Ranger Project was more interested in how they operated within a team, and under stress.

Command divided those left into two groups of 396. By blind draw, these two groups again sub-divided into ninety-nine four-person teams.

An officer presented a scenario to a team from Group A, and put them on the clock while they decided on a strategy. Next, they implemented their plan, to either take out a group of enemy combatants, or rescue a hostage. A team from Group B was given the exact same scenario.

Seasoned Can-Am Rangers played the roles of enemy combatants. Hostages were dummies. Straw dummies, not stupid for getting caught by the bad guys. A panel of experienced officers and NCOs graded each team on planning, execution, and results.

The panel compared the team results, and issued grades. One team would advance, and the other team was history.

On day five, Coop answered a knock at his door. Elie walked by, and dropped onto his bunk.

“My team made it though,” she told him. “I lucked out. Hiro was on my side. The guy is a shadow. Someone said he isn’t even military. We had to go into a room blind, and rescue a hostage. He went in first, and by the time we followed, all we had to do was untie the dummy.”

“Doesn’t exactly fit the narrative of ‘team’ work,” Coop observed.

“Does if you have a fucking ninja on your team,” she replied.

“My team had a close-quarter firefight. We were outnumbered, and outgunned, but we had the high ground, and better shooters. There was a Russian Special Ops guy named Gregory on my team. The guy could shoot a gnat off a golf ball in flight. If anyone showed skin, he took it off. I understand we’re down to three-ninety-six.”

“I understand we have a couple of days off,” Elie said. “Unless you object, I intend on spending them right here.”

“No objections.”

Week 5. Things Go Bang.

The fifth week involved pure skill. Everyone required to perform with short, and long-range weapons, both laser and projectile.

It was simple. Six shots at a target. Targets placed at different distances. Pistol, laser pistol, rifle, laser rifle, and finally, a sniper’s weapon, not of your own choice. Points for closest to center.

Anton Gregory hit a center from over 2,000 yards, using a sniper’s rifle he had never handled before.

At the end of the week, twenty percent were cut, leaving 316 volunteers, and one more week of trials.

Week 6. Things Get Lighter.

The underground facility housing the Space Ranger Project was huge. Besides the space to bed over 3,000 people, there were hangars, storage, kitchens, mess halls, training facilities, shooting ranges, fitness centers, and recreation halls. The complex enclosed separate sections for science, military operations, and a complete medical wing. There was also a gymnasium-sized arena where gravity could be manipulated. It could be made gravity free, or less-than-normal, or more intense.

Day 1 involved working at fifty-percent gravity. Volunteers had to move boxes, run and leap around obstacles, and climb walls. All in all, it was a fun day for everyone.

Day 2 provided more fun when the gym was made gravity free. Now they needed to traverse the gym, using, or avoiding obstacles floating in the air above the floor. More than a few made mistakes in propulsion, finding themselves banging off the roof, or slamming painfully into walls. One guy pushed so hard off the ceiling, angry over having hit it a second time, he landed on the floor, cracking his head. Three-fifteen remaining.

Day 3 was not so much fun. Day 3 was scary.

The science team introduced multi-directional mini-thrusters volunteers would wear on their belts. The little motors produced puffs of air, which would not do much in a gravitational field, but if you were weightless, they could get you moving, and keep you moving. Simple, too. Just twist the nozzle in the opposite direction you wanted to go, and push the button.

Small groups practiced together, leading to a lot of bumps and bruises. People had to look where they were going; look out someone, or someones were not about to careen into them; physically adjust the thruster, and push the thruster’s button on, or off.

Days 4 and 5 were the cut-down days. Potential Space Rangers were provided helmet and vests with target sensors. Each person issued a laser-tag pistol. In five-against-five, in a gravity-free gym, with obstacles as cover, they had to get from one wall to the opposite wall, without getting lit up. The extra five were paired against five individuals who had been tagged, but the training staff felt salvageable.

To make it more fair for individuals, teams were broken up after each fight, and people reassigned into new teams. This was repeated several times over the two days.

By close of the fifth day, ninety-five recruits had been tagged multiple times, and asked to leave. Two-hundred twenty of the original 20,801 applicants remained. They were given the weekend off. They could not leave the secure, and secret base, but they were not expected to perform any more tasks. Just relax, and show up by nine-hundred hours on Monday for a final briefing.

Coop and Elie spent a considerable amount of the extra time in his cabin, in bed, celebrating. They woke at 5:00am on Monday. Elie left for her cabin to get ready. They would meet for breakfast at six, and go together to the final brief.

Week 7. Things Get Real.

The two-twenty assembled in the gymnasium. They sat on bleachers facing a podium, and a number of chairs placed behind the dais. Coop noted the Russian sniper, Gregory, and Hiro also made the final cut. He knew most of the others by face, if not by name. Some he had become quite friendly with. Elie and he were an open secret, and since no one in charge told them to stop sleeping together, they had not.

The half-dozen chairs in front filled with a mix of brass and civilians.

A Navy admiral Coop did not recognize, took the podium at exactly nine-hundred.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am Admiral Jonas Myerson. First, and foremost, let me congratulate all of you for successfully completing the tasks placed before you these past six weeks. We, all of us here [indicating those seated], have watched with great interest to see who would be joining us today.

“This is the point in time when you must make the final decision. A decision that will shape your destiny. Whether you move forward with the Space Rangers, or elect to step aside. It is totally your decision. To help you make your decision before the final, and most critical phase of the project, Dr. Conrad Potterdamn, the genetic engineer in charge of the project, will explain what is about to happen. Dr. Potterdamn.”

The Admiral occupied an empty chair, as a thin, short man with thin, balding hair, and light grey eyes replaced him behind the podium. He adjusted the microphone height before speaking. He pulled note cards from a suit pocket, place them on the stand, and looked over the people seated on the bleachers. The scientist appeared comfortable speaking before a large group.

“I also give my congratulations. The on-going human gnome project isolated a sequence of gene pairs termed the ‘Methuselah Sequence’. Four base pairs of genes within 25,000 total genes. This structure responsible for the creation of modern humans. There was a time, hundreds of thousands of years in the past, when a person’s lifespan could be measured in centuries, not decades. People lived productively for hundreds of years. An environmental shift, most likely a movement of the Earth’s axis, caused a great flood. A flood so massive, it nearly wiped mankind off the face of the planet. Among the many losses wrought by the catastrophe was human longevity. But buried within our collective RNA, remains the sequence. Our bodies still own the genetic codes which once allowed us to exist, and our minds thrive, over much longer periods of time than modern man experiences.”

Potterdamn must have spent time lecturing to halls of eager wannabe scientists. He had the presentation down, and held everyone’s attention.

“My team of genetic engineers, working with world renown biochemists, have developed artificial enhancement cocktails. Bio-chemical combinations, which increased the strength, speed, bone density, and self-healing attributes of test animals by nearly six-fold the average. The animals did not reject the cocktails, nor the physical improvements, because the ingredients were variations of organic material already found within their bodies.

“Years of labor spent discovering a cure for the Eastern Pandemic, also resulted in research that produced a special serum. A serum able to provide immunity against bacterial, and viral infections. This miracle will soon be available to the general public, and many of today’s illnesses will simply disappear.

“The final building block needed to make the Space Ranger Project actionable came from Mars.” He hesitated, the dramatic pause used to bring everyone’s focus to his next words.

“The information discovered by Elliott Fairchild, and decoded by Nathan and Mara Trent, offered much more than how to achieve interstellar flight. One data set detailed research into re-engineering humanoids. That research, stored for eons on Mars, paralleled the same research being done currently on Earth. And it provided the final component for success.”

He took another dramatic pause. It was not necessary. Everyone, those in the bleachers, guests seated behind the podium, and personnel scattered around the room, were now fully engaged.

“Ancient aliens created an organic gel to cocoon the body, and when activated by a very specific combination of lasers, and electrical impulses, the gel insulate allowed the body inside to absorb the elements necessary to re-engineer itself from functioning being, to near super-being.”

It was time for the Doctor to cut to the chase. He had the audience, and needed to close the deal.

“We have created a method of making it possible for humans to endure the stress, and extended time required for space travel.”

There. That was the cheese.

“You must now decide if you will be the first to take the next step. If you decide to become a Space Ranger, you will enter a tank filled with the Martian gel. For twenty-four hours you will be immersed in a mixture of organic and inorganic materials, including the minerals, hormones, and chemicals blended to remake your bones hard as steel, your muscles incredibly dense, and your nerve responses unbelievably quick.

“At the same time, we will reactivate your Methuselah sequenced genes. When you emerge, you will face the possibility of near immortality. While you will not be the first humans enhanced by science, but you will be the most significantly altered. You will be re-designed to flourish in the unfriendly reaches of outer space.”

Finished, Dr. Potterdamn returned to his seat. The Admiral retook the podium.

“All experiments, to date, have been successful. But you will be the first humans to undergo this transformation. By completing the exams, the tests, and the trials over the last six weeks, you now represent the best, the brightest, and the most physically and psychologically prepared military unit on the planet. We have no doubt of the success of the project, but you have to make a personal decision. Do you want the change that will recreate you? If you have questions, please ask them now.”

There were a series of questions from the very serious, like would this effect memory or emotional status (like steroids), to flippant (maybe), like would it make you impotent, or sexually enhanced.

Then a SEAL named Amber asked the big question: “If we do this, are we officially Space Rangers?”

The Admiral answered, “Yes, unqualified. You will be the Rangers of Company A, Space Fleet, and that will never be taken from you. We expect within the next couple of years, the two-hundred and twenty people here today will be in charge of the training, and deployment of all the Rangers who follow.”

He nodded at two soldiers standing at the wall facing the bleachers. They pulled on chords to unfurl a large, square banner.

The Earth on a black square, with a comet’s tail bisecting the planet, and the comet’s fiery head on a trajectory for the banner’s right-upper corner, was revealed. The words, UE SPACE FLEET, in large block letters beneath the insignia.

“This patch will ride your right shoulder.” He nodded again, and a second banner opened, revealing a huge red SFA on a six-pointed silver star. “Space Fleet Company A,” he said loudly. “This will ride your left shoulder.”

He allowed the spontaneous applause to die down, but it still echoed in the gym when he said, “If you wish to move forward, please exit the gym by the doors on your left. If you do not wish to complete the project, please exit the doors to your right. There is no shame, and there will be no blame for anyone who goes to the right,” he assured everyone, though every soldier and sailor in the world knew better.

A captain, among the seated guests, stood, and yelled, “Ten Hut!”

All two-twenty stood to attention.

“Dismissed!”

All two-twenty exited left.

Almost The End Of The Middle

They had the remainder of the day, and the coming night to themselves. They were not allowed to make contact with family, or friends outside of the complex. They had been off the grid since arriving in Nevada. Having made the final decision, there was no reason to discuss it with anyone, anyhow. No alcohol, tobacco, or medications were allowed.

Most took the downtime alone, watching videos, playing games, or just taking things easy. Coop and Hiro enjoyed a light sparring session. Coop using a bo (fighting stick), and Hiro, a Kendo sword. Hiro won, barely. Anton and Elie held a shoot-off. Old style projectile pistols at fifty-yards. Anton won, barely. The four ate dinner with another twelve volunteers at a long table in the mess. When people began breaking off, and heading back to their cabins, Coop and Elie left for his.

The next morning, recruits awoke to find instructions and directions slipped under their doors. Dress in sweats only. No undergarments, no socks. No breakfast. At eight-hundred hours report to elevators, and proceed to sub-basement Seven, where they would be met.

At sub-basement Level Seven, each volunteer was escorted to a private room, where they undressed, and received a mini-physical. A small amount of blood given, a mouth swab, and final physical measurements taken. Information to be used as baselines for following the change.

Adjoining each room, a slightly larger studio had been prepared with an enclosed translucent vat. The containment tank glowed with a yellow-green gel. A small laser array rested on a mobile platform above the vat. Wires ran to and from the tank, and attached at a staffed monitoring console. Because of properties within the gel, wireless signals did not work. Finding enough wiring for two-hundred twenty tanks proved nearly as daunting a task as any the potential Rangers faced getting to the tanks.

Coop, standing naked, was introduced to his monitor, Dr. Selena Bright. Dr. Bright, a fifty-something woman with pale skin, and white hair, gave him a reassuring smile. “I will be hooking up the electrodes, and will monitor your progress. At any sign of discomfort, or should any problem arise, I will be here to abort the process, and revive you. If you could stand there for a few more minutes, the assistant [who had escorted him from the elevator, and remained near ever since], will attach adhesive patches to your skin. I will then attach the monitor leads, and check to make sure everything is reading properly.”

All went well, and Dr. Bright asked him to step on the offered step-stool, and continue into the gel. He was not sure what to expect, but the gel was body temperature, had no odor, and was not sticky. It felt like a warm bath of milk. Bright attached four IV tubes to his wrists, and forearms. He settled in, resting his head on a padded neck pillow.

In other studios, the procedure was replicated two-hundred nineteen times.

“Once you are comfortable, we will begin a sedative drip, which will slowly put you to sleep. When you are under, we will insert a breathing tube, pinch your nose closed, cover your eyes, and make sure the corners of your mouth are also taped closed.”

Bright’s bedside manner was top notch. She calmly explained each step of the process, a formula used to keep patients calm, and agreeable.

“We will then remove the neck pillow, and your head will be lowered into the gel. You will be in the vat for twenty-four hours. You will not experience any discomfort. Perhaps you will dream,” she conjectured.

“I, or another doctor, will be here every minute to monitor your vital signs, and your reaction to each step along the way. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

Within five minutes, Coop slept. Bright and the assistant went to work, and soon his head disappeared into the gel.

The Middle End

Coop was having trouble waking. Lights flashed in his blurry vision; his eyes stinging. An alarm rang outside, and echoed inside his head. Maybe it was only inside his head. No, it was an alarm. His throat ached horribly, and his mouth was parched.

He was becoming more aware. Fighting to clear his mind. He was not in the vat. He was on a floor. Why was he on the floor? Someone shook him, yelling something. His ears were filled with goop. Did they know his ears had gel in them?

The alarm was causing a headache. His chest hurt. His body hurt. He coughed, and fluid flew from his mouth. How could fluid come out of a dry mouth?

The gel finally leaked from his ears, and he heard the man shaking him ask, “What did you say? Cooper, what did you say?”

Coop realized his sore throat made it difficult for him to talk, but repeated, “Turn the fucking alarm off. It’s killing me.”

“He’s alive,” the guy shouted, a poor imitation of Gene Wilder. “Get him cleaned off, and into a bed. Maintain monitors, and do not let him slip away. Keep him awake, and keep him breathing.”

The guy was gone, and two others took his place. They lifted him onto a gurney, and rushed him down a hallway. Lights flashing, alarms ringing, and people were everywhere. They were shouting, and crying. Then he was in a private room. Someone used sponges to wash the yellow and green gel off, careful not to remove any of the monitor leads, or patches. He was lifted, and placed onto a bed.

A woman . . . nurse? doctor? orderly? leaned over him, and said, “Sorry. The breather tube was yanked out, and your throat is raw. I can barely hear you.”

“Elie?” He repeated. “Casalobos,” he clarified. “How?”

“I’ll find out as soon as I can,” she assured him. “You rest. Try to relax. You’re alive, and that’s what matters.”

Coop’s senses were returning. He realized something went wrong with the process. Whether it went bad for just him, some, or all, he had no clue. The alarms, and people hurrying about were not good signs. He needed to know about Elie, but he could not get up. His body would not respond. His right hand did lift, and he grabbed the safety rail on the side of the hospital bed. When he squeezed, the metal bent, and then broke.

“Captain Cooper,” it was the woman again, looking down at him. “Captain Casalobos is alive. She’s still unconscious, but they have vital signs, and she appears to be fine, just out. Please, Captain, you have to relax. Your heart rate, and blood pressure are dangerously high. I do not want to give you anything to calm you. Do you understand?”

Coop nodded. He forced his mind to relax, and his body to uncoil. He went to the quiet spot he created as a sniper, when on long surveillance. He could feel his heart slow, and the drums in his ears subsided.

“Good job, Captain,” the woman said. “Stay calm. When I know everything, hell, when I know anything, I will let you know.” And she was gone again.

The End Of The End Of The Middle

“We don’t know why?” Dr. Potterdamn admitted. He, the Admiral, and a half-dozen doctors, engineers, and scientists sat in a large conference room, with the twelve Space Ranger Project survivors.

Coop sat next to Elie, afraid to lose touch with her. Gregory, and Hiro had made it. Several people he knew on a first name basis were not with them.

The French-Canadian woman he thought he knew, but could never place was present. He caught glimpses of her since the project began, but never made the time to introduce himself.

Potterdamn continued, “At twenty-hours into the transformation, the gel solution turned an orange-red. It had never changed colors before. At twenty-two hours people started dying. Hearts simply stopped beating. Everyone was pulled out. Anyone without a heartbeat was administered advanced CPR, shock paddles, adrenal-shots and anything else our cardiology staff could conceive might help. You twelve either never stopped breathing, or started again after receiving electrical stimulation. No one else did. We don’t know why. We don’t know why you survived, or why they didn’t.”

Dr. Tuttle, a micro-biologist added, ”If you look around, you can see the problem. There isn’t anything the twelve of you have in common, either on a physical level, or on a micro-level. Mix of male and female. White, black, oriental, and mixed race. Tall and short. You’re all of a similar age, but those was the pre-selection criteria.

“The two hundred and eight who died were of the same age. Physically superior. High intelligence. Emotionally well-balanced. Copies of you. Nothing to provide a marker to lead us to an answer.”

Admiral Myerson took over. “You will be kept here for another two weeks, minimum. We will monitor you, examine you, and, most importantly, make sure there isn’t anything present to further endanger you. I would appreciate it if you would all return to your assigned cabins. Doctors will be coming by to speak with you individually, and set up a schedule of examinations. Your questions, and I know you have many, will be answered on a one-to-one basis. For now, you are dismissed.”

Coop, Elie, and the others filed out of the conference room, as did everyone else except the genetic engineer, Potterdamn, and Admiral Myerson.

“The Space Ranger Project is dead,” Myerson said to Potterdamn. “Without knowing why some lived, and why some died, we cannot chance another failure like this.”

“Not a failure,” Potterdamn argued. “We have twelve genetically enhanced humans. The first true meta-humans. They are extraordinary.”

“You have two-hundred and eight of the finest men and women our planet every produced lying in body bags in the basement,” the Admiral countered. “We have no clue as to why. If you did it again, maybe they would all die, or maybe only half. It’s a crap-shoot. We’re closing it down, all of it.”

“We should be allowed to continue experimenting,” Potterdamn replied. “We’re on the edge of being able to make humans immortal.”

“That is a major part of the potential problem, Doctor. You are going to have every rich, or powerful person on Earth demanding access to the project, just so they can live forever. Most will be so desperate, the chance it might kill them will be worth the risk. Only it’s not. The wrong person gets in, and gets killed, and we have global wars again. It was worth it to staff Space Fleet, and worth it when we thought it was safe. You will not play God again, Doctor.”

“But all of the research?” The geneticist was almost begging.

“The research will be archived for someone in the future to access. Maybe when we explore space, we will find a race who can answer the questions. The science teams will be disbanded, and sent as far apart as possible. The equipment destroyed. Anyone trying to take notes off of the base will be locked away for a very long time. Anyone who brakes their oath of secrecy will be dealt with harshly. I repeat . . . Space Ranger Project is no more.” The END of the Beginning and The Middle

The BEGINNING of Something New

“We have to leak the story,” Mattson-Grimes said. “We have to let the world know about the Space Rangers who survived.”

“The military placed a very large CLASSIFIED stamp on the project, Turner. I believe they shoot people they cannot court martial.”

Governor Booth’s hand rested on the final report regarding the project, which rested on her desk. Only the most sensitive files were still maintained on paper. Paper could not be hacked. Chemically treated paper would burn to ashes in seconds. Paper could be milled so it could not be copied, or digitally remastered.

“Besides, why would we want to announce such a horrid blunder to the world?”

“Madam Governor, the Space Rangers are meta-humans.” The marketing and PR guru used the term in a hushed, reverent tone. “They can perform impossible feats, and they may be immortal. The project was a success. Limited, but a success. By letting people know some survived, it will give them hope.”

“Hope?” Booth needed some hope herself. The project had cost a fortune, with no return on the investment. “Hope for what?”

“Hope we will discover why these twelve lived, so maybe one day we can dispense super powers to everyone. Hope these twelve will make a difference in the world. Hope we will use the technology on Mars to build space ships, and people, like the project survivors, will fly those ships into the galaxy.” Mattson-Grimes sounded like a man who grew up with graphic novels, while his contemporaries lived for streaming multi-user games, with virtual worlds of magic and munitions. The Space Rangers represented his super heroes come to life.

“Pride,” Booth said. A way to recover her influence, if not the UEC’s expenses, began to take shape. Turner may be on to something.

“Wars kill people,” she said. “The battles, skirmishes, and terrorism since the pandemic have killed millions. When we need a boost, we haul out a war hero, tell everyone how they risked their life to save others, give them a medal, and everybody feels good again about our efforts to unify the planet. People take pride in heroes.”

“Exactly,” Mattson-Grimes agreed, his head bouncing up and down like a bobble-head doll. “Hope and Pride. We spin the Space Ranger Project as a success, not a failure. People died, really good people from every corner of the Earth. They died because they believed in a united planet. The people of Earth reaching for the stars, as one. More importantly, a dozen lived. People will rally around them.”

“Okay, Turner, I agree. But we have to do this carefully. Until it’s all out there, and news people have confirmed the story, and we can honestly lie about having anything to do with the leak, we must keep this between us.”

“Sure. When do you want me to start?”

“Soon, but we have to pick the right person to start with,” she replied.

“No problem. I have personal, and private, connections to some talking heads at all of the major news outlets. I know we can pick the right one to get the ball rolling,” he said.

“Not the right person to break the news, Turner,” Booth responded. She checked her bright red nail polish for flaws. She hated flaws. She was a bit of a perfectionist. Attention to all the little details landed her in this office. She liked her office. She intended on staying for a long, long time.

“We have to pick the right survivor for them to latch onto. They come from different countries, and while all of them are tied to the UEC through their service, we need one the world can focus on.”

“I get it,” he replied, warming to the idea. “An icon. What’s the old line? Someone men want to be, and women want to fuck. Sorry, no offense meant.”

“I’m not easily offended,” she replied. “In fact, I would love to fuck this guy.” She pulled a photograph from the Space Ranger Project file on her desk, and turned it for Turner to see.

“Daniel Marcel Cooper,” he read aloud the printing at the bottom of the photo. “Captain, Can-Am Army Ranger. North Africa Battalion. Why him, other than you want his body?”

“You remember the war hero we talked about? The one who gets the glory, and the medals for being, well, heroic. You’re looking at him. Check your data files, Turner. Cooper has been featured more than a few times over the years. All the stories had to be written second-hand. He refuses to give interviews. He’s perfect.”

“Because when we leak the story, he’ll continue to refuse to talk. Everyone will assume the stories are true, because he won’t talk. But what if he does talk, and denies everything?” he asked.

“Not his style,” Booth answered. It was all about the details. “He won’t lie, and he won’t talk about a classified mission. He can’t talk about a classified mission. He has orders not to reveal anything about the project.”

“Timing?” He asked. “Any thoughts about when we leak Cooper?”

“The people in charge are giving the survivors carte blanche. They will be able to pick any assignment, with any military unit operating under the UEC,” she told the fidgeting marketing man. “Cooper isn’t the type of military person who can stay away from the action. Big brass plans on using the Space Rangers for special operations, too. Something will come up soon enough, and Captain Cooper will be in the middle of it. I guarantee it.”

“And when it happens, we leak the mission, and his involvement,” Turner continued Booth’s train of reasoning. “Someone we nudge, notices some things are unusual about the Captain. He’s featured, again, as the reluctant hero, and, BOOM, he’s hit with ARE YOU A SPACE RANGER AND WHY IS IT A SECRET?”

“He’s put in a bad place,” Booth continues, “and we, the UEC and the Board of Governors, have to declassify the project so Cooper can remain a poster boy for unification through forceful, but compassionate, methods. Our poster boy. Our hero.”

“Everyone’s hero,” Turner amended. “He’s either going to love being the center of attention, or hate it completely.”

“Oh, he’ll hate it,” Booth said, assuredly. “I’ve read his files. I know this man. He’ll hate it, but he’ll suck it up, and keep providing us with stories. He can’t help himself. He really is a hero.”

The End

Until Cooper Does Something Heroic

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