Stars swept by like a slurry of black water and white dust. Interstellar bodies came and went—a blink of an eye, and a hundred star systems were already light-years behind. The Indominus’ bow stretched out, cutting through space like a spear, its engines roaring beyond their safe limits as it rocketed across the galaxy. Paul’s quarry would not escape this time.
The bridge of the dreadnought was thick with anticipation; the gunners’ fingers itched by their triggers and their eyes locked on the crosshairs, poised for battle the second contact was made. Deck officers sat tensely at their stations relaying a spectrum of tactical data to the engineers around the ship, and a few probe drones hovered near critical systems ready to extinguish any fires or perform spot repairs if need be.
Paul Tarseus stood at the helm, mind, and body aching from the long hunt, eyes still burning with a dark intensity and a sense of urgent purpose. He had a forbidding aura about him, accentuated by his dark hair, flowing black robes, and the sheathed, curved-hilt cadami blade hanging from his belt —a man of truly fearsome stature. Teeth gritted with determination, he held fast to an overhead handle as the ship lurched out of warp space.
In an instant they were there—blurs and streaks settled into their regular cosmic shapes, a great, cloudy green-and-gray planet loomed straight ahead, filling most of the view from the bridge. Beyond that lay a speckled starscape, a peaceful collection of worlds, and a lone Amani cruiser covered in scorch marks, its perforated engines still smoldering from its last engagement. Red cascading lights flooded the Indominus’ bridge, and the whole ship rumbled as its cannons pelted the puny Amani cruiser with a storm of plasma bolts.
Paul rarely felt delight anymore when blasting another ship into oblivion, but watching that particular vessel torn to shreds was like crushing an especially annoying insect. Chasing down a cruiser with a dreadnought ten times its size was like an apex predator chasing down a mouse. Ozcar’s ship had been just agile enough to avoid the capital class cannons, most of the time.
When the smoke cleared, the ship drifted lazily in a small field of its own debris, barely recognizable from its state just moments ago. What was left of its red-and-white paint job was blackened, its armor peeled away, revealing the lattice framework underneath its shattered engines. There would be no more running.
Cheers rang through the bridge. Paul stood tall with hands clasped behind his back; he couldn’t help but crack a smile. Finally, after a standard month of being one step behind, jumping from one system to another, catching glimpses of the Amani craft just as it warped away, they had cornered Ozcar. Paul feared it might be too good to be true; perhaps Ozcar had another trick up his sleeve.
After the celebration settled down, the tension on the bridge noticeably diminished. Most of the gunners leaned back in their chairs, and after the deck officers finished congratulating each other on their precise work, they returned to their respective stations. The engines’ roar died down to a distant, rolling drone, soothing, signaling that the fight was over. But Paul was too accustomed to these sounds to even register them; his mind instead occupied with all possible methods of ending Ozcar's miserable life. Death by combat? The honorable method, but far too swift. A torturous interrogation to learn about other Amani operations? Simply leaving him to rot in the brig? A tantalizing prospect—it would take weeks for a healthy Progenitor to expire. Why not a combination of all three?
Something familiar itched at Paul’s mind, halting his imaginings of a bloodied Ozcar. His second in command was about to enter, and he had news to report. Moments later, the blast doors swished open, followed by hurried footsteps then a distinct tap as the footsteps stopped behind Paul.
“Lord Nefarous,” Captain Doyen began, “it would seem that Ozcar has fled his ship and is headed for the nearest planet, Movaj.”
Paul perked up in genuine surprise. “He abandoned his crew? Even with nowhere to go, he still runs.”
“There’s something else,” Doyen continued. “Our scan probes have picked up a massive object on Movaj’s surface, though they failed to bring back any visuals.” He stood rigidly, his posture every bit as symmetrical as his crisp, black naval uniform and cap.
Paul turned, breaking his gaze from the cosmic void to appraise his captain. Although Doyen’s dull, brown eyes surrendered nothing of his inner conflict, Paul knew it was there. Doyen was anxious rather than excited, a sense of dread twisted within his mind. For it was the power and gift of Progenitors to sense others’ emotions, and Paul was quite adept.
“You have not been so distressed since the infiltration drone incident. Don’t tell me you’re losing your nerve, Captain.”
“I don’t like being deceived, My Lord, especially by drones.” Doyen said curtly, eyes cast aside as if searching through his memories and finding something distasteful. “Something’s not right here. Emperor Reyleonard decreed this space is restricted.”
“You’d have us halt progress, Captain?”
“My Lord…” Doyen hesitated. “This place makes me uneasy. Our probes revealed no other anomalies, no space stations, ships, or settlements. The system is completely empty with this one exception.” He handed Paul a data tab with a complete list of the details brought back by the probes.
Curiously, the charts displayed readings that suggested the impossible. “A very sizable exception. Well, we won’t know until we check. Prepare a shore party, Captain.”
“My Lord...” Doyen’s posture wavered, but he snapped back to attention like a spring-loaded toy. He cleared his throat and hushed to a whisper. “Do you not remember the emperor saying he’d, have your head if you broke another law?”
A flicker of annoyance passed Paul. Perhaps it was the hours on end standing at the bridge or the lack of steady meals and sleep that had shortened his fuse. He always admired Doyen’s bravery to stand up to authority, but it was the last thing Paul wanted to hear at that moment. “Afraid of the emperor, Captain?” he asked sharply. “If Reyleonard is hiding something, I want to know about it. You yourself have expressed displeasure at being deceived. How else should truth be pursued than a stab to the heart? Prepare the shore party.”
“At once, My Lord,” Doyen complied, snapped off a salute, and made off with his duty, though Paul could sense that his unease never wavered.