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By Matt Hart All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Scifi

Chapter 1

The ship shuddered as the Zone bubble collapsed, dropping it back into normal space. Captain Trey Portsan glanced around the bridge, eyeing the workstations for any tell-tale flashing alerts. "Status," he ordered.

"Sensors, dust cloud at 3 AU, negative vessels, negative obstructions," reported a young woman at a console on the left.

"Weapons, negative targets, and..." began an older man at the center console. He paused a moment then continued, "Negative weapons locks, negative pursuit." He turned and looked at the captain. "We lost them, sir, for a little while."

"Navigation, 17 light year jump confirmed, Zone matrix recharging, minimum light jump capable in ten seconds, estimated time to recharge is 12 minutes," said a young man at the right console.

"Damage and comms unchanged," began a man at the far right of the bridge, almost behind the captain's chair in the center. "We have minor structural damage to the starboard aft section." A bright white light blinked briefly on the screen. The man tapped it. "One death. Petty Hansen didn't survive the jump."

The captain slammed his left fist on his chair's armrest. He took a deep breath, then brushed a hand across his forehead, more to wipe away perspiration than to move aside his short, gray hair. "Commander Grant, let's leave our pursuers a present, shall we?" He smiled grimly as he spoke to the weapons officer.

"Aye aye sir!" replied Grant as he turned to nod at the captain. He glanced at the young woman to his left and the man to his right before focusing on his console.

Captain Portsan tired of the chase. Always running, sometimes turning to briefly snap at his attackers. It had been six months since they'd gone on the offensive, dropping a planet buster on the shipyard planetoid of the R'ark Empire. It had been intercepted and destroyed, barely damaging a docking ring and the light cruiser parked there.

"And now another death," he thought. It was a war of attrition, and the Humans had been losing it for seven hundred years. Trey had been fighting that war for over one hundred of those years.

The early days of Zone travel had been heady, exciting. Each new discovery adding to the growing library of human knowledge. Our first ships were exploratory vessels -- no weapons at all. Things would have been different if we had carried weapons.

We should have carried them.

Our first contact was with the Fishies, at least that's what we called them. They had those gill things and a sort of fin on their heads that indicated emotions. They saw our exploration vessel, and heard it sending out electromagnetic nonsense that they couldn't decipher, so they put what we now call a Stifling Field around it, blocking all transmissions and creating a sort of numbing effect in sentients.

Unfortunately for them, it didn't work that way on humans. You see, we could feel, sense the Field, and it universally enrages us. It's understandable -- who wants some aliens mucking around in your brain?

So we did what humans do best -- we improvised a weapon. We refocused the Zone emitters to extend sixty meters beyond the hull. When the alien vessel approached, we cut it in half with a short jump.

A smaller, simpler weapon would have been better. Something to nick them with, to show them we had teeth.

Instead, we killed eight hundred and fifty sentients, without warning.

We became the universe's pariah.
"What've you got, Grant?" asked the captain, emerging from the implanted memory of the first contact event.

"I was thinking of just a nuke, sir. We're short on materials for Zone bombs, so a neutron nuke is the biggest bang we have.”

"Mighty big mess it leaves of space." He turned to look at the left console. "Lt. Armrik, is there anything in this system we need?”

"Aye sir," said the young woman on the left. "There's remnants of gas giant here, about 7 AU from the primary and 28 AU from our current position.”

"Is it on the other side?”

"Aye sir, on a base primary heading of 340.”

"Commander, is that far enough for a nuke?" asked the captain.

"Aye captain, they won't be here for three days at least. Plenty of time," replied the weapons officer.

"Let's wrap it up with a nice big bow for them, Commander. Lt. Edgrey, give me a short jump to that planet. Comms, alert the collection crews. We have some garbage to collect.”

A chorus of "aye aye's" and repetitions of the captain's commands echoed around the bridge. The bridge's sole other occupant, a large, heavily armored Marine guard, looked less than enthusiastic.

"Fight, run, die," he thought. "That's our existence, our legacy to the universe."
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