"So you wanna know why?" Cale and Akima now shared the fairly large round table with their former commanding officers and the two uniformed Akrennians and their children. For the latter it was hard to sit still and even though their father got drinks -suitable for children of course- for them as well they kept running off to the annoyance of their mother, chasing each other through the establishment and off to cause more trouble. "If you two get into trouble again I won't be there to help you!"
It didn't make a single bit of difference though. Ragezsh and Hayzii had disappeared between the tables and the legs of the customers continuing their combination game of tag and hide-and-seek. If they didn't want to repeat the incident of a minute or so ago, it required a lot of skill at the moment as the place gradually began to fill up. Ayko kept staring in the direction where they disappeared for a moment but produced an annoyed grunt and decided to let it go for now. Her human friends were more interested as to why she, Preed and her crew were willing to risk their lives for the sake of others. Cale described it mentally as 'un-Akrennian'. It was impossible. Akrennians didn't risk their thick muscular necks for others. Ayko was about to prove him wrong though.
"You wanna know why I'm taking my ship and crew to join you on this mission?" Putting her freshly filled glass of Akrennian ale to her lips, she took a sip and slammed it back on the table, some of the contents spilling on its surface. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand she leaned on her strong muscular arms on the table and looked at each of them for a while, the orange color of her eyes catching the light in a certain frightening way. "Because it's not just your race and your existence that's at stake but ours as well; everyone's. This concerns all of us! So we will take action together!" She slammed her fist on the table with considerable force to add strength to her words. Her audience was surprised and impressed by her short speech; something she noticed though. "Yeah, I know! Akrennians don't say such things. Well I do!"
Akima was the first to say something.
"That's very… honorable of you."
Ayko smirked and made an amused sound.
"I know sweetheart. And this guy is coming with me."
She stomped her mate in a playful manor, not counting in her own strength. Preed grumbled and rubbed his shoulder.
"Yes, my dear. Though I actually failed to see the point as to why we should be the ones to risk our happy little lives, she didn't leave me much choice actually."
Looking aside at her mate, one arm still leaning on the table, supporting her head with her hand, her faint smirk turned into an annoyed stare.
"You wouldn't understand a thing like this. Akrennia's important to me. So much in fact that I'm willing to take this risk. Besides, you're my First Officer so you are coming with me; like it or not." She looked at her human friends and smiled. "Should've seen the look on my father's face. For once he actually seemed kinda proud." Sipping from her drink she curiously directed her attention at Korso and Brian who had been silently listening to her talking just like Cale and Akima. "And what about your guys?"
"Us? Well we sat down," Korso explained, taking a sip of beer himself. "Shared a couple of thoughts. And then we decided to go through with it. I because I have very little to lose."
"And I because it would make a damn good last mission. I'll be resigning my commission when this is over," Brian added, absent-mindedly running a hand through his hair. "I had a talk with my wife. We both decided it's enough. It's time to settle."
"And play the family man," Ayko said, adding a smile.
"We talked about getting kids. Why not I figured."
"And what about you Korso? Looking for an opportunity to die with honor?"
Korso laughed. For some species, dying for the well-being of others was about the highest honor one could get, especially in wartime. Under the circumstances it had taken more or less the shape of a farewell mission. Brian was going to retire after this but he still hadn't made up his mind yet. He had no intention of dying though. This was the mission for people like him. No family, no bonds, no obligation to care of someone close to him. He even considered following in his First Officer's footsteps for a change and settle, maybe even wait for the day he met the perfect woman to share the rest of his life with. Enough idea's, still plenty of time to think about it.
"I just feel I gotta do this. For reasons similar to yours actually. Maybe I'll join him in retirement when this is over."
Ayko chuckled and leaned back, crossing her arms. She flicked an ear.
"And what about you guys? Still considering or are you signing up?"
Cale and Akima looked at each other for a second but it was Cale who replied.
"We've got a young girl to take off."
Her response sounded a little uncaring. Was she about to tell him that she was going to take Ragezsh and Hayzii with her on that mission? For a parent, he thought that would be a pretty irresponsible course of action.
"We don't wanna put our kid in danger by taking her with us. And we're not going to leave her in the hands of someone else longer than we've been able to spent time with her up till now. There's your answer."
"Hey, I was just asking."
Akima intervened before it could develop into an argument.
"Cale, she doesn't mean it that way. But still, Ayko you've got kids. Why did you decide to go on that mission anyway? Aren't you worried about them? Are you taking them with you?"
"Not sure," she replied, exchanging dangerous looks with Cale even after her intervention. Akima noticed her visually giving it thought and it made her think about it as well. Cale was against it and she didn't want to take Samantha on such a mission either if she were honest. Who knows what kind of effect another dimension had on a living being on the long term? Sure no one would willingly subject his or her children to a possibly hostile environment. The probes they sent stayed intact during the transition and more tests were carried out at the moment but long term effects were difficult to measure and even for the short term a ship with a living and breathing crew had to be sent through. Before the launch however an early test was planned for the beginning of next week. Korso had already done some research and he told them the Odyssey and her crew were the subjects of that test. The ship was outfitted with an advanced sensor package to monitor every aspect of the ship and its crew constantly and with extreme precision. It would help greatly to prevent accidents and warn the crew for possible side-effects of inter-dimensional space on their bodies and the ship surrounding them. "But honestly, is it safer here?"
"It's the big unknown factor that makes it hard to make a decision at this point," Brian remarked. "If the initial manned test fails for whatever reason we're right back where we started."
"Even so, is it better for them if we leave them here? Not only is space screwed up -hell it was difficult enough to get here without flying into a cloud of crap- and on top of that the Drej are back and they're stronger than ever. I've already heard about reports that their Praojeh carriers are accompanying the mothership and patrolling the region on their own. Some say that an attack is imminent."
"Well said, dear. We wouldn't want to leave our children alone and at the mercy of the Drej, now would we?"
"Exactly. That's why I agree with Akima. You either stay here and fight the Drej or you join that crew with your kids. You don't leave 'em on their own."
No one expected Gune to dash into the establishment, yelling at the top of his Grepoan lungs. The small alien instantly had all the attention and it was surprising that he still had enough breath left to yell at all. As fast as his small legs could carry him he made it to their table where he rushed to Korso's side.
"Gune , easy. You're gonna pass out if you keep that up."
Between each breath, he tried to tell everyone and mainly Korso what caused him to completely exhaust himself to get here.
"Gune… must tell Captain…" Akima took pity on him, patting his little bald head, urging him to calm down as well. "D… Dr… Drej! Drej are coming!"
Of course there was no one in the establishment not paying attention to what happened. In an instant people starting talking to each other, wondering why they hadn't heard anything by now from either their ships or commanding officers. But at that moment, an alert tone followed by a voice sounded over the city's com system.
"Alert, all personnel report to your commanding officers immediately. Incoming enemy signatures have been detected. This is not a drill. Repeat, all personnel report to…"
Korso jumped up as if someone lit a fire under his behind, raising his activated wristcom to his mouth to get his crew together as quickly as possible. The rest soon followed and Ayko did the same as him.
"Korso to Valkyrie crew report to the ship immediately. Contact me if you're somehow unable to. We've got a situation. Repeat, return to the ship."
"This is Ayko to all Tsun'rhaa crewmembers, get your asses back to the ship immediately! Those who fail to comply will be finding themselves hanging out an airlock when this is over. Preed, let's go!"
"Understood, my brave warrior girl."
"Ragezsh! Hayzii! Where are you little rascals?"
"We're here mommy."
They seemed to have found her quicker than she found them, standing next to her so suddenly, a bit of a naughty smile on their faces.
She pointed at the individual behind the bar, a young human male, blond hair, teenager, tall but skinny and rather surprised by her pointing finger and shout in his direction.
"Watch these two! I'll be back for them when this battle's over."
"No buts! Watch them! Your responsibility now."
"No, no, don't cry. Be strong and be brave for a change."
"Daddy say something!"
"Terribly sorry son. But I'm afraid I have to agree with your mother. We'll be back, and don't you dare worry."
He rubbed between his son's and daughter's ears, the last thing Akima noticed before they left the establishment. She couldn't help but feel happy to see Preed in this way. Cale might still not like him but her opinion about him had changed. Even Preed was capable of changing and it didn't need that much, just a family, people he cared about and who cared about him too. It was the last thing on everyone else's mind at the moment. They followed Korso, who was still officially in command of the Valkyrie and Gune was doing his best to keep up.
"How did you find out this fast, Gune? You seemed to know ahead of everyone else."
"Gune knew because he was working on long range sensor in science lab," he panted. "As soon as he saw them Drej coming, he decided to alert everyone but nobody wanted to believe Gune, so I went to Captain instead."
"And then they found out themselves. Damn, this is taking too long. Gune, can you activate the transporters from here?" Stepping into a turbolift that just arrived on their level, the incredibly smart alien began to fiddle with his wristcom, which was enhanced by himself, after nodding fiercely. As the partially transparent carriage rushed down he handed out orders. "Prepare for emergency departure procedures. We don't know how close they are already."
Akima didn't exactly feel right. Just the thought of the Drej coming to finish what they started almost twenty years ago made her feel sick to her stomach. But she wouldn't be defeated by her fear and forced herself not to show it. She knew her fellow crewmembers were afraid too. Cale, Brian even Korso. They wouldn't give in to their fears and so she wouldn't either.
"Gune, what's taking so long?"
"Sorry Captain. Gune almost got it. Now!"
Before reaching the bottom level of the Heliopolis, the people inside the carriage seemed to vanish into thin air. The empty carriage arrived at the bottom level with no one inside.
"Okay people let's double-time it. Cale, fire up that reactor. Full power to all systems. Akima, get those engines online as soon as you've got power. Gune, you know what to do as well. Yani, all sensors online, find them before they find us. Derek, shields and weapons to full. Brian, who's in command?"
"I thought it was Captain Allison Sanders, sir. The RSS Los Angeles just undocked off our port bow and is taking the lead in the defense. More ships are gathering around her in formation."
"Hail them. Let them know we're joining the fight."
Plopping down in the Captain's chair on the upper deck, he prepared mentally for the battle as well. The Drej were back, quite possibly from another universe though this was still unknown but very likely, and yet again they chose to attack humanity. They had perhaps been the most feared beings in the galaxy for a long time and now they returned to reclaim that title. However, they defeated the Drej once. Who is to say they can't do it again?
"Incoming message from the Los Angeles, sir. They want us to take the left flank and spread out as soon as their Stingers attack. Since we're faster we better take advantage of our speed than rely on shields."
"All right that's it! Now where are they?"
He couldn't detect a thing on short range sensors and no one had visual confirmation yet. Gune's long range installation sure did a good job. But it didn't take long before the Valkyrie's own sensors warned the crew for an incursion. Yani noticed it first as she sat behind the right console directly.
"Captain, incoming signatures on the edge of the system. Detecting multiple larger contacts among them. Readings are consistent with Drej energy signatures." This is it. Korso's thoughts flashed back to Earth almost twenty years ago. First the perimeter outposts, gone within the blink of an eye, the last messages of their crews hitting the far reaches of the quadrant. Then it was the defense fleet, slaughtered by hundreds of Slijah. After that, Earth was an easy target. He was down on the surface during the evacuation. The panic and the fear and pain on the faces of those people. He however had an important job to do; making sure Sam Tucker made it to the Titan and his kid, Cale to safety. Those critical moments would always stay with him for the rest of his life. And it will not happen again. "I've got a visual on the enemy."
The window turned opaque, displaying a zoomed-in version of space in front of the ship, like an overlay on the transparent barrier. Between the tiny white dots of the stars a swarm of the coldest blue grew bigger and bigger. Some called it 'Drej blue' because there wasn't a thing in the universe and beyond that produced a glow similar to this. Cold, pulsating and upon closer inspection, electrifying energy patterned the exterior of every ship and the creatures themselves. Their presence used to frighten everyone and once the Drej had their target designated, no one dared to help the targeted or interfere in any way, fearing they would become the next target in doing so. This time it was different though, as ships from other Republic worlds joined the defense fleet from all sides. That's what allies were for. A couple of D'amaran attack cruisers flanked both a Mantrin and an Indarian warship on the right side of the formation while a trio of Akrennian battlecruisers, led by the new Tsun'rhaa joined the other side. Ayko's new ship was definitely larger than the previous incarnation and quite probably more powerful in terms of firepower. It was a newer design with more powerful systems but it retained the aggressive look of the Akrennian Militia's warships.
"This is Captain Sanders to all ships: We've got incoming Slijah on fast approach. Standby to break formation and attack. Avoid contact with the mothership for now. We don't know what they're capable off. Their carriers are secondary targets but do not attack them on your own. Repeat, do not attack them on your own."
"Looks like we're in for a tough battle," Akima thought, firmly gripping the controls, exchanging quick looks with Gune.
Anomaly fields bordered the edge of the Andali system were the Anomaly Hunters kept them at bay but they could still form spontaneously within the system itself; there was no way to stop this from happening yet. Gune would warn her should this happen at any time.
"Like my new ship, Captain? I'll show you what she can do."
"Ayko, there's no time for bragging okay?" Korso said to her image on the viewer. "We've got hostiles coming in. Derek, standby to fire."
"All right, but I'm warning you. You better stay outta my way or you might not live to regret it."
Though it wasn't meant that way she made it sound like a threat. But her last ship already had a devastating forward array of weapons. All he could do was wait to see what this new one was capable of.
The small Drej attack craft, nicknamed 'Stingers' by humans attacked head-on, firing their crackling blue beam cannons as they raced through the fleet. At least, that was the intention. A straight no-nonsense attack was an expected tactic and by the time the first fighters fired their beams into the defending ships' shields, the fleet had already scattered, with larger ships holding steady, firing their multiple weapons arrays in all directions to hold them off and provide cover at the same time. The Drej fighters were fast but the fleet was organized, most ships captained and crewed by officers who had seen more than their fair share of battles during the past few years. Akima pulled up hard as she hit the thrusters to try and shake the squad of three Slijah that were hot on the Valkyrie's tail, firing their weapons in an attempt to blast her engines to bits. But Akima and Derek were a good team. She was an absolute ace pilot, reducing the number of hits taken to a minimum while making sure the gunner could do his job too. Derek was really living up to Stith's legacy as the ship's master gunner, taking advantage of every hole in her evasive maneuvers.
"That's one down!" The rear laser turrets droned heavily and in rapid succession for only a slight moment and the middle of the two Drej fighters disintegrated with a very short flash, tiny blue sparkles and crackling energy. It was more than three years ago since the oldest members of the crew witnessed this effect from up close. "That's two!"
"Keep it up. Don't let 'm get a lock. You're doing great you two!"
They did take a few hits though, it was inevitable. The area was swarming with Slijah and they fired at any target that happened to be in their crosshairs. But the Republic defense fleet wasn't planning to let them get in range of Earth. If the Drej mothership managed to get within sufficient range of the planet, it could get ugly.
"That's it! Keep fighting everyone!" Captain Sanders cheered over the general com channel. "They won't get through us."
"Cale, status on shields."
"Holding steady at eighty-four percent, sir. Their weapons are tough and drain fast though."
The ship trembled under a series of impacts. Derek kept the weapons firing and destroyed Drej fighters with each salvo of the laser cannons but they adapted quickly, dodged efficiently and chased the Valkyrie over the battlefield which was filled with ships, explosions and weapons fire. It was hell for Akima to steer a ship through this mess but she was used to it, felt things coming and evaded and slipped through holes whenever she got the chance. She wasn't the only one on the battlefield with skill though. The Drej's Praojeh carriers moved closer, spawning new Slijah and Drej drones to crew them, out of a limitless source of pure energy. The mothership still remained at a greater distance than the rest of the fleet supporting her. She was up to something; Korso knew it and therefore he kept a close eye on her. Another Drej Queen was aboard that huge blue monstrosity, commanding her forces personally, witnessing them carrying out her wishes.
"Sanders to fleet, it's time to stop those carriers or we'll be overwhelmed. You're all cleared to attack them when the opportunity arises. To all Tac. Officers, we've flagged one of them as the primary target. Let's finish that one first."
There were four of them and they were armed too with more powerful versions of the Slijah's beam cannons. Large crackling blue blasts seared through the chaos of ships, pockets of energy, beams and missiles on their way to their unfortunate targets. Several ships were hit by the first wave but their shields were able to withstand the collision with the pockets of volatile Drej energy. The Valkyrie was too fast however to be hit by the long range weapons of the carriers. Instead, Derek loaded a barrage of torpedoes for a direct attack at the flagged carrier. Someone else however had the same thing in mind.
"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin', Captain?"
A grin-faced Ayko appeared on one of Korso's secondary displays. Using another display to zoom in on the source of the transmission he wasn't surprised. The Tsun'rhaa aggressively fought off her attackers, blasting in all directions with her numerous pulse laser cannons and missile launchers. For a ship her size, she was fast too and just like his, her forward weapons were locked on the leading Praojeh. It's gargantuan mass of shimmering blue and almost invisible weapons systems moved closer and closer to the fleet, targeting multiple ships at the same time. In the meantime it kept launching new Slijah to replace the destroyed ones quite rapidly.
"Okay girl, you wanna do this, let's do it."
Ayko laughed. It sounded like a mean purr but he knew she loved to kick some Drej butt. Her ship was more than capable.
"Let's make a run for it!"
An Akrennian battle cry clamored over the com channel, the large battlecruiser lining up next to and providing cover for the smaller Valkyrie for an attack run. Together they raced toward the Drej carrier which was heavily attacking the Indarian warship. A second Indarian ship had joined the battle when it arrived in the system and tried to defend its sister ship, using her shields to cover the damaged vessel but they were weakening under heavy fire from multiple Slijah and the carrier. The fox-like aliens were in some way like the Mantrins, with a great sense of honor and will to fight. A cry for help sounded over the fleet channel though. With weapons taken out and their shields almost gone they were an easy target.
"They're not gonna make it if we don't take 'em out quick!"
"That's why we're doing this!" Ayko yelled full of anger and hatred toward the Drej. There were few cultures that hadn't suffered under the Drej's reign of terror in the past. Their sudden return had only stirred up those feelings toward them. It was time to pay them back some more. They were close to the Praojeh now and both ships were beginning to feel the heat. It detected their approach and diverted some of it's incredible firepower toward the attacking ships. The Valkyrie trembled, most power was diverted to the forward shields, her forward laser cannons fully charged and torpedoes fully loaded. "Let's give 'em hell! Fire!"
"You heard the lady, Derek!"
A powerful barrage of torpedoes left he forward launchers, the laser cannons droning in rapid succession without a stop. The Tsun'rhaa opened up all of her forward missile launchers, a deadly volley of dozens fired at the same time making their way to the target, accompanied by a deadly barrage of pulse laser fire. The two attacking ships split and broke off in two different directions. The carrier was covered in explosions, entire pieces of electric blue mass breaking off and dissolving into nothing. The incredible punishment sent a chain reaction through the ship, it's recently launched Slijah caught in the explosions of the carrier's death. They either exploded or were partially destroyed, their remains spiraling out of control until exploding or hitting another object. The heavily damaged Indarian warship had somehow reactivated it's engines for a last run. Korso instantly knew what they were up to as it set course for one of the other carriers closest to their position. No they're not gonna… Are they? His question was answered personally by the ship's Captain. It was still remarkable how well the creatures resembled an Earth fox walking on two legs. The red and white fur on his face was burned in some spots, he had his claw pressed against a wound in his stomach area and blood colored the white fur around his mouth red. He growled and spat on the deck.
"Thanks for your actions, Captain. Remember us!"
He howled and yelled something in his own language which didn't translate well but was quite possibly some kind of death prayer or a word of farewell.
"No wait, you can make it!"
"Nothing will deny us our honor, Captain."
He uttered a few more words in Indarian before breaking the transmission. The battered warship headed straight for a second carrier without slowing down. While Akima maneuvered over the battlefield and Derek kept the weapons firing, the Indarian warship rammed itself into the enemy hull. A reactor explosion soon followed and the carrier was taken out in the process not entirely but the remaining hulk disintegrated in a volley of missiles from an Akrennian ship.
"That's it!" Sanders praised her fleet. "They never expected us to fight back this hard. Retreat if-."
Suddenly and unexpectedly a horrifying scream penetrated the com channel and droned everything out. It was torture, like razorblades penetrating the inside of one's ears. It was the anger of the Drej Queen as her forces were unable to get past the fleet.
"Cut that out!"
The crew frantically tried to stop the horrible sound from torturing their ears and Brian fortunately managed to filter out the noise at the moment everyone's ears threatened to pop. Akima looked at the hand she had pressed against her right ear, expecting to see blood but it wasn't that severe yet. Still she had a deaf feeling in both ears to some degree just like the rest of the crew. Cale cursed, checking the damage they had taken during that moment but none of it appeared to be severe. In the confusion and the pain the Drej took advantage of the power of their Queen's voice and continued the attack.
"Sir, looks like they've stopped," Yani alerted her Captain. "They're moving off, out of the system."
All ships in the fleet came to a halt, including the Valkyrie while they tried to get visual confirmation. Indeed, the destruction of two of their Praojeh did the trick. The other two had turned around to join the mothership which moved away. The remaining Slijah grouped together in one huge swarm and left as well.
"What was that all about?" Derek asked no one in particular.
"D'you think they retreated because they couldn't take us down?" Cale replied with a question of his own.
The Drej used to be a force to be reckoned with and they still were. Usually they had much more tricks up their sleeve. Perhaps the strangest thing was that the mothership hadn't interfered at all. It had remained at a distance from the battle without firing a single weapon of her own.
"Sanders to fleet, do not pursue the enemy. All Earth Captains please report for debriefing."
"Akima, return us to space dock. Looks like it's over… for now."
A few moments later the Valkyrie was back in her holding area and a small repair crew began to take care of the minor damage she took during the fight. Before disembarking, Korso spoke to his crew for one last time before leaving with Brian.
"Wait for us in The Lighthouse. We hadn't finished our talk yet."
Down at the surface Cale and Akima, this time together with the rest of the crew, shared a table. Preed and Ayko joined too, their children happy that their parents were back.
"That was one hell of a battle. I've been waiting to take this ship into a more challenging fight for a while."
Ayko laughed and moistured the inside of her mouth with a big gulp of Akrennian ale.
"It was a battle well fought indeed, my gorgeous," Preed slimed.
Their children were curious too.
"Was it scary?" "How many Drej did you kill?"
"They blew up beautifully. I bet they were more scared of us than we were of them."
While the two Akrennians were satisfied with how well ship and crew performed in battle, the humans around the table were more satisfied with the outcome. He bottom line was, New Earth had just been attacked by the Drej. They might come back, perhaps stronger. These Drej were different from the ones they fought and defeated a couple of years ago. Who knew what they were planning?
"C'mon you guys lighten up, you just beat them again," Ayko said rather comically.
"They might still come back," Cale said, dampening her mood a bit. "We don't know what they're up to."
Why did the Drej attack them first? Did they somehow know about that happened to the other version of their kind a couple of years ago? Were they here to take revenge? One thing was for sure. It wasn't over yet.