The Ransomed Returning

No trees grew in the black city. No bushes, no flowers, no grass. Not even a single scraggly weed penetrated the endless stretch of bevakm. The unblemished, black surface gleamed in the sunlight with a deceptive serenity. The roads, the buildings, everything was made of it. Ripping the bevakm out was back-breaking work, especially without an overskin, but Peter Halstead didn't mind. He would have torn it out with his bare hands if he had to.
The shredder jumped and bucked beneath him as the rotary blades cut into the solid bevakm, exposing the plain, brown earth below. Just as it should be. Good, clean earth, with no trace of alien influence on it.
Peter clenched his teeth and punched the shredder forward. No doubt his genius baby brother Derek, hero of the Emancipation, would want samples of the bevakm to study and put to good use. He grimaced. As far as he was concerned, there was no good use for anything the Great Ones had created.
Great Ones? He spat onto the bevakm. He hated that he still thought of them by that name. Vile invaders. They had taken away his identity, stolen his future, and destroyed his dreams. For close to twenty years he had served them and reverenced them. But not anymore. No matter what Derek or anyone else thought, Peter would do everything in his power to rid the world of the Nebkiriven aliens for good.

* * * * *

Hannah dreamed of Toovuts. The great wolf fixed her in his fiery gaze. He looked just as he had the first time he had come to her in the sacred cave and called her to free the slaves. More than a year had passed since then, and the world had changed more than she'd ever imagined. Hannah knelt before the wolf in reverence. Darkness surrounded them both. He smelled of the wild earth, of soil and sunshine, clean rain and snapping flames. He came and sat beside her. She rested her hand on his massive head.
Hannah. His voice, no louder than a whisper reverberated through her. She pressed her cheek against his fur and closed her eyes. The darkness around them frightened her, and she wanted to be near him.
There is danger, Hannah.
She sat up to look at him. "What danger? Where?"
It is at your door. Beware. Toovuts rose. He lifted his head, scenting the wind, and bounded away, leaving her alone in the dark.
But he was gone.
She woke with her heart in her throat. The room was quiet, lit only by the moonlight filtering in through the curtains that danced in the midnight breeze. Late summer in western Missouri was hot even at this hour of the night. Her husband Derek lay dead asleep beside her. She shook his shoulder. He grumbled and buried his face in the pillow. She hated to wake him. He'd spent all day training with his fleet and she knew he was exhausted. But the urgency she felt in her dream remained.
She shook him again. "Derek. Wake up!"
"What?" He sat up blinking and squinted at her.
"Something's wrong."
Derek rubbed his eyes and fumbled for his glasses on the nightstand. "What happened?"
"I had a dream."
He groaned. Actually groaned. Hannah folded her arms. "This is serious! I saw Toovuts. He said we were in danger." She blinked away tears.
Derek wrinkled his forehead. "What kind of danger?"
"I don't know." Already the details were getting fuzzy. Derek put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. Hannah sighed, and Derek pulled her in closer. The curtains fluttered in the breeze. There was no other sound. A wisp of melody floated through Hannah's head, calming the pounding of her heart.
"Let's go back to sleep," Derek said. "We'll think more clearly in the morning."
"No!" Hannah sat up. "We're in danger. Something's wrong." She scowled. "You don't believe me."
"Yes I do, I just—" He held up his hands. "I don't know what to do about it. There doesn't seem to be any imminent danger."
"Fine." Hannah flopped back down on her pillow and turned her back to him. "I'll just go back to sleep then." She clenched her teeth to stop the quivering, determined not to cry anymore.
Derek touched her shoulder. "I'll contact night watch, okay? Just to be sure."
"Okay." She still didn't turn around.
Derek picked up the radio on his night stand. "Commander Halstead to Jordan."
"Go ahead, Commander."
"Everything all right over there?"
"Yes, sir. Radar's all quiet. Is something wrong?"
Derek ran his hand down Hannah's arm. "I'm not sure."
"Wait a minute." Jordan sounded shocked.
"Commander, we've picked something up. It appears to be an attack vessel."
"An attack vessel?"  Derek said. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir. It's heading this way."
Hannah sat up, gasping. She took Derek's hand. He gave it a squeeze and came to his feet, all business.
"Contact Savtali. See if the Nebkiriven army knows anything about it. Scramble Squadron B. I'm on my way."
Hannah sat on the edge of the bed and watched him yank his clothes on. She wrapped her hand around her locket. An attack vessel. This couldn't be happening. "Derek?" He turned to her, pulled her to her feet, and wrapped his arms around her.
"Be careful," she said.
He leaned over and kissed her. "I will. Don't worry."
She stood in the front room after he left, with fear and anxiety churning in her gut until she thought she might puke. Finally, she did the only thing she could think of. She dropped to her knees and prayed.

* * * * *

Derek prayed all the way down to the launching bay, where he met the rest of Squadron B coming in. "Is it really an attack vessel?" his wingman, Marius, asked, running his fingers through his unruly black curls and yawning. They'd all gone home dead tired after training. An enemy couldn't have picked a worse time to attack.
"I know as much as you do, Marius. Are you ready to fly again?"
He grinned. "I'm always ready for that."
Derek waved over Jordan Herrick from night watch. "What's the situation, Jordan?"
"The attack vessel hasn't altered course. Savtali insists that it wasn't launched from there."
"Where else could it have come from?" Derek pushed open the doors to the flight prep room. "We'll have to deal with that later. Do we have Angels ready to fly?"
"Yes, sir. The Martins are lining them up now."
"Good." The triplet brothers might goof off about everything else, but when it came to the fleet, Derek could always count on them. He got into his gray flight suit and put in his contact lenses. The rest of Squadron B was ready by then, waiting for him to give them their mission. "All right, we have an attack vessel of unknown origin and intent coming this way. I want us to assume a defensive position around the city. Preventing hostile action against Zion is our top priority. Marius and I will intercept the bogey. Captain Jonasson, assign the rest of the sections as you see fit. Let's see if we remember everything we practiced yesterday, and may God go with us."
"Amen to that."
That was Dixon, of course, lightening the mood with his relentless good cheer. A chorus of amen rose from the squadron. Derek felt a surge of gratitude for all of them, for the privilege of standing among them.
Lem Martin poked his head in the door. His light brown hair stuck out in all directions. "We're ready for launch, Derek."
"Thanks, Lem. You heard him, squadron. Time to fly."
They moved into the launching bay. As Lem had promised, the small, mottled-gray strike fighters stood in rows waiting for the pilots.
Marius yawned again. "You sure you're up to this?" Derek asked.
Marius nodded. "I just need to get the adrenaline pumping."
"You know, an adrenaline rush only lasts for one to three minutes, but the effects can linger for up to—"
Marius arched an eyebrow.
"Right. I mean, get that adrenaline pumping already. We'll fly in combat spread and try to drive him off. If we engage, we keep it well away from Zion. I don't want to risk anything being shot down over the city, understood?"
"Understood. God speed, Derek."
"God speed." Derek snapped on his helmet and climbed into the cockpit of his Avenging Angel. At a signal from Lem, he shot out into the night.

* * * * *
The 3-D map on his head-up display illuminated the darkened landscape. He zoomed out the view enough to keep the rest of his squadron in sight around Zion. The incoming attack vessel glowed dead ahead, approaching from the west. He and Marius came at it, plotting an intercept course to cut the bogey off before it reached the city. Getting a visual tally on the black attack vessel was nearly impossible, even in the moonlight. We should have done more night training.
"There it is," Marius called through the headset. "Below at ten o'clock."
Derek dimmed his display. Sure enough, he saw the moonlight glint for a moment off the attack vessel's sharp angles. "I see him. Let's give him something to think about. B3, B4 engaging now."
They dove together, splitting into a bracket around it. The attack vessel dove, too, pulling out of range and out of sight in the darkness. The image winked off the 3-D map.
"Where'd he go?" Marius said. "Is he jamming the signal?"
"Derek to GCI. Jordan, do you still have him?"
"Negative, sir. The bogey's vanished from radar."
Derek pulled his Angel around, scanning visually for the attack vessel to no avail. "All sections, top priority to visual acquisition of the bogey. We have to know where it is."
Marius had rejoined line-abreast and they flew back toward Zion. The threat of being shot from below by the unseen attack vessel left Derek cold. He took a deep breath and tried to keep his head together. "Can you see him at all, Marius?"
"No, I can't. Oh."
Derek saw it, too, a brilliant flash of laser fire aimed at the ground. The attack vessel reappeared abruptly on the 3-D map.
"He hit the temple," Angelique called. Her voice trembled. Derek wanted to yell at her to stop using the radio to state the obvious, but he held his tongue.
"B1 and B2, engaging now," Nils called.
"Dix, Nils, keep up the pressure. Don't let him get off another shot. Try and drag him away from the city, and stay close enough to keep him in sight. We can't have another disappearing act. B5 and B6, take up support positions for them. The rest of you be ready if he comes your way."
The squadron responded at once. Derek watched on the map as Nils and Dixon forced the attack vessel upward and away from Zion. When the bogey broke away from them, Rodney and Karl assumed the offensive. But with the attack vessel firing at them almost at random, neither could position for a good shot of his own. The attack vessel banked around and extended away to the west, back toward Derek and Marius.
"He's bugging out," Marius said.
"But he's not getting away. You climb. I'll set him up for you."
"Yes, sir."
"B3 and B4, engaging." His stomach twisted from more than the maneuvering. Memories of his previous encounters with the alien ships brought a host of old fears with them. He ignored his feelings and concentrated on what he had to do.
Derek bore down on the attack vessel. The bogey turned hard toward him, firing and missing. Derek rolled beneath him, and began to climb. The attack vessel turned, firing weapons. Derek jinked back and forth. He'd never seen an attack vessel flown so aggressively, or so erratically.
He banked and swung around again. The attack vessel moved to intercept. Marius spiraled down unseen from above and fired. The attack vessel exploded. A cheer went up from the squadron.
"Nice work," Derek said. "I'd hate to come up against you when you're actually awake."
"It's the adrenaline, my friend."
Derek laughed, but the satisfaction of victory lasted only a moment. His hand tightened around the stick.
"Derek to GCI. Confirm that there are no more attack vessels out here."
"None that I can see, Commander."
Derek closed his eyes, imagining a fleet of attack vessels descending on them undetected. He shook it off. Below him the temple was engulfed in flames. His chest felt hollow. "We're coming in."