tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 106

Three Square Meals Ch. 106

byTefler©

John reached for the button to open the Ready Room door leading to the Command Deck.

*Hold on a second,* Alyssa warned him. *Jehanna's interviewing Irillith on the Bridge. You can go in, but just stay quiet.*

*Thanks for the head's up,* he said, glancing at Lynette to warn her too.

The brunette looked startled, clearly not yet used to hearing her Matriarch's telepathic voice spring unbidden in her mind. "Don't worry, she told me too," she said in a rush, slipping her arm through his.

He hit the button and the door slid open, Jehanna's dulcet voice drifting across the room, the reporter speaking with the smooth professional tone she used for interviews. "...and if my sources are correct, you were solely responsible for the capture of the dreadnought, the Vengeance of Hera?"

John stepped through the door with Lynette at his side and glanced across the Bridge to the Int-Ops station. Irillith was wearing a suit of Paragon armour and the clear-crystal mask had been turned opaque to obscure her features.

"It was a team effort," the Maliri hacker replied modestly. "But as the Intelligence-Operations Officer aboard the Invictus, it's my responsibility to find weakness in enemy data networks and... exploit them. I was fortunate that the Kintark left the Hera exposed, allowing me to reclaim it for the Federation."

"Well I know there's many thousands of brave Terran personnel sleeping safely in their beds tonight because of your incredible skills," Jehanna gushed, her voice full of gratitude. "I've reviewed the after-action reports following the battle and you racked up an astonishing number of ship-kills when you turned the Hera's guns on the Kintark forces. By my reckoning you completely destroyed 11 battleships and 89 cruisers..."

"A testimony to Terran Federation ship-building expertise," Irillith said magnanimously. "The Hera is quite a ship... I was relieved that we were able to safely return the dreadnought to its rightful owners."

John grinned and gave her a thumbs-up before stepping into the grav-tube, with Lynette following close behind.

"She's an incredible woman," the Fleet Admiral murmured as they descended to Deck Two. "You're extremely lucky to have someone with her skillset on your crew."

"You'll get no argument from me there," John agreed, stepping out of the red anti-gravity field into the corridor. "I almost take for granted that Irillith will be able to hijack enemy ships and turn them against their own side. She makes a huge difference balancing up the odds when we're outnumbered."

Lynette nodded, looking thoughtful. "I must admit, I found it more than a little unsettling to discover that supposedly secure Terran Federation networks were anything but. I know Irillith's a close ally, but I can't help feeling that there's something fundamentally wrong with a non-Terran able to waltz through our highest security data without breaking a sweat."

"From what Irillith tells me, most Maliri hackers are extremely skilled. She takes their aptitude to impressive new levels, but the Terran network has been highly vulnerable to Maliri infiltration for centuries," John said, before smiling and glancing her way. "It's fortunate that they're allies now, isn't it?"

She looked up to meet met his friendly gaze, hesitating for a moment before admitting, "I believe you when you tell me I can trust them, but after centuries of suspicion, it's... difficult... for me to put that much faith in an alien civilisation."

John paused in the corridor, bringing her to a halt. "I think I've got a good way of explaining my relationship to the Maliri, so you can understand why I place so much faith in them." Looking into her hazel eyes, he continued, "Do you trust me?"

Lynette nodded, replying without pause. "Yes, with my life."

"Good girl," he said, nodding his approval. "I'm glad you feel that way, because that's true." Tilting his head to one side, he continued quietly, "Now, think about how willing you are to co-operate with me, knowing that I've got your best interests at heart..."

"Okay, that's easy to picture," she replied with a smile.

"Now multiply that tenfold," John said quietly. "Every female Maliri feels that way just by looking at me... their whole species has been genetically modified to respond positively to the mere presence of a Progenitor."

Her eyes widened in understanding. "The House Matriarchs are all female... and they rule the Maliri..."

"Yes, exactly," John replied, confirming her conclusion. "Now do you see why you can trust them? Or at least trust them to be unflinchingly loyal to me?"

"What would happen if..." she winced. "...something terrible happened to you?"

"The Young Matriarchs lead five of the top seven houses and they're all fiercely loyal to Edraele, who runs the most powerful House. Their support alone would let her lead the Maliri unchallenged." He grimaced as he continued, "I have no doubt that she'd be able to keep the other Matriarchs in line, but relations would certainly become strained. Edraele is an extremely capable leader, but there are centuries of mistrust and betrayals between the noble houses. I wouldn't envy her trying to maintain the alliance we've created."

*Thank you for the vote of confidence,* Edraele said with a hint of amusement, which John could tell was forced. *Please try to avoid getting yourself killed, I think you underestimate what an unmitigated disaster that would be.*

*We need to address that when I return to Genthalas,* John mused quietly. *Hope for the best but plan for the worst...*

*It would be the prudent course of action,* Edraele agreed, but he could hear the distress in her voice at the thought of anything happening to him. *We've already discussed you getting better acquainted with Emandra Holaris in exchange for trade distribution rights on Holaris wines. I'll arrange that meeting for shortly after you return.*

Before he could reply, Lynette looked at him with a puzzled expression on her face. "John, you mentioned before that the Maliri are designed to be a Thrall race for a Progenitor to use in their armies... But if they react to the presence of a Progenitor in the way you described, wouldn't they be useless in a battle with another Progenitor? They'd just stand around staring at him starry-eyed..."

John froze and his eyes widened in shock as something clicked in his mind. "No... because I've claimed the Maliri," he replied in a hushed voice.

*Where did that come from?!* Alyssa blurted out in surprise, feeling the powerful resonance behind his words.

Edraele let out a soft gasp. *That's right! I can feel it in my bones...*

"Are you okay?" Lynette asked, placing a hand on his arm and looking at him with concern.

He shook his head as if to clear it, then nodded. "Yeah... but that was new, it must have been something I squeezed out of my Guide." Gazing off into the distance, he intoned, "A Progenitor lays claim to a seed race to use as his Thralls... no other may dispute that ownership."

*If the Maliri were 'unclaimed', does that mean Mael'nerak is definitely dead?* Alyssa asked quietly, relaying her telepathic query to everyone else too.

John considered that for a moment. "I suppose he'd have to be... unless there's a way of giving up ownership of a Thrall race." Anticipating Alyssa's next question, he added, "Before you ask, I don't know if that's possible."

"So you 'own' the Maliri," Lynette marvelled, looking at him in awe. "I just assumed you were their leader, but that statement implies something far deeper."

He nodded, his expression troubled. "It does..."

*Truth be told, I've always felt that way,* Edraele admitted, her voice thoughtful and introspective. There was a brief pause and she continued, *My girls agree... this didn't come as a surprise to them either.*

"Have you claimed Terrans too?" Lynette asked, a flurry of emotions crossing her face.

John hesitated, then shook his head. "No, I don't think so. From what we learnt from Nexus, Mael'nerak created humanity as an experiment, using the 'base template' for a thrall species. That's why Terrans look so similar to Maliri but have so many different skin tones and don't have pointed ears. Terrans haven't been genetically programmed to respond to Progenitors in the way a Thrall species has."

She laughed and said, "I actually can't tell if I'm happy or sad that isn't the case..." Her eyes suddenly got huge. "Wait... a Progenitor created humanity?!"

He clasped her hand and gave her a look of sympathy. "Let's sit down in my room and I'll tell you everything else we've discovered so far. If you have any strong religious convictions... they might be in for a battering."

***

Sakura did a last check of her weapons and bags to make sure she'd got everything, then turned to smile at Maria. "Thank you for making me feel so welcome. I can't tell you how much the last two days have meant to me."

The Latina opened her arms to the Asian girl. "Come here... you don't think I'm letting you leave without a hug, do you?"

Sakura eagerly stepped into that embrace and let out a contented sigh. She turned slightly to whisper in Maria's ear, "You were incredibly kind to do that for me... it was just like being with my mom again."

Maria hesitated then said softly, "I would have loved to have had another daughter. I mean no disrespect to Emiko's memory, but I'd be honoured if you'd think of me as an adoptive mother."

"Stop, you'll make me cry again," Sakura mumbled, squeezing her in return. "I'd love that, thank you."

Giving her a tender kiss on her cheek, Maria whispered, "Stay safe, Angel."

Sakura nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She stepped away from the hug, then cleared her throat and darted a self-conscious smile at Calara. "Sorry, I'm monopolising your mother."

Calara patted her on the back. "Sharing my Mom is the least I could do. After all your help with the wedding preparations, I'll be forever in your debt."

Maria laughed and pulled her daughter into a hug. "We'll make a girly-girl out of you yet, Stellar Cluster recipient, Commander Fernandez." Despite her jovial tone, there was no mistaking the undercurrent of pride in her voice.

Calara smiled and returned the embrace. "It was lovely to see you again, Mom."

"Next time, give me a bit of warning if you're going to be comatose for ten hours... I'll make sure I get plenty of sleep before I have to pull an all-nighter."

"I'm so sorry we worried you," Calara said with a wince. "We were only supposed to sleep for four hours, but Alyssa ran into a few problems."

"Just as long as you're all safe, that's all that matters," her mother said, caressing her cheek. "Please pass on my best wishes to John and the girls."

"Do you have any special messages for Dad?" Calara asked, her eyebrow arching playfully. "We should be seeing him in a couple of days."

"I wouldn't want to make you blush, Callie," Maria replied, not backing down from her daughter's teasing. "But I'd appreciate it if you could tell him that I got his message and how it made all the difference; I can't tell him that plainly over monitored comms. Please could you also let him know that he's still my hero." She looked into her daughter's eyes and added, "I know he'd love to hear that from you too..."

"Mom, what're you up to?" Calara asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously.

"Why nothing, daughter dearest," Maria replied, patting her on the back. "Be a good girl and do as Mommy asks..."

Calara rolled her eyes. "Okay, will do."

She gathered up her bags and accompanied Sakura across the patio towards the landing pad. With a click of the remote in her pocket, the Raptor's loading ramp began to lower, welcoming the two girls back to its protective interior.

"Take care and stay in touch," Maria called out to them as they walked up the loading ramp. "Love you!"

"Love you, Mom," Calara replied with a cheery wave goodbye. Sakura hesitated until Calara gave her an encouraging smile. "Go ahead, she wants you to say it."

"Goodbye... Mom... love you too," Sakura said with a shy smile.

Maria rushed up the ramp to give her a final hug and a kiss, then backed away, brushing a hand at her eyes.

Calara hit the button to close the loading ramp and they waved at Maria until it shut. "Come on, let's head home."

Sakura looked at her with big brown eyes and asked softly, "Are you sure you don't mind sharing your mother with me?"

The Latina turned and wrapped her arms around the Asian girl. "You already know the answer to that."

Letting out a happy sigh, Sakura whispered, "Thank you, little sister."

Calara groaned, making a face as she said playfully, "I knew I should have brought Dana instead! I can't believe Mom saddled me with another overprotective older sibling!"

Sakura giggled and walked towards the grav-tube, saying over her shoulder, "I always wanted a little sister... don't worry, I won't torment you too much."

Calara watched her leave, the Asian girl flouncing out of the loading area with a spring in her step.

*Well done, my love,* Alyssa said softly, her voice warm and appreciative. *Sakura's never been happier than she is right now.*

Calara smiled and followed her fellow Lioness up to the gunship's cockpit. *I know just how she feels.*

*Hurry home, I missed you,* Alyssa murmured, her loving telepathic caress sending a delightful shiver up Calara's spine.

***

Alyssa shook her head and frowned. "No! The light-grey suit and the cornflower-blue shirt."

John put the offending suit back and glanced at his selection of blue shirts. "Erm... which one is cornflower-blue?"

Her heels clicked as she strutted over to him, then her slender fingers drifted along the cotton shirts until she paused on the fourth one in. "There, that one's just perfect."

"Thanks, beautiful." He tugged on the trousers for the suit she'd picked out for him, then slipped on the shirt. "And Dana's sure that there won't be any problems with the venue?"

"As long as you don't leave the system, Faye will be perfectly fine. The signal from the pulse generator is more than strong enough," the blonde said soothingly. "Just relax and have a great time, she's going to love it."

Lynette's merry laughter echoed around the walk-in wardrobe, the brunette leaning against the doorway. "I saw you fearlessly face-down a 200-foot dragon, but you're getting nervous about going on a date with a pretty girl. I never would have believed it."

John finished buttoning up his shirt and reached for some black shoes, until Alyssa shook her head and picked out a burgundy pair instead. "I'm really fond of Faye so I want to make sure she has a great time, whereas Baledranax... not so much."

"Faye is a lot cuter," Lynette agreed with an affectionate smile.

He laced up his shoes, then slipped on his jacket. "There, everything okay?"

"Very handsome," Alyssa purred, her fingers deftly smoothing his collar into place. She glanced over towards the box by the door. "Don't forget that..."

John leaned in to give her a quick kiss. "Thanks for your help, I really appreciate it." He crouched down by the package that had been delivered earlier that morning and flipped through the contents until he found what he was looking for. Nodding with satisfaction, he sealed it inside the vacuum-formed container and slid the sturdy, light-weight cylinder into his jacket pocket. Rising to his feet, he smiled at Lynette and Alyssa as they followed him into the bedroom. "What are you two ladies up to now?"

"Just girls talk," Alyssa said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You'd find it dreadfully dull."

"Fluffy kittens again?" John asked with a raised eyebrow.

She let out a breathy sigh. "They're just so adorable..."

He turned to Lynette and looked her in the eyes. "Don't let her torment you too much. If you need help, call for Faye, she'll send some Lionesses as backup."

"I think I'll be fine," the brunette said with a laugh. "Have fun on your date."

John waved goodbye and strode out of the bedroom towards Faye's quarters. He knocked politely and she opened the door a few seconds later, a shy self-conscious smile on her face.

"Wow... you look amazing!" John gasped, gaping at her in astonishment.

Faye's wild purple mane had been meticulously styled so that it artfully framed her face and cascaded over her shoulders, ending somewhere near her lower back. She was wearing a light touch of makeup that highlighted her lovely elfin features, making her look almost otherworldly in her natural beauty. Her petite figure was wrapped in a sunflower-yellow dress that ended just above the knee, the way it hugged her curves leaving him in no doubt just how alluring her shapely body was. The bright colour of the dress emphasised and complimented her exotic colouring, Faye's soft purple skin appearing rich and vibrant. Finally, she wore strappy yellow heels on her tiny feet, pushing her up another three inches.

Her luminous eyes seemed to glow with joy as she saw his reaction. "I'm so glad you like the dress! Rachel helped me pick it out especially!"

"She has a real talent for showcasing a beautiful woman," John said appreciatively. "I just hope we can still find time to talk between me fighting off all your admirers..."

Faye giggled and slipped her delicate hand into his. "Don't worry, I'm all yours."

He led her towards the grav-tube. "We'll have a short walk to the shuttle bay, I hope that's alright?"

"I've been practicing wearing heels, I'll be fine," she replied, glancing down at her shoes. Giving him an impish smile, she added, "Or I could just levitate all the way there... Which would you prefer?"

"I think you'll be drawing quite enough attention as it is," John replied, eyeing her outfit appreciatively.

She blushed and squeezed his hand, then followed him out of the grav-tube on Deck Nine. Faye opened the airlock for them as they approached, so John was able to walk straight out into the Docking Bay without pause.

"So, where are you taking me?" she asked, looking up at him with eager anticipation, as they entered the central corridor that ran through that particular arm of Olympus.

"That, young lady, is a secret," he replied, smiling when she groaned in frustration. "I will tell you that we're heading down to Gravitus, but I'm sure you realised that with us taking a shuttle."

"This is so exciting!" Faye exclaimed, quickening her pace, then turning around to look at him. "Are first dates normally like this?"

"I'm hardly an expert, but I believe they're supposed to be... The mystery of the unknown, getting to learn all about someone new and find out if there's a connection, the thrill of the chase," he said with a grin. "Heady stuff..."

She gave him a coy glance under her long eyelashes. "So, who's chasing who?"

"Oh, I'm definitely doing the chasing... you're far too pretty to have to chase any man," John said with a playful smile.

Faye giggled and seemed to have an extra bounce in her stride as she strolled along beside him. Despite her sophisticated outfit, she walked with an almost irrepressible joy that made her seem innocent and adorable in equal measure. He noticed that she was already starting to draw attention, with service personnel doing a double-take as the couple passed, men's eyes drawn like magnets to the incredibly exotic beauty gliding through the station.

"Hmm, maybe I should have brought my sword," John said, glancing at a group of open-mouthed marines who were staring in awe at his petite companion.

Faye shook her head. "It's not just me, the last seventeen women we've passed have all given you lingering looks. You look really handsome in your suit!"

He tipped an imaginary hat in her direction. "I'm glad you approve."

Her breath caught and Faye swooned, leaning into his arm. "Oh my!"

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