tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 043

Three Square Meals Ch. 043


"I don't recall seeing Irillith around here before." John mused, addressing Ceraden, who sat behind his desk, drumming his fingers on the glossy surface with irritation.

"No, thank heavens. She's a 'guest', and I only have to put up with her for another week, then it'll be glorious peace and quiet once again," Ceraden replied wistfully.

He looked over the desk, and tsked with annoyance at the mess the shattered device had made on the floor. A few second later a couple of cleaning robots glided in silently on some kind of hover system, and they began to efficiently sweep up the scattered components. Dana leant over the armrest and studied the robots in fascination, wondering how they could propel themselves so quietly, without the telltale whir of anti-grav cyclics.

Ceraden seemed to suddenly remember he had guests to attend to, and he sprang to his feet, while tapping out a series of commands on the console. A section of the coffee table folded back on itself and a hidden platform rose up, revealing a decanter of crimson wine, and a number of delicate crystal glasses.

"John, ladies, please help yourselves. I humbly apologise for that awkward incident, you must think terribly of Maliri hospitality," Ceraden said, sounding embarrassed.

John grinned at him, and waved his hand dismissively, as he said, "Don't worry about it Ceraden. The girls are made of stern stuff, and I'm sure they weren't bothered in the slightest."

The girls were sitting on three sofas in the room, Rachel and Dana on the right, with Calara and Jade in the middle, and Alyssa next to John in a 'U' shape facing Ceraden's desk. They beamed sparkling smiles at him and shook their heads, before Calara began to serve everyone wine from the crystal decanter.

Ceraden stared at the beautiful young women for a moment, before turning to look at John. "So what brings Lady Luck's most favoured son to my humble abode?" he asked curiously.

John accepted a glass of wine from Calara, and sipped it before nodding his approval. He then looked in Ceraden's direction.

"As you seem to know disturbingly well, I'm now in possession of the assault cruiser I served on during my days in the military. I did retire, eleven years ago, but after we intervened in the Kintark conflict, rescuing Terran personnel in the Iota-Leonis system, the Terran Federation decided to bump up my old rank. The situation is a bit confused there, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm still retired," John explained carefully.

Ceraden sat back against his desk, and folded his arms as he looked at John. "That's very interesting, Lion of the Terran Federation, but that still doesn't answer my question," he said playfully.

John laughed, shaking his head at just how much of his recent activities the cunning Maliri seemed to know about.

"I was getting there," he said, holding his hand up placatingly.

Ceraden chuckled and turned to look at the girls. "Does he ramble like this with you too? It must get dreadfully dull waiting for him to get to the point," he said, teasing his old friend.

Alyssa arched an eyebrow and replied coyly, "I wouldn't necessarily say that. He tends to be quite good at telling us exactly what he wants."

John coughed and put down his glass, and Ceraden laughed uproariously.

"Oh, she's magnificent John! I can see why you abandoned your lonesome ways!" the Maliri exclaimed, before sweeping a bow to the blonde, who smiled at him and inclined her head at the compliment.

John cleared his throat, and then said, "Yes, well, back to your original question then. I want to buy Maliri laser weaponry to upgrade the guns on the Invictus," he finished succinctly.

Ceraden opened his hands in an apologetic gesture. "Ah, my friend. I'd help you if I could, but you ask the impossible. The Maliri never trade our weapons technology, and doing so is a capital offence amongst my people," he said, his voice full of regret.

John looked confused, and said, "But I'd heard stories about you trading with civilians in the past. Surely an exception could be made?"

The Maliri shook his head sadly. "It seems you've been drawn in by tall tales, my friend. I can promise you, that the Maliri have NEVER traded weapons technology with anyone from another species before."

John slumped back in the chair, and blew out a big breath. "Sorry girls, it looks like I brought you out here on a wild goose chase," he apologised to them.

"Now, now, let's not be hasty. Perhaps there's some other trade goods you might be interested in while you're here?" Ceraden asked John encouragingly, trying to buoy his spirits.

Dana piped up unexpectedly, pulling Ceraden's attention away from John. "Well Mr Ceraden, we're actually interested in purchasing electronics. Mainly devices we could use to trade with the Trankaran, as we're headed that way next. Do you, or any of your colleagues, happen to trade in anything along those lines?" she asked him, with her cutest, most adorable smile on her face.

The Maliri stared at her a moment, seemingly transfixed, before shaking his head slightly. "Just Ceraden is fine, Dana, I believe your name was?" he asked her curiously.

"That's right, you have an excellent memory, Ceraden!" she said, smiling at him admiringly.

The Maliri leaned towards her, obviously fascinated by the redhead. "Much to my regret, I'm afraid I don't have any goods like that within my inventory, but I know a splendid fellow who does. If you'll permit me, I'd be delighted to make the introductions," he offered eagerly.

Dana placed her hand on her chest, and fluttered her eyelashes at him. "I'd really appreciate that, thank you so much!" she gasped gratefully.

Ceraden swept a low bow before her. "It would be my pleasure," he said happily.

Dana then looked at him with a warm smile and asked, "I'm actually the ship's engineer, and we couldn't help but notice the clean crisp air on your station. Would it be a huge imposition for me to take a little look at your air filtration systems? The air on our ship grows horribly stale after a few weeks, and we'd all be so grateful to be able to improve it."

Ceraden looked spellbound by the redhead, but he looked hesitant when he actually stopped to consider her request.

Sensing she had him on the ropes, Dana went for the knockout blow. "We'd be thinking of you with every big lungful of fresh clean air, wouldn't we girls?" she asked, and on cue, all five girls took a big breath, savouring the air on the station, with suitably dramatic effects on their busts.

Ceraden seem to stare at them all, stunned for a moment, before he suddenly started to laugh. "I think you could talk me into anything, young lady," he chortled whilst shaking his head in wonder. "I'm actually feeling relieved I don't have the goods you're after, as you must be a formidable trader. I can't promise you anything, but I'll see if I can arrange a tour of the air filtration systems for you."

Dana beamed a wide smile, and blew a grateful kiss at him, before suddenly looking thoughtful. "What trade goods do you have in stock?" she asked him speculatively.

Ceraden raised his hands in surrender, before looking over at John, as he said jokingly, "John, please! Save me from your merciless crew, they plan to leave me penniless!"

John was staring at the redhead in shock, and he nodded at Ceraden distractedly.

*Where did that come from?* he asked Alyssa, quite amazed.

She smiled at him then glanced at the redhead affectionately. *She always was a sharp trader. Don't you remember her workshop back on Karron? She bartered for all the equipment she wasn't able to refurbish herself. Your makeover gave her a lethal set of trading tools that she never had access to before,* she told him in amusement.

John looked over at Dana in admiration, and she grinned at him slyly.

Rachel had been studying Ceraden curiously, and she cleared her throat politely to draw his attention, "Ceraden, please forgive my curiosity, but would you mind me asking you a personal question?"

The Maliri turned to face her, and bowed his head politely, before he said, "Ask away, Rachel, and I promise I'll do my best to answer."

The brunette smiled at his courteous reply, and then asked, "You speak our language more eloquently than many Terrans! How is that you learnt to speak it so well?"

Ceraden, leaned back against the desk for a moment, and appeared to be mulling something over. "The Maliri are... gifted, at picking up languages. It's a handy ability, that makes interacting with delightful races, such as Terrans, all the more pleasant," he replied playfully.

She smiled at him in gratitude for his answer, and then looked pensive as she tried to decide if she should ask him another question.

"Ask away, young lady. I'm sure a polite and well-spoken girl such as yourself won't cause offense," he told her disarmingly.

Rachel them leaned forward eagerly, and said, "Xeno-biology is a particular interest of mine, and I'm sure that every Maliri we've seen on the station has been male, with only one exception. Why is that?" she asked him tentatively.

Ceraden laughed lightly, and replied immediately, "We Maliri are an old-fashioned lot, and us men are the breadwinners, while the Maliri maidens tend the home. It's a rather provincial tradition, especially compared to you Terrans with your gender-blind meritocracy, so please forgive our rather backward ways."

"How interesting, thank you for telling me about your culture," Rachel replied with an appreciative smile.

*That was a rehearsed answer, wasn't it?* Alyssa thought to Rachel, sounding intrigued. *He was definitely lying.*

Rachel looked her way and smiled benignly, while nodding slightly as she reached over to retrieve her wine glass.

Ceraden then stood up and clasped his hands together. "Well it's nearly lunchtime, how would you like to eat at the finest restaurant on Geniya Station?" he asked them in a jovial tone.

John roused himself from his disappointment about the Maliri laser weapons and nodded eagerly. "That's a great idea! Will you be able to get us a table at this short notice?"

Ceraden nodded emphatically. "The owner owes me a favour, so it won't be a problem. I'll make the booking while you head over there. When you've finished your meal, return back to my office, and I'll see what I can do about arranging that tour of the air filtration system for you, Dana," he said obligingly.

"That would be wonderful, thank you!" the redhead replied immediately.

John looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said to the Maliri, "Which merchant are you thinking of for the electronics? Is it Lenthis?"

Ceraden shook his head regretfully. "Sadly, poor Lenthis had some ill fortune recently, and is no longer in business. Lady Luck can be a cruel mistress at times," he lamented. "His replacement is a much more pleasant chap called Meruan, and I'll see if he's available for a meeting."

John nodded in gratitude, and said, "Much appreciated, thanks, Ceraden."

The Maliri gave a sweeping bow, and then strolled over to the double doors, which parted and opened for him as he approached. John and the girls stood, and followed him out into the corridor, where he led them back to the reception area of his offices. Jade's hackles rose as they were walking away, and she had the distinct impression she was being watched by unfriendly eyes. She glanced back down the corridor, and just caught a flash of gold as someone at the other end disappeared into one of the adjacent rooms.

John shook Ceraden's hand, and agreed to come back in a couple of hours' time, once they had eaten lunch. He then led the girls back across the huge foyer and out of the Maliri Trading Commission, before walking back into the long Merchant District.

"Now, if I remember correctly, it should just be up here, through the Merchant District," John said, as he guided them through the bustling crowd of merchants busy haggling over their wares.

It was just a short walk to the tall arched set of doors that led away from the Merchant District, and down a wide passageway that had clear crystal walls and an equally transparent ceiling. The vista of the stars overhead was breathtaking, and the clear walls also offered them unparalleled views of the rest of the starport. The girls were seeing all this for the first time, and they stopped to point out sights to each other as they meandered their way down the corridor. They eventually reached the end, which seemed to open out into one of the verdant hydroponic domes, and a sweeping staircase curved around to their right, while an ornately armoured Maliri waited by a lectern at the foot of the stairs.

"Welcome to Natralis, Mr Blake," the Maliri said warmly, seemingly forewarned of their arrival. "If you would care to ascend the staircase, you will be guided to your table."

John nodded his gratitude to the Maliri, and then offered his hand to Calara, who was waiting patiently by his side. She smiled at him appreciatively, and then they walked up the stairs at a measured pace, with the rest of the group following closely behind. The staircase wasn't that high, perhaps twenty steps, and when they reached the top, another Maliri greeted them with a bow, and then gestured for them to follow. He led them to a private booth that seemed to be resting on the bough of some huge tree, and as they neared the balcony surrounding the edge of the restaurant, they were able to look out over the entire crystal dome.

"This place is incredible!" Calara whispered to him, as she marvelled at the lush green park contained in the crystalline dome.

Colourful exotic birds flew overhead, filling the air with their melodic songs, as they competed with each other in a warbling chorus. She looked around in amazement at the floor and trellis areas that separated the private booths.

"It's like this restaurant was grown right out of the tree," she said in astonishment, as she leaned precariously over the balcony, balancing herself perfectly so that she could take a look at the huge trunk of the enormous tree the restaurant was built on.

John smiled at her and nodded. "The Maliri certainly know a thing or two about impressive architecture and design," he agreed, as he pulled her chair out for her to sit.

She thanked him gratefully, and he did the same for the others, before finally moving back around the table to sit between Calara and Jade. This section of the restaurant was obviously set up with Terrans in mind, as the cutlery settings were all very familiar, with three sets of knives and forks in decreasing sizes. The waiter came back a few moments after they were seated, and then pressed a button which projected a holographic wine list above the table. While the girls were making their choice, John nodded at the waiter and smiled.

"Rather than choosing individual dishes, could you please bring us a wide selection of the chef's specials?" he requested politely. "My friends haven't tried Maliri cuisine before, so they're eager to see what you have to offer."

"Of course, Sir," the Maliri replied eagerly, with a bow, and then nodded as Rachel picked out a few bottles of wine for them.

"I've never eaten in a place this posh before!" Dana said nervously.

Rachel gently nudged the redhead with her shoulder, and smiled at her. "Don't worry, I'll look after you and make sure you don't make any faux pas," she said kindly.

"She means she'll try and make sure you don't embarrass yourself," Alyssa translated helpfully, with a grin.

Dana nodded at Alyssa, and looked at the tawny haired girl at her side. "So, no eating with my fingers, and licking the bowl clean afterwards then?" she asked quizzically.

Rachel giggled as the redhead grinned at her wickedly, and they all smiled and relaxed as they waited for their food. The wine arrived shortly afterwards, as a gold plated robot glided up to them, carrying the bottles. Just as John had poured out the wine into the girls' glasses, the waiter appeared with the starters. He moved the dishes from the tray carried by the accompanying robot, placing them in the centre of the table, where they hovered silently at a variety of levels.

The girls followed Rachel's lead as she gave them a quick introduction to fine dining, and John watched with some amusement as the other four girls hung on to her every word. He waited until they were ready to begin and then they took small portions from a variety of the starters, and began to take dainty bites, using the outermost, smallest knives and forks. Rachel nodded approvingly as her students followed her instructions, but decorum began to gradually disappear as they began to excitedly sample the delicious array of exotic dishes.

John tried a bit of each of the starters, and then most of the main courses, and he grinned when the waiter brought out a selection of deserts. He soldiered on and tasted a couple of those too, before finally admitting defeat with a loud groan.

"That food was incredible, but I feel totally stuffed. I think I might have overdone it," he admitted ruefully, lounging back in his chair.

Jade leaned over and gently stroked his full stomach, and then said teasingly, "You look like one of us now!" much to the amusement of the girls.

John laughed along as well, but said, "It's a better look on you ladies, I think."

He paid the bill, and they left the restaurant, all feeling somewhat sleepy after the heavy meal. After strolling back to the Maliri Trading Commission, John greeted Ceraden with a wave, when they walked back into the reception area of his offices.

"How was lunch?" he asked them politely. "I've heard the food there is spectacular."

"Absolutely incredible," John replied, enthusiastically. "Thanks for arranging the booking for us."

Jade smiled at Ceraden happily, and said, "I think Maliri cuisine is one of my favourites!" accompanied by nods and smiles from the rest of the girls.

"I'm delighted you had such a good time," Ceraden replied, sounding overjoyed. "I've been busy while you've been away, and I have some good news, and some bad news."

John pretended to mull it over for a moment before saying, "Let's hear the good news first."

"I've been able to arrange a tour of the air filtration system for you, Dana," the Maliri said warily. "But please keep this to yourselves."

The redhead looked positively ecstatic, but she just about managed to dampen down her exuberance to a grateful grin of thanks.

John looked at Ceraden expectantly, and asked, "So what's the bad news?"

"Meruan, the electronics merchant is away on business at the moment, but he'll be back in a couple of days. Will you be able to wait to meet him? Or are you in a hurry to depart?" the Maliri asked him curiously.

John glanced at the girls, but they shrugged at him, letting him know it was up to him. "Sure, we can stay for a few days," John agreed. "If we're heading out to visit the Trankarans next, we might as well make some profit on the way."

The double doors leading deeper into the offices opened, and a Maliri walked through and came over to join them. He wore Gold and blue armour that wasn't quite as ornate as Ceraden's, and had none of the glimmering jewels.

"Ah, perfect timing Rellathis," Ceraden said, greeting the new arrival warmly. "He's one of the engineers here at the Geniya Starport, and will be your guide, Dana."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Rellathis said, with a polite bow.

John looked wary for a moment and asked the redhead, "Do you want us to come too?"

She shook her head immediately and said, "Nah, I'll be fine! You'd just get bored hearing us talk about energy transfer ratios and system relays."

Ceraden then said, "I promise your lovely companion will be perfectly safe, John, you have my word."

*Don't worry, I'll be in contact with her the whole time,* Alyssa advised him reassuringly.

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