tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 044

Three Square Meals Ch. 044


Ceraden strolled into the lounge and as soon as he saw John and Alyssa he exclaimed happily, "John! It's wonderful to see you, but what are you doin-" he cut off abruptly when he noticed the other person in the room. "What the fuck are you doing Irillith? Have you completely lost your mind?!" he gasped in stunned horror.

"Be silent you imbecile," she snarled at him, enraged. "How dare you speak to me like that!"

"But... but you know the penalty..." he stammered, shocked beyond belief.

She sneered at him, the expression contorting her otherwise beautiful face, "This is no concern of yours. Get out, before I remove you... permanently!"

Ceraden turn to stare at John, before darting a glance at Irillith, and backing hastily out of the room.

Irillith watched him leave then smiled at John, her face looking stunningly attractive once again, but as he stared at her, he noticed that the alluring smile never reached her striking violet eyes.

"My apologies for the interruption. Let's return to our discussion," she said pleasantly.

*The women from the Ashanath stone pictographs! They were Maliri!* Alyssa thought to him, gaping at the blue-skinned woman in amazement.

John studied the Maliri woman, trying to make his stunned mind process what he was seeing. Irillith was tall, at least five foot eight he guessed, but it was hard to tell with her in armoured boots. Her skin was a lovely light blue colour, reminding him of a clear summer sky. She had delicate, exotic features, with full lips, a slender nose and slightly angular violet eyes. Her black hair was cut short, and retained its carefully styled up look, despite her having worn a helmet. Noticeable with her short hair, were her pointed ears that were shaped very much like his own.

*Black hair,* he managed to blurt telepathically to Alyssa while staring at the alien woman, before throwing a shocked glance her way.

Alyssa nodded, *Yes, that's true! The blue women in the Ashanath mosaics had white hair.*

Irillith looked at John's flabbergasted face and smiled with amusement, "I can see recognition in your eyes, 'Progenitor'. You recognise me and my people now."

He pulled himself together and then said carefully, "Yes, I've seen your species before," he agreed with a curt nod. "But why do you keep saying Progenitor like that?"

"That is what the Ashanath call you, isn't it?" she asked him, smirking at his look of surprise.

Alyssa leaned forward and asked, "How did you know that? The Ashanath's knowledge of the Progenitors seems to be one of their closest held secrets!"

Irillith slowly turned and looked coldly at the blonde, her lip curling slightly in distaste, before she resigned herself to answering her question. "They certainly like to think that, yes," she replied, a contemptuous smile marring her otherwise pretty face.

Alyssa frowned in annoyance at Irillith's tone and attitude. *Ceraden was absolutely right,* she thought to John, rapidly losing patience with the Maliri woman.

Irillith turned to look at John once more, and she smiled at him pleasantly. "So now you know what the Maliri are, you know that I would never dream of trying to harm you. I know that my mother would dearly like to meet you, and your prize would be access to the Laser weaponry that you seek. A meeting doesn't seem too high a price to pay for such a reward, surely?" she asked him playfully.

John looked at her and frowned for a moment, "That's true, but you didn't answer my question. You keep saying 'Progenitor' mockingly."

Irillith looked at him curiously, then asked him, "Would you prefer me to call you Mael'nerak instead?"

He managed to mask his surprise at her use of the bizarre and sinister sounding name, and said, "John will be fine."

She smiled indulgently, and said, "So what do you say, John? Will you accompany me to my homeworld?"

John paused and studied the Maliri woman for a moment. Despite her best efforts, he could see and feel her desperate urgency to get him to agree to her request, but he still had no idea what she could possibly stand to gain out of this bargain.

*Perhaps Ceraden might be more talkative now. He sounded horrified that Irillith had revealed what she really looked like to us,* Alyssa suggested cautiously.

*Stall and explore our options?* John asked her rhetorically. *Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.*

He met Irillith's intense gaze and then said calmly, "My ship requires some urgent repairs, so we'll be in drydock for the next three days. I'd like to discuss your offer with my crew, and then I'll give you my answer. Is that acceptable?"

Irillith's jaw clenched, and he could see her grind her teeth together in annoyance, before she forced herself to nod and smile at him. "Of course, your request is perfectly understandable. Please let me know as soon as possible, as I'll need to arrange safe passage for you and your ship. We wouldn't want any accidents to befall you in Maliri space, after all," she replied in a carefully neutral tone of voice, and he couldn't quite determine whether it was meant to be a veiled threat or not.

Sensing that the meeting was over, John rose to his feet, with Alyssa following his lead a second later. He smiled pleasantly at Irillith, and bowed his head courteously. "I'll be in contact as soon as we've made our decision," he promised her.

Irillith nodded, flashing a strained smile at him, and said, "I look forward to hearing your decision, and I trust you'll seize the unique opportunity that I've offered to you."

With that, John turned to leave, Alyssa walking at his side, turning right as they departed down the corridor they had arrived by. He glanced back the other way, looking for Ceraden, but he was nowhere to be seen.

*Wow! I really didn't see that coming,* Alyssa thought to him wryly as they left the reception area, and walked across the foyer of the Maliri Trading Commission.

John glanced at her and smiled whilst shaking his head. *You and me both,* he admitted.

The blonde slipped her hand through his, and her fingers felt soft, smooth and warm as she gently squeezed his hand. *Which decision are you leaning towards at the moment?* she asked him curiously.

*The way she tells it, it sounds like there's no downsides for us whatsoever, but I don't think I should trust her further then I could throw her,* he replied, using an ancient expression.

Alyssa stifled a laugh at the image that conjured up. *Remember, with your super strength, you could throw her pretty damn far,* she said wistfully at the thought.

John nodded and laughed. *Sorry, poor turn of phrase there,* he said apologetically.

*No need to apologise. Perhaps sending her cartwheeling through the air might wipe that smug little smirk off her pretty blue face,* Alyssa said heatedly.

*I think I see which way you're leaning on this decision,* he said with amusement.

Alyssa paused for a moment, looking up at him as they walked across the merchant district, which was relatively quiet this late in the evening. *You shouldn't let my personal dislike of the woman sway your decision,* she said finally. *There's much more at stake here than that, we just have to decide if it's worth the gamble and risks involved.*

He nodded as he digested what she was saying, and they walked the rest of the way back to the ship in companionable silence.

The girls were all waiting for them in their bedroom when they returned, and after John and Alyssa had put away their heavy pistols in the weapons locker, removed their clothes and finished up in the bathroom, they all gathered together on the bed. They made room for him in the middle, and he assumed his normal position with his back against the headboard, appreciating the attentiveness of the girls as they fanned out around him in a semi-circle.

"Alyssa brought us up to speed," Calara said, watching him carefully.

Dana grinned at him excitedly and said, "So the Maliri were the women from the Ashanath's secret Progenitor tablets? That's crazy! I wish I could have seen her."

Alyssa frowned and darted a glance at John. "She was beautiful, but she's not a very nice person. At least nothing like Ceraden," she said hesitantly. "She seems to know quite a bit about Progenitors though."

John nodded as he met her glance. "She referred to my species by another name as well. 'Mael'nerak', I think it was, if I haven't mangled the pronunciation?" he asked Alyssa.

"No, that sounded pretty close to it. She seemed amused and dismissive of the Ashanath's name for your species..." she replied, before saying, "'Progenitors'," with that same mocking tone that Irillith had used.

John turned to look at the girls, and said, "So as Alyssa has already brought you up to speed with what happened, we have a decision to make. Do we take Irillith at her word, trusting her that we aren't going to get attacked, and then go and meet her mother in exchange for a chance at acquiring Maliri weaponry? Or, do we just forget about the whole thing, stock up on Maliri goods and head for Trankaran space? I'd be interested to hear what you think."

He looked from one beautiful young face to another, seeing each of them looking hesitant. The girls were normally quite vocal and happy to express their opinions, so this indecision was unusual.

Calara noticed his surprise and said gently, "Unfortunately we weren't there, so it's difficult trying to come up with useful advice for you. Obviously I'd love to upgrade our weapons, and it sounds like we might be able to learn more about the Progenitors, but I've no idea how risky a move this is."

Jade, Dana and Rachel all nodded their agreement with the Latina's summary, looking at him apologetically.

John nodded, and said, "That's fair enough. We don't have to give Irillith an answer straight away; I told her that we'd discuss it and get back to her, and she knows we'll be busy with the ship for a few days. So, if any of you want to talk to me about it until we're finished with the upgrades, I'm always interested to hear what you have to say."

They smiled at him, nodding their understanding, and murmuring their agreement to seek him out if they had any advice.

Dana then piped up excitedly, "Speaking of which, the robots are done! I've programmed them to answer to simple voice commands, so they'll be able to assist with removing and then reattaching the armour plating on the hull. The mass fabricators are churning out the sensor array components, so you'll be able to make a start late morning."

"Nice work," John told her appreciatively. "You'll probably need to walk us through the installation of the first one, and then we'll take it from there."

The redhead nodded eagerly. "Sure! And thanks everyone. By helping out with this, I can easily get the other upgrades done in the next couple of days," she told them gratefully.

"Very nice bit of Project Management there," John said to Rachel with a grin.

She blushed a little with embarrassment, but looked thankful for his praise. "I did pay attention a bit at business school before I dropped out," she said with a self-conscious smile.

Alyssa looked around at everyone, to see if any of the other girls wanted to say anything, but it looked like the discussion had run dry for now. "Well I don't know about John, but I got all ready for action, and then it all ended peacefully. I think I need to burn off some of that adrenalin before bed. What do you think John?" she asked him enthusiastically.

He smiled at her, and his smile grew wider, when he saw the flirtatious looks he was now getting from the other four girls as well. "Now that sounds like a gre-," he started to say, but was interrupted by a strange chime that he hadn't heard before.

"That was the button for the intercom by the airlock," Dana informed him helpfully. "There must be someone outside wanting to speak to you."

John frowned, as he climbed out of bed, "That's strange, I wonder why they didn't just contact us over a comm channel."

The girls started to get up too, but John waved them back into bed. "It's nearly eleven, you might as well get some rest. We've got a busy day ahead of us tomorrow," he told them considerately. "I'll let you know if I need your help for anything," he added, mollifying them and they climbed under the covers to settle down for the night.

John strolled into the wardrobe and threw on the t-shirt, combat trousers and boots he was wearing earlier and then walked back through his bedroom, waving goodbye to the girls as he left.

*Are you sure you don't want me to come along too?* Alyssa asked him, her voice echoing through his mind as he walked along the corridor to the grav-tube.

*No, I'm fine. You'll be listening to everything anyway, so you might as well relax in bed while you're doing it,* he replied kindly.

He sensed her acceptance, and he walked up to the airlock, while glancing at the vid-feed on the wall mounted monitor, that had crackled to life for the first time. He was surprised to see Ceraden on the other side of the door, the sparkling jewels in his armour looking resplendent even over the slightly grainy image on the screen. John placed his hand on the DNA reader, and the outer airlock door spiralled open, revealing the agitated Maliri merchant, who glanced furtively around the Docking Bay.

John smiled at the man, and said, "Hey Ceraden, It's good to see you. Come on in."

The Maliri nodded, and stepped through the airlock. He seemed so unsettled, that he didn't even have any witty or cheerful greeting for John as he did. John closed the airlock door after him, and Ceraden turned and watched it spiral shut in silence. The moment it was sealed tight, he turned to John and spoke animatedly.

"You can't trust anything Irillith says!" he blurted out, sounding deeply worried.

John smiled at the troubled Maliri and reached out, placing his hand on the smaller man's shoulder reassuringly. "Let's go and have a drink, then we can talk about it," he suggested amiably, trying to put his friend at ease.

Ceraden nodded vigorously, and followed John over to the grav-tubes. John gave him a brief explanation of how they worked, and then stepped inside to demonstrate, rising smoothly in the soft blue glow. The Maliri followed his lead, and they eventually stepped out onto Deck Two.

"That's a marvellous replacement for elevators," Ceraden said, sounding impressed, and momentarily distracted from his concerns. "All that waiting is so tiresome!"

John smiled at him, gesturing towards the Officers' Lounge, and they began to walk that way. "One of Dana's inventions. She got the idea from the Ashanath," he explained proudly.

"You seem to have surrounded yourself with some quite remarkable women," Ceraden said, with an odd catch in his voice, one John had never heard from the Maliri before.

John nodded. "I don't know what I'd do without them," he agreed wholeheartedly, as he strolled over to the bar, poured himself a whiskey and added some ice. "What do you want to drink?" he asked the other man.

"I'll have the same," Ceraden said, so John poured out another stiff drink and dropped in another couple of ice-cubes, which clinked together merrily in the glass.

John led Ceraden over to the sofas and then they both sat down, with John taking a sip of his drink while watching the Maliri curiously. The armoured alien reached into a compartment at his waist, then pulled out a long straw like device that he dropped into the glass. He leaned over and was about to attach the end to his helmet, when he shook his head with a snort of laughter.

Ceraden put the glass on the table in front of him and then reached up with both hands to clasp his helmet. With a quiet hiss, the pressurised seals unlocked, and he pulled the helmet from his head.

"There's no point bothering with the pretence now, after Irillith's little bombshell this evening," he said, and John could see an expression of disbelief on Ceraden's handsome blue-skinned face.

The Maliri merchant shared the same slightly angular eyes as Irillith, but his were a rich blue instead. He also had short, dark hair, and John could clearly see the tips of the man's pointed ears. Ceraden smiled at him, watching John as he studied him intently.

John blinked and then looked chagrined. "Sorry for staring, It's just that I've known you for years, and finally seeing you without the helmet is a bit of a shock," he said apologetically.

Ceraden put down his helmet on the table, and then removed the straw from the glass, before picking it up and taking a sip. He closed his eyes as he savoured the burn of the alcohol, and then visibly relaxed before re-opening them.

"I have no idea what she was thinking. There are only two capital crimes amongst the Maliri: selling weapon tech to alien races, and revealing our appearance to outsiders. My life is now in your hands, old friend," Ceraden said, staring into John's eyes.

John took a drink as he looked at Ceraden, then said curiously, "I'm honoured that you'd trust me like this, and rest assured, I'll never reveal this to anyone, but why even take that risk?"

Ceraden downed his glass, and then put it on the table. "As soon as I left you with Irillith, I plugged into my Office's secure camera network, and listened to what she said to you. I knew I needed to make a dramatic gesture with you now, to convince you to listen to what I'm saying," he explained sincerely.

John took another sip, staring at Ceraden over the glass, and then asked, "Which is what exactly?"

"You must not go with her!" Ceraden exclaimed, leaning forward earnestly. "You can't trust a thing she says, and even I would never dream of travelling with her to that nest of vipers!"

John looked at him in confusion and asked, "You mean the Noble House that runs this primary shipyard? What makes them so bad? All the Maliri I've ever met, Irillith aside, have been charming, friendly, and pleasant to deal with."

Ceraden slumped back in his chair, and looked up at the ceiling, staring away into the distance. "You've hit the nail on the head my friend," he replied cryptically, his face saddened.

John finished his drink, and then stood and walked back to the bar. Sensing this was going to be a long one, he grabbed the bottle of whiskey, and the bucket of ice, then brought them back to the table and poured another couple of drinks.

"I think you'll need to explain what you mean," John said, pushing a glass over to his friend.

The Maliri merchant picked up the fresh drink, and swirled it in his hand, watching the ice cubes tumble around in the amber coloured liquid. "Maliri society is nothing like your own," he began, before taking a sip, and then swirling the drink once more.

"The men are the breadwinners, the Maliri maidens stay at home and play house?" John said with a grin, remembering what Ceraden had told Rachel earlier that morning.

Ceraden snorted and rolled his eyes. "I must apologise for that lie. Of course nothing could be further from the truth." he said, looking regretful, before he continued. "Maliri society is completely segregated along gender lines, with the men escaping to the border starports for their own sanity as much as personal safety. The matriarchs rule the Noble Houses, and form the ruling government of the Maliri. All positions of power and authority are held by women, and life as a man on the homeworlds would be a depressing one indeed; very much like a second class citizen, if any of the men were still foolish enough to live there!" he added, his voice ringing with frustration.

John looked at him in surprise, and then asked gently, "But why are things so skewed? It seems bizarre to have such an unbalanced society."

Ceraden shrugged and said, "Probably because of the birth ratios; Twenty Maliri girls to every boy."

"That can't be right," John said, looking astonished.

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