tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 059

Three Square Meals Ch. 059


"We're going after Nexus," John explained. He squatted down next to the frail looking woman, who was still seated in the same cell they'd found her in an hour earlier. Looking remorseful he added, "We can't stay to give you aid, but the base is back under your control, and all the robots have been shut down. We'll call for relief to be sent immediately."

Lieutenant Commander Juliette Hawthorne nodded, staring at him intently as she said, "I understand, Commodore. You have to stop that psychotic AI from killing anyone else!"

John gave her a sharp salute, then quickly rose to his feet, and turned towards the door. The cell doors were all open now, unlocked by Irillith after shutting down the demented Nexus fragment. The freed prisoners gazed at him in awe, calling out to him, "Thank you, Commodore!" as he strode out of the prison. He nodded to them courteously on his way to rejoin Alyssa in the corridor outside.

The blonde girl fell into step at his side as they ran down the corridor to the stairwell, then used flight-mode to clear the wrecked robots that were blocking the stairs. Once they reached the top level, they rushed towards the broken doors at the base entrance. *Jade's prepping the Raptor,* she informed him as they sprinted outside.

Sure enough, he could see the green-skinned girl through the cockpit canopy of the gunship, and she waved to him as they ran towards the loading ramp. They darted up the ramp, and the moment they were inside, he hit the button to close it after them. Despite the Inertia negation device built into the Raptor, he still felt a slight movement beneath his feet as Jade rocketed them out of the Docking Bay.

By the time he and Alyssa had stepped into the grav-tube, levitated up to the top level, then walked into the cockpit, Jade was already manoeuvring them into position for her final approach to land in the Invictus.

John smiled at the girls seated in the cockpit, then placed his hand on Alyssa's shoulder, and said to her, "As soon as we land, let's get straight up to the Bridge, and plot a course in pursuit. We can have a proper debrief after we're on our way."

She nodded, then said confidently, "I've already got the course plotted out in my mind. It'll take us twenty-three hours, thirty-four minutes, and eight seconds, to reach the Sol System from here."

"Perfect, well done, honey," he said, giving her a wry smile as he remembered how she'd cheerfully announced she'd memorised this corner of the galaxy.

She smiled back at him, then said, "I might as well wait in the loading room below."

"I'll lower the ramp as soon as we clear the atmospheric shielding in the Hangar Bay," Jade called out to her. Alyssa gave her a wave over her shoulder in acknowledgement as she left the cockpit.

Turning to Dana, John frowned when he spotted the large purple bruise appearing on her forehead. She had been watching him as she waited in the cockpit, so when she saw his expression, she raised a hand to her head self-consciously. She had forgotten that she was still wearing her cracked Paragon helmet, so her gauntleted hand brushed the clear crystal faceplate instead. Dana blushed with embarrassment, but a sly smile suddenly appeared on her face, and she beamed at him happily.

"That looks like it hurts, so why so cheerful?" he asked, looking at her curiously.

Her sky blue eyes twinkled as she said, "I've seen that look of concern a few times before. I'll be getting my tummy stuffed full of cum within the hour, I guarantee it!"

He chuckled wryly, and said, "Yeah, you're not wrong." His expression turned serious a moment later as he added, "We'll be passing that big debris field as we head out of the Beta-Persei system, so scan as much of the debris as possible when we fly past it. We can't spare the time to stop and investigate properly, so we'll have to pick up any information we can."

"Of course," Dana replied immediately. "With our upgraded sensors we should still be able to get plenty of useful data."

He smiled at her in gratitude, then turned to look through the cockpit as Jade brought them in to land inside the Invictus. They passed through the shielding that protected the Hangar Bay, and as the Nymph glided into the Titanium plated interior of the ship, he saw Alyssa leap clear of the Raptor. She sprinted for the reinforced double doors that led out of the Hangar, and made a gesture with her hand, hitting the button to open them with a telekinetic push. She darted straight through the opening gap, then turned a sharp right and disappeared from view.

The Raptor touched down in the centre of the landing lights under Jade's skilful hands, barely making a sound as the gunship settled gently on the deck. "We're home!" the green-skinned Nymph informed them cheerfully.

"Nice flying," John complimented her, and she grinned at him over her shoulder as she powered down the engines.

Dana, Rachel, and Irillith stood and made their way out of the cockpit, but John waited patiently for Jade to finish her shutdown checklist. He removed his helmet while he was waiting, and as soon as the Nymph had risen from the pilot's seat, he pulled her into his arms. He leaned down and gave her a loving kiss, and she let out a happy sigh as she returned it enthusiastically.

"What was that for?" she asked him when they finally parted, looking absolutely delighted.

He smiled at her, and said, "Just relieved my fiancé's safe. It was horrible seeing you get hurt by that robot."

"I'm fine, honestly," she said, her voice calm and reassuring, as she reached up to trace her fingers along his jawline in an affectionate gesture. Her cat-like emerald eyes twinkled as she purred flirtatiously, "I wouldn't say no to sharing with Dana though..."

He grinned, and said, "We could use a good light show."

She giggled, then gave him one last smouldering kiss before he led her out of the cockpit.

*Course plotted and we're underway,* Alyssa thought to him from up on the Bridge.

*I'll be right there,* he replied, picking up the pace.

He and Jade jogged through the open doors into the corridor beyond, then stepped into the grav-tube and floated up in the soft blue glow of the anti-gravity field. When they reached the Command Deck, the Bridge was a hive of activity as the girls hurried to scan as much of the battlefield debris as possible while the Invictus raced past.

Jade glided down the ramp towards her Pilot Station, and he darted up the steps to the Command Podium before sitting in his chair. He was still fully armoured, so it was a little awkward to sit here like this, but he didn't want to go and remove his gear and risk missing anything. It took them less than a minute to move out of scanning range of the debris field, and during that time Calara had been rapidly reviewing the scan results.

The Latina turned her Tactical chair so that she could look up at him, and was sombre as she said, "This is definitely the remains of Charles' Battlegroup." Glancing at the scan results, she ran through the list of ships she'd already identified, saying, "A battleship, eight modern cruisers, a couple of light carriers, and lots of destroyers; it's them alright."

"Wait a moment," John replied. "Wasn't that R&D officer commanding a battleship? Are you sure it wasn't his ship that got destroyed?"

Calara nodded and replied, "Yes to both. Vice Admiral Von Brandt was in command of the Battleship Loki. The transponder in that wreckage was still partially functional, and the codes don't match. The debris was from the Battleship Heimdall, under the command of Commodore Neal Jansen."

John rose from his chair, and said sadly, "I'll have to inform Charles, but I'll do it after the debrief. I'm going to stow away my combat gear, then I want a team meeting in five minutes in the Briefing Room."

The girls responded instantly, with Dana, Rachel and Irillith heading towards the Briefing Room to remove their Paragon Body Armour, while Alyssa followed him down the steps and into the grav-tube. The blonde girl was quiet as she removed her Paragon suit in the armour equipping frame, and John glanced her way, surprised at her uncharacteristically reserved behaviour.

"Everything alright?" he asked her as he returned his sword to the hooks above the weapon rack.

She nodded, picking up her Punisher rifle where she had left in leaning against the weapon rack. As she began unloading the rifle, she replied in a soft voice, "Just concerned about Nexus."

John placed his own Punisher rifle in the weapon rack, and watched as the auto-cleaning mechanism went to work. "You're worried we're not going to get there in time to stop it, aren't you?" he asked perceptively.

Alyssa turned, and watched as the robotic limbs of the equipping frame removed his Paragon armour. When he stepped clear, the body armour safely removed, she sounded subdued as she replied, "Yes. As fast as we are, I don't know if we'll be able to catch them in time to save the day."

He drew her into his arms, and when he gave her a comforting hug, she smiled at him sadly. They left the bedroom hand-in-hand, and walked back along the corridor to join the others on the Command Deck. Everyone was waiting for them in the Briefing Room when they entered, and floating above the long desk was the holographic Sector Map, so they could keep an eye on the long range scans during the meeting.

John pulled out Alyssa's chair for her to sit, then went to his own at the head of the table, and sank into its comfortable embrace. Looking over at Irillith, he said, "We better have a recap for Calara and Faye's benefit. Can you repeat what you found out about Nexus please."

Irillith sat up straight as all eyes turned to her, and she took a deep breath before she began to speak in a clear voice, "I confronted a small fragment of the Nexus AI in the secondary server we discovered. It had been left to run the base, control the robots, and command those four AI cruisers we encountered. It didn't have full access to the Nexus Primary's memory archives, but when I spoke to it, Nexus Secondary recognised me as being non-Terran." She paused, and glanced at John before continuing, "It said we had the same Master, and that we were both his tools."

Calara stared at her in shock, and gasped, "The Mael'nerak?! How could he have any involvement in this?"

Irillith frowned and replied, "Nexus wasn't able to tell me much, and I know it wasn't deliberately holding out on me."

"How can you be sure?" the Latina asked curiously.

The Maliri girl hesitated, glancing warily at Faye, before admitting, "I was being very persuasive."

Faye looked up at her, her tiny face solemn, and said, "It's alright. Nexus was a rabid animal that needed to be put down. I want you to feel like you can trust me, and that's never going to happen with psychotic AI like Nexus slaughtering people indiscriminately."

Irillith smiled at her, feeling relieved, then looked at the rest of her audience and said, "All the fragment of Nexus could tell me, was that it needed to achieve 'unity', and to do that, it needed to return to Terra. Nexus really hates Terrans, and considers the species to be an ugly experiment."

Dana sighed, and said, "I've been thinking about all this ever since you first told us what you'd found out. Could the Terran Federation have found some millennia old Progenitor AI? If their own research into AI is based on that tech, it might explain why it keeps turning on them."

John looked at Rachel quizzically, and asked, "Wasn't your theory that Terrans were some kind of experiment into genetic mutation, set up by the Mael'nerak? If so, why build an AI there that hates them?"

Rachel was confounded by his question, until her expression brightened, and she replied eagerly, "A failsafe perhaps? Something to shut down the experiment if it gets out of control?"

Dana's face registered her alarm as she blurted out, "Well that certainly doesn't sound fucking terrifying! How many people are there are on Terra now?"

Calara looked thoughtful, then replied, "The numbers are obviously in constant flux, what with the exodus to newly terraformed planets. The last census figures were something like ten billion, three hundred and forty five million, I believe."

There was a hushed quiet in the room as they realised the terrible ramifications of Nexus being unleashed on all those people. The silence was broken by John, who asked Calara, "Did you find out anything else from that big debris field? It'd be helpful to know what we're up against."

"I've only glanced through the data we gathered so far, so I can't tell you much until I do some detailed analysis," Calara replied cautiously. "There were dozens of wrecks in that debris field though, so it looks like the battlegroup went down fighting."

"Well hopefully we won't be going up against fifty AI cruisers then," he replied, with a wry smile. "Maybe only about forty or so instead..."

Alyssa cleared her throat, and said in a quiet voice, "I've got more bad news I'm afraid."

John looked at her, and said, "Let's hear it."

Alyssa nodded, then looked around at the group as she explained, "When we returned to Terran Space, Charles told us that he'd lost contact with his battlegroup two days beforehand. It then took us another two days to reach the Beta-Persei system." She looked worried as she continued, "That's four days in total, and it only takes three days for ships with Terran FTL drives to get from here to Terra. On top of that, it's still going to take us nearly a day to reach the Sol System."

John looked grim as he said, "So to summarise then: we have a malignant AI that's possibly in command of a vast fleet of robotic ships. We know it has a grudge against Terrans, and it's currently heading to the Terran capital; the most densely populated world in the whole Federation. On top of all that, it might have arrived there already, giving it plenty of time to have devastated the planet before we can get there to stop it."

"That's about the size of it," Alyssa agreed, sounding downhearted.

He looked around the table at the girls, seeing the worry on each of their lovely faces. He took a big breath, then sought to reassure them by stating confidently, "Well I refuse to give up now! We ARE going to get there in time, and we'll smash every last ship in their fleet if we have to!"

The girls perked up immediately, feeding into his positivity, and they leaned forward, hanging on his every word.

Turning to Calara first, he said, "I want you to run through the analysis of the debris as fast as you can. It would be nice to know how many ships the AI lost, as well as the type of damage sustained by Charles' battlegroup if you can find that out too. Don't spend too long on it though, as I want you to concentrate on your research into the Dragon March Traitor. We'll be heading to Olympus after this, so we need to be prepared."

"Yes, Sir!" Calara replied respectfully.

Looking at Faye and Irillith next, he said, "I want you two to repair and shore up our cyber defences. If we're going up against the Nexus primary, it might try another big cyber assault like last time."

They both grinned at him with enthusiasm, looking thoughtful as they pondered new ways to upgrade the Invictus' defences.

Next on his list was Dana, and her sky-blue eyes sparkled with anticipation when he looked her way. "Dana," he began, "We need those prototype laser weapons as soon as possible. If we have to board an AI ship, or get boarded in return, we can't risk fighting with the Punisher rifles, not if they have shielded robots."

"I'll get it done, I promise!" the redhead replied, her expression earnest and full of excitement.

"Good girl," he said approvingly, before turning to look at Jade. "I want Paragon Body Armour for everyone, just in case we get boarded while fighting Nexus. After that, Dana will probably need your help assembling the new laser rifles as soon as she's finished her designs."

The Nymph nodded, and stated in a firm voice, "I can easily finish off the armour before we arrive. I love helping Dana build things, and I'll assist wherever she needs me."

John grinned at her bold confidence, then turned to look at Rachel. She smiled at him, and said pre-emptively, "I'll finish my research. I have a feeling that knowing more about this will help you with your psychic healing. I'll get some answers for you as fast as I can."

He smiled, pleased that she had anticipated his request, and said, "Hopefully it won't be necessary, but if anyone gets hurt, I want to be able to do the best I can to help them."

Finally he spun his chair to face Alyssa, and gave her an apologetic smile.

She laughed at his expression, then turned in her seat, and cast an appraising eye over Dana's cracked and battered Paragon suit. "Yeah, those bots gave our body armour a real hammering. I'll start shaping new replacement pieces for any damaged locations," she said agreeably.

John nodded his approval, then looked around at the girls, his expression deadly serious. "I've never served with a finer crew," he said, his face showing his open admiration for them. "You should all feel very proud of the way you handled yourselves under extreme pressure. I ask a lot of each of you, and you -never- fail me."

They gazed back at him in delight, overjoyed to hear his heartfelt praise. He rose from his chair, and said, "I need to report in to Charles and warn him what's coming his way." After stealing a quick glance at the ship's chronometer, and noting that it was nearly midnight, he added, "After that, I expect to find you waiting for me in bed, as I plan to show you how much I appreciate my wonderful girls. We haven't all been together properly yet, and it's well past time we rectify that."

He turned to leave, then looked back at Faye, who was sitting on the desk looking wistful, with a sad little smile on her face. "Faye, meet me in my Ready Room please, I want to speak to you privately," he said in a firm voice.

The purple AI pixie looked up at him, blinking in surprise. She nodded, and winked out of sight as she followed his orders.

Alyssa stood gracefully, and placed her hand on his arm, stopping him before he could leave. "Shall we start without you?" she asked him, her cerulean eyes staring at him with burning intensity.

"Definitely," he agreed, glancing back at the bevy of beautiful girls who were gazing at him with unbridled lust.

He strolled out of the Briefing Room with a spring in his step, then walked across the Bridge and hit the button to open the doors into his Ready Room. There was a blur of purple by his desk, and Faye whirled around, watching him with her big eyes as he strode into the room. He kept his expression serious as he walked over to his desk, then sat in his big leather chair.

"What did you want to speak to me about, John?" she asked him, watching him warily.

He let himself relax in his chair and smiled at her warmly as he said, "I just wanted to say thanks for everything you've done since you joined us."

The tiny purple sprite blew out a big breath, and then grinned at him, looking greatly relieved. "Oh, that was mean! I thought I was in trouble there for a minute!" she exclaimed happily.

John shook his head, and said, "No, far from it." He paused, then studied her closely for a long moment before he continued, "What would make you happy, Faye?"

The pocket-sized construct looked startled at his question, and seemed unable to answer straight away.

John smiled at her as he explained, "It's easy to reward the other girls, but you and I have a different kind of relationship." Faye giggled at that, looking up at him with her big luminescent eyes, and an unreadable expression on her cute little face. John chuckled as well, then added, "I really appreciate what you've done for us so far, but I'm sorry that I've been so wary of you. It wasn't because of anything you did, it was purely because of your synthetic nature. It hasn't been fair to tar you with the same brush as the Terran AIs, but you haven't complained about our precautions, and just got on with making yourself useful."

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