tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 60

Three Square Meals Ch. 60

byTefler©

The shadowy figure crawled out of the sarcophagus, and took a deep breath before exhaling fully, efficiently clearing its lungs of the musty tasting air from cryostasis. It then performed a complex set of stretches, limbering up its body and preparing for action. It was a routine it had performed four-hundred-and-thirty-two times before, starting each mission in exactly the same way. Collecting the tools of its trade from the racks on the wall, the black clad assassin sheathed them about its person, then padded over to the pilot's chair in the cockpit and sank into the seat.

The console appeared inert and seemingly lifeless, but the assassin reached for a hidden button on the black surface, feeling for the familiar curves by touch alone. Pressing the button, an insubstantial holographic image suddenly appeared, floating above the console as it took shape, and casting a blue light across the darkened cockpit. After a second of static, the image coalesced into the familiar face of Master Amatsu Mikaboshi, sitting regally in his gothic throne.

He leaned forward, and smiling wickedly he said, "If you are viewing this recording, Shinatobe, the time of reckoning for my elusive quarry is at hand." Reaching out to his side, he pressed a button on the armrest of his throne, and a second image appeared, showing a man with pointed ears. "This is your target. Further information has been included in your mission debrief. You are to execute mission classification two-one-seven. "

The recording ended as abruptly as it had started, and although this was not a live feed, the assassin replied by rote in an almost indecipherable murmur, "Hai, Idaina-sha."

Reaching for a tiny data-jack port on the console, Shinatobe slid back a panel from their wrist, uncovering wrist mounted jack points. After hooking them up, there was an almost inaudible high pitched whine as the debrief data began to download. Eyes flickering from side to side, the assassin read through the target analysis and profile of John Blake and his crew.

Shinatobe rose from the Pilot's chair, then glided over to the airlock door in the starboard side of the shuttle. The tiny ship was nestled up against the side of the target's vessel, and the adjoining airlock could be seen through the porthole in the door. The assassin reached up to the secured container by the side of the airlock, and entered a complex code into the unlit keypad on the side of the box. There was a soft click, and the front of the locked box swung open, revealing the precious treasure within.

Reaching out for the object, Shinatobe gently peeled the silky material from the stand, then donned the genetic synthi-print glove over a Nanoweave-shrouded hand. Once the glove was snugly in place, the assassin reached up to activate the airlock door to the shuttle, pressing the button that would open it. The door parted down the middle with an ominous hiss, then smoothly separated, revealing the outer airlock door of the Invictus.

The portal barring the way into the Invictus was a Berrings-class model-twelve Airlock; a standard fit in Terran Federation cruisers of this age. Reaching into its pocket, the shadowy intruder retrieved a small black box and placed it above the top right side of the airlock. After a two second wait the light turned green, and with the signal jammer now in place, the airlock would no longer be able to send an alert to the Bridge.

Shinatobe placed the hand with the synthi-print glove onto the DNA reader by the side of this secure portal, holding it carefully in place over the built-in scanner. A light swept across the scanner, then after only a split-second delay it flashed green, as the DNA was matched with an entry on the list of authorised users.

"Welcome home, John," a throaty, seductive voice purred, sounding absolutely delighted at his return.

Shinatobe flinched, hands instantly reaching for weapons, before realising it was just an automated message. Relaxing once more, the assassin watched the inner airlock door spiral open smoothly. Activating the Nanoweave mesh built into its combat suit, the assassin disappeared from view, all except for the hand with the synthi-print glove.

After stepping through the inner airlock door into the Invictus, Shinatobe pressed that same hand to the DNA reader inside the ship. The door spiralled shut once more, leaving no trace of the intrusion, and the assassin peeled off the glove, then folded it carefully before tucking it into a discreet pocket of their combat suit.

Now completely invisible to the naked eye, the deadly invader was free to stalk down the corridor, and begin preparations for the strike.

***

"You may enter," Edraele called out, answering the polite knock on the door.

"The Extraction teams have begun to arrive, Matriach," Almari said, as she walked into the Valaden Matriarch's study, before bowing respectfully. "We settled our guests in separate suites as you requested."

Edraele gave her a grateful smile, and rose from her seat as she replied, "Excellent, Almari, I had better go and introduce myself." She paused, eyeing the lithe young woman before her, and she added with a knowing smile, "I'm well aware that you, Luna, and Ilyana like to gossip amongst yourselves. I'm quite sure Luna told you what happened a few hours ago?"

Almari blushed, and nodded briefly while looking down to avoid further embarrassment. Edraele glided over to her, and reached out to gently lift the woman's chin with her hand. When Almari's cobalt-blue eyes flicked up to gaze into her own, she said, "Then let's have no more of this 'Matriarch' business between us. Please feel free to call me Edraele. We've known each other for many years now, but I hope that with everything that's happened, we can now become friends."

A warm smile spread across Almari's face, and she said, "I'd really like that. Thank you, Edraele."

"So would I," Edraele replied, smiling back at her. She glanced towards the door, and added, "Regretfully, business calls, so would you guide me to the first of our guests, please."

"Of course, Matri-... I mean, Edraele," Almari replied with a self-conscious smile.

They left Edraele's study, and strolled through the plush lounge before exiting the suite, passing the guards that snapped to attention outside the entrance. Walking along at a relaxed pace, Edraele could feel the slight nervousness from Almari over their empathic bond, the assassin still not fully relaxed in her presence. The guest quarters were some distance from her own private suite, so they strolled along together in companionable silence for a couple of minutes.

Eventually Edraele turned towards the younger woman, and asked, "How are you coping with the changes since John turned our lives upside down?"

Almari was a little hesitant as she glanced at the older woman, and admitted, "It's still taking a little getting used to."

Leaning in to her companion, Edraele whispered conspiratorially, "I really was quite the tyrant, wasn't I?"

The assassin laughed lightly, relaxing as she replied, "Let's just say I was always, -cautious-, with how I spoke or behaved around you."

"I'm sorry, that must have been awful," Edraele said sympathetically.

They reached an intersection in the corridor, and paused a moment to let a small group of naval crewwomen walk past. With the fleet-wide refit still ongoing, Genthalas Shipyard was heaving with personnel. The group of young women looked shocked when they spotted Edraele, and they stared at her for a second before bowing respectfully and then hurrying out the way. Almari watched them closely, constantly on guard for any potential danger, but the tension left her body as the group hurried onwards, eager to be away from the dreaded Valaden Matriarch.

Edraele and Almari stopped and watched them rush off down the corridor, the young women chattering excitedly amongst themselves when they were safely out of earshot. When Edraele let out a melancholy sigh, Almari darted a look in her direction, and saw a sad look of regret on the Matriarch's face.

Almari paused, still unsure of the limits to the boundaries between them, before she said softly, "You have quite the reputation for your volatile and extremely deadly temper. That was in the past though, and it really doesn't take long to see that you're not like that any longer."

"I hope so," Edraele said wistfully. "It's horrible to see my people running in fear from me."

After glancing around to make sure they weren't overheard, Almari turned to Edraele with a reverent gleam in her eyes, and said, "They'll come around. The changes that John made to you are quite astounding." She blushed a little as she added, "I really like the new you."

Edraele smiled at Almari affectionately, and said, "That was very kind of you to say, thank you Almari."

They continued walking towards their destination, and Edraele glanced at the assassin keeping pace at her side, and asked, "What about the other recent changes? The physical ones? Have they been unsettling?"

Almari laughed as she held out her arms, looking at the perfectly smooth unblemished skin, and she replied, "I must admit, it's been a little strange not to see my old scars any more. I had some of them for several decades, and now it feels like my past has been scrubbed clean. It's quite liberating!"

They had arrived outside the first of the guest suites, and they stopped by the sealed door in the deserted corridor. Edraele smiled at the younger woman, and reached out with her slender hand towards Almari, but her fingers stopped inches away from the bodyguard's torso. "May I?" she enquired politely.

Almari immediately replied, "Of course, Matr-." She smiled, and continued, "Sorry. Yes, that's fine, go ahead."

Edraele smoothed her hand over the firm muscles in Almari's lower belly, causing the younger woman to gasp at her touch. Looking into her eyes, Edraele asked quietly, "How about the other physical changes? The life-changing ones?"

Meeting her gaze again, Almari's sharp blue eyes lost some of their focus as she replied wistfully, "Oh, Edraele, I still can't believe he did that for me. It feels like a dream..."

Edraele smiled as she said, "He's a good man, and you're a lovely girl. I think you'll make a wonderful mother."

Almari let out a happy sigh, and then stepped forward to hug Edraele, forgetting about her previous reservations in her state of bliss. Edraele stroked the girl's back as they embraced each other, and after a long moment, Almari stepped back and studied the older woman's face. "You're really not the same person at all. You're so kind and caring now," she marvelled.

"Thank you, Almari," Edraele replied, but her expression was sombre as she added, "I've got a lot to make up for."

Almari gave her a sympathetic smile, then looked towards the door into the guest suite, and said, "The first of your guests is Kali Loreleth."

"I had better not keep her waiting any longer," Edraele replied, then opened the door to the quarters and stepped inside.

The youngest daughter of House Loraleth was confused and scared, sitting in an armchair in the cosy lounge of the guest suite. She had been darting nervous glances at the two assassins that were standing silently in the room, who waited with seemingly infinite patience for their Matriarch to arrive. When Kali heard the door to the room open with a quiet swish, she leapt to her feet, her face a mask of dread as Edraele swept regally into the room.

"What are you going to do to me?!" she exclaimed, verging on the edge of panic.

Edraele smiled at her, and replied in a soothing voice, "Be at ease, my dear. I have no wish to harm you, I promise." She looked across the room at the two House Loraleth assassins she had subverted, who were clearly unsettling the girl, and she added, "Avelissa, Renaya, it's wonderful to see you both, but would you give me a moment to speak with Kali alone, please? Almari here will show you to some comfortable quarters, and help you settle in."

Almari cast a wary eye over the last remaining member of the House Loraleth nobility, and said, "I'm not sure that's wise, Matriarch."

The House Valaden Matriarch forgave her the momentary lapse, as her bodyguard automatically slipped into using the deferential tone she had used with her for years. "It's quite alright, Almari," she said, studying the young woman standing on the other side of the lounge. "Kali's a sensible girl, and we're just going to have a nice chat."

Nodding obediently, Almari waited as Avelissa and Renaya gave their respects to Edraele, and the group of three assassins vacated the room. That left Kali alone with Edraele, and the young woman stared at her fearfully, unsure exactly what the devilish House Valaden Matriarch had in store for her.

"Please be seated, Kali," Edraele said, as she glided over to join her.

Her voice was warm and pleasant, but it rang with the calm confidence of someone who had been giving orders for nearly a century and a half, and who expected them to be obeyed. Kali had spent all of her thirty-five years having orders barked at her by her mother and three elder sisters, and despite her racing heartbeat, she responded instinctively, taking her seat. She watched with trepidation as Edraele approached, and her eyes opened wide as the stunningly beautiful woman stopped right next to her chair, then sank to her knees beside her.

A dark shadow of regret passed over Edraele's face, and she gazed into the younger woman's eyes as she said, "I'm truly sorry for what I've done to your family, but you are now the last surviving member of House Loraleth. Your mother and sisters are dead."

Kali gaped in shock, stunned into silence as she tried to process this information. She stared mutely at the mournful woman kneeling at her side, her numbed brain in denial.

Edraele was studying her carefully, watching her face to look for a reaction. She expected to see shock, but when nothing else was forthcoming, she said softly, "It was instant, and they didn't suffer, although I'm sure that offers little consolation."

Kali's eyes widened in fear, and she gasped, "So now all you need to do is kill me too, and House Loraleth will be wiped out! You'll be able to annex our entire House unopposed!"

Looking her directly in the eye, Edraele replied, "Yes, that is true, I certainly could, but as I said before, I have absolutely no intention of harming you." She paused for a moment, before she added, "Instead I wish to offer you an alliance, Matriarch Kali Loraleth."

If Kali thought she had been shocked before, it was nothing compared to this new bombshell from the House Valaden Matriarch. She gaped at Edraele, and stammered, "B-b-but why? You can just take what you need, why even bother with me?"

Edraele let out a heavy sigh as she replied, "You'll probably find this very hard to believe, but I really didn't want things to pan out this way. I would have liked to have offered an alliance to your mother, Shaedra, but she and I have been fighting for nearly ninety years. You must have known how much she hated me, and your elder sisters had developed much the same mindset."

The young Maliri woman nodded tentatively, admitting with more than a little trepidation, "Yes, mother loathed you. As her greatest rival, she was desperate to find some way of bringing you down."

Edraele found Kali to be guileless, and with a refreshing frankness to her, so she asked hopefully, "But you don't feel that way?"

Kali blinked in surprise, and she stared at the House Valaden Matriarch, unsure how to respond. Her mother had always said that Edraele was a vile, evil witch, and she had just assumed it was a simple insult. However, now she was in her presence for the first time, she could feel there was something special about this entrancingly beautiful noblewoman. It was shocking to see her flouting all sense of decorum by growing her hair so long, but Kali couldn't deny that the long glossy white hair was extremely becoming. Despite all that, she knew what was expected of her as a House Loraleth Noble, and replied, "Well, you did just kill my mother and three sisters..."

Edraele gave her a knowing look, and said, "Believe it or not, I was the youngest of six sisters. If you were tormented by them, like I was by my elder siblings, I'm sure at least a part of you isn't completely overwhelmed by grief at their deaths."

A shadow of guilt passed over the young woman's face, but she didn't look away, and instead gazed at the woman kneeling unthreateningly before her. Although she'd spent her life being told she should hate the House Valaden Matriarch, in truth she had never cared much for all the scheming and political games. As the youngest daughter, her mother had largely ignored her, and she'd been left to pursue her own path, taking an interest in art and literature. She thought about what Edraele had just said, recalling the years of abuse she'd suffered at her mother's and sisters' hands, and she was forced to admit to herself that she didn't regret their deaths. In fact it came as somewhat of a relief.

She nodded slowly, and admitted, "Yes, you're right, Matriarch. It's true, I hated my sisters. My mother never cared for me either, and Arbane was always her favourite." After pausing to gather her courage, she continued, "You didn't answer my question before though. Why would you even bother with an alliance when you can just take what you want?"

Edraele smiled at her, and replied, "Please, call me Edraele. Believe it or not, I've had a dramatic change of heart recently, and I hate the fighting between the Houses." The fervent gleam of a true believer appeared in her angular purple eyes, and she continued, "I wish to unite all the Noble families, and forge a grand alliance between all the Houses. Together we can stop the in-fighting between the Houses, end the torture and the killings, and usher in a glorious new era for the Maliri!"

Kali felt herself drawn in by Edraele's speech, and she felt a brief surge of hope in her heart at the wonderful vision the woman was painting. Reality suddenly caught up with her, and she said ruefully, "The other Houses will never agree to this."

Reaching out to place her slender hands on top of Kali's, Edraele gazed into her eyes. There was an earnest expression on her face as she said, "All I care about right at this moment is you, Kali Loraleth. Would you like to work with me to make this vision of the future a reality?"

The young Loraleth Matriarch was spellbound by Edraele's passionate intensity, and she blinked twice before she nodded, then replied with conviction, "You have my word, Edraele. I'll be your faithful ally, and work with you to achieve this goal."

Edraele looked overjoyed, and the sense of relief radiating from her was palpable. She beamed a sparkling smile at the younger woman, and said, "I promise you'll never regret this decision, Kali. We have a bright future ahead of us!"

Kali smiled back at Edraele, sharing a similar sense of elation. Suddenly feeling much more at ease with the Valaden Matriarch than she ever had with her own mother, Kali had another moment of courage, and asked softly, "Edraele, may I ask you a personal question?"

"Of course, Kali," Edraele replied with a disarming smile. "I'd like to think that this is the start of a wonderful friendship, so please feel free to ask me anything."

Leaning forward a little, Kali couldn't help herself, and she reached out to gently brush her fingers through Edraele's flowing snowy-white locks that tumbled around her shoulders. "You look so radiantly beautiful," she murmured, quite entranced. "How is it that you and Almari have white hair? I've never heard of such a thing before."

Edraele's eyes sparkled, and she replied, "Would you like to look the same way too?"

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