tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 075

Three Square Meals Ch. 075

byTefler©

The Maliri Shandrass-class battleship jumped into the Epsilon Aquarii system in a flash of blue particles, the Tachyon field quickly dispersing as it came out of hyper-warp. The light from the blue star in the centre of the system made the battleship's golden hull gleam majestically, as the Galaena Serine powered up its huge Trankaran engines, and plotted a course towards the gigantic facility in the heart of Valaden Space.

Shaped like a colossal wheel, the vast golden space station was filled with row after row of maintenance gantries, positioned inside the slowly-rotating orbital shipyard. Genthalas station was a beautiful golden edifice of sweeping crystal domes and magnificent spires that seemed to reach loftily for the heavens. Fully a third of the enormous technological marvel now twinkled with lights, and scores of civilian vessels were making use of the sweeping banks of docking bays, as traders went about their business. There was a significant military presence here too, with corvettes all the way up to battleships and carriers in attendance, watching protectively over their smaller civilian counterparts.

"I don't remember Genthalas being that busy," Ceraden murmured, as he watched the docking ships performing careful course corrections, retro-thrusters flaring brightly against their metallic hulls.

Myriana slipped her arm through his, and said soothingly, "How many years is it since you visited Valaden, my love? I'd imagine a lot's changed since then."

He nodded, and his handsome blue face was shadowed with grief as he replied, "It's been fifteen years, three months and ten days."

"Sylmae's funeral? I'm so sorry, Ceraden," she murmured, leaning in to give him a gentle kiss on the cheek.

"That was the last I saw or spoke to my girls," he replied despondently, his eyes losing focus as he remembered that bitter meeting, full of unfounded recriminations.

"I promise you, you'll always have a place in our little one's life," Myriana said to him, her voice earnest as she gazed at him.

He smiled at her as he focused on her beautiful face once more, and his rich blue eyes sparkled with happiness. "You're such a treasure, my love. Have I told you that yet today?" he asked, as he pulled her into a fierce hug.

She nodded when he released her, then gave him a coy smile as she replied, "Actually yes, just after you gave me my delicious breakfast this morning."

Ceraden laughed uproariously at that, and he brushed his hand through her short white hair as he marvelled, "I've never met anyone like you, my dear. You really are quite wonderful!"

Myriana smiled at him fondly, and then tugging his hand, she said, "We better get ready to disembark. We'll be landing at Genthalas soon."

The week's journey from Geniya Trading Station to Genthalas Shipyard had gone by in a blur for Ceraden, with Myriana proving to be a most enticing distraction. As they walked back to their cabin, he smiled as he recalled the blissful week's journey. They'd been equally elated about her pregnancy, and had spent hours discussing their plans for the future together. He'd willingly allowed himself to put his concerns about his meeting with Edraele Valaden to one side while he relished Myriana's thrilling company, but he'd never entirely forgotten the purpose behind his visit to Valaden. As wonderful as the trip had been, he now felt a pang of regret that he hadn't spent the week preparing an excellent justification for avoiding the confrontation with the terrifying Valaden Matriarch.

Still, Ceraden reasoned he could languish on Genthalas for a couple of days, and put the meeting off for at least a little while. Enough time to think of a way out of this predicament. He glanced at Myriana as she smiled at him playfully and pushed his suitcase towards him. Anti-grav devices were built into the luggage to make it weightless, and he stopped it with a smile. She was fun to be around, kind and considerate, interested in hearing his thoughts and views, and seemed to genuinely enjoy his company. His budding relationship with her was so radically different from the awkward liaisons he'd experienced in the past. He was still astonished by it.

They left their quarters and walked hand-in-hand along the high-arched corridors, as they followed the happily chatting throng of white-haired Maliri women. They smiled and waved at Myriana, before their inquisitive eyes met his as well, and they greeted him in a similar friendly manner. Ceraden still found the way these stunning girls interacted with him to be deeply unsettling, with such open cheerfulness a radical departure from anything he'd witnessed from Maliri women in the past. He'd asked Myriana about her white hair, and it had been the only subject with which she'd ever been evasive, promising him that all would be revealed eventually.

They made their way through the airlock, and stepped out of the enormous warship into the docking bay at Genthalas. Ceraden glanced up at the gleaming crystal plating of the Galaena Serine as they walked away, and shuddered at the sight of the ferocious weapons dotting its hull. He'd been more than a little unsettled to find they were travelling back to Valaden on a battleship, but it was just one more perplexing piece in a series of very mysterious puzzles.

"Ceraden, would you follow me, please," a lovely, rich voice said to him, courteously.

Shocked out of his reverie, he turned to see who had spoken to him. The black-garbed woman was cowled, revealing only her impassive yellow eyes. One glance at the sword hilt rising up over her shoulder made his heart skip a beat, and he realised at once that she must be one of House Valaden's feared assassins. He briefly considered making a run for it, but Myriana's soft hand holding his dispelled that thought just as quickly.

"I'll meet up with you later, my dear," he said to her, turning to give her a reassuring smile so she wouldn't be alarmed.

"The Matriarch wishes to speak with you too, Myriana," the assassin informed them, before the engineer could reply.

Ceraden felt his heart lurch in his chest, but as he gazed at Myriana, she just nodded amiably and smiled as she replied, "I can't wait to see her again! Lead on please, Luna."

The assassin nodded, and turned away, slinking across the docking bay like the predator she was, with Ceraden and Myriana following after her. Ceraden's feet felt leaden as he walked along robotically, his mind whirring as he darted furtive looks at the white-haired angel at his side. It appeared she'd been keeping more than the origin of her snowy locks from him! She'd told him she was an engineer, and from her impressive knowledge of the spacecraft she'd described when telling him about her work, he hadn't doubted her story for a moment. However, this encounter begged the question of how an engineer knew the most powerful and tyrannical Matriarch in the entire Regency, let alone one of her dreaded assassins!

As they made their way to the Matriarch's suite, Ceraden felt like he was being drawn inexorably towards the inescapable gravity well of a black hole. His mind floundered for a way to escape from the meeting with the notoriously foul-tempered Valaden leader, knowing that one wrong word could mean a brutal and protracted end. Unfortunately, the walk was over with all too soon, and Luna stepped aside at a set of guarded double doors, gesturing for Ceraden and Myriana to proceed through.

He felt chills run up his spine when he saw Edraele Valaden standing on the far side of the lounge, watching her fleet out of the window, and looking as regal and as intimidating as ever. His sharp ears heard the doors clicking together, the sound making him think of a jail door being closed, and he realised there was no escape as the guards sealed the doors behind him.

"I've brought Ceraden as you requested, Matriarch," Luna said, her dulcet tones sounding deafeningly loud to his electrified senses.

Edraele turned to look at them, and to Ceraden's amazement, she gave him a sparkling smile that left him reeling. Her voice throbbed with sincerity as she said, "My humblest apologies for all the theatrics, Ceraden. I knew if I'd asked you nicely to travel to Valaden, you would have been absolutely convinced I had some horrible fate planned for you. Nothing could be further from the truth, I promise."

She glanced to the side of the lounge, and a door to his right opened, admitting four young women he hadn't seen for over fifteen years.

"Father!" Elinris blurted out, rushing over to him.

He stared at his four daughters in shock as they swept towards him, barely having time to register their white hair, before opening his arms reflexively to embrace them.

"We've treated you so badly, daddy. Will you ever forgive us?" Ifene asked, hugging him close.

"I'm so sorry," Dalesse murmured, resting her head on his shoulder. "I've missed you so much."

Laenya gazed into his eyes and said earnestly, "I was such a fool to push you away! I blamed you for Sylmae's death, but now I know you tried everything to save her!"

Ceraden's eyes filled with tears, and he hugged them as best he could, wishing he had longer arms to surround all four of them at once. "My girls!" he croaked, quite overcome.

Glancing to one side, he saw Myriana smiling at him lovingly, biting her lip as her beautiful eyes welled up.

He turned back to look at Edraele, and she removed her diadem and pulled back the cowl from her head, unveiling her flowing mane of snowy-white hair. She answered his look of utter astonishment with a benevolent smile, and said gently, "Enjoy as much time catching up with your daughters as you need. Whenever you're ready, we must have a talk about John Blake."

With that, she glided out of the room, followed by Luna, who smiled at him kindly as she pulled off her cowl and fluffed out her own long, silky white tresses.

***

"What trickery is this, Tsarra?" the House Baelora Matriarch asked sharply. "I've just seen reports that you've removed all fleet assets from our border!"

Tsarra Perfaren held her hands open wide, and replied, "There's no trickery involved, Gaenna. I'm simply moving my fleets to respond to a deadly new threat."

Narrowing her eyes, the older Maliri Matriarch's voice dropped a few octaves as she said, "Just because House Baelora is ranked sixth, you shouldn't be so foolish as to dismiss me as inconsequential. If you're not careful, you might find House Perfaren tumbling from its lofty perch at Rank Three!"

Shaking her head, Tsarra responded sincerely, "I wouldn't dream of dismissing you, Gaenna. The reason I'm calling you is quite the opposite in fact - you're potentially my most powerful ally."

"You're proposing an alliance?!" Gaenna scoffed, her tone one of scornful disbelief. Her magenta eyes flared with anger as she continued, "You have some nerve! After your mother stole the Kappa Aquarii system from me not more than-"

"I'll give it back," Tsarra said quietly, cutting the other Matriarch off mid-tirade. "You can have the system back, I don't care. All I ask, is that you listen to what we're about to tell you, and take it seriously."

Gaenna gaped at her in shock, never for one moment expecting their impromptu conversation to turn out this way. Her eyes widened as a golden-masked woman appeared by Tsarra's side, and said in a calm but gravelly voice, "We have to work together now, or everything we hold dear will be destroyed."

"This is Tashana Valaden. Her mother and sister have been enslaved," Tsarra said solemnly. She leaned forward, and the fear was quite apparent in her young face as she added, "If you're like me, and have no wish to become a Progenitor's broodmare, I'd suggest you listen closely to everything she tells you."

Gaenna sat there in stunned silence as the two women explained everything to her. Their story inadvertently confirmed some of the more bizarre and worrying reports she'd received from her spies in Genthalas, about the strange behaviour of white-haired women that were appearing around the shipyard with increasing frequency. When Tashana revealed the pictures of her enthralled sister and the images of the Mael'nerak, Geanna couldn't deny the strange draw she felt towards them, nor the creeping dread when Tashana explained what it meant.

Her expression turned to one of horror as she recognised the simple truth in everything they were telling her. The childhood fairy tale was not simply a frightening story to get little girls to behave themselves, but a chilling warning from millennia past: Be a good girl, or the Mael'nerak will come for you. Gaenna had not been a good girl, and she was suddenly very afraid...

"What do you want me to do?" she asked, as she shivered in her chair, all artifices and posturing forgotten. "Tell me, and I'll help you..."

***

John rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he looked over the Invictus, pleased with the progress they'd made over the last several days. Large swathes of the new Maliri crystal hull were completed in the midsection of the ship, and it would only take a few more days to finish the rest. Once that was done, they'd be able to start replating the Invictus in Crystal Alyssium armour plates. A large crane was lowering the spherical Tyrenium lattice through one of the huge turret wells in the topdeck, where it would be carefully manoeuvred into position at the heart of the Singularity Generator.

"We'll need your assistance today, in armouring the munitions rooms," Rachel said, as she glanced his way.

He smiled at her, and said, "I suppose it's only fair, it was my idea after all. The last thing we need is a lucky hit to the magazines blowing the ship apart from the inside!"

The tawny-haired brunette grimaced, and nodded her wholehearted agreement. She appeared thoughtful for a moment, then said, "We'll be converting the Mass Driver magazines to carry rounds for the Singularity Drivers, so you might want to armour them too."

"They won't be storing explosive shells now, so it shouldn't be necessary," John said, shaking his head. He mulled it over for a moment, then changed his mind, and added, "Actually, we don't want the Singularity Drivers being knocked out of action by some fluke shot. I'll plate them too, just in case."

Rachel glanced towards the stern of the ship where Alyssa was lifting, melting, and reshaping a dozen armour plates at a time, and said, "You're on your own there, I'm afraid. Alyssa appears to have her hands full with quad-shaping all the armour plating."

"That's alright, she looks like she's having fun," John said, waiting for an explosive reaction from the blonde.

*I'll give you 'fun', mister,* Alyssa grumbled, turning and sticking her tongue out at him. *Have I told you how much I hate reshaping the armour plating?*

*Repeatedly, honey, repeatedly,* he replied, sending her a teasing wink. His tone was conciliatory as he added, *We can swap, if you like? I don't mind taking a shift with the armour plating, if you want to work on armouring the internal rooms.*

*Nah, I'm barely having to concentrate to do this. It's just a bit boring. If you stay out here, you'll distract half our workforce!* she said, with amusement.

He chuckled, but before he could reply, he heard the familiar high-pitched hum of one of the Maliri Cutting Beams at work. Trying to place the sound, he saw a blue beam of energy lance out from the front underbelly of the Invictus, and a large titanium segment crashed to the drydock deck below. There was now a gaping hole about forty metres wide in the lower bow of the assault cruiser, just beyond the secondary Hangar Bay.

"What the hell was that?" John asked Rachel, looking at her in surprise. "I thought we'd finished chopping up my ship!"

The brunette put her arm around his waist and gave him a hug, as she said in a reassuring voice, "A last minute addition from Dana. She said it's going to be 'fucking awesome'."

He thought about it for a moment, then groaned as he said, "She's going to a hell of a lot of trouble for something we're never going to use!"

Rachel giggled, and replied, "She knew you'd say that, and told me to remind you, that you said, 'Join the crew as Chief-Engineer, and you can work on whatever side-projects you like'."

"What is it with these Karron girls and verbal contracts?" John grumbled good-naturedly, and he heard Alyssa's laughter even from up on the maintenance gantry.

*Sorry to interrupt, John,* Edraele said to him, her telepathic voice sounding happier than it had done in days. *I just wanted to let you know some friends are on their way.*

He was pleased to hear her striking a more cheerful tone, and was about to ask who, when he spotted a large crowd of white-haired Maliri walking into the drydock. He spotted lots of familiar faces in the crowd, and grinned at Rachel as he exclaimed, "The engineers from the first refit! They must have just got back from Geniya!"

Rachel shared his grin, looking forward to seeing the Maliri she'd befriended on the last refit, and she said, "Let's go and say hello!"

The two of them jogged along the maintenance gantries, boots clanging on the metal structure as they darted down the steps to the drydock deck. The Maliri had gathered around Alyssa, who was sharing hugs with the engineers, and chatting to them animatedly.

"Welcome home!" John called out to them, as he loped up to the group.

He was soon deluged in loving hugs, as the Maliri engineers thanked him emphatically for everything he'd done for them. There was congratulations all round as one smiling girl after another confirmed they were now expecting, and John stroked their slender tummies, as he told them how much he was looking forward to seeing them bloom with their pregnancies. He worked his way around the group, greeting them all by name, until he came to the last group of five, who stood apart, watching with nervous anticipation.

Filaurel stepped, forward, and gazing at him with wide eyes, she said nervously, "Hello again, John. We'd like to speak to you for a moment in private, if that's alright?"

Nodding, he smiled at them, and replied, "Of course, girls! I know where we can go." He began to walk towards the double doors leading out from the drydock, and slipped an arm around Filaurel and Thessalia as they fell into step beside him. He grinned at each of the group in turn, and continued, "It's so wonderful to see all of you again!"

They smiled back at him, but didn't respond, too keyed-up for small talk. He wondered what had them all on edge as he guided them into the recruiting room, and led them over to a space on the soft matting. When they were all sitting comfortably together, and the door was closed to give them some privacy, he looked around at the five engineers, waiting for them to speak. They blushed and stayed quiet, so he reached out to take Filaurel's delicate blue hand in his, and squeezed it gently.

He gave her an encouraging smile, and to break the ice, he asked, "Did all of you have a good trip to Geniya Station?"

"We didn't go!" Thessalia blurted out, then flushed with embarrassment.

Frowning at that, John asked gently, "But I thought all of you were longing to having a baby? I asked Edraele to arrange the trip, because it's what I thought you wanted."

"We do!" Ioelena said with enthusiasm. Her voice turned quiet, as she added shyly, "Just not with anyone at Geniya Station."

John was about to ask her who she had in mind instead, but Alyssa's soft, affectionate voice whispered through his mind, *With you, you big dummy. They're all smitten with you.*

*I hope this wasn't a bad surprise?* Edraele asked him, and he could hear the sudden worry in her voice. *They asked me just before they were scheduled to depart for Geniya, and I told them they could speak to you about it when you returned. They spent a lot of time with you on the refit, and you made more of an impact on them than the other engineers.*

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