tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 82

Three Square Meals Ch. 82

byTefler©

Thick black smoke billowed through what had once been a luxurious complex. A man in a metallic grey suit crawled along the ground, fumbling frantically to find his way out of the burning building. His desperate fingers found a cloth-wrapped foot in the corridor and he glanced up at the black figure, his face a mask of horror.

Shinatobe stabbed down, impaling the man through the skull with her black ninjato, instantly killing one of the Tilvanoni crime family's enforcers -- her tenth so far. The incendiary bombs she'd detonated only five minutes earlier had worked perfectly, turning Mario Tilvanoni's plush, fortified villa into a horrific deathtrap. The highly-sophisticated, automated fire control system that Mario had purchased failed to activate, as Shinatobe had already destroyed it with a perfectly timed secondary explosion.

With her nose filters and lung implant providing her all the clean air she needed, Shinatobe stalked through the blazing fortress-mansion, effortlessly dispatching one gangster after another. Despite trying to flee for their lives from the raging fires, the men refused to leave behind their submachine guns. It was that gleaming metal which acted like a beacon, drawing her in as she tracked them with her cybernetic eye's magnetic-view.

Cries for mercy fell on cold, unsympathetic ears as Shinatobe fulfilled her contract for their rivals, the Maskovitch Syndicate, who had paid Mikaboshi handsomely for this job. However, she still had to hunt down another eight more guards in this building, as well as execute Mario Tilvanoni himself. Several hours earlier, before she had instigated this massacre, Shinatobe had walked the complex while remaining perfectly hidden in the invisibility of her nanoweave suit. She knew exactly where to find him; he'd be cowering in his fireproof panic room, waiting for help to arrive.

Running up the long sweeping staircase while barely making a sound, she reached the landing and took a sharp right without pausing. Fifty metres of burning hallway flashed by in the blink of an eye and she darted inside Mario Tilvanoni's inner sanctum, flames flickering around the doorframe. The reception area wasn't covered in quite as much of the dense smoke as the rest of the house and she spotted a flicker of movement beside a tumbled over sofa.

Prowling around the sofa with her twin swords held at the ready, she glanced down at the small forms huddled for protection on the floor.

"Please, have mercy!" the once-beautiful - but now bedraggled - trophy wife pleaded, before letting out a weak cough. "At least spare my children, they're innocent! I'm begging you!"

Shinatobe twirled her blades around in her hands and stalked closer. The terrified faces of Adriana Tilvanoni and her two children were reflected in the chilling metallic sheen of the assassin's cybernetic eyes. If Mario had gone to ground in his bunker, perhaps his family could prove useful as a way of efficiently luring him out.

They didn't all necessarily have to be alive for that though...

"No!" Sakura cried out, lurching upright in bed. She was covered in a sheen of perspiration, her chest rising and falling as she sucked air into her lungs.

"Are you alright?" a gentle, concerned voice asked her, soft hands stroking her back in a soothing manner.

Sakura let out a shuddering breath, then glanced to her left to give Calara a troubled smile of apology. "I'm really sorry I woke you. Bad dreams..."

"I know what that's like," Calara whispered sympathetically, the Latina sitting up beside her. She glanced down at Jade who still lay asleep to Sakura's right and added quietly, "Let's go to my room. I'm a good listener - you might find it helpful to talk about it."

Closing her eyes and breathing deeply to calm herself, Sakura slowly shook her head. When her rich brown eyes opened again, she said with a hint of a smile, "I'd rather go to the Dojo instead..."

Calara nodded eagerly and climbed out of bed before offering the Asian girl her hand. "Let's go take a shower in my room. We can change there and head straight for the Training Dojo without waking the others."

Sakura gladly took her hand, intertwining her fingers with Calara's and drawing comfort from that touch. "You're a good friend, thank you," she murmured, as they padded out of the door.

"I'm always here for you when you need me," Calara said, squeezing Sakura's hand with her own.

It was the very same olive-toned hand that had been destroyed by one of Shinatobe's bombs. The irony wasn't lost on Sakura as she gave her friend a loving and profoundly grateful smile.

***

Dawn rose over the prosperous city, the largest population centre on Naserine, the fourth planet in the Kappa-Aquarius system. Its gleaming golden spires shone brightly in those early morning rays, the lofty towers reaching towards the heavens. The blue skies above were partially hidden by fluffy white clouds, which would help shield the serene city from the glorious heat of the noonday sun on this idyllic world.

Through that cloudbank, a huge golden spacecraft descended, its graceful delicate form belying its raw power. It was accompanied seconds later by another enormous vessel, then another, the sky above the city filling with the shining hulls of a vast Maliri fleet. Smaller gold ships began to pour out from those heavy carriers, until it looked like a sparkling metallic rain was falling on the unsuspecting city below.

Edraele nodded with satisfaction, watching the live holographic footage of the invasion. The first wave of thousands of elite troops were pouring into Lahlenor, the city of the lost, in an overwhelming show of force. She had committed two-hundred-thousand troops to this mission, two soldiers to every resident in the city. The forces she utilised were entirely disproportionate to secure her objective, but she intended to make an example of Lahlenor and incarcerate the entire population - at least until the innocent... and the guilty, could be ascertained.

"Keep me informed of your progress please, Lilyana," she said to the image of her Fleet Commander.

"I'll let you know as soon as we've locked down the black-market cybernetics bazaar and all the associated dealers, Matriarch," Lilyana replied, bowing to her respectfully. She gave her a confident smile as she added, "We will have the entire city in custody within five hours."

Edraele smiled gratefully at her most senior military commander. "I don't doubt that for a moment, Lilyana - you've always been an extraordinarily capable woman. I hope I can adequately repay you for your years of dedicated service one day."

Lilyana's stern aquamarine eyes softened as she gazed back at her Matriarch. She brushed her fingers through her long white hair, a wistful smile forming on her lips. "You already have, Edraele, a thousand times over."

Returning the Fleet Commander's smile, Edraele closed the call, then glided over to the sweeping window in her office. She looked out over the various dockyards on Genthalas and watched as her flagship, the Galaena Serine, slowly reversed out of the drydock. The new upgrades had just been completed, with engineering crews working in shifts around the clock to get it fully upgraded at the earliest opportunity. In the adjacent docking bay, a second battleship was a hive of activity, with hundreds of engineers clambering over its gleaming hull as they replaced all the heatsinks in the vessel's prolific array of weapon batteries.

Edraele placed her delicate fingers on the window and watched her people at work. She had started taking daily walks through the docks and repair yards, talking to all the new engineers in her network of wards. They had initially been wary, unsure how to behave around someone with such a terrible reputation for spontaneous acts of cruelty and violence. However as she'd spoken to them and taken an interest in their work, they had gradually warmed to her, welcoming her now with friendly waves and smiles. It had been fascinating and heart-warming to see their change in demeanour, something that Edraele was determined to continue nurturing.

She frowned as she realised she was procrastinating again. It had been a huge relief, to have an opportunity to make amends with this attack on Lahlenor, atoning for her previous lack of foresight. She was still angry at herself for having not already investigated this lead on Mikaboshi for John. Initiative was something she prized in her own vassals, so she was failing him by not displaying the same meticulous approach to her treasured role as his Matriarch.

While she'd been all too eager to assist John, if she was being honest with herself, the dramatic invasion of Naserine had been another welcome distraction from an even more important task. It was one she'd been getting increasingly anxious about and she knew she couldn't put it off any longer. Turning purposefully for the door, she strode outside and bumped into Valani Naestina, who tumbled over backwards with the collision. Acting swiftly, Edraele cupped her open right hand and caught the falling young woman in a telekinetic force-projection of her fingers.

"I'm so sorry, Valani!" Edraele immediately apologised, carefully helping her stand again. "I wasn't paying enough attention to where I was going!"

"That's quite alright," the young Maliri girl replied, her teal eyes showing her surprise. She adjusted quickly, then smiled at her Matriarch. "We were all starting to wake and wondered where you were. Would you like me to make some breakfast for you?"

"You're such a thoughtful girl. It's been so wonderful having you here as part of our little group," Edraele replied with affection, stroking Valani's light-blue cheek. She was about to say more, then hesitated and stayed quiet.

"What is it?" Valani asked, gazing into Edraele's enigmatic purple eyes. "You looked like you want to tell me something else, but stopped yourself."

Edraele glanced at the door behind Valani, knowing she really had somewhere she should be. One look at the concerned girl's face before her changed her mind, and she gestured to the sofa back in her study.

"I don't want to delay you, Edraele," Valani said, while following the House Valaden Matriarch into the room and closing the door behind her. "You seem anxious - like you're late for a very important meeting."

"I was going to see Luna and you're right, it is important," Edraele admitted as she led Valani over to the sofas and sat down beside her. She clasped the younger woman's hands in her own, then continued, "However, as I've resolved myself to being forthright and honest this morning: there was something I was about to say to you, but I was worried it might be inappropriate. The last thing I want to do is make you feel uncomfortable."

Valani gave her a warm smile, gently stroking the older woman's hands in a soothing gesture. She'd never seen Edraele this anxious before and she was determined to be there to help her in whatever way she could. "Please don't worry, you can tell me anything," she said, in a gentle, encouraging voice.

Edraele gazed into Valani's eyes and confessed in a bleak whisper that was full of self-loathing, "I used to be... a truly terrible mother. The way I treated my own daughters was horrific - I used to beat them both with neural whips and even used my telekinetic powers to assault them when they were little more than defenceless children. How Irillith can resist the urge to kill me on sight after everything I've done to her, I'll never know."

"I had no idea," Valani murmured, eyes wide as she gazed at the tormented woman. She reached out to stroke Edraele's cheek as she added, "Please remember though, you're a different woman now. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but you explained that to me, when we met for the first time. I feel as though I know you better than anyone I've ever met, so please believe me when I say that I know you'd never behave the same way again... ever!"

Edraele nodded, her face a picture of remorse. "I can still remember everything that happened though... Those poor girls.. what they've been through." She looked back at Valani and choked, "I've wronged you too. Your mother, your sisters..."

"Were all horrible to me," Valani said with a forgiving smile. "We've been over this before, Edraele. There's no need to punish yourself, I don't feel any antipathy towards you for what happened. The last couple of months have been the happiest of my life."

Opening her arms for a hug, Edraele wrapped the younger woman in a loving embrace. She whispered in her ear, "You're so kind and sweet - you really are a special girl, Valani. I could feel that you'd forgiven me, I knew it in my heart..."

"What is it, Edraele? What are you holding back?" Valani asked, feeling the older woman's hesitation again; Edraele's reluctance to speak whatever was on her mind was quite obvious now. Valani pulled back from their hug so she could better read her Matriarch's face.

With a shuddering sigh, Edraele explained, "I told you about my daughters, because although I'll spend the rest of my life trying to atone for what I've done, I'm scared they'll never be able to properly forgive me." She looked into Valani's eyes and said in a hushed voice, "With you, it's different."

Valani looked at her in surprise and asked in bewilderment, "What are you saying, Edraele? I don't understand."

Edraele gently cupped the younger woman's face in her hands and said earnestly, "With you, I feel like I've been given a second chance. I can be there to care for and protect you, in the way your real mother never did!"

Stunned into silence, Valani could only stare at her in astonishment.

"I'm so sorry," Edraele said in a leaden voice, full of remorse. "I shouldn't have said that. I didn't mean to unsettle you..."

Valani suddenly hugged her tight, trembling in Edraele's arms as she was overcome with emotion. "I feel the same way!" she gasped between tearful sobs. "I didn't say anything, because I was worried you'd think I was a foolish little girl!"

"I'd never think that of you!" Edraele said vehemently, tears running down her own cheeks. "I love you Valani, like you were my own daughter."

The two women hugged each other, crying happy tears as they embraced. Abruptly their tears ceased and they pulled back to look at one another in shock.

"I feel something..." Valani murmured, her beautiful angular eyes staring at her Matriarch in amazement.

Edraele gaped at the young Maliri woman in equal shock, having only experienced this sensation once before. It was one she'd never forget. "It's me! And I can feel you too!"

They slowly toppled back on the sofa, Valani staring with wonder into Edraele's eyes as they gazed into each other's souls.

*I'm so proud of you, Edraele,* Alyssa thought to her, her voice gentle and caring. *You already loved your girls, but you needed to let them love you too - the rest takes care of itself.*

***

John woke feeling well-rested and content as he felt the comforting weight of two luscious young women cuddled up in bed with him. He glanced down at Irillith and Tashana's manes of white hair, then was about to correct himself, remembering that both women were older than he was. He mulled it over for a moment and decided that they were still young for Maliri, who could live well into their third century, so he wouldn't think of them any differently. Besides, he still thought of Jade as a young woman and she had cheerfully entered her eleventh millennia.

*You've got busy thoughts this morning,* Alyssa said, sending him a teasing telepathic smile.

John leaned up and glanced to his right over Tashana's shoulder, seeing the real smile on the blonde teenager's face matching the one that had just flashed through his mind. *Sorry for waking you up, beautiful. I'll try and be more thoughtless tomorrow morning.*

She stifled a giggle at his wordplay, then admitted, *Actually, I'd woken up already this morning. It seems you aren't the only early riser today.*

John very carefully untangled himself from the web of lithe blue arms crossing his chest and sat up, glancing to either side of him to check to see who else was awake. It only took him a moment to spot that Calara and Sakura were currently missing. *Are they alright this morning?*

*Sakura woke up early -- nightmares again. Calara's looking after her though,* she replied, arching an eyebrow at him.

*Is there anything I can do to help?* he immediately offered, worried about the Asian girl. It wasn't the first time he wished that she'd let him help her get rid of the archives of traumatic memories inserted into her brain.

Alyssa smiled at him and there was a playful undercurrent to her words as she replied, *No, but I'm sure they'd love your company. They're down in the Training Dojo at the moment.*

Memories of the fierce women sparring each other in close-fought battles immediately sprang to mind, as did the image of their nubile, athletic bodies clad in figure-hugging training gear. *I might go down and check on them, just in case they need me for anything,* John replied glibly.

*Yes, I thought you might,* Alyssa replied with a sparkling grin. *They're creative girls. I'm sure they'll 'need you' for all sorts of fascinating activities.*

John did his best not to laugh as he climbed out of bed, while taking care not to disturb Irillith while climbing over her. He was surprised when Alyssa climbed out of bed too, then followed him into the walk-in wardrobe. *I didn't think you were interested in martial arts?* he asked her in confusion as he started putting on his training gear.

*Oh, I'm not. I can think of lots more fun ways of working up a sweat,* she replied, glancing over her shoulder to give him a flirtatious smile. *There is something I need to do for Sakura though, so I might as well do that now before I make breakfast for everyone. Speaking of which, I'll send Tashana down for her breakfast when you're done 'helping' Calara and Sakura.*

*I have no idea what you could be implying,* John said with a wry grin, gathering her in his arms, then tilting her backwards for a kiss.

Alyssa let out a happy sigh, then gave him a loving smile as she whispered, "Getting up early with you is good fun. Maybe I shouldn't be so quick to have a lie-in."

Shaking his head, John said seriously, "It's important you get lots of rest. You're going to need it for the next XO catch-up meeting."

Her cerulean eyes burned with lust and she crossed her wrists behind his neck to stop him going anywhere as she gave him a passionate kiss. "I might need to bring some backup to the next meeting then," she purred, before she finally let him go.

John raised an eyebrow curiously, knowing the calculating young woman obviously already had something planned. This was just her way of forewarning him to expect company. Her eyes twinkled but she chose not to comment as she turned back to the clothes rails to pick out an outfit. It had taken him only a moment to pull on his training gear, so he left Alyssa to have fun with her wardrobe and headed for the bedroom. The rest of the girls were all still sleeping peacefully, so he crept out into the corridor to avoid waking them as he strolled towards the grav-tube.

As he was walking along the corridor and stepped into the red anti-gravity field, he suddenly realised that Faye hadn't been there to greet him that morning. When he stepped out onto Deck Three, he looked for the closest camera then asked, "Faye, is everything alright? I missed my serenade this morning."

There was a purple flash beside him and the cute five-foot-tall sprite appeared. "Good morning, John," she said with a smile. "I saw that Alyssa was wide-awake so I decided to add more processing streams to my current project. I'm sorry that I wasn't there for you, but this is very important."

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