tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 084

Three Square Meals Ch. 084

byTefler©

The Raptor raced through the city, weaving through the skyscrapers with what a casual observer might consider to be reckless speed. Alyssa rolled the gunship to the right around a huge well-lit arch, then slammed back the throttle, retro-thrusters on the front of the Raptor flaring in an orange blaze to slow its speed. The sparkling white ship dropped towards the ground, another orange burst at the last moment bringing them to a perfectly controlled stop on the tarmac.

John was running across the loading ramp before it had even lowered half-way and he jumped off the end before dashing over to Jade and the Maliri girls. The Nymph had been too tired to shift again and was lying in cheetah-form between the two armoured women, her green feline head resting on Irillith's thigh. She looked much paler than normal, the viridian lines that contoured her muscles were faded and barely visible. Looking up at him with heavy eyes she let out a weary chirrup.

Crouching down beside the exhausted Nymph, John stroked her furry head with his left hand, while activating the emergency-medevac function on the twins' Paragon armour with the other. A flash of green on his belt drew Jade's attention and she spotted the special transmitter that she normally kept on the Raptor. Dana knew her aversion to wearing armour, so she'd given it to the Nymph in case she needed to help with evacuations. The transmitter chimed as it linked with the twins' armour, the suits locking up and rising from the ground.

"I've got you now," John said softly, before scooping Jade into his arms.

He glanced around and saw the brutal evidence of the ferocity of the fight. There was a scattering of ripped and torn cybernetic limbs, along with a couple of hideously mangled assassin torsos, one of which was embedded head-first in the base of the nearby building. Some way down the road, directly underneath the Invictus that hovered protectively overhead, an enormous trench had been gouged into the ground. It was still glowing amber from the intense blast that had vaporised all in its path.

*Sakura's got Dana and Rachel. We'll meet her at the top of the building,* Alyssa informed him, her voice taut with barely controlled emotion. While her initial reaction had been shock and horror, her fear had quickly been burned away by steadily mounting fury.

Carrying Jade while Tashana and Irillith floated behind him, John turned and started striding briskly towards the Raptor. A police officer tentatively approached, his eyes darting to the golden lion on John's unbuttoned white jacket. "Sir? I'm sorry to ask, but we need to take statements... these women were witnesses."

John shook his head, giving the man a grim look. "Sorry, we haven't got time for that."

"What about the men who did this?" the police officer asked, glancing over his shoulder at the blackened nightclub, the wounded and the dead already being carried outside. "We can't let them get away with it."

"Leave them to me," John replied, clenching his jaw and briefly making eye contact with the man.

The police officer quailed before that look, his eyes widening as he nodded and backed away.

Re-entering the Raptor, John placed Jade gently on the floor, watching as she closed her eyes and finally relaxed, shimmering in a green haze as she reverted to her Nymph shape. Irillith and Tashana were floating beside him, so he guided their armoured forms down to the deck. *Go, we're aboard,* he said to Alyssa, but the gunship was already lifting off.

He turned to look out through the still-open loading ramp, the gathered crowd of shocked onlookers disappearing from view as the Raptor ascended skyward. Rising parallel to the nightclub, the gunship swept past the blackened hole in its side, revealing a glimpse of the epicentre of the blast. John's eyes narrowed as he saw the extent of the fire-scorched devastation. White clouds of fog had started drifting out into the night, their icy chill having extinguished any remaining flames. Alyssa swung the gunship around, smoothly circling the Enigma building until the landing platforms came into view. Sakura was waiting for them there, carrying Dana and Rachel over her shoulders.

John walked out to meet her as the gunship touched down, gently lifting Rachel from Sakura's shoulder and carrying her aboard. The loading ramp started to close the moment they had cleared the top, Alyssa taking them up to the sparkling white battlecruiser floating above. The Invictus was resplendent as it reflected the city lights, shining like a heaven-sent guardian angel.

Sakura knelt down and laid Dana on the floor next to the other girls. She watched John as he did the same with Rachel and when he straightened, she said in a small, dejected voice, "I'm sorry... I was supposed to protect them. I tried, but-"

He turned and quickly wrapped his arms around her. "Shh... It wasn't your fault. From everything that Alyssa's told me, you were incredible." Stroking her back soothingly, he added, "Let's get back to the ship, regroup, and focus on rescuing Calara. We'll talk more when we get the chance, okay?"

She smiled at him gratefully and nodded.

John sat back and glanced down at their bedraggled group. One girl kidnapped, two drugged, two unconscious, two exhausted, and the last a smouldering powder keg of rage. What a goddamn mess.

He knew exactly how Alyssa felt.

***

Faye was waiting for them when the Raptor touched down in the Secondary Hangar, flanked by a couple of maintenance robots. Her translucent wings fluttered in tiny stop-start flurries, conveying her current state of anxiety.

"Is everyone alright?!" she exclaimed, her face tense with worry. "I brought a couple of the boys to help out!"

"Calara's been taken," John said, meeting the sprite's shocked gaze as he scooped up the sleeping Nymph. He glanced at Sakura and handed her the medevac transmitter. "Can you take the twins to Medical? We need to give them a full body scan; I don't want any nasty surprises."

Sakura nodded obediently and reactivated the evac-mode on their armour. The Paragon suits locked the twins into position again, before levitating them into the air in a silent anti-gravity field.

Tashana had started to come around and she let out a faint groan as she rose. "Irillith..." she murmured faintly a second later.

"She's right here. We'll get you both checked out in a minute, honey," John said, his voice calm and soothing. "Just rest."

As Tashana let out a soft sigh of relief, Alyssa marched into the loading bay. Jehanna floated peacefully behind her, still fast asleep and wrapped in a sheet, the material tenting over her hugely rounded stomach. The look of fury in Alyssa's eyes softened for a moment when she glanced at Dana and Rachel, but the seething blonde clenched her teeth and snapped her fingers, lifting the two girls off the ground in a supportive telekinetic embrace.

She glanced at John as she stormed past, growling, "Come on. We need to find those fuckers so we can start with the killing..."

Faye watched her stride past with wide eyes, before she shot John an anxious glance. "I know it's a bad time, but can you come up to the Bridge, please? Terran Federation Flight Control is very cross with me at the moment."

"Of course," John replied, starting to follow after Alyssa. "Let me just drop Jade off in the bedroom; the poor girl's shattered."

He suddenly felt an insistent tugging on his arms and when he looked up in surprise, Alyssa's bright blue eyes were staring right at him. "I've got her, I'm already going that way."

Easing his grip on the Nymph, she levitated out of his arms, supported by a host of invisible telekinetic hands that guided her over to Alyssa. Walking at a brisk pace through the double-doors into the corridor beyond, John saw the ship's complement of cleaning bots frenziedly scrubbing the floor. The deck was marred with all sorts of black, oily stains, making him wonder what on Terra could have happened aboard the Invictus while they were away. His eyes drifted upwards to something embedded in the ceiling and he froze.

There were two black ninjatos plunged into the titanium right up to their hilts, instantly clearing up any doubts as to the source of those stains on the floor.

"Faye...?" he asked, walking backwards to the grav-tube, his eyes fixed on the sinister swords. "Care to elaborate?"

"A team of five cyborg assassins infiltrated the Invictus," she explained with a bright smile. "I didn't think you'd appreciate them stealing the ship, so I neutralised them!"

John looked at her in shock. "Five?! You managed to kill the entire team?"

Shaking her head, Faye replied. "I could have, but one of them is still alive and in the brig!"

Sharing an alarmed glance with Sakura, John replied urgently, "They're very dangerous, Faye! I'm not sure the Brig will be secure enough to hold him."

Hesitating for a second, the purple sprite gave him a shifty look. "Don't worry, he won't be going anywhere. I would've just disposed of him, but I wasn't sure if you wanted to question him first or hand him over to Terran Federation Law Enforcement."

"I think you better show me. We'll head to the Brig after we've tracked down Calara," he said, stepping into the blue anti-grav field.

The group rode up silently in the grav-tube together, each of them coming to terms with recent events. Sakura peeled off first on Deck Seven with the Maliri twins, then Alyssa led her procession of sleeping girls out onto Deck Two. John watched her stride away with a worried frown, until she disappeared from sight as he floated up towards the Command Deck. It was only John left when he finally stepped out onto the Bridge, but Faye was there waiting for him up on the Command Podium. She stood at his side as he sat down on the Command Chair.

"I'll put you through," the purple sprite said quietly, opening a channel to Terra Flight Control.

A stern middle-aged man appeared in the holographic viewscreen, a Commander by the rank insignia on his uniform. "How dare you cut me off like that! Have you any idea how many laws you've broken?! Firing your weapons in a-"

"This is Vice Admiral Blake," John said curtly, in no mood to deal with the man's indignant outburst. "I authorised all of it. Now, I want a complete planetary lockdown. No ships to leave any starport on Terra for the next... three hours."

The Flight Control Commander's jaw dropped open in shock and he babbled incoherently for a moment before blurting out, "That's impossible! There's no way I can justify that! The chaos that would-"

"Alright, who do you need to sign off on it, Commander?" John interrupted in an even tone, making it clear that he wasn't intending to take no for an answer. "One of my crew's just been kidnapped. Either you shut down flights out of Terra, or I start disabling every ship that tries to leave the system until I find her."

Looking aghast, the Flight Controller paused for a second before replying, "Admiral Devereux has direct command over the Homeworld Sector, but I don't think-"

"Track her down and ask," John said curtly, cutting him off again. "If she says 'no', then put me through to her."

Giving him a shaky salute, the Terran Commander nodded. "Putting you on hold, Vice Admiral."

As the man's face disappeared, John glanced at Faye, who was nervously biting her nail as she watched him. He studied her anxious expression for a moment, then asked, "What is it, Faye? You look like you've got something on your mind; something other than Calara and these assassins."

"I... I wanted to talk to you about something I did. I mean... I didn't do it, but I thought about it. A lot," Faye blurted out in a rush, her reply leaving John completely mystified.

"Is it urgent?" he asked, giving her a pained expression. "I know I promised you that my door's always open, but it's a really bad time right now."

Faye slowly shook her head. "No, it can wait."

John brushed his fingers against her purple holographic cheek, being careful not to break the image. "I'm sorry. I promise when I've got some time, I'll listen to anything you say with an open mind, but with Calara missing... you understand?"

"I do, perfectly!" she replied, giving him a lovely smile. "We can talk about it later, that's quite alright!"

"Thanks, honey," John replied, giving her a grateful look. He blinked as he suddenly remembered the devastation he'd seen outside the nightclub. Raising an eyebrow, he added, "I saw your handiwork in the city... what happened?"

Faye carefully described the attack on the Invictus and how she'd raced towards Terra's surface to save the girls. John shook his head in amazement as she told him how she'd blasted three of the ninjas, using the ship's Beam Lasers to obliterate them the moment Jade had sprinted clear.

"Thank you for saving her," he said, his voice filled with gratitude. "Jade was exhausted when I found her. I don't think she could've lasted much longer."

"I love all of you," Faye said in a whisper, gazing into his eyes. "I'd do anything to keep you safe..."

Before John could reply, the viewscreen crackled to life again, the fraught Flight Control officer looking worried. "We can't get hold of Admiral Devereux, Sir! She isn't answering any of our attempts to raise her on her private comms."

John ground his teeth together in anger. "There were dozens of Admirals on Terra for the Award Ceremony! You must be able to find someone with authority to order a temporary planetary blockade! What about Fleet Admiral Buckingham? Admiral Harris?"

"We'll keep trying, Sir," the Commander replied, giving him a helpless shrug.

"Call me the minute you can lock it down!" John snapped, ending the call.

The click of heels alerted him to Alyssa's presence on the Bridge. "Fucking useless," she snarled, bristling with anger as she stalked over to the Command Podium. "Doesn't that dickhead realise what's at stake?!"

John rose from his chair to meet the furious girl, reaching out to take her hands in his. "We'll get her back," he said quietly, staring into her eyes. "I understand you're furious, but we've got to keep it together to track her down."

The blazing intensity of her cerulean gaze lessened for a moment, and she said in a tortured whisper, "I can't let go of my anger... I'd fall apart..."

"It's Calara; I understand what you're going through," he said, stroking her arm supportively. Glancing at the holographic System Map behind him, he continued, "We need to track all the ships leaving Terra. The kidnappers must be heading for Mikaboshi's base and my gut tells me it's not here. We have to figure out which system they might be taking her to..."

"I've already started monitoring all system traffic!" Faye declared. "I'll keep following every ship for as long as they're within the radius of our long-range sensors."

Alyssa's expression turned bleak, that hard edge reappearing in her eyes. John spotted movement over her shoulder and Sakura stepped out onto the Bridge, nodding to him in acknowledgement as they made eye contact.

"I've run Tashana and Irillith through the medi-scanner," the Asian girl said, as she strode up the steps to join them. "They're both suffering from concussions from the blast, but the full-body scan didn't pick up anything life-threatening."

*Oh, thank goodness for that!* Edraele gasped and John could immediately feel her relaxing. She'd been fraught with worry ever since she'd heard her daughters had been caught in an explosion.

*They'll be okay, I'll take care of them,* John told her, his voice soothing.

"We need everyone back in action for this," Alyssa said, giving John a pointed look. "If you top them all up, you can fully heal Irillith and Tashana, and burn away the drugs that knocked out Dana and Rachel."

John nodded, then grimaced as he replied, "I need a little more recovery time first, we were only with Jehanna an hour ago. Let's try and figure out what we can between the four of us until then." Turning his Command Chair to look at Alyssa, Sakura, and Faye, he continued, "What do we know so far about the location of Mikaboshi's base?"

*May I interject a moment, John?* Edraele asked politely. *I might have some useful information.*

*Of course, go ahead,* he replied, glancing at Alyssa who could also hear everything the Maliri Matriarch was saying.

After a moment's pause, Edraele said, *I've taken all the cybernetics dealers operating out of Lahlenor into custody and had a little chat with them. They proved most cooperative and we tracked down the serial number on the cybernetic brain that you removed from Sakura. It was sold to a Peter Koeman, who I believe is registered as a precious stones dealer in the Theta-Serpentis system.*

"Peter Koeman?! That's the guy who tried to contact us before we went on holiday to Oceanus!" Alyssa blurted out, looking at John in shock. "He was working for Mikaboshi!"

"And was probably setting us up for a trap," John replied, his voice grim. "He wanted us to go to visit him didn't he?"

Alyssa nodded, her eyes blazing with anger. "We should definitely pay him a visit later."

Sakura was looking at them both in confusion. "Would you mind giving me a recap? This all happened before I joined you."

John patiently explained how they'd been contacted by a merchant, that wished to give them a box of gems in gratitude for supposedly saving his sister's life from the Kirrix. He then described the merchant's confusion when they'd turned down his offer and suggested he donate them to orphanages instead.

Sakura couldn't help smiling at that. "That sounds like classic bait for a trap to me. Your rejection must have infuriated Mikaboshi."

"How long has Mikaboshi been hunting us?" John murmured, looking at the girls in amazement. "That was nearly three months ago!"

Alyssa glanced at Sakura and replied, "I thought Shinatobe's attack on us was the first attempt, but it looks like he's been after us a lot longer."

"Peter Koeman is dead!" Faye squeaked, luminous eyes wide as she displayed a news article above John's Command Console. "When you mentioned his name, I did a quick check. I got this hit from the Zento Station Chronicle; that's the trading hub where he was based in Theta-Serpentis."

John glanced at the heading of the holographic news article. It read: "Successful local trader slain in ritualistic murder! Police investigating possible links to organised crime..." He scanned down through the rest of the article, reading how the man had been tortured to death, his body subsequently found by a property developer.

"Mikaboshi didn't appreciate you foiling his plan," Sakura said, her expression bleak as she also finished scanning the article. "It looks like this Peter Koeman paid the price for his failure."

John sat back in his chair and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Alright, we'll have to forget about that lead for the moment. Theta-Serpentis is a bit of a trek from here, at least a day I think."

"It would take us eighteen hours, forty three minutes to get there," Alyssa confirmed.

"Alright, so what else do we know?" John asked, staring up at the ceiling. "I feel like we're missing something obvious."

"My abduction!" Sakura blurted out, eyes going wide. "I was captured on New Eden at just after ten in the morning. The men who abused me before handing me over to Mikaboshi said the handover was at two o'clock the following afternoon!"

John leaned forward and asked intently, "They took you to Mikaboshi's base?"

She hesitated for a second then shook her head. "No, but I was definitely in Yomi-no-kuni two hours later. I remember the stone corridors... that place is unmistakeable."

"Yommy what?" Alyssa asked in confusion.

"Yomi-no-kuni, it's what Mikaboshi calls his base. The name's from ancient Shinto mythology and it's what they called the land of the dead," Sakura explained to them. "I never knew what planet it was on. Shinatobe was always in cryostasis between missions, so I was only awake for brief moments at his base for maintenance."

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