tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 085

Three Square Meals Ch. 085


Dawn over Drastin's Fall was an eerie affair. The dim white sun crept over the horizon, illuminating the city in a ghostly pale glow - locally this time had come to be known as "corpselight". Considering the nature of the city, the name was quite appropriate.

For over one-hundred-and-twenty-years, the planet Nobruna in the Beta2 Sagittarii system had been the primary source of Titanium for the Terran Federation. The vast bulk of the Terran fleet was plated in that resilient metal, so the Federation's hunger for Titanium was voracious. The starport at Drastin's Fall had been the central hub for exporting Titanium from Nobruna, but the city had begun to decline when the Titanium deposits started drying up.

Now the mining had all but ceased, with only a few minor players still attempting to chisel out the last of the Titanium the planet had to offer. All the major corporations had moved on, levelling off the strip-mined areas of the planet and simply letting the jungle reclaim it, keeping the environmental groups happy and the Federation's green subsidies rolling in. However, when the corporations left, there was a power vacuum on the planet, and as Aristotle once said, "Horror Vacui" - nature abhors a vacuum.

There were scores of docking bays in Drastin's Fall, which had previously been swamped with ore transporters but now lay idle for the most part. The bay owners were desperate for berthing charges and therefore more than willing to turn a blind eye to the shadier elements of the Federation. Drastin's Fall had become a hotbed of illicit activity, with many a smuggler and black-market dealer making their base. The Beta2 Sagittarii system was located on the outer-rim, not far from the border with the Trankaran Republic. This far away from the bright glare of Terra and the Core Worlds, there were always citizens seeking to lose themselves in the shadowy underbelly of the Federation.

That was how William Fallow had come to arrive on that wretched planet. That wasn't his real name of course, but he'd been forced to swiftly abandon his old life - it had been a prudent move, considering the charges of treason laid against him. He opened the lobby door to what had once been a plush apartment complex, but like the rest of Drastin's Fall, the building had seen better days.

At the sound of the hydraulic door sliding open, the bundle of clothing huddled outside began to stir. "Spare a few credits for a meal, chief?" the man asked, holding out a shaky hand - a dead giveaway for stim addiction. "Used to be a miner... fallen on hard times."

William jumped at the sound of the man's voice, then studiously ignored him just as he'd done every other day for the last few weeks. He walked briskly down the steps to the street, grimacing when he saw that it was raining that morning, as was often the case on Nobruna. Leaving the protective cover of the awning over the lobby entrance, he walked straight into the squall, the rain lashing his face. Lifting up the collar of his ill-fitting coat, he hunched his shoulders to stop the rain dripping down the back of his neck. He'd paid a lot for that coat nearly six months ago and he was loathe to get rid of the designer item, even though it was much too big for him now.

All the stress of being on the run had severely affected his appetite and he'd lost a lot of weight. His old self would have been overjoyed at the drastic reduction in his waistline, but William Fallow knew better. His gluttonous hunger had been replaced with a tense bundle of nerves during the day and bitter pangs of loneliness in the night.

Pale, unfriendly faces loomed out of the darkness, appearing like ghostly wraiths from the shadows. The rain pattered on the road, the constant spray of water forming an eerie mist across the tarmac, adding to that spectral illusion. William was constantly wary for danger, his eyes darting to every face as he searched for any glimmer of recognition. A hovervan with blacked-out windows drove past and his hand twitched to the pistol at his belt, just in case assailants jumped out and rushed to attack him. The vehicle cruised by with the loud thrum of anti-grav cyclics and he only let himself relax when it disappeared from sight.

It took William about ten minutes to walk to the leisure and shopping complex, striding past the holographic billboards that lined the upper walkways along the street. Their flickering neon backlights provided a splash of vibrant colour, contrasting sharply with the drab greys of the gloomy morning. Amongst the unending barrage of advertising, punctuated by overly-cheery tunes and upbeat voices, his eyes were drawn to the gorgeous Lead Anchor for TFNN. He wasn't paying any attention to the advert - TFNN was yammering on about some exclusive interview - instead he gazed at the girl's long dark hair and flawless dusky skin. She reminded him of another girl, the one who had got him into this predicament in the first place...

Tearing his eyes from Jehanna Elani's shapely form, he heaved a sigh of relief when he realised he'd arrived at his destination and could get out of the relentless, driving rain. His shirt collar was soaked by the time he walked into the lobby and shook off his over-sized coat, showering a man standing by the entrance in raindrops. The smartly-dressed man glared at him and tutted in irritation, before opening his anti-grav umbrella and venturing outside into the morning downpour.

Ignoring the indignant shopper, William squinted as he glanced around the broad mall suspiciously, searching for anyone or anything that seemed out of place. There were a dozen well-dressed citizens in there at that hour, representing the last remnants of Nobruna's dwindling middle class, the rest having abandoned the planet when the corporations left.

William had rented one of the more luxurious apartments in Drastin's Fall and while it meant he lived in the nicer part of the city, it was also quite expensive. He'd made over five million credits selling decommissioned fleet assets to pirates and another two million tipping the slavers off with flight-path data. Unfortunately, six months on the run had quickly eaten into his savings, especially with the way he'd thrown money around on designer gear and call girls.

He had no income to replenish his funds, and there were always bills to pay. Being forced to purchase several new identities on the black market had cost him a hefty chunk, but he'd had no choice, considering the grim alternative. Of course, he'd also blown two million credits in a moment of rage, taking out a contract on the bastard who'd stolen his girl and wrecked his life.

His temper flared just thinking about them both again. It was all so unfair! He'd been a Terran Federation Commander once, one of the most powerful men in Port Heracles and in effective control of that entire sector! There'd been no shortage of desperate young women out near the border with Kirrix space and he'd been able to enjoy all sorts of lewd payments in exchange for expedited transit papers to the Core Worlds. Then that bewitching Latina had been assigned to the base, thoroughly entrancing him with her olive skin and smouldering eyes. The stuck up bitch had rejected his advances time after time, even going so far as to transfer to the corvette "Griffon" when he was sure he'd been wearing her down!

When he'd told Everett Hitch about the Griffon, the Pirate Lord had promised to capture Calara, then hand her over to him. William had it all planned out, and was going to enjoy every minute of wiping that haughty look of disgust off her face... That was until John Blake had stormed in and fucked everything up! Snarling with anger, he stomped across the reception area, making his way towards the holo-net cafe.

He winced against the bright glare of the advertising boards that surrounded the foyer, then sighed with relief as he entered the dimly-lit cafe. Glancing around the room, a predatory smile appeared on his face when he spotted the young woman running the establishment. Forcing himself to calm down, he scuttled over to the young woman, trying his best to look as disarming as possible.

"Hello Justina!" he said, trying to sound bright and cheerful. This was one of the few times he got to interact with people during his day and he was determined to make the most of it. He'd been trying to convince the attractive brunette to go out on a date with him for weeks, but so far to no avail.

"Same again, Mister Fallow?" the attendant asked him, sounding bored and entirely disinterested.

"Yes, please," he replied, frowning slightly at her tone. His eyes were drawn to her erect nipples, which were just visible through her bra and white shirt, hardening with the chill of the air conditioning in the cafe. He gave her a lascivious grin and added, "Is it just me, or is it a bit nippy this morning?"

Justina glared at him in annoyance, meeting his lecherous gaze for a second, then turning away with a shudder of revulsion. She pointed towards a booth on the opposite side of the cafe to her desk. "Number twelve is free, you can use that."

William scowled at her tone. Call girls all liked being spoken to that way, so what was her problem? She was just another stuck-up bitch like Calara had been. His eyes narrowed as he watched Justina walking away, imagining how she'd change her tune when she was gagged and handcuffed to a bed. He'd teach her some respect then and the little whore would love it...

As tempting as thoughts of taking his frustrations out on her nubile body were, he knew he couldn't afford to take any chances. He had to keep a low profile and stay exiled out in the middle of nowhere until the deed was done. Every morning he was filled with the same faint hope, that Mikaboshi would finally confirm that the contract was complete. However, for over four interminably long months, those hopes lay dashed every time.

He walked over to booth twelve and slouched in the seat, sticking his forged identity card into the slot in the desk. The holo-interface took a few seconds to warm up, flickering a few times as the worn projectors displayed the holographic image. He scrolled through his scant list of contacts, finding Mikaboshi's pseudonym on the list. There were no replies from "shadowninja26497" and William let out a despondent sigh.

Slumping in the chair he tried to think of some productive way to spend the day. He flicked half-heartedly through the holo-net, checking out the news, but all the channels were full of talk about a failed assassination attempt against the Lionesses. William gritted his teeth in anger. It was galling to see how much everyone fawned over John Blake, throwing undeserved promotions and medals at that bastard like confetti.

As he was simmering at how unfair it all was, he noticed a flashing light on the comm interface, highlighting a message from someone called "Azure_Superuser". He was fairly sure he'd never spoken to anyone using that name before - it didn't really sound like the name of any of the hookers he'd contacted. Swiping across the glowing name, he accepted the incoming call.

A message scrolled across the screen, saying, "Connecting, please standby..."

His curiosity piqued, he waited patiently for about ten seconds. Nothing seemed to be happening, so he tried swiping away the message but to no effect. Frowning in irritation, he tried closing the entire comm interface, but that didn't work either. Just as he'd started to give up and was about to call Justina to ask for some help, a holographic image coalesced above the desk in front of him.

He gaped at the image of the beautiful Latina in shock.

"Rupert Grant," Calara said, a bleak expression on her face. "I hoped I'd seen the last of you, but we finally meet again. I'm afraid I've got some bad news..."

Mouth sagging open in disbelief, he stared mutely at the gorgeous brunette, somehow looking even more beautiful than he remembered.

"We just neutralised Mikaboshi and wiped out his legion of assassins. Now that he's dead, I'm afraid he won't be able to complete your contract, or reimburse you for failing to assassinate John..." Calara leaned forwards, eyes narrowing dangerously as she continued, "Yes, we know it was you. I'd like to say it came as a shock, but considering your heinous list of crimes, it doesn't really surprise me in the slightest."

Rupert felt faint and he glanced around the room with wild eyes, expecting to see soldiers running into the cafe to arrest him. Justina was the only other person in the cafe and she seemed to be transfixed by some TFNN news report on the big screen by her desk. Breathing heavily, he turned back to look at the holographic image of Calara.

"You've got the blood of eight more innocent lives on your hands, Rupert," she said, her tone grim. "Not that I expect you care in the slightest, not after the hundreds you sold out to slavers. Part of me wants to believe you didn't know they were selling them to the Kirrix, but I expect you did, you just didn't care..."

Her sanctimonious tone was starting to piss him off, and he glared at her as he hissed, "No, I didn't give a fuck about any of them!"

Calara looked at him with disgust, that same infuriatingly superior expression he'd seen before. "I was furious when John told me what you'd done. I wanted to hunt you down and personally execute you for treason." Her face lit up with a smile of satisfaction. "But flying to the outer rim to put a bullet in your head wasn't worth our time or effort. The local troops on Nobruna are more than capable of dealing with a little cockroach like you..."

Rupert froze when she mentioned the name of the planet he was hiding on. He lurched upright, his chair bouncing backwards with a crash.

"They're coming for you, Rupert," Calara said quietly. "There's no escaping justice this time... May God have mercy on your twisted black soul."

The call ended abruptly, Calara's damning words hanging in the air as her beautiful face faded away.

He staggered away from the desk, eyes wide with horror. Justina was watching some kind of interview, and his eyes got even wider when he saw it was John Blake being interviewed. He wore a suit of white battle armour and stared at the camera as he said grimly, "Rest assured, everyone associated with this nest of killers will be brought to justice..."

Blood was rushing in Rupert's ears as he staggered from the cafe, jumping in fright as he saw John's image on every advertising billboard in the lobby. Lurching towards the door to leave the leisure complex, the Lion's voice echoed behind him, "I want to demonstrate what happens to my enemies..."

It was still raining outside, but Rupert was too frantic to bother fastening his coat. He started running for the starport, desperate to flee the planet. Skidding to a halt a second later, he realised that all his money and his transit documents were back inside the safe at his apartment. Turning around he began to sprint back the way he'd come, his heart pounding in his chest as he gulped for air.

John Blake's image was everywhere now, the huge advertising billboards showing footage from the interview. "One inevitable outcome..." the man glowered, staring balefully at the camera. That look seemed to be directed at Rupert alone and he quaked with terror.

Rupert felt a stitch in his chest, and he hobbled along, winded as he panted for breath. The pale faces looming out of the rain looked at him with surprise and suspicion as he staggered along the sidewalk, people moving warily out of his way as he lumbered past.

Jehanna Elani was up on the billboards now and she smiled while saying, "...swift and ferocious retribution await those that dare to prey on the good citizens of the Federation."

Seeing his apartment block up ahead, Rupert stumbled up the steps to the foyer entrance.

"Spare a few credits for a meal, chief?" the stim-addict by the door asked plaintively.

"Why don't you just fuck off!" Rupert snarled, hitting the button to open the door.

The bundle of clothing shrank back as the man mumbled, "...just fallen on hard times, Chief. Don't mean nothin' by it."

The hydraulic door swished open, and Rupert rushed inside, eyes darting from side to side as he searched for assailants. The lobby was deserted, so he ran to the lift, hammering at the call button until it arrived. Running inside, he pressed the button for the fourth floor, then leaned against the wall, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he tried to regain his breath.

When the elevator chimed, he rushed into the corridor, making a beeline for his apartment. He fumbled with his maglock keycard, dropping it once with a curse before picking it up in shaking fingers. He managed to shove it into the slot, then sighed with relief as the door opened. Plunging into the darkened room, he called out, "lights!" as he ran inside, peeling off his rain-soaked coat and dropping it by the door.

Suddenly he felt an explosion of pain as someone punched him in his stomach and he doubled over in agony, crashing to the floor. The lights flickered on and his terrified eyes spotted armoured boots in front of him. Looking up, he saw a harsh, hate-filled glare on a Terran trooper's face. Rupert managed to grab at the pistol on his belt and haul it out, just in time for a second trooper to stomp down on his arm. There was a snap as his radius bone broke and he howled with agony as he dropped the pistol.

The gun was kicked out of his reach, then fists began raining down on him, blows from several men landing all over his body. He writhed on the ground, yelping and crying with every punch, his senses overwhelmed with pain.

"That's enough, lads," a calm, quiet voice said. "We don't want to kill him."

Rupert rolled over onto his back, groaning in agony. He looked up at the man that had spoken, an older sergeant with a kind face, who was looking at him with a resigned expression. "Thank you!" he gasped through the pain.

The sergeant squatted down and said, "You match the description, but I'd like confirmation. Are you Commander Rupert Grant? We'll get a DNA test to confirm it, so you might as well save us both the aggravation."

Knowing that his only chance now was to cooperate, he quickly nodded. "Yes, I'm Commander Rupert Grant." This far away from the Core Worlds, a man's loyalty to the Terran Federation wasn't quite so absolute, so he had one last card to play. "I've still got money! Maybe we could all come to some arrangement? I could help you and your men out with a nice retirement fund...if you let me walk out of here alive! What do you say, Sergeant..?"

"My name's Rathburn and that does sound very reasonable," the Sergeant replied with a smile. He looked up at his men. "How about it lads? Should we consider the Commander's generous offer?"

"Let's see what he's offering..." a cold-eyed trooper said, staring at Rupert with disdain.

The sergeant offered Rupert a hand, and he rose unsteadily to his feet, his entire body throbbing with pain. Hobbling over to the fireplace, he pressed a concealed button under the mantelpiece and a panel slid back, revealing the hidden safe. He started to raise his right hand to open the door, but the pain was too great, so he awkwardly switched to his left. Holding his hand against the DNA reader, it flashed green as it checked his genetic code, the safe door opening with a click.

He pointed to the stack of credsticks inside. "Each one of those is loaded with fifty-thousand credits... I'll give you all of it if you let me walk out of here."

The cold-eyed trooper walked over to the safe and glanced back at Sergeant Rathburn. "We could give them to Abigail?"

The kind-faced sergeant smiled and gestured towards the door. "It looks like you have a deal, Mister Grant. You're free to leave."

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