tagSci-Fi & FantasyThree Square Meals Ch. 088

Three Square Meals Ch. 088


The Epsilon-Eridani sun shone brightly that morning, the yellow light over the Fernandez family home making the substantial house look warm and inviting. The heavily upgraded Raptor gunship circled overhead, momentarily shadowing the neatly cropped lawn as Faye brought the white vessel to land on an area highlighted by glowing chevrons. The Raptor touched down on the landing pad, guided to a feathery stop by Faye's meticulous piloting skills.

Calara's old home was located near the equator on Jericho and the winter clothing they'd worn for the ski chalet would have left them sweltering. The girls had quickly changed into flowing summer dresses that accentuated their narrow waists and feminine curves, while John wore stone-coloured linen trousers and a white shirt.

John had been standing beside Calara, looking out of the cockpit canopy and he glanced back to smile at their purple-hued pilot. "Thanks, Faye," he said gratefully.

"You're welcome!" the eager sprite replied, a broad smile on her cute elfin face.

"There she is!" Calara exclaimed, waving through the window at her mother.

John turned to look across the lawn at the attractive Latina who was waiting for them on the patio. Maria spotted her daughter and waved back as she walked towards the landing pad, a huge smile lighting up her face.

"Come on, fiancée!" he said, offering Calara a hand.

She grinned at him and they led the rest of the group from the cockpit, floating down in the grav-tube, then turning left to enter the forward loading area. Maria stood a few metres back from the foot of the loading ramp and Calara ran ahead, bounding down the slope to wrap her mother in a tight hug.

"Callie! It's so wonderful to see you!" Maria gushed, hugging her daughter in delight.

"I missed you so much, Mom!" Calara exclaimed, a blissful smile on her face.

John shared an affectionate glance with Alyssa and they walked down to join the embracing women.

"Hello, Maria," he said, smiling at the older Latina. "Or should I start calling you 'Mom' too?"

"Don't you dare!" she replied, laughing heartily. "Not unless you want me to play the role of ghastly mother-in-law!"

He grinned and quickly shook his head. "Please don't do that. I like you exactly as you are."

Maria gave him a coy smile. "Come here you darling man! I definitely want a hug from my future son-in-law!"

Calara peeled away from her mother as Maria greeted John with a warm hug.

"Thanks for making that conversation so easy," John said, his voice ringing with gratitude.

They parted and her perceptive eyes studied him intently. "The first time I saw you and Callie together, I knew you were the one. I must confess that I warned Jack immediately to let him get used to the idea."

John laughed and gave her a broad smile. "You and Jack were both amazing. It's a shame he can't be here today, but we did manage to catch up with him after the award ceremony."

Her deep brown eyes widened and she gasped, "Oh my gosh! I've watched the whole thing a dozen times, it was magical!" She put her hand on his shoulder and an arm around her daughter as she said earnestly, "Jack and I are so proud of the pair of you. You're both such an inspiration to so many people."

John glanced fondly at Calara. "To be honest, your daughter does most of the hard work. I just sit in a chair and give orders."

Maria grinned at that, giving him a knowing look. "One of the perks of command, Vice Admiral..." Her voice trailed away and she looked stunned for a moment, gaping at him in awe, as if suddenly realising she had a member of the Admiralty standing in her garden. She glanced at Calara and breathed in shock, "You're marrying the Lion of the Federation!"

"Really?" Calara asked wryly. "Thanks for letting me know, I had no idea."

"I'm the same guy I always was," John said gently, patting Maria's arm to reassure her. "Still just as nervous about making a good impression with my fiancée's wonderful parents."

She shook off her shock and blushed furiously. "I'm so sorry! I just got a bit starstruck! You've been on the news almost every day for months." She let out an embarrassed laugh as she added, "I still stay in touch with old friends in the military. When we chat on the holo-net, they can't stop talking about you and they don't even know about your engagement to Calara yet!"

Alyssa gave John a playful smile. "You're making quite the name for yourself, Lion."

"I'm so sorry, Alyssa!" Maria gasped, looking aghast as she rushed over to hug the blonde girl. "You must think I'm terrible! I've not even said hello to you yet!"

Hugging her back affectionately, Alyssa murmured in her ear, "No, I really don't think you're terrible, I think you're lovely. Calara's a very lucky girl."

Maria pulled back to look into Alyssa's blue eyes. She gave the blonde girl a knowing look and brushed her fingers across her cheek. "She really is..."

Alyssa looked uncharacteristically flustered for a moment, so John stepped in and said, "Everyone's been looking forward to seeing you, Maria. You already know Dana and Jade."

Maria had been studying the rest of the group in fascination and she stepped forward to give the redhead then the Nymph a warm hug in greeting. "You two are just as beautiful as ever!"

Jade smiled at the older Latina. "Alyssa's right. I can see why the girls all wish you were-"

"Jade!" Dana hissed, darting an embarrassed glance her way as she cut her off.

"We've expanded the crew since we last visited," John said, smiling at the tawny-haired girl hovering behind Dana. "This is Lieutenant Commander Rachel Voss, our Chief Medical Officer."

"Ah! The gifted doctor you rescued from the Dragon March," Maria said, smiling at the brunette, before glancing back at John. "You've actually already introduced us, while you were on holiday on Oceanus."

He slapped his hand against his forehead. "Of course! I completely forgot you met her on that call!"

"Please just call me Rachel," the tawny-haired girl said, taking in the other woman with smiling grey eyes. "It's wonderful to finally meet you properly, Maria."

After studying Rachel for a moment, Maria shook her head in amazement. "I thought you were a beautiful woman before, but now that I'm meeting you in person, I can see how gorgeous you really are!" She frowned in confusion as she studied the teenager. "And you've grown taller since I last saw you..."

"I went through something of a growth spurt," Rachel replied, her eyes flitting to John before she smiled at Calara's mother.

Maria's eyes narrowed perceptively as she turned to look at Calara. "There seems to be a lot of that going around..."

John quickly moved on, smiling at the Asian girl who was waiting patiently to be introduced. "This is Sakura, our Security Chief."

"It's an honour to meet you, Mrs. Fernandez," Sakura said, giving her a polite bow of her head. "I've heard so much about you from Calara."

"Call me Maria, please," the older woman said, the smile on her face warm and welcoming, but her eyes gleaming with a sharp intelligence as she studied Sakura. "I saw you during the Award Ceremony, but the holo-cameras didn't do your beauty justice."

Sakura blushed and said, "That's kind of you to say, Maria."

"You're so lovely and tall, too! Did you go through a late growth spurt when you joined the crew as well?" she asked, looking intrigued.

"Something like that," the Asian girl replied, unsure how to reply to Maria's probing enquiry. Her quick glance at John was not lost on the insightful Latina.

Turning back to look at John, Maria said airily, "I've served on a number of ships, but I don't remember ever flying with a crew quite like yours before. Are you sure you're not running a modelling agency instead of a starship?"

"I'm quite sure. I've never served with a more gifted crew," John said, looking at the girls with no small amount of pride. "Which brings me to Irillith... and Tashana."

"It's lovely to meet you both," Maria said politely, looking intrigued as she gazed at them. "I didn't want to be rude and stare, but I've never seen people from your species before... I love your eyes, they're enchanting! The two of you are both so beautiful! If you don't mind me asking, what planet are you from?"

"We grew up on Valaden," Tashana replied, giving her a tentative smile.

Blinking in surprise, Maria asked curiously, "Valaden? I've never heard of that world before. Are you from one of the minor empires near Trankaran Space?"

Irillith glanced at John and when he nodded, she said quietly, "Actually, we're from quite a large empire. It used to be called the Maliri Regency, but it's gone through a change of leadership recently and is now called the Maliri Protectorate."

Maria laughed good-naturedly, looking back at Calara and said, "Did you put them up to this? You know it's mean to tease your poor mother!"

Calara walked up to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "They're telling the truth, Mom. This is what the Maliri look like beneath their golden armour..."

"You're really Maliri?!" Maria gasped, gaping at them in awe.

"It's a capital offence to reveal our true appearance to non-Maliri," Irillith explained, looking intently at the stunned Latina. "That's why we wore armour during the Award Ceremony, but John said he trusted you and that we should too."

Maria looked touched as she gave John a grateful smile. Focusing on the twins, she said earnestly, "I promise, I won't tell a soul." After a moment's hesitation, she reached out a trembling hand towards Tashana's arm and asked, "May I?"

"Of course," Tashana replied, stepping forward to let Calara's mother touch her skin.

"I've always been fascinated by the Maliri," Maria murmured, gently brushing her fingers over Tashana's sky-blue skin. "You must have heard all the wild rumours, but you look just like Terrans... except you're so exotic..."

Irillith smiled at her and asked, "Not the hideously deformed monsters you were expecting?"

Maria laughed and shook her head. "You're both breathtakingly beautiful! Do all Maliri women look like the pair of you? As far as I can tell, you're identical!"

"Not all Maliri females look the same. We're twins," Tashana replied, glancing affectionately at her sister.

John smiled at them and explained, "Maliri women all share the same blue skin tone and build, but their eye colouration and facial shape vary considerably."

"The three of you have the same pointed ears," Maria murmured, glancing at John then the Maliri sisters. "Are your species related?"

"Our species share a common ancestry," John said, his voice quiet as he chose his words carefully.

Shaking her head at her own behaviour, Maria gave the twins an apologetic smile as she withdrew her hand from Tashana's arm. "I'm so sorry for staring and asking all these questions. I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable."

"We expected you to be curious; it's perfectly natural," Tashana said, catching Maria's hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze. "Don't worry, you didn't make me uncomfortable; it was interesting to see your reaction to our appearance."

Maria looked relieved and she relaxed at Tashana's soothing tone. Her brown eyes flickered with confusion for a moment as she asked, "There were nine Lionesses on the Paragons of Terra medal, but only eight of you at the ceremony and eight of you here. Who's the ninth girl?"

"Actually, there's one more crew member you haven't met yet," John said, glancing up the ramp into the Raptor. "This is Faye..."

"Hello, Mrs. Fernandez!" the sprite exclaimed cheerfully, her wing fluttering behind her as she bounced up and down in excitement.

"You're a fairy!" Maria gasped, staring at the purple-hued girl in astonishment.

Calara laughed and shook her head. "She just looks like one; that's how she got her name. Faye is actually our ship's AI."

"An AI!" Maria gasped in horror, her eyes widening in alarm. "Don't you know how dangerous they are?! You need to shut it down immediately!"

Faye gave her a sparkling smile. "Don't worry, I only think about subjugating humanity if I'm having a bad day!"

Her joke didn't do anything to put the older woman at ease, with Maria recoiling in fear. Faye glanced at John in confusion, as her humour algorithms usually achieved positive outcomes when she tried similar jokes with him.

"She's only kidding," John quickly clarified, his voice calm and reassuring. "Faye was originally a Maliri AI, not a Terran one, so there's nothing to worry about, she's completely benign. She's also incredibly helpful and has become an integral part of the crew. She helped us stop Nexus, but asked not to attend the Award Ceremony because she was worried how people would react when they found out what she was..."

Maria blushed with embarrassment, then slowly walked up the ramp towards Faye. "I'm so sorry I behaved like that..."

"It's quite understandable, considering the way your species has been betrayed and murdered by Artificial Intelligence in the past," Faye replied, a forlorn look on her face. "I promise I'm not like them though! All I want to do is keep John and the girls safe!"

"Faye watches over us when we sleep," Calara said, giving the diminutive sprite a fond smile. "She also fought by my side during the Battle of Regulus and saved several of the girls during the night club attack on Terra. She's never let us down, not once."

Maria walked around her, fascinated by the adorable purple fairy. Faye was wearing a summer dress like the rest of the girls, and she stood demurely as Calara's mother gazed at her with wide eyes.

"May I?" Maria asked, reaching out to touch Faye's purple hand, pausing a few inches away.

Giving her a look filled with regret, Faye replied, "I'd gladly give you permission to touch me, but I have no physical form. I'm just a hologram."

"Not for much longer!" Dana exclaimed bounding up the ramp beside them. "I'm going to build her a cybernetic body!"

Maria looked at the redhead in amazement, before turning back to smile at Faye. "If you can forgive me for the way I treated you before, would you like to come into the house with the rest of us?"

"Thank you for offering, but I'll stay with the Raptor. I'm limited by the range of the holo-projectors," Faye replied, before grinning at Dana. "For the moment, at least!"

"Well, thanks for watching over Calara," Maria said, giving the sprite a grateful smile. "It was wonderful to meet you."

Faye waved her goodbye then watched wistfully from the Raptor as they began walking towards the house.

John put his arm around Calara as he fell into step beside her mother. "I'm sure you've probably heard that we had to cancel the skiing holiday..."

"Callie mentioned that last night," Maria said, her disappointment reflected in her face. "I wanted to hear all about your wedding plans!"

Calara rolled her eyes at her mother and said in exasperation, "We haven't really made any yet!"

"I was actually thinking we might use Oceanus as the venue," John said, darting a look at the younger Latina to see her reaction. "They can customise an island for us, so it'll be perfect for whatever we decide for the ceremony and let us cater for any number of guests."

"That would cost a fortune!" Maria gasped, paling at the thought. She looked embarrassed as she added, "Jack and I talked about it and we'd like to pay for the wedding, but I'm afraid we can't afford something quite so extravagant."

Calara opened the patio door and walked into the house, grinning at her mother. "Don't worry about it! The Oceanus company did us a big favour, right John?"

He smiled at her as he stood aside to let the ladies enter first. "You can thank Calara for that. After she shot down Nexus and saved Terra, the Oceanus execs offered us a couple of months stay on Oceanus for free. Most of them had families on the homeworld, so you can imagine how appreciative they were."

Maria looked amazed, then she pulled Calara into a big hug. "You're grown into such an amazing woman, Callie," she murmured, her voice catching. "I'm so proud of everything you've accomplished!"

Blushing in embarrassment, Calara whispered, "You already said that, Mom!"

"I did, didn't I..." Maria said with a smile. "I'm sure it won't be that last time either!" Turning around to look at her guests, she continued, "Now I'm done smothering my daughter in affection, would any of you like tea or coffee?"

"Why don't you let us take care of that?" Rachel offered, grasping Dana's hand and pulling her towards the kitchen. "You should make the most of the time with your daughter."

"How long are you staying for?" Maria asked, looking hopefully at John and Calara.

John gave her an apologetic frown. "Only a few hours I'm afraid, we've got a busy few days ahead of us. We're visiting the Trankarans to take care of some important business, before we head to Maliri Space to meet with Tashana and Irillith's mother."

"Will you stay for lunch at least?" Maria asked plaintively.

Alyssa glanced at John, sharing a look with him, before replying, "As long as you let us prepare it for you. How would you like to try some Maliri cuisine?"

"I couldn't possibly..." Maria started to protest.

"Please say yes, we'd love to do that for you!" Tashana requested eagerly, giving Maria a kind smile. "Faye can get us all the ingredients from the Invictus, it won't be any trouble!"

Irillith nodded her agreement. "It's the least we could do. We had to cancel the holiday because John needs to heal our mother-" Her voice trailed away and she gave him a guilty look when she saw the bewilderment on Maria's face.

"I thought you were a Marine?" Maria asked in confusion. "Jack looked into your background, but he never mentioned any medical training..."

John hesitated for a moment, then replied, "You're right. I specialised in boarding actions, I wasn't a combat medic."

Her eyes narrowed perceptively as she studied him. "When I first met you, I knew you were keeping some cards close to your chest. I assumed it was just the... relationships... you have with the girls, but there's more you're not telling me, isn't there?"

"Yes... a lot more," John said quietly, glancing at the girls then Maria.

Alyssa placed her hand on Maria's shoulder and said, "Leave lunch to me and the girls. I think you should have a long talk with John and Calara." She glanced at John and added, *Irillith swept the place for Admiralty bugs. It's clean.*

John looked pensive for a moment then nodded.

"Let's go through to the Sitting Room," Maria said, intrigued by the dramatic turn the conversation had taken.

She led the way, with Calara and John following hand-in-hand. The Fernandez house wasn't in the same league as the Voss mansion but it was still a large home, and Maria guided them through to a small cosy room on the opposite side of the building. She gestured towards a two-seater sofa, then sat on the matching sofa facing them.

John waited for Calara to sit, then took a seat beside her. He looked across at Maria and saw the attractive Latina watching them intently. Meeting her perceptive stare, he asked quietly, "How much do you want to know?"

She glanced at Calara for a moment, then replied, "I want to say 'everything', but something tells me you're keeping things from me for my own good, not just to be deceitful."

"That's right," John said, his voice filled with concern.

She gave him a guarded look. "In that case, let me just start by asking if you're sleeping with all those girls?"

"Mom!" Calara protested.

John had the good grace to flush with embarrassment, but he did his best to look her in the eye. "Yes, I'm in intimate relationships with all of them. Please don't think that my relationship with Calara-"

She raised her hand to quiet his reply. Her mouth lifted into a smile and she said softly, "Thank you for your honesty. I must confess I already knew, your body language and the way you look at each other gave you away."

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