Astral Chapter 1: Pandemonium

Pale, multicolored light flickered over the ground. The shifting, waving effect of the brightly colored sky made the jungle look surreal and terrifying. Bizarre, alien plants choked every square inch of ground, with clearings carpeted by maroon moss.

Strange creatures moved about just out of view, making almost no sound. The planet had been named Chandace, but no one could remember by whom or why. It didn’t exist in our reality, Chandace was found in an alternate reality, an infinite nebula of glowing, shifting light aptly named Pandemonium. It was a favorite dumping ground for lowlifes and sadists of all kinds, because Chandace was populated entirely by predators. Everything ate everything else, even some of the plants, and the ones that didn’t were poisonous.

A terrified woman sat in one such clearing. The men who had dropped her off had taken the time to explain to her exactly what lived in the region where she now sat, taking pleasure in explaining, in great detail, the remains of people who suffered her current fate. If anything was ever found, it was always pieces, and it was only a matter of time until it happened to her.

She was dressed in a blue-green sweater and jeans, and wearing only sandals on her feet. Her dirty blond hair was pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, and tears from her luminous light blue eyes mixed with the perspiration on her face. The hot, muggy air of the jungle clung to her like an oppressive fist. The smell of sickly sweet flowers filled the air, underlined with a dirty, rotting stink. The woman was in a sitting position, pressed against the trunk of a tree, her arms folded around her as if they could somehow protect her from the terrifying new world she was in.

A few days before, Jamie Copeland had been a grad student and aspiring novelist. That was before she had been arrested by soldiers and brought before the Emperor with accusations that she was a spy trying to leak information to the enemy. She didn’t even know there was an enemy, but that didn’t seem to interest Emperor McLeod , or the skeleton-faced general that stood next to him while he interrogated her.

Once they had determined she knew nothing, or at least little more than they thought she did, they disposed of her; dumping her on this planet she’d never heard of, on another plane of existence, which she didn’t even know was possible.

Something moved on an oversized blue fern frond nearby. She let out a little yelp and covered her face. When nothing happened, she slowly uncovered her eyes and looked at the leaf. A salamander, about eight inches long, colored black with bright criss-crossing lines of blue down its back stared at her. It’s head was bulbous, about the size of a golf ball, and it’s eyes looked like marbles of black glass. It occurred to her somewhere in the back of her mind that it was actually somewhat cute.

That observation was shattered a second later when the salamander smiled at her, or at least appeared to. Tens of silver, needle-like teeth lined it’s mouth, and thick viscous saliva dripped from them. She started to back away, slowly, not wanting to provoke the thing into attacking.

The salamander closed its mouth and cocked its head to the side, as if trying to size her up. Before Jamie had backed up a full foot, it had apparently made up it’s mind; the salamander tamped down it’s back legs into a crouch and hissed, again showing its teeth. The woman let out a frightened cry and began to back away quickly, as the little amphibian leaped. It disappeared before it ever left the fern.

There was a sickening crunching sound coming from behind the fern, and it began to move. Standing fully seven feet tall, and covered in metallic grey armor was the most hideous thing she had ever seen. The soldiers that had left her there had explained this particular creature in sickening detail; they were the closest thing to intelligent life that existed on Chandace; a xaeren.

It was gangly, but solid. Every inch of it’s hematite-colored body was covered in spikes, ridges and ribs of thick exoskeleton. It’s head was round and squat, with no visible eyes; in fact, the entire eye portion of the head was missing. The mouth appeared to be too large, and it’s teeth showed even when closed, like a fish-eating crocodile she once read about called a gavial. It was humanoid with a long, bony tail, and had long, four fingered hands that clenched and unclenched at it’s sides as it searched the area.

Jamie almost gagged when she noticed the tail of the salamander still sticking out of the xaeren’s mouth. The creature stopped scanning, it’s face pointing directly at Jamie. It crouched and slowly crawled toward her on all fours, making a sniffing sound. As it got closer, Jamie could see that the teeth were covered in transparent lips, which she noticed because they pulled back in what could only be described as a smile. The thing was upon her in seconds, she was laying down trying to scramble as best she could away from it, but it was literally over her, following her every move and apparently getting quite a bit of enjoyment out of her feeble attempt at escape.

Finally, it seemed to tire of that game because it slammed it’s fist down into the dirt just above her left shoulder, stopping her cold when she bumped into it. She was looking it right in the face, her blood running like a frozen stream, her mind screaming in horror but her voice was gone. Without even thinking, she cleared her throat and spit in it’s face.

The smile immediately disappeared. The xaeren leaned in, an inch from her face and roared, a piercing, insect-like noise that reminded her of a cross between a lion and a woman screaming.She closed her eyes as the monster lifted it’s hand for a killing blow, when she heard something that sounded like crunching brush.

She opened her eyes just in time to see a black form grab the wrist of the xaeren, step around it in a fluid motion, and use the momentum to throw it off into the clearing in a perfectly executed martial arts move. In the blink of an eggshell colored eye, the new figure had a large pistol in each hand. What came out of them was not the loud, explosive crack she would have expected from a firearm, but more of a concussive, muffled pop. Four shots rang out. The first caught the creature squarely in the forehead, blowing out the top back portion of the skull. The second two hit it perfectly in the center of it’s chest, while the fourth struck the shoulder, spinning it on it’s heel so that it fell forward on it’s face, facing away.

Surprisingly, a man’s voice came from the black figure and simply said “Duck!”, which she did. The xaeren’s body in the clearing exploded into a fireball, pieces of exoskeleton flying in every direction and embedding into trees.

Garrison Stryker stood in the clearing, looking down at Jamie. He regretted having to wait as long as he did to come to her aid, but it worked out in everyone’s best interest if Mcleod ‘s people were convinced she was dead. She was pretty; messy dirty blond hair, huge, light blue eyes, strong features. She was clearly not used to much of anything beyond a relatively sedentary lifestyle. Being a student and a writer, exercise took a backseat to getting her work done, so she was probably twenty pounds overweight, but that in no way detracted from her appearance.

What was forefront in his mind, however, was what a bastard Emperor Mcleod  was for condemning her to a horrible death for her “crime”. Jamie had been working on a novel about galactic conquest, a war to end all wars. She thought she was working on it with her roommate, Erin, who had conceived the imaginary universe in which the story was set.

What she had found out the hard way, was that Erin hadn’t created a thing. The notes Jamie had been using to write her novel weren’t Erin’s brain children, but an actual map of the Milky Way’s inhabited planets, and mountains of data on the planned war of conquest that Emperor Mcleod  had spent decades preparing.

Erin had left for a small vacation, which in reality had been her being put into hiding for her safety. Jamie had stumbled over the files on Erin’s computer and had assumed they were the universe they had discussed creating, and began writing. Jamie had read every detail and committed them to memory. She “fixed” gaps in the strategy along the way, figuring Erin wouldn’t mind. She finished the entire novel in under month, then sent it to an agent in hopes of getting it published.

Unfortunately for her, all media on her home planet was strictly regulated. In no time her manuscript was ripped apart by agents of Mcleod , who immediately recognized the plans as their own, albeit with better strategies. Jamie was subsequently arrested, interrogated, and scheduled for execution.

Luckily for Jamie, Erin had been worried sick that something like this might happen, and she had been monitored closely during her last week of writing. The people garrison worked with had been unable to prevent Jamie’s arrest, but they knew that Mcleod  would not overlook an opportunity to execute someone in a needlessly evil fashion, and they jumped on the opportunity to rescue her.

But mostly, Garrison had felt an obligation to look out for the friend of one of their best spies. Looking down on the poor woman now, it turned his stomach to think of someone deciding to kill her simply because she was inconvenient. “Jamie, my name is Garrison. I work with your roommate, Erin. I need to get you out of here, as quickly as possible, that thing probably wasn’t the only… one… Damn it.”

Jamie stared at him in shock, not quite able to digest what was happening. She was about to say something, but lost her voice when she saw both of the pistols simply disappear, only to be replaced a second later by a large assault rifle with a large barrel set under a much smaller one. She was certain that this was a man now. He was covered head to toe in black armor that almost resembled a smoother version of the xaeren’s exoskeleton. The face was featureless, save for two slits that appeared to serve as eye holes.

“Ms. Copeland, I suggest you get behind me.” She was not inclined to argue. Garrison’s pulse quickened; the explosion of the xaeren had awakened several more nearby, and they would no doubt rush to investiage and hopefully eat whatever had caused it. He had no intention of allowing Jamie to become anything’s meal.

Inside his helmet, a light, woman’s voice with an English accent spoke. “Garrison, we have 7 bogeys approaching at thirty knots. Estimated time to generate the gate is seventy six seconds.” Garrison replied “Start sequence. Set barrels to seven point six two explosive and twenty mil with alternating buckshot and explosive.”

The woman’s voice said “Right, barrels set, beginning sequence.”

Jamie thought she must be losing her mind, but the barrels on the rifle seemed to spin independently and change their gauge. “What are we going to do?” She managed to gasp.

Garrison set the but of his rifle agaisnt his shoulder and took a deep breath. “We are going to step over form this reality into the border realm of the Astral plane. I can do it instantly, but bringing along another person takes time. I have to open a gate that will allow us to walk through; we need about a minute.”

“That doesn’t seem so bad…” Jamie began to say, but her words were cut off by a loud ripping sound. She realized a second later that it was Garrison’s gun going off. She covered her ears and hid behind him as he cut a swath through the trees, bullets ripping through their trunks and exploding on impact, leveling about forty feet of forest in a single pass. She glanced up to see the quivering torsos of three xaeren, sheared off by a single sweeping burst of the mighty gun. Seconds later there were three fiery explosions.

“Xaeren have a binary circulatory system, complete with two hearts and two sets of veins and arteries. When the two mix, its not unlike nitroglycerin, except that it burst into flame on contact with oxygen.”

He didn’t need to hear it, but the soft English voice spoke again. “Thirty more have awakened and are approaching.”

“From which direction?”

“All of them.”

Garrison looked down at Jamie. “Stay down, do not get up until I say so.” She merely nodded and covered her ears again. She could just hear the breaking of branches as the creatures sped toward the clearing. “How long?” She heard Garrison say. Then, so she could hear it, she heard him say “Twenty seconds”.

The first xaeren burst from the brush, coming from four different directions at once. With remarkably fluid movements, Garrison fired bursts into one, then another, then a third. The fourth scrambled past the remains of one of the dead ones, only to be caught in the ensuing explosion.

Garrison gently pushed Jamie away from his legs, then went into a spin on his heel. Jamie laid down and covered her head, terrified but remembering that she was told to stay put. Garrison’s gun fired in what sounded like a single, long tear. Bullets and grenades sprayed from it’s barrels endlessly. Jamie was vaguely aware that it was impossible for a gun to carry so many bullets, it was almost as if she was in some bad movie where the hero never ran out of bullets, even though he never reloaded.

More xaeren died and exploded, trees fell, and more came. Jamie looked up to see what had to be nine of the things slowly advancing through burning trees and piles of charred exoskeletons. They all smiled, anticipating a quick, bloody kill.

Jamie covered her head, and rolled up into the fetal position half a second before she heard Garrison yell “Now!” She snapped up into a standing position so fast that she surprised them both, then she was grabbed roughly by her arm and thrown into what looked like a hole in the air, oval in shape, about seven feet by four feet, and glowing bright aqua. Seconds later, she had a feeling of weightlessness, and Garrison was floating next to her, spraying bullets back the way they had just come, seconds before the bright aqua world around them closed up the hole in reality, leaving the hell of Chandace behind.

She heard Garrison sigh in relief. He looked over at her, and she immediately noticed several things at once. Garrison’s faceplate was open showing a face a day-plus in need of shaving, with dark blue eyes and attractive, strong features. Also, his gun looked different. No longer just a minimalist rifle with two barrels, it was covered in tubes and ammunition feed-belts that extended back to a huge silvery box with bull nosed edges. He let the gun go, and it was immediately snatched back into the box, which sealed to resemble a giant, featureless silver die.

Garrison saw the look on her face and chuckled. “I am going to guess Mcleod ‘s people didn’t bother to bring you up to speed about the world at large, did they?”

Jamie knew she was gaping, but she didn’t care. Her hair was a mess, her face was puffy from crying, and her entire world was upside down. She pulled her legs close to her chest, and suddenly realized that the bright blue-green world around her extended in all directions indefinitely. She suddenly felt very small, floating in space, unprotected with a strange armored man and his box of guns.

“I’ll give you a quick history lesson as soon as… we…. God Damn it….” Garrison mumbled. Jamie had passed out, no doubt overwhelmed by what she had just experienced. His first order of business, then, was to get her back to Flora and get her looked at to make sure she wasn’t hurt, and that she wouldn’t lose her mind once she found out that her entire existence so far had been part of a monumental lie.

“Claire.” Garrison said to his armor. “Plot a course home. we need to get her to see Lorix and make sure she is okay. I bet Erin will be anxious to see her, too.”

“Right, Garrison. Going home; travel time, approximately twenty three minutes.”

Garrison cradled Jamie in his arms like a sleeping child and watched the shifting blue of the Astral plane roll by as Claire guided them home.

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