Astral Chapter 3: Little Black Dots

About an hour after sunrise, on the world of Rigel 7, a young woman named Lillian did as she had done every morning since she had turned fifteen; She poured a cup of strong tea and walked to her family’s enormous sun room to watch the rays fly by. She had wavy blond hair that reached the middle of her back, which she kept neatly brushed. Lillian was tall and lithe; she had led both the track team and her field hockey team. Her father often joked that anyone who kit on her would be deported from the planet. She had large, bright blue eyes with large pupils that gave her a perpetual look of innocence.

Natives of Rigel 7 before humans ever set foot, they resembled eagle and manta rays of Earth, but had evolved gas bladders that allowed them a marine and aerial existence. Lillian had begun watching them on a whim one morning during her second year of high school, and now it was a daily tradition for her. Their graceful dance inspired her, and even when she was ill she never missed it.

This morning, a large manta dove in and out of the waves that lapped a few hundred yards off her family estate. In the other direction were rows and rows of fruit trees, gifts from the Kilmer family that had generations-long ties to Lillian’s. At seventeen, Lillian had already graduated high school and was preparing for college, for her eventual inheritance of the family business.

Her family were heroes of sorts on Rigel 7. The planet’s primary export was wood, everything from more mundane varieties like white pine and maple, to exotics like ebony, purple heart and Jatoba. For centuries, the planet was a collection of petty, squabbling companies that would pass down from generation to generation. Lillian’s family had managed to secure the strongest share, opting to settle land that only allowed for hardier pines and poplar, while others fought over choice territories for the more expensive exotics.

Eventually, the arguing over land nearly erupted into open warfare, with Lillian’s great grandmother sitting on the sides, above the conflict, quietly selling the less expensive woods, and securing a massive fortune. When Rigel 7’s weather cycle (similar to Earth’s El Nino) ravaged the lowlands that were popular for mahogany and other tropical woods, she swept in and bought out the land and woods for all of the families that were set to lose their farms and incomes over the tragedy.

Great Grandma Sophia had struck an agreement; the lands she purchased would be divided evenly, based on its ability to produce wood, with leaner lands being given in greater volume to allow for those people to have a fair chance of competing. All the lands would belong to Sophia’s family, but would be managed by the families that already lived there, with an equal percentage going to them. The families would prosper based on how much they produced.

This turn wound up producing friendlier competition; no longer were their very livelihoods in jeopardy if they had a lean year; as employees of Sophia’s company, they would be supported if nature was against them. Eventually, every tree farm on the planet was brought into the fold; the collective approach proving to be safer for everyone. Sophia, and eventually her son, his son, and now her son’s son’s daughter, were fair and objective, ensuring that no one ever prospered at the expense of the others.

Sophia’s family became fabulously wealthy, and ensured that the rest of the planet, all the way down to the lowliest woodcutter lived a comfortable existence. They moved to the coast, and built a palatial home that also acted as the main headquarters for the family business, and a dock for visiting dignitaries and business partners.

Lillian was poised and had been groomed for this for years. Unlike some who saw inheriting a family business as a burden or an unwanted responsibility, Lillian could not wait for the day that she would take over. She was already ensured a high position from which to learn everything she would need to lead one day, and she could not wait to go to college so that she could get back and get her hands dirty. She loved numbers and statistics. Her mind was razor sharp and she had an attention to detail that earned her the nickname “Sherlock” from all of her friends.

As she watched the circling ray and sipped her tea, she caught sight of a large craft rocketing across the sky. It moved much faster than the normal transports that carried the supplies of wood from the planet to other worlds, and seemed to be dropping a trail of something behind it. Something about it was very out of place. She could just barely make out the tiny black dots that fell like a string of beads, when one by one they began to burst into little balls of flame.

Lillian set down her mug and walked up to the glass of the giant sunroom, pressing her hands against the windows and trying to see if she could get a better view of what had dropped. There appeared to be a thin, almost invisible fog drifting in toward the mansion. The swooping manta flew through it, diving and leaping through the fog, then swooping overland toward the sunroom.

Lillian suddenly grew concerned; the air-rays almost never flew inland unless something was wrong with them, much like whales beaching themselves when sick. The flapping of its great wings began to be labored, and it slumped ever closer to the ground. Lillian cried out as the large fish crashed one of its wings into a large maple, then twirled out of control to slam face first into the ground.

She backed away from the glass, her tea forgotten. She ran into the adjoining room and grabbed her phone. She quickly said her mother’s name and the phone immediately dialed the number. Lillian ran back into the sun room to make sure she wasn’t having some awful dream. She wasn’t.

The grey fog was drifting closer, and she could now see the flesh of the manta bubbling, its eyes liquefied and oozed out of their sockets. Her mother answered the phone. “Yes, honey?”

“Mom! Come quick to the sunroom! Something has happened!”

Lillian’s mother was immediately concerned; Lillian never lost her cool, never sounded upset. Now her voice was nearly breaking in fear. “Lillian, what is the matter?”

“There was a strange ship flying over the sea, dropping something. Whatever it was blew up and it released something because it killed a manta!”

Lillian heard her mother, Nadia gasp. She heard her calling for Mitchell, Lillian’s father. “Lily, stay there, your dad and I are coming.” Lillian nodded and closed the phone, knowing that her mother was likely taking charge, ordering the house managers to start an alert and sending some interceptors to investigate the strange ship. While her father controlled the company, and was therefore a de-facto president of the planet, her mother took care of the day to day affairs like handling law-making and other political issues so that Mitchell could focus all of his energy on keeping the company running smoothly. Lillian admired the woman as much as she loved her.

As she waited for her parents to arrive through their massive home, she watched the sky. The fog continued its relentless advance, but on the horizon, several black specs appeared, and quickly grew larger. By the time her parents entered the room, she could clearly see what they were; more of the large ship that had killed the ray. Her parents ran to her. “Lillian, show us the man- Good Lord!”

Seven of the large ships thundered over the estate. Their wake caused the fog to swirl and twist, and the impact of the shock wave caused by their passing knocked perfectly healthy leaves form the trees. The glass of the sun room shuddered but held. Lillian looked at her parents. “What is happening?”

Both just shook their heads. “We have no idea, honey. Edward took some of his force into a sky hopper and went to investigate. We should know soon enough.” Her father said. Lillian nodded. Everything was quiet; eerily quiet. The normal noises of the waves from the sea and the passing of the occasional transport were gone, as if a blanket of silence had been dropped over the world.

It was broken by a light tinkling sound, like a thousand microscopic bells tolling. “What is that?” asked her mother. Lillian walked over to the windows, since it sounded like the noise was coming from there. The fog was drifting over the house now, a translucent veil of gray. Lillian put her face right up to the glass. It was definitely the cause of the noise. She looked closer at one of the seams where the panes were fit together, and couldn’t believe her eyes.

The fog was etching the glass, like it was trying to burrow through it. “The fog is eating the glass!” She shouted. Her mother didn’t waste any time second guessing the situation, she grabbed Lillian’s arm and shouted “We’re going to the hangar and getting out of here. Now!” Lillian nodded and the three of them took off running through the maze of rooms that stood between the sun room and the massive transport hangar that held the ships of the family and provided a spacious and comfortable welcome for visitors to their home.

And not a moment too soon. They had no sooner left the sunroom when the sound of large panes of glass shattering on the floor heralded the breach of the fog. Once indoors, the fog seemed to move with purpose, filling rooms before moving to another. Lillian and her parents seemed to just barely keep a full room ahead of it. Finally they entered the spacious hangar. As a courtesy to their guests, they always kept their vehicles on the far end, making for a shorter walk for visitors. For once, their generosity worked against them.

The hangar itself was high ceilinged, with the rafters being easily ten stories up. It was about six hundred yards in length, with the family vehicles being parked in the final spots. They swept down the staircase leading to the ornate wooden floor of the hangar and ran as fast as they could to the far end. Nadia’s phone rang, and she answered it running. “Edward?” she shouted through labored breaths. “No ma’am. I am sorry; Edward’s hopper was shot down. We appear to be under attack! A force has landed” Then nothing. Cold panic gripped the normally collected woman.

“Edward’s been shot down!” she said to her family, and the three of them stopped cold. Escape in one of the cars or ships seemed moot now, they doubted they would make it out of the building before being taken down; Edward was a skilled pilot and experienced in dog fighting. Only an overwhelming force or superbly skilled pilot would have bested him.

Mitchell spoke up. “We need to go to the control room. We need send a signal to abandon the planet. Then we can regroup.” Nadia nodded. “Do we even know if the pods still work?”

“We have to try.” Mitchell grabbed both of his girl’s by the hands and ran for the control room. They had to re-cross half the length of the hangar to get to the room, which was on a raised platform, sealed in glass. They passed over the elaborate sun pattern at the center of the building, carved out of black walnut and quilted maple, having been hand crafted by a group of hardy Dumoth for the family as a sign of respect.

The three of them raced to the bottom of the stairs, then Mitchell pushed his daughter, then wife up the staircase ahead of him. They rushed into the room and closed the door, just as several of the hangar doors were forced open. Nadia slammed her hand on the emergency lock button and the room was sealed tight. Through the hangar doors poured throngs of soldiers clad in black canvas uniforms and black helmets that covered their entire heads. The face-plates were featureless black, and there appeared to be hundreds of them filling the hangar.

A group of about fifty in the front shouldered their assault rifles and began firing on the three. Luckily, the command room had been built to withstand the potential dangers of a hangar loaded with fusion-powered vehicles. The walls weren’t glass so much as two inch thick panels of transparent alumina sandwiched with graphene sheets, making something that looked like glass, but was as hard as diamonds. The bullets from the rifles threw sparks as they ricocheted off the outside of the room. A tall man, dressed in gleaming black armor that covered him head to toe, with bright bands of color around the biceps held up his hand and the firing ceased.

He began to speak to the soldiers, but with the room locked down, the family in the control room could not hear what he was saying. He abruptly stopped, looked at the door from which Lillian and her parents had entered, looked back to them, then motioned to the soldiers to retreat. It didn’t take any time for them to figure out why. The door they had entered through fell off the hinges and the grey fog purposely crawled into the hangar.

It began to flood over the control room, and despite the hardness of the walls, it was already beginning to etch lines in them. Mitchell picked up a microphone and used the large touch-screen panel that made up the room’s controls to patch in to every PA system and every speaker on the planet. “This is Mitchell, ” He paused a second as a huge crack split the pane in front of him, the weight of the room’s walls already beginning to compromise their integrity.

“We are under attack. Please, drop everything and get to the nearest escape pods. Abandon everything! We will regroup and discuss further action when we can but for now, save yourselves and your families!” And then he had to drop the mic and leap back as a ten foot section of ceiling fell and destroyed the console.

Nadia was already opening the door to what functioned as a sort of panic room for the control room. The fog was moving to fill in the room, as the three people ran in. The pod was at the far end of the long room, the door already opening in response to the main door being used. Mitchell and Nadia both pushed Lillian forward shouting “Go!”

Lillian obeyed and ran to the pod and leaped in. She turned, ready to give her parents a hand, to find her father closing the door, from the outside. “No! What are you doing?!” She screamed, but she could already see why. As the door slammed shut, a wisp of fog twirled in. Lillian stared at it in horror then looked out the small porthole in the pod at her parents. They were standing, holding each other, looking at their daughter in the sealed pod with sad little smiles on their face. Already, blood was starting to trickle out of their nose and eyes. Lillian put her hand on the window, trying to be as close to her beloved parents as possible for as long as possible.

Her mother put her hand against the glass in the same place an mouthed “We love you.” Mitchell nodded, a grim smile on his face. She could tell they were satisfied to save their little girl, and accepted their fate. The pair collapsed to the floor. Lillian screamed in denial and grief, when she noticed little pinpricks of pain climbing up her left leg. Terror swept over her and she slapped the big red button that would eject the pod into the Astral plane, and away from the only home and family she had ever known.

Lillian awoke with a start. The dream of the attack on Rigel 7 had haunted her ever since her escape, and she was forced to relive it seemingly every time she closed her eyes. She had been drifting in the endless aqua of the Border plane for what seemed like a week, but it was hard to tell. Time passed slower here, with a thousand days passing before you felt the effects of even one.

She couldn’t shake what she had seen; the men in the skull-faced helmets, the dying manta, blood leaking from her mother’s eyes. She was unable to rendezvous with the other Rigel 7 natives. The fog had damaged some of the communications equipment as she escaped, however the navigation seemed to work fine, so she had set it to head toward Flora, where the Kilmer family lived.

She was beginning to worry that something was terribly wrong with her. Upon entering the Astral, the pain in her legs had subsided. She had heard that people would travel over sometimes because the slower time retarded the spread of disease. That was both encouraging and worrying at the same time. The spread had stopped, yes, but what kind of disease traveled on its own accord and killed in minutes?

What was worse, she appeared to have lost all feeling in her legs, and could not move them. She had lost her home and her parents, had she lost her ability to walk as well? She watched the swirling void of the Astral roll by and fought back tears as she thought of her parents, her house, her future.

She knew she had to get to Flora, and let her brother know what had happened. He would make things right, he always did. Lillian Stryker closed her eyes and drifted off into a fitful sleep.



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