Astral Chapter 9: Catching Up Over Dinner

Garrison Stryker stood in his apartment, one no less lavish than Jamie’s, although a few floors higher, and looked over his amazing suit of armor. Nothing looked different, but Worm had made a few modifications that elevated it above its already impressive set of features. “Claire didn’t give you too hard a time, did she?”

On Garrison’s couch sat a small man. His unkempt, uncut hair was pushed back behind his ears and his glasses were pushed right up against the bridge of his nose. His posture and wide-eyed way of looking at everything made him look perpetually nervous, despite the casual way he was draped over Garrison’s couch, watching a documentary on one of the less civilized tribes of Orchids (tall, intelligent insects that looked, for all intents and purposes, like giant multi-colored mantises) on the planet Arborea.

A few strands of his slightly greasy hair fell as he turned toward his friend just enough to not have to take his eyes off the screen as a spear-wielding orchid stalked a pig-like beetle creature with eight legs. “Not at all. The hardware finally fit into the upgrade slots in the forearms, and the software is in the same language she was written in. Not so much as a hiccup.”

The suit of armor made a small hiccuping sound and Garrison chuckled. Few people wore power-armor unless they were elite members of a military or worked one of the many specialty jobs that required them, like deep space mining or harvesting nectar from building-sized flowering trees on Amot, let alone a suit that had a sense of humor.

Claire was a unique piece of hardware. Not only was she lightweight and nearly impervious to most weapons, she had the ability to open gates to the Astral plane, or simply “phase” into the other world, which amounted to the entire suit (and Garrison) shifting onto the Astral with no prior warning. She was made out of carbon fibers woven into sheets that were more durable than diamond, and her surface acted as an OLED screen (organic LED, light emitting diodes made of carbon), allowing Garrison to change her color with a thought. The entirety of the suit was covered in a molecule-thick coating of compressed carbon harvested from a “diamond planet”; the dead remains of a star that left behind a massive ball of carbon.

A spoon-full of the stuff would have been impossible for even the strongest of machines to lift, but the crafters of his magnificent Ghost Suit had developed a means to use the ultra-dense material in portions small enough to be manageable, but strong enough to stop a tank shell at point-blank range.

Although the armor’s value could easily be measured in the billions, perhaps even trillions of dollars, Apparations, the manufacturer, never sold a single suit. Rather, they were awarded to deserving individuals that showed a mix of skill, maturity, and moral fiber that ensured that the machine would never be used to harm the innocent. In fact, owners were obligated to use it for good causes.

Garrison had worked on many worlds as a sort of mercenary, although he despised the term. He was not truly for hire; between his connections on Flora and his family back on Rigel 7, Garrison never wanted for money. He had grown up loving movies about cowboys and heroic police officers and as a result, dreamed of simply being a “hero.” He started practicing shooting when he was ten, and by the time he was in high school, could quick-draw and trick-shoot with the best of them.

Using his connections through Charlie’s father, Reginald, he managed to find work on several backwater planets, usually helping out the local law enforcement apprehend dangerous criminals or hunt down members of the savage races collectively known as Golinoids; violent, evil races that seemed to be transplanted to planets simply to sow chaos.  He had heard rumors of Apparations and their armor, and had put out a tentative “application” for a suit.He built up a reputation as a fearless fighter for good that would wade into a building full of armed men fearlessly, and incapacitate or kill everyone without taking so much as a scratch himself.

It was just that reputation that introduced him to a colonel several years before that led to his greatest guilt, but also earned him Claire. A group of “terrorists” had been holed up in a building for over a week, and although the military had been called in, they refused to give up their position. the house was supposed to be an important structure and there were women and children being held hostage, so the idea of bombarding it was out of the question.

Garrison had agreed to help, and burst in the front door using a prototype of the tool Worm had just installed in his ghost-suit, and his almost supernatural abilities with paired pistols to kill all but one of the men inside. It was only once he reached the last man that he realized he had been used. The supposed terrorist leader was the head of a group that had discovered a stunning list of atrocities that their military and government had been committing against their own people on remote planets, and the group was trying to reach out the the greater universe, those beyond McLeod’s influence to get help, to stop the madmen in charge from killing or hurting more innocents.

The man had no sooner finished explaining this to Garrison than the then-Colonel Apara walked into the room and shot the man in the forehead. He had tried turning on Garrison, but was not half the warrior Garrison was. In his attempt to escape,  Garrison was shot several times, and Apara and his men left him to die in the wilderness of that planet. Luck was with him, that day, though. His exploits had garnered the attention of the mysterious figures that ran Apparations, and he had been assigned a tail. A man had been following him closely for weeks without his knowledge, making sure that he was the man that his reputation suggested.

That night, losing blood and crushed by the guilt of killing so many innocent men as a monster’s assassin, the man, or rather the Dumoth, stepped out of the Astral and changed Garrison’s life forever. Grath Keanan dragged the injured man onto the Astral and tended his wounds. When Garrison was patched up, several bullets removed from his leg and shoulder, and anesthetized, Grath towed him to a remote reach of the Astral, to a block of rock that hid the inner workings of Apparations.

Grath explained what had happened, why Garrison was so injured, and argued that his armor should not only be awarded to him, but that its production should be expedited. Much to the surprise of both man and Dumoth, the council agreed. Claire had been produced in record time, a matter of months. Garrison had spent those months in the same hospital that Jamie had woken up in, and was fully healed when one morning he woke to find a suit of black shining armor standing in his room. She came with a small tablet computer that was no more than an instruction manual, and Garrison dedicated himself fully to learning her every in and out.

On his first trip into the Astral using his armor, he discovered his arsenal; the giant cube filled with all manner of weapons and ammunition, that Claire could call over form the Astral in the blink of an eye and feed with nearly limitless supplies of ammunition. Most of the weapons were unique modifications of existing weapons, Garrison’s favorites being his twin pistols. once familiar with the suit, he travelled back to the planet where it had all begun to find the locals subjugated per the order of Apara.

He wasted no time dispatching the garrison personally. That small town was where he had met Erin; the man Apara had shot was her uncle. He came clean with the people about the part he had played, and not a one judged him for it; they were too familiar with Apara’s tactics to doubt him. Knowing he had risked everyone by freeing them, he helped the entire population of three thousand offworld before McLeod’s forces could respond.

At the time, he had no idea that his childhood friends were separately dealing with the fallout of McLeod’s actions. When he returned to Flora with the refugees, he and his friends, along with many of the refugees, hatched the Half-Moon alliance, a group dedicated to resisting McLeod. Claire had be designed to allow for upgrades and “plug-ins” to customise her, and it just so happened that one of garrison’s best friends, Worm, was just the guy to build them.

Worm had been one of Garrison’s first friends when he was sent to Flora to be tutored by the great Reginald Kilmer. The son of a physicist and inventor, Wilbur Orville Radcliffe-Michaels was born a genius among geniuses. His parents were Flora natives and while  hey had not expected to have children (they were as married to their work as each other), they spared no expense in ensuring their son received the best education available and that his imagination was allowed to grow. As a result, he had thousands of patents to his name by his early twenties, most of his inventions quite useful, including a solar-powered lighter that used an arc of electricity to ignite things.

While Garrison, Charlie, and their good friend Gerrod all left Flora to follow their dreams, Worm stayed home and pursued higher education for several more years before striking out to see if he could make his mark as an independent inventor. He found work with a brilliant man named Doctor Ivan Kremer. While Worm wanted to work on commercial products that could make people’s lives better, Kremer’s work was mostly military, but he saw a great deal of potential in Worm, given his already prodigious body of work, amazing imagination and understanding of the physical world that bordered on an intuitive understanding of the laws of nature.

He worked on hundreds of projects over several years, becoming quite close to Kremer, and assuming, as it turned out, naively, that what they produced were either simply prototype weapons or that they were being sold to races like the Enderi, who had a reputation for being responsible with even the most dangerous technologies. Worm discovered in the most violent, twisted way possible that Kremer worked for McLeod, and what kind of men McLeod and the skeleton-faced general Kremer spoke to were.

Worm had theorized a weapon capable of destroying a planet; a nuclear bomb that did not stop the fission reaction with the warhead, but continued to split atoms until even the atmosphere had exploded in a nuclear fire. He and Kremer had hypothesized the possibility one night over dinner, with Kremer having fed him the concept, and Worm running with kit. He had proven in a computer simulation that it was possible and had even included the materials necessary to start such a chain reaction.

He learned the truth when several months later, and excited Kremer told him that they were going to test a prototype. Worm was horrified; he never intended one to be built, he had thought it was just a thought game, one of many he and the doctor had discussed in their years together. Suddenly he had realized that Kremer had likely used all of their conversations to actually build what Worm thought he was only imagining.

The final blow came when Kremer revealed that a pair of planetary explorers had been duped into taking the prototype to a remote planet for testing. They had not been given enough time to leave before it was detonated; not even enough time to return to their ship. Their names had been Bernie Falconer and Cody Levine, friends of Worms’ since his days in college. Crushed and confused, Worm tried to talk to Kremer, who simply dissolved the relationship, fired Worm, and sent him home.

The ripples of that explosion and his friendship with Kremer would affect other childhood friends of Worm’s and Garrison as well.

Charlie had grown up with a fondness for firearms to rival Garrison’s, but where Garrison could quickdraw and shoot the stem off an apple at one hundred feet, Charlie could put a bullet through the apple and a mile and a half in high winds. When the friends went their separate ways after high school, Charlie had enlisted in a private army as part of a suppression team; when dignitaries would visit other worlds or made speeches, Charlie’s group was responsible for making sure not riots broke out or assassinations were attempted. She had gone through training similar to the BUDs training Navy SEALs went through back in America, and was in peak physical condition, as were her comrades. They worked for a for-profit company, protecting and even sometimes serving as a garrison on worlds for periods of time.

One mission changed her life. On the planet Proteus, she and her team were tasked with guarding the one remaining human outpost while they finished up closing a mine before abandoning the planet. Proteus was one of McLeod’s mining planets, but more importantly, it was where his biological experiments for the military took place. A colleague of Kremer, the appropriately named Doctor Gustav Goebbels,, was not actually looking to abandon the facility, but rather needed specimens in excellent physical condition to perform experiments on.

Without their knowledge, Charlie and her team of twenty were fed a variety of BRLs, Biological Reconstruction Liquids, otherwise known as “gene-therapy cocktails”, among other potions the scientists had dreamed up. Several of her team died outright, others were transformed into bizarre human, animal hybrids, while Charlie was one of a few that received an “enhancing” elixir.

Her body was transformed, all the way down to her chromosomes, to run at the absolute edge of efficiency. Not a protein or sugar that she ate was wasted, and her body no longer produced fat. The result was that Jamie could now run for hours without tiring, lift several times what a person her size could normally lift, her eyesight and hearing improved… But they had come at a great cost. Any “extraneous” food she took in was processed and the useless bits, extra sodium, unusable fat, left her system within minutes. If she ate a candy bar, she had to do it on the toilet.

At the same time, her body so efficiently converted the sugars contained within, that she would suddenly have an excess of energy and caused side effects similar to someone overdosing on stimulants. As a result, she was forced to eat an almost perfectly balanced diet to avoid discomfort and potential death. Two of the three others that received the same dose did exactly that.

Charlie and her team had endured many months of isolation, observation, and in some cases, vivisection to study the results of the “tests.” She and half a dozen of the less disfigured members of her team manged to escape their cells and steal a ship eventually, but they had to leave several friends behind. She returned home to find Garrison injured and Gerrod, the last of her childhood friends, missing.

Gerrod (pronounced “Jared”) had found a different passion from his friends. He had become absorbed with martial arts and blades around the time the others were discovering their talents. He was with throwing knives what Charlie and Garrison were with their guns. He embraced the philosophy surrounding many of the Asian martial arts and was an enthusiast of Buddhism, if not an actual practitioner. As he developed into an expert of several disciplines, Karate, Kung Fu and Aikido being his strongest, he taught his friends forms customised to their existing skills; Charlie knew how to use her rifle as a staff, for example, and Garrison had worked with Gerrod to develop a form around his use of pistol. They jokingly called it “Gunkata” after a fictional martial arts form they had watched in movies as kids.

While the others found practical careers for their talents, Gerrod had a hard time finding anyone in need of a martial arts instructor on a planet populated by farming robots and the people who maintained them. However, what he did find was a way to make his name with his love of knife throwing.

The Flying Dutchman circus was a travelling variety show that cruised solar systems delighting audiences with everything from old school freak shows to exhibitions of extreme skill. The circus landed on Flora one year, and when they left, Gerrod left with them. He traveled across the inhabited worlds of the galaxy, amazing audiences with his agility and knife throwing skills. He made friends with an excitable, brooding man named Jerlith Baker. The two became a team, juggling knifes and engaging in elaborate sword fights that combined their skills with blades with fantastic shows of agility and balance.

The two became good friends. Jerlith was like Gerrod’s mirror image, equally talented and disciplined, but where Gerrod was positive and always calm, Jerlith was impatient, jittery and prone to occasional violent outbursts. Thsi would sometimes heighten the intensity of their shows, as Jerlith would become frustrated and begin attacking his friend in earnest, and only Gerrod’s impeccable discipline and skill kept him alive.

After one such show, while the Flying Dutchman’s ship was passing through an uninhabited solar system, Gerrod confronted Jerlith about his increasing violence. The two friends almost came to blows, and Jerlith stalked away, leaving a stunned, hurt Gerrod by himself in a secluded part of the ship.

The planet they passed suddenly exploded. The shock-wave generated by the transformation of an entire planet into pure energy ripped the ship apart, and cracked the planet’s moon in two. Luck was with Gerrod, in a manner of speaking. The isolated compartment he had been in at the time of the explosion was fused shut by the great heat, trapping him in a chamber filled with breathable air. The others had not been so lucky, and out of the one thousand or so performers on the ship, only twenty survived. Gerrod never saw Jerlith again.

Gerrod was unconscious for many days, and was not awake when he was rescued almost a week later; Worm had tried to send help, something to prevent Bernie and Cody from detonating the bomb he had conceived. It was far too late, he had not even been told until days after the blast, but while the rescuers were too late to save the two men on the planet, they did find the wreckage orbiting the split moon of the nameless planet.

Somehow in the catastrophe, Gerrod had lost all four limbs; the wounds were cauterized, leaving him just a torso with a head. His discipline saved him in the coming months, giving him the clarity and willpower to push through the despair at the loss and become whole in mind if not in body. he had accepted his fate when a short, stocky, bald Dumoth showed up at his bed and changed his life much like another had changed Garrison’s.

A Dumoth metalworker named Blade Keenedge had heard of his injury and his will to live, and volunteered his exceptional skills to help the inspiring young man have his life back. Blade was a metalworker who crafted replacement limbs for injured workers on his home planet of Dumoth. The people were short, thick, heavily muscled and bald. At least the men were; female Dumoth grew long hair, and were somewhat slighter than the men, but were shorter, more muscular and thicker than most humans.

They mined and crafted their rocky, heavily forested world and were as tough as the metals they extracted from the ground. It was not unusual for people to lose limbs, it was an accepted part of life on their home world, but rather than sit and bemoan their fate, they simply built stronger limbs out of metal and went back to work.

Blade was a step above the rest of his incredibly talented kind; he could fashion delicate, lifelike creations out of the hardest metals, tied them in with the latest in technology to give the recipient full control over the limb, and even cleverly hide custom features. For Gerrod, he built brand new arms and legs out of a bright silvery metal that was harder than steel but light as aluminum. Tied in with the expert craftsmanship were electronics that allowed Gerrod to feel with his new limbs as if they were his own. Blade had made them stronger than their normal human counterparts, and because of Gerrod’s profession, he had hidden a pair of long throwing knives in compartments in the forearms that Gerrod could slide into his hands with a thought.

In addition to those, there were retractable sword blades in his wrists both above and below his hands, and in his legs, on the inside and outside of his calves, pointing down, so he could stab with one or two blades per foot if he stomped. It was Gerrod who suggested the name Half Moon for their alliance, to commemorate Worm’s friends who died in the blast that nearly killed Gerrod, and split a moon in two.

All of these memories flooded back to Garrison as he looked over his armor. They had come so far, and the conflict was coming so soon, he thought. Word had not reached Flora yet that the galaxy was now at war, nor did Garrison know how hard he had been hit. In fact, he wondered how they had survived such hardship with their sanity intact. Gerrod, who had lost more than anyone else physically, seemed so much better off than the rest, completely at ease with who he was.

It had taken Garrison a long time to get past the guilt of his attack on the resistance stronghold, but the lack of judgement from the men’s families, and the fact that they had assured him that the men, one and all, would have been happy to know that they were free from the reach of McLeod and his soldiers, had sealed it for him.

Every strike against McLeod helped them further, and rescuing Jamie had been a major accomplishment. The young lady did not understand the extent of her achievement; General Prosek, a man who had dedicated his life to war and conquest, had spent years devising a strategy to launch an attack that would assure them swift, decisive victory when they finally decided to begin their campaign.

In less than a month, Jamie had rewritten the entire strategy from the ground up, laying out plans to cut off the ability to leave the targeted planets first by destroying port cities before capturing the rest of the planet’s resources at their leisure, and targeting the heads of power and cutting them off before they could organize a strong defense.

No doubt their decision to ditch her on Chandace had a lot to do with Prosek’s pride being damaged when he read her changes. Garrison’s contemplation was interrupted when he noticed Worm leaning over, staring at him between the arm and the torso of his armor. He could tell the other man had asked him something and was waiting for an answer.

“I’m sorry Worm, I was zoning. What was it?”

The smaller man smiled. “Just checking if you were ready for dinner, it’s just about time to meet the other in the cafeteria.” Garrison chuckled and rubbed his face. “Wow… Um, yeah, I think I do need to eat something. So this is ready to try out tomorrow?” Worm nodded and smiled; he loved watching his new work getting field tested, and this last upgrade would likely come with some impressive changes to Garrison’s already stunning routine.

Jamie had managed to pull herself away from the balcony when her stomach started growling. She was on her way to the refrigerator when there was a knock at the door. She hurried over to see who was there, figuring it was Charlie telling her that Erin wasn’t in and they were going to go eat. Although she felt a small pang of guilt, like she was betraying her friend, she sighed “Oh, thank God.” at the thought of getting some food; it had been close to six hours since she had last eaten.

When she opened the door, however, she was not greeted with a tall athletic blond, but rather a short, stocky woman with shoulder length brown hair pulled back into a half pony tail and a smile big enough to park a car in. Jamie instantly burst into relieved tears and grabbed the woman “Erin!” she cried as she and the other woman crushed each other in a mutual bear hug.

They stood there, crying with joy for several minutes, neither able to say much. Jamie held on to her friend like a buoy in the middle of a storm, her being the only truly familiar way-point for the young woman since she had been abducted more than a week before. Finally, Erin pushed Jamie out to an arm’s length, blinking through tears to take a look at her friend while she kicked the door closed behind her. Her words were still thick from all of the crying when she said “Clean yourself up, Jamie, you look ridiculous.”

Jamie coughed out an exasperated laugh and retorted; “If I look half as bad as you, I need a shower.” Both laughed hard as they made their way over to Jamie’s couch. Erin looked around her apartment. “Swanky place, isn’t it?” Jamie just nodded, overwhelmed for what felt like the millionth time that day. Erin sobered up suddenly. “Jamie… I don’t know how to say this… I am so… So sorry you got caught up in this….” Jamie was slowly shaking her head. Erin grabbed her hand “No, I am serious about this. I had no idea that you had found that information. I should have hidden it better.”

Jamie smiled at her. “And then what? You would have left me to live back home while the Army started a war with everyone else? Who knows what they would have done to us once it began?” Erin nodded, she had thought of that, but still felt responsible for the predicament her friend had wound up in. “Well, that is true… I am still sorry about what happened. Garrison told me all about where they put you… I have seen movies about that planet. They are sick… Evil…” Jamie put a reassuring hand on Erin’s knee.

“It’s okay. I was rescued, and I’m safe. They think I’m dead, so they won’t come after me.” Erin looked down and nodded, tears still finding their way down her cheeks. Then, in a very small voice, she asked “They didn’t hurt you, did they?” She could not bear to look Jamie in the face in case the answer was “yes”. Jamie let out a long breath. “No.” She said resolutely. “Thankfully, the Emperor and his general considered the thought beneath them, and I heard that that Prosek would kill anyone he found abusing a prisoner like that.”

Erin smiled and looked Jamie in the eye. “Oh, thank God… I don’t think I could have lived…” She trailed off and began crying again.

It was quite some time later before the two friends had composed themselves enough to fix up a little so that they didn’t look like they had just spent the better part of an hour crying. Jamie had splashed cold water on her face and asked if Erin could tell if she had been sobbing like a baby. Erin shot her an evil grin. “Yes, but you aren’t as puffy as before. Just bloodshot eyes and a red nose. You’re the picture of beauty.” Jamie smirked and launched a handful of water into Erin’s face, then handed her a towel.

“Dry up, silly, we have dinner plans.” She chuckled, then ran out of the room before she could retaliate. They left Jamie’s apartment, and Erin guided her toward the elevators. “Normally we just use the stairs, but I think we’re running a little late.” When they arrived at the elevator doors, Erin leaned toward a small black panel on the wall and said “Cafeteria.” They waited several moments, then the doors opened. Inside the elevator already were two men; Jamie thought she recognized the taller of the two.

One was just over six feet tall, wearing a simple grey t-shirt and jeans, with short brown hair and bright, expressive blue eyes. under his clothes, she could tell he was built like an athlete, and he carried himself with a relaxed confidence that seemed to match well with his two day’s worth of facial hair. Standing next to him, grinning widely with stringy hair and an almost manic look in his bespectacled eyes was a smaller man, who seemed to be on the verge of exploding with pent up nervous energy. Erin motioned for Jamie to step in and then followed.

As the doors shut, she introduced her friend to the men. “Jamie, I would like to introduce you to my friends Worm, and Garrison. Worm offered his hand, which Jamie shook, and was surprised at how firm the slight man’s grip was. “Great to meet you Jamie.” He said before putting both of his hands in his pants pockets and backing up a step. Jamie smiled and said “You, too.”

Garrison offered his hand and Jamie found she had no idea what to say, so she just dumbly offered her hand. Erin bailed her out, quipping “He’s much easier to talk to when there aren’t aliens trying to have you for dinner.” Jamie blushed and blurted out “Hello, nice to meet you. Thank you for saving me.”

The young woman immediately felt stupid, but much of that embarrassment washed away when she looked him in the face again and he seemed genuinely pleased with her thank you. “Don’t mention it.” He said casually. “Watch my back at dinner and make sure I don’t choke and we’ll call it even.” Jamie laughed a little harder than she intended at the rather lame little joke. He just smiled and changed the conversation, and Jamie silently thanked him in her head for ending the awkward introduction. “How are you holding up? I hear Charlie read you an encyclopedia today.”

Jamie shook her head and blew out a low whistle. “It’s been tough. Everything is so different from what I thought it was.” Worm was nodding along as she spoke. “There is a lot to learn, but don’t worry, it becomes second nature after a while. Just wait until you meet the others. You may need to lie down for a while.” He snickered a little and Erin chuckled at the same time. Jamie looked at her friend quizzically. “What?”

Erin’s grin became a beaming smile. “He means, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Down in the cafeteria, and large table was being set. Dinner was going to be an introduction for Jamie to the people instrumental in her rescue, beyond Erin and the two she had met in the elevator, and to give her a place to meet some of the more unique members of their little “family” where she could be supported by the few people she was familiar with when she met some people she never would have dreamed existed.

A man and a woman were setting the places at the table. The woman seemed agitated, she kept rearranging the same napkin, or switching the spoon and the fork at one place with the identical fork and spoon at another set, all the while running her hands through her thick, deep red hair. Her counterpart, however, shook his head and chuckled at her while adjusting the glasses. No, not really adjusting them; a careful observer would have noticed that every time his hand touched a glass, it would frost over.

“Honey…” he chided. “it’s the same fork and spoon for every place. I am willing to bet everyone would be happier if you would just stop handling every piece of flatware.” She stopped in mid reach for another for and glared at the man. “Fine.” She snapped. The man touched one last glass and then straightened his blue t-shirt. “You could light the candles. Worm just messaged me that they are coming down.” The woman, Auburn, stood straight, composing herself, sublimating her endless anxiousness. Then she counted off each of the candles on the long table, ten in all. As she pointed to each one, silently mouthing each number, a bright flame erupted from every wick in succession.

“Happy?” She asked her husband sarcastically. He gave her the same wide smile a younger brother might give his older sister when he did something to annoy her and was taking great pleasure in teasing. “Ecstatic. Made my whole night.” Auburn rolled her eyes and walked toward the kitchen to ask for menus. The man, Frost, gave the table a quick once-over to make sure everything was in place and then watched expectantly at the door of the entrance.

By the time Jamie, Erin, Garrison and Worm arrived, the other friends had already arrived found their seats. Erin guided Jamie so that she was sitting between her and Charlie, with Garrison directly across from her, and Worm to his left. Charlie took the lead and introduced everyone to the new arrival. “I know you have all been eager to meet Jamie since finding out she had awoken, but we figured it best to slowly introduce her to all of this newness.”

Charlie started with the man to Garrison’s right, directly across from her, her fiance Gerrod. He was a little shorter than Garrison, but with broader shoulders. He held out his hand to shake hers and she was dumbfounded when she saw it; his hand moved with the natural grace of a real hand, but it was made of a bright shining metal that was polished to a mirror shine. It was warm, like she would have expected from flesh and blood, and firm but gentle. She was a little embarrassed, but Gerrod smiled warmly and sat back down.

Next in line were the married couple that set the table, Auburn and Frost. Auburn was curt but polite, while Frost beaming and friendly; you could feel the love of just being alive pour from him. Next to Auburn was an enormous hulk of a man with a shiny bald head and muscles that strained his t-shirt’s sleeves to the point that it looked like they would split when he bent his arms. He was easily seven feet tall, he had a warm, friendly smile that seemed odd on his gigantic frame; he looked he could straighten a crowbar with little effort. His name was simply Watts.

Next to Watts, just on the other side of Charlie, was something, or rather someone, Jamie was not prepared to meet. Her eyes widened when she saw him, although she was immediately chagrined at her reaction. He didn’t seem to mind. Charlie introduced him as Lorix, and he assured her that he was, in fact, human, just like Auburn, Frost and Watts. He was Charlie’s height, and roughly the same build, but his skin was pure black, like polished onyx. He had luminous, bright green eyes, and stark white hair. His most alien feature, however, was that he had four arms. Each one was completely normal in every way, with one pair situated directly above the others. His torso was elongated just enough to accommodate them. When he reached to shake Jamie’s hand, two others gently grasped hers and held them. Lorix seemed more amused by her shock than anything, seemingly aware of how off putting his appearance could be.

Once the introductions were complete, everyone sat down and several surprisingly human looking robots emerged from the double doors at the end of the table. Jamie took it all in; everyone had a cold glass of water in front of them, and sat in a large, high-backed chair with armrests, the kind that feels like one is being hugged and supported at once. A line of candles ran down the middle of the long wooden table, providing soft light as the ceiling lights dimmed.

Everyone opened their menu and looked it over, while the waitbots stood patiently by. Jamie was surprised to see none of the menu items had prices. She leaned over to Erin and whispered “How are we paying for this?”

Erin smiled at her. “We don’t Flora provides food for hundreds of planets and stations  that can’t grow their own, so room and board is a perk of living here.” Jamie could not believe it. “Are they communists?” She asked, not entirely serious, but not entirely joking either. Erin laughed out loud at that. “No, silly! But there is so much money and the population is so small, the idea of paying for anything here is just kind of silly. Plus almost all of the menial work is performed by robots, so where would the money go?”

Jamie sat back; she would have to be satisfied with that answer, although it felt very strange ordering food without thinking about paying for it. She decided to go with a truffle rubbed roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus. Lorix leaned forward to look past Charlie. “That’s my recipe! You have to let me know what you think.” Jamie nodded and smiled, then noticed Garrison was smiling at her. She smiled back, a little pink-cheeked, then noticed he glanced over her shoulder real quick. Jamie slowly looked up to find the waitbot still standing near her. “She’s waiting for your drink order.” He said. Jamie sheepishly grinned back. “Oh, oops….”

She wasn’t sure what to order, but since everyone else seemed to be ordering either beer or wine she asked if they had any chardonnay. Garrison chimed in “Dolores, get her a glass of the eastern slope reserve.” The robot didn’t wait for Jamie’s response, she just nodded to Garrison and hurried off to the kitchen. Garrison looked Jamie in the eye. “Sorry to speak over you, but this will be the best glass of wine you have ever tasted. We were the major provider of wines to the system you lived in up until a few months ago, and not a bad label. That is swill compared to this.”

Charlie nudged Jamie’s side. “Don’t mind him, he’s thoughtful to a fault. Garrison’s a real white knight.” He blushed ever so slightly. Jamie smiled at him “It’s okay, I know I like white wines and chardonnay is one of the names I recognize.” Gerrod spoke up suddenly. “Oh, in that case, cancel the order, we’ll just get you some grape juice that expired. Ow!” Charlie kicked him under the table. “Honey.” He chided. “Just because they’re fake doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.” Charlie kicked him again. “Good.” She laughed.

Jamie quickly relaxed, seated between her old friend and Charlie, she settled into a relaxed state that was only amplified when the drinks arrived, and she truly felt like she fit in when the food arrived and the conversation stopped so that everyone could feast. She watched in fascination at one point as Lorix held a glass of beer in one hand, nibbled on a roll in another, and cut a breaded pork chop with the other two as easily as if he were lifting a glass of water.

Her first real shock came when she glanced over at Auburn who was looking at her plate of bacon wrapped scallops and grumbled “They never burn them like I ask…” She held a scallop the size of a silver dollar with a not-quite-crisp strip of bacon wrapped around it. Her fingers closed around it, and Jamie’s eyes widened as Auburn’s hand suddenly glowed cherry red and a bright nimbus of orange flame sprang to life around it. There was a sizzling and cracking as the bacon and outer edge of the scallop charred in her hand, and then as quickly as it had sprung to life, it was gone. Auburn set the now-over-cooked meat back onto her plate and smiled. “Perfect.” Watts was staring at her with his “Was that really necessary?” look on his face.

Auburn glanced at him, then over at Jamie. “What? She was going to find out eventually…” Jamie looked at Charlie, who had spent most of the day explaining the myriad of strange new things to her, but it was Garrison who spoke up to explain. “Auburn, Frost, Lorix and Watts are all from Earth. We like to call them Earthlings, mostly because it gets Auburn riled up.”

Garrison ducked at the last second as Auburn’s spoon sailed past his head. “Watch it, pretty boy.” He lifted his napkin as if it was a shield to deflect any further cutlery related assaults and continued. “You see, when humans left the Earth en masse about two thousand years ago, many were left behind. Contact was lost and everyone assumed that the cataclysm had either killed them all or destroyed all communications on the planet. No one even knew where to look for it up until about thirty years ago.”

Jamie’s brow was furrowed, as if he was speaking a foreign language. “Don’t worry, we have a video that explains all of it, which you will likely see tomorrow. At any rate, our home world was lost until Charlie’s dad and a friend rediscovered it. It turns out that something happened and the entire solar system of Earth had passed through a wormhole, or strayed too close to a supermassive black hole or something. The net result being that while two thousand years passed for the rest of the universe, Earth has aged over a million. The people stranded there evolved to survive in the much more hostile environment after the cataclysm, and they all adapted powers.”

Garrison looked down at his friends. “You would be amazed at what these four can do.”

He went on to explain that the four “Earthlings” were among the most powerful humans alive. In their respective homelands, Frost and Auburn had nearly been gods among their people. Auburn was a queen (a large factor in her demeanor and attitude, Garrison pointed out, before dodging her fork) while Frost had been the lead hunter in his tribe. Lorix had actually been picked up by Charlie’s father as an infant shortly after rediscovering the lost planet. His mother was a wild woman, one of many on what had formerly been the South American continent. She looked normal, but her baby had been so different, she was afraid of him. Reginald had adopted him, and Lorix had been raised as Charlie’s older brother. In addition to his appearance, he had the most remarkable ability with plants, being able to manipulate them into growing designs or colors, and had specialized in horticulture and genetics growing up to supplement his abilities with knowledge.

Auburn was from Hawaii, or what was left of it. Tectonic activity in the Ring of Fire around the Pacific ocean had increased to the point that the islands were swallowing themselves. Auburn was the only one of her people resistant to the heat and fumes enough to survive; by the time she had been found, she was emaciated because the lava flows and sulphuric air had killed most other life on the big island. Auburn had been in little physical danger, however, being all but impervious to extreme heat and noxious chemicals.

Frost had been discovered after a similar tragedy, all but three, including him, of his tribe had been buried under a rock slide in the Canadian Rockies. Where the heat had claimed Auburn’s normally fire-resistant people, Frost’s had similarly succumbed to the cold. Much like his wife, only in the opposite direction, Frost could weather freezing temperatures that made normal objects as brittle as glass comfortably.

Watts was the odd man out. While they knew without a doubt he was from Earth, he had not arrived with the others. He had simply appeared out of thin air one day in the orchards outside, and recognizing he needed help, the then teen-aged Garrison and Gerrod had unhesitantly gotten him help and made him one of the family. Watts could not speak; he had grown up alone on a volcanic island, and since he had never learned to speak or ever had a need to vocalize, his voice box was atrophied. However, he was probably the most powerful living thing on the planet of Flora.

Watts was a human supercapacitor. His body absorbed electricity directly from the air and stored it. Where Auburn could control heat and flames and Frost could conjure subzero temperatures from the air, Watts could absorb, manipulate and discharge electricity. At any given moment his body held enough power to kill several grown men in an instant, and given the right mindset and conditions, he could contain and control much much more.

In his time on Flora, and surrounded by such good friends and open minds, he had learned to use his power to do everything from float (a trick Auburn had also learned) to speak through nearby speakers, making communication much easier for the gigantic mute.

The conversation eventually turned toward how the friends came to work together against McLeod, the rescue of Erin’s people, Gerrod’s crippling, Worm’s, Charlie’s and Garrison’s betrayals at the hands of the Emperor’s lackeys, and ending with how they managed to track down Jamie, find out she would be on Chandace, and dispatching one of the finest gunmen to ever live to rescue her (Gerrod’s words, not Garrison’s).

Garrison was a very able storyteller, and even though everyone but Jamie had lived the tales, he told, they were all still hanging on his every word as if it was the first time they had heard it. Gerrod chimed in often to add color or details to the story, or in a few spots, particularly when Garrison talked about killing the innocent men on Erin’s home planet, taking over when he became too emotional to speak without his voice breaking.

By the time dessert arrived, everyone was exhausted. Jamie stared at the poorly shaven man sitting across from her, having a hard time reconciling this sensitive, thoughtful person with the armored killing machine that had rescued her.

Jamie had gone through five glasses of the amazing wine Garrison had suggested and was filled to capacity with the wonderful meal she had enjoyed. She glanced around the table, everyone breaking off into their own little conversations, and in small groups bidding the others good night and heading off to their apartments. Erin tapped her on her shoulder. “What do you say, buddy? Want to join these handsome men back up the elevator and go to sleep.”

She paused, then laughed, a little too hard “I meant…” Jamie chuckled “I know that you meant…” The two women joined Worm and Garrison back in the elevator and chatted until they reached their floor. As they left and said their goodnights, Jamie found herself doing something completely unexpected; she gave Garrison a small kiss on the cheek and told him thank you. He seemed pleasantly surprised and simply said “No problem.” through a grin. As the elevator door closed Erin slapped her on the back and said “Must be good wine, it makes you bold. Hah!” The two friends laughed and walked back to their homes.



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