Freya's Tears

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Chapter One - Landfall - Lafayette

Mission: Book Two - Ginnungagap
Location: Lafayette
Timeline: Day One

Captain Els Ulfarsdottir stood on the landing of the cargo bay stairs, a contented smile upon her not-quite-handsome face. Her brother Hrothgar Ulfarsson and chief engineer Kolodka Glebnovich threaded through the fifty tons of merchandise below, checking the stability of the load. Her ship, Freya’s Tears, had been en route to Lafayette for three days with a load of goods for the local militia colony there. She scanned the nearly full cargo bay, her satisfaction distorted by the healthy concern of an independent contractor. It wasn’t often that she located hauling contracts to their ship’s freight capacity. Normally she’d have had to locate multiple small shipments going in the same direction to fill the ample cargo bay to this degree. Her initial gratification at finding such a fulfilling contract now sagged beneath her need to locate fresh work for the next leg of their journey. Lafayette was a small colony. The odds that Commander Folsum had more than ten to twenty tons of goods for outbound transport were slim.

Six months had passed since their last lean time, just long enough for the meager jobs to feel like a distant memory but not so long that she’d forgotten the frantic hand-to-mouth scrabble for work. Six months ago she and her crew had spent days prowling the Bertuin star port, searching for a job that didn’t materialize until she’d been forced to accept a contract with CG Hamilton, a biomedical corporation. A shipboard engineering malfunction en route had revealed that the “cloned material” Freya’s Tears had contracted to haul was in actuality twenty children stuffed into long-term stasis pods. Unable to hand innocents over for gods-knew-what kind of medical experimentation, Els had made the decision to renege on their contract and seek legal recourse. The Siler Republic frowned upon such corporate activity unless a legal adult signed contracts for indentured servitude or scientific study. Consigning orphaned children for medical testing wasn’t an acceptable option in interstellar space. CGH hadn’t been pleased with Els’s detour, dispatching a warship to intercept Freya’s Tears before she could make it safely to a star port. When the dust had settled, Els and the majority of her crew remained intact, and the warship had become nothing but floating debris. It would have been the other way around had the Chadwick Militia not responded to her distress call.

Publicity from the incident almost outweighed the reward money she’d received for turning in a corporate slavery ring to the Siler authorities. It was a sure bet that CG Hamilton and any subsidiaries they had under their business banner were gunning for her ship. Since then Els and crew had steered clear of their usual stomping grounds, seeing a steady increase in honest work of which this was the latest gig. Becoming complacent would be easy. As a lifelong pessimist, Els refused to accept that their fortunes would continue to rise. Soon or late, something was bound to happen. The longer this “something” took to occur, the more edgy she became.

“We ready?”

Els turned to see her gunner and unofficial second-in-command, Kasli Holt, stroll down the stairs from above. She grinned at the dark haired woman, enjoying the view as she descended. “Just about.”

Kasli’s people had been what the old Terrans had called “American Indians.” Centuries ago her people had left Earth and joined the mass exodus of humanity searching for a better way of life. They took with them their language and culture, their history and dreams, and made landfall on a planet that eventually became part of the Siler Republic. Beyond the textbook description in the computer library, Els knew little else about Kasli’s planet or people. Kasli held a combination of serenity and controlled fury, an intriguing dichotomy of level-headedness that could immediately explode into violence when needed.

Right now Kasli’s dark hair was in its normal braid down her back, long bangs draping across her forehead. She wore knee-high soft boots and tan pants, the leather on the right thigh worn and shiny where a holster usually rested. Today she’d donned a form-fitting forest green long-sleeved shirt, the sleeves pushed up mid forearm to reveal tiny scars around her arms and hands that indicated a woman who worked with her hands. A tattoo of four tiny red feathers with black spines sat at the corner of her right eye. “Austin says we’re about fifteen minutes out.” She reached Els’s side, sliding a casual arm around her waist. Els kept her hands on the metal railing before her but leaned into Kasli’s embrace.

That had been another change since the CG Hamilton fiasco. Els’s ex-girlfriend and ship’s medic, Bennie Takahashi, had been in collusion with the corporation. She and her boy-toy Robb Pasqual had mutinied, stolen the ship’s shuttle and disappeared just before the real fireworks had begun. Since then Els and Kasli had been slowly exploring the possibility of a romantic relationship, operative word being “slowly.” Between work and a healthy trepidation on Els’s part, they hadn’t gotten much past the hand-holding stage. Their budding relationship was too important to her to throw away. She didn’t want to make a mistake and lose a dear friend to the vagaries of an incompatible love affair. Fortunately, Kasli hadn’t pushed for more that Els could give, seeming to understand that Els needed to work her way through the pain and betrayal of Bennie’s insurrection.

Hrothgar and Kolodka finished their checks below. Els’s brother reached the base of the stairs first, looking up at Kasli’s proximity to his sister with a knowing smile. Els braced herself for a ribald quip, having heard many over the last few months. For a change he kept his mouth shut.

Kolodka also had a sparkle in his eye as he followed Hrothgar. At least he hadn’t fallen into the habit of teasing Els and Kasli at every opportunity. “Everything secure and accounted for, Els.”

Els reluctantly stepped away from Kasli. Back to business. “Good. Once we’re landed drop the ATV and prepare for unloading. I’ll have Tobias pop the main cargo bay doors.” She turned to Kasli. “And remember, nothing leaves the loading area until—”

“—Until you’ve received payment and given the go ahead. We know the drill, Els. We’ve been doing it for years.” Kasli smiled to ease the potential sting of her comment. “Don’t worry so much.”

Poking her in the side, Els snorted. “It’s my job to worry, you know that.”

“And you do it well, søster.” Hrothgar chuckled at his sister’s grimace.

“Don’t make me keelhaul you for insubordination, Hroth.” Her words meant nothing and they both knew it. Though her command style had evolved since her take over of Freya’s Tears two years ago, she’d never resorted to the fire-breathing bitch or the stickler for protocol. She’d modeled her command style more on the former captain of the ship, Adolpho Bercini, rather than her war time military experience, preferring a more laid back style and treating her crew mates with respect and honor. Seeing her brother’s tongue sticking out of his bearded face, she debated the respect and honor part.

The intercom interrupted the burgeoning sibling spat. “Ten minutes until atmo, people! Skipper to the bridge. Everybody else strap in.”

Els looked askance at the ceiling. Austin Hafiz, the pilot, had insisted on calling her skipper from the beginning. The term reminded her of the bugs that floated on the water of decorative ponds on her home planet of Placidus. No matter how often she complained, he continued to call her by it. At this stage she’d given up correcting him but that didn’t mean she enjoyed the title. “Let’s go.” She lead the way up to the main deck of the ship.

Hrothgar and Kolodka split from them on the third level, heading to the rear of the ship and the engineering section. They both preferred to be where the action was on the off chance something untoward occurred during atmospheric reentry. Kasli trailed after Els into the living area, securing the door behind her. They separated at the top of the stairs leading down to the bridge, Els lightly trotting down the metal steps and Kasli continuing forward to the promenade where a collection of chairs were available to strap into for the landing procedure.

Entering the bridge, Els crossed to her station on the port side and secured herself in her chair. She saw Lafayette ahead through the wide windows, a barren lump of grey rock looming close. “We should get the go ahead in a couple of minutes.”

There were two other stations on the bridge, both low-slung and occupied. Austin sprawled in the center seat, wearing nothing but a pair of ragged cut-offs, his shoulder-length dreadlocks pulled back in a haphazard ponytail. He’d hitched a ride aboard Freya’s Tears three years ago, taking over as pilot. In the intervening time he’d made a number of alterations to his station, most dealing with his short stature. By now Els knew that replacing Austin also meant rebuilding the pilot’s station from scratch. Austin’s skill at his job was such that Els hoped she’d never have cause to make the modifications.

The computer systems station had begun taking on a similar appearance these days. Naya Prashad perched on her chair, bare feet curled beneath her petite form. Today she wore a royal blue peasant dress with black lace embroidery around its hem and collar. When standing she was no taller than Austin which meant she had similar difficulties reaching some components of her console. Taking his lead, she’d begun making adjustments as well. Els couldn’t very well deny her with Austin’s example as precedent. Besides, Naya’s skill with the shipboard computers was sorcerous. She was the third comp sys they’d been through in the last six months. If restructuring her station meant Naya stuck around, Els was all for the changes.

“Engineering’s green across the board, ” Naya stated in a lilting accent. She tapped her console, a frown on her pretty face. “Though the heat sink’s running a little hot.” She craned her neck to look past Austin at Els. “How long are we staying?”

Els spared her a glance before returning attention to her console. “As long as it takes to get another gig. At least a day, maybe more.”

“Okay. Maybe I’ll have a look at the heat sink, see why it’s running warmer than normal.”

Shaking her head, Els grinned. Naya excelled with computers and could jerry-rig many mechanical and electronic systems in a pinch. She had less than a micron worth of knowledge about the ship’s engines and was constantly getting booted out of the vicinity by Hrothgar. “You can fight that out with Kol. As much as you like tinkering, he’s the man you have to convince.”

Naya flashed her a dimpled grin, and Els chuckled. Kolodka was ever the gentleman to Naya, despite the fact that she was always underfoot in his domain.

“Five minutes,” Austin interrupted. “Preparing to breach atmo.”

Els flicked the intercom on. “Everybody strapped in?”

“We’re good, Els,” Kasli responded. “See you on the ground.”

“Will do.” She shut down the com and studied her console. They were still on autopilot, still on the path she’d navigated when they’d left Azteca C582 five days ago. “Everything’s green here. Smooth sailing.”

Austin nodded. “Shutting down autopilot. I’m going in.”

The only appreciable difference on Els’s console was a few degree change of their flight path. She continued to monitor their flight, allowing the computer to make adjustments of their projected path as Austin skillfully manipulated the pulse drives, adjusted their speed and trajectory to breach the planetary atmosphere. With a flip of a switch Els saw their real time course overlaid upon her mathematically projected one, keeping an eye out for any serious deviations. While Austin piloted the ship, Naya monitored the majority of other ship systems. Els observed their progress and tweaked their route depending on atmospheric variables and weather conditions planet side, sending the updated information to Austin.

The ship began to shimmy around them, and the gray rock turning orange as the friction of entry heated the nose of Freya’s Tears. As they left the vacuum of space, a low rumble began to build and the rattling increased its intensity. “Past the ionosphere,” Els announced. Checking local broadcasts, she added, “Looks like mild weather.”

Austin snorted. “Nothing new. This rock is too damned small for much of anything else.”

“Maybe so, but it’s big enough to provide work.” Els checked her console. “Stratosphere in three. Two. One.”

As the roar of re-entry faded and the ship stopped shaking, Naya accessed the tach-com. “Freya’s Tears to Lafayette star port, we’ve entered atmo. Request landing permission and cargo off-loading.”

“Lafayette to Freya’s Tears, is that cargo headed for the PX?”

Naya cast a glance at Els, receiving a nod of permission. “Sure is, Lafayette.”

“Icy! I could use a fresh beer,” the Port Authority officer quipped. “Sending coordinates now.”

“Coordinates received.” Naya patched them into Els’s controls.

“Got ‘em.” Els navigated a new flight path. “There you go, Austin.”

Austin altered direction, steering the ship toward the star port. “En route.”

Naya spoke again into the tach-comm. “We’re en-route, Lafayette. Should be there in…three modular minutes.”

“Looking forward to it, Freya. See you soon. Lafayette out.”

“Here’s hoping we actually have beer in that cargo,” Naya stated with a laugh.

Els privately agreed. Lafayette wasn’t a “dry” planet, but many military operations forbid alcoholic consumption. For the most part, Lafayette didn’t have any prohibitions of which she was aware. It would be a shame to arrange a surprise for Kasli this evening without a bottle of beer or wine available. Els mentally crossed her fingers.

As they neared the landing coordinates, she looked out the window. Gray ground raced below them and the pale green skies of Lafayette revealed two orange suns, Marquis and Yves. This system was remote in the vastness of space, several days distant from most others. One of eight planets, Lafayette was sparsely populated, used primarily as a training ground and general outpost by the same Zeta Lyman sub sector navy in which Els had served. Four gas giants in the system made for a decent fuel refinery operation in the outer rim, but there was little else to draw colonists or business. Most people coming this way fueled up on the outskirts of the system and continued on toward Bliss’s decadent resorts or to Britecos for its superior technological gadgets.

The star port and military base loomed ahead of them, one a series of small buildings clustered around a taller tower and the other row upon rigid row of buildings. In the vast open space between them were the military space ships, a collection of troop carriers and smaller fighter vessels. A green three-dimensional triangle pulsed on Els’s monitor, their current destination. Their landing position put them on the outer edge of the naval ships, close enough to allow easy offloading of their goods but far enough away from the nearest troop carrier to discourage terrorist activity.

Els quit her wool-gathering to direct the data to Austin. “Almost there.”

“Decelerating.” The landscape below slowed to a crawl as Austin decelerated. “Extending landing struts.” The neatly delineated streets and clean white buildings of the military base slid by below.

Els shunted her monitor information to the heads-up-display on the main window, the sensor data smoothly blending into the visual display. She felt the ship swoop as Austin fired fusion thrusters. Freya’s Tears eased closer to the blinking triangle until it hovered above the marker. She felt and heard the landing struts lock.

“Struts in position,” Naya announced. “Still green across the board.”

“Landing.” Austin eased back on the thrusters until the ship touched ground with a minuscule bounce. “We’re on the ground. Turning off propulsion systems.”

Els released her security straps, cheerful that they’d arrived in one piece. She flicked on the intercom. “We’ve landed. Everybody back to work. You know your assignments.” Rather than listen to the good-natured grumbling of her crew, she shut the intercom down, closing down the rest of her console as she went.

“Captain, I have Commander Folsum on the tach-comm.”

“Thanks, Naya.” Els accessed the unit and a face appeared on the comm screen. “Commander Folsum, how are you?”

The older man smiled welcome. His hair was a nondescript brown, going gray at the temples, his face careworn and pleasant. “I’m doing great, Captain Ulfarsdottir. Welcome back to Lafayette.”

Danke.” She glanced over her shoulder as Naya passed on her way to assist with the load out. Austin would remain on the bridge to complete his after-flight checks. “Shall I meet you in your office?”

“That would be fine, Captain. I have your payment ready.”

Els grinned. “Always a great thing to hear. I’ll be there momentarily.” They finished their pleasantries and she shut down the tach-comm.
“A day or two?” Austin asked, a preoccupied frown on his face as he worked his way through his checklist.

“Yeah. At least a modular day.” She smiled at him. Austin was the modern version of a hermit. He rarely left ship when planet side, preferring his off duty distractions in the form of gaming or video feeds. “Should give you time to have some things delivered from their PX.”

He nodded, not looking up. “Good. They might have a new program available for the holographic game deck.”

“They might,” Els agreed. She headed for the stairs. “Let me know if something comes up. I’ll be on post with Folsum for about an hour.”

“You got it, Skipper.”

The smile on Els’s face threatened to morph into a grimace. Sighing, she took the stairs two at a time. She had a favor to ask of the commander.

 

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