Freya's Tears

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Chapter Twelve - Bliss

Mission: Book Two - Ginnungagap
Location: Bliss
Timeline: Day Seventeen

Three days passed, gloriously quiet ones that were without incident. Els had enjoyed a full day off of bridge duty, spending much of it with Kasli as they explored the less martial goods they’d appropriated from the Kusanagi. The crew had enjoyed a veritable feast their first night with the taste treats they’d procured from the yacht. Els had wisely steered clear of any dish containing curry. After all the merchandise had been inventoried, Els spent some time in her cabin doing a cost analysis. She arrived at a final tally that warmed her heart. If they sold each salvaged item at the best possible price, they’d make over four and a half million credits. Chances of that good fortune were astronomical—value altered dramatically depending on which planet the goods were sold, the local government’s percentage of taxes and customs fees and whether or not items were considered contraband on said planet. Els would be lucky to make half the four point five million estimate but that didn’t ruin her good spirits. It was free money, credits on which they hadn’t been counting. Even raking in two million would cover four months of ship payments and incidentals, leaving her open to be choosy regarding their next gig. That sort of freedom was invaluable.

Now they were almost to Bliss, this sub sector’s primary party planet. The weapons and turret missiles would be worthless here, but the fine clothing from the personal trunks might fetch a pretty credit. Bliss was the embodiment of that ancient saying, “Make love, not war.” Els also hoped to sell the Biru rubies here. Affluent business executives and government leaders from all over the Zeta Lyman sub sector visited Bliss to vacation in high style. If she couldn’t find a buyer for the necklace as a unit, she'd melt down the rhodium and sell the rubies separately.

Els arrived on the bridge, a pile of credits in her mind’s eye sharing status with an anticipated week’s holiday with Kasli. She hadn’t decided whether to spend the entire time at a vacation resort on Bliss Alpha or out in a rustic cabin in the forests of Bliss Beta. Austin was already at his station, but Naya was nowhere to be seen. Normally she shadowed Austin everywhere on board unless she was required to fill in on bridge. The oddity of her absence disrupted Els’s leisurely daydreams as she approached her navigation station.

“Captain? Can I see you for a minute?”

Els saw Naya poking her head out from the computer room door. Correction. She’s never far from Austin except when she babies her computers. Els changed course and followed Naya back behind the bridge. “What’s up?”

Naya directed Els to one of the currently active standing work stations. “I’ve been trying to get through to Bliss for the last day, but there’s been no response.” She pulled up the tachcomm log.

Scanning the log, Els blinked at how long the list was. “You’ve only been trying for one day?” She reached out to scroll down the entries. “Are these all yours?”

“Most of them.” With a blush Naya looked away, eyes flickering around the cramped room before returning to the monitor. “I wanted to surprise Austin, have his brother visit the ship while we’re there.”

Austin has a brother? Els mentally shook the thought from her head, chagrined at her lack of knowledge about a man she’d been serving with and now commanded for over two years. She forced herself back to the conversation. “Okay. And you’re not getting through…why?” She reached out and checked the diagnostics log, noting Naya had already run them twice in the last day. A menacing sensation grew in her heart. There’d been no response from New Pacifica when they’d tried to get through there either, and look how that had turned out.

“I don’t know. No one else has received responses to their messages either. According to my tests, our comms are running fine. I’ve been able to ping the Lafayette forces in New Pacifica and ran a couple of test comms that way as well. Our equipment works…”

“But we’re not getting through to Bliss.”

Naya nodded, swallowing hard. Her cinnamon brown eyes were wide. “You don’t think that whatever destroyed New Pacifica has hit Bliss too, do you?”

Els’s knees began to shake and she felt the wave of blood draining from her face, an odd, numbing sensation that swept south from her cheeks to her throat. Without thought she slapped her hand against the nearest computer bank to keep from stumbling. “No. No way.” Her words echoed hollowly in her ears as her stunned mind churned in time with her stomach. She’d been convinced that New Pacifica had destroyed itself. The multitude of planetary governments there had been at war for centuries, constantly paying the highest prices for volatile tech from other planets to destroy their enemies. During discussions over the dinner table, everyone had agreed that someone had finally invented or purchased a weapon that had destroyed their planet. There was no reason to think otherwise.

Bliss was far enough away from Lafayette that Folsum would never have attempted contacting them when he’d failed to get through to New Pacifica. The closest systems to his post were Azteca C582—where Freya’s Tears had picked up Folsum’s PX cargo—and Luxana, a backwater oligarchy operating on limited technology. Had he wanted to contact Siler Republic authorities, he would have used communications relays through Azteca rather than any of the others available to him. Access to Bliss would have been through the non-functioning New Pacifica relays and therefore inaccessible.

Austin announced over the intercom, “We’ll be out of jump in five minutes.”

Els’s eyes widened. In five minutes they’d be at their regularly calculated translation point. She’d had no reason to plot a course outside their usual route and it was impossible to change course while in this other space. If Bliss had been equally destroyed, the ship would translate into the middle of a shit storm. “Get to your post. Now!”

She literally chased Naya out of the computer room and onto the bridge. At her station, she slapped the emergency button, igniting flashing red lights and a mournful alarm throughout the ship, alerting the rest of the crew to an emergency.

Austin gaped, head turning back and forth between Els and Naya strapping herself into the comp sys station. “What the hell?”

Els hit the intercom, interrupting the audible alarm. “All hands, stations! Kasli and Tobias, lock and load. We may be arriving in the center of a debris field. Kol and Hroth, prepare for possible extensive damage to the ship.” She closed the channel, simultaneously silencing the audio alarm.

“What is going on?” Austin demanded.

“Naya’s been trying to send messages to Bliss and isn’t getting through.” Els mentally cursed as she realized she’d received no responses to her own messages. She’d put out queries regarding some of their cargo, but hadn’t been too concerned when no one had immediately gotten back to her. Only Naya’s personal interest in surprising Austin had tipped her off to something strange. “None of us are.”

“You think Bliss is going to be a repeat of New Pacifica?” Austin scowled at the window, watching the gray of other space. “That’s impossible. New Pacifica offed itself.”

“We don’t know that.” Naya continued her communication attempts. “Kolodka and Hrothgar have checked in from the engine room. And I’m still getting nothing from Bliss. Right now I should at least be receiving real-time satellite imagery and public band chatter.”

Pokker!” Els swore. “How long until translation?”

“One minute, thirty seconds.”

Naya said, “Kasli and Tobias are in position. They’re both locked and loaded. Without in-system satellite imagery I can’t do much until we translate. As soon as I do, I’ll run sensor data to their turrets.”

“How long will that take?”

“About forty seconds.” Naya’s tone was subdued.

Els’s stomach roiled. Forty seconds in New Pacifica without proper telemetry meant possible death. Unlike New Pacifica, Freya’s Tears had a fighting chance here simply because the standard shipping lanes were outside of Bliss’s planetary orbit. It was possible that Austin could avoid any debris and Els’s gunners could manually destroy anything in the ship’s immediate path until sensors could kick into gear. She opened a ship-wide intercom. “We have reason to believe that we’re going to run into the same thing we just left behind in New Pacifica. Gunners, keep your eyes peeled. We won’t have sensor data for your targeting computers for the initial forty seconds.”

“Copy that,” Kasli said, her words echoed by Tobias.

“Everybody keep your coms open.” Els glanced to the pilot’s station. “Austin, time to arrival?”

“Fifty-seven seconds.”

“Count down the last fifteen.” Els pulled up her most recent data on Bliss in the database, plotting a rudimentary path toward a safer area of space within the system. She couldn’t execute the new route until they translated into the system and the sensors could determine a safe way through the expected rubble. Seconds would count.

Too soon, Austin began his verbal countdown. By now Naya had updated the rest of the crew about the communications issue, so all were as braced for the coming calamity as possible.

“Three. Two. One.”

The gray haze outside the main window seemed to seize up before darkening to black. Stars blinked into place and in the distance the system’s sun glowed yellow. Proximity alarms remained cheerfully silent, almost ominously so.

“I’m not seeing anything,” Kasli said. “What about you, Tobias?”

“Nope. Nothing here.”

“Fifteen seconds for sensors to kick in,” Naya said.

Els accessed her navigational computer, preparing for the sensor data and slaving her read out to the main window.

Seconds later, Naya announced, “We’ve got sensors.”

Navigational data flowed across Els’s monitor. The generated information transposed itself across the window, the position of each planet blinking blue, each with a white line circling the distant star, named Powell. Small white letters indicated each planet’s designation and data. Unlike their arrival at New Pacifica, none blinked orange or red. All visible planets were accounted for and in their proper orbits.

“I don’t get it.” Austin used his controls to zoom out the window display and see the entire system. Eighteen planets and an asteroid field orbited its sun, six of the planets being small binaries that forever spun about each other. “Everything’s here. Why aren’t we hearing any transmissions?”

The image of the sixth planet expanded until it filled the screen as Naya focused the sensors there. Bliss Alpha, one of four habitable planets in the system’s ecosphere, was once a beautiful lavender marble that sparkled in space. The color had been the result of its exotic atmosphere, one that required breathing apparatus but didn’t detract from the planetary beauty. It was covered with resort domes, vast complexes of shopping centers, night clubs, parks and sporting facilities. The lavender hue was gone, leaving the planet looking sad, brown and gray. White remained at the polar caps as well as in shapeless blobs all over the planet. Els frowned at the screen, wondering what the additional unfamiliar white stuff was. Sensor data began to blink all about the planetary image, red and orange flashing lights coming into existence where satellites had once been in place.

An error light came up on Els’s panel and she accessed it. All ships arriving in system went to the star port hovering over Bliss Alpha to process through customs. From there free shuttles dispersed to the three of the four habitable planets, each a popular destination for various entertainments. Alpha held the resorts, Beta was a planet-wide pristine forest for those who preferred rustic vacations and Gamma was a small asteroid that had been hollowed out to create one massive night club and casino. As a matter of course, Els had programmed the ship to translate into the system and head for the star port where they could buy dock space for several days. “This says there’s no star port.”

Austin scowled at his console. “That’s impossible.”

“Let me beef up the sensors.” Naya’s hands flew across her station, eking out the last dregs of data she could get from the ship’s sensors. “It’s not registering. At all.”

“Are you getting any chatter?” Els asked, not liking the ramifications of an entire star port going missing.

“Not a peep.” Naya gestured at the blinking red bits across the main window. “Those are where the communication satellites should be, but they’re not showing up.” Her panel beeped and she accessed a monitor. “But I’m starting to receive telemetry on space debris in our path.”

Austin sat up, glaring at Naya. “How much debris?”

“Not enough to account for a planet or a star port.” She paused, continuing to scan the information flooding her station. “Most of it is organic in nature, but I’m registering inert material in the mix. No complex alloys.”

The complex alloys were what strengthened metals for use in space flight and orbital platforms. Organic debris had to be the dead stationed on the non-existent star port, but where did the port go? Els remembered her conversation with Folsum when Lafayette forces had arrived in New Pacifica. “Scan for helium plasma residue.”

Naya looked askance but didn’t pursue the topic. Instead she entered the search parameters into her console. Grudging respect cleared her frown. “There’s a lot of it. It’s everywhere along with some sort of electromagnetic property. It’s all over the random debris fields and heaviest around Bliss Alpha.” She looked up. “How did you know?”

“Something Lafayette discovered in New Pacifica.” Els pointed at the image of Bliss. “Any idea what that white stuff is? And what happened to the color?”

“That’s where the oceans are,” Austin supplied. He used a hand to point out the land masses currently facing them. “That’s the Indigo Ocean and the Merino Gulf. It’s ice.”

“What?” Els stared at the window. “All the water froze up? How’s that even possible?”

Naya cleared her throat. “Because there’s no planetary atmosphere.” Els and Austin both turned to stare at her. Nervous, Naya nibbled her lower lip. “Whatever happened stripped the atmo.”

Stunned, Els stared out the main window.

Kolodka’s voice came over the intercom. “What about Beta and Gamma?”

Naya focused intently upon her console as she accessed the information. “It’s the same with Beta. Gamma…” She blinked and shook her head in the negative. “That can’t be right.”

“What?” Austin demanded. “What can’t be right?”

“According to our sensors…” Naya shrank in her chair, curling up to avoid Austin’s aggressiveness. “It looks like Gamma has a massive hole blasted into one side of it. There’s a lot of…organic debris.”

“Organic debris. You’re saying everyone’s dead.” Austin stared out the window, hands clutching his station, complexion turning gray. “Everyone in the entire system is dead just like in New Pacifica.”

Naya couldn’t speak as she watched him take in the information.

He had a brother, maybe other siblings, parents, friends. Els swallowed, wondering how she would take the news that everyone she’d ever known on Placidus had been killed, that her entire home world had been destroyed. The concept boggled her mind. “I am so sorry, Austin.”

Her words seemed to cut the strings that held him upright, and he collapsed back into his chair, mouth agape as he stared out the window. The others spoke their words of condolences over the intercom in a number of languages—Old Norse from Hrothgar, Russian from Kol and Lakota Sioux from Kasli. Tobias even dredged up something he’d probably had to say when he was an officer in the SRN. Their words weren’t enough as tears spilled from Austin’s eyes, streaking his dark skin and splashing to his bare chest.

Els fought the urge to empathically share in his mourning. There was still work to be done. She sniffled and dashed a stray tear from her eyes. “Austin, I’m ready to play. Give me the ball.” She accessed the co-pilot controls, prepared to take the wheel.

Instead, he shook his head. “No. I’ve got the ball.”

“Are you sure? You don’t have to…”

He shot her a fiery glance. “Yes I do. I have to find out what happened here to lay my family to rest.”

They studied each other a long minute before Els gave him a curt nod. She released the piloting controls. “All right then. Kasli, stand down. Tobias, stay put just in case. Kasli will spell you in four hours. Kol and Hroth, you two are back on regular engineering rotations.” She updated and transferred a new flight path to Austin’s console. “Austin, change course to this route. We’re going to Alpha to get a closer look.”

“Firing thrusters.” The computer generated images began to shift as the ship picked up speed.

“Naya, give me as much data as you can regarding debris. I want a full scan of the damage at Gamma. Monitor comms for any emergency beacons. Alpha was covered with domes—maybe someone actually survived.”

Kasli arrived on the bridge, followed closely by Hrothgar. Kasli stopped at Els’s side, her touch on Els’s shoulder a tangible relief as they shared a look before Kasli’s gaze was drawn to the window.

Hrothgar stepped down into the nose, studying the images. “Any idea how long ago this occurred?”

“It can’t have been long. The damage is less extensive here than at New Pacifica. Besides, with no debris to run into, any cruise liners and cargo haulers would have arrived intact.” Kasli frowned. “I mean, how often do they show up here?”

Austin cleared his throat, his voice sounding almost rusty. “We’d get a minimum of three cruise liners a week through the system. That doesn’t count the thousands of daily commercial transport arrivals.” One of his shoulders hitched in a shrug. “It’d all depend on which direction the ships came from.”

Els had to admit he had a point. Cruise liners and commercial transports ran along the same lines as freight haulers. The safest routes were through populated systems, which meant itineraries tended to remain stagnant as the ships jumped from system to system. Had any ship come through New Pacifica, it would have been destroyed. The question was, did this bizarre destruction continue into the next system? Was that why there were no emergency services and no military presence in Bliss? Beyond this system was Britecos, a planet that had plenty of tech and a grade A star port. The only explanation for the utter dearth of first responders was that Britecos had suffered something just as catastrophic as the last two systems Freya’s Tears had been through.

She wasn’t the only to come to this conclusion. “This could just be the tip of the iceberg,” Naya murmured.

The concern etched in Hrothgar’s face made him seem far older than his twenty-five years. “We’re near the interstellar border between the Republic and the New Indian Republic. Do you think that the ambassador in that yacht was involved?”

“Invasion?” Kasli shook her head, dark braid swinging. “They wouldn’t have put their diplomat in danger. Besides, there are at least two other systems between us and the border and a smattering of others in unregulated space.”

Naya frowned in thought. “But would we have heard if anything had happened there?”

Els held up her hand, interrupting the paranoiac turn of conversation. “It’s been three months since whatever caused the destruction at New Pacifica. Militarily speaking, there’s no way Lafayette would have still been in the dark if this had happened on the border or on the fringe worlds. No one can keep a secret that big for that long.” She gestured at the window. “I don’t know what did this but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? Let’s just gather any information we can and relay it to Folsum in New Pacifica.”

Hrothgar nodded. “We’ll need to locate fuel again too.”

Grimacing at the digital display across the window, Els said, “At least we’ll have an easier time finding it.”

 

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