Freya's Tears

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Chapter Thirteen - Investigation

Mission: Book Two - Ginnungagap
Location: Bliss - Freya's Tears

The trip to the capital home world of the system was swift. The ship made good time without a rubble obstacle course to avoid, settling into orbit around Bliss Alpha within a few hours of arrival in system. Naya had programmed the tachcomm to scan for signals, and the bridge was filled with the soft hiss of white noise as the unit hopped from frequency to frequency in a futile search for survivors.

Tobias had replaced Kasli on the bridge. He stood with one of his new machine-guns strapped across his torso. Els didn’t have the heart to remind him that anything strong enough to smash a gaping hole in a small planetoid wouldn’t be affected by a handheld solid projectile weapon. Instead she allowed him his security blanket, envying it as she wished for one herself.

Naya and Austin had both elected to stay on the bridge, Austin’s grip on the controls white-knuckled. Els thought he’d insisted on remaining here to at least have some level of control even if it was only regulating the ship’s course through a depopulated solar system. His entire world had collapsed, figuratively as well as literally. He needed the physical touch of the keys beneath his fingers, the concrete reminder that he wasn’t as dead as everyone he’d ever known on his home world. He’d had a brother; were there parents? Other siblings? Ex-girlfriends? As taciturn as Austin was at the best of times, Els figured she’d now never have the opportunity to know more.

“We’ve attained orbit,” Austin announced.

“Okay, Naya and Tobias, you’re with me.” Els switched on the intercom. “Kol, I need you in the shuttle. We’re going to do a little exploring. Pack up four EVA suits.”

“I want to go too.”

Els closed the intercom with a sigh of resignation at Austin’s statement. “No. You’re staying aboard. You have the helm.”

“Skipper…Els!” Austin clambered from his chair, eyes glassy. He pointed at the dead planet dominating the view. “I have to go home. I have to.”

She’d spent the last few hours debating who to take on this exploratory mission and had reluctantly chosen to leave Austin aboard Freya’s Tears. As much as she wanted to allow him the opportunity to set foot on his home planet, she didn’t have time to deal with his grief. None of them did. Whoever or whatever had destroyed all life in two systems and on multiple inhabited planets was out there somewhere. Her ultimate duty was to keep her people alive whether or not they agreed with her decisions, whether or not she hated herself for the actions she had to take to ensure their safety. Austin’s emotions were too volatile, his mental processes too jumbled. Dealing with the first hand evidence of this devastation could cause him to put everyone aboard the shuttle in danger.

Els stepped forward, nearly chest butting Austin as she glared down at him. “You’re staying aboard and you’re manning the bridge. You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it. Do you understand?”

“Els!”

“Do you understand?” she repeated, glaring into his eyes. She watched him search her gaze for weakness and narrowed her eyes in response. Several tense seconds passed as they visually fought for dominance. Els recognized when he conceded as he blinked and looked away to the once beautiful planet. His pleading expression became slack and he stepped backward. She placed a hand on his bare shoulder. “You’re my best pilot; I need you here in case whatever caused this returns. If I deem it safe enough, I’ll get you down there. I swear it. You need to do it, I know.”

Austin examined her veracity with a sidelong look. Then he slumped and nodded, turning away to return to his station.

Els mentally blew out a breath. She hated pulling rank among the people she’d served with as a peer, which accounted for over half the crew. It had been a long two years as she’d struggled to act like the captain of this ship, unable to avoid the habitual worry about their good opinion of her. Sometimes a leader had to make the hard decisions however, and she’d agreed to do that when the crew had elected her to take over when their captain, Adolpho Bercini, had succumbed to a massive heart attack. The funny thing was, Austin had been on board longer than she. He’d been offered first shot at the captaincy and had turned it down in favor of her.

Stepping back, Els locked off her navigation console, slaving all controls through Austin’s station. “Remain in orbit, we’ll keep an open comm. Sweep the planet with the sensors. I want continuous scans in case the ship picks up something we don’t.”

Subdued, Naya wouldn’t look at Els as she passed on her way to the shuttle. Tobias had remained through the confrontation, clutching his rifle. He now raised a questioning eyebrow at Els who waved him toward the stairs. Els had no doubt he’d been prepared to step into the confrontation if she’d ordered it. He and Naya had never known Els as an equal, only as captain. Neither would ignore her orders.

Hrothgar shouldered past Tobias, not quite slamming against him. His aggressive behavior toward the gunner reminded Els that Hrothgar was her next confrontation. Her brother needed to put aside his animosity toward Tobias. She didn’t know what Hrothgar’s problem was but she had to get to the root of it before his hostility disrupted the crew’s already shaky equilibrium.

Counteracting his bellicose behavior with Tobias, Hrothgar gave Els a commiserating look before sitting at her station. “Mind if I keep you company, Austin?”

A wave of love warmed Els’s heart as Austin mumbled a response. She gave Hrothgar a nod of thanks and left the bridge.

 

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