Freya's Tears

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Arrival On Bliss

Mission: Book Two - Ginnungagap
Location: Bliss Alpha

The shuttle skimmed less than a mile above the planet’s surface. Els had chosen to focus her investigation on the sunward side in order to utilize the natural light of the system’s star. Without the lavender sky the planet appeared dull and destitute, harsh unfiltered sunlight bringing sharp contrast between black shadows and brilliant surfaces. Whole decorative forests and carefully constructed townships had been uprooted by the forces that had destroyed the planet’s exo- and thermospheres. In some places the buildings radiated out from a central point, indicating massive explosions had taken place directly above them; in other areas vast swathes of jumbled debris proved that acres of landscape had been uprooted to crash kilometers away. Gases from planetary atmospheres always leaked a certain percentage into space as the lifeforms and processes indigent to the planet replaced them. But what could devastate the layers of an atmosphere enough to trigger the expulsion of all air from the planet?

“There’s another one.” Kolodka pointed starboard.

Els altered course on Kolodka’s direction, seeing the cracked remains of a city-sized dome swing into view. As the devastation loomed closer, she noted that the former city looked like all the others they’d flown over since arriving upon the surface, a popped blister on the skin of the planet.

The tachcomm crackled. “That’s Garson,” Austin informed them. He monitored their progress via Freya’s Tears’s sensors, keeping them updated with information. “It’s one of the largest cities on the Merino coastline, the regional capitol.”

Naya shook her head. “It didn’t do any better than any of the others.” Sharp shards of the broken dome stabbed into the sky as Els piloted the shuttle past them toward the center of the dome’s circumference.

Every dome they’d discovered in the last two hours had been punctured, exposing their metropolitan interiors to the vacuum of space. It was possible that the protective shells had been destroyed before the atmosphere had been stripped from the planet. They’d need much stronger specifically calibrated sensors to confirm that theory. In any case, the attacks had to have been carried out with brutal speed. None of the cities’ emergency procedures had sealed off the buildings which seemed an absurdity. Building and developing a culture on a planet with an exotic atmosphere meant that emergency procedures had to be in place in the event of dome malfunctions. Not everyone would survive, no, but someone should have. Right now there should be people waiting in safe havens all over the world that had properly sealed. Emergency beacons should be alerting rescue services to people trapped in air tight buildings. The chances of absolutely no one pulling through out of a population of billions was astronomical.

Until now, Els had only done fly-bys of the destruction, searching for a weak broadcast signal, something to indicate the location of survivors. No beacons had been forthcoming, and it was time to put down on the surface and investigate. She needed more information than what she could glean at a height of several hundred meters. “Austin, can you send Naya a city map? We’re going to land and check out some of the public bunkers.”

“Will do. Sending now.”

Naya pulled up the information. “Got it.” She superimposed the street map on the shuttle’s window. “Pinpointing public safety bunkers.”

Els reduced acceleration and altitude, coming in to cruise over the tops of dead trees and buildings. A three-dimensional triangle blinked red in the distance, and she altered course to intercept. Upon reaching the public emergency bunker, Els looked around for a place to set down. Land and air vehicles, rubble and glass from nearby buildings and corpses littered the sidewalks and streets. With a grimace of distaste, Els picked her way through the worst of the human remains to land the shuttle on a tiny patch of what used to be a park.

As she proceeded through a truncated post-flight checklist, the others double-checked their EVA gear and put on their helmets. By the time Els turned to leave the pilot’s seat, Tobias had already processed through the belly airlock and Kolodka was climbing down into it. Els attached her helmet and tapped Naya who turned to check the suit’s seals before taking her turn to exit the shuttle. Els activated her commlink, catching the tail end of Tobias’s comment.

“—Is a dump.”

Els couldn’t argue the point as the hatch panel blinked green. She popped it open and stepped inside, her descent into the tiny circular airlock slower than she expected for her weight. “Naya, did sensors pick up a gravity change?” She closed the hatch overhead and thumbed the command that processed the air out and vacuum in.

“They did, but it wasn’t an aggressive one. Just by a few meters of acceleration.”

Kolodka said, “What could cause a planetary gravitation shift at all?”

“The same thing that could blow a planet to hell,” Tobias answered.

Another green light and Els opened the exterior door, stepping out onto the dead world of Bliss Alpha. She purposely refused to look at the shuttle or the ground beneath it as she walked forward, not desiring confirmation that she’d landed upon and desecrated the scattered human remains.

Tobias had overcompensated for his inability to fire standard weapons in a vacuum by strapping a number of sheathed knives about his person. He stood now, a large Bowie knife in one gloved hand, staring at the ravaged landscape. Naya stood near him, closer than her cultural norm as if using his much larger bulk as a shield. Not far from them was a woman curled around a child, her frozen corpse forever clinging to the base of a denuded shrub.

Eyes shying away from the tableau, Els debated telling Tobias to put the blade away before he sliced open his own suit. The multitude of dead scattered throughout the clearing disrupted her thought processes. It had been easier on New Pacifica. The clinical term “biological debris” had allowed them the luxury of distancing themselves from what was floating outside the ship. Here on Bliss Alpha there was no escape from the evidence, no escape from the mental slap of reality that left her head and heart ringing with horror. How in the gods’ names could authorities possibly sort through and identify the remains or bury all the dead? This entire planet had become one of three tombs in the system.

Kolodka knelt in a pile of debris, hefting a chunk of material that looked like stone. It crumbled to dust in his fist. “Gravitational changes and atmospheric release can’t account for this.” He stood, a little unbalanced by creaking joints and the stiff suit, holding another piece of a building facade. Turning to Els, he said, “This material has been…I don’t know. Altered somehow.” He craned his neck to look up at the shattered remains of the building in question. “You can’t even see any girders sticking up out of that mess. It’s like all the strengthening properties have been leeched from the stone.”

Els followed Kolodka’s gaze, frowning. “Kasli, are you getting this?”

“I’m here, Els.”

Just hearing Kasli’s warm voice eased Els’s intense repulsion with her environment. She looked to the black sky, visually searching for what she couldn’t see, wishing that she could wrap her arms around Kasli right now and escape from this unrelenting nightmare. “Can you narrow down the ship’s sensors? Maybe pick up a little more information from specific structures in the cities?”

“I can give it a try.”

“Do your best.” Returning to the task at hand, she scanned her team. “The emergency bunker is this way.” She began to pick her way through the frozen dead, selfishly thankful that the vacuum of space protected them from decomposition and her from the smell of it.

It took some time to reach the bunker. Several public transit vehicles had been lined up outside the main entrance, indicative of either a touring company in the area or a concerted effort by authorities to get people to safety. The destruction that had caused the explosive release of breathable air in the dome had also picked up the conveyances and dropped them in a haphazard pile, blocking the path of the team. Els and her crew carefully navigated around the wreckage to avoid putting holes in their EVA suits. Eventually they reached a ramp leading to the basement access door of a crumbling building. The ground was layered with bodies, a rumpled carpet of icebound victims who’d dropped where they’d died. Kolodka produced a flashlight and shined it into the cavernous darkness beyond the dead. The door to the bunker stood open, jammed with cadavers.

Tobias grunted. “Looks like they didn’t have time to seal the doors.”

“But worldwide?” Naya asked, her voice faint. “How is it even possible that someone orchestrated a planet-wide attack with such immediate consequences?”

Els swallowed against the bile threatening her. Vomiting in an EVA suit these days wasn’t a life-threatening experience but it was still an unpleasant one.

“Could be that the attackers swept up after.” Tobias cleared his throat as he concentrated on safely sheathing his knife. “Anybody who did make it to safety would have tripped emergency beacons, calling for help. All the enemy had to do was track down the signals and blow the doors.”

Els turned to scan the other buildings again, remembering Kolodka’s remark about metal girders. “Austin, find me another bunker near here.”

It was Kasli who answered. “I’ve marked three bunkers in the immediate vicinity and downloaded the data to the shuttle.”

Realizing Austin had probably been monitoring their suit video feeds, Els felt a wave of sorrow for him. She forced the grief away. Now wasn’t the time to succumb to emotion; they needed to gather as much information as quickly as possible in case the attackers returned to check the system. She tapped commands into the data pad attached to the arm of her suit, accessing the shuttle’s data feed. A bare-bones topical city map popped into view. Three more triangles blinked and rotated on the small display, and Els chose the one that was closest to their location. “Come on, people. Let’s go.”

An hour later found the team at a much different scene.

Tobias whistled in admiration. “Now that’s what I call weapons damage.”

Standing at a similar ramp, Els illuminated the hole that had once been a set of emergency bunker doors. Twisted metal fingers stretched into the darkness beyond, grasping and reaching. The exterior stone around the mangled doors was as black as the interior and pitted with damage. She closed the distance, not wanting to but needing to fully investigate.

Kolodka walked at her side, running his gloved palm along the wall, dislodging crystallized dust and ash in the process.

At the door, Els illuminated an inner door displaying the same destruction and a long hallway beyond. “Looks like the airlock was blown from the outside, both doors.”

“Damn thorough.” Tobias approached one of the blackened splashes. “Looks like some sort of plasma weapon.”

“Naya, what do the sensors say?” Els asked, looking back at the petite woman hanging at the rear of the team. She noted stiff shoulders and a hesitation before Naya accessed the data pad strapped to her suit’s arm. Els left the door to stand beside her.

After a few moments of fiddling with her equipment, Naya said, “Evidence of helium plasma, just like we’ve picked up from the satellites and star port.”

“Who the hell uses helium plasma weapons?” Tobias wondered aloud. He’d reached the door and peeked inside. “That shit went outta style almost a quarter century ago.”

“I don’t know.” Kolodka rubbed his palms together, flakes of ash drifting away from them. “But whoever it is has found a way to refine its abilities, I can tell you that.”

Els remained at the top of the ramp with Naya. She scanned the immediate area, eyes taking in the same debilitated buildings surrounded by little parks. There were fewer bodies here which meant most of people in the area had made it to the relative safety of the bunker before someone had blasted its doors open. “So they blew the domes, then destroyed the atmosphere.” She looked up into the black sky. “Bliss had a militia outpost here but it was destroyed along with a star port, two other planets and every satellite in the system.” Her gaze drew down to the bunker doors. “And then they had to have physically raided the planet to track down each and every signal and stop it.”

Kasli chimed in. “That’s not just a planet-killer weapon, that’s an army.”

Tobias shifted, looking back up the ramp. “A big one. Granted, the militia was probably just a bunch of hacks pretending to be space navy once a month, but to cover all those bases without a single message getting out?”

“More than an army.” Kolodka tromped back up the ramp. “An armada.”

Pokker,” Els swore.

Naya tugged on her arm. “We have to get out of here before they come back.”

“And go where?” Hrothgar asked over the tachcomm from the ship. “Back to New Pacifica? Whoever did this didn’t originate there. Where did they come from? Where is it safe?”

Els felt trapped and hated it. They couldn’t stay here, but would going back to link up with Folsum make a difference? Her ship would be either underfoot or commandeered to assist in the mop-up efforts once the Siler forces arrived in New Pacifica. It would be months before she’d be able to break free from their hold, months of lost business. She didn't have that kind of money set aside for ship payments. Besides, if this was an invasion force from the New Indian Republic, heading back would only put her crew closer to the front lines. “Naya, how long would you say its been since this system was attacked?”

Naya shrugged, and Els saw her scowl in thought through her helmet faceplate. “Three weeks or so?”

Austin said, “Taking in the rate of debris spread for the satellites and such, I’d say that’s about right.”

“Maybe they won’t be back. There’s not much we can do without fuel anyway.” Els felt the need to run her hands through her hair, one of her nervous habits. Dropping her hands to her hips, she considered their options. “All right, we’ll locate the nearest fuel dump in an area where Freya can touch down. Kasli, I want you to do a pinpoint sensor scan of this area. Someone had to have landed to get into this bunker—maybe we can find some sort of evidence of the type of ship they’re using.”

“Okay, Els.”

“Everybody else, let’s get back to the shuttle. The sooner we have fuel, the sooner we get out of here.”

“What about me, Skipper?”

Els paused in mid-step. “No worries, Austin. I promised you’d get down here and you will.” She waited for a response, meeting the gaze of the crew around her. When she didn’t receive one, she started forward again. “Let’s go.”

 

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