“I hope you don’t mind that I went without you,” Meris said. She bit one corner of her lip and tried to read Ellias’ body language. The screen of the vid-phone was small, and the connection kept getting staticky, so she couldn’t tell very much.
Ellias shrugged his broad shoulders, made broader by the thick, fur-lined coat he wore to stave off the chill of whatever tiny planet – she’d already forgotten – the crew had been stationed on this week. “Honestly, Mer, it didn’t matter either way to me. If you had to wait for me for everything you wanted to do, you’d be an itty, bitty old lady before you had any excitement in your life.” He flashed that grin, the one that had caught her eye the first day they had met, to show he was only teasing her. He always teased her about her height, or lack thereof. She hadn’t decided if she hated or loved that.
The wind picked up, flapping the awning of the tent he was seated outside of and the image was replaced by blowing snow – or was it static? When she could see him again, he was squinting his blue eyes against the wind and bright sun. He put a gloved hand to the brown woolen hat covering his dark blonde hair to keep it from blowing off.
“Go inside, Ellias. Get warm.”
The wind muffled his reply, but she knew what he had said anyway. “The reception is bad enough as it is, it’s worse inside the tent.” It was the same thing he always said, yet she would always try to get him to stay in the shelters as much as possible. He cocked his head at her. “I’ll be home soon, I promise. We have two more tons to mine, before being relieved by the crew of 16. One week medical iso, then I’m all yours.” He smiled. “I love you.”
She forced a smile in return. “I love you, too. And I’m counting down the days.” He’d proposed the last time he was home -four long months ago – and she’d accepted, knowing much of their life would be shared via vid-phone chats across the Newverse. The reality of that was just now starting to sink in.
He picked up the vid-phone and stepped away from the table, out from under the awning completely. He angled the camera to include the snow-swept landscape, dotted by giant black holes: the Bolidium mineshafts. Next to one of these scars on the planet’s face stood the massive cartage that Ellias and his crew used to transport the Bolidium from the mine to the carrier. Like oversized versions of the coal miner carts used on Earth, cartages were solar-powered wheeled carts, and she could see the crew lounging inside, basking in the sun.
“Can you see these lazy chuffs, Meris?” He’d raised his voice enough that Pero, second in command, overheard.
Pero was standing in the cartage, and waved one stick-thin arm at the vid-phone. “Is that my favorite girl?”
“When you gonna send this good for nothing fiance of mine back home, Pero? Isn’t it my turn yet?”
Pero was much older than the rest of the crew of Cartage 15. He’d been born on Earth, in the United Kingdom, but had grown up mostly in the Newverse like the rest of them when his parents had taken jobs helping with the founding of the New Colonies. He still held traces of his Earth-born accent, and his thin face was full of more character than those who were Newverse-born.
At his feet, Dusa was stretched out as far as his towering frame required, his powerful arms slung over the side of the cartage. His dark skin stood in stark contrast to the snow, but he nearly blended in with the metal around him. He’d been born in the Pentra Colony, and something about the water there lent the Pentarian people a distinctive dark grey complexion.
Pero nudged Dusa, telling him to say hello to her. Dusa raised one large hand and waved, giving her a big smile. He started to say something to annoy her as usual, no doubt, but a rumbling shook the whole region, nearly toppling Ellias and Pero where they stood.
She heard Ellias’ exclamation of shock, then, after a moment, his face once more appeared in frame. His eyes were wide and he’d gone pale. The others were calling out to each other, making sure everyone was safe.
She clutched the vid-phone tighter, wishing she were by his side instead. “Ellias? What happened?”
“Earthquake? Don’t think it was a cave-in.” He held the camera out as he did a full turn to take stock of his surroundings, and all she could see was the expected, snowy terrain. “No, I think it’s okay, just stay put!” She saw him waving the rest of the crew back down in the cartage. He peered into the camera at her again. “I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to-”
A huge, rumbling roar of machinery cut him off. He turned, and she was able to see the head of the mining lift raising up out of the opening of the mine over the cartage. Everyone was screaming, trying to get out of the cartage. The camera jerked about crazily as Ellias ran toward his crew. But then a loud tumbling, crashing noise suddenly silenced the screams, and a great billowing of dust concealed her view of the cartage and its crew as Ellias stumbled to a stop.
He dropped to his knees, the vid-phone falling from his fingers to lay in the snow. Meris could see only the right side of his body, from his thigh up to his hand on his head in disbelief. He was crying. “What just happened?”
“No…” Could she have really just witnessed... her mind even refused to form the question.
Meris saw someone come up behind him. She sucked in a breath and shouted, “Ellias!” But her warning came just a second too late. The muffled crack of the airbolt gun pointed at his head was followed by a spray of crimson as Ellias’ body toppled to the snowy ground. She shouted his name again and again, shaking as her mind and body fought against accepting everything she’d just seen.
The man wielding the gun bent and picked up the vid-phone. He swore, and for an interminable moment, he and Meris stared at each other. She could not see his face behind the tinted visor of his helmet, but he saw her clearly. A boom off-camera made him jump and look away, and he absently thumbed the button to end the call.
The vid-phone screen went black. Meris was left with the images of her beloved’s death, and the deaths of the entire crew of Cartage 15 replaying over and over in her mind.
The soldier who had killed Ellias had worn the grey and black armored uniform of Stell-Ore Mining Company’s elite security detail.
She had witnessed Stell-Ore killing their own men.
And they had seen her face.