The Crew of Cartage 15; Chapter 1

“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.

*****

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Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 13

13 – Zac

Zac sent the video, slightly edited, to Berent using Myranda’s tablet. Within minutes, Berent sent a buzz.

I’m listening.

Zac smiled. “Showtime, everyone.” Myranda began crying and Meris struggled against her bonds. He opened the video-call app and tapped on Berent’s name. It rang once before Berent answered.

The Riekan man’s hard-featured face filled the screen. “Who are you and what are you doing with my wife and Meris Brand?”

“Retract your accusations against Darius Alazar.”

Berent laughed. “Do you think kidnapping my wife is going to help your boss? All it does is show I’m right about him.”

Zac panned the camera until Wyll’s body was in frame. “Tell your husband what I did to your brother.”

Myran fixed a glare so full of hatred on him that he almost forgot she was pretending. “Berent, don’t do anything he says. He killed Wyll.”

“Your husband is the one behind all this, Myranda!” Meris sounded just as convincing. “Tell her the truth, Berent. Tell her how you ordered Ellias murdered.”

Berent looked at them all. “Why is Meris tied up if she’s on your side?”

Crap. “Because I can’t trust her to not interfere with what I have to do if you don’t cooperate.” Did that make sense? Yes, yes that could work.

“Which is – what? – kill my wife?”

Zac shook his head. “No. No, I’m going to torture her. And I’m going to make you watch. Unless you recant and confess to what you’ve done.”

“Why kill Wyll? I mean, thank you for that, but he was Alazar’s biggest supporter.”

“Did you just thank him for killing my brother?” Myranda sounded hysterical.

Zac smiled. “You see, sweetness? I told you that you married a monster. He’s as good as admitted it.”

“Wyll was a rabble-rouser, Myranda. He was turning people against me so the real monster, Alazar, could escape justice. With him gone, the truth can finally be told.” He affected a sympathetic expression. “I’m sorry, honey.”

Myranda began sobbing, and this time Zac was pretty sure it was for real. “How can you say that? How can you talk about him like that? He’s my brother.”

“Myranda, honey, listen to me: you are going to be fine. This coward is not going to hurt you.”

From behind him, Meris suddenly shouted, “Zac, get down!”

Zac dropped to the ground just as the window behind him shattered. Searing pain ripped through his back,then only numbness. Meris and Myranda screamed.

“Meris, get Myranda and Wyll out of here!”

He couldn’t see her, but knew she’d have already slipped the cords off her wrists and ankles as planned. “I’m not leaving you!” She was right next to him now, trying to help him to his feet. Another airbolt shot flew over their heads, breaking the dishes on one of the kitchen shelves.

“Make sure Myranda’s free first.”

She grunted in frustration but started across the room. “Stay down!” Zac shouted to her as more shots tore through the apartment.

He tried to roll over and crawl to Wyll, but his legs weren’t obeying him. Paralyzed. Panic threatened to overwhelm him. If he couldn’t get up and run, Berent would end him here and now. The door to the apartment came flying open, Berent behind it. Zac turned his head further and fumbled for the handgun in his leg holster.

Meris and Myranda were in the line of fire. “Get down!”

The women started to crouch down, but Berent brought his gun up and aimed at Meris. Myranda pushed the Sindrian girl aside as he fired.

Myranda dropped like a broken toy.

Zac screamed and opened fire at the Riekan. One bullet hit him square in the chest, but he was apparently wearing body armor. The second bit deep into Berent’s right shoulder and he dropped his airbolt gun with a yowl of pain. Meris flew at him, clambering up on his back and grappling to get her arm under his chin to choke him.

Berent turned side to side quickly, clawing at her arms to try to dislodge her. She changed tack and dug her fingers into his bullet wound. Berent growled through gritted teeth and slammed backward against the wall, pinning Meris in between. He slammed her against the wall twice more before she let go and rolled to the floor.

Zac shot again, but Berent dodged, running out the door instead. Sirens were approaching. He could hear Meris crying and calling out Myranda’s name.

The tablet – if the police saw the video, they’d believe Zac really had kidnapped the two women. He reached down and scooted it across the floor to where he could forcefully bring his elbow down onto the screen over and over. Once the device had shattered, he fished out the memory card.

“Meris, how is she?”

She was sobbing too hard to answer. His heart nearly stopped. No, she can’t be dead. “Wyll? If you can hear me, you’ve got to start moving.” Zac craned his head back to see his friend still lying immobile. He looked over at Meris. “Meris, get Wyll out of here and get this back to Alazar.”

He held the memory card out to her; she didn’t look up. The sirens were getting closer. “Meris! You have to get out of here!”

She looked at him then. It took a moment, but recognition of what he was telling her finally dawned on her face. She crawled to him and took the card. “What is it?” Tears streamed down her face.

“The card from Myranda’s tablet. Her statement against Berent. Take it and get Wyll out. Get to Alazar.”

“No, you’re coming with us.”

“I can’t. I can’t move my legs.” His tears came involuntarily. “I’m so sorry, Meris. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.”

She started crying again, words that sounded like a prayer coming brokenly between sobs. Then a change came over her expression, like something just occurred to her. “Wait, let me see.” She pushed his arm and he helped as she rolled him over. With a relieved laugh, she said, “It’s just a Stinger.”

“What?” His heart started to pound as hope flooded him.

“Yeah, let me just get it out.” She grunted lightly as she pulled the device from his back. “There.” She held the bloody object for him to see. Shaped sort of like a corkscrew, the Stinger had a needle that penetrates the target’s skin to hold it in place while the body of the device delivers a neuro-disrupter charge that renders the victim paralyzed from the point of entry down until it is removed.

“Oh, thank God.” Already, sensation was returning to his lower body. He ignored the pins-and-needles feeling and rose to his hands and feet. “Get Wyll, I’ll get Myranda.”

“Zac.” Meris touched his arm and gave him a look. She shook her head as tears slipped down her face.

He got to his feet with her help, then lowered his voice to whisper to her. “We can’t leave her here.” She can’t be gone…What will Wyll do without her?

“We have to. Maybe this way Berent will go down for her even if we can’t prove his involvement in Stell-Ore.” She looked over her shoulder as the sirens grew louder. “Come on, they’re almost here.”

Tears blurred his vision. “This isn’t right.” He shook his head, surrendering. “All right, let’s get Wyll and get out of here.”

She sniffed and nodded, and the two of them lifted Wyll to his feet. Zac couldn’t even look at Myranda’s still form as they passed her on the way out of the apartment.

This isn’t right…

Wyll is going to hate us.

 

Chapter 12

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 12

12 – Meris

Zac opened the door to Jenna’s apartment, but stopped cold when he saw Meris. He frowned. “I thought you were coming alone.”

Meris furrowed her brow as she and Myranda entered the living room. “She asked me to-“

Myranda’s scream cut her off. “Wyll!”

Zac grabbed Myranda and held her back, but Meris slipped past his grasp. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing: Wyll’s body lay sprawled on the floor by the kitchen, a pool of blood turning brown in the pale blue carpet. A pink towel partially covered his face. Myranda’s screams were being muffled by Zac’s hand over her mouth and he was speaking rapidly and quietly in her ear; Meris couldn’t understand what he was saying.

She dropped to her knees next to Wyll and, with shaking hands, pulled the towel away from his face. His jade eyes were open, staring at her. A thrill of fear and grief clenched her insides. Wyll wasn’t moving. Tears began to burn down her cheeks. “What have you done?” She whipped around to face Zac. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”

Zac flinched away from her glare. Myranda had gone slack in his arms, raw, broken wails wracking her body. Instead of answering, Zac pushed Myranda into a chair and tied her hands and legs to its frame. Meris, even knowing this, at least, was part of the plan, still hesitated. “Zac -“

“Shut up, Meris.” He didn’t raise his voice or even look at her. This was not the same Zac that had helped them escape the Stell-Ore Security Compound, nearly at the cost of his own life.

That thought gave her an idea. She crossed the space between them and jabbed her fingers into the HEL-gun wound in his side. He doubled over with a short scream, then backhanded her across her face. Meris fell on her rump on the floor at his feet. “Meris!” He knelt and reached a hand toward her.

She slapped his hand away and spat in his face. “Don’t you touch me.”

He flicked his gaze toward the kitchen counter behind her. She followed his line of sight and gasped when she saw his vid-phone set up on the counter, recording everything. “What in the worlds?”

He frowned at her, then strode over to the vid-phone and stopped the recording. When he turned back to her, his rigid, aggressive posture softened, and he looked more like the Zac she knew. “Meris, please listen to me: I’m sorry I hit you. You took me by surprise and I just reacted. I’m so sorry.”

“What is happening? Tell me what you’ve done!”

He raked his hands through his hair. “Go look at him.”

“What?”

“Wyll. Look at him.”

“I-” Something in his eyes stopped her protest. She turned her head to look at Wyll. Slowly, his eyes closed, then opened again. She gasped, “He’s alive?”

She looked at Myranda. There was no surprise on her face. “Wait- you knew?”

“Not the details, but, yes. My reaction had to have an element of truth to it. All that blood, Zac- you cut it way too close.” She sniffed and fixed her gaze on her brother. “Meris, make sure he’s okay. He’s probably very confused and scared right now.”

Zac dipped his head, looking down at the floor. “He hates me. And I can’t blame him. I didn’t trust him with the details of the plan. Instead I just blindsided him.”

Meris got up and shakily approached Wyll. His eyes went from Zac to her, and he attempted to turn his head. “Hey, Wyll, just stay still, okay?” She touched her fingers to his throat and felt a slow but steady pulse. She then laid a hand on his chest and felt the slight rise and fall of his breaths. She wouldn’t have seen it if she hadn’t already known he was alive. A weight lifted off her chest and she let out a breath of relief.

“Check the wound.” Myranda’s voice still trembled a little.

Meris turned her attention to the jagged knife wound he had received in a fight to the death with the man from the Pentra Colony back at the Security Compound. Only days ago, it all seemed like something from her distant past. He’d saved her life that day, more than once, and yet she had still considered him nothing more than the man who had killed Ellias. Trust and forgiveness had come later, almost too late. “It’s sealed. Looks good.” She touched his arm. “Are you okay? Blink once if yes.”

Wyll blinked slowly. “Okay. I know this is all really confusing, but please don’t hate Zac. Myranda trusts this could work.”

Wyll blinked twice. She frowned. “No? You don’t think it will work?”

His head rocked ever so slightly. A tear slipped from his right eye and disappeared into his black hair. His jaw muscle twitched. “Trust me, I know how frustrating this is, but I think it’s wearing off some.” She turned to Myranda and Zac. “He moved his head a little, but that’s it. Is there any way to speed this up for him?”

Myranda shook her head. “The drug induces a state similar to sleep paralysis. His skeletal muscles are immobilized, but not the ones that control breathing, his heart beating, or blinking and moving his eyes. It has no antidote, and how long the state lasts is different for everybody.” She asked Zac, “How long has he been down?”

“About an hour and a half.”

“He’s really fighting it, then, if he can move at all. Zac, we need to get this show on the road, before he gets up and busts out all your teeth.”

Zac nodded, his cheeks flushed. “Meris, I think maybe you should be tied up, too.”

“Berent doesn’t care about me.”

“No, but if you’re free and Myranda isn’t he’s gonna smell a trap.”

She looked at Myranda, but the Tudoryan woman merely shrugged. “You’re already on the footage.”

Meris sighed. She looked down at Wyll. “You need to stop fighting the drug, for just a little bit, okay? We have to make Berent believe you’re dead.”

He blinked once, then closed his eyes. She got up and sat on the couch, her hands held out, wrists together. Zac went to the kitchen and unplugged the coffee maker and toaster. After cutting the cords off, he came back in and began tying Meris up. “Under other circumstances, having two lovely ladies willing to let me tie them up could be fun.” Zac winked at her.

Meris couldn’t help but laugh. “In your dreams, Zac.”

He grinned broadly. “Count on it.”

“Eww.”

“Hold that thought, sweetheart, I’ve got a phone call to make. And try to act like you hate me.”

She smiled sweetly. “That shouldn’t be too hard.”

Chapter 11                                                                                                       Chapter 13

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 11

11 – Meris

Myranda paced in a tight circuit like a caged beast. Meris sympathized with her anxiety and eagerness to be off, but Alazar was not yet convinced to go along with the plan.

“I can’t believe you’re not chomping at the bit here – this is a way to draw him out and keep you out of chains, and you’re – what? – second-guessing it? This is insane!” Myranda’s fist were balled at her sides, and it looked like it was taking every ounce of self-control to keep her from punching Alazar out and forcing him to go with her.

“I think she’s right. If we can do this without giving you up to the police, then we should at least try it.”

Myranda gave Meris a grateful smile. “Just give this a chance, before you go off and martyr yourself.” Her tone was borderline pleading.

Alazar’s jaw muscles twitched as he mulled it over. But his arms remained crossed over his chest and his eyes were cast toward the floor. It would be a miracle if he relented. Meris knelt next to him and placed her hands on his leg. “Darius, please. If this works – and that is a big if, I admit – but if it does work, we will have Berent in our hands, and we can force him to tell the truth, for the whole NewVerse to see.” She dipped her head down a bit to force him to look at her. “Your message can go out with it, sure, but you wouldn’t have to give yourself up to the Council for something you didn’t do.”

His eyes locked onto hers and her gut twisted again. Before her was a man willing to put his life in her hands, willing to risk the Chamber to expose the truth to get justice for her murdered fiance, and she was manipulating him like some bored, conniving vamp because she suspected he cared for her. She felt like throwing up. “We had a plan, Meris, one that would keep the rest of you out of the Council’s hands. I cannot guarantee anyone’s safety or freedom if we abandon it now.”

“I know. But we’re not asking you to. We’re asking you to trust that Berent’s own nature will work against him, and that Myranda and Zac can take care of the rest. If it doesn’t work, we still have your plan to fall back on.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t like it, there are too many moving parts.”

Myranda threw her hands up and growled in frustration. Alazar raised a hand for her to hear him out. “But, it could work. If Zac can sell Berent on his story, and if Myranda can pretend she doesn’t know what a monster he truly is, we have a chance. But I can’t be anywhere near it. If he even suspects I know about this, he’ll bolt.”

Meris shook her head. “We’re not leaving you here.”

He covered one of her hands with one of his. “Leo can stay, if you wish. It will be down to him to get my message out to the Nexus anyway, if Zac’s plan fails.”

She chewed on her lower lip and felt anxiety crawling through her stomach. It was too much, all of it, too much to keep bearing. If it could be over, and without losing Alazar to the Council… She looked at Leo. “Will you stay with him?”

Leo nodded, but there was fear behind his eyes. “Of course.”

Alazar squeezed her hand. “It’s settled, then.” She turned back to see him smiling sadly at her. “I’ll see you soon.” Her heart broke at the look on his face. He turned to Myranda and Leo. “I’ll see you all very soon. And I will hope this will all be over when I do.”

Myranda looked him in the eye a long moment. Then she nodded. “Thank you.” Her gaze flicked to Meris. “Come on, Zac’s expecting us.”

Chapter 10                                                                                                     Chapter 12

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 10

10 – Zac

The first thing he noticed was that it was getting easier to breathe. When he could finally collect himself enough to stop shaking, he composed a buzz to Myranda and pushed the SEND icon. Now all he had to do was wait.

Zac raked his fingers through his short, light brown hair and took another deep breath. If Myranda didn’t cooperate, this whole plan would fall through.

Two minutes later, his vid-phone emitted a sharp beep and rumbled with vibration. He startled so hard a muscle twinged in his neck, and he snatched up the device with a self-chiding grunt. The message was short and exactly what he wanted to see:

On my way.

Zac smiled and turned his attention to Wyll’s sprawled form on the pale blue carpet. The pool of blood next to him was a little larger than he had anticipated, but that could only work in his favor. Since he didn’t know where Myranda and the others were, he couldn’t guess how long it would take her to get there, but he decided to take advantage of the down-time and get properly cleaned up.

He entered Jenna’s small bathroom, a clean but stark room, and opened the linen closet to get a towel. He couldn’t help but laugh when he took one off the top of the stack. “Guess you had a girly streak in you after all.” The towel became a bright pink blur as tears filled his eyes. He balled it up and pressed his face into it, letting the tears come. He owed her this. There was no one else to really mourn her, and only a hastily dug grave in Leo’s back yard to memorialize her.

“I’m so sorry, Jenna.” His voice was a hoarse whisper. How did everything keep going from bad worse? How did life get so turned upside-down so fast?

Berent Gaehts has a lot to answer for.

Once he composed himself again, he stripped down and opened the shower stall curtain. Here, too, were little hints of Jenna’s spunky personality, in the form of a wash mitt shaped like a skunk with the words ‘Funk Buster’ written across its belly in neon green letters, and bottles of the apple-scented body wash and shampoo she always used. He turned the showerhead on and stepped in, letting the hot water pelt his body.

He opened the bottle of body wash and inhaled the scent, remembering the first time he had met Jenna. She had had a proverbial chip on her shoulder the size of a city block, owing, he suspected, to her tomboyish looks and lower class upbringing. Not to mention the fact that she was an Egalian female trying to fit in on squad of mostly Sindrian males. She had seemed relieved to find out that Zac, too, was an off-worlder, and that there were many others in the Stell-Ore Security Compound.

But that didn’t mean that she’d ever stopped trying to prove herself the equal of him or any other man in the unit. She’d even punched him in the face the first time he’d accidentally called her ‘kid.’ But once he explained that that was his nickname for his little sister, and that she reminded him of her so much, she asked him to forgive her. She then said not to let it happen again, though, or she’d punch him harder next time.

That was pretty much the moment he’d adopted her as his responsibility and vowed to protect her.

He hoped, when he met her in the hereafter, she would forgive him for failing.

After ‘busting the funk’ off himself, he wrapped the pink towel around his waist and grabbed his clothes. The lingering stench of smoke from the Personnel Carrier Vehicle crash he and Wyll had staged wafted up from them. He frowned. There was a wash-dryer in the kitchen, if he remembered correctly.

But that meant walking past Wyll.

Clenching his jaw, he strode the floor straight to the kitchen without sparing a glance for his Lieutenant. He didn’t want to see how his eyes seemed to stare at him with rage, no matter where he stood. He threw his clothes into the wash-dryer and hit the start button. The small, cube-shaped appliance filled with the chemical-laced steam that cleansed the garments in a matter of minutes. The cycle then changed over to dry them in an equally short time.

In less than five minutes, he was dressed again. When he could take it no longer, he turned around.

Wyll was staring at him again.

“Don’t look at me like that.” He tossed the pink towel across Wyll’s face and stormed out of the room.

Chapter 9                                                                                                         Chapter 11

 

Stell-Ore Justice Chapter 9


9 – Meris

Alazar looked her in the eye. “Ready?”

Meris glanced back at her vid-phone screen once more before looking at him. “Ready when you are.” She had him perfectly framed in the camera, his wounds unmistakably visible in the natural light of flooding the dining area of the little cottage’s kitchen. The white plaster wall behind him provided a neutral backdrop, though the wooden corner nook bench on which he sat provided him with very little comfort.

He nodded and cleared his throat, then straightened his posture as much as possible. Meris tapped the icon to start recording, then gave him a nod. He took a deep breath. “My name is Darius Alazar. As you all must know by now, I am being accused of the terrible crimes – the atrocities – that occurred at my company, Stell-Ore Mining. The first of these atrocities was the senseless and brutal killing of the crew of Cartage 15, one of the best crews I had in my employ.”

He paused for a moment as Meris’ hand started to shake. A tear fell down her face, but she wiped it away, steadied her hand and nodded for him to continue. “In the aftermath of that tragedy, a very brave young women took it upon herself to infiltrate my headquarters with the intent to accuse me of the crime. I will ever be grateful to this young woman, the fiancee of my crew chief, Ellias Gammet, one of the casualties of the Cartage 15 massacre. Her name is Meris Brand, and she is filming this video. Say hello, Miss Brand.”

She didn’t know he was going to do that, but she saw immediately his plan. She wiped her tears some more and turned the vid-phone camera toward herself. She looked directly into the camera. “Hello. As you can see, I am alive and well and in no danger from my companions. I further verify that everything Mr. Alazar is telling you today is the truth.” She glanced back to see him smiling. He nodded that he was ready to resume. She gave a small wave to the camera and switched it back to him.

“Thank you, Miss Brand. I am grateful to her for uncovering the truth behind the Cartage 15 massacre. She confronted me with footage immortalized by the same vid-phone with which this message is being recorded. In this footage, I saw members of my own elite security staff purposely putting a bullet into Ellias Gammet’s skull, murdering him in front of Miss Brand’s very eyes. I cannot imagine the horror and grief this act has caused her.” He looked past the camera to her, his eyes soft and full of empathy. She felt more tears falling.

“However, this footage proved that the deaths of this crew was not the result of an accident, an equipment malfunction, nor the result of the crew chief’s own actions, as some suggested. Ellias Gammet did not get a brain-bug and go mad; he and his crew were not infected by any pathogen picked up on Thalassa. This is what the young Lieutenant who led the attack on this crew was told. He was made to believe that he was carrying out a security protocol in place to ensure that no off-world diseases ever make it back to Sindria, or any of the other colony-planets. This Lieutenant is Wyll Meirig. He received this order from Commander Hauher, who is the commanding officer over all soldiers on my security staff.”

“Lieutenant Meirig, Meris Brand and other members of my staff supported me when the real culprit was revealed to be Berent Gaehts, who usurped my position as Head of Operations of Stell-Ore Mining. Berent Gaehts framed me for these crimes, attacked me and imprisoned me in what is not-so-affectionately known as The Hole – one of the many training facilities within the Stell-Ore Securities Compound that was not under my direct supervision.” He paused, his gaze going inward. “Had I known what that place was, how it was used, I would have seen to it personally that it was demolished. This is a place of isolation, where I was beaten and tortured by Commander Hauher, several of his soldiers and even Berent Gaehts himself.”

“Many of you will say that this message is simply a delaying tactic, an attempt to muddy the waters in order to save my own skin from the Chamber. I understand why you will think this. I can only hope to change your mind with the truth.”

This was the part Meris was dreading most. He had refused to tell her in advance what he was about to reveal, and her mind raced with the possibilities. All he would say was that she would see why it really was his fault after all, even if he never pulled the trigger.

“Miss Brand does not know what I am about to tell you. None of my companions do. When I have finished, Miss Brand will accompany me to the nearest police station, where she will turn me over to the authorities so that this whole story will be forced to be aired in open court. I will stand before the Council and answer for the part I did play in this tragedy, but I will also defend my innocence of the deeds themselves. Berent Gaehts and Commander Hauher are the ones who are guilty of these crimes. I was merely the one unwittingly incited them.”

He took another deep, steadying – or perhaps cleansing? – breath. He then looked her dead in the eye and said: “I had served Berent Gaehts with his termination papers two days before he murdered the crew of Cartage 15. I was giving command of his crew, Cartage16, to Ellias Gammet and reassigning both 15 and 16 to the refinery to increase refined Bolidium production in the wake of the retirement of several loyal refinery employees. It was also going to serve as my wedding gift to Ellias Gammet and Meris Brand, as it would mean he would be staying on Sindria instead of traveling to mine the Bolidium.”

She couldn’t hold back the tears, and a sob wracked her body, making her nearly drop the vid-phone. He reached across the table and took her hand in his, gently steadying the camera and offering solace in one gesture. She would have had her wish, she would have had Ellias with her always. It would have been perfect.

And it had been taken from her. Berent had robbed Ellias and her of their future.

For what?

Because he got fired.

“Did you tell him?”

Alazar winced. “Yes. He was going to tell you when he got home from Thalassa. He wanted to marry you as soon as he came back.”

She was shaking so hard she could barely keep the camera on him. “No, I meant Berent. Did you tell Berent your plan for his crew? For Ellias?”

He looked down at the top of the table. “I don’t know how he put it together, but no, I didn’t tell Berent.”

“They were friends… for over ten years. They shared an apartment for five years. How could he have just… murdered him so coldly like this? All over a job?”

He looked away. “I should have seen something like this coming.”

“How? How could you have predicted this?”

“The reason I was firing him, it was because of the rumors.”

She furrowed her brow. “What rumors?”

Chapter 8                                                                                                         Chapter 10

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 8

8 – Meris


Meris checked her vid-phone for the fourteenth time. Wyll still had not responded, which was…odd.

“Myranda, has Wyll contacted you yet?” She kept her voice low, to not disturb Alazar, who had just fallen asleep again. He seemed to be resting peacefully, now that his fever had broken. He’d even managed to open his eyes and say her name a few hours earlier. Now, her concern was for Wyll; it wasn’t like him to ignore them like this.

Myranda shook her head, a tightness in her forehead and jaw that betrayed just how worried she was, as well. “Neither has Zac.”

“Do you know where they went?”

Myranda’s lips pressed into a thin line. “No. It was part of Wyll’s plan. We aren’t supposed to be able to give up their location if we get picked up. They don’t know where we are, either, for the same reason.”

Meris made a noncommittal sound. She wasn’t sure where they were, either. Leo had taken them to some sort of farming community she had never heard of. Scania Farms claimed to provide the best dairy and meat in all of Sindria, yet she couldn’t think of a single instance of buying anything with their name on it… How Leo found it and arranged for them to stay in one of the abandoned cottages along the lush Helsing Sea coastline while Alazar recuperated was still a mystery, as well.

Leo turned from the window he’d been staring out of and faced the two women. “Something has happened to them, hasn’t it? They’ve been arrested, or – or -“

“Don’t say that!” Myranda’s voice cut through the dingy room. “They probably just had to go dark for a while.”

“It’s been eight hours.”

“I know that, Leo.” She picked at a loose embroidery thread on the pillow she held in her lap, on the surprisingly comfy couch she was seated on next to Meris.

The fire Leo had built in the stone fireplace to take the edge off the cool coastal wind as it sliced through the drafty cottage crackled noisily and cast golden flickers on the field-stone hearth. Meris glanced over and jumped up when she noticed an ember had popped out from under the firescreen and rolled much too closely to Alazar’s cot. She kicked the red ember back onto the hearth and stomped out the smoldering spot on the very bottom edge of the musty blanket they’d covered him with.

Alazar stirred and reached up to trace the back of her hand with his fingertips, as if trying to get her attention. But when she turned to look at him, he had opened his eyes and was staring at his surroundings in confusion. He seemed to relax a little when his gaze found Leo at the window. He then turned his head and saw Myranda on the couch at the foot of his bed.

Then he turned his eyes upon her. She couldn’t pretend she didn’t see the light that sparked to life in them, nor ignore the pain it caused deep in her gut. She forced a smile. “Welcome back again, Alazar. Do you need anything?”

The light in his eyes dimmed slightly. Another twinge of pain and guilt twisted inside her. “Where are we?”

“Leo, you want to take this one?”

Leo turned to Alazar and smiled ruefully. “Meris thinks I’ve taken us to the literal middle of nowhere.”

“She’s not too far off.” Myranda went back to picking at the loose thread.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Alazar. Suffice it to say we’re safer here than anywhere else I can think of.”

Alazar shifted, trying to sit up. Meris put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m not so sure you should try that just yet.”

He gritted his teeth and pushed against her, apparently determined to sit up or split open his incision again, whichever came first. “We’re wasting time here. Why aren’t we at a Nexus Hub already?”

Meris and Leo shot a look at Myranda, who frowned slightly. “We can’t, Berent beat us to the press, remember? The whole NewVerse thinks you, Wyll and Zac led the attacks on the Stell-Ore employees.”

He stared at her a long moment. “I thought that had been a dream. I had… so many dreams lately.”

“Sorry, but this is no dream.” Myranda twirled the thread, which Meris now noticed was a deep red, in a circle around her finger. “We were hoping Wyll and Zac would have an idea of what to do next, but we… lost contact with them.”

Alazar flipped the musty blue blanket off of himself and rolled onto his side. He paused for a moment before pushing himself up and swinging his long legs over the side to sit on the edge of the bed. He was breathing rapidly and looked like he was going to collapse. Meris placed a hand on his shoulder to steady him. “What are you doing?”

“One… We need to… keep moving.” He was out of breath, that easily. “Two… I need the toilet.”

Meris felt her face flush. “Oh, well luckily this place actually has plumbing.”

Myranda stood up. “I’m the doc, I’ll help him.”

“But I’m a guy, I’ll give him a hand.” Leo approached his boss, but then stopped cold.  “Oh, eww, not literally, though, sir.”

“Thanks, Leo, that makes this so much less awkward.” Alazar frowned, but Meris could see laughter in his eyes.

She stepped aside and let Leo help Alazar to his feet and out of the room. Once they had disappeared into the bathroom, one of the only three other rooms in the cottage, she turned to Myranda. “He can barely sit up or stand. What are we supposed to do now? We can’t fight Berent and his men and protect him at the same time if we get attacked.”

“You and Leo will have to do the fighting, I’ll do the protecting of my patient.”

“But what do we do? What is the plan now?”

Myranda tilted her head back slightly and exhaled noisily, something Meris had seen her brother do when stressed. “I don’t know, Meris. Why don’t you tell us what the plan is? You’re the one who started this whole crusade to begin with.”

Anger bit at her tongue, goading her to lash out. Instead, she reined it in as best she could. “I did not start anything. Berent and his men did. All I wanted was to expose the truth. Do you think I planned to be on the run with the man I saw murder my fiance, and his sister, who is the wife of the man who ordered it done and with the man I originally accused of being behind it all? This -” she flicked out a hand to indicate their surroundings “- is not where I pictured myself today.”

Okay, so maybe she didn’t rein it in very well after all.

“And you think I did? Did you think any of the rest of us did? But this is where we are. But this is also where we can’t stay. Alazar is right about that.”

“Granted, but I don’t know what we can do instead. We need Wyll and Zac.”

The two men came back into the living room. Alazar flicked a glance at Meris before addressing Myranda. “How long since the last contact with them?”

Myranda was chewing on her human’s cuticle. “Over eight hours.”

“Then we have to proceed under the assumption that they’ve been compromised somehow.”

“But sir-“

“I know no one wants to think about this, Leo.”  Alazar stepped away from Leo and supported himself against the fireplace mantle, giving Myranda a sympathetic look. “But we can’t hide out forever. We need to come forward, now.”

“How? We’d never make it through the next big town. Have you forgotten that everyone in all seven colony-planets is out for our blood?”

Alazar shook his head. “No, Meris. Not our blood – mine. And you’re going to give it to them.”

Leo and Myranda started speaking at once. Meris simply stared for an extended moment before she had to ask, “What are you talking about?”

“You bring me in, tell them everything that really happened and hand me over. Of course, they won’t want to believe you at first, but they’ll have no choice but to investigate your claims. They’ll still put me on trial, I’m sure, but Berent has nothing to tie me to any of this. What was my motive supposed to have been for killing my crew and starting a rebellion among my employees? Did I just go mad? If so, then why in the worlds would anyone have supported me? His whole argument will fall apart if the Council starts pulling the right thread. But before I make my case in the court of law, I’m going to wage my war in the court of public opinion.”

Meris exchanged looks with each of them, then a smile stretched her lips as his plan fell into place in her mind.

“Meris, do you still have available memory on your vid-phone?”

Her smile broadened. “Yes, Darius, I do.”

Chapter 7                                                                                                           Chapter 9

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 7

7-Alazar

Her voice was so very far away. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t make it come any closer, but he knew he’d be lost if he didn’t get back to her. But why? Why was he so drawn to her? She had done nothing to indicate he was anything more than a means to an end, had she? No. She was still in love with a dead man.

A man who was dead because of him. It was his fault after all, just not as she had first thought.

“Alazar? Can you hear me?”

Yes, he wanted to say, but he was too far from himself. Please, keep talking, keep me here.

“Please, God, let him live.”

Was she actually praying for him? His heart constricted with this new, unfamiliar feeling.

Meris.

“Alazar, please, open your eyes. Please, God, just let him look at us.”

I want to. I want to stay, I will do anything to stay. For you.

“Open your eyes, Darius.”

She’d never said his name before.

He felt like he was pushing his way through sand.

Meris.

He was so tired. The sand was all around him, inside him. It was him.

There was no way he was going to make it.

“We need you. I need you.”

“Meris?”

Chapter 6                                                                                                          Chapter 8

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 6

6 – Wyll


Wyll’s vid-phone vibrated, making a loud rumbling sound on the stainless steel countertop. He snatched it up and read the buzz, surprisingly from Meris instead of his sister.

Saw newsfeed. Trying to plan next move, but Alazar took a bad turn – septic. Myranda doing her best with fish medication. Don’t ask. Are you two safe?

He re-read the third-to-last sentence twice, sure he had read it wrong. Fish medication?

“What now?” Zac’s voice was hollow and raspy. Neither of them had gotten much sleep since they staged the PCV crash and fled New Friesland. Especially not since they’d arrived at Jenna’s apartment. The reminders of their fallen comrade and proximity to Stell-Ore had left them feeling emotionally raw and hyper-vigilant, even if they’d convinced themselves that no one would look for them here.

“Alazar’s gone septic.”

Zac paled. “He’ll live, though, right? Myranda, she’ll -“

“I don’t know.” He hadn’t meant to growl at him, but why did everyone always assume he had all the answers?

“Okay… Okay…” Zac sat down at the metal counter, perched on the tall, swiveling stool next to Wyll’s and began drumming his fingers on the countertop. It was grating on Wyll’s already strained nerves, but he knew better than to interrupt the Egalian man’s process. “I’ve been thinking about backup plans ever since we saw just how bad Alazar’s injuries were. We still have Myranda’s statement and Meris’ vid-phone footage…”

“Which only proves that I killed Ellias Gammet.” -the crack of the airbolt and the crimson spray of the Sindrian man’s blood across the snowy ground- Wyll closed his eyes against the memory. “It proves I turned Cartage 15’s own mining equipment against them, causing the entire crew to die under a ton of Bolidium.”

Zac turned a sympathetic look on him. “Hauher lied to you, Wyll. He and Berent used you. It’s not your fault.”

Wyll couldn’t hold back the bitter laugh that escaped him. “Do you honestly think that makes it any better?”

Zac looked away. “No, it doesn’t, does it?”

“That doesn’t matter right now. What matters is can we avoid the Chamber if Alazar dies?”

Zac’s fingers started drumming again. After a long moment, they slowed to a stop. “There’s only one way I think we can.”

Zac stared at him a long moment. His expression told Wyll nothing of what was about to come out of his mouth. “Myranda.”

Wyll frowned. “What about her?”

“Berent doesn’t know she’s with us.”

“So?”

“Does he love her? I mean, really?”

Wyll gave it some thought. He’d never really gotten along with Berent, he was too arrogant and came off kind of controlling, but he tolerated him for his sister’s sake. But he always seemed to adore Myranda. “Yes, in his own controlling way, I believe he does.”

Zac smiled grimly. “That makes it even better really.”

“What are you thinking?”

“The entire NewVerse already thinks we kidnapped Meris, why wouldn’t they believe we’d kidnap Berent Gaehts’ wife?”

Wyll shook his head. “He wouldn’t, though. He knows I’d never let anything happen to Myranda.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” Zac’s expression became unreadable and Wyll went cold. Something shiny flicked out of Zac’s pocket and into his right hand. Wyll had only a second to react, nearly breaking his ankle as he threw himself off the stool to the floor, before Zac was on him. There was a brief struggle but then he felt the tiny pinprick of pain.

Zac watched Wyll as his body went rigid as the semi-paralytic took effect, despite his efforts to fight. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant.”

His hearing was going fuzzy, as if someone had stuffed cotton in his ears. Zac’s face was slowly greying out. His heartbeat slowed, but, so far, he could still feel it pumping. He was afraid he’d stop breathing altogether, but a shallow, slow stream of air kept his blood oxygenated.

He barely felt the knife slicing open his old wound in his side. He barely felt the blood leaking from his body.

But he did feel the fear and helplessness.

And the betrayal and rage.

Oh, yes, above all, he felt rage.

Chapter 5                                                                                                           Chapter 7

Stell-Ore Justice – Chapter 5

5 – Myranda

Myranda’s fists clenched as tight as they possibly could, and her jaw ached from clenching her teeth. She could never forgive Berent for everything he had done already, and now this…stunt of his was the proverbial final nail in the coffin. At least he didn’t seem to know that she had sided with Alazar. Not yet, anyway.

She wondered if there was a way to use that against him.

Everything was supposed to be so simple: get Alazar out of the Security Compound and away from Berent’s men, take him to the hospital in New Friesland and then take him and Meris’ vid-phone footage of the murders to the New Friesland Nexus Hub and broadcast the atrocity and Berent’s role in it to the seven colony planets. Then, they would just wait for Berent to be flushed out into the open by police units, arrested and put away for good.

Now, everything was unraveling before her eyes. First, they’d had to use their emergency backup plan to smuggle Alazar out of the hospital and flee New Friesland altogether, which cost them time, which made it so that Berent could get his twisted version of the story to the press before they could get the truth out. Now, they didn’t know where to go or who they could trust. Everything was falling apart.

And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. She was clenching her jaw again. Forcing herself to open her mouth wide and work her lower jaw back and forth, she slowed her breathing and attempted to calm down. It was then that she realized she was pacing in the calf-high grass at the side of the mag-lev track.

Meris reached out and touched her arm the next time she passed by. “Hey, we’ll figure something out.”

Myranda stopped and faced her. “What makes you so certain?”

Meris blinked. “Because the truth will always win out.”

Myranda snorted. “I never pegged Sindrians as being so naive.”

“I’m not naive.” Was that a flare of anger in the younger woman’s eyes? “I just have faith. Berent won’t win.”

This time, Myranda laughed out loud, a bitter, tired chuckle. “Oh, honey, you don’t know him half as well as you think you do, if you believe that.” She looked around at the others: Alazar seated wearily in the open doorway of the transporter, Leo hovering next to him. “Berent Gaehts always get exactly what he wants. He may have to manipulate, insinuate, coerce, browbeat, wear you down into submission or overtly threaten, but, in the end, he’s gotten what he was after. Don’t ever forget that.”

“Then you have to tell us how to handle him.” Alazar fixed her with his calm, unwavering gaze. Only the dark circles under his eyes and the slight sheen of sweat on his skin betrayed the pain he must be in. Curse him and his relentless self-control! She wanted to scream. Or punch something. Or both. “I can’t imagine you spent your whole marriage caving in to this man. You are far too independent and capable. You must know ways to manage him, subtly.”

She crossed her arms and threw him a dark look. “Now you’re starting to sound like him. Backhanded compliments are his forte.” She took a breath and let it out slowly. “But, as it turns out, you’re right. I did learn to maneuver around him, once I found out what he was really like.”

Alazar turned his hands up. “So what do we do now?”

“I need to think.” She just couldn’t get her thoughts to stop swirling. “I never thought him capable of any of this, it just doesn’t make any sense.” Her fingers traced a slow circle on her temples. “Something had to have happened. Ellias was his best friend, he would never have hurt him or his crew unless something had gone horribly wrong.” She turned to Meris. “Did Ellias ever say anything to you?”

Meris, less adept at stifling her physical expressions of emotion than Alazar, seemed to flinch at the sound of her late fiance’s name. Myranda felt a bit of a monster for making her think about him so directly, but time was of the essence. Slowly, Meris shook her head. “No, nothing that would cause this.”

Alazar suddenly swore under his breath. Myranda and the others turned to him. He stared at the ground. “This really is my fault.”

Meris beat her to asking. “What are you talking about?” Myranda could hear how carefully she spoke. She, like Myranda, must be trying hard not to jump to any conclusions.

Alazar put his hand to his forehead. “I don’t know how he found out…”

Sweat was beaded on his brow. Myranda went to him and knelt in front of him. “Alazar? How are you feeling right now?”

Leo took a step closer. “Wait a minute, Myranda, let him keep talking.”

She touched his forehead. It was burning hot. “Leo, you and Meris get back in the transporter. We need to get out of here.”

Alazar grabbed her wrist in a crushing grip. “No, wait. I have to tell her.” His breathing was rapid again and she noticed blood had wicked its way through the scrub top.

“You will. But right now you need medical attention.” She looked up at Leo. “We need to get out of here now.”

“Oh, no.” Leo rushed to the door on the other side of the transporter and climbed in. Meris followed him.

Alazar’s eyes suddenly rolled back and his grip on her wrist slackened. She made a grab for him before he tumbled out of the transporter. “Meris! Give me a hand here, please.”

The Sindrian woman helped Myranda pull Alazar back into the transporter, propping him up slightly on her lap as Myranda lifted his shirt. The incision from his surgery had about a two-centimeter opening in the seal toward its middle. He was flushed and hot, and his pulse was racing.

She didn’t have much with her by way of medication or first aid. Leo had raided his house for everything he had and stashed it in this transporter, but she’d not seen much in there that would help Alazar in this particular situation. Still, she grabbed some antibac wipes and cleansed the open wound.

Leo closed the transporter door behind her and jumped into the pilot seat. The transporter started up and shot into the air, jostling the passengers. “Leo! We need to find a pet store.”

There was a beat of silence. “Pet store?”

She placed a hemostat gel seal over the opening in the incision. “I can’t take him back to the hospital, he’ll be recognized and thrown in jail as soon as he’s recovered, but he has to have antibiotics.”

“Okay, but I still don’t understand-“

“Just find me a pet store. I’ll take it from there.”

Meris wiped sweat from Alazar’s brow. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Infection. He’s going septic.”

Meris’ eyes went wide. “Can you fix it?”

A dozen different replies flitted through her mind, none of them very positive. She met Meris’ gaze and held it a long moment, weighing how best to answer her.

Chapter 4                                                                                                           Chapter 6