Artwork by Marie Maaluf.

I am flying a ship through the ink,
though, and I am a fighter pilot. That’s gotta count for something, ‘cause otherwise, my life’s a
As the lights dim, all power diverting to the thrusters about to strain as the capsule
breaks free from the gravity rooting it, Rolli offers a quiet, “Your report was impressive. I think
you’re a good pilot.”
Laughing once more, Jax softens for a fleeting moment, “Thanks, but you might want to
wait until you’ve been on a ship with me.”
Watching the sea, they both gaze out of the window warped by the waves as a stray
shred of kelp dances along the foam. Their harnesses automatically shackle the two as the
cabin’s safety system checks to make sure they are correctly fastened, and a final squeal calls
out from somewhere behind the walls. Then the same tinny voice appears from a hidden
speaker above their heads, reminding them they will stay locked into their seat until a safety
height of 100 miles is reached.
“Enjoy your flight, and thank you for your service”: Words of tender parting spoken from
a pre-programmed voice that no real human’s throat ever molded.
There’s a reverent, expectant silence they both subconsciously are afraid to intrude
upon. The final seconds before they’re ripped away through the atmosphere feel incredibly
ominous as if stepping on the threshold of a cathedral. It’s the space between sanctity and the
cruel reality; two halves of themselves wavering on the cusp of a millisecond.
“Tee minus three seconds… two… one. Thrusters engaged.” The rumbling screaming of
the cabin claws through their throats, filling their stomachs and tensing their muscles as they are
pulled away from the sea gray and mourning their departure as it watches the pod whir against
its steel rail. Sometimes there is a clunk, a shudder, and both their stomachs drop. Neither
would admit it but they wondered if that was the one bolt that wasn’t fastened. If this time they’ll
plummet and sink into the ocean marching below. It never is.
Six tense minutes pass and the altimeter whines before it glows in the dark cabin, the
lights still dead in the ceiling. Rolli almost immediately digs out his bag, Jaxxon frees himself,
and the thrusters quiet as they realize they no longer need to strain so intensely as the reaches
of gravity begin to crumble like an overly ambitious tower. Stretching, Jax sighs as he watches
the sea morph into a single stroke of cerulean, losing its finer details with the wind. “I always
hate that part…”
“Me too.” Rolli’s distracted as he brings his headphones over his ears. Then he seems to
relax a little, breathing out a quiet sigh before turning back to the window, content now that he
has something distracting him.

“You care if I leave the lights off?” Jax aimlessly bounces across the cabin, hopping a
few steps before having to turn around.
“No. I like to watch the sun set against the Earth.”
“Oh, it’s the best right?!”
“You know, I always wondered what it was like for the people on the space stations. Do
they get tired of the view?” Seemingly satisfied with his aimless stretches, Jax slumps back in
his chair heaving out a dreamy sigh; “I know I wouldn’t… That’s my dream job: Goofin’ around in
one of those stations till I croak.” With a yawn, Jax adds, “What about you?”
Rolli’s eyes are fixed on the reaching rays spiking through the darkness and spilling over
the cusp of the world in an elaborate halo.
“I don’t know.” Then a meditative, “Something easy.”
“Join me on the space station, we can just float around and be lazy together.”
“Ok.” Jax comfortably grins as he cracks his knuckles outstretched before his chest.
Returning to silence, Rolli devotedly watches Earth slip away from the cabin. Jaxxon
drifts in and out of sleep and occasionally pretends to read the only weathered book he packed
for the trip. The elaborate elevator ride takes half a day, and although the seats are
uncomfortable and the air stale, neither find it to be long enough.
Rolli’s legs carry him with numb precision to the ship’s hangar; It sits as an industrial
maw stretching the standard 60 square feet as it houses their ship. The main ship is a
transporter, meaning it was built for storage space and strength; in comparison, the bigger
fighters (similar to Earth tanks) are attuned to the battlefields they encounter with emphasis put
on the deflector shields and maneuverability. Those are the ships Rolli is accustomed to. Jax
has flown a multitude of jets, with varying destinations and cargo.
The wings of the tanker are tucked, a sleek red stripe along both sides highlighting its
boxy build. In stylish, yellow cursive is the name Andromeda, their tanker’s monomer. The front
consists of a dark space shield hiding the cockpit and control panels; from this is a hall that
splits between two main compartments. On the left side are their living quarters for the next
week to and from Mars, a small bed, a wash station, and a burner. The right side is for less
important supplies, general tools, and a small workbench.
Between the left and right segments is a core that requires a pin code to enter; this is
what houses the solar panel equipment, water kegs, and the larger oxygen tanks they will be
transporting to an orbital station. It sits in the dead center so the expendable rooms shield it on
all sides.
Rolli’s sitting on the cement platform overlooking the entire hangar as the door to the
control room glares behind him. Trying to steady his breathing, he attempts to enjoy his last
moments before he’s shipped off into oblivion. It’s hard though, especially when it’s more of a
demanded sense of calm rather than a natural tranquility.
Although he tries to think of anything but the mission taking them through a truly empty
wasteland to Earth’s bright orange sibling, that is exactly what he lands on. It’s futile to ignore it,
especially when it’s got his stomach all tightly coiled and cramping.
Burying his face in his knees, Rolli closes his eyes and focuses on the positives; for one
thing, they aren’t heading toward any form of fighting to their knowledge. The mission itself is

simple; transporting solar panels is fairly mundane compared to his past labors, but of course
that ignores the time crunch they’ve been hurled in. The space station doubling as their
destination is expected to lose power in three days, whereas they can make the trip in two and a
half (and that’s assuming the tanker doesn’t break down from the endless sprinting).
Rolli clutches his stomach, inhaling stuffy breaths through his nose. Worries of faulty
equipment, dangerous space weather, and compromised station crew engulf his mind. Any
chance to relax in his final moments before the point of no return seemingly curls as smoke off
his head and through the ceiling’s vents.
Yelling demands to board the now-stocked ship echo through the hangar. With slightly
numb legs, Rolli stands, clenches his fists, and moves down the stairs. The back of his throat
tastes unnervingly sweet; his ribs seem to dig into the tender flesh of his lungs, daring them to
breathe too deep. A step away from the opening to the lower deck tucked under the front of the
tanker, Rolli stops, turns, and watches the technicians lazily eye Jax and him from behind the
dark of the glass. A pathetic sputter of envy he’s learned to ignore whines a moment before he’s
swallowed by the tanker.
Bags are dumped, and heavy boots hurriedly stomp to the cockpit. They’re behind
schedule on an already time-crunch of a mission. Neither waste a breath as they strap on
leather harnesses digging into their shoulders and click switches and levers with an ingrained
“This is Control asking for confirmation on audio.”
“Read ya loud and clear.” Jaxxon runs his hand beneath his nose, metal clamps rotating
the ship as he cracks his knuckles. Rolli lets him take over, sitting back as he taps his finger
against the metal control panel to his right in time to his music. Technically, he shouldn’t be
distracted like that during a take-off, but Jax sure as hell isn’t gonna squeal.
“Sending over coordinates, confirm destination.”
“Solar panel supply run to MOS-8. Then a tune-up for the ship at Icari 4.”
“Sounds about right. Engage thrusters.”
Jax dutifully flips a switch, the back of the ship whirring to life with a rumbling jolt filling
the tiny hangar with its screaming crescendo.
“Permission to release safety locks?”
“We’re all ready in here.”
The metal crunches and squeals, dust being vacuumed under the crack as the gate
carefully rolls up in itself.
“Communication will be open for another thirty minutes, then you’re on your own. Get
back safe, cadets.”
“Thank you kindly, sir.” Jax’s smile comfortably curls his lips, before he unbrakes the ship
and propels it into the ink. It takes a second for the sounds of the engine to quiet to the low
humming of a quiet howl within the bowels of the hull, and a minute before the Earth station
fades into the blue radiation of the planet bidding them a wordless farewell.
Lazily, Jaxxon yawns as he stares at the empty black ahead of them, slightly tilting his
head before offering, “Everything good with you?”
“You seemed a little tense back there.”
“I’m fine now. I just don’t like… leaving.”

“I get that, tough putting faith in a speck of metal hurtling through space, huh?” Rolli
nods before shifting in his chair slightly, glancing behind him, and then above.
“This is different from fighter ships.”
“Yup, she’s slower with the turnaround but can withstand a beating. It’s the safest place
you could be in the middle of nowhere besides the ones they use to escort the big, important
government heads… But of course, those are also surrounded by a fleet of cadets.”
“Yes, because some old guy needs to be babied.” A sharp crack of a sputtering laugh
ripples from Jaxxon who’s more than slightly caught off-guard by the joke. Rolli’s quiet, that
goes without saying, but there’s more to it than indifference or even self-righteousness. With
time and the right person, his words can form past thoughts and, just as now, can even evolve
into multi-worded phrases. Sometimes, when the stars align, even jokes.
Smiling, Jax sighs, closing his eyes a moment as Rolli resumes his silence. He’s secretly
proud of himself, though, for making Jax laugh. It’s an enjoyable sound, quiet and slightly husky.
It sings and drowns out a form of silence different from the one Rolli has comfortably molded.
It’s a form of silence that seems to buzz like a swarm of hornets, and on flights like these, it
always seems to grow louder.
“There he is.” Mars leers, an orange softball stained with silver complexes and the speck
of mold that is the eco-terrarium, both long abandoned. There’s an almost hazy quality to the
glow of Mars, everything about it is a lot more uniform than the miraculously fitted jigsaw of
Earth’s continents. The blue and green swaths of color are synonymous with life; Mars’ orange
coating seems dead and arid in comparison.
Rolli slips away from the cock-pit to his bag, rummaging for his suit. The taut fabric pulls
at his skin, compressing his chest and torso. Jaxxon walks in as Rolli slips on his gloves, sealing
them to the rest of the suit before the former stops with an approving smile.
“Sick suit, man.”
Rolli sniffs, flitting his dim eyes down before stealing a glance at himself in the mirror
stuck into the wall a couple of feet away.
“Yeah… I like the green, it goes well with the red.” Jax turns away to find his own, and
Rolli watches the mirror once more. The bodysuit folds at his elbows and shoulders with the
aforementioned emerald green only broken by a burgundy stripe climbing his arms and legs.
“Thanks.” The response is quiet and contemplative.
“Hm?” Peeling off his shirt, Jax turns his attention back to Rolli who’s carefully holding
his helmet.
“Thank you.”
“Sure… thing.” The door hisses as Rolli moves back to the cockpit, not waiting for the
completion of the response. Jaxxon’s left alone to change under the gentle automated chime
that crackles over the speakers.
“Five minutes until docking procedure. This ship is programmed to automatically connect
with the nearest available port unless manually halted…” That programmed instruction spiel is
branded into Jaxxon’s memory, the voice was always eerily friendly he felt, especially on a
battlefield or in the Belt. Tapping back to the pilot seat he sits back, and Rolli leans into the
doorway with his arms crossed over his chest.

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Framed by an orange horizon orbits the Eighth Mars Orbital Station, silent and dark. The
ominous careening is befitting of the sole surviving Mars Station; all others were abandoned
along with the Martian habitats after sporadic warring left them too costly to maintain. Shipments
of food couldn’t be safely transported during battles, and seemingly constant power outages left
water and oxygen supplies, as well as soil scrubbers compromised. The whole planet is a ghost
town until resources can be directed toward re-habitation in an unspecified future.
MOS-8 is now home to a few dedicated researchers and fanatics of Mars eager to
continually study it at the expense of almost total isolation. The group is viewed as, to put it
frankly, a band of introverted nerds left to their pointless endeavors. Almost everything needed
to be understood about Mars with the purpose of colonization (seemingly the ultimate goal) is
neatly recorded in the same textbooks Jaxxon used as a pillow in fourth-period Solar System
Studies. Yet the dedicated team continually tests the atmosphere, occasionally hopping down
for soil samples or tidying up old Martian houses as a means of pacifying an aching nostalgia.
At a glance, the station itself is nothing short of complex. Lying flat like a labyrinth is the
reaching turns and extensions of the living quarters where the humans are housed. On the left
end closest to the tanker is the docking bay sitting as a gargantuan rectangular prism, usually
opening once they reach a certain proximity and are approved by the crew inside.
In reaching towers at four the corners of the station are solar panels; from this distance,
it’s difficult to determine the cause for their malfunction that summoned the two privates millions
of miles from home. Whether it’s internal or external will most likely be discovered with a call to
the technicians.
The bulk of the station is a twisting cacophony of satellites, antennae, and various
panels burned into the outer shell of two cylindrical tubes pressed flat together.
What Jaxxon first notices, though, is that the windows stretched along the perimeter of
the structure reflect the black ink surrounding them, meaning no lights are on within the station.
Scratching his nose, he wonders if the crew diverted their emergency generator’s energy to
basic life-support functions instead.
Jax breaks the thickening silence and opens the line for communication.
“This is transporter A5-24 with a supply run, do you copy?”
Crunching static crackles and gnaws in Jax’s ears.
“MOS-8, can you confirm you’re reading us?”
The static barks back.
“The solar panels.”
“Hm?” Rolli’s minimalist use of words pulls Jax’s attention before he connects the dots
and pinches his nose, “They don’t have energy for the comms system?”
“I doubt it.”
“But they must at least have a backup generator. Comms is still a basic life-support
function; it doesn’t take that much energy to maintain.”
“It ran out, probably.”
“Then they’re already melted puddles at this point.” It was a half-joke, but then their eyes
meet as the ship cheerfully reminds them that two minutes remain before docking engages.
Something awakens in Jax as he hits switches left and right, “We don’t have time to hook up
with the station–”
“I’m going to the lower deck.”

“Docking disengaged. To manually…” If the crew doesn’t even have enough energy to
answer a comms request then they’re sitting ducks. They need power now; oxygen might still be
flowing, but without electricity to the thermal regulators temperatures can border lethal in a
scarily short period. Jax carefully tilts the helm, eyeballing the distance between the hull of the
ship and the weary outstretched arms that are the upper lattices of the station. Once he adjusts
the ship’s thrust to sync in time with the station’s orbital velocity, he peels out of the cock-pit and
jogs to the lower deck as Rolli clicks on his helmet hissing as it stabilizes. The two frantically
grab tools and tanks before Rolli moves to the safety locks of the metal door that will open into
space. Only, Jax’s hand grabs his wrist.
“Tether, stupid.” The metal carabiner clicks as Jax attaches it to Rolli’s belt before
examining the other, checking his oxygen tank and helmet. “You can hear me?” Jax’s voice is
distant over the proximity speaker at the top-right of Rolli’s helmet, but his words are clear.
“Right, stay safe.” They are emphatically spoken, Jax’s eyes glaring not harshly but with
extreme sincerity. Then the two separate, and Rolli’s left in the room that begins to spill out into
the clawing dredges of space.
“Lower door engaged. Safety locks dismantled. Oxygen levels at 60%. 50%. 35%. 15%.
8%. Oxygen depleted, opening shuttle door.”
Silently, the metal curls up into the ceiling as if it were being precisely consumed. As his
hand releases the handle, Rolli’s feet weightlessly pull up before he turns and attaches the
arm-length generator’s tether to his hip. Such a minute box could very easily mean life for an
otherwise stranded party.
Rolli’s jetpack corrects his trajectory as he hurtles elegantly to the roof of the station. In
the middle of the towers looming over him is a gray generator bolted into the center where the
main systems ultimately originate. Gravity generators, carbon scrubbers, thermal regulators,
and even the lights should all run again once he replaces the powerless generator sitting before
Jaxxon watches from the cockpit, a wrench twirling above Rolli’s helmet before he
casually grabs it, pushes in, and then releases the slightly rusting tool once more. The situation
looks bleak which is odd considering Captain Hicks mentioned the power should shut off. They
knew they were cutting it close but weren’t expecting to find a floating coffin when they arrived.
The idle sitting leaves Jax to obsessively ruminate, so after another five minutes, just as
Rolli begins to carefully untangle the mess of wires curling around his gloves, Jaxxon calls to
him through the helmet’s speaker.
“Hey, you good out there?”
A pause as Jax swallows down his restlessness crawling through his throat as it fights
for the helm of his mind. “Uh– There should be an emergency entrance hatch to the station,
“Yes. Over the docking bay.”
“Does that require energy?”
Despite the questions, Rolli doesn’t lose concentration, and even from the warm hum of
the ship, Jax can see him shake his head. “For locking, yes. It does not require energy to open,

“For emergencies like this, huh?”
With another mindless chew of his lip, Jax offers, “I think I’m gonna head inside. If
they’re outta energy I doubt they’ll try to pull a fast one with the tanker; it’d be outta line with
what their current priorities should be, anyway.”
A respectful pause precedes Rolli’s quiet response. “Okay. But not too far in.”
Jaxxon dons his helmet, slipping into the lower deck, and attaching his tether. The
propulsion system on his back warms and buzzes against his suit as he glides through the void,
traversing the open space between the station and the ship.
The hatch branded on top of the station’s docking bay consists of a lever that unclamps
the teeth locking it beneath the surface and another handle that twists it clockwise until it
shudders open. The pitch-black pit of a maw stares at Jaxxon with a hostile intensity that steals
his breath.
Slipping through the circular tunnel, Jaxxon is digested in a gargantuan cavern his
flashlight has trouble accurately assessing with its pinpoint of a beam. Once he finds the door
that leads to the decontamination hall (and the rest of the station), he releases his tether,
pushes himself down with a jerk, and floats to the door; he grabs a handle before the force of
his feet hitting the floor could propel him back up.
Sticking the flashlight under his arm, Jax carefully unlocks the door via its system of
levers and handles, greeted with another dark hall. It’s just as he begins to move to the next
door that something silently adjusts within the walls above his head. Then a bulb flickers with a
dim sputter before sterilizing the hall in harsh, pale light, and after another thirty seconds
something hisses to his right; the showers bloom to life as he’s drenched in a chemical bath,
stepping to the side before clawing at his helmet.
“Aquatic environment detected. Preparing to dry. Please wait.” Suit whirring, the water
steams off him before he gives a final swipe to his helmet, sighing. The generator appears to be
back on, it’ll last a month and get basic life support back in full force, but it’s not sustainable.
That’s, ideally, what the solar panels are for.
Then, a stumbling weight fills his chest before he falls back, slipping along the slick floor
before cursing out into oblivion.
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine, just fell backward when the gravity came back on.”
“I’m sorry.”
With a small smile, Jax heaves himself back up, adjusting to the grip of invisible hands
along his body, “All good.”
“Is there oxygen?”
“Give me a sec…” Pulling out a small metal box with a field of buttons and antennae
crowning its head, Jax taps before a loading screen lights up on the green monitor.
“Something’s in the air, my helmet’s picking up noise from the shower and the walls.”
“Yeah, I got disinfected when the power came on.”
Something huffs on the other end of the speaker, pulling Jax’s attention before he
smiles, “Are you laughing at me, Rolli?”

A pause, “No…”
But Jax could hear the stuttering flutter clear as day, warming at the sound filling his
helmet and soothing his ears. He was just sorry to have missed it in person. A new vigor
structures his soul as he wipes his gloves along the starchy cage of his suit.
“We’ll see how you like it when you head on over…” The device beeps before Jax
examines the readings, “Oxygen levels are shallow but rising. Seems like the place is running
again… Check comms at the ship then I’ll meet you in the hangar.”
When Rolli opens communications with the station, that same garbled mess of synthetic
croaks berates his ears. Fidgeting with a few buttons he tries again, concentrating on the fuzzy
sound before repeating his request for an audio confirmation.
Nothing but a soft click somewhere on the other side. Maybe their system was damaged
from inside the station.
“They aren’t responding.”
“Freaky…” Rolli heads back to the lower deck before Jax releases a quieter: “Maybe we
should call for backup.”
A piercing glow of light spills out of the portal of the docking bay as Rolli shakes his
head, “No one else is coming.”
“I know, but I mean, like, if we call someone and wait it out until they arrive. I’m starting
to wonder if we should be here– I mean, be in here.”
“They won’t respond to the request. We’re the only people that are gonna come for a
while.” Jax watches Rolli scale the ladder climbing down the wall of the empty bay.
“How can you be sure?”
“They don’t care about a station. Especially a Martian one.” As he places his feet on the
floor he finishes, “It’s not in line with their priorities.”
“Then why would they send us?” There’s a slight edge to Rolli’s stare, not hostility, more
of a glint of frustration at a non-present hierarchy.
“I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out the rest of the mission.” Jaxxon shudders
slightly, a chill breaching his suit and teasing his spine as he understands the implication; The
lives of the crew were never the priority, and it’s not the entirety of the reason Jaxxon and Rolli
are pressing forward into a depressing unknown. The reality is that MOS-8 was an excuse for
something else that has not been disclosed to either privates, even though they are the ones
blindly walking into the hands of an industrious smoke screen.
These facts change nothing, though. Jaxxon and Rolli would both refuse to back out now
because for them, at least, the lives of innocents are a priority.
Jax tastes the air, his helmet suddenly feeling all too tight. “Just stay close…”
A stoic nod accompanies Rolli’s pace as he marches to decon. Quickly, they soak in the
shower and then hurry through the opposite door whirring in a quick flash as they push through.
It’s another hall with varying branches, the one directly in front of them should lead to some type
of control station. Its door stands limply ajar, dejected and malfunctioning as they slip through.
“I’m checking the map.” Rolli taps at a monitor set into a panel pressed along the room’s
wall glowing to life before dimming as a linear layout presents itself before him. Then he taps at
a small keypad to his left, hitting a series of numbers before the screen blinks and wavers, then

the image reappears. It’s the same, except in a small box which represents a segment of a hall
to their left is a red dot.
“There’s no one here except for that room… Some closet in Section 8?” Rolli nods,
examining the map closer.
“It’s closed off. They might have a reserve of oxygen.” Tapping in multiple codes,
systems checks call out for varying functions.
“Temperature: 25.445 degrees Celsius. Gravity stabilized to Earth standards. Oxygen
levels rising to 50% standard capacity.”
Jax peers over Rolli’s shoulder as the latter taps another request into the panel.
“Water depleted.” They share a taut glance before the process is mimicked, “Last food
shipment, 51 martian days.”
“Over a month? Good God…”
“If we can get the pin for the docking bay from someone we can bring the ship in and
unload supplies.” Rolli’s already calculating, offering the most intuitive solutions which in turn
guide him to the next best course of action. Jax’s wary of the state the crew will be in, even if
they are alive they’ll probably be on the brink. Food supplies like that run out in a month unless
“Communication system critically damaged. Attend to Unit 7 for further instructions.”
“That’s why they weren’t responding, I guess.” Jax steps back as Rolli turns, moving to
the door that will open to the rooms sitting in a line all pressed into each other with the first unit
sitting on the other side of the portal. This door is unable to open automatically, Rolli having to
force it open with his shoulder as Jax squeezes through before they are engulfed in darkness. It
remains limply ajar once Rolli steps in. A sliver of light from the previous room casts upon the
ashy ground. Gray concrete watches them fumble in the dark.
“Where’s the light switch?” Jax scans the wall with his mag-light as his foot nudges
something soft.
“Warning, do not remove helmet. Airborne toxicity levels lethal. Warning…” They both
start at their helmet’s friendly command, before sharing another harried glance. Then Jax turns
and notices a tiny lever etched into the wall, exhaling before flipping it.
The lights sputter before revealing the entangled mass of human flesh carpeting the
“Holy–” Jaxxon’s arm is gripped before he’s pulled back, Rolli instinctively reacting to the
start of Jaxxon’s yell and the scene invading the previously unsuspecting hall. They both
stagger, their breath caught in their throats as they stare down at the hands reaching for them.
Blood seeps out of silent wounds and gashes along naked bodies weeping into the grated floor.
Copper stains splattered along the walls indicate a struggle.
Then they notice the precise cuts along limbs; a woman’s leg is chopped off at the knee.
Said leg is nowhere to be seen.
“I’m gonna be sick–” Jax breathes, turning away before reaching his hands to his helmet.
“No!” Rolli grabs his hands, “Keep it on!”
“God–” A slight shudder releases from Jax, his voice tight and strained as he hides his
head against Rolli’s chest. The latter stops, gloves still curled around Jax’s wrists before he
releases the tension in his shoulders. After thirty seconds Jaxxon lets out a shaking breath,
lifting his head and huffing.

“Let’s just– Come on, let’s move.”
With a glance at the bodies Rolli’s able to determine there are five stretching along the
entirety of the hall to the second unit, light also off. It’s a mess to try and climb through. Jaxxon’s
sweat glistens behind his helmet as he watches the light switch, afraid to turn back.
“Don’t look.”
“No, it’s– just give me a sec.”
“No. Don’t look.”
Rolli’s hands take Jaxxon’s, his back turned away from the hall before he begins to
carefully backstep over the splayed limbs. Jaxxon fixes his eyes on Rolli’s face sometimes
turned away to watch behind him, sometimes watching their feet shuffle. Continually, Rolli must
glance at the carpet of skin and blood so neither of them trip.
A crunch rings out in their helmets as Jaxxon’s boot chomps into a supple wrist. “No, no,
no–” his voice is almost nothing but breath as he clenches his eyes.
“It’s ok. Just keep moving.” Even though his fingers trembled in Rolli’s palms and his
helmet had trouble keeping up with the oxygen demand his lungs berated him for, Jaxxon was
able to move. Only because Rolli guided him.
Once they push out into the next unit, Rolli quickly moves to close the door hidden by
the slot it slides into when opened. The panel gives a pathetic sputter as he repetitively taps the
button, but it’s no use.
“Just… Don’t look behind you.”
Jaxxon just shakily nods, legs weak as he swallows down his nausea. Emaciated torsos
continually flash in his brain, intestines spilling out like worms reaching for their next host.
Distracting himself he pulls out the small device he had latched to his hip, steadying his
fingers as he inputs a general reading of the air content. Sniffling, he feels Rolli’s arm brush
against him as he moves to watch the device too. There’s no tremble to Rolli’s muscles, no fear
to his stare, but something has dimmed his presence and darkened his features.
He was the one who watched those bodies slip beneath the toes of their boots, the one
who defiled his eyes with grotesque imagery. A pang of guilt blooms in Jax’s heart before he
turns, “Thanks. I… Thanks.” With that same unwavering nod, Rolli stays by his side.
“Carbon monoxide detected. Do not proceed without protective gear.”
A new confusion clouds their fear as they both scan the warning sign flashing on the
device before disappearing into a more detailed analysis of the atmospheric makeup.
With a new purpose, they move to the next room, repeating the process as the station
alights in rowed segments. They enter Unit 7, scanning the communications control panel stuck
into a jutting peninsula with a reaching space shield watching the oblivion. Their ship silently sits
in the distance. A desk chair lies on its side, wheels clawing to be uprighted before they notice a
crimson streak along the desk. The comms panel itself bears jagged gashes along its face,
sparking as electricity surges through. Neither of the soldiers is fazed by this additional anomaly.
Then they enter Unit 8, the warning repeating over their helmet’s speakers about the
toxicity levels. Jax’s helmet gives an additional oxygen level warning.
“Hello?” Banging on the closet door, Jax steadies his heart, “We’re crew from an Earth
transporter, we’ve got supplies.” No response. With a harder knock, he adds, “We want to help,
we’ll come in ourselves if you don’t respond.” Silence, except for the ignored low-level hissing
as air is sucked under the minute crack of the door.

Huffing out a sigh, Jaxxon tries the doorknob, clattering before he groans.
“Damn it, they’ve locked themselves in… I’ll find a–” Rolli wordlessly brings a hand to
Jax’s chest, guiding him back before sucking in a silent breath. With a series of deft kicks, he
breaks the door in, Jax offering a half-smile, “That works too.”
It’s the encapsulating heat that Rolli notices first, switching his brain to flight mode.
A sickly, yellowish ball of smoke hungrily awaits them; the hot and radiating wall burns
the skin beneath their suits.
Rolli’s reaction time is fast, imperceptibly fast as he grabs Jaxxon’s wrist and books it out
of the room. It’s not quite fast enough though, and as the oxygen sucks into the tiny room Rolli
holds Jax into him as they are thrown down the hall from the explosion screaming out in a
percussive clap bypassing their helmet’s speakers, and directly feeding into their eardrums.
“Rolli!” Propped over Jaxxon, Rolli coughs hard and sharp as he struggles to catch the
air pressed out of his lungs from the impact. Each breath ignites a sharp pain in the cavity of his
chest where the beating of his heart should be. Jax reaches for Rolli’s helmet, frantically
examining the soldier before sitting up and letting out a harsh gasp as he finds the burns
stretching across his back, red and still sizzling as if alive with the heat. “Rolli– Oh God–”
“You have to run,” Rolli breathes before sharply wincing, his arm faltering to the floor
below him. “Jaxxon, you have to go.”
“No! Not without you!” Something creaks and groans behind them, the fire reaching out,
blazing at an alarming rate. Rolli realizes he’ll only be a hindrance; Jax must get out of here and
forget him.
“Suit breach. Preparing temporary patch.”
The fire’s hungrily devouring anything that’ll burn from plastic kegs to the leather of the
rolling chair, but Jax is currently wrapping his arm around Rolli’s shoulder helping him to stand.
It’s as if Jax doesn’t recognize the obvious danger he’s in, faltering in a room on fire with an
oxygen tank strapped to his back and a helmet that if damaged will prevent him from getting
back to the tanker.
Rolli assesses: Jax won’t leave without Rolli, Rolli is in no condition to run. So he sucks
in a breath and grits his teeth; he’ll have to run anyway.
Strangling Jax’s wrist, Rolli pulls him through the trembling hall as something metallic
screams behind them. Oxygen continues to obliviously pump through the station, everything
heating and swarming.
“Patch complete, pre–”
“Shuddup computer!” Rolli can’t afford to have his focus interrupted even for an instance
because otherwise, he’ll collapse at the pain ripping through his muscles and tearing his flesh
as the burns rub raw against the starchy fabric of his suit.
“Oxygen levels critical.”
“Dammit!” Jax’s breath rasps out as sweat falls in his eyes, he can’t afford to slow down,
but it’s so hard to keep up with Rolli’s pace. The grip around Jax’s wrist is incredibly tight. For a
flitting moment, he wonders if Rolli would drag him even if his legs gave out.
Then they reach the first room, the one with bodies sprawled out and Rolli slows as Jax
prepares to leap through them.
Only, Rolli winces and says, “Don’t look.”

“No, I– What–” Rolli’s arms scoop Jaxxon into his chest, holding under his legs and neck
as he stumbles through the bodies. The infamous bridal pose starkly juxtaposes with the
stumbling sprint away from a fiery demise awaiting them down the hall. Jaxxon watches, caught
entirely off-guard before staring over Rolli’s shoulder. He doesn’t once graze the bodies with his
gaze, and Rolli relieves slightly that they can move over the obstacle without hesitation or
second-guessing stutters. Unlike Jaxxon, he can almost instantly turn off his brain if the need
Then something pierces their bodies in a wave, sharp and cutting. Repercussive
explosions seem to fire off like a round from a rifle. The space station is falling apart, and the
structure is compromised as it begins to melt. It tilts and rocks as Rolli falters, attempting to
press on, clenching his eyes and shortening his breaths.
With a final cacophonous boom, the air begins to rush past and speed for the closet,
hungry ink sucking up oxygen and water jugs as Jax is pushed through the door to the control
center. Rolli stumbles as he’s pulled back, his feet still planted as Jax desperately grabs his arm
and hangs onto the door frame.
“Let go!”
“Let go of me, Jaxxon!”
“I’m not leaving you behind!” The fire pushes forward, Rolli desperately begging Jaxxon
to abandon him as the latter strains. From the fire rockets a charred canister with its tail end
blazing. The oxygen tank whizzes around like a rat futilely scrambling for a way out of its
too-small cage.
Rolli’s fingers slip, his feet pulled back and away from the floor as he turns, sweat
glistening on his forehead, heart racing wildly although you wouldn’t be able to see it on his
“Rolli, use your jetpack!”
The fire swirls, roiling in an almost intoxicated dance. Rolli’s breaths begin to slow, his
muscles just beginning to relax. Blinking, he feels everything quiet for a moment, the crackling
of his speaker, the demanding yells of Jaxxon’s voice.
Rolli stares at the fire, and the fire watches back. It’s almost as if the chaos of it all
morphs into an intentional pattern; The continual flicker of the searing petals and the march
toward the next flammable object within its path develop a precision. It’s approaching Rolli,
closing in, a rivulet of sweat running down the crest of his nose before he blinks and feels his
fingers slip.
The pull of the air beckoning his limbs pulls him back as he free-falls, closing his eyes
and letting out a soft breath.
When his eyes open, he sees the top of Jaxxon’s helmet glinting in the light of the
flames. Two forces fight for Rolli’s body, the quiet beckoning of the hearth and the straining of
Jaxxon’s jetpack as he embraces Rolli’s arm. The desperate will etched into the grit of Jaxxon’s
teeth triggers an awakening in Rolli’s brain before he too activates the propulsion system
strapped to his back and fights toward the sliver of space in the half-opened doorway.
With a heaving pull, Jaxxon jerks Rolli inside the door refusing to open or close any

“You should have left me,” Rolli gasps, “You shouldn’t have done that.” But then he hears
sharp breaths echo fatigued weeps and he loses his ability to reprimand.
“What the hell is wrong with you?! You just gave up!”
“I–” Another scream echoes from the hall, cutting off both as Jaxxon inhales and steels
himself. They still have to make it to the ship, oxygen is pumping through this station; the fire
isn’t dying anytime soon. The hall door groans with the force of being pried open before they
sprint hand-in-hand, breathing syncing in burning pants. Mars’ orange glow paints them in a dim
light, sirens blaring in their ears as the station’s PA system demands an evacuation.
Boots cracking out against the cement docking bay, they scramble to the ladder as
dizziness befalls Jax faltering before pressing on. He’s sucked up all the oxygen with his rapid
breathing. Shallow breaths sicken his throat as he makes it out of the hatch. Body paralytically
weak, he closes his eyes as he pants before an arm holds his waist. With cold precision, Rolli
wraps the tether around his fist before tugging it sharply in succession. It pulls him back with a
harsh yank as he clings to Jaxxon.
The last thing Rolli sees before the maw of the ship drops is the orange blaze climbing
on the air sucked into the void. Tendrils of silent flames flash behind the glass of the hall and
now decon; flames that would have carelessly charred his suit and melted his flesh without a
second thought. It very nearly did too.
Oxygen whirs into the room, gravity restored as they are pulled to the cement hangar,
Rolli rips off his helmet before crawling to Jaxxon delirious as he lies panting on his side. The
helmet clicks then hisses as Rolli frantically removes it from Jax’s head. A second passes
before the latter’s eyes open in a display of life, his body keeling over as he gasps,
open-mouthed. Then he sputters and vomits on the chilled metal cooling the burns on Rolli’s
back as he lies, vision blurring, and heart drilling as it cements its life in his ears.

Jax ran a final bio scan along the station, but nothing turned up. What they had assumed
to be the crew on the map was in fact the ship detecting the lingering warmth of what they had
assumed to be a previous fire as a human. There was nothing they could have done, for the
crew had died from the carbon monoxide poisoning long before they had arrived.
Or, of course, from the harsher fate those in Unit 1 faced, but this they will never discuss.
Rolli’s sitting, watching out the space shield in the copilot seat. The first thing Jax notices
as he enters is that he isn’t wearing his headphones. The second thing he notices is that Rolli’s
staring at Mars on the rearview monitor glowing to his right, not the ink of the space shield.
Rolli doesn’t so much as nod.
“How… How are you holding up?”
“Fine,” but it’s quiet, and slightly hoarser than it usually is.
A silence had descended upon the ship the moment they felt both of their hearts
miraculously steady and stabilize; It’s now coagulated around the two, almost in a hazy smoke
that warps their vision.
“Let’s look at your burns.”
Rolli watches the monitor for a fleeting second, Mars pulling further and further away.
Soon it will be nothing but a pinprick in the ink.

A finger tentatively pushes along the red scar carved into inflamed flesh; a muted
murmur squirms in Rolli’s throat.
“Sorry, sorry… If it hurts it’s probably only second-degree, though, which is good.”
In total, there are six scars running in twisting streams along Rolli’s spine. The explosion
must have licked the flames so they shot out in precise lines both intersecting and splaying in
opposing directions. Carefully, Jax layers wet rags cool and chilled against Rolli’s back, sticking
as his palms hold them in place. Sitting on the floor of the living quarters, Rolli twists his pant leg
between numb fingers.
“Would have been nice to have treated it sooner, the longer you wait the worse it gets.”
“There wasn’t any time.”
“I know, I just–” Everything flashes back at him like those spearing fireballs and Jax
falters. “I know.” He focuses on keeping the cloths in place, twenty minutes of fermenting silence
lacing the air.
When he removes them he is met with crimson, puffed marks, the largest stretching
about a foot. A blush bleeds from the perimeters of each, radiating and raw; the skin over every
lash is taut and wrinkled as if it were a small glove stretched too tightly over a large hand. All six
brands are rooted in Rolli’s nerves, whipped across with boiling blisters. They look horrific, but
not a single complaint passes Rolli’s lips.
Yet as Jaxxon slowly dries each, Rolli’s muscles flex beneath his skin, and his breath
murmurs in his throat. He’s hurting even if he won’t admit it.
“We got a small thing of burn salve… Should help with the pain too,” As he begins to
smear the green gel over the wounds he adds, “When we get to Icari we’ll check you into a
hospital.” Jax talks and Rolli listens.
The bandage whispers as it’s unwound, they both stand before Jaxxon loops the tape in
dizzying rounds. The bandage is tucked in itself and then Jax pulls his hands away, studying his
work, then studying the soldier before him.
The lines under Rolli’s eyes carry shadows as he stares back, lips drawn down in an
endless look of fatigue. The dull visage is far more painful to observe than the burns could ever
hope to be.
“You… I would have been the one burnt if you hadn’t protected me.” Sucking in a breath
Jaxxon’s guilt festers more potent than before, “Why?”
“Why go out of your way– At least, maybe if you had let me stay by your side I could
have shouldered your pain, taken it with you,” more solemnly he adds, “It could’ve killed you.”
The silence radiates off of Rolli, no longer natural but stiflingly forced upon him.
“I don’t like it when people get hurt.”
Words tremble on Jax’s lips, tongue frozen as it wavers on the cusp of everything he’s
beginning to untangle. Rolli simply ambles past, heading to the washroom before Jaxxon takes
his hand, stopping him.
“Thank you.”
The silence stagnates in the irises of lifeless eyes.

Captain Hicks glanced up from his desk before lazily abandoning the report he had been
studying a minute before. Two privates walk in tandem before planting their feet at the edge of
the rug pathetically lying against the cement.
“Right, well, I read your hasty mission report from the flight back; seems there were
some complications. I’d rather prefer to hear the story from your mouths.”
Both of their fingers clench, Jaxxon parting his lips before Rolli quietly and precisely
begins, “I was able to attach the generator and restart life support functions. Private Thatcher
and I assessed the situation and determined the crew was most likely incapacitated to a degree
given their lack of response over the communication lines. Upon entering, we found the station
to be mostly intact, however, there were high levels of carbon monoxide present. The only heat
source, which was assumed to be biological, was the closet at Unit 8 of the upper deck. The
heat source was the ambient remains of a fire that had been started by the crew, and upon
exposure to the oxygen of the hall the fire ignited, and then caused an explosion of stored
oxygen tanks, leading us to abandon the station.”
“And Icari?”
“We stopped in Icari Quadrant B and I was treated for burns from the explosion at
Squinting, something darkens behind Hick’s eyes. “What supplies were lost from the
“The generator.”
“That’s all?”
“Yes, sir.”
Leaning back in his chair, Hicks clears his throat, eyeing the two before asking, “And why
did you decide to infiltrate the facility yourselves? This was strictly a supply run; at the first sign
of foul play you two should have requested back-up and headed to Icari.”
“We couldn’t drop off the supplies without the pin code to the hangar, so we tried to find
the crew to complete the mission.”
“If they were unable to communicate, you should have called for back-up.”
“I–” Rolli stutters, watching rain pour down in a sleek sheet along the window behind
“Moore and I weren’t too optimistic about the odds of someone being able to fly up in
time. We were their only hope so we took the risk.” Jax steps in, slightly on edge as a flare of
frustration spirals in his gut.
“I clearly stated that the safety of the tanker and you two was the priority. This was not a
life-or-death mission, or it wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Well, we weren’t expecting the fire.”
“You weren’t expecting anything because of your reckless ego trying to be the hero.”
“We weren’t trying to be anything, we were just doing our jobs.” With a glare, Jax
emboldens slightly and spats, “Maybe if you had sent someone up sooner so they didn’t resort
to gassing themselves to death with the fire none of this would be a discussion.”
With a flash of anger, Hicks stands, “What are you implying, Thatcher?”
“With all due respect, I’m implying your damn incompetence almost killed us, sir!”

Then he flinches, just his eyes because they hit harder if you try to pull away. A second
passes and he opens them, starting at the image before him; Rolli’s got his fist clamped around
Hicks’ wrist, something uncertain but precise in his expression.
“Have you lost your mind, Moore?!”
“Don’t– Don’t hit him.”
“You have no authority here, private, don’t ever interfere with my business again or it’s
remediation for a month. Am I making myself crystal clear, Moore?”
“Don’t hit him!” Jaxxon’s lips part watching the anger spill out of Rolli as he seethes. It’s
palpable. It goes against everything he knows about Rolli, everything he’s learned in his
mannerisms, and the way he stares off, quiet, unconcerned.
Yet he’s yelling, knuckles white as he grips Hick’s wrist.
“Step down–”
“I’m tired of people being hurt–”
“Wait–” Jaxxon pulls Rolli back but it’s too late, the punch calls out as it hits the latter’s
jaw, “You–” Jaxxon’s struck too as they both stagger, stunned a moment before Hick’s looms
over both filled with self-righteous anger burning bright on the coals in his gut.
“You better get used to it, Moore! We build fighters, not children who get a lolli and a kiss
when they stub their toe! Get that through your skull or we’ll drill it in! Do I make myself clear?!”
Both privates pant a moment, Rolli straightening himself as Jax mimics, wordless. With a flash
of fury, Hicks grabs the collars of both and repeats, “Do I make myself clear?!”
“Yes, sir!” They grunt in unison. As they’re released they smear the spit off their faces,
glaring at their respective distractions. Rolli’s watching Jaxxon’s shoes planted in the ground,
and Jaxxon’s watching the clock tick with a disapproving hum above Hicks’ head.
“Everything discussed here is classified until further notice. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Dismissed: No supper, either of you.” The two turn, Jax’s hands shaking as he tries to
steady his breath. They’re careful not to transgress the charged, roiling silence even as they
begin to move down the hall. The metal door glares at them as they tap away.
As a child, Jaxxon Thatcher dreamed of extravagant star battles, duking it out with
enemy fighter pilots as if it were the games staged and replayed in the woods with the
neighborhood kids. Real-life missions are not scripted, and they can not be altered to fit his
perfect concept of what a battle should be.
Rolli Moore dreamed of nothing, or nothing worth noting. When asked of his future plans
he always shrugged and allowed the wind to take him where it planted him. Often he wonders if
he should have waited for it to breeze him further down the road.
Now, they both dream of MOS-8. Rolli is no stranger to night terrors, and Jax’s had his
fair share; the former, however, seems to be in a much more pervasive state of taut terror
anytime he drowns in his subconscious. It’s as if his conservative expressions and mannerisms
cause him to pay the price of overflowing images and suppressed traumas behind the cold dark
of his eyelids.
Both Rolli and Jaxxon stare blankly at their respective walls as they avoid sleep as long
as they can.
Rippling the silence, Rolli asks, “Were we too late?”

Jaxxon hugs the freshly washed pillow to his chest, listening to his heart pump in his
ears as he pretends to think over those words.
“I don’t know.”
Neither press further, allowing the silence to slink back to its throne, watching them from
the middle of the barrack.
They are left to ruminate, chewing, swallowing, and regurgitating silently spoken
reassurances and mantras. They are not allowed the truth about the station, the fact that it had
been ignored for weeks as a low-level priority, or that the crew’s sanity had been snuffed past
the point of mending when they arrived.
What had started as a procrastinated to-do list item on Hick’s plate turned into a
breeding ground for intrusive thoughts. It was never the oxygen or the carbon scrubbers; the
backup generator had indeed lasted until a half hour before Jax and Rolli arrived, so the
estimate had been only slightly off. It was, however, the paranoia that had been injected into the
crew long before the machine began to malfunction that put them down one by one. All they
needed was the embers of doubt that someone would arrive in time to spark a chain reaction of
increasingly rash decisions and a survivalist mentality that lacked logic.
The mission had been nothing more than an assessment of Rolli and Jax’s compatibility,
or as Hicks would put it: “Their ability to become a bone-a-fide killing machine.” It was an excuse
to test if the two soldiers could work well with each other’s company; the first of many steps in
culturing them as another elite fighter team. Thatcher is an exceptional pilot, and Moore knows
how to follow instructions to a tee. The mission was an easy pop quiz, as simple as that; but
still, no one tells them this. Why would they?
All Jaxxon and Rolli are allowed are what they experienced, their interpretations, and the
judgments both external and internal of their failings. Once they do begin to tentatively cross the
threshold of their subconscious, they attempt to dream of a slightly more digestible tomorrow, for
that is all they can afford tonight.
Meanwhile, Hicks dreams of a deliciously rewarding game of chess.

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