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Written in the Stars · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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In Living Color
Earth had been getting too depressing as of late, so Charlie decided to leave. To be fair, he wasn’t leaving much behind; he had no wife, no kids, no parents. All Charlie really had were a few books, some yellowing manuscripts—they had stopped selling paper a few years back—and the small plot of land he had been assigned. He had spent a Lifetime there already, and he was more than ready to move on.

Of course, Charlie had always been the emotional type, so he still cried when he left, bound for Saturn with nothing but his pills, a few pens, and what few reams of paper he had left. They almost hadn’t let him on, as the young man who searched his bag thought the pens were weapons. “A knife,” the young man had said to the rest of the ship’s crew, eyes bugging out. “He’s gonna cut the oxygen supply and kill us all! Why else would he have no luggage?”

By the time Charlie finished wiping his tears, Earth was nothing but a blurry blue blot in the center of his window. He pressed his palm against the glass and stared at it, a lone speck of color in that dark expanse.

“I should write that down,” he said. He kept staring for a second more before the itch entered his hands and he patted himself down, looking for a pen. When he remembered that he had nothing with him but a gray plastic jumpsuit, he turned to the man sitting next to him.

“Hey.” Charlie brushed the hair out of his baggy eyes and tried to steady his breathing. “Do you know where they put our bags? Or when we can get to them?”

His neighbor—a lanky man with the boniest face Charlie had ever seen—turned and flashed him a grin. “Your first trip, I assume?” he asked. While Charlie tried to sputter an answer, the man patted his leg and said, “Don’t worry yourself. We’ve got months to go before we even hit Titan. You’ll have plenty of time to work when they take off the harnesses.”

The thick straps holding Charlie to his chair seemed to grow tighter by the second. He clawed at the rubber and looked out the window again. Earth was almost gone. “Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said. “But I gotta write something soon, or I’m gonna lose all these ideas.”

The Asian man chuckled and leaned back in his seat. “Relax. No need to panic. Panic is for Earthlings.”

“Earthlings...” Charlie nodded. “Yeah, yeah, that’s good. Refer to everyone back there as Earthlings, really play up the contrast, y’know? The loss of humanity in space.”

Brows furrowing, his neighbor frowned. “What research center are you from?”

“I dunno what that means,” Charlie said, rocking his legs back and forth. “I went to New Kingston College, if that counts for anything. Name’s Charlie, by the by.”

“Shigeto,” the man replied. He rolled Charlie’s words over his tongue. “You’re an artist? They let an artist come to Saturn?”

“I guess so. Why?” Charlie asked. “Is that weird?”

“Yes,” Shigeto said. “I don’t mean any offense, but they usually restrict colony access to more skilled individuals.”

Charlie stared. “‘Skilled.’ What does that mean, ‘skilled?’”

“Okay, perhaps skilled isn’t correct.” Shigeto turned forward and clicked his tongue. “Useful?”

“Art is plenty useful, buddy. I filled out the application and got accepted, just like you.”

“I don’t mean to say otherwise!” Shigeto said, letting out a dry laugh. “I just can’t imagine what they’ll have you do when we arrive. There isn’t much there yet, you know. We need every hand we can get to help colonize.”

“Well, I’ve got two of them.” Charlie went back to the window. “I’ll do what they tell me to do. But I’ve already wasted one Lifetime on Earth; I don’t need to waste another.”

Charlie could feel Shigeto’s smirk. “Of course not.”

That was the truth. Even now, Charlie could see the skin on the back of his hands peeling, felt his fingers stiffening: eternal reminders of the life he left behind. He needed to get to his bag not only to grab a pen, but his package of pills. Much longer strapped down like this, and he would—

With a metallic whoosh, the doors at the front of the cabin slid open, and a portly fellow with thick-rimmed glasses strolled inside. The glasses were fake, of course; no one had worn real glasses for decades. They were just there for style, and along with his upturned nose and gray suit he looked more like an aristocratic rat than a human. The cabin had already been silent, but as the Rat stepped inside, Charlie swore he could hear a star go supernova light-years away.

“Salutations,” the Rat said, staring straight ahead. “And welcome aboard the USS Hermes. You should have all been briefed on the ship’s rules and regulations before boarding, yes?”

A few moments of still silence passed. Charlie squirmed. “Yeah,” he called, attracting every eye. “Can we—”

Shigeto grabbed Charlie’s shoulder. “Calm,” he whispered, that smile never leaving his face. “You artists are always so panicky.”

Charlie swallowed his words. As the Rat went on, Charlie bounced a knee and gazed out the window. Earth was gone. Only darkness, unflinching, unforgiving darkness remained. It seemed like that same darkness was flooding his mind, choking out all his ideas. He could feel each and every idea, each and every word slip from his brain, never to be captured again.

He had started taking the pills to write, but they blew out his memory. Was that irony?

“First novel in space,” he said to the glass. Maybe if he reminded himself why he was there, he would stop stop shaking. “You got this. You got this.” But thinking about his goal just made the itch in his hands grow, until he was grasping at the plastic over his heart where he usually kept his pens. His hands itched, his skin peeled, he needed his bag—

The straps disappeared and Charlie jumped. The Rat had apparently finished speaking, and everyone was rising from their seat and shuffling out of the room. Shigeto cracked his neck a few times when he got up. Before he could walk off, Charlie grabbed his hand.

“Where’s everyone going?” Charlie asked.

Shigeto frowned. “Didn’t you listen? We’re going to our stations.”

Charlie nodded and let go. “Right, right—our stations.” He paused. “Our what?”

But Shigeto was already on the other side of the room, exchanging pleasentries with a woman just as gaunt as him. Charlie jumped out of his seat and thought about following after, but he soon remembered his pens and the burning in his knuckles returned. He hesitated for only a moment, but that was more than enough time for the room to clear out, leaving him alone with the Rat.

The two locked eyes.

Charlie raised a hand. “Hey.”

The Rat nodded. “Hello.” He seemed to state straight past Charlie.


“I, uh... I don’t think I caught your name,” Charlie said.

The Rat wrinkled his nose. He closed the gap between them and thrust out a hand. “Captain Richard Trawley. Welcome aboard.”

Charlie returned the gesture and shot him a grin. “Don’t suppose your middle name starts with an A?”

Trawley shook his head. “No.”

“Right.” Charlie glanced around. “Sorry to bother you about this, but where am I going right now? I kinda need to get to my luggage.”

“Did you not hear your research center called?”

“I’m not from a center,” Charlie said. “I’m a, y’know... I’m not a scientist.”

“Oh. A mathematician, then.”


Trawley’s beady eyes went wide for a moment—but he soon narrowed them. “Ah, yes. Charles Weinberg, was it?”

“Char—yeah. Charles,” Charlie said, scratching his head. “You know me?”

“I look over all applications for the Hermes,” Trawley said, puffing out his chest. “And yours was quite interesting. Born in the Unified States, jumped from career to career, living your second Lifetime... how is that, by the way? My wife has been pressing me to speak to a doctor about it.”

Now the skin on Charlie’s neck had begun to peel. He clasped a hand over it and shrugged. “Weird. I mean, back on Earth they’re always talking about how it’s this abomination, about how we’re playing God. But it’s giving so many people a second chance.”

“Mhm.” Trawley nodded. Pursing his lips, he stepped aside and gestured to an open door on the other side of the room. “You’re free to wander the ship as you like, but your luggage has been placed in your room.”

“Right. Thanks.” Charlie started to reach out for a handshake, but realized they had already done that, and quickly retracted his hand. Eyes falling to the floor, he walked away, Trawley’s gaze hot on his back.

Charlie managed to lose his way twice before finally finding his room, wedged into the end of a long corridor. Everything on the ship was gray chrome and black plastic; if it hadn’t been for the blue duffel bag he found waiting for him on his bed, he would have assumed that color simply didn’t exist in space.

He ripped open the bag and poured its contents onto the bed. He grabbed the pill bottle and pens at the same time—and it was with a heavy heart and an aching neck that he had to drop the pens. Popping off the top of the bottle, Charlie gulped down two tiny red capsules.

He collapsed back onto the stiff bed. An electric tingling spread away from his throat, spidering along his neck and through his fingers and across his spine. He looked down at his hands and saw the peeling skin fall away, leaving what was left to tighten and repair itself.

It seemed that not even leaving the planet could help Charlie escape his daily routines.

It wasn’t that he was ungrateful; like he said, ever since they invented Reincarnation, loads of people were living better lives, were being given second chances to do the things they had always wanted to. But still, knowing that if he didn’t take these pills, his body would literally fall apart—it kept him awake at night, staring at the ceiling, waiting to feel his skin start to peel.

But that didn’t matter now. He was here, he was alive. He was going to make the most of this.

He grabbed a pen and his tablet. Flicking it on, he wrote down the word “Earthlings,” then stopped.

He had forgotten his words.

With a muted thump, Charlie let his arms fall uselessly to either side.

Charlie awoke with a shuddering gasp. He shot up from his bed, clunking his head against the wall on the way, and looked at his hands. The skin had begun to peel once again, but even that was better than what he had dreamed. His brain had spent the last few hours entertaining him with images of his body disintegrating, of his body being thrown into space, never to be found again. No one would remember him. No one would know that Charlie Weinberg had existed.

He slapped the thoughts from his mind and stood up. Glancing around and stretching, he realized that there was no clock in his room. In fact, he hadn’t seen a single clock since stepping aboard. How long had he been asleep for?

In any case, his stomach rumbled like a landslide. Forget Reincarnation—if he didn’t get some food in him soon, he’d be stardust long before they reached Saturn.

He took another set of pills, slipped on his shoes, and headed out, back down the cramped corridor that led to the rest of the ship. The ship was dead quiet, as if it had been abandoned. Lord, he thought, faltering for a moment. How long was I asleep? The image of an alien creature popped into his mind. Crawling through the ship, feasting on the screams of its victims...

The itch to write sparked in his hands. But before he could turn around, his stomach rumbled again. Priorities.

Although the walls were bare of anything but electronic monitors and machines, it only took Charlie a few minutes this time to wander back to what he remembered being the center of the ship. Still no clocks, but a familiar face.

“Shigeto!” Charlie called, rushing ahead. “How you doing?”

At the end of the hall, Shigeto glanced up from the tablet he carried. He still wore his same gray jumpsuit, but had added a thick pair of goggles to the ensemble. Adjusting the goggles, he offered Charlie a smile. “Hello there, Mr. Artist. Draw anything nice lately?”

Charlie slowed down a bit. “That isn’t... no.” He forced a chuckle. “Say, how long has it been since we met?”

Shigeto raised a brow. “A few hours? A day, perhaps?”

“Right,” Charlie said, allowing himself a mental sigh of relief. The ship really was just that quiet.

“Of course, it doesn’t feel anywhere near that long,” Shigeto said with a smile. “Time just seems to fly when you’re working, doesn’t it?”

“Working? What on?”

Shigeto pulled him close and showed him the tablet. Translucent pictures of flowers and vegetables flew across the screen, each one followed by blocks of tiny text. Endless numbers and complex symbols floated along the borders. Just a few seconds spent staring made Charlie feel like his brain had turned to sludge.

He nodded, but could only manage a soft, “Uh-huh.”

Shigeto tittered. “Come.”

The bony-faced scientist led Charlie down another series of identical corridors—at least, mostly identical. Just as Charlie suspected that Shigeto had led him into a labyrinth, the chrome walls became massive windows, looking down into even larger gardens.

At once, Charlie pressed himself against the glass, only to be greeted by a shrill beeping as he set off some sort of touchscreen. Shigeto jerked him back, but not even that was enough to tear Charlie’s eyes away from the green.

On the floor below the window, there wasn’t a single inch of space that wasn’t covered with some sort of green plant. Thick bushes, tall trees, long vegetable stalks all sprouted from the soil-laced floor, stretching high into the air. Charlie had never seen so much nature in one place. Back home, the only place you saw green was the supermarket, or in a museum. But this?

“Holy hell,” Charlie murmured. “This is beautiful.”

“Isn’t it?” Shigeto put his hands on his hips. “Artificial vegetation. Enough food in here to feed a colony for a year. Beautiful is right.”

“Hm? Oh, yeah.” Charlie crouched down and scooted a bit closer to the window. “I meant the color, though. It’s so rich, so deep—this is the kind of green you only see in paintings, y’know? It’s brilliant. Prettiest thing I’ve seen on this ship so far, that’s for sure.”

“Yes, I suppose,” Shigeto said slowly. “But color is more a byproduct than anything. No inherent nutritional value to be found in color.”

Charlie looked up at him. “Sure, but that isn’t the only kind of value, is it? Just color by itself has value.”

“Does it?” Shigeto asked. “How so?”

Charlie opened his mouth, but it took a while for him to stutter, “I mean, people want it, right? People want color.”

“I’m not sure about that.” Shigeto gestured to the workers below, milling about the garden and treating the plants with chemical sprays. They all wore the same gray jumpsuits, the same clear goggles. If the garden was a lush landscape, then the workers were rips in the canvas. “Our gear is colorless—cheaper to produce that way—and everyone seems to perform adequately. They’re fine without fancy colors.”

Charlie couldn’t help but notice that no one was smiling.

“And you need nutrition to survive,” Shigeto continued. “Do you need color to survive? Or beauty?”

“Yeah!” Charlie said. He took a breath. “Yeah.”

“Hm...” Shigeto tapped his chin. “Not so sure about that.”

Charlie frowned and leaned in closer. He watched with wide eyes as a worker squatted down and tugged on a leafy shoot—at once, a massive carrot rose from the soil, sporting skin so orange Charlie was sure it must have been flaming.

But before he even had time to grin, his stomach roared again. Clutching the fabric, he turned to ask Shigeto where the cafeteria was—but the scientist was gone.

With a snort, Charlie rose and picked a random direction to walk in. He didn’t know where Shigeto was from, but he was sure that “Shigeto” translated to “asshat.”

All Charlie had for company as he walked were his own footsteps. Outside of the occasional whir or whine of a faroff machine, the ship was quiet. Occasionally Charlie would glance around to make sure no one was nearby, then clap as hard as he could, savoring how the sharp slap of skin on skin spiked through the silence. He only lost his way once before finding the cafeteria, so Charlie considered the trip a success.

Upon arrival, however, dying of hunger began to look more appetizing. Their food had the look and variety of a gourmet restaurant—but it had the taste and texture of a salty sneaker. Charlie had to choke down the meal, all the while resisting his brain’s warnings that what he had in his mouth was probably poison.

He didn’t have much to distract himself, either. Aside from him, three people sat in the cafeteria, huddled together at the end of a table in the corner of the room. They all carried the same goggles and tablets that Shigeto had, and spoke in hushed tones.

Charlie sat near them, trying to look aloof but silently hoping that they would notice him for long enough to introduce themselves. Yet, as the minutes dragged on and he forced more chemicals down his gullet, they only seemed to lean closer together. Charlie craned his neck to try and catch a snippet of conversation, but couldn’t find anything of interest in their words. A few minutes spent on the optimal way to calibrate hoverpads, some gossip about the “paradise” that was the colony on Titan...

Charlie stared into his potatoes, mouth drawn into a tight line. At least they looked good—that was worth something, right?

“Miss Cooper.”

Charlie blurted the name at his ceiling, cringing at the way his scratchy voice echoed in the cramped room. He lay in his bed, a pen in his hand and a pad of paper on his chest. Errant words and ideas were scrawled across the paper, looking like either a stupid free verse poem or the ramblings of a madman. At this point, he would be happy for either.

He had been on the Hermes for five weeks now, but he hadn’t written more than a hundred words of anything that could be considered prose. No matter how long he thought, he couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t a massive cliché or just plain boring. Nothing jumped out at him. He still had the itch to write, but whenever he tried, it was replaced by the urge to fall asleep for hours.

Honestly, all he could think about was home and his first Lifetime.

Charlie had grown up with a banker for a father and a programmer for a mother, so money had never been a worry. Yet as a child he wished for no expensive toys, no fancy games—well, not many, at least. Instead, all he asked for was free time. He stayed up until the wee hours writing under the covers. He watched movies and rewrote them in his head. “This is how I would do it,” he explained to his friends. “I just gotta get an agent first.”

The agent never came, but he kept writing. He went to an art school without his parents’ support, paying his way through by doing odd jobs around town. Even in that brave new world of space travel and Reincarnation, of 4D movies and miniature stars you could wear on your wrist, his tales were simple: of love longed for and lost, of boys who wished for something greater. He knew they would catch on—someone just had to read them first.

After all, reading had gone out of style years ago. No one read anymore, unless they had to to operate some device. Everyone accepted that art wasn’t going to help humanity, but knowledge was. Science was. And as art lost its value, so too did Charlie lose his dreams of eking out a life for himself as an artist. He became a banker, just like his father. But he knew in his heart of hearts that art was gonna come back—now, he just had to find time to write it.

He tried to find art in the little things—composing music with the beeps of credit card machines, thinking up backstories for the people who visited his booth at the bank. No one ever seemed to smile, but Charlie hoped they were happy anyway.’

And that name...

“Miss Cooper,” he repeated, frowning. “Miss Cooper.”

Who the hell was Miss Cooper? His third grade teacher...? Yeah, that was it. Charlie closed his eyes and saw her soft smile, her pudgy fingers. She never looked quite right in those pencil skirts all the teachers wore. It always seemed like she would rather be wearing a turtleneck with a picture of a cat on it, or something like that.

With a chill, Charlie remembered that it was in her class he had written his first story. He couldn't recall a word of it, but he could still see Miss Cooper’s beaming face as she read it. He had never seen someone smile so wide, so hard. He had smiled too, and it was at that moment he realized that happiness was contagious, and art could spread the sickness.

That was before he went home and showed it to his mom, he skimmed it over once before stuffing it in a drawer and packing his bags for Chinese class.

Charlie ran a finger along the scars on his neck where the skin had peeled and tightened so many times. That happiness he had once felt—that was why he fought death, wasn’t it? To feel it again after a Lifetime spent longing for it?

Charlie was an artist. Now, he just needed to prove it.

He picked up his pen—

Above the door, screen burst to life with a picture of a crimson exclamation mark. Before Charlie could even furrow his brows, a shrill alarm wailed through his cabin, crushing his eardrums. Shouting a curse, Charlie threw his pen into the air and tumbled out of bed, hitting the floor face first. He kept one hand pressed to his nose and ran out of the room.

Groggy-eyed passengers filed past, all headed in a pack away from their rooms and towards the center of the ship. Charlie wiped a trickle of blood from his nostrils and joined the crowd. He couldn’t quite remember what they had said about alarms in the prelaunch briefings, but surely at least one of these people did.

They marched to the launch cabin where Charlie had watched the Earth fall away. Dozens of passengers—it had to be everyone on board, Charlie figured—milled about the room, exchanging whispers and glances. He craned his neck to try and find Shigeto, the only person on the ship that he knew, but couldn’t pick his acquaintance out from the sea of identical gray jumpsuits.

A door at the front of the room slid open and a tiny woman walked in. She flinched whenever the alarm flared, and gripped the railing by the door with both hands. “Excuse me?” she called out to the crowd. “Could I have your attention, please?”

She waited for the crowd to fall silent before taking a deep breath and saying, “There’s no need to alarmed by the, um... alarm. The scanners have reported that there’s been a small malfunction in the food storage bay, and a fire has broken out.” The crowd broke into a unified murmur, and the woman grimaced. “Please, stay calm! The fire is being taken care of. Captain Trawley will be here soon, and—”

The door behind her opened once more, and Trawley popped out, his glasses crooked and his face bright red, as if he were on fire himself. He pushed the woman aside and leaned over the railing, glaring down into the crowd.

“We are not going to allow this to set us off course,” Trawley said, voice gruff. “The USS Hermes has never been delayed! We already have crew working to put out the fire, but we need to be efficient.” He adjusted his glasses and looked over to where Charlie was standing, making the artist go stiff. “Dr. Steen?”

A bearded man next to Charlie stood up straight. “Yes, Captain?”

“I want you and all the teams under your watch to see how much food has been lost, and how long it will take to replace.”

Steen nodded and walked away. A large part of the crowd followed after, including Shigeto, who Charlie finally spotted. Charlie waved, but Shigeto either didn’t notice or didn’t react.

Trawley turned. “Dr. Colón, see if you can calculate how much time it will take to repair any system damage, and how long we will be delayed.” Another group left, and Trawley turned once more. “Dr. Edwards, discover the cause of the fire. Any scanner data you need will be provided to you.” Another third of the crowd hurried out, pushing and shoving past Charlie as they went.

As they left, Trawley nodded and moved to leave—but the small woman grabbed his arm and held him back. She muttered a few quiet words and jerked a thumb at Charlie, who stood in the center of the room, rubbing his arm. Trawley sighed, fingered the bridge of his nose, then walked forward.

“What can I do?” asked Charlie, trying to stand up straighter.

“You can go back to your room.”

Charlie recoiled. “But I can help.”

“You can waste time,” Trawley said. He folded his hands behind his back. “If any team has to take time to clue you into every facet of their work, that wastes time. We have a schedule to keep, Charles. If you really wish to help, follow this order: stay out of the way.”

Trawley walked away, and Charlie balled up his fists. Curses and insults flew up his throat, boiled in his mouth... but a single thought turned them all to dust.

He’s right.

Alone in that metal chamber, Charlie bit his tongue and stared at the floor. Trawley was right. What would Charlie do? What could he do? Write a poem? Draw a picture?

He trudged back to his room and collapsed onto the bed. Within minutes, he felt the skin on the back of his hands peeling. He didn’t get up.

The weeks dragged on and Charlie stopped taking his pills. For a while, he simply reduced the dosage; two pills every eight hours was a bit much, he figured. But then whole days started passing without a single pill taken. Eventually, he stuffed the pill bottle into the bottom of his bag and stuffed his bag under his bed. The pens and papers went with it.

Without his pills, Charlie’s body began to fail. He lay awake wondering when his organs would finally give out, when his paper skin would tear under the weight of his skeleton.

There was no point. He took the pills to have a second chance at life. But it was exceedingly clear that his second chance didn’t exist.

Charlie no longer spent his days staring at blank pages, but instead staring at open windows, gazing out into the endless vacuum of space. His lips cracked with every word, and nausea erupted in his stomach with every breath. So, body wracked with pain, he stayed as still as possible, just studying the darkness.

No air. No life. No color. Humans weren’t meant to live here. He wasn’t meant to live here.

“You’re looking glum, Mr. Artist.” Shigeto sat down on the bench beside Charlie and rested an arm over his shoulders. “What’s the problem? Writer’s block?”

Charlie tried to think of a response, but only one came to mind.

“What does the crew do with dead bodies?” Charlie asked, his voice hoarse.

Shigeto shot him a sideways glance. “What?”

Charlie managed to look him in the eyes. “If I were to die right now, what would they do with me?”

“Wow. You’re certainly the morbid one today.” Shigeto leaned back and crossed his arms. “Hm. Not sure, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say they’d probably throw you and your luggage out the airlock.”

Even as his body crumbled, Charlie felt like he had been kicked in the chest. “That’s horrible.”

Shigeto shrugged. “This ship holds many things, Mr. Artist. A morgue is not one of them.”

Charlie stayed silent. Closing his eyes, he imagined what it would be like to be tossed out into space, with his pens and papers and writing. Would he drift away, into a black hole or a sun somewhere? Would he just disappear for all eternity?

Or would he be found? Humans hadn’t found any aliens yet, but they had to be out there somewhere. Would they take him in? Give him a proper funeral? Worship him? The Creature Who Fell From the Sky. And his work? Would they understand? Would they see the value?

Yeah. Maybe they would.

“Did you hear the news?” Shigeto asked with a smile. “We’re making an emergency stop on Titan to repair a breach from the fire.” He chuckled. “You think this ship is advanced? Just wait until you see Titan. What I wouldn’t give to have been assigned there!”

Charlie nodded. He kept his eyes clenched and thought about his aliens. That itch to write entered his hands once again—but he knew that he was too weak to hold the pen.

The crew landed the Hermes on an airbase and shuttled the passengers over to the central colony separately.

A wide ramp extended from their small ship to the ground, and the future Saturn colonists shuffled out. Charlie walked in the center of the pack, trying to hobble along fast enough to not trip anyone up. A small group of humans waited for them at the bottom: the Titan colonists. At the front of the pack stood a woman with soft eyes and curly blond hair. She shook hands with Captain Trawley, then adjusted a microphone around her neck.

“Greetings!” she called, stretching her arms out wide. “We here at Titan Base IV welcome you!”

Charlie tuned her out, instead choosing to focus on one simple fact: Titan was dead.

There was no gentler way of saying it. Titan looked like death incarnate. From space the gaseous surface had been green, red, orange—but now, standing under the oxygen dome, all Charlie saw was brown and gray. Brown air. Gray rocks. Gray jumpsuits. Brown buildings. A black sky. Titan was a decaying corpse, buried alive and left to rot.

The air left Charlie’s lungs. He bared his teeth and took gasping breaths and clawed at his burning stomach. Trying to steady his wobbling knees, he pushed past the person in front of him and walked forward. No one noticed him. They all stared straight ahead, listening to the blond-haired woman like she was their queen.

This wasn’t a colony. This wasn’t a world. This was hell.

“How?” he asked, raising his voice.

The blond-haired woman stopped short, and for the first time everyone noticed the man with the heaving chest and sweat-soaked face. “Excuse me?” she asked. “Did you have a question?”

Charlie growled. “How can you live like this?! It’s nothing!”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Oh, of course you don’t—agh!” Charlie doubled over, falling to his knees. A sharp pain spiked in his stomach, and a burning spurt of bile erupted from his mouth, inspiring a cry from the crowd.

Tears rolling, Charlie beat a fist into the fake gray dirt. A pair of strong arms hooked under his and pulled him away.

The medbay smelled of disinfectant and fresh plastic. Charlie lay alone in the dark, digging his nails into the sheets. Wires led from beeping machines into every one of his limbs, keeping track of every facet of his existence. He could barely think without some buzzer going off.

He hadn’t told the nurses that he was taking Reincarnation pills—or that he wasn’t taking them, rather—but it had been easy enough for them to test his blood and find out themselves. They held down his arms and forced them into his mouth, but still had enough strength to keep them hidden under his tongue until he could spit them out undetected.

Charlie could smell the death on the sheets. He imagined that he wouldn’t make it to Saturn; but if Titan really was the “paradise” that everyone described it as, he wasn’t sure he wanted to see what Saturn was like.

Not that anyone would notice if he didn’t make it. He’d die here silently, just a number in a ledger somewhere. No funeral, no memorial. Not even a spot in the obituaries. Nothing.

Charlie was nothing.

He lifted himself from the bed and used what little strength he had left to tear the wires from his skin. Blood trailing down his arms and legs, he limped out of the medbay, into the open air. He took a long breath of brown Titan air and kept walking.

Half an hour later, Charlie collapsed against a wall. He managed to prop himself against the wall so he could stare out into the field. What a coincidence, he figured, that the night after he killed himself yelling about how gray everything on Titan was, he would find the only place on the planet with any color.

Bulbous red vegetables pocked the ground in front of him. He had seen these same things in the cafeteria on the Hermes; they were supposed to be beets, he thought. Emphasis on “supposed to be”—they looked like they were made of wax.

In the silence, his stomach grumbled.

Groaning, he reached forward and plucked one off the ground.

This was like his Last Supper, he realized with his first smile in a week. Although he was too tired to speak, he held the beet in front of him and closed his eyes. This is my body, he thought. Take this in remembrance of me.

He took a tiny bite of the beet—and spit it right back out. These beets evidently didn’t just look like wax, but tasted like it too.

Another jolt of pain hit his stomach, and he gripped the beet as hard as he could. It slipped from his hands, but as Charlie went to grab it again, he stopped.

His hands were a bright red. Not from his blood, or anything like that—they were red from the beet. In his hands, it had crumbled into some sort of red paste. Charlie remembered some of the cafeteria food being the same, turning to paste when they were split open. Some glitch in the software used to grow them, Shigeto had told him.

He rubbed his fingers together, watching as the paste slid across his skin. It was cold and sticky, with the consistency of paint.

Charlie blinked.

Breaths going shallow again, he climbed onto his shaking knees and swiped a finger across the gray stone wall he sat against. The paste left a deep crimson mark, as if it had come from a paintbrush. He choked out a giggle and took another swipe. Within a minute he had written his name in crooked letters, bright and vivid for anyone to read.

Charlie felt a long lost strength returning to his bones. He grabbed another beet and crushed it. Paste spilled between his fingers and down his arms. Memories of finger painting in school rushed back as he drew a flower, then another.

He thought of Miss Cooper’s smile. He thought about his mother’s scowl.

Charlie painted until he passed out, paste and blood spilling from his fingers into the dirt.

“Order!” Trawley cried, pounding a chubby fist against his table. “Silence!”

Each member of both colonies were stuffed into the meeting room of the Titan Base IV Town Hall. To be more specific, both colonies were stuffed into one side of the meeting room—on the other side sat Trawley, the blond-haired woman who had met them on arrival, and Charlie.

And, to be fair, Charlie wasn’t quite sitting. Slumped into his chair, Charlie looked like a pile of white goo. The wires were back, but they didn’t seem to be doing much. He stared off into the distance with clouded eyes, and it took a forceful shove for him to respond to anything. Skin fell from his neck like snow. Bandages covered his hands.

Trawley tented his fingers. “We are gathered here today to discuss the issue of one Charles Weinburg, an expectant member of the Saturn V Base. Charles was found this morning in South Field, and is accused of destroying food and defacing federal property.” Trawley pressed a button on his desk, and in the center of the room a projector came to life, displaying a hologram image of Charlie collapsed against the wall, red fingers still pressed to the stone.

“Charles,” said Trawley, towering over the artist, “do you have anything to say in your defense?”

Charlie gurgled.

“Very well.” Trawley gestured to the crowd. “I don’t suppose anyone else has something to say on Weinberg’s behalf?”

It took a painful amount of effort, but Charlie lifted his head to scan the audience. His eyes locked immediately on the front row, where Shigeto sat, a distasteful frown on his face as he checked his watch.

Charlie closed his eyes and waited for the airlock.

“Excuse me,” the blond-haired woman said, standing. “May I speak?”

“Of course, Lieutentant General Haas,” said Trawley. “This is your colony, after all.”

“Thank you.” Haas sauntered over to Charlie and laid a hand of manicured red nails on his shoulder. Then, with a glower, she said, “You all realize that you’re prosecuting a corpse, right?”

Trawley shook his head. “He’s not dead yet.”

Haas rolled her eyes. “It’s hyperbole, Dick.”

Charlie opened his eyes.

“You wanna talk about a crime? How about this friggin’ meeting?” Haas said, throwing her hands to her hips. “Do you know how much money we’re wasting on heating this room just so we can hold this little kangaroo court? A lot, that’s how much.”

“It isn’t a waste,” Trawley said. “We can’t afford to allow these sorts of shenanigans. We already took a risk allowing an artist aboard the Hermes. The human race is counting on us to take these missions seriously.” A murmur of agreement rose from the crowd.

Haas spat out a laugh. “Yeah, that’s why they keep sending biologists to planets with no life on them, right?”

A skinny man stood up in the crowd. “Hey, that’s not—”

“Oh, shut up, Rami,” said Haas. “You’re getting paid for nothing and you know it.” She grabbed Charlie again. “This guy crushed, what, twenty beets? We make more than that in a day, and I’m pretty sure most of the ones he used were glitched, anyway. And, honestly?”

Haas stepped over to Trawley’s desk and pressed a button, causing the projection to zoom in on Charlie’s painting: a simple field of red flowers. The crowd chuckled.

“I think it looks pretty nice,” Haas said, smirking. “Certainly the prettiest thing we’ve seen since getting here. The engineers down on Earth have some sort of chrome fetish, I swear.”

Trawley turned off the projection. “So, what are you suggesting, Lieutenant General?”

“I’m suggesting, Dick, that you let this guy go free.” Haas snorted. “Hell, let him stay here! We’ll nurse him back to health and put him to work painting flowers or something. He could paint flowers every day for the rest of his life and he’d still be more useful than Rami over there.” The skinny man protested again, and Haas offered him a rude hand gesture. “Go suck on a rock, Rami.”

Whispers broke out amongst the crowd. Trawley banged his fist against the table again. “Quiet!” Everyone stared at Charlie. “So, Charles: what do you think?”

Charlie’s eyes stung, but for the first time in weeks, he didn’t think it was his body collapsing. Millions of words pooled behind his lips, but he couldn’t speak them. He just forced himself to move his head up and down once—then everything went dark.

Shrill electronic music blared as Charlie stepped out of the shower. Pop music had never been his thing, but he couldn’t help but hum along with the tune—they were only sent so many songs so often, so he had learned to make the most of them.

Grabbing a towel from the small robot that hovered nearby, he walked to the sink and admired his reflection. The scars on his neck and hands were still there, but not nearly as pronounced now. With just a little makeup, he could cover them up and no one would ever suspect a thing.

Now, wasn’t that an idea? What if some company were to invent a type of makeup that could change your identity? Women would become different people every day. Photo IDs would become obsolete. Espionage would thrive.

He scoffed. Stupid.

...Still. He picked up a stylus by the sink and jotted a few words down on the tablet by the mirror: “identity-changing makeup.” Yeah. The people there on Titan loved everything he wrote either way. He had run out of paper a few months back, he was so popular. They craved his work—they craved art.

“Proto,” Charlie said, catching the robot’s attention. “What’s on the agenda today?”

“Class starts in thirty minutes!” Proto chirped. “You’re teaching sentence structure today!”

Charlie grinned. “Right.”

He grabbed two red pills from the cabinet, gulped them down, and headed out of the bathroom.
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