It was a gray, wet morning. Perfect for the gray, wet duty that lay in front of me and my family. A duty I faithfully saw to once a year, that my wife gladly bore with me and that our children were only now beginning to understand.

We walked slowly through the cemetery of crosses and stars - some clear titanium, some stone - and proceeded toward the open area of the graveyard that was crowded not with the dead but rather the living who had come to honor the dead of MARE 1015. Melissa, my eleven-year old, squeezed my hand, somehow knowing her father needed to be kept here above the ground instead of down below it; below it with those whose names I knew so well.

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“Med Five, this is Vincent. Have you picked up any life signs yet?” Though this was her first command, Captain Anna Vincent sounded every bit the seasoned veteran.

On my helmet’s display, projected onto the transparent aligned titanium faceplate, were dozens of pulsing red lights, each one a heartbeat that belied the dead look of the shredded and sparking space station that lay off the port bow of our rescue ship. The wrecked ship that had crashed into it, causing the damage, was still venting white hot plasma into space. It too had blips showing. I tapped the console under my left hand, opening the comlink to the bridge.

“This is Lieutenant Willows, Captain,” I replied. “That’s an affirmative. I’m showing seventy-eight life signs on the station, eight on the wrecked Troid ship.”

“Acknowledged. I’m bringing us in for a vacuum mooring forty meters off the Deck A, Bay 6 docking ring. Get your people ready, Lieutenant. Vincent out.” There was a click and the comlink between me and the bridge died. I tapped another button and the comlink reopened, this time to my troops, the thirty-one men and women that composed the 5th wing of Unit 1015 of Medical Aerospace Rescue and Evacuation.

Though we had just lifted off Earth and were making our way back to the asteroid field and the war, only the vessel - a sleek, well-equipped hospital ship namedMercy - was new. My wing had been together for nearly four years, since the beginning of the Troid Piracy War, and had seen far too much action on the front, hurrying from ship to ship, struggling to save lives that the Troid raiders had so recklessly endangered during their acts of piracy. It was during our last mission that our own vessel - the hospital ship Salvation - had been destroyed by a second squad of pirates who came out of the asteroid field, raking our sides with their devastating hull lasers. We were quickly stripped of our medical supplies and abandoned in the wreckage. It was a long five days before ITA forces finally located and rescued us.

Though it pained us to lose such a fine ship, we did end up with four weeks leave on Earth while awaiting a new assignment, and had looked forward to another four days of relaxation and preparation while we made the journey to the field. That had all ended with the suicide attack on the Brutal Light, the military orbital station that lay crumpled and burning off our bows.

"The docking rings are too badly damaged for us to clamp on," I explained without preamble. "So we're going in on lines into Deck A, Bay 6." I relayed the relevant schematics and continued talking while they reviewed the situation graphic. "I need four teams on the station, one team to the Troid ship, and five teams in triage. That's ten teams and we only have eight. The station’s falling apart quickly, so evacuation takes priority and triage gets shorted. Chico, Lewis, Bradley, and Li; you and your teams get the ship. Rothstein, arm your people and see if you can help those in the Troid ship, then help out in transport and triage. Everyone else is triage."

There was a shudder as Captain Vincent brought the ship to a halt beside the station. Loud metallic bangs were heard as the emergency docking cables were fired from our ship to the Brutal Light. Only two seconds later there came a whine as the cable motors took up the slack and we were vacuum moored to the station. The klaxon sounded, giving a ten second warning that the bay doors were about to open. We locked ourselves into the travel pods and waited. The bay doors opened to space and all the air rushed out. Atmospheric pressure dropped to zero and the belts holding us into position popped free and we were in action.

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There were fewer people here than last year, I thought as we took our seats in the fourth row. Several nods were directed at me, some grim from the day's atmosphere, others more sympathetic and friendly. We all saw the duty differently, but all had a passion.

"Do you know who's giving the memorial this year, Anthony?" my wife Lynne asked quietly. Lynne was a wonderful woman and a loving wife, but having been raised on Mars, this day was somewhat removed from her. Her people also honored the war dead, but focused more on the celebration of life their heroes had given them and less on the somber reality of the price they'd paid. As a result, she only knew who the speaker was when it was me, as it had been four of the past seven years.

"Uh-huh," I replied, sitting Amanda, our five-year old, on my lap. "Rear Admiral Li. He came all the way from the Ceres Reinvestment Camp to give it."

"Li?" she asked, her face showing surprise. "You mean the same Li that..."

"Uh-huh. He's a good man, too, Lynne. Don't hold it against him. I don't."

She nodded her head in agreement. Growing up Martian meant a constant dealing with the cold facts of life and death - which perhaps explained their overall relaxed nature and their peculiar way of honoring their veterans - so I knew that she would not blame a person that saved so many while dooming the unfortunate few.

Admiral Li stepped up to the podium and the subdued murmuring of the gathered crowd faded to silence like an ocean wave pulling back from the beach.

"I thank you all for coming," he began, speaking as a friend who understands and not as the ribbon bedecked war hero he was. "Each year it is more difficult for us to conjure up the pain that this day represents. As time passes, we find ourselves consigning the brave and selfless actions of our fallen to their place in history, understanding they are dead and feeling almost guilty in not releasing them."

He scanned the crowd, finding familiar faces. His eyes rested on me and he seemed to pause and swallow hard before continuing.

"But we should not feel guilt. We should feel pride that we have been chosen by the fates or by God to be associated with MARE 1015 and its five wings; that while they may have their peace now, we will maintain their watch for them, holding off as best we can, the predator of war and the terrible consequences its actions bring..."

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Hell was not a fiery pit, I thought. A pit, no matter what it is made of, has substance; some sort of physical presence that one can cling to, tread in or even drown in. Hell could not have substance, for substance can offer hope. Looking out the bay doors of the Mercy and into the forty meters of void between us and the crumpled space station, I knew that Hell was a vacuum, a total lack of anything, for it is only in the vacuum of space that one had nothing to cling to.

I slapped my suit's cable latch onto the nearest cable and pushed off into Hell, aiming for the ruined docking ring. I traveled the distance and landed squarely on the buckled plating of the docking ring deck. Seeing no immediate threat, I holstered my energy pistol and disconnected. I called a clear sign over the comlink and took a quick look around for the nearest access terminal. It was severely damaged and the puterverse link was down, but two dimensional visual display was still online. I slid my irrevocable login card into the slot and was granted total access to all systems and quickly reviewed the station’s condition.

It was bad.

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"I look over the faces today and I see in them the wide mix of emotions I feel in my heart." Li's voice was now cracked and wavering, less from the mere twenty minutes he'd been talking than from the weight of duty on his shoulders. The duty of the living to the dead. "I will now read the names of those who freely gave their lives that we might live in freedom.

"The 1st Wing: Corpsman Harold Arnow, Corpsman Leona Ash, Surgeon Andrea Holton, Corpsman Louis Jervay..."

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Eight cables ran from the our bay door to the ruined docking ring of the station. Though each of my people could and had made free jumps across void, none of them did so now; the nearness of Earth could be disorienting and cause a person to misjudge a push off. Forced to latch onto the cables and glide across, they nonetheless had swarmed into the bay and all thirty-one were hastily setting up the equipment and supplies. I connected everyone to live feed schematics, then left the terminal. Already Senior Corpsman Rothstein had taken his three people and were racing toward the hatch that coupled the docking bay to the next section. He was hoping to save the Troids on the attacking ship, but was no fool; Each had their energy pistols out and charged to lethal.

In a standard military layout, the Brutal Light was a set of two concentric rings wrapped around a cylinder. The outer ring contained ship bays and repair facilities with secondary station defenses. The inner ring contained support facilities, Marine barracks and primary station defenses. The cylinder, fifty meters in diameter and two hundred in length, contained living quarters, communications and additional primary defense systems.

The Troid ship had tried for the cylinder but had been crippled on its first run and instead crashed into the outer ring. Normally such a collision would shut down only a portion of the outer ring; these military stations were built to take a beating. The speed and mass of the Troid ship however had been greater than thought possible - almost as though it had been made for such a mission. Worse, the ship's hull lasers - massive plasma guns designed to slice through hull armor instantly - had done critical damage to the adjoining sections of the station. The resulting impact had crumpled a third of the outer ring, initiating a catastrophic chain reaction to every part of the station, buckling the entire structure and opening much of it to space. That we could still save almost eighty people was tempered by the sad knowledge that at the time of the attack two hours earlier, there were over fifteen hundred people living on the station.

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"... Surgeon Pedro Velazquez, Corpsman Naomi Washington, Corpsman Brian Zangari. These are the honored dead of the 2nd Wing of MARE 1015.

"The 3rd Wing: Surgeon Rodney Anderson, Corpsman Albert Brown, Corpsman Harry Brown, Surgeon Bridget Buck, Corpsman Francis Connors, Surgeon Mark Dugan..."

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"Get those builders in place!" I shouted over the comlink. We'd been on the station now for twenty minutes and I was getting worried. We'd never medevacted an orbital station, so I knew this would take longer. But there was something about the feel of the station that wasn't right.

We were on Deck C of the inner ring. The telescoping effect of the impact had ripped open the armored hull of the section we were in, so there was no atmosphere. Fortunately for the eight souls on the other side of the hatch we were frantically working on, the damage in their section hadn't been as great and their atmosphere was bleeding off at a much slower rate. But it was being vented and the only way out was through vacuum. And they had no suits.

Manuel Chico and I shifted the two meter cube frame into place. Made of heavy gauge steel, it weighed nothing but had plenty of mass. We were experts at rigging, though, so it was a matter of seconds to jam it against the hatchway.

Two corpsmen pressed wall builders to the left and right sides of the frame and activated them. Lines of energy webbed out to the frame and encased the two sides and the top. The webbing lines solidified and began filling in the new planes with energy converted to matter while Chico and his three men crowded into the inside of the frame, laden down with emergency suits and medical kits. I activated the final builder and the frame was soon encased in crystallized energy, as good an airlock as could be done in the circumstances. I watched as they opened the hatch and entered the next section. I left them and continued on toward the far end of the station, performing constant scans, looking for any life signs that may have eluded us.

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"Surgeon Gary Rochester, Surgeon Maureen Ryder, Corpsman Alan Schiavo..."

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I had just negotiated a five meter section of open space and had passed through a working air lock into an empty section when there was a sudden lurch. The antigravity had long since failed, but I was still touching the deck, so I took a tumble. At the same instant, my comlink was flooded with shouts and exclamations.

"They've reactivated their engines!"

"Carlos! Seal that door! We're venting atmosphere!"

"Do you read me, Mercy?! The cables are snapping! Ease your position..."

"He's down! He's down! Get an emergency suit to Deck B..."

"They're armed and firing! Repeat! They are armed and firing!"

A second vibration rumbled through the ship and I lurched toward the inner wall. I gathered myself quickly and pushed off the bulkhead, but instead of floating free, I drifted back toward the bulkhead. When my back settled against it, the hard metal shot a sense of dread through me.

Pushing off more firmly, I jumped across to the far wall. I had to punch the jets for two seconds to make it, but I finally grabbed hold of a jagged tear in the bulkhead. I wedged between the bulkheads and seized the outside metal skin. As I did, the wall bent further under the building pressure. I peered through the four meter rent in the skin and saw the Earth, filling the sky.

The station had begun reentry.

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“...Surgeon Richard Wyley.” Admiral Li paused and took a sip of water. Three of the five wings had been read and the tension was building.

“I will now read the names of the members of the 4th Wing of MARE 1015 who died in service to their world: Corpsman Allan Alston, Corpsman Gary Alston, Corpsman Lynne Alston, Surgeon Barry Ambruosso, Surgeon John Cibos, Corpsman Catherine Falcone...”

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I snapped out of my dread and shook free the cobwebs of terror that held me in place. With the Brutal Light being pushed into Earth’s atmosphere by the now active fusion engines on the Troid ship, we had only minutes to evacuate. And with each passing second, the engines not only overcame more of the station’s inertia and increased velocity, the Earth’s gravity also tugged harder on us. In ten or twelve minutes the outer hull would begin heating up and the rescue mission would have to be abandoned. I opened the general comlink.

“This is Willows. We’ve just had a change in operation. You have ten minutes to abandon ship! Use emergency procedure beta to clear all remaining survivors. Rothstein! What’s the status with the Troid attackers?”

“Not good,” was the terse response. His voice was all but drowned out by gunfire and feedback from the damaged fusion engines. “They’re resisting all attempts to...”

“Then leave them,” I interrupted harshly. “Get back and help out with the people who do want to be rescued. Li! I need a sitrep.”

“We’re moving them along quickly, sir,” came Li’s calm, assured voice. My right hand man, I’d yet to see him become excited over anything other than a Dodgers game. “We’ve evacuated 47, are prepping another 19, and are just getting to the last 22 in the crew mess hall. Anything down your way, sir?”

“Nothing yet. I’m two-thirds around the ring now and will try to complete the circuit.”

“I’d recommend against it, sir,” Li said. “It’s too risky. You may come across an impassible area and be forced back. It’s longer, but you should head back the way you came.”

“Thanks for the concern,” I said, “but I need to finish scanning for survivors.” There was a squeal of interference over the comlink as I neared the area where the Troid ship had crashed. “I’m losing contact. I think the Troid’s engine shielding is damaged and causing the distortion. You have command, Li, until I get back.”

“Yes, sir.” Li wasn’t one to waste time once the decision had been made. “Angel’s wings, sir,” he said quietly, MARE’s way of wishing for safe mission.

The link clicked off and I moved on.

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And now it had come. Admiral Li finished reading the final name of the 4th wing and again he paused. Each year, this was hardest part. Those who died in the first four wings of MARE 1015 died over the course of the entire war and had a casualty rate of about one in five; going unarmed into a war zone to look for wounded and aid them regardless of the danger was a very risky business indeed.

But the 5th wing - our wing - had paid the steepest price of all. And it had been paid on that terrible day on board the Brutal Light.

“I will now... now read the names...” Admiral Li broke off and took a moment to compose himself. I held my daughter tighter and felt my wife’s comforting touch on my shoulder. “I will now read the names of the fallen for the 5th wing of MARE 1015:

“Corpsmen Antone Barton. Corpsman Gregory Bauder. Corpsman Eloise Brewer. Surgeon Marina Coleman...”

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I was in the place that burns. I’d heard others speak of it; that time on a battlefield where the body’s senses become hyperactive and time seems to slow down. No doubt the burning sensation was due to a surge of adrenaline combined with momentarily higher blood pressure as a result of a racing heart. These factors could generate a slightly elevated body temperature. And increased sensory perception would only intensify the overall feeling of heat.

But medical diagnosis didn’t explain what I felt in those moments. Though there were no guns being fired - at least, not in the immediate area - no hand to hand combat or high tech mayhem, this was a battlefield nonetheless. One upon which the god of war had long since visited with his all consuming wrath. Visited and left, leaving only twisted metal and mangled corpses in his passing. And so it was the place that burns. Burns with the hatred of mankind.

Faster. That’s all I could think as I raced down the battered and shattered hallway of the inner ring. Go faster, Willows! There’s no one here. Scanners are clear and you’re on a fool’s mission. Yes, I argued with myself. But this is the shorter route back to the ship and anyway there just might be... on my helmet a single red light blinked a single time.

I jerked to a halt, stumbling for ten meters against the port side of the passage in the velocity induced gravity. I stopped and boosted the signal to full. Nothing.

Go! I shouted to myself. But I forced myself to walk back the way I had come. A single flash could be anything. A glitch. Distorted feedback. Anything.

Even a life.

I had gone back ten meters when the light flashed again. It was inside the station’s center cylinder; one life sign, near the power converters, which would explain why we hadn’t seen it before.

I climbed uphill across the level hallway and entered the nearest doorway, which turned out to be a barracks. The inner wall had several portals, including a large picture window. The life sign was twenty meters beyond that window. I brought up my gun and fired. Fortunately it wasn’t aligned titanium or the stunt wouldn’t have worked. Instead, it was hardened Plexiglas that shattered instantly. I braced myself instinctively for the tug of decompression, but of course there was none.

Cursing myself for wasting even one second, I holstered my pistol and brought up a grappling gun. I shot it over the distance and its hardened nose buried into the station’s outer skin near a hull rupture. I scurried along the cable as quickly as possible, which despite the increasing gravity, was very quickly indeed. There remained less than four minutes before the Brutal Light  would begin burning up.

I scrambled into the opening and immediately the comlink flooded with yelling and the sounds of gunfire.

“They hit Francis! His suit’s open! Oh, God! Grant! Get over and patch him!”

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“...Surgeon William Francis, Corpsman Helen Grant,  Surgeon Paul Miller...”

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Desperately I wanted to break in and calm things down. But I didn’t know the situation well enough, having been out of contact for over five minutes. It was clear enough that the surviving Troid crew were attempting to take as many to the grave with them as possible. But Li was keeping decent order and I could tell that most - if not all - the station’s crew had been transported off the ship.

Except for the blinking light in front of me.

I pushed on through the wreckage and within thirty seconds was standing outside a warped and ruined metal door. The entire area was vacuum, meaning the life sign inside was suited. Hurriedly I pried the door to one side and squeezed through. I snapped on the comlink again.

“I need a surgeon, stat.” Despite the desperate situation, Corpsman Provolich maintained a steady voice. “They got Miller and my suit’s bleeding air. We’ve got the last three survivors. Immediate assistance required to evacuate.”

“Roger, Provolich,” Li called back, his voice as equally calm. “I’m sending Reynolds and Nelson now. Hang on.”

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“Corpsman Augustine Nelson, Corpsman Gregory Provolich, Surgeon Sarah Reynolds..."

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With a deep sense of foreboding, I switched over to the internal hail comlink. The lives we were charged to save were always more important than our own.

“Hello?” I called out over the silent comlink. “This is Lieutenant Willows, of Medical Evac 1015. I’m a surgeon and am at Power Conversion Unit...” I glanced quickly at the door plate. “...Five, deck G. If anyone can hear me, please respond immediately.”

There was no response, but the red light kept blinking, goading me on, deeper into the belly of the dying beast. Lighting was out and I was forced to slow down now when I needed most to hurry. I noticed in the wreckage of the room that the starboard hull was exposed to space, ripped open not by stress but instead by the powerful cutting of hull lasers. Here had been the main focus of the attack before the suicide run. Scattered throughout the room were the bodies of at least two dozen people; grim reminders of the real price of war.

The comlink crackled and I heard someone cough. At the same moment, I passed into an interior room and found my survivor. I could tell at a glance - a knack sadly picked up from constant practice - that she was an adolescent girl, perhaps ten or eleven. She was looking at me, her inside helmet lights illuminated to give her comfort. She looked scared, but hadn’t yet panicked; something that might save us both.

“Are you a doctor?” she asked as I knelt beside her and began inspecting her and her suit for life threatening injuries. Not that it would have mattered; she was coming with me even if it probably meant her death. Staying here did mean her death.

“Yes, I am,” I said with a smile, my own helmet lighting on for her sake. “My name is Doctor Willows.” She had a broken leg and several broken ribs. Life sensors indicated moderate internal bleeding and a slight case of oxygen deprivation. Her suit was the cause of the last; the falling support that had broken her left leg had also torn her suit. She’d repaired it, but it still leaked slightly. I slapped on another patch and she winced. “Sorry, but we have to get out of here now. What’s your name?”

“Cindy.”

“A pretty name. Well, Cindy, our hospital ship is very close, but we have to get there ourselves. I’ll carry you, all right?”

She nodded and I scooped her up. She weighed perhaps ten kilos in the increasing gravity, but it didn’t matter. Eleven of my estimated twelve minutes were gone. We needed to hurry.

I switched over to the general comlink and was immediately scared. There was no communication whatsoever. They’d left us, then. I was still going to try. It was still possible that interference had jammed us. I stepped outside the room and back into the place that burns.

I ran through the interior cylinder, ignoring the sharp debris lying everywhere and burning plasma that seemed alive as it reached for us with malicious intent. One small blessing of the gravity was that everything was grounded, eliminating floating shrapnel. I had the schematics on the heads up and was taking the shortest route possible. Since I was going against the gravity, it was like running uphill even while my eyes told me it was level. Cindy held my neck tightly, holding in her pain bravely.

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“...Corpsman Hannah Stillwater, Surgeon Harold Takanichi, Surgeon Jaika T’Muboti...”

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I came to a huge hole in the hull, revealing the inner ring only fifteen meters away. I ran to it and jumped for the ring. It was an insane chance, but it was the only one left to me. The station was breaking up and the metal had begun heating. We were moments away from the point of no rescue.

I crossed the void, holding Cindy so tightly I threatened to crush her. There was large rent in the inner ring I had aimed for, knowing I’d never make it. One hundred meters in front of us was the Mercy, Captain Vincent taking enormous risks to keep her vacuum mooring until the last possible moment.

Angel’s wings were with me, for my right foot hit squarely on deck B of the inner ring. As I did, the comlink crackled to life.

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“Corpsman Vicky Tyrell, Corpsman Benjamin Ullavnik, Corpsman Philip Washington...”

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“...time, sir.” It was Li, speaking calmly and with quiet confidence. He was speaking as though he wasn’t expecting a response. “Captain Vincent says she has to break mooring in less than sixty seconds. I’ve picked you up on sensors and know you’re carrying a survivor.

“We got them all off, sir. Seven died during transport, four of them because of gunfire with the pirates. The Troid pirates themselves have been killed or captured. Thankfully three of them gave up and have been escorted to the Mercy.”

He paused for a heartbeat. “Thirty seconds.  We lost a lot of our people, sir. Fifteen dead and eight wounded. Seven of the eight are stabilized, but I don’t think Tyrell is going to make it. She’s a gamer though, so I won’t bet against her.”

He continued talking to us as I ran through the corridors. Somewhere I must have taken a connecting tunnel, for I was dimly aware that I was in the outer ring. I lost all sense of time and presence, wanting only a chance to make that last jump to safety and give my precious burden the life she deserved.

It was so very hot, for the place that burns was now truly burning. I knew we were in the upper atmosphere and time was gone. Still I tried. I raced up the last connecting lock and into Bay Six, the point I’d first stepped foot an impossible thirty minutes earlier. With desperate hope, I looked through the wide open bay doors, out into a void that was now slightly less than black.

The Mercy was still in sight, but she was several kilometers away, Captain Vincent having finally been forced to break mooring. Maybe if I jumped off and hit my suit’s jets to maximum I could still...

No. There comes the time for all and it had come for me. And for the young girl in my arms. But we would have some measure of comfort, for we had emerged from the place that burns.

“Are we going to die, Doctor?” she asked, her eyes looking at the hospital ship pulling away, working hard to reverse its own deadly plummet. I looked at her and smiled, sinking slowly to the deck and holding her close.

“Yes, Cindy. I’m sorry, but yes.”

“Hold me,” was all she said.

“Forever, sweetheart,” I replied quietly. The outside edges of the bay were glowing a dull red.

“Forever.”

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“And Surgeon Joshua Willows, commanding officer of the 5th Wing, MARE 1015.” Li’s eyes were locked on mine as he faced the son of the man he’d sentenced to die when he could wait no longer and ordered the mooring cables released that he might save the others. Fifteen survived that horrific mission. But only Li had known at the time that my father was still alive when the Brutal Light burned up on reentry.

I didn’t blame him for an instant. I’d been eleven years old at the time of my father’s death - the same age as the girl he’d tried so hard to save and the same age my oldest daughter was now - and I hadn’t blamed him then. Not really. My father had explained it over and over to me that he did what he did because it mattered, and that it needed to be done. So completely did I understand him that I had followed his path and was myself a commissioned flight surgeon. He hadn’t saved the last life entrusted to him, but his final act was still saving people today, through me and my company; the 5th Wing of MARE 1197.

Li gratefully accepted the forgiveness he saw in my eyes and nodded slowly. He then snapped to attention, bringing his arm up in crisp salute. As a group, we stood.

“To the fallen men and women of MARE 1015,” Li said in clear, firm voice, “we give thanks and pay homage. Wherever you may be serving now, serve with pride. You have done well.  Angel’s Wings!”

“Angel’s Wings!” we echoed proudly.

We released and Li stepped down from the podium and came to me. There would follow more speeches and the playing of somber music. Flags would be presented, weapons fired to honor those who never fired weapons themselves, and the sound of taps would echo over the cemetery once again. And another year would pass before we came here to demonstrate we would not forget.

Because it mattered.

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"Reentry"

Copyright ©1999 by Peter Prellwitz All Rights Reserved.