Missing Planet

I'm serialising this story on a weekly basis, with a new chapter/episode published every Sunday*. You can read Missing Planet online or you can contact me directly and I'll email you the story so far in ebook format (epub, mobi or PDF). Please read the foreword for more information.

Donations: If you like my writing, please consider donating a small amount to me, because then I'll write more novels and continue to distribute them freely. You can contact me directly via words@ministryofprose.com to find out how to donate (PayPal, Bitcoin, bank transfer, brown bags full of unmarked cash, etc.).

* For a given value of 'Sunday'. I may occasionally miss this deadline due to work, illness, holiday or other factors.



Contents



Foreword


I began writing this novel in 1978. That's when I first wrote a short, space-based story, painstakingly hammering out the words using my mother's old portable typewriter. I still have that first sheet of typewritten text, replete with mistakes, corrections and smudges.

So, that was 40 years ago. In the meantime I grew up (at least physically), got married, had two lovely daughters and became a writer myself, working as an IT journalist and web content provider. Not an awful career by any means, but my fiction-writing itch has remained unscratched until now.

This novel is dedicated to all the science fiction writers whose work I devoured as a child, as an adolescent and - unfortunately to a lesser extent - as an adult. There are dozens of them, and you will find passing reference to them and their creations within this novel. That's my homage to their impact on my life.

If this novel were a film I think it would be 12-rated. There's nothing too adult in it, but there are some themes that may benefit from adult explanation or guidance. Both my adolescent daughters, Nina and Elena, read each chapter before it's published, and they don't appear to have suffered any serious side-effects.

This novel remains my copyrighted work. I give permission for it to be distributed - without charge - to people who might want to read it. You may share it with your friends and acquaintances, in fact I encourage you to do so. You may not charge for it, nor edit it or republish it, nor pass the work off as your own. Please keep it complete and intact, including this foreword. In short, please respect my work.

Thank you for reading this novel. I hope it sparks your imagination and brightens your dreams. That's what science fiction is all about.

Alex Cruickshank, February 2018

NB. I do not use social media. My only online presence is at Disruptive Influence and my business writing website, Ministry of Prose.

[published 26th February 2018]
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About the science

This story is science fiction, therefore it contains science. Some of the science is currently valid and some of it... hasn't quite happened yet.

Readers of a scientific disposition are welcome to get in touch with me to correct any factual errors. It's a quarter of a century since I graduated in Physics with Astrophysics and I wasn't the most attentive of students.

Readers without a scientific background may wish to skip the science bits, but I'd encourage you to at least skim-read them. Science isn't as hard as it's sometimes portrayed, and it offers a wonderful way to make sense of our world.

It's also the only discipline that permits - indeed encourages - admissions of wrongness. Science is a series of leaps from one conjecture to the next, any of which may be proved false by new evidence at any time. Accepting this is the only way to gain new knowledge. There is no place in science for ego or hubris.

[published 28th February 2018]
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Chapter 1: One small step

The petite, dark-skinned woman stood on a metal platform that jutted out from the side of the space station. The air was warm, though it should have been close to absolute zero. In fact there shouldn't have been any air at all, but there was, and a light breeze ruffled her dress and her black hair.

Above her head, distant stars whirled slowly by. She knew them as she knew her own face, and paid them no attention. The moon was off to one side, lit partly by the sun. Below her was the Earth, though she didn't glance in that direction either. She wasn't ready for that sight. Not yet.

She sighed deeply and reached over to unclip her safety belt's carabiner from the unbreakable line that was a standard feature of all the space station's outdoor areas. As she did so, a voice came out of the shadows behind her.

"I think I can see my house from here."

The woman spun around quickly but saw nobody.

"Who's there?"

One of the shadows by the closed door hatch subtly changed shape and became humanoid. It moved toward her, but stopped some distance away as she took a step backward, closer to the edge.

"Who's there, I said?"

"You don't know me, professor. People call me Styx. I'm here to talk to you."

"I don't want to talk to you. Go back inside."

A pause. Then: "You won't fall, you know. We're in a stable orbit so there's no pull to Earth. We only feel weight due to the G-field motors."

"Of course, I know that. But the field is directional and limited. One strong push will take me away from the station."

"Maybe, but then you'll just bounce off the inside of the bubble and float around like an idiot until they send out a drone to collect you."

The professor took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air from outside the space station. And at this point, an explanation of that apparently impossible fact is required.

By far the biggest barrier to early space travel and exploration was the human mind. Having spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving on a wide open planet with air all around it, homo sapiens' grey matter didn't take too kindly to being trapped inside a tin can surrounded by endless vacuum. Sooner or later, most astronauts felt an overwhelming urge to step outside. This wasn't a problem when wearing a space suit, but those afflicted generally dispensed with that vital detail. Space claustrophobia was real and often terminal.

Only the most disciplined or bone-headed individuals could survive for much longer than a year in space without experiencing severe mental breakdown, often ending in suicide, murder or both. Since the nearest potentially habitable extra-solar planets were more than seven years away at state-of-the-art spacecraft speeds, this was a big problem.

Space Corps veterans were vital to any voyage into deep space, of course, and they either felt no claustrophobia or were able to handle it - or hide it. No problem there. But humanity would never conquer the stars with only a subset of the Earth's personality types. The melting pot of wildly conflicting character traits is what had prevented the species from going extinct long ago. Without that variety, any attempt at planetary colonisation was doomed to failure.

It took all sorts to establish a colony. Sometimes apparent weaknesses turned out to be strengths. Without the empaths, artists, creators, home-makers, freaks and families there could be no outward march of humanity. For decades, only military personnel could survive the mental pressures of long-haul space travel, but they were useless as colonists and always turned on each other in the end. Swords do not make good ploughshares, and neither do fully-automatic heat-seeking plasma cannons. Yet all attempts at sending a broader cross-section of humanity into space had burnt out like sparks trailing from a dying firework in the night sky, sometimes literally. The human race couldn't escape its limitations. Colonies needed colonists, but colonists weren't cut out to be astronauts.

That all changed with the invention of the air-field generator. A by-product of research into defence against ballistic weapons, this device altered the human aspect of space travel almost overnight. It let anyone step outside for a breath of fresh air. It was that simple. Air-field generators allowed spacecraft to be surrounded by a bubble of heated air that moved at the same velocity as the ship itself. The field required little energy to maintain, but acted as an invisible hermetic seal against the vacuum of space.

With a little adjustment the air-field also became a robust barrier against solar radiation, cosmic rays and low-mass space debris. So the additional payload of the shield generator itself (and the extra CO2 scrubbing equipment for the increased volume of air) was offset by the reduction in heavy shielding that had previously been necessary to prevent space travellers dying of radiation sickness, cancer or chronic holes.

Engines and comms antennae poked through carefully-sculpted gaps in the 'bubble' and the field could be manipulated as necessary. It was an elegant solution and had made its inventors exceedingly rich. Now anyone could walk outside, no space suit required. The human brain was mollified and space claustrophobia was banished to the history books. Space travel was suddenly an option for almost every personality type. Some travellers even took up gardening in specially designated areas on the outsides of space stations and colony ships.

The professor calmly exhaled.

"The bubble will open for me. I have this."

She held up a black necklace with a small pendant attached, one side of which was glowing red. It was an air-field transponder, colloquially known as a dog collar. Worn around the neck, it was used to send a signal to the air-field generators. Any astronaut who needed to get outside the bubble - for repairs to comms equipment, for example - would wear a dog collar inside their space suit. As they approached the bubble wall, the air-field generators would manipulate the field to create an airlock, a bubble within the bubble. This allowed space-walkers to get out and in with the loss of only a small amount of the ship's air.

"But once you're outside the bubble without a suit..."

"I'll freeze instantly, yes. And the air will be forced out of my lungs, my eyeballs will explode, everything in my body will rupture or desiccate or disintegrate. My corpse will continue its trajectory around Earth for weeks, maybe months. But without corrective propulsion my orbit will slowly decay, taking me into Earth's atmosphere, slowly at first, then faster as gravity takes hold. What remains of me will eventually burn up as the friction of the thickening air heats my erstwhile flesh to thousands of degrees. A shooting star in the sky, assuming anybody looks up at the right moment."

Styx was silent for a while, apparently deep in thought. Then she said, "When you put it like that, it sounds quite romantic. Can I have your shoes?"

"What?!"

"Your shoes. They're lovely and I think they'd fit me."

The professor stood open-mouthed, incongruous in flowing red dress and red stilettos, on the extended viewing platform. Below her, planet Earth hung in the sky like an improbable Christmas bauble, with the day/night line, known as the terminator, almost directly under her feet (for given values of 'below' and 'under', since those terms don't mean much in space).

Styx continued. "A little overdressed for the occasion, aren't you? I mean, suicide isn't like a fancy-dress ball. It's strictly a private party, one invitation only. So you don't really need the shoes. It'd be a shame to see them burn up on re-entry..." A tiny pause. "... like you will."

"Who are you?"

Styx chuckled, avoided the question. "Hey, you know what they say? 'In space, no-one can hear you scream.' Well, not unless you leave your commset broadcasting on channel 13, obviously. Then everyone will hear you scream. Briefly."

The professor continued to stare at her, still slack-jawed with shock.

Styx cleared her throat, then said in a gentler voice, "I know who you are. I also know why you want to kill yourself. I'd prefer it if you didn't, and so would a lot of other people."

"Why? Nobody cares. That's why I'm here."

"Oh, they care. At least, they will. Look, can we discuss this inside? I've never been fond of heights. Or depths, whatever. Just give me ten minutes of your time and if you don't like what I have to say, you can always come back here and jump."

Styx paused again and smiled. "But if you do, I meant it about the shoes."

She turned and walked back to the door hatch. It slid silently aside, spilling warm light from inside the station onto the platform.

"Wait!" exclaimed the stunned professor, still trying to make sense of the past few minutes of her life, minutes that were supposed to have been final and absolute but now seemed far less definite. "I'd swear that hatch was closed all the time I was out here. Nobody came or went. Nobody uses this platform anyway. The one by the Hawking Lounge has a better view. How did you find me?"

"I was here before you, professor. I knew you'd be here. I even knew when you'd arrive, so I didn't have to waste too much time hiding in the shadows and staring down at that grubby little blue-green ball beneath us."

"But... but that's impossible!" spluttered the professor. "I didn't plan this. I mean, I knew I wanted an end and I still do," she continued defiantly, as though Styx had somehow robbed her of the rightful ending to her traumatic life. Are meteors happy? she wondered momentarily, surprised at the thought. Then she spoke again.

"But I didn't know when, where or how. How is it that you knew those answers before I'd even asked myself the questions?"

Styx paused in the doorway, half across the threshold, the light silhouetting her face. "I had help," she said. "More than that I don't want to say right now, not here. But I promise I will explain. How about a drink?"

She moved inside the station. The professor hesitated outside, thinking furiously and in fact feeling furious in general. She felt that she had every right to her black, angry mood.

Styx noticed this and held up her hand in peace, or perhaps contrition. "One drink. I'm paying. Just ten minutes, professor. That's all I ask."

A moment of indecision lasted for a fraction of eternity, then abruptly ended. The professor stepped back into the station and felt, rather than heard, the door hatch slide closed behind her. She sighed in resignation.

"Now I suppose you'll take me to Security and they'll lock me up for my own protection, then ship me back to Earth for psych-analysis, right?"

Styx stared at the professor, clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and went silent, frowning.

"Well? What are you waiting for?" asked the professor.

"I'm counting to ten. You don't know me, so I'll forgive you... this time. But know this: I keep my word. I never lie. If I'd been intending to hand you over to those apes I'd have said so. I only want to talk to you. What you do after that is your own concern."

She looked genuinely annoyed, or maybe, thought the professor, even upset. What a strange person. And what the hell am I doing? I should be floating through the bubble by now. I should be dying.

That thought shook her. I'm dead. In that alternate time-line, the one in which this strange woman hadn't appeared, I am already dead. Dead. She wrapped her tongue around the word. Dead. Dead. It was such a short, trivial word for something so profound. Dead. The sound of an axe chopping wood. Dead. A door slamming shut. Dead. The sound of wet earth dropping onto a coffin. Dead. Are meteors dead?

Drifting out of this reverie, she saw Styx watching her intently. She reached a decision. Bending down, she took off the red stilettos, which was a relief as this was the first time she'd worn them. They didn't fit properly and her feet were already sore.

"Here," she said as she handed them to a surprised Styx. "They're yours, whatever I decide. Let's get that drink."

She padded off in the direction of the station's leisure zone, the Round Lounge. Styx grinned to herself and then followed, skipping a little to catch up with the small but upright and determined figure of the professor.

[published 4th March 2018]
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Chapter 2: Weight of expectation

The Round Lounge was aptly if not entirely accurately named. It was located in a segment of the large ring that encircled Heinlein Station's central column like a doughnut, attached to its cylindrical host by four long, structural tubes that doubled as access corridors.

The ring itself was technically known as The Wheel, but to everyone onboard it had long since become the 'tron (short for cyclotron) due to its similarity to a giant particle accelerator. In the early years of the station's existence, the 'tron had been the living and working area for almost all onboard personnel. To understand why, a brief physics lesson is required.

Orbiting spacecraft experience no net force. Styx was right about that. The station's angular velocity cancelled out its acceleration due to Earth's gravitational pull. This state is called free-fall, though that's not a helpful term unless you're a physicist, since nothing's really falling.

What it means is that everything in an orbiting vessel floats around unless held in place. That's what the first astronauts had to put up with. Living without gravity was inconvenient, to put it mildly. Quite apart from having to eat and drink from tubes, space pioneers quickly lost muscle mass since there was nothing for their bodies to push against. Every item had to be tethered or stored securely. Fluid leaks were potentially disastrous, since bubbles of floating liquid could cause short-circuits and electrical fires. Movement was achieved by bouncing off surfaces, a skill that was tricky and painful to learn. Weight disappeared but mass and inertia remained (as did the bruises), and the less said about the toilet arrangements the better.

There was a solution to this problem: simulated gravity. By spinning a wheeled space station around its long axis, everything in the doughnut ring was pushed outwards. Anyone who's ever seen a motorcyclist in a 'wall of death' show, or watched children spinning around inside a cylindrical cage on a fairground ride, will understand the principle. It's not gravity but it has a similar effect. The rotation pushes everything outward. Actually that statement is factually incorrect, but it's a useful lie.

Heinlein Station had been designed to spin. Its construction had taken almost ten years, but once it was finished, small rocket engines on the outside of the wheel gently accelerated its rotation to provide a comfortable level of fake gravity. The outer wall of the wheel was its floor. Corridors curved gently upward into the distance. People stood, walked and slept with the outside of the wheel 'beneath' them. They were actually whizzing round as though in a spin-dryer, but the force they felt was 'down' toward the constantly rotating floor. It wasn't true gravity but it was better than nothing.

There were some quirks, though. A space station is much smaller than a planet, so the amount of weight felt by the station's inhabitants varied depending on where they were. People felt heaviest in the wheel, got progressively lighter as they climbed up the ladders through the tubes to the central column (known as The Hub, continuing the wheel analogy) and, once there, found themselves floating in free-fall. In fact anyone standing upright in the wheel would experience less 'gravity' at their head than at their feet. That's also true on Earth, but the effect is tiny because Earth is huge. On Heinlein Station it was noticeable, particularly if standing up too fast after a sleep cycle. Still, it was much better than free-fall, especially when it came to using the toilet.

That was then. Things are different now.

As Styx and the professor entered the Round Lounge, their 'floor' was actually beneath them in Earth terms, as though the planet had extended a tendril of gravity up to the station just for them. The outer wheel surface, originally designed to be the floor, was now a wall fitted with large, evenly-space windows. And the station wasn't spinning. An explanation for all of this can wait until they've ordered their drinks.

"What will you have?" Styx asked the professor.

"I don't know. I don't usually drink alcohol, as it clouds judgement and negatively affects analytical processes."

"Sure does," grinned Styx. "And sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered. I'll choose something for us both."

Styx walked over to the bar while the professor found a quiet table. There were no corners in the 'tron, but alcoves set into the curved inner wall of the Round Lounge provided at least some privacy. The bar ran for about 20 metres along the outside wall, large windows behind it letting in starlight and oblique rays of sunshine, attenuated by the air-field to a safe intensity.

Looking around the curved room, the professor saw groups of people lounging in comfortable chairs surrounding low tables. Nobody so much as glanced at her. They all had their own thoughts, their own troubles and challenges. Lucky them, she thought. Occasionally there was a peal of laughter, but mostly just the quiet background murmur of people talking.

Styx was remonstrating with the barman, not angrily but enthusiastically. He hesitated, shrugged and then added two more shots of whatever it was that he was holding into both glasses. Oh great, thought the professor. This is going to hurt. Can meteors get drunk? The professor watched Styx carefully as she walked over to the table, a smile on her face and a tall glass in each hand. The stilettos had disappeared, presumably into the black, featureless bag slung over her shoulder.

Styx was taller than the professor but not by much. Bulkier, though, and it looked like muscle under the loose, casual top and trousers. Short brown hair, facial features that placed her anywhere between 25 and 35 (the skin young, the eyes oh-so-old). She was indeterminate, hard to place or even describe. She would be able to fit in anywhere, thought the professor. Even if I'd met her before I'd probably not know it.

"62kg, since you're wondering," said Styx as she carefully placed both drinks on the small table and sank down into one of the plush chairs.

"What?"

"You were analysing me. That's fine. I'd do the same in your situation. Good. It shows you're thinking clearly." She paused. "Though that may change after this drink."

"What's in it?" asked the professor, looking at her glass of semi-opaque amber liquid with distrust. It glooped lazily.

"Oh, mostly healthy things like fruit juice and herbs. It's my own special recipe. A pick-me-up, you might say. It's not alcoholic." She took a sip from her glass, then grimaced. "Well, not very alcoholic."

The professor made no move to sample her own drink. She was a mess of conflicting emotions and could barely control her voice, but managed to say, "I want some answers. Who are you and why did you... interrupt me?"

"I told you my name."

"Sticks? That can't be real."

"Not sticks like branches. Styx like the river. It's what they called me at the academy and the name kind of stuck. Their little joke. It meant that anyone who crossed me was dead." She grinned. "Don't worry. I've calmed down a lot since those days. My real name is Briar, though I don't use it. Not much better, really."

"I think it's a nice name. I'm Susan," said the professor in a shaky voice. For no reason apparent to herself, she started to cry. A meteor with a name? Stupid girl.

Styx looked around the room. She must have been aware of Susan's tears, but made no comment.

"I remember this place when that was the floor," she said, gesturing towards the wide windows. "That was before they invented the G-field. You worked on that, didn't you?"

"Is there anything you don't know about me?" asked the professor, suddenly angry.

"Quite a lot, I expect," said Styx calmly. "So, you invented it?"

The professor composed herself, wiped her cheeks with the backs of her hands and took a deep breath.

"Not invented. Discovered. It was in the late twenties, after we worked out that gravity wasn't a single force. We were trying to develop an anti-grav device based on one of the wave components, but that was a wild goose chase. Still is, as far as I know. All we managed to do was generate a field that increased gravity over a small area. I thought it was useless, but..." She glanced around. "I was wrong."

Styx smiled. "I'll say you were. The G-field has made my life so much more luxurious. Localised gravity: you just don't know how much you'll miss it until it's gone. Much better than all that stupid spinning."

Susan frowned. "We still don't properly understand it. It doesn't follow an inverse-square law. It's almost linear for a short distance and then suddenly decays. I don't really trust it."

She took a sip of her drink, which managed to be both wholesome and bitter at the same time, then straightened her back and glared at Styx.

"Six of your ten minutes left, by my count. Say what you have to say."

[published 11th March 2018]
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Chapter 3: Anomalies

"Six minutes?" Styx paused for thought, or maybe for dramatic effect. "That should be enough."

Susan settled back in her chair, unidentified ingredients in the drink helping her to relax a little.

Styx began. "You may not know me, but you probably know why I'm here. I don't mean here specifically with you, but here as in not dirtside." She pointed in the general direction of Earth, not visible from where they were sitting.

"Like you, I don't fit in. I knew that as soon as I was old enough to read, to understand what was going on. All that biotech, all those modifications to the self, the implants, the mindtech, all of it. It repulsed me. Those people down there are no longer human."

The professor's mood changed. She was interested now, listening intently. "Go on," she said. "I want to hear everything."

Styx was surprised at this change of attitude. "Everything? Really?"

"Yes. Everything."

After a long pause, as though weighing up what she should disclose, Styx said, "Well, there's not so much to tell. I rebelled, without any idea of what I was doing or why. I rejected that society, that way of existing - I won't call it living. And so," she snorted in derision, though Susan could see pain in her eyes too. "And so they tried to cure me. Even my parents thought there was something wrong with me that could be fixed. I was sent to specialists, analysed, tested. So many tests," she sighed.

"It turns out that my brain is different. Well, I knew that but it took them years to come to the same conclusion. They could identify the differences, the deviations from anything they called the norm, yet there was nothing they could really do about it. Lucky me."

She took a deep breath, then a deep draught of her drink.

"I mean that. I was lucky. The differences in my brain structure are so fundamental that to attempt to change them or fix them would destroy me as a person. You know about the ethical rules for brain structure modification?" she asked.

The professor nodded. Earth's government portrayed itself as ethical, moral and above reproach. To maintain that lofty status, which Susan privately considered a delusion, there were rules concerning the modification of delinquent brains. Minor adjustments, such as reducing impulsive aggressive actions, were permitted because they had a direct effect on the safety of society. Like neutering a cat, the treatment was considered acceptable because the social benefits outweighed the disadvantages, though the cat might disagree. But to materially modify primary personality traits was legally and ethically out of bounds.

"So they couldn't touch me," continued Styx. "I did eventually get to read my full report, courtesy of a lab tech who I encouraged to take a shine to me." She treated Susan to a brief, self-satisfied smile. "I was always good at persuasion. The report confirmed that I have that trait in spades, along with a lot of other stuff about high intelligence, ability to induce loyalty, self-confidence bordering on arrogance, fast mental and physical reactions, and a total rejection of authority.

"That last bit is the weird part. It's not like anyone taught me to be that way. I mean, my parents were model citizens and they tried to raise me to be one too. But it wouldn't take, and the scans showed why. There's an activation matrix that kicks in when most humans are told what to do by someone in a position of perceived authority. I don't have it. So all those screwy social experiments that happened in the pre-ethics era - you know, pretending to be prison guards, electrocuting people, that kind of thing - just wouldn't work on me."

Another pause, another little smile. "If someone in a white coat asked me to electrocute a random stranger in another room, it's not the stranger who'd have to worry."

The professor frowned. "But this is learned behaviour, isn't it? Nothing that they couldn't undo with, well, you know what methods they have."

"Nope." The smile was more smug this time. "Not for me. My neural connections are physically different. To fix me they'd have to rewire my brain. They might even have been able to do it, but the result would be, well, not me. Completely different person. Even the medtechs baulked at that. If society starts fundamentally reprogramming anyone who doesn't fit in, what separates us from the machines? Answer: nothing, except that those things live forever and are stronger, smarter and faster. That way lies human extinction. So, no major modifications to personality, no human reprogramming. And no place for me.

"They didn't know why I was this way. They wanted to keep me in for further study but I told them where they could put that idea, and I had a good lawyer. My parents weren't poor." Another smile, but a sad one. "The suits couldn't keep me locked up against my will. Ethics again, you see. They'd tied their own hands."

A sigh. "But they couldn't keep me around, either. You know what dirtside society is like. Structure, obedience, everyone in their place, no deviation outside of strictly monitored leisure activities - and some of that stuff is certainly deviant," she chuckled. "So I had to go. No problem for me, as I wanted to go. Wouldn't have stuck around for any money. Dirtside was driving me nuts."

Susan was intrigued, all anger temporarily forgotten. "So how did you get out?" she asked "You were only a child."

"I was 13 by the time all this had played out. I signed up."

The professor was astonished. "Space Corps? At the age of 13?"

"Youngest recruit ever, youngest to graduate from SC academy, highest honours of my year, almost the highest of any year. At 17 I was ready for active duty. Whatever the flaws of my deviant brain," she gave Susan a lop-sided smile, "it seems I'm the perfect soldier."

"But SC has authority, organisation, rules," said the professor. "How could you possibly have adapted to those?"

"I subverted them. As I said, one of my off-spectrum personality traits is persuasion, charm... actually they called it cognitive social manipulation in the report, but that's just a fancy term for being able to get people to do what I want. I knew my only way off-dirt was to get through that academy as quickly and efficiently as possible, so I applied my talents to achieving that goal. Authority is only a problem if it's backed by power. I neutralised that power wherever I could and, where I couldn't, I made sure I avoided coming into its sights. It wasn't that hard. There were hundreds of recruits, most of them raw, and the authority structure had its work cut out moulding and shaping them. I made life easy for them and for the most part they left me alone."

"For the most part?"

"Yeah. Those trainers were not stupid. I made a couple of mistakes in the early days, underestimated their abilities or overestimated my own." Her eyes were focused far in the distance, her mind in the past. "Some of those guys were very smart. It was a big surprise for me as I'd never met anyone like that before. They weren't grunts. They... well, it could have ended badly for me. They had my medical records, of course, and had been keeping an eye on me. But I was well-behaved from then on, a model recruit. I diverted their attention whenever I could. Also, they wanted me to succeed because it made them look good. I used all my talents to smooth things out. I can be very persuasive when I try."

The professor stared at her, face emotionless. "Yes, I had noticed."

Styx burst into laughter. "Oh, come on, it's not that bad! It's not like some weird kind of control. It's just that when I look at people I see their hooks, their motivations, drives, fears, all that stuff. It's like there are levers coming out of their heads and I can adjust those levers to get what I need by helping them get what they want."

"Like a psychopath?"

Styx twitched and stared at the professor. She was silent for a few seconds, then said, "Yes. That's right. Exactly like a psychopath. The only reason I'm not actually a psychopath is because I don't want anything. I don't crave power, wealth, influence or anything like that. I just want to be left alone. That's not an easy thing to want these days."

"So you manipulated and controlled me into coming back inside?" asked the Professor, taking another sip from her glass. Dead meteors don't drink, she reminded herself.

"I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Another perspective is that I saved your life. You're welcome."

There was humour in her eyes but also a flash of anger that the professor was ungrateful. This flipped a switch in the professor and her own anger returned in a flood.

"What do you know about me? Why do you care? I could have ended all this... this... existence or life or whatever it might seem like to you but to me is just the dragging out of pain and anxiety and stress and... and I don't know why I agreed to come in with you but I don't think you have much time left and so far, whatever you may think, you haven't convinced me of anything, anything at all..." Susan trailed off as she ran out of breath.

After a brief but not unfriendly smirk, Styx said, "I did. I brought you back in, perhaps against your will in some respects. I'd argue that your will was compromised by misleading information and unhelpful emotional influences, but yeah, you make a fair point. I strive for autonomy myself and I do not lightly constrain it in others. Do you want to die?"

Styx swiftly pulled out a knife from somewhere Susan hadn't even seen. One moment her hand was empty, the next it was holding a long, matt-black blade, serrated on the back, razor sharp on the cutting edge and curving up to a stabbing point. It was long enough to pierce her heart, thought the professor, then tried hard to unthink that thought.

"Do you want to die?" Styx repeated. "I can do that for you, right now, with much less pain than dying in the cold vacuum of space."

The point of the blade was directed at Susan now, held perfectly motionless just below her chin. In spite of her earlier actions, the professor was scared. Did she really want to die? Jumping off the station into empty space, going through the bubble and becoming a frozen meteor was one thing. Aside from that initial push, the result was beyond her control. A series of events far removed from the step that led to them. She wouldn't have been killing herself, just taking one small step. The rest was consequence.

But to actively choose to die, to have this strange woman pierce her vulnerable throat with that ugly knife, to choose to break the sanctity of her skin and feel the life-force drain out of her. Not a small step but an action, a choice, a firm decision to die. This was something else.

I don't want to be a meteor.

"No."

The word was spoken quietly but it filled the space between them. "No," said the professor again. "I don't want to die. I don't know what I want. I wanted an end to existence then. But now? I don't know."

The knife vanished. As before, its movement was too fast to see. One moment it was there, an eye-blink later it wasn't. There was much more to Styx than first appeared, thought the professor, which was quite an achievement since what first appeared was already a lot to take in.

Styx stared down at the floor for a little while, then spoke. "I can kill you. There would be no recriminations for me. I won't do it unless you ask me to, but if it comes down to it then I can kill you quickly and with the minimum of pain. Keep that in mind."

"Thank you," Susan found herself saying, surprised at her own response. Bizarrely, having the option available reduced her desire to take it.

Styx nodded in acknowledgement. "I think I'm out of time. What do you think?"

The professor stared at her empty glass. "I think I'd like another drink."

Styx grinned at her, then got up and went back to the bar.

[published 18th March 2018]
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Chapter 4: Making an impression

Susan watched Styx buy a second round of drinks. She hadn't offered to go to the bar herself, happy to let the other woman deal with the bartender again. The interaction was more intense this time. There was more obvious flirting, with Styx touching the man's arm before picking up the drinks he'd made for her.

That kind of behaviour was a closed book to Susan. She understood the dynamics, the biochemistry and psychology involved, but she couldn't have stepped into such a role if her life depended on it. For her it was like the flight of birds: she understood the science perfectly, but no amount of arm-flapping was going to lift her into the air.

Styx returned to the table with the drinks, larger ones this time, though the murky contents appeared the same to Susan's untutored eye. "On the house," said Styx with a smirk. "No big surprise."

"Do you know him?" asked Susan, in awe of the other woman's self-confidence.

"Not yet," came the laughing reply, and Susan felt her face blush with embarrassment. Styx was not just from a different world; the universe she inhabited was almost unrecognisable to the professor.

Susan's thoughts drifted to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, in which every decision, observation or change was believed to create an instantaneous branching of universes. It sounded ridiculous and was one of many reasons why she privately believed that physicists were missing something fundamental about the quantum world. But when it came to Styx, Susan could almost believe that the strange woman had arrived from a different universe which had somehow merged back with this one after branching away in the distant past.

Or, she thought bitterly, maybe Styx was in the right universe. Given how well she fitted in and was adapted to her environment, Styx was probably right at home. It was Susan who had inadvertently skipped into the wrong quantum world. Yes, that made much more sense. She had never fitted in, right from childhood. She had always felt wrong, an outsider, a misfit. Somewhere there was a parallel universe into which Susan slotted perfectly. Or at least this Susan would. That universe presumably already had its own Susan, feeling similarly disconnected and discontinuous. Maybe there were legions of her, an infinite number of Susans in an infinite number of parallel worlds, all of them feeling out of place and unwelcome, all displaced one step away from where they should be, the distance of a fraction of an atom yet further than the span of the visible universe.

She pictured herself standing between two mirrors, her alternate selves reflecting to infinity on either side, all of them disconnected from each other and reality. What a depressing thought. She took a sip of the drink in front of her and let all thoughts of parallel dimensions slip away.

"So," she said. "Let's get this over with. How and why you were waiting for me?"

Styx put her own drink back on the table and composed herself before speaking. "Professor, you've been up here for three months. That's longer than any of your previous visits to Heinlein. I knew you hadn't booked a return shuttle, yet you had no outbound trips scheduled either. Based on that information it seemed likely that you intended either to stay on the station indefinitely or, well, make your own way back to Earth without the convenience of a ship's hull between you and the void. Since you've made no attempt to socialise with anyone, it seemed unlikely that you were up here for the scintillating company."

She looked at Susan with one eyebrow raised.

"That doesn't explain why you were waiting for me outside."

"No, it doesn't. As I said, I had help. I know some talented people up here. One of them has an unusual ability when it comes to predicting people's behaviour."

"Who?"

"Nobody you know. I'll introduce you later, if you feel up to it."

Susan was silent for a long time, absorbing the implications of everything Styx had said. Now that the shock of their initial meeting had worn off, she felt two strongly conflicting emotions: a feeling of being cheated of an end to existence (that still nagged at her) but also a sense of relief.

Styx was the first person to have spoken to her in real conversation since she'd left Earth, in fact since long before she'd left. Casting her mind back over the previous year, all her interactions with people had been through her work, on a formal or professional basis. She knew she'd been the driver for that, having swiftly and fiercely shut down any attempts at conversation that threatened to move to the informal and personal.

It hadn't always been easy to maintain her barrier. She knew, without arrogance, that she was objectively attractive. Attention came with attraction and she'd gone out of her way to dress down and discourage any conversation beyond the formal. This had earned her a reputation as a cold-hearted robot (she smiled inwardly at that) but it was worth it for the protection of her personal space.

It had also, she thought, earned her the freedom to take her one-way ticket to oblivion without hurting anybody close to her, because there was nobody close to her. But Styx had revoked that ticket, metaphorically torn it up and thrown the pieces over her shoulder, grinning while she did so. Susan didn't know whether she should thank the other woman or punch her. She suspected that attempting to punch Styx wouldn't achieve anything positive, but wasn't feeling much gratitude either, so she settled for sullen resentment. She wasn't proud of this attitude, but her mind had its own agenda and would not be overruled.

"What do you want from me?" asked Susan, unable to keep the sullenness out of her voice.

"Well, now I've saved your life, your soul is mine. Eternal servitude will eventually pay off your debt to me."

This was delivered deadpan but there was a twinkle in Styx's eyes as she said it. In a gentler voice she continued, "I don't want anything from you that you're not willing to give. As far as I'm concerned you're free to do whatever you want, including going back to that platform and finishing your high-dive trick, if that still appeals to you."

She waited for Susan to respond, watching her intently for signs of emotion. None were forthcoming so she continued. "However, I - that is, we - could use someone with your abilities, your brain. Something's happened out there," she gestured vaguely behind her, indicating deep space, "that we haven't seen before. I think you could help us understand it. You might even find it interesting."

Resentment lingered in the professor but was now tinged with curiosity. Whatever else she might be, Susan was a scientist at heart, and craved knowledge. She reflected that Styx obviously knew this and was dangling a carrot in front of her, a carrot grown especially for Susan. It was an appealing carrot nonetheless.

"I'm listening," she said.

"So I see." Styx paused again to gather her thoughts. Susan took the opportunity to take another sip of murky liquid from the glass in front of her.

The second drink tasted stronger than the first, the extra volume made up of active rather than passive ingredients. Idly, Susan wondered what they were. A bubble of gas (carbon dioxide, she supposed, but who knew?) made its way slowly up the inside of the glass, bumping into green vegetative matter (whose idea was it to put plants in drinks?) on its way to the surface, where it merged with two others before popping and releasing microscopic fragments of fluid into the air in a neat hemispherical pattern that quickly evaporated into nothingness.

How odd, she thought. My thinking is derailed, deranged, determined? No, not determined. Indeterminate, interpolated, misdirected, misinterpreted... What?

A sudden rush of anxiety gripped her and she forced herself to speak, fighting a thick tongue and slow reactions. "What have you done to me? What's in this drink?"

Styx frowned. "Same as before. Why?" She had barely touched her own, and now looked at it suspiciously. She sniffed it. "I don't smell anything unusual, but... hang on." She dipped her finger in, licked the smallest amount of the clear liquid and rolled it around her mouth, looking thoughtful. Quietly she said to herself, "So that's the game, is it?"

Susan barely comprehended what happened next. Even in her subdued mental state she was aware that Styx moved incredibly quickly, like a striking snake. One moment the other woman was sitting opposite her, the next she was halfway to the bar, her arm already completing a throwing motion. The bartender was alert to her, reaching down under the bar for something, but his determined expression changed to stunned shock as an object hit him squarely in the forehead, flicking his head up and backward. By the time it came forward again, Styx was already vaulting over the bar, landing on him feet-first.

The professor's world began to swim and blur at the edges, the colours bleeding out of it, and soon she saw nothing more. She sagged sideways and slipped off her chair, banging her head on the soft, carpeted floor. Unconsciousness beckoned and she went without a care.

[published 25th March 2018]
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Chapter 5: Looking up

The ceilings of residential cabins on Earth-orbiting space stations are some of the least interesting in existence. This fact didn't deter Susan from staring up at the one above her for what might have been 30 seconds or 30 minutes for all she knew. Her eyes casually traced and retraced the outlines of the exposed cable ducts and pipes, painted white in a nod to interior design considerations but otherwise uncovered. This was a working station, so maintenance access always trumped aesthetics.

The largest pipe traversed the ceiling from one end of the room, beyond her feet, to the other end above her head. Water or air? she wondered vaguely. Water, probably, though she couldn't say why she believed this to be the case. Something about the diameter and apparent gauge of the material must have triggered an engineering memory.

Memory... memory... She sat up, wide awake. Styx! The drugged drinks! What happened? Where am I?

Looking around the small room revealed few clues as to her location. A glass of water (something that appeared to be water, she corrected herself in light of recent events) stood on a bedside table that was bolted to the wall. Why the bolts? A legacy of the station's early free-fall days? Though that made no sense. A table is of little use when anything you place on it simply floats away. Oh, it has drawers, she realised. That would explain it. There were also marks on the wall by the bed where self-restraint straps had once been fitted.

Even though it was possible to sleep almost anywhere in free-fall, and the concept of a soft pillow made little sense, most groundhogs found it easier to sleep the way they had on Earth. Old habits died hard, especially those from childhood. So the station had originally been designed with real beds, all fitted with sets of adjustable straps that the construction workers could use to hold themselves in place while they slept in zero gravity. Once the station had been spun up to provide artificial gravity, the straps were no longer necessary.

Not everyone had appreciated the change from free-fall to spin-gee, Susan recalled. Over time, some of the station's workers had adapted to free-fall, even revelling in their lack of weight. It was, after all, a lot like flying. When Heinlein Station had been spun up to speed, a small but significant number of its former occupants had already shipped out, seeking other environments in which the physical constraints of gravity didn't apply. Susan shrugged. It took all sorts.

Hang on, though, she thought. All the residential cabins on Heinlein Station are in the 'tron. In the old days, the cabins' floors would have been what's now the outer wall. Apparent gravity had been flipped through 90 degrees when the G-field projector was switched on and the Station spun down, so all the beds had been dismantled and reassembled on the new floor. But not this bed, judging by the location of the strap-mounting marks. She must be in a different part of the station. Not in the 'tron. Odd.

That's assuming she was still on Heinlein Station at all. Her memory was completely blank after the point at which Styx had been heading towards the barman with apparently murderous intent. She didn't know how long she'd been out. Her internal clock had nothing useful to tell her. They could have shipped her anywhere, whoever they might be.

All of these thoughts passed through her mind in moments, before being discarded instantly as the bedroom door slid silently sideways and someone came in. Rolled in. The wheelchair's occupant effortlessly steered the chair into the cramped space. Susan briefly thought to herself that here was someone for whom free-fall would definitely be preferable to gravity, then the person in the wheelchair spoke.

"At the risk of stating the obvious, I see you're awake. How do you feel?"

The woman's voice was calm, steady, low and clear. It came into Susan's head like a thought, as though projected into her mind directly without the usual inefficient transfer to and from sound waves. The woman's lips had moved, though.

"I'm... erm..." Susan began, then pulled herself together. "I think I'm fine. I don't really know. I..." Her words trailed off into silence. She stared at the woman, who wore a simple grey tunic that ended at mid-thigh, the fabric sewn neatly closed over the stumps of both legs. Susan's eyes flicked up to the woman's face, taking in the friendly, open expression, light skin, blue eyes, no hair. None at all. No head hair, eyebrows or even eyelashes. Hard to judge her age without hair. Mid-forties or older, Susan guessed. There were fine lines around the woman's eyes that spoke of pain and experience.

"It's OK. You're safe here. I'll answer any questions you may have," said the woman. Again, although her lips moved, it seemed that her words were arriving without the need for speech. Susan frowned. "Are you using telepathy?" she asked bluntly.

The woman laughed in surprise and amusement. "No, child! I'm no telepath. I won't say there's no such thing as a natural telepath, but I'm certainly not one. I don't have the necessary brain implants to do it electronically, either. Just words, that's all I have."

"Then how are you getting inside my head?" asked Susan directly.

"I'm not. What you're experiencing is voice control and empathy, that's all. I've learned to modify my voice to suit different circumstances and people. It's not magic, just training. The tone of what we say is at least as important as the words, if not more so. You probably know that intuitively, although the scientist in you might reject it as illogical. Which it is," she continued after a short pause, "but then so are humans. Speech is the most powerful communication method available to us, but the delivery matters at least as much as the content."

Her posture changed, became more formal. "If you prefer, I can talk to you like this."

The difference in her voice astounded Susan. All the warmth had gone, replaced by a cold, almost robotic element that carried nothing kind, in fact no emotion at all. It was a voice devoid of empathy, consideration or understanding. While Susan tried to pull herself together and reconcile her conflicting perceptions of the bald woman in the wheelchair, a now-familiar face poked around the side of the door.

"Ah," said Styx. "Welcome back to the land of the living, or at least the land of the autonomously animated. I see you've met Psycho."

"Psycho?" Susan's eyes flicked worriedly from Styx's smirking face to the impassive woman in the wheelchair, a wheelchair that, Susan was now uncomfortably aware, blocked her only exit from the tiny room.

Styx laughed good-naturedly. "Don't worry, her bark is much worse than her bite. Right, Legless?"

The woman in the wheelchair transformed again: posture, face and attitude all melted and reformed somehow, without really changing at all. Gone was the humanoid robot, back was the smiling woman with the empathic, almost telepathic voice.

"I'm sorry," she said to Susan. "I didn't mean to scare you, only to-"

"You didn't," interrupted Susan, not entirely truthfully. "But you did confuse the Hell out of me." She tried to hold her voice steady and was surprised to find that she succeeded. Staring the wheelchair-bound woman in the eyes, she demanded, "Who are you and why did she call you Psycho?"

"Good questions. Shall we discuss them in more comfortable surroundings?" The woman was already deftly reversing her wheelchair out of the small room. "There's food and drink out here," she said, nodding over her shoulder. "Take your time to get dressed. Come out when you're ready."

The door whispered shut after her and Susan was alone. Her first reaction was to burst into tears. She tried to fight them back and failed, but gained a small victory over herself by crying silently. Damn it, she thought as she angrily wiped her eyes. I don't deserve this.

[published 1st April 2018]
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Chapter 6: Kittens and confrontations

Looking down at herself, Susan noticed that she was wearing pyjamas. They were white and had small blue kittens printed on them, forever chasing balls of pink wool just out of claw-reach. They were several sizes too big and definitely not hers. "What the...?"

There was no sign of the dress she'd been wearing earlier that day, or yesterday, or last night, or a hundred years ago, or whenever it was that she'd been about to take that one small step, the one Styx had prevented her from taking.

Susan looked around the room again. Piled neatly on the floor at the foot of the bed were what appeared to be clothes, next to a pair of practical indoor shoes. She picked up the clothes and unfolded them. Standard station work-gear, top and trousers, designed to fit tightly but not too tightly, to be comfortable and practical with no loose material to catch on any exposed edges. The style of clothes she wore almost every day. They were her size and so were the shoes. Sighing in resignation, she took off the pyjamas and got dressed. Unable to fight her instincts, she folded the pyjamas and placed them neatly on the bed. As she did so she saw a printed label in the pyjama top which read Property of Briar Jones.

"Seriously?" she muttered to herself. "That brash, self-possessed lunatic wears kitten pyjamas?"

Shocked as much by this discovery as by anything else that had happened to her recently, Susan composed herself as best she could and walked to the door. It slid open at her approach and she stepped through into a much larger room.

The woman in the wheelchair was facing her, the far side of a plain white table on which were laid plates and bowls of food. Sitting to one side of the table, chewing on what appeared to be a synth-chick leg, was Styx. She gave Susan a cheery smile, beckoned her toward the table and carried on eating. Susan didn't immediately accept the invitation. First she stared around the room.

It was big. Its walls were curved, not gently like the Round Lounge but more tightly, with a radius about a quarter of that of the 'tron. The room wasn't completely circular, though, describing roughly two-thirds of a cylinder. The rest of the wall bulged inward. Tables, workstations and cabinets lined much of the wall space, while the middle area contained sofas and comfortable chairs scattered haphazardly. From one long window came a bright white light. Standing on tiptoes and looking out and down, Susan could just glimpse a section of the Earth.

"I'm in the hub, right?" she asked the two other women.

"Full marks," said Styx. "Lower half, below the 'tron in dirtside terms."

"I thought this space was used for storage and labs?" inquired Susan.

Styx shrugged. "Yeah, mostly. This was a lab once, investigating... what was it, Psycho?"

The other woman stirred. "Bone density variation under microgravity conditions," she said. "By which they meant bone density reduction, obviously. They found what they expected to find, no big surprise. Stay in free-fall too long and your bones get weaker." She shrugged. "The experiment ended, the lab techs packed up and went back down, we moved in."

"Who's we, exactly? No, back up a minute. Who are you and why am I here?"

Styx glanced over at the other woman, who nodded to her. "OK, I'll take this," said Styx. "You're here because it seemed the best place to bring you after that..." she muttered some words in a different language under her breath, "...after the creep at the bar tried to drug us. You're safe here, safer than anywhere else in the station."

"What was in those drinks?" asked Susan.

"What I told you, plus a sneaky little addition of his own," said Styx. "It's been analysed, confirming what I thought when I tasted it properly." She muttered angrily to herself, "Can't believe I missed it at first. Must be getting slow."

Then she shook her head and continued. "Anyway, it was a strong sedative, fast-acting but no serious lasting effects. Wears off after about eight hours, which is how long you've been here."

"Why me? Or us?"

"Well, he's locked up in the brig now," replied Styx, "awaiting a one-way trip back dirtside. Nice big bruise on his forehead from the glass I threw at him. Lips are sealed. Won't talk to anyone, and since we're all so civilised up here," her eyes flicked to wheelchair woman as she said this, "I wasn't allowed to do my own interrogation. Shame. So we won't know for a while, but he'll be put through the wringer back on Earth. All ethically, of course. He'll tell them what he knows."

Her eyes widened in mock surprise and horror. "Maybe he was part of a clandestine society planning to capture us and discover all our secrets!" she chanted in a girlish, sing-song voice, then subsided back into her own persona and shrugged. "But for my money it was misguided lust. He wasn't thinking with his head. Anyway, sit down and have some breakfast."

Susan hesitated. She was suddenly aware that she hadn't eaten for a long time. She had an empty stomach and a nagging headache, both of which demanded food. And yet...

Styx cut across her train of thought. "Don't worry, it's safe," she said, grabbing a carrot stick from a bowl, dipping it in some kind of beige sauce and taking a big bite. "Prepared by people we trust. Which isn't to say that you should trust them, or us for that matter, but as I pointed out earlier, if I wanted to kill you I could have done so, and anyway you were on your way to oblivion when I found you. So really, what have you got to lose?"

Susan sat down at the table, convinced not so much by Styx's rambling logic as by the rumbling in her stomach. She ate in silence for several minutes. It was good food, simple but filling and nutritious. The throbbing in her head subsided and she began to feel more human. The other two watched her in silence, Styx occasionally grabbing another piece of food from the table and casually munching it. The other woman didn't eat.

After scraping the remnants out of a bowl of what tasted like a reasonable approximation of chocolate mousse, Susan felt a lot better. She turned to wheelchair woman, three questions forming in her mind. Without preamble she fired them off: "Who are you, why does Styx call you Psycho, and why am I here?"

Wheelchair woman smiled at her. "I'll answer your second question first, if you don't mind. Styx calls me Psycho because of my background. I'm a psychologist, qualified in all types of psychology: cognitive, developmental, social, organisational, criminal, military and clinical." She smiled at Susan. "But really she calls me Psycho because my name's Jane."

The professor was puzzled. "What? That makes no sense!"

Jane continued. "For cultural, social, linguistic and phonetic reasons that I will gladly bore you with given the chance, the majority of nicknames contain two or more syllables, at least in English. Single-syllable names are sometimes even lengthened to fit this rule, creating nicknames that are, counter-intuitively, harder to say than the original name. But 'Janey' doesn't work. Styx is an exception due to the hard ending."

"Not to mention the fact that anyone calling me 'Styxie' would only do it once," said Styx, grinning malevolently.

"Given my speciality," continued Jane, "it was logical for me to become Psycho. I don't mind. It adds a sense of menace that's completely contrary to my character, but that's another hallmark of nicknames. Think of the legend of Robin Hood, with his companion Little John, who emphatically wasn't."

Her smile turned melancholy. "The alternative was to become 'Legless' and naturally I wasn't keen on that. Psycho seemed the better choice." Her voice lowered to a stage whisper. "I might even have suggested it myself, subliminally," she said conspiratorially. "After all, who'd want to be Legless forever?"

"But I heard Styx call you that," said Susan.

"She's earned the right," said Jane quietly. "Without her, I wouldn't be here at all. Losing the use of my legs was a small price to pay, under the circumstances."

"Which were?" asked Susan.

"A story for another time. It was long ago but I can't pretend that the memory doesn't still hurt. If you and I spend more time in each other's company, I'll tell you what happened. One day."

"Why would I want to spend any more time with you?" asked Susan, her anger returning. "So far it hasn't exactly been a picnic. Rescued from myself - I suppose I should feel grateful for that but I'm not sure I do - then drugged and trapped in here by you two."

"Trapped? You're not trapped," said Styx in apparent surprise. She pointed to a second door set into a section of the wall that curved inward. "Out through there is the elevator. You can be back in the 'tron in just a few minutes. Right back where you started yesterday. Your cabin is still where it was. Here's your dress." She threw a tightly-folded bundle to Susan, who caught it clumsily. "All you've really lost is some time and a beautiful pair of shoes," she said, grinning again.

Susan rose to leave, hesitated, then sat down again. "Answers first," she said, feeling more confident with a full stomach and an apparent escape route that she could use if necessary. "Why am I really here? Why and how did Styx find me?"

Jane looked at her intently, so intently that Susan found it hard to meet her gaze for more than a few seconds. It felt as though the other woman's eyes were boring into her head and reading her insecurities off a printed list pasted to the back of her skull.

"Styx was waiting for you because I told her where to find you," Jane stated.

"How? I didn't know even know myself until I got there."

"Consciously, no, I'm sure you didn't," replied Jane. "But consciousness isn't a great help in predicting behaviour, as you probably know. Most decisions we make are determined unconsciously long before we make them. Consciousness isn't entirely absent from the decision-making process but it's more like a sanity check, putting a stamp of approval on a pre-selected choice of action. You may not have consciously known what you were planning, but your unconscious mind certainly did."

"So you read my mind?" asked Susan, in cynical disbelief.

"No! I told you, I'm no telepath. But I didn't need to be. The unconscious mind is cunning but self-absorbed. It doesn't do much to cover its tracks, except in exceptional circumstances. It's like a small child: when it wants something, it tries to grab it. With most humans it's possible to understand the unconscious mind by observing behaviour, especially when that behaviour changes from the norm."

"Has mine?" asked Susan quietly, already knowing the answer.

"Oh yes. As you know, there aren't many private places on Heinlein Station. This is a semi-military installation, Space Corps alongside civilians. Tricky mix, so we're all watched nearly all the time. Cameras, microphones and more subtle monitoring techniques. You're only really safe from eavesdropping when in your own cabin. Even then, if you're a person of interest, so to speak, your cabin is likely to be bugged too. You knew all this, right? It was in the contract you signed when you shipped up here."

"Yes, I knew," sighed Susan in resignation. "It didn't seem important at the time. So are we being bugged here too?"

Jane glanced over at Styx, who held up a hand in the universal symbol of 'wait a moment' while she finished chewing a mouthful of food. She swallowed, then said, "Probably not. That's the best I can say. I've checked this place for obvious bugs and found nothing, but realistically I can't be sure without getting a full nanoelectronics team in here to analyse everything. Even then, I wouldn't be 100% sure. Still," she went on, with a wicked grin, "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear, right?"

Jane continued with her explanation. "We'd been observing you for the past few weeks. We wanted your help but needed to understand your motivations and allegiances first. It quickly became clear that you were having mental health issues. Your behaviour was erratic, sleep patterns disrupted, you were withdrawing from everyday interactions, even pleasurable ones. Depression seemed likely, with a strong possibility of suicidal tendency. I had someone monitoring you full-time. When you came out of your cabin yesterday in that dress and those shoes, I was pretty sure what you had in mind. I'd already narrowed down your probable chosen method, since you don't like violence and hate being a burden to others."

She paused and gave Susan a smile that was intended to be friendly. "I must congratulate you on your choice, by the way. Suicide and cadaver disposal in one go: very efficient. I expect stealing the dog collar was the hardest part."

Susan didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She was horrified that her actions were apparently so predictable, yet a small but growing part of her was grateful that she'd been diverted from her planned meteoric demise. In the absence of a clear frame of mind she asked quietly, "What exactly do you want from me?"

Jane looked at her intently again, then stated simply, "We want you to help us find a planet that isn't there."

[published 8th April 2018]
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Chapter 7: Destination nowhere

For a time the only sounds in the room were the faint hum of the air distribution system and a chewing noise from Styx, who had by now cut an impressive swathe through the food on the table. Susan stared at Jane, trying to make sense of what the strange, bald woman had just said. Then she burst out laughing. The situation had become so ridiculous, so insane, that her only possible response was to laugh hysterically. Styx smiled and had a brief chuckle herself, but Jane remained impassive.

"You want me to find a planet that isn't there?" Susan asked eventually, once she had recovered her composure enough to speak. "Sure, no problem! It's over there!" She pointed randomly out of the nearest window. "Or maybe over there!" This time she pointed upward. "Or maybe it's hiding right behind you!" she said, pointing at Jane and collapsing into laughter again.

This time Jane smiled faintly, indulgently. "You've been through a lot," she said. "It might be best if you take some time to yourself, go back to your cabin and rest for a while. We can talk about this later, when you're feeling better."

"I feel just fine," retorted Susan, no longer laughing. "I don't need rest. I need an explanation. Are you actually capable of giving me a straight answer, telling me the truth about why I'm here? Or are you going to keep talking nonsense?"

Styx cut in. "It's not nonsense, prof. Crazy as it sounds, Psycho's telling the truth. You and I don't know each other very well yet, but if you trust me even slightly, believe me when I say that she isn't a liar. We really do need to find a planet that isn't there, although that's putting things a touch dramatically." She glanced sideways at Jane and winked, then said, "A gift for melodrama might be one of her few faults."

Jane smiled genuinely at this comment, then laughed too. "I guess that's fair. I suppose I've spent too much time delving into the human consciousness. Drama is built-in. We are narrative creatures and create stories even when there are none to be found. For a moment there I forgot your background, professor." She glanced at Susan with a look that hinted at something more, surprising the professor. But before Susan had time to react, Jane continued. "What I said was technically correct, but it would be more accurate to state that we would like your help to find a planet that isn't where it's supposed to be."

Susan sat silently, composing herself. Although she would be loath to admit it, she was now truly interested in what Jane had to say. Astrophysics wasn't just part of her work; it was part of her soul. Her recent adventures and perils were temporarily forgotten. "Extra-solar, I presume? You haven't mislaid Neptune or anything else within the solar system?"

Jane nodded. "Neptune's still where it's supposed to be, last time we checked, and all the other planets in our system are gliding gracefully around on the ecliptic plane, more or less, as they should be. No, this is further afield. You know about the Tau Ceti planetary system?"

"Yes, of course. At least six planets of which two are gas giants, the others balls of rock roughly Earth-Mars size. Orbital periods varying from a few weeks in the case of the innermost rock-ball to..." Susan's eyes glazed briefly as she consulted her memory. "...to several Earth years for the outermost gas giant."

"Impressive," said Jane. "You live for science, don't you?"

Susan shrugged. "Not entirely, but it's always been a huge part of my life. So what's the problem?"

"The problem," said Jane, "is simply that the six-planet system is now a five-planet system."

Susan stared at the woman in the wheelchair and digested what she had just heard. "How do you know this? I need more data."

"Of course you do. I wouldn't expect you to take my word for it, and anyway I'm not an astrophysicist so I'm not even sure of the facts myself. But I know someone who is. Styx?"

The professor turned to gape in amazement at the reclining woman who had finally finished eating. "You?"

Styx laughed once more. "Hah! Me? An astrophysicist? No, prof, no chance! I can navigate my way through the sky but when it comes to understanding how and why the stars and planets do their merry little dance, I haven't the faintest clue. But I do have this, which I think might help you. We received this transmission a few days ago from Professor Moore of the Sondar observatory on Ceres."

She tapped at a small terminal and a male voice filled the room. "You've seen the occultation data, no doubt?" he began. He sounded calm and mature yet vaguely perplexed. Susan mentally pictured him as being in his fifties or sixties, a friendly uncle figure, someone from the history books of the 20th century. She could imagine him sitting in a leather armchair and smoking a pipe, then chided herself. No leather armchairs on Ceres. No pipes either. Not much of anything on Ceres, including atmosphere, which was why it had been chosen as the location for the solar system's most technically advanced multi-spectrum astronomical observatory.

The voice continued. "We've been monitoring thousands of extra-solar planets for decades but nobody's ever seen anything like this. The orbital period of TC2 has been 107 days, give or take a few hours, ever since we first spotted it in '32. Now it's gone. First point of transit was due three days ago. It didn't happen and it still hasn't happened. The host star is shining bright, full intensity, spectrum normal. No sign of our baby, not even as an orbiting cloud of dust."

The tone of his voice went from puzzlement to amusement. "I guess TC2 just got fed up going round and round and decided to go for a stroll. The guys here don't seem to share my sense of humour, but really what can any of us say? That planet was there, regular, predictable, dependable. Now it's gone without a trace."

The voice clicked off and there was silence for a few moments. Then Jane asked Susan, "Could the Ceres team have made a mistake?"

"Unlikely," replied Susan. "I've never met Professor Moore but I've read a lot of his papers. He's well respected and known to err on the side of caution. He doesn't jump to conclusions. If he says TC2 isn't there, then it isn't there."

"And I have met him," cut in Styx. Both other women looked at her in surprise. "He taught a course in astrogation at Space Corps Academy," explained Styx. "He was a good teacher. Paddy's sound."

"SC is sending a ship out to Tau Ceti," said Jane. "A warship. They've asked us to go along. They're paying well - they always do - and we have discretion to hire any additional crew we need. We want you to come with us."

Susan was shocked, first by the invitation and then by the concept of the voyage itself.

"That's stupid! What's the point of heading towards a planet that isn't there? No, not just isn't there; wasn't there! It's 12 light years away, so the data you're getting from Ceres is already 12 years old! What do you expect to find?"

"We don't know," replied Jane quietly. "That's the point. If we knew what to expect then we wouldn't need to go, would we? You're a scientist, you should know that. It's the unknown, so by definition we don't know."

"So why a warship?"

Styx shrugged. "Standard procedure. Who knows what we might bump into? Probably nothing, but maybe there'll be swarms of malicious bug-eyed monsters or hordes of robotic killing machines hell-bent on our destruction..." Her voice trailed off as she saw Susan's look of incredulity. "Well, y'know," she said, a little embarrassed, "A girl can dream, right? Anyway, it makes more sense to take decent fire-power with us than get there and regret not having it."

"But you'll be gone for years! Even with an Asimov drive you can't exceed the speed of light, and when you take the acceleration factor into account it's even worse."

Susan looked at the others. She had their full attention. In a calmer voice she continued. "Do you know how long it takes to reach the maximum velocity of a crewed Asimov ship? Assume a sustained acceleration of 1.5g, which is pretty much the maximum humans can handle for long periods without permanent harm. To reach 90% of light speed at that rate of acceleration would take the better part of a year, then just as long to slow down again at the other end, then there's the actual journey time itself which will be well over a decade! That's by Earth clocks, of course. It'll feel shorter for those onboard due to time dilation, but it'll still take years."

"True," replied Styx. "but what's the maximum acceleration of a standard Asimov ship without a human crew?"

"Theoretically, 9.3g last I heard. A little higher if you strip out all unnecessary mass. That would cut the subjective time considerably, but it's irrelevant. Anyone exposed to that acceleration would be killed, crushed by the pressure."

"Anyone alive, sure," said Styx. "But we'll be dead."

[published 15th April 2018]
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Chapter 8: Frozen

"Would it save time if I simply declared myself insane right now?" asked Susan. "You want to send a warship full of dead people on a journey of 12 light years at an acceleration of almost 10g to a planet that isn't there? And you want me to come along? Actually, scratch that. I'm not the insane one."

"It's not quite like that," said Jane. "Not exactly dead, more-"

"Oh, I get it, don't worry. You're talking about deep suspended animation, aren't you? Not just short-term induced coma and metabolic slowdown, but the full package: fluid replacement cryogenics. Am I right?"

"Yes, that's right," answered Jane. "I thought you'd catch on. It's the only way we can use the full power of an Asimov warship."

The invention of the Asimov drive had transformed space travel almost overnight. Spacecraft equipped with these powerful new engines could accelerate well beyond the maximum limits of the human body. Used carefully, they cut journey times from Earth to other planets and moons dramatically, but they could never be used to their full potential on living human beings. That's because humans are frail creatures, unable to take high acceleration for long periods.

One 'g' is the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface: 9.81 metres per second per second. That's what gives humans - and everything else - weight and not just mass. But although mass stays the same when acceleration increases or decreases, weight does not. 1kg of mass weighs 1kg on Earth. In free-fall, 1kg of mass weighs nothing (though it retains its inertia). At an acceleration of 2g - in a powerful spacecraft, for example - an 80kg human feels a weight of 160kg. At an acceleration of 3g they would feel a weight of 240kg, and so on up the scale. Any longer than a few seconds at 4g or higher would kill most humans, since the body's respiratory system and major organs would be unable to function due to the increased pressure. The full acceleration of the Asimov ships had the potential to dramatically reduce the time taken to travel between planets, yet that was of no use if the crew died of acceleration soon after launch.

One bright spark had the idea that the acceleration effects on human bodies could perhaps be mitigated by placing G-field projectors in the nose of a ship, acting to counteract the acceleration. But G-fields consumed large amounts of energy and the requirement increased as a cube law. A two-gee force required eight times the energy of one-gee. Three-gee required 27 times as much. The short range of influence was also a problem, since beyond a couple of metres the field strength tailed off fast. In addition, the significant extra mass of the G-field projection equipment meant that any ship carrying it would be much heavier, reducing its acceleration potential. This was a multiple trade-off that meant the G-field was of little use in combating the negative effects of acceleration. It was only really useful for providing artificial gravity in vast space-borne structures that didn't go anywhere and could tap into endless supplies of solar energy, like space stations located conveniently near G-class stars.

So cryogenics was the only practical solution to the Asimov drive acceleration problem. By freezing the body and halting all but the bare minimum of metabolic function, a human could be made into a near-solid object, impervious to high acceleration. Once the journey had been completed, this frozen statue could be carefully thawed out and returned to life; reanimated, to use the popular terminology. The idea was simple in principle and had captured the minds of science fiction authors for decades, but carrying it out in reality was far from straightforward.

"You probably know more about the FRC process than I do," continued Jane.

"Enough to know that it's fundamentally unsafe," stated Susan. "It was tried with some of the early colony ships but reanimation rates were... I think the official report called them 'sub-optimal', which is a nice way of saying that a significant number of potential colonists never woke up, and some of those that did ended up with permanent brain or organ damage."

"The process has been improved considerably since then," said Jane. "The cryofluid composition was modified based on those early results and the success rate is now much higher."

"I know that," insisted Susan, "but it's still not 100%, is it? People still die by FRC, just not as often as they used to. Around one in 700 don't make it. I don't like those odds."

"That may be true, but we can't stay awake for however many years it'll take to get to Tau Ceti," cut in Styx. "We'll be on a warship, not a colony vessel. No room to move around, stretch our legs, socialise and keep ourselves sane. We either go there as frozen bodies or we don't go at all."

"Then that's an easy choice, isn't it?" said Susan. "I'm not going."

"Styx, would you leave us for a while?" asked Jane. "I'd like to talk to Susan alone, in private." She looked at the professor directly for one long moment, then said, "If that's all right with you, Susan?"

The professor shrugged her acquiescence. With a nod of understanding to both of them, Styx got out of her chair and walked to the small bedroom in which Susan had so recently awoken. The door slid closed behind her, leaving Susan and Jane alone. Neither spoke for a while.

"I know your secret."

The words came quietly and without emotion, like a neutral observation of the weather, yet they cut straight into Susan's self-discipline like a red-hot knife. She stared at Jane, slack-jawed in astonishment. Shocked to her core, she managed to stutter, "But... but Styx-"

"I said I know your secret," said Jane calmly. "I don't think she does. At least, she hasn't heard it from me."

"So you're going to blackmail me into coming with you," said Susan. It wasn't even a question. She assumed the worst and was quickly becoming resigned to her fate.

"No, of course not." Jane's brow furrowed in consternation. "Why would I do that? I want your help, your freely-given assistance. Either you come of your own free will or there's no point in you coming at all. I would never blackmail you into coming. I'd never blackmail anyone. I'm sorry if I've given you the impression that I'm capable of such action. I'm not. Neither is Styx."

"Then why tell me that you know my secret?" asked Susan, baffled by Jane's behaviour.

"Because I think this expedition might help you find what you need," the other woman replied.

[published 22nd April 2018]
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Chapter 9: A merry dance

For what felt like an eternity to Susan, Jane stared at her, eyes unblinking. Once more the professor had the impression that the wheelchair-bound woman was looking straight into her eyes and reading her mind, with no effort whatsoever. It was extremely disconcerting and Susan felt herself shivering with apprehension. Then the bald woman spoke again.

"Your secret is safe with me. I have no desire or inclination to tell anyone else. Even if I did, I'm bound by my own moral and ethical code. Nothing about your personal history will ever pass my lips."

She looked down for a moment, then continued. "For what it's worth, I understand why you feel the need to keep quiet, but I don't believe your secret is so devastating. You might find it helpful to-"

Susan interrupted angrily. "Don't. Just don't. You don't know what it's like. You can't know. There's no way I could ever tell anyone. I wish you didn't know, but there's nothing I can do about that now. How did you find out, anyway?"

Jane shrugged. "It wasn't hard. Actually I wasn't even trying to find out. I needed to know more about your background before asking you to join us on this merry little trip to the stars. If we're going to be spending years in each other's company-"

She held up her hand to silence Susan, who was about to interject.

"If, I said. I'm not taking anything for granted. But if so, I had to know that you were someone dependable. Temporary mental health issues aside, what I found in your records convinced me that you are - dependable, I mean. But as a consequence of that investigation into your background, I also discovered your big secret."

"Was it so easy to find?" asked Susan in horror. "Does everyone know?"

"Unlikely," replied Jane. "It's not as though it's actually written down. There are some gaps and anomalies in your records that on their own prove nothing, but taken together hint at something more meaningful. You have to remember my speciality. I'm trained to notice when expected behaviour doesn't match actual behaviour, and to discover why. It took me some time to come to a conclusion but I was pretty sure it was correct."

"Pretty sure? You mean you don't actually know for definite? You said you knew my secret!"

"I was 99% sure. Your reaction when I told you just now provided the final 1%. Anyway, it doesn't matter. We all have secrets, things that people don't know about us. Often we believe that they are incredibly important and that it would be damaging to our relationships, even our existence, if anyone found out. Mostly that's not true. It's just a twisted form of arrogance. The simple fact is that few people have time to consider the quirks and secrets of others, as they're too busy worrying about their own. For the most part we are self-absorbed creatures."

"Oh, really?" said Susan, sarcastically. "And what's your secret?"

Jane raised one eyebrow, or at least the part of her face where an eyebrow would have been if she weren't completely devoid of facial hair.

"Good question." She smiled to herself. "Very good question. I asked for that, I guess."

She sat silently in thought for a few moments, then called out, "Styx? Come back in, please."

The door to the small bedroom slid back again and Styx came out. "All done?"

"Not exactly," replied Jane. "Susan would like to know a little more about me. I think a demonstration is in order, to help win her trust. How quickly can you make this room secure?"

It was Styx's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Really? OK, sure. Give me a minute." She glanced at the professor. "You're going to see something special, prof."

Styx moved quickly and methodically around the room, clearing the plates and bowls from the table and placing them in cupboards, which all held retaining racks. She gathered up terminals and other objects from flat surfaces. These also went into cupboards and drawers, each of which clicked firmly closed afterwards. In less than a minute the room had been cleared of all loose items except the cushions on some of the sofas and chairs.

While Styx was working, Jane had taken out a pair of very thin gloves from a pocket in her clothing. They were odd-looking, with translucent backs and dark grey palms and fingers. They caught the light as she pulled them tight over her hands, shimmering under the room's soft lamps and the illumination that spilled in through the window closest to Earth.

In answer to Susan's unspoken question, Jane said, "Gecko gloves. These ones are unpowered, suitable for indoor work and light lifting or climbing. I have a powered set for more strenuous tasks but they aren't so convenient to carry around."

Susan felt more confused than ever by this statement, but before she had time to ask questions, Jane announced, "Ready, Styx."

Styx sat down opposite Susan and said, "You might want to hold onto your seat, professor." Then, in a louder voice she instructed Heinlein Station's AI. "Station, apply retaining mag field at floor level in here, then kill localised G-field on my mark. Three, two, one, mark!"

Freed from Susan's weight, her seat cushion expanded underneath her. She felt herself rising as the foam recovered its uncompressed shape. She gripped the arms of the chair and saw that Styx was doing likewise with hers. A brief wave of nausea passed over her as her intestines adapted to the loss of artificial gravity. She was aware that the gentlest of movements would suffice to push her out of the chair, which was held in place by an electromagnetic field that pulled its metal feet down to the floor. The same was true of the other furniture in the room and, she had to assume, Jane's wheelchair, since that was resolutely immobile.

Jane smiled at Susan. "You asked about my secret. Well, I'm sure I've appeared tired to you. That's because I am: I don't like gravity and I do my best to avoid it, real or artificial. It exhausts me. I spend most of my time in free-fall. I even sleep that way. I have a small room here on Heinlein, actually more of a wardrobe, really. Styx calls it my coffin. I sleep upright with the G-field disabled."

Styx cut in with a grin. "Vampire Bat was another possible nickname for Psycho, but it didn't trip off the tongue so well."

Jane smiled again, seemingly much happier without artificial gravity. Susan didn't share her appreciation for free-fall and was feeling decidedly uncomfortable without the familiar pull toward the ground beneath her feet. "OK, I get it," she said, fighting down another wave of nausea. "You prefer free-fall. That's not much of a secret, is it?"

"No," replied Jane. "But this is."

Without another word she took off. In front of Susan's astounded eyes, Jane launched herself vertically out of the wheelchair at speed, pushing down on its arms to gain lift. As she flew toward the ceiling she raised her arms above her head, palms upward. The gloves gripped the ceiling firmly and Jane's arms absorbed the impact without any apparent strain. She looked down at Susan and said, "This is my element."

What followed was a performance that fixed itself permanently in Susan's mind. No dirtside dancer she'd ever seen had moved as elegantly as Jane did now. With a finesse that stunned the professor into gaping silence, the bald, legless woman moved around the room at pace, using floor, walls, ceiling and windows to change direction and moderate her speed. Susan was awed by her elegance of movement. Jane twisted her body in mid-air time and again, contorting herself so that she always landed palms-out, gripping each new surface for just long enough to change her momentum and move off in a different direction. She never faltered, always found her place. "She's like a dolphin," thought Susan. "She's completely at home in zero-gee."

With one final push, and a flourish that was more for appearance than function, Jane floated gracefully back into her wheelchair, landing so softly that it barely rocked as it received her. She nodded to Styx, who gave the command to the Station to reapply the G-field. Weight returned to Susan and she sank back into the seat cushion, amazed by what she'd just observed.

"I could have asked for replacement prosthetic legs," said Jane, only a little breathless from her exertions. "Full nerve linkage, stronger than real legs, internal power source, and so on and so forth. Very expensive, but SC would have covered the cost." She paused. "I didn't want them."

Susan frowned but was so overwhelmed by Jane's performance that she couldn't articulate the obvious question.

"People have asked me why I choose to remain disabled," continued Jane. "Yet to me, you bipeds are the disabled ones. We are our brains. We all live inside our own heads. My body has everything I need to keep my brain alive and I'm more mobile than any of you."

"In free-fall," replied Susan, finally able to speak.

"Yes, in free-fall," said Jane firmly. "Who in their right mind would want to be anywhere else?"

[published 29th April 2018]
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Chapter 10: Decision time

"Well," said Susan after she'd recovered from the spectacle of Jane's zero-gee acrobatics. "That was certainly impressive, but it doesn't make me any more keen to freeze myself solid and blast off into deep space."

Jane looked at her in sympathetic comprehension. "I didn't think it would, but I had to be open with you. I've shown you something that's private to me, something that only a few people have seen. You already know Styx's background, so she tells me."

The professor nodded in acknowledgement. "She told me a lot, yes. In spite of the spiked drink I haven't forgotten it."

"So," continued Jane. "You know at least that we aren't hiding anything from you. You know facts about us that could potentially be compromising if you told them to certain people. We've placed our trust in you, because we believe you are trustworthy."

"Really. Not to create a feeling of obligation in me, then?" asked Susan sarcastically.

"Hah, she's got you, Psycho!" laughed Styx. "Prof is smart, just as I told you. Going to have to up your game with that headology of yours." She grinned at Susan and winked her encouragement.

Jane smiled sardonically and replied to Susan, ignoring Styx's comment. "Is there any difference? If I wanted to create a feeling of obligation in you, would my actions be any different to saying and doing things because I trust you? No. I'd act the same in both cases. But you're right to question my motives. I would too in your position, but they are really very simple: I want you to come with us. I will provide all the information you need in order to encourage you to make that decision. I won't lie to you or intentionally mislead you by omitting information that might sway your choice one way or the other. Without informed consent your presence would have no value. There's no room in a warship for deceit or resentment."

"Fine words," responded Susan. "But I still don't see what's in it for me. You mentioned that I might find what I seek, but I don't see how that's possible on a trip to nowhere."

"I've already explained," said Jane. "What have you spent your entire life pursuing? Knowledge, understanding, the bringing of light into darkness, illumination of new facts and truths. You've pursued the unknown to make it known."

She became more animated as she spoke, waving her hands in emphasis of her points. "This is the ultimate unknown! A planet has gone missing! You heard Professor Moore: billions of tons of rock have simply disappeared without a trace. We can't even conceive of possible causes for such an event. It's the ultimate unknown!"

Susan bit her lower lip in thought, her eyebrows furrowed. "And you want me to come with you because...?"

"Because you're the best multi-disciplinary physicist in the solar system," said Jane. "That's not flattery. It's simple truth. Nobody knows astrophysics better than you, but then there's your work in field dynamics, particle physics, general theory, quantum energy systems and all the rest. It's ridiculously impressive. I mean, how many doctorates do you hold now?"

"Including the honorary ones?" asked Susan. "Seven."

"Exactly. You are by far the best qualified scientific advisor for this trip, this mission," said Jane. "And I meant what I said earlier. I do think you will find what you need out there."

"In any case," interrupted Styx. "You're certainly more likely to find it out there than here on Heinlein Station, or down dirtside. And look on the bright side, prof. You get to have your cake and eat it. You wanted to be frozen in space, right? This way you get to fulfil that desire and then come back to life again!"

Styx's voice jarred in Susan's ears. The fake upbeat sentiment annoyed her, made her feel that Styx was mocking her situation. Yet underneath the annoyance, part of her realised that this irrepressibly upbeat woman was correct. Whatever she wanted in life, she knew it wasn't to be found on Earth, nor on Heinlein. She had to look outwards, further afield, to find inner peace - assuming that was even possible. Emotions surged and roiled inside her, mixing fear, hope, anger and excitement.

Susan's internal conflict wasn't lost on Jane. "I can see this is hard for you," she said kindly. "There's another option that might work. Come with us as far as Mars. There you can meet the other members of the crew, talk to them, get their perspectives on this mission. Mars isn't far to travel, and if you decide not to come any further with us, SC will arrange a trip back to Heinlein Station or Earth for you. How does that sound?"

Susan looked at the other two, feeling undecided. On the one hand they were the first people to have treated her as a real person for a long time. They were odd, certainly, but it was a good feeling to be wanted, even needed. She'd forgotten what that felt like. And they had saved her life. True, they'd saved it for their own purposes, but that didn't change the fact that without these two, Styx and Psycho - sounds like a bad comedy act or a kids' cartoon, she thought wryly - without them, she'd be dead. She was already having trouble believing that her mental state had sunk so low as to have ever thought suicide was a good idea. Well, I guess emotion trumps reason even for me, she shrugged to herself. No big surprise there.

"If it helps, we could-" Styx said, but Susan interrupted her.

"Don't. You've told me a lot already. Let me think about it. I'm not saying I will come with you to Mars, but I'm not saying I won't, either. Right now I'd like to get out of here. I have a lot to think about."

The other two smiled at her. "Of course," said Jane. "Thank you for bearing with us and listening to what we had to say. Whatever you decide, if we can help you out in future, just ask. You're not alone any more."

Susan was surprised how moved she felt by Jane's statement. Alone is what she'd been for most of her adult life. She still wasn't sure that she trusted these two bizarre women, but they had already filled an empty space in her mind that she hadn't realised was there. For the first time in years, perhaps in her lifetime, she felt that she had someone she could call on in a crisis. "Chances are they'd just make it worse," she thought with a grimace, "but at least they'd be there with me."

Clutching her folded dress, Susan stood up, nodded at the other two women and walked towards the elevator. She pressed the call button and then turned. "How will I...?"

"Station knows how to find us," said Styx. "Just use your terminal."

The elevator arrived and Susan stepped inside, then turned to face the other women.

"OK... and thanks," she said, as the doors glided shut.

The journey back to her cabin passed in a blur. She had no recollection of the trip in the elevator or the walk along one of the arms into the accommodation section of the 'tron. She didn't notice as her cabin door opened, nor was she aware as it slid closed behind her. She was on autopilot, her mind elsewhere. 12 light years elsewhere.

In spite of her scornful reaction to what she'd heard, she was hooked on the idea of the mission. Studying astrophysics from the pointy end of a telescope was one thing, she thought. But to actually go out to the stars... Instead of looking at computer-rendered data from a range of far-flung observatories, she could actually go and see Tau Ceti and its planetary system with her own eyes. The prospect thrilled her beyond words.

No astrophysicist had done this before. The colony ships that had been sent out in the past had their fair share of scientists on board, but nobody of her experience and calibre. Colonies needed practical scientists and engineers, people who could pitch in and help build and sustain new outposts of human life. There was no room for theorists and star-gazers. She'd be going further into the void than any astrophysicist before her.

She quickly composed and sent a message to Professor Moore on Ceres, asking for confirmation of TC2's disappearance and any update on the situation. The Sondar observatory was too far away for normal conversation, with a 25-minute time-delay each way, but if he was awake he would hopefully reply in the next hour or so. She was careful not to go into any detail about her own situation. Her name was well enough known for him to give her the information she requested without raising any suspicions.

She was going to Tau Ceti. She already knew this, had known it since before she'd even left the lab below. She could feel her unconscious mind screaming, "Yes, yes, yes!" in excitement and anticipation. She wanted to go, wanted it more than anything she'd ever wanted before. But that didn't mean she'd go without fully considering what was involved.

For a start, it would mean saying goodbye to everyone she knew and loved. Well, no big problem there! Her list of close contacts numbered zero. There were some professional associates for whom she held respect and admiration, but no real friends to speak of, not even close acquaintances. She was a free agent thanks to her own deliberate efforts to keep others away from her. The same tactics that had contributed to her attempting suicide had also left her free to drop everything and fly to the stars at a moment's notice. She felt a weird kind of satisfaction, even validation, in that fact, especially because when - or if - she returned, anyone left behind would have aged much more than her due to the time dilation effects of near-light-speed travel. If she'd had any close friends, leaving them would have felt like a bereavement. She drifted off into an internal reverie, thinking back over her recent past and mulling events and decisions in her mind. Time passed without her noticing.

It was two hours later when her terminal announced that she'd received a response from Professor Moore. She read it quickly.

Good to hear from you, Professor Peabody. I'm well aware of your work. Kind of you to take an interest in what we're doing on this rocky, isolated little ball.

To answer your question, there's still no sign of transit by TC2 past Tau Ceti and we're working on the assumption that the planet was somehow destroyed while it was on the far side of the star. That doesn't really explain much, since we'd still expect to see light attenuation from the resultant dust cloud, but it's the only scenario we've come up with to date.

I'd be glad to hear your thoughts, if and when you have time. Attached is the relevant data from TC2 and Tau Ceti itself for the past few years. As you'll see, it's been behaving like clockwork, but now the clock has stopped.

Best,
Paddy Moore

Susan perused the attached data for some time, but was unable to come up with any explanation other than the one Professor Moore had offered. It didn't satisfy her any more than it had satisfied him. The answer had to lie elsewhere. She made her decision.

"Station, would you please connect me with Briar Jones? Thank you."

A few moments later she heard Styx's chirpy voice. "Hey prof, that was quick. So, is it a yes or a no?"

"It's a yes. I'm in, at least as far as Mars."

"Woo!" exclaimed Styx. "It'll be great to have you onboard, and if I can't convince you to come with us all the way to Tau Ceti, then I'll give you back your shoes!"

Susan laughed. "We'll see. What do I need to bring, and when do we leave?"

"Hmm. Good question. SC will supply you with clothing, space suit, all the rest. Bring any small personal possessions, I guess, if they'll help you feel at home, and your own terminal, obviously. We have some equipment you can use but if there's anything you think you'll need, give me a list and I'll get SC on it."

Styx continued in an apologetic tone, "I know we can't provide everything. There's no room on a warship for a fully-equipped observatory, but we'll do what we can. Don't worry, though. Really it's your brain we need."

"That's comforting!" said Susan. "But I don't need much. If I do come all the way with you, it's not like an X-ray observatory is going to be of much use to me. I have a couple of cases of equipment that I do want to take, though. It's not exactly standard kit, as I built a lot of it myself, but I think it might be handy."

"Then we'll find room for it," said Styx in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'll be frank, prof. Without you onboard I don't think this mission could succeed. We'd get to Tau Ceti and not have clue what we were looking at. With a 24-year round-trip wait for radio communications with Earth, it's not like we could ask for advice. You're the jewel in this crown so you'll get whatever you want, as long as it's within SC's ability to provide it. Oh, on that note, you'll be paid exceptionally well. Believe me, money is no object to SC. They've pretty much got their own bank."

Susan smiled at this. She had numerous motivations for going on the trip, but money wasn't one of them. She told Styx she'd start her preparations, then disconnected.

She was going to the stars.

[published 6th May 2018]
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Chapter 11: Hirondelle

Time was short. True, there was no great urgency to begin the journey to Tau Ceti itself, since no subjective time would pass for the frozen passengers. A jaunt of 12 light years could wait a few more months if necessary. But Mars was a different matter. The three women would travel to the red planet from Heinlein Station in an unfrozen state, awake, and time was precious. Mars had already passed its point of closest distance to Earth. It made sense to ship out as soon as possible, to minimise the journey time before the two planets moved further apart.

There may be worse ways of passing time than in a small, cramped spaceship with strangers, but off the top of her head Susan couldn't conjure up many of them. So when Styx had asked her how long she needed to prepare, Susan had replied that one Earth day would suffice. The sooner they shipped out, the less time she'd have to spend cooped up in a metal tube with the other two. They were nice enough in their strange ways, and had been kind to her, but confinement tended to bring out the worst in people. She had no desire to find out what deep-rooted psychological problems the other two carried around with them. She had more than enough of her own.

Twenty-four hours later she found herself in the lower hub transit lounge, staring out of one of the station's windows, familiar continental patterns just visible under the white clouds of the slowly spinning orb beneath her. Peering around to her left she could see the moon as well. Better take a good look at both of them, she thought to herself. By the local calendar it would be a quarter of a century before she saw them again - if she ever did.

She'd kept her intentions to herself. Styx and Jane didn't need to know that she'd already decided to come to Tau Ceti with them. Better to hold that information back as a negotiating tool, a bargaining chip that she could use if needed. To all intents and purposes she was only coming as far as Mars. Nothing beyond that was determined, regardless of the equipment she'd packed.

With that thought she looked down at the three metal cases at her feet. The smallest one contained clothing and personal items. The other two... she smiled to herself. The other two contained a range of items that would have confounded any non-scientists and a fair few physicists too. Whatever this adventure happened to throw at her, she'd have a few tricks up her sleeve.

Packing had been the most time-consuming part of her preparations. By contrast it had taken barely any time to say goodbye to her few acquaintances on Heinlein Station. There hadn't been much to say. She'd told them that she was taking some time off and wanted to visit Mars. No, she'd never been there before, but she'd met a couple of people heading out to the red planet and had been invited to join them. Yes, she preferred to do it this way rather than in one of the tourist cruise shuttles. She'd never been one for crowds.

This explanation had surprised nobody and, after a handful of polite questions, the few people with whom she discussed her trip quickly lost interest. She felt a little hurt by this cursory treatment, but then recognised it as an inevitable response to the protective shell she'd built around herself. She'd allowed nobody to care about her, so she could hardly complain that nobody did.

None of this was important, anyway. All that mattered now was where she was going. The stars were waiting for her. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled in anticipation of what lay ahead.

"Sigh of regret, prof?"

The voice behind Susan made her spin around quickly in surprise. Styx was standing there, carrying a hold-all in addition to the bag slung over her shoulder.

"You can move pretty quietly when you try!" exclaimed Susan.

Styx grinned at her. "You have no idea. So, any regrets? Missing dirt already?"

"No," replied Susan carefully. "There's nothing to miss. I have no real ties to that planet down there." She brightened, attempting to be more open. "How about you? Do you ever get homesick?"

To her surprise, Styx made no attempt at humour or sarcasm. Instead she replied in a flat voice, tinged with sadness. "Can't feel homesick if you don't have a home, prof. I've no idea if it's possible for me to ever call anywhere home, not really, but if I do then it certainly won't be on Earth." She paused, lost in thought, then said with a sad smile, "Who knows? Maybe my answers are out there somewhere, just like yours."

As she said this she pointed in a different direction, away from Earth. Susan realised that she was pointing in the approximate direction of Tau Ceti, and mentally gave the other woman credit for that fact. Styx apparently knew her way around the stars well enough.

The elevator door slid open on the other side of the room and Jane wheeled herself out of it. She had her own case of luggage, larger than Styx's, which followed behind her on wheels, self-powered and coded to follow its owner.

"Well, here we are," said Jane. "Quite sure you're ready for the trip, professor?"

Susan nodded firmly. "I've never been to Mars. I'm sure it will be a fascinating experience, all the more so given the company."

Jane smiled at the implication and Styx stifled a laugh, then said in a clear voice, "Station, we're ready. Pilot and passengers for Hirondelle, bound for Mars. Ready?"

A soft female voice, allegedly chosen to sound soothing and dependable, but which Susan had always found grating and annoying, announced, "Affirmative. Ship fuelled and checked. Please use airlock number four."

"Hirondelle?" said Susan. That's a strange name for an SC ship. Don't they usually have stupid, aggressive-sounding names like, I don't know, Disemboweller or War Bastard?"

"Disemboweller?" replied Jane, quizzically. "That's a new one on me. But you're right. For some reason SC has never considered naming its ships along non-military lines. I guess a warship called Peaceful Coexistence would be something of a contradiction in terms. But anyway, the Hirondelle isn't an SC ship."

"No," said Styx. "She's mine. Bought and paid for with the proceeds of a successful mission that I can't tell you about unless I then kill you. And myself."

Jane sighed. "I get tired of all the secrecy sometimes. Don't worry, Susan. Styx is joking, at least on this occasion. But it's true that she's not allowed to tell you about that particular mission. Standard SC contract. If you come with us further than Mars, I guess you'll have to sign one too."

Styx smiled ruefully. "Where's the fun in blasting off into deep space if you can't tell people all about it?" she pondered aloud, then perked up. "Apart from the cash and the excitement, of course. Anyway, enough pontification. Shall we go aboard? You won't get to see the outside of my lovely little ship this time, professor, but I'll give you a proper tour once we're on Mars. She's a beauty, one of the few K-class ships equipped for interplanetary travel as well as orbital and atmospheric work. Got the neatest little fold-away wings you've ever seen."

She headed towards a door with a large '4' above it and pressed the opening button.

"Don't we need suits?" asked Susan.

"No. Hirondelle is pressurised and so is the connecting tube. Unless you're worried about a meteor puncturing the shielding? Odds of that are tiny, but if you want to suit up just in case, we can wait."

Susan declined. "If you think it's safe, I trust you. Lead on."

Styx did so, Susan followed and Jane brought up the rear. Once all three of them had entered the airlock, the heavy door sealed closed behind them. Following the lead of the other two, Jane unspooled the retaining cables from each of her cases and attached them to the robust retaining loops around her waist-belt.

The Station's artificial voice spoke again. "G-field off in five. Please prepare for free-fall. Four... three... two... one..."

Once again Susan felt a wave of nausea as her weight fell away. Once again she saw a smile spread across Jane's face as the other woman returned to her favourite element. Jane floated free of her wheelchair, more gently this time, touching a concealed panel in one of the arms as she did so. Once she was free of the chair and floating above it, the chair folded in on itself like a piece of mechanical origami. First the wheels split into four equal sections, extended outward slightly and then rotated into alignment with each other. Then the seat and back folded neatly together and around the wheel segments. It all happened smoothly and elegantly. The final result was an oblong package about the size of a small briefcase, complete with carry handle.

Styx said, "Neat, huh? It's ridiculously light, too. Working for SC has its advantages."

Using grab handles in the walls, floor and ceilings, the three women made their way through the short tunnel connecting Heinlein Station to the Hirondelle, whose outer airlock door was already open. Their progress was hampered by the luggage trailing behind them on cables, but eventually they were all inside the Hirondelle's airlock. At a word from Styx its outer door whispered closed, then the inner door opened. The station airlock's outer door had already sealed shut.

Susan's brow furrowed. "Won't the station lose all the air in the tunnel?"

Styx shook her head. "There's a retrieval system that reduces the pressure to the bare minimum, then vents what's left at this end. We get a helpful little push away from the station from that, so in energy terms there's not much wastage. Pretty clever, really. Ideally they'd do without the tube altogether, but it minimises the risk of ship-to-station collisions and reduces air-bubble transitions. Anyway, let's get going. There's stowage space for your bags back there," she indicated behind her using her thumb. "Once you're done, strap into the free couch up front. Hirondelle is only a three-berth ship so things are going to be cosy, but I'm sure we'll all get along just fine."

Susan did as she was told. As she strapped herself into the acceleration couch next to Styx, she wondered seriously whether she was doing the right thing, whether she should tell the other two that she'd changed her mind, that it had all been a mistake and that she wanted to go back to the station.

Then, through the viewport above her, she saw the huge doughnut of the 'tron slowly falling upward away from her, and knew it was too late. The Hirondelle was on its way to Mars.

A few minutes later, a small craft detached itself from the far side of Heinlein Station's hub. It was sleek, matt black and featureless. Unseen by anyone in the Hirondelle or on the station itself, the ship slipped gracefully out of orbit and, with no visible means of propulsion, headed out on the same course.

[published 13th May 2018]
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Chapter 12: Martian time-skip

As Heinlein Station shrank away and then disappeared out of the rear of the overhead viewport, Susan's trepidation increased. She always felt nervous in vacuum. The three women had actually left Heinlein Station's air bubble behind when walking through the transit tube from the station to the ship, but it hadn't seemed that way because they were still effectively 'indoors'. Now she was floating in a small capsule surrounded by nothing.

It was a weird feeling, even for a scientist. She knew all about the theories of sub-atomic particles continuously popping into existence and instantly annihilating, but she couldn't see them or feel their effects in any way, so they weren't real to her. She felt suspended in nothing, and it worried her. Nothingness: it was a difficult concept to grasp. Even the number zero hadn't been used by early mathematicians because of its non-intuitive nature. How do you count nothing? How can this ship, she thought, be floating in nothing?

Her rational mind jeered at such simplifications but, as she knew from experience, emotion beats rational thought every time. Like an ocean swimmer looking down through deep, clear water and suddenly feeling exposed and vulnerable, Susan was hit by a crushing sensation of agoraphobia. She gripped the arms of her acceleration couch tightly, as though she'd fall forever into eternity if she let go.

Her actions didn't go unnoticed. Jane looked across from the other side of the ship and gave Susan a friendly smile. "It never stops being overwhelming, does it?" asked Jane. "You'd think that by now I'd be immune to it, to that feeling of insignificance in comparison with the sheer vastness of the universe, but it hits me every time. It used to scare me. I was terrified by the immense scale of it all."

She sighed. "But then I realised that everything I see out there is really inside my head. My senses weren't overwhelmed by the universe: my brain was. So I changed my thinking. Instead of being terrified of what my senses were telling me, I taught myself to choose a more positive emotion. Now I find it awe-inspiring. I'm awed by what I see, the scale of what's out there. I feel more comfortable knowing that whatever I do - whatever we do - won't really harm the universe. It's so vast and wonderful and magical and unknowable. It was here long before we were and will be here long after we're gone. I can do whatever I want with my life and the universe will carry on regardless. It's freedom, really. A vast, overwhelming sense of freedom."

Susan digested this monologue for a little while, then said, "You're not helping much, but I appreciate the thought. It scares the hell out of me every time."

Styx, seated between Jane and Susan, had said nothing while this exchange was going on, which was surprising to both women. Jane glanced at her and saw that she was frowning at one of the screens set into the display panel in front of her. "Problem, Styx?"

"Mmm. No. No, it's nothing." Styx's frown cleared and she looked up. "All OK. Right folks, we've got quite a journey ahead of us. It'll take a few days to get to Mars at Hirondelle's maximum boost. I'm afraid my pretty little ship is too small for a G-field, but it won't be too uncomfortable and the couches will take the strain. You can get up and move around if you feel like it. I'm planning to doze for much of the time, or zone out and catch up with some reading. I'll let you know when we're approaching flip-over for deceleration." She stretched her arms and yawned. "See you both on the other side."

The other two looked at each other and shrugged as Styx lay back in her acceleration couch and closed her eyes. Then Jane took out her terminal and activated the headset, giving Susan a cheerful wave before falling into her own private world. Susan was left alone with her thoughts.

Her agoraphobia was still present, but pushed to the periphery of her mind. Despite what Susan had said, Jane's comment had helped a little. Susan had always found space awe-inspiring when she'd studied astrophysics and cosmology, and there was no reason why that should change just because her feet were no longer on solid ground, or solid space station. Why not just relax and enjoy the sensation of awe, she thought to herself. It wasn't as though the universe was going to do anything surprising.

She stared out of the viewport at distant stars and galaxies for a while, trying her best to recall their names based on their relative positions. This was harder than she'd expected due to the minimal section of visible sky, but once she'd lined up two well-known star clusters, the rest slotted into place.

A thought struck her: would the constellations change when she was at Tau Ceti? Her brain hummed to itself for a few moments before coming up with the answer: not much. Twelve light years was an almost unfathomable distance for humans, but on the scale of the universe it was tiny. There would be some variation in the nearer star systems, and it would be fascinating to see the sun as just another star in the night sky, but otherwise she should be able to maintain an awareness of her celestial location. This was important to her. Like that ocean swimmer travelling over unfathomable depths, she needed to know the way back to the shore. Satisfied, her mind wandered randomly. Eventually, without realising it was happening, she fell into a deep sleep.

She was awoken by voices. It took a while for her to return fully back to consciousness, but then Susan realised that it was Styx who was talking. She sounded worried.

"You know I had this ship upgraded a while back, new scanner system and so on?"

Jane nodded. "I remember. I also remember calling you paranoid at the time. Space isn't like rush-hour back dirtside. You can count the number of ships on the Earth-Mars route at any time on the fingers of one hand."

"Yeah, maybe. I reckon I'm still alive thanks to my paranoia, so I'll keep being paranoid if it's all the same to you. Anyway, I don't think we're alone. There's something behind us. Beyond the range of standard scanners and it's got some kind of non-reflective covering, but there's definitely something there."

"Asteroid? Meteor? Space junk?" asked Susan, curious but unconcerned. She couldn't understand why the other two seemed worried.

"No, no and no," replied Styx, turning to face her. "It followed the course correction I made a while ago. It's being steered. I have no idea how big it is, or what it is, but it's definitely following our course."

"So?" asked Susan, meaningfully. "Is that a problem?"

"Honestly, prof, I have no idea. If it weren't for that little episode with the barman I'd think nothing of it. As it is, I don't like anomalies. They make me nervous."

"Do you want to try hailing it?" asked Jane.

"No, I don't think so," replied Styx. "If it is deliberately following us, and not just heading to Mars at the same time by coincidence, then it's also deliberately keeping outside of standard scanner range. If I hail it now, whoever or whatever's on board will know that this ship is more capable than it appears. I'd prefer to maintain our cover for now."

"So what do we do?" asked Susan.

"Nothing," replied Styx. "It's not gaining on us. If it does, Hirondelle has a few other tricks up her sleeve. We'll just keep on course. Nothing to worry about." Her face belied her words, but Susan wasn't concerned anyway. More melodrama, she thought to herself. Apparently Jane wasn't the only one with a knack for it. She settled back into her couch and slowly nodded off again.

The remaining time to Mars passed without incident, in fact at times it was so dull that Susan wished she'd stayed on Heinlein Station. She could move about the cabin whenever she wanted to, though she had to be careful of the ongoing acceleration which gave her approximately Earth-scale weight. There wasn't much to see inside Hirondelle anyway: toilet, storage facilities, basic galley for food and drink, that was about it. Susan found it hard to see why Styx was so attached to the ship. It really seemed to be nothing special. She spent most of the trip in the same way the others did, relaxing in the acceleration couches and catching up on science publications and entertainment via her terminal.

Flip-over time came and went without much fuss. Styx announced the transition ahead of time, there was a period of weightlessness as the main engines shut off and the ship turned to face the opposite direction, then an increase of mass again as deceleration began. They were now facing away from Mars, though still heading towards it at speed. The viewport showed nothing of interest but Styx overlaid a feed from the rear of the ship, showing a tiny red dot that grew in size over a period of hours until it became recognisable as Mars. It kept growing until it filled the screen.

When they were close enough to the planet, Styx instructed the flight computer to reduce thrust, flip the ship back over and enter orbit. This manoeuvre took time but was executed elegantly by the ship's AI, giving all three women time to gaze out of the viewport as Mars rose to meet them. The ice cap appeared first, then the red-brown mass of the rest of the planet's northern hemisphere, studded with marks, scars, craters and other features that spoke of its violent history. For a long time nobody spoke. Then a sign flashed on a panel to the left of Styx. She tapped it and spoke out loud.

"Mars City, this is Hirondelle inbound from Heinlein Station on pre-approved flight plan. Permission to land?"

"Mars City here," came a male voice in reply, a few seconds later. "Cleared to land in bay 12. Think you can remember where that is, Styx?"

Styx laughed. "Hi Marty! Yeah, I reckon I can just about find my way. You laid out the red carpet for me?"

"Sure, sweetie," came the reply. "Red with the rock dust of our wonderful planet. Scream out if you need any help bringing that crate down."

"Crate? You'll pay for that, Marty. A more beautiful vessel has yet to grace your red, dead world."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, love. But if you can bring that rust-bucket down in one piece I'll eat my words, or at least buy you a drink. Safe landing. Out."

"Philistine. Out."

With a few more instructions from Styx, the Hirondelle began its descent. "Better strap in, people," said Styx to the other two. "The smooth part of the ride is over."

The Hirondelle was an atmosphere-capable craft, designed to present a profile that balanced atmospheric drag with an aerodynamic shape, allowing it to glide on special fold-out wings when the atmosphere was thick enough, and yet be able to absorb the heat of re-entry into Earth-like planets. Mars presented less of a heat problem than Earth, since its atmosphere was thinner and therefore generated less friction. On the downside, it also offered less resistance for aerodynamic flight, so landing spacecraft had to use a considerable amount of energy fighting the planet's gravity for most of the descent. At least, the large ones did. The Hirondelle had a more elegant solution.

"Deploying 'chutes," announced Styx after a period of prolonged buffeting and turbulence. There was a thumping sound, then a sudden shift in subjective weight as the landing parachutes took effect. First came the braking 'chute at the rear, designed to slash the forward velocity of the Hirondelle with a jolt that knocked the air out of all three women's lungs. Then came the explosive deployment of the front 'chute to counterbalance the rear and prevent the Hirondelle from hanging upside down by its tail.

The parachutes were large because they had to work against the thin atmosphere of Mars. Despite their size, they didn't slow the ship's descent enough to prevent a rough landing, but acted as a useful supplement to the ship's retro-boosters, cutting the required landing energy to a minimum. It was a decidedly low-tech solution, but when it came to space travel, low-tech was sometimes preferable. It meant there was less chance of something going wrong and more chance of fixing it when something inevitably did.

Styx was fully alert while the ship descended, her hands hovering over the controls but not touching them, her eyes scanning the displays for any indication that the descent wasn't going according to plan. Susan was aware that things were happening but took very little interest in the detail, her attention focused firmly inward, concentrating on just how miserable she was feeling. As her stomach reeled for the umpteenth time, she swore to herself through clenched teeth that she'd never travel like this ever again. Then she swore at Styx for good measure, but the noise of the descending Hirondelle took her words and shredded them before they could be heard. The roaring increased in volume until it was almost unbearable, then there was another thump and all movement ceased.

"Touchdown!" declared Styx. "Welcome to Mars and thank-you for flying Styx Spacelines. We hope you enjoyed your flight. Be sure to take any used sick-bags with you when disembarking."

A groan from Susan was followed by an invitation to Styx to do something anatomically improbable with her own sick bag. Styx laughed.

"Language, professor! You're not dirtside now. Mars has standards, don't you know?"

They waited while the engines cooled and the parachutes were reeled back in. Then a flexible air tunnel was wheeled out from the spaceport building to connect to the side of the Hirondelle. Mars had some atmosphere but not enough to support human respiration, so opening the ship's door on landing would have led to swift decompression and the asphyxiation of everyone inside. There were only two safe ways to travel between a landed spacecraft and the Mars City bubble: spacesuit or tube. The majority of travellers had no choice but to suit up: Mars City wasn't going to waste time, energy and atmosphere on an air-tube connection.

But Space Corps business merited special consideration. The translucent tube snaked out from the port building to the ship, supported by a self-directed motorised chassis and large wheels. Its sealed end aligned itself with the ship's airlock door and then moulded and contorted its shape until it had formed a hermetic seal against the Hirondelle's skin. Only then did the end open, rolling back inward on itself like a strangely alive flower. The tunnel was then filled with air from Mars City, its skin inflating and becoming more rigid.

"Pressure equalised, Hirondelle," said a voice from the console above Styx's head. "You may disembark."

"Roger that, Marty. We're coming in."

[published 20th May 2018]
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Chapter 13: Unlucky

Gravity came as a shock to Susan after several days in space. She'd felt a near-constant force while on board the Hirondelle due to acceleration and deceleration, but now the direction had changed, pulling her down to the floor of the ship. It was a much weaker force than she'd experienced on Earth, due to the difference in mass between the two planets, but it unsettled her nonetheless. She swung herself out of the acceleration couch and stood up on unsteady legs, like a new-born foal struggling for balance.

Styx was already up and about, apparently suffering no disorientation as she moved around the cabin, tapping controls and making the ship secure. Susan was about to offer assistance to Jane, thinking that the other woman might need some help, but it appeared that this was unnecessary. Jane's wheelchair was already unfolded next to her couch. As Susan watched, she deftly lowered herself into it with barely any apparent exertion. Jane noticed Susan watching her and asked, "Need any help, Susan?"

"No, I'm fine thanks. At least I think so. Gravity feels odd but I'll get used to it."

"You will. There's not too much of it here on Mars, so you can jump a lot further than you might be expecting," said Jane. "It's not free-fall, sadly, but it's better than one-gee. Come on, let's get our things."

She wheeled her chair to the back of the ship, where Styx had already unstowed their bags and packs from the storage compartments. With a thumbs-up to the other two, Styx led the way into the Hirondelle's airlock. Susan grabbed her three packs without too much difficulty and followed her, then Jane squeezed in too. Jane's luggage neatly stood itself on end to make more room in the cramped space.

"That's clever," said Susan, nodding at Jane's luggage. "How does it work? Gyroscopes or something?"

"I'll let you into a little secret," said Jane in a stage whisper. "I have no idea. The luggage was part-payment for services to Space Corps years ago. It doesn't have proper AI but it's got basic adaptive algorithms to do things like that. As far as I can tell it's slightly less intelligent than a small puppy, but that's enough for it to follow me wherever I go, fit into spaces like this and carry my stuff. Very handy when you don't have any spare limbs with which to drag cases around."

Styx operated the Hirondelle's airlock doors. First the inner door closed behind them, then the outer door opened. There was no change in pressure, since the connecting tube to the Mars City bubble was already pressurised. The three women moved into the translucent tube, which was wide enough for Styx and Susan to walk abreast ahead of Jane's chair. The tube had a flat floor that made it easy for Susan to pull her packs along behind her.

The floor puzzled Susan. The 90-metre-long tube was collapsible, with a concertina-like outer skin, so she couldn't work out how the floor could be so flat and smooth. It niggled her in the way that quirks of physics or engineering always did. Then she noticed small tensioning rollers at regular intervals in the floor, pulling it taut. Clever, she mused to herself, seconds before her breath was taken away.

The wind roared in Susan's ears and she was pulled backwards by the force of the air rushing past her. Each panic-stricken intake of breath became more difficult than the last. She felt her chest straining to drag in enough oxygen for consciousness - and failing. She had no comprehension of what was happening to her except that breathing wasn't working.

She looked ahead and realised she was less than halfway along the tube. Behind her came a flapping noise that made its way through the fog of panic to the tiny part of her mind still capable of processing rational thoughts. The tube was no longer connected to the Hirondelle! The remaining air was quickly running out, being replaced by thin Mars atmosphere which wasn't fit to breathe. She was suffocating fast.

"No! Not like this!" she shouted, or at least tried to shout. The wind took her voice and shredded it in the thin air as though she'd never spoken. She was on her hands and knees now, aware of what was happening to her but unable to act. What should she do? Where should she go? Not back to the ship, but she couldn't possibly cover the remaining distance to Mars City without passing out.

She felt a slap on her back, then another, harder one. "Get up!" came a commanding voice right next to her ear. Styx was there, trying to pull her upright. Without understanding why, Susan did as she was told, forcing her distant legs to respond. She staggered half upright, then got another shock as Styx spun her swiftly around and pushed her hard onto something low, flat and metallic. She stumbled, sprawled and clung onto it, unable to do anything else.

It moved. The last sensation she had before blacking out was the impression that she was riding a giant turtle down the beach and into the sea. She smiled to herself as consciousness faded. "I've never seen a giant turtle before but now I'm riding one. I'm so lucky... lucky... luck... lu... "

Time passed, but not for Susan.

She awoke in an instant, as though she'd never been unconscious, but her surroundings had changed. She was inside a small, bare room with big, reinforced doors at each end. She could now breathe more easily, though the tightness in her chest left her in no doubt that what she'd experienced hadn't been a dream. But the turtle... She looked down and discovered that she was sprawled across Jane's wheeled luggage. Oh, not a turtle then, she thought. Confused, she slid slowly off it, which drew the attention of the other two.

"It's all right now," said Styx kindly, as she bent down and helped Susan up into a sitting position. "We're safe. You can breathe properly. We're inside the Mars City airlock and the outer door's sealed shut."

"What happened? How did we get here?"

"Some quick thinking on her part," interrupted Jane, pointing at Styx, who managed to look both proud and modest at the same time.

"Ah, not so quick really," said Styx. "It was clear that you weren't going to make it to the airlock, so I got you up and threw you onto Psycho's luggage, then I jumped onto her wheelchair and she hit the boost button. The chair got us into the airlock and her luggage followed fast behind."

"The boost button?" asked Susan, incredulously.

"Nothing so crude," replied Jane, "but this chair is self-powered when I need it to be. Usually I prefer to push it myself, but sometimes the motor has its uses. Today was one such time."

"But what actually happened?" asked Susan. "How did the tube lose air? It sounded like it came loose from the ship's airlock!"

"Yeah. I'd like to know that too," said Styx, in a voice loaded with barely-suppressed anger. "We got into this airlock and slammed the emergency cycle button. Longest thirty seconds of my life while the 'lock filled with air. You came round just as the green lamp came on. Time for us to leave this little box and get some answers."

She tapped a panel next to one of the doors and it starting to swing open. At the same time she tapped her terminal and shouted into it, "Marty, are you trying to kill us?"

"No, love," came the worried reply. "Given your gung-ho approach to life, you don't need any help from me. What happened?"

"You tell me! Tube disconnection at the ship. What the hell caused that? This is no joke, Marty. We could have been killed!"

"I'm not laughing, Styx. I don't know what happened. The tube seal has never failed before. It's made of adaptive polymer, UV-safe, dust-repellent, gecko-grip, riddled with sensors. Should have clung to your ship like a limpet, just like it always does. I'll get one of my techs to check it out."

He paused for a while, then his voice came back, sounding less sure and more concerned. "I'm glad you're safe. Make that two drinks I owe you."

"You owe me a damn sight more than that!" said Styx. "Out!"

She looked across at Jane, frowned and said, "This make any sense to you?"

"No," said Jane. "Not at all. I haven't been here for a long time, but Mars City has a good safety record. What your friend Marty said is true. Those tube seals never fail, not until now."

"I'm not so sure he's my friend," said Styx. "I'm not sure I have any friends here, not now. We've had too much bad luck, too much strangeness happening to us recently. Stay alert while we're here, both of you. And let's get out of this airlock. I'm getting claustrophobic."

The inner door was wide open now, and the three women stepped and rolled through it. On the other side was a mid-sized room with shop-style counters running around the side. All but one was shuttered.

"No guards on the airlock?" asked Susan.

"No need. All the criminals are already on the inside!" laughed Styx. "There's nobody outside but ghosts and bones."

"But all the air," said Susan. "We're inside a giant air-bubble now, right? What if someone opened both the airlock doors at once?"

"What, maliciously you mean?" asked Styx. "Mass murder? They could try but it's not possible. Can't open the inner door while the outer door is open, due to the pressure difference, and the same applies if you try to open the outer door when the inner one is already open. That's why they hinge inward: it's fail-safe." She continued in a more sober tone. "That's not to say people don't find ways of killing each other on Mars, but airlocks are really only good for suicide. Until today, anyway."

At this she walked over to the only open counter and began talking to the bored-looking man who was standing behind it. Jane and Susan remained quiet while she did so, each lost in their own thoughts. Susan's ran around her mind like headless chickens, causing a lot of fuss and confusion but giving her no insight or peace whatsoever. She was glad when Styx returned.

"So, let's start again," said Styx, in a more jovial mood. "Welcome to Mars City, population 427 or thereabouts. You'll need some credits to get by. Here." She handed Susan a small card with a holographic depiction of Mars embedded in it. "That'll get you whatever you want. I've booked us into the Mars Hilton, the best and in fact only hotel on Mars. SC is paying, naturally. It's also paying for your air."

"My air?"

"Sure! No such thing as a free lunch, prof. This is a working colony and everything costs money. You pay on arrival or you don't come in. We've paid in advance for three days, which should be more than enough for us to find the people we need to find, with maybe a little time for some fun too."

Her irrepressible grin spread back over her face. "I haven't been on a planet for months. I'm going to make the most of it. I suggest you do the same. It's going to be a long time before we have real mud under our feet again."

[published 27th May 2018]
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Chapter 14: Refreshments

Styx accompanied Susan and Jane to the Mars Hilton and checked in with them, but her mind was elsewhere. As soon as she could, she made her excuses and left. In their capacity as travel companions she had nothing to complain about, but three days in a spacecraft with them was enough. Anyway, she had things to do.

First stop was the nearby admin centre, to talk to Marty about the failed tube seal between the Hirondelle and Mars City that had nearly killed her. The conversation didn't go well, even after the administrator had offered her the two drinks he'd promised earlier. Regarding the transfer tube he had little new to add, saying that his technician hadn't found anything obviously wrong, though the gecko-grip had showed unexpected signs of deterioration.

"Like metal fatigue but at high speed, so he told me," said the resolutely English man across the desk from her. "Said he hadn't seen anything like it before and would replace the seal, but couldn't hazard a guess as to how it had got that way." Marty continued more earnestly, "We're not a cowboy outfit here, you know, Styx. We take safety very seriously. If this had happened to one of the tourist boats we'd all be dead... economically speaking."

Styx left Marty's office with more questions than answers, feeling on edge and unsafe. She needed space, somewhere she could breathe freely. As she walked out of the admin building into the fading light of day, she bent down and grabbed a handful of red soil from the ground. She rubbed the coarse Martian dust between fingers and thumb and a smile broke across her face. "Now that's what I call dirt," she said to herself, feeling happier already. She walked on down the street, re-familiarising herself with the roads and buildings. This wasn't her first time on Mars - far from it - but she hadn't been to Mars City for some time and a few things had changed while she'd been away.

A settlement the size of Mars City wasn't big enough to have more than one of anything: one hospital, one general store, one hotel, one administrative centre. But this rule broke down for bars and social environments: there were three. That might seem a lot for a colony with a permanent population of a little over 400 people, but it was a fundamental component of successful colonial life.

In any case, the population wasn't constant. It could almost double when one of the enormous cruise ships arrived in orbit, bringing well-heeled passengers with money to burn. The Martians were happy to tend the fire. Visiting dirtsiders were ferried down in small shuttles while the motherships stayed in orbit, too big to ever land. The journey down made at least half of the tourists violently sick but that was all part of the adventure, leaving them with exciting stories about the new wild frontier to tell their envious families and friends back home on Earth.

Colonies and tourists alike needed places in which to socialise, relax, complain, moan, argue, laugh and, in the case of the locals, occasionally fight (weapons were rarely used but fist-fights were commonplace). A small colony could survive without an admin centre. It could even, at a push, manage without a medical centre. But there was no way on Mars that any colony could survive without somewhere to mix, mingle and blow off steam.

Of the three bars in Mars City, one was in the Mars Hilton itself. It did good business with the tourists and transient workers who spent anywhere from a few days to a few months on the red planet. But it wasn't cheap, nor particularly atmospheric, so the locals went elsewhere.

The second drinking establishment, and by far the most popular, was The Beagle Bar, named after an unmanned exploratory probe sent to Mars decades in the past. Disappointingly, that probe had crashed on the planet and lost all communication with Earth. Soon after the Mars City colony had been established, an expedition had set out to retrieve the crash-landed explorer, and had succeeded. Once its rudimentary memory banks had been drained and it had given up all the secrets of its demise, the erstwhile interplanetary traveller had been bolted to the roof of what had then been The Mars Bar, which promptly underwent a name change to The Beagle Bar. Humans being human, the new name had failed to catch on. The bar was now widely known as The Dead Dog or just The Dog.

The Dog was the social destination for nearly all of Mars City's long-term colonists. It was a loud, bustling place with no room for introspection. Dance evenings, quizzes, casino nights and other social events were organised on most days. The Dog was also the venue of choice for birthday parties and even weddings, of which there had been several in the years since Mars City had been established.

The noise from The Dog was audible long before Styx could even see it. As she turned a corner it came into view, with people hanging around outside, chatting and watching the sunset. It was a beautiful evening and the light of the setting sun, even through the air-bubble's thin wall, would have made Earth-based photographers weep with joy. Styx nodded and smiled at a few of the revellers, responded in kind to some of the more lewd comments, and walked straight on past the building.

The third bar had no name. It wasn't even recognisable as a bar. There was no sign outside, no ironic play on the name of an item of space junk from recent Martian history. It was just another building at the end of one of the streets that spread out from the centre of Mars City like the spokes of a wheel. Few people were aware of its existence. Not that there were any big secrets in such a small population, but The Dog served most people's requirements well enough. The Dive was for the remainders, the tiny left-over population who felt out of place even on another planet.

There was no waiter serving cocktails to dirtside tourists. It wasn't that type of venue at all, in fact no off-worlders ever found their way to The Dive. Quiz nights had never graced its gloom. The bar was known The Dive because that's what it was. On Earth it would have had sawdust on the floor and a flat roof. Since this was Mars, it had red dirt on the floor... and a flat roof, though here the roof was covered with solar panels, as were most of Mars City's buildings. Styx opened the unmarked door and walked into the dingy interior.

She nodded to the barman in friendly greeting. "Hey, Piotr!"

"Welcome back, Styx," responded the big, middle-aged man in a heavy Polish accent. He was casually wiping a beer glass with a dry cloth. "Good to see you again. Heard you were back in town. Staying long?"

"No, just a few days. Got some errands to run. So, what have you got?"

"The usual. Red wine, white wine, brown beer. What'll it be?"

"Hmm. What would you have?"

"Not the beer, that's for sure. Ivan's been working on the fermentation problem for months but still hasn't cracked it," said Piotr. "Something to do with the structure of the sugar molecules, he said, but I think that's an excuse. He's just a lousy brewer."

The man's face brightened a little. "But the red wine's pretty good. Guaranteed headache with every glass but it's not actually poisonous. Liz is getting pretty good at it now, even thinking of selling some to the Hilton for the dirtsiders."

"Go home with a genuine Mars hangover, that kind of thing?" asked Styx.

"Yeah, maybe," he grinned at her in agreement. "Those fools will buy anything if it has a Mars label on it. Don't see why we shouldn't make some money from their gullibility. It's not like we'll ever taste dirtside alcohol again. Nobody's going to ship that out here, given the cost of mass. Not for less than a million creds a bottle, anyway."

"OK, I'll have a glass of Lizzie's wine." Styx took a card out of her bag and offered it at the barman, but he waved her away. "Your credit's good with me. Reckon I still owe you something from last time, anyway."

"Hey, thanks! You're not quite the bastard people say you are."

"Sure, sure, just don't tell everyone. I've got a reputation to live down."

He poured generous measure of red liquid from an unlabeled bottle. It swirled cloudily in the glass. Styx waited for the tiny particulates to settle... and waited... and then realised that this was as clear as it was going to get. With some trepidation she raised the big glass to her lips, said "Na zdrowie!" to Piotr and took a large sip.

She swallowed, grimaced and coughed. Raising one eyebrow in mock surprise she looked at the bartender and said, "Actually it's better than last time. Not great, but better. My compliments to Lizzie, but you might suggest to her that it would taste even better without the battery acid."

"Hah, you can tell her that yourself! More than my life is worth."

Styx drank some more, very carefully, then ran her finger around the rim of her wine glass for some time, deep in introspection. Looking up with a serious expression, she said, "I need to talk to Johan. Have you seen him recently?"

There was a long pause. When he finally spoke, Piotr sounded reluctant and resentful. "You're welcome here. He's not. Not after last time."

Styx grimaced again, but this time not because of the wine. "I know. I remember. Even so, I've got to see him. Please?"

Piotr was silent for a long time. Styx knew he was weighing up whether or not he should help her. She also knew that he would, eventually, so she said nothing and was proved right. With a sigh of resignation, Piotr took out a small notepad and pencil. He scribbled something down and passed it to her. Without even looking at it, she pocketed the note.

"Thanks," she said, before finishing the remainder of the wine in one big swig. This time she coughed so hard she thought she'd pass out, but eventually the so-called wine stopped burning her throat and allowed her to speak. "I really appreciate it," she managed to say, then got up to leave. He waved away her thanks and went back to cleaning the glasses. Somewhat unsteadily, she headed towards the door.

"Oh, Styx?" he called out after her.

"Yes?"

"He still has his pet," said Piotr, with a warning note in his voice. "Be careful."

He saw Styx hesitate, could see the shock running through her.

"O Boze!" she muttered under her breath, then walked out of the bar.

[published 3rd June 2018]
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Chapter 15: Styx and stones

The pale sun was dipping behind the high western mountain range as Styx emerged from The Dive. She shook her head to clear the fog of Lizzie's wine, then shook it again more slowly in trepidation at the challenge she was about to face.

"His pet. His damned pet," she muttered to herself. "Oh Johan, why must you make everything so difficult?"

She took out the scrap of paper from her pocket and read Piotr's scrawl. It was an address denoted by two co-ordinates: ring and spoke. The spokes were the straight roads that led out from the centre of the settlement to the inside edge of the air-bubble, while the rings were the circular roads that cut neatly across each of the spokes. A map of Mars City always reminded Styx of an old Earth dartboard. At least it made navigation easy. Continuing the darts analogy, Johan's place would have scored double-seventeen. With a sigh and another shake of her head, Styx started walking.

It wasn't far - nowhere in Mars City was far from anywhere else - but it was a sparsely-populated area, mainly used for storage and automated raw materials processing. Rows of long, low, oblong buildings ranged down either side of the dusty road, some of them humming quietly. Styx skipped lightly past them, her strides covering several metres at a time in the low Martian gravity.

Towards the end of the road, the lines of oblong buildings petered out. Close to the edge of the air-bubble were patches of scrubland, used as dumping grounds for material that wasn't currently needed. An area of scrub had been fenced off from the rest. A large but rickety-looking building, apparently built from old container panels welded together, stood (a more accurate word would be 'leaned', thought Styx) in the middle of this fenced-off land. The surrounding scrub had been tidied and apparently cultivated. Styx could see the green tips of plants just starting to poke their way through the carefully-processed soil.

She could also see the sign, placed so as to be clearly visible from the dirt road leading to the fenced-off piece of land. It proclaimed to all potential visitors in red letters on a white background: "GO AWAY. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. TRESPASSERS WILL BE HURT. THIS IS YOUR FIRST AND ONLY WARNING."

"Still the same charming old Johan," said Styx to herself. She smiled as she said the words, but felt a chill run through her body. She knew that the sign was serious. She knew that she could get herself hurt here, or worse. Bending down, without taking her eyes off the ramshackle building, she picked up a selection of small rocks from the Martian dirt. She selected three medium-sized stones and began walking silently forward. The door was slightly ajar but there was no sign of life inside.

Carefully, hardly daring to breathe, Styx reached the door. She paused for several minutes, listening carefully for noises inside, trying to get some idea of what awaited her. Once she felt as ready as she'd ever be, she took a deep breath, gripped the stones firmly in her right hand, opened the door a little further and slipped inside.

There was silence for a few seconds, then several noisy things happened at once.

"Well, now, look what the cat dragged in! Sweet of you to drop by, Jonesy. To what do I owe this dubious pleasure?"

"Call off your pet, Johan!" shouted Styx. "Call it off or I'll turn it back into scrap metal!"

The grubby man with unkempt hair, wearing a dirty coverall that might once have been light blue but was now a dull grey, frowned and inspected his fingernails. He picked absent-mindedly at the grime underneath one of them.

"I don't believe you could do that, Jonesy," he said languidly. "I don't believe anybody could do that."

"Bet?" asked Styx, through clenched teeth.

"Tempting, but no. If you lost I'd have to clean up the mess." He raised his voice and called out, "Maximilian, stand down."

The large red battle-mech holding Styx upside-down by one of her ankles acknowledged Johan's instruction with a flat "Sir" and carefully lowered her to the ground. Having done so, it then placed next to her the three stones she had thrown in her failed attempt to distract the military-grade robot. It had apparently had no trouble catching all three while simultaneously identifying Styx as the main threat and incapacitating her; fortunately for her, without injury.

The mech moved silently, with a silky, gliding motion that belied its size and bulk. Hundreds of interlocking segments flexed and slid independently in its scarlet body, arms and legs, giving it a fluid flexibility and even a limited ability to change its shape. Although squatly humanoid in form, there was nothing human about its stance and movement. It peered down at Styx through the two sophisticated eye receptors in its small head. Even standing still, it loomed.

Styx got to her feet, brushed herself down and glared at the battle-mech, which was several feet taller than her and almost as broad as it was high. "Jumped-up exoskeleton," she said angrily. "Why do you keep it switched on?"

"It's much more than an exoskeleton, Jonesy, as I'm sure you know full well. And I keep it switched on in case of uninvited guests, such as your good self." There was menace in the man's voice now, and Styx could see the mech responding to the sound, modifying its stance and preparing for action. Johan growled at Styx, "Again I'll ask you, Jonesy, but only once more. Why are you here?"

As the mech started to turn towards her again, Styx said quickly, "I've got something for you: a ticket off this planet!"

[published 10th June 2018]
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Chapter 16: Bliss

The Mars Hilton barely merited the title of hotel. Like most Mars City buildings, it was a low multi-storey construction made of light composite materials shipped from Earth.

All the internal furnishings - beds, tables, chairs and other items - appeared solid but were actually inflatable, designed according to the TORC technique that had for decades been used to ship such items around the solar system, consuming the minimum amount of volume and mass. Once fully inflated, these items were solid to the touch and virtually indestructible. They were bulked out with ballast from the Martian surface to keep them in place.

The hotel had 30 rooms, half of them shared spaces with bunk-beds, and it rarely had full occupancy. The three women had been given their choice of single rooms and Susan had taken one on the top floor, a corner room with windows that faced both West and South. It was a functional and unremarkable space, though she hadn't been aware of that on arrival. She'd simply closed the door behind her, made directly for the bed, sprawled onto it face-down and fallen immediately into a deep and restful sleep.

She awoke a couple of hours later, feeling much better but still with a conflicting mess of emotions churning inside her. The shockwave of recent events rolled over her, accompanied by the powerful awareness that she had been closer to death than she'd realised at the time; closer than she'd been in her life so far. Yet here she was, alive and on Mars.

On Mars! Suddenly that fact hit her with full force. She was on another planet! She'd never set foot on another world before; only Earth and various space stations. She'd seen plenty of photographs and video footage of the Martian surface, of course, and knew much of its geography and human history. But such dry knowledge couldn't compare with actually being here in person on the red planet. She bounded out of bed like an excited little girl, ran to the West-facing window and looked out over Mars City. What she saw took her breath away.

Mars City itself was unremarkable - just a collection of low buildings and dirt roads - but it was elevated far above the mundane by its location. Beyond the perimeter of the transparent air-bubble lay the real Martian surface, stretching for miles to the horizon. That horizon was a low, flat line to the distant South, but to the West the mountain range stretched higher than Susan could have believed possible. Even allowing for the reduced Martian gravity, it seemed incomprehensible that such mountains could exist on any planet. They surged up into the sky as though clawing for the stars, humbling any attempt to make sense of their vast scale.

Closer to Mars City, the ground was a series of raised and lowered plains, in places looking like dried-up lakes or the beds of long-dead rivers. These were pock-marked with craters, some of them huge, from meteorites that had been large enough to make it through the thin Mars atmosphere without burning up due to air friction. The surface itself was red, but that three-letter word failed to do justice to the range of ochres, auburns, crimsons and browns that brought the striations of the land's texture to exquisite life in bursts of unexpectedly rich colour, as though painted by someone whose consummate brush-skill required no other hues. Enormous boulders littered the landscape as if casually strewn by the hand of an impossible giant. Susan was transfixed by the sterile beauty of it all. Then she looked up.

The distant sun slowly setting beyond the thin Mars atmosphere lent a blue tint to the sky above her, but still the sky was much clearer than it would have been on Earth. Already she could see stars appearing, confusing her Earth-bound preconceptions because of their intensity against the dark blue background. As she looked up, tiny sparks of light flickered and flashed in unpredictable patterns. She rubbed her eyes but they remained, and for a time she wondered if the near-asphyxiation she'd suffered earlier had affected her more profoundly than she had believed. She was literally seeing stars.

Realisation suddenly dawned. The flashes of light weren't in her mind at all. They were the death throes of tiny meteorites that were too small to leave much of a trail in the sky, but were burning up the instant they hit the all-but-impervious energy barrier of the Mars City air-bubble. It was her own private firework show, illuminating the beauty of the landscape even further.

Susan thought she would burst with the sheer delight of discovering such intense beauty on an alien world so far away from what she had called home. Her mind was overwhelmed with joy at the scene in front of her, all worries temporarily put aside.

Elated, she went back to bed and drifted back to sleep, with nothing but calm beauty in her mind.

[published 17th June 2018]
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Chapter 17: Persuasive actions

A screaming sound emanated from the ramshackle building on the scrubland plot. It started low in pitch but quickly began to rise, becoming louder and more plaintive as it did so. There was nobody in the area to hear it, but if there had been they would have been chilled by the sheer force of the noise - it was a scream out of nightmares. Soon it reached a pitch so high that surely no human throat could have uttered it, then a voice cried out, "Now, Maximilian, now!"

Abruptly, the sound ceased. In place of the scream came a hissing noise, then a man's voice: "Oh, you useless pile of recycling. Now look what you've done."

Inside the building, the giant red battle-mech shuffled its multi-jointed legs in an appearance of contrition, like a dog that had made a mess on the carpet. The flame-throwing attachment embedded in its right arm, which had been attenuated to a hot, blue flame in order to concentrate its heat, was extinguished with a small 'pop' sound. On the floor lay the pathetic remains of what had been the recent object of its attention.

"Heat, I said!" shouted Johan. "Heat it, don't melt it!"

Maximilian shuffled backward, cowed by the ferocity of its owner's voice. It knew it had done something wrong but couldn't understand what that was. Its flame-thrower was intended to turn everything it encountered into a smouldering pile of molten slag. When it had been designed, nobody had even considered that one day, on a distant planet, such an immensely destructive battleground weapon might be used to boil a kettle.

"Sorry about this, Jonesy," said Johan to Styx, who was trying and failing to suppress laughter. "You'd think all the AI in this hunk of metal would be able to handle something as simple as making a cup of tea, but no. The training algorithms are geared for death, destruction, mayhem and other uplifting Space Corps characteristics. Can it make tea? Can it balls."

He sighed, then turned back to the hulking crimson killing machine. "Go on, back to your kennel. You can clear up this mess when it's cooled down and solidified."

Styx was surprised by the tone in the man's voice, which was much more gentle than before. "Johan," she said as the battle-mech skulked away, "I could almost believe that you cared for that thing."

The man turned to look at her thoughtfully, then said, "I care for him. He cares for me. Neither of us has anyone else."

The words were spoken simply but there was an undercurrent of warning, which Styx understood and heeded. "Makes sense," she replied cautiously. "I guess I'd feel the same. I know how they treated you after..."

"Yes, well," said Johan, suddenly uncomfortable with the change of tone and direction. "That's all water under the bridge now, isn't it? Let's get down to business. You mentioned a way for me to get off Mars."

He handed Styx a glass of water. "Sorry about the tea," he added. Styx accepted the glass and waved away the man's apology. She composed herself and took a sip of water, ignoring the grimy fingerprints on the outside of the glass. "You know why I'm here, why I'm on Mars?"

Johan shook his head. "No. I don't follow the gossip, don't bother with comms and news networks. I leave everyone else alone, they leave me alone. You're the first human I've spoken to for months. I get supplies delivered here when I need them, from the general store, but they're delivered at night. Nobody wants to talk to me. They're all scared of Maximilian. Scared of me too, I suppose. I'm tolerated because of what happened, but I'm an embarrassment to them now. I know that. I don't care."

Styx could tell that Johan's final sentence wasn't entirely true. The man had obviously become accustomed to his hermit-like existence, but that didn't mean he enjoyed it. Styx knew enough about the person he had been in the past to understand that Johan's current situation was suppressing him, holding him back. There was potential here, something she could use.

"Mars is just a stop-off point. I'm going to Tau Ceti."

Now she had his full attention. "Tau Ceti? But that's... you'll be in cryo, then? Ten Earth years or so?"

"Twelve," acknowledged Styx. "It won't feel like that, of course. Over in an instant, subjectively."

"How long in Mars years? For the whole trip, I mean: there and back."

"I'm no relativity theorist, Johan. Simple mathematics tells me we're looking at thirteen Mars years at least, but the professor could give you a better answer."

"The professor?"

"Professor Susan Peabody. You heard of her?"

"Vaguely. A genius, from what I recall. A true polymath. Why is she shipping out with you to a distant star? For that matter, why are you going there?"

Styx hesitated, but not because she was unsure of her answer. She knew what she was going to tell Johan, but she also knew that he'd be more interested if he had to wheedle the information out of her. "Johan, I'm not sure I should..."

"Oh, cut the crap, Jonesy," he replied in an exasperated voice. "You've gone to a lot of trouble and taken a big risk coming to see me. You want me to come with you, but I'm not leaving this luxurious scarlet paradise" - he cast his arms wide as he said these words, an ironic smile on his lips - "without a damned good reason. Tell me the truth."

With every appearance of reluctance, Styx told Johan about the missing planet, the Ceres findings, the SC mission to investigate, Susan's recruitment - leaving out the professor's suicide attempt - and finally the resources at her disposal. "I can hire whoever I like, Johan. Psycho is coming too. Remember her?"

"Legless? What's in it for her? I thought she'd have found a nice zero-gee home by now, somewhere to practice her gymnastics and stay out of reach of us worthless groundhogs."

"She did. It seems that wasn't enough for her. She was roped in by SC at about the same time I was. Says she jumped at the chance." Styx frowned at her own thoughtless terminology. "Figuratively speaking, I mean."

"You, Psycho and one of the cleverest minds in the solar system. And you want me to come along too. Three women, one man and a killer robot."

"Robot? Now wait a minute. I know you said you cared about that murderous machine, but there's no place for Maximilian on the-"

Johan cut her off. "If I go, he goes. No arguments, no negotiations."

Styx looked at the man carefully. She was used to finding points of leverage and persuasion, discovering and using the necessary switches and gears in people's minds to persuade them to do what she wanted or needed them to do. For once in her life she was stumped. Johan meant what he said. Nothing she could say, do or offer would persuade him to part with his robotic pet. She changed tack.

"Cards on the table?"

"Mine already are. You're a wily one, Jonesy. I can't believe you don't keep a spare ace up your sleeve at all times, but go on, let's play the game anyway. Tell me the real, actual, honest truth."

Styx paused and dug deep into herself. "Okay, here it is. Your robot terrifies me. Only you can control it and if it ever got out of your control, or if you decided to tell it to do something terrible, I'm not sure I could neutralise it. I think I know you well enough to believe that you're not that kind of person, but if push came to shove, if you were forced to do something you didn't want to do, Maximilian is a risk, a threat. I'm not happy about having such a machine on this mission."

She paused again. "Having said all that, if taking Maximilian is the price to pay to get you onboard, I'll pay it. I know your mind, Johan. Maybe it's atrophied during the years spent out here, but somehow I doubt it. You were the best strategist and tactician I ever met, bar none, and I don't think that's changed."

"Go on," he said, flattered and intrigued.

"I don't know what we'll find when we get to Tau Ceti," continued Styx. "The theorists are stumped but reckon it's something natural, maybe a planetary collision or something like that. I don't. I think that planet was deliberately destroyed, and I'm not going out there unprepared for what we might encounter. We're taking a battalion of SC grunts with us but mostly they're just dumb tools. I need someone who knows how to use them. Even though I hate myself for this and will probably regret it, if you want Maximilian with you, bring it. Him. Whatever."

It was Johan's turn for thoughtful introspection. After a while he said, "Fine words, Jonesy. Fine words. I've had enough of Mars for one lifetime. I'm in."

As Styx relaxed with a sigh of relief, he added in apparent concern, "But will there be tea?"

She laughed in genuine pleasure. "All the tea you can drink, Johan," she replied. "All the tea you can drink."

[published 24th June 2018]
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Chapter 18: Martian breakfast

The three women sat around a table in the hotel's uninspiring ground-floor restaurant, nursing cups of not-quite tea and almost-real coffee. The detritus of their breakfast - plates, cutlery, leftovers - littered the table. All three had been too hungry to be overly concerned about table manners. Styx stifled a belch, hand over her mouth, then stretched her arms wide, yawned and relaxed.

"How was your night, prof?" she asked. "Meet anyone interesting?"

Susan took another sip of the locally-produced tea substitute, grimaced, then replied, "No, I was exhausted. I stayed in my room. I did wake up briefly near dusk. I spent some time looking out of the windows and..."

Her voice trailed off into awed silence. She lacked the words to explain how deeply the view of the Martian surface had touched her. Styx smiled warmly at her.

"I understand, prof. It's beautiful, isn't it? I doubt there's a more impressive landscape anywhere in the solar system. Not one that we humans can stand on, anyway."

Susan nodded and said nothing, still awed by the memory of the Martian surface and her own private fireworks display.

Jane had been silent up to this point, apparently deep in her own thoughts, but now she spoke. "And you, Styx? Did you get what we need?"

Styx drew a deep breath and then sighed. "All that and more. Do you want the good news or the bad news first?"

Jane shrugged and said nothing, just raising an eyebrow. With a look of mild annoyance, Styx continued. "Well, I've convinced Johan. He'll come. Actually I think he's desperate to get off this rock. I guess the appeal of the beautiful Martian landscape wears thin after a couple of years."

"I take it that was the good news, right?" asked Jane.

"Yeah."

"And the bad? What's his price?"

Styx squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. "He won't come without his mech."

Jane did a perfect impression of someone suddenly overcome with intense rage and fear before immediately suppressing both emotions beneath a calm, placid exterior. Susan, still wrapped in reverie, didn't notice. Styx did.

"I know, I know," she said. "But if you want Johan, there's no alternative. For what it's worth, I want him along too. I share your concerns about what's out there, but believe me, I'm not happy about the mech. It's already beaten me once without even trying. Right now I can't think of any way to disable it should the need arise. It's a wildcard, an almost unstoppable killing machine under the control of a man who may not be completely stable."

"You have concerns about Johan?" asked Jane, still digesting this news.

"Yes and no," replied Styx carefully. "I still trust him, just like I always did. He's saved me a few times, got me out of some tricky situations. The guy's a genius, in a very specific area. But..."

"I knew there'd be a but."

"He's been on Mars for years, pretty much in self-induced solitary confinement. A few people here know him but none of them like him. That kind of exclusion can do things to a person, change their values and ideas about humanity."

"Could he have hurt you?"

"No. Maybe. I don't know. The mech was programmed not to kill intruders, not to even harm them. I mean," she laughed in embarrassment, "it neutralised me as easily as if I'd been a baby, but it didn't harm me. Even so, once Johan knew who I was, there was something in his voice, an edge that hadn't been there before."

Styx remembered the mech's changing stance as it picked up the angry inflection in Johan's voice. "He'll need to be handled carefully. He may lash out if provoked, and if he does then the mech will carry out his wishes without question."

Jane took in this information with a grim expression on her face, and said nothing even when Styx had finished talking. Susan cut in: "What on Earth are you two talking about?"

"Sorry prof," Styx apologised. "Long story short: there's a guy we want on this mission. Brilliant mind, best strategist and tactician we've ever known. But he has a pet, a battle-mech, and he won't come with us to Tau Ceti without bringing it along."

"A real battle-mech?" asked Susan in surprise. "I thought they were all decommissioned, made illegal under the treaty of '27."

"True, they're illegal on Earth," agreed Styx. "But we're not on Earth. A few of them escaped being scrapped, including this one, this Maximilian. Johan hasn't been to Earth for many years and I doubt he will ever again. He was outraged by the mech ruling, believing that we'd have lost a lot more human soldiers without them. He's right, but there's something about a massive, almost indestructible killing machine that makes people nervous. I can see their point."

Jane broke out of her silence and spoke again, "I still want Johan with us. I'm pretty sure we're going to need his skills. As for the mech, I have some ideas. It might even come in useful, but I'll be happier if we can work out a fail-safe in case Johan loses control of it."

"Or himself," added Styx.

"That too. Well, we have things to do. Styx, can you catch up with Rolf today? He's expecting you. Tell him what he needs to know and make sure he's ready to ship out tomorrow."

"Sure, we've been in touch. I'll see him this morning." Styx stood up and nodded to the others. "See you later."

They replied in kind and waited until she'd left the room.

"And you, Susan?" asked Jane.

"What do you mean?" asked the professor, innocently.

"You know what I mean. You said you'd come with us as far as Mars, then make your decision about the trip to Tau Ceti. Have you made up your mind yet?"

Susan had, in fact she'd done so before they left Heinlein Station, but she didn't want to appear to give in too easily. Some reluctance on her part might be a useful bargaining chip.

"Not quite," she replied. "I'm intrigued by the mission, but I'd also like to spend more time on Mars. It's beautiful here and I'm sure there's so much I could learn."

Jane looked at her for some time, the hint of a smile playing around her lips. Susan once again had the impression that the other woman was looking right through her skull and reading her thoughts.

"Well," said Jane finally. "Don't take too long to make up your mind. Mars will always be here, but this mission is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It would be a shame to miss out."

"I can make up my own mind," said Susan, with defiance in her voice.

"I've no doubt you can. Let's meet again tonight and discuss it. Now if you'll excuse me, I have things to do."

With that she rolled her wheelchair back from the table and out of the restaurant, leaving Susan alone with her thoughts.

[published 1st July 2018]
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Chapter 19: Warship Bravado

The Space Corps warship Bravado squatted on its large, concave launchpad like an ugly, fat, spiky insect preparing to leap on some unsuspecting prey. It sat several kilometres away from the Mars City bubble, since its Asimov drive was capable of such force that when it was engaged, anything in the nearby area tended to end up melted, crushed or simply vaporised.

The launchpad would survive and the shock-wave of the initial take-off blast would be deflected sideways and upward into the atmosphere where it could do little harm. Even so, everyone in Mars City would feel the rumble of the launch and see the trail of the fast-departing ship even through the air-bubble, which would be polarised further to attenuate the light. Staring up at a departing Asimov engine was as inadvisable as staring directly at the sun from Earth's equator.

Not many spaceships could land on planets, at least not large ones. Little runabouts like the Hirondelle could balance mass against thrust because they were designed to be light, but for bigger ships it usually wasn't worth the effort. Like the sailing ships of old, freighters and people-carrying ships settled in orbit around a planet while small transports - the longboats of sailing ship equivalence - did all the ferry work. The stupendous energy cost of descending to a planet and taking off again made it impractical and expensive for larger vessels to land.

In any case, most ships weren't designed to handle the stresses involved. A huge inter-planetary freighter would collapse under its own weight if it had to negotiate high gravity, and the power required to lift such vast ships out of planets' gravity wells would mean they would have to be at least 95% engine, which would defeat the purpose of their existence.

Space Corps had different priorities. From a strategic point of view, it wanted its most effective weaponry right at the point of conflict, not orbiting hundreds of kilometres away and unable to intervene. Small transport vessels had their uses but could never be made sufficiently armed and armoured for all occasions. SC wanted the full might of its fleet available to be sent right down to the surface - any surface - and what SC wanted, SC got. From a psychological perspective, the Bravado was such a terrifying sight descending through any planet's atmosphere that it was a peace-keeping weapon in its own right, often without firing a shot.

It had been carefully designed. Armour, weaponry, troop-carrying capacity, storage for supplies, they all took up space and mass. To lift such bulk off the surface of even the massiest planet required some serious engine power. For this reason, SC ships were amongst the only ones in the solar system to use the rare and obscenely expensive Asimov drives. The Bravado's own drive protruded from its rear like a bee's sting, but that wasn't the only threatening aspect of its appearance. It bristled with weaponry, sensor prods, launchers, projection equipment and other military hardware. The insect analogy only went so far, as no insect in existence would have appeared so terrifying even if scaled up to the same size. The Bravado emanated power and menace even when at rest.

The warship had its own air-bubble generator, powerful enough to create and maintain Earth-standard atmosphere over an area large enough to enclose a full temporary barracks. Three rows of TORC inflatable dormitory buildings were arranged in neat lines on the Martian surface, alongside a larger mess tent. Nearby was an open area for exercise, drill practice, training and recreation. Members of the 47-strong SC platoon - men and women - were technically on leave, but although a few had travelled into Mars City to trawl the bars, most had remained in the camp. Some were reading or chatting, others sparred with each other. Hand-to-hand combat was still a fundamental skill required of all SC's troops. Some missions required the full destructive force of SC's warships, but others needed more subtle interventions. SC troopers were trained to be highly-efficient fighters both with and without weaponry.

Two figures, one significantly larger than the other, stood near the Bravado, its threatening bulk looming overhead. The smaller figure, only just arrived, punched the larger one on the shoulder with no discernible effect. She might as well have punched a mountain.

"So, big guy," said Styx, rubbing the knuckles of her hand. "What's new?"

The big man turned to face her, with surprising grace for someone with enough apparent mass to have his own moon system.

"Hah! Hallo, little one! Long time no see. Killed anyone recently?"

"Nah, I'm taking a break from all that."

"Yah, me too. All peace now. Not allowed to smash heads, shoot things."

He sounded disappointed but Styx knew him well enough to be aware of the underlying humour. For all his exuberance and aggressive attitude, Rolf Steinhelm was a measured, professional soldier.

She'd known some who weren't. Usually the academy weeded them out, but not always in the early years. Some made it through to the fourth year of SC training before their well-hidden traits were revealed, in tests designed specifically to do just that; to identify the psychopaths, the ones who actually enjoyed killing and took pleasure in hurting others. They had no place in SC but were inevitably attracted to it. The trainers knew what to look for and the SC psychologists had designed all manner of role-play scenarios to detect any sign of psychopathy.

It worked, as far as she knew. Styx had never shipped out with a real head-case. Rolf was more than capable of taking on enemy forces single-handed, enjoying the challenge and the intensity of battle, but when the fight was won, he stopped fighting. Guns down, no shooting of survivors, no torture. Off the battlefield, he was the kind of man you could bring home to meet your parents.

Styx had actually done that once, whilst she and Rolf were still at the academy. It hadn't gone well. Her father was intimidated by the half-bear, half-giant and his mother had cowered in the kitchen, not knowing whether to be proud that her daughter seemed to finally be in a relationship or terrified at the thought of her daughter in this monster's company. All of which had made Styx more keen on Rolf than before, and their relationship had continued throughout the academy years, ending amicably on graduation when they knew they would be shipped off to various different parts of the system, perhaps never to meet again.

That had been years ago. Both were older and, if not wiser, at least more cynical due to life experiences, which amounts to the same thing in practical terms. Styx hugged Rolf, or at least tried to, her arms barely reaching more than halfway around the man's torso.

"I've missed you," she said with affection.

He hugged her back, inadvertently squeezing the breath out of her body. "Me too, kid."

They stood next to each other for a while, looking out over the barracks and Mars City. Styx commented, "This planet has changed a lot since we were last here."

Rolf's brow furrowed. "Well yah. Nobody's shooting at us."

The quad bike Styx had used to get from the Mars City bubble to the warship lay just outside a basic but functional airlock tube that poked through the wall of the Bravado's air bubble. Styx wasn't sure she trusted the tube to maintain air integrity, then remembered that neither did SC. All the soldiers wore respirators on their backs, face-masks easily to hand. If the pressure dropped, they knew the drill: mask on, head for the ship. Mars wasn't the most hostile environment they'd been in, not by far. Self-preservation routines had been drilled into the soldiers until they were second nature. Styx wore a full suit - the quad bike was open to the Mars atmosphere - but carried its lightweight helmet in one hand in case it was needed in a hurry.

She spoke again to Rolf, more seriously this time. "So, you've got your orders?"

He nodded but didn't reply.

"Any questions or problems?"

Again the big man's brow furrowed. "No. Why?"

"Ah, I love you, Rolf Steinhelm. SC says jump, you jump. SC says fight, you fight. SC says go into cryo to travel to a missing planet, you go into cryo to travel to a missing planet. Don't you have any concerns?"

Rolf shrugged. "Why would I? Cryo is just sleep, no real time passing for us. So it's just a short trip in personal time." He gestured at the camp in front of them. "Everyone I know and trust will be with me. Also," he grinned malevolently, "maybe we'll get to shoot something."

Styx stared at him for a moment with amusement, recalling the pure simplicity that had attracted her to him at SC academy.

"Well, I guess that's that. There will be four of us, plus supplies and equipment, plus..." she hesitated, unsure how Rolf would take the news about Maximilian. "Plus a battle-mech."

He looked at her thoughtfully. "Maximilian, right? One of the final models. So you managed to convince Johan?"

"You're remarkably well informed," said Styx, surprised.

"Talk little. Listen lots. Think... some." He grinned at her.

"You have a problem with the mech?" asked Styx.

"No. We can deal with it. I'll talk to Johan but it won't be a threat. Anything else?"

Styx thought for a while before responding. "I don't think so. Will you send a carrier to pick us up?"

"Sure. 0800 tomorrow."

"Sounds good to me," replied Styx. "Until tomorrow, then."

"OK."

Styx thought about giving Rolf another hug, but he'd already turned back to observe some of his troopers sparring under the shadow cast by the warship. Surprised at the feeling of hurt inside her, she made her way back to the tube airlock, reattaching the suit helmet as she did so. Once outside, she straddled the quad-bike and rode back to Mars City, lost in introspection the whole way.

[published 8th July 2018]
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Chapter 20: Buckle up

At 0730 hours Martian time Styx and Jane were sitting in the Mars City airlock building, ready to leave the red planet. The Hirondelle was no longer outside, having been transported to the Bravado in the early hours. Styx had been unwilling to leave it behind on Mars, so Rolf had agreed to stow it within the massive warship's storage hull. The extra mass would make no appreciable difference to the Bravado's performance.

Despite Marty's assurances, neither woman now trusted the connecting tube that would take them to the warship's all-terrain troop transport vehicle, which was already parked outside. They both carried emergency respirators and face masks in case of a repeat of the previous incident.

Rolf wasn't taking any chances with the 0800 pick-up, thought Styx, with approval at the big man's efficiency. She couldn't see the transport itself but knew from experience that it would be a low, oblong shape with six huge balloon-tyred wheels, heavily armoured but only lightly armed. It was designed to carry and deploy SC troops with speed and safety, but not do their fighting for them.

"Do you really think she's coming?" asked Styx, glancing at the door. There was concern in her voice and she'd been chewing her bottom lip. She felt that Susan was a vital member of the mission crew, but also wanted the professor on board for personal reasons. Styx liked the intelligent yet naive young woman. Susan represented a more innocent world, one that Styx no longer inhabited.

"She'll be here," replied Jane, unconcerned.

"How can you be so sure?" asked Styx in agitation. "She'd never even been to Mars before. Why would she go further? If you'd let me talk to her more, persuade her-"

"Styx, you're good at what you do - no, you're great at what you do - but this is out of your league. If you'd tried to manipulate her, she'd already be on a ship back to Heinlein Station. In fact she'd never have left. Let her decide for herself."

Styx said nothing in reply, but tapped her fingers on the table in irritation.

On the far side of the room, Johan sat alone at a separate table, repeatedly flipping a small silver disc up in the air and catching it, staring at nothing. Next to him squatted Maximilian, the huge battle-mech's legs and body compressed vertically to allow it to squeeze into the room without scraping the ceiling. Incongruous in the mech's large hands were two suitcases, apparently antiques. They were made of brown leather and had matching flower patterns embroidered into one panel. They contained the only personal possessions Johan considered valuable.

A few minutes later the door slid open and there stood the professor, upright and defiant, with her cases at her feet. Jane threw an I-told-you-so glance at Styx but the other woman didn't see it. She walked quickly across to the professor and gave her a hug, surprising them both.

"You've made the right decision," enthused Styx, happily.

"I'm not so sure about that," replied Susan, "but I guess I'll find out soon, one way or the other. When do we leave?"

"Now is good," said Styx. "We're all ready. We've been waiting for you. I wasn't sure you'd come, but Psycho seemed convinced that you would."

Susan looked across at Jane with an unreadable expression. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised," she said, flatly. "I think that woman knows me better than I know myself."

"Welcome to the club," replied Styx, with some sympathy, then introduced Susan to Johan and Maximilian. The mech replied formally. Johan nodded to Susan but said nothing. She felt awed and uncomfortable in their presence and was glad to move away from them.

It took a few minutes for the four people - plus the mech - to gather up their belongings and make their way to the transport vehicle. The humans went first, with the mech bringing up the rear in a second airlock cycle, since the 'lock wasn't large enough to accommodate them all at once. As they made their way along the connecting tube, Susan felt a twinge of anxiety at the memory of what had happened before, but this time there were no nasty surprises. Before she knew it she was strapped firmly into a webbing seat, her bags stowed away.

"Goodbye Mars City," she muttered under her breath as the transport began to move.

"Good riddance," came the vehement response from Johan, who was sitting opposite. Susan said nothing, but wondered what this man had been through to make him so bitter.

The transport began to pick up speed. As they bounced along the Martian terrain, jolted in their webbing seats and held in place by six-point harnesses, Susan shouted over the noise at Styx. "How the Hell did you persuade me that this was a good idea?"

Styx threw back her head and laughed heartily. "Ah, professor, come on. You wouldn't have missed this for the world and you know it! This is living!"

"You have a sick sense of humour, you know that?" replied Susan, but not without amusement in her voice. Styx's enthusiasm was infectious and Susan was aware that this experience was one she'd never have had if Styx hadn't intervened in her plans on board Heinlein Station.

She settled back into the webbing and tried to relax her body so that it swayed with the movement of the vehicle. It wasn't easy, but after a while she was buffeted less than before. Either she was adapting or the terrain was becoming more smooth.

She looked around the dim interior of the transporter at the others. Psycho (Jane, she corrected herself) was in the front of the transporter. She'd been carried from her wheelchair into the cabin by the driver, and had apparently felt no indignity at this. In fact she'd looked as though she were in control of the situation entirely. Which, Susan reminded herself, she was - her SC history stretched back a long way and she had the SC troopers' respect. Nobody laughed at Legless, not out here.

A bump interrupted Susan's wandering thoughts, then another, much larger one. "Aren't we supposed to go around the craters, not over them?" she shouted at Styx.

Styx didn't reply but glanced at Johan, who was looking concerned. "Was that...?"

He nodded. "High explosive. Mine or missile?"

"I don't kn-"

Jane's voice came over the intercom from the transport's cabin. "Styx, you felt that?"

"Yes. What was it?"

"HE blast to the east of us, source unknown. Nothing on sensors but that doesn't mean much. This wagon isn't fully equipped. It's a spare for general use, not battle-ready. Rolf didn't expect hostile action on Mars."

"He's got a short memory, then!" replied Styx angrily.

"I don't think so. He probably figured we can take care of ourselves. We can, can't we?"

To Susan's amazement, Jane's voice had a hint of humour in it, as did Styx's when she responded. "Oh yes, I think we can."

"Thought so. Let's stop this crate and take a look around. Masks on."

The transport rolled to a halt. A flashing red light and warning klaxon announced to all inside that the internal atmosphere would soon be unbreathable. Everyone had their masks on within seconds. The portable respirators weren't suitable for long-term use, but they'd suffice for the duration of most emergencies. As she scrambled to put hers on, Susan wondered whether dying on Mars would be preferable to dying in the cold vacuum of space. On balance, she thought, she'd prefer not to find out.

A long hiss of escaping air announced the equalisation of pressure with the Martian atmosphere, then the side door slid open. Light and dust spilled into the transporter. The occupants spilled out. From the front cabin, the driver got out, ran around to the other side and helped Jane down. Her briefcase quickly morphed back into a wheelchair, into which he placed her before running back to his side of the cabin to grab some weapons. Styx already had two large guns in her hands, taken from racks inside the transporter. She threw one to Susan, who caught it awkwardly.

"Ever used a plasma cannon, prof?" asked Styx with a grin.

"No!" came the panicked reply.

"Well, just make sure you point the nasty end away from us all and we'll be fine," replied Styx, and turned away from her before Susan could reply.

A loud thump and a fountain of rock and sand announced a second explosion, this time to the rear of the parked transport.

"No doubt now," said Styx calmly to Susan. "We're under attack. The safety catch on your gun is above the trigger. Don't disable it until you have a target in your sights, OK? I don't want to die from friendly fire."

"Can't the warship help?" asked Susan, still panicking.

"Not without compromising the air bubble. It would take a few minutes to get everyone back on board, plus the equipment that's too delicate for Mars atmosphere. Rolf will only do that if he thinks we're in serious trouble here."

"Aren't we?!" shouted Susan in response. "This feels like serious trouble to me. What do you call serious trouble if not being shot at with high explosives?"

Styx said nothing. She was running through an imaginary conversation with Rolf in her mind. "What's wrong, little one? Lost your edge?" There was disdain and reproach in Rolf's voice, amusement too. Styx felt as though the big man were humouring a child, chiding her for being unable to deal with what he considered a trivial situation. "You think I've gone soft, Rolf? Is that it?" she muttered under her breath. The imaginary Rolf began to reply: "Well-" but she cut him off with a well-chosen expletive, then snapped back into reality.

"Johan!" she shouted. "Can you-"

"On it," he replied calmly. "Maximilian! Full sensor sweep. What's out there?"

The battle-mech, which had emerged awkwardly from the cramped transport after the humans, responded instantly. It stretched itself up to full height, towering over the others. Then its neck extended further, lifting its head up several more metres. Susan's mouth was already open at this point, but her jaw dropped lower as the mech's head smoothly rotated through 360 degrees. Then it spoke, its voice sounding high and reedy in the thin Martian atmosphere. "Three vehicles approaching from the south-east, obsolete CRX class, land-based, no airborne capability. Roof-mounted missile-launchers, no other visible weapons. Range 830 metres, speed 12 metres per second. Shall I destroy?"

Johan looked at Styx, one eyebrow raised in question. "No, not unless there's no alternative. I'd prefer them alive. Can't question dead bodies. Can the mech protect us from any more missiles?"

"Trivial," grunted Johan, and gave the instruction to Maximilian.

"Good. Susan, stay here with Johan. You'll be safe with him and the mech."

Susan nodded silently, still gripped by fear, though Styx couldn't tell whether it was fear of the attackers or of Maximilian. She had similar worries herself. She gave an order to the transport driver to stay with his vehicle, ready to move if she or Jane gave the order but not before. He'd been briefed by Rolf and accepted her instructions without argument.

There was whump sound behind her as a third HE explosion hailed the arrival of another missile. The mech had safely destroyed it without using any visible weapon.

"IR laser?" Styx asked Johan. He nodded in confirmation. "Good," she said. "That'll keep them guessing. Try to detonate any incoming missiles as close to the transport as possible. Cut it fine. I don't want them to know what they're up against yet."

Johan glanced at Maximilian. The mech replied "Affirmative," having interpreted the instructions in Styx's speech. She wondered what else it could interpret, but was interrupted by another whump sound, much closer this time. A rain of shrapnel pattered onto the transporter, sounding like hail. Brushing dust out of her hair she glanced reproachfully at Johan. "Close, but not too close, right?"

Without waiting for an answer she turned to Jane. "Psycho - shall we?" she asked.

Jane nodded and tapped at the arm panel of her wheelchair. Thick spikes slid out of both wheels of her chair, designed to provide better traction on the rough Martian terrain. Without another word she sped away from Styx. The wheelchair threw up little dust, and her progress was soon lost to sight behind large boulders, low hills and crater walls.

With a grin on her face that would have given Susan nightmares, Styx shifted the weighty plasma cannon in her hands and loped off in the opposite direction, head down and running fast in the low Martian gravity. If there had been anyone to hear her in the thin air, they'd have heard a malevolent chuckling that sounded unhinged.

[published on 29th July 2018]

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