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.).



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?"


"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.


"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.


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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Next chapter published on Sunday!

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