Stories that changed me: The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955)

When I made my quiet return to my passion of writing, I began with a course in creative writing, and short story writing. Part of this course was to read and read and read. And read some more.

During this course I discovered the grandfathers of science fiction, Jules Verne and HG Wells. And then I stumbled upon The Star by Arthur C. Clarke.

“The joys of life are often in those moments of stumbling when expectation is at its lowest so that the impact of the discovery is at its greatest.”

(Yes, feel free to quote me on that.)

This story written in the 1950s about space exploration towards a star that – oh, wait. I’ll let this description from Kings Alumni Community tell it for me.

“The Star” is the story of a group of space explorers from Earth returning from an expedition to a remote star system, where they discovered the remnants of an advanced civilization destroyed when their sun went supernova. Their chief astrophysicist, a Jesuit priest, is suffering from a deep crisis of faith, triggered by some undisclosed event during the journey. This story appeared in the magazine Infinity Science Fiction in 1955 and won the Hugo award in 1956. It later appeared in Arthur C Clarke’s book of short stories, The Other Side of the Sky.

Something about ‘crisis of faith‘ and ‘advanced civilisation destroyed‘ and ‘supernova‘ pulled me in. Tickling my own questions on religion and humanity. On universal love and connection beyond human contemplation let alone understanding. And also, what was a Jesuit priest doing leading a space expedition?!

This marked the beginning of a hidden love for sic-fi and fantasy that I wasn’t even aware of. The way it was able to explore humanity and question deeply between right and wrong, even redefining ideas completely, appealed to my inner philosopher.

And by the end of this short trip to space, I was forever changed.

Perception altered.

Mind blown.

New dimensions opening.

Ending with a question, it triggered many of my own questions.

You can read Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Star, here.

It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed the heavens declared the glory of God’s handiwork. Now I have seen that handiwork, and my faith is sorely troubled. I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer, and for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty to read on



Moulded hearts

words: 3104
reading time: 14 mins
The hard metal edge of the table hit her hard on the forehead. Lianne was sure it would leave a mark. She rubbed it to ease the pain and swelling. She stayed low on her haunches, using the twin chairs and table as a screen. Her stiletto pumps didn’t make the position easy, so she shifted onto her knees.
Peering over the tabletop, she watched the couple that had walked into the cafe moments before she ducked out of sight. Twin girls of about eight or nine years old, held onto each of their hands. She was sure that it was him. The trendy ironic full beard disguised him. The sides of his head was shaved, leaving a full mop of hair on the top, that was combed into a neat side parting. But she knew his face so well, she’d recognise him anywhere. His gait alone, steady and deliberate, was so familiar to her it aroused a deep longing within her.
The waiter seated them at a table at the far corner. The man turned to smile at the woman beside him. For the first time, Lianne noticed the woman. Her heart sank. Then a bitter rage flamed in her belly. She was still so beautiful. Fifteen years offered no justice to Lianne. Red waves fell around her shoulders. Not the bright dyed fake red. But a deep auburn. Seeing Rumana ignited another deep longing of girl’s nights out and long conversations.
Her knees began to ache, the pave stones grinding into it. She had to get out of there.
“Everything all right, maam?” a voice addressed her from behind. Still on her knees, she realised what a sight she must look. Yet she stayed as she was.
“Er yes. Could you bring the bill please? In fact you know what, I’ll pay right now.” She dug in her small purse, pulled out a large note and held it out for him to take. “Keep the change.”
She pushed up on her hands to her feet, walked two steps passed the waiter, forcing him to turn around to speak to her. His body blocked her from the sight of anyone sitting in the far corner of the cafe.
“I can bring the bill, it’ll only be two seconds.”
“No!” she almost yelled, then softened her tone on seeing the waiter’s eyebrows arch high. “No, thank you. That’s okay. I really have to go.”
She took large strides towards the exit, keeping her head turned away from the small family. At the door, she dared another peek. But a cluster of patrons, blocked her view. Lianne hurried out, a tiny ache pulsing in her chest with each heartbeat.
Three hours later, Lianne’s stomach was rumbling. She regretted leaving her full plate of chicken salad at the cafe. Six patients passed through her practice since then, and she felt weary and depleted. Two wanted breast augmentations, a couple of nose jobs, and face lifts. The usual repertoire. She had gone through the various choices with each of them, discussing pros and cons. She liked her job. She gave people options. An opportunity to be their best selves. Life was as pliable as clay. The human body was no different.
Modern life was all about the individual, their purpose and their passions. Lianne was proud of her role in helping others achieve the pinnacle of their highest selves. She knew there were people in her circle who hid their opinions of her profession seeing it as a perpetuation of the immoral, indulgent, vain and superficial. It did little to dissuade her. Once her life was a mess. It took years to put it together. She saw her life as a flawless feminine figure. Curves in all the right places. Hair full of colour and lustre at any age. Lithe and toned. And it was Lianne who made it that way. She resolved to keep it that way too.
Only now something had changed. Liam and Rumana came back into her life so unexpectedly it was like a hammer swinging into a mirror. Cracking and splintering the image of her life when she reflected on it.
The telephone on her desk rang breaking into her thoughts. A light flashed on the phone, indicating it was an internal line. Lianne picked up the receiver, “Yes, Josie?”
“Mitchell called again. Says he’s been trying to get hold of you, but you’re not answering.”
“Well he should know better, my phone is always on silent during consultation hours.”
“He said he tried calling you during lunch. Anyway you should call him, if only to get him off my back.” Josie’s sighed, annoyed at having to field personal calls at work.
“You’re lucky I don’t make you fetch my dry cleaning.” Lianne teased her.
“You’d better not!” Josie laughed then added, “Don’t forget, we’re going out Friday night.”
Josie was the closest she had come to having a friend since she arrived in Cape Town. She also knew that if Josie wasn’t her receptionist, their relationship wouldn’t survive beyond the professional sphere. She had done away with close relationships of any kind long ago.
She hung up. Opening her desk drawer, she fished out her mobile. A few missed calls from Mitchell at 1:17 pm. No other calls, or messages.
Tapping the screen, she returned his call. “Mitchell. Hi!”
“Hello Lianne.” he cleared his throat. “Uh I guess you’ve seen my calls? Look, I know we’ve been down this road before. But -“
“Mitchell, it’s just not a good time right now.” She rubbed my face, easing the tension that crawled into it the past few hours.
“Well, when is a good time? Meet me for dinner. We’ll talk it over. Please?” he waited for her to answer.
“I’m sorry. Maybe next time.” It was another brush off, and Mitchell didn’t hide his disappointment.
“Yeah, maybe.” he exhaled and hung up without saying anything else.
Mitchell wanted something more than a casual date every now and then. But Lianne was happy the way things were. She looked out over the waterfront outside her office. Cobalt waters sparkled under the late afternoon sun. Then a tugboat sailed through it, causing the surface of the water to ripple and foam. Lianne felt the tiny ache that began earlier that day, bloom into her chest. As if her heart bled through a rip in an old seam.
That night, she slept fitfully. In a dream she saw she saw Liam as he was fifteen years ago. Brown hair and brown eyes. She could trace the crinkles round his eyes as he laughed. She laughed with him. He boarded a rowboat, promising to come back with treasure. On the shore, she was giddy, elated. As he rowed away from her, she felt suddenly afraid and she called out to him. He rowed on over the waves. She was screaming now, tears streaming down her cheeks. Come back Liam! Before he disappeared into the horizon, she saw a flash of deep auburn hair in the rowboat. Impossibly long, blowing in the wind. Come back Liam!
Lianne awoke clutching the pillow. Her back was wet. She sipped some water and tried in vain to go back to sleep.
Coffee helped push the sluggishness aside for a few hours. But by ten oclock, Lianne needed more. She sent Josie to buy some cupcakes and a cappuccino from the cafe downstairs. Josie returned with a tray laden with goodies, and a file under her arm.
“Your next patient is here. Such a cutie. It is a shame though.” She sighed as she handed her the file. Then left without waiting for a response.
Lianne wondered what Josie meant. But fatigue was pushing in at the edges of her mind. So she bit into a cupcake, and sipped the capuccino. The sugar-caffeine concoction went straight to her brain. She would regret it later when she crashed off the fake high, but she needed it today.
She was still chewing on a piece of cupcake, when the door opened. She grabbed the paper serviette to dab at her mouth. It fell from her hand.
Liam stood by the door, his hand still on the handle. His eyebrows raised high on his forehead and his mouth froze open midway through a greeting.
Lianne started to speak, but the cupcake in her mouth lodged in her airways. She coughed sporadic bursts. Her eyes watered. Grabbing her capuccino she gulped it to clear her throat. She could breathe now, but her cheeks were wet with tears. It reminded her of the last time she saw him. Tears streaming down her face. Only today, it was choking tears not those of a broken heart.
She dabbed her eyes avoiding smudging her makeup and straightened, lengthening to her full height.
“Liam! What a pleasant surprise!” she faked her delight.
While she choked, Lianne didn’t notice the other people behind Liam. When she saw the deep auburn hair, her breath caught in her throat.
“Rumana.” She tipped her head to acknowledge her presence.
“Lillian! We weren’t expecting to see you here.” Rumana’s face matched Liam’s. It irked Lianne, that Rumana’s nose was what many women paid her to have.
“Um, it’s Lianne now. Lianne Laver. Dr Lianne Laver.”
“Lianne?” Romana said. “It’s such a surprise to see you.” Her eyes shifted from Lianne to the floor, then to Liam who finally spoke.
“Lil-, I mean Lianne, it’s good to see you.” He smiled, the beard couldn’t hide it’s width or cheeriness. Butterflies flitted in her belly, and she pressed a hand there to calm them.
It was then that she saw the twins standing beside their mother. Chestnut braids, and freckles, they were identical. Except one had patches of pale shiny skin on her neck that creeped upwards to her face.
“Please come in. Have a seat.” she continued in her doctor-like manner to regain some composure.
“I’m sorry about earlier, I was eating as you came in.” She walked to her table, and gestured to the cupcakes. “Would you like one?” she offered the young girls.
They nodded, and gave identical freckled smiles. They each grabbed a cupcake.
“So, what brings you here?” She steepled her hands in front of her, but they trembled, so she hid them under her desk.
“We were referred to you by the hospital back home. They said Dr Laver was the best cosmetic surgeon. The last person we expected to see was you.” Liam shrugged his shoulders and splayed his hands in front of him trying to explain the awkwardness away.
Lianne gave a small smile. He smiled back. It was Romana’s eager smile that pulled her back to the present.
“For your daughter?”
“Yes. She has some scars on her chest and neck.”
“There as an accident a while back, with some lighter fluid and a braai-stand.” Rumana explained, pain in her eyes. She put her arm around the affected twin.
“She’s all better now, just left with some scars. The doctors at the hospital said it could be removed with cosmetic surgery.” Liam held his daughter’s hand. His shoulder brushed Rumana’s arm. She caught his eye and they gazed at each other. Sharing hope and pain. Lianne immediately felt like an outsider.
She pushed the tension aside and focused instead on the little girl. A pretty girl who no doubt would grow into a woman as beautiful as her mother. The girl and her sister, munched on their cupcakes, oblivious to the discussion. They peeked sideways at each other and giggled, swinging their legs.
Lianne didn’t have any children. The closeness of the twin’s reminded her of how Romana and her used to be. It should have made her feel rage and bitterness. But somehow seeing all four of them in front her, asking for her help made her feel empowered again. She could turn them away in vengeance if she wanted to. It was an opportunity to right the wrongs.
“Let me have a closer look.” She beckoned for the girl to come to her.
“What’s your name dear?” she swivelled her chair to face the young girl.
“Lilly.” She answered, chin dipped into her chest, peering through her lashes.
Lianne couldn’t help but stare at the girl, and then at her parents who sat side by side, expressions pained and regretful.
“Lilly.” she repeated. Like Lillian.
“Do you mind if we unbutton your shirt so we can see how to help you?”
The girl nodded, undid her buttons, and wiggled one arm out of its sleeve. The pale shiny patch of skin spread across her uppermost chest and parts of her neck. She didn’t seem too bothered by it. As a teenager or a young woman, she might feel different. With womanly eyes, other girls would always be better, prettier and more outgoing. The thought made Lianne feel sad.
“Thank you Lilly. I’ve seen enough.” she smiled at her.
“It will take a few operations, but we can reduce the severity of its appearance.”
Rumana and Liam hugged their little girl. Rumana laughed, her eyes glistened. “Thank you so much Lee. Thank you.” She called her by the nickname Rumana used for her before.
A boat horn sounded nearby. The girls squealed and ran to the large windows. Pointing at boats in the harbour, they chatted excitedly.
“What’s your other daughter’s name?” Lianne brought up the topic sideways.
“She’s Rosa.” Liam said. Then seeing it for what it was, he added,
“We never meant for anything bad to happen, never meant to hurt you. Things just happened, and we should have told you.” he looked Lianne straight in the eye. “Rumana and I fell in love.”
“One day we found that you left, took off for Cape Town. We knew we’d never see you again. It hurt us both very much, despite what happened.” Rumana reached to touch her arm.
Lianne flinched and Rumana pulled her hand away, folded her arms across her chest.
“This is not the time or the place. I have other patients to see.” Her voice trembled.
“Yes, yes of course, we’re sorry. About everything.” Liam took his wife by the hand and called his daughters who came running. They left Lianne feeling cold and alone, as they did all those years ago.
Dusk fell over the waterfront, casting a pink glow over the white buildings. Lianne was hungry but she couldn’t eat. The pasta Josie brought her, stuck in her throat. She wondered if she was sick.
For fifteen years everything was perfect. Perfect and safe. Nothing could go wrong, and nothing ever did. Her life was cast from a flawless mould, with no heartache and few surprises. Until yesterday. When her ex-fiance and former friend walked back into her life. All these years she locked the pain of their betrayal deep within. It was all coming out now, blooming in her chest. She covered her face with her hands and cried. Her eyes would be puffy and red, but for the first time she didn’t care anymore how she looked. She wanted only for the pain to go away. For good.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of wierd how you’re helping remove a scar from a little girl, who has the same name you once had? ” Josie sat on the couch, legs folded under her, cradling a drink. It was one of the few times Josie came over to Lianne’s house. The only other time was when she came to check on Lianne who was sick with a bad bout of flu.
“It’s not the same. Her name is Lilly.”
“For a doctor, you’re so thick.” she mocked. “It’s like fate is offering you a chance to fix your inner child. The one whose heart is still broken in a million pieces which you never bothered to pick up.”
“I did pick it up!” Lianne protested, regretteing telling Josie about her past. When Josie found her in the office at closing time, she was so shocked to see her in that state, she insisted on answers. “I rebuilt my life. Made it whole again”
“It’s far from whole. All you do is work. You have no family and no friends.”
Lianne felt that crack in her life widen and split. She tried desperately to hold them together. “That’s not true!”
“No? How about Mitchell? Mitchell’s been chasing you for three months, clearly interested in having something more meaningful, yet you push him away. Why?”
“I- I don’t want anything more.”
“That’s what you tell yourself. Everyone wants something more. Everyone needs somebody. He won’t hang around for ever.”
The crack widened further and whole peices tumbled. Taking her heart with it. Suddenly she felt alone and vulnerable. She felt afraid too. In that moment, she saw all the voids in her life. Shiny and polished like a mirror, reflecting success to those on the outside. But she was on the inside, looking out at the world through a one way mirror, thinking she was safe there. With only her broken heart for company. She had stitched it up, had covered it with a new shell, thinking she could mould it. She didn’t bring out her best self, she covered it up and hid it.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.” Josie spoke softly.
“Yes, you did.” Lianne said, “And you’re right. I’ve been hiding. Fifteen years is long enough.”
She smiles through tears, at Josie, “I hope you’ll come over more often. For drinks and chats.”
Josie peered over the rim of her glass, “You’ll have to give me a raise first.”
They burst out laughing. Josie leaned in and put her arm around her shoulders in a one-armed hug. Lianne leaned into it. She missed this. Connection.
All she had to show for the last decade of her life, was something that looked like purpose and passion. But it was flat. Like a picture, two-dimensional and frozen in time. There were no hills and valleys in her life. No major changes either for better or for worse. If she had to rewind her life through the years, it would look the same ten years ago as it did today.
Josie announced her hunger and stood up from the couch and went into the kitchen. Lianne could hear her opening the fridge. Her phone lay on the coffee table. Picking it up, she typed a message. She hesitated before sending it. Nothing will be the same after this. Then she smiled and hit send. I hope so. Mitchell didn’t take long to reply.
*****The end*****
Read the rest of the Scars Series here.



When he came into her hotel room, Petra already knew it was not to tell her of a party that evening or a networking event the next day. David was always in desperate need of an ego boost. He had accompanied her to the conference like a protective chaperone of whom her husband approved. He trusted David, though clearly he shouldn’t.

David walked in, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a bottle of champagne. Still holding the doorknob, Petra glanced at the bottle and asked, “Celebrating something?”

“No, yes.. maybe.” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other. Before he averted his gaze away from her face, she thought she saw a strange look in his eyes. She was used to seeing vulnerability in other men, but David never showed it. She watched as he made his way slowly to the small desk against the wall, where he set down the champagne bottle.

“Close the door, will you?” David didn’t know how to talk without issuing commands.

She loathed it. She loathed him. Nevertheless, she shut the door and walked towards him. She felt a small thrill as he looked at her. She knew he was always attracted to her, catching him staring at her many times before, always trying to impress her with his swagger and wit. She never responded to any of it before, though sometimes she felt she wanted to stroke his biceps mid-conversation just to watch him drop that awful facade in awe of her.

He had that look of awe on his face now. Cruelly, she came right up to him as if to deliver his every fantasy, then pivoted slightly walking right past him at the last second. She thought she could almost hear him exhale that last breath he had been holding in. She smiled. A small victory, but still a victory.

Petra sat in a single armchair by the large glass sliding doors and looked outside.

“It’s raining.” Talking about the weather will make him feel insignificant, she relished the thought. He always inspired this cruel, almost evil side of her. Because he is so full of it. A burning sensation flickered in her chest.

David came over to her, ignoring the identical single chair opposite hers, and perched on the armrest beside her. His thigh brushed her forearm, and she fought the urge to pull it away. Or was she fighting the urge to put her hand on his thigh? Her arm burned at the spot where their bodies touched.

“I want to show you something.” He took out his phone with the big touchscreen. Leaning closer to her still, he held up the phone so she could see the picture on its screen. She didn’t know much about boats or sailing, but with its wood panelling and polished chrome trim it looked expensive. It even had a jacuzzi on the upper deck. A yacht! How rich was he really to afford a yacht? He had money, but not this much. She touched her chest where that burning sensation swelled once more. He was such an arse. He doesn’t even sail. Why on earth would he buy a yacht? Does his extravagance know no limits?

She managed a small smile, “It looks pricey.”

Getting up from her chair, she stood by the edge of the curtains as if to stare out the glass doors. Instead, she turned to face him forcing a smile on her face. For a second, she caught that same look on his face again. Her smile softened. “Only a small fortune.” He shrugged. He looked disappointed and he failed to hide it. He walked over to the desk where the champagne stood getting warm without a bucket of ice.

“I should have called room service to ice this thing. Let me do that right now.” He picked up the phone and asked for room service to bring up a wine cooler and champagne glasses.

When he put the receiver down, he seemed to have retrieved some of his courage, standing taller and reaching into his jacket pocket. “I also got you something.” He pulled out a blue velvet box. Too large for a ring, but too small for a jewellery set. What was it? Her curiosity was piqued. And she couldn’t help herself.

“For me?”

He walked toward her. He seemed taller. She felt smaller, and clenched her jaw. But the blue velvet box in his hand caught her eye, and she stared hard at it trying to sense its contents.

“Open it.” It was almost a whisper.

She took it from his outstretched palm, hesitated, then snatched it and flipped the lid open. Her breath caught in her throat. The flash of platinum links caught her eye first, and then the diamonds. It was a watch. An expensive one at that. All platinum links and pearlescent face. Tiny diamonds marked the time intervals instead of numbers.

“Do you like it?”

She did. “Huh? Yes, it’s lovely.” She traced each delicate link with her finger and bit her lip.

She shouldn’t accept this gift, she knew. Not just because it was inappropriate as they were both married, but this would give him momentary power over her. She would feel indebted to him. It was so lovely. She could picture it on her fine wrist.

She felt his hand on her elbow. The room spun a little. Did they have any champagne yet? She spied it on the table beside them, still without the cooler, and realised she was already losing the game. She shook her head to clear it. Looking up at him to tell him she couldn’t accept this gift, she saw him gazing fondly at her. A mixture of that same vulnerability and awe, and she realised she had him under her power. He had finally dropped that facade. She noticed it as he spoke softly, even warmly to her.

“I’ve always liked you, you know. You’re beautiful.”

She swallowed hard. He still held her elbow and now he moved upwards, stroking her arms.

Don’t. You’ll regret this. You don’t want to sleep with this man Petra, you don’t. It’ll be a one time fling for him, like all the other women, and you’ll have to face him everyday after this.

Still, she let him stroke her arms then her back until she was caught in his embrace. David’s expression was soft and his eyes told her he meant every word.

“It’s okay” he said, and leaned in to kiss her mouth. She kissed him back with more urgency than she intended. Her body burned with that familiar resentment and then with desire. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she pressed her body to his. He nudged her gently backwards onto the bed, and laid on top of her.

Room service never came. Or perhaps they didn’t hear it in the midst of their passion. She wished they came to interrupt last night’s madness. David left soon after they did… it.

She wondered what that meant. He didn’t stay to cuddle or to talk or even to sleep like most men did after intercourse. Her chest tightened. Was it a mistake? Did he pull one over her?

She felt sick at the possibility of falling prey to him. Could he have planned all of that, just to have the upper hand? Having a one night stand with him, would give him total, complete power over her. Threats of blackmail and complete subordination loomed over her. Quickly, she checked her nightstand. The watch was gone too.

She didn’t see David until that evening at dinner in the hotel restaurant. He was with another pretty woman that she didn’t know. Probably he met her that day. She walked up to their table. “Hi David.”

“Hi Petra. How are you?” He smiled, but the warmth from last night was gone. “This is Michelle.”

The young blonde smiled politely. She sipped some wine from her glass. On the woman’s dainty wrist was the diamond encrusted platinum watch David presented her with only last night. Petra turned cold. Without another word, or thoughts about her next move, she spun on her heels and walked away. She took deep breaths, but it did nothing to stop the burning feeling that bloomed in her chest.