Sunday Serial Star Dust: 1000

Built upon an asteroid, these mighty habitation towers are the final stronghold of humanity in a star system ravaged by a long-ago war. Now, centuries after the apocalyptic conflict, the city thrives — a utopia for the rich who live at the top, built on the labours of the poor stuck below…

After the others had gone, Joah sat with Zarshay in the closed and silent booth, wondering if she had made a good choice. It was a dangerous game to play and one where all Joah and her crew could call upon boiled down to smoke and mirrors — illusions. And, she was very aware, they would be no defence if things went wrong. Upsetting the president or thwarting him in his plans would be an interesting, but certain, way to commit professional suicide. Indeed, if rumour spoke true, it might not just be professional.
Zarshay squeezed her hand, bringing her back to the moment. She saw the look of concern on the other woman’s face and managed a rueful smile.
“We are doing the right thing,” she said, careful not to make it a question.
Zarshay nodded. “Yup. Do you think the others are going to manage their part?”
“Oh, Heila will. I think she’s seen where this is going and that it’s in her self-interest to keep with us. For now at least. And no one can doubt her acting ability to pull it off.”
“And Dog?”
Joah pulled a face.
“Hengast is not the material of which conspirators are made, we both know that. But he’s loyal and he can act — and I think this cause is one even he might be willing to set aside his integrity and lie for.”
Zarshay squeezed her hand again and smiled. “Then we don’t need to worry about it, do we?” She released Joah’s hand and stood up. “I’ll go see how Wilf is getting on and let you get on with making some techno-magic.”
Dropping a kiss on Joah’s cheek in passing, she left the booth.
Joah sat there for a few more moments stifling the doubts, before leaving herself.

The magic had to begin in post-production, and the perfect excuse was provided by the alien attack. A week later, Joah was fairly confident she had the right way to do it and she was smiling at the screen as she pulled in a few more of those ideas. Although they could be powerful tools, Joah was not a fan of subliminals, but here she could work some in with the very reasonable excuse of heightening audience anxiety about the Kyruku. She had kept the aliens offscreen so far, quite deliberately. It was to be a huge reveal at the end of the season. They were now undergoing a slight redesign…
A small beep alerted her to the time, and she turned her seat to watch the live coverage of the big event. There was President Toros Strand in front of a huge projection of The Golden Strand, and he was flanked on one side by the glamorously uniformed Captain Gervain and the towering figure of the half-masked Sub-Commander Stude.
The announcement ended to applause, and just as Heila stepped forward to speak, Zarshay joined Joah in the booth.
“So you were not tempted to go along as Xexe?”
“I was not invited to go as Xexe,” Zarshay said, her eyes on the ceremony. “I was invited to go as me and I refused on the grounds of ill health.”
Joah shot her a look.
“Ill health?”
“Yes. On the grounds that spending any amount of time in the company of Toros Strand would make me vomit. Oh look, isn’t that sweet.”
Joah looked back to the events unfolding above and saw the president take Heila’s hand and kiss it.
“I see your point about ill health,” she murmured, and Zarshay grinned.
“I came to tell you, Wilf had a good time out with his ex-colleagues from Undergrove, swapping stories.”
Joah caught the sparkle of pure mischief in Zarshay’s eyes and found herself grinning too. She looked back to the screen just in time to see the elegant Heila sashaying from the front of the platform and tripping to sprawl full-length. The commotion was brief and ended with Dog helping her back to her feet and, although they were not being broadcast, Joah could see her mouth the words, her face looking as if fear was just a breath behind the composure she had regained.
“You don’t think this is going to overplay the—?”
Zarshay was shaking her head.
“No way. My worry is we are not playing it up enough; this is all too subtle. We may need to do something more obvious. But I have an idea, if it comes to it.”
Pulling her close for a quick hug, Joah sighed.
“It’s early days. I better get some work done. I’ll need the three of you tomorrow. And if Wilf’s ready…” She let her voice trail off.
“Show time,” Zarshay finished for her and slipped from the booth, pausing only to blow a kiss from the door before she left.

Star Dust by E.M. Swift-Hook, originally appeared in The Last City, a shared-universe anthology. This version is the ‘Author’s Cut’ and differs, very slightly, from that original. Next week – Episode 1001

Perched

They landed on the phone wire
Perched, like feathered fruit
On the slender branch
Of a man-made tree.

A hundred tiny voices
Calling to the sky
A raucous caucus
Vibrating the air.

Sudden silence, like nightfall.
Stillness on the wire
Waiting for a sign
Hushed breath in each breast.

Abrupt – the flutter, fluster,
Flap and fly up high
Shape the swoop above
Vanish over the horizon of rooftops.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Weekend Wind Down – Prison

The door slammed shut behind him and the solid sound of bolts shooting home followed, reinforcing the sense of finality. The room was a depressing dull grey from ceiling to floor. It was square with two beds, bunks, running the full length of one sidewall and essential facilities in the far corner. Zero privacy from either his cellmate or, through the door hatch, from the custodius. Above the door a vent the size of his fist was vibrating with an annoying humming-whine as it reluctantly circulated fresh air.
“Llewellyn? What did they drag you in here for? Sticking your nose too deep in someone else’s business?”
The voice was vaguely familiar, though Dai was slow to place it as the shaven head of the man sprawled on the lower bunk was not. His puzzlement must have shown because the man swung his legs over the side of the bunk and sat up.
“I don’t suppose you remember me. It was some months ago and I’m sure you’ve been a busy Submagistratus since then.”
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t…”
The other man laughed, which turned into a cough part way before he was able to speak again. “Gods! Politeness. Not heard a word of that since they locked me in here.” He pushed himself to his feet and straightened the green tunic, before offering a formal greeting. “Tertius Cloelius Rufus. It is an honour to share my captivity with you. A pleasure. You may recall we met in Viriconium before these unfortunate events.”
Dai found himself shaking the outheld hand as if they were at a social event or meeting, as his memory searched desperately for the name and face. When it came, he snatched his hand away and stepped back involuntarily.
“You were the cunnus of a medicus involved with a group holding vicious sex parties that led to the death of young streetgirls.”
“No need to use titles here,” the older man said brightly and then smiled at his own joke. “You can call me Rufus. It’ll make a change from seven-eight-one-one-two-six. It’s those little things you get to miss the most in this place. By the way, I hope you’re not hungry, you missed the evening meal. Nothing til tomorrow now.”
Dai felt a curl of cold revulsion in his guts.
“You disgust me.“
“Really?” Cloelius sounded unconcerned. “At least I’m not a traitor like you. That tends to evoke more outrage in our society at every level than any sexual adventures a man might embark on.”
“The difference is,” Dai snarled, unable to keep the contempt from his voice. “I am not guilty of the faked-up charges against me, but I know for a fact you are guilty as charged. I caught you red-handed, literally. And the blood of a good Vigiles was shed that night too.”
Cloelius sighed and sat back on his bunk. “Appearances can be very deceptive Llewellyn, and like it or not your guilt or innocence will be decided in a court of law not by whatever you might choose to say or believe.” He lay back as if reclining on a lectus. “You might discover that I am in fact the innocent one and you turn out to be guilty. Now that would be an interesting outcome, don’t you think?”
The chilling realisation that the corrupt medicus spoke the truth staggered Dai. The words leeched all strength from his muscles and he sank down to sit with his back against the cold grey wall.
“Why are you still here?” he demanded, when the moment of weakness had passed.
“What a strange question. It’s not as if I can just stroll along to the atrium or visit the baths, is it?”
Dai lifted a hand in protest. “You know what I mean. You must have been here for months. Yours was an open and shut case. I signed off all the evidence myself back in Martius. It only needed a hearing before an independent Magistratus to…”
“Sentence me to death?” Cloelius gave a rasping laugh. “You show yourself the true Briton, Llewellyn. There are people I’ve met who have been held here for the last ten years.”
Dia bridled at that.
“But it’s against the law. No Citizen can be deprived of his or her freedom. They are tried and if found guilty, sentenced either to death or whatever fine is due.”
“Ah, British logic,” Cloelius said, his tone shifting to that of a teacher explaining simple facts to a schoolboy. “Those I speak of are Citizens who stand accused of capital offenses and are awaiting their day in court. They all have powerful friends in Rome using every legal wrangle there is to keep them from coming to trial. Some of the crimes have to be prosecuted within a certain time limit, so if they can delay that day long enough they can walk free. Others are commuted by prolonged negotiation from death to a fine. Everyday is a barter day. But you worked here in Londinium as a Vigiles so you really should know that.”
It was true that he had heard the rumours so it was not really a surprise. But his day-to-day clientele at that time had been almost exclusively non-Citizen criminals.
“You have powerful friends?”
Cloelius hunched one shoulder in an exaggerated shrug. “Perhaps I do. Or powerful enough to keep me from trial so far. Don’t you? I am assuming you must do to have secured both Citizenship and a plum administrative appointment.” He leaned forward as if offering a confidence. “At the very least they might be able to have your Citizenship rescinded which would give you the chance of commuting your sentence to hard labour instead of the arena.”
That was something that had not occurred to Dai as a possibility before. It was true that committing any serious crime could lead to an application for the revocation of an awarded Citizenship – something given could be taken away. An option not open to those born with Citizenship status. But the kind of hard labour criminals were condemned to was brutalising.
“I don’t see that would be much better,” he said, hearing the bitterness in his own tone. “Just a slower way to die.”
“Perhaps. But at least, my British friend, you have options. Who knows? We may even grow old together in this cell.”

From Dying to be Innocent by by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook. You can listen to this on YouTube.

Madam Pendulica’s Perceptive Profiles of the Properties and Propensities of Persons Propagated in each of the Twelve Zodiacal Houses – Preferred Pets

The Working Title crew bring you the exclusive opportunity to enjoy again the mysteriously enigmatic Madam Pendulica…

Aries 

This sign is a sucker for furry and cuddly, but not too keen on walkies. Aries has an affinity with long-haired cats and King Charles Spaniels.

Note: Do not ever take an Aries to an animal shelter. They will adopt the lot

Taurus

Perhaps surprisingly, given the lumbering nature of the sign, the ideal animal companion is something small and intensely portable. Give a bull a gerbil and they will be ecstatic.

Note: Do not expect a Taurus to put itself out for a pet that requires a lot of care and/or exercise.

Gemini

This sign swings both ways petwise. A Gemini will be happy with either a tarantula or a kitten. Nothing in between.

Note: The two-faced twins will deeply confuse dogs and are inimical to horses.

Cancer

The crab enjoys canine company of the large and drooling sort. Or goldfish.

Note: Good at dressage, especially all the going sideways bits.

Leo

What could the king of the jungle require as a pet? A Siamese cat? An elegant elkhound? An Arab steed? No. None of these. Leo gravitates towards beekeeping.

Note: Should your Leo require an indoor pet, stick insects are usefully easy to care for.

Virgo

Buy a Virgo a bunny rabbit and they will be happy forever. Or if they want a walking companion, the stars suggest a yellow Labrador – for preference one with attitude.

Note: Do not expect Virgo to deal with animal sexuality. They don’t.

Libra

The balanced nature of the Libran is made complete by pets that can be kept as pairs. Lovebirds are an obvious choice.

Note: Do not buy your Libra lover a tortoise. They will forget them during hibernation.

Scorpio

The snarkily poisonous nature of this sign is uniquely suited to the keeping of snakes, or parrots with a vocabulary of obscenities.

Note: Don’t buy a Scorpio a puppy, they will encourage it to bite people.

Sagittarius

The half-horse Sagittarius really bonds with horses, ponies, or hamsters.

Note: If a dog is needed, the Irish Wolfhound is nearly as big as a small pony.

Capricorn

Surprisingly, Capricorn does not get on with goats. They are best suited to being owned by scruffy terriers that fart a lot.

Note: Capricorn and cats is a combustible combination. There has not been a Capricorn born that won’t irritate cats enough to get their face ripped off.

Aquarius

Aquarians like fish. Both to eat and to look at. Feed them battered cod and buy then an indoor aquarium wherein they can watch brightly coloured swimmers.

Note: Aquarius will not tolerate any pet that wants to sleep with them. 

Pisces

Pisceans do not get on with fish. They are, on the other hand, deeply enamoured of guineapigs and whippets.

Note: Do not buy a Piscean a bunny rabbit. They will eat it.

Madame Pendulica predicts she will return…

EM-Drabbles – Eighty-Nine

It was an alchemist’s dream come true. But this was no philosopher’s stone, transmuting base to pure, nor trade of precious lead for more precious gold, this was the simple distillation of matter into any form that was needed or desired.
All at the touch of a button.
It was a shame the discovery was made by a mind that had more focus on greed than on humanity, but eventually, even she discovered that you can have too much of a good thing and the richer in gold she became, the more common it was, the less she was worth.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Coffee Break Read – The Acolytes

Their mountain guide landed at head of the column. He was a green dragon of elegance and purpose and his rider was young woman dressed in skintight leather. She carried a sword whose scabbard rode across her back. The dragon-head hilt that showed over her left shoulder gleamed with gold and precious gems – although Adam was willing to bet that the blade would be razor sharp steel with a blood channel running from hilt to tip. It came to his mind that the stark plainness of his own short sword with its gleaming blade and leather-wrapped hilt threw the difference in their status into sharp relief  – even if his armament, along with his utilitarian leather breastplate, greaves and vambraces, should have told anyone with eyes to see that he was a fighting sort of soldier. 
The dragon rider stepped lightly to the ground and Adam saluted. The woman grinned tautly.
“How many?”
“Twenty-five, madonna.”
“You got them all here in one piece then. Well done sergeant. Do they know what happens now?”
“No ma’am. Which is one of the reasons I got them all this far.”
The dragon rider’s grin grew positively vicious. “This could be where we get our first dropouts then.” She turned a pair of eyes as green as her dragon on the preening acolytes. “Right then. This is where we stop pussyfooting around. Here’s the deal. Brightstar and I are here to guide you through the mountains. But…” She managed the dramatic pause so well that Adam thought it practised. “But. There will be tests along the way. Starting right now. Dismount.” The last word had quite the cutting edge of a sword and all but one of the acolytes scrambled to obey. The dragon rider curled her lip.
“Is there something wrong with your hearing?”
“Give me one reason why I should obey a mere woman.”
She sighed, and her dragon stretched his neck so that his blunt, saurian head was close to the face of the arrogant priestling.
“Dissssmount,” he hissed, “my rider sssspeaksss for me.”
The acolyte fainted. One of his peers poked him with a toe.
“He’s down now.” 
But nobody laughed.
The dragon rider carried on as if there had been no interruption. “From here on you walk. Anything you need, you carry.” She took something from the back of the dragon and walked among the staring young men dropping a backpack at the feet of each. “You have five minutes to pack. Starting now.”
After a second of stunned immobility there was an undignified scramble.

From’Dragon Riders’ by Jane Jago just one of over twenty Game Lit stories by as many authors in Rise and Rescue – Volume One.  All profits from the Rise and Rescue anthologies go to support wildlife devastated by the Australian wildfires. 

Nursery Rhymes for the Third Age – 6

A selection of rhymes by Jane Jago, made age appropriate for those for whom their second childhood is just around the corner…

Monday’s Child

Monday’s child is rubbish at math
Tuesday’s child has a wobbly ass
Wednesday’s child wants to be artistic
Thursday’s kid’s a tad sadistic
Friday’s child is full of crap
And Saturday’s child just needs a slap
But the child that was born on a Sunday morn
Is the offspring of Satan right down to the horns.

You can find this, and other whimsical takes of life in On The Throne? a little book of contemplation from Jane Jago.

Coffee Break Read – The Old Amusement Park

Half an hour later she was driving away, to somewhere. Anywhere. Just away. She stopped to eat the sandwich when it was starting to get dark and hunger bit, pulling off the road and into the carpark of what looked like a run-down, sea-side amusement park. Which was when she found it in the glove box. The gift from Roald. Part of her wanted to hurl it, unopened, away from the car. But instead she took it out of the colourful paper bag and lifted the lid. A necklace of silver beads, carved to resemble ammonite shells.
Throwing it out of the window, Jess swore violently and turned the key. Nothing happened. The car sat there. She tried several times, giving up only when she realised it was not going to happen. She picked up her phone to call roadside recovery, and was somehow not surprised to find there was no signal. With an odd sense of inevitability, she picked up her magnalight from the map pocket beside her. Its weight, as much as its light, gave her a sense of security, it could be a weapon at need. She pulled her walking coat on over her fleece jacket and left the car to see if there anyone around in the amusement park.
There was stiff sea breeze coming in from across the bleak scrub that lay between this place and the sea. A moon, nearly full, gave enough light that she did not need to turn on the torch, and slid it into the inside pocket of her coat. There were no other cars parked up outside what must once have been a bustling attraction. But who wanted a seaside holiday when you could go to Costa del Sunburn for not much more? There was a high wall which ran across the end of the car park and as Jess walked towards it, she could see it stretched away on either side. 
The entrance was through a turnstile gate, or should have been. Someone had broken the spokes of the turning part, so anyone could walk through, past the shattered and blinded glass eye of the pay booth, boarded-up on the inside. Jess did so and something moved beside the booth. She turned fast, her hand gripping the magnalight as a slapping sound send a sudden pulse of unwanted adrenaline into her system. She pulled the torch free and shone its powerful beam at the source of the sound.
A sign hung down, still half attached to the top of the pay-booth, its broken back clapping against the heavy door set in the side of the small brick cabin. The words were barely visible:

…COME TO ….HELL…

Somewhere an owl shrieked and, despite herself, Jess drew a sharp breath. She took a step towards the broken, flapping sign and played the torch beam over it from end to end:

WELCOME TO SHELLEY’S FUNPARK

The owl screeched again and Jess smiled. You had to love it when the atmospherics played up to the occasion. It would only take a sea mist rolling in to turn this place into something out of an old-school Hammer Horror production. The really chilling thing was not any kind of supernatural danger here, it was the realisation that this was indeed an abandoned and empty place, with no one around who might have a phone she could use to call the roadside recovery and this place was a very long walk from anywhere. Only a year ago that would have meant very little. She might even have enjoyed the bracing breeze and the countryside at night. But not now. Now she would not make it more than a mile before she was crippled with pain.
The laughter carried on the night air, coming from behind the low roofed building immediately in front of her. At a guess it had once been some kind of cafe, but now it was heavily boarded up, metal shutters pulled over the windows, like a creature retreated into its shell.
Shelley’s Funpark? Why did that sound so familiar? Jess would have given it some more thought but the laughter came again, masculine, plural and loud. It was not from someone with any thought of trying to avoid attention. Still gripping the magnalight, its beam dimmed, Jessica made her way past the cafe-building and into the open area beyond.
The shadowy figures moving vaguely on the far side, close by the enclosing wall, sprang suddenly into stark relief and were revealed, as as an orange glow flared behind them. Jess froze, hearing drunken cheers as the fire took hold and watched as, like the ritual of some strange coven of witches, the group of youths all started throwing things into the flames.

From ‘Maybe’ by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago

EM-Drabbles – Eighty-Eight

I remember the days before time travel when you’d catch the news that someone famous had died and feel a bit sad.
Then when we had our chrononauts setting off into the unknown and everyone cheered. The odd thing was they were back almost as soon as they had gone. So, for us watching, it was almost as if they had never travelled at all.
That made it hard to believe their stories of the future, but eventually, we learned to do so.
Then one day the news started reporting the births of famous people as well as their deaths…

E.M. Swift-Hook

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