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, Joah was running over the edits in her own work booth, boxed off from the main floor of the studio by a low partition and a wilting miniature tree. A tap of approaching expensive footwear made her look up in time to see a grim-faced Heila bearing down on her.
“I am close to quitting,” Heila snarled.
Joah tried not to smile, as that was the usual opener to every one of their conversations for the last three years. Instead she looked past Heila to the work board on the wall behind her, where a small flock of tiny, folded paper birds were pinned in one corner. Each one had been put there by Zarshay in the time before they had got together.
“Tell me about it, darling,” she said soothingly, hoping her own acting skills were good enough to carry off a sympathetic expression, but knowing they were not. Her preference was never to work with real actors, except for Zarshay, of course. But the audience liked to have someone they could relate to in key roles and that meant some of the cast in Starways Pathfinders had to be real, flesh-and-blood people. Joah kept it to a minimum — leading female and male and Zarshay.
“Did you see the audience feedback for the last episode you put out?” Heila had a slight pout, as fake as the bright blue of her eyes. “Hengast was out-polling me for over half of what we had in shared screen time. My fans are missing my trademark simpering snark — you have to set that romantic electricity back in the plot.” She finished on a note of appeal and was so close to fluttering her eyelashes that Joah found herself pulling away.
“Yes, I saw that — and I saw which demographic had that reaction. The G-fours through D-sevens. Female, settled, good incomes, children, the broad average levels.”
“My people,” Heila purred.
“Your people when I rescued you from that benighted daily medical melodrama, yes. But not our core audience for SP. That is” —she lifted one hand and counted off on her fingers— “male, single, aspirational, levels top to twenty and anyone who can pirate a copy in the Below.” She held up her fist of folded fingers and punched the air gently with it. “And those guys identify with Dog and lust after you and Zarshay. That is why we have the romance breaking for now. That same audience reaction feedback was telling us they were getting switched off by you and him being too much of an item.”
The hard flash of anger in Heila’s face vanished as soon as it appeared, disguised beneath another pout.
“So, you are going to let Dog do kissy faces with your Zarshay? I can’t see that working for you or her, darling.”
Or him, Joah added silently. But out loud she said, “You can check the advanced scripts if you want to see what we are doing. Now if you’ll forgive me — darling — I have to finish this edit and start working on setting up for tomorrow.”
If it were possible for Heila’s lovely face to look ugly, it would have happened then. But the snarl had more of kitten than monster, though the emotion behind it had to be as intense.
“You can’t treat me like some fresh-from-nowhere face, Meer. I have a solid fanbase and I have a right to say what goes. And if you don’t give me back my romance, I will ruin your little space show.”
Joah said nothing and suppressed a sigh. This was her biannual treat and she had learned to live with it. Seeing no response, Heila flared her nostrils and flounced from the booth. A few moments later the heavy door of the studio slammed shut and a sort of peace descended. For a few moments Joah kept looking at the tiny paper birds in flight across the board. The sight made her smile, and she was still smiling when she turned her attention back to work.
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 0011.