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…
The sleek, gleaming corridors and brilliant fake sunlight had Joah half convinced the very air was sweeter here than her home. They were on the floor below the Presidential Suite. She had never climbed so high before; even the most prestigious of the celebrity glitterfest awards she had been to were held in a posh venue several floors down. Zarshay, in her neat, fashion-conscious outfit and without the tight hood suppressing her hair, looked nothing like the ultra-rational Xexe Chay she played in the show. Instead she was transformed into the perfect appearance of a PA, radiating an aura of efficiency. It was on such occasions as this that Joah wished she was as good an actress.
The meeting room projected from the side of the tower with a solid but transparent strip running across the floor, offering a vertiginous vista of the city below. But in this room, you were not encouraged to look down. The ceiling gave the appearance of being intangible, and somewhere above them an illusory sky seemed close enough to touch, soft blue, the colour of Heila’s eyes, with fluffy clouds. Joah wondered what the trick of it was.
They were served by silent figures who could have been people or not, it was hard to tell these days. Drinks and nibbles. Zarshay nibbled. Joah didn’t. Her guts were too tight even to let her sip at the drink in front of her on the dark oval table.
The door opened several times as they waited, and each time Joah was half out of her seat before she realised it was not the president’s aide, just a lowly admin or security person doing a check. After the third false start, she felt Zarshay’s hand squeeze her own, reassuring and calming. Glancing at her, Joah saw she was wearing her best “we can do this” smile.
She knew when Dain Strand finally arrived. There was a sudden flotilla of fussing humanity filling the room and then he appeared. He shook Joah’s hand with a warm grip. She found herself thinking there was not too much family resemblance, but it did not surprise her to be dealing with a Strand. The president was renowned for liking to keep his extended family gainfully employed at a high level.
“Glad you could make it,” he said, as if they were friends and he had asked her over for a social event. He moved past her before she could reply, and settled into a chair on the other side of the table, flanked by two of his staff who Joah assumed were bodyguards.
“Look, let’s get down to business right away — I’m sure you have places you need to be, Ms. Meer, and so do I. Your show — the one about that spaceship. It’s a good show. Great show, in fact, I’ve not missed an episode since it started airing. The president loves it. He loves it a lot.” He stopped speaking as if that was all he had to say, and there was a moment of awkward silence.
“Uh — well, thank you for saying so. We do try to pack in as much fun and excitement as we can. I am happy you both enjoy it so much.” Joah bit her tongue to stop herself gushing.
“I do. A lot. And it has given the president an idea — something the whole of the City can get behind.” Dain Strand paused and suddenly Joah could see the family resemblance in the way he managed the moment. “The president wants to build The Golden Strand and he wants you and your crew to be a part of it.”
Joah closed her mouth, which had fallen open on the word “Strand”. Not for the first time, she wished she had even a fraction of Zarshay’s ability to act.
“I — I —”
“I know what you are thinking, and I promise you that you’ll get full royalties for use of the name and theme, and we’ll be packaging out some media prompts with your people getting to share a platform with the president for the launch of the project as well. But I’ll need you to make over all the blueprints, designs, everything, to my engineers.”
His expression was serious, but it had to be a joke.
“We don’t run to blueprints. It’s only some virtual modelling artwork,” she explained, hearing the edge of desperation in her own voice. “It’s not like it’s a real spaceship or anything.”
Dain Strand smiled and she felt the full force of his predatory charisma.
“I know that,” he said, lifting a hand as if waving away her protests. “But building it would be a project everyone in the city would get behind.”
Zarshay had been silent until then, but now she spoke.
“What I am hearing, Mr. Strand, is that you want to get the city to support this project, not that you want to build a ship to explore the galaxy.”
For a moment there was a cold silence, and Dain looked at Zarshay in a way that made Joah’s flesh creep. Then he laughed, a short, mirthless bark of sound, and leaned towards Joah.
“She’s good. If she’s on your business team, I can see why you do well.” He winked, and Joah suppressed a shudder. Then Dain was pushing himself to his feet. “Well, as we are on the same node here, I guess my work is done. I’ll leave the details to the legal team.”
Everyone rose and Joah had her hand pressed once more, then the president’s emollient hatchet man was gone.
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 0110