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.”
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.
“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