Sunday Serial Star Dust: 1011

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…

Joah was already relaxing in soothing bubbles when a mostly naked Heila slipped into the room and slid, mermaid-like, into the tub. If Joah had not been so worried about Zarshay, she would have had more time to appreciate that.
“You were right,” she told Heila, “this is very relax— ”
“Never mind that,” the other woman almost snapped at her. “Please tell me you do know you have been monitored since the whole ‘curse’ thing took off, and that someone bugged your apartment yesterday — and may have managed to get something in your clothing.”
Joah thought of the nice police officer and grimaced.
“I thought it might come to that before we were through. But how did you know?”
“How do you think? Zarshay told me, of course.”
Joah sat suddenly upright in the bath.
“Where is she? Is she all right? Why didn’t she tell me she was going to do something?”
“For goodness sake, sit down. I do not want an eyeful of Zarshay’s privilege, thank you very much.” Joah sank back and Heila waved a hand in mock relief as she went on talking. “I don’t know where she is, she said something about taking the opportunity to go visit her family. I am very sure she is all right and will be home sometime today or tomorrow. And she didn’t tell you because we all know you can’t act to save your life. And she didn’t tell Dog because he would have told you the moment you asked him.”
The intense relief was shifting into anger. Heila gripped her wrist, hard.
“Now stop that. You were the one who told us all to remember this was not a game. We needed this to clinch our case.” She made an impatient huffing noise. “Besides, Zarshay insisted you be told first thing this morning. Can you imagine how horrible it has been for me to have to be up so early? I told her it would be so much better for you not to know and do a public appeal for her safe return. Tears and baggy eyes, and back shots of Zarshay looking cute and vulnerable.” She sighed and released Joah’s wrist to clasp her hands together under her chin and sigh wistfully. “It would have been such a perfect romantic scene.”

It was the following day Joah found the new paper bird pinned to the board in her booth, just like in the old days. With careful fingers she released it and cupped it in her hands as if it were a living thing. Then she reached out to re-pin it gently, flying with the rest. She was almost smiling as she sat down and started work. Trust and hope carried her through that day, and the next, and the next; she even weathered the suspicion, and the second police interview, without cracking, but it was hard to be alone with the mounting pressure of doubt and fear. Surprisingly, it was Heila’s unobtrusive support that pulled her through. The actress knew precisely when to be silent and when to put in an acidic comment that stiffened Joah’s spine.

She was working in the sound booth, adding some Zarshay words synthed by her modulator to go with the virtual Science Officer Xexe Chay. She didn’t hear any footsteps, but she knew without hearing. Maybe it was the slight trace of a scent or maybe it was something deeper and inexplicable. But she was already turning her chair and getting to her feet when Zarshay came into the booth.
For a moment her intense anger and anxiety reared up between them and Joah felt frozen to the spot. Then Zarshay closed all the distance that created the division and Joah’s arms opened by an instinct so much deeper than those emotions that they no longer mattered. Nothing did, except that they were there, together. They clung to each other for what seemed forever.
“I’m sorry,” Zarshay whispered “I had to wait for it to be safe. If I had even tried to contact you—”
With an effort of will Joah released her and stood back. She knuckled a wayward tear and wondered what had changed, what to say, but was saved as the studio door burst open.
“Did you get to hear the news?” Dog called out sounding excited.
Joah gripped Zarshay’s hand and the two turned to face him. “Hear what? I’ve been setting up here so not checked my feed in a while.”
“Oh hello Zarshay, glad you’re back. It’s all over the media that the last big business backer pulled out and the President’s office has said the project is being ‘postponed indefinitely’.”
Zarshay was grinning. “That’s political speak for ‘cancelled’, Dog.”
Heila’s sharp tapping footwear could be heard on the studio floor approaching the booth, just ahead of her voice.
“It’s the most dreadful news isn’t it, darlings?” she said as she joined them. “That stupid curse thing — and all those idiots believing it too. And of course, no one will back the project; who wants to have their brand linked with something everyone is calling unlucky?” Her expression was serene and smiling in direct contrast to the fretful sound of her voice. “But the good news is our ratings are rocketing with the free publicity. Starways Pathfinders is even getting viewers from the mainstream demographics now, and I have been asked to do a round of chat shows to talk about it.”
Dog made a sound suspiciously like a growl.
“Bastards just want to watch to see one of us have something bad happen.”
“Don’t be silly,” Heila said, taking his arm almost possessively. “We are not a live show.”
“You try telling them that.”
“Not our problem, darling. Besides, now Zarshay is back I think the curse may have just run its course,” Heila said, drawing him away towards the studio door. “She is our lucky charm. But what is our problem is all this publicity. You need to come with me so I can talk you through what you and I will be doing for the next few weeks. We have chat show couches to decorate, darling.”
She paused on the threshold to glance back and drop a conspiratorial wink at Joah and Zarshay, before herding Dog through the door and letting it close behind her, leaving them alone together.

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 we start a new Sunday Serial and introduce the adventures of Piglock Homes and his sidekick Doctor Bearson in ‘The Affair of the Dartymuir Dog‘.

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