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. Starway Pathfinders is a science fiction show that entertains the better off and brings hope to the poor…
“So, you have to tell me, what’s he like? I mean close up? Is he taller than he looks? Shorter? Has he got bad breath and a squint that they filter out? Or is he just like you see him on screen?” Teram was pumping out questions faster than a media interviewer as they hit the glides, and Dog felt as if a heavy weight was pressing on his shoulders.
“Just like he is on screen.” Only colder. But he couldn’t say that out loud. There was so much he had to not say, it made him feel a tight pressure in his head.
He had told Zarshay it made him feel bad, and she had just given him one of those odd smiles of hers.
“You don’t even need to lie, Dog. Just tell the truth of what’s happened. What’s happened, not why.”
She’d made it sound easy. Heila had been even less sympathetic, no surprises there. She had rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh of frustration.
“Oh for— Why all this soul searching? It’s not that hard.You’re an actor — so act.”
But it was Joah’s words which stayed with him. She had gripped his arm and said, “We’re counting on you, and I know you can do it. Don’t worry, you won’t let us down.”
Joah was counting on him. That knowledge made him feel stronger as he followed Teram through the glides; if Joah trusted him, then he could do it. He had to: the thought of letting her down sat like cold vomit in his stomach.
The salvage crew greeted Dog as an old friend, but he knew right away something was different.
“You told them, you bastard,” he hissed into Teram’s ear as the group waved an over-enthusiastic welcome.
Teram gave him an odd look. “Sure, I told them. But only ’cos they were saying how much you looked like Hengast Gethick. These are my bros — people who I trust my life to when we’re out there.” He nodded towards the smudge-covered window.
Dog felt his headache intensifying. This was a new element to the plan, and he’d have to think how to handle it and make adjustments on the wing. The problem was, fast thinking wasn’t Dog’s strong point and never had been.
In the event, it wasn’t as bad as he feared; in fact, it made his task a bit easier. The salvage crew asked all the usual questions he got from fans, but they were less intense. It was almost as if they were seeing him as Dog — himself, the person, and not as Arlan Stude or even as celebrity Hengast Gethick. It was a good feeling and one he hadn’t had for a while.
When it happened, it was so natural Dog found he didn’t even need to act.
“So, what’s with your wrist, Dog?” someone asked.
Two beers down, he was feeling relaxed and lifted his hand to show off the brace he had on his left wrist.
“Yeah. I was reading you broke it in another of those accidents keep happening in the studio. “And Heila Camarthy did another floor-kiss over some cable and needed to see a dentist.”
“I heard your floor technician got electrocuted and nearly died.”
“And is it true your production engineer deleted half an episode? That part of the curse too?”
Dog lifted up his other hand and used both to fend off the questions.
“It’s not a curse. Accidents happen.”
“Really? That many in just a few days? People are saying it’s about these aliens. All that stuff about them being able to attack with bad luck. Shit, the next episode even admits it. It’s called ‘Curse of the Kyruku – Part One.’”
Dog barked out a laugh.
“That’s just a story. It’s not real — not a real curse.”
“Really? You could fool me. All of SP social media’s buzzin’ with it — people guessing what’s going to happen next and wondering if we’ll even get to see them aliens. I was all set to put half my savings into building us that real Golden Strand — reckoned I’d be in with a shot at a crew spot and all. But it’s made me think again.”
“You and me both, bro,” Teram said. “I had in mind to buy some sweet shares in that ship’s golden ass, but no way now.”
Shaking his head in disbelief at how easy this was, Dog swilled some more of his drink and let the speculation run riot around him. It was almost as if they wanted there to be a curse.
“What about this latest one? Zarshay Sygma’s gone missing — someone just put out a tweak on Twister.”
Dog thumped his drink down on the table so hard the base cracked.
“What?” His voice was a roar which stunned half the bar into a brief shocked silence. “What’s happened?”
The salvage crew were all gaping at him open-mouthed and he realised that, for them, all this was just some continuation of the storyline. It could be real people being injured, maimed, kidnapped — but to them it was just more Starways Pathfinders. His good mood evaporated, sucked away into the dark vacuum outside the window, and he pushed himself to his feet.
“I gotta go,” he mumbled and, ignoring the protests and expressions of concern, he strode from the bar and hit the glides home.
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 1010