Sunlight flashed across the nose of the Forty-Five Dancing Girls as she wrestled with the spatial currents, trying to keep her keel even in a nor’norwesterly course going negative on her z-axis.
Unable to combat the strength of that current, her captain gave a gusty snort of exasperation before releasing the ship's wheel, allowing the spokes to spin to starboard. There were shouts as his crew ran about, hauling in this line and letting loose that one until the ship ran before the solar wind, her sunsails puffing wide like golden wings above her three masts.
“Look lively there!”
The Captain was a squat brutish creature. His angry shout sent the desperate thugs of his crew scrambling to catch the line that had slipped its clamp and was now flapping madly about.
Denser than the core of a white dwarf! The captain thought in disgust. When would these layabouts start to act like a proper crew?
Captain Arol Nask was of that most disreputable alien race, the Jerz. Born on Mars to a slave mother, he had managed to sink even lower than his birth by taking up slavery as his own profession.
Now, his thoughts were grim as he watched the end of the rope whip about. Last trip to this corner of the galaxy, we barely came off with a profit! He scowled at the remembrance of his negotiations with the planet leaders, Those uppity little barbarians have no idea the cost of shipping raw slaves all the way across the galaxy.
The crooked purpose of Captain Nask’s ship was somewhat at odds with her beautiful design. She was modeled after an old ocean liner—complete with a real oak hull, a genuine ship’s keel salvaged from some ocean vessel, and varnished in space sealant for airtight integrity. Nask took it all in with a glance that soothed his angry nerves just a trifle.
Topside her deck was all smooth wood planking and she sported a twelve-spoked pilot wheel—fully digitalized of course, but nevertheless lending credence to the look of a real planet-bound vessel. Her navigational computer for interstellar travel was fully voice-activated to eliminate the need for buttons that would have marred the façade, and a viewport stretching from stem to stern made her space-worthy and formed the nose of the ship, allowing an optimum view of the star systems that lined their current course.
As Nask once again gripped the helm a white puff of steam released from the double steam engines. The soot-bots scurried about, stoking the boilers below as he prepared to come about for a second run at the planet that was his target. The bow of the Forty-Five dipped slightly, giving him a brief but alluring view of his sought-after destination. The blue-green planet lay spread out below him with hints of wispy clouds skirting across the atmosphere like fleecy sheep.
He hauled back on the wheel, ignoring the luffing sails, until he heard the ship’s bell chime. That was the signal that they had reached optimum orbit over this planet known locally as Earth. Their orbit steady now over the landmass below, he disengaged the manual drive and told the computer to anchor them steady in orbit. Excess steam from her engines puffed into a small cloud that disguised them from below as the crew raced about, scaling the ratlines to stow her sails.
He gave a hurumph that shook his massive girth, watching his crew from the poop deck, his arms akimbo.
Well, I’m not playing their game—not this time. Oh, he would meet his usual dealer, and pick up several of these Earthlings that made such choice slaves on the Asterope market. Paying for them, however, was no longer on the agenda.
Lissa Phelps awoke with the sun coming in through a crack between her curtains. It splayed across her white sheets in a glow of warmth and welcoming, but she wrinkled her nose and tried to sink back into blank oblivion. Just as the present deleted from her mind and she felt a dream touching the corners of her consciousness, Stephanie’s alarm went off.
With a wailing complaint at this injustice, Lissa sat up in bed and looked imploringly at her dorm mate’s unmoving figure across the room.
“Steph, shut it off,” she begged, rubbing sleep from her eyes while she suppressed an agonized yawn.
Stephanie Wu, her Taiwanese dorm mate and best friend (damn her) silenced the alarm with a flailing gesture at the large black snooze button, rolled over and fell back to sleep.
“Typical,” Lissa muttered. She extracted herself with difficulty from her twisted sheets and started her morning routine.
Lissa, Stephanie, and two hundred forty-six other adolescents comprised the student body of St. Lucia’s Academy for Preparatory Students—a posh, two-story boarding school tucked into the Swiss Alps, “…where no boyfriends can find us.” At least, that was Stephanie’s immovable estimation. After six weeks of attendance and her own assessment of the resident male population, Lissa could only agree.
She watched now as Stephanie hauled herself from bed and pulled a t-shirt over her small curves. As her eyes were still mostly closed she stumbled over a pair of sneakers in the middle of the floor. Lissa watched her hunt through the mess of clothing and shoes scattered everywhere. She winced as Stephanie tossed a discarded pair of shorts from the day before onto a pile of fresh but unfolded laundry in the corner.
“Your jeans are on the chair by the desk,” Lissa pointed out helpfully, “and your left sandal is on the window ledge.” Stephanie already held the right one in her hand. She grunted ungraciously and found the sandal, tossed both onto her unmade bed and slipped into her jeans.
Stephanie was quite Lissa’s physical opposite—curvy where she was slim, and tended to leave articles of clothing and makeup scattered everywhere. It was Stephanie, with her sleek jet black hair and almond eyes, who was popular with the boys. Lissa was a slender girl, the taller of the two, with inquisitive green eyes and a soft face that smiled easily. Despite their differences, the two girls were inseparable.
Nearly an hour later, Lissa and Stephanie sat beside each other at matching ugly gray school desks, both with their attention split between trying to catch some sense of Mr. Zuch’s class on economical methodologies, and dreaming about what they would do when the bell released them.
Lissa’s mind was bent in all directions by the sort of distraction only a school set in the Swiss Alps can afford. She loved to hike and was a born rock climber, and sitting in first period listening to Mr. Zuch go on about economics was not at all how she would want to spend an autumn afternoon. Her mind drifted as she stared at the scene overlooking the mountains outside a nearby window.
“A service is a commodity as it results in an increase of useable goods,” Mr. Zuch declaimed, “Who can give me an example of that?”
It was a day Mr. Zuch always referred to in later years as the moment he taught Lissa the definitions with which she effected economic change across the galaxy. But in actual fact, Lissa was far too distracted to note his speech about the economic strangulation of Eastern and African culture by Western banking before the advent of the international merger into World Government.
In fact, she was so intent on memorizing the line the mountains made across the sky that the bell rang without her noticing. Stephanie had to tug on her shoulder to get her moving toward the door. Hurriedly, Lissa gathered up her notes and exited after her friend into the hallway and out to the terrace.
“For the love of shoes, what was he going on about?” Stephanie groaned, stretching her neck as she dug in her purse. At last she pulled a round token from within and tapped it against the soda machine. The price flashed.
“Yeah, yeah—I accept!”
The machine gave her a cheerful acknowledgement and a can dropped into her waiting hand.
“That machine is so slow,” She muttered, mainly for her own benefit as Lissa was certainly not listening. The other girl stared out across the terrace at the mountain panorama.
It was a bright autumn day and the sky was a blue bowl across which a few fluffy clouds scurried. As she munched on a bag of chips and a grilled cheese sandwich, Lissa took in the view and listened with half a mind as her best friend rambling in her ear. Stephanie was chattering on about a boy she had met in the hallway, when a peculiar motion in the clouds above caught Lissa’s attention.
St. Lucia’s Academy taught in fourth grade science class that low-lying, puffy cloud formations were known as cumulus clouds. However, fourth grade science had never mentioned anything about flying ships.
Gaping in flat astonishment, Lissa watched a glimmering spar pierce the floating cotton-candy clouds just over Stephanie’s right shoulder. Emerging like a sword thrust from the billowing white tufts, the brass-tip was quickly followed by first the hull and then the double masts of a magnificent flying ship.
The terrace erupted in shouts as students scattered like mice before a leaping cat, but Lissa was too stunned to move and only stood and stared awestruck at the magnificent sight.
“Don’t turn around,” she said to Stephanie, which of course caused the other girl to turn.
“Google search me,” Stephanie breathed in a panicked whisper, “What the hell is that!”
The sails of the ship were oddly-shaped and brilliantly golden. It had twin turbines holding it aloft along the air currents and strange protuberances sticking out at odd angles from the hull. Along the side in gold lettering were the words, Forty-Five Dancing Girls.
What an odd name for a floating ship, Lissa thought. Through the transparent shield that covered the deck before the mizzenmast she observed strange creatures acting as crew and a chubby man directing them with a scowl on his alien face.
The golden sails luffed—crew scrambled about her deck—the galleon slowed majestically, turbines rotating and hissing with escaped steam, and as students and teachers ran madly about, scrambling for cover, Lissa and Stephanie stood and watched as it descended toward the terrace.
She was so enthralled by the odd appearance of the ship that it was a moment before Lissa became aware of an odd pulling sensation around her waist.
Stephanie stepped back.
“Where’s that glow coming from?” the other girl’s eyes grew round. Lissa glanced down. A golden glow had begun to flicker about her. Her eyes leapt up to meet Stephanie’s gaze again. The other clutched her sandwich tightly in both hands as the air about them seemed to haze and shimmer and then…
It felt like a pop mixed with a fizzle and abruptly the girls found themselves standing on the deck of the hovering ship looking out over the rail at St. Lucia’s Academy.
Captain Nask grinned widely, showing his flat wide teeth to the small Earthlings standing on his bridge. The taller one looked at first confused and then frightened as she spotted him, but when her face settled into an air of defiance it made him grin.
Nask brushed his long floppy ears off his shoulders—a habitual gesture—and sauntered over so heavily his gait made the deck tremble.
A translator 'bot came forward—its brass fittings trimmed in wood to match the rest of the Forty-Five. The bot was small and bulbous, with a brass top hat on its shiny head, two large black sensors for eyes and a pair of small hover jets for feet.
Nask growled out a greeting and the bot obediently relayed this to the small female. She crossed her arms with a look so skeptical he needed no translation.
“She rejects your kind welcome, Captain. Her tone of voice suggests extreme sarcasm and she refers to you with an epithet that likens the sound of your language with an Earth animal known for being extremely dirty.”
Captain Nask gave a rumbling laugh, his grey mottled face twisting into another grimacing smile. He noticed the small curvy female elbowing her companion, as though trying to correct her behavior.
“Tell her I can appreciate her anger, but it will not help matters. Our destination is the slave markets of Asterope Prime in the Pleiades Sector. They are now my property, and will do as they are told.”
The bot did, and then paused slightly as the taller Earthling replied. Even after she had finished speaking he hesitated, as though his internal processors were not certain how exactly to proceed. Then, turning to face the Captain squarely, it said, “She is a rather defiant little thing, isn't she?”
“What did she say?” Nask demanded, his scowl returning.
“It hardly bears repeating, Sir,” the bot said firmly.
Nask gritted his teeth furiously, “Bot, switch to direct translation mode,” He ordered, “You had better be obedient, young lady, or I’ll skip the slave market and sell you to a meat factory!”
Nask watched as the Earthling shrugged, shrugged! and assumed a nonchalant pose, as though the idea of being served as part of an alien dish was of no consequence to her. The other female buried her face in her hands. At least one of them had a proper sense of self-preservation, Nask thought, bemused. He frowned when the bot translated a reply.
“What a strange species,” he muttered. Holding out a pair of breathing masks, he gestured forward, ordering the bot to lead the Earthlings down into the cargo hold where they would be stored.