THE WORLDS OF
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TO DANCE AMONGST THE
by Steph Bennion
Can the poor, down-trodden kitchen slave Ganesa find a Prince Charming in the shape of young, dashing space captain Hanuman? As they meet for the first time on the dance floor at the American Embassy's Christmas Ball, she is the first to admit he's not exactly her type...
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I HAVE AN INVITATION to a Christmas party!" shrieked Thelxiepeia, billowing into the ornately-furnished room with all the grace of a pregnant airship. She was waving her touch-screen slate as if trying to swat an irritating wasp. "The American Embassy is throwing a ball and they've invited me! Me!"
"And me," Peisonoe pointed out, glancing up from where she sat. The room was filled with electric howls and wails, emanating from the musicians strutting their stuff on the huge holovid screen dominating the room. "Along with father, mother and everyone else who matters in Lanka, so don't get any ideas about being special!"
Peisonoe was Thelxiepeia's twin and shared the same muddy complexion, rolls of fat, dark lank hair and terrible dress sense that made neither Indian girl as pretty as a picture, despite both supposedly being in the flush of youth at a tender eighteen Terran years old. Yet they had been raised to believe that even the plainest of canvas could become a masterpiece with the right patron and their father had made a small fortune as an easily-corruptible official in the service of the Maharaja on the moon of Yuanshi. Epsilon Eridani in the twenty-third century was the new frontier for rogue opportunism and a long way from the stifling old-world governments of Earth.
"I didn't get one," murmured the Indian woman who had followed Thelxiepeia through the door. In her hands was a tray containing the sisters' afternoon tea.
"Yaksha!" scoffed Peisonoe. "Why would you? You're nobody!"
"Where's my hot chocolate?" demanded Thelxiepeia. Before Yaksha could answer, the girl had snatched the jug of milk from the tray as if expecting to find a steaming mug of cocoa-scented brew hiding beneath. "You know I always have chocolate at four o'clock!"
"It's only half-past two," Yaksha said wearily.
"How dare you answer back!"
Yaksha shrugged. "I was only pointing out..."
The rest of her reply was abruptly cut off as an exasperated Thelxiepeia threw the contents of the milk jug into the older woman's face.
"I want my chocolate!" the girl demanded. "Get it for me, now!"
Yaksha responded with a steely stare, but said nothing as she lowered the tray onto a table and left the room. Once she was out of sight, Thelxiepeia dropped into the couch next to her sister and gave an exaggerated sigh.
"Where did father get that woman from?"
"I think she came with the house," replied Peisonoe, reaching to take a scone from the tray. "If she were a slave I'm sure father would have sold her by now."
* * *
The Crystal Palace of Kubera was a huge castle-like edifice in the centre of the city of Lanka, built as a summer retreat for the ruling Maharaja and his family but rarely used as such. His wife the Maharani much preferred the comforts of Sumitra Palace in Yuanshi's capital of Ayodhya, a city which notably did not suffer from the near-constant rainfall that blighted Lanka. The Maharaja therefore used Kubera as a way of rewarding officials, allowing them to live in luxury for as long as they remained in his favour. Minister Lingam, his wife Aglaope and daughters Thelxiepeia and Peisonoe had been in residence just over six months, considerably longer than most.
Yaksha stomped noisily into the kitchen, fuming with barely-concealed rage. The Minister himself, a quietly-confident man who would undoubtedly go far, treated the staff with respect and was always willing to step in to resolve domestic issues with the same keen interest as he would handle problems of state. His wife and daughters however were snobby, mean-spirited individuals who in Yaksha's opinion did not deserve the good fortune fate had bestowed upon them.
"A nobody!" muttered Yaksha, her face still dripping with milk. "I'd rather be a nobody than an obnoxious social parasite!"
The kitchen door reacted too slowly to her approach and Yaksha shoved it open with a crash before the automatics had chance to do it for her, causing the young woman in cook's overalls beyond to jump in alarm. Ganesa was a slim seventeen-year-old Indian orphan from Ayodhya who had been at the palace for just over a year as a public servant, a status that meant she was owned by the state. Slavery was supposed to be illegal throughout the five systems, but the Maharaja had simply redefined the concept based on his own ideas about what was right for Yuanshi.
"Sorry to startle you, my dear," said Yaksha, reaching for a towel. She had interrupted Ganesa's contemplation of their new food molecularisor; she had been trying all morning to fathom how to control it using just the images in her mind, having been implanted with a cranium microchip when she was a child. "Those girls make me so mad!"
Ganesa gave her a sympathetic look. "What have they done now?"
"Their mere presence is enough," snarled Yaksha, dabbing the milk from her face. "It was all I could do to stop myself giving Thelxiepeia a slap! The good news is they'll be away from Kubera tomorrow night, so we can look forward to a bit of peace and quiet. Lingam and his leeches have been invited to a Christmas party," she explained, seeing the girl's quizzical expression. "The annual American Embassy Ball rears its ugly head once again."
"Christmas? But they're Hindu!"
"Our American friends like to show us poor savages the wonders of Christianity at least once a year," said Yaksha. "Actually, this one should be fun, as the Dhusarian Church is planning a protest outside the embassy. When they tried that during Diwali it turned into a full-blown riot."
"The Embassy Ball," Ganesa sighed wistfully. "Dancing! That does sound fun."
"Fancy a chance to meet your Prince Charming?"
"He wouldn't be my type. Besides, I haven't a thing to wear!"
Yaksha laughed. "It's a shame to see a pretty girl like you stuck down here when you should be out enjoying yourself."
"Tell me about it," muttered Ganesa, absent-mindedly running a finger along the back of her neck. "Unfortunately, I have that little marker in my implant that would set off all the alarms as soon as I dared to wander. All things considered, I think I'll settle for another quiet night in."
Yaksha looked on sadly as Ganesa returned to her duties, all too aware that the girl was becoming unhappier by the day. With a sigh, she turned away and idly glanced down to the wristpad she routinely wore. The device was her connection to the five-systems network, though she rarely used its capabilities beyond that of a communicator. As she flicked through her list of contacts an idea began to form in her mind. Thelxiepeia's behaviour had left her feeling more bitter than usual and she needed something good to take her anger away. Just then her eyes fell upon a familiar name and she smiled.
"Ganesa?" she asked. "How do you fancy a bit of magic in your life?"
* * *
By the following afternoon, Thelxiepeia and Peisonoe were on the verge of a joint nervous breakdown as they ploughed through the endless selection of gowns and dresses that filled the wardrobes of their rooms. Down in the kitchen, Yaksha had brought a visitor to see Ganesa, who was sitting warily on a stool wondering what she had let herself in for.
"Ganesa, this is Namtar," said Yaksha, introducing her to a tall, pale-skinned man dressed in a neat civilian suit of grey. "If I am to be your fairy godmother, Namtar here is my magic wand."
"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," greeted Namtar as they shook hands. His Russian accent made Ganesa think of exotic, faraway places. "Yaksha has brought to me a veritable tale of woe and invited me to facilitate an audacious escapade away from your somewhat unfortunate circumstances."
"I beg your pardon?" asked Ganesa, blinking at the man's rush of words.
"He's going to help you get out of here," replied Yaksha. "You shall go to the ball!"
"But..." began Ganesa.
Namtar had brought with him a small black case, which he now placed upon a work surface and opened to withdraw a touch-screen slate. Ganesa's eyes went wide as this was followed by a strange probe-like device, which he connected via a lead to the slate. Her fear increased as he stepped towards her, holding the probe to her head.
"There is no need for alarm," Namtar reassured her. "I merely intend to remove the troublesome series of bits and bytes that has enslaved you so."
Ganesa opened her mouth to protest, then realised what Namtar was saying.
"You can do that?" she asked. "Get rid of the ownership code in my implant?"
She grimaced as a sudden bolt of pain flared behind her eyes, the red light on the tip of the probe flashing in sympathy. Namtar gave an apologetic grin and stepped back.
"All done," he said. "You are no longer branded as property of the Maharaja! Official records are a little harder to change but I have a contact in Ayodhya who owes me a favour. In a week or so no one will know you were ever a public servant to the Yuanshi machine!"
Ganesa stared at him, unsure of whether to believe him or not. Namtar busied himself putting away the probe and slate, then handed an envelope to Yaksha.
"You managed to get tickets?" the woman asked. "I'm impressed."
"To the ball?" exclaimed Ganesa.
"The very same," acknowledged Namtar. "Electronic invites such as those sent to your own dear Minister are regarded as rather vulgar in certain quarters. Holographic heralds are sent by courier to those truly special guests, which now includes yourself."
Yaksha withdrew the flat plastic sheet from the envelope and held it in the palm of her hand. Moments later a monochrome hologram of a child dressed in an angel costume, no more than ten centimetres high, appeared hovering above her hand.
"Greetings, esteemed companion of Lord Consus!" the tiny figure proclaimed in a high piping voice. "The Ambassador and his staff wish you a merry Christmas and cordially invite you to the Sixteenth Annual Yuanshi Embassy Ball!"
"Gosh," murmured Ganesa, as the hologram faded. "It's for real."
Yaksha eyed Namtar cautiously. "Where did you get this?"
"The late Lord Consus is sadly unable to attend this year's prestigious event," he replied solemnly. "He accidentally fell into a chemical tank during a political visit to a terraforming project; and like the ghost of a rather awful joke, he now has no body to take. He was an executive of some standing within the Que Qiao Corporation, as I recall."
"Accidentally?" asked Yaksha, giving Namtar a stern look.
"The authorities have been suitably reimbursed to see it that way. His Lordship will be there in spirit; or to put it another way, as trace elements in the winds that blow from the south. I am sure he would have not wanted this invitation to go to waste."
"There's only one ticket?" Ganesa had hoped to persuade Yaksha to come with her.
"Lord Consus unwittingly bequeathed his own invitation to an associate of mine," Namtar confessed. "You are fortunate that he happened to have a second for a unnamed female companion, even though he was not the sort of man to take a wife. Or to have any friends at all, if the truth be known."
"You have been most helpful," Yaksha told him. "Always a pleasure to help an agent in... Ow!"
"Agent?" asked Ganesa. Namtar was rubbing his arm and staring sullenly at Yaksha.
"Nothing to concern yourself with, my dear!" Yaksha said briskly. "Namtar, I'm sure you have lots of things to do and other places to be. Don't let us keep you!"
Namtar nodded, then bowed to Ganesa.
"Freedom is a precious gift," he said solemnly. "It is one I give gladly. Use it well."
"I will," said Ganesa, slightly bewildered. "Thank you."
Namtar picked up his case and let himself out through the back door. Ganesa put a hand to the back of her neck and felt the lump at the base of her skull that betrayed the presence of her implant. Everything was happening in such a rush that the full enormity of the situation was only just beginning to dawn upon her. For the first time in her life she was free to go wherever she wished, a prospect both exhilarating and terrifying.
"I am going to be in so much trouble over this," mused Yaksha.
"I won't leave if you don't want me too," offered Ganesa.
"I will hear of no such thing!" retorted Yaksha, handing her the holographic invitation. "Don't worry about me. I can look after myself. But I shall miss you."
Ganesa held the invite in her hand and watched as the tiny fairy reappeared.
"My first night of freedom," she mused. "Perhaps that does call for a party!"
* * *
Thelxiepeia appeared at the door of her sister's bedroom and proudly showed off the latest ensemble extracted from her wardrobe. Beneath the layers of lace scarves and oversized jewellery was a short dress striped in a terrible mishmash of pinks, an outfit that did her limited natural assets no favours at all.
"You look divine!" shrieked Peisonoe, trying not to laugh. Her only aim was to look better than her sister, which judging by efforts so far would not be difficult.
"Do you really think so?"
"Of course! You will be the belle of the ball!"
Thelxiepeia smirked as she looked at Peisonoe's own outfit of an animal-print body stocking coupled with a black leather jacket. They had seen a skinny model wear the exact same outfit on the holovid show Galactic Catwalk just last week. There was no denying it was a brave choice, particularly as the model in question had not been burdened with the extra sixty kilogrammes of fat her sister had managed to cram into the stretchy material.
"Is that what you're wearing?" she asked.
"Do you like it?"
"My dear sister, I can honestly say all eyes will be on you tonight."
* * *
"It's a pumpkin," said Ganesa, scratching her head. "Why would anyone want to build a monocycle that looks like a giant pumpkin?"
They were standing in the small underground garage beneath the palace, where a couple of dusty ground cars, discarded fishing equipment and a pile of paint cans jostled for space alongside the strangest vehicle Ganesa had ever seen. Monocycles were single-seat electric vehicles where the rider sat within the hub of a giant wheel, which although fast were notoriously difficult to control. This one had been modified with curved side panels so that it now resembled a huge orange ball with doors and a slot for a windscreen.
"Years ago, the Maharaja decided pumpkins were the new wonder food for Yuanshi farmers to export across the five systems," explained Yaksha. "This was built to promote the damn things. The one time I drove it, a gust of wind from a passing aircar knocked me sideways and I'd gone half a kilometre or more before I managed to stop it rolling."
"I am not driving to the embassy in a pumpkin!"
"There must be a way to make it look less like a overblown vegetable. It is the only vehicle down here that actually still runs."
"I could walk," offered Ganesa.
"Nobody arrives on foot. Especially those with special invites."
Ganesa gave one of the orange side panels an experimental pull but it held firm. Looking closer, she saw the spherical fuselage and doors had side windows that had been sealed with painted panels, which after a few tugs proved easier to remove. Minutes later she and Yaksha had opened up six oblong apertures in the upper half of the pumpkin, three either side, which was almost enough to suggest something quite different to a giant vegetable.
"What if it was a different colour?" she mused. She had never been a fan of orange.
"Like gold?" suggested Yaksha, pointing to the pile of paint tins in the corner of the garage. "A popular colour in Kubera, in case you hadn't noticed."
"Gold," murmured Ganesa. "That could work."
"I'll get a maintenance robot onto it straight away. It would match your dress."
"Dress? What dress?"
"Follow me!" replied Yaksha, clearly enjoying her fairy godmother role.
Back in the kitchen, she produced her next surprise, a floor-length gold sheath dress with spaghetti straps that she had liberated from Aglaope's wardrobe. The mother of the twins had a similar slim build to Ganesa, which only added to the mystery as to why her daughters had turned out the way they had. The gold dress was one Aglaope had bought under the delusion that she could carry the look of someone twenty years younger, only to be subsequently relegated to the back of the closet when the harsh reality of the bedroom mirror revealed this clearly was not the case.
[...continued on page two]
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