Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favourite episodes. A different member of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2016 each week in January.
We hope you enjoy associate editor Alexis Goble’s favorite story from 2016, Miss Darcy’s First Intergalactic Ballet Class by Dantzel Cherry, narrated by M K Hobson. The story originally aired March 13, 2016 as Cast of Wonders 201.
Miss Darcy’s First Intergalactic Ballet Class
by Dantzel Cherry
Darcy walked up to the gilded starship door and it dissolved, revealing what had to be the gaudiest room in the galaxy. Gold, silver, bronze, and minerals that probably didn’t even exist on Earth covered the high ceiling and walls in panels, interlaced throughout with precious stones – and was that tinsel? – depicting who-knows-what. The effect was much like a wild animal had eaten all the jewelry at Tiffany’s and then vomited all over the walls.
Clearly the ability to travel through all the worlds in the galaxy and kidnap a fifty-two year old ballet teacher didn’t grant good taste in interior design.
The blue blob Overlord guard accompanying her spoke, its voice wobbling with each syllable, and Darcy jumped as a split second later her newly installed gray earslugs wriggled and translated:
“Behold, your students.”
The guard sprouted an opaque blue arm and prodded her through the door.
Darcy looked up as four loud green creatures made entirely of tentacles and eyes lumbered by, covered gracelessly in an assortment of tutus, tiaras, and pointe shoes. Every inch of Darcy’s soul cringed at the pointe shoes flopping around on such untrained limbs, but for the first time in her life, she was too intimidated by her students’ size to snatch the satin shoes away and give a stern lecture. Farther back were faceless fluid blobs like the guards, mingling with heliotropic clouds with something – an eye, perhaps? – in the center of each swirling mass. No one noticed her entrance.
The guard spoke again. “And here is your master and new employer, the Rezzik Overlord.”
She turned around to stare at a tentacled alien, far larger than anyone else in the room, lounging across an iron throne the size of her living room back home. The Rezzik Overlord’s flesh showed hints of green, but it was mostly the mottled purple-black of an overripe plum. It was surrounded by its court: larger versions of the blob children as well as smaller clouds, so wispy she could see their single bare eyes staring through the vapors. In the midst of this strange scene an orange tabby cat crouched next to the throne.
He, her master? Darcy had been told – after being beamed into a starship out of the blue, of course, and made to sit in isolation until she calmed down – that she was just here for a ballet lesson. She squared her shoulders and gave her best curtsy, which was saying something.
“Good afternoon … Overlord.”
The Overlord harrumphed. “Miss Darcy Kent. My progeny have been viewing satellite transmissions of this artform you humans call ballet, and you have been observed as the finest ballet instructor of your planet -”
“-and a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet-” Darcy cut in.
“-and you are here now to provide instruction. Your performance today will determine whether you humans will join my magnificent empire as capable allies or as miserable slaves. I expect you to teach my progeny to move exquisitely. Oh, and my little lucky feline here. Teach him some respect.” A stray tentacle stroked the tabby cat’s back.
What sort of ballet could she teach to creatures like this? Ballet could hardly work with so many limbs. She looked over at the blobs and the clouds. Or so few limbs. And who ever taught a cat to do anything besides crapping in a box? Her earslugs wriggled, and by sheer willpower she resisted the urge to scratch them.
“You don’t want to talk to the President of the United States or something? I’m sure there are official diplomats for this sort of thing,” Darcy said.
Three of the Overlord’s tentacles swept away her question. “I judge a planet’s worth by observing its higher art forms in action. Begin.” With a flick of a limb, it shoved the cat away from the throne, and the cat, its tail high and indignant, trotted to Darcy’s side.
“Not just yet,” Darcy said, folding her arms.
Everyone in the room muttered, and the Overlord’s many tentacles flailed about. Darcy forced herself to keep talking. “I need music.”
“That’s what Naasmit is for.” It pointed at a nearby large blob, who resonated a single high, sweet F and wobbled to the back of the room.
“Oh. Well. Good. But that’s not all,” Darcy said, raising her voice at the Overlord’s retinue, which seemed to decide, as one, to talk, sing, and laugh enough to make the air reverberate. “I don’t allow parents in the room while I’m teaching. Never have.”
A hush came over the room, and the Overlord’s many eyes narrowed. “You would tell the Overlord what to do?”
“Well no, not normally. But you’ll distract the children.”
“Oh, that? We have barriers for that.” A sprinkling shower of particles appeared in front of her and thickened into a mirror that spanned the length of the room, blocking her view of the Overlord and his court. The Overlord’s voice boomed out, only slightly muffled by the thin barrier.
“We will watch from this side, and you are free from distraction. Now begin. You have one Earth hour. Teach them all you know.”
“I can’t do that in just -”
She was interrupted by the largest offspring of the Rezzik Overlord pushing past its friends to stand in front of Darcy, four white tutus strapped about its trunk, with tentacles and eyes squeezing above, below, and between the layers of tulle.
“Are you going to make me look beautiful?” it said loudly. “I asked my parent, the Overlord, to bring you here to show everyone how beautiful I am.”
Make this creature beautiful? Darcy glanced back at the wall blocking her from the Rezzik Overlord and prayed.
“I intend to make all of my students perform beautifully, Miss…” Darcy trailed off. What were their names?
“You may call me Anna Pavlova, the great Dying Swan,” the many-limbed, many-eyed child of the Rezzik informed her, fluttering four of its tentacles in imitation of The Dying Swan’s trembling wings.
A smaller, less bulbous version of Anna – a sibling, perhaps? – tiptoed forward on eight pairs of toe shoes.
“And I am Princess. You must call me Princess.”
It hurt Darcy to see such beautiful shoes supporting – barely – four hundred pounds of untrained, tentacled flesh, but she forced a smile.
A swirling cloud in a single short red tutu added, “And I am to be referred to as Maria Tallchief, the Firebird.”
The others were so eager to share their ballerina names with Darcy that the slug translator had difficulty keeping up. Gelsey Kirkland, Marie Taglioni, and so on – all famous ballerinas. None of them wanted to be Darcy Kent, former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet. No accounting for taste.
The only pupil not shouting, shrieking, or running around was the snoozing tabby by her feet.
“What do I do with you, kitty?” she asked.
She jumped when he yawned and replied, “I’m Felix. Please don’t call me anything but Felix, or I’ll accidentally cut your face open.”
Right. And now there’s talking cats. “How in the world…”
“Ugh. This question again. Yes, I’m really talking, and yes, all cats can talk.”
Felix’s bored monotone interrupted her. “No, other animals can’t speak. So why can cats? Because we didn’t originate on Earth. I’m surprised you humans haven’t figured that out yet.”
“Why am I here? Well, that story is long and boring and a little embarrassing. Ahem.”
“Spit it out, cat. It sounded like your master over there gave me permission to do a little tail pulling.”
“Because I was captured, and I’m being punished.” Felix groomed his chest, avoiding eye contact. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
She pinched herself. No, she was still in a beam-me-up-Scotty starship on a Wednesday afternoon, about to teach ballet to aliens in tutus and toe shoes. No big deal. They were acting like the three year olds she had taught at beginning of her career forty years ago, before her fame led her to work with only the elite.
But she could dust off her ‘baby class’ format from the farthest depths of her mental library. This couldn’t nearly be as bad as the Russian guest artist with 50 clauses in her contract, or the snotty Australian that – wait, was that blob licking the mirror?
Darcy checked her watch. Fifty four minutes left. Time to move.
Nudging Felix with her toe, she said, “Come on. We have a planet to save,” then turned to the room at large and called out in a falsely bright voice, “Alright dancers, let’s form a circle.”
No one seemed to notice Darcy in the slightest.
Time to move to Plan B, which needed an unsuspecting helper. Someone vain. Someone bossy.
Her eyes fell on Anna Pavlova.
“Oh, Anna’s showing me that she’s ready. Thank you, Anna.”
Bewildered, Anna looked up. She had been no quieter than anyone else, but was pleased at being praised, and she stood a little taller. Her tentacles slapped at the two clouds rushing by, pulling them into line next to herself.
“Come on!” Anna hissed. “It’s time to start.”
As Anna bullied several students into forming a circle, Darcy focused on the blob licking the mirror barrier.
“It’s Gelsey, isn’t it? Gelsey, I need you to be my special helper today. Could you sit by me and show everyone how to stretch over and touch your toes – I mean, not that you have toes or tentacles – oh my, those are very nice arms and legs you just grew from your – um, blobiness. Oh, my. They look just like the real Gelsey’s, don’t they? Very thin and elegant. Yes, yes, stretch forward to touch your tentacles and toes, just like that –”
Alternating between cajoling and ordering, Darcy led them through her standard warm-up stretches. She modified the stretches as needed for each group of aliens, though she suspected that, based on the nature of their bodies, none of them suffered from lack of flexibility in any apparent limbs. Felix seemed to feel that cleaning his legs constituted sufficient stretching, and appeared deaf to her voice.
Five minutes later, she moved them to the wooden barres that stood near the decorative metal panels. So far, her tactics had proved useful in keeping the dancers focused and following direction, but Darcy couldn’t be sure that would last forever. She briskly arranged them on the barres by species. Felix was, of course, a foot or two too short for the barre.
“A tragedy,” Felix said, his voice monotone. “I shall do my best to follow from down here.” He yawned.
Darcy raised an eyebrow. “Considering you’re a prisoner of the Overlord, I’d think you’d be nervous about not going along with this punishment of his.”
“Yes, yes,” Felix said. “I shall do all of the silly ballet tricks. But I hardly need to learn grace from a human.”
She began to see why the Rezzik Overlord was irritated with the cat.
She came back to the tentacle aliens and assigned their tentacles above and below a certain point to be ‘arms’ and ‘legs.’
“Turn the toes out to first position and plié, everyone,” Darcy said, bending her knees. The ship’s gravity was gentler on her bones. Her knees had lost the crumbling feeling they had acquired twelve years ago, around the time she’d retired from the stage. “And lift your arm. No, that’s your leg, Princess. Lift the tentacle above that. And the one next to it. That’s right, follow me.”
The blobs, having followed Gelsey’s lead and morphed into humanoid shapes, actually looked pretty good during pliés, though they never grew faces, which Darcy found disturbing. The tentacles did a fairly decent job of not getting tangled. Darcy found the easiest modification for them was to pair the tentacles with one nearby so that a dozen or more pairs of tentacles moved through first, second, third, fourth, and fifth positions with relative ease. They were like living May poles, the way their legs wove in and out of each other. It was almost disappointing that none of them tripped.
At first Darcy had thought the clouds had no limbs, but as they moved up and down in time with the music, she began to suspect they were hiding limbs of some sort under all that purple condensation.
Felix simply crouched into a hunting position, lashed his tail, straightened, then crouched again in time with the music. Clearly, he was not amused.
“And now tendus,” Darcy said. “Everyone show me first position again. That’s right, Princess, the heels kiss and the toes point out – er, the suckers kiss and the tips point out. Now we slide one leg out to the tips of our toes and tentacles. Let’s pretend there’s a bug under our toes, and we’re going to squish it.”
“That’s disgusting,” Anna said. “You kill smaller lifeforms without causation?”
She wanted to argue that insects were gross, but these aliens, who very much looked like slugs and spiders, might not appreciate her reasoning.
“This is why humans haven’t joined the interstellar ethical committees yet,” Tamara Karsavina said, and all the students nodded gravely.
So much for impressing the aliens with Earth’s peacekeeping.
“Let’s pretend something else instead. Have you seen a penny?”
Pennies proved to be less controversial, though the idea of sliding precious metals around on the ground remained confusing to all the dancers, particularly the tentacles.
She led them through the next few exercises without further disgracing the human race, and found that clouds, blobs, tentacles, and cat alike had no issue with soft, flowing movements – which, when she thought about it, wasn’t all that surprising. Darcy decided to be bold and introduce pique turns. Those went over surprisingly well – only Felix and the tentacles complained about how it hurt to turn on a single limb.
They all, however, were a real mess with the quick, sharp steps. Felix did well enough, hopping on his hind legs like a kangaroo, but Darcy was hardly able to enjoy it. The lower gravity made a great environment for the tentacle group to do simple sautés, but grand jetés and other jumps that involved leaping from one leg to the other resulted in many tangled tentacles – they needed constant reminders of which tentacles were arms and which were legs.
The blobs and clouds had their own issues even clearing the floor, lacking any muscles, and Darcy found herself trying to comfort two very frustrated alien races as they tried again and again.
“Never mind, Gelsey,” Darcy said, patting the blob uncomfortably on its squishy shoulder. “Leaping is only one of the many fun parts of ballet. In fact, it’s time to learn a short combination of steps today. You’re all doing so well that I think we can make this extra special. Watch me first, then I’ll make little changes for each of you afterward.”
Darcy began to dance, humming the waltz from The Sleeping Beauty as she moved. She didn’t want to make the combination too complicated, but her students had proved to have better memories than she remembered her three-year old classes having, and she wanted to impress the Rezzik Overlord. Her reputation – and Earth, of course – were at stake.
Bourreés were always a parent-pleaser – something about the stereotypical tiny whirring tip-toe steps warmed every doting parent’s heart. She included sweeping balancés and piqué turns, which would both be confusing to the tentacles, but they didn’t seem to mind biting off more than they could chew.
She finished with a long, slow leg lift and turned to find the whole class staring back at her – except for the possibly the blobs, since she still didn’t know where their eyes were – and noted a definite sense of awe. Perhaps this was why the Overlord had spared Earth: out of all the scientific data, all the messages of goodwill and peace that humans had sent out to the universe, the broadcasts of the Moscow Ballet, the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, and other ballet companies had been what got through.
“You have so many bones. How do you lift your leg so high and make your limbs ripple as well as you do with so many long, unbending bones?” Anna asked.
Or perhaps Earth had been spared so alien children could gawk at her.
“Mine goes higher, of course,” Anna went on, and wobbling slightly, lifted a dozen or so tentacles to point straight up to the ceiling. Darcy reaffirmed her decades-long prayer that there was a special hell created for the children who show up the teacher.
She strolled around the room as her students practiced the combination several times, with varying degrees of concentration.
“- and coupé on one, passé two, developpé three, four – yes, Marie Taglioni, take those tentacles all the way up above your head, like a flower sprouting out of the ground – stay five, six, tendu seven, bring your feet – I mean tentacles – to fifth on eight. No, come back and practice, Gelsey, and stop licking the mirror.”
She checked her watch. Her hour was almost up. Would it be enough for the Rezzik Overlord? These children had good memories, yes, but they were dancing with the grace of three-year-olds. They had none of the delicate control of ballerinas who had been practicing for three hours a day, seven days a week for thirteen years before joining a company.
Darcy thought back to her ‘baby ballet’ classes all those years ago. Every child’s joy – and every parent’s pride – was putting on an impromptu performance.
She clapped her hands, and for once her students stopped talking, giggling, and turning. She arranged them in circles: the clouds on the outside, the blobs the next layer in, and the tentacles making up the third layer, with Felix, Anna Pavlova, and Princess in the very center.
“There,” Darcy said, stepping back and rubbing her hands. “Let’s try a little performance, shall we? Show me and your parents your favorite steps. Let everyone see how beautifully you move. We’ll start with our lovely bourreés.”
“A performance?” the Rezzik Overlord’s voice boomed. “You still have seven Earth minutes left. Have you already taught them everything you know?”
The opaque wall that the Rezzik Overlord had created shimmered and faded to a pale translucent blue. Darcy could see everyone in the Overlord’s court, watching her intently.
For a split second, Darcy nearly found herself groveling and apologizing for not teaching every single variation of pas de bourrée and fouetté and grand jeté she knew. Then her pride for her profession reared its irritated head – how dare he trivialize ballet? – and she ignored the Overlord.
She hummed a waltz for Naasmit and the blob started singing at once. Naasmit started with the simple waltz structure that Darcy had given her, and built on it until it swelled into an intricate, grand score, and the students responded to the music in kind. With Darcy leading in front, they began with the combination, each alien race modifying the steps – more or less – as she had instructed them.
Just as they finished the developpé, Darcy turned and called over the music, “Now show us your favorite turns.”
Almost as one, the tentacles spun in tight circles, limbs flowing back like dozens of green ribbons caught in a breeze. The blobs twisted themselves into curlicues, and after several frantic pleading gestures from Darcy, Felix rose on his hind legs and shuffled in a circle, and all the while the clouds floated in an endless follow-the-leader.
It was beautiful. Perhaps not up to the standards of modern ballet – may the Overlord never notice the difference – but it probably would have fit in very well in the French courts. The dancers back then had worn such ridiculously unwieldy costumes they could barely do more than walk, let alone leap and pirouette like dancers now.
Besides, Darcy Kent had just started working with them. Given a few years and a few attitude adjustments, she’d have them in fine performance form.
Darcy signaled to Naasmit, and the blob changed the tune, speeding up.
“Now improvise! Show us your favorite steps!” Darcy called over the music.
The performers paused for a moment, processing her words.
Then they went mad.
They wriggled, chased each other, bobbed, and wobbled. A pair of blobs collided with each other and seemed to merge before flying back and colliding into a jumble of tentacles. Every single cloud was bouncing – very low to the ground, thankfully – into a puffy mass. Lightning crackled and Darcy felt her clothes pull away from her body, full of static.
Felix leaped out of the fray to the back of the room. Traitor.
Princess rolled in front of her like a tumbleweed, toe shoes clattering noisily on the copper ground, and Anna Pavlova had climbed on top of a blob and was bouncing on the poor creature, shrieking with delight.
“Dance!” Darcy called in desperation to Anna. This was all because of it. Why wasn’t it taking this seriously?
Anna’s many eyes glanced down at her, and the young Rezzik seemed to remember where it was for a few moments. It leaped – or tried to – in mid-air and soared for a few sickening moments before flopping on the ground in a tangle of green limbs and white tulle. Darcy reached down to help it up and pulled and –
One of Anna’s tentacles ripped free, dripping black blood.
“Oh my – uh, do you want this back?”
Anna raced off screaming.
Suddenly aware of the watching audience, Darcy looked at the limp tentacle in her hand and up at the Rezzik Overlord. Its many eyes returned her stare, unblinking.
She’d dealt with countless students wetting their pants, spraining their ankles, and even tripping and losing a few teeth, but she’d never dealt with a severed limb before.
Darcy began to set the tentacle on the floor, but paused. It seemed so disrespectful. She checked her watch. Three minutes of class left. It was supposed to be time for the reverence: a show of respect between the teacher, music accompanist, and students, but Darcy wasn’t sure she wanted to spend her last moments of life practicing fancy curtsies.
Apparently Naasmit hadn’t noticed the bloodbath, for the blob played on as loudly as before.
“You can stop playing now, Naasmit,” Darcy called. The blob immediately slowed, trilled a few high notes, and swung the last note down to a deep bass. The dancers looked around, bemused. The only noise came from Anna, sobbing in the corner near the metal panels.
“Dancers, curtsy to our Rezzik Overlord.” She curtsied her deepest, praying for some kind of mercy.
The Overlord’s grumble confirmed her suspicions.
“What nonsense is this? You still have two minutes,” the Overlord said. Its tentacles flailed twice, accentuating its displeasure.
“But – I thought -” Words failed Darcy, and she held the tentacle up, which flopped unhelpfully.
“Don’t waste our time with such nonsense, Miss Darcy Kent. Lrrra’vajerrr, stop your wailing. That tentacle was going to fall off soon; Miss Darcy Kent simply helped it along.”
“Wait. Your tentacles fall off?” Darcy asked.
“But of course, Miss Darcy Kent. How else will adolescent Rezzik grow their adult tentacles? Wgggevid, what did you think of your lesson?”
“Didn’t I look wonderful? Weren’t my tentacles moving so pretty? I was just like a real –”
Anna brushed away its tears to interrupt Princess. “Can we do Swan Lake next time?”
“No, Lrrra’vajerrr, I wanted to do Sleeping Beauty.”
“But that’s not fair! I’m the oldest, and I –”
“Enough,” the Rezzik Overlord said to his offspring. “Leave us now. You are in need of sustenance.”
All of the dancers except Felix left, and Naasmit joined the court once more. Darcy tightened every muscle in her body, then relaxed – or tried to.
“Well?” she asked. “What did you think of your children’s beautiful dancing?”
“Was that all there was to learn?” the Overlord asked. “Those little puny steps. Ballet seemed like so much more than what you taught them.”
Darcy surprised even herself with her snappy tone. “No, Overlord sir. Of course that’s not all. I taught the basics, just like I would to any human student. They will learn more when they’re ready for it, and not a moment sooner.” She glared, forgetting for a moment to be afraid, then cursed herself for being such a prideful idiot.
The Overlord rubbed a dozen tentacles together. “Resplendent. I would like to employ your services again, Miss Darcy Kent. This art is intriguing – and worthy, I think, of a place in my court. Shmakkk’jerrr, pay Miss Darcy Kent handsomely in the currency of her people.”
Darcy, having just exhaled, perked up at the mention of pay. Humans go free, ballet becomes an intergalactic artform, and this turns out to be a paying gig.
Shmakkk’jerrr, another tentacle alien, came forward and placed a large plastic box in Darcy’s arms. It was lighter than she’d expected, much lighter than gold, jewels, coins, or paper bills would be. She opened the box, and found the top of it covered with –
“Tinsel?” she asked. The entire box was stuffed tight with what she was sure was brand new silver-colored tinsel.
“Yes,” the Overlord said. “The crowning achievement of your species. Gold we have found elsewhere, and silver, and chromium, and astatine, and so many others, but this is the first that we have discovered tinsel.”
“Oh … thanks,” Darcy said. She let the tinsel fall back in the box.
“And me, Overlord? Is my punishment complete?” Felix asked.
The Overlord made a choking sound, which the slug translator interpreted as laughing.
“Yes, Felix. I believe I will reward you by allowing you to return to Earth with Miss Darcy Kent. Shmakkk’jerrr, give Miss Darcy Kent more tinsel and send them back to Earth. We shall call on you again next week, Miss Darcy Kent.”
And like that she was beamed back to her bedroom. Felix inspected the bed, sighed, and jumped up.
“So, you know how to use a litter box, right?” Darcy looked around the room. “Hmm. I don’t have one yet. Looks like it’s a box of tinsel for you until I get to the store, then.”
Though the sun was still setting, Darcy was ready for bed. She turned off the lights and crawled under the sheets, fully clothed. Felix curled around her feet.
“It’s over,” Darcy said. “I just taught the most creative ballet class ever. Not to mention saving the human race.”
“And just think,” Felix said. “You get to do it all over again next week.”
Darcy sighed. Then she got out of bed and turned on the light. She had an intergalactic ballet to choreograph.
About the Author
Dantzel Cherry teaches pilates and raises her daughter by day. By night and naptime, she writes. Her baking hours follow no rhyme or reason. Her short stories have appeared in Fireside, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and other magazine and anthologies including here at Cast of Wonders.
About the Narrator
M.K. Hobson is a writer of historical fantasy fiction, and records stories for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Zero Books. She’s also the cohost of a Web series for Zero Books titled “We Live in a Society.”
Her work has appeared in many publications such as Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Interzone and Sybil’s Garage. Her debut novel The Native Star was published to critical acclaim in September 2010 by Ballantine Spectra.
She can be heard frequently on PodCastle, both as guest host and narrator, and has long been a beloved part of the Escape Artists family. Follow her online or on Twitter.