The first beat sent a rumble through the entire Mothership. Metal squealed. Another beat struck, then more followed, unspooling a string of funky percussion that hung in the air above the mechanical noises of the ship. The passengers and crew dangled from it, suspended breathless and hopeful, muscles held tight in anticipation.
The string snapped. The dance erupted. Everyone climbed out of their safety harnesses and flowed onto the floor in an ecstatic wave. Waists twisted and arms angled, bodies bent just so to capture the quirk in the singer’s top notes. The ship shivered from the motion of so many joyous black bodies. It quivered like the skin of a drum and continued lifting through and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, leaving the launchpad at Jamestown Spaceport far below.
The farther from the planet the ship got, the more ecstatic the dance became. People whirled and dipped alone, in pairs, in swirling rhythmic clusters. The hems of filmy white skirts floated past slender brown calves. Sweat glistened in well-trimmed beards as chests flexed and hips swayed. The music rose, and the multicolored inner walls of the ship heaved in time with the music’s crescendos as it sped through space.
The beat shifted subtly, blended, and revolved until the song was new. A voice rumbled from the speakers hidden in the structure of the room, and when the dancers heard the words it spoke, laughter lifted from their throats. Someone from the last century had traveled through time on a digital drive just to tell everybody on the ship to tear off the roof and give up the funk, if they wanted it. Everyone’s hands lifted, and the dance changed to match the new rhythm.
One of the junior officers put her hands on her hips and leaned out into the space in the center of the dance floor. Her feet paced out a pattern of lines and angles, the curves of her legs making it three-dimensional for brief moments as she crossed the floor with a bouncing, slouching step. A plump and sensuous passenger stepped delicately into the center of the imaginary pattern the officer had outlined and began to roll and bump her hips in time to the music with her hands raised and her eyes closed.
Another voice imported from the past chanted through the music, imploring the dancers to bring their best to the Mothership’s floor, then rose to a soulful pleading wail, begging them to get down and get funky.
The ship flew on. Machinery whirred, and the captain, dressed in a shiny red leather jumpsuit left open to the navel, stepped close to the wall on the downbeat and tapped it. The sensory panels read his fingertips and gave him access to central control. An acid blue display flared in the wall and shone brightly through the dimness of the dance floor. He read it carefully, peering over the tops of his round glasses, and suddenly smiled at it, satisfied, and tapped another place on the wall. A pencil-thin microphone slid out at lip level.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain of the Mothership speaking. We’ve achieved liftoff and left Earth’s atmosphere safely. We’re currently preparing to approach the moon and slingshot into a trajectory that will eventually take us out of this galaxy. Do not be alarmed—the engine room is suspension-insulated to absorb thrust and g-force and has adequate artificial gravity. You won’t feel any ill effects as long as you keep moving. I’d like to once again thank the crew for their hard work and all of you for joining us on this mission.” The captain paused and looked at all the faces on the dance floor staring back at him expectantly while their bodies twitched subtly in time to the ambient beats. He promised himself he’d remember this moment forever, then continued. “I want to thank you all for dancing so hard and so well. The energy from our combined motion and force is banked for later, thanks to the dance floor’s design. It’s not our main energy source, of course, but don’t forget that every little step you take adds to the success of our mission.” The captain paused for appreciation, maybe even laughter, but instead the crew and the passengers looked bored. He coughed, took a deep breath, and shifted gears. “In other words, drop it real low and pop it real good! What you got for us, Mr. DJ?”
The music got louder. The ambient mumble was suddenly slashed by a record scratch and a syncopated pattern of violin chords. A man panted rhythmically on the track, once, twice, then spat out a few rough words. As soon as he got to the second word—money—the answering roar from the passengers drowned out the rest of what he had to say.
They followed all the instructions—both the captain’s and the rapper’s. They dropped, they popped, they dipped, they twerked. Elbows were tucked, backs bent, faces set in concentration. Occasionally someone would abandon themselves totally to the pleasure of the dance and poke their tongue out like a flag, spurring the other dancers to dip lower, make it clap, put their back in it. Crew bumped hips with passengers, officers with messcooks, everyone too caught up in the business of the dance to really notice who was who. The Mothership ran on beats, on joy, on stored rhythmic motion, and it was everyone’s job to give it the boost it needed for a smooth, swift journey through space.
The captain had been present years ago at the first production and design meeting at the headquarters of the Paul Cuffee Society. There had been debate about everything at the time—the ship’s shape, its size, its color scheme, even who to let on (a couple of investors put up quite a fuss about whether or not non-African-descended people who were “close to the culture” should be allowed), but most of all, how to power a ship carrying so many Black bodies into deep space. The answer was heavy fuel, of course, although they managed to avoid any toxic power cores. No need to ruin a new world with poison from the old—if anybody knew the importance of respecting the places you go to find your fortunes, it was the people of the Mothership.
But when all was said and done, something was missing. Something kept the Mothership’s design from feeling right, no matter how hard the designers and engineers worked. The technology was there, but it needed seasoning. The captain remembered when the Mothership’s chief aerospace engineer had sat back in his chair, cocked his head, and said, “Y’all seen those new kinetic turbine prototypes from NIST? The ones that collect force through those wide pressure sensors? I mean, it wouldn’t really make much of a difference, but like … you ever watch Pimp My Ride? You know how, sometimes, you need something a little crazy to make everything just right?” Everyone turned to look at him, and when someone asked him what pressure sensors and car customization had to do with the Mothership, he just smiled and said he had an idea.
The DJ leaned over his turntables, worked some science with his long fingers, and a new beat filled the air, this one quick and rolling with the sort of drums that had been played since before the dancers’ ancestors first encountered ships. Knees bent and wobbled into Gwara Gwara shapes, waists wined, hands clapped. Just when the dance had adjusted to the new music, a woman’s voice, syrupy, low and slightly sped up, began to slide over the drums, filling the gaps between sounds. The passengers paused for a moment in surprise. They hadn’t been expecting this remix. A high-pitched beep began to sound, signaling that the sensors were not receiving the expected input, and they rushed to dance again. A few people even sang along, reciting the list of cities in the bridge of the song. Some mimed along with the saxophone solo at the end.
The dance went on while the captain’s voice boomed out over the mic again. “Everybody get up and dance! Let’s get this voyage started right! Everybody on the dance floor!” As soon as the last word left his mouth, his eyes lit on a young woman, brown, thin and awkward, leaned up against the wall on the other side of the dance floor. He banged the wall with his fist and the mic slid out again. “Ensign Jewel Johnson! As a member of the crew, please report to the dance floor immediately.”
She looked at him, then away, as though she hadn’t heard. The captain slid the mic back into the wall and sighed. Some people’s children. He stepped out onto the dance floor, making his way through while bopping to the beat. He took a brief moment to stand near his co-captain and bend his knees, move his hips, and bounce in a polite and creaky middle-aged motion before stepping aside to let one of the passengers step in and take over. The younger man had that fluid boneless grace people never seemed to appreciate while they still had it, and when he reached to grab the co-captain’s round hips, his locs flew forward, caught and lingered for a moment in the high fluffy dome of her afro. The captain left them to laugh and untangle from one another to the sound of whistles and bass drums.
By the time he got to Ensign Johnson, she was slumped against the wall of the dance chamber, looking lost. The captain put his hand against the wall near her to steady himself after a sudden shudder ran through the ship. They were almost there, but just a little more power couldn’t hurt. The captain tried cajoling. He’d recruited Johnson into the Cuffee Society himself at a National Society of Black Engineers event. She had been a xenobiology undergrad with a vague idea about doing graduate work in biochemical engineering, and he’d just left the Air Force and begun to dream of outer space. He’d been a mentor, of sorts. Another dark-faced island in a not-quite-welcoming sea. He could get away with being a little familiar.
“Jewel? C’mon now, talk to me. Why aren’t you out on the floor, sweetheart?”
She looked at him and shook her head. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“I mean I can’t. I don’t know how to dance. I never learned.”
The captain screwed up his face, tilted his head.
Jewel laughed. Her eyes strayed past him, landed on a boyish woman in a bright blue tracksuit with her hair faded high and tight. She was doing intricate footwork that morphed into the chicken head, then back into spinning heel-toe steps. The music changed again suddenly, and the woman cocked her hips forward, crossed her arms, and began to lean her upper body back the way the song was telling her to. The whole dance floor followed her lead.
The captain sighed. “Jewel. Ensign Johnson. Everybody can dance. The passengers need to see every member of the crew doing their part. Just give us a little two-step, a little sway.” He motioned deliberately towards the floor, made as if to grab her wrist and guide her there.
She snatched her arm away from him, panic in her eyes. Her voice rose. “I can’t. I—this isn’t a good time to explain all this—but look, I was raised around white people.”
The captain spared a thought for why and how this woman had wound up on the Mothership, and then remembered it was his fault and repented. Black was Black, and the Mothership was for all skinfolk who wanted to see what lay beyond the stars. The Cuffee Society was clear on that point. No room for judgment, just love, joy, and the kinetic energy the two produced, pushing Black people out into space.
He had a sudden memory of the alumni ball where he had first talked to Johnson about joining his crew. Caught up in an idea, he moved back onto the dance floor. He spent a moment with the co-captain, trying to keep it professional while she walked him through a quick, hip-twisting kizomba step. Then he dropped a few words in the DJ’s ear, ignoring the side-eye he received in return. Finally, he stepped back over to Jewel, adding in a little step and twirl to do his part. He bent to speak into her ear, and her posture shifted from defeat to protest to acceptance. She followed him to the dance floor, to the spot where the co-captain had already managed to get everybody standing in neat straight lines, where they bopped absently to the fading notes of the last song. A wave to the engineer and the notes in the air became lighter, flightier, until a delighted woman’s voice snatched them out of the air and brought it all home.
The captain stood next to Jewel Johnson and nodded. “OK, Miss I-Can’t-Dance. Just follow me.”
The music soared and the passengers and crew stepped in unison to the right, then to the left. With Ensign Johnson and the captain in the center of the front line, the whole floor stepped backwards four times. Then they stepped forward with a little kick, smacked the color-shifting floor of the ship, and turned.
A few people shouted along with the lyric.
The lights of the dance floor brightened in response.
Jewel and the captain caught each other’s eyes in the middle of a turn and smiled.
Everyone sang along with the melody of the last line of the song.
The ship’s trajectory smoothed, and it sped further into blackness.