Robots Can't Dance Bharata Natyam
by Tim Hammack
"Robots can't dance. Not like Sunita." Neel clasped his dark hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair. The stage's brilliance silhouetted the six people who shared the table with him and Javier. On the stage, an unseen woman chanted, voice climbing from her chest to resonate from the hall's domed ceiling. A hand drum thumped with her words and a violin seared the silence between them. The notes came to life center stage in a swirl of cloth and color. Sunita spun, beating her heels against the crisp floorboards as her anklets chattered and her wrists flashed precise hand movements.
Javier let his spoon fall into the bowl of gulab jamum syrup.
"Tonight's her big night. C'mon. Think about that new robot later." Neel snatched Javier's wrist to show him the rhythm.
He pulled free, but grinned. "Sunita's good. I know she's good—even if I can't figure out what the hell she's doing."
"It's a story, see?" Neel said. "She's shooting an arrow at that big guy in the chariot."
"Chariot? Arrow? They're dancing."
Neel rolled his hand. "Let your imagination flow. See? She killed his horses."
"I'll take your word." Javier shrugged. "Sunita's good, though—even if the lighting's not."
"The lighting's fine."
"They need smart lights. I can tell a college kid is working these."
"The lighting's fine. This is the best part. Watch." Neel focused his eyes on the stage. Sunita and her male rival goaded each other, twirling in alternating sequences. When one stopped, the other spun with a flurry of hand motions. The combatants settled to tapping their feet as a rainbow of women filed from backstage to join them. Soon the lights dimmed, the dancers froze, and the curtains fell. Neel hopped to his feet and applauded.
Javier rose, clapping and nodding his head. "Not bad. Not bad. Though holographic blurring would have intensified it."
"You were great. I loved it." Javier wrapped his arm around Sunita's shoulder.
She smiled, shivering in the frigid Chicago gale. Her strong eyes gazed at him beneath a fur-lined hood and her hooked nose flared, releasing frosty steam. Wind was blasting the darkness from her cheeks, turning them pink.
"I'm glad you came," she said. "Even if it meant not working late."
Javier squeezed Sunita's waist and led her against the wind into the shimmering car park off State Street and Congress. After he flashed his ticket at the tollgate, the pedestrian turnstile unlocked and Sunita, hands stuffed in her pockets and head tucked, broke into a jog. Javier charged after her, scooped her from her feet, and raced towards their auto as he clicked the remote key. The taillights of his bullet-shaped, model year 2040 Honda Paradise luxury sedan flashed, and the doors lifted. He lowered his giggling fiancée onto the jelly seat. After he climbed into the driver's seat, she kissed him. The car's dash computer came to life, glowing in a warm hue.
"Where do you wish to go?" the car's grainy voice said.
"Take us home, Lee." He rested one wrist across the emergency steering wheel and cradled Sunita with the other hand. The humming car began moving. Javier felt as though he glided on a cushion of air.
Sunita pressed her cheek to his. "What did Neel say? He's very picky."
"Neel loved it."
Sunita sighed, unzipped his coat, and thrust her frosty fingers into it.
He kneaded her downy shoulder. "I'll admit, though...."
"Oh?" She purred, caressing his chest.
"I'll admit I have half a mind to speak to the stage manager. You need smart lights."
"What?" Her hand stopped.
"Smart lights. They know where to shine and at what intensity. A college kid pushing buttons just isn't up to speed with today's technology."
"What was wrong with the lighting?" Her rich eyes flared.
"Smart lights would've been so slick. Maybe have one of those sensory stages that let the audience log into the vibes of the dancers."
Sunita leaned against her door. "What? This isn't a country-rap concert at the Cathay Air Center."
"No. But there's no reason you can't take advantage of technology. You saw that my service robot arrived today? Baby, you'll never have to keep your eye on another auto-sweeper again. The manual says it even knows how to pour beer."
"Honey, let Mr. Styx do it." Javier rested the butt of his palms upon her shoulder blades, pinched the soft muscles through her sweatshirt, and eased her towards him. She squirmed free and spun. Luxuriant hair fell around her, glistening in the fluorescent lighting of their small kitchen. The scent of coriander and onions filled the air.
"No. Your stupid robot doesn't know how to make my mother's curry." Her chest heaved. Her eyes blazed.
"Honey. Honey. You need to give him a chance."
"That thing's an it and no I don't."
Mr. Styx, matte blue and plastic from head to toe, leaned over the counter chopping potatoes into fine mush and sweeping the mash onto the floor.
Javier stepped between her and the machine. "It's a he. The manual says you need to think of Mr. Styx like he's a person."
"I don't care what that damn manual says."
She fled the kitchen and he followed her to the living room where she halted in front of the picture window that spanned the length of the apartment's south wall. The John Hancock Building towered in the distance, swathed by mist and swirling snowflakes. Over her left shoulder, the Sheridan Drive condos stood sleepy vigil in the morning storm.
"You have to give him time." Hugging her elbows, he dug his nose into her scented hair. "He's got to bring his neural net up to speed."
"I don't care about his internet, or whatever." Her biceps hardened in his hands. "You paid a month's salary for that thing, and all it does is butcher my potatoes." She wrenched from his grasp and plopped onto the plush easy chair that overlooked the view.
He sank onto the chair's footstool and kneaded her calf. "Honey pie."
"Don't you honey-pie me."
"Baby doll. Mr. Styx is the thing. He can answer the phone, do the laundry, and balance the checkbook. He's ultra-cool—he even speaks Turkish."
"Are you Turkish? Am I Turkish?"
"No, no. But you have to understand—it's so ultra."
"Ultra. Ultra. Everything's ultra with you. Maybe I should move in with Neel." She twisted sideways, turning her back on him.
"Baby doll." He squeezed into the chair, drove his hand under her sweat top, and kneaded her warm, tight belly. "Mr. Styx just does so much. Hell. If you plug him into the T.V., he can download the program guide."
"Why do we need that?" Sunita rolled off the chair and stormed to the kitchen.
Javier slumped, sinking into the soft cushion. A dish shattered. A potato thudded against plastic then another did. "What are you doing?" He ran for the kitchen.
"Thanks, Neel, for keeping him until this dies down." Javier dragged the case containing the disassembled Mr. Styx into Neel's apartment. Its rollers creaked like the treads of retreating German tanks from the WWII documentaries he watched with his grandfather.
Neel held the door open in a tee-shirt and slacks. "It's not a problem. I might even give him a try. You say he can pour a beer?"
"Better than a bartender."
"Well, that's assuming the bartender doesn't have cleavage."
Javier cocked his thumb. "You can get that model. I was afraid Sunita would make fun of me."
Neel smirked. "Let's not go there. The Internet has ruined me enough. Last thing I need is to add mechanical things to my list of vices. She's pretty upset, is she?""Yeah." Javier dragged the case in front of Neel's shoe rack. Neel tapped the wall button and the front door slid shut.
"You know her." Javier rested his hands on his hips. "Once she works herself up, nothing will bring her down. I'm going down to Michigan Avenue. Last weekend, she wanted to buy a goofy-expensive bedding set." He grimaced. "I guess I might as well buy it for her. Want to come along?"
The transit authority train clattered towards the Chicago station. Javier looked at Neel, seated, wearing a blue scarf and a thin, self-heating parka. Javier said, "I can't believe they haven't replaced these ancient things with maglevs. Even Saint Louis has a maglev."
"These old trains get us where we need to go." Neel shrugged.
"Yeah, but they're gross."
"Yeah, but to finance an overhaul of the transit authority, the city would have to raise taxes. Do you want to pay more taxes just to be ultra?"
"I've never understood economics. It seems that technology ought to drive it. I mean, the world's advancing, right? If you don't have the latest, you're hurting."
"I don't know. You knew the Romans had robots two thousand years ago?"
"What? You're kidding me."
"They called them Greek slaves," Neel said.
"Not another history lesson."
"I'm serious. A first-century Greek slave could do everything your robot can do—without mushing the potatoes."
"Yeah, but tell that to police when word gets out that I have a European chained in my closet. The point is that robots like doing it. Plus, I don't think you can plug goggles into a first-century slave and play Space Sim."
The train rattled to a halt and the door slid open, revealing the dirty tiles of a gray terminal, Chicago Station. Neel hopped to his feet, and Javier followed, hands in his pocket. The escalator carried them to a ticket gate. Javier flashed his subway card, but collided with the plastic barricade. He flashed the card once more to similar results. Neel, free, laughed.
"These damn cards." Javier ground his card against the glowing reader. The gate opened.
"You remember the old paper tickets?"
"Yeah. I think Chicago was the last city to ditch them."
"Would you prefer the implants, like they have in Tokyo? That's the future, they say."
"Implants aren't ultra." Javier headed towards the light of the exit passage. As wind from Chicago Street blasted them, the escalator climbed. Neel hooded himself, but Javier endured. A final gale heralded their rise to the surface. Small, cudgel-shaped cars buzzed past them, and the crossing lights chirped like birds. Six bundled women marching with shopping bags edged them aside, and a man passed, dressed in a ski suit and wearing a computer over his left eye.
"Did you see that headset?" Javier nudged Neel and cocked his thumb at the computer man. "I thought about getting one, but Sunita stopped me."
Computer man collided with the traffic light, ricocheted, and rubbed his face. He backed into a woman who cursed him before she hustled across the street. Computer man wagged his middle finger at her.
Javier grimaced. "Regardless, those headsets are ultra. I mean, they make you ultra-efficient. You just have to show a little common sense when using one."
"Ultra-efficient?" Neel grinned. "Oh, I bet computer guy was watching a porn cartoon from Japan."
Javier frowned and strode towards the intersection. Crossing the street, however, his head grew heavy and words tugged at his throat. Without looking at Neel, he muttered. "Sunita says I lack depth."
"Yeah. Says I have no hobbies."
Neel patted his shoulder. "You have a hobby."
"I know." Javier sighed. "I think she's pissed that I never go to her dances, but I don't see what the big deal is. I don't make her watch me work out at the gym or design simulators."
Neel shrugged. "Yeah, but those aren't participatory activities. Dancers need an audience. Besides, she's good. You just have to relax, let your imagination go."
"It's so old-fashioned. We have 3-D television. Why pretend that a guy's riding a horse? I want to see it. That artsy stuff can get pretentious."
"But it's her life."
"She threw out my robot."
"It's just a dumb robot," Neel said."Sunita doesn't care about any of my interests—unlike her, I don't hold that against her.""Well, women are different."
Javier fell silent. They crossed the intersection of Wabash Street, then Rush Street, and arrived at Michigan Avenue's packed broadway. Javier stopped before a clothing shop's plate glass windows.
"This is the place." He smiled at Neel. "It's pretty cool. They use automatons."
"Asimov's?" Neel gazed at the shop name, protruding from the second story in bold steel letters.
"After that writer who created Star Wars."
"Star Wars? Oh, I remember watching that with my grandfather. The logical guy with the pointed ears was my hero."
Javier cocked his hand like a pistol. With the fall of his thumb, he imitated the sound of a gunshot. "I'll be back."
"Yeah," Neel laughed. "Star Wars was terrific—even if the Galactica never made it home."
Javier stepped forward and the glass doors parted. Once inside the shop, a plastic man greeted them with large, flashing eyes.
"Welcome to Asimov's, may the force be with you." The automaton cocked its head, flashing a permanent grin.
"These automatons are great." Javier turned to the robot. "I want to buy the bedding set my fiancée looked at the other day."
The robot's eyes flashed. Its head bobbed. "Ah, Javier. I know just what you are referring to. Allow me to summon an associate."
Another robot's eyes sparkled, and it hobbled forward on spindly legs.
"Greetings, Javier. My name is Clarke and I would be happy to escort you."
Javier glanced at Neel. "Aren't these guys great?"
They followed the robot to a spiraling staircase, and the machine climbed step after step to the third floor with a jerky, but confident stride. It led them down an aisle of shimmering bath towels, at the end of which the automaton lifted a bedding set.
"I believe, Javier, this is the product you mentioned." The android extended its skeletal hands and placed the bundle into Javier's grasp. "Can I assist you further?"Javier shook his head. "No. You did swell."
The machine bowed and hobbled down the aisle.
"These automatons are fantastic. They cost twenty times what Mr. Styx did, though. I don't think that would fly with Sunita."
Neel shook his head, but pointed. "That's a nice bed set."
"It had better be for the price. Real cotton and real down. Hey, let's check out those bath towels. I've never seen those before."He swaggered to the towel section. An array of multi-colored cloths sparkled before his eyes. The plastic shelving they rested upon changed color every ten seconds, and, when it adopted a new shade, the towels faded, then brightened to a hue that complemented it.
"That's fantastic." Javier seized a folded cloth. It felt spongy in his fingers yet was as pliant as normal fabric. He gasped when the region his hand touched turned peach. "Touch this." He tossed the towel at Neel. In Neel's grasp, it morphed to a glossy brown.
Neel chuckled. "What? Are these towels for chameleons?"
"This is completely ultra."
"And completely outrageous. Do you see the price?"
"Yeah, but Sunita will go crazy for these. She hates my dingy white towels and the ones her mother bought don't match the bathroom."
"I've never understood the fuss about bathrooms," Neel said.
"You know what?" Javier set the bedding package on the ground and unfolded the towel.
"What?" Neel said.
"This is absolutely the most ultra-est technology."
"All right. You already said that."
"I mean this is really, really fantastic. I bet they make clothes out of this."
"This is it. This is it."
"What do you mean?"
Javier wadded the towel and grabbed another. "I mean, if Sunita were to make dance costumes with this material..."
"Uh, I don't think so."
"I'm serious." Javier gazed at Neel. "She would look so ultra. Where's an automaton? I bet we could special order the stuff." Javier dashed for the staircase.
Neel sighed, lifted the bedding set, and followed.
Tim Hammack's fiction has appeared
in Murder, Mystery, Madness, Magic and Mayhem: Thirteen Tales from Missouri Writers,
and in Triskaideka (Cave Hollow Press anthologies), and is forthcoming in
Storyteller. He is completing a Masters of
Science in Computer Engineering. He lives in St. Charles, Missouri.
Copyright © 2005. Illustration also by Tim Hammack. Do not reproduce without permission.