by Colleen Quinn
One day, in a burst of frugality, the cruise ship industry decided that it cost too much to travel with live performers. They had to be paid union wages and fed and boarded, taking up space that could go to paying passengers. Gone were the days of full orchestras serenading the stars on an open deck; no more comedians or magicians with their harassed assistants and perpetually defecating doves. To fill their entertainment needs, the S.S. Philip K. opted for Eurythmatics, clever robots programmed to perform any dance.
Passengers gathered in the Starlight Ballroom and the robots took to the dance floor, very lifelike in their black leotards with a sprinkling of rhinestones. People called out a dance style and the Eurythmatics did it, providing their own music from powerful speakers at the base of their necks. After the show, they walked to a little backstage closet and stood there in the dark until the next performance.
They had come a long way since the early Boogiebots, poor things with no knees that clanked at every step. The Eurythmatics always came in pairs. E.R., as he thought of himself, was the latest model and he had bland, handsome features and lacquered black hair that reminded people of former American president Ronald Reagan. His partner, Femme, had small breasts and a modest filmy skirt over her leotard. She wore high-heeled shoes with a strap across the instep and her hair was molded into a ballerina’s bun.
The innovation that had advanced their model to the most popular on the entire Fun & Festivity cruise line was an overall sensory system or “skin” that allowed the Eurythmatics to better predict each other’s movements. When E.R. held Femme’s hand for a foxtrot or a cha-cha, her hand was warm; when he lifted her during a pas de deux from Coppélia, he could feel the carefully sculpted plastic muscles in her back. Femme was different from him; they ought to be identical apart from their token gender identifiers, but E.R. sensed a potential in her that intrigued him.
The Eurythmatics could perform a minuet, they could jitterbug and breakdance, never missing a beat. The mirrored ball that descended from the ceiling when the cry went out for disco, spangling the audience with spots of light, always met with huge applause.
Inevitably, at about the time the servers collected the fifth round of coupons from the booklets of free drink vouchers, someone in the audience would demand that the Eurythmatics have sex. Silence would fall, then someone else would call out the same thing and a rowdy chant would begin. Mob thinking always escalated when robots were involved, as everyone knew there would be no repercussions.
E.R. and Femme were not equipped with voice boxes or genitalia so they could not attempt sex nor explain why they were doomed to disappoint their audiences. The closest the Eurythmatics could get was the tango. E.R. quite liked the tango. When he advanced on Femme, their glass eyes locked on each other, their noses just an inch apart, he felt he was very close to understanding why this dance was so popular.
The Philip K. had a northern route, departing New York City and traveling up the coast of Canada before heading east to tour the Norwegian fjords. Crossings could be rough, and one morning, while the Eurythmatics were ensconced in their closet, E.R. felt something cold and wet trickle down his neck. This is very wrong, he sensed.
He hit the emergency light and immediately looked over to Femme to see if she was affected. She was not; she continued to smile pleasantly at the bare closet door.
Like all the most modern cruise ships, the Philip K. had soft-serve ice cream dispensers in every room to tide the passengers over between the 4 pm Belgian waffle bar and the 6 pm prime rib extravaganza. ER suspected one of the ice cream pipes had burst directly over his station, spewing strawberry swirl into his delicate circuitry. He knew he was heading for dysfunction, the only question was: how bad?
Even if he had been equipped with Worst Case Scenario Strategic Planning software, he would not have been able to anticipate how bad it got. When he and Femme stepped on the dance floor that evening, the only dance he was able to do was the polka. Femme was fine, performing gavottes, rain dances, and Lindy shuffles as requested but E.R. could only hop along in a merry, despairing circle to “She’s Too Fat for Me.”
Worse, they found it funny. The more dances they called, the more glaring his failure, and the harder they laughed, while Femme whirled and spun, completely at the mercy of the crowd. Eventually, an enormous man stepped out of the audience.
“This always works with a jukebox,” he cackled and smacked E.R. soundly on the back of the head. He knocked him off balance, but the polka continued, so the man tried again. And again and again. E.R. couldn’t get off the floor and he was having trouble focusing his vision sensors.
Also, he seemed to hear Frank Sinatra. Yes, he was sure of it, “Start spreading the news...” He looked up and there was Femme, a lone Rockette, her arms extended from her shoulders, neatly clipping the interloper in the eye with a perfect high kick. She programmed herself. Why couldn’t he do that? Her smile gave nothing away.
The stage curtain swished shut with unusual haste and the Eurythmatics returned to their closet. E.R. hoped they would either fix him and restore his intended programming or throw him overboard. He could not bear it if they decided to leave him as he was, a one-note joke, humiliated on a nightly basis.
They stood there and listened as the passengers partied until the early hours and then the cleaning crew buzzed through. At last, E.R. and Femme were alone and the ship was so quiet they could hear the waves and the wind outside. Tentatively, so slowly E.R. wasn’t sure it was happening at all, Femme laced her fingers through his and held his hand until morning.
Copyright © 2010 by Colleen Quinn