Once People Danced

A work of science fiction wherein enlightened life forms from a civilized future consider the dark days of a twenty-first-century teeming with primitive humans…

by: K.A. Kenny 

Director 12 leaned in xir soft-bot. “J is your little brl?” 

“Yes.” 38 rolled in xir lips.

Yellow and green tinsels adorned the blue, rounded walls of the chamber. Soft padding smoothed the edges of the Director’s desk.

“We’ve received several complaints concerning your little J. There’s been an incident.”

“Please, Director. I just want everyone to be safe.” 

The Director locked somber eyes on 38. “There’s something you need to see.” 

38’s amoeba-footed soft-bot flowed to the synthetic-reality platform.

“Touch-pass teaches non-threatening cooperation and social awareness without stirring competition.” 38 nodded and mounted the platform.

A second-grade classroom appeared with eight brls in soft-bots arranged in a circle. Spotting J in the circle, 38 controlled xir reflex.

In the scene, a pseudopod produced a foam ball the color and size of grapefruit and offered it to the circle. The first brl accepted the ball, and the other brls finger-patted to celebrate xir success. The first brl handed the ball to the second, followed by another round of soft-patting, and so with the third.

The scene paused before J’s turn. 38’s heart pounded.

“You saw the others play. Now watch your brl play.” The scene resumed with the ball passed to J, group finger patting, then J reaching to hand it to the next brl. Xi leaned and stretched xir fingers, but the reach was inches farther.

Director 12 froze the scene again and cleared xir throat. “The preferred response is to ask for assistance and not risk destabilizing the soft-bot.” 38 quivered inside. 

The scene continued. Repelled by J’s persistence, the brl refused to accept the ball and let it drop. J reached one foot from the soft-bot to stop the ball rolling, picked it up, and placed it on the brl’s tray. All the brls screamed and covered their eyes; some broke into tears; and the teacher stopped the game.

“Yesterday I met with another caregiver who said xir brl screamed all night. When I showed xir the scene you just watched, xi fainted. This morning xi reported nightmares of brls falling, their heads splitting open and noses bleeding. Xi is now on medication and is seeking long-term counseling.”

Tears welled in 38’s eyes. “J was so independent. I had no idea.”

“Malicious was the word the board came up with. Walking is selfish and reckless and endangers everyone. Even though J did not step from xir soft-bot, reaching for the fallen ball with xir foot appeared like a step and threatened all the other brls. We cannot permit anyone to do anything unless everyone can do it safely. Your brl reacted thoughtlessly and without consideration. All J’s classmates and several caregivers are being treated for stress. Some insist on punishment for J and for you.”

38 accepted a tissue. “Perhaps I need another sensitivity session.” 

“When we issued J to you twelve weeks ago, we explained your responsibility.” 38 nodded. “You are still young. Perhaps you do not realize how our civilization has struggled to keep us all safe.” 38 shrugged. “Very well. Let me show you a scene from our brutal past.”

The classroom faded, and 38 found xirself onstage with a dozen primitive humans. Their form-fitting costumes emphasized their disproportioned waists, hips, and shoulders. More startling, everyone stood on precarious legs without soft-bot protection or stabilization.

“Oh my.” 38 averted xir eyes, trembling all over.

No, you must watch,” the Director insisted. “This is from the dark time before civilization.”

“What am I seeing? Why do they look so strange?”

“Twenty-first-century humans still walked on legs. They plucked food from the dirt, came in variations of two genders, and combined their parts to create unauthorized brls, sometimes with little or no planning.” 38 again tried to cover xir eyes.

“Keep looking,” the Director shouted.

“I-I don’t know what I’m seeing. Why are they so oddly shaped?”

“Before we standardized the cylindrical torso and perfected external procreation, this was how bi-gendered humans appeared. Their physical differences enabled them to identify one another and to attract mates. Based on their genders, they were called women or men. Caregivers were called mothers or fathers, and brls were either girls or boys.” The Director pointed to the projection. 

“Onstage we are watching a dance troop preparing for Balanchine’s Serenade. In the mid-twenty-first century, before synthetic and robotic dancers came into fashion, many humans still danced.” 38 looked incredulous. “Female-gendered dancers are distinguished from the males by their tulle skirts. Now watch.”

38 flinched and ducked as the dancers leaped, glided, and spun, often brushing and touching one another. “What if someone fell or broke a leg?”

“When dancers required repair, they were replaced. Otherwise, they were expected to endure the pain.”

“But why?”

“We know no rational explanation. Even after synthetic reality became common, some humans persisted in driving their bodies in this manner. They exposed themselves to sunlight, snow, wind, and rain. They swam, ran, jumped from high places, and danced like you just saw. They walked everywhere — some took long walks in the countryside. And they worked for hours.”

38 twisted xir face in disbelief. “Worked?”

“Like machines in a factory.” 38 shuddered and the Director’s soft-bot responded with an affirming hug. “Now you understand.”

“Yes.” 38 lowered xir head. “When do you think I’ll be well enough to bring back my little brl?”

“We’re not perfect, 38, none of us are. So, we must be constantly on our guard.” Director 12 caught xir expectant gaze. “Out of respect for the feelings and sensitivity of other brls and caregivers, we had to euthanize J. Xir attempt to walk and dominate marked xir as a dangerous throwback.” Tears rolled from 38’s eyes and flowed down xir glistening cheeks.

After a moment, the Director said, “Don’t worry, 38. Your brl was clearly defective, and you were not programmed to handle that level of deviancy. So, as soon as you’ve completed your sensitivity refresher, we’ll issue you another brl.”


Lifelong storyteller K.A. Kenny left technical writing seven years ago to pursue his passion for speculative fiction. He has six short and flash stories published since 2021, and his SF novel The Starflower will be out in August 2023. K.A. has an MA in History from George Washington University. He lives with his wife Carole and dogs Cato and Mac in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

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