Sunday, December 20, 2009

Do You Tango?

This story was inspired by a Christmas party. It's about a guy who thinks dancing might improve his chances with the ladies.

I'll let you figure out the sci-fi angle on your own.

Do You Tango?

“Do you tango?”

The woman in the red dress turned away from the bar to look at him. He kept his expression light, a little smile, not too desperate. He’d been told that was key.

Her eyes went from his glossy black shoes, over his dark gray suit, paused on his bright red tie and ended with a flick up to the dark hair that he’d combed to one side so it fell in his eyes. She tilted her head to one side and then nodded. “Sure.”

She took his offered hand and let him lead her onto the dance floor.

A year ago, when Hoyt told him that dancing was like a mating ritual, he hadn’t believed him. After all, learning to tango from Hoyt didn’t seem very sexy. But Hoyt, as usual, was right. He had one hand at the blonde’s waist and held her warm fingers in the other. Before this the closest contact he’d managed, not counting the three slaps to the face, was someone brushing past him to get to the bar.

The blonde’s eyes moved over his face as they danced and he wondered why. He had been told eye contact was considered more appropriate. He felt maybe he should say something, but that hadn’t gone very well. It led to slapping and drink throwing. He tried a smile. He’d practiced them in the mirror and with the suit and the new haircut the effect was sinister yet playful.

The smile he got back seemed to confirm it. She showed a few even white teeth and her eyes met his eyes. Her hand even squeezed on his shoulder. He imagined that he could feel the warmth of it through his suit jacket and felt a slight, but promising, lurch in his stomach.

The song ended too quickly. They stood close and applauded the musicians without looking away from each other.

He kept his eyes on hers but he still couldn’t think of anything to say. If this was a ritual then the next step was a complete mystery to him. Hoyt said to be suave, but other than getting the suit and making sure he was properly groomed, he had no real idea of what that meant.

The band started another song, something jazzy. He held out his hand and was gratified when she took it and they were dancing again.

He decided that she had looked, so he was allowed to do the same. He broke eye contact and looked over the rest of her face. She had good high cheekbones and a small mouth with a full lower lip. Her skin was pale, almost as pale as her hair, but there was enough pink to her cheeks that she appeared healthy. Her hair seemed thick and didn’t look bleached. Her eyes were hazel instead of blue, giving her genetic offspring only a fifty percent chance of having blue eyes themselves, but that was negligible. He appreciated blue eyes but Hoyt told him not to be too picky.

Hoyt told him this as though his problems stemmed from pickiness. As though being stuck for most of the year in a research facility out in the desert hadn’t hurt his chances. Where all hundred and fifty employees knew each other and had already paired off with anyone they were interested in. How was it his fault that he’d been stuck with a pudgy, socially handicapped host named Elmer?

How had anyone at Central Processing expected him to mate successfully stuck in a host named Elmer?

No one at the lab was the least bit interested and the host’s name was always said with an underlying note of pity. Always. Even after he’d worked on the host’s body. He’d trained it, slimmed it down, gotten it a decent haircut and some clothes that didn’t look like they’d been slept in by Mister Rogers. Every change he could think of. None of it helped because the staff saw him as Elmer. He was locked in every woman’s brain as a pudgy, clumsy, goof, with no dress sense. All of his attempts to show that the host had good genetic stock were wasted on them. The brain should have been enough, it was the most important trait for survival and Elmer had a good one, but they wanted visually apparent mating cues and didn’t believe he could have them.

If only he’d found a way to show off his new six-pack abs they would have changed their minds.

He’d called Hoyt. Hoyt who always got all the luck. He’d been joined with an actress and had successfully mated in his first week. Hoyt told him that he’d have to find a bigger ‘dating pool’. After he explained what that was he suggested a trip into Las Vegas.

That was where the slaps and thrown drinks had happened. The dance club was a last ditch effort. Like the suit and the cards that used his middle name instead of his first. Randall wasn’t a great name, but it wasn’t Elmer.

He’d followed all of the rules and he was no closer to mating than he had been the day he was bonded. Hoyt had called yesterday to remind him he only had a few days left. It had been hard not to curse at him. Especially when Hoyt rubbed in that he had already gotten his host to produce two joined offspring. Hoyt even had the nerve to ask if he was dedicated to the claiming of hosts for the homeworld.

As if dedication had anything to do with it. If he didn’t mate in the next three days he would be dead. The tiny bud he had developed would rupture if it didn’t meet a host that carried half of Elmer’s DNA. It had grown while he was in Elmer and could only be passed into the host’s offspring. When it ruptured, Elmer’s immune system would destroy him and the bud.

The only thing to do was talk to the blonde in the red dress.

“I don’t think I’ve introduced myself,” he said, relying more on things that he’d read about etiquette than anything in Elmer’s memories. Elmer wasn’t a good source to rely on for social interaction. Particle physics, yes, anything else was a bit hazy. “My name’s Randall Hoskins.”

The blonde’s eyes narrowed and he felt a moment of panic. Every other time a look like that had been directed at him he’d either gotten a drink in the face or a slap. Then she smiled and shook her head. “You don’t remember me, do you Elmer?”

The lightheaded panic that followed those words made him stumble. She caught him with a hand on his shoulder and her eyebrows pulled together in a look that was either pity or concern. He pulled away from her and moved to the edge of the dance floor.

“I really thought you’d recognized me.”

He looked sideways at her. After a moment he realized that he should have recognized her. The bone structure and the blonde hair, just like the girl from high school who’d been in jazz band with the host. If he hadn’t tried so hard to push Elmer’s bumbling inclinations to the back of his mind he would have remembered. “You’ve changed,” he said when it was clear he was expected to say something.

Her hand was on his arm, warm just below his elbow. “You too. I only realized it was you when I saw the scar.” Her finger touched his neck briefly.

He had seen the scar in the mirror; a thin line that ran down the left side of his neck and was covered by his collar except for a brief Y-shaped branching at the top. He hadn’t paid much attention to it but he pulled up the memory. It had happened on a ski trip that Elmer had been on with the band. She had been there, had seen him slide full tilt into a bush. But for some reason she smiled warmly at him. Maybe this could work. He’d have to see what else Elmer remembered about her. “Would you like to get some dinner, Jill?”

“I just ate.”

His stomach dropped somewhere near his toes.

“But maybe some coffee?” Her fingers slipped down his arm to hold his hand.

His stomach went from his toes to his throat. He glanced down at their hands and nodded. “There’s a great place at the hotel.”


  1. You're amazingly inspiring...I'm so bored with writing about "me"....I think I may have to try I-M-A-G-I-A-T-I-O-N (picture the rainbow)...

  2. "He’d trained it, slimmed it down, gotten it a decent haircut and some clothes that didn’t look like they’d been slept in by Mister Rogers"
    Freaking genius!

    Great tale!

  3. I don't understand why comments are limited to 300 characters. very annoying. You'll probably get two. Reading this I'm struck by a few things: Your story ideas are often terrifically inventive. And also you articulate your character's interactions in very believable psychological terms. I'd bet you're an INFP. or an NF at the least. I look forward to reading more stories to see how you express your understanding of human behavior.
    The third thing is something that I'm struggling with in my own writing. Past perfect tense. The "had beens." I'm not saying you over-use this tense, you display facility with shifting through various tenses appropriately. I guess I'm curious about the degree to which you, or any other writer, thinks about this. con't

  4. My issue with PPT is that it's one of the most easily abused elements of grammar when reading io9-level short fiction. I remember it was something that bothered me all the way back in writing class as well, although I didn't really register what it was until I started writing again to post on io9.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments on Lob. The errors you mentioned are the kind that dog through the first week of posting something. I'm glad you liked Carol. My only question is this: did you find any of it compelling in a dramatic or narrative sense?

  5. The dreaded PPT. I try to use it sparingly (though it didn't work out that way for this story). And only for flashbacks that I can't avoid (my goal is to show more than I tell). I also read these out loud as part of the editing process. I've cut more than a few awkward tense shifts that way because they don't sound right.

    And I do find your story narratively compelling. So far I find the defenders more interesting, but I like the slow reveal of the world around them over the bigger info-dump of dealing with the doctors and the cleanup crews.


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