The Christmas Robots (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hat Rack) is a seasonal science-fiction novelette told in twelve parts, posted serially by me, your freefalling host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the first installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
News: John D. Sundman's new novel, The Pains, featuring full-colour illustrations by yours truly, is now available for reading and ordering via WetMachine.
And now, this year's Christmas story begins:
Salt flakes swirl like snow.
Thick ribbons of cloud race across the dark sky, one speeding stream puckering and then tearing aside to admit a falling star. As the light of the tumbling flotsam diminishes, the clouds are once against lost in ink.
Bits of ruined ablative shielding spin away, trailing sparks.
Twin booms report as the ship breaks the sound barrier. Thrusters cough and sputter in a rapid, complex sequence as the pilot fights to regain attitude control. The quickly cooling hull steams, its sides threatening to buckle as they click, groan and flex. A triple pop: parachutes squirt free, then bang into shape overhead.
They are shredded by shards of flying salt, perforated and ragged within seconds, flapping fecklessly in the ship's vertical plume of smoke and steam and ash and crud.
The pilot's eyes widen. "Hell!"
His passenger grips her harnesses as she's thrashed about, lips pressed grimly into a thin, bloodless line. She squeezes her eyes shut and faintly hums.
"Whet's thet sung?" grunts the pilot, eyes locked on the screen and hands gripped at the controls. Veins on his sweat-glistening forehead bulge as he fights the stick.
Without opening her eyes she says, "It's a not a song, it's a mantra."
"Cetchy, though," he shrugs as he paws for the retro-thruster reset. He finds it and the engines roar to life, bucking against the ship's momentum and pressing pilot and passenger alike into their belts painfully. The ship complains with a deep, metallic squawk.
She resumes humming, though it is now barely audible.
A bell rings shrilly, forcing her eyes open. "What is it?" she cries.
"Oh, thet?" says the pilot, glancing at a gauge. He grins dreadfully, white teeth splitting his lean, ebony face. "It means we're geng to die."
Despite the force of multiple gravities smearing her features, she composes herself with great dignity within the quaking seat, folding her legs into the lotus position and placing her palms together. "So is so," she says.
The pilot's next utterances are largely unintelligible -- and, where not, quite unprintable -- as he thrashes at the controls with both hands, even pushing his face into the console to flip a switch with his chin. He grits his teeth and yowls as the landscape swells with grostesque speed on the screen.
The view is lost to vortices of windborne salt flakes. The air shrieks against the hull. The rotors begin to spin, but the ship is too low and too fast to gain the cushion of lift it needs to avoid dashing itself against the ground. Several alarms sound to say so.
The pilot sits back from the controls, then fishes a small vial of liquor from inside his jacket. He cracks the top in his teeth and then upends the contents down his throat. His passenger is watching him. "There's nothing to be done?" she calls over the din.
He shakes his head. "It's miracles or eblivion now, miss." He turns with a lopsided smirk. "Nice to heff met ya, though. Neva met a real concubine before. Pity there's no time to deddle some before we're pelped."
"You're a child!"
"Neh," he argues. "Meck no misteck: I'm a proper men, miss. Almost twinty. Been in three bettles, I heff. Kelled enough to meck me a men tin times over. Even got a cuppla keds somewhere, from some gel or enother."
They stare at each other in mutual non-comprehension as the whistling wind makes further conversation impossible. "Should we brace ourselves somehow?" she finally shouts.
He shakes his head. "Neh."
The cabin booms violently, superstructure shrieking, and then goes suddenly dark.