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 shaken but not stirred host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the second installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
The passenger waits.
The ship is rocked by gales. The only sound to penetrate the constant howl is the intermittent gurgle of the water shielding inside the cabin walls. The dim glow of the red emergency lamps makes everything seem lurid and faintly menacing. The windows reveal nothing but her own pallid reflection.
The harnesses sway, fasteners clicking quietly. The ship groans.
She sighs abruptly then stands, stretches, and brushes her shoulders clear of leaves shaken loose from the oxygen tree. They flutter at her heels as she crosses the flight deck and clambers onto the ladder, lowering herself hand over hand deeper into the vessel. "No child's order will keep me put," she mutters darkly.
The galley is silent and unlit; also the lounge. The head is vacant. She proceeds deeper.
There's a shadow in the corner of the engine bay -- it isn't her pilot, however; it is instead the ship's humble alpha and beta repair robots, plastic shoulders knocking together as they squeeze close to access a junction box at an intersection of drooping, bundled cables. The alpha raises its head. "Madam, Skipper Ting is not aboard the Dollar."
"Pardon?" She blinks. "How can that be?"
The alpha cocks its head stupidly.
She's startled as the vestibule behind her hisses loudly, followed by a series of dull thuds. The hatch splits and Ting stumbles inside amid a cloud of warm, acrid air, clutching a scarf across his face with two bleeding hands. The skinny kid glowers at her. "I thought I teld you to stay put on the flight dick."
The expression on her face is briefly inscrutable. "You really do have a remarkable take on the Common Verbal Protocol, Mr. Ting."
"You're one to teck," he sniffs. "And thet's skippa to you, miss."
"What's happened? You're bleeding."
He frowns as he examines his long, brown hands. "Nething big. Lettle nips from the selt, is ell." He turns aside and barks: "Beta -- fetch me a plesta!"
"Silt?" she echoes, brow furrowed. "Are we under water?"
"Selt, woman -- selt! We've come down in the selt weeste, smeck dib under the Bleck Eye storm. Even repeered we'd neva lift eff from here; the breeze is over two hendred clicks at the grend; werse, higher."
She purses her lips. "Skipper Ting, I cannot emphasize enough the gravity of my situation. If I am not delivered to Callicrates before --"
He holds up a hand, nodding. "Yis, yis, yis -- and I'd lose my pay and my encle his shep. High steeks for everyone, miss. But don't you werry: Tings aren't quetters."
"This is more important than mere money --"
"Mere menny?" He guffaws, accepting a stack of bandages from the beta robot. "And thes from a streetwoka?"
She stiffens. "Is this how you would address your mother, child?"
"My mether's no concubine, miss."
"And this is not Reull."
"Whet's thet to mean?"
"Not every world shares your narrow sense of morality. You treat me as if I were a low woman -- how ignorant you are! At Kamari I was a figure of renown, most accomplished of all flesh nuns, with the president himself as my patron." She glowers, pinning the young pilot with her hard, grey eyes. "I am not a whore, child: I am an artist and an athlete. Pity to those too backward to grasp it, but so is so."
"Skippa," he mutters, breaking her gaze to pilfer the cargo basins.
"Skipper," she concedes, watching after him.
Ting pulls out an oil-stained tunic and industriously shreds it into strips, wrapping his hands from knuckles to elbow. He similarly binds the exposed skin on his neck, tucking the loose end into his scarf. He grabs a torch from a tool socket on a nearby bulkhead, wagging it at her as he speaks. "I'm geng to teck the elpha out to get sterted on the intercoola. Thes time, stay properly put. I'll unly be a mennet." He looks past her and barks: "Elpha!"
She stands aside as Ting and the alpha robot step back into the atmospheric exchange vestibule, putting her hand against the hull to steady herself in the tepid, lazy gravity. She pauses, head canted, then closes her eyes.
"Whet?" prompts Ting, reaching for a pair of welding goggles.
She licks her lips, eyes still closed. "Something is...thumping," she reports.
Her eyes flick open. "Marching," she says more firmly. "A whole army of marching. Can't you feel it, skipper?"
His brown pupils flit back and forth. "Neh," he decides. "Emagination, I reeckon. It's jest the wend."
She frowns, but says nothing further. Ting is already turning away. The vestibule seals with a gasp of pressurized air.
Ting's boots crunch against a layer of salty grit as he moves down the long ladder to the craggy, shadowed ground. The alpha follows him more slowly, carefully analyzing each step before proceeding. The young pilot hops to the ground and adjusts his goggles, searching the underside of the ship for damage with his torch. The struts have caught the landing at a rude angle; the portside strut is slowly relaxing downward, a steady flow of fluid dripping from the elbow joint. "Hell," mutters Ting.
He ducks his head down under the stern to take a closer look. A shimmering catches his eye. He bends closer, squinting at the layer of loose salt gathered along the strut's foot: it seems to be dancing.
His earpiece buzzes. "Sir: anomalous vibration detected," reports the alpha from the base of the ladder, its voice crackling with static.
Ting fights the wind as he works his way back. His torchlight sweeps over the robot and hits the rungs of the ladder. They are quivering in a tight rhythm. He steps back, brow furrowed. Now he can feel it in his feet: the marching.
The wind shifts, enveloping him in a cloud of salt flakes. In the distance, lightning flashes silently, briefly showcasing streams of flying grit backlit before a roiling front of inky cloud. With another shift in the wind the veil of dust parts, and Ting finds himself facing a second front bearing down on him: a line of running men, shoulder to shoulder, making straight for the ship.
With a startled yelp Ting stumbles backward, tripping on the ladder's edge and coming down hard on his back. The earth shakes with the horde's progress. He sits up, eyes wide in alarm, arms automatically raised in a pointless gesture of self-defense.
He is going to be trampled.
The herd of shadows splits -- dozens run to port while dozens run to starboard, feet pounding in a surreal tattoo of perfect synchronization. The alpha robot, standing ahead of the ladder, is knocked aside and trampled down, each subsequent line of runners further crushing its scattered parts until the fragments are light enough to fly with the salt.
Lightning flashes again and Ting's terror is redoubled as he discerns something huge and heavy rushing toward him in wake of the runners, a great cliff occluding the sky and intersecting the streams of airbourne particles, casting a void in the storm...
In concert the runners swivel on heel, their backs to Ting, and press into each other's shoulders with outstretched hands. Their elbows bend in an effort to absorb the momentum, their heels digging trenches and kicking up rolling banks of dust. A colossal grinding noise rises above the whining wind.
The great vessel stops, lurching with unspent inertia. A cascade of salt pours from its top in a sparkling veil, pattering over the dented and scorched hull of the Dollar.
The runners stiffen, then stand in place as a body. Wind is the only sound again.
Numbly, Ting gets to his feet and shuffles forward. He cranes his head up. Floodlights along the top edge of the vessel cause the surrounding salt to glow and swim. The cone of the central light is interrupted as a human form leans into it, shielding goggles with a gloved hand as they peer far, far down to the base of the thing where Ting and his ship stand small in the lee.
Ting's earpiece crackles again. A stranger's voice cries, "Oy! What the devil are you doing in the middle of the road, bob?"