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 bobbing host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the third installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
Skipper Ting tugs down his scarf and pushes his welding goggles up on his forehead, then offers a bandaged hand to shake. "Miko Ting, sirs, skippa of the good shep Dollar, flying out of Reull. Thes is my pissenger, Miss Bethix."
She extends her glove in turn. "Barbara Barnabas Bethix of Kamari Star," she says with a slight bow of the head. "Our thanks to you for stopping, gentlemen."
The two nearly identical, hard-faced, stubbled herdsmen look at one another. "Well," offers one as he leans down to shake hands, "it was either that or run you down, bab. No worries for us, really, but we'd have lost a baker's dozen of robs at the minimum, and we like to keep the herd solid come bonus season."
"Dropouts are high enough as it is," says the second herdsmen gravely, his worn leather coveralls creaking as he shifts in his high piloting seat. "You'd have ended up compensating us dear for that, bobs. As it is, we're losing bonus by the minute."
"I'm Hector," says the first, rolling his eyes. "Hector Lifeloaf. And this is my grumpy brother Milliard."
"It's a matter of the bottom line, bob --" begins Milliard.
"Oy oy oy, don't salt me," snaps Hector. "Everything's the bottom line with you, Mil. But these bobs here are in a spot of trouble, I'm thinking. Looks like your ship is banged up fairly fair. Came down hot, eh bob?"
Ting blinks. "Who's Bub?"
Hector smiles, his weathered face splitting into a million lines. "Oh, we don't truck much with titles or ceremony here, skipper. We're all just regular bobs and babs, trying to break our debt and finish out our contracts. You've come down in the middle of the Gemstone Road through Anankey's biggest salt waste, don't you know."
Ting raises his brow. "The Gemston' Rud? You're miners, then?"
Milliard shakes his head. "We're not, no, pity those poor bastards. They'll top out their contracts in half the time, but at what cost? It's a hard life, that one. No bob, we're herdsmen -- we run the goods from the mines across the waste to the World Train. Edge to edge, three hundred times a year."
Bethix cocks her head. "What is all this about contracts?"
Ting looks from the men to his passenger, then speaks quietly. "They're indentured, miss. They heff to serve out their debts before they can go home."
Milliard nods. "This job put my wife and kids on Tanigretta. I'll be joining them soon enough, bobs, just as soon as I'm clear."
"I was sponsored to university," adds Hector with a shy smile. "And I'll be a pediatrician the hour after I'm paid down -- a right respectable bob, a professional. One day I'll be buying Black Eye gems instead of hauling 'em."
"Then this...carriage, it's loaded with gems?" asks Bethix.
Milliard nods once more. "Black Eye gems, bab. The most precious there are. And they're only mined here an Anankey, and only from the wastes. It's the storm that grows them, eh?" He points outside of the cramped, domed cockpit in which they stand atop the tall vehicle, streaks of cloud just barely visible whipping overhead. "And it's the storm that keeps them, too. Can't fly anything out of the waste."
"Those belts of wind up there are moving at six hundred clicks. That's the Black Eye. Covers the whole waste. It's a thousand years old. There's not a ship that can get through it without being torn to pieces..." He trails off, turning to look at Ting. "How the devil did you manage to get down in one piece, anyway, bob? You must be one helluva pilot."
Ting looks at his boots and shrugs. "She's a cleeva shep," he offers. "I reeckoned we were as good as did, but the Dollar figured something out." He stares through the glass at the silhouette of her prow outside. "She's a fenny thing, thet shep."
Bethix furrows her brow. "So you drive the gems out?"
"That's right, bab," says Hector amicably. "We drive them out to the Edgerain Rail, then have them loaded up on the World Train for processing. From there they go out all over the galaxy."
Ting squints. "Why not jest belt a reel?"
"Can't. The flats shift constantly. Track'd be ruined faster than bob could build it."
"A train won't do," says Milliard gruffly. "The waste is all salt and lightning, horizon to horizon. Goddamn pillar crystals grow out of the flats -- hazards for driving, resonating EM interference. Goddamn ground shifts from day to day, even hour to hour. Most vehicles'd bust before they'd done a single run, bobs."
"So what do you do? How do you stay in order?"
Milliard gestures out the front of the cockpit at the legions of stock still statues sitting cross-legged in tight formation on the ground below. "Robs," he says. "That's the key. Flexible and disposable, right? Your truck breaks down in the middle of the waste, you're done; but lose a couple of robs? It's nothing. We build redundancy into the herds, populate 'em with cheap models we can afford to lose. They pull unpowered freight stacks, we ride up top."
"The robs can coordinate the pull over any kind of terrain," explains Hector. "They're adaptable, like us bobs in a way. They're shaped right, so they can use our tools, and we don't need any kind of sophisticated thinking out of them so we can keep them going on idiot brains."
Milliard nods. "You dig everything expensive out of a rob, the one thing it can still do is walk."
"A dime a dozen," adds Hector.
Milliard grunts grimly. "Speaking of dimes, we'd better get back in business. We can offer you bobs a lift to the Western Waystation, but it's only fair to warn you we'll be counting the compensation due per click."
Hector flinches, turns to his brother. "These bobs are in trouble, Mil. Maybe we could just --"
Milliard shakes his head. "It's bonus season, Hec."
Hector sighs and nods.
Bethix straightens. "It's no matter," she says, unzipping her suit to reveal a patch of her richly embroidered dress. She unclasps a necklace of exquisitely crafted platinum and artist-cut stones, offering it out for the herdmen's inspection. Their eyes widen. "In exchange for passage...?" says Bethix.
"Oy, bob -- will you look at that!" whistles Hector.
Milliard takes the necklace and weighs it carefully in his calussed hand, squinting at its sparkles. He licks his teeth, then attempts to shrug carelessly. "That's a deal, bab. We'll take you and your skipper in, connect you up with a solid mechanic."
"You'll be on your way in no time," says Hector. "I promise."
Bethix smiles. "Thank you."
Milliard puts the necklace aside and swivels in his piloting seat, flipping switches on the dashboard and peering into the grubby little monitors. "Now if we don't have too many more dropouts we should make it in four hours or better." He toggles his radio and hollors, "Hee-yah!"
The herd of robots outside get to their feet in unison, shrugging the yokes into position over their shoulders.
Hector watches a diagnostic readout chitter across his monitor. "You bobs better belt up," he advises, pointing to two sorry looking guest chairs toward the rear of the streak-stained cockpit. "The ride can be a bit rough."
Ting and Bethix do as they are told.
Milliard leans back in his seat, eyes roving the readouts. He looks over at his brother, receives a nod, then taps out a sequence on his controls and bellows, "Giddy-up!"
Five hundred robots pull as one.
The yoked traces draw taut. The tall stack leans, its giant tractor belts groaning, and then slowly but surely begins to crawl forward at the robots' heels. The sea of bridled figures surges left, drawing the stack carefully around the stranded spaceship parked in a bed of cracked salt cakes. The stack gains speed, and soon the Dollar is lost in the dimness and the debris-littered winds behind them, a thousand metal feet beating the ground in time.
Ting grips his harnesses, anxious at the way the cramped cockpit atop the mighty stack is pitched about. It feels as if he's riding on the roof of a roving apartment block, its foundations greased unevenly. "Will my shep be elright?" he asks to distract himself.
"We planted a beacon," grunts Milliard. "It'll be fine, bob."
The robot formation changes as the landscape changes, arraying themselves in silent orchestration to maximize their pulling power while maintaining stability for the cargo stack on its wide, spiked treads. Without intervention from the Lifeloaf brothers the herd manoeuvres up salt dunes and down slurry-slippery gulleys, around pillars of razor-sharp crystal and through blinding hazes of high-speed flying grit.
The cockpit rumbles and quakes. The radio crunches and squeals. "Where's ell the interference come from?" asks Ting, searching the sky. "From Indi?"
Milliard shakes his head. "You saw that big old dish on the front of the stack? It's a microwave jammer. Most of these cheap robs come with integrated transponder beacons, so you don't lose 'em. We kill the signal, so nobob gets a jump on our routes."
Bethix inclines her head. "You don't share routing information?"
"Hell no," says Milliard. "That's the only edge we get."
Hector unstraps himself and works his way to the back of the cockpit to batten down a loose cabinet face, frowning at a bent hinge. Bethix watches him work, noticing for the first time the tarnished silver crucifix hanging around his neck. "You're Hyper-Christian?" she says.
He nods without looking up. "Sure. You?"
"I'm afraid not."
He touches her shoulder as he straightens. "Don't you worry, bab. Some day an iteration of the hyper-Lord will come to redeem your world, too."
"I don't think so," she says with a sigh and a sad smile. "Kamari Star is beyond salvation."
"Nothing's beyond salvation, bab," he claims, looking past her to the black, churning sky. "Not even this place."