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 parallel parked host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the fourth installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
The goliath doors of the Western Waystation yawn apart. The Lifeloaf brothers' herd plows on over the trampled sand between rows of red guide lamps, coming into the harsh, bright light of the interior and casting long shadows behind them. Even before the first ranks have crossed the threshold they have slackened the pace, digging in their heels and pushing up against one another to disperse the stack's momentum. The great tractor treads slow.
Ting finds himself shrinking down as the cockpit approaches the upper lip of the huge doorway: the clearance is so slight that it seems as if they will be scraped off and left behind. Milliard steals a look back at him and smirks.
They pass inside. A woman in a yellow jumpsuit waves glowing beacons, indicating a parking bay to the right. She walks sideways all the while, stepping clear just inches ahead of the first row of the robot herd. The robots' feet smoke as they gingerly tug the stack into a parking slip between two sets of orange stripes on the dirty concrete floor.
The treads are clamped. The robots sit, raising a cloud of dust.
Ting and Bethix step out of the stack's lift and gape at the massive hangar stretching into the distance, herds and cargo stacks parked, parking, arriving or leaving on every side. The Lifeloafs duck around the stunned duo and hop down. Ting imitates them with some awkwardness, then turns to lend his passenger a hand.
"I'm fine," she assures him.
"I'd do for my mether," he says sheepishly.
She permits him to help her down. The Lifeloafs walk out to meet an approaching waystation dispatch officer who takes down their license numbers and records the stack's weight. "Plus we've got hitchhikers," adds Hector, jamming his thumb over his shoulder.
"Brownskin and a milf," elaborates Milliard. "Shipwrecked. Looking for a mechanic."
The dispatch officer casts an appraising look past the brothers. "What's their contract status, bobs?"
"Free and clear," says Milliard. "He's a ride for hire, she's a passenger."
The dispatch officer sighs. "Too bad, that. We could use another milf in the coop." He then leans in closer, his rough voice quieter: "Between just you bobs and me, what kind of herd dropouts you see on the last run?"
"Pretty bad," admits Hector.
Milliard's mouth tightens. "It's getting worse," he growls.
"That's the word," agrees the dispatch officer, eyes doleful. "Ain't nobody winning their free this season, bobs. Not you, not me, not the bobs that been here ten years gone. Not with robs dropping out like this, willy-nilly. No siree." He shakes his head as he wanders off. "No siree, bob."
The Lifeloafs turn back to their guests. "I'll see to the iron," says Milliard; "Hec, you take these bobs to the canteen and get them refreshed and set up for hitting the road. I want to head out for Edgerain before the next third."
Hector checks his watch and nods. "You want anything?"
"Bring me back some Strain Six and a soda, will you?"
"Sure thing, bob."
As they walk Hector balances his shoulder bags and divests himself of his gloves and scarves, exposing skin that is weathered and knobby, crisscrossed by nicks and the white lips of healed scratches. Bethix watches him while Ting trails behind, looking from side to side to take in the giant, dirty marvels looming around them. Teams of robots sit in cross-legged columns, presided over by wide-shouldered men with beady, malevolent eyes. Suddenly one barks at Ting, "You checking out my robs, anus?"
Ting screws up his mouth to reply to the challenging tone in kind but before he can Hector steps in front of him, steering him away by the shoulders. "He's not looking at nothing, bob. Just an offworlder, eh? No need to salt us."
The man glowers, but stays put, beefy hands on his hips.
"Whet's his preblem?" hisses Ting as they move away.
"Everyone's been losing a lot of robs lately," explains Hector in a low voice. "A plague of dropouts, on course and off. Some bobs get it in their heads that it's sabotage, that it's someone trying to gain more edge, corner the bonuses once the quotas are in." He sighs. "Didn't used to be like this around here. But a bob'll get nasty if he thinks someone's tinkering with this herd. Turns dog eat dog when a bob sees his free slipping further away."
Hector shifts uncomfortably under the weight of his bags. "Let me help," offers Bethix.
"No need. I do this every other day. Besides, a bab like yourself --"
"I'm quite capable, Mr. Lifeloaf."
He pauses, half smiling. "Maybe if you each could carry just one..."
"Of course," says Bethix, leaning in to take a strap from his shoulder.
Hector shrinks back. "Oy, not that one. That's the maps. Mil would skin me alive if he ever saw me let it go. Good maps is edge, bab, real edge -- they're worth their weight in Black Eyes."
Ting and Bethix each shoulder a bag, letting Hector retain the map satchel. They proceed to a dingy little kiosk that serves as the local World Office, where the offworlders are obliged to pay a tariff for their temporary use of the atmosphere. From there they go to the food court to pick up chow, winding through crowds of salt-encrusted herdsmen as they drink and laugh and swear. Many are gathered around a central fountain and pool, their coveralls hanging at the waist while men and women alike wipe at themselves with grungy rags, dipping their heads and scrubbing their salt-crisp armpits. "So whet do you think?" prompts Ting, smiling mischievously. "Like to stay ewhile, miss?"
"It's somewhat filthy," admits Bethix.
As they file out of the court they pass a row of windows with sad looking girls sitting in them. They wear torn, faded underwear and cover their weathered faces with thick make-up, listlessly making eyes at the passersby.
Bethix averts her gaze. Ting, on the other hand, lingers. "Come now, skipper," she calls tartly.
He jogs up beside her, eyes scanning the coop windows. "Whet? Eren't these tinda kettens colleagues of yours, miss?"
"No," she says icily. "Our professions bear nothing meaningful in common."
He sniffs. "Well, deddling is deddling."
"Assessing someone's worth according to their function is seldom illuminating," she says, then accelerates her pace to take her ahead, now abreast of Hector. She notes his own averted eyes and blush beneath the etched lines of his face. Gently she says, "You're younger than you look, Hector, aren't you?"
He shrugs. "The salt ages you, that's true. Dries a bob right out." He looks over at her and offers a wan smile. "But it's all worth it in the end, bab, believe you me. Anything was worth getting out of Dzigai."
Bethix swallows. "Dzigai? But -- Dzigai's been declared barbarian! The system was closed after the civil war began."
Hector nods. "And we got out just before that. Everyone knew the closure was coming, though. How could we not? Every bob knew twenty that were dead, or worse. Had to buy our way out, and it didn't come cheap."
"And you're paying it off still?"
"Only a year or two left. Then we'll rejoin the family, settled now -- nice neighbourhood, good schools. I'll help support us with my practice while Milliard raises the money...well..." He trails off, then drops his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "We're going to raise the money to smuggle our cousins out of Dzigai."
"Out of a closed system?"
"Oy oy, I know, bab. But it's a promise we made, Mil and me, to our dad. We said we'd take care of every Lifeloaf, and take care of them we will." He pauses, glancing at the distant ceiling. "He's watching us now, our dad, watching us stay solid."
Bethix gives his arm a squeeze. "That's lovely, Hector. I'm sure you'll do your father proud, and I'm very glad to have met you."
Hector smiles, dropping his neck between stooped shoulders. "Me too," he mumbles.
They round into the mouth of the giant parking bay once more. A herd of robots is attempting to drag a stack with a broken tread into a vacant slip but the rims beneath have become misshapen and the progress is halting and slow. A squat, thick-necked herdsman with a shaved head paces at the periphery wielding a magnetic whip. "Faster, you ungrateful devils!" he bellows.
Bethix and Ting both flinch as the whip cracks. The stricken robot quivers in place briefly and then resumes work, pulling with its fellows, the damaged stack reluctantly inching into the slip.
"They're just things," says Hector tenderly. "Don't be upset, bobs. There's no suffering to it."
The whip cracks again. A robot drops. It is kicked aside and scooped up in the maw of a bulldozer, then added to a heap of broken arms and legs and heads, cracked pelvises and splintered torsos gathered in a well against the wall. The bulldozer backs away with a repeating beep while a colossal foot travels down the well, compacting the mess into a neat tile of mashed plastic and metal.
Bethix looks away. "Oh, that's horrendous."
Hector tries to smile. "It's only garbage."
She glances back at the stalky man with the whip. "Then why does he look so angry?"
"Like I said," says Hector, "we've all been having a lot of trouble with unexplained dropouts. Poor bob's watching his free get tugged out from under him. I can feel for him, bab, I really can." He pulls on her sleeve to get her moving again. "Look at it this way: isn't it better for him to vent at dumb machines than real people?"
She's quiet for a moment, mouth drawn. "Perhaps," she concedes. "But is it ever really beneficial to cultivate a habit of cruelty?"
"They're just things," repeats Hector stubbornly.