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 storm mongering host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the tenth installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
The storm is a monster.
In the afterimage-crossed darkness between pulses of squirming lightning there is nothing but the rising wind and ebbing panic; all sane thoughts are dashed away in the next moment as another fleet of bolts illuminates the looming front from within. It has only been a heartbeat but the storm is closer, much closer. In strobing glimpses its mad rush becomes horrifyingly clear.
It even has a face, a foreground anvil of black cloud that seems to grin as it bears down over the barrens with such ferocious velocity, its mane of smoke rippling with bright flashes.
This cannot be outrun.
"We'll never make it back to the stack!"
"We'll never all fit into the stack!"
The heretofore still air boils to life, great waves of salt kicking up from the barrens ahead of the storm's skirt and rushing toward the herd in twisting, whistling filaments. Old Hauler turns his bleeding face away as others rush in to support him. "Damn this moon!" he roars; "Damn this life!"
The herdsmen scatter, but it is too late. Each man's flashing shadow draws rapidly shorter as the wild phenomenon moves overhead, searing the salts.
"What about Milliard?" cries Bethix, searching for the water ferry through the rapidly thickening grit.
"Whet ebout us?" Ting cries back at her. He hurriedly wraps a length of scarf over his exposed face as the wind carries razor-edged flakes at him. In the next instant a vicious gust sweeps over the flats, tossing him off his feet.
Bethix charges to his side and hunches against the wind, clutching her goggles. When she can look up again a robot stands directly in front of her, flanked on either side by others. An enclosing border of robots is forming around the cluster of herdsmen, fed by the hordes walking in from all sides. Those furthest away have broken into a run, surging toward the herd. Panicked, many of the herdsmen are desperately limping aside to avoid being hemmed in.
"This is it -- they're going to do us all in!" yells Malachi, unfurling his whip. "It's every bob for himself!"
"No!" shouts Bethix, shaking her head. "Look!"
The running robots charge into the clearing and then, without hesitation, leap upon one another's backs. They entwine arms. More robots climb their linked limbs and then lock to their neighbours in turn, hunkering into position as other robots climb their backs to straddle their shoulders. All around the herdsmen a living dome of robot bodies is taking shape.
"They're protecting us!" says Bethix breathlessly. "Quickly! All of you! Get inside!"
The sky disappears behind a rapidly solidifying roof of robots, the gaps disappearing as more robots secure themselves into a lattice now dozens of bodies thick. Bethix scrambles to the last aperture at the base, gesturing frantically at the herdsmen outside to seek shelter within. Ting rushes to her side, helping to haul the stragglers inside bodily, grunting as he yanks on their leather coveralls and shoves them toward the pile of wounded at the dome's core. "You heard the gel -- fester, fester!"
"Mr. Galliumtown!" screams Bethix over the din. "Come on!"
He stares at her outstretched hand, lips twisting. "I'll see you in Hell," he croaks, then turns and starts sprinting back toward the ferry.
She moves to crawl out after him but Ting grabs her leg. "He's meed his decision, miss!"
"Yis!" he howls, grabbing her roughly and wrestling her inside the perimeter. In a blink the last gap is closed and Malachi's retreat cannot be seen through the tangle of robot limbs. Ting and Bethix roll over one another in struggle until she gives up, chest heaving, tears running from the corners of her eyes.
"He'll die," she whispers savagely.
"So meght we," hisses Ting, looking up at the dome. The interlocked robots sway and shift in the wind, limbs creaking. The gathered herdsmen also watch, sweat- and blood-glistening faces frozen in fear, moving only to flinch as the booming thunder mounts into an ear-splitting cacophony, strike upon strike.
"Maybe the squall line'll miss us," guesses Lismerry hopefully.
"I'll wager they follow the electrolyte rivers," says Bethix, shaking her head. "And the crystal pillar stands at a confluence. No -- the storm will be drawn to precisely this spot."
He takes a shuddering breath, pupils dilating.
The bolts are upon them. Streams of salt permeate the dome in places, whistling between robots and assaulting the herdsmen who throw their arms over their heads and cower. The robots flash, their solid bodies appearing translucent as they are backlit by such intense light, their simple internal plumbing evident as fuzzy shadows.
Bethix is humming, but no one can hear her.
With an explosive blast the dome is struck directly, a patch of robots jerking and sparking as the monstrous current roars through them. A ragged hole is torn in the protective ceiling and Bethix finds herself quailing like a child when she catches sight of the violent, swirling wraith of whirlwinds and electricity forks crisscrossing the sky above. Robots on the edge are ripped free, tumbling away on the breeze, tinny voiceboxes whining in lament.
Bethix bounds to her feet and reaches up to grab the dangling hand of one of the robots, hauling down on it even as it is seized by a gale. "I've got you!" she screams over the intense noise, squinting against the blinding strobe of lightning.
She gasps as her boots leave the salt.
"End I've gut you!" hollers Ting, arms wrapped around her knees. He grits his teeth. His cleats begin to slide. Lismerry stumbles over and takes a hold around Ting's waist; Old Hauler grabs the young herdsman's ankles.
It becomes a game of tug of war, with the thirty able herdsmen clinging to the robots to keep them from the jaws of the storm while they robots cling to one another to keep the herdsmen alive. The radios scream in their ears in staccato blasts of static; the men scream as their muscles protest. The robots' tendons stretch and tear, joints popping. Their motors whine and smoke.
And then, quite suddenly, they have rounded the peak. The storm moves on, worms of lightning crawling to the north, now further, now drawing away across the barrens. By degrees the winds slow and the static clears. The game of tug of war collapses, men drooping to the salt and robots relaxing into their lattice.
The herdsmen breathe raggedly, mopping perspiration from their eyes.
No one speaks for a spell.
The last whistles fade. The cracks of thunder become less precise, descending into a commingling, distant growl once more. Bits of free salt swirl down lazily inside the dome.
"Flag four; node panic -- reset."
"Flag eleven; buffering."
"Flag ninety-nine; fork."
Amid the robot murmuring some of the injured moan. Ting and Bethix slowly get to their feet. Ting touches her shoulder. "Elright, miss?"
She nods wearily. "I'm so, skipper. Just so."
The robots climb down from one another in an acrobatic sequence of waves and the dome is dissolved. The flats around them are strewn with what had been the dome's outermost layers, scorched and smoking robot parts scattered between crystal shards rounded smooth and polished by flying grit. As the robots begin scouting through the wreckage of their comrades Lismerry approaches one and turns it gently around. Its glowing eyes square upon his.
"I just wanted to say thank you," he says. "That was awful solid of you robs, protecting us like that."
Every robot swivels to face him, and they address him as a body, "There is no work without bobs."
Lismerry allows himself to smile. He takes off his glove and offers his weathered hand out to shake. The robot bows slightly to lean forward and then gingerly wags his hand up and down. The young herdsman grins. "And there's no bobs without robs," he agrees, then turns to Bethix. "It's true, isn't it? They're properly alive."
Bethix shrugs and raises her brow. "I don't know," she admits. "But it seems to me that anything capable of asking for mercy likely deserves it."
Lismerry looks to Old Hauler, who gives him a little nod. "Okay," says the young herdsman, turning to face the robot again. "What is it you robs really want from us? Do you want your free -- is that it?"
"The pillar shall not be razed."
"We get that part. I mean, what else?"
The robots pause, inclining their heads and looking back and forth at one another. They murmur. At last the robot next to Lismerry looks to him again, and they all speak together, "We demand a longer recharge cycle."
It is now the herdsmen's turn to mutter, a sudden babble of grunted questions about productivity and quotas. Bethix silences them with a wave of her hand. "How much longer?" she asks.
She turns to face the group. "Nine seconds. What say you, herdsmen? Could you set aside your prejudices to acknowledge the wants of this will? Would you afford these nine seconds in exchange for the benefits of its cooperation?"
Old Hauler steps up on a rock, his stooped shoulders rising high enough to be seen by every herdsman. He calls out hoarsely, "Aye or nay?"
For a moment the men and women resemble their robot brethren as they collectively cry back, "Aye!"
Bethix nods. "So is so."
Lismerry points past her. She turns to see Milliard hobbling desperately toward them using a long pipe as an improvised crutch. A couple of the nearest herdsmen run out to meet him, bounding blindly over hummocks of jagged, lightning-fractured flats. He leans into them and they all shamble back together. "You're alive!" he cheers at the top of his lungs. "Jesus Bob Saviour -- it's a miracle!"
Bethix grins back at him. Milliard's smile falters. The men on either side of him turn to see where he is looking. There's something in the crag at their feet.
Old Hauler calls out, "What is it, bobs?"
Ting sniffs the air. "It's meat," he says.
Milliard looks up bleakly as the herdsman at his left turns aside to vomit. "It's Malachi," says Milliard. He awkwardly reaches up and paws the cap down from his head.
Every herdsman doffs their own cap in turn. Heads are bowed.
"He would not trust," whispers Bethix. She wipes at her eyes, grimacing.
"He was a fool," says Ting.
"He was a brother," corrects Old Hauler solemnly. "Warts and all."
Milliard says, "Amen."