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 merry-making host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the eleventh installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
Nine hundred and fifty robots run as one, nineteen hundred cleated feet pounding the salt flats to make them dance in perfect time. At their heels looms a cliff, red and green formation lights beaming out cones of illumination into the swirling flakes to port and starboard. At its pinnacle shine the amber windows of a great domed cockpit, shadows dancing across them.
"Ho, ho, ho!" choruses the cutting team, leaping along the handrails.
The pilot spins in his high seat, tilting back his head to drain another flask of sweet, clean water. Lismerry ducks to avoid a wayward boot. "I had no idea!" he cries. "I never rode in a cutters' stack before!"
"Neh idea ebout which pert?" yells Ting over the noise.
"Whoda thunk they sing?"
A lean, smiling cutter hops off the rails and lands next to them with a flourish of his arms. "It's a bit of a different culture, eh bobs? There's no life like the cutter's!"
"Our stacks just aren't this...lively," explains Lismerry.
"Course not! You gem-runners've been stripped down to the barren bones, so you put every hour in your pocket. Like your robs: lean. That's too lonely for a cutter -- we'd rather work a season longer and enjoy the company!" With a melodious cry of "Ho, ho!" he drops sidewise down the hatch into the lower hold, kicking his heels together as he falls. A riot of laughter erupts below.
"They're completely med," says Ting, shaking his head but smiling.
"I guess it makes some sense," shrugs Lismerry. "We ride alone with cargo for days at a time; they ride together with tools for weeks on end. A bit like the robs themselves in a way...makes getting along solid that much more important. Otherwise they'd probably fall in on each other."
"I reeckon," nods Ting. "Betta gay than murderous."
He dodges backward as a cutter cartwheels his way around the cockpit, cleats whistling as they slice the air. He bounces to his feet and sings, "Ho, ho, ho!" to which many voices reply in kind.
"Ho, ho," chuckles Ting, raising his water glass.
"I think I want to be a cutter," says Lismerry.
Below, in the main hold, cutters swing on their hammocks and slap hands with one another while they move fluidly from song to song, some lewd and some pious, all boisterous and easy. The gem-running herdsmen along for the ride shake their heads at them and smile. Some tap their boots in time.
In the galley the roar of the rolling tractors is too loud for singing. The most seriously dehydrated men are here, sitting around the table with drips patched into their arms. The compartment's open face looks into the machine bay where the folded armatures sway in slumber, chains clanking, their glittering blades parked. Bethix leans into a bulkhead, watching the chains, empty cup in hand.
She turns, and allows her cup to be filled. "Thank you."
Milliard catches her eye, leg propped up on the bench beside him. "It's a real solid thing you did, you know that."
She bows slightly, eyes down.
"You risked your skin going out to parley with something kicking the salt out of us," he continues.
"I did what needed to be done," she says, tilting her cup then sipping.
Milliard tilts and sips in turn. "Oy, sure. You're gracious, that's true." He licks his lips. "I guess what I'm still left asking myself is: why did you do it?"
"I believed I might help to end the impasse."
Milliard shakes his heavy head, lips pursed. "You're ducking me, bab. You know I'm asking you why a stranger like you'd be risking your very own blood and bones over a bunch of indentured bobs on Indi's sorriest dot."
She frowns. "I don't understand the question."
"Faeces you don't. My brother's a bib but I'm not. I know full well that people don't risk what's solid for no good reason. Not outside of cartoons and Christmas."
She raises a brow. "There are no senseless acts of kindness in your sphere, Mr. Lifeloaf?"
Her holds her eye.
The stack lurches as it rolls over uneven ground, treads rumbling. The others in the galley are riveted on Bethix and do not stir. She blinks, looks around at them, looks down and then finally meets Milliard's gaze again. "I did what needed to be done in order to return your fleets to operation. My...my pilot and I -- it is essential that we find a mechanic at Edgerain." She takes a shuddering breath. "Essential," she says again, then seems to steel herself.
"So you'd have done or said anything, really, to get our robs on the job again," says Milliard slowly. "Isn't that true?"
"That doesn't change in any way the validity of the emergent will --"
"You're not answering the question."
"I cannot answer the question!" she suddenly roars.
Milliard flinches back. The others blink. They watch Bethix take another deep breath, head down, eyes squeezed shut, hands flexing. When she looks up again a tiny rivulet of blood is running from her left nostril.
"Miss Bethix --"
She holds up a hand. "Please, stop," she whispers. "Don't bring me to think of it. Are you too rude to understand?" She wipes the blood away, looking at it glisten on her wrist. "I have a block," she says, "implanted in my mind. To think even near the subject causes me...quite some discomfort."
"Who would do such a thing?"
She shakes her head savagely. "Stop it, please. You must stop."
"You danced in here and changed our way of life forever. Don't we even deserve to know something about how the devil that happened? And who the hell you are?"
From wilting against the bulkhead she looks at him with a new, steady gaze. She says, "My name is Barbara Barnabas Bethix, sir, and I am going to save the galaxy. I must reach the capital, to tell the Panstellars my secret. The telling may cost me my life." Her eyes flash as she straightens. "Yes, Mr. Lifeloaf, I would do or say anything to carry on with my task. Yes, that's true. You're right. This kindness had leverage."
Milliard opens his mouth, but says nothing.
Bethix faints. Her cup bounces away.
Ting leaps down from the ladder. "Whet's geng on down here?" he cries, dropping to kneel beside her. "Miss Bethix!" He looks up. "Whet heff you done to her, you selty pemps!"
"Ho! Wait!" shouts one of the cutters. "It was her block, bob!"
"Bluck?" frowns Ting, eyes roving those arrayed around the table. "Whet bleddy bluck?"
The cutter blinks. "Did bob just swear at me?"
Bethix moans. Her eyes flutter, then open. She focuses on Ting hovering over her. "You haven't punched anyone on my behalf, I should hope."
"Neh," says Ting. "Well, not yit."
"I'm sorry," Milliard rushes to say, leaning over his outstretched leg. "It was my fault. I pushed her to talk about it. It's...it's really none of my load. Please forgive me."
Ting glowers, fist cocked. Bethix sits up and shakes her head at him. "Relax, skipper. I'm just so." She looks to Milliard, eyes narrowing. "Why dissect the gift to find its flaws? What cynicism are you answering to?"
Milliard sniffs. "It's a hard life, bab. You know it too."
"Above all," she nods, "that is why we are kind."
He allows himself a tired smile. "I'm glad you found yourself forced to be kind here, bab. And -- you know what -- I'm even going to be bib enough believe that you'd be kind anyways, cornered or not." He looks around the galley. "Because every deserving bob lived to tell about it, so it's just that kind of day."
The cutters raise their cups. "Ho, ho, ho, ho!"
And then a cry resounds down from the higher decks of the stack: "Stormbreak! Ho, ho! Stormbreak's ahead, allbobs! Ho!"
The cutters disconnect themselves from their lines, massaging their arms as they queue up to climb the ladder. The last pauses to heft Milliard upright. "Come on," he says, "nobob should miss seeing the sky after so much storm. Ho, ho!"
Ting offers out his hand and helps Bethix to her feet. "Elright?" he asks.
"So," she confirms, moving to the ladder.
Every occupant of the massive cutting stack crowds into the great cockpit, faces squeezed in together, pressed against the windows with wide eyes. Cutters climb on top of one another's shoulders, much like the robots, in order to find a free patch of view. The pilot hops down from the high seat and gestures chivalrously to Bethix and Ting. "Please," he says, "I'd like our guests of honour to have the throne."
Bethix smiles uncertainly. Ting holds her elbow as she climbs up, then follows her. They squish into the filthy, heavily-graffitoed chair together and look up. Bethix gasps, her eyes suddenly swimming.
They can see the sun.
The Black Eye is a ceiling whose shadow they are crawling out of behind a dust-cloaked cohort of running robots. Beyond that ceiling's fringes are streaks of thinner, wispier clouds set against a heaven of pale periwinkle blue with shafts of sunlight cutting across it. The light glitters on the distant domes and towers of Edgerain, wavering on the horizon.
The cockpit itself moves into the light. At once, Bethix feels warmer and more sure. "Carry on," she whispers to herself.
"Bleddy proper," says Ting, squinting at the sun. "Hello, Indi. Good to see you egain, eld gel."
Predictably, the cutters begin to sing.