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 yuletide host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the twelfth and final installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story concludes:
Bethix emerges from the bath house and pauses on the steps to take a deep breath of the sultry, humid air. She smells leaves and ozone, perfume and dog turds, and barely any salt at all. It's wonderful.
The traffic hums like a colony of bees, shadows of cars flashing over her.
She clicks her watch to hail a taxicab. One separates from the flow and comes to rest with a swoosh of warm city air, hovering over the grassy roadway before her. She leans in through the window, reciting an address as she takes off a ring. "Okay?"
The driver's eyes widen. "Get in," he says quickly. "You want the air conditioning on, or what?"
The garage is on the outskirts. The grass is sparse and yellow here, the trees feeble and the breeze briny. Old satellite dishes creak in the wind, clocking to steer clear of the great swirling face of the brown dwarf occluding half the sky. They click and grind in their rusted tracks.
The taxicab climbs home. Bethix walks into the garage bay. "Where is Skipper Miko Ting?" she asks a passing robot, its worn carapace smudged and stained yellow. It wordlessly escorts her to a small alcove in the back where she finds the young Reullian in conversation with a ghostly holographic head on an old, very sorry looking dataplate. The plate's chips and scratches are visible in the projection as strange, jangled lines of distortion. Ting breaks the connection abruptly and spins, eyes wild. "Who in the bleddy --" he begins, then breaks off. "Oh."
Bethix tilts her head. "Who was that woman?"
"Oh, thet?" says Ting, shifting the plate from hand to hand before depositing it on a cluttered shelf. "Thet's nobeddy."
"I'm sure it wasn't."
Ting glares at her. "It was my mether," he says finally, shoulders dropping. "I...promised I'd chicken, now and thin. You know, on the mession. For my encle."
She suppresses a smile with effort. "I understand completely."
They walk out onto the busy shop floor together. Grease-stained men corral rusted robots around vehicles in various states of disassembly, shouting orders and scratching themselves. They ignore Bethix and Ting while they muck with their watches, talking to their girlfriends or placing bets on the games.
Ting is looking at her. He says, "You chenged your cluthes."
"Quite," she replies. "But my face remains up here, skipper."
He flushes and looks away. They slow at the mouth of the garage bay where a floating skiff is being loaded with a neat package of parts sealed in transparent wrapping. A limping robot presents Ting with a manifest. He scans it and nods. "Thet's everything," he declares. "We're ell set."
"What happens now?" asks Bethix.
He shrugs awkwardly. "We get a ride, hetched or haired, back out into the weeste: pest the Western Weystation to get my shep." He gestures back at the skiff with an affected, wry smirk. "These perts are no good without a shep to hing 'em on, you know." His expression changes quickly when he sees hers. "But don't you werry, miss. We've over the hemp now. We'll be flying in a blenk. You'll see."
"Of course," she agrees with forced brightness. "I can't thank you enough for carrying on like this. You're a credit to your house, Miko."
"Tengs aren't quetters."
She smiles. "Indeed they are not."
They wander out into the sunlight, the Black Eye a dark smudge running the length of the horizon. Bethix plays with the few remaining rings on her long fingers, loosening and twisting them to feel the strange, blind skin beneath. "I've worn some of these a very long time," she says quietly.
Ting isn't paying attention. He continues to wander ahead, hand at his brow as a visor.
"What do you see, skipper?"
He looks back over his shoulder. "A steck's coming in."
"That must happen all the time."
"It's heading straight for us. See it now, miss?" As he speaks he begins to step backward.
Bethix looks past him. A roiling front of dust is rushing toward the garage. The ground beneath her feet is pounding. She starts walking backward, too.
Sheltered within the shop they watch the stack sweep in. Scores of robots dig in their heels, crow tails of dust plowing up from row after row, draining momentum from the burden behind them obscured by clouds of grit. With a colossal grinding noise the treads slow and then lurch as they stop. The tracers slacken. Slowly, the echoes die away and the air begins to clear.
Ting's eyes go wide. The parts manifest drops from his fingers, fluttering to the floor.
"My goodness!" exclaims Bethix, hands at her heart.
Ting cheers, "My shep!"
The last blossoms of dust fade to reveal the proud prow of the good ship Dollar, its struts and thrusters folded beneath harnesses lashing it to a flat-bed stack with a tiny cockpit set off to one side. The cockpit pops open and a herdsmen descends the ladder rapidly to the ground, cleats clanking on the rungs.
Bethix grins and strides out to meet him. "Hector!"
He looks up from pulling off his gloves and blinks. "You changed your clothes."
She hugs him and then steps back, hands on his shoulders. "I'm so very glad to see you again, Hector." She looks past him, expression awed. "And you've brought our ship! I can't believe it -- it's so wonderful!"
He smiles sheepishly.
She suddenly frowns, turning away from the Dollar and dropping her arms. "But Hector...your bonus --"
He waves it off, then fidgets with his gloves. "Listen Miss Bethix, you may not be Hyper-Christian, but I am. And today is Christmas Day. So this is my gift to you and the skipper. This is my gift to you, just because I can. And because I wanted to." He looks up, cheeks flushed. "Merry Christmas!"
Bethix and Ting jump as the herd of robots chants, "Merry Christmas!"
"Thenk you," whispers Ting reverently. "Thenk you ell the wey, Mr. Lifeloaf sir."
Hector nods happily to him.
Slowly, Ting walks out to the first row of robots. He hangs his head awkwardly, then clears his throat. "End you rubbits -- thenk you, too."
They all turn their heads at once to face him. "Merry Christmas, Skipper Ting!"
Ting laughs. Bethix and Hector do, too.
When all is said and done, and welded and bolted and tested and primed, the rotors atop the Dollar's thrusters begin to spin and chop the air. The antigravity beads keen within their housings and the ship rises, triple armatures unfolding and then lifting free from the yellow grass. The orange eye of Indi winks across the coppery hull, glinting along scratches.
"Chick, chick and chick," mutters the pilot, flipping switches.
The rotors thrum. Edgerain's tallest towers draw aside and the windows show only periwinkle sky and the yawning limb of the brown dwarf. The passenger secures her belts and settles into her seat, then smooths down her dress and closes her eyes. Her lips twitch in recitation.
The thrusters kick in with a roar. The cabin shimmies. The pilot and passenger are pressed into their seats. The sky outside grows darker.
The pilot flicks at a gauge and nods with satisfaction. "Up and out," he reports.
"So is so," says his passenger. "Carry on."