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 emergency response host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the fifth installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
Hector, Bethix and Ting meet Milliard as he steps away from the dispatch booth, folding papers into his pocket. Hector hands him his food which he accepts gratefully, diving right in with a big bite. Wiping sauce from his cracked, lined lips he says, "Got some nasty bolt squalls blowing in westly, but we should be good if we get a move on now."
"Want me to get checking the lines, Mil?"
"Yeah, Hec," he nods, chewing. "And design the route to skirt the east grid -- dispatch officer says they've got a blast team moving through there cutting down the pillars on their way home. Best steer clear."
Hector starts walking toward the stack but stops, turning abruptly. Bethix and Ting turn, too, flinching instinctively from the terrible shriek of stressed metal sounding from the other side of the parking bay. Mouth hanging open, Milliard points as the damaged stack they had just seen being manoeuvred into a slip tilts heavily to one side, seeming to hang there precariously for an impossibly long second, then falls over and crashes to the floor with a bone-shaking report.
The overhead lamps sway, causing the shadows to clock sickeningly. Salt rains from the rafters. A warning siren honks. Men yell.
A crowd of herdmen rushes across the parking floor, Hector, Milliard and their guests along with it. They cough as a bloom of dust washes over them. When it clears they see the fallen stack, intact but deformed, the limbs of broken robots sticking out from beneath its crumpled edge.
The stocky man with the magnetic whip gets to his feet shakily, then turns to survey the damage. His lined features pinch and flex through several expressions before roiling with rage. He bellows, "Pick this stack up, you devils! Pick it up now! Move, move, move!"
His herd obeys, or attempts to. Even the ruined get to their feet to join in the effort, fishing splintered fingers into the gap to find a hold, heaving as one with torn muscles and cracked legs to right the massive vessel. Slowly it begins to rise.
The herdman follows at their heels, whip cracking. "Faster, you fools! Move!"
The shadow of the stack peels away from him as it is reoriented. He stops chasing the labourers, however, when a still fallen duo catches his eye. He grimaces, whip hand twitching. "You!" he shouts, and one of the robots looks up at him. "What do you think you're doing? Get to work!"
Bethix stirs at Ting's side. "Look..." she says, brow furrowed. "That robot..."
"Whet?" frowns Ting.
The whip flies, causing the robot to drop back on its haunches. A second robot lies on the floor, its legs smashed. The first has been in the process of removing them, and lying in wait beside are two perfectly good legs cut free from another robot with a wrecked, headless torso. "Join your gang!" shouts the herdsman, whip flashing and humming.
"Look!" cries Bethix again, grabbing Ting's arm. "It's tending to the wounded!"
"That's impossible," grunts Milliard. "It may seem that way, but --"
"Join your gang!" screams the herdsman, spittle flying from his mouth.
When the robot fails to respond he whips at it viciously, striking down upon its plastic body again and again until the carapace cracks and falls away, its internal components sent bouncing in all directions. He steps closer and continues to assault the debris until it, too, is scattered into garbage. Finally, he crunches the face beneath his boot. The eyes shatter and the mouthpiece warbles pitiably as it pops apart.
The herdsman is left breathing raggedly, his brow slick with sweat. He looks up.
The stack has been righted. The remains of his herd stand frozen at its edge, staring. "What the hell are you looking at?" he grunts. "Start your recharge cycle, you dung piles!"
He charges at the inert row of robots and unleashes his whip upon them. They do not respond -- they neither tremble nor stagger back, nor turn to their work. Those hit most vehemently simply keel over and drop to the floor, limbs stiff and glassy eyes dull. The herdman spins in place, his expression contorted with bewilderment. "What the hell is going on?"
"Malachi's got a total herd dropout," whispers Hector in horror.
Bethix looks around the parking bay. "It's not just his," she says.
Milliard looks up sharply. "What?"
She points. Others have noticed, too, and the bay is rapidly filling with their anxious murmuring. Every robot in every slip has stopped, frozen in place, utterly unresponsive.
The massive garage is now eerily quiet.
"My God..." croaks Milliard, his mouth suddenly dry. His food falls from his hand, forgotten.
There is a frenzy of activity as each herdsman runs to his stack to run diagnostics. Reset signals are broadcast. Batteries are yanked out of torsoes and reinserted in hopes of triggering a reboot, but to no avail. Several whips fly out of frustration. By the giant doors a stack on its way inside sits idle, its entire herd crushed beneath its treads as they stopped in place and did nothing to stop its progress. The herdsman stands atop his stack, shoulders quaking as he buries his face in his hands. "My free, my free!" he sobs. "I was so close! No, no, no..."
The speakers at the dispatch booth crackle and hiss. Everyone turns to look. A voice weaves in through the noise, edged with panic: "This is Blast Team Tango, Blast Team Tango to the Western Way. Mayday, mayday."
There is a renewed hush in the parking bay. With a shaking hand the dispatch officer toggles the microphone and leans in. "Tango, this is Way Control. What's your situation? Over."
"Total dropout, control. We've lost all of 'em. Every goddamn rob."
The dispatch officer licks his lips as he scans a map of the waste. He sighs, then toggles the mic again. "How's your water, bobs? Over."
A long pause. Static crackles. The gathered herdsmen shuffle in closer, cocking their heads.
"We're dry, control. This was the end of our run. We're completely tapped here, bob. Completely tapped, over."
The dispatch officer leans away from the mic, pinching the bridge of his nose as he closes his eyes. "Jesus Christ," he says darkly. "Jesus Bob Saviour."
Bethix touches Hector's elbow. "What does that mean?"
He inclines his head toward her, speaking in a hush. "Without robs they can't come back in the stack. And without water they can't even think of trying to hoof it on their own, out in the open weather. Salt'll dehydrate 'em before half way." He swallows heavily. "Those bobs are trapped out there."
Ting squints. "Whet'll heppen to them, then?"
Milliard sets his jaw, eyes averted. "They'll die, bob." He takes off his cap and presses it to his chest. "They're as good as dead already."
Several other herdsmen have also doffed their caps solemnly.
The speakers crackle. "Control?"
The dispatch officer sags. He looks up at Milliard, his expression bleak. "What do I say?" he begs. "What the hell am I supposed to tell those poor bobs?"
"Control -- should we...should we get a barrister complex on the line? Maybe we should...we're thinking maybe we should get our affairs in order here. Over."
"What does he mean?" whispers Bethix.
"Transfer of debt," says Milliard flatly. "Arrange for next of kin to come and finish out their contracts."
She looks down. "How many are they?"
"Twelve men," says the dispatch officer.
"Twelve men..." she echoes, mouth working and fingers entwined in worry. She then drops her hands to her sides and looks up sharply. "We shall have to mount a rescue."
The crowd murmurs around her. The dispatch officer shakes his head. "All respects, bab, but it can't be done. Even our smallest stack, a basic water ferry, needs fifty robs to pull her. And robs is the one thing we haven't got."
Bethix considers this, then scans the crowd. "Are we not fifty?"
More muttering. Several herdsmen chuckle humourlessly. The dispatch officer straightens, his expression baffled. "What do you mean, bab?"
"Are there not fifty of us here today?" she asks again, raising her voice and turning slowly so that her grey eyes meet the eyes all around her. She is met with blank or mocking stares. She breaks off, then, pushing through the crowd to the nearest herd of frozen robots. She unshackles the yoke from its shoulders and weighs it experimentally in her arms. "It's not too heavy..." she says slowly. "What's the gravity here?"
"Half a G."
She begins nodding to herself. "We can do this."
She looks up. "If a robot can use a man's tools, then surely a man can use a robot's tools."
Stunned silence. Someone laughs. "That bab's off her sense!"
"You can't be serious..." says Milliard, shaking his head.
"And why not?" she challenges fiercely. "Would we leave them to die? Were it you, would you have your fellows leave you to die?"
Her detractor says nothing, staring her down grimly. Milliard drops his gaze. She turns on heel, searching the faces of the others. She shifts the yoke in her arms, then lays it across her shoulders. "We can do this," she says again. "We must do this."
Ting looks shocked. "You're med, woman!"
"Am I?" she replies, steady gaze still roving the crowd. "Who here among you would be happy to see their debt inherited?" She picks one herdsman out, looks at him as she asks, "Who would you have take your burden? Your wife?" She turns to face a red-faced, beefy woman with deeply lined skin. "Your children?" she demands, watching the woman flinch.
The woman moves out of the crowd. For a moment Bethix thinks she's about to be struck, but the woman moves past her instead and kneels down, picking up a yoke and untangling the tracers. After a brief hesitation she straps into the bridle harnesses and mounts the yoke across her shoulders. She clears her throat and says, "Bab's right."
The dispatch officer blinks stupidly, then glances over as another two herdsmen step out of the crowd and start picking through the harneses at the feet of the frozen robots. They are joined by another, and then another.
The dispatch officer gingerly reaches out and toggles the microphone. He coughs, then takes a breath. "Come in, Team Tango; over."
All attention is focused on him as the blast crew acknowledges.
He toggles the mic again. "Team Tango, sit tight -- we're mounting a rescue effort. I repeat: we are mounting a rescue."
The bay erupts in a collective cheer, startling in its volume and passion. The dispatch officer smiles uncertainly, struggling to hear the response drowned out from the speakers. Suddenly nearly every herdsmen is surging toward the nearest stack to claim a yoke and bridle. The dispatch officer shakes his head in wonder and turns to his assistant. "I want those tracers hooked up to a mini ferry. And we'll need radio links and water drips for fifty, maybe a hundred. Hop to it, bob!"
Milliard steps up. "I'd like to volunteer to drive the herd."
Malachi, the stocky herdsman with the whip, slams his fist down on the counter of the dispatch booth. "Forget it, herdsman. It's my damn robs that started it, and so it's going to be me to render things back proper. It's on my herd's head so I'm going out there..." He sneers, "But I ain't no rob, so I'll be riding up top or not at all."
The dispatch officer looks to Milliard. "Do you concede the chair, bob?"
Milliard nods. He speaks slowly and gravely as he hold's Malachi's eye. "I'll not stand in the way of bob making right. I'll take a bridle, like the rest of us."
"Me too," says Hector.
Milliard turns and shakes his head. "No siree, bob. We can't risk both of us. In case things go sour, there's got to be a Lifeloaf left to see to our promise, Hec."
Hector opens his mouth to say something, but changes his mind and closes it. He looks away and nods. "Yeah, I guess that's right, Mil," he says quietly. He glances up at the ceiling, eyes swimming a bit, then wipes his forearm across his face and looks back with a determined expression. "I'll help get you set."
Milliard smiles sadly and touches his brother's shoulder. "That's a bob, now."
A bulldozer draws the mini ferry into the main drag, and crews bend to connecting the tracers and bridles. The bearings are oiled and the wheel bolts tightened, the axels greased and the batteries topped up with charge. The lamps are tested, and the hold piled high with kegs of potable water rolled in the old fashioned way, chased by men and hefted by their blood-pumped arms.
The dispatch officer unrolls a map across the counter. Milliard, Bethix and Ting lean in while Malachi hovers at a distance. "This is where they are," says the dispatch officer, stabbing the map with his finger. In response, an animated loop of radiating circles indicates the spot, continuing after he has removed his hand. "Last check on the common knowledge pool says we've got a rift opening up here, and a lot of serious cracking here. I'm open to suggestions but I'm thinking you should head out along the ridge here, then cut out over these barrens at fourteen or fifteen degrees east."
Milliard nods thoughtfully. "The wind's southerly. They'll be a lee by that ridge -- nice and protected. It's a solid route."
The dispatch officer looks up. "What do you think, Mr. Galliumtown?"
Malachi narrows his eyes. "My routes are my own. I'll drive according to my design."
The dispatch officer chews his lip for a moment, looking into the other man's eyes. "Listen bob, an edge is an edge but this isn't about bonus season anymore. This is a rescue. Working togther's just the right thing to do right now."
Malachi quietly coils his whip and attaches it to his belt. "Let's get this over with. I'm taking my chair." He turns and ambles away toward the ferry. It's too small to have a lift so he climbs a metal ladder on its exterior, disappearing into the cockpit up top. The hatch bangs shut.
The dispatch officer sighs. "I don't know if he's our bob. Not for this one. Maybe someone else should take the chair."
Milliard snorts. "Oh yeah, bob? You going to be the one to tell him to give it up?"
The dispatch officer looks up at the cockpit warily. "I won't go against him. He'd tear my arms off."
"So is so," says Bethix curtly. "Time is of the essence, gentlemen. Is it not? Let's take up our yokes."
Ting frowns. "He's not geng to whep us, is he?"
"Magnetic whips are only for robots, kid," says the dispatch officer.
"Quite," says Bethix, pre-emptively silencing Ting's retort with a hard look. She turns to face the others. "And so why is he bringing the whip along at all?"
The dispatch officer shrugs. "It's a bob's habit. Like putting on his boots."
There are no robots to open the giant doors at the end of the bay, and so they are gradually prised apart and forced wide in increments of inches by the combined work of every free hand. The woman in the yellow jumpsuit coordinates their efforts, conducting the action with flourishes of the glowing traffic beacons in each hand, shouting in rhythm. "And -- heave! And -- heave! And -- heave!"
The storm outside is terrible, and a wave of disquiet runs through the seventy herdsmen strapped into bridles at the foot of the water ferry stack. They shuffle their feet and fret. They snort and murmur, eyes flitting or fixed.
Suddenly Malachi Galliumtown's rasp is in their ears: "Giddy-up!"
Despite an intimate familiarity with the command this seems to startle the herd, their expressions blank. Bethix looks back over her shoulder at the others, then reaches up to trigger the microphone behind her scarf. "Come on now, let's move everyone. Slowly first...one foot in front of the other..."
The herd pushes against their bridles. The tracers go taut, but the treads will not roll. They begin leaning into the effort, now straining and grunting, some hollering primally as they struggle to draw on the weight behind them.
"Come on! Don't give up!" Bethix huffs through the radio.
The treads give a little, a little bit more, then begin to gradually roll forward. The stack lurches. The tracers start to slacken but Bethix cheers the herd on and they put everything they are worth into it. Boots clomp on the concrete, sliding slightly on their cleats as the opposite boot is torn forward to be planted in turn. The harnesses dig into their shoulders and sweat runs into their eyes beneath their goggles.
"We're doing it!" Bethix cries. "We're doing it!"
The herd trudges forward, the stack in tow, slowly gaining momentum. The remaining crew stand to either side, at first solemnly and then clapping their hands and whistling. As the stack draws past the dispatch booth the officer climbs up to stand on the counter. He offers a dignified salute. "God be with you bobs and babs," he mouths.
As the herd clears the doors the two frontrunners carrying an unmoored guidance beacon between them activate its power, revealing the miasma of flying salt and stuccato terrain ahead in a bath of crimson light. "Visibility is check, bob!"
Inside the cockpit, Malachi nods from his high seat. "Best speed north by northeast! Hee-yah!"
The salt flats jump in time to the stomp of a hundred and forty feet. The treads tear up those same flats in their wake. Buoyed by this first success, the runners redouble their efforts and whoop. Now, with their blood pumping, they feel brave and potent. Out, out into the dark and the raging storm: the rescue is on.