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 exploratory host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the sixth installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
The stack crawls. Row upon row of herdsmen are bent to the task, straining rhythmically against their bridles, grunting in sing-song unison. Cleated boots pound the ground, clawing over the cracked salt flats, raising clouds of grit in their wake.
The wind howls. Lightning gutters.
Ting's limbs feel wooden, continuing to beat onward seemingly automatically, driven by the will of the herd rather than faltering at his own lack. His vision swims as sweat runs into his eyes, goggles nearly opaque with an encrusted layer of dust and salt. His lungs burn, but only when he is fool enough to pay them any attention. It is far easier to give in, to submit to the crowd, to let himself be worked in concert with the others...
He staggers, but he is caught by a strong arm. It is his relief.
Ting nods gratefully as he unhitches himself from the yoke, passing it to the herdsman jogging along beside him. Carefully they switch places and then Ting surges ahead -- his unburdened steps liberatingly light -- veering aside and then slowing somewhat to let the rumbling stack draw up abreast of him. Bethix and three other herdsmen, also relieved, huff at his side. The ramp on the back of the stack drops down and drags along in the salt; the five runners sprint up the ramp and inside before it yawns closed.
"I stell feel like I'm renning," moans Ting, peeling his hood back and pushing the water drip away from his face. He leans against a barrel of water, chest heaving.
Bethix smiles sympathetically. "Easy, Pheidippides," she says between desperate breaths, "you're doing very well. I do realize this is a bit more than you might have had in mind when we struck this bargain..."
"Neh," replies Ting with a wry smirk. "Thes sort of theng heppens ell the time, miss. There's herdly a mession I go on thet doesn't end weth me hauling a meetric tonne of wotta across a didly desert. Bessiness as usual, is ell."
She manages to laugh, then wheezes, then fights to regain her breath.
The other three runners have wasted no time in splitting their coveralls and peeling them down to hang at their waists, exposing their perspiration-slick grimy skin to the meagre fans mounted in the hold's ceiling. Ting unzips his own borrowed coverall, fanning his cocoa skin with part of his scarf. Bethix imitates him, leaning gratefully against the closed ramp.
"Them's some bosoms, bab," quips one of the herdsman.
"Indeed," she agrees, looking down briefly. "Award winning, in point of fact."
"Hey!" cries Ting, suddenly standing between them. He faces down the herdsman, his shiny, skinny body straining to stand tall. "There'll be no teck like thet -- thes is my pissenger, not some coop gel!"
"Oy, I didn't mean nothing by it," chuckles the herdsman soothingly. "Just complementing a lady, bib. Knock your crotch out of gear and sit down, why don't you."
Ting glares at him, face flushed. He looks over as Bethix tugs on his hanging coverall. "So is so," she says. "Rest, skipper. We'll be returned to our work in just a few minutes more. Take advantage."
He nods wearily, still eying the herdsman as he shuffles aside and then drops to sit on the floor sullenly, chewing one thick lip. "I'm wetching you," he warns.
The herdsmen laugh, but it isn't unkind. Ting glowers.
"That was very sweet," offers Bethix.
"A Reullian men isn't sweet," he grumbles. "He's nebble."
"I stand corrected," she says, then leans over and plants a little kiss in the middle of his damp forehead. "You are indeed...nebble, Skipper Ting."
His expression softens slightly, but then his eyes widen as the stack lurches. The herdmen look around. "We're slackening," says one. Another checks his watch. "We might be there, bobs." The first nods. "Let's drop the ramp."
Limbs still feeling spongy and numb, the five resume their coveralls and stomp down the ramp into the weather. They meet Malachi Galliumtown as he clambers down the external ladder, the coiled whip swaying at his hip. He reaches up to click his radio on. "I can't see a damn thing through this grit," he reports, "but my map says we're at spitting distance. I've stopped just shy so we don't get fouled on no pillars. A couple of bobs'll have to scout out ahead."
Milliard raises a gloved hand as he comes around the stack, freed of his bridle. "I'll go, Malachi. But I'll need somebob to help me heft the lamp if we're to see any."
Ting steps up smartly. "Me. It's unly fair -- I've been on breek."
Malachi looks them over. "The Christian and the brownskin? Fine. Get moving. Keep an open link, bobs."
They turn to go but pause as Bethix reaches out and catches their arms. "Do take care out there, gentlemen."
Milliard gestures to the coiled magnetic whip hanging from his belt. "Don't worry. This bob comes prepared."
"We'll be right beck," Ting assures her.
She presses her lips together grimly, watching after them as they go.
Ting and Milliard wander into the herd where the others are untangling the bridles and stacking the yokes. They take up the red guide beacon and carry it between them as they proceed onward into the swirling dark, a soft cone of ruby glow cast out ahead of them. Their cleats crunch on the salt.
Even before they have gone far the ferry is almost lost to sight, only the dimmest glimmer of its formation lights cutting through the miasma. Milliard tugs on Ting and they continue trudging forward, leaning into the wind.
"We're thirty meters out," reports Milliard. His radio meeps.
A shadow is slowly rising before them, blacker against the black sky, its edges glinting with strange reflections that seem to play tricks on their eyes. "Whet's thet?" prompts Ting.
"Crystal pillar," grunts Milliard, his transmission choking with static. "They grow faster than we can cut 'em. Sharp as knives, and they scramble the radios. Bloody nuisance, bob."
As they get nearer more details emerge: two great, tottering stacks are parked on either side of the massive stalagmite-like structure, with circular diamond nanorod blades extended from a tangle of machinery on their fronts. The blades are still, the stacks dark.
Milliard toggles his radio. "Fifty-seven meters. Visual contact with Team Tango stacks. No activity." He switches channels, groping with his free hand. "Tango, Tango: come back, over."
They listen to the hiss of static for a moment, heads cocked.
"Tango, Tango: come back, over."
The pair proceeds, stepping slowly through a field of broken flats, the shadows ahead swaying as the beacon rocks between them. The crystal pillar looms higher and higher. The wind at its base whistles through fissures, screeching at times, twisting into little dust devils that spin away to diffuse into the greater storm. The duo passes between smaller pillars of salt, some of them only knee high but most coming up past the shoulder. Their pace slows further so that the men might carefully step around the sharpest hazards of the crystal thicket.
Suddenly Ting stops.
Milliard looks over at him. "What?"
Ting points. "Min," he whispers. "There's min all around us!"
Lightning pulses overhead, briefly revealing the thicket around them with greater clarity. They have been mistaken: they are not now surrounded by man-sized pillars or even men, but rather by scores of motionless robots.
Both men are startled. The beacon drops between them, clanking on the ground and going dark. "Hell!" cries Ting.
They are engulfed by blackness, eyes blinking rapidly to adjust. Without hesitation Ting walks forward, arms groping out blindly before him. His gloves find the closest robot and he shuffles backward, then cautiously advances again and pokes it in the chest. The robot sways back slightly, nothing more. Ting turns back to his companion. "It's did!" he transmits. "Totally did, like the ethers."
The robot's eyes are unlit. Its left side is coated in grit. The cracked shoulder guards and scratched chest plate bear the faded numerals 877 in a drably practical offworld script.
Milliard looks away from Ting, scanning the dark warily. "I don't like this one bit, bob," he says through a squelch of interference. "No siree. What're all these robs doing out here anyway, instead of with their stacks?"
Ting shrugs. "Well, they're jest statues now, eren't they?"
"I don't know..." says Milliard. Instinctively he reaches for his whip and lets it uncoil, the end slithering to the ground. He thumbs the power and the length of the whip crackles and faintly hums.
The robot seizes Ting from behind.
It happens fast and with superhuman strength, but just a split second later Milliard flashes across Ting's spinning vision, right arm raised high and the whip flying behind it. The whip makes contact and the robot stiffens, its hands snapping open and releasing Ting who tumbles awkwardly to the ground, his shoulder grinding into the serrated edge of a cracked flat. The youth grimaces in pain, features squeezed tight, then dashes aside just as the robot crashes down in turn, Milliard's whip following it all the way.
Milliard keeps whipping until the robot falls into a jumble of dissociated parts, one severed hand continuing to flex open and closed mindlessly.
Milliard hauls Ting to his feet, turning in place. More shadows advance. He cracks the whip menacingly and bellows, "Stand down, you robs! This is a direct order to stand down now!"
"What's going on out there?" barks Malachi over the radio, his voice almost lost in the crackles and pops. "Report!"
Ting gasps as he is struck heavily in the middle of the back. He stumbles forward and drops to his hands and knees, coughing. Something flies past his head and hits Milliard in the hip. Milliard grunts, scooping up the projectile. "They're throwing rocks!" He toggles his radio: "Malachi, we're under attack!"
Another volley of objects flies at them, striking with surprising force. Ting throws his arms over his head, peeking out in a desperate attempt to discern their attackers but all he can see is shadows flitting on shadows. Then, through a haze of salt, he spots the faint glow of the ferry's formation lights between gusts of grit. "Get beck to the steck!" he yells, scrambling to his feet.
Milliard staggers after him but then falls as a large, spinning tile of salt comes whizzing out of the dark. It impacts just below the knee, and Ting is close enough to hear the crack of Milliard's bone giving way. He tumbles sloppily, piling into Ting and forcing both of them to the ground. "My leg!" he screeches.
Ting takes a stone to the head, pockmarking his vision with a sprinkling of stars. He shakes the dizziness off and thrusts his arms under Milliard, dragging him upward. Milliard grabs the boy's slight shoulder, wincing as the ends of his broken bone grind against one another. Together, the two men begin a mad, limping shamble back toward the formation lights...
They lose track of their progress until they fall, headlong, into the arms of their fellow herdsmen loitering outside the tiny ferry. Malachi comes running, Bethix at his heels. "His lig's brook!" pants Ting hoarsely. "Bleddy rubbits brook his lig!"
Malachi's eyes darken behind his goggles. "Just what the devil happened out there?"
"It's the robs," gasps Milliard. "The robs, bob -- they've gone berserk!"