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 admittedly somewhat picky host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the seventh installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
The squat domes of emergency shelters surround the parked water ferry. A quintet of guards roams the periphery, goggles panning slowly from side to side. Several check their watches, anxious to be relieved so they can take their turn to tuck in to a hot box of rations and a cool sack of drink. When pebbles skip over the flats the guards freeze attentively, gloves hovering over their coiled whips. The radios meep and squelch with regular reports. "Ain't nothing, bobs -- just wind and kipple. Stand down."
Inside one of the cramped, humid shelters Ting sits down next to Bethix, passing her a steaming plastic cube and a silvery bag. She tucks her sweaty hair behind her ears and nods her thanks, prising open the flaps and then frowning uncertainly at the unleashed steam. "Mercy," she mutters.
Ting looks over, his mouth already crammed with warm mush. "It's bleddy good," he says around the food. "We neva had retions like thes when I served on Reull. Net bed at ell!"
She watches him consume with relish, then pokes at her own serving experimentally. A lobe of dried out glop falls over, crumbling into the runny, reddish liquid pooled at the bottom of the box. She raises her brow in dismayed disbelief.
"Come on now, miss," urges Ting, licking his fingers. "Don't be setch a snub."
The herdsman passing out the chow consults a list, then hesitates with a final meal package in his weathered hands. "Anybob know where Malachi's at?"
A herdswoman nods as she swallows. "Too good to eat with the rest of us, he is. Up in the cockpit, sitting on his throne."
"Alright now. Who wants to bring that big bossy bob his vittles? It ain't going to be me, cause this is as cold as I'm letting mine get."
The herdsmen munch quietly, eyes down. Bethix looks around at them and then raises a hand. "I'll take it. I'm...already finished, anyway." She hands her rations to Ting and then crawls over to the herdsman at the entrance flap. He gives her the package with his thanks and squeezes past her to find a place to sit. Bethix sighs, zips up her coverall and pushes out the short tunnel to the open air.
After the stultifying tent the wicked wind is almost refreshing. She tugs her goggles into place and trudges across the salt to the stack, then climbs the ladder. She has to fight the gale to yank open the cockpit hatch.
Malachi looks up sharply. "What do you want, offworlder?" he snaps.
She smiles tolerantly as she secures the door, then turns around. "Aren't we all offworlders here?" She offers out the package. "I've brought your meal, Mr. Galliumtown."
"Some of us more than others," he grunts, reaching down from the piloting chair to take the rations. "Besides," he adds as he folds open the box, "I've got you all figured out, bab."
"There's a hyperspace gate on Reull, but you're chartering a Reullian ship to drag you upwell. You think a bob like me doesn't have enough sense to make out where you're heading?" He sniffs, pausing to insert two fingers of mush into his mouth. "You're going to gate out from the heliopause, right at the lens. You're going to gate out as a refugee."
She is quiet for a moment. "I won't lie to you. That's so."
"Oy I know it is, bab, I know. Don't think for a second I ain't seen human traffic before. Don't think for a second that doesn't tell me everything I need to know to get my edge on you."
"You're in a situation, bab. A proper pickle. One shout through the right pipe and they'll be coming after you, won't they?"
He shrugs, shoving more food into his mouth. "Who cares? Whoever you're running from, bab. I don't know where you gated in from or where you're trying to get, but either way you got trouble. It's written all over the lines on your forehead. Whatever faeces you're swimming in, I know for a fact you want it quiet."
She says nothing.
He sips from his sack. "I can be persuaded to keep mum. I'm not an unreasonable bob."
Her eyes narrow. "Mr. Galliumtown, what are you after?"
He lets his gaze sweep over her coverall from head to toe. "Word is you're a concubine, bab. I bet you can think of something to favour me with."
She purses her lips primly, folding her arms across her chest. "A world of charm, Mr. Galliumtown -- a world of charm this is. I really do think, however, that we ought to concentrate on the problem at hand: those men are dehydrating out there as we speak."
Malachi makes a face, then sips lingeringly at his drink again. "Don't you fret, babbie. A full stomach and a nip'll give our herd the gonads they need to put up the fight. Seventy-five whips...we'll be standing hip deep in rob trash in less than a third. Problem solved."
"You intend to send us in to fight them?"
He shrugs. "What else you going to do with defective machinery? Clear it out, get our men watered, get home and order a new batch of robs. Argue about whose bonus pays for it later. Season's wasting."
"And if the new robots are afflicted like the old?"
"We'll sue the manufacturer, bab. Class action for compensation. Easy as that. Let it be the barrister complex's headache."
She shakes her head. "With all respect, Mr. Galliumtown, I do believe you've misread the situation. We are not facing defects here: we're facing rebellion."
Malachi guffaws, free bits of food flying from his lips. "Oy, you've got the mind of a bib, bab. Naive. Don't you know a damn thing about them robs? They've been stripped down -- stripped right down. It's ridiculous to think of 'em as thinkers, bab, just ridiculous."
"Why? Why so ridiculous?"
"Those hunks of junk ain't got no intelligence. We're not talking about Zorannic robs here or anything sophisticated like that. It's a simple matter of having the parts or not having them, and those things got nothing." He laughs again. "Why, you'd probably have to put six of 'em together to build a goddamn calculator. They just don't have no brains at all, bab. It's a fact of engineering."
"But they can walk, and adapt to the landscape --"
"That's your basic ignorance yapping again, bab. It's the bodies that govern ambulation, not their empty heads. They're hollow as scarecrows up there -- nothing but straw."
She frowns. "What's a scarecrow?"
"Nevermind," he grunts, balling up his wrappers and tossing them in the corner of the cockpit. "Point is there's no will there, and no amount of wishful bab-headed thinking's going to change that one bit. So stop figuring with your goddamn womb and try to come at it practically: those bobs need watering, and those robs stand in the way. What's your solution?"
She holds his eye. Flatly she says, "People are going to get hurt."
He looks away, peering into his monitors and randomly flipping switches on the dashboard. "Yeah? Well it's going to hurt a helluva lot more when nobob makes his bonus. Now that's hurt, bab. That's a kind of hurt a fading flower like yourself ain't never had to bear."
"You know nothing of my life."
"If you've got tears left over to shed for furniture, you're untried. Simple as that."
She sniffs. "Furniture?"
"The robs. You might as well cry for the troubles of a wardrobe, or a hat rack. It'd make the same sense, which is none." He looks at her significantly, then grunts and turns back to the controls. "Now get out of here, and inform the herd we march to war."
The wind whispers and snickers in her ears as she hops off the end of the ladder and drops to the ground, salt crackling under her boots. She searches out her shelter in the gloom between sheets of dust, then, just as she is about to set off, hesitates. One glove lingers on the side of the stack, fingers extending slowly as if in caress...
Bethix hits the door control, stepping out of the way as the ramp lowers. She clomps up inside the stack and scans the hold. Experimentally she hefts one of the smaller water kegs, testing its weight against Anankey's feeble gravity. "I can do this," she says to herself, muffled voice echoing in the hold.
She sets off with two kegs balanced on either side of a yoke, freed of its bridles, resting across her shoulders. She steps gingerly between the shelters and then picks up the pace as she moves into the open field between the camp and the crystal pillar. She checks her watch to confirm direction, but its compass is fouled by magnetic interference and won't tell her a thing. Resolutely she marks her orientation with what landmarks her sight can ply from the weather, squares her feet and marches into the swirling abyss.
She veers wide, skirting the edges of the flats in favour of slower but sheltered progress along a fractured gulley between two high, sparkling ridges of salt crystals. She comes to a span of collapse, a slurry of debris raising the gully floor. With laboured breath she climbs the pile to cross it, pausing near the apex as the texture beneath her boots changes.
It's like she's walking on sea shells.
She leans down close, shining her watch light on the rubble to reveal cracked plastic skulls and sightless eyes, salt-eroded armour plates, fingers, toes, and the odd carbon-weave ligament. She is standing on a mound of junked robots. She scurries down the other side and rushes on through the gully without looking back, gooseflesh spreading to her extremities in a cold pulse.
Her radio bristles and squawks. Between bursts of static she can hear them call her name. Soon the voices are overwhelmed by snow. She can imagine they are saying anything she likes. She can hear them say, "Quite proper, Barbara Barnabas. Above and beyond! Carry on."
"Carry on," she pants to herself, the yoke digging into her neck.
When she clears the gulley's curved edge she is on the far side of the crystal pillar. The ferry's formation lights are invisible but the silhouettes of two large stacks stand in the foreground, partly occluding the pillar as its swimming translucence is revealed by a flare of sheet lightning high above. She takes a steadying breath and then advances toward the nearest stack.
Slowly, carefully. She creeps.
When she reaches the stack Bethix puts down the kegs, then stretches and grimaces. From crouching behind one of the massive treads she reaches up and knocks three times upon the hull.
The wind whistles. A flurry of salt flakes rushes past her.
The stack knocks back.
Bethix replies in kind. The knock is returned, but travelling: it describes an arc, coming to rest behind a service hatch atop the starboard tractor. She follows it, clambering with difficulty up the side of the giant vehicle, and knocks upon the hatch itself. The hatch clanks and then grinds aside.
A drawn, pallid face blinks at her from behind a convoluted assembly of articulated pipes and greasy hydraulics, a rag pressed over his mouth and nose. If the man is saying anything Bethix cannot hear it.
She moves her own face into the hatch as she tugs the hood away from her mouth and pushes up her goggles. "I have water!" she cries.
The man's bleary eyes widen. "Ho!" he wheezes, licking his cracked lips with a swollen, dried out tongue. "Thank God -- we couldn't go much longer. The robs killed the fans, killed the cyclers, killed the radio, killed everything." He breaks off for a fit of coughing, then looks up again. "How long've we been locked up in this stinking furnace, anyway?"
"Almost two thirds. I have a pair of small kegs, but there's more."
He nods, eyes watering as he coughs himself raw. He takes a shuddering breath and says, "They'll fit through this hatch if we bust up the pipes some. Any idea how the hell we're going to get out of here? You bobs got cutting torches?"
"You're what?" he cries hoarsely, then wheezes again.
"The others are preparing to engage the robots in combat."
The man blinks, then shakes his head savagely. "They can't. They'll die. They don't know what they're up against."
"Tell me what they're up against."
He is overcome by a renewed fit of coughing, eyes squeezed shut as he leans against the pipes. He retches, mouth foaming as he struggles to regain his breath. He wilts, sinking down out of sight in the narrow alcove into which he has jammed himself in order to reach the maintenance hatch.
"I'm bringing the water to you now!" cries Bethix desperately. "Hang on!" She spins and looses her footing, skidding along the tread belt's width and then careening over the side. She hits the irregular jumble of crystals awkwardly, teeth rattling in her head and the wind knocked from her lungs.
She rolls to her hands and knees, sucking in painful breaths.
She looks up, and gasps.
She is hemmed in by a tight semi-circle of hard-edged figures, staring down at her with identical sets of faintly glowing eyes. In perfect unison, the figures reach out their arms and advance.