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 warlord host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the eighth installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
The air is still. A sparse, gentle flurry of flakes drifts lazily from the black ceiling of cloud above. Lightning flashes at the horizon but the weather at the crystal pillar has turned briefly, bafflingly clear.
Malachi lowers binoculars and runs a callused hand over his stubbled pate. With a grunt of satisfaction he moves to the edge of the cockpit, arms akimbo, watching the herd form up into a neat phalanx on the barrens below.
Milliard sits in the pilot chair, his splinted leg propped up on the dashboard. He concludes an exchange on the radio and looks over. "We're solid, Malachi," he says, voice grave. "If this is really what you want to do --"
Malachi doesn't meet his eyes. He reaches aside and opens a broadcast channel. "My fellow herdsmen!" he declares, "the time has come to reclaim our brothers; to defend our way of life; to secure the season for every bob and his kin!"
He paces for a beat, gaze steely. Milliard watches him anxiously.
Malachi stops at the front of the cockpit, hands spread on the console. He looks up to the sky and licks his lips. "Herdsmen," he cries, "deploy!"
With a shudder rippling through its ranks the herd takes up the march, the first rows drawing out and then the last rows catching up until the group moves as a single unit, boots beating in perfect time. A tail of dust blooms behind them, fading as it roils.
"We've got all our eggs in one basket," says Milliard quietly. "What if the robs try to outflank 'em?"
Malachi snorts. "We're not duking with strategy here. Just a bug." He takes up the binoculars again, gaze on the dark field below. "Just a nasty little bug, bob."
Ting falls into the herd's bouncing gait, strides long in the half gravity, muscles adolescently enthusiastic without the yoke to weigh them down. Milliard's magnetic whip jostles rhythmically against his hip. The air is so clear he's tucked his scarf down under his chin, his ebony face exposed and beaming. A young herdsman in the next column glances over at him with a bewildered expression. "Whet?" prompts Ting.
"Sorry," says the herdsman. "It's just that...you're smiling."
Ting chuckles, rolling the water drip from one end of his mouth to the other like a cigar. "Of course," he replies. "It's a bettle! Heff you neva been in a bettle before?"
The youth shakes his hooded head. "You're not afraid?"
"Neh," says Ting, still grinning. "Whet's your neem?"
"Lit me till you semtheng, Lismerry: a min neva feels so elive as in the moments he might die. Thet's not fear in your bled -- it's fire! Use it."
The young herdsman nods uncertainly.
At the head of the phalanx is an aged, wind-worn herdsman called Old Hauler; it is his papery, strangely gentle voice they next hear crackling through their earpieces. "Fan out, bobs. Let's be wide. We're a juggernaut, you and I. We're stopping for nothing. We're a wall. We're a bulldozer. A titan. We are the motherloving finger of God!"
The members of the rank at his back carry square sheets of weather sheeting cut free from the sides of the ferry. They hold them aloft as shields, peering through letterbox apertures still hot from the lasers that cut them.
Floodlights along the top edge of the ferry illuminate behind them, casting long, loping shadows out ahead of the herd. Plied from the ink are irregular columns of crystal, among them the still, silent figures of robots, carapace fixtures winking with reflected light.
Old Hauler whispers in their ears: "Whips up!"
The first ranks rush in amongst the thicket of crystal, humming whips raised beside their shields. The closest robots fall, their bodies trampled. A great cry, thirsty and terrible, erupts from the herdsman at this first glimmer of victory. Ting bounds out ahead of them, buoyed by bloodlust, Milliard's whip arcing and cracking as he dances between the robots, bellowing, "Deeth!"
But then he stops short. Someone plows into him from behind and they both fall. Rocks zip over their heads, whistling and then cracking and banging loudly as they find targets behind them. Men cry out and stumble, some catching their own bloodied teeth in their hands.
The volley of projectiles is seemingly endless, the air over Ting's head hissing continuously.
Shields are knocked aside. Bones snap. Whips drop. When the rear rows break apart to flee they find they have been outflanked, and the assault now comes from all sides of the compass. Robots crouching behind pillars or lying buried in the salt rise into view, their arms cranking back and forth in a superhuman blur to release rock after rock.
Old Hauler screams, "Retreat!" just before he's felled. Ting hugs the ground.
"What the devil's going on?" cries Lismerry with a quavering voice, pressed into the salt beside him.
"It's a trep," pronounces Ting darkly.
"But that's impossible!"
Ting gives him a sidelong glance as more of their comrades drop from sight with agonized yells. He raises a brow. "You reeckon?"
There is a lull in the assault. The last few rocks bounce and skip to a halt, the robots' supply of munitions finally expended. Ting crawls sideways on his belly, coverall grinding into the sharp knobs of salt. He reaches out to retrieve a fallen whip. Then, with an ululating shriek, he leaps to his feet and brandishes twin whips in a vicious flurry.
"What heff you done with Miss Bethix, you besterds!" he cries, striking down robot after robot.
Those who can stand follow suit, charging at the empty-handed robots and striking at them with all fury. In moments the ground is littered with their smashed parts.
Huffing and puffing Ting scowls from his crouching position on a salt ridge, whips poised. He cackles at the armless robot he is facing down. "Net so teff without any erms, are you?" He raises the whips, crossed over his head.
Two robots approach the first. Each picks up a discarded arm from the ground and sets to attaching it. The first robot flexes its new arms, then looks up at Ting with a renewed glow in its inhuman eyes.
Ting frowns. "Hell."
All around them robots are expertly and efficiently repairing one another, rising from the litter to stand against the herd once more.
The skirmish reignites in a flash. Man and machine become locked in combat, wrestling one another for the whips. Herdsmen are cast aside like ragdolls and their whips brandished against their fellows. Grown men whimper and screech, the air filling with the smell of burnt hair. Ting leaps from his perch and crashes down upon the shoulders of a robot, riding its head down into the ground with a satisfying crack. The lithe youth is on his feet in a blink, weapons flying in a spinning arc.
The defense is doomed, however. In less than a minute the remaining herdsmen have been forced to gather in a tight knot, fending off attacks from all sides, drawing closer and closer together until their backs run up against one another. They stumble over the wounded beneath their feet, breath ragged and faces bathed in terrified sweat.
Ting's whips fizzle and sigh, their energy spent. He tosses them aside, raising his gloves like a boxer instead. He pushes the water drip out of his mouth and grits his teeth, surveying the undiminished horde of robots surrounding their small group. "Now thes is where it gits interesting," he growls.
The robots advance, wielding the severed limbs of their peers as clubs.
The herd steels itself. Ting smells urine.
"What do we do now?" Lismerry whispers urgently.
"We die," says Ting without turning aside. "We try to do it properly."
"How do I know what properly is?"
"Just pretind your ancestors are wetching you, is ell."
Ting shrugs. "You can ask 'em when you get there."
And the robots are upon them, beating the herd down without reserve. Ting is knocked to his knees by a blow swung from a robot leg, then repeatedly bashed across the back. The few remaining whips crack and sing. Gurgled yelps, warbled moans, crackling salt under shuffling feet. Dust and chaos.
And then a shrill voice, cutting through the radio static: "Stop! All of you -- just stop!"
Ting blinks, wiping blood from his nose. "...Miss Bethix?"
Toward the looming crystal pillar the barrier of robots splits like a curtain. From the gloom between the silent ranks emerges Barbara Barnabas Bethix, walking briskly. She toggles her microphone to shout, "Drop your whips! You must drop them immediately!"
The cornered herdsmen glance at one another warily. "What the devil is she talking about?" someone pants. "She's crazy! We'd be defenseless! They'll massacre us!"
"She's with them!"
"Lay down your whips now, or this all starts again!" she pleads. "Please -- you must listen to me!"
Slowly Ting gets to his feet, perspiration dripping from his chin. He looks around and begins to nod. "We'd bitta do whet she says."
"He's with her!"
"The offworlders are with the robs!"
The herd rustles, darkening gazes turning to fix upon Ting and Bethix. The herdsmens' hands and faces twitch with adrenaline. As the ripple of disquiet washes out from its murmuring epicentres the group's hostility thickens like a stink.
For the first time, Ting looks genuinely scared. He swallows, eyes darting.
"Alright bobs," says a herdsman with a freely bleeding gash on his cheek. "Get them."