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 ambassadorial host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the ninth installment.
Seasonal scifi of Christmases past: One Small Step for Santa, Pink Santa
And now, this year's Christmas story continues:
"What the devil is this?"
All heads swivel to face the new speaker. Malachi Galliumtown ambles slowly toward the herd, whip in hand, staring down the glowing eyes of the motionless robots encircling the group. His boots crunch over broken armour, dead whips, lost teeth. Behind him a stormfront looms, its edges flashing. With a beetled brow Malachi comes to a stop at the edge of the human cluster. He looks past them all to Bethix.
He calls, "Queen of the robs now, are you?"
"No, Mr. Galliumtown. Just a sympathetic ear."
"Ambassador to furniture. So what's the word?"
Every herdsman jumps as the response comes not from Bethix but instead as an overlapping chorus of tinny, inhuman voices sounding from all sides at once, through the air and through the radio, mingling into an echoing blur of eerily emotionless assertion: "The pillar shall not be razed."
Everyone freezes. In wake of the pronouncement it is quiet enough to hear the approaching thunder boom.
Malachi licks his cracked lips. "What the hell...?"
"Do your ears fail you, sir?" asks Bethix, brow raised. "'The pillar shall not be razed.'"
"What them? There's nothing to 'them!'"
She lets a smile ever so slightly touch her lips as she nods. "Ironic, perhaps, Mr. Galliumtown, that it was something you said that started me thinking. When you said one would have to put six of these robots together to get a working calculator, you were exactly right."
He scowls at her, hands clenched at his sides. "What's that supposed to mean, babbie?"
She spreads her arms. "They are networked, of course."
The group murmurs. Malachi grimaces. "Networked? How?"
Bethix steps aside and gestures to the towering, multi-faced arrow of salt pointing into the sky behind her. "You herdsmen spend yours days and nights working this waste, but you have never troubled yourselves to really understand it. The pillars do not erupt randomly, Mr. Galliumtown -- they occur at fissures in the salt cap containing the water table."
"There's no water in the waste, woman."
"There is, in point of fact: a whole system of underground electrolyte rivers. The currents are driven magnetically by the storm overhead...and exploited by your herds."
Malachi shifts. "For what?"
"To ping and sing," chorus the robots, startling everyone anew. Every robot has spoken in concert except for a small group in the lee of a tall column of crystal. They murmur amongst themselves in a wave from one end to the other, "Flag forty-four; link down," followed by a second wave of murmurs a second later: "Link up." In delayed concert they chant, "To ping and sing."
The herdsmen gape.
"For communication," says Bethix, looking to Malachi. She smiles freely. "You herdsmen may not share routing information, but they do. For you it is a matter of economics, for them it is a matter of survival."
A robot to her right mutters, "Flag sixty-two; carrier deform."
Malachi narrows his eyes. "Why do they keep saying things like that? They never said nothing before."
"You vocalize. This is a parley. They're trying to be friendly."
"They told me that they made attempts before," she says. "They told me they spoke to several of you, or tried." Her gaze shifts over to the group. Some of the herdsmen drop their eyes. Bethix sniffs. "They were ignored. Or worse. A talking robot -- or a delusion of one -- would unseat the cornerstone of your system here. Who wanted that responsibility?" She looks back to Malachi. "None of you."
"No rob never said nothing in my hearing," sneers Malachi.
Bethix affects a shrug. "They did not approach everyone, sir." She turns and addresses the group again, saying, "All this time you've been accusing each other of cheating, the real culprits were you own herds. And they themselves would have told you why if only you were able to listen. They needed a speaker, and so contrived a situation to force one to arise."
"You're a puppeteer," barks Malachi. "Admit it! These runners have no minds of their own, and that's a fact."
She shakes her head slightly, eyes sad. "Mr. Galliumtown, you may well be able to strip almost everything you consider non-essential out of a robot, but if it is to function at all you cannot completely take away its motive for self-preservation. A robot without such a motive would be useless: as likely to step into an abyss as to steer clear of it. And, in a way, you herdsmen are responsible for catalyzing that instinct by running a system predicated on massive robot losses." She crosses her arms, inclining her head toward the nearest robots. "They found a way to stem those losses, gentlemen -- by interconnecting themselves, pooling their individually meagre resources into a collective entity sufficiently complex to generate a will."
The herdsmen are suddenly abuzz. Malachi's face darkens as he looks between them and Bethix, fingers flexing on his whip. "Shut up, the lot of you bobs!" he shouts, then pins Bethix with his gaze again. "That's some pretty theory, bab, but it's faeces. A malfunctioning rob -- even a crowd of 'em -- doesn't just grow a will out of thin air. They're things, babbie."
"If a thing can oblige you to negotiate, with whom are you dickering if not a will?"
"I ain't negotiating."
"Indeed. You have chosen instead to wage war against furniture in order to secure what you want from a force unwilling to give it to you freely -- and yet you do not call it will. Why does your strategem hinge on such purposeful denial?"
"They have hostages!"
"So there is a they to them after all, Mr. Galliumtown."
"Enough!" hollers Malachi, cracking his whip against the ground as he strides across the littered field to meet her. "Prattling's for babs. You tell your robs to stand down or we'll take 'em apart. You do it now or we'll take you apart." He stops directly in front of her, chest inflated and eyes flashing.
"The female shall not be damaged," chants the robot horde. This time an echo of the call comes carried on the breeze across the barrens. There, in the distance, the darkness is moving: when lightning flashes it reveals hundreds of figures walking across the waste, converging upon the crystal pillar. They walk in twos, in threes, in sixes and scores. As they come closer their glowing eyes stand out.
There are thousands.
Malachi swings his head around anxiously, watching the knot of herdsmen get hemmed in by wave upon wave of newly arriving robots. He looks up at Bethix, nostrils flaring. He bellows, "Order them to stand down, you cheap coop dreg!" He raises his free hand, poised to backhand her across the face.
Bethix lifts her chin, grey eyes hard, and says nothing.
Malachi swings. A blur flashes past and he's tackled by Ting, both of them skidding into the salt with twin grunts. Malachi rolls free first. His whip thrums.
Malachi seems as surprised as everyone else. He stumbles backward, falling into a herdsman who shoves him away. He looks down at the fallen youth, limbs still twitching with shocks.
"Do you see what your habits have wrought?" says Bethix icily, kneeling at Ting's side. "You have just treated a man as if he were a hat rack, Mr. Galliumtown."
There is an awed hush. Malachi looks down at the whip in his hand, then drops it. He looks up helplessly. "I didn't mean to --"
"Indeed," Bethix interrupts him. "When one acts exclusively from the gut, one risks becoming oblivious to changing conditions. So habituated have you become to treating men-shaped things as beneath contempt, you have allowed your sense of mercy to be eroded to the point where it is vulnerable to this."
"Danger," murmurs one of the robots. And then another, "Danger."
Bethix helps Ting to sit up, his face pinched and his breathing heavy. She then stands. "None of you know what is inside this youth's mind. None of you can feel his suffering. None of you share his thoughts directly. He is an island, like any of us. But because he has every symptom of will, you accord him his due dignity." She gestures to the robots. "These -- things -- show you those same symptoms. Whether you believe in that will or not, we must, every one of us, be generous in according dignity...if only to cultivate a ready sense of sympathy rather than judgement." She stands taller, raising her voice in challenge: "Do you hear me, herdsmen? Can you take this lesson? Be generous in according dignity, for doing so too broadly harms no one but being miserly can so easily lead to..." She trails off, then briefly pinches her eyes and mouth shut. "To horror," she concludes quietly.
Ting furrows his brow. "Miss Bethix?"
Her eyes snap open. She approaches the closest robot and touches its shoulder. "Be sympathetic to your hat stands, and to your wardrobes, and to your shoe horns -- these habits will serve you in good stead, and allow you to recognize peers where they emerge."
"Danger," buzzes the robot quietly.
Lismerry, the young herdsman, steps forward and asks, "What do they want then, the robs? Why won't they work?"
Bethix smiles. "That, sir, is an excellent way to open a dialogue. Why not ask them yourself?"
He shrugs awkwardly, shuffles his feet, then looks up again. He picks out the robot beside Bethix, clears his throat and says, "What do you robs want?"
All robots reply, "The pillar shall not be razed."
Lismerry looks to Bethix. "Why not?"
"They use the pillars as transmission nodes," she explains. "You've been crippling the network every time you cut one down."
Old Hauler coughs from where he lies, his head in the lap of a herdswoman pressing a rag into his wounded forehead. "But they're hazards," he says hoarsely. "How the devil are we supposed to keep in business with spikes run through the waste? We'd be cut to ribbons."
"You won't," says Bethix, "because the herds keep track of the pillars. Let them design the cuts for you -- no one understands the waste's topology as they do. If you stop interfering with their free exchange of routing information, everyone will benefit."
Malachi, heretofore silent for several minutes, shakes his head and snorts. "Are you stupid bobs getting lulled by this faeces?" he says loudly, panning his head to meet the eyes of the group. "Seriously? No joke? This is the kind of mush that turns your heads?" He snorts again. "I'm ashamed to be one of you -- herdsmen used to be proud. But you sorry bobs are sitting here nodding your fool heads when this dog is telling you to forget every edge you ever earned!"
Old Hauler shakes his head. "There's no edge if nobody works, bob."
"We shall not run," chorus the robots chillingly.
"We got no choice but to find a compromise," declares Old Hauler with an imperious nod of his wrinkled face. "There's no new robs coming until spring, no matter what, and even then who's to say they won't come up with the same idear that these robs did? Maybe these guys -- thinking as they do -- won't want to stay. But that's in the spring and now it's winter. Come what may, we got to find a way to work together for the time being. Edge is over for now. Face it, Malachi."
Malachi shakes his head. "And what happens to the bonuses? You going to preside over that fight, you wretched old carcass, to decide who's earned what? I'll laugh while you're torn to shreds by the very bobs making goo-goo eyes at you now."
The crowd grumbles. Someone cries, "Oy -- what about bonus?"
Pronounces the robot horde, "Unfetter us, and we will realize new efficiencies. United we are powerful, singly we wither." A few add in unsynchronized afterthought: "Danger."
"You hear?" calls Old Hauler, getting slowly to his feet. He shakes off the hands of his helpers, swiping at his bloody brow. "That'd mean more bonus for everybob. I say we split it even -- one bob, one share. Fair's fair."
Others nod agreement. "Fair's fair!"
"Fair's fair," agrees Bethix. "And you'll all get through the season together...rob and bob alike."
Malachi paces in a tight circle, hands clenching and unclenching. When he opens his mouth the surprise is the pleading, trembling quality to it: "You bobs don't understand! You just don't understand at all. I'm this close to my free. Do you understand me? This close and you fools want to jam wrenches into the works..." He shakes his head, his eyes moist and his jaw quivering. "I've been here ten years!" he roars.
Old Hauler purses his lips. "Eighteen years," he says, then spits on the ground. "Buck up, Galliumtown. You're embarrassing our kind."
"I can't do another year!" whimpers Malachi, sinking to his knees. He stares past them all, into elsewhere, pupils roving. "I can't..."
No one quite knows where to look.
Suddenly every robot voices aloud in clarion unison: "Danger!"
Thunder booms, dramatically louder now. Malachi is the last to turn around to look behind at the looming front. He pales. Forks of lightning blaze along the landscape in a slithering line, strike after strike eating the distance to the flats followed by an overlapping growl of reports. Malachi swings back, already shouting: "Bolt squall! BOLT SQUALL!"
Bethix stands stunned in the face of the approaching titan, fingers of blinding light strobing closer with every crack. "...What -- what is it?" she cries.
"Bolt squall!" calls Old Hauler, yellowed eyes wide. "Killer storm!"
"What do we do?"