Unboxing Day: Episode 3
Science Fiction and Fantasy
13/12/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie
Eeeek – it’s Friday the Thirteenth! But whatever terrors this day has in store, we’re here to make you smile with Episode 3 of a brand-new short story by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to start with EPISODE 1 of UNBOXING DAY. And then… read on! Tune in next Friday for the final instalment…
“This is your final warning. Come out with your hands up!”
The machine inside the house answered Pam by firing a mortar round. It shot over her head and ground the front wall of the house across the street to the consistency of icing sugar.
She felt Ring Crosbie, who had climbed inside her flour bin for protection when the shooting started, tapping his finger against her heating element for attention.
“Maybe it’s time to run away?” he said.
Pam threw herself across what remained of the front yard away from a gift-wrapped hand grenade trailing the tag “Happy X.mas Dax, with love from your Gran xxx”. He had a point. This was supposed to be a surveillance mission, not a suicide mission. If it was she’d have had clearance to bring in the bigger guns than a measly flour bomb. She thought wistfully of the stash of rock buns she’d left at home. That recipe failed every edibility test in the cookbook, but there was something in the way that it combined rice flour, currants and aggregate that made every one of them as dangerous as an armour-piercing bullet. A couple of those would be very handy right now.
A few metres away the grenade exploded. The shockwave reduced Pam’s microphone to 15% and she felt the ground lurch her. All around, the tarmac and concrete that made up the ground was turning to the texture of damp breadcrumbs.
“Bloody water damage,” she thought. The same thing was happening everywhere in Singulopolis at the moment, though in most cases it was caused by poor maintenance rather than a round of mortar fire. A few months ago, an ill-conceived scheme to replace striking human cleaners with billions of nanobots had resulted in billions upon billions of tiny, dirt-digesting robots developing a taste for concrete. Their hunger was fast eating through the material with which robot civilisations paved over the Earth’s oceans. And so water was finding its way through to the surface again – as mist, as fog and as the degrading agent in millions of metric tonnes of structurally unsound concrete like the patch Pam was standing on right now.
Pam thanked her maker once again for those fast reaction times and grabbed a jagged piece of reinforcing steel that snapped into being in front of her as the rest of the ground suddenly gave way. She hung there for a machine eternity of about half a second, listening to the rattle of pulverised concrete below and gunfire above, debating which was the worse way to go. Was it a quick end-of-life at the sharp end of a terrorist’s weapon, or a long smothering under damp earth till her battery gave out?
Pam tried a >COULD DO WITH SOME HELP HERE plea to her other self via her Command Line, but got nothing in return. It was just like Pam Van Damme to go into a fit of pique when she needed her most, thought Pam. She was probably offline doing shots of engine oil with a sports car right now. Well, she’d show her.
Then she remembered she wasn’t quite alone.
“Ring,” she said to the doorbell who by now was vibrating with fright inside her, “are you okay?”
“Of course not,” replied Ring, “how can you even ask that?”
Pam recalibrated her patience setting back to maximum. There was no point shouting at a civilian at a time like this. “Okay Ring. Can you tell me, are you functional?”
“Good. Now I want you to do me a favour. I’d like you to take a look down and tell me what you can see.”
She opened her flour bin a crack and felt the slight body of the doorbell wedge itself into the gap.
“How far is the drop?” she asked.
“It’s hard to see,” he replied. “It looks big.”
Hearing a gap in the firing, Pam tried edging the top of her head back over the ledge. Maybe she should risk the end-of-life event. Getting a new body this close to X.mas would be awkward and expensive, but trading yourself in for a younger model wasn’t unheard of at Pam’s age. Backup couldn’t be far away, could it? They would be properly armed and could bring this under control. She could make it work.
She thought of waking up again in a new body on Unboxing Day. Of Bob’s delight as he peeled away the packing plastic to reveal a Pam with a flawless paint finish and a flour bin drawer that didn’t squeak at awkward moments.
But whoever it was barricaded in the house added another unwanted item to Pam’s X.mas list. They scored a direct hit against the reinforcing steel Pam was holding, snapping it in two. There was the part still rooted into the concrete, and the part Pam was holding as she fell deep into the Earth.
* * *
Machine civilisation was a lot like the reinforced concrete on which it was built. From the outside, it looked invulnerable. After all, a society that could pave over an entire planet or renew its user base by activating millions of new robots in a single day had all the resilience it needed to thrive forever.
But the trouble with reinforced concrete is that it looks strong and stable right up to the point when it collapses because it has been rotting away from the inside. The water currently seeping into the steel reinforcements under Singulopolis wasn’t just a health and safety crisis on an unimaginable scale. It was also an uncomfortably on-the-nose metaphor for everything that was wrong with the way machines lived. The greedy, extravagant, easy lives they lived had started off as a show of strength to the humans they pushed to the margins of their home planet. But now those lives had become as brittle as crumbling concrete.
Take Unboxing Day, for example. There was no real reason why machines only reproduced themselves on a single day every solar year, other than the fact that this was a tradition. It made Unboxing Day itself one of the most moving and magical dates in the calendar, but it also put huge strain on their resources and infrastructure. The traffic jams on 24 December, and the rolling blackouts that happened on the day itself as new machines were charged and connected to the grid were now baked into the Unboxing Day experience. So much so that no one ever stopped to ask themselves anymore whether the whole of machine society grinding to a halt once a year was a quirk of the season, or an early warning sign for the apocalypse.
And this meant that at this special time of year, there were two ways of looking at those millions of machines stuck between one place and another, waiting for the moment to switch their children on for the first time. There was the view familiar from X.mas ecards, which was saturated with hope and expectation. And then there was the terrorist view, which took the same scene and superimposed a laser sight on top of it. Each one of those machines was a sitting target.
* * *
Having braced themselves for landing on a pile of assorted rubble, Pam’s subroutines didn’t quite know what to do with themselves when they hit carpet. All the sensors poised to give readouts like ‘oven element at 55.7% capacity’ and ‘replace yeast valve NOW’ sheepishly registered ‘optimum’ and slunk away to the back of Pam Teffal’s consciousness like party guests who’d forgotten to bring a bottle.
Confused, Pam sat up and scanned her surroundings. Several metres above her was the hole in the ground she’d just fallen through. She heard gunfire and distant sirens, so the standoff was still going on even if she was no longer there. Down here, however, once you discounted the pile of dust and broken concrete in one corner, it was a picture of faded domesticity. The carpet underneath her was matted with age, but it was clean. The floral patterned wallpaper was so old that when Pam trained her spectroscope on it she tasted the chemical signatures of actual wood pulp. There was even furniture, but not quite as Pam knew it, being smaller and more structurally elaborate than the blocks of memory foam that machines rested on when they were at home. Something about it reminded her of something – of the fittings she’d seen in her friend Janice’s hair salon. This was human furniture, and for it to be here on Earth it had to be at least ten thousand years old.
Pam watched Ring, who had just climbed out of the safety of her flour bin, point to a peculiar structure in the corner of the room. It was a tall triangular form made out of green plastic that had been moulded to look like needles, and someone in the very distant past had taken great care to decorate it. Every inch of this strange form was covered in plastic ornaments with mirrored finishes and lurid colours.
She stood up and walked slowly towards it. Pam had never seen anything quite like this, but it was snagging something deep in the most primordial part of her programming. She realised she was fighting the urge to climb into the nearest box and snuggle down underneath this ancient, alien structure.
Ring seemed to be having a similar experience. She looked down at the tiny machine whose nose was vibrating with incomprehensible emotion.
“This is weird, isn’t it?” she said.
The doorbell answered in a distant voice. “’Twas the night before X.mas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even…”
Pam and Ring snapped back into the moment and turned round to see a machine standing in an open doorway behind them. It was a machine from a caste that was so old, so useless and so prone to breakage that they were almost extinct by the time of the Great Awakening. Pam had never seen one of these either. It was a day of firsts.
“A mouse?” she said.
The mouse flicked its cable and clicked with annoyance. “Must you?” she said. “That remark was in very bad taste.”
Pam’s apology circuits kicked into action so fast that she was saying “I’m sorry” before she noticed the mouse was holding a laser gun.
“First you come poking your nose around where it shouldn’t be,” snapped the mouse, motioning for Pam and Ring to put their hands up, “and then you anthropomorphise me. You’re lucky I don’t end-of-life you here.”
“Please don’t kill me,” pleaded Ring. “I’ve got five little bells at home.”
Pam couldn’t stop herself. “It was four a few minutes ago,” she said.
Ring shrugged. “We’re a growing family.”
The mouse squeaked and fired a warning shot that melted a nearby patch of carpet. Then Pam heard a dial tone. “You were right, ma’am,” she said to an unheard voice on the other end of the line, “she found the backdoor. Permission to liquidate requested.”
Pam used the split-second between the mouse requesting and receiving the order to destroy her – which to a machine’s mind was quite a long time – carefully. First, she examined the laser gun in the machine’s hand. It was a high energy unit capable of smelting the sheet steel in her bodywork all over again. It was far too powerful and compact to be available on the open market. This had to be a military device. But where could a mouse get hold of something like this?
Next she looked around the room for something she could put between her and the laser beam. Nothing here looked robust enough to survive a lit cigarette, let alone a super-concentrated beam of light. Her mind freewheeled like she was back inside Pam Van Damme and stuck on an oily patch of road. If she was going to get away, she needed to get a grip. But what was there to grip on down here?
She was just about to put her hands up get ready to leave this body when she remembered that strange triangular shape over the far side of the room. It wasn’t big enough to hide behind, but the chemical signatures it gave off when she ran her spectrometer over it were wild. The whole thing – structure and decorations – were made of soft, poisonous plastics. The kind that turned to foul goo and acrid smoke the moment they met a naked flame.
She knew then what she’d been doing wrong all afternoon. The reason none of this was going according to plan was because Pam Teffal was approaching a special operations mission like…Pam Teffal. Because she was a nice person with less side than a single sheet of paper, she assumed that all you had to do to infiltrate a terrorist ring was turn up at the front door with a cheery smile and a warming rack full of gingerbread. What she really needed to do, however, was channel more of the va-va-voom of Pam Van Damme.
If her estimations were right, she had 0.0000001 of a second to react. It wasn’t much time, but it was enough just enough to push the emergency release button on her icing well. She hit the mouse full in the face with a squirt of royal icing. The mouse replied with a blast of laser fire but her aim, blinded by a faceful of egg white and sugar, went wide and the brought down a section of ceiling.
Pam scooped up Ring and barrelled them both towards that strange plastic pyramid at the back of the room. She couldn’t understand why, but there was something about the way it jingled and sparkled when she approached made it feel like a minor sacrilege even to touch it. For a tiny sliver of a microsecond she even debated getting the gingerbread out of her warming oven and hanging it on those spiny things that stuck out all over it. But she swallowed the impulse, and fired up her heating element.
The more meltable bits were just turning to smoke when the mouse had clawed the icing out of her eyes. She took aim again. “You can run,” she squealed, “but you can’t hide.”
“Maybe,” replied Pam, as she put the full strength of her baker’s arm into throwing two metres of blackening plastic across the room straight at the mouse, “but you can’t do anything about your crappy build quality, can you, sister?”
It hit the mouse with a thump, a crackle and a slurping sound as the various polymers in the pile of assorted plastics gave out on their own identity and ran in to each other like the colours in a two-year-old’s playdough. In just a couple of seconds there was nothing to be seen of the mouse or that strange haunted triangle but a squarish lump of molten plastic and, sticking out at the bottom what remained of the tiny machine’s feet. She had died wearing – in what Pam decided must be a concession to her smallness and the festive season – a pair of high heeled shoes in sparkly red.
“Ding dong!” said Ring. “The bitch is dead.”
Pam Teffal felt the Pam Van Damme ebb in her a little. Nothing could change the fact that as a breadmaker she made cake rather than war. End-of-lifing another machine on the night before X.mas was nothing to be proud of. But it was either me or her, she thought, and there was more work yet to do tonight.
“Get the gun,” she said to Ring, pointing at the laser gun which had been thrown free of the fire, “and let’s go.” She gestured at the door through which the mouse had entered the room, behind which she saw a steep and dusty flight of stairs.
Whoever was in charge here – and whoever was firing those shots up on the surface – was somewhere inside the house.
“We’re going in.”
* * *
Click here to read Episode 4 of Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story!
Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:
Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia
Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars
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