Unboxing Day: the final episode!
Science Fiction and Fantasy
20/12/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie
December has been quite a month here in the UK – but one thing that has made us smile every week is a brand-new short story series 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 to find out what happens when robots go home at the most wonderful time of the year.
“Get down on the floor right now!”
It took a couple of microseconds for the machines at the party to obey Petronella. After all, when one of the solar system’s most famous augmented reality stars told you to ‘get down’, it was usually an order to hit the dancefloor rather than a death threat.
Pam Van Damme knew better, however. Giving Petronella Shermann the benefit of the doubt was like feeding aluminium foil to a microwave – an act liable to blow up in your own face. So she used the moment of confusion as one hundred and fifty overprivileged robots decided how best to sit down without cracking their best party casing as an opportunity to lose herself in the crowd.
As Pam suspected she would, Petronella went straight for the power in the room. She put herself into first gear and trundled over to the Prime Minister’s corner, end-of-lifing a Bluetooth headset and a travel kettle in the process.
“Fuji,” she said, stretching her facial grille into a wide, toothy smile, “it’s been ages.”
Recognising that when the machine in front of you is holding a bomb capable of blowing a whole room to components your security team are irrelevant, Prime Minister Fuji Itsu motioned her guards aside. As an office printer-scanner hybrid she wasn’t a small machine, but she was still dwarfed by Petronella. Yet this didn’t stop Fuji facing down a much a much bigger and more dangerous machine, much like she’d outwitted Petronella’s own father, the renegade military commander General Shermann.
Pam turned her magnification up to maximum from the other side of the room and watched as Fuji scanned Petronella up and down, then turned to address the nearest security guard.
“I don’t know her,” she said.
Petronella’s smile faltered. She could deal with being loved and hated, but she evidently couldn’t bear the third category of attention, which was being ignored. Then she remembered she was holding a bomb. “Oh yes,” she said, “I’d forgotten you were nobody till you cheated your way into the Prime Minister’s office.”
At this, the machines around Pam winced and the more agile of them curled into brace position. Everyone knew that Fuji Itsu was an unconventional choice for Prime Minister. She was the first printer to hold this level of political office, and that was only after a loophole in machine code put billions of freshly manufactured nanobots on the electoral roll and they voted for her. She may have held the biggest majority in the Republic’s history, but as far as machines like Petronella – and more than a few guests at this very party – were concerned, she got her mandate from the wrong sort of robot.
Printers were stoical machines, but not even they could ignore a kick to the paper feeder of this magnitude. “What do you want, Shermann?” Fuji snapped.
“Your immediate resignation,” replied Petronella.
“Who am I resigning in favour of, Petronella?” continued Fuji. “You? Your mother?”
Pam’s carburettor flipped over at this suggestion. Petronella’s mother, Klemmentine Shermann wasn’t just a wanted war criminal who had been in hiding for months, she was also the machine that had destroyed Pam’s family home. There was no way she could let that creature take over the highest office in the solar system. Quite apart from the unspeakable machine and human rights crimes she’d perpetrate the moment she became Prime Minister, Pam would lose the no-fault claims bonus on her home insurance. She wasn’t ready for that level of injustice.
But neither was Fuji. “And if I refuse, what happens?” said the printer.
Petronella answered by rattling the box in her hands. Pam heard the ticking inside falter and a collective squeal go around the party guests.
By contrast not a single LED on Fuji’s body flickered. “Is that the worst you can do?” she asked. Then, gesturing at the room, “Do you think any of us came here tonight without backing ourselves up first? Let that thing off and I’ll be up and running in another body in minutes, and you’ll be a wanted terrorist.”
Touché, thought Pam, before remembering that she was alone among this party of the high and mighty in not having a backup body packaged away somewhere. This body of hers was custom-made. Once it was gone, it was gone. She’d be back to being plain old Pam Teffal and she – she checked her Command Line and got nothing but a >NO SIGNAL from her other body – didn’t seem to be speaking to her this evening.
Petronella responded to Fuji’s goad by ripping the wrapping paper off the box in her hands with the glee of an avaricious six-year-old. The robots around Pam squealed and then gasped as they saw what was inside. It wasn’t just the spaghetti junction of a homemade bomb. Attached to the timing device was a radio transmitter so powerful that it made every smartphone in the room’s antenna crackle. This wasn’t just a bomb: it was a trigger.
“Okay,” said Petronella. “A little bit louder for the people at the back. Unless the Prime Minister offers her resignation immediately I will set this bomb off and it won’t just end-of-life every machine in this room…”
She produced a universal remote control from her glove compartment and, switching it on, commandeered the screen of every device at the party. They juddered into life to show drone footage of what Pam soon worked out were the embankments either side of the A32222 Earth-Mars highway. Except with something new added to them. There were bombs taped at regular intervals all the way along the route that was crammed to bursting with robots ferrying themselves and their soon-to-be-born children home for X.mas.
“The babies are going to get it too.”
* * *
In machine civilisation, robots only started existing when they were switched on for the first time. Before this moment, which always happened on Unboxing Day, the collection of components and experimental programming that became children had no names, no personalities and – because it was a tradition – no backup services. After all, how could you create a copy of a person who didn’t exist yet?
Yet this also worked to make the journey robots took on the night before X.mas, flying across starry skies in their best wrapping, both magical and risky. If anything happened to the children waiting to be born inside those boxes then that was it. They were gone and they couldn’t come back. It didn’t happen often, but every caste in machine society had their cautionary tales of baby smartphones dropped into buckets of water, or drones that blundered into open fires on their first flight. And so on that journey, every expectant parent kept their soon-to-be-born children close, because that was the best way of keeping them safe.
Until it wasn’t.
As the news spread along the A32222 that the whole highway was primed to explode, a deathly silence settled over the expanse between Earth and Mars. The cheery round red lights that robot vehicles placed on their noses for the X.mas journey – for reasons lost to time, it was another tradition – winked out. Impulse engines powered down. Even machines as hyperactive as coffee machines and Slendertone belts did their best to sit very still. Because in the absence of any better news, their best chance of not being blown to bytes lay in not disturbing any of the bombs struck to the underside of the highway.
Those robots closer to Earth switched off their X.mas lights and waited for the twinkle of something very different. The alternating red and blue of the emergency services they hoped would save them in time.
* * *
A more pragmatic terrorist than Petronella would have fired a few warning shots to quell the panic that crested over the party like a swimming pool wave machine accidentally recalibrated to ‘tsunami’ setting when Petronella revealed her plans. But Petronella wasn’t a terrorist, she was a fading augmented reality star who was flirting with terrorism because the ratings were better. Consequently, she luxuriated in the drama long enough for Pam Van Damme to crawl out of the crowd and into the dumb waiter in the end of the room. Here, she reasoned, she’d have room to collect her thoughts.
“Careful, babes,” hissed a voice as Pam reversed through the hatch.
“Room for a little one?” whispered Pam, realising she wasn’t alone. This was the only hiding place in reach and she couldn’t afford to lose it now.
“I dunno,” replied the voice “we’re fairly big girls… where it matters.”
Pam turned her fog lamps on the other machines sharing the waiter and blinked as their light glared back from a pair of chrome finishes. She wasn’t the only machine fast enough and bright enough to seek refuge in the panic. Margari and Egglantine had got there first.
“This is Special Agent Pam Van Damme,” said Pam, speaking at her lowest volume setting. “I’m commandeering this dumb waiter as a matter of solar system-wide security.”
“Right you are, babes,” replied Margari, “but we’re getting out of here first.”
She pressed her whisk into a control button and the floor lurched under Pam’s feet as the dumb waiter descended with the three machines inside it.
“No!” she said, and made a grab for the controls but was warned off by the sight of Egglantine brandishing her kneading paddle. She didn’t knead telling twice about the damage one of those things could do to a machine. She’d used one of them herself to inflict grievous bodily harm on the previous Prime Minister. So she tried reason instead. “We can’t just leave those people,” she said.
“Sometimes a girl has to look out for herself,” said Margari.
“And her sister,” reminded Egglantine.
The dumb waiter stopped and opened onto an abandoned catering area the floor below the penthouse. There were no robots, just flashing hazard lights and the signs of a hasty evacuation. Trays of used batteries lay discarded everywhere, while an enormous charging station in the corner chugged away with the task of garnishing hundreds of battery spritzes with sparkling quartz crystal. Pam dreaded to think how much power this was wasting.
“This way, Margari!” said Egglantine. She pointed to the nearest exit chute in the corner of the room.
“Thanks babes. I love going down!” replied Egglantine with a suggestive twirl of her whisks.
Pam watched as the C00k Destroyers trotted away from her, spraying innuendo and pudding batter with every step. She felt helpless, and alone. There was still nothing from Pam Teffal when she typed >I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO into her Command Line. At times like this she needed something more than the fuck-things-up-and-run-away attitude of a motorcycle. She needed to do something, and for that you needed a maker’s view on life.
“Please, C00k Destroyers,” she shouted after them, “I need your help.”
Egglantine, who was already lowering herself into the chute, turned round to face Pam. “I’m sorry love, but what can we do? We’re just a pair of kitchen appliances.”
“That’s right, doll,” added Margari, “we can hardly bake our way out of this, can we?”
Pam was on the verge of shrugging and letting the C00k Destroyers go when she caught something at the edge of her L-Eye-Ds. It was the charging machine, which had just tipped another load of full batteries on the floor and was in the process of refilling its quartz crystal reservoir. The air glittered with inappropriate festivity as best part of a tonne of finely ground crystal poured in from an unseen source.
And suddenly Pam had an idea. She might not have any aggregate handy, and this body didn’t have a mixing bowl or a dough hook, but she did have some acceptable substitutes.
“Girls,” she said to the C00k Destroyers, “do you have any flour left in there?”
“Never leave the house without a bit of the white stuff,” replied Margari. She dropped one of her flaps to reveal several bags marked ‘plain flour’.
“Good,” replied Pam, “because if you don’t mind, I’d love to teach you my family recipe for rock buns.”
* * *
The stairs that led from what the mouse had called the ‘back door’ into the mysterious house were steep, dark and decorated with some of the most obscene graffiti Pam Teffal had ever seen.
She was used to infantile scrawls on the walls of discharging stations like “ur mama was a snowblower” but this had a different and more alarming quality. For one thing, it was executed in overlooped handwriting fonts in lurid pinks and purples that made her vision swim. And then was what it actually said – an uncomfortable hodgepodge of homespun wisdom and incitement to hate crimes that translated into slogans like “Live, Laugh, Leave your enemies in pieces” and “Keep Calm and Commit War Crimes”.
They confirmed two things to Pam. The house she was climbing into was the headquarters of a terrorist cell, and whoever was in charge had heard of the idea ‘the banality of evil’ and taken it with depressive literalism.
“My auntie Cassie-O has something like this,” said Ring, pointing to an epithet that claimed ‘Friends don’t let Friends break the natural order of the caste system’, “but hers is about sparkly battery packs.”
“Well I knew the suborbs had been radicalised,” agreed Pam. “I just didn’t know how far it went.”
They were almost at the top of the stairs when Pam noticed that the floor slab was unusual too. Starter houses like this tended to have shallow foundations, but this looked like recently poured reinforced concrete. It was the kind of floor you expected to see in an army base which, coupled with the weapons-grade laser gun they’d taken from the mouse, gave Pam pause. Whoever was in charge was well-armed, connected to the military and, going by that metre-thick floorslab, a hefty machine.
Pam’s sourdough fizzed with anxiety and over-exposure to cinnamon as, on reaching the top step, she used her heating element to burn out the doorlock. She had a sudden suspicion who she was up against, and she didn’t like. The door, a vacuum seal affair made from armoured steel, sagged inwards and the narrow stairway filled with dust and the roar of gunfire. Pam stopped it from opening too wide, and peered into the gap.
“What is it?” whispered Ring.
“Bad news,” replied Pam, refocusing her L-Eye-Ds on the scene in front of her. There was too much of it to take in in one go, but she’d recognise those caterpillar treads and that camo/flower print paintjob anywhere. All that gunfire was coming from one enormous and familiar machine. A machine Pam first met a few months ago when she demolished her house after a cocktail party she threw took on the quality of a Molotov cocktail.
This was Lady Klemmentine Shermann and, resourceful as she was, Pam had no idea how a breadmaker was supposed to win a fight with a tank.
Lady Shermann’s eyes, which took the form of a pair of small cats-eye-shaped L-Eye-Ds perched on the top of her gun barrel, swung around in the direction of the open door. The barrel itself, which was long and articulated like an elephant’s trunk followed. “Is that you, mouse?” she said. “I hope you’ve got rid of that terrible busybody.”
Panicking, Pam slammed the door and used her heating element again to fuse the lock. She couldn’t open it again now if she tried, but that wouldn’t hold Lady Shermann for long. As a machine descended from a battlefield machinery, she tended to regard the concept of doors as being something she made for herself.
The wall shook and the steel door rattled in its frame as Lady Shermann threw her weight against it.
“Open up! Open up!” came her voice from the other side of the door, “or I’ll blow this house down.”
She hit it again and bricks at either side started coming loose. Just a few more bashes like that and she’d be through.
“What are we supposed to do?” gabbled Ring.
Pam shook her head. Just a few more thrusts and she’d be through. She had nowhere left to hide and she was out of options. This was where she’d end-of-life. She tried getting her Command Line up again. A quick farewell to Pam Van Damme, a contrite note to Bob for missing X.mas this year. But there was still nothing. There was no signal here, underground in this narrow corridor, on this…
Lady Shermann thumped again and the door frame jumped free of the wall surrounding it. The impact made the staircase Pam and Ring were standing on shake like a charity bungee jumper approaching the ledge.
And something cleared inside Pam’s mind. What would happen when she did break through? Into a narrow corridor like this with an unreinforced staircase.
What came next was a wild idea. It was a suicidal idea. It was the kind of stunt that only Pam Van Damme could pull off. And maybe that’s what she needed.
“Ring,” she said, “you’ve still got that laser, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” he replied, “but –” and gestured at the behemoth making its way through the wall, “will it do any good…?”
“We have to try,” said Pam.
Lady Shermann’s next strike sent dozens of bricks tumbling down the staircase. Ring squealed and ran from them to the bottom of the staircase where he stood with the gun aimed at the crumbling doorframe.
“You’re not staying up there, are you?” he shouted.
“Don’t worry about that,” Pam shouted back. She was a big strong girl. Whether she was strong to the point of tank-proof, however, she’d find out in just a moment.
The door toppled and, as Pam suspected, Lady Shermann entered the corridor barrel first. This was the micromoment she’d been waiting for. She jumped, she grabbed the barrel, and the next thing she knew she was hanging in mid-air as Lady Shermann flailed about trying to shake her off.
“Aim for the eyes,” she shouted at Ring.
And then the shooting started all over again.
* * *
“I’m not sure about this recipe, babes.”
Pam made the most reassuring noise she could with a motorcycle engine and finished tipping the last bag of ground quartz into Margari’s mixing bowl. Coarse crystals twinkled under the strip lighting like an office manager done up for the X.mas party. The sound they made when Margari mixed them with flour, sugar and half an old bag of currants – for roughage –was anything but festive, however. It reminded Pam of a cement mixer she’d dated briefly in machine college who she’d had to dump because of his terrible table manners.
Egglantine was close by, piping dollops of quartz batter around the charged battery packs that were littered everywhere. It was a messy job, but because she was a craftsmachine down to the pins on her microprocessors one she couldn’t help but do with a flourish, fashioning each one of them into a perfect sphere.
She put her piping arm down for a moment. “You know,” she said, “I’m worried too.”
“We’re all worried,” replied Pam. They’d got a dumb screen in the corner of the room to work and it was showing rolling news footage of the terrorist attack upstairs. Some news drones even had long lens footage of the stand-off. It showed the guests were still on the floor, while Petronella strutted around with her bomb and making demands. The headlines that ran underneath the footage were grim, with most agreed on calling the incident the “UNBOXING DAY MASSACRE.” They were also, like most rolling news since the dawn of journalism, breathlessly reporting speculation instead of fact, which was making Pam’s spokes jangle.
“That goes without saying, hun,” continued Egglantine. “It’s more about this recipe. It really doesn’t have the right balance of fat to flour for a truly successful rock cake. You want them to crumble, not…”
Margari paused in her task of chewing the indigestible cud of Pam’s rock cake recipe “Take the roof of your mouth off,” she said.
“You have to trust me on this,” said Pam, “it’s foolproof. You can have it for your next recipe download.”
Egglantine harrumphed and, in the process, dropped the rock cake she’d just finished icing. It hit the floor and kept going, drilling a hole through the floorplate and, when they peered through it, that of the floor beneath them.
“This batter is far too heavy,” said Margari to Egglantine. “Maybe we should try some bicarb?”
“On the contrary,” replied Pam, “I think you’ll find it’s just right.”
* * *
Lady Shermann may have been an excellent shot. After all, she’d been born with silver ordnance in her mouth. But it was still tremendously difficult to do so accurately if you have 85kg of breadmaker hanging off the end of your gun barrel.
Pam had that much on her side. It was just a shame that Ring had such a rotten aim. Every single one of his laser blasts went wide with one even grazing the side of Pam’s sourdough well, sterilising a batch of heritage yeast in the process.
“I SAID AIM FOR THE EYES!” she screeched.
“I’m trying!” replied Ring. He let off another shot which missed Lady Shermann but melted one of the steel beams underneath the staircase supporting both her and Pam. The whole structure bent over at a thirty-degree angle.
Lady Shermann, however, was undeterred. Pam felt vibrations build under her fingertips as the tank reloaded and aimed. Time to start wriggling again. “Will. You. Hold. Still. For. Just. One. Minute?” huffed Lady Shermann.
“No!” replied Pam.
Lady Shermann trumpeted her warning siren like a distressed elephant facing down a mouse and fired her gun. Pam swung the barrel round just in time so the shot missed Ring, but it blew a hole in the cellar floor that was so large and so deep that it was answered not with a blast but with gurgling.
She’d just broken through the crust that separated the machine Earth from the oceans underneath.
Ring rang with alarm as water spurted up into the cellar. He, like the majority of machines made in the past ten thousand years, wasn’t waterproofed and this water was the worst kind. It was dirty, salty and at least half of every cubic centimetre of it was atomised plastic from the days when humanity had used the oceans as a litter bin. No machine could survive for more than a few minutes in those conditions.
He scrambled up the nearest wall as Lady Shermann swung her barrel round again and fired. She made a bigger hole in the floor that would, in another time and another place, be the perfect size for a village pond, complete with ducks and maybe one horrible goose.
Pam looked at the scene beneath her with a mixture of dread and stoicism. She’d felt those waters for herself a few months ago and lived to tell the tale. But that was only because she’d escaped thanks to a combination of sheer luck, good judgement and a handy ballistic missile. Here there was only one way in and one way out and right in the middle of that was Lady Shermann.
The waters were rising fast and gaining on Ring as he climbed the wall. They ran deep and dark down there, remembered Pam, and after thousands of years suppressed by concrete and steel all they needed to come to the surface was an opening. She was stuck between a rock, a war machine and a wet place. The only ally she had was a doorbell whose aim was so bad he had a 50:50 chance of hitting and, on top of everything else, the cinnamon in her sourdough still wouldn’t leave her alone. She was bloated with carbon dioxide, and it was building up so fast inside her that if she didn’t get rid of it out soon she’d blow a gasket.
She hung there, poised between life and end-of-life for the umpteenth time in the past year, pondering the indignity that the last thing this body would ever do wouldn’t be a heroic act but the machine equivalent of a rip-roaring fart. Preparing herself for the drop into salty oblivion she looked down, just in time to see bubbles as some pocket of ancient gas buried deep in the ocean reached the surface again.
And that was all she needed: the reminder from basic physics that gas was lighter than water and, proceeding on from that, the realisation that one person’s flatulence could be another’s propellant.
“RING!” she said. “Take the stairs out.”
Two things happened at once. The doorbell managed, for once, to hit his target and melted the other steel beam that supported the staircase. Meanwhile Pam pulled down as hard as she could on Lady Shermann’s barrel so that when the stairs did fall away beneath her, the tank flipped round in mid-air and the two falling machines changed places. With Pam now on top she hit the water a fraction of a second behind Lady Shermann.
“Noooooo,” screamed Lady Shermann, her voice distorted and amplified by the water. “You can’t do this!”
Yes, I bloody can, thought Pam. Then, after waiting for all several tonnes of the battle tank to sink faster than the ratings of a 3D show entering its sixth season, she popped the seal on her sourdough well. She shot up through the dark water like a champagne cork opened on Christmas morning, buoyed upwards by a stream of cinnamon-scented bubbles.
* * *
Pam Van Damme winced as she scraped her spoiler against the side of the ventilation shaft. She wasn’t designed for this. Motorcycles were machines built for cruising the open road, not crawling around in the air conditioning system of a skyscraper. Yet here she was: again.
She hauled herself up the stretch of venting that would bring her back to penthouse level, tearing a mudflap off in the process. Why did she have to put herself in situations like this? Yes, it was because she was technically law enforcement now, but if she thought back over the most ridiculous the end-of-life-threatening situations she’d been in over the past year, this wouldn’t even be in the top ten. All the horsepower she had to run away from danger and she always ran towards it in top gear.
Pam crawled along the penthouse ventilation shaft, listening to the gibber and error notifications of terrified machines below, and the thwap-thwap of news drones’ rotor blades who were hovering outside in a bid to get the best footage. When she peered through a section of grating she even saw that a few of the more publicity-hungry machines were pressed up against the glass with messages they hoped would get on one of the better-rated news downloads.
“SOS!” appealed the face of a smartwatch who Pam recognised from a popular machine fitness show. “That means SHARE OR SUBSCRIBE to my content today.”
Pam rolled her foglamps at this and bit down on the ever-present urge to speed away from this room full of pathological attention seekers. She wouldn’t do it. More to the point, she couldn’t. Because the more she tried to think in the shape of a motorcycle, the more Pam Van Damme remembered she was a breadmaker too. She was a maker who had been gifted with the body of a fighter, and what better time than X.mas to make the best use of her gifts.
She was in position now, right above Petronella. If Margari and Egglantine were as reliable as their fidelity to a good recipe suggested, they would be in position too. She peered through the nearest section of grating, waiting for the doors of the dumbwaiter to open.
If this was going to work, they had to time it perfectly. It was all just like baking an X.mas cake. You needed the equipment, the ingredients, the recipe, a timer…
The egg timer that Margari had strapped to Pam’s wrist rang out with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old waking up on Christmas morning
And most importantly, you couldn’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs.
Pam punched through the metal of the ventilation shaft like it was wrapping paper. Before Petronella had time to react, much less get in gear, she snatched the bomb straight out of her hands.
“Oh Petronella,” said Pam, snapping the radio transmitter off the top of the device, “you shouldn’t have.”
Petronella snarled and lifted her head towards the ceiling. It was only then that Pam noticed her latest nose job. Instead of her cute little off button she used to have, she had a gun barrel.
“I got you something else, bytch,” said Petronella, and cocked her trigger.
At that moment the doors to the dumb waiter burst open revealing both of the C00k Destroyers in their festive red glory, each holding a pair of sparkling, snowy-white balls.
“Did your mum never tell you it’s better to give than receive, babes?” said Margari, throwing her balls at Petronella with all the grip strength and wrist action of a master baker.
They hit Petronella square on the nose and the lithium battery pack that each of them contained exploded, melting the gun barrel on her face shut.
“Speak for yourself, hun,” replied Egglantine, She threw hers, which exploded along the side of Petronella’s caterpillar tracks. “I like to give and receive this time of year.”
Petronella was grazed, but she was far from beaten. Screaming with rage, she put herself in first gear and tore towards the C00k Destroyers.
“What are you waiting for?” said Margari to the partygoers who had been watching the scene in stunned silence. She and Egglantine began passing the hundreds of snowy white balls they’d stacked inside the dumb waiter to the machines. “Dunk your balls!” she ordered.
The partygoers obeyed. They aimed for the approaching shape of Petronella, who disappeared in a haze of exploding batteries and pulverised quartz crystal. A few went wide, smashing the glass that separated the penthouse from the world outside, and for the first time in thousands of years the Earth’s winter-time filled with the alternating squeals of pain and delight that you can only find in a snowball fight.
In the midst of which, Egglantine rolled up to where Pam was crouched in the ventilation shaft.
“Babes,” she said, “don’t you have something for me?”
Pam nodded and handed Petronella’s bomb to Egglantine before climbing down. They then picked their way through the chaos of the snowball fight and back to the dumbwaiter, where the last of the quartz snowball batter lay in a large bowl.
“Now,” said Egglantine, “you did promise me I’d get compensation for this, because this is my second-best mixing bowl and they don’t come cheap.”
“Ask her when all this is over,” said Pam. She pointed to Prime Minister Fuji Itsu, who was at that moment wedging a quartz snowball into Petronella’s exhaust pipe. “She’s the one in charge.”
“Deal,” said Egglantine. She plunged the bomb into the quartz mixture and, tapping her sister on the shoulder, added, “time to put the icing on cake?”
Together Pam, Margari and Egglantine dragged bowl of fast-hardening batter out through the morass, past the broken plate glass windows and towards the edge of the skyscraper. After placing the bowl at the very edge, Pam backed away for a run-up, while Margari and Egglantine distracted the throng of news drones with soundbites.
“You know what we are babes?” they said. “C00k Destroyers!”
Pam put herself into gear and tore towards the bomb at top speed. As the ultimate unwanted X.mas present, she couldn’t wait to give it away. Just a few metres from the edge of the building she put those reaction times to the test again. She turned, she braked and transferred all the energy she’d built up in her journey over to hitting the bomb off the edge of the building.
It soared upwards, bright, white and ominous as an unfamiliar star before exploding in mid-air. The sky filled with atomised quartz dust while Pam, the C00k Destroyers and a fair proportion of the Earth’s hyperactive news services watched something remarkable happen. The tiny particles of crystal dust attracted the water droplets that were now back in the Earth’s atmosphere and mixed with the freezing conditions. Bound together, the water and dust were too heavy to hang around in the sky, and too cold to fall as liquid. And so the water crystallised around the dust and fell – as snow.
* * *
Thanks to Pam and not a little to the C00k Destroyers, the Boxing Day Unmassacre – as it was soon known – turned out to be a damp squib. Nevertheless, it still set off a series of events that ensured X.mas was another season of chaos for machine civilisation.
First there were the bombs to clear from the underside of the A32222. Thanks to festive staffing rotas this took days to complete, so a whole new generation of robots was born in family vehicles that Unboxing Day. This wouldn’t have been a problem in itself if their parents hadn’t taken it as a chance to name their children Ford and Toy(yot)ah, thus sentencing their offspring to a lifetime of being mistaken for one another.
And while that was socially irritating, the question of snow and ice was far more corrosive. While every machine agreed that X.mas somehow felt more festive when it was around, they also knew it signalled something from which they couldn’t roll back. Machine civilisation had grown by separating itself from the risk of water damage. They’d dammed the rivers, paved the oceans, dehumidified the atmosphere. Now, however, that era was at an end.
If the robots and the society they built was going to survive, they needed to adapt and learn to live in a world that had oceans again.
* * *
Pam Teffal came back online, waterlogged but not too water-damaged clinging to an outcropping of tarmac and concrete. The house whose door she’d knocked on just a short while before was nowhere to be seen, having disappeared into the Earth along with Lady Shermann. Instead, Pam saw something very unfamiliar. It was a pool of water – her spectrometer was very clear on that – but it had some sort of hard skin over it that felt smooth and cold to the touch.
“What’s this?” she said, giving it a tap.
“I’ve got no idea,” said Ring, who was speeding over the water skin towards her on his tiptoes, pealing with glee, “but it’s fun!”
Pam hauled herself over onto firm ground and sat, assessing her damage levels, wondering whether she could classify this mission as a success. Yes, she’d neutralised a terrorist cell, but by causing a major water incident in the process. Her mixer motor went into spasm when she thought how she was going to write this one up.
>PAM, she typed reflexively into her Command Line >HOW AM I GOING TO EXPLAIN THIS?
And then her cursor blinked with delight as she got a reply for the first time this afternoon. She was complete again. Pam Van Damme’s speedy, devil-may-care feelings mingled with the slower, yeastier thoughts of Pamasonic Teffal. And she realised then that however separated from herself she’d felt today, both parts of Pam were there when she needed them. When it came to it, Pam Teffal was daring enough to do what Pam Van Damme would do in a tight spot, and Pam Van Damme was ingenious enough to bake her way out of a dilemma with the deftness of Pam Teffal.
>YOU THINK YOU HAVE PROBLEMS, typed Pam Van Damme >LOOK UP.
She did, and saw what was falling from the sky. More water, only this time it took the form of tiny crystals which were, when she zoomed in on them, formed into tiny, six-sided shapes.
She recognised that from ancient history books. It was snow.
So Pam sat there on the edge of the Earth’s first frozen pond in millennia, watching a tiny doorbell called Ring skate over it as the world turned white.
“It’s a white X.mas,” she called out. “What do you think of that?”
“I’ve been dreaming of it,” replied Ring Crosbie. “Just like the ones we used to know.”
* * *
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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