“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas!”
The Santa Claus threw its arms into the air and bellowed its crisp, artificial laugh once more. The elves surrounding it turned their gleeful smiles towards the excitable crowds and tittered in a shrill chorus.
“Well, well, well,” the Santa boomed as its head slowly rotated, as if it was surveying the crowd. “We certainly do have a lot of boys and girls here today, don’t we?”
Wendy followed the machine’s soulless gaze and studied the mass that encompassed her. Yes, she thought, there are a lot of boys and girls. But they weren’t the ones making all the noise. The mums and dads seemed to be more enraptured with the colourful tin cans than their brats ever could. Perhaps, after dealing with screaming children for so long, they had reached peak-exhaustion and were now reduced to an almost primal state. Or maybe the fluorescent flashing lights and the whacky, surreal characters reminded them of their drug-fuelled wonder years as teenagers. The sort of years they assured their own children had never existed.
But, of course, not to be outdone in general raucousness, the gaggle of children stamped their feet and threatened the future of their vocal chords in order to make more of a scene. The only one not making a spectacle of herself was Wendy Blinkerson.
No one had ever managed to correctly guess Wendy’s age. Most people assumed that she was ten years old because – well, because that’s how old she actually was. But Wendy, always willing to prove someone wrong, held the strong belief that her age, much like sexuality and gender, was something that she should decide for herself. She had, at a very early age, decided that she was more akin to a forty-five year old. A forty-five year old, she would hastily add, who did not relish the prospect of spending a fortnight in Tinsel Town, the capital of the holiday resort Christmasopolis.
Her younger brothers, on the other hand, dreamed of nothing other than visiting this Holiday holy-land. They had, putting their usual differences aside, launched a joint assault of wailing, kicking, screaming and howling until their father had agreed to take them. This attack had been entirely pointless, of course, because the Blinkerson patriarch was just as eager to visit the resort as his two youngest. Now Wendy the forty-five year old ten year-old was trapped in her own personal nightmare, and she still had one week and three days left to endure.
“Hey, hey, Wendy!” her father shook her roughly by the shoulder and pointed, with a child-like tenacity, at a couple of automated elves. “They’re handing out the presents!”
Wendy pulled her shoulder free and then folded her arms. She directed a smouldering glare towards the elves.
“Don’t you want a present?” her dad asked, crouching down to her level.
“No thank you,” Wendy muttered.
“Oh come on!” Marlon, her youngest brother, whined. “Why can’t you get into the Christmas spirit?”
“Because it’s June.”
“Ah, you’re just a humbug,” Mr Blinkerson declared. “Come on, boys, let’s go see what the elves have for you!”
Marlon and Pryce cheered and then followed as their father dove headfirst into the stampeding throng of adults and children. Wendy watched her family wrestle and elbow their way towards the low red and white fence, the only thing dividing the metal elves from their ravenous crowd.
The young girl sighed wearily and then let her eyes drift over towards the autonomous Santa. Now that the presents had been brought out and he was no longer the centre of attention, Wendy had just assumed the machine would switch off. But he was staring directly at her. It had probably just automatically stopped in that position; so there was no reason for the sudden chill crawling up Wendy’s spine. She knew that it was fake, that there was nothing real behind its cheerful, riveted smile. But the light from its LED eyes continued to bore into the young girl, as if the machine was intently studying her.
Suddenly, with a chilling, metallic snap, the mouth opened. “Ho, Ho, Ho.”
A minute or so later, sweating a little from the exertion, Wendy’s father returned. With a gormless grin he held up a purple whistle. “Here you go,” he said, presenting it to his daughter. He refrained from mentioning he had wrestled it from the hands of four year old; that was a fact he wasn’t entirely proud of.
“Dad,” Pryce chirped, hugging a newly acquired dinosaur, “can we go and see the Reindeer Races?”
“Why don’t we see what Wendy wants to do, eh?”
Wendy shrugged, shoving the whistle into her pocket. “Don’t mind.”
“Oh come on!” her father whined. “Try and get into the spirit!”
“You’re such a Scrooge!” Then, with a malicious giggle, Marlon hurled a ball of fake snow at his sister’s head.
“Hey!” Mr Blinkerson barked, slapping the second snowball out of Marlon’s hand.
Wendy shook the snow off of her neck and then glowered at her younger brother. The smirk slid off his face like melted ice.
“Christmas is for babies!” she declared loudly.
The statement rolled across the crowd like an avalanche. Nearly a hundred pairs of eyes suddenly rounded on her. “What does she mean, mummy?” a young child asked, tugging at her mother’s coat.
“Nothing, dear, just come away from her.” The mother then shepherded her little girl away, fixing Wendy with a mixed look of fear and anger.
“Come on, Wendy,” her father said softly, shuffling up closer to her and glancing nervously at the suddenly sullen crowd. “We’re just trying to have a bit of fun!”
“Yeah! Don’t ruin it for the rest of us!” A parent shouted.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Is someone not in the holiday spirit?”
Wendy span round and almost shattered her nose against the Santa Claus’ metal stomach. She hadn’t heard it approach, yet it was close enough for her to, had it been capable of doing so, feel its breath down her neck.
The machine stared down at the girl. Its steel teeth shone beneath the artificial lamplight, and its LED lights gleamed with what was advertised as a ‘cheerful’ red. The snow, though entirely fake, suddenly felt as cold as the northern point of the arctic. The Santa Claus continued to stare down at Wendy, completely ignoring the other children and parents that milled around it, their anger at Wendy only slightly overwhelmed by their love for Santa.
“Why not get into the Christmas mood?” The machine leaned forward, its shadow swallowing a timid Wendy Blinkerson. “Nobody likes a Party Pooper,” the Santa announced, its mouth clamping open and shut like a pair of rusty scissors. Its painted features suddenly became warped by shadows as it leaned even closer towards Wendy. She couldn’t help but take a fearful step backwards. There was nothing in that visage that suggested Christmas cheer.
For a moment Wendy felt sure that the machine was going to make a grab for her, but before it could move another hand had wrapped itself round her arm.
“Come on, Wendy,” her father said. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.”
She was then, fortunately, dragged out of the Santa’s range. But it continued to follow her with its fiery gaze. Its unblinking stare sent a spark of fear through Wendy, one that told her things were far from over.
“You’ll never lose your holiday cheer,” the Santa Claus boomed. “That’s a Resort Central Industries’ Promise!”
Resort Central Industries: The number one provider of all-inclusive holidays to all-manner of destinations! It was a title to be envied, so much so that the board of directors feared usurpation from every competitor on the market. After all, their product was nothing more than a location. And, no matter how often RCI had tried, you simply couldn’t buy a continent. That meant any other travel company had a chance to beat RCI’s competitive rates.
So how to eliminate any chance of competition? How to create a holiday package that no one else could even touch? The answer had been so easy, yet no one had seen it.
After years of secret meetings and clandestine construction work, the RCI’s biggest project was unveiled.
An entirely man-made continent in the pacific ocean that offered just one thing: the best holiday you could imagine. A country for each season was the main attraction; it didn’t matter what denomination you belonged to, there was a place for you. Not only was there Christmasopolis, but there were also Hanukkahville, Ramadanland, Navaratria, and so many more.
The RCI had done it. They had finally created a financial resource from which only they could suckle. And to make matters even financially better for their company, they had built the island so that it was ninety-nine percent automated, demolishing the main bulk of their expenditure.
The entertainment and customer-service staff were all mechanised and, if by chance a human was spotted amongst the staff that wasn’t a tourist, they turned out to be an RCI inspector. But, after the first year, even that role became automated.
The automatons themselves had been designed with supplementary nano-bots so that, should a machine malfunction, they would repair themselves and again cut out the cost of human technicians. These nano-bots not only repaired their mechanical hosts, but also acted as anti-virus software for every other machine. These automatons were built with one primary directive, and that was the principal promise of Resort Central Industries: ‘Never Let A Customer Lose Their Holiday Cheer!’
This autonomous system had worked perfectly for the company, so much so that each district of the continent could be managed by only two humans.
Morecambe woke with a strangled snort. She kicked the empty pizza boxes to the floor as she whipped her legs off of console.
“Wh-what’s going on?” The guard rubbed her eyes and then slapped her partner’s hand away. A bell was ringing from somewhere in the cramped room whilst red and green lights made Morecambe fear she was having a seizure.
“You told me to wake you if anything happened,” Ellis said lamely. He’d only been in the job for a fortnight, but he already knew he wasn’t qualified to deal with this situation.
The senior guard glanced up at the flashing computer screens before her and then swore incredibly loudly.
“What does it mean?” Ellis asked.
“I don’t bloody know!” The portly watchwoman then ducked beneath the control panel and began throwing open concealed cupboards. Books and tools flew out as she desperately searched through the contents.
“What are you looking for?”
“This!” Morecambe dragged herself upright and brought out a huge, orange book. She slammed it down on the console, oblivious to the buttons she was pressing, and then tore it open. She hastily leafed through the wafer-thin pages, muttering under her breath as she went.
“Is . . . is that the protocol manual?” Ellis asked, his voice tinged with awe.
Morecambe, a woman who prided herself on doing the absolute minimum amount of work possible, nodded. For the first time in her career she was about to do the most basic requirement for her job: read the instruction manual.
A further minute of desperate page turning passed before she finally exclaimed victoriously and pointed at a large paragraph. She scanned it quickly and then groaned.
“This is bad,” she murmured, searching for consolation in a two-day old slice of ham and pineapple pizza. “We’ve got a Moody Alarm.”
“A Moody Alarm? But – but they’re bad! In my orientation I was told -”
“I know, I know! I was the one who gave you the bloody orientation!” Morecambe snapped, spraying crumbs across the room. “We’ve got ourselves someone who isn’t feeling the Christmas spirit!”
“Well they really shouldn’t have come if they weren’t going to -”
“Don’t be an idiot! A Moody doesn’t come to Holiday Continent willingly! They’re dragged here by their families!” Morecambe massaged her sweaty temples and stared at the multitude of screens. Her eyes jumped from screen to screen, hoping not to see what she knew she was going to find. “If the exhibits detect a Moody then the bad news gets worse.”
“Surely the machines can’t be affected by emotions!”
“Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve told you?!” Morecambe raged. “These things are given one directive: make sure everyone is in the festive spirit! What do you think is going to happen if someone threatens that objective?”
“They make it onto the naughty list?”
“Ha, ha, ha!” Morecambe snapped. She marched over to one corner and wrenched open a closet that the pair usually used to store old takeaway boxes. From its depths she pulled out two shotguns. She handed one to a stunned Ellis. “Remember the nano-bots that make sure the automatons stay functional? Well, for some reason, a Moody gets registered as a virus. And what does security software do to viruses?”
“Oh, oh, oh!”
“How long do we have to extract the Moody?”
Morecambe glanced back at the screens and felt her cholesterol laden heart sink even further. “No time at all.”
The sleigh carved its way through the artificial snow, following an unseen set of tracks. Pryce and Marlon dangled out of either side, enjoying themselves immensely, whilst Wendy stared ahead. Had the snow been in any way real, it would have evaporated instantly beneath her hellish glare.
Whilst her brothers and her father all thought that her sour mood was a result of just being an unsightly Grinch, in reality her mind was focused on the incident with the Santa Claus. There was no way it should have been acting in that manner, she thought. She would brush it aside as a faulty machine, but she’d read up on the island before leaving home. She knew for a fact that each automaton was protected by nano-bots that would eradicate any glitch that threatened their programming.
“You know, you really should try to enjoy yourself,” her dad said, joining her at the front of the sleigh.
“We don’t often get a chance to go on holiday as a family and -”
“Don’t ‘shh’ me, young lady!”
“Dad! Will you be quiet and listen?!”
Mr Blinkerson reluctantly fell silent, his ears twitching as he tried to find what his daughter meant. “I don’t hear anything,” he said eventually.
“Exactly,” Wendy murmured, looking ahead.
“Hey!” Pryce whined, slapping his hand against the side of the sleigh. “Why are we slowing down?”
The sleigh, much to the two young boys’ horror, was indeed decelerating. Despite the raucous protests from its two youngest passengers the vehicle came to a complete stop, miles from its intended destination.
Wendy felt a chill run down her back as she glanced around the empty valley. In the near distance was an outcrop of trees, and she couldn’t help but have the horrible feeling that she was being watched.
“What’s going on, dad?” Marlon asked, a faint treble of fear sliding into his voice.
“Shh!” the dad commanded. His face had turned a sickly grey and his eyes had widened with instinctual fear. Just on the cusp of his hearing was the soft and impossibly sinister tone of Jingle Bells. It shouldn’t have made him that fearful, it shouldn’t make him want to jump out of the sleigh and sprint in the opposite direction. Yet, if it hadn’t been for his three children, he would have been pushing his legs into overdrive.
The Santa Claus was on top of the sleigh before anyone could react. Its cheerful expression fixed solely on Wendy. “Ho, Ho, Ho!” it proclaimed. “Is someone not feeling the Christmas spirit?!”
It had nearly clambered inside when Mr Blinkerson stepped between the automaton and his daughter.
“Now look here!” he began, but he was swatted aside like the cheaply made toys handed out earlier.
The machine stood above Wendy, its cheerful grin widening slowly. “You’ll never lose your Christmas cheer!” the Santa declared. Suddenly a dense black swarm erupted from its jaws.
Even though terror now had an undisputed stranglehold over Wendy, she still had enough self-control to fling her arms over her head. She clamped her eyes and mouth shut and made sure her ears and nose were firmly covered before the dark cloud started buzzing feverishly around her. She knew enough about these machines to know that if any of that supposed dust got in her mouth or ears, then the whole game was over.
The nano-bots whirled around the young girl, biting and searing her skin, the most they could do at that moment. But more of the miniscule machines kept pouring out of the Santa’s mouth. There would come a point where Wendy would disappear amongst the storm, and nothing would save her then.
A sound like a distant thunderclap roared just off the distance. Like flies disturbed from a meal, the nano-bots dispersed and returned to their metallic home. Santa’s head rotated as it spied the new arrival.
Two figures, on what appeared to be snowmobiles, were rapidly approaching the stranded sleigh. The figure most resembling a Christmas bauble waved her shotgun in the air threateningly.
“We’re here to rescue you!” she proclaimed.
The timid head of hope, nervously peering out of its foxhole in Wendy’s mind, was suddenly shot down as a handful of elves burst out of the trees. The machines landed on her snowmobile before Morecambe could recognise what was happening, and by the time she levelled her gun at the closest elf, she was already enveloped by a mass of swirling, hungry nano-bots.
The younger of the two guards was much quicker. As soon as the metallic assailants had begun their assault, Ellis had aimed his weapon at the nearest elf and blasted it into a dozen brightly coloured shards of metal.
The Santa unit focused its soulless glare onto the rapidly approaching Ellis. “Someone’s lost their Christmas spirit!” the machine stated. “The holiday cheer must be maintained!” Its mouth dropped open, and a swarm of nano-bots began to crawl out.
A shower of shotgun pellets obliterated the cloud and tore the cheerful St. Nick’s face to shreds.
The snowmobile drew up beside the sleigh, throwing a sheaf of snow onto the stricken machine. “Quick!” Ellis yapped. “Everyone get on!”
“What the Hell’s happening?!” Mr Blinkerson yelled, chucking his two squealing sons onto the back of the snowmobile.
“I’ll explain on the way,” Ellis said. “Is everyone on?”
“Just drive!” Wendy exclaimed, her eyes riveted onto the automatons. The Santa unit’s head was covered in a mist of nano-bots. It wouldn’t be long before they’d fixed the damage, and then they’d be back in trouble.
“This snowmobile won’t last with all of us on it,” Ellis said, urging the vehicle to throttle away from the ambushing machines. “Fortunately there’s somewhere safe for us to hide.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Blinkerson asked.
“Oh sure. No one ever goes to Nativity Village.”
But, Wendy thought, how sure could any of them be? On the very edge of hearing were the unmistakeable sounds of screams of horror and fear.
“If I get out of here alive,” Wendy thought to herself as she felt the snowmobile beneath her begin to slow, “I’ll never moan about Christmas again!”
The board of directors stared at the screen for several moments. The footage had ended, but not one of them dared break the silence it had created. Some of them were fighting the urge to vomit, whilst others were bottling up screams of terror.
Eventually, after what felt like the lifetime of a mountain, one of the executives dared to speak. “This will destroy us,” he whimpered.
“There’s no way Resort Central will survive this,” a second director agreed, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
There was a murmur of agreement from around the table. Who’d have imagined there would be so much blood?
“What about the machines?” a third asked. “Are they still . . . running?”
“Apparently,” the first responded, “anyone who tries to enter the city is immediately attacked.”
“Imagine what would have happened if we’d gone with the medieval theme?!”
There was another lagoon deep silence as each of the men and women considered their imminent, painful future.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” another executive said, her eyes gleaming and her teeth sparkling, “I think we’re all forgetting that this is just a promotional video for our brand new resort: Survival Central!”
The melancholic heads rose slightly.
“Eh?! But I thought this was a recording of a horrific scene of blood and carnage?” a board member responded. A more astute neighbour of his elbowed him viciously in the ribs. The words had a certain allure to them.
“But what about the tourists that were – erm – didn’t survive?”
“Not to worry,” the executive responded, her smile lengthening just out of the threshold of sanity. “They were just animatronics used for the video.”
“But what about the animatronics’ family members who are threatening to sue us?”
“It’s nothing a free and all-inclusive trip to our latest resort can’t fix!”
The rest of the board stared at the woman delivering all their answers. Sure, what she was suggesting was immoral and detestable, but if they got away with it then they wouldn’t lose any money or have to close down Holiday Continent.
At the end of the day, they all thought, you had to make sure you had your priorities straight.
“And I’m sure that any visitor to our latest attraction,” the executive continued, “will quickly get into the holiday spirit!”