2950 words, short story
The Island of Misfit Toys
Call him Santa, because why not. It’s not the name he was born with. But it is the name he was called most often: by the kids who’d yell at him as he limped down the street with his sleeping bag open and wrapped round him for warmth, by the shopkeepers firmly pushing him out of their well-lit doorways, by the staff of the cheap restaurants he’d spend his carefully counted panhandling cash at.
It was the beard. The big off-white beard that spilled over his chest, easier to grow it than to spend time and money cutting and shaving. He’d also, despite his lifestyle, retained the belly he’d acquired through twenty years in a cubicle as a software developer for a company that made artificially intelligent Things. That was before the downward spiral that started with the redundancy notice and ended with him being tormented by children as he tried to grab a few minutes’ sleep next to a dumpster.
But mostly it was the beard.
Something about his vague, lost, shambling demeanor made him a target. Despite his general air of Santa-ish-ness. Maybe because of his general air of Santa-ish-ness; it might have triggered memories of childhood frustrations, longed-for presents not delivered or the loss of innocence when you find out it’s your Dad all along. Or else vague associations with capitalism, and all its hypocrisies: the genial bearded man whose generosity is a front for a hard sell.
On a certain freezing night, Santa, turned away from the Salvation Army hostel and having trouble finding the mosque where the imam would let you sleep on the office floor if you were out by the first call to prayer, was set upon unusually viciously by a group of teenagers drunk on supermarket-brand vodka and frustration. They took his money, they took the half sandwich he’d saved for later, they even took his sleeping bag, though it was no use to them and would only be thrown in the river later on. They kicked his soft belly over and over, and then, when he was no longer giving them any more entertainment than feeble cries, one of them was inspired to grab a piece of discarded lumber and hit him with a crack on the head.
There was a moment of awful silence as they realized that the game had gone much further than they’d planned. Then a general scattering of bodies, the sandwich dropped at the mouth of the alley. Not waiting to see how badly he was hurt, or even if he was still alive.
And all because he hadn’t been able to get to The Island.
The Park, like most big city parks of the time it was established, had a small river and an ornamental lake, something for fashionable Victorians to stroll around pretending to enjoy nature. In the middle of the ornamental lake was The Island: a patch of rocky turf just large enough to support an ecosystem of trees, bushes, and birds. At one time you could hire a boat, enjoy a picnic. Or swim out there, though, in the absence of a beach, there was not much to do once you’d done that other than swim back again. Those days were gone, however; the city was concentrating its funds on the mainland. There were no more boats, and few people were enterprising, determined, and healthy enough to swim.
But Santa was enterprising and determined, and he’d been on the swim team back in the days before the belly. So when he could, he’d stash his things in the most leakproof plastic bag he had, and breaststroke out there.
He could spend days on The Island. Enough woodcraft came back to him to allow him to weave a little rain shelter from Scotch pine boughs, and he would spend hours enjoying the antics of the squirrels and birds, or peering back at the mainland, watching the people in The Park without them knowing they were being observed.
But when his resources got scarce, he had to come back to the shore. And in the winter, the cold was too severe for him to risk sleeping in the open. Hence why Santa was now lying in an alley, blood soaking his off-white beard.
Sometime later, Santa returned to consciousness.
He didn’t know where he was, and his head hurt. He tried to focus, couldn’t. Got to his feet, staggered out of the alley, trying to find an emergency room or a shelter or any safe place, slurringly trying to articulate what he needed. The people still about at that late hour avoided him, assuming him to be drunk or high or having a delusional episode. Finally, he found himself huddled up in a waste management site on the edge of town, the rotting garbage making the area slightly warmer and comparatively inviting.
By this point, the effects of the beating were starting to wear off, or at least settle down to a general background hum of pain, and so Santa decided to cut his losses and spend the rest of the night there, and see about the emergency room in the morning.
When he saw it, he thought at first that it was one of the aftereffects of the crack on the head.
A little, cheeky face, appearing over the side of a recycling bin. Pink fur ragged and matted, one eye scratched and dulled, but it still wrinkled its red nose and wiggled its ears in what was once a charming, friendly way (but now, since part of its muzzle had been broken, looked slightly creepy).
Santa still didn’t quite realize what it was until he saw the other one. A bigdog, one of those Doberman-sized, six-legged things that crawl determinedly through rough terrain and up and down stairs, bearing deliveries or luggage or equipment. Its two back legs were nonfunctional, and it was dragging itself along the ground.
The law says artificially intelligent beings, if their bodies or minds are damaged, need to be returned to their manufacturer. The law also says that animals must not be abused, children must not be terrorized, and sad old men looking for shelter shouldn’t be kicked and beaten just for a moment’s entertainment.
It didn’t surprise Santa that these intelligent Things were in the dump with him. Maybe the manufacturer had gone bust. Maybe for some people it was easier just to throw a sentient creature away than to take the trouble of sourcing an address or finding a deposit outlet. Maybe it was an act of hate, or abuse; Santa had seen enough that he could imagine someone breaking a child’s beloved toy and making them watch while the little protesting thing was hauled away with the garbage. Or the child themselves, gaining some sadistic thrill from this act of torture.
Santa had no illusions about the innocence of children.
The pink creature spotted Santa, cocked its head, and asked him something distorted and incomprehensible.
He thought he might have programmed something like it a long time ago.
Taking an educated guess at what it wanted, he said, in a voice rough with limited use: “Yes. Let’s play a game.”
So they played a haphazard game of tic-tac-toe, using bottle tops from the garbage. The creature’s memory of how to play was distorted, and Santa couldn’t always understand what it was saying, but he did his best. Afterward it wanted to sing a song, which came out vaguely like “Jingle Bells,” and Santa tried to join in as best he could. The bigdog sat down next to them and watched.
By the time Santa looked up, others had joined them.
A novelty mascot for a fast-food company, face fixed in a permanent smile that had once involved LEDs. A cleaning-bot, tottering on damaged legs, picking things up and then discarding them quietly, having no place to put them anymore. A security camera—unable to move, but Santa could see its lenses tracking back and forth from the top of a nearby heap. And lots of toys. Cute fuzzy animals, engaging dolls, build-your-own-AI projects, educational novelties for small children. Something that he suspected had once been a monitoring robot from a nursing home, one of those smiling roly-poly seal pups meant to monitor the life signs of frail elderly residents. Now with its head smashed in a way he didn’t want to think about.
All of this was giving Santa an idea.
Once it had finished singing, he asked the fuzzy pink thing to come sit on his lap. Which it did, with scary enthusiasm. As it attempted to chirp and purr, Santa found the access hatch, opened it. Examined the damage.
Then, addressing his audience, he asked them to fan out, find anything that looked roughly like the pink thing, even if it wasn’t moving.
Especially if it wasn’t moving.
The Things dispersed; some clearly enjoying what they thought was a new game, others stolidly obeying a command. Some didn’t understand, stayed where they were, so Santa began examining the damage on them, one by one.
Before long, he began to get a haul of broken pink things. Some later or earlier models, of varying degrees of compatibility. Some of the same model. A couple that turned out to still be sentient, just immobile.
Santa fixed up the original first. He couldn’t get it back to factory perfection, of course, but with a little effort he got the components working well enough that it could walk and talk properly again. And, with his memory of how to reprogram by voice coming back, he began to expand the limits of its capability.
And set it to keep watch.
For the rest of that day, Santa fixed toys and bigdogs and security cameras and cleaners. It was slow work, but by the time the sun was starting to go down, he had a few little helpers.
The original pink thing sat on the top of the nearest heap, whistling like a prairie dog if it saw a human or a digger coming. He had another one up there before long. He slept in the junkyard again, this time guarded by friendly watchers.
The next day, he left the junkyard, a couple of cleaners in his pocket and an old surveillance camera in his bag.
Between them, they not only managed to shoplift enough food to keep him fed for a couple of days, but also some of the specialist electronic equipment he was going to need. Santa himself would stand in front of the store pretending to panhandle, until he felt the cleaners running up his frayed trouser legs, letting him know it was time to move on. He’d got them programmed to home in on him if he got forced out by the police or the shop owner, but they worked better than he expected, and they were always done before someone took exception to their presence.
This occupied Santa for a good few days, and also allowed him to improve his situation, as his little helpers also managed to acquire a rucksack and tent and new sleeping bag (the bigdogs and drones were particularly good at sidling innocently up to delivery warehouses and mega-kitchens as if expecting to take someone’s order, and it turned out delivery employees weren’t great at checking courier ID). Even got him some clean clothes, allowing him to take the deception further and pretend to be a regular shopper for a little while, at least if no one looked too closely.
And while he built up his little empire, Santa was developing a plan for its future.
They couldn’t stay in the dump, that much was clear. He’d been lucky, and clever, and avoided detection, but eventually the odds wouldn’t fall in his favor. Besides, it might be warm, but it smelled and was probably full of diseases. However, he couldn’t go ’round the hostels anymore, not with a retinue of staggering bigdogs and skipping dolls and teddies.
The obvious answer occurred to him early on. But the problem was, how to make it work.
Could he really ferry all of them over to The Island without water damage? The flying ones would be fine, but the bigdogs ranged from the size of a poodle to the size of a Shetland pony, and most of the littler ones weren’t built for rugged outdoor conditions. So he put the idea to one side, while he worked out all the possibilities.
And then, one night as he slept fitfully under a heap of warm mechanical bodies, he was awakened by many bright beams of light and angry voices.
“Told you there was some bum sleeping in here—right, you bastard, on your feet.”
But he’d been expecting this for a while. He surged up, pocketing his smaller and less mobile friends, slinging up his rucksack, and, the bigdogs galloping in formation around him and the drones keeping up a buzz over his head, rushed at the lights and past them, toward the gate and out into the streets.
He ran until he was sure he wasn’t being pursued, then slowed to a walk, choosing random directions and trying to keep his progress as quiet as possible despite the noise of the feet and servos and blades of his entourage. Fortunately the dump was on the edge of town, near warehouses and industrial parks, shuttered and dark in the cold.
Turning at random into an alley, Santa stopped.
And began to laugh.
The alley ended in a locked corral of floats, ready for the annual seasonal parade.
Right at the front, in red and gold, a huge, wheeled, sleigh.
It didn’t take someone of Santa’s newly honed skills long to hack the lock, then persuade the self-driving AI governing the sleigh to go along with his plan. Loading his flock into the vehicle, he sped off through the night, toward The Park.
In the morning, the sleigh was first reported as stolen by the local news stations, then, just as quickly, was found on the shore of the lake. The AI swore blind she’d been taken by masked joyriders and, eventually, with no more plausible story at hand, the city police accepted it; the parade staff were mostly concerned with restoring the sleigh to driveability in time for the event. It became one more silly-season item, and, by the time rumors began to circulate about the strange creatures park-goers occasionally glimpsed, or thought they glimpsed, on The Island, it had been forgotten.
Santa was doing all right for himself out there. His army of helpers foraged for him, guarded him, brought him news. He worked on them, made them tougher, amphibious, smarter. He spent the winter out there with them, warm in proper clothing and with a little solar heater for his camp.
Eventually the stories about The Island became common enough that the city felt they had to investigate. Drone flights only ever showed a single human-sized heat signature and blurry camera footage. And, come spring, when the police and parks maintenance teams mustered the resources to send boats over with the aim of arresting him, the people that made it out there only ever found a couple of broken bigdogs and toys, and decaying evidence of a hobo camp.
In the end, the official position was to call Santa and his helpers an urban legend, something to entertain colleagues with at a bar or make a stop on a dark-tourism walkabout.
So the situation continued for years and years, speculated on by locals, monitored at a low level by the authorities.
Until, one day, the human-sized heat signature disappeared.
A police boat dispatched to The Island was unable to find a corpse, and indeed none was ever found. It was assumed, given his presumed age and the stresses of homeless life, that he’d died, though of course there was also the never-disproved possibility that he’d moved on, to another city or town or out of homelessness altogether. Maybe he’d passed through a portal to Mars, or been bodily assumed into Heaven in a sleigh. The story-makers speculated endlessly, never reaching a conclusion, or, indeed, figuring out the truth.
Looking out to The Island today, if you’re lucky, you can still see them.
A glimpse of movement in the trees, too precise and jointed to be a squirrel. A flicker of tiny plastic wings. A metal limb extending delicately out to touch the water’s surface, then retreating before you can register what you’ve seen. Rarest of all, a small tribe of cute, big-eyed creatures, their fur long ago worn away, tumbling in a battered horde along the edge of The Island, stumpy limbs marching, singing a screechy tune that might once have been “Jingle Bells.”
There’s always those bold enough to swim or boat over, trying to grab one. But those who have, find their prey is too quick, or too clever, or (in the case of the teenager who followed one of the metal teddy bears into the copse only to get kicked mercilessly by a circle of bigdogs) too devious and vicious. So they’re mostly left alone.
And every year, on the midnight that turns Christmas Eve into Christmas Day, The Island lights up in red and green bursts and pulses. The sound of discordant music, stamping feet dancing, and electronic howls. The icy water turns electric with flickering displays from LEDs, from emergency lights and warning horns, from features intended to amuse and educate a child, all repurposed into a symphony of joy. As, just for a moment, they remember who they were, and how they became what they are, and pay a mad, beautiful homage, wherever he is, to Santa Claus.