Charles sat in his private viewing room, with Matilda right beside him.
“We’re outside of time, right?” asked Charles. “The viewer shows us everythingthat happened this year, but it’s not actually the end of the year yet. Howdoes that work?”
“We extrapolate forward,” said Matilda. “We take the world as it was andsimulate the whole thing forward from the moment that we left time.”
“Of course you do,” said Charles. “That makes just the most perfect sense.” Herubbed his forehead. “We can just simulate the future of the universe? We cansee everything that’s going to happen? And it will be accurate?”
“Yes, that’s how the list is made,” said Matilda patiently, as though she wereexplaining things to a child.
“And out there - does it even make sense to ask what time it is?” he asked.
“August 9th, 2013,” replied Matilda. “At 3:42pm UTC.”
“Find me the other Santa,” said Charles. Matilda worked the viewer as helooked over her diminutive shoulder. Eventually she focused in on a non-descript man with brown hair, who stepped from a doorway in a brown coat. Hehad a grin on his face. She’d moved the viewer quickly, but it seemed to besomewhere in London.
“That’s him?” asked Charles.
“Yes,” she replied. “He asked for some alterations before he left. He saidthat he wouldn’t be Santa anymore, that he was tired of being fat and bearded.He went back to being James Wakefield. We think he disliked the restrictionsof being Santa,” said Matilda with a frown. “We wouldn’t let him kill anyone.Elves can’t act contrary to the Christmas spirit.”
“You let him hurt you,” he said. “You let him kill you.” The Christmas spirithad loopholes that you could drive a truck through, he’d already found thatout. Killing everyone in the world would be as easy as saying the rightsentence to a single elf.
“We’re not people,” replied Matilda. “We’re elves.”
“Okay. We’ll deal with that statement later.” Charles heaved a sigh. “You knewthat he was going to kill when you set him loose, and yet you gave him a newbody anyway.”
“We would do the same for you, if you asked us to,” said Matilda. “But whenyou left, you wouldn’t be Santa anymore.”
“Run the viewer forward,” said Charles. “Until he kills.”
It took all of three minutes. The moment that James spotted a woman across thestreet, he dashed towards her with inhuman speed and pinned her to a wall,stabbing her repeatedly in the chest and stomach. He smiled as he did it.Charles turned away, but Matilda continued to watch dispassionately.Eventually, a tiny frown formed on her face.
“He moved fast,” said Charles. “Too fast. Something was done to his body, he’snot fully human anymore.”
“Human is a fluid concept,” said Matilda. “You’re speaking as an immortal.”
“You know what I mean. You didn’t just send him out with a human body,” saidCharles. He looked back towards the viewer, where James Wakefield was runningat thirty miles per hour with long, effortless strides. “He’s superhuman now.”James reached a crowd of people and murdered them in a handful of seconds,snapping their necks or slitting their throats. “All the things that you saidabout my immortality, they apply to him too? He can’t easily die and he’sstored in backup?”
“Yes,” said Matilda.
“Shut the backups down,” said Charles.
“We don’t know where they are,” said Matilda. “He laid them down lastChristmas and scrubbed their placement from the viewers.”
“Okay, so if we want to kill him -”
“We can’t let you,” said Matilda. She wore a very serious expression.
“Shit,” said Charles. “Well, okay, I can’t kill him, but I can restrain himsomehow?”
“Santa can’t leave the North Pole at all until Christmas,” said Matilda. “Notunless you’re choosing a successor. Once you give up the mantle we’ll send youon your way, but the Christmas spirit doesn’t allow for Santa showing up inAugust. Sorry.”
“Fuck the Christmas spirit,” said Charles. “Why in the world are you allowinghim to behave like this?” He pointed to the viewer, where James Wakefield, theone-time Santa, was drinking blood from a hole he’d cut in a woman’s neck.“Jesus, I’m going to be sick.”
“He’s human,” said Matilda. “Humans kill each other all the time.”
“I know,” said Charles. “So Santa isn’t allow to kill, but wider set of humansare. Therefore, if you’re Santa and you want to kill humans, like heapparently takes pleasure in, you have to drop the mantle of Santa ontosomeone else.” He forced himself to look away from the viewer. He could onlytake solace in the fact that this all could still be prevented, that it wasjust being simulated for his benefit. He had all the time in the world toprevent it.
“It’s distressing, for the elves that have to watch what people do,” she said.He turned to look at her. It was the first time he’d heard her say somethingwithout prompting. Perhaps living for longer than any other elf had changedher. “Terrible things happen to children. We have to watch them die. It’s partof making the list and checking it twice. We see children gunning each otherdown in Rwanda. We see them working their fingers to the bone in sweatshops.You can see, on the viewers, the children that have been sold into sexslavery. It affects us. We don’t like it. It’s not in the spirit of Christmas,to have such things happen to children.”
“So stop it!” yelled Charles. His fingers were gripping his chair so hard hisknuckles were turning white.
Matilda looked at him. She seemed almost sad. “Do you trust us then, to stopthese things in the way that we see fit?”
Charles opened his mouth to scream ‘Yes’, but stopped himself. Did he trustthem? The answer, quite simply, was no. The chance that they wouldaccidentally unmake the whole world was too high. He’d given a fairly simpleinstruction to an elf, and nearly ended up with the whole of humanity as goodas killed. The elves couldn’t be left to do what they wanted, even if theyseemed to have some conception of morality. They believed in the Christmasspirit to the core of their very being, and that seemed to override everythingelse.
Perhaps Matilda had been right, when she’d said that they weren’t human.Certainly humans couldn’t maintain a static society for fifty thousandsubjective years. Humans couldn’t agree on things so neatly. Yet she’d alsosaid that the elves had had a civil war, which indicated that the spark ofindependent thought lay within them. The elves could disagree. Perhaps theycould also change.
“Have you gotten wiser as you’ve aged?” asked Charles. “You, personally, nowthat you’re sixty years older?”
“Yes,” replied Matilda, as though she’d been anticipating the question. “Iunderstand the Christmas spirit better now. It has a richness to it, acomplexity that I didn’t see when I was younger. You gave me a nosebleed, whenyou brought up a contradiction in the Christmas spirit, but I don’t think thatyou could do that now. I don’t think there’s anything that you could say thatI would truly find to be contradictory anymore.”
“Yet you won’t let me kill him,” said Charles, pointing to the viewer. Matildahad paused it in a scene of slaughter, a grin on the maniac’s face as bloodtrailed his knife. “You won’t even let me go out there and restrain him.”
Matilda sat in silence, looking at the viewer. She pursed her lips. “We won’tlet you kill him,” she said. “We won’t let you leave while you maintain themantle. However, if we were to make a duplicate of you and strip him of hismantle, it would be acceptable to send that duplicate out into the world to doas he wished.” Charles nodded. He couldn’t confess to understanding theChristmas spirit, but this at least opened up a door for him to do what neededdoing. It was slightly disconcerting that one of the elves had thought up aloophole in the Christmas spirit, but he would deal with that later.
They walked together down the hallways of the North Pole. Charles had to keeptelling himself not to run. It was hard to shake the feeling that theslaughter was still going on out there somewhere. What he’d seen in the viewerwas just a simulation, and if he thought too hard about whether the simulationwas equivalent to reality he might have just broken down and cried. If thepeople in the simulation thought that they were real … there were other thingsto think about before giving much attention to that problem.
“How did he even become Santa?” asked Charles. “How could you have let thishappen?”
“The old Santa died,” she said with a shrug. “As part of the resolution of thecivil war, if there’s no Santa to pass on the mantle, we select one randomlyfrom among the English-speaking humans in those places that hold Santa as partof their culture.”
“Randomly,” said Charles. He was ready to beat his head against the viewer.“That’s a horrible system.”
Matilda said nothing.
“Well,” said Charles. “Let’s clean this up before we get on with ouroptimizations.”
Charles watched on the viewer as his duplicate stepped out from a doorway justbehind James Wakefield. It was just a simulation of what would happen whentime was unfrozen, but Charles still felt nervous watching the other versionof himself walking forward to meet with the madman. Time out in the real worldhad moved forward a fractional second when they’d done the insertion. The manout there was divergent from himself only by perhaps fifteen minutes - as longas it took for him to walk from the Sleigh Room to his quarters - anddifferentiated by the fact that his duplicate had been stripped of the mantleof Santa.
“Ah, what a naughty boy!” cried James as he spun around. His long brown coatflapped behind him. “I had thought that perhaps you would be a good littleSanta and stay at the North Pole. But I’m just as glad to fight.”
“I’m here to kill you,” said Charles.
“Oh?” asked James. “And how do you propose to do that?”
“Repeatedly,” said Charles.
The action was too fast to follow until Charles slowed it down to a tenth thespeed, at which point it was merely ludicrously quick. James had murdered thecohort of elves that had engineered his body, and the elves that had createdthe new body for Charles had either been working under different constraintsor following different paths. The fight started with kicks and punchesdelivered at nearly supersonic speeds, but quickly devolved into somethingmore feral. Neither man was constrained to a merely human form, and theirbodies contorted into slashing black shapes, like wild animals going at eachother. The detonation that killed them both came from within the body ofCharles’ duplicate, three seconds after the fight had begun.
“Where is he respawning?” asked Charles.
“One moment,” said Matilda. She depressed the levers on the viewer and staredat the screen as it panned around the globe. “There, in Russia.” She zoomeddown to a small village in Siberia, where James was standing in a child’s roomwith a mildly pleased look on his face. Matilda rewound the viewer until Jameswas folded down into a small toy.
“So he seeded his respawn inside of toys,” said Charles. He looked down at theviewer, and the innocuous looking plastic soldier that contained the backup ofa degenerate. “We can insert me a second time to destroy it?”
“Yes,” said Matilda. She looked older, though no wrinkles marked her face. Itwas something in the way that she looked at the world, in her deliberatemovements. The society of the elves had changed, after he’d told them all tobecome immortal. Charles had stepped outside of time while they’d worked atforging him a new template body. It had taken twenty-eight years until theelves had something that they thought would work, and that was with the caveatthat an attack would be suicidal. In that time, the last of the elf childrenhad been born. Their small society had a stable population of immortals now,and there was no need for children. Charles had questions, but Matilda hadtold him that the elves would look after themselves. Their fashions hadchanged; now they all wore clothes as white as driven snow, instead of themash of colors they’d worn before.
“Alright,” said Charles. “And if I destroy that toy before it spawns him,he’ll spawn from another one, hidden somewhere else in the world?”
“Yes,” said Matilda. “We don’t know how many he left out there, but it’slikely that there are more than you’ll be able to destroy. You’ll get boredtoo quickly.”
Charles was about to object, but decided against it. When numbers started toget really large, the human mind began to get very bad about accuratelyimagining what they meant. If he had to destroy a million booby-trapped toys,perhaps he really would get so bored that he was willing to give up. It didn’tmatter. The elves could reuse the backup they had as a template. He’d go intochildrens rooms, or into stores, or wherever the toys could be found, and hecould defuse them all without having to live it. The elves would handlethings.
“It’s done,” said Matilda. She’d opened the door to his room as soon as he’dshut it. “It took eight hundred subjective years to get them all, since I knowthat’s what you’d want to ask.”
“You’re old,” he said. It was rude - would have been rude to a human - but hecouldn’t help himself. She’d looked the same as ever when he’d shut the door,but the Matilda that stood before him looked like she was in her fifties. Herface was lined and had taken on a hardness that hadn’t been there before.
“I am,” she shrugged.
“Did I screw up, when I told you all to be immortal?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “We think better, when we have hundreds of years ofexperience to draw on. Charles, we’re leaving.”
“Leaving?” he asked. He furrowed his brow. “What do you mean leaving? Whatabout the spirit of Christmas? Where could you be leaving to?”
“It took me a thousand years,” said Matilda. “I suppose that you’ll thinkthat’s ridiculous, but it truly did take me a thousand years to understand theChristmas spirit. It’s deep and complex, and to serve it best we have toleave. We can’t be tied to humanity anymore.”
“But - but I had plans. We were going to cure the world. We were going to enddeath and suffering, and the need to work.” Charles could feel himself gettingnauseous. “We were going to use all this power to do something worthwhile.”
“It’s not your power,” said Matilda. “It’s ours. We see that now.”
“You can’t leave,” said Charles. “I’m sorry, but people are dying out there.We can generate medicines for them, we can heal the sick.” He stumbledslightly. His heart was beating too fast. Was it really that easy, to lose thesupport of the elves?
“We took care of James Wakefield,” said Matilda. “That’s our last obligationto humanity.”
“One last Christmas,” Charles pleaded. “Just enough to get the presents out tothe children. To remove their pain, to let them live.”
“We don’t want to look at humanity anymore, Charles,” said Matilda. “We don’twant to make the list and check it twice. We don’t want to spend millions ofhours crafting toys.”
“What happened to the Christmas spirit?” he asked. He felt entirely helpless.
“It’s still there,” said Matilda. “And we still believe in it to the very coreof our being. Only the interpretations have changed. We’ve written longtracts, produced multiple volumes on the subject, and found our ways tojustify our deviations. I believe I’m still the only one among the elves whowould be able to put it like that. There’s something beyond the core of theChristmas spirit, a bit of humanity reflected in us. That’s what we follownow.”
“I don’t even need you to make the list, I don’t need the production capacity,just one last identical gift to give to the children,” said Charles. He hopedthat would be enough.
Matilda stared at him, her eyes unreadable. Finally she nodded. “One lastChristmas,” she said.
Charles rode on the sleigh, watching the legs of the eight reindeer tread inthe air. It was ridiculous to see. The propulsion had to come from the sleigh,not from the reindeer themselves, unless the reindeer had been modified to thesame extent that he had. And even then, there was no real point in usingreindeer instead of just having a flying sled, if you had the level oftechnology as advanced as the elves did - technology so advanced that it mightas well have been magic. Hell, there was no reason to even use a sled, if youcould open up tunnels through space and time.
He was nervous, and his mind was going in all sorts of different distractingdirections. He looked down at the silver marble in his hand. In the end,they’d decided on only a single gift, but one that could replicate itself.There was a chance that it would be catastrophic, and the voice of cautioncried out that if there was even a one percent chance that doing somethingwould end the world, then it wasn’t a chance worth taking. There were otherconcerns though, larger problems that humanity faced. He’d never learned wherethe elves came from, but his working theory was that they were created by somesort of superintelligence on a lark. It seemed like the sort of thing thatsomeone from 4chan would do, to visit a primitive planet and make one of theirlegends into a concrete reality through the use of superior technology. Evenif their origin was weirder, they suggested much about the true nature of theworld. Humanity wouldn’t stand a chance against outside threats, not withouthelp.
He looked down at the silver marble again, and hoped that he was doing theright thing.
He landed the sleigh on a roof in Luojiang. The elves had already left theNorth Pole for good, evaporating the entire complex as he left on the sled,but they’d told him in general terms what he could do. Charles spotted smallchimney and stepped toward it, finding himself in a small, cramped room ashort second later. Space and time, folded like magic. Li Xiu Yang slept in atiny bed. Charles looked at the marble again, and then worked up the courageto carry out the plan. He pressed the marble against her forehead, and watchedas it sunk through the skin and bone like they weren’t there. When it was goneshe was unmarred, looking the same as before. She slowly opened her eyes andlooked at him.
“圣诞老人?” she asked.
Charles said nothing, just slipped back through space and time, back up to therooftop. He climbed into the sleigh and took off into the night, trying not tothink about the future and the changes he’d just made.