Charles wore the red and white suit, which didn't fit his thin frame. The old man had told him that it would, with time, but Charles had always been as skinny as a stick. Still, if he grew fat in the coming weeks, it would be far down the list of miraculous things that needed solving.
"I'm an industrial engineer," he'd said, when the old man had come to him. "I don't even have children."
"Neither do I, Charles," said the old man with a touch of sadness in his voice. "But I have seen how you look at them, and you appreciate children all the same."
There were a thousand objections that he should have given instead, when the old man had told him that the mantle of Santa Claus was being passed on. He should have asked how the man had gotten into his studio apartment, which had three locks on the door, or asked how the man had known his name, and he certainly should have objected to the notion that Santa Claus existed at all. Something stayed his tongue though, and it wasn't just surprise.
Now the old man was gone, and Charles had been declared the new Santa Claus before all of the elves and reindeer of the north pole. He'd been given no instructions from the old man, nothing other than an offer, which he'd accepted without hesitation. Charles had grown up in tenement housing, and his mother had been largely absent from his life. He'd nearly drowned himself in escapist books, where poor, unhappy boys got special powers or discovered secret worlds, and the expectation that something like that would happen had never really left him. Still, he had never expected this.
"Come this way," said Kelvin, a head elf who wore special golden epaulettes atop his red and green frippery. He seemed, more or less, the person in charge. Charles couldn't pretend to understand the first thing about fashion among the elves, but they dressed almost exclusively in red, green, white, gold, and silver. Even after half an hour it was starting to grate on his nerves. Kelvin had pointed ears and stood a bit taller than the others, coming up to just above Charles' navel. He had a serious and somewhat dour expression.
"This," he declared as he opened one of the many doors of the North Pole, "Is the List Room."
Before them was more of a stadium than a proper room, with tens of thousands of wooden desks arrayed in concentric circles with steps leading down. Two long pieces of paper hung down from the high ceiling in the center of the room, and when Charles looked up he could see that they were even longer than they appeared, rolling around metal bars until they were nearly a meter thick. From time to time, elves jogged down the steps to write at the very bottom of these papers.
"This is where we determine who is naughty and who is nice," said Kelvin. He stepped forward to the closest desk and placed his hand on the shoulder of the elf who was sitting there. "Paeter, please take a break while I show Santa the ropes." The elf looked between the two of them with shock, and simply nodded once before scurrying away.
"Now then," said Kelvin, "This is the viewing console, through which we watch the children and determine whether they are naughty or nice." The desk was angled, like an architect's desk, and the viewer took up the majority of it. The picture was clearer than any television that Charles had ever seen, and when he moved his head he realized that it produced a three-dimensional effect. It was a perfect window into the world that it was displaying, an autumn evening in New York City. A child of about seven walked down the sidewalk with a backpack on.
"Of course," said Kelvin, "You won't actually be doing any of the monitoring - that might have been feasible in the old days, but now it's more or less left to us. We have three people reviewing every child, and if there's no consensus -"
"I'm sorry, excuse me," said Charles, "But are you telling me that the elves have the ability to monitor every child in the world in real-time?"
Kelvin gave a merry laugh that sounded like tinkling bells, quite at odds with his normal demeanor. "Oh, my no. No, there are, at this time, roughly one and a quarter billion children in the world. To make the list in real-time with the proper oversights would require four billion elves, and that's assuming that we only slept when the children did. Of course, different children sleep at different times, so we'd have to segregate the elves into different populations to take different shifts, and of course that's just considering the elves that are working on making the list and checking it twice. It's under your authority to switch the systems that we use, but I have to say that I'm not terribly enthused about that idea, and I don't imagine that the others are either. But as I say, it's up to you." His sourness returned to him as he considered the logistics.
Charles frowned. "So then how do you make the list?"
"Simple," said Kelvin. "We check the children asynchronously." He pressed a mechanical lever just under the viewer, and the image of the child sped up considerably, until he was home in the space of a breath, playing videogames, eating supper, playing more videogames, and finally tossing and turning in his sleep. Kelvin moved a small orb under the viewer to control the angle that was shown on the screen, and after some quick, wordless demonstration of its abilities, he pushed another lever to pause the viewer entirely.
"So," said Charles, "We don't have real-time viewing of a child's actions, we have a full record of everything that they'd done?" He figured that it would be better to take all of the impossible things in stride and then freak out about them all at once later in the day to save time.
"Not just that," said Kelvin. He pressed another lever, and the viewer stopped focusing on the child and began to fly through walls, briefly showing insulation and structural supports. Eventually Kelvin seemed to find what he was looking for, and settled in on a woman putting on her makeup. "The viewer can look at adults to get some context about the child's life. This, for example, is … ah, Ms. Kerrimore, who teaches second grade to Luke Johnson, the boy we were just watching. Sometimes there are questions that arise which require more information."
Charles stared at the viewer with a frown. A giddy excitement was growing in his chest, and he worried that he would stand there with his jaw on the floor for hours if he dared to let it out. "So you have panopticon surveillance of both the past and the present anywhere on planet Earth," he said carefully.
"And the future," said Kelvin with a nod. "Everything from 00:01 UTC on December 25 of last year to 23:59 UTC on December 24th of this year. And I know what you're going to ask, but we still haven't been able to eliminate the one minute gap."
"That was not at even remotely where my concerns lie," said Charles. "We could see anything? Even things not directly related to whether children are naughty or nice?"
Kelvin turned to look him in the eye and furrowed his brow. "I suppose that's technically possible, but we're really not set up for it. The viewer can, they were built like that, but all the elves are trained to watch children. If you'd like, I can have a viewer set up in your rooms."
"But I mean - wait, I just thought of something, how does doing it this way really reduce your workload? You still have a billion kids to watch," said Charles. "You'd still need at least a significant fraction of that many elves to look through all of this footage, and if you're checking twice you'd need quite a bit more."
"Why would we?" asked Kelvin. "Oh, I think I see the misunderstanding here, the List Room and much of the North Pole itself is outside of time. We can take as many subjective years as we need to complete the list."
"And … how many years do you take every year?" asked Charles.
"It depends on the year," said Kelvin. "Going by current projections, this year it will take roughly fifty thousand years."
Charles dropped his hands to his side and stepped back. He looked out at the row upon row of desks, tens of thousands of elves looking at the lives of children. That alone boggled the mind, but to think that they'd be at it for longer than recorded history was nearly unfathomable.
"How long do elves even live?" asked Charles.
"As long as people, more or less; sixty years," replied Kelvin.
"So these elves won't ever see the fruits of their labors?" asked Charles. "They won't see the Christmas that they're preparing for?"
"Such is the life of an elf," replied Kelvin with a nod. "We do our work knowing that we're making Christmas morning special for the young children, and if we never get to see the Christmas we prepare for, we accept that." He stood up from the viewer. "Now, come along, there are two more stops on the tour before we show you to your rooms."
They walked together down the hallways of the North Pole, and Charles began to truly notice things for the first time. The doors were all sized for a normal person, though he was the only one in sight. Each door had two knobs, a large one and a small one. The fact that the entire place was sized for both of them seemed vaguely absurd.
"Sorry to bring this up so early," said Kelvin, "But the last Santa allowed us a small celebration when the last child had been checked twice. Some of the other elves were wondering if that tradition might be extended?"
"You're … you want a party?" asked Charles.
"If it's not too much trouble," said Kelvin. "We toil at the list for a great while you see, and -"
"Consider it done," said Charles.
"Thank you, Santa," said Kelvin.
They turned left down a festively decorated corridor, and Kelvin opened a wide set of double doors, which led out onto an immense workshop. Kelvin had halfway expected a factory, but instead it was simply row after row of wooden benches, and elves working with a handful of simple tools. It reminded him of nothing more than a sweatshop. Kelvin was used to factory floors; factories were what he did for a living. He'd been part of the team that had worked out the logistics for the most recent production run of Malibu Barbie.
"I have some questions," said Charles.
"Oh?" asked Kelvin. "Didn't you want to see the process a bit first."
"Before that," said Charles firmly. "What process is in place to decide what children get?"
"The Mail Room comes later in the tour," said Kelvin with a trace of irritation. "But we get letters from the children, the elves figure out what's reasonable and within our capacity to produce, and then we build them. Those who don't send us letters - which is the majority of children - have a gift selected for them by the elves which is both age, gender, and culture appropriate."
"All this is made by hand?" asked Charles.
Kelvin nodded. "We take dough from the extruder and shape it." He walked over to a close workbench, and again asked an elf to leave his station. "Here we're making a gift for Li Xiu Yang." As he said the name, his voice dipped into a flawless Chinese pronunciation. "She didn't send us a letter, and so she will be getting a small plastic frog."
The workbench was solid, with a skirt that dropped all the way to the floor. As Charles moved around to look, he could see a thick glass pipe running up the inside of it, which descended into the floor. Where it touched the top of the workbench, there was a metal aperture with an iris opening. On the workbench itself were a variety of tools, hammers, pliers, and a wide variety of others. Kelvin pressed down on one of the pedals near his stool, and the pipe extruded out a grey substance through the metal opening, which had dilated out to let it through. Kelvin took the ball of this stuff began to shape it with his hands, until it resembled a quite detailed frog. It looked something like a computer rendering before the lighting, bump-mapping, and textures had been applied. Then, with a snap of his fingers it took on its proper form and color. Kelvin handed it to Charles, who took it delicately between his thin fingers. It felt and looked exactly like plastic. As Charles turned it around, he could even see a line of flash from where an injection machine would have left extra plastic.
"How?" asked Charles.
"Magic," said Kelvin with a shrug. When it became clear this wouldn't be enough of an answer, he added, "The dough can be shaped into anything, and once we have completed the assembly of the thing, we merely have to snap our fingers to change the materials into the proper form."
"Then … then why in the world does this small plastic frog have flash from injection moulding?"
"Authenticity," replied Kelvin. "If we were to make our plastics perfectly, people might get suspicious. We're well familiar with the processes that the factories use, and we copy them as exactly as possible." He took the plastic frog back, and with a flourish pulled a wrapping paper and ribbon from a compartment in the workshop table. The frog was wrapped in less than three seconds, and the elf wrote out a long list of identifying information on a label, which he tied to the present. He pressed another lever beneath the table, and the metal iris opened back up. Kelvin dropped the present down it, and it disappeared with a pneumatic woosh. "That's one done," he said with satisfaction. He stood from the desk and looked at Charles expectantly.
"I'm sorry," said Charles, "But I'm just starting to catch up to things, this was all thrust on me quite suddenly."
"Yes," said Kelvin, "I understand."
"So on Christmas Day, this Li Xiu will find a present under her Christmas tree?" he asked.
"According to her dossier, she doesn't actually believe in Christmas, more's the shame," said Kelvin. "We'll instead arrange for her to find it under her pillow or in with her other toys. The wrapping will have to come off, of course, and we'll strip the present of its label since she doesn't read English anyway, but she'll get her gift all the same. Delivered by you, of course."
"I see," said Charles, though he didn't really see at all.
"Come along then, there's much more of the North Pole to visit," said the elf.
They walked down the hallways, and a thought occurred to Charles. "Why do you need me at all?" he asked. "You obviously have all these fantastic powers, why don't the elves deliver the gifts without me needing to get in a sleigh?"
"There was an incident," replied Kelvin. "We did spread Christmas cheer without a Santa, for almost five hundred years. And then … then were a series of failures. A child was put on the nice list, even though he was very naughty. We were tasked with making a present for him, and made something that we shouldn't have, due to a failure in the workshop. And we delivered it, because the elves in charge of delivery didn't have any knowledge of what the present actually was. We unanimously decided afterwards that we needed to have a Santa again, to keep us in check."
"What was the gift that you gave the boy?" asked Charles. "What could have been so bad?"
"We gave him a rat," said Kelvin. "A diseased rat."
A chill ran through Charles' veins. "When?" he asked.
"1348," replied Kelvin. "Of course, we realized the mistake slowly over the course of the year, but there wasn't anything that we could do about it. We simply resolved to do better in the future, and having a Santa is part of that."
"So I'm … a figurehead?" asked Charles. "A moral compass?"
"If that's how you'd prefer to think of things," said Kelvin. "You have authority over us, because we cannot trust ourselves to do things properly."
The rest of the tour consisted of the Mail Room, the stables that held the reindeer and the sled, and a variety of other things - none of which came close to their production and surveillance abilities. The elves had a control of space and time itself, and they wanted to show him beasts of burden; there was something very wrong with the place.
"These are your rooms," said Kelvin at the end of the tour. "There's a bedroom, bathroom, living room, dining room, access to cable television and the internet, and a small kitchen, though we will be more than happy to cook you whatever you would like if only you say the word. Ring this bell, and an elf will come to assist you in any way you might desire. We've added another room onto your suite which contains a viewer, as you'd mentioned you'd like to have one - I've included not only the recording for this year, but the archives of years past as well." He bowed slightly and left Charles alone, to look around his room. The furnishings were opulent, if slightly gaudy, and the suite was three times the size his apartment had been. As he looked around, he could see that many of his belongings had been transferred over - the guitar he'd told himself that he would learn to play some day, a painting his ex-girlfriend had made him that he'd never had the heart to throw away, and a dozen other reminders of the real world - a world that had made sense.