Charles sat in his private viewing room, with Matilda right beside him.
"We're outside of time, right?" asked Charles. "The viewer shows us everything that happened this year, but it's not actually the end of the year yet. How does that work?"
"We extrapolate forward," said Matilda. "We take the world as it was and simulate the whole thing forward from the moment that we left time."
"Of course you do," said Charles. "That makes just the most perfect sense." He rubbed his forehead. "We can just simulate the future of the universe? We can see 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 were explaining 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 he looked 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. He had a grin on his face. She'd moved the viewer quickly, but it seemed to be somewhere in London.
"That's him?" asked Charles.
"Yes," she replied. "He asked for some alterations before he left. He said that 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 restrictions of 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 spirit had loopholes that you could drive a truck through, he'd already found that out. Killing everyone in the world would be as easy as saying the right sentence 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 knew that he was going to kill when you set him loose, and yet you gave him a new body anyway."
"We would do the same for you, if you asked us to," said Matilda. "But when you 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 the street, 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's not 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," said Charles. He looked back towards the viewer, where James Wakefield was running at 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 said about my immortality, they apply to him too? He can't easily die and he's stored in backup?"
"Yes," said Matilda.
"Shut the backups down," said Charles.
"We don't know where they are," said Matilda. "He laid them down last Christmas 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 him somehow?"
"Santa can't leave the North Pole at all until Christmas," said Matilda. "Not unless you're choosing a successor. Once you give up the mantle we'll send you on your way, but the Christmas spirit doesn't allow for Santa showing up in August. Sorry."
"Fuck the Christmas spirit," said Charles. "Why in the world are you allowing him to behave like this?" He pointed to the viewer, where James Wakefield, the one-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 humans are. Therefore, if you're Santa and you want to kill humans, like he apparently takes pleasure in, you have to drop the mantle of Santa onto someone else." He forced himself to look away from the viewer. He could only take solace in the fact that this all could still be prevented, that it was just being simulated for his benefit. He had all the time in the world to prevent 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 something without prompting. Perhaps living for longer than any other elf had changed her. "Terrible things happen to children. We have to watch them die. It's part of making the list and checking it twice. We see children gunning each other down 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 sex slavery. 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 his knuckles were turning white.
Matilda looked at him. She seemed almost sad. "Do you trust us then, to stop these things in the way that we see fit?"
Charles opened his mouth to scream 'Yes', but stopped himself. Did he trust them? The answer, quite simply, was no. The chance that they would accidentally unmake the whole world was too high. He'd given a fairly simple instruction to an elf, and nearly ended up with the whole of humanity as good as killed. The elves couldn't be left to do what they wanted, even if they seemed to have some conception of morality. They believed in the Christmas spirit to the core of their very being, and that seemed to override everything else.
Perhaps Matilda had been right, when she'd said that they weren't human. Certainly humans couldn't maintain a static society for fifty thousand subjective years. Humans couldn't agree on things so neatly. Yet she'd also said that the elves had had a civil war, which indicated that the spark of independent thought lay within them. The elves could disagree. Perhaps they could also change.
"Have you gotten wiser as you've aged?" asked Charles. "You, personally, now that you're sixty years older?"
"Yes," replied Matilda, as though she'd been anticipating the question. "I understand the Christmas spirit better now. It has a richness to it, a complexity that I didn't see when I was younger. You gave me a nosebleed, when you brought up a contradiction in the Christmas spirit, but I don't think that you could do that now. I don't think there's anything that you could say that I would truly find to be contradictory anymore."
"Yet you won't let me kill him," said Charles, pointing to the viewer. Matilda had paused it in a scene of slaughter, a grin on the maniac's face as blood trailed 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't let you kill him," she said. "We won't let you leave while you maintain the mantle. However, if we were to make a duplicate of you and strip him of his mantle, it would be acceptable to send that duplicate out into the world to do as he wished." Charles nodded. He couldn't confess to understanding the Christmas spirit, but this at least opened up a door for him to do what needed doing. It was slightly disconcerting that one of the elves had thought up a loophole in the Christmas spirit, but he would deal with that later.
They walked together down the hallways of the North Pole. Charles had to keep telling himself not to run. It was hard to shake the feeling that the slaughter was still going on out there somewhere. What he'd seen in the viewer was just a simulation, and if he thought too hard about whether the simulation was equivalent to reality he might have just broken down and cried. If the people in the simulation thought that they were real … there were other things to think about before giving much attention to that problem.
"How did he even become Santa?" asked Charles. "How could you have let this happen?"
"The old Santa died," she said with a shrug. "As part of the resolution of the civil war, if there's no Santa to pass on the mantle, we select one randomly from among the English-speaking humans in those places that hold Santa as part of 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 our optimizations."
Charles watched on the viewer as his duplicate stepped out from a doorway just behind James Wakefield. It was just a simulation of what would happen when time was unfrozen, but Charles still felt nervous watching the other version of himself walking forward to meet with the madman. Time out in the real world had moved forward a fractional second when they'd done the insertion. The man out there was divergent from himself only by perhaps fifteen minutes - as long as it took for him to walk from the Sleigh Room to his quarters - and differentiated by the fact that his duplicate had been stripped of the mantle of Santa.
"Ah, what a naughty boy!" cried James as he spun around. His long brown coat flapped behind him. "I had thought that perhaps you would be a good little Santa 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 the speed, at which point it was merely ludicrously quick. James had murdered the cohort of elves that had engineered his body, and the elves that had created the new body for Charles had either been working under different constraints or following different paths. The fight started with kicks and punches delivered at nearly supersonic speeds, but quickly devolved into something more feral. Neither man was constrained to a merely human form, and their bodies contorted into slashing black shapes, like wild animals going at each other. The detonation that killed them both came from within the body of Charles' 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 stared at the screen as it panned around the globe. "There, in Russia." She zoomed down to a small village in Siberia, where James was standing in a child's room with a mildly pleased look on his face. Matilda rewound the viewer until James was folded down into a small toy.
"So he seeded his respawn inside of toys," said Charles. He looked down at the viewer, and the innocuous looking plastic soldier that contained the backup of a degenerate. "We can insert me a second time to destroy it?"
"Yes," said Matilda. She looked older, though no wrinkles marked her face. It was something in the way that she looked at the world, in her deliberate movements. The society of the elves had changed, after he'd told them all to become immortal. Charles had stepped outside of time while they'd worked at forging him a new template body. It had taken twenty-eight years until the elves had something that they thought would work, and that was with the caveat that an attack would be suicidal. In that time, the last of the elf children had been born. Their small society had a stable population of immortals now, and there was no need for children. Charles had questions, but Matilda had told him that the elves would look after themselves. Their fashions had changed; now they all wore clothes as white as driven snow, instead of the mash 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's likely that there are more than you'll be able to destroy. You'll get bored too quickly."
Charles was about to object, but decided against it. When numbers started to get really large, the human mind began to get very bad about accurately imagining 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't matter. The elves could reuse the backup they had as a template. He'd go into childrens rooms, or into stores, or wherever the toys could be found, and he could defuse them all without having to live it. The elves would handle things.
"It's done," said Matilda. She'd opened the door to his room as soon as he'd shut it. "It took eight hundred subjective years to get them all, since I know that's what you'd want to ask."
"You're old," he said. It was rude - would have been rude to a human - but he couldn'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. Her face 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 of experience to draw on. Charles, we're leaving."
"Leaving?" he asked. He furrowed his brow. "What do you mean leaving? What about the spirit of Christmas? Where could you be leaving to?"
"It took me a thousand years," said Matilda. "I suppose that you'll think that's ridiculous, but it truly did take me a thousand years to understand the Christmas spirit. It's deep and complex, and to serve it best we have to leave. We can't be tied to humanity anymore."
"But - but I had plans. We were going to cure the world. We were going to end death and suffering, and the need to work." Charles could feel himself getting nauseous. "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 stumbled slightly. His heart was beating too fast. Was it really that easy, to lose the support of the elves?
"We took care of James Wakefield," said Matilda. "That's our last obligation to humanity."
"One last Christmas," Charles pleaded. "Just enough to get the presents out to the children. To remove their pain, to let them live."
"We don't want to look at humanity anymore, Charles," said Matilda. "We don't want to make the list and check it twice. We don't want to spend millions of hours 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 core of our being. Only the interpretations have changed. We've written long tracts, produced multiple volumes on the subject, and found our ways to justify our deviations. I believe I'm still the only one among the elves who would be able to put it like that. There's something beyond the core of the Christmas spirit, a bit of humanity reflected in us. That's what we follow now."
"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 hoped that would be enough.
Matilda stared at him, her eyes unreadable. Finally she nodded. "One last Christmas," she said.
Charles rode on the sleigh, watching the legs of the eight reindeer tread in the 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 the same extent that he had. And even then, there was no real point in using reindeer instead of just having a flying sled, if you had the level of technology as advanced as the elves did - technology so advanced that it might as well have been magic. Hell, there was no reason to even use a sled, if you could open up tunnels through space and time.
He was nervous, and his mind was going in all sorts of different distracting directions. 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 caution cried out that if there was even a one percent chance that doing something would end the world, then it wasn't a chance worth taking. There were other concerns though, larger problems that humanity faced. He'd never learned where the elves came from, but his working theory was that they were created by some sort of superintelligence on a lark. It seemed like the sort of thing that someone from 4chan would do, to visit a primitive planet and make one of their legends into a concrete reality through the use of superior technology. Even if their origin was weirder, they suggested much about the true nature of the world. Humanity wouldn't stand a chance against outside threats, not without help.
He looked down at the silver marble again, and hoped that he was doing the right thing.
He landed the sleigh on a roof in Luojiang. The elves had already left the North 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 small chimney and stepped toward it, finding himself in a small, cramped room a short second later. Space and time, folded like magic. Li Xiu Yang slept in a tiny bed. Charles looked at the marble again, and then worked up the courage to carry out the plan. He pressed the marble against her forehead, and watched as it sunk through the skin and bone like they weren't there. When it was gone she was unmarred, looking the same as before. She slowly opened her eyes and looked at him.
"圣诞老人?" she asked.
Charles said nothing, just slipped back through space and time, back up to the rooftop. He climbed into the sleigh and took off into the night, trying not to think about the future and the changes he'd just made.