The Last Christmas, Chapter 4

The next morning, the very first stop that Charles made – after another enormous and varied breakfast – was to the List Room. Matilda stood by his side. He’d asked for Kelvin as well, but had been told that he was unavailable. He hadn’t actually thought that elves could be unavailable, but it was another data point to add to his model of how the North Pole worked. 

“Effective immediately, there is to be one child on the Naughty list,” he said to the elves. Kelvin, or another elf manager if they had those, would have to work out the exact details of what that meant. It was the first loophole he’d found that he could actually do something about; there had to be a List, and it had to be divided into naughty and nice, but the naughty side could be made as short as possible. Matilda had started to look ill when he’d suggested that they have zero children on the naughty list, so instead there would be only one. It wouldn’t really matter what the naughty and nice criteria was if everyone but the naughtiest child in the world was automatically marked as nice.

Charles had thought about it, and couldn’t really see how it could backfire to maximize the number of gifts given to the children. He’d wanted to cut the list-making down enough that the viewers weren’t even needed, so that a single child was randomly selected as naughty, but Matilda had seemed very uncomfortable with that concept. There had to be further optimizations to be done, but he would get to it later. Speaking with Matilda hadn’t revealed a good way to change the definitions of naughty and nice, to make it so simple and arbitrary that making the list and checking it twice could be reduced to the work of a single elf. To Charles’ mind, it was better to make a change for the more optimal to see the elves react than it was to expect to get everything in perfect working order all at once. He didn’t intend to let them live thousands of years while he was in stasis; he’d watch closely to see the actual effects of what he’d told them.

His next stop was to the Toy Room. The elf working at a desk near the front looked startled, and his eyes went wide when he saw Santa come strolling in, but Charles was now a man with a plan.

“Li Xiu Yang is a Chinese girl who was going to get a small plastic frog for Christmas,” he said. “Instead, I want you to make a present for her that will maximize her happiness, ignoring any secrecy concerns. Can you do that?” Matilda had said that they could, and he hoped that it was true. The elf said nothing but worked quickly, pinching off what looked like a grey cigar from the extruder. He spent a few seconds shaping it, and then it turned jet black with a small red button on top.

“What’s that?” asked Charles. He picked up the toy and looked at it, being very careful not to touch the button. If there was one thing he’d learned in a lifetime around heavy industrial machines, it was that you shouldn’t press a button if you had no idea what it did.

“It’s – it doesn’t have a name,” said the elf. He was sweating, not from the exertion of the work but from sheer nerves. Charles felt a pang of sympathy. “When the button is pressed, it will activate the neurons in her brain and make her maximally happy. It has its own internal power source, and will continue going until she dies.”

“That … that is not at all what I meant,” said Charles. “She just won’t eat? Her parents will try to rouse her and she’ll be a vegetable? What good is happiness if you die in a few days?”

The elf leaned forward and grabbed the device back. In his hands it melted to grey again, and he pulled at it as though it were taffy, looking at the strands of grey that came out. After a few seconds, he collapsed it all back together, and recreated the device. It looked the same as before. “There,” said the elf with satisfaction. “Now it will stimulate the neurons in her brain and make her maximally happy, and also alter her motor cortex to be independent of the rest of her brain. Her body will seek out food without interfering with her happiness.”

Charles stared at him. “Okay, even if that were true, her parents and friends would still be sad that they couldn’t interact with her, wouldn’t they?”

The elf frowned. “One moment, I didn’t realize that was a constraint.” The device burst apart once more, this time into grey cobwebs as the elf’s deft fingers moved through, poking and prodding at it. A full minute passed before he collapsed it back down into the same black tube with a red button on top. “There,” said the elf. “Now when the button is pressed, it will not only activate the patterns for happiness in Li Xiu Yang’s brain, but in the brains of her parents and friends. And I do believe that I’ve anticipated your next objection – the device will multiply itself, drawing matter from its surroundings, in order to make the parents and friends of the parents and friends of Li Xiu Yang happy, and so on.”

“It’s a self-replicator,” said Charles. He stared at the device in horror. “Never, ever make self-replicators. They spiral out of control.”

The elf frowned. “Well, then I’m not sure that with the constraints that you’ve set out this is going to be possible. Perhaps if the biology restriction was removed -“

“No,” said Charles. “I’m beginning to understand why you elves need a Santa. Give Li Xiu Yang a plastic frog instead. We’ll deal with this later.”

He walked from the Toy Room feeling somewhat let down. This was supposed to have been the point where he’d converted the raw potential of the North Pole into maximum utility for the human race, yet it was very apparent that the elves actually did need him in order to stop them from destroying the world or accidentally killing everyone. He was thankful, at least, that he’d done a small test run of his ideas instead of just giving out a command. It was an odd thing, to be congratulating himself for not accidentally destroying the whole world, but it seemed almost par for the course when it came to being Santa.

“Matilda, why are elves so bad at understanding the consequences of their actions?” he asked.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” she said. “We understand the consequences of our actions better than most humans do.”

“Yet that elf back there was perfectly ready to give a little girl a device that would have left her essentially brain dead, unless I had a gross misunderstanding of what he said.” He looked down the hallway. “But actually, the more I think about it, he did understood what his device would do, he just didn’t care. Or he cared, but he didn’t share the same value system that I do. Matilda, tell me, are elves capable of understanding the value system of a human? Not just any human, but me?”

“No,” she replied. She had a pensive look on her face. “There was a time when we thought that we could. When Santa died without a successor, we decided that Santa should be elected from among the elves. The elf’s body was modified to take on the proper appearance, the bones stretched and flesh stitched onto him. Kelvin told you about the Black Death?” Charles nodded. “Well, that was the result of our attempts to do everything ourselves. There was a disagreement among the elves about whether the Black Death was contradictory to the Christmas spirit – in the counter-CS set, as you say. We had a civil war over it, and the anti-Plague side won. In the wake of that we adopted a human Santa.”

“Ah,” said Charles. “Well, I haven’t given up on making the world a better place, not that easily.”

“Of course,” replied Matilda.

“Where’s Kelvin?” he asked. “I was given to understand that he was sort of in charge of things around here? They said he was unavailable.”

“He died while we were adapting your rooms to be the focal point of the time field,” said Matilda. “I was selected as his replacement.”

“He died?” asked Charles. “From an accident, or – how long did that take?”

“Sixty-three subjective years,” said Matilda.

“Why do you still look the same?” asked Charles. “You stepped outside of time while they worked on it? Why didn’t Kelvin?”

“We couldn’t step outside time,” she replied. “Not while work was being done on the fields, not if we wanted to keep you isolated from time as well. We lived it, and Kelvin was already fairly old as far as elves go.”

“And yet you remain the same,” said Charles slowly. It was slowly beginning to dawn on him that he really shouldn’t have done anything before he had enough information.

“You said that you didn’t want me to die,” said Matilda. “So I won’t die. Did you want me to age? Female elves don’t normally, that was something the last Santa decided on. He didn’t like the way we looked when we got older. We just die at sixty years old, normally.”

“You – all the elves have the ability to be immortal, and just haven’t done it?” asked Charles. “That’s insane. It’s not just that I don’t want you to die, I don’t want any of the elves to die. If you can stop all the elves from aging, do it. Wait, sorry, stop them from aging only once they’ve reached whatever age the elves are when they stop growing.” He thought about that for a few more minutes, and hoped that he hadn’t just made a major mistake. “How immortal are the both of us?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” asked Matilda. She’d written a letter as they walked and handed it off to a runner. The elves worked quickly, Charles would give them that. No doubt all the elves would be immortal within the span of a few days. It was almost frightening.

“There are different levels of immortality, the way I see it. Sometimes immortal means that you just don’t age, sometimes it means that you can’t die from internal problem, so I mean … if I were shot through the heart, what would happen?” he asked.

“The flesh would regenerate,” she replied. “Nothing short of a complete vaporization of your body would kill you, and assuming that the North Pole wasn’t also destroyed we would restore you from backup if you were killed.”

Charles came to a full stop in the middle of the hallway, and the coterie of elves that moved with them respectfully stopped as well.

“What?” he asked. “You have a backup of me?”

“The last Santa demanded it,” she said. “It’s part of how we run Christmas Day anyway. The process was too tedious for a human if they had to physically deliver presents to every household. So instead we make duplicates of Santa, send them out, and then selectively merge the experiences down into a representative sample. If we didn’t, then after only a single Christmas you would have spent the vast majority of your life delivering presents, which the human mind apparently can’t take. It was trivial to adapt the same techniques to recreate our Santa in the event of his death.”

“I wasn’t told that,” said Charles. “Kelvin, he showed me the room with the sleigh and the reindeer – you’re saying that on Christmas Day you make copies of me and send them out to do the Santa work, going down chimneys and delivering presents?”

“More or less,” said Matilda. “When the duplicates came back, the old Santa liked to fight to the death with them, and the survivor was -“

“New rule,” said Charles. “Please don’t tell me what the old Santa used to do unless I explicitly ask you. It keeps making me feel sick.”

“Okay,” said Matilda.

“Come with me,” he said. “I’m going back to my room to think for a bit.”

It was a full day later when he finally had his proposal for the elves.

“I want Li Xiu Yang to be given a gift that will leave her permanently physically healthy, uninjured, and with a mental state that is within three sigmas of normal for her age, gender, and culture. I want her to be free from any disability or degradation of any of her senses, organs, or other body parts. Whatever solution you give should age her at the normal rate until her twentieth birthday, at which point she should cease to age.”

The elf gave him a funny look, then began to shape the ball of grey goop. Three minutes later, he presented Charles with a small pebble.

“This is it?” he asked. “And it won’t turn her into some kind of monster, or cause her unbearable pain, or anything like that?”

The elf sighed and took the pebble back, then after a few moments of reconstruction handed it back to Charles.

“Well, that certainly inspired confidence,” he said dryly. “I’m only allowed to deliver presents on Christmas?” asked Charles.

“Yes,” said Matilda. “Santa doesn’t leave the North Pole except for a single day, or when he passes on the mantle.”

“So if I wanted to use this one child as a testbed, I would have to deliver the gift to her in 2013 and then wait until Christmas of 2014 to give the rest of the children their own version, assuming that everything went well?” he asked.

“That’s more or less correct,” said Matilda. “You’re worried that the gift doesn’t match your intent?”

“Of course I am,” said Charles. “And I know that you don’t have the ability to actually model my intent, because otherwise things would already be as perfect as I want them to be. Alright, I guess that I’ll choose the immortality pebble as a gift for a random sample of a hundred children and see how it goes. It’s hardly what I would call ethical, but the only way around that would be to get consent, and since they’re children I don’t see how that would be possible. At least I’m doing more than the last Santa did.”

“He is a worse man than you,” said Matilda.

“Wait, sorry,” said Charles. “Is? He’s still alive?”

“Oh yes,” said Matilda.

“I’d thought – he said that he would fade away, that he’d been Santa for long enough,” said Charles. He had assumed that was the truth, even after hearing about all of the things the man had done. He hadn’t even really thought about it, just somehow assumed that the man was done with doing terrible things, that he’d chosen death. “That was a lie, he lied to me.”

“Yes,” said Matilda.

Charles groaned. “Shit.”

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