“Conductor, come in please.” The Boss sat down in his overstuffed chair behind his ancient oak desk and grunted a little as he did so. A chuckle escaped his lips, “Oh ho ho this weight is just a little much sometimes.” He reached over and turned on the desk lamp and brushed loose snow off his lists and various sheaves of brightly colored paper.
The Conductor carefully entered. Horribly intimidated by this jolly gentleman he took his hat off holding it in both hands. “Sir, are we going out tonight?”
The man behind the desk sighed with a mix of irritation and fatigue. He looked through low brows at the sharply dressed man across the desk from him. Uniform impeccable, mustache perfectly trimmed, even his glasses gleamed with their cleanliness. He was a credit to the system and just as important as himself. His face softened suddenly and he smiled at the Conductor. “You know it must.”
The Conductor sat down in an equally overstuffed visitor’s chair. “Sir, I understand how all of this works but I can’t help but ask every year.” He fidgeted with his hat.
“I know. But really I wish you’d stop. No one wants this but it must be done.” He sat back knowing what was coming. The same act had been played out dozens of times so far.
“Can’t we change how we do things? We’ve been doing things this way for a long time and I think we should make some changes. We should have enough, elves, for our needs. We don’t need more.” He leaned forward insistently.
“We do not have enough elves. We never have enough elves. We lost over three hundred this year alone and last year we didn’t replace those losses. What you do is not only necessary to the success of the mission but the only way we can have enough workers.”
“They are so young.”
“I am aware of this!” The frustration and pressure of the nearness of the hour burned through his good cheer. “Just do the job given to you Conductor and do it well!”
The Conductor stood up. His face hard at first the suddenly softening. Across the desk the man dressed from head to foot in red looked back, sudden weariness in his eyes. “We must do what we must do sir.” The Conductor turned smartly and marched out of the office.
Santa watched the open door he had left for a long time before reaching over to his desk and picking up the watch setting in a golden cradle. Opening it he saw it was nearly time to begin the final preparations. He stood and walked through the door onto the long gangway that was suspended over the assembly floor. He walked half the gangway’s length to the launching pad and leaned over to look down.
Below the thin and emaciated elves toiled away with the hard lumps of clay. From this tough and difficult medium the elves created all the toys and gifts that he took to the world. Only they could do it, they mined the clay from deep under the North Pole with frigid hands. Their life force poured into the clay to mold it and activate it so it became everything and anything it needs to be.
It kills them. He looked down and saw the thinnest and new it would be their last Christmas. Knew they would barely be able to finish the orders and wrapping. When he got home tomorrow night there would be dozens lying on the floor instead of in their bunks having died where they stood.
He heard footsteps on the gangway and turned to face the Conductor again. “All is ready Sir; the simulacra have been picked up and loaded. We will be setting out shortly. Wish us luck.” With that he nodded and turned to head towards the switchback stairs that would take him to the station and his train.
He bent over the rail again to look down on the elves. Even eighty feet above their little bodies he could identify several who would die soon. The sound of the train’s whistle sounded and it began its slow passage through the workshop floor. The workers stopped and looked up at it with forlorn faces knowing soon their numbers would be added to with fresh children that would transform into elves by sunrise. He knew they all could remember their former lives. He knew they still loved him even as he looked down on them and worked them to death.
He turned and walked to the other side of the gangway and watched as the Polar Express made its way out the great gate into the frigid cold. He signed again, weighted with hundreds of years of work finished and hundreds of years of work yet to do.