A First Christmas

The offices in the Cerberus Solutions were dark at this time of night. The Christmas shutdown had sent everyone home, to friends or family or favorite bars — somewhere warm, somewhere familiar, somewhere welcoming, for those employees who had one. A few people didn’t have that luxury: the cleaning crew were still here, making one last round now that the staff had left. And the data center was still up and operational, of course, staffed by some nameless, unpaid intern who was willing to give up the holidays in return for an extra line on his resumé.

Sandrijn badged herself into the door. She’d worked today. End year performance reports, feedback surveys, and what not. Whether to schedule a ‘year end’ event or a ‘New Year’ meeting. She’d sent out Christmas cards to all the employees — or, rather, had Lucy do it for her. Smile. Shake hands. Merry Christmas.

“Good evening, Mrs…” The intern looked down at his screen, at the personnel authorization info that flashed there. “…DeJaegher.”

She corrected him, like she did everyone else. “It’s ‘Ms.’ Get me a VR headset?”

He did, without asking what it was for. She flashed him an award-winning smile that was, for once, mostly sincere. Sanneke seated herself at a console and jacked into the high-speed port, slipping the unwieldy device over her head.

“Microphone test. One-two. One-two.”

He gave her a thumbs up; audio good.

“Patch me in to the Playroom, please.”

Still no questions, as he nodded and started typing at the control terminal. Bright boy, this one; he might actually get somewhere, knowing when not to stick his nose into things.

She pressed the button on the side of the visor, and the transparent material went black. A moment later a room faded into existence: the bedroom of a young child, with a twin-sized bed and various furniture, decked out with everything from Toy Story and Brave to Spongebob and Mickey Mouse. There was a fairly good balance of ‘boys’ versus ‘girls’ in the decor, fitting for who lived there: a seven-year old child standing next to the neatly made bed.

Sanneke smiled. In the virtual simulation, her avatar did the same. “Good morning, Pazuzu.”

“It is nineteen-hundred hours and eight minutes, British Standard Time. You are supposed to say ‘good evening’.”

Pazuzu was a little girl today: Caucasian with shoulder-length, wavy dark brown hair and hazel eyes. It varied, depending on which cartoons or shows it’d been watching most recently. The IMP didn’t have a gender, per se: it was a sentient computer program, of a sort. A lifeform — demonic, technically — that consisted of and lived the world of bits and bytes and binary code.

“Well, then.” She knelt down, bringing herself more to the IMP’s level. She’d been the one who’d managed to make a connection with it, the one who’d introduced it to the concept of ‘friends’. And despite the occasional temper tantrum or 2AM emergency, it was working out well. “My apologies, and good evening.”

The bedroom was Cerberus modeled, but Paz could and did rearrange and change it from time to time. So, with her superuser access to the simulation, could Sanneke. She pulled up a list of backdrops in the private GUI, went into her personal saved selections, and pulled up the one she’d prepared earlier: “Traditional American Christmas”. The bedroom was replaced with a living room: hardwood floors, a large couch, area rugs. A flatscreen TV hung on the wall. On the far side a fireplace flickered and popped with embers of burning logs, and a safe distance away was a small Scotch pine, decorated with ornaments and tinsel done in silver and blue. Twinkling white Christmas lights peeked out from between the branches. There were no presents underneath, but a stocking did hang on the wall: red and white, with green glitter letters that spelled out the demon’s name.

“What’s this?” Pazuzu queried, in an American accent. Most of the children’s shows were American-made, and the little girl spoke accordingly.

“Christmas. You’ve seen shows about Christmas, haven’t you?”

Another selection, from the ‘Accessories’. An end table appeared next to the couch, with two gaudy holiday mugs. One had coffee; one hot chocolate with marshmallows.

“No.” The hazel eyes went slightly unfocused. She got that look when accessing the stores of information behind the code. A moment later she focused again. “Christmas: a Christian religious holiday marking the supposed birth of the Messiah. December 25th. That’s not until after-tomorrow.” A look around at the walls and decor. “Why is there no birthday cake, then?”

“Birthdays for people who aren’t alive are celebrated differently,” she responded, taking a seat on the couch and gesturing the little girl over. “And Christmas is more than that, now.”

“Oh.” Another momentary pause, as Pazuzu’s mind wandered. “Santa and elves and reindeer?”

“Exactly.”

“What does that have to do with Christianity?” She flounced over, a little skip in her step, and bounced up onto the sofa. Pazuzu had clothed its avatar in blue jeans and a navy tshirt with a Transformers logo. The impression of a human child was so spot-on that Sanneke had to bite her lip against a laugh.

“Well… ah…” That was a damned good question. “It’s also a secular holiday, for spending time with family and friends and people you care about.”

“Oh. And we’re friends, right? Like Vanelope and Ralph, right?”

“Exactly. Just like Wreck-It Ralph. And friends spend time together, right?” She gave the girl a little bump with her shoulder, smiling down at her. “I thought we’d watch a movie about Christmas. An older one, a classic. Have you seen “It’s a Wonderful Life”?”

She giggled at the bump, and then gave a little bounce where she sat. “No.”

“Would you like to?”

“Sure.”

“Allez, we’ll do that, then. Hot chocolate?” She picked up the mug, offering it over.

“Thank you.” Paz was learning manners, too. Like any seven year old, it was hit and miss, but it was one thing Sanneke had been fairly strict on. No manners, no rewards. Tiny hands cradled the mug, and she looked over the edge at the mini-marshmallows floating on top. “What does ‘allez’ mean? That isn’t in the dictionary.”

Sanneke picked up her coffee, and the remote control that materialized next to it. With a click of a button — purely for show — the TV turned on, and the movie began to load from the media database.

“It’s Dutch,” she explained. “Well, Flemish. French, actually.”

A stare. A very expectant, curious stare. San settled on a summary that didn’t involve two hundred years of Belgian linguistic history.

“‘Allez’ is a French word. But the Flemish people — Flemish is a version of Dutch that people speak in Belgium — also use it, but when we use it, it means something different.”

“Why do people speak different languages?”

That did make her laugh. “That’s… complicated. Maybe we can talk about it another time?” She motioned towards the TV screen, where the title credits were beginning to roll.

Paz nodded and scooted closer, leaning up against Sanneke’s shoulder, and slurped the hot chocolate. Several of the tiny marshmallows disappeared. “Where did all the color go?” she asked, pointing to the TV screen.

“This is an old film.” Sanneke laid one arm around the girl’s shoulders, hugging her close. “Old films are sometimes in black and white.”

“Why?”

“Because video technology back then couldn’t record or reproduce color.”

“Who’s that guy?”

“Jimmy Stuart, I think. Watch the movie, dear.”

“He’s dressed funny.”

“That was fashion back then.”

“When?”

“The 1940s, in America.”

“North or South?”

“North. United States. Let’s watch the movie.”

“Oh. How come–”

“Paz.”

“What?”

“Watch the movie, dear.”

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