Christmas Day in deep space…
Del Travis was an inelegant man dressed in elegant clothes: the uniform of the United Earth Space Corps. His beard had been in a fight with his breakfast and lost, and his fingernails were always grimy. Travis and his crew of three were standing in the mess hall of Nation 8, an early-warning satellite that kept more than a thousand computerized eyes and ears pointed towards Dalek territory.
“It’s not good news,” he said to audible groans. “One of us is a Dalek agent.”
Hewitt took a step backwards and shook his head. Andrews steadied herself on a table edge. Higgins, meanwhile, looked suddenly queasy.
“How are we going to expose this agent?” asked Hewitt. Their Science Officer was not one for beating around the bush.
“A test,” said Travis.
“A test?” Hewitt replied, his brow furrowing, “There is no test other than Briggs-Davies and only Villa was trained for that.”
They were still waiting for authorization from Earth Central for fresh training for at least one of their number. It was expensive and, at a time of austerity and deep cuts, would not necessarily be forthcoming despite the potential cost in lives.
“I’ll explain it all,” Travis said, “over Christmas dinner.”
His crew glanced at each other furtively, perhaps wondering if the isolation of deep space had sent Travis over the edge. Then their fears rushed to the surface, voices colliding in a great babbling mess.
“The Daleks…” Travis roared, before continuing in a more measured way, “…have taken everything from us. Our homes, our families and any semblance of a normal life. And they’re not having Christmas too.”
“And this test?” said Andrews.
“Should wait,” said Travis. “You’ll have to trust me.”
“And if you’re the Dalek agent?” said Hewitt.
It was a fair question. After all, any of them could be the agent and, indeed, might not even be consciously aware of the fact.
“Well then, I’d like to enjoy my Christmas dinner before I exterminate you all.”
“Ho, ho, bloody ho,” Higgins said.
“I want to eat too much in the company of my nearest and dearest, which is you lot, embarrass myself by drinking too much and pull some crackers with jokes in them that are so unfunny they might as well have been written by Daleks. This might be my last Christmas and so I’m going to enjoy it, and you should too.”
The table in the centre of the mess hall had places set and was strewn with the ephemera of Christmas: crackers, tinsel and paper hats. They humoured Travis and sat down to eat, and watched each other like hawks. And then – despite the screens in every room monitoring the Dalek fleet, a reminder of the near-constant danger of attack – something magical happened: They began to relax. There was food, there was drink, there were songs, there were jokes and everything was going well until…
“The only good Dalek is a dead Dalek,” Andrews was saying, after draining a full-to-the-brim glass of whisky. “They should be killed, wiped out, exterminated, exterminated, EXTERMINATED!”
Everyone stopped dead.
Travis saw Higgins, sitting next to him, put a hand on her side-arm. Quick as a flash, he reached down too and plucked a cracker from the table.
“Pull it,” he said to Andrews.
The tension was palpable.
“Pull it,” he said again.
The cracker was pulled. The joke inside, as is ever the case with crackers, was told and was spectacularly unfunny. They all laughed and then, after the laughter had died down, Travis spoke.
“That was the test.”
Three quizzical faces looked back at him.
“When was the last time you laughed at a joke in a Christmas cracker?” he asked. “The Daleks programmed us to pretend to be human… But their knowledge of us, as great as it is, is flawed. They can’t understand something truly human, like a sense of humour.”
“Christmas cracker jokes are never funny. The don’t work but we tell them anyway because of… The connection? The ritual? They’re the only thing in the universe more confusing to Daleks than a joke, because they’re a joke that doesn’t work. The Daleks’ programming forced us to laugh anyway. It recognized the structure of a joke and provided what it thought was an appropriate response.”
He stopped for a moment before continuing.
“Any of us could be the Dalek agent and not know it. Or all of us. We all laughed. It’s all of us. We’re Dalek agents.”
Travis’s forehead was beginning to throb. He wondered if his colleagues were feeling the same. He noticed that Higgins’ hands, white-knuckled, were grasping the edge of the table and that her face was contorting, as though she were in pain.
Events began to move very quickly. A phalanx of Dalek ships – illuminated on the screen in the mess hall – veered away from the main fleet and towards Nation 8. Andrews pulled her gun and pressed it against Travis’s forehead, but didn’t pull the trigger. Hewitt closed her eyes and began to sing I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday – oddly she seemed to be most in control.
Travis felt something push against the back of his eyes. He noticed a crack appearing on Higgins’ forehead as she slammed her fists repeatedly onto the table.
They were all resisting the Daleks’ influence in their own way. One of those ways, Travis suspected, was more effective than the others. And so:
“Well, I wish it could be Christmas everyday…” he sang, joining in with Hewitt for the chorus. As did Andrews, who still had her gun trained on Travis as the latter stood up, walked over to and flipped open an auxiliary control panel on the wall. Momentarily, Higgins joined in the singing through tears of pain.
Travis’s fingers danced across the keyboard of the control panel. Alien digits poured themselves onto the screen in front of him as the Daleks fought for control of Nation 8. He activated the self-destruct.
“60, 59, 58…” a voice intoned.
Too late, Travis saw that the sensory equipment of Nation 8 was turning towards Space Corps territory and that the Daleks had locked him out of controlling that function. The countdown was long enough…
“55, 54, 53…”
…to gather strategic information, beamed directly into the databanks of military protocol Daleks. There was, however, one thing that Travis could do. Working quickly, he narrowed the parameters of the search. The focus now was on one word and everything connected to it.
He sat back, closed his eyes and sang.
Moments later, Nation 8 exploded.
Deep in the Dark Archives of Skaro, there are forbidden accounts of Dalek insurgence. One tells of a group of Daleks who broke away to spread good-will to all other species. They are spoken about, only at the highest levels of the military and in hushed tones, as one example of the infectious threat of human values. And, specifically, the threat posed by the human ritual of Christmas.