This Christmas tree walks into a bar…
It didn’t exactly walk. It was more of a lopsided sway, veering awkwardly from one end of the room to the other, leaning over at an angle, as if drunk. The room was about the size of an average function room, with a decently stocked drinks counter and serving area taking up the rear wall. Currently it was adorned with a few sprigs of holly and tinsel among the glowing bar taps, while the ceiling hung with coloured streamers fixed with sticky tape. Awkwardly, the tree made its way to the far corner, next to where the counter ended. Having unceremoniously plonked itself down, it was suddenly still, just before a breathless and somewhat dishevelled Sergeant Benton emerged from behind it.
“That should do it,” he said, rather hoping that people would be impressed or grateful, and feeling faintly disappointed when nobody was. “Just needs a bit of tinsel.”
“I’ll have to do that later,” said Jan, an admin clerk in her late twenties who worked the bar in the evenings to help pay the rent, and who was currently fastening a large paper lantern to the underside of a light fixture. “Or you can do it, if you can find any.”
“Any chance of a drink first?”
“Bar’s not open until three. So no.” From where she was perched, Jan tipped him a wink. “I might let you buy me one later, though.”
Pleased at this, Benton smoothed down his uniform, brushing out what pine needles he could. He looked around the bar. It really did look rather festive, budget considered. The wall was emblazoned with a haphazard zig-zag of fairy lights. Paper lanterns were fixed to the window jambs. And Benton spotted a crocheted nativity set over by the buffet table. He was so busy admiring Jan’s handiwork he missed the sound of boots on lino and the sudden entrance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who had come into the room by the same door he had.
“Come along, Sergeant,” he barked, not unkindly. “You can do your standing about later when the guests have left. There’s still work to be done.”
“Right you are, sir.” Benton adjusted his poise just a little, enough to make it sufficiently formal without snapping to unnecessary attention. “What time are we expecting them?”
“In about twenty minutes.” He was making biro marks on a clipboard, only half listening to the conversation. “Yates is still unloading the gifts; go and give him a hand, would you?”
The Brigadier beheld his man. “And for God’s sake, Benton, do something about that tie.”
Just outside, Captain Mike Yates was carrying the third of a series of particularly heavy cardboard boxes through from the loading bay. The boxes had arrived that morning, by special overnight delivery, presumably at considerable expense. The words UNIT CHILDREN’S PARTY had been scrawled in thick black marker down the side of each, along with DO NOT OPEN UNTIL APPOINTED TIME! Yates’ grip on this particular box was, as it turned out, not quite as strong as it needed to be, and as he ambled through from the bay, it began to slip from his grasp and topple forward. Frantically, Yates grabbed a hand round the front to stop the heavy container from falling, but his knees were beginning to buckle, and the container looked certain to fall.
It was saved, as luck would have it, by a pair of delicately manicured hands who grasped the underside of the box when it was about three feet from the floor. Yates looked round. The hands were attached to a pretty young lady dressed as an elf.
“Thanks, Jo,” grunted Yates, trying not to make it obvious that he was getting his breath back.
She shot him a cheeky grin. “One too many down the Dog & Duck last night, was it?”
“I’ll have you know these boxes are extremely heavy,” the captain replied as the two of them lowered it carefully to the stone floor. “Heaven knows what’s inside them.”
“Heaven, and Father Christmas, I suppose,” Jo mused. “You know, we could take a peek.”
Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party. All part of the magic, apparently.”
“Says our mysterious benefactor.”
Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat. “Let me help.”
“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”
She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself.”
“You’re right. And I apologise.” Yates stood, adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”
“Where did they come from, anyway?” asked Jo as the two of them hefted the box and carried it, with some difficulty, through the warehouse. “Did they just turn up?”
“Not exactly, no. We had a leaflet through the post advertising children’s Christmas parties. You pick a venue of choice, decorate it and lay on a buffet, and then they do everything else. Impeccable references, first rate reviews.”
“Hardly our sort of thing, though, surely?”
“It was going in the bin,” Yates admitted, “but then someone high up in Whitehall suggested we use them. Something about UNIT’s media profile, and how it would work wonders.”
“And what did the Brigadier have to say about that?”
“Between you and me, he wasn’t exactly thrilled. But he’s toeing the line.”
“Well, I didn’t even know we had a media profile,” said Jo, incredulously. “I thought we were a secret government organisation.”
“I suppose times change,” Yates replied, “and we have to change with them.”
He tucked in his shirt. “By the way. Where’s our resident mad scientist?”
Jo’s lips instinctively compressed into a pout. “If you’re referring to the Doctor, he’s currently in his laboratory, where I have a feeling he’s going to be staying for the rest of the afternoon.”
Yates grinned. “Not really the party-going type, then?”
“I’ve never really got that impression, no.”
“Go and see if you can dig him out, Jo. If nothing else, it’ll make the boss happy, and my life easier.”
The door to the Doctor’s laboratory was ajar, but the door to the TARDIS was closed. Jo looked round the empty room and then to the battered blue box, and concluded he must be inside it. The TARDIS was still very much out of action, although it occurred to Jo as she gingerly tried the door that she had never actually seen it in action, and thus its status as a dust magnet, or a colossal white elephant, or a piece of grotesque modern art, was actually its default state, at least as far as she was concerned. Even the times when it had worked, the times they had been to Uxarieus or Peladon, it had either been an accident or the machine had been under the control of a foreign body – the Doctor’s own people, the ones he called the Time Lords. The Doctor insisted he had the ability to control the TARDIS, or at least used to have it, before it was taken, but there were days when Jo wondered whether he wasn’t simply making it all up as he went along.
She trod softly into the large white room, and immediately saw a pair of dress boots lying flat on the floor, shifting and scraping the floor as their occupant tinkered underneath the TARDIS console. Jo could hear the hum of a sonic screwdriver, the whirr of machinery and, just occasionally, the fizzling crack of an electrical spark. He was fixing it, she realised, in much the same way that one would fix a car.
Aware of a presence in the room, the Doctor suddenly announced “For the fifth time, Brigadier, I’ve told you I’m not going.”
“Oh, please.” She bent over the console and tilted her head underneath, giving him one of her most dazzling smiles. Puppy dogs and sweet little girls with pigtails. “For me?”
“Hello Jo,” said the Doctor, pausing in his mechanics and looking over at her. “You’re not who I expected. But what on earth are you doing in that ridiculous get-up?”
“Do you like it?” Jo flounced across the TARDIS and did a little twirl as the Doctor slid out from underneath the console and got ceremoniously and somewhat ungracefully to his feet. “I bought it from a little shop in Carnaby Street. Fancy dress.”
“Yes, well, I’m sure you make a charming elf,” muttered the Doctor, as he smoothed his jacket. “Although it’s probably a good thing we’re not heading in the direction of the Clusters of Matroxia.”
“Oh? Don’t they like elves?”
“They are elves. And they’d probably find that outfit culturally insensitive. You’d likely be lynched on the spot.”
“Oh, Doctor, why are you so grumpy?” Jo had her hands on her hips and had set her interaction template to ‘Defiant’ mode. “I mean, seriously, it’s Christmas!”
“Yes. All that tinsel and over-indulgence. You must understand, it’s really not my idea of a good time, Jo.”
“I suppose next you’re going to lecture me about how it was a Pagan festival stolen by the Christians?”
“On the contrary. The Pagans stole it from the Wallamis. They were a visiting colonial tribe from Proxa Centauri. There’s always a connection if you know where to look.” The Doctor wiped his hands on an oily rag, which he placed in an important-looking spot on the TARDIS console; Jo made a mental note to move it later. “No, I just can’t stand all the merriment and false jollity. The human race unites around the dinner table for one day in the year, and then the other three hundred and sixty-four, it’s back to barbarism and butchery.”
“You know,” she said, “I sometimes wonder whether Charles Dickens had you in mind when he wrote the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. I imagine you’ve met him, haven’t you?”
The Doctor looked almost abashed. “Well. Not yet.”
“There you are!” Jo pointed a finger and jumped up and down on the spot, delighted. “I knew I’d find a smile in there somewhere. Oh, do come to the party, Doctor. Sergeant Benton’s promised to serenade us with his duck whistle.”
“Really? Well, I suppose I can’t miss that…”
The party was in, if not quite full swing, the sort of steadily gathering momentum that one gets when the swing is just building height, perhaps when the sense of gravity is kicking in and one can feel the beginnings of a breeze. There was a contented milling in the bar area, where UNIT troops chatted with their wives – or, if they were unattached, the girls from the typing pool – as Jan served drinks and in the background Brenda Lee sang about the joys of rocking around the Christmas tree. Not that you could. It was beset with gifts, piled high in a ramshackle quarry of cardboard and glittery paper, each parcel tied with ribbon, forming an inelegant red lattice across the heap of identical packages.
“There’s more toys here than we’d ever have needed,” observed Yates, who was in a corner of the room with the Brigadier. “Must be a hundred. And yet there’s no more than forty children.”
“Yes.” The Brigadier rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It is odd. You did tell them approximate numbers?”
“Absolutely, sir. I suppose they must have erred on the side of caution.”
“Perhaps,” the Brigadier agreed. “Well, I’m sure they’ll take the rest with them when they leave. Speaking of which, is our Santa on the premises yet?”
“Security buzzed him in a couple of minutes ago,” said Yates, downing the last of the shandy the Brigadier had made him drink (“Soft stuff only, Yates, at least until the children have gone”) and checking his watch. “We’ll have him in here imminently.”
“Excellent.” Inwardly, Yates was chuckling to himself. His superior was making an effort, but was clearly bored out of his skull. The Brigadier was never really one for social affairs. He attended them without fuss or complaint, but those who knew him also knew he frequently found them awkward. Never one to shy away from responsibility or duty, he nonetheless felt – as most people did, perhaps – that there were some duties and responsibilities that were easy to undertake than others, and the truth of things was that for all the occasional pomp and circumstance that came from being the man who called the shots, Lethbridge-Stewart was always going to be happier with a gun in his hand, doing the shooting himself.
“Mind you,” added Yates, replacing his glass on the unpolished table, which wobbled beneath it, “We do seem to have an unexpected guest in our midst.”
He nodded in the direction of the doorway, through which an equally awkward-looking Doctor could be seen, with a smiling elf following just behind. She was carrying a red hat in her hand.
The Brigadier’s face curled into a smile. “Doctor!” he beamed, with just a touch of smugness. “What a very pleasant surprise.”
“He won’t wear the hat,” complained Jo, twisting it into a tourniquet around her wrist. “But at least I got him away from his lab for a while.”
“With the greatest reluctance, I might add,” said the Doctor, somewhat frostily. “Really, Brigadier, is my presence at this shindig of yours strictly necessary?”
“Not at all, Doctor. Neither is mine, come to that.” The Brigadier had always been good at remaining calm and placid in the face of the Doctor’s outspoken brashness, Yates observed, and today was no exception. “But necessary doesn’t come into it. You know as well as I do that Whitehall asked us to do this. Minister Rhodes was very insistent. Said it’d be good for the papers.”
“The papers.” The Doctor scoffed. “My dear fellow, since when do you care about what’s in the national news?”
“I don’t. But I also know when an argument is not worth pursuing.” The Brigadier took another sip from his glass. “You know, Doctor, the secret to a reasonably successful military career is knowing precisely when to pick one’s battles.”
“Well, seeing as I’m here,” the Doctor said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting to make use of me? Organising games for the children? Flap the fish? Pass the parcel? Pin the tail on the Axon?”
“Not at all. In fact, that’s all accounted for. Our visiting Father Christmas is laying on a whole entertainment package. His company gave us the works – for a reasonable fee, of course. They promised the sort of party we’d remember for a lifetime.”
“Father Christmas doesn’t usually do all that,” offered Jo, her brow slightly furrowed. “He normally just turns up and gives out the presents and goes.”
“I really wouldn’t know,” admitted the Brigadier, who had to his own great shame played the role of a largely absent parent during his daughter’s upbringing. “But in any case I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
Famous last words, Yates thought, although he hadn’t consumed quite enough shandy to dare say it aloud.
Daisy was bored. It wasn’t much of a party. They hadn’t even had jelly. She had asked again and again if she could go home, but her mum always kept saying “Hush, we’ll go home later”, before fluffing her hair and talking to that radar operator with the glasses who Daisy didn’t like.
They had cleared the makeshift dance floor and turned off the record player and the UNIT staff were either milling around the bar or spilling out into the lobby outside, nibbling on vol-au-vents and shop-bought mince pies, and unfolding the paper hats from crackers. Those with children – and there were a good number – were in the process of shepherding them into a queue of sorts, in age order, which caused a fight between the Mulrooney twins who couldn’t agree on which of them had been born first, and they snaked around the bar and then out through the back door, which had annoyed Perkins the caretaker as it was a fire door and it really ought to be kept shut, and besides didn’t they know it was his cleaning cupboard and that was where he kept the bleach?
Daisy took it all in as she stood in line behind people she didn’t know and waited for things to happen. It seemed to be taking ages. She looked down at her feet: the shoes were patent leather with pink bows and they pinched, but mum had said she had to wear them. She was just about to start singing the alphabet in her head, purely to pass the time, when at the other end of the room there was a commotion, as if someone important had arrived.
“Boys and girls!” said a voice that sounded to Daisy like it was trying to sound more cheerful than it actually felt. “Let’s all have a big cheer for FATHER CHRISTMAS!”
At the doorway, there was a flurry of red. Daisy leaned over in the line to get a closer look, and immediately realised it was pointless, because everyone else was doing the same thing and the line was breaking up. And then he came in, a tall, fat man in a red suit, his belt buckle glistening, his polished boots going thump, thump on the linoleum. There was cheering and applause but you could just about hear him bellow “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”
Daisy looked up at his beard. She was trying to decide whether it was fake.
Five minutes later, the gift giving was in full swing. Each child had received, from the visiting Pere Noel, a single identical package, which had been handed over in exchange for the child’s solemn promise that they would not open it until Christmas Day. Father Christmas had listened to their seasonal wishes and gift requests patiently and with utter sincerity, before saying that he would certainly do his best. He seemed to be in no hurry to get rid of each child, and as such the whole process was taking some time, but the children seemed so pleased and entranced after they had finished with the bearded fat man that no one really had the heart to tell him to hurry things along.
It was all going well until they got to Daisy. She had never been the most patient of children, nor the most obedient, and she thought it was ridiculous, getting a present this early in December and then having to wait weeks to unwrap it. What was more, she didn’t care for the way that Father Christmas had looked at her – no, it wasn’t looking, it was staring, staring with those cold, piercing eyes, as if trying to read her thoughts… or somehow control them.
So she had taken his gift, muttered a “Thank you” that was as polite as she could manage considering how uncomfortable he was making her feel, and then sneaked out of the room in order to open it. Had Daisy not been so preoccupied with avoiding her mother, she might have noticed the solemn, almost glacial manner in which the children had behaved since their encounter with the bearded figure of jollity, as if they had somehow had the life sucked from them by the nozzle of Perkins’ Henry Hoover. In turn, had her mother not been so preoccupied with chatting up the radar operator, she might have noticed her sneaking out.
Daisy found a quiet corner in an unoccupied office – one that lay beyond a door that really should have been locked shut considering how many official secrets lay inside – and sat down behind a desk to open the parcel. She had taken care to hide herself from view, as she sensed that what she was doing was probably quite naughty, but that wasn’t about to stop her doing it. She picked off the ribbon with unkempt, stubby fingernails, and then tore at the brightly coloured wrapping paper, crumpling it into a ball and throwing it into a nearby waste bin.
Inside was a purple and green pentagonal box – not a solid box, but rather a cardboard casing with the middle cut away in order to house something you’d still be able to see. The something in question was a pink-grey creature, made of plastic, but covered in soft and eminently strokeable fur. The ears were pointed and bat-like, and an oval yellow beak sat above the creature’s rounded tummy. But it was the eyes that you noticed: large and long-lashed and almost sleepy-looking, as if the creature had been woken from some sort of hibernation.
“ELECTRONIC FURBY” read the inscription on the top of the box, and then, stretched across its upper rim, the words “I WILL KEEP AMAZING YOU!”
Daisy was an intelligent girl, but even so she failed to notice that the patent pending on the back of the box read 1998.
Back at the party, the Doctor and the Brigadier were in the middle of a heated debate about a proposed laboratory expansion and whether the research and development budget could possibly stretch that far. Jo was bored and restless. Benton and Yates had gone off to check the perimeter and she had no one to talk to. So she stood there, sipping a glass of white wine and trying her utmost to work out what had squeezed all the atmosphere from the room.
It was different; of that there could be no doubt. The party seemed somehow sapped of colour – not black and white, but sepia-tinted, the whitewashed tinge of faded cloth. There was a sense that people weren’t having any fun. She looked about her and tried to determine the cause. And then she saw it: the children were all too quiet. Oh, they all seemed perfectly fine, in the physical sense – there was no inkling of any sudden infection or trauma. They all sat or stood, hands clutching or resting upon the elegantly packaged gifts they had received. The gifts were still wrapped, she noted. That was odd. For a group of rowdy youngsters a couple of weeks before Christmas they were being remarkably well behaved – too much for Jo to feel entirely comfortable.
She thought she’d go for a brief walk, to try and determine the cause, and the moment she left the room she realised it was probably something to do with Father Christmas and that she really ought to investigate. Jo turned to go back in – and then something caught her eye.
It was an open office, just across the hallway, and through the window Jo thought she had seen movement behind one of the desks in the corner. It had been so brief that she thought for a moment that she must have imagined it – no, there it was again, a wisp of what looked like hair, perhaps the top of someone’s head. Jo crossed the lobby and crept in, quietly, just in case she would need to catch whoever it was in the act of doing whatever it was they were doing. She was as stealthy as a house cat – all that creeping around with the Doctor had paid off – but a couple of yards away the click of her heels finally became too loud, and the young girl she was approaching suddenly noticed, and swivelled her head in alarm.
Jo recognised that look. It was part shame, part surprise, part puzzlement. The puzzlement was winning; she looked down at the strange, clumpy thing the girl was holding and realised why. It was like no toy she’d ever seen. It was almost lifelike, although it was an unfamiliar sort of life, a foreign, almost alien presence (a passing thought, but Jo found herself rolling her eyes at it). The doll – could you even call it a doll? – sat in the child’s hand, its eyes flitting aimlessly from left to right.
“It’s Daisy, isn’t it?” asked Jo. “Is that what Father Christmas gave you?”
Mute, the child nodded.
“You couldn’t wait, I suppose,” said Jo, not unsympathetically.
A head shake. Then “Do you think he’ll be cross?”
“No, of course not,” Jo assured her, wondering if this was a white lie. “But to be on the safe side, we’ll keep it between us, shall we?”
That was when the creature’s ears wiggled and it said “Me Noo-Loo.”
Jo gave a start. “Gosh. I didn’t expect that. Does it say anything else?”
“All kinds of things,” said Daisy. “I think it’s got some sort of computer inside it.”
“You’re a very intelligent girl,” said Jo. “Can I borrow this?”
The Doctor poked at the toy with his sonic screwdriver. “And you say it was inside the package she opened?”
Jo nodded. “I wanted to show it to you because it seemed so advanced. Not like the usual things you get at a grotto.”
“Yes, well, you’re quite right there, Jo. This technology is a good fifteen or twenty years ahead of its time. It far outstrips anything mankind currently has to offer, at least in the toy market.”
She tried not to feel offended. “And I assume the same thing is in all of them?”
“I suspect it must be.”
“It is electronic, isn’t it?” Jo asked, reluctant to voice this particular fear aloud but feeling as though she must. “I wondered if it might be from another planet or something, like a tiny invasion force of miniature furry things.”
The Doctor gave her the briefest of looks, opted not to voice whatever condescending remark he had in his head out loud, and then his eyes drifted back to the creature. “Oh yes, it’s definitely artificial. Just streets ahead of the competition. Unnaturally so, I’m afraid.”
“Maybe it really is just an advanced model of something, and some toymaker got lucky,” Jo reasoned. “And this is just their way of… I don’t know, of showing off.”
“I wish I could share your optimism.” The Doctor was prodding at the Furby’s ears; it was complaining of being tickled. “No, there’s something rather underhand about all this. Perhaps if – ”
All of a sudden he tore his hand away, as if stung by a wasp.
“What’s the matter?” asked Jo?”
“It very nearly bit me.” The Doctor clutched at his hand; it didn’t appear injured, but the nursing was psychosomatic. “These things aren’t just anachronistic; they’re downright dangerous!”
“Dangerous?” Jo’s eyes widened in alarm. “But they’ve been farmed out to forty children!”
“Yes, I know. And I believe I know just who is responsible.”
The last gift had been found its way to the lucky recipient, and Father Christmas was in the process of packing up his bag. The children sat docilely around the room, unopened packages resting beside them like sleeping babies, which was an appropriate image. The parents sipped on cocktails and tried not to worry that their offspring were so unnaturally quiet, because at least they were being good, which was the only thing that counted at events like this. All of a sudden, there was a flash of green velvet at the door, and the Doctor strode in, furious, Jo hot on his heels.
“Thought you could get away with it, didn’t you?” he said. “Right under our noses to boot.”
Father Christmas turned and stared at him blankly. “I do beg your pardon?” he said, with utter politeness.
“Oh, don’t be tiresome. You show up out of nowhere and bring toys that don’t belong – toys that are significantly ahead of their time. And then you give specific instructions that they’re not to be opened until Christmas Day. Why? What’s so special about them that can’t possibly wait?”
“Merely prolonging the anticipation,” said Father Christmas, pleasantly. “The festive season is so much more fun when it’s drawn out a little, do you not think, sir?”
“I do not, sir,” replied the Doctor. “Your little disguise may have fooled most of the people here, but it certainly doesn’t fool me. I think it’s time we saw you for who you really are.”
With a flourish, he reached out a hand and yanked at the white beard.
It stayed on.
The portly saint appeared to have lost a lot of his jollity. His exact words were “Ow!”
Frowning, the Doctor tugged again. “I don’t see how – ”
The beard stretched a little, but remained attached. “Perhaps it’s the glue,” the Time Lord muttered. He had been so sure. He now appeared to be making a spectacle of himself; at least that was the impression Jo got from the small crowd that was gathering around to see what on Earth was going on. Even the children had left their parcels and had made their way over to the edge of the room, near the Christmas tree and the Father Christmas and the grumpy man who seemed to be trying to pull off his beard.
“Really, Doctor,” fussed the Brigadier, pushing his way to the front of the crowd. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“It’s all a trick, Brigadier,” the Doctor insisted, although even he was no longer quite sure. “These toys – the ones in the packages – are from the future. Years ahead of their time.”
“Really?” said the Brigadier, his eyebrow up. “The toys that weren’t supposed to be opened?”
“Yes, well, one of them was. And it’s a good thing too. There’s something quite sinister going on, and this man here – this bearded charlatan – is nothing but an imposter!”
Several of the children had started to cry. Father Christmas looked rather put out. “Really, my dear sir, I think it’s time we brought these outlandish claims to a halt. For one thing, you’re frightening the children.”
The Brigadier frowned. Something about the man’s voice had struck a chord. No, not his voice. The words he had used. There was something precise about them, something measured, as if each word had been strategically positioned. For a man accused of being a fake, he was all too rational, and the Brigadier was beginning to realise where he’d seen this sort of thing before. He turned his attention to the Doctor. “You have proof?”
“Here, Brigadier.” Jo had the Furby in her hands; she passed it over to the Brigadier, who turned it over and over in his. “Well, yes,” he said. “It’s all very nice, but I don’t see – ”
“And furthermore,” the Doctor went on, “these toys are a dangerous menace. This one even went so far as to bite me.”
The Brigadier looked to Jo for confirmation, which was given with a nod.
“In fact the only thing I don’t understand is how you’re maintaining that disguise,” said the Doctor, his attention once more back on Father Christmas. “What is it? A holo-projector? Some kind of poly-adhesive?”
“Nothing so grand, Doctor.” Father Christmas chuckled behind his beard, but all traces of warmth were gone: it was a low and sinister laugh. “Sometimes the key to solving a problem is in approaching it from a different angle.”
He pulled at the beard – but rather than pulling it down, he instead tugged it forward and then straight up in a great sweeping arc, as if he were removing a mask. For that, of course, is precisely what it was.
Beard, wrinkles, sideburns and a false nose disappeared with a schlock and the snap of latex, and a very familiar face stared out from underneath.
“Hello,” said the Master. “You know, I could murder a mince pie.”
The Brigadier was first to action. “Shut the doors!”
“I really wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the Master interjected, his voice even but characteristically threatening. “You may find yourself longing for a swift exit.”
“What’s your game?” replied the Doctor, sizing up his old enemy. “Why the elaborate ruse?”
“Oh, it’s the gifts, of course, dear Doctor.” The Master was unzipping the red suit, and removing the cushions he’d padded inside to enhance his bulk; the slimline (if getting a tad podgy round the waist, the Doctor noted) figure that was his true form lay beneath, clad in its trademark black.
“Dear God,” muttered Benton. “He must have been sweltering.”
“Whatever it is you’re planning, I must warn you that it simply won’t work. This is UNIT headquarters and you’ve been exposed. You might as well throw in the towel now.” The Doctor had his hands on his hips. “You’re outnumbered and outgunned.”
“Outgunned?” The Master tutted in mock shame. “Really, Doctor, I’m surprised at you. You usually abhor firearms.”
He turned to face Daisy, who was standing nearby, instinctively clutching the Furby to her chest. “I must confess I am a little disappointed, young lady. I had rather hoped that you would be able to resist the temptation to open it until the appointed time. I made that perfectly clear.”
Jo’s mouth dropped open as the revelation hit her. “You’ve been hypnotising them!”
“Oh, nothing so glib. Hypnotism was what I did to that unsuspecting official in Whitehall when I persuaded him to organise this insipid little gathering.” The Master had extracted two leather gloves the colour of onyx from inside his jacket and was in the process of pulling them over his wrists. “No, the children were just subjected to a little light suggestion. They’re awfully susceptible, particularly when it’s someone they trust.”
“No, Miss Grant,” said the Master with a sigh. “I am merely ambitious. One must learn to tell the difference.”
“So what were your intentions?” asked the Doctor. “Rampage across the homes of UNIT personnel with a horde of sentient carniverous dolls? Again?”
“Precisely so, Doctor. The bite you experienced was merely the tip of the iceberg, something the doll is programmed to do when someone prods them too hard. You should see what they’re capable of doing when cornered.”
“And, of course, scattered and divided, the staff would be helpless. You’d take down most of them in one fell swoop. Leaving UNIT helplessly exposed and completely incapable of dealing with whatever else it is you’ve got planned.”
The Master heaved an exasperated sigh. “Yes yes, all right. Now that we’ve got the exposition out of the way, perhaps we could continue with the business of my glorious triumph?”
All of a sudden, Jo burst into laughter. Everyone in the room turned to look at her as she doubled up, a garish elf suffering a spontaneous fit of the giggles. The Brigadier looked at her, appalled. “Really, Miss Grant, I hardly think – ”
“I’m – I’m sorry!” Jo stifled another guffaw with the back of her hand, and wiped away the tears from her eyes with the other. “But it’s just so completely ridiculous!”
“Ridiculous?” said the Master, hotly. “I’ll have you know that great care and attention went into – ”
“But it is!” she protested, still chuckling. “Crashing the UNIT Christmas party with a secret plot to take over the world with furry dolls? Dressed as Santa? In plain sight of everyone who wants you locked up? It’s a terrible plan!”
The Master glared at her. “You think so? Perhaps you’ll not find it quite so amusing when you the dolls are suddenly bigger than you.” With a flourish, he produced a small cylindrical object; it was difficult to be sure, but it was almost certainly a tissue compression eliminator.
“Just a second!” The Doctor’s voice carried so much authority that the Master paused, his hand still gripping the weapon but delayed, momentarily, from firing it. “She’s right, you know. This really isn’t up to your usual standard. What aren’t you telling us? What’s the extra layer to your duplicity?”
“It is of no consequence!” The Master seethed. “I admit that killing you would bring some fleeting satisfaction, Miss Grant, but I shall postpone your death until such a time as I may savour it. For now – ”
“You know, my dear chap, I really don’t know why you continue to think you’ve won,” interrupted the Brigadier, quite benignly. “Your cover is blown and the exits are guarded. We’ve seen a single doll; the rest will be impounded and destroyed. One doll against dozens of UNIT troops, all armed. I should think even you would struggle against those odds, don’t you?”
But the Master was smiling. “Luckily, I have a plan B.”
In a way, it was a pity that the Master had opted for arch villainy for his chosen vocation. He would have made a superb conjurer. Absolutely no one saw the concealed switch, and no one was able to fathom out how he’d produced it from inside his sleeve. Nonetheless, there it was, suddenly in his hand. He clicked it with his thumb.
A sudden shudder erupted from tables and floor space around the room, as forty parcels began to vibrate, as if their contents were fighting to get out. There was the raking of tiny beak marks along the wrapping. Then the wrapping began to tear, shredded into ragged ribbons as from inside the Furbies began to fight their way free. From every box there was a flash of wiggling ear and hairy tummy, as the dolls began to wriggle and jump clear of their cardboard packaging. And every single one of them, it was noted, looked extremely angry.
The Master was laughing. “Witness my moment of glory, Doctor!” he bellowed above the cacophony of noise. “Witness the rise of my army of Furbies!”
It was the sort of remark that would have made Jo laugh just a few minutes before, but all of a sudden it didn’t seem quite so funny. The creatures were out of their packages now, and were already raising havoc, biting and gnawing at anyone who got in their way, which was just about everyone. They had no arms, but were nonetheless able to jump reasonable distances with enough agility to avoid the desperate attempts to grab and stifle them. Their beaks were sharp and every eye glowed a deep red.
In a matter of moments, chaos reigned – but the Brigadier was already fire fighting. As soon as the packages had begun their frenzied shuddering, he had instructed Yates to remove all the children and as many of the adults as he could and get them away from the area – “Bunker down in the warehouse for now, at least until the panic’s over”. He’d then instructed Benton to go and grab as many bayonets as he could find.
“We can’t blast them,” he’d said, “at least not in here. We’ll probably hit someone. But we’ll spear the little monsters until we’ve got the lot.”
And that is precisely what they were doing now – the Brigadier and Benton and a few of the remaining privates, as they dashed to and fro across the bar and impaled as many of the Furbies as they could on the sharp end of a metal spike attached to a rifle. The creatures howled whenever they were struck – it wasn’t a pleasant noise, although it made a welcome change from the babble of nonsense language they emitted all the time they were charging, with words like “Ay-tay! Ay-tay!” and “Dee-doo-ay!”, as their ears wiggled and their beaks pecked at the ankles of their prospective assailants. There was nothing to do but stab and stab again and hope you wouldn’t get bitten. All the time he was doing this, the Brigadier was having Dad’s Army flashbacks.
“INCREASE DEFENCES!” The Master roared, and the Furby eyes stopped glowing red and began glowing white, as electrical charges zapped out from behind the pupils. They weren’t strong enough to be fatal, but they stung enough to incapacitate, as some of the unfortunate UNIT troops were currently finding out.
The Doctor and Jo, meanwhile, had taken shelter behind the bar, while the battle raged about them – Jo was doing an admirable job of dispatching would-be invaders with a metal chair, and the Doctor had only had to fend off a couple with his Venusian aikido. In between skirmishes, they were examining Daisy’s Furby, which the Doctor had co-opted for a little research. Right now, he was frantically tinkering with the screwdriver.
“From what I can tell,” the Doctor said as he fiddled with the circuitry, “they all run on the same circuit, across the same frequency. Luckily we took this one offline.”
“Is that why it’s not attacking us?” said Jo, as she whacked another advancing Furby with her chair, sending it careering across the floor and into an upended trifle.
“That’s correct. Of course, the moment I put it back online, it will. But if I can just – ”
There was a spark as he connected two wires across the Furby’s exposed chest. Its eyes flitted upwards to look at the Doctor. “Loo-loo-doo?” it said.
“There’s a good chap,” said the Doctor, kindly. “Now. I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”
He tied a red wire to a green wire and then pulled at them, and then pointed the screwdriver at the knot. There was a sudden screech, and the Furby howled in what Jo assumed was pain.
“That’s it!” the Doctor shouted across the din. “Jo! Place it up there on the bar! And cover your ears!”
Jo did. The Doctor made one more screwdriver adjustment, and then there was an ear-splitting roar that resonated across the entire room, followed by a sudden, eerie silence.
After a moment, the two of them got up. The Furbies were lying motionless, the eye sockets in each one of them blown out to expose the mechanism beneath; they looked even more grotesque, Jo thought, but she couldn’t help but pity them.
She turned to the Doctor. “What did you do?”
“Reversed the polarity, of course.”
The Master was still in the corner, and fiddling with his switch. “An amusing trick, Doctor, but it won’t be enough. You can’t do that a second time.”
“I don’t need to,” said the Doctor, brushing the smoke and dust from his jacket. “We’ve beaten them.”
“Oh yes,” said the Master. “But have you accounted for the spares?”
And then they remembered. In the midst of the battle, no one had stopped to think about the sixty extra boxes the Master had brought with him. The boxes were shuddering now, as if struck by an earthquake, rattling and vibrating like bags of jumping beans, the same pockmarks appearing at the centre of each box where the beaks were about to poke their way out.
Jo and the Doctor had come out from behind the bar, and were gazing at the scene in dismay. She clutched at his arm. “Can’t you do something?”
“Not without a working Furby,” muttered the Doctor, desperately. “But perhaps – ”
Too late. The boxes ripped and sixty pairs of red – no, white eyes were staring at them, along with three score beaks, all of them razor sharp. The Brigadier tensed, his bayonet poised for action, but he knew it was a desperate ploy, and that with so many wounded or unconscious they couldn’t hope to defeat them all.
Except here was Daisy, who suddenly came tearing across the room carrying, of all things, a pair of curtains, the really big ones from the conference room, and as she draped them over the pile of Furbies and blotted out their source of daylight they stopped climbing and appeared to hesitate, and then from beneath the curtain sixty electronic voices were suddenly heard to exclaim “Ooh. Me scared.”
There was no time to think – just react. All of a sudden, Yates – who had been right behind Daisy – was standing next to the Master, and the next thing anyone knew, the Master was lying not quite flat on the floor, slumped over the edge of some of the boxes, and Yates was uncurling the fist he’d used to knock him out and then he was throwing the Master’s control switch over to the other side of the room.
“Doctor!” he said. “Catch!”
The Doctor caught it, and then crushed it beneath the heel of his boot, and the pile of Furbies was finally still.
The Brigadier nodded his approval. “Nicely done, Yates.”
“Thank you, sir. But it was really Daisy here who saved the day. She remembered that when she was playing with the creature earlier, she’d hidden it under her coat to keep it secret, and the Furby hadn’t liked the dark. She thought it might be useful.”
“You’re a very brave young lady,” the Doctor said to her. “Your quick thinking saved us all.”
“I hope you don’t mind having to give up the doll,” added Jo.
Daisy shrugged. “It’s all right. I didn’t like him much anyway.”
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said Benton, unscrewing his bayonet.
“Only one?” asked the Doctor, his eyebrow raised.
“Well, yeah. You said the Master was up to something else. You said his plan didn’t make any sense. So what I was wondering was – ”
There was a sudden rustle of leaves. No, not leaves – needles.
“The tree!” squealed Daisy. “It’s moving!”
It was. There was not a breath of wind in the room, but somehow the tree was swaying back and forth, its pointed end billowing, the fairy on the top rocking from side to side like a passenger on a storm-tossed ferry. The needles were bristling, the spikes suddenly straightened, the baubles clattering with each other as the branches moved of their own free will. And from inside, there was a voice: “Dooocc…..tooooorrrr….”
The Doctor went pale. “No,” he whispered. “No, it can’t be…”
Jo’s eyes were on stalks. “What is it?”
“I thought we’d seen the last of you in the underground,” muttered the Doctor. “What do you want?”
“Weee waaaant…” The voice was husky, ragged, but growing in strength even as the tree began to sway faster and faster. “Weee waaaant…”
“Weee waaaant…” The tree was rippling from head to foot, as if some energy source were pulsing along its exterior. The branches quivered, and they could see, emerging now between branches, the unmistakable outline of a grinning and utterly malevolent human face, with deeply arched eyebrows and spiked teeth that fashioned themselves into a grin. “The woooooorrrrlllldddd…..”
Suddenly the Brigadier stepped forward. “Not on my watch,” he declared.
And he pulled out the concealed service revolver he’d insisted on carrying, even though it was against regulations at a civilian function, and he fired once. Twice. The third shot hit something at the tree’s base, something hidden behind a patch of greenery. It exploded, taking a large section of the trunk with it.
The tree collapsed, lifeless.
Benton looked nonplussed. “I thought it was heavy,” he said.
The Doctor seethed in annoyance and tore at his hair. He turned to Lethbridge-Stewart with an angry scowl. “That’s your answer for everything, isn’t it?”
The Brigadier placed the revolver in its holster. “My ship, Doctor. My rules.”
“But what was it?” asked a still clueless Jo, as the Doctor bent over to examine the transmitter.
“It was an interstellar perambulation unit controlled by the Great Intelligence. It’s a malevolent entity the Brigadier and I have encountered before. Apparently it was in league with the Master.”
“In league with him?” the Brigadier asked. “Or controlling him?”
“Yes, well, that’s a good question,” the Doctor replied, somewhat begrudgingly. “It’s sometimes difficult to tell, of course. But it would explain why he insisted on concocting this outlandish scheme today. Perhaps we can ask him.”
“Where’s he gone?” asked Yates, suddenly noticing an empty patch of floor where the Master had been.
“He must have slipped out in the confusion,” muttered the Brigadier. “Confound it all.”
“He won’t get far, Sir,” Yates promised. “We’ll be sure of that.”
“And what about that?” Benton indicated the fallen tree. “Is it going to start up again?”
“I don’t think so, no. Your employer seems to have put it out of action. Best take it to the woodchipper, of course, to be on the safe side.”
“So we’ll never know what this Great Intelligence was really planning,” said Jo. “Or what it wanted.”
The Doctor sighed. “Unfortunately, Jo, that’s something of a recurring theme.”
“Well, this is all very jolly,” said the Brigadier, “but we’ve got forty children out there whose party has been ruined, and as much as it pains me to admit it, if we don’t exercise some damage control immediately it will be a public relations disaster.”
“Which will, of course, make your life very difficult,” observed the Doctor wryly.
“We can clear up soon enough,” said Jo. “But the children have lost all their presents. And even if we could get more, who’s going to give them out?”
There was a mildly uncomfortable silence, and they all looked at the Doctor.
“Oh no,” he said as the penny dropped. “You can’t be serious.”
Considering the circumstances, it really was a wonderful party. They had found the spare record player – it was currently playing The Partridge Family Christmas Card – and they’d cleared up the mess as best they could, sweeping up broken glass and repinning what decorations weren’t torn to shreds or burned to a crisp. It was rough and ready, but it had a certain war-torn charm. If they’d had a KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster pinned to the wall, the picture would have been complete.
“He really does look the part, doesn’t he?” observed Jo, as she and Yates stood at the bar, looking over at the bearded man in the red suit sitting beneath the tree, dealing one at a time with a queue of children – “The real Santa,” Jo had promised them, “not one of these imposters” – and handing out gifts that Benton and the Brigadier had hastily appropriated from a nearby shopping centre. Just now he was in the middle of explaining to Mrs Beeton from Accounts that no, there was no reason at all why little Isobel shouldn’t have a chemistry set if that was what she wanted, and yes, I’m sure you would prefer her to have a nice dolly, but how does one expect to win a Nobel prize with Barbie and Sindy? Mrs Beeton looked flushed and slightly uncomfortable. Isobel, for her part, was beaming in triumph.
“He certainly does,” the captain agreed. “Almost like the real thing. And the children do seem to like him.”
“Earlier,” said Jo, “he said he couldn’t stand all the merriment and false jollity. I think he probably enjoys it more than he lets on.”
Someone had flipped the record, and a familiar tune piped up through the speakers. Yates grinned. “Fancy a dance, Jo?”
She drained her glass and plonked it on the counter. “Oh, Mike, I thought you’d never ask!” He took her by the hand, and the two of them headed out onto the makeshift dance floor, taking care to avoid the several cracks that now adorned it after the afternoon’s Furby onslaught, and as David Cassidy sang about the joys of pumpkin pie and carolling, they whirled and twirled and laughed and reminisced, and as they passed by the spot where the Christmas tree had until recently stood, where a line of obedient children stood waiting for their gifts from Santa, a delighted Jo caught the Doctor’s eye, and gave him a grin and a wink, and was even more delighted when he returned them both.
For Gareth Taylor, who helped it see the light of day.