Christmas With Friends;Liz Shaw;Caroline John;Doctor Who;Third Doctor;Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart;Jeri Massi
Christmas With Friends
by Jeri Massi
Liz Shaw folded her slender arms across her chest and eyed Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart as he entered the small, cold, remote laboratory. This was not her idea of a pleasant way to spend Christmas Eve. As usual, in spite of any protests that she raised, and no matter how legitimate her claims might prove, he had chosen to do exactly as he pleased with her time and freedom. For the Brigadier, work always came first, especially in matters that concerned her own plans.
Even the Doctor was gone, unexpectedly disappearing the day before without so much as a goodbye or a wish for happiness over the holidays. She had no idea where he had gone or when he would be back. It seemed to her, she thought with some vexation, that the Brigadier allowed everybody else to do as they pleased---except for her.
"Good morning, Miss Shaw," he said pleasantly. He looked fresh and smart in a wool coat, with a cheerful red scarf wrapped 'round his throat, and a checked cap on his head. He wore rugged corduroy trousers and heavy, insulated boots. She realized with a momentary shock that she had never seen him in anything but military attire until now.
Though casual, he was dressed very warmly. The day was cold, though clear. And though they had the shelter of this remote lab observatory, she sensed that heat in the low concrete building might be an unreliable thing. She was bundled into a UNIT service parka, with heavy, insulated gloves, for the weather was exceptionally bitter this far north and this high up, and none of her own clothing was sturdy enough to protect her through the uncertainties of the night. The Brigadier had issued her a complete winter kit, including boots, which she wore in consideration of the rural landscape. Anything not solidly frozen was the result of cows and pigs leaving their signs behind. One did not want to step into such patches without sturdy and expendable foot gear. The foot of the winding track that led up to this remote outbuilding was attended by a small mountain of steaming compost, its contents chemically active enough to keep it warm and unfrozen even in this weather.
This low building on a wind scoured hilltop was the remote site of the UN Pleiades Experiment Site, selected as much for its remote location as for its convenience as a pointing place to the Pleiades Satellite system. Apart from a low, abandoned building at the foot of the high hill, they were surrounded by farmland, occasional barns, and here and there a lonely farmhouse.
"Looks like you're ready to bunk and spend a decent Christmas," she said.
"Not at all. I'm here for the duration, but there was nothing in the UNIT stores to properly fit me out. Don't want to be stuck in this place without sufficient attire."
It was quite unusual for her to be clad in compliance with UNIT's uniform code and for him to be in civvies. He experimentally pulled off his heavy coat, revealing a bulky and bright red sweater underneath, and waited for a moment, testing the chill in the room. At last, satisfied, he draped the coat over a table. He strolled to a heavily paned window and glanced outside at the remote, frigid landscape.
"Rather ideal for Christmas this time of year, eh?" he asked with false cheerfulness. He knew that she was seething inwardly.
"I rather think not," she said. "Did you bring the rest of the equipment?"
"The security detail is bringing it," he said. "They'll be here directly."
"I really fail to understand, Brigadier, why you needed me here in the first place. This could have waited a few more days."
"You know the regulations, Miss Shaw. Officially, this phase of the project must conclude this year, before the New Year begins. As soon as the holidays are over, we must begin on the next phase."
The truth was, she thought, that the Christmas hols were the perfect time to conduct this testing, which had to be kept strictly secret and protected. The Pleiades System did not fire weapons, nor did it deflect weapons. It simply picked up signals and reported them. But If anybody had the knowledge to alter the focus of the Pleiades system from scanning space and turned it to earth, they would have at their disposal a fine eavesdropping system that could tune in to any earthly location with drastic impunity and relay secret communications back to UN headquarters in Geneva. She did not like this system., and she did not trust it, and she wished that it had never been invented. The Doctor himself had argued passionately against it, much to the Brigadier's surprise. But as much as the Pleiades system was an advance towards opening up the gateway to space, it was a scientific tool that could have devastating potential if used as a weapon. With very few modifications, it could strip the protective veil of secrecy from any government. Or from all governments, if its power base were increased.
The Brigadier's argument, of course, was that as the Pleaides system was a UN project designed to monitor space, it would never be turned towards earth as an eavesdropping mechanism. And, of course, he needed only to point to the Nestene invasion a few month's earlier and the attempted Cyberman invasion the year before to close his case. Both invasions would have been detected far ahead of time if the Pleiades System had been operational, and the dangers much more handily averted.
"Besides," he had assured them, "Once all the testing is complete, we shall lock it into place, pointed away from earth. There are lockouts on it that absolutely caanot be over ridden. Once the system is locked in place, it cannot be pointed back at earth."
The Doctor's reply has been brief and to the point: "Rubbish! Any command structure can be over ridden---eventually."
Another argument between them had ensued. It had ended with the Brigadier holding his ground, and the Doctor storming loudly and uselessly about the military mind. Privately, Liz had reflected that the system would probably be safe enough once it was locked in place away from earth. It would take years, decades, for anybody to figure out how to infiltrate the command structure. And even so, just to start the process of deciphering the encryption would require a good bit of stolen information. By that time, communications systems on earth would likely be advanced enough to make Pleaides obsolete for spying.
The real trouble, to her, was that Pleaides gave the Brigadier the right to whisk her away to this desolate place on Christmas day.
"I often think this UNIT organisation is nothing other than a sanctioning of holding scientists against their will," she said. "Unless that scientist should happen to be one of your special favorites." This comment was directed against the absent Doctor.
The Brigadier became oddly paternal. "Now now." It was only slightly less annoying than being told "tut tut."
She did not answer. He had brought in a rucksack with him, and he set it down on the cold gray floor, opened it, and began pulling out all sorts of small comforts for those doomed to spend Christmas Eve in a small observatory far from the rest of the world: an electric tea kettle, several billy cans, packets of sugar and of tea.
"So you had other plans for tonight," he said.
"Doesn't everybody?" she asked coldly.
He glanced up, his expression inoffensive. "No, Miss Shaw, not everybody."
She did not know if this was a reference to the military men throughout history who had made due on Christmas with nothing more than an eight hour watch and a mug of tea, or if it was a reference to his own recent divorce that had separated him from his wife and daughter. It stopped her for a moment. When the divorce had happened, the Doctor had confided to her that he had seen their commander mopping his eyes with his handkerchief several times before being able to face the Doctor at the morning conference. Not really crying like most people would cry, but almost doing so. Certainly struggling against his grief.
But after a moment's consideration she decided that Lethbridge Stewart would never make a reference to his private life, his griefs, his inner demons. Especially not to her. For she, even more so than the Doctor, sparred with the Brigadier far more than what she conversed with him. To pay him back for commandeering her away from Cambridge and for being correct about the reality of the dangers that the earth faced, she countered with a sarcasm that he was too gentlemanly to use against a woman, nothing beyond a few well placed barbs to remind her that she could be wrong at times. But he was not doing that today.
He knew that she was exceedingly annoyed with him for spoiling her Christmas plans, and that outdated chivalry of his dictated that he endure the backlash as courteously as possible. The Brigadier was a man who did what he thought was best and then dutifully took the consequences. The fallacy of "dulce et decorum est," she thought: Women and children first. I regret that I have but one life to give for my country. It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done before. All the rest of that outdated nonsense. Prevent a person from doing what she had wanted to do, dress it up as something in the name of duty, and convince yourself to make it a noble thing. Bear it all patiently. Stiff upper lip and all that. The very sort of man who would look at a woman and say "Now now," instead of saying "Tut tut." She narrowed her eyes.
But there was something vulnerable about him today. From the enormous rucksack, he produced an enticing packet of shortbread cookies, a parcel of smoked pheasant, and several small tins and very cheerfully wrapped cubes. Oh marvelous, she thought. We're going to have our own Christmas party.
"And where is the equipment?" she asked.
"Driving up in the land rover with the corporal. The men will unload the equipment, and then position themselves in a discreet cordon around the lab. And then we'll get started."
"Three men make a cordon?" she asked.
He arched an eyebrow. "If they are sufficiently trained."
From outside, they heard the landrover's gears straining as it climbed the steep ascent. There was a sound of men's voices and the banging of vehicle doors as they climbed out and started the unloading procedure.
The portable antenna had to be set up on the roof of the small building, and so for several moments she and the Brigadier waited in silence as the noise of heavy boots treading to and fro on the roof gave evidence of the men working. A loud banging and hoarse shouting of voices told them that work was commencing.
"Tea?" the Brigadier offered. "There's cocoa, too."
"Any rum?" she asked tartly.
"Yes, as a matter of fact." He flashed a glance of satisfaction at her. "My concession to Christmas. After all, there is such a thing as tradition."
She could not resist needling his smugness. "Ah, yes, the vital importance of tradition. I suppose that you buy into all that about a stable, a magic star and three kings." She arched an eyebrow. "Do you really think they smoked a rubber cigar?"
He did not like this. But he doggedly continued in his efforts to be cheerful. He poured bottled water into a tea kettle. "It does seem that the testimony of so many people to a single event might bear weight with a scientific mind. A truly scientific mind, I mean."
She found herself bristling at this retort and in spite of her annoyance she had to marvel at his ability to be so sarcastic when so calm.
"What? the contradictory writings of four men who saw one man in four different ways?"
"No, I mean the agreement of history, astrology, astronomy, with the texts of Scripture," he said calmly. "In point of fact, in 3 BC there was a conjunction between Jupiter, the planet signifying the presence and power of God, with Venus, which signifies abundant love. Such a rare but close conjunction would have created a single, bright entity in the heavens. And as it was in Leo, which is the sign of royalty, it would have pointed to a king being born with strong ties to God and to a royal house." He turned and afforded her a triumphant glance. "Furthermore, the so-called star that was formed when they conjoined appeared to be very close to the "king" star called Regulus. For star gazers, it was a clear message that any person born during the conjoining of that heavenly configuration would be a powerful and heavenly king."
She had never heard this assessment before, and for a moment in spite of her grudge against the Brigadier, she felt a flash of respect for this knowledge on his part. Her assessment of him---indeed for all men like him who dutifully followed the old cliches, attended services regularly, and believed the old mores---had been that he simply accepted what he had been taught without question. But obviously he had looked into the veracity of this story.
But she countered him with the claims of the scientific mind. "So you think that astrology lends credence to the Bible, Brigadier? Isn't that a bit of a contradiction?"
"Apparently the writer of Scripture did not think so." He returned to putting the kettle on. "Would you like tea, then? Or cocoa?"
"I would really like to finish this dratted experiment and get away from here as soon as possible," she snapped.
"All in good time. We'll do everything we can to facilitate this test."
His calm tone irritated her further. "You know, I've got a good mind to march out that door and just go home," she told him. "What would you do, clap me in irons if I refuse to carry out the task?"
"Really, Miss Shaw. Now you're here, you may as well complete the test. We'll be back in London by morning, and you shall have plenty of time to do exactly as you like."
"What I would like is to go back to Cambridge." She shot a resentful and contemplative glance at the door, tempted to storm out.
"I would clap you in irons," he said. She looked up at him, startled. His voice had not been unkind, and his face was faintly troubled at taking this hard line. But he was looking directly at her, his eyes intent, his posture erect.
For a moment, she did not know where to look. And he, for once, had the sense to say nothing. At last there was a rap on the roof.
"They must be finished," she said quietly. "I'll get started. Will you bring in the finer machinery?"
He went out to retrieve the antenna directing equipment. They simply needed to connect it up to the leads that were now dangling outside the window, connect everything to a safe power source, and then punch in the security codes on the computerized lock out to gain access. Then they could broadcast the signals that would direct the satellite to turn, to respond, to send back rebroadcasts of the random signals generated by the cosmos.
The Brigadier went out the door, and she heard the three men outside speak briefly with him and with each other. Two of them nodded, shouldered their rifles, and strode away to take cover at positions lower down the hill. The third one, heavily muffled in an army issued, tan scarf that hid most of his face except for the tip of his nose, pulled his heavy cap down lower so that the ear flaps covered his ears. Then he trudged after the Brigadier and apparently took up his position guarding the door.
What a lot of fuss, Liz thought in resigned disgust.
The Brig entered, his arms full, and lugged the covered equipment over to one of the solidly built tables.
Liz hesitated and then walked over to the open door and closed it.
"Why not make yourself comfortable?" he asked. "I think the heat in here is working. At least at a low level."
She lifted a hand to the snaps of the army-issued parka. From out front, the sentry let out an abbreviated shout. There were several shots, and a loud slam of his body into the door.
Liz found herself suddenly against the Brigadier, frightened. It was an instinctive reaction that horrified her for an instant, in spite of her greater horror. But he seized her before she could regain herself. The door slammed open, revealing the body of the sentry at the thresh hold. A man with a black ski mask pointed an automatic rifle at the two of them.
"Professor Liz Shaw?" he demanded. But he looked from one to the other of them, as though not knowing.
"I am Professor Shaw," the Brigadier said instantly.
She started at this sudden declaration, but he had his eyes fixed on the man in the doorway. A second man, similarly masked, stepped up behind the one in the doorway. "The other two sentries are gone," this one reported. "We can't find them. But they cannot get off the hill without being caught or killed. We'll run them down."
"Then do it." His English was terse and halting. He pointed the gun at Liz. "Who is this?" Liz could not identify the accent.
"My wife," the Brigadier said. "Don't hurt her, and I will help you."
She refrained from staring up at the Brigadier's audacious claim, and she played along, staying in his arms and staring fearfully at their captor.
The man in the doorway pulled off his mask, revealing faintly olive skin, dark hair, and dark, almost almond shaped eyes. Eurasian, she thought. He tossed aside the ski mask, and with both hands on the rifle, keeping it trained on them, he entered and circled around to get closer to the machinery.
"She's a pretty thing. You have good taste, Professor." He gestured at her with the gun. "You are a soldier? You?"
"What if she is?" the Brigadier asked, his tone the tone of a man who fears for somebody he loves. "She's not armed."
Their captor gave him a cold smile. "No. She seems quite harmless." He gestured at her with the muzzle of the gun. "Step away from him."
She looked up at the Brigadier, afraid to be correctl identified but also concerned about this charade.
"It's all right, darling. Do as he says," the Brigadier murmured. He let her go, his eyes fixed on her face. The man stepped into the Brigadier, reversed the rifle in his hands and slammed the Brigadier on the side of the face with it. With a strangled cry, the Brigadier dropped to the ground, and the man kicked him.
The door opened again, revealing the second man, or perhaps a different one. It was impossible to know if they stayed masked.
Their captor nodded at the fallen sentry, who was sprawled in front of the doorway. "Bury that one in the dung heap," he ordered. And then he nudged the Brigadier with his booted foot. "This one is learning to cooperate. I'll finish with him, soon."