A MER-RY MARTIAN CHRISTMAS
“Yes I’m sure, I’ll be fine!” the Doctor sighed, rolling her eyes as her friend Yaz asked her for at least the tenth time if she was sure she didn’t want to join her and her family for Christmas Day.
“But you’re not good on your own,” Yaz said, concerned, as the pair walked past the TARDIS’ central console – draped with an outrageous amount of tinsel and baubles – towards the doors. The Doctor frowned; it wasn’t the first time she’d been told that. “You go off and… do… stuff…”
“I love stuff!” the Doctor replied enthusiastically, adding: “I don’t do bored, Yaz, you know that. Anyway, you do stuff, all humans do – “
“Yes, but our stuff is things like watching a DVD or going shopping. Your ‘stuff’ usually involves throwing yourself headfirst into danger like a dog jumping into a ball pit, followed by a lot of running around and big explosions,” Yaz said darkly. The Doctor shrugged that off, resisting the urge to tell her friend that the explosions weren’t always that big.
“I’ll worry about you – “
“You will not,” the Doctor laughed as they reached the TARDIS door. “You’ll be too busy doing a very convincing impression of a sloth in front of your TV after wolfing down a small Aldi’s stock of turkey and stuffing and pigs in blankets – actually,” she paused mid-step, a thought occurring to her, “I love pigs in blankets… Earth is the only planet in the whole universe you can get them, did you know that?”
“So you’ll stay?” Yaz asked her friend hopefully.
“Ohhh… tempting,” the Doctor said, wrinkling up her nose, “but no. Things to do here.”
“What things?” Yaz demanded, suspicious.
“Just… things!” the Doctor repeated, rolling her eyes again. “There are circuits to clean, drive units to purge, computers to defrag… I’ve been putting off that latest Windows update too – “
“You’re going off on your own, aren’t you?” Yaz said accusingly, tilting her head to one side. “You’ve got it all planned – “
The Doctor placed a reassuring hand on her friend’s shoulder. “No, I haven’t, I promise,” she told her friend, serious now. “I wouldn’t go anywhere without you – I wouldn’t want to.”
Yaz nodded and smiled. It was good hearing that, but it didn’t change the fact that she would worry about the Doctor if she was left on her own for any length of time. But clearly she could do nothing to change the Time Lord’s mind.
“Okay, okay,” Yaz said, throwing up her hands, admitting defeat, “I’ll go, but promise me you won’t get into any trouble. Don’t go starting any interplanetary wars, or deposing any mad galactic emperors – not without me, anyway,” she added mischievously.
The Doctor smiled warmly at her friend. “Promise,” she said, crossing her hearts. “Now go on, get out of here,” she said, pushing open the TARDIS door, “your mum and dad will have a revolting Christmas jumper and a pair of reindeer antlers ready to put on you – “
“I think I’d rather go start an interplanetary war,” Yaz groaned as she walked out into the bright sunshine, but didn’t mean it; she loved spending Christmas with her family and was looking forward to this one too, even though it would mean leaving the TARDIS and her best friend. And besides, she knew she’d see her again soon.
“Merry Christmas, Doctor!” Yaz called over her shoulder as she walked briskly, hands buried deep in the pockets of her leather jacket, towards the Sheffield tower block where her family lived.
Standing in the TARDIS door the Doctor smiled and waved back. “Merry Christmas, Yaz!” she called back, watching her friend grow smaller in the distance. When she was sure the young policewoman wasn’t going to come running back the Doctor quickly stepped back inside the TARDIS and shut the door behind her.
Inside now it was quiet, unusually quiet, with only the humming of the console and the gentle, almost musical sighing of the TARDIS’ resting engines – a sound only she could ever hear – breaking the post-Yaz silence.
Looking around her the Doctor let out a long, deep breath. She had to admit that with all the Christmas decorations hanging from the console, the walls and every other available surface the TARDIS was a beautiful sight – and now it was deliciously empty too; as much as she loved Yaz and the others – and she did now, very much – she was looking forward to having the place to herself again, if only for a while. But not here.
With a few well-practiced flicks of switches and a downward tug on the main handle the Doctor dematerialised the TARDIS. The mighty, ancient engines groaned and moaned, churning and clunking far beneath her, and the TARDIS promptly vanished from the housing estate it had been parked in –
– rematerializing moments later, silently, in empty space, halfway between Earth and the Moon. As the engines fell quiet again the Doctor grinned. She was alone in her TARDIS for the first time in a long time. But no feelings of “empty nest syndrome” for her! She had lots to do. Too much to do!
The only question was: where should she start?
Fifteen minutes later the Doctor was slumped in a chair, feet up, half-heartedly sipping a glass of Jergi – Tarin VI’s equivalent of Baileys, but much stronger, and a shocking shade of green which reminded her of a past encounter with some rather large maggots and their slime – feeling absolutely bored stiff.
She had started her Me Time in the Library, but browsing the shelves had realised quickly that she had read everything in there a dozen times already. Moving on to the kitchen she had yanked open the fridge door with great excitement and anticipation, looking forward to making herself an outrageously unhealthy snack without Yaz or one of the others lecturing her about her cholesterol, but there had been nothing inspiring on its shelves, and even the emergency bag of jelly babies hidden at the back behind the crab sticks and yoghurts had failed to tempt her. She had been sure she’d find something good to watch in the TARDIS cinema, but without the others’ jokes and irreverent comments to interrupt them it didn’t seem much point in putting on any of the millions of films or TV shows – collected from thousands of planets, not just Earth – and she could find nothing on GalaxyFlix worth watching either.
“Maybe I should have gone with the pigs in blankets,” the Doctor grumbled, taking another sip of the creamy Jergi. Even that glorious drink didn’t taste as good as she remembered –
Then she had an idea.
“Oh yes,” she smiled, pleased with herself, “I haven’t done that in a long time… a LONG time…” She knew Yaz wouldn’t approve, especially after she’d promised her she wouldn’t go off anywhere on her own, but as the Doctor had told her friend she didn’t do bored, and she was certainly bored now. And anyway, Yaz wouldn’t want her to be unhappy, would she? Especially not at Christmas…
Jumping excitedly off her chair – after glugging down the last of the Jergi, of course; no point in wasting it – the Doctor ran over to the main console.
“Now, where are you…?” she said to herself, eyes searching the piles of items spread messily over the controls. “I really need to tidy this place up,” the Doctor admitted, feeling a little ashamed at just how messy it was, but right now she had other priorities. They were on there somewhere…
Pushing aside a Grallzx detector unit she had cobbled together/constructed skilfully out of an old Nintendo Gameboy, a toy lightsabre and a bag of Skittles, and shoving over a pile of old National Geographics, she searched frantically for her quarry. Where were they? She’d seen them just a few days ago!
Or was it weeks? Or years, perhaps?
Who knew? Who knew…
“Ah,” she grinned, remembering at last where she’d put them ‘for safe keeping’. Picking up the red fez she looked underneath –
“Of course… There you are!” she gushed, grabbing the set of headphones from under the hat. Quickly she plugged them into a jack socket on the underside of the TARDIS console and then sat down on the floor beneath it, her brown boots crossed at the ankles, shuffling in place on the TARDIS floor until she was reasonably comfortable. Only then did she slip the headphones over her ears, mouthing “Oww!” as the one on the left caught on her ear cuff. After flicking the headphones power on her finger sought out and then found a small dial set in the side of the right-hand headphone cup.
“It’s Lucky Dip time…” the Doctor said, smiling, as she closed her eyes and slowly, slowly, turned the dial.
Leaning back against the TARDIS console, with her eyes shut, the Doctor scanned the airwaves of the universe like an old-fashioned CB radio enthusiast, or a lonely radio ham, searching for – something. Anything. A voice… an electric chirp or beep… a snatch of music… anything. Sitting there, eyes closed tight, she felt like the heroine of one of her favourite Terran films, but unlike radio astronomer Ellie Arroway the Doctor heard nothing alien or even unusual in her headphones, just the scratching hiss of the cosmic background radiation, the fading echo of the Big Bang itself. Which was beautiful in its own right, of course, and at any other time she could have listened to it for hours, finding as much joy in its fluctuating tones as an opera fan listening to Carmen, but this time, all alone in the TARDIS, this time she wanted – no, she needed – more.
Come on, there must be something to listen to, the Doctor thought to herself, listening to the static pop and hiss. The universe is huge, everyone can’t be asleep –
The Doctor’s eyes opened suddenly. A smile spread slowly across her face.
She could hear a fainter-than-faint noise hiding behind the background hiss. It was little more than a plaintive bleep, but definitely there.
“Yes!” the Doctor laughed triumphantly. “I knew it!” Jumping quickly to her feet she deftly tapped out a combination of numbers and characters on the old ZX Spectrum keyboard she had fitted into the TARDIS console – with that bright rainbow splashed across its bottom right corner how could she resist it? – and the TARDIS amplified the weaker-than-weak signal it had just detected. “On speaker, please..?” the Doctor requested, pulling off the headphones, feeling like a starship Captain from a TV show, and the previously silent TARDIS suddenly filled with sound.
“Radio… it’s an old-fashioned radio transmission…” the Doctor smiled.
Leaning forward the Doctor listened to the signal intently, trying to make sense of it. It sounded so… basic, so primitive, that it took a few moments for her to process it – but then the lightbulb came on above her head.
“..and it’s a call for help. Someone out there needs our help – my help,” she corrected herself, suddenly remembering she was alone.
A feeling of guilt trembled through her briefly. She had promised Yaz she wouldn’t go anywhere, hadn’t she? Told her that she would just enjoy peace and quiet and not do anything dangerous. But it was Christmas Day… and someone needed her.
Yaz would understand, surely?
“Of course she will,” the Doctor told herself. “Come on old girl,” she told the TARDIS, “we’re going to see if we can help!” and yanked down the lever. “Follow that signal!” she said happily, as the TARDIS dematerialised once more, blinking out of existence, leaving the Earth and its Moon far, far behind…
A twin heartbeat later the TARDIS re-materialised with a shudder and a shake, and the loud “Whumpf!” of the engines shutting down announced the time machine’s arrival at – where?
And more to the point perhaps, when?
But first things first. “Let’s see where we are…” the Doctor said, activating the large wall-screen which would show the view outside. After a moment it showed they had materialised in a desolate landscape covered in rocks, boulders and stones, with rolling hills on the far horizon. Everything had been painted with various shades and hues of red, orange and brown, with hints of yellow and gold here and there, all beneath an orange-pink sky.
“Oh, brilliant!” the Doctor exclaimed, “I’ve not been here for ages!” She had recognised the landscape on the viewscreen instantly. “Welcome to Mars!” she said to herself happily. “And now we’re here, I know just what to wear…!”
Pausing before the TARDIS door the Doctor took a moment to check her spacesuit one more time. After all, you could never be too careful with spacesuits, what with all their life-or-death hoses, clips and seals and all, and this one had more of those than most…
Throwing open the doors to her fifth wardrobe half an hour earlier she’d had the choice of a dozen different spacesuits “acquired” from a dozen different worlds and spaceships, but she had known which one she was going to go for before even looking. Not the sleek, form-fitting gold amoebaskin she had ‘borrowed’ from Kendrih Six; not the living exoskeleton she had forgotten to return to the Captain of the Vortega super-destroyer after surviving the Battle of Calabria. No, this was something much more basic, some might even say “primitive”. It was big, bulky and heavy, a beautiful, over-engineered, 21-layered construction of thick padded cloth, metal rings and joints, topped by a huge goldfish bowl of a helmet with a gold-plated visor, all connected by a spaghetti of hoses and lines to a large, very ungainly rectangular life support pack mounted on her back.
It had been a nightmare to put on, of course, like wrestling with a particularly large and octopus inside a fluffy duvet. To get inside she’d had to lose her long, grey-white coat – she always hated taking that off – and then her boots too, but she’d managed to squeeze into the EMU without having to take off her short trousers, with their mustard braces, and her rainbow-streaked t-shirt too. The ear cuff had had to go though; there was no room for it beneath the skin-tight “Snoopy Cap” she had to pull on before donning the helmet, so she’d reluctantly slipped the cuff off her ear and hung it up on the wardrobe door, pausing for a moment to watch the pair of linked hands and the cluster of eight stars, linked by their fine silver chain, glinting and flashing, reflecting the blues, reds and greens of the Christmas fairy lights wound around the tree in the corner.
“I’ll be back for you soon,” she told the cuff, adding, with a melodramatic grin, “My Precious…”
Then she was done, and clomp-clomped her way towards the TARDIS doors. Anyone looking at the spacesuit she wore as she stood there would have thought it was a perfect copy of the spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong as he became the first man to set foot on the Moon on the Apollo 11 mission of 1969, especially when they saw its legs and arms were very accurately streaked with grey and black. But they’d have been wrong.
It was the real thing – A-7L, the very same spacesuit Armstrong had worn as he took his “One Small Step” off the Eagle’s ladder and planted his boot in the lunar dust all those years ago. The Doctor had ‘borrowed’ it from the Smithsonian Museum several years ago, to help out Clara with a science project at her school; she just hadn’t got around to giving it back yet. She’d had to do some restoration work on it – it hadn’t been designed to last half a century, and specialists in the Smithsonian had been working hard to preserve and protect it before she’d borrowed it – and add a few bits and pieces, and given it a good soak in a nanobot bath for a week and now it looked exactly the same as it had done in July 1969.
Luckily the cosplay suit she’d left in its place was obviously very convincing as no-one had reported the original as stolen yet, despite the “Made In China” label on its neck…
“Ok, here we go,” the Doctor grinned, pushing at the TARDIS doors.
A subtle orange light flooded the interior of the time machine as its doors swung open, revealing the martian landscape beyond. “Beautiful… so beautiful…” the Doctor sighed, taking a moment to appreciate the glorious view from the TARDIS doorway, then stepped out onto the rocky surface of Mars, boots crumping into the frozen red-brown dust.
“Well, Neil,” the Doctor said quietly, savouring the moment, “looks like your suit made two giant leaps, not just the one…”
After walking a few steps away from her TARDIS, boots crunching through the brittle duricrust, the Doctor stopped to get her bearings. It seemed the TARDIS had materialised high up on the rim of a crater, and a big one at that. The ‘rolling hills’ she had seen on the viewscreen was actually the opposite rim of the crater, a good 20km or so away on the other side of the crater’s wide, dust-rippled floor. Those hills’ steep slopes were pocked with their own round and oval impact scars, evidence that the crater was old – very old.
Turning in place, hands on her hips, the Doctor saw she was on a ridge or summit of some kind, with the crater’s rim dropping away in either side of her. Behind her the crater rim curved around to the south, forming a sweeping range of orange hills; ahead of her the ground dropped away a little. And all around her, rocks, boulders and stones, hundreds of them, thousands of them, littering the landscape, each one casting a dark brown/black shadow on the ground beneath it in the late afternoon sunlight.
But looking around her the Doctor could see no sign of anyone, or anything, in the desolate landscape. So where had the message come from?
There had to be someone or something out there. Maybe, she thought, the signal was an SOS from a crashed 30th century spaceship? Or a distress call from one of the many colonies that dotted Mars by the year 2150? Or had she gone back in time, to the age of the fearsome Ice Warriors, and one of their royal families was in need of her special kind of assistance?
She had no idea – and wouldn’t even be able to begin to guess until she knew what year she had landed on the Red Planet. At least that was a mystery easily solved…
Reaching into a pouch on the front of Armstrong’s suit – and it had lots of them, and pockets too, one reason why she loved it so much; you can never have enough pockets, she was always telling Yaz – the Doctor pulled out her sonic screwdriver and quickly scanned the area, sweeping the device to and fro. Flicking it around and studying the small readout screen set into its curved handle the Doctor frowned.
No… that had to be a mistake…
“2018?” she growled, glowering at the date on the sonic’s screen. “But… that’s the same year I just left! That makes no sense! There’s no-one on Mars now! The first person won’t set foot on here for another ten years yet, and she won’t need any help – ”
Then she saw it – a glint of sunlight reflecting off dull metal, halfway down the slope that dropped away to her right. She narrowed her eyes for a clearer view – yes, there was something down there…
Sweeping the sonic in its direction she checked the screen again – yes, that was it, the signal was coming from it – whatever “it” was. But staring down the slope through her curved helmet visor the Doctor was now even more puzzled than before. Whatever was down there, bleating out its weak distress call, was small. Ridiculously small. Definitely too small to be a colony, a crashed spaceship or even a lone Ice Warrior. What then?
There was only one way to find out.
Tucking the sonic back in its pouch the Doctor set off down the slope, heavy boots scuffling and slipping in the loose dust covering the rocky surface. And there was a lot of dust, more than she would have expected this high up. In fact it looked like huge amounts of the stuff had been dumped on the ground from above, like a huge sack of orange flour being emptied out. There was a layer of it covering, smothering everything…
There was definitely something up ahead, she could see it a little more clearly now. It wasn’t humanoid-shaped, in fact it looked more like a machine of some kind. Making her way further down the slope – she could see now she was walking downhill between the low sides of a meandering valley or channel of some kind – the Doctor began to see details. Yes, it was definitely a machine. Squinting she could now make out wheels, three of them on the side facing her – so she could assume safely it had six in total? – and a white, stubby metal mast protruding from its top, which looked like it was a platform for a number of cameras? Its back was v-shaped, giving it the appearance of a beetle or insect of some kind. And it was totally, totally still.
“A rover..?” the Doctor said to herself, panting with the exertion of plodding down the valley in Armstrong’s heavy suit. Now she was so close to the machine, just a few feet away, she could see that she had been right, it was a rover, and it was covered with a layer of the same fine orange dust that had smothered the landscape around it. The dust had built-up on the tops of its wheels, on the top of its camera mast and across its flat back too. It looked more like an ancient statue of a rover that had stood on Mars for a thousand years than an actual machine.
“Oh, you poor thing,” the Doctor sighed sadly, coming to a halt beside the rover. “Look at you, dustier than a teenager’s bedroom…” Reaching out she gently trailed a gloved finger across the rover’s back, clearing a small line of dust away. Beneath it, the rover’s solar array panels shone with a beautiful grey-blue colour which reminded her of a dragonfly’s wing. So beautiful…
“So which one are you..?” the Doctor asked, eyebrow arching upwards, “They sent so many to Mars before they dared to go themselves…”
She had seen many different spacecraft over the centuries – landers, rovers, orbiters, drills, scuttlers, berserkers and many more – on or above a thousand different worlds, so it was no surprise to her that she didn’t recognise the rover in front of her immediately. She looked at it closely, trying to jog her memory. On the far side of the rover’s back was a tall antenna mast next to a communications dish of some kind, almost like a cake tin or a small drum pointing towards the sky.
Maybe that has a name on it, beneath the dust? the Doctor wondered, but it was too far away for her to reach, so walking around the front of the machine, carefully stepping around the spindly, very fragile-looking arm that protruded from it, the Doctor squatted down beside the rover – as much as she was able to in the thick Apollo suit – stretched out her gloved hand and brushed dust off the comms dish, sweeping her fingers to and fro until the shining clean metal beneath was revealed.
“Oh yeah, that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it” the Doctor huffed, finding no name or even an ID number on the cold metal beneath the dust.
“Think… think…” she told herself, tapping her fingers against the temples of her spacesuit helmet. “A rover… high up on the rim of a crater… fast asleep, in 2018 – “
And a name from the history books popped into her head.
“Hello Opportunity…” the Doctor said quietly, recognising the second Mars Exploration Rover to land on Mars. “Fancy meeting you here, little one..!”
Now the pieces of the puzzle began to slot into place.
After exploring Mars for fourteen incredible years – thirteen years longer than her designers, builders, drivers and fans had expected her to – Opportunity had fallen foul of a huge martian dust storm, a global event that had cruelly blotted the Sun from the sky and sent her power levels plummeting to the point where she had effectively gone into hibernation. Falling into a deep, almost coma-like sleep as the Sun went out and the martian landscape around her was smothered with a soft but seemingly endless rain of powder-fine dust, Opportunity had stopped talking to Earth, to the consternation of her science team and many thousands of supporters and enthusiasts around the world. Efforts had been made to regain contact with her, and using the best radio telescopes and transmitters available her brave and stubborn team had called out to her across the gulf of space, again and again, like a distraught cat owner calling out their lost pet’s name into the darkness from their doorstep, but she had failed to answer them, and only cold, cruel silence had been heard from the steep slopes of Endeavour Crater.
Now the Doctor could see why: so much dust had fallen onto the solar-powered rover that it had fallen into a deep sleep it would never wake from on its own.
“But you didn’t just give up, did you?” the Doctor said, gazing with admiration at the stricken rover standing in front of her. “You didn’t have enough power to send a message to Earth, but in your dreams you whispered into the darkness, hoping someone would hear you…”
Standing up the Doctor patted the rover on the top of its camera mast affectionately.
“Well, I heard you…” she said, smiling, adding proudly: “I’m probably the only one who could, with the TARDIS’ enhanced communications capability. Good thing I decided to not take Yaz up on her offer of pigs in blankets after all, eh?”
And with that she started searching through the many pouches and pockets on the outside of Neil Armstrong’s suit, looking for something she was sure – well, pretty sure – she had stuffed into one of them, just in case she ever needed it. And she needed it now.
“Aha, gotcha!” she said, beaming happily through her helmet visor as she felt a familiar shape through the thick fingerpads of her glove. Feeling very pleased with herself – and more than a little relieved – she pulled out the brush and held it up in front of her face. “Come on you, we’ve got work to do,” she said to it, and then began.
Slowly, slowly, the Doctor worked her way around the rover, sweeping the dust off its back, one hand-sized section after another, taking great care not to brush too hard or too vigorously in case she damaged the delicate solar array beneath the layer of dust. Gradually the rover’s blue-grey panels re-appeared, one inch at a time, until Opportunity was half-clean and the Doctor needed a break.
“I bet they think your story is over, back on Earth,” she said to the rover as she stood up and straightened out her stiff back with a groan, “I bet they think you’ve ended your mission here, stuck halfway down Perseverance Valley. Well, they’re wrong, Oppy, my brave little friend. You’ve a lot more roving to do yet!”
She got back down to work, talking to the rover as she brushed the dust from it.
“After you wake up and phone home it takes you a while to get back on your feet – sorry, wheels – but when you do you drive on down to the bottom of this valley and roll out onto the crater floor,” the Doctor said, brushing dust away from around the small sundial that had been fitted to the rover’s back. “You find – ah, well,” she stopped herself then, “I can’t say… spoilers and all that… but trust me, it’s brilliant!” she gushed, flicking the last of the orange dust away from the sundial’s square base, pausing a moment to read the words engraved on it: “Two Worlds, One Sun”. Cute, she thought, and went back to her brushing, laughing in surprise as what looked like a DVD with a small LEGO figure in its centre emerged from beneath the dust next.
“Ooh, a secret code!” the Doctor beamed, seeing the symbols etched around the edge of the disc. She stared at the code for a moment. “Huh, that was easy…” she said, a little disappointed she had solved the puzzle so quickly, and moved on.
“Where was I?” she asked the rover, which of course didn’t reply. “Oh yes… I was avoiding spoilers… well, let’s skip that bit, I don’t want to ruin the big surprise for you,” she went on, brushing more dust off the rover’s back. “Let’s just say that when your roving days are eventually over, after a good long sleep – much longer than this one, we’re talking thirty years here my little friend – they come and get you, wake you up and put you in a museum, along with all the other landers and rovers they sent here. People come from all over Mars – from all across the solar system – to see you. You’re a real celebrity! They sell models of you in the gift shop and everything!”
Now her brush was carefully clearing dust away from a number of coloured wires snaking down the rover’s side, connecting its main body to one of its fold-out solar “wings”. It was more delicate work and she stopped talking to allow herself to concentrate. Eventually the wiring was clear.
“When it’s the hundredth anniversary of your landing on Mars,” the Doctor continued, “there’s a big party, all across Mars. They light beacons on the tops of all the big volcanoes and mountains, a chain of fire stretching all the way around Mars… There are thousands of people living here then, and they all know about you and your mission and want to come and see you…”
She stopped herself from saying any more.
“But don’t you worry about all that now, let’s just get you clean enough again to get back on the road…”
And she went back to work, carefully sweeping her brush to and fro, to and fro, until most of the dust dumped on the rover by the Great Dust Storm of 2018 had gone.
Back burning, wrists aching, absolutely gagging for a cup of tea, the Doctor stood up, stepped back, and surveyed her handiwork.
“That’ll do,” she said, nodding, “can’t leave you looking factory clean; they’ll get suspicious when they take another selfie. This way you’ll just look like a dust devil has come along and given you a good scouring.”
Putting the brush back in its pouch the Doctor retrieved her sonic and pointed it at the rover. It chirruped, scanning the robot’s systems, then reported its findings on its screen.
“Battery looks fine…” the Doctor said, reading off the display. “No new internal damage, just wear and tear from old age… Yep, looking good. No reason now why you shouldn’t wake up and phone home,” she concluded, smiling down at the rover.
Taking a step forwards the Doctor leaned towards the rover one last time, touching her helmet’s faceplate gently against the head of its camera mast. “Take care, little one,” she said softly, “and when you get down there onto Endeavour’s floor and find that… thing… think of me, ok?”
Her work was done. It was time to go.
Slowly the Time Lord walked away from the rover, stomping back up the gentle slope of Perseverance Valley and back to the TARDIS. She was about to go inside when she remembered something very important.
“Idiot!” she scolded herself, and pointed her sonic downhill back towards Opportunity. A sonic wave pulsed from the device and rippled downhill, lifting all the dust for half a kilometre around the rover off the ground for a second before depositing it back again – obliterating her boot-prints in the process. “That would have raised a few eyebrows back at JPL, wouldn’t it?” she said, “seeing my dirty big boot prints everywhere…!”
Her tracks covered, literally, the Doctor took one last lingering look at Opportunity, shining bright and clean again in the late afternoon sunshine, then went back inside the TARDIS, closing the door behind her. Soon the stolen time machine began to fade in and out of view, and for a few moments the thin air of Mars carried the sound of the moaning, groaning and grinding of its ancient Galifreyan engines before they were carried away by the soft martian winds, and the TARDIS vanished, leaving not a trace of its visit behind.
When the Doctor opened the door again she found she had arrived back at Yaz’s estate several hours after leaving. Christmas Day was coming to a bitterly cold end. The Sun had set, leaving behind a sky the rich purple colour of a fresh and painful bruise. The tower block was ablaze with light, hundreds of its windows lit brightly. One of the flats, she knew, was her friend’s family’s. But which one? How would she find it?
She didn’t need to.
“I knew you’d come back!” Yaz shouted, running down the steep banking towards the TARDIS.
“Well, pigs in blankets,” the Doctor said, smiling as her friend reached her and wrapped her up in a hug, “how could I say no? Earth is – “
“ – the only planet in the universe where you can get them,” Yaz said, “yes, you told me. Good thing I saved you some isn’t it?”
“Awww, no, you’ve eaten already?” the Doctor groaned, disappointed, locking the TARDIS door and pulling her rainbow-trimmed coat around her for warmth.
“No, don’t be daft,” Yaz replied, “I was joking. That raptor of a turkey will take another hour to cook yet…”
“Brilliant…!” the Doctor smiled, and linked arms with her friend as they strode up the hill towards the tower block.
“So, did you do your ‘stuff’..?” Yaz asked, a little too casually.
“Oh, you know…” the Doctor replied carefully, “I just pottered about… did a few things… this and that… nothing too exciting…”
“No little adventures then?” Yaz asked, a strange tone in her voice.
“No, no…” the Doctor insisted, “just housekeeping.” She had a feeling she needed to change the subject. “Did I miss anything exciting here while I was gone?”
Yaz shook her head. “No… not really – oh, there was one thing that happened, it’s been all over the news, quite exciting really…”
“Hmm?” replied the Doctor quickly, eager to turn the conversation away from what she had been doing, “what was that?”
“Well,” Yaz went on, “it’s weird, but on Christmas Day there’s usually a big news story about something horrible – an earthquake, a flood, a plane crash, something like that, and this year – “
“Oh no!” the Doctor said, worried now, “what’s happened?”
“Nothing!” Yaz replied, surprise in her voice. “Well, nothing bad, not this time anyway.” She paused for a moment, looking up at the sky, now filling with stars, and the Doctor thought she was searching for something. “They’re calling it the Christmas Mars Miracle,” Yaz said.
The Doctor’s hearts skipped a beat, but she said nothing.
“Yes… dad’s fascinated by it, he’s always loved anything to do with space,” Yaz continued. “Anyway, there was this robot, on Mars, been out of touch for months, everyone was sure it was dead,” Yaz said, “then a few hours ago, out of the blue, it just woke up and phoned home again…”
“Amazing!” the Doctor said, trying to sound surprised.
“Isn’t it?” Yaz agreed. “The TV news showed people at NASA jumping about like kids, high-fiving, hugging each other… one was crying… they can’t believe it…”
“I’ll bet,” said the Doctor, “they must be really chuffed – “
“They are… strange tho, that it should happen today, on Christmas Day of all days,” Yaz observed, eyes still scanning the sky.
“Not really, it’s just another day on every other planet out there – across much of this one too, when you think about it,” the Doctor observed nonchalantly, “and I don’t think it was even Christmas Day on Mars using your calendar… the time difference, you know?” she suggested.
“Hmmm….” Yaz said. “I don’t suppose you had anything to do with it, did you?” she asked the Doctor directly.
“Me?” said the Doctor, feigning shock. “No, told you… I’ve been too busy – “
“Yeah… doing ‘stuff’…” Yaz interrupted her friend.
“Anyway,” the Doctor said as they reached the main entrance to the block of flats, “that’s great news, but I’m starving, are we going to go inside or stay out here all night?”
“We’ll go inside in a minute,” Yaz said, then, without even turning around, added: “But first… better shake some of that orange dust off your boots, mum’ll go mad if you trail it in all over her carpet…”
The Doctor looked down at her feet and cringed when she saw that her boots were covered in a fine layer of martian dust. It must have fallen on them when she took off her lunar EVA boots…
“That one’s Mars,” Yaz said, pointing at a red star in the sky. “You want to wish your new friend goodnight before we eat?”
The Doctor smiled at her friend, and just shrugged guiltily. “Busted…” she admitted.
Yaz shook her head. “Merry Christmas, Doctor,” she said kindly, and went inside.
On her own now, the Doctor stared up at Mars, shining between two tower blocks and smiled.
“Merry Christmas, Little One,” she said, “and welcome back…”
And 181 million kilometres away, halfway down a meandering valley cut into the slope on the rim of an ancient martian crater, a rover opened its eyes, just in time to see its first sunset in a long, long time.
Stuart Atkinson 2018