The Doctor was still smug about the bootstrap paradox. He’d be smug about it for days, if he was true to form. Frankly Clara was as delighted by it as he was, when she wasn’t pretending to be annoyed by how smug he was. It had been a fantastic and clever conclusion to an otherwise harrowing and sad adventure. The embarrassing reality was that she was still unsettled by it. She wasn’t ready to head back to her humdrum life just yet, not with all that excitement in her veins. Something in her felt like it hadn’t hadn’t been epic enough.
She was standing close to him by the TARDIS console when she realized this. She leaned her head against his shoulder-- something he was letting her do more often than not-- and told him. Confessed. Asked for another adventure.
The Doctor heard her out and studied her for a second, wiping his hand over his face. “Yeah,” he said, “I know just the place. Warm, dry, non-stop partying. At least it’s non-stop during the week before and after Christmas. I think we deserve a Christmas holiday. Yeah? Let’s go.”
“Christmas? Now? It’s August.”
He shrugged. “I like a bit of Christmas cheer.”
“We just did Christmas.”
“Eight months ago!”
“You want to do Christmas again? Now?”
“Yeah.” Then he smiled at her, that heart-stopping smile he’d been giving her a lot recently, since their reunion. He was a happy Doctor, that was for sure. And she was more than willing to play along.
She returned the grin. “Okay. Let’s do Christmas.”
He spun around to the console and began pushing buttons. “Go get changed. Can’t wear that.”
“What should I wear for this one? Red hat trimmed with white? Warm clothes?”
“Chaps. Cowboy boots. Spurs. Do you have a ten-gallon hat?”
Clara stared at him. Chaps? “No. But I did see a dead sweet pair of Tony Lamas down in the wardrobe once.”
“Aren’t you going to change?”
The Doctor looked down at himself and Clara looked too. Plaid trousers, hoodie, coat with a rip in the shoulder, Doc Martens. “I’m dressed for the occasion,” he said. “I’m dressed for any occasion. Go! Find a hat.”
Clara sighed. No use arguing with him. She headed up and out of the console room. She drew the line at cowboy hats but she’d wear the boots and a pair of jeans and a rather nice black leather over-vest with turquoise buttons because she was willing to make some concessions to the cowboy theme. She inspected herself in the mirrors-- the TARDIS wardrobe mirrors, which were magically perfect at showing her what she looked like from the back-- and nodded in satisfaction. She looked good. As usual.
Back out to the console room, to find the Doctor with his arms folded and his booted foot tapping. As soon as she ran up next to him he slammed the levers over. The time rotors spun. They were in motion in all dimensions at once. Clara knew what that felt like now, had done it often enough that she had an itching hint about which way they were moving in time. Forward from where they’d been, probably. Her sense wasn’t anything like what the Doctor had, but it was something. It was progress.
The rotors spun and the TARDIS moved or the universe moved around them or the quantum foam went especially foamy or something like that, and then the foam congealed and they popped out into real space-time. The lights flickered dark and the TARDIS made a satisfied noise. They had arrived.
“Here we go!” the Doctor said. “The best Christmas party ever. Out! Go! We don’t want to miss a moment.”
Clara stepped outside the TARDIS and squinted. Sunlight, wow. Bright. She shaded her eyes with her hand. Then it hit her: the heat of the air, a dry deep heat that went all the way down to her bones. Dust hung in the air in the distance, blue dust from blue rocks. It was like Spain, sort of, or the American southwest, except bluer. And there were two moons in the sky, half-moons hanging near the horizon. Clara eyed them and wondered if it meant anything that they were so near to each other in the sky, or if it was just a trick of distance.
“The planet Pueblo,” he said, with outstretched arm. “And below us, the town of Mistletoe. On Christmas Eve!”
“Christmas?” she said, all ironic doubt. “In summer?”
The Doctor rolled his eyes at her. “Southern hemisphere. It’s summer solstice here. They have better parties than the northerners. Trust me.”
Clara made a face at him. It didn’t look like a party town to her, particularly because there wasn’t any town nearby. No buildings at all, just a dusty road down below them. Tumbleweeds rolled along the road. Clara looked again: yes, literal tumbleweeds. She’d never seen them before in real life, only in movies. Your signal that you were in a Western: a tumbleweed.
“So where’s this town you claim exists?”
The Doctor pointed down the hill, where Clara could see a road winding off. Not so far away along the road was a cluster of buildings. She thought about the gravity-- a little lighter than she was used to, and that meant the horizon was closer than she thought, and that meant the town isn’t very far away at all subjectively. Maybe a few miles. More than she wanted to travel in this heat.
“Why not hop the TARDIS over to a back alley or something?”
“They don’t like technology. Showy technology, anyway. They didn’t like the screwdriver last time I was here. Good thing I’ve switched to wearables.” The Doctor resettled his sunglasses on his face and smirked at her.
“I thought you said this was a friendly visit.”
“It is! I just like keeping a few tricks up my sleeve.”
The Doctor started picking his way down the hillside to the road. Clara followed carefully. Loose rocks, blue dust that smelled rather nice, like cinnamon or something, and down onto the road. The Doctor had said they were low tech, but she hadn’t realized he’d meant they had dirt roads. No matter. She followed him onto the track, heading toward the splotch of town off in the distance. It wasn’t as dry and dusty as she’d feared. The fields off to the side were fields, not barren wastes. Blue-ish green grass grew in them. She could hear insects and maybe something that was a bird warbling in the distance.
The Doctor said, “Makes a change from that underwater base. It’s a dry heat.”
Clara made a face at him. This was true but not very helpful. She was starting to sweat and she was not entirely sure the cowboy boots were good for walking in. It could yet turn out to be one of his more disastrous plans, though she still had some hope. There would probably be a party going on somewhere.
“This is ranching territory,” he said, waving his hand off to the left. There was a long line of fence along the road, lined with barbed wire. “Usually you can see cattle in these fields.”
Clara looked. No animals at all. She could see a little building that looked like a shelter, square bales of blue-green hay stacked up beside it, but no cows. A little further along there was a gate that opened onto the road, a gate with a sign over it: the Circle-Aleph Ranch. The brand ﬡ in a circle was there helpfully on the sign. By the gate was a little wind-powered well that fed a wide trough. Still no cattle.
The Doctor made a thoughtful noise and climbed up onto the gate. He stood there, hands on the top rail, and looked around. “Where have all the cattle gone?” he said. He bit at his thumb.
Clara heard a sound the reminded her of a really old game console, the kind she had she was little. It was exactly like one of those games, a tinny tuneful beep that repeated itself. It was coming from behind the shelter. Then came the clomp of hoofs. A pair of animals trotted around from behind the shelter. They looked almost but not quite like horses: same size, but their necks were disturbingly long and their hair was way too blue and green for an earth horse. Also their ears were like rabbit’s ears, if the rabbits were six feet tall. They looked like vaguely blue Arabian donkeys.
The horse-rabbit things trotted straight up to the gate. The Doctor hopped down and opened the gate. He walked into the field, bold as brass, and right up to the animals. Clara followed close behind him. She liked horses, in that she’d given apples and carrots to some horses once and it had been fun. That was the extent of her experience, though. Definitely she’d never met a horse-rabbit cross before.
“Oooh,” the Doctor said. “Aren’t you lovely? Let me look at you. Why are you both saddled up? What’s happened to your riders?”
The horse-things allowed the Doctor to rub their faces and tug at their bridles. Then the one with blue stockings on its feet stuffed its nose into the Doctor’s coat pocket.
“Hey, you, gerroff!” he said. “I don’t have any apples in there.”
The other horse-y thing decided it liked her, apparently, because it came over to inspect her pockets in case she had anything. It smelled like a horse, mostly, and it seemed perfectly friendly, whuffling at her and beeping. Clara rubbed its face between the eyes, right over the green splotch. Oh, not an it, a he. “Ooh, what a pretty horse.”
“They were not horses. They’re equilids.”
“Equilids. A genetic variation on horses that doesn’t need as much water. See the neck? Stores water like a camel.”
Clara could see the necks. She also had to admit that green was not a typical horse color, but really. They were based on horses. “Close enough for jazz,” she said. “Rabbit-horses.”
The Doctor made a face at her. She poked him in the arm. He grinned.
“Well, let’s head into that town in style. See if we can find the cattle and the people who left their equilids behind.”
“What, you mean–”
“Yes! Let’s ride! Up you get!”
The Doctor was holding the bridle on the green splotch equilid, which was smaller than the other one. He was apparently serious, and no amount of faces she pulled could dissuade him. She didn’t want to admit that she had no idea how to ride anything more alive than a bicycle, but she was stumped. Stick a foot in the stirrup, stand up? It looked so easy in movies.
“Er. How do I. Um.”
The Doctor said something a little condescending about how she had to learn some day, which she decided to take as helpful instead of annoying. It was a little humiliating to be boosted up on top of the horse-thing and then to cling to the saddle horn like she was a greenhorn. But she was a greenhorn, she supposed, so there she was: stuck in her saddle like a little kid, with the Doctor holding the reins of her horse-thing and leading her along. How were you supposed to not fall out of the saddle? The horse was swaying around underneath her like the living being that it was. Clara bit her lip. Meanwhile the Doctor was looking perfectly comfortable on his horse and like he should be holding a pair of six-guns or something similarly ridiculous.
They rode along into town side by side like this. The Doctor was smiling his head off, and Clara loved seeing him happy like that. She decided that the only thing for it was to enjoy herself. The sun beat down on her face. Tanning opportunities were rare in space, she supposed. She could sit back and enjoy the scenery as well. It was prettier than she’d originally feared: there were more fields, and even orchards with little trees that were almost earth-green. It was more like high plains than like the southwestern desert, really.
The Doctor kept up a constant stream of patter as they rode, telling her all about the horse-like things he’d ridden in his life. Camels, he said, were the worst. He didn’t have a single nice thing to say about camels. He liked equilids. They’d been bred for intelligence, and were therefore most excellent.
“You hear that?” Clara said to the horse-rabbit. “You’re smart. I like that. Let’s make a bargain. You don’t let me fall off, and I’ll get you an apple. Do we have a deal?”
Her equilid flicked his long ears back at her.
“You know it,” she said. “I’ve got you covered. Also, I’ve decided you have a name. You are now known as Green Blaze.”
Green Blaze snorted and it sounded like a chip-tune playing. Clara decided that meant approval.
They came up to the town after maybe an hour of clomping along. If the sun was setting to the west, then the direction they came in was south. There was a railroad going east-west, more or less, and a long string of buildings along it and the road they came in on. There was not much else to the town. It did not look like the massive party center the Doctor had been boasting of.
“Hmm,” the Doctor said.
“Oh, I don’t like the sound of that. I never like the sound of that.”
“I was just making a thoughtful sound!”
“Exactly. It’s never good.”
“But this town was a little smaller than it was supposed to be. I wonder.”
“We’re a hundred years early again, aren’t we. Admit it.”
“More like fifty, but ah-- yeah.” He wriggled his shoulders. He was embarrassed. Almost.
“You promised me a party.”
“A big party.”
“There’s a party in that saloon!”
He pointed in the direction of one of the buildings. There was a sign on it that said “saloon”, very helpfully. Sure enough there was a party in it: music and laughter spilled out through the doors of the one saloon in the little town.
“What do we do with the horses, I mean equilids? Do we hitch them up outside the saloon?” Clara grinned with excitement about that possibility. Then they could tumble out of the saloon after a fight, leap onto their horses, and make a daring escape. She had ridden Green Blaze for an entire hour without falling off; obviously she was a natural.
“We get them food and water, because they need both. See the stable?” The Doctor pointed and touched his heels to his mount’s sides. They apparently knew what the stable was, because they pricked up their ears and almost danced their way across town to the stable doors. Clara let the Doctor catch her as she dismounted. Her legs hurt and she staggered when she hit the ground. The Doctor smirked at her and she shot two fingers at him. He smirked harder and took both sets of reins and led their mounts into the stables.
A little bowlegged man came out to meet them. He had a hayseed in his mouth. Clara most emphatically did not stare at him or at the hayseed. He gave their horses a box in the stable plus two big sacks of some kind of blueish grain, plus the right to fill the water trough with water, in exchange for a glance at the psychic paper. The water cost more than the rest of it, he told them. Dry times. The psychic paper made him salute, though, which in turn made Clara wonder what the it said this time. They never knew, and sometimes it turned out disastrously. This time, though, it was fine. The horses were treated like kings.
Green Blaze turned his head and Clara swore he was sizing her up. He took a mouthful of grain and shook himself. His rabbit ears pointed forward at her. Clara rubbed his face between the eyes, right over that green blaze, which was a thing she’d seen people do with horses so maybe equilids liked that too. He burbled at her, which was really disturbing, but probably he was just saying the grain was tasty or something.
“Thanks for the ride,” she said. “I haven’t forgotten our deal.” Green Blaze beeped and stuck his face into his oats, or whatever those were.
“You’ll want to go to the saloon,” the stable hand said. “Everybody’s there. Solstice night. Party.”
“Told you,” the Doctor said. “There’s a party.”
He took her hand and tugged her away, out of the stables and toward the the building that had the word “saloon” on its front. This was ridiculous, she thought, but didn’t say. This could not possibly be what it appeared to be. Though how often was it was it seemed? It was sort of terrifying how often these planets turned out to be full of Zygons or intelligent spider-things.
Clara followed the Doctor through the swinging saloon doors and into — well, it was a perfectly normal saloon, with a piano player in the corner and a lot of people in the room drinking things and singing along with the piano. Behind the bar was a smiling dark woman with long hair and beautiful turquoise jewelry waving them in. “Come on in! Welcome, solstice travelers! Merry Christmas!”
Solstice travelers were lucky, it turned out, as well as unusual on a continent as lightly populated as the southern continent. There was room at the inn, lots of room, because most of the revelers were from in town not out. The Doctor got them a room and held up a big brass key to her.
“We’re not a big town, but we’re friendly,” said the barkeep, who was doubling as the inn-keep. “Here! Have something cold to freshen you up after your travel.” She pulled two pints of something cold and vaguely apple-tasting. Definitely alcoholic. The psychic paper had impressed her even more than it had the stablehand.
Clara leaned her back against the bar so she could get a better look at the party. She had another long drink from the cider. The piano player was doing a very good rendition of “Linus and Lucy,” complete with soft jazz drums from somewhere Clara couldn’t see. She was wearing a long duster despite the heat, with the tails spread out on the bench, and had her back to the room. She had on a black flat-brimmed hat with a silver band. Now that was a hat Clara was willing to wear.
The version of “Linus and Lucy” sounded a lot like the recording. Where was the drummer? And come to think of it, there was an upright bass somewhere too. She did love this song. The whole soundtrack, in fact. It put her into a truly Christmassy mood.
Clara quickly forgot about the pianist, though, as the entire village seemed set on introducing itself to them. The planet did have a strong tradition of epic solstice parties, but nobody traveled much in the summer. It was their main holiday festival, one of them told her, a big man with a set of massive biceps and equally massive muttonchops. They might not be able to match what the big cities did, but they could welcome and say farewell to the sun with full honors. He himself prepped the cannon that very morning, he told her proudly.
“The cannon?” Clara said.
“Ooh, the cannon,” said the Doctor. He took Clara’s hand and squeezed. “The Christmas cannon is my favorite!”
“Mine too.” And then he laughed and slapped the Doctor on the shoulder. “Clever man, eh? Maneuvering her around like that.”
“What?” the Doctor said.
The mutton-chop man pointed over their head. “Mistletoe!”
Clara looked up. “That isn’t mistletoe. That isn’t even holly.” It looked a lot more like a tumbleweed, in fact, a tiny green tumbleweed dangling from a red ribbon.
“That’s mistletoe. Our town is named for it, we have so much of it growing around here.”
“That’s a tumble–” The Doctor had laid his finger across her lips.
“Ah ha ha,” he said. “Don’t contradict the locals. They call it mistletoe, it’s mistletoe. Fortunately they don’t have any quaint traditions about it.”
“But we do!” said the blacksmith. “You need to kiss your companion or drink a shot of hyper-palinka. One or the other. You choose!”
The Doctor’s eyes went wide. “I had hyper-palinka once. Or so they tell me. I don’t remember a thing. Clara?”
“That’s what they call mistletoe around here. Come on, come on, don’t be rude! We need to respect the local traditions. And not drink any palinka.” He looked seriously worried about the idea.
“Okay,” Clara said, because she was completely certain he was going to hate this.
She went up on tiptoes and he came down, and instead of kissing her on the cheek the way she expected, his lips touched hers. His arm snuck around her waist and snugged her close and then they were kissing properly, long and sweet. He let her go and she staggered back, still in shock. Her cheeks were hot.
“Whoa,” she said, and the room erupted into cheering.
That was the end of any normality for the evening, because their fellow partiers were now finding excuses to hold tumbleweeds over their heads, lure them into standing under tumbleweeds, and just generally torment them with the prospect of palinka. The Doctor, mostly, because he was the one who blushed ferociously every time. And yet he chose the kiss every time, citing the horrors of palinka. Clara was getting into it, if she were honest. It was fun to kiss him, because he protested every time, and then he yielded and closed his eyes and kissed her anyway and yes that was his tongue flickering against her lips on that last kiss. Wow.
Just before midnight they all trooped out behind the inn and up a hill to where an ancient-looking cannon squatted. The man she’d talked to earlier in the evening, the one with mutton-chops, stuffed it full of black powder and cotton wadding. Clara backed away and stuck her fingers into her ears. They started a raucous countdown as the town clock chimed midnight. On the twelfth chime they lit the fuse. A roar, a deep thud, the cannon slammed back and something streaked off into the air, all green and red. It burst opened into a shower of more green and red sparks. The town cheered.
Fireworks, Clara realized.
The Doctor came up beside her and took her elbow. He was grinning ear to ear. “Told you,” he said, again.
“Yeah, you did. I’ve had enough cannon for one night, though.”
“Let’s go to our room.”
Well, well. That was-- definitely an idea, that was what it was. Clara smiled up at him and he peered almost anxiously down at her. “The room,” she said, and nodded.
They snuck away from the party without anyone noticing and made their way back into the inn. Up the stairs, along the wooden floor of the corridor, to their room. The Doctor locked the door.
Clara sat on the bed. Metal bedsprings; they creaked loudly. She tried not to grin; maybe they’d be making them creak a lot, maybe not. It all depended on whether he’d been shamming about the hyper-palinka. She pulled off her boots, set them neatly on the floor. The room was nice enough for something at this technology level: a single narrow bed with iron railings, a desk, a dresser, a pitcher of water set out hospitably for them. Also set out: a fruit basket. She hopped up and snagged an apple and stuck it into her pocket, thinking of Green Blaze waiting in the stables.
And then she saw it.
“There’s mistletoe over the bed,” Clara said. Well, tumbleweed, but when in Rome.
The Doctor ran his hand through his magnificent hair and made it stand up even more than it had. He had an expression on his face that looked like fight or flight to Clara. “Are you going to do that thing again?”
“You mean the kissing thing?”
“Okay,” he said, so faintly that she wasn’t sure she caught it, but oh yes, that was what he’d said. He came over to her, sat beside her on the bed. He reached over to her and slid his hand into her hair.
He kissed her.
The cannon went off again and again while they kissed. The townsfolk screamed in delight. Clara could hear them dimly through the window. The Doctor tipped her back onto the bed. He knew what he was doing, she thought, with what remained of her rational mind. He was good at this. Why had she thought he wouldn’t be? He was kissing her and holding her tight and it was the best thing she’d felt in months and months and months. Oh it, was nice. They were tangled up in each other on the bed, sighing against each other. Probably the springs were creaking. Thank goodness that cannon was still going off outside. He had something in his trousers that was more than a spare sonic screwdriver, she could tell that. She was not going anywhere near it, though. He was too nervy. It was fine anyway. Kissing him was good. It was one step closer toward what they both knew was coming, had been coming since she’d put her hand in his and run off with him into the TARDIS on Christmas morning. The last time they’d called it Christmas. Tomorrow morning it would be Christmas morning again. Sort of. Maybe then they’d take the next step.
Or maybe it would take them a little longer to get there. They could hop from Christmas to Christmas on planet after planet, moving slowly closer together. Snog this Christmas, roll around a lot next Christmas, consummate things the Christmas after that, then for a change go to that never-ending New Year’s Eve party he’d mentioned once and get married–
The Doctor pulled away from her suddenly. His hands gripped at her shoulders. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” It was silent outside now.
The Doctor’s eyes were wide. Clara hushed up and listened. No cannon, no party noises, no piano player. Just an odd humming. A humming that was inside the room.
The Doctor disentangled his legs from her. A stab of regret ran through her, because she’d been hoping they’d just keep going. Oh well. He sat up, very slowly, quietly. He pointed to the corner of the room, where the desk was. Clara rolled over just enough to see where he was pointing: a blue glow, faint but present. Her lips moved in bad word that she did not let escape.
The Doctor rose to his feet, moving ever so slowly. He reached into his jacket pocket: sunglasses out. Slipped them on. Clara held still, held her breath. He slid over on stockinged feet, one step, two. Then the glasses warbled and he lunged forward, snatched something.
The Doctor spun back over to her triumphantly. He was holding something small dangling from his fingers. It was mouse-shaped, mostly, but its body was silver and ridged. Blue lights rippled along its sides for a second and then went dark.
Clara looked at it closely. “Cybermat?”
“No,” he said, and she can hear the wonder and fascination in his voice. “It’s a mouse. A cybermouse. They’ve converted a mouse. But–”
“What are Cybermen doing here? And why convert a mouse?”
“Ah,” he said, but it was the kind of ah that meant she’d asked the right question, not that he’d figured it out.
“You knew something was up here, didn’t you.”
“Well–” he said, and wriggled his shoulders. She grinned at him, though, and he grinned back. This was the only interruption she could tolerate for a snogging session like the one they’d had going. Cybermen! On the planet of Pueblo! The only thing in the universe better than snogging was saving a planet. Though maybe she had her priorities inverted there.
She froze as a thought comes to her, then raised her finger. “The piano player. No. The piano. It’s–”
“Higher tech than it ought to be.”
“And this is far beyond the technology level allowed here at any time that I’ve visited.”
Clara looked up at the Doctor. "About what we were doing just now, " she said.
“We were a bit, er, busy.” He waved his hands around his head. Since he was still holding the cybermouse, this was funnier than it ought to have been, and Clara had to stifle a giggle.
“Don’t think I’m going to forget it, mister,” she said. “We’re going to finish what we started.”
He gave her a bashful smile. Then he said, to her utter surprise, “Soon. As soon as we clear this up. Won’t you leave you, ah, that is–” He flapped the dead cybermouse around in the air again instead of saying anything specific, but it was fine. She knew what he meant.
Clara put on her boots and they crept downstairs as quietly as, well, um, mice. Not that it mattered–nothing was stirring, not even a cybermouse. There was nobody around and the inn was completely silent around them. The saloon was more or less exactly as it was when they left it to fire the cannon: dirty glasses everywhere, playing cards spread out on tables, gas-lamps still lit. It was, in Clara’s view, more than a little creepy.
“That’s odd,” the Doctor said. “Not like a innkeeper to leave everything so messy.”
“No,” Clara said. “And wasn’t the party supposed to go all night?”
The Doctor walked over to the piano, the suspiciously high-tech piano that supplied its own bass and drums. Clara followed him, and helped him pull it away from the wall. He prodded at its back. “Not a piano,” he said. “This is a something not from this planet.”
“Hey,” she said. “The top opens.”
She propped it and they both peered inside in dismay. It was no piano: no strings, no hammers, just a tangle of wires and tubes and blue lights running everywhere. Silver, blue. Technology far beyond where this planet was right now, and technology with a terrifyingly familiar flavor. Clara’s stomach dropped.
“Yeah. It’s a conversion unit. See the hatch down there? And the hole at the side? Mice go in, and something very different comes out.”
As they watched, the hatch at the bottom popped open. A silver-covered mouse ran out. It paused, reared up, sniffed. It swiveled toward them very deliberately. The Doctor touched his glasses and it froze in place and then toppled over. Poor mouse. But then, it had probably ceased to exist as a mouse the moment it had entered the trap.
The Doctor fiddled around some more, then did something more complicated with his glasses. The machine went dark. “Merely powered it off,” he said. “Need to take a crowbar to this.”
“Where is everybody?” she said, because she was starting to have a very bad feeling about where all the townspeople had gone.
“That is a very good question. Shall we look around?”
The idea was both exciting and terrifying, and it was maybe something Clara wouldn’t admit that the terror was part of the attraction. Cybermen! There would be Cybermen wandering around the town somewhere! They might die, but probably they wouldn’t. The most likely outcome would be that they would save everybody, and that was the most fun she could possibly imagine. As well as being the nice thing to do. She’d liked that beefy man with the mutton chops.
The town was dead. Quiet, yes. No bodies. No humans, no animals, no nothing. A tumbleweed rolling past in the wind. The lights were out in all the houses. Clara had a very bad feeling about everything. She reached out for the Doctor’s hand and he clasped hers firmly and didn’t let go.
“I have a theory,” he said. “This is cattle ranching country. There’ll be a place to load cattle by the railroad station. Let’s see if the missing Circle-Aleph animals are there.”
The railroad station was there, a long wooden platform, a coal-yard at one end, a water tower beside. And at the far end from the coaling station there was indeed a big pen with a ramp at the end, a ramp that ended beside the rail line. And inside the pen were cattle. As they got closer Clara tried to count: a dozen, two dozen.
And then she spotted the machine. She clutched at the Doctor’s hand and pointed. A huge machine, like the piano. Cows walked in, one at a time. On the other side, cyber-cows walked out. Shining horns, silver traceries over their heads, and blue eyes. They were lined up, eerily, by the loading area, as if they were waiting patiently for the next train. Which, Clara realized, they might be. She counted again: maybe half of the cows were already converted.
“Cybercattle. You should know better, Teach.”
“Shut up, you. The point is, the point is, why convert a cow? I get the mice. Mice are great scouts. But cows?”
“A heavy and mobile army. See the horns? Imagine these stampeding at you. Imagine being able to control a stampede.”
“Oh my god.”
“As ways to take over a planet go, it’s not very fast. But it’s probably efficient. They have no technology with which to fight this. And imagine–”
“Converting the equilids. They’re intelligent enough to make very dangerous cyber creatures.”
Clara imagined poor Green Blaze converted, and got upset. The she imagined that nice man with the mutton-chops converted, and got even more upset.
“Let’s take a look at this machine, shall we?”
They climbed the fence and made their way to the machine. The real cattle came over to them and sniffed them. The cyber-cattle ignored them completely. The cows were like the horses: not quite cows, but close enough. The product of genetic manipulation, as were all the animals on this planet. Clara rubbed a cow-like face, mooed back at her.
“Can we save them?”
“Yeah. Or are they going to end up like the mice?”
“We have to find the controller. Wipe it out, jam it, whatever. We do that, they should go back to being ordinary cattle and mice. Maybe a few wires in their heads. Nothing they can’t just ignore. Silver horns. That sort of thing.”
He was bent over the conversion machine while he said this, poking around inside. “Ah! Got it!” He tugged at some wires and pulled them free. Sparks shot out for a few seconds, then the exit door flapped open. A cow staggered out, partially converted-- horns covered in silver, wires hanging off its face.
“Poor thing,” said Clara.
“Step away from the machine now. Hands up!”
That voice-- a woman, stern. Clara raised her hands and stood. The Doctor stood more slowly, with a handful of wires. The speaker strode over to them. The tails of a duster swirled. She was wearing a flat-brimmed hat. Clara recognized the silhouette, not the face: it was the piano player from the saloon. She strode up to them confidently and set her hands on her hips.
“Are you lost?”
“No,” said the Doctor. “We were wondering where all these cattle came from, though. They’ve got the Circle-Aleph brand.” He pointed to a bull standing nearby: there on its flank was the brand. The piano player didn’t even glance that way.
“What about it?”
“We think they’ve been rustled.”
“Are you the cattle thief?”
“I’m not an outlaw. I’m the sheriff.” She flipped open her duster to reveal a big silver star on her black vest. It had eight points on it, which was strange-- didn’t they usually have seven? But it definitely also said “sheriff” in the middle. “I think you should probably go back to your bed in the inn. And then you should leave town.”
The Doctor grinned at her. “We’d love to. But first we need to sort out your problem.”
“Yeah, your cyber problem. Notice anything odd about these cattle? That machine? The machine that’s been converting them?”
As he said this, another shiny silver cyber-cow walked out of the machine and lined itself up by the ramp.
“Converting, you say,” the sheriff said. Clara couldn’t help but notice her total lack of curiosity. “Into what?”
“Oh, I think you know.”
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken.”
The sheriff turned away from them and took several steps toward the herd of cattle. They turned as one to face her.
The Doctor raised his voice. “There are Cybermen on this planet and I think you know where they are.”
The sheriff turned and looked at them. There was something in her eyes that made Clara feel very nervous. Then Clara realized that the sheriff’s eyes were glowing blue and she had a silver filigree all over her face. She had been converted. The gun hanging at her side was silver and blue and it glowed.
“Well, you’re right about that,” said the cyber-sheriff.
She drew, lightning fast, and leveled her gun at the Doctor’s head. Clara swallowed. That was much more like a cannon than a gun, and it was definitely cyber technology. The Doctor slowly raised his hands over his head.
“Well, what’s it going to be, Sheriff? Going to tell me what this is all about? What are you up to with this planet?” No answer. “Feel like playing chess? I enjoyed it last time.”
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed to blue-glowing slits, but she didn’t say anything, didn’t threaten, didn’t reveal any grand plans for cyber-invasion. She just stared at the Doctor for a long second.
Then she pulled the trigger.
Clara woke up sitting up with her back against somebody. Her head was spinning and her mouth tasted like bad whiskey. Her arms ached. She moved, and learned immediately that her wrists were cuffed to whoever it was behind her. She blinked her eyes open, and then regretted it. If this was a hangover it was the worst.
Then she remembered the gun. A blue glow, a huge blast radius. Staggering for a moment, then falling. Her eyes snapped open all the way.
She was in a jail cell. A tiny jail cell, with three walls made of black iron bars, one wall of cinderblock. She was sitting on the floor. The cell bed was a shelf hung against the wall with a pair of chains. On it there was a single gray woolen blanket, folded. In the corner was a tin pail that made Clara was heart sink. Or it would make her heart sink if she expected she’d be stuck there for more than about five minutes longer than it would take the Doctor to wake up, which she didn’t.
The worst thing about it was that she was chained to the Doctor, back to back. Not that this was going to stop them from escaping. But it going to be annoying.
“Wake up!” she said and tugged at her wrists.
“What? Huh?” The Doctor stirred and then tugged back. “I’m awake! Been awake for ages. Fell asleep waiting for you.”
“I believe you,” she said to him. “No really I do.”
The Doctor wriggled against her back.
“If we were face to face this would be more fun,” Clara said. He snorted. She couldn’t see his face, but she would bet any amount of money that he was rolling his eyes. She knew him too well.
“Merry Christmas to you, too.”
“Oh, right, it’s Christmas morning. Where’s my Bucks Fizz?”
“D’you know the best thing about the sunglasses?” he said.
“How innocent they look? How uninteresting? How not worth taking out your pockets they are?”
“Clara Oswald, there were many reasons I enjoy traveling with you, and that’s one.”
The screwdriver had always looked too much like something useful. The sunglasses though-- they were still in his jacket pocket. Getting them out of his pocket was another matter, because he had to reach for them and that meant that she had to let him pull her arms half out of their sockets and then then they had to do a mutual dance of raising their arms together so he could stick them on his face. And then there was a whirr and the chains rattled to the floor in the loudest noise this town has ever heard, and that included when they’d fired the cannon at midnight.
Clara froze. The Doctor did too. They held there, back to back, motionless, waiting for anyone to show up and discover them mid-escape. Silence. Nothing.
Clara let out a breath.
The Doctor pointed at the window. “Back alley,” he said. The glasses whirred again and it popped open. Clara jumped up, grabbed the windowsill, and scrabbled. The Doctor shoved her up and out the window with a firm hand on her bottom, which Clara would one hundred percent pretend never happened when asked in the future. She tumbled out and into a big pile of blue-ish hay. The Doctor followed.
It was daylight now, of course, but the town was completely deserted as it had been the night before. Tumbleweeds-- big ones, not ones hanging from Christmas decorations-- rolled through the streets.
The entire town had been captured. Maybe converted.
Clara’s stomach didn’t feel very good. She’d liked the people she’d met the night before. She hated the idea of losing them to the cybermen army. It was horrible way to go. Danny-- she remembered Danny’s face, and she felt even worse.
“Doctor,” she said.
He reached out and took her hand. She laced her fingers through his and he squeezed.
“I know. Clara, I know. We need to get to our equilids and find where they’ve taken everyone. They can’t have converted them all in the time they’ve had. Their machinery seems very slow.”
Right. Stay on target. Hand in hand they walked through the town, making their way along the railway line toward the stables where they’d left their mounts the night before. Clara opened the door, sick with fear for poor Green Blaze. But both mounts were there in the box, burbling away.
“You! Stop right there!”
The stable hand jumped down from the hayloft and landed in front of them. He had a pitchfork in his hands. He thrust it at them. The Doctor stepped in front of her and held up his empty hands.
“Stay back, machines!”
Clara held out a hand. “It’s okay! We’re okay. We haven’t been converted.”
“Our eyes, man! Look at our eyes.”
He stared at her suspiciously then lowered the pitchfork at last. “You’re human,” he said.
“We’re human,” Clara said. It was a lie from one point of view, but close enough to the truth. “What happened?”
“I don’t know! There was the cannon, the party, the countdown, then the sheriff was here, with a gun, rounding everybody up. Her deputies were here and there was something wrong with them. Their eyes.”
“Glowing blue?” said the Doctor.
The stablehand shuddered. “They took them all! All of them. Rounded them up and made them march out. I hid but they know I’m missing.”
Clara stroked his arm. “Where? Where did they take them?”
“North. The Hernandez family ranch. That’s what they said, anyway. About a mile up the road.”
He turned away from them and sat down on a hay bale. He wrapped his arms around himself and shivered when Clara touched his shoulder.
“Clara,” said the Doctor. “We have to find the townsfolk. Converting cattle is one thing, but people–”
“We’ll want to ride.”
Green Blaze beeped at her when it saw her. Clara reached into her pocket: the apple from last night was still there. Green Blaze snatched the apple from her before she even got her hand stretched out all the way. “Greedy,” she said. “But you’ll notice that I made good on our deal.”
Blaze made another beep through hollow munching sounds.
The Doctor also had an apple for his horse. He was patting its neck and saying sweet things to it that would have made Clara jealous if it were a human being. Which it was not. And besides, the Doctor had been kissing her earlier, not his horse. Except yep, he’d just pressed his lips to its odd face. Clara sighed. Apparently she wasn’t his only squeeze.
“Mine’s prettier than yours,” she said.
The Doctor harrumphed. “No, he isn’t. Blue Socks is prettier.”
“Her name is Blue Socks.”
“Let me guess. You speak horse.”
“Equilid,” the Doctor said, and rolled his eyes. “They’re equilids. And no. It just says so on her bridle.”
“Mine’s named Green Blaze.”
The Doctor opened his mouth, looked at her, then shut it again. Wise man.
This time Clara managed to mount up all on her own, though the stable hand had to put the saddle and all the other stuff on for her. But she got up on her own, and she patted Green Blaze’s neck and felt very pleased with herself. She tapped her heels and Blaze actually walked toward the stable doors, just as she’d hoped. Following the Doctor on Blue Socks, mind you, but–
Green Blaze shied and started beeping loudly, unbelievably loudly. The beeps shattered the night, they were so loud. The Doctor turned around and glared. “Hush up!” Clara whispered, desperately, but the beeping got louder.
The stable door swung open. The sheriff was standing there, with gun in hand. The blacksmith was right beside her-- he had glowing eyes now too.
“Uh, oh,” Clara said.
“Run,” said the Doctor, and they ran. Or rather, the horses ran: right out of the stable, leaping over the grasping hands of the sheriff with her blue-glowing eyes, and on out to the northward road. Clara clung to Green Blaze’s mane with both hands and prayed she could stay on.
The Doctor reined up and circled around to her. “We have to find the controller and destroy it.”
“And rescue people.”
“Side effect,” he said.
She pointed. He looked over his shoulder. The cattle had been released from the pen. The sheriff and the blacksmith were riding two huge cyber-bulls, leading the herd toward them. Clara remembered the glinting horns, remembered what the Doctor had said about stampedes.
“Run,” he said, but Clara didn’t need to be told.
The horses – the grass-eating quadrupeds with long necks, equilids, whatever– were galloping. Clara held the saddle horn with a death grip. Reins, she was holding the reins too, and that meant the Doctor wasn’t leading her anywhere and uh oh she was in charge of this horse. Well, how hard could it be? She passed her motorcycle test first time, after all. She could do this. Deep breath!
Clara Oswald grinned and got her boots settled into the stirrups. She dug in and snapped the reins. “Ya!” she said, and Green Blaze laid his ears back. He put on a burst of speed. The Doctor and his blue-socks horse were ahead of them, but Green Blaze was catching up fast. It was over almost too fast, that long race, with the sheriff and the blacksmith falling further behind as they went.
The Hernandez ranch came into view. She pulled gently at the reins and Green Blaze slowed to a walk. His neck was sweaty and he was breathing hard. “Good job,” she said.
The Doctor was standing in his stirrups. Clara didn’t dare imitate him.
“We have maybe five minutes,” he said.
They rode around to the back of the barn, looking desperately for the controller. Hundreds of cattle. Possibly thousands. Lowing. Milling around. When the Doctor and Clara came up to the fence, they all went silent. Eerily silent. And then they turned to face them.
“Doctor. Um. I think they’re onto us.”
The Doctor ignored it all and sat up straight on Blue Socks’s back. He looked around carefully, deliberately. “There,” he said, and pointed. “By the side of the barn.”
Clara slid off of Green Blaze’s back. Her legs really hurt now, quite a surprising amount, but she couldn’t afford to think about that. She joined the Doctor at the maw of the machine. This was the controller, she could see: there were knobs and dials and buttons. The Doctor stabbed at them. “Dead,” he said. “Locked off.”
He stood back and fiddled with the earpiece of his sunglasses. They warbled. Nothing happened. He glowered and muttered to himself. “Setting 92, should interfere with their usual circuitry. This is something new. Converting mice is new. Damn it.”
Clara decided not to wait for him, but instead to try something drastic. There was a pile of junk by the side of the barn, and in the junk was a crowbar. Perfect! She snatched it and ran back to the Doctor.
“Oh Clara Oswald, I could kiss you.”
“Gonna hold you to that later.”
She got both hands on the crowbar and lifted it over her head. She swung. It crunched deep into the machinery. Tubes breeched and cold gas came hissing out. It stank. Sparks flew. She swung again. More things went smash. Something creaked and groaned deep inside.
“Watch out!” the Doctor shouted.
Clara ducked, but too slowly. Something burst. Metal fragments, blue goo everywhere, showering over here she she stood with her arms over her face. Blue goo. All over her nice clothes.
“Warned you,” the Doctor said. Clara tossed the crowbar at him and he neatly dodged. He rubbed his hands together gleefully.
The cybercattle seemed to have lost all will and purpose, which was exactly the point. Their horns were lowered now, retracted into little nubs. They were mooing instead of whirring in that terrifying way. The silver filigrees were still there, but the blue glow had gone: the controller was well and truly dead. The herd started to move away from them, off into the fields beyond.
Two riders came toward them along the road. Clara picked up the crowbar again, just to be ready, because she could see the flapping tails of the duster. It was indeed the sheriff and the blacksmith on their cyber-cows, but the glow had gone from their eyes. The conversion had worn off the moment the controller was destroyed.
They rode up and fell off their confused cows.
“You two!” the sheriff said. “What’s going on?”
“We’ve stopped the Cybermen,” said the Doctor.
“That machine you were playing last night, the piano. Where did you get it?”
“Oh! I found that in the silver mine. A pair of bandits were trying to make off with it. I scared them off, took it back to the inn. That’s the last thing I remember properly.”
“Ah ha,” said the Doctor. “Anyway, you’re rescued, and so is the town. You’re rescued! Now help us get this door open.”
The Doctor went over to the barn door and bent down to peer at the big lock. The sonic glasses whirred and the lock sprang free and clattered to the floor. The blacksmith got his biceps into the action and the door groaned open, revealing the entire village, packed inside the barn. They cheered and ran out into the sunlight. Clara watched carefully for signs that any of them were converted, but she could see no blue or silver. Men, women, children, all safe and accounted for.
She went back over to check on Green Blaze, who still had his nose in the water trough. It had been a long run for him, she supposed. She rubbed his face and whispered, “Hey, thanks. You were great.”
“Beetle! Beetle! You’re okay!”
Green Blaze-- or Beetle, rather, pulled his face from the trough and made a noise like the victory song after a boss battle. That, Clara decided, was what he sounded like when he was really happy. He danced all the way up to the boy. He stopped and then burbled the tune again.
“Oh, hey,” Clara said, to the boy. “These are your horses.”
The boy pointed. “Blue Socks is my father’s. Beetle is mine.”
The boy was curly-headed and brown-skinned and had an adorable snub nose. There was a tracery of silver on his jaw, which meant he’d been captured and controlled early. That first batch of cattle from the Circle-Aleph ranch were his, then.
Clara patted Beetle’s neck. “I suppose this is it for our relationship.”
Beetle burbled at her and then turned away: she was apparently uninteresting now that the boy was here. Or rather, now that the boy with his pocket full of carrots was there. Somebody who Clara guessed was his father came up to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. She remembered him from the night at the inn; he’d been singing carols with a group of people.
“Thank the nice man and lady,” he said to his son.
“Thank you for bringing my horse to me,” the boy said, very politely.
“Your equilid,” the Doctor said.
The man shook his head. “He’s hopeless. Thank you for rescuing the town.” He put his hand to his chest and bowed. “What can we do to repay you?”
The Doctor rubbed his hand through his hair. “Oh, ah, I suppose you can keep up the tradition. The mistletoe. The party on Christmas. I was thinking it might be more fun if it lasted all week, you know? Liven things up. Give this town a bit of a name. A reputation. For mistletoe.”
The man shook his head. “A whole week?”
“I think maybe we could manage it,” said the sheriff. She cocked her head at the innkeeper, who rubbed her chin. “Lot of money in it for the town, probably. Sorry I stunned you, by the way.”
“It’s okay,” Clara said. “You were, ah–”
“You were not in your right mind,” said the Doctor, finishing her sentence.
“I am keeping this gun, though,” said the sheriff. “It’s much less dangerous than a revolver. Better idea to knock the town drunks out than to shoot them.”
“And we’ll have a lot of drunks if we throw a party for the whole week.”
Clara and the Doctor borrowed Blue Socks and Beetle for one last ride, back up to the dusty hillside where the TARDIS waited. Clara was sorry to see him go, but her legs hurt so badly that she felt she would be okay if she never sat on another horse again.
Sweet TARDIS air, cool and with just a hint of moisture. Clara drew in a long breath, another. She was covered in sweat and dust and streaks of blue goo from when the machine burst open. She needed a bath and a change of clothes and maybe a painkiller for her legs if she was going to have to run, walk, or stagger anywhere.
The Doctor came over to her, very close, invading her personal space close. This was new. Clara wiped some goo from her face and smiled at him. “Another planet saved,” she said.
“Another shirt ruined.”
He was silent, staring at her with his brows together. Was he upset?
“Clara,” he said.
Clara cocked an eyebrow at him.
“We have unfinished business.”
He held out his hand. Dangling from his spindly fingers was a tiny tumbleweed. Deliberately, holding her eye, he lifted his hand until the tumbleweed was over his head. He tilted his head at her. A challenge, then.
Clara grabbed a fistful of hoodie and pulled him down into a kiss. He grabbed at her just as hard and hauled her close, goo and all. “Clara,” he said, into her hair. “Clara.”
Clara thought that she might not wait until next Christmas after all.