A Star At Christmas
"But it's January 2nd," said Lynda, staring down at Spike from the top step. He smiled cheerfully.
"I know. I sorta missed Christmas. I was busy."
"I was busy. I still remembered Christmas."
"I didn't say I forgot it. I just said I was busy." He smiled on, patient, filled with the spirit of the season – or a slightly side-stepped version of it. "Anyway, Happy Christmas." So saying, he held out his gift once again, neatly wrapped in paper festooned in blue and yellow balloons, and proclaiming Happy 6th Birthday! in pink stencilling. He hoped that she wouldn't notice, which was, he was very much aware, a piece of the most remarkable optimism. She glared at him a moment longer, over the top of the glasses that he was never entirely sure she needed. They were so perfect for imperious peering that it seemed likely they had been chosen for that reason. He raised his eyebrows hopefully. "Can I come in?"
"Do you have to?" She sighed. "Yes, I suppose so. It is quite cold."
"And it is Christmas," he offered. Her glare sharpened itself to a point.
"Ish. Come on."
"Thanks." He slipped past her into the hall, and deposited the present on the hall table, beside a very futuristic-looking telephone, and an obviously well-used message pad. He knew that she would pick it up. She never could resist the unknown.
"So, did you have a good Christmas?" he asked, sitting down on a particularly comfortable sofa, and stretching his feet out towards a glowing electric fire. She appeared in the doorway, his gift held almost at arm's length, giving it slight, experimental shakes prior to opening it.
"I had a wonderful Christmas." She went over to an arm chair, making a point of not sitting too close to him. "A perfect Christmas."
"Even though I wasn't here?"
"Because you weren't here." She gave the present another brief shake. "What is it?"
"It won't explode?"
"Why would it explode?"
"Because you're you. Because I'm me. Because that's... Because we're us." She glared at him. "My birthday present exploded once."
"It did, yeah. Although in all fairness it was a confetti bomb. It was hardly terrorist activity. Also I was, what, seventeen?"
"Oh. Okay. Well it was still funny." He put his feet up on the coffee table, mostly because he liked her glare, and also because he hoped that she would move closer in order to push them back off.
"It was childish." She didn't push his feet off the table, but she did glare, which was half a victory. "Anyway, to what do I owe the dubious honour of your visit?"
"I kinda thought that was obvious." He looked pointedly at the present, in all its birthday-wrapped glory. "Happy Christmas, remember?"
"That's not what the wrapping paper says."
"No, but Christmas is a birthday, right?"
"Yes, although I think you're just a little late with 'Happy 6th'." She sighed, eyeing the present with an obvious mix of trepidation and naked curiosity. "And it's not going to explode?"
"Do I ever repeat myself?"
"Frequently." She continued to regard the present with an air of exasperation, although to one who knew her as well as Spike, there was evident pleasure in her eyes. "Alright. I suppose it can't hurt." She unwrapped it carefully, before frowning slightly at the contents. It was... tasteful. There was no escaping it. Spike had actually bought her something that might easily be called sensible. She glanced up at him, still half-expecting a trick.
"It's a briefcase."
"It's an adamantine briefcase." He was clearly pleased with himself. It was almost endearing. "Completely indestructible. It's bullet-proof."
"That'll come in handy."
"You can throw it off cliffs."
"There are lots of them in London."
"And if nuclear war ever does happen, that briefcase will probably be the only thing left standing. Or lying down. Intact, anyway."
He sighed, shaking his head slightly at her lack of vision. "It's for your writing, dummkopf. What's more important to you than that? Now, if there's a house fire, or... something... you don't have to worry about all your precious research and articles. And, more to the point, you don't have to risk your life trying to save them. They can sit it out in that, and you can pick them up later, right as rain."
"I—" She flushed slightly, taken aback. "That's actually quite thoughtful. Thank you."
"Hey, what am I? Totally useless? Don't answer that." He settled back on the sofa, content. "So, you got anything to eat around here?"
"Eat?" She looked up, clearly caught unawares. He sighed.
"Yeah, you know. Christmas cake? Mince pies? Christmas pudding? 'Tis the season, and all that. For us mortals outside of Lynda Day Land, that is."
"Oh. Food. Yes." She frowned. "I think there might be some chocolate cake in the kitchen. Although I'm not entirely sure when I bought it."
"Mmm, tasty." He shook his head, rising to his feet and taking her hand. "Come on, Super Editor. I'm taking you out to dinner."
"I am. And bring the briefcase. It's kinda sexy."
"It's a briefcase, Spike."
"Yeah, but it makes you look all professional, and that's sexy."
"It is?" She couldn't hide a smile. He smiled as well, rather more broadly, and led the way back to the front door.
"Your coat, madam."
"Thank you. Where are we going?"
"Your choice." He opened the door, and they went out into a chilly, but not too uncomfortable night. The streets were quiet, the glow of television sets mingling with the bright Christmas lights in an avenue of windows. Spike gave a silent prayer of thanks to whichever reality show or film premiere had granted him the solitude. It wasn't often that he got such a moment with Lynda. There were always so many distractions, so many other things going on around her. Peace and quiet and Lynda Day had only a passing acquaintance.
"So what you fancy?" he asked her, as they began to stroll along. "Italian? Chinese? Indian? Thai?"
"Moroccan it is. You'll have to point me in the right direction though."
"It's two streets over..." She trailed off. Above their heads, a bright light had suddenly appeared, blue-white against the purple glow of the cloudless sky. It hovered for a moment, or seemed to, then streaked away, its flaming tail describing a perfect arc. Lynda gasped.
"Look at that!"
"A shooting star. Beautiful."
"That was no shooting star. They don't hover."
"They don't?" He could sense his perfect evening disintegrating. She shot him a withering look.
"Of course they don't. Come on!"
"There could be a story here, Spike. It might be... I don't know. Something to do with the European Space Station. Or—"
"Aliens?" he deadpanned. She glared.
"If you're not interested..."
"I'm coming." She was already hurrying away, and he had no choice but to rush after her. The story of his life, he mused – dashing after Lynda Day, fighting the next headline for a small fraction of her attention. It ought to be demeaning. It ought to be demoralising.
Somehow he never seemed to mind.
They hurried through quiet streets, darting down side roads, clambering over occasional fences, and scurrying across frequent gardens, anxious to keep on a straight path. Lynda ran with her usual confidence, apparently certain that trampled flowerbeds, and the frenzied barking of outraged dogs, were a perfectly reasonable price to pay for a potential story. Remarkably they were not challenged. Once or twice somebody bellowed a question to the night, and to whatever mysterious sounds they might have heard outside their windows, but nobody ventured out. Once again, this time for rather different reasons, Spike gave thanks to whatever television programme was keeping everybody indoors.
The run was not a long one, although it felt so to Spike, who skidded to a halt at Lynda's side, gasping helplessly. They were in some sort of parkland, he thought. A heath perhaps. Low shrubs growing in patches; carefully managed, no doubt, to give an illusion of nature. Somewhere up ahead, half hidden by a copse of something seasonally leafless, something was glowing. Very faintly, with a yellow-white light not unlike an incandescent light bulb.
"Doesn't look very alien from here," he said, between gulps of air. Lynda fired him a scornful look.
"It's a light, Spike. What are you expecting? Antennae? Anyway, it isn't alien, is it. It's probably some Ministry of Defence experiment, or something of NASA's. Come on."
"Do you think the Ministry of Defence wants us playing with their toys?"
"Well of course not. What do you expect me to do, though? Go back home and twiddle my thumbs for the rest of the evening?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of sitting in a Moroccan restaurant, eating tagine." He knew that he would get another sharp glare for that, and was not disappointed. "Look, I just think—"
"Come on. The worst they can do is confiscate my camera. They're hardly going to shoot us, are they."
"If they do shoot us, am I allowed to say I told you so?"
"If you do, will I be allowed to stamp on something painful?"
"We'll be dead, Lynda."
"Don't think that'll stop me." She began to advance, fumbling in the pockets of her coat as she did so. Spike was not at all surprised to discover that a camera, a dictaphone, and a spiral-bound notebook seemed to accompany her wherever she went. She thrust the camera at him, and he struggled to check it over in the dark.
"Just make sure that you're ready with that. And don't forget the flash."
"Hey, I do know how to take photos."
"Says the man who once covered an entire interview with the lens cap on."
"I was sixteen!"
"Nevertheless." She was hugging her notebook to her chest, the yellow-white glow of their quarry gleaming faintly on her briefcase, and on the transparent plastic case of a cheap biro, both gripped in her right hand. Spike could not help smiling. Years went by, the stories changed, but she was always the same Lynda Day. And he was always the faithful sidekick, following along no matter what. There was a degree of comfort in that, although he wasn't sure that there should be.
"Don't worry, I'll get your pictures. Even if it does land me in the Tower." They crept onward, both wary of the possible approach of security services, as well as the potential dangers of crashed space equipment. "Say, you don't think the glow is because this thing is radioactive, do you?"
"Of course not!" She hesitated briefly, and then pressed on. "Or not much, anyway. It wouldn't be safe."
"Safe. Right." They grew closer. They could see the wreckage now, visible beneath the glow – shards of twisted metal and plastic, tangled almost inextricably with tree branches and blackened clumps of gorse. It didn't look much like a satellite, thought Spike. Not that he had ever seen a real one.
"Ssh. I should be narrating this." She had switched her notebook for her dictaphone, fumbling to stuff the pad and pen into her new, indestructible briefcase.
"But Lynda! Isn't that... I mean... didn't I just see something... move?"
"I'm serious! In the middle of all that junk, there was something that – there!" He pointed. "See? Something's alive in there."
"Nonsense. It's... I don't know. Probably a weather balloon."
"A weather balloon. A glowing, metal, weather balloon." He swallowed hard, as a shape emerged from the jumble of metal, back-lit by the ever-present glow. A stocky, man-sized, domed something, with what looked like an eye on a stalk – and something that looked very like a gun, swivelling to point at the surrounding night. "That is not a weather balloon."
"No. Some sort of... defence program?" She no longer sounded nearly so sure of herself, but nonetheless showed no sign of backing down. "Oh well. Nothing ventured."
"Lynda!" But she was already striding forward, if not quite as confidently as before. Spike rolled his eyes and, gripping his camera as though it might somehow shield him from danger, he hurried after her. Ahead, both eye-stalk and gun turned to meet their approach, as well as – somewhat incongruously – what looked very like a sink plunger.
"Identify yourself!" It spoke with a voice something like how a sheet of metal might sound, if somehow it acquired the power of speech; a harsh, grating, echoing boom of a voice that made Spike want to duck for cover. At a loss as to how else to react, he pointed the camera and fired off three quick shots, the flash bursting into life in three blinding bursts of light. The creature – if indeed it was a creature – went into an immediate retreat, the improbable sink plunger waving in the air.
"I am blinded! I am blinded! I cannot see! Under attack!" The thing that looked very like a gun whirled about, and promptly confirmed its nature by blasting a footpath sign into molten ruins.
"Bloody hell!" said Lynda, and as the gun spun towards the sound of her voice, and Spike contemplated the defensive and assault potential of a lightweight digital camera, Lynda swung up her new briefcase, and ducked her head behind it. There was a brilliant flash as the creature fired, and a brighter one as its gun blast bounced straight off the briefcase, and right back toward its own, domed head. When the stars cleared from Spike's vision, it was to see Lynda sitting on the ground, her briefcase steaming gently, and her face wearing an expression of faint befuddlement. The creature itself was clearly no more, half its body obliterated, and a curtain of acrid, black smoke hiding most of the rest. Lynda frowned at the mess, and then examined her briefcase. It bore a very slight dent, but otherwise appeared to have escaped undamaged.
"Well that was..." Having aimed for his usual, cheerily off-hand approach to everything, Spike gave up, and his words ground to a halt. "I don't know what the hell that was. Are you okay?"
"I am." She stood up, absently brushing away stray grass and bracken as she peered closely at the ruined dome-thing. "But I think we broke it."
"It was trying to break us," he reminded her. She nodded.
"I just hope that NASA agree with that. Or... whoever."
"Whoever. Yeah. It doesn't look much like something belonging to the Ministry of Defence, does it."
"Not our Ministry of Defence, no." She edged closer, and peered into the smoking remains. "Yuck. It's all slimy in there. Slimy and burnt. And very smelly."
"Great. Come on, we'd better make ourselves scarce. There's no telling who else saw this thing crash. No way were we the only ones."
"Leave?!" She gesticulated towards the obliterated ruin of their erstwhile assailant, her voice rising into a familiar squeak in her indignation. "But the story!"
"And when whoever owns it turns up, and finds out that we just blew up their top secret... space... weapon... thing?" He waved vaguely in the air as words failed him. "Best case scenario, we get landed with a twenty billion dollar lawsuit from the government spacemen."
"Worse case scenario?"
"Firing squads. Foreign prisons." He grabbed her hand, trying to usher her back the way they had come. "Cattle prods and stuff."
"Oh, nonsense." She looked back at the decidedly broken weapon-thing, and sighed. "But I suppose you could be right."
"It does happen occasionally."
"Fine. I suppose there isn't a lot we can do here anyway. But you'd better have some very good pictures of that thing. I can ask around online. Somebody might know what it is."
"And then?" he asked, rather afraid that this was leading to more trouble. Pulling him in that direction was quite a talent of Lynda's; although admittedly he had abilities of his own in that area as well.
"And then we'll see." They turned about, heading back towards the trees, towards the beaten old path and the quiet street where she lived. "Oh, and by the way. Thank you, Spike."
"For my Christmas present. Nobody ever gave me one that saved my life before. And certainly not so quickly."
"Yeah, well, I aim to please."
"That's news to me." She cast him a sharp, sidelong glance, that softened into something so nearly a smile. "You can carry it for me if you want."
"I can, huh." He took the case, feeling the still warm patch where the laser blast had struck, realising anew just how close he had come to losing her. It hit him like a punch in the stomach and, on an impulse, he leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. Her step faltered, but she did not stop.
"What was that for?" There was a haughtiness in her tone that turned the question into a demand, and Spike smiled at the sound of it. They were growing ever older – life was changing, and it was changing them – and yet some things, it seemed, couldn't help but stay the same.
"It's Christmas," he told her. "There was mistletoe."
"That was a fir tree, Spike. They're quite famous at this time of year. You've probably noticed them."
"Whatever." She stared at him then, as though trying to gauge how serious he was. For a moment he met her eyes; for one, brief moment, they were both serious; an instant of real, genuine affection. Then they looked away again, and continued back to the road.
"What do you think it was, anyway?" he asked, after a few moments of companionable silence. She shrugged, and he was gratified to realise that she was still close enough for him to feel it.
"Other than half of a belligerent cruet set? I don't know. An experiment. Maybe we can find something on the internet."
"I doubt it. It'll be a secret."
"Probably. Well whatever it was, it can't have been much of an experiment, anyway. We beat it with a briefcase."
"Yeah, but a good one."
"A very good one. That's a bit beside the point."
"I suppose." The case still felt warm. He wasn't sure that he had quite processed what that meant. Not yet. She was close beside him though – and she was warmer still. That was a far better focus for his attention. "So, um... you got anything planned for the rest of Christmas?" he asked. She frowned at him.
"Christmas is over, Spike. We covered that already."
"Have I got anything planned for a figurative Christmas?"
"...As it happens, no."
"I might think of something though. Something very important."
"You probably will. In the meantime, do you still want to go out to dinner?"
"I'd rather take a look at those photos."
"Figures." He had to laugh at that. He could not help himself. "Sandwiches and coffee then?"
She paused, as though, somewhere beneath her helpless addiction to work, she had a vague idea that he might be disappointed.
"Do you mind?"
"No." He smiled into the quiet night, suddenly quite absurdly content. "Actually it sounds just great."