Daniella says: Part of the Gatchamania Gift Exchange 2011. Written for Garnet, the prompt was: It is the last Christmas before the team's first mission. So, here goes, and I hope you enjoy it, I certainly enjoyed writing it!
“You are hiding something, Jason,” said Mark, materializing in front of Jason in the ready room and trying to snatch a booklet that his newly-appointed second-in command was reading, sprawled on the couch. But Jason was quicker: with one movement, he smartly closed the booklet and hid it in the middle of a racing magazine.
“Don't you ever knock?” Jason looked at him, annoyed.
“Are you working on your Christmas shopping list?” insisted Mark, ignoring Jason's look.
“No, and stop badgering me. I don't bother you when you're on the airfield, do I?”
Mark sat down.
“Hey, this might be our last chance to celebrate Christmas with all of us here together. Things are not looking that good, are they? Let's plan a big dinner party, with the Chief and the other ISO staff, you know, to celebrate what will be, perhaps, our last peaceful holiday in a long time.”
Jason looked thoughtful. Even if it seemed that the new Commander of the newly-minted team was planning another team-building exercise – and the team had had enough of those – with Christmas coming up, maybe he had a point. Any day now, they could be called to their first combat mission. An actual mission, after months and months of sims and hard training. Perhaps they should make the most of the time they had left to blend even better together as a team, get used to their new civilian uniforms with the old-fashioned tee-shirts...
“Only if you let me pick the dee-jay,” smirked Jason, carefully placing the racing magazine with the booklet in its middle in a drawer and locking it.
“Let's go get the others and ask the Chief if it's okay with him to throw a party when we're supposed to be on red alert,” said Mark, heading towards the door, Jason following him but not before he stole a look to check that the drawer was indeed locked.
Anderson was finishing his briefing to the heads of the other ISO departments, and the atmosphere in the room had chilled considerably. The news from the latest reports of ISO operatives on Spectra was pointing towards a single conclusion: hostilities between the Earth and Spectra could begin any day now, with a Spectran surprise attack on Earth – surprise only in the sense that ISO didn't know the exact day it would occur.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there can be no doubt that Spectra is determined to attack the Earth. Our negotiations have failed. The Spectran leadership seems intent on trying to conquer our resources instead of negotiating with us for them. The G-Force team is ready. We are ready. We will not initiate hostilities, but we are ready to repel them once they start. It is a sad duty for me to report on all these negative developments, but I am sure you share with me the determination to see this war through.”
The gathered heads of departments, men and women of the ISO who had seen through the preparations for repelling a Spectran attack, nodded solemnly.
“We will be ready for the war, Chief Anderson”, said a women in the first row. “Although it grieves me that we have to use children to defend us.”
Anderson sighed. He had been going over the same argument for months now. Sarah was the head of the procurement department. She dealt with missiles and ammunition. She had also been involved in the G-Force project for years. She knew these children, and loved them as much as he did.
“The members of G-Force are young only in age. They are trained better than any other ISO personnel and they are mature beyond their years. Most of all, they are ready and able to face a Spectran attack efficiently and effectively. They would not be happy to hear you call them 'children', Sarah,” he added with a little smile.
“I have known them since they were toddlers”, said Sarah softly. “I cannot think of them as soldiers.”
Anderson did something that surprised even himself. He got off his podium and approached Sarah. He took her hand in his.
“It's difficult for me too. But we will face this and, by God, we will prevail!”
“Otherwise we will be Spectra's slaves,” added another member of the audience darkly. “You are right, Anderson. We are ready and willing to fight back!”
The solemn atmosphere was suddenly broken by the high pitch of a young girl's voice, and the unsuppressed laughter of two teenage boys. The door flung open and Princess, Mark and Jason stumbled in, laughing and pushing each other. Anderson felt his cheeks burn, and started to apologise for his team's behaviour.
“Which part of the phrase 'Do not enter' don't you understand? What is this? Mark, I expected you to control your team better. And you have not even been deployed yet! Is this the behaviour I should expect from you?”
As soon as the three teenagers entered the room, their laughter died away. In their rush to get to the Chief and discuss their party plans, they completely ignored the little notice outside his door. Just as they ignored the big red light on the wall, which denoted that a meeting was in progress and entry was strictly prohibited. Mark pulled himself to attention first, Princess and Jason quick to follow his example.
“I apologise, Chief, ladies and gentlemen. I take full responsibility for the behaviour of my team-mates – and myself. It will not happen again.”
He looked so young, Anderson thought. So young. They all did. Children who had grown up to do battle for their elders. His shoulders hunched.
“It's okay, Commander. We were just finishing.”
Mark allowed his posture to relax, but only a tiny little bit. Anderson saw it, and felt a prickle of pride.
“Then I will take my team and leave. Sorry again.”
He executed a half-turn, marched to the door, with Princess and Jason following, both of them uncharacteristically silent – still deeply embarrassed for having gate-crashed an ISO meeting when they were not supposed to. Anderson still looked at them sternly. Sarah got up from her seat, determinedly facing the Chief.
“Oh for heaven's sake, Anderson. Give them a break. Meeting's over, anyway.”
Anderson raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. He had known Sarah all the long years they both worked for ISO. He knew she had not been happy that their young charges were now Earth's last line of defence, and had often seen her trying to cut them some slack when she felt he was too strict with them.
All around them, ISO personnel were slowly packing their briefing notes and papers away, relaxing after a long, tense meeting. They started saying goodbye to each other, heading towards the door.
“Before you go, can we make a suggestion?” Jason's voice was heard above the din of chairs scraping the floor and the babble of twenty ISO scientists and security officers discussing the latest developments. Heads turned in his direction.
“Look, we know we may be called to active duty any day now,” continued Jason. “So we thought, let's have big party, here in ISO, for Christmas. It may be our last chance for...for a long time,” he added softly. Or maybe our last chance, period, he thought, and he knew his team-mates thought the same.
A silence fell on the room. Then Princess walked to front, and spoke brightly and cheerfully.
“So we thought, what better way to celebrate Christmas, than all of us here together? With our friends...and family,” she added, looking fondly at Anderson.
“What a great idea,” said Sarah enthusiastically, hugging the younger woman. “Come on, Anderson, let your hair down for once!”
Anderson did not look as if he meant to let his hair down even for a tiny moment, but with a glance at the expectant faces of his team and the other ISO staff, he relented.
“Why not?” he smiled.
A couple of days later, Mark and Jason were finishing the preparations for the ISO party, getting a dee-jay Jason said he could live with, while Tiny and Princess were taking care of the food and beverages and Keyop was off sending the invitations to the ISO personnel.
Mark looked up from the to-do list he was checking.
“You think Spectra will at least let us celebrate the holidays? The latest news from Riga is not good.”
“I'm ready when they are.”
“Don't you wish, sometimes, that we were just another group of ordinary teenagers? You know, just dealing with our school exams, you with your racing, Tiny with his fishing...?”
“Are you joking? And miss having you as my Commander?” laughed Jason. “Come on, Mark. We are G-Force and that's that. There's no point in thinking what might have been. We just have to fight this war as best as we can, win, and then go back to being ordinary teenagers.”
Mark shook his head, trying to focus again on the task at hand – as Commander of G-Force and as the organiser of a big ISO bash.
“Okay, so where's Tiny and Princess with those menus?”
On Christmas Eve, four of the five G-Forcers were going through a panic phase, trying to get everything together for the party. And in the midst of all this, Jason was to be found in the ready room, on the couch, feet on the coffee-table, reading through his mysterious booklet. Mark, Tiny and Keyop entered the room in a rush, carrying shopping bags, and stopped short when they saw Jason.
“So this is how you help with the organising?” asked Tiny, annoyed. “We thought you were setting up the stage for the dee-jay.”
“Toor...root...lazybones!” added Keyop, then smartly stepped away from Jason, as G-Force's gunner looked at him threateningly.
“Stage is ready,” replied Jason, closing the booklet and sitting on it. “I had some free time”.
“I'm getting sick of seeing you with that book. What is it, anyway? And why are you hiding it?”
“Mind your own business, Commander,” snapped Jason.
He made to get up, but Mark jumped on him, trying to get the booklet, his curiosity now getting the better of him. Jason rolled on his side, slid off the couch with the booklet in hand, and in a fluid movement landed on the floor, then immediately picked himself up and took up a classic warrior's posture.
In moments, a free-for-all had broken out, with Tiny and Keyop cheerfully betting on who would be the winner. As Jason was pinning Mark down on the floor, the door opened and Anderson walked in with Princess, carrying decorations for the Christmas tree. Anderson blanched when he saw Mark and Jason fighting it out like drunkards in a pub – but with much better coordination.
“Get up, both of you! Now!”
Automatically responding to a command, Mark and Jason jumped up, standing to attention, Jason still with the booklet in his hand.
“So care to tell me what happened?”
“He's hiding something,” said Mark sullenly.
“It's my own business! Why do you have to butt in?”
Anderson looked from one to the other.
“Jason, I agree you have the right to your privacy. But now that things have gotten this far, it would be perhaps better to share your secret with us. It would clear the atmosphere.”
Jason took a deep breath.
“Okay, Chief. There's no point in hiding it any more anyway. You would find out tomorrow – or tonight.”
He showed them the booklet.
“I am a member of the ISO Christmas choir. This is our songbook. I was re-reading the carols.”#
Anderson and the other members of G-Force would not have been more surprised if Jason had told them that he was Zoltar's nephew. They gaped at him. Anderson, being older and more experienced, recovered first.
“That's wonderful, Jason! Why did you hide it? Are you any good?” he added before he could stop himself.
“He doesn't need to be any good. They'd take anyone who doesn't have laryngitis,” said Mark, still bristling for having been almost knocked out by his second-in-command.
“This is why I've been hiding it”, said Jason, looking at him accusingly. “I knew you'd laugh at me.”
“But, Jason, we're not laughing,” said Anderson. “At least, I'm not,”he added, looking at the grins of Tiny's and Keyop's faces. “You know I've always encouraged you to pursue your hobbies and extra-curriculum activities.”
Princess opened her mouth to speak. Anderson hastily continued.
“Except Princess's cooking classes, of course, as we don't seem to have...well...the stomach for them,” he said, his attempt at a joke being met with hostile looks from Princess and even wider grins from Tiny and Keyop.
“Playstation hobby...for me!” tooted Keyop.
“So you're signing at the midnight concert? In front of the whole of the ISO?” asked Tiny, looking at Jason with interest. The gunner had guts, Tiny had to admit.
“In front of the whole ISO. Just before our party. And I have to wear a tux, Chief, but I'll have my civvies underneath in case...well, in case, Spectra gatecrashes the party.”
“Okay. We'll be proud to listen to you. Won't we, team?” he added, looking around threateningly. The others nodded enthusiastically as well.
Just before midnight, G-Force, minus Jason, was gathered in the ISO conference hall, which had been decorated for Christmas and boasted a huge tree – artificial, Princess noted with satisfaction – a table full of hot wine and cakes, little presents spread around the room with the names of ISO personnel on them, courtesy of the organisation’s Secret Santa tradition, and a miniature Phoenix decked out in holly, which Tiny appreciated deeply. The front of the room, where usually the lecterns and screens for slide-shows stood, had been cleared for the choir, and would later be transformed into a stage for dancing. Jason, in his tux, hair combed back fiercely and gelled to stay in place, found his spot in the back row. He waved at the team, who had made a solemn vow among themselves not to laugh until the end of the performance. Keyop sent him a little salute and Princess whistled. Anderson, followed by Sarah, joined the team and exchanged greetings. Their “merry Christmas” had been supplemented, this year, with “peaceful Christmas” and, if it came to that, a “victorious New Year”. Anderson blinked away tears. It would not do for his team to see him all emotional. But he knew that, when the war came, even if they won, even if they all survived, they would not be the same people ever again. They say that truth is the first casualty of war, mused Anderson, but that’s not true. The first casualty is innocence. These teenagers were trained and hardened soldiers, but they were still innocent. This would change with their first combat mission, he knew all too well.
President Kane climbed on the stage. He only said a few words – how the Earth’s delegations had done their best to achieve a diplomatic solution to the dispute with Spectra, and how they had failed, because Spectra’s terms could not be accepted. There had been some voices calling for surrender, he added, but the majority of delegates in the Federation Council had been loath to give up Earth’s freedom without a fight. And for this, he said, the Federation had G-Force to thank, and all the ISO personnel who had worked for the success of the G-Force project. At least now, he finished, the Earth had a fighting chance.
Applause and whistles followed his speech, and they grew even louder as he stepped down and left the stage to the ISO choir. An ISO colleague from the research department would conduct them, and he took the floor in front of the nervous choristers. He tapped on his lectern, and raised his hands. They started singing, an old hymn that suddenly brought tears to many eyes in the audience. The choir was signing, if not professionally, at least strongly, with Jason doing a rather good tenor. Princess found herself clutching Mark’s hand. When she realized what she was doing, she made to draw it away, but he caught her and pulled her back. Keyop was spellbound and was listening motionless. Tiny remembered Christmases in his fishing village, when they had all gotten together for midnight Mass, singing this song and many others, and, whispering, he joined the choir in their singing. And Anderson, standing tall besides his team, could only look at them proudly and hope that even if they lost their innocence in the war, they would keep their goodness and optimism. He took Sarah’s hand in his, and joined the singing.
Venite, venite in Bethlehem;
Venite adoremus Dominum!