That the call came through on Christmas Eve, just as the G-Force team were settling in for a couple of days of rest, companionship and fun didn't bode well.
At the exact moment the call came through, Mark and Jason were on ladders at either end of the large living room at Camp Parker stringing tinsel to the precise instructions of Princess. They'd been up there for twenty minutes now, and both were more than a little exasperated.
It didn't, in her opinion, justify Jason's cry of "Yeah!" or Mark's whoop as he jumped down from his ladder when their bracelets chimed.
"Mark here," he said, ignoring Princess glaring at him.
"Commander, we have a situation."
"It's Christmas Eve, Zark."
"I know that, Commander, but apparently Spectra has other ideas."
"What's been destroyed," put in Jason.
"Nothing, Jason. That's what has me puzzled."
"Perhaps it's nothing," said Tiny. "Just a glitch in your radar or something."
"I wish it were, Tiny," burbled Zark happily, completely ignoring the fact that he was about to destroy Christmas Eve. " It's definitely not one of our scheduled flights. "
"Check it out Team," said Anderson. "If necessary, destroy it."
Shrugging, the team transmuted and moved towards the lift down to the hangar.
"Why won't they give us the information about this one?" asked Jason. "And Anderson wants us to just destroy it. Usually he wants us to get its specifications first and destroy it later."
"Honestly," said Mark softly to Jason as they took their places on Phoenix, "If the choice is between blowing something up and putting up decorations for Princess, I'm all for the blowing something up."
Jason nodded. "You're forgetting something, buddy."
"The bloody tinsel's still waiting for us."
They both looked at Princess sitting and running through her checks. "Perhaps she'll be too tired when we get home."
Princess smiled brightly at them both, but there was still that glint in her eye that boded no good for them.
"Not a chance," said Jason. "We should be lucky that we arrived too late for her to decide to do the outside as well."
"Keep it down Jase! It took me an hour of distraction to get her off that idea."
Jason smirked, knowing the method that Mark had lately started to take to distract Princess. "Oh and that was such a hardship," he snerked, gratified by the blush that bloomed on Mark's face. This was just too much fun, he thought happily. He'd have months of payout on this one.
"Object ahead," burbled Keyop. "Funny, though. Not normal."
"What's normal for Zoltar?" asked Tiny.
"Not shooting at us, for one," chirped Keyop.
"Let's get it up on the screen," said Mark, and Keyop and Princess joined Jason at the front of the ship.
"What are you up to with Mark," hissed Princess, poking Jason in the ribs.
"Not a thing. Just trying to work out a way to destroy this like the Chief wanted and get back home to finish off your chores." He looked her in the eye and she folded her arms.
"Now why don't I believe a word of that?" she asked.
"Prin, you wound me! And after you spent so much time persuading Mark to put the decorations up. You'll notice that I did it out of the goodness of my heart."
"Target on screen. Jason, get ready to fire."
Jason moved forward and activated the missiles. His finger hovered over the button. He was about to fire when the target came into full view.
"No fucking way!" he said
"Fire the bloody missile, Jason."
"Not me! There is no way I'm gonna do this."
"Jason, it's our job. I've given you an order."
"I can see his problem," said Princess pensively. "I wouldn't like the responsibility myself."
"Can't fire!" said Keyop unhappily.
"It's not real! We all know it's a Spectran Mecha."
"Might not be. Christmas Eve."
"It's one of Zoltar's damn toys! Fire the missile, Jason. That's a direct order."
Jason folded his arms and looked sullen.
"Fire it yourself, Mark. I'm not doing it."
"At lest we know why the Chief said to be discrete."
"It's staying over the City, Mark," put in Tiny. "Destroying it now would be real bad."
"Have you all gone mad? I know what it looks like, but that's Zoltar driving it."
"I don't care, Mark. There is no way I'm gonnna fire a missile and blow up Santa and his Sleigh."
"To say nothing of eight tiny reindeer," added Princess helpfully.
"How do we know its Zoltar? It's Christmas Eve," said Keyop happily. "Santa's supposed to be about."
The rest of the team nodded. Mark just looked exasperated as Tiny guided the Phoenix behind the (and he cringed to even think it) sleigh.
"Don't tell me you all believe in Santa Claus."
"This from the guy who's always first to put up his stocking," said Jason. "Besides, this is hardly the weirdest of the shit we've come across. It looks like Santa."
"Tiny, pull alongside the mecha," said Mark firmly. "I'll prove to you it's not Santa."
"Sleigh," said Keyop. "Don't frighten the reindeer."
At this point, Mark decided it was a good thing he wore a helmet, otherwise he'd be pulling his hair out by the handfuls.
"They're robots, Keyop. Not real reindeer. Reindeer don't fly."
They came as close as they dared, and Mark adjusted the forward cameras to focus on the, well, sleigh.
"Ok. Let's look at this logically. For one thing, the last time I checked, Santa's sleigh did not typically carry armaments. For the second thing, the last time I saw a picture of Santa, he wore red. Not purple."
"He's wearing red," said Keyop.
Mark looked at him. "It's Zoltar. He's giving us the finger!."
"Er, no, Mark. I think he's waving at us. And it's definitely not Zoltar, unless he's put on some serious weight," said Tiny.
"Right, let's go up top," said Mark. "Jason, Princess, you're with me. I'll bloody prove its Zoltar even if we have to go over there and pull off that fake beard."
"Mark, you're getting a little scary here."
"It's not Santa!"
They rose to the top and let the bubble open. The speed the two ships were going blew their wings about them. Without warning, the sleigh came close enough to them that they could have reached out and grabbed it. It was not a mecha. Even if it was armed.
The red-garbed figure leaned over.
"Ho Ho Ho. Merry Christmas. Lots of calls to make tonight, but I won't forget you," called Santa, and laid one finger by the side of his nose. He shook the reins and the reindeer (their little legs moving in unison) galloped off through the sky. As he started to disappear they heard one last comment. "By the way, Jason. Don't think I haven't forgotten that stunt you pulled last year."
At this point, Mark just sat down and started to gibber. "Santa."
Jason nodded. "If I hadn't thought it was before, that last comment's cinched it for me," he said.
"Tiny, bring us down," asked Princess..
"Santa. I nearly blew up Santa."
"Get a grip, Mark."
"You didn't though, Mark. And Santa knows you didn't really mean to blow him up. You just thought he was Zoltar."
"Nobody's gonna believe this," said Mark. "How do I write this up."
"The same way you always do," said Jason, hauling Mark up and dumping him in his seat. "With many pages of garbage so that nobody actually reads it."
"How do you know they don't read it?"
"Mark, if they actually read your mission reports and knew exactly what we did, do you think we'd be allowed out without a keeper?"
"What do I report to Anderson?"
"The truth, I guess."
"And we ask Santa to file a flight plan next year," put in Tiny.
"Just how do you propose we do that?" asked Jason
"By letter. The same way you tell Santa what you want for Christmas."
Princess giggled. "Dear Santa, for Christmas we would like you to file a flight plan so we don't get called out to blow you up on Christmas Eve, love from G-Force" she chanted.
"Sounds good enough to me," said Keyop. "Can we send it when we get home?"
Mark was still rather pale. "Santa. I nearly blew up Santa."
The others looked at him. "It's sad when the pressures of leadership just turn your brain to mush," said Jason.
The next morning, G-Force came tumbling downstairs, looking forward to just being a family at Christmas.
They were all together, due to Keyop's Christmas Day habit of hauling them all out of bed at the same time.
They stopped at the door to the living area. Last night, they had been too shocked to finish decorating it, and it had, to put it mildly, been left as pretty much a disaster area.
That had changed. The tree they had decorated was the centrepiece of a room glowing with Christmas colour.
Keyop pointed at the stockings. "How did they get there?" he asked.
As one, the team moved in. "Anderson?" asked Jason softly.
"Not me," said Anderson from the door. "Somebody else who's obviously grateful to you."
Anderson pointed at card on the mantelpiece, and Mark picked it up, his face transfiguring.
"To G-Force," he read, "Or rather, to Mark, Jason, Princess, Tiny and Keyop. Yes, I know who you are - and it makes me happy to see the fine people you have grown into - though Keyop has rather a lot more growing to do. I'm grateful that you didn't blow me up last night, and have left a few trifles to show that.
"Thank you for still believing. I can't give you what you want most for Christmas (but I promise to file a flight plan with 7-Zark-7 next year), but your belief in me shows that you have the hope and courage to go on with your fight.
"In this season of Goodwill and Giving, this season of Hope, I would like to present to G-Force the Compliments of the Season. And the thanks of the world for the work you do.
"Merry Christmas, my Children.
"Love from Santa (and the reindeer)"
"Wow! Real letter from Santa!" burbled Keyop. "Really does exist."
They all sank down onto the floor. "Santa thanked us for what we do," said Princess in wonder.
Anderson looked at his children, smiling as he saw that hope that flared in their eyes, replacing the tiredness and despair that had been there for the last few months.
Santa's gift to them, to him, of the return of their hope, could never be adequately repaid or thanked.
He went to the side table and looked at the used glass and noted that Santa had obviously had several glasses of his best Glenfiddich (probably to calm his nerves). He poured another measure into the glass and raised it in a toast.
"Merry Christmas, Santa. And thank you."