"Would you believe it!" Jason announced as he came into the training session. "Trans World have asked me for a TV interview, and Anderson actually thinks it's a good idea!"
Mark stopped mid-swing, lost his grip on the bar, and dropped awkwardly to the floor. "One, you're late. Two, ow, and three, what the hell? Who are these people, and why do they want to interview you anyway?"
"International sports program. They're doing a Christmas special on people connected with ISO. I win races occasionally, remember? Why Anderson's agreed to it is beyond me, though. I've lost count of the number of interviews he's told me to turn down for security reasons."
"Anderson's getting real worried by the degree of anti-ISO feeling building up," Princess put in, temporarily abandoning her own warm-up exercises. "There were 150 new young Spectra recruits in that facility we shut down last month. They weren't bad kids, by and large - they'd been told ISO was an unthinking military machine responsible for prolonging the war, and seen no evidence to the contrary. Maybe Anderson thinks that showing that ISO personnel are human too will help."
Keyop spluttered joyfully. "So they chose Jason why?"
"Quiet, shorty." Jason looked daggers at G-Force's youngest member. "They know talent when they see it."
"Warm up, since you already missed ten minutes," Mark interjected. "Presuming the future TV star still deigns to train with us mere mortals."December 10th, 6.55pm EST, somewhere over the Atlantic
"Yes, I set the video." Tiny turned to glare. "Yes, I got the right channel. And, yes, I put a blank tape in. I even checked it was rewound. I fly the Phoenix, for heavens sake, Keyop. I think I can cope with recording a lousy TV show. Anyone would think you were the one in it."
"Jason's too nervous to ask you himself," Keyop suggested, a sly grin on his face. "He's worried they c...c...cut him out."
"Maybe I should cut you off at the knees." Jason folded his arms and turned his back.
"Leave it, both of you," Mark stretched in his chair. "You may have been taking it easy on here, but Princess and I have been running around an enemy ship for hours, and I'm tired."
"And whose fault's that?" Jason redirected his annoyance. "I told you to take us in as well."
"I still think we should have insisted on seeing the program before it went out." Princess changed the subject hastily, and turned worried eyes to her commander. "I mean, for all we know, in five minutes time they'll be revealing their world exclusive that the Condor drives for ISO Racing."
"And if anyone had any suspicions, Anderson demanding to vet the tape would have confirmed them very nicely." Mark grinned broadly at his second. "I just hope Jason remembered it's supposed to be suitable for family viewing."
"Believe it or not, Mark, I probably talk to the press more than you. Not TV, granted, but Anderson's never had anything against newpapers. And the articles don't headline with 'foul-mouthed ISO driver wins again.' I can handle myself."December 10th, 9.33pm EST, ISO headquarters
"And I thought that debrief was never going to end. Finally, the moment of truth." Mark started the tape rewinding and turned to the others, mischief in his eyes. "Well, Tiny's recorded something. I checked the schedule and there's a whole host of possibilities. Simpsons, synchronised swimming, the weather channel..."
"Mark, leave it," Princess implored, seeing Jason's eyes tighten. "I'd really like us to watch the show together, without a fight. Just this once. Since it's nearly Christmas."
Mark looked at her expression and hit Play without further comment.
Jason's slot was first up, and for once even Keyop kept quiet. They'd interviewed him at the track, dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt, and cut it with shots of him winning a race the previous weekend. He'd been charmingly vague about exactly what it was he did for ISO - 'if the minor folks like me all talked about our jobs, you'd pretty soon figure out who the important people are', refused to speculate on G-Force - 'I'm sure lots of people have met them. That doesn't mean any of us know who they are,' and been infectiously enthusiastic about cars in general and racing in particular. They'd finished up by asking him about his long term plans, and without a flicker he'd answered back 'The Ferrari Formula One team. Always assuming I don't grow any more.' The interviewer had laughed with him, and the item had ended on a voiceover listing Jason's racing achievements so far, while the man himself got up and with a wave of his hand walked off across the track.
There was brief silence in the room, before Tiny came out with "you've gotta admit it, Mark, he interviews better than you do."
"That's only because nobody ever asks me about flying..." and Mark stopped mid-phrase at the look of frozen shock on Princess's face.
She'd been reaching for the remote to wind through the commercials as the trailer for the next item had started. This wasn't an ISO employee at all. Just a shot of a little girl flying round an ice rink, fading out to a name on a memorial stone. Kate Harmon.
Princess hit the fast-forward button and stared unseeing at the flashing images on the screen. She never heard Mark ask if she was okay, or Tiny tell him to just leave her be. All she could see was a brown-haired six-year-old, arms round her waist, begging her big sister not to go away again, and herself promising that it was only for a few weeks and then Holly would be coming to America with the whole family to visit. She'd never seen her little sister again.
Someone took the remote from her hand and set the tape to the start of the next item. A rather nervous English voice describing the jumps and spins she was performing on-screen. Simple to start with, single jumps, getting higher, faster, and more complex, until the interviewer stopped her. "Let's see that one again, in slow motion." Forward takeoff on the left foot, two and a half perfect turns in the air with feet crossed, landing backward on the right foot. "Double axel? Doesn't Michelle Kwan do that?"
"Yes, it's a requirement for the international short program. A couple of female skaters can do triple axels, but not many and they don't do them in competition."
"And how old are you, Holly?"
"Nearly eight and a half."
The images switched to home video footage of a competition, followed by Holly's parents describing her training program, before the interviewer's voice continued.
"Now this is all very impressive, but you may be wondering what little Holly's doing in our ISO special. Let's have Holly explain it herself."
The child appeared, still dressed in her skating dress, sitting overlooking the ice pad. "When I was five, my big sister Kate won an ISO scholarship. She really wanted to be an astronaut and go out and explore the universe. After eighteen months they selected her to go to Mars, to work at the base there. The day after she arrived, it was destroyed and everyone died. I really miss her. I wish she could have seen me skate. Mum and Dad said she was so good at what she did. I'm sure she'd have been on G-Force if she hadn't died."
"A sad story," said the interviewer, ending up by brightening her tone. "But for the future, Holly, what do you want?"
"I want to be world champion. And then I'm going to explore other planets, like my sister wanted to."
The trailer for the next segment - a German ISO pilot who also happened to be an international fencer - came on, and abruptly the screen went blank as Tiny stopped the tape.
"Are you okay, Princess?" Tiny's voice was concerned, and she managed to pull herself together sufficiently to respond.
"Yes - I think so." She took a shuddering breath and attempted to lighten the atmosphere. "Doesn't my kid sister skate well?"
"Hold on," Mark's tone held total confusion. "She said Kate Harmon. I've seen that name on the Mars memorial. Where do you come into it?"
"I'm Kate Harmon." Princess frowned at her commander. "You have to have known. Everyone knew - you really thought Princess was my real name?"
"I had no reason to believe it wasn't. I've never heard you called anything else. But that kid - her parents were talking on there. She's no orphan, you're no orphan, and my goodness she's a good actor to pull off that spiel about you being dead. What were your parents thinking, to risk her not being able to sound that convincing on film?"
Princess looked up at him, considering how to explain. She could see how it had happened now. When Mark and Keyop had first come to ISO, it had all been new, raw, not something she could have talked about. Later, there had been no reason for it to come up. G-Force were all always described as orphans to avoid Spectra looking for their families, and it had simply never occurred to her that Mark thought Tiny was the only one for whom the description was wrong.
"They don't know. I was sixteen when we found out about Spectra and G-Force became a military unit. My father was dead set against anything of the sort, he'd never have let me stay. I asked Anderson to amend the records and have me declared legally dead."
"You got ISO to tell your family you were dead." Mark's tone was flat, but abruptly exploded into white fury. "And you don't see anything wrong with that? You have to tell them the truth, Princess - now."
Her own anger flared. The hardest decision she'd ever had to make, and he blithely passed judgement on her? Commander or not, how dare he!
"And when my father takes away his consent? Goes to the press and says ISO takes children against their parents' will? I'm not eighteen yet. He could do it, and knowing him he just might. Or maybe you think it would be a good idea for me to tell them just in time to really get killed by Spectra?"
Sheet-white, Mark choked back his answer and stalked over to the window, hands clenched by his sides. He didn't look round.
"That was harsh," Tiny said tentatively.
A tear rolled down Princess's cheek. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do! How can he just say it was wrong? He has no idea what it's been like for me. None at all."
"No," said Tiny gently. "But he does know what it's been like for them. His father did exactly the same to him."
Princess shut her eyes. "Oh, no," she whispered. Images flashed across her mind; Anderson explaining to the team in Mark's absence precisely what deal ISO Russia had made with the Rigans in return for their technology. Help at some unspecified point in the future, when Riga should need it. And then, fourteen years ago, a Spectran attack had wiped out the Red Ranger base and the entirety of the Rigan deep space combat personnel. The Rigans had turned, desperate, to Colonel Ivanov, the head of ISO Russia. He'd ordered his pilots tested for the ability to fly the Rigan jump-fighters, to give the Rigans at least a semblance of an interstellar defence force. Three had tested positive. The most senior had a sick wife and four-year-old son. He'd gone anyway.
She could only imagine what the young man at the window, who'd discovered six months ago that the Rigan colonel he'd called his friend was in fact his father, just in time to watch him leave on a suicide mission, was feeling now.
"Mark - please," she choked out. "I would never, ever do what Cronus did. No contact. Until the day the war's over. Then I'll tell them. Not before." She willed her commander to turn back to the support of his team. "I can't bear the thought of her worrying every day whether this time I won't come back. In that, at least, I know how your father felt."
Mark finally did turn, tears in his blue eyes, and Princess ran to him. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I know it hurts. It hurts me too. Sometimes there is no right answer."
He put an arm round her shoulders. "I can't talk about it yet. But I promise you we will make Spectra pay. For both our families. I'll make sure of it."
"So can you skate?" Tiny asked as the two came back and sat down.
Princess smiled gratefully at him, glad to be on a less painful subject. "No. Holly always wanted to, but it was quite a way to a rink. They built one locally soon after I came to ISO, and she started having lessons. She's good, isn't she? I don't know much about skating, but I doubt many eight-year-olds can do that."
"Well, she's got your genes," Jason said. "She should be pretty athletic."
"Half my genes. My real mum died when I was three. Holly's mum's my stepmum."
"We should do something for her," Tiny said. "She seemed a sweet kid. Send her a Christmas card, or..."
"No!" Princess and Mark spoke together.
"No contact," Princess continued. "No false hopes."
Jason suddenly grinned broadly. "And what about a card from us saying we watched the ISO special and were dead impressed? I know I was."
"Us? Why would she care?" asked Keyop. "I mean, she probably saw you on the show with her, but the rest of us?"
"Not us, dork. G-Force."
Princess smiled and looked hopefully at her commander.
"No signatures. No names. Nothing traceable." Mark fixed his second with a stern look. "Absolutely no connection to a certain racing driver."
"Not a problem." Jason was wearing an expression Mark had come to dread - it meant he'd got an idea which either Mark or Anderson was going to really hate. "How's your artwork?"December 11th, 9.30 pm, ISO headquarters
"Jason, you're obsessed." Mark turned his second's handiwork round. "Is this all you ever draw?"
"Well, I can draw various bits of engines, but you said nothing connected with racing. And I was pretty sure you'd veto the exploded view of the cable gun trigger assembly." Jason squinted at his picture. "What's wrong with it? It's only a feather. Anyway, who are you to talk?"
"You knew I couldn't draw when you thought this up. Live with it."
"So - Tiny! How's your artistic talent?"
"Under-exercised." He looked over Mark's shoulder. "But present, at least."
"I've got Keyop's," Princess said as she came in and saw the three comparing sketches. "He wouldn't bring it himself. He seems to think he'll get teased."
Jason took it off her. "Nah. It's better than Mark's, for a start. I take it ISO Russia weren't strong on art classes."
"I had art lessons right through school. Didn't do much for me." Princess handed her offering over. "Let's face it, as a team we're not strong on artistic talent."
Jason snorted derisively. "I'm trying to think of a scenario where it would matter."
"I'm trying not to." Mark yawned. "Okay, scan them in, print it out, get it in the post. Holly'd better like it after all this. I don't draw pictures for just anybody."
"A Christmas card from G-Force?" Princess said. "Of course she will."