3

The helicopter landed at the farmhouse, and the team quickly packed their gear away as the helicopter bearing the three dead SeeD operators continued its flight back to Esthar. Ten minutes later the surviving SeeDs followed, and five hours after that, they were aboard a transport plane to Fisherman's Horizon, the neutral city-state located in the middle of the Intercontinental Rail Bridge where SeeD maintained a small airstrip. It was a six hour flight from Esthar for a jet, meaning that the propeller-driven CTrMon-2 Estharian Air Force cargo plane would take some time longer than that. Zell, as he usually did on an aeroplane, attempted to sleep though most of the flight despite the roar of the engines.

******

The helicopter was ripped almost in half by the missile, and veered to the left before slamming into the trees. The enemy were all around, and he'd had to leave Simons behind. He fired at distant shapes stirring in the forest, seeing a shadow fall. But there were too many...

...The village was under a full scale assault. In the weak moonlight, he could make out at least seven soldiers in the four-shade green and brown clumps and spots over a dark green background that made up Galbadian Waldtarnmuster, and twice that many in olive green. The GMR11s, black polymer-framed bullpup rifles with integral scopes and carry handles that went over half the length of the forward receiver, spat out accurate and deadly fire into the khaki and SeeDpat clad defenders. They had to protect Kadowaki and her team as they fought to save the General's life. Then the field hospital they had set up in the middle of the village exploded...

...The southern trooper had grabbed a gunblade from a fallen SeeD and decapitated her as she tried to draw her handgun. He screamed in rage, and shot the man dead. Then the scream of the shell, the deafening blast. He was thrown off his feet, into the air. He landed, and then black silence came.

******

He awoke, expecting to find himself back in the hospital in Balamb five years ago, but was initially confused to see the roof of a plane.

'Awake, sir?' Kelly asked. The sergeant was standing in the aisle beside the captain, who was not yet sure if he was. The other soldiers were making their way towards the exit of the plane.

'We're in Tim... FH?'

'Yes, sir. Oh-six-hundred hours on the dot. Helicopter to Garden's waiting. We'll be back home in no time.'

******

Balamb Garden Mobile was the original Balamb Garden, built as it turned out inside what was essentially a huge hovercraft. It now performed the role of a mobile base for SeeD by travelling the ocean between Trabia, Balamb and Fisherman's Horizon, the neutral city-state built on a huge artificial island, but the majority of SeeD was based on land. Even the supposed compliment of three thousand and ninety SeeD regulars to form the Mobile Garden brigade were mostly in Balamb, with only half a regiment aboard plus Special Forces and a platoon of Airborne Marines. It no longer functioned as a school, with New Balamb Garden Central Headquarters, built where the Mobile Garden had once sat, provided the campus for SeeD students and recruits. The Air Force was based at Junison, a small town about thirty miles northwest of the fire caves, and Port Sedca, a joint base with the Balamb Defence Force Air Force and Navy, seventeen miles directly south of the current Balamb Garden Central Headquarters. Part of the SeeD Navy was based here also, and the rest remained at the Balamb Naval Base, the home port of the helicopter carrier Leviathan and the two corvettes Kraken and Scylla, plus six of SeeD's fifteen man gunboats and half the forty-eight landing craft. The remaining corvette, Siren was based at Sedca along with the remaining lighter vessels.

The rest of the SeeD ground forces, including the mechanised and armoured forces of SeeD, were based at Balamb City barracks, a small base within the city itself, Fort Balamb, a base in the forests thirteen miles east of Balamb used as a rest and relaxation facility as well as a repair and research base. The Northern Mountain base was, as implied, a hundred mile northwest of Garden Central HQ. And halfway between Garden Central and Balamb City, was Command HQ, the largest land based SeeD facility in Balamb where the armoured forces were based, alongside thousands of SeeD soldiers. It was also home to the General in charge of the Balamb Brigade of SeeD, Ellone Fletcher, a hard nosed woman of forty five who had been with SeeD since its foundation twenty five years earlier. Trabia had a similar setup, with scattered bases reducing the likelihood of a repeat of the missile attacks on Trabia and Balamb ten years earlier, though Trabia shared more of its facilities with the local defence force.

Classrooms had become briefing rooms, offices, armouries, and command/control rooms. The training centre had been converted to a live fire weapons range and partially the helipad for the three naval attack helicopters. The library, cafeteria (now named a mess hall), dorms (barracks) and infirmary remained, albeit altered in some ways, such as the library being smaller and barracks bigger. Curfew no longer occurred and all facilities were operated round the clock, as Garden was now a one hundred percent military base.

The helicopter landed at the docking helipad that had replaced the Quad where once upon a time, Selphie Tilmitt had planned a garden festival. The exterior of Garden had undergone some changes as drastic as the interior: The six VTOL-1 jets and six helicopters assigned to Garden needed places to lift off from and be safely secured, so two short runways now extended parallel with port and starboard along the roof from bow to stern, as well as a central landing pad for the Ragnarok, which currently was with the Special Forces in Krastovia. That venerable airship was actually a year away from being replaced on that landing pad, an Estharian project to build six new, larger ships similar to Ragnarok currently dubbed the D-02 class, the lead shi including a seventh especially for SeeD. The jets themselves were housed in hangers in the third floor itself, in effect making the Garden an aircraft carrier. The helicopters permanently stationed here had their own two separate pad facilities: transport on the first floor port and the attack helicopters on starboard.

Colonel Frederick McKnight, Squall's second in command aboard Balamb Garden mobile and one of the highest ranking officers in SeeD, was waiting as the helicopter landed. Six years older than Zell and a good few pounds heavier, the brown haired Trabian Colonel watched the helicopter gently land on the deck with his one green eye and eye patch. He had graduated as a SeeD at the age of fifteen under the old system and remained active until a shrapnel wound in the quadriceps muscles of his right thigh during a mission five years earlier had left him unable to walk without the aid of a cane, as well as chronic pain in that leg plus the loss of sight in the left eye. However, he rarely showed any discomfort from this and it had not affected his personality too much except to stick him behind a desk and have him do less exercise. He walked forward and shook Zell's hand, before speaking to the squad as a whole

'Alright, welcome back to Garden, folks. Commander wants to see you, captain, rest of you with me to debrief.'

Zell made his way from the helipad up to the second floor as the Genera, and entered the office without knocking. He found his commander expecting him, sitting at his desk with a small pile of folders before him.

Garden's mild remodelling had removed the main controls for the mobile systems to a more armoured and easier to defend position following a successful effort by a SeeD Special Forces team to take the control system with relative ease during an exercise a few years earlier. Coupled with an attempt by South Timber Irregulars to board the Garden at Fisherman's Horizon a week later, it led to a severe security overhaul. The old spot, formerly Headmaster Cid's office, was now entirely the bridge of Garden. Though the engineering section made it turn, here was where the heart of SeeD lay.

What Commander Leonhart had forgotten to do was leave space for his desk, meaning he was shunted down to the second floor by his own desire to make the garden as a whole more secure. He had secured a decent window, but unfortunately for him, paperwork was often all he looked at throughout the day rather than the view of the ocean he had intended. More than once he had considered simply replacing the bullet proof glass with a steel plate, as all it did was let light in.

The office itself bar the view was nothing of great interest: a surprisingly small box of white walls, plain blue carpet, a desk which Zell knew had actually been assembled from a flat-pack kit from a home furnishing store, a computer and monitor, a few file cabinets (from the same place as the desk) and a few chairs (gain, from the same place as the desk). Its decorations were typical of any office. There was a pot plant in the left hand corner by the window, blue vertical blinds from the same source as pretty much everything else in this room, a stereo, and a small television on top of a filing cabinet. Two framed pictures sat on another cabinet facing the window and by default Squall, one showing his wife and daughter, the other showing a photograph from ten years ago of Squall and the rest of his team then. On the left hand wall, there was a large picture of the entire Balamb 1st Regiment assembled outside Command HQ. On the other, a certain Type 2 Revolver-Gunblade was in a display case. The former gunblade specialist was now reliant on the handgun at his hip and the submachine gun inside the third file cabinet from the left if he ever had to use a weapon. However, the handgun in question was a Type 4 gunblade, an otherwise conventional 8mm pistol with a short blade below the forward frame and in front of the trigger guard.

Squall himself was the same age as Zell, but anyone looking at a photo of the SeeD commander from just ten years earlier would think Squall was at least five years older than his true age. The pressures of leading SeeD had visibly aged the man, as well as changing him from the half-distant loner he once was to a man who in private, was open and caring, especially towards friends and family, but when at work, was businesslike and to the point, rarely making the wrong choices. His clothing had changed along with the change of attitude: Squall was rarely seen out of uniform, and the only jewellery he wore was the simple gold wedding band on his left hand. As Commander, he often remarked, he was setting an example to everyone under his command.

'Okay, Zell, what exactly did you get up to for the three weeks you were out there?' Squall asked, not even looking up from a folder. Zell noted it was apparently from the Trabian Department of Defence.

'I see they phoned ahead about the little debate I had in the arms dump with Captain Butthead,' The SeeD officer replied, ignoring the folder for now.

'Yes, they did inform me about the incident with Major Buchsenrov. What the hell were you thinking, Zell, you're not a goddamn teenager any more,' Squall said, ignoring for a few seconds that he was the same age as the captain he was currently admonishing.

'They did mention the executions, right? Oh, and?' Zell retorted with a slight hint of sarcasm.

'It doesn't matter what they mentioned. What matters is-'

'International law matters as far as I'm concerned. They weren't spies, they were armed combatants,' came the interruption. Squall looked up then, and calmly responded.

'Goddamn it, Zell, there's only so much slack we can cut our officers in the field there! It's not striking an officer, because he's technically equal to your rank, but the political aspect means-'

'I know about the fucking political aspect. Militia commanders can commit a war crime and we're meant to look the other way.'

'And you're still not giving a shit about it, are you? I don't like it either but what the client says, goes when it's not going to incriminate us. Look, I didnít drag you up here to reprimand you or debate the screwed up politics of Krastovia. I also don't need a verbal report now, you donít have time and neither do I. Get me a written report on the mission as soon as you're back from Timber. Colonel McKnight will handle the rest of the debrief from your squad.'

'Timber? Wait, you mean that arms shipment thing? I thought Captain Miller was on that one all the time now.'

'Miller was called back to Trabia yesterday along with more than a few Trabian officers in key posts. His platoon's back here, you can pick out three to replace Gorman, Thompson and... Who was the other one?'

'She was Private Eona Garvie.' Zell didn't bother stating she had only been an active SeeD operator for a year.

'Right. Sorry, but it's getting to the stage I don't recognise ninety nine percent of the faces I pass in the halls, never mind that sometimes almost forget these files are talking about real people...' Squall said, pausing. Zell broke the silence

'Timber's government shaking things up again?'

'Off the record, Yes, they are. They recalled every Trabian over the rank of Captain except Colonel McKnight. They're claiming it's to help organise the exercise we're having with them soon, but I think they're just jerking us around to try and get me to take a more proactive stance in places like Krastovia and Timber.'

'So because they want to play political games, they pulled the guys who know the mission inside out and I have to drag my ass to a dockyard in Timber to make sure a shipment of Estharian guns gets to the supply depots?'

'Yep. Except they want Special Forces too. They have reason to believe...'

'Another credible threat from Southern irregulars?'

'Yeah. Look, you and Seifer get on now, right? Just live with it. Keeps you away from Buchsenrov. Son of a bitch keeps calling me directly at random hours.'

'Sorry about that, Squall.'

'Not a problem, but if he keeps waking Rinoa and Julia up, I'll send you back to steal his phone. Or shoot him if you like, because it sounds like he pissed you off. '

'He's that kind of guy. Doesn't give a shit about his own men, does give a shit about doing it all himself. If he calls back, can I use your old gunblade?'

'Just get to your damn quarters, get some food. Have some rest. You've got the funeral tomorrow in Balamb then you leave for Timber on Friday. Oh, you'll need this though,' Squall said, handing over an envelope.

'Isn't there anyone else to go there? You know I hate Timber.'

'No one who was there doesn't, Zell. Besides, they need someone I trust a hundred and ten percent this time, and you're pretty much it.'

******

Where once a cafeteria with limited daily supplies had fed the student body of Garden and qualified operator alike, there was now a simpler mess hall. Though they did still serve the kind of junk food people who live off rations prefer, there was less of an attempt at flavour to convince students to stay on campus to feed. Now, Soldiers with little choice were the only ones sitting here.

The rows of tables were mostly empty, only a few soldiers sitting at early lunches or late breakfasts. Zell simply took a random sandwich and some coffee before sitting down to read the letter Squall had handed him. It was labelled 'Secret' in bold red lettering indicating that it was a covert mission: Unusual for regular SeeD these days in war zones, but not so odd in support of the Special Forces.

He carefully opened the letter, and was a little surprised to read that the first paragraph merely told him he would need to take a Forceman on the mission with him, as Timber had paid for GF support. The paragraph went on to state that "Special Forces are unable to supply a Forceman in time for this mission," meaning "They're all at work in some hellhole."

Then it became clear why it was a covert mission. They were all to be disguised and equipped as North Timber Army, despite the fact only SeeD from Balamb and Trabia used Guardian Forces. The Special Forces meanwhile would pose as Forest Alliance Irregulars. The worst part came next: they were likely to engage Galbadian army forces, and were not to follow the General Order stating that any SeeD troops in Timber were to immediately withdrawn from confrontation with the G-Army.

'Thought I'd find your ass here,' a voice came from the door across the mess hall. It was Seifer Almasy.

Squall's former rival had rejoined Garden alongside his two companions Raijin and Fujin shortly after the events of ten years earlier, and finally passed a field exam a year later. Four years after that, after a disastrous mission left Fujin dead and a grieving Raijin had resigned from SeeD. Seifer, however, had instead attempted selection for Special Forces, passed with near-record grades, and had become a Captain like Zell.

The past ten years and the same mission that killed Fujin had annihilated all animosity between two with the exception of the friendly rivalry regulars had with the Special Forces.

'Good morning, Captain. I presume the commander has sent you to find me?'

'Yeah. Read that letter yet?'

'Some heavy shit.'

'That's what I was thinking. Let's find your troops,' the spec-ops captain said, and the two left the cafeteria and went to collect the rest of Zell's squad.

'I heard you Spec Ops guys were supposed to be annoyed doing this kind of thing beside us regular grunts. How come you're not raising hell over not getting Airborne for this?'

'You might have been a chicken wuss ten years ago but nowadays you're just an asshole who likes to survive. So am I, and I'd rather have someone I trust in charge of the people keeping me and my men alive on this one Plus, Airborne are dicks and I'd rather have someone I trust and doesn't trust the locals all that much than a Trabian. A Trabian who's on first name terms with the locals and who might be thinking that SeeD Trabia might just make a little more money if they officially join with the Estharian Bloc.'

'How do you know I've not been bribed in Krastovia?'

'Because you shot any rebels you ran into before they could reach the chequebooks and the Estharians know not to pay you.'

'Fair point. Who's your sniper?'

'Don't have one, got an extra support gunner. Every other fucker with a Spec Ops badge is doing some work for Esthar in Krastovia. Trabia insisted.'

'Well, shit. Do I at least get to try and fit Irvine or someone into mine?'

'Nope. You can take a sniper, but not Irvine, he's on leave. He and Selphie went back to the orphanage a week ago.'

'Some place to take a rest. Dishagoum. Another war zone.'

Dishagoum was one of the three remaining nations on the Centran geographical grouping (Though Scholars still debated if the group of vast islands and smaller ones was a continent, or if each large island was). Ninety years before, the lunar cry had slammed onto the central landmass, devastating the cities and towns of the continent in a few months. Eighteen million escaped, and five times that many died as seven countries were annihilated. Only the three nations on the southernmost island survived, having escaped being hit by the worst of the periodic falls of monsters of the area. Scientists had, between bouts of debate over the continental status of the area, studied that lunar cry for decades, seeking a way to survive one that might spread over more than just one region.

They received the answer ten years ago. A lunar cry, far weaker than the one that all but wiped out the Centran civilisations, landed in the middle of Esthar City. Though the Anti-Air system killed thousands of monsters, there were still many left alive. However, the prompt actions of the military and police in evacuating the streets and hunting down the monsters meant that Esthar was spared. Thousands had been killed, though, and a small number of the lunar monsters had fled into the sewer systems. Even today, SeeD and Estharian teams routinely went into the catacombs and underground tunnels of Esthar armed to the teeth on so-called "bug hunts" to keep the monster population low, and below the city.

The Estharian Lunar Cry, however, had gave Zell a plan towards nuclear disarmament if peace broke out in some place other than the acid-induced dreams of peaceniks. Simply dump all the bombs onto the moon and vaporise the monsters, ending two potential sources of human extinction in one.

'Well, the Orphanage is out by the coast,' Seifer pointed out. ' The fighting's in the cities. Plus, if Cid and Edea will stay there...'

'Yeah. I've got to get out there some time myself.'

'Have you went and seen your mother at all lately?'

'Got to get out there as well some time.'

To reach the briefing rooms where Zell 's team was waiting, they had to pass by a group of new recruits on a tour of the facilities, an annual waste of time after the high school age students finished exams and those about to become SeeD operators were about to start their own. After the summer, they would begin the process of training to become SeeDs, meaning they were all no older than sixteen. Zell was certain the fact none of them looked old enough to even be recruits was bad sign: he hadn't hit thirty yet and was almost at the stage of proclaiming that all this was once fields.

As they passed by the group, there were glances from the occasional recruit aimed at the badge on Seifer's right arm, infinitely more interesting that a mere captain. Muted whispers of 'spec ops' could be heard within the chatter of the teenagers. One pair of loudmouths near the back of the group stood out.

'It's only in spec-ops they let you use the old types of gunblades.'

'Gunblades are for lamers. There's undeniable proof anyone with a normal gun totally owns you.'

Seifer (who ironically enough had not used his Type 3 Hyperion in seven years) waited a few moments, looked back to ensure the instructors with the part were out of earshot, then spoke.

'Yo, Zell, quick favour, since I can trust you with this. I ever start talking like recruits do these days, shoot me right in the head,' Seifer said, as they walked by the party.

'Only if you'll do the same for me, oh elite spec-ops captain.'

'It's a deal then,' he replied.

'Wonder if we can shoot the recruits?'

'If you make it look like an accident, go nuts.'

'Love to, but I quit drinking.'

The two soon had the other eight members of Zell's squad, and made their way to the helipad to return to Fisherman's Horizon and board another transport plane. Luckily, this one was a jet, meaning the flight would only be four.