Rain. A funeral was never an enjoyable occasion, but when the sky was pouring down, it was a hundred times worse. All three dead operators had been born in Balamb, and it would be their final resting place. Gorman and Garvie were to be buried in the military cemetery at the in the northwest of the city, but Thompson's body, though to be honoured by a full military ceremony here, was instead going to be flown across the country to Junison where his parents intended their last goodbye to their son be a private affair. Zell led the pallbearers taking Garvie up the short path from the hearses to the open graves, a short path that grew longer every time. With twenty members of the platoon from other squads spaced at the sides of the path with reversed arms, wooden-stocked inert ceremonial rifles with fixed bayonets held by the butt pointed downwards and resting on the ground.
Each coffin was draped in the flag of SeeD, a dark blue with the emblem of the garden in the centre. Atop each coffin rested a pale blue beret and any medals the soldiers may have obtained. Marching in time to a single mournful drum beat being tapped out by a musician at the graveside, the six soldiers carrying each coffin carried out their solemn duty.
Each SeeD present, in honour guard or bearer company, wore the dress uniform of garden. The honour guard held their berets against the rifles, the bearers wore none. Sergeant Kelly led the bearers carrying Gorman's casket, but Thompson's family had requested they supply the six men to carry their son to be honoured alongside their comrades, before SeeD soldiers then took the casket back to the hearse to begin its final journey to Junison.
Amongst the mourners, many other SeeDs and the families of the dead operatives. Many SeeD present held umbrellas for the family members, and all from the force present wore the pale blue beret.
The three caskets reached the graves. Thompson's was taken to rest upon a catafalque lying before the final resting places of the other two SeeDs as a major issued orders to the other two bearer parties, to guide the caskets into position. When they were there, the drum stopped and the berets, medals and flags were each removed from the coffins by the leaders of the bearer parties and presented to the mother or father of the deceased SeeD, with the exception of Thompson: As his father led the party, it fell to a SeeD major to present the flag and other items. A minister delivered the prayers, followed by a minute's silence.
That was broken by the shouted orders from the major for the six men with rifles standing off to the left to take aim. Four shots were fired into the air, four seconds apart. At the first shot, all SeeDs not holding umbrellas or performing other ceremonial roles held their right hands, palm flat, to their hearts. On the second, they moved the same hand to their brow, palm downwards, saluting the caskets. The third, they removed their berets. The fourth and final shot, they held the berets over their hearts as a bugler played a call that had originally signalled the end of the day in Balambian military camps two hundred years ago when Balamb had been a colonial power in Centra and modern Trabia alongside Dollet, Galbadia, and Esthar.
The twelve of the bearer parties had simply held the salute for the entire time, and upon the fourth shot, moved the coffins towards the graves. The major issued the orders to lower and Thompson's family began taking him back to the hearse, as the minister read a second prayer, this time, the SeeD prayer of remembrance.
'They will not grow old, as we that are left shall. Age has not taken them from us but by our God's grace, it shall instead take us left behind to them in due time. We will remember them as the sun arises in the morning we will remember them as the moon rises in the night, we know that though their spirits are departed from this plane. We know as well they shall be alongside us forevermore, in life and death, joy and sorrow, they remain with us still, and we shall never forget.'
The group not following Thompson then moved into the church building. For Zell however the rest of the day when the ceremony ended would not be a time for reflection, but a return to work. He still had to find three new squad members.
Balamb Command Headquarters.
After changing into fatigues, Zell made his way to the records office, intending to find the files on Miller's squad to pick out his marksmen and then hopefully find a spare forceman somewhere. What he found instead was Colonel Eona Caun, General Fletcher's right hand. Caun was a thirty two year old brunette who never seemed to remove her sunglasses, and never let her hair grow beyond an inch in length. Her intentions were so no one thought her just a woman, unusual considering that SeeD was composed almost forty percent of female operators and that some of the most highly decorated SeeD were also women, not to mention over half of persons above the rank of colonel were female.
This wasn't why Zell disliked her. It wasn't why anyone disliked her. It was the plain, simple fact she was a jobsworth bureaucratic ass. Zell had other reasons, such as who she replaced when she became Fletcher's second in command.
She stood by the desk of a terrified looking admin worker, nine folders piled up on the desk and two in her hands. Zell noted the semi-concerned glances a few other admin workers took at him. What fun this would be.
'Good afternoon, Captain Dincht, I trust you've come to try and pick apart Miller's squad. Well, I have some news for you. You're not selecting anything. Commander Leonhart is unwilling to accept that this mission requires skilled and competent operators, not hotheads and psychopaths like you'll select.'
'Firstly ma'am, I'll take that as a compliment and will not comment on your questioning of the chain of command, but secondly, my orders stated I was to select the two additional members plus forceman, and those were direct from-'
'They could have come straight from God and I'd have changed them, Dincht. You get Di Tomazzo and Mellia in your squad,' she interrupted, handing over the two folders. He looked at them wordlessly.
'Ma'am, Di Tomazzo is an engineer. I don't need another sapper, I already have two explosive-qualified operators, but I have no marksmen at all now.'
'Mellia is a markswoman.'
'She also only just graduated sniper school and she's never been on a real op.'
'Well, that's a shame, Zell, because Miller only had one marksman other than her, and I decided to send him to sniper school to refresh.'
Before Zell responded, a SeeD entered the office. A young man about 20, in dress uniform. Zell had seen him at the funeral this morning. The man hadn't even finished the salute before Caun spoke icily.
'Can I help you, private?'
The soldier stammered for a moment, then replied.
'Ma'am, I was looking for Captain Dincht, Ma'am.'
'Then you have found him. For what reason would you be wishing to find him?'
'Ma'am, I have a private matter to discuss with the captain, Ma'am.'
'Then discuss it here, soldier.'
The soldier looked concerned, but Zell stayed silent as he stammered again. He managed to get his mouth to say what the brain had ordered.
'Sir, I'd like to request a transfer to your squad.'
'Denied,' Caun said.
'Why?' Zell asked. Caun glared at him.
'Dincht, Private Qwanz there, as you may have spotted at some point, is in fact the boyfriend of the girl you buried this morning. He's unstable at the moment, and not fit for a live operation.'
'Well, ma'am, you think that of me at all times.'
'The difference is, Dincht, he's not crawled into a bottle yet.'
Just then, the phone rang beside Caun. The admin worker picked up.
'Olven, Command HQ Administration.'
A pause as the other end of the line spoke
'Yes sir... Yes sir, they are both here, sir.'
The admin worker looked ready to grin. He somehow kept his voice level handing over the phone to Caun.
'It's the commander for you, Ma'am.'
She didn't even get to greet Squall before the commander began speaking. Her face grew more like thunder with every passing second, until finally, she simply said:
'Yes sir, I will sir.'
She replaced the handset slowly.
'Dincht, you get to pick your team freely. That is the end of the matter between us. You may leave.'
'Well, Ma'am, I'll trust your judgement on Private Mellia, but I'm afraid Qwanz is on my team. Good day, Ma'am,' he responded pleasantly.
He left the admin office, Qwanz in tow. Zell was somehow not surprised to find Seifer leaning by a wall a few doors down. Zell grinned, realising he'd not been in the middle of a deus ex machina at all, but just assisted by cellular phones.
'Seifer, if I were to check who you last called on your phone, what would I find?'
'Nothing, Zell. Just the work phone number of a man I went to school with...'
'One way of putting it I suppose.'
'Who's this?' Seifer asked, meaning Qwanz.
'Private Leonidas Qwanz, sir. I'm, er...'
'He's transferring to my squad,' Zell finished for him. 'Head to briefing room E23 at sixteen hundred, private. You're free until then.'
Qwanz saluted and left.
'By the way, Zell, bad news. Only one forceman actually spare just now here, all the rest are going on a mana hunt,' Seifer said, meaning the regular missions by the elite guardian-force using SeeDs to draw magical energies from monsters in order to keep Odine Junction Armbands fuelled.
'Then I guess I've got my team.'
Timber City, Free Republic of Timber.
At a peaceful café in the city, two men sat at a table by the window. The city may have been at war, and patriotic posters might have covered every space, but life went on for the bistros and restaurants. One man wore the blue dress uniform of the Galbadian military, the other, a cheap suit.
'Is this intel confirmed?' The man in uniform said
'Yes, Captain. Our contact says their man's never steered them wrong before.'
'I want some other evidence. I don't trust spies. Especially not ones working for the Free Republic Committee on Mercenary Actions.'
'Very well, sir. This file has been cleared for you in case you wanted it,' the suit replied, handing over a pale yellow folder. The uniform looked it through.
'Ah good, he didn't feed us Treeline, at least. If I ever find that man, I'll kill him myself and have SeeD send me a receipt.'
'Captain?' the suit asked, puzzled
'If it wasn't for that man, this war would be over and Timber would be united in pursuit of liberty and freedom. As it is, he sickened parliament into making us border guards. This spy seems to work mostly with feeding Krastovian stuff to us. None of it's very sensitive,' Uniform commented.
'No, sir, but this plus a few other things he has fed to our Timberian associates are. They assure me an interesting development will occur in Krastovia soon.'
'What kind of development? Selling the rebels more broken robots?'
'It's confidential, sir.'
'So long as there's nothing missing... These Forest Alliance troops you mention. They're FA and not SeeD Spec-Ops?'
'Well, sir,' Suit said nervously. 'They told me their source felt it might be SeeD SF, but they discounted it as paranoia...'
'I call it instinct. My instinct is telling me the spy might have it right.'
The captain stood, leaving a handful of coins behind.
'Captain Wedge, the military has a tab in this café,' Suit pointed out. Wedge, halfway to the door, turned and replied.
'Yes, but the military doesn't tip.'
Groznyka, Krastovia, seven miles northwest of Podavekna.
In a packed market street in one of the few major cities of Krastovia that still had real people attempting to live their lives in the face of the civil war, four men walked down the busy market street, a few meters apart but moving in the same direction through the crowds. Wearing nondescript and shabby clothing, they looked just like any ordinary Krastovian men.
Passing by a fruit stall where a woman haggled in rapid-fire Krastovian over prices with an elderly grocer woman, the four men arrived at a plain wooden door, an entrance to a small warehouse, with a balcony just above the door. Three of them entered, the fourth stood outside. Anyone watching closely would possibly have noted a small looped transparent wire coming from the ears of each man down into his shirt.
'Control, Romeo Two Alpha, moving in,' the doorman said, apparently to himself
'Romeo Two Alpha, Control, Have that. Romeo One Alpha, do you have eyes on Romeo Two?' a female voice came back through his earpiece.
A few dozen yards down the road, four others sat in a pickup truck. Another similar truck sat around the corner on a different street.
'Control, this is Romeo One Alpha, have eyes,' said the man in the passenger seat of the pickup truck observing this.
The twelve men were all SeeDs, from the Special Forces. This particular mission was on behalf of the Krastovian Militia, to recover a man of theirs who had been reported to be imprisoned by a small rebel group in this city. It all checked out: A patrol had been ambushed at the ruins of a former village three miles away the week before, and at least five bodies were unaccounted for.
Control was in fact sitting in Trabia Garden, thousands of miles away. The radio uplink to the control room in the garden had been achieved via satellite. A secondary control was sitting in a militia base a few miles away, comprising two majors listening in on the conversation, but deprived of the overhead imagery the Trabian Communications Officer was watching. One of these two was Buchsenrov.
'Trabia control,' he said through his own separate channel to the woman sitting thousands of miles north. 'We are getting some interference on the relay still.'
'Roger, afraid there's little we can do at this end, Major, we can't reposition the satellite without it affecting the reception of the team on the ground.'
'Romeo Two Bravo, looks like a bum steer, the building is empt-'
The radio cut off before he finished.
'Shit! Romeo One Alpha, we have an explosion at the objective!' Romeo One Alpha radioed in seconds later. Screaming and the last sounds of the blast could be heard in the background.
'Do you have contact?'
'Negative contact,' Romeo One Alpha said, as he and the rest of his fire team leapt out of their truck and tried to push through the fleeing crowd To avoid suspicion, their weapons had to remain hidden unless they themselves were fired upon. A building across the street solved the problem before the last man had cleared the door of the truck.
A rocket shot from a second floor window into the parked truck, detonating and destroying the engine block, as well as killing three SeeD operators instantly as well as killing or wounding many civilians in the crowd. Romeo One Alpha however had been spared serious injury by the fact an old man had got between him and the shrapnel. More screams.
The building that had exploded was now ablaze, the fruit stall, SeeD soldier, customer and grocer having been hurled across the road by the blast. A blazing shape stumbled from the shattered doorway of the building, only for a hail of gunfire to slam into him and wounded civilians lying prone in front of the bombed structure. Another man ran out onto the balcony, firing a rifle towards the building opposite. The insurgents there returned fire, killing the SeeD.
'Romeo Three Alpha, we have seven men down! Request immediate local support!'
'This is Romeo One Alpha,' the dazed squad leader radioed. 'Building opposite objective is hostile, engage with caution.'
As he said this, trying to stand up as the last few remnants of the crowd fled, more gunfire erupted from the building, aimed at him. He was killed, along with a dozen people in the crowd around him. Red Three's pickup truck was slowly trying to push through the crowd.
'Romeo Three Alpha, abort! Enemy has antitank weaponry, repeat,' Control said, but it was too late. The black and white monitor showed another rocket fly from the building and slam into the truck with a flash.
'All Romeo call-signs, respond,' she tried in vain. Another two attempts. Buchsenrov sat looking at the radio with unconcealed contempt, and the other Krastovian sat in stunned silence at what they were hearing.
'Shit,' the other major said.
'Amateurs,' Buchsenrov concluded. 'But martyrs. Their deaths might just convince SeeD to grow some balls and send more men here to fight these bastards.'
'After what that captain did in Podavekna?!' came the surprised response as Buchsenrov stood up. The woman in Trabia was still vainly trying to contact the SeeD team. The Krastovian switched both radios off and turned to reply to his countryman.
'Yes, comrade. After all, he can catch a bullet like the rest of us, no?'