An hour from Balamb.
Zell had been unsurprised to learn that news of Captain Wedge's capture had already reached Deling by the time he arrived at the gates of the POW camp. Clearly the Northern military was anxious to cash the cheque as soon as possible before the exchange rates grew poorer.
Unfortunately, Zell had run out of reading material for the flight home, and as a result, attempted the old trick of sleep. It didn't come easy, and an announcement of a diversion to a civilian airstrip an hour's flight time further away for reasons unspecified.
A glance out of the window revealed that it was just sea below, the only signs of life on the ocean below the lights of a ship. Not even the edge of Balamb's coastline yet. But at least it wasn't the shores of Timber either.
Arriving back at Command HQ, the twenty four SeeDs slowly discovered the full extent of what had occurred before they left. The base was still a buzz of activity, as a small army was on the move.
The team returned their weapons and equipment to the quartermaster, and Zell dismissed his own team. Seifer, however, was intercepted by a messenger, and the Special Forces team walked into the mass of soldiers who seemed to be preparing to move out on a mission. All of them wore the jump wings that marked them as current members of the Airborne Regiment.
'Lieutenant, do we have a war going on?' Zell asked a SeeD who stood ticking off boxes in a notepad.
'Been out in the field, captain? Airborne's mobilizing to Krastovia. We've had to ask the Balamb Air Force nicely to loan us a few more C12's and transport helis.'
'How many more transports, lieutenant?'
'Not sure myself, sir, but from what I've seen so far I think they're taking every man and most of the helis from our own supply. Hell, there's only two HA-18s for the top brass to fly around in, they took the other four to the airbase,' the junior officer replied.
'I guess that explains why we were diverted to a civilian airfield.'
'Would be, sir. I think they're still loading up equipment at Junison.'
'Why so many?'
'The ambush, sir. Twelve of ours killed in Krastovia, Special Forces. Esthar and command are pissed, Trabia especially. So-'
'So we're sending the rest of our elites out. Thanks, lieutenant,' Zell said, as he spotted Caun walking amongst groups of paratroopers.
'Back so soon?' she asked.
'Yes ma'am. Correct me if I'm wrong, ma'am, but are we sending the entire Airborne to join the entire Special Forces in-'
'Stop right there, Dincht. The answer is yes, if anything happens needing a fast response, we're stuck with Counter Revolutionary Warfare and airborne trained regulars like yourself as a backup,' she interrupted.
'Well, Ma'am, I know we're both uneasy at that kind of prospect.'
'Uneasy isn't the word, Dincht. Airborne is going out rested. CRW is good for a SWAT team and maybe if we get a counter terrorist siege somewhere, but right now it's mostly fresh faces who wanted to pass an easy selection process to get one step closer to spec ops or airborne. No use as rapid reaction. And it would take the six hours we're supposed to spend mobilizing the airborne just now to collect together enough like you, and that's before we can find the damn planes. That's before we get into the exercise most of the two brigades in Balamb are heading for. With Airborne gone, we're having to send over a few more to join the Trabian brigade making snowmen with the Trabian Defence Force in a frozen wasteland.'
She stayed silent, watching the paratroopers begin to move out of the base towards trucks. In less than an hour, they would all be airborne. Zell knew that Caun wished she was going with them. He on the other hand, was thankful he wasn't.
'Anyway, Dincht, your orders are to take at least three days leave. Timber's pleased at your last mission, so is the commander. '
'I was actually hoping to speak to him, ma'am.'
'You will, Dincht. Trust me on that one. But for now, get your ass some rest then use the three days. Try not to get too comfy though. We're gonna be short on troops around here for a little while.'
Ministry of Defence, Deling City, Galbadia.
The morning after, as SeeD had dispatched the majority of its more elite troops to Esthar, five suited men sat at a table in a briefing room on the other side of the world, including a General, an Admiral, and the Defence Minister, plus two other members of parliament that worked as his juniors in the ministry. A soldier in dress uniform stood before the table.
'Welcome back, Captain Wedge. Please, issue your report. In full.'
'Yes sir. Two days ago, I was approached by an intelligence officer of the National Security Bureau whilst on leave in South Timber following a covert operation elsewhere within Timber. This officer informed me that the South, via a source in an unidentified location and position with access to mission plans of SeeD, had discovered a covert operation to defend a convoy of armaments. The Socialists believed that information fed to them about a possible assault upon the arms depot the weapons were headed to was correct. It was in fact a lure placed by the south. Southern irregulars, posing as soldiers from our own one hundred and first light infantry-'
'I'm sorry, captain' said one of the MP's. 'Southerners from intelligence agencies posing as our soldiers?'
'Yes, sir, that is correct. My initial mission was to infiltrate this group: It was a simple task. With assistance from the General, the Southern forces were led to believe I was a SeeD from Galbadia covertly assigned to ensure the accuracy of their disguise.'
'And did you?' The Admiral asked.
'Yes, sir. The Southern commander was extremely grateful of my assistance in ensuring their faux-hundred and first looked and acted like the real thing. My next mission was to deliberately ensure I was captured as both an intelligence gathering operation, and a means through which to release myself from the southerners, which I accomplished.'
'Sounds risky with SeeD shooting at you. Must have taken some balls,' the remaining MP said.
'Well, sir, all part of the job as it was with your unit.'
'Did you ever open fire upon any SeeD operators, Captain?' asked the Defence Minister.
'I believe it likely sir, though I did not kill any to the best of my knowledge.'
'Then I presume they fired upon you?'
'Yes, sir, but the covert nature of my mission, and to an extent, theirs, meant they could not withdraw as normal, even when facing Galbadian soldiers,' Wedge replied.
'Could they have known it was a ruse by the south?'
'I would not discount it, sir, but I find it highly unlikely.'
'Do you have anything further to report, Captain?' the General asked.
'Yes sir. The SeeD forces present used a guardian force. Intelligence indicated this was part of the mission brief, but the southern forces were not warned of this. I however, knew also of claims the Socialists seek to develop their own corps of guardian force users. Evidently, sir, they seek to use the leverage of the power of a GF as a bargaining chip at negotiations.'
'A bargaining chip like a captured soldier?' the Defence Minister asked.
'Yes sir. '
'Very well, Captain. Thank you for your time here, and thank you also for undertaking such a perilous mission for Galbadia. You are dismissed and free until 0600 hours on Friday by my order,' The General said. He stood, saluted the man, and the man returned the salute.
As Wedge left the room, the Defence Minister spoke.
'What did we give the North to get him back?'
'I believe it was sixty five prisoners and three hundred thousand Gil to secure his release within the day,' the General replied
'I'd pay that sum a hundred times if we got a hundred men like that. Anyway, Caraway, what he told me was enough. It's clear to me the south is trying to draw us into conflict with SeeD so they do not have to take the fight to SeeD themselves. You have authorisation for your project. '
Leave to most meant visiting families, and Zell was no exception. And, adopted or not, three years short of thirty or not, Captain or not, Zell's mother still wound up doing as all mothers do to their children when they return home. The amount of attention and pampering his mother inflicted upon him when he returned to the street on the shore side suburbs of Balamb almost made him forget the other thing he usually did on leave besides dramatise a few mundane stories for neighbourhood kids and his parents. Almost. On the last of the three days he had, he paid a visit to old friends before he went back to base.
This path was on the opposite side of the churchyard from the ever-growing route Zell had come to hate the sight of, but it led to the same places. A few others were there at this time of day, mostly family members paying respects to loved ones buried here, but a few SeeDs and Balamb Defence Force troopers were here doing what Zell was doing.
A friend of sorts who was still living was standing at one of the graves Zell planned to visit. Though Zell had never really been close to either Raijin or Fujin, even after the two had rejoined Garden and became SeeD's alongside Seifer, the circumstances surrounding Fujin's death had essentially forced Raijin to resign from SeeD. Zell had gone a different path, as had Seifer, but Zell's path had been somewhat different. It had taken Raijin confronting him almost six months after the event for Zell to turn around from almost certainly being thrown out from SeeD and getting on with life after more than one death.
Zell owed both of them. Had Fujin not given her life, Zell and six others would have been in the ground where she lay now. Had Raijin not given him a reality check, Zell would have sooner or later worked his way into a grave, either by bullet or bottle.
After resignation Raijin had became a police officer in Balamb, unwilling to take the usual route of ex-SeeDs and join either the BDF or go freelance. He'd become a detective for the Criminal Investigations and Undercover Operations department, and worked as police/SeeD liaison any time SeeD had an undercover operation in the Balamb Metropolitan area.
Neither exchanged a word for the first few minutes. Raijin broke the silence eventually.
'Heading back to base soon?'
'Yeah. Had to come here first of course,' Zell responded
'Hear Krastovia's been going wrong.'
'Pretty much. Spoke to Seifer?'
'Week ago. Didn't tell me anything much, ya know?' the former SeeD said.
'He still insisting he's just in CRW?'
'Yeah. He off base just now?'
'You know I can't say too much, but his answering machine is on, if you get my drift.'
Zell's pager began buzzing. He'd set it to silent, but the mechanism inside to make the device shake still made a loud enough noise in a quiet area. He ignored it.
'Gonna answer that?'
'I'd rather not. Probably something to wreck my plans to shoot paper targets for the next three months.'
'Well, I didn't answer mine. The lieutenant'll get impatient shortly, so I had best get to work, ya know? See you around,' the SeeD turned policeman said, and left. The pager buzzed again. Zell gave up and read it.
'Afternoon, Zell. Hope you made the most of the time off,' Colonel McKnight said, greeting Zell at the main gate of Command HQ.
'I had some time to get paperwork done at least, colonel.'
'Well, time for another little holiday, Captain. Special assignment waiting for you. Follow me,' McKnight said. Zell walked with the colonel, noting that the base seemed a little empty.
'Little quiet with the entire airborne gone, huh?' Zell noted.
'That and the fact most of the Balamb regiment's gone to Trabia on Garden this morning for the exercise. On the bright side, plenty of seats in the mess hall. Commander's orders though, you're still locked out from the bar.'
'Wouldn't have it any other way, Colonel. Thinking of taking up smoking so I can get rid of all the cash I've saved not drinking it.'
'Not even going to ask what this assignment is?' McKnight pondered.
'You going to tell me?'
'There you go sir, saved time not asking.'
'What the hell, you know who it is that's hiring you. Commander wants you to escort a VIP to Deling. Two of them in fact.'
'Couldn't you just have said Rinoa's taking Julia to see her grandfather and Squall wants me to chaperone?'
'I could, but I'd have said "perform close protection detail" instead.'
They entered the command centre. The true hub of SeeD, even if Squall made what was supposed to be his secondary office his first. Squall's main office was in this building, and McKnight was taking Zell straight there.
Two times the size of the Mobile Garden cubby-hole Squall worked out of most of the time, this office was surprisingly bare, merely a desk, filing cabinets and a television set. What most people noticed first though, was the fact the television had a games console hooked up to it. A few had presumed their commander maybe was human after all and liked a good shoot-em-up game when the armoury was closed. They were right, but a few more knew the discs in the console generally had games involving cartoon foxes and dragons that jumped from platform to platform collecting diamonds and jumping on top of goblins. The first person shooters were all on Garden.
'Captain Dincht for you, sir,' McKnight said, opening the door.
'Afternoon, Zell,' Squall said, standing. Zell saluted, eliciting a frown.
'First order, Zell, first names only. No one's calling anyone commander, captain, colonel, Dincht or McKnight for the next ten or fifteen minutes, just Squall, Zell and Fred.'
'Roger that, but who's who?' Zell joked.
'You're Fred now, I guess, I think I'll steal you name,' McKnight said as the two men sat in front of the desk.
'I suppose Fred, or rather, "Zell" explained the mission despite the fact I ordered him not to?'
'You didn't as such order it, Squall, you just said to not tell him.'
'Well, yes, he gave me an overview,' Zell replied. 'Bodyguard duty for Rinoa and Julia as they go to visit General Caraway?'
'That's the first part, yeah. Normally I send Selphie and Irvine, but they're still in Dishagoum. Plus, there's another issue. A potential mission, but it requires a more covert approach. I'd trust a sergeant with it normally, but the employer in this situation has requested a highly trusted officer meet and receive the mission details.'
'Who's going to really be on bodyguard detail when I'm doing the meet then, Squall?'
'You, Sergeant Kelly, plus the woman who usually stands outside the front gate. Feldwebel Hoffman, I think her name is. You're probably only going downstairs to have a private chat.'
'...General Caraway is hiring us? When he has Taktisches Kommando Spezialkräfte and SeeD Galbadia on hand?'
'Trouble is, TKSK and SeeD Galbadia have some slight problems. Free Republic's paranoid and spies on everyone. And most of Parliament in Deling couldn't give a shit, because they're doing the same thing. '
'Can I just say this doesn't sound too good so far?'
'It gets better, Zell. I officially don't know the mission's occurring. In fact, I haven't even spoken to Caraway. You've just been told everything I know about the secret side of it. You're getting more information than the commander.'
'Why does that not feel like it's a good thing?'