13

Militia troops were swarming forth from seemingly every alleyway, firing their rifles from the hip. Though from first glance, their charge seemed undisciplined, it in fact was one of the most brutal, but, with the right numbers, effective means of assault. A human wave assault. They walked forward, shouting war cries and prayers to their gods as their weight of numbers pinned the defenders down.

Under the hail of random shots produced by the militia from their Liberation Rifles, other soldiers took careful aim with heavier weapons. Rockets, sniper rifles, grenades and machineguns lined onto the windows held by the allies.

'Frag out!' Zell yelled, hurling one out of the window into the street below. A few other SeeD troops did the same, and a few seconds later, a series of explosions outside reduced the hail of bullets slamming into the building. Zell moved quickly, aiming his rifle out the window from a crouch and firing five shots into the crowd of militiamen advancing forward. One man fell, having taken the only two rounds that hit in his skull, but his body was pushed forward and in a few seconds, trampled on by his advancing comrades.

Downstairs, the Galbadian gunners manning the two support weapons there fired blind, perching the weapons on the window frames and drawing them left to right. Their random bursts still inflicted casualties, but the enemy numbers were too great.

'Captain, I think we had better retreat!' Kelly shouted, as another volley of grenades was tossed out the windows.

'Alright, everyone,' Zell shouted. 'Take your shots out the window, lob some more frags, then we move downstairs and pull out!'

The SeeD's took their shots, bursts into the crowd felling half a dozen of them before the next volley of grenades was thrown. They then began to pull out, breaking off from the right and running quickly to the stairwell whilst crouching to avoid the bullets pinging off the walls. Zell was last to leave, making his way downstairs quickly. Before he was even halfway, the room behind him exploded, hurling him halfway downstairs chased by a cloud of dust. Corporal King turned, but saw the captain pick himself up as the dust billowed down.

'Fuck! That was good timing...' Zell said, picking himself off the floor.

'Got all the pins in your grenades, Captain?' King asked.

'Yes, corporal, I know this because all I have left are smoke and I am not on fire. Now will you get your ass out of here?' the dust-covered officer ordered. The junior NCO nodded, moving swiftly down the rest of the stairwell.

The building the SeeD and Galbadian troops held had a basement, leading a tunnel off into the next crossroads. From that tunnel, they would draw back no more than a hundred yards into buildings held by more Galbadians.

The pullout plan was thus: SeeD would take the ground floor, as the Galbadians there pulled out. The second floor would then move down, allowing the SeeD forces to pull out. The Galbadians were already in the basement and the tunnel when Zell arrived.

The ground floor had been heavily barricaded, windows and the doors blocked with furniture from the house, as well as sandbags. Only six G-Army troops had been here, aiming shotguns and a support weapon at the doors and windows from behind a barricade made from the remaining furniture and sandbags , ready for any entry. They had left these behind for the next squad down.

'The Galbadians pulling out from the upstairs yet?'

'They're just on the way, sir!' a SeeD replied. On cue, the first of six Galbadians came down. Six SeeD, plus Selphie and Irvine, pulled out. The Galbadians grabbed the shotguns and the support weapon, slinging their own rifles.

The building shuddered again, a single rocket hitting. A second later, the rest slammed home, dust billowing downstairs. Before the echo stopped, screams followed.

'King, with me!' Zell shouted. Though a corporal, King was also the main medic of the unit. The two ran upstairs as fast as the rubble allowed, to find the second floor wide open. Four Galbadians were clearly dead, two more lay on the top of the stairwell, their backs torn apart by shrapnel. Blood covered every wall.

'All the other SeeDs, up here!' Zell yelled. They followed.

'Get these men downstairs carefully, but fast! And the dead.'

'But sir...' one soldier tried to protest.

'But what? We don't leave ours behind, we don't leave allies behind.'

'Yes sir,' the soldier conceded, moving to help carry a wounded man down the stairs. King and two other SeeD did this as Zell and the remaining man pulled two bodies downstairs. Two Galbadians had come upstairs, and took the others downstairs.

Zell passed the body he had recovered down into the basement, grabbing a shotgun to reinforce the four Galbadians left. The windows and doors had begun to shake as the Militia pounded them.

'Hold your fire until they breach,' a Galbadian sergeant shouted.

'Sir, last men just clearing now. Pull out any time!' Kelly shouted.

'Got that,' Zell shouted back, not taking his eyes off the vibrating barricades. The Galbadians began pulling out one man at a time, until only Zell was left, walking back to the trapdoor.

The right hand window broke in, and Zell fired a rapid fire volley of buckshot into the open hole as he jumped downstairs. He quickly hurled a smoke grenade back up, before scrambling into the tunnel, still holding the shotgun. Halfway down the tunnel, a Galbadian sapper was crouched with a detonator.

'Alright, let loose, they're breaking in.'

The Galbadian nodded, and slammed the button three times. Seconds later, the tunnel shook.

Back in the building, on the ground floor, antipersonnel mines fired arcs of inch-diameter steel ball bearings, cutting the densely packed militia to ribbons. A few had passed into the basement, ignorant of the demolition charges lining the walls and ceiling. One was just about to jump into the tunnel when they detonated.

The entire building rumbled, as Zell and the sapper ran down the tunnel. The foundations were destroyed by the charges, and the upper floors began to fall. The earlier damage inflicted by the rockets helped ensure the collapse, and the charges had been focused to collapse as much of the rubble as possible onto the street.

In the next building, the defenders there had herded the dead and wounded men back to the embassy via back streets. Zell found the barricades and shotgun approach had been copied here, as expected.

'By the book Galbadian inner-city ad hoc defences,' he muttered, placing the shotgun on the inner barricade.

'Captain Dincht,' a Galbadian lieutenant shouted from the stairwell. 'Your troops have moved upstairs to supplement our men there.'

Zell thanked the man, and ran upstairs just as the shooting began.

'You could probably run these bastards over and they'd keep coming,' Almeis complained, firing bursts from his support weapon.

Unlike the initial charge, the random firing was having little pinning effect, as the massed fire from seven support weapons and dozens of rifles cut down the charging Militia.

The sun was just on the last legs of its descent, bathing the city in shadows and pale orange light. The militia had learned a few years ago that nightfall meant that the Galbadians gained even more of an edge, their night vision gear penetrating the night gloom better than their own flashlights and torches.

******

'Alright, night's falling. That means we can evacuate the embassy shortly,' Golmann stated. 'With the Marines and Paras making good progress there, we can start evacuation. They won't hold the embassy for more than half an hour.'

'Fourth Marine Tank Platoon reports some heavy resistance, but they expect to shoot through it shortly. Third infantry are mopping up down Missia and Al-Wain,' Caspar reported, observing the progress of the Galbadian and Government forces. The tanks were the hammer, the Marine and Para infantry were the fine sweeping, and the government soldiers followed behind to hold the areas taken. They were now half a mile from the embassy.

Caspar glanced at one screen, a feed watching the embassy area. Vehicles were firing down a street, along the opposite end of which a column of yet more technicals charged. Two were already ablaze, but all were armed with heavy antitank rocket launchers in place of the more common machine guns.

'How many of those damn things do they have?' Caspar asked the air as another exploded, three rockets streaking down and slamming into the front of an IFV.

******

On that street, the hit IFV had lost its fire control system with the impact, and a second rolled in to contribute. The autocannon roared, peppering the lead technical with explosive rounds. It flipped into the air, the next bursts tearing apart the technical behind it.

The commander fired his machine gun personally as streams of tracer rounds reached out into another technical from the minigun. His own tracers followed into a second, as the other IFV recovered its systems. The combined hail of fire then ripped apart the technicals as their last volley of rockets streaked past. However, one last rocket was fired, and hit dead centre of the IFV that had moved in to support. The explosion, right below the joint where the autocannon cradle met the turret itself, and the antitank round sliced through the armour. The result was, that the turret was torn apart, the commander also suffering a similar fate. The shells of the autocannon began popping within the burning turret, as the driver and two gunners evacuated. Before the last of them had even escaped the hull, the fuel ignited, a ball of flame incinerating the tank, the commander's body, and the last unfortunate crewman, a gunner.

******

The first helicopters swooped in twenty minutes after sundown proper. The embassy staff were first to board a transport, and followed by the wounded. The outer perimeter fell back if it had not already done so, but instead of bolstering the next ring, they proceeded to the embassy. Those there prepared to pull out, the marines excluded. SeeD, however, had volunteered to be the last to pull out before the Marines.

The next five helicopters arrived, and the middle perimeter fell back. The militia assault had waned, and they had instead started to dig in in those buildings they could mount a defence from.

Twenty minutes later, the last helicopters arrived, to pull the SeeD troops out. A marine sergeant saluted as Zell's squad, last of all, moved upstairs to board their flight out of the city.

'Yours is the last one out of here, Captain. Been a pleasure,' the Marine sergeant said, saluting. Zell returned it

'Aren't you marines coming?' Zell asked.

'Sir, no, sir. We're Marine Corp of Galbadia. We only abandon our posts if we're dead.'

'It's a battle plan, I'll admit, but it doesn't have much future in if you're here by yourselves...' Zell mused. The Marine simply grinned

'We got brethren coming in, ' the marine pointed down the street. A Marine Corps MBT95 tank trundled down the road with an APC behind it.

'Oh, I see. That ought to hold the Nationalists back.'

'Last I heard, the entire Nationalist quarter just had to change underwear, sir. And that can be tricky in the dark.'

'Best use flamethrowers then, give them some light. Have a good night, Marine,' Zell said, jumping onto the helicopter. The marine waved the pilot the signal to take off.

The fifteen minute flight back to the base was relatively free from ground fire, only the odd militiaman taking a pot shot and getting a minigun burst in return.

******

When Zell arrived, he noticed Wedge and thirteen of his team reloading and rearming in the hangar the SeeD troops had been directed to. Elsewhere, other Galbadian troops and SeeD were clearing and cleaning there weapons, organising their equipment, or simply getting something to eat. Selphie and Irvine however, stood by the Galbadian Special Forces. Another sixteen men with the Galbadian Navy badge on their berets were standing with Wedge.

'Welcome back to base, Captain,' Irvine said. He didn't bother saluting.

'What's the story here, Irvine?'

'Captain Wedge and his men had three wounded, and they're out of the game tonight. Meanwhile, Captain Sturm from the Spezialkräfte Kommando Marine has arrived off the Deling for their little mission.'

'And why are you two still equipped?'

'Easy, Zell. They needed replacements for the men they dropped.'

Zell pondered this for a moment.

'You said Wedge had three wounded?'

'Yeah,' Irvine confirmed. 'I think you'd best ask him, if you're going to ask what I think you are, Zell.'

'I think you're thinking the right answer, Irvine,' Zell smiled, before turning towards Wedge and walking over.

Ten minutes later, they were on their way in eight GASH-92s, ready to strike at the enemy's main defence against the night advance, their supply depots. At one AM, after directing airstrikes onto ten such depots, the Special Forces finally pulled out. By this time, the Galbadian troops had stopped their advance, and prepared to consolidate what gains had been made and clean up the damage of the losses.

******

In fact, the next morning revealed a strange silence in the city, as it emerged at least fifteen hundred militia had been killed, twice that many wounded, around five hundred having surrendered and over a hundred vehicles destroyed. The Galbadian losses had been light: One helicopter and twelve ground vehicles destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and another sixteen vehicles with some sort of severe battle damage, ranging from immobilisation to a destroyed weapon. For such a violent urban battle, a mere 22 Galbadians had died, and another 102 had been wounded. No SeeD had died, but six had been wounded, one of them critical. That day was spent by the allies consolidating and reinforcing the newly-held portions of the city, as more aeroplanes landed more and more paratroopers and light tanks.

The next day, the Galbadians moved forward. The militia, in the face of a now overwhelming Galbadian force, simply retreated. By the end of that day, the Militia had fled to the southern plains with barely a shot fired.

The day after that, SeeD pulled out, bar three, who headed along the mountain trail. A burnt out technical sat beside a Galbadian APC where they had last encountered a Socialist seeking the toll they enforced. The mountains had changed hands since then.

The other outcome of the battle was more significant. The effect of the battle, and Galbadian influence, had led to a significant commitment from the international community to move into Dishagoum to restore order to the country. Dollet, Balamb, and various other nations agreed to join this effort, and in the face of such a massive international response, a ceasefire would be declared by many of the factions a week after the battle. The political victory was still on its way even as the cleanup from the Military one was in full swing.

Zell hadn't seen Edea and Cid for a while, and he decided that taking the chance while he could was not one to be passed up. As it happened, the Kramers had been planning a barbeque on the beach to send off their two houseguests who had rudely been called into work for part of their holiday, and though a day late, they held it anyway. One of the SeeD bodyguards stationed here was grilling various frozen foods over a drum barbecue fed by dried out driftwood. Zell sat on a dune, watching the seas. A Galbadian destroyer was escorting a food ship flying the flag of Dollet to the city docks about three miles out. His observation of this was disturbed by Edea sitting beside him

'A burger, Zell? I was expecting you to have a hotdog,' Edea said as she sat.

She had aged well. Few wrinkles had appeared on her face, and the grey hairs were still only pushing out in small numbers. She had long abandoned the black dress she had worn as a sorceress, and reverted to the lighter coloured and lighter material clothes

'Yeah, well, Trabians look at you funny if you put tomato sauce onto one, even with mustard. I can't stand mustard or onions without ketchup, so I just went for cow in a bun. Besides, kinda grown out of hotdogs.'

'What do you eat then? I hardly see you dining on steak and fine wine,' she asked, as he finished the last chunk of the sandwich.

'Sandwiches, fish, vegetables. I'll own up I still go to the Pizza joint on Gilmour Seafront when I've got leave,' he admitted.

'The one where they deep fry practically everything?'

'Including confectionery, yeah. I donít eat those.'

'But the deep fried pizza?'

'...Yeah, hands up, I eat those.'

Edea laughed.

'A soldier for ten years, training to be one for eight years before that, and you still snack on junk food.'

'Better than drinking,' he said. 'At least you work it off through hard labour rather than vomit.'

She paused, then spoke softly.

'Sometimes, Zell, I wonder how you all can handle such punishment. I wonder how Selphie managed to survive her... Problem,' Edea said, referring to a medical problem roughly five years ago the Corporal had suffered. She rarely spoke about it, and few of her friends did. Though occasionally she did joke lightly about how the messages of support and condolences posted on the SeeD network to her blog had almost crashed the entire system.

'She's tougher than she looks. And she had people there for her. Mostly,' he admitted, recalling he wasn't there for anyone at that time. She and Irvine sat on the beach, a few yards from the edge of the tide.

'If you're still angry with yourself over the aftermath of Treeline...' Edea said, picking up on the "mostly".

'No, Matron, I'm... not exactly over it, but I'm past it. I know I had my own troubles. Everyone else understands. I wasn't alone in that regard. But it kind of explains how Selphie managed to keep going. Her whole world came crashing down on her when the scan came in. She'd lost her only chance at it. But she recovered on the outside. I don't doubt it doesn't haunt her and Irvine, god knows if I'd kept a girlfriend longer than a year I'd probably have been torn apart by something like that.'

'But as you say, back then you had your own problems.'

'I did. I recovered too, because it's all I knew how to do. Selphie was looking forward to a new sort of life, but when it faded... She got back into her old life because it's all she knew. If we gave up because of a problem...'

'I see your point, Zell. You can all handle it, because you've recovered from change before and you'll do it again.'

'Well, to be honest, one Treeline is enough in a lifetime for me, and my trouble is, I might have to face another one. Selphie's unlucky in her case. She can never face that again because it was one time only.'

'Don't you maybe mean lucky?'

'No, Matron. I know what I said. She'd probably be ready for a dozen more like five years ago if the one then hadn't ruined her chances of ever going down that road again.'

Edea stayed silent. She'd never even got to the stage the SeeD corporal had. That was why she and Cid had started the orphanage when they were only in their early twenties. They could not have their own, but they would instead look after those who had lost their parents.

'Why are we talking about the past anyway? Dishagoum has a bright new future ahead of it. The international community's coming to kick ass and take names. Peace might be on the agenda for real.'

'It's all just politics, though. Could fall apart in a week, a month, a year. Might succeed. Who knows?'

'Well, Matron, I don't claim to understand politics, but I understand hope. The global stage might not change much, I mean, sure, we saved a few Galbadian lives, SeeD's been on one operation alongside the G-Army and now we might be on others. South Timber's been given a hundred lines by teacher and made to go to the ceasefire talks and the north has to wait a while to play with the new GFs. Galbadia's government gets re-elected then the ceasefire won't mean spit even if they do mean business down here. Caraway pretty much admitted that they just want a good election result. Afterwards it's business as usual in Timber.'

'Yes. Near election time, if it was recent and good, then voters don't care. You bury a scandal for the election, then dig it up to try and get rid of it. Galbadia wants a Timber in its sphere of influence. Not Esthar's. They want a peaceful Dishagoum to get oil from. Esthar has plenty of its own. Modern colonialism. The big guns prop up their strategic partners like a secret empire.'

'Except it's not much of a secret,' Zell said, staring off across the ocean at the two ships slowly moving towards a changed city.