15

The next morning.

His reading of files had told him that all he had was an average, dull, unremarkable squad of R4, or Recruit Grade Four, Examstroops, and that few of them were likely to fail the exam and rise into what had once seemed a high rank to him just eleven years ago. What had then been just a low rank SeeD operator was now called Non Commissioned Grade One Private, just the bottom rung of a ladder reaching up to officer ranks. And ten years after graduating, he was Officer Grade Five. Four ranks below Squall's role as Commander of SeeD with decent prospects of Major or even Colonel in the next five or ten years.

He'd made Sergeant within a year of that confusing mess with time compression and sorceresses, skipped Corporal totally. Failing Special Forces selection by simply not being in the top five of the seven who passed the gruelling selection still earned him another promotion two years after that. He found himself recommended for officer training soon after, and after passing that, all between him and a single silver pip replacing his three gold chevrons, but for two years, no vacancies emerged in the ranks of officers. Then came Timber.

Operation Treeline, the mother of all disasters for SeeD. The Northern Army and Forest Alliance attempting to repeat a half-success a year before that slammed up against a combined force of Southerners, Galbadians, and Linderhillers driving north, encircling many SeeD strike teams. One hundred and ninety four SeeD operators killed, almost a thousand wounded or captured. Among them, Colonel Xu, Major Sion Airwalker, Captain William "Bill" Reds, Doctor Kadowaki, Staff Sergeant Jecklin Simons, and Sergeant Fujin. All of them his friends. All of them comrades in arms.

That he'd got out alive had been bad enough for him in the days after. He'd been hit a dozen times himself. Dragged Simons for half a mile before he realised the other man was dead. Saw Airwalker's helicopter snatched from the sky by a missile. Fought tooth and nail in a village for three hours while Kadowaki and her field surgery team tried to save some Northern general who'd been hit by a sniper only for a stray rocket to slam on the field hospital and kill the whole team, plus patient and three other Northerners. Watched helplessly when a Southern trooper decapitated Xu with a gunblade he'd picked up from a dead SeeD. Shot the bastard to make up for it. Then the scream of incoming fire, the world throwing him into the air and when he hit the ground again he landed in blackness, waking up a month later in Balamb to learn Reds and Fujin had died taking him and six others to safety.

Some wretched good had come from it. The brutality of the assault on the north, where civilian and military target alike had been torn apart on sight, had sickened the Galbadian army and Parliament. Esthar had been outraged. As the G-Army and Government debated whether to continue the war, Esthar flooded the north with equipment. The Northerners made the Southerners, now unsupported by Galbadia and her allies, pay in blood for every inch of ground. That bought the North enough time to survive the assault and push back, just as Galbadia's parliament agreed that their troops would go no further in the war, and that their current lines were as far as they would go. Three years of the fighting had put the borders back to those lines, and tit-for-tat raids became the order of the day, with the odd major offensive from either side fizzling out and the inevitable counterattack putting things back to square one.

And the only other good thing, three months after the disaster. As Timber was torn apart with death and conflict, and SeeD still reeled from the losses, Rinoa gave the organisation a much needed morale boost in the shape of her and Squall's first and so far only child. Julia, named after her maternal grandmother, who died seventeen years before the birth of her grandchild.

Not that Zell had really been helped by it. Regret over living where so many more had perished made him hit the bottle. He grew distant from his surviving friends after the event, even when it emerged Selphie had an ectopic pregnancy, and the end result of the operation left her infertile. It all culminated in Squall being forced to remove him from active duty when he'd been found drunk and trying to shoot himself with an empty handgun in his quarters.

Upon his return from rehabilitation in Balamb, he'd been told he was being offered the rank of Captain, and despite the counselling, he remained certain everyone better had been killed, captured or crippled. He tried to refuse the promotion three times as SeeD scrabbled desperately to replace the officers lost during Treeline before Raijin came to his quarters one day. Seifer's friend had been devastated by Fujin's death, as had Seifer himself, but Raijin had resigned as a SeeD at the death of a woman who had been like a sister. The former SeeD had tearfully told him Fujin's death would mean nothing if Zell threw it away. That every death would be worthless if everyone who had lived just threw it all away. It took courage, Raijin said, to be able to keep going from this. SeeD as a whole had it. He knew Zell had it. He knew he didn't have it. He accepted eventually. From there it was one battle at a time. He'd not touched a drop of alcohol for four years, firebombs in Krastovia the notable exception. He'd overcome the guilt but still was haunted by the memories of failures, not necessarily in Timber, but the weakness afterwards.

And all that had came just from reminiscing. Like booze, it was dangerous to take too much, because the past was the same kind of road to ruin that drinking provided.

******

Zell went to the pistol range about six forty five, discovering that the layout of the complex made it simple enough to find buildings, but not individual rooms. However, finding the pistol range was simple enough, and it was the only one of the weapons ranges open at this hour. Everything else was outdoors, and loud. Especially the heavy weapons range where the occasional live shot with a rocket launcher occurred.

That wasn't a problem for Zell though. Most SeeD operators used handguns in an almost competitive manner, taking their personal handgun (as opposed to their issue handgun) apart and customising it by whatever means possible. In Zell's case, he owned a GP1911 handgun. The long-serving Galbadian sidearm, with over 3 million examples made. A single-stacked magazine that only held seven rounds: point forty-three calibre Galbadia Action Round bullets, eleven by thirty millimetre bullets that made a decent hole. The single stack made for a slim profile though, meaning that short barrelled versions had become popular self defence weapons.

The modern version was the GP1911A4, a dual-stacked variant replacing the previous A3 model, which accepted an extended magazine (designed in such a way that it would not fit any previous government or modern civilian model) taking capacity to 16 rounds. Zell's variant was one of the original type, a six inch barrel variant made exactly as it had been when the handgun was the Oster Und Lindemaan Model 1 Automatic a hundred and ten years ago. His, however, had a black frame, silver slide, trigger, magazine release and safety. It also had custom made wood grips he'd made himself.

His issued handgun, on the other hand, was just a plain blued steel S3 handgun with an outer barrel extension for a quick-detach suppressor, and the standard black plastic grips. Customisation upon them was strictly disallowed unless one had purchased their own for personal use. SeeD operators, by regulation on uniformed missions, had to use their issue sidearm. If on a bodyguard duty, a plain clothes mission, or any other role where a SeeD issue weapon was either not required or actively discouraged. The irony of that was, most SeeD operators were better with a pistol they left at home than the one strapped to their leg that was supposed to be their backup if their rifle exhausted ammunition or jammed.

Zell was surprised to find that the range was not as empty as he expected. Two other officers were there, lieutenants from different platoons in his company, who were directly his subordinates as he was senior officer of the four platoons making up his company. Additionally, some instructors and even one Examstroop were firing down the range.

The two lieutenants saluted upon seeing Zell, who returned it. They were Libria Banes and John Macalister, five and two years Zell's junior respectively in age and experience.

'Morning, lieutenants.'

'Morning, sir. Shooting your issue sidearm today?' Banes asked.

'Depends. Anyone else firing forty-threes?'

'No, sir, but one of the instructors has one of those weird rocket guns from Linderhill. RPL or something,' Macalister replied. The unusual sound of said weapon could be heard distantly.

'Then I guess I'm just shooting.'

A few magazines emptied into silhouette targets later, and Zell noticed the examstroop who was up about an hour or two before the other students was the boy from yesterday who had practically quoted the manual on a rifle. Judging by the tight grouping of the shots he had taken with a revolver, the student was not only a walking textbook but an aspiring pistol marksman.

'Nice shooting,' Zell commented, standing behind him. There were six holes within a three inch circle at the head of the silhouette .

'Thank you, sir,' Mitchell, the student replied.

'Your own handgun, I presume?'

'Yes sir. Cormorant Arms mark 2 six inch forty-six single action magnum.'

'Did I see you in Instructor Trepe's class yesterday?'

'Yes sir,' Mitchell replied, reloading the Mk2. 'You're supposed be taking us on a prelim tomorrow?'

'That's right. Mind if I see that? Zell asked, meaning the revolver.

The student handed it over. Zell took aim with one hand, as a fresh target rolled downrange. When it stopped, Zell fire the six shots off, a second apart. When the target came back, what appeared to be a single hole was in the middle of the head. It was in fact where all six rounds had gone into a two inch area.

'That's rather impressive, sir,' the student proclaimed.

'Well, easy gun to aim really,' Zell said. 'What was your name?'

Mitchell reminded him.

******

Two hours later, Zell had dragged the entire class plus instructor down to the range to see first hand the skill of the thirty he was to be in overall command of. On the rifle range, no one really stood out with the assault rifles, and in the pistol range, as Zell had expected, Mitchell was ahead by a slim margin over John Harkness, one of the marksmen. The three close quarters specialists followed shortly behind, as Zell was expecting. Those who trained in hand to hand combat often made sure they could use short-ranged weapons with accuracy as well.

'Alright. No one's a terrible shot at least,' Zell commented.

'Okay, now we've obliged the captain's request, let's go and actually prepare for the prelim tomorrow. Fifteen of you might sit it this afternoon,' Quistis said. 'The surveillance exercises can't be put into a timetable so we'll try and get all fifteen done, but we have all day tomorrow if it overruns.'

'Surveillance. Why do they need an officer for that again?' Zell asked the instructor.

'Because it's in the middle of the city. And we need a veteran officer to come up with devious little traps.'

'Ironic really. With this tattoo, I'm off missions like that. I stand out too much.'

******

Zell was in charge of organising the mock exam, and in this case, each candidate would in turn attempt to track one of five Balamb Defence Force employees borrowed for the job to pose as a suspected enemy agent, to wherever he was going in the city centre. Zell had planned a number of traps for each candidate. Among them, a loud noise from a backfiring car to make the employee turn suddenly, a young woman, played by a SeeD operator, followed into an alleyway by three very obvious men, one of whom would be holding a knife. The three men were played by officers borrowed from the police, and if anyone broke off and tried to assist the woman, they'd discover that the woman and the men were SeeD Galbadia operators assigned to protect the agent. A police officer, who would join the tailing mission at Shouldsworth Avenue, follow them down past the Abermor Bank on the corner of Springfield Square, and then possibly identify the SeeD and ask other police officers in the area to keep an eye on the tail. The area being a financial hub, the local police had become adept at watching for would-be muggers tailing bankers. The man would then go into a hotel with a revolving door on nearby Norris Lane, the Excalibur. The agent would then attempt to conceal himself in the hotel lobby, making the candidate lose him if he or she followed inside.

Using concealed radio microphones, attached just at the throats of the followers with a small wireless earphone in the right ear, each candidate was to follow the man, reporting his activities and remaining unseen for at least half an hour to pass. Catching his drop-off of a compact disc to another "agent" was required for a credit.

'Target appears to be talking with the newspaper seller on Bothwell Street at the corner of Brand Road,' one candidate radioed.

'Roger that. Does it seem suspicious?' Zell asked, controlling from an office building a few blocks away.

'Negative, he's bought a copy of the Metropolitan Financial.'

'Keep in pursuit,' Zell said. Into a phone, he sent a difference message. 'Okay Charlie, make the car backfire.'

On Bothwell Street, a loud bang made the agent turn suddenly. The SeeD operator froze, staring straight at the target, who soon noticed him, and began to run.

'Uh... Sir, the target appears to have seen me.'

'Roger that, William. That's ten minutes and thirty two seconds before mission failed.'

'Do you think this is maybe too tough?' Quistis asked.

'No, I don't. Why do you ask?'

'Well, nine out of the twelve to go have failed so far. The backfire got three of them, the woman tricked five of them into breaking off the tail, and the police got Tazma.'

'All these things could happen in a real tail, Quistis. All it takes is the subject seeing you twice and he gets spooked, because spies are jittery enough without caffeine and half of them make a stop at the coffee shop while you tail them.'

'I know that, but it's just a prelim.'

'They're ignoring the advice of intelligence and their CO. They're using independent thought in the wrong ways or not at all. Besides, you wanted devious. When I was doing officer training Major Brant put out a fucking APB on me to the police as an armed man wanted for a murder. I've not done that to anyone. Yet,' Zell replied. Quistis looked at him incredulously for a moment before carrying on.

'I still think we should maybe drop the burger bar out of it. They go in, they risk being spotted, they stand outside, police will pick them up.'

'Well, it's Mitchell's turn now. Let's see how he does and we'll see if it's too hard.'

******

Mitchell turned with the crowd at the bang, careful to ensure he was in fact hidden behind a tall man in a black suit from the subject's field of view. A few moments later, Mitchell calmly ignored the four persons entering the alleyway right in front of him, though he did report the issue to possibly pass it onto police.

At the hotel, he pulled a very clever trick out of his sleeve. He stopped outside when the man entered, and pretended to answer his phone, chatting away to no one. He watched the man exit a few minutes later in the wing mirror of a parked taxi, and began to ask the imaginary friend where he could meet him or her.

At the burger bar, he instead walked into an adjacent bookstore and stood at a window staring right down into the window of the restaurant and the agent's table. He also radioed in the drop of a CD onto the lap of a man sitting in the table behind him.

He had tailed the agent for forty minutes.

******

'See? Not too tricky. Just needs a quick assessment of surroundings and some imagination,' Zell said.

'Well, maybe for someone like Mitchell. The next ones will prove it...' Quistis conceded.

******

At the end of the afternoon, ten failed, and five passed. The next failure had went into the burger bar and was followed by two police officers who had not even been involved in the exercise, and it had taken a hasty use of the police-band to inform the two officers the man who had ran from them in the burger bar was in fact a SeeD candidate who had panicked in the middle of a mock exam.

The next day, the other prelims were complete before lunch, a different route and different pitfalls. These claimed another ten failures, leading Quistis to complain Zell had been examining his own ability to set traps rather than test the students. An examiner however pointed out the Captain's role was to make it as hard as possible, and claimed Zell had been too light on the candidates in some ways.

The afternoon was then given over to Zell to prepare the candidates for the next prelim the next evening: An assault on a training course designed to resemble a small farm.

However, the thirty students were back in the classroom

'What is the difference between this,' Zell asked, holding up a spent AT launcher in one hand. 'And this?' he continued, holding a vial for a Junction Armband in the other.

'The answer is simple. You'll have a limited supply of both when you're in the field for real. The days where everyone had a GF and a million fire spells are long gone, and now, one vial of this stuff gets you a firaga spell that can hold power at maybe a hundred yards if you drain the whole thing. Or it can immolate everything in front of you for ten yards six times. Or you might set fire to about thirty targets up to two hundred yards away. But the fact is, magic is not as reliable as your rifle, or your grenades. Magic can't keep suppressive fire down at five hundred yards for long. Some people and monsters set themselves up with protection against magic or even the ability to just absorb it and make their own spells stronger. Not much around absorbs a bullet or an explosion and gets stronger. Regard magic as a heavy weapon.'

'But our Magic instructors say that it's just as important as our rifles,' a student protested.

'Half true. In fact, depending on the situation it can be more important than your firearm. A thundaga spell will cause severe problems for most vehicles, blizzard spells will cause nasty effects in hot environments even on human beings. The sudden drop in temperatures, even if it doesn't always kill, has been known to put perfectly healthy people into shock. Whilst they're out like a light and with a low heart rate on the ground, itís one enemy out of the game,' Zell responded.

'Now,' he continued. 'You won't be using any magic at all in the prelims outside , or a normal exam. Your weapons will all be paint markers and dummy grenades with a small powder charge in them. The range on these is only about fifty meters before they drop off, but accuracy to that point remains about the same. But tomorrow is not a test of how good you are at range, it's about teamwork. Four of you will be under my direct command. Your names have been marked in red on this slide,' he said, switching on a projector to reveal his selected squads and squad leaders.

'Any recommendations or requests for changes should be made now,' Zell said. A few moments later, one squad leader had swapped his underlings by mutual consent, and two marksmen had moved into different squads, in one case taking a preferred spotter with them. The four close-up specialists, Tazma the gunblade user, and the three CQC candidates attempted to form a fireteam of their own, only for Zell to rebuke them with the need for versatility.

******

Balamb Seafront, a hotel

In the same hotel where Squall's team had often rested, just a few hundred yards from Zell's street, four men with Estharian passports spoke with a man who held apparently Balambian ID. All four documents were well-made forgeries that would pass ninety nine out of a hundred tests. They had, after all, been produced by a national government in the first place. The fake Balambian was sweeping a small electronic device around the room as he spoke.

'We are all ready, my friend,' said one man from Esthar.

'Good. You know what is expected of you all?' another replied.

'Yes,' another said. 'We are ready to succeed no matter the cost to us. We shall not give up our task.'

'Excellent. Now, I know you've been warned about the monsters of Balamb, that many are weak. But we're hunting a vicious predator tomorrow. If you are not alert, your deaths will come very quickly. I trust you are all familiar with the weapons you shall use in the hunt?'

'Yes. All of us have experience with the weapons Mister Baker will be giving us tomorrow.'

The man with the device stopped sweeping.

'It appears to be clear. I doubted the intelligence services could bug a random room in a random hotel on such short notice. You can talk freely about the mission, but remember, leave someone in this room at all times. Fate willing, you and your comrades in arms will tomorrow make the blood of the mercenaries run in rivers. May God be with you.'

'God is with us always, my friend, and we shall tomorrow send many mercenaries to his rival below before we are taken to him,' the first fake Estharian to speak replied.

'Excellent. Remember: You all strike at approximately twenty-one hundred. We need them faced with so many attacks, they will not know which crisis to hit first.'

'Indeed, they shall be so busy turning their heads to watch the various threats, they will break their necks, Mister Smith,' another said. The South Timberian agent bid them goodbye, and left the hotel.