20

Fort Balamb, half an hour before.

Fort Balamb, SeeD's R&R facility, also used as a research and testing facility for new weapons and vehicles as well as the main repair depot for the SeeD vehicle fleet, was situated inside the Henders forest, thirteen miles to the east of the outer limits of the Greater Balamb metropolitan area. Isolated, with the nearest other settlement five miles away, the only road access was via an unclassified road that wound through the forest and towards the village of Robinso at the base of the Northern Mountain range.

However, it appeared the attack had come via the forests rather than a full frontal assault upon the base itself. Trees and scrub extended all the way to the outer fence of the base. Careful approaches to the base and aerial images had revealed that the enemy had driven their vehicles into the forest and crashed them through the fence, except a group of five cars, including one car bomb that had struck the main entrance to the base. Power to the base had been cut by the attackers, it appeared, and the backup power generator appeared to also have been destroyed, the generator building still burning in the southeast corner of the base.

Half a mile from the base gates, Zell and the team he was leading were observing from a hilltop. Their three DGPT-4 four by fours sat with their headlights off, and the other attack teams were scattered throughout the forest similarly. Zell was watching the base with a pair of binoculars. Two examstroops were beside him, one manning a radio. The rest sat inside the vehicles.

'What's the ETA on the Marine choppers?' Zell asked. An Examstroop beside him replied.

'About ten minutes sir.'

'Any news on Balamb?' Zell asked, meaning the search for the suburban hostage crisis as he scanned the base, seeing no sign of life

'One moment, sir,' the recruit replied. He radioed for that information, and received it.

'Sir, they just located the house. Teams will be ready to move in shortly.'

Zell quickly put the covers back on the binoculars and ran to a DGPT.

'Ask them to give us ten minutes. It'll take us that long for the Marines to arrive never mind us getting through the forest. And give me the radio.'

The examstroop complied as he mounted the vehicle.

'All units, this is Alpha-One-Alpha. We're all clear of the plan I assume?'

The various other units confirmed this. The plan was that the nine DGPT units, totalling twenty seven vehicles with four soldiers and two crew would move in from the southern side, main gate side, and northern side. The eastern side of the base had some of the densest forest, and so, the two units striking there would be mounted on quad bikes. Meanwhile, the nine Marine units would drop at various points within the base before their helicopters would move to provide cover as the land based assaults moved in.

The largest risk from the assault was that the SeeD forces were flying in essentially blind, reliant upon thermal imagery from the helicopters. Additionally, since every element of assault was predictable and the earlier attack was presumed to have booby-trapped the outer fence, the SeeD troops would be forced to strike a balance between speed and caution, mindful of the fact it was fellow SeeD operators and trainees held hostage.

The SeeD at the wheel drove the DGPT carefully through the trees, a task that despite no headlights was no more complex than it would be at daylight thanks to night vision equipment. Zell spoke to the rest of the vehicle crew, checking his weapon was ready, and adjusting the chin strap of his helmet.

'Everyone get ready, NVGs on and rifles loaded. We're a minute from the gate. ETA on the Marines?'

'They're a minute thirty out.'

'Roger that. Remember, we're to keep eyes open for booby traps and proceed with caution. Check all targets before firing, but don't hesitate if it looks like a threat. Be careful and stay alive.'

The burning gates could be seen now through the treeline, and a machine gun was visible mounted atop a parked vehicle there. The machine-gun operator readied his own weapon, trailing on the terrorist sitting by the heavy weapon. As the man glanced up, and began to raise his weapon, the SeeD operator fired half a dozen heavy calibre rounds into him. One shot managed to detonate some rounds on the ammunition belt, and the man vanished behind the puff of smoke. Either side of the DGPT, two others roared out, the one on the left firing a burst at a shape inside the wrecked gatehouse. The three vehicles rolled past the burning debris as the rightmost SeeD vehicle poured fire into the parked vehicle. Inside the gate, the troops dismounted, coming under fire from a nearby building.

'Target top left!' Zell yelled, aiming his rifle at a shape firing down at the SeeD troops. His shots flew wide as the DGPT gunners poured a hail of fire at the rooftop. An element of Zell's team to his left began firing upon a target behind that building as the other six DGPTs rolled through the gates. The helicopters then swooped overhead, a few miniguns firing lines of tracers down towards targets on the ground.

The gate was flanked by vehicle hangars, but a long avenue went between them and only ended about halfway into the base at the heliport. Two Marine squads were fast-roping down onto the helipad already.

'Moving!' Zell yelled, running forth to take cover behind a parked and empty SeeD truck. More terrorists were running towards the attackers, coming from a barracks building as a rocket was fired toward a DGPT. The resulting explosion hurled the machine-gunner clear of the vehicle like a rag doll, his body landing on the head in such a way it was clear the neck had snapped. The female driver bailed out of the damaged truck without serious injury, and began firing her carbine towards the rooftop the rocket had come from.

Zell's team advanced down the avenue of hangar entrances, firing at any targets presenting themselves. The Marine helicopters were ensuring the roofs were no longer a safe place for the terrorists.

'Alpha-One-Alpha, this is Marine Alpha Three. We have approx six tangos active inside hangar three B, advise you clear them out,' a Marine helicopter radioed in, before informing another team of another group of enemies holed up inside a different hangar.

'Alpha-One, on me!' Zell shouted into the radio, running towards the hangar entrance as an explosion tore through the left of the heliport building. Gunfire echoed throughout the base, but the constant bursts from miniguns ensured the defenders were on the ropes.

'Stack up,' Zell instructed, the rest of the squad moving behind him. The hangar door was wide open, and Zell's team was prepared to move in through it. Zell hurled a stun grenade into the hangar, moving in the instant it went off. A gunman stood by a truck with no engine, shielding his eyes. Zell and another SeeD fired bursts into him as the other five terrorists raised their weapons. They never got a round off as the SeeD troops gunned them down.

Across the base, Marines had dropped onto the roof of the barracks where most of the hostages had been, and moved down into the building as the Quad bike team smashed in through the doors. The seven gunmen there were shot down before they even raised their weapons in most cases.

Other attacking teams had struck with speed, minimising casualties.

Zell moved forward, kicking the weapons clear from the nearest terrorist and firing a burst into the head of the man.

'Harkness! Who's your spotter again?' Zell asked, moving towards another dead terrorist and making sure of the fact with another round in the head.

'I am, sir,' a young woman replied.

'And you are?'

'Examstroop Paula Wain, sir.'

'Good. You two with me. The rest of you, clear the hangar for booby traps and make sure they didn't miss anyone with the thermal cameras.'

The other nine soldiers nodded, Zell noting that Mitchell appeared to be moving round behind an IFV by the door. Zell and the two marksmen moved towards a stairwell.

'These lead to the roof, and I want to get a bearing of how itís going,' Zell explained. 'You two get to pick off any targets that pop up.'

Shortly, on the roof, Zell surveyed his command. The portion of the helipad that had exploded had not caught fire, and Zell saw a half dozen Marines carefully picking their way through the rubble of the collapsed section. Beyond the east of the helipad, a squad of Marines was in a firefight with a group of terrorists, supported by marksmen on the helipad roof and support weapons in the same position firing bursts towards the enemy.

'Take a few shots,' Zell instructed the marksmen, looking through his binoculars. He noticed the Charlie teams moving in from the south, Quistis leading the Charlie-Alpha squad. He saw Quistis herself, moving towards the firefight beyond the helipad. Then shapes stirred in a building behind them.

'Charlie Alpha, watch your six!' Zell radioed. The squad turned, just as the three shapes opened up

******

Two SeeD fell, having been hit by rifle rounds. Quistis threw herself onto the ground just as a grenade sailed over her head. She began firing at the three terrorists, the rest of her squad throwing themselves prone.

'Grenade!' a SeeD yelled along the line, hurling a frag at the three. They scattered, but one was caught in the blast and fell. Another two shapes soon emerged from the building in question, Quistis firing a burst that felled the presumed grenadier as he reloaded. The other rifleman and the two new additions kept firing, only for two of them to fall, hit by marksmen. The squad then poured fire at the last survivor, the volley kicking up a vast amount of dust and causing the dying terrorist to jolt like he was being electrocuted before falling dead.

The gunfire began to subside around the base, and shouts of 'area clear' began echoing from all around. Quistis picked herself up, only for a burst of fire to erupt from a barracks building at the perimeter of the base. Three dozen rifles, support weapons, and grenade launchers began pounding that building as Quistis advanced.

'On me!' she yelled, her squad following except the medic and two wounded soldiers. They were joined by Marines as they neared the building, random bursts of fire occasionally erupting out of a window to be met by hails of fire.

******

Zell watched the last firefight from a distance, before moving towards the stairs back into the hangar.

'Wain, Harkness, stay up here and provide cover if any other tangos pop up.'

He walked down the stairs, finding eight Examstroops waiting by the main door.

'Who's missing?' Zell demanded. Tazma replied.

'Mitchell, sir. We last saw him when you went upstairs.'

'Alpha-Two-Delta, this is Alpha-One-Alpha, come in,' Zell radioed. No reply.

'Alpha-Two-Delta,' he repeated. A voice responded.

'Alpha-One, this is Marine Team Charlie Two. We've got your man's radio sitting by the main gate.'

'Any sign of him?'

'Negative, sir.'

'Thanks, Marine,' Zell replied, before cutting the radio and cursing.

'We going to look for him sir?' someone asked.

'Negative. We have other priorities right now. All of you, on me, and don't wander off like Mitchell has!'

******

Twenty minutes later, the last of the terrorists were dead. Not one had surrendered. Quistis stood over the dead body of the last man, second SeeD into the room, and the only person living. She still fired into the corpse of the man who had gunned down the Marine lying beside her, and still radioed for a medic despite knowing in both cases they were dead.

'Shit,' she muttered, reloading her rifle with a fresh magazine. As a medic approached, she turned and left the room.

******

Having cleared the area of enemies, the former hostages, despite protests from the SeeD operators, were all ordered to immediately clear the area and board helicopters and trucks to HQ to debrief. The exception was the party of schoolchildren, who had been bundled straight back to Garden where most would find anxious parents waiting to collect them. Zell's team had joined the Marines clearing the rubble from the collapsed portion of the helipad . Luckily, the structural integrity of the building was unaffected, the collapsed portion actually being an unoccupied dorm for the pilots who were currently waiting to be shipped away to a different base, to their displeasure.

'Will this postpone the exam, sir?' Harkness asked, picking up a large slab of rubble and uncovering the top half of a dead terrorist. The lack of a head meant no one opened fire to ensure it would not spring up and start firing the pistol it held in its hand.

'It brought it forward. This was it. You all lived and the mission was accomplished. You all pass,' Zell commented, shifting some rubble with his foot and uncovering a rifle. The former owner had been dragged out of the rubble a few feet away.

'Pardon, sir?'

'Ad-hoc exam, Private. You've passed. Like the good old days before we realised it was stupid to send recruits into real war zones for an exam.'

'I'm sorry, sir, but I find that a little hard to believe,' Wain interjected.

'Really?' Zell said in reply, before shouting to a Marine sergeant across the rubble.

'Sergeant Powers! Tell the Examstroops here how your exam went down.'

'Well, sir, me and my troop were doing our mountain warfare prelim over in Timber, when we blundered into a monster nest. We were forced to quickly load our live ammo and fight off about thirty of them before they gave up. When we got back to base, the Captain in charge told us we were only required to pass the written exam.'

'Indeed. And under section three of the rules of qualification as a SeeD operator, a situation like that is a class one ad-hoc. This was class two, active combat against armed military or paramilitary forces. That means you donít need to pass the written test, because you proved yourself against armed enemies who were trying to kill you.'

Zell's radio crackled.

'Major Dincht, we have a request from Colonel McKnight that you switch on your cellular phone,' a SeeD asked. Zell replied, and did so. Seconds after it switched on, it informed him of a missed call and then rang. He answered.

'Dincht,' he said simply.

'Acting Major Dincht, This is Colonel McKnight. Two things, Zell. First up, whatís the status at the base?'

'We've retaken the base, and count eighty dead enemies so far, and we've lost nine of ours plus a dozen wounded. Additionally, we have one Examstroop MIA...'

'Henry Mitchell?' McKnight interrupted.

'Well, yes sir, how did you know that?' Zell asked, puzzled.

'The second thing answers that. The commander wants you and Instructor Trepe to come back to HQ on the next available Marine heli.'

'Roger that, sir. Be there in thirty.'

******

It was in fact thirty five minutes later the aircraft carrying the two SeeD operators, plus ten of the fourth year high schoolers who had been touring Fort Balamb when the terrorists had struck. They didn't look back at the still-armed and equipped SeeDs as they walked from the helicopter to the commander's office. At the entrance to the command building, a SeeD sergeant saluted and requested the two leave their weapons and equipment with him. Zell noted the command building was full of uniformed and armed SeeD, a dozen eyes scrutinising even fellow SeeD operators who entered the building.

'What's that saying about horses and stables?' Zell muttered as the two neared Squall's office. The door lay opened, with two SeeD sergeants flanking it.

Inside, Squall, Colonel McKnight, and a man Zell did not recognise were waiting.

'Major, this is Commander Roger Craig, Balamb Military Intelligence. Says he has some important information regarding your AWOL man,' Squall said.

'Well, Commander Craig, what is it you have to show us?' Zell asked. The intelligence officer opened up a folder, and took out a photograph before consulting a notebook. Zell noted that only photographs lay in the folder.

'We've been observing some of the attackers before today. Not enough of them, though, to have actually figured out what was going to happen...'

'May I ask why you were observing them?' Quistis interjected.

'You may. It was a passport issue. A few of them were flagged up by passport control a couple of months ago, irregularities in their documents. Nothing too unusual, but we have a small team in the Homeland Defence department who are tasked with keeping an eye on anyone we think might be worth the time. Nothing too significant, just an occasional watch, get a bearing on what the suspect might be doing,' Craig explained.

'And at least one of these individuals did something to warrant further attention?'

'Indeed. We caught one of them meeting up with a known supplier of illegal arms in the west end of the city, in the Peckershaw area. Nasty area for organised crime, drug barons and extortionists fighting for control of the housing estates. Just yesterday, we caught him meet with one of the men you chaps probably killed sometime tonight, and we've confirmed he passed through with a Galbadian passport and a three-month visa under the name John Karsparovny. His real name was Nikolay Dantarov. We checked with Esthar, he's a hardline member of the Krastovian Insurgency. They wanted him for a bomb attack in Esthargrad last year. Anyway, we'd followed him when he came into the country, and we back checked our photos and passed them onto you chaps, and one face apparently sprang out. You recognise the man he's passing by, here?'

Zell did not reply as he stared at the image of Henry Mitchell.

'It's Mitchell. But just because he passed one of the terrorists in the street doesn't mean...'

Another photo was handed over by Craig. Mitchell sitting at a table with another man.

'This was taken yesterday. The other chap, we suspect, is Mister Smith. An alias for an agent of the Free Republic Committee on Mercenary Action.'

'You motherfucker,' Zell said to the picture in his hands.