22

The wheels were already in motion to recover the two dead SeeD operators as the SeeD plane was ready to lift off. The local government was already being pressed by Galbadia to ensure the two SeeD KIAs were sent from the straight from the bombed hotel to the airport and then to Balamb when recovered. Zell was informed of this as the plane was taking off, putting his worry at leaving people behind at ease.

'Archangel Control, this is Sierra Bravo Four, requesting permission for takeoff.'

'Roger that, Sierra Bravo Four, clear for takeoff. Echo One and Two are waiting for you.'

Echo One and Echo Two were GAF-18A Stealth Fighters, sleek black combat jets with their rear delta-style wings in a diamond shape viewed from above, with the two shorter wings below the cockpit allowing for increased manoeuvrability. It was optimised for the mixed roles of escort, intercept, dogfight, and ground attack aircraft. In all those roles, it was a deadly and proficient aircraft. The reason for the escort was simple: South Timber's fleets of GAF-14E and GAF-16C fighters were well able to intercept the SeeD plane until it was well over the Northern border if the South wanted to. The Galbadian aircraft would fly into the north for a few miles, as the North Timber People's Air Force would send up ESuMi-28 fighters up to not only replace the Galbadian Air Force jets, but escort them back to the border. From then, any Southern attempts to intercept would fly over Northern airspace, and incur the wrath of dozens of AA installations along any possible route.

The 28 was a typical single-engine Estharian design that was reliable, sturdy, and also manoeuvrable and fast. However, a design omission to save money by Estharian bureaucrats at the Sumistikov factory where they were built had led to the removal of a machine gun and as a result, the eight missiles it could carry were all it had to fight with. It did however have decent anti-missile countermeasures as well as one of the most powerful radars ever installed in a fighter-sized aircraft.

However, even with cover from fighters, the transport remained vulnerable to long-range air to air missiles such as the Air Interception Stand-off Missile One Hundred and Two, a Galbadian-built missile able to hit a target up to fifty miles away (It actually was rated for sixty, but ten was lopped off to assume the enemy would try and outrun the missile at some point) whilst in the air. It meant in real terms, a southern attack wing had a minimum of three minutes flight across the border at the shortest point, an average of six, and a maximum of eleven to get in range to shoot down the transport.

About five minutes from the Northern border, Mitchell woke up, handcuffed to the bench he was sitting on in the plane. The first thing he saw was the tattooed face of Acting Major Zell Dincht staring down at him, chillingly free of any emotion, cold blue eyes staring back and burning like fire.

'I bet you hoped you wouldn't wake up,' Zell said, in a monotone. 'I bet you wished I'd put a round through your head on the floor back at the airport. If you don't, I swear that you will once they start interrogation. Did you know treason against Balamb means suspension of all civil rights?'

The traitor remained silent.

'We can execute you. We won't, but we could. You know why we won't? You're young. You have what, fifty, sixty more years left in you? That's a lot of nights where it will haunt you. And it will. Maybe not tonight, maybe not by the end of the year, but some day, it will come back. And you'll wish that I'd killed you at the airport.'

No reply. Zell walked away and down towards the rear of the plane. The other SeeD Operators were resting, or in Irvine's case, reading. Zell didn't need to look at the cover to know it was probably some novel about gunslingers, hapless simple farmers and ranch hands fighting natives or bandits in the old colonies of Centra, when the men were men, the women looked like men, and the streets swam in discarded chewing tobacco and spittle.

Quistis, however, was sitting up, looking at Zell as he approached.

'Anything?'

'He's quiet now. Looks like it's going to take some persuasion to get him to break.'

'We've got plenty of persuasion in Balamb. And if we run out we can send someone to the DIY store,' Quistis replied.

The plane kept flying south, and as it neared the North Timber border, the Northern jets joined up with the GAF-18s. A few minutes later, the Galbadian jets pulled away, heading back to Galbadia. They continued, without incident, for another fifteen minutes, when Zell was called to the cockpit.

'What's the situation?' he asked.

'Northern radar operators are reporting a wing of enemy aircraft lifting off in the south. No indication they're heading our way yet, but the north's putting some fighters between the border and us. Including some of ours,' the co-pilot informed him.

'Alright. They keeping us posted?'

'Yes, sir. We'll let you know if there are any other developments.'

******

It was five minutes later, when it was confirmed a flight of eight GAF-14s and four GAF-16s, the primary aircraft of South Timber, were heading across the border. Moving to intercept them were nine ESuMi-28s identical to those flying beside the SeeD transport eighty miles away. Additionally, six IF-4 interceptors, the SeeD fighter, were alongside them. True delta wing aircraft with twin engines, designed for maximum speed and range. They only carried six missiles, but their countermeasure systems were among the best in the world, and unlike their northern comrades, they sported a twenty millimetre rotary-barrel cannon.

They faced off against the fast-approaching 14s and 16s. The GAF-14 was originally designed as a naval aircraft, with its long wings sweeping far back at a one hundred and forty degree angle relative to the nose and cockpit, but the design found favour on land. It suffered from a poor manoeuvrability and a lower speed when fully laden, but that weakness was also its strength: It could carry up to fourteen weapons in a mixture of air-to-air missiles and bombs of varying type, without becoming over-laden, a previous priority of the Galbadian navy thirty years ago when aircraft weapons were still at the stage of being within the same basic area of the target rather than hitting home with surgical precision, and with limited aircraft, they had to ensure that the most was made of each sortie.

The GAF-16, however, was a different weapon. Developed ten years after the GAF14, the twin engine fighter was the first of the Galbadian military designed for a multi-role performance, where the 14 had been envisioned as a naval fighter with limited capability to attack ground targets, and the 15 envisioned -and indeed operated- as a pure ground attack plane. The three-variant 17 was the next development, but since it was developed alongside the 18 and as a result had some stealth technology in the naval A-model, VTOL B-model, and land based Short Take Off and Vertical Landing capable C-model, Galbadia had declined to sell it to South Timber. This meant the south needed at least three eighths of a mile of runway to lift off all its aircraft, as opposed to a mere two hundred yards as offered by the GAF-17C. Or wherever the plane was sitting at the time with the 17B.

That still didn't mean the 16 was not a threat. On the contrary, it was the main means for the South to use its long range missiles. Able to carry ten missiles maximum, with excellent countermeasures and extremely fast and manoeuvrable, it was the most deadly jet the South could put in the air, more so since they were all piloted by elite and experienced men who were either air combat aces with five confirmed kills in other planes, or almost there.

The Northern aircraft were posed also with a problem: neither side could actually open fire without crossing the border first. The two Timbers were indeed at war, but the current stalemate meant that any advances by either side would simply lead to heavy casualties and wastes of precious military resources. It meant that in an age where a dogfight usually would be fought at ranges of up to sixty miles, this battle would meant the planes would be less than a mile from each other before they could shoot. More pressingly for the allies despite their numerical advantage, the South merely needed to fly for five minutes at this point to get in range of the transport.

However, as soon as the Southern fighters crossed, they opened fire. A SeeD IF-4 was shot down, and an ESuMi evaded a missile hurled at it. The allied jets were firing almost the instant the Southern missiles had cleared their planes.

******

'You shouted?' Zell said. The navigation officer waved him over.

'We've got a confirmation that our guys have started trading shots with the enemy. We're going to start taking evasive action, might take us off course quite a bit...'

'But it's better than being shot down. How are our flyers doing?'

The navigation officer pointed to a radar screen he sat in front of.

'This is an uplink from Air Defence Command on the ground. The red markers are enemy, blue are our guys.'

'They're pretty close together.'

'Rules of engagement at the border, sir. Means this is one of the last places in the world you get some good old fashioned dog fighting done.'

Zell did not reply, instead watching six smaller blue icons streak away from one of the allied fighters and move into three of the red icons. They vanished as the last smaller icon began chasing another red icon, that was apparently succeeding in its efforts to evade.

'What happens if they get through?' Zell said, after thirty seconds and seven planes shot down between the two sides. As he said this, red icons streaked out from almost every remaining Southern fighter and six blue icons vanished.

'Oh fuck,' the navigator said.

Despite those losses, the remaining allied planes kept fighting, downing another red icon. Then two more blue vanished, as four blue came in from the northwest

'Who are these?' Zell asked.

'I'm not sure...' the navigator said, puzzled. Suddenly, four of the blue icons vanished, without anything shooting at them.

'Oh. That's a surprise,' the navigator said.

'What is?' Zell demanded, watching the last blue icons turn and flee.

'Remember those GAF-18s that escorted us across Galbadia, Major?'

'...Oh. Right.'

******

Back in Balamb, Mitchell had been under interrogation for most of two days. The bodies of the dead SeeD operators had been flown back four hours after the surviving members of the team and their suspect had arrived back home, at Balamb International Airport. Their funerals were scheduled for three days away. Oddly enough, the Jochenburg government had not made any complaints regarding the fact the SeeD arrest effort had left sixteen of their citizens dead and dozens wounded, instead stressing the men SeeD were chasing were criminals and illegal spies who had sought to shield themselves behind innocents, but South Timber had instead protested that the SeeD agents had murdered their operatives and kidnapped the only survivor. The South had made no mention of the GAF-18 intervention in the dogfight. Instead, the South was in a political argument with Jochenburg.

Zell had watched the interrogation get nowhere, ignorant of the political rumblings occurring as a result of his mission.

'It's been like this every time. Nothing. We use those drugs that cause every nerve to feel like its on fire, we use sensory depravation, we use electric shocks, nothing,' Quistis said.

The two sat behind so-called one way glass, in a darkened observation room. Two rooms, one well lit, one poorly lit, with a highly reflective sheet of glass in a window between the two, aided by an almost transparent layer of metal in the glass. The well-lit interrogation room meant that light was reflected off and formed a mirror from inside that room. However, the lack of light on the observation side was to prevent light coming through the mirror. In which case, it became an ordinary sheet of glass and one could see straight through to the other side, and see who was watching.

The interrogator readied another injection of the nerve-affecting drug.

'Maybe we're doing it wrong,' Zell replied, standing.

'Going somewhere?'

'Going to fetch a copy of his file. We might find something we can use.'

He returned soon after with two copies.

'You take a look as well. See if you can find anything.'

Quistis found something almost right away.

'Was Junison airbase hit at all?' she queried.

'No. Why?' Zell responded.

'Because his older sister works there on the ground control team.'

Zell grinned.

'Know anyone good at making fake images?'

******

About ten minutes later, Zell had managed to convince the staff of the Balamb Record to help him with his plan. He did not disclose why he wanted a copy of the current front page altered, and nor did he tell them a worker in the administration department of SeeD was currently falsifying another document as well as some photos. He went to collect his special print run himself, and arrived back at the interrogation cell an hour later, carrying his fake newspaper, and a yellow folder labelled 'Junison Airbase attack: Classified'.

He was allowed into the cell, Mitchell sitting restrained to his chair across from the interrogator, who turned to look at the door with a quizzical expression, the next attempt to use shock treatment in his hand. Zell nodded at the man, who quickly cleared his tools away.

The interrogation room had its walls painted white, the better to reflect the intense light from the xenon bulbs in the ceiling. It had plain metal furniture, including a table bolted to the ground, and the detainees chair was similarly fixed in place.

'Captain,' Mitchell simply said, stone faced despite the bags under his eyes and pale skin. Zell sat down, without comment, and placed the folder and newspaper down in such a way the barest hint of the fake headline could be seen, and the bare side of the folder was what concealed it. Zell watched his eyes glance at the single word revealed: Junison.

'Before I begin, Mitchell, I have some bad news. Junison airbase was hit pretty heavily, so heavily in fact we had to try and cover it all up. However, it's leaked to the press, and because for all I know she was a nice girl, I'm sorry to have to tell you your sister is among dead. Of course, you probably were expecting that, what with having told them all the weaknesses of the airbase,' he said, opening the folder, and passing across a single sheet of paper.

It declared that a twenty-two year old member of SeeD Air Force ground crew called Elaine Mitchell had been killed during the attack on Junison airbase along with another three hundred other SeeD operators and support crew. Alongside the text was a picture of a young woman smiling at the camera in a passport-style photo, and another image below that. This one was a graphic high-resolution photograph of a young woman in blood-stained SeeD support staff uniform, her face missing and in its stead a gaping, gory hole.

'Five hundred SeeD dead. Thatís not enough for you, you let them attack the base your own sister was at. And I read your file. You were close. Ever since your mother died when you were five, your big sister had always been there for you. And when your father was killed in that car accident three years ago... She was all you had left. Clipping off the loose ends before you ran off?'

Mitchell's face had changed to an expression of horror. Zell pressed on.

'You sold us out. A hundred of our people died here in Balamb outside Junison, a hundred died over in Krastovia. And they massacred Junison. You know how they killed your sister? Executed her along with another fifty ground crew. Shot her in the back of the head. That the way you wanted it?'

Mitchell began to tremble, and a second later, vomited onto the table.

'Oh, you didn't ever expect to see the photos? See the end result of the handiwork? Are you really that kind of coward? I thought you were a pretty tough little spy. I mean, it must have taken some sick kind of balls to let your new buddies kill your sister. Your last living relative,' Zell continued, without mercy, only for Mitchell to stare up at him, tears streaming down his face and a pained scream to come back.

'I told them not to attack Junison!'

Zell stared at him for a second as the spy wept.

'So... They fucked you over?' he said softly. Mitchell waited a few seconds before nodding.

'Then they used you. Did you know the South Timber air force was ready to shoot our transport down on the way back from Jochenburg?'

Mitchell shook his head, tears still dripping from his face.

'So, way I see it, maybe you can get back at them. Names, Mitchell. Give me the names of the men who you passed it all onto. And we can maybe have you testify against them. If you're lucky, we might even pardon you.'

******

An hour later, Mitchell had explained everything about his contacts, and SeeD's intelligence officers were already working with their Estharian and Balamb counterparts to trace the names along. Before Zell even left the room, it emerged a high ranking member of Free Republic Committee on Mercenary Actions and another dozen other men known to be high rollers in that organisation was implicated in the attack.

'I just have one question for you, Mitchell,' Zell said, leaning across the table, after Mitchell confirmed the last of his information.

'Why did I do it?' the traitor replied. His tears had stopped, and he now spoke in an emotionless monotone.

'No, I know that. You wanted a fast track to success somewhere and the Southern Army sounded pretty sweet to you as opposed to the dull, teamwork-based life of a SeeD operator. What I want to know is what methods did you use to pass information on? You didn't leave campus enough to drop things off at secret locations, and your infonet use was clean.'

'Actually, I left it often enough. I simply gave them a message with a location. I made sure the calls lasted less than twenty seconds and then went to leave the real message where I said. Everyone thought I was a bookworm and revising twenty four seven. It worked perfectly, no one wanted to roommate with me, so I got a room all to myself before I was even an examstroop.'

'Well, thanks, Mitchell. We'll be sure to watch antisocial geeks closer in future,' Zell said.

He stood to leave, picking up his folder and newspaper, and was halfway out the door when he turned.

'Just one last thing...' the major said. Mitchell looked up.

'...Nah, it can wait,' he said

Quistis gave him an approving glance as he walked into the observation room. Inside the interrogation room, Mitchell was weeping.

'Nice mindfuck, Zell. Loved that touch at the end, we were almost disappointed you were going to put him out of his misery.'

'We've got names. Let's get on them,' Zell simply stated.

******

However, two hours later, the preliminary plans being drawn up to go deep into the south and either assassinate or kidnap these individuals were scrapped, as Galbadian intelligence passed on that a number of Southern intelligence officials and a large number of other planes had lifted off, heading towards Amanver.

Amanver was both an unusual and logical choice for wanted men to run to. Unusual, as it was a xenophobic, racist country, and logical, because the Amanverian sense of pride meant that if the international community had demanded they not shoot themselves in the face, the former Dollet colony promptly would do just that, simply out of petulant disdain for the rest of the world that had shunned and attacked their racist segregation policies. Additionally, the rumour had always been that Amanver held nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies had confirmed the potential for their construction existed in Amanver at the very least, and though the Amanverians had protested the so-called missile silos spread across the country were for medium-ranged conventional weapons, the intelligence agencies of the world knew better.

By the end of the day, it was clear the Southern group had landed in Amanver, and Esthar's satellite coverage confirmed that Southern troops had already set up a fortified safe haven in Amanver for the fleeing agents. It was clear they had planned for any eventuality which could have led to their discovery and complacency in the attack, but their actions in fleeing puzzled many, until it was revealed the Southerners had been under pressure from Galbadia over handing those persons over, and the President had been about to cave in when they had fled.

Amanver was issued an ultimatum. They had a week to hand the suspects over, or face an assault by Estharian, SeeD and Balamb Defence Force troops to capture them.