27

The missile attack had been thwarted, but Esthar's counter-attack, if it occurred, was prepared. Laguna sat at the head of a table, now filled with generals, air marshals and admirals, here for no real purpose but to be there and advise on any defence matters that would emerge from the telephone conversations the President was about to make.

A phone rang. A General answered.

'Signals, sir. They have the President of Galbadia.'

Laguna picked up the phone sitting before him, and pressed a button to connect the call.

'Mister President,' he began. 'I trust your own generals and advisors have explained the situation to you?'

'Indeed they have, President Loire. Galbadia understands your need for self defence, and we are responding in kind. Our own deterrent is being re-targeted and prepared for strikes on Amanver if required.'

'Very well, sir. My officers are sending your government details of our intended targets and the sites our response will be launched from. I request the same from your government if that would be possible.'

'A copy of those details will arrive with you as soon as I have them, President Loire.'

'My thanks and the thanks of the Estharian people for Galbadia's understanding and support are extended to you, Mister President, but I pray that neither of us will be forced to make the decision to fire. Amanver has made history, let us not be men who shall repeat that history without first exhausting every option.'

'Indeed. Good Evening, Mister President.'

After the phone was hung up, Laguna looked down at his hands for a moment, before staring straight ahead.

'Gentlemen. Galbadia will not be provoked into attacking us by our actions this day. However, it may be some time before we learn what Amanver plans to do.

******

The convoy had started moving again, reduced by one tank, five destroyed vehicles, three and their occupants left behind to guard the injured. Four medics were with them also.

'Funny place to park,' Zell noted, as the column passed the VTOL's. The pilots could not hear the jeers from the passing vehicles.

Half an hour later, the oil fields neared, and clouds of dust could be seen on the horizon, advancing from all directions across the sands. But as the tanks began firing, something unusual happened.

******

What had occurred, had taken place by telephone hotline between the leaders of two countries.

'Premier Renard. I will not conceal this message in niceties. Thirty minutes ago, your country launched a nuclear weapon at my country's forces engaged in a legitimate conventional conflict...' Laguna began, but was interrupted by the dictator of Amanver.

'An illegal assault upon a democratically elected government which had stepped in to give shelter to innocent refugees accused of a heinous crime and presumed guilty without trial that necessitated a response in light of the merciless slaughter of our soldiers using...'

'Premier, you and I are not children, and this is not a playground! The lives of your soldiers and mine are being lost on your soil, and I must warn you that if your forces do not immediately surrender, and your nation does not enter immediate disarmament talks, we will respond in kind to your attempted nuclear attack with limited strikes.'

'And we shall also respond...'

'Premier, you have less than ten weapons that stand a reasonable chance of hitting a target in my country. I have enough to annihilate yours.'

'You threaten genocide?!' Renard exclaimed.

'No sir, I merely remind you I have the ability to inflict it. You have one hour to surrender your forces and submit a request for disarmament talks to my government, or we will launch a nuclear strike upon an isolated military base within your country.'

Renard, furious, slammed the phone down.

'Monsieur Premier, the President of Galbadia is also communicating,' an aide said.

'Fuck him! Fuck all these arrogant foreign bastards!' the Premier responded in his characteristic maturity.

'Your Excellency, he claims he is aware of the situation with Esthar'

The Premier of Amanver paused, before answering the phone.

'Mister President. I must state that I have received a warlike threat from Esthar mere moments ago...'

'And you are receiving an ultimatum from Galbadia. If you do not concede to the demands of Esthar, we will eliminate your strategic assets with our own stealth deterrent. We in fact have aircraft within one hour of destroying your missile deterrent.'

'You're bluffing. Your stealth aircraft cannot fly so far so fast.'

'We do have carrier-based stealth aircraft, Premier,' the president said, hanging up. The premier sat, pondering if it was a bluff.

'A nuclear attack on our soil... There would be a revolt.'

And as all of those who held power by fear, the fear that in the face of a greater fear his subjects would be rendered fearless towards his threats, he too succumbed to terror.

******

'White flags. They're surrendering?' Zell noted.

In the oil fields, the Amanverians had thrown their weapons to the ground and were waving their hands and anything white they could find frantically. The allies descended upon the oil fields, discovering every Amanverian soldier had thrown his weapons down .

'Where the hell are the South Timberians?' came a voice over the radio net. Zell's transport drove onwards, as he pondered the same question.

The oil fields were littered with rusting wreckage and detritus, enough to conceal men behind. The allies were concerned of a ruse, and checked every possible place of concealment with care.

It was Zell's column that spotted them. Fifteen vehicles, an assortment of dune buggies and other four by fours, roaring off across the desert sands.

'Hotel Alpha, Hotel Alpha, we have one-five tangos moving northwest from the oil fields,' Zell quickly radioed in as his platoon gave chase.

'Roger that, keep in pursuit, but remember we want the spies alive.

The SeeD vehicles broke off from the main group, chasing them for three miles before five of the dune buggies performed u-turns and roared towards the SeeD vehicles, weapons blazing. The buggies could only carry two crew.

'All units, permission to return fire. I doubt those guys are the targets,' Zell ordered his troops. As the inaccurate fire from the dune buggies flew wide, the heavier machine guns of the SeeD DGPTs roared into life. A dozen bursts of six to ten rounds, slamming into the advancing buggies. One flipped over as the front tyre was torn off and the crew hit by another burst, the fuel aboard causing a small explosion. A second drove straight into a rock and crashed violently after the crew were hit by the shots. The other three vehicles kept coming, but the next burst stopped them.

After another ten miles, with the enemy vehicles not turning, the radio crackled into life.

'Major Dincht, this is Colonel Matrix. The vehicles you are chasing appear to be heading for Brenner Tor, it's a hill about two kilometres straight on your current course. Sat imagery shows a collection of vehicles and troops at the hill ruins and the base of the hill. There may be friendlies approaching the hill from the opposite side to you.'

'Roger that, thanks for the information sir.'

The vehicles indeed were heading to the area of Brenner Tor, which was littered with smaller hills. The highest hill outside the mountain range that cut the island in half, its summit was three hundred and twenty meters above sea level, and a river ran about half a mile short of the base of the hill itself. That river was crossed by a road bridge, a dilapidated and abandoned concrete path leading to it and beyond the rusting metal structure, past a forest to a point where it forked. One route led to the north of the island, but following the road straight led to an abandoned army outpost at the base of the hill. The chase had entered the area from the southwest of the bridge, a kilometre shy of the hill itself.

Parked at the bridge were a number of dune and quad bikes, as well as a pair of dune buggies flanking the road. Five DGPT-3s had just sped over the bridge as the remaining five vehicles turned again, attacking once more, but supported by the bridge defenders. This hail of fire hit one DGPT-4, a rocket slamming into the engine. Zell's gunner was hit by a shot, falling into the vehicle. Zell quickly took the machine gun, firing a burst into a group of infantry at the bridge as the remaining SeeD vehicles advanced.

The five attacking enemy vehicles were eliminated with bursts of concentrated fire, and one gunner even had antitank rockets passed up to him to take out a vehicle after his machinegun jammed. The SeeD vehicles neared the bridge, the defenders falling under the hail of fire for little in return. The vehicles flanking the bridge tried to retreat, as soldiers across the riverbank emerged.

'Rockets, fire on those bastards across the river!' someone yelled into a radio. Zell and the other gunners obliged, heavy calibre rounds streaking off and slamming into the soldiers or forcing them to dive for cover. One of the enemy troops managed to fire, but did so as a twelve millimetre round blew his head off. The rocket streaked into the rusted bridge, slamming into a support strut and exploding with a dull flash. The weight of the dune buggy, almost right above the damaged strut, caused the bridge to collapse into the river. The riverbank troops began firing weapons blind from behind cover, the SeeD vehicles pulling up a hundred meters away and the troops aboard bailing out. A few seconds later, the opposite riverbank was clear of opposition, the survivors routed by the disciplined fire of the SeeD troops.

Zell climbed out of the turret ring, onto the roof and jumping down.

'The bridge is out, sir,' a private said. Zell did not dignify it with a response.

'Colonel Matrix, this is Zell. The bridge to the hill is out, is there an alternative route across?

'Roger that, thirty kilometres down river to the east.'

Zell scanned the hill with binoculars as Matrix replied, noting a problem

'That's a little too far I think, sir. I believe see some H-31s on the hill.'

The H-31 was a commercially built helicopter designed to be disassembled and reassembled for easy storage in airports and hangars. Six examples of the civilian helicopters could be seen atop the hill.

'Are you sure?'

'Either way, it's helicopters. We can't exactly shoot them down, not with our targets aboard.'

'Then you need to get across that river and stop them ASAP, Major. I'll get you some air support. Nothing that will make a big boom, I'm afraid.'

Zell turned to the SeeD troops, now all out of the vehicles .

'Well then, I hope we can all swim?' he asked over the radio.

The SeeD troops swam across the slow-flowing river, and the vehicles went downstream. As the SeeD troops began moving the remaining distance to the hill, dozens of dune buggies and sand bikes roared out of the outpost and down the road towards the advancing SeeD troops.

'Hit the dirt, and pick your targets!'

At five hundred meters, a volley of antitank rockets was let loose by the SeeD troops. A number of bikes exploded with direct hits, but the rest kept the advance going. Three hundred meters, the SeeD troops lined up the sights with the heads of the drivers. A few shots later, and more bikes fell. Some began to turn, fleeing as the bikes around them were cut down, but ten still charged. At a hundred meters, they too were stopped, and the SeeD troops kept moving, splitting in two, one half taking the outpost, Zell's half charging the hill.

The outpost consisted of concrete walls, one gate in the south-west of the base, with eight pillboxes arrayed two per side. Machinegun fire reached out from the pillboxes, kicking up dust as SeeD marksmen and antitank rockets began to fire upon them. The riflemen kept the advance going, a charge with random fire aimed in the general direction of the pillboxes as the more accurate heavy weapons gave them cover. The five vehicles that had passed over the bridge could be seen at the top of the hill clearly as the SeeD troops neared the closed gate. Grenades soon blew it down, and the SeeD forces entered. Inside, the barracks building had a dozen troops inside, soon put down by grenades and gunfire ripping the woodworm-infested hut apart. The SeeD troops cleared the trenches, pillboxes taken with a grenade. Troops then ran into the room before the blast had faded, firing at anything moving.

Meanwhile, Zell's team had engaged a machinegun nest about a hundred meters up the hill. Two SeeD from another squad were down, and Zell was giving cover fire to a grenadier who was getting closer. A few seconds later, the nest exploded.

'Keep moving!' Zell yelled, the SeeD forces charging up, only to encounter mercenaries firing from cover. Despite a hail of grenades and gunfire, the enemy kept firing, as a helicopter's rotors began to spin. However, the roar of aeroplane engines approached from the south, and seconds later, there was the sound of loud, rapid gunfire that sounded like a jungle animal warning off potential enemies from the ground, the rapid fire explosions coming so quickly as dozens of rounds were fired a second, they merged into one loud roar. The helicopters above exploded, as three VTOL's streaked overhead. The soldiers Zell's team fired upon turned in surprise, giving the SeeD troops the chance they needed. Charging in the second the enemy were distracted, the SeeD troops soon were almost at the top of the hill.

From within a portion of the ruins, a shot rang out. A SeeD fell, hit by the snipers shot. Grenades and gunfire slammed into the area of the ruins, as the soldiers kept charging. Another shot rang out from the top of the hill, and Zell was surprised to see a man in SeeDpat aiming a sniper rifle down into the ruins.

'Cease fire!' he gave the order. His forces stopped, but gunfire still echoed from uphill. A few minutes later, the SeeD troops found half a dozen Special Forces had destroyed the last two helicopters, and was eliminating the defenders. A few men in simple fatigues were running, or trying to, as Zell's forces assaulted in conjunction with the other SeeD troops.

'Who the hell are you guys?' Zell asked the sniper, before spotting the lack of insignia and realising the answer.

'Special-'

'Forces, yeah, I just got it. What are you doing this far from the mountains?'

'Classified, sir,' the Special Forces marksman replied.

'Figured,' Zell replied, as a dozen enemy troops surged out of a hut across the ruins. A few careful shots later, and the armed men fell, revealing they had been trying to protect a southern agent, wearing ill-fitting khaki fatigues and carrying a briefcase. That man looked in horror at his dead bodyguards, then at the SeeD troops, and turned to flee.

'He's mine,' Zell shouted, closest and sprinting.

The overweight man was struggling for breath as he ran, and stumbled over a rock. He tried to recover, but Zell could almost hear his moans as he struggled to climb up from a hundred meters away even over the gunfire that was slowly dying out around the hilltop. He covered the distance between him and the man in twelve seconds, capitalising on another trip by the Timberian, and slamming into his target. The man screamed out in surprise as the weight of the SeeD officer threw him to the floor, barely even aware he'd hit the ground by intervention other than his own flat feet when he felt Zell's rifle muzzle poke into the back of his skull.

'Stand up, slowly,' Zell ordered. He noted the case was handcuffed to the man. A single shot into the chain solved that with a whimper from the spy.

'I said stand the fuck up!'

Slowly, nervously, the Timberian picked himself up.

'Turn around. Hands in the air.'

As the man turned, Seifer had walked over. Zell didn't notice Seifer's eyes track the briefcase on the ground as he neared.

'Looks like you scared the piss out of him, Major,' Seifer said, referring to a dark stain spreading down the trousers of the overweight man.

'Got any plastic cuffs on you, Seifer?'

The Special Forces captain nodded, and roughly forced the man's arms behind his back before tying the wrists together with small green plastic strips that resemble the cable-ties used with computer and electrical cables to keep them in order. Zell noted the glances towards the briefcase.

'Something interesting about that?'

'One of our objectives, Zell,' Seifer replied, meaning the Special Forces and not the allied forces overall. 'But hey, guess you got them first. Do me a favour and take them in, Major?' Seifer grinned.

'Why canít you do it, you lazy shit?'

'Well, I'd love to, but the quicker Special Forces get back to Timber and Krastovia, the better for us. Plus I'd be handing them off to Colonel Matrix or you either way.'

'Fine, fine, I'll do your job for you and courier this thing back to Squall.'

Around them, the SeeD troops had begun marching or dragging the captured enemies down to the outpost, where the SeeD convoy had rolled in, along with the Special Forces vehicles. Balambian Rangers had set up the perimeter as the SeeD troops moved their prisoners into one area.

A few hours later, the allies began leaving the island, Zell among the first away with the case. His curiosity at what was in the case grew as Colonel Matrix informed him it had to be locked into a flight case, the combination known only to Squall. But as Garden began to sail back towards Balamb, Zell lost the sense of mystery, and simply tried to get some rest. He correctly presumed they were intelligence documents that Squall wanted recovered for some reason or another as he arrived back on Garden. The helicopter landed, and Colonel Matrix was waiting on the helipad, sunlight glinting off his sunglasses.

'Zell. I see you've done the Special Forces boys and girls a favour. They were meant to bring that to me,' Matrix told him as he walked forward, shouting over the din of the helicopters rotors as the engine powered down. Zell shook his hand.

'Funny, Colonel, Captain Almasy told me he would be bringing it to me or you.'

'Well, technically, yes, but it saved a little time. Sergeant, bring over the case,' Matrix ordered a nearby SeeD. He walked over, carrying an aluminium flight case with a combination lock. Matrix opened it.

'Drop the briefcase in here, Major.'

Zell complied.

'I presume that's going back to Balamb?'

'Yes. And you're taking it. Tomorrow morning, youíre getting on a plane straight to Balamb, with this case handcuffed to you.'

Zell could tell the colonel was not joking, even if he couldn't see it in his eyes.