News that a Trabian-based Special Forces team had suffered heavy casualties in Krastovia an hour ago was all that Zell and Seifer's teams heard as they boarded the plane to North Timber. They would land in Timber in two hours, get their weapons and equipment, and then wait overnight at the dockyards where the arms shipment was scheduled to arrive. Zell spent this flight reading through the operations manual of the EM4 Assault Rifle, the bullpup Estharian rifle the Northern Regulars used. Unremarkable in most ways, it consisted of a plain stamped steel receiver with polymer furnishings, and as a bullpup, had the pistol grip forward of the magazine, twenty, thirty, or rarely forty rounds of calibre five point seventy by thirty five millimetre Estharian, and the mechanism in the stock.
Though there was a carry handle and forward post set of iron sights attached when the weapon came out of the box, each rifle issued in Esthar came with a four-times zoom optical sight with a limited night vision capability through a tritium-powered illuminator known as the ERES: Estharian Rifle Engagement Scope, mounted on a 21mm accessory rail atop the receiver, which the carry handle was usually mounted on. However, the Export versions, the one he would be using, a cheaper battery-powered holographic sight would be what he would get. Seifer's role as an irregular meant he'd be a different force from Zell's team posing as regulars.
North Timber had two main branches of its army: The regular army and irregulars composed of various former insurgent groups who had fought against Galbadian occupation, known as the Forest Alliance. The regular army was just that, but the Forest Alliance was a pseudo-militia. Each faction in the irregulars had varying degrees of autonomy, and varying degrees of extremism. All acted to the same role though: To attack within South Timber and support Regular army operations. In effect, the irregulars were used as the North's Special Forces. However, they did not share uniforms or even equipment.
The mission, to escort a shipment of arms from Esthar to a supply depot for the Northern Army, had regularly meant there were SeeD present in the shape of Captain Miller and his team. This was a mostly ceremonial role, as they wound up taking the safest roads in the country to the most heavily defended base for three hundred miles. This other mission however, required that the SeeD operators use local equipment and uniform. For the Special Forces to take the role of Irregulars, this meant they could use a variety of weapons and camouflages, and for the SeeD regulars to pose as Northern infantry, they would take standard army uniform and weapons. It also meant there would inevitably be some fighting.
The North Timber Army uniform consisted of simple Khaki clothing. Made of lightweight and cheap cloth, it was well suited to the environment of Timber's. Though not as effective as a camouflaged patterns such as SeeD Digital Camouflage Pattern or Galbadian Waldtarnmuster and light years behind the Estharian Active Camo suits in more ways than one, it nonetheless performed its combat duties adequately enough for the Northerners. It offered little protection against wind, cold, or rain though, and did tear relatively easily for a military uniform.
Simple factory-assembled webbing kits consisting of a yoke, belt, 2 double magazine pouches which between them could hold 12 magazines, 2 kidney pouches either for more magazines or to carry other items, poncho roll, a water bottle pouch, a utility pouch, and a bayonet frog provided the Northern infantry with load-bearing equipment enough for roughly twelve hours operations. Optionally, a small 8-litre rucksack made of the same canvas and with 2 more pouches the size of the magazine pouches mounted on either side could be worn by infantryman, allowing them to carry additional ammunition, rations, and equipment and theoretically increasing mission load to twenty four hours. Loops for the handles of grenades were placed on certain pouches and places of the yoke, intended to be reached easily but not interfere with any other pouches.
It had a few drawbacks like the khaki uniform: When wet, the canvas material greatly increased in weight, and unlike "Modular" systems as used by other nations, one could not easily change the basic layout of the webbing except to add a backpack and pistol holster. Furthermore, customisation of equipment was discouraged by the North, as the theory went that if a soldier was wounded or killed; others would need to know where to look for ammunition and equipment. They hadn't concluded that each pouch was a different size and shape and that any idiot would tell magazines from a ration pouch.
Forest Alliance irregulars however imported surplus equipment from the world over, meaning they wore a sometimes bizarre array of camouflages and carried a wide variety of weapons. Many favoured Dollet assault vests and Woodland patterns, but it was not uncommon for them to wear patterns designed for hunters in the field or other foreign military patterns. SeeD camo had even become popular with the guerrillas.
Seifer's team had tried to ensure that they did not wear any SeeD camo nor carry any SeeD weapons in spite of this. Instead, they took the semi-standard of Dollet vests and camo, though a few wore other patterns.
The two teams assembled on the docks, as the Estharian cargo ship unloaded its contents. Seifer and Zell stood watching, their squads wandering the base, mingling with the local soldiers. Two Northern Navy corvettes, light fifty-crew warships, sat just offshore along with an Estharian Destroyer. Mobile and fixed Surface-to-Air missile launchers dotted the dockyards, and man-portable SAM teams sat on every roof. ESuMi-26 Interceptors circled the docks, ready to engage anything airborne and unfriendly.
As a crate of missiles was carefully guided down the ramp of the ship to a truck, Seifer spoke.
'You're still concerned about the forceman?'
'Right. Seems a little too much. We're meant to be acting as Northern troops, so why make ourselves obviously SeeD?'
'Kinda ironic. Used to be you were one of the ones shouting loud against dropping GFs from the regular arsenal. Now you're paranoid every time you get a mission with one.'
'Yeah, well, then I thought it was about power to protect people I loved. Then I realised there was no point in holding onto that power if it meant I'd forget why I had it. And besides, one tank or jet beats a GF. Galbadia has thousands each of the fuckers. And that new GAF-18 the G-Air Force is flying now is invisible to radar, making all this sort of thing,' he said, pointing at the missiles scattered throughout the base. 'A waste of time. Sneaks in, fires from a few miles out, runs home. Pull a trigge rand kill a man, push a button and kill a million. Progress.'
'Sounds more like cynicism to me, pal.'
'Same thing in the end, isn't it?'
The truck of missiles rolled off to the north, and a second truck edged into position below the ramp. The forklifts emerged carrying rockets and small arms on wooden palettes.
'This is the first of ours,' Zell said. 'Small arms and RPG's for the front line.'
'How many trucks total again?'
'Eight M12s carrying rockets, guns, ammo and the other sort of stuff a man can use to have a good time in Dollet on a Saturday, plus six M19 four by fours. Couple of APC's full of real locals as well. '
'Good. APC's draw fire.'
An hour later, the convoy moved across the last Northern checkpoint before the depot, a small iron bridge leading over to the ring of razor wire, sandbags, trenches, watchtowers and concrete bunkers surrounding the reinforced armouries. No sooner had the trucks rolled into the base perimeter, did the alarms sound and the defences on the southern wall open up. The APC's and four by fours rolled southwards, as the soldiers within the base ran to the perimeter. The trucks quickly drove inside the armoury hangers, but the last of the eight was clipped by a mortar round. Thankfully, only the engine of the vehicle was destroyed, but this still left a truckload of ammunition in the open. The driver, who had been lucky enough to receive only a few cuts from the shattered windshield, wisely ran from his vehicle.
'A welcoming committee, sir!' Kelly said, as the SeeDs leapt from the four by fours. The watchtower machineguns were firing long bursts into the trees, and the defensive pillboxes at ground level fired also.
The mortar fire landed square on the westernmost tower, hurling the men inside to the ground as the wooden and steel tower was brought down. A wire-guided missile from within the trees gouged a gaping hole into a pillbox, the machine gun there falling silent.
Zell fired a short burst into a moving shape three hundred yards away, and saw that shape fall. His squad joined in, blazing at shifting shadows in the trees.
More mortars, more rockets. More explosions inside the base perimeter.
'Zell, have your team join the locals on the northern perimeter. My guys are going hunting,' Seifer yelled. Zell nodded approval, and a few seconds later the two groups of SeeD. Zell's team was in the defensive trenches just as heavy weapons fire from within the trees started. Machinegun and rocket launcher teams had moved into position, and Zell could just make out shifting shadows behind the flare of machinegun muzzles.
Seifer and his team, meanwhile, had split to the east and west, moving around the flank of the attack. As a whistle blew to signal a wave of riflemen forward, Seifer and another SeeD snuck up on a machinegun team. The southern gunners were killed with aimed shots to the base of the skull from suppressed S2 handguns, six millimetre calibre bolt-action style pistols with integral suppressors making up the entire barrel in front of the firing mechanism. Seifer's Special Forces troops repeated this all along the Southern attack lines, slowly taking the heavy weapons cover of the attackers out of the equation.
A few moments later, the waves of southern troops stopped coming, and those still hitting the base began to retreat,
'What are the northerners going to do?' Corporal King asked. Mellia and Qwanz, armed with accurised marksman variants of the EM4, picked off a few fleeing southerners with semi automatic fire.
The northerners surged past, chasing the southern troops down.
'Charge forward blindly, of course,' Kelly answered.
'Anyone else thinking this is probably a trap?' Zell asked.
'Read my mind, sir,' Kelly confirmed. They charged forward all the same.
After five hundred yards of chasing through the forest with a literally running gun battle, the first stages of the trap became apparent. The local troops, far in advance and not taking the same care and consideration the SeeD troops had, were decimated by antipersonnel mines and two light machine guns, pinning the entire counter-assault for a few moments. The SeeD marksmen and support weapons threw their fire at the MGs, as the other SeeD troops cautiously advanced. More northern troops came down from the base, and the surviving members of the first charge kept going, albeit more spread out and watching out for more mines.
Stage two of the ambush was almost a letdown. It consisted of three poorly hidden southern snipers. The northern troops simply concentrated fire on their position whilst advancing before they could fire off three shots between them.
Stage three was the first sign of real competence. A single hidden sniper picked off targets of opportunity, pinning the northerners. SeeD marksmen located and eliminated him. Then the southerners returned with friends wearing a four-shade green and brown pattern of clumps and spots. Galbadians.
Where the southerners fired away in the general direction of a target, the Galbadians took precise and deliberate shots. Every snap from their GMR-11s seemingly claimed a northern soldier, instead of three magazines from the South Timber GMRs. They moved forward, the northerners firing wildly as well. SeeD and Galbadian alike took aimed shots from cover at the most exposed targets: the locals. With the Timberian troops essentially conscript cannon fodder trapped between two sets of well trained and disciplined soldiers, the only real advantages lay in the Galbadian numbers, at least twenty four of them firing from behind trees or defilade.
Then Seifer's team appeared. Hitting the Southern left and right flanks, they cut down dozens of the enemy before the Southern allies even realised what was happening. Grenades and rockets hurled dirt, splinters, and men into the air. The Galbadians, mostly in the middle of the southern attack, began retreating after the South Timber troops found themselves running out of men. At least two of them were shot by the Northern allies.
Before the dust had even settled and the last tree knocked down by explosions had finished falling, the northern troops and SeeD were pursuing.
They reached a small clearing by a riverbank, and the northern troops who were first to charge from the trees were hit by aimed bursts of fire over the shallow river. Grenadiers opened up, and a number of the enemy fell. However, the rest fled for the trees on the opposite bank. Three Galbadians remained, apparently covering the retreat.
Had Zell not been trying to kill them just as they were trying to kill him, he could almost have admired the courage these three displayed. Two support gunners and a single grenadier. The open space over the riverbank made it a perfect killing ground. The northern grenadiers' shots fell short or arced over the heads of the three Galbadians. A couple of Northern troops ran forward and were mowed down before they got three steps past the trees.
'Almeis. On me!' Zell yelled. The forceman ran up.
'Get your GF and give the Galbadians a surprise.'
'Yes sir,' the summoner replied. He concentrated for a few seconds, and eldritch energy filled the air around him. With a flash, a blue-skinned feminine figure emerged from the air. Without a word of an order, Shiva raised an arm, and bombarded the treeline opposite with icy shards. Screams from the other side, before Zell ordered the forceman call her off. Shiva vanished in the same way she arrived, simply fading out.
The SeeD troops ran out over the river, nearing the ice-coated section of trees. One support gunner lay with dozens of crystalline shards of ice embedded in him, the other gunner had only one icicle through him. It unfortunately was in his skull. The grenadier had suffered a similar fate to the first support gunner.
A few grenades that overshot had apparently hit some of the enemy, and as the Timber soldiers advanced, the SeeD were checking for living soldiers. A Galbadian saved everyone the trouble by trying to stand, and getting a rifle pointed in his face for his troubles. He glanced for a second at his own GMR-11 carbine, before a northern trooper fired a short burst into it.
'Looks like you won't even be able to think of trying it,' the SeeD holding the Galbadian at gunpoint commented.
Back at the base, it emerged fifty two northern soldiers had died, in return for sixty three southerners, four Galbadians, and one captured. The SeeD captains made an effort to interrogate him.
'Name, rank and number, soldier,' Seifer demanded. The Galbadian replied in his native tongue.
'Friedrich Wedge, Hauptmann, null drei null zwei eins eins neun sechs, ein hundert und erste Lichtinfanterie.'
Try Spezialkräfte Delta, Friedrich. We'll buy that,' Seifer said in Balambian.
'Friedrich Wedge, Hauptmann, zero three zero two one one nine six, one hundred and first light infantry!' Wedge snapped back in the same language.
'Mistake there, Wedge. Not every soldier gets Balambian language training,' Seifer said. Wedge simply replied back with the same again. The two SeeD officers left the room he was locked into.
'Is that the same guy from ten years ago?' Zell asked.
If he is, he's really made something of himself under his own steam. To an SKD captain from getting kicked all the way down to, what, a private in Combat Engineering? '
'Something like that. Him and that Biggs guy got demoted every time they didn't manage to kill us. So what the hell do we do with him?'
'Well, he knows we're SeeD. Hell, my guess is he knew we were coming, otherwise I doubt the southerners wouldn't have tried to outflank us.'
'They did?' Zell asked once more.
'Yeah. We broke left and right, ran alongside you guys, ran into southerners. Shot our way through and popped back into the middle,' Seifer explained
'Right. Doesn't answer what we do with him though. We can't kill him, can't let him loose, and we can't leave him in a POW camp, because then he tells the world SeeD shot Galbadians. '
'He probably knows we're SeeD, sure, but half the prisoners the North has will swear on their mother's lives that they ran into SeeD officers that shot at Galbadians. But he's Special Forces, he's met us before and traded shots I'll bet. He's not gonna leak it to the media, and he won't be telling his superiors anything they don't already know,' Seifer pointed out.
'POW camp it is then. We'll take him in on the way back and they'll swap him for a platoon of northerners within a week after they give him a cell to himself and treat him like royalty,' Zell replied
As more platoons of khaki-clad infantry arrived from the north by truck, the SeeD teams prepared to move back out. Wedge was handcuffed and taken towards an M19. Before the SeeD teams could mount up, a staff car drove over, and a Northern officer emerged. It was Brigadier John Moon, local commander of the division and the front for twenty miles. The two officers saluted. He returned it, almost knocking off his sunshades and cap in the process.
'Good afternoon, captains. I see you caught a fish.'
'That would be one way of putting it, yes sir,' Zell replied
'Yes. Let us walk out of his earshot,' Moon said. The captains followed him to beside the expensive-looking staff car the Brigadier had arrived in.
'I trust you used the guardian force and left survivors?'
'Yes sir, we're sure at least a few of the enemy saw the GF.'
'Then you were worth every Gil, captains. Not only did escort the arms, defend the base, and let the enemy know the north has guardian forces, but you also gave us a Galbadian soldier. We can exchange him for many things. Thank you, captains: I'll be sure to request you and your men all receive bonuses for your job. '
Zell and Seifer stared at the man for a few seconds, before Seifer spoke.
'I'm sorry, sir, did you just say your forces are starting to use GFs?'
Ministry of State Security, South Timber
A briefing room. Cigar smoke filled the air, flickering in the light of the projector sitting in the middle of the long table. A dozen men sat at this table, each either looking at their own folders, or glancing at the projector. It showed the Galbadian Cable and Satellite News Network report on the incident in Krastovia, a report that had focused mostly on the civilian dead rather than the unconfirmed claims SeeD operators had been killed also. The sheer numbers of civilian dead in the Estharian conflict during a slow news day in general had popped it on as headline news even in Galbadia. Tomorrow, the Galbadians looking at the screens and declaring it was either awful or the Estharian government who had themselves bombed the market, would forget it existed when some supermodel was found overdosed, or a small child went missing, or some other trivial distraction from reality.
'What do we have so far, Colonel Keane?' a voice asked. A man near the projector replied.
'The incident we're watching, Minister, has been confirmed to be an attack which killed twelve mercenaries. It was as a result of intelligence we passed on to our allies desiring freedom in Krastovia, and this is our end result. Our source tells us Balamb is buzzing with rumours that large numbers of their airborne forces will be sent to Krastovia in support of their Special Forces. Krastovia has grabbed the lion by the tail.'
'Do you think we can now go ahead with our next stage?' another voice asked.
'Admiral, I'm certain of it. We've already been enacting some stages of the plan. Galbadia will feel the loss from SeeD assassins and false agents soon. Our backup plan is prepared also.'
'Excellent. Galbadia's pressure on us to go to peace talks will fade, and they will rejoin us on the drive north to liberation of our oppressed brothers and sisters of the so-called People's Socialist Republic. But rest assured, gentlemen, Timber prevails: And when we have united out shattered nation, we will become a force to be reckoned with,' The Minister said. The other eleven applauded as the muted projector showed an old woman weeping over a white blood-stained cloth wrapped what was clearly the body of a child.