The conclusion of the battle on the island did not conclude the battle at sea and in the air. As predicted, the Air Force had indeed mobilized to support the naval counter-attack about six hours after the allied ground troops began leaving the island, but it was in vain. The Estharian supercarrier Admiral Masorin and her carrier air wing fought off the air force first, then, alongside the submarine squadron, forced Amanver's navy to retreat. By the time the allied troops had all been ferried off the island safely, the Amanverians were waiting on their battleship arriving to stand a chance of repelling the allied navy, even as Esthar and Galbadia angrily demanded that the navy and air force cease action. An hour later, when the Amanverian premier was allowed to talk directly to the pilot of a stealth bomber heading to the Amanverian capital city of Riggs. A minute later, the battleship group began to turn around. It was never going to even get on the right side of the country of the allied assault in time anyway, but Esthar still saw Amanver's defiance as an insult.
The actual evacuation was a complex task. The various paratrooper forces went to the docks, boarding the landing craft and helicopters that had ferried the rest of the ground forces onto the battlefield in order to head for Garden. They evacuated in waves, the first off including the prisoners. Those defenders who had surrendered had been forced to hand over all weapons, and locked into rooms and buildings across the island with only sleeping bags, rations, and radios. The idea was that as the allies abandoned the island, Amanver would move in, and recover the soldiers across the island. The wounded had been left in the care of the surviving medics of Amanver, in a field hospital set up near the naval base. The dead had been covered in shrouds and left in the coolest warehouses that the allies could find, but they only cleared those bodies they immediately found.
Amanverian troops did land on the island the next morning, the allied fleet having set sail for home. Even as a seemingly endless chain of transport planes, launches and helicopter flights transferred those troops heading straight back home in the air to their flights home off the three carrier aircraft able to land any form of troop transport plane, and by the time Amanver had found every temporary prison at the end of the day, all the paratroopers from Esthar and Balamb were off the garden and heading home.
Three days after the battle, the allied forces were long gone from Amanverian waters. Their navy was now concentrated around the island, including their flagship, in a clear case of closing the henhouse door after the fox has already ate every chicken. They had been allowed to do so only when the allies were well clear.
Amanver's failed nuclear strike had confirmed the truth that few had wished to hear. The international community was appalled. Even Dollet, the place that had likely sold them the schematics to construct the weapons in the first place, had reacted with fury. President Loire of Esthar and the President of Galbadia both addressed their nations, and the world, within an hour of each other. Both men had stressed that they were rivals in a cold war and opponents in ideology; they were both united in pursuit of the cause of preventing dangerous weapons falling into the hands of nations that were a threat to world stability. Loire threatened a full scale invasion in one month if the Amanverians did not go to the negotiating table. Galbadia did not rule out the use of force to eliminate the nuclear threat,
Unsurprisingly, Amanver elected to meet the delegations from the world community in Fisherman's Horizon, the neutral ground where all negotiations of such magnitude now occurred. The talks had only just begun, but already, the world media was buzzing with rumour. Some said the Estharians were interested in an Amanverian offer to eliminate the missiles bar one, and retain their tactical arsenal. Tansin and Dishagoum had both sent over representatives, and both naturally favoured complete elimination of the weapons and had publicly said so. Dollet was said to be tabling an idea that perhaps economic sanctions could be lifted by the rest of the world to persuade them to abandon their arms.
Galbadia's main proposal at this stage was to have the arsenal reduced to five weapons, regularly inspected by Galbadian, Estharian, and Tansinian weapons inspectors. They also proposed the facilities useable in construction of the bomb would be either closed or subject to the same inspections. All that was a million miles away to SeeD though.
And interestingly, North Timber chose this time to reveal it's intended use of Guardian Forces, relying on the major news of the hour to protect it from scorn. After all, what South Timberian agents were accused of meant almost no one would listen to their protests at the North starting to use powerful magic-based weapons.
Junison Air Base.
The transport plane came in gently to land, mindful of how vital their cargo was. The base was brimming with armed soldiers and vehicles. They had been escorted here with a dozen fighters that still circled the skies above. SeeD had their men, they wanted them tried. And they were unwilling to allow the South Timberians any chance to shoot down this plane and kill the secrets these men had along with them.
The plane taxied to a halt, and by the time Zell had stood up from his seat and grabbed his kitbag, it had been surrounded by DGPTs and SeeD troops. The twenty-three South Timberians shuffled out in single file, wearing yellow jumpsuits and with their hands and feet cuffed and chained. Two armed SeeD's flanked each suspect. Zell saw Colonel Caun by the waiting APC's, that would spirit the suspects away to a secure detention facility. She saluted him, to his surprise.
'Major Dincht,' she said simply. 'Very good work. Maybe you deserve the rank after all.'
'Well, thank you ma'am. A compliment from a critic is always welcome.'
'I bet it is,' she replied, the faint trace of a smile on her face. 'Do you have the documents you and the Special Forces recovered?'
He patted the locked metal flight case he carried. Like the case locked inside had been, Zell had been handcuffed to the case, and didn't even know the combination to the cuffs let alone the case.
'Under lock and key in here, ma'am.'
'Good. You're to escort them directly to the Commander. I'm taking these prisoners over to their new home.
Don't lose it,' she joked
He saluted, and replied with a grin.
'Well, ma'am, I'm rather attached to it just now.'
'Don't push your luck any further, Zell,' she said with an unconcealed, but somewhat wry, smile.
Over the following two days, Zell found himself with little to do except train his squad. As the politicians spoke in Fisherman's Horizon over the Amanverian Missile Crisis, as the media had universally dubbed it, quiet telephone conversations between heads of government negotiated the next political circus. The resulting trial of the Timberian spies would make history, as well as confuse lawyers and legal experts for years to come.
Because Mitchell had betrayed SeeD, he was to be tried for desertion. Because he had caused the deaths of Balambian citizens and gave aid to the enemy, he was also standing for treason against Balamb. Those charges had brought him back onto the defence's side when told his sister was alive. His momentary anger with Zell for tricking him faded in face of an offer to allow him to be tried under Jochenburg law, where capital punishment applied only to treason. As he had only murdered a few citizens, he would be locked up for the rest of his life. He had decided to stand against the spies in exchange for that deal.
The document Zell had recovered from the South Timberians however would soon cause the largest diplomatic issue, and the largest legal headache.
Officer Quarters, Kramer Road, Command HQ
Zell's was the only car on the street not parked outside a certain house that was actually the property of SeeD rather than a SeeD operator. A CRW trooper there saluted, and guided him to park at an empty officer's home across the road.
Zell had noted on his short drive from his quarters at the barracks on the opposite side of the base that security was still tight. Where before you would have had at best a SeeD operator standing guard with a handgun in his holster and a baseball cap, there now stood a fully armed soldier with helmet on head and rifle in hand. The entire organisation was still a little jittery after the events almost two weeks ago.
As he crossed the road, the door opened, and Twamley was there, saluting. Zell returned it.
'Morning, Major,' Henry said, with Zell returning the greeting.
'I'm afraid the Commander is running a little late, so if you'd care to wait in the sitting room, sir,' Twamley began.
'Sure, but one thing Henno. Just because I got my silver pip and gold chevron replaced, doesn't mean you have to call me sir all the time, man. I've known you nearly nine years,' Zell responded, referring to first the Captain's rank insignia Twamley wore, and then to the Major's insignia he now wore.
'Well, fair enough, but promise me if you get three or four pips, you'll make it easy on the poor sods on CRW close protection, eh? Let them call you sir,' Twamley retorted, voicing a common problem all on close protection had. The Commander requested they only called him sir in public, and Squall the rest of the time.
'Henno, if I make General or Commander, this organisation will be in trouble in the first place so I doubt a breakdown of rank etiquette will be so severe.'
Zell entered the sitting room, the television on the news. The anchor was reporting the political fallout from the failed Amanverian nuclear attack, an action that they had tried to justify by claiming Galbadia had joined in the attack with stealth planes. Galbadia had rebuked the claim and the international community was piling even more pressure and sanctions on the rogue nation, including demands they hand over all their nuclear weapons to Dollet for disposal. Rinoa was sitting there, having returned from dropping Julia off at school an hour before.
'Hi Zell,' she said simply as he sat down. She turned to look towards him, a look Zell found a little concerning in her eyes
'Before I ask you the questions, can I just say, Major suits you.'
'Well, thanks. I suppose.'
'Anyway, I'm wondering if you might be here about that folder Squall has been reading the past two days.'
'I don't have a clue,' he replied truthfully.
'You recovered it from the island,' she pointed out.
'Well... I never read it. I just brought it back to Squall...'
'Whatever the hell it is, he's taking it pretty seriously.'
'Well, it was in the hands of the men who killed a lot of our people. Not to mention they sided with the guys who tried to nuke Mobile Garden. There's bound to be something good, even if it's just a diary and we learn the former chief of operations likes to wear women's underwear...'
Silence for a few moments after Rinoa's laugh had faded. Then she spoke.
'How did the Ragnarok manage to stop it anyway? Wouldn't it have set the nuke off?'
Zell had been trying to forget the Ragnarok was gone along with its pilots. It had been more than just the transport of Special Forces allowing them to strike theoretically anywhere quickly, but a symbol of SeeD as a whole, and to Zell, a symbol of the past. His past. He'd flown that ship on a few occasions, despite not being a licensed pilot. He'd rode that ship to what had then seemed the toughest battle of his life. But he recalled that it held more significance to Squall and Rinoa.
'Well, they don't work like a normal bomb. They need their detonation to be perfect to get a nuclear explosion. The Amanverians, if I remember the rumours right, are supposed to have implosion-based weapons on their missiles with about a half megaton yield. I'm not a hundred percent sure on how they work but I think they surround a sphere of uranium or plutonium in a ball of high explosives, and those are set off when the bomb detonates. '
'How does that work anyway?' Rinoa asked, puzzled. Despite coming from the nation with one of the two largest stockpiles of the weapons in question, knew very little about them. Zell also knew relatively little about them bar the effects of them and some of the nomenclature.
'I don't know. I'm good with gadgets and machines, not physics. I think it actually crushes the metal in on itself and causes the metal to become really compressed, and...'
'Ah, I get it now. The atoms collide and split, causing the reaction. I remember that much from high school chemistry,' she responded as the floorboards creaked upstairs. Squall appeared at the top of the stairwell
'Zell. Come to my office, please. And before you make any wise crack, Major, I mean the one upstairs and not over in the command centre. Or on Garden before you say it.'
This office was far less tidy and Spartan than the others. There was actual wallpaper, cluttered books, some of Julia's paintings from school pasted lovingly on a wall along with dozens of photographs of her and Rinoa. Zell was amused to even notice a bobble-headed paperweight resembling a cartoon lion atop a pile of paper on the ornate oak desk. The only sign of a military officer owning this office was the fact Squall's graduation certificate and the medals he had earned during the second sorceress war were mounted in a frame by the window.
'I see Griever's got a more kid-friendly image now,' Zell joked.
'Actually, that's Leo. Leo the Lion. Guess who named him,' Squall replied dryly as they sat down.
'So, if I may ask, what have you called me here for?'
Squall handed over a few sheets of paper from within a folder.
'Take a look at these. A careful one,' Squall instructed.
Zell read them through, and almost felt his jaw drop with every word the pages betrayed. It was evidence linking the twenty-three captured South Timberians with the March 5th Deling bombings, as well as implicating two Galbadian intelligence officers.
'Information supplied by Mr Kurzwald indicates that at approx 0830, Deling rail system is full to the brim. The Metro East-3 line shows promise for Operation Patriotic, v. busy and many stations deep underground. Studnland station mentioned by Lindeman as v. promising RE secondary explosions/fires from gas pipelines.
Emergency services would be v. hard pressed to deal with simultaneous attacks on large number of trains and busses. Additionally, schematics for five inner city police stations indicate all built in manner making them vulnerable to truck/van bomb attack, possibly 10k lbs ANFO.
Opsec dictates we seek common explosives and or recruit our bombers from areas where suicide bombing and martyrdom common e.g. Krastovia, Tansin. Maximum fear could be attained by spreading the attack across city, and overwhelming emergency services. Attempting to cut cell phone networks or attack power plants deemed too risky...'
And on it went, detailing what had became the worst terrorist attack in history. Zell glanced up, barely concealing the shock when he spoke.
'Holy shit, Squall, you know what these mean?'
'Yeah. The question is, will anyone actually believe them?'
'Tall order. March the Fifth was all the work of South Timber and some Galbadians to try and make it look like the north did it? Too much of a conspiracy.'
'It's only a conspiracy when it's a lie,' Squall replied. 'This puts us into a little problem now. Jochenburg had requested an observer at any trial, and now we have the men behind the worst terrorist act in history in our possession. Naturally, that means Galbadia wants a slice of the trial now, plus the fact we have men who might have ordered the events leading up to the battle in Dishagoum a couple of weeks ago. And since they consorted with Krastovian insurgents and organised attacks on their embassy, Esthar wants in. Not to mention the fact North Timber wants in too, and we only just agreed on what the hell we're doing with regards to Mitchell.'
'Well, to be honest, Squall, speaking as a Major, it's not my problem, sir,' Zell grinned.
'Watch yourself, Major, or I might just give you another promotion to make it yours.'
'I'd refuse it, sir.'
'Good man. By the way, those two Galbadians, they were Miles Lindeman and Fritz Kurzwald. At the time of the bombings, Lindeman was Assistant Deputy Director; Kurzwald was his Deputy Assistant Deputy Director. They both jumped up a rank after the attacks. Lindeman's tipped to become the Director of the organisation he's a part of. Which ironically enough, is Homeland Defence and Security.'
'Kind of funny way to do the job.'
'Yeah, I though so too. President's office is pretty sure no one else but them helped plan the bombings. At the ranks they were, they could easily have accessed the relevant files on security arrangements and bomb alerts without rousing suspicion.'
'So, what's this mean, long term?'
'Quite simply, we've just embarrassed and made a friend of Galbadia. We might even be on their card lists when it's the card-sending season next. Any questions?'
'Well, why am I seeing this?' Zell enquired.
'You were the senior officer in charge of the team that recovered it. It's likely if this goes to trial, you'll be called to either write a statement or actually testify. For that reason, we want you to know what it was you recovered,' Squall explained.
'Alright, fair enough. One last question though. I know we were going to replace Ragnarok...'
Squall cut him off.
'Actually, we were intending to supplement Ragnarok with the new ship when it was ready. The D-01's only half completed. The Estharians have to install most of the internal components, and it means we're without our global ability to get a Special Forces team anywhere in a few hours. Esthar's unwilling to part with any of the four Ragnarok-class dropships they have left so for now... Well, we'll have to make do. But when Esthar has their D-01 class ready, they might, emphasis on might, be willing to sell us the Revenant and Redeemer.'
'I hope they will,' Zell said. Nostalgia aside, the Ragnarok had been damned useful, and even if the other two needed a refit to meet the specifications Ragnarok had been altered to, it would still be good to replace the dragon-shaped airship/dropship.
'To be honest, I'd give my right arm to bring back the Ragnarok. We've all got a lot of memories of that ship. Hell, you can say I had my first date with my wife on it. But don't say that around Selphie. She'll think I'm confessing to what she thinks we did up there.'
'Well, you can't have spent the entire re-entry killing those monsters.'
'No, we spent it trying to figure out how to get the damn thing to respond before we realised it was on autopilot. Now, you've got about half a years leave backdated for the last four years. About time you used some of it, Major.'
'For once, Squall, I think I will,' he replied as he stood, and saluted.
'See you when you've got sick of pizza from the Gilmour Seafront, Zell,' Squall replied, similarly standing and returning the salute.
Zell then left the office, and an hour later, left the base, his part in recent events now over. It was now in the hands of politicians, general officers, and intelligence officers.
But the nagging feeling nothing would really change was there. True, he had seen it for himself that the cold war was becoming less of a conflict and more of a set of disagreements. He hoped the wake up call on nukes would change something, but felt certain at the end of the talks, Amanver would have retained at least one.
It was confusing. He'd always found it confusing. In political terms, the world was ready to play an international game of chess, with their soldiers the pawns. Some countries only had pawns and knights to defend their king. Some had bishops and rooks. The big powers had queens, able to strike anywhere. But those same powers also were the kind of people who if they were likely to blow up the entire board to force it so no one won. Not a stalemate or a draw, but the defeat of both sides. He couldn't understand what kind of madman had come up with it, except that he was a politician.
The future could easily be predicted, he reasoned. He knew wondering about the past just distracted you from the task at hand and that it was better to think the past had never happened sometimes. But he simultaneously knew the trick was to remember the past in the present so that the future would be different, and no one really would grasp that. It was a set of paradoxes and dead ends that should be impossible, but they continued ignoring the past and reliving it, like time was in a loop. And so long as the politicians of the world were stuck in the past, then the future would be the past. The never-ending cycle would just keep going. Maybe they had just been high on something and dreamt it all. Maybe that's what all of life was. Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe it did.
But it was not his job to worry about it. Right now, he realised, he should be thinking of simpler things. Like maybe properly relaxing for the first time in months.