And now for someone completely different...we're starting the other half of the plot now. This takes place at about the same time as the last chapter. Before anyone gets at me for screwing up the timings, I'm working on the assumption that Esthar City is six hours ahead of Balamb and Timber, and that they're about seven hours ahead of Deling City. So it really can be ten p.m. in Esthar, four p.m. in Garden and nine a.m. in Galbadia all at the same time. Right?
WARNING: Again, there's no need to warn you about anything in this chapter, but coming soon to a website near you...
DISCLAIMER: *sniff* Square still owns them...waah...
Chapter Five - Of the New Idol
Quistis lowered the folder, pushed her glasses up onto her forehead and turned to General Caraway. "I see why you're getting worried about the possibility of full-scale rebellion. Especially given this last group. You say they have no visible source of income?"
"Emphasis on visible." Caraway scowled. "They've done so much damage that I don't know what conclusions to draw other than that they must have the backing of private interests, either within Galbadia or elsewhere."
"Were you aware that they've put in a request for SeeD?"
"I wasn't. This changes things, certainly. I take it the request was rejected."
"It's still under consideration." Although she'd heard rumours that someone had passed the mission - which idiot had done that, when the Galbadian contract had been agreed for the past two months? Human stupidity annoyed the hell out of her sometimes. Still, she wouldn't worry the General with hearsay.
"They're enemies of Galbadia -"
"That will make no difference once our contract with you is done." He muttered something under his breath. Quistis caught the one word 'mercenary'; she added, "It wouldn't be the first time we've fought against Galbadia."
"The circumstances are hardly the same. Then, Galbadia was the aggressor."
Quistis didn't ask whether the Wilburn Freedom Fighters' Corps's demands were for concessions or for Galbadian withdrawal from occupied territory; instead she said, "We no longer take part in missions to assassinate elected heads of state. That at least is something President Salvador doesn't have to worry about. Now, can you explain something to me; how exactly did the WFFC gain access to the secondary Deling City power station?"
Caraway huffed a little, but answered with something like good grace; "They struck when the watch was changing. They took out the crucial security camera just after the guards had turned their backs, and they were inside before anyone could mount another patrol. It really isn't that difficult to cause enough damage to blow out a standard power station, so long as nobody stops you."
"It says here that they always use groups of one or two attackers," she checked. He nodded. "That, along with the split-second timing necessary to carry out all these manoeuvres, suggests that reconnaissance is the key to their plans. As well as infiltrating the group, we should identify the source of their information and feed them misinformation through it. It won't be easy. They almost certainly make their plans several months in advance."
"So long as you make some difference." Caraway hesitated. "I take it you wouldn't be able to access Garden's information about their bases."
"I doubt we'll ever get any. Payment by illegal groups is normally made in cash before the SeeDs are transferred, and our people will be told to go to a public meeting point rather than to the headquarters." Not that professional ethics would allow me to tell you anyway. We'd never get a non-governmental contract again if we behaved like that. She looked back down at the document file and narrowed her eyes. "Is it normal to know the identity of a dissident leader whose group is untraceable?"
"Oh." She studied the picture again. The man's face only rang a faint bell but... "The name. I've heard it before. Not in connection with this group but in a similar context, I'm sure." Caraway was silent, but she could feel his eyes on her. Pytor Capanni... she knew she should remember... "Got it. He was in charge of a terrorist band in the Protectorates - active in almost all of them - about a year ago. Back then he was famous for opposing both Galbadia and Esthar's involvement in the area. Strange; his group was supposedly wiped out."
"Any special reason why he had SeeD chasing him?"
"Nothing other than that he ran a group plenty of people wanted to destroy."
The intercom on Caraway's desk rang. "Sir, the President is here for your nine-o-clock meeting," the General's secretary informed him.
"Thank you." He switched off the intercom and turned back to Quistis. "I'm glad you're still here. I meant to introduce you to the President. I hope you'll get on; you'll be working with him more than with me over the course of your contract. He likes to take an interest in security issues." He rose to his feet as the door opened to admit the President of Galbadia.
Quistis's first impression was that the man in front of her was way too young to be the elected president of any country. She then remembered that Laguna looked approximately fifteen years younger than he was, and revised her opinion. Still, Salvador was remarkably well-preserved. His typical Galbadian black hair was only just starting to thin out and go grey. He looked fit and athletic, and his skin was deeply tanned; Outdoors type, Quistis thought. He stopped as soon as he saw her, favouring her with a smile, which she immediately returned.
"President," Caraway said formally, "may I introduce you to Quistis Trepe, head of the SeeD forces that were recently drafted to assist us. Miss Trepe; Xavier Salvador, President of Galbadia."
"A pleasure, Miss Trepe," and Salvador inclined his head in acknowledgement of her salute.
"I hope you'll stay for our meeting." He gestured to Caraway. "The General and I were planning on turning certain details of our security arrangements over to you. It would probably help if you knew how we work."
"That's true," she agreed. "I do have a few suggestions to make."
"Please feel free to do so," he encouraged her.
The three of them spent a couple of hours discussing the Galbadian rebel crisis. Quistis was frankly astonished at the number of groups resorting to violence to oppose centralised rule within the shrunken country. The problem was that there were perfectly rational explanations for the groups' existence and none for their success both at disrupting Galbadian plans and at remaining in operation. None except infinite patience, infinite resources and collusion from government insiders, at any rate. Quistis wasn't surprised that both Caraway and Salvador refused to contemplate the latter conclusion. She hoped it was not something they would later regret. She did, however, persuade them to agree to vetting measures for all military and security personnel involved in political operations of any kind. If only to save her own face, she hoped the measures would prove effective.
Eventually the meeting drew to a close. Quistis and Salvador both excused themselves from Caraway's office, and Quistis found herself leaving the office wing of the Palace in company with the President.
"Do you think it's likely that several of these groups might collude to attack you?" she asked him as they walked back towards the public areas, where he had a press conference to give and where she had a squad to brief. "General Caraway seemed very nervous when I brought up the suggestion earlier."
He drew in a breath like he had something controversial to say. Quistis wondered how often people asked the opinion of the man behind the Presidential trimmings. "You know, I think Caraway overestimates the maximum impact these people could have on the country. Collusion's unlikely, and wouldn't achieve much."
"I wouldn't be so sure. Some of them have had the most phenomenal success recently, especially the WFFC. You can't afford to have any of them opposing you, let alone all of them at once."
"On the subject of rebels in general, you have a point. On the subject of Pytor Capanni's group - well, that's where we'll have to agree to differ. He's only recently taken on his current role. The one thing he certainly doesn't have is the support of the local gang hierarchy. If there were a rebellion, he wouldn't be leading it. And he's the only one with the imagination to get anywhere. That said, to tell you the truth, I'm not actually overly worried about him."
He shrugged. "He's a known quantity. If he gets dangerously obnoxious, I think I can hold him off by threatening to reveal some highlights of his career to the general public. I think that those details, particularly concerning his involvement with the Movement for the Independence of Southern Galbadia, might shock some of his supporters into deserting him."
"You know about that?" she asked, surprised.
"Why shouldn't I?" he quizzed her. "You do, obviously."
"Only because I was involved in a mission against them once and I remembered his name when I saw it. General Caraway didn't seem to know anything about it."
"What happened during that time isn't just Capanni's secret. I prefer to keep my cards close, to protect certain other people's interests."
"Not your own?"
"No." She waited for him to elaborate, but instead he said, "Capanni isn't aware that I know his secrets. He would have tried to kill me before now, if he were. Nothing to do with his crusade against Galbadia; it would be a personal matter. He controls every other living person who does know the truth. He wouldn't stand for anything else." He was silent for a moment, then he added, "Galbadia is far greater than its President, but I still flatter myself by thinking I do my country some service. As things stand, for another three years nobody can neutralise me except by assassinating me."
"Are you afraid of that?"
"Not precisely afraid. I trust your ability to keep me safe."
"Thank you," she said dubiously. "But your bodyguards -"
"It's easier to bribe a soldier or a bodyguard than a SeeD. I don't doubt your people will be absolutely loyal to me for the next month. I hope that as well as looking into the rebel groups some of your people will keep an eye on the Army staff closest to me. It would set my mind at rest."
"Anything to do that."
"You're a true professional, Miss Trepe. I'll be delighted to work with you."
Delighted, eh? We'll see. My whip keeps away unwanted Presidents as easily as unwanted cadets. Try to remember it, Mr Salvador. She looked back up at his smiling face. That's not to say that your attentions are necessarily unwanted, of course. "The feeling is mutual, believe me."
(to be continued...)
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