The sun was setting when the plane flew overhead, a rosy glow spilling out over a cloudy sky. The craft's passing was silent, unnoticed by human and radar alike. But then that had been what its designers had intended when they had built it, and a thing may only do what is in its nature.

The hours passed. The plane journeyed on. Beneath it ocean gave way to fields, fields to desert and desert to mountains. Guided by an invisible light, it flew unerringly towards the hand which held the beam. Over a towering mountain peak, indistinguishable from the hundreds of others surrounding it, a door was slid back. Noiselessly its cargo spilt out, blackened parachutes invisible against the darkness. Silently they drifted towards the earth and landed gently upon the packed earth.

Three shapes swiftly unfolded themselves. Within minutes their dell was filled with others, guides mingling with the new arrivals, mumbling with them. The equipment was hastily gathered up, the 'chutes folded up and stored away. An order was hissed, and they began their trek, leaving the mountain again deserted except for a solitary volunteer charged with destroying all trace of their passing. Overhead SEED flight AZ 2490-NT 2 cruised silently on, its mission complete.

Later Galbadian Military Intelligence would review the entire satellite footage of the plane's unscheduled flight through Galbadia's airspace, but would see neither the drop nor it's conclusion on the ground. Wearily, they would curse both the Estarian cloaking technology worn by the SEEDs and the native insurgent's formidable illusion skills. Then they would begin the long hard search of tens of thousands of square miles of desolate terrain, trying to work out where Military Commander of Balamb Garden and Director of Combat Operations Squall Leonheart, Director of Commando and Insurgency Operations Lieutenant-Colonel Nida and Chief Medical Officer (Combat injury specialist) Doctor Aikka Krushchec had landed, and more importantly, just what in the Nine Hells they thought they where doing on the inside of one of Galbadia's hottest EZs [Term: Emergency Zone].

The dust kicked up by our column as we march towards our assigned trenches stings the back of my already parched throat. The heat in this country is really filthy. It sucks the moisture right out of the body within seconds, sending it up into the air. Trying to draw each breath is like inhaling under water. I will kill for a breath of smoggy Deling air. It's so cool and crisp, you'd want to swirl it around your lungs until all the oxygen had been wrung out of it rather then go back to the laborious panting that follows me around as I struggle forwards in my body armour.

Despite the heat I glance around me constantly, uneasily. You can never tell with the skinnies, where or when they'll turn up, and I'm section point. Plus only constant searching keeps you alive through your trip out here and I've only got ten days of my Time left. Hyn's left ball if I'm going home in bag after everything this place has put me through.

Of course, all I see as my gaze wanders over this desert is rocks. Big rocks. Small rocks. Heaps of rocks. All I can ever see here is rocks. I can't get over the surge of hate I feel at the sight of them. When I get home I'm sticking to green places, and if I ever see another damn rock again without any moss on I'll scream. Moss makes all the difference. Moss is alive. Maybe being in a green place will sooth me. Cover the bare walls of my psyche with something cool. Shut out the memories.

If the cam cord in my head ever shuts down when I finally get back, I hope that everything inside my head that it has so faithfully recorded, every scene, every emotion and every thought follows it into oblivion. Even now, as I walk along with my bowls churning, my conscious mind scanning every ridgeline, every fold in the earth for Johnny, I can feel them stacked up behind my eyes like so much unprocessed data. They're making my temples throb.

I am pulled from my reverie as Blue taps me on my shoulder. I'd heard the crunch of her boots on the gravel, but even so I am thankful that Heartbreaker's safety is on. Hyn bless column rules. Twitchy nerves mean twitchy triggers.

"Gods damn it Blue, I've told you before about sneaking up on me like that. One day your ass will grass."

"Well you've only got ten days to try, bitch!" she laughs back.

Blue [person: at 19 she is my age. Her real name is Jenna Troy. To her close friends she is Blue, for the colour of her armour. To the grunts here she is sarge. The beloved momma who's going to ship them all home, and doesn't care if she's got to bust their ass a few times to do it. She's old around the eyes, like all of us here. I've known her since before my first tour out here when we where the only two fems in the outfit, and we've been together ever since.] leans close to my ear as we walk along. She keeps behind me so she doesn't block my line of sight.

"Time to wake up anyway Sash, the Fuckwit wants to see us."

I roll my eyes skyward, feeling a surge of irritation at the mention of our beloved commanding officer. The throbbing behind my eyes picks up a beat.

As we trudge along together I call back to my young corporal, "Val, take point and look after the section. Sergeant Troy and I are going forward to talk to the Lieutenant."

Val Dana [person: even at 17 she has changed from a tense and terrified kid I'd known at the start of this tour into a silent, staring soldier. She has a terror of the night- not darkness exactly, but night time, especially the sounds. Insanely brave during the day she will do everything possible be back at base by sundown. To my knowledge she has never taken a night patrol, leading to her nickname 'Daytripper'. Like all of them, she has become used to responding to my voice immediately.] gives me a short nod of acknowledgment and steps swiftly into my place, her eyes never breaking their pattern. I feel a strange surge of maternal pride in her, and the professional satisfaction of a job well done. I have helped to create a strange killer, young and old, innocent and wise, victim and survivor.

"What are you smiling about Sasha?" asks Blue, slightly worried by my sudden smirk.

"Just thinking there's a lot you don't learn about this job in camp," I tell her easily, "What does the Fuckwit want this time?"

Some new insanity I am sure. I fiddle with Heartbreaker's safety idly, fantasizing about being able to blow the bastard away in some hidden spot away from his autobot toys that he always has hanging around. I'm enjoying it so much I totally miss Blue's reply and have to ask her to repeat herself.

"I said, he didn't say. He just told me to fetch you and Caster. Said he needed to speak to the 'most experienced troopers in his unit about our upcoming forward manoeuvres'. Jerk," she says contemptuously.

I have a sinking feeling in my stomach. My temples are still throbbing. Then Caster is walking towards us, smiling blankly at Blue as she calls his name.

[Person: Caster Pollack is sergeant of the platoon's Long Range Patrol section (Lurps). He's our adopted little brother, who latched onto us back at boot camp as the only ones in the platoon who didn't relentlessly bully him. He was a silly bookish grunt back then, who could come out with the square root of 27 from his head, but whose boot laces we'd have to tie properly. It's because of him we volunteered for another tour here, this time as NCOs. Caster has flipped since he came here. He is totally silent with everybody except us, to whom he speaks perfectly normally. Everybody else gets sign language or a scrap of parchment. He refuses to wear a helmet, and has grown his hair long, braiding it intricately with pieces of ratty string, elastic bands and hair clips he's scrounged at base. The only thing he keeps from his former existence is a small pair of reading glasses perched ridiculously on his nose all day.

Sometimes on patrol he'll stand for hours without moving, even blinking. He's become one of Third Army's most prolific killers. Surprisingly his section follows him everywhere. Grunts always stick to the one person in their outfit blessed with the luck of the Gods. The miracle man, survivor against incalculable odds. The closer you are to them the less likely you'll be killed. Caster has had two miracles. One time his entire patrol was wiped out by Johnny except him. He lay under his friends' bodies while they cut ears off as souvenirs and giggled to each other. The second time he was sleeping in his cot at LZ [Landing Zone] Garden when the skinnies lobbed a mortar round into his tent. Every soldier in the tent was killed, torn apart by shrapnel, except Caster, whose cot wasn't even touched. After waking up in a charnel house, that was pretty much it for Caster. After that the only place left for him was the Lurps.]

"Hey Caster," I call to him, and get a quick smile to scurry across his normally closed face, as if it's scared to be caught there.

Without saying another word he falls in between us, and the posse is complete and we are walking on in comfortable silence the way it's always been since we were thrown together, survivors clinging together for comfort in this strange ocean.