MuvLuv Alternative Schwarzesmarken

 
 
 

MuvLuv Alternative Schwarzesmarken Volume 1 Chapter 2


Chapter 2 The Girl from the West[]

+++January 13, 1983
++1100hrs
++The German Democratic Republic 
++Cottbus District, Cottbus military base


When she came to, her entire vision was flooded with white.

“A wall…? No… maybe… the ceiling…?” Katia whispered in vague awareness.

She turned her head slowly, looking around her. An unfamiliar room. Furniture – a battered table. The pungent smell of disinfectant. Katia noticed that she had been put to bed, dressed in simple pajamas.

“But… I was fighting the BETA…”

At a glance, it was obvious that this place wasn’t a base which the United Nations forces had built. The glass window at the bed side rattled with a high-pitched howl, piercing her ears.

“Аh…!”

Holding her breath, she turned her attention out the window. Beyond it stretched a wide snow-covered field. The world was painted in only two colors – black and white.

Jump units? But that doesn’t sound like an F-4 or F-5G…

“Is this…a DDR (East German Army) Tactical Fighter Base…?”

Just as that thought crossed her mind, Katia remembered the last memories she had. Why was she still alive?

“The MiG-21… so… it saved me…”

That single scene had remained with her as her consciousness faded away, a sight that would be forever scorched into her memories…

++1110hrs 
++German Democratic Republic 
++Cottbus District

On either side of the highway stretched endless snow-covered fields with coppices scattered here and there. The only man-made object in the rural landscape was a chain of giant electric transmission towers going beyond the horizon… No, wait. There was more, five MiG-21s, walking toward the West.

“It’s a bleak sight, as always,” Theodor sighed, looking at the back of his companions’ TSFs. They were on the way back from a salvage mission. The aim was to recover from the fields of battle any broken tactical surface fighters, tanks and other equipment for salvage – before they became the prey of the BETA. The squadron was followed by a convoy of trucks carrying the collected salvage.

The 666th Tactical Surface Fighter Squadron, Schwarzesmarken, had taken part in repelling a major BETA offensive – a battle which had finally ended only after three interminable days. Looking again at the unfolding scene before his eyes, he drearily heaved a sigh. There was about an hour left before returning to base, and the landscape had not changed at all.

TSF pilots rarely had to perform marches on foot, using the legs of the machines. Even less so when in a totally secure area in the rear. They kept silent most of the time. If a similar march had happen a month ago, Annette and the younger pilots of the squadron would have broadcasted cheerful chatter in the air incessantly, but now all of them had died in the fighting, except for Annette, and she had been ordered to undergo medical treatment.

“—By the way, Walter, have you heard of this joke before?” Irisdina’s voice came through the wireless casually, breaking the painful silence.

“—Hoh? Which one?” Walter asked with interest.

“—At the dawn of the space age, the first satellites that both the Soviet Union and the United States had concurrently launched met in orbit. When communications with ground control were cut off, the two satellites began to talk: ‘Guten Tag, Freund, jetzt können wir schließlich in unserer Muttersprache sprechen.’” <Good day, friend, now we can finally speak in our mother tongue.>

Walter and Pham both burst into laughter. It was well known that the space programs of both the United States and the USSR grew out of the scientific and technological heritage of the Third Reich.

However, Theodor did not laugh. He had no wish to join in the merriment.

What does she have in mind?

Glaring at Irisdina’s face in the communications window as she told another anecdote, he tightly squeezed the control handles again. That Pilot; what should I do……?

+++January 10 
++1310hrs
++Territory of the former Polish National Republic 
++Approximately 26 kilometers from the West coast of the Neisse
++Krosno Odrzańskie Ruins

Pulling out from the ruins of Krosno-Odrzańskie, which was swarmed with BETA, Theodor decided to move with boost jumps. The remaining amount of propellant was less than 10 percent. He could not afford another engagement with the BETA.

Besides…

“Ahh, hot……”

A faint moan… He examined the state of the Bundeswehr (West German Army) girl strapped in before his seat. With every boost jump, the sudden acceleration twisted her body painfully. Theodor had to shoehorn the girl found in the wrecked F-4 into the cockpit of his own Balalaika. He was forced to abandon the F-4 Phantom since carrying it with a single MiG-21 was impossible. Most likely the fighter had already fallen victim to the countless numbers of Tank-class approaching from all sides.

I picked up a troublesome package……

Members of the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee; National People’s Army; East German Army) were strictly forbidden to have contact with the soldiers of the Bundeswehr. Officially, the ban was to prevent information leakage from the East German Army and infiltration of its ranks by spies, but the real reason was to prevent soldiers from defecting to the West. So far, countless soldiers who were suspected of having contacted the West German Army to seek asylum in the West had been executed by the Army and the Stasi.

Seen in that sense, for Theodor, who had special circumstances, this would be in an unfavorable situation indeed, although it was only a coincidence that he had rescued a Bundeswehr soldier. If he took a wrong step, it was likely that he would again be under the scrutiny of the Stasi. In socialist East Germany, just thinking of reconciliation with the capitalist West would get you labeled as a person with dangerous ideas.

“Dammit, I was just following orders…… whatever happens is not my responsibility……”

The shock as the machine’s legs pounded the ground caused the control unit to jostle. The girl breathed with difficulty as the small shoulder bag fastened to her belt bounced about. The girl’s personal belongings had been stowed inside the F-4 control unit’s first-aid kit storage space.

‘Those westerners, carrying their personal items in their cockpits……’ The indescribable feelings of vexation boiled in his mind.

“Katia Waldheim……” Theodor quietly muttered the name written on her ID record to himself, bearing in mind the girl’s face, which still held the childishness of youth.

Theodor linked up with Irisdina, having arrived at the rendezvous point simultaneously.

“—You made it safely, Unterleutnant.”

The view of Irisdina’s TSF projected onto his retina made Theodor inhale sharply. Most of the fuselage was smeared with pieces of flesh and body fluids. “—Were you able to rescue that F-4 pilot?”

“……Eh? Ah, yes,” Theodor gathered himself and answered, momentarily taken aback. “The pilot is secured inside my control unit. Currently unconscious, but there seems to be no injuries.”

“—Affiliation?”

“The Bundeswehr. A girl……”

“—I need confirmation. Forward the data to me.”

‘I guess it’s reasonable that an oral report would not be trusted. After all, I had abandoned a comrade in battle earlier--.’

“Transmitting video. See for your—” Theodor glanced at Irisdina as he spoke, and his tongue froze in mid-sentence. Irisdina was staring at the projected image intently, looking genuinely astonished.

“Err…”

In the next moment, Irisdina suddenly fixed her eyes on Theodor, openly meeting his gaze. Pinned by her eyes, Theodor lost awareness of his surroundings. He gulped. It was the first time that he had seen Irisdina show such a humane expression.

“—I’m sorry. She looked like the spitting image of my little cousin in Berlin.”

“Ahh…… verstanden.” Certainly, anyone would have blanched if they saw their relatives in the Bundeswehr…

“—Have you found out what’s her unit?”

“According to the ID record, she is from the 101st Tactical Surface Fighter Battalion, Second Company.”

“—Her unit must have just arrived on the west bank of the Oder River. Indeed, they must have been attacked by the BETA while in the middle of a mop-up…… Her name?” “Katia C. Waldheim.”

“…During the rescue, there was only the one machine?”

“Yes. A single unit. I believe she was unable to escape due to damage to the jump unit.”

“—And the fighter?”

“Abandoned. There was a swarm of Tank-class closing in at the time…”

“—Is that so?” Irisdina gave an approving smile. “—Well done, Unterleutnant.”

Theodor nodded with mixed feelings. He had been freshly reminded of the fact that his fate lie in Irisdina’s hands in the recent dispute with her. Nothing would change the fact that the commander was a monstrous devil, a “heroine” of the Stasi who would willingly sell out her own blood and family… Besides, the enmity arising from the recent altercation wouldn’t recede just like that.

“—Unterleutnant Eberbach,” Irisdina suddenly asked, her expression serious. “—What are your thoughts on the current state of the squadron?”

“State… of the squadron…?” Theodor repeated the question reflexively, wondering about its intent.

“—Indeed. I’m not talking about our recent conversation. I just want to hear your opinion as a pilot.”

In the midst of bewilderment, Theodor considered the question. Even if he did not want to reply, he could only answer the question as ordered.

“I think that we are in a fairly dangerous situation.” With a dry feeling in his throat, Theodor continued. “In today’s battle, our unit started with eight members. As such, it is indicative that conducting future Laserjagd operations against the Laser-class would only become more difficult from now on.”

Irisdina nodded in silence. This time, it seemed that she had no intention of rebuking Theodor.

“……If Unterleutnant Hosenfeld becomes unable to fight, the company would only be left with six machines…… half the standard strength.” Yet missions would still be assigned to them as if they were at the full strength of twelve machines. “The next time we have a Laserjagd operation, it would be doubtful whether we would be able to accomplish the mission successfully.” Giving her a challenging look, Theodor firmly shut his mouth. Although he believed that his fighting spirit was relatively stronger compared to those whose spirit had broken, still…

“—Well done, that was an exemplary answer.” Irisdina gave a satisfied nod. However, she had a predatory expression on her face. “—In that case, you would be agreeable to my plan, I would say.”

“Plan? What plan…?”

“—This Eishi; we shall have her volunteer to join the 666th Tatical Surface Fighter Squadron.”

“Wh-!?”

‘This kid… this person from the Bundeswehr; add her to the team, you say…?!’

“—Like you said, our company is in a dangerous situation now. With our current combat strength, the success of future missions is uncertain. Besides, we do not know how soon we will be able to get replacement pilots.”

“What, you…” Theodor paused a moment to shake his head in disbelief. However, Irisdina ignored him and continued.

“—It is necessary to immediately replenish our combat strength ourselves, since we cannot rely on the NVA.”

“You, just what the hell are you thinking?!!” Theodor shouted. Overwhelmed and bewildered, he raised his voice again like he did thirty minutes ago in the recent argument with her. “This person… this girl is from the Bundeswehr! You don’t have the authority to do that anyway! What will you do if she’s really a spy?!” Theodor’s temples began to throb alarmingly. “We would definitely be suspected of aiding in espionage…!”

‘Or would there be no problem with whatever she does since she’s a member of the Stasi herself…?! No, even then…’ Whether or not she was a spy, Theodor didn’t want to be near a West German person. He didn’t want to come under the attention of the authorities.

“No matter how short on manpower we are...! Firstly, without the permission of Commissar Gr… Jeckeln—”

“—Did you think that I would speak without having thought of that?”

“…!” Theodor shut his mouth. There was a note in Irisdina’s tone that sounded like she had something hidden up her sleeve.

“—Firstly, there is a procedure to legally incorporate pilots from the west into the NVA.”

“WHAT?! A procedure? Since when—”

“—She only has to defect.”

“…!!” Reflexively clenching his fists, Theodor felt something like frustration and impatience rush through him.

“—Under the international treaty that was mediated during the Cold War, East and West Germany recognized each other as sovereign states with equal rights,” Irisdina explained without faltering, as if she had rehearsed beforehand. “—However, there is a difference in the treatment of citizens. Both German countries feel that the citizens on the other side ‘belonged to us originally.’ In other words, if a West German citizen wishes to seek political asylum in East Germany, they would be able to become an East German citizen without having to go through any complicated process. The DDR administration acknowledges this as well.” For one to be both a fellow citizen and a potential enemy at the same time – that official stance was the strange reality born from the Cold War.

“—So, it is possible for legal admission into the NVA. Although an examination of the motive for defection would be needed for a transfer into the Unit, which would be within the jurisdiction of Oberleutnant Jeckeln’s duties, and since there is a precedent, it’s more or less feasible. Of course, she herself must be willing as well, and once that is cleared, all is well. Political indoctrination can be left to Oberleutnant Jeckeln then.”

“But… what if she is a spy, what then…?” Theodor asked, choosing his words carefully. This conversation could be recorded as well, like with the previous argument… Irisdina shook her head quietly.

“—I believe that there is no possibility of her being a spy, because I highly doubt that the Bundeswehr would sacrifice an entire company just to get this girl in,” she replied.

“Sacrifice… an entire company…?”

“—I verified it just now when I fought the BETA to confirm whether there were any survivors. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a single one…”

Indeed, considering the current situation of the war, it would definitely be illogical to make such a large sacrifice just to send in a spy. Also, if Theodor had been late by so much as a second, the BETA would have already eaten her. Having been able to rescue that Eishi was only by fortune, undoubtedly.

That being said…

“Even if she really isn’t a spy, others wouldn’t be so understanding. You should know that very well!”

“—You need not worry about the Stasi.”

“…!!”

“—Management of military personnel is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence. The Army will not keep quiet if the Ministry of State Security were to infringe upon their authority. Though both the military and Stasi are controlled by the same party, they are still political rivals.”

‘Can what she said be true…?’ To Theodor, the Army and the Stasi were one and the same. Both had the power of the state to rule with an iron fist.

“—Therefore, as long as they are unable to provide any concrete evidence, this Eishi cannot be arrested without warning. If they take any overt action, the Army may well turn it into a political issue.”

“…However, I doubt Oberleutnant Jeckeln would be swayed by your reasoning. In the end, won’t it be the responsibility of the Oberleutnant to handle her?” For the inflexible Commissar Gretel, it would be strange to expect anything but hatred towards people from the West.

“—If the squadron gets annihilated, she too will die… Well, it’s going to take some ingenuity to persuade her…”

“…Then, what about this girl’s decision?” Theodor asked, indicating the unconscious girl with his chin. “What you just said about her wanting to defect to the East, she has to agree to it, right? Wouldn’t that be absurd?!” Theodor demanded, his underlying hatred increasing. As if there were a single person that likes this country enough that they would defect to it!

“—If my guess is correct, it’s possible that she’s an Eastern sympathizer.”

“Guess…?”

“—A single TSF, fighting without backup… don’t you think that’s strange?”

“Ah…”

“—There’s a high possibility that she was caught up in some trouble. Besides, she is a fellow German…” Irisdina paused for a moment before continuing. “—So, I would like your full cooperation on this matter… For starters, I need your help to persuade Gretel.” As Irisdina’s blue eyes bore into Theodor, he somehow sensed great sorrow and determination hidden within. “—As you know, she has a stronger sense of pride compared to others. In my opinion, it is unlikely that she will meekly accept this. That is where you come in.”

“…But, why me—”

“—That’s because you won’t injure her pride. For example, orders from me, or orders from Walter, which one would you prefer?”

“Urgh…” Theodor choked on that. Although he had thought that he didn’t mind having it known, having it pointed out to him directly made him fully understand just how thin a line he had been on.

“—Considering how many times you have saved Gretel’s life, she would listen to you more than me, at the least.”

“…Can’t Walter be the one to ask?”

“—Walter is too close to me. Not to mention he was originally an Unteroffiziere (NCO). To Gretel, a commissioned officer, he would definitely be a target for discrimination. He isn’t the right person for this.”

Theodor shook his head in doubt. He didn’t believe that Gretel would think well enough of him.

“—You won’t know the result if you don’t try. And there is nothing to lose even if you fail, so it’s worth a try. If lets say everything goes well, the company’s fighting power can be recovered.”

“…”

“—I will persuade Unterleutnant Waldheim myself. That is all. Do you copy?”

Theodor swallowed dryly. The veins in his head continued to throb. Every breath he took felt like lead. Thinking desperately, he squeezed the control sticks. ‘…How did this happen?! Making light of the Stasi, even trying to manipulate a political officer… Despite knowing all communications are recorded… Damn it!’ Deep down inside, Theodor understood the rationale behind Irisdina’s plan. It was a fact that there were only seven pilots left in the company. Furthermore, during the withdrawal action at Poland, under Irisdina’s command the only survivor who escaped the destruction of the Polish People’s Army, Sylvia, was incorporated into the 666th TSF squadron. She had insisted on taking in a foreign Eishi then as well.

But then…

‘This girl continued fighting against the BETA alone in a single machine. At the least she won’t be dead weight…’

Realizing that temptation was sinking in, Theodor shook his head to clear his mind.

“I have a question…” Theodor forced himself to ask. “What if I were to refuse…?”

Irisdina twisted her lips into an evil grin upon hearing those words.

“—Did you think that I would permit that?”

“Tsk…!”

“—In that case I would hand you over to the Stasi. It would be a simple matter to produce evidence that you were secretly contacting this Eishi.”

‘This lousy bitch…!’ Theodor directed a murderous glare at Irisdina.

“—Up to now, everything I have done has been for the survival of the company… For the company to be restored as soon as possible, this is the only way.”

“—Be at ease. I will guarantee your personal safety. I have no intention of speaking of this to anyone other than Walter.”

Theodor had no choice but to admit that there was no escaping this. He could only bite on his lip until he tasted blood. What if he were to inform Gretel of everything immediately upon return? That was also an option, but who knows what Walter would do then? Besides, if Irisdina were taken away, even if Theodor himself were to survive, it was very likely that the squadron would end up being annihilated shortly thereafter.

‘There’s no way out of this…!’

Feeling humiliation and regret over being deprived of power over his fate, Theodor loudly exhaled before replying.

“…I understand. I still have no intent to accept or trust you. However, I will cooperate with you on this matter…”

Irisdina merely nodded in silence. Theodor looked away from her cold blue eyes. He did not want to see her face right now.

“—Well then, let’s get going. If we delay too long, the others would start to worry.” As she started moving the machine’s legs, Irisdina casually added. “—As for the communications log, the unnecessary parts will be deleted, so you need not worry. Well, to keep the flow natural, synthesized speech will be left in the appropriate places.”

“HUH?! For all of the recorded conversations…?!”

“—In general, yes. We’ll use fake logs to overwrite the recorders the Stasi planted in the machines.” Theodor was speechless. Irisdina gave him an innocent smile.

“—To survive in this hell, such skills are needed, Comrade Unterleutnant.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Gretel reacted just as Irisdina predicted.

“You must be joking, Comrade Hauptmann!” Gretel’s yell echoed around the hangar on the Cottbus base as she confronted Irisdina upon her return. Expecting to move out again, the rest of the company had remained in their fortified suits. “Adding a Bundeswehr pilot into the squadron?! Have you lost your mind?! Even if our combat strength is in dire status… what will you do if she turns out to be a spy?!” Her face red with anger, Gretel stalked up to Irisdina. “She’s someone from West Germany! Who knows what she might be plotting?! Furthermore, do you really want her mingling with our troops?!” Irisdina gave Gretel a silent, measured look. Theodor could feel the silent pressure being directed at the commissar.

“Tsk…! Comrade Unterleutnant! What are your thoughts?” Gretel said, breaking away from the pressure of that stare and turning instead to Theodor. “There is no need to hold back because you are in front of your superior officer. Let me hear what you truly think.” Inwardly surprised at how well everything was developing according to her predictions, Theodor started to reply as if this were the first time he had heard of Irisdina’s reckless plan.

“There is certainly a high chance that she is a spy… And personally, I feel that it’s unacceptable to join forces with those Westerners. They would surely take that chance to be the first to escape from Europe while using the DDR as a shield.”

Gretel snorted upon hearing that.

“…However, from a practical point of view, I think that it would be all right to do so.”

“Tsk…!” Gretel loudly clicked her tongue in displeasure as she glared at Theodor. Theodor “apologetically” continued.

“When I rescued her, this pilot was determinedly fighting the BETA all alone by herself. Even to me, someone who’s been on the battlefield for over two years, I feel that she has no lack of fighting spirit.” As if there were any useful information to be stolen on this base… he swallowed those words. Gretel was making an unpleasant face. Her actual experience in combat was much less than Theodor’s after all. “Skill-wise, considering the training she’s had, she would definitely be better than a mere novice. In order to quickly restore the company’s combat strength, I think that she’s our best choice.”

“Damn you…” Having spat that out, Gretel asked again to confirm. “In other words, you agree with Comrade Hauptmann’s proposal?”

“Sadly, yes,” Theodor said, faking an uncomfortable expression. “When the time comes, she can be used and disposed of, is what I think.” Theodor came to attention, as if to show that those were his real thoughts.

“But, that is a person from the West…” Gretel started to pace briskly around the area as she thought it over, showing a distressed face. After several seconds, it seemed that Gretel finished collecting her thoughts, and she stood face to face with Irisdina again. “Comrade Hauptmann, do you know what they think of you in the Army? Did you think that we were unaware of the reason you are called a ‘hero’?”

Theodor quietly froze. This was the first time he had heard Gretel speak of Irisdina’s past.

“The only reason I am making this proposal is for sake of defending the Fatherland and the Party from the BETA to the end.”

“…Honestly?”

“You know why they call me a ‘hero’? It’s so that the Party has someone that they can hold responsible when the unit gets annihilated, Comrade Oberleutnant,” Irisdina calmly declared. However, the fury in her blue eyes was unmistakable. Gretel continued to glare at Irisdina with suspicion for another moment, and then gave in with a sigh.

“Our country is a democracy as the name suggests. We will not refuse a defector from the West. After confirming her intentions, she will be placed under temporary protective custody until the investigation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is complete and her defection is accepted. As for incorporating her into the company, if I present the case as a special circumstance under the present state of emergency due to the BETA assault…”

“In other words, there’s no problem?” Irisdina asked, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “Come to think of it… If the unit said to be the strongest in the German Democratic Republic were to be lost, it would be a moral blow to the whole Army. As a commissar, you cannot overlook that, right? So, we must first verify the person’s intentions. We cannot allow someone without the will to fight for us into the Army after all… Once that Eishi awakens, I’d better confirm it myself…” Theodor kept a straight face, forcing his body to be still.

‘Is she going to accept Irisdina’s suggestion…?!’

“Once I have examined the background of this Eishi, it’s my decision whether to accept this as an exception. If I find out that she is a spy, she will be executed at once. Even if she is accepted, as a person from the West, it will be necessary to give her a complete political indoctrination.”

“Ah, I will leave that to you then, Comrade Oberleutnant.”

Seeing a relieved smile appear on Irisdina’s face, Theodor was aware that even that was part of the act. “This sort of thing really isn’t my forte…” he muttered.

+++January 13
++1110 hours
++The German Democratic Republic
++Cottbus District

Theodor sighed. The lingering memories from 3 days ago were still stuck in his mind. He sank into his gloomy thoughts again as he stared at Irisdina.

‘This woman, is she really a dog of the Stasi? No, otherwise she wouldn’t have threatened me… Then, is preventing the destruction of the company the real reason she took in that kid? Damn it, what is the truth?’ The only certain thing was that he and Irisdina now shared a secret. If he disobeyed her… this time he would be finished for sure… The throbbing started again as he recalled what happened three years before. Theodor squeezed his eyes shut. ‘I already decided never to get involved with the Stasi again…’

At that moment, the loud roar of turboprop engines came from the skies to the west. Theodor checked the tactical map to confirm who that was. The 200th Bomber Wing, East German Air Force. The wing consisted of twelve Tu-95s, a strategic bomber made by the Soviet Union. They were using a low-altitude flight formation in order to avoid laser irradiation from the BETA occupied territories.

‘They must be on the way to execute an area denial bombing run…’ Theodor purposely diverted his train of thought. Otherwise his mind would just end up going around in circles. ‘Those daily penetrating raids into the BETA’s buffer zone. Even though the appearance of the Laser-class on the front is rare, it’s still a tough job.’

“—All hands, Achtung!”

Hearing Irisdina’s even voice through the comms, Theodor suppressed the urge to click his tongue.

“—I received a report from base. The Eishi that was rescued finally woke up after three days. Isn’t that great, Unterleutnant Eberbach?”

“…Yeah,” Theodor replied indifferently.

“—Once we return back to base, we will begin the cross-examination to debrief her. Comrades Oberleutnant Jeckeln and Unterleutnant Eberbach, gather at the briefing room. The Oberleutnant and I will speak with her first to get her story, after which we will introduce Unterleutnant Eberbach.”

Gretel glared at Theodor with disgust.

‘Don’t look at me. Damn bitch ordered me to recover her…’

“—Ah, one more thing, Unterleutnant Eberbach.”

“…What is it?” Theodor replied tensely. Every action by Irisdina placed him under even more stress.

“—That girl you saved seems to be a rather well brought up child,” Irisdina told Theodor with a smile of approval. “—She said that she wanted to thank the pilot who saved her life.”


++1415 hours
++German Democratic Republic
++Cottbus, Cottbus military base

“For now, I will report what I found out so far from the cross-examination,” Gretel said as she opened her notebook in front of the sick room being used as a temporary interrogation room. Theodor nodded silently. He had been forced to wait on standby outside the room for almost two hours until the cross-examination by Gretel and Irisdina was completed.

“Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim. Assigned to the United Nations 1st Atlantic Ocean command, German Federal Army 101st TSF Battalion, Third Platoon, Second Squadron… her unit was deployed at Reichenwalde base.” Gretel narrowed her eyes, squinting. “…15 years old. Born in Hamburg. She was still a student last year, but the death of both parents in a traffic accident prompted her application into the military. After going through accelerated training for half a year, she was assigned to her current unit… In short, she’s nothing but a novice…” Hearing a past that was similar to his own, Theodor felt that there was nothing particularly touching about it.

“However, as you suspected, she went through another half a year of training after her assignment to the unit. She arrived in East Germany at the end of last year, after which she participated in several mop-up missions. It seems that she pissed herself in her first battle.” Theodor nodded in understanding. It would be unusual for someone to go through their first battle without that “rite of passage” occurring.

“In the incident three days ago, she remembered having sortied, but not what happened after that. She does recall the fact that you rescued her though.”

“…”

“Although I cannot tell if that pilot’s words are true… The circumstances of her rescue seem to match your report.”

Theodor wanted to sigh. Being thought of as a “savior” strongly disgusted him.

“One last thing. Considering the burden on her psyche, we have omitted the fact that the main force of her company was completely destroyed. Take care not to let it leak out in your words. That is all for now.” With that, Gretel closed the notebook. “She responded quite readily to casual questions, though she did not divulge any internal information regarding the Bundeswehr.”

“Then the possibility of her being a spy is…?”

“We are continuing the investigation into her background.”

Theodor silently nodded in understanding. The DDR would get their own spies in the West to check on the background of possible spies. “But, well, how should I put this…?” Gretel added with amazed disbelief. “If that person really is a spy, then they must think that we are total idiots.”

“What…?”

“Follow me. I must say though, I’m allowing this only at the insistence of Comrade Hauptmann. Understand that under normal circumstances you would not be allowed to show your face.”

It’s not like I wanted to show my face either– Swallowing those words, Theodor passed through the door.

In the sickroom, a girl with a large ponytail sat in pajamas on the bed– Katia Waldheim. Irisdina was sitting on a chair beside her and talking to her with a voice recorder at her side.

Theodor ran his eyes over the girl’s body thoughtfully. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her condition, he decided.

“Ah, are you…!” As soon as she saw Theodor’s face, Katia leaped to her feet. Nervousness, excitement …and sincere respect, were mixed together in the expression on her child-like face. “Erm, are you, Unterleutnant Theodor Eberbach…?”

“…I am,” Theodor answered with a sinking feeling. He shot a quick glance at Irisdina.

“Ah, th- thank you very much!” Katia exclaimed as she rushed over to Theodor, grasping his right hand with both hands.

“…Geh!”

“I heard that Theodor-san was the one who saved me from the BETA! It’s thanks to Theodor-san that I’m alive now…!”

Theodor felt like someone had squeezed his heart. –The one who was allowed to gently hold his hand, no longer existed. –Only that person was allowed to do so!

“Don’t touch me!”

“Ah…!”

Theodor yanked his hand away from her. After a moment, Katia stepped back in shock, and the light in her eyes dulled. She bowed her head in apology.

“Ah, I’m… I’m sorry…”

“…”

“But, I was just so anxious to thank you…”

Theodor looked away as he tried not to click his tongue. He still felt the pain with every beat of his heart. Taking a deep breath, Theodor looked around for something to cover up his actions.

“Hey, do you plan to thank everybody who rescues you on the battlefield in this way?” Hearing him say those words, Katia’s face grew animated again. She replied in a passionate voice.

“Yes! It’s only natural that I should say thanks since my life was saved!”

Feeling a headache growing, Theodor pulled up a nearby chair. Gretel shot him a look, as if to say, “See what I mean?” Theodor could only nod in silent agreement. “I was just about to give her an explanation about our squadron,” Irisdina cut in, as if nothing had happened.

“Comrade Hauptmann! Information about our squadron would clearly be classified military intelligence!” Gretel immediately exploded. Irisdina replied in a conciliatory tone.

“I’m only going to speak of things that are covered on the TV and newspapers.”

“Tch…!”

“The 666th TSF Squadron, they should have heard of us in the West as well— Isn’t that right, Unterleutnant Waldheim?”

Katia nodded quietly as she sat back down on the bed.

“Yes, I’ve heard of you. Using the MiG-21, the strongest TSF squadron in the NVA, having killed more BETA than any other unit in the whole of Europe…”

Irisdina smiled. She glanced at Gretel and Theodor, cocking an eyebrow at them.

‘…Huh?! You’re going to raise the question…?’

“By the way, Wal—”

“Erm, excuse me! I’d like to ask a favor of everyone!” Katia suddenly raised her voice, cutting Irisdina off in mid-speech. Although Irisdina was momentarily speechless, she gave a gentle reply.

“Please feel free to ask. The Unterleutnant is our guest. As long as you are on this base, we will do our best to make you comfortable.”

“Erm, I know this request may sound extremely unreasonable, but…” Katia took a deep breath. “P- please let me join your squadron...!”

“…!!” Theodor couldn’t believe his ears. His mind refused to understand. What Katia just said was totally beyond his imagination. The other two were the same as well. Gretel stood with mouth agape, and Irisdina had an expression of disbelief.

Not noticing the three’s expressions, Katia continued to pour out her heart.

“I’ll do maintenance or anything you want! If you give me a TSF I’ll fight the BETA! So please, I’m begging you…!”

“Comrade Hauptmann! Just what did you say to this kid when I wasn’t around?!” Gretel shouted furiously. “Are you mocking me, the commissar?! What’s this kid trying to say…?!”

“…This girl is speaking on her own. You can check the tape recorder later to confirm it if you want.” Irisdina shook her head. Judging by her perplexed expression, it didn’t seem to be an act.

‘What’s going on…?’ Theodor thought as his head spun. ‘What’s this person saying? We haven’t even asked the question yet, have we?’

“...Could you let us hear why?” Irisdina asked her, giving Katia an intent look. “What you just said has a significant meaning. Why would you abandon the country you were protecting and the comrades you fought with, in order to join us? You mustn’t say that without thinking it through.”

Katia was silent for a moment, and then she replied, wearing a warm and gentle smile.

“I’ve wanted to know more about the other Germany for a long time, what kind of place it is, what kind of people live there… I always wanted to visit it someday. To make friends in East Germany if I could…”

“…”

“A- actually, to be honest I was bullied as well when I was in West Germany… Ahahaha…”

Theodor’s face grew strained as incomprehensibly uncomfortable feelings welled up in him.

‘This damned country, what could be attractive about it…?’

“…Comrade Oberleutnant. What do you think?”

“Do you truly trust this person, who would defect for such a thoughtless reason?!”

“Whatever her motive is, it’s a fact that we’re short of manpower. Thus, this is an offer we can’t refuse. So far I have thought it necessary to turn a blind eye to the minor details in order to accomplished our main purposes. Or could it be that you’re not confident in your ability to provide political guidance, Comrade Oberleutnant?”

“Tch…!” Wearing a thoughtful expression, Gretel remained silent for a few seconds—it seemed like she was trying to convince herself. “…I understand, Comrade Hauptmann. Humph, as expected of a selfish capitalist. Very well, let’s take advantage of her offer.” Gretel turned to Katia to confirm her resolution. “Let us confirm this then. Unterleutnant Waldheim, do you wish to defect to the German Democratic Republic? Do you swear allegiance to our Fatherland, the Party and the Army?”

“…!”

“The moment I accept your defection, you will become a DDR citizen temporarily under my custody and responsibility, and you will be under the command of this squadron. However, your rights as a citizen of West Germany will be immediately revoked. Furthermore, as an officer, it would not be unreasonable for you to be shot dead should you be caught trying to escape. If you are found to be a spy by others around you, you can also be executed. Naturally, we still have our doubts about you. You will need to show constant effort in order to gain our trust. Do you agree to that?”

Katia stiffened up, feeling the pressure from the word “defection”. Although she hesitated for a moment, Katia replied in a loud and clear voice, as if to challenge something.

“Yes, that’s correct. I, Katia Waldheim, request to defect.”

Hearing that, Theodor felt as if he had lost touch with reality. Despite the unexpected development, the end result was as Irisdina desired, with the addition of this pilot into their ranks. And so quickly as well…

‘Even if it wasn’t a sure thing, for Irisdina’s guess to be so accurate…’ Theodor turned his gaze to Katia. She must have hardened her resolve fully to make that decision, he thought. Grasping hold of the sheets tightly, she stared at the floor, awaiting the response.

“Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim, as of now you are a reserve personnel of the 666th Tactical Surface Fighter Squadron, Schwarzesmarken. Welcome aboard.” Irisdina held out her right hand. Realizing the meaning, Katia grasp it tightly with a smile across her face.

“Yes! Thank you very much!”

“In our squadron, we’re always short of pilots. Therefore I would like to assign you as a pilot. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes! I will do my best to work hard!”

“An excellent reply.” Irisdina gave a maternal smile, though Theodor thought that it was another act.

“Comrade Oberleutnant, although this may be sudden, could you complete all the necessary official procedures by tomorrow? Under the present state of alert, it wouldn’t be surprising if we were ordered to sortie at anytime.”

“I’ll make the arrangements. Under my authority, her defection and temporary incorporation into the squadron can be accepted immediately at least.” Gretel wearily lowered her shoulders as she resigned herself. “Usually the official acceptance of defection and admission into the squadron would take about one month to be processed, but I’ll negotiate with the Department of Personnel Management at political headquarters to have it completed within a week. I have a classmate there.”

“Many thanks.”

“Humph; fighting the BETA isn’t the only duty a commissar has.”

“E-Excuse me! There was one more thing I wanted to ask…” Katia tried to ask Gretel.

“What, Comrade Unterleutnant?” Gretel suddenly grabbed Katia’s collar with her right hand.

“Ha, hauu…!”

“You have some nerve to speak to me without permission. Are you aware that I can send you to a forced labor camp at my discretion?”

“Ehh…? But—”

“Comrade Oberleutnant! Stop it, you’re being childish!” Irisdina sharply ordered Gretel to back down. “She will soon become a comrade-in-arms whom you will have to entrust your life to. Treat her a little more gently. It will take the Unterleutnant some time to become familiar with the hierarchy of our army.”

“…You’re too lenient, Comrade Hauptmann. It’s sickening sometimes.” Giving Irisdina a stern glare, Gretel let go of Katia’s collar. “So, what is it you wish to ask of me, Comrade Unterleutnant?” After coughing a little, Katia timidly asked her question.

“E-erm… About the fact that I have become a pilot in the East, will the West be notified…?”

“…As a general rule, we have no obligation to inform them. Therefore it is quite likely that you will be recorded as MIA (Missing in Action) by the Bundeswehr.”

“…”

“Isn’t that good? This way, you won’t be considered a traitor by the pilots in the West.”

“I, I understand.”

“Also, you will address me as ‘Comrade Oberleutnant’ from now on. We’re going to be working together as comrades, supposedly. I will conduct your political indoctrination together with the transfer procedures.” With that, Gretel spun on her heel and marched out, her footsteps echoing sharply as she left the sickroom.

“Erm, did I say something to annoy that person…?” Katia asked Irisdina tearfully. Irisdina gave a sigh before replying.

“That’s the commissar of the squadron. She’s responsible for the political guidance and personnel assignments of the squadron’s pilots.”

“Commissar…”

“In the Bundeswehr, you have a military chaplain who preaches the Christian faith right? I believe that they perform a similar role.” Getting a mental image of the idea somehow, Katia nodded in understanding. “Therefore, it cannot be helped that she’s more sensitive compared to others in her speech and conduct towards the pilots. Should political problems occur in the squadron, she’ll be the one held responsible. The reason she treated you so severely is because you’re from the West, and she doesn’t know to what extent you can be trusted yet. Please understand.”

“Okay…”

“Well then, Unterleutnant Waldheim,” Irisdina spoke with a cheerful tone in order to change the mood. “Let’s talk about the future now. Firstly, how do you feel? Are you in good health?”

“Yes! Thanks to you, I’m as healthy as a fish in water!” Katia nodded happily. Theodor could only feel his mood darken when faced with that pure and sincere smile.

“In that case, though this is sudden, I would like you to get familiarized with the base, complete the adjustments of your new fortified suit, and practice on the simulator.”

“Erm, my fortified suit…”

“I’m sorry but that has been confiscated. Since you wished to join us, the Bundeswehr fortified suit that you wore is now the property of the NVA.”

“…”

“That being said, half the reason is for the sake of formality. The truth is, the fortified suit that you were using is incompatible with the systems in our army. Understood?”

“Yes, I understand now!”

“I’ve already left word with the maintenance chief, so you can collect the new suit at the hangar.”

“Understood! Erm, then, about my F-4…”

“Ah, you mean your personal belongings that were in the control unit? No need to worry, I’m holding on to it for now. I checked the contents just to be sure, but there wasn’t anything suspicious in it. I’ll return it once things have settled down.”

“Ah, thank you very much!”

“Then, for the familiarization of the base, adjustment of the fortified suit, and your duties in the squadron, you’ll be under the guidance of Unterleutnant Theodor Eberbach.”

“Yes, I understand!”

“W-what did you say?!” Theodor shouted upon hearing that, his eyes wide with surprise. “I was never told about this! Why should I have to take care of her?!” “Is that so? The other day, didn’t you say that you’ll cooperate with me on this?”

“Tch…!”

“Unterleutnant Theodor Eberbach is an outstanding pilot with three years of experience in the Army. I have a high opinion of him.”

Theodor’s mouth was agape, the mixture of embarrassment and resentment causing blood to rush to his head.

“However, as you saw just now, he has a somewhat shy personality. You can tell from the fact that he rescued you before that he’s not a bad person. Since he’s the youngest in the squadron, you should find him easier to talk to.”

“Is that so?” Katia gave Theodor a look of respect, and bowed her head slightly. “I’m sorry that I was impolite just now! Please take care of me from now on, Theodor-san!”

“…Un- understood…” Theodor barely managed to eke out an answer, his blood vessels at the bursting point from fury. Irisdina nodded with a pleased expression.

“Well then, I’ll leave the rest to you, Unterleutnant Eberbach. I have to attend a strategy meeting at headquarters with Walter now, and I won’t be back until late at night. I trust that you will not disappoint me, right?”

“Tch. I understand…”

“A good response.” With that, Irisdina lightly patted Theodor on the shoulder and left the room.

‘I have to look after this kid…?’ Theodor clenched both fists tightly, glaring with hatred at Irisdina’s back. ‘Why, why do I have to do this…?!’ Behind him, Katia stared at Theodor’s back, a mixture of expectation and unease showing on her face.


++1500 hours
++The German Democratic Republic
++District of Cottbus, Cottbus military base


Cottbus base was once an old fighter plane airbase used by the Soviets before it was taken over by the NVA. It was no bigger and had no better facilities compared to other bases on the front. Although it was small and surrounded by forest, one of its few defining features would be the 2,000 meter long runway it had.

Theodor was showing Katia around the base as per Irisdina’s orders. Officially, the squadron was a rapid response reserve unit under the direct command of the Eastern Front General Headquarters, with no permanent base. However, this time they had been stationed at Cottbus base for nearly a month now.

“…”

“…”

There was an awkward silence between the two. At the beginning of the familiarization, Katia would say, “The base’s mess hall is so big~!” and, “Oh, there are cats at the base too! Which do you like Theodor-san, cats or dogs?” in one-sided conversations. But as Theodor ignored her completely, she slowly grew silent as well, and for the past thirty minutes, they only spoke when necessary.

‘This person, does she even think before she speaks…?’

“Ouch! I-I’m sorry!” came a small cry from behind him. Katia, who was following along behind, seemed to have bumped into someone. Theodor stopped walking with a click of his tongue. He wasn’t particularly worried about what happened, just that if she were to become a lost child, would things become troublesome. With uncertain steps, Katia avoided the crowd, and rushed towards Theodor’s back.

“Erm, Theodor-san…” Katia said in a respectful voice. Theodor ignored it, continuing to walk. “Theodor-san, you seem to be very upset…”

“…”

“I’ve always been told by others, ‘you can’t read the atmosphere,’ so I don’t get it, as usual…”

“…”

“I, did I do something to make you angry…?”

Theodor let out a sigh.

“It’s nothing, I’m not angry.”

“That’s a lie! Theodor-san is angry! If I’ve done something wrong, I’ll apologize! But if you act like that without telling me why, I won’t know what to do…!” ‘Damn it, this kid…!’ Swallowing his resentment, Theodor looked at Katia.

“First of all, don’t address me so familiarly. Call me Eberbach. No need for rank.”

“…B-but, since we are of the same rank, so that we can become friends, isn’t this way better…?”

“Is our relationship close enough that you can call me by name?”

“…Auu~…”

“And secondly, don’t treat me like a savior. I was only following orders. On the battlefield, helping someone is just an everyday thing…” Theodor faltered at the end.

“That isn’t so!” Katia turned away with a lonely look in her eyes. “…After all, Theodor-san, you’re the first one who risked his life in order to rescue me…”

“…Eberbach.”

“Ah…! S-sorry!”

“…Third, don’t bother trying to get close to me.”

“Ehh-? Why…?”

“Because I don’t like it.”

“…”

“You can go play the friendship game with the other pilots. Just leave me out of it.”

“Th- that won’t do!”

“Tch…!”

“Th- Eberbach-san, you not only saved my life, but you also have to take care of me now. You’re someone that’s important to me! I want to know more about Eberbach-san! If we’re going to fight together, it’s better if we know each other!”

Theodor pressed his lips into a thin line. It was obvious that his blood was boiling all over.

‘Saying such things, doesn’t she realize how much it’s tormenting me…?!’

However, the next words out of Katia’s mouth, made Theodor turn pale…

“I’m a pilot from the West, and Eberbach-san is a pilot as well from the East, so if we get to know each other better, we can surely get along well! There’s no such thing as East or West when fighting the BETA!”

Theodor stopped breathing—more than that, all the blood drained from his face in an instant.

‘What, the hell is she saying…?!’

The next thing he knew, the surrounding air seemed to freeze instantly. The nearby soldiers all froze in their tracks, staring at them coldly. Fear, bewilderment, displeasure… and suspicion, could be seen in their eyes. If there was a Stasi informer amongst them, they would definitely report this. After all, the suspects had just declared themselves to be enemies of the Party and the Fatherland—in other words, prey.

Theodor’s body started to throb with imaginary pain, as if the skin on his body was being frayed off—memories of the interrogation and torture he received three years ago. That time, thanks to someone selling him out, he saw hell.

In the meantime, Katia, who was wearing an expression of innocent confusion, had only just started to sense the hostility around them.

“Ehh…? What’s going on…?”

“Oi, you—!”a harsh voice called—from one of the duty officers who worked at the base headquarters. Theodor sucked in a breath and straightaway grabbed hold of Katia’s arm.

“I’m sorry, there’s something a little wrong with her head!”

“W-what’s wrong with my head—?!”

“I’m providing her with proper guidance, so there’s no problem!”

“You bastard, what are you saying…?!”

“And so with that, please excuse me!”

“Eh…?!”

Theodor grabbed Katia’s arm and ran away at full speed. In his panic, he couldn’t think of anything else but to escape. The next place they headed to was the hangar—where they would receive the fortified suit.

At the hangar entrance, Theodor gasped for air. His heart was beating so hard that he couldn’t even speak.

“Wh…what was that… just now…?” Katia painfully asked in between breaths, sinking to the floor. “Did…did I say… something strange…?”

Beyond the anger, Theodor could only feel shock. What had just happened was enough to turn the attention of the Stasi towards them. Rumors would spread instantly as well, and Gretel would be sure to hear of it. Theodor felt as if he were rapidly driven into a corner.

“Erm, Eberbach-san…?” Katia anxiously asked Theodor, who had fallen silent even after he had caught his breath. He took several more deep breaths to calm himself as the urge to slap her face grew.

“There’s one more thing that you should know…” he told her as his stomach roiled with anger. “Never, ever say such things again…”

“N-no matter what?”

“...Never.”

“…Is that such a bad thing for me to make friends with Eberbach-san, and for the people in the East and West to get along in order to fight the BETA?!” “Tch…! What did I say about saying such things…?!”

“I don’t get it! Please tell me why!”

“…That’s enough.” Theodor let out a deep sigh. He had not given up on persuading Katia. It was just that this wasn’t a good place to continue that dangerous conversation. There might be hidden listening devices in the hangar, and among the mechanics there would definitely be someone who reports to the Stasi. “Anyway, let’s talk about this later. You have to get familiarized with the MiG-21 by the end of today, understood?” Katia reluctantly nodded her head. “Then follow me. And be silent, okay?” Theodor ordered and started looking around the hangar for the maintenance chief.

◊ ◊ ◊

Inside the hangar’s fortified suit storage locker room, Katia put on the East German fortified suit she’d just received and stood in front of the mirror, looking herself over as she turned this way and that. “It certainly is the same type as the West… The only difference is in the color…” Katia spun delightedly in front of the mirror. “The size is also a perfect fit for me!” Theodor watched her coldly; she seemed happy for some reason.

‘It was taken and altered from the spares of dead pilots you know…’ Theodor thought. As proof of that, countless repair marks could be seen on the suit that had been given to Katia. No matter how one look at it, it was definitely not something that was newly ordered.

“Then, try out another one. It would be awkward if you don’t have a spare when this one starts to stink because you peed yourself.”

“W-when I peed myself…?!”

“Yup, I heard about your first battle…”

Katia tearfully went back into the locker room, her face glowing bright red. Theodor let out a small sigh.

“That’s a rather peculiar girl you got there, son,” a loud, brassy voice rang out from nearby. “I heard about it indirectly from the company commander, but I never would have thought she would come.”

Turning his head, Theodor saw a man past his middle-age standing there in oil-stained coveralls. Even though he was over sixty years of age, his still had an aura of vitality bursting from his body. Oberleutnant Otto Strauss, the maintenance chief of the 666th TSF squadron. One of the squadron’s veterans, he was the man who lead the maintenance team, a huge family with more than two hundred members. It seemed that he had been an associate of Irisdina’s from back when the squadron took part in the rear guard action at Poland. His trademark was a black eyepatch worn over his right eye, which he’d lost during a maintenance accident.

“I feel the same way, Chief,” Theodor nodded without reserve. Otto was one of the few people in the squadron in whom he felt he could place his trust. He had no interest in political matters. As someone who had gone through the final years of World War II as a mechanic, he was known as the veteran among veterans. Back when TSFs were first being introduced, the NVA had sent him to the Soviets to be trained in TSF matters, and there wasn’t anyone who could come close to his level of skill in this field. Thus, it wasn’t strange to hear him address Walter as “son” as well.

“Well, it’s a pilot the commander picked up. In that case, she should have some skill in handling the machines… To the maintenance crew, you are one and all Germans.” Otto was referring to the foreign mechanics in the team, most of whom were soldiers Irisdina had “picked up” in Poland. “In order to prevent the annihilation of the squadron, even if they are foreign soldiers, I will still use them,” was the rationale Irisdina had given as the commander, Theodor heard.

“Oi, son, I guess you were asked to take care of the little lady,” Otto stated as if he had read Theodor’s mind. “One shouldn’t overdo it too much.” He gave Theodor a sharp look with his remaining left eye. “When the TSF gets damaged, we will definitely repair it in time for the next sortie, no matter how many overnighters we have to pull. However, we can’t do anything if a pilot pushes themselves over the limit.”

“What do you mean by that…?” Theodor wondered if it was about Inghild—now that he thought of that, he didn’t really want to talk about it. However, what Otto said was outside his expectations.

“Although that girl is being outwardly calm, she is actually forcing herself. Even if she seems blithely cheerful, that little lady is pushing it. After all, this would be a foreign place to her.” Even though he couldn’t stop the animosity he felt, Theodor respected the opinion of the remarkable maintenance chief, so he swallowed his feelings.

‘This is actually by her own volition…’

“Well, take care then. Man and machine, something will definitely go wrong if they are pushed too hard. When that happens, the one who suffers may not only be themselves.” With that final sentence, Otto went back to the TSF’s gantry block. Taking his place was Katia, who had just exited the locker room in her fortified suit, looking as happy as always.

“I put on the second one!”

“…”

“Even though the size is slightly different from the other one just now, this one fits perfectly as well, see?!”

“Did you check to make sure that the urination pack is functioning properly?”

“A-about that… Hey! Why are you bringing up that topic?!”

“Because you’re a kid who wets herself.”

“Eberbach-san is surprisingly cruel…” Looking as though about to cry, Katia tearfully pulled herself together and started to check the fortified suit. Confirmation of the list of items for inspection was done using the retinal projection system.

‘I’m the one who is being unreasonably overworked.’ Thinking of what the future held, Theodor’s mood turned dark.

“Eberbach-san! Inspection of the second fortified suit is complete! There isn’t any problem!” Katia reported with a smile. It was as if she had totally forgotten that they had a serious argument just before. “Will I be training on the simulator next?”

“…Yeah. But first, you need to learn about the MiG-21.”

“Understood! I always wanted to check out the MiG-21! I love the way it looks so strong and stylish!”

Forcing down his uneasy feelings, Theodor led the way for Katia, who had an expression of intense anticipation on her face.

‘Anyway, she will keep silent if Irisdina gives the order… For now, the one with a firm grip around my throat is this girl…’


++1900 hours
++The German Democratic Republic
++Cottbus district, Cottbus military base


The passageway leading from the simulator room to the hangar was vacant.

“So tired desu~… I’m starving…” Katia tottered weakly after Theodor, having just completed the basic training for the operation of the MiG-21. “I didn’t think that the flight characteristics of the MiG-21 Balalaika would be so different from the F-4 Phantom…” Katia muttered to herself as she let out a heavy sigh. “And even though the mobility is increased, the defense parameter was lowered… I’m not sure if that’s a good thing…”

Ignoring Katia’s prattle, Theodor walked on, feeling disgusted.

‘This person is only “borderline” okay…’ To Theodor, although Katia’s piloting skill was adequate for an Eishi with only half a year of training and some combat experience, she was still terribly inexperienced compared to the Eishis of the 666th TSF squadron. Although she could manage basic movement, her skill in performing precision shooting while using the jump units in three-dimensional combat maneuvers was below average. As for melee combat, she didn’t even have any decent CQC training other than knowing how to eliminate the Tank-class with a knife. ‘However, this person was able to control the MiG-21 in only three hours…’ Usually, it would take at least one day of training to convert from the F-4 to the MiG-21. As Katia herself had said, there was a considerable difference in the handling characteristics of the machines, and it took time to get used to them. Of course, with that difference, even if Katia’s skill wasn’t praiseworthy—to have grasped the correct method to pilot it properly could only have been by intuition, Theodor thought. ‘She may get remarkably skilled if trained properly…’ Although piloting skills could somehow be handled through hard work and guts, there was no way to replace intuition. Even with the Feedback System in TSFs to aid Eishis with the piloting, it was of limited help, and in the end one can only count on one’s intuition. ‘Once she grows up, will we end up sacrificing her…?’

“Uh, hey, Eberbach-san…” Katia asked Theodor with an anxious look.

“…What?”

“Erm, about my prospects as a pilot, do I have any hope…?”

“…Hahhh…”

“That sigh, is it because you think that I don’t have any promise as a pilot…?”

Theodor made a thoughtful face despite being somewhat disgusted.

“…Not much.”

“Hahhh… A-as I thought…” Genuinely shocked, Katia hung her head in despondence. “Everyone in the West told me the same thing as well…”

‘It’s not a good idea to give her too much confidence now…’ Theodor rationalized, taking a little bit of revenge on Katia to ease his mood.

Theodor had planned to return the fortified suit to the maintenance crew followed by dinner together at the mess to end the day’s schedule. They were expected to participate in the salvage mission the next day. In order to prepare for that, he had wanted them to retire early that night…

At least that was the plan—until, in the hangar, he crossed paths with a certain Eishi.

“Scheiße…” Theodor swore the moment he made eye contact with that Eishi, even as he refrained from clicking his tongue.

“What’s the matter…?”

“It has nothing to do with you. Be quiet…”

As he and Katia exchanged whispers, that Eishi—Annette, walked over until she stood in front of Theodor, blocking his path. There was nothing but hatred showing in the pupils of her black-ringed eyes.

“…What do you want?”

Looking away, Annette answered Theodor with a hate-filled voice.

“Nothing in particular. I only came to take care of Inghild’s personal belongings…” She had been sorting out the items left in the locker in the Eishi’s waiting room—Inghild’s meager possessions had been packed into a cloth bag. “It will be sent back home to her family together with a letter.”

“…I see. It must have been hard on you.”

Annette suddenly grabbed hold of Theodor’s collar.

“You… How would you understand?! You abandoned Inghild!”

“…”

“We were supposed to be comrades! We were supposed to be classmates! Why… why didn’t you save her?!” Annette squeezed Theodor’s collar with all her might— “That girl always told me that even though you look stubborn at first sight, you are actually a kind person!”

“…”

“She would always be concerned about those who are worse off! But she felt that she couldn’t do anything for them; she was so sad because of that…! You left such a gentle girl to die!”

“…How would I know…?” The words came out before Theodor could consider them. “Don’t look away from your own responsibility. If you were a little stronger, she wouldn’t have had to die!”

“I KNOW…! I KNOW THAT!” Annette wailed, clutching her chest with her right hand. “That’s why I’m doing this, with my own hands…! This is… the only thing I can do…” After saying that, Annette’s eyes went round. She finally noticed the girl wearing a fortified suit beside Theodor. Overwhelmed by the strange tension between the two, Katia had been staring at Annette frightfully as she hid behind Theodor.

“This girl… a replacement?”

Theodor nodded in resignation.

“She’s originally from the West.”

“Don’t tell me, she’s the one you saved…”

“That’s correct.”

“…”

A different anger flared up in the pupils of Annette’s eyes.

“…So you plan to use this girl as your shield before you sacrifice her as well?”

“What… Who will?!” That intention—it wasn’t as if Theodor hadn’t considered it. In fact, he had said the very same thing to Gretel before, and even though he now recognized Katia’s latent talent, that was still a viable option.

Perceiving Theodor’s true thoughts from his facial expression, Annette’s face grew even more furious.

“You, how many of our comrades do you wish to sacrifice for your own sake?! In that case, I will never forgive you…!”

“…Do as you like.”

After several silent seconds, Annette approached Katia, ignoring Theodor.

“…I’m sorry for shouting so suddenly.”

Though she was still afraid, Katia replied.

“Um, are you, also in the 666th TSF squadron…?” she asked in a frightened voice.

“That’s right. I’m Unterleutnant Annette Hosenfeld. I’ve been on a little break these days…” Annette gave a bitter smile. “I’ll be back before long, and then…” Extending a trembling hand, Annette gently patted the chestnut-brown hair on Katia’s head. “This time, I will protect you.”

“Eh, yes…”

Theodor wanted to spit. He could guess why Annette would say such a thing—that by protecting Katia, she was trying to atone for what happened to Inghild. In that way, she could start to heal the wound that was in her heart…

‘Even you are making use of someone, aren’t you…?’

Just when he was able to open his mouth to retort back, Theodor noticed three figures approaching them, and held back with a click of this tongue.

Pham, Sylvia and Gretel—the three who approached were Eishis of the 666th TSF squadron as well. Pham and Sylvia were still in their fortified suits, while Gretel wore the standard BDU (Battle Dress Uniform)—however, although Gretel had an impassive look on her face, she seemed to be anything but calm inside.

‘I knew this would happen…’

Theodor bitterly faced reality. There was no way that Gretel wouldn’t have heard about what happened during the day.

Annette tensed up as well. Sylvia was a target for hatred too, being the one who said Inghild had died “a useless death.”

The first one to open her mouth was Pham.

“Theodor-kun, this is the girl?”

Sylvia frowned, and Gretel’s expression grew more severe. Pham, pretending not to notice, continued to speak in her usual bantering manner.

“Yes she is. And could you please stop calling addressing me like that?”

“Onee-san will be lonely if you say that, you know? I think of you as my cute otouto after all.”

“I think not.”

“Annette-chan too, if both of you can call me ‘Pham-nee’, Onee-san will be so happy…”

“I will never call you that,” Theodor declared tiredly. Acting like an “onee-san” was Pham’s usual behavior. It came from being the eldest sister to six younger brothers in her family. Nearly all of the Vietnamese immigrants into the DDR were made up of large extensive families. “Anyway, why are you still wearing the fortified suits?”

“The maintenance crew leaders called all of us in to help with the tuning of the machines.”

“…”

“The commander told me some of the situation. Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim… may I call you Katia-chan?”

“Y-yes…!” Katia answered, shrinking in on herself. Perhaps she had gotten confused since the number of new people she’d met that day increased.

“I am Oberleutnant Pham Thi Lan, the 2IC (second in command) of the 666th TSF squadron. Even though my skin color is like this, I was born in East Germany, being a second generation Vietnamese. Good to meet you, Katia-chan.”

“Y-yes! Good to meet you as well!”

“…”

“It seems like the introductions are finished,” Gretel said in a calm voice, looking at everyone. Her expression didn’t match her tone though. “Very good. Then, on to the main point… HOW DARE YOU DISGRACE ME?!”

“Gah…!” Gretel grabbed hold of the neck protector of Katia’s fortified suit, yanking her close.

“What you did was tantamount to inciting sedition! Do you want to be recognized as an enemy of the state?! Did you forget that I am the guarantor for your conduct?!”

“I… I…” Turning pale, Katia stared at Gretel in shock.

“The East and West can fight together against the BETA, you say? Why should we, who are fighting to preserve mankind and the noble ideals of socialism, have to work together with those capitalists in the West, who are only interested in the war economy?!” Nobody dared to interrupt Gretel’s rage. Even Annette and Pham, who had been kind to Katia, kept silent. The anger of a commissar, who holds the authority over personnel issues, was something that most Eishis would fear. “Unterleutnant Eberbach, you bastard! You swore your allegiance to the Party and the Fatherland; why didn’t you resolve this on the spot?!”

“I’m sorry, I have no excuse!” Theodor gritted his teeth and bowed. Since Irisdina wasn’t around now, the only way to get through this was to wait for Gretel’s fury to settle down.

“You, would you like to repeat the experience from three years ago? Do you think that the Army would be more lenient than the Stasi? Don’t think that you can count on your social standing in the Army to protect you!”

“Eberbach-san didn’t do anything wrong!” Katia’s clear voice echoed around the hangar. “And I didn’t say anything wrong either…”

Theodor felt like the floor had dropped out from beneath him. He had never seen or heard of an ordinary Eishi that would oppose the opinion of a political commissar face to face before.

“Hoh… do continue, Unterleutnant Waldheim,” Gretel ordered as the veins in her temple throbbed. Her mouth had twisted into a strange shape.

“The BETA doesn’t care about the East or the West…” Katia replied firmly, even though she was frightened by Gretel’s expression. “Therefore, it would be better if the two Germanies fight together, wouldn’t it…?! That is why, if we don’t trust each other, for us to get along…”

‘Stop it! Do you want to die…?!’

“Trust?” Gretel repeated, unable to believe what Katia just said. “Those people who think it’s a good thing when our forces are reduced? They are the pawns of the Americans, who dropped an atom bomb on us in the World War! At the end of the Operation Palaiologos, are you aware how many sacrifices we who were left behind made in order to rescue the refugees, while they together with the other NATO countries scurried back home?! Do you know that this time they plan to use us as a shield while they make their escape from Europe?! And you want us to trust them?!” What Gretel said was the usual propaganda that the DDR government used. “We are the ones fighting the BETA, not they! We are the ones spilling our blood to protect Europe and mankind from the BETA’s invasion! After all that, you still wish for us to unite under the command of the West?”

“I never said that! But if we continue to hate each other, nothing can be accomplished…! That way, everyone will die!”

“Tch…! Just who do you think I am…?!”

“Is it wrong to believe in something that I feel is true?! That’s not right!”

The next instant, a sharp crack echoed around the hangar—Sylvia had given Katia a hard slap on the left cheek.

“Eh…ah…” Katia placed her hand to her cheek in a daze, confused about what just happened to her. “A-ah, what… that hurt!” This time, Katia received a backhand slap to the right cheek, knocking her to the floor. It happened so fast that no one could react.

“I can kill you right here, if you want to die,” Sylvia quietly said as she looked coldly down at Katia. “Or, I could make it look like an accident on the battlefield? An inexperienced pilot becoming BETA bait… it’s simple enough, no?”

“…!”

“Or else I could keep tormenting you, until you are driven to suicide?”

Katia’s face instantly went white.

“You, how can you say such things!?” Annette cried out—but Sylvia just ignored her.

“In this country, people who think like you are punished as a matter of fact. And those who have any connection to them are punished as well. It is only natural to erase a pilot who would jeopardize the lives of others, right?”

“That’s not…”

“But, I won’t do that,” Sylvia gently whispered even as she wore an expression full of killing intent. “A certain number of TSFs are needed in order for our squadron to be able complete the Laserjagd operations successfully. The only reason you were allowed to join the squadron is to meet that number—isn’t that right, Oberleutnant?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Gretel reluctantly nodded. Normally, she would have reprimanded Sylvia for interrupting her without permission—but it seemed that she wasn’t going to bring it up. “It is for that purpose that Comrade Hauptmann insisted on incorporating this pilot. I have also agreed to this… Otherwise, I would have arrested her immediately.” Theodor exhaled in relief. At the very least, Gretel didn’t intend to remove Katia right then. “Therefore, I will continue to treat you as an ally… until the next batch of reinforcements arrives.”

Katia stared at Sylvia, trembling all over.

“I hate idealistic kids like you. Once the squadron is up to spec, in the next sortie, I’ll be sure to kill you.”

“…”

“So, you had better fight desperately for your life from now on if you don’t want to die.” Turning away from Katia’s pallid face, Sylvia met Theodor’s eyes. She seemed to be telling him something silently. Getting the message, Theodor turned towards Gretel and bowed his head.

“My humblest apologies, Comrade Oberleutnant! I will see to it that the Unterleutnant is more careful, and will instill into her the loyalty and respect due to the Fatherland and the Party! Therefore, please pardon us…!”

“…Fine. Be more careful from now on,” Gretel replied awkwardly, and left. Sylvia turned her back to leave as well. Pham followed after her, looking back a few times as she walked away.

“What was that, just now…?” Katia asked in stunned chagrin, watching the three leave.

‘No, we were saved by Sylvia just now…’ From the look Sylvia gave at the end, Theodor could tell what her true intentions were. It obviously wasn’t for Katia’s sake. Sylvia’s only thoughts were to increase the number of pawns for the battlefield. ‘However, if Gretel hadn’t lost interest in continuing the argument, who knows what would have happened…?’

Theodor scowled at Katia, who was sitting on the ground with her mouth shut.

“Now do you understand?” Throwing off the shock, He carefully chose his words. “If you don’t want to die, just focus on fighting the BETA. That way you won’t have to worry about getting shot in the back…”

“Theodor, you, that’s enough—!”

“…Yeah…”

Katia staggered to her feet. With her head hung low, her expression couldn’t be seen.

“Eberbach-san,” Katia asked with swollen tear-stained eyes. “Am I not trusted by anyone…?” After a moment of silence, Theodor replied frankly. “Of course. What else did you expect?”

++1930 hours
++The German Democratic Republic
++South of Cottbus
++The Town of Spremberg

The NPA had deployed two armies on the west bank of the Neisse, collectively known as the Neisse Army Group. Both armies had been deployed into fortified locations. The 666th TSF squadron attached to the special Task Force “Hannibal” was considered to be under the direct control of the Neisse Army Group headquarters. Currently, that TSF battalion under the Army Group had completed the reorganization and integration with the arriving forces, increasing the number of battalions from two to four.

There was a certain reason for the strategic meeting conducted by the Army Group headquarters at the Spremberg Hotel which all the TSF battalion and squadron commanders had gathered for.

“The BETA are beginning a new offensive, you said…?”

Trembling voices echoed around the elegantly decorated conference room.

‘Another one…?!’ Hannibal battalion HQ staff officer Oberleutnant Marai Heisenberg thought amidst the surrounding clamor. To her left and right sat Major Hannibal Hölzer, the CO of Hannibal battalion, and the three squadron commanders and their aides. Irisdina was among them as one of the commanders. Suppressing her inner feelings, Marai observed Irisdina.

Irisdina continued to gaze coolly at the person on stage, unshaken by the news.

“We believe this to be more or less certain.” The Neisse Army Group HQ staff officer behind the stage projector nodded grimly in confirmation. “This time, we received warning alerts from both the UN and Soviet forces satellite intelligence routes.” Marai’s mood grew bitter. The current East Germany did not have any spare resources to launch their own reconnaissance satellites into orbit. “Putting together the information received, we have identified another BETA group of army corps scale being formed in the territory of Poland. The estimated axis of attack would be the same as the wave of offense the other day. Contact with the vanguard at the Neisse River is estimated to be the day after tomorrow.” The projector flashed a satellite photo of the former territory of Poland as the strategic briefing continued.

“However, it is estimated that the number of Laser-class would be much smaller, a fraction compared to the previous time.” There was a collective sigh of relief. It would seem that this time, the air force could be used without reservation in the upcoming battle. The staff officer shot a stern look at the seated troops to refocus their attention.

“The ground forces deployed at the three fortified positions which came under attack during the previous offensive have decreased by 30%. Additionally, 80% of the defensive positions have been destroyed as well. Although the original plan was to divert forces from other positions, there are no positions for them to take over, nor is there time to transfer them, so don’t expect them to be reinforced.”

“So you are saying that a defensive action using the fortified defensive positions is impossible…?” Hannibal concluded.

“Affirmative. If the standard defensive tactics are used, the Oder-Neisse Line would be broken. If that happens, the entire eastern reserve force deployed around Berlin will have to be used to close the breach, and fighting will break out in the the cities and coal mines west of the Spree. We cannot allow that to happen.” The coal mines absolutely must be defended. It was a matter of life or death for the DDR which depended on it for its heavy industries and electrical power. However…

‘If reinforcements could be pushed onto the second defense line at the Spree River, we can still avoid a worst case scenario…’

However, the higher ups in the Party who held interests in the coal mines would never allow such a thing—Marai thought.

“Given the situation, it has been decided that we have no choice but to conduct an active forward defense against the BETA to block their advance towards the Neisse River.” The projector changed slides, showing the estimated population of the BETA group as a graph. “The one point we can leverage on is the low number of Laser-class, estimated to be around 50 to 100 in total. If we commit all our artillery and rocket artillery strikes mixed with AL (Anti-Laser) warheads, it would be possible to destroy them before they reach the Neisse.” A map showing the prediction of the BETA invasion at one hour intervals was projected next. “Although aerial bombardment by the air force is planned once the Laser-class is exterminated, the carpet bombing will begin before the Neisse since this time the fortified defensive positions cannot function as a defensive wall, and it will be necessary to eliminate the BETA majority that survives.” Several of the Eishis who were quicker on the uptake gasped—the staff officer continued in an emotionless voice. “This time, to delay the enemy incursion, the TSF battalions must fight a delaying action.” As the shock went through them, a low growl of discontent started to arise from the gathered pilots.

“Not a feint, but a delaying action?” Hannibal asked as he brought his steepled fingers before his face. The staff officer gave an apologetic nod.

“Yes. Although a feint is effective in diverting the BETA’s pace of advance, we will not be able to divert the course of the whole BETA group with our current forces. Also, should the BETA group be dispersed by the feint, the carpet bombing would be less effective.”

“Absurd! Their numbers would be over thirty thousand, wouldn’t they?!” one of the battalion commanders shouted in trepidation. “Sending the TSF battalions in alone, we would be wiped out in a blink of an eye—”

“Indeed. For that reason, we will carefully select our targets,” the staff officer replied smoothly, expecting the objection. “Going by the basic BETA formation, the central body would be made up of Grappler and Tank-class. If this group is not stopped, the collapse of the front is inevitable… In contrast, as long as this group can be stopped, the collapse of the front can be prevented. The Laser-class can be taken care of by the artillery, and the Fort-class are slow enough to be managed with a second strike. Also, the Destroyer-class can be lured into killing lanes along the surviving ground forces’ arc of fire. However, the ground forces would likely be wiped out in this battle.”

“And what are the main tactics for the delaying action?” Hannibal asked in order to confirm it. “If a feint attack is performed on the Destroyer-class advancing before the central body, the option to gradually retreat becomes impossible. Even if the enemy is scattered with a flank attack, after breaking in from the side, one would have to fight surrounded by the BETA group on all sides, wouldn’t they?”

“That is correct. I have confidence that if it is a TSF battalion that is surrounded by BETA, it can offer sufficient resistance.”

“If it becomes a dogfight, the fuel, ammo and pilots will be rapidly depleted. They won’t be able to hold out for 30 minutes.”

“Yes. But it still has to be done.”

“…If anything goes wrong, all four TSF battalions could be wiped out.” The pilots shot accusing glares at the staff officer. Even the presence of the Army Group HQ commissar beside him couldn’t suppress their feelings. To lose all four TSF battalions—just thinking about it sent chills down one’s spine. That would effectively reduce the overall TSF forces reserved for Laserjagd operations at the Oder-Neisse Line by one-third, resulting in a huge gap on the front.

“Of course, all available support will be provided,” the staff officer continued, spurning the glares. “The Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter wing will be there to provide close air support, and the air force has promised to give their full support in this operation. We also plan to commit all our ammunition reserves for this battle.”

‘If the operation ends in failure, the Army Group HQ won’t escape the purge…’ Marai could feel the resolution of the Army Group HQ. ‘Should the TSF unit get annihilated and the mission ends in failure, we would all perish as well… Our fates are entwined.’

“We cannot afford to lose.” Showing a sincere expression, the staff officer ended his briefing. “Are there any comments? Other than the unreasonable, we are open to any suggestions.” The staff officer exchanged nods with the commissar in mutual agreement. If the operation fails, even the Army Group commissar would face repercussions…

“We don’t have enough forces…” Hannibal forced out. “It’s not possible to contain the entire BETA horde with only four TSF battalions. A considerable number will still break through to reach the Neisse. We will need a unit to block them.” The battalion commanders nodded in agreement. “Furthermore, there is the matter of an extraction route. Once fuel gets low, there will definitely be many damaged machines that will need to retreat. We will need a unit to clear an extraction path. To accomplish these two roles, a reserve TSF force is absolutely necessary.”

The staff officer’s expression instantly went grim.

“In regards to that—”

“Let me speak about that,” a high-pitched voice called from the back. Marai turned to look—and felt as if she had taken poison. Everyone else, even the staff officer and commissar on the stage, showed the same sickened expression.

Standing at the entrance to the meeting room, the owner of the voice was a man who had the features of a movie star. He had close cropped brown hair, and was wearing a deep blue, stylishly designed uniform. In East Germany, which had a severe shortage of supplies, only a handful of people could wear such a uniform.

‘The Ministry for State Security…Stasi… Are they sending in their Security force to intervene in the Army’s military operations?’

“Did I surprise you? Sorry for that,” the man joked in the tense atmosphere as he headed for the stage. The silver bars on his collar badge denoting him as a member of the Stasi glittered under the lights.

“I am Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Heinz Axmann, Strategic Planning Officer for the Ministry for State Security Armed Police force.”

‘…“Heinz the Brown Beast”?! The Stasi’s top officer famous for spy hunting! What is he doing at the front?’

“Though I’m sure you are thinking of various things, I want you to listen to what I have to say first,” Axmann said, as if he could tell what Marai and the others were thinking. “What the commander said just now about the need for a mobile reserve, the two TSF battalions from my State Security force will take care of that. Therefore, pilots, you need not worry about the rear and your extraction, and can fight without reservations.”

‘Using the Armed Police as a military reserve…? Just what are they plotting…?’ Marai thought, growing suspicious. The other pilots’ expressions grew stiff as well. It was a natural reaction towards the Security force, the secret police and private army of the Ministry for State Security in East Germany formed during the outbreak of the BETA war. In other words, even if they were to take part in the defensive operation, they would not accept any orders from the Army Group Command, merely take “requests”. There was no way that they could be trusted as allied forces. Even without that, there was the position of the Security force in the East German Military—they were known as the “Fourth Military Branch” after the NVA’s three branches of Air, Land and Sea, and were in direct competition for budget, manpower and resources. Furthermore, their duties involved not only the policing of the East-West border, escorting the party’s dignitaries, and the “dirty work” of refugee control and suppression of anti-government demonstrations, but also normal operations against the BETA. If they continued to expand the scope of their duties in this way, even the existence of the NVA might be threatened. To the army officers who took pride in their roles, it was natural that they would harbor enmity towards them. The current relationship was such that the Stasi would pretend to show officers goodwill on the surface. However, these thoughts could not be brought out into the open. The Stasi were always on the lookout for enemies of the state.

Marai glanced at Irisdina’s face. Although she still held an expression of attentiveness, there was a slight hint of agitation in those blue eyes that she focused on Axmann.

“May I have permission to speak…?” Hannibal asked in a calm voice. Axmann gave an exaggerated nod in acknowledgement. “I hope that you can share with us the details of the two TSF battalions. We do not intend to question the ability of the security forces, but we would like know more in advance for the sake of the operation.”

“That is a state secret; I cannot say,” Axmann readily replied. All the pilots immediately gave him a hostile look. “However, I do believe that their fighting capabilities would meet your expectations. They are no second class TSF unit used to keeping the peace in the rear, certainly.

***

An hour later, the strategy meeting concluded once the present strategic objectives were understood. The pilots who attended the meeting did not disperse immediately. With the present stringent state of the war, there weren’t many opportunities for all the TSF battalions and squadron commanders to meet together. Most remained in place and started to chat and exchange information—however, after giving the pilots an analytical look, Axmann left the room with a meaningful smile.

Marai noticed that none of the pilots had called out to Irisdina. The one who had betrayed her family, which should have been protected by the Stasi, and came to be called a hero—none of the pilots would want to associate with another who was surrounded by such rumors. Marai felt the same as they. Leaving aside her value as an Eishi, as a human being with the same red blood, for her to shamelessly carry on living—the feelings were the same as they had. Thus, when she saw Hannibal approaching Irisdina, she felt a tightness in her chest.

“…Thank you very much, Major.” The murmur that Irisdina gave to Hannibal in a low voice after confirming that there was no one else near them, came to Marai’s ears.

“There is no need to thank me, Hauptmann Bernhard,” Hannibal quietly replied. Their conversation seemed to vanish among the similar chatter of the other pilots. However, their words held an intimate note, as if speaking to old friends.

‘Why, Major, with such a woman…?!’

“It is our job to make the preparations so that commanders like you can fight without reservation. This is our burden to bear.”

“By the way…”

“I understand.”

Marai strained her ears. It seemed like Hannibal understood what Irisdina had wanted to say.

“You must be very careful. There is no telling what may happen on the battlefield.”

“That is my intention.”

“I will sortie as well the day after tomorrow. Of the three squadron commanders, you are the most senior. If anything happens to me and Marai, you will assume command of the battalion. If that happens, I leave the rest to you.”

“Understood.”

“Have a good rest.”

With that, Irisdina and Walter saluted, and left the meeting room.

“Major…?” Marai asked in disbelief. “What kind of relationship does the major have with that Hauptmann Bernhard…?”

“…When I was an instructor at the TSF training academy, she was a troublesome student I took care of in various ways. We have worked together before.”

“I see…”

“Why? You jealous?”

“No, nothing like that…” Marai’s face flushed red with embarrassment.

“You may say whatever is on your mind. Any listening devices in here would be ineffective now.”

“Major, why are you concerned about Hauptmann Bernhard?” Marai blurted. “That person, such a disgrace to pilots, shouldn’t be someone the Major should associate with…”

“…Ah, I agree.”

“Eh?”

“That, is why I feel that I should be kind to her…” Hannibal smiled gently, with deep sorrow in his eyes.


++++January 14
+++0900 hours
+++The German Democratic Republic
+++Cottbus District
+++Cottbus Military Base


“Another BETA offensive incoming?” Theodor echoed from the control unit of a MiG-21, where he’d been helping with the machine’s system check. He was addressing the machine’s crew leader standing outside.

“Yeah. The rumor has been going around since early morning. Everyone in the hangar has heard of it.”

“Did the Chief say anything?”

“Nothing. However, all the crew leaders have been ordered to prepare to perform a complete check on all combat systems. The other squadrons were behind their maintenance schedule and are now in disarray. For us, we only have one machine with serious damage to deal with somehow.”

To Theodor, who had been at war for more than two years, the high frequency of BETA attacks came as no surprise. However, that didn’t mean that he was happy about it.

‘We have salvage duty scheduled this morning. Wouldn’t the briefing be in the afternoon…?’ Theodor grew anxious as he watched the results of the system check displayed in the retinal projection.

—In the end, after the altercation in the hangar yesterday, he had split up with Katia after dinner. He hadn’t said a single word to Katia during dinner as a means of reprimanding her. And so, Katia hadn’t spoken more than was needed as well, putting up with it.

‘She should have settled down now, but…’

Until that was resolved, he had no choice but to look after her—Theodor thought, coming to that unhappy conclusion after yesterday’s experience. He was certain that at this point, both the Commissariat and the Stasi had their eyes on him. Now that he was involved with Katia, a defector from the West, if he did not watch her every step, he would be in deeper trouble than before.

‘At least yesterday confirmed that the squadron’s pilots have accepted Katia. Now, if only she could be made to shut up…’

“By the way, is it ok to leave that girl alone?”

“Ehh? It’s OK, right? That person… I gave her a ton of manuals for the MiG-21 yesterday, so she should be studying in her room. There’s still another hour until we head out…”

“Huh? Then, you didn’t know, Unterleutnant?”

“Know what?”

“That girl; she’s over there. See, Berth 4, No. 45 gantry. She’s been there since before you were here.”

“…!?”

Looking over wide eyed, Theodor could see Katia in oil-stained BDUs, standing on top of a MiG-21 that was lying on its side, working on something while talking to several of the maintenance crew.

‘That idiot, what the hell is she doing now…?!’

“Oh? It looks like the chief is over there as well.”

Theodor magnified the image, zooming in—indeed, Maintenance Chief Otto was next to Katia. Somehow, the two looked to be chatting merrily.

I’m not eavesdropping—although he thought that, Theodor still turned the sound sensor in their direction. In such a public area, it was unlikely that they would be talking indiscreetly. Using the acoustic analyzer function of the TSF, Theodor could make out the voices of Katia and Otto through the noise.

“—Sounds like you had it tough, young lady.”

“—Yes! However, thanks to that I understood many things. About this country, the people who live in it…”

“—What did you understand?”

“—…”

“—No need to hold back. Fräulein Sylvia and Fräulein Gretel aren’t here. Anyway, these guys here are from Poland. If the country is different, the way of thinking will also be different, that is understood.”

“—The people in the East don’t seem to like a person from the West like myself very much.”

“—That’s true. They were enemies ten years ago after all. They might still be even now.”

“—Yes. I think that’s to be expected. But…”

“—But?”

“—But, I like both Germanys. I don’t want either one to vanish. A certain person said it. That if the two Germanys were to join hands, the BETA will never defeat them!”

“—…”

“—Therefore, I will first make friends with everyone, to prove that everyone can get along. With Sylvia-san, Gretel-san, and Theodor-san…”

“—Is that why you are helping to clean the camera unit?”

“—Yes! Though I might be in the way, I would like to do what I can. I’ve roughly studied the materials I was given.”

“—While I don’t mind, is this really okay with you? This machine belongs to Sylvia, the young lady who slapped you, you know?”

“—Ahaha, I’m used to getting hit. Anyway, this is in return for being a nuisance… That person said as well, that one’s intentions are not transmitted unless one acts upon one’s words. If I want to be trusted, I have to be prepared to work hard…”

“—…Young lady, you have a lovely expression when you think about difficult things.”

“—Eheheh. That’s what people tell me sometimes.”

Turning off the sound mic, Theodor let out a sigh. Somehow, he didn’t feel like swearing at Katia like he normally would. It seemed that her intentions had not been swayed by his preaching. Besides, the fact that she managed to finish her studies last night and then chose to come here was certainly significant. While it was possible that she might have lied, if she were telling the truth, it showed just how good her intuition and learning speed were. However, they shouldn’t speak of such things without thinking about where they are.

‘Today, should I take her someplace safe from the listening devices, and teach her just how rotten this country is…?’

“But then…” Theodor muttered as he thought the matter over again. He still couldn’t understand Katia’s feelings.

‘A naïve person like her would only be crushed by this land of East Germany. If you want to survive, you can only fight for yourself…’ Theodor thought morosely as he watched Kaita chatting happily. ‘She will understand immediately once we are on the battlefield…’

It was then that two Eishis walking along the floor in fortified suits came into view. It was Sylvia and Pham. Both of them noticed Katia at once— while Pham gave a gentle smile, anger flashed across Sylvia’s face, though she forced it down after noticing the presence of the Chief.

Like I expected, Theodor thought with a wry smile. Then something occurred to him.

‘Could it be, the reason she wanted to get to know the maintenance crew is so that she could work…?’ It wasn’t impossible. The Chief liked Katia from the start, and the maintenance crew would welcome anyone. The Chief probably gave orders as well…

Theodor swallowed.

‘Why does Irisdina favor this kid so much…?’

+++1030 hours
+++The German Democratic Republic
+++Cottbus District
+++Cottbus Military Base

Through the open hangar doors stretched an endless white hell.

A roaring blizzard covered the single runway. Visibility was less than 500 meters. Snow plows and maintenance vehicles moved around the runway continuously as green guidance lights glowed by the sides.

The seven pilots of the 666th TSF squadron walked their MiG-21s out onto the apron. Each machine carried on its left arm a multipurpose supplemental armor with the explosive reactive armor removed to be used in place of heavy machinery. The remaining pilot, Annette, was still under orders to recuperate.

“—Squadron, Achtung,” Irisdina ordered in a calm voice. “—Other than the control tower’s instructions, watch where you step as well. There may be vehicles and conducting personnel underfoot. 08, escort 07. 07, keep eyes on 08.”

“08, jawohl.”

“—Schwarz 07, ja-jawohl…!”

Theodor monitored Katia’s MiG-21 as she followed behind with a serious expression. Although Katia’s face in the retina projection was stiff, she was able to keep the machine’s center of gravity stable, and her foot movement was smooth too. Looking at Katia’s operation of the legs through the control menu, Theodor noted that she was moving them such that the joints were not burdened.

“—A terrible snowstorm, as always…” Pham muttered. “—The ground troops will be having a hard time with this. Their positions haven’t even been rebuilt yet…”

“—The mission this time is to clear away foreign objects from the Destroyer-class killzones,” Irisdina promptly replied. “—The killing lanes are littered with hundreds of the giant carcasses of the Destroyer-class. If they are not cleared, they will become obstructions in the next battle, interfering with the concentration of firepower. Many of the ground forces are working on this task now... Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim, how are the controls of the MiG-21?”

“—No problem-desu~! Thanks to what Eberbach-sa… Unterleutnant Eberbach taught me in the simulator yesterday, I can manage somehow.”

It’s not thanks to me—Theodor wanted to say in denial.

“—Outstanding. When we return, you will practice using the jump units in close-combat maneuverers on the training grounds. I will obtain persmission for it. You will accompany her, Unterleutnant Eberbach.”

“…Understood.”

“—What is it, Unterleutnant Eberbach?” Irisdina asked with a smile. “—You’re being awfully obedient today. I thought you hated having to do this?”

“I just recalled how much fun I had teaching Unterleutnant Waldheim about the TSF,” Theodor replied with an innocent look. This level of sarcasm was second nature to him now.

“—You have an outstanding senpai, Unterleutnant Waldheim.”

“—Yes! Thank you very much, Unterleutnant Eberbach!”

And that’s that then—Just when Theodor thought it was over, the comms buzzed with static as a radio transmission was received from somewhere. From the tone of the conversation, it sounded like something urgent had happened.

‘What's going on…?’

“—This is Schwarz 01, now at… What…?! Understood. No more than five minutes.” It seemed that Irisdina had received a shocking message from the control tower at Cottbus base.

“—Comrade Hauptmann, what happened?” Gretel asked tensely.

“—In 15 minutes, two damaged Tu-95s are going to attempt to land on the runway at this base. They received laser irradiation from BETA controlled territory on the way back from a bombing mission at the buffer zone. From the datalink info, half of the twelve plane squadron got shot down and the remainder received heavy damage, even though they only grazed the edge of the irradiation zone for a moment. The ones with critical damage are performing an emergency landing here… in this weather. The company will remain here on standby in case of emergencies.”

‘Are they serious?! It’s less than 2,000 meters long, isn’t it?!’ Theodor stared at the frozen runway with a pale face. It would take considerable skill to land a large strategic bomber like the Tu-95 on this runway since it was in the middle of a forest; if the bomber were to overshot the runway by even a bit, it would be all over.

Theodor grimaced as he checked the combat data. According to the coordinates, Cottbus base would be the base nearest where they were shot down. Most likely the situation was such that they needed to descend and land as soon as possible.

‘They were lucky not to get completely destroyed… No wait, if the exposure was only for a few seconds…’

“—It looks like the flight leader was destroyed, hence the late report. There would be many seriously injured crew onboard, and it is also possible that neither the fuel nor the bombs could be dumped due to damage. If anything happens, take action immediately. Clear?”

“““Verstanden!””” The squadron replied.

‘Good grief. For this to suddenly happen when we just launched…’

Theodor took a look at Katia to check on her—While she looked to be the same with just a little tension, she had both hands clutched in front of her chest as she muttered something. She seeming to be praying that nothing would happen and that no one would die.

“—All hands, eyes to the eastern skies. The first pane is inbound.”

Confirming the approach of six Tu-95s from the tactical map, Theodor stared at the eastern skies—the grey skies where the snow and wind raged furiously. He might not have been able to see anything if the view weren’t enhanced by CG. Like Irisdina said, a large plane was drawing close, its wingtips glowing faintly.

Theodor zoomed in on the gradually approaching plane, and what he saw filled him with shock and horror. Not only was the last one-third of the right wing missing, out of the four turboprop engines the plane had, only one was working.

‘How the hell are they still flying…?!’

The Tu-95 started to dump its fuel as it gradually lost altitude so as to minimize the damage even by a little should it crash.

The plane suddenly banked in the air above the runway—driven by the strong winds, it bobbed up and down unnaturally, as if it would crash at any moment.

‘Please…’

It was only 200 meters to the runway from where they stood. It there was a mistake while landing, it could very well slip and twist from its course, smashing into them. In addition, more than ten fire engines and emergency response vehicles were parked several meters behind the squadron in case of an accident. Theodor saw that some of the squadron’s maintenance crew were mixed in with them too.

Wobbling from side to side, the main landing gear of the first Tu-95 touched the runway with a screech—after bouncing several times, it finally came to a stop at the end of the runway without bursting into flames. The service vehicles immediately rushed over.

Theodor let out a sigh of relief—and just when he hoped that the remaining one would follow the same way, Irisdina suddenly spoke.

“—Bad, this is bad… Control, what are you doing?! When did you give them clearance to land?! Quickly order the service vehicles to pull back—their response was suddenly cut off?”

“What…?”

“All hands, right 70°, there’s a damaged Tu-95 coming in! The aircraft is not responding! It’s highly possible that its fuel tanks are full and will explode on contact!”

By the time Theodor turned to look, the plane’s fate had already been sealed. Amidst the snowstorm, a Tu-95 was plunging off-center towards the middle of the runway, spewing black smoke from every section. There were whole portions of the tail and main wings blasted off, and the cockpit was partially melted as well. Most likely the crew had been burned by the plasma generated when the laser hit. The pilot flying the plane must have finally succumbed to his injuries and died while on final approach—leaving the plane to descend like this. There was less than ten seconds until it hit the ground.

“Katia, get away from there!” Theodor shouted. Then, just as he was about to ignite the jump units, he remembered— Waiting behind them were the squadron’s maintenance crew, and more than ten vehicles. If he took off by himself, then those people…

In that moment of hesitation, Theodor’s chance to retreat was snatched away. The next instant, the Tu-95 crashed into the center of the runway. It blew up with an enormous explosion, throwing a massive amount of flaming wreckage into the air.

The most dangerous of the debris—the right wing’s No. 3 engine, which was more than six meters long, was hurled on a direct course towards Theodor by the enormous blast. The flash, the explosion, the flames, the shock—amidst all these, Theodor clearly saw it coming towards him. He instinctively knew that it was already too late to use the jump units.

“How can I die like thiiis—?!”

With a roar, Theodor lifted up the multipurpose supplemental armor by reflex, smashing it into the oncoming engine in mid-air. Together with the terrible impact, there was a shrill shriek as the twin blades of the spinning propeller sliced into the armor, hacking it off.

“…Argh—?!”

With its trajectory changed, the engine flew up into the air, where it suddenly exploded. Theodor had no time to think before the huge blast and countless fragments smashed into his MiG-21…

***

—The moment he awoke, Theodor sensed that he was in trouble. The pungent smell of fuel permeated the control unit. That could only happen if the fuel tanks in the TSF had leaked and started to evaporate in the open air.

“You’re kidding me…”

Theodor checked the status of the machine in dumbfounded amazement—nothing responded. The machine was so badly damaged that even the control unit’s manual ejection system was unusable.

This really was the worst case scenario. Normally the powered exoskeleton would be used to force one’s way out of the damaged control unit, but in that situation, with evaporated fuel filling the air, it was far too dangerous. All it would take for the air to ignite was one small spark. At the moment, even though the body of the machine wasn’t on fire, the engine exploding would have scattered burning fuel around the machine. It was only a matter of time before the flames reached the machine.

Temporarily suspending the function of the retinal projection, Theodor looked around the control unit—although small cracks could be seen, they didn’t seem like they could be pried open with human strength, and there was no sign that the evaporating fuel was venting out through the cracks either.

Had he calmly considered it, Theodor would have known that using the powered armor was a necessary risk that must be taken. However, the rapidly changing situation robbed him of his decisiveness. Was the smell of fuel getting stronger?—Even though he had felt this countless times before, as fingers of death closed around him, the fear of the death he had escaped so far dominated his body.

“I still haven’t done anything yet…!” Theodor muttered in a daze as he tightly grasped the control sticks for support. “I still haven’t had my revenge on that person yet…! I… before I die, I will… I will…” Theodor roared out the demands of his soul. “Before that, I cannot—”

An intense shock rocked the control unit.

“What…?!”

Theodor reactivated the retinal projection—and received a shock. Straddling his prostrate machine was another MiG-21.

“—Theodor-san, are you alright?!”

The control unit shook again with a strange noise—Theodor could guess what Katia was trying to do now. In order not to cause a spark, she was trying to widen the crack using the manipulator. However…

“You… what are you thinking, you fool?!” Theodor shouted at Katia, half in stubbornness, half in earnestness. “It’s going to explode! What if you get caught in it?!”

“—I owe my life to Theodor-san! It’s only natural that I would help! And also… I want Theodor-san to consider me as a friend!” Theodor felt as if he were struck down. It was the same words that Katia had said that morning. “—I was finally able to meet you after so much effort! The me who couldn’t do anything up to now, I don’t want it!”

“Huh…!?”

Another impact—the manipulator of Katia’s MiG-21 managed to force an opening in the side armor of the control unit large enough for a human to somehow squeeze through. And beyond that hole, amidst the flames, the smoke and the snowstorm, was Katia’s MiG-21. She brought the machine’s chest with its boarding hatch opened and the control unit ejected level with the hole in Theodor’s machine.

‘This girl, even though she doesn’t know when this machine will explode, she still exposes herself…!’

With exceptional skill, Katia brought her control unit adjacent to his own.

“—Please get on!”

“…!”

Katia disengaged the lock from the seat connectors and stood up, stretching a hand towards Theodor across the gap between the control units.

“—Please hurry! There’s no more time!”

Theodor moved, pushing his way through the hole. Grabbing Katia’s right hand, he jumped across the gap, clambering into her control unit. The control unit immediately retracted into the chest of the machine with a whir of servos.

“—Do a rapid climb with the jump unit! I’m not as good as you, so please take control! Don’t worry about me!”

“Understood! Hang on…!”

The jump units ignited, and in an instant the MiG-21 was launched high into the air with great force on twin tails of fire. Just then, Theodor’s MiG-21 exploded below. Without the restraints on, both of them were greatly shaken by the shock—they could only endure the impact while holding on to the connector seat tightly. As he continued to pilot in desperation, Theodor stared at Katia dumbfounded. This development happened so suddenly that his thoughts had not caught up yet. ‘What is with her? Why did she save me? For what reason is she willing to go so far—?!’

—This person, just what has she been trying to accomplish all this while?

With those thoughts, a foreign feeling started to swell up, filling Theodor’s chest.

+++1330 hours
+++The German Democratic Republic
+++Cottbus District
+++Cottbus Military Base

Afterwards, the restoration of the runway was completed in an hour. The base determined that the cause of the accident resulting in the loss of the plane was due to the pilot dying just before he could pull the plane up into a landing position.

After that hour, what awaited the two upon the conclusion of their medical examination and debriefing was a scolding by Irisdina, who had been waiting for them at the apron of the runway.

Before saying anything, Irisdina gave Katia a tight slap to the cheek, knocking her off her feet. Katia cried out as she was thrown to the cold concrete floor. “You, what were you thinking…?!” Irisdina’s face was filled with anger. “Why did you disobey an order and go in by yourself with a single machine?!”

“W-well…” Sitting on the ground, Katia was hesitant to give a reply. From her behavior, it seemed like she had disobeyed a direct order from Irisdina. “I thought that I should give aid by myself first, since I was the first to recover…”

“I am the one who determines that—! Did you think about what would happen if Unterleutnant Eberbach’s machine had exploded?!” Katia had nothing to say to that. It was a fact that by disobeying Irisdina’s orders, the squadron could have lost two valuable TSFs.

Finished with her reprimand, Irisdina glared at the both of them. Ten seconds later, she suddenly let out a loud sigh.

“But then, it’s also a fact that thanks to you, Unterleutnant Eberbach’s life was saved today. Putting aside the matter of insubordination, you should be praised for your accomplishment. Good work, Unterleutnant Waldheim. The skill you showed during the rescue is worthy of praise.” Irisdina smiled as she held out her hand, helping Katia to stand.

“Y-yes! Thank you very much!”

“However…! If you disobey my orders again you will be punished accordingly. Do you understand?!”

“Un-understood—!”

Too naïve—the moment Theodor thought that, Irisdina turned back towards him with a smile.

“And you, Unterleutnant Eberbach. Good work protecting the group of vehicles that was behind you.”

“…Thanks.”

“This incident occurred through a chain of truly unfortunate events. Regarding the circumstances resulting in the loss of a TSF, you won’t be held responsible for it.”

Theodor didn’t know how to take the fact that his life had been saved by Katia.

“My report to the base—”

It was then that Gretel’s anxious voice suddenly resounded through the comms.

“—Comrade Hauptmann?! I have confirmation from the tactical map! Unidentified machines… most likely, those people are coming.”

Irisdina’s expression became unguarded for an instant as she was taken by surprise—she quickly asked to confirm the report.

“What model are they?! MiG-21 Balalaikas?!”

“—No MiG-21 can move this fast! They are surrounding us as they approach!”

‘New models!? No way, don’t tell me…!’

Theodor was aghast with horror. The only ones who would receive the latest models and equipment from the Soviet Union, who would purposely block the emission of the IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) from their machines, only one group of people came to mind.

‘Stasi…!’

What could cause the Security Forces to rush to the front—Theodor could not imagine it.

The State Security Secret Police Force. He had heard the rumors that they had small TSF units which used the latest state-of-the-art models. Their duties were to protect the capital of Berlin, provide “motivation” to the troops at the Front, and also to patrol the East-West border, hunting down defectors. The unit whose main purpose was to perform the third duty, with the jurisdiction and authority to summarily execute those they found guilty without trial, was held as an object of fear by all German citizens.

In that instant, Theodor thought of one possible reason, and he turned towards Katia, who had a confused look on her face.

‘Are they here to arrest her?! No way, that much force just for that would be overkill no matter how you look at it! But, if it’s not that…’

Unease and fear compelled Theodor to ask Gretel.

“Comrade Oberleutnant, just exactly what reason does the Security Force have to come to this place?!”

“—How should I know?! Do I look like I would be informed of their deployment movements?!”

“You are the commissar…”

“—The Ministry of National Defence Political Headquarters and the Ministry of State Security are separate organizations! Don’t group us with them!”

‘Those stories that the Army are in opposition to the Stasi, could it be true…?’

“—All Schwarz, do not panic! Continue to remain on standby as before! Do not take any action no matter what happens!”

“—Comrade Hauptmann?!”

“—We have nothing that they can question us about! You just have to remain silent!”

“—Commander, the vanguard is within 500 meters and closing!”

The next instant, more than ten TSFs with angled silhouettes appeared above them, slipping in above the coniferous forest surrounding the base— in the blink of an eye, they surrounded the tarmac where the TSFs of the 666th squadron were standing. As they landed, they pointed the barrels of their assault cannons at the squadron. There was no time for the squadron to react at all.

“…!”

Theodor froze at the scene that was unfolding before him. He was so overwhelmed with fear that he couldn’t make a move.

‘Those are the State Security Force’s… The most powerful state-of-the-art TSF in East Germany, the MiG-23 Cheburashka…!’

The eye and the hawk insignia on the left shoulder of the MiG-23, seemed to be glaring at Theodor in condemnation…

“—It’s been a while, Irisdina,” an unknown voice came through the comms suddenly. At the same time, the boarding hatch of the commander’s MiG-23 opened, ejecting the control unit.

A single female Eishi wearing a Stasi fortified suit appeared. With her long black hair fluttering in the wind, she had a bewitching air around her. “Yes it has. However, I would like you to explain why you came here first,” Irisdina replied with a challenge, staring back at the pilot.

“Commander of the TSF battalion ‘Werewolf,’ Major Beatrix Brehme…”

The TSF battalion called “Werewolf” took up battle positions, their assault cannons firmly locking on to them as if they were preparing to suppress an enemy…