Schwarzesmarken Chapter 4: For Whom that Right Hand Reaches For

325.jpg

January 15 1983
1000hrs
Former People’s Republic of Poland
Approximately 50 km from the East Bank of the Neisse River
West of the former town of Zielona Góra

The map of the battlefield projected on the retinal display was covered with red dots. The dots were marked as a formation of Destroyer class—the BETA vanguard—that was charging westward. Their speed of advancement was in excess of 90 km per hour and, with nothing holding back their momentum, had now arrived at the Bóbr River, 30km east of the Neisse. It was only a matter of time until they made contact with the fortified positions on the west bank.

In the cockpit of his MiG-21, Theodor stared at the growing cluster of little red dots as they gradually covered the map, with lips tightly drawn into a straight line. However, it was a completely different subject that occupied his thoughts.

That girl’s the daughter of a General that had his very existence erased from the records of this country… if she gets found out, she’ll be executed on the spot. And I have to keep such a thing secret!?

Theodor shut his eyes tightly. His breath came in rapid gasps, and his heart was pounding like a drum. The Stasi clearly suspected something; they wouldn’t have made such an absurd move otherwise. However, Theodor reasoned, they must not have any concrete evidence—that was why Beatrice had tried to appeal to his sense of self-preservation.

Should I protect myself by betraying Katia? Or should I get rid of her in the confusion of battle, and forget about everything?

Fear ran through his arms, causing his hands grasping the control sticks to tremble. In an attempt to force down his terror and distract himself from the thoughts swirling in his head, Theodor looked toward the monitor displaying the external view. Outside, the snow blew in howling waves across a white wasteland, veiling the forms of several other nearby MiG-21’s.

The 666th, one of the TSF squadrons of “Hannibal” Battalion, had formed up at their assembly point on the west side of the former town of Zielona Góra. Having been resupplied by the maintenance group that had followed them via helicopter, they were now awaiting orders to attack.

“—Squadron, heads up, it’s about to begin… Five seconds. Four, three, two… Artillery fire commencing,” Irisdina’s calm voice came through the comms.
Hearing her voice, Theodor could not shake the thought that his current distress was the result of her unreasonable order to bring Katia into the squadron. While thinking similarly useless thoughts, Theodor read the text that appeared in a heads-up status window.

The rocket artillery units that had been deployed to the west bank of the Neisse River were starting their bombardment of the Laser class—and a few seconds later, countless beams of coherent light pierced through the other side of the snowstorm. The Anti-Laser shells fired by the gunners were being intercepted by the laser irradiation from the Laser class. This exchange of blows between the Laser class and the artillery units was an established prelude to the main assault. In the current situation, there was no choice but to pray that their artillery could wipe them out in the time specified.

Theodor’s gaze met Katia’s in the opened comms window—they had only exchanged the minimum amount of words necessary since sortieing. Startled by his glare, she quickly averted her eyes with a sorrowful look on her face. Theodor was split between feeling angry bafflement at Katia’s situation, and dread at the decision that he himself had to make.

I never want to experience something like that again…

Theodor stared at the palm of his right hand once again—the hand that had held Lize’s as they ran through that dark forest. Instead of the freedom that they had been seeking, only tragedy had been awaiting them.

There’s no time… If I’m going to do it, it’ll have to be today…

He asked himself, could he murder that thoughtlessly reckless girl? If he did, wouldn’t he become the very same thing for which he had scorned Irisdina, a dog of the Stasi?

Then, what should I do…? If she defies them, and picks a fight with the state, it’ll end the same way… There’s no way out of this…

Theodor’s open right hand started trembling again, when suddenly—

“—Hannibal Battalion! Prepare to engage, prepare to engage!”

—A new communications window opened. Projected was a staff officer and Pilot whom Theodor recognized from several previous large scale operations—a first lieutenant named Marai Heisenberg, if he recalled correctly—relaying orders in a firm voice.

“—Establishment of the heavy metal cloud is complete. Your target is the center of the BETA group 20 km ahead! You are to begin your assault in 60 seconds! It will be 45 minutes before the artillery units can exterminate the Laser class, so make sure to draw in the BETA group as much as possible!”

“—666th TSF Squadron, Achtung! All units, initiate TSF start-up! It’s time to hunt!” Irisdina’s voice immediately cut through the comms with orders. “We are the spearhead of the battalion! Be on your guard for laser irradiation after we begin our assault! Once we have broken into the ranks of the BETA group and advanced five km in, we will switch to close-quarters combat!”

It’s begun.

While cursing, Theodor begin booting up his TSF to readiness status. He no longer had time to dwell on the indecisions of his heart.

I have to face the BETA in direct combat like this, huh…

“—Unterleutnant Eberbach.”

It was Irisdina. Fear and tension gripped Theodor upon hearing her voice, causing him to freeze up.

“—I’ll say this again. Make sure you protect Katia Waldheim.”

Why are you repeating that again, Theodor wanted to ask, but he was so tense that his voice failed him.

Irisdina’s expression was as cold as ice, the same expression she had five days ago when he had been reprimanded for letting Ingrid die without lifting a finger.

“—With all eight units of the Squadron intact, the chances of surviving this foray into the center of the BETA group will be higher—don’t you agree?”

“Yeah…” Theodor replied tonelessly.

“—Do not forget that this is my order to you. You will protect Unterleutnant Waldheim. Your skills as a Pilot are sufficient to do that, right?”

“—!”

“—That is all…” Irisdina concluded her private conversation with Theodor, before switching to the main channel. “Squadron, we’ll attack in 10 seconds. Ready your assault cannons!”

What was that…? Theodor wondered, thinking about Irisdina’s words. It’s as if…

He gripped the control sticks, squeezing them tightly. The shrill sounds of jump-units warming up could be heard coming from the surrounding TSFs.

That woman, how much does she know!?

For the first time in a while, Theodor felt fear towards Irisdina.

Is she aware of Katia’s circumstances…? Or is it just that she thinks that I’ll let Katia die like I did with Ingrid…?

A shiver ran down Theodor’s spine. Depending on Irisdina’s intentions, there was a chance that he might be the one killed off first.

“—Um, Herr Eberbach…?”

In the video feed from the comms, it looked like Katia was trembling. This would be her first time going into combat with the MiG-21, so it was understandable that she felt anxious.

“—Please…take care of me…”

Don’t call me ‘Herr Eberbach,’ Theodor thought, as his irritation flared.

“—I won’t let you down. I’ll fight with all I have, so—!”

Theodor’s face grew stiff. He felt ensnared in chains—chains formed from his anger towards Katia’s sincerity, who believed in her own cause even now; chains formed from the irritation he felt at himself for not being able to come to a decision; and chains formed from his fear of Irisdina, and fear of the pain and torture that was carved into him by the Stasi three years ago.

“—It’s time! 666th Squadron, begin the attack, move out!”

At Irisdina’s command, Theodor swallowed his emotions and stepped down on the foot pedals. The rockets of the jump units ignited, their roars an overture heralding the beginning of their assault.

The words of the maintenance support crew from just before they sortied suddenly came to mind. Replacing the TSF that had been lost in the other day’s incident, his current unit had been hastily prepared from the battalion’s reserve. The crew chief, Otto, had concerns about that point: reserve machines were usually units that had been damaged, then repaired, thus they might have unknown flaws.

Damn it… Everything just keeps getting worse and worse!

The distance to the BETA group shrank in an instant. The flight of eight MiG-21s drew close to the surface in low altitude NOE flight, using the innumerable corpses of the BETA littered across the snowfield for cover as they stole up to the main body.

On the radar, the blips indicating the BETA presence before them grew beyond what the system could count.

“—All units, open fire at 3000! Load canister rounds! Volley of three! Take out the BETA directly ahead of us first, and blow a path through them!”

“““Jawohl!”””

“—With these many targets, and at this range, you’ll hit something no matter where you fire,” Irisdina commented as she watched the digits drop. As they finally came within range, the command came in a clear voice, “now! Open fire!”

Theodor pulled the trigger. Flames burst out of the muzzle of his assault cannon, and beyond the distant swirling whiteness a series of explosions could barely be perceived as the rounds came into proximity with the hulking, semi-visible forms. The canister shells exploded, releasing countless submunitions in a wide cone, shredding a great number of Grappler and Tank class BETA into proliferated cadavers, their fluids spraying out to color the white snow.

“—Push into them! All units, follow me!” Irisdina’s voice came over the comms again, as her TSF led the charge into the gaping hole in the side of the enemy group.

In any case, I’ll follow Irisdina’s orders for now, Theodor thought. About what to do about Katia… after this, we’ll see…

With those thoughts in mind, Theodor opened up the throttle of his MiG-21, thrusting into the midst of the BETA group.

 

1015hrs
German Democratic Republic
Cottbus Region, Spremberg Fortified Position

 

Right then, a battle that would influence the outcome of the war had also begun at each of the three fortified positions along the west bank of the Neisse River.

The linchpin of the defense that had allowed the GDR to repel all the previous waves, despite the overwhelming destructive force of the Destroyer class, were the massive mine fields and the Destroyer class channeling lanes that had been created in the zones between each position. By creating similar defensive positions across most of the country, the GDR had been barely able to hold back the continuous BETA assaults, and survive.

In the channeling lane between the Spremberg Fortified Position and the Boxberg Fortified Position, which stretched before the front of the BETA offensive, a life and death struggle against the Destroyer class was taking place.

Trampling through the once-pristine snowfield, dozens of Destroyer class were charging headlong into the channeling lanes. As they entered, they had to travel through massive man-made swamps that had been built along the riverbank, slowing their momentum significantly.

The first to open fire were the Mi-24 Krokodil Hind Attack Helicopter Squadrons. Swooping in at low altitude, they strafed the bogged down BETA group, mercilessly unleashing a rain of anti-tank missiles upon them.

Further aiding the defense effort were the numerous directional mines buried throughout the area. As soon as the first few Ruitares stepped into the lane, they were greeted with explosions from several directions as the mine clusters detonated, pulverizing their legs.

At the same time, the embedded ground forces flanking the kill zone opened fire. The T-55 main battle tanks deployed along the outer edges of the fortified positions poured a rapid and continuous volley of fire from their 100mm cannons into the vulnerable flanks of the Destroyers, blowing huge holes in their bodies, while infantry in fixed positions fired 9M14M Malyutka anti-tank missiles at their legs in an attempt to cripple them.

With the bombardment coming from their flanks and rear, most of the Destroyers in the leading group lost a number of legs, and gradually, lost their offensive capabilities as well. However, the barrage couldn’t stop them all. The ones that survived the gauntlet broke through the storm of shells and rockets, charged into the fortified positions and smashed them apart with their armored shells. T-55s were tossed into the air together with fragments of the fortifications, and soldiers were buried under the soil and sand.

The battlefield situation was overwhelmingly bleak. Though they were successfully holding out and gradually thinning the enemy forces, with their current rate of losses it would be a Pyrrhic victory. In addition, the Neisse Defense Amy Group did not currently have any reserves. In a battle of attrition, they would lose.

“Why haven’t the Ministry of State Security’s TSFs moved out yet!? We’ll be wiped out at this rate!” shouted one of the deployed T-55 Tank Battalion commanders. His tank battalion had now been reduced to less than a company in strength.

It was a mistake to trust those guys to begin with.

Spitting and cursing at the Stasi, the tank commander directed the fire of his units at the approaching BETAs. The next moment, there was a huge impact—the anti-tank missile emplacement several hundred meters to their left was crushed beneath the weight of a destroyer that had rammed into it.

“Shit! All tanks, concentrate fire on the legs of that one on the left! Fuck, stop it from moving!”

The turrets of about ten T-55s, which were positioned hull down in firing positions, rotated, firing in succession as the BETA came into their sights.

The armor piercing shells penetrated its flanks one after another—but it seemed not to notice the new holes in its sides as it continued to charge towards the tanks.

It was barely a dozen meters away from their position when it finally succumbed to its wounds and collapsed. If it had been taken down just a few seconds later, it would have squashed the embedded tanks under itself.

“…Fucking hell, if we lose this position…” His words dripping with despair, the tank battalion commander shook his head in hopelessness, “…the city and the coal mines really will become a battlefield…”

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

Inside the Cottbus Base hangar, even though all active units had already been sortied, a tense air still remained.

“There’s still no sign of the Armed Security Forces, you say!?”

In the hangar’s rest area, Otto questioned again. Around him were several hand-picked members of the maintenance crew whom he trusted.

“That’s what several of the units have been saying… If they don’t show up soon, we may need to consider making preparations to evacuate,” one of the crew members reported to Otto. He had a headset covering both ears, which was plugged into a small personal radio. Although this was, strictly speaking, in violation of the NVA’s military regulations, Otto tacitly allowed it.

They were monitoring the wireless transmissions from the battlefield in order to gain information to grasp the flow of the battle; previously, in the Battle of Poland, Otto had the bitter experience of getting caught in a surprise attack by the BETA, thanks to the confusion of battle and a delay in the transmission of information.

“What’s going on, why haven’t they moved their MiG-23s…? Wasn’t the Werewolf Battalion supposed to take part in the battle as well?” Otto muttered, giving voice to his doubts. In the briefing yesterday, he distinctly recalled hearing that two battalions from the Stasi Armed Security Force would be joining the engagement as reserves.

“Not just the Soviets, but even the Eastern Bloc and Africa all say those machines are worthless during the evaluations of that TSF…”

“It’s a flawed machine,” commented the crew member, as he adjusted the headphones.

In fact, it was said that the Mig-23 Cheburashka didn’t even meet the specs that were listed in the catalog. It was widely rumored that even though it had higher performance capabilities than the MiG-21, the Soviet imported MiG-23 had ongoing problems with badly flawed parts which lead to issues in its maintenance.

It’s not like there was a lot of time to do prior maintenance…Something’s not right, Otto thought. However, he swallowed the suspicions that had taken root inside of him, and instead turned to question the crew members looking at a monitor nearby.

“How’s the battle going?”

“They are under the heavy metal clouds, so we haven’t been able to get any new information,” the crew member replied, keeping his eye on the monitor. He was monitoring the battlefield progress information for the NVA troops on the frontlines.

“The fortified positions at the Neisse West Bank are holding out, but they’re being sorely pushed…”

Wrinkles formed on Otto’s forehead as he frowned.

In order for the four NVA TSF battalions—who were exhausted from their deep strike into the middle of the enemy—to make a safe escape, the MiG-23s needed to go in and clear them a path.

If the Armed Security Forces are cooperating, they should be moving in to support the front by now… Why haven’t they moved yet…?

Otto’s misgivings increased; as the country grew closer to its end, the power struggles between the Nationale Volksarmee and the Stasi controlled Armed Security Force had only intensified. His head filled with dark thoughts, Otto waited for the next information update.

“Incoming update… Wait, this is—!?”

At the raised voice of the crewmember monitoring the display, the surrounding soldiers held their breath in anticipation.

“The BETA group has crossed the Neisse! It’s composition is mainly Grappler and Tank classes… It’s the main body of the BETA group!”

“So they’ve broken through,” Otto muttered in a sober voice.

As predicted, the four battalions hadn’t been able to draw in all of the BETA. The section of the BETA group that had forded the river—probably a mass of several thousand—would need to be intercepted by the fortified positions. However, the crew member’s next words were the real shock.

“Enemy count… is more than 20,000! The numbers are still increasing! They’ll be in contact with the fortified positions in about ten minutes!”

Even though the BETA size estimates were usually considered unreliable, for that many to have come through… No one in the room could imagine that all four deployed battalions could have been annihilated like that. They must be safe, the crew believed. The faces of the Pilots whose units they were in charge of maintaining flashed through their thoughts, one after the other.

“Those Stasi bastards still haven’t moved!?”

“Still no report, boss!”

Even though they’re the reserves, this late into the operation, they’re still staying put… it’s as if they want the NVA to be in a pinch—the moment the thought crossed his mind, a part of the puzzle fell into place for Otto. In an instant, the blood rushed to his head, turning his face red. “Those SOBs! Don’t tell me, that’s their plan—!”

The crew members looked at Otto in shock at his sudden outburst. Grabbing the headphone from the soldier at the wireless console, Otto held it to his ear and listened. The screams, curses and shouts of resentment against the missing Armed Security Forces could be heard, jumbled together on the comms channel.

The Armed Security Forces, their target in this battle isn’t the BETA…

Even if the Spree River and the areas west of it were to become a battlefield, the Stasi wouldn’t be disadvantaged at all. Even in a case where the fortified positions are breached, the reserves of the Eastern armies could be sent in.

However, if the progress of the battle were to turn unfavorable, not only would the Stasi gain a strong political advantage due to the depleted NVA forces, but they would easily be able to make a name for themselves as the Pilots to come in and save the operation when things seemed most dire. Additionally, this would be the first time the MiG-23 would be used for actual combat in East Germany.

In other words, their objective was most likely—.

Those bastards! Just for something like that, they would sacrifice the ground troops and four TSF battalions!?

Though he normally wouldn’t give the thought serious consideration, sometimes, when he looked at the machinations of both organizations from the side, Otto could only see their actions as that of children harassing each other.

Otto suddenly thought of Katia’s smile. At that moment, not knowing what she had gotten involved in, she was fighting a desperate battle alongside her wingman, Theodor. With Werewolf battalion withholding their support, there was a good chance that he would never get to see her bright, cheerful smile again.

Are they going to die for something so trivial!?

Choking down those feelings, Otto glanced at his watch. 1025 hrs. 20 minutes still remained before the artillery was scheduled to wipe out the Laser class… and before Irisdina’s squadron could retreat from the battlefield…

 

1023 hrs
Former People’s Republic of Poland
Approximately 50 km from the East Bank of the Neisse River

chp4-03.jpg

“Haa… haa… haa…”

Theodor’s shoulders and chest heaved as he gasped for air.

Spread out before him on the snowfield, dyed with crimson, were the corpses of numerous BETA. How many times had he seen this scene, Theodor wondered
.
No matter how many I kill, it never ends!

After striking deep into the BETA group, Hannibal battalion and the 666th had laid siege to the horde in an attempt to hold them in place.

Their three companies were deployed around the headquarters platoon, but even with that formation they were hard pressed by the continuous swarm of countless BETA that crashed into them. With the extreme consumption of fuel and ammunition, their mobility had been severely limited, which lead to their TSFs taking additional damage as the battle continued. Those that had their mobility reduced due to damaged jump units and legs pulled back to HQ platoon’s position, and continued to provide support fire from there while under their protection.

How long did they have to hold back the BETA, and how were the fortified positions doing; with information cut off by the cover of the heavy metal clouds, there was no way for them to tell. The only information they could get were intermittent updates from the Thomas Müntzer battalion fighting adjacent to them, and it seemed that they were having a rougher time.

With the transport helis that were supposed to provide resupplies to the Thomas Müntzer battalion getting shot down by the Laser class, their ammo levels were getting critical. Due to the resulting chaos, resupplies to Hannibal battalion were delayed as well.

Theodor took a shallow breath; he could feel his fatigue accumulating. Glancing at the tactical window, he could see that the first and second platoons of the 666th were fighting back to back to prevent any BETA from slipping through their blindspots.

At the moment, the squadron was still miraculously undamaged. Even Annette, whose mental condition had been less than optimal, was holding her own, fighting in close-quarters while Gretel provided cover fire from the rear.

“—Schwarz 02, 08!”

Pham, the leader of the second platoon, gave her orders. It was clear from her voice that she was feeling the strain too.

“—A new BETA group moving towards you! 200 of them in three waves!”

“08, roger!” Theodor shouted in reply.

The first wave approached—a group of more than 60 Tank and Grapple class. Pushing the TSF into a sprint, Theodor charged towards the closest Grappler. With a shout, he stabbed out with the large-scale spike from the multipurpose supplemental armor connected to the right arm of his TSF.

Penetrating the Grappler in the side, Theodor gave another wordless yell as he threw his unit horizontal in a short-range jump maneuver, slashing at its body from above with the combat knife held in his right manipulator as his unit flew over. Landing in a shower of blood, he quickly brought his TSF back up into a ready position.

While he was regaining his balance, multiple Grappler class rushed towards him—a single glance told him that there were too many for him to fight all at once.

“Shit! It’s one swarm after another—!”

Flicking the wrist of his TSF to remove the dark-red blood from the weapon, Theodor had just brought the CIWS-1A combat knife and Schürzen DS-3 Multipurpose Supplemental Armor into the ready position when suddenly—

“—Take thiiiiiiiis!”

Katia’s TSF came flying over, jump units flaring as she fired her 36mm chaingun, mowing down the BETA and buying both of them some time. However, there was only about forty seconds until the second wave would reach them.

“—Are you alright?” Katia commed Theodor with unsteady gasps. “—Herr Eberbach…?”

“Don’t call me Herr Eberbach!” Theodor snared at her as he stored the knife in its arm sheath. “Rather than worry about others, why don’t you worry about yourself first” he continued, breathing hard, “you just need to take care of the Tank class! You’ll just cause trouble if you get in the way!”

“—But, since I’ve already crushed all the surrounding Tank class, I thought that I should help…”
Katia tried to justify herself, her voice frightened.

However, Theodor ignored the validity of her actions, and instead continued to yell at her, “then you should have stayed still and recovered your stamina! You have absolutely no experience in fighting a prolonged battle! What good are you going to be if you’re dead exhausted!?”

“—But then… like that, Herr Eberbach would be… You’ve been acting as my shield, and fighting constantly in close quarters… your TSF is already severely depleted…”

Theodor’s face twisted—what Katia said was the truth. The number of attacking BETA—particularly the number of Grapplers—were so numerous that even when Theodore and Katia opened fire with guns to hold them back, they hadn’t been able to considerably slow their approach.

As a result, Theodor’s TSF was now at less than 30% for both fuel and ammo, the lowest in the squadron. The accumulated stress on his unit was also more than it would have been normally since, unlike Anette, he wasn’t using a TSF specialized for melee combat.

“What are you talking about, why should I be acting as your shield…”

I don’t want to owe you anything more than this, thought Theodor with a frown.

“—But—!”

“I’m being pushed to my limits because of you! If you don’t want to die, shut up and listen!”

Numerous shadows became visible through the snow—the new wave of BETAs had arrived.
There were more than 100 bodies, of which at least 20 were Grapplers. Theodor felt his bowels clench at their numbers. With little ammo remaining, he’d be forced to take most of them on at close range after reducing their numbers by a bit.

“Here they come!” Theodor shouted at Katia. “Your targets are the Tank class, I’ll take care of the Grapplers!”

“—R-Roger!”

The two TSFs boost-jumped simultaneously—Theodor hurtled towards the Grappler class, while Katia commenced firing at the Tank class.

With a roar of gunfire, a cluster of Tank class were blown into pieces. Katia continued to shoot while shifting her position from side to side, not allowing the a chance to surround her. It was a text-book maneuver—however, the skill and precision it required should have been beyond someone who had just piloted a MiG-21 for the first time a few days ago—to say nothing of the fact that this was her first major battle against the BETA, as well.

Her grasp on the core fundamentals were impeccable; Theodor could no longer doubt her talent as a Pilot. If she continued to forge her skills, she would be able to reach the same level as the other Pilots in no time. In that case, the odds of survival for the Squadron would definitely increase. Even now, though her movements were still crude, she was already a definite asset to the Squadron’s combat potential.

Not to mention, since the beginning of the battle, there hasn’t been a single squeak of complaint out of her…

It was as if she wasn’t feeling any pressure at all.

While preparing to take on the approaching Grapplers, Theodor’s brows furrowed into a frown.

If she wants to assist me, then shouldn’t I let her!? If she were to get killed in action, wouldn’t the situation be resolved? Even Irisdina wouldn’t be able to say anything then!

Trying to break his chain of thought, Theodor checked the time: fifteen minutes remaining. If they could hold out for that long, they could withdraw with support from the Armed Security Force. No matter how untrustworthy the Stasi might be, the squadron had no choice but to place their faith in them and keep fighting.

Then, I have to decide what to do about her within the next 15 minutes…

With a shout, Theodor opened fire. 120mm armor piercing HVAP shells burst into the Grapplers, turning them to lumps of flesh. The ammo count projected on his eye relayed the rapidly decreasing number of bullets remaining in the magazine.

Nonetheless, the herd of Grapplers closed in on him quickly, charging over the corpses of their companions—one of them, even as it was blown away by the cannon fire, took a swipe at him. He couldn’t even afford the few seconds needed to switch to the knife.

“Shit— Take this!”

Anxious at the proximity of the Grappler, Theodor activated his jump units and drove a knee into the enemy. Ignoring the spray of blood from the Grappler’s flank, he ceased firing, using the momentary opening to simultaneously store his assault cannon in the rear mount pylon while pulling out the combat knife from its arm sheath.

Hardly dissuaded by their dead brethren, several of the Grapplers continued to close in on Theodor. Although Katia was simply holding off the Tank class, the situation would have been worse without her support.

If Katia gets killed, I’ll probably buy it as well too, but…

Theodor readied the Schurzen absentmindedly, its explosive reactive armor plating long since depleted. His mind still gripped with indecision, his body moved mostly by reflex. The Grappler class before him trampled over the bloodstained snow as they continued to close in.

Damn it, that’s why I—!

Suddenly, just as he was about to thrust the large-scale spike of the multipurpose armor at the enemy, the right knee of this TSF gave out.

“—What!?”

It was backlash from the knee strike—Theodor suddenly remembered that his current unit was a restored machine that he needed to be cautious with.

“—Herr Eberbach, look out—!”

At the same time he heard Katia’s scream, the swooshing sound of the Grappler’s hardened forearm cleaving through the air filled his ears.

 

1035 hrs
Former People’s Republic of Poland
Approximately 50 km from the East Bank of the Neisse River

 

“—612th TSF squadron to Battalion HQ! There are too many BETA, we’re being overwhelmed! Our ammo and fuel levels are in the red—we need support!”

“—The datalink connection with the Thomas Müntzer battalion was cut off again! The heavy metal clouds are blowing in their direction!”

“—This is the 723th TSF squadron! Haven’t the Laser classes been taken out yet? Are the relief forces really coming!? We’re reaching our limits here!”

“—This is the 666th TSF squadron. One unit has been damaged. We’re pulling back for the time being.”

“—I have confirmation of a new BETA echelon approaching from the west! These readings… It’s a large group of Grappler class! There are more than a thousand, at least!”

Marai’s breath caught in her throat as she stared at the projected window showing the progress of the battle. The battle reports that came in one after another—after processing and sending them off to other HQ staff to deal with, she turned her attention to that last one.

In the window, markers indicated that an enormous mass of Grapplers was creeping closer towards them from the top of the map.

For a “Calamity Wave” to come at this time…!

A “Calamity Wave,” that’s what it was called when a large group of Grappler class appeared during a BETA wave assault. Entire TSF squadrons had been swallowed up and wiped out by such waves during previous Laserjagd assaults. It was a phenomenon that was feared by all Pilots in East Germany for both its unpredictability and its lethal consequences.

Marai looked towards the rear—several MiG-21’s that had their mobility compromised due to damaged jump units or legs were using the carcasses of long-dead Destroyer class as shields, hurling fire from behind them. These units no longer had the capacity to escape from within the enemy group under their own power.

Since the start of the battle, Marai had been protecting the damaged TSFs that had withdrawn from each company, even as she assisted Hannibal with command of the battalion. Although the number of BETA that came at them was limited thanks to the interdiction of the surrounding squadrons, since she was defending the damaged TSFs, her ammo and fuel had been gradually depleted nonetheless.

At this rate, the whole battalion will be swallowed by the Grappler group!

“—Marai, have the squadron with the most number of damaged units remain here, and send the other two squadrons over to intercept,” Hannibal shouted over the comms as his MiG-21PF landed besides Marai.

Marked on the right shoulder of his TSF was the battalion emblem, based on the bust of the Carthage General who was his namesake.

“—The way things are going, we’re going to be massacred! Send in two companies to delay the advance of the Grappler class, tell them to buy us some time!”

“Understood!”

Marai checked the time—1035 hrs; they had to hold out for 10 more minutes.

We can’t trust the Ministry… but if we don’t survive this, the front will be left unsupported and East Germany will be crushed.

Holding on to the faint ray of hope that things would pull through in the end, Marai proceeded to issue the orders.

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

The 666th TSF squadron Schwarzesmarken was gathered around their damaged craft—Theodor’s MiG-21.

“—Squadron, it is as you heard! From here, we will link up with the 612th, and move to intercept the approaching Grappler class herd!” Irisdina shouted. Even now, her expression was still calm and composed. “It will be ten minutes before reinforcements arrive. Until then, we will hold them back at all cost!”

“””—Jawohl!!”””

Other than Theodor and Katia, the rest of the squadron raised their voice in acknowledgement even as they continued firing at the surrounding BETA. Theodor’s face was twisted with humiliation. Full of anger at himself, he was too miserable to consider answering.

He stared at the status readouts of the TSF—his left leg and jump unit were glowing red; they had been destroyed by a single blow from the Grappler. Although he had avoided further damage by igniting his right jump unit to escape immediately after his TSF had fallen to the snow covered ground, the damage had already been done. He could no longer accompany the 666th on their next offensive.

I’ve got maybe 2, maybe 3 minutes of jump time left… If I use it to evade, I’d have to move while dragging the left leg…

“—Unterleutnant Eberbach, you will relocate from here on foot and link up with the battalion HQ platoon. Understood?”

Irisdina was going to leave Theodor’s TSF unit behind and head towards the Grapplers to intercept them. It was a logical, tactical decision—all Theodor could do was grit his teeth and nod his head. Although Irisdina’s command was a reasonable one, in this situation, there was no guarantee that a lone, crippled TSF would be able to make its way back to friendly forces successfully.

“—Please wait! I’ll stay behind as well! It’s standard procedure for TSFs to operate in elements of two!” Taking a deep breath, Katia interrupted Irisdina as she was giving her orders, “let me escort Unterleutnant Eberbach back!”

“You idiot! Shut up and follow the orders! Do you want to make the squadron even weaker!?” Theodor shouted back at Katia immediately. Honestly speaking, he didn’t know how he should have replied. However, the one thing he was sure of was that he did not want to be helped by Katia.

“The squadron’s mission is to delay the Grappler’s advance! Forget about me, and get moving already!”

“—If you look at the coordination aspect, I can contribute to the success of the mission better if we maintain our current elements and I cover you to prevent further losses!”

Theodor found himself at a loss for words; the fact that Katia was able to make such a well thought out argument—as well as the way she was able to objectively view her own capabilities—gave him a shock.

“—We’ll go with Unterleutnant Waldheim’s plan,” Irisdina nodded. “That was my intention to begin with! Unterleutnant Waldheim, you are ordered to escort Unterleutnant Eberbach. Until we return, make sure to protect him.”

Hearing Irisdina’s agreement, Katia brightened up—while Theodor was once again at a loss for words. He just couldn’t understand what Irisdina was thinking.

“—This conversation is over. Move out!”

At her command, the other six MiG-21s ignited their jump units, transitioning into surfacing mode as they headed east, plums of snow billowing out behind them as they dashed across the snowfield.

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

As soon as the rest of the squadron had departed, Theodor and Katia immediately found themselves caught up in battle again.

“—Haaa!”

With a shout, Katia opened fire on the Tank class in their path. Heedless of the circumstances surrounding the two, the BETA came at them relentlessly. The approaching Tanks were smashed into red pomegranates—or burst tomatoes—in an instant. Katia continued to maneuver without slowing down, training her sights on the BETA to her right.

—In the rear, Theodor could only watch her. He had few rounds left for the assault cannon, and close combat would be difficult given the status of his TSF.

“—There! Please move up now!”

“I don’t need you to tell me that!”

Though burning with shame, Theodor carefully operated the TSF. Using the shield as a crutch, he moved the TSF so that as little load as possible was placed on the left leg.

For me to be helped by a little girl like this—!

Theodor couldn’t help feeling sorry for himself. An indescribable pain burned in his chest.

You fool, I considered killing you, don’t you know that!?

To be saved by her again—the unspeakable pain in his chest grew further, as his feelings became even more wretched.

“—Get out of the way!”

Katia opened fire with the 120mm as another bunch of BETA—a small gang of Grapplers—obstructed their path. The rounds exploded, blowing the Grapplers apart. However, her accuracy was still lacking; she needed more rounds for a clean sweep than Theodor would have in the same situation. In an instant, her magazine was emptied and the surviving Grapplers swiftly drew closer, undeterred.

“—Ahh!”

In the projected window, Theodor saw Katia’s eyes widen in fear—and then, her face firm with resolution, she readied the supplemental armor.

chp4-04b.jpg

“Hey, don’t tell me— Stop!” Theodor shouted in a strained voice. It was obvious what Katia was intending to do. “There’s no way you can fight in close quarters combat yet! You’re just going to get yourself killed!”

“—My ammunition won’t last like this. I need to save as much of it as I can!”

“In that case, you should just get away on your own—!”

“—No way! Both of us must survive! As long as I can still fight, I absolutely won’t give up—!”

Katia charged into close quarters, firing the 36mm. As the Grappler raised its hardened forearms to protect itself, she lifted her spiked shield and rammed it into its shoulder, using the momentum of her charge to knock the Grappler off balance. Taking advantage of the opening, Katia shoved the muzzle of her assault cannon at the Grappler and fired off a 120mm shell at point blank range.

However, while she was preoccupied with one Grappler, another rushed in from the side, raising its forearm up to strike.

“—Guuah!”

Blindsided by the attack, Katia’s right assault cannon and half of the TSF’s arm was torn off. Trailing smoke and sparks, her craft was thrown backwards by the impact.

“—No! Not yet… Take this!”

Forcing the TSF to recover its balance, Katia threw her craft towards the Grappler, smashing into it with the reactive plates of her shield. The impact caused the plates to explode, tearing the monster in half.

Even as the body settled on the snowfield, yet another group of Tank class came rushing in from the front. Her expression twisting in vexation, Katia activated her mount-pylon to bring the other assault cannon forward, opening fire at the group. Though the Tanks were torn apart one after the other, her remaining ammo was now below 10%.

“—I won’t let you get close to Herr Eberbach!”

“Stop…” muttered Theodor, unable to endure, as he watched the back of Katia’s TSF who kept fighting with only one arm.

“Please, stop it already…”

The anger which had hung about him like a haze had vanished—in order to protect him, Katia was using her own body as a shield. She was protecting him, someone who had even considered killing her. As someone who had fought on the battlefield without ever trusting in someone until now, her actions were in absolute antithesis to everything he had held firm to. It was utterly incomprehensible to him—no, he knew that if he allowed himself to understand it, he would lose himself.

Still, even though he knew he could not accept her actions, the doubts Theodore had at his own intentions refused to dissipate. His motives for erasing Katia… Why was he acting like the Stasi he so hated; the Stasi that killed Lize and his parents?

Theodor felt sick. His hand started to tremble—his right hand, which had not been able to hold on three years ago. That right hand, in that incident… Once again, would he lose hold of someone who trusted him, right before his eyes, just like he lost his sister?

“—I’ll absolutely survive! I will never give up! I’m going to find out what happened to my father, no matter what!”

At her words, Theodor’s breath caught in his throat. The eyes of Katia in the transmitted projection seemed sorrowful but, at the same time, gleamed with a strong and dauntless will.

This girl, she…

Katia’s lips trembled with emotions, as she spoke of the things she held dear.

“—I’m a fool, aren’t I? Even though I don’t know if my father is still alive, I still laid this heavy burden on your shoulders…”

As she spoke, tears began to stream down her cheeks.

“—However, I still want to make Father’s dream come true. I mean, with everyone quarreling like this, the BETA will kill us all! We are acting like nothing but fools! If I don’t give up, if everyone can work together, I know that a way through this will show up—!”

Repositioning her shield, with curls of white smoke rising from it, Katia glared at the approaching BETA.

“—Herr Eberbach risked his life to help someone like me. You gave me another chance… That’s why you are someone important to me. But if I were to run away here, and abandon someone important to me after saying I would protect everyone, I would lose any right to carry on my father’s will! I wouldn’t be able to call myself a good person anymore!”

Katia ignited her jump units, beginning her assault. Before her were a number of Grapplers, and twice as many Tanks surrounding them. At this rate, surely…

“—I refuse to become a coward like that! That’s why—!”

Katia continued to struggle on, deep within that hell.

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

If Katia were to be KIA during this battle, he would be able to escape from the eyes of the Stasi—It would be a lie to say that such a thought didn’t cross Theodor’s mind. In this situation, Irisdina would have no choice but to accept it. That way, he could survive by himself. That would be the most logical decision to make.

However, he couldn’t do it. His heart wouldn’t let him.

The one thing he hated above all else was the snivelling, miserable person he had been in that dim interrogation room, the one who had pathetically answered every question he was asked, his eyes and nose dripping. If it had been his stepfather, stepmother or Lize who had been caught, they surely would have died before revealing anything. And yet, he had… He had…

I’m nothing but a detestable coward who did nothing but close his eyes and shut his mouth…

There was no way that he was someone who could believe in others, or wanted to protect them like Katia. He didn’t hold any desire to protect his country either. He only ever fought for himself. If he were to go by what Irisdina said to him just before the battle, Katia was an exceedingly more qualified Pilot than he was.

However, there was one thing he would never accept: that Theodor Eberbach was nothing but a coward.

Having had everything taken away from him, there was no way that he would let himself become the same kind of scum that took away from others, like the Stasi!

 

***

 

The next thing he knew, his vision was covered with splotches of a dark red fluid.

There was something impaled on the spike of his shield on the left arm. From the lower right of the cockpit came the vibrations of his ignited jump unit. Right in front of his TSF was the body of a Grappler spasming while its bodily fluids gushed out over him. Somehow, he was able to maintain the balance of his craft on just its right leg.

Beside him, Katia’s MiG-21 slammed its shield into the Grappler, blowing it apart with the reactive plates.

“—T-Theodor?” asked Katia, as she stared at him in amazement, “what are you doing?”

“I know!” He yelled.

Pulling the spike out of the BETA corpse, he simultaneously opened fire on the surrounding Grapplers with his assault cannon.

“—Huh?”

“I said I know about your circumstances! But, I’m not going to just let someone die in front of me again!”

“—Eeeh!?”

It took Katia a moment to catch up with the situation, but slowly she began to understand; almost unable to believe it, her eyes opened wide and the sorrow disappeared as they grew moist.

Ignoring her reaction, Theodor shouted, “we need to make a quick boost dash backwards if we want to finish these guys off! I can only use the jump units for another minute—two minutes at most—but we’ll be able to put some distance between us!”

“—But if you use up your fuel and ammo you won’t be able to escape!”

“Our first priority is to get ourselves back to HQ, I’m counting on you until then! You definitely won’t leave me, right Katia!?”

“—!”

Katia silently broke into a wide smile and began to cry tears of joy.

“Where’s your acknowledgement!? This is an order from a senior officer, you know!?”

“—I-I copy!”

“And also, next time, if you cannot read the atmosphere, at least think about my position before you act! If you can do that—”

Theodor paused, unable to complete his sentence. Even so, Katia was able to guess his meaning, and nodded with a glad ‘Yes!’

The chatter of their guns, and the roar of their jump units, resounded across the battlefield.

 

***

 

The restoration of the datalink with the squadron came just as the two finally linked up with the Battalion’s HQ platoon.

“—Schwarz 08, are you both safe!?” Irisdina’s voice immediately came through the comms.

“I’m alright, Kati—Schwarz 07 is safe as well! However, 08 is dry on fuel, and 07’s right arm is lost. Both units have less than 10% ammo remaining.”

Theodor made his report as both he and Katia took cover using the corpses of a pair of dead Destroyers, setting up their assault cannons. Checking the status in the tactical screen, he felt a sense of relief.

Looks like all the others in the 666th made it through… and most importantly, since the datalink was broken, no one should have heard our conversation just now…

However, immediately cutting through his short lived relief, Irisdina’s next line came in an urgent tone, “—quickly replenish your ammunition if you can! The Grappler group we attacked is heading your way!”

“What—!?”

“—Get ready to engage! They’ll be there in three minutes!”

We’re going to be swallowed up by the Grappler group so soon!?

Feeling a chill run down his back, Theodor immediately replied, “Understood! However, reinforcements should be arriving soon—”

“—Didn’t you look at the time?” Irisdina cut him off.

Theodor was taken aback. As he had been concentrating everything on the battle as they headed towards this location, he hadn’t noticed the passage of time. He took a look at the time display in the projection, and groaned.

“It’s already… 1050…?”

 

1050 hrs
Former People’s Republic of Poland
Approximately 50 km from the East Bank of the Neisse River

 

“—HQ, this is Hannibal 05, we can’t hold on much longer!”

The scream from the Battalion HQ platoon commander rattled Marai’s eardrums.

“—Ammo and fuel are at less than twenty percent! At this rate, we won’t be able to pull out! Where the hell are the Stasi forces!? It’s already long past the time they said they’d arrive!”

“Link up with the 724th Squadron, and do everything you can to defend this position! Reinforcements will definitely come!” Marai shouted back, giving out the orders on reflex. Though she was aware that there wasn’t any proof behind her words, there was nothing else that she could have said in that situation.

Of the TSFs that could continue fighting against the approaching BETA group, there were the 10 damaged units that were dry on fuel, holding positions in the area; Hannibal’s TSF, her own, and the 3 units from the Battalion HQ platoon; the 3 remaining units from the 723rd; and 9 units from the 666th, including Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim’s.

At the moment, the 666th and 612th squadrons—deployed to hold back the Grappler group—were being pushed back, forcing them to fall back hastily. On top of that, the promised relief force from the Stasi had yet to make their appearance.

“—Why haven’t those Stasi bastards come yet!? Do they intend to leave us hanging in the wind!? Damn those fuckers, always taking advantage of us—!”

“—Hold your tongue, Hannibal 07! We have no choice but to keep fighting, we don’t have any other options!”

“—There are more enemies than we have bullets! What the hell are we supposed to use when we run out!?”

The angry voices of the surrounding Pilots continued to pour through the comms; listening to them, Marai’s expression grew furious, even as she continued to rain fire on the nearby Tank class.

Stasi… Do they truly intend for us to be annihilated!? Are they really prioritizing their own power-plays over the survival of the nation!?

Even if the the line of defense didn’t break down, if the NVA lost the forces invested in this battle, the war to defend this country would only be that much tougher thereafter. That’s why she felt nothing but bitterness towards those people who, even now, were more concerned with petty politics than protecting their home and countrymen.

“—The Grappler group will arrive in 5 minutes! All damaged TSFs, form up around me!”

Marai breathed a sigh of relief as Hannibal took charge over the situation and gave his orders. The battalion commander to whom she had given her heart hadn’t lost the will to fight.

“—Our two companies will soon return! With them, we’ll have a fighting chance—”

Just as he finished, eight MiG-21s appeared, boost dashing over the snowfield. It was the 666th and 612th who had pulled back towards them. Though all the TSFs of the former were in good condition, not even half the units of the latter came back.

Looks like the reputation of being “The Strongest in the GDR” isn’t just for show!

Even as she shivered at the horrible losses the 612th took, Marai felt a sense of admiration at the capabilities of the 666th TSF squadron. Although one unit had been damaged prior to the attack, that the entire team was able return alive could have been said to be a miracle on the battlefield.

I begin to understand why the Major is considerate of her, Marai thought.

The strength of the 666th lay in the command abilities of Irisdina. For the 666th to continue to maintain its reputation as the “strongest,” it was essential to support her as the commander.

Besides, the achievements of the squadron played a significant part as propaganda as well, helping to show the nation the prestige of the NVA. For instance, the youths who were awed by the actions of the 666th would come join the Army seeking to be Pilots, creating an increase in the number of talents the NVA could recruit for their TSF cohorts.

However, were Irisdina to be killed in action, the NVA would lose its ace in the hole. With the increasing influence of the Ministry of State Security’s Armed Security Force, such a loss would have an enormous impact on the balance of the ongoing power struggle.

That surely can’t be the Stasi’s objective, can it!? …No, this is too large-scale for just that…

“—I want each squadron to build a defensive wedge centered around the damaged units! Concentrate your firepower and extend your operational time as much as you can!”

Hannibal’s voice as he gave out orders drowned out Marai’s errant thoughts. Within a few seconds, each squadron had formed up in a circle formation surrounding the damaged TSFs. Only 17 units remained, less than half of the battalion’s normal strength.

We have 20% ammo and fuel on average… If we run dry before reinforcements arrive—!

“—Fuck, you’ve got to be kidding me! Why now, at a time like this!?”

A sobbing voice filled with despair came over the comms briefly, followed by the battalion HQ platoon commander’s yelling a few seconds later.

“—CO, this is bad!”

“—What happened!?”

“—There’s Fortress class in front of the Grappler group! They’ll be in range soon!”

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

“—For the Fort-class to show up now…” muttered Annette, despair in her voice.

Theodor felt the same. His feelings were so strong that he was rendered speechless.

The marching Grapplers and Tanks came into view, and among them were gigantic shadows stretching up into the howling snowstorm; the figures of approaching Fortresses. Each of them was close to seventy meters tall, and looked more like organic mountains moving in the snow.

The 666th could handle the Grapplers and Tanks, if they used their remaining ammo sparingly, but there was no way they could stop the approach of the Forts.

Why did they have to come now!? Theodor thought, coming close to panic.

“—Schwarze, don’t forget yourselves,” Gretel shouted, her voice strained, “reinforcements will definitely come! We are TSF Pilots of the Nationale Volksarmee, and we will never turn our backs to the enemy!”

Then where the fuck are they!? We’re going to be massacred the way things are going, Theodor thought, fighting a strong impulse to yell back at Gretel.

The only effective means of taking down a Fort-class BETA was by giving it a barrage of 120mm. However, nearly all the remaining members of the battalion had already shot out their stores of 120mm, so that option no longer existed for them. For the battalion to avoid being annihilated where they stood, they had no other option but to withdraw.

In the comms window, Theodor could see that Irisdina’s breathing was only slightly faster. Furthermore, her blue eyes were still filled with determination, glaring at the approaching BETA. It looked like she had no intention of telling him to pull back by himself, at least.

“—Theodor…” Katia spoke, her voice heavy with emotion, “I will fight to the end, with everything I have!”

Hearing Katia’s bravery, Theodor felt a stab of intense guilt; again, he had only thought about saving himself, unable to forget the state of his damaged craft.

“—Attention, all Pilots! These are my final orders as the Battalion Commander!”

Orders from the CO! It’s Major Hannibal! thought Theodor.

“—The battalion HQ platoon and I will move to attack the Fort class, and attempt to draw them away! Meanwhile, I want each squadron to withdraw and break out of the BETA group before the Grappler class group arrives! With the current situation, we can only hold out for another ten more minutes at most… There’s no longer any benefit in continuing the battle!”

Theodor was at a loss for words. Hannibal, together with the entire command team, was personally going to attack the BETA group to hold them back, giving the rest of the battalion a chance to withdraw.

“—Furthermore, I’m transferring command of the battalion over to the most senior officer—the commander of the 666th—effective immediately! I will bear all responsibility for my actions!”

Without waiting for a reply, the five MiG-21s dashed out into the snowstorm, led by Hannibal. While the number of units they had were certainly enough to charge in and distract the Forts, they weren’t the only enemies that the five had to face.

“—Major!” Irisdina shouted—and for the first time in Theodor’s experience, there was an expression of perplexity on her face.

“—Hauptmann Bernhard, you mustn’t waste your life here! You are the commander of the ‘GDR’s Strongest’ TSF squadron, are you not!?”

“—But, I—!”

“Iris! You are no longer in a position to be so selfish!”

At Hannibal’s rebuke, and the use of her familiar name, Irisdina was momentarily struck speechless.

Her brows crumpled in anguish, she opened her mouth, “—Irisdina to all remaining Pilots, Achtung!”

All the Pilots in the battalion listened to Irisdina breathlessly, awaiting her orders.

“—Hannibal Battalion will now break out of the BETA group envelopment! All damaged TSFs are to be abandoned, their Pilots retrieved by another unit—Hurry up! Move it! We don’t have much time! The 666th will take the lead when we move!”

The battalion burst into motion, following Irisdina’s orders. In a flurry of snow, the mobile TSFs started moving towards each damaged unit, recovering their Pilots in a hurry.

“—Schwarz 03, 07,” Irisdina called out to Walter and Katia, “we’re recovering Eberbach’s craft! The two of you are to support Unterleutnant Eberbach as we move out!”

With a quick acknowledgement, Walter and Katia flanked Theodor’s unit. Grasping hold of his craft firmly, they prepared to engage their jump units.

The roar of assault cannons echoed hollowly through the snowstorm—the battalion HQ platoon had begun their attack on the Fort class. The next moment, Pham’s scream came through the comms.

“—Grappler group sighted! Contact in sixty seconds!”

Everyone immediately twisted around to the east; coming out of the snowstorm were the lumbering forms of hundreds of Grapplers charging at them.

“—This is the commander of the 612th! There’s no way we can break through those numbers! We’ll just get smashed!”

“—Then you want to stay here and die!? I’m going to cut us a path, you just have to follow my ass!” Irisdina shouted back at the 612th commander without any hesitation.

Each company closed up the distance between their TSFs and, in a flare of jump units, they all jumped together, opening fire at the same time to bombard the BETA group directly before them. As the BETA’s blood splashed out onto the ground, they began their withdrawal to the north.

Held between his comrade’s TSFs, Theodor could only stare at the situation, stunned. In his shock, he could barely process what was happening around him. With the scene of the battalion tearing up the mass of Grapplers projected into his eyes, the one thing he couldn’t help but notice was the ammo counter of each unit drawing down to zero…

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

The entire tactical situation of the battlefield could be seen through the datalink of the NVA MiG-21 reconnaissance platoon that had been sent ahead. The progress of the battle at the fortified defensive positions along the river, the spread of the BETA group, the plight of the 4 TSF battalions that were fighting in the envelopment—as well as the data that the Laser class had been exterminated on schedule.

The objective could be seen in the distance, suspended beyond the ash-brown clouds. At this time, another battalion of MiG-23s would be heading towards the fortified positions, which were on the verge of collapse.

“All Pilots, Achtung!” The commander of the National of State Security Armed Security Force TSF Battalion Werewolf, Major Beatrix Brehmer, smiled in satisfaction as she gave her orders. “We will be victorious against the beings of extraterrestrial origins! Let us show them who we are, and to whom this country belongs to!”

A roar ripped out of more than 50 throats, as more than 100 jump units howled through the wintry skies.

 

◊ ◊ ◊

 

In an instant, everything changed.

Countless ball-bearings from a canister round blew through the snowstorm—and on the receiving end, a crowd of Grappler class were blown away.

Cutting through the smoke of the discharge, a group of MiG-23s in Stasi-pattern camouflage appeared. Though few in number, the forms of several MiG-21PFs could also be seen among them, painted in the same camouflage pattern. The voices of the MiG-23 Pilots could be heard through the communication headset.

“—Prioritize support of the escaping friendlies over the crushing of the BETA! We’re here to rescue the heroes!”

“—Let’s show them the power of the MiG-23!”

“—In the name of the Werewolf, receive judgment for your crimes, you extraterrestrial beasts!!”

Theodor wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Unable to assimilate the change in situation, the majority of the battalion’s Pilots stared in shock at the TSFs of Werewolf battalion, which had appeared out of the snowstorm.

In the span of only a few seconds, the MiG-23s tore into the Grapplers which had surged into the ranks of Hannibal battalion, one after another, turning the area into a bloodbath.

These guys… are monsters!

Although he should have been feeling relieved that reinforcements had finally arrived, Theodor only felt absolute terror. Once again, he relived the fear that had been scorched into him by the Stasi three years ago.

“—So this is the capability of the MiG-23 Cheburashka…” Katia muttered, her face stiff. “Even though they have such an amazing TSF, why…?”

Right after the words left her mouth, a MiG-23 landed right in front of Katia’s MiG-21, pointing its assault cannon at her.

“—!”

Before Theodor could do more than gasp, it opened fire with the 36mm—killing a Grappler behind Katia that she hadn’t noticed.

“—Oh, oh…”

While Katia’s mouth opened and closed in surprise, the MiG-23 relaxed its stance, lowering the aim of the cannon. It turned towards Theodor’s unit, staring at him. Without a datalink connection, Theodor was unable to tell who the Pilot was, and could only stare back silently.

What…?

The two TSFs faced-off for several seconds without moving—and then, as if nothing had happened, the MiG-23 turned away, blasting off in search of its next prey. The gracefulness of its movements was a sight to behold, it could have even been called beautiful.

The tactical situation had been completely turned around. With more than 50 MiG-23s joining the fray, the Grappler class calamity wave that had seemed insurmountable was grounded into minced meat in minutes.

“—Hannibal Battalion, do you read me!?”

Suddenly a communication window popped up. It was the commander of Werewolf battalion, Major Beatrix Brehmer.

“—We have cleared out the Grapplers. Take this chance to escape, before it’s too late. I’m leaving you one squadron for support. We are going to support the other TSF battalions now.”

What… is this…

Theodor felt in his guts that something was very off—it was too dramatic; their dynamic entry, flashy combat maneuvers, and the heroic manner of the commander—they were behaving as if they hadn’t violated their promise by coming in late and causing the battalion to be driven into a corner.

“—Beatrix!” Irisdina shouted. With a furious expression, one that Theodor had never seen before, she glared right at the comms window—right at Beatrix.

“—Damn you, you planned this, didn’t you!? This was the outcome you wanted—!”

Her tone of voice contained none of her usual calm. She was seriously angry.

“—I have no idea what you mean, Irisdina,” replied Beatrix, her voice dripping with obvious ridicule. “You’ll have to forgive us. Since the maintenance of our TSFs took so much time, we came a little late to your rescue. Our craft, the MiG-23, is infamous for the troubles involved in its upkeep, as I’m sure you are aware.”

Giving that explanation, Beatrix shrugged, the action clearly a deliberate one.

“—Goodness, it’s been really troublesome you know? We finally have a new machine, but it’s persistently treated as a defective unit… it affects the dignity of the GDR, and the prestige of the Ministry of State Security…”

“—Is that all you have to say…?” Gretel asked Beatrix, barely able to contain her own anger. “I’m sure you must be very delighted. Your dearest wish, displaying the might of the MiG-23 and Werewolf battalion on the battlefield, has been granted!”

“—Whatever do you mean?” asked Beatrix. “We came to rescue you, didn’t we? Even though you might have a potential enemy of the state in your midst.”

Leaving those words and a mysterious smile, Beatrix cut off the datalink from her end and took flight with a blast from her thrusters. About 40 MiG-23s and the Stasi MiG-21PFs followed after her.

Theodor stared at the remaining squadron of MiG-23s that were continuing the battle around him, unable to believe his ears. The sense of wrongness that he had felt previously was replaced with shock. Based on the exchange between Irisdina, Gretel and Beatrix, he could only come to one conclusion.

Just for that, those guys…!

Werewolf battalion, in order to showcase the power of the MiG-23, as well as to show off their ability to fight the BETA, had deliberately delayed their deployment just so that they could make a dramatic rescue when the four NVA TSF battalions were on the verge of being obliterated.

Theodor didn’t think that his conclusion was too far-fetched. From experience, he knew that the Stasi would do anything to achieve their purpose. And when you consider that this was another play for power over the rule of the nation of East Germany, it was even more plausible.

He could feel fathomless dread welling up—no matter how powerful and cold-blooded the Ministry was, from this point forward, he would have to defend Katia from them.

Yes, that’s right… I just have to do it…

—Theodor had finally made his decision—to protect Katia with all he had.

He glanced at Katia in the comms—she was staring back at him, her eyes wide with fright. Meeting her gaze, he gave her a nod to reassure her—as well as to gather his own resolve.

If I don’t do this, I’ll…

Theodor returned his gaze to the battlefield. Around them, Hannibal battalion had restarted their withdrawal. With the support of the squadron of MiG-23s Werewolf left behind, they slowly began to move northward.

 

Former People’s Republic of Poland
Approximately 50 km from the East Bank of the Neisse River
North of the former town of Zielona Góra

 

The snowstorm had intensified. The violent gusts covered the fields in white, and rendered visibility close to zero.

Under the cover of the weather, Hannibal battalion completed their withdrawal to the rendezvous point north of Zielona Góra.

Gathered there in the snowstorm were the upright forms of 14 MiG-21s—other than Theodor’s, they were the TSFs that had retained their jump units and enough fuel to make it to the end. The remaining TSFs had been lost in the panic immediately before reinforcements had arrived. Of the battalion HQ command team that had attacked the Fortress class, just two crafts had managed to return, if barely.

From the cockpit of one of those TSFs, a blood-covered man was slowly being pulled out.

The commander of the Special Composite TSF Battalion “Hannibal”, Major Hannibal. He made it, huh… mused Theodor, his body exposed to the cold winds as he watched the manipulator of the TSF gently lower the man to the ground.

He seemed rather close to Irisdina.

Theodor knew little about Hannibal; although they were both Pilots, a mere Unterleutnant would have little occasion to come into contact with the Commanding Officer of the battalion.

Still, the Major did put his life on the line to save us…

The only reason that Hannibal battalion had been able to hold out until Werewolf battalion had shown up to reinforce them, was because of the actions of that man, who had taken the battalion HQ command team out to stall the advance of the Fortresses.

Before long, the stretcher holding Hannibal was lowered to the snow.

From the color of his ashen face, Theodor could tell that the man didn’t have long to live. The ‘whip’ from the abdomen of a Fort had pierced the chest of his TSF, and fragments of the brokened armor had cut into the lower half of his body, tearing up several major arteries. Even if he received first-aid now, there was nothing that could be done.

“Theodor…”

Standing beside Theodor, Katia was holding on to his arm, a mournful expression on her face. Ever since disembarking from their TSFs, she had clung to him, refusing to leave.

She hasn’t gotten used to seeing people die on the battlefield, judged Theodor, gazing down at her sad face.

Hopefully, she can learn to do so soon, if possible, he thought.

If a person couldn’t learn to harden their hearts against losses in combat, they would only end up losing their souls instead. That was what happened to Annette.

Having thought about her, Theodor took a glance at Annette; she was looking at Hannibal, her expression somewhat detached.

“All hands, please gather,” a battalion staff officer called out to the Pilots—Theodor thought her name was Marai—with a stiff expression, “the Major has something he wishes to tell you.”

Obeying the order, Theodor moved closer with Katia. Honestly speaking, he disliked being involved in situations like these, but under the circumstances he was reluctant to disobey. As for the reason, he wasn’t quite sure himself.

Hannibal looked at the Pilots gathered around him. Thirteen Pilots—less than half the number which he had sortied with at the start of the mission. Among them, only the 666th had returned back with all members.

“I just… have one… thing to say…” Hannibal spoke, the words coming painfully. “You must survive… No matter how much blood you spill, no matter how much you have to suffer—even if the Fatherland were to be lost… So that someday… we can reclaim this land, together with peace and hope. You understand?”

Hannibal looked at each Pilot as he spoke. Finally, he turned to face Katia. Their eyes locked, causing Katia to swallow audibly. Hannibal gave Katia a feeble smile. He then looked at Marai, who was tightly holding on to his right hand.

“Did the mission succeed?”

“It did, Major…” Marai immediately replied. She gripped harder with both hands, “although the four TSF battalions lost half their strength, they were successful in drawing in the BETA. The ground troops at the fortified positions also held against the BETA until reinforcements arrived… Having lost the Laser class, the BETA group was annihilated by the bombers.”

“I… see….”

“Special composite TSF Battalion “Hannibal” successfully completed its mission. We were victorious against the enemies of mankind.”

“…Victory, huh…”

Muttering the words as if they were unfamiliar to him, Hannibal stared at Irisdina, causing Marai’s face to freeze.

“I believe, that it will happen in the not-too distant future…”

Those were Major Hannibal’s last words. Closing his eyes, he lost consciousness, falling into a deep sleep. Judging from the severity of his wounds, it was unlikely that he would ever wake up again.

Hannibal, he made eye-contact with Katia just now…

As he watched Hannibal’s body get loaded onto the transport helicopter, Theodor felt his emotions grow heavy. A short distance away, Katia, who had finally left his side, was talking to Annette and Pham about something—it seemed like they were praising her for making it back alive.

What on earth was that about? Those last words of his, it was as if he was telling them to her specifically… Don’t tell me…

Theodor’s face became stiff as a sudden thought occurred to him.

Irisdina came over, approaching him. A sudden gust of wind spread her golden hair in a magnificent wave.

“Unterleutnant Eberbach,” she asked, “may I have a word?”

“What is it?” replied Theodor, sudden tension causing his throat to constrict. However, Irisdina simply patted his shoulder and smiled.

“You did well out there today. Just as one would expect of a veteran. Walther gave you his praise as well.”

I didn’t do anything to merit the praise, Theodor reflected, feeling his heart grow heavier.

“By the way, Comrade Unterleutnant,” Irisdina continued, suddenly changing the pitch of her voice and reassuming the tone of a commander. Leaning closer to him, she spoke quickly into his ear, “just so you know, a while ago, I erased the audio logs from your’s and Unterleutnant Waldheim’s TSFs.”

Theodor felt his heart jump—if that conversation between him and Katia had been heard… All he could do was to stiffen his back and await Irisdina’s next words.

“My MiG-21PF command type has a wider communication range than the normal variants. Even if the datalink is disconnected, it is still able to monitor wireless comms transmissions—so, make sure to be more careful next time.”

Theodor received such a great shock at Irisdina’s revelation that he couldn’t give a reply, leaving Irisdina to continue speaking.

“Due to the interference of the heavy metal clouds, the only one who could have intercepted them was me. There wasn’t any evidence that someone else had accessed the data either when I checked—I’ll teach you the access code to modify the log later. In the future, deal with it yourself. Make sure not to reveal this access code to anyone as well.”

“You…”

—You mean you aren’t a dog of the Stasi? Theodor wanted to ask, but couldn’t find the courage to do so. As he hesitated, Irisdina gave him a cold smile.

“My only goal is to command the 666th, the “Strongest” TSF Company of East Germany, so that I can save this country.”

“—!”

“I will use anything I can for that purpose. If you do not wish to die, make sure not to betray my expectations.”

“…”

“Katia Waldheim… make sure that you protect her properly.”

As she said that, the transport helicopter carrying Hannibal’s body took off.

Theodor stared at the departing heli, a single conviction planted within him. The first half of Hannibal’s last words resonated stronger within him. They were words that he needed to apply to himself. Irisdina stood beside him, also staring off into the sky.

Before long, the helicopter’s form merged with the grey skies, and disappeared.

 

End of Chapter 4

Advertisements