Schwarzesmarken Chapter 3: Beneath the Gray Skies

Chapter 3 picJanuary 14 1983
1240 hrs
The German Democratic Republic
Cottbus District, Cottbus military base

Freezing winds bit into exposed flesh, as the raging snowstorm howled beneath the gunmetal grey skies. Theodor stood frozen, craning his neck at the TSF that towered over him.

The battalion commander — Beatrix — gave an arrogant smile as she stood in the open control unit of the MiG-23.  Her long black hair fluttered in the wind, dancing with the snow.

They’re treating us like criminals

Painted in what was known as “Stasi Farben” — a dark blue and grey camo pattern — the MiG-23s radiated blood lust as they pointed their assault cannons at the squadron.

Theodor felt his stomach tighten; their lives were in the Stasi hands.  It wouldn’t be strange if the 666th were to be falsely accused of spying because of that girl—

“Oh…”

Katia was at a loss for words too, it seemed like she was aware that this was an abnormal situation.  The rest of the squadron kept silent as well, making sure not to do anything that might make the Stasi suspicious.

“That’s a cold attitude to take isn’t it, Irisdina?  Even though we’re finally reunited after so long.”

Beatrix descended to the ground and smoothed out her long hair; it seemed that she had no intention to fight.

“Aren’t we schoolmates who once competed for the top spot back at the military academy?” she teased.

“I’ll ask once again, what is your purpose in coming here, Major Beatrix Brehmer?” Irisdina asked as she scowled at the menace hidden beneath the seemingly friendly words.

Schoolmates?  They know each other…?

“We are under the command of the NVA.  Even if you are from the Ministry of State Security, you are still required to have a legitimate reason if you wish to accost us in such a preposterous manner, aren’t you!?” Irisdina continued, behaving as if she didn’t have a lethal weapon pointed at her.

She’s defying the Ministry of State Security…  Isn’t she a dog of the Stasi…?

The other day as well, he had gotten a glimpse of a side of Irisdina that seemed to indicate she wasn’t as aligned with the Stasi as Theodor first thought .  Theodor’s foot twitched, as a sense of incongruity grew in him.

“…Acting the honor student, as usual.  I guess that’s how you managed to survive until now,” Beatrix smiled, as she replied in a sinuous, sing-song like tone.

“A reason? I don’t need one,” she scoffed.  “All I’m here for is to ask Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim to come with me voluntarily, to assist our investigations — under suspicion of being a spy, that is.”

Theodor dropped his eyes to the snow and mud covered asphalt.  Though he had anticipated that this would happen, having it become reality was still a heavy blow.  He felt his heart rate increase; he was connected with this person whom the Ministry of State Security was investigating.  Theodor felt someone touch his right arm.  Turning his head on reflex, he saw Katia clinging to him in a half-daze, her expression frozen.

“A reason is always necessary, Major Brehmer,” Irisdina argued with Beatrix, taking a step forward, “Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim has been formally accepted as a refugee, and officially inducted into the squadron.  I do not acknowledge your need to question her.

“Oh, is that so?” Beatrix asked, sounding like she was enjoying the situation.

“Please tell me, on what grounds is Unterleutnant Waldheim under suspicion.  Depending on what you say, I may raise a formal protest.” Irisdina continued to press.

“—First, the one who took Unterleutnant Waldheim under their wing is a Pilot who was under our care in the past.  Second, Unterleutnant Waldheim’s defection was far too sudden.  Third, Unterleutnant Waldheim has displayed politically dangerous thoughts in her speech and behavior previously.  Finally, the acceptance of her defection, and induction into the 666th TSF Squadron, was completed with unnatural haste…  With all of these put together, isn’t it only natural to be suspicious of her?”

Beatrix counted her reasons out on her fingers, as if pronouncing Katia Waldheim’s guilt.

Theodor clicked his tongue.  For Beatrix to have gotten the information so quickly, it must have come from informants within the base.  On top of that—

—It’s not just Katia she’s targeting, but me as well…  No, she’s suspicious of the entire squadron!

“In addition, there is some question about an incident in which Unterleutnant Waldheim was recently involved in.  If that was indeed an incident. It wouldn’t be strange if there was some sort of political undermining involved.”

Kompletter Mist — was what Theodor wanted to say.  However, the Stasi are infamously unselective in the methods they use to locate so-called “Enemies of the State.”

“Those reasons are feeble.  The squadron has acted in accordance with the regulations.  We are not guilty of anything,” Irisdina refuted, unfazed by the charges Beatrix listed.  “Considering that not even a day has passed since Unterleutnant Waldheim defected to us, it is only to be expected that she would not be aware of what is, and what isn’t, acceptable behavior and speech here.  This can be rectified through proper political guidance.  And besides, that incident you mentioned was nothing but an accident. She didn’t mean any harm.  All these points you are making are nothing more than conjecture.”

“Rather than taking the trouble to indoctrinate someone who is suspected of being a spy, I think it would be more efficient to just get rid of the issue entirely, yes…?   Both the person, and the unit they are in,” Beatrix stated, her tone indicating that she was aware of the barbs in her words, and enjoying it.

What do you think we are!?  After we’ve been putting our lives on the line to fight the BETA this whole time!

Theodor felt anger and resignation build within him.  How many years was he to be under suspicion for?  What point is there in fighting…?  With these thoughts in mind, Theodor felt himself growing hollow inside.

Beatrix then smiled, “Well, that was a joke.  I would never consider doing something that drastic.  All I want is to question Unterleutnant Waldheim, you know?  Since you said she is not guilty of anything, then she has nothing to fear, correct?  Let her prove her innocence to the Ministry of State Security in person,” She said sweetly, her voice thawing out from her previous frigid tone.

Certainly, there would be no problem if Katia could prove her innocence to the Ministry of State Security in person.  However—

—It’s a trap…  She’s lying.

Theodor’s throat grew dry, as he recalled his personal experiences with repeat Stasi “interrogations.”  In that dark room, no one would be able to retain their will.  He stared at the slender fingers which clung to his arm.

“I cannot agree to letting you have Unterleutnant Waldheim.” Irisdina said in a quiet voice, “I can’t allow you to question a subordinate who has done nothing wrong — isn’t that right, Genossecomrade Oberleutnant?”

“…Yes.  It is as you say,” answered Gretel in a clear voice.

“The Ministry of State Security is allowed to exercise its power over the NVA only if the target has committed a crime, making them an ‘Enemy of the State.’  Unterleutnant Waldheim has not done anything illegal.  Of course, neither have we,” continued Gretel as she got out of her control unit and descended to the ground.

She glared at Beatrix, “In addition, the use of force is only permitted if there are no other means of—“

“—Oberleutnant Jeckeln,” Beatrix interrupted Gretel, “to be able to say such admirable things now, you sure have grown.  I’m impressed.”

Gretel fell silent at Beatrix’s words.  However, her eyes shone with defiance.

Is Gretel an acquaintance as well?

Gretel silently approached until she stood shoulder to shoulder with Irisdina.   However, Theodor noticed that her knees were trembling slightly.

“Regardless, that’s the reason why I’m gently asking for her to come with me voluntarily,” Beatrix said with an affected sigh.

“Unterleutnant Katia Waldheim is a Pilot of the 666th TSF Squadron, and a valuable combat asset,” Gretel firmly stated, “I will not allow her to be unfairly interrogated.”

“So you refuse to hand her over? No matter what?”

“If you do anything more than this, I will be forced carry out my duty as the political officer and escalate this up the chain-of-command to the highest level.”

At Gretel’s words, Beatrix fell silent for a moment, though a smile still clung to her lips.

“Trying to coerce us using such a method can be taken as a rebellious action towards the Party…” Beatrix mused.  “Even if you proceed by military law — through the military court — things will still end up going my way.  I have MPs on base who are under my authority, after all.”

The sound of the snowstorm grew sharper, as if to match the tension on the aircraft holding apron.  A single gunshot would likely trigger the initiation of battle. Theodor could do nothing but stand in place, petrified.  During the torture and interrogation at their hands three years ago, the fear of the Stasi, and of death, had been carved deeply into his body.  The only thought in Theodor’s head was that he wanted to be anywhere but here.

“…How did things come to this?” Theodor heard, as he felt the grip on his right arm grow tighter.

He couldn’t believe his ears.  Theodor turned to stare at the person who had spoken those words, with wide eyes.  Katia, who was gripping him tightly, had taken a deep breath, and looked like she was preparing to yell something.

What is she going to do…!?

“I don’t know why I’m being suspected, but… this way of doing things is definitely wrong!” Katia cried.

“Don’t interrupt a discussion between superior officers, Unterleutnant Waldheim!” Gretel immediately snapped back.  “This is a discussion concerning your disposition! It isn’t a matter you have any say in!”

“No, do continue, Unterleutnant Waldheim,” Beatrix cut off Gretel’s reprimand. “Just where are we mistaken? Do tell,” Beatrix prompted Katia, smiling like a beast that had cornered its prey.

“T-The true enemy we should be fighting, are the BETA,” Katia answered, disobeying Gretels direct order to remain silent — saying the same things from yesterday, “and yet, threatening your own people with TSFs… isn’t that too much!?  This is crazy!  That would be like fighting your fellow East Germans, wouldn’t it!?”

Theodor couldn’t believe what he heard — Katia had just denied the very purpose of the Ministry of State Security.

“That’s why, everyone should work togeth— Ahh!”

Gretel, who had run up to Katia while she was talking, struck her across the face, making her lose her grip on Theodor.  The impact threw her to the frozen concrete, where she stayed.

chp3-01

“You bastard, are you insulting us!?” Gretel shouted angrily, with a trembling fist. “The main purpose of the Ministry of State Security’s Armed Security Force is to maintain domestic order!  How dare you call that crazy!?  Are you trying to deride our country?”

“B-But…” Katia started to answer, but fell silent at the sight of Gretel raising her fist again in desperate anger.

With a tearful look, she dropped her eyes to the ground.  Theodor stared at the hand Katia held to her bleeding lip, stunned; the situation felt unreal to him.

“That’s how it is, Major Brehmer,” Irisdina calmly told Beatrix, as if nothing had happened, “I apologize for Unterleutnant Waldheim’s disrespect.  I’ll make sure that she receives instruction on the importance of your office.”

Beatrix gazed at Irisdina in silence.

“However, the matter of questioning based on suspicion is a separate matter.  I request that you leave here immediately.  Otherwise…” The look in Irisdina’s eyes showed her resolve.

Would it really become a fight between East Germans? wondered Theodor.

After several seconds passed in silence, Beatrix, with an eerie expression of content on her face, turned her back on them and walked away towards her TSF.

“…Well, that’s fine.  I’ll withdraw for today.  I got to see something interesting, after all — all hands, prepare to withdraw!”

At Beatrix’s words, all twelve MiG-23’s disengaged their assault cannons, lowering them from the ready position.

We’re saved…

Theodor’s body grew limp with sudden relief.  He became aware of the sore muscles of his back that had been tensed throughout the situation.

But, all of a sudden, Beatrix called out to him, “Unterleutnant Theodor Eberbach.”

Theodor raised his head, suddenly choked with fear.  Beatrix smiled, as if relishing his expression.

“A word of advice, if Katia Waldheim turns out to be an Enemy of the State, do remember that you, as her guardian, will automatically be included in the questioning as well.  We are not so kind as to forgive someone who commits treason against the state a second time.  Prepare yourself.”

“Wh—!”

Theodor blanched.  He understood the implications of Beatrix’s words instantly .  As of that moment, his rating as a target for observation had been raised.  Both his arms and legs started to tremble, and his heart rate shot through the roof.

Beatrix continued speaking in an affectionate tone.  “There’s no need to be scared.  We are always looking for comrades.  That’s how your superior officer managed to live until now too. Do keep that in mind…  You can prove your innocence this way.”

The meaning of Beatrix’s words was clear: to invite Theodor to become a collaborator.

“You want to know, don’t you? The fate of your family members… and who sold you out…”

Theodor felt his breath catch in his throat as various emotions engulfed him.

“I’ll be waiting then.  You know how to contact me.”

With those parting words, Beatrix turned around for the last time and boarded her TSF.  As soon as the control unit retracted into the boarding hatch, her MiG-23 leaped into the blowing snowstorm.  One by one, the other units followed suit, disappearing into the gunmetal grey skies.

Finally, only the Pilots and TSFs of the 666th, their maintenance crew, and the people who came running from the base when they heard the commotion, were remaining on the apron.  The air was once again dominated by the moaning of the snowstorm.

“…I guess that means they’ll be one of the two Armed Security Forces TSF battalions that will be participating in tomorrow’s operation, comrade Oberleutnant,” Irisdina said to Gretel, as she stared at the lead grey skies where the MiG-23s had disappeared.

“…That’s the only thing I can think of,” Gretel agreed, as she slowly regained her composure.  “There is no way they would mobilize a TSF unit just to question a defector,” she concluded.

Theodor’s confused thoughts swirled like a whirlpool as he stood by.

“I will explain what happened to Battalion HQ and Base Command.  The higher ups will decide whether a formal protest will be made.  Please make a report to your superiors as well, comrade Oberleutnant,” Irisdina ordered.  “Now that things have gotten this complicated, I have no choice but to see them through to the end.”

Gretel nodded in agreement to Irisdina, though she looked anything but pleased.

“This situation gives the NVA additional material that can be used against the Ministry of State Security.  Though it is unlikely to result in a formal protest, it will be helpful in future political discussions.  Opposing the Armed Security Forces isn’t something that should be done openly,” concluded Gretel.

Because we’re the strongest combat unit in the East German Army, Gretel silently thought, as she stared at the distant skies that Beatrix had disappeared into.

Irisdina turned to address the squadron, changing her expression to show confidence.  “All hands, Achtung!  The situation has calmed down as you can see, so please be at ease,” she said in a spirited tone, “we have done nothing wrong, therefore there is no need to worry about their words.”

Irisdina then turned to stand in front of Katia.  The angry expression on Irisdina’s face was one Theodor had never seen before. He had never seen her this furious in his time with her.

“You, do you want to die?” Irisdina questioned Katia.

“I-I don’t want to die! But…”  Though it was in a small voice, Katia disagreed with Irisdina.

“It’s time for you to understand that this place is different from the West! The foolish idealistic dreamers are the ones who die first—!!”

“B-but… This, this is wrong.  Don’t you see?” Katia continued to argue, in a small, stubborn voice, “that’s w—”

In the next moment however, Katia lost all her strength, and collapsed backwards.   Theodor immediately caught hold of her, supporting her small body.  The suddenness of it caused Irisdina, Gretel and Theodor’s eyes to widen in shock.

“H-Hey! What’s wrong with you!?”

“Eberbach…?”  Katia, who felt a sense of security in those arms embracing her, somehow guessed who the person holding her was.

“Are you injured somewhere!?”

“No… I’m not.  I think I’m just a little exhausted…  Sorry…”

Theodor examined Katia. Indeed, her face seemed to be pale with exhaustion, with terrible dark circles beneath her eyes.  Katia gave a feeble smile.

“I was up a little late last night, trying to remember the manual, so that I won’t be a burden to everyone…  A-After all, the only thing I have going for me is… my spirit…”  With that last sentence, Katia lost consciousness.

It seemed like she fell asleep. Theodor felt her full weight pressed down on him.  He glanced over her thin and fragile looking body again, observing her light breathing.

He felt slightly remorseful.  Although it was her own fault that she had stayed up all night, the fact was that Katia had been ordered out here while she was exhausted, got caught up in that accident — and then ended up saving his life.  He felt partly responsible for her current state.

“Unterleutnant Eberbach, let’s return to the hanger.”

Irisdina had come up beside him without him being aware.  Taking Katia’s other shoulder, she gave him orders, “the salvage mission has been cancelled.  There are many things we need to discuss, but… the first thing to do is to carry her back.”

Irisdina, who was looking at Katia’s face, muttered in a low voice that only Theodor could hear, “you really pushed yourself too hard…”  Her eyes had a regretful look in them.

Irisdina faced Theodor. “You need to keep an eye on her in the future.  This girl is like that, after all.“

At her prompt, Theodor begun to walk with Katia supported between them.  In a voice which held no sternness, she gave Theodor his orders. “Once we return to the hanger, you’re dismissed.  You got involved in that uproar immediately after the accident, after all.  Go and get some proper rest.”

She paused, but Theodor remained silent.  “Then, in the evening, please instruct Unterleutnant Waldheim in the proper political conduct.  The way she is now, sooner or later, I won’t be able to protect her.  I leave it to you to do whatever you can first.  It’s fine if you just teach her what you know.”

“…Verstanden,” Theodor replied.

Many questions seethed inside him.  Why she was so concerned about Katia?  Why did she argue against the commander of the Werwolf battalion to protect Katia, even though she was a dog of the Stasi, too?  And also, why did she appoint someone like him, with his special circumstances, to be Katia’s caretaker?

“At 1900 hours, there will be a briefing about tomorrow’s operation, so make sure to finish by then…  It is unlikely that you will have the time to properly explain things to her tomorrow.”

The conversation with Irisdina ended like that, without a single one of Theodor’s questions being answered.

◊ ◊ ◊

The thirteen fighters of the Werwolf TSF unit leapt in jump boosts towards a base that had been kept secret from the NVA.

“Is this acceptable, Genosse Major?” the Pilot, who happened to be the company commander, asked.  “Withdrawing readily like this…is that fine?” he continued to probe, trying to discern his superior’s thoughts.

“Yes, it’s fine,” Beatrix nodded, with hidden conviction, “that woman invited a time bomb into their midst. It’ll be fine as long as we continue to monitor them.”

Her subordinates swept the doubts from their minds, they had no intention to ask for more details.  Beatrix, who was reminiscing about Irisdina during their days at school, muttered to herself in the dim cockpit, “…your excuses were too perfect, Irisdina.  That makes it more suspicious, doesn’t it?”

By providing information on her treasonous older brother, she showed her loyalty to the state—or did she?  Perhaps it’s necessary to consider the betrayal of her brother, and her loyalty to the State, as two separate things, thought Beatrix.

“—Major?”

Beatrix gave her subordinate a confident smile through the comms link.  Since long ago, she had already known that it wouldn’t be so easy to catch Irisdina by the tail.

“…That’s enough for today.”

After all, there’s still more than enough time, thought Beatrix, feeling thankful for the luck that let her meet Irisdina at the base.

“We have more important duties assigned to us. Let us first give our full attention to those.”

 

February 20 1980
German Democratic Republic
East West Germany Border

A forest at night.  Sweeping through the darkness were the beams of searchlights.

The noise of the forest, the sound of our footsteps, the screams of men and women, the blaring of loudspeakers and sirens, the howling of the hunting dogs, and the booms of continuous gunfire; all echoed in my ears.  I didn’t know what was happening.  The people, who had gathered for the sake of a shared purpose, had scattered wildly into the woods.

All I knew was that, right now, we were running on the edge of life and death.

“We’re almost there, everyone!” My stepfather shouted from behind me, leading stepmother by the hand, “we’ll be at the Western border soon! Once we reach it—!”

But in the next moment, machine gun fire came flashing out of the darkness, blowing off father’s right ankle.

◊ ◊ ◊

I had always been alone.

By the time I was self-aware, I was already in the military orphanage.  Even so, I didn’t hold a grudge against my parents; everyone in the orphanage had similar circumstances.  Rather than blame my parents, whom I had no memory of, finding ways to survive each day had a higher priority.

Life in the orphanage was terrible.  The director was a drunkard who had been an officer until a relative’s scandal killed his career.  Everyday there was pain, as he abused us with beatings disguised as “discipline.”  He would laugh as he beat the children who had made a mistake.  I tried to run away countless times, and was beaten severely each time I was caught.

I had no friends.  Snitching was prevalent in the orphanage, and it was impossible to trust anyone.  At school, those of us from the orphanage were discriminated against as well.  In this way, I naturally came to consider everyone other than myself to be an enemy.  With my childish logic, I thought that since everyone was against me, then there should be nothing wrong with treating them as enemies as well!

That was when I met “that” person.

◊ ◊ ◊

“Aaa! Papa!”

Lise ran back to father, who had fallen to the ground.

“Are you alright—ah!?”  Her hand, which had reached to touch father’s body, was covered in blood.

“Don’t worry about me… Hurry up and go!” While applying pressure to his leg with both hands, father looked at Lise and me and shouted, “It’s already hopeless for me. But, you guys can still make it!”

“No!  I don’t want that!  Didn’t you say that we’ll always be together as a family no matter what!?” Lise sobbed, trying to get father to stand.  Mother was frozen stiff, screaming wordlessly, with both hands held over her mouth.

“Go! Theodor! Take care of Lise…  Quickly, go now!”

With tears streaming down my face, I grabbed Lise’s right hand.

“Brother, wait!  Papa is, Papa is—!”

“Mother too! Hurry!”

I pried Lise away from father and, pushing mother’s back, I began to run. I had made a promise with father; for that reason, I gripped the small hand tightly in mine, like I always did.

◊ ◊ ◊

“This is your new house, Theodor,” said stepfather.  It was a mansion apartment in the city of Berlin.

In the winter of my eighth year, I was adopted by this family.  The couple who adopted me, the Hohensteins, were apparently distant relatives of mine.   The two, who worked as playwrights, had looked for me after my parents had died and I had gone missing.

I couldn’t believe it; I thought that I had been sold by the orphanage to these people, who intended to work me like a slave.  Well, the first half was true, at least.  The couple had to pay a large sum of money to the orphanage before they could take custody of me.

“From today, you are part of this family,” stepfather said, with a welcoming look, “it may be difficult for you to get used to it immediately, but we hope you can learn to do so eventually…  Please, take your time.”

“…”

Full of hostility and suspicion, I kept my silence and stepped into the foyer.  The mansion didn’t look new, it should’ve be fairly easy to escape from there.  They were different from that ex-soldier orphanage director; they wouldn’t know to get help from the street gangs to find me.  I tuned out what the man who would be my stepfather said, as I planned my escape.  But then—

“Are you the one who is going to become my big brother…?”  Timidly peeking from the corner of the corridor was a little girl, who was the same height as me.  She had beautiful golden hair, and clear emerald green eyes.  Her face, which looked like it would normally be full of life and cheer, was at that moment clouded by a mixture of nervousness and curiosity.

“Let me introduce you to each other, this is our daughter, Lise.  Lise, this is Theodor, he’s the same age as you.  He was born a little earlier than you, though.”

Stepfather clasped my shoulder as I stood there in a daze, “as her brother, you need to protect her, alright?”

“E-erm…”

Lise ran up to me, and trying her best to show me a welcoming smile, innocently used both of her small hands to grasp mine.  Overwhelmed by her actions, I stood there, unable to move a muscle.

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Lise Hohenstein.  I hope to get along with you from now on, big brother!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Lise and I ran with all our might through the darkness.  Behind us came the roar of gunshots and the howling of the hunting dogs, approaching rapidly.

“Big brother, mama isn’t behind us…” Lise pleaded with me while looking back, her face pale and breathing harsh.  I maintained my grip on her hand, and kept on running, “she must have returned to father…  Big brother, we have to go back!  Papa and mama are—”

“Idiot!  It’s already too late for them!” I shouted, unconscious of the tears spilling down my cheeks.

“It’s…already too late…damn it!”

◊ ◊ ◊

Father didn’t lie.  The three treated me like a genuine member of the family, although it took some time for me to finally realize it.  I felt like I had finally been saved; for the first time in my life, I prayed and gave thanks to the one called God.

Gradually, I grew to see and love them as my true family.  And at the same time, I came to regain my trust in humanity, which I had lost back in the orphanage.  The bright and cheerful Lise had broken down the walls around my heart, which I had thought impregnable.

Both our parents were busy working, so the two of us naturally spent all our time together and, as the years went by, Lise came to love me as more than an elder brother.  As for me, I planned on being a big brother who could protect Lise.

“Big brother, what do you plan on doing when you graduate?”

One day, in the winter of our fourteenth year, while walking our usual route home from school, Lise asked me that, with white puffs of breath coming out of her mouth.  At the time, compulsory education was only required until the age of sixteen. After which, you could choose to enter the vocational training school, or join the military academy.

It was normal to continue studying at the vocational school, because the draft age in East Germany was eighteen.  Time wasn’t as critical then, as it is now.

“Will you join the army, after all…?”

“I’ll have to, sooner or later,” I answered.  I learned a little about what it was like in the army when I was in the orphanage, but if I were to wait until I was eighteen to get drafted, I’d just end up a lowly grunt.  In that case, I thought that it might have been better for me to aim for an officer’s path.

“Recently, the newspaper and the TV have been talking about the failure of the Minsk Hive operation.  The war isn’t going to end anytime soon.  Also, if I become an officer, I’d be able to help father and mother a little with the finances.  Officers are well paid, after all.”

“I see…”

“Then, what about you?”

“Me?  I’m going to follow in papa and mama’s footsteps, and work in the theater.”

That’s right.  Lise was in the drama club in school.

“Even if the world becomes dark due to the war, I believe that everyone will still be able to smile, as long as there are plays.”

“…It’s possible if it’s you, Lise.  You’re father and mother’s daughter, after all.”

“T-Thanks, big brother!” Smiling, Lise wrapped my slightly numb right hand with both of hers.

That innocent gesture of hers made my heart grew hot.  What those feelings meant was something I already noticed.  However, at the same time, something told me they were something I should never act upon.  This sanctuary, which I had found in the Hohenstein family, was something which I would never break, no matter what.

“Then, I guess that I have only two more years to live together with you…”

As if guessing my feelings, Lise gently rubbed my right hand, her cheeks red.  I just smiled and nodded at her, enjoying the warm contact.  At that time, I never would have thought that I’d be dragged back into the hell from which I’d already escaped once.

◊ ◊ ◊

I kept running through the dark forest.  Unable to catch my breath, my heart felt like it was going to explode.  However, we would surely be killed if we stopped.

“Was this our fault, big brother…!?” Lise asked me while panting, desperately clutching my right hand.  “If we had not agreed with papa’s suggestion that time — if I had not been involved in the theater—!”

“Don’t say that!”

There’s nothing we can do about it now.

Our parents, who had pushed for a free, unrestricted theater, were driven from the theatrical industry by the state and lost their jobs.  The drama club that Lise was a member of disbanded for the same reason, and Lise, who was the pillar of the club, started being bullied at school.  As a result, father brought up a plan to seek refuge in the west.

Now that they have taken away the freedom of expression from artists, it’s only a matter of time before this country loses all other freedoms, father had said.

“I made everyone unhappy, and forced papa’s hand…!” Lise continued.

I hid us in the darkness, and took a look at our surroundings as I tried to catch my breath.

“And that’s not all! If only… if only we hadn’t—” Lise gasped, as if confessing, “if only…to our friends at school—!”

“I told you, don’t talk about that!” I yelled at her.  I didn’t want to hear it.

“If only we had left without saying anything!  If only we hadn’t told them ‘Goodbye!’” she screamed. “And then this happened…  Someone must have—!”

Lise paused, her eyes hollow, “someone must have sold us out!”

The next moment, we were caught in the glare of a searchlight.  In an instant, men clad all in black appeared before us, their MPi-K Kalashnikovs pointed directly at our faces.

I let out a gasp.

I felt the world stop.  Sound disappeared.  My body froze, and in that moment, the only things I saw—

“—Big brother, help—!”

—Lise, clinging to my hand with all her might, pleading for me to save her with a desperate face to the end—

—The figure of a man from the Ministry of State Security with sweptback brown hair, all dressed in black, a loose smile on his lips—

—And finally, Lise’s screams, as the crack of a gunshot rang out.

◊ ◊ ◊

This wasn’t real; this was a nightmare.  I understood that.  In this dream, I would always wake up in the same place.  I would always wake up in the jungle, surrounded by blood-soaked corpses.

In the darkness, the corpses slowly get to their feet, and draw close to me.  They turn their tortured faces to me, staring at me with gaping, hollow eye sockets.

“Why did big brother survive?” they ask in an accusing voice.  “Why is big brother following someone who is friends with those who sold us out?”

“Why?  Why?  Why?” the voices echo.

“Why, big brother? Why didn’t you protect me!?”

 

January 14 1983
1600 hrs
The German Democratic Republic
Cottbus District, Cottbus military base

Theodor woke up with a scream.

He sprang upright on his bed, looking around wildly.  There were no dead bodies, just the familiar surroundings of his room.

“Haaah… haah… hahhh…” Theodor panted, breathing rapidly, sweat beading on his forehead.  He stared at his right hand.  This feeling of Lise’s soft hand from the dream was still vividly fresh.

I had the same dream again…

Theodor slouched over and put his right palm to his forehead while swallowing dryly.  His shirt had gotten soaked in sweat, and was stuck uncomfortably to his body.  There was no need to think about the reason the nightmare came again.

I thought I was already over it…

Theodor clenched his fist, trying to regain some control over the feelings of hopelessness and despair that were tumbling around in his mind, as he recalled “those” memories.

When Theodor next awoke after that night in the forest, he had found himself a prisoner, locked in a cell at the Stasi headquarters. Naturally, he was there to be questioned under suspicion of high treason.  What happened to his family?  Who sold them out?  No one answered him, no matter how much he pleaded.

And then, the days of hell began.

The questioning by the Stasi was terrible beyond belief.  He was deprived of sleep, made to answer the same questions over and over again, and frequently tortured physically—all of which worked to tear Theodor’s spirit to shreds.  His will to resist was broken in only a few days, and he had begged for the opportunity to tell them everything he knew.  However, Theodor knew little that was of interest to them, since everything about the defection had been planned by his stepfather alone.

One month later, Theodor was suddenly released without any explanation. He had nowhere to return to, as the apartment  he stayed in had already been confiscated by the state.  He had no clue about the whereabouts of his family either. He still didn’t know who betrayed them, but he had no energy left to find out, either.

Even after his release, his troubles weren’t over.  The school had withdrawn his application, and he couldn’t find anyone to hire him.  The fact that he had been taken in for questioning on suspicion of treason was known everywhere.  The only chance of survival he had was to join the National People’s Army.

Using the orphanage that he loathed, Theodor knocked on the doors of the TSF Specialist Junior Military Academy.  As they accepted children from as early as age fifteen, according to circumstances, Theodor, who never finished his compulsory education, was qualified for entry.  And then, after half a year of training, Theodor became a TSF Pilot, and threw himself into the war against the BETA.  Since then, twice as determined to trust no one but himself, Theodor cloaked himself in a shroud of solitude, keeping his hatred and fear of the Stasi hidden away.

◊ ◊ ◊

Theodor checked the time, waiting for his breathing to settle.  Sixteen hundred hours.  After parting from Irisdina and Katia at the hangar, he had returned to his room. Three hours had passed since he fell into bed, and there was another three hours until the briefing.  Before then, he had to provide Katia with political guidance.  And he had a reason to make sure that she learned it properly, aside from Irisdina’s orders: if Katia didn’t learn to control her speech and conduct, they would all be doomed.  The 666th would be under the scrutiny of the Stasi from now on.

She’s just so damn impudent…

Theodor’s back and bed were soaked in cold sweat—recent events had placed him back in the same situation as the nightmare that took place 3 years ago.  As long as Katia was still within the squadron, the situation would not change.

And the easiest way out of this predicament, for him, was to…

—Scheiße!

He grabbed a fresh set of BDUs from the locker, and started putting them on.

Anyway, the first thing to do is to teach that kid just how rotten this country is. Besides…

Shoving his arm into the uniform, Theodor finished collecting his thoughts, and heaved a sigh.

I owe her one, after all…

She had saved his life — the memory of Katia falling into his arms exhausted afterwards had made a deep impression on him.

◊ ◊ ◊

Katia was resting in her room.  After the incident on base with the Stasi, she had been carried to the medical bay, where she was diagnosed with extreme exhaustion.  Irisdina gave her direct orders to rest, and sent her to her room.

“E-Erm…” In her undershirt, Katia grasped her hands together while speaking apologetically, “I just wanted to say, thank you very much for before…”

Theodor kept silent, ignoring her words of gratitude.

“You helped carry me when I collapsed. And also, I’m sorry for overdoing it, and ending up like that…”

Theodor just shook his head slightly, and leaned in closer to her.  “Change into your BDUs.  Now.  Don’t wear your coat,” he whispered into her ear in a commanding tone.

“Eh…?”

“Keep it down.  This room is bugged.”

Katia gave a jerk of stunned realization, before nodding in mortified silence.  She quickly dressed, and followed Theodor out.

Outside, the snowstorm continued to rage.  Countless white snowflakes swirled around them in the gusts of frigid air.  However, out there on the roof was the only place where they didn’t have to worry about being eavesdropped on.

“I-I-I-It’s c-cold!”  Katia had her arms crossed in front of her small body, hugging herself.  The temperature was below zero degrees, a temperature difficult to bear wearing only BDUs.  “W-Why couldn’t we wear our coats?”

“It’ll make others suspicious.  If we wore our coats, we’d be suspected of intending to head outside to have a secret meeting.”

“You’re kidding!?  You and I are in the same unit, so why—!?”

“—Like I’ve been saying, your sense of what’s normal doesn’t work here.”

Gnawing on her lower lip, Katia turned around.  It looked like what happened this morning finally taught her something.

“Alright, let’s get straight to the point.”

Theodor gave Katia a stern look.  Sensing the reprimand that was coming, she awkwardly averted her eyes.

“I made everyone mad when I interrupted that conversation between the commanders, didn’t I…?”

“Did Hauptmann Bernhard say anything?”

“Not really.  She only told me that you would come and set me straight later.”

She left everything to me…

Theodor recalled Irisdina’s instructions to correct this girl’s manner by teaching her what he knows.

In other words, I can tell her the truth about everything. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have phrased her orders in that way.

“This country isn’t anything like the country you have in mind.” Theodor started explaining, having come to that conclusion, “here in the east, there’s no such thing as free speech.  There’s no freedom of thought and expression either.  Additionally, the secret police — the Stasi — have spies everywhere.”

He continued “We are constantly living in fear of the eyes of others. Any action that goes against their ideals are reported quickly and, more often than not, result in tragedy.  Like you saw before, those guys don’t care about the means, as long as they can flush out enemies of the state.”

“…” Katia remained silent, listening to Theodor’s words.

“On top of that, the BETA are pushing us back.  Every time they attack, we lose tens of thousands of men.  Recently, there has been a rumor that we might not last until next winter…  This country’s days are numbered,” Theodor paused, before continuing his depressing speech.

“You should have understood it by now.  This country isn’t anything like what you expected.  Therefore, from now on you must never again cross the people from the Ministry of State Security, or the political officers. Hauptmann Bernhard as well, of course.” Theodor concluded.

He waited for Katia to acknowledge what he told her.  However, she didn’t nod in agreement, and instead hesitantly asked a question.

“Um, before, that person from the Stasi was saying something about Hauptmann Bernhard…”

“That’s a well-known story.  She gave the Stasi information on her brother, revealing him to be an enemy of the state, and became a ‘Hero.’”

Recalling what the person herself said the other day, Theodor swallowed the sarcasm he normally used; the uneasy sense of incongruity which plagued him wouldn’t disappear.

“There are many low-lifes like that in this country: people that would turn over even their own kin.  That is why trusting others is tantamount to suicide; the Stasi collaborators prey on people that trust others.”

Hearing that, Katia brooded with a frown.

“But—“ She begun, before Theodor cut her off.

“—And now, we are being watched by the Stasi, thanks to you.  Understand this, our lives are in danger from now on.  If you get arrested, we will be suspected as well.”

Theodor stepped close to Katia, until he was looking down directly at her.

“The entire squadron may very well get executed because of you—so make very sure not to take a single misstep.  As a Pilot of the 666th TSF Squadron, the only ones you have to fight are the BETA.  Do that, and none of us will say anything… The Stasi as well, will eventually lose interest in us, and stop their monitoring.”

Theodor gave a worn out sigh, “that’s enough for now, go back to your room.  You’ll catch a cold if we continue to stay here.”

Theodor started to return—but stopped halfway.  He saw Katia’s expression change, from looking lost, to looking like she had increased her resolve for something.  She stood silently in the snowstorm.

He suddenly felt his anger rising. Even after hearing all that, she still—!

“If you have something to say, spit it out!  That attitude of yours is pissing me off!”

Theodor stomped  the ground in frustration, glaring at Katia.

“You!  Do you understand the position we are in!?  We’re cornered by the Stasi!  If we show them the slightest weakness, we will be devoured by those wolves in human form!” Theodor paused, and then added, “or is it that you regret coming here now?”

“No, that’s not it!  I don’t regret that! I also understand the position I’m in!”

“Then, what is it that you want to say!?  In the first place, do you really admire this country that much!?  Don’t tell me you came here thinking of causing something like a social revolution!?”

“That’s wrong!  I-I came here for a purpose—” Katia covered her mouth with her palms, an ‘Oh no’ expression on her face.

“A purpose…?”

Theodor was at a loss for words too.  The meaning of the word ‘purpose’ that Katia let slip, and her gesture, could only mean one thing—!

“What purpose do you mean?” Theodor asked in a trembling voice.

Katia kept her silence.

“Answer me!  Damn you, what is the real reason you came to this country!?  Don’t tell me, you’re a spy from the West!?”

“I’m not! But…”

“But what!?”

“If… if I told you, it would only cause you trouble… I don’t want to get you wrapped up in that!”

For a moment, Theodor could only gape at her silently.  And then—

“Damn it, this isn’t the time or situation to worry about such things!  The Stasi already have their eyes on us…  I’d rather bite the bullet then end up getting caught in the backlash without knowing anything!”

“—!” Katia hesitated, shocked at Theodor’s outburst.

“Hurry up and answer!  I’m not going to tell anyone!  Not Gretel, not Irisdina…and certainly not the fucking Stasi!”

Katia was taken aback, as Theodor looked deeply into her eyes.  In those brown eyes, were a hint of trust and reliance—which Theodor pretended not to notice.

Katia, after another few seconds of hesitation, moved slightly away from Theodor, and muttered falteringly, “Eberbach, do you know Alfred Strachwitz?  He’s a general in the East German Army…”

Theodor wasn’t familiar with the name.  However, guessing the meaning behind that question, he felt his body stiffen.

“Hey, don’t tell me—“

Katia nodded silently in affirmation.  Bringing her right hand to her chest, she answered in a clear voice.

“I came here to the East…in order to find that person.”

chp3-02

1730 hrs
The German Democratic Republic
Cottbus District, Cottbus military base

At the end of Walther’s mission summary, the briefing room in which the 666th was gathered was filled with shock.

“That is the gist of tomorrow’s defensive operation.”

Other than Katia and Annette, who were resting, all of the members of the squadron, as well as the maintenance crew chiefs, were at the briefing.

Meeting the eyes of those present, Walther continued speaking, “briefly put, we are to thrust into the flanks of the BETA group, hit them hard, and pull out.  That’s the strategy this time.”

Everyone stared at the image the projector showed.  There was a map of the battlefield, showing the invasion route of the BETA, and the incursion assault vectors of the four TSF battalions that were to attack from both flanks.

“For the period of engagement, it is estimated that it will be approximately thirty minutes after the initial incursion until the air force arrives.  As long as each squadron maintains coordination and discipline, we should be able to hold out for that long.  Any questions?”

There was no immediate reply.  Everyone had a glum expression on their face. Even Gretel, who should have known some of the contents before, was no different.

Theodor was the same.  Having overheard Irisdina’s exchange with Gretel on the parking apron that morning, he understood just how critical tomorrow’s battle will be.  Leaning back in the chair, he stopped taking notes.  He had a grimace on his face, as if he had bitten into a bug — an expression which was only partially caused by the contents of the operation.

“Then, I will now cover the operations planning in detail.”

Exchanging a glance with Irisdina, who was standing in a corner of the briefing room, Walther continued the briefing, “firstly, the squadron formation will be organized like this—”

A list of names was projected onto the screen.

“The squadron commander, myself, and Oberleutnant Jeckeln will form Flight 1; Oberleutnants Pham and Kschessinska, together with Unterleutnants Eberbach and Waldheim, will form Flight 2.  Needless to say, Flight 2 will pair up in elements of 2. During the assault, Oberleutnant Pham’s Flight 1 will be the middle guard; Unterleutnant Eberbach’s Flight 2 will be the rear guard.”

Gretel let out a heavy sigh.  Theodor, who would normally be her wingman, was now paired with Katia, in order to babysit her.  Gretel, who lacked confidence in her ability, was slightly anxious about this situation.

“In addition, I’ve received a report that the servicing of Unterleutnant Eberbach’s replacement TSF will be completed by midnight today,” added Walther.

Theodor nodded in resignation; the MiG-21 that he had been using until today had been totaled in the accident this morning.  That they were able to prepare another unit for him from the reserves was something he should be grateful for.

chp3-03

“Tomorrow, at 1000 hours, this squadron will sortie with two squadrons from the Special composite TSF Battalion “Hannibal,” and move to the west of the former town of Zielona Góra, in the former territory of Poland, by 1100 hours.  There we will link up with the TSF battalion “Thomas Müntzer,” and two battalions of attack helicopters, and hold position until the BETA group arrive,” Walther explained.

“Upon receipt of orders from the Neisse Army Group headquarters, we will initiate the attack against the center of the BETA group.  The incursion force will be deployed in a wedge formation.  Our squadron will serve as the tip of the spear.”

On the projection screen, a formation of three inverted Vs arranged in the shape of a triangle was shown.  In the center of the three inverted Vs was the marker indicating the battalion HQ.

“After breaking into the group, our squadron, in cooperation with two others, is to attract as many enemies as possible and delay their advance.  While this is developing, the transportation helicopter corps will follow up with supply runs of assault cannon magazines to us in the hot zones.”

To risk the slow moving transport helis, and send them into the skies of the engagement zone in order to maintain the logistics trail — this unprecedented action alone shows just how critical this operation was.

“After the arrival of the air force, the squadron will pull back from the BETA group, and return to the former town of Zielona Góra.  As previously mentioned, two TSF battalions from the Ministry of State Security Armed Security Force will be deployed in support of our withdrawal…”

Walter paused to give emphasis to that last part, and to draw breath.  “That is all.  Are there any questions?” Walther looked around the room.

Pham raised her hand, and was acknowledged by Walther with a nod.

“It might be a little late to ask this, but I was wondering…” Pham paused, and gave Irisdina a querying look.

“If you have any concerns with the operation, feel free to say them,” Irisdina replied, as she met her gaze.

Pham searched for the right words, letting her eyes wander around the room.  Finally, she asked Irisdina directly, while letting out a sigh, “…Is there really no other way?”

“That’s right, there isn’t,” Irisdina answered frankly.

Gretel had a face that said she was displeased as well.

“In the previous wave of assaults, three of the fortified positions at the west bank of the Neisse were destroyed.  If that area were to come under direct attack, the BETA will break through quickly.  Also, there are many coal mines and towns behind that line.  We cannot allow those places to become a battlefield.  We have a duty to protect the civilians, as well as to preserve the resources that are vital for our country’s war efforts, as much as we can,” Irisdina explained in a steady tone.

“It is for these reasons that this operation is necessary.  We will take the fight to the enemy, in place of the exhausted ground troops.”

Looking around and meeting their eyes, Irisdina addressed the squadron.  “This time will be different from a Laserjagd; we will have support from the other squadrons.  Although we only have seven MiG-21s even with our new member Unterleutnant Waldheim, this is enough for us to maintain our combat efficiency for this mission.”

“Any details about the two Stasi TSF battalions?” asked Sylvia.  That she had been with the squadron for some time was evident by the casual attitude in which she addressed Irisdina.

“…We have not been told the names of the units participating either,” Irisdina replied, after a pause.

Most likely, it will be “them.”  That unspoken message could be derived from Irisdina’s expression.  Without any change in expression, Sylvia nodded in acknowledgement of both messages.

“Depending on the situation, it is possible that we will be able to pull out without having to call for their help.  Neither Battalion HQ nor I have any intention of waiting for them once the objective has been achieved.”

“…Verztanden,” Sylvia acknowledged.

“If there are no other questions, then that is all…  Thank you very much, squadron adjutant.  All hands, on your feet!” Irisdina commanded, after she approached the podium.

After everybody had risen, she opened her mouth, “we are the strongest TSF unit in East Germany.  It’s another difficult mission, but so long as everyone fights with all your might, I have no doubt that all members of our squadron will return safely…  Comrade Commissar, have you any words for the men?”

Gretel nodded at Irisdina’s words, and stepped up on the podium with confidence. Throwing her shoulders back, she proudly addressed them, “in this operation, it is vital that we draw off and kill every BETA we can in the 30 minutes we are ordered to fight.  The west bank of the river Spree is sacred ground belonging to our country.  We must defend that land, no matter how much blood we shed.”

And then, she let out some words that only a political officer would dare say, protected by the power of the state political headquarters.

“However, you are not allowed to merely die!  With your final breath, you must accomplish your mission, for the honor and glory of the National People’s Army! Show them the might of the German Democratic Republic’s strongest!”

At the end of Gretel’s speech, Irisdina roared out an order that tore through the air.  “Give those insolent beings of extraterrestrial origins the ‘Black Marks!’”

““”Für das Vaterland!”””

◊ ◊ ◊

“Unterleutnant Eberbach, a moment please.”

As everyone was leaving the briefing room after the dismissal, Theodor heard Irisdina call out to him.

Theodor froze, feeling his face stiffen and grow pale as he began sweating bullets.

“…What’s wrong?” Irisdina asked, seeing his unnatural reaction.

“No, it’s nothing…” he answered as smoothly as he could. He didn’t want her getting suspicious.

“About Unterleutnant Waldheim…” looking closely at his face, Irisdina continued her original question, “will she be able to sortie tomorrow? I want your honest judgment.”

“…I believe she can,” Theodor answered plainly, feigning calmness, “her physical condition seemed to have recovered substantially when I spoke to her a little while ago. There shouldn’t be a problem with her political knowledge anymore; I believe that she will act appropriately from now on.”

“I see…” Irisdina gave a shallow nod, “that’s good. The BETA group will be tough to handle with only half a squadron, after all.”

“…”

Irisdina continued looking at Theodor, who kept silent after that last comment. She then asked another question, “…there’s one more thing. You—”

Theodor’s shoulders stiffened; could she have sensed something?  However, what came out of her mouth were words that he never would have expected.

“—You, are you pushing yourself?”

“Huh?” Theodor could tell from her tone that her concern for his health was genuine.

Irisdina moved even closer to him. “During the briefing, I saw you grimacing several times, as if in pain. If you are feeling unwell—”

“No, I’m fine,” Theodor replied hastily, as those deep blue eyes observed him, “we’re fighting a war. I can’t afford to rest here.”

“—I understand. Try not to force yourself,” Irisdina acquiesced, giving Theodor a pat on the shoulder. Then, after confirming that the attention of the other Pilots were elsewhere, she leaned in close, bringing her mouth to his ear.  “Regarding Unterleutnant Waldheim, I wish to entrust her to your care in the future. Whether or not the company will survive from here on, will depend on her survival — you must protect her. Understood?”

“Eh…!?”

“I’m counting on you, comrade Oberleutnant.”

With that, Irisdina parted from Theodor and left the briefing room with Walther.

Theodor stood still.  Keeping a deadpan expression, he silently clenched his fists. In his heart, there were two conflicting emotions. The first was relief. He didn’t know why, but it seems that Irisdina had determined that Katia was essential for the company, and needed to be protected. It was good that he could confirm this just now. But as for the other emotion…

Staring fixedly at the floor, Theodor felt his irritation surge.

If you knew what that girl is here for, you would lose your marbles for sure…

The memory of the conversation he had with Katia a few hours ago on the roof in the snowstorm was stuck in his head.  The “meaning” Katia gave was extremely perplexing to Theodor.

◊ ◊ ◊

“You came here… to look for a NVA officer…?”

On the snow covered rooftop, Katia gave a small nod at Theodor’s question.

With the blood draining from his face, Theodor asked in a barely audible voice, “…why are you looking for him…?”

“…He’s someone who is important to me.”

At her reply, Theodor recalled the conversation he had overheard in the hanger.

So, the ‘certain person’ she mentioned back then… was this man…!?

Katia continued, in a slightly depressed tone, “that is why I want to meet him, before the BETA devastates both Germanys.”

“Is he a relative or something…?” Theodor asked.

“I…can’t say.”

The blood rushed to Theodor’s head again—however, seeing Katia’s brooding look, he held himself back. For her to protect this secret so obstinately, he must be someone with a deep relationship with her.

“I… I really cannot say.  However, he is someone who I absolutely must meet,” Katia insisted.

Is he someone whom she met in the pre-war days…? Theodor wondered.

Back before the war, people from West Germany could get a permit which allowed them to cross over the border and enter East Germany for several days. Of course, the opposite was rarely allowed. The Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Germany, was erected in order to prevent the outflow of East Germans to the West, after all.

“I’ll ask again just in case, but you’re not here as a spy or to conduct espionage, are you?”

“I’m not brave enough to do that…”

Theodor shook his head at Katia’s timid answer.  “You say that, and yet you defected to the East on your own.”

“W-Well… I did it on the spur of the moment, since the opportunity arose. If you hadn’t saved me, I would have stayed in the Bundeswehr, and searched for him from there…”

Theodor heaved a sigh. So that was the reason behind Katia’s determined look during her questioning by Irisdina and Gretel…

“B-But—“ Katia suddenly lifted her head, “—I really do admire East Germany, that’s the truth!  In fact, I want to protect both Germanys! I would never cause harm to the people in the East, please believe me…!”

If that’s what you really want to do, then stop aggravating the Commissar and the Stasi already, Theodor mentally clicked his tongue, even as he nodded in understanding.

“Then, what do you intend to do here. In this squadron, it’s just a matter of time before you are killed by the BETA, you know?” Theodor asked.

“…Eventually, I’ll be able to get access to old newspapers and databases. I intend to begin my search from there.”

“Is he someone famous?”

“I don’t know. However, I’ve heard that he fought in Central Asia and Ukraine…”

Theodor scratched his head. The fighting in Central Asia and Ukraine would have taken place during the initial stages of the BETA War, from 1973 till 1978. Theodor himself joined the army in 1980—Theodor had received an education in the history of the war, but didn’t recall ever hearing of any officer called Alfred Strachwitz .

“I intended to search on my own from the beginning,” Katia continued, “I didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone else…  It’s not like I don’t have relatives in the East, but I don’t intend to depend on them. I don’t have any way to contact them, either…”

Hearing all that, Theodor heaved another loud sigh, feeling something heavy settle inside himself. In any case, knowing what he knew of the girl, it was just like Katia to drop everything and suddenly defect, just to find someone she was determined to meet.

However, there was still one thing he could not accept.

This girl, for her own purpose, deceived us in order to gain access to the East. This is a fact…

Theodor, feeling a mixture of anger and perplexity, stared at Katia, who listlessly averted her eyes.

If this gets found out by the political officer, Gretel, or the Stasi…

However, with Katia, the squadron was able to maintain its minimum combat potential. That increased Theodor’s chances of survival as well.

Before I make my decision, I need more information — Coming to this conclusion, Theodore ceased hesitating.

“…Then, for the moment, you won’t be doing anything?” he asked, keeping his gaze on her.

“Yes, but…” Katia hesitantly replied, with a downcast look.

“If there’s something you’re uneasy about, just spit it out already!”

“Well… when you picked me up, you recovered my shoulder bag as well, but…”

“Your bag… You mean Hauptmann Bernhard hasn’t returned it back to you?”

“No, she hasn’t. To tell you the truth, inside, there is a pendant in which a photo of that person is hidden in…”

Du dummes Mädchen! — Theodor barely managed to keep himself from screaming at her. He desperately struggled to control himself before speaking.

“I only took a quick glance at it before, but it wasn’t obvious that the pendant was meant to open up. I don’t think it’s been discovered yet,” Theodor told her, a grim expression on his face.

Though Irisdina might be a dog of the Stasi, she was also the one who first advocated the adoption of Katia into the squadron. However, that was no guarantee that she wouldn’t turn Katia in once she became aware of her purpose.

In any case, she has us by the scruff of our necks…  Bowing to reality, Theodor unpleasantly let out another loud sigh. Coming to several conclusions, he spoke to her.

“There’s no need to worry about that picture. As long as you are not arrested for something, no such evidence will be found.”

“Alright…”

“That being said, as long as it won’t raise any suspicions, I’ll help you look for that person.”

“But, that way, won’t you be…?”

“If I let you sneak around like you said, you’re just going to get caught. Like I told you, I’m only going to be doing it if it won’t be suspicious… I don’t want to get sentenced by proxy without knowing anything, after all.”

Katia, not knowing what to say, kept silent after hearing Theodor’s offer.

“In return, you are to do nothing, understood? Don’t make a single move. Otherwise, you can forget about breathing.”

Theodor drew a finger across his throat, causing Katia to gulp.  Pointing his finger at her, he stared into her eyes.

“I don’t want this to get any more complicated than it already is. I’ll be sure to let you know if I find something, so… You get me?”

Looking like she was holding herself back, Katia gave a woeful nod. She looked down at the white covered ground, a sad look in her eyes.

“…I’m sorry. I got you involved in something troublesome.”

“Shut it,” Theodor bitterly spat, as he looked up at the gray skies.

“I just don’t want to owe you anything,” he muttered.

◊ ◊ ◊

Anyway, the first thing to do is to find information on that “important person” of hers.

Theodor left the briefing room, organizing his thoughts while at the same time striding down the corridor with a serious expression on his face. He intended to perform the investigation, as long as Irisdina didn’t find out about it.

I don’t know if he’s a relative… but to defect just to find someone…

Katia’s actions had opened up Theodor’s old wounds — Katia hadn’t given up, whereas he had.

Is that why I…?

As his thoughts progressed, he recalled the appearance of the Werwolf battalion, and at the same time was suddenly reminded of the nightmare from three years ago. His back started to shake as goose pimples appeared all over his flesh.

The implications hit him. Just by knowing of Katia’s secret, he was raising his hand against the Stasi, poking them in the eye.

No! This isn’t rebellion. I’m only searching for the information in order to protect myself.

Shaking his head, Theodor paused and leaned against the wall of the corridor. He tried to settle the fear that gushed out from within.

Besides, that girl hasn’t done anything that violates the law! I’m still safe…

With another small shake of the head, Theodor started walking again. At the same time, he recalled the honeyed words of the Werwolf battalion commander, Beatrix, had said.

If he were to turn Katia in, not only would the political monitoring on him vanish, but he might also be able to find out what had happened to his family. He didn’t think that they survived, but at least he could find out about their last moments. And also, he could find out who had sold them out…

But, that person might have sold us out in order to survive, as well…

Because of Katia, an unrelated person, Theodor was being relentlessly driven into a corner. In that case, would it be so wrong to emulate the people he claimed to hate the most? The squadron would be saved as well, if he revealed what he knew. No matter what Irisdina thought about her, if Katia’s purpose was discovered by the Stasi, it would be game over for them—.

Feeling a shiver run through his body, Theodor continued to walk. Making his way to Katia’s room in order to relay the briefing information, endless thoughts swirling in his head.

 

2000 hrs
German Democratic Republic
Potsdam district, Spreewald

The Ministry of State Security’s Armed Security Force maintained a hidden TSF base in the vast forested area of Spreewald, south of Berlin.

“We will be participate in the forthcoming operation against the BETA,” Beatrix said with a dignified expression, in a briefing room with a somewhat over-efficient heater.

Before her, were the members of the ‘Werwolf’ battalion. All 50 of the members, and their equipment, were accounted for and in perfect condition, ready for immediate action.

Most of the men had been scouted from the NVA, and retrained in the Armed Security Force training center.

There was no political officer assigned to them. Only Pilots that had impeccable political loyalty to the Stasi were assigned to the battalion, so such a role was unnecessary in the first place. Each Pilot was their own political officer. Thus, in their chain of command, Beatrix stood as the sole commander of the whole battalion.

“The details will be explained by the staff officer dispatched from Operations Command.”

“I am Oberstleutnant Heinz Axmann, from Operations.”

As he stepped up on the stage, Axmann politely introduced himself. A number of the gathered Pilots gave him a look of respect.

Axmann begin explaining the mission. Everything he told the Pilots was essentially the same as the briefing that was given at the Neisse Army Group headquarters yesterday.

“—That is all. In this battle, although you will need to be flexible in judging the tactical situation, the Neisse Army Group HQ is entrusting us with this task, and I expect you all to fight with everything you have.”

The Pilots all nodded, their faces serious.  However, Axmann was certain that within their breasts was unsaid dissatisfaction. After all, there had never before been an instance where a battalion of the Armed Security Force had acted within the restrictions and objectives set by the National People’s Army.

Axmann saluted and stepped off the stage. His place was taken by Beatrix, who addressed the men.

“Our battalion headquarters will have a say in the determination of the battlefield situation. There is no need for concern on that point,” Beatrix said with a smile, overflowing with confidence, as she peered haughtily at the gathered Pilots.

“This will be the first time our battalion will be engaging the BETA. However, I am not worried; you are all able Pilots who have fought against the BETA before.”

Pausing a moment, Beatrix sweep her gaze across the men, looking them in the eyes.

“But still, you are not to get overconfident. Those aliens do not behave like humans. Do not over rely on the capabilities of the MiG-23. With that in mind, we shall charge into battle with the faith that certain victory is ours — is that clear!?”

An overlapping round of acknowledgment echoed through the room. The hard eyes of the Pilots had no hesitation, showing their determination. All of them had sworn absolute loyalty to the commander of the battalion, Beatrix. To this chosen force that was tasked with clandestine operations, Beatrix, who dirtied her hands right alongside them, had been firmly accepted as a compatriot.

“To be honest, I was surprised today, Major Brehmer.” After having waited for the individual companies of the battalion to break up for discussion, Axmann approached Beatrix, a mysterious smile could be seen on his lips.  “For the battalion commander herself to take a company and intrude on the NVA base over such a small matter… I know that you carry significant authority, but don’t you think that action was a little extreme?”

“I believe that there can be no compromise when it comes to the investigation of the enemies of the state,“ Beatrix replied, raising an eyebrow in reprove. “This is something that you should understand better than any of us, Oberstleutnant Heinz ‘Braune Bestie’ Axmann, am I right?”

“…I’m merely concerned with the attitude of the NVA,” Axmann answered with a studied shrug.

“Even though it’s suspicious that they would protect a Pilot who just defected from the West — one that could potentially be a spy — they are nonetheless the elites of the NVA. Now that we have shown our hand, they will certainly start to consider counter-measures of some sort. We need to give full consideration to the fact that this will cause them to strengthen their guard against us.”

“Oh ho, are you saying you are on the side of the NVA, Oberstleutnant?”

“Certainly not. My loyalty is to the party, the nation, and the Ministry of State Security, as always. However, if their attitude towards us becomes any worse, it will be difficult for us to do as we wish, like in the case of the operation tomorrow. That was what I was thinking.”

“Eventually, the power of the Armed Security Force will grow beyond that of the NVA. You won’t have to worry about such matters then. Those people will no longer be able to defy us.”

“And does that include your friends from Moscow as well?” Added Axmann, with a sidelong glance.

“…You say such amusing things, Oberstleutnant,” replied Beatrix. “Since the invasion of the BETA, Moscow has become a city in name only, hasn’t it?”

“Oh! You’re absolutely right! You have my apologies, Major.”

Axmann gave Beatrix an exaggerated bow of the head. She returned a nonchalant smile, as if to say it was an insignificant matter.

“…In any case, I’ll be counting on you tomorrow, Major. For the sake of victory, the battalion must play an active role…”

“Certainly. We came here for that purpose.”

While replying, Beatrix switched her attitude to that of commander of the Werwolf battalion. Clenching her right fist, she snapped it to her breast in a salute.

“We will grasp victory, in the name of the fatherland — even if we have to make the entire Neisse River run red with the blood of our countrymen.”

 

2300 hrs
The German Democratic Republic
Cottbus District, Cottbus military base

The office assigned to the Special Composite TSF Battalion “Hannibal” was quiet. This was due to the fact that most of the staff officers were out, doing their best to secure as many TSFs and ammo for the upcoming mission. The sole exception was Marai, who had spent the evening writing up the report concerning the encounter the 666th TSF Company had with the Werwolf battalion. Even if she was qualified as a Pilot, as long as someone was assigned as a staff officer, they would have no choice but to deal with paperwork.

Good grief, that squadron is always causing trouble…

Recalling the sculpture-like mask that the 666th’s commander always maintained, Marai pounded her fingers on the keyboard in annoyance.

Just because they carry the name of the ‘Strongest TSF Unit in the East,’ they got impudent and caught the eye of the Armed Security Forces… If I could, I would have sent them back to the main eastern army already…

To Marai, rather than depleting the 666th in the extremely hazardous Laserjagd missions, it made more sense for them to be kept as a quick response squadron behind the lines. That way, the name of the ‘Strongest TSF Unit in the East’ could be pristinely preserved, and they wouldn’t have gotten into political trouble at the frontlines like today. In the first place, the squadron should have been placed under the direct control of Eastern HQ for the express purpose of being a reserve force.

However, the deteriorating situation at the frontlines made that impossible. There was no way an elite battalion like the 666th could be kept in the rear, with the front in such distress.

Or, could it be that the top brass plans to keep sending the 666th to the front, until they cease to exist…? Marai idly thought as she typed.

Suddenly, Marai’s instincts told her that she was no longer alone in the office, and she quickly came back to her senses. A sound had come from the battalion commander’s room, next door. Approaching the room, Marai knocked several times on the door, and heard a muffled “Yeah” in reply — It was Hannibal’s voice.

“You haven’t gone to bed yet?” asked Marai in surprise, as she opened the door. She saw Hannibal sitting silently at this desk, looking deep in thought.

Confirming again that there was no one else in the office beside the two of them, Marai closed the door, and walked beside Hannibal’s chair. She laid a concerned hand on the arm of the superior officer whom she loved and respected.

“Staying up too late is bad for your body. It would be best if you went to bed soon…”

Hannibal remained silent, his eyes not moving from the top of his desk. Following his gaze, Marai immediately saw what he was looking at.

“Is that… a picture of your family?”

“Yeah. From ten years ago,” Hannibal gave a frank reply, nodding. He moved at last, picking up the wooden photo frame he had been staring at.

“I was trying to remember how happy I was back then. I seem to have forgotten what it felt like.”

Marai fell silent; this was the first time Hannibal had spoken about his family to her. However, she had no intention of prying. The private relationship they shared was something that both had decided would exist only while they stood on the same battlefield.

Marai stared at the photo — A younger Hannibal, a woman who looked like an aristocrat, and two young boys, were pictured. Everyone had wide, happy smiles on their faces. They stood in front of a house that Marai assumed was their own.

“The only one among them left alive is me,” Hannibal continued speaking, his voice sad. “Both my sons died in the war. My wife… was taken to a concentration camp, just because one of her cousins was a leader in an anti-government movement… I don’t know what became of her. At the time, I feared too much for my life, and did nothing to stop it…”

Hannibal twisted his lips in a self-derisive sneer.

“Even though I wasn’t taken, I lost everything anyway. I had nothing left. The reason I came to you was probably in order to escape from that reality…”

“That’s…”

Marai grasped Hannibal’s hand with a sorrowful look. She could somewhat guess the reason he was saying such things now.

Tears spilled down her cheeks — she, too, had sought for momentarily relief. A year ago, when she had wanted to forget the sadness of losing her lover on the battlefield, there had been no one else but him—

“If the Major dies, the battalion will be annihilated too. Please, don’t say such ominous, sad things…”

“I understand. However, there’s nothing optimistic about the situation.”

Hannibal spoke in a whisper that Marai could barely hear.

“I can’t tell what they are planning.”

For a moment, Marai was speechless — then she gave a small nod.

Even Marai was extremely suspicious about the movements they — the Ministry of State Security — had been making. The Werwolf battalion was essentially their ace in the hole.

“However, we can’t fight them. The future of the state, and the fate of the people, depends on the both of us,” Hannibal declared to Marai. However, he had an expression of deep anguish on his face.

While facing the BETA, enemy of all mankind, they still had to worry about the tyranny of the state. In the face of such a dichotomy, Hannibal, who had lost his family to both the war and the state, could feel nothing but aching resentment and anger.

“That is why, I wish to ask a favor of you,” he said to Marai while turning to face her.

“Yes…?”

“I want you to keep an eye out for the commander of the 666th, Irisdina Bernhard.”

At the unexpected name, Marai forgot to breathe for an instant, “…why… for someone like that… Someone who sold out her own family to the state… How can I trust someone like that?“

Marai bit her lip.  Hannibal certainly cared for that woman — Marai was half aware that her objection was based on the ugly emotions that rose up within her because of that fact.

“…Do you really believe that?” Hannibal asked, his voice entreating. “Sending a blood relation to be condemned to death with her own hands in the name of the state, but then ignoring the churls that send insults at her for that same act, maintaining her calm at all times — do you really think there is someone who can be that righteous?”

“Well…”

Indeed, if Irisdina had really betrayed her brother for the state, it wouldn’t have been odd for her to perform deeds that were even more heinous in order to prove the rightness of her actions.

However, she did no such thing. As if to make up for her sin, Irisdina rose to the position of the commander of the 666th. Then, ignoring the contempt from those around her, she only fought with all her heart, running through the battlefields she was sent to with her head held high.

Essentially, there was something more to her than meets the eye—

But still, she is someone who sold out her family…

Looking at Mirai’s face, Hannibal sensed her hesitation.

“I can understand your feelings,” he told her, “however, when I am gone, the few remaining supporters she has will be reduced. Even if you consider her to be a dog of the Stasi, if such an effective officer was to be treated coldly, and perished from lack of support on the battlefield, the loss of talent would only cause more suffering to many others, not less — Am I wrong?”

Marai stood still for several seconds — then gave a small nod. Although she was still personally against it, she could understand his logic. Also, there was the fact that Hannibal considered this to be his last request—

“…I understand. However, it is my duty as a staff officer of the battalion to prevent such a situation from happening,” Marai stared at Hannibal with sincere eyes. “I’ll protect you, my love, even if I have to give my life in exchange.”

Hannibal gave her a gentle smile.

“Thank you. When the time comes for me to muster my courage, I’m sure to think of you.”

“Eh!? N-No, I’m not worthy…”

Hannibal smiled, as he ran his hand through Marai’s hair, whose face had turned red.

“It’s fine, it’s something I want to do… I want you to remember, when the end comes for me, your name will be on my lips…”

 

January 15 1983
0730 hrs
The German Democratic Republic
Cottbus District, Cottbus military base

Within Cottbus base, there was a small reference room about the size of a children’s classroom.

It was build for use by the base soldiers for political education and recreation — or, at least, that was the pretext. In actual fact, it was just a simple library, and besides the various editions of Marx-Engels’s “Communist Manifesto” pamphlets that were in circulation, there were various other books on the bookshelves there. In the corner of the room several PCs were set up for the purpose of accessing the military database. However, the access history logs of the user were recorded, and would be sent to the political officers and Ministry of State Security for review without fail.

“So this is the fellow…”

Theodore intently inspected the microfilm of a newspaper using a reader. The newspaper was dated November 18, 1976.

Warsaw Treaty Organization Troops turn back the BETA invasion of Ukraine at Donets River…

Theodore scanned the front page of the newspaper, reading the contents of the article beneath the gaudy headline.

The man behind the victory, Generalleutnant Alfred Strachwitz, commander of the East German 1st Panzerkorps—

He looked for other newspapers which were published in the same period. Like he thought, the name appeared again in articles that reported on the progress of the war in Ukraine. Like Katia had said, the person she was looking for appeared to be a commander who played an active part in the early stages of the War.

Beside the microfilm reader, there were a large number of microfilm cassettes in a messy pile. They contained not only records concerning Theodore’s current objective, but also of various events that occurred after the BETA War begun. Like this, if anyone were to enquire into his activities, he could say that he was looking up old newspapers for material to provide the correct political reeducation to Katia.

It’s not like I can just look up the name in the military database, Theodor thought ironically, as he kept turning the microfilm.

He checked the time — 0745. There was about an hour and a half until it was time to prepare for mission launch, he’d had to leave the room soon. However, it seemed like if he continued on his current trail, he’d be able to find something. And then, so long as he was careful not to leave a search pattern that would trigger suspicions, he’d be able to look up more details in the database.

The search target, Generalleutnant Alfred Strachwitz, participated in the defense of Ukraine up until 1977. After having stabilized the situation at the Dnieper River for a second time, he returned to East Germany together with the 1st Panzerkorps.

Was I 11 or 12 years old back then…? Theodor’s mind wandered. In those days, he was attending school with Lise, and would cheerfully run around town after school with his friends, in a Berlin when East Germany was still peaceful. Back then, they were still clueless of the tragedy which would befall their family in the years to come—

Trying to dislodge that sudden unpleasant flashback, Theodor focused on the front page of the newspaper in his hands, which reported on the execution of Operation Palaiologos.

…There were barely any Tactical Surface Fighters deployed at the time, and the main attacking force at the frontlines would have been the Panzers… Also, the fortifications of the Oder-Neisse Absolute Defense Line hadn’t been established yet. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like back then, fighting under those conditions…

While thinking those thoughts, Theodor found himself becoming more and more interested in who the man Generalleutnant Strachwitz was, and how much tactical acumen he had. But then—

What!? This can’t be right…

Suddenly breathless, Theodor quickly rolled through the film.

There’s no mention of him during Operation Palaiologos…?

He checked the article on Operation Palaiologos again; Generalleutnant Strachwitz’s name was nowhere to be found. The commander of the 1st Panzerkorps was stated to be someone else, too.

Even when he examined the later newspapers, the man’s name never appeared again. Naturally, he couldn’t be found in more recent newspapers either.

There’s something strange going on here…

Theodor was struck by the feeling that something was really wrong.

For the name of such an extraordinary man to suddenly disappear into thin air…

If he had died or retired, the news would certainly be reported. So, filled with doubts, Theodor moved over to the computers, and used his ID to access the military database.

The one thing that Theodore was certain of, at least, was that Strachwitz had led the 1st Panzerkorps of the Warsaw Treaty Organization Army in Ukraine at some point. Theodore thought that if he were to make an indirect search of the database on personnel assigned to the group, and then cross-reference that with other entries, he shouldn’t raise any suspicions.

After hammering on the keys and searching for a while to no avail, Theodor gave up and sighed.

There’s no mention of his name anywhere in the database at all…

Feeling like he had bitten into a clump of dirt, Theodor stared at the display, his face stiff.

It’s somehow as if he never existed…

Searching for senior officers of the German Socialist Unification Party who had been attached to the Warsaw Treaty Organization Army Headquarters, or for commanders of the 1st Panzerkorps who served with great distinction in the defense of Ukraine, turned up nothing. According to the database, there was no one who’s listed accomplishments matched those parameters. Theodor suspected that even if he were to do a direct search of the name he wouldn’t get a single hit.

…This is odd. The name clearly shows up in the newspapers, so why…

Following that train of thought, Theodor came to a sudden conclusion. There was no way to change the content of a newspaper once it was published, but the information in the database could be edited at any time; if the Army or the Party decided to erase the existence of a person deliberately, they could easily change the database and remove any evidence that such a person ever existed in the first place.

Could that be what happened here…?

Feeling terror rising up within, Theodor began looking up the names of famous generals other than that of Strachwitz’s to obscure his electronic trail.

No matter how rotten this country is, I can’t imagine a need to go that far to erase someone. What on earth did this guy do…?

After typing for several more minutes, Theodor broke off his efforts. He stared at the computer display silently, trying to collect his thoughts. However, the vestiges of fear still gripped him, and his breath came unevenly while his mind was in disarray.

That girl, just what is her relationship with this guy…this General—?

“—What are you doing here, comrade Unterleutnant?”

“—!!”

Theodore felt his heart stop in reaction to the sudden voice. Before turning towards the speaker, he did everything he could to keep a casual expression on his face, in order not to look guilty.

It was Gretel who had spoken to him, holding a few books on military command in her hands.

“Oh… it’s nothing, I was just gathering some material in preparation for Unterleutnant Waldheim’s political reeducation…”

Even though Theodor replied according to the scenario he had planned before hand, he felt the words catch in his throat at the end.

“Humph. Looks like both of us have our hands full because of that kid. I guess we ended up meeting each other here just before we go into battle thanks to her.”

Giving an exasperated reply to Theodor’s explanation, Gretel took a seat at the next computer beside Theodor, and began working in silence.

Theodor heaved a mental sigh of relief — It seemed like Gretel had accepted his words at face value. At least, even if she were to check the history logs later, there would be nothing which would contradict his excuse.

What now? Maybe I should check with her, there is a chance that she might know something…

After several seconds of indecision, Theodor hesitantly opened his mouth, “Comrade Oberleutnant, if I may ask you something…”

“A question? What is it?” Gretel answered curtly while operating the mouse.

“It’s about the political reeducation for Unterleutnant Waldheim…”

“I see. Do you want me to take over her indoctrination?”

“No, that’s not it, I know that you are very busy, Oberleutnant…”

“Then, what is it?”

“As Unterleutnant Waldheim is someone with that sort of personality, even if she looks like she understands on the surface, I’m not convinced that she has accepted it inside. Therefore—“

“—Is there a more effective method to train her, is what you want to ask, right?”

After finishing Theodor’s question for him, Gretel sank into silent thought. It seemed like even she didn’t have a ready answer on how to remedy Katia’s lack of awareness towards the danger of her actions.

Hoping to string the conversation going, Theodor continued speaking, “I understand that normally we would send someone like her back to the rear for reeducation. Unfortunately, however, we cannot afford do that considering our current lack of combat potential. Thus, I’d like to ask what’s the heaviest penalty that could be given to a soldier who has committed a major political or military transgression, as an example for her guidance.”

Given the high profile of the squadron, if one of us did something like that, is there a chance that they would not be shot to death as punishment?

Gretel, understanding what Theodor was being deliberately evasive about, gave him a look of contempt before muttering in reply, “their entire family would be purged… Though that would be meaningless for a defector, I guess… If they had any relatives staying in the East, however…”

Feeling a chill run down his back at Gretel’s words, Theodor continued moving the conversation along, “I see… If you don’t mind, may I hear about what you have found out in your investigation of her personal background…?”

“That isn’t your concern… but I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything. Looks like you’re going to need it. At present, it seems that she doesn’t have any relatives in the East, though enquiries are still ongoing…”

What was that about her relatives!? Theodor swallowed those words together with his misgivings, and tried to search for an opening for his main question.

“…Considering that we need her to fight for the squadron, I don’t think that it would be smart to educate her through means that would cause physical harm. To be frank, I never thought that political guidance could be this complicated.”

I understand some of your concerns. While suggesting that he empathized with her frustration, Theodor kept an eye on Gretel’s expression.

With a small snort, Gretel tilted her head to stare at the ceiling pensively.

Just a bit more… Continuing to gauge the moment, Theodor slowly spoke the words he had been holding on the tip of his tongue.

“…Comrade Oberleutnant, for an individual person, would an execution by shooting be the worst punishment they would get?” he asked, making sure not to reveal anything in his tone beyond casual curiosity, trying to draw out the information he was looking for. “Shouldn’t they have some higher punishment in store for someone whose family is beyond reach…?”

Theodor took a gamble — If Gretel knew of an example where someone had had their existence completely erased, he was betting that she would tell him.

“…This might be something from the history books, but have you heard someone named Leon Trotsky?” Gretel finally replied, after considering Theodor’s words.

“…I think I recognize the name. If I’m not wrong, he was one of the initial revolutionaries, wasn’t he?”

The only thing Theodor recalled of him, was that he was one of the Soviet Union Communist Party leaders who had been purged.

Is that all? — Towards Gretel’s questioning look, Theodor gave a nod.

“Hump. I think you need some political lessons as well,” Gretel said with a derisive sniff, before continuing. “Trotsky was one of the Soviet Union leaders during the revolution. He was actually the number two in power back then. However, to Stalin, who would later on become the secretary-general, Trotsky was a dangerous rival.  Therefore, after gaining full control over the Soviet Union, Stalin had Trotsky assassinated.”

“…”

“But that wasn’t enough for Stalin. In order to prevent Trotsky’s faction from opposing him again, Stalin ordered Trotsky’s existence itself to be purged entirely from the records. If he didn’t exist, then no one can sympathize with him, that was his reasoning. Thus, it became a taboo to speak of Trotsky’s name under the Stalin Administration, and his name was removed from everything, including newspapers and books. Oh, and of course, all his kinsmen and relatives were purged, naturally.”

“—!?” Theodor could feel the blood draining rapidly from his face; if such a thing had been performed in the Soviet Union, then certainly it could have been done in this Germany as well.

“What’s wrong? Oh, well, you can relax; it isn’t something we worry about anymore. Our Socialist Unity Party of Germany is aligned with the ‘Anti-Stalinist’ ideology that became mainstream in the Soviet Union after the Stalin’s death. After all, we are a democratic state, and we do not tolerate the proletarian dictatorship principles of the Stalinist doctrine.”

Misunderstanding Theodor’s pale face, Gretel provided that explanation with a cynical smile. As the political officer of the unit, this seemed to be something that was common sense to her.

“Well, you could say that Trotsky was an extreme example though… Anyway, for someone to be erased from history, means that they committed such a hideous crime that there was no choice but to do that. Though it only happened a few times, it’s not like there’s no precedence — Is that enough information for you?”

“…Yes,” Theodor replied softly.  After giving Gretel a faint thank you and a salute, swaying slightly, he gathered up his materials. Then, with some manuals on TSF operations in hand as camouflage, he exited the room. In the corridor, he noticed that the groans of the ongoing snowstorm outside the windows had lessened a little.

Now that he had gotten away from Gretel, who held the power of life and death over him, Theodor was finally able to think straight, and considered what he had learnt just then.

What the hell have I gotten into…

After rounding the corner, he stood still against the side of the corridor, feeling dizzy to the point of vomiting — his pulse was pounding so quickly that it almost sounded like an alarm ringing in his ears.

Why is that girl looking for this guy!? Is she a relative that had escaped purging? What the hell is this…? Why did it have to be such a troublesome person…?

The only thing Theodor could clearly understand was that he was now caught up in a predicament that was beyond his imagining. If Katia turned out to be strongly related to someone who had been purged by the state — if her reason for deflection was ever found out — both Katia and himself would be put to death without question.

Just who the hell is she…!?

—Suddenly, a shrill warning siren screeched throughout the base. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5JICa_ZxBk]

The corridor instantly became abuzz with activity and voices.  Soldiers began to run about while yelling and shouting. That siren had been a common occurrence over the past two years ; that disagreeable sound was synonymous with the call of death for them.

The Code 991 warning siren: Unexpected BETA Incursion.

“At a time like this…”

Theodor gave a small groan, cursing everything in the world.

“Why did you have to come now, you BETA bastards…!?”

 

0800 hrs
The German Democratic Republic
Cottbus District, Cottbus military base

chp3-04

The hanger had become a scene of chaos. The bellows of the maintenance crew, the growling of ground support vehicles carrying loads of equipment in every direction, the blaring of warning klaxons, and flashing lights from the moving TSF gantries, all mixed together to form a solid wall of noise and movement.

So this is a base on the front lines…

Katia ran amongst the chaos, heading at full speed towards the Pilot’s ready room.

After this will be my first battle in the NVA; and my first fight using the MiG-21—

Countless anxieties crossed her mind. Would she be able to handle her MiG-21 skillfully enough? Would she be able to keep up with the movement of the other Pilots?  Would she be able to perform well enough to get Eberbach to acknowledge her as his wingman…? Or, would she end up like that time, again—

It’ll be fine, I’m sure it’ll be fine…

Katia weaved between the hustling maintenance crew members who were coming and going, her long ponytail swinging behind her.

If they don’t trust me… then I’ll need to try harder to earn that trust…

Grasping the front of her BDUs, Katia tried to settle her fears.

Because, Herr Eberbach already…

“Please excuse me!” Reaching the ready room, Katia cheerfully called a greeting as she opened the door. “Oh…!? Frau…Annette…?”

Inside, Annette, who was still on orders to rest, was dressed in her fortified suit, a determined look on her face — though her shoulders were quivering unnaturally — as she stood at attention.

◊ ◊ ◊

After rushing to the ready room, the first thing Theodor heard upon entering was Irisdina’s angry roar.

“What is the meaning of this, Unterleutnant—!”

Thinking for a moment that it was aimed at himself, Theodor recoiled. However, Irisdina’s reprimand had not been meant for him, but for another Pilot.

“—I gave you orders to rest and recuperate! What the hell are you doing here!?”

“I-I’m already alright!” shouted back the target of Irisdina’s wrath, Annette, whom Theodor saw was dressed in her fortified suit. He clicked his tongue; he could tell what the argument was about immediately.

“I’m fit to go! There’s no problem with my combat effectiveness… I’m not pushing myself! I swear—!”

“—If you are as fit for duty as you say, then why are your shoulders shaking like that, Unterleutnant!?”

At Irisdina’s counter, Annette quickly fell silent. It seems that she was aware of it herself.

“You’ll just drag us down. Go back to your room and standby.”

“If I ever become a burden, I don’t care if you leave me behind! Please let me fight!”

Hearing Annette’s desperate words, Irisdina’s face grew distorted with anguish.

In tears, Annette continued her plea, “the burden on each TSF would be reduced if we fight with eight units instead of seven!”

Attempting to hold back her tears, she bowed her head, “…if I don’t fight now… I’ll just be sent back to the rear…”

Looking like she was considering Annette’s words, Irisdina heaved a sigh.

“I wish to voice my objections, comrade Hauptmann,” Gretel interrupted, drawing a sharp look from Annette, “there can be no mistakes in today’s mission; the mere fact that it requires the efforts of four TSF battalions to carry out attests to that.  We can’t take a Pilot whose mind is unstable… Even more so, there’s no way we can afford to babysit her.”

“…Comrade Oberleutnant, there are some valid points in what Unterleutnant Hosenfeld has said. It is true that our ammo and fuel will last longer if the fighting is spread out among eight units,” Irisdina gave Gretel a prompt rebuttal. It appeared that she had come to a decision.

Irisdina then fixed Annette with her eyes, “Unterleutnant Hosenfeld, I have just one question for you — You are not looking for a place to die, right?”

“I’m not…” Answered Annette, glancing at Katia, “…A kid who’s even more green than me is going to fight… If I don’t do my part to reduce the burden — if I can’t even do something to help at least one person survive—” As if squeezing out her true feelings, Annette continued, “—then, what would be the point of Ingrid sacrificing herself to save me…?”

chp3-05

Heaving a sigh, Irisdina exchanged looks with Walther. Both of them seemed to be of the same mind.

“…Have the maintenance crew prepare your unit. However, now that you are coming with us, I’ll cut you down if I hear any complaints or excuses from you during the mission.”

“I’m fully prepared for that,” Annette nodded, agreeing immediately.

“…Comrade Oberleutnant, I’ll take full responsibility, so include Unterleutnant Annette Hosenfeld in our squadron organization table for the mission. Is that fine?”

Gretel shrugged. “The only thing that matters is if it benefits or harms the squadron, right? If she slows us down, I won’t hesitate to kill her,” she answered, partially in resignation.

“Then, this conversation is over. Unterleutnant Hosenfeld, don’t make me regret this, understood?”

Declaring an end to the confrontation, Irisdina immediately changed focus and addressed the seven members of the squadron gathered in the room.

“Squadron, the situation is as you have guessed,” she said in a serious tone, “the BETA that was grouping in the Poland region is approaching the buffer zone sooner than expected. Current estimates show their numbers at 30,000, though it is expected to increase further.”

Theodor clenched his jaw. As usual, the BETA were going to try to overwhelm them with sheer numbers.

“The operation schedule has been moved forward. We will sortie at 0900 hours, and advance towards the holding point.  There is no change to our overall strategy, however; we will hold off the monsters with our four TSF battalions. That is all.”

Irisdina finished briefing them on the changes to the mission. Then, looking at the Pilots, she added “We have a little time before we launch, so make sure to take care of any business beforehand, if you can. Be sure to empty your bladders, so that you won’t wet yourself during the mission — you got that, Unterleutnant Waldheim?”

“Huh? Y-Yeees!?” Katia stammered, her face glowing red hot. “Why is everyone teasing me about this… Why do you all know…?” she asked in a tearful voice.

“Has anyone else teased you about it before?”

“Yes, Oberleutnant Eberbach…”

Seeing the light dawn in her eyes, Pham, Annette and Walther burst into laughter. While that was going on, Irisdina met Theodor’s eyes for an instant, both of their faces blank.

Then, regaining a serious expression, she turned to dismiss the squadron.

“Everyone, do your best. I wish you all good fortunes in war.”

As soon as the formalities were over and everyone was dismissed, Katia immediately approached Theodor, who averted his eyes.

“Herr Eberbach,” she addressed him in a low voice, her expression stiff. She seemed to have sensed something from his manner.

“What,” he brusquely replied with a scowl, as if in rejection. However, Katia didn’t flinch.

“…You… found something, right?”

“…”

“Please, let me hear it!”

Theodor snapped, unable to take the bleak thoughts that had been building in him anymore.

“Toilet. Now,” he spat.

“Eh!?”

“Don’t give me that ‘Eh!?’. Move it!”

At a loss for words, Katia managed a timid nod of assent, following Theodor.

He led her into the men’s room. Entering a private stall, he locked it behind her, and pulled on the flush lever, letting the water run loudly in order to foil any eavesdropping bugs.

“U-Um, Herr Eberbach…?”

Theodor spun around. Ignoring her confusion, he grabbed Katia’s neck protector with both hands and lifted her into the air.

“Eeep—!” Squeaked Katia in surprise.

“Hey you, what the hell is the meaning of this!?” Theodor growled, squeezing with all his strength, choking her beneath the neck protector. Now that he had an outlet, his anger flowed through him, raging out of control.

“Cough…cough…” Shocked by his actions, Katia could only cough.

“Damn you, why are you looking for Lieutenant General Alfred Strachwitz!? Who are you!? Answer me!”

“You… found something…?” Despite the situation she was in, Katia gave a smile of relief, “so that’s why— guah!” She gasped as Theodor grabbed her again.

He leaned menacingly close to her.

“Spit it out! Damn you, if you say ‘You don’t want to get me involved’ now, I swear I’m going to hit you!”

Unable to keep her mouth closed under the intensity of Theodor’s glare, Katia reluctantly confessed, “he’s…my father.”

“…Wh—!?”

“Alfred Strachwitz is my father. My real name isn’t Katia Waldheim. I was born here, in East Germany…”

“You… You mean…” Reeling from the shock, Theodor started to tremble as the facts fell into place, “you… you took refuge in the West, but then… to the East, again…?”

Katia nodded reluctantly — she hadn’t wanted to reveal this, if possible.

“Five years ago, my father sent me from East to West Germany. He never told me why…”

“—!”

“I wanted to know why, and I thought that I would be able to come here and find my father, before East Germany was destroyed—”

“Don’t screw around with me!”

“Gueh—!!”

A dull thud of impact resounded as Theodor flung Katia against the wall. He violently kicked the lever, making the water flush again.

“You thought coming back to the East was a good idea!? What the hell were you thinking!? Are you insane!?”

The bloody memories of the events that occurred three years ago flashed through his mind. The freedom that his father, mother and Lise desired had been thrown away by this girl.

“And you said that he’s your father…!? That just makes you someone that the Stasi would very much like to execute! How stupid are you!?”

“I don’t mind if you want to take your anger out on me, but please, tell me what you found out about my father first!”

Despite the violent actions and anger, Katia stared at Theodor with firm conviction — her eyes said that this was one thing that she refused to back away from. “What happened to father? Is he alive? Is he dead? Please let me know.”

“You— Do you really not know anything!?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t be here then! Please!”

Theodor hesitated for a moment — and made his decision: he would tell her the truth. Ruled by the displeasure churning within him, he wanted to strike out and cause her pain.

“…He was killed a long time ago.”

“—!”

“And that’s not all… His very existence has been erased from the records in East Germany…”

“Wha— What does that mean?”

“It means that Alfred Strachwitz is someone who is not supposed to exist in this country! And perhaps, no, most certainly, all your relatives who remained have been exterminated as well!”

Theodor yanked Katia close to him and thrust his face into hers.

“Do you understand now? Don’t get involved in this anymore! Otherwise, if you screw up, all of us will be killed!”

“…I can’t do that…” came her stubborn reply.

“What!?”

Theodor couldn’t believe his ears.

“I need to find what father was trying to do that got him killed—!” Even though the blood had drained from her face and she had tears in her eyes, Katia declared that with a serious expression. “Father always said, that if the two Germanys were to join hands and combine their efforts, they would never lose to the BETA…”

“Damn it, you’re still talking about that dream?”

“It’s not a dream! It’s not wrong either! When times are hard and painful, everyone should do their best and work together! We are all one people, one country after all!” cried Katia, her pure will burning within her passionate words.

“Father must have been killed because he was close to achieving that… But, even so, I share the same feelings he had! To me, both Germanys are my important homelands! That’s why I want to know what father was trying to do! Then, maybe, even I might be able to do something…”

“That’s nothing but sophism. Don’t give me that crap!”

Theodor punched the wall with his right hand. He sensed that Katia wasn’t telling the whole truth.

“You— I bet that you feel that you were abandoned, don’t you!? You feel insecure not knowing if there was someone who needs you, right!?”

Katia’s eyes widened. From her expression, it looked like he had hit the nail on the head. However, the determination in her eyes did not wane.

“…That might be true. But… this is all I have left! I’m not going to say that I want your help, nor do I plan on doing anything reckless… so please, let me do what I can!”

“Damn you, do you want me to tell on you—”

Before Theodor noticed it, those words had left his mouth. A look of extreme shock had frozen on Katia’s face.

Although aghast by what he had just said, Theodor couldn’t stop his angry words from spilling out, “have you forgotten that I can report everything I know to the Stasi? Do you want me to do that!? Or do you want me to kill you on the battlefield instead…!”

“—Guah!” Katia yelped as Theodor grabbed her neck protector again.

“Are you still going to say that you won’t give up, huh!?”

However, even though she was wincing in pain, Katia’s smile never left her face.

“You’re lying. I can tell,” she confidently said.

“—!?”

“I know that you aren’t that kind of person, Herr Eberbach. After all, didn’t you save me when you could have just as easily let me die?”

“What the heck are you—?”

“In the past three days, you did your best for my sake. You spoke up for me when I was scolded by Oberleutnant Jeckeln. Then, during the accident, you called out my name… Yesterday, as well, didn’t you promise to keep the reason I came to this country a secret…?”

“—!” Theodor was frozen by Katia’s words.

She continued speaking, “I was so happy and thankful… If you were really the kind of horrible person who would follow through on those threats, I would be dead by now.”

Katia trembled, the smile remaining on her lips. However, her eyes gleamed with moisture, as tears began to form.

“That’s why, please don’t say things like that. I will always believe in you, Herr Eberbach!”

“…Scheiße!”

“—Guh!”

Releasing his grip on her neck protector, Theodor pushed Katia into the wall with a thud.

What the hell is with this girl…!

His thoughts in a mess, Theodor stared down at Katia, who was coughing heavily now that her throat was freed.

Why does she believe in me so much!? Why can’t she understand that believing in others will only cause her own downfall—!?

“—Damn it!”

Theodor put all his feelings into a kick aimed at the door of the toilet stall. A loud bang came from the wooden door, bringing back memories of the torture he received three years ago.

“H-Herr Eberbach…?” Katia asked Theodor in a concerned and sad voice.

However, the reply she got came in a cutting tone as sharp as a blade.

“I’ve already told you what you wanted to hear.”

“—!”

“You searching for your father, or fighting the BETA in this squadron, I don’t care anymore, do as you like! However, I’ll be damned if I perform a double suicide with a kid like you… Shit!”

Unlocking the door of the stall, Theodor planted another savage kick to slam it open. Striding out, he exited the toilet, leaving Katia inside.

There’s no way in hell that I’m going to let myself be taken through that torture again…! Then

Theodor stared at his hand in disquiet, an anguished look on his face.

Then… will I have to get rid of that girl, with my own hands…?

 

0945 hrs
Former People’s Republic of Poland
Approximately 80 kilometers from the East bank of the Neisse River

No matter how many times one saw it, it was always an unbelievable sight.

In the distance, a tsunami of tens of hundreds of humongous Destroyer Class BETA approached through the snowstorm, preceded by a grand rumbling of the ground that could be felt for kilometers.

Visual distance was shortened by the heavily blowing snow, making everything difficult to see.  At times, a chain of huge explosions could be heard—caused by the numerous land mines which had been buried beneath the ground, blowing up and scattering burning fragments into the air.

“Here they come… Squad, fall back!”

The commander of the 384th Tactical Reconnaissance TSF squad, under the command of the Neisse Army Group, gave the command to pull back. A chorus of “Jawohl!” came from his subordinates, even as they ignited their jets and jumped across the snowfield.

chp3-06

Their purpose was to send back information of the enemy, not to engage them. When the BETA incursion was confirmed, they would be deployed at the very edges of the operation area, just within communication range, to await the enemy. Once in contact with the enemy, they would send back information on their numbers and makeup while pulling back, maintaining an appropriate distance between them.

(Like I thought, there’s more than the estimated numbers…!)

The commander of the recce squad stared at rear view image showing the group of Destroyers that were fiercely approaching from the rear.

There their numbers where gradually being depleted by the land mines, no change could be seen in their momentum. From the reports of the acoustic sensors that they have scattered beforehand, the Destroyer Class chasing them exceeded five hundred in number.

(Will we really be able to hold them off…!?)

—As the commander thought that, he caught a glimpse of another TSF from the corner of his eye. It was the same model as his unit, a MiG-21PF. However, its left shoulder was marked with the eerie crest of the Ministry of State Security. Indeed, there was no IFF signal coming from it through the data link either.

(The Armed Security Force…!? I thought that we were the only scouts to be deployed…?)

Surely they weren’t there to keep us under observation—though the commander thought that, he didn’t have the time to spare on the irregularity. The vanguard of the BETA formation might shift at any time, and if he got careless, they would be exposed to irradiation from the Laser Class. He needed to focus on his duty at hand.

Chased by the horde of Destroyer Class, the five TSFs of the recce squad continued their boost-jumps towards the Neisse River—

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