Original story based on and including characters and material created by Project Aces for Namco Bandai. The author claims no ownership over them.

On Wings of Nightingales (Mercenary)
Chapter 3

Two months after the declaration of war, the Ustio Air Force and the coalition of Allied nations formed for Operation Independence liberated Directus from Belkan control. Infuriated with the National Workers Party's obsession with militarization and conquest, cities across South Belka peacefully demilitarized and surrendered to the Allied coalition, hoping for good terms. On 28 May 1995, the Allies also abrogated the non-aggression treaty they signed with Belka after the Expansion War of the 1960s, allowing them to march across the border into the more conservative - and hostile - North Belka.

Yet the full extent to which Galm Team attacked Belkan military targets and infrastructure was not revealed until after the celebrations ended. The swath of destruction that burned from Solis Ortus to Hoffnung at the beginning of June 1995 totaled to the hundreds of millions of zollars in damage, and that was only counting their direct assault. The Demon Lord and his wingman Solo Wing Pixy truly did rain fire and brimstone upon their targets, inspiring both friend and foe to do the same in fear...or worship.

But the worst was yet to come.

A great air battle unmatched in history took place in Belka's Priority One Strategic Airspace B7R three days before the burning of Hoffnung. It wasn't the first time the Demon Lord had entered the Round Table. Yet this battle held significance that I could relate to.

This was the very battle where former Sand Island flight instructor Jack Bartlett - aka "Heartbreak One" - was shot down along with his mechanic, a Belkan flying ace called "Huckebein" that later defected to Osea. Although I knew both of them personally, government restrictions prevented me from revealing the latter's identity at the time I made my contribution to the documentary.

Records confirmed more than 100 fighters in B7R that morning. The Belkans had the majority in numbers as B7R was a source of national pride to them. This included Schwarze Squadron, the defecting ace, the infamous Grabacr and Ofnir, as well as Nachtigall.

However, according to Thompson, data was only made available for all but three of them. Of the three missing, two were unavailable due to the aforementioned restrictions. We safely assumed those were Huckebein's and Grabacr's. But Nachtigall's data was never available, even for his initial research 10 years ago.

The only info he had been able to obtain despite all that research was the card that led me to her.

And as she told her story over coffee and brunch at a cafe by the Dinsmark Riviera, there was a very good - and very frightening - reason behind the 'special circumstances' for which her data had been purged from the system.

Neu Eisendorf AFB, Belka
28 May 1995

0845 hrs.

Weeks had passed since I first encountered the Demon Lord over the Ustian mountains, but I had gotten no closer to him than I had in the tail gunner's turret. And my rage continued to grow.

As my base commander in Depardieu promised, I was transferred back to Weiss flight to fight over the Great Lakes as soon as I was discharged from the hospital. But the Demon Lord remained in Ustio to liberate his people and fatten his bank account. His legend pervaded through the pilot gossip that echoed through the hangars, crew quarters and mess halls. But he had probably forgotten all about me, just one body in the pile of corpses and twisted metal he left in his wake.

Of course, I had left my own little trail for him to sniff out. I moved up from Weiss 5 to Weiss 2 and from Second Lieutenant to First, with my first Lion's Honor Medal and supplemental Oak Clusters by the time the Allies advanced to our border. Many of my fellow pilots began to wonder why I'd picked such a relatively tame little bird as my callsign. But all I wanted was for him to know that I hadn't forgotten about him.

Not entirely, anyway. Perhaps getting used to the rage allowed my mind to settle, and gather my thoughts. I just didn't seem as furious at him as before with time passing by.

Despite our best efforts, we could barely slow, let alone stop the Allied advances erasing our gains. The Luftwaffe announced a massive reorganization as we prepared to shift to home-front defense. I was rotated out of Weiss Squadron the previous morning, almost as spontaneously as the accident that sent me to Valais. This time, however, I welcomed the change. They had me transferred to a base on the Northern side of the Waldreich at Neu Eisendorf to receive new deployment orders.

That morning, I woke up at reveille to find the barracks already half-empty. I thought I overslept, until I limbered over to the nearest window and looked out. It seemed the entire base had come to a standstill, with only a bare minimum of personnel operating...and what appeared to be various dark-uniformed security positioned lurking all over the place to compensate.

I got dressed and made my way to the entrance, asking some of the other awoken pilots to find out what happened. According to them, an important meeting had been called involving those missing pilots in Neu Eisendorf's central command building. They seemed to have been picked beforehand and "woken up by the BVK," though the reasons for their selection eluded them as well. Unfortunately, that piqued my curiosity even further.

As I walked outside, my eyes squinted under the morning light as I got a full view of the base's pseudo-abandonment. It seemed almost paranormal that a base so close to the frontlines could be this...quiet. It even looked like the staff had been 'body-snatched' and replaced while we slept. But the uniforms they wore - and the vehicles they drove - weren't the standard uniforms of the Luftwaffe or even the regular military police. Instead, all of them wore the uniform of the Belkaverteidigung Korps, the special paramilitary units that the Nationalists had formed before they took power.

Although they seemed to tolerate my presence as a member of the military, the way they eyed me as I passed felt like they drained the very essence out of my body. The Korps were the Nationalists' hired thugs, known more for their fanatical loyalty than their actual fighting skill. I had only encountered them occasionally at the academy, where we mostly likened them to mindless worker insects. Their runic logo, which was also prominently displayed on their equally-black vehicles, certainly helped to promote their cult-like image.

Naturally, there was always tension between the BVK and the 'regulars,' as they called us. But as long as we didn't crack jokes within their earshot, nothing got out of hand. Perhaps it helped that Chancellor Wilhelm Drexler preferred to have his Party "co-exist in mutual harmony" with the military as proud Belkan institutions, at least publicly.

Today the 'drones' concentrated themselves around the base's auditorium. It made sense, given that a special event requiring half the people in the barracks could only be held where they could all be accommodated. Any of the regular base personnel that went by only seemed to be repelled as if they telepathically told those people to keep moving without speaking.

I couldn't even get near the main entrances myself. Even if I had the 'required clearance' asked of me by one of the drones, their concentrated presence in front of the auditorium felt like a force field, pushing me away against my will. But like a black hole, I inevitably found myself drawn closer, wanting to know what lay on the other side.

By now, I had completely succumbed to my curiosity. I made my way out of the auditorium building and around the back. I quickly ducked behind a dumpster when I noticed a number of Luftwaffe pilots in their dress uniforms leaving the auditorium's emergency exit. Many of them were either shocked or otherwise nervous as each of them left. The last one was followed by a BVK 'grunt.'

That grunt, perhaps by accident, had left the door very slightly - and very temptingly ajar.

I started to wonder what on earth the BVK would want to bring all these pilots to the auditorium for, especially if they brought out so many of them looking like they had just come from the G-force simulator.

Not all of them were religious enough for this to be a church service. And it couldn't have been a simple written examination to affect them that greatly.

I couldn't help myself. I snuck in and stuck to the walls of the passageway as I approached the door to the main hall.

The door to the auditorium itself was also slightly open, enabling me to at least listen while keeping obscured. If I moved from side to side, I could catch a glimpse of the whole auditorium from somewhere close to the podium, where an aged and somewhat corpulent general of the paramilitary unit stood before the microphone in full regalia.

Gruppenfuhrer Heinrich Strossen earned his general's stars in the Expansion Wars, but unlike others of his rank he frequently savored the pomp and circumstance that came with his position. It was probably why he transferred to the BVK in the first place. He wanted to lord it over everyone else to a much more receptive audience, like the one in front of him.

Behind him was a large map of Belka marked with recent Allied advances, projected on a large screen. Gigantic banners draped with the Triangle lined either side, along with the ancient 'standards' that the BVK liked to trot around during parades. The general smiled as the spotlight bore down on him, perhaps to fuel his usual ultrareligious sentiments.

Against every voice in my head telling me to leave right then and there, I made the final decision to stay.

"Now that we have sorted the chaff from the wheat, we shall get to the heart of the matter," the general began. "You have all been called here, no...chosen is more the word, for your skill as ace fighter pilots, and your loyalty to our country. There is no turning back, as you will all take part in the greatest operation ever conducted for the salvation of the Fatherland: Operation Eden."

A wave of hushed yet enthusiastic murmurs rippled from within the crowd.

"As you may already know, the Fatherland has a number of nuclear devices in his arsenal. The Assembly of Nations refers to them as...weapons of mass destruction." A few hisses and boos followed at the mention of the AN.

I simply stood frozen in place, regretting my decision and reprimanding myself for staying. But why did I insist on staying to hear the rest? Maybe now that I had started down this slippery slope, I had to accept that I could only keep falling.

"But we will soon use these weapons for a much more noble purpose...the protection of our Fatherland!" Strossen proclaimed, "And you, here today, will deliver this salvation!"

We had developed a small nuclear weapons arsenal after the Expansion War as part of the detente policy, long before before Excalibur was built. It was nowhere near as big as Yuktobania's or Osea's, and most of the ready weapons were tactical rather than strategic, but nukes being nukes they were enough to devastate all of the provinces that seceded and then some, and that wasn't counting any potential escalation.

"We have designated a number of squadrons to deliver these devices across the country," the general announced, as several large red dots appeared on the map along the Waldreich mountains. The names of several squadrons also appeared beside each dot. "Each of you that stayed will be relocated to these bases by tomorrow morning to begin preparations."

The red dots expanded into a thick, blobbish line extending over the entire mountain range.

"Our meteorological departments have already submitted their forecasts for wind patterns following the completion of Operation Eden. The radiation will spare the heart of our nation," he continued, as Nord Belka was shaded in gold on the map.

As I listened in, I realized that this was what historians referred to as the banality of evil. I could easily imagine armies of professional soldiers trained to fight represented as symbols on a map...but this...

"But more than that, we will erect an eternal wall against the enemies of our sacred land." the general proudly concluded. "And because our Southern counterparts refuse to fight, we will leave them to the Osean dogs as they deserve."

...this was the intentional slaughter of innocents, the permanent disfigurement of the world. All boiled down to shapes and dots and treated like just another event on a planner.

"You have all been chosen because you have the moral integrity to carry out this mission, an integrity that puts you above most of humanity itself!" Despite the phrase, Strossen's voice had whipped the crowd into an almost animal frenzy. "You will all be remembered for the rebirth of our land, you few, you proud, you sons of Belka!"

The standing ovation that followed had to have lasted at least two minutes, interrupted only by a very enthusiastic rendition of the Belkan national anthem. In that time I had slumped against the wall of the emergency exit hallway and failed to stop myself from crying.

We had left our nuclear arsenal to gather dust after the secessions. The original planners of Operation Pendragon had designated Excalibur as a defensive weapon because the range of its beam barely extended into Ustio, and that was years before anyone saw its asteroid-destroying potential. Unfortunately, the Nationalists clearly had no qualms about redefining what it meant to "defend" their country. And with Excalibur gone, they believed there was no other option left.

By picking Luftwaffe pilots instead of BVK, they could justify the whole thing as proof of the armed forces' continued loyalty in the face of the South's demilitarization. It was a grand plan to rally whoever had the will to go out and fight to the death, and it required an apocalyptic kind of insanity for anyone to think it could be executed, let alone work.

Strossen and his collaborators clearly possessed that insanity, and they were hellbent on carrying this plan out to the end.

I wanted to object. To say something, anything. But my conscience was already working its hardest to prevent me from revealing that I was in the auditorium at all.

I had to get to an exit. If I could have left before the applause died down and gotten away from the building without anybody noticing...no. I would still carry that horrific knowledge with me, and I wouldn't know what to do with it.

I started to turn away as the standing ovation faded and Strossen prepared to deliver his closing statements. I couldn't lose this opportunity now.

"Gruppenfuhrer Strossen, I cannot take part in a mission that will result in the genocide of our people."

I stopped again. That wasn't my voice, nor was it Strossen's.

One pilot had stood up amidst the crowd and broke the silence with his objection. Although shorter than average and a bit round about the waist, everybody seemed to pay attention to him as if he were a teacher.

"Colonel, Operation Eden will be carried out for the sole purpose of saving our great nation!" the Gruppenfuhrer replied defiantly. The way he glared at the Colonel indicated he was more than just an average pilot.

Colonel Wolfgang Buchner, also known as Huckebein the Raven, was another of the Luftwaffe's legendary birds. His technique involved hovering around the close edge of a dogfight, before diving in for a kill from trajectories spotted only with an eagle eye. Few ever saw his plane coming, but when they did, their fingers may as well have gone for the eject buttons.

Outside of his plane, his ground crews nicknamed him 'Pinguine' for obvious physical reasons. Indeed, both names were derived from his rather prominent nose. But he was also quite fond of jokes, so he didn't mind either name.

Yet the way he returned the defiant gaze at General Strossen belay his other nature. Although patriotic and a veteran of the Expansion War, he loathed the change in government. To him, the fascists and their paramilitary thugs had twisted the spirit of Belkan nationalism for their own gain. This disdain, which was more vocal than most that it often blocked him from promotion, now boiled over in front of the assembled pilots and BVK officers in attendance.

"I love my country as much as you do, Herr General, and I have fought proudly to defend it from the Coalition. But the suggestion that the only way to save our country by sealing half of it off with radiation is simply insane!"

"This is a war for our very existence, Colonel. Sacrifices must be made."

"Dying in battle for the principles we hold is sacrifice. Using our soldiers and countrymen as fodder for a nuclear device is slaughter."

All the expected detonation zones were located over positions still held by our forces. But it would not make a difference if the Allies ended up at a ground zero.

"If we do not commit Operation Eden, all our sacrifice, noble or not, will have been for absolutely nothing." It was then that Strossen's tone started to turn a depraved tone of hysterical. "Colonel Buchner, your objections are nothing less than madness...sabotage, TREASON!"

"What if Operation Eden is completed? What if that doesn't stop the Allies?"

Strossen quickly calmed himself. "It will succeed and Belka will not fall. And if you refuse to take part in it, I will make sure you will have no part in our efforts from this point on."

"Then I will not take part in it."

"Very well then." Strossen then pointed a gloved finger at a BVK officer in the aisles, "Oberschutze, detain this traitor. We will deal with him once Operation Eden is over."

A number of paramilitary guards immediately made their way through the rows and quickly restrained Buchner. The Colonel didn't resist, and the crowds cheered and jeered the arrest as the paramilitaries started heading in my direction. I hesitated to run. I didn't know if they had someone at the exit waiting for them. But I didn't want to accept against the damning odds that I was already doomed.

At least, it seemed, until his eyes met mine. I think, in that moment, he knew I was there, and that if he could not get the word out it seemed he wanted me to.

I didn't want to, not then. But the one thing it did inspire me to do, at long last, was try to escape. Without another word I turned tail and dashed for the exit, wanting to leave the fanatics to their own devices.

They had probably kept this exit open to bring out the objectors without anyone else noticing. The group of pilots that I saw leaving must've been the "chaff" that Strossen allowed to leave without stains on their honor.

As I opened the door I realized too late that I didn't close the door behind me on my way in, and found myself face to face with a pair of heavily-built BVK agents.

"OH GOD-" I shouted, before both of them tackled me to the ground and restrained me, one of them sliding a black plastic bag over my head.

They didn't say a word as they pulled me back onto my feet by my hair and shoulders and led me around the buildings and down what felt like a maze of passages to the detention blocks. Their route already seemed to have been planned out - even rehearsed - just so the three of us could avoid being noticed.

I took a great gasp of air as they removed the bag from my head and pushed me into an empty cell, locking the door behind them. I tripped from the lack of oxygen, managing to land partially on the mattress, my lower body kneeling on the floor as I tried to catch my breath. At this point, most people would have lunged back at the bars and started begging for their freedom. But it seemed I had already passed that phase and resigned myself to my fate. It would have been useless to try to resist it at this point.

Yet before I even caught my breath, I let that sadness that I held back listening to the conference loose while clinging to the mattress in the detention cell.

We all took part in 'nuclear readiness' drills since basic training at the academy, but even at that point most of us had resigned the actual possibility of nuclear annihilation to post-apocalyptic fantasy comics. I never dreamed that we would use nuclear weapons as part of a battle plan, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I wanted to believe this was all still a very bad dream. I buried my head in the mattress' small pillow and held my breath, hoping that I would wake up back in the barracks or even on the flight from Heierlark. If I were to somehow realize this wasn't a dream, I even hoped I would suffocate myself. Apart from the guards, I seemed to be the only one in the cells, so at least there was nobody to share my predicament.

Survival instinct kicked in eventually, and I looked up from the pillow, gasping for breath again only to find myself back in my cell. This time, however, the world seemed to flash red with alarms.

And the grunts were unlocking the cell door.

I took a few deep breaths as I got up and slowly, shakily made my way to the door. Maybe the Allies were en route to bomb Neu Eisendorf or a city nearby, and my intrusion would be forgotten in the confusion as we scrambled to action.

All such possibilities vanished when a BVK officer suddenly appeared at the doorway, stopping me in my tracks.

"Leutnant Anne Zweig?" the officer began, with a tone as sharp as a knife.

He was about my age, with an Olympian's athletic build. The insignia he wore indicated that he probably stamped quite a few faces into the pavement over the last three years to get there, and after gaining Scharfuhrer's rank had his own brigade stomp quite a few more faces into the pavement to get to where he was now.

"Sir...what's...what's going on?" I asked feebly.

"I need you to come with me," he replied without delay.

"I...I..." I couldn't come up with an excuse.

"Just do as I say," the officer interrupted, accenting his words by having those same two grunts move to my sides yet again.

The little voice in my head now went silent. I failed to heed its warnings...and now, after giving me time to stew over, I was about to suffer the consequences.

But he didn't lead me to an interrogation room or to a waiting military police vehicle. Instead he led me upstairs to an empty MP meeting room. The room was well-insulated from the alarm outside apart from the large venetian-blinded window that dominated one side of the room. He instructed me to have a seat at one end of the large, round table in the middle of the room, while he sat at the other.

The first thing he did was take off his hat and place it on the table. His two goons took up their posts outside the only door into the room.

"I...I don't know why I've been brought here though-" I sputtered, about the thinnest lie I can ever remember telling.

The paramilitary man did not hesistate to getting down to the matter at hand.
"Zweig, I saw you at the briefing for Operation Eden."

I hung my head in shame. Deep down I had known he'd already figured that out.

"God...I just...but the..." If I weren't already sitting, I would have a hard time standing on my own feet.

"This is a very serious breach of security, and I take it that you know what the consequences are."

There would be no court martial, maybe a show trial at the most to extract some insult out of injury. The Korps had found ways of making people disappear if anyone crossed them, even from within their own ranks. After all, they also ran the country's secret police. Nobody would know I was even here, or that I was even moved to the base in the first place.

"I'm sorry," I sobbed, "I'm just-"

"I can understand how the magnitude of the operation must shock you. It's why we didn't select you in the first place. Still, I also know you are one of our best and most loyal pilots. You have been aching to redeem yourself for your humiliation over Valais."

"But I..."

The officer leaned toward me, with a devilish smirk on his face. "I would like to offer you that chance."

I thought I couldn't be surprised any more than I had been today. But I couldn't be any less relieved either, as the officer stood up and made his way to the giant window behind him.

"Colonel Buchner, whom you no doubt witnessed objecting to Operation Eden, escaped our custody while you were detained. He managed to steal a plane and escape with it. The Air Force are already sending Schwarze Squadron after him."

I gulped. Schwarze were the squadron assigned specifically to shooting down deserters. And with the Oseans and mercenaries advancing rapidly on our borders, many of the younger pilots feared the worst and fled for their lives...right into the trajectories of their missiles.

"Why did...you retrieve me then?"

"We have received reports that indicate he is heading toward a major air battle in Strategic Airspace B7R to try to lose us. And we don't want Schwarze to get him."

"Wait, you don't?" Surely that wouldn't have been as easy as it sounded.

"Of course not. As much as he is a traitor, we do not want him shot down by a Yuktobanian," the commandant said with a crafty smirk. Schwarze's lead Dominic Zubov was a mercenary himself, headhunted from Yuktobania's many bloody border conflicts and put in a squadron whose feared reputation would hide - or perhaps, complement - his nation of origin from the more purity-obsessed politicians.

"We want your squadron to shoot him down," he then added. Suddenly, things started to make sense. They wanted me to shoot him down to ensure I wouldn't do the same thing he did. But there was one problem to that logic.

"I'm...here because they removed me from Weiss."

Rather than threaten me with a court martial, he deceptively sweetened the deal.

"We know. As of a few minutes ago you have been assigned to the 6th Air Division, 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron 'Grabacr.' Your flight leader will be Captain Ashley Bernitz. If you can't personally shoot him down yourself," he paused, clearly noting my shaky state, "make sure the kill is verified to the other members of the squadron."

I felt relieved, and at the same time knew this was a punishment.

Even before the war began, the BVK had intentions on creating their own special divisions within the different branches of the military. They did so by convincing the commanders of these branches to either make a new one for them, or if the commanders were not so welcoming to that idea, take over one in their place. Grabacr was one of the latter, a former training wing converted to one of their special squadrons. Unlike the land forces' over-eager recruits, the BVK were much more meticulous in prioritizing experience as well as loyalty for their representatives in the air, as much as these squadrons didn't have the kill tallies of veterans like Indigo or Silber.

But they were quickly gaining a reputation for being ruthless and above all merciless in hunting down their targets, shooting down even disabled planes as mercenaries would. The only real difference was that they seemed to have a twisted sense of what they did being immutably right. Which somehow gave sense to the hushed rumors that the Demon Lord was Bernitz' evil twin for fighting against Belka...or long-lost siblings, depending on how much that particular rumormonger hated the Korps.

Thus was my punishment. They were to be my caretakers, and my minders for this test of loyalty.

If I completed this mission, I could get off without any black marks to my record and perhaps end up under the Korps' wing literally AND figuratively for the duration. But that would also make me implicit - if not complicit - in nuclear genocide.

If I didn't, then I probably would not expect to survive the next 24 hours.

So if I had to explain why I did what I did next, I would say that I never thought of myself as some kind of superhero. Even today I know it was a very, very, very cowardly thing to do, though every now and then I wonder if dying without my dignity as a traitor would really have changed anything for the better.

"Th- ...thank you, sir." I stood up and hastily saluted, not knowing what other reaction to give. "I'm..."

"You should be thankful that my boys were the only ones that noticed you and not some of Strossen's other grunts. If the kill is verified to Grabacr, then I'll see what I can do about clearing you," the officer said as he stood up and made his way past me toward the door. "If Huckebein escapes, well...I think you should have an idea of the consequences."

He put a hand on my shoulder as he passed me. His touch felt as cold as death.

"Your squadron is almost getting ready to scramble, I suggest you get over to the hangar...oh, about right now. Dismissed," he said, giving an evil chuckle as he and his grunts left the room.

I spent the next few minutes in that office, sitting there completely stunned at everything I had just gotten into. My bloodshot eyes had finally started adjusting to the bright morning light.

When I arrived in Neu Eisendorf, I thought my redeployment would be a cut-and-shut affair. Hell, I was smiling during my flight here, hoping I would get sent back to Ustio to face off with the Demon Lord again.

As I shakily got up and left to prepare for my next sortie, I realized that amidst everything I had gotten myself into was the possibility that I would face the Demon Lord again. He certainly wouldn't be able to resist joining a battle of this magnitude if it would mean more pay. On the other hand, it was at that moment I began to regret pursuing this vendetta as passionately as I did. Was it worth it to give this much just for one more crack at the great Ustian ace?

After all, they always told me to be careful what I wished for.

To Be Continued...