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The Mission

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Jankovic must have nodded off. He didn't notice the three men who had approached him until they were standing right in front of his bed already. He woke up with a start and instinctively tried to get up. However, he didn't get further than sitting up halfway before groaning as the action made his wounds ache. He saluted anyway and looked at the two strangers that the Major had brought with him.

"Stabsfeldwebel Jankovic, this is Hauptmann Bäder and this is Oberleutnant Nowak," the Major said.

Jankovic nodded at them.

"Pleased to meet you," he said and shook their hands. Hauptmann Bäder looked at the bandages that were covering Jankovic's arms and broad chest. One of the Hauptmann's eyebrows travelled upwards briefly; then he turned to the Major.

"Didn't you say that the tank suffered a direct hit?" he asked.

The Major nodded.

"He was very lucky - as always."

Jankovic's gaze darted back and forth between the men. He wasn't sure yet how pleasant these new acquaintances really were. The appearance of the higher ups after he had made a mistake in combat could also mean bad news. They surely hadn't come to congratulate him. His features remained neutral as he watched them. He didn't want to jump to conclusions, but neither was he naive.

The Hauptmann seemed impressed, but only for a moment.

"Well, you can't rely on luck forever," he said.

"I suppose," the Major agreed. Jankovic patiently waited for the officers to stop beating around the bush and reveal the reason for their visit. Indeed, he didn't have to wait much longer. After a few more empty phrases, the Hauptmann turned towards him.

"Stabsfeldwebel, we are here to make you an offer," Bäder said. Jankovic tilted his head slightly as he answered.

"An offer?" he asked and was unable to not sound at least a little bit wary.

"An offer. You are doing your company a great service. All things considered, we are very satisfied with you. Your name is known beyond your battalion."

Jankovic acknowledged the praise with a nod. Bäder went on.

"My colleague and I have been tasked with assembling a Kampfgruppe. Your tank is the only operational Jagdtiger far and wide."

"A Kampfgruppe? What for?" Jankovic asked.

"Our scouts reported a hostile unit that is marching towards a hole in our defenses. The enemy must not find out that we have no troops deployed there. Someone has to stop the unit before it can reach German ground. We have been assured that you and your tank would be suitable for this mission."

Jankovic only regarded them with silence for a moment. He let the circumstances speak. Bäder cleared his throat.

"That was before we departed and before you were wounded."

"I see."

"Do you think that you'll be fit for combat within the next two days?"

Jankovic thought about this. He remembered the doctor's words. 'Four days,' said doctor had sternly recommended. 'And then you should take things easy for a while.' According to the crew, the tank had been repaired fully in the meantime. Basically, the only thing standing in the way of participation was his physical condition. He knew that this was not to be neglected, but it sounded to him like he'd be able to recover on the way. They wouldn't meet enemies right away.

"I think so," he eventually said.

"You may decline, of course..." Nowak threw in. "But a participation in this mission would only benefit you. And the chances of this mission succeeding would drastically improve. A man of your experience and of course a tank of this caliber would be an invaluable addition to the Kampfgruppe."

Jankovic looked to the Major, who nodded back at him. He looked at the two officers again.

"Understood. I will participate in the mission."

"Perfect," Bäder said.

***

When Heinrich called Weidner into his tent, Weidner felt intense foreboding. He was almost certain that he was about to become the target of the Haumptmann's whims and mentally prepared himself for anything. What he hadn't been prepared for was finding two other officers in the tent as well as he entered. He saluted with a baffled expression and tried to fathom what they could want from him. Heinrich was also present and his somewhat sour expression only contributed to the mystery.

"Take a seat," one of the strangers said and gestured at a chair next to the table they were sitting at. Weidner followed the direction and sat down. He watched the two men with a wary look.

"Oberfeldwebel Weidner?" the officer asked.

Weidner nodded.

The stranger went on to introduce himself and his companion as Hauptmann Doppler and Hauptmann Schauer, and talked about a mission that Weidner and his platoon should participate in.

"You may decline. In case you do participate and the mission is a success, a promotion could be discussed, however," Doppler said.

Weidner heard the sharp inhale of Heinrich. He didn't take his gaze off the visitors, but had to stifle a grin. A promotion didn't sound too bad. Heinrich would begrudge him it, which made it even better.

"And where's the catch?" he then asked. The whole deal sounded too easy to really be.

Doppler's eyes darted to his companion, but he replied with confidence.

"There is none."

***

"No catch? Don't make me laugh," Roth said. She tied up her backpack. "There is always a catch, especially when they claim there isn't."

Weidner shrugged. He counted his cutlery once again and noticed that a knife was missing. His eyes scanned his belongings, which were spread out on his bed. A knife was nowhere to be seen. He frowned with irritation.

"Not all higher ups are liars, you know?" Habich said, fighting his sleeping bag nearby. "Why aren't you just grateful that for once it's going to be a walk in the park? It's hardly ever that way." 

"And after the mission, we're going home," Weidner added in a tone that was unusually cheerful for him. Then his gaze fell on his gunner, who was holding up a knife and looking at it from all angles - as if he had never seen such a thing before.

"Bachmeier!" Weidner hissed. The addressed man flinched.

"Is this yours?" he asked innocently.

Weidner stomped over to him and snatched the knife with a harsh "Who else's?!". Bachmeier pouted, but didn't say anything and instead continued packing his things.

Soon all berths were in the state they had been before the tankers had occupied them. What was left behind would quickly find a new owner; this was why everyone checked once again whether they had missed anything. Finally, the crews were ready for departure. They made their way outside, where their tanks were also waiting for them already.

Weidner's gaze met Heinrich's - the Hauptmann must have shown up to bid farewell to his underlings. His arms were crossed in front of his chest as he stood next to the Panthers and gave everyone grumpy looks.

"Don't you dare embarrass me," he said as they reached him. Weidner looked at him coolly. He would have loved to retort something, but decided against it this time. He saluted.

"Jawohl, Hauptmann."

"Begone!"

"Jawohl, Hauptmann."

Weidner and his crew climbed into their Panther, started the engine, and drove off. As soon as Heinrich was out of sight, Weidner grimaced.

"Begone, worms!" he imitated the Hauptmann's voice and words. His crew chuckled.

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