From the land of first drafts, an excerpt from the upcoming New Persia book 2, The Tempest.
Captain Aran, Azanian Land Force, led his company of light tanks through Siwa. The small emirate had switched sides at the last possible moment, as the entire massed might of the Azanian armed forces was poised to storm over the border. He’d been told to expect no resistance from the Siwans, but he had ordered his first platoon forward as a point element anyway. He would have liked to have flankers, too, but he was moving far too fast along the great highway for tanks driving off the road to keep up. In column the Azanians rode their tanks eastward into the rising sun.
His little company of light tanks was the tip of the tip of the spear. The only Azanian units ahead of him were in the air. Fighters roared overhead a few times an hour even in the dark. The pilots were using the concrete ribbon of the highway for navigation over the otherwise featureless desert. By starlight, they navigated their way to targets deep within New Persia.
Aran wished the pilots well but was happy to be on the ground. He did not relish the thought of falling thousands of feet to hit the ground, all the while knowing he was going to die. In a tank, death came swiftly. Unless he was one of the unlucky crewmen burned inside their track like a kabob over a fire.
Aran forced the thought out of his mind. Danger was part of his job. He told himself he had known death or maiming was a risk when he had joined the Land Force, and nothing had changed since. He was paying the government back for his pretty uniforms and his time with the ladies back in Zanzibar.
A green tracer grew out of the darkness like a meteor. It seemed to be aimed directly at Aran since he saw the enemy round appear as a sphere instead of a streak. The shell travelled faster than sound but Aran felt as if time had stopped. He had all the time left in the world watching the shell approach. He wondered why he couldn’t speak and couldn’t move. It was if his thoughts were outrunning his ability to make his body react.
At the last moment the tracer grew a tail and streaked to the side of Aran’s track. He felt the shock wave as the shell punched through the air meters away from his head. A wave of heat accompanied the freight train sound of the enemy projectile.
To his left his 2nd platoon leader’s tank stopped in its tracks as if it had hit a wall. The rear running wheels lifted off the ground and the forward hull dug into the asphalt roadway. A meter-long shower of sparks sprayed from the thin front plate of the Mbwa tank. Both the top turret hatches blew open with the shock of impact and of the shell passing through the crew compartment.
As Aran watched, the rear part of the track crashed back down onto the pavement. Thick black smoke spewed out of the exhaust ports. Lighter-colored smoke rose from the blown-open hatches on the turret roof.
Aran noticed his head was turning back to the rear as his tank continued forward past the stricken Mbwa. He snapped his eyes back to his front and scanned the hillside in front of him for signs of the enemy which had killed his comrade.
A rising cloud of dust betrayed the killer. On a ridgetop to his front a long gun barrel protruded from a squat turret. Aran recognized the profile.
“Target tank front!” he screamed into his intercom before taking the turret override and slewing the slim gun tube of the Mbwa to the left.
Over the radio he heard the sighting reports from his remaining tanks. They saw the Persian tank, too.
His gunner yelled, “Cannot acquire!” as the Mbwa bounced off the road and into the chaparral in search of cover. Without being ordered, Aran’s driver had smashed his foot down on the throttle and jinked the tank to the right, away from the wrecked tank. The turn had thrown off Aran’s aim and smashed his kidneys against the hatch ring where he stood.
The gunner screamed at the driver to stop, and the driver ignored him. The Mbwa accelerated toward a pistachio orchard a few hundred meters away. Aran was opening his mouth to scream at the driver himself when he slewed the tank to the left, skidding the treads and sending gravel flying. Aran nearly flew out of the hatch.
“What in Maroni’s name—”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Another shell flew at him from the enemy tank, roiling the air as if it were water and sending shock waves in all directions as it passed by Aran’s tank through the space it had been a moment before.
“Go!” Aran managed to yell through his teeth. His chest was smashed against the hatch ring and he could barely breathe.
The gunner, unaware of what was happening except through the narrow view of his telescopic sight, continued yelling at the driver below him in the hull. The driver screamed back. He rolled the tank into the pistachio orchard and slammed to a halt behind a low brick wall. They could no longer be seen from the hill to the east where the enemy lay.
“Shut up!” Aran yelled into the turret. Luck and his driver’s initiative had saved his tank and crew for the critical first few seconds of the ambush. If they were to survive any longer, he would have to start thinking.
Aran spun his head around to take in the scene around him. He couldn’t see out of the orchard from where he was. Choosing not to risk his tank, he jumped out of the tank. The intercom cord attached to his vehicle helmet jerked his head back.
He cursed, tried to detach the wire from the helmet, couldn’t find the input jack, and threw off the whole helmet. He leaped off the tank and made his way to the edge of the orchard.
Dust and smoke clouds billowed in all directions. The smoke was the white kind from the Land Force-issued smoke grenade launchers bolted to the side of each tank’s turret. There was only one cloud of thick black smoke denoting the location of a dead and burning vehicle. Other than the tank destroyed by the first shot, the company seemed to be intact.
That was odd, Aran thought in a detached way. He’d expected to have lost more of his tanks. In battle, the side firing first had an advantage, and from how accurate the enemy shots had been it seemed the enemy knew how to shoot. If he had run into a Persian tank company, or even a platoon, his column would be a line of burning wrecks.
He winced at the sharp cracks of tank cannon blasting nearby. Gouts of dirt and rock erupted like geysers around the enemy tank. Two Azanian shells hit the exposed turret but bounced off. Ricochets arced into the sky. The front turret of the enemy was proof against his light tanks’ armor piercing shells. Aran cursed. He’d found a Karar medium tank, and as long as he was only able to shoot the front turret, he wouldn’t be able to do more than scratch its paint.
He didn’t see any more enemy or hear any gunfire from the east.
“There’s only one of them!” Aran said to himself. He ran back to his track and clambered up to the turret hatch. Realizing his helmet was lying on the ground below where he had left it, he had to climb down again to retrieve it. Cursing continuously, he finally climbed back into his hatch on the turret roof. He plugged his helmet back in and flipped the switch for the radio channel.
He listened as his 1st Platoon leader ordered his tanks into a wedge and hooked them to the right of the highway behind a bluff. Aran could see he planned to flank the enemy from the south. Aran approved but warned him to be careful of an ambush. It was possible the enemy had covered the approach or, worse, had planned a complex ambush and was counting on an outflanking attempt. Aran didn’t think so, it made no sense when the enemy had caught them so completely by surprise on the first shot, but it paid to be cautious.
The two leaderless 2nd platoon tanks had run in opposite directions and were still going flat out. Aran could see one of them heading for the orchard but the other was fleeing back down the highway to the west.
He was about to call the tank back when the enemy found the range and landed a shell straight into the rear of the retreating tank. It slid to a stop and began to burn. Aran saw two of the crew get out before the hatches became fountains of sparks as the ammunition burned.
The remaining tanks were now under cover. His own tank and the surviving tank from 2nd Platoon were in the orchard while the 1st Platoon was flanking the hill from the south. He ordered the other tank to follow him and told his driver to make his way north. He would attempt to bring his two tanks within range of the enemy to his left flank.
Why only one? Aran thought. Persian platoons consisted of four tanks, and companies of ten. If there was a company of Karars out there, he had better find out, for his own sake and for the Azanian units behind him.
He keyed the radio.
“FIRST PLATOON, BE ALERT FOR MORE KARAR TYPE TANKS.”
Immediately after transmitting, Aran realized he hadn’t used proper radio procedure. He’d forgotten to use call signs.
“UNDERSTOOD, FOX TWO ZERO.” replied the first platoon leader. He remembered.
Aran thought he heard a note of irritation in the man’s voice. He was telling his platoon leader how to do his job. Even so, Aran didn’t want to lose any more of his company to Persian heavy units. He and his company were heading into the unknown and in battle the unknown would kill you.
He had his answer a moment later.
“FOX TWO ZERO, FOX ONE ONE, SIGHTING REPORT,” the 1st Platoon leader paused for a moment, causing Aran’s heart to jump. He was about to key the mic to reply when the transmission continued. “THREE, REPEAT THREE, K-TYPE TANKS MOVING WEST ON ROUTE ONE. THEY ARE IN COLUMN, RANGE TWO KILOMETERS.”
Three Karars were coming toward Aran’s company on the east-west highway.
He paused a moment before replying, being sure in his excitement not to start talking until the radio was keyed.
“FOX ONE ONE, FOX TWO ZERO. DO NOT ENGAGE ENEMY TANKS. FIND COVER IMMEDIATELY TO THE SOUTH OF ROUTE ONE.”
“FOX TWO ZERO, UNDERSTOOD.”
Aran was sending them back the way they had come and across the highway to the south. At the range they had spotted the Karars, the Persians’ big 105mm gun tubes could easily destroy his light Mbwa tanks. The Mbwas’ guns could barely reach the Persians and if they did, they would bounce off the heavy glacis plates of the Karars. In a head-on fight, Aran’s company would lose.
He looked through the pistachio trees to the one surviving Second Platoon tank. They were still picking their way through the trees to the north, outflanking the first Karar.
Aran needed to decide what to do next. His idea to hit the single Persian from both sides had been a good one but was moot now. His other platoon was backing off to avoid the approaching tank column. He could, and probably should, back off and report into his brigade. He’d found something too tough for him to crack and someone else would have to deal with it. He’d already lost two valuable tracks and six men.
He didn’t want to give up. His impulse, and the Azanian Land Forces ethos, was toward aggression. If he stopped, the entire Azanian offensive into Persia would stop. If he could somehow find a way past the four Karars, he’d keep the entire attack moving. Time was lives, his brigade commander had emphasized. The Persians were more numerous and given time they would swarm like flies to a corpse.
He could call for air support. A Duma fighter-bomber could destroy a tank with bombs or its cannon. It would take time, especially if no nearby aircraft were available. Aran estimated it would be an hour, by which time more Persians could arrive.
Aran made his decision. His tank and the other to his left would attack the single Karar which had already killed two of his Mbwas. It would be two to one, and the odds wouldn’t get any better as time passed. The other three Karars were still moving in the open, too.
He formulated a plan.
“FOX THREE THREE, FOLLOW ME. ENGAGE K-TYPE TANK WHEN IN SIGHT.”
“UNDERSTOOD, FOX TWO ZERO.” The tank commander’s voice was shaky.
Aran wanted to encourage the man. It would do no good to do so. Either he would do his duty, or not, and he wouldn’t embarrass him over the radio.
The hill rose to their right and Aran called the driver of his tank to turn and climb up the side. The Mbwas crunched sun-baked gravel and thorn bushes beneath their treads. Aran hoped their approach would not be heard. If the Persian commander was smart, he would be out of his turret and looking around. Aran prayed he wasn’t smart. Aran stood in his hatch with his torso exposed. Against a tank, his Mbwa’s armor wouldn’t save him and he wanted to be able to see. Inside a tank using a periscope or vision block he was nearly blind.
Aran’s Mbwa crested a low ridge with its commander’s head the first thing appearing over the edge. To his surprise, the Karar he had seen to the south was to his immediate front, broadside, facing west toward the orchard.
“Driver, halt!” he screamed.
The Mbwa rocked forward as the driver slammed on the breaks. The hatch ring punched Aran in the stomach and he shielded his body with his arms to keep from bouncing off the machine gun mount.
The Karar was buttoned up with all its hatches closed tight. As Aran stood stunned in his hatch, the Persian’s gun traversed right, then left, in a sixty-degree arc to its front. Its gunner was searching for targets, but in the wrong direction.
Aran realized his gunner was smashing his elbow into Aran’s shin. He was screaming something.
Aran woke up from his surprise.
Training took over Aran’s responses. “Gunner, target tank, fire!”
“Cannot identify!” the gunner was screaming.
“What?” Aran said, dumbly.
“Cannot identify!” The gunner yelled again.
Aran looked down at the Mbwa gun tube. Although his head had cleared the top of the slope, the gun barrel was pointed over the enemy tank. The gun turret could not depress far enough to bring the Karar into its field of view. The Mbwa would have to drive forward and expose itself fully before the gun would be able to track the target.
“Driver, forward, 10 meters!” Aran ordered.
As the driver released the brake and engaged the clutch of the Mbwa, the Karar’s commander opened his hatch. Before Aran could react, the Persian put binoculars to his eyes and looked to the west at the highway below.
The Mbwa’s engine caught and the light tank’s treads bit into the sandy soil. The tank shuddered as the clutch slipped. The transmission whined and the tank stayed where it was. The driver had put the tank into the wrong gear.
Startled by the noise, the Persian tank commander turned his head toward Aran. He jumped as the too-close image of the Mbwa appeared in his glasses. He yanked the binoculars away from his eyes in surprise. Then he saw Aran poking over the edge of the slope, the Mbwa’s gun pointing helplessly at the sky. As Aran had done, the black-shirted Persian screamed down the hatch at his crew.
“Driver, forward!” Aran yelled down, trying to be heard over the whining of the engine. The motor was spun up but the Mbwa shuddered but didn’t stir.
The Karar came to life. The gun turret of the Persian tank turned clockwise and would soon be pointed directly at Aran. The Karar’s commander pointed at Aran with his whole arm, uselessly, because his crew couldn’t see him. He was shouting something unintelligible over the roar of two tank engines.
“Now!” Aran cried.
The driver yelled back, “Damn it, I know!” and downshifted.
Aran watched helplessly as the Karar’s 100mm gun tube spun toward him. The bore seemed to grow in diameter as it approached.
The driver released the clutch again and the transmission caught. The driver had revved the engine to a high rpm and the Mbwa surged forward like a rabbit. Aran was slammed in the kidneys by the turret ring. In his fear and excitement, he didn’t feel the blow.
“Target tank, fire!” he screamed, slurring his commands together in excitement.
“Cannot identify!” the gunner yelled. The Karar was so close he couldn’t see its outline in his scope.
Aran stared dumbly at the enemy commander across the fifty meters separating them. He was still waving his arm and screaming down the hatch into the Karar. The Mbwa’s gun barrel seemed to cover most of the distance between him and the enemy tank. The Persian Karar’s gun swept toward him in its arc. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the enemy cannon stopped, pointed directly at Aran.
Aran remembered the commander’s override. His hand snatched at it, but time moved so slowly he seemed to be made of wax. His fingers clutched at the trigger as the Persian commander barked his last order.
“Atesh!” he cried.
Aran jerked the trigger for the Mbwa’s main gun.
The two tanks fired at the same instant. Aran was aware of a blinding flash which blinded him. The next sensation was a crushing wall of solid air smashing his back into the hard metal of the hatch rim. The concussion ripped off his crew helmet and sent it flying. The blast, like a giant hand descending palm-first on top of his head, forced him back down into the Mbwa’s turret. Blind, deafened, unable to breathe, he collapsed in shock onto the turret floor.