Captain Aran, Azanian Land Force, watched another of his shell tracers fall short of the Persian tanks dug in at the top of the pass. The big Karars were looking down a steep rocky slope at his light Mbwa tanks and blasting them with their big 100mm rifled guns. The Azanian tanks could not approach close enough to reach the Karars with their smaller 75mm guns. Even if they could Aran doubted the shells would penetrate the thick turret armor of the Karars, which is all they showed above ramparts of rock and gravel dug for them to hide in.
Worse, it was broad daylight, and there was virtually no cover in the mile of open desert leading to the Persian line. There was nowhere to hide, and any Azanian vehicle coming within range was blown apart by 100mm shells. Three of his few remaining Mbwas were smoking wrecks, victims of stupid orders which Aran was forced to carry out.
He was ordered to keep the Persians engaged and continue advancing, with all other considerations secondary. He’d argued with his battalion commander in person this morning before the company of light tanks moved out.
“This is stupid, Mayli,” he’d said, using the first name informality common in the Azanian Land Force. Within two paygrades it was permissible, if not too public. “You can’t expect us to push past the Persians in the Sheban passes without assistance. Not with these—” Aran pointed to the Mbwas. “It’s suicide.”
“Then find a way not to die carrying out the orders,” Mayli said. “That’s what company commanders are for.”
“I don’t understand,” Aran said. “This is stupid. Why are we doing something this dumb? Are things going so badly we are reduced to frontal assaults against defended passes? Didn’t we learn about this last war?” The Sheban passes had saved Persian honor from total defeat twenty years before.
“Aran, you have to do it. Those are the orders, and all I can tell you is there is a reason for them. I can get you some artillery assets, but only until 1200 hours. They have other things to do this afternoon.”
Aran had kept trying for more assistance, more anything, but had failed. His company, in line with two other light tank units, were to throw themselves against a Persian wall for some unknown reason.
He’d done his best, arranged an artillery fire plan which dropped smoke in front of suspected Persian positions and airbursts on top of them to keep any armored vehicles buttoned up and infantry in their holes.
The first push had gotten much closer than Aran would have guessed. An errant gust of wind unmasked one of the Karars when they had closed within 500 meters. The Persian turret slewed toward his company and Aran felt like wetting himself. There was nothing he could do, trapped driving forward in the open with the other Mbwas. The Karar’s 100mm cannon cracked, and Aran saw the shell spark as it penetrated the side of his 2nd Platoon leader’s tank. The shell streaked through the Mbwa and shot out the other side of the lightly armored tank. Immediately, fuel and ammunition began to burn. Smoke poured through the shell holes and bubbled out the closed hatches as the air pressure inside shot up. Aran saw the driver’s hatch open, and a man clambered out. No one else escaped.
His own gunner, who couldn’t see what Aran was watching sitting up in his hatch, had already aimed the main gun at the Karar. “TANK IDENTIFIED!” He cried. “PERMISSION TO—”
“FIRE!” Aran cut him off.
The Mbwa’s cannon barked. The shell struck a boulder in front of the Persian tank’s hull and sent a cloud of splinters and dust into the air. Aran saw three other shells hit on or near the tank within a few seconds. None could penetrate the rocks piled around the tank or its front turret armor.
The Mbwa’s gun was reloaded automatically by a revolving cylinder. It meant follow-up shots were available quickly. Aran, trying to maximize the chance of hitting the Persian tank, ordered his driver to halt. The jerky movement of the Mbwa could throw off the gunner’s aim. Standing still made their own tank an easy target, but Aran decided anything at 500 meters was an easy target, moving or not.
With a steady rest, the gunner fired again. The shell cut a groove in the mantlet of the Karar’s gun and sent sparks flying. The gunner lined up and aimed the next shot. While he squinted through his sight, the Karar fired, blasting apart a Mbwa to their rear. The gun fired again and again, but the shells bounced harmlessly off the tank’s armor.
Aran, feeling the panic rising within him, looked around at the battlefield. Everywhere seemed to be wrecked Azanian tanks. A few were still firing ineffectively at the Persians, but some were starting to turn around and run. Not a single Persian tank was hit.
He made an impossible decision. Aran hated failure, but continuing was suicide, and would accomplish nothing.
“ALL UNITS, RETREAT UNDER COVER OF SMOKE, RETURN TO LINE ALPHA,” he yelled into his radio. Another transmission to the artillery directed them to fire another batch of smoke.
“Driver, turn around and make smoke!”
The driver needed no encouragement. He reversed the tank in a circle and cranked the diesel when the Mbwa was pointing downhill. He flipped a lever dumping diesel fuel onto the hot exhaust pipe, pouring smoke out the back of the tank.
With the new artillery barrage arriving and the company’s own smoke generators, enough smoke covered the battlefield to allow most of the company to escape. Once they reached their start line, Aran took stock. Three tanks lost, and another had its gun tube blown off. He had only three tanks left. Only half the crews had survived the destruction of their tanks and made it back. The Persians had seemed uninterested in shooting fleeing men in the back. Aran told himself to remember that.
The units on either side were in similar shape.
In the late morning, he was reduced to calling in artillery missions to keep the enemy pinned and trying to get his own tanks close enough to get a one-in-a-thousand kill shot against the dug-in Persians.
He’d parked his Mbwa between two boulders with only the gun poking out between them. He’d hoped to be able to drop shells in an arc on top of the enemy tanks, but it wasn’t working out.
Like an elephant pestered by a fly, the Persian tank fired back. Its heavy shell exploded the boulder next to the Mbwa, cracking it into three pieces. Exposed, Aran ordered the Mbwa to retreat.
“Damnit!” he said to himself. This was not only frustrating but pointless. Why was he doing this? The Land Force was supposed to be better than this. It was the Persians who mindlessly attacked prepared positions, not Azanians. Find the flank! Find another way around! He remembered his training, and it was all being ignored.
In the distance, he heard something strange. It sounded like aircraft, but not like any aircraft he had ever heard before. The whine of turbines soon joined the sound of blades chopping through the air. The air pulsed as if cut by a thousand threshers. Aran looked to the west to the source of the sound.
Over the hill behind him rose a plane with no wings. A whirling propeller blade flickered in and out of existence above it. To Aran’s amazement, the apparition halted in mid air and hung as if from a rope suspended in the sky. He had no words to describe what he was seeing.
Behind the first craft another appeared, then three more. Soon the air behind the front line was full machines bouncing up and down and turning this way and that. Aran could not understand why they did not fall from the sky. What little he knew of aircraft told him what he was seeing was impossible. Awestruck, he was reduced to watching wide-eyed as the machines arranged themselves into rows and then began flying overhead.
WHOP WHOP WHOP WHOP.
Aran wasn’t prepared for what happened next. As the machines overflew his tank at low altitude the noise changed to a staccato CHOP CHOP CHOP. A great wind raised dust all around his vehicle and blew it in all directions. One after another the flying craft buzzed over his tank. The noise left him deaf and speechless, and the dust cloud covered his face with dirt and pelted him with sharp pebbles. He felt an instinctive need to dive inside his turret and close the hatch behind him, but curiosity won out over fear. Fascinated, he kept his eyes fixed on the apparitions. When the last one passed, he saw on the tail boom something he could hardly believe.
Each of the machines was painted with the yellow triangle of the Azanian Air Force. The mystery craft were friendly. Aran could hardly believe it, but it was true. Through the open doors of the passing craft he had seen dark faces peering out into the sunlight.
The formation of fliers roared toward the pass. They flew over the Persian positions and dropped over the hill behind them, out of sight. The whine of the turbines disappated and the chopping noises faded. Wherever they were going, they’d be behind the Persian lines.
In a flash, he understood the purpose of his attack which had seemed so senseless. He was here to hold the attention of the Persians to the front line while the whatever-they-were flew over behind them and dropped off the soldiers they carried. It was like an airdrop, but an airdrop into the maze of canyons and boulders in the Sheban passes would be madness. These machines would be able to land and disgorge troops almost anywhere.
No wonder he had never heard about them. It was an incredible secret weapon.
Aran knew he was watching history being made, and he would have some part in making it. He was reaching for the radio when the order came over the net.
“ALL UNITS, ADVANCE.”