Tanks - Cover


by Murray Leinster

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Two miles of American front had gone dead. And on two lone infantrymen, lost in the menace of the fog-gas and the tanks, depended the outcome of the war of 1932.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The persistent, oily smell of fog-gas was everywhere, even in the little pill-box. Outside, all the world was blotted out by the thick gray mist that went rolling slowly across country with the breeze. The noises that came through it were curiously muted--fog-gas mutes all noises somewhat--but somewhere to the right artillery was pounding something with H E shell, and there were those little spitting under-current explosions that told of tanks in action. To the right there was a distant rolling of machine-gun fire. In between was an utter, solemn silence.

Sergeant Coffee, disreputable to look at and disrespectful of mien, was sprawling over one of the gunners’ seats and talking into a field telephone while mud dripped from him. Corporal Wallis, equally muddy and still more disreputable, was painstakingly manufacturing one complete cigarette from the pinched-out butts of four others. Both were rifle-infantry. Neither had any right or reason to be occupying a definitely machine-gun-section post. The fact that the machine-gun crew was all dead did not seem to make much difference to sector H.Q. at the other end of the telephone wire, judging from the questions that were being asked.

“I tell you,” drawled Sergeant Coffee, “they’re dead ... Yeah, all dead. Just as dead as when I told you the firs’ time, maybe even deader ... Gas, o’course. I don’t know what kind ... Yeh. They got their masks on.”

He waited, looking speculatively at the cigarette Corporal Wallis had in manufacture. It began to look imposing. Corporal Wallis regarded it affectionately. Sergeant Coffee put his hand over the mouthpiece, and looked intently at his companion.

“Gimme a drag o’ that, Pete,” he suggested. “I’ll slip y’ some butts in a minute.”

Corporal Wallis nodded, and proceeded to light the cigarette with infinite artistry. He puffed delicately upon it, inhaled it with the care a man learns when he has just so much tobacco and never expects to get any more, and reluctantly handed it to Sergeant Coffee.

Sergeant Coffee emptied his lungs in a sigh of anticipation. He put the cigarette to his lips. It burned brightly as he drew upon it. Its tip became brighter and brighter until it was white-hot, and the paper crackled as the line of fire crept up the tube.

“Hey!” said Corporal Wallis in alarm.

Sergeant Coffee waved him aside, and his chest expanded to the fullest limit of his blouse. When his lungs could hold no more he ceased to draw, grandly returned about one-fourth of the cigarette to Corporal Wallis, and blew out a cloud of smoke in small driblets until he had to gasp for breath.

“When y’ ain’t got much time,” said Sergeant Coffee amiably, “that’s a quick smoke.”

Corporal Wallis regarded the ruins of his cigarette with a woeful air.

“Hell!” said Corporal Wallis gloomily. But he smoked what was left.

“Yeah,” said Sergeant Coffee suddenly, into the field telephone, “I’m still here, an’ they’re still dead ... Listen, Mr. Officer, I got me a black eye an’ numerous contusions. Also my gas-mask is busted. I called y’up to do y’ a favor. I aim to head for distant parts ... Hell’s bells! Ain’t there anybody else in the army--” He stopped, and resentment died out in wide-eyed amazement. “Yeh ... Yeh ... Yeh ... I gotcha, Loot. A’right, I’ll see what I c’n do. Yeh ... Wish y’d see my insurance gets paid. Yeh.”

He hung up, gloomily, and turned to Corporal Wallis.

“We’ got to be heroes,” he announced bitterly. “Sit out here in th’ stinkin’ fog an’ wait for a tank t’ come along an’ wipe us out. We’ the only listenin’ post in two miles of front. That new gas o’ theirs wiped out all the rest without report.”

He surveyed the crumpled figures, which had been the original occupants of the pill-box. They wore the same uniform as himself and when he took the gas-mask off of one of them the man’s face was strangely peaceful.

“Hell of a war,” said Sergeant Coffee bitterly. “Here our gang gets wiped out by a helicopter. I ain’t seen sunlight in a week, an’ I got just four butts left. Lucky I started savin’ ‘em.” He rummaged shrewdly. “This guy’s got half a sack o’ makin’s. Say, that was Loot’n’t Madison on the line, then. Transferred from our gang a coupla months back. They cut him in the line to listen in on me an’ make sure I was who I said I was. He recognized my voice.”

Corporal Wallis, after smoking to the last and ultimate puff, pinched out his cigarette and put the fragments of a butt back in his pocket.

“What we got to do?” he asked, watching as Sergeant Coffee divided the treasure-trove into two scrupulously exact portions.

“Nothin’,” said Coffee bitterly, “except find out how this gang got wiped out, an’ a few little things like that. Half th’ front line is in th’ air, the planes can’t see anything, o’course, an’ nobody dares cut th’ fog-gas to look. He didn’t say much, but he said for Gawd’s sake find out somethin’.”

Corporal Wallis gloated over one-fourth of a sack of tobacco and stowed it away.

“Th’ infantry always gets th’ dirty end of the stick,” he said gloomily. “I’m goin’ to roll me a whole one, pre-war, an’ smoke it, presently.”

“Hell yes,” said Coffee. He examined his gas-mask from force of habit before stepping out into the fog once more, then contemptuously threw it aside. “Gas-masks, hell! Ain’t worth havin’. Come on.”

Corporal Wallis followed as he emerged from the little round cone of the pill-box.

The gray mist that was fog-gas hung over everything. There was a definite breeze blowing, but the mist was so dense that it did not seem to move. It was far enough from the fog-flares for the last least trace of striation to have vanished. Fifteen miles to the north the fog-flares were placed, ranged by hundreds and by thousands, burning one after another as the fog service set them off, and sending out their incredible masses of thick gray vapor in long threads that spread out before the wind, coalesced, and made a smoke-screen to which the puny efforts of the last war--the war that was to make the world safe for democracy--were as nothing.

Here, fifteen miles down wind from the flares, it was possible to see clearly in a circle approximately five feet in diameter. At the edge of that circle outlines began to blur. At ten feet all shapes were the faintest of bulks, the dimmest of outlines. At fifteen feet all was invisible, hidden behind a screen of mist.

“Cast around,” said Coffee gloomily. “Maybe we’ll find a shell, or tracks of a tank or somethin’ that chucked the gas here.”

It was rather ludicrous to go searching for anything in that mass of vapor. At three yards distance they could make each other out as dim outlines, no more. But it did not even occur to them to deplore the mist. The war which had already been christened, by the politicians at home, the last war, was always fought in a mist. Infantry could not stand against tanks, tanks could not live under aircraft-directed artillery fire--not when forty guns fired salvos for the aircraft to spot--and neither artillery nor aircraft could take any advantage of a victory which either, under special conditions, might win. The general staffs of both the United States and the prominent nation--let us say the Yellow Empire--at war with it had come to a single conclusion. Tanks or infantry were needed for the use of victories. Infantry could be destroyed by tanks. But tanks could be hidden from aerial spotters by smoke-screens.

The result was fog-gas, which was being used by both sides in the most modern fashion when, their own unit wiped out and themselves wandering aimlessly in the general direction of the American rear, Sergeant Coffee and Corporal Wallis stumbled upon an American pill-box with its small garrison lying dead. For forty miles in one direction and perhaps thirty in the other, the vapor lay upon the earth. It was being blown by the wind, of course, but it was sufficiently heavier than air to cling to the ground level, and the industries of two nations were straining every nerve to supply the demands of their respective armies for its material.

The fog-bank was nowhere less than a hundred feet thick--a cloud of impalpable particles impenetrable to any eye or any camera, however shrewdly filtered. And under that mattress of pale opacity the tanks crawled heavily. They lurched and rumbled upon their deadly errands, uncouth and barbarous, listening for each other by a myriad of devices, locked in desperate, short-range conflict when they came upon each other, and emitting clouds of deadly vapor, against which gas-masks were no protection, when they came upon opposing infantry.

The infantrymen, though, were few. Their principal purpose was the reporting of the approach or passage of tanks, and trenches were of no service to them. They occupied unarmed little listening-posts with field telephones, small wireless or ground buzzer sets for reporting the enemy before he overwhelmed them. They held small pill-boxes, fitted with anti-tank guns which sometimes--if rarely--managed to get home a shell, aimed largely by sound, before the tank rolled over gun and gunners alike.

And now Sergeant Coffee and Corporal Wallis groped about in that blinding mist. There had been two systems of listening-posts hidden in it, each of admittedly little fighting value, but each one deep and composed of an infinity of little pin-point posts where two or three men were stationed. The American posts, by their reports, had assured the command that all enemy tanks were on the other side of a certain definite line. Their own tanks, receiving recognition signals, passed and repassed among them, prowling in quest of invaders. The enemy tanks crawled upon the same grisly patrol on their own side.

But two miles of the American front had suddenly gone silent. A hundred telephones had ceased to make reports along the line nearest the enemy. As Coffee and Wallis stumbled about the little pill-box, looking for some inkling of the way in which the original occupants of the small strong-point had been wiped out, the second line of observation-posts began to go dead.

Now one, now another abruptly ceased to communicate. Half a dozen were in actual conversation with their sector headquarters, and broke off between words. The wires remained intact. But in fifteen nerve-racking minutes a second hundred posts ceased to make reports and ceased to answer the inquiry-signal. G.H.Q. was demanding explanations in crisp accents that told the matter was being taken very seriously indeed. And then, as the officer in command of the second-line sector headquarters was explaining frenziedly that he was doing all any man could do, he stopped short between two words and thereafter he, also, ceased to communicate.

Front-line sector headquarters seemed inexplicably to have escaped whatever fate had overtaken all its posts, but it could only report that they had apparently gone out of existence without warning. American tanks, prowling in the area that had gone dead, announced that no enemy tanks had been seen. G-81, stumbling on a pill-box no more than ten minutes after it had gone silent, offered to investigate. A member of her crew, in a gas-mask, stepped out of the port doorway. Immediately thereafter G-81’s wireless reports stopped coming in.

The situation was clearly shown in the huge tank that had been built to serve as G.H.Q. That tank was seventy feet long, and lay hidden in the mist with a brood of other, smaller tanks clustered near it, from each of which a cable ran to the telephones and instruments of the greater monster. Farther off in the fog, of course, were other tanks, hundreds of them, fighting machines all, silent and motionless now, but infinitely ready to protect the brain of the army.

The G.H.Q. maneuver-board showed the battle as no single observer could ever have seen it. A map lay spread out on a monster board, under a pitiless white light. It was a map of the whole battlefield. Tiny sparks crawled here and there under the map, and there were hundreds of little pins with different-colored heads to mark the position of this thing and that. The crawling sparks were the reported positions of American tanks, made visible as positions of moving trains had been made visible for years on the electric charts of railroads in dispatcher’s offices. Where the tiny bulbs glowed under the map, there a tank crawled under the fog. As the tank moved, the first bulb went out and another flashed into light.

The general watched broodingly as the crawling sparks moved from this place to that place, as varicolored lights flashed up and vanished, as a steady hand reached down to shift tiny pins and place new ones. The general moved rarely, and spoke hardly at all. His whole air was that of a man absorbed in a game of chess--a game on which the fate of a nation depended.

He was thus absorbed. The great board, illuminated from above by the glaring bulb, and speckled with little white sparks from below by the tiny bulbs beneath, showed the situation clearly at every instant. The crawling white sparks were his own tanks, each in its present position. Flashing blue sparks noted the last report of enemy tanks. Two staff officers stood behind the general, and each spoke from time to time into a strapped-on telephone transmitter. They were giving routine orders, heading the nearest American patrol-tanks toward the location of the latest reported enemies.

The general reached out his hand suddenly and marked off an area with his fingers. They were long fingers, and slender ones: an artist’s fingers.

“Our outposts are dead in this space,” he observed meditatively. The use of the word “outposts” dated him many years back as a soldier, back to the old days of open warfare, which had only now come about again. “Penetration of two miles--”

“Tank, sir,” said the man of the steady fingers, putting a black pin in position within that area, “let a man out in a gas-mask to examine a pill-box. The tank does not report or reply, sir.”

“Gas,” said the general, noting the spot. “Their new gas, of course. It must go through masks or sag-paste, or both.”

He looked up to one of a row of officers seated opposite him, each man with headphones strapped to his ears and a transmitter before his lips, and each man with a map-pad on his knees, on which from time to time he made notations and shifted pins absorbedly.

“Captain Harvey,” said the general, “you are sure that dead spot has not been bombarded with gas-shells?”

“Yes, General. There has been no artillery fire heavy enough to put more than a fraction of those posts out of action, and all that fire, sir, has been accounted for elsewhere.”

The officer looked up, saw the general’s eyes shift, and bent to his map again, on which he was marking areas from which spotting aircraft reported flashes as of heavy guns beneath the mist.

“Their aircraft have not been dropping bombs, positively?”

A second officer glanced up from his own map.

“Our planes cover all that space, sir, and have for some time.”

“They either have a noiseless tank,” observed the general meditatively, “or...”

The steady fingers placed a red pin at a certain spot.

“One observation-post, sir, has reopened communication. Two infantrymen, separated from their command, came upon it and found the machine-gun crew dead, with gas-masks adjusted. No tanks or tracks. They are identified, sir, and are now looking for tank tracks or shells.”

The general nodded emotionlessly.

“Let me know immediately.”

He fell back to the ceaseless study of the board with its crawling sparks and sudden flashes of light. Over at the left, there were four white sparks crawling toward a spot where a blue flash had showed a little while since. A red light glowed suddenly where one of the white sparks crawled. One of the two officers behind the general spoke crisply. Instantly, it seemed, the other three white sparks changed their direction of movement. They swung toward the red flash--the point where a wireless from the tank represented by the first white flash had reported, contact with the enemy.

“Enemy tank destroyed here, sir,” said the voice above the steady fingers.

“Wiped out three of our observation posts,” murmured the general, “His side knows it. That’s an opportunity. Have those posts reoccupied.”

“Orders given, sir,” said a staff officer from behind. “No reports as yet.”

The general’s eyes went back to the space two miles wide and two miles deep in which there was only a single observation-post functioning, and that in charge of two strayed infantrymen. The battle in the fog was in a formative stage, now, and the general himself had to watch the whole, because it was by small and trivial indications that the enemy’s plans would be disclosed. The dead area was no triviality, however. Half a dozen tanks were crawling through it, reporting monotonously that no sign of the enemy could be found. One of the little sparks representing those tanks abruptly went out.

“Tank here, sir, no longer reports.”

The general watched with lack-luster eyes, his mind withdrawn in thought.

“Send four helicopters,” he said slowly, “to sweep that space. We’ll see what the enemy does.”

One of the seated officers opposite him spoke swiftly. Far away a roaring set up and was stilled. The helicopters were taking off.

They would rush across the blanket of fog, their vertical propellers sending blasts of air straight downward. For most of their sweep they would keep a good height, but above the questionable ground they would swoop down to barely above the fog-blanket. There their monstrous screws would blow holes in the fog until the ground below was visible. If any tanks crawled there, in the spaces the helicopters swept clear, they would be visible at once and would be shelled by batteries miles away, batteries invisible under the artificial cloud-bank.

No other noises came through the walls of the monster tank. There was a faint, monotonous murmur of the electric generator. There were the quiet, crisp orders of the officers behind the general, giving the routine commands that kept the fighting a stalemate.

The aircraft officer lifted his head, pressing his headphones tightly against his ears, as if to hear mores clearly.

“The enemy, sir, has sent sixty fighting machines to attack our helicopters. We sent forty single-seaters as escort.”

“Let them fight enough,” said the general absently, “to cause the enemy to think us desperate for information. Then draw them off.”

There was silence again. The steady fingers put pins here and there. An enemy tank destroyed here. An American tank encountered an enemy and ceased to report further. The enemy sent four helicopters in a wide sweep behind the American lines, escorted by fifty fighting planes. They uncovered a squadron of four tanks, which scattered like insects disturbed by the overturning of a stone. Instantly after their disclosure a hundred and fifty guns, four miles away, were pouring shells about the place where they had been seen. Two of the tanks ceased to report.

The general’s attention was called to a telephone instrument with its call-light glowing.

“Ah,” said the general absently. “They want publicity matter.”

The telephone was connected to the rear, and from there to the Capital. A much-worried cabinet waited for news, and arrangements were made and had been used, to broadcast suitably arranged reports from the front, the voice of the commander-in-chief in the field going to every workshop, every gathering-place, and even being bellowed by loud-speakers in the city streets.

The general took the phone. The President of the United States was at the other end of the wire, this time.


“Still in a preliminary stage, sir,” said the general, without haste. “The enemy is preparing a break-through effort, possibly aimed at our machine-shops and supplies. Of course, if he gets them we will have to retreat. An hour ago he paralyzed our radios, not being aware, I suppose, of our tuned earth-induction wireless sets. I daresay he is puzzled that our communications have not fallen to pieces.”

“But what are our chances?” The voice of the President was steady, but it was strained.

“His tanks outnumber ours two to one, of course, sir,” said the general calmly. “Unless we can divide his fleet and destroy a part of it, of course we will be crushed in a general combat. But we are naturally trying to make sure that any such action will take place within point-blank range of our artillery, which may help a little. We will cut the fog to secure that help, risking everything, if a general engagement occurs.”

There was silence.

The President’s voice, when it came, was more strained still.

“Will you speak to the public, General?”

“Three sentences. I have no time for more.”

There were little clickings on the line, while the general’s eyes returned to the board that was the battlefield in miniature. He indicated a spot with his finger.

“Concentrate our reserve-tanks here,” he said meditatively. “Our fighting aircraft here. At once.”

The two spots were at nearly opposite ends of the battle field. The chief of staff, checking the general’s judgment with the alert suspicion that was the latest addition to his duties, protested sharply.

“But sir, our tanks will have no protection against helicopters!”

“I am quite aware of it,” said the general mildly.

He turned to the transmitter. A thin voice had just announced at the other end of the wire, “The commander-in-chief of the army in the field will make a statement.”

The general spoke unhurriedly.

“We are in contact with the enemy, have been for some hours. We have lost forty tanks and the enemy, we think, sixty or more. No general engagement has yet taken place, but we think decisive action on the enemy’s part will be attempted within two hours. The tanks in the field need now, as always, ammunition, spare tanks, and the special supplies for modern warfare. In particular, we require ever-increasing quantities of fog-gas. I appeal to your patriotism for reinforcements of material and men.”

He hung up the receiver and returned to his survey of the board.

“Those three listening-posts,” he said abruptly, indicating a place near where an enemy tank had been destroyed. “Have they been reoccupied?”

“Yes, sir. Just reported. The tank they reported rolled over them, destroying the placement. They are digging in.”

“Tell me,” said the general, “when they cease to report again. They will.”

He watched the board again and without lifting his eyes from it, spoke again.

“That listening-post in the dead sector, with the two strayed infantrymen in it. Was it reported?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“Tell me immediately it does.”

The general leaned back in his chair and deliberately relaxed. He lighted a cigar and puffed at it, his hands quite steady. Other officers, scenting the smoke, glanced up enviously. But the general was the only man who might smoke. The enemy’s gases, like the American ones, could go through any gas-mask if in sufficient concentration. The tanks were sealed like so many submarines, and opened their interiors to the outer air only after that air had been thoroughly tested and proven safe. Only the general might use up more than a man’s allowance for breathing.

The general gazed about him, letting his mind rest from its intense strain against the greater strain that would come on it in a few minutes. He looked at a tall blond man who was surveying the board intently, moving away, and returning again, his forehead creased in thought.

The general smiled quizzically. That man was the officer appointed to I. I. duty--interpretative intelligence--chosen from a thousand officers because the most exhaustive psychological tests had proven that his brain worked as nearly as possible like that of the enemy commander. His task was to take the place of the enemy commander, to reconstruct from the enemy movements reported and the enemy movements known as nearly as possible the enemy plans.

“Well, Harlin,” said the general, “Where will he strike?”

“He’s tricky, sir,” said Harlin. “That gap in our listening-posts looks, of course, like preparation for a massing of his tanks inside our lines. And it would be logical that he fought off our helicopters to keep them from discovering his tanks massing in that area.”

The general nodded.

“Quite true,” he admitted. “Quite true.”

“But,” said Harlin eagerly. “He’d know we could figure that out. And he may have wiped out listening posts to make us think he was planning just so. He may have fought off our helicopters, not to keep them from discovering his tanks in there, but to keep them from discovering that there were no tanks in there!”

“My own idea exactly,” said the general meditatively. “But again, it looks so much like a feint that it may be a serious blow. I dare not risk assuming it to be a feint only.”

He turned back to the board.

“Have those two strayed infantrymen reported yet?” he asked sharply.

“Not yet, sir.”

The general drummed on the table. There were four red flashes glowing at different points of the board--four points where American tanks or groups of tanks were locked in conflict with the enemy. Somewhere off in the enveloping fog that made all the world a gray chaos, lumbering, crawling monsters rammed and battered at each other at infinitely short range. They fought blindly, their guns swinging menacingly and belching lurid flames into the semi-darkness, while from all about them dropped the liquids that meant death to any man who breathed their vapor. Those gases penetrated any gas-mask, and would even strike through the sag-pastes that had made the vesicatory gases of 1918 futile.

With tanks by thousands hidden in the fog, four small combats were kept up, four only. Battles fought with tanks as the main arm are necessarily battles of movement, more nearly akin to cavalry battles than any other unless it be fleet actions. When the main bodies come into contact, the issue is decided quickly. There can be no long drawn-out stalemates such as infantry trenches produced in years past. The fighting that had taken place so far, both under the fog and aloft in the air, was outpost skirmishing only. When the main body of the enemy came into action it would be like a whirlwind, and the battle would be won or lost in a matter of minutes only.

The general paid no attention to those four conflicts, or their possible meaning.

“I want to hear from those two strayed infantrymen,” he said quietly, “I must base my orders on what they report. The whole battle, I believe, hinges on what they have to say.”

He fell silent, watching the board without the tense preoccupation he had shown before. He knew the moves he had to make in any of three eventualities. He watched the board to make sure he would not have to make those moves before he was ready. His whole air was that of waiting: the commander-in-chief of the army of the United States, waiting to hear what he would be told by two strayed infantrymen, lost in the fog that covered a battlefield.

The fog was neither more dense nor any lighter where Corporal Wallis paused to roll his pre-war cigarette. The tobacco came from the gassed machine-gunner in the pill-box a few yards off. Sergeant Coffee, three yards distant, was a blurred figure. Corporal Wallis put his cigarette into his mouth, struck his match, and puffed delicately.

“Ah!” said Corporal Wallis, and cheered considerably. He thought he saw Sergeant Coffee moving toward him and ungenerously hid his cigarette’s glow.

Overhead, a machine-gun suddenly burst into a rattling roar, the sound sweeping above them with incredible speed. Another gun answered it. Abruptly, the whole sky above them was an inferno of such tearing noises and immediately after they began a multitudinous bellowing set up. Airplanes on patrol ordinarily kept their engines muffled, in hopes of locating a tank below them by its noise. But in actual fighting there was too much power to be gained by cutting out the muffler for any minor motive to take effect. A hundred aircraft above the heads of the two strayed infantrymen were fighting madly about five helicopters. Two hundred yards away, one fell to the earth with a crash, and immediately afterward there was a hollow boom. For an instant even the mist was tinged with yellow from the exploded gasoline tank. But the roaring above continued--not mounting, as in a battle between opposing patrols of fighting planes, when each side finds height a decisive advantage, but keeping nearly to the same level, little above the bank of cloud.

Something came down, roaring, and struck the earth no more than fifty yards away. The impact was terrific, but after it there was dead silence while the thunder above kept on.

Sergeant Coffee came leaping to Corporal Wallis’ side.

“Helicopters!” he barked. “Huntin’ tanks an’ pill-boxes! Lay down!”

He flung himself down to the earth.

Wind beat on them suddenly, then an outrageous blast of icy air from above. For an instant the sky lightened. They saw a hole in the mist, saw the little pill-box clearly, saw a huge framework of supporting screws sweeping swiftly overhead with figures in it watching the ground through wind-angle glasses, and machine-gunners firing madly at dancing things in the air. Then it was gone.

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