o, what do you do when you have an hour for lunch, no computer and no book? Well, there is always a work laptop and Project Gutenberg.
This time I found a nifty short story, Tanks, written in first issue of Astounding Tales (Vol 1, Number 1, January 1930, a new decade, new magazine, a new future – so optimistic). Anyway, I always enjoy stories like this, ones where author attempts future combat based on what they know (from World War One) and what they can guess (from the current day). And while Tanks was a bit off, it was still fully entertaining.
Strategically, The United States finds itself in desperate battle on its own soil against something called “The Yellow Empire” (any guesses?). Tactically, combat is centered around armored tanks. So tanks can rip up infantry but are helpless against air-directed artillery. The way to get around this is for both sides to pump as much smoke and fog into the combat area as they can. So it’s armored combat all the way, with infantry hiding in listening posts, reporting enemy tanks before they get run down, and planes and helicopters attempting to find them (not much luck there). But really, it’s all down to the tanks, probing blindly and blasting each other point blank.
So, bad for us – the “yellows” have twice as many tanks as we’ve got. And worse for us – a two mile section of front just went dead. No communications. No nothing. Every listening post just went off the air. And back in their command tank, the general and his staff are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what just happened, where the enemy is, and when (and how) he will strike.
And into this mess slog Sergeant Coffee and Corporal Wallis, two dogtag danglers, the sole survivors of their slaughtered unit. They have no idea of what’s going on (any more than a couple of lowly pawns understand the sweep of the chess game). They are just a couple of slobs trying to build cigarettes out of butts. But they find an outpost with all the men dead (killed, it seems, by a new gas that gets around current gas masks). So they call back and report.
And suddenly, with the army blind against a massed foe, the information they discover is of critical (even worldwide) importance.
Tanks was a wonderful effort by Murray Leinster, a good little piece that conveys tension at both the macro and micro levels. We’ve got the tense General, attempting to figure out his opponent’s strategy. And we’ve got the two stumblebums just trying to find their way out of this foggy, shell-churned hell. And it all comes together in a magnificent conclusion that satisfies the reader almost ninety years later. I gotta say it really filled a fun hour with Coffee and Wallis tripping over their boots in the fog, all while the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Four bravos and a hat in the air for this one.
You can read it HERE, for free.