After trying to kill each other, two strangers get stuck with helping each other survive.
The sun kept burning down mercilessly. The wind had stopped, too. Both tanks felt like their fuel was just evaporating and their coolant boiling.
They had gotten less alert, just dragging themselves across the sand by now. The Covenanter had gotten so tired from staying up all night that he had gone to sleep and just put his engine on cruise control. The Sturmpanzer knew that her engine was running on fumes, but she was trying to postpone opening the last fuel can for as long as possible. If the light tank consumed his as well, they would be out of supplies with no remedy anywhere in sight.
Suddenly, the Covenanter stopped as his engine stalled. He woke up dizzily and groaned. It was time for him to refuel. The Sturmpanzer halted as well and watched him with a frown. Their time was running out.
As they went on, he stayed awake and drove ahead again. The Sturmpanzer’s vision was too blurry to see him clearly anymore as he did, and he too was swaying slightly as he drove.
For a whole day, they continued their aimless journey, and their hopes of surviving this had long curled up and died as soon as the Sturmpanzer had used up her last can of fuel as well and their engines were running empty again. During the night and whole morning, there had been a sandstorm, which had forced them to stay in the same place for way too long. Only around midday, they could go on.
They had been driving for a while when the Covenanter drove up to the Sturmpanzer and gave her a pensive look.
“If we’re going to die, and I think we will, I just wanted you to know that you’re not too bad for an SPG,” he said in a solemn tone.
She didn’t know what to say at first, but eventually replied, avoiding his looks.
“You’re not too bad for a snobby light tank either,” she said quietly.
The Sturmpanzer gave him a questioning look as he stopped all of a sudden.
“We’re going in circles!” the Covenanter cried out. The SPG thought that he must have been going crazy. First the confession, now this. How was it possible to go in circles when they were always driving straight ahead? But then she saw what he meant – track marks in the sand. It was exactly two sets, but the Sturmpanzer refused to believe that this could be true. She grimly drove on and crested the dune. On the other side, more trails were visible.
“A team!” she shouted, and the Covenanter caught up to her at once. He disbelievingly stared at the marks in the sand. They couldn’t say if it was good news yet, but it was something different than just more dunes.
The trails had to be relatively new, since the recent sandstorm would have erased older ones.
Assuming that they hadn't died in the meantime - like the last team - maybe this could be good news. Maybe they would have mercy with two lost tanks and share their fuel, or maybe the two lost tanks could even join them. Maybe they would be able to sneak past their guards at night and steal from them. Maybe the team would get involved in a fight and decimated enough that they could take them on.
The Sturmpanzer got fidgety as she thought about the possibilities. Her fuel intake was drier than the sand, and she was desperate enough to cling to the hope that the other team would somehow benefit them. Now all they had to do was catch up with them. They kicked their engines into gear and started to hurry.
It took several hours, but finally, they saw shapes in the distance. The Covenanter told the Sturmpanzer to stay behind and cautiously got closer to confirm that this wasn’t just another illusion. He could make out several tier four and three tanks. It was a small team, there were only about eight tanks present. Teams tended to be this small here, since it meant less people to feed. They were driving along obliviously, not aware of the light tank’s presence.
Instead of coming back, the Sturmpanzer saw him drive down to them, his cannon raised. Apparently his plan was still to abandon her at the sight of another team. There was a feeling of betrayal. But maybe she should have known better.
He turned around quickly however as he was greeted by shots. It looked like they didn’t have any use for a stranger.
He returned to the Sturmpanzer.
“We should just follow them for now,” he said, catching his breath and sounding a bit crestfallen. “Maybe they’ll lead us to a place where there’s fuel.”
The Sturmpanzer didn’t show it, but she was secretly glad that the team hadn’t accepted the Covenanter.
They did as he said, and followed the other team from a safe distance. They always kept a couple of dunes between them, but they didn’t worry about losing them, since they were moving slowly and all they had to do was follow the track marks. The Sturmpanzer also kept them in her SPG sights to make sure they wouldn’t run into them in case they decided to rest.
They followed them for a day, and jealously watched them refuel. The team had fuel cans with them, quite a few actually. One of the tanks was pulling a little cart that was full of them.
“Where did they get all of that?” the Covenanter groaned.
“Must have been a good raid,” the Sturmpanzer said thoughtfully.
“Look!” the light tank then said, pointing ahead. The Sturmpanzer followed his gaze and saw that behind one of the dunes ahead of them, there was something glistening, and what looked like trees. The team was heading for it.
“An oasis?” she asked.
“A real one!” the Covenanter said cheerfully.
They watched as the other team reached it, but it turned out that they weren’t there to relax in the shadows. They did that too, but their visit to the oasis also had a different reason.
“They’re burying the fuel,” the Sturmpanzer said as she watched the team through her sights. It was too dangerous to crest the dunes right now, as the team’s light tanks were carefully watching their surroundings at the moment.
The Covenanter next to her nodded his cannon excitedly.
Now they simply had to wait until the team left, and they would be able to steal their fuel easily. When they would return here to retrieve it later, they would find a terrible surprise. But it was every team for themselves, after all.
It took excruciatingly long until the team finally moved on. As soon as they were out of sight, the Covenanter and the Sturmpanzer rushed down to the oasis, immediately going for the spot where the cans had been buried. They dug them up and greedily drank the fuel.
“That’s going to last for a while!” the Covenanter grinned after finishing the second can. Several more cans were standing in the shadow. It would be enough for the two of them for a week at least. The Sturmpanzer grinned as well, just as relieved.
“So, what now?” she asked.
The Covenanter shrugged.
“I guess we should keep following the other team for now, it didn’t go too bad for us so far.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
The Covenanter drove to and fro, venting his anger loudly. His words became better and lesser understandable with the changing distance between him and the Sturmpanzer.
“-that can't even do the only thing they're good at!”
The Sturmpanzer watched him with a look that said ‘calm down already’.
“Says the scout!” she shouted over to him.
“Shut up!” he shouted back.
They had lost the team. Soon after they had gone back to following them, a stiff breeze had started blowing away their track marks. It was impossible to tell where they had gone and after a couple of hours of fruitless searching, they had given up. For some reason, they had started pushing the blame for this misfortune back and forth between the two of them, as if any one of them was responsible.
Before the Covenanter could rave on, he suddenly stopped and his turret turned towards the horizon, where the sun was starting to descend. He seemed to be in a hurry all of a sudden as he raced back towards the Sturmpanzer.
“Enemies incoming!” he barked. Just as he crested one of the dunes, a shot hit it right next to him, throwing a cascade of sand at the Sturmpanzer. So they had seen them already. That was bad.
“How many?” the Sturmpanzer asked, but hurriedly looked through her sights to check herself. She could make bits of tanks sticking out from behind a dune. Her first thought was that the team they had been following had found them, but it seemed to be less tanks. Nevertheless: “We’re in trouble.” She watched them line up behind the dunetop that they had backed up behind, where they were mostly out of her view. They were probably getting ready to shoot whatever would pop up.
The Covenanter climbed back up the dune and stuck his turret out to maybe catch another glimpse of their attackers. He reported a Panzer 38(t) as well as a T-50, who were peeking over the ridge at the moment. A shell whistled past the top of his turret and he backed up again, but not before shooting back. His shot hit the Panzer and they heard a pained outcry.
The Sturmpanzer carefully took aim, and eventually fired. She couldn't tell how many tanks she hit. One of them started smoking, but that was it.
“Dammit!” she hissed.
The Covenanter too saw the smoke column form and ground his gears together.
Cresting again, he tried to get in another shot.
“Watch out!” the Sturmpanzer said as she saw a Matilda pop up. Two of the other tanks disappeared to the left. Instead of replying, the Covenanter shot at the Matilda, but the shell bounced and he backed up with a curse.
“They’re gonna try to flank us,” he said hurriedly.
The Sturmpanzer immediately started rolling backwards, in an excruciating crawl. Her sights were still trained on the hidden enemy tanks, and she shot blind at where she hoped another one was. There was an explosion that wasn’t just the impact of the HE shell, and the blast scattered the smoke for a moment, chewed a big chunk out of the dune.
The Sturmpanzer got a glimpse of a tank - or rather, the wreck of one. Her sights darted to the left, where she saw the two trying to sneak around. One of them was stopped as they had to crest a dune and the Covenanter picked it off, killing it with his shot. That made two dead enemies.
The Sturmpanzer kept backing off. A shot graced her side as she crested as well, but she disappeared behind the dune almost immediately. As she was still reloading, she directed her sights at the Covenanter, who was setting himself into motion. The enemy light tank – the T-50 – reached him, and they started circling each other.
The Matilda popped up again and obviously wanted to use the opportunity. Its hull appeared from behind the dune as well as it had to drive up further to be able to shoot over the other dune that its teammate and the Covenanter were behind. The Sturmpanzer got back on top of her own dune and fired a direct shot at the distracted medium tank. She could have sworn that the impact threw it back a little, but other than that, it seemed unharmed. As a Valentine’s cannon started appearing from behind the crest as well, the Sturmpanzer backed up again quickly. She looked at the Covenanter again, who was just finishing off the T-50, and saw him taking a bad hit from the Matilda. The Valentine missed. The Covenanter swerved to the side and behind the T-50's wreck, shooting back but bouncing another shot off the medium’s armour.
This time, the Matilda wasn’t as lucky. It was standing still, intently trying to aim past the T-50’s wreck. The Sturmpanzer raised her cannon as high as she could, planted a shell right on the Matilda's roof. The shot penetrated easily and the medium tank blew up. The Valentine next to it snapped out of its tunnel vision and fired at the Covenanter again, then backed up, disappearing into the smoke.
“There’s only one left!” the Sturmpanzer shouted over the dune. She tried to spot it again, but the remaining enemy tank was hidden by the dune. Out of the corner of her sights, she checked on the Covenanter again, who was still hiding behind the wreck. It wasn’t good cover, so she didn’t know why he didn’t use the chance to drive to a safer spot.
The Valentine suddenly crested again and took aim at the Covenanter, but the Sturmpanzer turned her cannon and fired before it could. The shell tore through its front armour easily and the explosion tore several panels out of the Valentine's armour. As the sound of the blast faded, the sudden silence stretched on for several seconds.
The Sturmpanzer snapped out of it first and drove out from her hiding place. She caught the Covenanter’s gaze, who still wasn’t moving.
“We did it!” she said and didn’t understand at first what the strange, bittersweet look that he was giving her meant. It took her a moment to notice that one of his tracks was shattered. She fell silent.
“I’m fucked,” the Covenanter said quietly, with a sad smile. So this was why he hadn’t moved. The Sturmpanzer unexpectedly felt a pang in her fuel pump as she looked at him.
“Go ahead,” the light tank said. “And better put me down too.”
The Sturmpanzer slumped. She remained silent for a moment. Should she just do what he said? Even though she wasn’t particularly fond of him, for some reason she found the thought of just abandoning him - or even killing him - painful. She just couldn’t do it. If it was him or no one, she preferred the handicapped light tank.
“I’m not leaving you behind,” she said eventually, firmly.
He gave her a surprised look. “Don’t be stupid” he said, “I’ll only be a burden.”
“I don’t care,” the Sturmpanzer replied. She started smiling sheepishly. “If I have to keep going through this hell, you have to, too.”
The Covenanter dropped his gaze with a frown.
“You’re making a mistake,” he mumbled, but the Sturmpanzer didn’t pay attention to his protest. She went about searching the dead enemy tanks for fuel cans and spare parts, but found nothing except for a couple of track segments. Those guys must have been starving and desperate. Checking their fuel tanks as well, she siphoned off whatever she could find.
She returned to the Covenanter and affixed her towing ropes to him. He was still staring at the ground and she didn’t look at him either. As she was finished, she turned around and started pulling. He didn’t protest any further.