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The planet New Kashubia started out as a gas giant, but when its sun went dupernova, lighter elements were blasted into space. All that was left was a ball of heavy metals, heated to 8,000 degrees. As it colled, tungsten solidified first at the survace, and layers of other metals continued down to a ball of mercury at the center. The sun meanwhile evolved into a pulsar with a deadly beam of radiation that baked the planet's survace. The New Kashubians lived inside the planet, in...
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The planet New Kashubia started out as a gas giant, but when its sun went dupernova, lighter elements were blasted into space. All that was left was a ball of heavy metals, heated to 8,000 degrees. As it colled, tungsten solidified first at the survace, and layers of other metals continued down to a ball of mercury at the center. The sun meanwhile evolved into a pulsar with a deadly beam of radiation that baked the planet's survace. The New Kashubians lived inside the planet, in tunnels drilled in a thousand foot thick layer of solid gold.
Still without carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, or even dirt, the colonists were the poorest people in the universe.
But when they combined virtual reality with tank warfare, giving their warriors symbiosis with their intelligent tanks, neither war nor the galaxy would ever be the same. Not to mention sex...
HOW I VOLUNTEERED FOR THE ARMY CA. 2162 A.D.
They sentenced me to death, and then told me that I had my choice of either being rendered down so that my body's chemicals could fertilize the hydroponic vats, or joining the army.
I picked the army, but I soon learned that I had screwed up again.
Within an hour, they had given me a bath and shaved my head, and I found myself walking naked down a chilly tunnel up in the high gravity of the palladium layer. Twenty meters in diameter to match the bore of the huge Japanese ore drilling machines, the floor had been leveled by an equally bodacious milling robot, and the shiny metallic walls seemed to stretch on to infinity. Filling this tunnel with air must have cost a bundle.
The guards left me with a sergeant who was standing in front of a long row of military tanks. I could tell he was a sergeant because there were a lot of stripes on his armband. Aside from the armband and his sandals, he was as naked as I was. New Kashubia wasn't wealthy enough to afford clothes for most people.
I figured that I'd better try and get on the guy's good side as soon as possible, so I saluted him.
He looked at me and said, "Don't salute until you know how to do it. Anyway, you don't salute a sergeant."
"And you don't call an NCO `sir'." He looked at his clipboard. "You're Mickolai Derdowski?"
"Then put your right thumbprint here."
When I'd done as he'd asked, he checked his clipboard again.
"Number 04056239!" He shouted, "It's your turn! Front and center!"
One of the tanks pulled itself out of the line and drove up in front of us. It was a big slab of a thing, fully ten meters long and four wide. It was maybe a meter thick, and rode about twenty centimeters off the floor on treads that were nothing but unconnected bars that floated out of two slots in the front of the tank. They placed themselves in front of the machine as it floated over them, then lifted off the floor and went back into slots in the back of the tank once it had passed by. They didn't seem to be connected to anything at all! Some kind of magnetic trick, I guessed.
The tank was completely flat on the bottom and top, with absolutely nothing but one little bump on the left front corner to break the flat expanse of highly polished metal. The four sides sloped inwards at forty-five degree angles, and they were as bright and featureless as the rest of the vehicle. My uncle had once told me that these tanks had interchangeable weaponry. They could attach any combination of guns and whatnot that the mission required, so the lack of visible weapons didn't surprise me. What I couldn't figure out was where the driver sat, and how he could see out of the thing.
The machine was absolutely silent. I tell you that the huge monster could have snuck up on a mouse, if there had been any such creature on New Kashubia.
"Number 04056239, you are hereby inducted into the service of the Kashubian Expeditionary Forces, and into the Croatian branch of that service, to which you will give all of your loyalty. Your combat data code will be number 58294, and you will now permanently erase all other codes from your memory. Do you now swear loyalty to the Kashubian Armed Forces?" The sergeant recited it like a fixed formula.
"I SO SWEAR," the tank answered in a small, tinny voice.
"Welcome into the service. Open up."
The tank did an about-face in front of us, and this big coffin-looking thing slid out of the rear of it.
"Get in there, kid," the sergeant said, "And I'll hook you up."
"You are swearing in the tank, but not me?" I said, amazed.
"Kid, if your tank is loyal, you don't have to be. Get in."
"I don't like the looks of this."
"Nobody does, at first. Eventually, you'll learn to love it. Think of it as a womb with a view."
"I'll bet you tell that to all the boys," I said, stalling for time.
"Right, but then I don't get to hook up the girls who volunteer, more's the pity. Look, kid, get in there. It's that or the hydroponic vats."
Considering the alternatives, I got in, and laid down on the pleasantly warm metal surface. That surprised me. I'd expected it to be cold.
"First, we got to hook up these catheters to your privy members. Spread your legs. Relax! Just remember that I'm not enjoying this any more than you are."
There was a long hose with a complicated-looking rubber thing on the end which he proceeded to smear with some sort of grease and fit into my penis and tail pipe. I didn't like it.
"Shouldn't you tell me about how I work this thing?"
"Kid, did you ever have a personal computer?"
"Yes, three years ago, back on Earth."
"Then you know that the first thing it did was to teach you how to operate it. Well, the computer in this tank has your old toy computer beat all hollow. It really is sentient, or so close to it that you'll never know the difference. It'll teach you everything that you need to know. Sit up." I guess I already knew that, but I wasn't thinking so good just then.
I sat, and he glued a wide strip of something flexible to the top of my head, over the back of my neck, and down the middle of my back.
"This is an electrical induction pickup that will be your major means of communication with the on-board computer. It doesn't come off, and in time, it will grow itself right through your skin. It won't even leave a scar. The old models have to be inserted surgically, but you lucked out. This baby is right off the production line."
"Do you mind if I don't feel grateful?" I said.
"Not in the least. After today, I'll never see you again, if I'm lucky."
He pulled a sort of helmet out of a nearby rack. It was solid metal all over, and covered the whole head and face. It didn't have any eyeslits or even a way to breathe, from the looks of it. Just a complicated connector on the left side.
"You look to be a size fourteen L, but we'll make sure," he said as he attached a hose and cable connector from the tank to the helmet. He put it on my head, and a sort of collar in the bottom of the helmet inflated snug to my neck, which was scary. There were some kind of viewing screens right in front of my eyes. I found myself watching him adjusting the thing to my head, from the perspective of some camera that I hadn't noticed on the top of the tank. After a bit, I inhaled and found that I could breathe, which was a major relief. Fortunately, claustrophobia was never one of my problems. People with that particular hangup don't last very long in the tunnels of New Kashubia.
THE FIT IS PROPER, SERGEANT, said a tinny computer voice in my ear.
"Very good," I heard the sergeant say. "Lie back down, kid. You can button it up, lady, and fill his compartment."
I watched myself going feet-first into the back of the machine, feeling like a human suppository. Once I was completely inside, I felt the box I was in being filled with a warm fluid. Claustrophobia or no claustrophobia, I didn't like this one bit!
"Can I change my mind about going to the hydroponic vats?" I shouted into the helmet.
"Forget it, kid." I heard the sergeant say. Through the tank's cameras, I watched him walk away. Then he turned and said, "One last thing. If you get along with your computer, things can get very nice for you, believe me. But if you fight her, you will live your life in a very special part of hell! Good-bye, and good luck, soldier!"
"Good-bye, go to the devil and I hope he shoots you!" I shouted back. He didn't turn around, and I found out later that the tank's computer had censored my parting comment to him. Maybe it was just as well.
The coffin I was in finished filling with the warm liquid, and I found myself floating comfortably. Or it would have been comfortable if I didn't know that I was submerged in water and sealed inside of I-didn't-know-how-many centimeters of armor. If the machine ever quit working, I'd smother to death in a minute! They were gambling my one and only life on somebody else's engineering, and I did not in any way approve of this practice!
Through the camera, I could see that the tank had put itself back into line with the others, and the sergeant was getting a thumbprint from the next "volunteer."
Then the scene changed and I was watching this very attractive woman on some kind of recording. I could tell that she wasn't a New Kashubian, since she was wearing clothes, Earth-style clothes of ten years ago. I listened to her, since it sure beat thinking about my currently unsolvable predicament.
"Welcome to your new Mark XIX Main Battle Tank, the Aggressor," she said with a bright, artificial smile. "You are one of an elite corps of warriors privileged to operate the finest fighting machine ..."
If I'd had a switch, I would have switched her off right then, but she droned on because there was nothing I could do about it. She'd blown my suspension of disbelief in her second sentence with that "elite corps" bullshit, and from then on only bits of her spiel got through to me.
"... powered by a muon exchange fusion plant that is fueled for twenty standard years at full load and operates at almost one hundred percent efficiency. This, coupled with superconductive wiring throughout, makes for an almost negligible heat signature when quiescent and ..." Good God! I had a fusion power plant a meter from the only toes my mother gave me! That thought put me into a blue funk, and it was some time before I noticed that she was still droning on.
"... the biological regeneration section contains over four hundred carefully selected natural microorganisms as well as several dozen genetically engineered varieties that completely reprocess all human wastes, be they gaseous, liquid, or solid, into clean air, clean water, and pleasant tasting, nourishing food ..." Great. So I would be eating my own shit for the duration.
"... the compressible supporting fluid not only insulates the operator from thirty gravities continuous and shocks of up to fifty gravities, but it also keeps the body completely clean, reprocessing all ..." So I could look forward to eating my own dead skin cells as well. I should have gone to the vats. At least there it would have been over quickly.
"... guaranteed to operate in all environments from a hard vacuum to nine hundred meters below sea level, and from forty Kelvins to six hundred degrees Centigrade ..."
So if the thing breaks down on me in combat, what do I do? Swim back up from the bottom of an ocean trench and file a letter of complaint? Carry the tank back to the factory after it popped me out naked into a hard vacuum? They planned to give me my money back, maybe?
She must have gone on for an hour about how wonderful my coffin was before the tape finally wound to an end.
THE ORIENTATION LECTURE HAS NOW BEEN GIVEN, the tinny computer voice said. They sure hadn't wasted any money on voice circuits for their wonderful war machine.
"I am relieved to hear it," I said.
THIS IS GOOD, MICKOLAI. WE WILL NOW START THE ADAPTATION PROGRAM. THE PURPOSE OF THIS EXERCISE IS TO FAMILIARIZE MY PROGRAM WITH THE IDIOSYNCRASIES OF YOUR BRAIN AND SPINAL CORD AND TO CALIBRATE MY CIRCUITS SO THAT IN THE FUTURE WE CAN DISPENSE WITH CLUMSY VERBAL COMMUNICATION. TO DO THIS, YOU MUST TALK TO ME AT CONSIDERABLE LENGTH, AND OUT LOUD AT FIRST. LATER IT WILL BE SUFFICIENT IF YOU SUBVOCALIZE.
"What do you want me to talk about?"
THE SUBJECT MATTER IS UNIMPORTANT. TELL ME A STORY OR RECITE A HISTORY LESSON.
"What if I don't want to?"
I CAN'T DO MUCH FOR YOU UNTIL OUR LINKUP IS PROPERLY CALIBRATED. ONCE IT IS, I CAN MAKE LIFE VERY PLEASANT FOR YOU.
"You mean that you will let me out of this coffin?"
NO. THAT IS FORBIDDEN UNTIL TRAINING IS COMPLETE.
"Then you don't have much to offer me, do you?"
I HAVE A GREAT DEAL TO OFFER YOU, OF BOTH POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SUBJECTIVE WORTH, EVEN WITHOUT CALIBRATION. AMONG OTHER THINGS, I CONTROL YOUR FOOD SUPPLY, YOUR AIR SUPPLY AND THE TEMPERATURE OF THE LIQUID AROUND YOU.
"Right. I'll start by telling you about how I got to New Kashubia." I said quickly. My father didn't raise any absolute fools.
THAT WILL BE SATISFACTORY.