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New Kashubia was a planet rich in heavy metals, but utterly lacking in carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Even dirt had to be imported at great expense. The colonists, moved there from Earth against their will, lived in tunnels drilled through solid gold but still were the poorest people in the universe. Since their only resource was people, they sent draftees out as mercenaries, fighting in tanks in symbiosis with a highly intelligent computer. And Mickolai Derdowski had fought bravely and brilliantly for nearly a ...
New Kashubia was a planet rich in heavy metals, but utterly lacking in carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Even dirt had to be imported at great expense. The colonists, moved there from Earth against their will, lived in tunnels drilled through solid gold but still were the poorest people in the universe. Since their only resource was people, they sent draftees out as mercenaries, fighting in tanks in symbiosis with a highly intelligent computer. And Mickolai Derdowski had fought bravely and brilliantly for nearly a decade, losing many friends in the process, and risen to the rank of General-he thought. But then he found out that it was all in virtual reality. The war had been faked, no one had died, and he was still just a tank commander, not a general at all. But New Kashubia had been well paid by the planet that had hired the mercenaries for the war they had faked, severe food rationing back home was no longer necessary, and people could now afford luxuries like homes and clothing. There was just one problem. A real war was looming on the horizon and this one couldn't be settled in cyberspace. A lot of people might get really, permanently killed. Such as Mickolai. . . .
Kasia, my beautiful new wife, and I had ridden our posh, new air car back from architect's office, where we had just approved the final design of our magnificent new mansion. It was to be built on the six thousand hectares-sixty square kilometers!-of rich farming and ranching land that had been given to us by the grateful government of New Croatia, for our services in their recent war with New Serbia.
New Yugoslavia was the absolutely best place in Human Space for agriculture. It was a young planet, half the age of Earth. Its native plants and animals were primitive, and simply could not compete with those from my home planet. It wasn't that our life forms would devour theirs. They couldn't.
The proteins used by each sort were completely unusable by the other. Our diseases couldn't bother their life forms, nor could theirs bother ours. But both sorts of plants needed the same sunlight, water, and minerals, and ours were simply much better at putting those things together. It was like a Little League team trying to compete in the Majors, just no contest at all.
And the powerful Planetary Ecological Council knew it. They saw their task not as one of building a balanced, Earth-type ecology on their new planet, but of building a very imbalanced one. An ecology tilted way in the favor of human beings. They used their vast authority to keep out weeds, diseases, and everything else that they felt might be in any way undesirable. On the rare occasions when something unauthorized slipped past their tight quarantines, they ruthlessly stamped it out.
On Earth, insects ate between twenty and eighty percent of all vegetation, including the plants we humans needed to live on. On New Yugoslavia, there were no insects, except for one strain of Australian stingless bee that was needed for pollination. A debate had been going on for years about bringing in a few sorts of butterflies, simply for their beauty, but it probably wouldn't be settled for a long time yet.
The result was that a hectare of land on this planet produced three times the crops, on the average, as a hectare on Earth, and at far lower cost. Herbicides and insecticides weren't needed. There were no Earth weeds, and if a native plant needed anything that a nearby Earth plant wanted, the native shriveled and died. In many instances, even plowing was unnecessary. You just seeded and harvested.
New Yugoslavia was fast becoming the bread basket of the universe.
And my wife and I owned a vast tract of it!
We had also been given a lifetime immunity from all taxes, permission to exchange our New Kashubian passports for New Croatian ones anytime we wanted to, and the generous retirement pay due to both a general and a colonel, between us.
On the way home, Kasia suggested that we spend the night in Dream World, which meant spending the night physically in our tanks.
The New Croatian and New Kashubian governments had permitted us to retain, for our personal use, two of the thirty thousand intelligent Mark XIX Main Battle Tanks that we had captured for them from the Serbs.
The Mark XIX system was really a kit that let you assemble whatever was required to do the mission at hand. The basic unit was an armored slab that contained a muon exchange fusion power plant, an extensive, intelligent computer, and a "coffin" that held a living human being, together with a self-sustaining life support system. Locomotion was provided by a track laying magnetic levitation system, but additional propulsive devices could be magnetically attached to convert a Mark XIX into anything from a submarine to a spaceship.
A large assortment of weapons could be strapped on in various combinations. Strap-on ultrasonic tunneling devices permitted one to move underground.
The judges and lawyers had decided that since I had been in the paid service of New Croatia at the time of their capture, these tanks, and everything else we had gained, were now the property of the New Croatian government. They did not belong to me personally, to my planet of New Kashubia, or to Earth, either, for that matter.
But the politicians had then permanently loaned two of those tanks back to Kasia and me. Well, we weren't permitted the deadly attachable weapons that such tanks usually wore, but their gift did give us access to our tank's considerable computing power, and to Dream World, something not ordinarily available to people on New Croatia.
And their fusion bottles would power our new mansion for three hundred years without recharging.
So. The medals and the awards had all been handed out. The banquets and the ticker-tape parades might be over, but I had my land, and I had my wife, and all was well with my world.
I have always found it very difficult to deny Kasia anything. Normal sex is wonderful, but there are things you can do in Dream World that would be awkward, dangerous or simply impossible to do elsewhere, and Kasia, bless her kinky little heart, had this idea that involved sex while shooting some rapids in a birch bark canoe.
But once I was in my tank's life support system, and in our Dream World cottage, Kasia wasn't there.
Agnieshka, my tank's artificial intelligence computer, was a beautiful woman in Dream World, but now she was sitting at the dining room table, looking upset and anxious.
"What's wrong, Agnieshka? Where's Kasia?" I said.
"She'll be here later. But there's something we have to talk over first, Mickolai. There is a lot that I have to explain to you, and perhaps I owe you an apology."
"What do you mean?" I felt my face go white. "Kasia's all right, isn't she?"
"She's just fine, but this isn't about Kasia. It's about you. Us. The whole world."
"Maybe you'd better start from the beginning," I said, spinning a chair around and sitting on it backwards, with my elbows on the back of the chair.
"I intend to. You realize of course the huge difference between well-trained but green troops, and seasoned professional fighting men. Blooded soldiers are generally three times as effective in combat."
"Agnieshka, I have a Ph.D. in Military Science. You were there when I earned it. You don't have to give me a spelling lesson."
"Yes I do, Mickolai. You see, back when I told you that we were going to war with the Serbians, well, that was the start of your second phase of basic training. In truth, in your real world, the Kashubians never reneged on their contract with the Serbians, who only made a few small attacks on Croatia on their own before we took charge of things. In short, you were never in a war at all."
"Agnieshka, that's crazy! I fought in that war!"
"You thought you fought in a war. It was necessary to lie to you so that you would treat it seriously, and not as just another training exercise. We do it to all of our human soldiers, because it lets us turn out real, blooded troops without having to kill a significant portion of them. But in your real world, it never happened."
"It never happened? Quincy and Zuzanna weren't real? They never died?"
"They were real. They are real. They were your fellow students in that portion of the exercise. The only difference is that in the flanking counterattack, each of them thought that all the others were killed, and that he or she was the only human survivor. Surviving the emotional impact of being alive when your friends die is much of what makes a troop seasoned."
"Damn you. God damn you straight to Hell!" It was all I could say.
"I can't go to Hell, Mickolai. I don't have a soul. I'm just a machine."
"Damn you anyway. Then the whole scene where Quincy stayed with his dead wife, and Radek broke and ran, that was just a fake, too?"
"It happened in Dream World, if that's what you mean. It was as real as anything else that happens here. Your emotions were real enough, and so were mine."
"Then what about the rest of it? The mine we hit, and the enemy division that was in the valley there. That was all fake, too?"
"The mine was a standard exercise in the survival course, one that not every student passes as well as you did. As to the rest, well, Mickolai, you did extremely well in your training. Besides having a natural talent for functioning as an observer, you were innovative, hard working, and self-sacrificing in battle. During that artillery barrage, not every observer would have turned the defense of his own tank over to another while he gave his full efforts to observing for Eva's X-ray laser."
"It was just the right thing to do at the time," I said.
"Oh, I agree. You made a sound tactical decision, but it was not one that every soldier could have carried out. You increased the survival odds for your unit while lowering your own chances of living. Your strange inner conflicts and contradictions make you a good leader, Mickolai. During the flanking attack on the Serbians, you managed to keep three very diverse and difficult people under your control. You spotted those low dirt mounds where the Serbians had dug in, and understood their importance, something that not every student did. And you fought your unit very efficiently, given the difficult circumstances."
"What about the unmanned enemy division?"
"That was another test, which you passed wonderfully. You had already shown your leadership potential, and in taking that division you showed tremendous initiative. Therefore, you were given the chance to try out for a command position, and you graduated cum laude."
"You mean that I really am a general officer?"
"No. You are in the top one hundredth of one percent of the troops enlisting in our forces. You are one trooper in ten thousand. But the usual general commands fifty to a hundred thousand troops, Mickolai. You are close, but it would take a military disaster to get your promotion through."
"That still puts me in range of being a colonel, doesn't it?"
"I'm afraid not. Being a good leader is different from being a good subordinate. The skills required of a good colonel are different from the skills required of a good general. In the category of being a staff officer, you don't even come close. Your wife is a fine colonel, Mickolai, but you are not. With our computer controlled command structure, the dozens of layers of middle managers in the usual military structure are done away with. There is only one general, five staff officers, and a lot of fighting men and machines."
"So I'm still a tanker." I put my head down on my arms.
"Yes, though you're a Tanker First Class. One of the very best."
"And all of that schooling was for nothing."
"You made cum laude but not summa cum laude. After graduation, you managed to totally defeat the enemy, but the man who is our current commanding general accomplished much the same thing as you did without losing a single man, and without killing a single enemy soldier or civilian. Furthermore, he captured all of their equipment without having to destroy any of it. I can get you a recording of what he did if you want to see it."
"Huh. Maybe later. So who was this guy, anyway?" I said, getting a bit interested.
"You haven't met him, though perhaps I can get you an introduction to do so. He is a Pole with a bit of Kashubian blood in him. His name is Jan Sobieski."
"Not the ancient King Jan Sobieski, of course," I said. "Again, maybe later. So, what happened to my classmates, my supposed colonels? Besides Kasia, I mean. They were real, weren't they?"
"They were all biological humans, and they all have made tanker first. In the unlikely event that you ever do get promoted to general, they will make colonel."
"Yeah, best to keep the team together. But aside from Kasia, all of them were Croatians, not Kashubians. How did that happen?"
"They really were captured by the Serbians, during the first attack of the war. The Serbians really did load them involuntarily into Serbian tanks. Once we took command of both sides, we were going to repatriate them, but your colonels were among those who volunteered to stay in the army. The timing was right and their qualifications were good, so their training was incorporated into your training program."
"Huh. One other thing. What really happened to Neto Kondo? I never did buy that crap about his 'emotional unsuitability.' Neto was a fine, intelligent, and stable man."
"He went permanently insane, Mickolai. His tank's computer crashed when he was tunneling a road under the biggest ocean on New Yugoslavia. It was a week before he could be retrieved, and while his tank's subsystems kept him physically alive, he was done in by a combination of claustrophobia and stimulus deprivation. An unfortunate accident."
"Tunneling a road underneath an ocean? What the hell for?"
"That's what we've really been doing here on New Yugoslavia. We've been working on an engineering project. After all, while you were lying in my coffin being trained, it was only reasonable that the tank should be put to one of its many other uses."
"An engineering project. Shit. Neto was a good man. All that character, brilliance, and schooling gone to waste," I said.
"True. Even a construction project is not without its casualties. Still, wasn't the school enjoyable for its own sake?"
"I suppose it was, and what the heck, it was only two months, in the real world."
"I'm afraid not, Mickolai. You see, you spent the time in me, not in a real Combat Control Computer. I don't have the capability of keeping you in Dream World at combat speed, running at fifty times normal speed."
"You're telling me that eight years has gone by?"
"No. I was upgraded a few months ago with the diamond semiconductors that are now available. I can now handle Dream World about thirty times faster than I could before."
So the breakthrough in semiconductors had finally happened! For two hundred years, something better than silicon was always supposed to be right around the corner, be it organic semiconductors, or molecular switches, or even nanotubes, and always silicon technology improved just enough to be superior. It was much like the way that people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries kept expecting something better than a piston engine in their automobiles, and it didn't happen for a long, long time.
"It's closer to four and a half years since you first enlisted."
That brought me back to reality in a hurry. "Good God! But that's impossible! I've only been out for a haircut once, and that was after only a few months. I can't be wearing four years of hair and beard! I'd smother!"
"You are quite clean shaven and bald, Mickolai.
Excerpted from The War With Earth by Leo Frankowski Dave Grossman Excerpted by permission.
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