I started this wanting to write a basic tank, the kind of weak generic tanks that mechs could plow through, but with a backstory that justified its wide spread deployment and existence. When I started that process, I realized that I was setting out to write up a really boring tank. I decided to change my approach: Use the story of the Tank to tell a story of a people or at least part of their story. Focus not on the tank itself but on the relationship people had with the tank. I really did not want to write another post that was a list of facts. On a meta level I wanted to say something about my ideas for what the culture and economic significance of this item might be, thus this is also an homage to E.B. White's essay regarding the model-T.
Farewell My Lovely: An Old Man Says Goodbye to the Vehicle that Defined a People
By V. Y. Black
I see from the latest FTO catalog that it is still possible to order shock absorbers for the model 30 Standard Battle Tank (SBT), but I am not deceived. The great days have faded, and the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalog is dedicated to parts and software packages for the SBT; yet everyone remembers the generations before the Dynasty; when the arrival of the FTO’s intergalactic trade ships would be the central event of a year, of a decade or a generation depending on what type of trade route your colony merited. The FTO would transmit the catalog upon entering the system giving you a month or so to make your selections and stockpile your trade goods. In my youth the SBT’s gadget and software section was bigger than the clothing section and housewares section combined and almost as big as the agricultural technology section. The last SBT was built and shipped 30 standard years ago and she is fading from what dynastic anthropologists call the “technological pallet”. Which is a scholastic understatement because to the few hundred million people who grew up with the SBT and the billions more who lived on the worlds it dominated; the SBT was the technological pallet. The SBT was the miracle that God had wrought. And it was patently the sort of thing that could only happen once in the history of man. Mechanically uncanny, it was like nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the person who operated it.
My own generation identifies it with hope and self-determination. It provide us with a versatile utilitarian package and an unprecedented feeling of empowerment that also brought to us a sense of community. Before the SBT fades into the mist, I would like to pay it the tribute of the sigh that is not a sob.
The SBT was distinguished from all other makes of vehicles by the fact that its transmission was of a type known as universal - which was half metaphysics, half sheer fiction. Engineers accepted the word 'universal' in its epicyclic sense, but I was always conscious that it also meant 'wandering', 'erratic' and ‘personalized’. Because of the peculiar nature of this “universal” element, there was always, in the SBT, a certain dull rapport between the power plant and the tracks, and even when the tank was in a state known as neutral, it prodded and urged whatever power source you had installed to inch it forward. There was never a moment when the bands were not faintly grasping at the power source and trying to milk what nourishment it could from any number of reactors. For those of you not born to a 1st migrant world, for those that see the FTO only as facilitators of commerce not the diplomats of humanity and the gate keepers of the galaxy, you may not know what made the SBT power source so beloved by the tank and its operators. The SBT did not have a power source of its own. Those who purchased an SBT were left to design or salvage, then implement and install whatever type of engine your world could support. Believe the statements of someone who was there and lived it, the SBT loved you for every effort. It was as if that shell of a tank was starving for an engine and it would do every thing it could to meet you half way. I have ridden in steam powered SBTs with boilers and smoking pipes that defied all my preconceived notions about technology. I have watched SBTs carry families 1000 kilometers on inefficient under fueled reactors, and I have reported on gallant yet doomed battle formations that seemed to run on will alone.
The operator of an SBT was man a romanced. Like any good lover, coaxing the SBT to move for you required work, creative thinking, resources and time. But like all good lovers she rewarded you for your efforts and when you operated your SBT you felt like the God that had wrought this miracle.
There was this about an SBT; the purchaser never regarded his purchase as a complete, finished product. When you bought a SBT, you figured you had a start - a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of not only essential, but decorative and functional hardware. Accepting delivery from the FTO, running your fingers along those flawless boxes, looking for a way in, a door with which to unlock creation, you were already full of creative worry. An SBT was born naked as a baby, and a flourishing industry grew up out of correcting its rare deficiencies and combating its fascinating diseases.
The out of the box SBT is a dual tracked turretless ground vehicle with a forward mounted plasma cannon. It is 5.9 meters long, 2.9 meters wide and between 2.8 and 1.5 meters in height at it tallest and lowest points respectively. The tank has a wedge shaped profile, sloping up from the nose with the forward facing gun affixed in a sunken hard point at the back of vehicle. The barrel of the plasma cannon extends the length of the vehicle and can be adjusted 40 degrees in the z plane. The brochure for the Standard asserts that the up and down tracking abilities of the main weapon combined with the ability to lock one track and turn the tank from a pivot point made a turret unnecessary. Of course it was not the out of the box SBT that surprised you but the in box SBT that forced you to search your soul. When you opened the boxes you found six one ton stacks of heavy ceramic-coated titanium armor plates, ferro-cermaic wheels in 4 sizes, and the individual bands of each tread that you needed to secure together. Then there was the was pressured sealed crate of self welding bolts, and the 87 shrink wrapped packages of joints, wires, pins, circuit boards and microchips. I know every man that looked at this box said to himself, ‘what have I done’. You must remember that most of the men, women and families who acquired a Standard were homesteaders, who were not expecting to have anything handed to them. The other size able chunk of people that traded for an SBT were the technophiles, who normally jumped at the thought of assembling a complex piece of hardware. These were not the type to shy from a technical challenge. But don’t be fooled, we all the felt the cold snake of fear, looming regret and impending embarrassment when we looked at the task before us.
The very first thing you unpacked was the computer. Instead of designing a computer specific for the SBT, the FTO provided you with a standard portable that could be plugged into the main drive and accessed in the main cabin. If you had the software for it, it could be operated independently. The computer had just two programs on it, not including a minimal text based OS, and only four documents. Software wise it held the media player used for the interface application. Then there was the drive program that could control the gearshift, the transmission, and operated the cannon. Document wise the FTO gave you a manual, a multi-media instruction file that explained and demonstrated how to assemble the tank. There was also a copy of the current FTO catalog. The next thing most boys unpack was the plasma cannon, because that was the easiest thing to put together, and the solar sheet so you could fire the plasma cannon at least once.
The parts of cannon were complete and only need to be assembled. The plasma cannon has four major parts, the accelerator tube (the gun barrel), the gas compressor usually located in the rear of the vehicle which pulls in ambient gas, the exciter or heater also located in the rear at the base of the barrel and the magnetic jar. The magnetic jar looked like gaudy engagement ring strapped to the barrel and it was tasked to create a stable magnetic field inside the barrel. The heater turns the gas into plasma. The plasma is then transferred to the magnetic jar, the jar’s magnetic field holds the plasma. When engaged the jar will float just above the surface of the cannon, holding a ball of plasma inside the accelerator tube, when the cannon fires the magnetic jar slides at hypersonic speeds down the length of the barrel and releases the plasma at the end of the barrel. The sonic boom was a powerful crack the reduced the hearing range of many young people who ignored the safety warning. The jar then travels back down the barrel and is ready to be loaded with more plasma.
In the early models the exciter had to be grounded, so it could easily discharge electrons produced by super-heating the gas. At generation 8 the FTO replaced the grounding system with a capacitor that was charged from the electrical and thermal by products of exciter. For many lads, my younger brother included, the SBT’s plasma cannon represented the first time you were disappointed by the laws of thermodynamics. I knew even some extremely positive minded adults who thought that since they could charge a capacitor from the plasma cannon that they would eventually be able operate the entire rig by using the cannon.
Once you had opened the computer and assembled the plasma cannon the next thing you took out was the solar sheet. The solar sheet was a brilliant piece of engineering, a flat dull green on one side and a glossy black pattern of hexagon on the other. It was 6 square meters and only as thick as a heavy canvas tarp. It could be folded out and plugged into any number of devices. The solar sheet embodied what made the SBT so successful. To put it this way, I don’t have my SBT anymore, but I still have the solar sheet. The solar sheet was so efficient you could charge your batteries with starlight, you could operate the computer on firelight. By the time the FTO unveiled generation 15, families and communities ordered the FTO’s SBT with no intention of every building the SBT, but rather just the get the materials. Even if you didn’t need an armored war machine, and for hundreds of years no one did, you could used the pieces the SBT in other endeavors.
This last point is what made the SBT a phenomena; a cultural mascot representing success and the promise of FTO’s improved technological pallet. The amazing part of the FTO's success with the SBT was that nobody needed an SBT.
The FTO’s charter, not to mention the predominate personal philosophies of it’s members, prevented the FTO from requiring payment or reward for medical care or medical supplies. As an organization they invested in and worked closely with their client worlds to develop tailored economic strategies that would yield a maximal surpluses of useable goods. Thus, the FTO did not give you the opportunity to spend your goods on medical supplies or economic tools. The people who had enough material to acquire an SBT were healthy and wealthy enough to no longer want for basic needs. The outwardly superfluous nature of the SBT has often been used as evidence that the children of the first migration were a violent and irrational people. But I reject this hypothesis, in part because I realize it was made by aggressive outsiders who wished to marginalize us, but also because I saw the SBT’s legacy first hand. What they call irrational, I recognize as imaginative and hopeful. We are descended from people with hope, imagination and ambition enough to allow them to divorce themselves from their world and their time. Our ancestors endured generations of suffering but never gave into despair. They could not be dissuaded of the potential that life offered. That is what we saw in the SBT, it was not a weapon or a means of oppression. It was both a challenge and a luxury.
Yet she was still a martial vehicle and armed conflict has a place in our legacy. Prior to the Dynastic migrations the SBT was a peacekeeper on her worlds; the stories of duels and rebellions may have truth but were exaggerated. Privately owned SBTs defended the population of the Lost-Orkney star system from an invasion by a rouge Ska’rugg tribe, but the Standard really came into her own during the Dynastic Wars. During the Dynastic invasions the SBT’s life as a symbol entered its second act. For both sides the SBT was the face of resistance. As a weapon it was a sturdy design that despite being several thousand years behind the technology of the Dynastic forces was still the most effective endogenous tool we had of armed resistance. Its efficacy was in part due to the shear number of SBTs we possessed, but also because of her ruggedness.
I was at the Battle of Curizko during the first years of Dynastic Migrations, before the Dynastic forces were organized behind a single plan. On Curizko a small group of Dynastic explores (though back then we still called them Terrans) equipped with only 12 of those giant anthropomorphic battle machines and a few dozen forced-key shield generators had toppled the local government and took up residence in the Capital city. I was on the world as an explorer as well, gathering information for the nascent Union of Worlds, and was in the Capital when the Dynastic forces arrived. This small group of adventures began to issue demands for goods and obedience. Hundreds of SBTs, owned by ordinary citizens surrounded the city and demanded that the invaders leave their world. During the subsequent battle the dozen dynastic battle machines destroyed almost all of the private SBTs, but not without a cost. The SBT’s plasma cannon when employed in mass could overload the invaders energy fields long enough to cause significant damage to their machines. The dynastic forces won the battle without a single personal causality, but their machines were so damaged after the month of combat that they were forced to abandon Curizko and their demands. When I toured the battlefields of Curizko, I saw the burned out hulks of 223 SBTs. I made a point to count, because I knew that each dead SBT and her crew was the death of a family legacy. I stayed on longer than my mission required, I transitioned from visitor to a survivor, and for several months the other survivors and I went to work on the damaged burnt out hulls of the Curizko SBTs. From those 200 some hulks we were able to reassemble 164 operational SBTs. In stark contrast, the Dynastic explorers, unable to repair their mechanized men, were forced to detonate and completely destroy their war machines before fleeing.
My original report on Curizko was very long and very detailed. I felt a need at the time to defend the SBT and champion those that used the SBT to drive off the technologically superior and ruthless invaders. My documentation of Curizko was too impassioned and too biased and in the end it proved to be a death warrant for hundreds of SBTs and the people that loved them. I had made too much of the success of the SBTs in that battle. I had not intended to encourage my government to consider them a rival to dynastic technology, but that was the message they took from it. It took me 26 standard years to travel from Cuziko back to my home world of Neo-Accra. Prior to the implementation of dynastic technology and their instantaneous jump D-drive engines, 26 years would have been a hiccup in the timelines of intra-planetary politics. The situation on Neo-Accra revealed to me, that with regard to Dynasty, 26 years was enough time to undue everything post-migration humanity had done in 26,000 years. I arrived in the star system about 6 months after my transmission from Cuziko arrived and I was devastated to find a Dynastic spacecraft in orbit. My devastation turned to horror and guilt, when after making planet fall, I found that my government was planning to launch a surprise attack against the Dynastic Forces on Neo-Accra. The Dynasty had arrived 15 local years before me and was slowly beginning to demand more and more of my people. These Dynastic travelers were not a group of self-serving freelance adventures as they had been on Cuziko. Neo-Accra was confronted with a fully armed, trained and indoctrinated military. The Dynastic troops had established a surface side supply depot on Neo-Accra. My government organized an assault, and the backbone of that assault force were militia groups armed with SBTs. The commanders of the SBTs were cautious, they spread out their units, advanced in waves, provided anti-air cover, and opened their assault with artillery. The majority of our units were destroyed by an orbital bombardment as soon as the first shells hit the supply depot’s defensive shield. The ensuing ground battle was a route. I am sure that just like on Cuziko the Dynasty didn’t lose a man.
By the end of that day it was being said all over Neo-Accra that the SBT was a dead weight and a woman no longer capable of playing her role in the big house. It was said that the Dynasty was unstoppable and we should accept their rule. Those critics over looked the Standard’s greatest attribute and our greatest attribute: resilience. Together we were perfectly positioned to exploit the Dynasty’s greatest weakness: hubris. The SBT met her destiny not in the open field of battle but in the ambush. The Dynastic migrations solidified the Union of Worlds and for 108 standard years the newly formed Union fought a guerilla war on hundreds of worlds. The SBT was our tomahawk, our musket, our AK-47 and our I.E.D. We combined the SBT with something the Dynasty did not have: we combined it with history. We read Mao Tse-Tung, we read Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, we knew Spartacus and Nathan Bedford Forest. The Dynasty only knows its own history, the history that justifies an interstellar monarchy ruled from Earth.
With few exceptions the Dynasty took most of the Union worlds, and most of the non-aligned worlds that the FTO had charted. But they never reached beyond the aims of that initial push and there is still a Union of Worlds. The 56 Union Worlds that were not invaded grew stronger and more advanced while we hampered and hamstringed the Dynastic governments. Eventually the Dynasty and the Union accepted a peace, and this peace brought back interstellar trade among human worlds. Ironically, our war machine that was thousands of years behind anything found in the arsenal of the Dynastic military was made obsolete by peace not war.
After the truce, I was surveying a refugee camp on the banks of the Lumbia River on the FTO planet Notwasington. I heard the bearings grind out the right side of my SBT when I was trying to whip it up a steep incline onto the deck of a ferry. Something snapped; the tank slid backwards into the mud. It seemed to me like the end of my old girl. But when I opened the top hatch to climb out, there was the captain of the ferry craft. A man named Mahmoud Salazar, born on a 1st migration world, recruited to the FTO and close to 700 standard years old and near 70 lived years in age. But what do those numbers mean when you spend most your life between the stars traveling near C on those old FTO freighters? He must have scurried down the deck of the ferry with a vigor uncommon to men half his age. He stood on top of my girl balancing his hand on the dead plasma cannon. He wasn’t looking at me, he was observing the withered remnants of my Standard.
'What's got her?' he asked.
'Sounds like I burned up a couple of axel bearings ,' I replied listlessly. The captain leaned over the cannon. Then I saw that there was a hunger in his eyes that set him off from other men.
'Tell you what,' he said casually, trying to cover up his eagerness, 'let's pull the son of a bitch up onto the boat, and I'll help you fix her while we're going back and forth on the river.'
We did just this. All that day I plied between the town of Bonneville and the refugee camp, while the Mahmoud (who’d had an SBT as a child and later worked on a FTO factory ship) cheerfully directed the amazing work of resetting the bones of my Tank.
Despite all the horror of the war, I refuse to let her be remembered as a tomb. The SBT was obviously conceived in madness. We all shared a delusion about humanity, we all believed in transcendence and for a few days or years at a time every SBT owner achieved just a wisp of it. Our days together were golden before they were dark, and our relationship was consummated on nights full of hopeful not hostile stars. I still recall with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises before the war when you drew up to a signpost and fired the plasma cannon just to have light enough to read the destinations. I have never been really planetary or universal since. I suppose it's time to say goodbye. Farewell, my lovely!