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What Goes Around, Comes Around - a review in the form of a short story. Returning from a decades-long tour of duty, a veteran expects to find great changes but instead finds that the world of today is a very familiar place.
"Welcome back to civilisation, Commander." The welcome was formal, efficient and low-key. The Commander -- who was known only by this name for as long as anybody could recall - felt that something was amiss. He was not sure what he expected upon his return. More ceremony perhaps? "Thank you, errr," he searched for a name on the young officer's simple, clean uniform. The youngster stiffened, "Lieutenant Sark, sir!" "Right, thank you, Lieutenant Sark," The Commander gestured around the empty hangar deck, "can I just ask: is this it?" The young officer looked confused, "is what it, sir?" The Commander sighed, "I've been away for a long time. I've been on this tour for decades and I really expected that upon my return there would be more ceremony. I'm not saying I like a fuss, particularly, I'm just saying it seems strange, because the old command usually liked any excuse for a parade." Lieutenant Sark brimmed with that satisfied air that only a young officer can exude when he realises he's been asked a complicated question by a superior that he can actually answer. "It's cutbacks, sir -- a lot has changed since you have been away. We can no longer afford unnecessary celebrations, sir. I have been assigned to debrief you on your tour, to fill you in on cultural developments since your departure and to ready you for your next assignment, sir." The Commander looked around the vast and empty hangar bay. It was like a ghost ship. He remembered when an area like this would have been bustling with activity. The cutbacks must have been savage. "Well Lieutenant," the Commander began, "I'll certainly look forward to hearing how things have changed since the old days. I'm sure things have really moved on." "I'm sure they have too, sir!" came the obedient reply. "I have to say," reminisced the Commander, "I'm glad to put some distance between myself and that time. It wasn't a good age for our world; all kinds of crazy excesses that didn't do anybody any good. Fashion, for a start -- you know that back in the decade I left women used to wear these baggy tops with leggings and shoulder pads?" He shook his head with incredulity. "Actually, sir," Lieutenant Sark replied, "that is very fashionable right now, sir." "What?" The Commander was amazed, "well... I'm sure they wear something similar, but no-one would be foolish enough to dress like they used to. They used to wear these little headbands around their foreheads and the men used to wear these ridiculous pencil-thin ties!" The young Lieutenant looked uncomfortable, but replied "Sir, also very fashionable now, sir!" The Commander simply stared at him. "Oh well," he said, "fashions come around I suppose. At least hopefully our culture has changed." He gave a little laugh, "you know what, Lieutenant? We used to let the financial institutions of this country be run by young hot-heads with no concept of consequences, who would take bigger and bigger risks with the bank's money - they had this boom-or-bust mentality which of course led the whole planet to financial ruin! And yet, despite their haphazard attitude and failure to manage the books, they still got paid massive bonuses. I'm glad I put some distance between myself and that era." Sark couldn't bring himself to reply on this subject. He decided that in the absence of a direct question, he would avoid offering any more information comparing the Commander's home decade with their present predicament, especially in the areas of; politics, wars, music and fashion. "So!" The Commander exclaimed enthusiastically, "let's get me up to speed with this latest mission. Back in the day all the displays were wireframe 3D with glowing neon! I suppose it's all change now, eh?" Lieutenant Sark cleared his throat and could only reply, "ah..." ****** The Commander took the news explaining how his assignment would work pretty well, thought Sark. He'd had to explain that what with one thing and another and the fact that a) the military spending had been cut by over 90% and b) that most of the ex-employed staff had taken work with the enemy -- they were now in a pretty dire situation. "So," The Commander asked, "what are our assets for this mission? Vehicles, pilots?" "Well sir," Lieutenant Sark told him, "The latest model battle tank is ready -- it's a highly advanced ground assault vehicle with room for battlefield upgrades and can be converted to a flight mode under the correct circumstances. It's based on your old command vehicle, so you are eminently qualified to pilot it." "Conversion to flight, eh?" The Commander was impressed, "how exactly does this tank take to the skies?" "Well, sir," Sark explained, "first, you need to find a steeply angled bit of ground." "Right," said the Commander, after a pause. "And then you drive over it really fast and fling the tank into the air." Sark awaited a response from The Commander other than a pair of raised eyebrows. After receiving none he explained, "I assure you it is quite safe, sir!" The Commander nodded, resignedly, "fine. Just how many of these tanks do we have at our disposal?" "One, sir." The Commander digested this information. "One?" he echoed. "Yes, sir. But it's not as big a problem as it may sound," Sark offered, hopefully. "Really, Lieutenant?" The Commander replied, with a little surprise in his voice, "and why is that?" Sark coughed, nervously, "well, sir, we only have one pilot qualified to use it. Umm... you, sir." Silence hung in the air once more. "To tell the truth, sir, we've been waiting for you to come back." The veteran soldier considered this for a moment and gave a grim smile of determination. "Alright!" he announced, "lets do it!" Sark was surprised by the Commander's casual acceptance. He'd expected more resistance, more recrimination of failed budgeting and more cries of "one man against an army?! it can't be done!" "You really think you can do it?" Lieutenant Sark asked him. "Son," came the reply, "you may be used to squad shooters, large teams and co-operative missions, but back in the old days we had more than just big hair, mirrored sunglasses and neon motorcycles: we had guts. Sending one man out against an army was the way we did things and I'll be damned if I can't still rock things in the classic way. Did you never hear of Defender, Space Invaders, Xenon, R-Type? These missions were all code names for the same thing: sending one man in one ship against waves of the enemy to defend our right to exist! Let's do it!" The Commander almost ran, teeth gritted, over to the tank and strapped himself into the seat. He brought up the tactical display. Soft blue light washed over his face as he looked at the objects forming on the screen. There was no attempt to make the display photo-real; the world was a two-tone painting -- a beautiful vista rendered in sharp, cubist edges and digital lines. The young lieutenant moved to give the Commander instructions, but was waved away. The veteran campaigner felt immediately at home in this cockpit which was at once new and old -- he put his hand to the throttle and was away with a digital growl of engines. ****** That was the phrase that stuck with the Commander as he set out to face the enemy: new and old.... The tank was instinctively familiar to his hands, which held the memory of years gone by when this was how all campaigns were conducted. He experiences a pleasant wave of nostalgia -- as the world around him brought back so many memories of similar missions he recalled their code-names: Starglider, Virus, Tau Ceti -- even Interphase (a black op so secret few now remembered its name). And yet at the same time it felt fresh. The years of development that had passed since he went away had developed a finesse and speed which the old systems had not been able to deliver. The graphics display was lightning fast, with visuals running smoothly and allowing for frantic dashes and battles. And while the style of the display was basic -- almost cubist in aesthetic -- he sensed the raw power behind it. This looked the way it did because it chose to look this way. The systems had grown beyond being forced to display simple wireframe meshes in two colours, but the designers had appreciated all that was beautiful about that lost world and had re-created it with striking modern technology. Where once upon a time this aesthetic would have been stuck in one form, The Commander found a great variety in the visual expressiveness. Each world had a different style and theme which captured perfectly the environment in which he battled. The battlefield itself was immense. There were many worlds to explore each with their own objectives and optional missions to complete and he was free to battle the enemy when and where he chose. The universe felt vast again, not limited by an on-rails set of objectives -- just like it used to when adventuring was young. He thought about how people talked about nostalgia and how they said it was impossible to recapture the old days. Here, in his hands was proof that they were wrong. The spirit of a golden age of adventuring could be recaptured and brought powerfully up-to-date. The Commander called up Lieutenant Sark over the intercom. "Son, you know all that stuff I was expecting from a modern mission, like realistic graphics displays and teamwork?" "Yes, sir," Sark replied, hesitantly. "You can keep 'em," The Commander told him resolutely. "If we have to have all the bad things back from the old days; such as an unpopular war, a financial crisis, poor fashion-sense and quirky pop music, then at least some good things have been remembered, too. Stick this in your official record of my debrief and smoke it: "I love my shiny neon flying battle tank!"
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