This is a short story by Lennart Svensson, the Swedish writer born in 1965, known for his essays "Borderline" and "Science Fiction Seen from the Right". -- In a future military academy the cadets are given a virtual walk through military history.
There was nothing strange about it, just a battle simulation game: just a virtual walk through military history as one of many exercises for the Republican Army Cadets. After graduation those cadets went on to fight a real war against alien aggressors, the Paloozans and their allies, but never mind that. Never mind the ins and outs of that simulation game either, it’s just a setting for our story.
Well now, a story: we need a main character and that’ll be Cadet Sergeant Otto Graf, 22. He had taken part in the war for some time as Private 1st Class, had acted bravely on a forced landing and had been promoted Sergeant and Squad Leader. Then one day, in 2487, having successfully completed the Sisto campaign, he was sent to the War Academy on Massmo. And there he studied all the subjects, like tactics, blue and red force organization astrography etc. He had a good time in all, however busy. It was like "boot camp with books".
And then one day it was time for the virtual battle, the computer generated military history tour. The cadets’ performance in this game was judged by many standards; for instance, there wasn’t any ordinary gaming taboo against being killed, as the rules of bushido were common knowledge in the 25th century: you fight, you die. However, neither was there an intrinsic value in just going out there and being killed. The game let you endure some self-imagined pain, as well as despair and joy and pride and whatever feelings there were in a battle. It was for real in every sense of the word but the physical.
So one day, Cadet Graf was led into the actual VR-chamber, got strapped to a chair, and was fitted with helmet and sensors measuring handsweat, EEG, and REM. The sensory deprivation made him relax, the input data and the images got him into combat mode – and to make a long story short he was soon fighting from a war chariot at the field of Kurukshetra, he was a hoplite at Plataea and a centurion at Zama. He was a sword fighter at Fyrisvall and he was a 17th century trooper in Europe.
He fought virtual battles, fought as an historical soldier in emblematic encounters.
As intimated he had reached the era of horse and musket, and as a pertinent cavalry man he one day, one virtual day rode through a frozen country with copses of defoiled maple and ash. He wore a tricorne, a blue coat, breeches and riding boots. The horse was grey with a black mane. Riding up on a little knoll he descried a castle in the distance, with towers and steeples and a welcoming light shining above the gate. He followed an urge to visit the castle so he rode away to it, crossed the draw-bridge, left his horse to a groom and went inside.
And there, in a resplendent hall with chequered flooring and marble pillars, a white-bearded man in a green cassock was sitting on a throne on a dais. He nodded as Graf entered. Graf for his part bowed and took a seat on a simple chair below the dais. Through a lancet window he could see the wintry landscape outside, complete with yellow clouds scudding across the sky.
”You are a soldier,” the man on the throne said. ”I am Shuddi-Buddhi, a teacher of sorts, a guru if you will. So what do you want to know? You’ve seen some action already, that I can tell.”
”True,” Graf said.
”Then why did you come here?”
Graf didn’t know – and he was slighty confused as tho why he had to answer a question like this. This was all Virtual Reality, all part of the academy’s hands-on exercise in military history – ”hands-on” in that the cadets shouldn’t just read books about yesterday’s war but experience them too, if only in a computer-generated setting.
It was a rough class in military history – so why then was he here, why was he talking to an odd magician in a dream-castle? Shouldn’t he fight some additional wars, be out there in the thick of battle? But maybe the academy teachers had some motivation for this scene, to see if the cadet could act courteously or ask intelligent questions to men of knowledge or somesuch.
Graf then gathered himself and asked what he believed to be an intelligent question:
”Sir, what is the most important thing in the universe?”
”Life,” the teacher said without flinching, ”because everything is life. From electrons revolving around the nucleus of an atom to planets circling a sun. Fish and fowl, insects and mammals, scudding clouds and rotating galaxies; everything you see is life.”
”So what about making death your business then? As I am doing, being a soldier?”
”Well,” the bearded man said, ”if you are a soldier just for the hell of it, just to fight and kill, then you’re beyond relief I’d say. But if you’re fighting a war in order to make a better peace, then I see nothing wrong with it. You’ve got to have ideals.”
Ideals? Graf nodded. He asked himself if he indeed had any ideals. Well, maybe he had. Maybe he didn’t fight just for the hell of it: fight for the love of fighting, like some mercenary soldier of old. But someimes of course, out in the front line of the Paloozan war, he had felt the pull from the dark forces: he had experienced the allure of the battle itself, had sensed its rough charm, the urge to stay there forever, operating in an eternal No Man's Land. It didn’t matter then if the war ended, if only he could continue to fight and kill and command men and see the rocket ships flash through the skies, about to support their advance with sickly green fluoride lasers –
”To fight is easy, to live is hard,” the guru said. ”So while you fight you’ll have to remember that maybe one day the war will end, and then you’ll need personal contingencies, you’ll need some mental preparedness for what to do then: set up house, get a proper job... But when the solider starts to love his occupation for its intrinsical values, then he’s in a grey area I’d say...”
”But if you want to go career,” Graf said, ”then you must love your work in one way or another.”
”Well, do you? Want to go career? Aren’t you merely training to be an officer in the reserve? Big difference there, I gather.”
Graf had to admit that. He couldn’t see himself working as an officer in a peacetime army. He was simply a reservist, a good one at that, but he would never be a dyed-in-the-wool soldier, one who only thought about ranges of fire, cover and concealement. There were lots of other things in life he valued – as life itself, the planets in their courses, the sea full of fish, the birds in the skies... Smart guy this guru, he made you think, Graf mused mused.
Smart guy – and wise. He had that special aura about him, that indefinable something, that je ne sais quoi that made you want to linger and ask question about this and that. And the guru didn’t seem to be in a hurry, he just sat there as if he had all the time in the world – so Graf cleared his throat and asked:
”Now, if life is the most important thing in the universe, then what is it that creates life?”
”Well,” the teacher said, ”what do you think yourself?”
”I’d say God.”
”Why? Couldn’t life arise out of itself?”
”Hm,” Graf said, ”I’d said no. Because many scientists have tried to create life, but none have succeded. Not in the last 5-6-700 years or so...”
”No,” Graf echoed. ”That artificial intelligence thing you hear engineers intimate, this is just a pipe dream. And as for robots, well – they are nice toys but nothing more.”
”You’re very wise, my son,” Shuddhi-Buddhi said.
”Yes, you truly are. Don’t you want to change career? I mean, after you’ve won the war, look out for a clerical career?”
Now it got strange, Graf thought. Change career, take some spiritual vows; one thing at a time, please... Then again, you never knew. Me, a priest? Stranger things had happened.
”But of course you needn’t be an ordained priest,” Shuddhi-Buddhi said. ”You could be a learned man in general, an informal guru.”
Graf nodded and thought, ”Or a virtual guru like you...”
The clouds sailed across the sky. The throne room was quiet. Graf wanted to say something diplomatical, something to round it all out.
”Anyhow,” he finally said, ”your company has been most enlightening.”
”Thank you,” the man said. ”But you already had some of the answers inside you, whatever it was you wanted to know. I’m like Socrates, performing his majeutical practice."
”His 'art of the midwife'. Assessing the pupil’s questions you sound out his conceptual depth, what he knows and knows not, and by asking counter questions you get him to realize the truth by himself.”
”It truly is.”
”Well, thank you for everything Great Teacher, Guru, Shuddhi-Buddhi!”
Graf got up from the chair, bowed and left the hall. And back in the saddle he continued his virtual mission, the march through military history. Next he rode to king Charles XI's camp in Småland, Sweden, to join him in fighting the Danish invader at Lund. In a mounted scuffle he was shot in the back by an enemy trooper and fell to the ground bleeding, mortally wounded.
On the next level of the game he commanded a French cavalry squadron in the battle of Austerlitz. His unit carried the day, partly because of Graf’s skill with the rapier. Then the scene shifted and he was commanding an infantry platoon at Missionary Ridge, storming up the slope against murderous rifle-fire. However, the unit came through and planted its banner on top of the ridge. Next, Graf was a Japanese infantry officer storming up another height, Height 205 in Port Arthur. In this battle Graf fell by a rifle shot in the chest.
Through the bogs of the Masurian Lakes as Schütze, over the Galician prairie as Austro-Hungarian ulan, through Meuse-Argonne as leatherneck was his way. There were ski-patrols in Finnish Lapland, envelopment of a bunker on a sun-baked Pacific atoll, city fight in the Rhineland urban sprawl, a landing at Inchon and a contest over the Hué citadel -- which was taken -- with Graf in the lead, wielding a .45 -- but -- he didn't see a North Vietnamese infantryman firing at him from a cranny -- so he died -- his last death.
In the VR chamber Graf was unstrapped from the chair, freed from helmet and sensors and could walk away as a free man – or at least as a cadet in the world of the 25th century. For that part, Graf discussed his experiences in the computor game with his fellow cadets, especially the talk with the guru in the castle. Here his friends looked at him in amazement; no one else had experienced anything like that. One of his comrades even reported him to the teachers’ board on these grounds; an investigation was made, trying to find out if Graf maybe was crazy and unfit for command.
However, he was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence. But he never again mentioned his encounter in the castle with the glorified teacher, the white-bearded, blue-clad Shuddhi-Buddhi. No one ever got to know about their talk about life and death and God, and whether one should go career or stay on as a reservist.
But what did Graf himself make out of it? Was it real, had their meeting actually taken place?
As an esotricist Graf decided that this had been part of the Astral War. A "virtual" episode, a dreamworld experience, real in the way that significant dreams could be real.
Science Fiction Seen from the Right
Good Cop, Mad Cop
The Swedenborg Machine
Johan Philip Lemke: "King Charles XI and field marshal Erik Dahlbergh riding among the enemy during the Battle of Lund".