To the Great Monarch Conan XVII, Scion of the Dynasty Barbaria, Emperor of the World, Despot of Asia and the Americas, Lord and Master of Africa and the Antipodes,
Greetings and salutations.
It will be no secret to you that the Empire is facing an acute water scarcity – amounting almost to drought. Of course, Sire, we cannot use that word in public without your express sanction, but I believe that we are all aware of how precarious our situation is, owing to lack of water. The rains, for year after year now, have failed catastrophically. The rivers are thinned to mere trickles, the wells are long since dry. Famine threatens Your Majesty’s realms.
Once famine comes, rebellion is sure to follow – and the armed forces have, I beg leave to state, become weakened in recent years and can hardly be depended on to resist a popular upheaval. Should one come, and I am convinced that unless the water problem can be solved it is inevitable, we face fragmentation of the Empire and a return to endless war and the loss of all that your illustrious ancestors achieved since the founding of your august dynasty, the House of Barbaria, so many years ago.
It is due to these factors that your Council of Ministers asked me, as the official Historian of the Realm, to explore the archives to discover how our predecessors had attempted to solve similar crises in the past. And so have I long pored over the ancient books, in the light of guttering oil lamps in the dark of the night, forgoing rest and sleep while the crisis drew ever closer.
In my studies of the past, I could not, I regret to say, access all the knowledge of bygone ages, for so much of the records are long since lost, especially in the long gone era, now almost mythical, when the world knew relative plenty and had not yet been destroyed by population, pollution, and pillage. Others I found irrelevant, since they affected only part of the planet at any given time, and – according to political imperatives – aid could be despatched to help the afflicted, or the localised disaster could be isolated and allowed to burn itself out over time, enough people dying so whatever food and water was left sufficed for the survivors. But things are different now.
The most significant of those crises, however, the one in which I found a clear warning to us, was the one that led to the First Water War. This was in a time so long ago that only fragmentary records survive to this day, but your humble slave is glad to be able to report that he has managed to find enough to be able to put together a narrative of the conflict.
Back in that distant time, Highness, the world was split up into multiple states, but the greatest of the powers was an empire in the far west, occupying what we would call today the continent of North America. I have been unable to ascertain what that empire was called, but I have found some reference to the Untied States. Why they were untied, and what they were untied from, are open to speculation, but are immaterial to our present purposes.
These Untied States, as I said, comprised the pre eminent empire in the world, but it was already an empire in steep decline. The causes of this decline are not fully known, but seem to have included constant warfare and an extreme tendency to over consume resources.
In any case, a point arrived when the Empire had spread its military occupation to much of the globe, but controlled almost nothing outside its own territory. Its vassals had grown restive, and were openly questioning its authority, except for one or two semi-colonial possessions too minor to matter. But it still had the most powerful military the world had ever known, a military grown so strong it might have successfully waged a war against creatures from another planet – and yet had forgotten how to fight tribesmen in turbans hiding in caves.
Meanwhile, the pressures of the population, pollution and pillage of resources had so devastated the world that it had reached a point of runaway climate change. The effects of the climate change on the Empire included a massive drought, not unlike our own. In a relatively short period of time, the rivers had run dry, the lakes were puddles, and yet the Empire refused to admit any such thing was happening, because to admit it would mean that it would have to clamp down on the terrific levels of consumption to which the people had become accustomed – and which, more to the point, had become essential to the continued profits of the corporations on whose earnings the economy had become totally based.
In those annals, Your Majesty, I have also come across some mention of a term called “fracking”. What that is I couldn’t tell you, but it seems to have involved utilisation of what little water remained, not in irrigation or for drinking and basic hygiene, but in further exploitation of the resources which, as I said, had already been stretched beyond redemption. It seemed that a total loss of available water resources, followed by protests and rebellion, was inevitable. And although the Untied States had taken precautions against rebellion by forming a huge and heavily armed internal security apparatus, backed up by a level of surveillance of the population which we today can only dream of, it still could not be certain of surviving an uprising on terms which left the profit-making abilities of the business interests intact. And since the business interests ran the government of the Empire, what affected them affected everyone.
Clearly, then, since overconsumption was not to be curtailed for fear of harming corporate profits, and since the government could not risk a revolution for the same reason, the only solution was to look for a new source of water.
Now, fortunately as it seemed, there was a ready source of fresh water not all that very far away. Only a little south of the Empire, in the northern part of the South American part of the continent, lay several nations with huge rivers, whose water was still fresh, unpolluted, and ready for exploitation. In fact, since those nations were not using the water in their rivers, it would have been a criminal waste not to appropriate them for the use of the needy citizens of the Untied States themselves.
Now, it will come as no surprise that the nations of the South American continent would not welcome their waters being taken away to serve the needs of the Empire. There was bound to be resistance, and it seemed that short of military invasion and occupation, there was no easy way to overcome this resistance. But even military invasion and occupation was no easy feat to justify, for a population which had grown increasingly restive over the decades to sending its children off to be maimed and killed in lost wars.
Fortunately, though, for the Empire, there was a readymade enemy available. This was a nation whose name seems to have been Vinizula or something of the kind. This Vinizula, having dared to throw off a government imposed by the Empire, had been subject to so many years of vilification and propaganda that the people of the Untied States were willing to go along with an invasion on any pretext whatsoever. Besides, apart from water, Vinizula had many other natural resources which could be plundered to help pay for the invasion and occupation which would be necessary.
So, on a date carefully chosen to maximise potential benefits in upcoming Imperial elections, the Empire sent a fleet of ships loaded with soldiers to attack Vinizula. It was expected that the country would be conquered within days, and then the pumping stations could be set up along the rivers to suck water into the water purification plants which would make the liquid fit for use by the citizens of the Empire. Then, it was planned, the water would be pumped into the hulls of a fleet of gigantic water tankers, which were even then being constructed, and shipped north to its intended destination.
At first all seemed to go well. Though Vinizula’s armed forces fought bravely, they were relatively small and their organised resistance was soon broken. But the soldiers – abandoning their bases and fortifications – melted into the forests, from where they began a vicious and effective guerrilla war against the occupying army.
Because of the paucity of records, it is not possible to say now exactly how long the Empire’s occupation lasted, but it cannot have been longer than a few years. Because of the level of resistance, only a tiny fraction of the expected water managed to reach Imperial shores, and that at a much higher expense than even the Empire could afford. Coupled with continuing defeats elsewhere, the Empire’s war making capacity finally collapsed, and so did its economy, and it disintegrated into civil war and chaos.
And in this lies the vital lesson for us, Your Majesty. We can continue to hope for the rains to come, for new wells to be sunk which will – with due respect to the Royal Dowser – fail to find any trace of water. Sire, I have even heard it suggested that we invade Your Majesty’s vassal states to make use of their water, such as it is. The only argument I have not heard is the only one that has any hope of success – that is, to limit our consumption of the liquid to only the extreme essentials, and to impose, if necessary with force of arms, the social changes such limitation will inevitably bring.
All other courses of action lead us to the same fate as befell the Empire, which once imagined it had a divine right to rule the universe and is now so completely vanished from the pages of history that we cannot even be certain of its name.
In all this sad tale, though, there is one account of which I read that I believe will be of interest to you, not only because it is vividly presented, in great detail, but because it is full of courage and drama and all that goes into making us human.
It was already in the latter part of the occupation when the tanker Humanitarian Intervention was laid down in the shipyards of the Untied States, and of the ships built, she was by far the largest, being able to haul no less than a million tons of water. And apart from the usual fittings of her type, she was a unique craft in another way, for she carried a complement of fighter aircraft to protect her from increasingly effective attacks from Vinizulan naval units, which operated from hidden coves and harbours in the rain forests along the coast, and which had already sunk the tankers Manifest Destiny and Exceptional America with all hands.
A ship so gigantic and so unique required a crew of exceptional ability, and was captained by the most experienced officer available, Barack Clinton. A passionate believer in the Imperialist cause, he had had experience of several past voyages to Vinizula, on the last of which his ship, the Liberal Values, had been severely damaged. Even so, he had managed to nurse the stricken vessel back to Imperial territory before it had finally broken up and sunk, and as a reward he had been given command of the Humanitarian Intervention.
She must have been a truly grand ship. On her maiden – and as it was to turn out, her only – voyage, she was dragged out of harbour by an entire flotilla of tugs, which had to stay with her until she was well out to sea, for she was far too large to manoeuvre in shallow coastal waters. And fortune seemed to be smiling upon her, for she arrived at her destination in Vinizula, Pumping Station Bush III, without even a single bullet fired in her direction.
Not that there were no bullets being fired. Even from the bridge of the tanker, as she lay as close to the shore as her gigantic bulk allowed, Captain Barack Clinton could hear the sounds of shooting and explosions as Vinizulan guerrillas fought the Imperial military units guarding the pumping station. In all his prior voyages, he had never heard the fighting come so close. And as the huge hoses filled his four gigantic holds with a quarter of a million tons of water each, he anxiously followed the sounds of combat and realised uneasily that they were coming closer to the station itself.
It must have been with relief that Captain Clinton finished loading his ship with water and made ready to return to the sea again. He must surely have suspected that the Humanitarian Intervention was among the last ships which would ever manage to load water from Pumping Station Bush III; as a matter of fact, the Vinizulan guerrillas managed to capture the base just the next morning and blew up all the buildings before withdrawing into the forest. But by then Captain Clinton had much greater problems on his hands.
The first problem was how to make his way back to the ocean. Unlike the fleet of tugs which had dragged the Humanitarian Intervention into the ocean in the Untied States, there never had been many such vessels available in Pumping Station Bush III. And, of those that had been there originally, many had already been sunk and disabled by Vinizulan guerrilla attacks, while others were unusable due to breakdowns and lack of spare parts. So Captain Clinton had only three tugs which joined forces to pull him away from his mooring; and one of them almost immediately blew up after striking a mine planted by Vinizulan terrorist saboteurs. Still, Clinton, with the help of the other two tugs and his own immense ability, managed to find his way out into the sea.
But, even as he began to imagine that the worst was over and all it remained to do was sail his gargantuan ship back to the Untied States, disaster struck. Night had just fallen, and the occupied coast had vanished into the darkness, when the Humanitarian Intervention was attacked by Vinizulan speedboats. These tiny craft, moving far too quickly for the lumbering tanker to outrun, sailed in circles round her, lashing her superstructure with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine gun fire. The complement of soldiers on board the Humanitarian Intervention made attempts to shoot back, but owning to the great speed and evasive manoeuvres of the speedboats it is unlikely that they hit anything at all.
By the time the attack was over, the superstructure of the tanker was ablaze, and the bridge itself was wreathed in flame and smoke. Showing the great heroism and presence of mind that marked out a true leader of his calibre, Captain Barack Clinton stayed at his post until the fires were brought under control, though they were never fully put out until the end of the voyage.
Meanwhile, under the surface of the ocean, a new and far more dangerous threat was approaching.
As I said earlier in this account, the Empire had enemies all over the planet, among whom was a country which seems to have been called Norkorea. This Norkorea had produced large numbers of tiny midget submarines, small enough to conceal themselves in creeks and bends of rivers, and able to operate with great stealth in shallow coastal waters. And, no doubt driven by greed and hatred of the Empire’s freedoms, it had seen fit to smuggle several of these to Vinizula and hand them over to the guerrillas.
And it was one of these Norkorean-made Vinizulan midget submarines, the Hugo Chavez, which was approaching. The flames rising from the burning tanker marked her position clearly, and the captain of the Hugo Chavez had no difficulty in firing both the torpedoes his small submarine carried into the midsection of the titanic hull. It would have been amazing, in fact, had either of them missed.
The two torpedoes impacted the middle two holds of the Humanitarian Intervention on the port side. Each hold contained a quarter of a million tons of water, which cushioned the effects of the blast to a considerable extent, but which now began to leak into the sea through the immense holes blown in the hull. The ship began to take on a list, only slight to begin with, but one which might become unmanageable in case of a further torpedo strike. Captain Clinton therefore ordered his fighters to take off in order to provide air cover.
Now, as I have already stated, the Humanitarian Intervention carried on board a section of four F 35 fighter aeroplanes for self-defence. Of these, it was found, one had been damaged beyond immediate repair by a grenade hit during the speedboat attack. A second one was being serviced, its engine dismantled and strewn all over its deck hangar. A third could not take off because of a software failure, whatever that might be. So only one out of four was available, and – after being fuelled and armed – it began to clumsily rise into the air.
And it was at that moment that the second wave of Vinizulan speedboats struck.
This second attack was carried out by only one or two gunboats, and was much briefer and less intense than the first. But one of the first rockets fired struck the F 35 as it had just lifted off the deck of the Humanitarian Intervention, whereupon it fell right back on to the ship, a blazing wreck. Spilled fuel from the shattered plane set all the other three on fire, and this blaze soon joined the superstructure fire in one great conflagration that might have charred the ship to a cinder.
Fortunately, however, for the Humanitarian Intervention, Captain Barack Clinton kept his head. He had noticed, on his weather sensors, heavy thunderstorms to the east, and he now steered his burning ship into the area covered by the clouds. Heavy rain began to come down from the skies, so heavy, indeed, that although the fire still continued to smoulder under the decks and inside the superstructure, most of the blaze was quenched.
But the diversion to the east had cost the Humanitarian Intervention much time, during which the water had continued to leak out of the two holds amidships. As the day broke, Captain Clinton turned north again, trying to push his engines to maximum power in an effort to get home as quickly as he could. But the seas were now running very rough owing to the storms, and the tanker could only make headway with difficulty. When night fell, she was still struggling north against heavy waves, her gallant captain not leaving the bridge, guiding her every moment of the way with no thought of rest or sleep.
Such are the brave souls on whom great Empires depend, Majesty! Without them nothing is possible, and for them nothing is impossible.
It is hard, now, to imagine the mettle it took for the crew and captain of the tanker over the next days of struggle, but, eventually, late on the third morning after leaving Vinizula, the Humanitarian Intervention finally reached friendly seas. By then, Imperial aeroplanes and naval ships had formed a protective screen above and around her, though of course, so far from hostile shores, there were no more attacks. As the coast of the Untied States came clearly into view, and the flotilla of tugs came chugging out to take the great ship in tow, Captain Barack Clinton must have heaved a sigh of relief at his troubles being over.
And then the Humanitarian Intervention broke into two like a stick.
You will recall, Majesty, that the Hugo Chavez’ two torpedoes had struck the Humanitarian Intervention amidships and had holed the two central tanks. The water had kept flowing out of them, but not at such a great rate – there were half a million tons in the two tanks, after all – that it had been something to worry about, what with all the other dangers, the smouldering fires, the storm, and the threat of further enemy attack. But now so much of the water had been lost from the two central tanks that the middle of the ship had become too light compared to the bow and stern, and the plane crash, the fire and the buffeting from the storm had all further weakened the structure. Weighted down at both ends, the keel of the ship snapped in two, the metal skin tore like paper, and the bow and forequarters broke away and swiftly sank.
The same fate might have overtaken the stern half of the ship, with the superstructure and the engines and crew, but by great good fortune the first tugs had already made their lines firm to it. Captain Clinton ordered them to tow the remnants of his ship stern first towards the shore, as quickly as they could. But even so, the weight of the torn and crumpled metal hanging from the front end of this part of the ship slowed her down far too much, and it became evident that it would founder as well.
And so it might have proved, but for Captain Barack Clinton’s genius. Seeing that the ship had to lose the weight of the mangled metal if it had to survive, he ordered the naval ships escorting him on either side to open fire on it with missiles. The impact of these weapons sliced away most of the remnants of the third tank, enough for the stern section to regain equilibrium. Just think of the bravery that this entailed!
So it was that, to the cheers of a multitude, what was left of the Humanitarian Intervention finally returned to her mooring, along with the quarter of a million tons of water in her one remaining hold. And – even as Captain Clinton was carried on the shoulders of an adoring crowd to media appearances and meetings with Imperial politicians – that precious fluid was pumped out of her into the giant storage tanks built by the dockside.
And the next morning it was put into the pipes to the homes of the people, who used it to water their lawns and to wash their cars.
With best wishes, Your Majesty,
I remain, your obedient servant,
Bill the Butcher.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015