Saturday 11 February 2012

Guns Don't Kill People...

...say the gun owners.

I quite agree.

Guns don't kill people. People with guns, who...

1. point them at other people and pull triggers, thus causing bullets to impact said people causing lethal damage to their neurological and/or vascular systems, or

2. hit them over the head hard enough with the butt to cause unsurvivable cerebral trauma, including skull fractures, subdural haemorrhages and concussion

...kill people.

Friday 10 February 2012

The Last Zombie On Earth

The last zombie on earth stirred cautiously under his pile of rotting leaves. Very carefully, he brushed them off his face and torso and sat up. The full moon overhead was too bright for his eyes, but since he no longer possessed eyelids he couldn’t do anything about it except try not to look in its direction.

Slowly, moving carefully so as not to accidentally break off a limb, he shambled towards the place where the woods ended at the top of the old quarry. As always except the very darkest nights, from here he could see the moonlight shining on the forsaken towers of Zombopolis. As always, he stood for many minutes watching the great soaring buildings and remembering what had once been, before the human plague had swamped the great Zombie race.

Back then, Zombopolis had been a place of magic, with the great avenues never still, the theatres and markets always full with the gentle shuffle and moaning speech of the noble Zombie folk. They had been a great race, kind in their dealings with each other and to other, less fortunate peoples, such as the shivering vampires who came out at night looking for a few drops of blood to drink, or the flea-bitten mangy werewolves who prowled around the kitchens every full moon night begging for a scrap to eat. None of them had ever gone away hungry, not even the halitosis-ridden ghouls who sought to feed on the freshly undead.

Alas, those days were long gone. The humans had seen to that.

The zombie still remembered the first humans, who had seemed so harmless when they first appeared, so helpless and vulnerable. The zombies who had seen them had gone at once to find out what was ailing them and to help them, cure their illnesses and clothe and feed them if need be. To their astonishment, the humans, instead of accepting their kindness, had struck at them with knives and shot them with guns. Any zombie who had gone to help a human was lucky indeed if he got away with his unlife.

The zombies had held meetings in which they’d debated what to do with the humans. There had been a few hotheads who had suggested all-out war against humanity, but naturally the majority opinion had opposed such a drastic step. The Zombie Nation had been nothing if not pacific, and the Elder Council of the Zombie Horde had decided that the actions of a few humans, probably out of their minds with illness, should not taint all of that race. They had ordered no reprisals should be carried out, and the hotheads had, however reluctantly, obeyed.

It had done no good, of course. Emboldened by their initial success, the humans had come back in strength, wielding flame-throwers and Molotov cocktails, sniper rifles and machine guns where they had earlier only possessed machetes and pump shotguns. Remembering, the zombie would have gnashed his teeth in fury, but he was afraid that they might fall out of his rotting jawbones. If only they had listened to the hotheads, they might yet have won!

The hotheads had finally decided to make a stand, in defiance of the Council of Elders, and had been promptly excommunicated from the Zombie Horde. But by then it had been too late anyway. Step by step the humans had driven the Zombie folk out of the great cities, and then surrounded them and exterminated them in the countryside like so many vermin. At last, there were fewer left, and fewer still, and now the zombie was alone.

Sighing breathlessly, the zombie turned away. He felt a vague satisfaction in the knowledge that, deprived of the munificence of the Zombie folk, the vampires, werewolves, ghouls and other, even less mentionable creatures of the night now preyed on the humans. He was ashamed of the satisfaction; Schadenfreude, however well-deserved, offended his gentle soul.

He had no real plans for the night. For an hour or two he foraged, rooting around rotting logs for mushrooms and scraping some lichen off tree bark to eat. Like all the Zombie Horde, of course, he was and had always been a strict vegetarian. Not, of course, that he needed much food, being dead and, these days, almost inactive, but he had to keep his immune system in repair, so he forced himself to eat. Afterwards, he thought he would walk around for a bit and then go back to his hollow, cover himself with leaves, and drowse away the hours until tomorrow night.

It was just as he was swallowing the last fragment of a toadstool that he heard a sound. His hearing had grown sluggish in recent times, with his auditory canals having grown clogged with debris, so it was a moment before he reacted. Just a little bit too late to run.

“Don’t be scared,” a little voice said behind him, soft and feminine. “Don’t be scared, Mr Zombie.”

Slowly, still chewing the last fragment of mushroom, the zombie turned. The human woman was very small, and at first glance he thought she was a child. Then she stepped closer, cautious as a deer, and he saw that she was at least in her mid-twenties and perhaps older.

“Mr Zombie,” she repeated, in her little-girl voice. “I’m not going to hurt you, Mr Zombie.”

“How strange you should say that,” the zombie replied. He hadn’t spoken in years, and his voice was strangled with disuse and masticated mushroom, but she seemed to be able to understand him. “Your folk usually seem to think we are going to hurt them.” He paused, working his tongue to loosen it. “That’s what they say when they’re killing us,” he added.

The girl actually winced, as though he’d slapped her. “I know,” she said. “Will it do any good if I said I was sorry?”

The zombie shrugged. “What difference does it make? Now that you’ve found me, you’ll destroy me, and then what use will your apology be?”

Destroy you?” the woman gasped. “Oh, no. I’m not going to harm you, Mr Zombie, or any of your people. I’m here to help you all, if I can.”

“Help whom?” The zombie waved. “You talk of my people. There are no more – I’m the last of the Zombie Horde, the last zombie in the whole wide world.”

“Oh, you poor thing.” Before the zombie could flinch, the girl had reached out and caressed his cheek. “How terrible it must be for you.”

The zombie had begun to tremble with terror at the closeness of the human, but somehow managed to keep himself from bolting. Apart from other considerations, if he fell over something he might break into pieces. “What?” he said, suspiciously, through his chattering teeth (or, rather, the teeth that would have chattered if he had dared to risk them being dislodged). “Why do you call me that?”

“Why?” The girl was still stroking his cheek. “You must be so terribly sad. And lonely.”

“It’s something I have come to terms with,” the zombie said. “I’ve been alone for a long, long time – longer than you’ve been alive, I’ll warrant.”

“But that doesn’t make it any less sad, Mr Zombie.” In the moonlight, the tears glinted as they flowed down her cheeks. “I should have come to you before.”

“Don’t cry,” the zombie said, stifling an urge to wipe her tears away. She would probably have been disgusted at the touch of his hand, he thought, and immediately felt ashamed when he remembered how she had touched his cheek. “How could you have come to me before? You didn’t know I was here.”

“I’ve known for months, Mr Zombie,” she said. “”I’ve been coming out each day and checking tracks and signs of feeding, so I knew there was at least one of you. I didn’t come to you earlier because I didn’t want to disturb you, seeing as it was zombie mating season.”

If the zombie could have laughed, he would have. His ribs heaved with the effort. “Mating season? There’s nobody left for me to mate with. I’m the last of the race.”

“I’m sorry. You can’t believe how sorry I am.” The woman peered up at him, a tremulous smile appearing through her tears. “Shall we walk a little bit? If you don’t mind...?”

The zombie shrugged again. “If you want.” If he survived the night, he would have to go away now, he knew, travelling through the day, even though it would be dangerous and the light would hurt his eyes. He couldn’t risk staying, now that she knew. But for the moment, it felt good to have someone to talk to after so long. They wandered through the forest in the general direction of the old quarry. “You came alone?”

“Of course,” said the girl. “I didn’t even mention the possibility of you being here to anyone else.”

“If you had,” the zombie said, “they’d have been here already, with guns.”

The woman winced. “I know. I tried to set up a Zombie Conservation Society, but I’m the only member.”

“I’m sure there won’t be any others,” the zombie said drily. “Your people will consider you a traitor to your race.”

“Yes, they call anyone who is willing to tolerate the existence of zombies a rothead ghoul-lover. Nobody wants to have anything to do with me.” Turning, she pointed at Zombopolis, shining in the moonlight. “Did you live in the city down there, once?”

“I did.” The zombie told her about life there, and how it had been. “You wouldn’t believe it,” he finished with a sigh. “How things have changed.”

They turned away from Zombopolis and wandered into the forest. By and by, the girl’s hand sought out the zombie’s. “Are you going away?” she asked.

“Yes,” he admitted. “I am.”

“Take me with you,” she said.


They set up a home in the deep forest, far from prying human eyes. Their first child was a genius with weapons, their second a master strategist, their third a scholar and historian of the zombie race. Little by little, the creatures of the night congregated around them, a vampire today, a ghoul tomorrow, a brace of goblins the day after that.

Little by little, they grew, until they had an army, prepared and ready. One evening they set out on the march. Their objective, to take back Zombopolis. Today, the city, tomorrow the world.

Everywhere, the humans still ruled, but their time had come.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

[Note to reader: Believe it or not, I'd intended this to be a humour post, but it got away from me.]

Thursday 9 February 2012

Pop Porn Time

What do you do when you’re sitting in a meeting, bored out of your skull?

Do you try to think of your favourite piece of music? Do crossword puzzles in your head? Try to think up stories to write? Plan your next vacation?

How about watching porn on your mobile phone?

If you’re an Indian politician, that sounds about right.

Two Indian members of the legislative assembly of the state of Karnataka (that’s where Bangalore is) were caught watching porn right there in the legislative assembly on a mobile phone belonging to a third minister...on TV, no less, so they couldn’t even claim it was a conspiracy or something similar. I’ve no idea what the porn clip in question was, but I assume it was...uh...compelling enough that they couldn’t wait.

Normally, we Indians aren’t that hung up on our so-called leaders’ sexual peccadilloes, but this being a season of elections, the episode has made Scandal with a capital S; most of all because those ministers are from the Hindunazi Bharatiya Janata Party, which never ceases to preach morality at the rest of us. The BJP is doing some ludicrous self-justification, and the three involved ministers have been compelled to resign, though they’ll of course be quietly reinstated when the heat dies down.

The thing I’m wondering is, just what were these characters planning to do after watching the porn? Were they planning to perhaps go to the bathroom and jack off? Or it right there under the table if nobody was watching?

I think I’d better stop imagining now.

Did Hitler Deliberately Lose the War?

Statutory disclaimer: The statements made in this article are my own and are a statement of my beliefs and the fruit of my research. As usual, though, I am in no way responsible for any fights, quarrels, disagreements or fallings-out as a result of discussions arising from this article, on this website or elsewhere. Also, as usual, my sources are linked to in the body of the article for the convenience of the reader. 

As everyone who has been reading me for a while is aware, I’m fascinated by Hitler and the Nazis, to the extent where if I were an academic historian I’d have specialised in the Third Reich to the exclusion of pretty much any other topic I can think of except maybe the reign of the Tsar Nikolai II.

While there are so many things to talk about where Hitler is concerned, the main facts are pretty well known: he took over Germany, made himself dictator, militarised the country, tried to wipe out the Jews, Communists (as the Jews and Communists were often the same people, this was kind of like killing two birds with one stone), Gypsies, Social Democrats, trade unionists and anyone else who even thought of disagreeing with him, and then went and started (well, not technically, since Britain and France actually declared war on Germany, but he was directly responsible for creating the circumstances for said declaration) a war with half the world that ended in his shooting himself in a bunker while Russian shells were falling  outside the door.

In its essentials, those facts are completely correct.

But the question is: how is it that Hitler actually lost the war?

Think about it a moment. Here’s a man who had absolute control over his people, his nation and his armed forces. He had more absolute control than other dictators because he had succeeded in achieving a kind of Godhead status amongst his people (more about that in a moment). His General Staff was completely beholden to him, and every general who even thought of treason had been co-opted or purged. His armies, even in their last days, were technologically superior to all their enemies. And, militarily speaking, by 1942 he was unchallenged master of everything between the river Volga and the English Channel. How could he possibly have lost?

Yet, as we know from history, he did, completely and catastrophically.

I believe, and in this article I shall endeavour to show, that Hitler lost because, subconsciously, he was determined to lose.    

I know that this will be a controversial statement, and will likely come in for some derision. However, I believe that there are grounds that enable me to reach this conclusion.

If you look at Hitler’s conduct of the war, you can hardly avoid noticing a glaring fact: he kept missing golden opportunities. For a man who, for all his failings, can be described (at least in the early stages of the war, before he began micromanaging everything) as militarily a competent strategist, such blunders are inexplicable. Let’s just look at a few:

The pre-Munich phase: Those of us who know a bit about history will remember that the Second World War actually almost began in 1938, when Hitler demanded German-inhabited areas of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland). War seemed inevitable – a war Germany was even more unfit to fight in 1938 than it was in 1939 – but Hitler was adamant. His own army generals were seriously considering a coup d’état to get rid of the suicidal government, but then Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement, which ceded Sudetenland to Germany, handed Hitler an enormous bloodless victory, and swiftly checkmated opposition in the generals’ ranks. Yet, had Hitler actually started the war in 1938, even if he hadn’t been toppled by the military, he would have faced a strong Czech army (the Czech fortifications were all in the Sudetenland) and British and French armies which were at least much stronger than the Wehrmacht. It wasn’t Hitler’s fault that he didn’t lose the war before it even began.

Going to war: What isn’t much known except to those who are familiar with the history of the Second World War is just how it started. The end of the First World War cost Germany eastern territory, which was sliced off to Poland, a land-locked entity at the time. In order to give Poland an access to the sea, a strip of territory (called the Polish Corridor) was handed over, which had the effect of cutting off the large and very important province of East Prussia – home of most of the German warrior caste – from the rest of Germany. At the eastern tip of this Corridor was the city of Danzig, with an almost entirely (about 95%) ethnic German population, which was cut off from East Prussia as a “free city”. The Danzigers wanted, by an overwhelming majority, to be part of Germany. The Germans wanted, in the meantime, a road through the Polish Corridor so that the two parts of Germany were connected by other than sea or air. So, Hitler demanded Danzig and the road through the Corridor. By Hitlerian standards, in fact, these demands were rather reasonable.

What was not reasonable, however, were the circumstances. By August 1939, Hitler had long since betrayed the terms of the Munich agreement. He had seized all of Czechoslovakia, and Austria had also been incorporated into the Greater German Reich. In an act that was militarily meaningless but politically powerful, Britain and France had pledged to go to war if Germany attacked Poland. Negotiations had failed to create any breakthrough, and to any normal person it should have been obvious that war was imminent if Germany did attack Poland. Yet, Hitler went ahead with the attack, and did not call it off even after France and Britain issued ultimatums, making a general European war inevitable. As Hitler had no reason to want war with either France or Britain, this was even more inexplicable.

At this distance in time, it’s tempting to think of the German war machine in the early stages of the war as an unstoppable juggernaut. It wasn’t. The German armed forces were being built up on the supposition that a major war was unlikely before 1943-44. The Panzer divisions had to go to war (vide Colonel General Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader) with light PzKw I and II tanks, meant for training. The navy had only a few small U Boats with poor and unreliable torpedoes, and was unable to launch effective amphibious assaults, as it learnt to its cost during the invasion of Norway. The Luftwaffe’s Stukas, Heinkel 111s, and Messerschmitt 110s were unable to stand up to serious aerial opposition. Although some of the armoured units were mechanised, most military transport was still horse drawn. It was only because of innovative Blitzkrieg tactics and invading the neutral BENELUX countries that the Germans even managed to achieve their initial successes of 1939 and 1940. If the Allies had been better prepared tactically, Hitler could have been fought to a standstill if not completely defeated in Northern France. It was certainly not Hitler’s doing that he wasn’t. Yet, when he did have victory in his grasp, he let it slip away at...

Dunkirk: With the British Expeditionary Force cut off in Northern France, along with a substantial part of the French Army, Hitler (who had aggressively followed the Blitzkrieg tactic of cutting off enemy forces and destroying them at leisure) held off his advance and allowed them to escape. Even though Hitler had no desire to fight Britain, for which nation he had an enormous admiration, and it might be that he imagined that “magnanimity” might bring peace feelers from the British side, his own military doctrine did not allow for such acts of mercy. Also, politically, a weaker opponent is more likely to talk peace than one whose forces have just managed to escape essentially intact in terms of manpower.

The Battle of Britain: There’s some little doubt about this one, basically because there’s not much clarity on what Hitler’s actual intentions towards Britain were. If there is one thing that we are absolutely certain about, it’s that Hitler admired the British, idolised the British Empire, and thought war between the Germans and British was a tragedy. He was perfectly ready, as he said, to “guarantee the British Empire” in return for a dominant role on the European continent. Most certainly, he never had any serious intention of invading Britain. Operation Sealion, the projected Nazi invasion of Britain, was never going to happen. The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) didn’t have any amphibious capabilities, and would have had to use Rhine river barges to transport tanks across the Channel. The Luftwaffe, whose fighters lacked the range to stay and fight over British territory for longer than a few minutes, could never have gained operational control of the British skies, and what tactical advantage the Germans had, they squandered by – at Hitler’s insistence – shifting their air offensive from knocking out RAF bases to bombing British cities.

It is possible to imagine a scenario in which Hitler continued fighting Britain to a conclusion, but that scenario would involve strangulation by convoy attacks and fighting British forces elsewhere they could be struck, for instance, North Africa (and I’ll be talking about that in a moment). But as far as an attack on the British home islands is concerned, that was never going to succeed, and there is no evidence that Hitler ever intended it to happen.

Yet, instead of either making peace with Britain or fighting it out to a conclusion, he shifted his attention elsewhere. Though the First World War had taught the Germans that fighting on two fronts was a very bad idea, he went and attacked the Soviet Union.

Barbarossa: If there is one single action, more than any other, which doomed the Nazis, it was the invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941. Yet, strange as it seems, and suicidal as it appears, there is hardly any invasion which was more predictable. Hitler wasn’t interested in occupying Western Europe. He wasn’t even interested in Alsace-Lorraine, the German-speaking territory contested between Germany and France over the course of nearly a century and two wars. What he was always interested in was Lebensraum in the East, and even in his last will and testament he continued to urge Germany to occupy territory in the East. However, it seems incredible that he would attack the USSR without first making some kind of peace with Britain. It is, of course, perfectly possible that Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess (or Heß) was sent to England by Hitler on a peace mission, but long before the invasion of the USSR was launched, Hitler must have known that said peace mission had failed. And still he went ahead – went ahead without any real appreciation of the scale of the problem, or acknowledgement that the Russians could beat the Germans simply by outlasting them. As they did.

Actually, economically speaking, the attack on the USSR was from the beginning a liability for Germany. Stalin was already supplying Germany with oil and raw materials, thus allowing Hitler to circumvent the British blockade which had helped to starve Germany in the Great War (vide William Shirer, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich; Shirer gives detailed figures). Once Hitler declared war, not only was that supply cut off, but the Soviets left only “scorched earth” behind them as they retreated, destroying everything that could not be shifted eastwards away from the Nazis.

There was also the slight problem of Hitler’s systematic sabotaging of any rapprochement with Stalin. Stalin had, via his foreign minister Molotov, offered an alliance against the Western Allies, with the end objective of carving up the French and British colonial empires between the Axis members. Hitler made sure this did not happen by offering Stalin nothing substantial (Shirer calls this an attempt to fob off Stalin with talk of Russian aspirations “in the general direction of the Indian Ocean”) in return. It’s difficult to see how a Soviet-Nazi alliance could possibly have been defeated; the war against the USSR could have been left to a later date after settling scores with the Western democracies. But Hitler was not interested.

According to some anti-Communist revisionist historians like Constantin Pleshakov, Hitler launched a pre-emptive strike against the USSR because Stalin was planning to attack him. This is unlikely to the point of an absurdity. The Red Army of the time had been decapitated by Stalin’s purges, and had suffered tremendous losses in the war against little Finland. It was in the middle of a modernisation programme. The army was armed largely with old T-26 tanks, which had no radios and since they were deployed for infantry support, not for fighting against a Blitzkrieg assault, their ammunition was high-explosive; useless for fighting against other tanks (vide Alan Clark, Barbarossa). The air force had old Polikarpov I-15 and I-16 fighters, so ineffective against the Luftwaffe that they were sometimes used in kamikaze-style ramming attacks as the only way they could bring down the German machines. The Soviet Navy was a joke, with primitive battleships and submarines which could hardly sink anything. It would have been at least a couple of years before the USSR could have posed any kind of offensive threat to Germany, and Hitler must have known that.

Then there was the actual fighting. From the beginning, the Soviet resistance was of a kind that the Germans had never encountered before. Even surrounded and bypassed soldiers didn’t surrender – they vanished into the forests to carry out a guerrilla campaign against the German rear. While tens of Soviet divisions were destroyed, there were always new ones to fill the gaps. And even if the German plan had proceeded perfectly, it would have been of no use, since the Soviets were prepared to retreat across the Urals if necessary and counterattack from there when the Germans were weakened.

In other words, Barbarossa was doomed before the first shot was fired.

Even then, there are so many blunders that Hitler made in Russia that they would probably fill volumes, but I’ll just name a few obvious ones:

1.     The Battle of Moscow: This was the first serious defeat the Nazis suffered, anywhere. On any front. Ever. And more than a little it was the fault of Hitler himself, who delayed Barbarossa in order to invade and capture Yugoslavia, a delay long enough to force his troops to make their final push for Moscow in the teeth of the Russian winter, and allowed Marshal Zhukov to plan a massive and successful counteroffensive.

The really interesting thing about the Battle isn’t the German defeat, though; it’s Hitler’s orders to the German troops to stand fast at all costs. This may have saved the Germans from a general collapse of their lines, but if the Soviets had enough forces (as they had later in the war) they may have been able to destroy most of the German Army in one single operation. It’s certainly not to Hitler’s credit that they didn’t.

2.     Stalingrad: In any discussion of the Greatest Battles Ever Fought, Stalingrad comes high, high on the list. But few know that it came close not to being a battle at all. Throughout the summer of 1942, Hitler kept changing his mind about the main target of his summer offensive. He couldn’t decide on the Caucasian oilfields, or the Volga, and his forces kept getting shunted from one to the other until he decided to try and take them both. The Soviets took the opportunity to set up a defence at Stalingrad, which ground the Germans to a halt. And, while the Wehrmacht was fighting a street-by-street battle in the ruins of the city, the Russians prepared a colossal counteroffensive against the weak Nazi flanks. In November, they launched this offensive and cut off the Sixth Army.

Even then, Hitler could have retreated. The Germans had enough strength to break through the initial encirclement. But Hitler forbade any attempt at retreat, and condemned the quarter of a million soldiers in the Sixth Army to destruction.

It’s impossible to put the blame for the destruction of the Sixth Army on anyone but Hitler. And it’s equally impossible to understand just why he did it, unless he had a death wish. But if we are to talk about death wishes, we should consider the next battle, probably the most decisive of all the battles of the Second World War...

3.     Kursk: By July 1943, the war on the Eastern Front was in stalemate. The Germans had won a military victory on the Donets River, bringing the Soviet advance to a halt. The two sides faced each other along a front that strongly resembled the trench systems of the First World War, and might have remained thus faced off for the rest of the year. But some of Hitler’s generals proposed an assault from north and south on a bulge of the Soviet front line around the cities of Orel and Kursk, to be known as Operation Citadel (Fall Zitadelle).

Let me stress that Zitadelle wasn’t exactly a military masterstroke. It was, in fact, so obvious a move that the Soviets were already digging in for a German offensive before the Germans had decided on the offensive. So massively had they fortified themselves that there was no way the Germans had a hope of success, though they were about to throw in their new Tiger tanks and the Elefant tank destroyer.

Now, one must understand that the Soviet preparations weren’t unknown to the Germans. So well-known were the Soviet preparations to the Germans that they delayed the offensive in order to further reinforce their panzer armies. Even Hitler frankly admitted that the very idea of attacking in the “East” in 1943 “turned his stomach” (vide Clark, Barbarossa; Clark gives an excellent and detailed account of the German indecision over Zitadelle) – yet he went ahead with the operation anyway, even though just about everyone knew in advance it was pretty much doomed.

So, by the time Hitler bowed to the inevitable and called off the offensive, the Germans, after the greatest tank battle in history, had lost half their armour, and had utterly failed to even cut off the Kursk salient, let alone breach the Soviet front. If Stalingrad meant that the Soviets couldn’t lose the war, Kursk, which shattered the panzer armies beyond recovery, meant that the Russians would inevitably win it.

Yet, the offensive was the single most unnecessary attack ever launched by Germany on the Eastern Front, and possibly in the war. Hitler, who was in full command of the German Army, and who was used to ordering his generals around (as at Stalingrad), and had no desire to launch this attack, went ahead and let it happen anyway, despite knowing it must be defeated. How does one explain this?

4.     The refusal to talk peace. By 1942, with the defeat at Stalingrad, it was obvious to the Germans that victory against the USSR was no longer possible; it was a question of staving off defeat. Hitler’s generals were already urging a separate peace with the Russians, allowing the war to be focussed on the British and Americans. Stalin was always far and away the most pragmatic of all the major leaders of the war, on either side. It is highly likely that at that stage of the war, when victory was still far from assured, he would have jumped at the chance for this separate peace, with the withdrawal of German troops and some kind of compensation from Berlin, probably in territorial terms. But Hitler refused even to try.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the war:

The Alliance with Mussolini: I’ll intrude a personal note here – I could never understand just what Hitler wanted to ally with il Duce for. The Italian armed forces of the period were a joke, with biplane fighters, tanks that could not withstand machine gun fire, and soldiers so demoralised they surrendered in thousands the first chance they got. The Italians had, in the mid-thirties, taken many months even to defeat Ethiopia, whose army of the time still carried spears. Mussolini was a vainglorious blowhard who dreamt of recreating the Empire of the Caesars, but had neither the ability nor the resources to do so. He brought absolutely nothing to the table. By allying with him, Hitler merely made Italy’s problems his own. That is not normally considered intelligent strategy.

The War on America: Another of Hitler’s spectacular blunders was declaring war on the United States. Now it is certainly true that by mid-1941 the US was effectively already at war with Germany. American destroyers were escorting British convoys, the US was handing over warships to Britain on lease in return for bases in British colonies, and Franklin Roosevelt was obviously itching for a way to enter the war formally. Yet, when the opportunity came, it was against Japan, not Germany. Hitler could have sat out the US-Japan war; however much Roosevelt wanted a war with the Nazis, he couldn’t have jumped into that war of his own volition while already engaged in a full-scale war against Japan. Hitler gave him what he wanted by declaring war, while already at war with Britain and just having been fought to a standstill before Moscow...almost as though he was intent on antagonising as many countries as possible, and sealing his own fate.

North Africa: Despite all the talk of how the tide of war was turned at El Alamein, North Africa was essentially a complete sideshow, of little or no importance in the scheme of things. Yet, Hitler could have turned it into a victory. When Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was desperately asking for reinforcements, he didn’t send them, and an underarmed, undersupplied Rommel lost a head-to-head butting contest with a far stronger British force at El Alamein. With more armour, artillery, and soldiers he might have taken Egypt, pushed into West Asia, cut off British oil supplies, and threatened Iran. Instead, within six months of El Alamein, the last German forces in North Africa had surrendered.

It’s actually worse than it sounds. Hitler, who had refused Rommel reinforcements when he needed them, sent them in droves when the German-Italian Army (of which the famed Afrika Korps was the most important part) was fighting desperately for survival, against the British in the East and the French and Americans in the west. In the end, Germany actually lost more soldiers in North Africa than it did at Stalingrad – and this was a sideshow of the war, with little or no effect on the eventual outcome.

The Final Battles:

In the final throes of Nazi Germany’s war, there were two major plans which played significant roles in hastening Germany’s defeat. The first was the Ardennes Offensive, the December 1944 attempt to break through the Allied lines in the west and regain the initiative, perhaps recapturing the Netherlands, Belgium and part of Northern France. You’ll notice that even at the most optimistic, this offensive did not envisage winning the war or even driving the Western Allies back over the Channel. In the event, though there were initial advances, the final result was a mauling that cost the Germans much more than they did the Allies, and won precisely nothing.

A few months later, when Berlin was threatened by the Red Army, there was another, major counteroffensive planned – the so-called Steiner attack. It was meant to be launched by SS General Felix Steiner, and was Hitler’s last throw of the dice. But the Steiner attack never occurred, for the simple reason that there were no forces to carry out the offensive – something that was perfectly well known to the German High Command. Yet, not only did they carry on with the charade of this nonexistent counteroffensive, they withdrew forces from other parts of the front around Berlin to support the attack, therefore weakening their own defences, at the direct insistence of Hitler. It’s like throwing down your dagger during a knife fight in order to reach for your gun, while knowing that you don’t have a gun. Not sound strategy for survival.

It’s telling that (Antony Beevor, Berlin, The Downfall 1945) Hitler’s generals had begun to feel he was subconsciously trying to lose the war.

The War At Home:

There isn’t really space in this article to catalogue all of Hitler’s blunders on the Home Front, if one can call them blunders, that is. Some of them are relatively trivial, and some of such importance that they can’t be discussed in detail within the framework of an article of this type. But we can mention these:

1.     The Holocaust and the Final Solution: This is the Big One, and the most often misunderstood. The Holocaust, as used as a term for the systematic and organised attempt to exterminate the Jewish (and, let’s not forget, Romany) people of Europe, and also Communists, Social Democrats, and anyone else who was a dissident, didn’t start with the concentration camps and the ghettoes. To be sure, the Jews in the concentration camps were maltreated and killed casually, but such killing was less intentional (on an organisational basis) than incidental, until the decision was taken in January 1942 for an Endlösung (“Final Solution”) to the “Jewish problem”. It was only after January 1942, or in other words after the Reich had quite signally failed to beat the British or the Russians, and in addition had just acquired a powerful new enemy in the US, that Hitler (by way of Himmler, Heydrich and the SS) began a campaign of systematic extermination. It was only then that vast resources of manpower were put into manning the concentration and extermination camps, and research that might have been better used in trying to find ways of winning the war were squandered on such things as efficient gas chamber design or trying to make soap from human fat.

2.     The war industry: One of Hitler’s pet theses was the “purity” of the German woman, whose place was in the house to breed Aryan warriors for the Reich. Unlike all the other major combatant nations, German women weren’t put into the factories to speed up the war effort. Instead, Hitler even disbanded forty divisions of troops in 1941 to provide manpower for industry, while using slave labour from occupied nations to make up the shortfall. He was even reluctant to halt the production of civilian luxuries. If, as Stalin said, modern wars are won and lost on the factory floors, Germany didn’t even begin to have a chance.

3.     The Miracle Weapons: One of the strangest and most baffling features of the German war effort of 1944-45 are the “miracle weapons” – not that they were produced, but that they were so appallingly misused. One classic instance was the Type XXI and XXIII U-Boats, submarines so far ahead of anything the rest of the world had that over ten years later scuttled Type XXIIIs were recovered and put back into service by the new West German Navy. These subs were fast, silent, and virtually immune to being hunted down, but they were practically unused. Only one Type XXI ever went on a patrol, right at the end of the war, and it returned to base after cessation of hostilities without carrying out a single attack. The fate of the Type XXIII was only slightly better, though one did sink the last Allied ships in the European War.

Then there was the Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter, an aircraft that could fly rings round anything the Allies had. This wonderful plane, a potential war-winner, was virtually crippled by Hitler’s demand that it be developed only as a bomber. By the time its spectacular unsuitability to the bombing role was manifest, and it was finally used as a fighter interceptor, it was far too late for it to turn back the Allied bomber streams over Germany.

There was the Nazi atom bomb, crippled by the "Aryan" Deutsche Physik's deriding of nuclear physics as “Jewish science”, and plenty of other similar stories. It seemed that anytime the German designers created a potentially war-winning weapon, Hitler would go out of his way to sabotage it, just as he went out of his way to sabotage his own strategies.

One can, therefore, make a reasonable case for the belief that Hitler was less than fully committed to winning the war. One might go as far as to say he was subconsciously determined to lose. The question then arises, why might this be so?

In order to find an answer to that question, we would have to look at the very nature of the Nazi regime.

It’s tempting to think of the Thousand Year Reich as a totalitarian regime, but actually it wasn’t. As Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out in The Last Days Of Hitler, the only way to see the Nazi regime is as a medieval court. Just as in a court, power was distributed between competing factions, each of whom was primarily concerned with currying favour with the man at the top more than anything else, including the prosecution of the war. And since that man at the top was concerned with not allowing any of his subordinates to become so powerful as to threaten his own position, he made sure they competed against each other constantly. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, for instance, said during his trial at Nuremberg (Nürnberg) that the Foreign Ministry was supplied intelligence by thirty competing agencies.

This made, of course, both for extraordinarily inefficient and unwieldy administration (but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, administration was never a priority for the Nazis) and a severely hampered war effort. A classic case is the tale of the German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, which never got completed, mainly because Hermann Göring refused to allow the German navy (Kriegsmarine) to have its own aeroplanes.

Even at the end of his life, Hitler had no desire to dispense with the court he had created. In his last will and testament, he appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as President of the Reich – but Josef Goebbels as Chancellor and Martin Bormann as head of the Nazi Party. This way, even in death, he planned to maintain the system of divide and rule which had served him so well and Germany so badly.

This system of a medieval court was closely allied to the defining factor of Nazism, its close identification with mythology. It’s impossible to understand Nazism without taking into account its association with what Trevor-Roper calls “bestial Nordic nonsense.” That this mythology of a pure Aryan race, superior to all others in the world, sits strangely with Hitler’s alliance with the very Latin Mussolini is not significant as far as the Reich itself goes; the target of the “bestial Nordic nonsense” was not the Gallic French or the Latin Italians, but the Slavic peoples of the East, most especially the Russians, whom the Nazis didn’t even consider human. They were Untermenschen, “subhumans”, creatures of a lower evolutionary order entirely.

One of the many interesting things about Nordic mythology is Ragnarök, what Richard Wagner called Götterdämmerung, the Twilight of the Gods, when Valhalla burns and the reign of the gods ends. This concept, of burning everything down, is allied to the Viking funeral tradition of cremating a deceased chieftain with his longship. Since the Nazis considered themselves Nordic successors of the Vikings (the SS even had a Wiking division comprising Scandinavian volunteers), Hitler’s desire to burn the Reich around him to mark his exit from the scene is easily understandable. His megalomania was such that he thought himself the equivalent of the gods, and could not bear the idea that the Nordic tribe – the Volk – of the German people could survive him. He wanted to go out with the most terrific bang possible, not with a whimper.

That there would have been a whimper of an exit if Hitler had not entered into a war, or if Hitler had won the war, is without a doubt. Another thing which one must keep in mind about Nazism is its inherent militarism. The Nazis worshipped the uniform, to an extent where the various parts of the military machine – the Heer, or Army, the Luftwaffe, the Kriegsmarine and the SS – became the foremost arm of the state, the apex of the military-industrial complex. That military-industrial complex was also very powerful. Armament manufacturers like Willi Messerschmitt and Baron Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach benefited mightily from their association with the Nazis, with slave labour being provided to their factories and a guaranteed market for their products in the armed forces.

Dovetailing with the existence of the military-industrial complex was also the need for an enemy. Nazism is like all extreme political philosophies in that it is not introspective. The blame for all failure, all problems must lie elsewhere, not in the Party and most especially not in the Führer. The enemy within might be the Jews, a group both historically despised and having committed the unpardonable crime of being economically successful; and the Communists, bitter ideological enemies, and their brethren the trade unionists and other sundry left-wing scum. But once the internal enemy was conquered, and being unarmed and easily targetable, the Jews and left wingers were easily conquered, who was left to blame? Someone must be responsible for the failures of administrative policies, after all.

If we have learned anything from much more recent history, it’s also that a military-industrial complex requires war. In fact, the only circumstances under which a military-industrial complex is viable is one of unending war. If there are no enemies, enemies have to be invented, and if there is no war, a war has to be started, if need be under completely fabricated pretexts. When the military-industrial complex cohabits with heroic mythology and a belief in racial supremacy, aggressive war becomes inevitable.

It would not be wrong, therefore, to claim that the entire existence of the Third Reich prior to September 1939 was geared towards preparing for war.

Therefore, we have a state ruled by an extraordinarily inefficient competing cabal of courtiers, which in turn is highly militaristic, has an ideology based on mythology, and has a flourishing military-industrial complex. Such a state, obviously, is not one where daily administration is a priority. Hitler hardly involved himself with administration. But the absence of administration did not bring about the lack of need for administration, and repression by such means as the Gestapo is not a substitute for administration.

As I've said elsewhere, unlike any other ideology one cares to name, from laissez-faire capitalism to Maoism, Nazism is the only system which has absolutely nothing positive to offer. Whether you agree with Adam Smith or Karl Marx, and whether their followers stayed true to their beliefs or not, both were concerned with the ultimate betterment of the human condition. Nazism, however, had nothing but itself to offer. It had the worship of Hitler as a semi-divine figure speaking directly to God (as one of his staff said, “the Führer has a telephone line direct to God” – does this perhaps sound familiar?). It had the myth of the Aryan Superman. And it had...well, that’s actually pretty much it. There was nothing else.

Therefore, imagine a scenario where there was no war or Hitler won the war. How long before, in the absence of enemies internal or external, the contradictions in the body of the Nazi state would have recoiled on it? How long before the endemic squabbling of the courtiers for power brought the edifice of the government down in ruins? How long before, instead of worshipping the Great Leader, people began cursing him? Hitler salutes and swastika badges can’t feed, clothe and house people or take care of their other needs.

This is also another factor one should understand – the Nazi state was Hitler. He was himself acutely conscious of it, as he should have been, because it was a situation he had deliberately contrived. He was the state; he was Deutschland, the German nation (although, ironically, he was actually an Austrian). The German soldier, at induction, swore a holy oath to Hitler, not to Germany. When the German armed forces were defeated in combat, they had failed him. When Germany was in ruins, it was because the German people were unworthy of his genius, and had accordingly lost the right to exist. (These are actual Hitler quotes; I am not making them up.)

So, how could Hitler risk peace, where his position as God Almighty’s Representative on Earth and Ordained Ruler of the German People might be threatened? He couldn’t; not even the peace of victory, because there is no “happily ever after” outside fairy stories. Once there was no enemy to blame, the military state would become an economic millstone round the nation’s neck, the administration’s incompetence would be manifest, and there would be only one person to blame, the demigod at the top.

Hitler could not risk that happening, and this is why he chose to lose. It explains everything about him, right up to and including his decision to die in a Viking funeral in Berlin, destroying the city along with himself. He could not escape elsewhere and carry on the fight. He could not even allow a strong successor who might intrude on his own glory. He had to lose. There was no other way.

Obviously, this is not to say that Hitler chose defeat consciously. As far as conscious decision making went, he was probably as intent on victory as any of the soldiers, sailors or airmen who fought for him so magnificently. But we have known at least since Sigmund Freud that the conscious mind is a slave to the subconscious, and that’s where the seat of our motivations lies. That Freud was a Jew, and that Hitler had only contempt for “Jewish science”, makes no difference at all.

It’s just a bit of delicious irony.  

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Specimen of the Day 7/2/2012

Four days ago I had a specimen who arrived with an impacted wisdom tooth, with gum swelling and pain (pericoronitis). I'd prescribed an antibiotic and painkiller for three days, one tablet of each together three times daily, and asked him to come along when the medicines were finished.

Just now he turned up, complaining that he still had pain. I took the X Ray, checked him and couldn't figure out why he should still have pain. I was thinking in terms of antibiotic resistance and chalking out a different treatment plan. Then he said that I shouldn't give him any medicines because he hadn't finished those I gave him the last time. Reason: he didn't feel like taking so many tablets.

Against stupidity of this level even the gods of dentistry endeavour in vain.

Monday 6 February 2012

The Way That Things Are


The war had lasted ten thousand years, but it was at last approaching its end.

Once the Empire had occupied half the galaxy, and its influence had spanned star systems far beyond that. But that had been a long, long time ago, before the tide of war had turned, and kept turning.

Now, the last remnants of the Galactic Empire huddled in the ruins of Imperium. In the few square kilometres that were left of the Empire, men and women, royals and soldiers, civilians and artificial intelligences, waited in their various ways for the end.

It would not be long in coming.

Nobody acknowledged, even now, that the war was almost lost. That was treason – not just treason to the Empire, but treason to all they had believed in; it was treason to the human race.

The enemy had come out of the dust clouds near the galactic core ten thousand years ago, and step by step had driven the Empire back across the wastes of space. The enemy was as deadly and implacable as they were faceless – for nobody in all these thousands of years had seen them and escaped to tell the tale.

And now, it seemed, nobody would.

The city trembled in its death throes, as the enemy poured down devastation on it, and smashed aside the puny attempts at retaliation.

In a shell far below the surface, the warcaptain Sorah sat back from her console and rubbed her weary eyes. The air in the shell was rank, but Sorah scarcely noticed it. Her mind was still on the combat going on far overhead, where the last of the Empire’s drones were, increasingly fitfully, fighting off the enemy’s battle-swarms.

In happier times, Sorah might have been considered a beautiful woman. In the last years of the dying Empire, while she had been growing up, the fashion had been for a decadent chic which had placed a premium on physical attractiveness above all other traits. If she had chosen, Sorah could have used her looks as a passage to high office. But she had not so chosen.

Her decision to become a warrior had been a delicious scandal among the great halls of Imperium. After all, she was of noble blood. Minor nobility, to be sure, of the lowest rank of baronetcies, but that made it all the more scandalous. The Royals served because it was a symbol. The helots and freedpeople served because they had no choice. But the nobility did not serve, unless they could take credit for participating in a glorious victory, when there was credit enough to go round.

But the time for glorious victories was long past. It had been past since millennia before Sorah had been born.

Her family hadn’t understood either. As part of the nobility, of course, she’d been allowed to grow up with her bloodfather and bloodmother, instead of a communal crèche like a helot. That had been supposed to be a privilege. Instead, she’d often thought of it as a millstone around her soul.

“Why do you want to have anything to do with the war?” her bloodmother had asked tearfully. “With your looks, and the education we bought you, you could be a sector administrator. You might even be raised in the nobility, all the way to Countess.”

Sorah had shaken her head with exasperation. “Mother, the way the war’s are going, there aren’t going to be any sectors to administer, nor any nobility left. Don’t you understand that, or don’t you want to?”

Her bloodmother had gone white and looked quickly around, as though the royal spies were listening. As nobility, they should have had immunity from surveillance not specifically approved by a Lord, but in these latter days one could never be sure. “Don’t say things like that,” she’d muttered. “You shouldn’t ever say things like that.”

Sorah had snorted. “As it is, I’m joining in the war effort, so there’s no way to accuse any of us of being disloyal. There are plenty who can join the administration if they want to.” She’d softened a little and touched her bloodmother’s shoulder. “Mother, the enemy’s still a system away. It’s going to take decades for them to get here, and I haven’t been selected for the space battlefleet, so I’ll spend my entire career here in Imperium without handling a weapon in anger. You can be sure of that.”

But it had not taken decades. The enemy’s final offensive had come with breathtaking suddenness, had wiped out almost all the Imperial battlefleet in one engagement, scattered the rest, and brushed aside the puny defences of the inner planets. Now their battle-swarms crawled over the surface of Imperium, and the nearest were only a few kilometres away.

Sorah rubbed her eyes and hunched forward over the console again. She no longer remembered when she’d last eaten or drunk; it did not matter. Once her battlesuit would have reminded her, but she had turned off those functions long ago, the better to concentrate on the fighting with.

Not that there was much more fighting to be done.

On the screen, she watched the feed from one of her remaining drones, climbing over an expanse of broken rock which had once been one of Imperium’s great highways. The signals from the drone were growing increasingly weak and interrupted, and she had no idea if she could still control it. She tried channel after channel, until she got one which was still in relatively good condition. With a nod of satisfaction, she began to process the feed.

Her satisfaction disappeared in an instant. “Oh...blast.”

No matter how many times she’d seen an enemy battle-swarm, she’d never got used to it. This was a small swarm; there were only three of them, but against one half-controlled drone three were more than enough. They whirled low in the sky, spokes of brilliant yellow light whirling behind grey discs of aerosol cloud shields, and she could imagine the enemy inside sighting on her drone, getting ready to burn it out with their energy torpedoes. If she’d had even one platoon of drones handy, they’d never have dared to get so close, but she didn’t have a platoon of drones anymore. Nobody did.

With a brief flash of light, the feed from the drone went dead.

Fighting down a rising tide of panic, Sorah checked her remaining forces. There were none. Not a single one of her drones survived.

Her fingers flickering over the screen, she tried to communicate with the other shells. There were many, on all sides of her, above and below, and when the battle for Imperium had started they’d been co-ordinating their drones. But as the fighting had gone on and the drones had been destroyed one by one, the co-ordination had broken down. She didn’t even remember when she’d last talked to one of the other shells.

Increasingly frantic, she sent out a general message, first in code, and then in clear, asking for updates. There was no reply.

Either all communication channels had been cut off, or everyone else was neutralised. Whichever it was, there was nothing more for her to do here.

For the first time in longer than she cared to remember, Sorah uncoupled her battlesuit from the console and stood up. The low ceiling of the shell was a white curve just above her head, its pristine smoothness mocking the ruins of the great city on the surface. She had no idea how things were in the city, but she had no choice now but to find out. Stepping into the emergency pod, she leaned back against the wall and let her battlesuit’s computer control the ascent to the surface.

Despite her decision to volunteer for the fighting forces, the warcaptain Sorah had had a largely sheltered life. All she had ever known was the colonnades and halls of Imperium, its great avenues and soaring bridges bearing the Royal sigil, and the blue sky above. As the pod breached the surface and split to allow her egress, she gasped with sudden shock.

The sky was blue no longer, but the colour of deep space, the atmosphere burned away. Far over her, the sun of Imperium shone, a glimmering disc of white light, glittering on specks and scratches on the visor of her battlemask. And around her, of the greatest architecture of the known galaxy, on which so much blood and treasure had been expended, there remained –

Nothing. A sea of ruins. Shattered buildings toppled over wrecked highways. What was left of a bridge reared skyward, ending in a tangle of masonry and metal.

There was not a single living creature to be seen.

Her mind numbed with shock, Sorah wandered through the ruins of all she had ever known. In the distance, she could see the Great Dome of the Imperial Palace. When she had seen it last, it had been a thing of beauty, golden and ivory in the sunshine,

Now, it was a burned out, skeletal shell.

Far overhead, there was a twitch of movement. Sorah froze, watching the sky. Her battlesuit’s sensors picked up the image, amplified it and projected it on her visor. It was a flotilla of the enemy’s ships, their shape unmistakable. They floated overhead, unmolested, not even bothering to take the precaution of shielding themselves from basic sensors such as hers.

It must really all be over then, she thought. The end of the battle for Imperium, the end of the ten thousand year war, the end of the Empire which had endured a lot longer than that; and the end of everything she had ever known.

What was there to do now, for her?

She thought of going to see if she could find her bloodmother and bloodfather, but dismissed the thought. They had been only minor nobility, without any right to protection from raids, and without an atmosphere they would have died long ago.

As she would die, too, if she stayed where she was.

For a long moment she debated whether to depower her battlesuit and let herself suffocate to death. What were her other options? Capture by the enemy? She did not even know what to make of that. What would life be like as a prisoner of an enemy of whom nobody knew even what they looked like, breathed or ate?

Suddenly exhausted, she slumped down on a chunk of rock and buried her head in her arms. Grief washed over her – grief for all that she might have known, and done; grief for the Empire, all the way from the Emperor down to the least helot. They were all gone, gone forever, and she was the only one left. She was too exhausted even to cry. She just sat there, her battlemask clutched in her gauntleted hands.

Time passed, while she fought down her grief.

She became aware that things had changed around her even before she opened her eyes. The change was too subtle to name in words, as though the taste of the air her battlesuit was feeding her had changed. Slowly, she sat up, and her hands fell away from her face.

Someone was standing there, looking at her.

For a moment of wild excitement, Sorah thought it was another survivor, maybe a battlesergeant or even another warcaptain. Then she realised that the battlesuit the other was wearing was none like she had ever seen before, a leathery brown covered with bumps and knobs, the helmet projecting forward like a hooked beak.

She was on her feet, frantically cycling through her defences, before she realised that the suit was dead. None of her personal weapons worked, and when she tried to call up her sensors, her mask’s visor stayed stubbornly transparent. Her suit was still giving her air, but that was all.

“I can stop the air, too, if I want,” a voice said in her earphones, so suddenly that she jumped. “I can shut everything down.”

It was a soft voice, with a curiously familiar quality. Sorah was almost sure she’d heard it before, somewhere. If she’d had control over her battlesuit, she’d have used its computer to run comparison tests, but as things stood –

“Are you coming along?” The figure in the brown battlesuit was waving at her, and she realised she’d missed something it had said. “Or should I begin making your suit walk you? I can, you know.”    

“I’m coming.” Her voice was muffled within the mask, a murmur in her ears, but the person in the brown suit apparently had no problem understanding her. She took a wary step forward, and then another. “Where are we going?”

“Follow me.” The brown-suited figure led her between two charred buildings and to what had once been a small garden. The plants that had grown here were withered brown husks now, their air and water burned away, and in between their crushed remnants she saw something that looked not unlike the shell in which she had spent so long. A door opened in its side, and as she followed the other person inside, it slid shut behind them.

It looked so much like the shell that for a moment she thought it was the shell itself – but that was nonsense, because the shell was buried far underground. She didn’t have an opportunity to look around, though, because the other person was talking to her again.

“Take off your battlesuit. We need to talk.”

For a moment she thought of protesting, but there was no point to it. Without control, her battlesuit was useless, and she squirmed in the narrow space as she fumbled for the control fastenings. When she had finally stripped it off, she gathered it in her hands and turned. “Where do I put...” she broke off abruptly.

“It doesn’t matter.” The brown battlesuit had vanished, and the other person – the other woman – turned to look at her out of a face so familiar that for a moment she thought she was hallucinating. “It doesn’t matter where you put it.”

Sorah now knew why the voice was so familiar. She’d heard it every time she’d heard herself on a recording. “Who are you?” she whispered.

“Don’t you know?” There was the faintest mocking note in the voice. “Let’s sit down. There’s not really enough space for the two of us.”

They sat in front of the console. Sorah’s mind was so numbed by the fact that her own image was sitting opposite her that she looked away, at the screen. It was blank, but there was a small crack in the grey-white material of the wall in which it was set – a crack she knew well from having looked at it for all her time during the final battle.

There was no way but to accept it – she was sitting opposite herself in the shell which she had left far underground.

Of course, she reasoned, this could not be. But nothing that had happened in recent weeks could be.

The other woman was leaning forward, gravely watching her. There was something very subtly different about her, and it took Sorah a moment to realise what it was. She was used to seeing herself in a mirror image, but here she was confronting the real thing.

That thought finally drove her to words. “Are you real?”

“In a manner of speaking.” The woman’s eyes were full of an unreadable emotion. Sympathy? Could it be sympathy?

“And this?” Sorah waved at the console, the smooth white walls she’d never thought she’d see again. “Is any of this real?”

“Do you want it to be?”

“What the hell does that mean? Talk sense. Who are you? Are you one of the enemy?”

“Before we come to that,” the woman said calmly, “tell me something. Who are the enemy of whom you speak?”

“The enemy? Why...” Sorah gestured helplessly. “The...creatures...we’ve been fighting ten thousand years!”

“You say,” the woman continued imperturbably, “that we have been fighting these creatures. Who are the we to whom you refer?”

“We...” Sorah felt a creeping sense of unreality. “The Imperial forces. The Empire.”

“And you are a part of the Empire, of course, so that’s why you’ve been fighting?”

“Not exactly. I volunteered, and if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be alive now.” She paused. “But you know that already.”

“Do I? Then you can tell me this at least – why did you volunteer to fight for the Empire? Was it an Empire worth fighting for?”

There was a long pause. “Perhaps not,” Sorah admitted at last. “I don’t pretend I don’t know or care about the way the Empire came to rule over the galaxy, the systems and races it destroyed, the freedoms it snuffed out. But by the time I came along, that was long over. And I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I? It was go down fighting or go down. Period.”

“Exactly.” For the first time the woman smiled. “You chose to fight because you felt you could put some order in your existence. You chose to fight because you still had a choice.”

“Yes...” Sorah hesitated. There seemed to be something left unsaid. “How does that relate to who you are?”

“You could ask yourself this,” the woman said. “Why do you choose to see me as you see me?”

“You don’t look like this?” Fear suddenly shot through Sorah. “What do you actually look like? What are you?”

“I look like whatever you choose to see me as, Sorah.” There was a faint flicker, and the woman vanished. In her place was a blue pyramid. “You could choose to see me as this, for instance,” said the pyramid. “Or as this.” It vanished, and a scaly creature with long teeth glared at Sorah with black-striped yellow eyes.”Or even this,” and the woman was back again, still smiling. “It’s all in what you choose.”

Sorah swallowed. “I’m not really here,” she said. “Am I?”

The woman shook her head slightly. “Not in the way you mean it, no.”

“And all this?” Sorah waved her hand. “This shell...and outside, Imperium. What about Imperium?”

The woman reached out and touched a spot on the console. The walls of the shell melted away, became invisible. “See for yourself.”

All around, under the actinic glare of an unshielded sun, lay baked black rock stretching from beneath Sorah’s feet to the distant horizon. There was not the least fragment of masonry, not the smallest piece of broken metal, no indication that a mighty city had once stood there and been destroyed.

Sorah felt her lips moving, though she could not hear herself speak. “And who...who am I?”

The baked rock vanished and the woman and the shell were there again. “You’re warcaptain Sorah as long as you choose to be,” said the woman. “When you no longer choose to be, you can be anything you want. That’s the way things are.”

 “Let me get this straight,” Sorah whispered. “What am I, an experiment? An exercise in free will?”

Now the woman laughed. “Hardly an experiment,” she said. “In your own present version of reality, you choose to be a warcaptain named Sorah, sole survivor of a defeated Empire. An Empire, you know, which this Sorah hated so much that she wanted to outlive – and would go to any length to outlive, including engineering its destruction. Of course,” she added, “Sorah could be anything or anyone else, if she wanted to be.”

She reached out to another spot on the console, seemingly at random, and looked at Sorah significantly. “You could be this...”

It was a green world, with trees reaching up to the sky, and water falling in the distance. Sorah stood up to her ankles in leaf litter, her spear in one hand, her bag of food in another. She turned her head quickly, nervously, because she was sure she was being watched. The village she had left was already two days’ distance away, and she’d thought she was safe. They’d killed all her family, accusing them of being witches, but she’d got away somehow. Apparently, though, they hadn’t been willing to her go. Either that, or someone else was following her, and that would be even worse. The villagers would only kill her. What an outsider might do...

“Or,” she heard a voice saying somewhere deep inside her, “you could be this.” The green forest faded away...

It was a world that had never known sunlight, so deep beneath the surface of the ocean that not even the faintest ray ever reached these depths. But the denizens of these realms had their own senses, electrical, magnetic, and others, which told them about their world. Sorah moved her fins, slowly heaving her bulk through the water, hungry as she always was, seeking prey, as she always had, always would. Something moved in the edge of her consciousness, and she swooped, snapping. Momentarily satiated, she was swam on, through a current of slightly warmer water. By the time she had reached the other side, she was famished again.

“Or,” a voice trembled down to her through the water, “you could choose to be this.”

The great sun hung in the void, so dim and red that it was difficult to see. Sorah did not need eyes to see it, though; she licked at it with infrared cameras, poked at its depths with hard X rays, dismantled its composition with spectroscopes. She had never known anything else, never would. Companionship meant nothing to her. She was happy where she was, in long-term orbit round the dim red giant at the end of the Universe.

And it happened again – and again...

More worlds followed, flickering faster and faster, until she could no longer grasp one before it was whirled away, to be replaced by another. Her mind began to black out, and she fell into darkness...

She came to gasping, sitting opposite the woman, who was still looking at her. “Now do you understand – a little?”

“I’m beginning to,” Sorah said. “But that still doesn’t explain who – what – I am.”

“Does it matter?” The woman sat back and stared at Sorah. “Think of something like a formless computer programme, a mix of fluxes of energies, a creature born of the random interplay of quarks and cosmic radiation, a creature of endless powers but no sense organs of itsown, no way to express itself. What could such a creature, without any senses or sense organs, know of itself? However vast its intelligence, how could it begin to grasp the universe around it?”

Sorah was silent. The woman looked at her and smiled again, a sad smile.

“You might ask, wouldn’t the creature want to know? Of course it would. But how could it know, except by analogies? How might it understand, except by borrowing the thoughts of those it could detect, and seeing the Universe through their eyes?

“And if such a creature existed, and was powerful enough,” the woman mused, “it might also feel that it needed to explore possibilities, to see all that might happen to those whose eyes it saw through, whose brains it thought with, whose lives it lived. You know, to be aware of all that might happen. But then again, this creature might have enough of a sense of ethics...not to want to actually disrupt the lives of those it had seen through. It could create different possibilities, a thousand, a million, but it would not want to actually put something else through the effects and repercussions of it. It did not want them to live their lives simulating different possible futures, exercising different choices, only to serve its purposes, you understand. What could the creature do?

“Perhaps,” she said softly, “you can answer the question yourself now?”

Sorah still said nothing. She might have been turned to stone.

“Such a creature might be thought cruel to its creations,” the woman said, “but if those creations are a part of itself, and if it gave that part a chance at self-awareness, well...” She reached into her discarded battlesuit and brought out a small box which she set down on the console. It was a black box with a raised white button in the centre.

“If such a part of itself wanted to know,” she said, “if the part really wanted to know, all it would have to do would be to press this button.”

Sorah looked at the box. They both looked at the box. It sat on the console, small and black, with the white button in the centre.

“It’s your choice,” said the woman. “Your choice, entirely. It’s the way that things are.”

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012