Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Tyrant

Beelay had always known he was special, even when he was a very young boy.

After all, as far as he knew, no other child in the Thirty Cities had ever been raised as he had, by the Temple. No other child, no matter how high-born, had been given the advantages he had been, not even the Princes of the Blood. The Temple did help educate them, but they weren’t raised by it as one of its own.

Beelay didn’t even know who his parents were, had never heard anything of them, and as long as he’d known, Sister Smita had fulfilled the role of his mother. She was a tall, spare woman with a hooked nose and heavy eyebrows, who seemed to be severe and forbidding until she smiled, and then her face lit up like the sun.

 Beelay adored Sister Smita. He didn’t adore Brother Khazan, thick-bodied and jowly, who was in charge of his education. Brother Khazan was humourless and intolerant of any kind of distraction, but he did know a tremendous amount, so that Beelay grew to imagine that he was the most knowledgeable person in all the Cities, if not all the worlds.

As Beelay grew older, and got to know more of the world, he came to hear about things which puzzled him, things he hadn’t been taught about. One day he came back to Sister Smita, frowning perplexedly.

“Who was the Tyrant?” he asked.

Sister Smita stared at him. “Why, who told you about the Tyrant?”

Beelay shrugged. “I heard the Princes talking. They were arguing about which of them hated the Tyrant the most.”

“Oh. Well.” Sister Smita put down the book she was reading. “The Tyrant – you’ll get to know about him in time. He was a very, very bad man, who did a lot of evil things. That’s all you need to know for now.”

But, of course, that didn’t satisfy Beelay. So when Brother Khazan came along at lesson time, he repeated the question.

Brother Khazan frowned severely. “The Tyrant,” he said, “was the worst curse the Thirty Cities have ever had to suffer. He was the worst curse all the worlds ever had to suffer.”

“Curse?” Beelay asked, confused.

“I suppose you’ll have to know sooner or later, so you might as well know now.” Brother Khazan sat down and stared at Beelay. “You know about the war, don’t you?”

“Just that there was one, a long time ago,” Beelay said. “And the Thirty Cities lost it.”

“Yes, we aren’t much inclined to talk about it,” Brother Khazan said. “Actually, it wasn’t that long a time ago, less than twenty years. And we didn’t so much lose it as we were practically annihilated by it. In fact, at the end of the war, there was only Capital City left, and it was a sea of ruins, too.” He paused, looking past Beelay at the window. “And the Tyrant was all to blame for it.”

“Who was the Tyrant?” Beelay asked.

“I’m getting to that. About forty years ago, there was a great drought. There was famine in the Thirty Cities. The common people were worst hit, of course. There was no work, thousands were starving, and what little food there was...” Brother Khazan looked quickly over his shoulders, as though there might be somebody listening. “”What food and water there was, the nobility and the royalty kept for themselves. The Temple too – at that time it was run by evil, greedy men. Instead of helping the people, it hoarded food to sell when the prices rose further. It was a bad time.

“It was at that time that the Tyrant began walking among the people. At the time he was just another junior officer from the Navy, like a thousand others, but instead of remaining in the barracks and being grateful for his regular meals and employment, he went out among the seething slums. And he began to talk.

“It must have been convincing, what he said, but of course the people were in a mood to listen. In any case, what was, till then, a fragmented and leaderless mob rallied behind him, and quickly became a formidable army. Armed with farm implements and obsolete weapons it might have been, but it was huge, and it was everywhere.

“At first the royals, the nobility and even the Temple all ignored them. The poor had always been downtrodden and had accepted their fate – why should it be different now? They sipped their fragrant wine, and they held their costumed parties, and they laughed. But they did not laugh long, because the Tyrant ordered a march on the palaces.

“They came from all over. From the slums, from the farms, even from the barracks, because the soldiers had relatives who were suffering, too, and because the Tyrant was one of them. They came, and the King and the nobles ordered the army and navy to crush them. But they refused.

“So the King worked out a deal. He didn’t have a choice in the matter, really – it was either that or be overthrown. He agreed to install the Tyrant as his premier, and hand over all but formal power to him. In effect, the Tyrant became dictator of the Thirty Cities, with full authority to do whatever he wanted.

“Now, of course, the drought and famine didn’t go away just because the Tyrant had seized power. In fact, they actually worsened, so that though the Tyrant had all the nobles’ and the Temple’s hoarded food and money confiscated, it began to run out in time. And it became obvious that soon the people would get restive again. And in the meantime the other worlds were overflowing with the food we needed so much.

“So then the Tyrant decided on war as the only option.

“You know, of course, that the Thirty Cities have a strong army and navy? Well, they’re only a shadow of what we had then. At that time, our armed forces were the strongest in all the worlds, so much so that the rest had a military alliance against us. But they also had the food we lacked, the food we needed. The Tyrant decided to seize them by force.

“Could he have acted differently? Undoubtedly, he could. If he’d asked for aid, the worlds would have responded. If he’d offered favourable trade terms in return, they’d have responded with enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t have wanted to trade with the Thirty? But he was too proud, and, besides, his experiences had taught him that violence works. And, of course, he had absolute power, so he didn’t have to listen to anybody. So he went to war.

“It was a terrible war. I tell you that it’s a measure of the ability and the bravery of our army and navy that, alone, they fought all the Alliance to a standstill. They might even have won – in fact, it’s almost certain that they would have won – if it were anyone else but the Tyrant in control.

“What did he do, you ask? He ordered the wholesale extermination of people in the conquered territories, to take their lands and resources for ourselves, and as a measure to strike terror among the enemies.

“Of course it did no such thing. It only served to strengthen their resolve, to make them determined to defeat us. And, also, many of our generals and admirals refused to obey that order. They said it wasn’t part of war to be killing unarmed civilians. And the Tyrant responded by having them arrested and executed as traitors.

“I need scarcely tell you what followed. With the best military leaders executed, and the army busy killing civilians instead of fighting, the Alliance mounted offensive after successful offensive. And the Tyrant, by now completely surrounded by sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear, thought anyone who didn’t agree with him was a traitor. So, as the war turned against the Thirty Cities, he increasingly turned against his own people – against us.

“He even turned against the Temple, and eliminated the Head Priest and the top leadership of both the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood. As a matter of fact, that wasn’t a bad thing, because they were the people who were completely corrupt. But he didn’t do it because of that, but because the Temple didn’t obey his authority unquestioningly, as he wanted.

“Even then, it might not have been too late to achieve some kind of peace. But the Alliance now developed a weapon against which we had, at the time, no defence, and against which we had no chance to develop a defence. One by one, our bases and fleets were wiped out, until we were left with only the cities themselves. And then, of course, the enemy attacked the cities, and began to destroy them one by one.

“By this time, of course, the people had turned completely against the Tyrant, but were helpless against his troops. Even at the last, when the Alliance’s forces had surrounded Capital City, more of his men were busy arresting and killing people who were suspected of plotting against him than were fighting the enemy. And it was only at the very end, when Alliance armoured crawlers were rolling down the avenues of Capital City, that the people finally rose up, beat off the Tyrant’s remaining soldiers, and stormed his palace, determined to exact vengeance before the chance was forever lost to them.”

“And did they?” Beelay asked, fascinated.

“No,” Brother Khazan sighed, shaking his head regretfully. “If they had, the people might have had closure. No, the Tyrant had the last laugh. All that was found was his partly charred corpse. He’d killed himself and had his body burned, before the people could lay hands on him.”

“I don’t understand,” Beelay said. “If he died, that was the end of it, wasn’t it?”

“I see you don’t understand.” Brother Khazan shook his head reprovingly. “It’s about punishment. The Tyrant deserved to die for his crimes, true, but as the result of a proper trial, so that he could fully answer for his crimes. By killing himself, he escaped that.” He glared at Beelay. “Do you understand now why the princes were competing to hate him?”

“I think so,” Beelay ventured. “But that would mean that all of us would have to hate the Tyrant eternally, because he’d escaped punishment? Isn’t that rather sad and dark?”

“You’re probably right,” Brother Khazan acknowledged. “Anyway, the upshot was that the war was blamed on the Tyrant and his regime. The royal family was, of course, completely discredited too. In fact the only remaining authority was the Temple; and the new leadership of the Temple, and of the Brotherhood and the Sisterhood, stood completely and unambiguously for justice. The Alliance knew it, and knew, too, that the Temple hated the Tyrant. So they handed over the reins of power to the Temple, and the royal family and the nobility remained as they were, mere figureheads.

“In any case, remember this: the Temple stands for justice as much as the Tyrant stood for evil. And it’s our duty – all of us – to see that justice is done. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” Beelay said, wondering if he did understand.

“Good,” Brother Khazan nodded approvingly. “Tomorrow, we’ll go and visit the Tyrant’s palace.”


Is this it?”

“It is,” Sister Smita confirmed. “Are you disappointed?”

“I don’t know.” Beelay tilted his head back to look up at the ruins, which looked disconcerting and ugly on one side of the Great Square. “It seems rather a pathetic place, really. Just stone and broken walls.”

“Don’t be fooled by appearances,” Sister Smita said grimly. “From here, the Tyrant spread his evil over the worlds, and then over his own people, the Thirty Cities who had suffered for his sake, believed in him, and done him no harm.” She turned to look at Beelay. “The Temple decided to keep this in ruins so that it would stay as a reminder to everyone of the price we all had to pay...and as a warning.”

Brother Khazan appeared at the top of the rubble-strewn steps and beckoned. “Not that there’s much to see,” he said. “Watch your step there.”

“The Tyrant’s corpse was found there,” Brother Khazan said once, pointing, as they passed through a room the roof of which was open to the sky. “He’d ordered his men to burn him after his suicide, but they didn’t make much of a job of it.”

“Still, he escaped what he deserved,” Sister Smita said grimly.

“Is there a picture of him somewhere?” Beelay asked curiously. “I’d like to know what he looked like.”

“No,” Sister Smita said brusquely. “We’ve destroyed them. The Tyrant used his likeness to create a cult of personality, so we destroyed the pictures. Now come, it’s time we went home.”

So they did.


Years passed. Beelay grew into a fine young man, and one day decided he wanted to join the Brotherhood.

But Brother Khazan shook his head decisively. “The Brotherhood isn’t for you,” he said. “You wouldn’t be able to submit your personality to it like we all have to do. You have too much spirit to be able to confine it in the life of a Brother.”

“But...” Beelay began to protest, but Sister Smita also chimed in.

“You don’t really know what a Brother’s life is like, Beelay. Whatever he thinks or wants doesn’t matter. What he would like to do doesn’t matter. He has only one – just one – duty, and that is to the Temple. All other considerations...including his own happiness...aren’t even secondary. They’re merely immaterial.”

“It’s the same for the Sisterhood,” Brother Khazan added. “It’s not the sort of life you could adjust to.”

“He’s right. You have other things to do, better things. With your personality, you’d be perfect as a soldier. You’re by nature an officer, a leader of men.”

And Beelay thought about this, finally perceiving that they were right. So he joined the military academy as an officer cadet, and soon distinguished himself, so much so that his instructors all commended him in their reports. Finally, he was commissioned as a junior officer, and it was the proudest day of his life when Brother Khazan and Sister Smita watched as he saluted along with the other new officers and pinned the rank badge on his collar.

And so more years passed, and imperceptibly grew into over a decade; and Beelay rose through the ranks, slowly but steadily, until, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he was unexpectedly made a general.

It happened that he had been ordered to the office of the Generalissimo himself for a special briefing. “There is a revolt brewing,” the senior man said, toying with his chestful of medals. “The rebels are organising in the countryside, and getting ready to strike at the cities. It’s up to you to stop them.”

“I, sir?” Beelay was flabbergasted. “Why me?”

“I know you’re young for the job. You’re the only officer I know with the talent and the energy, though, which is why I chose you.” He had fumbled in a box and brought out a general’s badges. “Here’s your new rank. It’s temporary for now, but when...not if, succeed, I’ll confirm the promotion.”

So Beelay went out to the countryside and took command of the troops there, only to discover that the rebellion was far more widespread, deep-rooted and dangerous than he had ever imagined. More and more, the violence spread, forcing him to respond with even greater violence. And then, one day, the rebels took a city.

It wasn’t a large city - one of the lesser of the Thirty. But the rebels had taken it by storm, held it completely, and threatened now to sweep on to capture others, and in time perhaps strike at the Capital City itself. Beelay pondered what to do.

There was only one thing to do, actually, and finally Beelay forced himself to do it.

He ordered the destruction of the city, along with all the people and the rebels in it. And so, after bitter and prolonged fighting, it was done.

By then, though, the rebel forces had attacked another city, and when they were beaten back from it, they attacked another. Step by step they grew formidable, until Beelay realised that unless he could destroy their base of support, the Thirty Cities might fall.

So he turned his attention to the villages and farms, the hamlets in the woods, which had spawned the rebels and which now seethed with their fanaticism. Using the same techniques he had perfected in the destruction of the cities, he began to wipe them out one by one, without pity. He destroyed the villages, killed the people, used the livestock to feed his army, and burned down the crop. Before finally moving on, his army poisoned the wells and the land to deny even the possibility of their use to the rebels.

And at last, after many years of brutal fighting, victory was his. Small numbers of rebels still fought on, but the devastated countryside was pacified, as were the ruins of eleven of the Thirty Cities. And Beelay was summoned to Capital City, for his reward. And so, one day, he found himself stepping out of his vehicle on to the Great Square, for the first time in many years.

Sister Smita was there, much older and wizened, but with her back still straight and the jut of her jaw just as he’d remembered it. And Brother Khazan, now walking with the aid of a cane, but with the same pugnacious expression on his face as always. Beelay hugged Sister Smita and shook hands carefully with Brother Khazan.

“It’s nice of you two to meet me,” he said.

“It’s not nice,” Brother Khazan said. “It’s necessary.”


“Yes.” Sister Smita took him by the arm. “Come along,” she said. “We have a couple of things to tell you.”

“What things?” Feeling the familiar grip of her still strong fingers, Beelay allowed himself to be drawn along the side of the Great Square until they stood in front of the ruins of the Tyrant’s palace.

“It won’t take long,” Sister Smita said. “But you need to hear us out before you go to the ceremony.”

“Yes,” Brother Khazan nodded heavily. “Beelay, do you remember how you grew up with us in the Temple?”

“Why, yes, of course I do.”

“Did it ever occur to you to wonder why you were the only child the Temple ever chose to raise as it did?”

Beelay shrugged. “Many times. But I was afraid to ask, I suppose, at first. And later it just didn’t seem to matter anymore.” He paused. “Why? Is it something about my parents? My...real parents?”

“Well, in a sense, yes,” Sister Smita said. She tugged at his sleeve again, and he found himself following her up the Tyrant’s steps. “The only thing about your real parents was that...there were none.”

“What do you mean?” Beelay asked. “How can I have had no parents?”

“Because,” Brother Khazan said, behind his shoulder, “you are a clone.”

“A...clone?” Beelay felt as though something inside him had turned to stone.

“Yes, a clone,” Sister Smita said. “I bore you in my womb, and brought you forth, but you were a clone, not my baby. We have to do a lot of things we don’t want, in the Sisterhood, as I believe Khazan told you once a long time ago.”

“Then whose...whose clone am I?”

“Whose do you suppose?” Brother Khazan asked. “We found the Tyrant’s body right here, as I once told you. It hadn’t been destroyed completely...and it was still quite fresh.”

“And he hadn’t paid for his sins,” Sister Smita said, a diamond edge in her voice. “He’d escaped his punishment. Remember that.”

Beelay opened his mouth but nothing came out.

“So the Temple decided to create a clone. Not immediately, but only after things might settle down. A clone, which would, being of the Tyrant’s tissue, be part of the Tyrant himself. And so it was done.”

“You’re a very accurate copy,” Brother Khazan said. “I saw the Tyrant with my own eyes. If the two of you stood side by side, people would think you identical twins.”

“But don’t think the Brotherhood is ever unmerciful,” Sister Smita said. “We didn’t condemn you out of hand. We let you choose your own destiny. And when you had the chance, you acted just as cruelly as the Tyrant, and with equally little cause.”

They were approaching the central chamber of the ruined old palace. Their footsteps clicked on the stone, accompanied by the tapping of Brother Khazan’s cane.

“Today,” the old monk said quietly, “You are hated precisely as much as the Tyrant was in the last days of his rule.”

 “Here we are,” Sister Smita said, tapping on the central chamber’s sagging bronze door. “You can go in now.”

Beelay took a deep breath and shrugged off her hand. Throwing his shoulders back, he straightened his uniform and stepped forward.

As he pushed open the door behind which his reward awaited, he did not forget to smile.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Raghead: Humanitarian Dronervention

(Or, why it's your duty to support an attack on Syria.)

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

At The Edge of Time and Space

Back when I was a callow teenager, thousands of years ago, I wrote a science fiction story called The Fist of God in which a gigantic intergalactic spaceship was on a never-ending journey through the cosmos, seeking a new home for the human race.

This is, of course, not exactly an original trope, nor was my further plot development. Predictably enough, the crew and presumptive colonists lost sight of their main purpose, over time, and disintegrated into squabbling, mutually hostile tribes engaged in low-intensity civil war, where those castes which controlled the air, waste retreatment centres, and hydroponic farms held the balance of power over the rest.  

The story even had a heroine, a young, restless girl who refused to be content with her future prospects as a (privileged) worker tending the hydroponic gardens, and who was the cause of much consternation among her teachers, who were afraid she’d get into trouble. There were also – and for the life of me I can’t remember why I put them in – gorilla/human hybrids called “Gormans” who were genetically engineered to be a low-intelligence, high-strength slave labour class, and who by the beginning of the tale had already gone extinct.

It was a very bad story.

Anyway, at what I intended to be the climax of the piece, the heroine had finally got herself into serious trouble over something or other, and the silly little chit had been dragged to the Ultimate Authority – the Control Room itself – for suitable punishment. But just before the awful judgement, whatever it was, could be handed down, the Big Bang ended. The Universe, having reached the limit of its expansion, began to collapse on itself. The Big Crunch was on.

And, in my fictional spaceship, time went into reverse. People began to unsay things, unthink thoughts (I confess that I typed sentences back to front to show that they were doing this), unlive their lives; and, as the galaxies fell back towards each other, the “fist of God closed in.”

Yes, that was how I ended the damned tale. The Fist of God closed in.

It was a very, very, very bad story. Not as bad as the one in which a demon-haunted house turned anyone who entered into a gourmet meal (that one was called Sous-Chef, can you imagine?) but still, extremely putrid. I offer no excuses for it, nor shall it ever see the light of day.

So why do I bring it up at all?

This: there is a question which many people ponder, without finding an answer; “if one could reach the edge of the universe, what would be on the other side?”

This article, by the author of The Fist Of God, is an attempt to answer that question.

Now, before we go any further, let me state right away that I will – with the scientific evidence firmly on my side – assume that the reader is aware of, or willing to accept, the following facts:

First, that the Universe, which comprises thousands of millions of galaxies, each comprising millions of stars, is not a mere six thousand years old; and that naked apes crawling on the surface of a ball of rock rotating round an inconspicuous star in an undistinguished outer fringe of one such galaxy have no particular reason to think themselves as the centre of all creation.

Second, that the Universe started at a finite point in the past, albeit many aeons ago, in a quantum event called the Big Bang, the background radiation of which is detectable to this day. This Big Bang, furthermore, caused a rapid and continuing expansion of the Universe, an expansion which can be observed to  be still continuing, and is still accelerating. Obviously, by measuring the rate of expansion and the acceleration, one can calculate roughly how long ago the Big Bang must have occurred.

Third, that – as per Einstein – space and time are part of a single unified quantity, called spacetime, and that one cannot have one without the other. Also, again as per Einstein, gravity has a significant effect on curves it. The stronger the gravitational field, the more it curves spacetime, until when the gravitational field reaches a sufficient level, spacetime is completely curved in on itself in a sphere. Such a sphere of closed spacetime is called...anyone willing to hazard a guess? No? Well, it goes by the name of a black hole, from which nothing – not even light – can ever escape.

Incidentally, for anyone inclined to doubt its existence, the curvature of spacetime was proved as long ago as 1919 by observation. It is not “just a theory”, as people who don’t know the scientific definition of the word “theory” are so fond of saying. So there.

Fourth, that the speed of light is a universal constant, which cannot be exceeded, or even matched by anything except light itself. Also, as one gets closer to the speed of light, time slows down – and comes to a complete halt at light speed itself. If you went faster than light, you’d go backwards in time. Again, it’s been proved (by experiments with ultra-accurate clocks on aeroplanes) that the faster you go, the slower time moves. This is proven, scientific fact.


Since all good stories should begin at the beginning – though most avant garde ones begin somewhere at the halfway mark and begin crawling back and forth like a demented earthworm – let’s start with the Big Bang. Now, we can’t say just why the Big Bang happened.  

One possibility is that it could have been, as in my awful story, due to the gravitational collapse of a pre-existing universe. As the post-Big Bang expansion of the universe continues, it will, according to this idea, ultimately begin to slow down as the mutual gravitational attraction of the galaxies begin to counter the expansion. Finally, the gravitational attraction will cause the expansion to halt, and then fall in on itself. As it does, it will begin to accelerate inwards towards a common centre, moving four times faster for each halving of the distance, as per a very well known fact of physics called the Inverse Square Law. Ultimately, moving at a terrific velocity, it will all come together in one colossal smash, annihilating anything and everything. And then, the energy released will cause it to blow outwards again, in a successor Big Bang. A neat idea, with an endlessly repeating cycle of universes.

There’s just one problem, a rather big problem, with this idea. It requires the Universe to have enough mass to possess the necessary gravitational attraction to cause the galaxies to collapse together. And, as far as can be detected, the Universe doesn’t – not by a long chalk.

The commonest explanation of this “missing mass” is that it exists as “dark matter” which is not directly detectable by currently available means. However, the existence of “dark matter,” and its counterpart, “dark energy”, which together comprise over 84% of the Universe, is wholly hypothetical (a different kettle of fish from theoretical). At the moment, it’s only conjectured to exist. It might well not.

If dark matter does not exist, then, the Universe will not slow its expansion and ultimately fall in on itself, to be reborn in another Big Bang. It will, instead, expand forever, until and beyond the time when the last forlorn star burns out. Obviously, in that case, the Universe wasn’t created by the expansion of a pre-existing universe (otherwise it would, you know, have the mass to collapse in its turn). And in that case, this Universe came into being in a quantum event, where any one of a literal infinity of possibilities can occur.

Before I go any further, this might be the time for a brief discussion of the word “infinity”. It does not mean “a very, very large number, larger than anything you can even imagine even if you get yourself blind drunk and then try to think of a really huge, enormous, gigantic number.” A million billion trillion gazillion isn’t infinity; a zillion times that isn’t infinity, either. Infinity means a literally endless quantity. If you subtract a quinquasesquillion from infinity, you still end up with infinity. If you subtract infinity from infinity, you still end up with infinity. Fine?

OK, maybe not so fine. Never mind, for the moment. I’ll get back to this again, though. It is kind of important.

To get back to that quantum event – in it, any one of an infinite number of possibilities can occur. Obviously, at least one of that infinite number of possibilities is the Big Bang. We know this because, you know, the Big Bang actually occurred, which is why you’re in a position to read these words now. The advantage of the quantum Big Bang is that we don’t need any hypothetical dark matter; we don’t need a collapsing earlier universe; and we don’t need some kind of creator to start things off, either. All we need is for something to be possible, and it will exist.

Now, I am going to say something extremely important. It is so important that without it the whole question of the edge of the Universe, which we’re, you know, discussing in this article, becomes unanswerable. It is this:

Whatever the origin of the Universe, it did not come into being at a certain point in the empty voids of space. There were no voids of space. Space, or to be more accurate, spacetime, came into being at the same instant as the Big Bang. Before that there was literally nothing. After that there was everything.

This holds true even in case this Universe came into being in the heat death of the previous one. Because, as I said, spacetime is curved by gravity, as the galaxies collapse inward and their mutual gravitational attraction grows, they will curve the space around them more and more tightly. Spacetime will contract around them, like a protective sheath, until at the moment of the Big Crunch the gravitational attraction will be infinite (that word again!) and the curvature of spacetime will also be infinite. Spacetime will, in effect, cease to exist until it comes into being again with the next cycle of expansion.

What this means, in plain words, is this: Spacetime exists only as long as the Universe does. It expands, or contracts, along with the Universe expanding, or contracting.

Does this also answer the initial question? Since spacetime is expanding at the same rate as the Universe, it’s absolutely impossible to reach the edge of it, let alone go beyond that edge. We are in the position of someone trying to walk off a cliff’s edge, where the cliff is enlarging itself at the same rate at which we’re walking. We can never step off, no matter how hard we try.

If you want a demonstration of what I’m talking about, take a rubber balloon. With a pen, draw dots at fixed intervals on its surface. Now, blow up that balloon. What happens? The dots stretch apart, don’t they? If a dot wanted to jump off the surface, it couldn’t, could it?

Want to know what it’s like at the edge of the Universe? Look around you.

Now, let’s assume that we’re one of the dots on the surface of the balloon. If we look at the other dots, along the surface, we can see them receding from us as the balloon expands. Of course, we’ll see them because of the light they emit, which in turn means (since the speed of light is finite, a matter of 300000 kilometres per second) that we’re not seeing them as they are, but as they were. And if we were to look at the centre of the balloon, we’d only be able to see the dots on the other side of the void where we used to be. We can’t go to the centre from here, no matter how hard we try.

Suppose, now, we were to try and set out along the expanding surface of the balloon, to try and find its edge. Of course, we would not find its edge, because there is no edge to find. If we could walk far enough, we’d end up back at our starting point. Isn’t that so?

Similarly, if we were to try and reach the edge of space, we’d – assuming we could survive long enough, and supposing the universe were to survive long enough – end up where we were. If an astronaut in orbit were to shoot a sufficiently powerful bullet into space, and if he could wait long enough, the bullet would end up hitting him in the back of the head after circumnavigating the curve of the Universe. The same thing would happen with a sufficiently powerful laser beam, or a pebble, or anything at all.

Therefore the question of what lies beyond the edge of space is as meaningless as asking what colour a unicorn’s horn is – because there isn’t one.

At this moment, though, one might want to examine a slightly more hypothetical question – the possibility of the existence of other Universes. Now, if the Big Bang was a quantum event, there was an infinity of possibilities of what might happen. So, there might be an infinity of other Universes, in parallel realities to our own. But they would be in their own closed curves of space – we could not even detect them, nor they us, far less visit them from where we are. Their existence can only be, and remain, hypothetical. Also, since the possibilities are infinite, there is no reason why they should share the same fundamental physical laws as our Universe. They could be literally unimaginably different. But we would never know.

There is a tendency to confuse these putative universes with universes in another dimension. This, basically, is because a lot of people are confused about just what a dimension is. Let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions here.

Listen: time is not a dimension. It’s common to speak of time as the “fourth dimension”, but that is completely incorrect. Each dimension is at right angles to the others. The second is at right angles to the first, and the third to the second. A fourth dimension would be at right angles to the three we know. And a fifth dimension would be at right angles to that. And so on and on.

There is an interesting and entertaining construct called Flatland, about a hypothetical two-dimensional world, in which everything has only length and breadth, but no height. To such a world, we would, of course, be in an unimaginable “third dimension”. Flatland mathematicians could speculate about us, but they could not actually detect us. All right so far?

Now, of course, time does not cease to flow in Flatland. So, suppose Flatlanders called time the next higher dimension to them – the third dimension. That would make one of the three dimensions in the world we live in time. But it isn’t, is it?

Time isn’t the fourth dimension. Instead, as part of spacetime, it is part of all the three dimensions; just as it is part of any of the higher dimensions. And all these dimensions, being at right angles to each other, are part of our universe. Just as they are part of any other universe.

Any other universes can’t be at right angles to ours, but in parallel. They occupy not other dimensions, but other realities.

 It’s entirely possible an infinity of unknowable other realities...other Big Bangs are occurring at this very moment in our spacetime. But we can never know them, never detect them, never cross the boundary of the rubber balloon.

But there’s more than enough to explore in our universe. And a long, long time to do it in.

As long as we don’t kill each other over lines on a map or the shape of one’s place of worship, first.

 Further Reading:

Monday, 19 August 2013


Here, in my kingdom deep inside the rock, I dwell.

Here, far down at the centre of the maze, the walls and the roof press in, and it feels that each breath of air that I draw is one I have drawn a million times before. Here, in the Labyrinth, the walls and floor are slippery with my condensed breath, and when I roar my anguish, the echoes die away as though the darkness suffocates them.

The darkness is the essence of the Labyrinth. It fills it with its malevolent presence, like a river in flood, so thick and complete one can feel its fingers brush across one’s face, one’s eyes, and play along one’s chest with every breath one takes.

Sometimes I think I have become part of the darkness.

It’s not as though I don’t remember the sun and the sky. It’s been so long since I last saw either that I can almost believe that I imagined them, but I know that somewhere, outside this warren which encloses me, they exist. I know it, and it maddens me sometimes, so that I score the walls with my horns and bite at them in despair.

And I wait.

How long has it been since I have been immured here, in this maze of stone? I have no way of telling, for in the Labyrinth time does not measure itself in days and nights. All I know is that it still passes. And, I tell myself, it is on my side.

Someday, somehow, this must end. Someday I will be able to walk outside, to see the sun once again, to feel the rain on my face. Someday, King Minos – who is not my father – will repent my imprisonment, and set me free.

Or perhaps he will die, and his successor will throw open the gates of the Labyrinth, and let me out into the light of day.

So, in the darkness, I score the rock walls with my horns, and wait.

I wonder if – when that day comes – I will even be able to see the sun I ache for. Perhaps, after so many years of being immured in complete and perfect darkness, I have gone blind. I would not be surprised, for I do not even see the prey when they are sent down here, sometimes, for me to eat.

Oh, they blunder around, the prey, bleating their pathetic little prayers, begging for me to have pity. But what pity can I have on them? More – what pity should I have on them? For they have had what I can only dream of now. They have felt the sun on their skin, the stars in their eyes, the touch of a hand on their brow. They have known laughter and kisses, the joy of running free in the open air. They have known the light.

Gods! How I miss the light.

But this is my world, this warren of tunnels and passages and cross-ways, and I know each twist and turn, each niche and crevice. I can feel every little tremor, every footstep on the rock, like a spider in the centre of her web. Much as I hate it, it is my world, while they are strangers, blundering about in the dark, weeping and begging. So I track them down, one by one, and kill them. And then I eat.

After all, I must eat. I am a monster, I have always been a monster, but even a monster must live – the life force is in him, just as it is with anything else that swims or flies or crawls. Worthless as my life is – a life spent in darkness, buried in the living rock – it is all I have. And I have that forlorn, tiny spark of hope, that someday I might leave here again.

Do not think too harshly of me, I beg of you. After all, did I choose to be born this way? Did I ask my mother, the Queen, PasiphaĆ«, to play false with Poseidon’s bull? Believe me when I say that as a child I wished for nothing but my mother’s love, just as any other child does. And can you imagine how I was hurt when they pushed me away, my mother, the King who is not my father, and the rest of the court? I was unnatural, a monster, they said, a monster which ate people.

Again – is it my fault that I am what I am? One might as well blame someone for the colour of their eyes or the length of their toes. And why should I suffer for that over which I have no control?

You, Theseus – see, I even know your name! – you are come to kill me, with the help of the traitorous maid, my sister. But be assured, you did not come unsuspected. I knew from the beginning that you were there. And I can sense, too, the thread the wench gave you, which you intend to use to find your way back to the entrance of the Labyrinth.

At first, I thought I would let you kill me, for I have grown full of despair of late. Death, I have thought often, would be a way out of this living burial, the only release I might ever have. But I cannot will myself to die, and the weeping sacrifices who stumble along the passages are incapable of harming me, let alone killing me. You are the first who has ever come down here willing and able to kill.

Yes, I thought I would let you kill me. I would let you free me, and in return you could go home a hero, with my sister to wife.

But then I knew more about you, Theseus. I knew the false heart which beats in your breast, which won my poor sister’s love. Yet you do not love her, and you intend to abandon her; all this, I know. And though the maid is foolish, and willing to betray her brother, she is my sister, and I will not have you cause her grief.

I could, of course, avoid you. This is my realm, and I know more of it than anyone else ever could. I could lead you a dance through these tunnels until your bones grew weary with age and your breath grew short. But I have no love of games, and besides, I can sense the fierceness of your purpose. You will not give up easily.

So, I will let you come. I will allow you to come close, thinking you have won, and then I shall stab you through your false heart. I will kill you, and set your foul spirit free.

And I shall live on. Here, in the tunnels, Theseus, immured in the eternal dark, I shall live on.

I wish I could ask you just one question, Theseus. Before I kill you, I wish I could ask you if it is true that the sun and the stars still shine in the sky. I wish I could ask you whether I merely imagined them both. But I am afraid that you would say that I did not.

It is better that the sun and stars, the moon and the sky, be as the rain and the wind, something I only imagined. It is better by far that they are not real.

For this is my kingdom, the only one I will ever have, and if there are better worlds elsewhere, my heart would shatter with grief.

Tell me, Theseus, that the sun and sky are not true.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2013