Short story: “Oppenheimer’s Last Stand” by Dr Ananya Mahapatra
The sun was a ball of fire shooting white-hot needles over the limitless stretches of Jornada Del Muerto. The dead man’s desert.
It was a terrain of sand and salt with causeways that lead to a kind of nothingness only dead men know of. The salt-washed mountains surrounding it used to be volcanoes, raging and spewing streams of lava into the desert sand thousands of years ago, carving out canyons and arroyos in the ash-brown malpaise that interspersed the sandy stretches. The hills are silent now, their jagged peaks sandpapered away by dust and brine flung on their faces by the relentless winds.
All that remains is the quiet fury of the desert, pulsating in the heat like the belly of a beast. The old farmers revere and fear it. In earlier times, they journeyed to the Parajito plateau through the treacherous landscape of Jornada Del Muerto to escape the impossible heat and grow summer crops and berries. They corralled together during the journey, a retinue of nervous travellers, each murmuring a silent prayer to be able to pass through its pale gold expanses.
Today the mighty desert was subdued by another force. A force born out of insatiable amounts of energy. Its image was etched onto Robert’s mind like a daguerreotype, even though fourteen hours had passed since The Test. It had been another long excursion to Alamogordo for the team. July afternoons were bad days for experiments in the heart of the desert, but they were running out of time. The war had gone on for way too long, and matters were now passed on to unlikely soldiers like him, who toiled far away from the battlegrounds for a permanent solution.
The makeshift quarters of their base in Alamogordo were bursting with an assemblage of people, a cortege of junior scientists with knotted brows and voices trembling with anticipation, the porters with weather-beaten limbs hauling equipment, the poker-faced guards, barely twenty-something who guarded the precinct. The device rested on Ground Zero like a giant steel orb, nestling in its womb, coils of plutonium ready for implosion. It was time. A trill of anxiety buzzed in their ears; they tried to quell it with superfluous jocularity and mock sparring, but the collective thump in their hearts they couldn’t ignore. Be it Robert, Giovanni, or Leo, each one of them, handpicked from various universities for this singular purpose, was acutely aware of it. Would they succeed? Could this be The Weapon to end the war?
Each one of them had a private picture of how things would play out at Zero Hour, but no amount of prior ruminations could have prepared them for the moment when it finally came. There was silence and stillness, and then they saw it – a blinding white light that bleached all the colours in their field of vision. Gigantic swirls of smoke curled upwards like a dragon, growing, growing at a dizzying speed until they coalesced into one magnificent arch of smoke which swallowed up the sky. The blinding white light obliterated the horizon. For a moment, earth and sky were one, as if a chunk of the desert was now molten white gold in communion with the brilliant white sky. Nobody uttered a word.
Robert stood transfixed by the spectacle, this stupendous pillar of smoke that arborized into the sky like a giant mushroom, its vastness exquisitely beautiful and equally terrifying.
At long last, he murmured, ‘I am become Death. The destroyer of the world.’
He had finally found Brahmastr, the primordial weapon crafted to hold in its bosom a limitless source of energy. This was a weapon fit for Gods; the weapon that made a God of him who held it. Ever since he’d mastered Sanskrit and forayed through the esoteric verses of the Bhagwad Gita, he’d been fascinated by an ancient war, the Mahabharata. The war they had been thrown into was no different. Moreover, he was no different from Arjuna, the righteous warrior, who would have avoided the bloodshed at any cost. But God came to him as his charioteer, to remind him of his duty. In the end, duty is all that matters and Robert Oppenheimer had fulfilled his duty of creating the weapon which would end all wars, once and for all. He hoped he was right. He fervently hoped. Because, if it didn’t end the war, it would surely herald the end of humanity.
The journey from Alamogordo back to the Los Alamos Laboratory passed in a blur. Everyone was silent on the road, stupefied by the events of the day. Night had fallen over Los Alamos like an ink-blue curtain. The stars twinkled like minuscule glowing corpuscles, yet, they were anything but minuscule. Most of them, larger manifold than the sun stored unfathomable reservoirs of energy. Just like an atomic particle. Who knew that the final indivisible particle, the tiniest brick of creation guarded such secret vaults of energy in its heart! If unleashed, the energy could annihilate behemoths. Robert knew that now. This realization was like a drug that possessed his mind.
Back at his quarters, Robert stared silently out of the window through the milky haze of cigarette smoke that enveloped him. It was his eighth cigarette of the night; the acrid smoke burnt his nostrils and made his eyes water. He threw the stub away absentmindedly and retired to his couch. The swinging lamp above his head cast shadows all around him. Their swooping movement, like the wings of furtive eagles, made him restless. He sat up straight, left his couch and paced in the hallway distractedly, only to return to the couch a few moments later.
It seemed like yesterday when Robert moved to Los Alamos, the place that didn’t exist for the rest of the world. The most secret laboratory on the face of the Earth. Now three years have passed. Three years of being cloistered in the middle of nowhere. A band of researchers thirsting for a miracle. A miracle of their own making, not handed over to them by benevolent gods or marauding devils; a miracle pieced together by countless hours of racking their brains, of tearing apart each other’s theories, of grazing their tongues on the lip of a mirage of scientific enlightenment. How many of their predecessors had withered away with time, chasing the same dream? Tthey had made it! Oppenheimer and his army of the most brilliant minds of the nation. Together they stood head and shoulders above those fallen giants to behold the apocalyptic beauty and terror of their creation.
But now that sweet sense of invincibility had receded, and the void filled with something else. It was a feeling quite alien to his cautious confident personality. His mind had always been clear about this enterprise, but today doubts roiled in his head. He was not a man given to presentiments, all his predictions of future events were based on coldly calculated deductions, yet he was troubled by a strange visceral sensation. Even when he finally abandoned the couch for his bed, an odd tug at his innards kept him awake for hours until fatigue lulled him into fretful slumber.
The next morning, he woke abruptly at the crack of dawn, his eyes bloodshot and a throbbing pain in his temples. Feeling stifled in his room, he decided to go for a walk. The sun was still half-hidden behind the mountains, and the blue clouds pink-bellied in the russet glow. Finches fought raucously for hackberry seeds, and the red-tailed hawks soared in wide trajectories like air-borne sentinels. Robert felt his jitteriness leach out a little. He gulped the fresh air as if to drive out the smoke of yesterday cob-webbing his head. He took a winding dirt path through a rocky patch populated only by wild grass; his gaze meandered towards a solitary acacia tree in the distance, its panicles of yellow flowers swaying languidly in the morning breeze. Beneath the tree, he saw a man squatting. Robert had never seen someone like him in the whole of New Mexico, yet he appeared strangely familiar. His skin was the colour of burnished mahogany, his head shaved. He didn’t wear a shirt or trousers, or a hat. His robes were the colour of freshly sliced cantaloupes. It was draped across his torso like a sash and flowed in elaborate layers around his loins and between his legs. The soles of his feet were callused, and he wore no slippers. He sat cross-legged under the tree, his eyes closed, his lips pursed in a half-smile. Was the man an apparition conjured by his sleep-deprived brain? As Robert stood wondering, the man opened his eyes.
He was not sure whether the man spoke English but he spoke to him directly, with familiarity and an unnerving sense of composure.
‘You have the appearance of a man bogged down by something. Is it a burden of your choosing or was it thrust upon you?’
His cadence had the placidity of a flowing stream, the unmistakable accent of the Orient. A memory enfolded in his mind, Robert knew where he had seen him, or rather someone like him. The picture of the Hindu yogi on the Khadi cover of his Gita swam in front of his eyes. The attire, the posture, it all made sense. Such yogis abound on the holy Ghats of the Ganges and Yamuna, but a yogi in Los Alamos! The fact was too fantastic for Robert to absorb all at once. The only inhabitants in the vicinity, other than the laboratory staff were the Pueblo Indian women who came twice a week from the nearby villages to clean the quarters and water the plants. He had met Indian scholars in Manhattan and Chicago, young men with thin moustaches, sloganeering and distributing pamphlets about the Colonial oppression in their homeland. But a yogi, barefoot, barely clad, thousands of miles away from home…
Robert replied with deference, ‘The weight of duty can sit on your chest too tight sometimes. It would be wrong to call it a burden. In any case, I think I have finally fulfilled it.’
‘Fulfilment usually fills us with peace. I can only sense restlessness in your heart. What duty nettles you so, even after fulfilment?’
‘The world is at war with each other. Civilization is pushed to a precipice. I have engineered a weapon capable of terrible destruction. In the wake of its might, our rancorous opponents will yield. It will put an end to all the chaos. The price is terrible. All good things come at a price, and if it secures the future of our civilization, is it so terrible to pay it…’
If divulging the world’s greatest secret to a wandering hermit could be called treason, Robert was strangely unperturbed by it.
The Yogi was silent for a while. Finally, he spoke in a sombre voice, closing his eyes again, ‘The real War is in the minds of men. Can your weapon obliterate that?’
Robert didn’t know how to respond, and the realization annoyed him. ‘A real war cannot be won by aphorisms. You can shut your eyes to the world, but I have been entrusted the duty of securing the lives of my people, my homeland. I know it is a drastic choice, but in the struggle for righteousness, even Krishna persuaded Arjuna to take up arms and go to war.’
The yogi opened his eyes to the familiar reference. He smiled amusedly, ‘You have been quite taken by the Song of the Lord I see, the alluring gospel of Gita.’
‘Indeed, I am, and in fact, I have never had the opportunity of discourse on this marvellous book with a spiritualist. Doesn’t this Holy song justify destruction, if it is channelled for the greater good?’
The yogi sighed, ‘The words of the Gita are as elusive as the mirages of this desert. Its meanings are hidden beneath layers of metaphors and mysticism. It would be a folly to reify its words and dash headlong on a drastic path.’
The dismissive air in his demeanour stirred Robert’s argumentative spirit. He recited solemnly in Sanskrit, ‘If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Lord in that universal form.’
The yogi brightened at the sound of the invocation. ‘Yes, yes. That is how the glory of the Supreme Lord is.’
‘You did not see what I saw yesterday. It was brighter than the brightest sun, this primordial burst of light.’ The image danced in front of Robert’s eyes. ‘I am telling you, it was no lesser than the glory of a Supreme Being, and it is going to save us all.’
The Yogi’s face grew serious; he didn’t speak for a long time. Then he broke his silence with a question. ‘And what was the state of the earth when this burst of light was extinguished? Was it rejuvenated like a leaf sprouting after the rains? Or did it leave behind a trail of devastation, cold and utterly incompatible with life?’
Robert was transported back to Ground Zero. The spectacle of stupefying light and the bounding white clouds had seemed interminable. After what seemed an eternity, the clouds began to dissipate; the light diminished till all that was left were cinders and a sheet of ash that covered a sizeable portion of the desert. The desert willows that grew in clusters had been incinerated, the surface of the earth riven, huge boulders crushed into pebbles. No scorpions burrowed into the sand, no adders scrambled away from their shadows, not even a blade of grass remained. The whole place seemed like the barren moon of some alien planet.
The yogi could sense disillusionment clouding Robert’s face. His voice was ripe with an uncharacteristic gentleness when he spoke.
‘It was not the glory of the Supreme Being then. The primordial energy that created us cannot be contained in a weapon. It does not save one species and obliterate another. The earth was given to us untarnished. Its surface was not riven by boundaries and borders.’
‘But what about my homeland, my people. What about my duty as a patriot?’ asked Robert.
‘Who determines the beginning and the end of your homeland or the physiognomy of your people? Who decides, whom to call your own, whom to despise, whom to save, whom to kill? Patriotism is an artificial virtue, Robert, because countries are artificial constructs. Our only true home is this planet, and all people are your people. Now think again about your duty towards your homeland and your people and whether you have actually fulfilled it.’
The yogi was on his feet now.
Robert reeled under the impact of his words; the way they attacked the very foundation of all that he had ever believed in made him stagger. His nerves jangled, and he clutched his hair distractedly. In his confusion, he barely noticed the yogi move out of the shade of the tree and walk away. Robert couldn’t tell when his austere figure had melted into the daylight, as if he was never there.
It was almost ten when Robert returned to his quarters. His face looked emaciated; his eyes gleamed with a delirious frenzy. He found Leo and Giovanni waiting for him in the parlour. Their faces were ashen too, grave and unsmiling.
Leo was the first to speak.
‘My God, Robert! You look terrible. You couldn’t sleep either, could you?’
‘Well, no. You?’
‘I couldn’t. Neither could Giovanni. We don’t know what is right or wrong anymore.’
Robert sighed. The more he tried to justify it to himself, the more terrifying it grew in proportions and his mind convulsed with fear and revulsion.
‘I tried to justify it in every possible way. We have created a monstrosity that will consume us all.’
‘But, three years, Robert! For three years we have laboured for this…’
‘Three years don’t hold a chance against the infinite number of years this planet has managed to exist. Our three years’ endeavour might just wipe it out or turn its fecund treasures into barren wastelands. We can’t go ahead with this.’
‘What do we tell General Groves?’
‘That the atomic bomb has too many technical glitches to be replicated.’
‘What about the War? How will it end?’
Robert remained silent for a moment. Familiar words whispered in his ears and for once since yesterday, he felt sure of what he was saying, ‘The war is in the minds of men, my friends. No weapon can end it. We will have to find another way.’
Ananya Mahapatra is a practicing psychiatrist from Delhi. Creative writing has been her soul’s calling since childhood, and her first contributions were short stories and poems made to her college magazine. Creative writing has enabled her to communicate the narratives and experiences of people living with mental illness to the public. She has published her experiences while treating patients, in the Medical Humanities journal Hektoen International. She has also co-authored an article on mental illness for the popular magazine The Equator Line. Recently, her short story “Confessions of a Neurotypical Mom” has been published in an anthology called Twilight’s Children by Readomania. Her short story “The Bureaucrat’s Wife” has been selected for the anthology Best Asian Short Stories 2018 to be published by Kitaab. She is working on her first novel.