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Old 12-17-2020, 10:37 AM   #5 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Title: "Behind the Mask"
Genre: Speculative Fiction/Horror
Written: August 21 2019
Word Count: 5,083

Notes: This story was inspired by one I read by Isaac Asimov decades ago. It's a little similar but I like to think there are enough differences between the two that his can be seen as more a springboard for mine, rather than being a copy.

Further note: My old enemy, the max character count, rises to confront me once again, after all this time. Have at you, old friend! Once more unto the etc. So this will have to be split into two parts.

BEHIND THE MASK

Perhaps it was odd that the sound of a single shot had been audible above the incessant shelling, rumbling of tanks and crumbling of masonry, but then, this was no ordinary shot. Trembling slightly, but determined that it not show, he watched Linge and Bormann open the door and then, with the reverence of an acolyte entering a sepulchre, Günsche poked his head through the door, almost fearing the by-now-characteristic bark and snarl, but only silence greeted him. Urged on (ordered, really) by the two silent men who stood at the door, Günsche moved into the Holy of Holies, to bear witness to the undeniable, and to some, inconceivable fact that God was indeed dead.

Of course, there hadn't exactly been a rush towards the door once that fateful report had echoed away down the bleak stony corridors, like a ghost exiting the bunker, and he couldn't honestly say that he wanted to be the one to breach that sanctum. But the idea was intolerable that Linge, a mere valet, an SS Man in name only – what battles had he fought? What wounds had he received? - should take that dubious honour, that history should record such a man as being the one to discover, or confirm, what Günsche was now to relay to the two grim-faced men waiting at the door, something they all knew in their hearts was true, unavoidable, inescapable, yet surely hoped was not.

And so it was he, Sturmbahnfuhrer Otto Günsche, his personal adjutant who made his way slowly and carefully into the chamber, the air thick and cloying, and not just with the smell of cordite. The smell that most assailed his nostrils was, oddly, of almonds. His heart pounded as his feet took him into the room, and he felt a sudden sense of being strangled, or perhaps suffocated was closer to the truth.

Claustrophobia.

He did not suffer from it, but seeing what lay before him, walking into that small room that stank of death and defeat (and almonds), he felt anyone would have been similarly affected. He almost turned and ran. Almost. But retreat, even now, when all was lost, even in this small operation, was not an option. It never had been.

She lay, her feet drawn up, not a mark on her, beside him in death; a place, an honour she had been denied in life, and he felt an unreasoning hatred well up inside him. It wasn't true of course, he knew that; but he wanted to blame her for this, the worst tragedy in perhaps all of recent history. He tried to find ways to lay the responsibility at her feet; told himself how she had distracted this greatest of men, caused him to lose focus, influenced his decisions. But in the end, he knew all of those were lies. She hadn't had the kind of effect upon his master that he, Günsche, wanted her to have had, in order to be able to point the finger at her and say to the corpse, you did this!

No, he couldn't say that. This man, this – this god – had not been one to allow anyone to exert control over him, be it logically, emotionally or even sexually. He did everything on his own terms, and in the end, he had died on his own terms. But looking at her now with cold, calculating eyes, he hated her. He could do that. He couldn't hate her for all the imagined crimes he wanted her to be guilty of, but he could hate her for one reason, and nobody could deny him that.

At the very end, she had shared his last moments with him. She had been the only one locked in here with him. She had died with him, an honour no other living being could claim. Oh, plenty had died for him – hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions – and even more had died because of him (though some of them – most of them, really – weren't really what he'd call people in any real sense of the word). But only one person had died with him. Only one person had shared his final moments, looked into his eyes as he faced death, and seen, possibly, the life drain from them as he left this world. Only one living being had shared his last breath.

For that honour, even if, in attaining it, she had given her own life, he could hate her. And he did.

Yes. Hate her, he certainly did. But she was incidental, a tiny footnote in a history even now coming, to all intents and purposes, to an ignominious end. How someone as insignificant as her had managed to forever be linked with the greatest man ever to breathe the air of this undeserving planet was, he believed sourly, one of those little twists of fate, a cosmic joke that he personally did not find funny. He realised with a sort of internal grunt where the smell of almonds originated: she had not emulated her lover, her husband of mere hours, by shooting herself, but had died by administering (or being administered) prussic acid, and its telltale aroma now hung in the air, heavy as the incense at a requiem mass.

But to hell with her, he decided, anger being replaced by shock, loss and sadness as his eyes moved beyond the pathetic woman who had dared to associate with this giant. She was nothing. Less that nothing, and he didn't really care about her. Nobody did, and nobody ever would. It was the figure slumped in the armchair who demanded his attention, head toppled forward onto the table in front, and for a fleeting, glorious second it seemed as if he was only asleep.

Then Günsche saw the dark stain pooling on the arm of the sofa, and the blood dripping from the table, and he knew. The gun had fallen from his fingers and lay on the ground, his own gun. How fitting, thought Günsche. There was perhaps a little sarcasm, a little bitterness in that thought, punctuated by the explosion of a Russian shell as the building above shook to the impact.

Careful not to touch anything, he backed out of the room, faced Bormann and Linge, and announced, in the voice of one who has lost everything, “Gentlemen, the Fuhrer is dead.”

Perhaps, even though he had declared, in one last fanatical act of defiance, that he would take his own life rather than surrender, the death of Adolf Hitler may have come as a surprise to some of them, but most had expected and feared it. Things had turned badly against Germany in the last few months of the war, and their leader had seemed to almost exist in his own private fantasy world, refusing to believe he had been outfought, outmatched, out-thought, clinging desperately and vainly to his belief in the ideal of the Aryan Ubermensch. How could he have been defeated? How could Germany lose the war? Such a thing was not possible, and so, it appeared, he had decided not to believe it.

But it was true. His generals knew it, his soldiers knew it, his people knew it. And the Allies certainly knew it, as they advanced closer each day, each hour, weaving a web of steel that was inexorably strangling Berlin, drawing her in to her own destruction. He could have sued for peace. Any sane man might well have done. But Adolf Hitler could never be called sane, not in the last days of the war. Perhaps never in his life.

Addicted to painkillers and various drugs, suffering the onset of Parkinson's Disease, over-tired, irritable and carrying the effects of the bomb blast from which he had so narrowly escaped in 1944, the Fuhrer was a shadow of the man who had led Germany out of the ignominy of defeat and the shame and humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, and who had routed his enemies like a modern-day Caesar, conquering most of Europe in a year, driving out the English, subjugating the French and turning on his erstwhile allies, the Russians. This last, of course, had proven to be his undoing, and by sowing those ill-chosen seeds when he had, he had reaped the whirlwind of his first major defeat and the beginning of the end had appeared, distant but undeniable and unavoidable, on the horizon.

History would call him a coward, and perhaps he was, now; but Günsche remembered that the Fuhrer had served with distinction in the First World War, and while really his role in that “War to end all Wars” could best be described as a messenger boy, he had been decorated by the Army and praised for his bravery. However, Günsche had to admit, it was hard not to label as coward a man who had orchestrated and overseen the extermination of millions of human beings simply because he did not like them, and any leader who refused to save his people at the last, by allowing surrender and suing for terms, facing his crimes and prepared to pay for them, could hardly be called anything else.

History would, as always, be the final arbitrator of how Adolf Hitler was remembered.

Backed into a corner, Hitler had refused to be captured, had refused to fight on the streets like the generals of old whom he had so admired, defending their empires and falling with their men. No, he had hidden away in this rabbit warren, this living tomb under the Reichschancellery, stubbornly trying to halt the inevitable by the sheer force of his will, determined to ignore reality, pretend everything was going to be all right, and when it was clear everything was not going to be all right, blame everyone but himself.

But in the end, there was only himself to blame, and now he had paid the ultimate price, perhaps laughing hysterically as he cheated the Russians of their prize. The humiliation! He, the leader of the Third Reich, the scourge of Europe, the Man Who Would Be King, the greatest German ever to live! To be taken like a dog by these – these inhuman Slavs, these Communists, these Bolsheviks! For them to interrogate, torture, try him (perhaps) and eventually execute him, his body displayed for all to see. No. He would not meet the same fate that had befallen Il Duce. Let Berlin – let all of Germany burn. He would not be there to witness it.

Germany was to blame. Germany had failed him. That was obvious to even the most feeble-minded idiot. It was not him. It was not his schemes that had come unstuck, not his strategic errors that had lost the war for the Nazis. The will of the German people, which he had nurtured, fanned to heroic heights, a column of passion and fervour to light the way to a thousand-year Reich, that was what had failed. The people were not good enough. The people were not strong enough. The people were not committed enough. The people had failed him. Germany had failed him. He was too good for them; they did not deserve him.

So let them all go down in flames.
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