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The Empire's Last Battle
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)

Page 1

The clouds reach up and smear across the windows as we descend, instantly turning day to gloomy near-night. The darkness is so sudden that it takes a moment for the eyes to adjust, even though the cabin lights brighten instantly to compensate.

I lean as far towards the window as I can and peer down through the murk. "I donít wonder it took so long to find it," I say.

The sergeant has pressed herself back in her seat to let me look, and she gently nudges me with her hand. She introduced herself as Ajekwo when we first met. No first name.† "You can see it as well on your viewer," she says. "Better, in fact."

"I know, but I prefer to see it with my own eyes and draw my own conclusions." I sit back, glancing at her. Sheís very black, tall and wirily muscular, with a cap of woolly hair fitted tightly to her narrow elegant skull. She might have even been pretty except for the look in her eyes, a mix of suspicion and resentment, which sheís worn ever since Iíd first met her, long enough for me to decide that itís her habitual look.

She turns away from me, fiddling at the controls of her viewer. Itís showing only the position of the shuttle relative to the surface, a red pip descending over a graphical representation of spiky hills and valleys, not what Iím interested in. I turn to mine, and experiment with the controls until I find what Iím looking for.

On the screen the ship shows as an elongated smear, growing slowly larger as the shuttle descends. Iíve seen this view, more than once, of course, as the robot probes made this same journey. But this time itís us, itís me, with nothing between me and the ship but a few kilometres of the poison-air.

As we drop closer to the ship, I grow again impressed by her gigantic size. Iíd known all about that, of course Ė I am, after all, the foremost historian of this shipís life and death Ė but the size still amazes me. Compared to its bulk, this tiny shuttle would look like a gnat hovering over a dozing crocodile in some primordial swamp. It even looks vaguely like a crocodile, long and spindle-shaped, and I can imagine it waiting in ambush for prey.

But its ambushing days are gone. Itís a carcass now, picked over by the corroding winds.

"So there it is." The sergeant has switched to the same view. Her long slender fingers touch buttons on the viewer, much more expertly than I, and the screen fills abruptly with the image of the wreck. Itís blurred at first, but sharpens swiftly as she sweeps a pointer over it. I can even make out some of the details Iím familiar with from my research and the images the robot probes sent.

"Yes," I say. "There it is, right enough."

"Youíve waited a long time to see it, isnít that so?" Her face is expressionless, her eyes intent on the screen of her viewer. If not for the fact that thereís nobody else for her to talk to, I wouldnít be able to tell itís me whom sheís addressing. "You researched it, Iím told, for your doctorate thesis and then all the time afterwards."

"Thatís right. I find everything about this ship fascinating."

"Is it like a love affair? I mean, is it like a lifelong consuming passion with you?"

"You could call it that, I suppose." I peer at what I can see of her face. Her voice has grown curiously tense in the last few moments, as though sheís holding something in with an effort. "Itís certainly the most important thing in my life right now."

"I thought it might be." With a touch, she blanks out her viewer. Mine still shows the ship as an elongated featureless blob. She points to it. "I hate it. I hate everything about those people, the Empire. And I volunteered for this mission only so I can see the last of it for myself, and be happy itís gone."

"Weíve found a way into the core section," the voice in my ear had said.

Iíd struggled awake, sitting up in bed with my hand holding the earpiece in place, quite superfluously of course. "You have?"

"Yes, one of our robots which went in through one of the breaks in the outer hull found a way in through the inner hull too. Iíll give you the co-ordinates later. So far it looks good, all the way to the central section and the engine banks. Maybe we can even find our way to the control rooms. But that can be left till later. For now..."

[ Continue to page 2 ]

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Genre:Science Fiction
Type:Short story
Rating:7.09 / 10
Rated By:44 users
Comments: 2 users
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