The Empire's Last Battle
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
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
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
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
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
"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."
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..."
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