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 don’t 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. She’s 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 she’s worn ever since I’d first met her, long enough for me to decide that it’s her habitual look.
She turns away from me, fiddling at the controls of her viewer. It’s 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 I’m interested in. I turn to mine, and experiment with the controls until I find what I’m looking for.
On the screen the ship shows as an elongated smear, growing slowly larger as the shuttle descends. I’ve seen this view, more than once, of course, as the robot probes made this same journey. But this time it’s us, it’s 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. I’d known all about that, of course – I am, after all, the foremost historian of this ship’s life and death – 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. It’s 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. It’s blurred at first, but sharpens swiftly as she sweeps a pointer over it. I can even make out some of the details I’m familiar with from my research and the images the robot probes sent.
“Yes,” I say. “There it is, right enough.”
“You’ve waited a long time to see it, isn’t that so?” Her face is expressionless, her eyes intent on the screen of her viewer. If not for the fact that there’s nobody else for her to talk to, I wouldn’t be able to tell it’s me whom she’s addressing. “You researched it, I’m told, for your doctorate thesis and then all the time afterwards.”
“That’s 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 she’s holding something in with an effort. “It’s 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 it’s gone.”
“We’ve found a way into the core section,” the voice in my ear had said.
I’d 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. I’ll 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…”
“You’re planning an expedition?” My stomach had clenched. “Get me a place on it, damn you!”
“Why do you think I’m calling?” He’d sounded slightly miffed. “I need you to report within three hours though, if you’re going to go.”
“I’ll be there,” I’d said, scrambling out of bed. “And, listen, thanks.”
“That’s all right.” His voice had softened a bit. “I knew you’d want to go. I’ve seen the look in your eyes often enough, whenever anyone discusses this ship. It’s a labour of love with you, not just a job, and that’s so rare these days. It wouldn’t have been right to keep you from it.”
“Lucky the technology’s developed enough to let us go down now,” I’d said.
“Yes…we’re catching up to the Empire in some ways, at last. In other ways, of course, it’s better if we never do.”
That had been four weeks ago, and half a system away.
“My grandfather was a slave of the Empire,” the sergeant says.
We’re suiting up, as we await our turn for the airlock. She’ll remain with me all through. Officially she’s my bodyguard and protector. Unofficially, we both know she’s there to keep watch on me, and that’s her only real purpose.
“Oh?” I glance at her with new interest. No wonder she was so tense on the way down. The Empire’s slave camps are notorious, even now, so long after the last of them was captured and its pitiful load of prisoners liberated. “A slave labourer?”
“I don’t know. Labourer, farmer, what does it matter? The records were destroyed when the Empire collapsed. My family never traced him again after they conscripted him.” Her mouth twists, angrily. “I grew up with my grandmother never quite admitting that he wouldn’t come back again. She was waiting for him till the day she died.”
“I’m not favouring the empire,” I try to explain. “I just find the history of this ship a subject of fascinating study, that’s all.”
She shrugs, tightening the harness over the padded expanse of her chest. Her head looks tiny on top of the bulky suit, as mine must surely be. Lifting my helmet, she secures it to my suit by its clips and gaskets before looking to her own. She has to do almost everything for me, because there has hardly been any time to train on the way out.
“It doesn’t really matter whether you favour the Empire or not,” she says, her voice in my earphones. “It’s gone, and it’s not going to come back, ever again.”
We step into the airlock, which is only just large enough to accommodate us both. The tiny chamber fills rapidly with black as the curdled atmosphere outside is pumped in. Just in time, before the sergeant reminds me, I turn on my suit light. The darkness turns to a swirling yellowish blur.
“It’s going to be better outside,” Sergeant Ajekwo says.
I want to ask how she can be sure. After all, we’re the first to make planetfall since the end of the Empire. But, of course, going by the pictures the robots sent up, she’s right. The airlock’s already going through its cycle, the outer hatch opening. I step outside, stumbling slightly. The wind lashes at me, but the weight of the suit is so great I feel only a faint buffet.
“This way.” The sergeant crosses my field of vision, carrying a case of instruments and recording media. “You can see the lights.”
The shuttle has settled on the top of a low hillock. Not far off, I can see a glow, where the robots have switched on the visual floods for us. The first of the expedition members to have left the shuttle have already set off down the hill. I can see their suit lights bobbing in the gloom.
As I go down after them, I try to retain this moment in my memory. Everything that’s happening now, every step I’m taking, is taking me closer to the thing that’s occupied my waking hours for going on twenty years. I’ve even dreamt of it, more times than I care to remember.
I’m down on the flat at the bottom of the hillock when the winds whip the clouds away, for only a moment, but completely. And even though I’ve known it was coming, even though I’ve been expecting it, the sight still takes my breath away.
Towering through the darkness is the immense bow, thrusting through the murk, the empty eyes of the skull on the prow gazing into eternity, the bared teeth above the crossbones snarling defiance across the decades. Destroyed, yes, but never defeated. Not quite.
Then the wind dies down, and the mists close in again.
She was launched in the Emperor’s shipyards orbiting New Byzantium, the capitol of the Third Dynasty. For years she lay in orbit, as a mass of machines and men swarmed over her, fitting and cutting and melding, turning her from a skeletal mass of metal to what she was born to be, the greatest battleship ever to sail the spaces between the stars.
The Empress came in person at the great ship’s official launching, clad in her formal robes, with the High Crown on her head and the sceptre in her hand, to show she was acting in the Emperor’s name. I’ve seen her picture at the launching, her small oval face framed in the high collar of her gown, pale except for the vivid red of her mouth and the blue-green shading around her eyes. For an Empress, she’d been young and pretty, her motions graceful as she had formally soldered the last connections in platinum and pressed the red button that had set the machinery humming. Her last act before leaving had been to name the vessel.
“I name thee the Imperial Battleship Star Eater.”
For three more years the ship had hung in her orbital docks, as her systems were checked and integrated, her turrets and missiles fitted, and slowly, but surely, she became the battleship she was to be.
The Empire made no attempt to keep her secret. She was a force-in-being, a warning to the subject worlds to blot out all thoughts of rebellion. She was a symbol, too, of the Empire’s domination of the starways. For once she was complete, what force could ever challenge her, or her sister ships to follow?
But those were turbulent years for the Empire, with wars draining the treasury, internal dissent burgeoning, and the threat of revolution now real and growing. First one and then another province had broken away, and open defiance had grown from a rarity, swiftly squelched, to such proportions as to become virtually the norm. And those provinces and systems which had totally broken away had proclaimed the Union of Republics. Open warfare raged across the spaces between the stars, and the Empire, unable to count on the support or resources of colony worlds any longer, was getting the worst of it.
From a symbol of Imperial power, the Star Eater had become a necessity, something essential if the Empire was to survive.
Such were the circumstances when her operational crew had finally come abroad. Most of the navy was already deployed in combat, but the best men were still removed from battlefields across a third of the galaxy to crew her. Weapons specialists, engineers, navigators, she had them all, and even her own battalion of startroopers.
And her captain and admiral came aboard, too, both decorated and experienced officers, absolutely loyal to the crown since both of them were related to the royals by blood. I’ve seen enough pictures and videos of theirs to be able to recognise them instantly: Baron Imamura, the captain, long-faced and with drooping eyelids, as though he was always sleepy. And, his superior, Rear Admiral Prince van Enkelvoort, one of the tallest officers in the navy, so tall that special royal dispensation had had to be sought to give him his commission. Van Enkelvoort’s pictures clearly show the black implanted irises of his eyes; as an albino, his vision wouldn’t have allowed him anywhere near an Imperial commission otherwise, royal blood or no.
The plan had been to take the ship away from New Byzantium to the region of the asteroid cluster known as the Seven Sisters for working up and training so as to make her fit for combat. But by this time the Empire’s frontiers were crumbling, the navy destroyed and dispersed, and the threat to the core planets, even New Byzantium itself, was very real. The time for such luxuries as extended working up and training was long past. Star Eater would be going right into combat, to save the Emperor and the Empire from utter and complete defeat.
Slipping her moorings to the orbital dock for the first time ever, the great ship allowed no fewer than fourteen space tugs to draw her away from the shipyard. At a safe distance, they pulled in different directions and halted her as the supply ships came alongside, and the transfer of food and other essentials started.
Meanwhile, the Union of Republics’ navy was approaching. Having defeated and dispersed the Empire’s last remaining flotillas of destroyers and cruisers, three task forces were converging on New Byzantium, concentrating on a knockout blow at the very head of the beast.
Supplies taken aboard, Star Eater dropped her tug lines and fired up her drive in a colossal burst of actinic power. Officers and crew hurried to their stations. Even though neither side knew about each other’s presence as yet, the first decisions had already been taken that would bring them into collision.
In the plotting rooms on both sides, the battle had already begun.
To be concluded: