“Why do you want to do your thesis on such a dead topic?” my research guide had asked crossly. “You can pick and choose your subject, and you couldn’t find anything better than this?”
I’d shaken my head, stubbornly. “This is what I want to do it on.”
Till three days before, I’d never even heard of the Star Eater. The end of the Empire had seen so much drama, so many spectacular things happening together, that the great ship had been virtually forgotten. It was only while casually trying to find out what I could of the last known battle the Empire had fought that I’d come across the ship.
A little reading, and I was completely hooked.
“I want to do my thesis on this and nothing else,” I’d insisted. “If you have a problem with that, let me know and I’ll look for another guide.”
He’d given in, though with ill grace. But by the time my thesis was ready, he’d been hooked too.
I think of him now, as I trudge through the dust behind the sergeant up to where the skull and crossbones crouch like a predatory animal at the top of the hill. He could be called a curmudgeon, and probably enjoy the description, too; but when the chance had finally come around to send down an expedition, he’d searched me out and found a place for me on it, even when he didn’t have to, and even when that meant giving up a place for himself. He’s old, but not too old for this trip.
We walk under the skull and crossbones and along the bottom of the immense hull. It’s so high that it towers into the darkness above us, and spreading out overhead until the overhang of it forms a ceiling. The hull seems to drink the light, concentrating it and shining it back in tiny malevolent spots like brilliant eyes. The anti-laser mirror polish is still intact after decades in this corroding atmosphere, and I’m reminded again of how advanced technologically the Empire was to us, even now. And once again, I’m amazed at how easily it crumbled away, and in how short a time.
We pass a series of cracks and fissures in the hull, made as the immense metal carcass smashed itself down on this rocky plain. These are all numbered and catalogued, and I can recite them in my head as I pass them by. They’ve been surveyed by the robots, and explored over the last months. We’re looking for something bigger.
Above my head there’s a slanted aperture, one of the gun ports. The multi-barrelled missile thrower will be recessed deep inside. I wonder if it’s still in working condition. No doubt our own military people will be eager to find that out too, as and when they can find their way to it. The whole moving force behind this expedition, after all, is the search for military technology. My historical research is just a sideshow.
“How large was the crew?” the sergeant’s voice says in my ear.
“Nobody’s quite sure. A lot of them were maintenance people, still finishing installation. The ship wasn’t complete when it went out to fight, you know.”
“Give me a rough figure.”
“The crew was about two thousand strong. Add maybe three or four hundred maintenance people. Say two and a half thousand, all told.”
“And all died? No survivors?”
“No survivors,” I tell her, and she sighs in my earphones. I don’t want to think about what the sigh means.
Ahead of us, I can see the lights clustered around what’s called the B3 Fracture Group. These are much bigger fissures, great gashes in the hull that reach far overhead, made when the entire ship flexed as it struck the planet. The robots have found a way in through the inner hull, one big enough for us to enter.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to have come in through the top?” the sergeant asks.
“We can’t land the shuttle on top,” I tell her. “The morphology’s completely uneven, and the battle damage wrecked it even further. We can’t risk a crash.”
We step in through the largest of the B3 fissures. A small robot crawls in front of us, its light illuminating the metal flooring it and its colleagues have laid down. In the light thrown from our suit lamps, the space between the hulls is a maze of struts and buttresses, coated in the dust that’s blown in over the years. Except for the dust that our feet and the robot’s wheels throw up, however, the air’s clear for the first time since we left the shuttle.
In front of us there’s a low triangular gap, its edges peeled back from robotic cutting tools. It’s only just possible to squeeze in, bent half over. The sergeant goes first, her suit entirely filling the hole. A moment later, I follow. There’s a moment of panic when I’m afraid I’m stuck in the gap, and then I’m through.
If the ship looked like a crocodile on the way down, then we are truly in the belly of the beast.
Battles in deep space are slow-motion affairs, and most of the time nothing seems to be happening at all. There are many reasons for this.
For one thing, the antagonists are so far apart that they can never see each other except as dots on the radar scopes, if at all. For another, almost all space warfare consists of trying to guess the moves the enemy will make, and trying to counteract them before the enemy makes them. This is not easy.
Of all the vehicles designed by man, a space battleship is probably the least manoeuvrable thing that will ever be built. Its immense mass gives it a formidable momentum and a slavish adherence to Newton’s First Law that just about has designers tearing their hair out by the roots. Stopping one is a job that in itself is gigantic, starting with shutting off the main drive, and then firing retrockets. These blaze out many tons of plasma, putting out a thrust large enough to counteract the acceleration provided by the main drive all this while. Then, when you’ve slowed enough, some of the tugs mounted like parasites on the outside of the hull must be launched to pull the gigantic mass of metal round to the new heading, while more tugs drag the ship towards the other side to prevent it from moving round too far. And after all that, you’ve got to start up the main drive again to accelerate all that weight to fighting speed…only to discover that your quarry has moved off in a completely different direction, so you have to begin all over again.
Meanwhile, the electronic war is on; radars and other sensors to seek the enemy, screens and moonlets to hide from him, jammers to block his signals and counterjammers to burn through his screens. And all of this done at relativistic distances, so that you’d never know where the enemy actually was, but only where he’d been a few hours ago. And that goes for your own fleet as well; if you spread it out, you’ll never know where your other ships are, or is they even still are; you’ll just know where they were some time ago.
And then, of course, there is the simple fact that space is really not a very nice place. There is, for instance, no air. Therefore there aren’t any of the light and sound effects or the impressive glowing exhausts that so amuse the crews of battleships when the old movies are played on their personal entertainment devices. Lasers don’t slash out across space like swords transfixing an enemy. They wouldn’t be very effective at it if they did, because their beams would be so attenuated that it would take something like a mini-moon sized cannon to have a chance of scoring a lethal hit at typical battle distances, in which case the narrow beam would mean the chances of missing would be high anyway. Instead, they use missiles, mirror-coated to defeat lasers, and pellets hurled in blizzards across space by magnetic launchers. And sometimes they drop space mines across each other’s path.
So this is what the ultimate battle, between contending space fleets, is like: a slow, lumbering game of manoeuvre, double-guessing, and licking at each other with electronic tongues. Weapons are almost never used, of course, unless one captain or the other believes he has a chance of blanketing the enemy with enough ordnance to secure a high enough probability of a hit to make it worthwhile.
And therefore seldom is it that a battle is fought to a conclusion, unless one side is so far superior technologically to the other that the battle should never have been contemplated in the first place. In which case the weaker side either gives up without a shot or runs away at top speed.
The Star Eater’s first, and last, battle was quite different from the general rule. For one thing, she was alone. Admiral van Enkelvoort had expected the Eleventh Destroyer Flotilla to join him, but that flotilla had been routed and dispersed without his knowledge. And, also, the two sides were quite unaware of each other’s presence until they were amazingly close to each other. On the Republic’s side, this was due to relatively primitive technology and the fact that no one had anticipated that the Empire would send the Star Eater out into battle not fully completed. On the Star Eater’s side this was because the electronics systems hadn’t as yet all been fully integrated and fitted.
The first sighting came from a Republic light scout, the Safwan. This small ship was far ahead in front of the Republic’s main forces when her detectors noticed a gigantic object trailing a burst of energy. Once her captain had ceased goggling at his scope and decided that he really was seeing what he was seeing, the Safwan, being only a light scout armed with two short range missiles, made no attempt to attack. He reported her position and heading, and settled down to shadow the battleship. For some reason, the scout remained entirely unnoticed by the Star Eater, probably because she was in a blind spot where the ship’s detectors weren’t functioning.
The commander of the task force which first struck the Star Eater was a Commodore Gordon. He had ten ships under his command. None was larger than a light cruiser, but the numbers meant that he could have his force blanket the Star Eater’s approximate position with ordnance, and expect at least some of it to be effective. And this is what his ships, from their different headings, did, before beginning the process of changing their positions to avoid retaliatory fire.
I have read and watched the old interviews where some of the crew of the Republic’s ships described the battle. At first, as they said, nothing happened. The Imperial battleship’s gigantic hull seemed to absorb all that they threw at it with absolutely no ill effect. Then, with startling suddenness, as a Sub-Lieutenant Zhao, a weapons officer aboard the destroyer Gagarin described,
…a huge green flame seemed to splash across the battleship’s hull, racing from the midsection almost to the bows. So bright was it that it was clearly visible in the scope at even this distance. Clearly, some lucky shot had struck home. The ship’s defences had been breached somehow, and it had been damaged badly. We thought that the battle was over at that moment.
Sub-Lieutenant Zhao’s optimism, as it turned out, was badly misplaced. As though she were a great beast stung to fury, Star Eater’s gun-ports finally opened up, her rotating quick-firing cannon hurling depleted-uranium missiles across space at a fair fraction of the speed of light. At the same time, she launched pods which blasted across space towards the flotilla’s ships and released millions of pellets in bursts meant to swamp any possible defence.
Three of the Republic’s ships were hit in this counterattack, one of them being instantly destroyed, while the other two, including the Gagarin, managed to retreat out of battle. The rest of the task force had to pull back, too, from a second mass volley by the battleship. Although none of them was hit, they were marked by the enemy, and the battleship’s weapons were clearly superior to theirs. Further combat would only mean complete destruction. Only the little Safwan, safe in her niche, continued in contact.
At first, it seemed that the Empire had clearly won this first phase of the battle, but the sub-lieutenant had been right after all. Star Eater had been badly hit. As soon as the task force had dropped out of contact, she fired up her drive to maximum available power and made for the cover of the nearest planet, hoping apparently to be able to orbit in its shadow while carrying out repairs.
That planet was this one, and Admiral Prince van Enkelvoort’s decision was to be the cause of the ship’s ultimate destruction.
Long before the Star Eater had actually reached the safety of the orbit, she’d been detected by the second task force, this one a flotilla of six cruisers under the command of Admiral Ribeiro. The Admiral, using the reports from Safwan to predict the Star Eater’s moves, manoeuvred to cut off the battleship from ahead. As the Star Eater emerged from the night side of the planet, she was hit by volley after volley of missiles. Huge explosions broke out all over her surface, and still she tried to fight back.
Her gun ports were open, an officer interviewed years later was to say. She was shooting blind, her fire control systems obviously wrecked, but she was shooting. Admiral Ribeiro tried to contact her by radio, to demand surrender, but there was no response.
Then the third task force arrived, a combination of cruisers and destroyers under Admiral Tabatabainejad. The two task forces caught the Star Eater in a pincer, and hit her with all they had. The distances were so short that some of the ships even used their communication lasers to strike at the great ship. She had literally nowhere left to go but one – down into the darkness of the planet below, its corrosive atmosphere swirling with clouds.
I remember seeing her in the last moments before she began the plunge, a Commander Ivanov wrote in his memoirs. She was silhouetted against the night side of the planet, and glowing white-hot from all the energy being thrown at her. I felt truly sorry for her crew in that moment. Imperial slavemasters or not, at that moment, they were human beings like me.
And then she was gone.
The ships of the task force could still track her, however, as she plunged towards the surface, and they dropped gravity-bombs after her plummeting form. The bombs burst at pre-set heights, following her down all the way in a series of white flashes like lightning. At last the clouds were illuminated with a sullen red glow that died away slowly.
The battle was over.
We climb through darkened corridors, the only illumination our suit lights. The suit computers remember the way we’ve come, mapping it out in their memories so we don’t end up trapped inside, lost. I’ve seen partial schematics of the ship, of course, but the battle and the crash have so distorted the interior that little of what the blueprints showed makes sense.
We don’t find any bodies, but the detritus of human presence is everywhere, in the discarded bits of uniform, the dead lights studding the ceilings, the very feel of the place. It’s almost as though we could expect to hear survivors tapping on the walls to draw our attention to their plight.
“I hope they screamed all the way down,” the sergeant says, viciously.
I don’t reply, but looking at the metal that has melted and flash-frozen on the walls and roof, I feel deeply uncomfortable, imagining what it would have been like to be in the ship as it fell. By now we are alone. The others who have accompanied us into the ship have all left on their own explorations, towards engine compartments and gun turrets. We two forge on, as far as we can, towards the beast’s very heart.
“Wait!” the sergeant snaps suddenly, holding up a hand. I peer over her shoulder. In front of us the floor has entirely vanished in a tangle of broken metal. The jagged edges look as though they could slice flesh from bone.
“We can’t get any further until the gap’s bridged,” she says. “Do we go back?”
I feel disappointment on the back of my tongue and in my throat, like a bitter pill. Once we go back, the trip’s over for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get down to the planet again, or if so, when.
“Let’s check in here first,” I suggest, pointing to a rent in the wall on our right. I’ve only just noticed it, a narrow slice in the metal, and normally I wouldn’t ever think of stepping in there. But I don’t want to leave now, not right away. I want to be here as long as I can.
The room inside is small, almost as small as the shuttle’s airlock. The walls, floor, and even the ceiling are blackened and scorched. A metal desk fitted to one side is distorted, as though it’s been melted from heat.
“Here’s one,” the sergeant says. I turn, and see she’s opened a panel in the wall. Crammed into the space behind is a skeleton.
“He must’ve hidden in there from the fire,” I say. “it must have been hell for him.”
“They deserved it,” the sergeant says. Her voice is filled with hate. “They deserved it, every last one of them. This one was probably a startrooper. Look at what’s left of his uniform.”
Sickened, I turn away. The sergeant is still surveying the skeleton. I see something small and black on the floor, which must have fallen out when she opened the panel. Unobtrusively, I slip it into my suit’s pocket.
“Let’s go back,” I say.
“I know I’ve not much longer to live,” the voice begins.
I sit back in my chair and listen. Three weeks have gone by since I found the recorder in the room on the Star Eater, and I’ve waited this long, until I’ve got back home, to play it. The reason’s simple: I’ve assumed every action of mine on board that ship has been monitored, and on the shuttle and the mother ship as well.
The voice is slightly distorted, but otherwise clear. “I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my life,” the long-dead man says in my ear, “but I don’t know if this is the punishment for them. If it is, then it’s a strange punishment indeed, that it should strike us all down in the same way, at the same time. All of us with different crimes, to be punished in the same way. It is a little hard for me to believe.
“The heat outside is growing steadily. I ran to hide in here when the fire broke out. I wish now that I hadn’t. I know how it’s going to end, now, with a slow roasting to death inside this metal coffin. Instant incineration would have been far better. But I can’t leave. The door of the locker has jammed, and this is to be my final rest.
“I remember the days of my youth, when heat meant a brassy noonday sun shining down on the grasslands. I remember walking back from the whitewashed school building for lunch, the satchel heavy over my shoulder, watching the vultures circle high in the sky. I cursed the heat in those days. I’d smile, if I could, at those memories. How I wish I could have those days back again!
“The ship is shaking. I don’t know how the battle has gone; my job was to keep trying to make it battleworthy even in the midst of combat, and that is what I have tried to do. Until the walls began to glow with the heat, I have tried to do my job as best I could. Let no one say I shirked my duty.
“Do I fear death? At this moment, I won’t lie. I fear the process of dying, which is going to be, for me, protracted and intensely uncomfortable. But once it’s over, it’s over. At least then I will be at peace.
“I didn’t choose to be here, but what I have done, I have done as well as I could. Let nobody be able to say that when the time came, I held back in any way from my duty.
“The heat is growing unbearable, and I don’t think I shall be able to talk much longer.
“I wish for some things in these last moments. I wish for a glass of cold water. I wish to feel the breeze on my face. I wish to throw myself in the river and swim, the flow lifting my worries away.
“But I wish most of all to see, once more, my wife’s and my daughter’s face.
“This is Olesegun Ajekwo, Imperial slave and chattel, engineer of the fifth rank, signing off.”
I listen to the recording once more, from the beginning, memorising every word. I shall keep a copy, but the original, I’ll send to the sergeant tonight.
Much more than anyone else, Sergeant Ajekwo has a right to it.
As for me – my interest in the great ship is done.
It shall never be the same to me again.