The star-destroyer Sultan Erdogan had just rounded the gravitational well of the red giant star when the First Officer saw the blip on the scope.
“Captain-Pasha,” he called excitedly across the control room. “Look here.”
Putting down his flask of non-alcoholic nonwine, Captain-Pasha Davutoglu peered into his screen. “It is,” he said. “It’s a Durkish ship, sure enough.”
“It hasn’t seen us yet,” the First Officer said. “Should I open fire?”
“Not yet,” Captain-Pasha Davutoglu responded. His heart was thudding with excitement. “If we play this right, we could capture it. Could you imagine what a colossal thing that would be?” Turning to his console, he set a course brushing the corona of the red giant, trying to keep the Sultan Erdogan camouflaged in its heat and glare.
“It’s right there for the taking,” the First Officer said. He rubbed his fingers, as though they were itching to press the firing buttons. “It’s probably not even military. It’s not taking any precautions at all.”
“That doesn’t mean we should just go blundering right in,” Captain-Pasha Davutoglu said. “We don’t know what the Durkish are capable of. Nobody’s ever seen a Durk. Besides, don’t forget...” He glanced at the Navigation Officer. “Well? We are in Durkish space, aren’t we?”
“Yes, my Lord Captain-Pasha,” the Navigation Officer said humbly, fiddling with his fez. “As I reported earlier, we’re well past the frontiers of Manspace. This star is clearly sited in Durkspace in all the astromaps.”
“There you are,” the Captain-Pasha told the First Officer. “We can’t let ourselves be seen here. We’ll sneak up on it until we’re close enough to pounce.” He took a long swig of the nonwine to wet his parched throat. “And keep a sharp look out for any Durkish warships!”
As the Captain-Pasha sipped the nonwine, the Sultan Erdogan manoeuvred carefully round the red giant, slowly closing the distance between it and the Durkish ship. It was just visible now in the view scopes, at the largest magnification of the cameras: a bulging, ovoid object vaguely reminiscent of a pregnant whale, wallowing through space at a fraction of the destroyer’s speed.
“We’ll capture her for sure,” the Captain-Pasha said to nobody in particular. “I’ll bet I get awarded the Ottoman Medal, Second Class for this. I mean,” he added hastily, “I’ll bet we all get awarded it, of course.”
“It looks like a freighter,” the First Officer said. “Look at those loading docks and cargo modules. Anywhere you go in space, the freighters look alike.”
“Freighters are slow and defenceless,” the Captain-Pasha said with satisfaction. “Let’s get her.”
“There’s no way it can get away,” the First Officer said, as he touched the icon on the screen.
Engines pulsing greedily, the Sultan Erdogan edged forward.
“We thought it was sure thing,” Captain-Pasha Davutoglu said, looking contritely down at the floor. “We couldn’t anticipate that the Durkish ship could get away.”
Prince-General Khaled al Bandar al Barbarabadi al Saud stared at him coldly, his fingers tapping on the hilt of his beheading sword. “Your instructions, Captain-Pasha,” he said, “were to penetrate Durkspace and get as much information as you could about them. And after you got such a golden opportunity to capture one of their ships, you managed to let it get away!”
The assembled officers and media people glared at the wretched Captain-Pasha accusingly. “Traitor!” a young Sheikh-Colonel with a long black beard hissed. “You ought to be tried and executed for this!”
“No need for that...yet,” Prince-General Barbarabadi said, noting the queasy glances that passed among the assembled officers and media people. “I believe the Captain-Pasha has managed to salvage something from the ruins of his...expedition.” He turned to glare at Davutoglu. “Well?”
“When we attempted to close in on the Durkish ship,” the unfortunate Captain-Pasha said, “we had identified it positively as a freighter, and, therefore, we didn’t think it could attempt to escape at any speed. We...” He looked up quickly, assessed the general mood, and looked down again. “We’d thought to come close and then order them to stop so we could take the ship as a trophy. And we did manage to come close, exactly as planned. And then we did order them to stop, exactly as planned. Only, unfortunately...” He licked his lips. “Unfortunately, when we ordered them to stop, instead of doing so the ship simply fell apart.”
“Fell apart?” the Sheikh-Colonel snapped. “Make sense, man!”
“The ship was all built of cargo compartments put together, sir,” the Captain-Pasha said. “As soon as we ordered them to stop, and fired a missile past them for emphasis, they simply dumped everything – all the cargo compartments, in fact, everything they could – and the central section took off at a speed we couldn’t work up to in a hurry. By the time we managed to get up to speed, the central section was far away and much deeper inside Durkspace than it was safe for us to go. We turned back to at least capture the cargo compartments, but they’d dispersed and disappeared. Most of them had probably spiralled into orbits close around the sun and been burnt up.”
“And then what did you do?” the Prince-General asked icily.
“We had to presume that the freighter would report our presence in Durkspace, so we had to abandon the mission and withdraw.”
“All I can see here,” the Sheikh-Colonel said, “is evidence of colossal incompetence. What did you salvage from your expedition, as the Prince-General said, that would excuse you?”
“Well, this, sir.” The Captain-Pasha picked up the case he had placed on the floor at his feet. “The Durkish vessel had dumped, as I said, everything it could as it escaped. We found this.”
Everyone stared at the flat black can he produced from the case. “What is it?” the Sheikh-Colonel asked.
“It’s some kind of record of their world and civilisation, such as it is.” The Captain-Pasha shrugged. “I haven’t the equipment on the Sultan Erdogan to decipher it, and in any case I don’t have the security clearance for that kind of responsibility. But even though we couldn’t capture either the Durkish ship or its crew, we still could get the information we need from this.”
The Prince-General took the can from the Captain-Pasha and tapped it thoughtfully. “Very well, Captain-Pasha,” he said at last. “We will look into this. You may go.”
“My ship...” Captain-Pasha Davutoglu began. “I mean, I promised the men...”
“When we invade Durkspace, your ship will lead the front line. Now go!”
Saluting clumsily, the Captain-Pasha went.
Message from the Prince-General Khaled al Bandar al Barbarabadi al Saud to the Lord-President Donald Clinton XIV, Emperor of the Realms of Man:
Your Sublime Majesty,
Greetings and humble salutations.
I have the honour to report on the information so far received about the Durkish, and the projected action to be taken against them based on this information.
I would venture to remind Your Sublime Majesty first of the background events leading up to the conclusion I will present to you, in order that you understand clearly why there is no other solution to be arrived at.
Your Sublime Majesty will recollect that we first encountered the Durks when exploratory ships, expanding the Realms of Man, came up against signals and other indications that we were approaching the frontiers of space controlled by another civilisation. We could find out nothing about them except their name, which we can transcribe into Manspeak most closely as Durk.
As you will readily understand, we could not tolerate the existence of the Durks so close to our own space, since they were a potential threat to our security. However, it was also both impossible and foolhardy to attempt any invasion without knowledge of their capabilities – and of those we knew, of course, nothing. We did not even know what they looked like.
Therefore, and in total secrecy, Your Sublime Majesty, we sent one of our latest ships into Durkish space on an intelligence gathering mission. It was the star-destroyer Sultan Erdogan, under the command of one of our most dashing officers, one Captain-Pasha Davutoglu. His orders were to penetrate Durkspace without being detected, discreetly survey their defences, and pick up as much information about them as he might find. You will understand that strictly speaking this mission was illegal, but it being a matter of our species’ security and well-being, the question of holding back didn’t arise. The Durkish had to be spied upon so we could decide how they were to be destroyed.
Soon after entering Durkspace, in the vicinity of the red giant star H1LL4RY, the Sultan Erdogan encountered a Durkish freighter. Unfortunately an attempt to capture it as a trophy failed, but the star-destroyer was able to retrieve an extremely important item: a recording which, on analysis, gives us incredibly important insights into the appearance, culture, and abilities of the Durks. So important are the conclusions that are to be drawn from it, in fact, Your Sublime Majesty, that the following section of this report is for your eyes only.
The Durks appear to be a race which is incredibly ugly – so ugly that it would be a travesty to let them live. However, ugly or not, they are, even by human standards, incredibly adaptable; we have seen one, without any apparent effort, swim underwater, run at a speed approaching that of a rocket car, and then fly through the air, all in the course of a few minutes. They also seem to be quite amazingly strong; so strong that we watched one lift the wreckage of a bridge off a trapped juvenile to free it, all with the help of only its own spiny tentacles. And even more amazingly, they can even travel at least for short distances through the vacuum of space; we don’t know how they do it, but the evidence is clear that they do.
Most important of all, however, Your Sublime Majesty, is the fact that they are almost incredibly violent. Their worlds seem to exist in a state of near-constant conflict, with immense amounts of death and destruction. Not surprisingly, they also seem to have immense stores of weaponry, which they use on each other at the slightest provocation. The recording the star-destroyer retrieved gives us some idea of the capabilities of these weapons, and, Your Sublime Majesty, they are far, far more capable than anything our scientists have even imagined possible. Their weapons, Your Sublime Majesty, are to ours as ours are to sticks and stones.
And this is why I must reluctantly reverse my own position totally, Your Sublime Majesty, and advise you that, without the slightest delay, we must cancel all our invasion plans, withdraw our assembled fleet, make contact with the Durks and sue for peace. That is our only hope and the only course of action open to us. If we attack, we will be quite effortlessly defeated, and our own race probably enslaved or destroyed in turn. If we do not attack, but do not make friendly overtures, the Durks will – given their extraordinarily violent tendencies – inevitably decide that we are a threat to them and invade us anyway.
With immense sorrow, we must bow to the inevitable, and recognise that in this instance the glorious path of warfare has failed us.
I remain, your humble and most obedient military commander-in-chief,
Prince-General Khaled al Bandar al Barbarabadi al Saud.
Hgrunth High-Priest, this year’s Leader-By-Consensus of the Durkish Alliance of Peoples, crossed his tentacles in some confusion. “Explain, please.”
Okanal Healer-Hands withdrew and extended her eye stalks rapidly, signifying her own bafflement. “I can’t explain, Hgrunth. But it’s perfectly correct. The humans have sent us a quite unequivocal message asking for peace terms and a permanent treaty of friendship.”
“But why?” Hgrunth High-Priest almost wailed, his carapace plates clicking in his agitation. “From what we discovered of these humans, they are a tremendously violent and aggressive species, whose only interest seems to be invasion, conquest and slaughter. As you know, we’d resigned ourselves to them attacking and destroying us at some point in the future. Why would they ever ask for peace? What would they get out of it?”
The Durks gathered in the Great Chamber of the People looked at each other. “We are a defenceless and peaceful race,” Bizek Science-Seeker observed, “and they are a violent and martial one, which could overwhelm us without effort. Therefore, if they’re asking for peace terms, it can only be because they fear us for some reason. It is extremely strange.”
“There seems to be no reason for them to fear us,” Okanal Healer-Hands agreed. “As far as we can tell, their only prior contact with us was when one of their war vessels attempted to attack one of our cargo ships. The cargo vessel successfully managed to jettison its containers and escape.” She shrugged her tentacles. “I was aboard the cargo vessel myself, and I can assure you that the human ship was more than capable of wiping us out, and it was only by the use of the gravity-well emergency-escape system that we managed to get away. Even then, we had to jettison everything, including all our personal belongings.”
“Since they are sincere about their offer of friendship,” Hgrunth High-Priest said slowly, “we will of course accept it. It’s not only to the advantage of our own species, which would escape inevitable destruction, but I believe that the humans would benefit from peace as well. I wish I knew why, though.” He gestured impatiently with all his tentacles. “Oh well, it doesn’t really matter, as long as we get there in the end.”
“I’ll send the message accepting their offer at once,” Gorth Many-Tongues promised.
As the meeting ended, Bizek Science-Seeker slithered out alongside his old friend and occasional lover Okanal Healer-Hands. “So you were on the ship the humans attacked,” he said. “Was it a very traumatic experience?”
Okanal Healer-Hands swivelled her eye stalks self-deprecatingly. “Well, you know me. I tend to panic at the slightest thing. But, really, when it was over, I calmed down soon enough.”
“You said you lost all your belongings,” Bizek Science-Seeker reminded her. “That must have been terrible.”
“None of it was in any way valuable,” Okanal Healer-Hands responded. “The only thing I really minded losing was the recording of that new movie, which I’d bought just before we left and I never got to watch. You know, Flames of Wrath. They say it’s got wonderful special effects.”
“That terrible piece of trash?” Bizek Science-Seeker scoffed. “It’s awful. Filled with violence and inanity. You’re lucky to have missed afflicting yourself with it.”
“Oh well,” Okanal Healer-Hands said. “I never much liked the science fiction-superhero crossover genre anyway.”
Tentacle in tentacle, they slithered out into the warm Durkish evening.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016