This summer Timur’s parents took him to Pluto on holiday.
Timur was very excited to go to Pluto. They travelled on a spaceship that was golden in colour and looked like a bottle, which Timur thought was quite funny. The spaceship was called Crossbow. A nice name, wasn’t it? They had a good room to themselves, though it wasn’t large, and when the ship took off after the compulsory hymn of praise to the President-Emperor, it was so smooth that none of them felt it at all. The spaceship was fast, too, so that before Timur got too bored with the confines of life on board, they arrived on Pluto.
The hotels on Pluto were filled with young couples, who spent their time looking soppily at each other in the restaurants and kissing over their drinks. Timur’s mum told him not to stare, and explained that they were all people who had come to Pluto because the heart-shaped mark on its surface was so romantic.
“It’s just marketing,” Timur’s father said grumpily, but Timur’s father was grumpy about everything. “They market it as the dwarf planet of love, and the silly fools come all the way out here to spend their money.” Even Timur knew that this didn’t make much sense, because hadn’t his father brought him and his mum here? But his mum merely grinned and said they should go have an ice cream, so that was all right.
The ice cream parlour they went to had a ceiling in the shape of a dome, on which the image of the sky was projected. Timur couldn’t see Earth, of course, but he could see the stars, and the sun, too, a tiny, bright white dot. And then the moons went by, one by one, Charon among them, so large and low overhead that it seemed as though it would come rolling down on them.
“Mum,” Timur said, “when are we going to the War Museum?”
The War Museum, of course, was on Charon, and that was the place that Timur had been excited about, ever since his parents had told him about the holiday. They had studied the War against the aliens in school, in history class just this year, and all about the tremendous victory at the Battle of Pluto that had won the war once and for all.
“Why do you want to go there?” his father said, irritated. “You’ve already seen all the pictures, in school.”
“But those are just pictures,” Timur said. “We’ve come all this way, and it’s just on Charon. Besides, there isn’t anything to do here.”
This was not quite true, but only as far as children were concerned. There was plenty of entertainment for adults on Pluto, but most of them were out of bounds to children. Timur didn’t miss the quick glance that passed between his parents, and pressed the advantage.
“You don’t have to go,” he said. “I can manage quite well by myself.”
“How do they go to this museum?” his father asked. “I don’t know. Do you?”
“Of course I do,” Timur snorted. “They’ve got daily guided tours, from the hotel,” he said. “I checked their website. They go up by shuttle and come back the same evening.”
His father tried one more time. “I’m sure they won’t let a child go alone,” he said, “and neither your mother nor I are interested in this war museum of yours.”
“They do,” Timur said triumphantly. “I checked. They have tours only for children, and the hotel arranges them.”
“Wait,” Timur’s mother said, and began whispering something to his father. Timur only caught a few stray words, like “big party today” and “won’t be underfoot as usual.” Finally, his father nodded reluctantly.
“All right,” he said. “We’ll go back to the hotel and see.”
The shuttle wasn’t what Timur had expected. It was shaped like an overturned funnel, and everyone sat on padded benches round the inside of a round chamber, with straps around their shoulders to stop them falling on their faces. In the centre of the chamber was a little grey box about the size of a loaf of bread, and this was the pilot of the shuttle.
There were about ten children in the group, all about the same age as Timur, and a lady in charge. Her name, according to the badge she wore on her dress, was Sara. She was pretty and young, and all the other boys in the group were already in love with her, but Timur wasn’t, because he was more excited about the War Museum.
There were no windows in the shuttle, and it only shook a little when it took off from Pluto, and after a little while shook again when it landed on Charon. All the while Miss Sara was talking about the history of the War.
“It was when the human race was divided into all kinds of different nations, which were mostly fighting against each other. The Enemy thought they could take advantage of our quarrels to defeat us, and that was why they attacked us.”
Timur had heard all this in his history class, of course, but he still listened avidly, because he was passionately interested in the War. He had long ago decided that when he grew up he would write a book on it.
“The Enemy – the aliens – were horrible,” Miss Sara said. “They sent their huge battle fleet against us, and in the lead was their strongest battleship, which was called the Azag. They thought they could break past our defences around Pluto, and once in the inner solar system they would have had us at their mercy. But it didn’t happen like that, because of Captain Erdogyahu.”
Everyone’s eyes turned automatically to the portrait of Captain Erdogyahu, which was painted on the wall of the shuttle. It showed him in his full dress uniform as Grand Admiral, which he’d become after the battle, and before he’d been elected the first President-Emperor of Earth. Timur was fascinated with all the pale gold braid and the stripes on his uniform. His chest was so covered with medals that there didn’t seem room for any more.
“Captain Erdogyahu,” Miss Sara said, “was in charge of the defence outpost on Charon. It was only a small place, with a few launchers, a couple of short range gunboats, and a handful of missiles. The Enemy must have thought that it could be ignored, because certainly such a puny station could not dare to defy them. But they hadn’t reckoned with Captain Erdogyahu.
“Captain Erdogyahu knew that if he merely sent word to Earth about the Enemy invasion, by the time the Earth battle fleet was dispatched, the Enemy would already have captured the outer solar system and would have been threatening Mars and perhaps Earth itself. So, in an act of tremendous bravery, he decided to fight the alien invasion with his two gunboats and his handful of missiles, even if it meant certain death. And that was what he did.”
Miss Sara’s eyes grew misty as she looked up at the portrait with adoration. “The Enemy was taken totally by surprise, and annihilated,” she said. “Most of their ships were turned into slag before they could fire a single shot in return. Only the Azag survived the initial attack, and tried to flee.
“Captain Erdogyahu, however, was determined not to let a single Enemy ship get away. Despite the immense danger, he led his two gunboats in pursuit of the Enemy battleship. It was already so badly damaged that it could not make great speed, so the gunboats caught up with it before it could reach the Oort cloud. And there, on the outer fringes of the solar system, the two little gunboats fought the mighty Enemy battleship in one of the most terrific battles in history.
“The two gunboats,” Miss Sara continued, “closed with the fleeing Azag until they could see the gaping holes torn in the battleship’s hull from the missiles earlier. They then kept pumping missile after missile into the Enemy ship, from such close range that debris from the explosions almost struck them. Finally, there was a tremendous flash from the stricken battleship, and it stopped trying to manoeuvre in an attempt to escape.
“The victory was complete, but it was not enough for Captain Erdogyahu. Ordering his gunboats to close in on the wrecked battleship, he attached lines to it, and then he towed it all the way back. He brought the wreckage all the way back to Charon, and it is there now, the centrepiece of the War Museum.”
“Will we be seeing it, Miss Sara?” someone asked.
“Indeed we shall,” Miss Sara said, smiling. “Now, we’ve just arrived, so please get up and line up behind me, and we’ll start the tour, shall we?”
The War Museum was vast. It was so huge that Miss Sara said that a full tour would take days, but they would get the children’s special, which was designed to be over early enough so they could get back to their parents by dinnertime. So they bypassed the section which had the old station and offices in which Captain Erdogyahu and his men had lived, and the buildings that chronicled the history of the Space Navy, and went directly to the section reserved for the Battle of Pluto.
The Battle of Pluto had its own segment in the War Museum, a dome that towered over the other buildings, and larger than the rest of the Museum put together. Miss Sara showed their passes to a guard at the entrance, and turned to the children.
“Before we go in,” she said, “remember to stay with me. There’s a lot of machinery in there, and you don’t want to get lost or hurt.”
Timur began to nod, and stopped in mid-nod as they passed through the door. His mouth dropped open.
Before them lay an immense space, so gigantic that he felt for a moment as though he was outside, under the open sky of Earth. Far above, the blue-tinted metal of the dome soared upwards, and huge white lamps set into it threw down light so bright it left no space for shadow. Set around the walls were the weapons that had won the Battle – the batteries of missile launchers, the noses of missiles still poking out of the tubes, and on each side, like two hump-backed beetles, squatted the black shapes of the two gunboats, the Millennium Enterprise and the Star Falcon, which Captain Erdogyahu had had under his command. But Timur’s eyes went right to the thing that rose between the gunboats, huge and angular, towards the dome above.
It was the Enemy ship itself. It was the Azag, dragged down as a prize of war and made secure.
It was flat planes and round bulges, sharp angles and smooth lines. It was huge and so ugly that it was beautiful. Timur had seen pictures of it, many times, but he had never thought it would be like this. He had never expected the lights to shimmer and glide off the metal, as though they were oil on water.
It called to him, and he wanted to go to it.
“This is what they were like,” Miss Sara said, and Timur turned reluctantly back to her. She was pointing at a sculpture of one of the Enemy. “This statue is life size, and was modelled on the Enemy corpses taken from the battleship. You can see how horrible they were.”
The children stared, fascinated. The alien was white and yellow, and all limbs and spikes and pincers like hooks and scissor blades. High above, poking out of the oval shield that covered the head, were two round brown eyes on stalks as long as your arm. It looked as though it was about to jump off the pedestal on which it was mounted and bite you in half.
“Where were they from?” someone asked. It was a small girl with brown hair and a sharp voice. “Miss Sara, where were they from?”
“Who knows?” Miss Sara shrugged. “Nobody ever found that out. Not that it matters. They were our Enemy, and they were destroyed. That’s all we need to know.” She turned away from the sculpture and gestured. “Now follow me to the next exhibit here...”
Timur barely heard her. The next exhibit was one of the missile batteries, and he wasn’t interested in them. They looked a little like wooden packing cases stacked on each other and mounted on a tractor. He was much more interested in the Azag.
“Miss Sara,” he called out, when the young woman had paused briefly in her lecture. “Are we going to go into the ship?”
“Into the ship?” Miss Sara blinked at him. “Inside the Azag, you mean? Oh, no, that’s far too dangerous for children. Only special tours of historians are allowed to do that.”
“But I want to look inside,” Timur protested.
“You’ll see the photos later,” Miss Sara told him. “There’s a video show as well. And we do show you the outside of the ship, from quite close. We will go inside the gunboats, though.”
“Couldn’t we take a look inside, just for a little bit?”
“What an idea!” Miss Sara snapped. “Only historians with special permission, and some scientists, are allowed inside. Why, even I have never been inside that ship.” Turning away, she returned to her lecture.
Timur had stopped listening. He stared longingly at the Azag. There it was, only a short distance away across the concrete floor, and there was nobody else to be seen. Except for their own group, the whole immense space under the dome was empty.
“Now here we have the very radio with which Captain Erdogyahu sent the news of the great victory to Earth,” Miss Sara said. “You see here the chair he sat on while composing the message, and...”
Timur slipped quietly away. He didn’t really know he was about to do it until he had already walked halfway towards the Azag, and then when he looked back over his shoulder nobody had seen him. They were all looking at Miss Sara, and she was looking at the radio. So Timur just kept walking.
The Azag grew as he came closer, and grew. Now it was a wall, a cliff, a mountain reaching up towards the metal sky. The planes and facets on its surface glittered like crystal, the edges lines of liquid fire.
And now he could see the holes the missiles had gouged out of its metal skin, the rents like frozen tattered cloth. Each was almost as big around as he was tall. Rising on his toes, he peered through one of the nearest. He saw torn wires and twisted, broken metal struts, scorched the colour of half-burnt coal.
There was an entrance, a door with a short stretch of red carpet leading up to it, blocked by a length of cream-coloured rope propped on stands. With a last quick glance over his shoulder to make sure nobody had noticed him, he ducked under the rope and in through the door.
After the brilliant white light outside, the light inside the ship seemed so dim that he had to pause a few moments to allow his eyes to adjust. He was in a grey metal passage that curved to both sides, the walls of which were carved with symbols he could not understand. Even the ceiling high overhead was carved, and when he looked down at his feet, he saw that the floor was etched and marked with carvings as well.
The light was soft and bluish, and was coming from the left, so that was the way he went. The further down the passage he walked, the wider it became, and the more elaborate the carvings on the walls. All of a sudden – Timur, who had been looking at the carvings, almost stumbled – it opened into a room that was as round as a ball.
Timur stopped, looking around. The passage he was in had come out near the bottom of the ball. All around, in the walls, there were other passages, some at the same level, some far higher. In the middle of the ball, held up by struts, was a glowing sphere from which the bluish light was coming.
For a moment Timur was tempted to go back. He could still easily find his way back to the entrance, but once he was inside one of those many other passages it would be easy to lose his way. Then he remembered that he was the only one of them who had been inside the ship – not even Miss Sara had – and that he had to make the most of the opportunity, if he was ever to write that book on the War. So he climbed down to the round floor of the room – it felt strange to walk on a round surface – and entered another of the passages that was at the same level as his own.
It twisted and turned like a snake, rising and falling, and splitting again and again. By the time he had gone a hundred paces, Timur was already lost.
Thrusting his head forward between hunched shoulders, Timur plunged on.
For what seemed like hours Timur wandered through the ship.
Sometimes he came on vast rooms, so large that in the ever present soft bluish light he could not see the far side. Sometimes he found himself passing between slab-sided stacks of machinery or ducking under rods and spheres and cubes that stuck out haphazardly. Once he turned a corner and walked into a room set with perches like in a bird cage all along the walls and ceiling, and another time into a chamber with round blank sheets of something that looked like glass on all sides. Though there were no seats, there were more perches on the walls, the floor, and even the ceiling, and he thought that this might have been the control room where the Enemy, with their many legs, had squatted and run the ship. One of the walls of this room was crumpled like a sheet of wadded paper, and there were gashes in the wall as though gigantic claws had torn into it. A missile must have burst through the wall right here, Timur thought, and he felt a fierce satisfaction at the idea of the Enemy commander and his – her? – officers crumpling and dying in the blast. That had showed them!
After a while he wandered away from the control room. He wanted a look at the battleship’s weapons, but he hadn’t found them yet. Perhaps the gun turrets and missile launchers were in the upper parts of the ship, where he’d not yet ventured. He was looking for a way leading upwards, but each upwards passage he reached only dipped down or sideways again, and led to yet more machinery spaces or perching chambers.
It was intensely frustrating, and he was just about to start kicking at the walls when he heard voices. At first he thought it was just his imagination, because he’d been thinking about the battleship as it had been during its last moments, the scuttling, terrified Enemies all around, shrieking as they ran fruitlessly from Captain Erdogyahu’s missiles. But then he realised that the voices were real, and, what was more, they were human.
Then he thought they belonged to Miss Sara and the others, who had come into the ship. But it was not Miss Sara’s voice – there were at least two voices, and they were both adult and male. And Miss Sara had said that she wasn’t allowed inside the ship.
But the voices meant that there were people on the ship, and that meant they could at least perhaps tell him the way out. He felt suddenly hungry and thirsty and tired, and he wanted to get out. He’d already seen enough of the ship to write about in his book. Anything else he’d find out from the pictures and video.
Moving slowly – he was in a passage which was not well lit, and whose floor, moreover, was broken in places, the plates buckled and twisted from a blast underneath – he came closer to the voices. Now he could hear them clearly, from a chamber round the next corner. He paused a moment, listening.
“But this isn’t what they say in the history books, Professor,” one voice said.
“The real story is suppressed, of course,” another voice replied. This one was older and heavier. “It’s a convenient fiction, and it makes everybody happy. The truth is only known to a small circle, and you’ve been included in it.”
“But why?” the first voice asked. “I don’t understand.”
“No, of course you don’t,” the first voice sighed. “The world needs to believe that there was a great battle here, and that...” The voices faded, and Timur slipped around the corner, just in time to pick them up again, coming from another passage on the far side of the chamber.
“It’s not just a convenient fiction,” the older voice was saying. “It’s a necessary fiction. It’s what justifies the World Government that keeps the peace now, and the position of the President-Emperor. If it was known that – ”
“But Erdogyahu fought the battle, didn’t he, Professor?” a third voice broke in. “Didn’t he destroy the enemy fleet in a battle?”
The older voice, the Professor, laughed harshly. “He certainly claimed to have,” he said. “But ask yourself why not a single weapons system has ever been found on this so-called battleship. Either the aliens had weapons that were so outside human experience that we can’t recognise them for what they are – weapons that, moreover, were so far outside our experience that they couldn’t do us the slightest harm – or they had no weapons at all.”
Timur crept after them into the passage. He could see them now, three men at the far end, looking at a huge missile hole in one of the walls. “So what was it, Professor?” the first voice asked.
“Who knows?” The Professor moved on past the missile hole, and the other two followed. Timur crept after them, as silently as he could. “Most likely an embassy ship, coming to contact us. Maybe it was a trader. Maybe it was just lost.”
“And the others?” the second of the younger men, who must be students, asked. “The other ships destroyed?”
“What others? Apart from Erdogyahu’s own claim, what proof is there that there were any others?” The Professor chuckled. “He did do a great job of manufacturing a heroic victory for himself, didn’t he?”
Timur was just opposite the missile hole when one of the students began to turn around. Without thinking, quite instinctively, he ducked into the hole. From within it he heard the Professor.
“What is it, Xi?”
“I saw something out of the corner of my eye,” Xi said. “You did say the ship was reserved for our use today, Professor?”
“That’s right. There shouldn’t be anyone else here. By the terms of opening the ship to historians they aren’t even permitted to monitor us remotely.” The Professor snorted. “So you must have imagined it.”
“I’m sure I didn’t,” Xi said. “I’ll just walk back a little and check.”
“Suit yourself,” the Professor said. “It’s just a waste of time, though.”
“Even so.” Xi’s voice was growing louder and closer, and Timur began to panic. He squeezed further into the missile hole, past a twisted piece of metal, and suddenly found himself in bright white light. Blinking, he saw that he was standing just above the War Museum floor.
Timur found Miss Sara and the others not far away, beside the door through which he’d entered the ship. None of them noticed as he quietly joined the group.
“This door was actually a hole blown into the hull by a missile,” Miss Sara said, pointing. “You see how Captain Erdogyahu won the war, and saved humanity, without losing a single man. It was the greatest and most precious victory in human history.” She turned, smiling. “Now let’s take a break for lunch, and then we’ll all go back to Pluto.”
They had lunch in a small restaurant in another part of the War Museum. Timur had wanted to sit alone, but the sharp-voiced girl with brown hair joined him. “Where were you?” she asked, through a mouthful of food. “You missed seeing the gunboats.”
“Just around,” Timur shrugged. “Did anyone say anything?”
“I don’t think anybody noticed,” the brown haired girl said. “Except me, I mean. I notice everything.”
“Well, I’m glad,” Timur said, and turned to his food. “I’m glad you had a fun time.”
“I’ll bet it was more fun than what you did,” the girl said challengingly.
“I’m sure it was,” Timur said. “I have no doubt about that at all.”
When Timur got back to school after the summer holidays, his teacher asked the class to write an essay on what they’d done during the vacation. Timur refused.
“Why?” the teacher stared at him. “I heard you went to Pluto. You must have seen a lot and have a lot to write about.”
Timur shook his head and stared down at his desk.
“I didn’t see a thing,” he muttered. “Nothing at all.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2017