Arianne was sitting cross-legged, her back against one of the guardrail stanchions, thinking that the platform was well chosen as an instrument of torture, for there was simply no way to get comfortable on it, when Aurangzhebb emerged once more from the bridge. She watched with contempt as he strutted along the catwalk towards her, eagerly followed by a posse of voyeurs.
Her resistance was fading fast. It was obvious that he held all the aces, and that the physical victory would be his, including - she felt nauseous in the pit of her stomach at the thought - his new dynasty, to be brought forth from her womb. But she would go down fighting. She would have the moral victory, if only she could find a way to...
Whack! Whack! She gasped. With his handset, he had slapped her face, first the left cheek, then the right, from twenty metres away.
“It is customary to stand in my presence,” he sneered. Sullenly, she rose to her feet. “Take off the skirt.”
She hesitated. His fingers moved to the handset again. Quickly she undid the clasp on the waistband and the skirt floated airily down to join the rest of her clothes, scattered incongruously over the war machines beneath her.
Beneath the skirt, she was wearing a tiny gold lame g-string. Aurangzhebb looked her up and down, grinning lasciviously. “That’s better,” he said.
He walked away. She stood staring grimly at his retreating back. And then screamed, as she felt a lash stinging across her buttocks. Again and again, six times, till she was lying sprawled across the platform, her face in a puddle of her own tears, listening to his demonic laughter echoing through the chamber.
With trembling fingers, Tristan punched in the controls to open the hatch on the side of the Starcrusher. The door slid aside, revealing a vista of ineffable alienness. It was something beyond even his wildest dreams, and yet here he was living it, about to make contact with beings not just from another star system, but from a whole other universe. His heart racing, he struggled for self control, fought to keep from hyperventilating and using up his air supply.
“Exiting the hatch now,” he announced. He touched the controls on his manoeuvering unit backpack, and felt himself being gently ejected from his ship as if by an exhalation, a sigh.
“Roger that,” said Stith. “We have fully functioning sound and vision. We’re right there with you.”
“Thanks,” said Tristan, and began to cross the gulf between the two ships. Peripheral vision in the helmet was minimal, so the alien vessel was all he could see. It had become his world.
There was a lighted place in the side of the alien ship and he steered toward it. He could perceive movement. He drew closer. He was able to see the occupants of the ship, and he gasped softly.
“Stith?” he murmured. “Can you see this?”
Stith’s voice was no more than a whisper in his ear. “We see it.”
The beings were round, sprouting telescopic arms in all directions, like metallic bushes. Tristan thought of the zomo bushes back on Auverna. As he reduced still further the gap between himself and them, he could see that each of them had some of its arms folded over into a lattice in front of itself.
He prepared to land on the edge of the deck of the alien ship, but found himself repelled. Then he heard the alien voice once more.
“Peace, chnops,” it said. “You may not approach any closer, for you are antimatter to our matter.” Tristan felt like slapping his brow, he had been such an idiot. If he touched the ship from another universe, he and it would be blasted into nothingness, the inevitable result of matter coming into contact with antimatter.
“We are transmitting an electrical charge into your body,” the alien voice went on calmly, “to turn you into a magnet. Thus you will continue to be slightly repelled.”
Tristan’s mind raced. A magnet? Of course! Anything could be turned into a magnet, including a body, given sufficient charge. He reflected that his assemblers must be working overtime keeping all his physical systems functioning normally.
“Who are you?” Tristan asked.
“We are called Gnurit,” the voice replied. “We are from a parallel universe, and we are the first of our people to make the crossing into yours.”
“You are... robots?”
“If you wish to call us that. But we are in essence what you will become. What all organic races ultimately become. It is a universal phenomenon. We see that you have already taken the next step, taking control of your own evolution, by having nanomachines operating in your bodies. We have already begun to download a wealth of information into your ship’s computer, which will enable your race to leap forward...”
“Confirmed,” Stith whispered. “It’s just fantastic!”
“...Showing you how to use this black hole as a transmitter of gravity waves to communicate across the entire galaxy, showing you how to convert the mitochondria in your cells to feed off electricity, eliminating your species’ dependance on food, showing you the secrets of point source energy conversion, and so much more.”
“Why are you...” he hesitated, “...the way you are?”
“It is the most efficient way to be,” said the Gnurit. “The multiple arms that you see are exceptionally versatile tools. Although you may not be able to see it, their finest extremities are able to read matter at the nano level, able to touch and identify individual molecules. When we cross the arms as you see us doing, that allows a very fine stream of light to strike our visual receptors...”
“Like an old pinhole camera!” said Tristan excitedly. “But tell me,” he blurted, his head spinning with a million and one questions, “if you are antimatter to our matter, how can you survive in our universe?”
“Our vessel has defensive systems to eliminate even the smallest microparticle of your matter that comes close to us. The system is not perfect, however. A sufficiently large object could penetrate our shields.”
“So why have you come here, if it represents a danger to you?” Tristan asked.
“Our quest for knowledge is never-ending. We have explored much of our own universe, and are now beginning to look farther afield.”
The words “we have explored much of our own universe” boggled Tristan’s mind. Here was a race that was not only incredibly advanced, but also incredibly ancient.
“But we are curious about you, chnops,” the Gnurit went on. “Your vessel is clearly far from equipped for travelling through a black hole, and yet we found you there. Why?”
Tristan sought to explain about the war, about how his enemy had taken the woman he loved, and how he had hoped to retrieve her by using the gravitational slingshot effect of Sag’Aa.
When he had finished, the Gnurit responded. “Interesting. Such emotional entanglements are something we have left behind in our distant past. But they clearly figure prominently in your culture, and are so strong that you were prepared to endanger your lives on account of them.”
“We cannot conceive of a life without them,” Tristan said.
“If that is so,” said the Gnurit, “we must help you to complete your mission. Return to your ship.”
With the greatest reluctance, Tristan turned his back on the aliens and returned to the Starcrusher. Mentally, he was seeking to get an handle on what he had just seen and heard. He knew that his life, and the future of humanity, had altered course in the most extraordinary manner.
Once he was back aboard, the Gnurit ship began moving again, drawing the Starcrusher after it like a minnow beneath the flipper of a whale.
“The computer has figured out what chnops means,” Stith Karsh announced after Tristan had regained his seat.
“Yeah?” said Tristan, as if in a trance.
“Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, potassium, sulphur. The stuff we’re made of. That’s how they see us.”
“Oh,” said Tristan. “Yeah. Of course.”
As they travelled, there was profound silence aboard the ship. Each member of the crew meditated on the experience that they had just shared in, and meditated on the awesome prospects that were in store for the human race as a result.
“One thing strikes me as strange,” said Stith at last, as they powered on through space.
“Only one?” said Tristan, emerging from a reverie.
“Well, one of many. How is it that their ship came through the black hole from their side at exactly the same time as we were falling in from our side?”
“I’ve thought about that,” said Tristan, “and I think I know the answer.”
“Antimurphy. You’re familiar with Murphy’s Law?”
“And Murphy’s Law states...?”
“That the worst possible thing will always happen at the worst possible time.”
“Exactly. So, in their universe, which is made of antimatter, they have antimurphy, which means that the best possible thing always happens at the best possible time.”
Tristan’s partner stared at him. “Like I said, I think you’re totally frigging nuts.”
Tristan directed the Gnurit back to Scylla and Charybdis. The rebel battle fleet and the captured Dynasty ships were still there, clustered around the Heisenberg. He sent a brief message to Bannon and the others, who were torn between relief that the Starcrusher had returned from the jaws of Sag’Aa unscathed and complete dumbstruck awe at the asteroid-sized alien vessel in whose shadow the Starcrusher was travelling.
The Gnurit ship was too large to risk passing between the binary stars, and so looped around the far side of Scylla. When it had passed around it, Tristan began passing to the Gnurit the last known vector for the Aurangzhebb’s Fist.
“Do not concern yourself, chnops,” the Gnurit said. “We have already detected their trail.”
“Their trail?” said Tristan uncomprehendingly.
“You told us that their ship had a propulsion system based on neutrino absorbtion, and we are seeing a distinct absence of neutrinos, a neutrino shadow if you like, leading across space.”
“Dammit, they’re right,” said Stith, consulting his own instruments. “Their sensors are far, far more accurate than ours...”
“We are upgrading your equipment,” the Gnurit announced.
And there it was, represented on the Starcrusher’s screens: the wake of the Aurangzhebb’s Fist.