Aurangzhebb did not reappear for several hours. When he did, he was dressed in a shimmering white robe, and his legs and feet were bare. His handset bulged in a pocket of the robe. He was surrounded by an even larger entourage than usual, and men and a few women converged from other places and took up vantage points along the catwalk.
Arianne sprang to her feet. This was to be her last throw of the dice, and she had mentally rehearsed it endlessly.
As Aurangzhebb stopped opposite her she stepped to the guardrail. Nervously her fingers fumbled with the chain on the bolero. When she had undone it, she gave a shrug of her shoulders and it slipped off. With what she hoped was an alluring, come-hither smile, she fixed Aurangzhebb with her gaze, stretched out her arm and beckoned.
Aurangzhebb smiled in return and breathed deeply. He reached for a control on the rail of the catwalk and, as Arianne had surmised, a bridge began to extrude itself, stretching across to her platform. When it was complete, Aurangzhebb opened a gate in the guardrail and walked slowly across to her.
She stretched out her arms and rested them on his shoulders. She allowed him to kiss her, resisting the urge to gag as he thrust his tongue into her mouth.
“I see you’ve come to your senses,” he murmured, kissing her neck and shoulders. She said nothing, remaining rigid and thinking only of Tristan.
He was surprisingly gentle, sensing that his victory had come. He caressed her breasts with tenderness, just touching with his fingertips. Her nipples sprang to attention, and she cursed inwardly that even her own body was betraying her.
His hands moved lower, straying across her stomach, exploring every curve, arriving at last at her hips, where he began to pluck at the thong of her g-string. Softly she took his hands in hers and drew them away from her body.
“Not yet,” she murmured.
Releasing his hands, she slowly drew her own up to his chest, stroking, and pulling his robe open little by little. She aroused him with her slowness, working her way down over his chest and abdomen, stroking his body hair, allowing her hand to brush against the thin material covering his erection. At last his robe hung open.
“Nice pecs,” she said with a smile.
She ran her hands over him, giving every indication of admiring his physique. She lingered teasingly over his inner thighs, sensing the tension, the yearning within him rising to boiling point. She shuffled closer, looking into his eyes. Though she kept smiling, she felt as if she were staring into the deepest pit of hell.
And then like lightning she moved. Simultaneously, with her right hand she crushed his testicles with all her might, with her left she shoved him forcibly backwards, and she spat in his face.
With a scream of agony and surprise, he crashed, landing on his back on the bridge. His handset slipped from his pocket and fell onto the assault vehicle parked below them, shattering into pieces. It was Arianne’s turn to laugh.
“Agh!” Aurangzhebb groaned, clutching at his privates. “You stupid bitch! What good do you think that’s going to do you?”
As he struggled to his feet, wiping the spittle from his face with his sleeve, and staggered back to the safety of the catwalk, she knew it was true. She had bought herself a few moments more, and earned the undying enmity of a monster. But it was worth it.
Aurangzhebb pointed at the handset. “Someone go and get that thing,” he commanded. One of his minions hastened away. Aurangzhebb withdrew some distance along the catwalk, surrounded by solicitous toadies. Most of the crew remained where they were, staring sullenly at Arianne.
She looked down. Already the device was self repairing. In a few minutes it would be fully functional once more. She watched despondently as the crewman appeared on the deck below, clambered up onto the assault vehicle and retrieved the pieces of the handset, pressing them together in his hands.
By the time he reappeared on the catwalk, the device appeared to be whole once more. Aurangzhebb snatched it from the man and returned to Arianne.
“Right,” he sneered, pointing the handset at her menacingly. “Pants off!”
Arianne sighed. It was all over. He had won. Her hands went to her hips. She hooked her thumbs under the cord.
A man stumbled from the control room behind Aurangzhebb. “Ship astern, sir, closing fast!”
Aurangzhebb whirled. “What? Impossible!”
“It’s true, sir,” the man assured him. “And it’s huge!”
Aurangzhebb stormed into the control room. Through the throng, Arianne could see him staring at a monitor. She heard him exclaim: “Blood and sand! What is that?”
He came out of the control room and looked about in bewilderment. His eyes rested on the man who had retrieved the handset. “You!” he barked. “Take the woman, put her in a suit and throw her out of an airlock! They might slow down a bit if they have to pick her up. Battle stations!”
Aurangzhebb stabbed at his handset one last time. Arianne felt the pressure on her skull evaporate. She reached up and took the headband from her brow and frisbeed it across the chamber.
Sirens blared loudly and repeatedly. Arianne’s guard drew a handgun and pointed it at her. “You heard!” he yelled. “Let’s go!”
Arianne slipped across the bridge. Chaos was breaking loose. The man grabbed her arm roughly with his free hand and steered her along the catwalk.
They descended into a gloomy part of the ship, and after a few minutes she was shoved into a small room filled with rows of space suits. The man pulled out the first rack that came to hand, which looked to Arianne as if it was made for someone twice her size.
“Get into it! Quickly!” her captor barked.
She clambered into the suit. The man pressed a tab on the sleeve, and it adjusted itself to her size.
The suit had no life support apparatus attached. “Wait!” she yelled. “There’s no air!”
It was too late. She was already being propelled into an airlock. Before she could turn round, the door behind her had slid shut. In another moment, the outer door opened, revealing the vast emptiness of space. A blast of expelled air swept her through the hatch.
The bulk of the Aurangzhebb’s Fist flew past behind her back. In an instant it was gone, shrinking to a speck somewhere to her right, and then vanishing.
She fumbled for the suit’s transmitter control. “Hello? Is anyone there?” she wailed. “Can anyone hear me?”
Almost at once the reply came. “Arianne? Is that you?” It was Tristan.
“Tristan! Oh, Tristan, it’s you!” She was delirious just to hear his voice. “Tris, I’m in trouble! They’ve thrown me off the ship, but I’ve got no air supply, just what’s in the suit!”
Tristan couldn’t believe his ears. He couldn’t believe that he could get so close, only to lose her. “It’s all right,” he soothed. “We have you on the scope. We’ll be there in a moment.” He bolted out of his chair. “I’m going to suit up.”
“Chnops!” The Gnurit voice boomed through the Starcrusher. “We have programmed your nano-production plant to produce something that will help. It is a syringe containing very advanced assemblers, which will convert your friend’s red blood cells to make them far more efficient in the uptake of oxygen. They will also effect some of the other changes that we have spoken of. Hurry.”
Tristan swung by the ship’s nano-fabrication plant and grabbed the syringe. He pounded along the hall to an airlock and threw himself into a suit. He pressed the syringe into a thigh pocket. Clamping on a life support system, including a rebreather that would scrub the carbon dioxide from his air and recycle it, he clumped over to the airlock.
The Gnurit ship released the traction device, and the Starcrusher came to a halt a few hundred metres short of where Arianne was floating.
She goggled in amazement as the immense alien ship passed silently and purposefully over her head. And then there was the Starcrusher, hovering right in front of her. She saw the hatch open in the side, and a spacesuited figure emerged.
Then suddenly something changed. She became intensely aware of her breathing, aware that it was more laboured than usual. She was dredging up the last gasps of air remaining in the suit. And all the while she saw Tristan hastening towards her.
And then it was gone. Her lungs had nothing more to bite on. There was a profound sense of emptiness, and a rising panic. Tristan was so close now. She reached out her arms to him. She could see his face through the visor of his helmet. And then it all went black.
Tristan saw her eyelids droop just as he was about to catch hold of her. He flipped open the thigh pocket of his suit, pulled out the syringe, and thrust it into her arm. The suit immediately formed a seal around it, and he watched as it pumped its fantastic contents into her system.
By the time he got her back to the airlock, she was reviving. They snapped off their helmets. Arianne threw herself at him, knocking him to the ground, and fell on top of him, plastering her mouth against his in a long, intensely passionate embrace. It seemed to go on for ever, and Tristan suddenly recalled that she now no longer needed to breathe regularly like everyone else. She drew her mouth away from his long enough to gasp “You saved my life,” and then she was on him again.
An almost imperceptible shudder in the deck beneath them told them that the Starcrusher’s engines had come on line. “We’re moving,” said Tristan when he could finally escape from Arianne’s limpet-like lips.
They climbed unsteadily to their feet and began to strip off their space suits. Tristan goggled as he saw that inside hers Arianne was wearing nothing but a gold lame g-string. “Why...?”
“Don’t ask,” she said morosely. “It’s something I want to forget as quickly as possible. Just get me some clothes. Please.” Tristan turned to go. “Tris?” she said, in a small tremulous voice.
He turned again. She leapt at him, jumping up, her arms round his neck and her thighs clamped around his hips, clinging to him like a child, and kissed him again, thrilling at the touch of his hands on her bare skin. “I love you so much,” she moaned into his neck. “You came to get me. I don’t know how you did it, but you did.”
Tristan was about to reply when the voice of Stith Karsh burst through on the intercom. “Sorry to interrupt the reunion,” he said, “but you might want to see this on the monitor.”
“On my way,” said Tristan. He kissed Arianne again, unwilling now to be parted from her for even a moment, and slid from her embrace. “Join us on the bridge,” he said.
When he reached the bridge, all eyes were on the main monitor. The Gnurit ship had caught up with the Aurangzhebb’s Fist. Aurangzhebb, seeing the futility of further flight, had turned his ship around, and the two vessels were facing each other, showdown-style.
The crew of the Starcrusher listened as the Gnurit spoke to Aurangzhebb.
“Chnops,” the Gnurit said in a soft, wistful voice. “You must surrender to us. Resistance serves no purpose. We will take your vessel in tow with our traction device.”
“Not a chance,” Aurangzhebb growled.
And as the men and women of the Starcrusher watched in horror, the Aurangzhebb’s Fist spurted forward at full speed, aiming directly at the Gnurit ship.
The flash was blinding.
When Tristan regained his consciousness and his sight, he found Arianne leaning over him. She was dressed in a jumpsuit, but her feet were still bare.
“Are you okay?” she asked, gently stroking his hair.
“I think so.”
“Aurangzhebb’s ship, made of matter, rammed the Gnurit ship, made of antimatter, and they were both converted to energy in a huge explosion,” Tristan explained.
Arianne stared in puzzlement. “Gnurit? Antimatter?”
“It’s a long story,” said Tristan.
“Tell it to me on the way home.”
“Is the ship...?”
“The ship is fine,” Arianne soothed. “The navigational computer finally brought her under control while you were still out, and it’s brought her to a standstill.”
Tristan looked around at the others, who were also just recovering. “Good,” he declared. “Let’s go home.”