Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Drifter

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Friday, July 06, 2012

Republic

dreamworld activates blueberries aware republic keelhauled joyousness estranged

Moonbeam Cycles

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sunbeam

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sentinel

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Kabbalah

You remember how it was when you were a small child? How everything was new and full of wonder? Even if you had a hard childhood, your mind would open from time to time, everything around you would fall away, and you felt yourself joined with something higher. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t tell me you don’t remember.

Even as a young adult, when you were first exploring new books and music, love and sex, you had the nagging feeling that there was something behind it all, some kind of secret – not quite like the secret codes you played with as a child, but still a way of changing and hiding a deeper message. And maybe you tried to find clues to this message in your Scriptures, or in science, or in art and literature, and you felt you almost had it, but it still eluded you.

And there were bills to pay, kids to raise, endless meetings and interviews and hasty late-night dinners in front of the television before you dropped off to sleep exhausted. You found the answers that worked for you, and they worked well enough, and you stopped asking the questions, not because you didn’t care anymore, but just because you had other things to do.

So here you are. Maybe now you’re at what they call middle age (whatever that means) and you start counting your birthdays in terms of how many down, how many to go. You wonder what comes next. In those private moments you’ve never spoken of to anyone, you wonder why you bother at all. You’re tired – tired of everything, all the time. You catch yourself thinking that if something happened to you, and you didn’t have to do this anymore, perhaps it wouldn’t be an altogether bad thing. An early retirement, you could say ... and then the alarm clock rings, and it’s time to do it all again.

What brought us here, and why? We’ve looked for answers to these questions in books, you and I, and we know that none of the answers we’ve found have been satisfactory. What we need is not for someone to hand us a diagram with our place clearly marked in the Master Plan (although let’s admit it, that would be nice, woudn’t it?) – what we really need is to learn a new way of thinking. Or maybe it’s an old way of thinking. Or maybe it’s a way of not-thinking.

Or maybe ...

There’s someone inside, behind the mind, behind the feelings. This is the soul, the deep self. It strives and struggles to make its way through the world, knowing that this is its only way back home.

It knows what you’ve always suspected, that there is a deep underlying order, far below what the eyes and ears can find and far beyond what the mind can grasp. You’re dimly aware of this deep self, but if you think of it at all, you treat it as a problem to be solved, or a figment of your overworked imagination. You tell yourself you really need to get out more.

But still, you wonder ...

You’re not the only one:

“Rabbi Isaac said, ‘The light created by God in the act of Creation flared from one end of the universe to the other and was hidden away, reserved for the righteous in the world that is coming, as it is written: Light is sown for the righteous. Then the worlds will be fragrant, and all will be one. But until the world that is coming arrives, it is stored and hidden away.’

“Rabbi Judah responded, ‘If the light were completely hidden, the world could not exist for even a moment! Rather, it is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained.’” – The Zohar (translated by Daniel C. Matt in The Essential Kabbalah).

Depending on who you listen to, the Zohar was written in the First Century by Rabbi Simon bar Yohai, or around 1280 by Rabbi Moses de Leon. Don’t worry about it. The Kabbalah is the unfolding story of the soul’s search for itself, and the Zohar is one of its chapters.

This is the literature of the soul’s journey. It is often chaotic, sometimes contradictory, always symbolic and usually opaque. Is the Kabbalah Jewish? It can’t seem to make up its mind. It wants to be quintessentially Jewish, but it also wants to be universal – which is perhaps the most Jewish thing about it.

But isn’t it that way with all of us? Don’t we all have to struggle with that tension, the conflict between our uniqueness as individuals and our universality as human beings? And isn’t that what makes us human?

No one is watching you, and yet you feel you're being watched. Maybe you've had this feeling from time to time; maybe you have it now. You don't believe in God - you gave up this guy named "God", this old man in the clouds with a white beard, long ago. So you subtract things - prophets and saints, churches, synagogues and mosques, you subtract the body from the soul and the soul from the body, and you subtract everything but the random interaction of subatomic particles. And this is the only truth you're left with, but because it has no meaning, none at all, you subtract even that.

And yet you are still left with something.

Where do you go from here?

Do you turn back to the guy named God? That was where the process started, after all; so perhaps you can begin there. But He always disappointed you - because you expected Him to be human, like a man, and idealized, powerful, all-good and all-compassionate man, but somehow human nonetheless. And God failed you; he failed your expectation. He failed to be human.

But God is not a man. You always knew this, intellectually, but it only hits you now. The guy named God is an illusion, but there's something else that is more than real. It is not human, and you hesitate to call it "He". You hesitate to give it any name at all, but you have to come up with something, so you write the word with letters missing - G-d - because the whole enterprise is futile anyway. Or you could use another word, something neutral, Spirit, or Light, or Mystery, or The Way.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who lived in Warsaw at the time of the Nazi invasion, saw more death and cruelty than anyone should ever have to see. And yet - somehow - he kept teaching Torah, and he left a record of his teachings from the years 1940 to 1942. Unearthed by a construction worker after the war, this last work of Kalonymus, titled "The Holy Fire", is the spiritual diary of a man watching his world being destroyed.

In an entry dated Parashat Mishpatim, 5702 (February 1942), Kalonymus writes: "We learn from the commentaries that the voice of G-d at the giving of the Torah [on Mount Sinai] traveled from one end of the Earth to the other, and that Israel heard the voice of G-d in all the winds of the world. This comes to teach us that we must not think of the physical world as being far from the Torah, nor in opposition to it: it is not so. The voice of the Torah is heard from the whole world, because the world too was created by the word of G-d and the word of G-d is the essence of the world; it is only that human beings use the world in an evil way, and destroy the world that was 'created with ten commands' (Avot 5:1). And whoever uses the world for good, the world itself helps them in their study and deeds. ... For the world was created by the word of G-d, and the Torah is the word of G-d, and in fact the Creator is one with the Divine Word; and the whole Torah is contained in the Ten Commandments, and all the Ten Commandments were spoken as one word. And the Word of G-d in the creation of the world, and the Word of G-d in the Torah, are one."

Near the end of "The Holy Fire", shortly after the passage quoted above, Kalonymus (himself a kabbalist) returns to the Jewish mystical doctrine one more time. He is discussing the configuration of the ten Sephiroth, the potentialities or dimensions which kabbalists (and now physicists) tell us underlie the fabric of creation. In a conundrum going back at least to the sixteenth century, scholars have offered various ideas as to how the Sephiroth might best be schematically represented. Interestingly enough, Kalonymus eschews the familiar "Tree of Life" diagram (which can be found in any popular book on the Kabbalah) and returns to the older model of concentric rings. He presents two alternative views: "In the configuration of 'circles', each higher level encircles its [lower] neighbor, so that the Divinity surrounds all of them, and the World of Action [i.e., the lowest, material level] is at the center. In the 'direct' configuration [so called even though it is also circular], every lesser level enwraps its [higher] neighbor, so that the ray of the Infinite is found at the center, and the World of Action is outside." The first configuration, in which the greater surrounds the lesser, represents the body, for we stand surrounded by ever greater mysteries. The second, in which the greater is concealed within the lesser, is the way of the soul, for "there the soul, not the body, is of the essence."

Let's picture this. Warsaw is in ruins and Nazis are prowling the streets. Kalonymus' whole family have been murdered, and his people are being shipped off to the gas chambers day by day. He himself will make that trip in a few weeks. And here he is, writing about the unity of the world, and the soul, and G-d.

Our problems seem small when we compare them to the sufferings of holy martyrs like Kalonymus. But the thing is, they are our problems - they are not happening to somebody else!

And this is the point. No one else must endure our suffering, and no one else can solve our problems for us.

We grow older, and sometimes we feel we are being ground down by the hardness of living. But it is that very hardness that compels us to meet the challenges that were given to us alone. Your life is your own and your choices are your own.

The word kabbalah means receiving. It is the task of a lifetime to receive this life - to understand it, to welcome it for the gift that it is.

Return to Darkhaven.

Darkhaven was one of the first major offworld colonies of the Realm of Oroven in the centuries-long space race that dominated the late history of the Gilkesh people on their homeworld, Shakti. Relations between the tribes of Oroven and those of the land of Ullari to the south varied from year to year.

The Gilkesh space age did not erupt in a single generation like its terrestrial counterpart, but came about from the steady improvement of the flying machines of the Industrial Age. Still, the Gilkesh are in their own way no less competitive than humans, and tribal pride probably played an important role in spurring Shakti's aerospace engineers to greater creativity. Perhaps, too, the night-loving race yearned to consummate its ancient love affair with the stars.

For generations, space travel evolved slowly but steadily. Like the seagoing ships of their world or ours, the spacecraft of the Gilkesh did not change radically over time, nor vary far from a few basic designs, except as improvements in materials or engineering warranted. For the majority of the Gilkesh space age, all space travel was sub-light. Propulsion was either chemical (hydrogen/oxygen or methane/oxygen) or fusion-driven. Interstellar voyages were conceived and carried out as multi-generational projects.

The first contact with extramundane intelligent life is a matter of dispute; there are numerous conflicting historical accounts and the questions will probably never be fully resolved. It is generally accepted that the first aliens encountered by the Gilkesh were a reptilian (or quasi-avian) race known as the Fao, who also lacked exotic space travel technologies. However, some sources insist that the first contact was actually with the elusive Voha'i.

Over time, a few of the colony worlds would rival Shakti in population and influence, though they remained subordinate to Shakti in terms of direct political power. Worlds like Arrikhar and Darkhaven, already well established even before the advent of hyperspace travel, would become major centers of Gilkesh power in the ages following the Cataclysm. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Hyperspace travel was first developed by Gilkesh engineers at the research facility on Arrikhar; at least, that is the official story. Unofficially, some have claimed that the technology was borrowed from the Voha'i. In this version, the planet Voha takes on a mystique not unlike that accorded by many humans to the town of Roswell, New Mexico. But regardless of who invented it, the Gilkesh quickly learned to master and manufacture the hyperspace drives that would bring them into contact with new worlds and new universes. It was only then that they would cross paths with an alien race very much like themselves; but once again, we are straying from our story.

The accession of Queen Kathris cemented relations among the Factions, which united (at least in name) to form the Kathrite Realm. Prosperity and an assertive space policy soon followed, and Darkhaven experienced a population boom as astronauts and laborers settled there and started having babies. The climate - harsh but habitable - was gradually tamed by bioforming, and its rich mineral deposits guaranteed a mutually beneficial trade with the homeworld. The planet hosted a vast shipbuilding facility at Nar Anak, and a strategic military base at Kor Ethrim. Towns and villages sprang up, and with them came all the other institutions of civilization - local governments and police, libraries schools and temples. With the burgeoning commercial possibilities, and the increasingly easy and regular travel between Shakti and Darkhaven, it would not be farfetched to suppose that the women of the Kathrite Supreme Council began to see the planet's top-secret military status as an anachronism and a liability.

It was to this Darkhaven that the warrior En-Qhoi of the Shadow Regiment returned from a dangerous solo mission to the planet Voha, ancestral home of the Voha'i; and yet, it was a world she scarcely recognized.

[To be continued.]

Space Lesbians!

No one can find the planet now.

The race that once called Shakti home have multiplied, spread out, and grown strong - an ever-growing sphere, illumined from within like the shell of a supernova. But no trace of their ancient homeworld remains in all the light-years of known space, or in all the countless Ages that dwell side by side in imaginary time. And with Shakti, all knowledge of the origins of the Gilkesh race are lost forever. Not only that, but the Gilkesh remain divided to this day in every Age. The two Realms do not openly war with one another, but remain separated by mutual mistrust and a cultural gulf as deep as the one between any two alien races. So they are a paradox: mighty but divided, with a great future but no past.

No one can say for sure what brought about the loss of Shakti and the diaspora of its people, and as you may expect, the historians of the two Realms give widely different accounts. Nothing in our Universe is known with certainty, but mortal souls must guess as best they can.

This is how it might have happened.


Kathris.
The faint glow of Zir, Shakti's sun, is still in the sky, but she's awake already. As always, looking for the stars. Amira still sleeping ... no doubt dreaming of the future of Shakti, the world they rule together.

Amira's dreams? The one realm of the universe closed to Kathris. Amira, wonder-filled, passionate - yet unable to surrender to ecstasy under Kathris' caress. What Kathris craves, what every Gilkeshni craves: the opening of the soul that comes with pleasure. Ironic, she thinks: here, at the heart of the Gilkesh Federation, a deep emptiness.

Kathris looks out from the window of the bedchamber, high in the great tower of the Imperial Palace. Even from this height, the lights of the city extend almost to the horizon. One nightship rises slowly out of the spaceport, looking like a huge, graceful seabird. For a moment it hovers on blue pillars of flame, motionless, as if contemplating its future; then it turns skyward and shoots out of sight. It may be bound for one of the worlds in Zir's system, or it may be headed for hyperspace and another Age - another universe. She wonders where it's going; she wishes she could go too.

She tells herself, again, that it's going to be all right. Her marriage to Amira seven years ago set the course for the future of Shakti and the Gilkesh race: to be the focal point binding world to world, galaxy to galaxy. The tribes loyal to Amira, the factions loyal to Kathris, now allied and working together.

The lights come on in the city below, as millions of Gilkeshne wake to the starry sky: each with dreams, hopes, and fears, each with plans and memories, each one in her own world.


Amira.
The glare of the sunlight is deliciously obscene. Amira's unbuttoned clothing lies on the rock around her. From overhead, the light of Zir beats down on her naked breasts, her thighs, her ... no, not there. Another girl is gently kissing the lower part of her body ... it must be Terimi, Amira's first lover. It is all coming back now: their mothers are asleep and they have stolen away together in the daylight. Amira moans softly and looks down, as the other girl looks up. Amira gasps, realizing that it's not Terimi. It's ...

No. She must never say that name aloud, not even think it, not even in her dreams. Not here, not now.

Gradually Amira becomes aware of another figure some distance away. Sudden taste of fear in her mouth, the dread of discovery. First she thinks it is her bondmother ... no, it's her birthmother ... she gasps, struggling for air as the dream-girl vanishes and the sunlight fades. She wakes in bed, alone.

She steals a glance at Kathris, who is standing by the window, taking no notice of her. Kathris, tall and confident, strong and dignified, loving order and reason ... Kathris, who is all the things Amira knows she can never be. Kathris, dearer to Amira than any being in the universe, except ...

Except.

The sun is setting, the night is unfolding, and Amira sobs quietly into her pillow. It is like every night.


Dess.
Of all the unpleasant things she enjoys most, this is definitely at the top of the list. It's sort of like being shaken up and turned inside out at the same time. Oh, and it's dangerous, that's another point in its favor. Not ridiculously dangerous (she may be crazy, but she's not an idiot) - but not entirely safe. And you can never be completely certain you're going to end up where you expect. She can't understand why some people don't enjoy hyperspace travel ... but then if everyone liked it, that would kind of take the fun out of it, wouldn't it?

Now the outline of Shakti is coming into view through the bubble canopy, still swimming before her eyes. It's that delicious moment when she's sure she's just about to barf, but doesn't (not usually), she's just enjoying that quiet feeling before the artificial gravity comes on and the deep-space navigation systems take over.

Dess inhales, holds, exhales. Shifts in the seat, feels its shape shift in response. Looks to each side at the other two travelers. Feels the seat press up against her thighs and buttocks as the artificial gravity gradually comes on; watches the instrument panel begin to glow, and for the thousandth time resists the urge to tinker with that bright purple control in the upper left corner because she's not sure what it does and the curiosity is killing her.

"Grrmmmph, pfnnkh, sppppft." Dess is snapped out of her reverie by her friend's voice on the right.

"You say something?"

"I said, I can't believe you actually enjoy this shit."

"Oh, come on. You must be used to it by now. Especially in your line of work."

"Hmmmpf. The Fao don't use hyperspace except in emergencies. And the Humans at least have the good sense to knock themselves out with drugs first."

"Don't the Fao have twelve-hundred-year life spans? They can afford to take their time."

Joli doesn't like being told about her business by a non-specialist, but she cuts Dess some slack, because, well ... she's Dess. And she's been cutting Dess slack since they were little girls on a certain Spirit-forsaken outpost. So she just says, "Well, we haven't got twleve hundred years. And I've got business in the Capital."

Dess steals a look at the older woman in the seat to her left. Atubis is sitting with her eyes closed, still looking serene - that's a trick even Dess can't manage. Standing now, she touches Atubis gently on the arm. Something travels through Dess like an electric shock. Looking closer at Atubis' face, she can see she was wrong before: there's a look she can't quite name that she's never seen on Atubis before and she hopes she never sees again. And she feels it herself, too: it's a quiet dread, as if the outline of something vast and deadly were passing across the sky.

Atubis' eyelids flutter and their eyes meet for just an instant. Nothing is said.

Suddenly desperate for comfort, Dess turns back to Joli and breaks the pause in conversation, which was just a little too long. "Business in the Capital, huh? Gonna brief some high-level officials with all your expertise about aliens?"

Joli is staring down at the planet's surface. She fiddles with her hair and and takes a deep breath before answering; it seems to Dess as if she's trying hard to sound matter-of-fact.

"Yeah," she almost mumbles. "One of the Queens, in fact. I'm meeting with Amira."

Joli.
Joli stares out past the controls of the Hunger of Lilith as the small Explorer-class ship finds its way into a stable orbit around Shakti.

Three great continents sprawl across the nightside of the Gilkesh homeworld; the lights of cities glow comfortingly as billions of souls awaken with the stars. As much as she hates traveling, Joli is always glad to make this trip. Involuntarily she clenches her teeth: never, never again will she have to live on some deserted rock light-years away from civilization, not important enough to have a name. A pebble too small to even hold its own atmosphere, you couldn't go outside without a pressure suit. Nothing to look at but the faces of the colonists, most of them too stupid to even feel the crushing boredom and the loneliness ...

Without Dess, she'd never have survived. That much she's sure of. It was Dess, always there, always cheerful, who somehow understood everything she was going through, but managed to bear it more easily and more gracefully than Joli ever could. She'd have given anything to know Dess's secret, but having her there to talk to was enough.

The other thing that saved her was her one great passion. It had unfolded upon her like a revelation, and continued to hold her in its spell. It was the knowledge that there were others - other intelligent beings, gloriously different from her own people, strange in their ways and habits, yet somehow knowable. Ever since she'd first learned of the existence of the other races - "aliens" in the quaint language of the colonists - she knew what she would do with her life. From the moment she could say the word "xeno-ethnologist" (and it's as hard to pronounce in Gilkesh as it is in your language), her course was clear. Knowing that the stars held other races made the big night seem not quite so big.

After Joli and Dess entered university, they began to travel in their own, separate trajectories. For Joli, travel was always a necessary evil; the nausea of the hyperjump was the price to be paid for meeting the Errioi, the Paar, and all the other races on their own terms - literally in their own space. But Dess seemed to love travel for its own sake; and she and the Hunger of Lilith had been inseparable for some years now. Now that she thinks about it, Joli can't help but resent the Hunger a little bit for taking her friend away from her.

And it was after she'd left university that she first met the woman who was now a Queen - and Joli's lover.

The Imperial Palace.
Starlight through the tall windows casts a gentle, shadowless light over everything, like a light snow on a sleeping town. To human eyes, the inside of the Imperial Palace would appear dark, like the interior of a dimly-lit restaurant. For the nocturnal Gilkesh, it is aglow with the rich and subtle colors they favor: the lavish cushions of the furniture, midnight blue with silver trim, and the polished quartz tiles of the floor, a deep violet that seems to glow from within.

Kathris is looking at the map display on the wall of the great bedroom, its ornate circular frame decorated with carved dragons. Inside the display, stars and galaxies shift, rotate, zoom in and out. The holographic display seems artificially deep. Kathris stares at the display intently while moving the controls. Amira watches her from under the warm blankets. She stirs audbily but Kathris does not notice her.

"I'd love to know what the Fao are up to," she says aloud without warning; Amira is genuinely uncertain whether the remark is addressed to her or to the map. She waits patiently for clarification.

"Look at this," Kathris says at last, from which Amira infers that she is not speaking to the map. A cloud of small dots appears around a nearly invisible star; at a motion from Kathris, the dots are labeled with the crest of the Fao Empire. "These images are twenty-seven standard years old - that's how far away this system is - but look how fast they covered this distance." She toggles the control to show the alien ships making a preternaturally fast journey.

Now Amira is getting interested. "Hmmm. That's easy enough to do if you use hyperspace ... but the Fao don't like to do that. They hate the idea of leaving their old universe for a new one."

"Exactly. So whatever it is, must be important enough to persuade them to break with tradition and use hyperspace like the rest of us."

Amira is standing behind Kathris now, still in her nightgown. Kathris is fully dressed in a long black skirt and a silk blouse with a geometric pattern in green and gold pastels. The tassels on the sleeves are an unusually frivolous touch for Kathris, Amira thinks, and they make her look vulnerable and irresistible. She slips her hand under the front of the blouse and strokes Kathris' tummy. Kathris starts to protest, but the night is still young.

Amira knows Kathris' mind as well as she knows the halls and windows of the Imperial Palace, better even, for she's never cared overmuch for the duties of office. If she had to do it over, she might almost ahve stayed a mid-level estate manager - but for Kathris. Amira spends most of her free time wandering the grounds of the capital compound, though there's precious little time for even that anymore. But it doesn't matter.

Their eyes meet, and Kathris seems to be asking a question. Amira ignores it, because it comforts her to know that Kathris usually has the answers. Even during amira's turn as Primary, she usually defers to the tall, commanding woman.

Undeserving. That is how Amira has always felt in Kathris' presence - Kathris, who brought the Seventeen Factions together under a single rule and a single law; Kathris, who had opened up a new golden age of learning and exploration; Kathris, who had made the planet Shakti a united world for the first time in its history.

Amira has always felt intimidated by Kathris' beauty - felt herself so small, so frivolous. What could Kathris possibly want with her anyway? What could she, Amira, ever give her?

Only this, she thinks, only this. Pleasure, joy, ecstasy; and for herself, when Kathris reaches bân and her psychic defenses fall away, a fleeting glimpse into that beautiful mind. She runs a forefinger playfully down the front of Kathris' blouse, where an invisible seam splits under her touch. The blouse falls to the floor like a flower melting.

Kathris.
Not that she minds being seduced first thing in the evening. Amira knows how to please her, and seems to have been especially eager this time. She holds the other woman tenderly and permits herself to dissolve into a pool of contentment.

It seems to her that Amira has never fully inhabited her role as queen. Kathris feels a twinge of guilt with this realization, knowing too well the rumors about herself: that she's power-hungry, even a dictator. She tries not to let it anger her, but it does: she's known real dictators. But Amira ... does she know how to wield power responsibly? Does she even care?

Well, somebody has to make the decisions, and some very strange things have been happening lately. She's got a meeting with a delegation of Humans later on tonight, and she'll need time to prepare. Gently she disengages from Amira, bathes, and, for the second time tonight, gets dressed. She goes back to study the space monitor for a long time while Amira lies silent and still in the bed. Then she goes into the study to be alone.

As she leaves the room, she hears Amira stirring; she thinks she also hears her walk once or twice around the room, but she pays no attention to it.

Amira.
Sweet taste of guilt in her mouth, she lies still, unmoving, barely breathing.

Kathris is more worried than she'll let on - this much she's sure of. But Kathris doesn't suspect her of anything, as far as she can tell ... she's not sure whether to be relieved or hurt by her mate's lack of jealousy. Still, there's something else on Kathris' mind, and in this last lovemaking, Amira has gotten a clearer picture of it.

Fear.

There's something out there in the big night that Kathris hasn't told her about, that none of her own advisers know of - or if they do, they're not telling her.

Amira's body is still thinking about sex, aching for sex, but she must deny it a little longer. For as long as she's been seeing Joli, she's been able to convince Kathris that she has become sexually unresponsive - the only way Amira can be sure she won't open up her own mind, with its guilty memories, to Kathris.

After what seems an eternity, she hears Kathris leave the room. Then she gets up and walks over to the space monitor.


Dess.
She isn't sure she's heard correctly.

"Joli ... did you say you're meeting one of the Queens?"

"Uh huh." Joli has quit playing with her hair and is now biting her little finger instead. Dess has only seen her do this two or three times, and it's never a good thing.

"Well, that's ... that's great!" she says, hoping for some response from Joli. Nothing.

Finally she tries the direct approach. "Um ... you don't look excited. Which one is it? Kathris, the scary one? Don't worry, whatever it is, it must be important." She pauses. "Of course, if it's something you can't talk about ..."

Atubis sees it's a good time to be elsewhere, so she says, "I'll be downstairs getting ready for the surface if you need me." Dess hears her climb down the ladder into the quarters below the skydeck.

"Amira," Joli says, almost inaubibly.

There've been times lately when Dess feels she doesn't know Joli anymore, and maybe never did. This isn't one of those times, though, and suddenly Joli looks like the girl she grew up with, out on a minor planet in the middle of nowhere. Something is wrong - badly wrong - but she knows she can get through to Joli somehow. She's got to.

"Hey," she says, and touches Joli gently on the forearm with just the tip of a finger. "You remember that stupid game we used to play back there on Planet 138? The one with the chairs?"

Joli cracks a smile, she can't help it. "Hmmf. We were really bored! They'd put a bunch of chairs in a circle, and someone would play recorded music for a few minutes while we marched around the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone had to try to find a seat, but we were always one chair short - "

Joli is laughing now. " - And there was that one time you and I both tried to sit in the same chair. I got there first, but you tried to sit in my lap. And I said, 'Does this mean we hafta get married now?' "

" ... And that was the closest we ever came to being lovers!" Dess adds. And, she thinks, this is why. She wants to know what's going on with Joli, but she doesn't want to read her mind, doesn't want to make love to her. She just wants Joli to tell her.

Now they're embracing, and Joli's body is shaking; she's not laughing anymore, she's sobbing. "Dess. Dess. Dess," she says softly, forcing the words out of her mouth. "I'm having an affair with Queen Amira."

Dess steels herself and takes a deep breath. So that's it, she thinks. Well, now I know the truth. At least things can't possibly get any worse.

The Question
It's a word every schoolgirl knows from astrophysics. And long after she's forgotten all the equations and gotten on with the business of working and raising a family, she'll remember the word. It's just the kind of word you remember.

Atubis is thinking about the word now. It means something else in these times, though, and it has precious little to do with stars or the universe. It's closer to home than a black hole, and much uglier.

For some reason, Atubis finds herself thinking back on her other life, the one she had before she became a Priestess. The life none of her disciples know anything about.

***

Amira stares into the screen, trying to glean some information. There's more to the picture than Kathris has told her, but she can't see it. She doesn't know what to look for. All she sees is the tiny blips of an alien fleet advancing slowly, steadily, toward an even tinier blip. She squints to see the writing beside the blip, but it tells her nothing; it is simply a number: 138.

***

Kathris fingers the pages of the printed book. There's something reassuring about printbooks, and somehow she's glad that, no matter how far civilization advances, people never seem to lose the need for the simple permanence of the printed word. "Durable media", the technologists like to call it. She has a need of durable things these days; everything feels as if it's slipping away.

A search of General Information would be too dangerous, even with the highest levels of Imperial security. The encyclopedia before her tells her nothing, only rehearsing familiar truths about zero denominators and infinite quantities. It is, literally, a lot of nothing.

The comfort of her private study is all she has now. Surrounded by the old books, she wishes she could stay there. But there's work to do, and not much time. So little time. She stares around at the volumes of physics, poetry, astronomy, philosophy, history. Where to begin?

The scrap of paper is moist in her hand, tattered as she clutches it, unable to look at it, unable to erase its one word from her mind.

***

Dess descends to the lower section of the Hunger of Lilith, to get ready to go planetside. Her teacher is already there, seated in the reclining chair and facing the rear of the spacecraft in preparation for the twenty-minute deceleration and atmospheric entry. A deep-space craft would need much longer, but the Hunger of Lilith, coming through the hyperspace portal, has no spatial velocity except the orbital speed of the portal itself.

For the trillionth time, Dess wonders why her teacher has to be the most beautiful woman in the universe. It just isn't fair. But now it's worse than that: something is troubling Atubis. Dess wants to ask her what's weighing on her mind, but that would be inappropriate. Besides, what comfort could she, Dess - barely more than a girl herself - offer to the silver-haired woman? And deep down, there's the worst thing of all: If something is worrying Atubis, with all her wisdom, she's not sure she even wants to know what it is.

***

The Hunger of Lilith doesn't like the smell of the atmosphere.

There's not too much time to ponder it, with three organics in a hurry to get planetside for reasons of their own. (Well, Dess isn't just any organic, but she's trying to be professional about this.) The Hunger can't quite put her finger on it, either - figuratively speaking - because there's nothing specific: no biological pathogens, no radioisotopes, nothing to indicate something badly amiss with the life-forms on Shakti. And yet, something isn't quite right.

Well, time to think of that later. Two of the organics are already belowdecks, impatiently waiting for her to start decelerating. The third lingers.

***

Somehow, the thought of seeing Amira again fills Joli with both longing and dread. Dess and Atubis are down below, and Joli makes herself an excuse that Dess probably wants a few minutes to be alone with Atubis. She knows all about her friend's crush on the older woman, of course, and finds it charming - and refreshingly innocent.

If only her own life were so innocent.

Joli wonders how Dess manages to be unaware of the Hunger's feelings (yes, she's sure that's the right word) for her. Probably it's never occurred to her; but stranger things have happened. Joli's been around, and she knows full well that intelligences of very different species can sometimes bond in the most surprising ways. It amuses her to think of Dess as part of a love triangle.

Yeah, she tells herself, biting her lip, I guess I ought to know about those.

The Hunger's voice is gentle but firm; it seems to come from all around. "Atmospheric entry in ten minutes. You are advised to be seated in a G-seat belowdecks."

"Acknowledged," Joli says. And now that she's got the Hunger's undivided attention, she thinks of something she's been meaning to ask. Just a chance remark she heard Dess make once, and Dess herself probably thought nothing of it. But Joli never was very good at minding her own business.

"Hunger," she says, "informational question."

"Proceed."

"What is Singularity?"


Planet 138.
Six generations after its founding, Planet 138 still hasn't got a name of its own, as if its inhabitants aren't really planning to stay. But with a total population that has never risen above 50,000, no ecosphere, and an economy far too small to support an independent space program, they haven't got much choice. Most of the inhabitants live in a single complex, which is divided into three sections. Although the bulk of the colony is underground, three domes can be seen rising above the planet's rocky surface. One part is the city, the manufacturing and residential area; the second is the hydroponic zone, and those who tend it live there. The third part is the library, and where the dead are buried.

It's recess time.

The suns are out today - and they will be for another five standard days, thanks to the planet's slow rotation - but they are not bright enough to spoil the view of the sky. The girls in Miss Orizhend's third-level class are discussing the mysteries of life as they get suited up for recess.

"I heard they make babies in a big lab'ratory," says Casima, whose mothers both work in bioengineering.

"Uh-uh", retorts Svadhi. "Maybe they do it like that sometimes, but mostly people get pregenant. They grow their babies in their tummy."

"I heard about a lady who got pregnant all by herself. Her spaceship crashed somewheres an' she was stuck an' she decided to have babies." It's Urkni, who has heard lots of stories.

"No way," says Svadhi, dutifully checking the radiation tag just inside the collar of her suit, "a lady can't get pregnant by herself."

Jharid has joined the group. All eyes turn to Jharid, because Jharid is Mature, and she Knows Stuff.

"She can," Jharid says deliberately, "but she's not s'posed to, 'cuz then the babies could grow up all 'tarded and stuff. That's why she's gotta get married. 'Cuz she's sposta have somebody with her when she makes the baby, so's the genes don't come out all the same."

"Yeah," Casima jumps in, eager to prove she's known it all along. "It's like when you clone a bean plant or something, they always get defective later."

"And that," Jharid continues, taking no notice of Casima, "is why you gotta have a Mama and a Nana, a birth mommy and a bond mommy. 'Cuz your bond mommy's gotta be around when your birth mommy gets pregnant."

"Yeah," Casima explains, undeterred, "she's gotta hold her hand an' stuff."

Svadhi, overcome with horrified fascination, says, "An' do they, like, kiss an' stuff?" Grownups kissing is still gross for her.

"Oh yes," Jharid says mysteriously, "an' not just on the mouth."

Svadhi is certain she doesn't want any more details, but somehow she looks at Jharid, silently begging her to explain.

Jharid, deeming her ready for the information, whispers something in Svadhi's ear. Svadhi shrieks and throws her hands to her face, her helmet bouncing noisily along the floor. "Jharid, that's the grossest thing I ever heard! You're lying! I hate you! I'm not ever going to talk to you again! You're a horrible person and I hope you die!"

In twenty years, Svadhi and Jharid will be married. But that is another story.

As Svadhi runs headlong into Miss Orizhend, the teacher is wondering for the billionth time why she does this. She'd been hoping to have a break from watching thirty-five girls (hers and Miss Hara's seventeen) and making sure they don't get lost, rip their suits, or overstay their recess and exceed their radiation exposure limit. Now she has to inspect Svadhi's helmet for damage, and just to be on the safe side, she should probably keep her indoors anyway.

"Svadhi," she says, "was Jharid being mean to you?" Svadhi nods petulantly. "Then I think you should stay inside this recess, so she doesn't bother you." Svadhi isn't sure whether this is intended as a privilege or a punishment, but whatever, she'll take it.

The class from the room across the hall are already waiting, and they file together along the corridor that runs the perimeter of the school level. Miss Hara is there, and it's her turn to hold recess duty. The two classes share the elevator ride to the surface, as they usually do.

Miss Orizhend reflects that, after all, they're not a bad lot. It's hard to say whether things have changed much since she was in school. She'd be tempted to say they have, but she can't put her finger on anything, exactly. They say the older girls, especially, are very well-behaved these days. Some of them have even formed some sort of social club - like a knitting group, she supposes, at any rate it's harmless enough, and those are the girls that seem to do best in their studies. That's what people are saying, anyway.

The elevator door slides open and the two teachers and their girls make their way down the walkway with their helmets on, except for Miss Orizhend and Svadhi. Miss Orizhend nods to Miss Hara, and realizes she's feeling a little relieved, because she's wanted to have some time to talk with Svadhi alone.

And that's when they find the dead girl's body in the airlock.

The egg.
Sestris turns the gleaming egg over in her hand, admiring its beauty. A jagged hole in the shell reveals the tiny creature inside, some kind of bird or winged reptile, its eyes closed, its wings folded ... peaceful. All preserved forever in shining metal. It looks as alive as the moment she found it.

She puts the egg back on the shelf among her many ornamental treasures. From her chamber high in the Palace Compound, she looks out on the capital city. So many people, still sleepwalking ... if they only knew. But they wouldn't understand, even if she told them. They are all still asleep, like the creature in the egg.

In the stars beyond, there lies a fragile, scattered band of inhabited worlds. And out there - though very few know it - hides a fissure in the bedrock of space. It has lain hidden like a sleeping dragon since the first moments of creation.

Sestris thinks of the others, the enlightened ones. She only knows the names of a few, but there are many more. She knows what she needs to know, and that is enough - more than enough, since very few are privileged to serve the group in such a high position. But that does not matter; it is the group, with its sacred mission, that matters. They are the ones who will wake the dragon when the time comes. Soon, all the worlds will see the universe as it truly is - as it must be. The beauty of emptiness. The beauty of infinity. The beauty of the great onenesss. The beauty of ...

Sestris waits.

Planet 138.
She looks peaceful, resting against the side of the airlock, as if she got tired and decided to take a nap. She could be asleep, except for the thin film of frost that forms on her body as the air rushes in; and except for the thin line of ice on her eyes, just below where the eyelids have not quite closed. She appears a little older than the girls in Miss Orizhend's class, and she's not wearing a helmet or a pressure suit - in fact, she is wearing a fancy dress, the kind you might wear to a dance.

A few of the girls are sobbing; most are silent, stunned. Miss Orizhend speaks quietly but firmly. "Move back, please. I need everybody to get back." She presses the emergency button on her wrist communicator to call Security.

***

The Security Bureau on Planet 138 is divided into two departments, Internal Security and External Security, but they both share a single small office. External Security is responsible for keeping track of incoming and outgoing space traffic, like the small Fao group that's inbound now; but they usually fill the slow hours watching everything else that's going on in the Sector ... things like the unusual uptick in flights to the Homeworld lately, from such unlikely planets as Earth and Darkhaven.

Internal Security keeps the peace and quiet, which are usually plentiful on Planet 138. Homicides are almost unknown, and accidental deaths are rare. There was that one woman some years ago, odd the way she died - sad too, left behind a wife and a young daughter ... now that she thinks about it (and for some reason Inspector Shihar is thinking about it), she's never been quite comfortable with how that one was resolved.

She's on the point of asking Chief Garris about it, just to make conversation; but in all the years she's been working with the tall, laconic woman, the concept of "just making conversation" never seems to have fit well in the paradigm. So she keeps her eyes focused on the computer screen and pretends to be studying the latest nightly report while discreetly eavesdropping on the gals in External - who, as always, seem to have a much more exciting job. And that's when the call comes in.

***

"I need everybody to line up so I can take attendance. This is very important, we need to be sure everybody is here. And it's very important that nobody goes near - " her voice catches, but only just, and she's hoping the girls don't notice - "near the body." How could everything go so crazy in a single moment? Think, she tells herself - and act. "I'm going to take attendance, please answer when I call your name.

"Bassia?"

"Here."

"Casima?"

"Here."

"Jharid?" She goes down the list of names, suddenly conscious of the girls, not as a chore, not as noisy and quarrelsome nuisances, but as friends - and precious souls whose lives are in her care. Somehow she keeps her voice steady, and turns her back to the class as her eyes begin to melt.

"Urkni?

"Urkni?

"Where's Urkni?"

Singularity.
She's not sure when she became separated from the group. All the hallways feel familiar ... but the hallways all look the same. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she thinks she ought to be panicking by now, but for some reason she's calm. Tranquil.

She's not sure what level she's on, whether it's higher or lower than the school area. Did she get on the elevator with the rest of the class? She can't remember.

The girl appears just around the bend in the hallway. She is older than Urkni, not a grownup but mature, confident, and reassuring. She is elegant and beautiful, and she makes Urkni feel tingly in a way she can't quite describe. There's a radiance that seems to come from her eyes, and a sense of peace.

She looks at Urkni for a long moment, silent and smiling gently, as if waiting for Urkni to initiate conversation.

"Can you help me? I'm lost," Urkni manages at last.

The stranger steps forward and touches Urkni's arm. "Oh, no you're not," she says. "You're found. Come with me. I want to show you something fun. I know you'll like it! You'll see ... it's a lot more exciting than muscial chairs."

***

The abandoned laboratory is utterly prosaic. Many years ago, the colony on Planet 138 was the site of some very important scientific research for one of the Amirite clans. Nowadays, no one is sure what it was, exactly, that was being studied; all that is certain is that Planet 138 hasn't been part of the big picture for a long time. The colony's population has remained roughly stable, or perhaps declined a little, and the lecture halls and workshops in the sector have been gradually converted to warehouses or meeting-halls, or simply left vacant. In the old days, the sector was strictly off-limits to the general public. Now, it's not: nobody has a reason to go there, but then, nobody has a reason not to go there, so it's a perfect place to go without attracting attention.

Urkni doesn't know any of this, but by the time she gets there, she knows she'll never ever be able to find her way back to Miss Orizhend's class on her own. The part of her mind that was worried an hour ago has now cried itself hoarse and is has given up on trying to change the course of events; it has resigned itself to looking for comfort wherever comfort can be found.

The stranger - who still hasn't given her name - rests her hand on Urkni's shoulder. "Don't be afraid. We're all friends here." The mention of the word "afraid" makes Urkni realize that, come to think of it, she has been feeling something very much like fear; but she's glad to be able to let go of it now.

They are standing at the doorway to a room about the size of her old schoolroom, but it feels a lot different. There are voices - friendly voices, talking, chattering, perhaps telling stories. She can't make out any of the words, but it feels comforting. It feels like home. The older girl walks through the doorway, not looking back, and Urkni follows.

The lamps are off. Instead of artificial light, a single candle in the middle of the floor provides illumination. About two dozen people, young and old, are seated on the floor in a circle around the candle. When Urkni enters the room, conversation hushes and all eyes turn to her. "Welcome, sister," several voices say.

The light of the candle throws dramatic shadows against the walls. From a dark corner of the room, a silver-haired woman steps forward. "Welcome, sister," the woman says, looking at Urkni. Her manner is solemn but comforting. In the woman's gaze, Urkni has a feling of being taken seriously. It is a good feeling.

Following the older girl's lead, Urkni takes a spot on the floor at the edge of the circle. The woman, who is obviously the leader of the group, stands silent for a long moment.

***

"Once, long ago, people knew the way. But the way was lost. And people became lost. Look at us now - look around. Where is the happiness? Where is the peace? Where is the hope? Where is the love?

"We've all heard the legend of how Eve was driven out of the Garden by the angel Lilith. So, too, has the spirit of life been driven out of the Universe. We are wracked by conflict and burdened by suffering in our daily lives - and each day, it seems, we sacrifice another little piece of our souls. And for what? We work, we strive, we suffer, we grieve - but our lives are empty.

"Friends, sisters, our generation has lost sight of the great Unity. Like the debris of a dying star, we are drifting farther and farther away from one another, losing energy, losing light. Dying, slowly dying.

"Only one thing can bring us back, and that is the realization of the great truth: the truth that we must live for something greater, for this universe is not our real home. These rocks we live on, these bodies we inhabit - they are prisons. They do not belong to us, nor we to them.

"Our destiny is to return to the Source. This Universe was created from nothing, and it will grow, and then it will turn inward and return to the great Void from which it came. So too with us: like the Universe, our calling is to return to the great Void. Then we will be one with the Cosmos for all eternity.

"One time soon, all created beings will understand this wisdom. But most are not ready for it yet. For now, the secret must remain with a trusted few - those enlightened souls that can grasp the greatness of this sacred calling. We are few, but we are many. We are here, and we are everywhere. We are Gilkesh, and we are among all the sentient races. We are the messengers of rebirth and redemption. We are Singularity."

***

The leader stands silent, her eyes closed, perhaps in a trance. Then a low murmur rises from the group, and resolves itself into a hum, and then into a slow, rippling chant. Urkni can't understand most of the words - they seem to be in another language, yet there's a familiar sounding phrase here and there, and she feels the meaning of the chant hangs just beyond her grasp. She starts humming along with the tune, then repeating the sounds she hears, she's afraid she's getting the words wrong but she wants to sing so badly she doesn't mind if she makes mistakes.

Now she doesn't care if she ever goes back home again, or if she ever sees the silly schoolroom again or not. Now she realizes it doesn't matter if she ever sees her stupid friends again, and anyway, they were never really her friends. This is where she belongs.

Someone blows out the candle, but the song continues. Now, nothing else matters: only the song, and the promise, and the endless night ahead.

Khalfid.
The universe had closed around it like a wound.

The memory of her death was now blessedly opaque; the conscious mind had blotted it out with the rough, unfeeling tissue of oblivion. Blessed be the Merciful, for the gift of forgetfulness.

But the void was still there, and it would never go away. This was not the creative void of the cosmos or the womb, but a different and malignant emptiness. No breath was drawn but had Lhior's absence engraved on it; no draught of water was taken but had Lhior's loss dissolved within it.

Even now, Khalfid winces at the memory. Even now, she cannot look at another woman without remembering the one whose embrace was everything. Making love with her, and sharing the intertwining of their souls, had taken Khalfid into another dimension and another world - a world so vast it could encompass even the barren landscape of the lifeless, nameless rock they called their home.

You are not you,
not even a star;
you are a hole through which
I see only shining. ...


Khalfid remembers the lines from an obscure Human poet; their child had written the verses down, first in translation and then in the original language. She can smile now, knowing that she still has something left of Lhior: their child. The child Lhior bore, the child whose face reflects Lhior's features - but the spirit, perhaps something of the girl's spirit is Khalfid's own.

She knows how tempting it would have been for her to cling to the girl, to turn the restless, inquisitive child into a surrogate for Lhior - and she knows too how destructive it would have been for the child. And after all, Khalfid's role as a bondmother was not to nurture - that was Lhior's domain - but to guide the growing girl into the greater world. And so, she held the girl at a distance.

The homeworld is the soul's cradle - but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.

It was a quote the girl had come across in one of her books, and one she recited endlessly. The first time Khalfid had heard it, she thought it was a verse from one of the Gilkesh classics, perhaps The Way of Power or the Cypher, but she'd been wrong.

The girl never gave much of herself away. Following the construction accident that had killed her birthmother - a strange accident it had been, too - she'd grown even quieter, but her work in school never suffered. Her fierce intellect and her interest in alien cultures stayed as keen as ever. She studied hard and trained assiduously in the school's gymnasium, where the girls were exposed to their mandatory hour of Standard Gravity - the only place on the planet with artificial gravity - to prepare them for the unlikely possibility that they might one day journey to the Homeworld.

And now? She's out there somewhere now, Khalfid thinks.

Her steps are listless and fluid as she paces the floor of the small domicile. She gazes at the walls, at Lhior's belongings in a corner still untouched, at the pictures of Lior and their daughter on the walls. She thinks about what might have been and weeps without tears. She closes her eyes, and - from her home deep below the surface - looks up at the imagined stars. As if reciting a mantra, she repeats their daughter's name.

Joli. Joli. Joli. ...

The investigation.

Three women step off of the elevator and walk silently down a hallway. The lighting is dim, even by Gilkesh standards, and their footsteps echo against the rock walls. Except for Garris, Shihar, and Orizhend, there is no sign of life or habitation in this abandoned sector.

They are now several levels below the Security office. Orizhend has never seen this area; Chief Garris herself has seen it only rarely, and Inspector Shihar only once. Wordlessly, Garris indicates a doorway, seemingly chosen at random. Shihar thinks it's the same room as before, but she can't remember for certain.

The room is furnished with a plain table of steel and crystal with four chairs. They close the door and seat themselves, the empty fourth chair creating a feeling that a fourth guest is expected - or perhaps already present, unseen and unheard. Shihar spreads her notesheets and datapads on the surface of the table. Garris carries no note-taking equipment; Shihar knows she doesn't need it. Orizhend is still clutching the lesson plan to her chest, as if protecting the girls whose names appear there ... but one of those girls is already missing.

"Don't worry about Urkni," Shihar says, keeping her voice low because she's aware of how tense and oppressive the silence feels. "We've issued an alert and there are search teams already looking for her. The rest of your girls are being escorted back to their homes. I've already spoken to the Education Director, and she's going to arrange for counseling when they return to school. Nobody should have to see what they saw."

The schoolteacher nods wordlessly, not meeting Shihar's gaze. Shihar lets a few moments elapse. When she feels Orizhend is ready (or perhaps on an unspoken signal from her boss, she's never really sure), she goes on with the interview.

"Did you know the dead girl?"

"No. No, I told you already ..." She's still not looking up.

"Had you ever seen her before?"

"No." It is unlikely that this is literally true; the population of the colony on Planet 138 is very small. But it is plausible that the woman doesn't remember seeing the vicitm, which - for now - will do.

"Did you notice anything unusual in the period before the death? Have you seen or heard anything, well, out of the ordinary in the last few days?"

Orizhend shakes her head.

"Please speak up," Garris interjects, softly but firmly. "I need to be able to hear your answers."

"No."

Shihar goes on. "Were you anywhere near the airlock before the time you found the body?"

"No! I was with my class - why are you asking me that?" She's worried now that they suspect her of being the killer.

Shihar leans forward and touches Orizhend's arm. "Listen to me. You're not under investigation, okay? But we need you to help us with this. Because -" She can feel Garris' eyes on her, so she stops herself. "It's very important that you help us."

Out of the corner of her eye, Shihar sees Chief Garris nod imperceptibly, which she knows signals both approval (whew!) and that the Chief would like to ask a few questions.

"Miss Orizhend," Garris begins, using the formal, respectful title the schoolteacher is used to hearing from her students, "I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with us."

(She's doing it again, Shihar thinks. The Chief, who normally has the personality of a paperweight, can become a completely different person when doing an interview - inexorably dominating and irresistibly sexy - if that's what it takes to get the information she needs. It's the most disconcerting thing.)

"This is an unusual case," Garris goes on, "and at this point there's a lot more unknown about it than is known. Here's what I can tell you so far. We think we have an ID on the girl, but we're still awaiting positive confirmation on that - so I'm afraid I can't disclose anything more about that just yet. As you told our patrol officers when they arrived, there were no signs of a struggle. In fact, the security video shows her just walking into the airlock and opening the outside door.

"So it looks like a suicide. And I don't expect it will turn out to be anything else, but we do want to know as much as we can about the girl - and about her last hours in this world."

This is enough to put Orizhend at ease. There is much more that Garris hasn't told her. While homicides are rare on Planet 138, the same cannot be said about suicides. But in Garris' experience, people usually end their lives with drugs, or occasionally they'll cut themselves. Airlock suicides aren't unknown, but they are very rare; and they're the kind of thing Internal Security doesn't release details about, to prevent copycat activity. An airlock suicide is an unusual event. Two in the same year would be strange. Three in a single year would be bizarre - like corpses getting up and walking around.

This is the third airlock suicide in a month.

"So, tell me," Chief Garris says, "What was the most unusual thing you noticed in the last 24 hours?"

Orizhend thinks for a moment. "It was the whispering," she says. "The whispering stopped."

The answer.
The Hunger of Lilith has never really understood exactly what takes place in those grey processing units the organics use. She's known Joli almost as long as she's known Dess - though not as closely - but this is strange even for Joli, and that's saying a lot. With all the problems Joli has in her own life (don't think for a minute that the Hunger is above eavesdropping), and with ten minutes to go until atmospheric entry, Joli is standing on the Hunger's deck asking the most arcane question.

Still, a cybernetic must obey the orders given to it by an organic, except when obeying such orders would cause an organic to come to harm (though that last clause always left a bit of room for creative interpretation) - so, with a shrug of her virtual shoulders, Hunger tells Joli what she wants to know.

Singularity was an ideological movement founded in the Southern Continent during the Second Interregnum. At its peak, it is believed to have claimed no more than about four hundred followers, although its adherents always insisted there were many more. The political goals of Singularity have never been entirely clear, although it is generally agreed that they sought to gain control of the Southern Continent, and perhaps other lands as well. The movement's legendary founder, Q'ormis, was a charismatic visionary who claimed to receive visions and revelations from the prophet Eve. Singularity did succeed in gaining control over several key branches of the Southern Continent's government for a few years, but the group quickly lost power when several of its members were linked to a series of bizarre murders. Following the arrest of a certain high-level official with known Singularity ties, Q'ormis committed suicide by poisoning, and her disciples followed suit. After the death of Q'ormis, the Singularity movement disappears from the historical record entirely.

"This is all that is known about Singularity," the Hunger says, which is almost true.

Aliens.
No such luck.

Dolos opens her eyes and looks around the crew cabin; once the vertigo passes, K’korz is still there. She’d been hoping against hope that they’d wake up in a universe where K’korz wasn’t the crew commander, but rationally she knows it doesn’t work that way. She’ll just keep play it cool and keep her beak shut. This is her first hyperspace jump, and with any luck at all it’ll ber her last – she’s only got 150 years to go until she retires.

But 150 years can be a long time, especially if K’korz is your crew commander.

***

In between heaves, Baxton Coulich muses that it’s a great way to lose weight. Not only that (heave), it could be construed as a pleasant feeling (heave). With a great deal of imagination.

He holds the bag over his mouth a moment longer. His head is still swimming from the drugs. (Fat lotta good the dope does, he thinks. But never mind, hey, it’s a buzz, and you’ve got to take your fun where you can find it.)

The red light comes on at the same moment that Witt Farrow’s voice emanates from the intercom. “Bax, gravity in two minutes.” The announcement is redundant, but Coulich is grateful for the familiar sound of his crewmate’s voice. He stows the bag in a disposal chute and floats back to his seat.

It’s not the weightlessness that’s always bothered him, so much as the uplessness and downlessness. Artificial gravity … one more thing we can thank the Gilkesh for, he muses, no telling how long it would have taken Humans to perfect the technology.

And speaking of the Gilkesh … there’s their planet outside the viewing port now, just as advertised. It won’t be his first time dealing with them, but it will be his first time on their homeworld. Given his own situation, he figures he’s bound to feel a bit like the Ancient Mariner – “water, water everywhere”, so to speak. But his adventurous side is curious, and it’s good to be reminded that he still has an adventurous side, even if he’s not exactly a kid anymore. Besides, it’ll be a good chance to get away from Earthside politics. He settles down and feels his weight come back as the ship orients itself for re-entry. Then Farrow’s voice comes over the speaker again.

“Bax, we’ve got company.”

“Huh?”

“Remember when Command said they might be sendng another party out to meet us?” (Coulich had tried his best to forget.) “Well, they’re here.”

“Aw, shit.” Coulich lets out a long sigh. He’s going to have to be on his best behavior, maybe even dig up a clean set of duty fatigues. He finally brings himself to ask the obvious question:

“Who’d they send?”

“The President.”

Aw, shit.

***

Sometimes the winds on Voha dance, and sometimes they sing. Sometimes they scream through the canyons, around the craters, up and down the mountains. Sometimes they take physical form and build ships and cities, other times they leave their shells and laugh and ripple across the planet’s dark and rugged surface.

But this time is not like other times. Now, the winds of Voha are quiet.

Descent to Shakti.
Joli makes her way wordlessly down the steps to the lower deck of the Hunger of Lilith. Dess and Atubis are both seated with their eyes closed. Joli takes her seat, thinking about what is to come with a mixture of yearning and dread.

Dess is hoping this new job for the Ministry of Astronomy will be something important. She's ready for a little excitement. And besides, she's broke.

Atubis clutches her shoulder bag on her lap. Through its fabric, she can feel the contents: soap and hygeine items, two old books, and a certain object that might be mistaken for a piece of exotic art. And, besides all of these things, her old friend.

Objects in space and time.
We do not know what the stars looked like from Shakti, but we believe its binary sun was located about halfway between the Galactic Center and the Rim. To a Human, the plane of the Galaxy would appear as a faint band of stars, like the "milk-white road" they can see in the night skies of Earth. For the Gilkesh, it would appear as a blazing arc of light and color. And it might have been rising in the sky during the early evening hours, with the glare of daylight fading, when three Gilkeshna arrived on the Homeworld.

The autocar speeds from the spaceport to the center of the Capital City. Joli, Dess, and Atubis have bypassed customs with a special clearance from the Palace. The Hunger of Lilith waits patiently in a hangar; she needs some routine maintenance, and she's got a lot to think about.

Although they're not in any immediate danger, both Dess and Joli carry sidearms when they're on the Homeworld, especially in the Capital City. Dess wants to beg Atubis to carry - a weapon for self-defense isn't against the rules of her Order - but Dess knows what she'll say: "I don't like guns."

***

There's a hole in space at the center of the Galaxy. As such holes go, it's unremarkable except for its size: a sphere almost 16 million kilometers wide, and nothing that crosses this boundary can escape. In the Gilkesh language, this zone is called its mörg-üj; the Humans know it by the unpronounceable phrase "Schwarzchild radius".

But the hole at the center of the Galaxy is not going anywhere; with the mass of four million average-size stars, what could move it? And as big as it is, its mörg-üj is very small in the vastness of space, and if you do not fly your spaceship into it, it will not reach out and swallow you.

Yet there are still things out there in the big night, even now, that we don't understand. The holes in our knowledge are bigger than the black hole at the center of the Galaxy; and they are as subtle and as dangerous as the Rift.

***

Chief Garris watches the schoolteacher impassively. Inspector Shihar wonders if she should say something and watches the Chief out of the corner of her eye for clues, but as usual, her boss is unreadable; so she waits for Miss Orizhend to tell them more.

Orizhend is staring into space, as if seeing something moving on the wall. Shihar resists the temptation to look over her shoulder; all of the chamber's six walls (like most Gilkesh settlements, Planet 138 is constructed largely on a honeycomb pattern) look the same.

Finally Orizhend draws a breath and focuses on the two secuirty officers seated across the crystal table from her. "The girls always used to whisper a lot in class - but more so lately, especially in the last few weeks. They had their clubs and their cliques - you know how kids are, I think we were all the same way when we were that age. But it was beginning to change somehow ...

"You know, the real strong personalities don't make a lot of fuss, or attract attention," Orizhend goes on, as if following a train of thought that suddenly seems important. "They just quietly gather other girls around them, the way a planetary system forms from an accretion disk. Or," - she purses her lips, as if it's important to find an even better metaphor - "like the black hole at the center of the Galaxy."

Now Orizhend pauses as if pondering whether to go on. Garris and Shihar watch as her mind returns to the other thing that's troubling her. "Urkni ... Urkni was fascinated when I explained black holes last week. It's as if there was something about the emptiness that captivated her."

...

Outside the Palace Compound, billions of Gilkeshne go about their individual lives, each one with her own business and her own thoughts.

Inside the Palace, one of the Queens is quietly panicking.

Kathris inspects the conference room. In a couple of hours, she'll be meeting with some aliens from one of the worlds affected by the, umm, situation (she refuses to use the word "crisis", even mentally), and one Gilkeshni who doesn't yet know that she's coming here - a young science prodigy from a tiny colony in the middle of nowhere. And this girl just might hold the key ... especially since her home planet is also affected by this, err, phenomenon.

As is the planet Shakti.

Think, think, she's got to think. Everything is ready for the meeting, but there must be something she can do. She needs to talk to somebody. She wishes she could talk to Amira, but she doesn't want to worry her. And besides, Amira has been seeming so distant lately. So ... unreachable.

Kathris walks to a private chamber and selects the name of her most trusted adviser on her wrist communicator. "Hello?" she calls into the device in a quiet voice that she hopes will mask her desperation. "Hello? Are you there? Sestris?"

END OF PART TWO.

The sleeping lamp.
They arrive in the Capital City in early evening, just as people are waking up and going to work. The autocar speeds away as they check in at the hotel. Atubis gets her own room, Dess and Joli share a room with twin beds. The arrangement is familiar, as is the hotel clerk's confusion - people always assume Joli and Dess are a couple.

Dess's meeting is scheduled for just after midnight, so there's time to catch a nap. Of course they've all been traveling, so their schedules are all screwed up and they're ready to catch some sleep even though the stars are out. Dess turns on the sleeping lamp.

Like Humans, the Gilkesh like to sleep in the dark. But for Gilkeshna, the natural tendency is to sleep in the shade, during daylight hours. So it's not darkness itself but bright light followed by darkness that calibrates the Gilkesh body clock, and every space traveler depends on a sleeping lamp, a full-spectrum lamp that bathes the user in bright light for a few minutes, allowing her to drop off to sleep when the light is turned off.

So Dess and Joli bask under the sleeping lamp silently, and then crawl under the covers to try to catch a few Z's.

Joli isn't on a schedule, eager though she is for her dangerous liaison. Dess is still largely clueless about what it is, exactly, that she's supposed to be doing on the Homeworld. All she knows is that it's some kind of job offer from the Astronomy Ministry, which would normally mean monitoring space travel hazards like meteors and radiation - but there's something different about this, and not just the generous pay package that the cryptically-worded message had mentioned. Well, whatever, life is an adventure. She figures she'll find out soon enough.

Now they're lying in the darkness with the blackout panels on the windows pulled shut to help them sleep - it's partly psychological (what they'd do if the suns were out) and partly to shut out the noise. But they're too wound-up to sleep; so they talk.

Time bubbles.
The hotel room is invitingly dark and quiet as Dess and Joli stare at the ceiling. They're both tired, and Dess needs to get some rest before her mysterious job interview, but they both feel the need for conversation. Joli has some questions on her mind.

"Okay, I know I'm not too bright about this kinda stuff," Joli is saying. "Explain this hyperspace thing one more time?"

"Well, there are other universes parallel to this one - maybe infinite numbers of them - and some are almost identical to the one we're in right now. When you make a hyperjump, you leave one universe and enter another. Jumping allows you to pick the point in spacetime where you enter."

"But if I'm going into another universe like this one ... why don't I run into another one of me?"

"It's like musical chairs. At the same time that you're making your hyperjump, the 'other you' is making a jump into still another universe."

"Hmm. I think I see. But in musical chairs, you're always short one chair."

"That's true! And when you hyperjump, there's always a small chance that the 'other you' is making a different decision. So theoretically, there's always the possibility that you might meet her. Hypertravel is never completely predictable."

"Dess, we've both hyperjumped lots of times ... it seems weird to think that you're not the same person I saw before my last jump."

"Well, think of it this way: I'm not the same person you saw yesternight, either. Or an hour ago. I've changed - and so have you. The universe is always changing, and we change with it."

"Can you change the past and future with hypertravel?" Joli asks.

"You don't need hypertravel to change the future. You do that at every moment, with every choice you make in life. But I think I know what you're asking. Suppose you traveled to the future - say tomorrow - and then you threw a pair of dice. You might see an eight on your dice, but if I stayed where I was, and waited until you arrived, I might see you roll a three or an eleven. Why? Because you - the 'you' that I saw leave - are now in a different timeline.

"Now," Dess goes on, "suppose you traveled to the past. Let's say you went back in time, and ... " She's about to say, " - and killed your mother" because that's the example people usually use; but she stops herself, because she doesn't want to bring up painful memories for Joli. So instead she says, " - and, uh, did something to change the future, maybe you visited your mother when she was young and convinced her not to have babies. That wouldn't make you stop existing, because nothing you could do in the new timeline would affect anything in your own past."

There's a long pause. Dess has a moment of dread, because she's afraid Joli is goiing to ask her whether her mother is alive in another universe. And Dess doesn't know how she's going to answer that one. But that's not what Joli asks.

"Are there people from our future out there? And why haven't we seen them?"

The question catches Dess off-guard.

"Hmmmmm. Well, remember, they wouldn't be our future, exactly ... "

Dess is stalling, and Joli knows it. "But they'd be from a future like ours, right?"

"Yeah," Dess says quietly.

"So where are they? Has anybody seen a Gilkesh spacecraft from, say, 500 years in the future?"

The answer, as far as Dess or anybody else knows, is no.

"Well," Dess says awkwardly, stalling again, "there are limits on how far you can travel in hyperspace. Even our best ships can't travel five hundred years into the future."

"But in the future they'd have better technology, right? So why haven't they ever come to us?"

"Maybe they're just not that interested. We're their past. Maybe they're not all that interested in where they came from."

"But isn't everybody?"

This time, the silence is total. In a way that neither one can articulate, Joli's question has revealed a fundamental difference in their natures.

With no answer from Dess, Joli breaks the silence.

"Well, maybe they can't. Maybe they're stuck inside some kind of space-time bubble or something."

Dess thinks about this. "Yeah," she says at last. "Or maybe we are."

Atubis.

Alone now, she paces the hotel room. She thinks about her training back on Darkhaven - her training at the Temple, that is, not that earlier time - and wonders what good it will do her now. She remembers the endless hours of meditation, visualizing equations and contemplating unanswerable riddles like "What is the speed of sound in a vacuum?" She knows she should meditate now, but she's too agitated. So she just recites a silent invocation to the angel Lilith for guidance, and lets it go at that.

From the window of the high-rise hotel, the lights of the Capital City gleam below. The mirror on the wall reflects a woman she barely recognizes. And that's when her wrist communicator chimes.

Lilith.

Joli
Who or what is Lilith? Well, in Gilkesh mythology, she represents the creative force and the owtward-directed urge toward growth. She is sometimes called the Angel of Night, and some of the tribes know her by other names as well. Lilith is Eve's consort, and symbolically she is regarded as the collective bondmother of the Gilkesh people - the parent who guides us away from infancy and toward adulthood in the big universe. Eve is the prototypical birthmother; but Eve is also the Angel of Death.

The Humans also have a Lilith figure in their mythology, but she appears as a more sinister character. Recently there have been some very good studies on gender and mythology among the dimorphic races. Now, the Errioi, for example .....

Dess
Lilith? Well, everybody knows she's the angel of space travel! Because, who wants to be stuck on their homeworld forever? And that's what Lilith is all about. I mean, it was Lilith who drove Eve out of Paradise in the legend - Eve wanted to stay, because it was pleasant and comfortable, but Lilith said no, you must go out and explore the universe. You've got to grow. Because that'w what life is.

Atubis
In meditation, we always invoke Lilith as our guide, so that our practice will show us the right path in the world. Because that's the danger in meditation, you know? That you'll withdraw into this other space, inside yourself, and that is not the correct practice.

In pictures, Lilith is shown holding the Sword That Does Not Slay. This is the sword that keeps our souls from entering the Realm of the Dead before their time has come. It's the original non-lethal weapon.

Sestris
Lilith was the Evil One. She is original sin. The Prophecies of Q'ormis teach us that Lilith drove Eve, the Great Mother, out of Paradise - and this is why the Universe is out of balance in our own time.

Kathris
Lilith is growth, learning, and civilization. Without her - without the things she represents - we'd be savages, living in mud huts and birthing our babies in the woods.

Amira
Lilith is life, passion, and discovery. She's the angel of secrets and mysteries. She represents possibility, and the hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

Khalfid
Lilith teaches us that our children must find their own way - that they cannot remain with their mothers forever. It is the hardest lesson.

Joli
Sometimes Lilith comes to me in my dreams. Sometimes she speaks to me, but I can't understand what she is saying.


Baxton Coulich.

It had all begun with two notes - one, an e-mail from the Human Resources department thanking him for his hard work, and the other, a yellow stickynote on the refrigerator announcing that Lirabelle had left to join a women's commune in southern Oregon, and that she wouldn't be back, and he could help himself to the TV dinners in the freezer if he was hungry.

Baxton had never been the superstitious type, but when two notes like those arrived on the same day, he figured the Universe was trying to tell him something. By the time his dinner was out of the microwave, he was on the phone to the Space Command recruiter.

The training had been tough, but hey, it was something to do. His first duty assignment had been in the communications center of a station in low Earth orbit - not very glamorous, but it was a change of scene and a steady paycheck.

With asteroid mining in full swing and Earth still adjusting to the new realities of post-Contact life, space was the place to be. There were new worlds to be explored, cultures to be encountered, exotic technologies to be studied ... oh, and money to be made. Or so they said; as a Space Command rookie, he'd have to take that one on faith. So when, about a year on, one of the guys in the comm center (and they were mostly guys) had spotted Coulich's name on a message and told him, "Hey Bax, looks like you're gonna be hanging out with the space lesbians!" - he'd taken it in stride.

The new posting was on the edge of Earth Force territory, adjoining the region of space claimed by the Gilkesh Federation. It was a small logistics base on a largely unexplored terrestrial planet about twice the diameter of Earth's Moon. Officially its main function was to provide supplies, communication, and other support for travel between the Gilkesh and Human regions. From the utterly nondescript look of the base, and the number of offices with vague names like "Joint Support Detachment", he guessed that it was home to more than a few Intelligence spooks too. But that was way beyond his clearance level and pay grade.

From what he'd seen of them, the Gilkesh weren't hard to work with. They were humanoid and looked more or less like human females; somewhere along the line, they'd evolved parthenogenesis, like the whiptail lizard and (more recently) the Komodo dragon on Earth. Their language was hard - he'd mastered a few phrases, but could never manage to pronounce those voiced gutturals. The Gilkesh themselves were capricious, subtle, and generally inscrutable ... again, he thought, not too different from human females.

You just had to know the rules, and you'd be okay. Now Pell Orner, there was a fella that didn't know the rules. He'd made the mistake of getting fresh with a Gilkesh warrior once. Pell had been all right in the end - that new arm was growing back quite nicely - but they'd still busted him to the loading docks and made him go to sensitivity training. But Baxton wasn't interested in any monkey business. He had a job to do - and that job had just started getting a whole lot more interesting.

Joint Support Detachment.

Two and Five stare at each other for a moment. The data don't make sense. But you can't very well put that in a report to Headquarters; in this business, if things don't make sense, you make them make sense.

"One more time," Two says, her voice raspy with fatigue. "We know their space-warping capabilities are several orders of magnitude better than they're letting on."

"Right," Five says, scratching the stubble on his left cheek.

"But this ...?" She tosses the sheets down on the desk, like a card player throwing down a bad hand. "We can't even keep a signal to Earth going. The hyperspace relay keeps losing the frequency. In a few hours we'll be incommunicado."

"It's worse than that," Five says. "Eight just reported that a Gilkesh transport aborted its mission here due to navigation problems."

"Shit."

Outside of the compound - which is officially an audit office - they would call each other by their covernames, but in here they address one another by their ID numbers. That's as intimate as it gets.

"You don't think it's them, do you." Five's question isn't a question.

"No," Two says, under her breath, not even wanting to say it aloud. "I think Headquarters is wrong. Of course, the Gilkesh Federation isn't politically stable - no matter what they say publicly, there are still all kinds of factional problems between the Kathrites, the Amirites, and the smaller groups. So there's always the possibility of a rogue operation. But still ... I don't think they're behind the Anomaly."

"So what do we do?"

"I'm still waiting to hear back from that one high-level mission. Seven says she'll buzz me just as soon as they touch ground on Shakti. Come on, let's go topside."

It's an impulsive decision, but for some reason she suddenly feels impulsive. As they suit up, she suddenly finds herself wondering about the man she's worked with for a year and a half, but barely knows.

The elevator reaches the surface and the airlock opens. A landing pad, radio towers, and floodlights are nearly all that's visible of the base on the surface. They walk aimlessly to the top of a small mound on the barren surface. If it were daytime (the day is ten hours long here), the stars would still be visible, but they'd have to wear glare visors to protect their eyes from the harsh light of the small, bright star that is the planet's sun. Now, though, there are only stars, and they are beautiful.

Somehow the stars look special this time. As if there are more of them in the sky. And even though it's completely against regulations, Two asks a question she's wanted to ask for a long time.

"Hey Five," she says over the helmet radio, "what's your real name?"

He never gets a chance to answer.



The Queen's courtesan.

Dess can't believe what the message on her communicator is saying. She shows it to Joli, who can't believe it either.

"The Palace? You're going to the Imperial Palace?"

Dess just shakes her head. "It's gotta be a mistake." She knew her new job was with the Government, but she's been expecting to be sent to some minor office of the Astronomy Ministry. Not the Imperial Palace.

She reads the message on the screen again. In a couple of hours' time - this very night - she's to report to the Imperial Palace for an urgent meeting with Queen Kathris. Dess grabs her hairbrush and starts brushing furiously in front of the big mirror in the hotel room.

"So," Joli manages, "d'ya still think Kathris is scary?"

Dess thinks the whole thing is scary. "I wish you could go with me."

Joli giggles nervously. "And meet Kathris? Wouldn't that go over well!" There's an awkward silence for a moment, and Joli adds, "Dess, do you think she suspects?" Her voice sounds distant and fearful now.

Dess shrugs. "How would I know? I've never been to the Palace before. I'll keep my eyes and ears open, though, in case she says anything. Have you heard from ... from her?"

"No. Amira hasn't contacted me. I mean, she must be pretty busy, with all the stuff that's going on." Joli gazes out the hotel window at the city lights.

"Well, maybe she'll call you in for some 'special assignment', right? I mean, officially you're an adviser to Queen Amira, so she can call you in any time. You're one of the Queen's courtiers."

"Sometimes I feel more like the Queen's courtesan. I love her, Dess. And I know she has feelings for me. But I still feel like I'm being used. Like I'm a pawn in some big game. And it's horrible." She turns away from the window.

"Dess."

Dess meets Joli's gaze, which is suddenly intense. "Yeah?"

"Be careful."

"Listen, Joli, if me taking this job would create, you know, problems for you, I won't - "

"No, that's not what I mean. This is a great opportunity for you and I don't want you to miss it. But what I'm saying is, be careful of getting mixed up in Palace politics. Listen, most people - most intelligent life forms, everywhere in the universe - are basically good. But some of 'em are mean, and some of 'em are just evil. You remember the disaster at Fao Colony 12?"

"Yeah, it happened when we were still in school, didn't it? A power station on the colony had a runaway thermonuclear event, and it destroyed almost the whole colony. The Gilkesh homeworld sent a rescue party to help the survivors."

Joli nods. "That's true, and the rescue party saved hundreds of Fao lives, and they did good." She pauses. "But some of 'em did bad. What they didn't tell us in school ... was that some of the rescuers went through the wreckage looking for souvenirs."

Joli swallows hard before going on. "They found nurseries full of unhatched eggs, with Fao babies still inside. Had 'em bronzed."

The trip to the Imperial Palace seems to take an eternity.


Close encounters.

Better that Amira doesn't know. Kathris wishes she could reach her, see into her soul the way she once could, in the days when Amira would heave in ecstasy under Kathris' touch. But that's gone now. Kathris feels like a thief, knowing that she can still become aroused by Amira's caresses ... she shakes her head to drive the thought away. There's enough to worry about already.

Sestris looks like an angel of grace in the starlight. She is incontrovertibly beautiful - Kathris supposes she could have any woman she wanted, if she chose; but as far as she knows, Sestris lives alone and keeps to herself. Her hands rest gracefully on the wooden table in the small, six-walled meeting room.

"So," Kathris is saying, "I'm calling two meetings tonight to discuss the space-warping phenomenon. The Humans are coming to the second one - I want to discuss the latest developments we've observed in their sector. I'm going to need a translator for that. First, though, I need to find out what's going on in Gilkesh space, and get some input from our experts. You'll be there, of course, and then that scientist ..." Kathris flips through the stack of files, her mind wandering as the colors of the displays flash across the thin plastic sheets. She spots the name she's looking for.

"This one," she says, pulling a file out of the stack, "the young specialist you recommended - the one named Dess - I think she's a good choice. She'll be at the meeting. She doesn't know about the situation yet, of course, for security reasons."

"I quite understand," Sestris says, "we don't want to start a panic."

Kathris sighs. "It's not just that." She debates whether to tell Sestris more; but seeing the look on the other woman's face - so trusting, so innocent - she decides she can't keep her in the dark any longer. She goes on.

"As far as anybody knows - that is, those who know about the Anomaly - this is a natural, cosmological phenomenon. And to the best of our knowledge, it doesn't pose a danger to any of the inhabited worlds ... at least, not yet.

"But the most recent observations show some peculiarities in the behavior of the Anomaly - that is, things that are strange, even for this. The warped region has been growing. And it's been changing in ways very different from our predictions - almost as if it were being deliberately shaped or manipulated."

"But that's impossible!" Sestris protests. "It's like something out of science fiction."

Kathris shakes her head. "It would take an enormous amount of energy - but it's theoretically possible that a party with access to zero-point technology could be behind it."

"But who would do such a thing?"

"That's the cosmic question," Kathris says. "But that has to come later. Right now I'm focusing on understanding the nature of the phenomenon."

"Well, Dess is the one you need. She's young, but her resume in applied spacetime physics is impressive." Sestris holds up a finger, signaling that an important thought has just come to her. "Did you say you needed a translator?"

"That's right - and, I might as well tell you this, given the sensitive nature of the situation, it should be somebody with a strong background in alien cultures."

"Well, there you are then! You should call in that girl from Amira's council - she's good friends with Dess. What's her name - Joli, I think ..."

Seeing Kathris' puzzled look, Sestris frowns. "You're familiar with her, right? She's one of Amira's closest advisers."

Kathris shakes her head. "The name doesn't ring a bell. Amira keeps pretty much to herself these days, you know."

After the briefest pause, Sestris says, "I'd noticed. Still, I'm surprised she never mentioned Joli to you ..." There's another, longer pause. "You know, now that I think about it, I wonder whether Joli would be such a wise choice after all. Forget I mentioned her."

"What do you mean, forget you mentioned her? What are you saying?"

"Oh, I'm not saying anything! She works for Amira, after all - and I'm sure her loyalty is beyond question."

"Joli's loyalty, you mean?"

"Oh, that too! And as far as Amira - well, I understand how things are. She gets lonely - which isn't your fault, she's never really adapted to Palace politics, you know - and she needs somebody to talk to. I'm sure that's all it is."

Kathris feels her bones tremble. It's all she can do to keep her voice level. "Get out," she says in a low hiss. "Get out of my palace, you slandering bitch, and don't ever let me see your face again. You're lucky I don't call the guards and give you a one-way ticket to orbit - with no pressure suit. Now get out - and don't ever come back."

Sestris quickly makes her way to the door and hurries down the hall. Around the corner, she sees a familiar figure.

"Mission accomplished," Sestris says.


Seven, are you there?

Kathris doesn't look anything like Dess was envisioning her. She's poised and elegant, solemn and worried-looking ... in short, a middle-aged woman with a lot on her mind. Seated to one side of her at the circular table is an elderly, professorial-looking woman whom Kathris introduces as her science adviser; the name, when the Queen gives it, sounds familiar to Dess, and she realizes with a jolt that the same name appeared as the author of one of the standard textbooks she studied in University. (Dess prays that the subject of her grades won't come up.) On the other side of Kathris is the Homeworld Security Chief, who looks (Dess thinks irreverently) rather witchlike; Dess wonders if she has the ability to read minds.

The fifth chair is empty. "One of my senior advisers couldn't be here," Kathris explains, "she had other commitments. Now then, as to the reason we're here. I'll make it short and sweet: There's something strange happening in outer space."

***

In a spaceport on the outskirts of the Capital City, two Humans step out of a shuttlecraft and onto the landing pad. Baxton Coulich takes a deep breath and looks around; he wishes he'd gotten to see more of the city on the way in, but the nature of a landing from a low-orbit jump point isn't conducive to sightseeing. He looks back through the ship door and sees his partner fiddling intently with the radio.

"You go on ahead, Bax," the other man says, "their liaison is probably waiting for us just inside the control station. I'll catch up with you as soon as I finish recalibrating the radio."

After Coulich is well out of sight, the man heaves a sigh, turns back to the radio, and tries again. "Landing successful, Seven. We are on Shakti. Come in if you copy, Seven. Seven ... Seven, are you there?"

***

Dess leaves the meeting last, following Queen Kathris and the two officials. Her heart is in her throat. Her brain is still spinning from everything she's heard. She's been asked to come back for a second meeting - and to bring Joli! Numbly, she finds her way to the elevators that will take her back to the ground level; alone in the vast halls, she feels entombed in the enormous building.

There's a bar in the lobby of the Palace building, and even though it's early, Dess feels a nice drink wouldn't be a bad thing. And even though she only has a few credits left in her account (amid all the talk of dangers from outer space, somehow the subject of her paycheck never came up), she finds the lure of the bar irresistible. Somehow, it's the one place she wants to be right now.

"Can I buy you a drink?" At first Dess isn't sure the stranger is talking to her, but when their eyes meet there's no doubt. She's sitting in a corner, out of the way and not easy to see - like a fugitive, Dess thinks, and her sense of adventure is aroused.

The woman holds her gaze for another moment, and Dess starts thinking about all sorts of adventures. When she sits down, the stranger touches her forearm, ever so gently, with her fingertips. Dess goes weak.

"I can join you for a few minutes," Dess says feebly, grateful just to have somebody to talk to. "But I really have to leave soon."

"Well, that makes two of us," the stranger says with a conspiratorial smirk, "so why don't we just skip the drink and go back to my place?"

***

She lives in the Palace Compound, just a few minutes away by autocar. The view from the window of her luxurious apartment is breathtaking. Dess still hasn't gotten the stranger's name, but at the moment she's not too concerned about that. She's fascinating and exciting - from their conversation, Dess has learned that she has a very high position in the Palace, and has gotten all kinds of awards for her work in organizing disaster relief operations.

"Like the view?" the woman's voice says from behind her, and Dess turns in time to see her dress slide down her shoulders, past her full, ample breasts, and to the floor. She is completely naked.

Dess moans as the stranger's thigh slides between hers. With their arms around each other, they rock sensuously. Dess kisses the stranger's neck, the line of her collarbone, the gentle upper curve of her breast, her wide, soft nipple. She places her lips in a soft O around her navel; she wants nothing more than to please her. She starts working her way down ...

"Wait," the stranger says, "what about you? Don't I get to see you with your clothes off?" Dess doesn't have to be told twice. She stands up and gets her balance as she prepares to undress. Stepping back from the beautiful, naked stranger, she looks again at the woman's opulent home - the exquisite glasswork of the lamps, and the pretty pieces of artwork on the shelves, little statues and figurines, and that splendid golden egg -

The fire in Dess's heart turns to frost.

"Oh, you like my knickknacks? Well, let's let that be our little secret, shall we, sweetie? You know, some of those are sort of black-market ..."

Dess doesn't wait around to hear the rest.


Tea leaves.


There is only one Zero.

Every field office assigns numbers to its agents by seniority, from One (the operations director) down to the lowliest clerk. So there is one One, one Two, one Three, and so on, for every operation with at least so many agents. But the number Zero is reserved for the Director of Earth Central Intelligence, so there is only one Zero. And right now, he's having a bad day.

The Gilkesh have always been a headache, but never a direct threat. At least, not since ... but that's ancient history. They are a proud race, they have their own ways, and you definitely do not want to get on their bad side. But they've never been a direct threat to Earth Coalition.

Here's the thing of it, though. Someone out there in the Gilkesh region is building some very strange structures in deep space, and is taking great care to keep them from being seen. And over the past few months, there have been reports of fluctuations in spacetime over an enormous volume of space. Officially, of course, the story is that there is a naturally occurring warp in spacetime around the known inhabited region of the Galaxy - and that's partly true. But the picture painted by the intelligence reports suggests that someone, somewhere, is exploiting that warp - that anomaly - for reasons Zero can't begin to guess.

So the question becomes: What in the hell are those gals up to? And here's where it gets really thorny. Because despite all the public proclamations, the Gilkesh have never really had a unified planetary government. They are a deeply tribal and factional society - as we all are, Zero muses - and the unity government in Dharfid is only a thin glue holding the Kathrite and Amirite factions together. You can't explain all this to the windbags up in the Earth Assembly, of course - hell, the last Intelligence Minister couldn't tell you the difference between an Amirite and a Kathrite - but somebody has to stay up nights worrying about this stuff.

The word from the best sources of SENTINT (what used to be called "HUMINT" in the old pre-Contact days) has it that the Amirites are behind it. In fact, one highly-placed source in the Palace claims that the two Queens haven't spoken to each other for weeks - and that Amira may be planning a surprise attack on Kathris' forces in an attempt to take over all of Shakti, and with it the whole Gilkesh Empire.

Zero doesn't know whether to believe that or not, but officially Earth Central has to pretend it believes the myth of a single Gilkesh government. He's got an agent assigned to the party sent there to discuss the Anomaly. They'll be meeting with Kathris, although Zero suspects Amira really knows more about it.

Zero would like to talk to the local agents at the Border Planet station, but no one has been able to reach them for a couple of hours.

***

Baxton Coulich looks over his shoulder at the Earth Alliance issue shuttlecraft parked on the landing pad. Witt Farrow, who's finished doing whatever he was doing back there, is walking across the tarmac to join him. Witt looks awfully flustered for some reason, but this isn't the time to press him on it.

Coulich allows himself a quick look around at the Gilkesh spaceport. The area set aside for Humans is brightly lit, to accommodate the offworlders' less acute night vision. He appreciates the thought but wonders if it's really necessary; he's curious to see what the rest of their world looks like. Farther off in the distance, he can make out the buildings and other structures, glowing gently in the night, and the big illuminated signs that hover in the air. He picks out the few words of the language he can read - MAINTENANCE, REFUELING, CUSTOMS - and he thinks of the first time he ever saw that kind of writing. It was in a book, oddly enough, aboard a Fao spacecraft, with nary a Gilkeshni in sight. He never did find out how the book got there, or who was reading it, or why.

Just as Witt joins him, he sees an autocar pull up. Three Gilkesh women - two in some kind of uniform he hasn't seen before, and one in what looks like plain clothes - get out and walk towards the two men; he's not sure, but he thinks he sees a fourth figure in the car. It's a bigger welcome party than he was expecting.

"So," Baxton Coulich says, turning to the group, "I guess this is where I say, 'Take me to your leader.'"

***

Atubis puts the communicator away. One more time, she checks her shoulder bag: her personal items, two books, a curious artifact, and her friend. She knows she ought to be carrying protection; but Atubis doesn't like guns.

***

The Gilkesh have been wanderers since the earliest times. The stars are their constant friends and companions, and long before the age of space flight, nomad tribes would travel across the plains and deserts of Shakti, guided by the stars. Now, standing on the roof deck of one of the buildings in the Palace compound, Amira gazes into the sky as if this would reveal the shape of the danger to her - or else, show her the way to go.

She feels as if she doesn't know Kathris anymore. Did she ever? Kathris, once her enemy, now her wife ... and still, to Amira, the deepest mystery.

But there are other mysteries, the ones Kathris knows about but won't talk about. Amira desperately wants answers, but if she can't find answers, she'll settle for comfort. And at least she will have that soon. Joli is here - here on Shakti, somewhere out there in the Capital City below - and soon Amira will be able to see her. But it's not safe yet.

Nothing is safe. Amira shivers, suddenly cold despite the warm night air. Once again, she thinks of her first lover, Terimi - how they met and how they loved.

And how Terimi died.


END OF PART THREE.






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