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."
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.