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.