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 incredible 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.