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, a planet 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.