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.