December 30th, 2006

Close Encounters

"The Queen's Courtesan" - our story so far:

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.

Seven, are you there?

"The Queen's Courtesan" - our story so far:

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, Collapse )