No one can find the planet now.
The race that once called Shakti home have multiplied, spread out, and grown strong - an ever-growing sphere, illumined from within like the shell of a supernova. But no trace of their ancient homeworld remains in all the light-years of known space, or in all the countless Ages that dwell side by side in imaginary time. And with Shakti, all knowledge of the origins of the Gilkesh race are lost forever. Not only that, but the Gilkesh remain divided to this day in every Age. The two Realms do not openly war with one another, but remain separated by mutual mistrust and a cultural gulf as deep as the one between any two alien races. So they are a paradox: mighty but divided, with a great future but no past.
No one can say for sure what brought about the loss of Shakti and the diaspora of its people, and as you may expect, the historians of the two Realms give widely different accounts. Nothing in our Universe is known with certainty, but mortal souls must guess as best they can.
This is how it might have happened.
The faint glow of Zir, Shakti's sun, is still in the sky, but she's awake already. As always, looking for the stars. Amira still sleeping ... no doubt dreaming of the future of Shakti, the world they rule together.
Amira's dreams? The one realm of the universe closed to Kathris. Amira, wonder-filled, passionate - yet unable to surrender to ecstasy under Kathris' caress. What Kathris craves, what every Gilkeshni craves: the opening of the soul that comes with pleasure. Ironic, she thinks: here, at the heart of the Gilkesh Federation, a deep emptiness.
Kathris looks out from the window of the bedchamber, high in the great tower of the Imperial Palace. Even from this height, the lights of the city extend north and south almost to the horizon. One nightship rises slowly out of the spaceport to the north, looking like a huge, graceful seabird. For a moment it hovers on blue pillars of flame, motionless, as if contemplating its future; then it turns skyward and shoots out of sight. It may be bound for one of the worlds in Zir's system, or it may be headed for hyperspace and another Age - another universe. She wonders where it's going; she wishes she could go too.
She tells herself, again, that it's going to be all right. Her marriage to Amira seven years ago set the course for the future of Shakti and the Gilkesh race: to be the focal point binding world to world, galaxy to galaxy. The tribes loyal to Amira, the factions loyal to Kathris, now allied and working together.
The lights come on in the city below, as millions of Gilkeshne wake to the starry sky: each with dreams, hopes, and fears, each with plans and memories, each one in her own world.
The glare of the sunlight is deliciously obscene. Amira's unbuttoned clothing lies on the rock around her. From overhead, the light of Zir beats down on her naked breasts, her thighs, her ... no, not there. Another girl is gently kissing the lower part of her body ... it must be Terimi, Amira's first lover. It is all coming back now: their mothers are asleep and they have stolen away together in the daylight. Amira moans softly and looks down, as the other girl looks up. Amira gasps, realizing that it's not Terimi. It's ...
No. She must never say that name aloud, not even think it, not even in her dreams. Not here, not now.
Gradually Amira becomes aware of another figure some distance away. Sudden taste of fear in her mouth, the dread of discovery. First she thinks it is her bondmother ... no, it's her birthmother ... she gasps, struggling for air as the dream-girl vanishes and the sunlight fades. She wakes in bed, alone.
She steals a glance at Kathris, who is standing by the window, taking no notice of her. Kathris, tall and confident, strong and dignified, loving order and reason ... Kathris, who is all the things Amira knows she can never be. Kathris, dearer to Amira than any being in the universe, except ...
The sun is setting, the night is unfolding, and Amira sobs quietly into her pillow. It is like every night.
The capital city.
Nobody knows what Dharfid really looked like. I will try to tell you, based on the best available information. But the best available information isn’t very good.
Dharfid sits at the base of the Witch Mountains, facing east and overlooking the Central Bay. The view at nightrise is magnificent. As Zir disappears behind the mountains and the glare of the sunlight fades and the shadows vanish under the blanket of starlight, you can see the world of Shakti gathered before you in the streets and neighborhoods of Dharfid.
You can stand in the great, terraced garden in the park that overlooks the business district. Everyone comes to the park at one time or another. The women with leisure time come here when they have nothing to do, because it is the best place to do nothing. The ones who work long hours in the factories still find time to ride the railcar to the park on a night off.
Ornate gates set into the hillside mark the entrance to the Great Library. It holds copies of every literary or scientific work ever produced on Shakti, priceless collections from the alien races, and most important, the history of the Gilkesh people. They say its chambers were in the form of a honeycomb, and that it extended six miles underground.
The market is the most colorful place. People get dressed up to go shopping, and each tribe and sect has its own distinctive pallette. You can buy food, spices, carpets, jewelry, and amazing technlological gadgets here. Here you can meet the aliens – the Fao, who look like reptiles that once aspired to become birds; the Errioi, barely visible through their methane-filled encoutner suits but surprisingly friendly; the Humans, deceptively like ourselves in so many ways, and yet so different; and the other races that come to visit in smaller numbers.
To the north you’ll see the neighborhoods that used to be under the control of Kathris’ alliance; now formally integrated into the Empire, they have changed little. The architecture is geometric and elegant, the people polite and cultured. To the south, what used to be Kathris’ land, dizzy, disorganized, noisy, and exuberant.
Of all the unpleasant things she enjoys most, this is definitely at the top of the list. It's sort of like being shaken up and turned inside out at the same time. Oh, and it's dangerous, that's another point in its favor. Not ridiculously dangerous (she may be crazy, but she's not an idiot) - but not entirely safe. And you can never be completely certain you're going to end up where you expect. She can't understand why some people don't enjoy hyperspace travel ... but then if everyone liked it, that would kind of take the fun out of it, wouldn't it?
Now the outline of Shakti is coming into view through the bubble canopy, still swimming before her eyes. It's that delicious moment when she's sure she's just about to barf, but doesn't (not usually), she's just enjoying that quiet feeling before the artificial gravity comes on and the deep-space navigation systems take over.
Dess inhales, holds, exhales. Shifts in the seat, feels its shape shift in response. Looks to each side at the other two travelers. Feels the seat press up against her thighs and buttocks as the artificial gravity gradually comes on; watches the instrument panel begin to glow, and for the thousandth time resists the urge to tinker with that bright purple control in the upper left corner because she's not sure what it does and the curiosity is killing her.
"Grrmmmph, pfnnkh, sppppft." Dess is snapped out of her reverie by her friend's voice on the right.
"You say something?"
"I said, I can't believe you actually enjoy this shit."
"Oh, come on. You must be used to it by now. Especially in your line of work."
"Hmmmpf. The Fao don't use hyperspace except in emergencies. And the Humans at least have the good sense to knock themselves out with drugs first."
"Don't the Fao have twelve-hundred-year life spans? They can afford to take their time."
Joli doesn't like being told about her business by a non-specialist, but she cuts Dess some slack, because, well ... she's Dess. And she's been cutting Dess slack since they were little girls on a certain Spirit-forsaken outpost. So she just says, "Well, we haven't got twleve hundred years. And I've got business in the Capital."
Dess steals a look at the older woman in the seat to her left. Atubis is sitting with her eyes closed, still looking serene - that's a trick even Dess can't manage. Standing now, she touches Atubis gently on the arm. Something travels through Dess like an electric shock. Looking closer at Atubis' face, she can see she was wrong before: there's a look she can't quite name that she's never seen on Atubis before and she hopes she never sees again. And she feels it herself, too: it's a quiet dread, as if the outline of something vast and deadly were passing across the sky.
Atubis' eyelids flutter and their eyes meet for just an instant. Nothing is said.
Suddenly desperate for comfort, Dess turns back to Joli and breaks the pause in conversation, which was just a little too long. "Business in the Capital, huh? Gonna brief some high-level officials with all your expertise about aliens?"
Joli is staring down at the planet's surface. She fiddles with her hair and and takes a deep breath before answering; it seems to Dess as if she's trying hard to sound matter-of-fact.
"Yeah," she almost mumbles. "One of the Queens, in fact. I'm meeting with Amira."
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, 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.
The Imperial Palace.
Starlight through the tall windows casts a gentle, shadowless light over everything, like a light snow on a sleeping town. To human eyes, the inside of the Imperial Palace would appear dark, like the interior of a dimly-lit restaurant. For the nocturnal Gilkesh, it is aglow with the rich and subtle colors they favor: the lavish cushions of the furniture, midnight blue with silver trim, and the polished quartz tiles of the floor, a deep violet that seems to glow from within.
Kathris is looking at the map display on the wall of the great bedroom, its ornate circular frame decorated with carved dragons. Inside the display, stars and galaxies shift, rotate, zoom in and out. The holographic display seems artificially deep. Kathris stares at the display intently while moving the controls. Amira watches her from under the warm blankets. She stirs audbily but Kathris does not notice her.
"I'd love to know what the Fao are up to," she says aloud without warning; Amira is genuinely uncertain whether the remark is addressed to her or to the map. She waits patiently for clarification.
"Look at this," Kathris says at last, from which Amira infers that she is not speaking to the map. A cloud of small dots appears around a nearly invisible star; at a motion from Kathris, the dots are labeled with the crest of the Fao Empire. "These images are twenty-seven standard years old - that's how far away this system is - but look how fast they covered this distance." She toggles the control to show the alien ships making a preternaturally fast journey.
Now Amira is getting interested. "Hmmm. That's easy enough to do if you use hyperspace ... but the Fao don't like to do that. They hate the idea of leaving their old universe for a new one."
"Exactly. So whatever it is, must be important enough to persuade them to break with tradition and use hyperspace like the rest of us."
Amira is standing behind Kathris now, still in her nightgown. Kathris is fully dressed in a long black skirt and a silk blouse with a geometric pattern in green and gold pastels. The tassels on the sleeves are an unusually frivolous touch for Kathris, Amira thinks, and they make her look vulnerable and irresistible. She slips her hand under the front of the blouse and strokes Kathris' tummy. Kathris starts to protest, but the night is still young.
Amira knows Kathris' mind as well as she knows the halls and windows of the Imperial Palace, better even, for she's never cared overmuch for the duties of office. If she had to do it over, she might almost ahve stayed a mid-level estate manager - but for Kathris. Amira spends most of her free time wandering the grounds of the capital compound, though there's precious little time for even that anymore. But it doesn't matter.
Their eyes meet, and Kathris seems to be asking a question. Amira ignores it, because it comforts her to know that Kathris usually has the answers. Even during amira's turn as Primary, she usually defers to the tall, commanding woman.
Undeserving. That is how Amira has always felt in Kathris' presence - Kathris, who brought the Seventeen Factions together under a single rule and a single law; Kathris, who had opened up a new golden age of learning and exploration; Kathris, who had made the planet Shakti a united world for the first time in its history.
Amira has always felt intimidated by Kathris' beauty - felt herself so small, so frivolous. What could Kathris possibly want with her anyway? What could she, Amira, ever give her?
Only this, she thinks, only this. Pleasure, joy, ecstasy; and for herself, when Kathris reaches bân and her psychic defenses fall away, a fleeting glimpse into that beautiful mind. She runs a forefinger playfully down the front of Kathris' blouse, where an invisible seam splits under her touch. The blouse falls to the floor like a flower melting.
Not that she minds being seduced first thing in the evening. Amira knows how to please her, and seems to have been especially eager this time. She holds the other woman tenderly and permits herself to dissolve into a pool of contentment.
It seems to her that Amira has never fully inhabited her role as queen. Kathris feels a twinge of guilt with this realization, knowing too well the rumors about herself: that she's power-hungry, even a dictator. She tries not to let it anger her, but it does: she's known real dictators. But Amira ... does she know how to wield power responsibly? Does she even care?
Well, somebody has to make the decisions, and some very strange things have been happening lately. She's got a meeting with a delegation of Humans later on tonight, and she'll need time to prepare. Gently she disengages from Amira, bathes, and, for the second time tonight, gets dressed. She goes back to study the space monitor for a long time while Amira lies silent and still in the bed. Then she goes into the study to be alone.
As she leaves the room, she hears Amira stirring; she thinks she also hears her walk once or twice around the room, but she pays no attention to it.
Sweet taste of guilt in her mouth, she lies still, unmoving, barely breathing.
Kathris is more worried than she'll let on - this much she's sure of. But Kathris doesn't suspect her of anything, as far as she can tell ... she's not sure whether to be relieved or hurt by her mate's lack of jealousy. Still, there's something else on Kathris' mind, and in this last lovemaking, Amira has gotten a clearer picture of it.
There's something out there in the big night that Kathris hasn't told her about, that none of her own advisers know of - or if they do, they're not telling her.
Amira's body is still thinking about sex, aching for sex, but she must deny it a little longer. For as long as she's been seeing Joli, she's been able to convince Kathris that she has become sexually unresponsive - the only way Amira can be sure she won't open up her own mind, with its guilty memories, to Kathris.
After what seems an eternity, she hears Kathris leave the room. Then she gets up and walks over to the space monitor.
She isn't sure she's heard correctly.
"Joli ... did you say you're meeting one of the Queens?"
"Uh huh." Joli has quit playing with her hair and is now biting her little finger instead. Dess has only seen her do this two or three times, and it's never a good thing.
"Well, that's ... that's great!" she says, hoping for some response from Joli. Nothing.
Finally she tries the direct approach. "Um ... you don't look excited. Which one is it? Kathris, the scary one? Don't worry, whatever it is, it must be important." She pauses. "Of course, if it's something you can't talk about ..."
Atubis sees it's a good time to be elsewhere, so she says, "I'll be downstairs getting ready for the surface if you need me." Dess hears her climb down the ladder into the quarters below the skydeck.
"Amira," Joli says, almost inaubibly.
There've been times lately when Dess feels she doesn't know Joli anymore, and maybe never did. This isn't one of those times, though, and suddenly Joli looks like the girl she grew up with, out on a minor planet in the middle of nowhere. Something is wrong - badly wrong - but she knows she can get through to Joli somehow. She's got to.
"Hey," she says, and touches Joli gently on the forearm with just the tip of a finger. "You remember that stupid game we used to play back there on Planet 138? The one with the chairs?"
Joli cracks a smile, she can't help it. "Hmmf. We were really bored! They'd put a bunch of chairs in a circle, and someone would play recorded music for a few minutes while we marched around the chairs. When the music stopped, everyone had to try to find a seat, but we were always one chair short - "
Joli is laughing now. " - And there was that one time you and I both tried to sit in the same chair. I got there first, but you tried to sit in my lap. And I said, 'Does this mean we hafta get married now?' "
" ... And that was the closest we ever came to being lovers!" Dess adds. And, she thinks, this is why. She wants to know what's going on with Joli, but she doesn't want to read her mind, doesn't want to make love to her. She just wants Joli to tell her.
Now they're embracing, and Joli's body is shaking; she's not laughing anymore, she's sobbing. "Dess. Dess. Dess," she says softly, forcing the words out of her mouth. "I'm having an affair with Queen Amira."
Dess steels herself and takes a deep breath. So that's it, she thinks. Well, now I know the truth. At least things can't possibly get any worse.
[to be continued]