It's a word every schoolgirl knows from astrophysics. And long after she's forgotten all the equations and gotten on with the business of working and raising a family, she'll remember the word. It's just the kind of word you remember.
Atubis is thinking about the word now. It means something else in these times, though, and it has precious little to do with stars or the universe. It's closer to home than a black hole, and much uglier.
For some reason, Atubis finds herself thinking back on her other life, the one she had before she became a Priestess. The life none of her disciples know anything about.
Amira stares into the screen, trying to glean some information. There's more to the picture than Kathris has told her, but she can't see it. She doesn't know what to look for. All she sees is the tiny blips of an alien fleet advancing slowly, steadily, toward an even tinier blip. She squints to see the writing beside the blip, but it tells her nothing; it is simply a number: 138.
Kathris fingers the pages of the printed book. There's something reassuring about printbooks, and somehow she's glad that, no matter how far civilization advances, people never seem to lose the need for the simple permanence of the printed word. "Durable media", the technologists like to call it. She has a need of durable things these days; everything feels as if it's slipping away.
A search of General Information would be too dangerous, even with the highest levels of Imperial security. The encyclopedia before her tells her nothing, only rehearsing familiar truths about zero denominators and infinite quantities. It is, literally, a lot of nothing.
The comfort of her private study is all she has now. Surrounded by the old books, she wishes she could stay there. But there's work to do, and not much time. So little time. She stares around at the volumes of physics, poetry, astronomy, philosophy, history. Where to begin?
The scrap of paper is moist in her hand, tattered as she clutches it, unable to look at it, unable to erase its one word from her mind.
Dess descends to the lower section of the Hunger of Lilith, to get ready to go planetside. Her teacher is already there, seated in the reclining chair and facing the rear of the spacecraft in preparation for the twenty-minute deceleration and atmospheric entry. A deep-space craft would need much longer, but the Hunger of Lilith, coming through the hyperspace portal, has no spatial velocity except the orbital speed of the portal itself.
For the trillionth time, Dess wonders why her teacher has to be the most beautiful woman in the universe. It just isn't fair. But now it's worse than that: something is troubling Atubis. Dess wants to ask her what's weighing on her mind, but that would be inappropriate. Besides, what comfort could she, Dess - barely more than a girl herself - offer to the silver-haired woman? And deep down, there's the worst thing of all: If something is worrying Atubis, with all her wisdom, she's not sure she even wants to know what it is.
The Hunger of Lilith doesn't like the smell of the atmosphere.
There's not too much time to ponder it, with three organics in a hurry to get planetside for reasons of their own. (Well, Dess isn't just any organic, but she's trying to be professional about this.) The Hunger can't quite put her finger on it, either - figuratively speaking - because there's nothing specific: no biological pathogens, no radioisotopes, nothing to indicate something badly amiss with the life-forms on Shakti. And yet, something isn't quite right.
Well, time to think of that later. Two of the organics are already belowdecks, impatiently waiting for her to start decelerating. The third lingers.
Somehow, the thought of seeing Amira again fills Joli with both longing and dread. Dess and Atubis are down below, and Joli makes herself an excuse that Dess probably wants a few minutes to be alone with Atubis. She knows all about her friend's crush on the older woman, of course, and finds it charming - and refreshingly innocent.
If only her own life were so innocent.
Joli wonders how Dess manages to be unaware of the Hunger's feelings (yes, she's sure that's the right word) for her. Probably it's never occurred to her; but stranger things have happened. Joli's been around, and she knows full well that intelligences of very different species can sometimes bond in the most surprising ways. It amuses her to think of Dess as part of a love triangle.
Yeah, she tells herself, biting her lip, I guess I ought to know about those.
The Hunger's voice is gentle but firm; it seems to come from all around. "Atmospheric entry in ten minutes. You are advised to be seated in a G-seat belowdecks."
"Acknowledged," Joli says. And now that she's got the Hunger's undivided attention, she thinks of something she's been meaning to ask. Just a chance remark she heard Dess make once, and Dess herself probably thought nothing of it. But Joli never was very good at minding her own business.
"Hunger," she says, "informational question."
"What is Singularity?"