We do not know what the stars looked like from Shakti, but we believe its binary sun was located about halfway between the Galactic Center and the Rim. To a Human, the plane of the Galaxy would appear as a faint band of stars, like the "milk-white road" they can see in the night skies of Earth. For the Gilkesh, it would appear as a blazing arc of light and color. And it might have been rising in the sky during the early evening hours, with the glare of daylight fading, when three Gilkeshna arrived on the Homeworld.
The autocar speeds from the spaceport to the center of the Capital City. Joli, Dess, and Atubis have bypassed customs with a special clearance from the Palace. The Hunger of Lilith waits patiently in a hangar; she needs some routine maintenance, and she's got a lot to think about.
Although they're not in any immediate danger, both Dess and Joli carry sidearms when they're on the Homeworld, especially in the Capital City. Dess wants to beg Atubis to carry - a weapon for self-defense isn't against the rules of her Order - but Dess knows what she'll say: "I don't like guns."
There's a hole in space at the center of the Galaxy. As such holes go, it's unremarkable except for its size: a sphere almost 16 million kilometers wide, and nothing that crosses this boundary can escape. In the Gilkesh language, this zone is called its mörg-üj; the Humans know it by the unpronounceable phrase "Schwarzchild radius".
But the hole at the center of the Galaxy is not going anywhere; with the mass of four million average-size stars, what could move it? And as big as it is, its mörg-üj is very small in the vastness of space, and if you do not fly your spaceship into it, it will not reach out and swallow you.
Yet there are still things out there in the big night, even now, that we don't understand. The holes in our knowledge are bigger than the black hole at the center of the Galaxy; and they are as subtle and as dangerous as the Rift.
Chief Garris watches the schoolteacher impassively. Inspector Shihar wonders if she should say something and watches the Chief out of the corner of her eye for clues, but as usual, her boss is unreadable; so she waits for Miss Orizhend to tell them more.
Orizhend is staring into space, as if seeing something moving on the wall. Shihar resists the temptation to look over her shoulder; all of the chamber's six walls (like most Gilkesh settlements, Planet 138 is constructed largely on a honeycomb pattern) look the same.
Finally Orizhend draws a breath and focuses on the two secuirty officers seated across the crystal table from her. "The girls always used to whisper a lot in class - but more so lately, especially in the last few weeks. They had their clubs and their cliques - you know how kids are, I think we were all the same way when we were that age. But it was beginning to change somehow....
"You know, the real strong personalities don't make a lot of fuss, or attract attention," Orizhend goes on, as if following a train of thought that suddenly seems important. "They just quietly gather other girls around them, the way a planetary system forms from an accretion disk. Or," - she purses her lips, as if it's important to find an even better metaphor - "like the black hole at the center of the Galaxy."
Now Orizhend pauses as if pondering whether to go on. Garris and Shihar watch as her mind returns to the other thing that's troubling her. "Urkni ... Urkni was fascinated when I explained black holes last week. It's as if there was something about the emptiness that captivated her."
Outside the Palace Compound, billions of Gilkeshne go about their individual lives, each one with her own business and her own thoughts.
Inside the Palace, one of the Queens is quietly panicking.
Kathris inspects the conference room. In a couple of hours, she'll be meeting with some aliens from one of the worlds affected by the, umm, situation (she refuses to use the word "crisis", even mentally), and one Gilkeshni who doesn't yet know that she's coming here - a young science prodigy from a tiny colony in the middle of nowhere. And this girl just might hold the key ... especially since her home planet is also affected by this, err, phenomenon.
As is the planet Shakti.
Think, think, she's got to think. Everything is ready for the meeting, but there must be something she can do. She needs to talk to somebody. She wishes she could talk to Amira, but she doesn't want to worry her. And besides, Amira has been seeming so distant lately. So ... unreachable.
Kathris walks to a private chamber and selects the name of her most trusted adviser on her wrist communicator. "Hello?" she calls into the device in a quiet voice that she hopes will mask her desperation. "Hello? Are you there? Sestris?"
END OF PART 2.