Galaxy Dancers cont
Lonnie took a deep breath of dust and heat, welcoming it with a cough, and then took another deep breath. It was so different than the artificial air in ships. This was life, she thought as she closed her eyes, and let the heat warm her face. Her dream was to have her own land that had cliffs, surrounded by uncontaminated wilderness, and enough land left over to keep her self-sufficient.
Her climbing partner jingled the rope attached to her harness. She turned around, anchored herself, grabbed the rope then pulled. Her shoulder muscles flexed and her back braced as the last of their supplies were hauled up. Cora and Marsha were already preparing the area at the top of the cliff for their overnight stay. Ang and Bella were assisting a stubborn Kali to climb. She wanted to come along to see just what was so exciting about climbing a mountain and sleeping in the elements. Lonnie suspected she was nervous about spending two days at the house with Aliana, Cora's partner, who was not on her best behavior lately. Couples breaking up were never easy to be around, though with Cora, it did not seem to faze her.
They started later than usual so that Kali could get dressed properly, and still they made good time. They saved time by using the carts instead of hiking to the cliff. Lonnie gave a hand up to Bella who then helped her haul up Kali. Lonnie studied the dirt and sweat smeared face of the diva as it appeared over the rock. Though she looked exhausted, she looked better than she had ever seen her. Lonnie could not decide if it was the outside air or not having meds in her system that was giving her a more animated appearance. She reminded herself to ask Cora if the drugs Conessa had her on increased her anxiety rather than decreased.
Standing at the top, while the easy camaraderie went on around Kali she looked about her. She was tired and her legs were as shaky as her arms but she was invigorated. This was the first time she had ventured this far away from any of her residences without a personal attendant.
"See that?" Cora pointed at a peak where the sun was dropping behind.
Kali shaded her eyes. "What exactly?"
"Just as I thought. You can't see worth spit or you would be oohhing and aahhing," Cora said. "You need to see someone about your vision. Believe me when I say it does a whole lot of good to your self-esteem to be able to see what everyone else is seeing."
Marsha pulled out her binocs. "Try these."
Kali put them to her eyes and under Marsha's direction, adjusted them in the direction Cora had pointed. "Oh, my gods! It's beautiful!" Kali's hand went to cover her heart while the other held the binocs and moved up the side of the distant mountain to its snowy top. "You can see this?"
Lonnie leaned against a boulder watching the diva, wondering how she could still look so feminine with dirt smudges on her face and over-sized dusty clothing. Her lips pulled into a frown at what Cora said. Now she could understand why she was slow picking up steps when she demonstrated them for her.
* * *
It was near freezing cold as the sun dropped out of sight and everyone sat close to the fire as they all took turns regaling their companions with songs or stories. Kali sang a silly song about a frog that went courting, changing her voice for each character. Everyone enjoyed her voice and laughed at the story. Cora told a story of one of her dogs meeting up with an escaped Borea monkey from a neighboring farm. Lonnie pulled out a harmonica and gave a lively tune that had everyone's feet tapping. When they retired to the tent, they slept close together, using their combined body heat to keep each other warm.
Lonnie was the first to rise in the early morning hours for a bladder call. Rather than rejoin her sleeping associates she prepared the morning fire. Lonnie heard the others stirring. While waiting for Ang, the self-designated cook, to get up, Lonnie found a place to begin her morning ?sanas. She faced the rising sun that had not yet warmed the morning air.
Kali held the binocs to her eyes as she studied Lonnie's seated form, then suddenly raised them toward the sunrise, least someone see her studying her partner with so much interest.
The group began their decent after breakfast, thinking it would take a while with Kali, but she quickly picked up on how to rappel down and was waiting with Cora at the bottom. Since the others had the supplies it took them a little longer to move things.
"Lonnie," Cora called.
Lonnie walked over to Cora, dragging the line she was rewinding with her.
"Kali asked me about eye surgery. I'm not her physician so I was hesitant…"
"She told me she doesn't have one." Lonnie shook the rope out. Cora helped, by untangling it when it got caught in shrubbery.
"Yeah, and she told me why." Cora looked irritated with something but she kept her own counsel. "Do you know much about her life?"
"A little." Lonnie tossed the folded rope to Cora who packed it one of the backpacks. Lonnie picked up the other rope and started collecting it.
Cora picked up one of the stakes that fell out of the bag and secured it back inside the bag. Lonnie wondered why Cora was taking so long with this conversation.
"I told her if she wants me to be her physician I would, but I wanted to speak with you first."
"Why?" Lonnie paused in winding the rope.
"Because she said she would trust your recommendation."
"I'm not responsible for anyone but myself."
"Gal, you're going to have to face that fear of yours one day…but today, make a decision. We'll get back in time for me to check her out and if it's simple, I'll do it. She can sleep on the way back to your ship."
"We don't have a performance the first night back. Can she practice?"
"Yes. Physically, one days rest is all she'll need." Cora shook her head dismayed. "If she's as blind as I'm guessing, she's going to have a whole new world to get used to. It'll be overwhelming. Like seeing bright colors instead of dull gray. It behooves me to write to her agent at letting this get by him."
"She doesn't squint or look like she can't see. I didn't know and I'm her dance partner." Lonnie finished wrapping the last rope and tossed it to Cora. She turned and looked at the others to see if everyone had the equipment packed up into the carts that would be taking them back to the ranch house. Kali was sitting between packs with Bea supervising the loading, both women laughing at something said.
"I'll tell her you said it's a good idea."
Mid afternoon Kali had her surgery. Afterward she slept the rest of the day.
* * *
The ride back to the air terminal was quiet. It was dark with stars beginning to populate the blackened sky, and Kali was studying it with rapt fascination.
"We actually travel among those stars," she said.
Lonnie thought about the subtle and not so subtle changes in Kali. Before the eye surgery she could look anyone in the face, and now she avoided eye contact. That was going to take some getting used to. Lonnie smiled. Kali was so interested in what was going on around her that Lonnie had to tug at her to move along when they were boarding the autocab.
On their arrival at the air terminal, Lonnie peered out the window and studied the crowd of youth milling around, wondering if they were waiting for the diva or just there for a youth group traveling somewhere.
"Just in case they're laying in wait for you, we're going to have to run to our shuttle." Lonnie got a good grip on her bags and stepped out of the cab. She blocked a view of Kali from the group, giving her a chance to get her balance and then both women ran into the terminal. Lonnie aimed her toward Earl Gray's shuttle ramp, noting that a lot of photographers and people were hanging around it. The ship's steward dispatched the ship's security team to quickly surround them and guide them up the ramp. Kali stood close to Lonnie as they paused while their identity was confirmed.
"That's…Conessa?" Kali asked.
Lonnie turned to see who she was asking about. Conessa was arguing with a civilian with a news agency tag on his arm and dressed for hiking. She wondered if he was sent to find out where they had gone.
"The one making a fashion statement with the pink and green hair? Yep. I don't recognize who she's with. Do you?"
"I would have to see how he moves. That's how I know one person from another. This is a bit overwhelming." Her eyes were sweeping back and forth, trying to take in everything.
"I can't image, but I would guess it's a big deal to see so much all of a sudden."
"I didn't realize…what's that?" she asked in a whisper.
Lonnie turned her body to see what Kali was looking at. She chuckled. "A pursuer standing at attention. He's Bodian. They have genitalia of both genders, like Human hermaphrodism."
Kali glanced at her startled. Lonnie smiled.
"How do you know that?"
"On Malta Red, I met a Bodian masseuse."
"So…how did you…?" Kali's face turned red.
"I got to know her personally."
The pursuer nodded when they came abreast of him. "We've had to move Diva Maxine to another suite. The owner apologizes, but his suite's upgrade has been scheduled with the delivery of the necessary equipment from Luko Tams on Tanzinia. It won't be for longer than a few months. Your new room is AC0001. You'll be sharing it with Lonnie Bestrolie." He turned to Lonnie. "We've taken on additional passengers and moved the two of you in together. It's going to be a larger cabin than what you're used to."
"I'll adjust." Lonnie smiled to let him know she was okay with the move. She wondered if that was something Erich or Maltieani thought up. Now she was officially Diva Kali Maxine's babysitter. She glanced at Kali to see how the news affected her, but she was too engrossed in what was going on around her. Lonnie reluctantly moved her eyes from watching Kali.
At the first public kiosk Lonnie stopped to get directions to their cabin. Though she was sure she could find it, she wanted Kali to see how one could be used, doubting Conessa had showed her.
"Locate cabin AC0001, and provide a guide to lead me to it."
"Follow the automated guide," the disembodied voice instructed. A small colorful animal appeared before them and began its way down the corridor, breaking off every dozen steps to do a jig.
"This is great." Kali rushed before Lonnie to get a closer look at the hologram.
"If you want it can take on different forms. They have different names."
The helper stopped in front of cabin AC0001, did a dance flourish, then disappeared with a bark.
"You can program the disappearing noise too."
Security scanned Lonnie's eye and unlocked the door. She stepped in first to make sure there was no one waiting, and then stood aside to let Kali enter.
The front room was twice the size of Lonnie's previous cabin space and not cluttered with furniture. If they wanted more space or furniture they could program for more. She peered behind the divider and found two separate sleeping cubicles. To the left was a long door she pushed open. It was a large closet with their costumes hanging neatly separated by color and ownership. Adjoining the closet was the bathing facility. It had in addition to the shower, a hot tub, though not as deep as the one in the crew's relaxation area.
"We can work on steps here. This is perfect." Lonnie turned to watch Kali as she moved around their quarters. This gave her a glimmer of hope that Kali would relax with her, and become more intimate in their dances. After their last dance, she knew Kali could do it. Maybe it was just the way she was taught. That was something she had not considered.
Kali touched things and picked some up, then moved on. "It looks nice."
"So, which sleeping cubicle do you want?"
Kali peeked in the first sleep cubicle. "You can get claustrophobic in here."
"Ah. Now you see the downfall of seeing too much. If you want more space around you, the couch turns into a bed out here."
Kali looked relieved at the suggestion.
They were interrupted by hard rapping on their door. Usually people rang or called ahead. Curious, Lonnie opened it. An angry Conessa pushed past her into their cabin and turned on Lonnie. Lonnie calmed herself, not wanting to cause a scene if none was called for.
"What are you doing here? You have your nerve taking her where she could have hurt herself. Then what? She wouldn't have been able to dance until she got better. You're jealous of her, that's what you are!" Turning to Kali, "How are you, my dear? She should not have taken you where you could have hurt yourself. Permanently. Ending your career so soon. What would you do then? You're still young and beautiful with so much to give to your public. That woman has no thought of your condition. She's jealous of you. About these living arrangements… I have been screaming at them, trying to get our suite back. They don't have to be making any repairs now on our quarters, and now they won't let me stay with you and take care of your things. Who is going to take care of you as I do?"
She turned back to Lonnie suddenly, as if realizing she had not left. "Didn't I just tell you to get out?" she shrieked. "Leave Diva Kali Maxine alone. You vile ungrateful degenerate. Leave now!"
"This is our suite," Lonnie informed her in a normal voice, more amused than alarmed. She also felt enlightened at what Conessa may have been saying to Kali in private. It comforted her to know that Kali was out of her grasp and influence now.
Before Conessa could say something Kali interrupted her.
"We're fine here. We need to work on our routines without having to wait for an available hall. We should have thought of that when I had the larger suite."
Conessa frowned at the two women, catching on that her ex-employer had changed since she last saw her, but not knowing exactly what it was. "Well, it's time for your medicine."
"I'm doing fine. I don't need anything. I'll call you if I need you." Kali turned and disappeared into the bathing area.
"But, you need your meds for your nerves, your stomach. What about your headaches?" But Kali was gone. Conessa looked undecided, and then after glaring at Lonnie stomped out.
Kali peeked out after the door closed, then stepped out. "I really do feel so much better. I don't feel like I'm wound up one moment and in a cocoon the next. Even my stomachache and headache are gone. I think Cora was right. I was getting some bad meds."
Lonnie picked up the cabin phone and called Maltieani.
"Hi, this is Lonnie. Did you clean our quarters?"
"Yeah. I also removed Conessa Joleian's authority on Diva Maxine's accounts by authorization of Erich Bettelheim. Seems she had quite a scam going on by controlling the travel account. Unfortunately she didn't want to disembark at this port so she's paid up to Corelon, our next port. She's under conspicuous watch since I don't have the personnel to assign to monitor her actions. Did all of your belongings and costumes get moved alright?"
"Yes, thanks. Her name is Joleian? What's her family name?"
"Wrighton. She used to be the girlfriend to one of your diva's ex-partners. Zac Montage. He died of a drug overdose about a year ago. She was a street hustler and took a liking to him but my mouths tell me there was nothing sexual between them though Joleian claimed there was. They said Zac was too much into drugs to be interested in anything beyond his next fix."
"From street hustler to gang member. She said she's bunking in crews' quarters."
"That was the cheapest bunk we had available. I've also put her on notice. If she causes trouble she'll spend the rest of her trip in the brig. That security bot on her tail is meant to be obvious."
"Why hasn't anyone notified Kali?"
"She should have a note. I made sure it was there myself."
"If Joleian knew it was here, maybe that was why she came up. Where did you put it?"
"Entrance way so you wouldn't miss it."
Lonnie looked around. "Nope. She must have filched it. Do you know what was in it?"
"Conessa Joleian Wrighton is fired. Call your agent. By the way, your agent said whatever contract that gang had her sign is null and void. The eye scan and blood signature were not hers. I guess they planned on getting that stuff together later in their game."
"That's a relief." Lonnie looked at Kali who was sprawled out on the couch watching a travel log on the viewer. "Thanks for all your work."
"No problem. It breaks the monotony of the usual ship's problems. Let me know if you need any more assistance."
"I certainly will. Bye." She hung up and Kali looked up at her. "Just wanted to be sure who has authority to be entering our quarters. The steward left a message for you…"
Kali held it up. "I can't read. I was going to use the reader only I don't know how to work it."
"Can I?" Lonnie took the note and it was just like Maltieani said. She read it out loud for Kali, then looked at Kali for her reaction but the diva's eyes slid past her nervously. Lonnie reached out and gently turned her head so she looked directly at her.
For a few moments neither woman spoke. Lonnie could see fear in the green depths. She released her chin, lightly resting her hand on her shoulder.
"First off," Lonnie told her gently, "you're going to get educated so you can take care of yourself. Secondly, well, maybe first off you need to call Erich. Do you want me around when you make the call?"
Lonnie showed her how to use the caller.
Erich's image appeared, looking grumpy. They obviously woke him up.
"It's about time you answered my message. Can't you call at a decent hour, though?"
"We just got back from shore leave," Kali informed him in a sweet voice.
Lonnie rolled her eyes at the affect her voice had on Erich…and her. She crossed her arms in front her to cover the shivers she felt.
"I'm looking around for a new handler for you. Do you have any preferences?"
"How about someone to teach her basic living skills?" Lonnie spoke up.
"Well, because I can't read or write," Kali told him. "And if I was stranded someplace, I wouldn't know what to do."
"These days it's not necessary to learn those skills, but if you want to learn I'll look for someone. Is that all? Good. The captain said he likes what you're presenting, by the way. Keep working at it. I want Platarat material. Next time call at a decent hour for me."
His image faded.
"Platarat?" Kali asked.
Lonnie was just as puzzled. She called up the directory and did a search.
Lonnie was stunned. It was the new star dome. Big sports events and entertainment productions played there.
"Now that's a goal I can aim for," Kali spoke confidently.
There was a knock on their cabin door.
Kali rose to open it.
"Hi, are you going to be coming to our party?" Orwin gave Kali what could have been called a sexual leer but it looked ridiculous on someone so young. Lonnie decided to put an end to Joleian's games.
Surprised, Kali turned toward Lonnie.
Lonnie moved in front of Kali, blocking Orwin's view of her. He looked displeased at seeing her there, but not threatened.
"What are you doing here?" Lonnie asked. He did not take her threat seriously.
His eyebrows rose and he looked her up and down. "So, are you a man or female? Conessa told us you had some sort of sex change." His tone had changed to contempt. Lonnie wondered what Joleian had told him to give him the bravado because she did not think he had the nerve on his own to insult a stranger; unless, he was thinking that since he was related to the owner, he somehow owned the performers and workers on the ship. That was a typical arrogant belief among some. It would be an easier situation to handle than if he were on drugs.
"I'm female, and very comfortable being what I was born, thank you. You should stop believing what Conessa says. By the way, her name is Joleian Wrighton. She's a drug dealer, and interested in selling manufactured stories to the press. You should make sure she's not selling embarrassing pictures of you and your friends to your uncle or parents for a bit of credits. Good day." With that, Lonnie closed the door. "That should stop her for a while." She took a deep breath to calm herself. This flare up of her temper surprised her. Right now she did not know who she was defending, herself or Kali.
"What was that about?" Kali looked pale.
Lonnie cleared her throat, turning her attention to Kali. Mentally she stepped back and replayed the scene to get a feeling for what Kali was referring to. "Ship's scuttlebutt will be around in no time that Joleian Wrighton is out for compromising pictures. She'll be getting all sorts of visitors and some of them are going to be security."
"He's just a boy."
Lonnie raised her eyebrows surprised. She had guessed wrong at what was bothering Kali. "Yes. So are the others she's been setting you up with."
Kali's brow furrowed. "What others? I've been sick since we arrived on board, so I've been taking something that makes me sleepy. This is the first time I've really had a clear head, so-to-speak." She then smiled, "and I've been able to see so much." Her face quickly changed to a frown. "So, her name is Joleian Wrighton not Conessa?"
"Girlfriend to Zac Montage. Remember him?"
"Yes." Her lips pursed in irritation. "He had business associates that were into drugs and were real shadowy characters that hung around. We only did two shows together. He didn't show for the third performance so I partnered with one of the dance extras. If I didn't have a contract with my agent, I would have fired him. I was a front for a drug cartel that apparently owned him."
"How did you get involved with them?" Lonnie could not keep the dismayed tone out of her voice.
Kali glanced at her and then looked down at her clasped hands. "Nokie talked me into signing a contract with what turned out to be a not so reputable agent. I was so happy to leave Nokie, and not with someone that was a child molester or pimp that I was willing to believe Nokie's assurances that he was a good agent. It took me years to get out of the mess he created for me, but my lawyer finally managed to convince a judge that wasn't so impressed with my agent's bribes, to null and void the contract. I've been looking for an agent since. I found someone that pointed me in the direction to Bettelheim Agency and they became my new agents. Erich was assigned to me."
Lonnie caught herself staring at Kali, taking in her eyes, then her lips, resting on her throat, watching her pulse…
Clearing her throat, Lonnie resumed, "Well, Joleian works for this gang called the Connections. Their female agents are called conessa. It would be better if you keep away from her and anyone she introduced you to."
Both were quiet.
"You feel alright?" Lonnie asked.
"The best I've felt in a long time and I can see for the first time in my life." Her voice was tinged with amazement.
"That must make your world a whole lot more intense. Well, good night." Lonnie retreated to her sleep area, engaging the privacy dome. She unpacked her guitar that was leaning against the wall in its case. Settling crossed-legged on her cot, she played softly until she was at peace with herself.
"Where are you going?" a sleepy voice asked.
Lonnie looked up from the bag she was packing. Kali was leaning against the closet door, wearing an ankle length nightgown with long sleeves.
"Hiking through the woods over some rough terrain to the top of the river Mirach, then rafting down to the lake with a night break where we'll setup camp. Early in the morning we'll resume the trip. Want to come along?" Lonnie did not think Kali would take her up on it, considering it was dirty business.
"Sure. What do I need?" Kali's sleepy demeanor quickly disappeared.
Lonnie's eyebrows rose. She felt a mixture of pleasure and guilt that Kali chose to join her.
"A bathing suit, camping clothes and a change, a warm coat, shoes, and a pack to carry it all in. You only have a bathing suit." Maybe that would deter her.
"Surely they have a supply store there." Kali was already in the closet, rummaging for a change of clothes and her bathing suit.
Unable to prevent it, Lonnie's mouth moved into a smile. "I'm sure they do. We can call ahead your sizes for clothes, and equipment, and add you to the camping list and DL."
She lifted the phone and began to make the arrangements. She let Crackle know they had an addition to their excursion party. Crackle's enthusiasm made up for her mixed emotions.
The more Lonnie was around Kali, she was finding that the Icon she had for years been fascinated with, was a living person who had normal foibles as anyone else. Her world had become tilted and to put it back into order, reality checks came more frequent. This trip was either going to further her attraction to the woman or give her another dose of hard reality that she was...
And that was a problem; recategorizing Kali's place in her somewhat ordered life. Kali was not just her partner and dance diva icon anymore, where she had distinct boundaries between private and professional relationships. It was now getting to be a friendship and that could lead to other things that Lonnie knew the potential on her side was already there.
Maybe seeing Kali getting sick from camping food, or dumped in the river, or smelling from days of roughing it would snap her out of this mood. In her imagination she pictured Shari mockingly shaking an "I told you so" finger at her. This was getting to be a too often reoccurring mocking image.
Lonnie hoisted her heavy backpack on, and followed an excited Kali down through the corridor and to the cargo bay where their shuttle was waiting. Kali had no real friends, Lonnie pointed out to herself, so she needed to have a clear idea on just what their friendship would entail.
Timu, Crackle, and a few other friends from the crew were introduced as they settled in their seats.
"Hey there, gal, you sure you want to try this rugged stuff?" Timu teased.
"Sure. Why not?"
"I brought along some old boots of mine. We have the same sized feet." Crackle pulled out a well-worn pair of hiking boots. "Try them on. If they fit, that's good. You don't want new shoes when you're on a hike."
Kali gave her one of her smiles that could melt anyone's heart, or so Lonnie thought. She wondered why Kali had to put out so much charm. They were just going on a hike and rafting trip.
"I hear this is your second hike. Where did you go on your first?" Lori asked.
"Up a mountain with Lonnie and her friends."
Crackle pulled out a set of extra socks and showed her how to double up on socks and lace the boots properly.
"That wasn't a hike. It was a climb," Lonnie clarified. "Horizontal is a hike," she flattened her hand, "perpendicular is a climb," she raised her hand and gave her a mocking look. "Totally different directions."
"What difference does it make whether I'm moving horizontally or perpendicularly? I'm still working, getting dirty, and halfway through, wishing I was at the end already." Then added with a grin, "And when I'm at the end, I realize I enjoyed every minute of the trip."
"Gal, you're not a whiner are you?" Timu asked, "Because we have ways of dealing with whiners." His bushy eyebrows wiggled up and down.
Kali made a face at him.
"Are you going to take pictures?" Crackle leaned over to get a closer view of the cap Lonnie was attaching the small camera on. "Nice gadget. That the one you program what to shoot?"
"Yes. It's programmed to get us all. It's Kali's second trip and maybe her last. I thought she could use a memento. It has a small mobile bot that will hover over us and get the big picture."
The others whooped.
"What? What?" Kali looked back and forth at the three, wondering what it meant. "You're not letting anyone see those unless I say it's okay." Kali shook a finger at Lonnie.
"I wouldn't think of catching you taking care of your business behind a tree," Lonnie said. "This is for when you're at the top of your world, looking back, wondering what it was like before adventurous meant having fans follow you into restrooms with recording devices."
"Oh, right." Kali laughed with the others.
The shuttle dropped the hiking party at their start point. It was cold and Kali was shivering. Lonnie would have taken off her coat and given it to her, but the tour director, CaMo De was prepared for Kali with a pack and proper clothing. By her welcoming of Kali, Lonnie suspected she was a fan of hers. The director did not go on the tours and was probably regretting it.
"Good that you have shoes already. It's not good to break a pair in on a hike, Diva…errr, Kali," the trail leader said. "Alright, folks, lets get. The sun's coming up and we need to be up to the first point before it gets to Eagle's Nest."
The other campers rose and hefted their packs onto their backs. Lonnie watched fellow hikers group around Kali, helping her with her pack and showing her how to adjust it.
The pace was fast, but Kali's dancing stamina helped her survive the first hour of the walk. Two hours later they were on a slight incline and Kali began to fade. Timu, Crackle, Lori, and Lonnie stayed with her. Timu entertained them with an assortment of travel stories. By the time they reached the river, the three groups ahead of them were already off, riding down the river. Kerner, their guide was waiting patiently for them, talking with another hiker who appeared not to mind the wait.
"Can I ride in the front?" Kali asked excitedly.
Lonnie grinned. That's why she had the camera. Whoever was facing forward usually received the brunt of the wash from the foaming river, though what started as the front of the raft did not mean it would always be facing front.
Kerner first reviewed standard rafting techniques and basic life saving methods with them. Then he tested each life jacketed passenger and positioned them on the raft. He showed Kali how to hold on with her legs and clear herself from the raft if it should stall and tip. Lonnie made sure her hat was secured to capture great pictures, sitting in a good position to get a good view of Kali.
"Okay, let's go catch up with the others," Kerner said.
They were less than an hour into the ride when Kali's enthusiasm infected the others to scream with her as the river tossed their raft right and left, drenching them all in the cold water as the current rushed them along.
"I see the others!" Kali shrieked. "Come on, we can beat them to the camp site!" She dipped her paddle deeper into the churning water and nearly lost it, but gamely held onto it, managing not to fall over the side.
Kerner shouted pull in rhythm, moving them to a faster pace. Lonnie's head was bowed as she pulled with all her strength, her arms burning from the effort and her lungs gulping for air between the cold splashes of water. They all strained to get the raft back to the center of the river where the current was the fastest. Kali screamed as the front end of the raft suddenly lifted perpendicularly. Intuitively, everyone leaned forward and Kali's end dipped into the swell. Kali shrieked again from the shock of the cold water that washed over her, but then determinedly resumed paddling as Kerner urged them on. He angled their raft over the surface of a flat slippery rock which hurled them past the third raft and just to the left of the second. Then they pulled ahead. The first raft had an able bodied team. Kali's voice rang out for her raftmates to paddle faster.
"Where are they going?" Kali shouted disappointedly, pausing in her paddling.
"That's where we're setting up camp for the night," Kerner explained. "Pull left side, right paddles rest, nice and easy. You all did yourselves proud."
Kali was shivering as she jumped into the water with the others and pulled the raft up the river bank. Tents were quickly setup so those in wet clothing could change. The seasoned campers wore the more expensive water proofed clothing.
"Lonnie?" Kali called softly from their tent.
Lonnie ducked her head under the flap. "Yes? That's to keep you warm." She moved her eyes to the long underwear Kali was holding up and away from her near naked form. "Remember Cora gave you a pair on our climbing trip?"
"Yes, but I have to relive myself. They're a pain to pull down along with my pants. Did they setup the…"
"No porta potties on this trip. You'll have to wiggle out of those clothes and struggle to put them back on like the rest of us. Don't forget to bring toilet paper, and put on the thicker socks and your new boots, since we won't be doing any climbing tonight. I'll walk with you to a place we can safely go to relieve ourselves. I've got a shovel."
"I can't believe people actually like being this primitive," Kali muttered as she pulled out her new shoes from her backpack. Everything tumbled out onto the tent floor.
"Actually, there are excursions where there is no tent, camping stove, or food carried in." Lonnie made a face. "I'm not really into killing a bug for a snack or grubbing for food." She repacked Kali's pack for her as she put on her boots, and then backed out of the tent with Kali following. Lonnie headed into the woods.
"Have you ever slept under the stars without a tent?" Kali asked.
"Yes. In a hammock."
"Really? You didn't worry about the bugs or whatever was in the tree?"
"No trees. I was rock face climbing. I pounded spikes in the rock and setup my hammock. It was cold, and scary, hanging so high up. I couldn't even see our base camp's lights below."
Kali accepted the shovel from Lonnie. "I saw pictures of that in a sports journal. You must have been nuts."
"Just young and curious. Do you know what to do with that shovel?"
"Of course. If a strange animal looks like he's going to attack I whop him on the head, then scream, and you come running to my rescue. Lonnie, I'm kidding. I dig a hole, relive myself, and cover it up. Crackle told me." She moved to hide behind a tree.
"Then why did you ask?"
"I just wanted to see what you were going to say."
"Just make sure you don't do whatever you're doing on the roots. Do it where the dirt is deep enough to bury."
"Now you tell me," a muffled voice returned.
When they returned to camp, Kerner took over with Kali, giving her a lesson on camping. By dinner time, Kali was tired from practicing Kerner's lessons on building a fire, putting one out, and identifying poisonous and edible plants. She ate a light dinner and fell asleep right away.
The others sat around the campfire and told stories. Later Lonnie played her harmonica while some of the others danced, mostly to keep warm as the night was cold.
* * *
The next morning came bright and too early for Kali. The camp was packed up quickly, and they started back down the river in the order they arrived the night before. Kali, falling into the water, dropped them to third place, and then Timu was knocked out off the raft when they were rammed from behind by the number four raft. They regained some of their dignity by overtaking the same raft and dumping them all in the water.
Cold, wet, happy, and proud, Kali carried her broken-in backpack through the docking bay of Earl Gray, and through the corridor to their cabin, mindful of fans staring at her. As dirty and weary as she looked, Kali was beautiful. Lonnie followed a few steps behind, enjoying the swagger of her hips.
At their stop Lonnie quickly stepped in front of her and cautiously opened up their cabin door. Kali pushed past her. Once out of sight of her public, Kali dropped her pack and collapsed on the couch.
"That was a vacation," Kali said. A yawn stretched her jaw.
Lonnie picked up her pack and dropped it near the clothes cleaner. She unpacked her own clothing and tossed them into the cleaner. "You want to clean your stuff with mine?" she asked.
She was startled when two arms wrapped around her waist. Kali rested her head on her back and rubbed her cheek against her shirt. "I want to thank you for taking me," she whispered.
For a few seconds Lonnie soaked in the warmth of Kali's body pressed tightly against hers. Turning slightly in Kali's arms she glanced into tired eyes. "You look exhausted," she said.
"It's a nice exhaustion. I want a quick shower and then a soak in our little hot tub. Want to join me?"
"Uh, no. I have an early workout scheduled. I'll shower and go to bed."
"Okay." Kali wrinkled her nose in a grimace, "Early morning activities are not in my best interest. Your weekend excursions with early morning wakeups I can handle now and again, but not daily. Why don't you take your shower first?" She dropped her arms from around Lonnie and Lonnie proceeded to get ready for her shower.
In the shower, Lonnie concentrated on breathing and not thinking.
"Hey, are you going to be in there all night?"
"No." Lonnie shut the shower off, stepped into her robe, and out of the stall before Kali thought of coming in to get her. "It's all yours."
Kali waved a pair of her panties at her as she brushed by her to the shower. "I'm trying to figure out if I have the energy to soak alone. I just may drown. Are you sure you don't want to join me?"
"I wouldn't be any help to you in that. I would be falling asleep myself. Good night."
"Okay. Good night."
When the door to the ensuite closed Lonnie took a deep breath. "Right. Now, think of something that won't get you into trouble." Blinking her eyes a few times she regarded her costumes that weren't arranged the way she left them. Frowning, Lonnie examined each costume meticulously.
"What are you doing?" Kali asked. She had a towel around her as she peered around the door.
"Oh, I was wondering who was messing with my costumes. I don't usually hang these together."
"Probably the automaid service. They do that to clean around your things."
"The automaid returns everything back exactly as I want them arranged."
"If they're not stealing anything, what's the worry?" Kali stepped into her sleeping area.
Lonnie pulled a small bug detector out of her pocket and ran it over her clothing. Two alarms went off on the costumes.
Now who would want to put a location device on her costumes? Rather than removing it, she made a note to remember which ones were marked and to ask the purser in charge of the automaids for deck 3 who was in their quarters while they were gone.
* * *
Lonnie reluctantly rose for her early morning workout with her group. When she arrived at their workout area Crackle was dressing in her padded uniform which meant they would be stick fighting.
While Lonnie changed, her thoughts kept wandering to images of Kali sleeping next to her in their tent, wearing a smile. She was sure the details of Kali's face were just her imagination because it had been too dark to see her face clearly.
A slap against her padded shoulder brought her back to the present. If she didn't stay focused on the mock fight she was going to be sporting some embarrassing bruises. Refocused she knocked her opponent off the workout mat and kept her other workout partners on their toes. When they finished their practice, Lonnie was more focused.
"Hey," Crackle called to Lonnie as she stepped out of the gym shower. "You're pretty distracted today. Are you all right?"
"Yes. Just have other things on my mind. Nothing to worry about. The drill is still a go?" Lonnie patted herself dry and began pulling her clothing out of her locker, inspecting each article carefully.
Crackle nodded. "Think you'll be able to sneak out?"
"Yes. It's not like we keep tabs on each other." Then she frowned. "I hope she doesn't want to come along."
"Then you'll have a problem. She's been a lot of fun on the trips."
"She has been," Lonnie agreed, careful to keep the wistfulness out of her voice.
"What are you looking for? Hairs?"
Lonnie could hear the smirk in her voice. She hesitated, wondering if she should bring it up or just check it out herself. Crackle was assistant chief purser, also doubled as a security officer, and the closest person on ship she called a friend. Lonnie looked around them and stepped closer to her. "I found locators in two of my costumes. Is it one of your tests?"
"No." Crackle was quiet for a moment, her brow wrinkled in thought. "Since Lt. Miles became Commander Co's second in command of ship's security we haven't done any sound training. Personally, I don't trust him and hope he doesn't know too much about the failsafe security Co initiated."
"If he suspects, he's not going to know details. When Maltieani asked me to participate, he assured me that it was to be separate from him and his security staff. He's an ex-military guy and sees pirates and spies infiltrating his staff at every crew rotation."
"Hey, watch out there. I'm ex-military too. But you know," she added slowly, "that's exactly how I feel about these last two rotations. There's about fifty of them that give me the creeps. Some are too friendly and the other half, too stand-offish."
"Miles makes me uncomfortable. He informed me that he personally was looking into why my profile was deleted. I said something to Maltieani because he was getting too personal with his questions and insinuations. He hasn't said anything to me since."
"You're not the only one. Other female crew members have complained to Co with the same story. Makes me wonder who's deleting the profiles. I'd like to know how he got into security when he's not even subtle about his snooping. I'll put out some feelers and see what's up with the locaters. You sure it's not Kali they were after?"
"Our costumes don't even look the same."
"That's a fact."
* * *
One hour before their performance they did a warm-up. By the end of practice Lonnie felt exhausted. Jeanie draped a damp towel around her neck and handed her a bottle of water. For Kali she handed her a bottle of juice and a dry towel.
Kali playfully nudged her with her elbow. "Hey, are you tired?"
"You were a little slow out there. I was wondering if you're tired."
"No. I was just off. I'll be alright."
"You sure? You toss and turn a lot at night. Something bothering you?"
For a moment Lonnie was at a loss.
"Hey, you two. You need to change for the performance," Jeanie, reminded.
"Does she look tired to you?" Kali asked her.
"Nothing an hour of playing her guitar won't cure." Jeanie wiggled her eyebrows at Lonnie.
"You play the guitar too?" Kali asked, taking the change of clothes Jeanie handed her.
Jeanie grinned and when Lonnie said nothing, offered, "She plays alone and seldom shares those musical talents of hers. She says it's to keep her from going space bonkers."
"Am I keeping you from playing?" Kali looked worried.
"No. I still play. I enable the privacy dome."
"If you want to play in the front room and I'm in your way, I can go to my room."
"No! You shouldn't have to go away whenever I…"
"And that goes for you too," Kali interrupted. "You shouldn't have to hide in your cubicle in a privacy dome because you think you're going to disturb me." Kali stopped dressing and turned to Lonnie. She rested her hands on top of Lonnie's that were buttoning up her coat. "I really would like to hear you play."
Lonnie's stomach fluttered and her face flushed. "I'm not hiding. Come on. Let's dance."
For a change the two were not doing any solos, so neither had a long break as they moved from one dance performance to another, also giving Lonnie little time to dwell on Kali's effect on her. Lonnie, whose stamina was in peak form, by the end of the performance, was tired.
"I think…that wasn't…such a good idea," Kali panted to Andres.
"So, I see. You both look like you could use a cart to carry you back to your cabin. Want me to call for one?" he asked.
"I can order one if you need one," Jeanie offered.
"Not funny," Lonnie grumbled. "Next time we do something like that, we're going to pick dances where at least one of us just stands while the other runs around."
Lonnie dropped off her clothes in their quarters, showered, and visited Gish. When she returned to their quarters pleasantly relaxed, Kali was sitting at the desk working on a crossword puzzle. Lonnie was pleased she had taken her suggestion that the best way to educate herself was to do crossword puzzles.
"Did you have a nice dinner?" Kali asked.
"I haven't eaten yet. Have you?"
"Want to order something delivered or go up and get it?"
"I'm too comfortable to change and go out in public."
Lonnie plopped down on the couch. She read the menu selections and keyed in her selection. "Your turn."
Kali got up and accepted the controls from Lonnie. "Some of these I haven't the faintest idea what they are, even if I could pronounce the names."
"Why not try a different one every night or, every other night."
Kali's nose wrinkled up. "I'm really not that adventurous."
"You've been eating trail food…that's adventurous."
"What if I don't like it?"
"Don't eat it. It's not like anyone's going to force you to eat everything on your plate."
She tapped something in and then added something else, looking guilty.
Lonnie laughed at her expression. "Something naughty? Something sweet? Something that will add inches to your…."
"Lonnie! Don't you dare finish that. It's vulgar."
"Okay." She switched the menu to a movie. She was a few minutes into the movie when she realized she was being stared at. The couch was unofficially Kali's with the chair that reclined, Lonnie's. However, since she was comfortable she did not feel inclined to give up the couch with something more than a stare on Kali's part.
"Nice couch." Lonnie extended her legs onto the couch and leaned back, exaggerating her stretch. "I like this better than the chair."
"I can find some bugs to put in your bed…"
"But they'll crawl over to yours when they've tired of me."
"I'll steal your blankets when you're asleep."
"You sleep so soundly that when you stop snoring I'll know you're awake."
"I do not snore!" Kali threw a pillow at her.
"Well, you'll never know if it's true or not, because you sleep through it." Lonnie threw the pillow back.
Their door chimed.
Lonnie got up quickly. She tapped the privacy peephole. "Dinner has arrived."
She opened the door and greeted the automated service bots with a laugh. "That has to be your order. It's under two plates. Just wheel yourselves right over to the table," she directed the bots.
Kali lifted the lid of each of the orders, including Lonnie's.
"Oh, yum. This looks good." She picked up a fork and took a bite out of Lonnie's meal.
"You're not the type that goes around eating off other people's plates, are you?"
"No, I just take the entire plate."
"I see." Lonnie peered at Kali's order. She didn't recognize anything, nor did it smell appetizing.
"You can try some of mine," Kali offered.
Lonnie took her plate back. "I have a better idea. We'll share what's on all three plates."
After each of them satisfied the first pangs of hunger, Lonnie noticed Kali would glance up at her occasionally, looking like she was going to ask something and then went back to eating.
"So, do you have a girlfriend on board?" Kali asked finally.
"I have a lot of friends both male and female on board." Lonnie did not want their conversation going in that direction.
"Since we're in this personal questions mode, are you getting over the touchy thing?" The moment she said that she knew she made a mistake, but could not back down now that she put it out.
"What touchy thing?"
"In our dancing together."
"I don't have a problem with our dancing together. Why do you think so?"
Lonnie stood up, "Music on, play a tango. Come here, this isn't danced alone, you know."
Surprisingly, Kali got up without a fuss and stood near Lonnie, accepting her hands on her, though not moving.
"That's what I mean. See how much space you have between us? Tango is about seduction, close encounters without actual undressing, and for the audience, they need to feel heat between us." Lonnie was amazed she said that without choking.
Kali stepped back and looked at her with astonishment. "Are you saying I have to seduce you?"
"No, nor I you. We're performers."
"I'm supposed to make it look like it?"
"Why do you dance for an audience?"
"To show them dance at it's best."
"Each dance style has something about it that enamors or grabs the interest of an audience …."
"The skill it takes to dance it," Kali interrupted impatiently.
"There's something else that underlies it and ALL art."
"Talent?" Kali replied cynically.
"You keep returning to sex. You know that?"
"Kali, passion isn't just about sex. Love isn't just about sex. Painting isn't just about sex. Dancing isn't just about sex."
"Can we leave sex out of this?" Kali demanded.
"Passion is being alive, focused, and in the moment. We're creating a happy bubble of energy, if you will, that the audience can take with them. I see them as tapping their feet and going up to the nightclub and dancing their hearts out, trying some of our stuff. We are in effect, sending business to Hari and Jun, who are the dance teachers aboard. We're spreading joy around, Kali. We're helping others keep their job."
"So, just what are you saying about my dancing?"
"Do you ever get lost in your dancing?"
"Lost? I don't forget steps or a routine."
"After you memorize a segment, do you ever just let yourself flow with the movement, and let it fill you with it's energy?"
"Lonnie, I don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about. What's wrong with my dancing?"
"It's too perfectly executed. Your distance from your partner is exactly one hands breath apart, your holding hands is just under two inhales, and your steps are …. I can't explain it. If you don't want to take it to the next level then…." Lonnie stopped in mid sentence, realizing she expressed her frustration out loud.
"I'm a diva! I am at the highest level. You're a…. a dancehall performer! And you're telling me I have another level to go or that my dancing lacks something?"
With that Kali turned and left their cabin.
"Blast. Never upstage a diva, Lonnie. Why can't you remember that?" She went over to the phone and called security.
"Hi, this is Lonnie. Can you keep an eye on Kali Maxine and make sure no one bothers her?.... Yeah. We had an artistic disagreement…. I have no idea. If it were me, I would go to the workout room and beat up on anyone that was willing to spar …. Okay. Thanks."
She hung up and dialed Andres. "Hi, this is Lonnie…. Okay. Good. I was worried about her. Bye."
* * *
The rest of the week went by fast for Lonnie. Kali's reluctance to be touched or held was less obvious but she still felt they had no connection or passion in their dances. Whatever had passed between Andres and Kali was never mentioned.
Their port performance as usual was the night of their arrival and when they finished, Lonnie planned to catch a hopper to the other side of the planet to begin her two day adventure.
"So what are you doing this stop?" Kali asked as she packed her costumes for their show planetside.
"Hang gliding," Lonnie answered distractedly. Her costume had a rip on the underarm. "Darn. I didn't even know that happened."
Kali looked over her shoulder. "Looks repairable."
Lonnie glared at the rip. "I usually catch things like this." Looking closer she noted it didn't appear to be ripped but rather cut. This was the second time she found her clothing cut. It wasn't the one with the homing device. So was this to irritate her? Warn her that she was vulnerable?
"Wear the red one. It'll go better with my black dress anyway. You can leave it with the seamstress and when we get back it'll be ready. So, would you mind if I tag along with you? I mean, I'm not interested in the sport but I can come along and take pictures if you like."
Lonnie glanced up at her. Kali's hair was fixed in a tight bun with the flower for their first number attached, her performance face was done up, and the clothing she usually wore to their performances was expensive and tastefully modest. She was beautiful. Lonnie thought about how nice it would be to soar with her.
"When you're old and gray and telling your admirers all the crazy things you did when you were younger, you'll have proof." Kali smiled. Whatever resistance Lonnie may have felt, melted away.
"You're welcome to come along. But be prepared to lose your inhibitions about gliding because once you see what it's like you'll be up there too."
"I doubt that. So, what do I wear?"
"Something warm. Camping cloths are fine. We'll be staying overnight in a hotel."
"Oh, even better. A warm bath at the end of the day and no camp food." From her closet she began to add clothes to the backpack she used on their rafting trip.
* * *
Kali watched breathlessly as Lonnie stepped off the edge of a cliff with nothing but a harness that held the wings on her back. For a frightening moment Lonnie sailed downward but then began to soar back up into a gradual climb before tilting to make a wide turn to come sailing above Kali who was too astonished to have turned on her camera.
An older woman who was not dressed for gliding explained to Kali about the wind drafts and how the gliders could feel them and by pulling the bar at their fingertips or pushing it, controlled the dips and climbs.
"Want to try it?" the old woman asked her.
Kali looked at her startled. "Oh, no!" She shook her head, then returned her eyes to see Lonnie make a slow spiraling drop further into the basin. "I couldn't do that myself. I don't want to do that by myself," she clarified.
"You don't have to do it alone. Share a ride with someone experienced."
Kali looked at her puzzled then turned her eyes to the one couple that were gliding together, hanging side-by-side in their glider. "I…don't know. Just how safe is that?"
"If it had no sense of danger, where would the fun be?" She smiled. "Well? This may be the only time you get the opportunity."
"Okay." She turned to face the old woman with a look of determination.
"Joc, that guy over there. He's waiting for a rider. That's what he does."
"So, he's had plenty of experience?" Kali sized him up. He looked too young to be watching over a beginner. As she headed toward him, she could see he was not as young as she had first thought.
"Hi," she greeted the tall man.
"Looking for a ride? Two deuces and ten pins," he priced.
"Okay. Galactic notes or finger print scan?"
He tilted his head and studied her for a few moments. "How about a few pictures of you and me gliding? Pictures I can use for my advertising?" he bargained.
"Sounds easy enough. As long as they're used for advertising your hang gliding business and are not used to embarrass me."
"Agreed. Galaxy Rules of Good Conduct." He slid over a recorder used to take payments in the many foreign forms. Kali repeated her offer and both sealed it with their biosignatures.
Joc put her in a harness, explaining things as he expertly tested her bindings, and then tested her helmet mic that allowed them easy conversation. He had a camera on the tip of his glider. "My passengers like pictures taken of themselves while aloft to prove to their friends that they flew over the Two Sisters Gorge."
Joc was so casual about stepping off the side of the cliff, while Kali was too frightened to close her eyes or scream. Then suddenly she realized there was nothing below her or above, and the wind was blowing stronger against her face. Cautiously she moved her eyes from staring straight down a long corridor of rock formations to look at Joc. He had a smile on his face as he pushed the bar forward and higher they went. Kali's knuckles were white, wrapped tightly around the bar as if it would save her life should they suddenly fall from the sky. Taking a deep breath she let it out, hoping it would get rid of the fluttering in her stomach.
"Is that your friend over there?" Joc asked.
Jerkily, Kali moved her head to look to the side of them. Kali recognized the glider as Lonnie's. She was too frightened to let go of the bar to wave. "Yeah," was all she managed to get out. She could feel Joc pull the bar toward them and lean his weight a little to the left. Her view of the sides of the cliff face passed by quickly as they began another climb.
"Gods!" she let out explosively after a dozen spirals and climbs that left her breathless with excitement. Once she relaxed she found the experience comparable to river rafting. It was exhilarating and indescribable. Joc promised her two copies of the pictures he was taking. She wanted to give Lonnie one.
"We'll take one more pass over the landing site and then when I loop back, I want you to bend your legs and let me take the weight, and then get ready to run. Got it?"
"Yes." She was disappointed that her flight was coming to an end.
The glide in was great, but when the ground suddenly was upon them, Kali stumbled and tangled her feet. Luckily, Joc supported the glider and Kali's weight as he ran a dozen steps before stopping, giving Kali a chance to bring her feet under her.
Lonnie was waiting for her. "I have to say, you're going to have some great memories when you're old," she teased. She tapped the camera on her cap.
Joc made copies of the film and gave two to Kali. "I'm going to get a lot of offers for copies of these," he told Kali happily.
Kali didn't order much to eat from the hotel restaurant, and headed directly to bed after a shower. While she slept Lonnie sat in the bar downstairs, listening to a torch singer into the early morning hours. Lonnie was grateful they had nothing planned until mid morning. Kali refused to get up early. She was going to teach Kali how to ride a horse.
Lonnie surveyed her new quarters with satisfaction. The maidbot had placed all her clothing exactly like she wanted it and all her costumes were cleaned and repaired. Her bedding was fresh and she was down the hall from Gish. She couldn't have asked for a better placement. Kali's new assistant, Yomatta, would be on board later in the day, and she would be Kali's new roommate.
"Hi. Nice little place you have here." Kali stepped in to look around.
Lonnie turned around. Kali wasn't dressed in her usual lounge clothing. "Glad you like it. It's what I'm used to. I don't have to worry about being tempted to clutter it with things and then figure out how to clean it."
"Why would that be a worry…about the cleaning I mean? There's bots for that."
"Because, I don't like anything visiting my cabin while I'm not here."
"They're just bots, Lonnie."
"So, what do I owe the pleasure of your visit? Are you lonely already?"
She smiled sweetly at Lonnie, causing her heart to beat faster on one level and on another suspicious at what she was going to ask her. Why else would she be here, except to ask for a favor?
"No. I want to visit Beshire's Floating City. I hear it's famous for items from rarely traveled planets."
"So, did you miss the shuttle?"
"One's leaving in a few moments. I wanted to see if you'd go with me."
"I don't want to go shopping. I have all I need."
"Lonnie," Kali's voice softened, "please?"
"You're the type that wants to visit every store in one visit, aren't you? I'm the kind of person that knows what she wants and orders via the galaxy shopping mart. Don't you want to be here when your new assistant arrives?" Lonnie looked around for something that she could use as an excuse why she couldn't go. "You can ask her to go with you, or one of the…"
"Come on, Lonnie. This will be the last time we can do something this ordinary together."
"Oh, alright. Come on then. Gods protect me from buying a tourist memento."
"I'll protect you from that." Kali smiled at her.
It was in the third shop that Lonnie purchased something…a memento. Kali was mortified. It was a drawing of a young Diva Kali Maxine. Lonnie liked it. She tried to explain to Kali what a caricature drawing was but Kali was not having any of it. Later Lonnie had one done of herself by a roving artist, and gave it to Kali as a gift. Kali liked it immediately.
When the two returned to the ship Yomatta was waiting for them in Kali's cabin.
"I'm Yomatta Alondra DiMaro Cumarta Helidra, your assistant. You can call me Yomatta. You must be her partner, Leona Bestrolie."
Her tone of voice when she spoke to Lonnie changed. Lonnie thought the woman did not like her. It had to be because of the weekend excursions that Erich frowned on.
"I've had time to settle in and update your itinerary, Diva Maxine. Would you like to go over it now? It concerns you too, Leona."
Ah. I'm the lowly Leona…I hate that name. And Kali is the Diva. "Since I'm here I'll hear it and let you know if it's doable."
Yomatta gave her the look a school teacher would give an impudent student. She clicked the viewers hand control which brought up Kali's schedule.
"Museums and schools," Lonnie murmured. "I can understand the schools," she looked up at the stern frown of Yomatta, "but why the museums?"
"It'll give her good publicity. Something you should have thought about."
Lonnie grinned, not offended at all. "I'm making a comfortable living doing what I'm doing. The people that I have a contract with have a steady income from my performances, and I have a returning audience. My public appearances are low keyed and everyone has fun. Nothing is unhealthy mentally or physically."
Yomatta sniffed and gave a meaningful look at Kali. "The diva is known in all entertainment rags. She has a substantial following of fans, and very important backers. It's in her best interest to keep them interested. She doesn't need to squander her time with people that don't appreciate her with the proper decorum. I have impeccable credentials in arranging the social and private calendar of stars who are unorganized and seek guidance."
"Really? Like who?" Kali asked excited.
"I just finished a year with Horson 'Okee. I'm sure you noticed that his name is more respectable than it had been two years ago, and let me assure you that he has held onto more of his credits than he had before he hired me."
Lonnie wondered if Kali would go back to the stiff and unapproachable performer she was at the beginning of their tour.
"When it all becomes drudgery, addictive habits begin. Hopefully you don't make that mistake with Kali. Good night." Lonnie nodded to the two women and left.
Surprised, Yomatta glanced at Kali.
"She has that right," Kali said. "As the adage goes, '"All work and no play makes Sheila a dull girl."' We'll just have to plan small escapes where I don't have to worry about fans or the media."
Yomatta looked at the schedule she had planned for Kali. A busy schedule was set to accelerate her move back onto the People to Watch List. She was also to keep Kali away from trouble. Frowning, she decided that this Leona was not a good influence on her diva, and therefore she was trouble.
* * *
Kali was early to their performance that night, and accompanied by Yomatta. Yomatta watched Jeanie as she unpacked the costumes from Kali's bag. She looked pleased with Jeanie's efficiency and her professional attitude. Lonnie liked it better when Jeanie would have jokes for her and had them giggling before they went on stage. Not likely to happen as long as Yomatta was present with her stern face.
As they warmed up silently beside each other, Lonnie felt Kali's hand brush her arm, then use it for an anchor as she stretched her legs. Lonnie looked at her in askance.
"I'm not touching that bar," Kali told her in an undertone. "Yomatta told me there's all sorts of germs on it and I could get sick."
Why did handlers have to use scare tactics to keep their clients in line, Lonnie wondered. "You ready?" Lonnie asked. Lonnie tucked a stray strand of Kali's hair back into the net holding her hair out of her face.
"How do I look?" she asked, turning around for Lonnie to check.
"Good. How about me?" She turned around. She was startled when she felt a hand brush her buttocks as she turned. Kali then tugged her vest lower, revealing more of Lonnie's cleavage. Lonnie's eyebrows rose.
"There you go. Now, you look just great," Kali smiled. "Shall we start?"
"What has my cleavage got to do with dancing?" she asked as she followed Kali on stage.
They finished their act with a flamenco where rather than Lonnie pursuing Kali, it was the other way around. The end called for Kali leaning into Lonnie. Their full length bodies actually touched. The crowd loved the switch and stood to applaud. Lonnie found she also liked it, and was grateful she was not bunking with Kali.
Lonnie smiled to herself. After all this time, she could now feel a connection with Kali. It was not of the passionate nature, but they still had time.
* * *
UrBoka was their next stop where they had a mid-morning warm-up and an early afternoon performance. It would give her enough time to reach her next vacation spot and get in maybe a few hours of fly time before dark. Lonnie had standing arrangements to take a shuttle to a cabin in Severto Forest. Ten minutes from the rental cabin was a popular tourist spot for hang-gliding and Lonnie planned on getting plenty of gliding time in. Usually there were four of them that made the yearly pilgrimage but this year Comi was busy, according to her last minute message. The other two, Augi and Lorma, didn't reply to her inquiry, so Lonnie would be traveling alone.
UrBoka had pockets of problems that could easily erupt into violence, and warranted interest by HQ. Three distinct species had originally migrated to the planet when it opened for settlement over a hundred years ago, and though others had since settled, the interrelationship between the three original settlers gave an overt feel of what the planets political climate was like. If they isolated themselves, had protests over species protectionism, or if they had species motivated hate crimes it was a good indication trouble was brewing within the general populace.
For the last three years a relatively new religious group had been at work amongst the newer arrivals. Public criticism of the group brought retribution to the friends or family members, leaving the outspoken citizen paying for the comment with isolation from anyone he or she once knew out of fear. As of yet, Lonnie had not met up with any of the members and she was hoping the cruise liner would halt any stops at the planet's port should there be a threat to tourists. Her job consisted of listening to gossip from the locals, which was easy, considering where she liked to hang out. The adventurous hang gliders were a chatty bunch with fellow gliders.
* * *
"This is Lonnie.... Gish, what can I do for you?... Sure, no problem. I know just the store to pick it up at." Lonnie laughed. "Gish, whoever told you that doesn't know what they're talking about. The birdpeople live along the Ukon cliffs. There are too many aeries around there for it to open up to hang-gliders… Ha. Even if I knew the chief I wouldn't get permission to fly there… No, I've already made the arrangements… Listen, you're just trying to make trouble." Lonnie laughed again. "Okay, you want castor green sticks. I'll pick them up… No, I think I'll go to bed early tonight. No, I don't know Kali's schedule. Did you want her to pick something up for you too?" Lonnie teased. "Okay. Enjoy your days off."
* * *
The hall, Combly Maveto, was larger than their previous port venues. Lonnie could hear the echo of deep voices from the interior. As she changed shoes for the rehearsal she heard someone already on the stage. She glanced at the time. Someone was earlier than she was.
When she entered the stage area she was surprised by the audience filling the first eight rows. Their practice sessions were always closed and by the feel of those sitting in the front, the city was in trouble. Lonnie wondered if this was the group HQ was interested in.
"What's going on?" she asked Lori who was unpacking her guitar.
"It seems the diva has some interested fans with money and influence that want a preview."
"Were they checked for recording devices or weapons?"
"You want to ask them go right ahead." She gave the group an unhappy glance.
It was Andres that approached her with the news. "Diva Maxine has decided that all dances for tonight will be slege and ballroom."
"Really. She made that decision all by herself?" Lonnie asked.
"No. Those men out there like those dance styles and this is their town, so-to-speak." His voice brokered no discussion.
For their practice hour they went over the slow and classical dances. By the nod of approval from their selective audience, they were happy with the show. Lonnie could feel her partner's tenseness and see Andre's shoulders twitch now and then. Looking around she could not spot Yomatta. That was unusual. If she was teaching Kali how to take care of herself at port stops, this was one place Kali should not be alone at.
When practiced ended, Lonnie worried about finding a secured line to send out a warning advisory to HQ that the port was compromised with gang activity. The ship's passengers were lucky, since few, if any, shopped, or visited the port area. They usually were shuttled to larger cities inland or to neighboring planets the ship did not stop at.
Distracted, Lonnie straightened up from storing her dance shoes, catching the horrified look from one of the musicians. She leaped sideways and rolled into a crouch. The cover on the box she was leaning on sizzled and steamed with an acrid smell. Lonnie froze as the cat-like figure jumped toward her with claws extended. Just before it could get within swiping distance someone ran a side block, allowing Lonnie to roll away. Several others came to her defense, holding the catperson at bay with civilian legal stunners.
* * *
"Your name," the bored tone of another local law enforcement agent asked.
Lonnie felt a mixture of fear and frustration at her detainment. She had been moved five times to different stations, and she was sure no one who could secure her release knew where she was. None of the constables gave her a reason for her being held or moved around.
"I gave it to you…four times already, and to the dozen other constables. Where is my representative? Albert!" Lonnie sighed in relief when someone she knew walked through the door. The man behind the desk suddenly straightened up and looked more alert…or was it guilty? The constable that had brought her to this station slipped into another room.
Albert Fleetfeather was a well-known and reputable lawyer and if something illegal was going on, he would straighten it out.
"It's all taken care of. Come on." He guided her out of the building and to his vehicle quickly, looking this way and that. "Your show is just about finished, which is why they're letting you go. They've been giving me the run-around about where you were and why you were being held. From what I've overheard, the intention was for you to miss your show."
"If they want Kali Maxine to dance alone, just ask me, or even better, pay me to sit it out."
He squawked. "Get real! They replaced you with one of their local male favorites. With the likes of that lot there wasn't any notable dance critics that dared show and not much of the citizenry."
"Is Kali okay?"
"She is indeed. She's a favorite, you know."
"I want to get on with my vacation. Is that a TTP?"
"Yes. Who are you calling…your agent?" he asked in jest.
"Yes. I don't want him to think this was my idea."
After she finished her call, she studied Albert. His beaked profile gave him a fierce look but it was really his eyes, dark and piercing, that made him scary. He was good to have on your side if there was a fight.
"So, what's with the catperson trying to disfigure me?"
He dipped his beak in consternation. "He's young. He belongs to the local assassin group. A group of mewling thugs that collect assignments to kill off anyone for any reason. There's a contract out on you." He looked puzzled. "You only visit once a year. Did you drop into a nesting? Or did you fly into someone's space on your last visit? Maybe took your turn out of place?"
"No. You know I keep a low profile. Are you looking into finding out who took out the contract?"
"Started it the moment Andres gave me a call. So, are you going up to the cabin?"
"If I have a contract out on me being predictable isn't good."
"Want to come up to the aerie? Mom's been asking about you." The corners of his beak lifted into a grin.
"Yes. It's really nice climbing around there."
"Got your equipment up in one of the sheds," he assured her.
"Alright. I'll cancel the cabin rental."
"Lonnie, don't tell anyone where you are, huh?"
"Right. Do you happen to have a hang glider there for one of your nonfeathered friends?"
Al looked horrified. "And worry about you ridding air currents into the sides of the cliff and landing in a nesting? No way! Mother would be pulling out my tail feathers and pecking you on the head. Stick to climbing."
Lonnie laughed. They replayed the same conversation whenever they met.
* * *
Lonnie paused to wipe her brow on her upper arm. She slowly moved her left hand to feel along the rock for a space to grip. Found, she moved her foot to a place she marked in her mind. Out here in the wilderness she not only heard the wind as it blew over the cliff face, but she felt its life presence as it buffed against her. She grinned at the relief the breeze gave her from the sun beating down on her. She pulled herself on top of the rock and rolled onto her back, limp.
Above her, purple, orange, and white streaked against the sky's blue background. She rolled to a sitting position and pulled herself into an ?sanas.
Time went by before she realized she was breathing in the too fragrant air that was swirling around her.
"What do you want?" she asked softly, still on a high from her connection with the planet.
"I heard about the attack on you. I didn't hear about it until after the performance. I just thought you agreed to the change of partners." When Lonnie didn't respond, Kali continued, "We've been called back to Earl Gray."
Lonnie opened her eyes to see Kali sitting before her. She looked every bit the beautiful diva she was. The breeze whipped through her long hair, pulling the tie loose and unbinding her hair so it fanned in a rippling wave. Lonnie's heart stirred at the vision.
"It wasn't about you," Kali told her softly. Her hand grabbed her hair and pulled it out of her face, her eyes never leaving Lonnie's. "Those are the type of people you don't argue with."
"Why are we being called back?"
"Erich is worried that you'll be hurt."
"I can take care of myself. I'm not going back until my…"
"It's not just Erich," she interrupted nervously. "The local police are accusing you of staging the attack for publicity."
"We need to leave here. Those men I danced for, they belong to a radical group. They…we have to get out of here."
"Okay." Lonnie stood, regretting her stay was so short. She glanced toward the southern Ukon cliff face, wondering if Albert was able to find out enough information in such a short time.
The two climbed into the shuttle and belted in. As the shuttle lifted, it swooped down and alongside of the cliff face she had just scaled. The pilot waved at one of the official bird towers and received a light flash.
"I can't believe you climbed that." Kali held up her recorder. "You weren't wearing your PD. I hope you don't mind."
"Since I took so many vacation shots of you, I can't rightly complain," she said. "One of the constables removed mine." She gestured to the rapidly disappearing cliffs, "You just may be inspired to take up climbing again."
Kali laughed. "Once was enough. Now that I can actually see what is below me, I don't think so."
Lonnie watched Kali's green eyes light up and her full lips part into a smile. The combination of eyes, smile, and laugh took her breath. She struggled to clear her mind of unprofessional images. "Not something you see yourself doing, huh?" She forced her voice to sound normal.
Kali shook her head. "Nope. That one day we climbed the mountain probably won't happen again. I liked those other visits with you, to the river, and that one racing around the desert. And I thought you looked pretty funny getting tossed by the…horse. Then us, participating in working on that grape farm, now I know more about wine making…" Her voice trailed off as she mentally reviewed Erich's restrictions on her which Yomatta made sure she followed. Tightening her lips she decided the goal was worth it. Once attained she would have plenty of time to catch up on vacationing around the galaxy. Maybe Lonnie would join her. Her eyes rested on Lonnie who she realized was staring at her.
Lonnie leaned back in her seat and removed her climbing slippers so she could stretch her toes. Agilely, she pulled her foot onto her knee and massaged her foot.
"Do you need some help?"
Lonnie looked up at Kali startled. "Eh, do you know how to give a foot massage?"
"Of course. Every one of my partners always needed one. Not because I would step on their feet mind you, but because I danced them to exhaustion." She gestured for Lonnie to rest her foot on her knee. Kali's hands showed surprising strength as she stretched the foot and then with her knuckles, pushed under Lonnie's instep and slowly moved toward the heel, using her thumbs and knuckles to find any weaknesses in Lonnie's system. Apparently she knew what she was doing.
Though it was relaxing some parts of her, it was also triggering feelings Lonnie struggled to keep suppressed.
"So," Kali dropped her second foot to the ground with a thump. "How did I do?"
"Better than I could have done," Lonnie said. She was relieved that the thud of her foot jolted her back to her senses.
The shuttle banked to the left on its approach to the airport. Lonnie could see people waiting. Yomatta was standing amongst them.
"I take it all those people are waiting for us?"
"I guess so. Yomatta was a bit upset when I took off to get you," Kali warned with a smile in her voice. "So she may be a bit harsh toward us."
"In search? How did you know where I was?" Lonnie asked.
"I figured since you like to climb that would be where you would be. And a bird friend of yours…" her voice trailed off.
Lonnie would have pursued the subject but the touch down was rather bumpy. Before the craft was secured, Kali was out of her seat. Lonnie let out an exasperated huff.
The local official waiting with Yomatta was about to speak when Yomatta held up a stern finger of warning to him, and gestured for both women to get in the shuttle marked the property of Earl Gray.
"What's going on," demanded Lonnie.
The ship lifted and spun around to head back to the space station. Everyone held on.
"Too much political bugaboo," Yomatta responded. "The ship captain is going to hear from me on this. Putting Diva Maxine in danger is not going to happen again!"
"Her! I was the one that was attacked!" Lonnie snapped.
"You can take care of yourself. Kali doesn't have the experience."
Lonnie bit back her angry retort. "Thanks for the vote of confidence." Lonnie glanced at Kali who was watching the exchange.
Yomatta folded her arms across her round body. "I would like to know how De Bettelheim's schedule was changed without it being cleared through me."
Kali's face reddened and she shrugged her shoulders. Lonnie gave a soft snort. She herself had fallen for her own importance once and it was nearly just as disastrous. She guessed the gang had played Kali's ego and inexperience and put her in a position she couldn't back out of gracefully, or in this case, safely.
Back aboard Earl Gray the Commander of Security Maltieani Co was waiting for them with Captain Mukng Borelie. They both looked grim.
"What's up?" Lonnie asked.
"Let's go to my office," Maltieani said.
After the three women were seated, tea was served.
"This stop normally is without any problems. What happened to you is unacceptable," Captain Mukng Borelie told Lonnie. "The people we normally deal with were replaced without advance notification." The captain paused, looking considerably uncomfortable. "And Sincunsie, Chief of Foreign Visitors Affairs was out on vacation still. I thought nothing of it since there were no news bulletins advising caution in this area." The captain gestured for Maltieani to continue.
"Deloris Sincunsie is the captain's eldest daughter, who is the CFVA. She had been on vacation due back the day before our ship arrived but sometimes there are delays when traveling with children," Maltieani said.
"I was able to reach her through an old friend." The captain rose from his seat and paced anxiously. "On her arrival at the space port she received an anonymous warning not to return home. This disenfranchisement is only within Pizanna, thank the gods. However, it happens that Pizanna is UrBoka's main port of call; therefore it attracts all sorts of displaced citizens, looking for jobs or free handouts. It makes it ripe for gang activity. I've notified the home office and they will make whatever adjustments are necessary," Captain Mukng Borelie concluded.
Lonnie glanced at Maltieani and then Captain Borelie. "Just how does this affect us?"
The captain gestured to Kali. "One of the young bloods involved in this gang activity is a fan of Diva Kali Maxine. Whether out of fan madness or just a wanton display of his power, he had her perform for him. Unfortunately for you, he had his own partner in mind, his brother."
Lonnie looked at Kali who was trying not to look uncomfortable. She was tempted to ask Kali what exactly had transpired.
"Andres sent me a message that you were attacked," Maltieani continued the story. "By the time I was able to find which holding station they took you to, you were gone. When I heard a birdhead came to see you I figured it was your friend Albert. Blessedly, none of our customers or employees besides yourselves were aware of any problems."
Lonnie continued watching Kali. Stories of fans attacking their favorite star's friend, lover, or partner was not unheard of but she wanted to hear from Kali if that was what this was, because that was not the feeling she got. The attack against her was personal. And it didn't tell her why Kali felt she had to personally come and get her. She didn't know whether to feel good about it or be suspicious.
"Well, if that's all you have…" Yomatta spoke up. She nodded to Kali to follow her.
The chief of security gave a sign to Lonnie to stay behind. As Yomatta shooed Kali out before her, Kali looked at Lonnie as if she wanted to say something.
Lonnie accepted a refreshed cup of tea from Maltieani who also refreshed the captain's.
"So, what's up?" Lonnie asked.
"Do you know of any reason why you were the target of that attack?" Maltieani asked.
"No. I either hang glide or climb cliffs. Anyone I meet usually is as focused on the sport as I am. The dance performance is the only difference this trip."
"Nothing you've ever experienced before, huh?"
"No." She shook her head disappointed in herself. She froze when attacked, and if someone had not intervened on her behalf, she would have been critically injured, perhaps for life. "When I visit these various ports I stay away from potentially dangerous places."
"Just goes to show you, you have to always be alert," Maltieani commented.
The captain made a grunt in agreement. "Well, I need to get to my reports. This is one I'm not happy about documenting. Thanks for the tea, Malti."
After the captain left Lonnie made to leave.
"Lonnie," Maltieani halted her.
"Yes?" she turned.
The two silently studied each other.
"Someone on this ship?" she asked softly.
"I don't know," he returned. "Nothing feels right on this trip. I thought it was because of the diva's presence but…" he shook his head.
"I know what you mean. I guess you've checked for sound waves, color, chemical or electromagnetic…" she began.
"Yes. Now I'm working on the people. Be extra careful. It disturbs me that it's escalated to violence."
"I want to say I wish they picked on someone else, but I wouldn't wish an acid attack on anyone."
"I'm putting a tail on you. Nothing intrusive, just whenever you leave your quarters."
"I found a locator on two of my costumes."
"When I was sharing a suite with Kali. I don't know when it was placed. I usually deliver my costumes to the cleaners and pick them up myself but during the time we quartered together, our costumes were delivered together. I'm sure everyone knows I don't like anyone in my quarters when I'm not there."
"Anything else?" he asked. "Anything that's odd, out of the ordinary, whether you think it has to do with the presence of the diva or not."
"Some of my costumes have been cut, but that stopped since I've moved. And for this port, four of us usually meet up at a cabin and go hang-gliding. One canceled and two didn't respond to my messages."
"Can you send me their names? I'll have someone see if that is connected to your attack. Albert said he was investigating a contract that is out on you. Most disturbing."
After finishing her tea, Lonnie wished him well on his investigation and left. True to his word, a MSB, mobile security bot, the size of her finger tip followed her down the corridor. It was somewhat comforting.
Before going to bed, Lonnie sent out a message to Shari, telling her of her attack, while underneath it was a message to HQ that she did not feel comfortable with someone's interest in her. She was depending on HQ's past policy to protect ghosts.
The next morning Kali was early to practice. She was drinking juice, and listening to the galaxy news as the musicians trickled in. There was a newscaster speaking of riots at Pizanna.
Andres gestured Lonnie to join him.
"I didn't get any plans for our dances to review. Is there a reason?" Lonnie asked.
"Our arrangements hadn't been finalized until an hour ago. We have new dance routines…with the emphasis on our diva. Why don't you go over there and talk to her about them?"
"Okay." Lonnie walked over to Kali. "Want to show me what you have in mind?"
"I thought maybe you would be upset that…."
Lonnie waved her hand dismissively. "We're a team, right? So, let's get to it."
Andres began Kali's intro. Lonnie took a seat in the theatre, setting her mind on the task at hand. After five minutes of free movements to the music, Lonnie wanted to stop it. She could already see where it was going. When Kali finished, Lonnie stood up, clapping. Hopping onto the stage, Lonnie gave Andres a sign to play. Lonnie danced the same style with flourishing gestures and dramatic pauses, giving the dance a more sensuous undertone.
She then had Kali dance it with the changes. They went through the entire routine until Lonnie felt there was more passion in her movements. It was a toned down version of what Lonnie liked to dance but more lively than what Kali's preference was for. Lonnie was hoping this was moving her closer to putting passion in their pair dancing. They had been moving in that direction but somehow Kali made a U turn.
Back in her cabin Lonnie quickly changed into workout clothes and headed to the crew's workout room intending on working out her frustration.
* * *
The next night they had two performances scheduled, two hours apart on two different decks. One of the other entertainment groups was sick and Yomatta offered Kali's performance, which Jol Hrorian, Chief Purser of Entertainment, interpreted as meaning both of the dancers would appear.
They had six combined dances: one solo for each and then four together. The dance arrangements consisted of flamenco, bolero, waltz, fox trot, and an old Celtic jig. Kali used free dance for her solo.
Every time Lonnie wrapped an arm around Kali or held her body close, she wished for a change in Kali, to feel her body yield to the temptation to flirt with her. Yet it was only Lonnie that let her desire show in her dances, and at the end of the performance, have to shut it off.
As they bowed at the finale of the night's performance, Kali grabbed Lonnie's hand in her excitement from the applause they received.
Lonnie paused in her costume change. "Yes?"
"Can I ask you something?" The diva's voice sank to a low wistful tone.
Lonnie sat down to remove her shoes, aware of Kali standing close to her. Knowing her face was flushed with her desire, she did not look up when she answered. "Yeah."
"Are you going to do anything special right now? I mean, I wanted to go soak in the larger crew's hot tub but I don't want to go alone."
Lonnie's imagination jumped to a hot tub fantasy before she could censor it. Still not daring to look up, she missed the blush creeping up Kali's neck and into her cheeks.
"Sure. Let me take a quick shower, grab my stuff and…did you want to meet there or do you want me to come and get you?" She dumped her shoes in her bag and finally looked at Kali.
"Can you come and get me? I don't want it to seem like I'm hanging around the corridors."
"Alright. Give me ten minutes.'
"Okay." Kali turned and left with a bodyguard.
Lonnie let out a quiet breath of air. She really had to do something about her feelings… or at least, decide whether it was from fan infatuation or just because she had to work off this sensual energy. After all these years and she did not have it under control. Oh, right, she remembered. She'd go and find a woman that caught her interest, do some dancing with her, and then find a safe place to work off their mutual interest. Next port, she decided.
* * *
Kali's door opened just after one knock from Lonnie.
"I'll be in the crews' spa," Kali called out as she hurriedly closed the door behind her and pushed Lonnie forward. Unfortunately it was the wrong direction, so Lonnie grabbed her hand and pulled her back in the right direction.
Kali giggled behind her. Lonnie looked back at her and grinned. "Are you sneaking away, my dear?"
"Yes. You're lucky it wasn't one of those damsels in distress situations where I had to drop my locks through the castle portical."
In the locker room, Lonnie pulled off her clothes to change into her bathing suit.
"Lonnie, what's that mark on your butt?"
"A tattoo." Lonnie turned to look at her and then regretted it. Kali was naked. Lonnie struggled to keep her eyes above Kali's chin, but found them wandering to her breasts, then focusing on her left breast. Lonnie pointed to the tattoo Kali had on her breast. "And what is that, young lady?"
"You like?" She held her white breast up for her to take a critical view of the art. "I had it done in the ships tattoo parlor before Yomatta arrived. It's your fault you know."
Lonnie's mouth dropped open and then quickly snapped closed. "Come on. Let's go take a swim, and afterwards, while we soak in the hot tub, you can tell me how that snake on your breast is my fault."
"It's not a snake. It's a dragon." Kali followed Lonnie out to the swim area.
Lonnie dove into the water, grateful to cool off her sizzling body. She heard a yelp and then vigorous splashing behind her. She turned around concerned, and then swam back to Kali.
"Do you swim?"
Kali came up sputtering, clinging to Lonnie's arm.
"I guess not," she gasped. "You…I thought I could just jump in and…" she flapped her arms. "I didn't have any problem in the river."
Lonnie laughed so hard she nearly choked on the water Kali splashed her with.
"You had a life jacket on. Okay, okay. I'll show you." She looked up and saw a grinning Gish.
"Need help, Lonnie? I hope you're wearing your life-preserver."
"Don't encourage her. No, I don't need help. Gish this is Kali…Kali, Gish. If you want an honest massage, Gish is the one to ask for. She has a magic touch. Ask for the hot oiled rock special."
"Hi, Gish. I always need a massage after a performance. Can I schedule one on a regular basis?" Kali asked.
"Sure. Give me a time. I'll just program your time in. See you two around."
Lonnie felt a slight twinge of jealously and she knew it was not because she would be sharing Gish's time. To cover up the any slip of face, "Let's get your first lesson in swimming done before the pool gets too crowded." Lonnie walked to the edge of the pool on the shallow side. She gripped the edge and showed Kali how to kick. For an hour Lonnie showed Kali the basic techniques of swimming. She avoided touching Kali as much as possible, wondering how long she could keep her attraction for Kali hidden from her and what Kali would do if she knew.
By the time they made it to the hot tub Lonnie was as tired as Kali. They both stretched out in the warm tub next to each other, letting their legs rise to the surface and bump without any effort to move away. After a while Lonnie tapped Kali with her toe.
"Yomatta is going to be upset that you've been gone so long." Lonnie yawned until her jaw cracked.
"I told her I was going to the spa with you. She trusts you, you know." Kali fluttered her eyes at Lonnie seductively.
"Stop that. You're going to start another set of rumors. Why does she trust me?" She rose from the bubbling pool, handing Kali a towel and then drying herself off with her own.
"Because she said you're a good person and you don't like rumors." Kali quickly wrapped the towel around her and trotted behind Lonnie, into the dressing room to change.
"You're pulling my chain," Lonnie accused, noticing Kali's grin as she brushed past her.
Kali laughed. Opening up her locker she pulled out a robe and dressed in that rather than changing. Lonnie changed into dry clothes, and tossed her wet suit into her bag. They left the locker area together, both silent. Their shoulders touched as they walked side-by-side, and for a long moment Lonnie wished that she found someone she could be with for a long time.
"What's wrong?" Kali asked, suddenly noticing Lonnie's stillness. Kali put a hand on her wrist to stop their progress. Silently she studied her somber partner. "Lonnie, I don't want to do anything that will hurt you. Do you believe me?" she asked softly.
Lonnie looked into the green eyes that had a devastating effect on her equilibrium. Leaning close to her but not too close to start rumors, she asked. "Then you'll dance what I think is best?"
Kali laughed and jabbed her in the stomach with her elbow. "Ehh. You know what I mean."
Lonnie shook her head. Kali was too ambiguous for her at the moment. She really wanted to know what Kali meant so she led Kali into her quarters, hoping Yomatta would not come looking for them too quickly.
"Sit down and tell me exactly what you mean." Lonnie's heart was beating furiously.
"Lonnie, it's no big thing. I get it all the time."
"Get what all the time?"
"People falling in love with me." She leaned forward and kissed an astonished Lonnie on her lips.
The kiss had no heat to it. It was merely a kiss, but the hand on Lonnie's arm sent chills up her and she could feel a slight tipping of her world. It dawned on Lonnie that Kali didn't make the distinction between lust and love. For herself, she had no doubt that she lusted for Kali. But Lonnie knew she was falling in love with the diva. It seemed the Ladies of Fate had a lesson here for her to learn.
"Do you want me?" Kali purred seductively.
"Kali," Lonnie muttered warningly. She jumped up. "Kali, I want someone who loves me. I don't want a one-night stand or someone that will move on when she sees a brighter light."
There, she said it.
Kali blinked her eyes at her again, charmingly.
"Stop," Lonnie growled playfully, recognizing that Kali was not putting out any sexual vibes, just playful ones.
"Lonnie," Kali sat back on the couch/bed and watched her. "I've never been with someone that I could trust. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings just now, but I had to know. The dances we dance are sexual, and I wanted to be sure that there was no misunderstanding between us."
"Okay. But let's not do this again. I'm glad I passed your test. Now, unless you have anything else to discuss…"
Someone rapped on the door and Yomatta walked into the cabin before Lonnie could get off the couch and open the door. Yomatta looked at the two surprised woman, and nodded. Whatever she saw she was satisfied with. "You both have practice scheduled for the early hours," she reminded them.
Kali rose and gave Lonnie a peck on the cheek. "Thanks for the swim lesson and for introducing me to your masseuse. Is she really good?"
Lonnie nodded. When the two were gone Lonnie groaned. Her phone rang and she moved over to answer it. "Yeah?" she grumbled.
"I bet you can do with a good massage about now," Gish offered.
"Your timing is a bit suspicious. Were you watching my door?"
"Come on over. Scuttlebutt is all over the decks about you two having more than just a dance partnership going."
"And that is so far from the truth. She's into men, and I have no intention of introducing her to anything else," Lonnie told her. "I'm on my way." Just as she hung up the phone, it rang again. "Yeah?"
"Sweet dreams, Lonnie," Kali told her.
"May you have hot and lustful ones yourself. Stop playing with me or you're going to find yourself surprised one night."
Kali laughed. "I know you better than you think."
"Yeah. I worry about you, Lonnie. You're too passionate to be alone."
"Why all this sudden worry about me?" Lonnie asked.
"I guess you haven't read your mail yet. Erich has us scheduled the night before you take your two weeks off for vacation to appear at the Sidney Convention Center on Earth. They want your flamenco dances, the ones that are very sexual."
"I prefer to call them sensual. There is a difference. I'll see you tomorrow."
Lonnie nearly stalked her way to Gish's quarters down the corridor.
"Hey," Lonnie glumly greeted Gish.
"Oooh, you look so miserable. Come here." Gish pulled her into her quarters. Slowly Gish undressed her, letting her hands linger on her breasts as Lonnie's blouse fell to the deck.
Lonnie swallowed noisily. "Gish…this…is…"
"No." She pressed her finger against Lonnie's lips. "Tonight, I'm your dream lover… not Gish," she whispered.
As the fifth month of the cruise came to an end both women were kept busy working on steps Lonnie wanted to do for their convention appearance. They were billed as flamenco dancers; otherwise Lonnie knew Kali would be too tempted to demand her own style. To keep Kali occupied and focused, Lonnie chose complicated steps to show off both of their skills. Lonnie was finding this ironic since this type of exposure was what she avoided most of her life.
* * *
Kali glanced at the note Yomatta handed her as she exchanged it for a costume she was packing for their performance.
"Is this another reading test?" Kali was feeling elated. Their earlier dance practice before docking at the main orbiting space station above Earth was flawless.
Kali frowned at the message. "Has Erich told her this?" She turned to face Yomatta.
"I'm not her keeper," she informed Kali smugly.
Kali did not miss the sound of satisfaction in her voice. She knew Yomatta did not hate Lonnie; she just saw her as a hindrance to a perfect schedule she had planned out, which is why Kali wanted Lonnie around as much as she could get away with, without causing too much opposition in her relationship with either woman. Both had something to offer that she needed to get to her goal. As long as no one got hurt, she did not see any harm. Considering how nasty entertainment politics could get, she saw her way as harmless.
"And I don't want to get between those two," Kali said, after some length.
"That is a very good decision," Yomatta told her.
The more Kali thought about it her smile widened. "She hates photo sessions and screaming news crews. She hates crowds. Good thing she has two weeks to recover."
"I don't think she will be what they're there to see," Yomatta said.
"Sure she is. They're curious who my partner is and what secrets she'll reveal. They sure are going to be disappointed. None of the old stuff." Kali wondered, though, just how Lonnie would respond under pressure. Would she use it to her advantage? This was her career here, not Lonnie's. She was not interested in making it to the top and therefore, she was expendable. Kali sighed. Was it fair to use her as cannon fodder? It's not like she's naïve. But, then again, it was why she chose the cruise liners to do what she liked doing, where there was no ambitious performer that was willing to sacrifice her.
Gish was due in a few moments.
* * *
Lonnie read Erich's note. Apparently he wanted to test Kali's popularity and she was to be the foil. She picked up her workout bag and headed to the spa, choosing the passenger elevators rather than the crew. She was not interested in conversation at the moment. The elevators were busy, stopping at every floor before it made it to the lower level where the workout area was. Keeping to the back of the elevator, Lonnie appeared bored, but she kept an eye on the different people that came and went, how they were dressed, and what their whispered conversations were about. Apparently, she was the only one not involved in an affair. It was difficult to not give into the energy and dwell on how it would feel to run her hands over Kali's body, but distractions could be fatal.
The crews' workout area was crowded and those that were present were focused on their workouts and not conversation. Once she began her first set she fell into her rhythm and her mind wandered to their upcoming performance at the convention.
Erich's prediction that two women dancing passionately together, becoming a force to be reckoned with, was right. There was a revival of Jerah and Sarah's material and there were plenty of dancers that were able to keep the interest going. However, the missing ingredient in their dance partnership was Kali's passion. She was feminine and displayed a coquette demure when called for, but there wasn't any sensuousness.
Lonnie took a quick shower following her workout, and then soaked in the hot tub, wondering what she was going to do.
The water rose a bit, waking her from her doze. Lonnie studied her fingers, puckered and looking like she had been in too long. She stood up and pulled herself out.
"Don't get out on account of me," Loria teased.
"If you hadn't come by now, I would have fallen asleep," Lonnie said.
Lonnie picked up the house phone and called to Gish to see if she was available. No sense in her waiting outside of her cabin looking silly.
"Hey, you're back?"
"No, silly. This is my answering machine. Hey, hon. Can we do it another time? I'm bushed."
"Okay. No problem. Sleep well."
"Believe me, I will. It's been a rough week with this being our last few days out."
Lonnie nearly slapped her forehead in dismay. She had forgotten that this was Gish's busiest time. She not only had to prepare her station for shut down, she also was serving the customers that put off massages until the last week. They were cheaper on the ship than most planet-side, and a lot safer.
Before she went to bed, she went through her mail to see if she had anything interesting to see to while planetside. Her two week vacation arrangement was solidified.
* * *
Erich met them at the space port. He had made arrangements for the two women and this time Lonnie had nicer hotel accommodations with her room attached to Kali's. Kali though, had to share her space with Yomatta and two bodyguards.
They left their bags at the hotel and drove to the convention hall to get an idea of the atmosphere.
Erich and Lonnie were in one cab while Kali and her group were in another. Erich leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath. Lonnie prepared for bad news.
"I don't want you to get upset," Erich began.
Lonnie sighed as she leaned back in the seat. "I wish you would do these confessions before the last minute."
"I only learned about it a few moments ago." He leaned forward and turned on the viewer in the cab. A picture of the convention appeared and advertisements to tourists played out until a speaker came on promoting each of the groups that would be performing. Finally the speaker announced the demonstrations to be done on Amour dancing.
"Who gave it that name?" Lonnie asked.
The face of the announcer appeared in the upper right corner of the screen as film of various couples dancing appeared on the main screen. "The couple that has brought back this style will be appearing this evening for a warm up and then tomorrow will give a one hour show. This would be Diva Kali Maxine with her dance partner Leona Bestrolie. Folks, I've seen tapes on these two and I have to say, Diva Maxine is at the top of her form. But don't…"
Lonnie shut the viewer off. "Just what I've been avoiding all my life, my name spoken in an advertisement. And they actually got it right. What has my life come to?" she asked in mock horror. "So, Erich, what is it that you think I should be worried about?"
"I thought you didn't like large crowds."
"I don't like crowds because all it takes is something to set off a few, and the whole group becomes a stampeding mob, trampling everything in its path. Besides, what am I going to do with that many admirers?"
Erich said nothing, merely nodded.
"So, this is the halfway mark..."
Erich smiled. "And you're wondering if I'm any closer to getting your bonus arranged. Ambassador Hebr Mo'lu is having a party at his home and asked if Kali would mind dancing with her partner at his wedding anniversary."
Lonnie laughed at Erich's lie. The slight color change on the small ridge above his left ear gave him away. What intrigued HQ was why he was bothering with this particular bribe.
"Okay. The invitation was for you and Kali. It's on his estate on Abrazan. I told him you both would be delighted. He'll send a shuttle to pick you up. There aren't any regular flights to Tuloc."
"Have you ever been there?"
"I don't travel too far from home base. This is one of those very few times and I brought my family so they won't feel neglected."
The autocab stopped at the curb where uniformed valets assisted the performers alighting from their cabs. Andres was waiting near the door with Kali and her bodyguards.
"Andres," Erich greeted, "I appreciate all your help. Thanks for staying longer."
"I wouldn't want to miss it. I've seen some of the other performers. You have some keen competition," he nodded to Lonnie.
"We'll burn them," Kali informed them all confidently.
"We're the honoree guests so we have a performance before peers and then we have a warm up thirty minutes before the main performance tomorrow. By the way, Magi and Celea are teamed up," Andres said.
Lonnie burst out laughing, startling them all. "Are they good?"
"Everyone is hiding what their routines are so no one copies any steps or costumes. I sure would like to know what happened in the five months that we've been gone that got those two that friendly."
"Advertising, good press reviews, and a diligent agent," Erich informed them all.
"Erich, they're here only because of the competition," Lonnie said.
"No one can beat us," Kali repeated firmly. "I've seen them dance. You can't morph people with no talent into sensual dancing."
"Oh! So you looked up the meaning did you," Lonnie laughed. "Kali plans on heating up the stage for the next two days."
Andres looked over at Kali who had an indignant expression on her face.
"No, she really is. She's going to let all her passion loose and show us what she's been holding back in all these dance sessions. She's afraid if she lets loose too soon, she'll overwhelm me. But now that we have two weeks to recover she's ready."
"I dance just fine, thank you, miss hottie. And I know perfectly well what you're implying. I just might surprise you."
Lonnie leaned near her ear, "Just for two nights and then you have two whole weeks to recover."
Kali scratched the ear Lonnie's breath tickled. "You'll be the one having to take two whole weeks to recover, my dear," she said.
Lonnie smiled and then turned her attention to the stage. The two became all business as they walked the length, listening to the sound of their heels on the boards.
"I like the sound here. We need to get here earlier than the thirty minutes we're given for warm ups," Kali said to Lonnie as she stared out at the empty audience seats. "There's going to be a crowd to fight through."
Lonnie's eyes moved from the audience seats to the stage. It was huge, too huge for her comfort. She turned her back to the seats and walked around the stage.
"You don't have to worry about your dressing room. I saw names posted on them and the times the occupants are expected to show for their use," Andres said.
"We're going to have to add extra steps to go from here to the other side." Lonnie gestured where they would dance.
Kali turned to Andres and Lonnie, "Why can't we do one set here, another in the center and another on the other side? We can expand the dance beginning and some of the middle but end in the center." She glanced at the mobile camera docking stations lined to the side of the stage. "Even if they get a view on screen, we need to move back and forth on stage and finish in the center."
"I see no problem with that," Lonnie said.
Andres turned to Lori. "Did our gear arrive?"
"Yes, everything. We had to make sure we had guards. Some fans got a bit too free with their souvenir hunting."
"Our gear?" Lonnie asked.
"No. Another group. So, when do we get back here? I need a nap."
"Four hours," Andres said.
* * *
Lonnie slept for two hours and then made her necessary calls to her friends who if not for Shari, would have missed getting tickets for the show.
"Hey kitten, how's everyone?" she asked Niamh.
"We're all doing great," Niamh answered. "We got in some great surfing while waiting for you. We have a place near the best surfing beach and have a few locals promising to show you the ropes."
Cari's laughing was heard in the background.
"Show me the ropes, huh? What did you tell her, and it better be her?"
"Why? You don't do anything. You just leave whoever we set you up with weeping in frustration."
"Where will you guys be, so we can meet after the performance?"
"Kona Catcha. Just give the directions to the autocab. You and the diva are the hottest topics around here. I hope you don't attract too many flies."
"Me too. I'll see ya'all then."
For the rest of the time she sat ?sanas.
* * *
Lonnie and Kali came in the same autocab with their bodyguards. By the time they were recognized they were through the door with a shrieking crowd left behind.
Lonnie handed her bag to an auto attendant; another took Kali's, and they followed through a maze of costume trunks to their dressing rooms, their names prominently displayed on the doors.
Lonnie was walking the stage before Kali arrived dressed in her costume. She was wearing a sleek green dress with a slit on the side. Lonnie was wearing the same shade of green pants and short black coat, showing the v line of her breasts. Erich had picked out their costumes, otherwise Lonnie would have settled for a shirt under the coat. It was ironic that more of her skin showed than Kali's.
Lonnie danced around the floor, testing the sound and feel.
While she drank water, and took a few calming breaths, she watched Kali dance, listening to her feet tap out a catchy rhythm. Kali had come a long way in five months, and Lonnie took pride that she had a hand in it.
Finished they turned to Andres who then warmed the band. Other performers that were waiting took their seats if they had not already.
Kali placed her hand over Lonnie's and Lonnie took in the warmth, and how nice it felt. She looked into Kali's eyes, looking for the spark that would be necessary to prove their worth for the honored role they were given. Kali would not be able to fool this audience. Kali looked back into Lonnie's eyes and smiled. She led Lonnie to where they would begin the first dance.
Andres tapped his baton on the podium, signaling everyone was warmed up, and ready.
Lonnie snapped her castanets, and then danced sensuously around a woman she desired, teasing her with her rooster-like attitude and staccato tapping of her heels. When she stopped and it was Kali's time to respond, Kali raised smoldering eyes darkened with a desire that struck Lonnie with force. Smirking, Lonnie taunted the subject of her desire to step up closer into her space and breathe her air. Well-rehearsed steps and poses done to elicit sensuous feelings brought with it the energy the dancers allowed to surface within themselves.
Kali's danced as a woman who was disdainful of her suitor that began to show interest. Not quite letting her suitor touch her until she knew she had her suitors rapt attention.
Lonnie danced as one who was sure of her sexual attraction, and then of uncertainty as her skills were nearly ignored, and finally of being under the spell of enchantment, becoming the conquered.
When they finished, they paused in their final position. Kali had one arm draped over Lonnie's shoulder and the other around her waist possessively. Her face a hairs breath from Lonnie's, staring into her darkened eyes, lips parted. Lonnie's hands rested on Kali's hips, holding her firmly against her, feeling their combined heat. Both women parted, turned to face the crowd, and stepped one foot forward.
The room broke into a roar.
The ovation went on long enough for Lonnie to realize how strong her desire for Kali was, and how realistic the returned interest on Kali's part was. The impassioned dancing, what both Erich and she wanted from Kali, had been reached. Now, all that was needed was to hone it, then her job was done and so was their partnership.
Both bowed, it seemed for the tenth time, and then Kali pulled her to do another dance. Taking advantage of Kali's openness, Lonnie moved her hands over her back and buttocks lightly, as they moved in tandem across the stage. Then pulled away and danced her sexual desire around and across the stage, willing the heat to pass out of her feet into the stage. This dance called for Kali to be passive while Lonnie made the overtures, however, when she did rest a hand, or brush her body against Lonnie, it was longer than she had in the past and when their eyes met, they were as dark with passion as Lonnie felt.
Their audience had not sat down to dispassionately watch, but rather had stood and clapped to the rhythm of the castanets, and then shouted and yelled their enthusiasm when they finished. More bows and Kali waving at the crowd, with Lonnie nodding at those that shouted her name. She refrained from waving at people she did not know.
After they left the stage, they had more bodyguards around them then Lonnie had ever known any performer to have but as they moved out beyond the convention center she could see a sea of people that were watching the performance from large outdoor screens. They began to move toward the two dancers as they exited the building. They were hurriedly hustled into cabs with traffic bots opening up a pathway for them to escape.
Lonnie became firmly grounded from their performance with the interview a local station had scheduled. The interviewer lacked any knowledge of the art, and for that matter, anything with depth, including himself. He was a celebrity in his own right, and his superficial flirting with Diva Maxine was laughable. From Lonnie's perspective, the face that Kali wore was her Diva face, aloof and entertaining, saying the right things that would not alienate the public that would watch this level of show.
Lonnie was pointedly ignored when she did not play the game, and that was comfortable for her. There were two more interviews and Lonnie was not asked to participate so she elected to return to the hotel. Yomatta was there to look after Kali.
Distantly, Lonnie heard the adjoining door to their rooms open. She rightly guessed it was Kali from the perfume that whisked into her sleeping room. She rolled over on her back and waited. Something wet landed on her face.
"Hey! What was that for?" Lonnie sat up, pulling the washcloth off her face.
"Didn't think I could do it, did you?"
Lonnie tossed the washcloth back at her. "It was there. I knew it, you knew it. Right?" She walked to the shower and set the temperature, hoping Kali would take the hint and leave. When she stepped into the shower before turning on the water, Kali stepped in beside her. She pressed up against Lonnie and kissed her passionately, and then she walked out of the room.
"Hey!" Lonnie shouted at the retreating back. Kali was laughing. "What is she up to?" Lonnie muttered to herself. Her fingers touched her lips remembering the possessive press of Kali's soft full lips on hers. If she had not added flicker of a tongue against her opened lips it would be easier to shrug it off, right?
* * *
In the morning, instead of preparing for their performance, Erich had them before cameras and giving interviews. These interviewers were tough and had done their homework on the politics of dance and what it meant to be an Icon for a particular dance style. After the tenth interview was wrapped up Lonnie went to speak with Erich.
"Erich. Just the agent I wanted to see." Lonnie felt mentally weary from word fencing with the interviewers. They did not ignore her as the other, and sought answers an obsessive fan would want to know. Kali had a penchant for it, and was witty enough to cover for her lack of answers.
"We're still on Earl Gary?"
They both settled in the second private vehicle Erich arranged for, before he answered.
"Yes. You're safe there."
"Safe from who or what?" she asked.
"I don't think she's ready yet to be surrounded constantly by fans and media, and I know you hate this media frenzy business, so I'm going to let you finish off the tour where you're comfortable."
"Doggone, Erich, give it to me straight."
"I'm serious about the safety issue. I don't want her to jump so soon into the larger crowds yet. The places you'll be performing on the cruise back will be important places, and believe me, you'll find the ship a nice haven to escape to. Meanwhile, she still needs work. You have her emotionally out and that's important. Now she needs to be consistently out, and be able to handle it without all those crutches of drugs and wild living. Teach her what you know."
"Right, like I lead an exemplar life. Erich, who is doing all this for her?"
"I'll tell you one day, but not today."
* * *
Lonnie was not used to personal attendants. As she stood still while hers, Jay, pulled her new fitted embroidered coat into place and smoothed out wrinkles, she could see Kali in the mirror being helped into her dress. Lonnie moved around as the hands guided her. There was a lot of professional attention to detail. Her castanets were fitted over her hands and then Jay stood back to critically review her work.
"Are you ready," Kali's voice asked from behind her.
Lonnie nodded and stepped toward the door, which was opened for them. The two women passed through, both their minds on dance steps. Lonnie's hand rested against the small of Kali's back, more for a connection than in guiding her. Lonnie found that if she concentrated on making Kali look good her nervousness would fade to the background. Kali stopped in front of the door and Lonnie slid her arm around Kali's waist, as they waited for their entrance.
Distractedly, Lonnie looked at her partner. For a moment she didn't recognize the beautiful woman standing next to her, so close she could smell her skin.
"Hey. Yoo-hoo?" Kali called to her.
Lonnie felt Kali's weight against her and focused on the radiant smile before her. Her heart rate increased and her arm around Kali's waist tightened, reflexively pulling her closer to her.
"Did I tell you that you look absolutely striking in your new clothes?" Kali told her in a soft voice.
Lonnie blinked at her, trying to decipher the verbal message amid the screaming sensations in her body.
"Thanks," she managed.
"Are you going to be alright? Will I have to do a solo until…" Kali teased, her eyes laughing, and her full lips curling up into a smile.
Lonnie pulled her wits back to the present, and shook her head dumbly at Kali. "I'm…fine. Just thinking," she finished, regaining her composure.
"Okay, because…this is us."
Lonnie struck her pose, and while the intro played, they walked onto the stage as a couple strolling through the park.
The first dance, called for her to use her castanets while Kali's hands rested on top of hers. They weaved a net of passion with the staccato beat of their heels, echoing castanets, and the stop and start and then the long steps across the stage as Lonnie advanced upon Kali, and then Kali turned them both around and advanced on Lonnie. The heat smoldering between the two added to the mood of the dance.
Between each dance they gave enough time for the audience to applaud but Andres was on a strict timer that Lonnie was grateful for. By the end of their time, she was sure that she and Kali were on the same wave length, and it was a sensuous one. They returned for four encores, each doing a solo and two more pair dances.
Instead of being escorted back to their shared dressing room, their guards hurried them out the building with others taking care of their clothes.
* * *
"Whooooo!" Kali shouted. "Did you see the audience? We had them standing at the beginning of our dance … whooping! We proved we deserved to be given credit for bringing au pair back."
Lonnie could feel the audience's appreciation too. Usually it was not this intense. The combination of the sexual power in her belly mixed with the adrenalin rush from the audience's outpouring of energy had her nerves jangling.
"What are you going to do?" Kali asked, her face shinning with the excitement of the last two days of ovations.
"Something crazy and wild," Lonnie said. She was amused that Kali found it difficult to sit still.
"What's that?" Kali asked, wondering if Lonnie was thinking of taking a lover for the night, or two weeks.
"Surf. The waves are curling high and knarly."
Lonnie was preoccupied at the crowd that the news was showing hanging around their hotel. She leaned forward and spoke to one of their bodyguards. "It doesn't look like something the four of you can handle," she told him. "How about a change of plans?"
Wiwan, the team leader, turned in his seat to face Lonnie. "What do you have in mind?"
"I'm supposed to be heading to Kona Catcha to meet up with some friends that promised me good surfing this afternoon."
Wiwan nodded again. "I know of it. But driving up in something like this is going to have us sticking out like a redwood among willows."
Lonnie grinned. "Well, we can exchange it."
Wiwan traded their preprogrammed limo with two smaller autocabs. Three of the guards rode in the second autocab while Kali and Lonnie gave in to Wiwan riding with them.
"Kali, do you mind dropping me off first? I was thinking by the time Wiwan takes you back to the hotel there will be less of a crowd," Lonnie said.
"And miss surfing? Not on your life. I've only see it on tvivs. Do you think maybe I can try it?"
Lonnie looked at the diva whose appearance was so far from a surf vision that Lonnie could only nod, thinking no further.
* * *
Hey, you wanna-be-dancer!" Niamh hollered as she grabbed the taller woman and spun her around. She dropped her to the ground and kissed her briefly. "We have to get out of here. Cari's holding down the beach house, making sure no one noses around. Hi!" she suddenly noticed the bodyguards and the diva. "Wooo. Very smart to avoid your hotel. We can use those autocabs since there's more of you. Come on. Let's go."
Wiwan gestured to the others which vehicles to get in, with the guards doubling in the autocabs, and Niamh pushing Lonnie and Kali quickly into the one she had reserved.
"So, Diva Kali…."
"Kali. Please call me Kali."
"Okay, Kali. Nice dancing. Glad to see you put the nay-sayers to shame. Are you planning on surfing too?"
"Okay. We'll have to stop and get you the right clothes. That will be our first stop and then head out to a small place we're renting at the beach where you two can change." She gave a new destination to their cab.
Niamh ran into a store to avoid drawing attention with Kali's appearance. While she shopped, their bodyguards purchased more appropriate attire. Kali and Lonnie waited safely in their cab. Kali listened to the entertainment news which was all about them, and Lonnie took a nap, effectively shutting out the chatter, and sleeping through their resumed journey to the beach. A poke in her ribs thirty minutes later woke her. She peered though the windows to see where they were. Niamh pointed to the line of boards along the beach.
"This is the small place on the beach?" Kali asked surprised, looking in another direction.
Niamh laughed. "Not that place. We have what is called the day cottage, over that way. It was used by the first owners for changing in or out of their bathing costumes, or taking a nap, or partying out of the sun, but still being near the ocean. I know the present owner's girlfriend. She's a client." Niamh grinned.
"I hope that someone isn't anyone I know personally," Lonnie said.
"Well, yeah, but she says she is very much in love with her present beau and you're a forgotten fling." Niamh flitted her fingers in the air mimicking Aoife's disdainful gesture.
"Why did you pick this place?" Lonnie asked, looking around apprehensively.
"She's in Wellsmont, the family estate. That's a week away no matter what fast ship she hires. We didn't tell her you would be here."
The autocab came to a stop and they all spotted two familiar figures standing on the beach near the driveway. They appeared to be arguing.
"Like, she can't miss the publicity," Lonnie said.
"Whoops," Niamh said softly. "Honey bunny, you'll need to borrow Kali's bodyguards."
Kali looked out the window interested. "Who are they?" she asked as they waited for the bodyguards to get into position.
"Her exes. They're probably going to be coming out of…" she looked over at Lonnie, "all sorts of places." She grinned at Kali, "You think you had an exciting life with the men the tabloids say you've been with…in her wild years she slept with any woman that caught her eye, and did she have an eye for the passionate ones."
"You led a wild life? In your younger years? Just how old are you?"
Lonnie stepped out of the autocab, still dressed in costume. She turned to take Kali's hand to help her out. Kali looped her dress ends over her arm and squirmed out of the cab.
"Old enough to know I don't want to repeat that life," she said.
"That way would be good." Niamh pointed to the side path.
The two women at the front entrance stopped arguing immediately and tried to join the group on the path to the backdoor but Niamh was leading them quickly with the bodyguards preventing the pair from rushing past them. A door opened and Niamh ushered everyone in.
"Where's my suit?" Lonnie asked Cari as she hugged her.
Cari grinned at Lonnie's predicament. "You're lucky neither of them surf even on a beginner's board."
"Right here," Niamh told her, holding up the bag of clothing they had picked up at the hotel earlier for Lonnie.
Lonnie grabbed it and headed to a room to change. When she exited the room everyone was dressed, including the bodyguards.
"Why do they keep ringing the doorbell when we aren't answering it?" Lonnie whined.
"Persistence. Listen, we have the boards on the beach. Bessie is watching them with the others," Cari reported. "No one's allowed with a beginner board so we won't have to worry about nuts being turned loose."
"Can anyone surf?" Kali asked as she fell in behind Lonnie as the group moved out of the house and down the path to the beach.
"If you don't mind starting on a professional board. We don't allow those computerized boards here. I'll give you a few tips." Niamh stuck her tongue out at Lonnie who was trying to signal a contrary message.
Kali rested her hand on Lonnie's back as they followed Cari single file down the winding path. They could see what looked like a party that had been going on for a while.
"Can you give me a ride on your board?" Kali asked.
"Surfing is a one person…"
"Nah huh," Kali laughed, tugging at Lonnie's elbow. "I do watch surfing events now and then and saw…"
"Those were on computer boards. I surf on an old board," Lonnie interrupted.
Lonnie quickly found a board and escaped, while Kali was introduced as Mari, Cari's cousin.
A place was cleared for Kali near the fire where they were roasting food and telling stories. Niamh settled near her and began to explain the rudiments of surfing.
Lonnie attached the leash of the board around her wrist and ran into the water, then hopping onto the board and paddling out further. Once past the raising waves she studied the wave patterns until she knew when the big one would break. Anxious, she nearly settled on a lesser one, but then she spotted it. She could feel the upsurge as it gathered its power behind her and began to swell under her. Just as it started its roll she pushed her board so that she would either be pounded into the sand or carried to the beach. Eagerly she surged forward, leaning a little too forward. Too late to do anything but ride it out she felt the sudden loss of her ride and she leaned back as the wave rolled past her.
A few more rolled under her and then she again saw the right one coming. She rode it all the way in, hearing the roar of the wave as it formed a tunnel over her and moved her along. Quickly she moved back into the deeper water for another.
Riding the pipe was addicting. The exhaustion she had felt after the performance was gone.
Her ninth ride in was a wipe out. She was slammed into the belly of the rising lower swell and she and board went tumbling to shore. When she caught her breath she was surrounded by some of her friends, all relieved she was okay.
"What a shot!"
"I have just the thing for…"
Lonnie didn't wait to hear what her exgirlfriend, Glenna had to say.
As she splashed back out she felt someone running beside her. She glanced sideways annoyed, and found it was Kali.
"Hey, where are you going? Kali, it's dangerous out here."
"Not any more than it is around that group. You're rescuing me. You owe me."
A wave hit them and Lonnie came back up wiping her face. "How do you figure that?"
"You lied to me. I heard that in the past you've taken out girlfriends."
"Alright! You don't have to go into my sordid past. Lay on the board," she instructed her quickly. She was watching a wave heading their way that she needed to get past before it sent them back to shore.
Lonnie paddled them out with Kali helping.
"Okay. This is what we're going to do. Sit up." Lonnie carefully climbed on the board and wished she had taken Cari up on the slower and longer board. "We're going to sit through a few, just to give you a thrill." Lonnie moved closer to Kali's back.
For the next hour, they practiced riding on less serious waves part of the way in and then paddled back out.
"Okay, I'm tired and I'm sure you are too. Let's take the next big one in and you'll see what it's like to ride the big orgasmic rush."
"Ooh! This will be something I will be sure to remember in my old age," Kali told her mockingly.
Lonnie felt the beginning of the wave she needed. The ride in was not as dramatic as she would have liked, but it was enough to give Kali an idea of the emotional and physical rush riding a big wave in that formed a ceiling overhead.
Both women came stumbling onto the shore laughing with Kali gripping Lonnie's arm for support as waves hit them from behind. Two of the bodyguards came out to assist Kali. Lonnie held onto her surfboard and used it to part the crowd so she could get back to where the boards were stored.
"Wow! So, you aren't so old after all!" Jenny slapped her on the shoulder laughing. "After all that dancing and running from your admirers I would think you would want a nap."
"I think my second wind has been exhausted," Lonnie admitted and fell onto the blanket. Aoife and Sindy scrambled to hand her a drink. She ignored their offers. Jenny glared at the two women. All of Lonnie's friends knew she only drank unopened drinks and nonalcoholic.
"Here." Kali handed her sealed water. She plopped down next to Lonnie. "You were right. What a rush." She took a long pull from her water. "So, what's the difference between the computerized boards and what you use?"
"C-boards do it all for you, even make sure you don't fall off the board. The boards we use, it's all skill."
"They're not allowed on this beach, or the professional surfing tour."
"The energy envelope they put around the boarder will knock whoever approaches off. Too many idiots that don't take it seriously, like to run into others and see if they can deactivate the computer system on the board."
"Like electric bumper cars," Lonnie said. "Ever rode one of those?"
Most everyone whooped at some memory they shared.
"No, but I've seen pictures," Kali said.
"Don't get Lonnie in a bumper car," Jenny warned. "Have you ridden the rapids?" she asked Kali to change the subject.
"Oh, yeah. Not quite like this ride but it does have its similarities."
"Earl Gray has a stop near Elongman, doesn't it?" Cari asked.
"A two hour shuttle ride to get there. The Bella Abzug Run. The shortest ride is three hours," Lonnie said. She hummed her love of the ride and the others hummed with her.
Someone brought out drums and while they conversed into the early morning the music played around them.
"I like drums," Lonnie murmured tiredly.
"Uh huh," Aoife replied in a seductive tone. "You sure do…"
"Don't bother reminiscing. We've all heard it many times and don't want to hear it again," Jenny said.
Lonnie agreed. The drum beat was nice but she was tired. She rose and headed back to the house, knowing Kali's bodyguards would take care of her.
A hand slipped into hers.
"I'm rescuing you, so shut up and keep walking," Kali said.
The bodyguards dutifully followed them back to the house. At the house Erich and Yomatta were waiting. They were sipping tea and talking when they entered.
Erich looked at both women and nodded. "You're looking better already. Are you ready to go?" he asked Kali.
Kali nodded and turned to Lonnie. "Thank you, Lonnie." She leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek.
The bodyguards, Erich, and Yomatta exited, leaving Lonnie standing in the center of the room. She turned and went in search of a bed.
* * *
Five hours later, Niamh shook Lonnie awake.
"Dress up. Our ride awaits us."
Lonnie rolled to alertness, feeling the last two days of activity weighing heavily on her limbs. From her backpack, she pulled out clothing and equipment civilians normally didn't wear. That's not to say that the micro recorders and chips to sense weather and the location of a person weren't part of normal civilian wear, but what was in her clothing were HQ's design. Lonnie heard that many of the undercover operation teams had deeply planted microchips in their body to prevent an agent from becoming unmanageable or rouge, but as observers, they had nothing that invasive. If that were part of her employment, Lonnie would never have signed up.
As they clambered onto the shuttle, Cari chuckled at Lonnie's fatigue. "Take a nap. It'll take a while to get to our destination."
"You don't have to offer a second time," Lonnie murmured. She recessed her seat and promptly fell asleep.
* * *
It was the sudden change of altitude that woke Lonnie, and it came with a combined sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach and her gasping for air. The safety harness had automatically enveloped her, securing her from being tossed onto the deck.
Jenny was piloting and from the bantering going on it was an expected rough ride to wherever they were going.
"Are you going to barf?" Niamh asked. "If you even feel a little bit like it…" she turned and pulled out a bag, "this is the place for it. The air currents are rough around here. That makes it difficult for us to be followed without our knowing about it. The other ship would be setting off all kinds of blips on our radar."
Lonnie took the bag with one hand and with the other touched an acupressure point on her leg. Her stomach settled. Blinking away her sleepiness, she studied her monitor of the view below them.
"Farmland. Don't farmers get suspicious about having a private residence in their backyard that receives a lot of visitors?"
"Most of the farmers are retired operatives. Helps keep the area free from nosy people."
"How many will be joining us?" Lonnie asked.
"Just us. Two groups of Ghosts had their covers compromised, and then, there's the attacks on you that HQ hasn't uncovered. Until they find the leak and figure out who initiated the attacks on you, they want us kept separate from the others."
Lonnie nodded, thinking about her reaction to the catperson's attack.
"It was good that you let those around you handle your attacker," Niamh said, reading her frown. "If you had displayed any type of skills, someone watching you may have used that to confirm that you should be watched."
"It wasn't an act," Lonnie confessed. "For all those classes I take with Crackle, I still froze when I was attacked."
"It's not the same thing to practice moves to ward off physical attacks and to actually be in the moment of a personal attack. The energy is different."
"Well, Crackle has been drumming in my self-defense skills since."
"I hope that's not going to compromise your cover," Niamh said.
"Depends whose looking at me and from what level of information. I'm still part of Earl Gray's emergency response team."
"So just what does Crackle teach you?"
"Nothing that would red flag me as an operative but it would if you were a pirate."
"We'll need to reevaluate your standing."
"Why now? It never came up for the years I've been involved with this."
"Because HQ has been infiltrated and I'm getting bad vibes from people that should be trustworthy. I'm worried someone is implanting nanocells in our leaders."
"I don't think it's that. There are all sorts of body scanners that can pick up that stuff, and from what we go through, I'm sure HQ's is tougher." Lonnie tapped her screen to get a closer view of where they were heading. They were skimming close to the ground. "Is that our destination?"
A red dot was blinking on the monitor.
An alarm light went off, and Jenny veered off to the left, following another road away from their heading. Their speed decreased as they moved through a forest and then down a deserted road.
"Site not secured. We may have been spotted. Pack up quickly," Cari called out.
"What's going on?" Niamh asked, quickly pulling out emergency supplies and their hiking equipment.
"Unauthorized ship in the compound where we were headed," Jenny said as she ran past them to the exit hatch. "Let's get, ya'all. I have the ship on autopilot and it will only wait a few minutes for us to jump out before increasing speed and head on a new course."
They tossed out their packs from the moving vehicle, jumped, and rolled onto the ground, running back to pick up their supplies, then disappearing into the brush. Cari led the way back to the training camp.
"Why are we heading back?" Lonnie asked as she jogged close to Cari's heels.
"I want to know what's going on. I picked this place because it was supposed to be vacant."
"What's wrong?" Niamh asked.
"It was a Black Ops ship," Jenny said.
"Then why are we going to spy on them?" Lonnie asked nervously. Tackling a black ops group was nowhere in her skill level.
"I don't think that's a good idea. If it's them, then they have the exits and entrances covered," Jenny echoed her feelings.
Niamh nodded her head in agreement.
Cari stopped in her tracks and the others stopped with her. "You're right. We did our part. We observed an unauthorized ship in a restricted area. Come on. What was I thinking? No way are we going to infiltrate our own special ops teams. Let's head back to the town we passed. I want to see what's going on there. Usually, when it's an official visit, they log in there at the HQ's small office."
"I didn't log us in," Jenny reported.
"You didn't?" Cari asked surprised.
"I forgot. This is the first time we've been to one of these remote training facilities without someone from HQ escorting us."
"First time we're on our own and we smell out trouble." Niamh shook her head.
It took them two hours to reach the town. The four circled the town, suspicious at the lack of life. It was just after sundown. There should at least be lights in the homes clustered around the small shops.
Using hand signals to avoid the sound monitors along the road, Cari signaled they needed to regroup further away from the town. Tired, Niamh stumbled in the dark, and crashed into Jenny. Both women lay still, catching their breath.
"I think I hurt my ankle," Niamh whispered.
Lonnie snapped on a night light and pulled out her first aid kit. The scanner showed she had a small fracture.
"Loose rocks are bad on an ankle especially when someone falls on it," Jenny said. "Why don't you two go on, and she and I will wait here for your return?"
"Don't you have a bone mender?" Cari asked Jenny.
"Yes, but it's not recommended to stress the repaired bone so soon after repair. I can wrap it but we'll have to carry her."
"Make up your minds quick," Lonnie told Cari.
"Either of you know how to create a safe hole?" Cari asked.
"No," Jenny and Niamh answered.
"Then Jenny, you go with Lonnie and I'll stay with Niamh. Don't come back for us. We'll meet at the mountain lodge or get word to you."
"Let's go," urged Lonnie. It was not just her stomach that was roiling, but the hairs on her arms and back of her neck were raising. They needed to get out of that area now.
"Let's go," Jenny told Lonnie. Lonnie set off at a trot and led them off the road the first chance she had. They were crossing someone's field.
"There's a No Trespassing sign and it had a pretty convincing face warning us off," Jenny grumbled as her feet grew heavy from the mud on her boots.
"We need to call HQ. There's usually a junction box just outside of a town and between the farms. It'll prevent anyone from tracing the call."
"Oh, right. That was the third class on what to do if you're stranded in enemy territory," Jenny joked.
Lonnie turned suddenly, heading toward the runoff ditch and dragging Jenny with her. Unfortunately, it had ankle deep mud, and in the dark with night vision goggles it looked ominous.
Lonnie signed to Jenny she spotted a hopper. Leaning on the muddied sides of the ditch, Lonnie cautiously looked at the junction box, zooming her NV goggles for a close up.
Jenny was peering over the ridge, pointing her scanner at the site for a passive read. They watched the person working on the box.
Lonnie signed to Jenny that he was talking to someone. From Jenny's pack Lonnie pulled out a listening device.
"….what about the outgoing calls on the green cell?.... I can destroy it or remove it…. No, I don't have a replacement. I told you I needed my bag. Turnbl doesn't carry everything. He travels too light… Just give me a yes or no. I've been out here too long already."
Whatever the order was, he completed his job quickly, packed up his tools, and left in his hopper. The small craft started forward, scattering small bits of debris, and leaving a clear path along the ground, until it hopped over the fence and onto the road they were just on.
"It's clear of any monitoring devices," Jenny reported.
"Did you happen to check the ditch we're in?"
"Yes. You don't want to hear what I found but it isn't something that'll kill us."
"I guess they're not expecting much resistance, but still..." Lonnie looked at the junction box. "This doesn't have the feel of a practice session."
"I hear you."
Jenny glanced at her. "No path on the way in but a plain one to see on the way out."
Lonnie nodded. "Keep watch while I check that box." Lonnie sprinted to the box, sweeping the area with her sensor.
The box was a mass of smashed switches.
"I can't believe he just destroyed the whole thing."
"No. That's a box on top of a box. Lift it and check underneath."
Lonnie checked around the box to be sure she wasn't setting something off. "He's got it rigged for tampering."
"You know how to fix that?"
"Yes. It's going to take a few moments. Good thing it's dark."
Fingers used to plucking strings on a musical instrument gently moved the filaments. Jenny shrugged off her pack, and between glances around them, rummaged in her pack for something.
"Try this. My latest spy toy purchase."
Lonnie studied the SmartBox for communications. She rested it against the original junction box and two LED lights lit up. One steady green showed a good connection and the second amber flickered, showing packets were being passed.
Carefully, Lonnie tapped the number of their contact. When the connection was made she conferenced in the connections from the box.
"You can remove the box and the connection will remain," Jenny told her.
"Okay." Lonnie added her own mobile com to the conversations. She wanted to know what was going on. Closing up and unlatching Jenny's box she moved her com piece to her ear, and while both women hurried back into the forest, Lonnie shifted her connection from one conversation to another.
Jenny took up the lead, guiding a distracted Lonnie to where she could call for another shuttle.
"So, what's doing?" Jenny whispered.
"There's five calls on the line. Apparently, the town has been taken over. The people involved are holding everyone in one of the underground shelters. They have someone from the inside helping out. I don't know if our handler has picked up on what's happening but there's an important meeting that's going to take place at the site and these people want to do some damage."
"Tomorrow noon. We would have been gone by that time. Maybe Cari got a look at who had reserved it after us."
"She didn't reserve it. The idea was to meet somewhere no one knew, so we could compare notes on the Ghost Squads whose members are disappearing. You don't think someone's messing with our heads, do you?"
"I have regular body scans. I don't trust anyone to do if for me."
"I didn't think of that. Even for the microchips?"
"Anything inside or on me that is not normal for my species it'll find."
They heard the sound of wind displacement. They quickly moved into the brush and were flat on the ground when a hopper sped by.
"Did you see who was in there?"
"Yeah. The thing is, we're not trained to do rescue operations. If this is a special ops group, we have a 99% disadvantage."
"Only?" Jenny asked.
"Against superior skilled adversaries, surprise does have a small advantage," Lonnie said.
"I think everyone's best chance is for us to get to where we can contact HQ directly without worrying about being picked up."
"We need a hopper."
* * *
It was hours later, close to midnight before they found a farm whose residents were gone.
"No one's home," Lonnie confirmed. "There's sensors around the house and barn. Not that dilapidated shed."
The two poked their heads in the shed and found as expected the family hopper, disabled.
"They must have moved the occupants in a van. Can you get this thing going? It's been deactivated."
"I can hotwire any old hopper. Give me a few." Jenny slid her pack off her back and pulled out her tools.
"While you do that, I'm going to check out what's under those wraps."
Lonnie lifted the tarp and peeked under. "Good gods!" Lonnie whispered excitedly.
Jenny quickly rushed to her side.
"Oh, wow!" Jenny breathed reverently. "This is what we're going to use. It's a beaut!" She quickly moved to see if it was useable. "Someone removed the guicell but…" She reached under the driver seat and pulled a small box out. "Hm. Here we go. Backups for every cell a driver can replace."
"Let's get going. I'm getting that dreadful feeling again."
"It won't start. It's got an antitheft lock."
Both heard the sound of more than one hopper in the distance. Lonnie went to the shed door that she had closed and peered out of the crack. There were four sets of lights bumping along the road, taking the turn on the driveway and heading their way.
"They're heading for here," she whispered. She looked back at Jenny who signaled to swing the doors open. Instead Lonnie ran to the vehicle and slid in beside Jenny. "Let them open it up for us."
"Get down. We don't know what kind of fire power they'll have or what protection this vehicle has."
The doors flung open and an agent both Jenny and Lonnie recognized from their training days looked around the building with a light shining over the interior. Suddenly the lights for the shed came on and the vehicle Jenny and Lonnie were in started to hum.
"He said in the corner," one of the men mentioned.
"I used to watch him work on that sportster. I always wanted one myself." Gordon laughed. "Now I get his. Gods can you feel the power its giving off?"
"Now hold on, Gordy. The boss said he wants it."
They didn't get any more said when Jenny opened up the throttle, zooming out the doors, and past the others standing around the hoppers.
"Oh gods," Jenny whispered, and whipped the vehicle around back to the group that was standing around one person that was sagging between two men.
"I'll try and grab him." Lonnie picked up on what she was doing and prepared to jump out. Almond Vecen, one of their first teachers, lover of building sports cars, looked like he had been beaten up.
The group must have thought it was their own people because they were laughing as it sped toward them. They broke up and ran in different directions cursing the driver, whom they mistook for friends.
"I'm going to have to jump out. He's down," Lonnie told her.
"Blast it! I can't just stop on a dot."
Lonnie rolled out of the vehicle, and hit the hopper Vecen had arrived in, hard. A hand shook her to her senses.
"Get up," a hoarse voice told her. "Red Vengeance is coming back."
The screaming sound of air warned her that Jenny was going to come to a stop. It didn't stop exactly in front of them. Both Vecen and Lonnie had to run out from cover to get to the vehicle. While Vecen struggled to get into the front seat, Lonnie dived into the small back seat area. Jenny jammed the accelerator forward.
"Hit the yellow button," Vecen told her.
They accelerated with so much force that Lonnie was flattened against the back window. She could hear shots hit the exterior of the vehicle. She prayed they would not get through.
"Go up. It can take it."
"Where are we going?" Jenny asked.
"Not to any known places around here," Vecen retorted.
"We sent out a communication to our trainer. Do you think he would have gotten it by now?"
"I wouldn't put too much faith in HQ right now. There was a takeover. All agents in the field are in danger. Our security has been breached."
"Just how high can this thing go?" Jenny asked as they continued to climb.
"Not too high, okay. It's really cramped back here," Lonnie reminded them.
"They got two of our group," Jenny spoke to Vecen.
"They have our whole town and we're all pros, even if we're retired," Vecen returned.
"They said they had an insider helping them."
Vecen looked surprised. "Who?"
"They refer to him as JB."
"That's not a him," Vecen said. "It's a her."
"No. He definitely said a he."
They were all quiet as Jenny kept hiding in the clouds and making headway to a place Vecen was guiding them to.
"Right down there."
"That's the ocean. Does this swim too?"
"It's everything." Vecen patted the console. "Right now, we need to make sure no one gets to the offsite armory."
They sliced through the surface of water smoothly. Vecen took over the controls and guided the sportster to a place only he knew.
What appeared to be a wall gave way to a tunnel, closing behind them. Red Vengeance rose to the surface slowly.
"Who all is here?" Lonnie asked. She held onto the sides as the small vehicle bobbed on the surface.
"No one. Security bots patrol it and keep it from being invaded."
"How did we get in?"
"I'm one of the few people that has authorization."
"Vecen," Lonnie said. "We're not alone."
Another small sub was anchored at the dock. They stopped alongside of the sub and Vecen slowly got out. Jenny was quickly out and standing next to him.
"Stand away from him!"
Lonnie flattened herself to the floorboard.
"Both of you put your hands up in the air!"
"You better do as she says. She'll kill us. That's your JB."
"You traitor, Vecen! You sold us out. Who are you?" JB demanded of Jenny.
"Ah, well, I'm a thief. I stole this sportster and picked him up. And he said… You know, this is not my day. I'm just a passenger," Jenny pleaded.
"Sure you are. You're one of those creeps that took over our town."
"You're the traitor," Vecen accused.
"Right," the woman answered. "She's more than a car thief, Vecen, otherwise you wouldn't be wasting time lying. What happened? Did your buddies get greedy and decide to steal your sportster? You knew Gordy's the type to want what others have and steal it under the guise of authority. Lie down flat. Both of you."
"Jerrie?" a voice called.
"Out here Kem. I have two traitors."
A young girl came running out of the building. "We have to get out of here. An alarm is going off and it started to close doors."
"Well, Vecen, I would leave you here once the primary door closes, but I don't trust you."
The young girl spat at Vecen and moved to get by him to go to their sub. Vecen grabbed her ankle and would have had her around the neck except Lonnie shot him with a stunner from the car. She drew her long legs out of the sportster and pointed it at the woman holding one on her. It was a stand off.
"We don't have time for this. You go your way and we'll go ours," JB told Lonnie.
Jenny turned to look at Lonnie. "I can hear the alarms."
Lonnie leaned down and picked up the incapacitated Vecen. "No matter where we put him, he's going to be dangerous."
JB paused entering her sub and turned to them. "You're right not to trust him." She looked at the young girl who was sitting and waiting impatiently in the sub.
"Undress him and place him in one of those suits." She pointed to the side wall. "I'll help. Hurry."
Lonnie ran to the suit and pulled it off the rack. She had enough underwater experience to understand the setup.
Jenny and JB stripped the helpless Vecen. The three put him in the suit.
"Adjust the air to 4.2. That will keep him unconscious. He used to brag about his prowess underwater so I'm guessing he can take a lower air pressure than most."
She dragged a small underwater pod over. "This is set to return to the surface in three hours. That should be enough time for HQ to get security back up."
She studied the two women and gave them a small smile. "How many people have seen you?"
"Just you three," Jenny said.
"Then get out of here now."
The two looked at each other and then quickly returned to the Red Vengeance.
"Are you sure we're picking the right side?" Jenny asked as she sent the craft underwater, following the small pod that Vecen was in.
"I was getting weird feelings from Vecen. He didn't seem the same as I remember. Did you notice he didn't know what some of those buttons were for?"
"What do you mean?"
"Yellow in most vehicles is for booster, but in Red Vengeance it was switched to red."
"I thought we went pretty fast."
"It should have been like a shot out of a cannon. That was just a fast acceleration."
"You're going to have to have a better explanation than that."
"He didn't remind me of Vecen except his face."
"What about the woman?"
"She's not someone I know, but the girl… I remember her when she was younger. She was Vecen's granddaughter. Strange to see her spitting at him when those two adored each other."
"I didn't pick up on that. I must be slipping."
"Let's take this further into the ocean before we break surface. I want to be sure that…"
"We've been picked up."
"By who?" Lonnie looked over the monitor not understanding what she was reading.
"Can we bust out of here?"
"Nope." Jenny tapped the dial that went red.
"This is not my version of a two week vacation."
Jenny broke surface as it was ordered and waited as a crane picked up the sportster and deposited it on deck.
They were surrounded by drawn weapons.
"Stand down!" a familiar voice hollered. "We've been looking everywhere for you two." Irvi, their handler came barging through the circle, grabbing two of the crews hats handing it to the two women. "Cover up, gals. We rescued your other two friends. Come on. We need to get you to cover. All that dirt on your faces helps keep you from being recognized but still hide behind those hats. I don't want to take any more chances." He hustled them down metal stairs into the belly of the huge ship.
"Are you going to pick up Vecen in the small water pod?"
"He's out there?"
"Yeah. There's also a woman, JB, and Vecen's granddaughter."
"Vecen was killed in action. The news never passed onto his family."
"So, that wasn't him?"
"I don't know. The navy will pick him up. You said two others?"
"He's never had a granddaughter."
"Sure he did. He introduced her to a few of us the night after graduation. He said he was on his way home for a vacation and his granddaughter was there to make sure he got home with no side trips."
"Lonnie, no matter what he said, he had no granddaughter. He had no family."
Lonnie thought about it. "Irvi, she looks like him."
Jenny nodded. "Yep. She does have the same nose and forehead."
Irvi shook his head mystified. "I don't know what to tell you except, Vecen's only love was his hobby, and when he was going to retire he planned on devoting himself to building Red Vengeance."
"You know, racers have second families and lovers along their circuit," Lonnie mentioned.
"Why is this bothering you?" Jenny asked.
"Because, when they were together, there was a bond and it wasn't that of a pedophile. They were truly fond of each other."
"That could be." Irvi stopped in front of a cabin and rapped on it. "What's so important about this?"
Cari opened it.
"My gods, you're both alright!"
They all gave hugs.
"Where's Niamh?" Lonnie asked.
"She's in sickbay arguing with the medic. We were picked up by Gordon. You remember him?"
"Yeah, one of our teachers," Lonnie said.
"Well, it wasn't really him. I had him as my language coach. This Gordon couldn't speak any of the languages he taught. Niamh punched him and the guy in the front seat elbowed her right over the eye. That put us both under guard. Seems there is a run on people having faces of our instructors. Niamh stayed unconscious while they argued about what to do with us. So, we were sent off somewhere and as soon as we arrive, presto, another group is there and takes them captive."
"I got a very cryptic phone message from a townie. We were scrambling our security when another call came piggy backed onto a secured line. By then everyone was on full alert," Irvi explained.
"I'm glad we all got out alive."
"Doesn't this bother any of you? We have people looking like our teachers and it just happens that various groups from our school are disappearing."
"We're looking into it, Lonnie," Irvi said impatiently. "Just drop it for now. This place isn't all that secured."
Lonnie folded her arms looking annoyed.
"You guys stay out of sight." Irvi turned and left.
"Touchy, no? We should be plenty nervous. So, how about you start this story from the time you left us?" Cari asked.
The two sat on her bunk and began their story. By the time they were finished Niamh was back with her head bandaged. Another round of hugs were given.
"We're being flown to Aquitine. Irvi confirmed our reservations for a climb up Mt. Oboto. I hope you all are up to it because we need to make this cover look good. Are you two going to wash your faces?"
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