Two weeks later, Lonnie arrived aboard Earl Gray a few hours before launch. As she walked along the corridor to the purser's desk where she would get her cabin number and whatever news she needed to hear, she was looking around her at the passengers that were openly staring at her. One of them she recognized as being part of her fan based regulars. Lonnie nodded to her, and received a blush in return. That was a first.
"Hi, Lonnie. Jen thought you would miss the launch, but she's new. Doesn't know you always arrive a few hours before disembarking." Crackle handed Lonnie her room number, and a packet that all the crew received on coming aboard. "You've been upped to the suites, darlin'." She grinned as Lonnie's face broke out into a smile at the cabin number.
"Must be a no show," Lonnie told her.
"Nope. You're billed as the number one show. Your cabin neighbor is Kali, the diva. We've never had big stars aboard," she revealed teasingly.
"Sure you have. For five months. Do you think the crew can handle it?"
"We'll see. We picked up forty new crew members for the upper decks. Captain gave a real strong warning to everyone." Crackle gave a casual look around them and continued in a lower voice. "He replaced everyone that didn't pass muster on the first part of the trip, like the security personnel that let the drugs on board."
"That is good to hear. I'm glad to see that you and Gish are still here. See you around." Lonnie turned and moved through the crowded lobby.
Using her elbow she pushed the cabin door open. The first thing she noticed was the strong floral scent that engulfed her as soon as the door opened. Flower arrangements covered all flat surfaces. Puzzled, she lifted a name tag. It had - To: Diva Kali, Love Lu. Lonnie read a few of the others and they too were addressed to Kali.
"Hi. I thought I would share, since it was both of us that earned them," Kali's voice explained.
Lonnie looked to the adjoining cabin door not realizing it had opened. The first thing she was going to ask was if she could throw them away. "Hi. Did you have a nice vacation?" Lonnie asked instead.
"It wasn't a vacation for me, but it was okay."
"All work and no play, not good for the soul," Lonnie told her seriously.
"I'm ambitious. I want to get back to the top by the end of next year," she explained. "But I did take some time off. I had a date," she laughed humorously.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" Lonnie asked. Something was different about Kali.
Kali shrugged her shoulders. That did not tell Lonnie anything.
"It wasn't unpleasant. Well, I'll let you settle in. We have a rehearsal in an hour."
* * *
Andres was speaking to the musicians when she entered the hall. Lonnie had downloaded Erich's schedule and noted that the stomp and clog was included for their upcoming port stop, Solvora. Solvora was a farming community, passionate about their dances. Their favorite style of dance was along the line of reels, jigs, and clogging.
Andres spotted Lonnie when she walked into the stage area and gave her a nod. She quickly changed into her shoes. Lonnie had found that the sound and feel of the floor changed from time to time and she liked to keep up with it. Behind her she heard steps echoing her test, letting her know that Kali had arrived. Both women moved around the stage silent except for their feet tapping.
Lonnie completed her round and stopped to take a sip of water. Her eyes followed Kali as she moved. Kali was still slender, and her movements graceful and elegant.
Elegant? Was that the change? No. It was the nervous energy she had when they first met. It was missing. Or was it a more mature person she was looking at?
If Kali was aware that she was being studied, she gave no indication. When Kali finished they went to speak with Andres.
"So," he began, "according to the schedule we'll be doing the usual ship performances and work on original material for the shows planet-side."
"What do you mean the usual?" Kali asked, frowning.
"Some of Lonnie's style and some that you likeÉ" Kali was about to say something, but Andres held up his hand. "Most of the passengers that come to see you two dance, booked a year in advance as Lonnie's fans, and if this is going to be her last year, I think they deserve to see her doing what they signed up for."
"If this is the last," Lonnie corrected him. "It all depends on if I stick it out as your partner for the duration of the cruise," she informed Kali smiling. Kali's expression was unreadable. "That is, unless you plan on dumping me for a younger and more agile type?" she teased, now unsure just what she was picking up from Kali. She had thought they were working well together.
"I noticed you have Solvoraian dances in our selections," Kali mentioned, changing the subject.
"How long did it take you to learn them?" Andres asked Lonnie, grinning at something he saw.
"What's so funny?" Kali demanded when Lonnie snickered as if she picked up on it too.
"If you don't clog to their liking, they'll pull you off stage and get up there themselves." Lonnie shook her head in amusement at the thought of anyone attempting to pull Kali off stage.
"Oh. Well, let's get to it then," she told them brusquely.
After one hour of practicing for the show that night, Andres moved them on to music for the Solvoraian dances. Lonnie did two for Kali, leaving the reels for later, and then slowed them down so Kali could see what her feet were doing.
As they packed up their equipment, Lonnie noticed that Yomatta was missing. "Where's Yomatta?"
"Busy," Kali answered as if to end any more questions along that line.
"What about the crowds? I can already see them gathering on the outside of the stage door?"
"I want to be accessible to my fans." Kali glanced at her briefly, then returned her attention to her reflection, concerned with adjusting her clothes and hair.
"I see." Lonnie was disappointed.
"Do you want to leave before me?"
"No. I'll wait until you move the crowd." Lonnie smiled. She watched as Kali in diva mode, glided out the door. Voices lifted, and excitement filled the corridor as she waded through them, pausing to give autographs and smiles for their cameras.
Lonnie decided to climb the stairs and leave through one of the audience's exits. She found a ship com and called Gish. Gish didn't answer but L'ina did. Gish was booked for the day.
When Lonnie entered her quarters she found all the flower arrangements had been removed but two. They were from the captain, and the head of security and his spouse, congratulating her and Kali for their success and a big welcome back.
She dumped her clothing in the autocleaner and decided she needed a nap.
Lonnie woke startled. "Alarm off!" she ordered. "Gads I didn't realize I was so tired," she muttered. Rolling out of bed she held onto the bulkhead for a moment. Yawning widely, she stared at the costumes hanging in her closet.
"Okay, Lonnie, get yourself in gear," she encouraged. Finding what she wanted was easy since she kept her clothing neatly arranged. Lonnie pulled her costumes from the rack and packed the ones she would need in her cart. As she was stepping out of her quarters she was joined by Diva Maxine. Lonnie took the crew's elevator as she usually did.
"Why are we taking this elevator?"
"Because I always take it."
"It's not because of my fans?"
"That too. They're slowing us down. We need to start on time. If you want to be among them, I can start with a solo," she offered.
"No. I justÉthought maybe, since this isn't your thingÉ"
"Kali, I'm a professional. It may seem a strange concept to you that a person who prefers to perform in small groups or for friends considers herself professional, but I do. I also don't believe that my fans own my life. I share my love of dance with them, not my personal life or my down time."
The elevator door chose that moment to open and it was to a pushing crowd with pictures of Kali waving at her to be autographed. Lonnie didn't hesitate to press the security button on the elevator door. Kali maintained her calm exterior as those behind the front of the line pushed and shoved to get a chance to see her. The front of the line was moved into the elevator with them.
Maltieani and some of his staff appeared, clearing a path for the two women. "I was already on my way. I noticed an unusual amount of people gathered," he mentioned to Lonnie softly. "Thought we should take some precautions."
"Thanks," she mouthed.
Their first three dances were met with mixed reactions and by the time they had finished their last set many of the fans were shouting for what they termed 'dirty dancing'.
Andres tapped his baton on the music stand for attention. Kali glanced at him and nodded and Lonnie took up her position next to Kali. They gave a short version of one of their flamenco dances that brought the galaxy's citizens attention to them. There was no heat, just excellent foot work.
Kali was going to give them another but Lonnie had returned to the dressing room and was packing away her costumes.
"What are you doing? We've got them! Listen to them!"
"Kali, we've got five months to entertain them. I don't want to try and put it all in one night. Our scheduled time is up. The musicians' time is up. I asked for security toÉ"
"I don't want security!" she informed Lonnie furiously.
"Then I'll use their services. I may get bashed for having the nerve to end the program on time," Lonnie told her in a light tone. She moved to the exit with the autocart behind her.
There was a crowd but this time more manageable as Maltieani and his staff watched. The few that asked for Lonnie's autograph were on the outskirts of the group, and she obliged them.
She dumped her gear and changed to her workout clothes. In the crews elevator she was joined by Crackle, also dressed for a workout.
"Hey, dancing princess. Want to partner?"
"What do you have in mind?"
"I learned a new throw in Ju Situ. An old family friend showed it to me," she told her mockingly.
"That means you've been on the docks taking on whoever is foolish enough to think you're a pushover," Lonnie returned.
"That's right. I got beat a few times but did I come away with some tricks."
"I think I like my way better -- let someone else learn them and then teach me."
The two worked out and then met in the sparing square. A few crew members rested on the side, exchanging bets. For the seven years that Lonnie knew Crackle, she had been one of Crackle's students, learning not just the discipline of katas, but also the philosophy of body, breath and spirit. It was the personal attack against her, that made Lonnie realize that she needed more than simple repetition to be able to defend herself.
After taking a round house kick that nearly knocked the wind out of her, Lonnie would not be fooled again. She avoided Crackle's kicks by dancing out of range.
"Hey. You can't keep backing up," Crackle objected.
"This is my way." Lonnie grinned, and then suddenly reaching in with a kick to her chest, knocked Crackle onto her back.
"Shall we call it a night?" Lonnie asked her prone teacher.
"Yeah. I need a massage now."
Lonnie's eyes lit up. "So do I."
Following a quick shower and change, Lonnie rang Gish's extension.
Lonnie didn't say anything when she smelled the scent of Kali on the massage table. Instead, she closed her eyes and let Gish relax her. When she finished, Lonnie swung her legs off the table and studied Gish.
"Tired?" Lonnie asked.
"Yeah. I asked for tomorrow off. Everyone wants a massage from the diva's masseuse, including the diva."
"Listen, if it's getting to you I can go toÉ"
"No, no. I'm just tired today. I'm going to take fewer customers. That meter informed me I'm way over my limit and this is not even a week into the cruise."
Lonnie reached to touch Gish's cheek and then leaned forward to kiss her gently. "Thank you," she whispered.
Gish's hand reached to cover Lonnie's that was cupping her cheek. "You hang in there. I still have credits ridding on this," she teased.
"Yeah." Lonnie sighed deeply. "And I made an agreement." She opened the door to the massage room and nearly bumped into a passenger.
"You looking for someone?" Lonnie asked surprised.
"No. I mean yes, the masseuse."
"For what?" Gish asked.
"Call for an appointment with the scheduling desk."
Gish waited for the middle aged Turk to disappear down the corridor before she turned to inspect her door. "Life is a lot more complicated this tour, Lonnie. I sure hope we all survive it with our dignity intact."
Lonnie gave Gish a pat on her shoulder and headed back to her quarters. Tiredly she entered her cabin, dropping her workout bag on the deck. She collapsed onto the couch and turned on the screen. She dialed up a comedy. A soft knock on the adjoining door brought a tired sigh.
"If you can't open it, go away," she said.
The door opened and Kali poked her head through. "Hi. I see you're still up. You like comedies?"
"Sometimes. Right now I could use a laugh. What's going on?"
"Nothing. I finished my lessons and I'm too restless to sleep. Can I watch the movie with you?"
"Sure." She rose from the coach, offering it to Kali and then pulled a cushioned chair out for herself. "If I fall asleep and snore, don't wake me to tell me."
Lonnie watched the movie to its end. Kali made it halfway through. Not having the heart to wake her she put a cover over her and called Yomatta to let her know of Kali's whereabouts. It was only a few minutes later that Yomatta tapped on Lonnie's door. She entered carrying a pillow, checked on the sleeping Kali and gently lifted her head to slip the pillow under her head.
"That's service," Lonnie told her and then turned to go to bed. She heard the door close as she was turning off the bed lamp. She actually trusts us alone.
Lonnie was not asleep for long when she heard someone moving around. "Light, low," she whispered. The lights came up, showing Kali carrying her pillow as she moved past her into the toilet.
"Light off," she muttered and lay back down, turning her back to the doorway. She sighed, wondering why she couldn't sleep when she was so tired. Something flopped next to her head and Lonnie turned to see. A pillow laid next to hers, the covers were pulled back and Kali slid into her bed and resumed her sleep. Soon Kali flung her arm over her and nuzzled her head into her shoulder.
She decided she was too tired to care and went to sleep.
"Lonnie, one will not hurt you. Join me. We're celebrating! How many people get an invitation by an ambassador to dance for his family, friends, and dignitaries from around the galaxy?"
Lonnie took the glass reluctantly. Erich had already told her of the arrangement and she didn't want to try and figure out why it took him this long to tell Kali.
"So, what do you think he would like to see us dance?" Kali asked. She stretched out on what was now her couch. Her robe revealed the outline of her body. On her feet were strange fuzzy foot coverings that had blinking eyes. Under normal circumstances Lonnie would have found them annoying, as they reflected off the low ceiling, but right now they were a welcomed distraction. No matter how covered Kali was, Lonnie's imagination had her undressed down to her painted toenails, reclining on her couch.
Lonnie sighed and stared at her drink before taking a tentative sip. She rolled the contents over her tongue and swallowed.
Hmm. Not bad.
She settled back in her chair. "It's his wedding anniversary," she started. "We'll dance something that will reignite their passion of the wedding bed." She took another sip. There was no fire in the drink as it made its way down her throat.
Licorice. As a kid she liked the licorice candies the corner hawker sold.
"And what kind of dance would that be?" Kali asked, batting her eyes seductively.
Lonnie blinked at her a few times. Wow. This stuff works fast. Lonnie focused on Kali's face, but her eyes strayed and ran the length of the reclining figure. Images of Kali and her on the couch played through her mind.
Kali got up from the couch and reached for the finished drink in Lonnie's hand. She pulled Lonnie up with her other hand.
"Come on. How about something like this?" She stood with her back against Lonnie's chest and her hand arranging one of Lonnie's arms around her waist.
Lonnie shook her head, still having some wit about her. No. That's only going to get you and I in trouble.
She stepped back and picked up her glass from the table. She walked into the small galley and deposited the glass in the cleaner. She had reached her limit of whatever was in the drink.
"Come on, Lonnie. Show me." Kali pulled Lonnie back into her and tried to hum a dance.
"Oh, no. You hum and we won't have anyone to dance for," Lonnie chuckled. "Program, dance music. '"Sunset Passions."' Play." It meant there would be distance between them while they danced.
The music started.
"Oh, no. Maybe that should be second or third. We start out with '"Night Passions"' just to get their attention." Kali held onto Lonnie's hand so she did not stray far. "Play."
The music restarted.
'"Testing the Waters"' would get their attention," Lonnie argued, not struggling. "Play."
The music again restarted.
"Computer. Play '"Love"'. Come here," Kali patted her hip.
Lonnie dutifully stepped beside her and held Kali as they moved to the dance. Hip to hip Lonnie breathed in Kali's scent as they moved with steps neither had to work at. Both stopped thinking as the music played.
The next song was another guitar piece, "Pounding Hearts." Kali danced around her and Lonnie watched, her own part stationary. It was not as easy to keep her feelings for Kali disguised as her carefully constructed fences were being dismantled.
When the song ended both women stood facing each other silently studying the other. Kali's eyes were bright with her excitement. Lonnie's were dark with passion. There was no audience to act as chaperone, and Yomatta was with Andres, confirming arrangements for their next port stop. They were alone.
Lonnie dropped onto the couch and sullenly stared at the small table separating them. Kali plopped onto the couch near her. Lonnie's eyes couldn't help staring at Kali's hand that moved up to flick a strand of hair off her face. Lonnie gulped and leaned back against the couch, regretting the drink. She stared fixedly at Kali's moving lips, hearing nothing.
Lonnie felt a shake of her shoulder, and then she fell into darkness.
* * *
"Are you sure she's alright?" Kali's voice asked worriedly.
"She'll be fine," Yomatta said quickly.
"SureImalright," Lonnie mumbled.
"Make sure she takes this in an hour. I have to go to another cabin. Upset stomachs. Zanmack. Seven stomachs they have. A disadvantage if you get zilwis." The doctor closed her case and rose from the couch. She handed Kali something. Lonnie was grateful she did not hand it to Yomatta. The woman looked aggravated about something. There went the good will Yomatta had started to show her, Lonnie thought.
"ZilwisÉstomach flu?" Lonnie asked, struggling to sit up. A piercing stab of pain went through her head, taking her breath away. She grabbed her head and fell back onto the couch.
"Lie back down. Doc said at least for another hour. I didn't realize you would get sick on Underground Bimo." Kali knelt near her, looking upset.
"What's that?" Lonnie covered her eyes, feeling the light as tiny pins of pain in her head.
"It's liquor from Avente. One of my dancing partners introduced me to it."
"I'll make sure to not order anything with 'underground' in its name," she mumbled.
"I'm really sorry, Lonnie. I wasn't thinking."
"Oh, come on now. You didn't get her sick purposely," Yomatta objected.
"Yomatta, please. Leave us. We're both perfectly fine," Kali told her firmly.
Lonnie peered at her under her palm. "What else was in that drink?"
The adjoining door closed behind Yomatta.
"I'm allergic to that," Lonnie said.
"I now know. IÉI'm really sorry," she informed her softly and sincerely.
"You already said that," she told her wearily. "What did she give you for me?"
"Powder for your headache. She gave you something to neutralize the effects of the drink and didn't want to give you this at the same time. She wants you to drink it down with plenty of water." Kali clamped her jaw shut to stop her chattering.
Lonnie wanted to ask her where she got the liquor bottle but was too drowsy. Instead, she fell asleep, feeling a cool towel over her eyes and a warm hand holding hers.
Lonnie was sitting in the hot tub, steaming out the rest of the Oozzo in her system when she heard the door open. Without opening her eyes she knew who had come to sit next to her.
"You look like you have a hangover. How are you doing?" Gish asked.
"Like I have a hangover," she returned. "Good morning."
"No, it isn't. We're down three masseuses due to the stomach flu and this was my day off."
"How's your partner?" Gish asked.
Lonnie turned her head to look at her. "Why?"
"I heard Viscount Bermuda is interested in her and has been wooing her," she grinned.
Lonnie let out an exasperated snort. "Is that a joke to cheer me up? Why does he bother to wed when he stays married for a year?"
"Maybe he likes the chase and the weddings."
"So, did you get an invitation to Hebr Mo'lu's anniversary dinner? I know you three have a thing going."
"Right," she laughed.
Her yearly invitation to visit the ambassador of Tuloc at their summer home when Earl Gray was in the neighborhood was known by everyone so Lonnie did not feel she was saying anything she should not be privy to. It did have her curious about Gish's connection to the planet that HQ was interested in getting her involved in.
"I give them each a massage and they go and work it off with each other. I could never figure out why they don't just hire a regular masseuse since they like it so much butÉ who am I to complain?"
Lonnie hummed at the comment, thinking the reason was cultural and political.
"Mo asked me if I knew you," Gish continued.
"Mo? As in Mo'lu? He wanted to know if I could dance?" Lonnie asked mildly, trying not to show she was interested, but she was. She had not thought of using Gish for finding information on the planet because Gish clamed up when anyone spoke to her about any of her customers or about her personal life.
"Oh, he knows you can dance, and that was before the diva and you paired up," she assured Lonnie.
"He said a business associate asked him to consider allowing you to become a permanent resident on Tuloc so you can purchase a lot on Abrazan." She paused and added, "Besides being ambassador, his family owns about half of the planet above and below the waterline."
"So, the more references I can get the better my chances?"
"He was wondering why you want to live on Tuloc."
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him I didn't know your business. I referred him to your agent. Shari Sing, isn't it? Why didn't you ask me to put in a word for you?"
Just how much do you know about this deal and who told you about Shari Sing? "Because I don't use people unless they offer."
"Thank you. That was something we both were curious about."
Lonnie turned in her seat to study Gish.
Gish lifted a hand apologetically. "Abrazan is my home. Mo and Manda, his spouse, and I go way back. We don't mingle socially," she clarified. "Anyway, I wanted to travel, see the sights of the galaxy, and beyond. The only way for someone like me to do that was working on a cruise liner and they gave me the papers to do so."
"So, why bring this up to me?"
"Mo asked me what I thought of your character and I think he was curious of just why you want permanent residence in his territory. Think of it as wanting to know who your new neighbor is, and having the power to decide who it will be."
"I understand the terms of owning property on Tuloc," Lonnie assured her. "I have to live on Tuloc permanently. They have no absentee landowners, which means, I can't be away from Tuloc more than a month per year."
"So you're really planning on hanging up your dancing shoes?" She sounded disappointed. "You don't mind giving up traveling or having anyone that visits you cleared by the visitors' bureau? It's not an open society, Lonnie."
"It seems like I'll be isolating myself but there is a referendum moving through the legal courts on Tuloc that will be less restrictive on visitors and residents regarding travel."
Gish was quiet. "Well, they certainly have a lot of open land that you like to experience," she said slowly. "Do you know where you want your homestead?"
"Yes. A spread or parcel is available to me with a mountain, trails, and a river that I can raft. I just need to be approved as an immigrant with intent to own land."
"Immigrant owning land? Are you sure that's what you're buying into?"
"Yes. I intend on having that on paper and authenticated by two courts."
"Who is offering you this?"
"It's a fan who doesn't want to leave this parcel of land to his family," Lonnie answered readily.
"Can I ask who?"
"You can ask, but the seller wants discretion. When the deal is complete I'll tell you."
"Just why is your dance agent getting involved in this?"
"Erich? He knows the ambassador. He said he would ask the ambassador to consider me for immigration and citizenship, the first step to purchase land."
"What is the payment?"
Lonnie shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know what they have going. Between Erich Bettelheim and myself, it's my bonus payment for sticking it out with Kali for a year, which isn't so bad."
"If you stuck it out with the likes of Madi Shamul, then you would with the likes of Diva Maxine."
"Between the two, the diva is the hardest. I hate being recognized in public. No more uneventful days of being just another tourist."
"Dancing is so natural and a part of you, I find it difficult to believe you're ready to stop," Gish continued. "Are you sure that's what you want to do?"
"I'll still dance, just not for a living."
"I guess it never occurred to me that you really want to end traveling because you always had places to visit when we arrived in port."
"Everyone reaches a point when they want to retire from one occupation to take up another. My point is coming up. You know, I just may want to teach climbing, rafting, or hiking but not travel so far from home."
Gish looked at her uncertain.
"Surely someone on your planet is interested in those types of sports?"
"Oh, I'm sure there are. It's just thatÉ" Gish's voice trailed off. She looked down at her hands and continued in a soft voice. "You should learn more about the culture before you consider getting involved in land deals. There's a price to pay that isn't to be found in the small print on a contract or in a verbal agreement. Do you understand?"
"I'll heed your warning." She answered so softly, Gish needed to read her lips. Lonnie rose to dress. Gish's overt concern was getting her nervous.
"Are we still on for this afternoon?" Lonnie asked.
"How much is riding on me not finishing this gig out?"
"Ah. That much?"
Gish nodded. "I'm worried that someone is going to try and interfere with the natural run of things."
Lonnie nodded. "Have you ever heard of anyone adding Oozzo to Underground Bimo?"
Gish shook her head. "Oozzo is a stimulant with toxic properties isn't it? I thought Underground Bimo was a drug free drink."
"I checked out the label's contents and it didn't say Oozzo anywhere."
"I didn't think you were a drinker. So, you're allergic to it?" she guessed.
"I'm not a drinker. I'll see you later."
* * *
After rehearsal Andres stayed to referee the two partner's disagreement on what to dance at the wedding anniversary.
"This is a wedding anniversary party so something to rekindle the heat of the wedding night would be right. Though," he thought for a few moments, "it would be a good idea to have stridency in there. It's a new style coming out and right up Kali's alley, and with Lonnie's touch it could bring it up a notch. If you dance it for the ambassador, think of all the dignitaries that could say they saw it first."
Lonnie listened to the names that would be at the celebration and who they represented, not hearing anyone that provoked undue attention. She would provide HQ with who was there and who grouped with who.
"Good thinking, Andres," Lonnie absently told him as he waved at the two dancers and left.
"Just what are you going to do on your two days off?" Kali asked as they walked together back to their quarters.
"For this stop, I usually see what the tourist desk has to offer. You want to come?" she teased.
"Eh, no thank you. My babysitter has strict orders to not let me share your shore leaves unless she comes along and I really don't want that. Can you just hear her squeals when we sail over a rock in a tiny little boat?"
Lonnie's eyes brightened at the thought, and both chuckled.
* * *
The ambassador's shuttle was fast, heavy in comfort, with plenty of room for the passengers. When they arrived at the mansion, the celebration was in full swing. Wandering around was not permitted for hired help. The band and dancers were given a place to wait until they were called while Gish had been escorted elsewhere. Lonnie caught sight of some of those in attendance as they were ushered into their wait area. Many of those attending she recognized from the society pages of 'who's who'. It was something she liked to keep up on just in case she had the misfortune of sharing a transportation vehicle with one above her station. A lesson she learned in her early years as an ambassador's courier.
An hour went by and still no summons to perform. Lonnie found a door to a balcony unlocked and stepped out onto it. Whether it was sunrise or sunset didn't matter to Lonnie; it was beautiful.
"Stunning, isn't it?"
Lonnie turned to see a familiar face smiling at her. "Hafta Neri," she spoke warmly. "It is. Where's Nam?" His appearance at the private party confirmed her suspicion that Neri was more important than he let on. She wondered if Gish knew him.
"She's working the guests," he said. "I understand you and the diva are dancing for Ambassador Mo'lu?"
Lonnie smiled. "I didn't know you would be here." She suddenly looked worried. "I've never danced for so many important people. Will they get upset if I sweat?"
Hafta laughed heartily with Lonnie. "They will only be seeing a pair of dancers. Already there have been many entertainers. If you still dance as well as you have for the last nineteen years, you have no problem. What have you picked? It hasn't been announced."
"We were asked for three." Her eyes glinted with mischief. "You and Nam will like the third one."
"It's a surprise. But, it will give the galaxy critics proof that the diva still has that star talent."
"No one doubts her talent to pick up new steps, Lonnie," Hafta replied seriously. "It's her consistency to perform in all public areas of her life that investors' worry about."
Lonnie frowned. He was well informed on an entertainment personality. "Erich Bettelheim is handling her career and she now has more stable people around her. It's not easy to fight the bad guys when you're the only one in your corner."
"You like her." Hafta sounded surprised.
"I hope so. Working with someone you don't like for a ten month gig is a headache," she responded, with forced nonchalance. "Is your interest from being an investor?"
He grinned. "I have many interests around the galaxy. Keeps my mind sharp."
"There you are, honey. Hi, Lonnie." Nam was dressed exquisitely, and as always, took Lonnie's breath away.
The three had met nineteen years ago in a small bar on a planet where cruise liners docked at. Then Lonnie's gig was booked on an old lady called the Jolly Roger. It was her first year on cruise liners, training with Star Maker. Nam and Hafta were on the first Earl Gray and had stopped in for some excitement. Lonnie was waiting for her ride to arrive to take her to the outback for some rock climbing. Nam had danced the tango with Lonnie and her skill enamored Lonnie with her. After that they met occasionally forming an acquaintance. The relationship changed when they sent her a picture that Shari thought odd. It was not until years later that the pair offered to sell her land they all knew Lonnie had no way of claiming.
"She said she has a surprise for us," Hafta said.
"You do look very nice, Lonnie," she told her in a smoldering voice, said just loud enough for the three of them to hear. "What's the surprise?"
Lonnie wagged a finger at them. "You wait and see."
"I understand in two more months you'll have your answer on your contract." Hafta changed the subject.
"Right," Lonnie said.
"Something bothering you?" Nam asked alertly. She was always sensitive to Lonnie.
"Or, someone," Hafta chuckled. He looked down at his wrist. His pager was buzzing.
"Back to smoozing with the guests," Hafta informed them.
"We can't wait to see your dances. I hope you do settle here, Lonnie. Then we'll be entertained more often," Nam remarked. She rested a richly bejeweled hand on Hafta's proffered arm and the two left.
Lonnie stared out at the now darkened environment, wondering how far HQ was taking this. She also wondered if Nam and Hafta realized how patronizing they sounded to those they saw as beneath them. When had their casual relationship changed? It was as if they felt it was a closed deal.
A few moments later Andres came looking for her. "We're on."
* * *
The first dance was originally to begin slow, with a tango, but Andres, being the perfect gauge of audiences, started the tempo fast with a flamenco, wanting to wake up the crowd. The two smoothly picked up the change, feeling the crowd's interest. The hum of chatter was lost on the two as they focused on each other.
Kali stood alone, with her back to Lonnie, at the opposite end of their small dance area. Her head down, turned just enough to make it appear she was aware of her partner's presence. Her hands were covered in black lace, holding her skirts just inches above her ankles.
Lonnie stood still with her hands curled around her castanets, waiting for the music to signal the start. She wore a light weight embroidered coat with matching pants, skin tight. The strumming of the guitar started suddenly, and Lonnie jumped into a spinning leap with her landing with her heels clapping half-way across the floor toward Kali. Then she suddenly stilled. Kali's feet answered with her swirling skirt and whirling figure making circles around Lonnie. When they touched, Lonnie felt Kali's closeness with nothing separating them. They stormed across the floor, back and forth, heating the air around them.
By the end of the first dance they had the crowd.
Lonnie started the next one with the click of castanets, raising them above her head, as Kali's heels echoed her strident rhythm. Kali's hands moved across Lonnie's chest and to her shoulders, then she broke from her abruptly and danced across the floor, with Lonnie following. They set off across the stage, changing positions with pauses accentuated by the stacco beat of their heels. Lonnie was only aware of Kali, and how she wanted to make love to the woman as she pursued her across the floor, and dragged her hands across her body as Kali turned to dance her side of the impassioned dance. There was no longer a hairs breath between them as Kali leaned against her before she danced a few steps away. Lonnie took two steps back to dance again around Kali, watching her with dark eyes, telling her of her desire to know every inch of her body. They ended the dance with a flurry of feet stomping and castanets.
Both caught their breaths and focused on the next dance. It was Lonnie's version of the new dance style making its way to the public. They became aware that there was absolute silence in the room. Lonnie gave a squeeze to Kali's hand. Kali had that triumphant look in her eyes, that the audience was hers.
The music started on the final set for stridency. Lonnie's eyes were enflamed with passion. Kali's eyes were hooded, provocative and simmering with heat. Lonnie's grip around Kali's waist was possessive. There was no space between their bodies, as they moved as one. As they faced each other, Kali's eyes stared boldly into Lonnie's, mirroring a desire for more than a dance. When the dance finished, the applause began before the music died out. Breathless, the two stood facing each other, their faces only a hair's width apart, waiting for a moment until they would face the ambassador and his wife.
When they turned to face the anniversary couple they were aware of the deafening applause. Lonnie spotted Hafta and Nam next to the anniversary couple. She gave them a cocky grin and then lifted her eyes up to the ambassador and his wife.
A family resemblance hard to miss. Lonnie's attention was brought back to her partner who pulled at her hand to step forward.
The ambassador and his wife rose joined by Nam and Hafta a few steps back, greeting the dancers.
Kali squeezed Lonnie's hand and then let it go to take the proffered hand of the ambassador, and then his wife. What went on from there, Lonnie wasn't sure. Kali brushed against her as everyone crowded around them. The crowd of attractive and not so attractive women and men that shook their hands, were making their interests in the two known, and it was not just for a dance.
Nam pulled Lonnie aside for a brief moment. "You were right. That third dance is going to be the next new craze. Lonnie, I want to warn you, no matter how tempted you are, don't bed any of these people. Not if you want to settle here."
Lonnie understood and nodded. "I know my place, Nam."
"Why don't you come back with Hafta and me? We'll keep you safe." She smiled. "You can also take a look at the land you want to purchase. You've never had a chance to set foot on it."
"Hey," Kali spoke. She had two drinks in her hand. She handed one to Lonnie who hesitated.
"It's safe," Nam assured her. "My sister would never let anyone get away with messing with the drinks. I was just offering Lonnie two days at our place. Would you like to come along?"
"I would love to." Kali glanced at Lonnie.
"I didn't bring a change of clothes," Lonnie feebly objected. Lonnie stifled her fear, not knowing what made her more nervous, disappearing on Tuloc or spending two days in Kali's presence after letting Kali see how much she desired her – and Kali's returned interest. Could or should she act on it?
"We have plenty of clothing for you two to change into. We have visitors all the time that never bring the right clothes. Or you can just walk around in nothing. No big deal. It's all very private," Nam said.
"Okay." Lonnie decided to take a chance. "I'll let Andres know."
Nam waved her hand at Lonnie then at an attendant that was quickly at her side. She spoke to him and the attendant quickly moved off in the direction of Andres.
"There. Taken care of. Come on. The rest of the celebration is going to be boring."
"How do you know?" Lonnie asked, falling in behind Nam.
"Because the two lovers have gone. Hafta, look who I've brought along," Nam announced to her husband who was standing with four other men.
He nodded to the men and they moved away.
"Lonnie and Diva Maxine agreed to spend their two days with us. Lonnie can go hiking and see if the sunsets are better on our cliff."
"Well let's go then." Hafta waved to a doorman who quickly went to get their vehicle.
"So, what did she promise you to get you to spend time in the outback?" Hafta asked Kali.
"Two days away from my bodyguards and handler," Kali told them honestly. "Sometimes I just want to be on my own, but for some reason, I get into trouble. I can't see getting into any with you three responsible people around."
The three looked at each other, and then smiled, two polite ones and one nearly a smirk.
"Uh oh. Did I just call you boring and predictable?" Kali asked.
"Just about. But, I'll take that as a challenge," Lonnie informed her.
* * *
It was late evening when the two were finally settled in their suites. A large bathing room separated the two sleeping areas. Both women were delighted with the hot tub that was already filled and steaming with an intoxicating scent.
"That is where I'm going to be in three seconds," Lonnie informed Kali and hurried back into her room to undress.
Lonnie realized as she shed her costume, that they would be together in a tub without clothes and without a chaperone. She grinned. Well, this is the moment of truth. Can I behave myself or not? Or, do I want to?
Kali had returned to her room with a servant to assist with removing her dress. Carrying a towel draped over her robed arm, Kali returned to the tub to find an attractive body bobbing above the roiling waters.
The servant accepted the robe from her, and Kali rinsed off quickly under the shower and then slid into the heated water, sighing nosily as the heat quickly infused her tired muscles.
"These are the perks I like about this business," she told Lonnie who was floating peacefully with her eyes closed. "No fans, no chaperones, andÉ." she lowered her voice to a husky whisper, "no where to be for two days."
Lonnie hummed her agreement. She opened her eyes and turned her head to Kali. Kali's long hair spread out in a tangled mass from the agitation of the moving water. Her eyes moved to her breasts, partially showing above the water. Lonnie's eyes moved to Kali's. She was being studied too. She closed her eyes as if in relaxation.
"So, where are you going tomorrow?" Kali asked. Her big toe slid along the outside of Lonnie's leg, tickling her.
Lonnie opened her eyes to gage Kali's intent. "Stop that," she warned, but a giggle and a stifled yelp ruined her attempt to be serious.
"If I don't, what are you going to do?" Kali whispered. She leaned against Lonnie, placing her hand where her foot had been. "I mean, what can possibly happen that we can't handle?"
"Does this bother you?" Kali asked, stepping between Lonnie's floating legs.
"YesÉbut, don't let that stop you," she whispered so softly she was not sure if she had spoken.
Kali's hands caressed the outside of her thighs.
Lonnie giggled, cutting some of the tension. She reached down to grab Kali's tickling fingers, sliding off her seat, and disappearing underwater.
"Hey," Kali gave a short laugh, sidestepping to prevent herself from being pulled underwater. Kali searched for Lonnie in the bubbling water. She yelped and moved to a higher step in the tub. Squatting, she looked again. It was a big tub and for some reason, she could not see below the water line. She wondered what they put in the water for that effect. Whatever it was, it did add to their game.
A hand reached out, and pulled her into the water with a big splash. Both women came up sputtering, laughing, and clinging to each other.
Every part of Lonnie's body that Kali's was pressed against was sending signals. Reflexively her hands rested on the diva's hips, pulling her tight against her. Kali's face neared hers as she parted her lips. Obediently Lonnie lowered her mouth and felt hungry lips press against her possessively.
Lonnie's world stopped as reality met dreams. The feeling was a combination of exhilaration and a plunging sense of stark reality. It was like catching an updraft hang-gliding, knowing sooner or later you would hit the space of no currents and to sustain your altitude it would be all skill to keep you from crashing. Her heart stopped and then resumed beating like a war drum, nearly drowning out the sounds of her and Kali's groans.
Lonnie slid her hands down to cup Kali's buttocks, easily lifting her, and bringing her pubic hairs against her stomach. Kali wrapped her legs around her waist, tightly, securing her position. Lonnie's mouth explored Kali's taking possession of her vocal groans, and inhaling them into her being, like fuel to a fire.
Lonnie's hands roamed a body she pictured many times, letting reality verify what imagination had supplied her.
Gish was the first person Lonnie spotted as she made her way to the gym the morning after her return to Earl Gray. She and Kali had arrived back aboard the ship at the last call for boarding. The two women worked quietly on the various machines before meeting in the hot tub.
"Mo said you and Kali spent two days hiking."
"I spent two days hiking. I don't know what Kali did." Now that she thought about it, she hadn't asked Kali what she did during the day. At night both were only interested in working off the sexual attraction they had for each other before returning aboard ship.
"To hear the scuttlebutt, you two have a torrid love affair going on." She looked at the dancer over the steam.
"If the crew can't handle having one diva on board without getting this worked up, then the company won't keep them around for the next tour." Lonnie opened her eyes and looked at Gish for a few moments to see if she was even interested in what she was saying.
"How do you know that?" Gish asked.
"Because I have stocks in the company and keep track of them. It went up four points when it was announced Diva Kali Maxine would be on board for a tour. After our performance on earth it has shot up ten more points. Having entertainment personalities with star power is going to be a trend. Mark my words," she warned with a big smile.
"Wow. Maybe I should be investing more into the company."
"The crew should be betting less against someone who contributes to their pay," Lonnie stated flatly.
"Are you that bothered that people are betting you'll not survive to the end? It's not personal, Lonnie. They bet at the drop of a hat."
"That's not the point. I heard the odds against my surviving, and I also know the commander of security asked for the betting to cease. Like me, he reads the stock market and knows when to not handicap your horse."
"Horse? Oh." Gish was quiet for a few moments. "When was the last time you meditated?"
"This morning. Why?"
"Just wondering. You seem a bit edgy this morning."
As other crew members started to move into the waters, both women stepped out and dressed for their day. Lonnie had a rehearsal in an hour.
Opening the door to her cabin, the strong scent of flowers hit her. For a moment she held her temper in check. There were few people that could override her preference to not receive flowers. She stepped in and read the first card and then three others. Fans.
"I told them I don't accept anything from fans," she muttered angrily. She went in search of the purser that oversaw the maidbots for her section. Sotre was checking supplies in the purser's closet.
"Hi, Lonnie. So, since when did you start accepting flowers?" she asked jokingly.
"You saw them delivered and you didn't say anything to the deliverer? I want them removed."
Sotre looked at her surprised. "IÉwell, it was an automated bot from the florist's shop. I don't have anything to do with their program. I thought you had changed your mind."
"So, who's going to remove them?" Lonnie demanded.
"I'll call Miem to clear themÉah, what do you want me to do with them?"
"I don't careÉ" she paused as she spotted Yomatta and Kali heading to their cabin. "Send them to the diva's room. She likes flowers." She left Sotre to handle it and went to catch up with Kali.
"Wait up," Lonnie called.
"Oh, there you are."
Yomatta looked more than irritated about something. Lonnie was having second thoughts on speaking with Kali.
"You didn't have to waste your credits sending me all those flowers," Kali told her, looking uncomfortable.
"Flowers? I just told the purser I didn't want them and to deliver them to your place. They couldn't have made the switch that fast. I just finished speaking with her." Lonnie looked back at Sotre who was just hanging up her com.
Kali looked at her strange and Yomatta gestured to Lonnie to open her door. She did and the flowers were gone, but not the strong fragrance and some scattered flower petals.
"Where did they go?" Lonnie went to the second door that connected her quarters to Kali's and noted it showed that it was locked on both sides. She went to the other one that connected to the suite next door. It was locked, but not from her side, and she knew she kept it locked. She went out and pounded on the cabin next door. The door opened a crack and eyes peeped out. Lonnie pushed open the door and found her missing flowers sitting everywhere.
"What's going on here?" she demanded.
Maltieani with four of his people showed up. They moved passed Yomatta. "What are you up to Purser Johan?" he demanded.
"Nothing, sir. Nothing. I justÉuh. I was playing a little joke, that's all. I didn't know she would get all bent out of shape," he explained defensively.
Maltieani went over to one of the flower arrangements and removed a card to read it. "This is a joke?" He glanced back at Lonnie. "Do you know a Keito?"
Lonnie shook her head.
Maltieani picked out another card. "How about Samuri?"
Lonnie snapped her fingers, suddenly remembering where she heard both names. "Yeah. Now I remember. I autographed a picture for each one of themÉnothing more. Are those from them?"
He turned to the suddenly nervous Johan. "You don't happen to be betting against Lonnie for sticking out the last two months are you?"
"NO sir! You ordered the betting to be stopped."
Maltieani turned to Lonnie. "I'm sorry my crew is treating you this badly, especially since you've been sailing with us longer than Johan's been with the company." He turned back to one of his officers. "Take him to the brig until I get a chance to speak with him." He turned to Johan. "Be ready to tell me how you got a pass into suites on this deck that you don't have authorization for." He picked off the tags on the other flower arrangements and read them. He shook his head. "Everyone knows Lonnie doesn't accept gifts from her fans, which would mean Johan, you took a bribe. You won't be working for this cruise line after we put into our next port." He turned to the other officer. "Mil, clean out these flowers."
"What about the flowers in Kali Maxine's suites? They have Lonnie's name on them yet she says she didn't send them," Yomatta demanded.
He glanced at Lonnie then at Johan. "Are they your doing too?"
"No, sir," he mumbled. By the guilty look on his face everyone guessed he knew who did do it.
Lonnie shook her head. "I forewarn people if I'm going to send them anything."
"Mil, get them too."
"We need to talk," Lonnie told him in a low voice.
"How about two hours after your performance tonight, in my office? By then I'll have a handle on what's going on here and you'll have time to unwind from your performance."
"I'll be there," Lonnie told him.
"So will we." Yomatta tapped Kali on her arm. "Let's return to our suite, shall we?"
Kali leaned towards Lonnie, tugging at her to follow. "You should see what you wrote on some of those cards. Romantic, passionate and all very personal," she said so low that Yomatta would not hear.
"Really?" Lonnie was interested. "I've never been accused of being a romantic. Passionate is more of what they call my dancingÉ but personal?" She shook her head, "not with my partners. I like uncomplicated living."
Kali blinked her eyes at Lonnie. "On second thoughtÉhow do we know you didn't send them?" Kali asked in a teasing tone.
Lonnie stepped into Kali's suite, looking around to see if Yomatta or Kali's taste would be displayed. It was as sparse as hers with not even mementos from planets they visited. Kali gestured to Lonnie where she could sit. Kali settled on the couch, her usual preference, where she would stretch out.
Yomatta poured three drinks and handed one to Kali and another to Lonnie who found this chair more comfortable than the one in her quarters. Lonnie sniffed at the drink suspiciously. Yomatta handed her a small drug strip.
"Well, what did the cards say?" Lonnie leaned back, feeling better about the drink, and the company.
Kali cleared her voice and then recited, "Purple is my passion and for you I burn with it."
"Hm. I would have hoped I did better than that."
"Have you ever sent anyone flowers?" Kali asked curious.
"Nope." For a moment her eyes softened. She looked down at her drink, wondering how long it was going to take to forget Kali.
"When was the last time you were with someone?" Kali asked, meaning before her and she knew Lonnie understood the question.
"Now, now. I don't go asking about your personal life." Lonnie looked up at her and read nothing in the dark eyes.
"What are we going to do about these pranks?" Yomatta demanded from the two.
"I don't know. I've never had fans react this way toward me." Lonnie looked at Yomatta and then Kali. "Do you have some suggestions?"
Being the nearest, Lonnie leaned over and picked up the com. "Hello?... No this isn't. May I ask who's calling?... Why shouldn't I be here? I'm her partnerÉ"
Yomatta took the phone from Lonnie who was looking indignant and ready to say something Yomatta deemed inappropriate for her charge's career.
"Hello. Who is this?"
The two dancers could overhear a line of curses and threats coming from the earpiece.
"De Sumt, Diva Maxine will not speak to you," she interrupted the loud voice on the other end of the line. "If you call here again I will sign a complaint to have you arrested again. We have been through this beforeÉ I don't care what you've heard. My suggestion is to wonder why people tell you things that they know will get you angry. Good day!"
Neither woman thought De Sumt heard a word of what Yomatta said since his voice could be heard continuing over Yomatta's warnings. Yomatta disconnected from the call and dialed security. She informed them that De Sumt had again threatened Diva Maxine and now her partner.
"This guy has been bothering you?" Lonnie asked in a low voice so as not to interrupt Yomatta's conversation with security.
Kali waved her hand dismissively. "I've been attracting those types since the first day I started dancing."
Yomatta hung up the phone and glared at Lonnie. "J'sma Sumt has been stalking Diva Maxine for four years. She has seventeen stalkers we know of, two more than Diva HmBolt and one less than Dama Riva. Don't you read the Entertainment Rag?"
"Uh, no. I read things like Climbing, Fit to Travel, SpyWare and Dancers Quarterly."
"Well, people with ambition read the Rag," Yomatta advised.
"So where are the other sixteen stalkers?"
Kali suddenly looked interested in scrolling through the television menu.
"Kali Maxine's agent has people keeping track of them." Yomatta waved a hand as if it were not important.
"Our agent," Lonnie said. "Just how many of them are there on this ship?"
The silence grew too long. "Well?" she prodded.
"Yomatta?" Kali asked.
"I don't know," Yomatta responded.
"Well, at last count then," Lonnie was beginning to get upset.
"Five, but they should have been let off at our last stop," Yomatta assured her.
"What about this guy here, how did he slip through?" Lonnie asked.
"I don't know, but he's spent most of this trip in the brig." Yomatta informed her carelessly.
"They don't have phones in the brig so someone let him out and forgot to make sure he made it ashore and not back on the ship," Lonnie concluded angrily. De Erich Bettelheim apparently left out the details on why security was necessary for Kali. Lonnie got up abruptly and left.
* * *
"You didn't have to lay it on so thick," Kali informed Yomatta.
"She needs a dose of reality. Have you ever wondered why a person with her talent wants to remain unknown?"
"Maybe she doesn't want to put up with the stalking or threatening letters. I don't want anything bad to happen to her, Yomatta. She doesn't deserve it. Whatever her hang-ups are, she's not on drugs and sheÉ"
"Participates in activities that are dangerous," Yomatta interrupted. "Doesn't that tell you that there are other types of drugs one uses to cover what's broken in them?"
Kali suspected that Yomatta knew they got involved while away from her watchful eyes and was angry about it. Kali's goal was to hit the top and stay there for at least three years, then as long as she could. It would make a lot of people rich including Kali. But she realized the constant demands would be too much if she didn't take a page out of Lonnie's book of survival, and disappear every now and then from everyone's viewÉincluding Erich and Yomatta. She hated to have wherever she stayed checked for peepers, snoopers, and hoped that the person checking for them was not taking a bribe to overlook the one in the bedroom or bathing room. Her fingers curled around the ring that prevented image and voice recorders to lock onto her. No one had mentioned to her that they existed. Obviously Lonnie's reading material was better than most because Yomatta had not spoken to her about them either.
"She's a nice person, Yomatta. She's done nice things for me and didn't ask me for anything other than to be professional." Her lips quirked up into a smile. "And dance more her type of dances than mine."
"Well the pressure is increasing. Notice how she reacted to the flowers? Let's see how level headed she remains with this attention, and not go jump off some cliff to her death." Yomatta picked up a reader and proceeded to finish her novel.
"Yomatta, she does that stuff to calm herself. You're being overdramatic. It wasn't so much as the flowers asÉasÉus not telling her that there were stalkers aboard. I think that's rather nice that she's worried about me."
"I didn't see that as being worried about you."
Kali laughed, and dialed in for the magazines Lonnie said she liked to read. She could understand why the Spyware, and the other two, but the fourth, the dance magazine, it was boring.
Yomatta looked up at her startled. "What's wrong?"
"That dance we did, the stridency, it's been morphed." She watched in astonishment as a video of her and Lonnie showed their version of the dance and how it was renamed the Kalrolie. "Who thinks up these names?"
Yomatta thought about it. "It has both your names in it and it gives her her privacy. It sounds like Erich. Why don't you call him and find out?"
Kali glanced at the clock. "I think I'll wait, or leave him a message." After she made her call she watched the film footage again.
"We look good together," she murmured.
Yomatta glanced at her with a frown. "You'll get over her."
Lonnie's time piece notified her that she had a performance to prepare for. She left the movie at the part where the guy gets the gal. She stopped at her quarters to pack her costume bag.
A crunch under her foot caught her attention. Looking at the broken ampoule, she studied the discoloration forming on the carpet. From her hiking pack she pulled out her utility knife. She scraped a bit of the substance off and carried it to her bathroom. In the cabinet she selected an empty ampoule, breaking the seal that guaranteed it was sterile. She labeled it and returned it to the cabinet to get back to it later. She returned to the front room and picked up the com link.
"Security?... Ensign, this is Lonnie Bestrolie. I found an unknown substance in my quarters. Can you send someone over to investigate it?... No, I won't be here. I have a practice sessionÉ That's fine. Thank you." She hung up satisfied that Ensign Timu Rau would take care of it personally. He was one of the few people she trusted, though not as far as her life was concerned. She had learned earlier that when it came to life and death situations, it was better to rely on herself, even if her resources were limited.
Maltieani, who always found time to attend Lonnie's shows, was speaking to one of his officers, standing outside of the performers' entrance. He glanced up as Lonnie passed them to enter behind the stage.
"Lonnie, might I have a word with you?" he asked. He followed Lonnie into the small backstage area. Looking around for anyone that may be nearby he turned to face her. In the dim lighting Lonnie could tell he was angry.
"Do you know what was in the container my officer retrieved in your room?"
"That was fast. No. What was in it?"
He took a deep breath and shook his head. "You didn't touch it did you?"
"I'm not totally na•ve to the drug scene, Maltieani. I know not to breathe or touch something that I don't know what it is. What is it?"
Kali peered into the small dressing room.
"I'll tell you later." Maltieani nodded to Kali and left.
"Hi," Kali told her softly. She bumped Lonnie as she went by. Lonnie nodded and moved out of the way and continued dressing, her thoughts on the contents of what she had collected. She was bumped again and she looked at Kali.
"So, aren't you going to speak to me?" Kali asked.
"Sorry. I was thinking," she replied distracted.
"Hi," Kali tried again.
Kali stepped close to her and peered up into her eyes. "How about if we don't do any hot numbers tonight, and then go back to them tomorrow?"
"What did you have in mind?" Lonnie was annoyed at Kali's game.
Kali listed them and looked at Lonnie in askance. Lonnie shrugged her shoulders. It really was Kali's show now. She was just along for the ride for the next six weeks. The ache in her chest eased as she let go any interest she had in the show.
Kali went to Andres and gave him her list for the night, waltzes and ballroom types. Andres nodded and glanced at Lonnie who was seated staring at her feet.
Lonnie was on autopilot. She did a quick warm-up and waited for their entrance music to begin.
"You could at least make it seem like you enjoy dancing," Kali murmured irritated.
"Right," Lonnie muttered, tugging at her coat to pull it in place as if it were uncomfortable.
When the lights came on after the first dance and the audience clapped at the introduction dance, Lonnie did pull herself out of the funk. She reminded herself that she was a performer that gave everything she had for each dance. If she was going out of the performing business, it was to be at the top of her form.
Following the final set, they went out for their bows. The entertainment director asked if Kali could remain to answer some questions from her fans. Gratefully, Lonnie escaped unnoticed.
Kali sat like a queen on the chair provided for her, sipping water and dabbing her face with a towel.
Back in her suite, Lonnie dumped her costumes into the cleaner and turned to the ship com. She tapped in Gish's number and her appointment was confirmed. She stopped for a quick shower and then headed to Gish's office. Gish opened up on the first knock and pulled Lonnie in quickly.
"What's going on?" Lonnie asked.
"She's in love with you," Gish told her matter of factly.
Lonnie was in the process of taking off her shirt when she stopped to laugh. "She as in Kali? She's as capable of falling in love as I, Gish." She finished undressing, folding her clothing carefully, and laying them on a chair.
"Yes," Gish answered softly.
No more was said as Gish began to work on the muscular body that was stretched on her table.
"Where did you get this?" Gish gently prodded a sore spot on her back.
"Ouch. Climbing. I was looking over property I want to purchaseÉ" Lonnie realized she had let something slip.
There was quiet for a while as Gish smoothed a liquid over the bruise that would heal it. "You know, they won't sell in the end," Gish mentioned casually. "I've known those people all my life. They dangle all sorts of promises and contracts in front of you to get what they want." Her voice was soft and devoid of emotion, "But they don't give you what they originally promised you because you aren't one of them, will never be, and therefore they don't feel obligated to be honest."
"I figured that out before we started our dance. Why do you think they're dangling all this in front of me, and Shari?"
"Just you. Too many people are interested in seeing Diva Kali Maxine get back to the top."
"I was offered the property there before I knew the diva and I were going to be partnered," Lonnie pointed out.
"But the people behind the buying and selling of contracts knew. It's a chess game. I'm going to dig into these quads of yours. They have knots."
"Ah, yes. Pain. What's a good massage without pain?"
* * *
"Dama Leona Bestrolie, might I have a word with you?"
"No." As she continued on her way down the corridor she could hear the other person hurrying after her. She paused at one of the ship coms and pushed the security button. It identified her and the security camera scanned the area she was standing at.
She didn't turn to face the cretin because in the shinny reflection of the bulkhead she could see he had an image capture pointed at her. She glanced at her hand and realized she had not put her ring back on after the massage. Rummaging in her pocket she found it and slipped it on. She could hear feet running on the deck toward them. Two security officers. The person behind her cursed and ran away with the two officers in pursuit.
Lonnie shook her head and headed up to Maltieani's quarters, thinking she could ask some questions of him before Kali and her handler arrived.
Lonnie rapped on Maltieani's cabin door. The murmuring stopped. Maltieani opened the door himself and waved her in.
"We were just discussing your situation," he mentioned as he nodded to a seat across from the captain.
"What is my situation?" she asked curious.
"Too much baggage," the captain said and took a sip of his drink. Lonnie noted it was not the special wine Maltieani had previously shared with her.
"Are you going to tell me what was in the container in my quarters?"
"An addictive drug that should not have gotten on board. I'd like you to not say anything about it until we determine there isn't any more aboard. If any of the substance gets on your skinÉ" Maltieani shook his head worriedly.
"Did you know that Diva Maxine had death threats against her by five different people, today alone?" the captain asked Lonnie.
"No," Lonnie answered alarmed. "Does she know this?"
"She does. This has been going on since she boarded the ship but was not brought to our attention until Yomatta arrived. If her agent was aware of this when he signed for her to perform here why were we not notified?"
"Maybe he assumed you would know about things like that. Wouldn't the Rag have that information?" Lonnie asked.
By their expressions, Lonnie guessed it had not occurred to the two men.
"On. Search records on the magazine Rag for any mention of death threats against Diva Kali Maxine. From what I understand, it's not unusual for popular stars to have death threats and stalkers," Maltieani said.
"I'm lucky I'm not that popular."
"Not true." The captain shook his head. "Because you don't take the attacks against you seriously doesn't mean we don't. Right, Malti?" He turned to his commander of security.
The door chime signaled company had arrived.
The captain hurriedly rose to his feet to leave. He obviously didn't want to be involved with this. Lonnie guessed it was Yomatta he didn't want to get involved with.
Kali was looking fresh and very elegant in her apparel.
"Well, what have you found and decided to do about the security on the ship," Yomatta started once she was seated.
Lonnie's eyes followed Kali as she took a seat and smiled at Lonnie, before thanking Maltieani for seating her.
Maltieani rang for his purser who promptly got everyone something to drink and made sure the diva and her handler were comfortable with a pillow or two, and then left.
"Well, my brig has never been this full. And we never had quite so many crew members' reputations in question." He didn't bother to mention that Englo Brighton, the owner's secretary gave an official order to tighten up Earl Gray's crew to host other notable entertainment personalities.
"You're expecting more to fall to the temptation of money," Yomatta surmised.
"Greed has no fidelity, because conscience can undermine the greedy," Lonnie murmured to no one in particular.
"What about the recent threats and the flowers?" Yomatta demanded.
Maltieani glanced at Lonnie. "I take it you didn't write any of those? Well, thenÉ" he hesitated, wondering how to categorize the notes that were attached to the flowers signed with Lonnie's name.
"I thought they were quite romantic. Imagine my disappointment when it turns out they're not from her," Kali said mockingly.
"Can I read some? Just so that if I'm ever in the position where I have to send a romantic clutch of flowers, I'll know what's expected."
"They are being used as evidence." Maltieani looked at Yomatta, who had told him to burn them before the news media got them. He found two missing and had caught the culprit but not before he had passed them on to a buyer who he was now tracking down. He knew the images of the card had not been transmitted, and the buyer was still aboard, therefore the physical evidence was not public domain yet.
"Evidence? I want them destroyed. Can you imagine what that will do to Diva Maxine's career?"
Lonnie leaned into Kali and whispered. "You just told me what one of them said. How about another?"
"Later, you flatterer," she smirked.
Lonnie studied the woman whom she had spent two nights locked in passionate love making with and whose image she fell asleep with. She blinked her eyes to shut out those memories. She glanced at her watch. At this time the gym would be crowded with off-duty crew. However, she was too wound up to just go back to her cabin. Maybe she should just be happy with playing her guitar.
Lonnie looked back up at Maltieani and found everyone was looking at her. "Sorry, what did you say?"
Yomatta gave a sniff.
"We've upped surveillance and have closed off your deck to wanders. There's no reason for anyone to wander on your deck that doesn't have quarters there. Since Kali already has bodyguards, we can offer the same to you Lonnie if you feel you need it."
"Do you think I need it?" she asked Maltieani, believing he would know better than her.
"Have you been receiving any threatening letters or calls lately?"
"Nothing a quick call didn't take care of. But I do have one complaint. When is my profile going to be redone? It's taking ages to logon to my subscription services. I miss the luxury of having them on the menu."
"You and some other people. Someone sent a virus into the system and we haven't found a way to eradicate it." He turned to Yomatta. "Just how many people have sent death threats to Kali Maxine and how many have you recognized on this ship?"
"Five. All have gone but that one we had called in earlier. Your security should have caught them before they were on board."
"Why didn't your agent let us know that there was any danger to your life before you boarded?" Maltieani asked Kali.
"I thought everyone knew. It makes the news rags all the time," she told him reasonably.
"Is that it?" Lonnie asked. She didn't want to waste her time listening to this.
"I would appreciate from now on for you to keep me informed of any threat you get. I have a whole ship to keep track of and don't want anyone's safety jeopardized because of preventable trouble." Maltieani held out his hands to indicate unless anyone else had something to say the meeting was over. Lonnie was already out of her seat and pulling the door open.
She really needed to do something. Maybe she could wake Crackle up and they could beat up on each other. Instead, Lonnie walked nearly all the decks of the ship. It was two hours later that Maltieani joined her on deck two.
"Hi. I thought I would rescue you and let you know that you've been walking for about two hours now. You're getting my staff tired."
"I guess I need to get some sleep," she agreed.
"Come on, I'll walk with you back to your cabin."
"So, Maltieani, is this going to be the last time the cruise ship takes on a diva?"
"Probably not. As much as it's been a headache for the staff, every available cabin is full and no empty bunks." He glanced at her. "How do you like your suite?"
"Nice. I don't even mind sharing the hot tub, though it's not quite as roomy as what I'm used to." She grinned at his smile.
"But the larger one is crowded with the crew, huh?"
"I've been here long enough to figure out when it's not too busy. I really enjoy my time on Earl Gray, Maltieani."
"You sound like you're saying goodbye."
"When my contract is upÉif I stick it out with the diva to the end of the cruise, I want to settle on land, my land with everything I need within a days flight."
"Where are you planning on settling?"
"I'm not sure. I'm still looking. It's going to be where there's wide open land and lots of places to explore without running into tourists or my neighbors."
"Sounds like a certifiable recluse to me," he joked.
"I don't do the consistent relationships too well. Once a year for a couple of days or a week and then I move on." She laughed at herself. Her tone sounded wistful even to herself. Wistful for what? Her thoughts went to Kali and how beautiful it felt to touch her and to be touched by her. They moved well together. She shook her head and glanced at Maltieani. His thoughts looked like they were far away as well.
"When are you going to retire and where?" Lonnie asked.
"I have three more years. Like you, I want to be in the outback. I'm not sure Jol is as interested. He's a people person. Loves to arrange things and socialize."
"Start a dude ranch," Lonnie suggested. "Let him and his staff do all the work while you fish and hike or whatever else you like doing."
Maltieani looked surprised and then thoughtful at the suggestion. "It certainly would make him happy to get off a ship. Here's your cabin."
Lonnie opened the door and peered in. It looked clean and the security tag assured her it had been swept clean of any monitoring devices. Of course, Lonnie had her own scanner.
"Good dreams, Lonnie."
"And to you too, Maltieani."
As tired as her legs were, her thoughts were not. Staring at her ceiling she could no longer put off thinking about the end of the month. She was less concerned about where she would live than the conflicting feelings she had for this trip. Rising, she picked up her guitar and played whatever came to mind. When she felt more settled, she drifted off to sleep.
* * *
"Hey," a familiar voice whispered near her ear.
Tired eyes opened to look into familiar green ones.
"Hi," Lonnie whispered back. There was a space of tense quietness before Lonnie asked, "What time is it?"
"Midmorning. I came over to see if you wanted to start planning on our final dance. What time did you get to bed?" Kali asked concerned. Her fingers caressed hair to the sides of Lonnie's face.
It took a while for Lonnie's mind to get around what was asked and what she was picking up from Kali. Kali leaned close to her and sniffed. But Lonnie was sure that was not what Kali almost did.
"Well, you haven't been drinking. So, is all this pressure working your nerves?"
Lonnie moved to get up and Kali stepped back, sitting at the edge of the bed. "I'm sure I can make the final lap," she told her quietly. To relieve the tension from their nearness she moved into her shower facility.
"So, what do you think we should do for a finale?" Kali asked as Lonnie stepped out of the shower. Kali's eyes studied her dripping form as she handed her a towel.
I'm getting the feeling that I'm being handled. Do I care?
Dressed, Lonnie joined Kali in her front room. It had decidedly gotten smaller. "Do you want to go somewhere to discuss this?" Lonnie asked cautiously.
"No. Are you afraid of the rumors?"
Lonnie sat on a chair across from Kali, seriously thinking about the question. At one time she would have said no. Now she was aware that there was no escaping the fact that how she got out of the business would matter if she got a chance to buy property that only a few select people had the opportunity to buy. Kali's frown brought her back to the conversation.
"I don't like causing them if it's preventable. Bad vibes," she replied easily.
"We have less than a month and then you'll be through with it," she told her brusquely. "So, about the finale, I have some ideas I'd like to put out to you." She sat forward, revealing more of her leg than was necessary.
"Go on. I'm listening."
"Would you be offended if I danced with others?"
Lonnie shook her head, though inside she was already packing her grip and buying a ticket back home to Ackron. She could climb the ocean cliff face like she had been telling Shari she was going to do since they bought the property. Then she mentally changed her travel plans and was buying a ticket to a planet she had never been to, just to see what it was like.
"Good!" Kali went on not noticing that Lonnie's thoughts were elsewhere. Her voice went on, planning the finale, gesturing and smiling at her official announcement that she was back at the top and this time in control of her own life and career.
Lonnie remembered an advertisement for large land parcels in one of the magazines and made a mental note to go back to it and send out an inquiry. It was in the new territory. Land dealers were not allowed. It had to be first time homesteaders. She fit that profileÉin a way.
Lonnie jumped up as Kali happily got up from the couch and gave her a hug then let herself out of the cabin. The moment she left, Lonnie keyed in her search and spent the next thirty minutes looking for the new territory. A knock on her door halted her search. She glanced at the clock and decided she was not late for anything. Peering out of the one-way peephole she found Crackle standing in civilian dress outside of her door.
"Crackle?" she greeted, swinging the door open.
"May I?" she asked indicating her quarters.
Crackle glanced at the monitor. "Looking for retirement property?"
"Yeah. I have this gut feeling I'm being led down a dead end with the property on Tuloc." Let's see where this leads.
"Whoever led you to believe you'd get land on that planet?" she asked outraged for her friend's sake. "I hope you didn't pay anything. Those people are the most arrogant and closed society you'll ever run into. Beats me how they got welcomed into the Universal Galactic Planet's Association. Ask Gish. She's a citizen of that planet and had the sense to leave, though they've got so many strings attached I'm surprised she hasn't strangled herself on them." Crackle shook her head. "Get out of that game before you go into debt."
"Before I sell something I'll regret?" she teased Crackle. "So, what can I do for you?"
"The meet tonight. We're doing the pirate invasion again but Mcak doesn't want to be the saboteur again. I was going to ask if you could. It would help you learn to be sneaky," she teased.
Lonnie chuckled. "Eh. Think I need some of that cunning quality this late in life? Sure I'll be the bad guy." She grinned to herself thinking that she could think of a lot more places to sabotage a ship than what Mcak and his friends had been thinking of lately.
"Start about six?"
"You start about six," Lonnie corrected. "A saboteur sets her own time."
"Oh," she turned before she stepped out of her quarters, "Terrian-4S is not advertised, but they're selling large land allotments on one of their continents. They're interested in people who plan on settling there to farm the area. It's rugged, just like you like it. I wouldn't mind settling there myself. A place just at the edge of the flood plane, so I can see the drama but not be swept away." She left chuckling.
Lonnie keyed in Crackle's suggestion. She made sure to stipulate that civilization did not have to be within a days ride by land or air. The Icon popped up with more than two hundred sites.
"Wow," she whispered. Quickly she sent the results of her search to Shari, and then turned her attention to business. She wanted to speak with Erich.
"Good day to you ErichÉ"
"Lonnie! I just got off the TTP with Kali Maxine. She tells me you agreed to her plan for the finale. Is that right?" His voice sounded doubtful.
"YeahÉit'sÉwell, actually she did all the talking and I just partially listened."
The only sign of his surprise was the slight tightening of his thin lips. "Well, you don't have long to go now with this gig."
"Short of a monthÉ"
"You aren't counting your credits yet are you? Sometimes well laid plans don't work out," he warned, but by the smile his lips stretched into, Lonnie thought he was just giving her the old warning everyone gave about building a house before you had the land.
"If it doesn't work out then I'll work the same cruise line for the next two years. Really it's no big deal either way."
"No hard feelings against the diva or me?"
"Is there something you want to tell me?"
"No. Just testing the waters. Wondering how bad you want out of your contract."
She took a breath, wondering just what type of hardships she had to go through in the next few weeks. "I'm not going to be despondent one way or the other, Erich. Is there something other than the death threats, stalkers, saboteurs, uninvited guests, and deadly presents that I should worry about?"
"Eh? What are you talking about? What death threats and what stalkers? Presents?"
"Never mind. Just tell me what I should prepare myself for."
"Heard anything from your roommate about the property interests you have on Tuloc?"
"No. But I can't really make an offer until I know I'm no longer traveling."
"It sounds like your whole life is up in the air."
"No. I have a gig finishing in about a month. Then two months off for vacation, whether I win my contract or not. Will you tell me what this is about?"
"She's written you out of the finale."
Lonnie felt relieved. She didn't want to go through the crowds and interviews, especially when the newsreporters would try to goad her into saying something that would hurt a lot of people's feelings. And then there was worrying about her face plastered on everyone's screen.
"You think I'm going to have an issue with that? I don't. She's the one relaunching a career. So, what else?"
"Well, besides not wanting you in the finale she wants to dance at the rest of the ports of call with other partners."
Lonnie had mixed feelings on that but the idea of getting away from the ship early and taking her two days off without sleeping away part of it because she was tired from the previous night's performance had its advantages.
"Sounds like she's on the right road to self-managing. Isn't that what you were aiming for?"
"Yes. But you had a big hand in it and I don't want you to feel like youÉ" he stopped.
"You can't be worried that I'm going to try and compete with her are you?" Then it dawned on her that maybe he was afraid she would find someone to coach to compete with Kali out of hurt pride. "I'm a loner Erich. I've been that way far too long to change."
"It's not that. I want you to drop out of sightÉfrom her."
Lonnie took a deep breath, feeling the blood pounding through her. She waited a few more moments to collect herself before answering.
"It's got to be that way, Lonnie. We don't want the tabloids to thinkÉ"
"That she may have had an affair with a womanÉher partner?" she finished for him.
"No. That she had an affair with anyone. I want people to forget that she was at the bottom for a while. We're going to sell the idea that she was working this last year at sharpening her talent, showing she has discipline, and wasn't distracted. There are a lot of musicals and shows a dancer and singer with her talent can be hired for. Potential investors don't want a star with a lot of baggage."
"Ah. And here I thought the sex lives of the stars was what sold the star. Wherever I end up Erich, it will be where I want to be. Not somewhere that you feel I need to hide." Is that why he wants me on Tuloc?
"Well, I'm sure you'll make the right decision, Lonnie. You've always been a fair personÉor so Ben tells me."
"Well, I guess we're both going to have to wait to see if I make it to the end. That's 3227 of December first. So, what kind of dances do you plan on us doing until then?"
"I sent my suggestions to Andres. He and Kali will go over it and let you know." He hesitated and then added, "You were right about Andres being a good leader. I asked him if he would be interested in staying on with Kali since he knows her and he's worked with singers as well as dancers. He said yes. Thanks," he finished brusquely. "Keep in touch."
"Right. Glad to have been able to help relaunch your star," she muttered after the connection was cut.
She rubbed her face and thought about all the other dancers she knew that had been where she was now. Lonnie turned back to the information on Terrian-4S and studied different parcels for sale in the area. The land parcels were cheap, there were no towns of more than twenty families nearby. Supplies would be difficult to receive on a regular basis in the beginning. She searched for the cost of setting up a residence, one that blended in with the environment. Wind or sun generators would supply enough energy; it was the water that was important. She needed a geologist to make sure she had more than one water source on her land. Lonnie grinned to herself. Years of learning about land for others was now going to pay off. She sent an inquiry on the culture and laws.
She then sent a note to Cora, remembering Cora had a friend who was in the business of constructing homes. He was a nomad that moved where business was. He owned his own space freighter and his spouse, kids, and buildingbots helped with the construction.
Finding the area she liked, she sent in a bid then notified Shari she decided not to wait for her to check things out.
If I end up working off my contract for the next two years, when I'm finished, I'll be returning to a brand new house built the way I like it. Win-win, is what I taste here.
Feeling better, she decided to get in a workout. They had two days off from dancing, though she imagined that the diva was having Andres work on her dance numbers. As long as she could do one or two of her own dances, she didn't really care what Kali danced, or did she? Again she felt something weighing heavy on her. It was not like they were anything more than partners for a contractual year, though they did get involved, but it was only to work off some of the sexual energy their dances generated.
Lonnie noticed there were a handful of people waiting for the elevator and detoured to the stairs.
While in the stairwell I can look for a place to plant an obvious bomb device. It'll be interesting to see how long it takes Crackle to find it.
Voices muttering in the stairwell came to her softly at first. The angry tones became more noticeable as she moved down. She was hoping her loud steps would alert them they were not alone. The voices stopped suddenly and a door below her closed. At her deck level she reached for the door and felt a pin prick at the back of her neck. She turned slightly and collapsed in a dark haze.
"Where did you find her?"
"Stairwell, sir. Taking drugs, sir."
"Did you see her taking the drug?"
There was a moment of silence. The ensign's lips tightened. "No, sir! But she was crazy when we tried to help her, sir."
"Have you ever watched her dance, Ensign Bigs?"
"Don't watch that stuff, sir. Too busy."
"Did you place a bet on whether she would last the year out?"
"Sir! That has nothing to do withÉ"
"I asked you a question Ensign."
"Yes, sir. I bet she wouldn't last."
"Any particular reason why?"
"Everyone knows she can't take the pressure. Why else would she be here?"
"So, you think the pressure got to her and she started taking drugs?"
"She used to. Everyone knows that. Scuttlebutt is that those two were getting it on and now that the tour is over the Diva's leaving her behind. The dancer is taking it hard."
"That 'dancer' goes by the name of Lonnie. Don't disrespect her by that tone," the captain informed him. "Did she tell you this?"
"Well, everyone knows, sir."
"Have you ever seen her drink, drunk, or disorderly during the entire time she's been onboard with us?"
"No sir. She's always locked up in her cabinÉ"
"How do you know? Are you monitoring her? I don't recall anyone being assigned to spy on her," the captain informed the ensign sharply. "You're relatively new on the Gray, and know little about our performers, which was on your list of tasks to do. They all have their idiosyncrasies just as you and your cabin mates, and as long as they don't harm anyone, it's not the staffs' business," he enunciated loudly. "Whatever you think you have seen will not be repeated, hinted at, or discussed with anyone other than Commander Co or myself and at our invitation. No one else, Ensign! You are hereby to remain in your quarters until I say you can get back to your job. Do you read me?"
"Yes sir," he mumbled.
He spun around and nearly fell when he caught Commander Co's look. Nervously he grabbed for the door handle and had to make a second grab.
"What do you think?" Commander Co asked the Chief Purser who was in charge of the disgraced sailor.
"I won't give either his pal or him a 'bad guy' rating, but," she shook her head, "my gut tells me he's not telling the entire truth about something."
"I want every officer's name that did not pull out of that gambling pool." The captain turned to face his Chief Purser. "I made it plain in the staff meeting why it was not to be continued. I also explained to the staff that we are under corporate eyes to see if we are made of the right stuff to fly more celebrities. Anyone that cannot meet the muster will be gone before we set sail on the next voyage. Am I clear?"
"Yes, sir. And I'll see that you get that list by next meeting," the CP responded calmly.
After she left, the captain glared at his commander of security. "Maltieani, what is happening?"
"We've got rats onboard still. And I'm going to find everyone that is involved and I'm going to make sure they regret it," Maltieani finished in a low intense voice.
"Aren't you being a bit presumptuous," the captain told him annoyed.
"I've cleaned a lot of messes up, Captain Mukng Borelie. A lot of them were as favors to you. I don't appreciate someone sacrificing Lonnie's life for a bet, and I'm not blind to the fact there are a lot of people that would like to see her not finish out her contract this year for their own selfish reasons. I also know that the years she's shipped with the Gray she's done a lot of people favors without asking for anything in return, so it especially angers me that this betting even started. Doping her up on sohema is one heavy duty way of turning her into a drug addict for life. I intend on finding out who did it. And captain, if I find out that you're part of it, you will find yourself wishing you had stayed out of it." He left off that the drug was the same substance contained in the ampoule found in Lonnie's cabin. His thoughts went back to the attack made on her by the cat assassin, whose only intent was to disfigure her face. Was it connected?
"Are you threatening me, Malti?"
"Yeah, Muk. Because if you mess with Lonnie, you mess with me."
For a few minutes both men glared at each other.
"I have no idea what is going on. On my liner, Malti!" Captain Borelie finally said exasperated. "The problem I have here is I have already transferred off one third of my crew for new members just because of this divaÉand nowÉ"
"What you transferred off were scum. You know that. The only reason you were able to get a better selection of sailors was because the owner saw credits pouring in for this tour. Looking at it in a positive way, you have five more years as captain, if the owner sees you handling this diva and whatever comes up from having stars on this mid-sized ship with little noise, you'll be the one handling the rest. That's a bonus for you with the increased credits the ship makes."
"What makes you think any star is going to be that crazy to be trapped on a space liner for a ten month tour?"
"The ones that take a year off to change their style, test out new material, and get a handle on their life without outside pressure. Stars like Diva Maxine. We can quarter them on the second deck where it's a lot easier to protect them and let them have privacy without locking them in their suites. The only reason we didn't this cruise is because we didn't know what we were getting into. The rest of our performers aren't top names that can incite near riots."
"Do you have any idea who would do that to her?" the captain asked.
"I have only suspicions. I'll let you know if I have anything solid."
Lonnie felt something crawling all over her body and it burned. She strained against the straps holding her down. Her struggle was short as a soft whoosh plunged her back into a drugged sleep.
When she awoke again, her arms felt like someone was on each side of her shaking her. Her eyes opened and above her was the ceiling of the medilab. She knew that becauseÉ Another whoosh that she recognized as a shot of drugs stopped the shakes. She lost sensation of her body and started to panic when a familiar voice called her.
"Hey, how do you feel?" Gish asked softly.
Lonnie's eyes rolled to the left and if her hands were not bound to her side she would have brought them up to prevent her eyes from rolling out of her head. She made a noise in her throat that was not translatable.
Gish handed her a straw, which Lonnie sucked on greedily.
"WhatÉwhat happened?" she whispered.
"What do you remember?" Gish asked.
"Thank you, Gish. I'll ask the questions. Leave us alone," Maltieani dismissed the masseuse curtly.
"Sure. Hang in there, love. We're behind you."
"Behind me? What's with the restraints?" she croaked.
She heard the door click behind Gish. After Maltieani locked it, he returned to Lonnie's side.
"You were taken down like a piece of trash," Maltieani told her gently. "Someone drugged you. Same stuff we found on the ampoule in your quarters."
"Yeah. It's damnable. Can you remember anything?"
"No," she told him softly. Her arms were freed and she weakly lifted a hand to hold her head. "What a headache," she muttered. "I don't remember ever having a headache like this. My eyes feel like they're going to pop out."
"I need you to sit up. Don't get up too fast. Doc?"
The two helped the feeble Lonnie to her feet and to a medical elevator. "Where am I going?" she asked as she was maneuvered to the seat on the elevator.
"I'll take her from here," Maltieani told the doctor. He kept his hand on her shoulder as the elevator ascended. When the ride stopped Maltieani assisted her to her feet. Lonnie wasn't sure if she was walking or Maltieani was carrying her.
"Hey, I think I recognize this place," she whispered. "I'm not feeling much of my body, Maltieani. I know I should be worried but I feel so tired."
"It's the owner's suite. It's not being used for the rest of the tour. It's the only safe place for now. You don't want to feel your body right now. Sleeping is a better option at this stage of withdrawals."
Lonnie went back to sleep as soon as Maltieani laid her on her new bed.
The guard nodded at Maltieani.
"You open that door to anyone other than the Doc or me andÉ"
"Uncle!" the young man responded indignantly. "Mom would kill me if anything happened to Lonnie under my watch."
"Okay. It's bloody sad when I have to call my own family in to protect a friend," Maltieani told him sadly.
"Well, you got one of the best," his nephew told him assuredly.
Maltieani had no doubt about that. His nephew, Kudhitea or Muto, to the family, was a member of a bodyguard force. Muto's present employer, Ambassador Hebr Mo'lu had given him time off to protect Lonnie. Why he made that generous offer he didn't say nor was Muto informed, or if he was, he gave no hint to his uncle. What complicated the issue of the attacks on Lonnie were the death threats made against Kali. Maltieani was angry that so much was getting past his security which meant to him, someone on his team was rouge. He shook his head and stood for a few moments looking over the owner's reconditioned quarters.
"Are you sure you want her up and dancing in two days?" Muto asked.
"Doc said it's possible without killing her. I don't want whoever did this to profit from it. She's healthy, and she's not a drug addict. She'll be sicker than a first time sailor but she'll make it. She wouldn't have it any other way, Muto. I've known her to have the flu and still perform."
"That diva, her partner, she was sniffing around here."
"Does she know you're here?"
"No, sir. I watched her try to use a keycard. I've been rotating the code so no one will be coming through that door without busting it down." He pointed at the medical elevator which the owner had direct access to the medilab. "That's the only weak area. But I got that covered too." He held up a tiny capsule.
Maltieani frowned. Lifting his arm he muttered a code in his com and then waited. He initiated an order to the computer to find out who was selling access codes. "I'll be by later this evening." He glanced at his watch. "I'll signal you before I come up. Before you leave, I'd appreciate some pointers on how to get my troops up to muster."
His nephew nodded. From the moment he had stepped aboard he was taking notes.
On the commander's ride down, the medical elevator stopped at each deck so he could rekey the locks to be certain there was no breach of security. The medilab elevator was inside medical kiosks on each deck. Only an emergency that required a medivac would the elevator be used, giving the ship's owner security during nonemergency times. The doc and commander of security had the key. Since his nephew had come aboard with his equipment, even the doc had to be cleared in order for the elevator to be used.
Rather than take the elevator to the medlab, he got off two decks above and took the crew's elevator to the medlab. He found the doctor holding off two angry people, the diva and her handler.
"What's the problem?" he asked, coming to stand beside the doctor.
"I want to know what happened to Lonnie?" Diva Kali Maxine demanded.
"We do have a right," Yomatta informed him.
"I told them she's resting and seeing no visitors. She will be fine for the performance in two days. She was attacked in the stairwell and it's under investigation. Anything else, they're to see you," she finished, looking tired.
"Well, there you have it. What's the problem?"
"I want to see her."
"Why?" Maltieani asked curiously. "Do you have something worth waking her up for?"
"I won't wake her. I just want to see her."
"She's been under the doctor's care since last night. Quiet is what she needs. Meantime, we're looking for whoever attacked her. Please. Let the doctor get some rest."
"Why aren't you letting me see her?"
"Why are you insisting on it? I'm conducting an investigation and she's under my care until she's feeling better. She won't miss her performance. If you care about her, you'll let her rest."
Kali looked uncertain.
Yomatta pulled at Kali's sleeve. "See that she studies her list of dances," Yomatta told them as she stepped out of the room with the diva in tow. "I told you the pressure would be too much," Yomatta informed Kali with distain.
"If I didn't know better, I would say we're seeing another side of the diva's handler," Maltieani mentioned to the doctor.
"I don't think so. Remember, her sole responsibility is to her client."
"Do you think she has anything to do with what happened to Lonnie?"
The doc shook her head. "I don't know. What's in it for the diva? When Gish was in here earlier, she told me that once this tour is up, Lonnie's being cut loose with orders to get out of the business."
Maltieani snorted. Everyone knew that, which was why Lonnie was looking for property. But why where no one would think to find her? And why would her agent, if that was who it was, give her a strong message to get out of the business?
"Doesn't sound like a good deal to me," the doc added. When Maltieani looked up at her puzzled she added, "To give up something you have a passion for, just to get out of a contract you only have two years more to go. She's not unhappy working here."
"No, she isn't." He glanced at his watch and realized he was late for breakfast with his mate. He tapped is com unit and informed Jol he was on his way.
Breakfast was just being placed on the table by one of the crew. When the two took their seats, she served them their first hot beverage and left.
"So, how is our dancer?" Jol Hrorian the Chief Purser of Entertainment, asked his spouse.
"What's the scuttlebutt?" Maltieani asked instead.
"Well, the new one is that all officers that participated in a certain bet will be disciplined." Jo played with his food for a few moments. "That set off a whole new set of rumors that someone attacked Lonnie which had a lot of people wondering why Ensign Bigs has been isolated to his quarters. His bunkmates can't get a word out of him."
"One of the problems of being married to a security officer is you don't always get the inside information," he told him and kept chewing his food. "But, I'll tell you this, too many people know Lonnie's business and she's not a social butterfly."
Jo nodded. "Yeah. Usually the rumor is about Binky's latest or Mack's new complaint. I'm wondering why there aren't any bets going on about who among the crew will be gone for the next tour. I put the word out that this is not just a trial run. That the head office is serious about hosting stars so anyone with tight lips and clean morals will stay for the next cruise of stars and the others will be out. We'll see who gets tossed for loose lips."
"You sure you can tell who's reliable and who's not?" Maltieani teased.
"Can malduke bettles foretell earthquakes?" Jo asked sarcastically.
"They're never around when you want to ask them." Maltieani gave the standard reply, which both followed with, "Then we're about to have one.'
They finished their breakfast in companionable silence.
* * *
Two days later Lonnie was at the pre-warm-up to their performance early with a purser following with her costumes. She skipped the practice session wanting to save her energy for the performance. Her head was clear but her body ached. For that reason she was eager to get through the night so she could go back to bed. After setting up her costumes she sat and waited for Kali's arrival instead of inspecting the stage. According to the dance schedule there were no solos for her. But then, she was not really feeling interested in dancing. Saddened, she looked out over the empty rows of audience seats. It reflected how she felt. Depression, the Doc had warned her, was a sideeffect of the drug.
"How are you feeling?" Kali asked quietly.
Lonnie glanced at her partner. "Like I've been written out of my own show," she told her mournfully.
"You agreedÉ" Kali began in an angry undertone, standing close enough to Lonnie to whisper.
"I agreed to mentor you, babysit you, and help you get a professional attitude, with the assurance that I would have at least one of my own dances in the mix," she returned tersely.
Muto handed her a drink, effectively interrupting her. Gratefully she gulped her drink, tasting the meds. Lonnie didn't miss the look Kali gave to Andres who then tapped his baton to begin the intro.
"Thank you, Muto," Lonnie told him softly. "That was a lifesaver," she added when Kali moved off. Wearily she rose and moved to center stage, where she would be most of the performance, doing little.
When her appearance was no longer required, Lonnie didn't wait for any curtain calls but walked out with Muto, her costume case packed and ready. Once back in the cabin Lonnie made a bee line for the couch and collapsed.
Muto prepared her another drink and took up his position near her cabin door. The dancer looked miserable. "A cold towel would help," Muto suggested. "I'll get one for you.".
"Muto, you don't have to be my servant," she told him, and sank back onto the couch gratefully. "But that would be appreciated."
It took thirty long minutes before Lonnie was relaxed. An alarm went off, causing Lonnie to roll off the couch and Muto to throw his body over hers. That was how Kali found them when she swung the door that adjoined their quarters open. Whatever she intended to say was halted while she tried to decipher what she was seeing.
"Are you alright," Muto asked Lonnie as he helped her back onto the couch.
"Headache is back." Lonnie moved her eyes with effort to Kali. She was still dressed in her costume. Lonnie guessed she did another interview after the show.
Muto gently lifted her head and arranged her lopsided pillow. Lonnie was relieved because she did not have the strength to do it herself.
"I want to know what's going on," Kali demanded. Yomatta was standing behind her, letting Kali do the talking.
Lonnie just wanted them to go. "So do I. We're just going to have to wait until someone that does know tells us. Until then, I have a headache and intend on sleeping it off." Lonnie hoped Kali would take the hint and leave. Her eyes closed.
"What happened to you? You have to know that," Kali persisted.
"No. I don't," she answered without opening her eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Kali hesitated and then left.
Muto picked up the ice pack and put it behind her neck.
"Have we gotten to the worse part yet, because I'm ready for it to start getting better," she whispered.
"You're sounding depressed, Lonnie," Maltieani's voice informed her.
She opened one eye. Maltieani was standing in the doorway. "You're into sneaking up on me?"
"Muto heard me." He squatted next to her and laid a hand on her forehead.
"Hey, you taking the Docs place?" she asked weakly.
"She's listening to a family complaining that they were poisoned. She told me to check your forehead for fever and then make sure you had your meds. She doesn't trust her staff I guess." He got an affirmative from Muto, "and then get you to bed."
"I'm all for bed. I feel wiped out."
"Then it's a good thing you didn't stay for the diva's interview. Every other question was why are you not doing your dances and was it true someone attacked you. She handled it well, considering she was taken by surprise. She told them she would see that you got more dance time. Generous of her isn't it?"
Lonnie would have pursued the comment but the moment her head hit her pillow she was asleep.
Maltieani keyed the adjoining doors so that no one without his override or Lonnie's authorization could open either.
"How's she doing?" Maltieani asked his nephew.
He shook his head. "She's stubborn. I was surprised she didn't need to be carried back."
"She's made of stern stuff, that's for sure. She lucked out that Kali Maxine decided to do all the dancing this evening. It was pretty, but not like Lonnie's stuff. While she was recouping in the owner's suite no one came by, according to our security sweeps." He was disappointed.
"Did they really ask her why Lonnie wasn't dancing?" Muto asked.
"Yeah, and her response of putting back one solo did not sit well with the audience. That's when the questions of Lonnie's injuries and accusations started to be shouted at her. She stood up to them. Took one question at a time and answered either with '"That's not your business,"' to giving what she thought was appropriate for the public to hear. You can tell she's a veteran at facing hostile crowds."
"I sure would have loved to see that," he told his uncle wistfully.
"I have a video. I'll feed it in here. Do you think you can study it and see if there is anything worth noting security-wise? I've run it through the computer and it came up with some possibilities. I'd like a second look."
"Run it. I'd liked to give a look, just to see what liner's have for spotting potential trouble." He grinned at his uncle. "Good night, uncle."
* * *
"Erich, don't handle me! I want to know what's going on!"
"Kali, get a hold of yourself. It's an on going investigation and until Commander Co releases anything else I have nothing more to tell you. We have four more stops. You have videos on your partners, study them. You can work on what you're going toÉ"
"No I can't. Lonnie helps me and she'sÉshe said she's going to bed. I just saw her and she looked horrible. She moved just fine in our performance."
"She didn't do much of anything in that performance," Erich returned dryly. "When I told you that you could go ahead and work on your stuff, I didn't mean for you to eliminate her dances in the ship's shows. This is still her route and her fan base. Show some respect, Kali. You have what you want on the planet shows."
"I have them eating out of my hand!" she snapped.
"I saw the interview after your performance. They were angry, and they have a right to be. They paid to see Lonnie. Many of them have been taking this cruise on a yearly basis to see her dance. You're going down the wrong track on this, Kali."
"So, what do you want me to do?"
"Go back to giving her equal time on the ship performances. You already eliminated her from your off-shore performances and the finale. The finale was to be the last time her fans see her perform and you took that away from them. You might want to rethink that."
"She hates them. This is doing her a favor as much as me. It's a win-win for both of us."
"Hate is a strong word, Kali. Are you sure? When I saw her dance I would never know what you just said. She's a professional, Kali. She doesn't talk bad about anyone and she gives her all no matter how much she hates the material. Don't be too hasty to write her off because you never know when you're going to need her, or any of the other people you meet on the way back up."
"You sound like Lonnie," Kali muttered.
"Don't underestimate her, Kali. I have but I'm already committed to my mistake"
"Why, what did you do to her?" Kali demanded in her defense.
"I told her she can have her contract if she helped out with your dances for the year. I should have offered her credits instead. With her talent I could have had her train up and coming performers for two years. Anything else you need to know or discuss?"
"No. Talk to you later."
Kali leaned back against the couch. She was getting a headache. She leaned over and picked up the phone, dialing Andres number. His voice mail came on so she let him know they were going back to the fifty-fifty mix.
Kali decided she needed a soak in the hot tub.
For thirty minutes she cried soundlessly in the bubbling waters. She knew it was important to let the tears and hurt out now before she put up barriers and lied to herself about leaving Lonnie behind. She knew Lonnie would not survive living under a microscope nor of the intense plotting of the media to get something embarrassing on her.
For all the unfortunate happenings in her life, Kali had one big factor that gave her her second chance to make a come back. An influential family owed Kali a very big debt, and were responsible for her introduction to the Bettelheims. It helped her case since she could sing, dance, and act. The Bettelheims were powerful in the entertainment industry and if anyone could make someone with talent a star, they could.
Lonnie's eyes blinked open. For a moment she laid still wondering what woke her. She didn't need a bladder break; no one was knocking on her door; no one was calling her on the phone, and there was no alarm clock ringing. Slowly she rose from her bed, taking a deep breath when her rib tweaked. She turned the lamp light on and looked around her, orientating herself to where she was.
A tired looking Muto peeked in. "Good morning. You alright?"
"I'm feeling a lot better. Did they catch that Dankler that attacked me?"
Muto's eyes came more alert. "Actually, whoever attacked you knew where the security cameras were and kept themselves covered. A Dankler, huh? No one reported a trace of one when they found you. That will narrow it down to about twenty-five on board." He lifted his arm com and spoke softly. He appraised Lonnie. "Hungry?"
"Want to freshen up and then we'll see what's cooking on deck nine?"
After her shower, Muto took one. While Lonnie dressed she remembered her conversation with Kali the previous day and felt guilty. Checking her watch she wondered if Kali would want to raid the proverbial ice box this early. She reached over for the com and rang Kali's private line.
It was picked up on the second ring.
"Hi, it's Lonnie. I'm feeling a lot better and I'm really hungry. You want to go with me to grab something to eat?"
"Sure. I'd like that. Let me get some clothes onÉten minutes?"
"Sounds good. I'll meet you out front. Don't be late. I'm very hungry."
Kali laughed and hung up.
While she waited for Motu to clean up she flipped through the channels to see what was going on around the galaxy. She sat up higher in her chair when news of pirate attacks along a normally safe route were being reported. The pirate leader was Br'Mon.
"Oh no," she whispered. "That can't be right."
"What's wrong?" Motu asked. He studied the continuing news footage on Br'Mon and his history with law enforcement.
"Is he expanding out this way?"
"It's not what it seems. Br'Mon contracts out these hit jobs, sending one of his own people to make sure the job is done to his specifications. All his targets have been civilians in the middleclass. He doesn't go after law enforcement, armies, or those with money, he goes after every nation's stabilizing system, the middleclass."
"They keep calling him a psychopath. Why don't they talk about how he's managed to escape capture, how he has credits for these contracts, and how he still has followers that are willing to sacrifice themselves? It takes backing by someone with credits and influence. Do you think this is a class war and what we're seeing is a declaration?"
"It could be his intention to create friction between the classes."
Lonnie's stomach chose that moment to rumble.
"You ready?" Motu asked.
Lonnie rubbed her stomach ruefully. Looking at him closer she reached over to tap his clothing. "What do you have in all those pockets?"
"I can land on an island and survive in this outfit."
That impressed Lonnie. "I'd like one of those. Does it travel well in the desert? Just in case I get lost in one."
"Yep. It uses your body energy and sweat to keep you at comfortable body temperature. It has water lines run along the seams so the water you carry is dispersed about your body that cools you and the suit. You won't feel lopsided as the supply depletes."
Lonnie rapped lightly on Kali's door which opened right away. The three walked down the corridor silently. Kali wondered who would be up at this hour for one kitchen to be opened.
Happy voices greeted Lonnie and Kali. Many of the faces Lonnie recognized during her years of travel on Earl Gray. She felt saddened that it was coming to an end. While Kali and she waited for their orders they chatted with those that came up to them. They wanted to see more of her dancing since this was supposed to be her last trip. That gave Lonnie a lighter feeling to know that they enjoyed her dancing. She did not look at Kali to see how she was reacting. At the moment she did not have the energy to care.
Once they were seated and eating, everyone left them alone.
"I didn't realize I was so hungry," Kali mentioned as she accepted some of the food that was on Lonnie's plate. "You sure you're not that hungry?" she asked looking up at Lonnie.
"I thought I was famished, but I've reached my limit. Good thing I picked up more than what I could eat," she teased Kali.
"I've been training with Tolori, at Gish's recommendation. He has me doing physical conditioning exercises. I didn't realize it would give me a larger appetite."
Lonnie glanced up at a waiter with a beverage tray. "Not for me, thanks."
Kali was going to accept one but caught a slight shake of Lonnie's head. "Not for me either. Thank you for offering." After he left she leaned forward and whispered. "I'm thirsty."
"Then let's go somewhere where I know the drinks are safe," Lonnie whispered back.
As they left Lonnie and Kali waved at the group and followed Muto who seemed to know where Lonnie had in mind. He started back toward their suites and then stopped the elevator two floors above, walked to another elevator and went up one. He rapped on the medilab door and stuck his head in. "Come on. No one's here," he told the two women.
"What's with the cloak and dagger stuff?" Kali asked in a dramatic whisper.
Lonnie glanced at Kali and pointed at a light switch. Obediently Kali switched it on.
"Until I know who wants me hurt I think it would be wise to trust no one."
"Wants you hurt?" Kali asked surprised. "Why didn't security tell me?"
"How did you find out?" Lonnie countered.
"Gish. I was getting a massage from her and she said you OD'd in the stairwell." Kali waved a hand dismissively. "I knew that was a lie and I told her it was. She was asking me why I was so calm when you were in sickbay, recovering from an overdose of sohema."
"Nice to know someone has faith in me and cares." She smiled at Kali and clicked her water container against Kali's. Their eyes met and in that space of time something passed between them.
"So did you see who attacked you?" Then Kali laughed. "I guess you didn't or you wouldn't have a purser attached to you."
Rather than answering, Lonnie asked, "So, what time is our practice?"
"Afternoon. Nothing new. Same steps we've been doing since the beginning of the cruise."
"What do you see practice as?" Lonnie asked, picking up on her flat tone.
"Going over what we're going to do in a performance."
Lonnie shook her head. "It's more than that, Kali. It's both the physical and mental preparation for a performance. Practice sessions start out as a discipline and eventually become part of your actÉpart of your profession. Do you understand?"
"That I should be ecstatic about warm-ups?"
The two women chuckled and then exchanged glances. Neither looked away as they both looked for something in the others eyes.
"Will you let me know where you go?" Kali asked softly.
"When I settle down I'll send you an address," Lonnie assured her.
"I'd like to send you a house warming gift," Kali offered in explanation to the puzzled look on Lonnie's face.
"What's this? A party? And no one invited me?" Doc Pratt asked the two surprised faces that looked up at her. She knelt in front of Lonnie. She lifted her chin so she could study her eyes closer. Her small pen light flashed across Lonnie's eyes. "Looks like you're doing remarkably well. So what brings you two to my clinic?"
"Water. It's the only place I know the water is safe and tasty," Lonnie offered.
"I use a bit of lemon to take out the heavy taste. I gather you're feeling fine enough to go back to dancing up a storm."
"No. I just want to get through the practice session and this evening's performance."
Doc pursed her lips in thought. "I suggest you just do a warm-up before the performance. Leave out the practice sessions at least until next week. How's the formula working?"
"Good. I feel a whole lot better than yesterday."
"You were lucky. Sohema is not a forgiving or forgetful drug. If you had been previously exposed to it, say before two years ago, you would not be free from it today. It's only recently that a counter drug has been developed and it only works on first time exposures."
"Sohema?" Kali asked faintly. "So, what Gish said was true? Someone gave you sohema?"
"Injected her in the back of the neck. Cowards," Doc snorted disgustedly.
"Don't you have drug sniffers on every deck?" Kali asked concerned.
"Standard equipment on all cruise liners, and all DS equipment is checked out at every port before disembarking and before boarding. It's part of the entering and leaving port procedures."
Lonnie's eyes grew thoughtful.
"Well, I have a full day of work to get to. Keep taking what I gave you until your seven days are up," she instructed.
When Doc left, Lonnie rose to her feet. She needed to speak with Maltieani. She turned to Kali. "I'm going to stop and see someone before I head back to my quartersÉ"
"You're not getting rid of me. The only time the drugs could have been smuggled aboard is when Conessa was here because she got hers onboard. Is that what you're thinking?"
Lonnie glanced at Muto and shrugged her shoulders. "It occurred to me." She picked up the phone and tapped in Maltieani's number.
"It's me, LonnieÉ No, I'm alright. Is it too early in the morning to talk about my issue?... Yeah, I got hungry É. Okay." She hung up the phone and looked at the two. "He'll meet us in his office now. You want to ask YomattaÉ?"
"No. I'll tell her about the meeting later. She thinks I should distance myself from whatever is happening with you. I happen to think I'm part of the cause."
Lonnie picked up her hand and squeezed it gently. "Don't be carrying someone else's baggage, Kali. You still have a long life to go and you'll be packing enough of your own before too long."
* * *
Maltieani was directing his purser where to place the kettle of warm tea and cups when they arrived. The purser left when everyone was settled.
"Tea, coffee, water..?" the commander asked.
Muto did the honors of serving.
"I want to know what you're doing about finding illegal drugs aboard and why the sniffers aren't detecting them," Lonnie said.
Maltieani shook his head, looking regretful. "I have an on-going investigation on that subjectÉ"
"If Joleian Wrighton was the original smuggler, it means she has partners still aboard," Lonnie persisted, "or someone else that has immunity for a search."
"Have you remembered anything else besides the idea that it was a Dankler that attacked you?" Maltieani asked.
"A Dankler? Conessa's friend was a Dankler. He was aÉ" Kali snapped her fingers in frustration. "What's the person called when someone rings for assistance in the game rooms?"
"Doriage?" Lonnie supplied.
"That's it. She would meet him outside the salon while I was getting my nails done."
"What makes you say that he was a doriage?" the commander asked.
"Well, even though I wasn't seeing too well then, don't they wear that bright green line down the uniformed leg?"
"How do you know it was a Dankler if you couldn't see that well?" he persisted.
Kali wrinkled her nose. "Smell. When you don't see well, you develop your other senses to compensate. Conessa had that smell clinging to her. I could smell it past her perfume. They have a very distinct smell. Not quite like the Tarner and just short of being annoying like the Jus."
"Does anyone know how you recognize people?" he asked.
"I don't know. I hadn't realized I couldn't see well until I went hiking with Lonnie."
"You think someone is misleading Kali?" Lonnie asked. "Using colors as a queue and maybe scents?"
"Could be. The few Danklers we employ use a scent dampener. I'll get my staff to go over past videos to see who she was visiting. It won't take long."
"I didn't recognize my attackers just by smell," Lonnie told him quietly. "In my travels I've learned a handful of languages. These were two people in a heated argument that didn't notice me until I was nearly on them, and I was going down the stairs making noise. One spoke the language fluently and the other as if it were a second language."
"So, maybe your attack wasn't planned? Perhaps they thought you heard something." He was silent as he thought of the coincidence that the drug found in her closet was the same substance they used on her, unless it was planted, or maybe dropped?"
His eyes rose to meet Lonnie's.
"Sotre," she informed him, following his unvoiced thoughts.
Kali looked back and forth at the two, wondering where and what she missed.
Both knew Sotre as dependable and not someone to succumb to a bribe.
Lonnie rubbed her forehead in aggravation. It was only a suspicion and it was difficult to separate her nervousness of being singled out three times and to the feeling that something was different on this cruise. Added to her unease was a communication with the return address of Albert. It lacked the one line comment coded to identify that it was authentic and whether it was urgent. His lack of information on what she asked him to find out meant someone stripped his original message and sent another one. Someone with access to the transmissions was monitoring her communications. Someone knew her HQ job and had isolated her.
The commander was in his own worry and trying not to react to Lonnie's comment. He had the same feeling in his gut. His staff had been replaced with forty new faces, all with good background checks but he had his doubts on the checker.
"What makes you feel that way?" he asked cautiously.
"Too many incidents this voyage."
"We have a diva on board," he smiled at Kali.
"Too many scattered incidents that don't add up to one person's presence," she clarified. "I've been listening to the chatter on the lower decks. They've had more occurrences this voyage of small failures than any other. I think someone is testing out the ship and how it works, and I mean the whole component - staff and ship."
"I'm naturally paranoid but that would take a great undertaking. It would have to be for something really big as a reward and we're just a mid-sized ship," Maltieani said.
"Whose perusal does the ships systems fall under?" Muto asked.
"Commander Yuel. He hasn't mentioned anything at staff meetings."
"Maybe he's embarrassed," Kali offered. She shrugged her shoulders at the blank stares she received. "People react differently when they're confronted with an unknownÉlike having to report that you can't explain what's going on to fellow officers who seem much more confident or competent in their jobs than you do."
Commander Maltieani Co took a deep breath and silently cursed his second. Perhaps he was expecting too much from someone on their first time out. What was so difficult about preparing a comprehensive but brief report? Was his second over his head and too proud to ask for help? Maltieani frowned. This was not his worst season out but it was quickly shaping up to be just that. The only consolation was his nephew.
"How many people knew you were taking that stairway?" Maltieani asked her.
"I don't know. I only knew I was going to use it right then."
Lonnie thought for a few moments, casting herself back to that time. "There were people waiting for the crew elevatorÉfive too many. ActuallyÉ" she cocked her head to the side looking puzzled. "They weren't from the crew. Not that I'm that good on recognizing the crew, but I remember thinking they were passengers not crew. The way they dressed and acted."
Commander Maltieani Co nodded. "The first security report forgot to mention that the civilian elevator was down and directed passengers to the crew elevator until it was fixed."
"Are you suspicious of your own team?" Kali asked.
"Right now I'm suspicious of everyone, including the captain and my spouse."
"Maybe another approachÉ"
"What do you mean?"
"Like I said, there's something about this ship that doesn't feel right." Lonnie shook her head at Commander Co's uplifted brows. "Too many little things. Like some of the staff isn't trained right orÉ" she sighed. "The waiters that do things out of characterÉ Maybe it's because this is their first time out, but aren't they trained on their ship's duties before they ship out?"
Kali suddenly leaned forward, "You mean offering a beverage? Isn't that their job?"
Lonnie shook her head. "No. They may for a guest if they know them well, but not for a fellow crewmate, and we are considered part of the crew. It was out of character."
"Maybe because it was the diva," Muto offered from his post.
Lonnie shook her head unconvinced. "He offered me first. Why me? Everyone knows I'm weird about drinking or eating from something I don't know is safe. Our dinner came from a common pot and I could see the person preparing it. However, the beverage, it was my favorite drink. I also thought it odd that Wrighton was dragging the owner's nephews into something that could be very messy. I remember that Clamont Stanley's children, a boy and a girl had died years ago with his wife in a plane crash, and that he hadn't remarried. I also know he has stopped visiting his various ships two years ago. My guess is that he's sick. If that's so, then his relatives will be jockeying into position to take over his businesses. Not many people know that his secretary is a business partner so a lot of the shifting around will be for not, unless someone kills off the partner."
Commander Co leaned back letting out a small sound of air. "Where did you hear all that?"
"Rumors on the market report, and guessing about some of it, on my part."
"Well, we're lucky scuttlebutt hasn't picked up on that."
"How do you know so much," Kali asked Lonnie.
I read a lot."
Commander Co nodded and looked over at Kali. "For your part, perhaps you should go over the press releases with Yomatta before you have your interviews. I spotted a few news media journalists in the audience the other day that aren't really journalists. They came onboard at the last port. Since we're booked for the rest of the trip, I suspect a passenger sold his or her cabin to them."
"Commander, there are bound to be more media and free lance journalists at the last leg of this journey to report on my progress and see if they can scoop their competitors on where I might be heading with my career."
By his nephew's wink, he should have thought of that. He is after-all, head of ship's security.
"I'll make sure Yomatta gives you an updated list of anyone that can cause trouble for me, but you do monitor communiquŽs that are passed to the crew and passengers, don't you?"
The commander grimaced. "Now, Diva Maxine, please don't let that get around. We only do a surface scan of people's mail."
Lonnie snorted in disbelief. "I think we deserve a little more truth on that matter."
"We have a few passengers that we keep an eye on," he told her. "But we have only the cruise liner's interests in mind. It isn't detailed snoopingÉ" He stopped at Lonnie's expression. Another thing he mentally made a note to personally look into.
Kali glanced over at Lonnie. "I guess you have a spotless background."
"Obviously not so spotless if I continue to be someone's target."
Kali's eyes took on a thoughtful look. Erich had done a background on Lonnie to make sure her preference for privacy was not due to a dark past and he found nothing noteworthy with the exception of a fan letter she had sent to her when they were both young.
"Well, you both certainly added some interesting points in my present investigations. This chat was very informative. I thank you for your time."
"More grist for the mills, eh?" Lonnie smiled at him.
"Knowledge is a wild thing and must be hunted before it can be tamed," Kali quoted from an old proverb.
"Pursuits become habits," Lonnie replied, grinning at her.
"Experience without learning is better than learning without experience," Kali returned quickly.
Commander Co chuckled. "If you have a proverb that can motivate my team, I can do with one."
"A person that promises too much means nothing," Lonnie promptly answered.
"Pride often wears the cloak of humility," Kali responded.
Both women looked at each other with grins. Lonnie turned to the confused Commander. "Chances are, the person you least expectÉ"
"The butler, but in your case, the purser," Kali told him with false solemnity.
They all laughed.
"So, what do you think all this is about," Maltieani asked Lonnie.
"Politics, power, and money. The usual." She rose from her chair, signaling she had enough of the conversation.
"That's it?" Kali asked disappointedly.
"Yeah. I hate getting involved. I'm going to find myself something to do to forget all this stuffÉlike watching a comedy or light drama."
"Can I watch too?"
"Sure. But it's a movie on river rafting, it will have some scary parts," Lonnie warned Kali with a grin.
"Watching it is not the same as being there. I can vouch for that." She peered back at Muto. "Hey, do you want to watch my first adventure on a rafting trip? I had a good camera tech taking the pics."
Lonnie chuckled. "The very thing I was thinking about."
"So, what did you get out of that meeting with the commander?" Kali asked as they walked back to their cabins.
"There's a saying that when the weapon is a bomb, it doesn't matter where you're standing, you'll be affected."
"There must be somewhere safe," Kali said.
Only if some poor fool throws herself on it to save the others. "So, Muto, you like river raft rides?" Lonnie asked.
"Well, we have us a wanna-be movie star that gets wet in her first raft movie. And she looks good wet." Kali gave her an elbow.
Lonnie turned to her pillow and pounded it down. Leaning back she tried to take a nap. They had a warm-up session before the performance and though she was feeling fine physically, her thoughts were a jumbled mess.
Gods but I hate to think this ship is what Br'Mon is interested in but it's so middle class with a few wealthy that like to rub elbows with the common folk.
Lonnie turned on her side and looked at the clock. She had twenty minutes before she had to get ready.
Are passing any dangerous spots? I haven't heard, and usually the spy magazine has all the hot spots listed daily. Crackle would have said something on our last training session.
No closer to an answer, she got up and dressed. On the way to the hall she mentally ran through the dances.
Muto, standing near her, kept a close eye on who joined them in the crew elevator and was relieved when they safely arrived at their destination without incident.
Kali had not arrived but it was still early, so Lonnie warmed up alone. The steps came back easily. Mac, a piper with their band, blew a tune to her foot tapping. When she finished the dance a lone clapper turned her head.
Kali stood in the wings looking pleased. "You're feeling much better. That was great. Why haven't we done any reels or jigs like that?"
"We can tonight. Want to try?"
"Yes. I remember doing those a long time ago. They were fun."
"Okay. Let's do '"Ride the Merry Wagon"'. That's a fun reel and it can be done with two people."
Practice went well with both women feeling too cheerful, considering the uncertainty of events happening around them. When their practice time ended and the two were headed back to their cabins, it dawned on Lonnie that Kali may not have the correct shoes for the dance.
"Do you have clogging shoes?" Lonnie asked, breaking the silence.
"Yes, and hiking shoes too. Don't all dancers carry a shoe for any occasion?" Kali replied.
"When was the last time you wore them? You'll need them for the Celtic reel."
"That's right. They would make a much better rap on the floor. I'll try them on when we get backÉ Uh, oh."
Yomatta was heading to them and by her expression she was not pleased.
"Need protection?" Lonnie asked concerned.
"No, no. I'll see you later." Kali walked faster to close the distance to her.
Lonnie looked after Kali for a few moments, watching her slip her hand under Yomatta 's elbow and steer her back to the passenger elevator. "I can't wait to finish this gig and go on a two month vacation. Never again will I get talked into babysitting divas or like-minded egos."
Lonnie soaked in the cabin's small hot tub, watching on the screen dances of the jig and reel to make sure her memory was fresh. The dance she chose was a classic and it was old enough to be a treat to her fans. She was grateful Kali and she were skilled enough to put something new in their schedule without much practice. Dragging herself out of the tub she dressed and sat cross legged on the couch, playing her guitar and not thinking.
"It's time," Muto announced to her.
Stretching, she felt her leg muscles tighten from the unfamiliar steps they practiced.
She packed her costumes and again relied on Muto to get her to her destination safely. The audience line into the theatre was winding through the corridor and many murmured appreciative words as she made her way to the performer's entrance. Kali joined her from a passenger elevator.
"This turnout is really great." Kali waved and nodded at the line of people that were calling her name.
"So how's Yomatta?" Lonnie asked.
"She's fine. She was just upset because Commander Co left some videos he wanted me to go over to see if I recognized anyone that was a threat to me. He, umm, made mention of our early morning meeting."
"So, where will you be on your two day leave?" Kali asked.
"I don't know. Depends what I'm in the mood for."
Kali looked at her surprised. "You don't plan?"
"Not always. I don't really like the culture at this port."
"Well, what did you do the other times you visited here?" she asked curious. She walked through the door that Lonnie held open.
"We usually hire a ship to take us to the moons. They have eight of them. We climb and hop around, and do some underground exploring but I'm not in the mood for any of that right now."
"Are you going to stay aboard?"
"No," she said firmly. There was a new orbiting shopping mall within hours from Pedmot that was having a grand opening for those with special passes. She was one of those that won seven gold passes. Crackle, her SL or squad leader, and Ensign Tamu were two of her guests as well as others. She didn't want Kali to know about it because she may ask to come along, and she would probably cave in and ask someone to give up their spot.
Instead she changed the subject. "Andres, why the grin?"
He turned to watch his two dancers walk over to him. "We have some new background video to run while you two dance the reel. CPE Hrorian had some nice stuff on file so we'll run it during the first three of your dances," he commented.
"So we don't get surprised, give us a fast preshow."
Andres signaled to the stage grip. A surreal appearance of a castle surrounded by rolling hills imposed itself over the bare stage.
Lonnie liked the atmosphere around the castle, with the wide open land.
"Nice back drop," she commented when it ended. "Shall we?"
Kali gave Lonnie a hand squeeze.
The curtains pulled up and the show began, against the backdrop of a castle. Quickly the scene changed as the camera moved over rolling hills and came to a stop in the castle's courtyard. The music started out slow as the scene unfolded, but when Lonnie flew onto the stage from a ballon, a leap where the dancer is suspended for a few moments before touching the stage, the crowd gave a brief appreciative applause, then quickly became silent as the rhythm sped up. Lonnie's feet tapped out a lively jig, with the musicians keeping up. The audience broke into more claps of delight. As Lonnie moved over the stage dancing and jumping, she felt euphoric and at the top of her world. When her solo finished, she paused in place, catching her breath. The music changed and Kali came out dancing a jig, her feet flashing and stomping against the floor. She came to a stop and curtsied before Lonnie, who moved into a skater's hold and they both began to dance a reel punctuated with stomps. By the time Kali danced off the stage, the audience was cheering and whooping. The energy was intoxicating and invigorating. Lonnie gave them another jig and left the stage. Kali delayed her entrance for her solo, letting the audience continue with their whooping and yelling in appreciation of Lonnie's dance and to give Lonnie more time to catch her breath. Kali gave her a big smile and a thumbs up.
At the completion of their performance Kali held onto Lonnie to stay for the question period.
"No. Enjoy yourself," Lonnie whispered to her. As she walked out the stage door, she heard the cheering from the crowd as Kali greeted them. She paused to listen to Kali's warm voice thanking them for their support of her and her partner. Not wanting to hear anymore, she closed the door.
Lonnie stopped at one of the public phones and called Crackle to confirm their departure time. She was impatient to leave. Crackle was not answering her com. "This is Lonnie, when's our departure time? I'll be in my cabin so call me when you get in. Bye."
"Do you know much about her?" Muto asked as they turned down Lonnie's corridor.
Lonnie glanced at him and saw furrows over his brow. "She's my budoi. But don't get too impressed, she says I have a long way to go before I think about getting dado tats."
Muto laughed. Only hired assassins, mortleige, wore dado tats, tattoos that covered their entire body.
"So, why are you interested in Crackle?" she asked as she watched Muto check out the room.
"I don't believe we have seen the end of your pursuers," he answered, slipping a device back into his pocket.
"Are you suspicious of an assistant chief purser who knows self-defense or are you looking for recruits?"
His grin widened. "You never know when you'll be called into action."
A chill skittered down her spine. "Well, that's a fact," she said softly. HQ sent him.
"I noticed you keep up with the latest gadgets," he took a seat on the couch. "So, how much do you really know?"
"Just what I told Maltieani. Something is happening on this ship and I can't figure out what. The crew feels off, the ship feels off. Why would someone want to eliminate me?"
"I don't know. It's the nature of the attacks on you that has HQ alarmed. They weren't intended to kill you, just remove you permanently from the scene."
"From the scene?" Lonnie asked cynically. "Addicting me to sohema is a life of addiction and it would have left me worthless to anyone. The catperson's attack on me on UrBoka would have left me scarred where no amount of cosmic fix would help. That would have been removed me from more than a scene. Who would benefit from me being totally out of the picture and before the end of this tour?" Lonnie rubbed her forehead in irritation. "Sometimes it's better not to know who your executioner is," she quoted.
"Do you know who is behind the attacks?" Muto asked curiously.
"I think it's tied to the diva but I think she's just another player on the board like me."
"That's why you're an observer. But when I arrived, I could feel something off with this ship. I don't have all the top-of-the-line equipment with me to locate it or identify what it is, but I'm going to bet someone has an energy emitter that is intended to cover something a sensitive would otherwise pick up. Do you know of any other sensitives on the ship that could or would feel it?"
Muto looked surprised.
"It's why I asked him to come along on this trip. He can pick apart an audience and know what they want to hear. When I'm dancing I just like to dance, not divide my attention with the crowd and what's going on around me. But he's been a lot more vigilant about what's been going on around him than normal. He's carrying a weapon too."
Muto pointed at her accusingly, "So, even before you started this tour you knew something was not right. Why didn't you signal HQ?"
"What was I going to tell HQ besides I have this feeling? They would have attributed it to my new manager, and it could well have been that. Until I boarded I didn't know from where I was getting feelings of something wrong was going to happen. If I waited until I identified where the feelings were coming from, it would have been too late to get someone I trusted to watch my back. And I'm not the only one that felt something wasn't right. Shari felt it too."
"So brief me, what all is feeling off to you?"
"The biggest is that there's too much activity going on around me. It feels like someone's trying to keep me off-balance."
"Muto, in the entertainment industry, there are always leaks if an agent is going to retire. Ben sold out so suddenly I don't think HQ knew. Then, my new agent wanted me to baby-sit a diva that is known to be temperamental, which would take a lot of my attention. And oh, by the way, anyone who knows me, is aware I used to have a heavy crush on her. So, we have here, a nobody babysitting a diva on a ship ill-prepared to handle any stars on-board. Two oddities. Then I was informed by this new agent, that not only would I be given my contract at the end of this gig, but I was to disappear from public sight and never again contact the diva. You don't think I would be suspicious? You don't think I would be spinning my wheels on the mystery of that and the rest of my time trying to handle the diva?" she asked cynically. "Another odd thing about the divaÉ If she was all that important to our agent, why didn't he run a background check on her first handler, who was a known drug dealer?"
Muto made a little noise and nodded.
"Then there's been incidents of pirate attacks along the tour routes and the news that Mu'Buto has been hiring contractors to knock out businesses that service the middle class. I looked up why he likes to the target the middle class, but it's really simple to figure out what the middle class represents economically for all planets. They stimulate commerce more than any other group of people. They consume more products, they travel more, and most importantly, they think outside of the fundamentalists' propaganda, and it's because they travel and see what is really going on."
"Which is one reason the Galactic Counsel encourages through sponsorships, tourism," Muto agreed.
"Exactly. Knock out your class of stabilizing citizens and you have chaos. In chaos, a well planted group of political activist can take over a government and once done, only an armed insurrection will get rid of them, and the GCC is obligated to send troops to prop up whichever side will give more stabilization to the region."
"You're really up on the political scheme of things, so what do you think is up with the ship?"
"I think this ship is going to be taken over under the guise of pirates." She held up her hand as Muto was going to say something. "Somebody wants this ship, not for plunder, but the whole ship. My problem with this is twofold. One, why not wait when the ship is docking for it's yearly maintenance so the passengers won't be a problem? Two is it's unstable."
Muto was quiet for a few moments. "This isÉ" He pursed his lips and shook his head. "I'll agree with you so far as something is going to happen on this ship."
"But all the other stuff may be circumstance, or a coincidence?" Lonnie shook her head. "Nothing is coincidence. My other guess is, someone high up in government is involved, and it was leaked to other people that think they can gain from it. We're going to be boarded, but by who and when I'm guessing it's going to be before we reach our last port. There's a big stretch of space that Earl Gray picks up speed to cross."
"Uncle did say he's disappointed with the latest crew rotations."
"Their replacements may have good background clearances but they stink at their duties and attitude," Lonnie agreed. She noticed that each strike team lost a member and were not replaced due to lack of trust. Lt. Miles as second in security was suspiciously too nosey.
Muto waved a finger at her, "You know a lot to have been caught off-guard with a dart."
"Even the best have weak moments," she responded.
"My job is to make sure you safely make it to the end of this cruise."
"Really? By whose orders? And what makes me so special?" She pointed at his left arm which he always had covered. "Your tat is an aro. A bodyguard service for people with more credits than they will ever use in one lifetime. Too expensive for me to afford. And I know the owner of this ship is not going to be protecting someone as unimportant as me. So, are you saying I'm part of that group? That's who HQ is?"
She leaned back in her chair and continued, "Someone is planning something big and they have their team scattered all over this ship and so does the other team that doesn't want them to succeed. I don't know which team I'm supposed to be on, but I don't think it matters. Whatever is planned, I pose a problem. Who is due onboard this last leg of the journey?"
"A healthy amount of paranoia is good. Just don't let it incapacitate you."
"You didn't answer my question, Muto. I'm a good judge of people and I will say, you don't intend me harmÉso, who does?"
Muto shook his head. "I don't know. Uncle doesn't know. HQ certainly doesn't know. You're right about taking on some passengers that are important at the last port stop but it has nothing to do with you and they aren't people that anyone would recognize."
"You're lying, Muto. That tat on your arm is proof that you're here for something important. You're assigned to protect meÉan observer. Why? Because too many observers have been disappearing lately, or is that just until the end of this gig and then you off me?" She leaned forward. "I know I have no subliminal orders or a chip embedded in me."
"We work for the same boss, yes. That means we are on the same team, Lonnie."
She held up a warning finger. "When I end my contract with Erich I end my usefulness with HQ. I'm grateful that I've never been asked to supply anything more than observations of people, but now, I'm involved in something that is obviously concerning someone important enough to send you here."
"I'm really here to protect you. Why are you learning self-defense?" he asked.
"It's a sport and I hardly would say that after the attack on me by that catperson that anyone would find it suspicious that I'm learning self-defense. It was my first experience in being attacked and I froze. I wouldÉ" The soft buzz from the cabin com interrupted her. She leaned over to answer it. "Yeah?... Sure, I'm readyÉ.. Doppler shoes? OkayÉ.Bye." Lonnie hung up the phone and grinned at Muto. "Looks like everyone is ready. Want to come along? We're going to visit the new Pleasure Chest in orbit around Appican. Ever heard of it?"
"No, I don't believe I have. What kind of pleasure do they serve?
"Toys. All sorts of toys. They have toys from historical to the most recent sophisticated electronics."
Lonnie grinned. "Have you ever read the Plausi?"
"I've heard of it." He tilted his head a little and looked at her in disbelief. "Are you telling me you read that junk?"
"I can tell you've never read any of their advertisements. They're known for their far out articles but they are subscribed to for their advertisements. You won't find spyware equipment as advanced as in Plausi in any of the established journals because governments can't keep up with the advancements in electronics and bugware so they don't want the stuff out in public. What the spyware inventors and manufactures have done is buy a partnership in an orbiting mall and parked it off a planet that was not intimidated by the others for endorsing it."
"Who has the money to back a floating toy mall?"
"There're a lot of entrepreneurs that invest in the building of floating cities. Some run out of money and instead of everyone including the shipyards losing money, the city is finished and put on the auction block. The starting bid covers the cost to build it. Some are a great investment. This city, Brid and Appicians put a bid on it. They turned the place into a toy city with apartments for the workers and hotels for those that want to shop until they drop. They have game rooms with the latest and greatest, and the spyware shop, Brid's Spyware Shop to be exact."
"The Appicians are barely into the space age," Muto snickered.
"They have a lot to gain, a lot to prove, and they're the one's that will provide the people to service the city and its workers."
"So I'm invited?" he asked hopefully.
"You're my bodyguard, right? Can't leave home without you."
* * *
"How are we going to get there?" Muto asked Crackle who led them through the corridor to one of the shuttle bays.
"A shuttle." She looked over at him with a grin. "It helps to have connections and something everyone wantsÉfree passes to a toy mall."
Their transportation was the owner's private yacht. Small, unpretentious, and easily overlooked. Joh was the pilot and kept it well maintained. It wasn't unusual for her to take it out during port stops.
"I have a special pass to move to the front of the line for being a stockholder. It's unfortunate that your uncle couldn't come, Muto, but we have his wish list. It's his ticket you're using."
Four people Muto knew only by face climbed aboard the shuttle EG Mistress D with bags. Muto nodded at Lt. Miles who had his girlfriend with him. Looking around to study just who was aboard Muto wondered why most looked like they could take care of themselves in an alley.
"You're staring," Lonnie's voice whispered near his ear.
Muto started and then had the grace to blush. "Sorry," he whispered back.
"Yo, Lonnie!" Severon, a tall maseson that spent most of his time in the engine room hailed Lonnie as the yacht was cleared and made space. "I read the advertisement on the toy mall. We have a bet going that they're exaggerating, and will claim it's a translation error. Want to get in the pool?"
"I'll bet it's more than what you can image and better," Lonnie countered. "Want to bet on that?"
"You think?" he laughed. "What makes you say that?"
"Did you read who all invested in redesigning it?"
He waved his hand in distain. "I don't do the invest sheets. Cone does that stuff." He laughed at the red face of the smaller sailor that everyone knew was a shrewd investor with what little he made in wages. For protection against those larger than his three foot one inch height, he befriended Severon who was six feet three inches and husky.
"I would invest in anything that the Brid and Appicians put stakes in," Cone agreed.
"Really?" Crackle asked.
"There's one thing you have to be sure about though," Lonnie grinned. "Make sure it's not just the object itself that they invested in."
"Coming about. All passengers ready your disembarking credentials," Joh announced to everyone as she changed course to fall in behind other ships hovering in free space.
"Joh, tell the station keeper we have an appointment. Ticket 0770. Gold pass."
After a few moments they were given the go ahead to move up the line with their running lights flashing.
"Prepare to present your passes, and according to the docking agent, wear your gold pass in view," Joh directed as her hands moved over the controls to dock and secure all stations.
The seven picked up their bags quickly and began to exit orderly.
"Okay, we've got ten hours. Everyone check your watches," Lonnie ordered. "Let's get."
The group all crowded in a circle and did a quick tap of their fists in the center and let out a 'rah' before peeling off in different directions. Lt. Miles and his girlfriend were the first out, missing the 'rah'.
Muto watched them split up confused. "What's going on?"
"We can't visit the entire place ourselves so we have our stores and a list of what to get in each," Lonnie explained, holding up her list. She turned into a store that specialized in sounds. "We're going to see how much we can get quickly and if we left anyone out, do the second day," she explained further.
Muto looked around and found it was not simply music but small and large electronic and microchips that emitted various sounds to either immobilize or sooth someone to sleep.
"Just what are you looking for?" he asked Lonnie, wondering just who this woman was who gave him the impression she hated this sort of stuff.
"Something to counter any one of these things," she muttered as she read the descriptions. "Look at this one. It does all that these other's do butÉit's very cheap."
"New company. I don't recognize the name."
Lonnie keyed into the hand computer they received on boarding the shopping mall her purchases and then moved on. Everything purchased could either be delivered or picked up to take with her when she checked out.
"Okay, let's go over to the surveillance cameras."
* * *
The entire crew was back with their shuttle earlier than anticipated, exhausted, but excited to test out their purchased items. Muto had called his employer and was given the go ahead to purchase what he judged to be useful. They would be shipped out that night. His excitement was being the first in his group to actually use them.
"I can't understand why you want to leave so soon. We have the yacht until tomorrow. We can spend the night. They have a great hotel and service," the lieutenant told the group again. Crment, his girlfriend jabbed him in the ribs. Everyone was getting tired of it.
"You and Crment can stay," Crackle told him. "You don't need us to have a romantic night, or I hope not."
"I want to get back to the ship and hook this stuff up," the Jerish replied.
"Me too. We have to get this stuff separated too."
Lonnie was in the backseat activating two of her purchases. One was the latest in blocking the wearer's image and voice from any recorder, including the ship's passenger locator. She also had a soundless immobilizer. Next time she was attacked her attacker would never know what happened to him. She also purchased other things for friends scattered about the galaxy and had them mailed off to them. For Kali she found some anti-stalker-ware that was easily attached to her person and to any com equipment.
She glanced at Muto who was efficiently testing each item he had and then storing them on his person.
"Crackle went to the luxury shop and picked me up my foot comforter," Crment remarked. "I can't wait to see if it's as good as the advertisement says."
"Just what does it do?" Crackle asked out of curiosity. "I didn't get a chance to read the advertisement on it."
Crment was Mobo. Their feet were very important to them. If you wanted one to fall in love with you it would help if you knew how to stroke, massage, and tickle the hairy ten toed appendages.
"Well, you wrap it around the foot like a blanket and it becomes like a soft balloon palpating against the major stress points."
Crment worked at one of the most stressful jobs, the complaint desk.
"If it works, I'll buy one," Lt. Miles informed her.
"So, Lonnie. What did you get for yourself?" Crment asked.
"The usual anti-fan thing."
"Ah. Our reclusive dancer," Crackle laughed.
"Hey, back there," Joh called to her passengers, "did the Commander say anything about running a drill while the tourists were offship?"
Everyone was quickly looking out the port windows. One beacon occasionally flashed. It was the emergency beacon. All the hanger bays were opened.
"Did anyone hail you?" Muto asked quietly from behind Joh's shoulder.
"Not a peep," Joh reported.
"Don't hail them," Muto softly instructed her.
"The emergency beacon is giving intermittent sends." Lt. Miles informed everyone loudly. "Come about to the third bay, Joh. Everyone, let's treat this as trouble."
"We need counter terrorist attack equipment," Crackle countered. "Starboard, under the flap, Joh."
"Stow the goods. I don't want anyone stealing what I paid for," Cone muttered. "Hey, you have anything we can use?" he asked Lonnie.
Lonnie was already fishing in her purchases. She handed out image blockers but refrained from the immobilizers since she only had two and the second was already claimed. Her fear for Kali was beating hard against her chest. Small hand weapons used mostly by tourists in the outback, that did not kill, were another's purchase. Dono had ordered two dozen. Lonnie passed them out.
"Don't lose them or you're going to have to face a very disappointed fire queen," Crackle told the others. "Dono is our fire chief," she explained to Muto.
"What else do you have?" Lt. Miles demanded.
Lonnie glanced up at him. "Nothing else that we can use."
"Let's get," Crackle whispered. "Listen, since we don't know about the others, we're in scatter mode." She glanced at the lieutenant and at his girlfriend. "I take it you've been on the ship practice runs and know what to do?" She directed that at Crment and Miles.
"Of course!" Miles said impatiently.
"Then Miles, your job is to secure deck one. You know it better than any of us."
"Well, wait a moment. Aren't we supposed to be acting like a team? Stay together and back each other?"
"We don't know what's happening, Miles. None of us have been on deck one and we need someone to get up there and let the rest of us know if the bridge has been taken. Follow the general orders the captain and Commander Co have setup. It's a no brainer."
"It's not a good idea to split up," Miles told her more forcibly.
"If you don't think you can do it, Cone can head up there and check out the scene," Crackle informed him firmly. "We don't have time for this so make up your mind. You're in or out."
"I'm in." His quick glance around him told him he was not being looked at with favorable eyes.
Joh was approaching the flap in a leisurely way so as not to set alarms. Since she was flying the owner's yacht it didn't have the usual hailing sequence and since they were acting as if there was trouble, Joh had dampened her readings.
"I've deck nine to secure. You're with me Muto," Lonnie informed him in an undertone.
Lonnie stopped at a row of lockers with the others who quickly donned on protective gear and armed themselves. They all moved to their assignments.
"How do you know this is not a trap?" Muto asked in a whisper as the two waited for an armed man to finish his inspection of cabins on deck nine.
"We don't. For them to be onboard means it's an inside job."
"So what's your purpose on this deck?"
"Seal it, neutralize any dangerous situations andÉ" she held up her neutralizer, "if anyone gets violent, I'm going to zap them."
"If it's an inside job then they're going to know about you guys, right?"
"That's why Crackle split us up. We were supposed to be gone until tomorrow."
"What does anyone want with this little cruiser?"
"Well, that's what I was hoping you would tell me."
It took ten minutes to make a full sweep of the deck. Using sensors, she found no passengers and assumed they were either herded somewhere or they had left for a tour. She climbed into a maintenance tube. She tapped in a code that said she completed her task and waited for her next set of instructions.
"Beta, beta, beta," a voice whispered in her ear piece.
Lonnie shut her com link, quickly moving through the tube to another exit and out, and then to another level. Muto followed, keeping his eyes peeled. Finally they slid into the darkest room he had ever been in. They could feel the ship powering up.
"What's going on?" Muto whispered.
"A traitor has been identified. We're on our own. My guess is that this ship is going to be moved, and that must be stopped."
Suddenly a ship-wide announcement went out. It was repeated in many foreign languages and it was only one sentenceÉ "Surrender or someone dies every minute".
"Since they're not mentioning who to surrender my guess is that they're shooting in the dark," Muto surmised.
"My thoughts too. Ah. Here it is." Lonnie found the lid and resting her hands on the keypad, typed out her code. The lid lifted and Lonnie then keyed in another code. She could feel the vibration under her finger tips end.
Muto heard a soft hum and then it stopped.
"What did you do?"
"In five minutes the pirates will know that the ship is dead in space. Lock down will occur first, where all levels are closed for passage and sleeping gas will be dispersed. Now, we need to find out where this traitor isÉ" her voice faded out as she listened to feet pounding their way. "They may be able to override it if they know I've already engaged it," she whispered to Muto.
"Shall we fight them?" Muto asked.
"Yes," Lonnie whispered. She moved to a place she would have an advantage. She only had to fight for her life twice and neither time did she escape unharmed. Hopefully, Crackle's tougher workouts gave her enough skill to automatically know what to do. Or there was always the neutralizer she had just purchased.
Four hooded people came into the ship's belly where the ship failsafe controls were located. Lonnie guessed the men were here to prevent anyone from the ship to start the lockdown. Too late, she smirked.
Conversation from the interlopers was brief and in a language Lonnie couldn't understand but Muto could. He gestured to Lonnie he was listening.
The invaders had goggles on and probably would have spotted her sooner if they expected someone to be there. She took out the first person easily. His body went limp, and silently flopped to the ground. Quickly she stripped him of his gear. Not having any use for the weapons she found on him she stuffed them in a trash receptacle that would automatically identify what was dumped and neutralize it accordingly. Though she had her own set of goggles, she kept his. No telling who she would meet that would need a pair.
The invaders had split up, making it easier to take them out one-by-one. Lonnie guessed they didn't know where exactly the newly installed failsafe control panel was. She wouldn't have either had she not been in the owner's quarters to recoup for two days. Boredom and an intelligent observer could figure out puzzles when the embedded symbols were part of the designs on the ceiling in the bedroom.
As she moved behind a post, she heard the grunt of someone behind her. Pain laced through her leg, and she dropped to her knee, firing behind her. Still on one knee, she spun around and caught the falling man's body and his weapon. Awkwardly, she lowered him to the ground, panting from his weight. Muto came to assist her, then patted her shoulder. He signed for her to remain where she was and then disappeared.
He reappeared when one of the intruders thinking a wounded Lonnie was an easy target attempted to shoot her. That was all of them. They both made sure none of the invaders had weapons or anything that would give their location away.
"We can't dump them out nor can we let them just lay here," Lonnie mentioned to Muto, trusting he would have more ideas than her.
Suddenly the alarm she set went off and gas flooded the room they were in. The doors slammed shut and locked them in.
"Gestof!" Muto cursed. "We're being gassed!"
"Right, that's why you have this." She tapped the collar of the armor he had on. "You can use that or, we can use what they have. Nice of them to come prepared. Two minutes and the noise starts. Activate the collar button."
While Muto pushed the fourth body into a capsule, Lonnie was accessing a computer console.
"The pods won't take off without the code," Lonnie explained to him.
"Are you going to launch them?"
"No. But they won't be going anywhere. I need to see what's going on."
"What are you doing?" Muto asked.
"Well, according to my team leader, Crackle, there's a program that will show us everyone's location."
"What if they're wearing these gizmos you're wearing?"
"Who said I'm scanning for bios? Darn! The program has been removed. A spy must have access to the security computer."
"Like you said, we're on our own. I say we take the bridge."
They felt the ship keel to the left as if taking a sharp turn.
"The bridge will be the most closely guarded, Muto. I'm trained to shut things down until the IPs arrive, not storm a castle."
"You're bleeding," Muto pointed out.
Lonnie looked down at her leg. "No wonder it hurts."
Muto quickly bandaged her up, giving her a pain pill.
"Have you thought of how we're going to get there?" Muto asked.
"Have you ever walked on the outside?"
"Not for a long time."
"Well then, we'll have to split up. You can take the maintenance tube to the bay, see this? Okay, so you'll follow this line. Chances are you'll be running into the invaders that have managed to escape the lockdown and gas. I'm sure whoever is helping them has given them a good layout of the ship and who's who."
"I'll be fine," he grinned. "This is what I do for a livingÉremember?"
"Good. If you see any of our guys, don't trust them. You need to get to the landing bay and deactivate any of the ships these invaders have there. The standing orders are to neutralize without direct involvement." She paused. "You know, right now, I wouldn't even trust them."
They parted at a y-shape in the air shaft. Lonnie went to access a shaft to the outside then paused.
Alright, the primary job has been achieved; send out a beacon for help. Secondary is activating shut down. That's done. Third is to secure passengers. I don't know about that one, and fourth is to remove their ability to escape. Muto can take care of that by himself. I have to know if she's okay.
She turned and headed for their deck. Before dropping into the corridor, she paused to listen to a sound coming from one of the rooms. Someone was searching it. She knew she needed to get out of the air duct because it would be the first place the invaders would look for anyone missing from their list of who is still onboard.
Lonnie exited the air duct on her deck. As she trotted down the corridor she noted all the cabin doors were locked as they should be.
A familiar voice drifted to her. Joleian Wrighton. Turning she spotted a door to the stairwell propped open. She wouldn't have time to close it. Lonnie's heart pounded harder as she looked frantically for a place to hide. Back into the air duck, she thought.
"You moron. I told you to keep an eye on her. I want her," an unfamiliar voice shouted.
Four people entered the corridor and headed in the direction of Lonnie's quarters.
"You're the idiot that botched tagging her," Joleian returned hotly. "Besides, she's half-blind and can't find her way out of a bag. She's got to be here someplace. Meti, are you sure you searched everywhere in her cabin?"
"Fricking idiots don't even know how to secure a ship even when it's handed to them. More than half the decks are locked out. Next time we use my people, not dit-wits hired from the local losers club," the voice continued to complain.
"Dorich, just shut up. You make enough noise to alert anyone hiding around a corner," one of the others muttered. "Did you search Lonnie Bestrolie's quarters?"
"Now there's a bright thought," she replied sarcastly. "If she's going to be hiding it'll be in her cabin," Joleian told the others.
The four passed under Lonnie. They all had weapons held loosely in front of them.
They take over a cruise ship to kidnap the diva?
They stopped in front of Lonnie's cabin door. Lonnie wondered how they were going to break in. Using a shooter would put a hole through the bulkhead and would also rupture something vital to the ship's functioning.
Joleian showed her true talent by faking her voice and calling for the diva to come out. Lonnie nearly laughed out loud until the next comment was a threat on Lonnie's life if the diva didn't come out. Deciding to do something, Lonnie started to move through the air duct to get into her cabin when she heard faint movements ahead of her in the duct. Lying flat she waited.
Kali was nearly on her when Lonnie, having the advantage of the goggles silenced her with a soft warning and then an order to not move. Slowly she slid the extra goggles out of her pocket, passing them onto Kali. She then latched one of her new devices on Kali's collar.
Joleian and whoever she was with turned and went back to the stairwell.
"Where is she?" Dorich demanded.
"She returned to ship after her performance," Joleian insisted. "The manifest doesn't have her going anywhere else."
"Well then one of our spies has some explaining to do," hissed Dorich. "We can't go back without her. Those Bettelheim's are gonna pay for screwing with us."
"Maybe one of the crew knows," one of the others suggested.
"It doesn't do us much good when access to most of the decks is locked to our passage! Morons. I told them not to trust one person's information."
"It wasn't one person. Just shut up and let's get back to our command post. Miles and his bunch can pinpoint where everyone is located."
The four walked to the stairwell and started down.
Lonnie swung down from the vent intending on shutting the stairwell door so that it could lock into place. As she reached the door she faced a startled Joleian. Before she could say anything and lift the weapon she had, Lonnie did a chop to her throat. Lonnie intended to pull her into the corridor and lock the stairwell door, but Joleian had other ideas. Lonnie could hear someone calling for Joleian as the two fought. The throat chop should have incapacitated her and the frantic way she was battling Lonnie she nearly was.
A cold weapon held to her forehead ceased Lonnie's fighting. Joleian took advantage of the situation and punched and kicked her until Lonnie grabbed her and threw her into Lt. Miles who shoved her toward Crment who had a weapon pointed at Lonnie. Joleian was shot and Lonnie was able to chop Miles to the throat, felling him. Lonnie had now to worry about Crment but she turned and ran down the hall instead of down the stairwell. Lonnie scooped up Miles weapon, kicked the door stop loose so the stairwell was sealed, and sprinted after Crment not wanting her to get away. Suddenly a tall battered form appeared before Crment and felled her with a strong armed punch.
"Dahsw!" Severon cursed shaking out his fist.
Lonnie stopped and raised her weapon not knowing whether to trust him or not. Severon understood and held a bloodied thumb up then gave her a sign that Tamu, Crackle and Cone were well. He bound Crment up and activated a riot net. He turned and disappeared back down the corridor that was supposed to have been locked down. Severon's job was to hunt pirates and immobilize them. Severon loved his job.
"I forgot about those nets." She limped back to an unconscious Miles and Joleian. She peered up at the vent and could see a frightened Kali watching for her. Lonnie gave her a thumbs up to reassure her.
Kali dropped to the ground, with Lonnie steadying her. "What do we do now?"
Lonnie quickly patted down the unconscious woman, noting that the shot Joleian took could be life-threatening. Her med pac showed no bleeding but the weapon used damages the victim from the inside out. She activated a riot net over Joleian.
She didn't think securing Miles under the net would keep him. He probably had a counter-key for it. Lonnie removed his clothing rather than worry about missing something he had hid. She used one of his own old fashion restraint lock on him.
Lonnie looked around for the trash bin. "Let's see if these work."
Kali moved to open the lid. "The trash is still here," Kali whispered.
"It shuts down when the distress beacon is activated. A good sign that the distress call has been enabled. Help me dump him. Hold on. Stand away from him," Lonnie warned her. She ran to the maid's room and from the wall pulled a sheet bag down. She and Kali wrapped him up in it and then dumped Miles into the trash bin. "I hate leaving him but I hate even more taking him with us," Lonnie admitted.
Kali nodded. Her teeth occasionally chattered with fear. Lonnie's stomach felt the same, but doing something was better than doing nothing at all. Lonnie tied the trash bin lid down so that Miles couldn't open it. Kali's cold hand slipped into hers.
Now that Lonnie had Kali to worry about, she wondered if she should continue to look for passengers. The ships interior lights started blinking red which meant the air was shutting off in public accesses. Just enough breathable air would flow in quarters to allow a person sleeping to go unharmed. Lonnie fastened her air mask over her face and made sure Kali's was on correctly then gave her a boost back up into the air vent and joined her.
She glanced at her com. It was blinking amber. "We need to find a safe place until the ships been secured. Help is outside the ship." Suddenly Lonnie worried about that and pulled Kali out of the vent. "We need to get to a life pod just in case some nut decides to blow this ship up."
The two women hurried down the corridor worried about who they may run into. "I thought we were too close to the center to be able to get to one," Kali whispered looking about her worriedly.
"I thought locking down the ship meant the corridors were closed at regular intervals. So far the only thing closed is the stairwells and elevators," Lonnie said as she hurried Kali along. "There's a maintenance area that was marked with an access to life pods along here. There it is."
"It's tiny," Kali complained softly when she got a view of it.
"It's a maintenance tunnel for bots," Lonnie whispered back. If she were not part of the strike team she wouldn't have knowledge of what passages would be available for her to move through. But it also meant Miles may have told the invaders of them also.
"You first," whispered Kali.
Lonnie looked back to where they had come from. "Get in Kali!" she lifted her and pushed her through the tube and then followed quickly, feet first so she could close the hatch. She could hear pounding feet echoing along the corridor.
Kali helped pull her out into a darker area. They were in a small room that hummed. It was engineering.
Lonnie pulled Kali along with her as she moved to the neon mark that identified the life pod. She felt for the latch and then helped Kali in. She folded herself in and leaned back in her seat looking through her goggles.
"I don't care what they say, they are not made for two people," Kali muttered.
"According to this, all the life pods on Earl Gray have been activated. That means the ship has been contacted by the local police."
"How do you know?" she whispered.
"I've been doing these drills for the last nineteen years. Didn't you do it the second day we were onboard?" Lonnie whispered back.
"We had the owner's life pod and it wasn't like this."
"When the ship's being boarded by pirates the life pods don't release unless the ship is going to blow because they don't want the pirates to stuff anything in the pods and loosen them. So the pods only become activated when a military or police fleet has the ship surrounded."
"What if the pirates use hostages for bargaining?"
"You'll have to ask the captain on that."
"Do you know what Joleian wanted with you," Lonnie asked.
"No. Was that her who was yelling outside of your cabin door? I had no idea we were boarded by pirates until the yellow light flashed. I thought at first it was a drillÉI mean hardly anyone is onboard."
"What were you doing in my quarters?" Lonnie thought to ask. Lonnie felt Kali squirm into her, trying to get into a comfortable position.
"When the yellow light flashed I panicked. I just found myself in your quarters. I didn't know if you would be there and when I went in and looked for you suddenly the door locked and another light came on." Kali shuddered. "I started to look for something that I could stand on to get into the vent. I remembered a movie where the hero chased the murder through the ship's vents. I don't remember them being that small."
"They're made for robots to service or smaller species if they have a mind to send a living person to do the repair."
"You learn all this from being on a liner?" Kali asked her curiously.
"More like from sharing living space with people that work on a liner," Lonnie corrected.
"I see. That's interesting because the crew sees you as a loner that speaks to few people or should I say that seldom leaves her quarters during sailing."
"Sounds like you've been speaking with Conessa," Lonnie informed her.
"Well, there you go." Lonnie wanted to squirm herself, but the space didn't give her the room and she didn't want Kali to move away from her. "Kali, if I locked myself in my quarters as much as the rumors say, I would go crazy. No one can possibly know what someone does all the time unless there's a camera spying on them, and I'm not that important for anyone to be watching me like that. We did bunk together for a while. Did I spend all my time alone?"
"You spent a lot of time away. So were you alone?" Kali asked.
"Why are you so curious?"
"Because I have nothing better to do right now to take my mind off this small space." Kali gave her a poke with her elbow. "Come on, it's not going to kill you to tell me something I don't know about you," she whispered.
"I read a lot." She got another poke when she stopped there. "And work out a lot, play games with a few friends. I work at keeping a low profile. Nothing exciting. Highly boring for your type of fans. No more pokesÉ" she grunted when a finger jabbed her in a ticklish place.
"What do you read, besides those magazines you mentioned the other day?"
"Whatever I'm curious about. Where is Yomatta?"
"Just to state the obvious, you're changing the subject. Now you worry about her? She was invited to a late dinner with the mayor and a tour of the city in the morning. She tried to get out of it but the mayor was quite determined. I opted out by saying I needed to get back to the ship for rest. Some rest, huh?"
"You weren't expected back on ship?"
"I wasn't expected to remain on the planet."
"Why?" Something about the ships takeover was bothering Lonnie.
"I just wasn't. Besides, if they really wanted me to stay, they wouldn't have had that obnoxious fan amongst the mayor's party. They would have used something to entice me to change my mindÉlike they did Yomatta ."
"Were there a lot of people aboard when you returned?"
"I couldn't tell, it was late and I just wanted to go to bed."
"Did the ship's shuttle pick you up?"
"No. The harbormaster said they couldn't raise anyone. He thought they were pretty tired after shuttling off so many passengers earlier."
"Yeah, to the various tour groups. The usual. Why?"
"They knew you were onboard?"
"It doesn't take much to look at the passenger list, Lonnie. They do body counts when you leave and return."
"I guess I'm just upset they were hunting for you."
Kali shook her head. "Through my career, I've met some really fanatical people that do some crazy things to get noticed and to reach me."
"By the way, how was your performance?"
"It was okay," her voice beamed. "It wasn't the same as dancing with you, but he was good. We had media coverage with a good mixture of reporters afterward. BOsoie Ew, my dance partner, was very polite and didn't crack jokes or say anything embarrassing. But you're right about the culture, they're so boring."
"What could he say that would be embarrassing," Lonnie asked curious.
"In the past I used to think the only person a loose-lipped partner could embarrass is himself, but I've been proved wrong many a time."
"They would make comments that the media would translate as we slept together."
"In fact, he asked me for some dance pointers," she grinned.
"You don't think I can give pointers?" Kali asked.
"I didn't say that nor think it. Don't put words in my mouth," Lonnie told her softly. "So what pointers did you give him?"
"I told him if he wanted to get to the top, be professional in all areas of his life including personal relationships."
"I'm impressed. Spoken like a veteran diva," Lonnie complimented.
"How long do you think this is going to last?"
"I don't know."
It was just their breathing they could hear. Kali rested her head against Lonnie's shoulder than shifted so her head was against Lonnie's chest. Even through the body armor she could hear the thudding of Lonnie's heart.
"Hey," Kali whispered. "Your heart is beating pretty fast. You okay?" She titled her head up, and then soft lips pressed against hers. Her memory supplied her with what Lonnie looked and felt like without anything on.
Lonnie's hands slid down the slim body until her palms cupped her buttocks, and then she pulled Kali tight against her. Kali's tongue thrust between her lips, aggressively seeking Lonnie's tongue. The two dueled for a brief moment, then Lonnie gave way, letting Kali's mouth take possession of hers. A groan was stifled as part of her was aware of the danger of being discovered.
Lonnie suddenly broke their kiss, gesturing to Kali for quiet. She pressed her ear against the bulkhead of the pod and listened. Kali followed suit.
"We've got to get out of here," Kali whispered terrified.
"You can understand them?" Lonnie didn't hesitate as she released the lock and was out quickly, pulling Kali behind machinery in the engine room.
Kali pulled on Lonnie's arm to get her attention. Peering around her corner Lonnie could see the invaders and one crew member trying to operate a console but each was rejected with a beep.
Lonnie lifted her arm and keyed her com link. Four bursts of energy activated the alarm in the engine room. The entire room became awash in red flashing lights and a bell that warned the room was contaminated and had to be evacuated.
Suddenly the entrances to the engine room burst open and commandos dropped from everywhere. All around them shots were being fired.
"I don't think this is a safe place to discharge any type of hot weapon. They're all suicidal," muttered Lonnie, pulling Kali back toward the bot vent. The pillar hid them as Lonnie pushed Kali into the vent. Then a flash and the room was awash in blinding light. Kali pulled a stunned Lonnie into the vent. The door automatically closed after Lonnie was in and shielded them from the immobilizer.
"Hey," Crackle husked from inside the vent. "You two okay?"
"Geeze, you just about gave me heart failure," Lonnie told her. "What happened?"
"Lt. Miles and thirty others were spies for this gang. Were you the one that got to the failsafe room?"
"Yes. I got suspicious when I saw crew members part of the invaders," she whispered back.
"Let's leave the police to their clean up job. We can head back to the shuttle and wait for the all clear. I don't want to be shot by mistake," Crackle said. She crawled backwards until she found an exit she liked. The two followed her down a deserted corridor with lights flashing.
"How are the rest?" Lonnie asked.
"Cone was taken prisoner but I got him out. Can't have him inoperative. He knows too much. Severon said he helped you out and was afraid you were going to shoot him. Can't say we blame you. Your leg's bleeding."
Lonnie looked at her leg. "I put a pac on it. It's okay now."
At the landing bay where they left their shuttle two military police were guarding it. Crackle raised her hand. "Found two more of our team."
"I sure hope they aren't part of the gang," Lonnie mentioned as they climbed up the ramp to the owner's yacht.
"Muto knows them. He's says they're legit. Do you think I would trust anyone that boarded us at this time?"
Lonnie joined Joh and Muto.
"Hi," Lonnie greeted the two. They were monitoring the conversations between members of the commando group. They nodded to her and returned their attention to their work.
She sat down in one of the seats and closed her eyes, thankful no one got hurt. She felt Kali settle near her, wrapping her hand around hers.
Two weeks later, with nothing more exciting happening as the capture of one of the space gangs, the ship made its way into Portia, Avan where their ten month tour started and ended.
Lonnie's bags were already packed and shipped out to Besita for Shari to store somewhere until Lonnie told her what she wanted done with them.
The crew insisted on throwing Lonnie a goodbye party, which Lonnie had no intention of attending. Peering around her cabin one more time, she gave a silent goodbye to a life she once enjoyed. She turned at the sound of the connecting door opening.
"You're going to your party dressed like that?" Kali asked incredulously, and then she got the message. "You can't leave just like that. These are people you've worked with for years."
"And who spread rumors about me, bet against me, and thought the worst of me. No thanks."
They were quiet for a few moments as they regarded each other. Kali stepped up to her and gave her a hard hug. "I'm going to miss you," she whispered huskily. "Don't you dare forget to send me your address."
"I won't forget you either, Kali. When I get bored, I'll play the video of your first rafting trip. Those cute squeals you made are memorable."
"I adored the grunts you made when you pulled up my equipment when it fell over the cliff."
"I had to. Our dinner was in your pack." She kissed Kali tenderly, which turned into a more serious kiss as both were reluctant to let go. Lonnie broke the kiss for air. "If you ever want a place to get away for peace and quiet let me know."
"You already have an address?"
"Shari, my business partner will know where to reach me. Stay safe."
"Where do I get it?"
Lonnie pulled out a card that she was expecting to hand out to a few people if they caught her for the same information as she was leaving. It was a general mailbox she used during her usual two month vacation.
"Do you answer your mail?" Kali asked suspiciously.
"When I get a chance to check it, I do."
"That's not answering my question."
Lonnie looked at their intertwined hands. Maybe she needed time off to get over not having Kali around. She knew it was not the life she wanted, even if Kali asked her. Looking back into Kali's eyes, was the same realization reflected back to her.
"Bye. And don't forget to write," Lonnie told her. She wondered if Kali would have time to write. The only other time she wrote her, when they both were young, her fan secretary answered. She closed the door behind her.
Kali stood staring at the closed door for a long time, then moved to her own cabin to get ready for a performance.
Passengers eager to leave right away were lined up on each deck heading for the cargo bay or elevators to get to the two cargo bays setup for debarkation. Lonnie took the employee elevator to the cargo bay used for moving the passengers baggage and packages that went through a different set of scans and custom examinations. A purser she recognized waved her to the copilot seat.
Leaning back in her seat she waited for the pilot to finish his check list and then he would be dropping her off at the space port. Lonnie was not going home yet, wherever that was. She had someone to visit first, Cornol Caline.
The reality of leaving behind a life she led for the last twenty years had not hit her yet. The pain of leaving Kali behind was what she feared would catch up with her. She wanted to keep busy for a while and stay away from quiet time to think about her feelings for the woman. Lonnie took another deep breath, letting some of the tightness go.
As the shuttle settled in its dock at the space station, Lonnie gathered her bags. As soon as the doors were opened for the baggage handlers to start unloading the bags, Lonnie hopped out and went to look for a ride to Amant, home planet to Rudians.
To be continued in Leona Bristolie at Large
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