~ Galaxy Dancers ~
by J.A. Bard

Category: SciFi/Fantasy

Sex/Violence : Some of both.


The tall foreign woman tipped her head slightly up, letting the early morning sun warm her face as she waited for her order to arrive. She wore the modestly tailored uniform of an official courier to one of the many embassies that crowded around the domed space port kiosk. The majority of her hair was secured in a net, resting heavily on her back while her temple tresses weaved in beads and ribbons lifted and fluttered in the cool breeze.

A short stocky biaol-mixed male watched the young woman with ill concealed distaste. A waiter, another foreigner, stopped at her table and set down a cup of fruit and a beverage. The two spoke for a few moments. Male and female speaking in public -another insult to his new found religion. The man's eyes slid around the outdoor patio, noting that he was the only native in the cafe. Added to that affront, it was a social injustice that the businesses around the space port were not owned and run by local natives. If Traditionists were the owners such co-mingling of species and gender would not take place.

His master teacher had said that biaols were no longer able to afford to live on their ancestral lands. Master Teacher Br'Mon accused their previous chieftain of selling out the tribe by leasing their lands for pittance in a hundred year contract with only the chieftain and his family making a profit. The evidence given were the large homes the Bootokao family lived in, that dotted the rolling hills in the hinterlands. Br'Mon and his followers conveniently downplayed that each displaced nuclear family received their own home which was just roomy enough for one family, on enough land for a farmer to make a modest living. It deviated from the ancestral long houses where privacy was a premium amid the countless cousins, uncles, aunts, siblings and parents that lived together, and ruled over by the grandsire. The farmed land stretched hours away from the longhouse and usually the lowest on the grandsire's list had the furthest plot to care for. Only the Traditionalists wanted the extended family long house and it's politics back. Most citizens saw Br'Mon's rantings as they were, an extremist that would never find peace in the modern world.

The native's eyes strayed back to the tall foreigner. As much as he hated what she represented he could not keep from admiring her sleek athletic build knowing she was not characteristic of her species, even as he was common of his. He thought she must be a warrior in her lands and wondered why she worked as a courier. It was a menial job for someone like her. In the old days he would have ridden with his tribal brothers to raid her village for new blood and bootie, and he would have taken her for his own. The image of this tall red haired slave, bound in chains, proudly standing before him, soon to feel his power over her life?

The vibration of his reader jarred his attention back to his job. Tapping the face of his reader lightly the time appeared in the lower part of the screen.

Looking around he noted the courier had risen to refresh her drink in the beverage kiosk cubicle. He frowned with irritation. That was where he was to take refuge. His secondary job was to bear witness to the destruction of the foreigners and bring back a recounting of the successful attack against the unbelievers.

A school bus stopped near the coffee shop. Children - all foreigners - unloaded to visit the museum and the strange garden the foreigners built?on his ancestral land! He had visited it before he came to the coffee shop. Arriving before dawn and no shops opened, he had climbed the fence around the garden, not really meant to keep anyone out.

It is not worth paying money to see.

Glancing back at the kiosk he noted the courier was waiting patiently for a worker to replace some of the beverage containers. He looked back at his timer. Time was advancing but he forced himself not to rush or be anxious. If Abra willed it, it would come to be.

Another bus pulled up. He would have not glanced at it but the children's voices were so like his own village children. His eyes widened as he realized it was Cofu's village bus. Mentally he went over the schedule of school trips and remembered his son mentioned it because his friend, a foreigner, was coming today. Anger started to cloud his thoughts that his woman allowed his children to play with foreigners, but that would end after today; and quickly he hummed the mantra of Abra until his tension lessened. His eyes slitted at his intensity to focus on the sound of the mantra and not his hate?and fear that his child may be among the children.

With cool resolution he told himself that Abra would honor any native child who lost their life for a great cause, and he would see that a memorial was erected for their sacrifice. The young boys would be remembered as great warriors. For a moment he wondered where the souls of the girls went and then dismissed it as unimportant.

Determinedly, he murmured, 'If Abra wills it, it will be so.'

The children moved off to the museum, away from the coffee shop. He relaxed. Impatient now, he rose from his table and went to the kiosk to wait for the courier to leave. He was hoping his near presence would shame her to leave.

"Pipiato!" a small voice called.

Startled he turned around. There his oldest son of seven years, Dio, was waving at him from the shop doorway. Laughing in delight at seeing his father, Dio ran weaving through the tables toward him. Blinking his eyes in dismay, he resigned himself to the inevitable as the beep sounded to warn him the bomb armed. It would only be seconds before it would go off. Those near his table looked up in alarm, their faces frozen as they realized what they heard.

Abra chose the sacrifice of his first-born son, just as it was in the old days. To this he murmured an old prayer thanking Abra for choosing him and his son as worthy of his attention. His thoughts went to his teacher, feeling he failed him, for his task was not going smoothly. A half done job was not a job done, was the master's mantra.

In slow motion he watched his son pass by the table where he left his reader. The explosion tore into the small body, shredding it and spreading bright green blood that blended into a splash of other colors. A movement of air from the explosion set off an unseen gas, igniting it into a greater explosion, leaving little around it in its original state. The force slammed him into a partially collapsed wall, with the fireball the explosion ignited, reaching high into the blue cloudless sky. Against the wall he hung; through burned slitted eyes, he looked out at the settling smoke. Dio stood there looking around. He appeared to be lost and uncertain. Then he suddenly smiled and moved off as if being led, disappearing in the distance.

"Abra has taken him to his great harem," he murmured through melted lips. The boy would be given his pick of twelve virgins to claim as his own. His thoughts moved to his wife and her refusal to give up her contemporary ways to follow Abra. She would suffer for her arrogance.

A shadow moved over him.

"How are you doing?" a trembling voice asked.

He wanted to slap her for her boldness in speaking to him. He was a follower of Abra, Slayer of the Unbelievers. Instead he asked, "Do you see my son? He wasn't supposed to be here today," he wheezed with great effort.

She looked around them. "There is nothing left. Nothing," she murmured in a raspy voice. She spoke in his native tongue.

"It doesn't matter," he breathed softly. "He has been sacrificed to Abra for a good cause." His eyes tried to focus on the foreigner, wanting to see her again, and how the sun burnt her hair in reddish highlights. But he saw only darkness.

The courier cursed under her breath. "A damn terrorist." Unconsciously she wiped blood from her nose on her filthy uniform sleeve, and then something that was running into her eye. Someone came to her side and helped her out of the wreckage. Her eyes were blurred with tears, both from the smoke and the death.

The courier slowly became aware of sounds; soft beeps and breathings. It took moments before she realized the breathing was her own. Her eyes rolled to the left, spotting the source of the beeps, blinking lights on a life support monitor.

A native officer leaning against the wall, walked over to her. He bowed slightly. He was short and stocky like the majority of males in his species. Lonnie could feel his resentment toward her.

"Are you ready to give an account of your affairs at the coffee shop?" There was an edge in his voice.

She blinked her eyes, trying to decipher what he was implying. Translating dialects as well as culture innuendos was a tricky business when it involved legal matters.

"Not without a legal aid from my embassy," she rasped.

"You have something to hide," he assumed.

"No. I don't want to be misunderstood." Her throat tightened from the effort to speak.

He advanced toward her. An alarm went off on the equipment monitoring her vitals. A nurse came bursting into the room and the uniformed officer angrily waved her off, and pushed her out of the room when she would not leave voluntarily. Before he could approach the bed again another nurse came in flanked by two other people.

She sank back into blissful darkness.

A cool breeze wafted by and the courier took a deep breath. A throat nearby cleared. Opening one eye she saw a thin rudian, wearing her hair shorter than most. She was watching her closely.

Shifting in her bed she moved to rise and the bed moved to accommodate her.

"How are you feeling?" the woman asked.

"Where am I?" she whispered.

"In recovery." She waved toward the sunny window.

The courier glanced out the window. There were no bars to indicate it was a prison. She looked back at the woman, wondering how long she had been waiting for her to wake up. Rudian's were from another part of the galaxy and normally traveled in packs.

"Who are you?" she asked hoarsely. She took the liquid the woman handed her and sipped gratefully.

"I'm investigating the terrorist attack on the coffee shop you were in."

"Oh." The courier cleared her throat. She moved her feet and shifted her arms. No soreness nor muscle weakness. It was amazing how advanced technology was in the galaxy but had not reached her home planet. Why was that? her mind questioned. "Am I a suspect?"

The stranger shook her head. "No. You are considered an innocent bystander, and a very lucky one." She pulled a recorder out of her pocket and placed it near the courier. "I need you to report what you remember from that morning. I understand you made it your morning ritual to stop for breakfast there every day since your arrival to your embassy post."

"It's on my way to work," she readily admitted. Lonnie thought back to the man at the shop. "That man that was impaled against the wall, he was a terrorist, wasn't he?"

"We believe so. We have been following another man that he had met with at the coffee shop earlier."

"There were three of them," Lonnie filled in. "Biaol-mix. And by the way they glared at the customers I don't think they enjoyed the mixture of people. The one that remained after the other two left, he muttered prayers under his breath. The waiter told me he had called the constable. Too late, huh?"

"No. He called when the disaster could have been averted. The constable is native also. We suspect that he was part of an insurrection that is in the beginning stages."

"An insurrection?" the courier asked amused.

"That does seem unlikely, doesn't it? They are a small remnant of displaced individuals. But it only takes a handful of unhappy people to form a crime gang and one leader that can mobilize and energize his small group to become dangerous."

"Abra wills it. That's what he said. I think his son was in the shop when it blew up."

"Why do you say that?"

"Seconds before the explosion I heard a child call for his father in biaolize. The man was near me then. He looked surprised at first, and then resigned. I heard him say 'Abra wills it,' then came the explosion, knocking me back into the kiosk, and then there was the second explosion. It was a cloud of fire," she recounted fearful. "I don't know how I survived."

"You had the firewall between you and the explosion. It was built to prevent fires from the kitchen to spread to the customers. It worked in reverse. You said a second explosion. Where did that come from?"

"Below us. I could feel the ground under my feet heat up."

"Below you?"

The courier nodded. "Natural underground caverns that start from across the street then out to Winder Road. That's why there are no buildings out that way." She took a sip of her water.

"I would think they would have been caved in if they are that dangerous," her visitor remarked.

"Too dangerous. The scientists say those caverns are filled with gas from fissures. The developer set up a parameter blast wall so that should one catch on fire or blow, it wouldn't pass over here. The geologists didn't foresee new fissures opening up on this side of the wall." She coughed and took another sip.

"So," the stranger's eyes became thoughtful.

"I remember looking out and not seeing any buildings?after the explosions."

"The entire business section up to the ambassadors offices were scorched and has been deemed unsafe to use further."

The courier nodded looking tired. "I noticed a gas meter set up the other day at the park. Someone was measuring the underflow. I understand for the last year the council has been arguing who was to blame for deciding to setup the space port here." She thought about the arguments she heard while she waited out of sight in the Ambassadors Grand Council Meeting room. Since couriers were meant to be unseen until needed, leaders sometimes forgot they were present when heavy subjects were discussed. It did not take her long to see why the older attachés were so jaded and blasé about the lives of the common citizen. However, she knew many of them took that attitude to protect themselves from feeling bad for those that were sacrificed on a whim or a fancy of those in power. What could that one person do but wrap a blanket of indifference around himself or herself? Lonnie did not think she was knowledgeable enough to say anything on matters regarding other peoples lives, because everyone had a good reason for their position and who was she to say one person's reasons were more just than another? Her method of surviving was to avoid aligning with anyone. Every side demanded unwavering loyalty to any crazy idea they thought up instead of judging each idea on its own merit.

"For a courier that hasn't been here long you picked up a lot," the woman remarked.

"I haven't picked up your name," Lonnie corrected.

The woman smiled, but did not offer one. "Most couriers stick to places they are comfortable with and take little interest in the natives. Is there a reason why you have?"

"I fear boredom," she said shortly. The stranger's silence elicited more from Lonnie, which she quickly decided would be all she would give to this woman. "My grandmother used to say that a bored child was the mark of low mentality. None of us dared to have that label stuck on us."

"What made you go into courier work?" the woman asked.

The courier gave a small smile, acknowledging her acquiesce to the continued questioning. "On Quizion, all adolescents are conscripted to enter in a two year program of public service. At one time it was working for free in your village, town or city. These days it can be served just about anywhere the Public Lottery assigns you. After weeks of tests and interviews, I was placed in courier work. This is my second posting." She waited for the woman to ask her where her first was, but the question never came.

"So what do you plan on doing after your service?"

The courier blinked at the change in questioning. "Travel. I've some credits from my grandmother."

"Isn't it expected of you to return home and learn a trade or start a family?"

The courier gave a short laugh without rancor. "I'm lucky. My family has no expectations of me."

"If you were to look for a job?do you have any interests?"

"Are you recruiter of some kind?" the courier asked suspiciously.

"Maybe." The stranger picked up her recorder as she handed her a card. "If you're looking for a job?that involves travel and observation only?call me."

Hours later the courier's supervisor and one of the other couriers came by to see her. She had been hospitalized for a month. She learned that many were in awe of her surviving a blast that took out a full block, flattening out the museum and the garden across the way. She was released from her four years of Public Service Duty, PSD, six months early with a ribbon she was embarrassed to display.

This unexpected early release left Lonnie without a job. She had no intention of returning home. She pulled out the card with no name and called the number. She left a message and retired to her rented room, wondering what she was getting herself into.

A tentitive knock had Lonnie looking toward the door, wondering if it was her door or the neighbors that a visitor was rapping on. When she heard another two knocks, she laid her lying her guitar to the side and rose to peer out the peep hole. Two people were standing outside, one of them she recognized as the woman she met in the hospital.

That was quick. Working in a government office she had never witnessed anyone moving this fast. Not feeling any danger to herself she opened her door.

"Leona Bestrolie, recipient of the Cross of Besengi?" the woman asked.

Startled, Lonnie stood still for a few seconds trying to decide whether to be embarrassed or calmly acknowledge that her supervisor had put her name in for such an award?and she had received it along with her separation papers.

"May we come in?" the other woman asked.

"Yes," she answered softly, still at a loss for words.

The two stepped in and looked around her sparse room. Her guitar was lying next to the chair with her suitcase still packed near the foot of the bed.

"I see you travel light," the woman noted. She turned to face Lonnie. "Do you have anything keeping you here?"


"Can you leave now?" the other asked.


"Then let's go."

For one year, Lonnie learned the art of observation, the art of not being noticed and how to be noticed without being obvious. Her natural abilities in athletics and gift for languages assured her placement would be out in the field.

Her evenings were spent in the private training facility's bar with fellow students and teachers. They formed a camaraderie, entertaining each other with singing, playing instruments and dancing, as well as the usual competition in everything. Lonnie excelled at the last two, picking up lessons on instruments she had never seen before. Though she was good in athletics she avoided the competition, preferring to let others stand out. She was aware it was from her upbringing and why she would never return home, but she flet no need to change it.

The school was attended by people from all over the galaxy, with personalities more diverse than differing species. Each student had something to teach and Lonnie realized they all had an uncanny ability to size up a situation and people quickly, just like she did. When it was pointed out to them that the majority of the galaxy population had that ability most were surprised. The dean of their school pointed out to them, that that was why they were recruited, to just observe and report.

Lonnie could feel the ripple of relief the students felt collectively at this news. On Lonnie's first time out, she was sent to a bar to meet with someone. Her first contact was an agent, code name Star Maker.

Part I
J.A. Bard
Chapter 1

The early morning summer light flickered through heavily leafed trees that lined the road. Lonnie Bestrolie picked up her pace as she neared her turn, preparing for the last lap of her run?'the hill'. Long muscular legs, beaded with sweat increased speed and momentum as the narrow dirt path loomed ahead. Her destination was home where a cold drink, a shower, a soak in the jacuzzi, if there was time, and breakfast waited. Bending forward, she dug in her toes as the slight incline took a sudden steep climb.

As she crested the slope onto a grassed flat stretch of land her stride lengthened, taking the direction to the private driveway. Her eyes rested on Shari's figure still clad in her nightwear. She was leaning against the door jam to the outside entrance of their residence with a towel in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. Behind her was a backdrop of their tropical garden.

That woman could be a heart throb if she had a mind to it.

Oddly enough, those were the very words Shari had told her after her last sitting for publicity photos. She glanced at her watch. No, she was right on time. Shari was a 'late to bed and late to rise' type of person so whatever had wakened her it was not company or she would have donned a robe. Lonnie came to a stop in front of her roommate, reaching for the proffered towel then cold water.

"Your new agent called again. Does he think you'll skip town?" Her voice was husky with sleep.

"Sorry?he woke you," Lonnie puffed, took a deep gulp of water, and then took a few more breaths. "No?.Ben said?he handles?.big time stars," she got out between breaths, as if that explained it all.

"What does he want with you then?" Shari stepped back into the patio that opened up to an expansive private tropical garden and a doorway to their residence. "Think maybe he's going to try to sell your contract to another agent? Don't forget if he does, that will null and void his legal rights on your contract and then you're a free agent. It can only be sold and-or traded once," Shari reminded her.

"I haven't spoken with him yet." Lonnie followed her into the house, watching the short silk nightie that just covered her buttocks move over her dark skin. Shari disappeared into the large front room, which doubled for her office while Lonnie continued down the hall. Shari's voice was muffled as orders were given and the soft hum of the cleaning bot came on. Apparently, she had given up on sleep. The laundry cabinet doors opened with a swipe of Lonnie's hand in front of the sensors. She stripped off her running attire, and tossed them into the washing machine. The machine clicked on. She tossed her water pouch into a basket, and lined her shoes up neatly with her gardening boots.

"Breakfast for one, the usual; start coffee, my special brew."

Naked she ran downstairs to the bedroom where a large bathing room had a bathtub, jacuzzi, and a large walk-in shower. Pausing on the dais to the shower, she waited for the soft chirp, signaling it recognized who she was and what water temperature she wanted. She had learned to wait for the program to switch before stepping in. Shari's preference for cold showers was too exhilarating for Lonnie's senses.

After her shower she skipped her usual jacuzzi, ate a quick meal, and did some yoga stretches. A break in her routine was a sure sign that she was bothered.

Too soon the doorbell chimed. She unwound her body from her Asanas position and plucked a top from a hanger, dropping it over her head.

Shari's voice drifted to the lower level as she greeted the agent and from his response, he was curious about Shari and her interest in his client, but was not so impolite as to ask her outright.

Lonnie stepped into the room and spotted De Erich Bettelheim near a statue of a dancer. His eyes were looking over the room with too much interest. She took a quick inventory of the room. Aside from the statue, there were no personal effects like knick-knacks that collected dust, and family, or people pictures on the walls or flat surfaces. There were, though, plenty of scenic photos of distant places she or Shari visited. One of Shari's businesses was buying, managing and selling property throughout the civilized galaxy with Lonnie as her silent partner. Lonnie in her travels as a performer inspected foreign land deals, while Shari, who hated interplanetary travel, stayed home and conducted the legal aspects of the deals.

Leona Bestrolie listed this as her home - twelve secluded acres on a hillside with a view over the ocean and no neighbors within even telescopic view. The agent assumed that Shari, a mixed species of cleatian and human, was his client's lover and supported her when she was home from her gigs. He calculated that a dancer's salary from a cruise ship gig would be insufficient to hire someone of Shari Sing's services. All of this was out of the dancer's income bracket. Mentally shrugging his shoulders, he decided as long as his long-range plans were met he would not spend any more credits investigating them.

"De Erich Bettelheim," Lonnie greeted, entering the room. Lonnie's field of vision encompassed Shari. She was dressed tastefully in designer slacks and top, giving the appearance of a genteel woman, belying her aggressive nature. Shari batted her eyes mockingly at Lonnie, and then closed the door quietly behind her, giving agent and client privacy.

The tall aleutian turned to face his new purchase, legally referred to as a 'client'. His dark eyes set back in their sockets, scrutinized her as though he were appraising new merchandise. His broad green-scaled forehead was thrust forward, and his hands were clasped firmly behind his back.

De Erich Bettelheim had bought out De Ben M'Clion's contracts with various entertainers and sport players. Bettelheim was making his rounds to inspect his new stable of performers. Out of the twelve, two he could see, using his aggressive management style, would pay his investment back within a year. However, they were like nervous brides before an arranged wedding, anxiously putting off meeting with him. Rather than worry about them he decided to visit with the ten lesser performers. But even the wanna-bes were presenting obstacles for meeting with him and it was giving him heartburn, as if an aleutian could suffer from such an aliment. Dama Leona Bestrolie was the third on his list.

He focused on the human before him, Dama Bestrolie, pushing out thoughts of the others. Setting up a meet with Bestrolie required him to rearrange his calendar. He gave her a few mental credits; one that she made time to stay in shape during her vacation and two, that she was seeing him without a long delay. She also dressed tastefully, though understated, something he did not expect from an entertainment figure? but then that was her flaw, or so he believed. She did not attempt to stand out - a form of free advertisement.

"Dama Leona Bestrolie, how do you do?" His voice was gruff and carried some rebuff, a reflection of his quick assessment.

Lonnie gave a polite nod. She hated to be called Leona but refrained to point that out this early in their meeting. Since his species was sensitive and could read humans easily she did not bother with a verbal reply and was careful to keep her thoughts minimal. As he sized her up Lonnie was doing her own study. The aleutian dressed and carried himself like a prosperous agent. Exactly what an aspiring performer would want?only she was perfectly happy with her present contract and arrangements so she was wondering what he intended to propose in the way of changes.

Lonnie gestured to the couch where his species would be more comfortable lounging, while she took the chair near the fireplace.

"I don't want to waste my time or yours, so let's get down to business," Erich started. He pulled out a compositor and opened up a document - the contract she had signed with Glimpser's Talent Management Company nineteen years ago.

"Your present dance partner, Mar Righ has no desire to change agents and I don't want my?" catching the human's raised eyebrows he amended his thought and smoothly continued, clarifying a point, "Your professional partners will be only those I manage. It makes it less stressful for all concerned when negotiating payment and getting a replacement if something should happen to one of you." He looked down at the old contract and the sections he had highlighted. He was annoyed at the freedoms Bestrolie had arranged particularly regarding port excursions. From what Ben told him she liked to climb cliff faces, race ATVs across the wildlands, skydive off high mountains, and disappear into the outback for the duration of her vacation, any of which could cause her an injury that would prevent her from performing, or make it difficult to reach her should an emergency arise.

Lonnie smiled, knowing what was vexing him. The contract was locked in for the next three years. He could not change it without her consent and she was not about to change one word of it.

So, back to the real reason for the visit. Her present gig had a faithful group of fans that prebooked on the liner for various lengths of time over the ten month cruise which made it profitable for her, Old Ben and the cruise liner. She relaxed, thinking he would be foolish to change her dance schedule, for all of them would loose money... So what had he planned?

"If you don't like my management of your professional life," he moved on, deciding to forego those points for the moment, "you have a choice of finding someone to buy your contract from me or breaking it. Breaking it means you only dance for yourself in the privacy of your home for six years." He pressed his lips together thinking of the gamble he was taking. Bestrolie had the reputation of being tough to work with, but she was also a good teacher. Her interest was the performance and her dance partner was part of it.

Lonnie was going to miss Ben. Bettelheim was telling her that he intended to get whatever he paid for her back with some interest. "So who's my new partner?" She cut to the point of what she shrewdly guessed was the 'why' he insisted on this visit. His calm appearance was betrayed by a slight twitch of his forehead. It must be a real hummer or he would just have sent me a letter like any other agent, giving time, date and place?and maybe a mention of who the partner would be.

"Diva Kali Maxine," he announced.

Lonnie stared at him, her expression giving nothing away of what she was thinking.

"Yes. You heard right. I'm pairing you two," he repeated firmly. Ben M'Clion had suggested handling Leona Bestrolie with directness. He warned him that she was very blunt in her answers especially regarding whether she would do something or not and under what conditions. Ben also said she never gave anything less then her best. Since she was not billed as a star De Erich Bettelheime had low expectations. "I'm sure you've heard that she's been through most of the list of available male dancers and what I have left on the list would rather quit dancing then dance with her. If she were a solo type?" He left the rest unsaid.

"If you're talking about the dancers Ben had contracts on I wouldn't be placing too much weight on the reasons for their objections," she informed him. "They're happy playing in local clubs a few nights a week.".

She mentally chastised herself for the unplanned offering of a professional appraisal of fellow dancers. But then, he probably already figured that out for himself.

"Why me?" she asked to cover her discomfort.

"You're not a man and you have no ambition; therefore, you pose no threat to her way of thinking." He waited for her reaction. When he got none he continued. "Though I like my clients to be ambitious since I'm in this for the credits, the situation makes you the right person for this."

It did make perfect sense the way he put it, until she replayed part of the sentence.

"This? What is 'this' and what's in it for me?" she asked warily.

"If you stick it out for a year with her I'll give you your contract at the end of this tour ?plus a bonus." He only added the bonus because of her body language. She was not impressed with the early end of her contract.

Curious, she asked, "Just what exactly does this entail, besides pairing up with her?"

He leaned forward and handed her a dance plan on the compositor. She read it through and laughed heartily, then handed it back to him.

"You have quite a challenge here. You must know something about her that the public doesn't. These dances are not her style and I've never heard her dance with anyone but men."

"Remember Jerah and Sarah?"

"Yeah. In their time they were the hottest televised dance team but?they only danced at ElCic, a coffee shop long gone and its eclectic crowd old and forgotten."

"I think there is a place today for their style to make a big splash?and?timed right ?can turn into a tidal wave," he explained carefully.

Of course it will. For a short time. Then like all big waves, it will quickly wash out. You must be expecting a big payoff for our participation?two women dancing flamenco. And I'm sure you aren't going to be asking her to dress in pants. Lonnie's lips curled up into a smile. She loved their style and danced it whenever she had a female partner that was willing. Their steps were not easy and usually her partners were not high caliber, just people in a bar she was killing some time in.

De Erich Bettelheim waited, letting the dancer think about his generous offer to let her dance with one of the greatest dancers of the era who made dance diva at a young age. He had plans on making her name once more a household word.

"That fad will last just long enough to get her back in star spotlight and on a good note," Lonnie surmised aloud. She was suspicious of agents of big stars. If an act started out as a pair, and if the aim was for stardom, what did he expect her to do after the year when her contract ended?drop out of sight? permanently? Yeah. He looks the type. Just help him get her to the top and then get lost. But the idea of ending her contract early?that was tempting. "I'm game but I gather you haven't spoken with your diva yet."

He tilted his head in askance.

"It hasn't made the paper," she qualified. In fact, she hasn't been in the tabloids for a few weeks.

"I confirmed your contract on Stanley's Liner for the ten month tour season," he replied, ignoring her comment. "We'll start out using your fan base, which I understand is a good starting size and are faithful. Depending on how the five months go before the week break, we may consider a larger ship for the return trip?. I also booked port shows?"

"Ah, ah," she objected. "When we hit a port, I have two day shore leaves and I intend on taking them. I need a sanity break from ship life."

"It's the same day you arrive in port. You'll be debarking earlier than the other passengers," he added. "You're on the?" he looked down at his notes, "SDL."

"Special Disembarking List. My, you can temp a gal," she remarked dryly. They studied each other silently.

He gave what could have passed for a smile. "The shore shows are advertisement and will serve to build a galactic fan base for the diva. Once you do your show on shore you have your two full days off before the ship sets sail for the next port stop. I noticed you also have two weeks off at the halfway point, before the trip back. What do you intend on doing during that time?"

"What I always do," she said, "relax."

"Okay," he conceded. "Are you satisfied with the contract as it is and with the added proposals I have presented?"

"To the best of my knowledge I agree to what has been discussed to date. But only after my lawyer reviews it and finds it satisfactory will I accept it," she stated, wondering what Shari was going to say about this. She placed her finger in the curved insert and a small scan of her blood was made. Fingerprint and blood test were required for all contracts and important agreements to verify the person's identity and mental competence.

Erich repeated the procedure for himself. When finished, he closed the case and nodded to Lonnie. "My secretary will send you a copy of this updated contract and you can forward it to your lawyer. Please return it within a week of receiving it. There are arrangements that need to be finalized."

"Of course," she replied. She showed him to the front door and waited just long enough to see his autocab drive out the property gate. Lonnie turned and went in search of Shari, guessing she was in the bedroom.

Ten months of the year Shari had the cozy building to herself. For one person it was a roomy, one bedroom two-tiered dream vacation home built solidly into the rock face of a cliff. All the living spaces had a view of the ocean. It was a secluded location with a top of the line security system.

For Lonnie's two month stay she enjoyed sleeping on the couch that unfolded into a bed, softer and roomier than what she slept on aboard the liner. Shari decorated the place with minimal furniture and no dust collectables, enabling Lonnie to use the expansive floor space to practice new dance routines. Sometimes she even coaxed Shari into dancing with her.

The two women had met at a bar on earth when Lonnie was young. They hit it off right away, one reserved and understated, the other gregarious yet private. At the time, Shari was establishing herself as a money manager, socializing and soliciting the bar customers. Though Lonnie had no money Shari insisted she could make Lonnie prosperous doing what she liked. Though skeptical, Lonnie took her up on the offer. Shari introduced her to Ben, the first agent Lonnie ever met who allowed her a private life. Ben made use of Lonnie's love of travel and natural ability to dance and teamed her up with a veteran dancer that worked on mid-sized cruise liners. During its ten months the ship cruised from one planet to another allowing its passengers to experience each planet's special attractions. On her leave time from the ship, while wandering the outbacks, flying off cliffs, or riding whitewater rapids, Lonnie sent information back to Shari about potential property investments, wondering if she was interested. Thus began a silent partnership.

"You were so right about getting what I asked for," Lonnie said as she plopped down next to Shari, who was folding her own laundry. Lonnie was mystified that Shari preferred to fold her own clothes instead of using the automaid for such menial tasks. Shari claimed that the hands-on work allowed her brain to get clarity on nagging business decisions.

"Did he demand that you bus tables on roller skates between dance skits or maybe babysit a family member for the cruise duration," she joked, tossing a pair of rolled socks at Lonnie who deflected it into the sock pile. "Did he mention those clauses in there about your free time being your own business?" she asked knowingly.

"It was left unsaid but he did do that tapping thing on the paragraph as if he wanted to say something but didn't know how to approach it." In a conspiratorial voice she added, "He needs me for a project of his?" She paused long enough for Shari to stop and look at her. "He wants me to partner with Diva Kali Maxine for a year. In exchange he will give me my contract at the end of the cruise and a bonus. Is that a good deal or what?" Lonnie's eyes lit up at the thought of meeting the person behind the publicity photos she would stare at when she thought no one was looking.

Shari's mouth opened and then snapped shut. Lonnie nodded at her.

"She's trouble!" Shari surprised Lonnie with its intensity. "What is he thinking? Does he hate you? He wants you to buy out your contract, doesn't he? He found out you aren't some poor dancer that is afraid to be put out to pasture without a credit to her name," she accused.

"I don't know about that, but he said he's booked us on Stanley's liner, Earl Gray."

"Like he has any choice not to," Shari stated flatly. "You have a contract. You're also making money for the cruise liner with all your returning fans. He would be burning a very lucrative bridge for his future clients." Shari shook the sock she was holding to emphasize her point. "The problem with most of today's agents is they only see night clubs planet side as the step up to the big theatre. Cruise ships have more advantages than you can shake?"

"?a sock at. Shari, you don't have to sell me. I'm all for cruise ships. Nice cheap way to visit other planets and see the sights." Lonnie paused, thinking how it would feel to not have the excuse of performing in order to travel. She shook her head. That was over a year away and may not come to pass. But she could not help smiling at whom she would be sharing her time with. "I have a feeling he wants me to tame her." Silently, Lonnie was laughing at the thought, but it did offer her an incentive to accept the deal.

"Tame that? She's a drug addict and destructive to all her partners!" Shari recounted for her.

She waved her hand dismissively at the rumor. "They were all burnt out men already into drugs. They couldn't even clean up enough to take advantage of their partner's fame to get back into serious dancing. When someone is moved to corphyee and doesn't take the challenge? They were promoted out of their league," she explained in answer to Shari's puzzled frown and then asked in another tone, "Remember Jer and Sarah?"

"What has that got to do?oh! You've got to be kidding?" her voice changed to a pleased surprise, and then a sharper appraisal of her friend.

That's what Lonnie liked about Shari; she was able to quickly change trains of thoughts. Lonnie suspected she had a form of telepathy not measurable by scientific means. Shari had told her she flunked on her telepathic tests, but science was unable to measure or register a lot of things. "He also used the name Jerah instead of Jer. Does that tell you something?" she grinned.

"Yeah. He's not asking you to get a sex change. Since they lost their following when it became known that Jerah was now a Jer I'm sure he doesn't want to make the same mistake. Lucky you," Shari joked and teasingly slapped her arm as Lonnie reached over to help with the folding. "You know, you do cut a handsome figure dressed in those tight fitting gauchos. He's got a good idea. I know a lot of people that would go and see you?and her?but all she has to do is open her mouth and there goes your return fans?though, it's only for a show season?ten months..." Shari's eyes took on a distant look as she mentally rearranged Lonnie's finances and investment portfolios in anticipation of her retirement from her present career.

"Hm. Well, he still has to tell her. I have a feeling he may run into big trouble there," Lonnie informed her.

Shari gave an undignified snort of amusement. "You are going to run into big trouble if you don't lose that wide-eyed look of adoration."

"I don't adore her!" Lonnie denied indignantly. "I admire her early talent."

"Well, by that glow in your eyes, you're going to be a pushover with her storming over the ship's plank and knocking you into space."

"Ship's have ramps and they're completely enclosed."

"Just be careful, Lonnie. It's not just that it sounds too good to be true?" Shari shook her head dismayed at the changes. "I?this just doesn't feel right."

"Well, I wasn't really given a choice. It's her as a partner for the ten month tour with my contract in the end, or find someone to buy my contract out."

"That doesn't strike you as odd?"

"No. Usually the people at the bottom are expendable. The only good thing is that I get my contract in the end. I can retire and dance when I like?maybe open my own bar ?hmmm?"

Shari gave her a smile, but couldn't help wonder if there was more to getting rid of Lonnie, like maybe this new agent only wanted new and hungry faces to order around.

Chapter 2

A month later, Lonnie stepped out of her hotel room and elected to walk the hour to the building Erich Bettelheim rented for the three days of practice. For their first day the hall was rented only for an hour and a half of practice. It would be a light day of exercise, so Lonnie had spent her early morning hours in the workout room at the hotel and took a run around its track. Whether the diva and her got along or not, in three days the ship would begin its ten month cruise through the galaxy and they would be billed as a dance couple. Lonnie would have rather had more time to work with her new partner but she had been informed that three days was all the time the diva would allot her. Lonnie had an hour to adjust her thoughts to a professional attitude and get rid of the giddy fan's infatuation. After all, she had her dignity to consider.

Lonnie frowned at what her thoughts were telling her. Surely she was not like one of those goo-goo eyed fans that followed a star around all the time.

As Lonnie opened the door to the practice hall, she could hear shouting echoing in the building. There was no mistaking who was doing the shouting since the voice declared quite often that she was a diva and would not be treated to such arrogance by hired help.

Well, that takes the stars out of my eyes. Ancestors help me make it through the first day without hurting anyone and I will bring sweet grass to your altar.

She followed the sign for the dressing rooms. Each of the small dressing rooms were shared with a partner because space was limited in practice halls and rooms were expensive. The rooms traditionally had a large mirror on the door for performers to check themselves before they went on stage. Lonnie always suspected that the mirror placement was actually intended to discourage door slamming since it echoed throughout the performance hall. Superstition says that breaking the mirror would give seven years of bad luck, and performers were a very superstitious lot. Within the dressing room there was usually a partition for costume changes. It doubled as a place to drape the next change or to discard the last costume. Lonnie found her dressing room entrance blocked by a big goon with his six arms folded and his two heads looking at her as if she were the enemy.

"Hi," she greeted and tried to step around him. He did not budge. "Do you mind? I'm Lonnie Bestrolie, Diva Kali Maxine's partner. We share this dressing room."

He still did not move.

Determinedly, she headed to the stage area where she could see the diva, looking too glamorous for a workout, holding up the music sheets and yelling at Andres and the bored looking musicians. That was nothing like the publicity photos she liked to stare at of the diva. Since the musicians were paid hourly, they were probably waiting until their contracted time to start playing. Lonnie noted Erich had hired two of the musicians she had suggested. She moved in front of the furious diva when it became apparent she was being ignored.

"What do you want?" Diva Kali Maxine shouted at her. Pale green eyes bore into her and a breath reeking of alcohol whooshed her way. Lonnie wondered if she was a morning drinker or whether she never stopped drinking.

"I want to start rehearsal on time," Lonnie began, feeling the woman's personality bearing down on her. Now was not a good time to doubt if she really had the forbearance to put up with a spoiled diva.

"Who do you think you are!" the diva demanded not giving Lonnie a chance to finish.

"Your partner for the cruise who wants to use OUR dressing room to change," she told her tersely, already wanting to punch her. This impulse took Lonnie by surprise. Maybe she needed to rethink her expectation of the partnership and just aim 'for the moment' in getting along with her. "So tell your bodyguard to let me in."

The diva's mouth fell open in shock. "You're Lonnie? I thought Lonnie was some sheila glipatrous. Where is my agent! Conessa, get my agent! Now!" With that she stamped toward their dressing room, shouting profanities at everyone, while interjecting instructions and comments to her assistant. "I'm not dancing flamenco with a woman!" was the last they all heard before the door to the dressing room slammed shut.

Well, that tells me Erich didn't tell her much. Whimp. She thought I was a sheila glipatrous? Looks like she doesn't do research on her partners. I hope she didn't break the mirror. Just my luck, we'd be stuck with each other for seven years.

"Hey, Lonnie. I heard old Ben sold your contract to Bettelheim. Erich sure must have been on something to match you two up," Lila teased. "But that Erich, he's a hustler. If you want stardom and willing to work for it, he'll get you there."

Lonnie laughed easily. Thanks but no thanks. I'll pass.

The clock in the hall noisily clicked the hour. The musicians picked up their tuned instruments and waited. Dutifully, Lonnie changed quickly into her dance shoes.

"Remember this?" and Lila began an allegro dance number on her guitar that was good to loosen up with.

Having used the hour walk as her warm up, Lonnie began clicking her feet in tempo. It was an old gypsy guitar serenade to a lover. Her body moved easily to the flamenco tempo. She intentionally used up as much of the floor space as was available, wanting to find a place on the stage that felt right. The atmosphere in the room changed as the music and the shoes' rhythm echoed through the large building. Soon the cheers from an audience cancelled the unpleasant first meeting with the diva. After the first set, Lonnie went to her bag and retrieved her castanets. She began a slow start with the castanets, then with her feet. Her two instruments set the mood to a cachucha rhythm. As the musicians added their sounds she began to move around. Lila sang a song to cover the diva's shouting voice that rang in the backroom. As Lonnie danced she was aware that street traffic had drifted in and sat with the others against the wall to watch. When she finished they all whooped enthusiastically. While she caught her breath she noticed the shouting from the back area had stopped.

"How about some clogging music, just to work on my lung capacity," Lonnie suggested. "I'll throw in a pas de chat, and a ciseaux to work on my leg strength for leaps." She nodded to the master musician, Andres, to begin.

Andres was a seasoned music leader and chose a beat with a regular pulse that continued throughout the music piece. It was organized into notes where some were stronger than others. The varied tempo allowed the dancer to vary her style.

When Lonnie finished the set whistles followed by cheers provoked her to bow politely. She took a drink from her water and nodded to Andres for the next one.

Her next solo was one of Jerah and Sarah's dances, a bolero style. It was to a slow rumba rhythm, sensual and romantically playful. As she moved she caught sight of the diva standing stiffly in the wings with Erich. She danced over to the diva and gave her an opening to join her. She could see anger in the darkened eyes and before the diva could refuse, she playfully danced away. Most dancers knew this routine, but Kali Maxine obviously liked to do things her way because she took the lead. Lonnie followed. Sensing Kali Maxine would not be able to sustain the lead, half-way through, Lonnie skillfully took the lead role back.

So, she's good regardless of her drinking. But can she do anything consistently, except drink?

When the dance finished the musicians began to pack their gear. Kali gestured to the musicians. "What's going on here?" she asked breathlessly.

"Their time is up. One and a half hours. This was supposed to be your first rehearsal to find out how you two would fit. You look fine together," Erich reassured her briskly. "Next two days you can get your routines worked out before you fly off."

Lonnie pulled a towel from her case and wiped her neck and face, aware of the diva's confusion. Kali Maxine let out a little huff of air as if she was trying to catch her breath to say something.

"Mind if I grab a ride with you back to my hotel, Erich?" Lonnie asked.

He appeared to be relieved. "Not at all. Let's go. I've got a meeting to finish that I was interrupted from."

After giving the autocab the hotel's destination, Erich leaned back and regarded his client as she changed shoes. "You're good," he remarked, sounding as surprised as he felt. Watching Lonnie dance, in a quick moment he realized that her talent and passion was what he wanted Diva Kali Maxine to exude, and he knew the diva had it somewhere within her. Ben had not exaggerated about Lonnie Bestrolie's talent in dancing. Firmly he clamped down on any thought of changing the plans for Diva Kali Maxine's return to the top of the entertainment ladder and Bestrolie's place in getting her prepared. Now if only she could impart those qualities on the diva, again a skill Ben assured him Lonnie possessed. Though he had misgivings in the beginning on gambling on an old agent's advice and assurances, he just had a glimmer of his plans working out.

Lonnie glanced at Erich and smirked. "Thanks for the compliment."

"Well, this is your chance so go to it," he told her dryly.

"Go to what?" she asked puzzled. She blotted her face again and tucked the towel into her bag.

"Tell me what you think of being paired with the diva."

"She's your problem. I love to dance, but I can do other things."

He snorted. "Such as?" No one with passion like that would willingly give it up! I may have a problem here, he soberly thought.

"I can lead tours into the Viking Canyons or join Bellah Abzugs Tour Group staff and take groups on the four month tour of climbs on seventeen local planets?just to start with."

He thought about it for a while and decided if she was telling the truth, then he had nothing to worry about.. "I did some research on you. I like to know the strengths and weaknesses of my clients," he explained. "I think you would survive?but I also know a part of you will miss professional dancing."

Lonnie's expression did not change. She appeared to be unconcerned.

"I'm willing to add an additional incentive?I'll make the bonus something you'll like," he quickly decided.

She smiled wondering what he had up his proverbial sleeve. "Go on." This paring obviously was very important to him?or maybe not. It would depend on what the bonus was.

"What if I were to have your name placed on the settlement list on Abrazan so you can purchase land in Tuloc?"

He held up both his hands forestalling her anger. It had cost him favors, because he was curious why she was so private about her business. "I mean it seriously. It's not being held over your head. I have connections. I know you have your roommate working on it and?I think I have a better chance of getting it done than her. I know Hebr Mo'lu." He nodded at her. "Personally. I've arranged private shows for him." He held up his hands again before she could object. "You aren't being asked to do anything that will offend you. Just stick the tour season out with her. You have the right temperament. You don't do drugs and you have a healthy lifestyle."

To Lonnie he sounded like a relative passing off a family member no one wanted in their house.

"She never had a good mentor when she broke into the business," he continued in another vein, "and all her partners were drug addicts and had no more talent left to burn but hers."

Lonnie gave an inward sigh. That slight inflection at 'roommate' told her his credits spent in digging up information on her was not as deep as he would like to think. She decided to not waste her breath on fighting. Who knows, maybe once on the liner and out of the glare of the news media the diva would settle in to working on a less controversial professional image.

"Alright?but I want this in a contract."

He nodded. "Tomorrow. I'll make an amendment to the present."

That was too easy. "Send a copy to my roommate to look it over. She's my legal counsel."

He hesitated and then nodded smiling?another bit of information on her that he filed away. He dropped her off at the hotel with a polite ado and a wish for good and safe sailing.

The hotel was not far from the air terminal where she would catch a shuttle up to Earl Gray. The first five months aboard would take them on a cruise to twenty ports with two weeks off, and the last five months they would hit seventeen planets on the return trip. That meant they had thirty-seven planet engagements, and five nights a week of shows aboard ship. If the cruise director liked their show, they would be booked two shows for five nights with three days off every other week.

After the hotel masseuse left, Lonnie soaked in the jacuzzi. This masseuse had advertised as an athletic masseuse. Having never experienced such a technique, she decided to give her a try and compare her technique to Gish, her masseuse from the cruise liner. The hot oiled rocks were very nice and her muscles felt pleasantly relaxed.

"Message on," she ordered. "Send to Gish Lav aboard the starliner, Earl Gray. Gish, this is Lonnie. Have you heard of massaging with hot oiled rocks? I had one and it felt darn good on the deep aches. There's a shop nearby that sells the kit. I still owe you so let me know if you're interested. See you soon, gal. End message. Stamp with hotel return information."

Leaning back in the jacuzzi she smiled. Gish was one of the twenty-five masseuses on Earl Gray, and over-worked to Lonnie's way of thinking, because she was good. Gish spent her two months off fulfilling her family obligations which gave her little time to keep abreast of the latest in her field.

Lonnie sighed and thought about the evening. She lifted a long muscular leg and waved it in front of the sensor to shut the water jets off. Pulling herself out, she picked up a thick towel and while drying off she studied the advertisements for night spots as they flashed across the room's screen.

Hm. I haven't been to any of the local bars around here. Hopefully the ships crew will be too busy getting ready for the beginning of the cruise for a night on the town. The passengers won't start arriving until tomorrow or the next day. Yep. I do believe I can be anonymous.

Dressed Lonnie stepped out to the line of autocabs parked along the hotel curb. She was taken to Carobs Corner, a popular nightclub. Lonnie was neither a drinker nor a serious bar cruiser, so arriving before the hardcore regulars seemed a good solution to solving her restlessness as well as her distaste for crowds.

Tables were scattered in an arc, around the dance floor. Lonnie's eyes scanned for the exits, rest rooms, and the locations of various private rooms, the stairs and bar office. Those areas were to be avoided as potential dangers. Once orientated she searched for the bartender behind the circular bar. The bartender was aberlian. Having six arms and two heads helped not just in bodyguarding but working at a busy bar.

Lonnie caught the bartender's attention. "I'll have a Queen's Lime Banana."

"Not much of a drinker, huh?" one head smiled while the other watched the action on the floor.

Lonnie provided her eye for a scan and once her identity was verified she was given her drink.

"Lonnie? Lonnie whatchamacallit. The dancer. Right?" a young erulian gushed next to her. Her green antennas were twitching. It usually meant she was up to more than just greeting. She stuck her hand out with her fingertips wavering.

Lonnie knew that the tips of her fingers had minute suction cups that could be coated with an enzyme to make her defenseless. She ignored the woman's hand, wondering how the erulian knew her because she did not look the type that had the credits for going anywhere out of town.


"I just want to shake your hand. Woman, I saw you dance at the festival three months back. You were great!"

"It must have been someone else." She dismissed the woman with a nod and returned to her drink. She thought back to the festival on Cau'M. It was a private celebration and not one the erulian would have participated in. So who were the others at her table and who put her up to approaching her? Lonnie decided to wait and see what developed.

The bartender returned to Lonnie, watching the erulian walk away disgruntled. "Word of advice?" the bartender offered in an undertone.

"If it doesn't cost me a fortune, I'm willing to listen."

"Hire yourself a bodyguard tonight. That kid runs around with a rough crowd. I don't think she's pleased with you getting past her game. We keep close tabs on who goes into the PR's, and we usually don't let anyone leave here that's been drugged but it doesn't mean when we get busy that they can't haul you off someplace."


"I saw you and that blond babe, Sheila Conway, at the Fallen Inn on Elcons Fati. I didn't want to bother ya, but seeing as how it's out now?" The bartender took a deep breath from one mouth. Suddenly his second head's neck stretched out long and peered over the bar counter as if looking for a snoop, then came back. "I was on my second honeymoon with my spouse of fifty-seven years. You gave us a memorable last two nights." Four sets of eyebrows bobbed up and down suggestively.

Lonnie laughed. "I remember her. She lasted two nights and that was it. She decided dancing like that was too hot for her. Settled down in Nar'oth on Vitma, the last I heard."

"There's only mining on that hard planet?and some wild bars. What the hell is she gonna do there?"

"Produce more miners, I would imagine," Lonnie smirked. "Her family married her off."

The bartender gestured with two of six arms to another aberlian that joined them. "This is my spouse, Elimie and I'm Dirm."

Lonnie nodded at Elimie.

"She needs a bodyguard, Eli," Dirm informed her seriously.

Elimie glanced at the crowd that the young erulian was sitting with. "Yeah. Saw her try her con on you. They've been warned often enough. I was hoping the new security system would deter them. I guess they're on drugs again and have no sense." She looked at Lonnie. "I'll give ya free of charge protection just in return for that freebe you gave us on our second honeymoon about a year back."

Lonnie felt embarrassed. "I didn't do it for anyone but?I just felt like it." She then smiled shyly. "I sure had fun for those two nights." And put a successful bid on a mine for one of Shari's clients. It was a very profitable visit for the lot of us. She remembered how relieved she was when Sheila was not interested in anything more than dancing before she was married away.

"You wouldn't happen to be in the mood?would you? I mean, I'm not asking. I know you artist types like a break now and then?and the crowd in here may never have seen that type of dancing." Elimie leaned forward with one head and added in an undertone. "They don't know what they're missing."

Lonnie thought about her new agent. The new agreement did not comment on noncontracted dancing. "I'll make a deal with ya'all. Two dances for bodyguard services for the time I'm in here."

"Woooh! I'll take that!" Elimie hooted.

"Okay. You pick the music."

Dirm shut the music box off and turned another light on. He shouted down the noise and gave Lonnie a proper introduction and a warning that anyone who got close to the performer would be bounced to the sidewalk for the rest of the night.

Lonnie examined the crowd. They all looked too young, too into themselves, and not the type to take planet cruises. As the music began she immersed herself in the tempo. She tested the sounds of her heels during the first dance. Not the same sounds she was accustomed to, but it was enough. When she finished the first dance she could feel the crowd's interest. The intro to the second was an old flamenco song and she wondered where Dirm found it. Her dance was sensuous and flirtatious with an imagined partner though she suspected no one realized that. When she finished the applause, whistles and hoots were thunderous in the suddenly small night club. Smiling to herself she decided she did her part in introducing the young to a great art. Bowing, she turned to step off the floor when she was grabbed from behind. The hands around her telegraphed years of dance experience. Another song began.

"You think you have it made now that I'm your partner. Well just remember it's for ten months and then you're back to dancing in bars for pittance." The alcohol on Kali Maxine's breath was strong and her voice trembled from restraint.

The sound advice of, 'never upstage a diva,' ran through Lonnie's mind. If Lonnie knew this was where the diva intended to party she would have picked another bar. When the music finished Lonnie moved quickly off the dance floor, nodding to Elimie. Elimie was behind her immediately, and amid the cheers and a pressing crowd that had grown suddenly, she wrapped two arms protectively around Lonnie. Her other four pushed a path clear for them. Autocabs were disembarking, stacking one behind the other as people hurried into the club, hearing from friends already present that a dancer was giving a great performance.

Lonnie made a safe escape.

Chapter 3

The next morning Lonnie was sitting in the weak sun having breakfast after a heavier than usual work out in the hotel exercise room. She was not expecting much today in the way of working on dance routines. She had a feeling it was going to be a waste of time with the diva jockeying for dominance when in the long run, it was a partnership that would make the ten months either a long haul or a pleasant one.

A compositor was dropped in front of her. She looked up startled. Erich's face wore a furious look.

"Am I late for a meeting?" she glanced at her wrist calendar and timer.

"Did you have to cause a riot?!"

"What are you talking about?" She looked down at the compositor. Lonnie laughed unbelievingly at the images. "You're my agent. Sue them for slander."

The collection of images were an image of her and Diva Kali Maxine. A person that resembled her had a bruised eye and Diva Kali Maxine was shaking a fist at her. Then there was a person not even wearing the same clothing she wore last night, lying under a fist flying diva. Lonnie was impressed the diva knew how to fight, if the image was real.

"Were you there?"

"Yeah. Early in the evening?and left just as the regular crowd was arriving. I also danced two solo dances and the third was commandeered by my partner who showed up with her group. I left after the dance."

"You two didn't have an argument?"

"No. I didn't even speak to her. She did all the talking and it was during the dance where no one could hear what she said."

"None of what is written happened?" he asked calmer.

Lonnie read the entire article, a short one paragraph bit of nothing, meant to scandalize. When finished she looked up and grinned. "The only thing truthful was we danced one dance together."

Erich sighed and tapped his wrist communicator. He ordered papers to be filed to sue the news media for character assassination. He tapped it off.

"The public remembers pictures better than retractions. I'll schedule some public rehearsals where you are both to make like you're great chums. Wear a nice costume tomorrow," he directed.

Lonnie's brows lifted in amusement. "If it looks too professional they'll know it's been staged."

"Plain - black - nothing fancy," he nodded more to himself as he pictured what he wanted. "What did she tell you?" he asked suddenly.

"What every self-centered diva would say in her position."

"That you're nothing without her?" he guessed.

Lonnie gave a small smile. She wondered if he would give her a team pep talk or just leave things as they are, hoping the relationship would develop better on the cruise.

Erich studied her. "You know, you keep surprising me."

"I'm not your usual 'wanna-be'?"

He leaned forward. "You remind me of someone that is just waiting until her contract runs out so she can leave?whereas with Kali Maxine, she has the talent to get back to the top of dance?and she will do it if she can get it together. I'm putting her where she doesn't have distractions so she can concentrate on losing this contentious and 'problem child' aura, and where she can see what being professional is really like. Old Ben told me you could be one of the best mentors to aspiring dancers but you don't want to be bothered. I'm asking you to do me this favor and work with her. She's got to stop putting herself in these situations where she gets negative publicity!" he finished exasperated.

Lonnie shook her head. "She's a keg of dynamite ready to blow, Erich. She's so pissed off at everyone that she doesn't know what being nice is anymore. I'll do what I can, but I won't take the abuse she dumped on her other partners."

He rubbed his jaw. "Okay. You two have today and tomorrow to prepare. I'll get some publicity shots setup. Everything has been arranged on the liner so you shouldn't need to see me before you take off. I need to spend some time with my other clients. Why can't they be as amiable as you?" he complained.

"Ah, a stable of unambitious performers," she told him mockingly.

He laughed and nodded, catching something more in her remark. "You're more than what you give yourself credit for," he told her again. He wondered how smart she really was. It perplexed him as to why someone of her dancing ability was content to work on mid-sized star ship passenger liners with little publicity. Maybe Ben had it right when he said some people knew what they wanted and refused to be tempted to go beyond. But he also knew everyone had a weak spot. He wondered if the land deal was Lonnie's weak spot.

Kali did not show for practice the remaining two days so Lonnie and Andres, the master musician, reviewed tapes on Kali and arranged a program. Of course, there were plenty of publicity news photos as Erich said there was going to be but it was of the diva without her partner. According to the media she planned on taking a year off to work on a new show.

Lonnie took that time to perfect some new steps she had learned on her two month vacation. The ship shows were billed as partner dancing, interspersed with singles. She enjoyed her solos, which made up for not having a particularly good partner?and in this case, not having a particularly pleasant one.

On launch day Lonnie did not see any sign of Kali or her entourage. She was hoping the tapes of the practice sessions were being reviewed by the diva. Andres regularly taped practice sessions to use as teaching tools for the musicians and dancers. After stowing her gear she met the musicians for a warm-up and a sound check on the remodeled stage in Earl Gray's Florentine Showroom.

Still no Kali; however, scuttlebutt had it she was aboard. Lonnie's infatuation for the woman was being tempered by her determination to maintain a professional attitude both while they were together and not. She suspected she would have to remind herself this often.

Chapter 4

Lonnie stood in the center of the stage, dressed in a skin-tight black outfit. Her freshly cut short hair was slicked back, showing off her strong jaw line and cerulean eyes that would darken to purple during extremely passionate dances. Her castanets were cupped in palms of her hands curled on her hips as she waited for Andres to begin the introduction of the first dance, cachucha. The audience's murmuring had ceased when the lights went low. Lonnie gave up hope that her partner would show early for a warm up and now just hoped she showed in time to do her solo dance.
Lonnie's opening dance was long, not just because she enjoyed the music and the energy her loyal following put out but it helped her get rid of her first night jitters. At its finish while the applause filled the room and broke the spell of her dance, Lonnie's eyes searched for the diva or her support. Music for the next dance began and Lonnie continued without her. Her second dance was a light hearted flamenco. (Ottmar Liebert's Barcelona Nights). Again applause filled the hall as the audience whistled and whooped following her bow.
Her dance routines varied from year to year to keep it fresh for herself and her audience. Her shows always filled the one hundred seats in the theater, small by many performers' standards, but that was how she liked it. If they missed one night they could come the next night. The fans were generally courteous and undemanding of her time offstage, which she greatly appreciated.

After her second solo, the musicians began to play Diva Kali Maxine's opening solo an adagio, usually part of the classical pas de deux in ballet. The pas de deux (duet) usually starts out with the male partner supporting the female partner while she did turns and balances, then the male does a solo and then the female does her solo. They then finish with a fast coda, dancing together. Lonnie was curious what the diva was up to.
Lonnie's breath caught as she spotted the diva on the other side of the stage, staring out at the crowd. Lonnie found her stunning. In that moment she realized what Bettelheim saw. She had a magnetism that radiated around her?when she was in 'dance' mode. As the diva regally stepped out onto the stage to take her mark Lonnie studied her, not sure if it was from a professional view or because she was as enchanted with her aura as the audience was.

Not long into the dance routine Lonnie became disappointed, and by the sounds from the crowd that she just warmed up, they did too. For all her airs and perfectly executed dance steps, it lacked passion. An adagio was not meant for a cruise crowd.

Lonnie returned to the stage after having switched the black embroidered short coat with a long tailed red one. She started the next dance with her castanets clicking and her feet echoing. The guitars played softly as Andres sang a cachucha style song from a time before most of the attending audience was born. Lila sang the female part.

Kali Maxine was back on stage in a different costume, on queue, and the dance went without incident. Lonnie relaxed into the dance routine. She made a shrewd guess that Kali had reviewed the tapes as Andres and she hoped, and found somewhere to practice alone.

The diva pulled a switch in a promenade hold that was used to move them into position for the next dance sequence. Their height difference was in inches, though their body types, one slight and the other more solidly built set them apart. The position placed them side by side, facing the same direction, with the dominant position, slightly behind the partner. Left hands were joined and held up and the right hands were joined and held up behind the forward partner. In that position, the diva led the next gigue a deux, a jig for two. It was a mocking gesture that the audience mistook as part of the performance and gave the two performers a resounding ovation when they finished. Both women bowed and when the curtain fell for a final time, Lonnie immediately left, grabbing up her case of costumes that a purser had neatly repacked with her discarded costumes.

Lonnie was gathering her clothing for a workout in the crew's gym when she heard the diva's voice yelling at someone that she was looking for her dance partner in the disgusting belly of a beached whale?or something to that effect. Words translated into another language sometimes lose their effect. Lonnie quickly grabbed up her bag and towel and tapped on the adjoining cabin door. Morti, a chef from the fifth level dinning room, opened it promptly, his purple eyes wide in alarm at hearing the diva's angry voice in the corridor.

"Can I escape through your room?" Lonnie asked.

"You can!" he whispered urgently.

Lonnie peered through his door and when the diva disappeared into her cabin, Lonnie escaped down the corridor and into the crew's stairway to the gym. Lonnie was sure the diva knew nothing about the stairways.

Lonnie's workout was longer than usual. There were few crewmembers in the workout room at this time, as was her intention. From her seven years on Earl Gray she was familiar with the habits of the crew. When she had no more muscle groups to work on she headed to the crew's jacuzzi.

Gawds, you can't do this every time she comes looking for you, Lana. You're either going to end up with muscles bigger than yourself or a heart attack.
Miserably, she slid further down into the tub with only her face above the bubbles. You need to get a grip. It can either be ten long and miserable months or something else. We've got to get an understanding now to make this a workable partnership. After a length of time she dragged herself out of the tub, and dried off. She stopped at the massage room for her appointment with Gish.

"Hey! I got your rock kit and tried it out on Hari," she informed Lonnie. "He knows about that technique so he's helping me with the small stuff like how to move a hot oiled rock from the heater to the person without burning either of us. How about tomorrow, after your performance, I give you one?"

"Hm. I would love it?is that your slow time?"

"Don't worry about the time. The owner upgraded some of the equipment and one of the gizmos is for those of us that perform services. Get this - it has a meter that tells us when we're working too hard. For you though, being a regular and all," she joked, "just send me a message when you're ready and I'll make the arrangements."

Naked, Lonnie flopped onto the draped massage table. Under Gish's hands Lonnie felt her muscles pulled and stretched and then smoothed out.

"Don't you feel kinda dictated to with that thing?" Lonnie's muffled voice floated up from the table.

Gish chuckled softly. "We can override it. It's merely a device that let's us know when we're doing too much. Five months is a long time to work seven plus hours a day on peoples' bodies. At least they finally posted the species each masseuse does so we don't have to shuffle around customers."

"Uh huh," Lonnie agreed. Her thoughts drifted into a peaceful sleep.

"Hey my lovely, wake up," Gish whispered near Lonnie's ear.

"Hm. You interrupted another great dream, Gish," she yawned. Rolling off the table she extended her finger for Gish to scan for a charge to her account.

"This trip you get all yours free. You have my sympathies." She leaned toward Lonnie and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "Rumor has it, that you'll quit before the end of the tour. I plan on protecting my investment."

"Naturally there would be a bet ridding on this," Lonnie muttered and then yawned until her jaw cracked. "I hope those betting against me aren't planning on sabotaging this gig for me."

Gish looked worried. "I hope not too. But listen, if she gets rough?don't feel like you have to stick it out because of the betting."

"I don't give a hang about the betting. And she's not going to do to me what she did to her MALE partners, Gish," she informed her firmly.

"Okay. You need anything, let me know."

"Yeah, thanks, and see you tomorrow," she smiled. Feeling in a better mood, Lonnie reflected on her life in general and decided she had a very good life regardless of her temperamental partner.

As she was scanned for entrance to her quarters, she noted she had company. Since Lonnie had no roommate, a nice bonus for being a regular on the cruise ship for so long, she guessed it would be the diva, no doubt unhappy about something.

"Where have you been?" began a venomous voice.

Lonnie dumped her damp clothes into the auto-launderer. She turned to study the red faced woman. She was beautiful even this close up. Her green eyes were especially green, maybe because of the clothing she was wearing. Her soft full lips were pulled into a tight angry line, and her cheeks reddened as the silence between them lengthened. Unnoticed Lonnie sniffed the air. She could not detect any alcohol or drugs about her uninvited guest.

Lonnie sighed, giving a small shake of her head, and then said something that may get her face slapped. "Shut up," Lonnie told her softly. Her voice sank to a husky tone as she watched the green eyes darken. "You're being too loud."


In a blur, Lonnie jabbed her in two spots at the base sides of the neck, and then guided her hapless victim gently back onto the couch in a reclining state. Lonnie knew this was a dangerous thing to do with someone that had control issues. She leaned over the diva, ignoring the feelings her own body was transmitting to her. She firmly reminded herself this was a person she was mentoring, even if the diva did not see it that way.

"Number one?we are in a partnership where we show respect for each other in public and private. Number two, you will come to practice sessions and shows sober and on time. We are professional performers and that is how I expect you and me to act henceforth ?and number three?loud voices are heard by many on a cruise liner and gossip is second nature in this small city...you will conduct your private life in a private manner."

Diva Kali Maxine's eyes were shooting sparks. Lonnie's arms trembled. She leaned back, putting space between them, letting out a puff of air in resentment.

"Do we have an understanding?" Without waiting for a response she continued. "I'm tired and I'm going to bed now. Rehearsal is in fifteen hours. If you still have business to discuss we'll do it then." Lonnie tapped her again over the same points. She pulled the diva to her feet, and gave her a nudge out into the corridor. After closing the door, Lonnie grabbed her guitar and played until her thoughts were peaceful.

The next day Diva Kali Maxine was at the rehearsal on time with her towel, water, her helper and an attitude. Lonnie schooled a neutral face and was careful in what type of energy she put out as her partner approached. Lonnie had received a list of the dances via her cabin console earlier in the morning. Andres had compiled the list from the liner's entertainment director's suggestions, and his own experience with the type of audience Bettelheim's long range plans for the diva required. Lonnie had fine tuned the list with Andres and now it was up to her to present it to the diva.

"Shall we warm up first before we discus what dances we'll be doing tonight?"

"And I suppose you think that list of dances YOU picked will pack them in," Kali Maxine replied sarcastically.

Lonnie decided to ignore that remark. "What we need is to start the show fast and finish with a flourish. In between, we need to keep them awake. Both of us starting off with a solo is not going to work all the time. We need to mix up the routines?"

"Just exactly what are you saying?" the diva interrupted tersely.

"Andres and I have no idea what your skill levels are in other styles of dance." Tactfully she left out that if she had come to practice before the liner left port they would have had that information. "The liner crowd likes tango, jigs, beguine, samba, flamenco and bolero because they personally can't do them well, and they are fun to watch. Andres, is a master musician. He is good at reading the crowd's mood. If he senses restlessness, we can depend on him to change the music which means we must be ready to change styles. To do that we have to build up a repertoire of dances. Do you have anything to add?"

"Yeah, where's the bucket to puke?"

If her face color was not turning a tint of green Lonnie would have thought it was just another rude comment. While the diva took care of her upset stomach with her assistant providing little help, Lonnie went to speak with Andres.

When Kali Maxine returned looking somewhat better, they worked on two routines, then at Lonnie's askance, the diva showed them her solo. The moment she started it, Lonnie knew it was wrong for the crowd. Andres stopped the musicians and looked at Lonnie with an expression she was familiar with...a furrowed brow. The diva turned in mid step and glared at the musicians and then Lonnie, who was already walking toward her.

"We already have two slow dances. The idea is to make them want to leave here dancing, if only in their imagination. Can you do bolero?" If she had no concept of how to dance the slow sensuous dance, it would be difficult to teach her for that night's performance. It required a certain attitude and she was not sure the diva could pull it off at the moment. She was too aloof?or dispassionate?or maybe still not feeling well.

"No," Kali returned firmly.

"Then I'll show you." She signaled Andres to let the musicians go. When they were alone, Lonnie demonstrated a short version of the dance sequence. Kali attempted to start the first four moves but could not get it right. "Focus on the first thee steps, like the maldo but with movement in the hips?then take a big step out, sway the hips out and repeat once more and then two quick steps?that's right." A bell sounded, letting them know their time was up and another group would be using the hall.

"The dance steps are available on your viewer?under your name. If you need me to practice with?call me," Lonnie encouraged her. The diva's assistant glared at her and guided the diva out the door as quickly as possible.

Lonnie shook her head at the two.

Their second night the auditorium was packed and the Chief Purser of Entertainment, CPE, or the Entertainment Director as civilians knew him, had to ask people to leave. Kali saw it as affirmation of her talent but Lonnie knew the people were only curious, and unless they improved their dances, they would lose many of them. They needed more practice time together.

At the finish of their performance the applause reverberated off the bulkhead. Lonnie was used to enthusiastic applause, but there was more to this one. She patiently waited for the diva to tire from taking bows and was relieved when the lights went out on stage, ending the curtain calls. The diva's costumes and whatever else fans had tossed to her, was gathered by the purser whom the helper was ordering around. Lonnie waited until the diva's entourage was gone before she wheeled out herself. Just in case there was a lurking fan, she peered out to see if the corridor was clear.

She showered in her cabin and then visited Gish for her hot rock massage. To Lonnie's bliss, Gish proved a quick learner in using the new modality.

Before retiring to her cabin, Lonnie rode the elevator to the ninth level to grab a sandwich in the mess hall to take back with her. Back in her cabin, surrounded with pillows piled high, she munched on her sandwich and read the entertainment available for viewing on the interstellar channels. By the time she finished her sandwich she knew she was missing nothing. She switched to interstellar news and was about to change it, not wanting to go to sleep with worrisome thoughts, when a word caught her attention.

She raised the volume. [?authorities have attributed the rash of brutal attacks on space ships in this area to a fringe group called Abra. It's believed by some insiders that the leader, Br'Mon, has been targeting those he believes are responsible for him having to flee his home planet. On Cele, the other side of Orion's belt, the Mik Clan is?]

Lonnie switched the channel off. "Just what I needed to hear," she muttered softly. Sitting at her desk, she sent an encrypted message. It may not be something she needed to concern herself about?but then again, if this group was still in existence after all these years and now moved out into space travel?

She wondered if she was reacting from bad memories or if it was intuition.

She shook her head to rid herself of the ominous feeling. "Now would be a good time to catch up on the trade news." She dialed up her subscription and found her services wiped out.

"What's going on here?" She tried a few more and then went into her menu. Her name was not listed. Sighing she picked up the comm and called the chief pursuer.

"Hi, this is Lonnie?yeah?No, I'm doing fine thank. However, I just logged onto my menus and I have none. I seem to have been removed from your database?yeah, I would appreciate it. I was intending on catching up on trade news?Alright. Thanks."

For a few moments she stared at the screen. "What the heck. Until they have my profile back up I can take a look at other journals."

She dialed in dancing journals and watched the screen populate with thousands of them. She selected Dancer's News.

"Hmm. Lookie here," she muttered cynically. "Erich actually had the nerve to hint at what his protégé is working on. Hopefully no one is going to spend the credits to send a reporter on this cruise." Moving on to other noteworthy information she was beginning to get sleepy. She turned the viewer off and rearranged her pillows, then turned on a recording of nature sounds to soothe her to sleep.

The next morning she was up early. Others she normally worked out with were already assembled, warming up. Their leader paired them up and had them go through basic patterns, no doubt wanting to see what they lost during the vacation. Two hours later, she had a small breakfast and then headed to the hall for dance rehearsal. She joined a few of the musicians as they walked down the corridor to the hall for practice. Everyone was in a good mood.

After waiting twenty minutes for the diva, Lonnie told Andres, "Well, there went that short period of cooperation. While you all practice your stuff I'll go locate our diva and give her another one of my inspiring work ethic speeches."

"Maybe you didn't use the right incentive," Andres suggested.

"Give me a little more time. I'll find out what makes her tick," Lonnie assured him.

"It's only the third day," he agreed with a smirk. "Think you can do it by the sixth?"

"Hm. Is this a bet you're wangling for, Andres?" She could hear him laughing as he tapped his baton to get his musicians attention.

Leaving behind the sounds of the musicians tuning their instruments, Lonnie reminded herself what attitude she needed to project to her partner. Taking the stairs rather than an elevator was both for the physical exercise and mental clearing. Outside of the diva's quarters, Lonnie waited for the scan to identify her and then pushed the now unlocked cabin door open. Peering in before stepping across the threshold, she could see a spacious room that had four closed doors.

Hm. Figures she would have the owner's cabin. Nice. Frontroom and dining room ?and they don't even look like anyone's living here. Too clean for even me to be comfortable. Plenty of space to practice. She could at least invite me up for practice.

From what Lonnie assumed was the bedroom, she could hear snoring. Cautiously she peeked in.

Good gawds! It looks like a disaster area! How can three people possibly do all this? She lifted an article of clothing. Okay, four articles of underwear and there are only three of them. Nope, here's two more. That makes six underwear and three bodies. Shoes?yeah more than three pairs?If it were an orgy, wouldn't the front area be in shambles too? Oh, great. Drugs.

Kali Maxine was unconscious, snoring noisily on the bed as naked as the two adolescent boys wrapped around her. Lonnie looked back at the drug paraphernalia lying on the table, looking odd to be perfectly arranged compared to the disarray everywhere else. Lonnie thought about dumping the drugs in a waste receptacle except it would notify security that drugs were aboard and have her scent on them.

As if they don't already know. Damage control. First things first. These boys need to get out of here.

The third rough shake woke one of the boys. She dropped what she guessed were his clothes on top of him and then went to the other, giving him the same treatment. Not saying anything, the two stumbled out of the cabin after fumbling into their clothes under Lonnie's stern eye. One gathered up the drugs shamelessly.

Good. Take them with you. So, does that mean they brought them? That would be a relief. Lonnie turned back to her diva and could see reddened green eyes blinking open at her, looking confused. "You missed rehearsal," Lonnie told her in an even tone.

"We did good last night," the diva's voice croaked, trying to use humor to cover her embarrassment and confusion with finding her partner standing over her. She felt sick. "Conessa must have forgotten to wake me," she added. Her stomach made threatening noises. Determined not to get sick in front of this person, she decided not to pursue the subject of why her partner was in her room?and why she had no clothes on. Kali put a hand to her head, trying not to cry out from the pain that lanced through her skull. Whatever Conessa had given her, did not work. Where was her maid, or was she her assistant, or did she say she wanted to be called something else?

Lonnie lifted a sheet from the floor and laid it on the bed where the diva could pull it around her if she felt the desire to.

"We rehearse everyday?you're breathing too hard after each number to not build up your stamina, and we need to work on our steps."

"Okay, so I'll be at tomorrow's," she modified her tone so the woman would just leave. She pulled the sheet around her.

Lonnie tried not to breathe too deeply. The room smelled of unclean body odor and 'sud', a drug that was smoked. "Our show is in three hours; they've bumped our time to a noon show and moved us to the Tea and Orange room. That is deck seven, aft. If you can't find it, ask." Lonnie turned and left.

Two and a half hours later Lonnie was stretching behind the stage, keeping warmed up. Where is she? Lonnie wanted to start the show with a dance together and they needed to warm up. She was about to send a purser to find her when she saw Kali Maxine hurrying toward her looking as if she were ill. Her costumes were draped over her arm, dragging on the deck. Lonnie wondered where her helper was. The purser assigned to assist rushed forward to take the costumes. Lonnie glanced at Andres who shrugged his shoulders. It was up to her to handle.

"What happened to you?" Lonnie asked softly, taking one of the costumes from the purser and guiding the diva into the small area for dressing.

"I got lost. No one could tell me where this place was."

"Let's get you changed." The two worked quickly, removing Kali's clothing and getting her into the dress, then combing her hair back and securing it in place. The good thing about their costumes was they were made to put on and remove quickly with little fuss.

"Can you dance to that music?" Lonnie asked, listening to the intro music Andres started on time.

"Yeah," Kali answered as if insulted. "It's beginners stuff."

"Then go." Lonnie pushed her gently toward the curtain, hoping she was not going to fall flat on her face.

It was a beginner's dance, a bulerias, but a talented dancer would have replaced the simple steps with more intricate ones. Unfortunately, the diva did not improvise. Her perfectly executed simple steps did not woo the audience.

Andres picked jigs and flamencos for the next four sets. It was a disappointing night for Lonnie. By the nervous glances Lonnie was getting from her partner, Lonnie gathered the diva was not immune to her poor performance. Lonnie saw no point in speaking of it further.

"Rehearsal is at seven in the morning in this hall," she reminded the musicians. "See you all then," she nodded to the musicians as they filed out. It was not said for their benefit. Andrea gave her a nod and then a look toward Kali. Of course he was leaving it to her. She was the diva-sitter.

Conessa finally showed, rushing to assist the diva to change out of her costume. However, the diva waved her off impatiently, stepping toward Lonnie. The dancing put some color back in her face and she was looking healthier.

A group of young men stepped into the back room, and spotting the diva, called out to her. Diva Kali Maxine's charm automatically turned on. Laughing and in a gay and playful mood, Kali Maxine allowed them to escort her out, past her helper who was bunching up the costumes while sending glares toward their disappearing backs. Since the diva did not bring a cart to stow them Conessa was left with carrying the armload back to their quarters.

"She's going to be a hard one," Andres remarked, joining Lonnie at the crew elevator.

"I remember when we were younger and did stuff like that. Nineteen years ago?or so. Too long ago for me to remember the year, but the hangovers I remember very well."

"You never jeopardized a performance, Lonnie. And that was before you got serious and hired a manager and agent. How is Shari doing these days?"

"Good. Didn't you hire her too?"

He shook his head. "Nah. At the time I just wanted to spend the bulk of my money on parties?not a money manager. The only thing I did that she recommended was stick a small portion of my money regularly into the retirement fund for musicians. I'm lucky in that case. When I quit this business at least I won't have to beg on the streets?provided I retire on a planet I can afford. Still playing the guitar?"

"Yep. Harmonica and violin, took up the baboo and a few other instruments, but too cumbersome to drag around or store in a small cabin."

He laughed. "To say nothing about driving your neighbors crazy with your practicing. Ever thought of getting together with others to play or are you still shy about it?" he asked with a grin.

"Sometimes I do, but I play for myself."

They were quiet for a few moments before Andres broached the subject. "I want to thank you for recommending me to your agent. He's impressive with his knowledge about talent." He glanced at her uncomfortably. "I got the impression he's very focused on getting this lost diva up in star lights?to the point of sacrificing someone along the way."

"Uh huh," was all Lonnie gave. Adding anything else might create divided loyalties and she had not even formed a working relationship with her partner yet. "We didn't do well on that performance," Lonnie pointed out. "It wasn't just with Kali's dance? I can dance with the syncopated rhythm, but it seems to confuse her. For now we need to keep the music so the main beat is plain enough for her to follow."

Andres nodded. "I noticed. Her tapes didn't show that difficulty. We have five months to work on it, then five more to polish it up?but it could also be she's not feeling well. I noticed she hasn't been feeling too good these last few days."

"She wasn't on drugs tonight," Lonnie stated thoughtfully, "but I think she may be sick. She could be one of those people that gets space sickness. Let's give her a chance to do something for herself. If by the next warm-up she's still ill I'll step in." Lonnie sighed silently. She did agree to this babysitting job.

"Do you know who those two boys with the blue hair are?" Lonnie asked. They both got off the elevator and walked toward their quarters.

"Nephews of the cruise liner's owner. Orwin is the oldest and the taller of the two. He seems to think he owns this ship and does a lot of bragging, like young no-names do. The younger one goes by Kal, but I got the impression he has another name."

Chapter 5

Following rehearsal the next day Kali Maxine was hanging onto the sides of the bulkhead heaving her guts out. Lonnie never remembered ever being that sick from any drug she was stupid enough to try in her younger days.

Lonnie waved Conessa away. "This is a private talk," she explained to the woman firmly. The woman sent dark looks Lonnie's way as she was maneuvered away from the two dancers by Andres.

Kali Maxine slid down the bulkhead and sat with her head between her shaking legs.

"This is not about drugs, is it?" Lonnie asked quietly. "It's about fear."

Kali Maxine kept her head lowered. Lonnie sat on the deck beside her. "No one is taping this conversation." She held up her voice and image scrambler, a small device worn as a ring. "I have my trusty PD here," she joked.

"What is it?" a shaky voice asked.

"A ring that blocks people from capturing my image or voice without my say-so."

Kali wiped the sweat from her brow with the damp towel Lonnie provided her. "That's why they couldn't take your picture at the bar?"

"Yes. They had to use someone else's picture and paint my face over," Lonnie explained. "You've made yourself an easy mark for the one night glory seekers by not wearing one," she observed. After a few moments she returned to the current problem. "So, what is it about traveling liners? Being out in space?"

Kali stared at her hands in her lap. They were long, thin and trembling. She clinched them and released them. "It has to do with my first and last time on a liner," she admitted in a low voice.

Lonnie remained silent, surprised the woman was willing to say that much.

"I don't have pleasant memories."

"Were you alone?did someone attack you?" Lonnie gently asked.

The diva snorted in contempt. "I was with my family," she informed her acidly.

Lonnie remained still, letting the diva run the conversation.

"We were going to our new home. I was unhappy because I was leaving all my friends behind. Nokie Drake was performing on that cruise. Every night he invited young girls onto the stage to dance with him. I had heard this and wanted to be one of those girls, so I asked my mother to take me to one of his performances. He liked the way I danced. He talked my parents into giving him custody of me so he could properly train me." She recited the information in short sentences between clinched teeth.

Lonnie knew about Nokie Drake. She wondered if he was still serving time for child molestation. Normally it would have been hushed up, but the child had committed suicide in a public facility and left a video note.

"How long were you with him?" she asked quietly, belying the anger she felt for this man.

"Way past the time he tired of me," she bitterly reported. "Where was I supposed to go? I didn't know what happened to my parents?they sold me he said, and then they just disappeared. I never knew which planet they were going to settle on and no one around me knew. I didn't even know what planet we came from as my parents were labor-nomads. Finding relatives was impossible. Since I was the only one interested in looking and lacked knowledge in fleshing out that type of information I decided that I was stuck where I was." Her hands were clasped together, turning white from clenching them.

"You're older now, why haven't you sought help for dealing with this experience?" Lonnie asked before she could stop herself. Her anger allowed her speech to go unimpeded, much to her frustration. It was one of the reasons why she avoided the spotlight. It was too easy to goad her.

"What does it matter to you?" Kali demanded in a low tone.

"Do you want to be the number one in dance?" Lonnie asked to get them both refocused.

"I-want-off-this-cruise," she bit through clenched teeth.

"This is a good opportunity to face your demons. Take it. You already know how tough it is to work to get to the top and stay there. Being captive to your fears sets you up for trouble," she told her firmly.

Kali rose to her feet and silently removed her damp costume. Lonnie waited, hoping she would say something. "Do you regret what you just told me?" Lonnie could not believe that came out of her mouth and wished it had not. Today's conversations with the diva were not turning out to be inspiring and conducive to building a partnership.

The diva folded her dress and Lonnie picked up her change of clothes, handing them to her.

Green eyes flickered to hers and then away, trying to hide the tears that were trickling down her face. She used the costume to dab them dry before stuffing it in the bag.

"Tonight we have off and there isn't any rehearsal space available. Practice on your own as much as you can." Nothing could be gained by pushing her when she was not feeling well, Lonnie reminded herself. "Are you going to be alright? Do you want me to walk with you to your cabin?"

"I'm fine," Kali Maxine whispered.

Finding no other reason to stay, Lonnie was about to leave when she remembered her ring. The woman appeared pale, fragile and too much like the proverbial damsel in distress. Taking off the PD ring, she slipped it on the diva's thumb.

I wonder why no one on the diva's staff, including our agent, has made sure she had a PD, especially with her propensity to attract the wrong type of publicity?which reminds me. I need to find out what's going on with that drug setup in her cabin. And I gotta speak with Erich. She needs someone with a lot more support than that woman she has right now.

Conessa was anxiously waiting outside the door keeping the boys at bay. When she saw Lonnie exit she pushed past her to get to her employer. The boys who were going to follow stopped when Lonnie pointed a finger at them and gave them an icy glare.

"If you want to visit with the diva, there will be no drugs involved or underage sex. Do you get me?"

"They're not our drugs. Conessa supplies it, and we get to keep what's left over," Orwin, the oldest cousin objected. "And we may look young, but we're legal age," he finished in a huff.


"Her manager," he gestured to the diva's helper.

The way Orwin and Kal were fidgeting, she had a feeling Orwin had left a lot out and remembering how she had found them she guessed what it may be about. "Conessa is not her manager, and drugs are illegal. You'll not be spending any more time in her cabin?or it won't be just security I'll be speaking with."

Orwin glared at her.

"I'm sure your free trips on your uncle's ships will end if Englo hears of your behavior."

Kal grabbed Orwin's arm and pulled him up the corridor. Orwin wrestled his arm free and stomped after his younger cousin.

Well score points for my side. That seems to give them food for thought.

Englo Brighton was Clamont Stanley's secretary and for a long time thought to be one of Clamont Stanley's partners, giving him more say then most secretaries on business matters.

Lonnie spent an hour with the commander of security. She was aware that he had attended all her performances since she had worked aboard this Earl Gray. There had been an older ship called Earl Gray retired from space travel four years earlier. The commander's lover, Chief Purser of Entertainment, CPE, was also an avid fan of hers which was probably why she had originally been sought for a long term contract on Earl Gray. Of course it helped that she was perfectly content to work on the cruise ship. Jol Hrorian, the CPE and she had a good relationship and met often for lunch with some of the other performers.

Jol Hrorian had a good eye for picking out what type of entertainment the passengers would like. Though Lonnie did not consider herself a main attraction, Jol and the ship's owner did. Her loyal fans that booked yearly to see her made it important for them to keep Lonnie happy, which meant seeing that fans did not annoy her. Much to the security team's relief, she did not attract unruly fans.

"Drugs on board are trouble," Commander Maltieani Co agreed. "And politics of the theatre society?" he remarked wryly. "I'll look into this Conessa's background. She looked different the first time you saw her, you say? Maybe for that species a maid or assistant is called conessa?.like burg is always used after the name of someone that is a waiter on Alman." He studied her for a few moments, weighting if what he said next was really any of his business. "You may get burned by that diva, you know?"

"Ah, her reputation extends into the reaches of space. I'm not her type, Maltieani." Lonnie's long legs were stretched out before her. She was enjoying a drink she was sure he did not share with many visitors. It was a rare vintage wine from a planet the old Earl Gray docked at as a regular stop about four years ago. She wondered how he managed to get a bottle of their finest. She held up her glass and looked at the color. This was a new shade. She glanced at Maltieani and raised her eyebrows in askance. Though she was not a heavy drinker, she knew her wines.

"I'm not saying how I got it." He leaned back in his chair, pleased with his drink, company and this problem before him. He heard about how cutthroat the theatre business could get. "By your description of this helper, would you say that she's acting like she's settling a score?"

Lonnie thought about it. "Could very well be. Do you think you can find out where Conessa is keeping the drugs without involving Diva Kali Maxine?"

"I'll get someone I trust to look around," he nodded. After another sip of his wine, he admitted, "I'm disturbed that she was able to smuggle drugs past our drug sniffers. That calls for an internal investigation of my staff." He stared at his wine glass for a few moments, his brow wrinkled as if in deep thought.

"Uh huh," Lonnie replied simply, and then added, "We need to figure out what the repercussions are going to be if Conessa has something on the nephews and the diva that she's taking to the press, just so we're not caught unprepared with unpleasant media coverage. I'm sure the nephews of the owners were picked for a reason."

He nodded worried. "I'll start research on Conessa's employment starting with who hired her. I personally don't like the woman. She's stirring up trouble below decks with rumors about you and Kali Maxine." He looked at her over the rim of his glass, and gave her a smirk. "In case this runs into costs the cruise liner is not covered for, who do I bill?"

"Our agent, Erich Bettleheim. Send him a report and tell him it's on my request. His family is well connected; let's see what he's going to do with this. It's in his interests?" Looking at Maltieani she caught his grin. "So, just what is she saying about us below decks that I haven't heard?"

Maltieani's grin turned into a big smile. He leaned forward to refill Lonnie's glass.

"Shall we compare notes to see whose mouths are better informed?" he asked.

Lonnie smiled back. He may have more people and equipment monitoring the ship and its inhabitants, but she trusted better what she was able to pick up. After all, her info went through fewer filters and less interpreters.

Chapter 6

The Captain's shuttle, the CS Mermaid, was full with ship officials and others on the SDL. Disembarking to go planet side normally took several hours. The ship's captain and Chief Purser of the Disembarking List, the CPDL, would visit with the port authorities in person, hoping to speed up the processing by presenting passenger information and perhaps exchanging convivial gifts to smooth the way. In reality it was old cronies sitting together and sharing stories and drinks while the computers distilled passenger information. It was an old custom and since no one bothered to tell anyone that the visits were no longer necessary, the practice continued.

At almost every port Lonnie had something planned and in some cases friends were on hand to take her far from any closed-in spaces. Her need for communion with nature was a bone deep urge that prevented her from being content with just space travel, even though the views of nebulas and stellar dust storms were awe-inspiring.

"Hey, Lonnie! It's so good to see you." Cora grabbed her and embraced her. "How did you get off so quickly?" she asked pleasantly surprised.

"I finally made the SDL." Lonnie laughed and then spread herself around the group getting hugs and 'it's about time' for her return to their planet.

"Ohh. Aren't you special? We got your message about the performance at The Dance Hall. Luckily we purchased our tickets right then. Bea said it sold out by the afternoon. Everyone wants to see Diva Kali Maxine?and you dressed in those tight fitting outfits," Cora added with a smirk. She wrapped her arm around Lonnie's forearm and walked her out of the busy terminal to the autocabs lined up along the curb.

"Where can I dump my grip?"

"In the trunk," Lettie directed, grabbing Lonnie's familiar clothing bag and slinging it into the trunk. "We're going to have dinner at La Sinque. It looks like a dive on the outside but one of Cora's patients's said it has great food, good service and it's always packed."

The group broke to spread themselves out into various autocabs. As her cab prepared to move out in a caravan Lonnie caught a glimpse of Kali Maxine looking lost amid the people pushing at her for autographs. "I'll be right back."

"I'll wait," Elma told the others. "Go on and get things going."

Lonnie pushed and separated the youth surrounding the diva wondering why they were so young. How could they possibly know anything about professional dance? Her eyes spotted a group of news people taking pictures. She was hoping Kali remembered to activate her PD.

"You have a ride?" Lonnie asked when she was near Kali's elbow. Lonnie looked around for Conessa whom she would rather steer clear of.

"Lonnie," she greeted, sounding relieved. "I?no. Conessa told me she had some business to finish up with and?I thought I could handle this," she finished in an uncertain voice.

"Are you protected this time?" Lonnie asked as she guided the diva through the throng of youth.

"Protected? Oh. Yes. I went down myself and bought one of those rings like yours," she informed her proudly.

"Good," Lonnie told her. "What's with the kids? Is your publicist mixing your name with someone else?"

"Hm?" she looked back at the kids that were now milling around yelling and creating too much noise for politeness.

"They're not exactly the age group interested in professional dance," Lonnie explained her as she steered her into an autocab that Elma held for them.

Kali ducked to enter the cab, then hesitated when she saw someone already in it.

"Hi, I'm Elma Lin," Elma introduced herself. "Do we need to check to see if your costumes arrived at the theatre or head to the restaurant," she asked not taking it personal that Kali shrunk away from her without a hello. Elma was a big woman.

"Let's head to the restaurant. Andres is our musician manger this go-round. He'll check to see that everything is on site." The three were squeezed in and Lonnie could feel Kali's uncertainty of her choice of being rescued from one crowd to another. Thankfully, the cab ride was short. Everything was intentionally close to the transportation terminal.

The rest of the group was already seated at a table enjoying appetizers and drinks. It was warm outside so the liquid refreshment flowed. The conversation was lively and about everything and anything. Lonnie had told Bea who made the arrangements that there was to be no alcohol at the table and was pleased that her request had been honored. After Lonnie introduced everyone she rose to go to the restroom.

"Where are you going?" Kali whispered frightened.

"To the restroom. Need to go?"

Whether she did or not Kali jumped up and followed her.

Kali's hands were shaking as she washed them.

"Are you okay with the gang? I could drop you off at your hotel," Lonnie offered.

Kali shook her head. "I?didn't want a hotel. I was going to just have a look at where we were to perform and then return back to the ship."

"Are you frightened of being alone?"

"No?no. I just?I've never been alone before," she admitted in an undertone. "I wanted to see if I could do it. Conessa was against it but?I need to be more independent." Her voice sounded wistful.

"Everyone should be able to take care of herself," Lonnie tried not to sound like this conversation was personal. In the past her partners had been men and they preferred not to hang with their dance partner. "Do you want to be with us? They're a nice bunch of people and they don't gossip. We'll be heading to the outback when the performance is over. I usually spend two days at Cora's ranch, unwinding." Now why did you have to add all that? What does she care?

Kali looked at her surprised. "What do you do on a ranch?"

Lonnie smiled. "Work livestock, run equipment, or climb the cliffs not too far away. Then there are a lot of nice trails to walk. Depends on my mood."

"Oh, that's why you're so?strong."

"That's why I work out?to keep strong," she returned with a grin. "Come on. They're going to think we deserted them. By the way, what drug did you take before you disembarked?"

Kali was taken back.

"Just so that whatever you eat and drink doesn't clash," she explained reasonably.

"A tranquilizer is all."

Lonnie nodded and held the door open for Kali. Hmm. Something else to look into. Who medicates her and what is her history. Nice of Erich not to tell me about that. How does he expect me to get her head on straight if he doesn't give me background? Maybe that's why she's been ill lately.

If Kali was on a tranquilizer, it was not doing its job. Her nervousness seemed to worsen as the evening progressed. At the hall, Lonnie and Kali headed to the performers side entrance and the others headed to the main entrance to take their seats.

When they were alone Lonnie asked, "When was the last time you saw a doctor about your prescription for tranqs?"

"I hate doctors," Kali shivered as if to re-enforce that feeling.

"Well, Cora is a doctor. Do you hate her?"

"Cora? She's nice," Kali admitted surprised.

"She is. She runs a clinic in the outback."

"Is she your doctor?"

"No, her ex-lover is," Lonnie grinned. "Thank gawds the two are on friendly terms or I would be getting a lot of grief for visiting one and not the other."

"Why aren't they together?"

"One likes the outback and the other wanted city life." And a lot of other things?

"Oh. Are either of them your lovers?"

That question took Lonnie off-guard and for a long moment she was silent. "If anyone is my lover, no one will know about it."

"Including her?" Kali asked lightly.

Lonnie laughed. "Yeah. I do tend to like the unavailable. Dreamlovers are nice and safe."

"Keeping distance," Kali said knowingly.

Lonnie refrained from remarking because of their surroundings but she was surprised at the personal nature of the subject. Since the episode of Kali telling her why she feared liner travel, their conversations only dealt with their profession. Lonnie guessed the tranqs were helping her deal her fear.

Their act was the second of seven performances scheduled that night. That meant Lonnie would get enough sleep time to get up early the next morning. She wanted to utilize every moment of her down time. Kali and Lonnie warmed up while Andres sized up their audience and decided if the music they planned would work. When he came back, he nodded to Lonnie that they would stick to the program of a tango, flamenco and flamop, a mix of flamenco with old opera.

The intro would have them both come out holding hands and work right into the dance, moving into a banjo hold. Lonnie could feel Kali's hands shaking even before their intro. It worried Lonnie.

As they danced, Lonnie found it necessary to whisper each move: bounce, bounce, chug, close, point and slide, cross, stamp, stamp, hop-point, and cut, bounce, bounce, step-out, out, out, cut, dip, stomp, stomp, jump and kick, slide, slide and close, cross, swing left, cross and dip? Kali faltered three times. Kali's memory for dance moves was better than average so Lonnie attributed her lapse to something other than poor memory. As the dance moved on, Lonnie decided to find out more about Kali, and that meant Kali would not be returning to the ship with Conessa. The fact that she did not see Conessa in her usual place in the wings lead her to suspect Conessa was up to something.

The standing ovation they received at the end of their performance surprised Lonnie since her thoughts were on trying to cover for Kali. Following their bows, Lonnie kept a tight hold on Kali's hand, and pulled her into an autocab with Cora, having faith in Andres to get everything sent back to the ship.

"Yo, Lonnie. What's with her?" Aliana asked concerned.

"Bad batch of tranqs I'm guessing. Cora?" she asked pleadingly.

Cora leaned toward the semiconscious diva. She felt her pulse and looked in her eyes. She leaned over to the autocab's console and keyed in her ID. The cab suddenly took off with a small light flashing. The cab's small emergency medi-kit had a body scanner which Cora ran over her and tapped in some instructions. With her physician's license she was able to give her something to counter the drug's effects.

By the time they arrived at Cora's ranch Kali was sleeping peacefully. Cora did a thorough exam of Kali, while Lonnie headed for the TPP, transplanet phone. She did not wake up Erich, but by the noise in the background, she was interrupting something fun.

[Looks like we've both bit off something bitter,] he reported sounding depressed. [A gang from Eisen, calling themselves the Connections think they own her?when her contract with me ends, that is in seven years.]

"A gang? How did that happen?"

[She signed a contract with their conessa; a representative of their organization. The present conessa is a new member of their org. They don't know that much about her just that she gets results. My inside mouth told me they want her sooner than seven years and this woman promised them that she would get the diva to break her contract with me in a year. Does that tell you anything?]

"That she's setting Kali up for a fall like I suspected. But this fall is going to be too steep for the Connections to cash in on her talents?unless she has some talent in something other than dancing. Another thing worth mentioning - this conessa is surrounding her with kids and I don't just mean adolescents. What's up with that?"

[You're right it doesn't sound like she's working to her boss's benefit. Let me dig deeper. Also, if Kali was drugged when the contract was signed?is null and void. I'll check her medical.]

"Are you regretting buying her contract?"

[I didn't buy it. Someone is out to hurt one of my clients and I don't like it. If I let whoever it is get away with it?]

"It will spread to other potential clients?" she finished for him.

[Yeah. Part of the agents' world, Lonnie. How are you holding up?]

"Fine. Tomorrow I climb to view the world at my feet." She added that just to bother him.

[Please don't tell me. I'm gonna worry that you'll hurt yourself and I'll owe money for your missed performances.]

"Okay. Did you know that Kali's life has been managed since she was a child and she doesn't have much experience traveling by herself?"

There was a heavy sigh at the other end. Lonnie wondered what that meant. [I'm looking for a new assistant for her. I've already notified the captain connessa is no longer employed by me and she is to have her belongings moved out of Kali's suite.]

"I hope you're not going to be spending all your credits on her and forget to take care of us little guys," she joked.

[Her upkeep is covered. Keep that to yourself. See ya later. My kids want me in the pool so they can dunk me. Why do you think kids get such a charge in trying to drown their papa?]

"I don't know," she told him. "Have a good time." She hung up the phone and stared at it for a long time.

"Hey, gal. Get to bed. We start early," Aliana told her. "Your diva, she'll be alright. She had a reaction to whatever was in that tranquilizer. Maybe someone is buying her cheap stuff and pocketing the extra credits."

"Yeah, that's my guess too. One more call." She called Commander Maltieani Co on Earl Gray and explained what happened. She added, "Maltieani, she has an unnatural fear of physicians so if he visits?"

[It's a woman, Lyn Pratt, from your neck of the woods, I believe. I know you never visit the medilab. You must have something against doctors too,] he laughed. [I'll pass that on to her. What about Conessa? She's fit to be tied when she heard her diva was with you. She demanded I send out a squad of my people to drag her back here, claiming you were trying to kill her, among other things.]

"Kill her? That's a bit over dramatic. Conessa's going to be a problem. Erich said she's a member of Connections, a gang back in ShpNer on Eisen. They call their agents conessa. So she has to have another name before she joined this gang. Either she or someone else sold Kali out to them."

[Geeze. And if she was on drugs she probably didn't know what she signed. I thought they passed that international galactic law that says all contracts signed must be accompanied with a bio-scan.]

"That's what the agent is checking out now."

[I'll dig some more. By next port I'll have something,] he told her with confidence. [Have a great time and don't worry, I got the crew watching out for her. By the way, Conessa was paying the cabin maid to leave certain rooms untouched. The maid thinks she was taking pictures when she came in one time to deliver something the diva ordered.]

"Ah. Selling pictures to the news media perhaps or planting evidence. She's up to something more than discrediting Kali."

Both signed off, dissatisfied with a partial picture.

Lonnie made a mental note to find out more of who came into her quarters to change her sheets and clean up.

Chapter 7

Lonnie took a deep breath of dust and heat, welcoming it with a cough and then took another deep breath. It was so different than the artificial air in ships. This was life, she thought as she closed her eyes and let the heat warm her face. Her dream was to have her own land that had cliffs, uncontaminated wilderness, and enough land left over to keep her self-sufficient. Turloc on Abrazan had a large parcel of wilderness that was for sale. She had a seller, a fan, who was willing to part with a large parcel of land rather than leave it to his family.

Her climbing partner jingled the rope attached to her harness. She turned around and grabbed the rope then anchored herself and pulled. Her shoulder muscles flexed and her back braced as their supplies were hauled up. Cora and her partner, Aliana were already preparing the area at the top of the cliff for their overnight stay. Ang and Bella were assisting a stubborn Kali who wanted to come along to see just what was so exciting about climbing a mountain and spending the night there. Lonnie suspected she was nervous about spending two days with people she did not know back at the house. Though they started off later than usual so that Kali could get dressed properly, they still made good time.

Lonnie then gave a hand up to Bella who then helped her haul up an exhausted Kali.

Standing on the flat rock top, the easy camaraderie went on around Kali as she looked about her. She was tired and her legs were as shaky as her arms but she was invigorated. This was the first time she had ventured this far away from any of her residences without her entourage. "You climbed up here for this?" she asked unbelievingly.

"Why we climb it isn't as important," Cora told her as she popped up a seat to collapse in, "as what you get out of it." She turned and pointed at another peak. "See that?"

Kali shaded her eyes. "What exactly?"

"Just as I thought. You can't see worth spit," Cora spoke bluntly. "You need to see someone about those eyes. Believe me when I say it does a whole lot of good to your self-esteem to be able to see what everyone else is seeing."

Aliana pulled out her binocs. "Try these."

Kali put them to her eyes and adjusted them in the direction Cora had pointed. "Oh, my gawds! It's beautiful!" Kali's hand went to cover her heart while the other held the binocs and moved up the side of the distant mountain to its snowy top. "You can see this?!"

Lonnie leaned against a boulder watching the diva, wondering how she could still look so feminine with dirt smudges all over her face and over-sized dusty clothing. Her lips pulled into a thoughtful frown, thinking of Kali's lack of vision. No wonder she's slow in picking up steps when I demonstrated them to her. So viewing them on tape is where she's learning.

It was near freezing cold as soon as the sun dropped out of sight and everyone sat close to the fire as they all took turns regaling their companions with songs or stories. Kali sang a silly song about a frog that went a courting, changing her voice for each character. Everyone enjoyed her voice and laughed at the story. Cora told a story of one of her dogs meeting up with an escaped borea monkey from a neighboring farm. Lonnie pulled out a harmonica and gave a lively tune that had everyone's tired feet tapping. When they retired to the tent, they slept close together, using their combined body heat to keep each other warm.

Lonnie was the first to rise in the early morning hours for a bladder call. Rather than rejoin her sleeping associates she prepared the morning fire. Lonnie could hear the others stirring. While waiting for Aliana, the self-designated cook, to get up, Lonnie found a place to begin her morning Asanas. Her face was to the east where the rising sun had not yet warmed enough to heat her face against the chilly morning air.

Kali held the binocs to her eyes as she studied Lonnie's seated form. Embarrassed, she suddenly raised them toward the sunrise, least someone see her studying her partner with so much interest.

The group began their decent after breakfast, thinking it would take a while with Kali, but she quickly picked up on how to rappel down and was waiting with Cora at the bottom. Since the others had the supplies it took them a little longer to move things.

"Lonnie," Cora called her over. "Kali asked me about eye surgery. I'm not her physician so I was hesitant?" she explained softly.

"She told me she doesn't have one."

Cora sighed. "Yeah, and she told me why." Cora looked irritated with something but she kept her own counsel. "Do you know much about her life?"

"A little."

"Well, I told her if she wants me to be her physician I would, but I wanted to speak with you first."


"Because she said she would trust your recommendation."

"I'm not responsible for anyone but myself," Lonnie objected.

"Gal, you're going to have to face that fear of yours one day?but today, make a decision. We'll get back in time for me to check her out and if it's simple, I'll do it. She can sleep on the way back to your ship."

"We don't have a performance the first night back. Can she practice?"

"Yeap. Physically, one days rest is all she'll need." Cora shook her head dismayed. "If she's as blind as I'm guessing, she's going to have a whole new world to get used to. It'll be overwhelming. Like seeing bright colors instead of dull gray. It behooves me to write to her agent at letting this get by him."

"Erich," Lonnie supplied. "I don't know if he knows. She doesn't squint or look like she can't see. I didn't know and I'm her dance partner."

"I'll tell her you said it's a good idea," Cora told her.

Mid afternoon Kali had her surgery. Lonnie held her hand for support and Kali slept the rest of the day away.

The ride back to the air terminal was quiet. It was dark with stars beginning to populate the blackened sky, and Kali was watching with rapt fascination.

Lonnie thought about the subtle and not so subtle changes in Kali. Before the eye surgery she could look anyone in the face and now avoided eye contact. That was going to take some getting used to. Kali was also more interested in what was going on around her, so much so that Lonnie had to tug at her to move along when they were boarding the autocab.

On their arrival at the air terminal, Lonnie peered out the window and studied the crowd of youth milling around, wondering if they were waiting for the diva or just there for a youth group traveling somewhere.

"Just in case they're laying in wait for you, we're going to have to run to our shuttle," Lonnie observed as she got a good grip on her bag. Stepping out of the cab, Lonnie blocked a view of Kali from the group, giving her a chance to get her balance and then both women ran into the terminal. Lonnie aimed her toward Earl Gray's shuttle ramp noting that a lot of photographers and people were hanging around it. It was as if someone had notified them that their mark was in the building. The ship's steward dispatched the ship's security team to quickly surround them and guide them up the ramp. Kali stood close to Lonnie as they paused while their identity was confirmed.

"That's?Conessa?" an uncertain Kali asked.

Lonnie turned to see who she was asking about. Conessa was arguing with a civilian with a news agency tag on his arm and dressed for hiking. She wondered if he was sent to find out where they had gone.

"The one making a fashion statement with the pink and green hair? Yep. I don't recognize who she's with. Do you?" Lonnie asked.

"I?I would have to see how he moves. That's how I know one person from another," Kali admitted. "This is a bit overwhelming," she informed Lonnie as she moved onto the ramp. Her eyes were sweeping back and forth, trying to take in everything.

"I can't image, but I would guess it's a big deal to see so much all of a sudden."

"I didn't realize?what's that?" she asked in a whisper.

"A pursuer standing at attention. He's from the bodian species. Quite interesting without clothes?they have genitalia of both genders, like human hermaphrodism."

Kali glanced at her startled. Lonnie smirked.

"You learned that in your bar hopping days?" Kali asked cautiously.

"Nope. On Malta Red I met a bodian masseuse?she liked me."

"Ah. So?did you?"

Lonnie nodded smiling. "I did it with her and him. Interesting experience."

The pursuer nodded when they came abreast of him. "We've had to move Diva Maxine to another suite. The owner apologies, but his suite's upgrade has been scheduled with the delivery of the necessary equipment from Luko Tams on Tanzinia. It won't be for longer than a few months," he explained apologetically. "Your new quarters are not too much smaller and your cabin mate will be Diamai Bestrolie," he bowed to Lonnie, "Diamai. We've taken on additional crew and have need for spare crew's cabins so we have moved the two of you in together."

"It's not a problem with me," Lonnie returned. Lonnie wondered if that was something Erich or Maltieani thought up. Now she was officially Diva Kali Maxine's babysitter.

The purser led them to the third deck and to their new quarters. He left them in front of their cabin door marked AC0001. Feeling protective, Lonnie stepped in first to make sure there was no one waiting, and then stood aside to let Kali enter. There was a lot of space in the frontroom. More than Lonnie was accustomed to, but not as much as the owner's suite. She peered behind the divider and found two separate sleeping cubicles. To the left was a long door she pushed open. It was a large closet with their costumes hanging neatly separated by color and ownership. Lonnie was wondering who moved them. She intended on tipping her or him. She doubted it was something Conessa would do. Adjoining the closet was the bathing facility three times larger than what she was used to. It also had a jacuzzi, though not as deep as the one in the crew's relaxation area.

Turning back to the frontroom, Lonnie nodded pleased. "We can work on steps here." She pointed at the small speakers around the room. "Nice sound system so we can get Andres' music piped in to work with the different rhythms. This is perfect." Lonnie turned to watch Kali as she moved around their quarters.

She touched some things and picked up others, then moved on. "It looks nice," she agreed.

"So, which sleeping cubicle do you want?" Lonnie asked.

Kali peeked in the first sleep cubicle. "You can get claustrophobic in here."

"Ah. Now you see the downfall of seeing too much. If you want more space around you, the couch turns into a bed out here."

Kali looked relived. "Conessa is not going to be happy with this. She likes to be close at hand?most of the time," she added in an undertone.

They were interrupted by pounding on the door.

Lonnie opened it to find an angry Conessa who pushed past her into their cabin.

"What are you doing here? Diva Maxine needs her rest. You have your nerve taking her where she could have hurt herself. You probably did it purposely." Turning to the diva, "Kali, how are you, my dear? I heard you were out there in the uncivilized lands! That must have been so hard on you...and without your medication. That woman has no thought of your condition. About these living arrangements?I'm sorry. I was screaming at them for hours, trying to get our suite back. They don't have to be making any repairs now on our quarters! They can wait until the end of the tour," she snorted. "And they won't let me stay with you and take care of your things! Who is going to see that you get to your rehearsals on time or take care of the little things so you can concentrate on your career?"

Certainly not you, Lonnie replied to herself.

She turned back to Lonnie suddenly, as if she overheard Lonnie's thoughts. She glared at Lonnie. "Didn't I just tell you that Diva Kali Maxine is tired? She needs her rest. I'll see that she gets to practice on time. Now, get out!"

"This is our suite," Lonnie informed her. Conessa's eyes grew hard and before she could say something Kali interrupted her.

"I'm fine here," Kali informed her in an even voice. "It's better this way. We can get in more practice with this room," she gestured around them, "without having to wait until we have an available hall. We should have thought of that when I had the larger suite." She glanced at Lonnie, giving her an apologetic smile.

Conessa frowned at the two women, catching on that her ex-employer had changed since she last saw her, but not knowing exactly what it was. Did they become lovers? Her frown deepened. They didn't have that energy between them. "Well, it's time for your medicine."

"I'm doing fine. I don't need anything. I'll call you if I need you." Kali turned and disappeared into the bathing area.

Conessa looked undecided, and then after glaring at Lonnie stomped out.

"I don't know why, but I just don't want to tell her that I can see?" Kali whispered as she reentered the frontroom. "And I really do feel good. I don't feel like I'm wound up?even my stomach ache and headache are gone. I think Cora was right. I was getting some bad meds."

Lonnie picked up the cabin phone and called Maltieani.

"Hi, this is Lonnie. Did you clean our quarters?"

[Yeah. I also removed Conessa Joleian's authority on Diva Maxine's accounts by authorization of Erich Bettelheim. She got the heave-ho. She's paying this trip to get to Corelon the next stop. Did all of your belongings and costumes get moved alright?]

"Yeah, thanks. Her name is Joleian? What's her family name?"

[Wrighton. She used to be the girlfriend to one of your diva's ex-partners. Zac Montage. He died of a drug overdose about a year ago. By then, he had no friends. She was a street hustler and took a liking to him but my mouths tell me there was nothing sexual between them though Joleian claimed there was. They said Zac was too much into drugs to be interested in anything beyond his next fix.]

"Hm. From street hustler to gang member. So, she may be out for some type of revenge. She said she's bunking in crews' quarters."

[Yeah. That was the cheapest cabin we had available. I've also put her on notice. If she causes trouble she will spend the rest of her trip in the brig.]

"Why hasn't anyone notified Kali?"

[She should have a note. I made sure it was there myself.]

"If Joleian knew it was here?maybe that was why she came up?where did you put it?"

[Entrance way so you would not miss it.]

Lonnie looked around. "Nope. She must have filched it. Do you know what was in it?"

[Yeah. Short and sweet. Conessa Joleian Wrighton is fired. Call your agent. By the way, your agent said whatever contract that gang had her sign is null and void. The eye scan and blood signature were not hers. I guess they planned on getting that stuff together later in their game.]

"That's a relief," Lonnie looked towards Kali who was sprawled out on the couch watching a travel log on the viewer. "Thanks for all your work."

[No problem. It breaks the monotony. Let me know if you need any more help.]

"I certainly will. Bye." She hung up and Kali looked up at her for news. "Just wanted to be sure who has authority to be entering our quarters. The steward left a message for you?" she explained to Kali.

Kali held it up. "I can't read. I was going to use the reader only I don't know how to work it."

"Can I?" Lonnie took the note and it was just like Maltieani said. She read it out loud for Kali, then looked at Kali for her reaction but the diva's eyes slid past her nervously. Lonnie reached out and gently turned her head so she looked directly at her.

For a few moments neither woman spoke. Lonnie could see fear in the green depths as if her seeing so clearly meant that she could also be seen?

"First off," Lonnie told her gently, "you are going to get educated so you can take care of yourself. Second off?well, maybe first off you need to call Erich. Do you want me around when you make the call?"

Kali nodded nervously.

Lonnie showed her how to use the caller.

Erich's image appeared, looking grumpy. They obviously woke him up.

[It's about time you answered my message. Can't you call at a decent hour, though?]

"We just got back from shore leave," Kali informed him in a sweet voice.

Lonnie rolled her eyes at the affect her voice had on Erich.

[I'm looking around for a new handler for you. Do you have any preferences?]

"How about someone to teach her basic living skills?" Lonnie spoke up.


"Well, because I can't read or write," Kali told him honestly. "And if I was stranded someplace, I wouldn't know what to do."

[These days it's not necessary to learn those skills unless you're stranded in some outback, but if you want to learn I'll look for someone. Is that all? Good. The captain said he likes what you're presenting, by the way. Keep working at it. I want Platarat material. Next time?call at a decent hour for me. Good sailing.]

His image faded.

"Platarat?" Kali asked.

Lonnie was just as puzzled. She called up the directory. Lonnie was stunned. It was the new star dome. Big sports events and entertainment productions played there.

"Now that is a goal I can aim for," Kali spoke confidently.

There was a knock on their cabin door.

Kali was closer so she rose to open it.

"Hi, are you going to be coming to our party?" Orwin gave Kali what could have been called a sexual leer but it looked ridiculous on someone so young. Lonnie decided to put an end to Conessa's games.

Shocked, Kali turned toward Lonnie.

"Oh?sorry I didn't know?" he stammered when Lonnie stood in front of Kali with a stern look on her face.

"Didn't know what? We're dance partners? What are you doing here?" Lonnie asked impatiently. She wanted to add that she told him and his cousin to stay away from the diva but it did not seem the right time to repeat her warning.

His eyebrows rose and he looked her up and down. "I?I thought you were?I mean had a? Conessa told us you were a man or a woman that was a man or?"

"Transgender. I'm comfortable being what I was born, thank you. You should stop believing what Conessa says. By the way, her name is Joleian Wrighton. She's a drug dealer and interested in selling manufactured stories to the press. If you're not careful, she'll be selling pictures of you and your friends to your uncle or parents for a bit of credits. Good day." With that, Lonnie closed the door. "That should hold her for a while."

"What?" Kali asked still looking pale.

"Ship's scuttlebutt will be around in no time that Joleian Wrighton is out for compromising pictures. She'll be getting all sorts of visitors and some of them are going to be security."

"He's just a boy," Kali finally said.

"Yep. So are the others she's been setting you up with."

Kali shook her head confused. "What others? I've been sick since we arrived on board. This is the first time I've really had a clear head, so-to-speak. Her name is Joleian Wrighton not Conessa?"

"Yeah. Girlfriend to Zac Montage. Remember him?"

"Yeah, but I never saw him with friends. He had male business associates that were into drugs and some shadowy characters that hung around. We only did two shows together. He didn't show for the third performance so I partnered with one of the dance extras. He had no feel for dancing," she remembered. "He had some creative ideas on choreography but later I found out he had taken the steps from someone else. If I didn't have a contract with my agent, I would have fired him. I was a front for a drug cartel he belonged to."

Lonnie's eyebrows rose. "How did that happen?"

"Nokie talked me into signing a contract with what turned out to be a not so reputable agent. It took me years to get out of the mess he created for me?but my lawyer finally managed to convince a judge that wasn't so impressed with my agent's bribes to null and void the contract. I've been trying on agents since? Then, in a fluke meeting, I found someone that pointed me in the direction to Bettelheim Agency and they became my new agents. Erich was assigned to me and here I am?" She finished the last three words softly.

Lonnie caught herself staring at Kali, taking in her eyes, then to her lips, resting on her throat and? Clearing her throat, Lonnie resumed, "Well, Joleian works for this gang called the Connections. Their agents are called conessa. It would be better if you keep away from her and anyone she introduced you to."

For a few moments both were quiet.

"You feeling alright?" Lonnie asked.

"The best I've felt in a long time?" she paused taking a deep breath. "And I can see for the first time in my life," she finished softly.

"Yeah, that must make your world a whole lot more intense." Not knowing what else to say, Lonnie retreated to her sleep area. Her guitar was leaning against the wall in its case. Sighing, Lonnie removed it and settling crossed-legged on her cot, she began to play softly.


J. A. Bard's Scrolls
The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive