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“If you can hear me, return to service quarters immediately.”
Birdie Big Rock ignored the bleating voice coming from the commbundle and used a single finger to guide the ponycart into the lift.
She cleared her throat. “Map?”
The full resort station map sputtered into view with all the fancy lounges and decadent shopping hubs forbidden to grunt staff.
“You have the wrong cart.” Gloria TanOak enunciated each word with rising annoyance.
“Oops,” Birdie muttered. “Shouldn’t have left it in the wrong spot.” The senior housekeeping manager’s cart was bigger and floated instead of bucked. While the lift zipped around the rim, Birdie dug through various shelves and cubbyholes. Towels, sheets, a huge supply of Orbital Casino chocolates coveted by guests to resell on Earth because Indians-in-space merch was collectible. She pried open the flimsy lost and found box but found only a tangle of wrist monitors, rings, earrings, and removable implants. No VIP fobs, currency chips, or fun surprises.
The chocolates were inventoried but not her cart, not her problem. A handful went into her pocket.
The lift stopped and announced, “Sugar Pine Suites.” Birdie waited but the doors remained closed.
She waved the commbundle over the security panel and then over her head in desperation.
Gloria’s frustrated voice came back. “We just talked about this. Bring the cart back. Now.”
Birdie snickered. She knocked the cart against the door. “Come on, we got some rich people who need their luxury suites cleaned.”
The door opened into a narrow service corridor, cold and dingy, like every other hidden service corridor she’d been in.
The voice on the commbundle again, now shrill. “You’re supposed to be on Grasshopper Deck.”
Grasshopper Deck, the land of cramped budget cabins that smelled like ripe armpit and pink drink vomit. Let someone else chase sparkly beads and scrape glitter out of the vents after bachelorette parties.
The ponycart floated past door after door until it found the first assigned room. The access panel lit up. Birdie licked a finger and held it on the entry pad until authentication completed.
She leaned into the opening. “Housekeeping.”
The commbundle buzzed again. “Do not go into that suite! If I have to come out there—”
Birdie stuffed it under a pile of towels and pushed the cart inside.
“Ooh, luxe.” Her hand traced over the faux wood paneling. Warm, cozy lights illuminated handwoven rugs and photos of stern elders in traditional clothing, tribal affiliation printed in tiny letters at the bottom.
The main room had a portal the size of a dinner tray, her first peek outside since the tribal employee shuttle docked. The view was another tooth in the bulky cogwheel of a ship and a black sliver of space with a blur of stars.
The portal in the sleeping room was half the size. She stared out, cheek pressed against the cold, wishing to see something: a supply ship, a passenger shuttle, anything.
She returned to the cart to grab supplies, ignoring the enraged buzz from the commbundle.
Even rich passengers were slobs. Clothes flung everywhere, sticky food packets on the fancy coffee table, and damp towels heaped in the corner.
She did the sleeping room first, fast and mechanical. New arrivals spent time in Gloria’s torturous training room where they practiced bed linen exchange, bath sanitizing, and launder cycles while Gloria railed on them about pride and efficiency as if being fast at cleaning was the ultimate Native pride.
Birdie took a picture of the bathroom vanity before moving all the weird silver tubes of strangely named products and vials of remedies with indecipherable instructions. A few made it into her pockets.
An unexpected screech set her hair on edge. Strips of tiny red lights flashed around the door frames. The main resort system announced, “Ship lockdown procedures. For your safety, return to your cabin.”
What was it with the resort and these drills?
Birdie arranged decorative sweetgrass soaps and restocked the indigestion relief.
The pulse of the alarm grew louder. She scooped up towels and tossed them in the cleaning chute, swiftly sorted through the clothes flung everywhere, and rehung the clean stuff, fancy, even for the resort. Shiny white shirts, elaborately beaded jackets, and rhinestone-studded pants. She paused over a pair of black boots lined with buckles.
This suite wasn’t a guest.
She knew the wearer of these boots. Ads for his show played on endless loop over the ship’s entertainment system.
Or Wyatt Drops-Their-Panties as the staff called him. The in-residence entertainer was known for being as popular offstage as on.
What a collection of footwear.
She stepped into a pair of exotic sand-colored boots, rattlesnake skin, too big for her feet, and checked her reflection while attempting his signature side-stepping pelvic thrust that sold out eight shows a week. Groups waited months for the ladies’ three-night party package.
Gloria would not approve of this.
The alarm blasted again. “Lockdown commencing. Remain in place.” The commbundle squawked from the cart. A prickle of unease. She glanced at the service door. Lockdowns were for … what? Ship system failures? Contagions? Bandits?
She dug out the commbundle, lit up with warnings.
“Housekeeping personnel, return to the service deck for lockdown.” Gloria’s voice had taken on an unfamiliar fury and desperation.
Birdie tapped to connect and mustered an innocent look. “Hey, what’s going on?”
“Oh, so you can hear me.” Gloria’s raging purple face glared from the tiny screen. “Get back here, now.”
“You mean now, now?” That set Gloria howling.
The boots went back, and she slipped on a pair of beaded mocs. Back in service, the staff would be stuck with Gloria watching ancient training holos.
On the other hand, the punishment for skipping might be worse. Hours in Gloria’s training room and demoted to cleaning crew quarters. Nothing but the humiliation of grimy walls and stinky squalor.
A long peal from the alarm. The red blinking lights around the doors froze for the space of a heartbeat.
She hurried the cart to the service door and fumbled with the commbundle, finger hovering over the access pad.
The ship system announced, “Lockdown complete.”
She licked her finger and pressed down. A flutter of white lights and then: SECURE.
She pounded on the door, but the panel refused to show anything except the reassuring SECURE status. The commbundle connection disappeared in favor of blazing emergency announcements.
During training, Gloria beat them over the head with endless drills. They had evacuation drills. (Resort never evacuated.) They had foreign contaminant drills. (Never happened.) Hull breach drills. (Once in ten years.) Drills for intruders. (Annual attempts, strong security response, danger remote). The amount of preparation approached stupidity.
The couch’s freshly plumped cushions looked inviting. Gloria’s first lesson was the difference between guests and service. Service didn’t sit on the furniture.
Wyatt would be in the showcase theater in the lockdown room for performers.
After a moment’s hesitation, she dropped into the sweet softness and closed her eyes. This was possibly the most comfortable she’d been since she’d boarded. She picked up the freshly sanitized room control and turned on the entertainment center. The darkened screened resumed from where it had frozen mid-show.
A chase set to thumping music. Young men, dressed in cringy costumes, running through a fake-looking inter-tribal event. One carried a bow and arrow, another a spear. One wore buckskin pants and a bone choker. What a wasted opportunity to show real tribal people, like attorneys in three-piece suits negotiating an exclusive casino in space or tribal leaders sending off other peoples’ families to make up the workforce.
The band vaulted through vending, knocked over tables of beaded medallions, sent leather-fringed bags flying. One grabbed a dripping piece of frybread as he dashed through. Aunties frowned at the carnage then grinned when they recognized the boy band heroes.
They continued through the parking lot, leapt on and off of ancient sedans, surged past a camper with the door duct-taped shut, and jumped into the back of a rusty pickup, their arms pumping in unison. Beautiful young women decked out in regalia crowded around them.
The camera paused on the young men, breathless with shiny eyes and wide smiles as they held their hands up to surrender then burst into song.
Birdie hit the information button.
Lonely Wolf Boyz in Paradise.
Wyatt wore a skimpy breechclout, dangerously low on his hips. His hair flopped in his eyes as he gave the camera a crooked smile, then threw his head back inviting the fans closer.
This guy sat in his suite and watched his own movie.
He still had the crooked grin and floppy hair, but he was thicker around the waist and puffy in the face. His fans—they called themselves the Thunderclaps—all ages, lost their minds when he performed.
She returned to the sleeping room and snooped through his things hoping to find something juicy. Maybe a drawer filled with satin thongs, trophies from his conquests. Instead, the drawers were half-full of frayed pullovers, slouchy lounge pants, and a healthy number of empty sleep-aid packets.
His performance outfits were lined up in the closet. She investigated the pockets. Rumor was he never left the resort. How long had he lived in this room? She kept the gaming chips and a tube of Rosebud branded lip balm from the gift shop. He could keep the breath mints.
An electric ping followed by the whoosh of the suite’s main entrance came from the other room.
She froze in place. Only security could get around during lockdown.
“Hello?” a voice called.
Wyatt almost collided with her. He gave a little gasp. “I didn’t expect you.”
His face was golden-brown, his dark hair tousled, and he smelled like a tree-filled forest on a sun-drenched afternoon. His trousers were snug, as was his shirt, a filmy knit thing unbuttoned to his breastbone. He wore his signature performance jacket: soft buckskin decorated with beaded frog hand and elkhorn buttons. Face-to-face he was alarmingly attractive. When polled about the boy band, Wyatt was always everyone’s favorite.
She lost the power to speak. “Sorry … couldn’t … locked in.” She gestured about helplessly.
“Are you sure?” He pushed the ponycart toward the service exit.
Wyatt put his hands on his hips and closed his eyes.
“Sorry. Very sorry.” Birdie tried to sound contrite but couldn’t help asking. “How did you get back?”
Wyatt held up a VIP fob, a fancy one, like a beaded acorn. “They said bandits are imminent and to shelter in my room.”
“Imminent meaning not a drill?” Birdie’s heart kicked up a notch. She jammed shaky hands into her pockets and focused on the training. Remain calm.
“Sounds like it,” Wyatt confirmed. Even in a crisis, his voice had a honey-smooth sex-machine vibe to it.
“We don’t have to worry, right?” Birdie said, needing to hear something comforting. “There’s a private security force. What’s the stat? No successful boarding in how many years?”
“I’m not worried,” he said, absently.
Staff wasn’t supposed to be in a room with a guest, or talent, ever. Not for fun or for work. “Should I—?” There was no place to go
“You’re fine.” Wyatt pointed at the couch. “You want a drink?”
“Relax”—he waved his hands in the air— “what else are we supposed to do?”
Wyatt poured generous shots from a dispenser. She hadn’t held a real glass, other than to wash, since she came to the station.
“I’m not supposed to—”
“Who’s going to tell?” Wyatt’s expression was grim but he tinked his glass against hers, his face close enough to see a hint of grey along his hairline. She took a small sip, the alcohol smoky-sweet and delicious.
Wyatt pointed at the couch again. “You’re—?”
She sat. “Birdie.”
“Birdie,” he repeated, the tiniest flick of his eyebrows. “Who’s your people?”
“Ah, one of the big shareholders,” he said.
“The biggest. And you?”
“Paiute. But I haven’t been home in a long, long time.” His eyes went back to the suite’s main entrance. The red lights had gone out.
“The Tribes have top security,” Birdie said with forced cheer. “Booby traps and redundant security features every three feet. The bandits won’t get close to the vault. They’ll be hauled off any minute.”
“What if they aren’t going for the vault?”
Birdie shook off a sliver of dread and gulped the drink, the warmth soothing and exhilarating.
“People get taken,” Wyatt said. “Never heard from again.”
Hearing the words made Birdie break into a sweat. Not her rez, but she’d heard about a guy from another tribe kidnapped from a tribal research satellite. His family sent out reward beacons every year.
Birdie said, “Kidnappings are rare.”
Wyatt fixed his eyes on her for a long moment. “Your employee communicator work?”
“Emergency announcements only.”
“Wish we could talk to someone.”
“They would tell us to stay put.”
The ship system made another announcement: “Emergency Lockdown. Not a Drill. Wait for instructions.”
Birdie and Wyatt exchanged a queasy glance.
“We’re safe,” she repeated.
Instead of offering a comforting reply, Wyatt leapt up and crossed the room with a loose-limbed ramble, like he was on stage. He stopped in front of the portal. “Do you like it out here?”
“Do you? I’d rather be home.” Birdie unwrapped an Orbital Casino chocolate and stuffed the whole thing in her mouth. Creamy and delicious. She washed it down with the last of the booze. She said, “I thought the luxury suites had views.”
Wyatt tapped on the portal causing the fringe on the buckskin jacket to shimmy. “That is a view.”
“Don’t you miss seeing home?”
“There’s an atrium between the main lounge stage and the ballroom.” He tipped his chin to the side as if to point it out. “If you stand in the right spot there’s an amazing view.”
Birdie pitched her voice like Gloria’s. “The service team is back of the house only. No loitering around the atriums and the ballrooms.”
“You don’t bend the rules?”
Birdie couldn’t help smiling. “That’s what I’m known for.”
Wyatt’s dark eyes glimmered with curiosity. No wonder this guy was such a panty-dropper.
“I’ve never been outside the service area,” she went on, “but I’m working on it.”
“I see,” he said. “High rollers are the ones who get suites with Earth views. Did you want to work up here?”
“I volunteered,” she said. “Every family needs to send someone. Why not me?”
“Debt is a debt,” he agreed.
“How long for you?”
“Hard to say,” he said. “I’m in a complicated situation. Now my contract’s been sold; going further out.” He lowered his voice like they were sharing a secret. “I owe people money.”
In the meal area, someone once made a joke about that: Wyatt the former pop star, in eternal orbit to pay his bills. Gloria came along and busted them for gossiping about “our prestigious guest in residence.”
“You don’t want to?” Birdie asked.
“I would do anything to go home.” There was no mistaking the melancholy in his voice.
She didn’t know what to say. She would do anything to go home, too. A long silence stretched out before he looked at her curiously. “Do you normally clean this suite?”
“We rotate,” she said. “Well, we’re supposed to rotate. I never get Sugar Pine.”
Wyatt nodded, lips pressed together.
“Until today,” she added quickly as if he cared how the rooms were assigned.
“Of course,” he agreed. “And you up here much longer?”
“Contract’s half done.”
“You signing for another term?”
Birdie scoffed. “No. I can’t wait to get out of this place. I am not one of those NDNs who wants to be in space. Not like my supervisor. Gloria will probably renew her contract forever so she can lecture generation after generation on the everlasting satisfaction of a well-sanitized crap bin.”
“I don’t think anyone would want that.” Wyatt’s eyes traveled back to the cart. “Can you call your supervisor?”
“Oh no. She’d have my head in a bucket”—Birdie held up the empty glass— “if she knew I was doing this.”
“She can’t be that bad.” Wyatt flashed a Lonely Boyz grin that she felt down to the back of her knees. She didn’t object when he took her glass for a refill.
Birdie cast a sly eye at the remote. “Why do you watch your movie?”
Wyatt glanced up at the blank screen with a funny smile. “Showing it to a friend who never saw it.”
“Really? I thought the Thunderclaps watched it day and night.”
“Not all my friends are Thunderclaps.” Wyatt pointed at the service door. “Let’s try to get that opened.”
Birdie groaned. “Why? It’s perfectly safe here.”
“Shouldn’t the staff have more information?” He was acting like a fussy guest, the kind that fretted about creaking sounds or rust spots like the whole resort could come apart before they had their third pass at the buffet.
He waggled his fingers at the commbundle.
She showed him the screen. “Emergency mode. Keeps the hysterical masses from clogging the system.”
Wyatt took it and prodded the screen with a surprisingly unattractive chubby finger.
“It’s not going to work,” Birdie said.
“You don’t have a code? Nothing?” Wyatt’s voice had grown heated, possibly tinged with blame.
“You’re a celebrity. Don’t you have something?” Birdie snapped back.
He gave back the commbundle and circled Gloria’s ponycart, poking at the various compartments and pushing aside towels and soaps. She jumped up and stumbled, forgetting that she still wore his mocs, and shuffled to the cart. Wyatt glanced at the shoes but didn’t comment.
“There’s nothing.” Birdie said, trying to nudge him out of the way. The cramped service corridor would offer no benefit they couldn’t enjoy here in fine comfort. She went through the commbundle’s exit procedure and showed him the result: SECURE.
Wyatt refused to give up. He elbowed her aside and waggled his hand into every crevice. “There’s got to be built-in hardware, override, something to get in and out of the rooms.”
“There’s not.” The stress was getting to him; he was losing it. “It’s fine in here,” she insisted. She would have physically shoved him if he wasn’t the resort VIP.
“Well, I’m kicking back over here.” She hopped back on the couch and put her feet up, crossing one beaded moc over the other.
She missed what happened next, but Wyatt made a series of growly sighing sounds, then there was a hollow pop and the service door opened. Gloria burst into the suite, red-faced and breathless.
“You’re here.” Wyatt sagged with relief like she was the security force instead of a person who put mints on pillows when she wasn’t berating her underlings.
Birdie moved quickly but not before Gloria caught her lounging around, feet on the furniture, booze-filled tumbler on the table. Her eyes bulged but her mouth formed a polite grimace as she looked Birdie over. “Why are you in here?”
“Cleaning.” Birdie channeled her most professional posture as she took the ponycart and angled it toward the door.
Gloria pointed to the oversized mocs with a horrified look. “Why are you wearing Wyatt—our guest’s—shoes?”
“He’s not a guest, he’s talent,” Birdie clarified. Off Gloria’s dark look she added, “How do you know whose they are?”
The muscles in Gloria’s neck popped out. She looked like a cartoon character about to explode. Even Wyatt looked amused. Gloria said, “They don’t fit you and are not part of your uniform.”
Why this particular performance review was necessary when bandits were aboard, Birdie couldn’t say but leave it to Gloria to adhere to the resort handbook in a crisis. Birdie checked her feet. “I think they look good.”
“They do,” Wyatt said, putting a warm, comforting arm over her shoulder and easing her toward the service door. “You can have them.”
The weight of his touch sent a funny flash of heat through her. A former pop star was practically hugging her.
The entry-chirp for the suite’s main entrance went off. Birdie jumped. The suites had special sound reduction features but not enough to mask activity from the hallway. A series of metallic taps and a high-pitched burr. Bandits?
Birdie’s heart thumped wet-hot in her chest. Gloria made a funny grunting sound and remained glued in place like she was in shock or too panicked to run. There was no urgency in Wyatt either, in fact, he looked sort of dazed himself, which meant Birdie was going to have to save the day.
“Shouldn’t we all get going?” Birdie spoke gently like she was trying to coax a trembling new employee into the meal room for the first time. She twisted out of Wyatt’s embrace and urged them to follow.
An ominous sucking noise came from the entrance. They all swiveled to look. Birdie’s stomach dipped, the fear bitter at the back of her throat. A faint chemical-tang smell came from the suite entrance. Poison gas? Fire?
“You go on,” Gloria said in a strangled voice.
Birdie wouldn’t wish kidnapping on her worst enemy. Not even Gloria. She took a deep breath and summoned her courage, annoyed that it came to her to save these two brainless morons.
“We’re going to be kidnapped if we don’t get going.” She herded them toward the door.
“No,” Gloria said, her voice stronger. “You go. Please.”
“Not leaving without you,” Birdie said.
Gloria and Wyatt exchanged a startled look.
“I’m right behind you,” Birdie insisted. “We don’t have much time.”
“Just go,” Gloria begged like she was about to cry. “Can you do what you’re told? Just this once?”
Wyatt muttered something that Birdie didn’t catch. Gloria shook her head, violently. Even Lonely Wolf Boy couldn’t snap her out of it.
An unnerving metal screech came from the door.
Wyatt tilted his head at Birdie, “Tell her.”
Wyatt and Gloria exchanged an unreadable look. Birdie’s mind raced through possibilities. “Tell me what?”
“We can’t,” Gloria said.
Wyatt finally put his arm around Gloria, but they didn’t look any closer to exiting the suite. Birdie was about to insist she could be trusted but the words faded on her lips. Gloria’s face tilted up to his and then she did something Birdie had never seen before.
Wyatt gazed into Gloria’s eyes with a look that could only be described as adoring. He stroked the side of her face.
Birdie stared at them, cringing inside and out. “What is happening right now?”
They embraced for real, Gloria’s sweaty head pressed against his manly chest, her cheek against the velvety buckskin.
They were … together?
“But all the rules … and you and the guests … the parade of bridesmaids …” Birdie’s voice trailed off.
Wyatt shook his head. “That’s all marketing.”
The announcement chime on the suite’s entrance repeated, over and over, as if someone was angry and wanted in.
Gloria snapped out of her bliss and said in a terrorizing voice, “Don’t ask questions, just get out of here. Now.”
“But what are you guys doing?”
Gloria looked back at Wyatt, her eyes wide and incredulous. “Didn’t I tell you about this?”
Wyatt grabbed Birdie’s hands and peered into her face, close enough to notice the make-up on the bags under his eyes. She said, “Are you really—?”
“Shut up,” Wyatt said, his voice vicious. He wasn’t so handsome now.
“There is no more time. We have invested everything but the hair on our heads to stage this kidnapping to get off this ship.” Birdie didn’t dare interrupt. “We’re both trapped in our contracts. The less you know, the better. If you’re here, they’re going to grab your ass, too, and you will be traveling into deep space with us as your only friends.”
Birdie shuddered. She looked over his shoulder at the suite entrance, ominous sounds growing worse.
“I’m going.” She didn’t miss the look of relief the lovebirds shared. She paused again. “Can I have your jacket?”
“You’ve got to be joking,” Gloria said.
Wyatt shimmied out of it.
“Do not do that,” Gloria said.
Wyatt threw it at her. Birdie put it on, still warm from his body. She stuck her hand in the pockets and held out a pack of breath mints.
“Get out!” Gloria said, flinging a pair of complimentary resort slippers at her. At this rate, the rage would kill her before the bandits dragged her away.
“Relax, I am,” Birdie said, carefully pushing the ponycart out. The service door clicked into place before she could turn around and watch what happened next. When she tried to re-open it, the access pad said SECURE.
The sound deadening did its job, but she cracked up imagining Gloria’s screeches and Wyatt pretending to fight back. She dug around Wyatt’s pockets again and found a beaded acorn, Wyatt’s VIP fob.
She steered the ponycart to the lift. “Lounge stage,” she said. Time to check out that Earth view and if she got there quick enough, maybe see the bandit ship taking Gloria and Wyatt to paradise.