Chapter I, Night Thunder
I felt the city tonight. Although Los Angeles never fully slept, it was quiet, wrapped in its own thoughts. Drowsing. Waiting for a jolt to wake it up.
Joshua met me when I finished my shift at the restaurant, and we walked to the bus stop together. It had drizzled earlier and a slick film covered the street, reflecting the lights in blurred smears of oily water. Above us a few stars managed to outshine the city lights and pollution, valiant in their efforts to overcome the amber glow that tinted the darkened sky. Sparse traffic flowed by like sleek animals gliding through the night, intent on their own purposes.
I could see Joshua’s good mood. It spread out from him in a faint rose-colored mist that shifted with vague shapes, the form of unspoken words. I was used to seeing people’s emotions, but with him it was even more vivid than with everyone else. He affected all my senses. His calm mood sounded like waves on a beach, smelled like seaweed, tasted like salt. The effect faded with distance; it would only last until he moved away from me. I never told him, of course. I never told anyone. I didn’t want to sound crazy.
We sat on the bench at the bus stop and he put his arm around my shoulders, not like a boyfriend, which he had never been, but like the best friend I had known for six years, since 1981, the year that Jamaica became the fifty-first state and the Hollywood sign burned down in the hills above LA. Tousled yellow hair fell over his forehead and brushed the wire rims of his glasses. He was my opposite in so many ways, his curls sun-bright compared to my straight black hair. His eyes had always seemed like bits of sky to me, blue and clear where mine were dark brown, the color of loam deep in a forest.
A harsh jab punctured the bubble of our mood. I had no idea where the emotion came from, only that it cut like a knife.
“Tina, look.” Joshua pointed across the street.
A red sports car was turning off San Carlos Boulevard into a side street. “What about it?”
“That was Nug driving.”
I didn’t want to hear Nug’s name. “He can drive down the street if he wants.”
“He was watching us.” Joshua glanced in the other direction and his face relaxed. “The bus is coming.”
Following his gaze, I saw the old bus lumbering toward us. Good. The farther it took us from Nug, the better. As we stood up, the bus pulled into our stop. I boarded and paid, then turned to look at Joshua. Standing by the bench, he waved good-bye, his hand disappearing from sight when the driver closed the door.
As the bus headed off into the night, I sat in one of its many empty seats and leaned my head against the window. The few other passengers seemed lost in their thoughts as they slouched in other seats. I wondered if they were going home to their families, to a world they understood. As hard as I had tried to fit in here, Los Angeles had always felt alien to me.
I had grown up in the Zinacanteco village of Nabenchauk, the Lake of the Lightning, on the Chiapas plateau of southern Mexico. I missed its cool evergreen forests, its bone-dry winters and rainy summers. My earliest memories were of my mother, kneeling barefoot at her metate, grinding maize in the muted hours that came before dawn, when the air felt as clear as the clang of a bell. She was a traditional woman of the Maya who followed the baz’i or “true way” of life—so how, at age fourteen, had she ended up getting pregnant by an artist from Mexico City? It went against every grain of her life. He had visited Nabenchauk only to paint our village, and he had left within a few weeks. I had never met him, my father, that unknown and long vanished artist.
When I was eight, my aunt and uncle died in one of the earthquakes that hit the highlands, leaving behind my cousin, their eleven-year-old son Manuel. My mother took him into her care as she mourned the death of her brother. The heart-parching loss also decided her; after years of struggling with the decision, she went to search for my father, taking Manuel and me with her. We left Nabenchauk and rode along the Pan American Highway to Mexico City, what I had though then must surely be a golden paradise at the edge of the universe. The glamour soon became tarnished in the gritty realities of life. We never found my father, though my mother searched for years, following one dead end after another, until we finally ended up here in the city of sleepless, fallen angels.
Tonight the bus rumbled to the stop on San Carlos Boulevard a few blocks from where I lived. The drugstore on the corner was closed and deserted. I shivered, uneasy. I had hoped Mario and his men would be hanging out there so I could ask one of them to walk me home. Los Vatos de la Calle San Carlos, or just VSC; people called them a gang, with Mario as their leader, but to me they were like family. My cousin Manuel had died two years ago, and since then VSC had looked out for me. I could still hear Mario jiving with my cousin: Oye, vato, let’s go the show. And Manuel: Chale homes. I want to go cruising and check out some firme rucas. The memory stabbed like a knife, and I pushed away the grief, unable to face that emptiness.
No one was around the drugstore, but the Stop-And-Go down the block was open. I could go there and call Mario. I would probably have to wake him up, though, if he wasn’t here, and I knew he’d been getting up early, trying to find a job. The last thing he needed was for me to drag him out of bed at one in the morning. It’s only a few blocks, I thought. You can go alone. I knew the neighborhood and everyone knew me.
I headed down a side street. Old buildings lined the road, tenements and weathered houses hulking in the night, shuttered and closed. Most of the street lamps were dark, but a few made pools of light on the sidewalk like isolated havens in a dark sea. Cracks jagged through the cement as if they were bolts of lightening frozen into the concrete and overgrown with grass. Debris lay scattered everywhere, chunks of rock, plaster, newspapers, candy wrappings, empty cigarette boxes. Somewhere curtains thwapped in the breeze. A tattered bag from some fast-food place blew along the street, then caught up against a building. The smell of damp paper tickled my nose.
When my mother had first brought us to LA, we’d lived in a suburb, a run-down one, sure, but it had been okay. Although we hadn’t had much, she gave us a good home and more than enough love. After her death, Manuel and I had moved here to East LA, where we could better afford the rent.
As I walked home, an odd sensation bothered me. A . . . trickle? It ran over my arms as if it were the runoff from a torrent of air rushing by in a nearby cañón. Warm air. It felt pleasant. But that “canyon,” it was in my mind, not the city. I was sensing someone—
He stood about a block away, facing away from me, a tall man with short curly hair, blond maybe. He was tall, about six-foot-four. One of the only working streetlamps on this stretch of road was a few feet behind where I stood, so as soon as he turned he would see me. Not good. I didn’t recognize him. I should leave—but what he was doing was so odd, I paused and watched.
He had a box that hummed and glittered with red, gold, and silver lights. He was holding it in front of his body as he turned in a circle. From the way he was dressed, I would have expected him to be hanging out, having a brew with his homies instead of playing with gadgets. When Manuel had run with VSC, he had dressed that way, a black t-shirt and jeans tucked into his boots. Except this guy had on a vest, not a t-shirt, and his clothes looked more like leather than cotton and denim. Too dull for leather, maybe, but I couldn’t tell from so far away.
Thinking about my cousin brought me back to my senses. I backed away, intending to be gone before this guy saw me. But it was too late. He stopped turning and looked up from his box, right at me. At first he just stood there, staring, his mouth slightly open as if I was the big surprise. Then he started toward me, his long legs devouring the space that separated us.
That’s it, I thought and spun around to run.
“Espérate,” he called. “Habla conmigo.”
What the—? I turned back, why I didn’t know. I thought he had said Wait, talk to me, but he had such a heavy accent, I couldn’t be sure. His voice sounded strange, too. On habla it had rumbled with a deep note, like a low tone on a piano. Even stranger was his effect on my heightened senses. The warmth I had felt earlier felt stronger, flowing over my skin, a river instead of a trickle.
He stopped and stayed put, watching me. I watched him back, ready to bolt if he came closer.
He tried again. “Preguntar mi tu decir.”
Well that made no sense. “¿Que?” I asked.
“Me siento,” he said. “Yo español mal.”
He Spanish bad? No kidding. “How about English?” I asked. He looked like a gringo.
“Yes.” Relief flickered across his face. “My English, it is much better.”
It was indeed, though he still had a strong accent, one I didn’t recognize. On the word, “much,” his voice had made that strange sound again, like a piano note.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He held out his palms as if to show he had no weapons. It meant squat. He could have a knife or a gun hidden anywhere. And he had that strange box in his hand.
“Lost,” he said. “Help can me find you?”
I squinted at him. “What?”
He paused, his face blanking. It was odd, like the screen on a computer clearing. Then his expression came back to normal. “Can you help me?” he asked. “I am lost.”
He wanted directions out here, in the middle of the night. How weird. “Where are you going?”
Not good. Nug and his men hung around Washington’s liquor store. They dressed in black like this guy, and he had on those wrist guards a few of them wore, like they thought they were some kind of barbarian warriors. He looked older than most of Nug’s gang, but not all of them. Some of those guys had aged out of petty crimes and graduated to the big time. They did serious hurt to people.
I backed up a step. “You’re a long way from Washington’s.”
“Yes.” He tilted his head as if he were listening to something I couldn’t hear. And then of all things, he said, “I decide it is better if I not come down in a continental capital.”
Seriously? Washington, D.C., as in the capital of the country? Maybe he was zoned out on crack. He didn’t sound wasted, though. His speech wasn’t slurred or wandering, just strange.
Okay, I thought, curious despite my better judgment. “What’s in Washington?”
“You mean like a party?”
He paused, then said, “Yes, that is an appropriate word.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “You’re going to a fancy party dressed like that?”
“This is my duty uniform.” He said it with a perfectly straight face. “My dress uniform is on the ship.”
Hah, hah. Funny. I hadn’t heard of anyone like him hanging around here, and surely I would have known about someone this bizarre. “What’s your name?”
He was watching me with an unsettling focus, like I was the odd one rather than him. “I am Althor.”
Althor. It sounded like a nickname. Nug’s men all took one, though most were a lot less creative about it. “You mean like Thor? The guy with the hammer?”
“I am sorry, but I not know to whom you refer.”
Whom? I hadn’t known people actually existed who used that word. I had no idea if he was dangerous or not, but I had to admit, I hadn’t met anyone this interesting in ages. Like maybe never. I motioned at his box. “What is that?”
“Transcom,” he said.
“What does it do?”
“It transmit and receive waves. Right now I scan radio signals.” He came closer, lifting the box so I could see it better. Startled, I backed away. As I stepped into the halo from the streetlamp, he stopped and stared as if he had just seen me. I suppose he had in a sense, given I had only now moved into the light.
“Gods,” he said. “You are incredibly beautiful.”
Normally that would’ve been nice. But not now, not with me alone and out here in the middle of the night. I kept backing up. The drugstore wasn’t far.
“Don’t go.” Althor started toward me again.
As soon as he moved in my direction, I spun around and hurried away. I’d never have thought I could move so fast in the stiletto heels of my waitress uniform, but it was amazing what you could do when you were scared.
“Wait,” he called.
I hesitated, turning back, slowing to a stop. Why? Something about him was familiar, but I had no idea what. I felt his emotions far more than I ever had from anyone else. They flowed across me like a river of warmth with tendrils of mist curling into the night. His presence felt—good. Strong. So I stayed, poised and ready to run, watching him warily.
Althor made the one choice that would keep me from bolting. He backed away. He kept moving until he was standing in the light from the only working other lamp on this street. I could see him better now. His eyes were dark, black or brown, though it was hard to be sure. He had fair skin and curly hair that, as far as I could tell, was the same color as the bronze bracelet my mother had given me before she died. And that wasn’t all. El hombre es chulo. The guy was hot. Just because he was good-looking, though, that didn’t mean he was okay.
“You run with Nug?” I asked.
He tilted his head. “Who?”
“Nug. You know.”
“I do not know.”
“You must’ve seen him around. Tall guy. Anglo. Blue eyes. Buzz hair.”
“I do not know this man.” He considered me. “My uniform—you not recognize it?”
“I’ve never seen no uniform like that.” I winced. “Any uniform.” I hated it when I forgot English grammar didn’t allow double negatives. Such an annoying language, not allowing you that extra negative to make your point.
Althor didn’t seem to notice, though, probably because his English was even worse than mine. “I am a ****” he said.
I blinked. “A what?”
He repeated the word and it still sounded like gibberish.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Literally I think it translate as ‘Jagernaut Secondary.’”
“What’s a Jagernaut Secondary?”
“Similar to what you call naval captain.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, I think Secondary comes closer to the rank in your air force. Major, maybe.”
Yeah, sure. “You’re a soldier?” And I was a space alien.
“I am pilot. ISC Tactical Fighter Wing.”
Okay, that sounded cool. But still. “What’s ISC?”
“Imperial Space Command.”
Space Command, huh? That was certainly a step up from Washington’s drugstore. This guy had to be blitzed. Either that, or he actually thought I was dumb enough to believe him.
“Sure,” I said. “De lengua me como un taco.” No one actually said that any more, in this day and age, but a teacher had once told me the phrase and I loved it.
Althor squinted at me and his face blanked again. A moment later he came back to normal. Bewildered, he said, “You’ll eat a taco if it’s beef tongue?”
I couldn’t help but smile. The literal translation did sound pretty strange. “It means, ‘Yeah, right, tell me another one.’”
He seemed more curious than offended. “Does that mean you think I make this up?”
“Well, you know, I don’t run into that many fighter pilots on my way home from work.”
Althor smiled. “I guess not.”
His smile caught me by surprise. No cruelty showed in it, no malice or anger. Nor was it a false smile or the too easy expression of someone who had never had reason to cry. His smile had history, complicated history. It was beautiful.
I thawed a bit. “So how come you’re in LA?”
He considered me as if trying to decide whether or not I was a threat. I mean, really? Five-foot-two me in my waitress outfit, fluffy miniskirt and all. When he answered, the oddest thought came to me: he had just gone through extensive calculations in his analysis of whether or not to trust me. Close on the heels of that thought came another. Calculations? Analysis? I never thought that way. Sure, I had always liked math, unlike most of my friends, but for a moment it had felt as if I were thinking someone else’s thoughts.
“I am in the wrong place,” Althor said. “Actually, it looks like the wrong time. According to my ship, the date here is what I expect. But everything is too much different.” He pointed to the streetlight. “For one thing, I never know this, that Los Angeles has such antique lamps.”
I peered at the light. It was the same as most everywhere in LA: a bronze-hued pole with scalloped sides. It ended in a large, ornate hook that curled upward. Hanging from the hook was a glass lamp shaped like the bell on a Spanish mission. Books about Los Angeles always showed them.
“They’re called angel bells,” I said.
“Angel bells? They are beautiful. But I never hear of this before.”
“You really must be new. They’re as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.”
Althor frowned. “I have studied American history. If these bells are famous, I would know.”
“Maybe whoever taught you history didn’t know LA that well.” More likely, if he was like the other guys in Nug’s gang, he had slept through history class or never showed up at all.
“My ‘teacher’ is a neural chip,” he said. “It has no record of these bell-lamps.” He glanced around, taking in the debris-strewn street, broken windows, and crumbling buildings. “You live here?”
I didn’t like him asking where I lived.
After a moment, when I didn’t answer, he said, “Why do you live in a place like this?”
I stiffened. This was home. Yeah, it wasn’t much, but it meant a lot to me. My voice turned icy. “Because I do.”
He jerked as if my anger had struck him. “My sorry. I meant no offense.”
His reaction was so odd, I forgot to be angry. Actually, his response wasn’t odd, and that made it strange. He reacted the same way I did if someone’s emotions hit me too hard. He backed off, easing up on the person he had hurt.
Less defensive now, I said, “Where are you from?”
“Parthonia. The seat of the Skolian government.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
Althor spoke wryly. “After everything else I find here, or not find, I am not surprised.” He went to the nearest building and sat on its steps, planting his booted feet wide on the cracked sidewalk. “Everything here is wrong,” he said, poking at his box. “I find only radio transmissions.”
It was cool the way his box flashed with lights. As he tapped its faces, they glowed in different colors. He turned over his arm and pressed the box against his wrist guard. That was when I realized his guard wasn’t all leather. Glowing wires crisscrossed parts of it, and other parts glinted like metal.
I moved closer to watch. “I’ve never seen wrist guards like that before.”
“They have a new web architecture,” Althor spoke absently, intent on his box. One of its panels turned green. “At least I can reach my Jag.”
“Is that your car?” It seemed unlikely. He didn’t look like someone who could afford those dream wheels.
He kept on working on his box. “My star fighter.”
“Oh. Right.” Maybe he was an actor rehearsing for a movie. More likely his brain had lost a few bolts. Oddly, though, nothing about him tripped my mental alarms, and my intuition about people was usually solid. “Maybe you’re looking for the wrong signal.”
He made a frustrated noise. “I check radio wave, microwave, optical, UV, X-ray, neutrino channels, everything. Nothing is right.”
“Why come here to check?” I doubted East L.A. slums were high on the list of places for lost star fighter pilots to hang out looking for help.
“The Jag is doing the orbital scans,” he muttered.
“I mean, why did you come to this street?”
Althor stopped poking his box and looked up at me. “I—well, I don’t know.” After a pause, he said, “It seemed right. I am not sure why.”
That sounded the way I felt when his river of moods trickled over me. “What are you looking for?”
“Something to make sense.” He motioned at the deserted street. “This city, it looks like it is the wrong century. The date that my ship gives is correct, but this Earth, it is like no Earth I know.”
Wait a minute! I knew what was going on. “You go to Caltech, right? My friend Josh is a freshman there. He told me about those games you guys play. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Role-playing.”
“Caltech?” He squinted at me. “This means California Institute of Technology, yes?”
“I guess so. Josh never calls it that.” Now that I thought about it, if Althor came from Caltech, what was he doing all the way out here in East LA, alone, in the middle of the night? Besides, he looked more like the guys who had terrorized Joshua in high school. One time, Nug and his creeps had cornered Joshua behind the gym. They tied his hands behind his back and lined up in front of him with their Uzis like a firing squad. The assholes had thought it was funny. Joshua had been so freaked, he hadn’t come back to school for a week. He had been afraid to tell anyone besides me, but I told they guys in VSC and after that they looked out for him because he was my friend.
“I’ve heard of Caltech,” Althor said. “I never went there, though. I graduated from DMA.”
“What’s DMA?” I asked.
“A military academy.”
Sure, right. Though I had to admit, loved the thought of Nug’s gang trapped in a military school. Boot camp would be even better. I could just see a drill sergeant yelling in their faces.
Althor, however, was serious. He wanted me to believe he had gone to a military academy. Maybe it was his dream. I understood that. Ever since I had graduated last year, I had wanted to go to college. I had no money for tuition, but I was saving. And dreaming.
During my junior year in high school, one of my teachers got excited when she saw the record of my test scores and grades. She said I was “gifted,” that I had options for college, like scholarships. I had been thrilled, thinking maybe, just maybe, I could make something of my life.
Then Nug’s gang had murdered Manuel and I had fallen apart. We all had. In school, the guys had stalked the halls, ready to explode, black armbands on their hardened biceps. School officials tried to have grief sessions for us, but we never went. We trusted no one except each other. Manuel had been my only blood family since my mother’s death, so VSC became my people, surrounding me in the halls and classrooms. No one else dared come near me in those first days. I hadn’t even realized I had missed the PSAT testing date until weeks later. At that point, I no longer cared. Life sucked and I was tired. If not for Mario, his sister Rosa, and the rest of VSC, God only knew what I’d have done. I might not be alive now.
I spoke gently. “It doesn’t matter to me if you don’t have a fancy degree. Just never give up your dreams.”
“I do have degree,” he said. “It’s in inversion engineering.”
He said it with such a straight face, I couldn’t resist teasing. “Perversion engineering. Sounds exciting.”
He reddened, like he thought he had made some embarrassing mistake in English. “Inversion.”
I liked the way he cared what I thought he had said. “So you’re supposed to go to a party?”
“It is a reception at the White House for my mother.”
“The White House, huh? She must be important.”
“She is mathematician. But that was long ago. For many years she had been ****”
Although his English was improving, his accent still puzzled me. “I didn’t get that last word.”
His face blanked. Now that I was more tuned to him, I felt the change in his mind. He turned metallic. Then his human warmth returned, eddying around us and softening the banks of my barricaded emotions.
“Key,” Althor said. “She is a Key. This is the closest translation I find.”
That didn’t sound like any of Joshua’s games. Their characters were usually Ultimate Lords of Destruction or whatever. And I mean, seriously, who had their mother as a player?
“What does she do?” I asked.
“Sits in Assembly. She is liaison between the Assembly and the mesh networks.”
“Oh.” I had expected something more flamboyant, like sorceress or queen. Then again, maybe “liaison” was code. “Does that mean she’s a warrior queen?” I grinned. “That make you a prince? If I kiss you, will you turn into a frog?”
A sleepy smile spread across his face. “Maybe you should find out.”
I flushed. I had only meant it as a joke—well, okay, maybe flirting a little. But I wasn’t coming on to him and now he thought I was. Why did I keep lowering my guard? After only a few minutes he was affecting me more than people I had known for years.
Althor could have reacted a lot of ways to my joke, and most would have had me backing off. Instead he held out his transcom as if he were a vaquero, a cowboy offering sugar to a skittish horse. “Want to see how it works?”
Ho! Clever man. One reason Joshua and I had become friends, despite all our differences, was because we both liked gadgets. He enjoyed making them and I liked to figure out how they worked.
So I didn’t back away. Instead I said, “Okay.” But I kept my distance.
Althor brushed his finger over the box and a panel turned silver. “This put it in acoustic mode.” He showed me the other side of the box, which somehow had turned into a small membrane.
“Say something,” Althor suggested.
“Hola, cajita.” I said.
The transcom answered with my voice. “Hola, cajita.”
I laughed, delighted to hear his transcom call itself a little box. “How did it do that?”
“Your voice, it makes longitudinal waves in atmosphere.” Althor lifted the box. “This reproduces them.” He tapped a code onto one of its panels and a note rang out. “That is frequency 552 hertz.” He played another note. “What frequency? Can you say?”
“Almost the same as the first,” I said. “A little higher.”
“You have a good ear. It is 564 hertz.” He had the box make a third note. “This one?”
“Same as the last.” It didn’t sound exactly the same, though. “I think.”
“Not quite. It’s 558 hertz.” He pressed several panels and a tone came again, but this time it vibrated like a trilling bird with a whistle in its throat.
“Hey! That’s cool.” I grinned at him. “I know what you’re doing. Making beats. Me and Josh read about it in school when we took physics.” I had needed special permission to take AP Physics because the guidance counselors had put Josh and me on different tracks, him in college prep and me in the vocational program. But I talked them into letting me take the AP class. “Your box is singing those two notes at the same time, so they sound like they’re vibrating.”
He smiled his sleepy smile, seeming far more interested in my excited reaction than in the box. “Do you know what is the beat frequency?”
Well, of course. “Twelve hertz. And I can figure out the pitch of the beating note. It’s that last one you played, the average of the first two, 558 hertz.”
“That’s right.” Althor nodded as if it were perfectly normal for me to know all this buzz on beats, which raised my opinion of him by a big notch. He touched another panel and flute music floated out into the night as sweet as the down under an owl’s wings.
“Pretty,” I said.
“Want to try the transcom?” He pulled the box off his wrist and held it out to me.
Did Los Angeles have smog? Yeah, I wanted to play.
As I reached for the box, Althor shifted so his arm moved back in his lap, making me step closer to reach the transcom. Like an idiot, I stumbled over his foot and fell across his lap. He caught me, sliding his arm around my waist.
¡Maldito! Mortified, I grabbed the transcom and backed away from him.
“If you come over here,” he invited, “I show you how it works.”
I stayed put, keeping my distance. He was sitting on the third step of the stairs, his feet far apart on the sidewalk and his big elbows resting on his knees. Bits of plaster lay scattered around his feet, probably fallen from the building during the last thunderstorm. Given his looks and smooth style, he could probably have women scattered all around him, too, if he wanted,
Except he wasn’t really smooth, at least not in that oily way a player talked when he knew girls thought he was hot and he wanted to get laid. Althor seemed like a nice guy. Sure, he had the moves, but underneath he was more like Joshua’s techie friends than the slick guys who came on to me in the restaurant. I mean, really, who used physics as a pick-up line? Even weirder, who would have guessed it would work so well.
Another plus for Althor: he didn’t push. When I backed away from him, holding the transcom, he stayed where he was, which reassured me more than anything else he might have tried. So after a few moments, I cautiously approached and sat on the other side of the steps, as far from him as possible, with about two feet of concrete separating us.
Althor reached over and touched a silver square on the box. The little panel turned gold.
I leaned away from him. “What are you doing?”
He sat back, giving me space. “I make it in electromagnetic mode.”
“What does that do?”
“Right now, an antenna it creates.” He swept out his arm, his gesture taking in the street, the buildings, even the sky. “Everywhere.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“It uses the buildings.” He dropped his arm onto the stairs between us, his fingers brushing my thigh. “And the effect, it is enhanced by changes in local air density.”
I moved my leg away from his fingers. “I don’t feel nothing.”
“You can’t feel it.” Althor said. “Besides,” he murmured. “There are better things to feel.”
Whoa. His mood was a sensuous river, reminding me of the predawn coolness in Nabenchauk, those early mornings when I would sneak off for a swim by myself instead of preparing my loom for weaving like I was supposed to. I had known a secret curve in the lake hidden by fir-draped mountains. The mist hung over the water in veils, blue and shadowed, mysterious, impossible to ignore. That was what Althor felt like now. It was so distracting, I dropped the transcom. The box slid out of my hands, skittering under my fingers, and clunked onto the step by the spike heel of my shoe, its panels glowing like gemstones in a river.
A woman’s voice burst out of the box. “—fourth caller wins two free dinners at Mona’s Kitchen. So get your phone ready, folks.”
“!Oiga!” Flustered, I grabbed the transcom. My fingernail clicked another square and the woman’s voice cut off in midsentence, replaced by a man speaking an unfamiliar language. “Ah!” I jerked my finger away from the transcom. “What’s it doing?”
Althor was staring at where I held the transcom between my knees. It seemed to take a great deal of effort for him to shift his gaze to my face. “What?”
I reddened and pulled my knees together, holding the transcom on top of them. “The box. What happened?”
“It pick up radio waves.” He leaned in until his chest was against my shoulder, his hand braced behind me on the stairs. With his other hand, he touched the transcom and it went silent. Then he spoke next to my ear. “You haven’t told me your name.” His river of sensuality swirled around us, muddling my thoughts. I felt his moods more than I had with anyone else, even Joshua. With Althor it was so intense it would have bothered me if it had been harsh. But it was nice.
“Tina. I’m T-Tina.” I was talking too fast. “‘Akushtina Santis Pulivok.” I had no idea why I gave him my full name. People here always thought it was strange.
‘“Akushtina,” he murmured. “A beautiful name. For a beautiful woman.”
Ho! The surprise wasn’t so much that he thought my name was beautiful, though that was strange too; the glottal stop at the beginning of ‘Akushtina sounded harsh to most people who didn’t speak Tzotzil Mayan. But what really hit me was that he pronounced it right. This guy who could barely speak Spanish and wasn’t that much better in English, spoke my Mayan name perfectly.
Althor picked up a lock of my hair. “So long and soft and black.” He had a musky scent, like catnip. “Why are you out here alone?”
I tried to ignore his smell, but it was impossible. It was like he was giving off those chemicals I had read about, pheromones or something, targeted at me. I put my hand on his shoulder and pushed him away. “I was coming home from work. My brothers are expecting me.” He had no way to know I had no brothers. “They must be looking for me.”
Althor took the hint and stayed back. He tilted his head, like someone straining to catch a sound he could barely hear. “How do you do that?”
“Upload to me. Overwrite my thoughts. My internal mesh should be protected.”
I wondered if he ever talked like a normal person. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“I can’t think straight.” He paused, watching me as if for cues. Then he leaned in closer.
I stared at his lips. They looked full. Warm. He waited a moment more, and when I didn’t push him back, he put his arm around my waist. My awareness of him intensified, the textures of his emotions mixing with his actual touch until I couldn’t separate them. It was as if someone had painted a picture of us and then torn it in two, and now we were putting the halves back together. When he bent his head to kiss me, I slid my arms around his neck, acting before I had a chance to think that it was a lousy idea. Something here was right, something good, though anyone would say I was crazy to think that about this weird guy I had just met.
When it came to men, my cousin Manuel had been as strict with me as a father. No, he had been even worse, more like a priest. He had driven me crazy. I still had an idea what went on, though, enough to know Althor kissed differently than most guys. He flicked his tongue over my ear, the closed lids of my eyes, the tip of my nose. When he reached my lips, he kept one arm around my waist and held my head with his other hand, stroking my cheek with his thumb while we kissed.
It was a while before we separated. Finally he drew back and brushed my hair out of my face, watching me with an unexpected tenderness. “Where are your brothers?” he asked.
I looked at him, feeling the echo of his lips on my mouth. His scent was everywhere, like the fragrance of pine needles in a forest.
“Tina?” He touched my cheek. “Are you there?”
“Your brothers. Why they leave you to walk alone like this?”
“They don’t.” Which was true, seeing as I had no brothers. “I don’t usually come out this late.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home. Rosa usually gives me a ride, but her car is in the shop.” That brought me to my senses. No matter how good I felt with this guy, he was a stranger. I pushed away from him and stood up. “I should go.”
Althor blinked as if I had yanked him out of a dream. He rose to his feet next to me, moving more slowly, towering like an oak tree. “Already?”
“I have to work tomorrow.” What did I do now? I didn’t want to ask for his phone number. He might take it wrong. For all that he pretended he came from somewhere futuristic, this was really just dull ordinary 1987 Los Angeles. Some guys were okay with a woman asking for their number, but the way I had grown up, a girl never did that, not unless she was inviting a lot more than I intended. I wanted to—well, I wasn’t sure. See him more, the way you did with a guy you liked.
His gaze was intent. “Tina?”
“I thought maybe—” I paused, leaving him an opening.
“Yes?” He watched as if I were turning into water, clear and cool, running through his fingers.
“I—Nothing.” Stop being an idiot, I thought. He was probably way out of my league. Girls from the barrio didn’t have boyfriends like him. I had even begun to wonder if he really was some kind of military pilot.
“I have to go,” I said.
He started to speak, then stopped. “You’re sure?”
Again he had that odd look, as if he were losing something. All he said was, “Adios, ‘Akushtina.”
“Adios.” Ask me to stay, I thought, shielding that hope even in my own mind, as if that could make his rejection easier to bear. He said nothing.
So I headed home, trying to ignore the feeling that I was making the stupidest mistake of my life. After I walked about half a block, I looked back. Althor was still standing there, watching. He pushed his hand through his hair, leaving it tousled. I hesitated, but he didn’t do anything else, so I turned away and crossed the street, then went around the corner. Once I thought I heard a footstep behind me, but when I glanced around, I saw no one.
I lived at the intersection of Miner and San Juan streets. As I came down San Juan, it was a relief to see the sagging stairs of my apartment house. Only three buildings and I would be home.
A pair of headlights flashed on across the street, coming from a parked car. A red car. No! I sped up, walking faster, practically running for my building.
The driver’s side of the car opened and Nug climbed out. Actually, Matt Kugelmann was his name. Tall and lanky, with lean muscles, he moved like a werewolf on the hunt, muscles rippling under his sleek hide as he stalked through the streets with feral grace. I had never used the word feral before, but it came to me now and it fit perfectly. His head was shaved, except on the very top where yellow hair stuck up like a scrub brush. Although he was only twenty-four, he looked older. His face had a hard cast to it, as if he had baked in a kiln too long. But what made him ugly was the way he looked at you, as if in his view of the universe you meant nothing.
That was why I hated him, because people mattered less to him than the garbage he sold. He had ordered his people to kill Manuel for stealing crack out of his car. Worse, Nug was the one who had sold Manuel his first hit, to “help” him deal with his grief over my mother’s death. And of course Nug had kept him supplied.
I wasn’t going to reach home in time. I tried to run, but I tripped in the spike heels of my waitress uniform and fell, landing in a heap of blue and white ruffles.
A hand slipped under my arm and I looked up into Nug’s face.
“Hey, Tina,” he said.
I stood up awkwardly, holding down my skirt, and stepped back, trying to free my arm. “Hi.”
Nug didn’t let go. “Just thought I’d make sure you got home okay.” He pulled me with him. “I’ll walk you the rest of the way.”
“I’m fine now.” I balked as we climbed the steps of my apartment building, and I managed to make him stop when we reached the landing. “Thanks, Nug. I’ll see you.”
He stepped closer. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
I backed up, into the wall of the building, wishing I could disappear. “Nug, go home, okay?”
“I saw you hugging Joshua at the bus stop.” He touched the tip of his finger to my cheek. “How come you hang out with that dweeb? He’s a loser.”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Why?” Nug sounded genuinely curious. “Why would you bother with him? He doesn’t even try to do you. I can’t believe it. He must like guys.”
I knew perfectly well Joshua liked women, especially tall ones with red hair. “I’m not his type. He likes brainy girls.”
Nug laughed and traced his finger down my neck. “You don’t need brains.” He leaned his head down as if he were going to kiss me. “You’re so fucking pretty.”
I tried to duck under his arm, but he pushed me against the wall. “You know what you look like in that outfit?” he said. “Those models in that clothes catalog I get.”
The thought of Nug ordering a clothes catalog was so bizarre, I almost laughed. “You mean like the Sears catalog?”
“Sears?” He smirked. “Hell, no. That place in Hollywood, I can’t remember the name. Freedman or Frederick’s or something. Man, those bitches are even hotter than the chicks in Hustler.”
“Nug, I have to go.”
“They got play clothes in there.” He reached under my skirt and snapped my garter belt. “Like these.”
I pushed his hand away. “Cut it out.”
“You wouldn’t believe what they got. I didn’t know real girls even wore that stuff.” He pushed my purse off my shoulder, and let it thunk to the ground while he pulled my arms over my head. He held my wrists against the wall. “Be nice to me, chiquitita. You don’t know what Big Daddy might have to do if his little girl is naughty.”
“Stop it!” I struggled to yank my arms away from him.
His voice hardened. “You gotta be nice to me.” He let go of my wrists. “See, I know stuff.”
I pulled down my arms. “Stuff?”
“Like you lied about your age to get that job.” His voice grated as if it were the rasp of a weaving stick over a backstrap loom. “Like your papers are faked and you ain’t here legal, baby. Like if you don’t do what I want, I’ll have to talk. You want to go back to taco land? What you gonna do there, Tina? Turn tricks in Tijuana?”
“Don’t say that!” I pushed him away, hating it when he talked about me that way.
“Damn it!” He hit the side of the building with his fist, and flakes of old paint scattered around us. “Why don’t you say, ‘Yes, Nug. Whatever you want, Nug’? You always did whatever that shit cousin of yours told you to do, even going to Mass every Sunday. I mean, who freaking goes to church all the time? Well, he ain’t here to keep me off no more. He’s gone, he’s not coming back, and V-Fucking-SC can’t do shit.” He grabbed my shoulders and shook them. “I’m king around here, baby. So don’t play hard to get no more.”
“No!” I gasped with the force of his motion. “Stop it!”
“You listen to me.” He pushed me against the wall. “I’m done with your games. We’re going to do things my way from now on. You do what I want, when I want, starting tonight. You got it?”
It was like a waking nightmare, one that no pinch would end. I had nowhere to go, no haven, no safety. “Nug, don’t hurt me.” I knew he would, that he liked it that way, but I didn’t know what else to do. “Just let me go.”
“Shut up!” He slapped me across the face so hard, it slammed me into the wall. My head rang with pain.
Something yanked Nug away from me. One moment he was hitting me, the next I was free and stumbling forward. As I caught myself, I looked up to see a startled Nug facing off with another man.
“What’s the matter with you?” Althor asked. “Can’t you feel how frightened she is?”
“Who the fuck are you?” Nug said.
I didn’t stick around to hear more. I ran inside the building and banged the door shut behind me. When I flipped the light switch nothing happened, so I ran down the hall in the dark, reaching for my keys—
No! My keys were in my purse, and my purse was outside on the landing.
I stopped, my heart thudding like the beats of a gourd drum. Then I went back to the door, walking soft, so very soft. Outside, I heard someone falling down the steps. Althor was bigger, but Nug was a better fighter than anyone else I knew. If I had to bet which one of them would win, I’d put my money on Nug, as much as I hated that idea.
A car door opened, followed by Nug saying, “You’re gonna wish you never screwed with me.” The door slammed and the engine started.
I hesitated. Nug wasn’t one to leave a fight, not unless he thought he would lose. But against one man? It made no sense. I nudged the door open a crack—but in the same moment someone on the other side pulled it open all the way.
“Tina?” Althor stood there framed in the rickety doorway. “Are you all right?”
It was too much. I backed up and tripped over some torn boxes on the floor. As I fell, I banged into the wall and dropped onto my knees. Pressing my fist against my mouth, I tried to stop shaking.
Althor came over and knelt in front of me. He started to reach for me, but when I stiffened, he dropped his arm. In the faint light trickling past the open door, his face looked strained, as if with pain, yet no cuts or bruises showed anywhere I could see.
“It’s all right,” Althor said. “He is gone.” He stood up slowly, taking care not to jostle me, and offered his hand.
I avoided his hand and stood up without touching him. Then I stepped away, deeper into the shadowed building.
“I don’t understand,” Althor said. “Why does your brother treat you like that?”
“That was one of your brothers, yes?”
“No.” The thought of being related to Nug made me want to lose my dinner.
“Maybe that explains it.”
“Why he had no caring of your fear.”
“He likes people to be afraid of him.” I clenched my fist at my side. “It makes him feel big.”
Althor pushed his hand through his hair, and his arm shook, but it wasn’t from his own reactions. I felt what he felt: He wasn’t afraid of Nug, not at all. He was shaking from my emotions.
“How did you know I needed help?” I asked.
“I input it. Even from so far away.” His forehead creased. “Can you always broadcast such a strong signal?”
He was doing it again, saying those strange things, and I couldn’t take any more. I backed toward the stairs. “I’m not doing nothing.”
Althor looked around at the shadowed hallway, taking in the scarred walls, the peeling plaster, the tags spray-painted in dark colors. “Tina, you should go someplace safer than this.”
“Está bien. It’s fine.” I needed my purse, but I didn’t know how to reach the landing where it lay in a crumpled heap just visible behind the edge of the door. A large pilot was in the way. Fighter pilot. Right. I wanted to laugh, then cry. Mostly I wanted to be safe in my apartment.
Althor watched as if I were a puzzle that was breaking his heart. Then he went outside and got my purse. When he came back, he set it down in the hall in front of me and stepped aside, giving me plenty of space. I grabbed my purse and backed away from him, clutching the bag. Then I headed for the stairs at the other end of the hall, practically running. As I went up the steps, I looked back. Althor was still standing in the same place. He made no attempt to follow, just watched me leave. I turned the corner and lost sight of him.
On the second floor, moonlight was coming through a dirty window at this end of the hall. Junk cluttered the hallway floor and black patches showed on the walls where a fire had scorched them years ago. A baby cried somewhere, a wail that broke off into softer sobs. Upstairs a man and woman were yelling. The musty smell was worse up here, but I didn’t care. I was almost home.
I hurried to my door, which was halfway down the hall, and unlocked the top bolt, the bottom bolt, the police lock, and finally the door. As soon as I was inside, I locked it all back up. Then I sagged against the wood and started to shake. Once it started, I couldn’t stop. I sank down to the ground in the darkened room, collapsed against the door, shaking and shivering, too drained to move anymore.
Copyright © 2014, 1996 Catherine Asaro