Catch The Lightning

Saga of the Skolian Empire (Volume 2 of 11)

Catherine Asaro

Tor Science Fiction

1
Night Thunder
 
 
I last saw Earth in 1987, when I was seventeen. The years since then have brought so many changes that the girl I was in Los Angeles seems like another person. But my memory, bio-enhanced now, remains vivid.
I felt the city that night. Although LA 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. 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 outdo the faint amber glow that tinted the darkened sky. Sparse late-night traffic flowed by, 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 rose-colored mist that shifted with vague shapes, the form of unspoken words. It sounded like waves on a beach, smelled like seaweed, tasted like salt. I was used to seeing and hearing people’s emotions, even feeling them on my skin, but smells and tastes came less often. I knew nothing about Coulomb forces then, but it didn’t matter: experience had taught me the effect decreased with distance; I would experience it until he moved away. Or until the intensity of his mood faded. I didn’t tell him, of course. I didn’t want to sound crazy.
We sat at the bus stop and Joshua put his arm around my shoulders, not like a boyfriend, which he had never been to me, but like the best friend I had known for six years, since 1981, the year Jamaica became the fifty-first state and the Hollywood sign burned down in the hills above LA. Tousled curls fell over his forehead and brushed the wire rims of his glasses. He was my opposite in many ways, his blond curls sun-bright compared to my waist-length black hair. His eyes had always seemed like bits of sky to me, blue and clear where mine were black.
A harsh sensation punctured the bubble of our mood. I had no idea where it came from, only that it cut like a knife.
“Tina, look.” Joshua pointed across the street.
I looked. A red sports car was turning off San Carlos Boulevard into a side street. “What about it?”
“That was Nug driving.”
Hearing Nug’s name was like being hit by ice water. “He can drive down the street if he wants.”
“He was watching us.” Joshua looked past my shoulder and his face relaxed. “The bus is coming.”
As we stood, the bus came alongside us. I got on and glanced back at Joshua. He waved, his hand disappearing from sight as the driver closed the door.
During the ride I sat by myself, leaning against the window. The few other passengers seemed lost in their own thoughts. I wondered if they were going home to their families, to a world they understood.
As hard as I tried to fit, Los Angeles was alien to me. I had grown up in the Zinacanteco village of Nabenchauk on the Chiapas plateau in southern Mexico. I missed its cool evergreen forests, its dry winters and rainy summers. My earliest memories were of my mother, kneeling barefoot at her metate, grinding maize in the predawn hours. In many ways, she was a traditional Maya woman. So how, at fourteen, did she get pregnant with me by an artist from Mexico City who visited Nabenchauk to paint the village?
When I was eight, my uncle and aunt died in one of the earthquakes that hit the highlands, leaving behind their eleven-year-old son Manuel. After years of struggling with the decision, my mother decided to look for my father. She took Manuel and me down the Pan American Highway to Mexico City, what I thought then was the edge of the universe. We never did find him. Eventually we ended up here, in the city of sleepless, fallen angels.
The bus stopped on San Carlos Boulevard a few blocks from where I lived. The drugstore on the corner was closed and deserted. I had hoped Los Halcones would be around so I could ask someone to walk me home. My cousin Manuel had died the previous year, just before my seventeenth birthday, and since then Los Halcones had looked out for me. I could almost see 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. No one was there that night, though.
The Stop-And-Go down the block was still open. I could call Mario. But I would have to wake him up, and I knew he had 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 was only a few blocks to where I lived. I knew the neighborhood well and most everyone knew me. So it was that I made the decision that changed my life. Maybe I knew, on a level below conscious thought, that something was different that night. Perhaps a neuroscientist could have mapped out the neural processes that prodded my decision, or a physicist could have calculated the changes in the electromagnetic fields produced by my brain. Whatever the reason, I decided to walk home.
I headed down a side street. Old buildings lined the road, tenements and weathered houses. Although most of the street lamps were dark, a few made pools of light on the sidewalk. Cracks in the concrete jagged everywhere, overgrown with grass. Debris lay scattered: chunks of rock, plaster, newspapers, candy wrappings, empty cigarette boxes, fast-food trash blowing along the street or caught up against a building. Somewhere curtains thwapped in the breeze. The smell of damp paper tickled my nose.
When my mother first brought us to LA, we lived in one of its more meager outlying areas. Although we didn’t have much in terms of material goods, she gave us a stable home and more than enough love. After her death, Manuel and I moved here, where we could better afford the rent.
As I walked home, I became aware of an odd sensation. A trickle. It ran over my arms like the runoff from a torrent of warm air rushing by in a nearby caon. But the canyon was in my mind, not in the city.
Two blocks later I saw him.
He stood about a block away, facing the road, a tall man with curly hair. I didn’t recognize him. The one working lamp on that stretch of the road was only a few feet behind where I stood, so as soon as he turned he would see me. I knew I should leave, but what he was doing was so odd, I hesitated, stopping to watch.
He held a box that hummed and glittered with color: red, gold, blue, green, purple, silver. Holding it in front of his body, he turned in a circle, his attention fixed on it. From the way he dressed, I would have expected him to be robbing stores instead of playing with gadgets. But then, when Manuel ran with Los Halcones, he dressed that way: sleeveless vest and pants tucked into his boots. This man’s clothes were black, though; Manuel had preferred T-shirts and faded jeans.
Thinking about Manuel 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. At first he just stood there, staring. Then he started toward me, his long legs devouring the space that separated us.
That’s it, I thought. I spun around and ran.
Espérate,” he called. “Habla conmigo.”
I wasn’t sure why his terrible Spanish made me turn back. I could barely understand him. His voice was strange, too. On habla it rumbled with a deep note, like a low tone on a piano. But the warmth I had felt was stronger, flowing over my skin, a river now instead of a trickle.
He had stopped again and was watching me. I watched back, ready to run if he came closer.
He tried again. “Preguntar mi tu decir.”
His grammar made no sense. “¿Qué?”
Despierto mi.” He paused. “Yo espaol mal.”
He Spanish bad? That was an understatement. “How about English?”
“Yes.” Relief flickered across his face. “Much better.” His English was accented, but easier to understand. Every other sentence or so, his voice made that odd sound, like a musical note. They ranged through about an octave, one down low on a piano keyboard.
“What do you want?” I asked.
He held out his palms as if to show he had no weapons. It wasn’t reassuring. He could have a knife or a gun hidden anywhere. And he still had the box in his hand.
“Lost,” he said. “Help can find you me?”
“What?”
He paused, his face blanking like a cleared computer screen. Then he said, “Can you help me? I’m lost.”
“Where were you going?”
“Washington, originally.”
I tensed. Nug and his men hung around Washington’s liquor store. They all wore black, and wrist guards too, like this guy. I backed up a step. “You’re a long way from Washington’s.”
“Yes.” He paused. “I decided not to come down in a continental capital.”
Did he mean Washington, D.C.? I wondered if he was on anything. He didn’t sound like it, though; his words weren’t slurred or wandering, he just didn’t speak English that well.
“What’s in Washington?” I asked.
“A reception.”
I almost laughed. “You’re going to a party there dressed like that?”
“This is my duty uniform. My dress uniform is on the ship.”
I wondered if he realized how strange he sounded. I hadn’t heard of anyone like him in the neighborhood. “What’s your name?”
“Althor.”
It sounded like a nickname. All of Nug’s men took one, though most of them were less creative about it. “You mean Thor? The guy with the hammer?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know to whom you refer,”
Whom? I didn’t know people existed who actually used that word. Despite my wariness, I was growing more and more intrigued. I motioned at his box. “What is that?”
“Transcom,” he said.
“What does it do?”
“Transmits and receives waves. Right now I scan radio signals.” He came closer, showing me the box, and I backed away. As I stepped into the halo from the street lamp, he stopped and stared as if he had just seen me. In a sense he had, since I had only then moved into the light.
“Gods,” he said. “You’re beautiful.”
I kept backing toward the drugstore.
“Don’t go.” Althor started toward me again.
As soon as he moved in my direction, I took off running.
“Wait,” he called.
I stopped. Turned. Looked at him. Why? Something about him was familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn’t place it. I felt it too, like tendrils of mist coming off a river. A sense of warmth. Affection, almost. So I hesitated, ready to run but waiting to see what he would do.
Althor backed up to the street lamp so I could see him better. He was tall, about six-foot-four. His eyes were dark, black it looked like, though it was hard to see in the dim light. He had fair skin and curly hair that, as far as I could tell, was the same color as the bronze bracelet my mother gave me before she died. I had to admit he was nice looking. Strange, but handsome. Just because he was handsome, though, didn’t mean he was all right.
“You run with Nug?” I asked.
“Who?”
“Nug. You know.”
“I do not know.”
“You must’ve seen him around. Tall guy. Anglo. Blue eyes. Buzz hair.”
“I don’t know this man.” He considered me. “You don’t recognize my uniform, do you?”
“I’ve never seen no uniform like that.” I winced. “Any uniform.” Even now, when I speak seven languages, I sometimes forget to avoid the double negative in English. It seems a strange language, not allowing you an extra negative to make a point.
“I am ****” he said.
“What?”
He said the word again and it still sounded like gibberish.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Literally I think it translates as ‘Jagernaut Secondary.’”
“Jagernaut?”
He nodded. “Secondary is similar to what you call a naval captain.” He paused. “Actually, it comes closer to your air force. Major, maybe.”
“You’re a soldier?”
“Pilot. ISC Tactical Fighter Wing.”
A pilot! Wariness followed my initial excitement. He didn’t look like a fighter pilot. “What’s ISC?”
“Imp—” He hesitated. “Space Command.”
At the time, I was sure he was a nut case or stoned, or else that he thought I was stupid enough to believe him. “Yeah, sure.”
“Why do you think I make this up?”
“Well, I don’t run into many fighter pilots on my way home.”
Althor smiled. “I guess not.”
His smile caught me by surprise. No cruelty showed in it, nor was it a false smile, or the too easy smile of someone who never had reason to cry. It had history to it, complicated history.
I relaxed a bit. “So how come you’re in LA?”
He considered me, as if trying to decide whether or not I was a threat. It was funny, really. Five-foot-two me in a fluffy miniskirt threatening six-foot-four him. When he finally answered, I figured that same thought had occurred to him. I had no idea then of the true reason he chose to trust me, nor of the extensive calculations that went into his decision.
“I’m in the wrong place,” he said. “Actually, it looks like the wrong time. According to positions of the stars, the date is exactly as I expected. But everything is different.” He pointed to the streetlight. “For one thing, I never knew this, that Los Angeles had such lamps.”
I blinked. The street lamps were the same as everywhere else in LA: tall antique poles, each ending in a scalloped hook. The glass lamp hanging from the hook was shaped like the bell on an old Spanish mission. Books about California never failed to show them.
“They’re angel bells,” I said.
“Angel bells? I have never heard this before.”
“You really must be new. They’re as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.”
Althor frowned. “I’ve studied American history. If these bells are as famous as you say, I would recognize them.”
“Maybe your teacher didn’t know LA that well.”
“My ‘teacher’ was a computer chip. It had no record of these bell-lamps.” He looked around at the debris-strewn street, the broken windows in the building closest to us, its crumbling steps. “You live here?”
I didn’t like him asking where I lived. When I didn’t answer, he said, “Why do you live like this?”
I gritted my teeth. “Because I do.”
He jerked, as if my anger had struck him. “My sorry. I meant no offense.”
After an awkward silence, I said, “So where are you from?”
“Originally, Parthonia.”
“Where?”
“Parthonia. The seat of the Skolian government.”
“Never heard of it.”
“After everything else I’ve found here, or not found, I’m not surprised.” He sat on the steps of the building next to us and poked at his box. “Everything is wrong. The only transmissions I find are at radio frequencies.”
I stepped closer to see the box. As he moved his fingers over the panels on its faces, they glowed different colors. He turned over his wrist and pressed the box against his wrist guard. It wasn’t leather after all, at least not all of it. Parts were metal, and wires crisscrossed it, what I now know are ceramo-plex conduits, superconducting lines that power a miniature computer web.
“I haven’t seen wrist guards like that before,” I said.
“They have a new web architecture.” Althor spoke absently, pulling his box off the guard. “At least I can reach my Jag.”
“Is that your car?” He didn’t look like someone who could afford one.
“My fighter.”
“Oh. Yeah.” I wondered if he was an actor rehearsing for a movie. More likely his brain had lost a few bolts. But nothing about him tripped my mental alarms and my intuition about people was generally solid.
He held up the transcom. “I’ve checked radio wave, microwave, optical, UV, X-ray, and neutrino channels. Nothing.”
“Why did you come down here to check?”
He shrugged. “The Jag can do the orbital scans.”
“I mean, why this street in particular?”
He blinked at me for a full ten seconds before he answered. “I don’t know. It seemed—the right place.”
“What are you looking for?”
He made a frustrated noise. “Something to make sense. I seem to be in the wrong century. But the date and location, they are both correct. Except this isn’t like any Earth I know.”
I smiled. “You go to Caltech, right? My friend Josh is a fresh-man there. He told me about those role-playing games you play. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?”
“Caltech? This means California Institute of Technology, doesn’t it?”
“I guess so. Josh never calls it that.” Now that I thought about it, if Althor came from Caltech, what was he doing here, by himself, in the middle of the night? He looked more like Nug’s friends. Once in high school, Nug and his men had cornered Joshua behind the gym. They tied his hands behind his back and lined up in front of him with their rifles like a firing squad. They thought it was funny. Joshua was so shaken he didn’t come back to school for a week. He was afraid to tell anyone besides me, but I told Los Halcones and after that they looked out for him.
“I’ve heard of Caltech,” Althor said. “I never went there, though. I graduated from DMA years ago.”
“DMA?”
“A military academy.”
The thought of Nug’s creeps going to a military school made me want to laugh. Boot camp would be even better. I could just see a drill sergeant yelling in their faces.
But it was obvious Althor was serious. At the time, I saw his words through the filter of my own experiences, which included an intense desire for college and no money to pay for it. If someone had told me back then that someday I would have advanced degrees with honors in both sciences and the humanities, I would have laughed.
I spoke gently. “It don’t matter to me if you don’t have a fancy degree.”
“I do have degree,” he said. “It’s in inversion engineering.”
I smirked. “Perversion engineering?”
He reddened, as if unsure whether I made a joke or he made an embarrassing mistake in English. “Inversion.”
I liked that, the way he cared what I thought he said. “So you’re supposed to go to a party tomorrow night?”
“It is a reception at the White House for my mother.”
“The White House, huh? She must be important.”
“She is a mathematician. She has an equation named for her. But that was long ago. For many years she had been ****”
“Been what?”
His face blanked again. Now that I was more tuned to him, I felt die change. He turned metallic. Then his warmth returned, eddying around us and softening the banks of my barricaded emotions.
“Key,” Althor said. “This is the closest translation I find.”
She was Key? That didn’t sound like any of Joshua’s games. Nor had I ever heard of anyone having their mother, of all people, as a player. “What does she do?”
“Sits in Assembly. She is liaison between the data webs and the Assembly.”
“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, yes, maybe flirting a little. But I wasn’t coming on to him and I knew it sounded that way. Why did I keep dropping my guard with him? After only a few minutes he was affecting me more than people I had known for years.
Althor held out his transcom as if he were a vaquero, a cowboy offering sugar to a skittish horse, trying to lure it nearer so he could catch it. “Want to see how it works?”
I stared at the box. One reason Joshua and I had become friends, despite the differences in our backgrounds, was because we both liked gadgets. He enjoyed making them and I liked to figure out why they worked.
“Okay,” I said. But I kept my distance.
Althor brushed his finger over a square on the box, turning it silver. “This puts it in acoustic mode.” He showed me another side, one with a membrane instead of panels. “Say something.”
¡Hola, box!” I said.
It answered with my voice. “¡Hola, box!”
I laughed. “How did it do that?”
“Your voice makes longitudinal waves in the atmosphere. It reproduces them.” He pressed the box onto his wrist guard and touched another panel, A note rang out. “Frequency 552 hertz.” He played another note. “What frequency?”
“The same, isn’t it?” I said. “Maybe a little higher.”
“564 hertz. You have good ears. Most people can’t tell them apart.” He made a third note. “This one?”
“Same as the last.”
“No. It’s 558 hertz.” He pressed several panels and the tone came again, but this time it vibrated like a trilling bird with a whistle in its throat.
“Hey! That’s cool.” I laughed. “I know what you’re doing. Making beats. Me and Josh read about it at the library. Your box is singing those two notes at the same time.”
He smiled, seeming more intrigued by my reaction than the beats. “You know what is the beat frequency?”
“Twelve hertz. I can figure out the pitch too.” I thought for a moment. “The last one you played. The 558 hertz.”
Althor nodded. Then he touched another panel. Flute music floated out into the night, as sweet as the down under an owl’s wings.
“It’s pretty,” I said.
He pulled the transcom off his wrist. “Want to try it?”
Did Los Angeles have smog? As I reached for the box, Althor shifted his weight so that his arm moved back in his lap, making me step closer to reach the transcom. I stumbled over his foot, and as I fell into his lap, he slid his arm around my waist. Mortified, I grabbed the transcom and backed away.
“If you come here,” he invited, “I show you how it works.”
I stayed put. He was sitting on the third step of the stairs, next to the railing, his booted feet planted far apart on the sidewalk and his elbows resting on his knees. Broken pieces of plaster lay scattered around his feet. I wanted to see how the transcom worked, but getting close to him was another story. After considering the options, I sat on the other side of the step so that about two feet of concrete separated us.
Althor leaned over and touched a silver square on the box. It turned gold.
I pulled back from him. “What are you doing?”
“I make it in electromagnetic mode.”
“What does that do?”
“Right now, an antenna it makes.” He swept out his arm, a gesture including the street, buildings, even 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. “Augmented by changes in local air density.”
I moved my leg away. “I don’t feel anything.”
“You can’t feel it.” Althor slid closer. “Besides,” he murmured. “There are better things to feel.”
His mood was a sensuous river giving off mist, a sensation so unsettling that I dropped the transcom. As it slid out of my hands, my fingers skittered over its surface, making its panels blink. It fell between my legs and landed by the spike heel of my shoe, its panels glowing like gemstones in a river.
A woman’s voice burst out of it. “—fourth caller wins two free dinners at Mona’s Kitchen. So get your phone ready, folks.”
¿Oiga!” When I reached between my knees and picked up the transcom, my finger touched another square. The woman’s voice cut off in midsentence, replaced by a man speaking an unfamiliar language. I jerked my finger away. “What’s it doing?”
Althor was staring at where I held the transcom between my knees. It seemed to take an effort for him to pull away his gaze and look at my face. “What?”
I reddened and drew my knees together. “The box. What happened to it?”
“It picks up radio waves.” Althor leaned in until his chest rested against my shoulder. He touched a panel on the transcom and it went silent. Then he spoke near my ear. “You haven’t told me your name.” His river swirled around us, muddling my thoughts. I felt his moods more than with other people, even Joshua. With Althor it was so intense it almost hurt, or would have hurt if it had been harsh. But it wasn’t harsh. It was sensual.
“Tina. I’m Tina. ’Akushtina Santis Pulivok.” I had no idea why I gave him my full name. I could always tell when someone thought it was strange and that happened often enough that I had quit saying it.
“’Akushtina,” he said. “A beautiful name. For a beautiful woman.”
I stared at him. The surprise wasn’t so much that he thought it was beautiful, though that was unexpected too; the glottal stop at the beginning of ’Akushtina sounded ugly to most people who didn’t speak Tzotzil Mayan. But what really hit me was that he pronounced it right.
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. Neither of us realized the truth then, that he was giving off pheromones specific to someone with my genetic makeup.
I pulled away from him. “I was coming home from work. My brothers are expecting me.” There was no way he could know I had no brothers. “They must be looking for me right now.”
Althor tilted his head, like someone struggling to catch a sound he could barely hear. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?”
“Upload to me. Overwrite my thoughts. My web is supposed to be protected.”
“What?”
“I can’t think.” He put his arm around my waist. “You are doing something.”
My awareness of him intensified, the textures of his emotions mixing with his actual touch until I couldn’t separate them. It was too much. When he bent his head to kiss me, I slid my arms around his neck, acting before I had time to think.
When it came to men, Manuel had been as strict with me as a father. More like a priest. But I still had an idea what went on, enough to realize Althor kissed differently from most. 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 his tongue came inside.
When we separated, he pushed my hair out of my face. “Where are your brothers?”
I looked at him, feeling the echo of his lips on my mouth. His scent permeated the air.
“Tina?” He touched my cheek. “Are you there?”
“¿Qué?”
“Your brothers. Why they leave you to walk 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, as I realized how strangely I was behaving. I stood up. “I should go.”
He stood up next to me. “Already?”
I was afraid to ask for his phone number, thinking he might take it wrong. Earth, in that day and age, was in a state of flux when it came to courting rituals. In some circles, it was accepted for a woman to make overtures to a man. But I had grown up in an environment where that wasn’t true.
“Tina?” Althor said.
“I thought maybe—” I paused, leaving him an opening.
“Yes?” He watched me as if I had turned to water and were running through his fingers.
“I—Nothing.” I waited a moment, then said, “I have to go.”
He started to speak, then stopped himself. “You’re sure?”
“Yes.”
Again he had that odd look. But all he said was, “Adiós, ’Akushtina.”
“Adiós.” I headed for home, struggling to ignore the feeling that I had just made the stupidest mistake in my life.
After I walked about half a block, I glanced back. Althor was still watching. When he saw me look, he took a step forward. I hurried away, crossing the street and then turning the corner. Once I thought I heard a footstep behind me, but when I turned to look, no one was there.
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 more buildings and I would be home.
A pair of headlights flashed on, coming from a car parked on Miner Street. A red car. For a moment, I froze. Then I took off, 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 with an almost feral grace. His head was shaved, except on top where yellow hair stuck up like a scrub brush. Although he was only twenty-four, he looked older. His face had a hardness to it, as if had been baked in a kiln too long. What made him ugly was the way he watched you, as if in his view of the universe your life meant nothing.
That was why I hated him, because people meant 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 sold Manuel his first hit, to “help” him deal with his grief over my mother’s death. And of course Nug kept him supplied.
It fast became obvious I wouldn’t reach home in time. When I tried to turn and ran in the other direction, I tripped in my spike heels 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. “Hi.”
“Just thought I’d make sure you got home okay.” He pulled me with him, toward the apartment building. “I’ll walk you the rest of the way.”
“I’m fine now.” As we climbed the steps, I balked, resisting his pull. At the top, I stopped. “Thanks. I’ll see you.”
“Why you in such a hurry?” He stepped closer and I backed up, into the wall.
“Nug.” I pressed into the building, wishing I could disappear. “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 around with that wimp?”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Why?” Nug sounded genuinely curious. “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, then traced his finger down my neck. “You don’t need brains.” His leaned his head down as if he were going to kiss me. “You’re so damn pretty.”
I tried to duck under his arm, but he pushed me against the wall. “You know what you look like?” he said. “Those models in that clothes catalog I get.”
The thought of Nug ordering a clothes catalog would have been funny in a different situation. “You mean like the Sears catalog?”
“Sears?” He laughed. “No. From that place in Hollywood, I can’t remember the name. Freedman or Frederick’s or something. Man, those models look even better than the girls in Hustler.” “Nug, I have to go.”
“They got play clothes in there.” He reached under my dress and snapped my garter belt. “Like these.”
I pushed his hand away. “Cut it out.”
“You wouldn’t believe what they got. Lace and g-strings and fake leather. I didn’t know real girls even wore that stuff.” He pushed my purse off my shoulder, then pulled my arms over my head and 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!”
“You gotta be nice to me.” He let go of my wrists. “See, I know stuff.”
“Stuff?”
Impatience grated in his voice, “Like you lied about your age to get that job. Like your papers are faked and you ain’t here legal, baby. Like if you don’t do what I want, I’ll just have to talk, you know. You want to go back to taco land? What you gonna do there, Tina? Turn tricks in Tijuana?”
“Don’t. You’re scaring me.”
“Damn it!” He hit the side of the building, shaking off old paint. “Why don’t you say, ‘Yes, Nug. Whatever you want, Nug’? You always did whatever that shit cousin of yours said, going to Mass every Sunday. I mean, who fucking goes to church every week? Well, he ain’t here to keep me off no more. He’s gone and he ain’t coming back, and neither is your mother, and Los Fuck ones 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.”
Something yanked Nug away from me. One moment he was shaking me, the next I was free and stumbling forward. As I caught myself, I saw a startled Nug facing off with someone.Althor. “What’s the matter with you?” Althor said. “Can’t you feel how terrified she is?”
“Who the fuck are you?” Nug said.
I didn’t stick around to hear any more. I ran inside the building, letting the door bang shut behind me. When I slapped my hand on the light switch nothing happened, so I ran down the hall in the dark, reaching for my keys—
I swore under my breath. My keys were in my purse, and my purse was lying outside where Nug had dropped it.
I went back to the door. Outside, I heard someone falling down the steps. Althor was bigger, but I doubted he had much chance against Nug. He was lucky Nug didn’t have a gun.
A car door opened, followed by Nug saying, “You’re gonna wish you never fucked with me.” The door slammed and the engine started.
I hesitated. Nug wasn’t one to leave a fight, not unless he was sure he would lose. But against one man? It made no sense that he would drive away. I eased the door open—and in the same instant someone on the other side pulled it open all the way. I found myself staring up at Althor.
“Tina?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
I backed up and tripped over some debris on the floor. As I fell, I banged into the wall and dropped onto my knees. I pressed my fist against my mouth, trying to stop shaking.
Althor came over and knelt in front of me. He started to reach for me, but when I stiffened, he let his arms drop. His face was strained, as if with pain, yet no cuts or bruises showed anywhere on him.
“It’s all right,” he said. “He’s gone.” Standing up, he offered me his hand. “I don’t understand. Why does your brother treat you like that?”
I stood up and stepped back from him. “My brother?”
“That was one of your brothers, yes?”
“No.”
“No? Maybe that explains it.”
“Explains what?”
“Why he had no caring of your fear.”
“He likes people to be afraid of him. It makes him feel big.”
As Althor pushed his hand through his hair, I saw his arm shake. But it wasn’t because of his own reactions. I felt what he felt. He wasn’t afraid of. Nug 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. Can you always broadcast so strong a signal?”
He was doing it again, saying those strange things. I backed toward the stairs
Althor looked around at the shadowed hallway with its scarred walls. “I think you should go someplace safe.”
Está bien. It’s fine.” How was I going to get my purse? He was between me and the doorway.
Althor watched me as if I were a puzzle. Then he went outside and got my purse. When he came back, he set it down in the hall and moved off again. Still wary, I grabbed it and backed away. He made no attempt to follow, just watched as I backed up the stairs.
On the second floor, moonlight came through a window at the end of the hall. Junk cluttered the floor and black patches showed on the wall where an old fire had scorched it. A baby cried somewhere, a wail that broke off into softer sobs. Upstairs a man and woman were yelling.
I ran to my apartment and unlocked the top bolt, then the bottom one, then the police lock, then the door. As soon as I was inside, I locked back up. I sagged against the wood and started to shake. Once it began, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t even get up to take the few steps needed to reach my bed. I sank down in the darkened room and laid my head against the door, shaking, too tired and too frightened to move anymore.
 
Copyright © 1996 by Catherine Asaro