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Touching Fire
by Nicola Griffith

Science Fiction, 39 pages.
Originally Published in Interzone #70, 1993

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[Preview]

That summer I was working nights at Talulah’s to pay the rent until school opened again in the fall. It was Wednesday night, getting on time to close, and there was one woman left, nursing a beer over in the corner under the bass speaker. She was small, asian-dark, her dusty black hair cut in spikes and not an ounce of fat on her, but not frail, definitely not frail.

I had to ask her to move her feet so I could get the mop under the table.

“My name’s Nadia,” she said, “and I’m a National Treasure.”

“Right,” I said, because the customer always is.

She moved her legs, anyhow. And finished off her beer. Then she looked around like she hadn’t seen the place before. It was hard to tell what she thought of it. Talulah’s is better than some places, worse than others. I’ve seen plenty of women’s bars, though, and I like this one. On nights when I’m here as a paying customer and the women are high-stepping, flashing lean muscle and white teeth, and the floor almost moves with the weight of the music, it’s a fine place, a place of possibility and excitement. But now, with the music down low, and the people paired off and gone, the harsh overhead light showed puddles of spilled beer on the floor, and stains on the wall.

“Thursdays are the best,” I offered, leaning on my mop. “And of course, I’ll be here then.” I gave her my best smile.

That’s when she pushed back her chair and looked at me. Her eyes were very dark brown. Black maybe. “How do you do that?”

“What?”

“Trust a stranger. You shouldn’t.”

“It’s never done me any harm.”

Her smile was strange, twisty and self-mocking. “I do believe you mean that. You trust me.” She said it slowly, like she was tasting it. Then she nodded once, sharply. “Trust for trust then. But when the time comes, just make sure my guards don’t see you talking to me.”

Drugs, I thought, but she didn’t look like she used. Too healthy. “Guards?”

“Privacy isn’t one of the privileges of a National Treasure.”

Then she slid out of her chair like she was made of oiled snake, not woman, and left.

That night I lay awake in my efficiency, thinking of the way she moved, of her black eyes, of her voice skating through several different layers at once, like ocean currents.

* * *

Thursday, she was back. She was wearing black, the same dusty charcoal black as her hair. It made her skin look warm and rich, like cello wood. I slipped out from behind the bar and took a couple of beers to her table.

“You didn’t get my name last time,” I said, and put a beer in front of her. “I’m Kate.” I held out my hand. She turned away, pretending she hadn’t seen it.

“Go,” she said, not looking at me. “My guards are here.”

“Oh?” I glanced round, casually. “Where?” Sometimes if you humor people, they quit.

Not Nadia.

“Over by the pool table. Two of them. Earrings, short hair. One has beer, the other a shot glass.” She’d just described the entire clientele. But she wasn’t finished. “They’re both wearing loose jackets. They have guns.”

If she didn’t want me at her table she just had to say so. But the thing was, I think she did want me there. I stayed.

She watched the dance floor for a minute. “Meet me in the bathroom in five minutes,” then she got up to play the pinball machine.

I served a couple of people, and kept watch on the two women by the pool table. Their faces were in shadow, but one had an outwardly bent little finger, like it had been broken and badly set. They didn’t even glance at Nadia.

In the bathroom, Nadia was by the mirror, standing with feet wide and balanced, hands relaxed, but I could tell she was humming with tension. Even in the harsh neon, she was beautiful.

“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she said.

I didn’t, either.

She spread lean hands, as though offering something. “My name is Nadia Amin. I’m a National Treasure because I’m a LAOM dancer. The only one. I’m here in Atlanta because I’m helping Kyoto-TEC with their latest ad campaign. And when I’m not filming the commercials I’m working with a research team to figure out why I’m the only one who can do it.”

“Do what?”

“The dance.” She was impatient, but I didn’t understand a word.

“Look,” I said, “I’m a communication systems major. I don’t know anything about larm dancing. Is that like ballet?”

Her hands curled, like claws. “L.A.O.M.,” she said, “Light Activated Orchestral Machines. I dance them.” She must have seen my bewilderment. “They work by laser. I arrange them on a stage, dance through the beams of light, activating them to make music.”

That sounded interesting. “Like those musician robot computers from Taiwan?”

“No. These are actual musical instruments. They’re not pre-programmed.”

-- [End of Preview.]