Alice Morgan sits on a sun lounger under a wide umbrella by the largest of the three pools at the Hotel De Allande, hugging her knees and wiggling her toes. They're a bit too red for her taste, but she hadn't been able to resist the colour: Redshift. Red is the colour of galaxies moving away from each other, of the universe taking a deep breath. And the light does seem redder here, though she can't tell if it's the South American sunlight or the fact that Mexico's full of reds and bright yellows. Her universe is expanding: she's come so far from the blue cast of London, the flashing blue lights of police cars. She's a red blur herself, hair flying behind her: meep meep!
A shadow falls over her pale legs and she looks up.
John Luther is wearing a blue creased linen shirt and carrying a rucksack. He looks tired and more than a little embarrassed. "Hello, Alice."
This is why Alice Morgan loves the universe: it routinely defies her best predictions. She reaches up for him with both hands, her mouth a wide smile. "How did you find me?"
He puts down his bag and sits at the foot of the sun lounger next to hers. "Wasn't hard. Mexico. First-class establishment. This one's closest to the border." Luther squints at the sparkling blue waters of the pool, as if he can't quite look at her. "Have you been yet?"
"No. I was going to go tomorrow. I've hired a Jeep." Alice tilts her head to one side. "Is that why you've come, John? To see the Very Large Array?"
Luther pulls a pair of sunglasses from the neck of his shirt. "Well, it's Very Large, innit?" he says, sliding back in the lounger. "Not just Large but Very Large. Hate to shuffle off without seeing it."
"Seeing it, but also seeing what it sees." Alice is momentarily caught up in the wonder of it. "Black holes. Supernovas. Unknown astrophysical masses." Overcome with happiness, she reaches for her pina colada and sips it through a cherry red straw. "I've also booked a tour of the Trinity site," she confides, biting her lip with excitement. "Fat Boy. 19-kilotons. Boom!"
Luther's lip curls a little on one side. "Sounds like a blast," he says.
Luther eventually strips down to take a swim, but refuses Alice's offer of a drink: wants to keep his head clear, he says. Alice puts on a wide-brimmed hat and sits at the edge of the pool, dangling her legs in the water. She watches him glide to and fro beneath the surface. He has a long, dark, graceful shadow, like a shark.
She wonders if he'll stay in her room. But when she puts on her wrap and sandals, he picks up his rucksack and follows her into the hotel. Still, he stops outside her door. "There's no other rooms available," he says, awkwardly shifting his bag from hand to hand. "Could go elsewhere or--"
"Don't be silly," Alice says firmly. "You must be my guest."
"I must be," Luther repeats softly. "I'll kip on the sofa," he adds; reassuring himself, perhaps.
Alice slips her keycard into the lock. "I'm afraid there isn't a sofa."
"I'll kip on the floor, then," he says, and he does, though he sleeps right beside her bed, three feet down. Alice lies among the soft pillows and listens to him breathe. She wonders if he's awake too, breathing in her scent and listening to her small, unconscious sounds.
In the morning, Alice keeps her eyes closed until John heaves himself up, stretches, and lumbers into the shower. She wants to follow him – let her nightie drop to the floor and step into the luxurious steam - but John doesn't like surprises. Instead she snuggles down into the duvet and contents herself with her imagination, which is excellent. She can see his broad back, his strong shoulders, through the steam and textured glass.
After breakfast, Luther dumps their bags into the Jeep, rolls the sides up, and folds himself into the passenger seat. Alice wonders if he got in on the wrong side by mistake, but it doesn't seem so: he's already slouched deep in his seat, long arm dangling out the window: sunglasses on. Alice ties on her sunhat, licks her lips, and closes her hand around the Jeep's massive gearstick.
They drive north through through the desert. It's amazing countryside: scrubby green mountains and red dusty desert basins. The sky is the bluest she's ever seen. They pass a sign featuring the roadrunner – New Mexico's state bird, apparently—and she laughs. In a town called Truth or Consequences, they stop for lunch at Kat's 'World Famous' chili. It's thick and spicy and goes down beautifully with cold lager. Luther eats lustily, hunched over the bowl and mopping up the rich sauce with cornbread. When he sits back and calls for another drink, he looks almost happy.
"So," Alice says, smiling back at him. "Truth or consequences."
Luther thinks about it for a moment. "Truth."
"We came all this way to have your fantastic chili," Alice says, immediately turning her eyes to Kat, who's come to bring Luther his next beer. Her name is embroidered in gold thread across the front pocket of her Western shirt. The K is enormous.
Kat looks indescribably pleased. "Why, you don't say."
"Yes, I do say," Alice says firmly. "We've come all the way from England for this meal."
And then Luther surprises her. "Yeah. Read about it in a guidebook," he says, licking his lips before taking a deep swig of beer. "Best Eats of the American Southwest--d'ya know of it?"
"No!" Kat says, apparently shocked to discover her international fame. "I don't. What's it called?"
"Best Eats of the American Southwest. This place was prominently featured." Luther sits back and waves his hand at the décor of cacti and sombreros. "Do not miss the chili, it said."
"Yes," Alice agrees. "A veritable command! And so here we are – and I must say, we have not been disappointed, have we, John?"
Luther surprises her again by reaching out to cover her hand. She has to close her eyes for a second: his touch is, just briefly, too much. "Not at all," Luther tells Kay. "Bloody fantastic; well worth the journey." He takes his hand off Alice's and smiles.
"Well!" Kay says, obviously unused to compliments. "Thank you so much!" and later she sends them each a cup of strong coffee and a flan, "on the house."
"'Eats' was good," Alice says, in a low voice, after clearing her throat. "Well-played."
"Made her day, I think. No harm in that, surely." Luther drains the rest of his beer, eyeing her over the rim of the glass. "You now," he says, putting the mug down. "Truth or consequences?"
"Oh, consequences," Alice says, feeling a thrum of excitement. "Consequences always."
There are no five-star resorts in Socorro, just chain hotels and old, beaten up motels. Still, Alice prefers a motel to the industrial beige of the Comfort Inn, so they turn into the car park of the Fat Man Motel, which at least, Alice thinks, has a witty name and cable television, if no other amenities. A mushroom cloud on the sign blows up every few seconds, in pink and green neon.
"Hang on," Luther says, stepping out into the rapidly chilling air; it's getting cold now the sun's gone. "I'll get us a room," and she's so focused on watching him enter the office, so lost in wondering what this trip might bring, that it takes her a moment to register the soft cry, the slap, the too-familiar sounds of abuse. She purses her lips – damn it all, she's on holiday—but then she hears a muffled shriek and reaches into the back of the Jeep for a wheel wrench.
"Hello," she says, ducking her head to peer into the driver's side window of a grimy white car at the end of the row. The man turns to her, eyes surprised and enraged. The woman he's with lets out another little scream and tries to draw back; her wrist, Alice sees, has been handcuffed to the wheel. "Sorry to interrupt," she says, "but you appear to be beating the shit out of your wife."
The man laughs and looks at the terrified woman, who isn't any more than twenty, though she looks much older, worn out in some profound way. "This bitch isn't my wife," he says.
"Lucky," Alice says, and swings.
The handcuff key is in the dead man's pocket. Once free, the woman flings the car door open and actually falls out onto the ground in her desperation to escape. "I would review my life choices, if I were you," Alice says, watching her scamper backwards across the gravel like a crab. "Admittedly, many variables are certainly fixed, but you have more agency than you may think." The woman scrabbles onto one knee and takes off, running. Alice watches her go.
"Alice." Luther's voice comes out of the night air. "What have you done?"
Alice gestures toward the car with the bloody wheel wrench. "Well, I had to, didn't I. I couldn't just sit there listening while he killed her. Well," Alice reflects, "I suppose I could have..."
Luther takes a deep breath and looks up into the vast starry blackness of the sky.
Alice rolls her eyes. "All right; fine—next time, I'll just go ho-hum and turn up the radio."
Luther scrubs his face. "What have you touched?"
"Driver's side door handle; handcuffs and key; all wiped," Alice replies. "This," she adds, waggling the bloodied wrench, "but I'll take this with me, I think. Have you got us a room?"
"What?" Luther asks, ducking down to stare at her. "You want to stay?"
"Of course. Obviously. Best thing by at least seven different rationales."
Luther turns this over, jerks a nod—and this is something she likes about him: his lack of ego, his relentless pragmatism. "All right. Come on," but then he stops and uses his handkerchief to open the boot. Inside are three beaten up satchels: one full of clothes, one full of crumpled bills, mostly tens and twenties. The last contains two large ziplock bags of marijuana. "What'dja think?" he asks, glancing at her. "Cash can be traced, marijuana’s work to unload--"
"Why not the Lady and the Tiger?" Alice says, and takes both bags out of the boot.
"What the hell," Luther says, and hands her the spliff after taking a last, deep drag. The room is small and ratty, and there's only the bed and a single desk chair. Alice has claimed it before Luther could, turning it around and putting her feet up. Luther sits against the headboard; even so, his feet almost reach the end of the mattress. Alice takes a drag herself, then coughs.
Luther smiles. "You never experimented at university?"
"I experimented loads! Discovered a planet."
"You never did."
"I certainly did. And I was only fifteen." She stops, not liking the memories this brings back. "It wasn't as fun as it sounds," she says, and takes another, deeper drag. This one stays down.
Luther's watching her closely, but fondly; as always, she thinks. "You intimated as much when you killed your parents."
"I did, yes. I intimated," and it suddenly seems like a good idea to crawl onto the bed. She takes a few more drags, puts down the spliff, and moves forward on hands and knees. Luther just observes her making her way up the bedspread, like she's a caterpillar or a ladybird. She snugs up against his side; it's a bit like cuddling a mountain. "Let's talk about something else." She squeezes her eyes shut for a moment, but when she opens them, the room is suffused with blue light. "My goodness," she says, clutching at his arm, "we're under water. How are we breathing?"
"Hang on," Luther says, pulling away, trying to kick to the surface.
"No, wait!" Alice grabs for him, tries to hold him down. That dark shadow in the corner: is that a whale? "Not so fast! The nitrogen—" but Luther swims away to peer around the net curtains.
Luther turns around and says something she can't understand. He approaches the door, and she wonders if, when he opens it, all the water will rush out. It doesn't though; the whole city seems to be underwater, like the lost city of Atlantis. She swims up off the bed and hides behind him; she is a pufferfish, he is a coral reef. There's a group of aquarium guards standing in the car park, all bathed in blue light. One of them turns, sees Luther at the door, and takes a step towards them.
"Excuse me, sir; we need all guests to stay in their rooms," the guard says.
"All right." Luther shuts the door and looks at Alice. "We're all right," he tells her. "That's what you say to innocent people."
In the morning, she's got a faint headache and she's starving and she needs to brush three times before she licks her teeth and finds them acceptable. She woke up cotton-mouthed and tucked up snugly, with Luther sleeping next to her fully dressed on top of the bedclothes: close but no cigar.
"Good morning," she says, when he finally opens his eyes. "Can I have a good morning kiss?"
"No," Luther says.
"Are you certain?" She closes her eyes and purses her lips.
He has the good grace to hesitate. "I'm certain," Luther says, and then, "I think."
They drive fifty miles to the Very Large Array. Alice suddenly realises that she wants to see Luther see the array more than she actually wants to see it herself. She sees the antennas appear on the horizon in the squint of his eyes, and their growing massiveness in the tilt of his head, the crook of his neck. She sees that Luther's awed by them, and perhaps a little afraid of them: of their inhuman scale, of their complete obliviousness to the tiny little people on the ground.
Luther keeps his cool when she bypasses the tourist queue and introduces herself as Dr. Alice Morgan of Imperial College, London, here with her colleague, Dr. John Luther—but only just. Immediately they're invited into the control room and surrounded by technicians who, like proud parents, immediately began boasting about the VLA to EVLA transition--
("EVLA?" Luther whispers.
"Expanded Very Large..." Alice murmurs helpfully.
--insisting that the new EVLA correlator is going to have vastly improved capabilities despite the initial technical problems with the P band system. Alice doesn't doubt it for a minute.
The door opens and VLA Director Dr. Richard Hatch – prematurely white-haired, but wreathed in smiles - comes bustling toward them, hands extended.
("How do you have the nerve?" Luther mutters.
"Physicists don't gossip," Alice replies through her smile. "Haven't the knack.")
Hatch tells them all about the current project, a three week observation of galaxy NGC4448, one of her favourites, then offers to guide them on a tour of one of the antennae. They pass men in hard hats and machinists driving off-road vehicles, and Luther parries a question about his research ("What's your area, Dr. Luther?") with an offhand answer ("Cosmology. Dark matter, black holes,") that tells her that he's spent a lot of time looking at her university homepage.
They're on the observation deck, staring off at the giant array of antennae, dominating the earth, dwarfing them, dwarfing everything, when Luther suddenly turns to Dr. Hatch and says, in a strained-sounding voice, "Give us a minute?"
Dr. Hatch blinks at them, visibly re-evaluating their relationship. "Oh. Yes. Of course. I'll meet you back at the elevators," he says and hurries off.
Alice bites her lip and leans in so close they're chest to chest. "Fantastic place for a lover's meeting," she murmurs. "I like the way you--"
He grabs her arm. "Is this," and she can see that he's fighting to control himself. "Is that," he says, and gestures with one long arm toward the Y of giant radio antennas positioned in perfect mathematical order across the desert. "Is that you? Is that what it's like inside your head?"
It's a serious question, and she takes it seriously. "Yes," she replies, after thinking about it, "but not the way you mean. You mean — please, correct me if I'm wrong – to imply that I'm an extraordinary if inhuman scientific instrument at home in a totally desolate landscape. And I am, I suppose—that's almost a perfect description of how it was for me at Oxford. But that's not all I am," she says, ignoring the pain of his grip and pushing closer. "Don't be deceived. I'm not a machine, John. And this desert isn't empty space: millions of species live in the desert."
"I don't think you're a machine," Luther says, frowning down at her.
"You do, a little." She can't stop the corner of her mouth twitching. "Some part of you thinks that I'm a machine – and crazy, besides, like HAL in 2001." She widens her eyes and says, "'I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave.' But some other part of you understands me perfectly, and relies on the fact that I understand you, because we're alike, you and me." Luther's already shaking his head, but she's on tippy-toes now, hands reaching for his shoulders, practically whispering into his mouth. "We see what others miss. We cut to the heart of things. We maintain equilibrium in the face of all horror. We disregard conventional allegiances and we are loyal when it's not sensible to be so." Alice pulls back and stares full into his face: he's a human crumple with genius eyes. "It's a matter of perspective, John. We do not share the common perspective."
"I'm not like you," Luther says, but his grip on her has loosened, has changed. His shoulders are slumped, but his genius eyes are full of stars. She thinks he might kiss her. Or leave her.
Alice begins to sing softly. "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of--" He kisses her then, gently at first but then with a swift, rough passion, taking her by the shoulders and pulling her up to meet him, nearly lifting her off her feet: fantastic, like flying.
All at once he goes still, easing his grip; doubt is creeping over him like a chill. "It's all right," she says, cupping his face, licking catlike into his mouth. "You're not going to break me," and when he kisses her again, she can feel them changing, combining: becoming something new.