Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

A Vortal in Midtown

A Vortal ripped open in the heart of Manhattan.

It began as a microscopic dot, invisible to the naked eye.

Just hung there in midair, almost two meters above the street.

People walked, drove, biked, rollerbladed, skateboarded, jogged, and one dude on his way to a Broadway audition even tap-danced by without noticing it.

It grew.

A day later, it was the size of a pea.

A Metro bus struck it.

It was still barely visible and the Sikh driver was hardly expecting to collide with a nearly invisible pea-sized obstacle suspended six feet up in the air.

The Vortal punched through the glass of the windshield, snipped a braid off the ’do of a white Rastafarian-wannabe, pinged its way through several seats, nearly punctured the throat of a teenager in the last row reading a Nnedi Okorafor paperback, clipped the cover of the book, changing the dot over the first “i” in Binti to an umlaut, then punched out the rear windshield as the bus drove on toward midtown. The pea-sized holes in the windshields and seats remained undetected until early the next day when the bus was being serviced; it caused some head-scratching but wasn’t worth alerting the media. The teenager noticed the tiny hole in the book but assumed it had already been there when she checked it out of the library.

Later that same morning, a crow swooping to dive-bomb a piece of a jelly donut fallen on the curb was struck by the Vortal. It was still pea-sized but a slightly bigger pea now. It punched through the wing of the crow, shattering his coracoid on entry and his humerus on exit. Three drops of blood spurted; two fell on the street, one on the sidewalk. Dude spiralled out of control, tried to perch on a lamppost to steady himself, slammed into it instead.

A chocolate-colored Labradoodle, walking with a Guatemalan singer from the East Village with her own YouTube channel, smelled the blood, saw the crow, and lost it. He yanked his leash and had the crow in his jaws before the chanteuse could finish the word she was texting. She jerked back on the leash, thinking he was darting out into traffic, and Bailey’s jaws snapped together, crushing the crow’s skull. She saw the nasty mess in his mouth and made him drop it, which he did, regretfully and not at all guiltily, despite his mistress’s noises of disgust. A concerned marathoner-in-training saw the dead crow and scooped it up carefully to rush it to a vet’s on 144th Street, where it was pronounced D.O.A.

It was the first casualty. It would not be the last.

• • • •

By nightfall, the Vortal was the size of a ping pong ball and fattening up like an out-of-work actor. Because it was on the edge of the street, closer to the curb, and because of the lamppost near it, not much traffic passed through the space it was occupying.

At 10:17 that evening, a mustard yellow Hummer driven by a hedge fund analyst in a hurry was struck by it. It crunched through the reinforced glass, spiderwebbing the windshield, and passed through the skull of Mitch Carvalos, thirty-seven, killing him instantly. The Hummer jumped the curb, killing two people and the Boxer they were walking, seriously injuring a very attractive publicist, breaking the leg of a delivery person from Kaptain Ka-Bob’s Pita Palace, and causing lacerations but no serious trauma to a trans woman named Sharleen who immediately began tweeting pics of the crash to her 32k followers on Twitter and 22k followers on Instagram.

In the confusion that followed, nobody noticed the Vortal. It was dark and above the normal human line of sight, and as it grew, it had taken to sucking in light and color, leaving a ping pong ball-sized nothing rather than an actual ping pong ball-shaped thing.

By the third morning, it was about the size of an orange.

The street had been cleared and the police tape removed a couple hours earlier, when a black Ford Yukon was struck by it. The SUV had collision detection, which caused it to brake automatically on impact. This saved the driver’s life. She was a woman named Ida Schreiber, forty-two, and she was on her way to meet her divorce lawyers to consult on how best to divide her and her estranged husband’s assets. The Vortal fractured the windshield, leaving an orange-sized hole. Ida was doing barely twenty miles per hour when she hit the Vortal, and the vehicle’s collision detection caused it to brake at once, so the Vortal was still embedded in the SUV windshield, half in and half out, somewhat like the large invisible spheres which surrounded the time-travelling Terminators in the movie series, except that this Vortal was opening much, much more slowly than those VFX-created illusions, like a very slow time machine.

Ida didn’t call AAA. She didn’t need to because she had excellent insurance coverage and accident assistance was included in her plan. She was more than a little startled by the impact because the street had seemed completely clear, but she was texting while driving when it happened and automatically assumed she had hit something beneath her line of vision, a dog or a child maybe, oh God please no, and used the same phone to call her divorce lawyers to ask them to recommend a good criminal defense lawyer in case she needed one. She was still on the phone when the first responders arrived and they asked her to exit the vehicle immediately please.

The insurance investigator from Liberty Farm who arrived on the scene was the first person to actually “see” the Vortal.

She was an American citizen named Susan Khan, thirty-two years old with a wife and daughter, with whom she lived in a two-bed rent-controlled third floor walk-up in Queens. She had had a small disagreement with her wife Jesmyn that morning before leaving for work, and had not finished her ham and eggs and OJ, leaving in a sulk. The disagreement had been over their daughter Beth, 8, getting the more expensive “invisible” braces rather than the usual kind. Susan had been trying to explain, in perhaps too pedantic a manner, that the $400 they would save would go towards Beth’s own college fund when Jesmyn muttered the single word “mansplaining.” Susan had been irritated enough to leave her breakfast unfinished, grab her jacket, and stalk off, reaching the Metro a whole fourteen minutes earlier than her usual time. When the call came in at the office, she was the only Claims Adjuster well enough caffeinated to grab the assignment.

When she saw the Vortal, or rather, when she saw an orange-sized ball of nothing, her first thought was that it must be a trick of the light. It took several moments to satisfy herself that there was actually something there. That was when she tried touching the object.

Uh oh, bad idea.

She was sitting in the front passenger seat of the Yukon, reaching up, so her hand was moving towards the Vortal when it made contact.

She tried to grab it because even though it was a nothing, it appeared to be a spherical-shaped nothingness, like a black ball. It was human instinct to try to grab a ball. Her hand closed on the Vortal and had it actually been a ball, her fingers would have captured it in the most normal of human actions.

But the Vortal was not a ball.

Susan experienced a blinding flash and a deafening bang.

The effect was similar to a flashbang grenade exploding in her hand.

Except the flash was not actually an emission of bright white light, it was a dissipation of light from the visible spectrum, and an alteration of the spectrum itself to one very different from what the human eye was accustomed to viewing.

Similarly, the bang was not an explosion of sound, but an abstention of sound from the normal aural range that humans were capable of hearing.

Susan reacted by crying out, startled by the flashbang, or to be more poetic, the darksilencing.

She experienced a sensation of vacuum, which to her senses felt like a powerful wind tugging hard at her body.

She grasped nothing.

Instead, her hand was yanked into the Vortal with some force. It was comparable to placing one’s hand on the aperture of an industrial vacuum cleaner. (If you ever get the urge to put your hand or any other body part on one of those—don’t, just don’t.)

Susan felt the suction of the Vortal latching onto her hand, pulling her inside. Because the Vortal was still so small, smaller than the width of Susan’s palm, the bones in her hand kept it from being pulled right through. Her palm stuck to the opening, just like if it was placed on a vacuum cleaner, and she felt some discomfort and a lot of alarm, but no real pain. That would come later.

The Vortal, of course, didn’t budge even a micro-millimeter.

Susan stared up in some confusion, her eyesight starting to normalize, with colored red, blue, and green dots at the periphery of her vision.

She tried to pull her hand back, but the suction was too great. Her forearm trembled and her biceps strained, but her hand wouldn’t budge. It was well and truly caught. Captured by the Vortal. After struggling for a few moments, she stopped and stared intently at the hole in the windshield, trying to understand what had taken hold of her palm and was keeping it there.

After several minutes, she came to the reluctant conclusion that she had no fracking idea. She couldn’t see a thing there. Just her hand, stuck in something . . . nothing . . . as firmly as if it had been immersed in quick-drying concrete.

But she could feel something. She could feel the hand itself, still there, still wriggling its fingers. It was stuck in the hole in the windshield but from what she could make out by looking through the cracked glass, it was not outside the windshield. It was someplace else, beyond the windshield. On this side of the windshield, Susan could see her forearm and wrist ending in a circular nothingness. On the other side, nothing. Just the sunlit dust of a Manhattan street.

But the missing hand could feel.

The Other Side, for want of a better term, was weird. Wet, slimy, tickly. When Susan wiggled the fingers of her trapped hand, she experienced yielding resistance. Her fingers moved sluggishly but they could move. Susan closed her eyes to concentrate on the sensation. It felt like her hand was immersed in some kind of a vast gelatinous substance. There was a sensation of complex movements within that substance: currents, waves, the swishing of smaller objects, the irregular movement of life-forms of some sort, some popping, and the occasional violent blast, which she felt were strenuous ejaculations of a mechanical nature, machine farts rather than organic. Most important of all was her sense that the gel atmosphere, if that was the correct term, was itself vibrant, alive, and, she felt certain, aware.

She had no idea what any of that meant.

“Ma’am?”

An NYPD cop was squinting up at her, eyes slitted beneath the visor of her cap. The morning sun was reflecting off the glass tower across the street, one sharp ray shooting down to pin the officer like a giant straw spearing an ant.

“Ma’am, I need you to step out of the vehicle.”

Susan looked down at the cop. “I’m sorry.”

The uniformed officer tilted her head one way then the other, trying unsuccessfully to avoid the lancing sunbeam. “Ma’am, please step out of the vehicle onto the street.”

“I can’t do that.”

The officer covered her eyes with one hand, her other hand remaining low, out of Susan’s line of sight. “Ma’am? Do you understand what I said?”

“I understand. You want me to get out of the car. But I can’t do that.”

“Ma’am, this is not a request. I’m ordering you now. Please get out of—”

“I’m telling you, I can’t. I would do it if I could but my hand is stuck in this windshield.”

The officer frowned up at the windshield. Susan moved her body to try to give the cop a better view. She reacted to the movement by crouching a little lower. Her right hand remained low and out of sight. Right where her gun would be holstered. “Is your hand stuck in the windshield, ma’am?”

“Yes.”

“Did you punch it through the windshield? Is that how the glass shattered?”

Yes, officer, I’m Luke Cage and in a moment of road rage I put my fist through this windshield.

“No, it was already broken when I got here. I was examining the hole in the windshield when my hand got . . . stuck.”

She continued to squint up, still shielding her eyes from the bursts of reflected sunlight. Susan couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were a lovely china blue which appeared almost translucent in the sunlight. “Do you need Emergency Medical Support, ma’am? Are you unable to remove your hand from the windshield?”

“Yes, that would be very helpful.”

The cop turned her head to one side and used her shoulder radio to contact her dispatcher. Susan heard her explaining the situation briefly and calling for a “bus.” The request made, she resumed peering up at Susan and at the windshield, her right hand still by her side. “Ma’am, EMS is on its way. Please stay where you are and keep both your hands in plain sight where I can see them at all times.”

“Okay,” Susan said. “Okay, but just so you know, I’m just the insurance person.”

“You work in insurance?”

“I’m a Claims Adjuster for Liberty Farm. I was assigned to this case, and I came down here to examine the damage to the vehicle and assess the cost of the repairs. Just give me a sec to get out my ID—” Susan reached down to her jacket pocket with her right hand.

Ma’am, please keep your hands up in the air!

The gun was out now and pointed at Susan. She froze. “I’m just trying to get my ID.”

“Ma’am, this is your last warning.”

Looking down the eye of the gun pointed at her face, Susan slowly withdrew her hand, empty, and raised it above her head. “Okay, okay.”

The officer’s shoulder radio crackled. She spoke briefly. Susan heard her describing the situation and asking for instructions. After some to and fro, she turned her attention back to Susan. She holstered the weapon and climbed up into the front seat of the Yukon, beside Susan.

“Ma’am, I’m going to reach into your pocket and pull your ID. Please keep your hands in the air and don’t make any sudden movements. Do you understand?”

“Yes, go ahead. It’s in my back left pocket. My wallet.”

The officer leaned in close to Susan, watching her guardedly, her movements cautious and slow. As she turned and leaned in to reach for Susan’s wallet, her hair came within inches of her face and she smelled the officer’s shampoo. It was the same one she used: Garnier Green Apple+Green Tea. Jesmyn used Pantene Pro-V, which had almost no fragrance to speak of. Susan liked a shampoo with a fragrance. Though she loved the smell of Jesmyn’s freshly washed hair, she liked the way Jesmyn smelled after a hot sweaty workout even more. It smelled more real, more Jesmyn. As the officer tried to extract her wallet using only two fingers to minimize physical contact, Susan couldn’t help but inhale her odor and flashed on an image of Jesmyn lying in bed after sex, twin roses blooming in her brown cheeks, contented. She felt sheepish for having stormed out this morning, sulking like a kid. She ought to call Jesmyn as soon as this thing was done and tell her if Beth really wanted the so-called “invisible” braces, then they would find the money for it. She wanted to call her right now, but she didn’t want to go reaching for her cellphone when Officer Kripke was fishing around in her rear end.

The officer held up her wallet between two fingers and eased back on the passenger side of the front seat. She flipped open the wallet and the first thing that she saw was the picture of Jesmyn, Beth, and Susan, the one taken that day at Jones Beach last Fourth of July, all three of them in their swimsuits, leaning in together, holding up cones of ice cream in an imitation of the Statue of Liberty. Melted ice cream was dripping down the sides of their arms and Susan could still remember the way the sun had felt on her face, and the taste of the Key Lime flavor ice cream when she had licked it off her elbow, Beth and Jesmyn both going “Eeeeuuuu!” together.

Susan became aware that the officer was staring at her.

“Ma’am, is this a picture of you?”

“Yes. That’s me, my wife Jesmyn, and our daughter Beth.”

“You’re the one in the yellow bikini on the left?”

“That’s me. Yellow, itsy bitsy, but no polka dots.”

She looked at Susan with a blank expression.

“Like in the song?”

She didn’t get it. Another millennial then. Probably an Adele fan.

“Ma’am, this is your ID?”

“Yes. That’s my Driver’s License, my Social Security Card, my Company ID, Macy’s Card, credit cards, and business cards.”

“Says here your name is Susan Khan.” She pronounced her surname “Can” like almost every American did. “Born in Karachi, Pakistan.”

“C’est moi.”

“Ma’am?”

“That’s me. Susan Khan.” She emphasized the correct pronunciation: Khaan. The “Kh” like Khartoum, the vowel stretched out like a double “a.”

The officer snapped the wallet shut and handed it back to Susan. She then turned her attention to the windshield, peering at the hole and at Susan’s hand trapped there. She twisted her head one way then another, and Susan could see her frowning, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. She reached up with one hand, and Susan noticed now that the other hand was on the holster of her weapon, though she hadn’t actually drawn it out again. That distracted Susan for a second, causing a moment of anxiety, and it was just long enough that by the time Susan realized that the officer was reaching for the hole and thought to warn her, it was already too late. She felt a frisson, like a mild electrical shock, smelled an odd odor, like hair frying, and then the officer’s hand was clasped over her hand, stuck on it.

Mother of Christ!” the officer exclaimed. “The fuck is it?”

A vibration began, starting from Susan’s insides and passing outwards, as if her mitochondria were churning at cosmic velocity and the successive layers of her body were desperately shedding the energy, passing it on at the exact same frequency in sympatico. The vibration burst out of her and through the air, rippling outwards like an invisible wave, and every glass object in the Yukon shattered, splintering glass in a deafening explosion. Her hearing cut out with a sunnnn ringing in her inner ears. She sensed rather than heard other successive waves of energy exploding throughout the street, and saw the glass on every other vehicle also shatter outwards, then the glass on the storefronts and the windows of the buildings and then the glass inside the stores and apartments . . . she didn’t know how far the wave travelled, but some part of her sensed that it was infinite and continued indefinitely.

She was no mathlete, had never been particularly good at math, but she suddenly saw, though sight was not the sense that was involved, the equation that represented the energy that had just been released.

And she knew what had caused the wave.

The Fuck just happened?” the NYPD police officer sitting beside her yelled. “What was that?

“It’s the dissonance between your energy’s sine signature and my energy’s sine signature.”

The officer was trying to extract her trapped hand by yanking on it. Susan could feel the woman’s palm on the back of her hand and part of her little finger. The officer’s skin felt hot to her, but maybe that was because her own hand had been held up for so long it wasn’t getting as much circulation. Susan could feel the muscles and tendons in her hand working, rubbing across the back of her hand; she had soft hands.

She was about to add, for a cop, but didn’t. Even mentally, it was a micro-aggression and she had spent a lifetime unlearning all those nasty little verbal slights that had been such a bane of her growing-up years. That didn’t stop others from micro-aggressing against her of course, or against Jesmyn, or even, damn their eternal souls, against darling Beth, eight years old and already feeling the hate, God bless and protect her with angel’s wings, but they had this mantra they had arrived at and which they repeated aloud together whenever one or both of them had suffered some particularly vexing new encounter. The pertinent line went: “Let us not commit micro-aggressions against those who commit micro-aggressions against us . . .”

The fuck!

The police officer was panicking. Hyperventilating. Nostrils, eyes flared. Face flushed and turning pink at the cheekbones. Eyes dilated and very, very blue, Susan saw, now that the tinted windows were blown off the Yukon and the late morning sunshine was streaming down through the yawning sunroof above their heads.

“Calm down,” Susan said gently. “Breathe. Relax. You’ll only hurt yourself if you keep yanking. Believe me, I tried everything. It doesn’t let go.”

Susan saw the officer recoiling from her voice when she began to speak. It was instinctive, the distrust, the suspicion that she, Susan, must have had something to do with this. The Woman of Color, she did this to me! Susan could almost sense her urge to distance herself from Susan, to ignore and avoid, evade and erase. But then the officer’s training kicked in and Susan saw her visibly take back control of herself. Susan found herself admiring the way the woman shut her eyes tight, breathed in slowly, using a pranayam rhythm she had seen Jesmyn use. Susan had never been able to get into yoga. Not her thing. But Jesmyn lived by it, was always talking about the different types: Hatha. Vinyasa. Iyengar. Ashtanga. Bikram . . . Jeez, even she knew them by heart now.

The officer opened her eyes, calm again. The NYPD beat cop back in her skin. Officer Kripke reporting for duty from her emotional break, ma’am.

“I caused that, didn’t I?”

She was looking at Susan sideways. It wasn’t her fault. Her right hand was stuck in the thing, like Susan’s left hand. The officer was on her right-hand side and the only way Susan could look at her was sideways. It made her look reluctant, uncomfortable to be this close to her, both of which were true, she knew, but even if Jesmyn herself had been sitting here beside her, she’d have had to look at her sideways, too. She didn’t take it personally. She was speaking to her and being civil, at least. A person talking to another person. Not a cop to a PoI.

A PoC PoI, foreign national from a quasi-Arab country, and gay at that. Give her a break. She’s had a lot to deal with in the past ten minutes.

“Not you personally. I mean, you didn’t cause the explosion, you just set it off,” Susan said.

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“It’s like you open a door to enter a room, and then a bucket of gluey glitter falls on your head. You didn’t want to make the bucket fall, you didn’t put it there or fill it with glitter, you just entered the room.” Susan pointed her chin at the Vortal. “You didn’t know what you were getting into, you just reached up to check out what you thought was a hole in a windshield. I should have warned you. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”

Someone was screaming across the street. There were car alarms and fire alarms going off everywhere. Sirens rang out from every direction. Little fragments of glass were still falling from the sky, probably from the highest floors of some of the skyscrapers on the street, only just reaching the ground. Susan tried not to think of the children, the animals, the people looking at windows or glass objects when it happened. Out the corner of her eye, she could just glimpse a very red person writhing on the street. She didn’t want to look. She didn’t want to see.

“What is this fucking thing?” the cop said, tugging once more on her hand, still not able to accept the permanence of her situation. Their situation. “Excuse my language, ma’am.”

“It’s a Vortal.”

The officer wrinkled her forehead.

“A vertically integrated portal.”

She kept looking at Susan.

“Well, a portal is like a doorway between worlds or dimensions, right? A Vortal is like a number of portals between worlds or dimensions, vertically integrated to form a kind of infinity curve, a self-creating self-consuming eternal cycle.”

She continued staring at her for another moment.

“I have no fucking idea what you just said.” She blinked. “Excuse me, ma’am.”

Susan tried to smile but found she couldn’t. There were too many people dead, hurt, screaming, or terrorized to make light of this. “I don’t even know how I know that. I’m no science geek. But the longer I’ve been sitting here with my hand up its ass, the more I seem to be able to . . . understand it.”

The officer stared up at the hole in the windshield which had consumed both their hands. “Did it get bigger? It . . . feels bigger.”

Susan looked up. When she was seven, back in the old ancestral home in Karachi, she had tried to use her father’s razor to mimic shaving. The razor had been heavier than she’d expected and she’d managed to cut herself on the back of her wrist. No stitches required, but the scar was about an inch long and ran at about a thirty-degree angle to the base of her wrist. The black ball had reached the scar now. When she saw that, she remembered the belt-lashing her father had given her after her mother had bandaged the cut. That was when her father had dealt out belt-lashings for every transgression, however minor, as if he could somehow beat his oldest daughter into becoming a “normal” girl like her sisters and every other girl.

“It is. I think it happened when your hand touched my hand and set off some kind of reaction.”

“Is that what that explosion was?” She hesitated, then, “It was, wasn’t it? Jeez. I feel it too, now. You’re right. It kinda gets inside your head, doesn’t it?” She jerked, her blue eyes wide. “You think it’s some kinda terrorist technology? Like it’s brainwashing us or something? Oh jeez.” Her panic had regressed her speech to its native Brooklyn accent and lexicon.

“I don’t think so,” Susan said slowly, shutting her eyes to focus on the sensation. “It feels like a living thing. A life form of some kind. Alive.”

She frowned, swallowed, and stared at the hole. “It does, kinda . . . It’s weird. Like . . . I dunno. Not human.”

“Definitely not human. I think it isn’t even of our world.”

She squinted at her. “You saying it’s some kinda alien?”

“I don’t know . . .” She tried to focus on the pulsing life in that gelatinous mass. “But no, I don’t think so. I think it’s from Earth. Our planet.”

“You just said it’s not of our world. Which is it then?”

“Both. Neither. I guess . . . it’s here but not here. Don’t you feel it too?”

She frowned. Susan noticed the way her forehead puckered between her brows when she did that even while she thought: Jesmyn. Beth. That exploding glass . . . Oh Lord.

“Shut your eyes,” she suggested. “It helps to focus on The Other Side.”

She looked at her uncertainly but swallowed again and shut her eyes. She immediately sucked in a deep breath. “Jeez. You’re right. It’s . . .” She fell silent for several moments.

Susan looked around. The street was chaotic, people staggering around, sitting on the curb, blood and glass everywhere. She saw a media van with a large dish antenna mounted on top and the alphanumeric name of a local TV news station lettered on the side, several NYPD squad cars, an FDNY ambulance and fire truck—and several black SUVs that were just now screeching to a halt. The SUVs discharged a large posse of dark-suited men and women. The NYPD cops were backing people away from the Yukon and stretching out yellow Crime Scene tape, cordoning off the street. The federal agents were pointing at the cab of the Yukon and talking into cellphones and walkie talkies.

“It’s . . . a being,” she said. Her eyes were still closed. “I can see it, kinda. It’s like it’s a neighbor looking through a hole in a fence at the next yard, and it’s wondering whether to climb through or stay on its own side. It’s like it doesn’t really give a shit about us but it’s thinking of coming over and checking our yard out just for kicks.” She opened her eyes.

“That’s pretty good,” Susan said. “It’s how I see it, too. It’s not human, but it’s not anything else on Earth either. Its world is Earth, but not our Earth. Like a neighboring reality.”

“One block down and two doors over.” She looked out the front of the SUV, seeing the commotion on the street. “Shit. There’s my CO.”

She jerked at the trapped hand again. Susan felt the motion as the back of her hand rubbed the back of Susan’s forearm. There was a strange viscous sensation, then with a sound very much like the burp Jesmyn emitted after her third beer, she saw another two inches of her forearm disappear and through the same liquid transference she saw the Neighbor become aware of her and Office Kripke. She felt its scrutiny scrubbing across the surface of her consciousness, an abrasive, invasive sensation that made her want to scream and kick and run away, but the Vortal held her hand relentlessly in place. She felt the scrubbing pass over the extent of her surface emotions, thoughts, half-formed sensations, like a blinding white light slowly moving across the landscape of her brain, and then, as abruptly as it had begun, it was gone.

The fuck!

The officer clutched Susan’s shoulder with her free hand, squeezing her bicep hard. Ouch. She was way, way stronger than she looked, like she must lift weights or do a bunch of yoga. Not that she was one to judge people based on appearances.

“Did you feel that?”

Susan opened her mouth but couldn’t speak. There was nothing wrong with her mouth. She just couldn’t find the words. Any words. Language eluded her like a . . . like a . . . the analogy she wanted was so close she could feel her fingertips brush against it but it lay just out of reach.

“That was intense! My fucking nips are hard. But I feel creepy. Slimy. What is this thing?”

Susan couldn’t breathe. Her mouth was open, her throat was working, her chest was heaving, but no air was going in or coming out. She felt like she was choking on something, but there was nothing in her windpipe. The choking sensation was in her brain, like the part that told her body when and how to breathe had stopped working. Her body began to jerk involuntarily, her free hand and legs spasming. Even the hand that was attached to the Neighbor through the Vortal began shaking. She felt her body jackknife, the top of her head striking the roof of the SUV, and though it felt like she had no mouth, she heard herself screaming in the solitary confinement of her own mind.

Hey! Hey! Hey! Oh shit.”

She heard Office Kripke shouting—at her, at the other cops and EMS nurses and federal agents, asking for help, telling them that she was having some kind of seizure. She heard other voices replying, and even through her juddering, she glimpsed blurry shapes stopping to stare in the direction of the SUV, but nobody crossed the yellow police tape. They all stood and talked on their walkies and cellphones and radios and watched.

• • • •

Sweet Jesus! Mary, mother of Christ, thank you in the name of all that is Holy! You’re awake. Are you okay, ma’am? You gave me a hell of a scare. I thought you were DOA for sure. Fuck was that? Are you epileptic or something? It looked like an epileptic seizure. I’ve seen those. My cousin’s kid Brian used to get them, thrash and roll about on the floor, scared the bejeesus out of kids at PS 172. Had to be put in a special school for . . . I’m rambling. Sorry, ma’am. I tried to get you help, but CO says they’ve established a quarantine zone around the epicenter till they get more information. They don’t get what’s going on here. They think that you had something to do with it. I tried telling them that you’re just an insurance claims adjuster and that Central said your ID checked out, but they have to follow protocol. Just so you know, they’ve got snipers locked on you, as a precaution. Like I said, protocol. Nothing personal, you understand, ma’am? I’m really sorry they couldn’t help you. For a while there, I thought you were a goner for sure.”

“Which part of Brooklyn you from?” Susan was relieved to hear that her speech impediment was gone. A part of her brain still hurt something awful, like she’d had the world’s worst migraine. But she didn’t get migraines, didn’t have epilepsy, had never had a seizure, never experienced anything like it before. She was tired. She missed Jesmyn and Beth. She wished to goddamn hell she hadn’t argued with Jes about the invisible braces. She wanted to call her and tell her they would buy the braces, that she missed her, and that in case she didn’t make it out of this mess, to take care of Beth, and that she had a little money saved in the shoebox with her old stuff from her mother’s place, at the back of the hall closet, under the box of Beth’s nursery toys and baby frocks. Just under $600, but it would help with the braces.

“Bay Ridge, ma’am. Grew up there. My parents’ place, and grandparents before them. Third-generation Irish immigrants. Officer Smith, ma’am. Jenny Smith.”

She was looking at Susan with something in her face she couldn’t read. “You look wiped.”

She tried to swallow, found her throat raspy, tongue hot as a park bench on a New York summer’s day. “How long was I unconscious?”

The officer looked at her wristwatch: a Burberry. Nice, too. Jes had had her eye on a similar one at Macy’s in Rego Park. It was marked up at $487. She had really wanted to buy it for her for Christmas, but had fallen short because of the money they had spent on the kitchen remodeling last year. Then, for her birthday, they had gone upstate to visit her family in Syracuse and then continued on up to Niagara. She wanted to ask Kripke how an NYPD beat cop could afford a $487 watch but it was none of her business.

Jenny Smith is her name. Stop with the Kripke shit.

She saw Susan looking and, with the prickly sense of a native New Yorker, said, “Birthday gift from my dad. I told him, dad, I’m a beat cop, I can’t chase down bad guys wearing this, but he says it’s just a watch, it breaks, it breaks. He’s an ex-cop, makes a bundle now working private security. I should have given it back, but what can I say, I like watches.”

“Jesmyn is very fond of timepieces. If she could, she’d have a watch for every ensemble.”

“I totally get that.” She was silent a moment then, “So Jesmyn is like . . . your . . .”

“Wife.”

“And you’re her . . .” She made a face. “God, I sound like my mom now. I don’t mean to pry. I don’t know the PC terminology for this stuff. Are you, like, her . . . spouse?”

“Wife. Legally speaking, we’re each other’s wives. Same-sex marriage is legal in the State of New York.” She heard the note of caution in her tone. She was talking to a cop. A white cop. Blonde, blue-eyed. But still a cop. Presumably she already knew something about the law.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m cool with that. I know a couple of women who . . . you know, swing one way or both ways. And there’s gay cops at the precinct. It’s just . . . this whole situation, it’s so FUBAR.”

Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. Susan knew that one. Jesmyn liked reading Military SF, was always asking her to pick up her Holds from the NYPL on her way home from work. This month she was reading her way through The Red Trilogy by Linda Nagata. Susan had checked it out and surprise, surprise, had liked it too.

Susan smiled. Her brain hurt when her cheek muscles worked—actually, her brain just hurt, period. “I get it, Officer. It’s a weird situation. And being handcuffed, so to speak, with a Pakistani Arab gay woman in the front seat of a Yukon while some otherworldly being tickles your manicure is not the way you thought you’d be spending your Tuesday morning.”

Jenny Smith grinned back. My, but she had a pretty smile. “You’re all right, Susan. Sorry, I meant, Mrs. Khan. Um, it is ‘Mrs.,’ right?”

“Yes, I’m Mrs. Khan and Jesmyn is Mrs. Hopkinson. But just Susan is fine. And thank you. You’re all right too, Jenny Smith.”

“Yeah, hey, like, I get it. Takes all kinds, right?”

“We’re all just looking for the same thing in the end,” Susan said.

Jenny nodded. “Yeah, yeah. Love, right? Totally.”

Susan saw Jenny’s eyes cut right, toward the other side of the street. The news cameras were there, black eyes pointed in their direction, anchors holding forth. There were a lot of cellphones, too, pointed out of busted windows in the buildings down the street. The age of citizen journalism. Susan remembered Jesmyn’s Twitter feed and imagined her seeing a pic of Susan sitting in the Yukon with a blonde NYPD cop, looking like they were both holding hands and reaching up together for the sky through a broken windshield, like some deranged poster. Workers of the Weird World, Unite.

“It’s growing, innit?”

Susan looked up at the Vortal. Their hands were now immersed up to about half their forearms. The top lip of the Yukon’s roof had disappeared too, a perfect crescent carved out. As she watched, the crescent expanded inwards visibly.

“Yes, and at a faster rate.”

“What do we do?”

She looked at her. She wanted to smile to reassure her, but her face felt like it had weights hooked on with metal barbs. “I don’t know that there’s anything we can do.”

Jenny’s radio crackled to life. She listened, then responded. Susan found her eyelids slipping down over gritty eyes, like freshly oiled metal shutters on her family hardware store in Karachi. Keeping those shutters oiled was one of the hundreds of minor chores she and her brothers had been entrusted with, but all of which ended up falling to her to do, and if she ever complained that her brothers weren’t doing their share, her father would threaten her with the belt.

“Ma’am . . . Mrs. Khan?” Can.

Susan forced her eyes open.

“People are starting to get worried. I’ve tried to explain to them that you don’t have anything to do with this, that I’m trapped same as you are, and this is some weird shit going on, but they’re not buying it.”

She looked at Susan. “Are they going to shoot me, Officer Smith?”

Jenny cut her eyes away for a second. “Um . . .”

“I know how it works. You can level with me. There’s a reason the Black Lives Matter movement exists, and it’s not because we hate cops, but because the default go-to reflex is ‘Shoot the Black Guy.’ You can level with me.”

Susan saw her throat work. “I’ll level with you, ma’am. They’re considering it. I’ve tried talking them out of it but this shit is way above my pay grade. It’s not like they’re gonna listen to a plain old beat cop. A female beat cop.” There was no bitterness in her tone, just a matter-of-factness. “I think I’m cut out of the loop now. They’ve cut out all cell coverage in the area, cut the power, and evacuated the entire block. That’s usually a sign that they mean to roll up the sleeves and get down to business.”

Susan felt a tickling sensation on the palm of her trapped hand. Something on The Other Side was nuzzling the sensitive spot between her thumb and forefinger. Or licking it. Except it wasn’t anything like a dog, but something completely Other. Something with . . . tentacles? Pseudopods? There was no Earth equivalent.

“Thank you for telling me,” she said. She meant it. “Is there any way you can do me a favor?”

She saw Jenny’s lips purse. She hesitated. Then a fuck it expression came over her small delicate features. “If I can, Susan.”

“I know this probably violates your protocol, but I would really like to speak with my wife. I’ll keep it brief.”

She looked out the windshield. The cellphones pointed out the windows and up the street were all gone. So were the news cameras. The dark suits, EMS, FDNY, NYPD, the entire alphabet soup had retreated far up the block, the barricades pushed way back. The street was oddly quiet, peaceful almost, except for the carpet of shattered glass and splatters of blood and human parts.

“See what I can do,” she said. “Cellphones’re out, so only way is with my radio.”

She spoke into her shoulder comm, talking to a series of voices while Susan’s attention drifted away. The pain was excruciating now. In her head. In her hand. In her gut. In every part of her body and brain and nervous system. It felt like the ooze in which her hand was submerged was seeping into her system, through her pores, into her cells, infecting her, corroding her cell walls, breaking down her mitochondria, eating her from the very inside out.

“Susan?”

She fought to open her eyes again, the late afternoon sunlight piercing through her optic nerves into her brain like honey-dipped needles. Manhattanhenge? No, it was the wrong time of year for that. It was the Neighbor’s ecosystem; it was poisoning her, eating her alive. She looked at Officer Jenny Smith’s pretty face and saw beads of sweat on her upper lip and forehead. So she was hurting too. Of course she was. It was just that Susan had been immersed in the toxic ocean a little longer.

“I have Jesmyn on the line.”

She snapped awake, pushing back the pain, the soporific response of her own nervous system to the sensory overload. “How . . .?”

“Just talk, I’ll work the comm.”

Hiss-crackle-snap. And then . . .

“Susan? Suse, is that you? Are you okay? Baby, I’m so worried!”

“Jes, I’m so sorry. About the braces.”

“Forget about that, you dope. Are you all right? They’re saying all kinds of crazy things about you, calling you a terrorist who tried to set off some kind of bio-weapon or some shit. I told them it isn’t true, but they won’t let me through. They’ve roped off the entire block. I tried coming round from the east side but . . .”

“Listen to me, Jes. I didn’t do anything. I just came here to investigate an auto accident and then this thing caught hold of my hand and I’m stuck in this vehicle. There’s a cop in here with me, she’s nice, not like a cop, but I don’t know how long they’ll let us talk, so we could be cut off anytime.”

“I don’t understand. Your hand got stuck in the car?”

“It’s hard to explain.” Yeah. Try impossible. “I want you to know that I love you. That’s Number One. You know that, don’t you, Jes?”

“Yes, yes, I . . . Wait. What are you doing? Why are you . . .? Oh, God, Suse, are you . . .?”

“Listen, Jes. You tell Beth I love her. I love her like God loves little green apples in Minneapolis, like we used to sing when she was a baby. Remember that?”

“Of course, but why . . . Oh, Suse. Don’t do this. Get out of there. We need you, damnit. Don’t be so selfish!”

“I’m going to try something, I don’t know if it’ll work, but I have to try anyway. It may be our only chance. This thing is bad, Jes. It could wipe out the city, maybe more than just the city. Someone has to stop it and I’m the only one here. Me and Jenn— Officer Smith. I have to do something. Listen. There’s a shoebox with my things from Karachi, at the rear of the hall closet, under the box of—”

“I know. There’s over $500 in cash. I found it when I was going through Beth’s old baby things to give to Goodwill.”

“It’s almost $600 now. Use it, Jes. For Beth’s braces. Or whatever you need it for. It’s a drop in the ocean, but still. Oh, dear, I don’t know how you’re going to manage financially. I hope the damn company pays out on my policy. There’s a terrorism clause . . .”

“Shut up, you idiot! I don’t care about all that. I want you. Get your ass out of there. Beth and I need you. Do you hear me? Come to—”

The radio cut out to a hissing that went on till Officer Smith reached up with her free hand and pressed a button that shut it off.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “They cut us off. I think that means they’re coming in.”

Susan glanced up and saw that the Vortal had expanded to their elbows. She couldn’t feel her fingers beyond the first joints now. She knew the fingertips had been eaten away and that the rest of her hand was being steadily peeled away, cellular layer by layer. The process felt just about as excruciating as it sounded.

She looked at Officer Smith. Her face was bathed in sweat now, and the top of her uniform was dark with patches. “Thank you for that.”

“Fuck the formality. We’re going to die here, aren’t we?” It wasn’t actually a question, more a seeking of confirmation.

She didn’t answer. “I think there’s something we can try. Not for ourselves, but to stop it from opening any further. Maybe even . . .” She groaned involuntarily, feeling like the thinnest blades ever tooled had been pushed into the crevices between every joint of her body. She saw Jenny grimace and grit her teeth too. “. . . blow the damn thing shut before it’s too late.”

She looked at her, her face contorted into a dripping Halloween mask version of the neat, pretty, poster-girl NYPD cop who had pointed the gun up at her only a few hours earlier. “I . . . think you’re right. I think I know what you mean. I see it too.”

Susan realized something belatedly. “You could have used that chance to speak to someone. Your family maybe. Or your husband. I’m sorry. I don’t know if you have a husband.”

“Boyfriend,” she said. “But he’s a dick. A fucking bigot who thinks queer people are a blight on America and black people are the cause of all our problems. He voted Trump, asshole. He woulda laughed if I told him I was going to die hand in hand with a lesbian.”

“I wish I had painted my nails,” Susan said. “I usually paint them on Friday nights. Well, Jes does it, I mean. I love the way she does it, it’s so . . . relaxing. I wish I could have painted them one last time.” She stopped. “I’m rambling.”

“No, Suse, I get it. I can’t paint my nails most of the week. Being a cop and all. But I wish I had painted them today. I would totally paint your nails, too, if you wanted me to.”

Susan looked at Jenny Smith. “I would paint your nails, too, Jennifer.”

She looked back at her, her smile almost a grimace now. The sunlight was fading. The long shadow claws of the skyscrapers crept over the Yukon and pointed eastwards, toward the river and beyond it to the cold Atlantic.

“When your hand first made contact with mine,” Susan said.

“—we sparked. Some kinda chemical reaction,” Jenny said.

“—if we increase the area of contact to our entire bodies, suddenly—”

“—we should be able to spark off a much bigger reaction—”

“—and we go all the way through and clear—”

“—could act as a suction sucking the Vortal back to The Other Side—”

“—sealing it shut again.”

Out the corner of her eye, Susan glimpsed movement. There were dark-uniformed figures moving along the sidewalk across the street, pointing large black weapons. She didn’t turn her head to look.

They sat in the SUV and considered their existence for a moment.

They looked at each other.

Are you prepared?

As ready as I’m ever fucking gonna be.

Very well, then, let’s do this. On One, Two . . .

Three!

They threw themselves up and into the Vortal with every joule of force they could summon.

• • • •

The SWAT team creeping along the sidewalk across the street was blown off their feet by the shockwave. They were blown forward, toward the Yukon, not away from it. When they came to moments later, their ears ringing with a sunnnn blacksilence, eyes flickering into and out of focus, they saw the Yukon crumpled inwards, a circular impression cut from the front and top of the vehicle as if by a blowtorch, and nothing else. The two persons in the front seat of the vehicle were gone. So was the odd, spherical black shape suspended in midair above it and all traces that it had ever existed.

The only things that were left behind were one and a half pairs of shoes in the floor well of the vehicle.

One was a standard issue pair of NYPD police shoes, black leather and black rubber soles, tough and designed to last years of pounding pavements.

The half pair was a single shoe from a pair of basic burgundy pumps purchased from a shoestore in Queens, New York during a fall sale, at 30% discount.

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Ashok K. Banker

Ashok K Banker

Ashok K. Banker is the pioneer of the speculative fiction genre in India. His ground-breaking internationally acclaimed eight-book Ramayana Series was the first trilogy and series ever published in India. It revolutionized Indian publishing, creating a genre which is now the biggest selling in the country. Ashok’s 52 books have all been bestsellers in India, as well as translated into 18 languages and sold in 58 countries. He has also been credited as the author of the first Indian science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, and thriller stories and novels in English, creator and screenwriter of the first Indian TV series in English, the first Indian ebooks in English and other firsts. He is one of only a handful of living Indian authors represented in The Picador Book of New Indian Writing and the Vintage Anthology of Modern Indian Literature. Two new novels are due out in 2018: Upon a Burning Throne (John Joseph Adams Books) and Rise as One (Delacorte). He is of Irish-Portuguese-Sri Lankan-Indian parentage. Born in Mumbai where he lived for 51 years, he now lives in Los Angeles. He loves to correspond with readers and is very active on Twitter and Facebook.