Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Shoggoths in Traffic

We stole the cherry red 1984 Corvette at noon, when Random was inside the strip club for Tuesday’s Wings and Things and otherwise occupied. At one, we stopped behind a Denny’s to swap the plates, even though it felt dangerous to have paused knowing that Random would be standing in the badly maintained asphalt parking lot staring at where he’d left the ’vette and coming to certain conclusions.

“It’s okay,” Abony said as I held the license plate in place and she screwed it on. “Take deep breaths.”

“We stole a car from a fucking drug dealer,” I said, voice quavering.

Technically, we’d repossessed the damn car. Abony had jimmied the car door and popped the lock in a second. She’d worked a roadside assistance gig for five years and had gotten pretty damn quick at it on older model cars. I went in with the screwdriver and hammer to crack the ignition open and jumpstart it.

Not gonna lie: The adrenaline kicked in pretty hard when I swung out onto the road, rear tires smoking under the faded GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS sign.

By the time the letters in the mirror were too small to read, I wanted to throw up.

The goal was to get the car from Chicago down to Miami. Twenty hours, straight shot, each of us taking turns to drive. Bathroom stops only. Once there: turn the car over, collect our fee, then vanish for the West Coast.

“Random is going to kill us,” I said to Abony as she stood up.

“He doesn’t know it was us. As long as he doesn’t catch up to us.” Abony’s hair clips tinkled against each other as she turned back to me. “A hundred grand, Trent. We just have to get to Miami.”

As long as he doesn’t catch us, I thought.

• • • •

South of Gary and halfway down toward Indianapolis on I-65 we pulled over because I had the shakes. Abony took the wheel.

“I’m scared, too,” she said.

I couldn’t stop looking in the mirrors. We’d agreed to drive exactly two miles over the speed limit. Not exactly the limit, that was suspicious. Not just under it. Couldn’t risk being pulled over, as our plates and registration wouldn’t hold up under a computer check from the cops. We were rolling dice here.

Abony’s glasses glinted in sunlight as she looked over at me.

“A hundred grand.”

It was our mantra. Our guiding light.

She’d first named the sum while we were inches deep in mud alongside a freeway, the tow truck behind us stabbing the night with its yellow emergency lights, struggling to replace a blown out tire on some Iowa grandma’s 2016 Corolla.

The rain was seeping through my poncho, dropping long streams of ice-cold water down my back and ass crack. I slipped. Jammed my hand against the hubcap in the mud and sliced it open. I’d scattered the lug nuts in the puddles.

While we’d both swore and grubbed about in the mud looking for the bolts, she’d looked at me. “Man, I’m tired of this shit. I’ve been out here, inches away from being run over by these fucking idiots. I’m still living in my aunt’s spare room and I can’t hardly pay my student loans.”

I found four of the five nuts. I bled all over them as I threaded them back on to get the replacement tire in place.

“What would you do with a hundred grand?” Abony had asked me.

“I’d go live near the ocean. California.”

“That money won’t get you shit out there. That’s for rich folk.”

“I just want to live near the ocean for a bit. You know, like Venice Beach.” I dropped the old lady’s car back down.

“You’re gonna run out of money in weeks.”

“Spent most of my life in trailers on the edges of dead-ass towns,” I told her. “Even just a few weeks of beach would be worth it. You going in on lotto tickets with me?”

She’d shaken the water off her glasses. “Nah.”

We’d gotten coffee at a diner a few miles up the street to dry off and wait for another call from dispatch. After a while of watching something eating at her, she’d leaned forward. “I hear you did a few years for GTA, right?”

I stared at the coffee. “Left Pennsylvania to try and start over after I got out. It’s not good money. It was just part of the hustle.” Meth, cocaine, weed, hubcaps, radios, and then one day, whole cars. The older shit I stole barely ever made more than a few hundred a vehicle.

Abony and I had been driving the tow truck as a team ever since Olaf had been jumped and mugged when out by himself last year on a call. She must have come to think of me as reliable, because she leaned over the table. “I know where to get a hundred thou by repossessing a car.”

“Repossessing or stealing?”

“It’s complicated.”

Now I looked across at her, jaw clenched with determination. I’m sure a lot of folk assumed Abony would know how to steal a car, but she only knew how to jimmy a door because she’d worked roadside service. She’d started out answering the phones, the only job she had found after college. Then one night, Craig didn’t show up to ride and she offered to go out with me because miles out in the dark on the late shift paid better than phones.

Fifty thousand would let her pay off her loans. Let her help her aunt with the house in Chicago. The neighborhood was getting gentrified. The taxes were getting jacked up.

My cheap Android phone chirped. The GPS began giving us alternate directions, routing us off I-65.

“Think we should stay on?” I asked.

She glanced at the phone. “How long a delay?”

I had been looking up ahead at the highway, trying to see if there were stopped cars up ahead. Looking back down I read the screen. “It says we save half an hour if we get off the highway.”

I could see her doing the math. We were maybe an hour ahead of Random, who would likely be racing out along the most direct route to Miami. He knew where the car was headed. He would be breaking speed limits. We’d spent, what, five minutes changing the plates?

We couldn’t afford delays.

Abony took the exit, the Corvette happily hugging the curve of the off-ramp as we slowed and spiraled onto a two-lane county road.

She hit the brakes and slowed to a near stop. “What the hell is this?”

A burly man in a leather jacket, chaps, and the usual long beard waved at us from a row of red traffic cones in the middle of the road. I spotted a Harley off to the side of the road with a small trailer attached to the back.

“You need to go back!” The man shouted. “Back to the highway!”

I rolled down my window. “The phone says there’s an accident?”

“Ain’t no fucking accident, brother,” the man said, starting to wave at a semi coming along down the ramp after us. “Get back on the highway.”

“That’s no highway worker,” Abony said. “Something’s . . .”

The semi behind us didn’t slow, it swerved around us. Maybe the driver hadn’t been paying attention and didn’t realize we were stopped. Tires screamed, the trailer wobbled, and I instinctively pulled back against the chair and waited for the impact.

Metal and rubber whipped past my window, burned rubber floated into the Corvette, making us cough. The semi downshifted, roared, and then continued on down the road through the cones.

The biker lay on the side of the road, arms and legs outstretched.

• • • •

Abony was out of the car in an instant. “It clipped him!”

“Shit!” I crawled over her side of the car and out onto the side of the road.

The man groaned. There was blood all over his leather jacket, and dripping from his beard. He gurgled a bit and I wanted to throw up.

“Shit,” I said again. “What do we do? We call 911, right?”

“Uh . . .” Abony looked around. “We’re in a stolen car. You have a record.”

“Jesus.” I grabbed my head. “Jesus. But we gotta call 911.”

Abony suddenly looked cold and distant. “Even if they don’t think to run our details, you want to be standing here when Ransom and his crew get routed through by the same GPS? They got phones just like you, Trent.”

“Fuck. We can’t just leave him there. That ain’t right.”

She stood up. “No, we take him to the ER. Drop him off, and take off. We’re in the middle of fucking children of the corn territory, right? It’ll be faster to get him there ourselves than wait for an ambulance. This isn’t the city, there won’t be flashing lights here in five minutes.”

Relief flooded me.

Then I looked back at the car. “Abony, ain’t no back seats in that car.”

She was already walking back to it, though. She popped the hatchback and started throwing the extra food, water, and other shit for the twenty-hour drive out onto the shoulder, right by the $1,000 fine for littering sign.

“Help me lift him in,” she said.

The biker was short, heavy, and we hit his head twice getting him there. We had to curl him up, fetal position. I’d watched enough medical shows to know that if he had internal injuries, that wasn’t going to help him much.

It occurred to me that if he died back there, we’d have a dead guy in the hatchback trunk of a car, with a window and all.

“What about his bag?” I asked, pointing to a backpack that had been knocked clean off the man further down the road.

“Toss it in the back with him,” Abony said.

But we didn’t have the time to wait for an ambulance or police to ask us questions. Abony was right. Out of my breath, something in my back tweaked and screaming from the awkward angle of trying to shove the biker into the trunk, I asked the phone’s GPS for directions to the nearest ER.

It give us a route straight ahead.

The truck had already scattered the cones or crushed them. We drove past them onto the country road.

The biker groaned and stirred, his head right behind my headrest. I’d rested it against some bags of chips for cushioning. They crunched, releasing the smell of salt and vinegar into the air as one of the bags burst.

“It’s okay, we’re getting you to a hospital,” I said.

• • • •

“Check the phone again,” Abony ordered, voice tense. Ten minutes following the 3D map and we were way out on a flat plain of skeletal recently harvested cornfields. “I think we were closer to a town back at the off-ramp.”

I started fiddling with the phone, trying to zoom out of the map while it kept giving us instructions. “I hate it when the GPS does that.”

“Yeah. It feels like it’s taking us around the edge of the town,” Abony said. “We’re just making a big loop. It’s confused.”

Normally, it’d do my pride some harm to be taking orders so much. But Abony had the college degree. I may have constantly tried to mess with her, show her that some elite book smarts didn’t mean shit out here in the greasy real world. But after a year working as a team, I’d stopped giving her shit and started giving her my attention.

I’d driven hundreds of miles to run away from my past in Pennsylvania. I’d sworn to stay on the straight, even if I was always broke. Abony said I needed to learn some self-control.

Well, I hadn’t ended up in drugs and stealing cars because of my moderate nature.

But I’d turned it around. Cleaned up. Learned my lesson.

So I’d told Abony to fuck off the first time she told me about the car. Her cousin had done a job for Random and heard the story. That the car had been taken from a big drug dealer in Miami. It had been his dad’s car, and a project they’d both worked on. It was important to the man. And Random stole it after some falling out about a smuggling corridor coming up from Miami through Kentucky.

Random drove it around Chicago, through the salt in the winter, and potholes. He drove the damn Corvette everywhere until it looked like an old piece of shit, but kept it running. A trophy.

Javier, in Miami, offered a hundred thousand dollars to anyone who got it back to him.

A repossession to the rightful owner, Abony said.

She was supposed to be the smart, college-educated one. But a month of idly talking about the money and how we could get the car wormed its way into my brain. At first, it had been a running joke as we drove from stranded motorist to stranded motorist.

Then it became something we nervously laughed about.

And finally, I told her about the strip club and Random’s love of Tuesday’s Wings and Things. And blushed when she asked how I knew.

“This is taking us around the town,” Abony said, more confident as the GPS routing had us take another turn. “Look up the hospital on your phone.”

A bloody, hairy arm grabbed my shoulder just as I was raising the phone up. I screamed and dropped it, Abony swerved as she looked back. The biker, head crammed against the glass of the hatchback, pushed himself between us.

“That damn thing won’t ever take you to the hospital until it’s completed the symbol you’re driving,” the man said, blood misting the air inside the car as he spoke. “Once the summoning pattern is complete, you’ll be released. You have to stop the car, or everyone in this town will be in dire . . .”

He started coughing blood everywhere.

• • • •

We stopped by the side of the road again. Abony grabbed my phone and started hunting for the hospital as I unbuckled.

The biker was shifting around and had popped the hatch. Blood smeared the glass from his coughs.

“Man, you’re hurt, you need to stay here. Let us get you to the hospital,” I said.

“No, I’m okay,” the man said.

“Don’t let him out,” Abony shouted.

He tumbled out onto the grassy shoulder before I could get around the Corvette to stop him.

“Sir, you need to come with us. You can sit in my seat,” I offered.

He staggered and collapsed, sitting on a mound of mud and gravel. “It’s not too late to save people,” he told me, his voice calm. He had grabbed his bag. “How far are we from the bridge?”

“The bridge?”

“There’s a bridge over there. We can still stop the traffic from completing the summoning if we blow it.” He opened the bag between his legs and I jumped back. Those little foil-covered bricks, the wires. That was like, C4, or something.

This guy was some kind of biker terrorist.

“Abony . . .” I said, backing up.

“There’s a hospital just . . .” She saw the open bag from the car window. “Oh fuck.”

“No, no,” the biker waved his hands and coughed more blood down that crazy long beard. “I need to explain. I need you to help me blow that bridge.”

“I seen this,” I said out of the corner of my mouth to Abony. “It’s like, bath salts, right? Some crazy heavy shit he’s on. I mean, he’s hit by a truck and talking about blowing up a bridge.”

“Look,” the biker said. “I’m a wizard, got it?”

“You mean like the KKK?” I asked. “They had a biker crew like that the town over in—”

“No, not the fucking KKK,” the man said, visibly frustrated. “I’m a god damn magician. Like . . .” He started coughing blood again and folded forward. He pushed himself back up to sitting with visible effort.

“Get in the car, we gotta go,” Abony said. “This is some fucked up shit here and we gotta go. We can’t be involved in this.”

But the old biker reached into the grass and scratched out a circle with his finger, digging at the grass until his fingernail popped clean and began to bleed. He drew more symbols into the grass, then spat blood into the palm of his hand and pressed it into the dirt.

I was rooted in place, the madness of what I was seeing holding me in thrall. Abony was frozen as well.

The biker began to run his thumb along the pattern drawn in the mud and blood. He traced the whole thing once, then started it over and traced it again, compulsively.

He was mad.

But each time he pushed his thumb around the sigil, he sped up, energy flowing into him. Seven times, eight, he kept repeating the motions.

The pattern lit up with blue fire. Like when you poured grain alcohol out onto the table and lit it up for laughs.

But the fire didn’t fade out. It strengthened. Turned white hot. The ground burned but didn’t catch fire. And inside the complex swoops and swirls, something flickered in the dark.

For a brief moment, a tiny swirl of tentacles and otherness hung in the air over the road’s shoulder. It looked like something you’d see on a deep sea expedition special that ran after Shark Week.

The moment the creature appeared, the biker threw a handful of mud into the corner of the sigil. The lines broken, the fire that wasn’t fire guttered out. A tiny howl of frustration from inside the circle hung in the air between us all.

• • • •

We got the biker, the wizard, into my side of the Corvette. He put the C4 between his legs. I cleaned up the blood from the hatch and back of the car as best I could and curled up in a ball and let Abony shut the hatch down on me.

It was claustrophobic as hell.

“You see a lot of biker gangs rolling the highways,” the wizard wheezed. “But what you don’t know is that a lot of them are wizards. The long beards, their steed’s a bike, and the nomadic ways, it all works.”

The wizard’s name, he said, was Ozymandias. “Yeah, to answer the obvious question, I knew Shelley,” he said. But I didn’t know who Shelley was, though Abony nodded as if that meant something.

“What the fuck was that thing you made in the air?” I asked from behind them both.

“It was a summoning. A pattern. You know how you can draw a cube on paper, even though paper is flat? Two-dimensional? You can do the same with higher dimensions.”

“Like a pentagram?” I asked. I’d seen a lot of that stuff on some goth kids.

“Kind of. That’s an abstraction, not an actual higher dimensional summoning pattern.” He paused to wipe blood from his chin with a handkerchief. “You also need to charge it with motion to crack the space between worlds. In the past, you had to do that waving your arms and following the drawing. Took a lot of training. It took me almost a hundred years.”

“Oh, come on, you’re not that old,” I protested.

Our wizard, or insane biker, shrugged. “In the old days, it was hard to find the patterns and charge them up. But, as technology began to change and get better, folks started summoning things from behind the veil with machines. We do our best to hunt down and stop the worst. Occasionally, things get out. Zodiac Killer, Highway of Tears. Things that go bump in the night.”

Abony caught my eyes in the mirror. “Why were you stopping traffic?”

“GPS,” the wizard said, stroking his long beard.

“The alternate route?” Abony nodded.

“Wait, what?” I wasn’t following.

“It’s traffic, Trent. Think about the roads from above the air, like a clover leaf exit.”

I did that. Then thought about the pattern the wizard had drawn in the ground. Motion. Patterns. Summoning. “Holy. Shit.”

The wizard was breathing deeply. “We started noticing that apps, GPS, were creating patterns. Test routes, routine things. But someone is either hacking them, or the companies are in on it. Whatever the reason, we’re not sure about it yet, they’re charging summoning patterns using diverted automobile traffic.”

I thought about all the times a GPS would offer an alternate route and I’d take it without thinking.

“If I could summon something dangerous with just a foot-wide pattern, what do you think a fifteen mile wide pattern could do, in terms of breaches to another universe?” the wizard asked.

We were all silent.

“You were trying to stop it with those cones, turning traffic back?” I asked.

“A big pattern takes a lot of traffic to charge it. It’s not active yet. I tried to stop it with the cones. But I could also blow the bridge just another mile down the road. Look, I’m not asking you to help me. Taking me to a hospital won’t do me any good if the fabric of reality gets ripped apart while I’m there. Drop me off on the bridge. I can interrupt the pattern, stop it from being charged. Do that, and we can save an entire town from something monstrous.”

We drove on in silence.

It would take two minutes to get to the bridge.

I had the hospital up on the map, but no directions to it. I could get us there.

Abony’s fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly and I looked up at the sun through the hatch’s glass I was curled up tightly under, grateful for my tiny, bony frame. Was it my imagination, or did the sun just waver slightly?

• • • •

Ten minutes later, we left the bridge as Abony revved the Corvette up and we risked breaking the speed limit to put craziness as far behind us as we could.

“Did we really see that . . . thing?” I asked.

Abony bit her lip and didn’t say a thing.

“We did the right thing, right?” My voice cracked slightly.

“I’m just thinking,” Abony said. “That the truck that hit him, it was one of those new automated ones. The self-driving trucks that they just started allowing on the roads.”

“Jesus.” If what happened was real, it could get way worse when the cars just drove themselves. Apocalyptic, even.

“And I’m also thinking,” Abony said, proving once again that she was the smart one, “that Random is only five to fifteen minutes behind us after all those stops. And his GPS will give him the same route as the one we took.”

In the mirror, there was a flash of light.

I didn’t know if it was a bridge exploding or another universe folding itself out over the small town we left behind us.

Either way, it was eighteen more hours to Miami.

Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias Buckell by Marlon James

Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling author born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, which influence much of his work.

His novels and over 50 stories have been translated into 18 different languages. His work has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author.

He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs. He can be found online at TobiasBuckell.com.