Originally published in Misque Press’s Hero and Heroine anthology in 2016.
By Alex Binkley
Ainsley Smythe held her breath as a couple strolled toward her booth at the art show.
She sold 10 landscapes within three hours of the opening, which meant she earned enough money to reduce her hours working at the coffee shop. She would devote more time to her painting career, her goal since finishing college.
Several customers left their names for notification of her next show. Others described the scenes they wanted. She envisaged the landscapes and seashore vistas she would create for them. Finally, her career was coming together.
The couple moved past her remaining piece without glancing at it. That did not surprise her.
All the painting showed was a double hung window partly open to let a gentle summer breeze ripple lace curtains. Hints of a garden, trees and a rubber tire swing hovered in the background. The painting lacked the sweeping scenery she wished to become known for.
Usually she sketched out a work and revised it before paint went on. She did not remember creating The Window; it just happened in a haze one day.
Even when she pointed it out at art shows, no one appeared to notice it. No one took when she offered it free. It was a stray mutt that adopted her.
Three fashionably-dressed women did not slow for a look at The Window.
Under the terms of the show, exhibitors could only leave before closing time if all their pieces were sold. It was early afternoon and she could be outside enjoying the sunshine. She rearranged the promotional material for her studio, and then pulled out a sketch pad to work on concepts for her next paintings. The clock above the entrance to the display room read 1:35 PM. Four o’clock seemed so far away.
Close to 100 people wandered from artist to artist stopping at most other exhibits for a chat. After sketching a forest glade for a while, she looked up and to her surprise, a man was examining the painting.
People usually stepped back to get a better view of art work. He stood so close his nose had to be brushing against it. His head turned as if peering out both sides of the window as well as the top and bottom.
Ainsley chuckled. Most art lovers babbled on about colors and images and where they could hang the piece. He examined the painting as if looking for something inside it. She tiptoed around the desk and approached him wondering how to inquire about his unusual form of art appraisal. Five steps away from him she saw something move in the background of the painting.
A scream formed in her throat, but stayed there. This was a painting, not an animation.
“Just take a deep breath and let it out slowly,” the man said without looking at her. “My apologies, Ms. Smythe.” The man faced her. “I should’ve been more careful. You shouldn’t have seen that.”
Words stalled in Ainsley’s throat.
“We could tell a high-caliber portal existed, but no one knew where it was.” The man’s soft voice did not mask his excitement. “We looked and looked.”
Ainsley could not even manage a sputter.
“How much do you want for it? All I have with me is $400.” He pulled the cash out of his pocket.
That was about a full week’s shift at the coffee shop. The man wore a light blue polo shirt, brown shorts and running shoes. His black hair was cut short. Overall, his appearance was respectable but not flashy. She guessed he was in his late 30s.
“Name’s Harvey Abrams.”
Ainsley glanced around to make sure they were alone. “Why did you call it a portal and what moved in the painting?”
“Step close to it.” When she did, Harvey touched the window frame and the scene beyond the window changed. Towering snow-capped mountains and great soaring birds displaced the garden and swing. She leaned closer. A large animal shuffled through a meadow. Its meandering gait resembled a bear in no hurry to go anywhere.
Once again, speaking was a struggle. Finally, Ainsley murmured, “So what am I seeing?”
“Another dimension.” Harvey removed his hand and the outline of the garden and swing beyond the curtains returned. He handed her the money and produced a business card that described him as a temporal and timeline consultant. “I’ve a lot of customers with special requirements.”
Ainsley hesitated in case her voice conveyed guilt about accepting so much for a painting she wanted to be rid of. “Watching other dimensions?”
“It’s connected and your portal will play an important role in our work. You did spot a creature. I only let you see it briefly because when anyone other than a watcher looks through a portal it alerts ….” He hummed. “Let’s call them the bad guys.
“They would wreak havoc if they got into our world. Using a portal like this, I can watch without them noticing. I look for other things too. I came to the show after reading the article in Brush Strokes about the grandeur of your landscapes hoping you might be able to create a portal for me. The last thing I expected was to find you already had. We’ve nothing with the range and capacity of your painting. Would you please keep my card handy? Someday you’ll paint another portal and I’ll pay you well for it.”
Ainsley stuffed the cash in her purse and pulled out her receipt book. Harvey was an odd fellow, she thought as she filled out the slip of paper. She loaded her notes and promotional material into her bag and stepped toward the entrance.
“I can only carry the painting by holding the frame,” Harvey said. “If it’s unwrapped, people will see the other dimension like you did. If you’d take it to the entrance where they wrap it in brown paper, I’ll handle it from there. Then even if I trigger the portal, no one’ll see it. And nothing will see us.”
As she could now leave the show, Ainsley followed Harvey to his car wanting to learn more about other dimensions.
“Sometimes they’re called alternate worlds. While you’ll find lots about them on the Internet, it’s mostly bunkum. They’re not other solar systems. We can’t detect them with conventional astronomical equipment. With the right portal we can monitor them.
“I’m both an electrical and computer software engineer,” he explained. “One of my pals took astrophysics and became intrigued by research into other or parallel dimensions to ours. He roped me into helping him understand the physics of parallel dimensions and I was hooked. I’m busy enough as an engineer but some of my extra-curricular assignments led me deeper into the concept of other dimensions. But until now, our ability to see into them was limited to technology that isn’t anywhere effective as your portal.”
“How did you know my painting was a portal?”
“Our equipment detected something much stronger than our portals that wasn’t employed in a regular fashion. You seem unable to trigger it, which leaves us with a mystery surrounding why you can create a portal but not use it. We need more portals whenever you’re up to it. Money is no object for the people I work for.”
“I wish I could remember what was going on in my head when I painted the first one.”
He loaded the painting in the rear of his SUV, and then pulled out his phone and typed in a number. He didn’t identify himself to whomever answered. “Portal found and secured. Works better than expected. Discussing acquisition of additional ones.”
Ainsley handed him her business card. “There are copies of all my paintings on my website. Maybe one will give you some ideas.”
“The bad guys will attempt to disrupt our efforts to monitor their domain. They’ll be a threat to you and we’ll provide you with special security. I’ll bring it to your place once it’s fully programed. I’ll show you how to expand its capabilities and knowledge of what you do. It does ask a lot of questions.”
“That seems like too much.”
“It’s a small box on wheels. It’ll monitor your whereabouts and should also be able to determine whether what you’re working on has the potential to be a portal.”
“Will it follow me everywhere?”
“No because it’ll attract a lot of attention outside of your home. I need to deliver the portal, but I’ll contact you tomorrow or the day after about the security. Congratulations on selling all your paintings; that should bring you more attention.”
After depositing her cash and checks at a nearby bank branch, Ainsley treated herself to a taxi ride back to her apartment. She sent an e-mail to her artist friends about her sales success but said nothing about The Window. Then she studied the roster of her sketches looking for inspiration for her customers and portals for Harvey.
The next morning, she went to the coffee shop for her shift and in a quiet moment said she wanted to reduce her hours. Her boss, who often praised the sketches she drew during breaks and quiet times, agreed. “As you live nearby, can we call you in if it gets suddenly busy or one of the regulars is sick?” Ainsley nodded.
Just before noon, she found a message from Harvey. “Want to bring the machine around later this afternoon.”
It was about the size of a vacuum cleaner with a dome that housed its viewer and two extendable arms and hands. It rode on eight wheels. “With its suspension system, it can climb stairs.” The machine chatted away as it rolled around her two-bedroom apartment, followed closely by Brutus, a black and white cat that seemed unhappy with the interloper into her domain.
“I’m most interested in watching you paint,” the machine said. “I studied all your paintings and want to know where the inspiration for the various scenes came from.”
She named her new guardian Cooney. “Maybe you can help me think of another portal. I’m considering a scene of an ocean shore viewed from a ship’s porthole. Hopefully the frame of the porthole would function the same as the picture frame does for Harvey.”
The small green status light on top of Cooney’s dome flashed steadily. It was in contemplation mode. Ainsley picked up a pad and sketched a porthole. Through it, she imagined a full moon reflecting off gentle waves revealing a presence lurking beneath the surface of the water.
Cooney’s green light glowed steadily as it examined the sketch while Ainsley explained her concept. “I think you’re correct in the idea of a frame’s role in creating a portal.”
Ainsley worked on the sketch for another hour. “I’ll arrange everything to start coloring the painting in the morning. I’ll do this one in water color rather than oil.”
Then she noticed an-mail from the coffee ship manager asking her to come in for the 6:30 AM opening because a couple of staff phoned in sick. Before she responded, a message arrived from Harvey saying he was taking The Window to a shop in the morning that could replicate it. He would bring the copy by to see if she could tell the difference.
“You might as well take the coffee shop shift,” Cooney said. “You won’t be getting much painting done tomorrow.”
While the copy of The Window was impossible to tell from the original, it failed as a portal. “You keep it for now,” Harvey said. “We know copies don’t work but it’ll serve as a decoy if the bad guys learn about our portal.”
He liked the sketch of the ship’s porthole scene. “If it doesn’t work, I’m sure you’ll find a ready buyer for it among your customers.”
Cooney watched Ainsley while she sat in front of the sketch thinking about painting it the next day. As always, classical music played softly in another room. Cooney startled her. “The moon in The Window is watching you.”
“There’s no moon in the painting.”
“There is now.”
The moon looked like it had always been there. It took an expert hand to do that. Why would Howard bother to add it to a painting that was no use to him? “Cooney, can you find out if there’s now a moon in the portal version of the Window?”
Deciding to go to bed and worry about the mysterious moon in the morning, she patted Cooney and Brutus good night and went to her bedroom.
Cooney was waiting for her when she opened the door in the morning. “I don’t know how to tell you this but your painting is finished and it’s beautiful.”
Ainsley rushed into the other bedroom and turned on the light. Through the silver porthole, she could see blue water punctuated by the white froth of gentle waves. A rocky coastline gave way to a forest of many shades of green and towering jagged hills behind it. Shining down on the scene was a moon identical to the one in The Window. Its light conveyed a sense of menace to the dark shape beneath the surface. The scene was beautiful and just about how she imagined painting it except for the moon.
Cooney rolled up beside her. “I was in the room all night. I went online for a full update. It took about an hour and when I finished, the painting was like this. I think the Moon did it. It was watching you earlier and you do talk out loud when you draw so it knew what colors you intended to paint.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. That would mean something transported here through the copy of The Window, colored the scene and left.”
“Maybe your portal works in both directions and the moon is a portal for an entity in another dimension.”
Ainsley listened closely. Cooney know far more about other dimensions. “I’m certain it wishes to connect with you; painting the porthole scene was a greeting.”
Ainsley did not know what to say in response. While she should feel spooked, even afraid, she was mainly curious how the porthole scene was so expertly painted. She strode over to the paints and brushes she set out for today. The paints were all used by the patterns on the mixing board. The brushes were clean and neatly lined up. She usually left them in a pile.
“Should I tell Harvey about this?”
“Not until we learn more.” Cooney paused. “Let’s see if the new painting works as a portal for him. If it does, tell him to take it while you create another one.”
Harvey paid $500 for the porthole portal. “Keep them coming. My associates are anxious to secure more.”
After he left, Ainsley sat in her favorite wing back chair and put her feet up on a matching ottoman. Cooney rolled beside her. She was intrigued by the machine’s personality; maybe artificial intelligence was something to look forward to.
Cooney waited what it must have considered a polite interval in case Ainsley wanted to speak before it said, “You should view the moon added to the second portal as an act of friendship. What if you leave a blank canvas and pencils for it to draw on beside the copy of The Window? We could talk about what the other dimension might look like. In the meantime, you could create more countryside scenes as portals for Harvey.”
The day passed quickly as Ainsley sketched out three scenes for Harvey. The blank canvas was mounted on a separate easel with carefully sharpened pencils in its tray. She set out her oil and water color paints on a nearby table.
Then she settled in the chair with an extra pillow and a light blanket. Cooney rolled up beside her. “The entity is watching you. My sensors can detect extra energy in the room but whatever it is doesn’t affect you.”
As if Cooney’s words were a cue, a white form emerged from the moon and hovered in front of Ainsley. It slowly coalesced into a shape that mostly resembled a light white blob. Ainsley felt a tingling sensation in her head as she looked at it. She told Cooney about the tingle.
“Perhaps it’s speaking to you with thoughts. It doesn’t appear to have a mouth or any way to project sounds.”
Speaking what she was thinking, Ainsley introduced herself, complimented the form on painting the porthole scene, and then outlined Harvey’s request for more portals. Then she relaxed and tried to clear her mind for whatever the form wanted to show her.
The first thing was her small stereo system with music coming from it. Ainsley hurried to the machine, checked what CD was in it and decided Mozart symphonies would be just fine. The form moved about as if dancing to the symphony.
“There’s a shine to its white now,” Cooney said.
The form drifted through her apartment as Ainsley told Cooney about the images it projected. “It wants to understand what the appliances and different rooms are for.”
When the form stopped in front of the fridge, Ainsley joined it and opened the door. Even this close, she could not feel any sensation from the form. She removed an apple from a drawer and took a bite. “It sent me an image of it in sunshine and drawing in something.”
“That must be the way it obtains its energy,” Cooney said.
“It’s showing me incredible landscapes. There are a couple of forms moving about in them as if inspecting the area. They look like our visitor. Now I see an image from it of people watching the forms through portals. Now the scenes are changing—there are great clouds of smoke as if the trees are burning. It’s looking at the humans watching the scene again.”
“Perhaps it’s suggesting Howard’s partners are the bad guys and it fears what they would do to its dimension.” Cooney’s green light flashed rapidly.
Ainsley nodded. “The form seems mostly curious about us. How could it cause the world any harm? It’s showing me the apartment again.”
“Could that mean it feels comfortable or safe here?” Cooney said.
“If the other forms are like it, why does Howard consider them bad guys?”
“Maybe the form is trying to trick us?
“To what benefit? What if Howard isn’t being truthful? Or has been duped.”
“I’ll try to send images to the form to explain what we’re discussing.” Ainsley feared her thoughts were a complete jumble but the form moved in front of her. “It’s showing me more of her dimension. There are no signs of civilization anywhere just a small number of forms wandering through it like park wardens in charge of a pristine continent.”
“Could they fear that Howard’s friends want to plunder it?”
“It keeps coming back to the moon it added to the portals.” Ainsley was stuck at what the form intended.
Cooney rolled up to the blob holding in its left hand the cord it used to plug into Ainsley’s computer system for major updates. The blob extended a sliver of itself that covered the plug at the end of the cord.
By the rapid flashing of Cooney’s status light, the connection worked. “The moon is how the form travels between its dimension and here. It can only see what’s in sight of the moon. No explanation of how it entered the painting in the first place. The moon in the porthole scene alerts the forms when they’re under surveillance from Earth.”
“Could it have detected the portal I created just as Howard’s detection equipment did?” The Window was painted about a year before Howard discovered it so the entity could have studied her all that time.
“Should I stop painting portals for Howard?” Then she got it. “I’ll include a moon in enough of them that the forms can watch for interlopers. Ask it if a white cloud would work in for paintings of day-time scenes?”
“The form will work on making that connection as well,” Cooney said. It was obviously much better at image transfers than Ainsley.
“What I don’t understand is how Howard and his associates would ever travel to the other dimension. For that matter why would the forms want to come here when what they have seems like paradise?”
“It is; the form is fascinated by your paintings and wants to see if she could create ones of her dimension. At the same time, it shows humans examining its dimension with what looks like a wrought iron fence blocking them.”
As Cooney spoke, the pencils moved across the blank canvas creating the outline of a scene for her to paint. “Go to the sketch she’s created and think about different colors.”
Ainsley sat on her stool and held up brushes and tubes of paint. The form appeared beside her and without holding a brush, painted the scene just as it must have done with the porthole one. The tube would apply a dollop of paint rolled onto the mixing pallet that hovered in front of the canvas. Then a brush applied it. Then the scene was touched up with other colors before another area was painted.
“It paints in the same style as you; it must have learned by watching you,” Cooney said.
Ainsley felt mostly confused although she wished she could paint as quickly as the form did. The painting finished, and then a moon appeared in the scene.
“I wonder if her painting would work as a portal.”
“While Howard can tell us if it does, I don’t want him to learn about the form.”
Cooney’s green light shone brightly. “I’ll tell him I was looking for ideas of portals you could paint. I found a bunch of fantasy books with imaginative covers of other worlds and they inspired you to paint this one.”
Ainsley patted Cooney, and then faced the form. “You’re welcome here whenever you want to visit. I’ll try to improve at sending you my words as images and at understanding yours.”
A warm sensation spread over Ainsley, and then the form positioned itself on the couch beside the wing-backed chair.
“If its color was any brighter, it would be blinding,” Cooney said. “You must have told it exactly what it wanted to hear.”
“We could learn a lot from it.”
“It could assist you to become a famous artist. Then you could purchase me from Howard. Maybe I could use the moon to learn more about their worlds. The form is really a mobile intelligence. Maybe I could evolve into the same thing.”