Repairing the World

by on Apr 1, 2014 in Short Fiction | 0 comments

4900 Words

By the time Lila and Bridger arrived, the sitting room floor was already part savannah. Yellow grass grew on dirt where hardwood had once been. The border between grass and floor hissed and threw up sparks as the savannah crept towards the davenport on one side, the longcase clock on another and towards Lila on a third. On the fourth, the grass seemed to stretch through a wide hole in the far wall to a pale green horizon. The intrusion, however, couldn’t have breached the far wall yet. The house hadn’t collapsed. Lila ticked a mechanical dragonfly with the time, location, and the nature of this intrusion, wound it up then threw it into the air. Its wings blurred as it weaved past Bridger, buzzed out the door, then back to the university.

She crawled around the room and laid a barrier of iridescent tape where the floor sparked into grass. The tape smothered the sparks into a diffuse light. When she was done, she could see the far wall from the door. Rather than stretching out for miles, the savannah had become a patch of grass on the floor ringed by a steady glow.

Her triumph lasted for all of a moment. Grass sprouted through the tape. The ring of diffuse light dispersed into sparks hissing through the air. The grass stretched again through the far wall to an unfamiliar horizon.

Lila walked around the savannah to the far wall. Where she ought to have seen Bridger, yellow grass lay under a green sky. A good few feet of floor lay between the savannah and the sitting room’s walls. Her other formulation of tape sat in her pack. She could still test that if she worked quickly.

“Lila, this time, you didn’t even slow the intrusion.” Bridger’s words rumbled across the floor. “Seal it the right way so I can go.”

“You’re unusually impatient. Some place you need to be?”

The savannah grew towards Lila. She worked her way back towards Bridger, careful not to touch the grass. On some other world, a piece of hardwood floor covered with iridescent tape intruded on a yellow savannah. She’d rather not join the floor on that one–way trip.

A guttural roar swept across the grass. Bridger roared back.

“Who is it, Bridger?” The davenport blocked her way. Grass now brushed against it leaving her no floor to walk on.

“From only one sample? How the hell should I know what that roar meant?”

Never mind the linguist understood more often than not. Lila would swear he was fluent in every language that had ever intruded. Not that he ever admitted that.

“What is it with you today?”

“That roar might be in a language, or it could just be noise. If you seal the intrusion now, we won’t have to waste time finding out.”

“The linguist doesn’t want to discover a new language?” She shoved the davenport towards Bridger, hoping to create a narrow aisle between the grass and wall. “Fine. If you’re in that much of a hurry —”

Something flashed across the savannah. Lila scrambled over the davenport only to find Bridger hefting a bear–like creature across his shoulders. His legs shook for precisely three seconds before he stood up straight. Otherwise, someone might decide he was absurdly strong and he couldn’t have that. Lila didn’t see the point of the charade. Bridger looked like he’d never met a weight he hadn’t lifted.

“Is it dead?” Lila hadn’t heard any struggle. Neither blood nor any other liquid dripped onto Bridger’s leather jacket.

“Of course.” Bridger glared down at her. Given that a large, furry animal with sharp claws lay across his shoulders, his glare was even more effective than usual. “That’s what linguists do.”

Linguists were prepared to deal with any beings that intrusions might bring with them. Ideally, this meant finding a way to communicate. Sometimes, this meant killing the feral beast that charged at you. Despite the arsenal hidden on his body, Bridger had wrestled the beast to death and in record time.

“Bridger, you’re behaving strangely, even for you.” Lila stepped back. “What is so important that you have to leave right now?”

“I need to…” Bridger pursed his lips. “Go have a drink.”

Bridger had witnessed every trial in the seven years her research had taken so far. She hadn’t improved how to seal intrusions, but she had learned how to read Bridger. He was hiding something and he knew she knew that.

“A drink?” She held him with an expectant gaze.

“How I live my life is how I live my life.” He walked away. “You just seal that intrusion. I’m putting this beast in the truck. Some zoologist at the university will want to study it. Be back in a minute.”

Lila sighed. Talking to him would have been so much simpler if he’d just admit that he sought the intimate company of other men. She understood why he wouldn’t. The police went undercover to entrap that sort of man then charge him with solicitation. No gentleman should be so unbecoming. Not that they considered Bridger pale enough to be a gentleman. Or her to be a lady.

The police always took one look at her then suggested she return her gear to the gentleman who was surely its real owner. Even seeing her credentials, they blustered about arresting her for unauthorized possession. Lila didn’t keep much faith with the police or what anyone thought unbecoming.

Her pack lay against the door Bridger had left through. She hefted out a visor, a sander, a bottle of sealant, and an iron. The visor covered her face and blocked her ears. Inch by inch, she filled then polished the border between grass and floor. The iron arced lightning across the border, cauterizing the sealant. The sander spun, throwing sparks as it ground the border down. Sweat stung her eyes and soaked her clothes.

Sealing an intrusion the right way, as Bridger called it, required years of university study. If the tape had worked, anyone who found an intrusion could seal it right away rather than sending a dragonfly for help. The world could keep up with the ever accelerating rate other worlds have been intruding into this one. Of course, the tape had been useless and the sitting room floor would be a field of yellow grass once she was done.

Bridger returned. The weight of his impatience felt heavier than the iron and sander combined. After she’d sealed the intrusion, he left, grumbling about the waste of time.

§

A pond had intruded into the pub and been sealed since the last time Lila visited. After renovations, the owners rechristened the pub Sapir’s Wharf. A linguist pub whose name didn’t pun on words imported from one intrusion or another was apparently beyond the pale. A broad swath of clear liquid too viscous to be water ran the length of the pub. Wooden decks lined each side. Rowboats swayed with the pond’s lazy swells. Stout attendants ferried customers to and from tables and chairs set on floating platforms. Some linguist encased in battle armor insisted on rowing his party across the pond himself.

Bridger sat at the near deck. He was the one of the handful not visibly carrying weapons. A pile of books cluttered his table, held back only by the flight of transparent rainbow colored protein shots. Lila never understood why anyone drank the vile stuff. Bridger held a book in front of his face, pointedly not looking at a man on the pond. The object of Bridger’s affection, ostensibly engrossed in a book of his own, was pointedly not looking back. Now that she noticed, their mutual attention was obvious.

Knowing Bridger, Lila bet the two men had been coming here to not look at each other for who knows how long. No wonder he had been so impatient for her to seal off that savannah last week. As far as she could tell, though, the only thing Bridger was getting out of this assignation was eye strain.

“It can’t be time already for another wave of intrusions, Lila.” Bridger downed the red vial. “Besides, I’m busy.”

“When am I ever wrong about this?”

Bridger pursed his lips then made a show of counting on his fingers. “Oh, about 26.6 percent of the time.”

Lila put her hands on her waist. “That was a rhetorical question.”

“Yes, I know. I’m a linguist.” He downed the orange. “And still busy.”

“Not looking at him? For how many weeks now?” Lila pulled a roll of tape out of her pack. It iridesced in the pub’s dim light. “The review board mandated that I have a linguist stand by me.”

Bridger gestured towards the rest of the pub. Half the customers wore helmets, goggles, and camouflage. Both guns and swords sat in holsters that lay snug against their bodies. Zippers ran across their clothing like tracks at a rail interchange. Either these customers were trying far too hard or they were zipper fetishists.

“An actual linguist.” Lila looked cross at Bridger. “There aren’t enough certified linguists in the city, much less linguists I trust, to fill a bar.”

“Find someone else.” If Bridger didn’t look at his intended any harder, his eyes would have popped out. He fanned the pile of linguistics texts on the table into a spiral. “I’m busy.”

“I’ve tried. The linguists who’d agreed via dragonflies all suddenly remembered prior commitments the moment they saw me.” Her heart pounded in her ears and she fought to keep her voice steady. “You know how it goes.”

Bridger frowned. “Please. I…” He almost gave his intended a glance.

His intended rearranged the books on his table. They leaned against each other in a formation that should not have been stable. He paid just as much, or just as pointedly little, attention to Bridger. Surely, the two men wanted to meet rather than just play games.

She landed too quickly into a rowboat. Gravity was much stronger on the pond. The faster she pulled the oars, the harder the liquid became. Only when she rowed slowly did the oars slide the boat through the syrupy liquid. Bridger hadn’t tried to stop her. Then again, that would have shown he cared about the man on the pond. Instead, Bridger frantically rearranged the books on his table. Some of them now lay open overlapped by others.

The man was so busy not looking at Bridger, he hadn’t noticed Lila until she climbed onto his platform and collapsed into the seat opposite his. Her lungs burned. Her legs ached from the climb. She forced herself to breath deeply and slowly.

“Excuse me, but you’re making a certain linguist impossible to work with.” Lila placed a mechanical dragonfly on the table. “Pick a time and place to meet in private and I’ll pass the message on to him. No one will trace my dragonfly to you. Right now, I need you to go. You’re jeopardizing my dissertation.”

The man had packed his books into his bag as she spoke. He stood, looming the way Bridger did. His chair skidded back and the platform bobbled. He picked the bag up by its drawstring. It tightened the bag closed as he swung the bag onto his back. His gaze flicked to Bridger and his lips curved up slightly as he took the dragonfly. He nodded to Lila then jumped into the pond. The platform swayed and Lila gripped the table for support.

The liquid hardened beneath the man. He crossed the pond in heavy leaps. Conversation in the pub stopped, giving way to footfalls and a thump as he landed on the near deck. His exit left slack jaws, preening men and women trying too hard to look unimpressed and one glum Bridger, who downed shot after shot then slumped into his chair.

Conversation returned to the bar. Lila tried to stand, then decided to flag down a stout attendant. Retrieving Bridger had worked much better in theory than it actually had in practice.

§

Intrusion after intrusion fractured the sky. Shards of night and noon disrupted the dusk. As they had for days now, teams of sealers encased in propeller suits stanched the greens and pinks bleeding across the sky. Their sanders grinding against where intrusions met this world showered sparks that sent mechanical dragonflies scurrying. Turbulent clouds of messages bloomed around intrusions. Some of them fell in. Nothing ever returned from an unsealed intrusion.

Lila sat in the park watching propellerheads at work. No review board would ever let her experiment on intrusions that large, not that she had the equipment or even wanted to. Her goal now was to reach an intrusion just as it appeared. Small intrusions were becoming rare. The world seemed to be replaced more quickly with each wave.

This latest wave of intrusions didn’t stop anyone from picnicking. No one was safer shut in at home. Hampers sat on blankets spread over the grass. Fathers tossed balls at their sons who batted them away or chased after them, mindful of the stretches of tar, concrete, and whatever else that had intruded over the years. Mothers sat with their daughters sewing or knitting. Lila forced herself back to monitoring for intrusions.

Needles swayed back and forth on meters that lay in front of her. Something would intrude near here, eventually. She stuffed her meters into her pack. A watched intrusion never actually intruded, she’d swear.

Bridger sat on his haunches, indistinguishable from a rusted bronze statue, albeit a clothed one. His brow furrowed and his lips set downward as if he were straining to make out a dirge buried by the omnipresent and steady whine of propellers. Soot had darkened his jacket by the time Lila realized he wasn’t just maintaining an over the top level of discipline.

“You’re sulking.” She managed to cut the triumph of revelation from her voice. “I’m sorry about your assignation, but if I knew exactly how things would work out, I wouldn’t need you here.”

“We’re not on speaking terms.” His low rumble sounded as if the ground had chosen to speak for him instead.

“Bridger, you’re so…” Lila snapped her fingers a few times as if that would make the right word appear. “What’s the word I’m thinking of…”

Bridger sighed too heavily. “Young.” He rested his elbows on his thighs and his face in his hands. “Not literally, of course.”

Anyone who had finished the course work and practical work required just to start the certification trials was no longer young. Bridger was one of the rare few who had completed the trials early, but only by two years.

“That’s it.” She pointed at him. “You have the emotional maturity of a precocious thirteen year old.”

“And I suppose soliciting the man for me is the height of mature behavior.” The disapproval in his gaze crushed her lungs. “You could have been arrested.”

“How often do you distract intruders away from me?”

“Not the same thing.” He was now staring at a chunk of concrete just in front of him. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll never see him again.”

“Oh, Bridger.” The linguist was being melodramatic, but Lila knew better than to say that. “I’m sure he sent the dragonfly. With all the intrusions, it probably got lost and fell into another world.”

“So Ashen thinks I don’t want to meet him. Great.” He stood. “Thank you for making me feel so much better.”

Lila ignored the verbal jab. “Ashen? How do you know his name?”

Ashen was an oddly descriptive name for Bridger’s intended. Certainly, no one would describe either Bridger or Lila as ashen.

“‘Ashen’ may have just been an adjective. We were still constructing our shared language.” Bridger rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck. “The spatial grammar of stuff on the table wasn’t done yet.”

“You two were flirting by collaborating on a constructed language?” Lila wondered if maybe she was just too stupid to recognize when Bridger was toying with her.

“What sort of policeman would go to the trouble of learning linguistics just to entrap the few male linguists who could find him attractive? There are easier ways to entrap supposedly depraved men.”

“So you’re certain that Ashen’s a linguist then.”

“He might be, but I’ll never know.” Bridger crossed his arms and glared down. He looked like a rockslide about to fall on her. “Some doctoral candidate decided Ashen and I needed to meet before I could be sure.”

The air buzzed around her. A smattering of dragonflies rushed up from the picnickers then across the sky. Bridger’s gaze shifted past her shoulder as she turned around. A shimmering line writhed just above a patch of grass. People scattered from the motley park.

Lila and Bridger ran against the tide. The park was a field of discarded picnic hampers, blankets, bats, and balls by the time they reached the intrusion. Lila reached behind for her pack only to find Bridger handing it to her. He didn’t resist the opportunity to purse his lips and furrow his brow.

She hid the shimmer with a vertical strip of tape. A gauzy translucence floated where the intrusion once had. Lila walked in a circle around it.

“What now?” Bridger still looked as if he would spring at the translucence.

“We see how long the tape holds.” Lila fumbled through her pack for her meters. “We watch for side effects.”

Her meters’ needles swung wildly. The tape shattered. Iridescent specks flew in all directions. A shimmering line shot into the sky, branching into a gigantic tree of fire. Asphalt oozed out to replace the grass. Threads of black sky cut across the swathes of mostly blue.

A bolt of light shot out from the intrusion. It hit a slab of concrete next to Lila. She fell to the ground and raised her hands, shielding her head from the shower of fine gravel. A human–like body emerged onto the asphalt. No part of it was entirely metal or flesh. Its metal arm fused seamlessly into flesh fingers that gripped a shiny gun.

Bridger placed himself between it and Lila. He shouted at it, obviously switching from language to language, and listened for responses. Their words sounded like everything from a seized engine to an orchestra playing a fugue. Lila couldn’t tell if they’d found a language in common or if Bridger had worked out its language. When it shot again, he dodged then wrestled it onto the grass.

Men flying in propeller suits surrounded the intrusion. The whirring made it impossible to hear anything else. Heat and smoke filled the air. Sparks showered from above. Lila, coughing, stumbled to her pack. She grabbed her iron and sander. Bridger would let himself die before he’d admit he needed help.

By the time Lila reached the fight, the metal–flesh humanoid had Bridger in a death hug. Lila charged. She pushed her sander against the humanoid’s back. Metal and flesh wore away, throwing dust and bits of burnt meat back at her. The humanoid bucked, throttling Bridger. She struck the humanoid’s head with the glowing iron. Sparks crackled then arced away in all directions. The humanoid collapsed onto Bridger. The latter grunted and pushed the humanoid off him.

“How injured are you?” Lila realized too late that this was a pointless question.

“The soldier didn’t take being marooned on this world very well.” Bridger did his best imitation of not wincing as he sat up. “I don’t suppose you could help me get him into the truck?” He gritted his teeth as he gestured towards the humanoid. “The university will want to examine him.”

§

Slivers of day punctuated the otherwise night sky. They seemed to mirror the paths that criss–crossed the campus common. Part of Lila wished for more intrusions. The eerie light from above lit the common as little as the few gaslights that dotted paths. It’d been weeks since Bridger checked into the hospital and, as she had every night since, she walked home from her lab in near dark. As usual, thoughts of ways to seal intrusions disappeared, replaced by thoughts of how to get home in one piece.

A policeman walked on a path from her left. The two paths crossed just ahead of her. Lila’s hand automatically went for her pocket. She was never without her student identification card, her proof that she wasn’t trespassing. When he noticed her, he ran towards her. Lila forced herself to walk slowly, as if she hadn’t noticed him.

“Lila!” The policeman knew her name. That didn’t have to mean something. The campus was typically awash with pale men. Her presence was distinctive. “I thought that was you. Wait, we need to talk.”

She’d done nothing wrong and she was entitled to be on campus. That seemed hard comfort at the moment. A gaslight stood near to the intersection where their paths crossed. She waited there, her hands consciously away from her body. If she reached into her pocket now, the police might decide she was drawing some sort of weapon. Besides, they hated it when she presented her identification before they asked for it.

“Good evening, officer.” Lila spoke quietly, keeping her eyes downcast.

His shadow seemed to blot out half the common. If he wanted to hurt her, it wouldn’t be hard.

“Sorry, we’ve never been properly introduced.” He extended his hand. “I’m Ashen.”

Lila looked up. He was the man from the pub, complete with the bag strapped to his back by the drawstring looped around his shoulder. Only now, he also wore a police uniform.

Bridger’s prospective boyfriend was a policeman. This boded well for no one. As a policeman, of course, he could easily determine who she was from the dragonfly she’d given him.

Lila gave Ashen’s hand a gentle pulse. “What can I do for you, officer?”

“Please, call me Ashen.” He smiled. “Listen, I’m almost late for Morphological Theory. May I walk you to your dorm while we talk? It’s on the way to class.”

Apparently, at least one policeman would learn linguistics to entrap the few linguists who could be interested in him. Lila’s rib cage locked. She wouldn’t confirm Bridger’s secret, but not to walk with Ashen would be beyond suspicious. She nodded and they continued down the path.

“I know how this looks, but I won’t arrest you or Bridger.” His anxious face did nothing to uphold the dignity of his office. “If he doesn’t want to… meet me, I understand. I just need to know.”

Lila chose her words carefully. “Bridger has only just been released from the hospital. Besides, I never received a dragonfly from you.”

“You didn’t? That’s wonderful.” Ashen’s face lit. He flung his arms then dropped them as if he wanted to hug Lila but then thought better of it. “I need you to give him a message.”

He removed paper and a pencil from his pack. His brow furrowed and he scratched out his words several times as he scribbled his note.

“Ask him if he’ll meet me here.” Ashen looked so hopeful when Lila took the paper that she almost believed he wanted Bridger. “They will let him in. I’ll be hanged if there’s a man there who doesn’t prefer the company of like–minded men.” He flashed a smile at his own grim joke.

They stopped in front of her dorm. Ashen waved farewell then sprinted past her towards a building that was now ivy–strewn stone fused seamlessly into metal. Between Ashen’s excitement and Bridger’s moroseness, part of her thought the two men deserved each other. The rest of her didn’t trust Ashen any farther than she could throw him.

Bridger seemed about as ready for a relationship as she was to defend her dissertation. If she passed on Ashen’s note, Bridger might be hurt even if Ashen was sincere. Life would be so much simpler if it handed her only one problem at a time.

Lila studied Ashen’s note. It wasn’t in any language she understood. She folded the note then slipped it into a pocket. Vetting Ashen wasn’t her job. Keeping Bridger from being impossible to work with didn’t have to mean finding him a boyfriend. Despite her misgivings, Bridger could fend for himself on that front. He just needed someone to watch over him.

Her jaw dropped as that realization hit her. Using an iron and sander to seal intrusions required too much training and took too much time. It always worked but other worlds were starting to intrude too quickly and too often for propellerheads to keep up. Her dissertation didn’t have to be a faster and easier way to seal intrusions. It could be something that kept the iron and sander method propellerheads used practical.

She ran back to the lab to reformulate her tape. Maybe this time, it would be good for something.

§

A translucent patch of tape floated just over the now empty sidewalk. Lila sat before it, her meters spread out before her. So far, so good. Propellerheads descended on her, their skin pale compared to the burns on the machinery they wore. That her credentials were in order didn’t matter. Never mind that her research would eventually make their job easier. She had to deploy Bridger to make them leave her alone. They didn’t find Bridger more credible and Bridger probably wasn’t stronger than a man in propeller suit much less a team of them. However, he looked as if he didn’t care who was more credible or who was stronger.

The tape was working, but the propellerheads cordoned off the block anyway. They clanked to the intersections on either side to wave away the traffic.

“So Ashen is a policeman.” Bridger turned the sheet of paper over and over in his hands. “And studying linguistics for no useful reason.”

The forging of linguists started at childhood. Any later, not to mention with less than full–time study, and the candidate had no chance of surviving the certification trials, much less passing.

“Maybe he just likes linguistics.” Lila kept her gaze on her meters. Still good. “He seemed excited that you hadn’t stood him up.”

“I can’t go anyway.” Bridger shrugged. “You need me here, just in case, right?”

Traffic blocked off, the propellerheads flew away. The air pulsed with heat and noise, both of which faded as they headed towards distant, new intrusions in the sky.

“I should wait an hour before I seal this for good just to make sure the tape holds. In the event of a fresh intrusion, that’s plenty of time for a team of sealers to arrive, but I can wait by myself.” She sneaked another quick glance at the sky. “It’s too busy a day for the propellerheads to bother me again any time soon. You go prepare to meet Ashen.”

“Prepare?” Bridger’s gaze narrowed.

“It’s a private club.” She’d bury her face in her hands if she weren’t monitoring the intrusion. “You might want to clean up. Put on your best suit, waistcoat, and trousers.”

The tape stretched. The street behind it seemed to bend and twist, buckling towards Lila then away. Bridger fell on top of her. His body tightened, as if it were impervious to explosions.

“Get off of me.” Lila pushed him away. “That’s how it’s supposed behave you… well–meaning but over–reactive giant slab of highly intelligent bronze.”

To his credit, he gave to her shove. He immediately stood and backed away.

“This tape is more flexible.” She double–checked her meters, just to make sure Bridger wasn’t right. “It doesn’t try to seal the intrusion, just hold it off long enough for someone to arrive to seal it for good. The tape gives to relieve the pressure.”

“Oh.” Bridger’s shadow covered Lila. “But aren’t you supposed to have someone keep watch over you?”

For once, he looked like the creature of flesh and blood he actually was. He didn’t loom. His weight shifted ever so slightly between his feet. His gaze, though, remained on the tape, the expression on his face distant.

Bridger was afraid. Feral beasts, metal–fleshed soldiers, and anything else that intruded bothered him not in the least. A man who liked him, on the other hand, had him burrowed into his work. Lila bit down the urge to ask if fear was a new experience for him.

“Sure, but the review board hasn’t required anyone else to have a linguist stand by. Nothing’s going happen here. I have it right this time.” She pulled back the meters Bridger had knocked away. “Besides, if you’re walking into a trap, even under your best clothing, you wear enough weaponry to take out a small army, right?”

“That’s not funny. A linguist never tells.” Bridger smiled. “Thank you, Lila.”

The needles on her meters wobbled, but only slightly. The street behind the patch expanded and contracted like a breath held then released. Bridger walked away, heading to his lover. Lila sat alone on the concrete, her work for the first time in her own hands and no one else’s. If she was going to prevent other worlds from intruding, this world ought to be one worth preserving. As scattered dragonfly and sealers in their propeller suits crossed the skies, Lila kept watch, ready to repair the world.

John Chu designs microprocessors by day. He writes fiction, narrates for podcasts, and translates fiction from Chinese into English by night. His stories have been published or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Tor.com among others.

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