Ellie is on her way to visit her comatose mother when her sister sends her to repair physics. Each universe has skunkworks that generate the universe within it, making this multiverse a set of matryoshka dolls. The skunkworks that generate this universe have become faulty, and the physical constants suddenly...aren't. In order to fix the skunkworks, to make physics self-consistent again, and to make the world work as it's supposed to, Ellie will have to remember everything her mother has taught her.
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About the Author
John Chu designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. He is an alumnus of the Viable Paradise and Clarion workshops. His stories have been published in Boston Review, Bloody Fabulous, and Asimov's Science Fiction.
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By John Chu, Tommy Arnold
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 John Chu
All rights reserved.
"Attention passengers: the next Red Line train to Alewife is now approaching" echoes off the walls. Not only has the next Red Line train to Alewife arrived but its passengers have already flooded the station, a torrent rushing up the escalators, through the turnstiles, then down the concourse to spill out the doors to Cambridge. The flood coming as the PA system squawks catches Ellie off-guard. It's rush hour. When a train arrives on one side of the platform, the one on the other side leaves seconds later. She sprints, a veritable salmon racing against the current of bodies. Her pack sloshes between her shoulder blades, a sloppy fin batting the waves of people that surround her.
No one has tried to kill her yet today. Occasionally, skunkworks isolationists try. Also, her sister, Chris, arranges something pretty much every day to keep her sharp. Maybe the mistimed announcement is part of the attempt. She'll be caught in the rip current of bodies, a wave will overwhelm her, and the knives of a shark hiding in the swell will tear her to pieces. Compared to the attempt with the Mylar balloons, jar of Marmite, and the US men's Greco-Roman wrestling team, an ill-timed flood at Alewife Station is downright practical and likely.
None of that happens, though. The crowd flows around her as she plunges down the stairs toward the platform.
The car doors shut just as she reaches them. While the PA system blasts, "Attention passengers: the next Red Line train to Alewife is now arriving," the train clatters away. The train supposedly now arriving sits already emptied on the opposite side of the platform. It beeps as its doors slide shut.
Some guy wearing shorts that stretch across his thighs, no shirt, and more self-possession than Ellie thought possible hovers in front of one of the doors. Someone else sits on a bench, staring at her e-reader. A thin woman reaches for Ellie like someone drowning reaching for a buoy. Her luggage crashes to the floor. She asks in rapid Mandarin whether Ellie knows how to get to the Best Western. Her oboe-like voice skips through her words.
Ellie blinks. She doesn't really speak Mandarin, at least not to anyone she doesn't know. The Best Western is just a short walk away. With luggage, though, the woman will want a taxi but there's almost always one dropping someone off right outside the station. All the woman needs to do is go up the escalator and cross the concourse. The response Ellie stitches together doesn't draw laughs. In fact, the woman thanks her. Ellie decides she is not today's assassin.
The woman doesn't turn to the escalator. Instead, she freezes for a moment then glares at Ellie.
"If you'd quit your job after Mom's diagnosis like I'd asked, you could move to D.C.," the woman says in fluent English, her voice now husky. "You wouldn't have to worry about missing the Amtrak."
The woman looks nothing like Chris, but she now sounds exactly like her. A childhood in Taipei clashed with an adolescence in Buffalo to give Chris an accent that is incongruously Brooklyn.
People randomly start sounding like her sister all the time. Some people text. Her sister waylays convenient strangers. The frequency never makes it less disconcerting.
"Do we have to have this discussion right now?" Ellie furrows her brow. "If I don't get to South Station in time, the next Amtrak is tonight. I'll be there before the afternoon."
The woman only comes up to Ellie's neck. She glares down at Ellie anyway.
"Too late." The woman folds her arms across her chest. "If I have to stay at home to watch over Mom, you have to go to the skunkworks and repair the physics of this universe."
"What's the hurry?"
"Everyone's wrong about why International Prototype Kilogram is losing mass relative to its official copies. We'd see divergences between copies even if the kilogram were defined by something more fundamental than a cylinder of platinum alloy. The notion of the kilogram, itself —"
"Has become unstable." Ellie frowned. "Fundamental physical constants are changing —"
"Yes. Now the good news —"
"There's good news?"
"— is we've found some hold-time violations in the skunkworks. Probably caused by some leaking valves. They must be why the kilogram's unstable. Fix them and I promise I won't judge you when you don't get here until tomorrow afternoon. First time for everything, sis."
By "first time," Ellie isn't sure if Chris is talking about being sent to repair the skunkworks or not judging her for being late. Probably the former. Nothing in the matryoshka doll that is the set of universes can prevent Chris from judging her. Ellie would ask, but Chris has already gone.
The woman turns around as though she hasn't said a thing. She goes to the escalator, trundling her luggage behind her.
At least someone gets to go where she wants to. Ellie doesn't because Mom lies comatose on a bed in Chris's den. Mom needs constant attention from Chris the way dolphins need tax advice. However, taking care of your parents is a filial obligation and no one is more Chinese than someone who no longer lives in the motherland. Even though Chris wants Ellie in the same house as Mom, she doesn't actually let Ellie do anything for Mom. Chris would rather do it herself.
Ellie visits every weekend anyway. She only needs one reason: Once in a while, Mom shifts in bed. She yawns. Her eyes open a crack and, for a moment, she stares right at Ellie. She's about to wake from her long nap, or so it seems for that moment. Then her eyes close again and she slumps back into bed. She probably never moved in the first place. Still, this seems like much more than random firing of neurons in a brain about to die. Ellie, even though she knows better, can't help thinking that the next time might be the time.
The train beeps. Its doors slide open. Passengers stream onto the train. Ellie shakes her head clear then joins them.
The skunkworks that generates a universe lives within the surrounding universe. There are an infinite number of skunkworks and universes. Everyone else is headed toward Davis Square. Ellie, on the other hand, is headed to the universe that surrounds this one.
* * *
The air in the skunkworks feels spackled onto her skin. It burns into her lungs like hot fudge, slow and slick, its aftertaste at once sickly sweet, bitter, and sour. It takes effort to force back out.
The skunkworks looks like the masterpiece of some mad plumber who failed perspectives class in art school. The labyrinth of pipes that surrounds her make her dizzy at first. Broad swathes of transparent mesh stretch between pipes and she bobbles until she gets her bearings.
Fat pipes pass overhead. They form a de facto canopy hiding the skunkworks, which stretches for miles above her. In actuality, it stretches for miles in all directions. Fixes have piled on top of so-called improvements have piled on top of emergency repairs forever. Rust covers the gates and reservoirs at the intersection of pipes. Most pipes block each other's way and have to zigzag around each other. No pipes unscarred from dead welds of stubs where pipes used to join together.
Data pulses through the pipes in all directions. The pipes ripple, but stabilize in time for clacking of valves and the burbling of reservoirs. Probably because she already knows which ones they are, the pipes that violate the hold-time requirement look out-of-sync even to the naked eye. Pipes are supposed to be stable a little before reservoir valves clack until a little after. The pipes that violate the hold-time requirement start to ripple again too soon, corrupting the reservoirs they feed.
Someone stands on a mesh below her. Daniel. He's a verifier, not an isolationist. None of the latter have found her yet. Ellie lets go of the breath she didn't realize she was holding.
Those who know about the skunkworks fall into four factions. Isolationists believe whatever universe a skunkworks generates is correct, even as it inevitably decays. Any change introduces error rather than removes it. Architects design the configuration of gates and pipes that generate the next universe in. Builders, like Ellie and Chris, install those gates and pipes, translating the architects' designs into reality. Verifiers, like Daniel, check whether architects have designed the right thing and whether they have designed the thing right. They understand the skunkworks better than anyone. One of them is almost always the first to show up when the skunkworks has gone wrong.
Even looking down from above, no one can mistake Daniel. His long legs are too short for his torso and his shoulders are too wide. He manages to be both lithe and stocky at the same time, as though he were the runt of a family of impossibly elegant giants. A black T-shirt is draped over his left shoulder.
The pipes beyond his gaze blur as though a giant thumb has smeared a broad swath of petroleum jelly on the air. He holds his hand out. The blurred air twists and swirls into a ball on his palm. It coalesces into an egg tart. Its bright yellow custard sits inside a pale, blond serrated crust. The perfume of eggs and sugar hangs in the thick air.
He studies the egg tart from all angles. His neck cranes and his hand twists. Crumbs fall when he picks up the tart to look at the crust's bottom. He brings it to his nose to sniff. The custard jiggles slightly when he shakes the tart. He frowns.
Ellie bounces from mesh to mesh, swinging around pipes and ducking under reservoirs. She lands next to Daniel. This mesh, already taut from his weight, barely registers her.
"Cousin, your first time solo." Daniel's voice is never the thunder she expects from an elegant giant. He speaks with the rustle of leaves and the rush of water as it smoothes rock. "Congrats."
"Chris mentioned hold-time violations, probably valves gone faulty. Should be an easy fix. Otherwise, she wouldn't have sent me instead of coming herself." Ellie's arms wave in slow-motion semaphore as she steadies herself. "Your egg tart shows a mismatch between how the skunkworks that was built functions and how the skunkworks that was designed functions, right?"
"Yeah, no point calling in an architect. The design itself is fine. The problem is in the implementation. It's all yours. Don't need to remind you that we have to be out of here before the isolationists find us, right?"
She sets down her backpack then walks around Daniel to a knot of intertwined pipes. Reservoir valves clack and the pipes they feed ripple too soon. Data races through those pipes, corrupting the reservoir they feed in turn. All of the valves, however, are fine. Their actuators swing smoothly. Their seals fit perfectly against the pipes and reservoirs. Nothing leaks.
The skunkworks pre-date humanity and no human had ever made any changes to this section. Any actual mismatch in construction should have been found eons ago. Still, she checks, hoping that's what the problem is. The alternatives are all far worse.
A plane of air folds into an origami Black Forest cuckoo clock. The transparent, crystalline structure floats before her eyes. Its pendulum swings back and forth and the skunkworks fills with the sting of an off-stage chorus whenever the pendulum stops at the peak of its arc. Light diffracts through leaves that line its sides. Color sprays across the pipes and Daniel. The egg tart is still in his outstretched hand and he looks far sillier than Ellie would have thought possible given his "I am deadly if you come within five paces" body.
The clock unfolds into a crinkled plane. Its creases delimit facets that refract pipes behind them into something Syncretic Cubist. She grabs the newly retrieved blueprint. Its hard edges dig into her palm. She warps it, at first, into a dome then into a sphere that seals her in.
Daniel splinters into "Man with an Egg Tart," a Braque that Braque never painted. He's all shards of black, gray, and brown flecked with grains of yellow. This piece of the skunkworks, however, resolves into something that no longer looks like an obscene display of Syncretic Cubism.
The multiple perspectives merge into one. Pipes straighten and meet at right angles. She spins along three axes inside the sphere. Her hands and feet work their way up, down, and around the hard, cold sphere for support. Dense knots explode, laying bare their pipes and gates. The labyrinth is now a regular matrix. Pulses of data bulge from one pipe to another as they sweep in waves from one side of the matrix to the other.
The waves propagate faster than she expects. Just in front of her, waves crash into each other. That's bad. If the actual arrangement of pipes, gates, and reservoirs didn't match what they meant to build, though, it wouldn't look like a matrix through the sphere.
The skunkworks match the blueprint in construction. They don't match the blueprint in function, though.
"Fuck me." She slams a foot against the sphere. It shatters with a chord from the off-stage chorus. "The valves are fine. The skunkworks is fine."
She falls face up onto the mesh and thinks horrible things about Chris. Her backpack bounces above her then lands on her stomach.
Daniel looms over her, his hands behind his back. He smells like soy and ginger. An amused expression sits on his face.
"Egg tart?" He crouches, then places the pastry on the backpack.
"I don't need to study the equivalence report." She pushes herself up by her elbows. "I trust your analysis."
"I meant to eat. It's a functional mismatch but still edible." He nudges the backpack toward her head. "You haven't had dinner yet, right? You'll feel better with something in your stomach. Personally, I think that's just a story my boyfriend tells me, but maybe eating really does clear the mind."
She sits up. The backpack and egg tart slide to her lap. "Don't you want your mind cleared?"
"Nyah. I don't believe in emotions." A grin lights his face. "I had a protein shake and a banana before I showed up."
"I already know what's wrong." She takes a bite of the egg tart. It tastes sweet, sour, and ... gamey. "Turkey and cranberries?"
"Hey, I said the report was a mismatch. I do what I can." Daniel rolls his eyes. "So what's wrong, cuz?"
"This universe." She finishes the egg tart. It's not bad if you know what's coming. "It's like someone secretly added lots of helium to the air and now we all squeak. The skunkworks wasn't designed for pipes this slick. The properties of this universe can't have changed much. Most of the skunkworks still works right but a few paths are now too fast."
"Which is why we're seeing functional failures even though what was built matches what was designed then functionally verified." Daniel nods. "What next?"
"Check whether the skunkworks one universe out is working properly so I know where to make the fix."
"It's fine." He sets a plate made of compressed, deep-fried rice from behind him onto her backpack. Pieces of pan-fried fish coated in brown glaze sit on the plate. That's why he smelled of soy and ginger. "I popped out to check while you were assessing equivalence here."
"So they changed the laws of their universe? Seriously?" This goes against everything Mom has taught her. "If you already knew that, why bother asking me what's wrong?"
"I didn't. Speculative generation." He smiles. "You were busy and there was no reason not to check before you asked. Sooner we get out of here, the less likely we'll have to deal with any isolationists. I saved us some time. "
Ellie breaks off a shard from the plate to test the fish. The glazed fish's crispy skin cracks against the deep-fried rice. She sniffs at this equivalence report. Then again, the egg tart smelled normal too.
"Is this going to taste icky sweet like or something?"
Now Daniel just looks annoyed. His brow furrows and his hands rest on his hips. "No, it's going to taste like a deconstructed garlic fried rice paired with a soy and ginger glazed tilapia. The skunkworks one universe out is fine. Eat."
She lances a piece of fish and tries it. The tilapia is mild. Its triumph is that it doesn't sit like cotton in her mouth. The glaze is lovely. Garlic, shallots, and a little brown sugar round out the soy and ginger.
Daniel simply shakes his head when she offers to share. She hasn't had dinner yet, and she doesn't have time, so it all disappears quickly. The glaze never cloys even when it coats her mouth. The plate made of rice clears the glaze away in any case.
"Show off." Ellie smiles before letting sparks flit from finger to finger on her left hand.
The air becomes gauze that scatters the pipes, valves, reservoirs, even Daniel into mathematical points that then recombine. The machinery that generates the universe shimmers. Unlike Daniel, Ellie doesn't generate food. Instead, when the gauze coalesces, it becomes cool, metallic, and malleable, not coincidentally the stuff that thickens into pieces of the skunkworks.
Her right hand extrudes a gate out of the gauze. In time with the clacking of valves, her left hand strikes the pipe in front of her twice. Sparks fly. The pipe splits. Clean, parallel scars separate a ring from the pipe on either side. She installs the gate in place of the ring, her left hand sparking again to fuse the gate into place.
Excerpted from Hold-Time Violations by John Chu, Tommy Arnold. Copyright © 2015 John Chu. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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