In the year 21XX, the world suddenly shifts, and the lines of reality blur. The effects are subtle, but devastating - it becomes difficult to tell what has been, what is, and what will be. People continue move at the same, constant speed, but the time and space around them twists and flows unpredictably. What a person perceives around them may not yet be, or has already been. Individually, the warping is minimal, so small that the effects are almost unnoticeable - in high population densities, though, the combined distortions are catastrophic. People could walk right by each other and not even know that they were passing another person - or, more dangerously, into them. In the first week after the shift, accidental deaths in large cities spike to unprecedented highs. Everybody knows somebody (most, more than one) who died within the first five days of the shift.
Scientists have no way to explain it. Theories are formulated, hesitantly, about black holes and the curvature of the time-space continuum, but ultimately they shrug helplessly and admit that it is beyond their understanding. So the government does the only thing that it feels it can do: new laws and regulations are established. The population is carefully redistributed, so that only so many people can live in the same area. The birth rate is controlled aggressively, as is transportation and travel. Anything that does not absolutely require face-to-face interaction is conducted over other channels of communication, which are strictly monitored for any rule-breakers, because even one person accidentally crossing out of their given bounds could be enough to cause the warping to become deleterious.
Everybody copes with the changes differently. Myungsoo, for his part, takes comfort in a clunky, outdated camera - his better ones were lost when he was forced to move out of Seoul, but he knows he’s one of the lucky ones: the government seized most cameras and camcorders shortly after the shift, to permit unapproved media from leaking into official channels. It’s oppressive, and everybody knows it, but it’s better than the alternative - without the government to organize them, everything would be chaos. The only reason that Myungsoo is allowed to keep his is because it uses film, so whatever he takes can’t be uploaded to the digital world, which increasingly has become more and more important to regulate the physical world. The Internet - already so pervasive - becomes the most powerful force in everyday life.
It doesn’t matter, really - Myungsoo doesn’t have any interest in undermining government control. And even if he did, he thinks, there is nothing so terrible it he could show the world that could make people think that the government is worse than what would happen if there was no government at all. Mostly, he’s just grateful he has it at all.
Myungsoo understands how cameras work - the lens captures light bouncing off of objects; chemical reactions occur, and the image is imprinted onto film - so he understands, above all else, that when he takes a photograph, whatever is in it must be real at that moment, even if his eyes can’t see it, or see something different. It reassures him in a time when nothing else can: when everybody else seems to turn to God, he turns to photography to reassure himself of his own reality. It is a tenuous comfort, because there are only so many rolls that he has - manufacture of film went out of business decades ago, and he only bought them as needed, not knowing that someday there would be a time when he would rely on them more than anything else.
He uses his first roll of film on preserving old memories: before his moving date arrives, he snaps photos of his apartment, of his favorite restaurant, of the park he used to like to take a run in whenever he had free time. The people in Seoul who are still waiting for relocation don’t come out unless they have to anymore, so it is eerily quiet, unsettlingly empty. Instead of images of children playing on the swingset or tipsy businessmen hanging off the edge of their chairs as they order another round of drinking snacks, the photos come out devoid of other humans. They weren’t the memories he wanted, he realizes. A waste of valuable film, since he only has so many rolls and they are nigh impossible to come upon.
Myungsoo only looks through them once before he tucks them into a photo album and hides it at the bottom of a moving carton. Even after he’s finished with the relocation process, he doesn’t open up the box - he just shoves it into the bottom of his closet and buries it underneath his clothes and tries to willfully forget.
The third day after he moves in, there is a knock at his door.
Myungsoo opens the door, but he doesn’t let go of the knob. “Hello?” he asks.
“Hi,” says the stranger. “I’m Lee Sungyeol. I live nearby, so I figured I‘d come by and greet you. You’re new to here, right?”
“Uh, yeah,” Myungsoo says.
“Well, is there a name that you prefer to go by, or should I just make something up for you?” Sungyeol asks, and grins mischievously.
Myungsoo decides that somebody who can smile like that is probably alright, so he loosens his grip on the door and replies, “Right, sorry - I’m Kim Myungsoo.”
“Well, nice to meet you,” Sungyeol says. “Y’know - you’re the first person I’ve tried to greet since getting here that hasn’t shut the door in my face before this point. I’m getting a good feeling about you, Kim Myungsoo.”
To his own surprise, Myungsoo laughs a little at that. “Well, what can you expect, really?” he points out.
Sungyeol shrugs. “I don’t know. People are weird. Weirder, nowadays.” There’s a pause, before he asks, “Hey, are you from Seoul? You sound like it.”
“Yeah,” Myungsoo answers. “Born and raised there my whole life.
“Me too,” Sungyeol says, and he sounds pleased. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to in forever from Seoul. Everybody else here has weird accents - well, not that it matters, but, you know. It’s kind of weird to complain about not being at home when nobody else has the same home as you do.”
“You’ve been here a while, then?”
Sungyeol hums in affirmation. “One of the first ones to get moved. I’ve been here for almost five weeks already.”
“That’s pretty lucky, isn’t it?” Myungsoo asks. Everybody, in those first few days, had wanted to be the first one to leave.
“Maybe. I would have rather stayed as long as I could, though.” Sungyeol shrugs. “Ah, well. It doesn’t really matter at this point - what’s done is done already.”
Myungsoo thinks about the photos of empty streets he had buried and nods. Sungyeol goes on: “Anyway, if you ever wanna talk or need help or anything, I’m down that way - ” he points to the right “ - my name’s on the door.”
“Okay,” he says.
“You should come by sometime,” Sungyeol says, and smiles. “I have a good feeling about you, Kim Myungsoo.”
Myungsoo considers this, then smiles back. “I will, then,” he promises.
Officially, there are no bans on visiting people. Unofficially, though, people willingly isolate themselves physically. Relationships begin to occupy a sphere in the Internet even more prominently than before, since most people were separated from the people that they knew during the relocation process, and the shift is rarely strong enough to affect electronic data. Myungsoo, before moving away, promises his friends and family that he will stay in contact, but his texts and e-mails become increasingly sparse as time passes. It’s just not the same, he thinks. It becomes harder and harder to care about people who, increasingly, only reside in his memories.
There are very few people that Myungsoo sees in person: there is the person who drops off weekly food distributions, and the supervisor who makes inspections a few times every month, and then there is Lee Sungyeol. Four months of living in the same residential unit, and Sungyeol is still the only one who has ever greeted him. The two of them visit each other often; they become friends quickly, and they joke that they must have known each other in a past life, because they just click, in a way that Myungsoo has never felt with anybody else before. It helps, he thinks, that Sungyeol is the only person that he can still touch, and that Sungyeol is from Seoul like him, and that Sungyeol doesn’t mind when Myungsoo runs out of words to describe how he feels.
Myungsoo is many different people around Sungyeol. Sometimes he is the cool and detached Myungsoo, who Sungyeol teases and tries his best to unravel. At other times he is childish and free-hearted, and when he’s like that Sungyeol will often say, delighted, “You’re such a five year old,” only for Myungsoo to snap back playfully with, “Who’s calling who a five year old?” and both of them poke fun at silly things. More rarely, he is the thoughtful, contemplative Myungsoo, who shyly shows Sungyeol his camera and explains avidly the mechanics and science behind it, and tells him what the photos mean to him - reality, and maybe even more.
Sungyeol, though, is a reassuring constant: he is always loud and vibrant and true to himself, who laughs cheerfully and likes all of Myungsoo’s different sides, even the ones that Myungsoo himself doesn’t like. He speaks thoughtlessly and asks pointless questions, and Myungsoo is glad for it.
“They say when two people touch, the warping gets exponentially stronger,” Sungyeol says to him one day as they sit on Myungsoo’s coach together. “Hey, Myungsoo - do you think, if enough people linked together, that we could warp the entire world completely?”
“Why would you want to do that?” Myungsoo asks.
Sungyeol shrugs. “I dunno. I guess I wouldn’t actually want to. I’d just want to know if it could happen, you know?”
There is a pause before Myungsoo finally says, “I don’t get you, sometimes. The world’s already full of so much uncertainty as it is - do we really need more?”
“The world was already full of uncertainty before, wasn’t it?” Sungyeol replies.
For a few moments, all Myungsoo can do is stare. “You make me nervous sometimes,” he admits. “With that way of looking at things.”
“I make you nervous?” he asks, and he smiles a little in a way that Myungsoo knows isn’t out of happiness.
“You accept everything so easily, and I just - I don’t understand how. How can you not be bothered by that?” Myungsoo bites his lip slightly - “I don’t know. I don’t know how to say it, exactly, but at times I just don’t get you at all.”
Sungyeol shrugs and says, “That’s just how I am, you know? That’s it. That’s all there is to it.”
“I know,” Myungsoo says, even though he really doesn’t. “You think of things differently than I do. A lot differently - that’s what makes me nervous.
“You make it sound like I’m dangerous,” Sungyeol says, the right side of his lips quirking upwards slightly.
Myungsoo has to wonder about that, but then Sungyeol tugs on Myungsoo’s hand lightly and grins. “Hey, let’s go and see if that stray cat that comes by sometimes is around. I think that the lady who works at the food distribution place feeds it, because I swear, it gets bigger every next time I see it.”
“Okay,” Myungsoo says, and lets Sungyeol drag him off. He considers, vaguely, if Sungyeol touches him on purpose or not.
Being friends with Sungyeol, he realizes, is always a little like that. He finds that he doesn’t really mind it.
Reality is less in flux after he moves than they were in Seoul. There are little things that vacillate unpredictably, but mostly they are minor inconveniences, nothing serious or debilitating. Sometimes Myungsoo picks his keys up from the table only to find them there again five minutes later, except that they’re also sitting snugly in his pants pocket at the same time - at times like that, it can get difficult to remember what is real and what are only perceptions. Small paradoxes like that will resolve themselves fairly quickly, but when they happen over and over again, he starts to feel deeply uncomfortable.
Even still, he thinks, he would rather be in Seoul where he knows not to trust his perceptions than here, where he is afraid to trust them. To distract himself from dwelling upon it, he thinks about what he should use his remaining film on (only two more rolls left after he finishes this one, he realizes glumly, and he often wonders if it’s possible for him to make his own somehow). When he’s not doing his government-delegated work, or with Sungyeol, or sending half-hearted e-mails to his parents, he spends hours scouring the Internet for information about photography - history, technique, construction, anything that can keep him distracted. Every day, as a matter of ritual, he delicately cleans his camera and checks to make sure that everything is as it should be.
Weeks pass like this. The warping gets stronger on some days, weaker on others. Myungsoo only snaps photos when it starts to get especially bad (which, he realizes, is getting more and more frequent), mostly of inconsequential things that he immediately regrets wasting film on. When he takes a photo, though, it always sends a wave of relief through his body - he untenses, lets himself breathe a little more easily, and is reassured that reality need not be subjective.
He uses up his second roll of film this way, and is unsure whether or not he regrets it.
“Happy birthday,” announces Sungyeol, striding into Myungsoo’s room without waiting to be invited in. He drops a package into Myungsoo’s lap.
Myungsoo looks up from where he’s sitting, frowning at Sungyeol. “I shouldn’t have told you I keep my door unlocked if I’m at home,” he says with mock ruefulness. “Can’t you at least knock before coming in?”
In reply, Sungyeol pushes at Myungsoo’s shoulder lightly. “Hey, now. Is that something you should say to somebody who took great time and effort to get a present for you?” he asks.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Myungsoo says, rolling his eyes in fake exasperation. He picks up the package and shakes it lightly next to his ear - doing it has never helped him glean any useful information about what might be inside before, but he likes to hear the sound of movement within. He opens it, carefully tearing away at the tape: inside is a small photobook, filled with pictures of Seoul. “Where did you even get this?” he asks, voice full of quiet awe.
Sungyeol shrugs, and manages to pretend to be modest for all of fifteen seconds before he smirks proudly and puffs out his chest a little. “It wasn’t that hard,” he says. “I know this guy - Kim Sunggyu, do you know him? Well, anyway, he’s a pretty good guy, if kind of a hardass at times, but he’s knows some people who dabble in some under-the-table trading, and he said he could set me up with a proxy buyer. And so, here it is.”
“You have a lot of friends, don’t you?” he asks.
“‘Course I do,” Sungyeol says, shrugging. “You’re not around all the time for me to bother, so I have to find replacements.”
“Oh, I’m honored.”
“As you should be!”
Myungsoo clears his throat and looks down, down at the book sitting in his lap. “Thank you,” he says. “Really, I’m grateful.”
“Nah, I’m the one who’s grateful to you. For, you know, not shutting the door in my face that day we met.” Sungyeol smiles; Myungsoo can tell he’s reliving their first meeting in his head. “I’m serious, really. Out of everybody I’ve met since the shift, you’re the one I’m most glad to have made friends with,” Sungyeol says. His tone is unusual soft, tender, and Myungsoo doesn’t know what to think of it.
"I think maybe I should be the one saying that,” Myungsoo replies, feeling strangely shy.
Sungyeol, though, laughs. “Let’s just both be grateful to each other, then,” he suggests. “It’s best to not have a lopsided relationship, anyway.”
“Sounds good to me,” agrees Myungsoo, because he thinks that if Sungyeol likes him as much as he likes Sungyeol then he’s never had a person like him so much before.
Later, Myungsoo seriously considers taking pictures of the photobook, because it is the thing he wants to be the real most out of everything that he owns. He compromises with himself and takes a shot of the cover, and spends the rest of the night flipping through it over and over again. He thinks that he would have liked to walk through Seoul with Sungyeol, and wonders what it would have been like if, perhaps, they had met each other before the shift. As he drifts off to sleep, he visualizes Seoul’s skyline and thinks up a series of hypotheticals: what if Sungyeol and I had bumped into each other in a coffee shop? in a convenience store? passed each other as we walked down the Han River? What if we’ve sat in the same bus before and never realized it?
He remembers Sungyeol asking him, "Do you think, if enough people linked together, that we could warp the entire world completely?” and thinks that if the warping could, somehow, be so strong as to throw them back to the time they lived in Seoul, then he wouldn’t mind giving it a try - just to have the chance to meet Sungyeol all over again.
Myungsoo is more cautious with his third roll of film. He knows he has to be, if he wants to make things last. Meticulously, he plans ahead every possible photo that he could take, weighing the pros and cons of each one. Up until now, he has only taken pictures of things and of places: the second roll of film was spent on atmospheric shots (birds in flight against the light blue-gray of the sky, shadows cast in the late afternoon, Sungyeol’s mess of a room) and the first on things he’d rather not think about.
Finally, he decides on one thing - he would like to take a photo of Lee Sungyeol. Maybe more than one, if he can. Maybe the whole roll, because he would need all of them and more to capture the most important parts of Sungyeol.
He can’t work up the nerve to ask, though, and instead he takes a picture of himself in the mirror.
The shift becomes more and more unpredictable, with no way to predict its volatility. Sometimes, there are periods of days upon days where everything behaves just as expected, and at other times, time loops back on themselves over and over again, enough to drive a person half-crazy. The government release empty statements that all boil down to one thing - things will never go back to normal, so it’s best to simply adapt.
Studies are conducted. Scientists find that the amount of distortion a person creates has absolutely no correlation to any physical aspects - adults who bridge six feet can cause exactly the same amount warping, perhaps even less, than a child does. For a while, the government seriously considers testing all of its citizens for amount of warping in order to better redistribute, but ultimately, it is dismissed as too costly for something that, in all likeliness, would have negligible effects.
Nevertheless, testing how strong the distortion field around one’s self becomes a minor fad for a few months amongst people who have the time and the money for it. As more and more data becomes available, a few researchers float out a tentative hypothesis: that those with more emotional instability, in turn, cause proportionately more instability in the time-space field. There is nothing to prove that it is true, nor is there anything to prove that it is untrue - which, naturally, means that most people believe in it, at least a little bit.
Underground trade of tranquilizers and mood stabilizers peaks as people attempt to kill their emotions. Internet videos explaining different relaxation techniques go viral. Skeptics snort and think to themselves that if this is a ploy by the government to make the people more complacent, easier to control, then it is one that is working almost too well.
For Christmas, Myungsoo’s aunt asks him if he’d like her to send him antipsychotics, but he turns her down.
Together, he and Sungyeol ride out a time loop that lasts all afternoon. Sungyeol amuses himself by causing paradoxes in Myungsoo’s living room. Myungsoo tries to play along too, but eventually he ends up lying back on his coach, camera clutched in his hands, only getting to check the clock every once in a while. It never passes 3:52 - every time it seems like it might, all of a sudden it is 3:38 again, and they relive the same fourteen minutes one more time. Eventually, Sungyeol has to sit on him to prevent him from looking at the clock again and again - “You’re driving yourself crazy, you idiot,” he says, and crosses his legs over Myungsoo’s lap, distracting Myungsoo by telling nonsense puzzles and stories about his childhood.
After it is done, and the clock finally clicks past 3:52, Sungyeol asks him, “Are you alright?”
It takes an enormous effort for Myungsoo to sit up again. For a few moments, all he can do is stare at the space behind Sungyeol’s head - then, without even thinking, he raises the camera to his eyes and snaps a photo of Sungyeol - this is all he can do, because there aren’t any words that can possibly describe the things that he needs to say, so instead, he does what he has always done when he doesn’t know what else to do.
“What was that for?” Sungyeol asks. He sounds like he’s not sure whether to be irked or to be curious - for Myungsoo, though, he’ll give the benefit of the doubt.
“I just,” Myungsoo says, before he pauses, tries to collect his thoughts - “I just have to know that this is real. Because if it’s there in the photo -”
“ - Then it must have really, truly been there. Yeah. I know,” Sungyeol replies, because he’s heard Myungsoo explain it before. He holds out his hands, crooks his fingers upwards, a silent request to see the camera. Myungsoo only hesitates for a second before he hands it over.
“You’re the first person to touch it besides me in a long time,” he admits. There’s a note of fear in his voice, because he feels like he’s just handed over his heart.
Sungyeol sighs. “Then I’m sorry to have to do this,” he replies, before he opens up the slot and takes the film out, exposing it to the afternoon sun filtering through the windows, and suddenly Myungsoo can feel his heart beating faster, harder, pounding in his ears - he thinks about silver-halide, about chemical reactions and how just the slightest bit of exposure ruins film, ruins it irrevocably, how the pictures of the photobook and of himself reflected in the mirror and most importantly Sungyeol are all gone, just like that -
“What’s real is what you want to be real,” Sungyeol says. “You shouldn’t rely on this anymore, Myungsoo. It can’t decide for you. This is real. I am real. We are real - why can’t you believe in that?”
There is a strangled, choking noise that tears out of Myungsoo’s throat, so raw and foreign and agonized that for a few moments Myungsoo doesn’t even realize that it is coming from him, nor does he notice that he is crying until Sungyeol reaches over and wipes a tear from his cheek. “I’m sorry,” Sungyeol says again, softer this time.
“It was going to run out eventually,” Myungsoo tries to say, but his voice seizes up half-way through and instead he closes his eyes and shakes his head. “It’s not that easy,” he wants to tell Sungyeol, but he doesn’t know how to explain why.
“I understand, if you hate me for this,” Sungyeol tells him, but Myungsoo doesn’t know how to feel, or if he should feel at all.
A minor time loop feels like this: you put your shoes on to leave the house, kneeling over to tie your shoelaces. After you’re done, you get back up, only to accidentally step on a shoelace when you try to take a step forward. You look down, and your shoelaces are not tied, so you kneel over again to tie it. The process repeats over and over again, until you get tired of it, and you give up only to find that your shoelaces are a knotted mess.
A major distortion feels like this: you are a man dreaming of being a butterfly dreaming of being a man dreaming of being a butterfly dreaming of being a man and when you wake up you realize that you actually are neither.
Being Kim Myungsoo after he loses his last measure of reality feels like this: you drift in empty space. You try to move your hand, but you can’t, so you look over and realize that you don’t have a hand or the arm it should be attached to, you don’t have shoulders or a chest or a body that proves that you are actually there. Instead, you are a floating, massless conglomeration of thoughts and contradictions and if you decide that you don’t actually exist - excruciatingly easy to do - then you don’t, and you never did, and you never will.
But as Myungsoo closes his eyes and tries to make his head as empty as his heart feels, he instead remembers a box, purposely hidden in his closet. He wonders: can a photograph capture the beauty of a person’s soul? is my heart capable of hating Lee Sungyeol? why can’t I trust my own self?
Myungsoo knocks on Sungyeol’s door, clinging the box he had tried to forget about to his chest. When Sungyeol opens it, he says, “I wanted to show you something.”
“Okay,” answers Sungyeol, unusually cautious, and steps aside to let Myungsoo in. On the nearest table, he puts the box down and opens it up - inside is a single photo album. He flips through the pages, taking all of the pictures inside out: pictures of an empty playset, of deserted neighborhoods, of isolation and loneliness.
“I took these before I left Seoul,” he explains. “Of my favorite places. I used a whole roll of film on it.” He takes a deep breath and fingers the corner of one of the photos - “But they’re not the memories I wanted. I wanted to capture the Seoul that I remembered, of people on the streets and laughing together and fighting with each other and struggling and just being alive, but they ended up like this instead. And I thought to myself - I’d rather have the Seoul that we had. The one before the shift. The one in the photobook you gave me.”
“Myungsoo,” Sungyeol says, but Myungsoo shakes his head. He’s not done yet. There is still more he has to say.
“I thought a lot about what you said. About choosing for myself, and I think that...” Myungsoo hesitates, but then he takes his hand off of the pile of photographs and looks up, straight into Sungyeol’s eyes. “I think that I want to try that from now on.”
Sungyeol murmurs his name again - “Myungsoo” - but this time, the timbre to it is completely different: it’s something tender, something desperate. It occurs to him that this is the first time he’s ever seen Sungyeol with that look on his face, one that tells him that Sungyeol has so many things he wishes to say but the emotions can’t be described with words.
“I want to give them to you,” Myungsoo says, before pulling out his last roll of film and putting it next to the photos. “And this, too.” There’s a hesitation before he adds, “I don’t mind it if you burn them, or rip them up, or get rid of them. I think that... maybe it would be better like that.”
They sit in silence. Time passes strangely between them: Myungsoo doesn’t know if it’s because of the shift or because it’s them, together, exerting their own special force on the world - but it could have been hours or seconds that go by and it doesn’t even matter to him if they can be like this for a little longer. Finally, Sungyeol asks, “Is this your way of saying good-bye?”
“Yes,” Myungsoo replies, and he reaches out for Sungyeol’s hand. Sungyeol lets him curl their fingers together, and when he looks into Sungyeol’s eyes he sees a terrible vulnerability (hope, he thinks, mixed with the despair that his hopes might not come true). “But not to you.”
Sungyeol closes his eyes and smiles. Myungsoo commits the image to memory: his mind, he knows, will remember it better than his camera would ever be able to, and he thinks to himself, This must be real.
And so, it is.
Any paradox would cause the destruction of the part of time-space affected by the paradox.
For example, if you travel back to kill your grandfather, you yourself will disappear.
History erases all traces of your existence, and the death would be caused by another reason.
Therefore, from the historical viewpoint, the paradox never occurs.