Proof of Existence

Content Note: Suicide, domestic violence, emotional abuse

 

Chandler-Sand v. Burdokovsky begins hearings Wednesday, July 16th of 2042.

If the plaintiff’s name rings a bell, it’s because Arnold Chandler-Sand is the father of the child who disappeared twelve years ago. Licking sticky cotton candy from his hands, seven-year-old Jacob went into a single-occupancy bathroom at the amusement park and never came out. Surely you remember that heart-wrenching press conference.

Please, we just want him back—we’ll do anything, his mother Sophie cried in front of his photo, projected ten times larger than life. Neon striped shirt and a giant cloud of pink, a beaming smile sans front teeth.

In the last known footage of Jacob, seen by the unblinking camera perched on the roof of the dancing unicorn carousel he’d just gotten off, Sophie makes angry shapes with her mouth as she points at his stained hands and shirt. The boy yanks the horse-head knob of the bathroom and enters. His mother leans against the red stripes of the pillar in front and lights an old-fashioned paper cigarette, smoke masking her expression as she stares off into the distance. Four minutes and eleven seconds later Arnold approaches from off-screen, asks her something. Sophie snaps her neck sharply, turns, knocks on the door then rattles the horse head. Does it again. Both begin to gesticulate and yell. A park employee in pastel purple shows up, unlocks the door. You can tell from their faces there is no one inside.

After dozens of investigative programs, human and machine experts scouring every bit of data, and torrents of public speculation and accusations (How dare she yell at her child and smoke! Did she block the view on purpose so Jacob could be kidnapped?), the police announced they were stopping the investigation, having exhausted all leads. On the anniversary of Jacob’s disappearance, Sophie was found dead, hanging from the top lip of his bedroom door.

Ten years later Arnold sits at the plaintiff’s table, the furrows on his face belonging to a man decades older. His lawyer to his right introduces Sophie to his left, an unsmiling projection hovering in an empty chair. The defense objects, but there’s no law against reanimating the dead in court. The judge allows it.

Sitting at the table across the room, Professor Daniil Burdokovsky needs no introduction. Shortly after he proved skipping forward in time is possible, the first travelers returned.

There’s no discernible pattern at first: a British free diver who submerged in 1996 and surfaced eight minutes later into 2039. The doctor who woke in her bed to screams of the new fiancée of her now ten-years-older wife. Unsubstantiated reports of individuals and objects swirling on the ’net—a pharaoh’s four canopic jars, beloved family dogs, even a two-million-year-old Australopithecus. Thousands of people claiming they’d skipped minutes or centuries.

And Jacob Chandler-Sand, popping out of the very same bathroom, dark wet spots on his shirt where candy had been twelve years earlier.

Delta Phawilaisak will remember the feeling of being held like a well-worn melody. The scent of her neck, their arms interlacing parentheses, so tight there’s no room for floundering and second thoughts.

But we’ve gone too far. In this present moment, Delta is cleaning her suffocating office-apartment of overflowing floral failures. Last week her first time skip customer signed up, and when the mandatory ID checks revealed massive debt that the woman likely wanted to escape from, Delta mouthed silently toward the sleep pod Sorry, I’m struggling too. As soon as she can cover the back rent, Delta will tell her the once-hydroponic, now-time-skipping capsule has a big leak and refund the money. And then maybe she can get out of this cursed alcove, barely enough room for a wobbling waterbed, her workbench, and the doomed flowers. Sleep in a real home with air conditioning, a hasty foam-sheet wall and one more bad deal no longer the only things between her and the people trying to escape this reality.

Her nose is wrinkling at musky rainbow daffodils when blinking red banners flood her peripheral vision. CONTENT RECOMMENDED JUST FOR YOU. YOU WON’T BELIEVE THESE CSB TRIAL HIGHLIGHTS! SKIP IN 10, 9…

Upgrade her smart visor. That should be at the top of her once-I-have-money list. A beige square grows in the corner of her display until she sees a man with one arm on a long table and the other jabbing, embossed tie flying. You’ve been in the United States for twenty-five years, ever since graduate school. Is that correct?

Cut to a graying man in a sagging, too-large suit. Yes.

And yet, you are not a citizen of the United States, Mr. Burdokovsky.

“Oh, come on.” Delta’s fingers twitch with the desire to lower her vase over the lawyer’s head.

No.

…4, 3, 2

Why is that?

“Time Salon? Fancy flowers haven’t taken off?”

She drops the vase for real. There’s only one person with that voice, and in the wake of the crash she hears that singular toddler-drumming-pattern of boot stomps, too.

Lulu Chen never reveals when she’ll come or go. The last time they were in the same room, Delta asked her to join her word-association-as-therapy business only to hear she’s moving to Europe in five hours, come if you want. Two bullet trains fueled by hurt, a handspan apart, hurling past in opposite directions.

“It’s Time Detectives. I’ll finish changing the sign when the first batch of customers pay.” She swallows. “Aren’t you in Belgrade?”

“I’m here.”

Delta forces her gaze up from the broken heap of glass and flower and water dilating on the floor. Silver-buckle black boots amidst the sea of genetically-engineered singing marigolds and yellow slipper orchids. The ankle-long black jacket, a frequent visitor of her dreams. Waist-swirl hair, now the color of algaed pool water. She’s thinner.

Her eyes. Some things she cannot say out loud—when are you leaving me again—so she thinks it to those beautiful-as-ever eyes.

INCOMING INTERNATIONAL CALL projects over Lulu’s face. Delta’s legs buckle her down onto the waterbed, her insides sloshing with unprocessed stimuli and emotions. She glances toward the green button on the overlay to let the call through on speakers.

“You are about to receive a call from <garbled noise> using the free universal live translator by Allingua,” says a pleasant neutral voice. “Allingua is not responsible for any errors in translation that may lead to loss or damages. If you wish to proceed, say yes.”

Lulu puts a finger to her lips. The tangles between them will have to wait. “Yes.”

My name is Xu Pingmei.” Toneless English comes through her console, generated atop what her visor identifies as Central Plains Mandarin. “I want to find my daughter, Liu Ziwen. I am their mother. They went missing in 2005.” Beneath the visor transcript in both English and Chinese, NOTE: SPOKEN MANDARIN IS GENDER NEUTRAL.

“Where and how?”

Yellow Mountain, Anhui Province. When we are on a wooden plank bridge, they suddenly disappeared.

“You want to recreate the scene?”

Yes. Can only do it in America.

Delta recalls a corner-of-eye news ticker about China banning all skipping-related speech and activity, a few days ago. To ensure that no one disappears again, drone cameras already hover over every intersection as their big sibling imaging satellites watch the whole country from the cold dark of space. Then Chinese netizens commenting on the CSB trial found their accounts scrubbed. Coverage of time skips disappeared from CCTV. The official press release stated that too many disreputable vendors have been cheating money from the people—temporal manipulation became a billion-yuan industry there in a matter of months. All attempts to manipulate time skipping will be strictly punished henceforth.

Some say China is testing the theory that if collective knowing of something somehow makes it real, perhaps collective unknowing can undo it. It doesn’t make sense to Delta, but where else can you pull off something like that?

“You know that no one has appeared in a place other than where they disappeared.”

I know, but I very carefully read the paper. If the skipped environment is exactly identical, it does not need to be in the same location. America has a machine to manipulate single atoms. We can copy the environment.

Delta knows this plan is wild because even Lulu’s eyebrows are raised. The atomizer. There are five of them in the United States, all at research institutions, and only the Boston one is available for commercial use. Just about anything you can possibly want to make can be done with conventional methods in a fraction of the time and cost of stacking atomic Legos. Except, of course, the exact environment of a little girl’s disappearance in the hopes that she will step out the door like Jacob Chandler-Sand. Xu’s done her research.

I read your graduate paper, very advanced digital simulations. I believe you can do it.”

She’s really done her research. At least after these years Delta no longer heaves from shame when thinking of grad school. She can live with the dull taste in her mouth.

“We can try our best to recreate where she disappeared. But this has a very small chance of success.” More like zero.

I know. But I cannot not try. Is my daughter.

“I understand.” Delta watches Lulu walk over to the console to type, now you have money to change your sign.

“I’ll need an upfront for this time skip since it’s an advanced procedure.”

Good, no problem. Any requirement, I can fulfill.

Her once-partner-in-crime-and-bed-but-it’s-complicated has already found the Time Detectives contract template, fingers and hair flying as she adds a clause for the advance while starting to download a finite element differential equation solver. Delta grins. “Then let’s get started. Can you give me as many details as you remember?”

In the appendices of “Time periodicity in closed quantum systems”, posted online in June 2038, Burdokovsky calculated the probability of a monolithic macroscopic system—a dust particle, an ink comma on a page, perhaps even a living cell—spontaneously skipping forward in time, a pebble upon a smooth spacetime lake. Vanishingly unlikely, but not impossible, if the before-skip and after-skip environments are exactly identical. The key is the no-observer rule, the now-famous name for Theorem Two in the paper. Colloquially, it means that no time skipper or anything present at the “before” or “after” scenes—people, cameras, molecules—ever senses the transformation. The travelers always show up at the same place they left, identical save for the time on the clock, no witnesses at either end of the timeline. No flashing light, no puff of smoke. This isn’t the movies.

Internet records show that the paper got all of twenty hits in the first month. When the free diver reappeared, a popular science outlet found Burdokovsky’s work, published the largely incorrect article “This Scientist Proves Time Travel Is Possible—Then They Showed Up”, and the rest was history.

They are in bed together. Their mussed hairs—both black in this long-gone moment—intermingle like river streams, moisture cooling between their legs.

“What happened?”

Delta doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Kicked out of lab. Broke as my parents now, hence the five-star waterbed.” Completely true, though she doesn’t dare add, it was you. You left and solids turned into vacuums and equations stopped making sense.

“You’re better than any of them. We’ll do our own thing.”

Delta wishes she could believe that. Over her year-long fellowship, Lulu rarely answered her messages, except sometimes, weeks later, in cryptic code like Just now Dawn in her golden sandals [, wholly unrelated to How was your day and I miss you. Delta half-figured she had moved on and replaced herself with an AI chatbot. And now they’ve skipped the pleasantries and fucked each other back into their mental maps, but how can that be enough? The thought of her hurts. Not thinking of her hurts.

Lulu twirls her hair, words drifting from her mouth like smoke. “And on beds of soft luxury, you would satisfy all your longing, for that tender girl.”

“What’s that?”

“Sappho.”

“Is that what you did in Seoul? Read lesbian poetry?” A blaze rekindles between her legs. “Wait, is that what you’ve been sending me?”

Lulu smiles an enigma and leans in closer. Ignoring the pang in her chest, Delta rises to erase the space between them.

Time skipping is an advanced application of statistical physics, where no ridiculous scenario is impossible, just extremely improbable.

Happening-once-in-the-age-of-the-universe-exponentiated-by-Graham’s-number kind of improbable. The kind of improbable you would rather label as impossible so as not to confuse laypeople, because probabilities are weird when applied to individual instances. You can’t tell any particular person they won’t win the lottery tomorrow, because in theory they could. This reasoning leads people to drain their dollars on scratch cards and slot machines, to bet away their house and life.

What are the chances, then, that Delta would be squeezed in a tiny office with hundreds of wilting flowers and her long-lost love perched supine atop a Flower Time Pod, orchestrating the reconstruction of Chinese wood planks circa 2005? That Lulu’s gotten them both mango habanero bubble tea dangling from purple drones out of nowhere, without ever pausing her derivation of posterior likelihood distributions?

Whatever they are, Delta can’t remember feeling this good as she gulps sugar while coding, the outside world a negligible term. To experiment on the most advanced scientific equipment in the world, to use all her math and physics knowledge and some more—this is what she’d dreamed of doing, with Lulu, before it all went sour in grad school.

A call jolts Delta from her flow state. From China, not Xu. She skips through the customary prompts with a glance.

You urge them, forget this thing, okay?

“Who’s this?”

I’m Xu Pingmei’s husband. Don’t you work for them?

“Yes, but she’s signed a contract.”

They are crazy. No eating, no sleeping, ignore me, ignore our son. Don’t care about their real family.

“Ziwen is her real daughter, too.”

They died long ago!” Delta flinches at the shouted anger layered beneath flat English.

“Again, your wife signed a contract—”

How much they pay you? I give you double.

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Goodbye.”

“What a dick,” floats down from the pod. Delta doesn’t disagree. She registers the sender ID on the system blacklist. They have no time or energy for this, nine hours before Xu’s flight touches down, but her wrists nevertheless flare with overuse and doubt.

The photo Xu sent is pinned on Delta’s overlay. A little smiling girl in pigtails, making a V sign in front of misty mountains and the ill-fated footbridge. She sends another round of simulations to the supercomputing cluster humming somewhere in a lonely warehouse, and stares at the fluid dynamics equations until her inchoate emotions surfaced into words. “Do you think your parents would abandon everything else to find you?”

A dark chuckle. “They would rather I stay gone so they don’t have to micromanage me every day.”

She’s never met Lulu’s impossible-to-please professor parents in their mansion. Her own parents are taking out another loan to help two of her sisters get through school. Every time they call, they tell Delta We’re so proud of you and refuse her bit of money. Don’t hand over the oxygen until you’re okay. The itemized expenditures for Xu to pay is ten times more than all of her family’s assets combined.

A small hard thing grows inside her, knotting itself over and over.

No one believed Jacob’s reappearance at first—hoaxes were too easy. But the genetics test confirmed the boy is the exact person who walked in the bathroom. Not a lost twin. Not a clone.

The news burned through the world like wildfire, divergent demand and supply cross-blooming in its ashes. For those who wanted to get away, thousands of unregulated sleep pod operations sprang up, purportedly observer-less. The lack of space, as Delta pitched prospective customers, was a feature to increase your probability of skipping; the fewer air molecules sloshing around you, the easier for you to disappear.

And others wanted the exact opposite. Rich elites, afraid of leaving the world unmoored in their absence, hiring dedicated security detail to observe their sleep every night. Parents, buying millions of wide-spectrum cameras for the dark spots in their house: in the closet, under the bed, anywhere pets and children can hide and never come out.

Delta will not remember a lot of what happens during those sweltering weeks of sleep deprivation and stimulant haze. She remembers the jaw-dropping quarter-million dollars to operate the atomizer for twelve hours, and how quickly Xu wired over the money without hesitation. She vaguely remembers the endless paperwork to justify their experiment, them carefully phrasing it as an analysis of historical environments, and coding and recoding endless material simulations even as they drive overnight to Logan Airport. But she will never forget waiting at the terminal for Xu’s flight because Lulu slips a hand into her own, letting go far too soon when an eagle-eyed woman with silver-in-black hair runs down the escalator and instantly tenses into a huge smile in their direction.

She will also remember snapping to attention as the scent of citrus pricks her nose. The three of them are in molded plastic chairs that they grabbed from an empty lecture hall. Through the glass wall of the cleanroom, the large silver cylinder of the atomizer operates silently under orange lights. Xu is peeling small tangerines from an old plastic bag peeking out of her endless pockets. She holds one out, but Delta has no appetite.

She crosses her eyes to focus on the overlay, barely readable diagnostics coded hastily in the last thirty-six-ish hours. The atomizer’s gone through a hundred thousand or so of the six trillion possible arrangements of air and wood and rope molecules they divided the probability space into using Lulu’s Bayesian search model.

I’m adrift, a man says in her ear, and it takes her a while to realize that’s from the CSB testimonies, not her visor reading her mind. I’m a stranger to my own friends and family. I’ve lost everything. My house, my dogs. I don’t wish this on my worst enemy. The free diver. Of course.

NEW SUBVOCAL FROM L: stop watching CSB, it’s awful

Let’s sync again, Lulu said last night, one arm dangling out the driver’s seat window, gaze split at the horizon between the streaking asphalt and her still-churning algorithm overlay. They had gotten the subvocalization modules together, back when Lulu knew another grad student who knew someone with a startup, and they implanted metal and polymers in themselves so they could think secrets to each other without moving a muscle. Delta is glad that when she erased her tattoo over the surgery scar on her jaw joint last year, she couldn’t bear to remove the rice-grain transducer.

SEND TO L: what do we do next?

NEW SUBVOCAL FROM L: get noodles I hope

Her knot tightens to the point of breaking. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, or the lack of direction, but Delta can’t hold it in anymore.

SEND TO L: you know that’s not what I mean

Something beeps. The two of them start, but Xu waves and points at the clock on the sterile wall. “Just the atomizer cycle ending,” the overlay captions in English. Xu’s spent the last two months waiting for her visa poring over every manual and scientific paper related to their experiment. Delta’s certain she could put on the head-to-toe cleanroom suit and take over for the technician inside if need be.

Said technician checks something on their readout, flashing a thumbs-up while initiating the next cycle. Delta’s taken back to grad school, toiling for years doing experiments that failed for no good reason. And then Lulu left and left again, and now Delta convinces people to part with their money for things they don’t need, whether it’s personalized flowers or hot Chinese air from thirty-some years ago.

Delta looks over at Xu, still glued to the sight of the machine after five straight hours, a bundle of naked uneaten citrus in her lap. This is all wrong. How can they take so much of her money, then sit with her to watch it burn? How can Lulu pretend everything is fine?

NEW MAIL: Hi, I represent ABG Consulting. We would like to contract Time Detectives’s services for our clients…

Delta reads the message twice, chewing every word. A generous offer for her to give workshops at some offices and install cameras for six months, renewable if things go well. She checks and double checks that the sender email is legitimate, and then she takes a slow inhale, relief popping her spine all the way down. When their time is up here, she can apologize to Xu and sign her new contract. Get rid of the pop up visor ads. Get a real apartment. A real life.

Really, you all don’t have to wait. Go eat some food, I will pay—” A rapid series of beeps cuts Xu off.

They rush to the glass as one person. The technician presses the abort button, and the atomizer depressurizes for what feels like hours until the gauge readings settle down. Delta counts down the screws being removed with a series of tiny loosenings until the glass viewport pops off. There is no girl inside.

Typical. Experiments always break when Delta’s involved. Everything breaks.

“I see something!” Lulu points to the shelf of gleaming components in the background.

“I don’t.”

“Just wait. It was a blob of some sort.”

Lulu takes out pen and paper from her jacket pocket and scrawls a hasty message, slapping it on the window. The technician reads it and brings a ladder over to the shelf. As they climb up on the first step, a blur hurls about the orange light in a zigzag loop before landing on the glass, right in front of Delta’s face. A mosquito.

At the sight of the insect, Xu screams and falls to her knees, as if struck by lightning.

To prove something exists, just make one. Point to the fire-breathing dragon in your laboratory with your fingers and tamper-proof cameras. Quod erat demonstrandum. Or you can plug all the numbers into your theorems and show that something must exist, because if it doesn’t, the world would not look like it does. Perhaps unsatisfying, but a proof all the same.

The lawyer asks at the trial: According to your paper, time skippers should not appear in our lifetimes. Yet we’ve had five confirmed cases. Why do you think that is?

Burdokovsky shrugs. Probably there is something unaccounted for in the math.

Would you undo it, if you could? Un-prove your theorem?

This is stupid. He spits as if tasting something putrid. How can anything be un-proved?

An instant highlight, on loop in the media and replayed in the concluding remarks. He sees Jacob as a variable in his equation, an inanimate pawn of the universe. Any reasonable human would feel guilt and wish for things to be different. Not Professor Burdokovsky.

A living animal in the atomizer lab is a massive violation of safety procedures. This the two of them learned from the furious fire marshal and some twenty people in hazmat suits while they supported Xu through the hallway of trampled tangerine pulp and out of the green-glass-and-metal nanofabrication building. A full round of apologies and batch of paperwork promising to pay all fines later, the three of them stumble across the melting asphalt parking lot to the oven of Lulu’s car.

Lulu hops in and boots up her console from the driver’s seat, tapping up a hurricane. Delta shuffles around the mountain of clothing and unidentifiable objects in the backseat until Xu, still sobbing, can sit down next to her. “What are you doing?”

“Sequencing the genome.” Lulu’s console shows a close-up of a bristled insectoid leg.

“How did you get a sample? Never mind.” Of course she did.

Delta awkwardly pats Xu’s shoulder until her heaving subsides into hiccups. “As soon as I see the mosquito I knew. That day, on our faces, in the sky everywhere is the exact same mosquito. Wenwen cries while asking, Mama, why the bug only bite me and not you?

I say, because you are sweeter. I now remember I pick many bugs off my backpack, look up, my daughter is gone.

“DNA matches Aedes albopictus, Asian tiger mosquito!” Lulu’s head swings back, eyes huge with victory.

“No way the cleanroom would have let that in.” Delta can already see the headlines. PhD-program-dropouts, still smart and capable people, made a real living thing appear in the atomizer. This is the stuff of Nature papers, professorships—she can reenter academia again, if she wants. Or get millions of dollars from investors who don’t understand probability, and be set for life.

“Hold on.” Lulu resumes typing.

Xu looks over at Delta, who points to the equations on the console. “She’s updating the probabilities that your daughter will appear.” A fly showing up in two times ten to the power of four seconds, normalized by the number of flies in Asia compared to people and the ratio of atoms in a human child to a fly, scale by Burdokovsky’s constant in Equation 3c of the paper…

“God,” Delta mutters. Ziwen might show up in a few centillion years, an enormous number beyond comprehension. Lulu’s running a hundred sanity check calculations, but she never makes mistakes on things like this.

What’s the problem?” Xu asks.

“Look.” Delta forces in a few breaths. She can see many branching paths in the conversation tree, all kinds of things that Xu can say, and she has no response planned to most of them. “This experiment—it was a good proof of concept. We made a tiny thing that might be from China appear. But it isn’t going to bring your daughter back. We just did the calculations; the probability is basically zero, even if she skipped in time. Is zero.”

The car suffocates them with silence, then Xu speaks.

You probably don’t know why I have so much money,” Delta’s visor supplies. Her tree disintegrates into confused mist.

“On the day Wenwen disappears, I run up and down the mountain, asking people if they see my daughter. My head is a complete mess. I pray to heavens for her protection.

“When I get home my husband hits me for losing Wenwen, calls me a stupid bastard. We go to the police. They do not help me. They tell me Wenwen must have fallen from the bridge. How is that possible? They are right in front of me. I only look away for half a second. If they fall, I must feel movement. When I look down, I must see them falling. I see nothing.

“They all say I am lying. I go back to the bridge. I sit on the wood plank, thinking I should jump off because I deserve it. But I cannot do it, the fear of death in my bones.

“So I ran away. I find a person who make cameras and we sell them on the streets to parents. I tell everyone when there is no camera my daughter disappears. I marry the camera man, give birth to a son, we grow the business to all of China.”

Delta remembers the voice with thorns. “Your husband, he called and wanted you to go home. To him and your son.”

Xu shakes her head. “My son is over twenty, already grown up. But Wenwen is still seven. She needs me.

She grabs both of their hands, new tears running down her face. “All my money I spend on private investigators and fortune tellers to find my daughter. They are completely useless.

This is, in over thirty years, my first real hope.”

Delta’s never seen Lulu cry. She says something in halting third-generation Mandarin that Delta’s overlay interprets as “I’ll help you.”

Xu looks out the window, trees faintly shimmering in Boston summer. From her pocket she retrieves a faded pink hair clip. “Wenwen,” she whispers to herself. “You are braver than me, always excitedly running ahead. For a long time I thought because I did so many wrong things, was a bad mother, that the heavens take you away from me. Now I know you are trapped by spacetime. I swear, no matter how difficult, I will spend my remaining time looking for you. You are my whole life.

Delta’s holding back her own tears, but she feels a responsibility to talk Xu out of this. “I know it’s hard—”

The door opens and she’s pulled out of the car, a slam behind her. Lulu grips her shoulders to the point of pain, her hair a furious tidal wave threatening to crash over them both.

“What is wrong with you?” Lulu rasps, face still blurry.

“What do you mean? I’m being realistic. You did the math yourself.”

“If Burdokovsky’s equations are right, we wouldn’t have had five skippers!”

It burns, Lulu parroting the CSB lawyer’s argument. “But we have far more data on our exact atomizer setup for recreating Xu’s setting. Our scaling math is sound.”

“Unless there are nonlinear effects we don’t know about.”

Delta resists the urge to roll her eyes. There can always be nonlinear effects—without evidence, it’s empty speculation. “Are you a pseudoscience quack now? What do you want to do? Continue to take her money and get ourselves banned at all the atomizers?”

“I want to build my own. A better one. Help her as long as she wants it.”

She must be joking. “We have a great scientific result already. We can get funding, return to academia—”

“We can’t tell anyone this!” Lulu snaps. “She’ll never be able to go back to China. Are you heartless?”

Of course not. She didn’t think of the real world in her false triumph. She can’t think straight with Lulu in her visor frame. “Fine, then we pretend it didn’t happen and go back to our lives. I just got a contract for time services, not that you care—”

“I do care, D. I’ve always cared. I don’t want you to regret your choices. Break the world together, remember?”

“Thank you for your concern,” Delta grinds out. She feels so small, every hit cleaving a piece off her until she is only the knot. “It would be helpful if you didn’t suddenly leave and let my life fall apart. Twice.”

Lulu never breaks eye contact first, but she does this time, letting go and walking to the end of the blacktop, staring at the horizon down the street beyond interactive glass and cracked brick. The rest of the world waits, observing.

NEW SUBVOCAL FROM L: I need to show you something.

INCOMING FILE FROM L. ACCEPT?

Delta stares at the open box icon floating atop fading aqua she is trying not to look at. Thinks about ignoring the prompt and just walking away. Theoretically possible, but when has she ever been able to let go of whatever this is?

She decompresses the file. A chat log between Lulu and her parents, going back years without a single response from Lulu, timestamps lined up with every tectonic rift between them.

She’s not good enough for you.

You’re not mentally ill, don’t lie. Stop wearing those ugly clothes. You embarrass us.

We’ll find you a good boyfriend. Even girlfriend, if you insist.

Your cousin just got tenure. Look at yourself, wasted potential. Shame.

She’s so poor. She’s not from a good family. She’s not even pretty.

Stop taking meds, they make you fat. Your real problem is laziness and disobedience.

You choose. Her or us.

Delta’s stomach threatens to expel its vacuum. So much poison to drown in, it’s a miracle she’s still here. Lulu’s head pivots back, a crystal to liquid phase transition in her eyes. “I never said anything because…you’re the only good thing I have. It’s my burden, not yours.”

Delta wants to say no, it’s ours, but the wounds are pouring from them both and she can’t form words right now. Instead, she runs over, gathering the pieces of the woman she loves into her arms.

After two months, Burdokovsky is found not guilty, projection Sophie crying as all charges are dismissed, though two of the jurors stress afterwards that they really don’t like him. The judge denies his request for Chandler-Sand to pay his lawyer fees, enough to run the atomizer for a day and more. The trial is as quickly forgotten by the public as they were to seize on it, relegated to the trivia section of the collective human archives. Burdokovsky declares bankruptcy, quits his professorship, and heads home. Rumor has it if you walk up the dirt road to a particular Yekaterinburg farm, you might hear a wandering man mumble about the cruelty of partition function renormalization.

An embrace is a timeless space. In the plenum, only her, all of her.

“I told you, parties aren’t really my thing.”

“At least meet one new person before going back to lab, overachiever.” Jess’s hand thrusts out of the smoke and noise masquerading as music to drag Delta through a twisty passage of bodies. “Here.”

Fuck, she’s gorgeous, is Delta’s first thought. Black boots, black jacket, black hair, black eyeliner. Black eyes far too cool for her.

“Meet Delta, my roommate. Star experimental biophysicist.” Jess spins without spilling her full plastic cup of beer. “Delta, Louisa Chen does differential geometry and went to my undergrad. She was the smartest person there, so you probably have lots in common. Have fun!”

And then they’re alone in the fray.

“Nice to meet you, Louisa.” Delta grasps for an opener. “Part of my family was Chen, too. They changed their names to Phawilaisak when they fled to Thailand during World War II…” Way to go, she tells herself. Real fun fact.

Louisa is unperturbed. “Just Lulu. I care more about the future. What do you want to do with your life?”

“Is this a job interview?” Delta has a generic prepared response about advancing science, but she feels a sudden compulsion for honesty. “I want to make money for my family.”

There is a softness in the black eyes. “That’s good. I want to break the world.”

Delta feels her eyebrows raise. She’s not even sure what that means, but, “I do too, once I do the first thing.”

“Want to get out of here?”

The last time, she tells her—hushed, looking way—her proposal of therapy and words. She flinches away to another continent.

The first time, she tells her—breathless, into the night—ideas and algorithms and machines. They promise to build them together.

Delta will remember the ending most of all.

You’ve probably heard that theory floating around: time skips are multiverse threads mixing up. All of us are living uncountably infinite lives at any moment, and sometimes the universal wavefunction vibrates a life from one branch of existence to another.

Entertaining, mostly unscientific. If it were true, though, somewhere out there would be a version of Delta that stayed. Stayed in Lulu’s embrace and Xu’s hopeful tears and the adrenaline of free-falling, finding a crew of people with dreams as big as theirs, real therapy and medication, ordering millions of dollars of lab equipment, weathering sick days in each other’s arms, eating ramen and building electronics in a hangar, their hangar, hands together on the old-fashioned on-switch when the atomizer is ready for its first test. Surely, after all their endings, they deserve another beginning.

But Delta’s been treading water her whole life, half-looking for adventure on the horizon while craving the safety of crystalline sand. Watching the car disappear like a heat mirage, signing up for the stable job with good income, workshops and meetings all day, four solid walls, a pot of a long-gone person’s favorite ordinary gardenias in the corner of the house. And if she drowns herself with work, maybe she can ignore the gnawing feeling inside.

And that’s why Delta decides to live in the world where she stayed.

NEW SUBVOCAL FROM D: Delicate girl, in the old days

                                             I strayed from you, and now again [

 

 

(Editors’ Note: “Proof of Existence is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 37A.)

Hal Y. Zhang

Hal Y. Zhang writes science, fiction, and science fiction, in no particular order. She has a language-and-loss chapbook Amnesia with Newfound, and a women-with-sharp-things collection Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms with Aqueduct Press.

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