Proof of Concept



There was nothing unusual about the postcard. It waited on my doormat, nestled within a bill and some junk mail. On the front of it was a photo of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the sleek, flowing curves bathed in moonlight by the river. I smiled. I didn’t have a choice. It was like a painter receiving a postcard of The Starry Night or Water Lilies, a nudge to the soul, a reminder of what they longed to be able to create. Scrawled across the back, an inked afterthought, letters curved together to say: Even now, made me think of you. Hope you’re doing well. Erin x. My finger traced the words. There was nothing unusual about the postcard.


Except Erin didn’t exist.


I stood there frozen, the postcard in my hand. My cup of tea cooled and the radio prattled on. The presenter interviewed some politician about the latest draft of the Memory Protection Act, and I didn’t hear a word. I was still staring at the fluent, smooth handwriting when there was a knock at the door. My stomach dropped. The card slipped from my fingers. Erin wasn’t real. It couldn’t be her. Another knuckle rapped against the wood and I took a step closer to the door. Whoever was there must have heard my frenzied heartbeat. I tried to construct some sort of explanation, building from the foundations up. It must be a practical joke. One night with one too many beers had led to an indiscretion, had given away my defence. A friend was probably pissing themselves right now, waiting to be let in.


“About time! I was freezing out there! I told you I’d be stopping by,” Mum said as I opened the door. All the frantic energy poured out of my body. “What’s wrong with you? You’re as pale as a sheet. Are you sick?”


“It’s nothing.” I swatted the question out of existence and pulled my mother into a hug. A minute later, I was in the kitchen, making her a cup of tea. I downed my own mug. The cold, congealing liquid clung to my throat. The last thing I needed was a lecture about wasting teabags.


Mum had always wielded some extraordinary power to wrangle your attention and pen it in like an animal. Once she started talking, no one had the time, concentration, or inclination to worry about other things. It only took five minutes with her for the postcard to be hurled from my mind by the swirling vortex of maternal conversation. She was on a rampage today, adamant that Dad had stolen some of her memories to win some sort of argument over who exactly had suggested a beige coloured sofa.


“What’s that?” she asked, nodding at the floor. Crossing the room, Mum plucked the card from its resting place before I could even blink. “Leaving things around, the place’s a mess. I taught you better, and I would have thought an architect would have more respe- from Erin? How lovely!”


I stared, open-mouthed. I tried to remember telling Mum about Erin. Maybe I had mentioned her in passing, a tactic to give the paper woman more form. I shook my head, trying to shake away the shock. That must have been it. It was a better design defence if my memories contained conversations about Erin. “Oh, you remember her? I didn’t think you would; it’s been so long.”


“Well, Steven, some of us remember faces better than others,” Mum said, her eyes narrowing over the frame of her glasses. She still hadn’t forgiven me for calling Mrs Kelston, Mrs Kennington when I was twelve. “And I always liked Erin the most of your college sweethearts. She was such a nice, young girl. So polite. I honestly don’t know what you were thinking breaking it off with her. Better than you deserved, and I say that as your mother who loves you.”


“What?”


Mum raised her hands. “You’re a lovely boy, Steven. But Erin was something special. She made you grin like a naughty schoolboy whenever she was around. You don’t let those relationships slip through your fingers. If she’s thinking about you, I’d call her back. Better than that Rita girl you brought around last month, anyway. Though, there’s no number here? Well, I suppose it’d be easy enough to find her. I’ll look for her on Facebook for you.”


“No.” The word leapt from my mouth. “I mean, I don’t… you never met her. I never took her home.”


Mum’s face transitioned flawlessly. Any shadow of the smile brought about by some memory of Erin vanished, and only the narrowed eyes and thin lips of concern remained. Leaning forward, her hand took hold of my arm. “Are you okay, Steven? Are they working you too hard? I said you needed a holiday.” I sat there, the weight of Mum’s hand against my arm no longer a comfort as she carried on talking. “You brought Erin home for Christmas once. And your birthday. Why, she practically lived with us for two weeks in summer.”


I nodded. I mean, what else could I really say. An apology trickled from my lips, an excuse about long nights at the office. Inside, though, just beneath the surface of my skin, a cold panic started to take root. Mum was losing her grip on reality. It was too soon for dementia. In those few seconds, a hundred terrible scenarios filled my mind, a pressure building, inflating inside my chest. The postcard popped it. It still sat on the coffee table. Mum’s mental decline couldn’t explain that small photograph of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Erin’s handwriting danced in the morning sunlight, the flowing, cursive letters everything I imagined they would be if she were real. I felt the tiniest crack in my foundations.

 

***

 

I called into work sick the next day. The illness sprawled out, claiming the rest of the week as well. No one challenged me on it. People didn’t tend to upset the principal money-maker. Instead of meeting with clients and finalising the design for some accounting firm’s new headquarters, I sat at my computer with a cup of tea, a declining packet of biscuits, and a trail of Facebook and Google searches. Every so often, there would be a hint of Erin, like the shadow of a bird that had just taken flight.


She wasn’t on social media. Rather, there weren’t accounts I could click on and read. Every so often, though, there would be a comment, a reply to someone else’s post. Ha, that is so true! or Still on for Wednesday? etched onto the internet. Her profile picture sat so small on the screen. I couldn’t see more than the outline of dark skin and curly hair, just like I sometimes imagined. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t make the photograph any larger. For several hours, I simply stared at her, sitting on my computer screen. She wasn’t real. Erin didn’t exist outside of my mind. Yet here she was, setting up dinner plans to meet with an old friend.


I hung up on five different people until my nerve finally withstood the wait before someone answered the phone. An old friend from college, a name I could barely put a face to anymore, had liked one of Erin’s witty replies. I let the conversation drift, pointing in no specific direction, a boat lazily letting the current pick a destination. Erin’s name didn’t appear until the very end. I dropped it into the conversation, a passing reference, a trifle fancy.


“Oh, Erin. I haven’t seen her in years.”


Those few words broke the dam of restraint. A flurry of calls followed. Most people couldn’t remember her. They wrote her off as another acquaintance that vanished into the mists of memories. Others mentioned having caught up with Erin recently. When I pressed them, though, an eager wolfhound now giving chase, they buckled. They couldn’t offer anything more than platitudes. “Oh, you know. She’s like Erin.” But yes, I wanted to scream, what was Erin like? No one knew. Erin was like Erin.


By Friday night, I stared at an empty television screen. It was barely visible in the darkness. I hadn’t moved to turn on a light as I tried to understand what was happening. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an explanation. Rather, there couldn’t be one. It was simply impossible and yet it was happening. Erin, invented in the recesses of my mind, existed. I drummed my fingers against my knee, tapped my foot against the floor. The nervous energy reached a crescendo, crashing down with enough momentum to grant me the courage to make the call I was always going to have to make.


“Hey, Becks,” I said, when Rebecca answered the phone. I didn’t know why I had waited so long to talk to her. She, more than anyone, could understand the fear bubbling inside me. But calling her felt like pushing two repelling ends of a magnet together. “I need your help.”

 

***

 

Where London ends is impossible to answer. We sat in a little café, somewhere in a place which may not have been London. Both of our plates were nearly empty. Nearby was the monolith that Becks worked in. It was all orderly straight lines and sharp edges, everything I hated in architecture. Becks never cared about that, though. She could have worked in an upturned shoe as long as it was pristine and contained her lab.


“So, what do you want?” She dabbed at the corner of her napkin, staring at me.


“Just a social call.”


Becks laughed. “You haven’t been social since the last week of university. I’d assume this was a building thing, but then, you’d just call me from your office. A real big favour then. Or an even bigger problem. What is it?”


When I sat with Becks, no matter where we were, it felt like my forehead was transparent. All she had to do was squint her eyes a little and she could see all the thoughts laid out in my mind like a blueprint. Some people might say she was a real Sherlock Holmes, but I’d never seen her pull this trick with anyone else but me. If I dashed out to the loo, left her with a stranger in this little café in maybe not London, I’d find her five minutes later stammering through social norms without a clue as how to escape. But no, she was with me, and I was as clear as a polished window.


“A problem. I think.” I nudged the last bit of sushi around my plate. “Do you, uh… I’m gonna sound like an idiot. Forget it.”


“I promise not to laugh. An engineer’s always honest to her word.”


That was all I needed. I just needed the tiniest push to spill my soul. “Erin’s writing to me. And she’s replying to people on Facebook. And, man, she’s talking to people. Like, actually having conversations with people.”


“I assume you’re not meaning the Erin who lives down the street,” Becks said. My eyes almost stabbed her. She lifted her hands, showing me her palms. There was an ink splotch against her dark skin. “Just making sure. That would be a lot more likely than your trap person getting in touch, wouldn’t it?”


There it was. The words that I couldn’t bear to think myself. My trap person had written to me. Becks was the only other person I knew who had one; it was why I had ventured out to this café, under the shadow of the ghastly building that was her work. She was the only person who could begin to understand the fear unravelling inside me, a single thread being tugged. After all, she had been the one who introduced me to this mess. One morning, a rare brunch date, and a fleeting comment was all it had taken.


“This new Heritage Library,” I had said, “is doing my head in.”


Becks smirked. “Tell me about it. Designing a building for keeping old books. Cutting edge. Revolutionary. If only someone had invented the shelf or something.”


“Oh, shut it. That’s not what I meant. This design is gold. Loads of clients are going to want something similar. That’s what is worrying me. The design’s too valuable. We’ve already had one break-in and three cyber attacks, and that’s not even counting someone having a crack at hacking my memories. I was buying a sandwich and I could feel it. Someone probing at my implants. You see it on the news all the time. Hell, what about that palaver over the new Bond film. Two writers, same script.”


I was used to others laughing off my fears. People who didn’t understand what it was like to create from nothingness, to draw together invisible, ethereal tendrils and to craft them into something real. Becks didn’t laugh. She scratched her nose and stared through me, like she was mapping out the ripples of some decision. I looked down at the eggs benedict weeping on my plate, and only after I glanced back up did Becks begin my initiation.


“We’ve been working on a solution for that. Just a few of us for now, but trust me, Steve, this is gonna go global.”


“What is?”


“The idea is simple enough,” Becks continued, something of the professor sneaking into her posture. “You’ve created something. Someone has stolen it. You need to point to a signature that shows it was yours. Mapmakers used trap streets. They’d fake a road, even an entire town, and when it appeared in a rival’s map… boom! Caught in the act. We use people instead.”


The sentence dangled there in the silence, a bait floating in the river. I didn’t even have the comprehension to bite. Becks rolled her eyes at my blank face. “Think about it. When someone steals your memories, they take any inspiration, any spark as well. So, infect it. Infect it with the memories of someone who isn’t real. You’ve left a trace on them, a marker, a signature to prove the theft. A trap person.”


There was more to it than Becks’s simple explanation. For two months, I made weekly pilgrimages to that café to discuss it with her. Erin arrived soon after. She was my trap person. Whenever I had some new idea, some fresh design, I enmeshed it with Erin. I pictured conservations I had with her about the curve of the building. When I considered natural light, it was Erin who discussed the different styles of windows. If anyone stole a blueprint, they stole Erin too.  


“Are you sure this isn’t just some fantasy?” Becks said back in the present, staring at me over her mug. “I mean, let’s be honest. A guy creates a person, and he creates some lovely girl he knows from college, with all the same interests. And then this chick starts writing to him. Sounds like a fantasy to me.”


It took me several attempts to dislodge a response from my throat. “That’s not… this isn’t… Becks, this isn’t funny. I’m being serious.”


“Well, I don’t know, Steve. Trap people don’t just write. What other advice could I offer?”


“You’ve never heard of this happening before?” The question came out as a plea. All I needed was to hear that someone else had struggled through this problem.


Becks took a deep swig from her mug, her eyes never leaving mine. I could see a calculation running behind them. “Maybe, you’re doing this? A better form of defence, you know? Create some physical evidence of Erin. Delete the memories of you organising it. Boom. That’s a pretty powerful trap person for someone not to get sucked into. I mean, that’s a pretty great explanation, actually. The only reason it probably isn’t true is it’s too clever for you.”


I ran a finger along my plate. It wasn’t a bad idea. I had some important work coming up too, a fancy European competition to submit a design to. By the time we were settling the bill, I’d nearly convinced myself I believed it. Becks gave me a hug, rolled her eyes, and left me alone in maybe not London. A series of trains and busses took me back my home, and all the while Becks’s explanation had started to knit back together my frayed nerves. My attention was already turning back to the accounting firm’s headquarters that needed to be finalised by the end of the year.


In the darkness of my living room, a single red light flashed. A message waited on my answer phone.


“I know you’re looking for me. I don’t mind. Really, I hoped you would. I’ll be at the beach tomorrow, if you want to meet. Love, Erin.”

 

***

 

Another day, another descent into the belly of the public transport system. Busses gave way to tunnels, and tunnels opened out into the country, towns and green fields passing indiscriminately by. I knew which beach she meant. When I had first thought of her, bringing together a dozen different people alive into one person, I imagined meeting her in Whitstable. We sat together, dangling our legs off the most pathetic of piers, watching the boats sail by, condemned to the mercy of the wind. I don’t know why. I’d been to the seaside town only once as a child. The name only stayed in mind because the cement that kept it there had been mixed with Peter Cushing and his films. I think I chose Whitstable for our first meeting because who could possibly guess that memory wasn’t real. What type of mad man, with all of geography available for a cinematic first meeting, would have chosen Whitstable?


Erin was waiting for me, her legs dangling off the pier. I stared at her, a thousand thoughts rattling through my head. She wasn’t how I remembered her. I almost laughed at how ridiculous the idea was. I invented her. How could she not be what I remembered? Still, she was a little taller than I’d imagined, her hair a little darker. As she smiled at me, I noticed the shadow of a scar beneath her jaw, a trace of pain I’d never wrecked upon her. She gestured for me to walk over to her and my feet gave me no choice in the matter.


“Hey,” she grinned, her hands buried inside the pockets of her grey coat. I didn’t remember the sea breeze of Whitstable being quite so biting as a child. “It’s good to see you again.”


“You too.”


The words fell clumsily from my mouth. Then again, I struggled to imagine what else I could have said. Now that I was standing in front of her, could see her, could even reach out and touch her, every obvious thing I wanted to say melted away. Imagine how rude it would have been if I had blurted out that she wasn’t real. I couldn’t say that to her face. It crossed my mind that I was stuck here, as flexible as a brick wall. Erin and I were going to spend an hour together and I’d leave just as clueless as I started, all because of a sense of manners that had been hammered in from thousands of hours of life.


Erin giggled. I’d never imagined her giggling before and it sounded so foreign. “I reckon if I don’t say anything, we could go years without you ever bringing it up. Wouldn’t that be funny?”


Reaching up, her fingers wrapped around my hand, pulling me down to join her on the pier. Her skin was warm. It shouldn’t have been anything else, yet the warmth struck me as hard as any palm across the face. Compliant, I sat next to her, feeling her shoulder against mine, too stunned to say anything. Erin was here, my hand in hers, a figment of my imagination made flesh.


“I’m not real. But I’m sure you already knew that,” she said as we both stared out at the sea. The sunlight danced in between the waves, weaving between each rolling crest. “But then again, neither are you. So, I think we’re okay.”


Her words burrowed into my ears, almost leisurely sinking into the churning mess of my brain. They lounged there, waiting patiently for my comprehension to catch up. The penny dropped. There was no internal explosion. My stomach didn’t lunge down to my knees and my heart didn’t skip a beat. Erin said I wasn’t real and the idea wrapped itself around me with all the intimidation of a warm, woollen blanket. Looking at Erin, her eyes remained set on the sea, following a little boat vainly attempting to escape the wind’s thumb.


“So, I’m not real, huh?” I said it in such a way that it could still have been a joke. I could have walked away, left the detonator behind, and carried on with my life. “What am I then?”


“A trap person, like me. Well, we’re proof of concept anyway.”


Erin finally looked at me then, her eyes so round and bright. They kept me tethered on the pier, in windy Whitstable, my legs swinging just above the tides. If she wasn’t there with me, if her hand wasn’t wrapped around mine, I think I would have plunged straight into the water. Imagining reaching this conclusion on my own, in a darkened living room, I could see the trail of destructive steps that would have been mapped out for me. Alcohol and dark rooms where everything stank, broken bottles and jagged shards of glass chewing into flesh, the feral paranoia of madness, and then the death rattle of a bottle in a bathroom. Erin was saving me from all that. Not once did I think she was wrong. The only certain thing in my life now was that Erin didn’t exist. She was a figment of my imagination and now she was holding my hand. If she wasn’t real, then neither was I.


“So, who created us?”


“Oh, come on, you’re a clever boy,” Erin smiled, nudging me with her shoulder. The weight of it felt so real. “Didn’t you find it odd how Rebecca could read you like a book? Always knew what you were going to say? That’s how I first figured it out, anyway. I think we’re her Mona Lisa. Trap people, the perfect defence against piracy and corporate espionage. There’s a few kinks, though. I’ve found half a dozen issues with it. I think in the real world, she hasn’t gone public yet. Not that we can ever really know, I guess. I just have this feeling that no one knows about us. We’re a problem she’s working through. But she’ll figure it out. Rebecca’s a smart gal.” Erin sniggered at that. “What a narcissist. Having her own trap person call her that!”


So, I was an idea and not even a completed one at that. Existing inside Becks’s head, slowly being fine-tuned for a specific tool, I was only another invention for her to engineer. My hands didn’t shake. I wanted to be angry; I wanted to rage at the world, stand at the edge of the pier and scream into the sea. I wanted every ounce of fury that my life deserved, but the truth was I simply didn’t feel anything. In my head, I could see Becks sitting at a café, thinking this all through. Maybe, it was too messy for her to imagine me breaking down. She had never been good with emotions. Or perhaps a breakdown simply wasn’t conducive to her experiments. Looking back to the beach, I tried to pick out a nice collection of rocks and pebbles, an opportunity to fill my pockets and walk out into the waves. I wondered if I even could.


“Thank you for telling me,” I said. “I mean that. It was better to hear this from you. I can only imagine how shitty it must have been to you, realising all this on your own.”


“Shitty?” Erin looked at me, eyebrows disappearing beneath her dark fringe.


“We’re not real,” I said, gesturing to the world around us. The boats still struggled in the breeze and the sleepy English town rumbled on behind us. “None of this is real. That can’t have been fun to realise.”


“Steve,” Erin said, squeezing my hand. I couldn’t escape the idea that she looked like a disappointed parent. “We’re a few years away from creating a simulation of the universe. And if we can build the simulation, so can the simulation, and the simulation’s simulations. It’s simulations all the way down. And if there are a million simulations and one real universe, then what’s the chances you’re in the real one. Or,” she carried on, just as my lips parted. “maybe it’s impossible to simulate this crazy, beautiful thing. It was designed by a god. A god who is all powerful and who is all knowing. A god who knows exactly what you will always do. A god that can see your entire life, and therefore it is already set in stone.”


“That’s just… you’re just…”


“Or probably,” she continued. “There is no god. There are no simulations. There is only one reality. And what do we know about that? That spacetime is plotted, that everything which has happened is happening and will always happen.”


I sat there, letting her words buffet me like the wind. “What’s your point? That everything is fake? It doesn’t change that we’re not real. That we’re just a game inside someone’s head.”


“I’m saying, why bother worrying? Who cares if this is real or not, as long as it feels real,” Erin squeezed my hand, her skin against mine. It still felt so warm. “I feel real to you. This all feels so real. So, I don’t care if I live inside Rebecca’s head. It’s no different than any other possible reality really. All I can do is live my life. Have fun. Laugh. Cry. Send a postcard to an old boyfriend because I felt lonely. All we can do is live, and that meant seeing you. Meeting you, I guess. Properly anyway.”


“So, what. We just act like this hasn’t happened? Live long and happy lives together?”


Erin laughed. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. All I’m asking for is a coffee. Let’s see if we really click, handsome.”


Looking out to sea, I didn’t see the water. Instead, I thought back to sitting in a café, being told about trap people for the first time. The smell of the eggs benedict came to my nostrils. Or, feeling the sand beneath my toes, running freely, laughing, thrilled to reach the sea before my parents could stop me as a child in Whitstable so many years ago. Mostly, I thought about Erin’s hand in mine, so warm and so soft to the touch. It all felt so real. Memories of a life I had enjoyed living. I struggled, stumbling over some crumbling, mental wall, at the idea that they no longer mattered because they weren’t so real. “I think I can do a coffee. But… I’m not sure I think like you.”


“We’ll take it one step at a time,” Erin said, beaming. She tugged me to my feet, leading me off the pier and toward some coffee house she had spotted.


Out at sea, the little boat finally caught the breeze just right and began to tack, escaping the wind.





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