As soon as the news starts reporting strange occurrences across the world, Sunggyu forces Hoya and Sungjong to stay inside together - from the very beginning, he has a feeling, an intuition that something has fundamentally changed, even though he doesn’t know how to put his feelings into words. At first, Sungjong’s complaints about it are endless, and he insists that Sunggyu is being paranoid - Hoya, too, looks tight-lipped when he agrees to it, but then the next evening as they watch the news and listen to the latest list of accidental deaths, Sungjong goes deathly pale and says, “That’s my brother’s name. That’s my younger brother, oh god, that’s his name and his age and the street we lived on -” before he cuts off and goes silent. He doesn’t cry, but his hands start to shake uncontrollably.
Sunggyu and Hoya pretend they are being considerate by not saying anything. Really, though, neither of them know what to say.
After that, all protestations on their quarantine disappear. Instead, the atmosphere in their apartment turns tense and apprehensive, ready for disaster at every turn; every distortion they ride out pushes them closer to the edge of rationality. Sungjong nearly dissolves into angry tears and attempts to forcibly restrain Sunggyu when he tries to leave to get groceries when they start running out of food. Hoya has to pull Sungjong off, finger by finger, and looks close to breaking down himself by the time they’ve managed to calm Sungjong down, but neither of them can find it in themselves to be angry.
Finally, though, Sungjong acquiesces: “You have to come back safely,” he says stiffly.
Sunggyu promises and Sungjong is appeased. He returns as quickly as possible and pastes a smile on and says, “Everything’s fine” when he gets back, and he pretends like he wasn’t bothered walking through the bare streets of the city - Seoul without any people in it feels like a skeleton in the desert.
Three days after that, they get the relocation notice - an ultimatum to turn in forms for each household member for review by the government to properly redistribute city populations across the country. Sunggyu does not even hesitate before he says to them, “We’ll stay together. We will.”
And somehow, through a combination of sheer force of will and a little bit of cunning, he, Hoya, and Sungjung do manage to stick together after the shift. When they fill out the forms for the relocation process, Sunggyu makes a claim that he is Sungjong’s legal guardian, while Hoya writes in his that Sungjong is his younger brother. There are no documents that exist to back them up, and there are too contradictions for either claim to even make sense, but they cross their fingers that everything will be too hectic for the oversight to be noticed, and a week later when the letters come to confirm their new living place, they all breathe a sigh of relief: somehow, their plan manages to work. Sunggyu and Sungjong moves into a two-person apartment together, and Hoya lives alone right across the hall. For all intents and purposes, though, the three of them still more or less live together: they roll out a futon in Sunggyu and Sungjong’s tiny living room and it becomes Hoya’s bedroom, while Hoya’s smaller apartment becomes an empty space, a place to store things and be alone.
It is more than just luck that they stay together, because many actual families are broken up during the relocation process - as far as Sunggyu is concerned, he will believe it is a miracle until the day he dies.
The first thing that Sungjong says when they move in is, “This place is even smaller than our apartment in Seoul,” from Sungjong. Sunggyu wants to be able to tell him off, but he can’t, because the apartment really is tiny and underwhelming in all aspects.
Thankfully, Hoya shrugs and says, “It’s what it is. We’ll make the most of it. And we don’t have that much stuff, anyway.”
“I guess that’s true,” Sungjong replies, but he still sounds a little dismayed.
“And we have each other. So that has to count for something,” Hoya says with startling honesty, because they all know how much they mean to each other but rarely do they admit it.
For a few moments they stand quietly, looking at each other. “We do have each other,” Sunggyu echoes, and Sungjong nods in agreement. All of them found their second home with each other, and they must believe that they can make this one their third.
To support their new life, Sunggyu ends up working for the government in an unrewarding office job. He receives the position not through any merit of his own, but rather, he is given it as one of the few things he is qualified for, because he has no degree and no experience to do much else - years ago, he had dropped out of school and moved to Seoul because he had wanted to be a singer. Now, when he thinks about it, he always thinks that it sounds so ridiculous, because even if that dream had a chance of coming true, it had all but died after the shift.
Back then, though, he had been burning with determination: at the age of eighteen, he ran away from home and used his rather meager savings to get a tiny apartment in the city, working too many part-time jobs to support himself as he tried to get discovered. He bought notebook after notebook and wrote lyrics to songs in them, most half-formed and chimerical but it doesn’t matter because they are his and his alone. He listened to all kind of music (jazz, trot, Gregorian chants, rock, anything, everything) and thinks very carefully about them - he has no musical training but that’s not important, he thinks, as long as he can understand how the music feels.
But work experience in convenience stores and bookshops and family restaurants and unfinished verses don’t mean much when all of those things are artifacts of the past, so he gives in to the logical decision and takes the office job. He is tasked with monitoring people who are geniuses in things that he can’t even begin to understand - physicists, computer programmers, theoretical mathematicians, all employed by the government to study various things far beyond his comprehension - and pretends like he is in charge of organizing them, when he suspects that most of them are doing a very good job of playing him. In truth, he is completely expendable, a gear in the machine, a glorified grown-up version of the hall monitor. He walks around in circles and chastises people who aren’t doing their work properly and moves notes from one cubicle to another.
It makes him feel a bit wretched, but he knows that he must suffer what he has to: whenever he feels weak and fed up and doesn’t know what to do anymore, his mind drifts towards the memory of Sungjong’s face as he cried, back when they had isolated themselves in their tiny Seoul apartment after the shift, and of the pained way that Hoya looked when he had been forced to physically detach Sungjong from Sunggyu’s arm when Sunggyu had tried to leave - he remembers it, and he resolves that he must, at the very least, protect the people that he cares about, even if that means giving up his dreams.
People, he thinks, will always be more important than chasing after the shirttails of a fantasy that probably would never have come true anyway. He doesn’t even pack his notebooks when they move, and tells himself that he will not regret it.
There are only two peoples’ names Sunggyu can consistently remember from work, Nam Woohyun and Jang Dongwoo. The reason is that they are chronic procrastinators, though for wildly different reasons, and Sunggyu often has to go after them to finish up their delegated tasks. Neither are lazy, but they are almost as interesting to talk to as they are poor at managing their time. While Dongwoo is cheerful and eclectic and often gives the impression of not being entirely there, Woohyun has the same push-and-pull effect as a magnet. At one moment, he is full of over-the-top flattery, and the next (when he realizes that idle compliments are utterly ineffective on Sunggyu) he shows a strange sense of biting sarcasm, one that plays so closely on the line of truth and exaggeration that Sunggyu is never sure whether or not he’s being serious.
“You should stop bothering me so much or people will start to think we enjoy affiliating with each other,” Woohyun says one day when Sunggyu’s nagging goes a little overboard.
In response, Sunggyu snaps back, “You should start doing your work in a timely fashion, then.”
“You can’t rush hard work.”
“As if you can call this hard work to begin with.”
Woohyun smirks. “You wanna try doing it for me, then? You just said it’s not hard, right? Let’s switch for the day. You can do my stuff and I’ll walk around distracting everybody else from getting anything finished.”
“I didn’t say it’s not hard, I said you’re not working hard,” Sunggyu replies. “Those are two different things completely.”
“Yeah, but in the case of the kind of things they want me to do, they may as well be the same thing.” Woohyun sighs and leans back in his chair slightly, extending his arms up and stretching. There is something about the easy way he admits it that stops Sunggyu at feeling annoyed, but he’s almost gotten used to feeling that way when it comes to Nam Woohyun.
Sunggyu shrugs. “I wouldn’t know,” he says.
“That’s fine. It’s nothing that I’d expect you to - no dig against you personally, of course. The nature of the material itself, and all that.” Woohyun sits himself back upright. “I’ll do a good job at what I’m paid to do and you do a good job at what you’re paid to do. At the end of the day, that’s pretty much all we’re asked for, right?”
“Do a good job, then tell me that,” Sunggyu replies. “I’ll be back in an hour and I expect to see some sort of progress, alright?”
In response, Woohyun waves him off. The conversation repeats over and over again, in different variations, yet somehow Sunggyu doesn’t get tired of them.
Time distortions are classified into three rough categories. The first and most common is the time loop, where it runs back into itself in a circle. During a time loop, minor paradoxes are commonly made, but they generally resolve themselves after the loop flattens back into linear motion. Official protocol advises citizens not to purposely alter their surroundings during a time loop, though they are not actively discouraged from it, as the paradoxes caused are generally inconsequential and not much of a harm to anybody. Some accidents occur due to time loops, the vast majority of which are small, but a select few are serious.
The second are time skips - in these, time jumps forward, but without a loop. Though the rarest, they are relatively easy to deal with: one simply loses a few minutes, usually no more than ten at most. There is no visceral sensation of anything changing, and it is not strange that a person who experiences a time skip would fail to notice it completely. Because the time-space field still behaves normally enough to resist creating major paradoxes, time skips almost never go backwards, as to avoid having two of the same person in existence at the same time. There have only been two documented incidents of such an event occurring, both in Seoul before relocation, when the distortion was heaviest, and in both cases neither person affected were physically close enough to their past self to cause any serious paradoxes.
The last are time stops. They are the hardest for the human mind to accept, because humans are not made to process a world in which time is something that does not move, and are far better equipped to deal with time flowing unnaturally than not at all. People who are alone when time halts often suffer from mental breakdowns, some minor, but significant number of which are severe. With company, they are easier to bear, but even then the stress it puts on a person is immense.
Since the shift, Sunggyu has experienced two time stops. The first time is with Hoya and Sungjong, and between the three of them they sufficiently distract each other to the point that it is less a traumatic experience than it is a bad memory, on the same level as breaking a leg as a child. The second time, he faces it alone, and he doesn’t quite remember how he makes it through - he has a faint recollection of whispering to himself, telling himself his own life story - but he survives and that’s all that matters.
As a child, he was told that all things occur in threes. Even though he does not admit it to anybody else, he believes that he will be put through another one just as naturally and effortlessly as some people feel the weather in their bones.
One day, as he does his usual round of the cubicles he’s in charge of, Sunggyu stops at Woohyun’s and asks, “Tell me something about you.”
Woohyun looks up at him and says, “Usually you’re here to yell at me to do more work, not to distract me from it.”
“You’re on your fifteen minute break right now, though,” Sunggyu answers - it’s true, technically, but nobody actually keeps track of these things, Sunggyu least of all. He’s just curious, even though he’s not sure why he’s so curious about Nam Woohyun. “That’s a law, you know. You’re supposed to get a break after working so many hours.”
Woohyun leans back in his swivel chair. “What kind of thing do you want to know?” he asks.
“Something from before you came here,” Sunggyu says - that’s what he’s always interested in knowing about, because most people never talk about it.
“Well, when I was a college student, I used to study theoretical math and model on the side,” says Woohyun. He says it casually, as if he does not find it particularly impressive, but neither is he dismissive of it. “The modeling I wasn’t that serious about, but I had to get through school somehow. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really, just something I did to pay the bills and get groceries every week.”
“You did not,” Sunggyu says, but it is more a matter of reflex than anything else to answer like that. In truth, he can believe both facts completely.
Woohyun smirks slightly and replies, “Sure I did. I studied theoretical math until I realized there’s not much practical use for it - well, not if you don’t go into teaching, I guess, or maybe research - so then I decided to get a more practical degree instead.”
“Prove it, then,” Sunggyu challenges - he thinks that, probably, he has never seen Woohyun truly at his best, and here is finally an opportunity to try and pull his true potential out. “Tell me something interesting.”
“You think a math plebeian like you could understand it?” Woohyun asks. Sunggyu can tell he doesn’t mean it, though.
“Please,” Sunggyu says, and resists the urge to roll his eyes. “Stop distracting from the point and just get to it.”
“Okay,” says Woohyun. There is a pause before he poses the riddle: “Imagine you are in a building with infinitely many rooms and infinitely many windows. How many more windows than rooms are there?”
Sunggyu tilts his head and thinks about the question carefully. It’s been a long time since he has taken a math class, so he makes sure that he understands every part of the riddle before even considering an answer. “It’s not twice as many, right?” he asks, hesitantly. “Wait, that would be too straightforward. No, twice doesn’t make sense at all.” A pause. “Exponentially many?”
“Not exponentially many.”
He thinks a while longer, but nothing novel comes to mind. He holds his hands up and says, “Okay, fine, I give up. How many more?”
“They’re the same. You can’t have more than infinity, because that makes no sense,” says Woohyun, smiling slightly, and Sunggyu can see how happy he is just to talk about what he really enjoys. “How can you have such a thing as more infinity or less infinity, when by definition it never ends?”
“But that doesn’t make any sense at all,” Sunggyu replies, frowning and folding his arms.
“Of course not. That’s why it’s a paradox.”
It’s not the side of Woohyun that he wanted to see, but it’s the closest he’s gotten so far. Without even thinking about it, he asks, “You’re actually pretty smart, aren’t you?”
Woohyun shrugs. “I got a college degree. I guess so.”
Sunggyu snorts and says, “That’s not the same thing as being smart and you know it. You can fill your head with all sorts of facts and knowledge but not be the least bit smart. You were in academia for a long time. You should know.”
There is a short hesitation before Woohyun replies, “You can’t tell that from one riddle.”
“Who said I was judging from just that one riddle?” Sunggyu says, because Woohyun is trying to deflect the question and they both know it. “For better or for worse, we’ve known each other for a while now. I feel qualified to make a judgment on your character by this point.”
Woohyun sighs and says, “Go file something or boss around another person, Kim Sunggyu. I need to do work.”
For a few moments, Sunggyu considers snapping back. Instead, though, he stares Woohyun in the eye and thinks to himself no, not yet - he shrugs and turns and walks away.
Every once in a while, when he comes back late from work, Sunggyu sits at the kitchen table and writes a letters of resignation. He never brings them to work, and inevitably they end up crumpled into tightly-packed balls and thrown into the recycling, because the him now is different from the Kim Sunggyu who would have quit months ago and fought tooth and nail to hold his own.
“What’s this?” Hoya asks one night, holding up a straightened-out piece of paper.
Sunggyu hesitates - Hoya has always been sensitive to these kinds of things, and he’s not sure whether it’s any use or not to lie. “It’s nothing,” he says.
“It doesn’t read like nothing to me,” Hoya replies. He is serious and forgiving and Sunggyu doesn’t think anybody else could possibly get away with speaking to him like Hoya does.
“I’m just frustrated, sometimes. You know how it is - it’s just a way to vent my frustrations, I guess.”
Hoya frowns, but accedes: “If you say so, then I’ll believe you.”
Even though he says that, the next morning Sunggyu finds the letter neatly re-written and carefully slipped in between the folders in the bag he brings to work every day. He doesn’t turn it in, but he doesn’t throw it away either. Day after day it stays in there, a constant amidst the changing files and documents he is in charge of, until it is inevitably pushed to the bottom and Sunggyu almost forgets about it.
These days, Hoya and Sungjong orbit vastly different circles than he does. Sungjong, who had dropped out like he and Hoya, decides to study to get a high school diploma. Hoya works part-time and studies at a vocational school on the side. The fact that none of them lead similar kinds of lives doesn’t bother him, because it was the same when they lived in Seoul together, but it occurs to the one that they have all changed in different ways. He can see it in the way that Sungjong speaks now, or the way that Hoya carries himself as he walks from one place to another - the framework that makes them who they are is still fundamentally the same, but what’s between the frames is not. They do not need each other the same way they used to need each other: some of the reasons fade and new ones appear. Sunggyu is not sure how much of it is because of the shift and how much of it is them growing up, and sometimes he wonders vaguely whether that’s the way it is for everybody.
Lately, he notices whenever he thinks about the past (the dreams that died, the wishes that never came true) he doesn’t feel mad or disappointed anymore - he just feels numb. The shift, he realizes, has not killed his sanity, because Sunggyu stays sane simply by forcing himself into it. Instead, it has killed his passion.
As he walks past Woohyun’s cubicle, he is suddenly seized with a strange sensation, like water overflowing, or something bubbling out, forced up by its own pressure - he steps back and stands there for a few moments. Woohyun doesn’t seem to take notice of his presence, but then, without preamble, he says, “Before I came here, before everything changed - I wanted to be a singer.”
Woohyun looks up from his computer screen with an expression like he’s not sure whether to be confused or amused. “I was really very serious about it, you know. I even ran away from home,” Sunggyu continues.
“That’s nice?” Woohyun replies. He sounds unsure of how to reply; Sunggyu can’t really blame him.
“That’s how I met my roommates, too. Lee Howon and Lee Sungjong. Hoya and Sungjong. All three of us, runaways with dreams we knew were pretty much hopeless for a bunch of people who never finished high school, never had formal training, never - well, you get the idea.” He pauses. “I hate this job. Really, really hate it. Well, I don’t hate you, and I don’t hate some of the other people here either, but you know what I mean. And I wish I could quit, but I can’t quit, because I have to work or I won’t be able to take care of them.”
Woohyun is silent. Sunggyu thinks he is probably making Woohyun uncomfortable, but for some reason he has a feeling that he can trust Woohyun, so he goes on. “I’m not being selfless. I hang on to this, I hang onto them, they keep me grounded.” He breathes deeply. “I don’t have any dreams anymore, so all I have left are them, and I don’t know if I even have that or just an idea of the way I need them to be to stay sane -”
“Were you a good singer?” Woohyun asks, suddenly.
Sunggyu is taken by surprise - it takes him a few moments to reply. “I was a good singer,” he confirms. There is nothing self-confident about it, the same as when Woohyun once told him I used to study theoretical math and model on the side.
“And you loved to sing.”
“I loved music.”
Woohyun smiles wryly. “Past tense,” he notes.
“I know,” Sunggyu says, and it is the hardest thing of all for him to confess. He sighs, and turns, and says, “I’m sorry for bothering you. I’ll go now -”
He almost jerks back when Woohyun’s hand, unexpectedly, closes around his wrist. Woohyun is staring at him with a solemnity that he has never seen in Woohyun’s eyes before. “The past tense doesn’t mean anything when time can click back just like that, I think,” Woohyun says, serious and thoughtful - there is some shield that he has let drop, and Sunggyu thinks that in that when Woohyun looks like that, he can clearly see into Woohyun’s soul, and it is far deeper than he could have realized.
They stare at each other for a few moments. In the back of Sunggyu’s mind, there’s a voice detached from the rest of him that notes, faintly, that Woohyun’s grip is strong and warm and reassuring. Finally, though, Woohyun lets go. “That’s what I think, at least,” he mutters, and steps back, obviously a little embarrassed.
Sunggyu doesn’t even hesitate before he replies, in a voice so soft that he can barely even hear himself - “Thank you for listening,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m leaving.”
He leaves, and Woohyun lets him. He can feel a strange sensation tingling in the small of his back: it isn’t the feeling of a burden lifting from his shoulders; rather, it is the realization that there was a burden there all along.
“Tonight you seem different, somehow,” Sungjong notes that evening as they eat dinner together.
“Me?” Sunggyu asks. He considers it for a few moments before he nods: “Maybe. I’m not sure yet.”
“It seems like it might have been a good thing,” Hoya says.
Instead of answering, Sunggyu moves the largest piece of meat to Sungjong’s plate and says, “Are your studies going alright? You’d better not need help, because you know neither of us can give it.”
Sungjong takes the cue to start complaining about his physics homework, and they flow naturally into topic after topic after that. For the first time in far too long, when Sunggyu laughs and talks with them, he feels a little more like himself than usual.
When time stops, one can truly feel how irrelevant a single person is in the world. Everything pauses around the person experiencing the stop, except they keep moving, and ultimately the fact that they continue means very little. It is difficult, nearly impossible to make any significant changes to anything, because the time-space field works against creating any major paradoxes - effects of a time stop fall under that category simply by definition - and so people are often overwhelmed by the realization that though they are the main character of their own story, they are not of anybody else’s. The number 7.052 billion becomes something palpable, a way to define one’s self, and a way thoroughly to crush one’s sense of self.
Sunggyu is alone in the office he monitors doing the nightly clean-up when time comes to a halt. He realizes it the moment that it happens, because a second before, he is moving around papers effortlessly, and the next, everything seems to resist and reject him. Sure enough, when he looks at the closest clock, it stays stuck at the same time, even after he counts backwards from two hundred in his head. Although it is the third time he has experienced this, there is no such thing as getting used to it when it comes to a time stop, and all he knows is that he must do what he must, to make it through, to keep his mind in one piece.
He sits down on the floor, sprawls his legs out, closes his eyes, and tries to clear his mind. Instead, he finds himself thinking about too many different things: whether Hoya will remember to warm up dinner, if he should try to get in contact with his parents for the first time in years, the population of the world and all humans who have been on the world, whether or not his childhood friends remember him the same as he remembers them, the possible Kim Sunggyus that could have existed if he hadn’t abandoned his family, if he had went to college, thousands and thousands of ifs that never were. He begins to feel like maybe he’s splintering, because there is an undertone of panic pulsing through him like a second heartbeat.
Finally, though, he thinks about the Kim Sunggyu that becomes a singer. He thinks that this Sunggyu would be happy, would be whole, would be more Kim Sunggyu than he himself is. As if the floodgates have opened, everything that he had tried deliberately to leave behind comes rushing back comes rushing back like a tidal wave, gentle but powerful: he thinks about notes going up, coming back down; harmony and dissonance; breathing techniques; rhythm and beat and syncopation. In his mind, he sings to himself the songs he used to call his favorites, and he contemplates the ones that made him feel like something echoed in his heart when he listened to them. He thinks about the lyrics he once wrote, most whimsical and incomplete, words that only he could truly understand, and about all the things he gave up to go after in in a dream he truly believed was more important than anything else he would ever have in life. He composes half-formed melodies that he thinks up on the spot until finally his mind calms down and he is reassured that no matter what life he lives Kim Sunggyu still exists, still believes, still wants - that Kim Sunggyu is still him, and not just a name he puts on a shell that no longer is.
There is not enough time in the world for him to think all the thoughts he wants to when it comes to this, and he does not even notice that the world has long since normalized around him until the sun starts peeking in through the windows. He falls asleep still lying on the floor and doesn’t wake up until Woohyun shakes him away hours later and tells him to take the day off.
Instead, though, Sunggyu puts the resignation letter he had shoved to the bottom of his bag on his boss’s desk. He feels the same wild thrill running through his body as when he ran away from home years ago, and he knows that he will not hesitate anymore.
“You’re home early,” Sungjong says. “Or should I say late?”
“I quit my job,” Sunggyu announces, and he doesn’t miss the way that the surprise on Sungjong’s face quickly melts into acceptance.
“You’re sure?” he asks.
Sunggyu nods. “I’m sure.”
“Then, it’s for the best,” Sungjong says, and takes his phone out to text Hoya with the news.
Later, when Hoya comes back from his job, he arrives a carefully-wrapped package in his arms. “I think you want this,” Hoya says, and it to Sunggyu.
Sunggyu’s chest tightens before he even realizes what it is. “What is it?” he asks, but his heart already knows even if his mind refuses to believe it.
“You’ll see if you open it,” Hoya replies softly.
So Sunggyu unties the string holding it together, and rips off the plain brown paper messily: inside are a stack of notebooks, ones that he knows well - not all of them, but most of them, and that is already so much more than he could have hoped for. He takes the one on top and gently traces its well-worn cover with his fingers - it moves him to the past more deeply than any distortion ever has. “I remember this,” he murmurs. “I remember this feeling.”
“I knew you would,” Hoya says, and smiles.
“Thank you,” Sunggyu says, closing his eyes and pressing the notebook close to his chest. “For keeping my dream alive.”
Early in the morning, he walks up all the flights of their apartment building and opens the door to the roof. Stepping out into the open, a breeze pushes at his body, more strong than gentle, but it doesn’t bother him.
Sunggyu stares out at the horizon: the sun is going to rise soon, and nobody is awake. “My name is Sunggyu!” he screams, to everybody and to nobody. “I want to be a singer!”
Silence replies. He closes his eyes and clears his throat and says, “I’d like to sing a song for you this morning. I wrote it myself, a long time ago, when many things in this world were different from how they are now, but I think it might still be true now, too.”
He breathes deeply to fill his lungs, expands his diaphragm, opens up his voice, and sings to the sky.
Ship of Theseus
You can replace any individual part of a ship, and it is still the same ship.
So, you can replace them all, one at a time, and it is still the same ship.
However, you can also take all the original parts and assemble them into a ship.
That, too, is the same ship that you began with.