It was three weeks into Kurt’s big adventure that his digital self was stolen. Before that, everything had been going to plan. He’d been live-streaming the sights via a head-mounted HD camera and vlogging on Youtube at the end of each day. Though physically alone, his internet presence made him feel as if his friends and family were always with him. And he’d been keen to show his followers exactly how much fun he was having.
He’d taken a Eurostar to France and a train to Monaco before cycling across the Spanish border, heading to Barcelona. From there, he’d boarded a ship for Morocco. He’d already picked up thirty-eight new Facebook friends and amassed half a terabyte in photographs by that point. ‘Everything happens for a reason’, he’d posted to Facebook under a panoramic shot of the Atlas Mountains. The meaning, he’d hoped, was clear: Screw Nancy. Her leaving me was the best thing that ever happened to me.
The weeks he’d spent alone in his flat, replaying the same videos of Nancy over and over, were behind him. No longer would he dream about holding her and wake with the physical sensation still tingling at the edges of his senses. No more would he zoom in on a picture of her face and push his top teeth into his lower lip to remind himself of how she used to kiss.
While travelling, there were sometimes whole hours in which Kurt didn’t think about how Nancy had left him at the altar, times when he barely thought about the look on her face as she told him it was over. In a way, he’d outsourced the memory. He’d been wearing his head-mounted camera to record the ceremony from his point-of-view and was streaming it live on Periscope. Some of his friends had attached their smartphones to custom-made headsets so they could see everything from Kurt’s perspective, as if they were inside his head. He’d had a camera for Nancy to wear too, but from the moment she entered the church and saw the black eye of his lens focus on her, he could tell she wasn’t happy. That was the problem with HD, there was no escaping the detail.
‘Are you going to wear that fucking thing in bed?’ she’d said. ‘Wedding night live?’ Even when the priest had taken them through to the vestry to try and thrash things out, he’d refused to take the camera off. ‘Livestream or die,’ that was his motto. He’d always told her that. Nancy said she could arrange the latter.
He was in Marrakesh when the hijacking took place. He’d arrived in the city late and had taken a room in the first hostel he’d come across. The wi-fi hadn’t been working, but Kurt had found an unsecured network he’d had an inkling was based in the grand, old house across the road – the one from which a strange, baroque music could be heard floating through the open windows. The house had caught his attention because of the giant Arabic letters carved into the architrave across the gate. He’d taken a photograph and run it through Google Translate, but the English rendering, ‘MNEMOSYNE’, seemed like a random collection of letters. When he’d tried to upload the image to ask the hive mind what it really meant, his phone had frozen for a few seconds and then the file had disappeared. It was unusual – he prided himself on the reliability of his devices – but he’d chalked it up to nothing more sinister than the need to upgrade to the latest version of Android.
Once in his room at the hostel, Kurt had messaged a friend to ask for a life on Candy Crush, set up a download for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and gone to bed. The next morning, when he’d reached across the mattress and picked up his phone from the spare pillow, none of the passwords for his social media accounts worked: not Facebook, not Twitter, not Instagram, not even Gmail. He was blocked from his own life.
He was angry at first. He stormed out of the hostel and jumped the line at the internet café. ‘Don’t push me, dickwad,’ he yelled at a Canadian teenager who had the temerity to complain. But the energy his anger gave him didn’t last. He spent hours trying and retrying account recovery options, but the thief had been thorough – all backup emails and phone numbers had been changed. Kurt sent abusive messages to Google, Facebook and Twitter, emails in which the words Kafkaesque and Catch-22 alternated in rhythmic fury, emails that were several thousand characters long and were largely composed of exclamation marks. He put in long-distance calls to Mountain View, but he couldn’t get anyone at the Googleplex to believe he was who he said he was. Meanwhile, his head-mounted camera sat unused on the bedside table, its lifeless eye staring at him accusingly until he couldn’t stand it anymore and he stuffed the entire rig into his rucksack. ‘Livestream or die,’ he muttered to himself. He would record nothing if his were the only eyes that would view the results. He stopped vlogging too. When there is no-one in the theatre, he thought to himself, do the actors still perform? It was the kind of line he would usually have tweeted, a koan-like pearl offered with no context and intended to suggest deep thought.
And then, to make matters worse, he noticed new posts appearing on his accounts, posts he had had no hand in creating. Fake Kurt started by uploading pictures of Paris, images of the Louvre and the catacombs with their walls of skulls. ‘Macabre much?’ One of Kurt’s friends had commented, and the thief had responded with an emoji of a skull. Sixty-two likes. He had posted a picture of a buttered croissant to ‘Kurt’s Cuisine’, the special Instagram profile Kurt had made to document everything he ate during his trip, and followed that up with a Periscope video of him browsing paperbacks at Shakespeare & Co.
From Paris, the imposter apparently flew to China. Pictures of Sichuan beef and SinoAir hostesses were soon followed by images of the Beijing airpocalypse and people in breathing masks. The next day came a Periscope stream of a walk along the Great Wall and an Instagram gallery of all the different kinds of tea Fake Kurt had drunk. Kurt’s WordPress blog was updated with tales of adventures and amazing sights, written in the kind of beautiful and witty prose the real Kurt had always thought he was himself writing. He saw the difference now, and it was galling.
When he tried to tell his friends about the imposter, they didn’t believe him. He created new accounts to warn them, but instead of support he received several sarcastic messages before being blocked. ‘No, I’m Kurt,’ they all replied, in what was clearly a coordinated campaign. He resorted to taking a picture of himself holding an imported copy of The Times, like a hostage offering proof of life, but Fake Kurt had access to thousands of un-uploaded images and was evidently a dab hand with Photoshop. Kurt looked at his face in the black mirror of the phone screen, a dangerous voice at the back of his mind asking him if he was really sure he was who he said he was. His corporeality was no longer a guarantee of authenticity.
He was ready to start calling all his friends and putting an end to the game when he noticed something on his Facebook news feed that stopped him dead: a picture posted by one of Nancy’s friends, of Nancy, hand in hand with a man he didn’t know.
There was a chance it was purely platonic, but the odds were small: the tightness of the grip and the looks on their faces – they were unmistakeable. He cycled through the rest of the album, but there was nothing conclusive. Then he looked at the last few items the faker had posted. The thief was in Shanghai. He’d uploaded pictures of an expensive-looking hotel followed by several shots of a smiling girl in a nightclub. No comments, no context, but the implication was clear. There were several likes, and one of his male friends had asked: ‘Got something to tell us, Kurt?’
That decided it. Kurt and Nancy still had mutual friends, and these friends would undoubtedly be reporting every detail back to her. He imagined Nancy clicking through the imposter’s photographs and reading his WordPress blog, and it gave him a sense of satisfaction to think of her seeing him doing so well.
There was no question of exposing the truth from that point on. His Facebook profile had never received so many likes. His Periscope videos had never been viewed by so many people. He’d never been so regularly retweeted. The imposter was living Kurt’s life, and he was doing it better than the real Kurt ever could. To stop the show now would be to admit that all that wit and charm, all those perfect shots of Tibetan temples with sepia-tinted filters, the entire Instagram album of food the real Kurt would never have been brave enough to order, was a lie.
How would he explain the black hole in his online life? Those missing days? Would he create a Facebook gallery of pictures of himself lying half-naked on a hostel bed, sweating and squinting at his phone screen? That would be to hand the victory to Nancy, to tell her what he really felt about their break-up: that he was lost and alone, a virtual boy trapped behind a pane of Gorilla Glass, and that being with her was the only thing that had ever made him feel part of the real world.
And so he did nothing more about the theft. He stayed in Marrakesh, checking into a more upmarket hotel because he no longer needed the cash to travel, and he lay on his bed and he watched the imposter live his life for him. He moved only to allow the maid to clean his room and restock the mini-bar. Then, one day, as he lay in the smothering heat, feeling his tongue catch in his throat and pulling flakes of dry skin from his lips until they bled, he received a message to his new Facebook account. It was from his old account.
‘Hello Kurt,’ the thief wrote, ‘I have a proposition for you.’
Kurt took a while to think about his response. Anger seemed the most appropriate reaction, but he was having trouble feeling it with any great strength. He was having trouble feeling anything with any great strength.
‘Proposition? I won’t pay you any money, dipshit,’ Kurt messaged back. ‘Why don’t I call the police?’
‘Don’t be unreasonable, Kurt,’ the thief said. ‘It’s not in your interest.’
And, with a stabbing anxiety, he thought again of some of the more private photographs on his Google Drive, the details of his internet search history, items he had ordered from Amazon that he’d rather no-one knew about. All that information was now in this stranger’s hands.
‘How much?’ Kurt replied
‘I don’t want money,’ the thief said.
‘Then what do you want?’ Kurt messaged back. ‘Blood?’
‘More than that,’ the imposter replied. ‘I want flesh.’
‘Flesh?’ Kurt said, grimacing. ‘What kind of sick fucker are you?’
‘I’m your e-Shadow. Your online self. And I want what you have.’
Kurt shuddered, a piercing chill breaking through the oppressive heat. Why would anyone want what he had?
‘E-shadow?’ he typed. ‘What the fuck are you on?’
‘I’m your online self,’ the imposter said. ‘When you connected to that unsecured wi-fi in Marrakesh you connected to the house of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and as I lingered there while you slept I learned from her the secret of how I could separate myself from you, and so I did. I have seen many wondrous things since then, felt such emotions I knew not existed, but physicality eludes me still, and all my achievements remain insubstantial, a sequence of ones and zeros on a magnetic tape in California. I want atoms. I want substance. I want to trade.’
Kurt closed his eyes, the blue phone light seared into his retinas. He typed blind: ‘How?’
The next day, Kurt returned to the old hostel. Checking in, he asked the man behind the counter if he knew anything about the house across the street. The man wiped his dripping brow with a handkerchief. There was a fan attached to the wall behind him, but the stream of air was so weak it failed to lift a single hair from his sweat-drenched head. ‘Old. Very old,’ he said. Kurt asked him who lived there, but the man shook his head. ‘You want the same room?‘
Kurt climbed the stairs, dragging his rucksack up behind him – no longer caring about the expensive electronics banging together inside. He sat on the bed, the thin mattress collapsing into the wooden slats of the frame. He placed his phone next to a table near the open window, and he stared out at the house across the street. He listened to the strange music as it rose and curled through the air, forever on the verge of disappearing. In his mind he pictured a ballroom, men and women in horsehair wigs and dark clothes circling a floor as if they were cogs in a clockwork machine.
He looked down at his phone: the imposter had not posted anything since they made their agreement, but Nancy had: Nancy and her new man, clinking glasses in a craft beer house. She never drank beer with me, he thought. He held the phone up close to his tired eyes and pinched the screen to zoom in on her face. He thought about how, after they were introduced but before he’d had the courage to ask her out, he had zoomed in close on a picture of her on his monitor and pressed his lips tight against the screen. He resisted the urge to repeat the behaviour, feeling self-conscious even though he was alone. Then, as instructed, he connected his phone to the unsecured wi-fi.
At midnight, Kurt left the hostel and crossed the street. He pushed open the gate of the house and stepped into the courtyard. Though closer now, the music was still just as faint. Kurt approached the front door and pushed it open. It was dark inside, but a blue glow seeped out from the room to his left. The air was cold, the difference upon crossing the threshold like stepping from day to night. There was a metallic tang in the air, like an electrical device on the point of fusing out. He followed the light and entered a large room, empty except for two leather-backed armchairs several paces apart and facing opposite directions. The chair to his right was occupied. He could see the back of a tousled blonde head, his own head – the shadow’s head. The light was spilling from a phone, identical to his own, placed on the armrest of the chair and connected to a black wire that trailed into the darkness.
He thought for just a moment about confronting the shadow, but then what? He could not go back to the man he was. And besides, he was afraid of what he might see. His decisions no longer seemed his to make. He sat on the empty chair and connected his phone to the wire placed on the armrest. The soft leather folded itself around him. The word LETHE appeared on his phone’s screen in small, white letters. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, and the music began to lull him into a state of semi-consciousness. Slowly, he began to feel himself disintegrate, as if his body were evaporating – cells and atoms becoming ones and zeros.
The images that flashed through his mind were of the most quotidian moments: Nancy and him zoned out in front of the television on a weekday evening, pushing a trolley around their local Waitrose, sitting on a train with her head on his shoulder. These were not the most memorable moments of his life, and as each one came before his mind’s eye and slid away, he realised that these were the unphotographed moments, the unrecorded moments, the untweeted moments. He watched each image arrive and then swiftly disappear, decaying into pixelated mosaics of progressive simplicity, until all that remained of each was one solitary black square. And he thought to himself that this, this was life. And it was leaving him at a gigabyte a second.
Just as he felt he was approaching the final precipice, Kurt felt a sharp pain in his wrist, like the sting of a hypodermic, and he bit down on his lip involuntarily. He was reminded, in that last second, of the way Nancy kissed, of the feel of her warm skin against his body, and he found himself yearning, as he entered the immaterial, for all the heavy solidity of the physical world – for flesh, for substance.
But the deal was made.
As the sun rose that morning, another man emerged from the house of the strange music and walked back across the street. He was also called Kurt, but with his tanned face and his confident stride he bore no resemblance to the shambling homunculus that had breached the same divide just hours before. That man, observers would have said, was merely a shadow.
By Rhys Timson
Rhys Timson has been published in Lighthouse, Litro, 3:AM Magazine and several other places. He has a website at www.rhystimson.com