Chapter 1:

Hollow World

Ephemera Re:Place

If you replaced every component of your body, piece by piece, would you still consider yourself the same person you entered the world as?
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At which body part would you start to question that? Which one would you consider so vital to you that replacing it would make you doubt your own identity?Bookmark here

A leg.
An arm.
An ear.
An eye.
A stomach.

A heart.Bookmark here

Could you still call yourself by the name you were born with?
Know that the thoughts you were having belonged to yourself?Bookmark here

The extent to which our personal identity is connected to our physical, biological selves is determined by-Bookmark here

The words were swallowed shut.Bookmark here

I closed the book and in the same motion dropped my hand down to the bed alongside it, splaying out and staring at the ceiling. Despite being one of the thinnest books I owned, it weighed on my fingers as if they were trapped under a dumbbell. It stayed there, pinned open by my thumb but glued to the bedsheets.Bookmark here

The ceiling was much easier to read, anyway. Blank, vast, hollow. Smeared in the specks that floated in and out of my eyesight. I wanted my bed to lift up and float into the endless white that lived above me.Bookmark here

Ripping myself out of my delusion, my head slumped to the side, catching the title of the book once more.Bookmark here

'The Future of Bionics and Biocybernetics'Bookmark here

Why'd they ask me to come for a tour anyway? It's not as if my degree is in either of those fields. My first thought was that it was out of pity. Maybe I should go, just in case. They probably put so much effort into it. Looking all hopeful for prospective employees, ready to take their company into future with polished, smiling new recruits... My second thought mostly consisted of 'Oh god. now I feel like I have to go.' But I knew that it would mean nothing if I did. I'd be the kid in the school photo who doesn't know how to smile without it looking fake.Bookmark here

I'd flicked to a random page at the time. The book was glaring at me every time I passed by my bed where I had thrown it not long after I returned that evening. Call it regret or curiosity, but I decided just to have a look at it.Bookmark here

That was yesterday. Every time I scanned over the letters on the page, my pupils would follow them for a word or three, then crash spectacularly into my thoughts and spill all over the place. After a few minutes or hours scooping up the mess, I would try again. Using this process, I think I have managed to read three pages since then.Bookmark here

I instinctively turned my phone on, which rested in my other hand.Bookmark here

19:17Bookmark here

I had missed the conference anyway. I wonder if they would feel consoled in any way knowing that I'd read the book they lent me. Well, tried to read.Bookmark here

Tossing my head into my pillow in a vain attempt to rest, I had the sinking feeling that something would interrupt me.Bookmark here

A fist raps against my door.Bookmark here

"Beryl?"Bookmark here

Not moving from my bed, I draw my hands into my chest, aligning my glazed-over eyeballs with the direction of the sound. Subconsciously, I couldn't escape responding. It was hard-wired into me against my will.Bookmark here

"Mh?"Bookmark here

"Did you go to that bionics place today? It looked pretty promising."Bookmark here

"Uh... Y-Yeah."Bookmark here

"Hm..."Bookmark here

I dreaded my mother's doubt. I waited patiently and obediently for her next words.Bookmark here

"Well, I hope it was interesting. We can talk about it more over dinner if you'd like. I know you'd rather eat up here, but it's soup today."Bookmark here

Soup, huh.Bookmark here

"What kind?"Bookmark here

"Sweet potato and chilli. Your favourite."Bookmark here

You're about 10 years behind on that fact.Bookmark here

My mother tittered to herself, attempting to pry the door open slightly with her words.Bookmark here

"I remember when you first had it. You accidentally dipped your hair in it, but then started laughing because the soup and your hair were so similar in colour that it almost looked like nothing had happened."Bookmark here

I forced out a half-hearted chuckle, one composed more of air than sound, one that was undoubtedly nothing like the one my mother was remembering.Bookmark here

"You know, I looked at other recipes and I don't think it was supposed to be that red. Maybe I was putting too much chilli powder in it. But I won't change it. Your hair hasn't changed colour after all, so why should the soup?"Bookmark here

A short silence followed. My mother's attempts at squeezing radiant energy into the room had failed. I soon broke it, knowing she was still lingering outside.Bookmark here

"How long is it until dinner, then?"Bookmark here

"In about 30 minutes, dear."Bookmark here

"Do you mind if I shower and go for a walk first?"Bookmark here

"Sure, as long as you're back before the soup gets cold. Also, it's dark out, so be careful."Bookmark here

I realised during that reply that I no longer needed to ask permission to do things. It was nothing more than a reflex. I wanted to tell her I wasn't a kid anymore, but I don't think words alone would convince her of that.Bookmark here

"Okay, I'll see you at dinner, Beryl."Bookmark here

"See you then."Bookmark here

The treading of socks on the carpet signalled her departure, and I unconsciously released the breath I was holding deep in my lungs. Finally able to slip my fingers under the gap that the book had given them to escape, I sauntered over to my clothing basket and gathered whatever seemed clean, one of each piece. Nothing much of this house had changed either: the laundry basket was still stacked in the same corner, and I could navigate from one side of my room to the other with the lights off after only a week of reintegrating myself to its layout. Entering the shower, I stripped away my cloth confines and soaked my brain in the haze of water and steam, my hair matting across my forehead.Bookmark here

Ever since I was young, I always hated my hair.Bookmark here

My mother told me it made me special. That I was lucky. Other children at school found it interesting at first. They would often touch it without permission, which would then make me hide in the corner whenever the repeat offenders would enter the room. But that interest grew into something different. And my strands of novelty lost their attractiveness. Nicknames, physical bullying, exclusion. They were just petty kids. But even as an adult, I feel the glances of people as I go through the street. Ogling.Bookmark here

I didn't ask to be born like this. I never wanted to be special.Bookmark here

"Hello there, red-headed lady!" said the man handing out the cybernetics books at the job fair. I wasn't a candidate because the position suited me, or because I seemed interested. I was advertising. I was 'the lady with the red hair who stood out at the cybernetics and bionics stall'.Bookmark here

Water streamed down from my cheeks. A splodge of damp hair had clung itself to my brow above my right eye. I batted it away, but it would be brought back again by the relentless flood above me.Bookmark here

I was a fool to even consider fighting against gravity. Such a universal force was one of the basics of my degree, after all. But that didn't stop me. I continued to swat, with less and less direction and force behind it, like a cat playing with its prey. Eventually, I grew tired of this, as I looked down at my wrinkling hands that reminded me of time's passage. With a towel wrapped around me, I slipped into the clothes I'd arranged, if you could call it that. Just to be sure, I checked what I had on in the mirror as if anyone looking at me would consider anything lower than the neck.Bookmark here

A blue-grey v-neck t-shirt with medium length sleeves. A black trumpet skirt that reached my ankles, with a butterfly pattern toward the bottom. A pair of pink argyle socks. They were snug, cosy, and melded with my skin soon after I wore them because, in my mind, they were a part of me. All clothes had to feel like this. It's why I never bought any new ones.Bookmark here

Despite vigorous drying from the duel effort of my high-calibre weapons, the towel and the hair-dryer, a single strand would always stand up in defiance. I'd long since given up trying to douse this strand's spirit. I could let this rebel live, for now.Bookmark here

Ruffled, I let my hair fall from my hands as I prepared myself to go outside. I met my mother again on my way to the door.Bookmark here

"Dinner will be ready in 10 minutes. I'll see you soon."Bookmark here

I paused for a moment, the door open as I stood between the house and outdoors. I didn't face her.Bookmark here

"Mhm, I won't be long. See you soon."Bookmark here

Closing the door behind me, the artificial light of the inside disappeared as darkness came in to claim the space it left behind. The ambient blue of the moon cast a satisfying, calm gloom onto the hollow world below. I embraced the feeling of the purified winter air invading my nostrils.Bookmark here

At first, I wandered toward the local park. The hexagonally-paved paths and the neatly aligned trees led me forward. But I had no idea where forward was.Bookmark here

Where am I even going?Bookmark here

I'd passed the park quite a few steps ago. Quite a few, I thought to myself, looking back to see no sign of it. The clean, empty street seemed to stretch on forever into the dark. Exhausted by the idea of how much further I might have to walk back, I laid my arm on a nearby wall and slung myself over it, taking a seat.Bookmark here

The sky was dotted with stars. They were barely visible through the light pollution, even in the outskirts of a city, but I looked at each one as they struggled with all their might to glow brighter than the manufactured lights of humanity. I envied them. They moved on their own pre-set paths, and everything else moved around them. They inspired curiosity in people for thousands of years, earned numerous different names, took on the mantles of gods. And all they did was exist. Burn through their fuel until they, too, would one day die. Even stars weren't immune from that cycle.Bookmark here

Leaning down, I looked at my own hair as it swept in front of my eyes. I was amused by the thought that came to me next.Bookmark here

I bet stars didn't ask to be special, either. Maybe I was an idiot to envy them.Bookmark here

My eyes were drawn to the other white specks on a black canvas: the butterflies on my skirt. Deluded by my dreaming mind, I saw the butterflies flutter out of my legs and up into the night sky. I scrunched my mouth together, settled by this short break from reality. Blinking, I expected it all to fade back into my thoughts as they sparkled a bright blue.Bookmark here

But there the butterflies remained. And they began to multiply. I stood up, blinking again, shaking my head. Was I having a panic attack? Was it dehydration?Bookmark here

A rumble erupted nearby, and a tree shook, the nesting birds whirling up and cawing in alarm. And then, a shadow. A shadow that resonated with the night as it passed by the tree at a speed my eyes could barely comprehend, a blur of fog zig-zagging through the foliage. A beeping sound followed it. A beeping that grew louder and faster as it closed in on me.Bookmark here

I stood there, legs splayed. But I had no idea what to think. The butterflies converged into a luminescent ball on my chest, floating. The figure took a sharp turn as it bolted toward me, the beeping now in unison with the flashing from the butterflies, and a mass of death that I couldn't describe became visible in the figure's hand. I only had one more thought in my mind as my eyes closed:Bookmark here

Maybe this would be easier, anyway.Bookmark here

I let go.Bookmark here

...Bookmark here

A thunderous clang burst from in front of me. The sound jolted my eyelids open again, but the ringing still left my vision blurry. I could just about make out the figure in front of me, their heels digging into the ground, scraping the concrete as they struggled against being pushed any closer to me. An overwhelming pressure crackled in the air surrounding the clash.Bookmark here

They shouted out, not turning their head away from the threat.Bookmark here

"Run!"Bookmark here

Run? From what?Bookmark here

Realising I didn't have much time to think, I stumbled over the wall in an attempt to escape. Taking a single chance to look back at them, their form fought against the murk to appear.Bookmark here

I found myself unusually only looking at their clothing. It was a suit: a blazer jacket and trousers, that was all I could see from the back. I was involuntarily looking away from anything above their shoulders, but at the time, I couldn't think of why. All I could think about was moving, moving further, and they became a series of shaky snapshots in the distance.Bookmark here

"Don't stop there, keep going!"Bookmark here

In a matter of seconds, I saw the attacker slip past the other person's defence and shoot directly toward me again, accompanied by a slew of white and blue butterflies. My steps slowed, and I became stunned. The other person dashed ahead in the same direction. Their stare filled me with an unusual and evocative warmth as our faces met. They screamed out to me, their arm outstretched as if reaching for something across an ocean.Bookmark here

And their bold red hair cascaded in the wind as a spear pierced my chest and tore apart my insides. There the long metal pole remained, my mind being crushed under the weight of comprehending this object jutting out of my body. I gasped, vomiting all the air that was clenched in my diaphragm. The force alone had launched me backwards onto the floor as I sat, eyes widened and glassy. A warm, bitter-smelling liquid poured from the wound, coating my palms as it grew cold in the nighttime air. It pooled around me, and the tips of my hair became dyed in it. I clutched onto life. But my grip was loose. Loosening.Bookmark here

The seconds stretched out into minutes and hours in my mind as I grasped and pulled on the sensation of time that was slipping away. I couldn't help but find it ironic at this moment that I wanted to call the person who had attempted to save my life the 'red-headed person'. They had arrived just seconds after I was hit, their finger had come so close as to brush my cheek. What remained of my sight held my eyes open, searching for where they had gone to.Bookmark here

The attacker had been launched across the floor. Ah, that's right. Just after I was impaled, the red-headed person had knocked them down with a kick of remarkable force. Weaponless, the two-faced one another.Bookmark here

Still not turning to face me, although I saw their body shift slightly before stopping themself, the red-headed person spoke to me once more.Bookmark here

"I'm not going to let you die here. So don't worry. Leave it to me."Bookmark here

It seemed a bit too late for that. My consciousness was dripping out of my chest, the weapon burning pain into my solar plexus.Bookmark here

A strange blue light electrified the air as I lost the energy to keep myself awake. Was it the streetlights? The reflection of my own eyes? The fading light of the stars? It enveloped everything as I saw them charge toward the night. To me, it resembled a fight against the unknown itself.Bookmark here

Rebelling against the hollow world that my damaged body dwindled into. Bookmark here

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