Chapter 2:

Flesh Machine

Ephemera Re:Place

I stood atop a tall spire, and the world reminded me that I was, in fact, only sitting.Bookmark here

So high above the Earth that everything I could see was nothing more than an expanse of wispy clouds dipped in azure.Bookmark here

Floating out in front of me was a pale young girl, dressed all in black. She looked through me as if I were transparent, her peach-coloured eyes engraved with a sadness that her empty face betrayed. She held out her hand, fragile and soft, to anyone that would listen.Bookmark here

"Take this."Bookmark here

In her hand was a strange object. Calling it an object at all was inaccurate. It fit perfectly in the folds of her skin, yet viewing it from any angle made it appear two-dimensional. It was circular, the most circular thing I had ever seen. Its outer ring glistened with iridescent colours, but its centre was a thick, all-encompassing black from which the dainty sprites of tincture around its edge seemed unable to fully escape. I reached out to touch it, but no matter how far forward I moved my hand, it would never cross the gap.Bookmark here

I asked the question that had been in my mind before the girl had even appeared. Which seemed impossible, because as far as I could tell, she had always been there.Bookmark here

"What is it?"Bookmark here

"The universe."Bookmark here

"It looks like a black hole."Bookmark here

Not that it would even be possible for her to hold it if it were. But I think inconsistencies like that are the least of my worries.Bookmark here

"Maybe it is."Bookmark here

Her tone melded with the air and slipped into my ears.Bookmark here

"One could consider the universe a collection of stars all waiting to die. If the universe is timeless, then one might consider it a black hole waiting to happen."Bookmark here

The girl's mouth didn't move but I heard her words all the same.Bookmark here

"Try again to touch it."Bookmark here

"I can't."Bookmark here

"Try again."Bookmark here

I reached out once more. My finger made contact this time, but I felt nothing. I felt less than usual, not even the faint sensation of the air on my skin. Absolute nothingness.Bookmark here

The finger I had been using to touch it, as well as the hand it belonged to, and the arm to which that was also attached was floating away from my body, detached. The girl collected it and stuffed it into a bag.Bookmark here

"Were you satisfied?"Bookmark here

"Well, I didn't feel anything. Did I actually touch it?"Bookmark here

"Would you like to try again? What would you sacrifice at a chance to be able to try again? To truly feel it?"Bookmark here

The girl spoke robotically, the arm that once belonged to me flopping grotesquely from the messenger bag slung over her bony shoulder.Bookmark here

I reached out once more to touch it.Bookmark here

Everything faded to white. A bolt jumped from my finger as it disappeared.Bookmark here

---Bookmark here

Something soft brushed my finger.Bookmark here

Then, the soft feeling enveloped my back, slid along my arms and rested in my hands. It cradled my head. Memories leaked into my mind: fabric, rest, warmth. It was the caress of a bed.Bookmark here

Other senses began to reactivate. The smell of antiseptic and medicine irradiated the unfamiliar air.Bookmark here

I cracked my eyelids open as far as they would allow me. A thin layer of crust broke away, revealing a world floating through a sea of fog and fluctuating into being. Each new sensation hit me like the gentle roll of a wave on a beach.Bookmark here

The first sound I heard was a low, harsh yet feminine voice. The waves warped by her voice had high crests and folded over each other, slamming against the sand with a satisfying crash.Bookmark here

"She's stabilising. Is she awake?"Bookmark here

This was met with a reply from another voice. It was closer, almost beside my ear, and had a calm, studious tone to it. These waves were fast to appear but slow to retreat, soaking an impression into the beach that remained until the next one.Bookmark here

"Let me check. You shouldn't be here when she wakes up. It'll be too much for her to take in."Bookmark here

"If you say so. She'll have to see me eventually anyway. But I'll wait outside for now."Bookmark here

The waves began to ripple apart, breaking to reveal the reality underneath. Footsteps crossed the sand until the sand became the laminated floor of an unknown room. What sounded like a sliding door trundled open for a moment before rattling shut, taking the footsteps with it.Bookmark here

The source of the calm voice approached me. Their presence was a pristine white blob in my bleary vision, marked with a cosy orange centre.Bookmark here

"Hello, Beryl, are you awake?"Bookmark here

I tried to move my head, but they swooped in, placing their hands on my shoulders. Bookmark here

"That's not the best idea right now. I'll explain everything soon but for now, you need rest. Don't move unless it's really important."Bookmark here

My stiff body released its tension, and they sat on a seat beside the bed.Bookmark here

"Sorry, it's a reflex of mine to call patients by their first name when they wake up. I didn't mean to sound so informal when we've technically just met for the first time, on a mutual basis. You are Miss Beryl Ether McNeal, correct?"Bookmark here

I replied with a head movement as close to a nod as I could manage.Bookmark here

"Right. I'm Anya Yahontov. Doctor Anya Yahontov, for the purposes of what we're going through right now. It's a bit unfair since I've had a headstart in getting to know you. As much as you can learn from someone's biology and records, though. Based on my experience, that kind of knowledge barely scratches the surface."Bookmark here

Anya picks up a clipboard from the table behind her and clicks her pen.Bookmark here

"Did you have any side effects from the anaesthetic? It can be known to cause some unusual dreams."Bookmark here

"I-"Bookmark here

Before I can even form a word, I cough, as if my body were rejecting it.Bookmark here

"Don't force yourself, lapachka. I'm not your psychologist, you don't have to describe the dream to me. Just a yes or no should suffice."Bookmark here

I clear my throat while nodding groggily, and despite not being able to see them, I could sense the bags under my eyes. Anya slides a glass of water closer to me and my jittering makes me struggle to lift it without spilling. The sun peeking over the horizon through the wide glass window across from me catches my eyes as I raise myself up on the bed.Bookmark here

"How long was I..."Bookmark here

"About 13 hours."Bookmark here

"Thirteen...?"Bookmark here

Oh god, the soup's definitely gone cold now.Bookmark here

"It must be hard to hear that. You've been in transit as well, it was a very risky operation."Bookmark here

"In transit?"Bookmark here

Where I was at that time hadn't even occurred to me until she, Anya, had mentioned it. Shuffling up further, the pillow against my back, I gazed out of the window through still-fuzzy eyes. Outside lied a vast outstretch of blue with the radiating yellow ball that was the sun floating atop it.Bookmark here

Spluttering again from the water, struggling to swallow, I placed my hand on my chest out of instinct.Bookmark here

Humm...Bookmark here

Vrr-chunkBookmark here

My hand leapt away and I flapped it like I was shaking off a bug, a harrowing dread manifesting in my bowels. Anya's expression grew concerned while she scanned across me, my irises blank. Recovering from the shock, I hesitantly returned to feel my chest.Bookmark here

VrrBookmark here

Vrr-thmpBookmark here

Anya reached out, looking to me for confirmation before wrapping her fingers around my wrist.Bookmark here

"I'd hope I could explain it before you found out, but I couldn't bring myself to break the news."Bookmark here

She shakes her head and presses her other hand to her temple.Bookmark here

"And I call myself a doctor..."Bookmark here

"Wh-wha..."Bookmark here

"Easy, slow breaths."Bookmark here

I felt my hand being pulled toward Anya before it settled on her chest. The fabric of her orange cardigan met my skin but even through the supple material, I could discern an underlying cold. Strangely, my hand wasn't touching her chest directly. There was some resistance in Anya's grasp, preventing it from truly making contact with her.Bookmark here

A similar noise accompanied the vibrations that moved through my palm.Bookmark here

Vrr-rrrBookmark here

"You're not the only one."Bookmark here

She released my hand as quickly as she had put it there, and I pulled back the bedsheets, peeling away the sleeve of my hospital gown. A fresh, crimson scar. On my left side. Where my heart is. Where my heart... was.Bookmark here

"It's called a RepliCor."Bookmark here

I was dragged out of my focus, unable to comprehend the word.Bookmark here

"Repli...Cor?"Bookmark here

It sounded like the brand name of some sort of over-the-counter medicine, or an all-purpose household appliance.Bookmark here

"It's a non-commercial artificial heart. It's only transplanted in civilians in very extreme cases."Bookmark here

"So... why me?"Bookmark here

"Well..."Bookmark here

She paused for a moment, pushing her half-moon glasses further up her nose.Bookmark here

"The RepliCor we transplanted into you wasn't, how you say, ours to give. We were given special permission. In fact, even with special permission, I wouldn't have gone ahead with it in most circumstances, but..."Bookmark here

Anya mumbled to herself in Russian for a moment as she rifled through some files, picking out one.Bookmark here

"We couldn't identify either of the people present at the scene, but we tracked them to your location. RepliCor implantees aren't allowed to be-"Bookmark here

She tossed me a glance and held back her words.Bookmark here

"W-We can easily follow anyone with a RepliCor, and we knew one of them was a threat. We arrived when your wound was still relatively fresh. You were beyond saving but... they offered to transplant their RepliCor into you to save your life."Bookmark here

I pulled my gown back further to my lower chest. There was still stitching around my lower abdomen where I imagine a gaping hole once was. It eased me somewhat, making me think what I saw there last was just a nightmare. But it was impossible for me to deny the lingering pain in my shredded solar plexus. It thronged just like the faint memory I had of the incident.Bookmark here

"They had red hair like me, didn't they?"Bookmark here

"Did you know them?"Bookmark here

I drooped my head, my hair brushing past my cheeks.Bookmark here

"No. I could barely even see them..."Bookmark here

"Hm... Then we still don't have any leads on the motive for why either of them were fighting in a peaceful suburban neighbourhood, let alone why they involved a civilian."Bookmark here

She placed the file on the table.Bookmark here

"Anyway, I'm a doctor, not a private investigator. I'll let the others worry about that, for now, I have to make sure you're looked after. I asked the chef to prepare you something simple and easy to eat. How does soup sound?"Bookmark here

My expression soured a little.Bookmark here

Yeah, fantastic.Bookmark here

---Bookmark here

Sipping my soup from a plastic spoon as the bowl rested in my lap, I stewed in the view of the rising sun that filtered through the window.Bookmark here

Anya chirped in from across the room after being silent for a little while.Bookmark here

"While you've been asleep, a lot more time has passed in the world than you think. Relatively, at least."Bookmark here

The fact that I could see the sea so easily had told me that I wasn't anywhere near home anymore, but just how far I'd come was still unknown to me. I was almost afraid to ask.Bookmark here

"I'll let you rest again soon, but I think it's important that you know where you are now. As much as some people might disagree."Bookmark here

There was a rustle from outside, and I was reminded that, until recently, there was a third person in the room with us.Bookmark here

"Currently you are in the hospital wing of Port Tatsumi, a man-made island off the southeastern coast of Japan."Bookmark here

Japan!?Bookmark here

I definitely wasn't making it back in time for dinner.Bookmark here

"It's an international island under the jurisdiction of the Japanese government due to being in the exclusive economic zone of their territorial waters. The island was established-"Bookmark here

When Anya had turned back to me, I was starting to doze. My body was overwhelmed as much as my mind, and I couldn't deny its desire to return to sleep, perhaps even in an attempt to see if it really is all a dream. Or perhaps if I'd see that girl dressed in black again. Bookmark here

The way Anya was delivering the exposition wasn't exactly helping, either.Bookmark here

Her response, after being startled at me sleeping during her explanation, was to simply let out a breathy chuckle and a pursed smile.Bookmark here

"Okay, you get some rest now."Bookmark here

The door clattered open, spurring me awake. The same steadfast voice from earlier spoke, accompanying the commanding presence that entered the room. Her aura, as much as it was generated from her straightforward speech pattern and purposeful stride, was delivered in handfuls by her clothing, of which details were flitting into view. She wore a high collared white shirt with the top button undone, and a tremendous black jacket plunged over her shoulders and spread out, like an animal making itself larger to scare its prey.Bookmark here

She adjusted the brim of her peaked cap, wasting no time in addressing me.Bookmark here

"The island was established by the United Nations, and is home almost exclusively to RepliCor implantees."Bookmark here

Anya rushes over to the woman that entered the room, but maintains distance.Bookmark here

"Don't you think it's a bit early to introduce her to all of this?"Bookmark here

"She's going to have to be told either way. The earlier she finds out, the more time she can have to process it. We don't have time to wait around."Bookmark here

"You were the one that didn't want to tell her about where this place is yet."Bookmark here

"That's because we haven't earned her loyalty yet. Port Tatsumi is an important and covert location, we can't have civilians on the other side of the world learning about it, especially not when they've had a run-in with a hostile. But since you've already told her, I don't have to bide my time any longer."Bookmark here

The imposing woman turns to me, but doesn't come any closer.Bookmark here

"I'm Audrey Minamoto.Bookmark here

From now on you need to remember one thing. Bookmark here

As far as the world is concerned, you're no longer human."Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.