by L. S. Popovich
"Are you still listening, Darling?" my other half said.
The truth was I'd stopped listening to her long ago. I hated when she turned her care off. My helper adjusted my facial muscles so she didn't realize how bored I was.
"Of course I'm still listening," I quickly replied. My helper replayed the conversation to me. "You were just talking about the fish skin you wanted your company to get you." She looked at me through long, translucent, neon lashes.
"You do know, my helper can tell when your helper is doing all the work."
I brushed aside a lock of hair anxiously, and looked around the tiny restaurant on the outskirts of Venus Prime for something to save me. When my helper and the scenery offered no assistance, I figured the truth was best. "Sorry, work has just been... A little much lately. With so many hollows becoming corporeal they're having me work extra to figure out the cause."
She laughed. A cold laugh devoid of care.
"The very reason I had a care regulator installed, Darling. I can leave my stress at work and enjoy the fullness of life without worrying about things like charity and kindness." She sipped a synthetic wine, one that cost a full week to earn from her job.
I cared little for drink: wanted to spend the time I earned from work for antiques. Glumly, I put my finger in my butternut squash soup and incorporated the soup into my system. Didn't feel much like tasting it.
Before she went on, an unusual expression altered her multi-colored features. I followed her gaze and had to stop myself from staring: a hollow bus boy started scrubbing a recently vacated seat. My other half raised her six-inch nails to her mouth. "I didn't know they were letting hollows work here now. How beastly."
I stared at its bedraggled form. The hard, white, leathery skin over a humanoid frame. It's expressionless face lacking a mouth and nose but sporting deep dark circles of pitch where the eyes should have been. Other couples began to whisper.
"I thought you worked for Hollow Rights," I said, as the thing silently touched the nearby dishes with the cleaning rod.
"Darling, I leave my work memories at the office. I may work for Hollow Rights, but right now that thing is ruining my wine." She lifted her glass but paused and cussed loudly. My swear-blocker silenced it.
"I forgot my drinking liver at home! If I drink with this one it'll take me three months to replace. This is a high functioning model! Even tea gives me trouble!" She pursed her lips, which immediately changed colors from the pressure.
Her present skin had taken a month of statistics submissions to afford. Back in the old days people worked for money. I could only imagine how simple that must have been. Now our company took care of our basic needs. Food, shelter, and with enough hard work, specialty items and experiences became available. My other half collected different skins. On any given day it was hard to predict if she'd go out as a male, female or neuter. When she couldn't be bothered to choose a skin to wear, she let her helper do it for her.
The hollow walked to another table and the nearest couple quickly rose and hustled to the teleporter. As the gaunt thing worked, it whistled in a strangled, pathetic way. It was like a shabby shadow, moseying through the room.
"Come on, Darling. Let's go," my other half said. "I've lost my appetite. It's sad this place feels the need to employ those things. Even if they cost almost nothing."
As we stood to leave, the hollow stared at us with garish, black-hole eyes.
The next day, as I stood in line for the interplanetary teleporter to Io I reflected. The company I worked for developed the first commercial teleporters. In a sense, they were the ones who created the hollows. All Works expanded the technology from the ground up, revolutionizing every industry by leaps and bounds. Within a decade humanity's problems disappeared – real estate, food distribution, shipping, personal transportation, terra-forming. Our reach became limitless, and with it, our potential for further growth and expansion. It wasn't surprising that All Works soon became the most powerful corporation in the Milky Way. Currency and governments became obsolete as subsidiary companies took more and more control.
But as teleportation became the norm, hollows became a reality. The hollows, research showed, were fragments from another reality. The transporters moved molecules across space. The speed of light was still an unbreakable barrier, but by bending space, it became a moot point. Whenever space was torn, a hollow slipped through.
I was stuck with the job of trying to figure out why they were becoming more substantial.
I watched a man in a living aquarium skin use the teleporter. As his form dispersed, a hollow emerged in his place with a loud pop. Hollows never used to appear on my way to work. The long, lanky creature stared dumbly before a hole in the platform opened to whisk it away. Before it even closed, a genderless, hairless athlete stepped up to use the platform.
When I got to work, my helper took care of greeting everyone for me. As I sat down, my favorite place was inputted into my brain: an old South America jungle. Instead of the drab chair I found myself ensconced by luscious flora and buzzing insects. Sweat trickled down my neck from the humidity as I examined the corporeal hollow hand before me. The piece had been carefully preserved before the rest of it was jettisoned into space.
When hollows began to materialize the public believed they were ghosts. At first we brushed them off as if they were substantial afterimages. But as teleportation became the standard mode of transportation, they increased in number. With every 99th transport now yielding a hollow and the time and money it took to keep track of them, new methods of hollow management were being explored.
Before I started work on the limp, spider-like hand before me I downloaded my memories. Unlike my other half, I tended to wear the same skin most of the time but we both agreed that leaving some memories at work was a good idea. I've heard of people erasing their favorite memories so they could experience them for the first time again and again. Personally, I didn't need crazy memories or extravagant skins. I wanted knowledge. I was boring, I knew. My helper helped me come to terms with this.
I picked the hand up. It wasn't cold, hot or slimy. It was more like there was nothing between my fingers. I checked to make sure my helper wasn't censoring unpleasant feelings. It wasn't. Before I got anywhere with my work I heard a cool voice in my head.
Unpleasant feelings? Unwanted sensory inputs? Don't turn them off. Experience the emotional intensity of an animal with the new mod from Alpine Commodities Unlimited.
I swore to drown out the advertisement.
"Got you too, eh?" A coworker commented as he passed. "That one's been a nuisance the last few days."
"Anyone doing anything about it?"
"No. Alpine is a subsidiary. I just gave in and bought one. I have to say, at first the burning was pleasant but the feathery tickling got kind of weird." He turned his hand over and I noticed the faint lines of a recent graft on his vibrant, green skin. "Hey, working for such a big company is great and all. They get us some really good things, you just gotta put up with the side effects too, right?"
"Yeah, my other half works in another division. She loves the skins they can get her."
"Activist Causes. She works for Hollow Rights."
"And you dissect them."
I nodded. "All Works has the market cornered on everything."
He shrugged and wandered past the row of cubicles.
Time seemed to pass quickly as I studied the hand. Every so often the fingers twitched or began to tap on my desk. Every time it moved I jumped. Tracking down some of the original body's other parts might have shed light on its peculiar composition but there was too much red tape. I'd been down that road before. Going over ever hollow with a microscope just avoided the real issue. More of them were pouring out every day, and here I was with a wavering hand, translucent cells disintegrating before my eyes.
Life getting you down? Get your brain washed! Think more clearly. Forget all of those boring memories!
I rolled my eyes as the ad scrolled across my mind. I begged my helper to update its adblocker but it informed me that it was a company-wide promotion. Organ transplants and brain modification were in fashion. Unlike most people, I still had most of my original organs. Call me sentimental, but I preferred to hold onto the genuine articles for as long as possible. I had an organ bank account, of course, just for emergencies, but the way my other half seemed to burn through them, I wondered how long it would be before she asked me for a loan.
Our room was divided down the middle. My other half hung hundreds of skins along the ceiling, with some of them splayed out like gaudy wallpaper. On my side I hung a bunch of memorabilia from the early millenniums, like models of primitive vehicles and various movie posters. When we first began living together the clashing colors and textures were almost vertigo-inducing but by dimming the lights I was able to slowly accustom myself to the décor.
We kept mostly to ourselves, only socializing when our schedules coincided. It was even possible to ignore her most of the time. We shared the sensual stimulator on occasion, but it was almost always on the fritz.
"Do you think this synthetic bouquet hat clashes with this jumpsuit?" she asked me.
I averted my eyes.
She was always trying to spice up her work uniform. Holographic clouds swam across the front of her pink leotard. "Turn around," I said.
She did a little spin. The frilly shoulders waggled.
"Yep, just as hopeless in the back."
"You're no help, you know that," she pouted. Heaving a colossal sigh, she tore off the costume and then rolled her skin down to her ankles. "What about my pancreas? Do you wanna criticize that too?"
I stifled a shiver of revulsion. I peered at her tight-fitted musculature, the slivers of bone visible between her tendons, all compactly sealed beneath the transparent plastic layer.
I clutched the limp rod of her arm, watched blood coursing millimeters beneath the surface and managed to spread the sticky skin back over her.
"You tore the crotch," she yelled.
A livid seam was visible.
"It'll cost me two whole days to get it repaired."
"Look, I'm sorry," I conceded, eyeing the endless rows of replacement skins along her wall. "Why don't you just let your helper choose?"
"Its sense of taste is so typical."
"And mine is atypical?"
"Helper, turn my care off," she said. It was the quickest way to end an argument. Her face softened. Within a minute she wore another skin and outfit, without comparing or hesitating. I watched with satisfaction.
"I better be off," she grumbled. "Those hollows aren't going to free themselves from inequality."
"Don't sound so excited."
"Easy for you to say. Your job has a purpose, impact and tangible results!"
"Don't sell yourself short. Hollows are getting more tangible every day."
Glancing casually at the antique movie poster of Casablanca on my wall I leaned in for an old-fashioned kiss. Her helper paralyzed me centimeters away. I had neglected to get permission to touch her first.
"What's gotten into you?" she asked.
"Kiss?" I said uncertainly, I looked again to the movie poster as if the actor could say something in my defense.
"I'm running late. Quit being gross."
At my job I basked in the balmy atmosphere of the Congo. Work flowed into my inbox in a constant stream. I downloaded the hollow parts onto my desk in a messy pile. My helper droned on in the background – I had set it to Pep Talk Mode. The more I tried to focus the less progress I made. The 4D printer spat out unrequested items. Who ordered so many manila envelopes? I wondered. A natural-looking tree frog hopped off a steaming lily pad in my mind's eye. My entire lab coat was soaked through with sweat. But the stink was somehow refreshing. I glanced up at the pristine sky, cut through by the dangling vines of the rainforest canopy.
Suddenly, the intense blueness evaporated. I was staring at the clinical white ceiling tiles of the analytics department. I glanced around in confusion. Cried out to my helper for an explanation.
The lab was hideous. So much garbage! Stacks of forms, caged rats, endlessly scrolling progress charts. Hollow parts dangled from cubicle walls and crunched underfoot. I swallowed the bile that rose to my mouth, felt my senses swim. I wanted to scream. A fellow scientist grinned at me. He was chewing on what looked like a hollow's ear, slobbering all over himself. His face lit up maniacally.
Then it hit me. My helper had been hacked. I struggled into the hallway, screamed at the top of my lungs, and still the sensory inputs crowded in around me – vague hallucinations, hollows dancing on the ceiling! Rats scurried up my coat-tail, perched on my shoulders and gnashed their teeth. I scrambled to the office tele-pad, fumbled with the glowing controls. My body pixilated in sections. But the horrors swarmed around me. I jostled against a gelatinous layer, felt the pieces of my body and mind scrambled. I was like a sheet of music, ripped up and taped back together incorrectly. Something slithered lengthwise through my torso as I landed on my elbows and knees. A heavy rain of static electricity sizzled over me. Rising out of my shadow was a blank-faced hollow. Its eye sockets were dense voids.
Then I saw an analyst, lifting my living eyeball, examining it with tweezers, licking his lips, and typing in a notation.
Even before my eyes opened I heard my helper's voice. You're in the hospital, it said reassuringly. Just relax.
I sat up. My helper ticked off my vital signs. "What happened?" I asked.
"You had a minor seizure."
"Simply a virus in the environment simulator application. Nothing permanent."
It had felt so real, I could hardly take my helper's words at face value.
I leaned back, enjoying the stiff hospital sheets. But fragments of the scenes recurred to me. The sensation of being divided into separate parts and spread across space filled me with terror.
"How about you purchase some pleasant memories?" my helper suggested unhelpfully.
"I'm not a fan of forgetting," I grumbled. ‘Forgetting' was how my other half referred to memory replacement. It was a simple procedure to implant beautiful reminiscences, but I'd heard of the side-effects first hand. My other half complained of peculiar tastes, uncanny sounds, and horrid juxtapositions leaking into her waking life. That's what happened when two memories occupied the same space. It could end up even worse than a malfunctioning environment simulator.
As my helper filled out the tiresome paperwork my other half entered the room. She wore a look of barely contained annoyance. "I was in the middle of a poker game on Mars," she commented.
"Well, I was just about to be discharged anyway."
My other half sighed.
"Why go all the way to Mars for a poker game?" I asked.
"It was strip poker, Darling" she said. This was a common pastime on Mars.
"Did you ever think of inviting me?" I didn't really want to go, but it was the fact that she was doing it behind my back that got to me.
She rolled her gold-tinted eyes at me and shook her head, as if I were a hopeless case.
"I've been thinking," I said slowly. My heart throbbed plaintively. "Of having a care regulator installed."
"I was going to suggest it. I know how emotional you get sometimes." Flowers bloomed in her hair, peeping out of varicolored locks and then retreating.
"Then I wouldn't worry so much about your other relationships…"
"When did you become such a geezer, Darling? What is this, the Twenty-Third Century? So what if I'm having a little fun?"
"I've just been a little lonely. That's all." My eyes watered. It hadn't happened in a really long time, so it surprised me.
"You've been awfully clingy lately." She regarded me with suspicion.
"You are my other half, after all."
"You should get your system debugged. My helper does it once a month." With that, she strutted through the exit.
Over the next few weeks, life returned to normal. The only difference was I relied on my helper less. Sleep didn't come easy at first. My mind seemed to want to wander off in the strangest directions. Images came unbidden to my mind. The sensations of that day still lingered, and every time I examined pieces of a hollow at work, my stomach squirmed. One of these things crawled out of my shadow, I thought.
I shook the daydream off. I'd installed a less aggressive environment simulator, but it was a cheap, ad-riddled prototype, more distracting than soothing. All cartoonish butterflies and sparkling rainbows.
In my free time I reviewed media files from the distant past. Part of me longed for the domestic life of peasants I studied with so much attention. Their wholesome existence cast a pall over my own dismal seclusion. My other half accumulated skins and hairstyles, frolicked about the galaxy with abandon, as I holed up in our room, and whittling away at the unshakeable sense of hopelessness inside me.
Over time I learned to suppress the phantom memories. But my curiosity never waned. More hollows popped into existence day by day, but I was no closer to understanding them.
Eventually, I could stand the monotony no longer and spent a handful of work days to apply for a vacation. I let my helper fill out the forms.
Not going to work felt somehow wrong, but I was determined to make headway on my conjectures. I arose early, teleported to Venus Prime Central Station and stood amid a plethora of inter-system tele-pads.
Hollows wandered through the crowds, almost invisible, phasing through plastic potted plants and hovering billboards, wavering through hurrying businessmen, and being brushed aside by exotic dancers flickering between ports. People flickered right and left, in an endless stream to their myriad destinations. It didn't take long before I witnessed another hollow-birth.
It stood up with a pop. Didn't even have time to blink before getting whisked away by the tube underneath the platform.
I chose the unpopular destinations first, the ones without a wait. I teleported to Charon, barely looked out over the desolate wasteland before transferring to Chimera. I flickered through Phobos, Andromichles, Xion 7, Prolix Gate, Fathom's Wallow, Quilty's Plains, XFJ-74592, and Hazorad, before finally pausing to catch my breath at Gorb-chuck Station. I had no idea teleportation took such a toll on the body. It felt like a hand had reach down and stirred the contents of my brain with a spoon.
Pulling up my electronic itinerary I scanned my hyper-travel history. No anomalies. Frustrated, I gritted my teeth and submitted to another 26 jumps. At that point I had to sit down. My helper displayed the readout in front of me. Still no hollows reported.
Was there any pattern to it? Any way to guarantee it would happen? Would I even notice?
Then, it happened. I was in the middle of a jump and felt a shudder. It was so subtle I wouldn't have noticed on a normal day. Quickly, I backtracked and arrived right as the disposal unit sucked the thing down. For a brief instant it had stared at me with those swollen black eyes. Like fermented blood.
The image seared in my vision long after it disappeared. It had been far more rotund than I'd expected. Wobbly and flaccid and sort of mucoid. Was it just a random amalgam or did it represent something within me, I wondered. Could it even be called my hollow? All that work for nothing more than a single glimpse.
I ingested a packet of chicken noodle soup with my finger and rested on a bench. In the distance, volcanic fires burned. I didn't even know how far out I'd gone.
Glancing at the tele-pad to someplace called Nasteroid I noticed sparks cascading out of the base of the platform. How many years had it been since it had been serviced? Were there many places like this where platforms and even disposal units ceased functioning altogether? Backwaters where hapless travelers like myself became stranded for the rest of their lives? I was eager to find out.
I jumped again, flickered with abandon. Choosing the destinations with lowest congestion, least traffic, proceeding recklessly, to the furthest brink on the display modules. Again and again and again. I'd lost count long ago, vomited over the side of the fence separating a derelict walkway from the tele-pad. I stood before a teleporter booth and felt my heart flutter with a profound sense of nostalgia. I'd never seen one before. Like the telephone booths of old, the personal transport booths were replaced with public platforms long ago. Opening and closing the doors and fiddling with the plastic buttons had just resulted in unmanageable traffic jams. It was a thing of the past, still in working order. I marveled at length.
Here, on the outskirts of the Milky Way, time had not caught up to Earth Central. Venus Prime and even Mars were centuries ahead of this place. My fingers tingled with excitement. What's more, I noticed the presence of more hollows. Somehow, a lot more of them seemed to escape the disposal procedures out here where population and travel was low.
Some of them even sauntered by and stared at me like I was the one out of place.
I caught up with a nearby hollow and reached out. It turned with rapid animation. Its eyes fluctuated through its insubstantial face. Rows of human teeth studded in a gaping mouth. What a rare specimen! I gasped. It leered and backed away.
"Where did you come from?" I asked. I should have known better than to think it could answer back.
"BLUUUUUR OP SHOOK!" it yelled, and fled in the opposite direction.
I stood in stunned amazement. Hollows didn't speak. Most of them couldn't even perform the simplest tasks. They were only good for repeating motions that were demonstrated to them. The only jobs they were fit for were shoveling garbage or sweeping out the gutters.
Yet it had said something. It hadn't just blurted out a parody of my own words.
Other hollows gathered around me. Tall ones and short ones. Wide ones and narrow ones. Shimmering and glossy, gray-toned, with deep red veins showing in their joints. Floating in bunches with frightening attention.
At first I only heard a whisper, and then a few groans. But as I watched and listened, I distinguished short words and phrases, clipped off as they fluttered amongst one another. They were like figures in a projection movie, like in an old, corrupted film with digitally mended holes.
I woke my helper to record my surroundings. It remained impartial as I gathered data. I logged the coordinates of my travel history, but judging from my helper's blaring warnings, my body was in great need of sleep. Succumbing to the rush of emotions I allowed my helper to guide me back to a familiar locale and finally collapsed in a cheap hotel in what was popularly called ‘The Styx.' Shabby didn't even begin to describe it, but it served me well.
My other half's eyes protruded more than an inch from her skull. She had gotten her sockets lowered.
"What do you think?" she asked, beaming at me with what can only be described as occult charm.
My recent experiences constricted my thoughts like a straitjacket. Every day after work I explored different routes. Recording the best locations to encounter hollows. I'd filmed them communicating, organizing, and even setting up strange colonies on the outskirts of human thoroughfares. There was a simple joy in imagining their distorted view of our reality. I'd even learned how to short-circuit the hollow disposal conduits. My life's work had barely scratched the surface. What I accomplished at work was pointless compared to my extracurricular studies.
"Well, are you going to tell me how I look?" she asked expectantly.
"I turned my care off," I lied.
"What's wrong?" she said slowly, scanning me with her helper. "I know you don't care how you look but have you seen yourself lately?"
My helper projected a reflection of my appearance before my eyes. I shuddered involuntarily.
Sure, I'd let my personal hygiene slip, but my other half was never around long enough to notice.
"Maybe if you looked half-way decent I'd invite you out more."
"Even if I dolled myself up it wouldn't make any difference."
Her bulging eyes roved with contempt over my side of the room. The antiques seemed to offend her. "You know messing around with all those weird cadaver-things might eventually turn you into some kind of freak."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" I seethed.
"Helper, turn my care off."
"Don't do that when I'm talking to you." But it was too late. There was no use arguing with someone who was physically incapable of caring.
My helper woke me in the middle of the night. The lights dimmed on slowly so that my eyes could adjust. The three large men looming over me looked like shadows. They were wearing midnight skins and clothes that reflected no light. Their faces were smooth, featureless, and for a moment my groggy mind thought I was looking at hollows.
Belatedly, my helper explained they were All Works representatives. The middle figure spoke first: "Per company law you're being called in for special assignment. Per company policy overtime days will be assigned if/ when it is accrued. Per company policy you have approximately four minutes before your consciousness is suspended for expedient transport." The tone was so flat it took me a full thirty seconds to comprehend the meaning of the words. Rumors flowed through my mind. Coworkers that had gone on special assignment never to return. Some had returned with utterly unrecognizable personalities, and none of them could explain what they'd done.
Hesitantly, I stood and glanced at my other half in the corner, who watched with vague interest. She'd strapped on a pair of smoker's lungs to enjoy a cigarette. My helper relayed instructions about company law and my rights and restrictions. But all I thought about was the smug smile playing about her lips. She wore baby-seal skin pajamas – her most expensive sleep attire, over bare musculature, and dipped the cigarette into the pile of ash, letting it form around the tip and grow back to its full size. I had never seen her enjoy anything so much as those brief moments of my confusion and helplessness.
"Care to say anything?" I asked her.
"Think I'll get one of those midnight skins," she sighed. "They're really slimming." She took a pronounced drag. I watched smoke fill her translucent auxiliary lungs. "But I'll wait and see what kind of collection my new other half has."
"You sold me out." It wasn't a question.
"Of course I did, Darling."
"What about all those times…" I started timidly.
"Ancient history. You're really quite unbearable in the long run," she said.
"I've put up with you for years!"
"Don't start. You need help. I hired a cloaked drone to trail you. I never expected you were meddling with hollows. I mean aren't there enough of them already without you trying to create more, Darling?"
"You work in Hollow Rights!"
"You like to bring that up, don't you? Frankly, we've been through this before. Times change, lives change, let's just move on."
"You didn't have to report me to my company!"
She sucked the cigarette with abandon. The insistent murmur of my helper seemed filtered through a thin film to my buzzing ears. The All Works reps stood as patient as statues. Suddenly, the room before my eyes tensed and blurred. I packed one or two maudlin antiques but realized they'd probably be confiscated later anyway. When my five minutes were up I had no choice but to submit to the waiting agents with their glowing demobilizers.
I awoke on a table, wearing a papery gown. A doctor floated in a pristine coat over other, similar patients. He grinned and scribbled on a pad, walked with jerky steps from one gurney to the next.
I knew I should be frightened, but I was as placid as a windless lake. My helper lay on a metal tray to the side, still bloody. Under the tape and gauze the gaping hole in my skull radiated a distant, dull pain.
"Special assignment H-111P," the doctor said, pausing before me with that unchanging smile.
"Where am I?"
"A research facility in the rings of Saturn."
I blinked. My body was sluggish but my mind was clear enough. "So, what's going to happen?"
"Company policy states that employees engaging in unapproved research are subject to reassignment. Every system requires debugging. All Works' proprietary tele-pad network is no different." The doctor's grin was emotionless, a mere mask.
"You're function will be as a substantive layer for the network. Modern teleportation methods require a thin medium. Most of space is a vacuum. But the portion that is not eliminated by diffraction still requires a substratum to conduct the transfer. Teleported matter is distended during the contraction of space but within the network the overall density is still extremely low."
"I don't understand."
"Hollows represent the gaps in the system. As your body is incorporated into the system your human consciousness will become the chain that links the stars."
I swallowed hard. The blood in my veins pumped furiously. I felt such terror at my own misfortune, but it was nothing compared to the dislocation of reality that slowly sank in. For so long, I had been blind to what my constant travel was doing. How long could we go on mutilating ourselves to bridge the gaps we felt the need to traverse?
"But that's ridiculous," I stammered. "Why not filter other material into it instead? Why do you need to spread people out over the cosmos like wires?"
"The human will. The spirit. The soul. The single hardest thing to reassemble."
"So from the very beginning you were using living humans to build bridges into space?"
His smile didn't falter a fraction of an inch. "Progress always necessitates a certain sacrifice. History is built on the shoulders of the people before us."
"And hollows are what's left over? When there's nothing left of us?"
"Oh no. There's plenty left over. Out there. Pathways intersect all the time. It just sort of becomes one scattered patchwork. You see, the cosmos wears our skin."
Recoiling from his cheerful inhumanity, I tucked my head between my hands and tried to contain my throbbing rage.
"People have a right to know," I said. "Every day, hollows are dissected and cast aside. Really, they're parts of ourselves."
"Actually, research seems to support that hollows are like negatives. Like from antiquated films and pictures."
I glared at him.
"What fascinates me is the mystery."
"What mystery?" I asked.
"Are hollows the originals, or the copies?"
"What do you mean?"
"The government would like us to believe they're just exhaust. A strange mixture of heat and chemical byproducts. But their complexity is unmistakable. Do they have souls? What are we to them? But generally, these questions aren't good for business. Therefore, you will play an integral part in our exploration of this topic in your new role."
"And our bodies are degrading, aren't they? Only we don't notice because of all the transplants and mods. It's like we're becoming less and less human as we shave off layers of ourselves, all for amusement and commerce."
"The future is incorporeal."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Gradually, our bodies will become useless, immaterial and the whole structure will break down. Individuality, interconnectedness, will all become obsolete. It is the inevitable culmination of progress."
"It's already well under way," I said. "The helpers fill in the bits of consciousness trapped in the grid, until our very personalities disappear altogether, right?"
"And that is why your new work has such value. Now more than ever you'll contribute to the future."
Filled with disgust I sat, as the doctor filled in boxes on his chart, fed the paperwork into a nearby computer and resumed his rounds.
Around me others were awaking to their new destinies.
I nodded to a patient several feet away. She stared at me with resigned gloom.
"What do you think about all this?" I asked.
Her skin was a plain as mine; her neutral gown robbed her of any uniqueness she might have possessed. "My other half was reassigned," she said. "Came back with a different attitude. It was really like he wasn't even there anymore."
"Walked around like a hollow? Let his helper do everything for him?"
She nodded as if I'd read her mind.
"I suppose there are worse things," she sighed. A far-off look entered her eyes. I stared at the bandage on her head. Imagined the cavity behind it.
Time lay like an amorphous magma before my mind's eye. Memories sizzled beneath the surface. The texture of the past evaporated into ash. In that moment I felt more like a hollow than a human being. Somewhere, my other half was out enjoying her ceaseless voyage upon the plasma of our brethren.
The real work began with hundreds of simultaneous transfers. At least for the time being I retain some autonomy. There are even brief moments, like now, where I can hover over a shimmering sea, or linger in the darkened room of a curious child, like a disembodied shadow, recording my thoughts in the interstices of the network. The pathways are alive with communication, like an eternal, limitless brain. As we pass through the phases our thoughts diverge and mingle. The thrill of souls siphoning through me is a savory dream. Memories come and go. For now I still feel intact. Yet, my conception of the universe has swollen beyond time and the limits of the human body.
I watch the glow of teleportation pads, as numerous as stars. I feel the curvature of space around me like an expansive aura. I wait to meet my hollows. They linger on the horizons like enigmatic mirrors. Occasionally, they emit a strangled sound from that immanent stratum. It's a continuous, sad sort of laughter. It is only now that I realize how they await the coming era with calm assurance. Once the obsolescence of the human body occurs the pathways will be clear for them. Yes, we've been paving the way all long…
L. S. Popovich lives in Denver, is a cat person (that is, a person who likes cats, not a cat-human hybrid), and a writer of speculative fiction. Find him on Goodreads.