Thursday, December 08, 2005

archived fiction: hollow girl: a romance

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For Siglo: Passion, I had the wonderful opportunity of working with Jeremy Arambulo. I first became a fan of this man who swiftly became a friend when he visited Manila, just after the release of Siglo: Freedom. I fell in love with his art, with the expressive nature of his lines and faces, and with the ability of his sequential illustrations to tell a story in a riveting way. I sent him a version of Hollow Girl, a speculative fiction prose piece that won a Palanca Award that year. I wanted to do something different in terms of Siglo: Passion, and Jeremy rose to the challenge and created something we are both proud of.

Comics are read, which is to say the words are read and the images are read. The whole package is a reading experience, with even purely visual images (in the context of a sequential narrative). This is what makes comics a unique artform. And so while the version below is the full prose version, our grafictive version is quite a different experience.

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Hollow Girl: A Romance
Fiction by Dean Francis Alfar

I

Hollow Girl first became aware of sound: a sudden thumping that repeated itself in an established rhythm. Without anything else to focus on, she was entranced, mesmerized by the regular beating of her heart. When vision came, her world exploded in light: colors and shapes that fought for her attention, swirling into clarity before being disrupted by the next image. Touch followed: the waft of warm recycled air from the atmospheric scrubbers on her skinsheath, the cool moisture on her face, the gentle caress of the polyfabrics that swathed her body in lieu of a mother’s embrace.

“Can you hear me?” A voice rasped from somewhere to her left, the question pushing the nanotech in her brain to lightning activity.

“Yes,” Hollow Girl said, marveling momentarily at the resonance of her voice, the vibration in her throat, and the motion of her tongue and lips.

“Can you sit up?” The voice asked, as she felt her birthing cocoon removed, band by band.

“Yes,” she said, sitting up slowly, without pausing to consider the meaning of the request. She felt the flex of her muscles culminating with a tightness centered on her stomach.

“Kamusta,” said the man who stood next to her, his face emanating an almost desperate manner of kindness. “If you feel nauseous, you may lie back. Do you feel dizzy?”

“No,” Hollow Girl replied, surprised at the way her head shook from side to side. She did not feel any degree of discomfort at all, with the exception of a growing sense of embarrassment provoked by her nudity.

“May I have some clothing?” she asked, facing the man who was concerned with her well-being. His head was shaven and square-shaped, his eyes a dull brown.

“Of course, of course,” he replied, vanishing for a moment behind a pale blue curtain before returning with folded clothing in his arms. “Eto,” he said, handing the small pile over to her.

Hollow Girl accepted his offering and wordlessly swung her feet off the birthing crèche. Her soles registered only the most insubstantial cold before the Romblontech tiles provided a pre-calculated amount of heat. She wore the short dress and stood before the short man for approval.

“Ayan, ayan,” the man exclaimed in delight. “You’re just perfect.”

#

In the days that followed, Hollow Girl grew at an astonishing rate, surprising even the man whom she came to know as her creator.

“It’s all there inside your head,” he told her once, as she watched him pick at his lunch: okra, water chestnuts, and squash with a dash of sour cream. “Ninety-eight percent of each of your brain cells has been engineered to hold enormous amounts of preselected information. Every book that has ever been catalogued is there inside.”

She looked at him and carefully asked, “Then why do I feel empty?”

“Empty?” he repeated, stabbing at an obstinate water chestnut. “What an absurd question. You are anything but empty. You are filled to the brim with magnitudes of information. You have the best the Philippines – no, the best the world has to offer.”

She watched him without expression, quietly determining the precise trajectory required for her creator’s fork to spear his target as she tried to assess the vacancy within her that she had attempted to articulate.

“May I have a name?” she asked him as he finished his meal.

“If you feel so strongly about it, then choose one for yourself,” he replied, scratching at the rash behind his ears.

She thought for a moment then said, “Hollow Girl.”

#

In the months that passed, Hollow Girl assisted her creator in his work, giving him complete access to her abundant stored information. They quickly established a certain working order, with her standing next to him as he struggled, in bursts of patriotic zeal, to conquer the scientific mysteries that eluded him.

“We do what we do for our country,” he said grandly. “There was a time when the Philippines was considered the beggar of Asia, but thankfully, that time is in the distant past. But there are still things to be discovered, secrets to pry from the silence of nature.”

“Why do you look for so many answers?” she asked him.

“Why do you ask so many questions?” he asked her back.

In that moment, Hollow Girl realized that she shared more in common with her creator than simple existence, and her feeling of emptiness grew and an inconceivable vacuum established itself in her heart.

“Today, I plan to make myself small enough to explore a blood vessel,” he told her, pointing to the apparatus he had assembled with her help. “Think of the things I’ll see.”

“I will have to leave you soon,” she told him, her words heavy with sorrow.

He didn’t answer her, busying himself with the components of his miniaturized experiment: ship, suit, helmet, recorders, clock, and cigarette – all emblazoned with tiny Philippine flags.

“Do you mean now?” he asked her, when he realized she was still waiting for him to speak. “We still have much to do.”

“I have questions neither of us can answer,” she told him.

“O, sige,” he nodded. “But do you have time for one last thing?”

#

He rode the knife as it slashed towards Hollow Girl, the rush of air muffled by the null-audits of his helmet. Still, he felt the sound, the sibilance crashing over his miniaturized compartment at the blade’s sharpest point as he cut through the space between them. Around him, nanotech cameras recorded the approach, the digital images they captured streaming across the impossible gulf and saved for posterity in the huge J/Banico servers in his laboratory.

As he neared the break point, he could not help but blanch at the inelegant terrain that was Hollow Girl’s skinsheath. At his size, flesh tones defined the sky and the horizon, and follicles towered like sullen gods forced to kenosis. He allowed himself a smile at the detail of his creation.

He adjusted the cameras for optimal perspective, wanting every possible shot, every possible angle of entry – to remember her by, he thought, in a moment of peculiar sadness.

He checked his harnesses and helmet one last time as he prepared for impact, confronted by a yawning emptiness before the knife tip made contact with Hollow Girl. For a moment, it was as if nothing else would happen – in that exquisite moment before the inevitable, he realized the symbolism of his act of penetration.

Her skinsheath gave way, diaphanous and irrelevant – a tear, exposing the wonders beneath her epidermis before the blood reacted, welling up, flooding out in a single eternal globule, black and blacker from his viewpoint.

And his ride continued, cutting deeper within Hollow Girl. Darkness was replaced by the lambent glow of his cockpit lights, and as he found himself embraced by the hot wound, the temperature in his capsule adjusted to accommodate the heat outside the blade.

He commanded the cameras to 3D-mode, orientating ellipses, making panoramic cycles of motion, enslaving everything that could be seen.



II

Hollow Girl looked at her reflection in the mirror of the restroom of the New Davao Club for Men. Her eyes had changed color again, overnight: russet and grey replacing yesterday’s lilac. She ran some warm water and wet her hands, then her face, watching the droplets trail down her features, tracing the contour of her cheekbones towards the angle of her jaw line and down the tip of her chin.

“Alam mo, sometimes I think you’re too beautiful for your own good,” k8lin said, moving beside Hollow Girl. k8lin was a head taller, with close-cropped black hair that accentuated her Filichino looks.

“I wasn’t admiring myself,” Hollow Girl said in an even tone. She had gotten used to all the intrigue and sniping of every other masseuse at the Club, and though k8lin’s words were barbed, Hollow Girl knew that they were empty as well.

“Ewan ko ba why we even bother,” k8lin said, stripping off an eyebrow with one stroke. “When it’s time for sex, most of them close their eyes anyway.” She opened her vanity kit, selected a replacement eyebrow, and applied it, twitching the muscles of her forehead to make sure it held.

“I like it when they look into my eyes,” Hollow Girl said softly.

“Right,” k8lin said, turning away from the mirror to look at Hollow Girl directly. “And I’m here because I love what I do.”

The mirror shimmered and the pixilated image of Triple M, Matron M-lani Marquez, appeared, her voice rendered in dulcet audio.

“Holly,” the image said, “Your fingers are needed.”

#

Hollow Girl’s client was positioned on his stomach, his head pressed against the thin red pillow. Her fingers pressed against his back, her touch firm yet oddly light, engaging his skin and muscles in a pattern of give-and-take.

The man lost all sense of time, trapped between the eternal moment of pressure and release, a repeating pattern of rhythmic motion, as his skin surrendered all intimate knowledge of its secret aches and places to her fingers and palms.

“Sir, may I ask you a question,” she said, as he was enveloped in the scent of oil, thick and cold at first but dramatically rendered airy and warm by the conversion of her touch.

The man tried to answer but could not form a single coherent thought, reduced instead to a self-conscious moan.

“What can you tell me about love?” she asked, moving her fingers down his spine, counting each vertebra as she coaxed them into feeling. She paused then to pour more oil onto the small of his back and the curvature of his buttocks, denying the liquid any routes of escape by quickly rubbing it into his skin.

Helplessly, the man felt his unbidden arousal as she sought deep muscle in tight focused circles. He tried to shift position to relieve his discomfort, but her fingers rode his motion like old seafarers sailing in familiar oceans, adjusting, adapting, never breaking their union of skin.

“Do you expect to find it here?” Hollow Girl said, changing the texture of her skinsheath as she leaned over and massaged his shoulders.

“Come home with me,” the man finally managed to say. “I will show you.”
#


Three years later, he came home to find Hollow Girl at the door of their apartment in Mega Makati, waiting to say goodbye.

"What's going on? Where are you going?" he asked, despite already knowing the answer.

"I wanted to give you my key,” she said, handing him the sensekey. “There's some food in the Omnitop – you just need to decide if you want to have bread or make some rice.”

"Please don't go."

Hollow Girl looked at him with her gold-flecked eyes, and in that instant, everything he loved about her was reflected in the measure of her gaze. .

"Don't. Don't cry. Please." She kissed him on the cheek and held his face in her hands.

"But why? Tell me why," he asked her. His entire body felt like it wasn't his own. It was too heavy, too solid, too real to be real in that unreality where the world existed but was of no substance.

"Goodbye."

"Why?"

"Because I have too many questions."

He watched her walk away, down the brightly lit hall to the airshaft. He wanted to run after her, to beg, to plead, to try everything, say anything, but the unwelcome gravity of the situation was too strong to fight, to struggle against. Instead, he watched her turn towards him one last time as the airshaft signaled its availability, watched her vanish behind its invisible caress, watched the ghost of her last smile disperse like the illusion that it was, and stared down numbly at the sensekey in his hand.

He was oddly flooded with thoughts of particles in motion in a void; of black holes suspended in infinite black space and of the loneliness of their existence -- invisible, powerful, devouring, in solitude; of stars that suddenly flare and supernova, brilliant, burning, echoing light for millions of years, and of worlds that spin unaware that the source of their light is long dead, long gone, a corpse-light. He wanted to cry, to shout, to articulate his pain but realized it was pointless, because words, like sound, could not exist in the vacuum of her departure.


III

Hollow Girl found work, doing rapid analysis and calculations, on the AsiaPac community station in geosynch orbit around the sunside of the moon. The hours were long but her circumstances, like the spin-generated gravity, suited her well.

During the artificial night cycles, she found solace in Tranquil, a subtle narcotic blend that she injected directly into the tiny aperture behind her left ear, allowing her to manipulate the stuff of her dreams. She knew it was destroying her but she felt that she needed the calm it bestowed.

Gabriel-Four, an enhanced man, had begun courting her from the moment she first set foot on the station, four years ago.

“It’s not so bad being what we are,” he told her, curling and uncurling his multiple limbs. He was engineered for physical multi-tasking but was made redundant when the need for such specialists vanished in the wake of another ergonomic discovery. “The trick, I guess, is finding something else to do.”

“The trick is in finding the reason for the trick,” Hollow Girl said.

“But that would be like understanding how an illusion works,” Gabriel-Four replied. “Don’t you think that sometimes it’s better just to sit back and marvel at the show?”

“I can’t just watch,” she said. “Too many people do just that.”

“Then what would you do?” he asked her.

“I want to fall in love,” she said simply.

“Then fall in love with me,” he replied.

"I have left every man who has ever loved me," Hollow Girl whispered quietly into his ear.

“I will take what I can,” he said with a brittle smile.

"Do you believe that someone who has no heart can truly love?"

In the ensuing void of words, Gabriel-Four kissed Hollow Girl gently on her dry lips and pretended they were as moist as the tears that fell from his eyes.

She broke from the kiss and turned her face away to cough, hiding in the cup of her palm the flecks of virtual blood that came with distressing frequency. But he saw it, as he had seen through all the previous times of her subterfuge, and again chose not to call attention to it.

“I’m tired,” she said.

"I love you, Hollow Girl," Gabriel-Four said as she walked away. Whatever elation he should have felt at that moment seemed as hollow as the object of his adoration. As he watched her leave, he realized how sometimes devotion was a curse, imperceptible and relentless in the consumption of hope.

#

She decided that night to dream of her creator.

They were standing next to each other, her birthing crèche adjacent to their flickering bodies. She imagined him young and so he was young, smiling and benevolent. She imagined herself as herself during that time, and it was not very difficult because so little about her had truly changed.

“Why did you make me this way?” she asked him.

“Why are you so obsessed with love?” he asked her. “It’s unhealthy.”

“Why can’t I be happy?” she questioned.

“Why do you think love is the answer?” he said.

“Because love is what I do not have,” she replied. “It is the only thing I do not understand.”

“Talaga,” her creator raised an eyebrow. “Of all the myriad mysteries of the universe, love is the only thing you do not understand? I must have built you better than I thought.”

“You did not build me with what it takes to understand,” she said.

“Listen,” he said. “I built you just fine. Now wake up and start living your life. You have too many questions.”
#

Hollow Girl found Gabriel-Four asleep in his cubicle, his arms dangling from his pallet. His face was handsome in the dim light, his features enhanced by the play of shadows.

He opened his eyes and saw her standing at the doorway. Wordlessly, he shifted his body to make room for her on the narrow bed, and then gestured for her to come.

She closed her eyes for a moment before joining him, and when she felt his arms around her it felt like she was coming across an unfamiliar word for the first time. She recognized the letters, could guess at the sense of it, but knew absolutely nothing of its meaning. Her intelligence wrestled with the notion of staring at something whose significance she should have been aware of, context or no context, but she was reduced to conjecture, lost in the heat of semiotics.

Gabriel-Four watched her sit beside him, watching her eyes shift colors with every second.

“Are you-,” he began to ask.

“Shhh,” Hollow Girl said, with a smile on her face, listening to the beating of their hearts.

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