Water, cradling me like a newborn. So soft. So soothing.
Every time, as solemn heartbeats accompany my descent, I search the blueness. And every time, like a pair of ghostly wings flitting through the dark, my gaze lands on the lights dotting the surface.
The surface that is a million lifetimes away, blurred by eternity but nevertheless… there. Calling. Signalling. Beckoning.
More than anything I want to kick upwards, to tear the surface open, to have the lights and all their secrets wash over me.
But my questions drown with me.
Not the ones I see when my eyes are shut, but the ritual flood of liquid gold that scours the land and trickles through blinds to flick sleep out of my eyelids.
“Good morning, Yuni,” chirps Kepler from my bedside.
It’s the second reassurance of the day that nothing ever changes—unlike Kepler’s digital face plastered onto his floating cube of a body. It flickers from his default smile into a full sideways “D” of a grin as he reminds me:
“In seven days it will be your sixteenth birthday. Is there anything you would have me do to celebrate the occasion?”
I bury into the comfort of one of the less drool-stained pillows. “How about letting me sleep in for a change?”
“Yuni, you have never required my permission to sleep in.” If I know Kepler, his face would’ve flickered into a display of palpable concern by now. “However, your serotonin levels tend to be at their lowest when you refuse to get out of bed.” I sneak a peek. Yep. “Thus, while you are free to do as you please, I highly recommend spending about fourteen hours a day outdoors.”
I kick off the sheets and make a futile lunge for Kepler. He streaks out of reach with a high-pitched hum, reaction time impeccable as always.
“I’ll catch you one day, Blockhead,” I warn, index finger accusatory.
“I wish you the best of luck.”
“Oh, shut up and pull out my wardrobe already.”
Kepler floats down to eye-level. Usually as big as a coconut, his box-like dimensions warp with liquid efficiency into a vertical carpet roughly my height, adorned at the top with his always-present face. The area underneath flickers to life with a spurt of static, unveiling a nightgown hanging like cobwebs from the tattered frame of a girl standing against a white backdrop.
Legs swinging from the bed, I consult the options lining the left-hand side of Kepler’s interface. Yellow? No, I’m not exactly sunshine and daffodils right now. Midnight-black? I would, except I’ve been wearing that like my own skin ever since it popped out of the Heart on my twelfth birthday.
“This one,” I declare, stabbing the icon. The onscreen nightgown flashes out of existence for a split-second before being usurped by a cream-colored dress. My actual nightgown follows suit, melting into a diaphanous, tosca fuzz as I watch today’s outfit materialize over my thighs.
“Excellent choice,” remarks Kepler as he morphs back into a floating cube. His voice is like mine in the way it soars and falls to match his face, but it lacks… something. I’ve never been able to put my finger on it.
“You say it like I have more than eight dresses to choose from,” I respond, perhaps bitterly. Maybe midnight-black does suit me.
“Nine, once you open the Heart on your sixteenth birthday.”
“I forgot about that.”
(“Perhaps you should touch it,” Kepler had advised when I’d stood numbly before the object that appeared in a clearing on my sixth birthday—my first since waking up here.
I obeyed, one curious-yet-tentative finger prodding the shiny crimson thing suspended a few inches above the grass. It glowed tosca before the top bent open like a peanut shell to reveal a neatly-folded dress.
And a note that read Happy Birthday.
The Heart flashed out of existence as soon as I touched the note, and the dress was spirited away to an invisible inventory.
I remember the relief of having something other than a nightgown to wear. But it’s those two mysterious words that I’ll cherish forever.)
I step outside, Kepler following dutifully. Feet relishing the flavor of dew on grass, I release the echo of popping joints across the world that is mine.
Today, my dress is cream.
I soar across seas of emerald, dress fluttering against my knees. The soles of my feet beat out a triumphant melody through the dirt, a song that goes “Here I am!” The clouds are mine to count, the grass mine to tread, the stillness mine to shatter and reform. The heavens clap for me when I leap from a cliff, laughter bubbling through my hair, and kiss the crystalline water below.
I haul myself onto the bank. The ribbons of water draped over me depart in puffs of tosca fuzz, rendering my dress light and airy again.
(“Where does the water go?” I had wondered a lifetime ago, juvenile earnestness dripping like drool from my lips.
“Nowhere,” Kepler had stated matter-of-factly as he watched me study the tosca fuzz fade out of existence.
“The water doesn’t go back into the pond?”
“What if the poor pond runs out of water?”
“The pond never runs out of water, in the same manner the trees never run out of leaves and the mountains never run out of rocks.”
I’d romped through the shallows, appeased by the reassurance that the pond will never turn into the dry earth the spilt droplets disappeared against. And it was true—the water level would remain unchanged when the ripples died down. Every single bone in my body had been enamored by the phenomenon.
Of course, that was before I… before I grew up.
The giggles between splashes ceased when an idea—perhaps inevitably—pierced my brain. A stroke of genius for the little girl I was back then. I figured it would work, since I’m as much a part of this world as the water and the trees and the mountains, but I had to see it happen. Maybe I was inspired by the sense of irreversible finality exuded by a dewdrop falling from a leaf, but a few minutes later my toes were hugging the cusp of a ravine, and sweet whispers had floated up from its depths like petrichor.
Kepler remained silent, so I took a step.
At first, it was thrilling, shards of wind gouging exhilaration into my prickling skin.
But it was fear that held me close in the heartbeats before I hit the ground.
I remember gasping in bed after what felt like an eternity crammed into a second, my heart pounding. Tears stained the sheets, but Kepler’s look of surprise—his mouth blipping into a perfect “O”—pulled a giggle out of me.
“As you can see,” he’d explained, “your hypothesis is correct, Yuni. You will respawn in your bed every time you die.”
“You will reappear as if you had never died, in other words.”
I hadn’t brought it up, but it was the dying part that intrigued me more, and would fill my head for years to come.)
The faint hum of Kepler hovering accompanies my thoughts as I gaze into two blurry pupils. The girl that stares back at me from the surface doesn’t flinch when the current twists and warps her image. Her face is set, locked into the same breezy smile for years and years and years. A branch hurries downstream, obliterating the smile—only for it to reform.
I sigh. Kepler is snooping into my serotonin levels again, like he usually does whenever he catches me incubating a thought. But I don’t care.
There is a world of beauty to gaze upon; wind-kissed fields of green spilling over hills, sun-dappled riverbanks snoozing to the murmur of flowing water, snow-capped mountains caressed by clouds.
So why can’t I take my eyes off of myself?
Kepler banishes the water’s surface from view by hovering in my face, his hum a little more persistent than usual. “What shall we do now, Yuni? Shall we climb the evergreens by the waterfall? Take a dip in a mountaintop hot spring? Nap in the shade of—”
“Home. We’re going home.”
A frown. “Yuni, it’s only been three hours since you woke up. May I suggest—”
“No, you may not.”
I trudge back home, ignoring Kepler’s increasingly frenetic humming. In the stillness of my bedsheets, I wait for the water.
The next time it tries to embrace me, I jerk free. I resist its attempts to soothe me into submission. There are truths to be unearthed, and they are there, the lights dotting the surface.
I swim up, fighting the bliss of living in darkness. I reach out and tear the surface open.
Only to regret it.
Heat. Not gentle brushstrokes of sunlight, but a searing wave of pain that makes me cringe back in a way I haven’t done since hearing my first thunderclap.
And still my gaze is drawn to the sky above, where there is a blinding light gradually surging in intensity, until the heat becomes unbearable and—
“Yuni? Is everything alright?”
“What’s happening to me?” I pant into the soft hues of dawn. “Kepler, what’s happening to me?”
“Your adrenaline and cortisol levels are reaching alarming levels. Perhaps we should take a relaxing walk in the woods today.”
I nod, numbly choosing an outfit.
Today, my dress is the tender pink of dawn.
Long days and dreamless nights trudge on. The world never changes, never gets tempered into something stronger, unlike my wardrobe.
Today my dress is red because I am a tongue of flame. From the vantage of a great rocky spire, I scrutinize the vastness below.
And it’s empty.
I want a pair of eyes to gaze into my soul like a mirror-image. Instead, there is only Kepler as he reminds me that my birthday is tomorrow.
“Buzz off, Blockhead,” I snap, one futile hand raking the air. Kepler respects my distance for the rest of the day.
The world is missing something.
The world is missing something and I don’t know what it is.
“Congratulations, Yuni,” chirps Kepler the next morning. “You are sixteen years old today. Shall we go open the Heart?”
When the midnight-black dress forms over my body, Kepler frowns.
Today I am a frigid void, because that is what the world has made of me. Kepler leads my weary feet to the clearing even though it’s routine at this point.
(I hate routine. I hate it I hate it I HATE IT.)
Four grand evergreens stand guard around the Heart, as if it’s somehow special. It floats where there had been nothing only yesterday, two lumps tapering into a point. Waiting, for me.
After a harsh silence, Kepler speaks up. “Yuni, aren’t you going to open the Heart?”
“What’s the point? It’s just another stupid dress, and another stupid note that says ‘Have a nice day’ or something like that.”
The next thing I know, I’m running. Doesn’t matter where to, as long as it’s… away. Somehow, my feet have carried me to the lip of a ravine—the same one I plunged into an eternity ago. Maybe I’m destined to do this.
(“Kepler, is there a way to die and not respawn afterwards?”
“No, because you must be here to open the Hearts. Hush now, it is well past your bedtime.”)
The world is a frozen stream; it should be flowing freely, parting and reforming around rocks in beautiful, uninhibited chaos. Instead, there is a blankness; a suffocating absence of progression.
It doesn’t change.
But maybe I can.
A ribbon of warm tears trails me on my way down. This time, there is no fear to jeer at me from the safety above. There is only a peacefulness that caresses my eyes to close, that curls my lips into a faint smile. I will respawn when I hit the bottom, but what if I choose never to get out of bed afterwards? To defy what the world expects of me? What Kepler expects of me, day in and day—
I hit something, but it doesn’t hurt. In fact, it feels good, the way I sink before being bounced up a few feet. I stagger to my feet, testing the springiness of the tosca mattress suspended in midair.
Kepler wordlessly carries me to the four evergreens and deposits me in front of the Heart.
“I’m the one who’s supposed to catch you,” I tell him, wiping tears away as he reverts back to a box. “Why? I was going to respawn anyway.”
“There is more than one way to die. It would not do to lose you to your own mental state.” He gestures to the Heart with his eyes. “Please, Yuni. Do not miss out on this year’s gift.”
I nod, compliance and apology. I touch the Heart. It doesn’t open.
And so does the world.
“Kepler, what’s happening?”
But Kepler is gone, devoured by a void blacker than my dress. It hungrily creeps in as the mountains and the trees and the sky flake off into a lifeless tosca fuzz. Before I can give in to the despair of watching everything crumble, something takes its place.
Houses, like mine, some bigger and others smaller, materializing around me to form neat rows. Colors I’ve never seen fill my view. Aromas I’ve never sensed bloom in my nostrils. And movement, so much movement that I keel over in shock.
A person that isn’t me walks in my direction. I wince, but they pass through like I’m only a gust of wind. Dozens of others, wearing clothes I could never conjure up in a dream, mill about, happy, sad, bored.
But two people stand out. A tall one, and I somehow know this person is a “he” like Kepler, walking to a front porch. And a little one, a girl half my size, holding his hand as she skips up the steps. They share a smile, and there is softness on their faces.
Something inside me aches.
The world dissolves to make way for another scenario, another moment in time for me to spectate. A field littered with people, but he is focused only on her as he pushes the swings, her laughter as genuine as his affection.
Then the cozy interior of their home, giggles and vegetables being thrown across a table. I watch over their shoulders like a ghost.
After that, the man is on a couch while the girl scribbles colorful nonsense into a bit of paper. His face is grim as he studies a screen that flashes with warning.
Next we are standing outside, and I follow the man’s gaze. I cringe away, the heat just as painful and the light just as blinding as in my dreams. The girl burrows into the man’s shoulder as the object in the sky gets bigger and bigger, and I know bad things will happen when it arrives.
The memories return as quickly as I’m transported from one scenario to the next.
Days spent in shadows, darkness blotting out the sun.
A queue of grimy, distraught faces, shuffling to the tune of blaring alarms.
There is shelter somewhere even darker, but everyone seems to know it is fleeting. Words drip from faces like teardrops, and I don’t need to understand to understand.
“...biggest impact since the dinosaurs...”
“...sending ash and other particles…”
“...crops need sunlight...”
“...cold… so cold…”
But the man and the girl are elsewhere, a spacious room littered with devices unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He’s hunched over a bench, studying a blue sheet. He starts arranging pieces together, applying tools that throw sparks into the air while the girl snoozes under a worn blanket.
Some time later, the roof slides open to unveil a sky choked with death. And yet the man is smiling through tears as he straps the girl inside a hulking contraption that tapers into a point, aimed skywards in defiance of the world ending.
“It’s okay,” he soothes, each word a flicker of warmth in the dark. “When you wake up, you’ll be somewhere far away. You’ll never be cold or hungry again. I promise.”
The girl sobs because she’s too young to understand.
Unlike me. Yet I sob anyway.
When she bats a useless palm against the pane of glass that seals her in, I reach out with mine. It’s bigger, and yet it… fits.
Another blinding flash later, the girl is piercing the ashen sky, leaving the man to rot with the world. His smile is one of triumph as he gazes up at a dissipating smoke trail. Then he walks away, back turned no matter how many times I cry out for him to wait, to hold me one last time.
The next thing I know, I’m surrounded by stars. A familiar voice reaches out to calm the cries of distress:
“Hello. My name is Kepler. I am here to keep you company.”
Soon I watch the girl slumber in the company of tubes that enter and exit different parts of her body.
Then, the last thing I hear: “Subject succesfully sedated. Memory wipe complete. Initiating Paradise Simulation in five… four… three… two… one.”
I barely see the world return through my tears. The Heart floats down into my lap, and opens to reveal a dress of shimmering white—a light to banish the darkness.
This time, the note has one word:
Not a command, but a wish. His wish.
(His dying wish.)
I crouch in the grass and unravel, all the anguish of a shattered childhood leaving my eyes to stream down my cheeks. “Thank you,” I gasp between sobs, for this world I have been blessed with, for every memory I can cherish, for all the reasons to keep going. “Thank you.”
When I turn to find Kepler waiting, I smile back.