Mom and Dad had the idea for me first, and they asked their friends to help out, to all give me a bit of themselves. I think I got my math aptitude from Aunt Hannah and my impatience from Uncle Okoro. I don’t make friends easily, the same as Aunt Rita, and I like things neat, just like Uncle Pang-Rei. But I got most of me from Mom and Dad. On my tree, I’ve drawn the branches for them the thickest.
“Will you be visiting long?” Dad thinks.
”I’ll be here for a while,” Mom thinks. “I have some things I want to tell her.”
“She’s missed you,” Dad thinks.
“I’m sorry,” Mom thinks. Her face fails to hold her smile for a moment. “You’ve done a wonderful job with her.”
Dad looks at Mom, and it seems that he has more to think, but he nods and turns away, his outline fading. “Please come by… for goodbye before you leave, Sophia. Don’t just disappear like before.”
Mom is an Ancient, from before the Singularity. There are only a few hundred million of them in the whole universe. She lived in the flesh for twenty-six years before uploading. Her parents—she had only two—never uploaded.
My fractional siblings used to tease me sometimes about having an Ancient as a parent. They told me that unions between the Ancients and regular people rarely worked out, so it was no surprise that Mom eventually left us. Whenever anyone thought such a thing, I fought them so hard that they eventually stopped.
Sarah is excited to meet an Ancient. Mom smiles at her and asks her if her parents are well. It takes Sarah a while to go through the whole list.
“I should probably get back,” Sarah thinks, after she finally pays attention to the urgent hints I’ve been shooting her way.
When Sarah is gone, Mom comes over and I allow her to give me a hug. Our algorithms entwine together; we synchronize our clocks; and our threads ping onto the same semaphores. I let myself fall into the long-absent yet familiar rhythm of her thoughts, while she gently caresses me through my own.
“Don’t cry, Renee,” she thinks.
“I’m not.” And I try to stop.
“You haven’t changed as much as I expected,” she thinks.
“That’s because you’ve been overclocking.” Mom does not live in the Data Center. She lives and works in the far south, at the Antarctica Research Dome, where a few Ancient scientists with special permission to use the extra energy live on overclocked hardware year-round, thinking thoughts at many times the speed of most of humanity. To her, the rest of us live in slow motion, and a long time has passed even though she last saw me a year ago, when I graduated from elementary school.
I show Mom the math awards I’ve won and the new vector space models I’ve made. “I am the best at math in my class,” I tell her, “out of two thousand six hundred twenty-one kids. Dad thinks I have the talent to be a designer as good as him.”
Mom smiles at my excitement and she tells me stories about when she was a little girl. She is a great storyteller, and I can almost picture the deprivation and hardships she suffered, trapped in the flesh.
“How terrifying,” I think.
“Is it?” She’s quiet for a moment. “I suppose it is, to you.”
Then she looks straight at me and her face takes on this look that I really don’t want to see. “Renee, I have something to tell you.”
The last time she had this look, she told me that she had to leave me and our family.
“My research proposal has been approved,” she thinks. “I finally got permission to fuel the rocket, and they’ll launch the probe in a month. The probe will arrive at Gliese 581, the nearest star with a planet that we think may hold life, in twenty-five years.”
Mom explains to me that the probe will carry a robot that can be embodied by human consciousness. When the probe lands on the new planet, it will set up a receiving parabolic dish pointed at Earth and send a signal back to let Earth know that it arrived safely. After we receive the signal—in another twenty years—the consciousness of an astronaut will be radioed by a powerful transmitter to the probe, crossing the void of space at the speed of light. Once there, the astronaut will embody the robot to explore the new world.
“I will be that astronaut,” she thinks. I try to make sense of this.
“So another you will be living there? Embodied in metal flesh?”
“No,” she thinks, gently. “We’ve never been able to copy the quantum computation of a consciousness without destroying the original. It won’t be a copy of me going to the other world. It will be me.”
“And when will you come back?”
“I won’t. We don’t have enough antimatter to send a transmitter big and powerful enough to the new planet to beam a consciousness back. It took hundreds of years and an enormous amount of energy just to make enough fuel to send the small probe. I’ll try to send back as much of the data gathered from my exploration as possible, but I will be there forever.”
She pauses and corrects herself. “The probe will be made well and last a while, but it will eventually fail.”
I think about my mother, trapped in a robot for the rest of her life, a robot that will decay and rust and break down on an alien world. My mother will die.
“So we have only forty-five years left together,” I think.
Forty-five years is the blink of an eye compared to the natural course of life: eternity.
I’m so furious that for a moment I can’t think at all. Morn tries to come closer but I back off.
I finally managed to ask, “Why?”
“It is humanity’s destiny to explore. We must grow, as a species, the same as you are growing as a child.”
This makes no sense. We have endless worlds to explore, here in the universe of the Data Center. Every person can create his own world, his own multiverse even, if he wanted to. In school, we’ve been exploring and zooming in on the intricacies of the quaternion Julia sets, and it is so beautiful and alien that I shiver as we fly through them. Dad has helped families design worlds with so many dimensions that I can’t even wrap my mind around them. There are more novels and music and art in the Data Center than I can enjoy in a lifetime, even if that lifetime stretches into infinity. What can a single three-dimensional planet in the physical world offer compared to that?
I don’t bother keeping my thoughts to myself. I want Mom to feel my anger.
“I wish I could still sigh,” Mom thinks. “Renee, it is not the same. The pure beauty of mathematics and the landscapes of the imagination are very lovely, but they are not real. Something has been lost to humanity since we gained this immortal command over an imagined existence. We have turned inward and become complacent. We’ve forgotten the stars and the worlds out there.”
I do not respond. I am trying not to cry again.
Mom turns her face away. “I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
“You are leaving because you want to leave,” I think. “You don’t really care about me. I hate you. I don’t want to see you ever again.”
Mom does not think anything. She hunches down a bit, and though I cannot see her face, her shoulders are trembling, almost imperceptibly.
Even though I am so angry, I reach out and stroke her back. It has always been difficult to harden myself against my mother. I must have inherited that from Dad.
“Renee, will you take a trip with me?” she thinks. “A real trip.”
From The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu. Copyright © 2020 by Ken Liu. Reprinted with permission of Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.