We’re pleased to reprint Ken Liu’s short story “Seven Birthdays” from Bridging Infinity, the latest volume in the Hugo award-winning Infinity Project series, showcasing all-original hard science fiction stories from the leading voices in genre fiction.
Sense of wonder is the lifeblood of science fiction. When we encounter something on a truly staggering scale—metal spheres wrapped around stars, planets rebuilt and repurposed, landscapes transformed, starships bigger than worlds—we react viscerally. Fear, reverence, admiration – how else are we to react to something so grand? Edited by Jonathan Strahan, Bridging Infinity puts humanity at the heart of these vast undertakings—as builder, as engineer, as adventurer—reimagining and rebuilding the world, the solar system, and even the entire universe.
The wide lawn spreads out before me almost to the golden surf of the sea, separated by the narrow dark tan band of the beach. The setting sun is bright and warm, the breeze a gentle caress against my arms and face.
“I want to wait a little longer,” I say.
“It’s going to get dark soon,” Dad says.
I chew my bottom lip. “Text her again.”
He shakes his head. “We’ve left her enough messages.”
I look around. Most people have already left the park. The first hint of the evening chill is in the air.
“All right.” I try not to sound disappointed. You shouldn’t be disappointed when something happens over and over again, right? “Let’s fly,” I say.
Dad holds up the kite, a diamond with a painted fairy and two long ribbon tails. I picked it out this morning from the store at the park gate because the fairy’s face reminded me of Mom.
“Ready?” Dad asks.
I run toward the sea, toward the burning sky and the melting, orange sun. Dad lets go of the kite, and I feel the fwoomp as it lifts into the air, pulling the string in my hand taut.
“Don’t look back! Keep running and let the string out slowly like I taught you.”
I run. Like Snow White through the forest. Like Cinderella as the clock strikes midnight. Like the Monkey King trying to escape the Buddha’s hand. Like Aeneas pursued by Juno’s stormy rage. I unspool the string as a sudden gust of wind makes me squint, my heart thumping in time with my pumping legs.
I slow down, stop, and turn to look. The fairy is in the air, tugging at my hands to let go. I hold on to the handles of the spool, imagining the fairy lifting me into the air so that we can soar together over the Pacific, like Mom and Dad used to dangle me by my arms between them.
I look over and see Mom striding across the lawn, her long black hair streaming in the breeze like the kite’s tails. She stops before me, kneels on the grass, wraps me in a hug, squeezing my face against hers. She smells like her shampoo, like summer rain and wildflowers, a fragrance that I get to experience only once every few weeks.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, her voice muffled against my cheek. “Happy birthday!”
I want to give her a kiss, and I don’t want to. The kite line slackens, and I give the line a hard jerk like Dad taught me. It’s very important for me to keep the kite in the air. I don’t know why. Maybe it has to do with the need to kiss her and not kiss her.
Dad jogs up. He doesn’t say anything about the time. He doesn’t mention that we missed our dinner reservation.
Mom gives me a kiss and pulls her face away, but keeps her arms around me. “Something came up,” she says, her voice even, controlled. “Ambassador Chao-Walker’s flight was delayed and she managed to squeeze me in for three hours at the airport. I had to walk her through the details of the solar management plan before the Shanghai Forum next week. It was important.”
“It always is,” Dad says.
Mom’s arms tense against me. This has always been their pattern, even when they used to live together. Unasked for explanations. Accusations that don’t sound like accusations.
Gently, I wriggle out of her embrace. “Look.”
This has always been part of the pattern too: my trying to break their pattern. I can’t help but think there’s a simple solution, something I can do to make it all better.
I point up at the kite, hoping she’ll see how I picked out a fairy whose face looks like hers. But the kite is too high up now for her to notice the resemblance. I’ve let out all the string. The long line droops gently like a ladder connecting the Earth to heaven, the highest segment glowing golden in the dying rays of the sun.
“It’s lovely,” she says. “Someday, when things quiet down a little, I’ll take you to see the kite festival back where I grew up, on the other side of the Pacific. You’ll love it.”
“We’ll have to fly then,” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to fly. I fly all the time.”
I’m not afraid, but I nod anyway to show that I’m assured. I don’t ask when “someday” is going to be.
“I wish the kite could fly higher,” I say, desperate to keep the words flowing, as though unspooling more conversation will keep something precious aloft. “If I cut the line, will it fly across the Pacific?”
After a moment, Mom says, “Not really … The kite stays up only because of the line. A kite is just like a plane, and the pulling force from your line acts like thrust. Did you know that the first airplanes the Wright Brothers made were actually kites? They learned how to make wings that way. Someday I’ll show you how the kite generates lift—”
“Sure it will,” Dad interrupts. “It will fly across the Pacific. It’s your birthday. Anything is possible.”
Neither of them says anything after that.
I don’t tell Dad that I enjoy listening to Mom talk about machines and engineering and history and other things that I don’t fully understand. I don’t tell her that I already know that the kite wouldn’t fly across the ocean—I was just trying to get her to talk to me instead of defending herself. I don’t tell him that I’m too old to believe anything is possible on my birthday—I wished for them not to fight, and look how that has turned out. I don’t tell her that I know she doesn’t mean to break her promises to me, but it still hurts when she does. I don’t tell them that I wish I could cut the line that ties me to their wings—the tugging on my heart from their competing winds is too much.
I know they love me even if they no longer love each other; but knowing doesn’t make it any easier.
Slowly, the sun sinks into the ocean; slowly, the stars wink to life in the sky. The kite has disappeared among the stars. I imagine the fairy visiting each star to give it a playful kiss.
Mom pulls out her phone and types furiously.
“I’m guessing you haven’t had dinner,” Dad says.
“No. Not lunch either. Been running around all day,” Mom says, not looking up from the screen.
“There is a pretty good vegan place I just discovered a few blocks from the parking lot,” Dad says. “Maybe we can pick up a cake from the sweet shop on the way and ask them to serve it after dinner.”
“Would you put that away?” Dad says. “Please.”
Mom takes a deep breath and puts the phone away. “I’m trying to change my flight to a later one so I can spend more time with Mia.”
“You can’t even stay with us one night?”
“I have to be in D.C. in the morning to meet with Professor Chakrabarti and Senator Frug.”
Dad’s face hardens. “For someone so concerned about the state of our planet, you certainly fly a lot. If you and your clients didn’t always want to move faster and ship more—”
“You know perfectly well my clients aren’t the reason I’m doing this—”
“I know it’s really easy to deceive yourself. But you’re working for the most colossal corporations and autocratic governments—”
“I’m working on a technical solution instead of empty promises! We have an ethical duty to all of humanity. I’m fighting for the eighty percent of the world’s population living on under ten dollars—”
Unnoticed by the colossi in my life, I let the kite pull me away. Their arguing voices fade in the wind. Step by step, I walk closer to the pounding surf, the line tugging me toward the stars.
The wheelchair is having trouble making Mom comfortable.
First the chair tries to raise the seat so that her eyes are level with the screen of the ancient computer I found for her. But even with her bent back and hunched-over shoulders, she’s having trouble reaching the keyboard on the desk below. As she stretches her trembling fingers toward the keys, the chair descends. She pecks out a few letters and numbers, struggles to look up at the screen, now towering above her. The motors hum as the chair lifts her again. Ad infinitum.
Over three thousand robots work under the supervision of three nurses to take care of the needs of some three hundred residents in Sunset Homes. This is how we die now. Out of sight. Dependent on the wisdom of machines. The pinnacle of Western civilization.
I walk over and prop up the keyboard with a stack of old hardcover books taken from her home before I sold it. The motors stop humming. A simple hack for a complicated problem, the sort of thing she would appreciate.
She looks at me, her clouded eyes devoid of recognition.
“Mom, it’s me,” I say. Then, after a second, I add, “Your daughter, Mia.”
She has some good days, I recall the words of the chief nurse. Doing math seems to calm her down. Thank you for suggesting that.
She examines my face. “No,” she says. She hesitates for a second. “Mia is seven.”
Then she turns back to her computer and continues pecking out numbers on the keyboard. “Need to plot the demographic and conflict curves again,” she mutters. “Gotta show them this is the only way…”
I sit down on the small bed. I suppose it should sting—the fact that she remembers her outdated computations better than she remembers me. But she is already so far away, a kite barely tethered to this world by the thin strand of her obsession with dimming the Earth’s sky, that I cannot summon up the outrage or heartache.
I’m familiar with the patterns of her mind, imprisoned in that swiss-cheesed brain. She doesn’t remember what happened yesterday, or the week before, or much of the past few decades. She doesn’t remember my face or the names of my two husbands. She doesn’t remember Dad’s funeral. I don’t bother showing her pictures from Abby’s graduation or the video of Thomas’s wedding.
The only thing left to talk about is my work. There’s no expectation that she’ll remember the names I bring up or understand the problems I’m trying to solve. I tell her the difficulties of scanning the human mind, the complications of recreating carbon-based computation in silicon, the promise of a hardware upgrade for the fragile human brain that seems so close and yet so far away. It’s mostly a monologue. She’s comfortable with the flow of technical jargon. It’s enough that she’s listening, that she’s not hurrying to fly somewhere else.
She stops her calculations. “What day is today?” she asks.
“It’s my—Mia’s birthday,” I say.
“I should go see her,” she says. “I just need to finish this—”
“Why don’t we take a walk together outside?” I ask. “She likes being out in the sun.”
“The sun … It’s too bright …” she mutters. Then she pulls her hands away from the keyboard. “All right.”
The wheelchair nimbly rolls next to me through the corridors until we’re outside. Screaming children are running helter-skelter over the wide lawn like energized electrons while white-haired and wrinkled residents sit in distinct clusters like nuclei scattered in vacuum. Spending time with children is supposed to improve the mood of the aged, and so Sunset Homes tries to recreate the tribal bonfire and the village hearth with busloads of kindergarteners.
She squints against the bright glow of the sun. “Mia is here?”
“We’ll look for her.”
We walk through the hubbub together, looking for the ghost of her memory. Gradually, she opens up and begins to talk to me about her life.
“Anthropogenic global warming is real,” she says. “But the mainstream consensus is far too optimistic. The reality is much worse. For our children’s sake, we must solve it in our time.”
Thomas and Abby have long stopped accompanying me on these visits to a grandmother who no longer knows who they are. I don’t blame them. She’s as much a stranger to them as they’re to her. They have no memories of her baking cookies for them on lazy summer afternoons or allowing them to stay up way past their bedtime to browse cartoons on tablets. She has always been at best a distant presence in their lives, most felt when she paid for their college tuition with a single check. A fairy godmother as unreal as those tales of how the Earth had once been doomed.
She cares more about the idea of future generations than her actual children and grandchildren. I know I’m being unfair, but the truth is often unfair.
“Left unchecked, much of East Asia will become uninhabitable in a century,” she says. “When you plot out a record of little ice ages and mini warm periods in our history, you get a record of mass migrations, wars, genocides. Do you understand?”
A giggling girl dashes in front of us; the wheelchair grinds to a halt. A gaggle of boys and girls run past us, chasing the little girl.
“The rich countries, who did the most polluting, want the poor countries to stop development and stop consuming so much energy,” she says. “They think it’s equitable to tell the poor to pay for the sins of the rich, to make those with darker skins stop trying to catch up to those with lighter skins.”
We’ve walked all the way to the far edge of the lawn. No sign of Mia. We turn around and again swerve through the crowd of children, tumbling, dancing, laughing, running.
“It’s foolish to think the diplomats will work it out. The conflicts are irreconcilable, and the ultimate outcome will not be fair. The poor countries can’t and shouldn’t stop development, and the rich countries won’t pay. But there is a technical solution, a hack. It just takes a few fearless men and women with the resources to do what the rest of the world can’t do.”
There’s a glow in her eyes. This is her favorite subject, pitching her mad scientist answer.
“We must purchase and modify a fleet of commercial jets. In international airspace, away from the jurisdiction of any state, they’ll release sprays of sulfuric acid. Mixed with water vapor, the acid will turn into clouds of fine sulfate particles that block sunlight.” She tries to snap her fingers but her fingers are shaking too much. “It will be like the global volcanic winters of the 1880s, after Krakatoa erupted. We made the Earth warm, and we can cool it again.”
Her hands flutter in front of her, conjuring up a vision of the grandest engineering project in the history of the human race: the construction of a globe-spanning wall to dim the sky. She doesn’t remember that she has already succeeded, that decades ago, she had managed to convince enough people as mad as she was to follow her plan. She doesn’t remember the protests, the condemnations by environmental groups, the scrambling fighter jets and denunciations by the world’s governments, the prison sentence, and then, gradual acceptance.
“…the poor deserve to consume as much of the Earth’s resources as the rich…”
I try to imagine what life must be like for her: an eternal day of battle, a battle she has already won.
Her hack has bought us some time, but it has not solved the fundamental problem. The world is still struggling with problems both old and new: the bleaching of corals from the acid rain, the squabbling over whether to cool the Earth even more, the ever-present finger-pointing and blame-assigning. She does not know that borders have been sealed as the rich nations replace the dwindling supply of young workers with machines. She does not know that the gap between the wealthy and the poor has only grown wider, that a tiny portion of the global population still consumes the vast majority of its resources, that colonialism has been revived in the name of progress.
In the middle of her impassioned speech, she stops.
“Where’s Mia?” she asks. The defiance has left her voice. She looks through the crowd, anxious that she won’t find me on my birthday.
“We’ll make another pass,” I say.
“We have to find her,” she says.
On impulse, I stop the wheelchair and kneel down in front of her.
“I’m working on a technical solution,” I say. “There is a way for us to transcend this morass, to achieve a just existence.”
I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.
She looks at me, her expression uncomprehending.
“I don’t know if I’ll perfect my technique in time to save you,” I blurt out. Or maybe I can’t bear the thought of having to patch together the remnants of your mind. This is what I have come to tell her.
Is it a plea for forgiveness? Have I forgiven her? Is forgiveness what we want or need?
A group of children run by us, blowing soap bubbles. In the sunlight the bubbles float and drift with a rainbow sheen. A few land against my mother’s silvery hair but do not burst immediately. She looks like a queen with a diadem of sunlit jewels, an unelected tribune who claims to speak for those without power, a mother whose love is difficult to understand and even more difficult to misunderstand.
“Please,” she says, reaching up to touch my face with her shaking fingers, as dry as the sand in an hourglass. “I’m late. It’s her birthday.”
And so we wander through the crowd again, under an afternoon sun that glows dimmer than in my childhood.
Abby pops into my process.
“Happy birthday, Mom,” she says.
For my benefit she presents as she had looked before her upload, a young woman of forty or so. She looks around at my cluttered space and frowns: simulations of books, furniture, speckled walls, dappled ceiling, a window view of a cityscape that is a digital composite of twenty-first-century San Francisco, my hometown, and all the cities that I had wanted to visit when I still had a body but didn’t get to.
“I don’t keep that running all the time,” I say.
The trendy aesthetic for home processes now is clean, minimalist, mathematically abstract: platonic polyhedra; classic solids of revolution based on conics; finite fields; symmetry groups. Using no more than four dimensions is preferred, and some are advocating flat living. To make my home process a close approximation of the analog world at such a high resolution is considered a wasteful use of computing resources, indulgent.
But I can’t help it. Despite having lived digitally for far longer than I did in the flesh, I prefer the simulated world of atoms to the digital reality.
To placate my daughter, I switch the window to a real-time feed from one of the sky rovers. The scene is of a jungle near the mouth of a river, probably where Shanghai used to be. Luxuriant vegetation drape from the skeletal ruins of skyscrapers; flocks of wading birds fill the shore; from time to time, pods of porpoises leap from the water, tracing graceful arcs that land back in the water with gentle splashes.
More than three hundred billion human minds now inhabit this planet, residing in thousands of data centers that collectively take up less space than old Manhattan. The Earth has gone back to being wild, save for a few stubborn holdouts who still insist on living in the flesh in remote settlements.
“It really doesn’t look good when you use so much computational resources by yourself,” she says. “My application was rejected.”
She means the application to have another child.
“I think two thousand six hundred twenty-five children is more than enough,” I say. “I feel like I don’t know any of them.” I don’t even know how to pronounce many of the mathematical names the digital natives prefer.
“Another vote is coming,” she says. “We need all the help we can get.”
“Not even all your current children vote the same way you do,” I say.
“It’s worth a try,” she says. “This planet belongs to all the creatures living on it, not just us.”
My daughter and many others think that the greatest achievement of humanity, the re-gifting of Earth back to Nature, is under threat. Other minds, especially those who had uploaded from countries where the universal availability of immortality had been achieved much later, think it isn’t fair that those who got to colonize the digital realm first should have more say in the direction of humanity. They would like to expand the human footprint again and build more data centers.
“Why do you love the wilderness so much if you don’t even live in it?” I ask.
“It’s our ethical duty to be stewards for the Earth,” she says. “It’s barely starting to heal from all the horrors we’ve inflicted on it. We must preserve it exactly as it should be.”
I don’t point out that this smacks to me of a false dichotomy: Human vs. Nature. I don’t bring up the sunken continents, the erupting volcanoes, the peaks and valleys in the Earth’s climate over billions of years, the advancing and retreating icecaps, and the uncountable species that have come and gone. Why do we hold up this one moment as natural, to be prized above all others?
Some ethical differences are irreconcilable.
Meanwhile, everyone thinks that having more children is the solution, to overwhelm the other side with more votes. And so the hard-fought adjudication of applications to have children, to allocate precious computing resources among competing factions.
But what will the children think of our conflicts? Will they care about the same injustices we do? Being born in silico, will they turn away from the physical world, from embodiment, or embrace it even more? Every generation has its own blind spots and obsessions.
I had once thought the Singularity would solve all our problems. Turns out it’s just a simple hack for a complicated problem. We do not share the same histories; we do not all want the same things.
I am not so different from my mother after all.
The rocky planet beneath me is desolate, lifeless. I’m relieved. That was a condition placed upon me before my departure.
It’s impossible for everyone to agree upon a single vision for the future of humanity. Thankfully, we no longer have to share the same planet.
Tiny probes depart from Matrioshka, descending toward the spinning planet beneath them. As they enter the atmosphere, they glow like fireflies in the dusk. The dense atmosphere here is so good at trapping heat that at the surface the gas behaves more like a liquid.
I imagine the self-assembling robots landing at the surface. I imagine them replicating and multiplying with material extracted from the crust. I imagine them boring into the rock to place the mini-annihilation charges.
A window pops up next to me: a message from Abby, light-years away and centuries ago.
Happy birthday, Mother. We did it.
What follows are aerial shots of worlds both familiar and strange: the Earth, with its temperate climate carefully regulated to sustain the late Holocene; Venus, whose orbit has been adjusted by repeated gravitational slingshots with asteroids and terraformed to become a lush, warm replica of Earth during the Jurassic; and Mars, whose surface has been pelted with redirected Oort cloud objects and warmed by solar reflectors from space until the climate is a good approximation of the dry, cold conditions of the last glaciation on Earth.
Dinosaurs now roam the jungles of Aphrodite Terra, and mammoths forage over the tundra of Vastitas Borealis. Genetic reconstructions have been pushed back to the limit of the powerful data centers on Earth.
They have recreated what might have been. They have brought the extinct back to life.
Mother, you’re right about one thing: We will be sending out exploration ships again.
We’ll colonize the rest of the galaxy. When we find lifeless worlds, we’ll endow them with every form of life, from Earth’s distant past to the futures that might have been on Europa. We’ll walk down every evolutionary path. We’ll shepherd every flock and tend to every garden. We’ll give those creatures who never made it onto Noah’s Ark another chance, and bring forth the potential of every star in Raphael’s conversation with Adam in Eden.
And when we find extraterrestrial life, we’ll be just as careful with them as we have been with life on Earth.
It isn’t right for one species in the latest stage of a planet’s long history to monopolize all its resources. It isn’t just for humanity to claim for itself the title of evolution’s crowning achievement. Isn’t it the duty of every intelligent species to rescue all life, even from the dark abyss of time? There is always a technical solution.
I smile. I do not wonder whether Abby’s message is a celebration or a silent rebuke. She is, after all, my daughter.
I have my own problem to solve. I turn my attention back to the robots, to breaking apart the planet beneath my ship.
It has taken a long time to fracture the planets orbiting this star, and longer still to reshape the fragments into my vision.
Thin, circular plates a hundred kilometers in diameter are arranged in a lattice of longitudinal rings around the star until it is completely surrounded. The plates do not orbit the star; rather, they are statites, positioned so that the pressure from the sun’s high-energy radiation counteracts the pull of gravity.
On the inner surface of this Dyson swarm, trillions of robots have etched channels and gates into the substrate, creating the most massive circuits in the history of the human race.
As the plates absorb the energy from the sun, it is transformed into electric pulses that emerge from cells, flow through canals, commingle in streams, until they gather into lakes and oceans that undulate through a quintillion variations that form the shape of thought.
The backs of the plates glow darkly, like embers after a fierce flame. The lower-energy photons leap outward into space, somewhat drained after powering a civilization. But before they can escape into the endless abyss of space, they strike another set of plates designed to absorb energy from radiation at this dimmer frequency. And once again, the process for thought-creation repeats itself.
The nesting shells, seven in all, form a world that is replete with dense topography. There are smooth areas centimeters across, designed to expand and contract to preserve the integrity of the plates as the computation generates more or less heat—I’ve dubbed them seas and plains. There are pitted areas where the peaks and craters are measured by microns, intended to facilitate the rapid dance of qubits and bits—I call them forests and coral reefs. There are small studded structures packed with dense circuitry intended to send and receive beams of communication knitting the plates together—I call them cities and towns. Perhaps these are fanciful names, like the Sea of Tranquility and Mare Erythraeum, but the consciousnesses they power are real.
And what will I do with this computing machine powered by a sun? What magic will I conjure with this matrioshka brain?
I have seeded the plains and seas and forests and coral reefs and cities and towns with a million billion minds, some of them modeled on my own, many more pulled from Matrioshka’s data banks, and they have multiplied and replicated, evolved in a world larger than any data center confined to a single planet could ever hope to be.
In the eyes of an outside observer, the star’s glow dimmed as each shell was constructed. I have succeeded in darkening a sun just as my mother had, albeit at a much grander scale.
There is always a technical solution.
History flows like a flash flood in the desert: the water pouring across the parched earth, eddying around rocks and cacti, pooling in depressions, seeking a channel while it’s carving the landscape, each chance event shaping what comes after.
There are more ways to rescue lives and redeem what might have been than Abby and others believe.
In the grand matrix of my matrioshka brain, versions of our history are replayed. There isn’t a single world in this grand computation, but billions, each of them populated by human consciousnesses, but nudged in small ways to be better.
Most paths lead to less slaughter. Here, Rome and Constantinople are not sacked; there, Cuzco and Vĩnh Long do not fall. Along one timeline, the Mongols and Manchus do not sweep across East Asia; along another, the Westphalian model does not become an all-consuming blueprint for the world. One group of men consumed with murder do not come to power in Europe, and another group worshipping death do not seize the machinery of state in Japan. Instead of the colonial yoke, the inhabitants of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Australia decide their own fates. Enslavement and genocide are not the handmaidens of discovery and exploration, and the errors of our history are averted.
Small populations do not rise to consume a disproportionate amount of the planet’s resources or monopolize the path of its future. History is redeemed.
But not all paths are better. There is a darkness in human nature that makes certain conflicts irreconcilable. I grieve for the lives lost but I can’t intervene. These are not simulations. They cannot be if I respect the sanctity of human life.
The billions of consciousnesses who live in these worlds are every bit as real as I am. They deserve as much free will as anyone who has ever lived and must be allowed to make their own choices. Even if we’ve always suspected that we also live in a grand simulation, we prefer the truth to be otherwise.
Think of these as parallel universes if you will; call them sentimental gestures of a woman looking into the past; dismiss it as a kind of symbolic atonement.
But isn’t it the dream of every species to have the chance to do it over? To see if it’s possible to prevent the fall from grace that darkens our gaze upon the stars?
There is a message.
Someone has plucked the strings that weave together the fabric of space, sending a sequence of pulses down every strand of Indra’s web, connecting the farthest exploding nova to the nearest dancing quark.
The galaxy vibrates with a broadcast in languages known, forgotten, and yet to be invented. I parse out a single sentence.
Come to the galactic center. It’s reunion time.
Carefully, I instruct the intelligences guiding the plates that make up the Dyson swarms to shift, like ailerons on the wings of ancient aircraft. The plates drift apart, as though the shells in the matrioshka brain are cracking, hatching a new form of life.
Gradually, the statites move away from one side of the sun and assume the configuration of a Shkadov thruster. A single eye opens in the universe, emitting a bright beam of light.
And slowly, the imbalance in the solar radiation begins to move the star, bringing the shell-mirrors with it. We’re headed for the center of the galaxy, propelled upon a fiery column of light.
Not every human world will heed the call. There are plenty of planets on which the inhabitants have decided that it is perfectly fine to explore the mathematical worlds of ever-deepening virtual reality in perpetuity, to live out lives of minimal energy consumption in universes hidden within nutshells.
Some, like my daughter Abby, will prefer to leave their lush, life-filled planets in place, like oases in the endless desert that is space. Others will seek the refuge of the galactic edge, where cooler climates will allow more efficient computation. Still others, having re-captured the ancient joy of living in the flesh, will tarry to act out space operas of conquest and glory.
But enough will come.
I imagine thousands, hundreds of thousands of stars moving toward the center of the galaxy. Some are surrounded by space habitats full of people who still look like people. Some are orbited by machines that have but a dim memory of their ancestral form. Some will drag with them planets populated by creatures from our distant past, or by creatures I have never seen. Some will bring guests, aliens who do not share our history but are curious about this self-replicating low-entropy phenomenon that calls itself humanity.
I imagine generations of children on innumerable worlds watching the night sky as constellations shift and transform, as stars move out of alignment, drawing contrails against the empyrean.
I close my eyes. This journey will take a long time. Might as well get some rest.
A very, very long time later:
The wide silvery lawn spreads out before me almost to the golden surf of the sea, separated by the narrow dark band that is the beach. The sun is bright and warm, and I can almost feel the breeze, a gentle caress against my arms and face.
I look over and see Mom striding across the lawn, her long black hair streaming like a kite’s tails.
She wraps me in a fierce hug, squeezing my face against hers. She smells like the glow of new stars being born in the embers of a supernova, like fresh comets emerging from the primeval nebula.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says, her voice muffled against my cheek.
“It’s okay,” I say, and I mean it. I give her a kiss.
“It’s a good day to fly a kite,” she says.
We look up at the sun.
The perspective shifts vertiginously, and now we’re standing upside down on an intricately carved plain, the sun far below us. Gravity tethers the surface above the bottoms of our feet to that fiery orb, stronger than any string. The bright photons we’re bathed in strike against the ground, pushing it up. We’re standing on the bottom of a kite that is flying higher and higher, tugging us toward the stars.
I want to tell her that I understand her impulse to make one life grand, her need to dim the sun with her love, her striving to solve intractable problems, her faith in a technical solution even though she knew it was imperfect. I want to tell her that I know we’re flawed, but that doesn’t mean we’re not also wondrous.
Instead, I just squeeze her hand; she squeezes back.
“Happy birthday,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to fly.”
I relax my grip, and smile at her. “I’m not. We’re almost there.”
The world brightens with the light of a million billion suns.
“Seven Birthdays” Ken Liu, 2016
Reprinted from Bridging Infinity, ed. by Jonathan Strahan