8510 words, novelette
Hummingbird, Resting on Honeysuckles
Red for temperature. Blue for ignition. Green for airflow. It takes four hours and forty-two minutes for you to finish your transformation into a pile of white ashes. I keep a patient vigil over those three primary colors on the cremator’s monitor, making sure that nothing is left behind. Nothing that can be linked to life, in any case, like a charred fragment of bone. After it’s all over, I sweep you into an ebony urn with my own hands—a square, matte-black box, the kind of minimalist thing you’d like. Then again, you spent your whole life arguing with me over anything and everything. If you weren’t inside this urn, I think, you’d jump at the chance to disagree with me. You’d have that frown on your face, same as always, and you’d tell me that the box isn’t the right kind of minimalist. And just like always, I’d fire back a retort without hesitation. Like always.
If only you weren’t inside this urn.
I cradle you in my hands as I make my way through a series of never-ending corridors. You lie there warm and docile in my embrace, and I feel the weight of your life in my hands. When you were still healthy, we could never have shared a moment like this. Maybe you never realized you were doing it. But from the moment you understood what I did for a living, you shied away from my touch. Even if I scrubbed my hands raw when I came home from work. But now I understand that I could never wash away the stain of death, because it was never on my hands to begin with. It was in your heart, from when you were six years old until the day you fell into its final embrace.
It’s a humid day. Smoky clouds float slowly through the ashen sky. On my way out, my coworkers all express their appropriate condolences, and I give them all appropriate replies. We’ve seen farewells of all shapes and sizes. What’s “appropriate” to say in these kinds of situations comes naturally to us. Most people don’t cope with death in a very dignified way, to say the least—I suppose that the fragile hold I have on my emotions is the one blessing this career’s afforded me.
Outside the crematorium, I run into that robotic salesman again.
“My deepest condolences for your loss, ma’am.” The robot’s round head turns on its round body, like an orange gourd on omni wheels. Its gentle voice is that of a man, its solemn tone tinged with sympathy. “I just wanted to let you know that death isn’t the end.”
I’ve heard it try the same line on other people a million times over. Still, it stops me in my tracks.
The blue eyes on the robot’s display blink excitedly, encouraged by my reaction. Its voice gets brighter. “Those that have passed away live on in your memories. Of course, there are ways to bring them back to life, depending on—”
“You don’t know shit.”
Blue pixels blink confusedly in my direction.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t quite understand. Would you like to take a look at our company’s products?”
“Fuck your products, and fuck you.” The words have barely left my mouth before I’m spitting down at the innocent robot’s digital face; in response, it lets out a low groan of protest. You’ve never seen me like this, I know. Nobody has. I tremble, and then I’m crouching down, tucking you away under the curve of my bowed body like an oyster closing around its pearl. I take a deep breath: deep, deeper, until my lungs are fit to burst.
Then, a rush of air as it all comes flowing out in a howl of grief. Then, my tears.
. . . My daughter, you must forgive me for losing control. There is only so much one can bear.
It seems impossible to sum up the whole of your life in a single sentence, but if I had to try, this is what I would say: you were filled to the brim with a thirst for life itself. No doubt this had something to do with my line of work.
One night, you asked me what death was. You must have only been six years old, then. The question didn’t surprise me. I knew it would come, sooner or later. To be honest, I was surprised it took that long for you to ask. In any case, as a mortician, it was difficult for me to sugarcoat the truth. And so I replied:
“Death is when you don’t exist anymore, darling.”
You tilted your head. “Don’t exist?”
“That is—you disappear from this world forever.”
“Just like Daddy?”
“That’s right.” I held back a wince and nodded. “Just like Daddy.”
You pouted and puffed out your cheeks, thinking long and hard.
“Then what about Daddy?”
I was confused for a moment, before I understood what you meant. We had been talking about death as outside observers—but now, you were asking about the perspective of the deceased.
“Once you’re dead, you can’t feel anything. Daddy can’t hear or smell or see or think. He doesn’t feel anything anymore.”
You sank into a long silence. I waited, but what I didn’t expect was how you didn’t ask a single question after that. It’s what children are best at, after all: coming up with a never-ending laundry list of questions. But just like that, you had nothing more to ask about death. I think you didn’t really understand it, back then. But I do think that you realized something that day. If it were any other child, perhaps, that dark realization would just gently rock the idyllic castle of childhood. That castle eventually and inevitably crumbles, but not from this alone.
But you were my daughter. Our lives were built atop the deaths of others. Death to you was something real, something concrete; it was in every mouthful of rice you ate, in every cartoon you watched, in every barrette in your hair.
You, my daughter, knew as early as that. You knew that your life would have to be lived under that boundless shadow.
Which was why the minute you were able to, you slipped away from me. You traveled around the world, swapping jobs as often as you went through boyfriends. You went skydiving, rock climbing, free diving—you got as close as you could to death, going out of your way to beat the Reaper at his own game. For the longest time, I didn’t understand you at all. I thought you were just like other people your age—that you couldn’t care less about your life. After all, your generation lived through a global pandemic, the climate crisis, and the famines that followed, not to mention the imminent threat of a world war. You knew well how fragile and short-lived existence could be. Plenty of people your age used apathy as a defense mechanism, refusing to let themselves care about anything.
I thought I understood you.
When I visited you that day, you’d just come back from one of those trips of yours. The address you gave me led to a small, rundown apartment. It was old—pre-AI. I stood in a musty, stinking corridor and knocked on the door. A soft reply came from the other side, sounding almost like a cat’s meow. The door didn’t even have a lock. I hesitated for a moment, before I pushed the door open and let myself in.
I can’t remember what your room looked like anymore. All I remember is what you looked like in that apartment, like a marble statue surrounded by crumbling ruins. You were half-naked, sitting in bed; your long hair was in disarray, your eyes drowsy with sleep. My eyes traced the line of your neck, your shoulders, your spine, the arcs and curves and swathes of pale skin that so many men had fallen for in the past. I couldn’t tear my gaze away. As always, I spotted your hummingbird nearby, hovering in midair and orbiting slowly around you.
“Put your clothes on,” I said.
You laughed, before your laugh gave way to a frown. I thought you’d react like before—that you’d fix me with a contemptuous look and refuse. But the look never came. You tugged at your yellowing blanket, wrapping it around your shoulders to cover your chest.
“Done,” you replied.
My gaze hovered somewhere between you and your hummingbird. My vision caught on the wall behind you—on the dark, damp stains, the web of cracks in the drywall.
“So this is what’s become of you, Tang Mudong?”
You raised a single shoulder in a half-shrug, humming airily in acknowledgement.
I spent a long moment taking a few deep breaths. Eventually, the vicious rebukes that were on the tip of my tongue faded away, receding like the tide. I let out a sigh. “Mudong, come home.”
You nodded. The hummingbird followed your movement, swaying up and down in the air.
We fell into silence for a long time, after that. Maybe it was because it was too strange for the both of us, the idea that we could have a conversation without going at each other’s throats. The soft sounds of your hummingbird’s wingbeats filled up the tiny apartment, sending a chill down my spine. Slowly, you turned your back to me, stretching out a hand to rifle through the clothes strewn across your bed. The blanket you’d been holding slipped away to reveal the sharp cut of your shoulder blades, jutting out like angelic wings set to unfurl. I thought back to when you were only a child, plump with baby fat that hid those wings from view. During bath time, all it’d take was a single poke to your back, and you’d be darting away, giggling in ticklish glee as my hands followed you in hot pursuit. We never got tired of that game, back then.
You pulled on a white T-shirt, tugging your long hair out from the collar. Then you sat there with your back to me, still and quiet. Time seemed to fold in on itself, past and present superimposed on one another, right up until you finally spoke.
“Mom, I’m sick.”
I stood there stock-still, frozen in place. “What are you talking about, sweetheart?”
“I’m sick. It’s cancer.”
The flapping of tiny wings buzzed past my ears. That sound drowned out the rest of the world.
There’s an empty space on your bookshelf, on the third row from the bottom. It’s the perfect size for an urn. Before, your books were always lying on their sides; now, with the urn box acting as a bookend, your colorful collection of books stands at attention, leaning on you for support. I don’t know why you ended up becoming so enamored with these writers—Camus, Miłosz, Kawabata. When you were still living at home, I don’t remember you reading them all that often, if at all. Perhaps they were just more passing fancies, just like the rest of your hobbies. You had always lived for the thrill of the chase—or maybe, you were always trying to do as much as you possibly could, chasing after the rush of being alive.
You had just turned twenty when you started to make a living through art. You used all the money you made from selling your paintings to buy paper books—old antiques, specters of a bygone era. You even went as far as to order a huge, custom-made bookshelf, stuffing it into your cramped bedroom. At first, I thought that your new obsession would fizzle out in no time, if only because money was tight—after all, it isn’t easy for artists to survive these days. With the rise of AI artists and deep learning, any art style could be imitated to a tee. Artists would release a piece only to have their style analyzed and reproduced within the day, with no way of competing against the low prices and high output of those specially trained AIs. Because of this, all the artists, authors, and musicians that I could recall were nothing more than a flash in the pan—and I expected you to be no different.
But I was wrong.
I’ve held on to one of your paintings, one that I bought back from some other owner. You painted a hummingbird—a real one. A tiny thing clad in reds and blues, hovering over a forest-green background. The hummingbird’s body is made up of a series of strange, jagged lines, with the usual rules of perspective having been thrown out the window entirely. Even as someone who doesn’t know the first thing about art, I can see your artistic talent shining through this piece. Some people proclaimed you the modern-day Chagall—and to be sure, you had the same predilection for vivid colors and unconventional compositions. If someone’s art style could be so easily summed up in a handful of words, though, it usually meant that the algorithms would catch up with them sooner or later, and they’d be outcompeted by AI artists. But during your fleeting career, that never happened to you. There was something to your artwork that the algorithms could never capture.
Just what was it?
There were plenty of people who wanted to know the answer to that question. One of them was a man that would later become your lover: Li Zhuoran, a star student from some big-name university. Back then, he’d started working for an artificial intelligence company that specialized in artistic production—the algorithms he designed drove plenty of artists out of business, all the while bringing in droves of money for the AI industry. By all accounts, you should have been his prey. At one of your exhibitions, he approached you, his hair in wild disarray.
“Art is nothing but an algorithm,” he proclaimed. “I’ll crack your code, and I’ll use it to beat you at your own game.”
You smiled and replied, “Be my guest, but . . . why are you telling me this now?”
His face flushed red, fingers combing frantically through his mussed hair. “Sometimes, an artist’s algorithm is hidden under layers and layers of complex calculations. But just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. I need time.”
You were still smiling. “I’ll give you time. And before you go about ‘cracking my code,’ how about going out for a cup of coffee?”
The hand raking through his hair finally stilled. To a young man like him, the casual ease with which you carried yourself was both alluring and dangerous. I think it was at that moment that Li Zhuoran fell for you, hopelessly and irrevocably, even as he had no plans of giving up his hunt for your art’s algorithm. And I think that if he had understood you and your life, truly and completely, he would have found what he was looking for. It was that touch of something in your work—or to put it in Li Zhuoran’s words, some complex layer of mathematical calculation that he was missing. It was hidden in plain sight, something that hovered over your colors and compositions. It was in a painting of a celebration, in the downward tug at the corners of a guest’s mouth. It was in the absent-minded trace of autumn’s inevitable arrival in a painting of summer’s glory. It was in the subject of the painting itself, in that hummingbird and what it inevitably represented. It was what sent a shiver down the spine of every observer, a pang through the heart of every admirer.
To an algorithm, it was something it might never understand: the touch of death.
My daughter, that realization once left me trembling. But by the time I understood, you had already given up painting, setting your sights instead on traveling the world. I couldn’t help but tremble, consumed by my shame and my fear. I was ashamed that I couldn’t have given you a different childhood, a childhood where you wouldn’t have had to grow up with death as a constant companion. And I was afraid—because I knew that very few of us can ever truly escape the shadows of our youth.
. . . The tears come again, relentless as the tide. Through my blurred vision, I tidy up your bookshelf. All the books you collected came from authors and eras that are long gone. But at least they managed to leave something behind.
My daughter, what did you leave me?
A sob shudders through my body. I reach out on instinct, grabbing the shelf to steady myself. My fingers brush against something smooth and cold, its edges sharp and pointed.
When you first brought your hummingbird home, we got into a huge fight. On the surface, I was angry because you were wasting money. Even for adults, those fancy, magnet-powered robots weren’t cheap—to say nothing of a middle schooler. You must have expected my reaction, because without batting an eye, you placidly explained how you’d purchased the bird with the red envelopes you’d saved up over the years. But even so, the argument dragged on for a long time. Long enough to make us both consider if it was time to finally dig up all the resentment we’d buried and drag all of its ugliest parts out into the light.
In the end, we both settled on the same tactic: the cold shoulder.
Now, I can be honest. I can say—and you would agree—that hummingbirds are humanity’s attempt at transcending death. Equipped with cameras and microphones, these tireless creatures record every moment of its owner’s life. Every scowl and every smile. Every word and every action. They also function as a miniature terminal through which one can access the internet, all the while recording their owner’s online data trail. In other words, a hummingbird serves as a witnesses to their owner’s life in its entirety. Everyone hopes that they can leave behind something on this earth, after all. Hummingbirds serve as a sprawling epitaph, one that leaves no stone unturned.
But that isn’t their only function.
“Mom, I’m leaving this for you.”
The hummingbird’s round belly chimes pleasantly, letting me know that it’s fully charged. After the iris recognition scan verifies my identity, I initiate the connection request at my smart terminal, and the data cloud unfurls before my eyes.
My daughter, you were telling the truth. You left all of this behind for me.
I squeeze my eyes shut, my arms wrapping tight around my legs as I curl into myself on the couch. You are here, in the urn on your shelf. You are here, in the cloud of data before me. The two statements coexist, equally true and untrue, and I have no way of understanding it all. I sit there for a long time. Finally, I manage to pry myself open, wiping away my tears and sitting up. With a finger, I swipe through the data points projected in midair, diving into your memories.
Every file corresponds to a single day of your life; the drop-down menu seems to go on forever. At first, I jump around at random: you at fifteen, then at eighteen, at twenty-two, at thirty. I see you squatting over a toilet with your nose wrinkled in disgust, your pants down at your ankles and your toes wiggling in boredom. I see your posts on an immersive video sharing site where you jump at the opportunity to argue with people online, using insults that make me shift uncomfortably in my seat. I see you with your face up against a holographic mirror, squeezing the pimples on your forehead as my disgruntled voice echoes from outside the room, urging you to hurry up. I see you scrunched up in a narrow vactrain car with a dark expression on your face as the man next to you lets out a deafening snore. I see moment after moment of your ordinary, everyday life.
Nothing about these scenes are special, yet I can’t look away, not even for a second. One second after another, and then another—and bit by bit, those seconds form a version of you that still lives and breathes. A version of you that thirsted for everything life had to offer, yet at the same time had no way of escaping all of life’s mediocrities and mundanities.
Over the next few days, I lose myself entirely to your memories. Once, I saw the hummingbird as nothing more than an unnatural eyesore. Now, it’s become my salvation.
My daughter, I’m sure you know what I mean.
Date: Dec. 21, 2062, 11:16 AM
Location: Sydney, Australia
You’re wearing a wetsuit, your long hair whipping through the air. Over your shoulder, an azure expanse of open ocean stretches on into the distance, the faint outline of something white and pointed reaching up through the surface of the water behind you. You turn, gesturing at the camera. “I’m about to explore what remains of the sunken Sydney Opera House. A fun fact: when you dive deeper than forty feet, your body stops floating up toward the surface. Instead, you get dragged down towards deeper waters . . . Does that remind you of anything?”
You blink innocently.
“Well, wish me luck, everyone!” With that, you dive into the sea, water splashing in your wake. The camera dips down before stilling, the steady beat of the hummingbird’s wings whipping up faint ripples across the water’s surface. Below the ripples, your silhouette fades steadily into darkness.
—Accompanying audio log now playing.
Date: February 2, 2073, 4:53 AM
Location: Beishan, China
I always did love a good adventure, Mom. You must’ve been worried about me all those years, right? I’m sorry for that. All I wanted was to prove that I was really, truly alive. Of course, there were ways to do that without tempting fate with all these death-defying stunts. But we all think ourselves invincible in our youth, right?
Mom, I’ve always dreamed of going on an adventure with you, of traveling to some far-off places together. I always thought that eventually, that day would come. I guess I overestimated how kind life would be to me.
Date: March 11, 2058, 6:31 PM
Location: Beishan, China
The pitter-patter of your slippers across the floor as you walk towards our bathroom’s half-open door. The splashing sounds of running water. Inside the bathroom, a woman bends over the sink as she washes her hands. It’s me. You enter, your hummingbird perched over your shoulder like a voyeur. I look over my shoulder and then turn to face you; my face is ashen, my expression pained. You take a step towards me, and I take a step back. My hands, still wet and dripping, are raised defensively by my sides; I look like a surgeon fresh from the washing station.
“Mom . . . ” you call. I grip at the hem of my shirt, wringing it back and forth in my hands.
“You haven’t eaten yet, right? Let me go make you some food, sweetie.”
—Accompanying audio log now playing.
Date: February 5, 2073, 4:27 PM
Location: Beishan, China
I know what your hands have done, Mom. With your hands, you’ve seen countless people off to their final journey. With your hands, you’ve given them the gift of a dignified passing. Ever since I understood that, I’ve never once been afraid of your touch. The only one who was afraid was you.
Mom, when my time comes, I hope that you’ll take care of me with your own hands. When my time comes, I hope that you’ll forgive yourself.
Date: April 7, 2065, 2:34 PM
Location: Chengdu, China
A small room with seven or eight people sitting on simple stools, arranged in a rough circle. Each person holds a book in their hands, a hummingbird hovering at each of their backs. The sounds of a dozen fluttering wingbeats overlap into a single steady hum. From the white noise emerges a single, soothing voice: a tall, handsome youth begins reading a poem aloud, orange overhead lights casting the planes of his face in stark relief.
“A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers . . . ”
After finishing his reading, the man slams the book shut with a loud thump. “‘Gift,’ by Czesław Miłosz.”
Your hummingbird takes in the look in your eyes as you glance over at him. There’s nothing in your gaze but desire. Clear-cut and uncomplicated.
—Accompanying audio log now playing.
Date: February 14, 2073, 6:02 AM
Location: Beishan, China
Today’s Valentine’s Day, Mom. I miss all the lovers I’ve had in the past, but at the same time, I’m glad that none of them are here to see me like this. Over the course of my life, I’ve tried using both my books and my lovers to stave off death’s approach. Like the man you just saw. Our time together was short, but beautiful. Just like the time I spent with all the other men I’ve loved. I’ve chased pleasures of both the mind and the body—to me, the two are equally important. I’ve drifted between encounter after encounter, forging emotional and physical connections alike. Till death do us part—how trite. Being loyal to a single partner doesn’t give anyone the moral high ground. And in any case, absolute morality doesn’t exist.
Mom, if I had to name the one difference between your generation and mine, it’s that we only live for ourselves, in the moment. That’s how we decide our morals.
I hope you’ll forgive me for my selfishness.
Date: May 12, 2073, 7:04 AM
Location: Beishan, China
You’re standing in front of a mirror. You take off your wig. Your head seems so small, so round. It’s not quite smooth, still dotted with stubble. Your hands come up to cover your face, and you sob soundlessly into your palms. I watch you unravel, strand by strand, until you’re crumpled on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. With each second that passes and with every tear that falls, you seem younger to me, until you’re just a child again. My baby. The hummingbird flies toward you, patiently waiting.
A few minutes later, you pry your hands away from your face, the corners of your mouth pulled down in a trembling frown as you speak.
“Mom, I’m scared.”
—No accompanying audio log.
“Are you sure, ma’am?”
Blue eyes blink up at me a few times. The robot’s optical projector forms a holographic screen in midair, displaying an animated list of products. My eyes rake over the product descriptions, but all that comes to mind are the events of the other day—the robot’s poor, innocent monitor, covered in strings of spittle.
“About what happened a few days ago . . . I’m very sorry.” My voice is quiet. “But your company made a mistake by assigning you this job.”
A question mark lights up the robot’s face.
“You could say we’re in the same field. Automation’s taken plenty of jobs away from people, but it hasn’t been able to replace people like me. Only people who truly understand death can give the deceased the respect they deserve. That’s something that robots like you will never be able to do.”
“I think that you’re being a bit prejudiced, ma’am,” the robot replies. “I understand death.”
I laugh, shaking my head. “I don’t believe you.”
The robot raises its glowing eyebrows at my comment, before retracting its projections. It spends a few seconds in silence. To a robot’s electronic brain, a few seconds may as well be an eternity. But this is just an illusion. An imitation of human behavior, pretending to be lost in thought. I watch it patiently; after a moment, my eyes stray to the dark, swirling clouds above, and the soft blue of the sky that peeks out from behind them. It’s been days since I’ve set foot in this world. My daughter, your memories have become my home. If only I could, I would stay in the world of your memories forever. Even if those memories are nothing more than scattered pieces of a stagnant past, I would gladly drown in them.
If only I could.
“Ma’am, an understanding of death is built into my programming,” the robot finally says. “Just as it’s built into your genes.”
I stare into the robot’s blue eyes.
“My creator programmed me with a genetic algorithm,” the robot continues. “The foundation for my neural network was a set of cellular automata, programmed with a single, simple directive: to stay alive, at least for long enough to pass on their code to the next generation. He introduced rules for cellular death, as well as mutation rates and ecological competition. Then he started the simulation. And for us, time began.”
Time. Mutation. Competition. Inevitably, the automata that survive possess a deep-rooted fear of death. Humans may not be able to catch a glimpse inside the “black box” of neural networks, but that’s never stopped us from stuffing them into the brains of robots.
“My creator believed that we needed to experience mortality ourselves in order to sympathize with our clients. I was created for that express purpose.” The robot bats its wide eyes. “Ma’am, I understand death. Though you and I may well find ourselves in different places, once death comes for us both.”
My gaze drops to the floor, and I can’t find any words for a long while.
“Ahem . . . ” The robot turns on its projector again, and a product lineup flickers back into existence, suspended in midair. “Ma’am, would you still like to take a look at our selection of products?”
I force a short laugh from my throat. Raising a finger, I swipe through the display.
Suddenly, I freeze.
“Your creator . . . ” I point to a highlighted name in the center of the projection, my voice trembling. “Is that him?”
“Oh!” The robot emits an excited string of beeps and whirls. “Of course! Who else could it be, if not Li Zhuoran?”
My daughter, you were right. We do have different morals. My generation—and countless generations before mine—liked to imagine that there was some supreme observer towering over us all, some abstract paragon of moral goodness who had the power to judge each and every one of our actions. But the observer of your generation was something real and concrete, a neutral and impassive Other. You grew up in an age where hummingbirds were commonplace, a household fixture. Subconsciously, you learned to filter out its ever-present gaze. You felt no shame in baring all of yourself to your hummingbird, because it was part of you—the part of you that would form a bridge between this life and the next.
I understand this. But still, it’s difficult for me to accept everything that your hummingbird recorded. Standing in the lobby of Another Life, I flush despite myself as Li Zhuoran approaches me. He comes to a stop in front of me, clearly at a loss.
I raise a hand to my face; my palms feel icy against my burning cheeks. “Zhuoran . . . please, take a seat.”
His throat bobs in a swallow, his hands plastered to his sides. His back ramrod straight, he sits stiffly down. It’s been eight years. His hair is cropped short now, and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes have multiplied since I saw him last. His tie, the table we’re sitting at, the wallpaper behind the table, the AL logo plastered across the wallpaper—all of these are orange, in varying shades. The only outlier is the emerald-green hummingbird that hovers over Li Zhuoran’s shoulder.
“Auntie, I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Mudong . . . ” I trail off. “She’s gone.”
His expression freezes in place. A few seconds later, he raises a hand, fingers running roughly through his short hair.
“ . . . But I talked to her, just last year.”
“Acute myeloid leukemia. Rapid-onset.”
His hands wrap around his teacup, head hanging low. White wisps of steam spiral up toward him. Looking at his face, I can’t help the images that come to mind: the scenes of your lovemaking, diligently recorded by your hummingbird. I’m not a voyeur—I skipped past those videos. But that didn’t stop my subconscious from stringing together the snippets I glimpsed. I imagine youthful bodies tangled together, loving without a care, forgetting about the world around them. I imagine two hummingbirds fluttering above a couch. I imagine . . .
“ . . . Auntie, why did you come to see me?”
I hang my head, suddenly feeling awkward. “I want to revive Mudong.”
Li Zhuoran blinks.
We cradle our teacups, falling into silence.
“I always wanted to find out the secret to Mudong’s art.” Li Zhuoran pauses for a beat before continuing. “That secret died with her.”
He leans back in his chair, the corners of his mouth turning up in the ghost of a smile. “I’m working here now because of Mudong, too. I was looking for something in her art, the thing that made her stand out. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find it. And then one day, I realized that maybe I’d been barking up the wrong tree from the start. That what fueled Mudong’s success wasn’t her understanding of art, but some broader mathematical structure—maybe even her very consciousness.”
The spark in his eyes grows brighter. “So I came to a conclusion: I’d need to use an algorithm to recreate her mind as a whole. Back then, it was just a fool’s delusion. But that delusion pushed my research to go where it needed to.”
When Li Zhuoran changed the direction of his research, Another Life had just hit a bottleneck. The company used the massive amounts of data recorded by a person’s hummingbird to train classical neural networks, mimicking the consciousness of the hummingbird’s deceased owner. That neural network would then be installed on an android or a virtual character, allowing people to reunite with their lost loved ones. It was an emerging “blue ocean” of market demand, an ocean that AL soon dominated by virtue of the company’s technological edge.
“But after the boom came the bust,” Li Zhuoran explained. “People became dissatisfied with AL’s products. People who spent a lot of time with these virtual consciousnesses realized that they weren’t really their loved ones, brought back from the dead. They were just ghosts of the past, programs that became predictable over time. Rational one moment and irrational the next, with their own evolving desires and dreams: that’s the hallmark of what makes a real person, someone who can be trusted with your emotions. We wanted to recreate that rich and nuanced aspect of humanity using techniques like Hodgkin–Huxley models, inverted neural connections, and mixed continuous-discrete signaling. At the time, even AL had been unable to make a breakthrough in computing speed because of their neural networks’ power consumption—the root of their difficulty lay in the inherent limitations of the Von Neumann architecture. It was at that point that they found me.”
Li Zhuoran smiles. “AL needed fresh ideas, and I needed funding. It was a match made in heaven.”
First, an array of neuromorphic chips is used to construct the core seats of consciousness: the cerebral cortex, the thalamus, the basal ganglia, the hippocampus. Each of these are connected to a common sensory decoder, before being trained on the memories of the deceased. Physically, the chips remain the same—but the network’s learning mechanism moves, reconnects, creates, and destroys billions of electrical synapses, reshaping the array’s internal architecture. Next, the recorded memories are fed back into this bionic brain as a time series. A model is constructed according to the events of those memories, continuously adjusted until its predictions converge with how the deceased behaved during their lifetime.
This was how Li Zhuoran would bring you back to life.
“What was the word you just used?” I ask. “A model? It makes me feel like the consciousness that you’re resurrecting is, well . . . something mathematical. Some kind of algorithm.”
“Consciousness is nothing more than a kind of biological algorithm, after all,” Li Zhuoran says. “And my job is to do everything I can to approximate it.”
For a few seconds, I don’t say a word. Then: “Have you succeeded?”
He doesn’t answer. He just looks at me, his eyes filled with a thin layer of doubt.
“Ah. I understand.” I smile. “Mudong must have told you that I was violently opposed to any technology that proposed to bring back the dead. But now, I’m here in front of you, wondering if your algorithms might actually work . . . You must be wondering why I’ve had such a dramatic change of heart, right?”
He replies with a single ambiguous hum of acknowledgement.
“I’ve been a mortician for over thirty years,” I begin. “When I first started working in this field, death was something awful. Abhorrent. But at the same time, it was something sacred. Death represented the eternal. And my job, as an otherwise insignificant mortician, was to ferry people onwards, toward that eternal rest. So on one hand, I couldn’t help but think of my hands as dirtied and unclean. On the other hand, I took deep pride in my work—contradictory, I know. But for years, it was from that contradiction that I managed to find some purpose in life. Up until people started trying to overcome death with algorithms and technology. When the dead began to be ferried back from the other side, and when people stopped seeing death as a final farewell, the perception of death as something sacred and eternal began to unravel. And my purpose in life began to unravel alongside it.”
I pause. “ . . . So, Zhuoran, my opposition to your algorithms came out of my own selfishness. And when I realized that losing Mudong was more terrifying than anything else I could imagine, I turned to your algorithms for help—again, out of my own selfishness.”
Li Zhuoran places a gentle hand on mine. His skin is warm and dry, and his touch feels heavy, for a reason I can’t quite name. The weight steadies me, and my shaking stops.
“I understand,” he says. “Humans are all selfish creatures, after all.”
We fall into a long silence. In the end, the quiet is shattered by my soft sniffling. “I guess it’s my turn to ask the questions. Will my proposal work?”
He nods. “Mudong herself exists in our company’s disk arrays, connected to the hummingbird via a virtual network. You can think of it this way: our servers are as her brain, while the hummingbird is her body. Even if they’re thousands of miles apart, the communication between them will still be much faster than the nerve signals of real humans.”
“And her senses . . . ” I start.
“I’ll install airborne molecular detectors, haptic modules, and vocal generation units for her,” Li Zhuoran says.
He hesitates, before adding, “Auntie . . . Could I ask why you chose to revive Mudong this way?”
Gently, I smooth the faux emerald-green feathers of the hummingbird with a fingertip. I stroke its belly, filled to bursting with software and programs, and I trace the sharp point of its polyester beak. It stares back at me, waiting to be granted the gift of life.
“Maybe, just this once, I wanted to do something my own way, just because I can—just like Mudong would have wanted.”
It’s strange, but after watching so many of your memories, I started to remember things that happened in your childhood, before you turned thirteen—things that I thought I’d forgotten. Maybe it’s just as Li Zhuoran said. Maybe life is a river, and through some kind of mathematical reasoning, we can deduce what’s upstream just by examining the current downstream. But I’m not a mathematician. All I can do is stand here in the present, watching you emerge from the fog of my memories. As if there’s another you, one that’s made its home in the depths of my mind.
That version of you, the one forever stuck in childhood, once dreamed of living in a house with a garden. You could grow all sorts of flowers in that garden, you argued, and even raise a cat or a dog. I told you that it was an impossible dream: compared to an apartment, a house would be too humid, and in any case, we didn’t have the money to afford that kind of place. You sulked for days after that.
Now that I think back to that moment, I realize that maybe you were never that interested in the garden itself. Like most working-class families, we lived in old, rundown highrises, buildings that had been hit hard by the economic recession. Fires and elevator accidents were commonplace occurrences in these buildings. Just days before that conversation, one of the cables in our building snapped, sending an elevator plunging . . .
My daughter, you must have sensed the death around you. After that, to make up for our inability to raise dogs or cats, I bought you a few pets: a hamster, a goldfish, and a snail. What I still can’t understand is how all of them died in rapid succession, as if they were in a rush to shuffle off this mortal coil. The snail was the worst of them. God knows how it managed to escape its tank and crawl halfway across the floor, planting itself directly in the path of your oncoming foot. When your hamster and your goldfish died, you showed neither the grief nor callousness that a child might usually feel. You were just silent. But the death of your snail must have shown you the paradox of life in all its fragile solidity, a paradox that couldn’t be resolved in silence. And so that night, you crawled under my covers. You were quiet for the longest time, your breath fanning sweetly across my collarbone.
“Mom,” I heard you say.
“Will I die?”
I hovered halfway between waking and dreaming for a moment, before I shifted backwards to look at you.
“Sweetie, what are you talking about?”
You rolled your eyes. “I’m going to die, right?”
I thought for a long time. “Everyone dies, sweetie. Mom will die, and so will you, and so will everything else that lives.”
You buried your head in my chest. On my arms, your little hands felt ice-cold. “Why?”
“ . . . So that we’re reminded to live our lives to the fullest, perhaps.”
My response was wishy-washy, subjectless and equivocating. I had no way of giving you the answer I believed in. The truth was too cruel, too heavy of a burden for a child to bear.
“Mom, if I died, would you be sad?”
I held you tightly. It was like clutching a thorn close; my heart ached and stung. “Sweetie, don’t say things like that. I need you to stay with me.” I needed you to stay with me until I wasn’t the center of your life anymore. Until you were prepared to face the reality of loss.
“I’ll . . . ” You were interrupted by a yawn. “I’ll stay with you.”
Softly, you pecked my cheek.
“ . . . Auntie?”
I’m pulled from my daze, hurtling back through time. In the present, Li Zhuoran is calling out to me.
“Auntie, I have an obligation to make some things clear to every customer who chooses to use our company’s products. Some of the things I’ll say might offend you, and I apologize in advance. Please don’t take it personally.”
With a fingertip, I touch the spot on my cheek where you planted your kiss, reaching for the gentleness and coolness you left behind.
“Zhuoran, it’s alright.”
One of his hands comes up to run roughly through his hair, before he lets it drop. “All of us will face loss, at some point. Some people choose to accept it, even if that loss brings them pain. That pain is temporary. Over time, it’ll fade. Flowers can still bloom over old ruins, and people are the same way. But some people choose to run away from loss. They try to find an escape in religion, or in the spectacles of modern technology. And maybe through these fantasies, they’ll never need to feel the pain of loss ever again. But at the same time, they’ll never be able to return to the life they had. Auntie, do you understand what I’m trying to say?”
I laugh. “Is that what you tell all your clients?”
Li Zhuoran’s face reddens. At once, I see him as he was in your memories again, an innocent and delusional youth. “It’s company policy . . . ”
“I want to hear what you really think.”
He blinks, surprised. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes seem to deepen, reaching out toward his temples.
“If everything in this world came to be because of mathematical laws, then everything that abides by those laws should be made equal, regardless of their maker,” Li Zhuoran says, his voice solemn. “We can choose to accept the reality we’ve been given. But we can also choose to create our own.”
“ . . . Thank you, Zhuoran.”
Then, I add: “If Mudong was still alive, how do you think she’d react to our choice?”
“I . . . ” Li Zhuoran shakes his head slowly. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either,” I say. “When she wakes up, we’ll ask her. How’s that?”
He silently stares at me. Slowly, the lingering doubt in his eyes melts away like spring snow.
“Alright,” he agrees.
You wake up. You open your eyes. You flutter your wings and take flight. You circle around my head. You say:
“Mom, when did your hair turn white?”
I put in a request for a vacation—a long one, long enough for us to relearn ourselves and each other. This body is foreign to you, as foreign as your lifestyle is for me. Over the course of our journey, we have so much to do together. Together, we climb mountains. We dig for clams. We watch sunrises and sunsets; we trace the ebb and flow of the clouds. We trek out into the wilderness, waiting for the Milky Way to climb up into the night sky. We down beers in hazy, smoke-filled bars. We make bets about whether strangers on the street are humans or androids.
—And nobody notices you. Everyone has a hummingbird these days. Nobody knows that the hummingbird hovering above me houses a wandering soul.
In the spaces of calm between our adventures, we stay up all night talking about this and that: about Miłosz’s poetry, about attractive men that pass us by, about the months and years we’ve shared together. Most times, you don’t understand why we used to argue so much—why we could only express our love through hate, why we could only get close to each other by parting ways.
And you feel confused. In your brain are all the memories of a dead girl, from age thirteen onwards. You have her personality, liking the things she liked and hating the things she hated. You experienced firsthand her life’s decline, her final moments. And you know that people can’t die and come back to life.
One day, you tell me: “Mom, I don’t want to be Tang Mudong.”
I look at you, at the elegant hummingbird hovering in midair. Under your wings, an island city floats, surrounded on all sides by the vast ocean.
“You don’t need to be,” I reply. All her life, Tang Mudong had tried to escape from something—and in the same way, you long to be free. That shared longing ties you together, like some secret passage connecting the two of you. Just knowing that is enough for me. Li Zhuoran once told me, not without some regret: if only I had chosen an android body for you, with fingers dexterous enough to paint, then he could have found out once and for all if he’d cracked the code to your creative algorithm. I smiled at him, and didn’t reply.
None of that was important, after all. The only thing that mattered was that we had a chance at a new start.
Our journey reaches its conclusion at the “End of the World”: a city named Ushuaia, on Isla Grande in Tierra del Fuego—the southernmost city in the world. By boat, one can reach Antarctica in two days. It’s a beautiful city, full of streets not yet flooded by the sea. When you raise your eyes to the horizon, you can see the cloudy, snow-white peaks of the Andes; when you lower your gaze, the waves of the Beagle Channel gleam and glitter to greet you. We arrive in time for the end of summer in the Southern Hemisphere; in the cool, crisp air, the colors around us seem clearer than ever.
Having made it here, there’s no turning back for either of us. We rent a wooden cabin with a red pitched roof, built on top of a small hill. The cabin has its own garden, filled with flowers in every color. We spend day after day here, chatting in the garden about this and that, about everything and nothing at all. Sometimes I bring a book to read, and other days I tend to the flowers; always, you hover over my shoulder, orbiting steadily around me. I come to assume that you must be turning something over in that robotic mind of yours.
But I remember Li Zhuoran’s suggestion, and I try my best not to guess at what you’re thinking.
One day, you tell me: “Mom, I drew something.”
I sit up on the recliner. The afternoon fragrance of the flowers around me fills my lungs; my nose itches a bit in response.
“I used a painting program,” you explain. “Do you want to see it?”
You project your artwork into the air. The painting is of a garden, a woman, and a hummingbird.
“Mom,” you call. “I want to leave. By myself. Maybe I’ll return to the virtual world. Maybe I’ll find myself a new body. Or maybe . . . it’ll just be the end.”
In the painting, a woman bends down to tend to the flowers and grasses at her feet. Her hair is white, a smile building at the corners of her lips. A hummingbird rests on the flowers across from her. The brushstrokes are soft and gentle, the colors bright and beautiful—the tinge of darkness that characterized Tang Mudong’s works is absent entirely from this piece. I raise my head, my vision blurring with tears. You’ve captured this very moment. And finally, you’ve escaped from death’s grasp.
“Mom,” you call. “Are you sad?”
I smile, and shake my head. I stretch out a finger, reaching out for you—
—as you fly toward me.
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, April 2021.
Translated and published in cooperation with Science Fiction World.
Yang Wanqing is a science fiction author and winner of many awards, including the Galaxy Award for Chinese Science Fiction. His short story collections include The Returned Man and Double Helix.
Growing up in Guangzhou and Southern California, Jay Zhang is a literary translator currently pursuing their PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. Academically, their interests lie in issues of religion, culture, and identity. Outside of school, they’re an avid fan of tabletop games, Xi’an food, and horror fiction.