Bifurcation

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Joy claimed she could see a person’s entire life of possibilities mapped out through the lab’s quantum computer. “It’s your fate defined in qubits,” she explained to Navi. “Simultaneous ones and zeroes splitting into two parallel worlds for every decision you make.” To Joy, people looked like roots: segments of dermal, ground and vascular tissues anchoring them into soil, a thick tap root the base of thin, brittle lateral roots spreading to the surface. She poked at the square gold chip like she was whispering in morse code to trapped beryllium ions. She eyed the dilution refrigerator housing control wires and a printed circuit board composed of qubit processors. 

 

Navi wanted to know if this had any practical applications. 

 

“It’s a lot to think about,” Joy shrugged as she packed up her backpack and locked the lab to go home. She folded Navi’s legs inward, collapsing them at the knees until the metal clicked into place, and then she tapped Navi’s forehead until there was a quiet beep. 

 

Joy kicked off the rice when she got home. The old-fashioned way makes the most pillowy rice, Navi had said when he was still human. Joy dug Navi out of the bag and plugged him into the wall, next to the table of lasers and single photon emitters and other optical components she’d taken from the lab. She cleared half the table and began to insert photoresistors and beam splitters into the breadboard. 

 

“The rice is going to boil over,” Navi chirped, its propeller spinning in an attempt to fly over. 

 

“No it’s not,” Joy said, back hunched and head bowed close to the breadboard as she repositioned another wire.

 

Navi wasn’t always this annoying. He used to be the quiet one when he still had a human body. Joy was the one who’d hover behind him, poking him in the lower back to get his attention. You can’t live on congee, she’d warned him, but in the end, that was what happened: Navi sipped plain congee for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all topped with preserved bamboo which, Joy argued, had no nutritional value. Just look at the pandas, humans have to feed them milk to prevent them from dying out, she said. You’re going to die like that. He would wave her away while mumbling the colors of wires in the tangled Medusa head of a circuit. 

 

Of course, now Navi had no such problems in physical constitution. 

 

When Joy had first inserted the memory chip into the little, bug-like robot, she half-expected Navi to pick off from what he had last been doing—developing the new PCB, scratching his head with cracked and chewed fingernails, breathing through his mouth because he was more often congested than not. 

 

Back when they cooked congee with one part rice and twenty parts water to trick their bellies into being full, Joy would save money to buy a slice of carrot cake, topped with tiny fondant carrots and crushed pecans. Navi preferred the earthy sweetness of carrot and fragrance of ginger so every few months they’d indulge their growling stomachs, taking turns slicing thinner and thinner forkfuls of cake. This was before they found jobs as systems engineers, before Navi grew sick of carrot cake and left it in the freezer until it resembled a rock, before Navi fell for the allure of amplifier circuits and their gently flickering waveforms, a body without a breath or beat, one arm dangling in front of the computer fan and the other resting above the gentle hum of electromagnetic interference. At least bots didn’t get strokes from overwork. 

 

Joy crushed the egg into her rice and carried the bowl back to her desk. 

 

“Where’s mine?” Navi asked.

 

“You won’t like this,” Joy said. Too salty. Too spicy. Too sour. Not diluted enough.

 

“In a parallel world, I would.” Navi crawled to the corner of her desk, resting on top of several papers scrawled with differential equations.

 

“There’s no parallel world for that.” 

 

“Who says? The universe is probabilistic.”

 

Joy unlatched the compartment on the side of Navi’s metal frame and inserted a new battery. If the battery switch failed, she’d be up all night trying to get the quantum computer working, meal forgotten just like the previous night and the night before, and then she’d end up malnourished and dead with no one left to transcribe her brain into a processor transplanted into an aluminum shell. 

 

In another timeline, we might be starving artists, she once entertained before Navi shot it down. When they were kids, they’d color entire roads with chalk, sketching Taoist symbols between potholes, Yin-Yangs in every square of the sidewalk, Ba Gua trigrams in the center of rarely trafficked roads. Joy had thought they looked cool; Navi liked the unity and balance—the “dance of opposites” which must’ve meant he thought they looked cool too. 

 

Human Navi had also been skeptical about everything. I doubt an alternate version of us exists. The number of possible outcomes from particles in any universe interacting with each other approaches infinity faster than the number of possible universes. You’re the only you there is.

 

But there’s still a small chance? Joy had wondered.

 

Worse than winning the lottery, Navi had replied.

 

Joy swallowed a chunk of egg and pressed the power button. Navi lit up. 

 

“You could warn me before you do that,” Navi blinked, screen flickering like broken Christmas lights. “I have feelings. It’s called communication.” 

 

Joy leaned back in her chair, setting a reminder on her phone to get a refund for the new battery. She stripped the edges of several red wires and wondered how she could get her home cold enough to prevent erratic qubit movement. The real Navi was probably having the time of his life jumping across the multiverse, carrying a small cooler of carrot cake, enjoying the monotony of debugging shorted circuits, leaping to another branch before work could consume him. But she would find and bring him back.

About the Author: 
Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, The Fourth River, New Orleans Review and elsewhere, and was selected for Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions. She is losing sleep over a novel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.
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