"Mommy likes visiting here, doesn't she?" said MOMO one day after Juli had left, and one of the lab assistants was walking MOMO back to her own living quarters elsewhere in the building. "It makes her happy when I do well on my tests?" It seemed only logical to MOMO that this should be true, but the ends of her sentences kept bubbling up into question marks, betraying doubts she didn't know she had.
The assistant nodded without glancing in her direction. He stared at the report projected on the portable screen in front of him. "Dr. Mizrahi has expressed satisfaction with your results on the last few examinations."
"Oh." MOMO stood on tiptoe to peer around his shoulder at the holographic panel floating almost within reach, like the reflections of overhead lights she pretended to chase when she walked through the hallways alone. During the last few years she had invented many such ways to entertain herself, to pass the hours when she had nothing better to do. "Well ... I've noticed something strange about her lately." MOMO hesitated, searching for words to describe things they didn't talk about during her lab exams, her precise observational skills foundering in the watery language of intuition. "It's just, even when she's smiling, her eyes look sad. Doesn't that seem unusual?"
The next few minutes passed in silence. MOMO began to worry that she hadn't expressed her observations clearly enough, that the assistant hadn't understood what she meant. Her mother visited the laboratory once a week: a restless figure in a long dark overcoat, familiar but elusive, sweeping in like an angel to bestow her latest blessing on the project, then departing as suddenly as she had arrived. MOMO spent the other six days of the week looking forward to those visits, but they always left her with a vague sense of disappointment, the feeling that their time together had ended too soon. Juli's parting gestures were brief and perfunctory, her initial kindness evaporated by the end of the session, her attention already lost to the next item on her agenda. But MOMO understood: Juli was a politician as well as a scientist, with a job that made exorbitant demands of her time and energy, and MOMO knew her mother would have stayed longer if only her schedule permitted. It made MOMO proud to imagine her mother working selflessly and tirelessly for the Federation, sacrificing her own desires to fulfill her responsibilities.
Besides, the absences in between their visits made their brief time together more valuable. And if Juli seemed distracted during their conversations, if she didn't always pay attention to every word MOMO said, if on a rare occasion she stormed in high-strung and impatient and barked orders at the lab assistants until they cowered in her presence and flinched under her gaze--well, she probably had a dozen valid reasons for it, reasons MOMO could only begin to imagine.
"I wish there were some way I could help her," MOMO said as they continued down the hallway, aware she might be talking to herself now. She watched a reflected bar of light skim along the floor ahead of her, but she felt no inclination to run after it. Her games were no fun with someone watching. "What if I got her a present? That way she would know I was thinking about her all the time, even when we're not together. Do you think that would make Mommy happy?"
The assistant flicked away his report, the transparent screen blinking out of sight. "MOMO, Dr. Mizrahi has many other commitments besides the work she does here. She takes all of her work very seriously. That's probably the reason for any emotional disturbances you may have detected."
"I know ... but ...." She trailed off, finding herself at a loss for words again. There was still so much she didn't understand, so much she didn't think she'd ever understand. MOMO had been activated five years ago, but from the time of her birth she had possessed the appearance and personality of a child of twelve. Her experience of the world remained confined to a hive of rooms and corridors in a government laboratory complex on Fifth Jerusalem, where she had lived since they brought her here from the Proto Merkabah. Aside from the weekly visits, her mother inhabited a different sphere entirely, an outside world MOMO knew only from the UMN channels she was allowed to peruse in her free time. MOMO's isolation served a purpose, as her caretakers had explained on the one occasion she worked up the nerve to ask. There are people outside who would try to capture you if they had the chance. They would use you, and the information inside you, to harm the Federation. That's why you have to stay here: not just for your own protection, but for the sake of all the people your mother is trying to help.
That much, at least, MOMO understood, and it made her feel better to think that she was doing her part by staying where she belonged and following instructions. But she also hoped that someday, when there were no more dangerous people in the world, when there were no more Gnosis attacks for her mother to investigate, Juli would offer to take her outside and they could pretend to be like the families MOMO had seen in the UMN holos and heard about in stories, doing the things ordinary mothers and daughters did together.
In the meantime there were tests and more tests, Encephalon dives and simulations, and her mother presiding over all of it, sometimes in person, more often by the tangible shape of her absence and the promise of her return. MOMO didn't know exactly what the tests were for, except that she had overheard her mother discussing a project in development under the Contact Subcommittee, a series of Realians designed to observe and detect the Gnosis. Juli and the lab assistants sometimes referred to MOMO as "the prototype." Did that mean they were making others like her? That someday she would have sisters stationed across Federation territory, like stars in a galaxy-wide constellation? Even if MOMO never got to meet them in person, even if she never left the shelter of the lab, the thought appealed to her, the possibility that someday she would be part of a family. And maybe Juli wouldn't be sad anymore, either, if she could see her daughters wherever she went.
As they neared the corridor leading to MOMO's room she glanced up at the lab assistant, wondering whether she should ask him about the project. The assistants didn't seem to mind her questions, but she felt strange about asking, and decided against it. Another question pushed past the first. "Um ... do you think ... if I keep getting high results on my lab tests, would that be a good enough present for Mommy?" After all, if she was going to be the prototype for her sisters, she would have to do her best to provide the data they needed.
"I'm sure Dr. Mizrahi would appreciate your cooperation," he said absently. They had reached the end of the corridor now, and he left her there, a few doors from her room. MOMO stared after him, wanting to say more, but instead all the words for things she didn't understand rose up suddenly and got stuck in her throat. Swallowing, she turned and chased the lights farther on down the empty hallway.
05 May 2010