Short story: Keeping Mum


Mum wanted to speak Nixport. But after the operation she couldn't speak at all. By Kate Orman.


Cosmos fiction keepingmum h.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Mum's skull is shaved, but there aren't any scars. She sits up in her hospital bed, surrounded by magazines with big, colourful pictures of home décor and food.

She beams when I come in. I'm carrying an armload of colouring books and a couple of packets of colour pencils. “Here you go,” I say, popping them down on the bedside table. “These should keep you busy for a while.”

She picks up one of the books and nods enthusiastically, starting work on a landscape straight away.

“You're bored to death, aren't you, you dumb cow?” I say, smiling brightly. “This is your own silly fault.” Mum smiles back at me.

I'm watching TV on my tablet when Dr Potts arrives, with his white coat and his egg-head. “Well, young lady! On the plus side, we're certain your mother isn't in any danger. Tomorrow, we're moving her to a live-in rehabilitation unit. On the minus side, ha ha,” he says, scratching at what's left of his hair, “she's not making any progress at all on recovering language. She'll patiently read or listen, but clearly doesn't understand a thing.”

“You mentioned something about testing her on music.”

“No luck there either, I'm afraid. Her general cognition is unimpaired, but she can't tell one tune from another. Also, we've established that she can't count past three. You know, we've never had a patient respond to the therapy like this.” Here comes the speech again. “I've consulted with several neurologists and as far as any of us can tell, the entire procedure went …” (Swimmingly, Dr Potts?) “… swimmingly. Ha ha. But on the plus side once more, I've been contacted by Dr Minsu Kim.”

I know that name. “He's a Translator.”

“Yesss ... I didn't think the Translators had any interest in my procedure, let alone your mother's case.”

“Neither did I. I've been pestering them for weeks, but I never got a response.”

“You've been … ?” Potts looks sort of queasy. “Anyway, he'll visit your mother in the rehabilitation centre. He'll bring an interpreter. An ordinary one, I mean. Ha ha. I'll let you know when he'll arrive. The paparazzi will all be after him, so you mustn't tell anyone. Ha ha!”

When he's gone, I look up Minsu Kim. South Korea's official talker to the Nix. Like most Translators, he looks like a movie star. They must be rich as foxes: the only people in the world smart enough to get Answers out of the aliens.

He's coming all this way to help us! It's fantastic news. Mum's put down her colouring and gone off into one of her reveries. I pat her on the arm and show her the photo of Kim on my tablet. She looks hard, but doesn't recognise him. And I have no way of getting across to her who he is and what's going to happen and why it's important, any more than I could explain it to the dog.

We first heard the Nix language 11 years ago. Their broadcast came screaming in from this little moon going around Pluto. I was only seven, and I remember crying because it was so exciting but so frightening – these unseen aliens looking down at us from the sky. Mum explained what it said on the news: they knew the signal wasn't made by nature, it was a message, but they couldn't work out what it said; it was too complicated, even for computers.

Scientists kept sending replies, trying to get the aliens to send a message simple enough for us to understand. Finally, they made a breakthrough: they beamed a copy of the human genome at the aliens. As soon as the aliens got it, they stopped yelling at us. Everyone waited and waited for them to say something. I remember Mum talking to someone on the phone. “Well, now they know who we are, I hope they're not embarrassed by the neighbours.”

Then the aliens sent another transmission, an easy one this time. “Now they're talking our language,” Mum said.

But they weren't. The new message was a set of instructions for altering the human brain.

I cut out the diagram in the paper that showed how it worked – I still have that somewhere. Special viruses would add new genes to certain brain cells. Then lasers would switch on those genes, by sending a harmless burst of light through the bone of the skull. The cells would rearrange themselves and grow new connections.

You can do this yourselves, the aliens were saying, and create a human genius - just intelligent enough to understand our language, if we keep it simple. And when you can talk to us, have we got a deal for you!

There were a surprising number of volunteers – especially considering most of them ended up brain damaged or crazy or dead.

The day after I finished my last HSC exam, Mum made me French toast as a treat. “Ally,” she said, “I've decided I'm going to have something called the Potts procedure.”

“What's that?”

“You know how they make a Translator,” said Mum, gesturing vaguely at her head. “Like that. But less extreme.”

I pushed the plate away. “You don't need brain surgery! You need your head examined!”

“Sweetheart, you've grown up learning Nixport. It's not as easy for me. I just can't get my head around it.' A lot of older people can't, even though the Translators tried to make speaking and writing it as easy as they could. It still sounds like a machine gun singing and looks like the stitching on a magic carpet. You can't even directly translate Nixport: using it isn't like making sentences, but more like solving geometry problems. At work, no-one takes any notice of my presentations because they use plain old English and maths. Without Nixport, my career isn't just stalled, it's going backwards.”

Doctor Potts met us in his office in Bondi Junction. It was full of Tibetan statues and smelled of wood polish. “It shouldn't really be called the Potts procedure,” he said. “It bears my name because I submitted the Question to our alien friends. Ha ha. Nixport is becoming the basis of everything – economics, physics, architecture – it's hard to name a field which it isn't transforming. Could we help people to learn and use Nixport more easily, without the hazards involved in creating genius Translators? The Potts procedure is the Answer!”

Mum and I had screaming fights about it for weeks. Some of Potts' patients had done brilliantly. Some had paid out the tens of thousands of dollars for his therapy and got no benefit at all.

“Mum,” I said, “for God's sake, you're not getting a tooth out, he's going to operate on your brain.”

“That doesn't mean what it once meant.”

“What if something goes wrong? What if you get brain damage?”

“No-one's ever been hurt by the Potts procedure.”

“Well, what if you're the first? What if you wake up with a different personality? What if you're not my Mum any more?”

“With everything the Nix have taught us about the brain …”

I swore, and when I saw it shocked her, I swore some more. “And the same goes for Potts. He's a quack. He's only interested in the money.”

“Doctor Potts is the first person who's ever shown me any sympathy about this! The only person who will listen to me!”

“I can't believe you're choosing the aliens over human beings. Like me!”

And so on.

One horrible night a few years ago Mum and I were flying back from overseas in a vicious storm. The plane was jumping around all over the place, and I was in tears, Mum and I holding each other's hands in a death grip. Then there was a brilliant flash, and a bang like God had kicked us. The wing burst into purple fire. I just stared at it. “Lightning," Mum said. “Lightning hit the plane.”

The next second, we shot out of the storm clouds into smooth, clear air. The worst possible thing had happened and we were still alive.

That was how I felt when she came out of surgery, and one day went past and she couldn't speak, then another day, then another, until Potts had to admit something was wrong. The worst possible thing happened and we were still alive.

The aliens' offer was this. We have no use for a planet such as Earth, but we need the outer planets and their moons. To us, your genetics and your central nervous systems are simple as ABC. We'll trade you medical treatments for real estate. Since we're already on Nix, we'll give you something for free: a highly simplified version of our language, one any human being can learn with effort.

It turned out that it was more than just a language. Maths, music, DNA, computer programs – all information was the same to the aliens, and Nixport was an extraordinarily efficient way of processing it. By the time I was 10, we were learning the basics of Nixport in primary school. In high school, it was compulsory. Phones and the web were running on Nixport by the time I finished Year 12.

By then the UN had got the Translators and the Question-asking procedure officially organised, and the human race had swapped the rest of Pluto's moons for vaccines against AIDs and dengue fever, and fixes for Alzheimer's and diabetes. But the Nix wouldn't give us a cure for lung cancer caused by smoking, just like they wouldn't help us with climate change. They didn't care how many millions of lives were at stake; they said those were our problems to solve.

The planet Pluto was divided up into thousands of sections, and those started being sold off for smaller Answers, like cures for rare diseases and new kinds of computers. Somewhere on Pluto there must be a little piece of ground that paid for the Potts Procedure. Maybe another one can pay for a cure for Mum.

Some scientists think the Nix are traders who travel from star to star. Others think they come from planets in our own Solar System, so far out that they haven't been detected yet. But my favourite theory is that the Nix are not alive at all: they're quantum computers that have to stay near absolute zero. Nobody knows for sure. Nobody even knows what they're doing out there. That's the other thing they won't answer questions about: themselves.

They must have cold hearts, frozen solid hearts, if they can listen to the whole world crying out for help and say no.

The rehabilitation unit is nice, freshly painted and full of sunlight, but it still smells like a hospital. Mum and I sit at a table in the common room with paper and crayons, and I try to get across to her who's coming to visit. I draw a little green man with antennas, then a stick man next to him with a speech balloon coming out of his mouth. Mum screws up her mouth. I add circles for Nix, Pluto, and Earth. Mum suddenly grabs a crayon and gives the alien a speech balloon too. She's got it! We beam at each other.

Gatsby

All our conversations are like this. Unless Dr Kim can help us, they'll probably be like this for the rest of Mum's life.

When the genius arrives, accompanied by a smartly dressed young woman and an agitated Dr Potts, Mum recognises him from the picture on my tablet. She's excited and scared, even if she doesn't completely know what's going on. She's hidden her new mousy fuzz; she drew pictures of hats for days until I brought her one she liked.

I got a Korean phrasebook, but I sounded so silly that I decided it'd be less embarrassing to use the interpreter. But Dr Kim shakes hands with us and says, “Ms Whittemore, I'm very pleased to meet you and your mother.” I must look surprised, because he says, “There were plenty of magazines and newspapers, so I learned English on the plane.”

“How long is the flight?” I blurt out.

“Ten hours.” He smiles, but it gives me the creeps. “Dr Potts has kindly given me all the information I need about your case.”

“Why don't we all sit down?” says Potts, breathlessly.

Kim takes a seat at the table, spots his crayon portrait, and laughs. I could die. I push the drawing materials to the side.

“Ms Whittemore,” begins Kim - he is careful to make eye contact with my mother as well as me, even though she can't understand him – “I hate to have to give you bad news. I won't be able to ask the Nix for a cure for your mother's condition.”

I don't want Mum to understand, so I try to whisper, but it comes out as a kind of strangled shout. “Why not?”

Kim says: “As you probably know, the Nix have one rule about Questions which they absolutely will not break. If human beings have created a problem themselves, they won't provide a solution for it.”

“That isn't …” I am shouting, now, and Mum grabs my hand, scared, so I shut up and let him finish.

“Dr Potts' procedure is well-designed,” says Kim. “I discussed it with some of the other Translators, and we're not surprised he's had some success with it.”

“It really wasn't necessary to do that,” says Potts, scratching his dome.

“Unfortunately,” says Kim, “The procedure is not an Answer. To put it another way, the procedure is the invention of Dr Potts. Whatever he may tell his patients, it was not designed by the Nix. Do you understand what I'm saying?”

I feel like I'm lying in snow without a coat, like my back, my whole body, has gone numb. I look at Potts and say, “You're a fraud.”

“Ha ha!” squeaks Potts. “Not true, not true. My procedure is closely based on the surgery that produces the Translators!”

“You modified it without completely understanding it,” says Kim. “Mrs Whittemore's condition is your responsibility alone.”

“There must be something you can do.” I'm on my feet. “Some way to bend the rule, or … some string you can pull.”

“I'm deeply sorry,” says Kim.

You cold-blooded bastard! “But you're a human being too!”

“Once the Nix have given their response, nothing we can say will change it.”

I stare at the packet of crayons, wondering how I'm going to explain this to Mum. But I don't have to. I can see she's heaving with huge, silent sobs.

I'm surprised when Kim agrees to see me, alone, in his hotel room. Maybe this is going to be easier (and sleazier) than I thought. And I won't have to go to jail. And nobody will end up dead.

Kim's personal assistant shows me in. His room is actually three or four rooms. The main one has a huge window giving a beautiful view of the city. A long dining table is covered in tablets and phones and piles of paper.

The PA wants to know if I want anything. “Coffee? Perhaps a glass of wine?” I shake my head and sit on the sofa, knees together, with my big handbag clutched to my side.

Dr Kim comes in. His suit is rumpled and he looks tired. For the first time I see he's old enough to be my dad. “Ms Whittemore. It's nice to see you again.” He takes a seat on the sofa at right angles to mine. We're both reflected in the coffee table. “What can I do for you?”

“Dr Kim.” I sound pretty cool. I can do this. “I love my mother very much. I will do absolutely anything to convince you to ask the Nix for a cure for her.”

I cross my legs, hoping I'm making my offer clear. Damn him, he's smiling! “I'm not saying I'm anything special, but … if this makes any difference, you'd be …"

“Ms Whittemore,” he says, “You've already been very badly treated. It would be a crime for me to mistreat you further, in any way.”

Well that's fine, you bastard. “Dr Kim, when I said anything, I meant it. I'm afraid that …” (Why am I being so polite? I can't help it) “… I've brought a bomb with me.” He doesn't react. Shocked, probably. “I made it at home out of chemicals. If you're wondering how I got it in here it's because I know someone who works in the hotel. If you don't contact the aliens right now I can blow up this whole room with you and me in it.”

Kim sits back on the sofa. He looks a lot more relaxed than I feel right now. I tell him, “I'm totally serious, so if you're sitting there thinking I don't look like a suicide bomber, stop.” I unzip my bag a little and slip a hand inside. My heart's going harder than it did the day Mum had her surgery.

He says coolly, “You're a brave and determined young woman. But there are two things you don't understand.”

“Don't patronise me.”

“I'm sorry. Can I say my last words?”

“What?”

“Firstly,” he says, “I've been a Translator for almost four years. In that time I've been offered every kind of bribe you can possibly imagine and quite a lot I hope you can't.”

"I sort of hoped it was like that," I admit. "I even hoped you were waiting for me to offer. But I'm not bribing you now - I'm threatening you."

"Secondly," he says, "If I did take a bribe, or give in to a threat, I'd die."

"How would they know -' The Translators are the smartest people on the planet, duh, they'd figure it out. 'They'd kill you?'"

"This isn't strictly a secret," he says. "The surgery that makes a Translator is reversible." He smooths the hair on the side of his head. "The billions of additional connections added to our brains can be subtracted again, but we don't know how to do it safely. So the connections are removed crudely. Just - cut. The result is massive damage to the brain. It's usually fatal."

"That's so - cruel, and so unfair. That's so like the Nix."

"So you see, I may as well let you blow us up. Though it would be kind of you to let my PA leave first."

Shit! What do I do now? "Maybe you're lying."

"It's already been done to two Translators," he said. "Look it up if you want. I'll wait."

I reach for my tablet, then stop. There's no point; I believe him.

With a sudden thump, I see myself from his point of view. I see a girl making an embarrassing and maybe even slightly disgusting offer and then making a let's-pretend threat. I see a girl who's the millionth person to beg him for something, the millionth time he's had to say no.

"You knew what I was going to say, didn't you? That's why you said yes to seeing me."

Whatever happens next, this is one of those moments I'll keep remembering, in five years from now, 20 years, the kind of things you suddenly think of when you're showering or going to sleep that force a little sound of humiliation and distress out of you.

I sag into the softness of the lounge. "Look what they've done to us ... look what they've done to all of us."

"To be fair, it was my decision to become a Translator," said Kim. "Just as it was your mother's decision to undergo that operation."

"My Mum didn't choose to live in a world where all of a sudden you're no good if you can't speak alien. They've taken over this Earth without ever setting foot here." I look at him. 'If they've got feet."

He laughs. "I don't know either."

"Did you really learn English on the plane?"

He smiles, shyly. "I learned a little in school. I only became fluent on the plane."

I must look so dumb to him. Everybody must look so dumb -

"Dr Kim," I say, "are you really too stupid to figure it out?"

He smirks. "What did you say?"

"You understood Potts' operation. So how come you can't figure out what went wrong, even without help from the Nix?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Whittemore, but that just isn't my job." He stands up. "I've got important work to do -"

"I'll bet they sent you because you're not all that important." That kills his little smile. "I'll bet the really smart geniuses think you're one of the dumb ones." He looks like I just punched him in the eye and like he wants to punch me right back. "I'm right, aren't I? You're scared you're not clever enough to work it out! Not so cool now, are you, mate! You're just a messenger boy for the aliens and that's all you're ever going to be."

He says several things loudly in Korean, then shouts, "Taeyeon-ssi, bange deuleowayo!" His PA appears instantly. "Please escort Ms Whittemore from the building."

I don't move from the sofa. "Get up!" he snaps.

"Um," I say. I push my handbag gingerly along the sofa until it rests against the arm. "Look, I did actually bring - it's not a very good bomb, but -"

Kim kicks me out of the hotel personally, without another word, leaving his PA to phone the fire brigade.

The police stop Potts at the airport. I wait for them to knock on the door of our house, but they never do.

I stop visiting Mum every day. She doesn't want to colour in any more, or watch TV; she spends more and more time just staring into space. I bring her a pile of new magazines, and she suddenly goes crazy, ripping out pages. The nurses have to stop her throwing things around in the common room. When I try to communicate with her she turns away, pushes me away, makes herself as cold and distant as she can. The doctors explain it to me - her frustration, her fear - but they don't need to.

All my friends are still on holidays after the exams. I'm alone in the house except for the dog. Will they send Mum home? I'll still be alone. The dog understands more of what I say than she does. Without language, are you even a human being any more?

Then one morning I get a call from the hospital.

When I get there, Dr Kim is sitting in a chair beside my mother's bed. He stands up when I come in. "Ms Whittemore," he says, "Nice to see you again. I may have some good news." Mum's hair has grown nearly an inch long; she won't look at us, but she fusses with it awkwardly. "Once the authorities apprehended Dr Potts," said Kim, "he was very keen to cooperate. I've been talking to the surgeons looking after your mother, but we need your help."

When I sit down in that tiny white room, just me and Kim and a couple of neurosurgeons holding folders full of documents and diagrams and scans, I am bricking it.

He draws on a whiteboard with a fat blue marker. The brain he scribbles comes out looking like a Da Vinci sketch. "Part of creating a Translator," he says, "is enhancing the connections between Wernicke's Area and Broca's Area - that is, the part of the brain involved in hearing and reading, and the part involved in speaking and writing." He picks out bits of brain in red. "A task such as answering a question requires the two areas to work together: Wernicke understands, Broca responds." He draws red lines on the board; signals going back and forth between the two language areas.

"With more connections, the processing of language can be both faster and more sophisticated. Potts' procedure was hit and miss, sometimes increasing the connections, sometimes failing. In Mrs Whittemore's case, however, it worked exceptionally well." He runs the red pen back and forth, back and forth. "I believe her language areas are now so tightly connected that they only 'talk' to each other. There's a constant conversation going on inside her brain, but words from outside never make it in, and words from inside never make it out."

The surgeons say a bunch of technical things to each other. "Then to improve Mrs Whittemore's condition," one of them says, "we have to prune some of those connections."

I say, "But we can't do that!"

Kim holds up a hand before I start to panic. "Rather than cutting connections," he says, "we can try strengthening some and letting others naturally weaken. Since Mrs Whittemore has learned Nixport as an adult, the area dedicated to it is separate and small; so we'll focus on that. Ally, this will be very difficult. We'll have to isolate your mother from every form of communication except Nixport. No English. No drawings. I'll workshop Nixport with her every day for several hours."

One of the neurosurgeons says, "Isn't there a danger we'll end up reinforcing the excess linkage between Broca and Wernicke?"

"Yes," admits Kim. "We just have to hope that we can re-establish the links to the outside world." He looks at me. "Your mother can't give her informed consent. You have to decide for her."

For a week Mum basically does nothing but sleep, eat, and sit there while Dr Kim tries to teach her Nixport. He makes her trace and copy the symbols on paper. He tries to get her to imitate the sounds. She just looks puzzled at first, but after a couple of days I can see she at least understands what he's trying to do.

After three weeks non-stop they both look so tired and fed up. Mum starts acting out, getting up from the table and throwing the papers around.

"I'm so sorry," I say, scrambling for them under the table.

Mum picks up a crayon packet and chucks it at Kim. Crayons go everywhere. Some of them hit him in the face. He squawks at her furiously in Nixport.

Mum says something back to him. He stares at her. She grabs more crayons and launches them at him, one colour after another, chirping all the time. A blue one bounces off his head, and he says something else, and she trills back at him angrily, slamming both hands on the table.

He just raises an eyebrow and waits.

Mum puts a hand over her mouth. She gets it. She spoke.

After that it starts going faster. Mum has a lot to say. She tells us she's been talking for months, shouting and yelling at everyone, but nobody would listen. ("From her point of view," explains a neurosurgeon, "We're the ones who could only understand drawings.")

By the end of the month, she and I are talking to each other, slowly, in Nixport. She's going to need a tutor, hours and hours more practice, to make sure the new connections in her brain get firmly established.

Just to get away from the rehab centre I go with Dr Kim in his taxi to the airport. He gets a secret VIP check-in. In the first class lounge, his PA brings us a tray of drinks.

I've been practising. "Gamsahamnida," I try.

His amused smile makes me blush, but he says, "You're welcome."

"How did you learn enough neurology to figure this out?"

"I fly a lot." Now I'm amused. "And ... some of the other Translators got interested. As it turns out, a lot of us have been wondering what else we could accomplish, besides being 'messenger boys'."

We both smile at that. I take a mouthful of champagne and say, "Um. Will Mum be able to speak English again?"

He stops smiling. "When she's very confident in Nixport, the therapists will start adding English to her tutoring."

"But what about her job? Are she and I going to have to talk to each other in alien for the rest of our lives? What if something goes wrong and she goes back to the way she was?"

"I don't know."

"That must be weird for you."

He shakes his head. "You'd be surprised."

Back at rehab, Mum is busy at the table with her tutor, covering blank sheets with long strings of alien squiggles. "Hi," I say, in English. "How are you feeling?"

She twitters back in Nixport. Basically, she's feeling fine.

Mum is still a human being, she's still herself, and we can still communicate. The worst possible thing happened and we're still alive.

Kate Orman is an Australian author, best known for her books connected to the British science-fiction television series Doctor Who.