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Story by Daisuke Shen
༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ

MACHINE TRANSLATION

It had been invented after the tech contest we lost. My mom had entered it in hopes that we could win the grand prize of $6000. That was a lot for us back then. I don’t know what we were hoping for, really—I mean, the device she had made was cool, but useless. This stupid freezer-shaped thing that could only appeal to people with time and money to spare, which I guess was everyone in this city.  Put in a shoe, a chair, whatever, and then leave it in the freezer (properly named, it was the Frankenchine, but it’s embarrassing to call it that) for 15 minutes or so. And then you—oh, how wondrous—take it out of the Frankenchine, and it would have turned into something else entirely. When we first tested it out, my brother Mike had put in an old science textbook he had from middle school. It came back out as a cake, and there was a squeal of dolphins each time you cut into it, blue frosting the taste of ocean and salt.


Mom used to have dreams and apprehensions, wanted to become something other than a mother—that’s what she was thinking but couldn’t say, at least, whenever she showed us pictures of her smiling and laying around on the grass at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where she got her PhD in Electronic Engineering. She had written her dissertation about Marxism and data infrastructure, risk transference and the proletarian need to reclaim technology for use so people could disperse information, food, stuff like that. I don’t really remember the details very well.


Six years after she graduated, boom: kids, America, deadbeat husband who leaves, blah blah. But Mom was determined, had shown up at the competition at 11 AM, only an hour before it was supposed to start. Mom had spent all night testing, retesting. Putting in our leftover dinner (canned meat came back in the form of a weird chimera thing—docile, though, so we kept it in the yard), her old reading glasses (portrait of some lady who was probably? definitely? British, reading a collection of Yeats’ poems wearing Mom’s glasses), stuff like that. I guess she just wanted to make sure it worked even though it didn’t follow any definitive patterns, that nothing truly hazardous would emerge given the recent safety changes she had made to the software. She wanted other people to have fun even if she didn’t.


Mom, Mike, and I struggled to carry it up the stairs to the entrance. People walked past, wearing  expensive watches, their inventions being carried by the help of drones or workers. Something swooped by my head and the three of us ducked. I squinted up and saw a woman riding atop a golden bird the size of a small jet. It spat confetti  at us. The collar on its neck said “Frank.” Great.  Just fabulous.


We paused for half a second as Frank glided into the colosseum, landing with ease at the registration table before turning into a small golf cart. There was a burst of applause. Confetti stuck to one of my eyelids. It smelled like peaches.


I was glad I couldn’t see Mom’s face as we started moving again. The Frankenchine couldn’t fly. It could spit out confetti, though, if you fed it the right thing. Probably. “Fuck—them,” Mom grunted, “We—win.”


The Frankenchine was so heavy as we pulled it up the marble steps, the damp August heat soaking into our skin and hair. Mike, younger than me but still much larger, was carrying almost all the weight from the back. A man rushed by us and I felt my hands lose their grip. When I looked behind me, I saw Mike’s pink face spreading with panic as he tripped over his feet, no longer able to hold on.


Mom screamed as we watched the Frankenchine escape from us, clanking down the steps. None of us seemed to have the strength left to chase after it. We watched it tumble, dents appearing on the black metal surface with each fall, people jumping around to avoid it. It should be fine, I thought, as it started sparking white fire, two men running down with a fire extinguisher as it grew more and more out of control. This doesn’t seem so bad. Then it exploded.


Mike was still on the stairs, breathing heavily, as people swarmed around, tried to help pull him up. I looked back at Mom, who had sunk down on the stairs and was just sitting there with her head in her hands, unmoving. I hated to see her so embarrassed, and she was always so embarrassed—never enough money, aging rapidly despite all the skincare products she bought, kids who were sort of not the best at being anything but being average and manageable, thinking of herself as stupid, stupid, stupid because no one ever told her how smart she was.


I tried to do the good son thing. Put my arm around her shoulder.


“Don’t touch me, Marcus,” she said, and I knew even without seeing her face that she was crying. “Just don’t touch me.” So I left her alone. I helped Mike, limping with his newly sprained ankle, toward the car, the Frankenchine still smoking as we passed by it.


Eventually Mom showed up. She wordlessly started the car and we sat there stalling in the parking lot. There was a knock on the window. It was two of the conference people, asking Mom if she wanted the remnants of the Frankenchine that they had salvaged. Two plastic bags full of black metal. She shook her head. “No,” she said, and I tried not to look at her not looking at them from the rearview mirror. “But thank you. Thank you very much.”


***


This part is hard to talk about. This is when things get bad. She was working even harder than before, sometimes even calling out of work to come back home. We weren’t allowed inside the living room any more, after Mike bumped into it once and she  freaked out, screaming at him until he was sobbing on the floor.


After that, we grew up inside of our rooms, at school, at our friends’ homes, becoming 18, 19, 20, 21. 21 was the age I was when Mom  finally finished  it. By that time, we had both more or less developed a conscious way of forgetting that the living room existed. Mike had bumped into the couch late one night as we came back home  from getting snacks. We had both frozen, looking at each other with confusion. “I didn’t even remember  it was there,” he had whispered as we went down the narrow hallway toward our rooms, still hearing the buzzing and clanking of Mom working, “I really, really didn’t.”


But that night. That night, I had pushed through the apartment door, coming back from my girlfriend’s place after a fight about something stupid, how I had definitely been looking at that girl at the Adidas store the other day, you were looking at her ass, why don’t you look at my ass like that any more, I hate you get out, and when I dipped and came back home, my teeth clenched with anger, there was nothing but silence. Mom was usually up until 5 AM or so, working, punching things in, taking it apart, putting it back together, until she passed out and then got up again at 7 to go to work.


It didn’t make sense. I looked toward the forbidden zone. There it was, pulsing, humming, a steady rhythm of blue lights. Maybe I could just turn it off. I imagined her waking up in the morning, jostling Mike and I awake to ask us if we had done anything to it.


So I walked up to it. The screen was unlocked. Weird. I knew she must have had passcodes, two different types of security verifications, at the very least. There were six options to choose from on the menu interface. Something blurred that I couldn’t make out remained in the background.

「認知アーキテクチャ」Cognitive transference. 「自動モード」 Automatic mode. 「関係データベース」Relationship database. 「空白」Void. 「逆符号化」 Decode. 「ログ」 Log.

There was no off option. I could have just walked away. Instead, I pressed ログ。

The menu changed and suddenly, it was filled with complicated diagrams, equations, notes. I swiped through, barely looking, feeling something bloating inside of my stomach until it threatened to burst.


I wanted to check if Mom was in her room, so paranoid I even looked toward the kitchen as if Mom might have been hiding there all along. I stopped moving for a second. I could hear her, snoring. She hadn’t snored in years, ever since they had put her on Anxiolytics.


I turned back toward the machine. Flipped back to the first page of notes. Gleaned over everything from the beginning.


“Miscommunication...intuitive emotional understanding...chasm of inevitable corruption....forgotten modes of relation…imminent transactional nature of human interconnection…”


Her notes became more frenzied as I swiped through. Initial diagrams showed a small cube. The processor. You input the following: Name, date, place of birth, gender, race, relationship with the following, how long you had known them.


I swiped through, reading everything, feeling as if I were falling apart. The machine would then search all of the available data online about this person: Search history. Family background. Purchases. Social media usage. Medical and job history. Communication patterns pulled from texts and emails with other people.


The last page of the notes featured one last small addition.


Input transcripts of any conversations you had had, in person or otherwise.


She had designed something that translated other people’s emotions. Figure out what they really meant.


It was a total invasion of privacy. Very, very, very illegal. It made me feel terrified that the person sleeping in the twin-sized mattress right next door, the one who had once been so concerned about data surveillance, protecting others, who wanted to see people more unified, less broken, had become this.


I went back to the main menu, pressed on the relationship database button.

Cashier at grocery store.
Friend from grad school.
Friend from doctoral program.
Cousin (dead).
Best friend from childhood (dead).
Yasuhiro Okada. My father’s name.


I clicked on his. She had told us she was no longer in contact with him, could give less of a shit, but here was the truth laid bare. Hundreds of past entries unraveled onscreen, starting all the way back from eight years ago. The texts. Emails. Their translations. Mom had made notes in the corner, more and more frenzied as I flipped through. I didn’t want to read the messages; what was I looking for? I toggled over to just the notes section.


Lying...lying…04/08/2007
WHAT DID I EVER MEAN TO YOU??????  12/25/2008
Am I going crazy? What did I make?  2/22/2008.  
I can’t trust anonye. 04/20/2012.


I clicked back out. Looked at the entry from today, the LINE messages between her and my father.


2/8/2012

hello Read 1:30 pm

                                                hello Read 3:30 pm

how are you Read 3:30 pm
when are you coming home Read 3:35 pm
Yasuhiro? 3:45
Yasuhiro I love you 4:00
I miss you every day 5:05
did you miss me? 5:10
i’m sorry 6:25


Mirai chan, I'm sorry for not responding earlier. I was busy with work. But the answer is yes, of course. Of course I miss you, every day. I think about you all the time, even though things became what they were. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to not know what Mike and Marcus are up to now. I promise I'll visit one day soon. Eventually, maybe, we can be a family again. I love you always...always, always. Will respond more later.  11:46 PM


TRANSLATION:


MIRAI I AM SORRY I AM IN LOVE WITH MY NEW WIFE I DON’T MEAN TO HURT YOU BUT I HAVE BEEN MARRIED FOR FOUR YEARS NOW I FEEL GUILT I FEEL SADNESS I FEEL SHAME I FEEL A SENSE OF UNRAVELING AT ALL WE COULD NOT HOLD I DO NOT KNOW IF I EVER LOVED YOU BUT I THINK I LOVED WHAT WE HAD IN THE TIME WE DID DO NOT FEEL AS IF THIS WERE YOUR FAULT I AM NEVER COMING TO VISIT I WILL FORGET MARCUS I WILL FORGET MIKE IN TIME I WILL FORGET YOU



I looked at the printed out messages. I thought about my mother not looking at the men when they had asked if she wanted to take the pieces of the Frankenchine home, her blank disposition in the face of pain.


The only note she had put for this one was a smiley face. Thinking back now, I should have gone into the room. It was already 7 AM, the sun was splitting my head open, Mom would be late to work and angry, I would be a good son, I would check on her.


But instead, I went to sleep.


I woke up at 10 AM. Light was leaking through the window and then I saw Mike standing in my doorway, wearing my old soccer jersey, and the kid had tears on his face. I didn’t want to know. I turned away, facing the white wall, thinking about the different wires splintering inside my mind, the invisible wires that connected us to each other becoming frayed, split, cut open, trying to ignore Mike saying over and over again in his stupid fucking kid voice, “Mom’s dead. Mom’s dead. Mom’s dead.”


Daisuke Shen is a fiction writer. You can visit their website at www.daisukeshen.com.

Twitter: dai__joubu
Instagram: ginsengmasque


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