The Heirloom Lounge

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Fiction

A short story. A sci-fi short story. A kitchen-sink sci-fi short story. You’ve been warned.

The flight had been delayed for another hour and my glasses had just been bricked by yet another update. Plus the rim was cracked from when I’d sat on it earlier. There was a printing and service station at the other end of the terminal, but I didn’t feel like leaving the lounge and weaving through the crowds of uncannies to get it fixed, just so I could read. So I sipped the free coffee, fiddled with the glasses, and looked around idly.

The SeaTac heirloom lounge had been renovated since my last trip. There was now fake wood paneling. The snack selection was more varied, but cheaper. No more fresh fruit. Worst of all, sections of the opaque corridor-side walls had been replaced with floor-to-ceiling etched glass sections. You could see passersby peering in through the gaps in the etching.

Well, I had nothing to hide, let them watch. At least I didn’t have to see bits and pieces of the uncannies if I sat facing the back wall.

The older man across from me was pretending to read a magazine, but he seemed bored and annoyed by the delay too. We were the only ones in the heirloom lounge. He tossed his magazine aside.  I glanced surreptitiously at it. Real paper. Letterpress. What looked like hand-stitched binding. Nice.

He looked me over with a benign, patrician air.  Sixty or seventy, I guessed. Not much anon there.

His eyes rested for a moment on my hat, making me wish I’d worn my other hat. The one not emblazoned with the chain logo, and without transcranial leads showing under the fraying band. But I needed to do some thinking on this flight, and the older hats still worked better than the cheap new ones.

He seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he spoke.

“So, what do you do, sir?”

“I am in construction.”

“I see. What kind?”

“Mostly legacy objects, some functional work.”

“Well,” he said with a kindly look, “it’s good, steady middle-class work for young people like you.”

I laughed. “Not so young. What about you? What line of work are you in?”

He flushed slightly, looking at once somewhat embarrassed and offended.

Then, with a self-deprecatory shrug, he said, “well, I come from family, so…”

“Oh, I am so sorry, don’t often run into family types on commercial flights. Honored, really…,” I said hastily.

He offered a graceful shrug, “Magnetic storm forecasts. I am a bit sensitive, plus they’ve grounded all private suborbitals for a couple of days anyway. But I am in no particular hurry. And atmospheric flights give me time to think…. I see you’re planning to do some thinking too?” He nodded towards my hat.

I knew he’d noticed it. I took it off somewhat self-consciously and put my useless glasses into it.

“I try not to use it for more than a few minutes every hour, but you know how it goes. You get older, you need the boost to get the work done…us working types can’t always choose to work natural.”

He must have sensed the momentary awkwardness, because he steered the conversation back to less sensitive matters with practiced ease.

“I do work. Only for friends and family of course – mostly hand-made wood furniture, non-printed pottery, that sort of thing. Old-fashioned I suppose. Most of the newer families have given up even the old Sunday-morning four-hour work rituals. But my great-grandfather still thinks it’s up to us to keep the doerist traditions alive. He genuinely believes in the spiritual value, and I think I do too. He even puts in an hour or two himself every week, though he’s pushing 140 now.”

“You gotta give it to those old guys,” I said admiringly. I am no class snob, but the oldest family types, there’s definitely something about them, and I have no problem admitting it, unlike some.

“He certainly expects all of us to show up every Sunday. He claims his great-grandfather was actually one of the original lifestylers out of Thailand. Of course, all the old patriarchs like to claim that, so we don’t take him too seriously. And half my younger cousins just laugh at him and don’t even bother pretending on Sundays.”

I suppose he thought he was putting me at ease with his family-deprecation. I was impressed nevertheless. Old coin and breeding always shine through.

He maneuvered the conversation back to me.

“What about you. Do you know much about your nymity?”

The service drone had discreetly hovered up to top up my coffee, so that gave me a moment to think up an appropriately deferential response to what was clearly just a polite question.

“Gracious of you to ask. Mostly pseudon and crypton, I’m afraid. A small amount of anon. Solid middle-class with no realnym in my genome past the 2120s, but I like to think family values are for all humans.”

He sighed reflectively, and said, “Sometimes I wish for that. Obscures think family makes things easy, but mostly you just can’t get away from your past. Ultimately, having old coin and not having to work is not worth as much as you might think…I suppose you’re a local?”

I stiffened slightly, but then relaxed. You couldn’t blame older family people for not realizing that we nymists considered the o-word offensive these days. And from the family perspective, you have to admit the word makes sense. An obscure genome is just not the same as a real genealogy, with real names, and history-lines going back to Facebook, whatever the progressives say.

So I ignored the aside and answered his question.

“Yup, tropical heirloom varietal farmed right here in the Seattle zone, at the Elliot Bay Growers Coop. From back when that provenance meant something and they still used organic wombs. They switched to synthetic poly-wombs a decade or so ago…”


“Oh, that’s what they call the newer stuff, though I guess it isn’t really new anymore. Nanopolymer tachyontogenic wombs I think is what the brochures call it. With the right GMO mods, cuts gestation time to three months, amplifies neoteny and accelerates maturation by a factor of two. And in my opinion, it shows. I guess you family types don’t really keep up with humtech…”

He waved away the thought. “No, I really should keep up more, after all obscures are the future…but you were saying?”

I flinched. One thing to decide to ignore the o-word, quite another to not react.

“I was already a teenager by then, thankfully. The local kids still look like heirloom varietals, but you can just sense they aren’t. Even with the genomic dither they’re adding these days, they look just a little too close to perfect. We call ’em uncannies around here. There’s more of them every year. You can usually guess when someone is non-heirloom, but you have to look up provenance certificates to figure out the actual GMO fraction.”

“Don’t non-heirlooms have to wear provenance collars?” He looked slightly shocked.

“Not in the Seattle zone,” I said, enjoying his shock. “And you can’t even request provenance certificates for small-coin contracts. If it were up to me, I’d only contract with heirlooms, but that gets too expensive. … And you know what the kicker is?”

“What?” He looked dazed.

“It’s now illegal to even ask about species fraction breakdowns during interviews, at least in the Seattle Zone. And the provenance certificates only have to report the aggregate GMO fraction. So basically all you can find out without a court order is the non-heirloom fraction, not the breakdown. I consider myself progressive, and some of my best friends are more than half-anon, but I draw the line at fraternizing with non-heirlooms outside of work. They may test well and do good work, maybe even better than us heirlooms as some of the politicians claim, but that doesn’t mean I have to go drink beers with them after work.”

“Wow! I had no idea the Seattle zone was so liberal. I don’t get out here much.”

“They’re even trying to redefine heirloom in maximum-GMO percentage terms rather than absolute fingerprinting,” I said, a little red in the face and worked up now. I suppose I was ranting a little by now, but I didn’t care. I continued. “If we get on that slippery slope, we might as well give up. Pretty soon, I suppose they’ll even be shutting down heirloom lounges in public places.”

“Genome liberals.”  He shook his head sadly.

I couldn’t hide a small smile of amusement. Good thing I hadn’t taken offense at him using the o-word.

“We just call them glibs these days. They’re all over the place here in the Seattle zone.”

He leaned back with a resigned shrug and a faint smile, and said nothing.

I continued, “Yeah, the glibs are probably going to win the by-elections next month and try to amend the zone charter to declassify heirloom altogether. If that happens, I am just moving back to the Boston zone. Human values, they still count for something back there. At least one zone in the Americas has had the courage to just say no to non-heirloom workers, even if it means the bigger blockchains stay away.”

He shook his head ruefully. “I guess we’re both old-fashioned. But in a way, I wonder if it really matters. Once a zone goes non-heirloom, does it really make a difference whether they’re splicing in biometric hash mods or pig strands for cancer resistance? Us humans can’t live there anymore.”

His gaze drifted to the etched glass panels and the faces peering in. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

I nodded at him. Good breeding is really about instinctively knowing where to draw the line around human. It’s only the secure ones, the ones who know where they came from, who fight the good fight. The so-called family types out there who won’t even speak to heirlooms, the ones who use the o-word as a slur — they’re usually the ones hiding GMO and cross-species ancestries behind genome privacy laws in places like Switzerland.

I might not be from family, but I have nothing to hide.

I can see the fear in their faces when I tell them my provenance certificate is public. They know I know.

He looked away from the glass and back at me, with a slight look of disgust on his face. Maybe next time he’d remember to sit with his back to the etched glass.

“My great-grandfather insists on only investing the family trust in heirloom-labor blockchains. That’s the only ethical thing to do I think. I don’t know how long he’ll continue to get his way though.”

“Why? Last I heard, green chains were outperforming the index, weren’t they? I’d stick to only working for those if I could, but you have to take what you can get in the construction business these days.”

“He is a fighter, but he has maybe a year or two left at best. Once he goes, my younger cousins will have enough consensus to control the family fund. And like I said, they don’t have much use for family tradition or human values. My wife — she’s active in genomic pollution issues — she won’t even speak to most of them. We are considering forcing a fork in the family fund while there is still time. I think the old man knows it has to be done.”

I nodded sympathetically. I’d encountered some of those degenerate family types in some of the bigger construction projects. In public statements, they are all for family values, green blockchain investments and heirloom genome preservation. Dig into the family books, and you invariably discover that the sub-orbitals and Pacific seasteads are all paid for with hidden dirtcoin. You see chain empires built on uncanny labor and reverse discrimination against heirlooms and families.

You see some ugly things in the construction business.

I glanced towards the back of the lounge. The  first boarding call was flashing gently on the wall. Time to wade through the crowds of uncannies. The things we have to do for coin. I rose.

“Well, it’s been a real pleasure. Looks likes we’ll be boarding soon, so I’d better hit the restroom.”

He smiled, rose as well, and extended his hand.

“I guess that’s one thing I don’t miss about being a bio-complete. Going to the restroom.”

I froze and stared. First at his face, then at his hand. How had I missed the thin, purple bracelet?

What was purple? Like 40% bionic? Why hadn’t they posted an alert about relaxed access requirements for the heirloom lounge? I wouldn’t have paid for my pass if I’d known.

His face — its face — had frozen too, in an uncomfortable non-smile. At 40% that was probably a fucking robot face. Come to think of it, the…thing…had seemed a little uncanny when we started talking. I should trust my instincts more.

And so I walked away, leaving it standing there with its hand outstretched. Family or not, human values come first. And I was going to get a refund for my heirloom lounge pass.  And move to Boston.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Well I enjoyed that. Perhaps a little too much buzzword bingo, but it did make me chuckle.

  2. Pared back a bit would be a perfect “twilight zone” episode.

    Thumbs up.

  3. After all the talk about genome varietals, I was caught completely off-guard by the ending. Left me smiling :)

    • Well, I tried to foreshadow a bit with the hat stuff and the drone… but I guess it wasn’t enough. Am not actually a fan of true blindside twist endings… gotta give readers a fighting chance of guessing.

      Glad you found it amusing though.

      • Don’t read too much into it. I’m *always* caught off guard by twist endings. (But they don’t always amuse me so much.)

  4. A recurring theme in your work: people will use ANYTHING as a proxy in their struggle for status.
    Whatever it is, the Clueless will believe in it, the Losers will define themselves in rejection of it, and the Sociopaths will merely understand and use it.

    • Can’t deny that :) I find it fascinating how little most people care about the fascinating things in the world around them. They just want to turn whatever is around them into status currency of some sort.

      • From thinking about your work and my own observations, I’ve come to the conclusion that status-seeking behaviour is simply one of the core attributes of human nature, as befits a social ape.

        This is made more interesting by how many of us will vigorously deny that we do it if pressed. ;-)

        Peer-pressure, keeping up with Joneses, etc. is always something that OTHER (inferior status) people do.

  5. Great story. For a debut short story this is right up there with some of the best. Reminds me of Ray Bradbury in style.

    I especially like using cloning as a metaphor for “they all look the same to me”.

  6. Fun little yarn though imagine this sort of thing might happen well before the 22nd century. Cheers

  7. You really created a believable universe and possible future in just a few lines of writing. That really drew me in. Good use of the GMO/heirloom debate in food extrapolated into human class issues.