Seoul Station

More fiction. Because I can. And because it’s August and all of you are probably off vacationing anyway.

If you think it’s unsettling to suddenly find yourself in a strange place, with no idea how you got there, try doing it with no idea where you came from. With no sense of there having even been a before.

I don’t mean waking up groggily in an unfamiliar place after an evening of drinking. Or waking up after having been administered ether. I know those sensations.

I mean suddenly having no answer to the question, what is the last thing you remember?  Because suddenly being, fully formed, is the first thing you remember.

And for good measure, try arriving, as I did, to find yourself suspended in mid-air, and falling.

They told me later everybody experiences the leak differently, but they didn’t seem too sure about it. I didn’t learn that word till much later though.

Right at that moment, that first moment, I understood what the words instantiate and initialize meant. I had instantiated and initialized. I had materialized suddenly into fully formed existence, from non-being to being. I had faced the stark, directionless nothingness of zero time, if only for a fleeting instant.

Time, they say, is nature’s way of making sure everything doesn’t happen at once. Try nothingness happening all at once, with only a few seconds of something from which — from when? — to experience it. Not enough for time to even develop a direction. A fully formed, forty-year old mind’s worth of somethingness, with no time to sprawl out into. A big mass of somethingness suspended somewhere behind your ears and outside of time.

In space, it was a ten-foot drop from nothingness onto thin carpeting. I landed awkwardly on my left foot, twisting it sharply. The only thing good about the sudden, excruciating pain was that it made me focus strongly on the present moment. The present seconds. Since that was all I had, it felt normal to be confined within it by pain.

I think I screamed then. A twisted-ankle scream mixed with an existential-surprise scream.

Then the pain faded and somethingness began to glimmer back into the nothingness of memory, turning it into a vast emptiness for the past to start dripping into.

That was almost worse than the first moment with no past. Because what was glimmering back was somebody else’s past. Somebody else’s somethingness.

***

I had dropped into a bare room with gray walls. Thin brown carpet. No furniture. A single door to the left, in the shorter wall. Large mirror in front of me, spanning nearly the entire width of the longer wall. No windows. I looked up. High ceiling. Strange glowing white light behind what looked like several frosted glass windows. Neither lamplight, nor daylight.

There was a hoop-like contrivance, several feet across, suspended horizontally from the ceiling with steel cables, just above where I’d materialized. It looked something like a chandelier, except that it had no candles or suspended pieces of crystal. Instead, there was copper wire would tightly around the hoop. Metal plates bristled from it.

The air seemed to shimmer and dance within the hoop, like a soap bubble, and a loud hum was emanating from it. A few seconds later, the shimmering stopped. The loud humming was replaced by a lower-pitched, quieter hum, and the whole contrivance began rising slowly, until it finally receded into the ceiling. A panel quietly slid shut under it, and the humming stopped.

I noticed I was breathing hard. I screwed my eyes tight shut for a moment, focusing fiercely on my breath.

Trees. The inside of a log cabin of some sort. A rough wooden desk with paper and pens. A beach. Seagulls.

Somebody else’s memories were still dripping into nothing-time-turning-into-empty-time. I could still sense my own somethingness hanging, waiting, behind my ears. Waiting for it’s own time to flow into. Or appear around it perhaps. It too was shifting, changing shape. But I could sense nothing else about it, other than that it was there. Shifting and moving, like an invisible mass in the dark, trying to become an I.

There was no I here. Not more than a few seconds worth, at any rate, full of a painful ankle and a strange, humming chandelier.

I sat there for a moment, with my eyes closed. A bundle of somebody else’s dripping memories, an invisible somethingness behind my ears, and a few seconds of I, growing into minutes. And emptiness. A great deal of emptiness forming out of nothingness, around his memories. Or was it her memories?

I couldn’t tell. Or, I suppose, we couldn’t tell, since I couldn’t be sure I was all there was. I looked at my hands. Those seemed to be my own at least. They did not seem alien.

***

When I opened my eyes again, I was breathing normally again. I was several minutes old, I suppose, and feeling much better.

There were now two men in the room. I had not heard them enter. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked at them. They looked Chinese. Or Japanese.

One in a white coat, draped a thin blanket over me. I hadn’t noticed that I had no clothes on. He knelt besides me and peered at my ankle. The other was smiling brightly and reassuringly at me.

“English…?” he said, looking doubtful.

I nodded.

“We apologize. That was a big spatial drop. Not normal at this merge point. The floor… it has no padding besides the carpet. But don’t worry. Your leak insurance will cover it. Now can I see your thumb please…”

“Insurance…?”

“Don’t worry, you’re disoriented. They’ll explain it all later.”

He grabbed my hand and pressed my thumb against what looked like a block of glass.

“You will feel a slight prick,” he said, and deftly pricked the tip of a finger with a pin before I could respond, drawing some blood. Before I could respond, he had squeezed a few drops onto a glass slide.”

“I am Hong Chong-Yol, your insurance agent, and this is Dr. Jeong,” he said. He finished preparing the slide, put it away carefully, and headed towards the door. “We will talk more later.”

The doctor looked up at me and said, “One more prick. Sorry.”

This time it was in my ankle. Some sort of analgesic. The pain subsided immediately.

The doctor leaned back, resting on his elbows.

“Memory coming back?”

“It isn’t mine.”

That clearly wasn’t what he expected.

“Uhh…not yours? You’re feeling disconnected? Light-headed?”

“No, my head feels fine. These are somebody else’s memories.”

He looked at me silently for a moment, then pulled out a small case from his bag, opened it, and began laying out its contents.

“I need to run a routine test.  Could you name these items for me please?”

I looked at the things he’d laid out on the carpet.

“Fountain pen, candle, comb, screw, watch, apple, pills,… I don’t know what those other things are, some sort of glass ball, and some sort of flat metal box with a glass top?”

He recorded my answers on a small pad, then looked at me thoughtfully for a moment.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

When he returned, he had a larger case with him. “Same test. Let’s just do a few more, to be sure.”

This time, he showed me the items one at a time, recording my responses silently. I must have identified about two thirds of the several dozen items he showed me.

When he stopped and began putting his things away, I finally asked, “Where am I? What happened?”

He seemed to have been expecting the questions. He felt around in his jacket pockets, pulled out a card from one of them, and read it out aloud.

“You have been in a kind of accident. You have arrived here from another,  simpler world through an event called an abstraction leak, so things will seem confusing for a while. You are being taken care of. You are safe, this is not your fault, and you are not in trouble.  You are still on Earth, but not the Earth you know. That will be explained to you later. You are currently at the Soul Station and we are working to get you oriented and home.”

He paused and looked up.

“Do you understand me? Are there are any words you do not understand?”

“Soul Station? Am I dead? Is this the afterlife? What do you mean simpler world?”

“See-ool…S-E-O-U-L. It is a city on this Earth, in a country called Korea, which you may or may not have had on the Earth you came from. Seoul Station is one of seven places where people like you arrive. And no, you are not dead.”

He paused.

“By international law that is all I am allowed to tell you for the moment, for your own safety. So I cannot answer your last question yet.”

He reached into his bag, took out a bottle of water and a square piece of folded paper tissue, on which he carefully placed two  purple pills.

“You should sleep. Helps recovery after the leak. Those pills will help you sleep, but you do not have to take them unless you want to. Only water for now, sorry. You have to wait a few hours for food.”

With that, Dr. Jeong put away his equipment, got up, and headed to the door.

At the door, he paused, and look back with a smile.

“Don’t worry,” he said.  “We have a dozen people like you arriving every day. You are in good hands…And welcome back to reality.”

***

When I woke up again – several hours worth of now – I was in a different room, on a couch.

Hong Chong-Yol and a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman in a khaki uniform were standing at the far end of the room, both clearly agitated. She seemed to be African. A second woman was seated in a chair at a table near me, staring at a glowing, glassy slab. She was small, slender and looked…Korean too I suppose.

I learned later that they called it a tablet.

Hong was speaking.

“… so what I am telling you is that we cannot cover processing costs without a conclusive identification. I understand that you have a timeline for the intake procedure, but I am sorry.”

“The biometrics have been classified to within a 3% population segment, how much more precision do you need!”

“But his world memory hash does not match any of the known forks within the biometric segment! I would like to help, but the coverage terms are the same for all the companies. You need both a precision biometric match and a hash matching at least one and no more than 3 candidate forks. They won’t process the claim otherwise.”

“So what do you suggest? We cannot proceed without an insurance authorization.”

“Maybe you should ask Dr. Jeong to run the test again.”

“We will, but if the results come back the same, what about the group insurance? You must have processed leak claims for diaspora groups in his segment before?”

“We don’t know that he will even classify into any existing diaspora group yet. Less than half of the leaker population has formally organized into groups anyway.”

“But…”

“And anyway, that can only provide supplemental coverage, and only after he’s been pluralized and reintroduced into general population. Unless you want to assign refugee status upfront.”

“You know we don’t have the budget for that. The fork collapse at Cairo Station created several thousand leaks in just a few days last month. We used up all our refugee funds for the year. And they still have a thousand leakers waiting for processing there.”

“I am sorry, I wish I could help. How much longer do you need me to stay here? I have three other cases to process today.”

The second woman looked up.

“I ran a global search. There’s a bigger problem. His world memory hash does not match any known fork. Within his biometric segment or outside.”

The woman in khaki looked annoyed.

“Clearly, there’s some sort of data corruption issue there. Keep looking. At least we have a biometric segment match…maybe we can just merge him back to the closest stable fork on record. You or somebody else in engineering can figure out the issue later.”

“Mergebacks don’t work that way.  If we don’t have an individual world memory hash, we can’t merge him back. It would be like sending a letter to Santa Claus at the South Pole.”

“Fine. We keep him here. He looks peaceful enough, so he’ll probably want to pluralize anyway. So  long as we can sort out this insurance mess, shouldn’t be a problem,” said the woman in khaki.

“Umm…that doesn’t work either…it is technical, but if we put him through pluralization without a proper mergeback path, and he doesn’t want to pluralize and merge into trunk, there is a small chance we may end up with an unresolvable merge conflict that will choke up the whole system. Would take weeks to repair if that happened, and we already have a backlog of leakers to process.”

Hong brightened up visibly.

“So the insurance issue is not relevant. You cannot pluralize and merge him into trunk here, and you cannot merge him back to his fork, so there is nothing yet to pay for, or a proper leak claim here to process.”

The woman in khaki opened her mouth, then shut it again, scowling.

“I am sorry. Please call me when you figure it out, and I will try to help if I can.”

Hong hurried out of the room before the two women could respond, bowing and whispering an apologetic, “I’m sorry,” at me on his way out.

The two women looked at each other, then rose and followed him out,  without looking at me.

I found myself alone, and suddenly noticed that I was very hungry.

A few minutes later, Dr. Jeong entered, pushing a small cart with several rugged-looking black boxes on it. I knew I had seen boxes like that before, but could not remember words for them. They were made of neither wood, nor metal.

Plastic. The word popped into my mind. His word. Or hers. Not mine. He or she had seen boxes like that before, not me.

He had a tablet in his hand. Another word popped unbidden into my mind. Electricity. I looked up at the glowing frosted glass window in the ceiling. That too had something to do with electricity. 

***

The tests had taken an hour, and I was now tired, but Dr. Jeong had finally let me have some food. A bowl of fruit and nuts.

The two women had rejoined us. Dr. Jeong had pushed his cart of boxes to the corner.

He and the woman in khaki were now sitting at the table near my couch, along with the engineer.  The woman in khaki was looking at a tablet, just like the engineer’s. The engineer was tapping and swiping her tablet with a finger.

The woman in khaki looked up at me, unsmiling, but not unfriendly.

“I am UN Deputy Commissioner Chukwu, in charge of Seoul Station. We apologize for the delay in processing your arrival. Please continue your meal while I speak with Dr. Jeong.”

She turned to the doctor. I was getting used to people acting like I wasn’t in the room.  I looked down at my bowl and ate another spoonful of food.

“You re-ran the tests?”

He nodded and said, “Same results.  I also ran the continuity tests with the scanner. Just to confirm, you said we can cover those with our internal budget, without waiting for the insurance?”

That must have been the strange metal hat he’d put on me while we talked. It too had hummed, like the chandelier in the first room.

“Yes. I am not entirely without resources yet,” she said wryly. “What did you learn…?”

“He’s tessellating memories normally from the leak point onwards, and recognizing new elements at the normal rate. But his fork memories seem to be…unusual.”

I’d told him all about the log cabin, the trees, the beach. Reliving Somebody Else’s Memories while wearing a strange metal hat.  It had come out all jumbled, and I’d had no words for many of the things.

The doctor darted a quick, doubtful glance at me.

“Unusual in what way?” asked Commissioner Chukwu.

“They are barely tessellating at all”

“That happens sometimes, no? Slow recovery?”

“Normally, when the tessellation is slow, the resurgence is slow as well. Fork memories flood in at about the same rate the tessellation organizes them. In his case, they are flooding in much faster than the tessellation can keep up. In fact they are the fastest I’ve ever seen. He is already at 16%. If he continues at that rate, he’ll be at 75% trunk complexity within a day.”

That seemed to make the Commissioner unhappy.

“We usually start the pluralization at 45%, correct? Does that mean we cannot wait the normal three days before beginning the first reconditioning cycle? I was hoping to use that time to figure out the insurance situation.”

“Correct. We will have to start within a few hours. There can be instability problems if we wait longer. If he decides to merge into trunk, there will be terminal instability if we wait too long.”

I’d tried drawing his — or her — memories for the doctor.  But it was mostly a jumble of doodles. Except for the one leaf I’d been able to draw down to the last vein. And the one knot on the wooden desk, which I had also been able to draw in extreme detail. The drawing had been much easier than describing the returning memories with words. I was missing many words.  The drawings surprised me. I didn’t know I could draw, but they seemed… like mine somehow. Not Somebody Else’s. I had not told the doctor that. I am not sure why.

“So why is he not more disoriented or anomic then? Shouldn’t he be throwing up?”

She turned to look at me and offered a small smile.

“With a haircut, a bath and a shave, you wouldn’t know he wasn’t pluralized,” she said, and turned back to the doctor.

“He still insists his fork memories are not his, and that he does not have a name for himself. Possibly dissociation effects, though I’ve never seen them present this way, with such poorly correlated cohering verbal and visual memories.”

“What then?

“I don’t know. If it’s dissociation, once we start reconditioning and overriding the fork memory with trunk, he will possibly have a more severe reaction. Unpleasant for him, but should make the dissociation go away. If it is not dissociation, I have no idea how he will react to reconditioning.”

“That’s assuming we can figure out how to even put him into pluralization without the standard protocol or insurance coverage.”

The engineer looked up from her tablet again.

“I am not sure we can do that, Commissioner. This is not like overriding paperwork. It’s more like trying to fly an airplane without wings.”

Airplane. Another word he or she seemed to know, though it conjured up no image. They were starting to pile up.

“So what are our options?”

The engineer looked at the other two and shrugged.

“Start the first reconditioning cycle. If he stabilizes under 45%, put him into the pluralization. Break him out as an incomplete if he stalls, before he causes a traffic jam. Release him anyway, hope for the best.”

The Commissioner laughed. “Release him without pluralization? That would take a UN Security Council decision.”

“Unless we can figure out how to merge him back. Or where to merge him back, to be precise.”

“Any sign of violence in the fork ideology? What are the chances of the pluralization working all the way down to trunk?”

The two women looked at the doctor, then all three looked at me.

The doctor looked back at the others and said, “There’s no way to tell. That’s the whole reason for the pluralization process. It works without us having to interpret the fork memories.”

“Humor me.”

The doctor shrugged and said, “He hasn’t displayed any violent tendencies so far, and his fork memory seems to indicate a fairly benign possible world.  Trees, nature, that sort of thing. Some sort of pastoral Walden-like fork, though with some odd inconsistencies and anachronisms. If I had to guess, I’d say the original fork was some sort of back-to-nature movement that is now in an advanced state of decoherence. Maybe somehow cross-contaminated with another fork. Maybe there is a missing disambiguation record somewhere.”

The engineer interrupted, “We’ve been misled before by that sort of thing before. That’s why we only use the therapy narrative to track tessellation progress. We cannot conclude anything about the ideology from the…story.”

The Commissioner turned to the engineer.

“If we risk going past the 45% threshold on the fork memory, can we get a better world memory hash to target the merge-back with?”

The engineer shook her head.

“I am sorry, but no.  Without sufficient tessellation levels, the hash gets less reliable with more memories. And without an original fork record to initialize the targeting, it will basically be pure dead-reckoning from nowhere to nowhere.”

The engineer seemed to be struggling to explain.

“How can I put it. It will be like looking up a word in a random dictionary, using  only two middle letters, and with no idea what language the word is from. Worse actually. You’d only be able to open the random dictionary once, at some random page. If a match for the word isn’t there, there is nothing more you can do.”

“Maybe we should do that anyway. Leaks are random and people seem to make it safely here. Maybe all we need is enough of an energy gradient across the membrane, and he will sort of leak backwards. From more complex world to some simpler world. Even if not his own.”

“The membrane will probably not even stabilize long enough for him to completely pass through….and… it is not really right to play roulette like that, is it?”

The Commissioner leaned back with a sigh, closed her eyes, and went silent for a minute. The doctor, the engineer and I waited expectantly, looking at her.

Finally she opened her eyes, swiveled to face me, and leaned forward on the desk.

“Well sir, Dr. Jeong has already read to you the standard welcome message here at Seoul Station. But let me try and explain your situation a little more, even though this is more than I would normally be allowed to tell you at this stage. You were once from this world, until you, or one of your ancestors, chose to leave for another world through something we call a fork. Now you are accidentally back here again due to an accident called an abstraction leak, as Dr Jeong already explained. Do you follow?”

I didn’t, but I nodded anyway.

“Now, your mind does not seem to remember a name from your past from while you were away. And it seems you do not believe that past is even yours. This is making us hard to figure out when you left, where you went and where you have come back from. Are you still following?”

I nodded again. She seemed dubious, but continued.

“We recognize some things from your body about who you were before you… left this world…, and we may be able to find some of your kin. And they may or may not be willing to help you. We do not know enough to identify who you or your ancestors were.”

She finished and looked quietly at me. I nodded again.

“Well, looks like this could take a while, and you don’t know your name, and neither do we, but I think we have to call you something. So what would you like to be called?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Dr. Jeong smiled tiredly at me and said, “He’s a lost soul caught between worlds, with possibly the wrong mind or the wrong body, or both. And he leaked through here at Seoul Station. So…”

The engineer looked at me directly for the first time, and smiled.

“Hello, Soul,” she said. “I am Chong Bo-Hee. Welcome back to reality.”

Commissioner Chukwu looked at me. She was not smiling.

“Not quite back to reality yet,” she said. “But welcome…to wherever you are.”

To be continued.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. This is really good stuff Venkat. I’ve read over 50 sci-fi books (currently on a mission to read the top 100 of all time), and your writing strikes me as compelling. Just the right mix of subtlety, clarity, and mystery.

  2. Marc Hamann says:

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    Being a git user really messes with your mind… ;-)

  3. These stories are perfectly calculated texture-shades of Gibson!

  4. I like this. Suspense happens when the reader knows more than the character, and this character essentially knows nothing.

    You do very well at the art of exposition without exposition.

    More, please.