The Retiree

The media storm the publicists had been bracing for never occurred. There was no damage to control. The attention they had been instructed to deflect from the Baikal Trust never materialized.

And it was not because Ozy Khan was the thirty-seventh billionaire to launch himself boringly into space, in a space mansion of his own design. The thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth billionaires to do so, after all, had endured nearly as much press, both hostile and adulatory, as the first few had, decades earlier. The public, it seemed, never lost its appetite for the spectacle of great wealth ascending to extra-terrestrial heights. And the billionaires too, had perfected the art of image management in space. There had already been at least three short-lived, but successful reality shows from orbiting mansions.

Nor could the lack of a media storm be attributed to Ozy Khan being an obscure Central Asian oligarch rather than a prominent American or Chinese one. More obscure billionaires had managed to inspire large spikes of interest by ascending to vacations in luridly ostentatious space mansions, and been rewarded with notoriety around the world for their extended departures from it. A space mansion was a reliable ticket onto the center stage of global affairs.

Space after all, as one much-quoted wag had remarked in the 2020s, was the new Davos.

Even the fact that Ozy Khan would not be coming back was not without precedent. The seventh and eleventh billionaires, each terminally ill and with less than a year to live, had both launched themselves on one way trips into space with much funereal solemnity. Both had duly died in space with cosmic gravitas, and been forgotten. Only old people made hope-he-doesn’t-come-back jokes anymore.

Perhaps the lack of drama could be attributed, one commentator suggested, to the fact that Khan had been such a dull presence on earth, it was was hard to craft a story around his departure from it. His sprawling renewables and sequestration technologies empire lacked charisma. It embodied no daring technological vision, only powerful political connections, a lot of imitation and luck, and plodding, sound financial management. His official biography offered little of interest to the story-minded. His career suggested no more than the usual amount of tedious politicking, grift, and geopolitical murkiness.

There really was very little to say about Ozy Khan’s time on earth before he decided to leave it.

As per the instructions Khan left for his publicists, only the sparsest details were released. This was not unusual. His thirty-six predecessors had been an approximately balanced mix of reclusive and attention-seeking.

He had designed much of the Baikal himself, the press release revealed, personally making all but the most technical of engineering decisions. It had been automatically assembled in orbit out of three modules — engineering and propulsion, biosphere, and life-support — that had been launched separately over the course of the previous year. Each module had maxed out the fairing capacity of the FVB-VII Heavy launcher. Fully assembled, the Baikal was an ungainly structure about 70m long. Khan would live in a life-support module about the size of an RV. His trip to it had been aboard a leased commercial crew shuttle. Two engineers had accompanied him to get the Baikal ready for its mission, and had already returned to earth. No, they would not be speaking to the press. Yes, a few pictures taken from the crew module would be released shortly.

Yes, the earlier announcements that the Baikal was a LEO research space station had been a routine misdirect for security purposes; it was actually designed for a long, one-way, singly-crewed, interplanetary mission. Yes, there was a cryogenic module designed for a single three-year freeze; it would be up to Mr. Khan to decide if and when to use it. No, he was not terminally ill, but at 75 years of age at the time of launch, he neither expected, nor wanted, to return. Yes, his long-estranged family had been provided for, but was not otherwise involved in the decision or mission. No, details of the life-support system would not be released at this time. Yes, the Baikal had been designed for rotation, which would provide Mr. Khan with a very modest amount of artificial gravity. Yes, it was powered by a conventional radio-isotope thermoelectric generator. Yes, it was fully autonomous, but Mr. Khan had trained extensively to manage it as well.

Besides the one detail that a Saturn flyby was planned, no other details of the mission profile were released. Mr Khan, the press release suggested, might share more details as the voyage progressed.

By the time anyone thought to ask better questions, the Baikal had left LEO. Only a recorded goodbye message was released.

***

Nobody thought to look very closely into the Baikal Trust at the time. Ozy Khan’s vast holdings, worth an estimated 54 billion dollars at the time, had been consolidated into a single trust, with the trustees authorized to vote on his behalf at board meetings via board representatives. It was also authorized to oversee the launches of four planned high-speed resupply intercept missions over the next year. That excited some interest. The billionaire had arranged for care packages to be sent to him! The manifests were leaked and, rather disappointingly, turned out to be exactly as boring as expected — spare parts for the Baikal, biologicals, volatiles, minor sentimental items.

One financial analyst noted a curious provision in the design of the Trust — Khan had arranged for a specially commissioned AI, the Baikal Decision-Support Concierge, or BDC, trained on fifty years of his own decision logs, to make corporate governance decisions on his behalf. It was legally registered under the appropriate artificial agency laws in multiple jurisdictions around the world.

That was not the curious part. The practice of commissioning and deploying advisory AIs had, after all, become something of a vanity tradition among the very wealthy in the previous decade. Hundreds of AIs now attended board meetings, channeling influence from beyond high-net-worth graves, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

No, what was curious was that Khan’s AI, as the representative of a living individual, had the authority to make legally binding decisions, so long as Khan was alive in space. So long as proof-of-life telemetry from the Baikal showed that Khan was alive, the board of trustees would be required to abide by the decisions of the BDC. Under certain conditions, the decisions of the BDC could be stayed for as long as it took to get a private-key-signed confirmation from Khan himself, but unlike typical afterlife AIs, the recommendations of the BDC — decisions really — could not legally be ignored by the board of trustees. In most cases, the decisions would trigger automated execution actions via trading algorithms.

Even if Khan chose to activate the three-year cryofreeze aboard the Baikal — a period seemingly carefully chosen to defend against hostile legal-death declarations in courts around the world — it would take a full consensus vote by the 16-person board of trustees to overrule the BDC’s decisions.

And Khan had chosen his trustees well, enmeshing them in a murky web of incentives and entanglements. There was little chance of them colluding to wrest control of his empire once he was safely several light-minutes away.

***

Starting soon after the Baikal left low-earth orbit, the media tried half-heartedly to get a deeper look into the life of the reclusive billionaire speeding away from earth, but with no luck.

Khan granted no interviews, and responded to no public queries, but neither did he maintain a cryptic, monastic silence and journey star-wards in solitude.

What he did was stay marginally visible without supplying any story-worthy fodder to those who tried to follow his journey. He communicated just enough to dispel any air of mystery, but not enough for anyone to form anything like a clear picture of his solitary life aboard the Baikal.

For the first three years, beyond the occasional selfie, a trickle of unimpressive photographs through portholes, and an annual short, banal, video New Year’s greeting to “fellow humans,” Khan’s life in space generated nothing interesting. Several space-based billionaires much closer to earth, in their LEO mansions, supplied vastly more entertainment.

Khan’s dispatches were about as interesting as emails from an elderly relative in a retirement home. Even the Baikal’s quick flyby of Mars produced no more than a few remarkably unimpressive photographs.

After the third year, updates grew even duller and more infrequent. Yes, Khan was alive and healthy. Yes, the algal biosphere systems was functioning as designed, keeping him well-nourished. No, he was not yet considering using the cryofreeze. Yes, the first resupply module intercept, just past the asteroid belt, had gone as planned. Yes, he was fully lucid and mentally healthy.

The world gradually lost interest in the strangely uneventful story of the billionaire who had retired to space. A ripple of renewed interest appeared during the Baikal’s Saturn flyby, in the seventh year of the voyage, and subsided quickly. The trust publicly released a single smiling selfie Khan had transmitted, with the ringed planet partly visible through the porthole behind him. He appeared a little leaner, a little older, but otherwise unchanged. Hello from Saturn, it is a truly beautiful sight, his audio dispatch said.

Between the seventh and tenth years, updates from the Baikal slowed to a trickle. It was just out there, speeding away from the Earth, taking its sole occupant, now 85 years old, deeper and deeper into space.

***

Through the ten years, the Baikal Trust had functioned as it had been designed to. The BDC made its decisions, the trustees routinely rubber-stamped them when required to, and the Khan empire of holdings continued to chug along. Trading algorithms supervised by the BDC — entirely uninspired, ordinary ones, as best as the analysts could tell — chugged along as well, gradually rebalancing the vast Khan portfolio in reasonable ways, divesting and acquiring assets, planning and paying taxes in various jurisdictions, and dutifully issuing automated disclosures as required by the hodgepodge of international laws it was subject to.

Twelve times in ten years, the board voted to refer a BDC decision to Khan for confirmation, and each time the legally binding response, duly signed with Khan’s private key, came back as promptly as the speed of light would allow — BDC decision confirmed.

And none of the decisions were particularly strange. The BDC, it seemed, was an extremely boring and conservative corporate decision-maker, much as Khan himself had been known to be. The board appeared to be triggering the occasional confirmation referral primarily to manage public perceptions, and signal that they were governing responsibly as the distant billionaire’s AI-supervised representatives on Earth.

***

In the eleventh year of the mission, the BDC made its 12,448th decision, prompting an immediate, panicked vote by the board to send what would be the thirteenth and final confirmation referral to the Baikal, now 326 round-trip minutes away by radio.

And as on the twelve previous occasions, the response was received, duly signed, BDC decision confirmed.

A second message followed approximately six hours later.

Cryofreeze initiated.

***

The 12,448th decision was actually a bundle of a dozen trades, each of which had already been primed for execution, and a set of orders designed to dissolve the Baikal Trust. All assets controlled by the trust were to be liquidated and converted into a diversified mix of fiat and crypto assets, according to a set, rapid schedule, over just two weeks. The bulk of the proceeds were to be divided among 34 medium-sized solar geo-engineering firms around the world, operating out of a a total of 19 jurisdictions.

None were in jurisdictions where any terraforming moratorium agreements had been ratified.

Each firm had already received the same sealed instructions — scale and deploy all available albedo alteration capabilities, as rapidly as possible, until all funds were exhausted.

The rest of the liquidated funds flowed towards a dozen law firms around the world, each of which received authorizations to represent the geo-engineering firms. Funding also flowed, in the form of large research grants, to several dozen academic geo-engineering researchers at various universities.

The money was in motion, and in the bank accounts of the targeted firms, individuals, and universities, before the media became aware of anything happening. The BDC shut down first the Trust, then itself, before the board knew quite what had hit it.

A phalanx of legal defenses, with allied academic expertise, was up and operational before aghast unions of concerned scientists, politicians of various stripes, and international organizations, could begin to organize a concerted challenge.

The first of the stratosphere aerosol injection flights took off before the first challenge was heard in a courtroom.

A hundred times as much albedo-alteration aerosol was injected into the stratosphere over the following month than had been injected in the entire previous two decades of cautious experimentation. Almost overnight, solar geo-engineering went from an ignorable fraction of global climate action budgets to dominating them.

The temperature dropped measurably before the first adverse decision in the courts forced one firm to cease operations, and yield control of the Baikal Trust funds to a court-appointed custodian.

When it was all over, researchers estimated, nearly 88% of Ozy Khan’s vast fortune had ended up where he had intended: as tiny aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere, lending, as one sympathetic journalist noted poetically, an “invisible silver sheen to this pale blue dot of ours, making it just a little more pale.”

Some hailed Ozy Khan as the greatest hero in history. Others declared him the greatest monster in history, committing his home world to a course it had not chosen, from across a vast void. Still others wondered — had he effectively pulled the algorithmic trigger before he left? Or had the BDC tracked and monitored climate action efforts and made the call? Would the BDC have made a different decision if events had shaped up differently?

But despite all that was said, in the end, there was nothing to be done. Ozy Khan was asleep on the Baikal, 1.8 billion kilometers away.

And the Earth was beginning to cool.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. A truer launch 😌

  2. Venkat, I love these short stories! Your writing is very entertaining. This one reminds me of Daniel Suarez’s “Daemon”.

  3. Doug Acton says

    Entertaining take on whatthe current vanguard of billionaires launching themselves into space could bring intersecting with corporations driven byAI .

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