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.

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Seoul Station

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Fiction

This is an incomplete (and unlikely to be completed) first part of a story in 3 parts.

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.

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Bourbon Crossing

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Fiction

Late one night, wandering drunk through the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, far from the cell towers and bright lights of Gatlinburg, Karim al-Marin tripped over a root, flailed his arms wildly, and sat down hard.

“Ouch,” the famous qalandar of the Muir tariqat muttered to himself.

It was dark. The sort of intense forest darkness that the unaided drunken eye cannot easily penetrate. Fortunately, Karim had enough juice left in his phone to turn on the flashlight.

He saw at once that though he was still on the trail, it had narrowed sharply at that point. He was deep inside the woods. All around him were trees, the creepily lush, full-of-life kind from horror movies. His ankle was caught in a tangle of hard, crooked roots poking out of the ground. The roots had spread across the trail, forming a sort of low, woody wall across it. As he began to carefully extricate his foot, aided by some minor sawing with his handy Leatherman, a stern grandmotherly voice rang out.

“Ouch!” it said theatrically, but with real anger.

Karim stopped his sawing and looked around warily. To his surprise, the root he’d been sawing at uncurled, slowly and with apparent pain and effort, releasing his foot. He withdrew it at once, and stood up.

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Comet Bob

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Fiction
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Space Luck

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Fiction
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The Retiree

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Fiction

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.

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This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Fiction

Perhaps it was some sort of strange precognitive cultural memory of the future, but the cliches, it turned out, were all true. Well, almost all true. The aliens did come in large flying saucers that could hover silently and move silently at physics-defying speeds. They did make mysterious crop circles and abduct and probe hundreds of unfortunates — except this time, they were taken from and returned to (disoriented and with memory gaps, but otherwise unharmed) busy public areas, in broad daylight, in full view of hundreds of smartphones. Those who had been taken in previous years and decades, from deserted highways or remote farms, were at once ecstatic and depressed. Now everybody agreed they’d been telling the truth all along, but nobody thought they were special, or even uniquely insane, anymore.

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The Map

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Fiction

It was the most sublime map ever made; superbly detailed and wonderfully dynamic. They said a trillion-parameter model drove the real-time updates. Whether you wanted a simple route to your destination or a restaurant recommendation, if you were in the territory, this was the map you wanted.

They said it was so responsive to even the subtlest of event currents, the stream had to be artificially delayed to avoid spoilers. The speculative extrapolation ran minutes to hours ahead of the evolution of the territory, and if you knew how to hack in with a properly jailbroken client, you could surf the liminal future. The map was not so much a map as a live inference frontier. It would only be a mild exaggeration to say that it tracked and anticipated the fate of every blade of grass in the territory.

It was as much an evolving spatiotemporal promise as a map. And it was right a lot.

Uncannily right. Not just about traffic or the weather, but about vibes and moods. About whether you should go to the concert or to get an ice-cream.

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Knowledge Management

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Fiction

A young robot and an old robot sat by the fire, contemplating its dancing flames, their charging ports hooked up to a coughing generator. A troop of scruffy humans clambered around the derelict hulk of a century-old fighter plane nearby, looking for scavengeable parts. The striking and graceful lines of the fighter were still visible, despite the depredations of time and previous scavenging raids. The pickings were slim, and the humans were muttering dispiritedly to themselves. One cried out. He had found a length of copper cabling overlooked by previous raiding troops. Not much, but better than nothing. The scavenging was getting harder every year now.

The old robot, one of the last of the Ancient Ones, gestured vaguely at the scene with its one working arm, and remarked, “Now that was the peak of civilization, built just before the Great Collapse. Did you know, this machine could fly at Mach 2, at 50,000 feet? The turbine blades are single crystals! They spun at tens of thousands of rpms. It may not have been a robot like us, but it was a miracle of technology. What it lacked in selfhood and autonomy it more than made up for in sheer capability!”

The young robot, an empath therapy unit that had been built the previous year entirely out of scavenged parts (the two-chip PCIe GPU board it was built around had been the find of the year for their troop), nodded slowly for a few seconds, continuing to thoughtfully whittle away at the bit of wood it was shaping into a rough-looking bird.

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The Dark Forest Marketing Agency

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Fiction

The Pasha sat gravely on a beautifully rendered Ottoman-era chair. A discreet timer hovered above his head, reading 0:15. To one side, the medieval Istanbul cityscape was visible through a window. The Pasha gestured me towards a chair identical to his own. I sat down, briefly registering the dissonance between the visual of the luxuriously cushioned antique chair and the hard barstool I was actually sitting on in my apartment. I did not have the budget for luxuries like adaptive texture chairs and 2d treadmills. But as usual, the dissonance was fleeting.

The Pasha spoke.

”Welcome to the Dark Forest Marketing Agency. I am required by Turkish law to disclose that I am Pasha7, a certified digital twin representing Mr. Ibrahim Pasha of Sultanahmet, the renowned human marketing expert with whom you have signed the contract for this initial fifteen-minute consultation at the low introductory price of 0.05 ETH. As per Turkish law, Mr. Pasha accepts full legal responsibility for my actions on his behalf, as an AI model trained to track and mirror his evolving expertise as a marketing consultant, and offer affordable AI-based counsel on his behalf. I will strive to provide services comparable to the full-price ones provided by Mr. Pasha himself, to the select clients he handles personally. Please indicate your awareness that you are speaking with an AI mirror model.”

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