Twenty years of Taklamakan

Bruce Sterling’s short story was published in 1999.

I figure he must have written it at least twenty years ago now.

I still think of it multiple times every year.

Severe annual resonance increases.

NAFTA, Sphere, and Europe: the trilateral superpowers jostled about with the uneasy regularity of sunspots, periodically brewing storms in the proxy regimes of the South. During his fifty-plus years, Pete had seen the Asian Cooperation Sphere change its public image repeatedly, in a weird political rhythm. Exotic vacation spot on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Baffling alien threat on Mondays and Wednesdays. Major trading partner each day and every day, including weekends and holidays.

At the current political moment, the Asian Cooperation Sphere was deep into its Inscrutable Menace mode, logging lots of grim media coverage as NAFTA’s chief economic adversary.

As far as Pete could figure it, this basically meant that a big crowd of goofy North American economists were trying to act really macho.

Their major complaint was that the Sphere was selling NAFTA too many neat, cheap, well-made consumer goods. That was an extremely silly thing to get killed about. But people perished horribly for much stranger reasons than that.

At sunset, Pete and Katrinko discovered the giant warning signs. They were titanic vertical plinths, all epoxy and clinker, much harder than granite. They were four stories tall, carefully rooted in bedrock, and painstakingly chiseled with menacing horned symbols and elaborate textual warnings in at least fifty different languages.

English was language number three.

“Radiation waste,” Pete concluded, deftly reading the text through his spex, from two kilometers away.

“This is a radiation waste dump. Plus, a nuclear test site. Old Red Chinese hydrogen bombs, way out in the Taklamakan desert.” He paused thoughtfully. “You gotta hand it to ’em. They sure picked the right spot for the job.”

“No way!” Katrinko protested. “Giant stone warning signs, telling people not to trespass in this area? That’s got to be a con-job.”

“Well, it would sure account for them using robots, and then destroying
all the roads.”

“No, man. It’s like—you wanna hide something big nowadays. You don’t put a safe inside the wall any more, because hey, everybody’s got magnetometers and sonic imaging and heat detection. So you hide your best stuff in the garbage.”

 

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