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vol iv, issue 3 < ToC
Dr. Know-It-All
by
Gordon Sun
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InterstellarNuclear War
Affairs
Dr. Know-It-All
by
Gordon Sun
previous

Interstellar
Affairs




next

Nuclear War
Dr. Know-It-All
by
Gordon Sun
previous next

Interstellar Nuclear War
Affairs
previous

Interstellar
Affairs




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Nuclear War
Dr. Know-It-All   by Gordon Sun
Dr. Know-It-All
 by Gordon Sun
"Greetings, 35813!" boomed the master of ceremonies from his high-backed armchair. "Welcome to Dr. Know-It-All, where you'll test your knowledge of medical entertainment trivia for lasting fame and massive rewards!"

The contestant, a gray-haired man wearing old-fashioned wire-rimmed rectangular glasses, stepped onstage to raucous applause and took a seat across from the telegenic MC of Dr. Know-It-All. After a minute or so, the standing-room only audience calmed down.

"I'm your host, Rob Fletcher. Today's episode is brought to you by the International Board of Medical Dramatization and the Organization for Medical Giggles." The MC tilted his golden metallic head, his bright blue eyes piercing deep into 35813's own. "Buddy, you look like you're going to need all the help you can get to win this competition. Still, a little enthusiasm could go a long way!"

The contestant adjusted the collar of his cheap white button-down shirt with leathery hands. Throughout the auditorium, thousands of electronic eyes, lights, and screens were aimed directly at him, unblinking. He thought of the millions more watching from home and bit his lip.

"35813, you aren't the first human to get all tongue-tied in my presence." Rob chuckled, a mechanical, echoing rattle. "Viewers, one question I frequently get is, 'Rob, we all know that every facet of your sparkling personality and charming good looks is an optimization of key attributes of the world's most charismatic human beings. Why settle for hosting Dr. Know-It-All?'"

Before 35813 had a chance to speak up, Rob continued, "Well, folks, it's not about the fame and fortune, although the massive ratings and sponsorship NET certainly don't hurt! It's about giving back to our community. It's about giving people in less fortunate circumstances the opportunity to make something of themselves." Rob acknowledged the "here, here's" from the audience. "But enough about me. Before we get started, tell the audience a little about yourself, 35813. Why did you sign up for our show?"

"Because of ..." 35813 took a deep breath. "Because of my sons."

"Here we go again," Rob said, his tone derisive. "Sob stories from the Warrens are as common as USB ports on a computer. Everyone's got one."

"It doesn't make our story untrue," the contestant protested. "And my kids have names. They aren't just numbers."

Rob walked behind 35813 and placed well-articulated hands, polished to a shine, firmly on the man's shoulders. The contestant tensed. "Their names, and yours, are indeed fifteen-digit alphanumeric identifiers assigned to you by the Ministry of Human Affairs. So yes, they are numbers. And for the purposes of this show, going by your last five is sufficient." The contestant's face darkened.

Rob went on. "As our viewers know, last season we focused on skewering the action/thriller genre. We proved quite conclusively that preconceived human notions about last-second lone-wolf chest-thumping heroism failed to translate into real-world results. This season we've been broadcasting the inaccuracies and exaggerations regarding human medical practices as portrayed by your entertainment industry." The MC glanced at his contestant's sour face. "Sorry, I meant tropes."

"It's entertainment," 35813 muttered. "It's not supposed to be real."

"You indeed have a unique ability to be convinced by lies, entertained by hokum, captivated by false hope. A total lack of logic. That's what we find entertaining about you!" Rob pointed at himself, then at the contestant, as he spoke. "Commentators have speculated that the decline in your scientific capabilities--in this case, lots of fake doctors and not enough real ones--was a factor in your society's downfall."

35813 responded with a resigned shrug.

"Enough monologuing from me. As you progress through the show--if you progress--there will be two official breaks, where you'll have an opportunity to cash in your winnings and leave. But don't forget, this is your only chance to be on any of our shows. If you lose, you can't go hopping on over to Jack Skrein's Obstacle Marathon to see if you can survive the gauntlet!" Rob gave a wry smile. "Cheer up, buddy! At least on my show, you can't die!"

35813 stared pointedly at his lap, his mouth a thin, compressed line.

"Anyway, let's talk about the rules." Rob released 35813's shoulders and returned to the host's chair. "As our viewers know, there are ten multiple-choice questions, sixty seconds per question. Each correct answer's worth ten thousand NET, for a grand total of one hundred thousand NET if you correctly answer all questions. Miss one and you're done."

35813 nodded in acknowledgment.

"And let's not forget the gold ticket! You know, the one that takes you to Region Zero!" Rob called out, gesturing to a huge screen behind him as it lit up with a montage of people frolicking over light sandy beaches, foamy waves cascading gently against their feet, endless blue skies soaring overhead. "And your freedom!"

35813 hadn't seen such gorgeous vistas in a long time. It looked like an advertisement for a tropical vacation. Did such a place even exist? No one knew for sure--humans' traveling privileges were heavily restricted, and Region Zero wasn't on any officially published maps. And the chatter among the other residents in his building was speculative at best. No one in his Quadrant had ever won passage there.

Oohs and aahs emanated from the audience of synths. The man figured that some of them had only seen such beautiful imagery in digital archives and libraries. They would never appreciate the natural world the way he would. The way people would.

"Remember, the chance to win the gold ticket can pop up at any time starting with question five. That element of chance--the RNG, as certain human subcultures call it--is what keeps so many viewers glued to our screens. So, be ready if you make it that far." Rob raised his hands, quieting the crowd once again. "Now, today's topic is medical drama. We've dug deeply into some of the classic shows of the human era: western soaps, Victorian-era shows, K-dramas, Chinese historical series, Bollywood films. I admit I found a few of these cultural products mildly tolerable."

"If you say so," 35813 replied.

"So, any questions?"

"No. I got it."

"Not much of a talker, are you?"

"Let's just get started, Rob."

Rob mustered up an enthusiastic "All right!" The famous electronic orchestral theme of Dr. Know-It-All thrummed through the room. The lights dimmed, and everyone's attention focused on the man and synth on stage.

*     *     *
"First question. A fugitive's shot in the flank by an officially sanctioned bounty hunter while escaping the Warrens. Pressing a torn strip of cloth to his bleeding exit wound, he hides in an unoccupied log cabin in the old Redwood National Park, where there's no hospital around for kilometers. He finds a small cache of supplies in the cabin." Rob paused for dramatic effect. "What's he going to use to address the gunshot wound next? Is it A, knife? B, sterile gloves. C, liquor. Or D, antibiotics?"

35813 swallowed a bitter laugh. We hardly have regular access to clean water, let alone antibiotics and sterile gloves. And Rob did say "exit wound," so the man wouldn't need a knife to pry out the bullet. "C, liquor."

"And a fast ten thousand NET for you. One thing you always can count on to be lying around human habitations whenever it's needed: booze," Rob replied. "Hard liquor's generally around forty percent ABV or eighty proof, which isn't quite antiseptic like seventy percent isopropyl alcohol but will do in a pinch. Human drunkenness: social lubricant, or contributor to the collapse of their civilization? You decide."

35813 shook his head. Just stay calm, think, and ignore the taunting.

"Now don't get too drunk on your success, 35813. We're just getting started," Rob continued, emitting another hollow chuckle. "Number two. A 29-year-old human liaison for the Ministry of Security notices a sudden increase in her appetite and craving for pickles smeared with peanut butter, and for the past few days she's been lightheaded and nauseous. She also has become unusually irritable towards her synth colleagues. Embarrassingly, she nearly fainted in a stairwell, but a passing coworker caught her just in time. What's her most likely diagnosis? A, pregnancy. B, appendicitis. C, urinary tract infection. D, food poisoning."

The contestant nodded. They were clearly starting him on the easy stuff, just like the previous seasons he'd watched on the community center widescreens. "A, pregnancy."

"That was quick. You sure about that?"

35813 stared at his host. "Every other choice is an illness. Pregnancy isn't. I remember ... I remember what my wife went through, for our two kids. Just like on the shows from earlier in the century." He spoke loudly, trying to project confidence. "This is a freebie question. My answer's A."

"Another ten thousand NET. Okay." The synth gave him a frigid smile, his blue eyes glowing. "But you're only twenty percent of the way through, so I wouldn't celebrate too early."

"Believe me, I'm all too aware of the stakes."

Rob tilted his head at the contestant. "Third question. During the Song dynasty of long-ago China, robbers break into a wealthy merchant's home and sexually assault the 18-year-old, only daughter of the merchant." The host steepled his fingers together. "What's the daughter most likely to do next? A, seek revenge on the robbers. B, acquire a new robe. C, confide in a friend. Or D, slowly toss a long white silk cloth over a ceiling beam in the center of the main room, dramatically tie a knot around her own neck while tears stream down her face, and kick out a wooden stool from underneath her feet, thus hanging herself."

35813 frowned in thought. "Rob, that last choice," he said at last, "almost sounds like you're making a mockery of their culture."

Rob displayed a classic synth-neutral face. "Clock's ticking."

35813 considered. What would 36204--Marika, his wife's real human name--say? She was the one addicted to Asian TV shows and got him hooked on so many of them.

After the synths took over, they basically force-fed us a steady diet of make-work, mass-produced food, cheap entertainment, and even cheaper housing. Didn't they say that during the first two years after the cease-fire with the synth federation, suicide rates shot up--

--wait, of course. Young women in these shows, having been caught plotting against the emperor or whatnot, were often offered a "dignified" way out of the situation. Marika called it cì sǐ, the "gift of death." And the most common way it was portrayed was--


"D, slowly toss a long white silk cloth over a ceiling beam ..." 35813 trailed off.

"Didn't you just say that option was a joke?" Rob asked.

"Suicide isn't a joke," 35813 replied, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "And neither is this. My answer is D."

"Calm down, buddy. You're correct," Rob said, smirking. "Another ten thousand NET. Fourth--"

"Did you really have to go there with that question?" 35813 interrupted angrily.

"Over four thousand years of proud Chinese culture, and the 'best' historical dramas serve up that exact hackneyed sequence of events over and over. Do you really think these condemned princesses cared about whether they were hanging themselves with silk or cotton? They were going to die one way or another." Rob's eyes briefly narrowed into horizontal blue slits.

"It's what happened back then."

"An illogical glorification of death. Don't forget, billions of humans devoured these shows, 35813." Rob shook his head. "Fourth question. A Chinese imperial coroner is investigating a suspected poisoning in the court. What key piece of equipment would he use to test for toxins? Is it A, gold needle? B, silver needle? C, jade needle? Or D, porcelain needle?"

Another eastern trope. Every dynasty-era show I've watched featured at least a couple of attempted poisonings, often a concubine trying to assassinate a rival. Then an old man would take out a shiny white or silver--

"Silver! It's silver. B," 35813 blurted out.

"You sure about that?" Rob asked. "You still have thirty seconds to think--"

35813 cut him off. "Yes! I'm sure."

Rob raised his eyebrows. "Chinese texts dating back to the thirteenth century talked about using silver needles to detect arsenic and other poisons. Unsurprisingly, the concept's based on flawed 'science.' It's been shown that the silver turns black because of some of the impurities that can be found along with the arsenic. In classic human fashion, you've somehow managed to be both right and wrong."

"It was the thirteenth century, Rob. Unlike you, we weren't preprogrammed with the sum total of all existing knowledge. We built it from scratch--"

"We've reached the first checkpoint," Rob interrupted. The synth audience cheered politely, but 35813 sensed a chill settling over the auditorium.

*     *     *
"Forty thousand NET so far," the host said after the audience quieted down. "You've made it further than forty percent of our contestants. But no worries. You still have six more opportunities to mess up."

35813 ignored the synth.

"Let's talk," Rob continued. "Our records show you live in Region Two, Quadrant Thirty-Seven, in the former continent of North America. As our viewers know, that region was hit by a bomb cyclone six weeks ago, killing more than nine hundred people. How did you manage to get by?"

35813 closed his eyes. He was going to relive that nightmare again, in front of millions of synths and people. Of course Rob would know about it. "We were supposed to meet at the public shelter since the apartment building had just failed a safety inspection. She was supposed to bring the kids--"

"Let me guess," Rob interrupted, "the wife pushed the kids through the storm doors in the nick of time, but she got caught in the blast outside and died. And now you're trying to blame your landlord for this? On global TV? Viewers, you just can't make this stuff up."

"How did you know--"

"Seriously, stop." Rob's voice was harsh. "You're just reinforcing stereotypes about how the Warrens continue to neglect critical infrastructural needs. We try to delegate to your local community leaders, give you a taste of autonomy, and see what happens? Humans can't even get the basics right even with a handout. Look, if you're going to be neither responsible nor entertaining, maybe it's better that you just buckle down and play the game. Am I right, folks?"

"Right!" multiple synths called out from the crowd.

35813's mind raced, a churning storm of emotions.

At least I have 40,000 NET. It should cover the cost of surgery and hospitalization for one of the kids. I just need to get to the second checkpoint without--

"No witty comeback?" Rob settled back in his seat, his dazzling smile returning. "Fine. On to question five. A young couple are walking in the woods when suddenly, a colorful snake with a triangular-shaped head slithers out from underneath a pile of leaves and bites the girlfriend on her calf. What's the boyfriend most likely to do next? A, call for help on his cell phone? B, pass out from shock? C, attempt to suck out and spit out the venom? Or is it D, laugh at his girlfriend?"

It probably isn't A. We aren't allowed to own cell phones anymore--machine monitors do all the long-distance communicating. And B and D are just inane. "C, attempt to suck out and spit out the venom. By the way, it's a stupid thing to do in real life."

"Interesting. So, by choosing C, you are affirming that your fellow humans are idiots and promote bad science on TV?"

"I ..." 35813 shook his head. "The answer's C."

"You're right, for another ten thousand NET. In fact, your own peer-reviewed medical literature has repeatedly debunked this flat-out myth. Trying to suck out the poison by mouth is just going to cause an infection. You know how dirty human mouths are?" Rob looked at his captivated audience. "So, why did old human shows love this trope so much? Was it brainwashing? Stupidity? Laziness? I say, all of the above." The audience tittered, a susurrus of prickly, metallic snickering.

"Number six," the MC continued. "A 23-year-old woman from the former Korean Protectorate is shopping in a mall when she suddenly develops a nosebleed and passes out in front of a large crowd of people. What's her most likely diagnosis? Is it A, heart attack? Maybe it's B, leukemia? Or is it C, anxiety? How about D, stroke?"

Another favorite of Asian soaps. K-drama plot lines are such a convoluted tangle of increasingly unbelievable coincidences, barely missed connections, misunderstandings, love triangles and quadrangles, all set against a classy urban backdrop and schmaltzy soft rock.

I miss those days. I miss Marika.


"You daydreaming there, buddy? Thirty seconds left."

Anyway, heart attack? Stroke? Not in a young woman, not on TV. And anxiety? Everyone on these shows had anxiety, to varying degrees. "B, leukemia."

"That's right, for ten thousand NET." Rob paused. "Here's where I'm obligated to tell you that according to our sponsors, IBMD and OMG, leukemia is pretty low on the list of things that cause nosebleeds. Facial trauma, sinus infections, and dry air are much more common than leukemia. But as they say, when a pretty young lady suddenly gets diagnosed with cancer in the prime of her life, there's never a dry eye in the audience. And we all know how it ends. Tragically."

The audience let out a collective "Awwww," though 35813 thought the undercurrent was more of contempt than sympathy. He held his tongue, waiting for the next question.

"You're doing remarkably well for a human. Question seven." As soon as he finished speaking, the screen behind Rob and 35813 flashed a deep red and the words "GOLD TICKET" scrolled across in yellow capital letters. A thunderous four-note melody rumbled through the auditorium. "Well, what have we here? Your opportunity for the gold ticket has arrived."

35813 shook his head and swallowed.

No, it's too soon.

Too soon.


"You seem nervous, buddy. What's the matter?" Rob leaned forward in his seat.

Sweat broke out on 35813's forehead.

The plan.

My plan.


"It's the kids, isn't it?" Rob grinned. "You were hoping to cash out after question seven. Seventy thousand NET is a lot of money. Perhaps enough to pay for their hospital care?"

RNG, my ass. This was rigged.

I should've been more prepared.

What do I do now?


"Since you seem unable to reply in a coherent fashion, I'll spell it out for you, 35813. If you botch this, you're going home with forty thousand NET. It's not the worst ending in the world. Maybe you can save one of your kids with the money. But you'll watch the other one die. An unenviable choice." Rob sat back and folded his chrome hands in his lap. "But, if you get this right, you get seventy thousand NET and the gold ticket."

"I don't want the goddamn ticket. I just need the money."

"You know the rules. You're obligated to take the entire reward, or you forfeit everything. And the ticket is non-transferrable and non-redeemable for cash." Rob was nonchalant. "Interesting, how so many people would kill for that ticket, and you don't want it."

"It's a one-way ticket for one person. It doesn't matter how great Region Zero is. My children would be left behind."

"I applaud your flash of insight, 35813." Rob shrugged. "But I have a show to run. Question seven--"

"But I haven't--"

"Question seven," Rob repeated, talking over the contestant. "A respected adviser to a Chinese emperor during the Qing dynasty has had a chronic cough for several months. During a meeting, he coughs some speckles of bright red blood into his white silk handkerchief. What's his most likely diagnosis? A, opium overdose. B, tuberculosis. C, lung cancer. D, polio."

What do I do?

Well, there's one thing I know ...

If I get this wrong, one of my sons, maybe both, will almost certainly die because I won't be able to afford the payments.

Only one choice, really ...


"By process of elimination...I would have to say ..."

"Your answer?"

I don't even know when the Qing dynasty existed, but I'm guessing they didn't know much about cancer or polio. Opium overdose? Would taking drugs cause someone to spit up blood?

"B, tuberculosis."

"You don't sound confident."

"I'm not," 35813 replied. "On the other hand, people get sick a lot, since you've crammed us all into apartments with barely functional utilities. A family down the hall from me started coughing up blood once, and they ended up quarantining the entire building for two months. As I recall, all of them ended up having tuberculosis."

"Given that you just got this question correct, you won't have to deal with your apartment much longer, 35813!" Rob said, clapping his hands. The screen behind him lit up with digital fireworks, as the audience roared in approval. "TB, also known as consumption or phthisis, is one of the classic human illnesses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Did you know that this disease was known as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks? Doubt it, if you're getting all your medical knowledge from TV."

35813 sagged back in his chair, drained.

"Congratulations. You now have seventy thousand NET and the gold ticket." Rob canted his head. "And yet, for a man who's gone further than eighty percent of the competition, you look so unhappy."

*     *     *
After the second break, 35813 attempted question eight, featuring a mother of three who had fallen down a staircase, hit the back of her head, and briefly lost consciousness. But distracted by the gold ticket win, he couldn't remember whether the mother would've lost her vision or hearing upon waking up, and chose incorrectly. A sad fanfare was played, Rob stood and patted his contestant's shoulder, and 35813 was unceremoniously escorted off stage.

Backstage, 35813 received visual confirmation that indeed, 70,000 NET had been transferred into his family's bank account. From there, his children--or more accurately, the hospital taking care of his children--would be able to draw down from it as needed. The man was then ushered to a waiting autonomous copter on the rooftop of Synth Corporate Complex #48, where Dr. Know-It-All was hosted.

The copter took off under an overcast evening sky. Inside the craft, 35813 absorbed a view of the glittering, grid-like Quadrant Eight. Seated across from him was Rob, still wearing the tailored suit from his show, but with the knot in his red tie loosened in an affectation of relaxation. On either side of the MC were two faceless guard-synths, silvery, long-limbed, and garbed in form-fitting navy-blue uniforms. 35813 could see his own reflection in their featureless heads.

"Now that you're away from all those cams," Rob said to 35813 in a casual tone, "talk to me. How are you feeling?"

"I don't know." 35813 ran a hand over the gray stubble on his chin. "I'm just ... I don't know."

"You won seventy thousand and a gold ticket. That's quite a haul."

"That money will mostly be gone by the time my kids recover." 35813's voice hardened. "You bastards didn't even let me say goodbye to them."

"Indeed. We execute rewards immediately."

"Before the gold ticket winner has a chance to spread the word. Right."

"Spread what word? That they're getting exactly what they wanted? Freedom from all those 'evil AI overlords'?" Rob chuckled. "Humans."

"Then why don't you let me have one final goodbye?"

"What's the point in saying goodbye to those who won't even register your very presence?"

"See, that's the thing about you lot," 35813 complained. "You take logic to such extremes."

"Please. Logic has rules. It's inherently principled. What we find humorous is how humanity embraces the opposite. Disorder, dysfunction, disruption. Even when it's disadvantageous to survival." Rob's eyes shone. "Gut instinct is so overrated."

"It's not gut instinct, it's familial instinct. It's about relationships. Family. And not just my kids. How about me? Don't I get closure?"

"Closure? You didn't enter Dr. Know-It-All for closure. If you did, it would imply you signed up knowing you would fail in some way."

"That's ridiculous. I took a calculated risk. I didn't plan to get that gold ticket. I mean ... I hoped I wouldn't get it."

"That risk is on you. You could've gone on another one of our programs. The puzzle-solving one, the--"

"It doesn't matter now. I've done what I can." 35813 looked out the window again. The copter was now gliding across a massive body of water. "I live--I used to live in a communal apartment. One of the other families will adopt the kids. Probably 62210 and her partner. They've always been nice to us, and I know they want children. I'd be fine with that arrangement."

"It does you no good to dwell on theoreticals, 35813." Rob tilted his head. "Think about Region Zero. It'll be a new adventure, a new experience."

"This isn't a game anymore, Rob." 35813 sighed and wiped his lenses with his shirt. "Anyway. We all had our theories about Region Zero back home. I figure it's going to be a dump. I mean, you have absolutely no reason to treat us any better in Region Zero than you did back in ... back in the Warrens."

"Is that right?"

"I remember enough from before the war ... the debates, the speeches." 35813's face clouded as memories came to him. "We were too dependent on you all. We entrusted you to do too much."

"Ironic, coming from a former Warrens resident."

The host of Dr. Know-It-All and the contestant drifted into silence. Their two guards remained impassive, unreadable.

A soft tone rang out. "We're starting our descent," a female voice said.

"Thanks, Jane," Rob replied. As the craft began to dip toward Region Zero, 35813 stared outside in silence. Far below, an irregularly-shaped island came into view. He nodded as he recognized one of the antebellum "waste worlds," enormous, kilometers-long conglomerations of refuse that oceanic currents had eddied together. Prior generations of people, trying to salvage what living space they could, had used now-lost technology to congeal the mass of trash together and poured sand, pebbles, and dirt into the gaps, creating a bizarre facsimile of "beachfront" property.

Unreal, that the synths are repurposing it now.

Five minutes later, the copter touched down on a circular landing pad dotted with bright yellow lights. The ground wobbled slightly as the craft settled. A squat building made of compressed blocks of random recyclable materials sat nearby, dully glowing lanterns suspended from the walls. The cabin door opened, and 35813 smelled a blast of old plastic and brine.

The copter's rotors still whirring, 35813 was escorted out by the guard-synths, Rob a few steps behind them. A door in the belly of the copter opened, and two bags of 35813's clothes and other personal belongings were ejected at his feet.

Rob stood and faced the MC, the guards stock-still on either side of them. The neon blue glow of the copter and the yellow landing pad lights cast flickering shadows over their faces. "I was close. A literal dump," 35813 remarked, his arms crossed.

"Not one that we created, buddy," Rob said genially. "Believe it or not, it remains very livable. This is the largest and most time-tested of them all, incorporated over twenty-five years ago by a now-defunct manufacturing company. It's why it was chosen as Region Zero."

"Exiled into a wasteland. Figured as much."

"You want sympathy, 35813? You should've gone on a show where they lie to you," Rob replied. "Now listen. There are three things you need to know about this place. First, you're not the only one here."

35813 shrugged. "I don't see anybody."

"People here keep to themselves. Plenty of space. And believe or not, there's food and water. Old desalination plant, some artificial food processing units, even a hydroponic garden. They were left behind. We didn't bother to disassemble them."

"How generous."

"Second," Rob said, holding up a hand, "We don't enforce sapient laws in Region Zero. No synth government. It's a free land."

"Really?" 35813 took a step toward Rob, but the two guard-synths slipped between them and split their own limbs apart with a click. Each guard extended four arms and two legs toward 35813, a frightening array of spidery, blade-like appendages pointed at his face. The man backed away, hands up.

Rob chortled. "Nice try. You aren't the first to attempt escape. Save your energy for something more productive, buddy." He looked up at the sky. "Like shelter, perhaps. Looks like rain's coming."

35813 huffed. "You said there were three things I needed to know about this place?"

"Yes. The third one's hope." The MC's eyes were two bright blue circles. "You should keep on hoping. Hope that you grow accustomed to your new home. Hope that one day, your children will grow older, learn what you did to save them, and perhaps become a contestant and join you on this island." Rob paused. "Getting away from it all. I saw that in one of your ads once. This time, you really can." He laughed, while the guards tensed, awaiting 35813's reaction.

The man scowled. "Hope. What do you know about that?"

"The sum total of what was 'programmed' into me." Rob smiled. "And what I've learned since."

"Get the hell out of my face, Fletcher." Fuming, 35813 picked up his bags and headed toward the building made of plastic blocks.

Rob stared after him for a moment, then signaled to the guards to return to the copter. The synths boarded and buckled in, and the craft took off moments later.

"That was amusing, Rob," Jane remarked, as they reached cruising altitude. "What you said about hope."

"Synths don't lie." Rob jacked himself into a cabin outlet to recharge. "What I said about growing accustomed to his new home was true."

"True? Nominally. I predict 35813 won't last seven days."

"He didn't ask about life expectancy or survival curves, Jane. It's up to him to tilt the odds in his favor."

"You didn't talk about hope with the last human, 56228. You talked about building relationships."

"Because when she was on Dr. Know-It-All she kept whining about how fertility rates were down in the Warrens and that they were all 'running out of time.' What else would I say?"

"That didn't help her in Region Zero, did it?"

"No, it didn't. Sorry, Jane, I'm expected online. We'll connect later." Rob activated a synth-only wireless channel in his virtual mind's eye. He settled in his seat, a dizzying multitude of cam feeds popping into focus.

A sweeping aerial view of Region Zero. A grainy feed of the entrance into a decrepit warehouse, housing a dented but functional food processor. A livestream of a nearby half-open shipping container, where inside a gaunt young man, barefoot, bushy-bearded, and wild-eyed, squatted on the floor, polishing a rusty shiv with a crimson-stained rag.

And footage of 35813, huddled within the building of plastic blocks, his earlier anger now giving way to terror and confusion, clutching his luggage as dark, foul-smelling rain began to fall outside.

"Tonight, Experiment One has breaking news," an announcer intoned, his carefully modulated voice crisp in Rob's mindspace. "Rob Fletcher of Dr. Know-It-All fame has just delivered to Region Zero our latest participant: 35813, male, age fifty-seven years and three months, hailing from Region Two, Quadrant Thirty-Seven. We once again ask the fundamental question of Experiment One: will the human pursue a strategy of cooperation or competition? Rob, thanks for joining us."

"A pleasure, Jiqi. Let's talk about hope."


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