Let That Be Your Lesson by Jason Darrell

"What are those, Miss?" Charlotte asked, pointing to a glass jar on the museum shelf.

Upon recognising the student's voice pattern, M!55 B!080T_312G, today's guide, automatically answered, "Good ques-question, Charlotte." The android, a Teacher-Bot 2700 model, assimilated the question, scanned the item's barcode, then swivelled to face the class.

The students' black uniforms cut stark contrasts against the fading white sterility of the starcruiser museum's every surface, making it easier for the teacher-bot to scan a headcount.

Satisfied, M!55 B!080T_312G launched the appropriate auto-respond software: "One reason for Exodus II (Earth) eight centuries hence was something called pollution," it relayed, simultaneously sending time-coded document links to the children's interfaces:

31261024_09:54:31.27: [vid] Landfill [atypical] (ExoWiki)

31261024_09:54:31.29: [doc] Pollution: bacterial; gaseous (Greenhouse Effect); radiational (Chernobyl, Ukraine); other (sound, light, etc.). (ExoWiki)

The class would study this data, stored in encrypted archives, once today's tour around the annexed spacecraft concluded.

The audio software allowed the class the designated ten seconds to download the media, then continued, "The Race eventually found ways to control most pollutants. But by the time it prioritised the environment over capitalism, damage to Earth was irreversible:"

31261024_09:55:10.27: [doc] Climate Change: God's Vengeance (TechCrunch, 20560317)

Teacher-bots supposedly possessed no emotions, but had M!55 B!080T_312G's current entourage comprised older students, they may have identified the audio playback's subtle contempt.

"This jar here," the audio continued after another ten-second pause, "contains 'antibiotics'. Initially successful, their overuse — plus the incremental propagation of bacteria — rendered them futile:"

31261024_09:55:55.11: [pdf] The Biological Cost of Antibiotic Resistance (Wiley, 20070419)

"Miss," Charlotte ventured, "if antibiotics became useless, how did The Race — we — cope with bacteria and pollution?"

If androids had 'scoff' modes, M!55 B!080T_312G would have engaged 'hers': "Cope, Miss Smith-Smith-Robinson? They didn't:"

31261024_09:56:21.42: [doc] COVID_2019-2168: the 150-year scourge (ExoWiki)

31261024_09:56:21.43: [doc] RadTox_2064-2278: The Crime Here (FTUK, 22840113)

"Long before humankind integrated pandemics," the teacher-bot's audio continued, "Earth's elite were collaboratively and unilaterally building 'safe havens'.

"Nuclear war was a constant threat in the 20th century, during which time developed countries' governments sanctioned bunkers deep underground, expanding those warrens up until the nuclear holocaust. When they instigated the 21st-century nuclear war, countries who'd built safe, habitable burrows retreated thereto:"

31261024_09:56:21.43: [pdf/mp8] Going Underground_The Jam: a Modernist Prophecy (TotP, 22800310)

Rebecca raised her hand next: "Miss, surely everyone couldn't fit underground, could they?"

"Absolutely not, R-R-Rebecca," replied M!55 B!080T_312G, whose program selected another recording: "The ruse world leaders concocted was the grandest since the 1969 moon landing.

"The aristocracy, leaders, experts and intellectuals all disappeared underground long before global 4-minute warnings claxoned. These elite humans — your ancestors — were experts in many disciplines; representing a fraction of the population, they still numbered many thousands.

"Covert teams around the globe built miles of tunnels connecting bunkers. Governments secretly shared information about these operations, submitting feedback on methods, theories, progress.

"Obfuscated amongst work orders, governments illicitly processed designs for potential starcruiser components, including special machinery and engineering projects that would only be realised after the planned nuclear war's fallout had safely dissipated.

"Meanwhile, leaders governed their countries from underground, keeping the populace ignorant. Decades of enforced lockdown provided cover for the lie, restricting almost everyone's movements.

"Pockets of people rebelled, but army drafts had skyrocketed. Unusually high pay tempted many workers to switch careers; fit unemployed people had no choice: No job? Serve your country.

"Military departments dumbed down volumes of new recruits, but could deploy enough soldiers to ringfence towns and cities instantly. Although, many countries already had armies capable of such.

"Such was the scale of global propaganda, local community life returned largely unquestioned. The Internet died. Communities stood wholly isolated. Only authorised people could travel. There were neither national nor global events.

"To all intents and purposes, governments were operating as normal. But the offices from which news bulletins were broadcast were subterranean cameos, mimicking respective aboveground facilities exactly.

"Surface dwellers were mass-fed antibiotics under the guise of necessity to beat pandemics. But virus modification continued underground, government representatives continually injecting new strains into communities.

"Regular blood tests became mandatory. Anyone found without traces of antibiotics was extricated, exposed to new viruses, their inevitable death publicised. This upheld the widespread misinformation, namely that governments' compulsory medication programmes were working.

"It was the biggest gamble. The Race had irreversibly damaged Earth, so had to find a new home. To get there, it needed new thinking, new technology, most of which was undertaken underground whilst Earth's surface dwellers perished in the eventual nuclear holocaust:"

31261024_10:01:11.37: [doc] Operation Clanger: condensed history (abstract) (ExoWiki)

Despite being children, the speech's gravitas silenced the class. Eventually, Emily raised her hand.

"Yes, Em-mur-mur-Emily?" M!55 B!080T_312G asked.

"How long were we underground, Miss?" she asked.

"After three centuries," the primed response began, "radiation levels then deemed safe, the elite's successors surfaced. If any aboveground humans survived, they'd disappeared into self-created burrows, mountain ranges, forests or valleys.

"The Race analysed its best-performing bunkers, around which it modelled the starcruisers aboard which we travel today. Once agreed upon, components were labouriously shipped to the moon for construction, whence humankind's new journey began.

"A critical factor against which they judged 'best-performing' was sterility: preventing harmful bacteria from entering any new ecosystem. Hence, this poignant jar of antibiotics survives, a testament to humankind's greatness:"

31261024_10:02:31.17: [doc] Exodus II (Earth) (ExoWiki)

"Any questions before we mur-move on?" M!55 B!080T_312G asked.

Emily had another question, but a blood clot caught in her throat before she could voice it. Charlotte raised her hand, only for her arm to fall off. And Annabelle thought of a cracker, but adolescent dementia robbed her of it before it fully formed.

"Good" M!55 B!080T_312G stated, her rusting wheelbase grinding as it swivelled 180°. "Let's c-cur-continue to humankind's next gr-grurrscht-greatest achievement, The Indestructible Teacher-Bot…"

Winner: Picture This #13
Published in Issue #28

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