Future Tense

“Empathy Hour”

Illustration of an editing bay for a video titled Empathy Hour and showing a girl and a dog being saved via helicopter
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

This week, like every week, it’s the theme song that calls you to attention, the music simultaneously jaunty, patriotic, inspirational, commanding. As the fade-in begins, the tune gives way to the whup-whup-whup of unseen rotors, the familiar sound preceding your first glimpse of a helicopter’s wash rippling the dark water surrounding a half-drowned house, where this week’s family balances awkwardly atop their roof’s wind-peeled slope, desperate for rescue: a mother, a father, two preteen daughters, and an especially attractive Australian cattle dog.

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The family jumps and flails their arms and cries out; their voices vanish below the thumping rotors. They’re yelling help, they’re yelling save us, but you’re grateful not to have to hear it. You’re feeling enough already when the steel frame of the rescue basket appears, spinning downward toward the evacuees.

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Safe as you are, it’s hard to imagine climbing aboard such a conveyance, hard to imagine trusting its braided cable to lift you safely.

It’s hard but you try. It’s the right thing to do, right now, during Empathy Hour.

The mother catches the basket and pins it against the roof’s slope; the father helps the two daughters onboard. Once the girls are settled, their father passes them their distractingly handsome dog, then steps in before assisting the mother. The helicopter’s winch reverses direction, the basket ascends over whatever disaster this is, over wherever this is happening.

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Oh look! The sisters are insisting the distractingly handsome dog enter the helicopter first. And wow, they really should, because it’s a great-looking dog. Not that the kids aren’t good-looking too. But nothing gets you feeling for other humans like a great-looking dog.

The theme music returns, still triumphant but now respectfully sad; the screen fades to black exactly 15 minutes after the episode started.

Fifteen-minute Empathy Hours were my idea. The show used to go a full 60, but it turns out people want to feel but not too long, not too much. The show got shorter but the name stuck. And why not? Afterward, you remembered having cared for the whole hour. And so many of us like having cared more than we like the act of caring.

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“We’re close now, team,” says Mank, pacing before the production room’s wall of telescreens. “Just a few last tweaks to go.” His features are smooth, placid, unworried beneath a perfect coif of brown hair. “For starters, Prim, can we make the location even less specific? You know the plan. Mix and match for effect. Never show any reasons whatsoever.” This is another of Mank’s most recent pet theories: depict only effects, never causes. There’s no empathy in logic, he claims, so we deepfake the aftereffects of hurricanes but not hurricanes, the damage from forest fires but never what sparked them.

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Mank and I have both worked here at PropArts for a long time now, but only he’s still trying to innovate. I was 17 years old when the show first aired, the star of its first episode back when Empathy Hour still used live footage. Now, 20 years later, I’m its longest-tenured employee, and more than a little bored.

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I roll my eyes at Prim, who’s sitting beside me dressed entirely in black-and-white, her monochrome suit projecting sheer competency, a contrast to my schlubby hoodie and jeans. When she’s ready, she restarts the episode; I lean in to watch my people, Prim her landscapes and cityscapes, her water and wreckage. A flooded street was never so ominous before Prim joined the team. The way her wind bends a palm tree or tosses a traffic sign across a parking lot? Perfection. Her twilit sheens of oil, swirling and reflecting the anxious faces of a family wading through contaminated water? True terror. Not to mention her dust bowl prairies, her collapsing ice shelves, her clumping marine mucilage.

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“It’s good, Francis,” Mank says, ceasing his pacing to point at the younger sister. “But at the end, can you make this kid look at her rescuers instead of the home she’s lost forever?”

I toggle the toggles, slide the sliders, drag the draggable elements, re-render the unerring photorealism. Now the child looks at the pilots, at the camera, at us, her face beatifically besmudged, her gaze a saccharine combo of gratitude and awe.

We did this, you’ll think. These people were suffering and we saved them.

“Perfect,” Mank says. “And not a moment too soon.” It’s late Sunday afternoon, minutes from showtime. He retrieves his authenticator from a case tucked inside his shirt, then inserts it into the console. After pressing an unnecessarily large and unnecessarily red button, he charges out of the PropArts office, polishing his self-importance with impressive speed.

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Prim and I wait until he’s gone to crack up. “What a wanker,” Prim says. “Who needs him? You do the people, I do the places, he does the … what does he do, Francis?”

“The product placement.” It’s an old joke, not worth a new laugh. I stand and stretch. “Want to head down to the concourse, watch the show?”

When Empathy Hour airs, the City stops, even on the public concourse. Unlike the packed warrens dominating most of Arc 2’s 60 floors, the concourse is a wide circular avenue of moving walkways and clean white tile, shops and cafés beneath a deepfake summer’s day. There’s little need to visit this mall—every apartment has a materials printer supplying basic essentials, a recycler to whisk away soiled or broken items—but the Founders knew people needed something to strive for, which for most people meant something to buy, which they most often wanted to buy where someone else could see them.

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Tonight, Prim and I choose a sidewalk table outside a coffee shop, order two slices of chocolate cake made from equal parts mushrooms and synthetic sweeteners. Our food arrives just as the screens mounted throughout the concourse activate. Sitting beside me, Prim readies her tablet, loading a real-time graph of where every City eyeball pointed at a screen is looking.

As I crane my neck to watch the shoppers and eaters pausing their shopping and eating as the pre-episode ads run, Prim scoffs. “I can tell you how much a person’s skin temperature and pulse and focus changes as the episode plays. What do you think you’re seeing that I’m not?”

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“I want to see their faces, Prim. I want to watch the story land.” Our same old argument, cut off by the theme music blasting through the concourse.

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Even if we wanted to keep talking, we wouldn’t be able to. Empathy Hour is that loud.

The episode plays. Faces all around me go rapt, mindful, focused on feeling; some people’s eyes glisten, even produce a tear here or there. It’s so satisfying to know I did this. I’m basking, contented with the week’s work, until I see him sitting in the coffee shop across the avenue—a shop no better or worse than the one I’m in, because it serves the same coffee.

Him, a grown man wearing a boy’s face, a face I haven’t seen in 20 years, a boy’s face now fleshed out and bearded and dominated by a nose broken more than once, a face half-obscured by thick black glasses but utterly recognizable.

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If I didn’t know better, I’d think the man the face belonged to was named Eli.

Eli, who was my best friend until the moment I was rescued and he was not.

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Eli sticks out precisely because he doesn’t acknowledge Empathy Hour. It’s a remarkable breach of norms. While everyone else watches the nearest screen, hands over hearts or across mouths making soft performative sounds of distress and worry and finally relief, only Eli drinks his drink, grimacing, interested only in his own disgust. Before Empathy Hour’s 15 minutes are up, he’s out of his seat, unnecessarily leaping over the rail of a moving walkway, cutting a dramatic figure as he’s whisked from view.

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“Did you see that?” I ask Prim, pointing where maybe-Eli went. “Did you see that guy?”

“See what guy?” Prim asks, without glancing up from her tablet, where even I can see our numbers have slipped. “Not our best episode. Francis, you used too good a dog again. Nobody watched the people.”

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I bitterly eat my fungus-cake. The database we rely on to make Empathy Hour is vast but not endless. We don’t have enough dogs and cats, making it hard to optimize my pet choices. It’s easier for Prim, who has plenty of landscapes to work from: There are Cities everywhere, and Wilds too. The only thing we can never do anymore is show the real footage of anyone’s real family. The sobbing, the screaming, the dirt caked in the creases of clothes, it’s too gruesome. Now we build our episodes by recombining the finite stock of what was filmed before our City’s gates closed, designing composite people to rescue from composite disasters. The technology is impressive but it requires reality as an input; with no new footage coming, we can’t afford to delete anything, so the faces of my parents remain in the database. So does my face. So does our house, drowned long ago. So does my dog, who cost me so much. Still, all I have to do to avoid seeing us while I work is to never search our exact demographics. Never combine certain ages, certain skin tones, certain biomes. Never choose a Saint Bernard, which can weigh up to 180 pounds all by itself.

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After all, no one should ever put a dog that big into a rescue basket, not when there are people left to save.

Our City is 16 interlinked arcologies, a self-contained, self-sufficient society of recycled water, recycled air, composted everything. All travel between Arcs is by sleek underground trams, their windowscreens all displaying the same bucolic countryside, the same cow beside the same grain silo. Tonight, Prim and I share the ride home, her Arc one stop before mine. Sitting beside me, she says, “Did you hear? Landscape wants to add in some autonomous farm drones, to show people how the land is being made productive again.”

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“Wait—is the land being made productive again?”

Her look is withering: I’m an idiot she has to put up with, not a colleague she admires. Prim’s ambitious and knows my long tenure is blocking her next promotion, but she exits the train with a friendly enough wave. The disdain she feels for me is strictly professional.

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People get on, people get off, no one rides the Loop a second longer than they have to. No one ever sees the cow twice except me, the city’s lone joyrider. No one except me, and, tonight, the bearded man from the Arc 2 concourse, who enters the now-empty car to sit opposite me. He removes his glasses, wipes the bridge on his shirt hem, puts them back on.

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“Hey, Francis,” he says. “Long time no see.” I can’t believe it’s him. Eli’s hair has gone gray, his cheeks craggy and sun-damaged. I imagine the life story captured in his swollen knuckles, each enlarged joint a breeding ground for arthritis. My mom and dad had hands like that. I can’t picture their faces anymore, but I know those hands.

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“How did you get here?” I see our security only in occasional ad-vids but I know it’s there; the City has walls and gates and nothing with walls and gates can go without armed guards. After all, the Founders weren’t pacifist environmentalists inventing a post-scarcity society of egalitarianism and thrift. Or if they once were, they soon discovered they hated how such a society made everyone equally rich, so they let in some rescues to be their tired, their poor, their grateful huddled wretched refuse. That was the first incarnation of Empathy Hour: live videos of actual rescues of actual people who actually got to live in the City. Sure, in the subbasement. Sure, as waiters and trash collectors. Sure. But safe as anyone who’d paid their way in. Safe from everyone but the people who rescued them.

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But Eli wasn’t one of those rescues, like I was. If he was, I would’ve seen him by now.

“The more interesting question,” Eli says, “isn’t how I got here but why I came. Why don’t you invite me upstairs and I’ll tell you all about it?”

It’s a bad idea. What I should do is run away, try to forget Eli was ever here. The deepfake cow zips by. I’m almost home. I stand and reach out a hand, pull Eli to his feet. His hand is as calloused as I imagined. A memory of sandpaper. A memory of sand. He smiles, exposes a broken canine, and despite the broken tooth it’s the same smile I remember.

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We’ve changed but not that much.

Even back then, Eli could always get me to do whatever he wanted.

My apartment is located on the 14th floor of Arc 12. Most of my walls are shared by another apartment but the soundproofing is so exquisite you’d never know; every wall is a floor-to-ceiling screen displaying not only entertainments but a designer world. Landscape isn’t my department but I did some consulting before Prim joined us. How green should the grass be? How rolling the hills? How fast the rivers? The answers change but always in the same direction: The green gets greener, the hills more rolling, the water coursing evermore rapidly.

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I’m still at the window when Eli emerges from the bathroom, dressed in clothes I printed while he showered. He runs a hand through his damp hair before retrieving his glasses from beside the materials printer. “You’ve done well for yourself, Francis,” he says, flopping onto my sofa. “You know you’re famous, right? Where I’m from, everyone remembers watching Empathy Hour. So realistic. So moving.” There’s a mocking tone in his voice, but it’s gentle enough. “Not that we see it much anymore, not with all the new shows made specifically for the Camps.”

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The camps. I picture FEMA’s white trailers and white tents, before FEMA was shuttered. Fences hastily erected by weekend soldiers in crisp camouflage, distributions of bottled water and government-issued food in plain packaging. I remember my dad, on the last day I saw him, saying, Hurricane Katrina probably wasn’t the first time I saw the camps, but it was the first time I remember. And now we’re headed there too.

He said this, and then he pushed me up onto the roof.

Me and Eli and my Saint Bernard, all there together, standing beside my parents atop our drowning house.

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Eli, who was staying with us because his parents had gone missing a week earlier, last seen paddling away in a canoe to try to get us all help.

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Eli, orphaned by the world. Me, orphaned by my own choices. The two of us here, reunited at last. “I can’t believe the camps still exist,” I say, retrieving two glasses from the kitchen, plus a bottle of murky-brown mung bean bourbon.

“Not the camps,” he corrects, accepting a glass, “but the Camps.” This time I hear the capital letter: a proper place name, like the City, like the Wilds. “No more trailers or tents. And not outside, because not much is outside anymore.”

He sloshes his drink, threatens a spill above my immaculate couch. I down my mung-bourbon and pour another. The stuff tastes like wet dirt but it works; my face flushes with equal parts shame and alcohol. “Where were the Camps built? How far away were you?”

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“You really don’t know?” There’s a smile threatening on his face, how Eli’s always looked when he has a secret. “The Camps are below the Cities. I was brought here, to yours, along with your parents. Not long after you left us behind.”

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I start to protest but there’s no malice in his voice when he cuts me off. “Water under the bridge. And over the bridge. And washing the bridge away. How could you have known they wouldn’t come back for me or your parents?”

“That’s right,” I say. I’d assumed my parents and Eli would follow me and my dog aboard. But a Saint Bernard is such a big creature. So much dumb fur and friendliness and slobber that there wasn’t room for anyone else.

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The pilots hadn’t known this would be the last trip, either. Only after we arrived in the City was it obvious the rescues had ended.

“Why are you here, Eli? What do you want?”

“Ah,” Eli says. He walks into the bathroom, returns carrying trousers so worn they should’ve gone into a recycler long ago. “I wanted to show you something.” He fishes in a pocket and pulls out an ancient solid-state drive. “Where can I plug this in?”

No way he’s attaching it to my tablet or my wall display. But there’s a nest of obsolete disconnected tech at PropArts, shoved in a closet after we’d digitized every piece of loose old-world footage we could find. Something there should work.

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And if it doesn’t?

Then I don’t have to know whatever Eli has come to tell me.

We take another train ride, looping past the deepfake cow and back to the Arc 2 elevator to PropArts. I’m nervous about being caught with Eli but it’s the middle of the night. There shouldn’t be anyone here and isn’t. As I unlock the door, Eli tells me about the Camps. “Lately I’ve been assigned to a mycoprotein farm,” he says, following me through the darkened cubicle maze. “All day shoveling and raking knee-deep in moist synth-dirt, breathing in spores of genetically modified mushrooms. But it’s not the worst job I’ve had.”

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Eli describes the cavernous underground warehouses where men and women and children in filter-masks dismantle the City’s discarded gadgets, uncoiling copper wire from generators, teasing free spent lithium-ion batteries to recover rare earth metals. “Everyone hopes this isn’t the time a swollen battery spontaneously explodes. But sometimes it is.”

“I don’t know where those gadgets come from,” I say, as we enter the storage room. “But ours are recycled in house. I’ve seen a video touring the facility—”

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“Francis, you know you’re not the only division of PropArts. Do you think none of what’s made here is aimed at you?”

I don’t respond. I know and I don’t know, because I don’t want to know what I know. I retrieve a distressed tablet from a box of junk. “We’ll have to plug this in but it should work.”

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I say it even as I hope it won’t.

“Don’t be afraid, Francis. What I have to show you isn’t more propaganda. It’s the truth.”

“But that’s exactly what you’d say if it was propaganda.” I plug in the tablet, wait for it to light up before I attach Eli’s drive. He hovers while I watch the first video. It’s not even 15 minutes of footage, not even a whole Empathy Hour, but it’s more than enough.

What did I think Eli was going to show me? People drowning in floods, burning in fires, starving in between? Disease and destruction and desolation? Unprotected workers doing dangerous labor I wouldn’t dream of doing? Some of it is that. Some of it’s worse. This is the suffering my good life depends upon, but what I feel seeing it laid bare isn’t empathy, at least not the calibrated varietal of it we cultivate during Empathy Hour.

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“Shut it off,” I say weakly, guiltily. “I don’t ever want to see that again.”

“You don’t have to rewatch it,” Eli says. “You just have to broadcast it.”

There’s no way to commandeer the City’s screens without Mank’s permission, I explain. He’s got the keys, literally: It’s his authenticator that starts our broadcast. “I can’t help you,” I say. “I want to but I can’t.”

We both know it’s a lie. I can’t and I don’t want to.

Eli takes back the tablet and queues the next video. “Before you decide,” he says, “you should see the videos PropArts makes for the Camps. Those are the real mindfuck.”

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Before Eli arrived, it hadn’t occurred to me there’d be deepfakes in the Camps too. Who could people rounded up and forced to farm fungi underground possibly feel empathy for?

“Not empathy for,” Eli corrects. “Aspiration toward. They show us videos of City life and tell us one day we can earn our place there. But they don’t show us your life. They show us dingy hallways and shared living quarters, people in slightly better clothes than ours, with slightly better hair and teeth. Access to clean food and water, sure, but not shopping, not restaurants, never luxury and excess. The gap between life in the Camps and life in the Cities is made to look slight: The rich are richer but they’re not that rich.”

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The gesture Eli makes indicates not the dim storeroom but the City’s linked arcologies: the gleaming white rooms, the screens showing a more beautiful world, the printers making clean clothes and on-demand snacks. “If the Camps knew about all this,” he says, “they would riot.”

“How did you figure it out?” I ask. “How did you know the videos were fake?”

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His secret smile appears again. Eli was my best friend but I never loved his smile, not then and not now. “It was you, dummy. I saw you, star of the show, a waif eating paste-white gruel, going to school, studying hard, safe and happy. Not you now, but you as you were.

No. It can’t be. Prim wouldn’t.

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But Mank would. That bastard.

“For the past five years,” Eli continues, “you’ve been the most popular celebrity in the Camps. Every episode of your show is about how you were rescued and given a life in the City. You never age, never change. It’s you as you were on the day you left, traveling around a fake City with your fake Saint Bernard, having adventures and learning lessons about the necessity of following the rules and knowing your proper place.”

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Oh god. The dog too?

“Fuck yes, the dog too. If I hadn’t already been sure it was you, your stupid mutt would’ve sealed the deal.”

The video begins playing on the tablet in Eli’s hands. Little Baby Francis, the title card says, although the character who appears isn’t a baby. I was 17 when I was rescued, and so is deepfake me, trotting along beside my deepfake dog. “Your parents loved this,” Eli says, all his anxious humor vanished. “Fifteen years they waited for word that you were OK. This show was all they got. Why didn’t you search for them? For me?”

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How can I say, I never thought about you much at all? How can I admit that I was a stupid teenager when I came to the City, that I was so glad to have arrived in a world of screens showing me things I wanted to see, instead of a world always becoming less?

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“I’m sorry, Eli. I really am.” And this, at least, is true enough: I am sorry for what happened to Eli, to his parents, to mine.

But not sorry enough to wish it had happened to me instead.

Eli claps me on the shoulder. “Let’s figure out how we’re going to get your boss’s authenticator.”

“Franchises, Francis,” says Mank, opening our dinner conversation without preamble or small talk. We’ve already spent this entire Monday storyboarding next week’s Empathy Hour, but there’s no room for the personal in our relationship. Mank may not even have a personal side: When I suggested we have dinner together, his pink cheeks shook with genuine shock. By the time we reach the table he’s back to his old self: “Syndication rights, foreign distribution, remakes and remasters: When the Cities agree to start trading again, we need to be ready. After all, empathy only extends so far across the language barrier. What we need is localized content, produced for particular market demographics worldwide. Hell, why not Empathy Hour Kids, with more pets per rooftop and no adults?” He gestures at the families sharing this new Tex-Mex-Japanese fusion restaurant we’re sitting in. “For kids, forget 15-minute Empathy Hours. Start thinking seven. We’ll have them chock-full of childhood daring and caring and back to more entrepreneurial content in no time.”

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Normally I’m the office naysayer, but tonight my job is to keep him talking and eating and especially drinking, something he’s doing with a gusto I struggle to match, given the taste. It isn’t that I ever thought my glass held actual bourbon, and it’s not like my steak-fajita tempura burger resembles any food I had before the City. But mostly we don’t think about how every bite and sip we take is just highly processed legumes and fungi, cleverly disguised.

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Since Eli arrived, I can’t think about anything else.

Empathy Kids sounds like a great idea,” I say. “The kind of innovation PropArts prizes.”

“Exactly right, and I’m glad to hear you say it.” Mank gestures with a chopstick in one hand and a fork in the other. “I’ve always thought you saw us as competitors, but I want us to be friends. Or friends who compete. Friendly rivals, with an emphasis on the first part outside the office and on the second part in.”

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“A new era in our relationship,” I say, ordering another round of mung-bourbons. I will get better at caring for other people, I tell myself. Just as soon as I get done getting Mank unconscious on fermented mung beans so I can steal his authenticator in order to help my childhood best friend expose the lie I’ve spent my adult life helping to perpetuate.

When his head finally hits the table, a dozen drinks and a dozen increasingly unhinged franchise ideas later, I lean in close, whisper into Mank’s ear: “This is what you get for using me in your videos,” I slur, checking the emptying restaurant before reaching under the open collar of his shirt, fishing through the bramble of his chest hair for the authenticator.

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Only the staff are left, the other refugees chosen to be servants and cooks and toilet scrubbers instead of TV stars. No one here cares what Mank and I do, only that we do it and go. I make my escape without eye contact; if I hadn’t had the good luck to be last, I almost say, I would’ve been one of you.

Another train trip past the deepfake cow and I’m back at Arc 2, where Eli waits in the lobby, standing conspicuously inconspicuous beside the elevators.

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“You’ve got it,” he says, as soon as he sees my face. “You actually did it.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because you look guilty as shit.” He laughs. “Let’s do this before you lose your nerve.”

On the ride up, I study my frightened face in the reflective silver of the elevator’s door. Surely I’m about to be arrested. Whatever happens when everyone sees Eli’s truths? Do I think people will thank me, that I’ll go free and blameless, a messenger unshot?

“You’re doing the right thing,” Eli says, as the elevator doors open on the PropArts office. “Don’t worry—”

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“Shh,” I say, dragging Eli behind the walls of the nearest workstation. “Someone’s here.” The lights are on in our production room, but they shouldn’t be: No one works this late. Or at least I never have. But someone is, and if it’s not me, and it’s not Mank …

Prim. Prim’s here, alone, working late.

And she’s making the next episode of Little Baby Francis.

Even from outside the production room, I can see myself on the screens inside. There I am at 17, 17 forever with my Saint Bernard at my side, feeling his fur, hearing the sound of his bark. Living like I might have lived if the disasters had never come, if the Cities hadn’t saved us—some of us—from the Wilds to come. If the seas hadn’t risen. If the fires hadn’t spread. If the pandemics hadn’t mutated into endless new variants.

The deepfake Francis on the screen is and isn’t me. I never did anything I see myself doing. But I recognize my expression, the sadness and the fear that’s visible even when deepfake me is smiling.

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Prim could invent a whole other life for me, this coworker she obviously despises, but she couldn’t undo my sadness or my fear.

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“Let’s get out of here,” I say—but Eli is no longer beside me.

He’s already opening the door to the production office, stepping inside.

“You must be Prim,” I hear him say. Through the window, I see him reach into the pocket of his jacket—the jacket I printed for him just yesterday—and pull out a pistol, something no printer in the City would ever make. He must’ve brought it with him from the Camps, where it would’ve been just as illegal.

“I’m a big fan of your work,” Eli snarls. “Little Baby Francis is a big hit where I’m from.”

As I rush to follow him, I think, Whom do I save, Prim or Eli?

It’s just designing a scene, I tell myself. It’s just another day at the office.

And then the gun goes off and I know it’s anything but.

Prim lives, of course. So does Eli. Me too. The gunshot is only for dramatic effect. No one dies, no one gets hurt. Not yet. By the time I’m inside the production office, a bullet hole smokes in the center of a shattered display, driving Little Deepfaked Baby Francis from the large central screen into the smaller screens that surround it. With a shaking hand, Prim gives Eli her authenticator, which sends video not to the City, like Mank’s does, but to the Camps.

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“I can’t believe you’re a part of this, Francis,” she says, her proper face properly disappointed. “Whatever this is.”

“I can’t believe you’ve been making videos of me this whole time. I can’t believe they’re good. I thought you didn’t even like people.”

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“I don’t,” Prim says. “But you’re barely a person, are you?”

“There’s no time for this,” Eli says, nodding toward the wall clock before using the pistol to move me beside Prim. With his gun trained on the two of us, Eli works the console with his free hand. Alone in my apartment, he must’ve logged into my remote terminal to upload his footage to PropArts’ servers: When security checks the logs, it’ll look like I made the videos. Once Eli inserts one authenticator or the other, a countdown will begin; soon after, every screen in either the City or the Camps will interrupt its current content to display Eli’s footage.

He inserts Mank’s key first, and I know what he’s sending to the City: the same footage he showed me of what the world outside looks like now. It’s futile, I think. Whatever he hopes is going to happen isn’t. In the City, it’s the middle of the night; mostly this’ll be a bad dream for the City’s sleepwalkers and insomniacs. Eli’s broadcast is disastrous but I’ve seen it all before. I saw it in movies and video games when I was a kid. I watched it on the news as a teenager, and then it arrived at my door. Even Prim, who loves a landscape more than a person, looks bored.

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Soon enough, Prim must know, the elevator door to PropArts will open and security will spill in. Held at gunpoint as she is, she won’t be the one blamed for what’s happened.

When the videos of the Wilds and the Camps end, Eli tosses Mank’s key aside. He inserts Prim’s authenticator next, presses the unnecessarily large red button again. “What are you doing?” I ask. “Don’t the people in the Camps already know how bad it is outside? What could showing them this possibly change?”

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But what plays next isn’t the same footage. It’s me, but not as Little Baby Francis; it’s me, all grown up. Big Baby Francis, not deepfaked but as I truly am, as Eli saw me these past two days. “Where did you get this footage?” I ask, appalled.

“You’re an idiot, Francis,” Prim says. “Can’t you see the camera in his glasses?”

Eli waits while I study the thick black frame perched atop his oft-broken nose. Right above the bridge is the tiniest pinprick of a camera lens, only visible when looking him straight in the eyes, something I must’ve never had the courage to do. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. “Feeling not empathy but envy. Angry envy at this life you have, that everyone in the Camps should’ve had. I’m going to show them what’s really happening. Not the fake barely better City of Little Baby Francis, but the truth.”

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I close my eyes, knowing I don’t need to watch the screens around the smoking bullet hole to imagine what the people in the Camps are seeing. I put myself in someone else’s shoes, watching a screen in some bunkhouse/mushroom farm/recycling center. I put myself in my dead parents’ shoes. I know they’re gone but here they are in my mind, deepfakes of the heart, watching their long-lost son. Here’s sad me, riding the underground tram alone. Here’s lonely me, drinking mung-bourbon in my apartment with its beautiful windowscreens and their fake but convincing views. Here’s wasteful me, printing new clothes even though the ones I’m wearing are merely dirty.

Here’s successful middle management me, smugly eating chocolate fungus-cake.

I’m just a person, I want to argue, not at fault for living the only life I know how. I’m just a person doing the best job he can in the world he was given.

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“Prim, maybe it’s not you who’s bad with people,” I say, and the look on Prim’s face is so withering I immediately turn away. “Eli,” I say instead, appealing to the only person who might still trust me. “Give me the gun.”

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“No, Francis,” he says, his face contorted with what a better person than me would recognize not as anger but sorrow. “You can’t stop this. You can’t save your precious City from the people in the Camps. Not now. They’ll strike. They’ll riot. I know they will.”

“I know too,” I say. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. It doesn’t matter. I can’t save the City and I can’t help the Camps. I can only help Eli. “Give me the gun and go.”

“What are you doing, Francis?” asks Prim, her voice disbelieving as Eli hesitantly hands over the pistol, as I point it in Prim’s direction. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Once,” I tell her, “this guy was my best friend.” I point Eli to Mank’s office, where I know a fire escape waits behind an emergency hatch. There won’t be any fakery inside, only spiraling steel steps descending 40 floors to ground level. If he hurries, he might vanish the way he came, back through whatever secret passage he took to get here in the first place.

“I’ll look you up again in another 20 years, Francis,” Eli says. “Maybe I’ll find you somewhere a little more real. Maybe even somewhere better, but for all of us this time.”

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And then he’s gone, not rescued but set free.

Any moment now, the elevator will open to let in a security squad dressed in riot armor and armed with supposedly nonlethal weaponry. I’ll hold onto the gun until they arrive, do my best to make the scene convincing. Probably it won’t fool them for long.

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Just enough to save Eli, the only person in the world I know exactly how to help, right here, right now.

Read a response essay by two climate migration researchers.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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