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EP:63:13 : “Cornerstone”
ERIA QUINT: Welcome to Showdown, where we look at the biggest issues of the day from several angles, so you can see the whole story. I’m your host, Eria Quint. Today, we tackle the most recent Synthworld scandal as news broke this week that research scientist Aimi Zentani died while working on Project Cornerstone. Little was previously known about this part of the Synthworld until her untimely death drew it into the spotlight. We’ll dig into the details around Cornerstone and revisit whether the Synthworld project is still worth funding or whether it’s finally time to end this complicated endeavor.
Joining us is Kali Hanks the investigative journalist and longtime Synthworld critic who broke the story for the Terra Gazette. Welcome back to Showdown, Ms. Hanks.
KALI HANKS: Great to be back, but saddened by the circumstances that forced us to have this discussion.
ERIA QUINT: We’re also joined by Davon O’Hara. He previously worked on the Synthworld as a senior engineer and has firsthand experience with Cornerstone. He now runs the Engineering department at the University of Rhetor. Let’s start with a question for you, Professor. What can you tell us about Cornerstone and its relation to the wider Synthworld project?
DAVON O’HARA: Cornerstone simulates Synthworld conditions on a significantly smaller scale. It’s been a valuable testing ground for various aspects of the project for decades.
ERIA QUINT: This is more than a computer simulation though, right?
DAVON O’HARA: Most definitely. Are you familiar with the training arcologies built during the colonization of Mars?
ERIA QUINT: A bit. They simulated the distance to the sun, day/night cycles, stuff like that to help colonists acclimate to life on Mars.
DAVON O’HARA: Exactly. This is essentially the same thing. Just bigger and more technologically sophisticated.
ERIA QUINT: How big are we talking?
DAVON O’HARA: Bigger than you’d expect. Cornerstone houses and supports several separate but identical arcologies, each one conducting studies that could last years or even decades.
KALI HANKS: Since Professor O’Hara seems reluctant to provide a straight answer, let me paint the picture. My sources describe Cornerstone as about the size of a massive asteroid with enough space between each arcology and its facilities to keep workers compartmentalized.
ERIA QUINT: Is that accurate, Professor?
DAVON O’HARA: More or less.
ERIA QUINT: And what kind of tests are being done at there?
DAVON O’HARA: Two examples I can mention, because they’ve already been discussed publicly, include a test focused on material erosion caused by flowing water and another on the viability of crops in various soil compositions. There have been plenty of other, fascinating experiments undertaken that I’m not at liberty to reveal.
ERIA QUINT: Ms. Hanks, your article in the Terra Gazette broke the news about Ms. Zentani. What can you tell us about the circumstances surrounding her death?
KALI HANKS: Ms. Zentani was in a unique position. She lived and worked within one of these arcologies for well over a year, observing and collecting data on several projects.
ERIA QUINT: Is living inside an arcology common?
KALI HANKS: No, people typically live and work in the facilities surrounding them, so they don’t contaminate or interfere with the experiments. Living inside an arcology was, in fact, the most important study Ms. Zentani was associated with. That particular program, codenamed Pangu, studied the effects of simulated Synthworld conditions on the Human body.
ERIA QUINT: Did living in these conditions cause the death of Ms. Zentani?
KALI HANKS: Officially, no. Her death was ruled an accident, with the official cause listed as blunt force trauma suffered during a fall into a canyon. But evidence suggests that this was more than a tragic slip.
ERIA QUINT: What evidence contradicts the official story? And does it suggest that something other than a fall killed her?
KALI HANKS: The fall definitely was a factor, but it doesn’t appear to be the only one. Every week Ms. Zentani walked a clearly defined path to the highest point in that arcology, collecting soil samples and scanning plant life along the way. Yet, she somehow fell into a canyon on the opposite side of the mountain. Most shockingly, she was found half-dressed and not wearing her mobiGlas, which complicated rescue efforts and made locating her more difficult.
ERIA QUINT: Your article implied that foul play might be involved.
KALI HANKS: Well, my source brought me this story out of concern that—
DAVON O’HARA: You can’t be serious. Cornerstone isn’t some trashy crime vid. It’s one of the most secure and monitored locations in the entire universe.
KALI HANKS: If Professor O’Hara had let me finish, he would’ve discovered that I actually agree with him. Following the publication of my article, I received information that’s convinced me that Ms. Zentani’s death wasn’t the result of foul play, but something worse.
DAVON O’HARA: And what’s that?
KALI HANKS: Gross negligence. I just got my hands on safety reports that show the atmospheric generators the team has been developing repeatedly ran into issues during earlier testing. Problems with oxygen levels could have affected Ms. Zentani, who wasn’t wearing a suit, and caused a high-altitude cerebral edema. This is a severe condition where fluid collects in the brain and leads to dizziness, fatigue, confusion, and other serious symptoms. That would explain the removal of clothing and her being found far from the trail she’s walked every week for over a year.
ERIA QUINT: Did the autopsy turn up any evidence to support this theory?
KALI HANKS: Unfortunately, the head trauma suffered during the fall probably masked any evidence of the initial cerebral edema.
ERIA QUINT: Professor O’Hara, how attentive was management to safety concerns while you were there?
DAVON O’HARA: It was their primary concern.
ERIA QUINT: Do we know if Ms. Zentani’s death is the first at Cornerstone?
KALI HANKS: It’s impossible to know, Eria. Most details related to Cornerstone, including its budget and employment records, are confidential. I did speak with someone who believed there were more, but was unable to verify that claim. Perhaps Professor O’Hara has some insight into the matter?
DAVON O’HARA: Ms. Hanks obviously knows that I can’t comment on that.
KALI HANKS: Or you don’t have the courage to do so.
DAVON O’HARA: I’m not interested in engaging in personal conflicts with Ms. Hanks.
KALI HANKS: Even if your silence means someone else dies due to a lack of accountability?
DAVON O’HARA: Scientists that volunteer for these experimental programs understand the potential risks and rewards better than anyone. Sometimes that comes with the territory. What happened to Ms. Zentani is a tragedy, but she wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to die in a scientific endeavor intended to better the universe.
KALI HANKS: Let’s skip over the heartlessness of that answer and focus on the bigger question. Why do the specifics of Cornerstone need to stay secret?
DAVON O’HARA: Because we need to protect the tech being developed there. We’re talking about technology that’s capable of affecting planets on a global scale. Some of it could be dangerous if used against living beings or even entire ecosystems. It’s the only sensible thing to do when that type of tech is involved.
KALI HANKS: Or is it because revealing the true cost, alongside all the failures, might sour the public on the entire endeavor? If we’re struggling to develop the tech for these simple arcologies, what are the chances they’ll actually work on the Synthworld?
ERIA QUINT: Professor, I want you to respond to that, but first we need to take a quick break. Stick around for more Showdown after this.
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