A parapsychological symbol denoting an unknown in extrasensory perception.
(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)
“Sandra. Sandra? Get up! I’m off to work… Aleksandra!” I hear it vaguely, and feel the hands shaking me awake, but they are so irrelevant to my brain in its foggy, sleepy state.
“Urgh… I’ll get up later,” I respond to the hands, brushing them off my shoulder. Right, because that tactic always works. The hands keep gently nudging me to open my eyes, but I try to ignore them—in vain. I stir slightly, and wonder why, why did I stay up so late? Right, I was researching all I could on the Experiment so I would be prepared. The Experiment! I bolt upright, my eyes flying open. My dad stumbles away a few steps, taken aback by my sudden movement. He watches me for just a moment, before understanding lightens his soft features. My haze of tiredness fades, leaving anxiety and anticipation to battle furiously to be the dominant emotion.
“Aleksandra—” my father’s voice doesn’t waver from his usual kind, smooth tone, but his smile contains a mixture of resignation and exasperation. I shake my head before he can continue—the anticipation seems to be winning.
“I know,” I assure him, flashing a grin. His smile brightens at my tone of ardour. For the past several months, I have been obsessing over everything to do with my internship. I will be observing the Experiment, a collection of virtual realities where simulated humans’ reactions and behaviours can be recorded as they go through life experiences. This helps us predict what people will do when put in certain situations and understand why. Dad has been trying to get me to relax about it, and (though it has taken some major sleep-deprivation to get me to admit it) he’s right.
“Good,” he squeezes my shoulder. “I can’t wait to hear about your first day.” He turns when he reaches my bedroom door, and produces another bright smile that causes his dimples to flit onto his cheeks. A few moments later, I hear the door to my family’s apartment click close and I check the digital clock on my bedside table; it’s seven-oh-five. It’s a good thing he thought to wake me.
I watch myself in the bathroom mirror as I phase from disordered—in my mismatched pajamas and horribly messy hair—to presentable, sporting a new outfit, and with my hair pinned back a small claw. The latter is pointless, really, for the honey brown fibers are sure to force the clip into recession before too long.
The confidence that my dad nurtured to life this morning keeps my apprehension at bay for longer than I even hoped it would. In fact, I’m already up the stairs of the official-looking Experiment Headquarters before the panic hits me, seeming as impermeable as the solid brick of the structure before me. I stand awkwardly just outside, staring at the address number emblazoned in an elegant gold script above the door—an enlarged copy of the one that graces the letterhead of my acceptance notification. Eventually, a security guard begins to eye me curiously through the the glass double doors, so I hastily stumble inside and approach her. Her eyes still haven’t left me. At least she returns my attempt at a polite smile as I show her my letter. I sign in, and she does a double-take when she reads my name, leading her to unnecessarily point out a grand staircase in the centre of the lobby.
The Experiment Headquarters has two levels: The one I had entered on, which contains maintenance, security, and miscellaneous storage on one side, and conference rooms and a cafeteria on the other. The second has offices—and is my destination.
I deliberately ascend the single, wide flight of stairs. It is unnervingly ostentatious, like the ones at museums. The steps are made of some glossy stone and bordered by narrow, intricate gold railings on either side.
The scene flips once I reach the top. If you have come this far inside, you are obviously not the intended recipient of the grandiose façade. The staircase matches the lavish conference rooms below, which host all visiting executives. Everyone else gets one of the small offices that line the narrow hallway upstairs.
The door directly across from me opens, and a tall woman emerges. When she focuses on me, her face brightens in recognition. She extends a hand out to me, which I quickly accept, hoping she doesn’t notice how clammy mine is.
“Hello, I’m Victoria. You must be Aleksandra,” her voice is very clear and business-like, but she has added a warmness to it, which I am grateful for. Her dark brown hair is swept up into a loose, neat bun at the base of her neck. She is younger than I thought she could be, not more than five years my senior, but her youth obviously doesn’t measure to her success. My mother would like her.
“Yes, I am,” I reply sheepishly. Granted, it is overly self-conscious of me, but I can’t help thinking that she is sizing me up to her expectations .
“It’s lovely to meet you,” she remarks, then adds a smile almost as an afterthought. I notice that, like her hair, her smile is perfect.
Our small-talk ceases when she leads me back through the door she had just exited. Inside, bright fluorescent lights reflect off clean white walls, stunning me. In the centre of the room, hidden from my view, there is a large, Plexiglas display case. The employees around it speak animatedly amongst themselves. In the corner opposite from me, desks line the walls of a small room behind an archway. Their occupants contribute little to the room’s buzz of chatter. They sit, staring at the computer screens in front of them, which show something that I recall as a script, but in a language I can’t identify. Admittedly, I never paid enough attention in my computers class.
Victoria, noticing the subject of my focus, recaptures my attention by commentating,
“The programmers code the virtual realities.”
I allow her to guide me toward another corner of the room, but I can’t tear my eyes away from the excitement in the centre.
“Aleksandra, this is Casey, one of your fellow interns,” a severe-looking girl now stands next to Victoria. “In fact, her focus is programming,” she tacks on, connecting her last two statements. I greet Casey, but the small smile she gives me in way of reply looks forced.
Victoria breaks the silence swiftly, motioning us closer to the top-view case. As I peer into it, I am shocked; my mum had been disinclined to divulge anything about it, preferring I learn about it myself when I came here. It is a three-dimensional showing of a town with little animated people, programmed to act as real humans would. One of the employees holds a tablet that is zoomed up upon a house, where children are playing frisbee in the yard. A clock at the bottom of the screen reads: ‘4:33 pm’, which must the time in the simulation for it can’t be much after eight in the morning here. I look back down at the display, and see the same children, barely visible, in a lawn on the outskirts of the town.
“This is amazing,” I gasp, slack-jawed, but immediately feel as if I have spoken out of turn. Victoria nods, giving me a slight, reminiscing smile.
“It still astonishes me.”
Back in the narrow hall, Victoria knocks on a door, and when a voice on the other side welcomes us to enter, she opens the door for us to walk through.
“These are our newest interns, Aleksandra and Casey,” She motions to the two of us. A middle-aged man behind a very messy desk nods and waves jovially. Then Victoria turns to us, “This is Asher West, he will be leading both of you through your training.” Asher West ushers us into his office, and Victoria takes her leave.
“So Casey and Aleksandra… Of course, Aleksandra, you are following in your mother’s footsteps?”
“Yes,” I say, but refrain from elaborating because his question seems to irk Casey. He turns to her next, inquiring as to her career goals before gesturing to his computer. It displays a picture similar to the one I observed on the tablet in the first room we came to. However, it shows an apartment and it now is about six in the evening. Inside, an elderly couple are just sitting down to dinner with two girls, who could only be their grandchildren.
“Aleksandra, you will be following this household for the duration of your training, taking note of their behaviours—what they do, say, when a family member dies, a friend moves away, when they get a new puppy, or even when one of them learns to play a song on the flute,” He counts off the examples on his fingers. “We use that information to predict how people would act during a disaster—an earthquake, or a war, anything. Do you have any questions?” I know there’s more to learn, and I want to learn it, but I don’t know enough about it to ask, so I just smile and shake my head. Asher directs his next statement toward Casey, “Most of your work will be done to create, maintain or update this virtual reality by writing or changing the code for animations, aesthetics, etcetera.” As he continues, Casey looks enthusiastic for the first time—or not enthusiastic, for that implies a positive emotion, which it doesn’t seem to be—instead, she looks fiercely interested.
At lunch, we head down to the cafeteria on the ground floor. Asher leaves us at a small table, and I pull my lunch from my backpack and sit down. Casey stands on the grungy tile for a moment before taking a seat across from me.
“I’d imagine that was rather boring for you,” she accuses, catching me off-guard. I frown my confusion instead of voicing it, as I had just taken a bite of my sandwich. She rolls her eyes, as if I was being purposefully difficult.
“Your mother,” she says, as if this explanation is the most obvious thing in the universe, which, to be fair, it probably is. “When you have Regina Knightley as a mum, I’d imagine you don’t need to work very hard to keep up—in fact, I’d imagine you don’t need to work at all.” Oh, that was her problem with me.
“If you must know,” I begin, keeping my voice civil but emphatic, “I did work hard to get this.”
“Please,” she retorts, “I’m not an idiot. You, on a whim, decided that you wanted this internship, so your mum called this office, and they suddenly had an opening for you.” Her tone is of mock-surprise. I turn away from her piercing glare, not because her allegation is true in its entirety, but because I fear part of it is. I applied for the position independently, that much she had wrong, but the reason for my acceptance had not been disclosed. Not that I am going to admit that to her.
“I already told you that you are mistaken,” I snap, more harshly than I mean to. “Why bring it up if you are just going to refuse to accept my answer?”
Following her scoff, the rest of lunch passes in tense silence.
Aleksandra is the daughter of Regina Knightley, the founder of the Experiment, which is a government-funded psycho-sociological study of human behaviour via virtual reality. When Aleksandra begins an internship in a local division of the Experiment, she struggles to be seen outside of her mother’s shadow—especially by her fellow intern, Casey, who credits Aleksandra getting the position to her mother’s influence.
However, Casey’s suspicions of corruption in the Experiment’s administration extend far beyond an unjust employment opportunity. She believes that the study’s data is not calculated to save people from violence and grief, as is advertised, but to be able to gain the information needed to control human decisions and behaviour when such a war-causing dispute arises. Therefore, the personalities and reactions of the simulated people are not programmed into the computer software, but are the products of the recorded brain activity of actual people whose brains are tricked into thinking the simulation is reality.
When Casey’s mother goes missing and law enforcement abandons the search without effort, Casey supposes that her mother is an unwilling experimentee—a pawn in the Experiment. In a state of loss and fury, she reveals her theory to Aleksandra, along with an accusation that Regina is responsible. Astonished that Casey would make such a claim out of spite, Aleksandra is only too glad to move to the capital for a promotion when it is offered.
There, she hears rumors echoing Casey’s hypothesis. One night, under the pretence of working late, she breaks into a locked room and finds all the evidence she needs to be convinced.
Immediately, Aleksandra seeks Casey out, but finds her presence may be unwelcome among Casey and the other protesters of the Experiment. Not wanting to be an outcast on both sides, Aleksandra attempts to prove herself to them, eventually striking up an unlikely friendship on her way to the truth.