4 September 2018
It seems like an ordinary diner, a bit small yet not cramped.
The headline of a newspaper held by one customer catches Winston’s eye, “Benefits Of Military Spending.” He snickers to himself, “Benefits? Are there any?”
He notices that the few patrons look like regulars and are all either reading menus or have already had plates cleared away.
Winston has a personal rule not to eat at an unfamiliar restaurant unless he at least sees a sample first. He starts to leave.
“Not going to order anything, sir?”
“No. No, thank you.”
Something about the waitress strikes him as peculiar. She’s of moderate height and build. Her hair is a particular way. She seems very much like a diner waitress yet not a stereotype or cliché.
The door through which he exits isn’t to the outside. It’s more like a hotel lobby but without a check-in counter or concierge desk.
People are having conversations in twos or threes with the odd person flitting between various groups.
Not quite a singles’ bar, for it feels more comfortable than that. No one has a drink. Winston feels warmth of a relative’s home but without personal effects.
Very much in contrast to the diner, there’s a tranquility here which suits his introverted nature.
Wandering about the place, Winston goes down one of two hallways emanating from the room centred in between.
The path is long with a T-intersection, and each way continues with many doors.
“Which way from here?” He thinks to himself, “Yes, this way.”
Rounding the next corner, a room has its door open a bit. Music playing at low volume dates from the era just before Winston was born.
It’s familiar but not really to his tastes.
Coming down the hallway, there’s a man in a suit, notable for being so impeccably dressed. He appears to be of Chinese ancestry, but not likely of the same province as Winston’s own grandfather. Not that this matters at all, but it comes to mind due to that song’s time period.
The next door found opened also has music playing. This song was popular during his early childhood. He always found that genre a bit obnoxious.
“Curious– all these corridors!” He mutters to himself. “Where do they lead?”
Continuing along a new hallway, Winston passes an occasional person here and there, another lobby followed by yet another set of branching hallways.
Further down the hallway, just before the next T-intersection yet another room has its door opened enough to hear music playing.
This evokes memories of his high school years. “Lots of fun dancing to that one,” Winston recollects to himself.
Without really thinking about it, he veers along the hallway to the right.
It’s another long stretch. An occasional person goes in or out of a room but otherwise this place seems unremarkable.
One more room emanates music, and Winston almost predicts that the time period coincides with his university graduation.
His connection to the music evokes an emotion not felt since then– empowered, ready to take on the world. “You can achieve anything,” he remembers. That must be from the commencement speech.
At the next intersection of hallways, a woman crosses his path and then another. Each appears well dressed, business-like.
Another transiting the next junction appears in a cocktail dress.
A fourth wears more provocative attire. She offers a becoming smile as they pass from opposite directions.
There’s a man in relaxed fashion of blazer with jeans, so Winston’s own jeans no longer feel so out of place in this part of the building.
Walking by one door, it’s ajar. Any music playing goes unnoticed by Winston.
Darkness of the room emphasizes foreground figures of a couple standing embraced. A man kisses just below a woman’s ear while caressing the base of her head with his opposite hand.
She glances up.
Her eyes meet Winston’s briefly and lower again. His eyes follow hers. Extending her leg from the ankle-length fitted dress through a slit to her hip, she shuts the door but not before a wink and smile at Winston.
Feeling a little aroused, he continues walking.
Compelled to try a door but not any one at random, this one door in particular seems more appealing somehow. “Why this one?” he asks himself silently, followed by, “Go in and see.”
Entering the room, it’s dimly lit yet feels inviting. Without thinking about it, he moves deeper into the room and closes the door.
This feels both strange and exhilarating for him– strange due to his cautious nature, exhilarating going beyond it.
Adjusting to the light level, he sees a figure on a bed. It’s a woman turning over, looking at him, smiling at him. Before it registers that she’s nude, she speaks in soft tones. “Just what the doctor ordered. Would you be so kind as to rub this cream on my back, love?”
With that, she rolls onto her stomach and with arms bent, rests facing him. She glances towards a small table adjacent to the bed with the container.
Not one to disappoint a beautiful woman, Winston overcomes his customary shyness and complies with the request.
One thing leads to another, and before he realizes it himself, he’s making love to a woman that he has never before seen.
As they finish this interlude and he moves onto his side, another woman emerges– crawling onto the bed from the far edge wearing only a collar. She moves each limb with precision, poise and strength of an exotic creature. The collar attaches to a lead held by the first woman.
Winston backs away from the bed, “Where’d…? Ummm… Hello?”
The first woman offers, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. She’s part of your package.”
Dopamine gives way to adrenaline within Winston’s body chemistry.
Dressed and out into the hallway before he knows it, Winston walks past an alcove. He overhears an older woman talking to a gentleman and gesturing to a trio of woman– blond, brunette and a redhead– each wearing garments that to have any less fabric would no longer qualify as dresses. She sweeps her hand across as if at a car dealership unveiling the latest models.
Resisting the urge to sprint, fleeing remains Winston’s top priority.
He forces himself to take long slow calming breaths as he walks by some of the burliest men he’s ever seen wearing expensive suits.
As his mind explodes with self-doubt and peppered with rhetorical questions such as, “Is this a joke?”, he makes it beyond reach of the house muscle apparently without them hearing the heart pounding in his chest.
Finally, an end to the hallway maze and an exit!
Twisty little passages, all alike vanish behind him as the door with no exterior handle closes and latches with a loud thunk.
* * *
A path flows down a gentle hill and curves beyond where trees grow thick.
Any other direction involves circumnavigating the low sprawling building from which Winston came.
Following the path, he finds himself in a grove where the next clearing continues being elusive, apparently just around the bend– but never so.
While fresh air feels nice, the pattern continues far too long, possibly hours.
Just as he submits to futility of the situation, he notices a shoelace comes undone. This terrain feels uneven enough that retying would be prudent.
Glancing up from a kneeling position, he finally sees an actual end to the trees.
A mere thirty paces later, he’s free from the forest.
The trail branches from here. One path leads slightly up and to the right, while left descends quickly into a deep ravine.
Taking the right option, civilization soon becomes visible again.
He passes a diner very similar to the one earlier in the day. With its door propped open, he overhears, “Oh, I didn’t know that you were working today!”
Something about the waitresses strike him as peculiar. Each is of moderate height and build. Each has hair a particular way. Each seems very much like a diner waitress yet not a stereotype or cliché.
Looking again after few more strides and seeing the other’s face, the waitresses could pass as twins.
The next building encountered offers a window into a small office with a security guard ignoring banks of closed-circuit television monitors.
Winston finds something appealing about watching the watcher, but a sound interrupts that train of thought.
The snap of leather soles against a hard tiled floor becomes louder and louder.
As if walking farther than seems possible from the little security office, emerges the impeccably dressed Chinese gentleman from the hotel hallway. He walks directly in front of Winston– impossible to not notice.
Walking a bit farther, a valet attendant hands a ticket to a man in exchange for car keys and then drives off.
Winston feels compelled to follow suit and grabs a couple of tickets from the valet stand. This behaviour feels uncomfortable for Winston, and he starts questioning himself, “Is this how kleptomaniacs start?”
The vehicle approaching emits a particular shine, almost a luminescence.
Taking his eyes off the fancy car feels like that would be difficult right now.
His mental monologue continues, “Would I even know how to shift gears on one of those?”
As it pulls into the general area of the valet, two guys inside appear dressed for a discotheque. As he approaches with ticket in hand, “We don’t need or want valet.”
Exempt from his self-doubt, Winston keeps walking to the next.
It’s a gaudy truck, unlikely to ever go off-road beyond a pothole in a shopping mall parking lot. Its driver takes one of the tickets out of Winston’s hand in exchange for a tangle of key-chains involving pompoms, charms and competitive with respect to “Gotta catch ‘em all.”
This too has proven to be a pointless endeavour, so he tosses the rat’s nest of keys into the truck and strides onward.
With sidewalks overcrowded in the next stretch, he walks in the street.
The logjam of growing valet queue ensures no car could come through.
This half of the block begins a slight incline.
With a quarter block remaining, he hears the roar of a decrepit engine straining under the overzealous determination of its driver to push onward.
Glancing over his left shoulder, a motorcycle approaches directly towards him.
Winston jumps to the left, just as the motorcycle passes.
Too polite to curse the driver audibly, Winston just glares at him for a long second while walking to the sidewalk.
On the sidewalk the impeccably dressed Chinese gentleman stands facing Winston directly. “Winston, I’m the executive researcher here. Apologies for interrupting, but we need your assistance for a moment. Would you please come with me?”
* * *
Winston and the researcher enter a building just off the intersection of the motorcycle encounter.
The door leads immediately into a room with optical-white walls and mahogany wainscotting. Its furnishings seem current and high-end, like in a study one might imagine at a wealthy estate house.
There are two armchairs exactly ninety degrees apart and a shared side table holding a handsome lamp and small vase of fresh flowers. There’s a potted plant in one corner and a small potted tree in another, both visible from orientation of the two chairs.
“Come in. Please, sit. Relax.”
Winston takes his seat.
“You’ve had a busy day. Tell me about it.”
Winston tells his story but elides events of the room at the hotel with the two women, saying, “Accidentally walked into a room with a woman apparently waiting for someone else, so I left right away.”
“Why did you lie?”
“The bit about the brothel. You did in fact have relations with the first woman.”
“No, I didn’t,” snaps Winston.
The researcher gives a stern look.
Winston asks, “Why do you think I may have lied?”
“Hmmm… Evasion. Flush response. Embarrassment.” Asks with clinical detachment, “Strict upbringing? A religious moral code?”
“No. Not really. Well…”
“Why did you lie about what happened in the room at the brothel? You were compelled to begin with her– had no choice but to have sex with her.”
Winston stares onward with his best poker-face, but in times like this, it’s quite apparent that he doesn’t play much poker.
“I know that it’s not because of you being homosexual. You’re not. Because otherwise you would have found a man–”
“What?”, bursts Winston.
The researcher sighs. “It’s easy enough to detect: the orientation of a person, in terms of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience. There are various models–”
“What did you mean, ‘would have found–?’”
The researcher interrupts to get back on point, “So why did you lie?”
“It’s, ummm, not what dignified people talk about in mixed company.”
Winston presses onward, “How?”
“How can you be so sure of someone’s orientation?”
The researcher begins with a sigh, “Physical developments and hormone levels in the brain plus brainwave patterns upon given stimuli versus–”
“You were testing me?”
Squaring himself with Winston, the researcher states, “The whole time.”
Winston sits motionless.
“Ah, interesting,” and the researcher blinks a few times, resuming a more comfortable posture and gaze.
Winston prompts, “What.”
“What were you thinking just now?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You didn’t get up to leave. You didn’t attempt to strike me. No verbal assault. You simply did… nothing.”
“Mind you, I haven’t run that many people through this yet, but you are the first to take this particular direction.”
“What direction is that?”
“Non-action on revelation that you were being tested all this time.”
“‘Non-action.’ It sounds very Zen.”
“That would be Taoist, actually.”
Winston rolls his eyes.
“Since you made it this far and the program is incomplete anyway, let me explain.” The researcher continues, “You see, none of this is real.”
“You mean, ‘We didn’t have this conversation.’ Wink, wink, nudge, nudge?”
“No, neither of those references apply.”
“This is a simulation.”
“Like Virtual Reality?”
“Not like it, this is the ultimate expression of it– the ultimate VR.”
“Really?” Winston looks around and brings both hands towards his head as if expecting to feel a head-mounted display on his physical face. “But there’s no–”
“Exactly,” the researcher continues. “So many people complain about military spending yet don’t bother ever reading websites that their own government puts on display.”
Winston attempts to speak, but the researcher gestures to stop.
“Let me explain. Full-spectrum superiority– or ‘full-spectrum dominance’ as it’s sometimes called– is when a military entity achieves control over all dimensions of battlespace,“ and adding for the layman’s benefit, "beyond the conventional battlefield.”
Winston blinks a non-committal acknowledgement.
“Beyond the rhetoric, it’s the intent to control all energy frequencies, and we’re not just talking about radio waves or merely including gamma rays and X-rays. Think: entire electromagnetic spectrum. Everything is energy. Matter is essentially energy but in a different state. You with me so far?”
“Full-spectrum superiority then is the means by which to manipulate all energy and therefore matter. Of course, your brain is matter. Brainwaves are energy.”
Winston looks around the room.
“This room isn’t here and neither are you. You are in a simulation– a simulation of extreme sophistication by your standards having only seen VR gear intended for gamers and maybe architectural visualization.”
“This is an experiment, intended as a sociology experiment, if you will. There is, however, a bit of neuroscience that we seem to have tripped over in this particular trial.”
“Testing for what?”
“I’ll get to that in a moment. What were… No.” The researcher clears his throat and begins again. “Just before the motorbike passed, how did you decide… Why did you go to the left side of the pavement rather than right?”
“Would you like me to restate it?”
“No, I just mean… Anyway… I just went with my judgment.”
“Interesting choice of words.” The researcher continues, “You are right-handed?”
Winston looks confused but answers, “Yes.”
“That’s it, really.”
“How did that– no. How did you come to that judgment?– to that conclusion?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was it…” Trying to avoid leading the answer, but with no other choice at the moment, “Was it a ‘knowing’, as they say? Or was it a ‘voice’, or perhaps something else?”
“Like a…,” but Winston stops himself.
The researcher smiles. “I’m not going to jump to any conclusions about ‘voices in your head’. No, this isn’t an evaluation of schizophrenia. We’re leagues beyond that here,” and smiles knowingly.
“Like a voice but not really.”
“Yours or a flat neutral one?”
“How do you know?”
“I just– I just– know. That’s all.”
“Were there other… hmmm… options? Were there other candidates from which you ultimately chose one over the other?”
“Yes, it was like a quick debate. Right. Left. Go with left.”
“So it began with ‘right’?”
Winston pauses for a moment of reflection. “Maybe.”
A prompting look comes from the researcher.
“I suppose so, but there may have been something like a lower volume version of ‘left’… Like a volume too low to actually hear, if that makes any sense.”
“Yes, perfectly. Thank you for that. Fills in some gaps for me.”
“What difference does it make?”
“That’s not how it was supposed to work. You were supposed to go right.”
“We’ve finished with your participation in the experiment, so perhaps I can tell you now. I mean, if this were a proper experiment, I wouldn’t be able to just yet, but we’re still refining it. These are preliminary trials to test the test itself, and I need to fix this bug before we can release.”
Winston’s confusion becomes quite apparent.
“This experiment inserts the ‘voice of intuition’ into the brain,” the researcher performs from having pitched the line so many times before, “steering a subject through the environment.” Then, as if awaking from a brief replay trance, “But we didn’t get that part right, at least not in your case.”
Winston just blinks, not knowing how to respond or react.
“Again, none of this is real. You and I are not actually in the same room, and none of what you just saw actually exists– ‘exists’ as you would consider such notions. Everything you just experienced was generated as stimuli for measuring your response. You are, in fact, in a simulation.”
“Yes, if you like. It’s like virtual reality, but considering your frame of reference and association with that terminology, that’s at best an understatement and worst, insulting to the complexity, effort and expense involved, if given that label by someone with more intimate knowledge of what we’ve accomplished. It would be an insult due to the qualifier of ‘virtual’.”
“None of what I experienced happened?”
“That’s not what I said. You had a very real sequence of experiences, all right. Those were real enough for you and now part of your memory. At least until you forget–”
“Not likely to forget–”
“All memories fade, with time. Some more quickly than others,” trailing off.
Winston has his full attention on the researcher. “How does it work?”
“It’s like a mobile phone that recharges its battery wirelessly–”
“You mean electromagnetic convection currents?”
“Yes but a precisely focused version of that.”
“Yes. You are actually reclining in a chair in a room that nearly appears as an ordinary room to be in it, yet it’s like a giant ’wireless charger’ for your brain. We are projecting the sensory information of this conversation within this synthetic room to your brain in the real room.”
Winston understands well enough.
“It’s not perfected.”
Winston is inclined to disagree.
The researcher takes a breath, then gets back to the earlier point. “Curious… It’s all very curious… But that’s why we have these– these ‘rehearsals’, as it were– to get the kinks worked out before the real experiments are performed at even greater expense.”
Winston appears to be following.
“Each scenario you encountered was either a test or a prelude to the next test. For instance, consider the music sampled from various periods of your life. That sequence conditioned you. Having a sequence of attractive people and increasingly more sexually charged scenarios then primed you for going into the room at the brothel.”
“But what if I didn’t go into that room?–or went into another?”
“That’s part of the hypothesis we’re testing. It was to confirm that based upon the series of targeted stimuli, you would have a particular experience.”
“Oh, so the other doors would have been locked to ensure–?”
“Not at all.”
“I see. Similar characters in other rooms–”
“No. Full-spectrum superiority, remember? The stimuli involve frequencies well beyond the visible or audible spectrum. You chose that particular door because we conditioned and influenced you to do so.”
“So,” Winston probes, “you are trying to make decisions for me, then?”
“Quite right. But not trying, we are actually doing that. At least, that’s what we’re confirming with these trials.”
“But… What about free will?”
“What about it?”
“How can you do that? I mean, that goes against free will…”
“Oh, I see.” The researcher pauses to collect his thoughts. “Once you know the rules, you can break them– so to speak.”
“You can’t violate free will!”
“That’s a belief. Your belief. Rather, it’s a belief that you hold, that you acquired possibly from religion, likely acquired during early childhood, but it’s a belief nonetheless. Nothing more.”
“But… You can’t…!”
“A question of ethics, then.”
“No, it’s… It’s–”
“It is a belief. That’s all. So-called ‘free will’ is merely a belief that you currently have.”
“No!” Winston insists, “I know that it’s more than that.”
“Just as you ‘knew’ to go left instead of right,” gesturing slightly to the door, “back there?”
Winston pauses to collect his thoughts. “Yes, exactly!”
“Interesting data point.” After a long breath, “Well, thank you for providing me with that additional insight.”
Unsure whether he’s disgusted or confused, Winston slouches and shakes his head.
“I have what I need to fix the bug– the ‘left versus right’ business– and of course the duplicate waitresses. Placeholders, obviously. We’ll have to expand our function and integration tests…” After glancing at Winston, “Sorry, just thinking out loud.”
That confounds Winston, unfamiliar with references to software quality assurance practices.
“Oh, don’t let any of that worry you. You won’t remember any of this.” As the researcher stands, “They’ll most certainly see to that.”
The researcher, doorway, trim and all decor fade completely from this existence.