We were told to pay attention to things that were different, and it seemed to me that sex was no longer the same. Now, we always wondered if someone was watching. It wasn’t clear to us which sections were private, and how the technology worked. It was also hard not to picture our real bodies somewhere in the frozen dark, motionless while we moved together here in the seeming warm.
I brought it up in my sessions with the Reverend. He told me he was surprised it had taken me so long to ask. The others had worried about it in Cycle 1.
‘Which Cycle are we in?’ I asked. It was difficult to keep track.
‘Cycle 3,’ said the Reverend. ‘I understand your concern, but of course nobody watches you. It was part of the privacy agreement we signed at the start. Don’t you remember?’
I did. That is, I hadn’t until the Reverend mentioned it. The memory was there, but it felt very far away. And maybe it was. We hadn’t been told precisely how long the experiment would take. We wouldn’t know until we were unfrozen at the end, our bodies still in their thirties and our minds at god-knows-what age.
But the money was good. Sam and I would be able to afford a nice wedding and a honeymoon to Hawaii, and only one of us would need to work while the other stayed home with the kids we hoped to have. That is, if we were still fertile at the end. It was one of the risks.
Our life together before the VR world was still clear in my mind and I looked back on it often: Sam and me walking together to rehearsals, our first kiss in the snow, our apartment above Shipley Automotive, taking care of each other through winter fevers. Our memories made in the VR world were less acute, but we were happy, we had each other, and we never got sick.
Only couples were accepted for the experiment – ‘deeply committed couples’, in fact, and there was a test we had had to take to determine how committed we were. One of the questions was: ‘If you were offered a place in heaven without your partner, would you still go?’ We both selected ‘no’. The other people in the experiment were Manny and Blake, childhood sweethearts who wanted the money to raise a family, and Susan and Letitia, who planned to start a business together when they got out. ‘I just hope no one else thinks of our idea in the meantime,’ said Letitia. The six of us were sitting around the table in the communal space, experiencing – it was difficult to think of it as ‘eating’ – dinner. That day it was paella, wafting cartoonish puffs of steam. There was obviously no need to eat, but the routine kept us sane. It was for this same reason that we retired to our own rooms after dinner to watch TV with our partners and sleep.
‘What’s your idea?’ asked Manny.
‘I’m not telling you,’ said Letitia. ‘You’ll steal it if you get out first.’
‘If I remember it,’ said Manny.
There was an order of departure from the experiment that none of us understood. We had all begun at the same time, but so far we’d already said goodbye to two couples, including a pair who had had to leave several days apart from each other. I tried to ask the Reverend about it in our sessions, but he wouldn’t explain.
‘We’re contractually obliged to tell you everything when you wake up,’ he said, ‘but not before.’
The Reverend was the only one who came and went between worlds. We knew he had assistants, but none of them ever joined us here. If the Reverend needed help with something in the VRW, he’d use one of us. It’s what we were there for.
We all had our tasks. We weren’t allowed to discuss them with anyone but our partners, so I wasn’t sure what everybody else did all day. I wasn’t even really sure what Sam did, because his task was to assist the Reverend, so it required an additional level of secrecy. I was adept at spatial reasoning, according to a massive test I’d taken before the start of the experiment, so my tasks usually involved exploring buildings or landscapes. I wandered through forests, fields, gardens, palaces, and rooms whose doors never led to the same place twice. I was often given the same bright green hillside with purple blossoms and blue sky. Sometimes I’d hike for what seemed like hours and never reach the top. Other times I’d take just a few steps and suddenly be heading down the other side.
There was a stream in the hillside landscape. Sometimes it was at the bottom of the hill, sometimes not. I walked around, picked flowers, skipped stones. Often the flowers would disappear moments after being picked; other times they refused to be picked at all. Once the grass wouldn’t give at my footsteps and I had to walk gingerly along the tips. These were glitches and I was supposed to record them out loud. ‘Glitch: grass doesn’t bend when I step on it.’ ‘Glitch: stream floating one foot off the ground.’ ‘Glitch: tree swaying like a loose rope.’ Once in a while the glitch was so astonishing — like one time when the landscape just ended and I found myself walking and not walking through a weird grey nothing — that I would forget to record it, I would just look around with my mouth open.
After each of these sessions I filled out a short form. The form would ask me to report, for example, if I had seen a bird, what it had been perching on, and what colour it had been. Often I couldn’t remember. We had all signed an honesty agreement before entering the experiment and I didn’t want to forfeit my payment by getting caught in a lie, so I would write, ‘I don’t remember.’ Many of my completed forms were filled with I-don’t-remembers.
Every week — every month? year? it was difficult to tell — we would have a Group Challenge. On these days we would gather in the Reverend’s workshop, where he gave each of us an envelope with our instructions inside. Find the cat. Search for and report any instances of the colour blue. Sometimes we’d all have the same task, but other times they would be conflicting, like when Letitia and I were told to make sure nobody went in the caves, and everyone else had to try to get into them. Teamwork, problem solving, conflict resolution. The Group Challenges often took place in landscapes I had explored, and some of the challenges seemed to be timed, because back in his Workshop the Reverend would comment on occasion, ‘In record speed.’
We begged to be told how long in Outside Hours — OH for short — these challenges took, but the only thing the Reverend ever told us in real OH was that our nights were three hours long. ‘Enough to dream,’ he said. But I never did.
Some people had difficulty adjusting to the VRW in the beginning. Letitia begged for the chance to video-call her sister, but we weren’t allowed to contact anyone in the RW. It was all there in the contracts we signed. Letitia grew depressed. She began to eat whenever, whatever she could. There were no consequences like gaining weight, but the Reverend still called her in for extra sessions. VRW or not, sadness is still sadness. An addiction still an addiction.
Sam and I were relatively fine. Our families respected our decision and we had no regrets. The tough part for me, though, was getting used to walking without feeling myself walk. In the VRW if you wanted to move in a particular direction you thought about it and it happened, but you didn’t feel your knees bend and creak like you did in the RW. I was a dancer. I was used to the sensation of my own body in space. I mentioned this to the Reverend.
‘And does that get in the way of your enjoyment of life here?’ he asked.
I thought about it. Really, it was more than just the walking and moving. It was the sex. Our bodies didn’t feel like bodies in each other’s hands. I missed our clumsy knees, our animal stench.
‘I would say it does,’ I replied.
But that was in the beginning. Either the Reverend followed up on my comments and tweaked the programming, or I just got used to it.
‘Do you think the Reverend is real?’ I asked Sam one evening in our room. The window was open to some simulation of a warm breeze. The brilliantly constellated night sky was like a mix between a Van Gogh painting and the kind of stars you remember from childhood.
‘He’s not physically real, no,’ said Sam. ‘But neither are we.’
‘But is he a representation of a real person, like us?’ I asked. ‘Susan thinks maybe they’re testing artificial intelligence. They want to see how long we all take orders from a thing without realising.’
‘How do you know Susan is real?’ said Sam.
‘Because we met her,’ I said. ‘In the orientation, in the RW, remember? The day before they — before the start of this whole thing.’
It was still difficult to say before they froze us.
In the RW Sam was a musician. He had been in the orchestra for one of my dance shows, and that was how we’d met. In our VRW apartment he’d been given a piano, a sleek baby grand, something we could never afford outside. But when Sam sat down to play, the music sounded awful. It sounded like a piano, but it was too perfect, too much in tune. He asked the Reverend if it could be fixed, but the Reverend had trouble understanding exactly what the problem was. He said he would look into it, and the piano stayed the same.
The music was supposed to be confined to our apartment, but at times a glitch meant that I could hear it in a different section of the world. Sound was something the programmers seemed to have real trouble with. In the RW, sound waves are born and die in a fixed location as dictated by the laws of science. But in the VRW the laws had to be carefully programmed, which meant details were often overlooked. Sometimes I would hear Letitia and Susan talking even though they were nowhere in sight. Other times I would be startled by someone suddenly appearing behind me because the programme didn’t generate the sound of their footsteps.
Occasionally bigger glitches happened. Like I’d roll over in bed and fall straight through the floor, landing in some half-finished chamber with walls that started and ended nowhere. Sometimes I would get stuck in a terrifying loop, first in one place and then suddenly in another, or I’d see Sam in two places at once, or I’d hear his voice behind my shoulder saying something he’d tried to say an hour ago, or even further in the past. One time I saw a duck near a pond in one of my landscapes, nuzzling its head under its wing. As I stepped closer it turned and looked at me and I swear it had the face of my grandmother.
The system crashed once, very early into the experiment, and we all blacked out for a while, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, only aware of the passing of time. When the world flickered back, I found myself climbing a spiral staircase in a tower. Manny was waiting at the top. One by one the others arrived too. Sam was the last, followed soon after by the Reverend. Then we all turned around silently and went back downstairs, ending up in the familiar common room. Susan thought maybe we had all woken for a moment in our boxes. The Reverend would neither confirm nor deny this.
The system almost crashed again in Cycle 2 when Letitia, leading a ‘revolt’, tried to force an overload by bombarding the programme with requests. She recruited everyone to her cause — even me, even Sam. Nothing much happened, just a few warning pop-ups sprouting at our feet and sailing into the sky, bearing cryptic codes like P2overDS1. The Reverend stopped us before it could get too far.
‘I appreciate this is difficult for you,’ he said, ‘but please bear in mind the agreement you signed. Any action taken in opposition to the spirit of the study puts you at risk of forfeiting your end payment.’
‘Tell us what you’re testing,’ said Letitia. ‘Tell us how long it’s been.’
‘We will,’ said the Reverend.
Then he told us he had a surprise. A brand new programme had just been finished, a flight programme, which every single one of us had been requesting since the start. We spent a happy day — a happy week? — soaring around a sunny hillside, whooping and laughing, and the revolt was forgotten. Flying — it felt so familiar. Like all the dreams I wished I’d had.
We entered Cycle 4. I couldn’t remember how many cycles there were supposed to be in total. I wanted to ask the Reverend in my sessions, but it was beginning to be embarrassing how little my memory retained. It seemed like every session I asked him a question I’d already asked, possibly several times before. Often these questions were about Sam.
‘We might be having trouble in our relationship,’ I said.
‘I know,’ said the Reverend. ‘We discussed this last time.’
‘Oh. And what was your answer last time?’
He said something but I wasn’t listening. In fact, I’d already forgotten my question.
‘Is there anything else?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Yes. Why do we call you the Reverend?’
The Reverend laughed. ‘This question again,’ he said.
I felt annoyed. It wasn’t my fault I asked the same questions again and again.
Weren’t the programmers supposed to be working on memory retention? ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you’re actually the only one who calls me that.’
‘My name is Alexander.’
‘Why do I call you the Reverend?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he said.
It was time for a Group Challenge. We met in the Reverend’s Workshop for our envelopes. I opened mine. It was blank.
‘Excuse me,’ I said.
‘No time for questions,’ said the Reverend.
He opened a door to a small room and told us to wait inside. The door closed.
We all looked at each other with tight smiles. Things were always a little tense at the beginning of a Group Challenge.
I wanted Sam to put his arm around me but I knew he wouldn’t. Lately he’d begun to seem very far away. He didn’t talk to me as much as he used to, but he couldn’t share what he was working on with the Reverend so there wasn’t a lot we could talk about. We used to pass the time reminiscing about life before the experiment, or planning our wedding for afterwards, but lately when I mentioned these things he got strange and quiet. I wished our real bodies weren’t in separate boxes, in different rooms, because at least physical closeness makes emotional distance easier to bear. The first thing I wanted to do when the experiment was over was hold Sam, really hold him, smell his neck, smell his hair.
The door opened again. It led to what seemed to be a train station platform. We walked onto it. There were three benches. Manny and Blake took one, Susan and Letitia took another. I sat down on the third and expected Sam to join me but he didn’t. He paced around, and then stood in front of a map and tried to read it, squinting his eyes. A habit. Squinting wouldn’t make things any easier to read here. I joined him and we looked at the map together. It was all slanted and skewed, like we were looking at it through moving water.
‘Guys,’ said Blake, ‘this is our train.’
A train was pulling into the station. No one was driving it and there were no other passengers in its six cars.
‘How do you know?’ said Letitia. ‘Was that written in your envelope?’
‘I just know we have to get on.’
The train doors slid open and we entered. We saw that the seats were labelled.
Blake and Manny sat beneath their names. Susan and Letitia saw their names further down the car. I followed them. They sat down and I kept walking. In the next car I found my name above a seat, but it was all by itself. I didn’t see Sam’s name anywhere. That’s when I realised he wasn’t following me. I was all alone.
I looked around. There he was, on the platform. The doors were already shut. ‘Wait,’ I said. ‘We need to wait for Sam.’
I ran to a window and called to him to get on. He just smiled and shrugged, lifting the piece of paper from his envelope: Don’t board the train.
I didn’t like what was happening. We had never done a Group Challenge without Sam. I tried to open the train door but it wouldn’t budge. ‘Open,’ I said.
And then, ‘Glitch. Door won’t open. Please open door.’
The train started to move.
‘Wait,’ I shouted. Sam got further away and then he was gone. The train sped up, heading for a tunnel. The tunnel was dark. Everything dissolved. I could hear the train running on the tracks but I could no longer see or feel anything.
And then I was struck with a sensation so intense I knew instantly, horribly, that it was real.
My body tingled. My fingertips, my toes. Everything tingled like I had been plugged into an electrical socket and was being turned on. The roar of the train grew louder.
‘Sam,’ I tried to yell, but no sound was made.
Voices first, and then the light. People talking. Shadows as hands passed silver instruments above my head. The light. I felt it in my entire body like a cramp. ‘She’s back,’ someone said, and the room quieted down and emptied until it was just me and a woman in a white coat.
‘Sam,’ I croaked.
‘Shh,’ said the woman. ‘Relax. Take your time.’
I blinked. Or maybe I fell asleep, because when I opened my eyes the woman was in a different part of the room. I asked for Sam again. It was difficult to find the energy. Everything felt slow and heavy — my body, the air around me.
‘Try to relax,’ she said.
I turned my head and saw a window. The world outside was dull, grey, lost in a cloud. It was all wrong.
The woman said something but I didn’t catch it. ‘What?’ I said.
‘What?’ she said.
‘You said something.’
‘You mean when I asked if you wanted anything to eat? That was almost half an hour ago.’
‘No, you said…’ I could barely get the words out. I choked, then started to retch. The woman hurried over with a bucket and caught my vomit. She wiped my face.
When I opened my eyes again there was a different person in the room, fiddling with some things inside a drawer.
‘Where’s the Reverend?’ I asked. My voice didn’t sound like my own.
The person looked up. ‘Who?’
The person didn’t answer. He just wrote something on a clipboard and walked away.
I slept again.
When I woke, someone was coming into the room. The woman in the white coat. She sat beside my bed and crossed her legs.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
Feeling. How was I feeling? I didn’t know. There was too much. The heat of my legs under blankets. The whirring of machines in my room and down the hall. The beat of my heart, which felt too fast. An ache in my elbows and knees. A thirst so powerful I felt it everywhere.
‘Water,’ I said.
She smiled and brought me a cup. I needed help sitting up, and then when I tried to drink the water I coughed most of it back up. She patted my back gently until the coughing was done. I tried again, and managed to drink most of it.
‘There you go,’ she said. She wrote something down on a clipboard. ‘Are you having trouble with the passage of time?’
‘What?’ she said. Her legs were crossed the other way now. When had she shifted?
The clipboard in her hands was gone. ‘Glitch,’ I said.
‘There are no glitches here,’ she said. ‘But I saw…’
‘Just rest,’ she said, standing up. ‘We’ll talk more later.’
I didn’t want her to go. I needed some questions answered, but I couldn’t remember what they were.
‘Wait,’ I said.
She turned and waited patiently.
I needed to know where something was. No, someone. Someone important. I could feel it right in the centre of my chest. My heart. Sam.
‘Where’s Sam?’ I asked.
‘Later,’ was all she said. She left the room.
The night was impossibly long. I knew it was night because the grey outside the window had turned black. There were no stars.
I slept a little, and I woke to black. I slept a little more, and woke to still more black. How long could one night be?
I was suspicious of everything around me. I didn’t know if it was truly the real world, or if it was a Group Challenge gone horribly wrong. I was too weak to get out of my bed, so I waited.
After a fourth waking, the light outside had finally changed. People moved around outside my room. Finally, the woman in the white coat entered and said my name.
‘There’s someone here who’d like to see you,’ she said.
I tried to sit up. My heart fluttered, expecting Sam. But instead a grey-haired woman walked in. She had a cane. Her face was familiar in a way I didn’t like. She said something to me.
‘What?’ I said. It was hard to make out because she was crying.
She covered her mouth with her hand and said something else. It sounded like maybe she was saying my name.
‘Grandma?’ I asked.
She shook her head no. The woman in the white coat led her out.
When she came back, the woman in the white coat said, ‘Alright. I’m ready now.’
I was confused. ‘For what?’ I asked.
‘Didn’t you have some questions you wanted to ask me?’
Did I? I wasn’t sure.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘We went over this yesterday,’ she said.
‘I thought the programmers were going to fix the memory problem,’ I said. ‘The Reverend told me.’
‘The memory problem is fixed. But you’re in the real world now.’
I looked around. Things were dull and grey, yes, but they were too sharp, too clear to be anything but virtual.
The woman was speaking to me. I knew I should focus on her words but it was difficult.
‘I need to see the Reverend,’ I said. ‘Is the Group Challenge over yet?’
‘Yes,’ said the woman. She frowned. ‘It’s all over. The experiment is done.’
‘The Reverend always talks to us when the Group Challenge is over.’
‘You’re talking to him now. As I have explained.’
I felt sick. I had a stomach ache, and then it moved to my head. I had a queasy head.
‘It’s all over?’
‘That can’t be right.’ I was remembering something. Something from long before. ‘Sam and I were supposed to wake up in the same room. You… they told us. We were going to wake up together.’
There was a tap on the door and someone else came in. Another person in a white coat. ‘How’s it going?’ he asked the woman softly, as if I was sleeping and he didn’t want to wake me.
‘Her memory retention,’ she started to explain, also in a whisper, but I missed the rest of her words.
They whispered together for a while. Most of it was nonsense but I caught the phrase, ‘four other test subjects’.
‘Five other test subjects,’ I mumbled.
They looked at me.
‘There are six of us. Me and Sam and… Where’s Sam?’
My words were garbled, and my attention was too; I wasn’t sure my question was fully understood, and I struggled to focus as the woman in the white coat answered it.
‘What?’ I said.
She pointed at a stack of yellowed papers on the bedside table. I picked them up. The edges of the papers were curling and they were held together with a rusty staple. It was the agreement that Sam and I had signed before entering the VRW. I flipped through it and saw that some words were underlined in fresh ink: ‘strictly confidential’, ‘waives the right to discuss, share, or otherwise acknowledge’, and then, towards the end, ‘death’. This last word was underlined twice. I read its sentence carefully.
‘Both parties acknowledge that they are embarking upon the assignment as a deeply committed couple and, further, in the event of one party’s failure to complete the assignment, be it for reason of illness, death, or otherwise, the other party agrees to complete the assignment in full…’
I couldn’t read any further. My eyes skipped to the bottom of the page, where Sam’s and my signatures had been scrawled. The ink was faded.
Something strange was happening to my eyes. They were leaking, making my cheeks wet. Alarmed, I was about to ask if this was another horrible side effect. And then I remembered tears.
‘What were you testing?’ I asked, but there was no one there to answer my question. I was alone.
I found that another piece of paper had appeared on my lap. A pamphlet. On the cover was a picture of a familiar hillside. Words on the top said: Welcome to Green Fields… And then on the bottom: …forever!
I let the pamphlet fall to the floor.
I stayed still for a while, just lying there. More tears were coming but they stopped eventually. Then it occurred to me that I’d already done so much lying down inside the frozen box that I didn’t want to do it any more. I thought about sitting up. I was confused when my body didn’t move, but then I remembered I would have to do it myself. That’s how things worked here. I pressed my palms to the bed, tensed my muscles, and pushed myself up. For the first time in a lifetime I could feel my own heaviness and pain.