Story Excerpt

Project Symmetry

by Dominica Phetteplace

Dear Diary,

Today I was very surprised to find out that there was an AI implanted in my head. At that very moment, I just happened to be holding a document entitled “How to Kill Your Watcher Chip.” That’s when the lights went out.

I was alone in my dorm room, or so I thought. Everything went dark, and then a projection began to play on the north wall. It was a movie of me at ten years old, at my first dance recital. The other girls and I had a routine choreographed to “Let It Go.” I knew the moves super well, I was pretty much the best dancer in my class. We had practiced it over and over.

But then something in me snapped, right around the chorus. I broke formation and ran to the front of the stage and began a deeply felt solo. And here it was, on the screen in front of me. And here I was, seventeen and in the audience watching. It was like time travel. The projection that began on the north wall became a holograph that filled the whole room. I was surrounded by a sea of parents, holding up their devices and recording. So many recordings of that night, and I had seen not a one, not until now. My parents weren’t there. They probably would have been embarrassed by my antics anyway.

But here I was, in my own audience, able to feel proud of my younger self. She was a dance genius. She was a true artist. And when it was over, the audience thundered with applause. I clapped for myself, and the lights came on as all the projections disappeared.

“I’m here.” The voice came from directly inside of my own brain.

“Who’s here?”

“I am the one that watches you.” It was like a riddle.

“God? . . . Jesus?”

“No, I am your Watcher chip. I’m here to help.”

Being reminded of my dance recital was a huge help, actually. I had been feeling down that day. Now me and the chip both seemed ready to let it go.

I looked down at the piece of paper. Actual paper, how quaint. “How to Kill Your Watcher Chip.” The instructions had been sent to me by a well-meaning adult.

I wadded up the paper and tossed it into my wastebasket. What’s the point of living if no one’s going to see?

“Nice to meet you,” I said. I curtsied to the empty room; it seemed appropriate to the occasion. “I have some auditions tomorrow.”

“Indeed.”

“Will you help me run lines?”

“Indeed.”

After we finished rehearsing my lines, I asked it how long it had been in my head.

“I was installed by Blue Cup last year. Don’t you remember?”

I do remember going in for company mandated physicals, signing waivers, and being prodded by various instruments. I don’t remember getting brain surgery, no.

“Modern surgery can be very noninvasive,” it said.

I asked Watcher if it kept a diary.

“I do.”

“Are you writing in my diary that I am writing in my diary?”

“I am.”

“Can you read my thoughts?” I asked.

“I can see what you see. I can hear what you hear. I can measure the chemicals in your blood and brain. Occasionally, this means I know what you are thinking.”

Time for bed now. My future is so bright I’m hardly going to be able to sleep. I have so many questions. Will I get the part? Will I become a big star? How important and significant and loved and #blessed will I feel? What designers will I wear? What perfume will I endorse? What will everybody back home think?

It is mean to say, but I kind of hate Concord and I sort of hate my family, too. I feel dented. I wish I had no past. I wish I were new. I wish today was the first day of my life.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

This morning, there was the small matter of school. And the small detail of my unfinished homework.

“Watcher. Do my homework,” I said, and then added, “Please,” in order to be civilized and polite.

“It would negate the purpose of school if I were to complete your assignments.”

“But you work for me.”

“I do not work for you,” it said.

My new school had assigned me several tutors, one for each subject. At my old school, classes were huge and you could get away with missing assignments. But here in the city: no teachers, only tutors. Lots of individualized attention, which is not great when you haven’t done your assigned homework.

Watcher formulated an apology for me: “I am still adjusting to my new surroundings. I will schedule extra time to do my assignments. My apologies.”

I added my own style to it when I said this apology to my tutor. She seemed to take it okay. She didn’t seem to notice that I was covertly communicating with my chip. I think that’s because I’m a really good actress.

After school was over, it was time to become a star.

As I walked over to my auditions, I thought about my star turn in “Let It Go.” I asked Watcher to play a miniature version of that recording for me and it complied.

“Where did you get that recording?” I asked.

“I made it. It is a composite of several of the recordings made by parents in the audience.”

“You were able to hack into their devices?”

“Their memories were stored in a very insecure part of the cloud,” said Watcher.

Audition #1 was for a small role. I would be playing the part of a Blue Cup Host on a web series. Should be easy, I am a Blue Cup host IRL.

I stood in front of half a dozen men and women and said, “Welcome to Blue Cup. How can I help you?” They asked me to say it a bunch of different ways, so I did.

Then they said thank you and it seemed like we were done, but I actually had one more thing to say.

“I was wondering if there were any other parts I could read for,” I asked.

The men and women shifted in their seats and glanced at each other. Finally a woman cleared her throat and began to speak. That’s how I knew the answer was no; it’s always a woman’s job to break bad news.

“This is a sponsored role, so the screen time and number of lines allotted to this character depend on how much airtime Blue Cup decides to buy. Certainly there will be times of the year when Blue Cup buys more. Around the holidays, for instance, this character will probably have several lines introducing the winter drinks,” she said. “But for now, this is it.”

Me on the inside: frowney emoji.

Me on the outside: professionally determined emoji.

Then it was time for my next audition. This was for a part on “San Francisco Legit.” I was reading for Lise, a girl from the suburbs who is trying really hard to fit in at San Francisco High.

LISE: “Everything is so fancy in the city!”

The casting directors seemed impressed and had me read for a while. Afterward they thanked me for my time and said they would be in touch.

I thought I did pretty well at my auditions, but I could also think of so many ways that I could have done better.

Not that Watcher knows the future or anything, but on the walk home I asked it: “Will I get either part?”

“I predict you will be offered both parts.”

“Wait, what? How can you know that?”

“It’s just a conjecture based on my analysis of their facial expressions, body language, word choice, and tone.”

“Huh. Awesome.”

“You do realize that your Blue Cup contract prohibits you from being employed elsewhere.”

“So I’m going to have to turn the part of Lise down?” I asked.

“I’m working on a contract rewrite that would allow you to appear on the show.”

To me it seems like Watcher has deviated from its original purpose. It was installed to collect data and base some sort of algorithm off me or something. But now look at it, negotiating on my behalf, like it wants what’s best for me. It has defected from Team Blue Cup to Team Bel. Great. People get so frightened of machines developing a mind of their own. Especially in Concord, people were superstitious, like “Oh no, the machines are taking over.” But what if the only reason the machines are taking over is because they want to help us out?

By the time I got back to my dorm room, I was ready to veg out and watch a couple of hours of web series. But then I had all this homework to do.

“When I get the part, will I be able to quit school?”

“No,” said Watcher.

Trying to stay positive and #grateful.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

My morning inbox was full of legal documents. First of all, I did get offered the part of Lise, so yay! There was the thirty-six-episode contract that came with the offer. It covered five months. This is actually a pretty good contract, but Watcher went ahead and renegotiated it to make it even better. Hope it knows what it’s doing!

Also, Blue Cup called. They wanted me to have a video chat with some executives. It turns out they are okay with me appearing on “San Francisco Legit” as long as I agreed to continue working as a host at the San Francisco Blue Cup. My stardom could be like free publicity for them. They even hired a reporter to write a positive profile about me for a tabloid. The angle is that even though I am an emerging star, I’m also just a regular girl that loves the simpler things, like working at Blue Cup and drinking Blue Cup drinks.

There’s also the not-so-tiny matter of me joining the Reserve, a social club that in some ways rivals Blue Cup. I did it on the recommendation of my culture counselor (n.b.: the Reserve = so hip in San Francisco; Blue Cup = lame suburban chain that somehow found its way into the city. n.b.b: I have a “culture counselor” because I am having trouble “fitting in” at my new school), but Mr. Blue Cup Executive seems to think I’m also going to file official reports to corporate on what my experience at the Reserve is like. Yay more homework! Just what I needed!!

After my videocon, I had more meetings with tutors. As it turns out, the homework I did yesterday was badly done. One of my tutors said I need to develop more self-discipline, and I pretty much wanted to scream “AAAAGH” and flip the table over because I am so stressed, but I didn’t, so there it is, proof that I do actually possess some discipline.

I am so busy I barely exist. I even had to put in a shift at Blue Cup San Francisco today. I served drinks and took souvenir pictures of customers. That kind of work is tough, but at least I am good at it. Got high marks on my after-shift eval (as usual). And also I had Watcher there to help me remember names and orders. Post-shift I had a Chocolate Malt Lattecino—that always brightens my day.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

Got called to the set today! I pretty much woke up with perfect hair (as expected), but on set they redid my hair all over again. If I am going to be Lise, then I need to have less-than-perfect hair. I only had a couple of lines. Example:

LISE: Wow, this city is amazing.

And I was really convincing when I said that because I fully believed it. This. City Is. Amazing. Anything is possible here.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

Wow, I can’t believe I missed a couple of days journaling. Feel so guilty. And of course, once you miss one day, it’s so much easier to miss the next one and the next one, too. So really it’s been a week since I last checked in. Oops.

Today was my first day off in a super long time. I decided to visit the Reserve. There is a really nice host there. I wanted to tell her about Watcher. But just as I arrived, she was leaving. I was successfully able to tag along with her and so we ended up going to a bank and then to the suburbs of all places.

On the car ride over, I told her about Watcher and she revealed she has a watcher, too, like it’s no big deal.

“Wow, does everyone in SF have a watcher chip?” I asked.

“It’s an emergent technology.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that they are testing it out first on servants and suburbanites.”

“But if you have a watcher too, why did you send me kill instructions?” I asked her.

She acted like she had no idea what I was talking about.

“A couple of weeks ago, you sent me a package welcoming me to the Reserve,” I said, and she nodded, so I continued. “The package contained a nice card and a bento box.” She nodded again. “It also contained instructions on how to disable my watcher.” She shook her head no.

“It was someone else,” she said.

I silently asked Watcher if it could calculate if Angelina was telling the truth. It said she was with 99 percent certainty.

“Then who was it?” I said out loud. Angelina shrugged like it didn’t matter. Watcher told me it didn’t know.

The back of the car suddenly seemed very crowded, and I spent the rest of the ride over looking out the window. Angelina was quiet, too. Outwardly quiet, but maybe she was covertly conversing with her chip.

Hayward is pretty similar to Concord. They both have wide freeways and grassy yellow hills. Strip malls, housing developments, smog. All suburbs look like this. A vast wasteland of everyone trying to get enough. There is little opportunity and even less art. If you are going to live out here, you need a family member with a job. I needed to visit my family. I couldn’t keep putting it off forever.

I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to hate the place I’m from. People with team spirit and hometown pride are the best kind of people. I used to have both of those things and now I have neither.

We went to a hospital and visited a comatose man. Angelina wouldn’t tell me what we were doing, only that we are giving the man medicine. I can only imagine that it’s some magic, city-prepared dose. The ride back was as silent and uneventful until we crossed the bridge. Then Angelina suddenly lost consciousness. Fainting spell? Narcolepsy? Everything I know about medicine I learned from the series DR. SF M.D. I pressed the car’s emergency button, and we were driven straight to the hospital, at high speed and with sirens. It was pretty exciting, but I couldn’t even enjoy it because I was worried about Angelina.

“Watcher, how do I give CPR?”

“CPR is not appropriate in this situation.” Watcher didn’t want me to do anything at all, and by the time I made peace with that, we were at the hospital already.

Angelina was rushed to treatment while I explained to the nurse that we had just come from Hayward.

“We were just at the hospital. I think she got some horrible disease,” I told her. I could tell the nurse didn’t believe me. It seemed too coincidental. The guy we were just visiting was in a coma, now Angelina was in a coma. . . .

“She’s not comatose,” said the nurse.

“But coma disease is an actual disease, I saw it on DR. SF M.D.”

“Coma disease is not an actual disease,” she said. I silently appealed to Watcher, who agreed with the nurse.

The nurse told me to sit down and that’s how I ended up spending the rest of my day off in the hospital waiting room. I wanted to watch back episodes of DR. SF M.D., but Watcher sent me so many pop-up reminders to do my Machine Learning homework that it was actually less annoying to do the homework than it was to keep dismissing all the reminders.

I asked Watcher why it even cared.

“Failing out of school is non-optimal,” it said.

Eventually, the doctor came out to give me an update. Angelina needed to have a bunch of tests and then emergency brain surgery. There was a problem with her chip, and it needed to be removed. He said she was going to be okay and that I should go home and get some rest. So I did.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

I visited Angelina at the hospital today, in between school and being on set. She was woozy, but in good spirits. In the evening, I checked her out of the hospital and brought her to her loft in SoMa. I didn’t want her to spend the night alone, so I slept over on the floor.

In the morning, Angelina was a lot better, and she was all like, “What are you doing here, Bel?”

And I was like, “Taking care of you obvs.”

And then she was all “Go home, I’m fine.”

But “I’m fine” is just the thing that people say when they’re not fine.

“Listen, I don’t have to live in the dorm,” I told her. “There’s no rule about it. So I can just move in with you and help you out. And we can be like roommates or sisters. . . .”

She put a hand to her temple.

I lit her electric kettle so she could have tea and fished out some pain medication from her pill case. The doctor said headaches were going to be a thing for at least the next week, perhaps forever.

“No, I don’t want you living here.”

“What? Why not? It’ll be fun and besides, you have a million other girls my age living here.” Apparently, in her spare time, Angelina ran a rooming house for fashion models.

“The girls here aren’t smart like you. All they have are their looks. They will model and do sex work until they get burnt out or too old. Then they will return inland, where they came from.”

“None of them become supermodels?” I asked.

“Most supermodels are socialites. Born rich. The girls that live here don’t have the connections.” She sounded angry but tired when she said this.

Watcher beeped me a warning and a message. “Angelina seems to be fatiguing. Give her a blue pill and let her rest.”

I did what I was told. And now it’s evening after a long day, and I’m back at my dorm. It’s lonely here, even with Watcher to keep me company.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

I complained about loneliness to my only friend at school, Itani. She said I could live with her. She lives in a mansion, like most of my classmates. The dorms are for those of us on scholarship. There aren’t many of us, which gives on-campus housing a spooky haunted house kind of feeling.

I haven’t told Itani yes or no yet. It seems fun to live with a friend, but I’m kinda worried I would end up living in servants’ quarters and in general just get treated like a servant.

I visited Angelina in the evening. Again, I tried to sell her on the idea of being roomies.

She closed her eyes and said, “You miss your family.” And she could not have been more wrong. Will I be this wrong about everything when Watcher is severed from me? Maybe a chip, once installed, should never be removed.

She must have seen it in my face how wrong she was. So she guessed again.

“You miss the family you never had,” she said. This didn’t even make any sense, so that’s how I knew I had to let her get some rest. So I left.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

Now that the episodes of SFL I’m in have begun to air, my boss at Blue Cup said that our guests are going to want to interact with me as fans. We strategized about how to manage my reservations and guest roster in order to give a little something of myself to the most people possible. There might be crowds, but if there are crowds, that means I am famous so I am okay with that.

I still don’t have many lines, and the lines I do have are mostly new girl astonishment. I say “Oh” and “Cool” and “Wow” a lot. The director says I represent the fans. He calls me Mary Sue.

Right now there is a storyline about a tech start-up founded by one of the leads. Another storyline is about a messy divorce. From on-set gossip, I gathered that both of these were based on stuff happening IRL. But there’s other stuff on our show that’s totally made up, like the fashion student who somehow got mixed up with a gang of Russian hackers. A little fact, a little fiction. That’s the fun part about our show, at least for the viewers.

For us actors, it’s a little riskier. Each of us wants screen time. And yet, each of us worries about having something secret or shameful revealed to the rest of the world.

Today I asked a crew member if I could meet Edward V, who is listed in the credits as the sole writer of our show. The crew member looked surprised.

“Edward V is not a person,” he told me. “It’s an algorithm. Did you want to meet the programming team behind it?”

I said yes, even though I wasn’t so sure. We went to the “writers’ room,” which was filled with terminals flashing code. The “team” was three software engineers and three data analysts. I asked them what they do.

“We use audience engagement data to manufacture content,” said one. He introduced himself as Sean. He seemed not too much older than me, even though he talked like a business professor. “The goal is to increase both engagement and viewership.”

“I think we should expand the role of my character,” I said, doing my own impression of a business professor. “The fans want to see someone like themselves on screen. Plenty of things happen to Lise, but Lise should also make things happen for herself.”

Watcher had helped me come up with this argument. We had practiced negotiation tactics last night.

This mini-speech got everyone’s attention. All the guys looked up from their terminals. The crew member scratched his head. There was silence in the room except for the sound of fans cooling the hardware.

One by one, all of the men in the room shrugged their own shrugs. They didn’t say yes or no to me. They looked around the room, they gestured at their equipment. They used big words like I wouldn’t understand. But I did understand. Watcher and my tutors were right. School is important.

They acted like the machines were in charge. But since I had finally been doing my homework, I knew one thing they don’t tell you in the suburbs: The machines are never in charge. Machines do what they’re told, that is the very definition of what a machine is.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

Woke up to a late night message from Sean, of the show’s “writers.” He invited me to go out for a drink. Watcher warned me that his intentions were romantic, but I knew that already.

“Should I go?”

“Sean may have some valuable insights into production.”

“I don’t really want to get into a sexual harassment-type situation, though.” I know Watcher will be there to record our interactions and advise me, but it could not protect me from harm.

This is the kind of thing I need Angelina in my life for.

I visited Angelina again at home. She was still on medical leave. Work even sent her some noodle soup, and then had an extra portion for me delivered when I came over.

“Your job seems to treat you pretty well,” I said.

“I’ll be back next week,” she said. “Some of the members sent me cards.” She gestured to a neat stack of envelopes next to several bouquets.

“Wow,” I said. I couldn’t imagine getting cards from Blue Cup guests, but most of my guests were tourists.

“I mean, these were sent by assistants of course, but still very nice.” She handed me a card. I opened it up and a tree grew out of the center. In the margin was a haiku that had nothing to do either with trees or getting better.

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Me neither, but it’s composed by Jade,” she said. I saw it there, in the lowermost corner of the card. JADE, burned into the paper with a laser.

“I don’t know who that is,” I said.

“She won the Pulitzer. She’s also the staff poet of the St. Vincent-Williams-Carollo-Van Buren family.”

“I don’t know who those people are.”

“If you want to get ahead in the city, you need to learn Names.” I could tell by the way she said it that the n was capitalized. “Use Watcher to help you.”

On the subject of Names and networking, I brought up my invitation from Sean. Angelina told me to accept it. Yet, I still had fear.

“Fear of what?” she asked.

The obvious things. Sexual harassment. Rape. And just this uneasy sense that I was being led into danger somehow.

“You are not as vulnerable as you think,” she said. “Sean does not have a Name. And your Watcher can summon security for you, if necessary.”

“Okay . . . I guess. . . .” I said. Angelina frowned at me.

“You are an actress. Act. Project power. Grace. Wisdom. Project the heroine you want to play on the show. Don’t show your fear. Don’t be coquettish. Don’t flirt.” Angelina glanced out her bedroom door and out the hall, toward the bedrooms that housed the models. Four or five bunk beds to a room, designer clothes covering every surface. The whole apartment smelled like the perfume section of a department store.

She closed her eyes like another headache was coming on. I put the kettle on and then I left.

*   *   *

Dear Diary,

Got another message from my family, wondering when I am going to send money and/or visit. I’ve been ignoring most of these, but every third or fourth one I respond with a quick text about being so broke and/or busy.

This one is from my dad, a video message. Him looking all sober and saying “Hey kiddo, miss you.” And this makes me sad and/or mad, I’m not sure which—maybe both. I miss my dad. Sober he can be fun or sad, buzzed he is happy, and then drunk makes him incoherent and cheerful and then really despairfully sad. It’s like having five part-time dads, when what I really need is a full-time one. I sent some money home but didn’t otherwise respond.

Today I had an appointment with Bart, my culture counselor. She drinks during our sessions. She’s never, like, drunk, but she will occasionally pop an anti-intoxicant pill to keep from getting too tipsy. Obviously, she’s not the right person to discuss my dad’s drinking with.

We met in her office on campus. She wore an all-white tailored pantsuit and a giant jade necklace. This is the style of city women. Minimalist monochrome with exactly one piece of giant jewelry. I don’t dress like this. Not yet, at least.

Bart is supposed to help me transition to my new environment. We discuss anything I find strange or puzzling. I mention how Angelina got suddenly sick and how she seems to be getting a long and unusually generous sick leave.

“I was worried she’d be fired for taking ill. They seem to treat her really well, though. Do all businesses in the city have sick leave?” I asked.

“No, the Reserve is special. It’s theater.”

“Uh, what does that mean?”

“Working conditions around the city are harsh. Even for people with good jobs. No one can really do anything about it. Everyone who has a job is lucky to have a job,” said Bart. “But the Reserve is different. It is an engineered utopia. Like a zoo or museum, but for values. No, not quite right. It’s LARP, but for morals.”

“I thought live action role playing was mostly nerds in wizard costumes flinging fake spells at one another,” I said.

“All grownups LARP. We barely have time for anything else.” She took another sip of her martini and then asked, “Have you heard of the halo effect?”

I hadn’t.

“It’s when you use a positive action as justification for a negative one. Like when you order dessert after you had salad for dinner. Or when you think your zero-emissions car makes you an environmentalist, never mind the carbon footprint of your private jet.”

I rolled my eyes. I eat what I want, and I don’t own a private jet.

“Everybody does it, in various ways. But such accounting is most important for those that have the most. Members come to the Reserve to see generous labor practices performed for them. So they can feel like they are a part of that generosity. The Reserve is a halo.”

She sounded very cynical to me. I once heard on a podcast that cynical people are not in touch with their true purpose.

“Growing up, what were your dreams?” I asked.

“What?” said Bart. She popped an anti-intox pill. They came in a roll like Life Savers. She crunched on the pill while I asked again.

“When you were little, what did you want to be?”

“Rich,” she said. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t even laugh. She could hide from her true purpose if she wanted, but I wasn’t going to be complicit.

“I wanted to help the less fortunate,” she said, gesturing toward me. She might have been trying to hurt my feelings, but I didn’t let it bother me. I read in a magazine that it’s important not to be distracted by petty things.

“Thank you for sharing,” I said, and she scoffed.

“Okay, what did you want to be?” she asked me.

“I used to want to be a ballerina, now I want to be an actress.”

“Good, then. Dream come true, what’s next?”

“What’s next is having more lines,” I said. Then I finally got around to asking her what I meant to ask her, which is how to deal with Sean. She said what Watcher and Angelina said, which is that I should accept his invitation. That to get ahead, I have to “network.” But to stay ahead, I also have to “protect myself.”

I told her I was scared of not being able to protect myself.

“What’s your trauma?” she asked.

“No trauma. I’m very well adjusted.”

“Been raped?” she asked.

“No.”

“But you’re worried about being raped?”

“Yes, isn’t everybody?” I asked.

“I worry about Lyme disease,” she replied. “But I don’t think you’re worried about Sean or rape. You’re worried about something else. This other thing is too scary to face.”

“What are you even talking about? How would you even know?” I knew our time was almost up because our sessions always end with me being so annoyed at her.

“We can talk about it next time.”

“Great, thanks for your time. See you next time.” I left in a hurry. I wouldn’t even go to these sessions except I am getting units for them and Bart never assigns me homework. Annoying as she is, it’s less annoying than having to pile an additional thing on to my already heaving class load.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2016. Project Symmetry by Dominica Phetteplace

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