I want to make an Experience of this moment. If I were an artist, I’d try to capture this snapshot with all five senses. It’s dark tonight, and you can’t see the stars in the city, but the glare of the new Illuminage LED streetlights reflects off Anne’s hair. It’s bubblegum pink this week, and I love her for it. The bite of the winter air seeps up the sleeve of my Winter Expert Brand coat, but Anne’s hand is warm in mine and my head is filled with the smell of her shampoo. It’s cherry something, but it smells more like candy than fruit, the sort of silly thing she loves. She’s the counterpoint to my seriousness and dour moods.
We step into the crowded Experience Gallery for our weekly date night. It’s funny how they’ve tried to preserve the feel of an art gallery, though of course, each of us has a personal Experience machine and could see all this at home if we were willing to pay for the material. But it’s nice to go out, to be seen, so we find ourselves at the Experience Gallery too often. White walls that once hung paintings each host a small sign describing the Experience on display, the title, and on a few, some brief notes about genre and the artist’s life. The room is crowded, with chandeliers on the distant ceiling and a white tile floor. Anne wants to see the Hernandez pieces first, because they’re all about childhood, and she’s never lost that whimsical spirit. I prefer the more worldly pieces, the ones that make you think about the universal questions of life. They’re in the front room, so we start there.
Anne squeezes my hand and smiles at me as I place the electrodes of the first Experience machine on my temple. I pause for a moment before pushing the button. This is a commercial machine, and there’s a squishy plastic cover over the button—to protect it I guess—that has momentarily fascinated me. But the Gallery is crowded and I don’t want to keep anyone waiting. Time to experience Mat Salla’s new Experience, Home.
There’s the familiar jolt and moment of darkness as the electrical impulses overwhelm my natural senses. The first time I did this, when Experiences were new, I panicked. But I’m a seasoned traveler now and it doesn’t bother me. I find myself in a five-senses snapshot right out of the artists imagination. I’m struck first by his talent. I’m in a dingy inner city bathroom and I can see bars on the window above the tub. I can smell the hot steam and soap filling the room, the cold tile under my feet. There’s a person in the tub, but I can’t make out a face, only a hand. Gender neutral, nails neatly trimmed, it seems to be beckoning me to join it in the tub. I imagine a woman, or even Anne, on the other end of it, though her nails are painted electric blue. On the edge of the grimy pedestal sink sits a bottle of pills, open, and it feels like I’ve been offered a choice. Step into the bathtub with the woman or take every pill in the bottle. What was the artist trying to say with this? That both options are appealing? It’s disturbing, but I think I can understand the message if I just keep connecting the dots. My mind is heavy with steam, and this is a snapshot, not a video, so I can’t move around to investigate. My time is up, though, and I feel the jolt of darkness and the tingling in my whole body as I return to the real world.
“You won’t like that one,” I tell Anne.
“Too real for me?” She giggles, making fun of me for what I said the last time we were here. The inside joke endears her to me, and I feel my shoulders relax.
She pulls me through the crowd into the next room, her grin insatiable. She stops in front of the first Hernandez piece, a sign above the Experience Machine bearing the title Flourish. She cocks her head in that adorable way. She must not know how beautiful she is.
Anne places the electrodes on her head and presses the button. Her jaw slackens and her eyes focus ahead, on nothing. All at once, she is here with me again, struggling to remove an electrode tangled in her cotton candy hair. A man in a dark blue Men’s Excellence jacket bumps her, complicating the process. I frown at the man, but Anne doesn’t notice. She is exuberant.
“Oh, it was wonderful; just the sort of thing I like. It was so happy. You’ve got to see it.”
I agree, because it will make her happy. This will be her favorite piece of the evening I think; I doubt it will be mine.
I place the electrodes on my head and press the button. I’m seated in a field of flowers and I can feel the earth beneath me. The flowers in the foreground have striking detail, but the distant flowers are more like the idea of flowers, as though the artist couldn’t hold that many in his imagination. The smell is heavenly. It’s the scent of flowers, but also of dirt and wind and simply being outside. It’s not a perfume lilac smell, but the smell of actually being outside in the spring. Next to me is a little girl, smiling, holding out a flower. She is so lifelike that she must be based on a real person, must be a memory rather than imagination. There’s wind on my face and I get the idea that the girl has just finished laughing. How the artist captured wind and laughter without the sensation of motion or the passage of time is amazing. I want to stay here forever, but I’m already waking up.
I’m smiling as the gallery comes back into focus, but no one else is smiling. I turn to Anne, the dreamlike expression still stuck on my face. She is terrified. She’s yelling something and pulling at my clothes. I can’t understand, and as panic courses through me, I let her pull me to the floor. People all around are running, screaming, ducking for cover as we have. There’s a woman on the ground in front of me. I look her right in the eye. Her eyes are open so wide with panic that she hardly looks human, and I wonder dimly if she is thinking the same about me. That’s when I hear the gunfire.
A man with a rifle is walking through the crowd, yelling at us all to get down. It’s like a bank heist, except this isn’t a bank, and why would anyone want to hold up an art gallery? The gallery was crowded, but now many of the people are gone. They must have escaped. Those of us who didn’t run are now realizing our mistake. My heart is beating an imprint into the floor, and my hands are slick with sweat. We’re trapped.
“The Experiences have been changing you. They get inside your head and mess everything up!” yells the man with the gun. “Every time you see an Experience. They put stuff inside your head that wasn’t there before, and you can’t even tell.”
“That’s crazy!” Someone yells, giving voice to my thoughts. “Impossible!” The person yelling is me, I realize, as the man swings towards me, pointing his rifle directly at me. All I can feel then is cold. Not even fear, just the cold inevitability that this is how I will die.
“It is possible. It’s been happening all along.” He seems less angry now, almost confused. Had he expected us to believe him?
“Why would anyone even want to do that? Are they trying to push through new laws without us complaining? Is it about android suffrage?” I’ve given courage to a woman across the room, it seems, because now she’s yelling back at the man too. Murmuring rises in the crowd of bodies pressed against the floor. We’ve been emboldened by this, just a little. If he hasn’t shot anyone yet, then maybe he won’t. Anne’s hand slips into mine, but she doesn’t turn to face me. Her eyes are on the man’s boots as he moves, her face like stone. The expression is so unnatural on her that I want to cry.
“It’s not about any political agenda!” The man is laughing now, pacing through the room without a thought for the direction of his barrel. The crowd ripples, people cringing in turn as the barrel swings towards them. “It’s not about social change! It’s all about money!” He points the rifle at the ceiling and I breathe. “You’re wearing Brett Tylor shoes,” the gunman continues. ” She has Radclyffe earrings. That guy’s watch is the Arcane Co. Heist X. It just came out. Why do I even know that? How do I know who made your clothes? Because it’s advertising. They’re putting ads in our heads. They’re forcing us to buy things we don’t even want and we can’t tell.”
Something clicks together in my head then. I’ve never cared what brand my clothes are for most of my life, but in the past few years, that has changed. Were the Experiences the reason why? Would they really subvert our heads for something as ridiculous as advertising? Who could be so heartless? I finger the ring on my left hand and try not to think about its designer or brand. The news lately has all been about the staggering number of corporate takeovers taking place in the last few months. They’re all merging into one giant company: the Ganges Corporation.
A red dot appears on the gunman’s chest, and we realize as one that his pacing has put him directly in front of a window. Red and blue lights flash outside. We are about to be saved by the police. But I don’t want this man to die yet. What if he’s right?
I don’t hear the shot fired, but the man goes down. The amount of blood in the human body is staggering. We are free, no longer hostages to a crazed terrorist. But I can’t help wondering, as officers in tactical gear burst in, “Was the Experience worth it?”
—Molly Martin is a writer and real estate investor who was born with a love of science fiction. You can find her reading novels in German, pondering the nature of the universe, and corralling a herd of unruly children in California, Texas, and wherever else houses are ripe for the flipping.