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Learning Center

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Inspired by the story, Learning Chamber

Daniel couldn’t believe his eyes; he’d just gotten his letter of acceptance to The Russa Institute, home of the finest learning center in the world. The Russa Institute had all of the best and most effective learning simulations in the world. Learning centers are the greatest type of school in the world, giving students up to a century of training in a very brief amount of time; the better the software, the faster the training. At the Russa Institute Daniel would complete a lifetime of training in a few days time, and then he could go out into the world to make a name for himself. He didn’t know what he’d be making a name for doing, but no one ever thought about that kind of thing until after they got out of their institute. Daniel couldn’t wait to tell his friends the news. His home town was very notorious for spitting out button mashers people who didn’t attend a learning center, and were thus only suited in jobs that required no more than pushing buttons. This was alright for his friends, but not for Daniel. Imagine the advances and skills a person would have with eighty to one hundred years of experience training in their field? The best part is, you don’t even realize you’re training, to you it’s just like going about your day-to-day life. Most people don’t ever realize they are in a learning pod until the simulation is complete.

That night at the bar, Daniel’s friend Victor Howlett spent the evening trying to convince him to spend his life as a button masher with the rest of his social circle. “Dan, you can get a fine job in town; without going off to a learning center first,” Victor told him. Daniel’s reply was somewhat indignant when he said, “for minimum wage doing nothing more than washing windows or cleaning toilets under the watchful eye of someone who did go.” He then added, “even working as a shift manager at a fast food restaurant requires ten years of simulated experience nowadays.” “Don’t you see how stupid that is, Dan? You have to have ten years of imaginary accomplishments inside a learning pod so you can come out to spend the rest of your life doing the same kind of stuff;” Victor retorted angrily. “I was meant for bigger things, Vic, and besides I’ll only be gone a few days,” Daniel told him. Victor’s face grew concerned as he said, “only for me will you be gone a few days, from your perspective it will be an entire lifetime.” He then added, “people change in those pods, they’re old souls thrown back into a young body.”

Daniel could not believe his friend wasn’t happy for him, he roared back, “I thought my friend would be supportive. No, a true friend would be!” Even in his rage Daniel knew he would feel guilty for accusing Victor of not being a real friend, but right now he didn’t care; he would apologize later. Victor looked like he was going to punch him in the face, but quickly collected himself before calmly sayings; “you’re smarter than this, Dan.” He then stood up and walked out before Daniel could respond, which only made him that much angrier. He day at the bar and had another drink before going home for the night. Nursing his hangover the next morning, Daniel found a letter for Victor taped to his apartment door.

Dear Dan,

I know you think that going to The Russa Institute is going to solve all your problems, but I think it will only cause more. The stress alone of waking up to find that what you thought was your entire life was actually nothing more than a simulation would be enough to drive some men insane. Please, I’d rather you be happy and poor than lose your mind chasing this intangible dream of “making a name for yourself”. Most of the people who say the experience was a good one were already set up with jobs before going. For the rest, jobs are extremely hard to come by because they refuse to demean themselves working as a button masher, so their debt piles up until collectors come for them. Is that what you want? Regardless of what you end up doing, I support you as a friend. I hope that you find what you’re looking for in life.

Your friend,

Victor Howlett

Balling up the letter and throwing it away, Daniel sat at the table to cry when there was a knock at the front door. Before he could even open the door it swung open. “There’s my little man,” his mom loudly proclaimed. He was happy to see her, but he hoped the cute girl down the hall wasn’t awake yet. “Hey, Mom, I see you got my message” he said. “I did, and we’re going to celebrate. I want to get you something special for your time at Russa,” she said. Continuing she added, “you’re the third Nozen to go to Russa, and the people there deserve to know what good genes you come from. After all, you’ll probably meet your wife there.” Daniel blushed, he was never good talking with his mom about things like that; he found it embarrassing. To his mom, Daniel’s perfect wife was learning center educated, but had no plans to work; smart and capable, but nurturing to the many children Daniel’s mom wanted he and his future wife to have. “I’ll do my best to meet her, mom,” Daniel told her. Ignoring his embarrassment she asked him, “now, where do you want to go for lunch, sweetie?” “Airot’s,” he told her. Airot’s was a small local restaurant that had some of the worst food in the area, but Daniel loved it for the small row of antique arcade games lining the back wall. Apparently his mom once dated Airot during her younger days, so they always got their food for free. Though it didn’t matter since Daniel usually made up for it with the money he spent on the game machines. His mom didn’t object to seeing Airot again, so they set off to eat.

While they waited on the overcooked lumps of grease Airot called hamburgers, Daniel got to play on the arcade cabinets. He wasn’t very good, that’s why he spent so much money; but he loved them, especially Golden Palace. Golden Palace was a fantasy game where the player acted as a great knight fight his way through hordes of monsters to the golden palace to save a beautiful princess from certain death. Daniel could play the game for hours, he loved fantasy games. When their food got there, Daniel finished his game and sat down with him mom. “We’re going to pick you up a brand new suit,” his mom blurted out in a sudden burst of excitement. Daniel turned to her and said, “no, mom, I have a perfectly good suit already; besides I’ll only be there a few days.” “But your future wif—“ she started before Daniel cut her off; “—will like me for who I am in both the simulation and the real world, not for the suit I’m wearing.” “I know honey, I just worry, I don’t want you to be alone,” she told him. Seeing that he was getting annoyed, she backed off so they could both eat in silence before Daniel played one last game. Daniel couldn’t bring himself to tell her, but he wasn’t even sure he wanted to get married. After leaving Airot’s Daniel decided he wanted to be alone. He said he wasn’t feeling well, and his mother took him home. Saying goodbye, he walked slowly into his apartment and flopped on the couch to think.

Laying there he began to think about Victor’s letter. What if Victor was right? Did he really need to go get an entire lifetime’s worth of experience and for spend all that money just so he could leave the simulation and spend a lifetime trying to live up to his fake accomplishments? Would he wind up wasting all his time and money to ultimately become the world’s most highly trained button masher? A lot of companies still prefer employees with real world experience; arguing that the simulations are at best imperfect, and any experience gained in them gives potential employees an unwarranted sense of self-importance. He’d even read an article that tried to prove that when you factor in your debt, lost wages looking for a fitting job, and the instability of the trained job market; learning center training rarely amounts to more than a few extra paycheck’s worth of money over a lifetime. Of course, the learning center elite have also done studies showing that the, “quality of life,” is better for those who went through training. Though, he wasn’t sure how elite a group it was any more given that more than half the population had at least some formal learning center training. Inexplicably, as many as 1% of the trainees prematurely end their training, and even more have their training terminated for their behavior in the simulation. After reading a few horror stories in the news Daniel started to wonder about the fairness of the involuntary ejections, as there seemed to be no consistency to who left and who stayed. The designers of some of the simulations claim this started when the software became self-sufficient, and now even they have no method of controlling the simulations. According to them, the software only ejected a person when that person learned all they had to learn.

Did Daniel really want to step into a system when even that system’s designers had no control anymore? The simulations would be directly accessing his brain. Should he really give such a flawed system that kind of power over him? As much as he hated to admit it, Victor was right, people changed when they went into the pods. They usually started to look down on everyone else, to think they’re better than everyone despite having no real accomplishments. Ever since he was a little boy, though, Daniel looked forward to being one of those people. He couldn’t wait to turn his nose up at the unwashed masses. That’s what was supposed to happen, a person goes through basic education and training, grows up a bit, and then goes to a learning center. Daniel’s parents met in their simulation, a very uninteresting “real world” simulation where they went through lifetime careers as accountants. Daniel had planned ever since he applied to go into a simulation based on his favorite science fiction series. He had no clue what a sci-fi universe was going to teach him, but at least he’d enjoy himself while he was learning it. He was not going to pass up this amazing opportunity to be a better person. Sure, there were risks, but life is full of risks. If you shy away from risk, you will never do anything worthwhile with your life. He just hoped that this was the right choice. He was going, and no one would stop him.

Learning centers have very fast turnover rates, when the entire process takes at most four days from start to finish, the waiting list moves quickly once a student is accepted. Daniel didn’t mind, the fast pace of the next three weeks kept his mind off any doubts he was having about going. His life was just a blur of meeting with the Russa Institute’s advisers, loan paperwork signing, and medical checkups (to make sure he was fit enough to handle the simulation). It all went smoothly, and for a brief hour his bank account had a nice eighty grand in it, until the Russa Institute withdrew the money. That’s when he knew it was official, he was going and there was no turning back. Tomorrow he was going to board the train, and he would be off to the Institute.

Boarding the train, Daniel was surprised by how many people weren’t actually going to the Russa Institute in spite of the fact that the train was non-stop there. Most of the people on board were planning on walking into a town near the Institute; the train just happened to be the cheapest was to travel. As he settled into his seat, he heard a squeaky voice coming from behind him, “is it alright if I sit next to you?” Daniel turned and met eyes with a girl who was around his age. “Of course,” he said, feeling like he’d stared a little longer than was acceptable. She wasn’t an overtly beautiful girl, in fact, she was very plain. Daniel Liked plain girls, though, other guys were less likely to be a threat when he was with a plain, unspectacular woman. Even thinking that made him feel like a horrible person, but he’d just never experienced that blindness to a potential mate’s flaws like his friends did. He suddenly realized he was still staring, and quickly looked away. “I’m Rita,” she said shyly, seemingly unphased by his staring. “Daniel. Are you going to the Russa Institute?” he asked her. “Yeah, it’s so exciting, I can’t wait,” she replied. She then asked him a question that no one had asked during his entire application process, “what are you hoping to do with your life when you get out?”

He stammered, “don’t you think it’s a little early to be thinking about that?” “It’s not too early to hope, you obviously can’t make a decision until you find out who you really are, but you can hope for something,” she told him. She obviously was over any shyness from earlier. “I don’t know, I like video games, so maybe something in programming,” he choked out. Did he really have no idea what he even liked that might make a good career? “I’m hoping to be a musician of some kind,” she came back with a grin on her face. She added, “maybe you can make video games, and I’ll write music for your games.” Daniel wasn’t sure how to respond, he knew he’d meet girls when he went to the Institute, but not this fast. Trying to play it smooth, he said, “I’d like that.” He like that was a stupid thing to say, but she smiled at him.

He was beginning to feel there was a little chemistry between them when she asked him a question that was surprising given her initial timidity, “can I go in the same simulation as you?” He stared for a moment before realizing that his jaw had gone slack. Composing himself he let sink in what just happened. Asking to go into the same simulation was a very clear sign that she was interested in finding out if they were a good match. She wasn’t exactly proposing to him, but if the simulation favored them together, they probably get married when they stepped out. He reached out to put his hand on her shoulder, but pulled back and quickly averted his eyes from her. “Stupid,” he thought to himself. “Fucking idiot,” was the only coherent though he could for the rest of the way to the institute as he and Rita sat in the most awkward silence either had ever experienced.

Daniel was fairly certain that he would never see Rita again, so once he felt a sense of relief spread through his body as soon as he got off the train. At that horrible, unspeakable tragedy was over with. “Unless something drastically changes about me in the simulation, I’ll probably be alone for the rest of my life,” he thought to himself as he unloaded his bag onto the bed he would call home for the next ten days. Looking at the schedule he had been given, he noticed the first three days were an orientation period to get students acquainted with each other and the institute itself. Unfortunately, Rita was part of his orientation group; but it was a large group, so he really didn’t have to interact with her at all. However, sometimes he caught glances from Rita, as if she felt that she had done something wrong. He wanted to talk to her, to apologize, but he couldn’t do it. “This is ridiculous,” he though, “I’m a grown man, and I’m freaking out about the idea of talking to a girl?!” Just as he worked himself up enough to walk over to apologize, the orientation aide, Chett, spoke up. “Alright everyone, we’ve gotten to know each other these past few hours, now we’re going to take a tour of the pod center,” Chett told them. He then added, “it is super important that you be quiet in there, you do not want to be responsible for waking someone up.” With that warning they set off to the pod farm.

Daniel took the walk to the pods as an opportunity to get to know Chett. He was an odd looking man; his eyes had been severely bloodshot the entire day, and his air clung to his head and fell down over his brightly colored shirt. If Daniel didn’t know better, he’d say that Chett was a stoner, but he didn’t think the Institute would trust someone like that with a job like this. Would they? It didn’t matter. Daniel walked faster to catch up with Chett and in his most cheerful tone said, “hi!” Chett looked back at him and coldly said, “look, dude, I’m just here to show you around, tomorrow you are gonna climb into a pod and this conversation will be a speck of dust in your memory.” Chett went on, “there’s one like you in every group, too friendly for his own good; the truth is that I’m nobody to you, and in 48 hours I’ll be giving this speech to someone else.” “You seem like a good guy, man, I’m just tired of two day friendships is all,” he finished. “No problem,” Daniel said uncertainly; the two people he had spoken to so far did not result in the lifelong friendships he was lead to believe would come of being a social butterfly. “I am a failure at this,” Daniel thought.

While they were stepping into the pod farm, Chett told them, “this is where you guys will spend the next few days, he you’re goin--.” Chett’s voice trailed off as Daniel looked around at the learning pods that surrounded him. The pods looked more decrepit than he expected; the ads showed shiny, brand new equipment, whereas these pods looked like they had gone through an apocalypse of some kind. Though, he supposed it didn’t really matter if they were clean or not. Each pod was little more than a chair where a student was strapped into; then electrodes get inserted into their brain to give the simulation a completely immersive experience. The yellowing chairs he saw in the open pods gave Daniel the impression that each had seen more than its fair share of occupants. No matter, they watched a short video demonstration of how to strap yourselves into the pods, what the assistants would do with the electrodes, and how to navigate the initial interface for selecting which simulation you want to go to. Daniel only half paid attention to any of it, then Chett told them to get some rest and mentioned that they would meet the next day for one last mixer before everyone went to their pods.

No one got any sleep that night; this would be their last night outside the simulation as doe-eyed youth. In forty-eight hours or so they would all be ancient, nearly a century old mentally; their youthful recklessness gone, replaced by a sense of frugality and the wisdom of years. The drunken parties spilling out of every room mingled with the sounds of loud sex and drug fueled nightmares in a never-ending cacophony of the excessive self-indulgence that society only allows to take place because, “they’re just being kids.” Daniel couldn’t sleep, but for entirely different reasons. He kept going over the scene on the train in his mind, ashamed of how stupid he knew he looked to Rita. This inevitably started him about all the times in his life he had done something that made him look like an idiot in front of a girl, and he cringed at the realization that things would never change; not out here, and not in the simulation.

Daniel was just starting to acclimate to the noise and drift off to sleep when there was a knock at his door. He ignored it at first, thinking someone had bumped against it in a drunken trip to the bathroom, but the knocking continued. Standing up from his bed and fumbling towards the door he found Rita on the other side holding a beer out for him. “Can I come in,” she asked. He motioned her in and locked the door behind her. Sitting on the edge of his bed she began, “I don’t know what happened on the train, I just got super awkward and messed everything up.” She started to pace the room when Daniel tried to sit beside her on the bed. Then standing in from of the door she started to turn the knob and paused, Daniel heard the click of the lock snapping. Turning around she said, “I really like you, though, so if you can stand my awkwardness, I’d like to try.” Daniel sat there on his bed, stunned by what had just happened; when Rita crossed the room, wrapped her arms around him, and pressed her lips against his. A moment last, while they were still clutching one another, the door flung open and a camera flash went off. “Thank god,” Rita said as she jumped off him and ran to the group at the door. All the sound Daniel could make was, “whu-?” A large muscular looking man told him, “it was a bet, dude, and the fact that you were too stupid to figure out it was a setup cost me twenty bucks.” Then the crowd rushed out of the room, and all Daniel could do was say, “what the hell was that?!”

Daniel opted to lock the door and answer it for no one until it was time for the plugging-in ceremony. Sleeping through the night and well into the next morning, Daniel was visited by some of the most vividly enjoyable dreams of his life, apparently his mind’s way of making the best of a bad situation. Sadly, on getting out of bed the memories of what happened in the dreams dissolved almost instantly from his memory. Thankfully, the dreams left their imprint in the form of a very positive move; today he would be going into the simulation, and things would be different inside. There would be people that liked him, and he was going to get a beautiful girl to fall madly in love with him. “I think I will go to that last mixer,” he said to himself. After quickly getting himself ready, he stepped out his room’s door to find a small note taped to it. “I’m sorry they treated you like that, it was cruel. See you in the simulation I hope. <3 – P.” He didn’t really know what to make of the note, was it just another cruel joke? He spent so long staring at the note that he missed the mixer and was nearly late for the ceremony. Though, it made no real difference since the ceremony was so long and dull that he fell asleep in his seat and didn’t wake up until the dean of the institute was given a standing ovation for his speech on…something. It was finally time to get plugged into a pod and put his loans to good use. Daniel could hardly contain his excitement about it. While he was rather curious who ‘P’ was, he decided he would find out soon enough or never. Regardless, there was no point in dwelling on who she was.

There his pod was, he was nearly through the nightmare that is the Russa Institute’s clientele. He had to be hooked up to the learning pod by one of the institute’s “skilled helpers.” There weren’t many helpers, and about 200 people to be plugged in. He was excitedly imagining what it would be like in the simulation he had chosen when a tap on his shoulder nearly made him fall to the floor. “Augh,” he shouted. “Sorry,” came a calm voice from behind him. Turning around he locked eyes with a painfully gorgeous young woman with dark eyes and hair who had a very mousey face. He, as per usual, stared at her longer than he should have before she broke the silence. “Look, I heard what happened last nig—“ was all he let her say before putting his hand out in a commanding ‘be silent’ kind of way. She asked him, “to make up for those assholes, I wanted to know if I could go in the same simulation as you?” All he could come up with as a response that wasn’t cruel was, “is this another joke?” Her response found Daniel off guard, “no joke, you seem like a nice person who got shit on by someone with no right to do so.” She then continued, “you are cute and nice; I figure that risking getting paired up with you in the simulation and out her isn’t so bad.” She winked at him before he came back to his senses. After he finished staring, he scrawled where he planned to go on a piece of paper. Looking at it she said, “bit nerdy, don’t you think? That’s cool.” She started to go back to her assigned pod to wait when a thought occurred to Daniel. He shouted after her, “what’s your name?” “Pauline,” she told him before running out of sight. A smile came over his face as he waited. Given how few real people go into sci-fi based simulations, if he got together with anyone there were good odds that it would be her.

He waited over an hour outside his pod before someone came around from the helper squad to load him in. Entering the small, enclosed pod to seat him in what looked like a dentist’s chair, the helper walked behind Daniel wearily pushing him into the room. This pod looked a bit nicer than some of the other ones in the institute; cleaner, as if it had seen fewer bodies. His helper shed light as to why this pod looked better, “this is one of the newer pods, the electrodes don’t have to be inserted in your brain.” Continuing he told Daniel, “that makes it less time intensive to strap you in.” Daniel happily sighed in relief, he really had not been looking forward to having probes inserted into his brain. He had heard horror stories of people who had been mutilated for life; they were probably only stories, but they still made him nervous. The helmet looked like one for going out on a motorcycle, but it had hundreds of round electrodes inside it. The helper told him that the electrodes emitted very finely tuned magnetic pulses that cause the wearer to perfectly experience the reality of their simulation. He didn’t understand it, but it didn’t matter to him at this point. He was securely strapped into the chair, his helmet on, his ts crossed, and his i’s dotted; he was going in.

“I’m going to close you in, then the pod will start going after 15 seconds or so,’ the helper told him. With a clunk the door closed, and Daniel was alone. After what seemed like an eternity the lights went out; and not only did the straps holding him in disappear, but the entire chair itself. He hit the floor with a thud and as he landed he shouted, “damn it!” Unsure of what happened, he walked to where he thought the door was only to discover that it was gone. Not just the door, the walls were gone as well. He was in the simulation. Thinking out loud he said, “is it supposed to be like this?” He was unsure of what he was supposed to do at this point; he wished he’d paid more attention during the training videos. He decided the best course of action was to simply wait until something happened, he couldn’t see anything else to do anyway. Eventually floating in the air in front of him was a glowing display that looked like it was from a monitor, but there wasn’t actually anything displaying it. The display read, “Welcome to the Russa Institute!” A menu title popped up that said, “choose the simulation you wish to enter.” Below the title there was a list of the simulations he could choose from, most learning centers only had a few choices, but The Russa Institute had hundreds. He scrolled the list until he found the only simulation that mattered to him, his favorite science fiction world. Once he was sure it was in the system, he made his selection. A computerized voice said, “now loading simulation for planet Earth.”

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