Katherine Tunning


In the first level I fight a bird with needles for feathers. None of it is a surprise: not the bird, not the needles, not the fighting. There was a lot of paperwork beforehand, and the waivers were very clear. Still, the realism is startling, even though that was the promise, the whole point: you will believe fully that this is happening. But there’s no way to understand it until it’s too late to change your mind. Until the bird swoops low and I duck and the point of a single needle grazes the nape of my neck, the breath heaving in and out of me. My body believes that this is happening, and when your body believes something, you find out you really are your body. The bird dives again and I start to duck again but then I remember what they kept saying during the orientation: you have to commit. I have a hard time convincing myself of that, obviously, or I wouldn’t be doing this sort of thing in the first place. I whirl around and my fist flies out and connects, really connects. I don’t feel the needles at all. They said that at the beginning, too: you’ll only be hurt if you hesitate. Not that you can be really hurt in here, but if your body thinks you are, then you are. I guess that’s true out there, too. The bird begins to fizzle out, and soon it’s nothing but a streak of purple hanging in the air. I’m beginning to feel convinced.

In the second level I fight two tigers that have human teeth. This makes them much, much worse than regular tigers. Every time they roar I back away. I don’t know which of these things are just standard-issue and which are tailored to me, based on my pre-immersion assessment. I wouldn’t have said I had any major issues with teeth, or even with tigers, beyond the baseline normal amount of tiger fear, but here we are. My back against the wall. I’m supposed to commit, but my hands hang at my sides like dead birds, mostly dead, once in a while fluttering up to flap panic in front of my chest. The tigers seem like they could stand here all day, which I guess they could. As long as the simulation keeps running. I can’t remember if they told me how long it would go for—surely they must have? The fur on the tigers is remarkably realistic, but the most realistic thing is the teeth. I think I see a filling in a lower molar. My hands do nothing. They’re useless. Am I supposed to learn my hands are useless? The tigers roar in unison and, out of ideas, I roar back. My teeth feel suddenly sharper. The tigers step back and back again, still in perfect line-dance step, then blink at me, and vanish.

In the third level I fight the idea of sharks. Of course I’m afraid of sharks, like anybody, and I’m afraid of ideas in general, but it turns out the combination isn’t that bad. An idea of a shark is obviously less threatening than an actual shark. And a shark is hardly the worst idea you can have. I have far worse ideas all the time. I start taunting them, flipping off the flicker of teeth, the empty white grins that flash in and out of being. Fin here, scar there, streak of gray, shadow. My own memory of the scent of blood like a weapon against me. But they’re just ideas. I feel like I’m beginning to get the hang of it, to hit some kind of stride. I feel something approaching safe. In the orientation they said the most important thing to remember was that you were always safe, no matter what it felt like, no matter what seemed to be happening. On the other hand, they said the second-most important thing to remember was that no one is ever truly safe. I try out an idea of my own: disappearance, sinking, retreat. Gone-ness. You could call it a specialty. I picture the part of the ocean where the light just gives up, and the sharks fade out, since they were never really there.

In the fourth level I fight my longing for alternate histories. It’s true; I often indulge in this sort of imagining. Elaborate historical fantasies, or smaller present-day ones, little stories that land closer to home. Those are what I really want to rewrite. I’ve been told it comes from self-doubt and second-guessing, a greater than average tendency toward regret. All around me swirl the other ways things could have gone. A lot of them are bright, shot through with sun, but plenty are foggy, too, misted over and dim. There’s a smell of smoke, then of salt, then of—what is that? Sewage? The truth is sure, sometimes I like to rearrange my small embarrassments, my mistakes lesser and greater, but mostly it isn’t about regret. No one believes me when I say that. But it’s true. It’s just an unwillingness to be pruned. To choose a single path. This level doesn’t frighten me; what frightens me, after some time has passed—an hour? more?—is the realization that I would be content never to leave. Quickly I push my way forward, through the mists, through the gentle chiming bells, the faint voices I recognize or imagine recognizing, forward and forward. At least this one doesn’t hurt, I think, as the voices grow small behind me. I apologize as I push them aside, as the room empties itself again. Ah, I say softly, the hurt comes after.

In the fifth level I fight a machine playing recordings of everything I ever thought to myself and then thought “At least no one can ever know I thought such a thing.” This is worse than the tigers, worse than the sharks. I understand that that’s the point, the levels are meant to get harder as you progress. But I’m not sure this can even be called progress. It feels more like a treadmill, a hamster wheel, maybe quicksand. It occurs to me that there might be a flaw in the program: if I am progressing through a series of levels, each one conjured up in response to my personal amalgam of fears and shortcomings, what will be left when I’m done? Of course they’re very clear about this in the orientation, in all the materials. Whatever emerges at the end is the optimal you, you purified, you after sloughing off all your worst features. But what if nothing’s left to emerge, if it all sloughs off? The machine in the center of the room—a great squat creaking thing with speakers and dials and screens all over, and a droning voice that is my own—plays another recording: “I’m sure this won’t be as hard as everybody says. I mean, it’s not like any of it’s even real.” The machine is hot, some kind of aura coming out of it. Or I’m sweating for some other reason. I start laughing, aware that I sound a little hysterical, and all at once the machine goes quiet.

I can’t remember how many levels I signed up for. I’ve always been easy to upsell; I think they talked me into paying for the highest tier. I guess I’m really paying for it now. There’s nothing in this room but me. I lie down on the floor, what might be the middle if I could tell where the edges were. I imagine photosynthesis, some passive process taking over, the steady rush of life managing itself without me, but my surfaces have never known how to take what’s offered. They say at the end you can leave a review on their website. They encourage honest feedback. I wonder when the end is. I don’t know how many stars to give this experience. I don’t really have any stars to spare. Above me is a familiar darkness. I sit up, turn over, begin to move. Crawling forward, hand and knee. Hand and knee. If there’s light, my eyes won’t tell me.

Katherine Tunning lives in Boston with her partner and a highly variable number of cats. Some of her recent work has appeared in The Penn Review, Washington Square Review, and Analog SF&F.