by C. M. Fields
MURDER, VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, MENTION OF RAPE, MENTION OF ABORTION, STRONG LANGUAGE
The bullet had torn through Evelyn’s chest and the glass had rained down all around her and now, as she watched, blood slowly soaked into the tiled floor of the abortion clinic.
Then the simulation ended.
“Fuck!” Evelyn exclaimed as she tore off the headset. “Shit! Jesus H. M. S. Christ!” The electrosensors wailed as she ripped them off her arms and staggered to her feet. No, not yet, warned the brilliant yellow cloud that occluded her vision. Fine. Ok, deep breaths. She struggled to remember what else they had said to do in the slush-pile safety seminar. Cold sweat drenched the back of her t-shirt.
“Another live one, eh, Ev?” Michelle had poked her head into the room. Must be break time, Evelyn thought. How long have I been in?
“That was…” she searched for words, grasped at them, but they eluded her. She shook her head and her vision sparkled. “…a real piece of work. Nasty…” The sudden urge to retch interrupted her thought. She clapped a clammy hand over her mouth as the room began to tilt and spin; the ceiling twisted into impossible patterns and reached down, down…
Michelle sounded like she was shouting from the other end of a long tunnel. Footsteps. Falling. A WHAP like a bullwhip cracked inside of her head.
“…have to file a J-31,” she mumbled before the contents of her paltry lunch spread across the floor around her and the lights flickered off.
For a few moments, there is darkness.
Then the soft click of keys as she delicately lifts them off a dusty glass table.
How is she standing? Why is she — where is she —
Now she’s walking. Creeping, actually, feeling the scrape of one stilettoed heel after the other on the thin carpet as she crosses a bare and dirty living room. A man: balding, slack-jawed, gut spilling out below a yellowed undershirt, sleeps in an easy chair. She has never seen this man before in her life, she is certain, but yet, he holds some distasteful familiarity. Something tells her she shouldn’t be here for much longer.
She eases the front door shut behind her and hurries over to a gasoline car parked alongside an asphalt road. What am I doing? I can’t drive this. She climbs into the front seat anyway and begins to adjust the rearview mirror. A rosary with white and wooden beads swings back and forth against a patchy grey sky. Hey!
She can’t stop.
As she watches, her right hand selects a key, shoves it into some arcane slot by the steering wheel, and twists, and the engine sputters to life with a roar. Her face twists into a grimace at the sound. With practiced ease, she wriggles the car out from between its tightly packed neighbors and sets off toward the west.
Where am I going? In the back of her mind, a panic accumulates, tumbling, shaking, plowing forwards like an avalanche. But something keeps it from growing. A strange presence dismisses the fear as fast as it forms. Instead, it whispers new emotions into being. Scared, but of tangible things close by. Hurt, by those she cared about. Determined to make a change. She latches onto that one.
Stop driving! she commands. Her foot stays on the gas.
Make a fist, she says. Her hands keep their white-knuckled grip on the leather steering wheel.
Blink? she pleads. She can’t even blink off-beat.
After twenty minutes, she pulls into a parking lot. It is evening and the pink neon lights announce that Maria’s Diner is open for business at all hours, even on Sundays. She shuts off the car and heads for the door.
She catches her reflection in the glass. This is when reality splits in two like a rotten melon.
Inside the body that is her prison, she screams as the pieces fall together. The glass door! She was looking at that reflection, her reflection and his, when he pulled the trigger.
She is still inside the simulation.
What went wrong? she wonders, as her body — no, not her body, the protagonist’s body — walks timidly up to the front counter and asks for Lynn. Did she die on the floor of her testing cubicle? Is this hell? The last hurrah of failing neurons scrambling together to replay the final moments of her life? What if waking up was a part of the simulation, too, and she is still strapped to the sensors? No, waking up had to have been real.
Lynn is about sixty, her graying hair cropped close to her head and her eyes overlarge behind thick round frames. A slender gold cross on a thin chain glints at her collarbones.
“…I won’t be a part of this, child.”
“Please, Lynn,” she begs. “Just a small advance, just next week, that’s all I need.”
Lynn shakes her head. “You even got a husband, that’s what makes this so —”
“He ain’t a good man, Lynn.” Her voice simmers with tamped-down anger, and a distinct awareness enters her mind. There is a welt hanging from her left cheekbone, throbbing and red under layers of concealer, and she knows Lynn can see it, is seeing it and choosing to ignore it.
“I never said he was a good man, hun, but we work with what the Lord gives us.”
“This —” she jabs a finger at her abdomen — “didn’t come from the Lord.”
“Yes it did, girl, and just you wait, you’ll find that a child is a blessing.”
Evelyn recoiled inside. Sure, the twentieth century was barbaric in its systematic dehumanization of anyone in possession of a uterus, but the face it wore, at the moment, was old, and soft, and wearing a faded sweater with two kittens on it. And it was full of genuine pity, so convinced that it was doing the right thing.
“Trust me, one day you’ll thank me for this,” the face said.
The protagonist simply turned away. The woman wasn’t going to help her. She could feel her sinuses begin to sting as she keyed on the car again.
The downy autumn meadows blur together as she races toward a destination unknown. An hour passes this way before she makes a sharp right, sending gravel flying as she pulls into the parking lot of a shabby building with flicking neon lights.
She hurriedly looks around before entering the building. Is someone following her? Maybe the man whose keys she took?
The interior of the bar is as seedy as its outside, with stained wooden paneling and flashing beer signs and the smell of bleached-over vomit in the carpet. Evelyn wonders when she is. 1980’s? She walks up to the sticky black countertop as the bartender gives her a once-over.
“Excuse me,” she says quietly. “I need directions.”
“Where to, miss?”
She pulls out a crumpled napkin she didn’t know she had with an address written in a trembling hand.
“Well, ma’am, you’re on the right track,” the bartender says kindly. “Just keep headin’ down 33 another six miles, then you’re gonna take the exit for Goldtree, the one after the Exxon station. Another three miles after that and you’ll see the sign for the clinic right next to the auto supply store.”
“Thank you, sir —”
“Traveling alone, miss?” A towering man with slick blonde hair and dirty teeth appraises her with a wolfish smile. What does this creep want?
“Ah — yes, sir,” she demures.
“Ain’t right for a woman to be traveling alone…” The man continues. He is so close that Evelyn can smell his simulated bad breath. “Ain’t safe.”
She has drawn the attention of the other men in the bar. Suddenly, she is aware of the brush of her mini-skirt against her thighs, the weight of her cartoonishly large breasts.
A few stand up and begin to mutter amongst themselves.
“You sure you don’t need a companion, miss?” He raises a hand up to her face and cups her chin.
The protagonist recoils. “No thank you,” she says, and this time it has a little spine in it.
“Leavin’ so soon?” another man calls from behind her. “Why don’t you stay awhile?” His footsteps creak across the floor.
“Show us yer tits!” a third man slurs as he moves across the open space toward her. Evelyn rolls her eyes. Now this is just bad writing, she thinks.
The protagonist is angry now, she can feel it, it is almost a refreshing change of pace from the constant barrage of scared and sad being injected into her amygdala.
The blonde man cocks his head as if to ask Well?
Suddenly, to her great shock, the protagonist lifts her shirt — why aren’t I wearing a bra? Oh, because a man wrote this simulation — to the men. Just as quickly, the bartender raises a heavy glass and smashes it over the blonde man’s head. He goes down with a holler.
The protagonist runs for the car and the other two men follow. She slams the door and they beat at the windows, but the key is already in the ignition and the old engine roars to life. She guns the gas and pulls back out onto the highway, leaving them in a cloud of dust.
A wave of anxiety crests as she comes to a cruising speed. She checks her reflection in the rearview mirror — her mouse-brown curls stick to her sweating forehead, her rouge is beginning to run, and clumpy mascara threatens to spill down her face.
She cries and cries as she drives. Evelyn is not entirely sure what about — she experiences the protagonist’s emotions as flashes of imagery and has to assemble them into meaningful thoughts herself. There are glimpses of the man she left behind, and a baby in a crib. Many images of a baby, in fact, in varying scenarios: nursing, sleeping peacefully, toddling around the dirty living room. Evelyn guesses the simulation is supposed to channel real, organic feelings of guilt and remorse in the viewer.
The radio is on. She doesn’t remember turning it on, but she slowly becomes aware of a man’s voice speaking to her. Does she believe in god? the voice asks. Does she know that salvation is waiting at the touch of a dial?
“God revealed the world to me,” says the radio.
White light and the smell of alcohol creep leak into the simulation. The drone of the radio tells her that her sins can be redeemed through prayer and devotion, but in the static she can hear takotsubo cardiomyopathy and vasospasm resulting in temporary ischemia and our best option is just to replace the whole thing.
Replace what? What happened to me? What is happening to me? Evelyn fights against the simulation but she can’t even turn the steering wheel.
The car breaks down; smoke pours from the hood. The protagonist cries for a bit before taking off her heels and turning down the road.
Several cars pass without stopping. Then one slows down. Strong — too strong — emotions of gratefulness arise in her mind as she waves down the car. It comes to a stop, and the windows roll down.
“You bitch,” snarls the man inside.
It’s him — the man from the living room. Evelyn recoils and her body does the same, backing away barefoot into the long grass. The man opens the door and heaves himself out of the driver’s seat, and the protagonist bolts into the meadow.
He follows. But he tires quickly as Evelyn darts through the brush. He is no match for her. She just keeps running and running, and soon the road and the car are far out of sight.
Her legs are scratched and dirty, and the sun is going to set soon, and the protagonist is crying again. We were heading north, she thinks miserably to herself. Just keep the sun on your left. Fortunately, the protagonist has the sense of mind to understand this, and so she walks.
Hours pass, and it becomes dark before she spots a floodlit gas station with a single car. She squints. It does not belong to him, it is an old blue van, and children peer out the windows. She approaches cautiously.
She must look like hell, because the man pumping gas says “You need help, hon?” with a sympathetic face.
“Y-y-y-yess,” she stutters, suddenly aware of how cold she is. “I need to get to…” what was it the bartender had said? The clinic was next to the auto place? “I blew a tire,” the protagonist says meekly.
“Well, little lady, just hop in the back, we’ll get you there.”
“Th-th-thank you,” she replies.
The children stare at her as the van rumbles down the highway, and the protagonist’s thoughts of the child she will not have plague her as she peers out of the back window into the night.
Ten minutes later, the kind man drops her off in front of the auto shop. She thanks him again, makes a show of entering the store — still open, thank heaven — and watches the van leave from behind the shelves. The store’s owner gives her a quizzical look as she leaves without buying anything.
Evelyn’s heart pounds along with her character as she crosses the empty street. She knows what is coming, the protagonist does not.
The keys click softly as she delicately lifts them off a dusty glass table.
Oh no. Oh no no no.
Evelyn has heard about this happening. It was one of those rare side effects — like death — that she had to sign off on to take this shitty, minimum wage job reviewing sims for a media conglomerate.
Her stilettos dig into the carpet with each step.
She could be trapped here. For how long, she didn’t know.
The car’s engine sputters to life, and in the bellowing she can hear: comatose for at least three weeks and have you heard from her family yet? and how long is the waiting list for a mechanical heart?
A heart attack. It figures. Evelyn is only twenty-eight years old, but the stress of 80-hour weeks spent lying in a simulator combined with scarfing the cheapest shitty food on the block during her ten-minute lunch breaks has done her in.
The rosary swings from the rearview mirror.
Evelyn dies over and over and over and over.
The repetition drives her mad. There is no break between resets; no sleep in a coma, no rest for the unfortunate.
FUCK OFF, CREEP, she shrieks at the men in the bar. ENJOY HELL she shouts at Lynn the shift manager. FUCK YOU, YOU NASTY PIECE OF SHIT, she screams at the man who will kill her time and time again.
But her worst threats are reserved for the man who put her here. When she gets out of this mess — and oh, she will — she is going to kill this motherfucker dead.
Two-hundred and twenty-three and one half: that is how many times Evelyn relives the simulation before — just as she darts out of the bar — she wakes with a gasp and a sharp pain in her chest. A kindly, wrinkled face stands over her as she blinks in the harsh light.
“You’ve been out for quite some time,” says the nurse.
Evelyn groans in response.
The nurse describes her months in the hospital: the ambulance ride from work, the diagnosis of a stress-induced heart attack, the ages spent in a coma. As she goes on about possible brain damage, Evelyn wonders, a sick feeling in her gut: how much is all this going to cost?
She spends another three weeks in the bed regaining lost weight and gathering the strength to function again. One day, Michelle visits her.
“Wow…” She appraises her frail body. “They really did a number on you.”
Evelyn grits her teeth. “Somebody did.”
“Yeah, I filed that J-31 for Unlabeled Violence. Haven’t heard anything of it, though.”
“Of course not.” Simulation writers rarely faced consequences for the dreck they churned out, whether it was untagged violence, disturbing sexual content, or just insufferably bad writing. Sometimes it was because they used a wide array of pseudonyms, other times because the company simply didn’t care enough to prosecute. Traumatize a staff member? Hire a new one. The unemployment lines never ended.
Evelyn once — she hardly believes it these days — enjoyed her job. Getting to experience all the new sims before they hit the market had thrilled her. Her taste was eclectic: she loved hiking sims that took her through hours of gorgeous scenery, heart-pounding art heists, psychological horrors, biographies of the rich and famous. There was simply no feeling like being the first to experience a brilliant new perspective. In the beginning, anyways.
“Well…” Michelle fills the awkward silence. “I got promoted since you’ve been gone. Second-round reviewer. No more slush for me.”
“Good for — hey, can’t second-round reviewers see the author names?”
“You could find out who put me here.”
“But your sim didn’t — obviously — make it to the second round.”
Evelyn sighs. “But you have access to the computer archives, right?”
“Yes…” Michelle responds nervously. “…technically.”
“Michelle, I need to know who did this to me.”
“I can’t! I just got promoted, I don’t want to get fired.”
“Come on, Michelle. Think about all the bad sims you’ve suffered through. The torture. The gore. All those fucked-up rape fantasies.”
“I don’t know, Evelyn… what are you going to do if I tell you?”
“Nothing,” she insists. “I’m just sick of all these perverts hiding behind anonymity. It’s probably a pen name anyways.”
“…Fine. Just promise me you’re not going to like, stalk them or something.”
“I promise,” she lies.
Standing outside the hospital waiting for the bus, Evelyn gets the text.
“SIM ID: 385028748 [‘AS SHE WAS’]; SUBMITTED BY HARRISON BUCHAVE”
Hmm, she thinks. Not an obvious pseudonym.
When she returns to her studio apartment, she searches the net for the name and the man’s writer page pops right up. She does not have to scroll far to find her nightmare written out in a tidy blog post labeled “ANOTHER UNWARRANTED REJECTION”. Below the title is a familiar screed: no one ‘gets’ this piece, the magazines just want the same old shit, no one wants to take risks anymore. And he keeps getting bounced for lack of content warnings, but today’s generation of writers are just pussies who need everything labeled, and he’ll die before he puts a content warning on his art.
This is why Evelyn doesn’t read cover letters.
But it doesn’t appear that this has hurt his career. She easily locates his address and finds it is in a high-rise in an upscale neighborhood. His web page lists dozens of lucrative sales to well-known newspapers and magazines, and his simulations total millions of downloads.
Staring at the screen, Evelyn suddenly feels conflicted. Sure, this man is a piece of shit: a bad writer, and a worse person. But she is not a murderer, not really. What is she going to do, show up at this man’s house and shoot him for being an asshole? Can she point a gun in a man’s face and pull the trigger and watch him die? Evelyn has seen a million first-person shooter sims and they all make it look easy.
But she doesn’t think she can do it.
It is blistering hot, even in November, and the unemployment line wraps around the block. Evelyn shifts in her tight shoes and checks her phone. There are other minimum-wage jobs in the city, but many more applicants than positions. She has sent an application to all of them: warehouse stocker positions, data entry jobs, call centers. But none of them want her; her mechanical heart means she cannot do strenuous exercise, she never learned to type quickly, and she does not have a college degree. But most of all, she is an insurance burden: visibly thin and sickly even over video calls, even employers who offer health benefits do not care to have her on staff.
Finally, she makes it to the front of the line, where a tired man assesses her profile.
“Simulation Checker,” he finally asserts.
“I just had that job,” Evelyn says. “It almost killed me.”
“It’s all we’ve got for your skill set right now. Next.”
“File for benefits and you’ll hear from us in eight to twelve weeks,” he recites.
Thirteen weeks later, a check arrives in the mail. By this point, Evelyn has exhausted her meager savings. Unemployment is $750, but her studio is $1650. She sells what she does not need on the net, and this makes ends meet for one month. But what about the next?
She waits through the unemployment line again. “Simulation checker,” says a frowning woman. “All we have.”
She waits until she gets home to cry.
Finally, she calls Michelle. “I need my job back,” she says. “Nowhere else will hire me.”
“Welcome back,” she says grimly.
The work is brutal. The shift is still 80 hours a week. She slogs through unlabeled filth as before, but this time it breaks her down day by day. She dutifully checks the boxes on the print-out forms — Unlabeled Violence, Exploitation of Minors, Sexual Content — and watches them pile up in the manager’s inbox, unread.
After two months, Evelyn is at her breaking point when she snaps on the headset eleven hours into a Saturday shift.
Darkness; then, the keys click softly as she delicately lifts them off a dusty glass table.
In her head, she screams. Who the fuck let this through the submission site? She tries to push through the simulation to tear off the headset, but, as always, she is locked in until the sim ends.
This simulation is a rewrite — a dark one. Wasn’t this sexist nightmare dark enough the first time?
In this version, it is pouring rain, and it soaks through her tight pencil skirt and thin white blouse, outlining her nipples. In the rearview, Evelyn catches her reflection: instead of the unbrushed brunette tresses, her hair is now a curly blonde, and she sports cat-eye eyeliner and pouty red lips.
Lynn at the diner sneers at her questions and tells her she’s leaving the path of the lord, and she slams the door on the way out.
She notices a heightened awareness of her breasts as the car bounces over potholes in the road, and when she pulls up at the bar, she struts up like she is a model on a catwalk.
The bar scene is the same, except that this time, her voice is high-pitched and whiny. She casts furtive glances at the men around her, who have degraded in appearance. The writer has added a tasteful “Get a load of this, boys,” as she flashes them.
Evelyn fumes as the simulation parades its slimy scenery through her head. The nerve! The audacity! If the goal of this version was to fill a female audience with rage, the writer has succeeded gloriously.
When the protagonist reaches the gas station with the van, it is still raining, and formidably dark. There are no children this time, just the previously kindly, and now terrifying man. He looks the same, but in his eyes there is a hunger, an itch. The protagonist gets in the front seat anyways.
Evelyn can feel her body — her real body — hyperventilating. So this is it, she thinks. It’s gonna be one of these stories. It is a ten-minute-and-thirty-eight-second drive from the gas station to the auto shop, and each second fills her with a visceral fear that whirrs with every beat of her artificial heart.
She waits and waits for the man to make his move, but it doesn’t come. The wait makes Evelyn sick, nauseous. She cannot survive this story, not like this, not again. She is going to die, at work, twenty-eight years old, in a fucking simulation written by a creep. Her life starts to flash before her eyes.
The van pulls into the auto shop parking lot and the protagonist simply hops out, squeezes her overlarge breasts together as she demurely thanks the man, and walks into the auto shop.
Evelyn once again tears off the headset with several choice words and throws it to the ground. She is not dead, and her heart appears to be functioning, but she is done.
She marches to Michelle’s office and throws open the door.
“I quit,” she announces, and slams it close.
From behind the door, she can hear “What — Ev — how are you — what happened?” but it fades behind her and she storms out of the building.
She finds herself looking at the website of Harrison Buchave again. The man must be stopped.
Michelle texts. “Look, I saw what happened. We’re sorry, we don’t know how Buchave got through with the same sim again. Come back?”
Evelyn ignores the text.
The phone buzzes again.
“I did a check on Buchave. I’m not allowed to do this — I’m sticking my neck out for you, Ev.”
And then: “This guy is a serial renderer of these things and what you saw isn’t the worst of it.”
And then: “I talked to management, they’re perma-banning his IP address.”
Evelyn hesitates before she responds: “and his published sims?”
Several minutes pass.
“They can’t. They make too much money off of them.”
“Then fuck off,” Evelyn replies, and turns her phone off.
In the studio she’s about to lose, Evelyn paces in a tight loop and wonders what to do. Her mind viciously circles around a single notion: kill Buchave.
She could buy a gun, a little one, a flechette pistol, and find him. But then what? Get back in the unemployment line? Hope for something different? This cycle has to end.
Besides, with one Buchave dead, wouldn’t another just take his place? Wouldn’t the death of one misogynoir bring the others out of the woodworks?
The steady thump of her mechanical heart makes a good point: behind every sick mind is another; behind every exploitation fiction and every rape fantasy, every nationalist folktale and racist narrative, there are more.
Until there aren’t any more.
The Darknet is an ugly place, Evelyn finds; like all the worst sims mashed together into a Cronenbergian nightmare, but it will fill her particular needs. A website for desires such as hers directs her to an address on the outskirts of the city.
She takes the bus as far as it will go and walks the rest of the way. It is broad daylight, and people pass her in an ordinary fashion, as if she was just going to the market. Finally, she turns into a well-maintained office building.
In the lobby, a man at a desk greets her cheerfully and asks her purpose. She recites the phrase the website told her to say: “From the north, only to double back.”
The man gives her a confused look. “Excuse me, ma’am?” he says politely.
“From the north, only to double back.”
“I’m not quite sure what you’re asking me.”
She recites the phrase a third time.
The lobby is empty, and the man gives a curt nod, stands, and gestures her behind the desk. He presses a button under the keyboard, and the panels behind him slide open to reveal a narrow elevator. “In broken glass kneeling,” he says, and she steps in alone.
The elevator takes her to a dark underground corridor. A single light illuminates the concrete path, following her as she walks toward a door at the far end.
She opens the door into a surgical suite, where two women speak in hushed tones. “Evelyn?” one says.
She does, standing in her underwear in the chilly air while the women, who do not give their names, poke and prod and wave medical wands around her chest.
After some hemming and hawing, the surgeons look at each other and then Evelyn. “Yes, this will be appropriate. The construction can proceed,” one says.
Evelyn lays on the table, closes her eyes, and lets the women work.
The surgery goes smoothly, and when it is done, Evelyn feels a new weight in her mechanical heart, the satisfying weight of a new purpose.
“Simply bite your little finger to fire,” the surgeons say.
Evelyn leaves through the elevator and squints into the bright daylight. There is much work to be done.
Back at home, she scribbles down Buchave’s address. She carefully coifs her dirty-blonde hair into voluminous curls, swipes on a cat-eye, and lines her lips in blood red. She dons heels, a black miniskirt, a white blouse, and leather gloves. It is raining outside. She smiles.
The people on the train stare at her nipples through her shirt, but she doesn’t mind. She is not Evelyn, after all, she is the Protagonist. And her story is coming to a climax.
A waiter at the high-rise’s service entrance lets her in out of pity. Idiot, she thinks. Her stilettos scrap softly over the fine red carpet.
The elevator ride takes but a moment and then she is at his door.
The man himself answers the door. He towers over her, a scruffy heap of a man, disheveled blonde hair and a five-o-clock shadow.
“Who are…” he eyeballs her suspiciously. “…you?” A spark of recognition clicks. “As She Was,” he says. A smile begins to work its way across his face. “A fan?”
“I wouldn’t say so,” Evelyn responds with a sneer.
She lifts her shirt up, over her chest, and the man’s eyes bug out. “Get a load of this, boys,” she spits, and bites her little finger. Flechettes fly from her left nipple and pierce the man’s chest. She watches as the life drains from his eyes and he collapses backward onto the carpet.
With a gloved hand, she delicately shuts the door. Then she pulls out her phone as she jogs down the stairs and sends a message.
“Hey Michelle — I’ve been thinking — I’d like my job back.”
C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of speculative fiction. They live in Seattle, Washington, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days looking for other Earths. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe. C. M. can be found on Twitter as @C_M_Fields and @toomanyspectra.
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