I no longer believe in memory and don’t believe in fire. I hold my hand to the simulated flame and anticipate the pain. Even though it’s digital it still hurts. It still adds up. All pain adds up eventually until it breaks you. It wires into the nerves, which triggers the flinch, so when I want to do it again—to thrust my hand into it to remind myself how the unreal feels—I don’t, not yet. I’m not sure I’m up for it. I’m trying to test my response: is it consistent with the one just a moment ago? It’s fake, but what kind of fake, I want to know. Caribou sees me hesitate and laughs, deservedly so, with the awkward repetition of a loop.

Just because I know it’s not real doesn’t make it not real, doesn’t make it not hurt. Caribou’s not real either. She wouldn’t understand. She’s been my companion for this extended recon, but she’s not here, not exactly. I mean, she’s present, but when I push on the thought I have to admit that she’s not here, not like me. Still, I respond to her like a little twitch. I can see her heart light give a signal and I find myself blinking back. My heart light clicks out a message in return. It says I’m glad we’re here together. It says it’s almost time to go home. There seems to be no way up to the surface from this system. I thought there was, and Caribou said so too; we’d observed all the signs: light seeping into the room through seams where light would not naturally occur, like out of the back of a book on a shelf, for instance, or from a toilet lid, and so she thought that this room could lead us into the upper level where we knew we could exit without blowing up the contract, and that was why we were exploring this set of rooms again.

I for one am getting tired of this subdivision: it’s just a bunch of passages that interlock and churn at the same set of difficult, knotted-up memories. We mapped all of them and double-checked our work, except for this room, hoping that on the first pass we were wrong, that we would find an exit here. It took almost a day. So we’re down to this, or else we have to backtrack even further. Here’s the flame again. I know I have to put my hand back in and so I do. Caribou’s mouth goes oo oo oo. I wince and wait for the signal to recede.