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Table of Contents
- Title page
- We Have Always Died in the Castle
- About the Contributors
- About the Center for Science and the Imagination
We Have Always Died in the Castle
by Elizabeth Bear
Illustrations by Melissa Gay
Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
Copyright © 2018 Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University.
Story “We Have Always Died in the Castle” by Elizabeth Bear. Copyright © 2018 Sarah Wishnevsky.
Illustrations by Melissa Gay. Copyright © 2018 Melissa Gay.
Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
PO Box 876511
Tempe, AZ 85287-6511
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Story: Elizabeth Bear
Illustrations: Melissa Gay
Technical and Creative Advisor: Dennis Bonilla
Ebook Design: Emily Buckell, Xenowealth, LLC
Cover Design and Art Direction: Nina Miller
Crowd Futures Team: Bob Beard, Joey Eschrich, Joseph Bianchi, Phillip Garcia, Michael Zull
Leadership for the Center for Science and the Imagination: Ed Finn, Ruth Wylie
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Greetings from the Future(s). How Did We Get Here, Exactly?
By Bob Beard, Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University
The future is uncertain. We all live amid multiple and often-conflicting timelines, where pathbreaking technologies will transform the world around us, giving rise to new economies, communities, and geographies.
Or they won’t.
In an uncertain future, humankind simultaneously lives among the stars, stays perpetually Earthbound, thrives, evolves, dies, or experiences myriad other potentialities, as varied as the personalities that populate them.
At the Center for Science and the Imagination, we flit between multiple timelines every day, using storytelling to examine potential near-future scenarios in low-Earth orbit, sustainable cities, AI-augmented homes, and beyond. None of these aim to be definitive predictions, of course. Instead they serve as experiments in communication, inviting interaction, deliberation, and decision-making among diverse groups of scholars, artists, engineers, and technologists. What emerges is a vision of a future (but not the only future)—a story, a piece of visual art, and in the case of this book, a bit of both—which provides a threshold upon which to pause and reflect on the individual, social, and technological possibilities of progress.
Our aim for this first Crowd Futures project is to throw this method into sharp relief: working with a curious public to gather research, weigh options, and make informed decisions at every step of the imaginative and creative process. We documented these interactions online, largely on our website, crowdfutures.us, but also on YouTube and Medium.com.
Futures work relies on assiduously gathering information from multiple disciplines and perspectives, so we invited our friend and frequent collaborator, Elizabeth Bear, to help steer the ship. Bear, a Hugo and Sturgeon Award–winning science fiction and fantasy writer, was the ideal collaborator for this project; she’s used to our playful narrative experiments (dig her haunting short story “Covenant,” in our first science-fiction collection, Hieroglyph), and crafts real-time interactive stories as a game master for several tabletop roleplaying games.
To begin, we decided to center our collaborative short story on an emerging technology—what science-fiction theorist Darko Suvin calls “the novum”—and ground it a familiar literary genre. Pairing scientific disciplines and cutting-edge research with recognizable tropes and archetypes provided a fertile set of initial story ideas that we examined and discussed on social media and our website. From these configurations sprang ideas of a road trip in an autonomous vehicle, space-based agriculture capers, a classic Western adventure amid a sprawling geoengineering project, and more. Any one of these ideas could have (and really should) become a rollicking science fiction yarn, but after a few rounds of voting by the Crowd Futures community, our story became a tale about the application of virtual reality technologies for social good—with a Gothic twist.
Thinking about the full potential of virtual reality, beyond R&R on the Holodeck or sojourns to the Metaverse, we tapped Dennis Bonilla, the Chief Technology Officer at Variable Labs. With his work in design, technology development, and storytelling, Dennis is an advocate for how emerging tools like VR can help users learn, change, and grow. As we plotted the narrative, his insights, experiences, and dreams for the transformative power of VR led us and the Crowd Futures audience to exciting story spaces, and established the uncanny essence of our strange tale.
Fully embracing the fanciful and fluid potential of simulated reality, we turned to Melissa Gay, an award-winning illustrator of books and tabletop roleplaying games, to help visualize an alternative, Gothic version of VR, bereft of the sleek screens and goggles we’ve become accustomed to in these types of stories. Melissa, with her training as a scientific illustrator and her work in fantasy, horror, and science fiction, was another fortuitous discovery. Her ability to channel a variety of styles and mediums enhanced Bear’s tale as well as our own notions of what sorts of experiences and feelings these technologies might stir. The sketches and final art—dreamlike, dark fantasies rendered in charcoal and pencil—beautifully complement the inherent unreality of this story’s VR experiences.
What you have before you is the result of this experiment in collaboration: a distillation of facts, passionate feedback, queries, and choices from the Crowd Futures community, working together with a talented creative team to imagine one potential future. But there are many more.
We hope this story—and the entire Crowd Futures process—inspires you to further explore any of the multifarious timelines you’re living in. Grab some friends, ask some questions, and let us know what you discover.
For more projects and publications from the Center for Science and the Imagination, visit our website, imaginationasu.wpengine.com, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook at @imaginationASU.
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We Have Always Died in the Castle
By Elizabeth Bear
It’s cold in the room that is not real.
Marie stands in a self-conscious huddle, arms folded across a hollowed chest, breath rising in a plume in the unstirred air and fingertips prickling, despite her having tucked them into her armpits. It’s a convincing effect and she wonders if the tank has ever given anyone hypothermia.
Or heart failure.
She’s in an octagonal room, half again as tall as she is and only perhaps twice that around. The walls are yellow stone. There’s a dais at the far end of the room, holding an ornate chair. Some other furnishings are scattered here and there. A trestle hangs on the wall. Some tapestries.
The floor is tongue-and-groove, and so is the ceiling. The boards above her show rough; the ones beneath her feet have been smoothed by many centuries and many shoes. The windows are high and round-arched. There is no glass in them.
Beyond, a glimpse of wintry sky.
The hair on her neck lifts. She hasn’t felt a draft, but she’s even colder now. She relaxes her muscles consciously to keep from shaking so hard her teeth click.
She wasn’t told what to expect, other than that the simulation would help her practice and experience empathy. She signed a lot of waivers before they helped her dress in the suit, seated the mask and gloves, threaded the needles into her veins, and assisted her in climbing into the tank.
She’s not sure she believes this nonsense works. But she’s not sure she believes in acupuncture, and she would have signed up to get stuck full of those needles too, in order to keep her job. Not that she did anything to justify being fired over, anything everybody doesn’t do, except the bad luck of getting caught.
And if it doesn’t work, hey, so much the better for her. She’s a human interface designer for a game company, for crying out loud. Reading interfaces and figuring out how the designer thought they would be used, how they will be used, and how they ought to be redesigned to be easier and more efficient to use is what she does.
She’s got a couple of sessions, at least, before her progress comes up for review. She’ll have figured out what response they want from her and learned to fake it by then, she’s sure.
Marie is above the scene now. She seems to be looking down, through the floor which is also the ceiling, as if it were not there. She can see herself, huddled against the cold—but she doesn’t feel it except as a distant, residual chilliness, as if she’s come inside after shoveling and hasn’t yet shaken the clinging cold from her limbs.
She can’t feel much of anything, she realizes. Not the weight of her body. Not those fine hairs on her nape. Even the stiffness of her old neck injury and the constant ache of her impinged shoulder seem more distant than usual. This is the tank, she tells herself. She’s floating in body-temperature, neutral-buoyancy saline.That’s why everything feels easy and comfortable and a little alienated. She’s suspended in a nice warm bath.
Except she’s cold. Really cold.
Are they dropping the temperature for real?
Just as she wonders that, she’s back in her body. Back on her own two feet, standing on the unreality of that cantilevered wide-board floor. You would have to travel to places far and remote to find trees in the world today to equal the ones felled to provide this lumber. Just as she thinks that, she realizes how ridiculous she’s being. The trees to make these boards never existed, except in the designer’s imagination.
Marie’s head cranes so far back her neck aches. She looks up, watching a veil of filmy gray like blowing mist appear through the ceiling overhead. She sees the faint outline of legs, the drape of a long old-fashioned dress descending a stair that is not there. All of it is washed out, watercolor, as if multiple images had been layered over one another and their opacity reduced.
The chill intensifies. The feeling of shuddering panic grows. She would thrash, bolt, struggle—but she feels thick, frozen, her limbs unresponsive with the immobility of nightmare. Even the shout she longs to give voice to is—at first—logjammed in her throat. When she forces it past the constriction it comes out in choking bubbles, strangely muffled, as if she were screaming into a pillow.
It’s the tank. It’s just the tank.
Her endocrine system is not buying a word of whatever sweet reason her forebrain is peddling. The part of her mind that is detached—dissociated—and trying to be reasonable reminds her that she needs to maintain, that she has no idea what the cocktail of drugs in her system is doing. She signed the waivers, but knowing the names of the drugs doesn’t mean she really understands their impact. Are they causing this panic, this reactivity? Or are they just making her suggestible?
She concentrates on her breathing. Calm the body, calm the mind. Her heart begins to slow, and she manages to make herself enjoy the beauty with which the gossamer veils of ghostiness drift and flow.
That lasts all of two seconds, while the ghost finishes her descent through the ceiling. Then Marie gets a good look at her face. And sees what is not there.
The stasis lifts, or perhaps her adrenaline finally drags her free. She bolts for the door.
It’s not the right door at all.
Marie struggles with the heavy wood, the archaic latch. The intense chill of the ghost flows along her back like cold water. Which is probably exactly what it is in reality, says her last remaining skeptical neuron. She can almost feel the ghostly hand reaching out, the bony, unreal claw closing on her recoiling shoulder.
Maybe her fear gives her strength. Maybe the simulation algorithms decide they have pushed her as far as they can right now, and are moved to let her escape.
The door jerks open, her own momentum almost enough to send her sprawling backwards. She catches herself, the swinging door both her anchor and her counterweight. For a moment, she arcs like a pendulum.
Then she manages to shift her momentum and staggers forward. She lunges through the doorway, just avoiding barking her toes on the lintel as she stumbles over it. Even as she yanks the door closed behind her, a part of her brain remarks on how stupid a waste of time that is. None of it is real—door, ghost, lintel. Anyway, the ghost has adequately demonstrated her ability to walk through solid objects as far as this consensus-reality tunnel matters.
Marie expects to find herself outside. She is not outside. She is in a cramped and raggedly masoned passageway. Nightmare logic, she supposes. Whatever door she chose would be the wrong one, at this point in the narrative.
She moves along the corridor—if you can dignify it with such a term—because she cannot make herself do otherwise. She can’t go back. She has to go forward. At least the chill here is just the chill of stone and shadow. Her fingers and toes burn with returning life. She is doubly grateful now that she did not stub her toes. Pain would blur her eyes with tears and slow her to a stagger.
She cannot afford that. Not if she’s going to get out of here before the damn VR tank gives her frostbite.
The passageway is low enough that Marie must duck at regular intervals, and there are no warning tapes or paint. The walls are some pale veined yellow stone, and the passage is so narrow that walls brush her shoulders unless she walks at a slight angle. The floor is bluestone, flags worn into slick hollows by many feet. The stones step up or down a few centimeters from one to the next. Uneven, and so is the illumination. What light there is trickles and flutters from reflectorless lanterns set in niches along the walls. They make a webwork of moving, overlapping shadows that do nothing for Marie’s nerves and writhe confusingly over the treacherous architecture.
She nearly takes a right turn through what looks like a doorway with a short stair up to it, but is actually an aperture gaping out over a precipice.
“All right,” she mutters, one hand braced on the comforting solidity of the entirely hypothetical wall. “Why do we even have that thing? Maybe there is something to building codes after all.”
If you die in the tank you don’t actually die in real life, she reminds herself. Her heart, racing with vertigo, is uncomforted.
She retraces her steps and finds the left turn she should have taken, hidden behind a bit of buttressing for an arch. After that, she walks with one hand trailing the wall, fingertips chilling on rimed roughness. The lantern flames cast no heat. She entertains—or at least distracts—herself by wondering if that’s an oversight on the part of the designers, or an intentional part of the program.
Intellectualizing is supposed to help you beat brainwashing. That doesn’t make it easy.
She thinks of the joke about the psychologist and the lightbulb. Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
Marie is perfectly happy the way she is. It’s everybody else who has the problem. Everybody else who doesn’t treat her as well as she deserves. Who doesn’t respect her. Doesn’t understand how special she is. It’s those jerks who should be in this tank, not her.
She’s not panting any more. As she sneaks around, she wallows a bit in her scorn for the people who think that this … this toy can somehow change her. They want to ruin her. Make her as weak and stupid as they are. They’re the abusive ones. The only reason she is here is their jealousy.
She feels her heartbeat slow. Reminds herself that it’s just a simulation. That it’s not real.
Her wallow is so satisfying and she is enjoying it so much that when the passageway opens out onto a chamber, she nearly pitches down the two banisterless narrow steps that descend into it. She catches herself instinctively, then—when her fingers unclench from the stone doorway—she wonders what the simulation would do if she let herself fall. Down these steps, or from the terrifying window she passed earlier.
The instinct to keep herself from falling is strong. Could she overcome it? Even knowing that she can come to no real, lasting harm in here? That the tank will not hurt her? That she actually cannot fall because she is floating in a neutral-buoyancy chamber that’s only four feet deep?
She can imagine the sickening vertigo, the impact at the bottom, all too well. She broke her ankle once, both bones, and she can imagine the limpness of flesh without architecture, the pain and wrongness and sense of not being attached.
But they couldn’t hurt her that badly.
… it’s not like those waivers are enforceable.
She forces herself to look at the room. It’s dimly and indirectly lit. Most of the illumination filters in from the outside through a pair of embrasures that have no glass in them, and are only as wide on the outside as her two palms held side by side. The inside apertures are three times broader, and she can see that the walls are close to a quarter-meter thick.
Marie picks her way down the stairs with exaggerated care, balancing with one hand on the wall. She eases along the wall to the embrasure and looks out.
A bracing wind makes her teeth ache. The landscape sprawls in vague twilight scribbles to a distant horizon. Dawn—or sunset—stains the edge of the world. They built their castle high.
That is, she supposes, a thing you do with castles.
The cold comes from outside as well as in. There is a wind, and the wind lifts Marie’s hair, chills her lobes where the earrings dangle. It’s an impressive effect, and the more she thinks about it, the more impressed she becomes.
It’s all a magic trick. All an illusion.
Knowing that doesn’t make the sleight of hand less convincing.
There is no one else in the chamber.
It’s only the wind, one part of her brain temporizes. It’s only the simulation, offers another.
What she heard wasn’t the wind. It was the unresonant thump of something heavy being thrown against something hard, and then the subsequent thump of something falling to the floor.
She is making up her mind not to turn.
She is turning.
It happens with painstaking slowness. Time-lapse in reverse, the register of a high-speed camera played at a normal frame rate.
There’s that thump. Then another. Separated by long seconds, it seems, but somehow Marie is still turning.
Her gaze tracks across the wall, the doorway, the steps. The dim light does not flicker. There is no sense of a presence. No sense of anyone observing her. She sees the wall, an unlit sconce, a table with a single chair set up as a desk.
The sounds. The sounds?
There is a bed, some medievally uncomfortable-looking construction of ropes and planks and hay and blankets that the clothes moths have been in. Marie’s breath comes out in a cloud, tattered by the cold draft from the window. No matter how dire they look, she thinks of appropriating these covers and wrapping them around herself. The designers have probably forgotten to make blankets warm, too.
People had used to get chilblains, hadn’t they? Inflamed toes and fingers, swollen from chronic chill. The designers had probably remembered chilblains, if they had forgotten about blankets. They seemed to have one-degree minds.
Maybe the torture of unrelenting cold was a nod to authenticity, if this was supposed to be a historical setting and not just a historic site. But what had made the sounds?
When she takes the step forward, it is half-unwittingly. First one, then the next one. It’s because of the inadequate light. She can’t see into the corner the thumps came from. The bed blocks her vision.
When she is closer, when she can see what lies there, it’s the opposite of her glimpse of the staring sockets and nares of the woman descending the nonexistent stair in the great hall. Instead of adrenaline cresting on surprise and horror, what Marie is left with is a bright edgy teetering wash of fight-or-flight, and nowhere to go with it. It feels like stepping up in the dark onto a step that isn’t there, and falling the six inches before her foot—safely, securely—hits the landing floor.
Because there’s nothing in the corner. Nothing dangerous, anyway. Nothing except a pair of old books tossed carelessly, one lying open half atop the other.
Old books. Bound in leather. The words of the open one handwritten in an ornate, indecipherable calligraphy. Marie glimpses the bright colors of an illumination further along, where the pages are riffled.
Books like that were valuable when they were made, and they would be even more valuable now. If it is now, in the simulation. And not then.
These are treasures. No one would leave them tossed in a damp corner with the straw and the mouse droppings.
Marie steps forward. She reaches out, thinking—not really thinking, just reacting—to secure the precious antiques. She stares so intently in the wrong direction that she only notices the third book when it thumps into the wall above the other two and tumbles into the pile with a wounded-bird flutter.
The next thing to come flying is the iron bookend, and this time she is watching as it lifts off the desktop as if hefted by invisible hands.
She ducks, and the bookend sails past her and crashes into the stone, leaving a powdery scar. It falls to the floor with a clatter.
This time, Marie doesn’t run.
This time, what Marie feels is unreasoning fury.
She grabs the edge of the bedstead, meaning to flip the whole thing over, and grunts in surprise. It might not be real, but it’s as good as immovable. She gets it up a centimeter, maybe, counting the stretch in her own tendons. The resistance, the strain in her body, feels real. She might as well be trying to uproot a tree.
“You can’t expect me to just wander around looking at dead people!” she yells at the cold, whispering air.
She grunts again, this time in effort—straining, emitting ugly noises. She lets go of the frame again as abruptly as she grabbed it. There’s a muffled thud, and a rattle through the floor.
Nothing answers. The cold wind ruffles the crackling pages of the open book.
Even the virtual poltergeist is still.
Marie kicks the edge of the bedstead, just to be doing something. It sure hurts like solid oak. When she is done hopping and cussing, however, she feels perversely better.
She sighs and shakes her hands out, back under control now. She limps into the corner, one weather eye out for more flying objects. She nudges the bookend aside with her toe, half-expecting it to spring to life, hop into the air, and chase her around the room cackling madly. It weighs kilos and rasps on the stone, but only moves where she moves it, and in general behaves as a heavy metal objet d’clutter should. One by one, she picks the books up and weighs them in her hands.
The top one—the one she saw hit the wall—is closed and seems undamaged. When she opens it, she sees it’s in a foreign language that looks like Latin.
She does not read Latin. She sets the book aside on the coverlet of the unruffled bed. The second book is the one that fell open. It has bent leaves and she takes a moment to smooth those as she turns them.
This book might be in English. It’s hard to say, as the hand-formed letters are minuscule and dense enough to make her understand why people used to speak of going blind from reading. The illuminations are lovely, intense reds and blues delineated with gold foil. She manages not to lick them, despite how much they look like candy.
She sets it beside the equally incomprehensible other.
The third book, though. Or perhaps she ought to consider it the first book, as it was thrown before the others.
The cover boards of the third book are bent at one corner. And the contents startle her, because while it too is written rather than printed, the lines within are in an old-fashioned but firm and legible hand.
The volume itself is small and dark, the paper crisp, smooth, and thin. Marie runs a thumb along the page edges, which are stained with ink and from much handling. It’s too dim in the room to read, but her brief and cursory investigation suggests that the book contains a curated mishmash of private thoughts, quotations, fascinating facts, and bits of poetry. The ink isn’t a true black, but a brownish-black with fades and gradations of colors. Even in the cold the book has a faintly tannic scent.
A commonplace book. That was the term people used to use.
It’s too dark in here to read some ancient scribbles. Marie sets the book on the bed.
She’s on the second of two steps up to the door when she hears the flutter, the rushing noise, and the object strikes her sharply right in the center of the back. It doesn’t hurt so much as stun her. Her breath whistles out. She catches that same spot on the doorframe to keep from falling out of the room as she used earlier to keep herself from falling in, and turns around again.
A book is tumbling to the floor behind her. There’s another rush of air. Her hand comes up reflexively, and the small dark book smacks into it. She catches it without tearing it; she’s not sure how.
She looks down and frowns.
“I guess I’m supposed to take this with me?”
Nothing else flies at her head, but she waits an extra moment to be sure. “All right then.”
She’s about to turn away when uncharacteristic caution stops her. “Thank you,” she says.
She has the sense of a sigh behind her as he climbs out of the room.
Then she’s back in the narrow corridor with the flickering lamplight. She thinks about stopping to read here, but it’s cold, so cold. She could go back to the great hall—
As if anybody could read with that eyeless face staring down at them. She needs to get outside.
Great, she thinks. How do I get outside?
She’s going to have to nerve herself to get past the ghost somehow.
Marie weighs the book in her hand, feeling like Those Meddling Kids. This is a clue if she ever saw one.
There might be something in here to help her solve this puzzle, to guide her out of this hellish escape room she’s been sentenced to.
Dammit, I don’t deserve this punishment.
She didn’t do anything the rate this level of time-wasting. Hell, she didn’t do anything that everyone wasn’t doing, in some fashion or other, though most of them are bigger hypocrites about it than she is.
And now she’s stalling, because she’s standing in front of the door that opens onto the great hall, and she doesn’t want to open it. Anxiety twists through her body. The ghost is out there.
The ghost isn’t real.
The ghost terrifies her.
She stops. Frozen, with her hand on the doorknob that is not really there. Her other hand cups the book. She’s aware of the wrinkled feeling of the cloth over the bent coverboard against her palm.
What is the purpose of this? She is here for a reason, after all. Not just her own reason. Her own reason to be here is that this is the hoop she has to jump through to avoid being unemployed. She’s been, more or less, sentenced to it. They called it training. They also made it plain it wasn’t optional.
But she is also here for a purpose. Not just metaphorically speaking.
She is supposed to learn something.
If she can figure out what she’s supposed to learn, and fake her way through it, she’ll be off the hook.
What do ghosts want?
Ghosts are … trying to finish some unfinished business. Isn’t that the general rule? If they can complete whatever obligation holds them to this world, then they can rest.
Weren’t ghosts also serving a sentence?
What makes a ghost? Assuming for a minute that they were real, which in the logic of this virtual environment they certainly were. Marie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but that doesn’t matter right now. Because aren’t they, pseudoscientifically speaking, supposed to be the leftover emanations of people with unfinished business, an unfulfilled purpose in life? Their guilt and need not permitting them to rest?
That never made a lot of sense to Marie. If you couldn’t finish something—or you didn’t want to, or it was too much of a pain—you left it for the next guy. No skin off your nose.
Ghosts could be released, though. Exorcised, right?
Right. So Marie has to figure out how to release the ghosts. That’s got to be the trick to proving she’s learned how to empathize. Figure out what they need, do it for them, and everybody can get on with their death. Or life, in her case.
And then she can rest, too.
A familiar rush of euphoria fills her with giddiness. The whole reason she got into game design in the first place was because of that particular dizzyingly pleasurable sensation. The feeling of epiphany. The endorphin reward that comes with finally solving a particularly satisfactory problem.
She’s been coming at it wrong. This is a game, and she just has to figure out how to solve it.
Is she supposed to exorcise the castle? That doesn’t seem likely. Anyway, she isn’t even religious, much less a practicing Catholic, although her parents had been. She wouldn’t count as old, and while she’s young enough, she’s no sort of priest.
And definitely neither a saint nor an angel.
She giggles nervously.
All she has to do is get past the apparition, read the book, and figure out the logic puzzle. And she’s home free.
She leans her forehead against the splintered door. She’s cold and exhausted. It feels like she’s been in here forever. She wants to go home.
Marie wakes, still shivering, but tingling. A strange sensation floods through her—literally, she realizes, a flush of warmth radiating from the crook of her arm, into the arteries and veins, down into her fingertips until they feel prickly and distended, back up to the shoulder and across her pectoral muscle and into her chest cavity, where she’d swear she can feel it as the slug of rewarmed blood hits her heart. Her arm aches from the IVs. Her head aches from grinding her teeth against the cold.
She’s exhausted. Her body trembles.
She lays her damp head back on the dry pillow and falls asleep.
The therapist’s office is a little room like other little rooms, with a window and a floral carpet and two comfortable chairs against the wall opposite the desk, which faces the window, and the chair behind it, which is turned around facing Marie.
Marie’s therapist, for purposes of this intervention, is Jeff. She doesn’t think of him as her therapist, because she’s never seen a therapist in real life and doesn’t see the need to. He’s mandated. That doesn’t mean she has to claim ownership.
She says, “I’ve always thought ghosts were a pretty obvious metaphor. People have these guilt complexes. Useless emotion. It doesn’t make them behave any better. It just makes them feel bad about acting like who they really are. Hypocrites, every one of them.”
She’s setting a baseline expectation, from which her progress will be measured. That doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t true.
Jeff looks at her with that neutral expression that makes her want to say something outrageous, just to make him react. To get a rise out of him.
“Do you feel that the program is designed to evoke guilt?”
That gives her pause. Which makes her angry, because she’s sure it’s designed to. She refuses to be provoked by such juvenile tactics. She is smarter than these guys.
“You know,” she says. “Maybe that was a snap judgement.”
People trust you more when you reconsider your own judgment. When you appear to take their input on board.
Even when it’s stupid.
Well, yes. Possibly especially then.
Jeff waits. Marie hates how good he is at waiting. Marie wants more than anything to get a rise out of Jeff.
Okay, not more than anything. What she wants more than anything is to complete this stupid program and go back to her job and her life. What she wants after that is to get a rise out of Jeff.
Some attention. Anything.
Finally, just to break the silence, she says, “Obviously, people felt pain because of what I did.”
She gropes, trying to find the right answer. Nothing about his aspect helps her.
“I don’t think I can make amends.”
Another long pause. “Why not?”
Because it’s not worth the effort.
She stares down at her hands.
“See you next week,” Jeff says, when a certain amount of time has elapsed. “Our time is up.”
It’s a long week. She’s on unpaid leave. She spends a lot of time sleeping, and looking at job listings. Not that her current job will give her a reference until she completes the training anyway. And it’s a small industry. Everybody knows everybody.
She’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to find out how far the story has spread.
And on Monday morning, Marie reports to the tank again.
The worst part of this game is not the tank, or the wetsuit, or even the needles. The worst part is that it has no save partitions. Rather, Marie finds herself kicked right back to the beginning, and has to deal with the ghost and the poltergeist and the unbelievable cold all over again. At least this run-through she spends less time fumbling and gets out of the great hall before the ghost descends through the ceiling, so she doesn’t have to look at the ruin of its face and the room hasn’t had time to be haunted into such bone-hurting coldness when she crosses through it.
She doesn’t nearly fall off the parapet. She doesn’t smash her toe. And the poltergeist doesn’t hit her with anything, because she knows she’s supposed to take the book with her and not leave it on the bed.
So she’s a lot less bruised, a lot less traumatized, and a lot less frozen when she gets back to the door into the great hall. Elapsed time—she guesses—under five minutes.
Health levels 90%, she tells herself, and has enough self-possession to smile.
She touches the metal handle. It has a simple thumb latch. It opens in.
The metal is so cold her skin adheres, and when she peels her hand off after pulling the door a few centimeters towards her, she leaves the whorl pattern on her thumb pad behind. Like a medieval thumb lock, she thinks.
She nerves herself, grasps the edge of the wooden door as colder air billows curls of steam around the door frame, and yanks it wide.
The faceless ghost poses—drifts?—in the middle of the room. There’s another doorway beyond her, much larger than the one Marie stands in now. Marie must have missed it before because her back was to it when the simulation started. She rolls her eyes at herself, mortified that she missed such an elementary bit of sleight of hand in the design.
Right. She doesn’t see a clever way around this, and anyway she’s pretty sure that what she’s supposed to learn from this experience is not how to be smarter than a programmed ghost.
She grits her teeth and runs. Maybe the exertion will keep her a little warmer.
Frost rimes her eyelashes. Her fingers and toes ache down to the bone. The surface of her skin stings, and her lip splits with a sudden smarting and the taste of blood.
She runs through the mutilated ghost, and is both exhilarated and a little surprised to find herself running right back out the other side again. The little book is still in her hand, though the knuckles are cold-chapped. Her feet slip on the icy floor, but she does not fall.
She fetches up against the other door with a thump and fumbles it open, yanking so hard her shoulder twinges warning. Then she’s outside, managing to get down a set of stairs without falling, to find herself standing on bluestone flags in the dooryard of a tall, narrow, rectangular castle, in what seems like a perfectly normal summer twilight.
It had been winter inside the castle.
She’s on a headland. The sea is below; she can hear and smell it, and a sea wind ruffles her hair. It’s not warm, but the chill is the chill of a high windy place, not of creeping winter. Compared with the inside of the castle, it feels positively balmy.
The yard is as deserted as the castle. She turns and looks around. There are walls—as always when confronted with a real medieval castle, she’s surprised at how small it is, and how small the grounds are (castles are not palaces, after all). Within the walls stand a number of buildings. A barracks, maybe, over there. A kitchen, well-separated from anything else that might burn. A low stone building that is, by its high windows and enormous doors, probably a stable.
It is from the presumed stable that the only light can be seen.
Marie follows the whinny. She expects cold, and even wraps her arms around her shoulders in anticipation. But it grows warmer as she approaches the stable, which is blessedly unlike any sort of ghost lore she’s ever encountered. Maybe she’ll be able to go inside and find some nice warm hay to sit on, and a lamp by which to read.
Someone inside the stable can hear her coming, or possibly is just protesting confinement in a general sort of way. There’s a repetitive thump almost like rattling cannon fire, the sound of an eager horse kicking at a stall. Marie remembers it from when she was a girl in a much more rural part of Texas than Austin, where she now lives. Her parents had horses.
She likes horses.
She walks inside the stable.
It’s not just warmer in here. It’s a lot warmer. Uncomfortably warmer, and a skin-drying heat, as if she stood too close to a fire. It’s a relief and then a discomfort, nearly as fast as it takes to realize so. A long row of standing stalls open onto a wide central corridor, well-lit by oil lamps suspended from the ceiling in heavy wrought-iron rings on chains. Each chain runs through a pulley back down to a hook on the floor where it’s secured, the excess coiled neatly. Marie sees at once that this is so they can be lowered for lighting and refilling.
They are carefully far from the ceiling, and she thinks if she had to light a stable with fire, she too would be cautious.
There are no loose boxes, so Marie can see clearly that there are no horses, either. The stable is as deserted as the castle. Whatever was thumping before is not thumping now.
“Okay,” she says. “You got my attention.”
Deserted, but warm. And well-lit. And those are resources that she needs right now.
If she were designing this simulation, that warmth would be a clue, or a warning. You must control this space to complete your mission.
The obvious next step is to find that pile of hay to sit on and read, or an equivalent.
There’s a section of log near the door which looks butt-polished and is close to the light. Marie plunks herself on it and cracks open the commonplace book.
Reading by lamplight is challenging enough under regular circumstances. Reading archaic handwriting by lamplight is an eyestrain headache waiting to happen. She pores over the little volume, cocking her head to the side and angling the book so she does not cast her shadow over it.
After a few minutes her neck begins to protest. What she’s finding—between the snatches of poetry and odd historical tidbits, mostly about Kings of England—is that there’s a fascinating train wreck of a story here, delineated in a series of … well, nothing so formal as journal entries. Cris de couer.
Her fingers leave a wet mark on the page. Her hair is stringy with sweat, and the air around her is not merely warm, but sweltering. She wipes perspiration onto her fingers and watches the beads slip down her skin.
An ear-splitting whinny shatters the air. Marie’s head jerks up. She jumps to her feet just as a massive horse, wreathed in flames, barrels down the stable aisle. His hooves thunder. He screams. A stable boy runs toward the horse, trying to head him off. The horse is making for the door to the outside, next to which Marie is sitting. The stable hand—who is dressed in a tunic and boots, and not modern clothing—grabs for the horse’s halter.
“Not that way!” he cries. His voice is strange, more like the memory of a voice than a voice she is hearing right now. “No!”
The horse shoulders him aside, knocking him sprawling. It careers at Marie. Run, she tells herself.
She is frozen. She cannot even make herself raise a hand to shield her face.
The horse charges into her.
And through her, the great red body no more substantial than the air around it. Less so. Air has displacement. Wind has force. This is nothing at all.
Marie is standing inside the body of the ghostly animal when it suddenly, and with a despairing scream, is driven to the floor. An immaterial roof beam crashes through Marie, and now she is freed from her paralysis. She flinches—cringes—and covers her face. The commonplace book falls.
But none of it touches her. Not the dying horse, kicking out its panic struggles on the floor. Not the collapsing stable. The real stable stands all around her still—the unreal real stable. Only the ghost stable fell. The only thing Marie feels is the heat, and even that, while painful, is not the brief agony she can imagine of actually standing in a roaring fire.
Her breath is hot enough to hurt her throat, though. After two sobbing gasps, that brings her back to herself. She closes her mouth. She closes her eyes. She crouches and feels around herself until she finds the book—she cannot see where she dropped it, in the phantasm of the burning stable and the dead horse and boy.
But she can feel it, and closing her eyes keeps the phantasm from distracting her.
Her fingers find the book. It does not feel warm. She tucks it under her shirt and stands again, backing toward the door.
Back into the cold again, but now it’s a relief after the scathing heat. From the outside, the stable looks deserted and still. Though the high windows are gold with light there is no sound. Marie clutches her book and watches her breath curl out in plumes, imagining how different this scene on cold cobbles under a pearling moon would have been on the night of the fire. She pictures a chaos of bodies, a bucket brigade, the screams of the dying horse and the dying boy—
Now it is calm and still and cold. She has the book.
She has a plan.
She is assuming the journal writer is the poltergeist. She does not know for sure. What she does know, now, is that the journal writer and the mutilated woman were in love. That the journal writer was the child of the Duke who held this castle, that the murdered woman was a servant girl, and that their love was forbidden.
Our love is forbidden, the book actually says.
The Duke mutilated and murdered the servant girl, just exactly as one does in bloody old ballads, and caused a chair to be built from her bones, which he forced his own child to sit in. The commonplace book does not explain how the journal writer came to be a poltergeist after having, Marie presumes, died. A poltergeist probably has a time of it, when it comes to holding a pen. But Marie assumes that it might be difficult to eat while sitting in a chair made of your lover’s bones, and perhaps the child pined away, or just threw themselves off the castle parapet from that conveniently located window/door.
Marie paces in the courtyard, hands thrust deep in her pockets, shoulders hunched against the chill. It’s colder inside the castle, what with all the ghosts. And she needs to think.
She prefers the kind of games where you can hit pause when you get to this part, and go get a snack.
“This,” Marie says out loud, “is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
It’s pure melodrama, and she’s halfway offended that she’s expected to take it seriously. There ought to be somebody sitting across a campfire holding a flashlight under their chin telling this.
Being outraged and grumpy about how dumb the story you are stuck in is doesn’t help with getting you out of the story, unfortunately. Ask any genre-savvy character in a horror film.
Marie still has to figure out how to solve the riddle and—she presumes—release the ghosts.
So here she is, cleaning up somebody else’s messes just because she is the person stuck with them. Because if she doesn’t clean them up, she’ll be stuck living in them. It’s manifestly unfair, and it makes her manifestly angry.
Just like she’ll be stuck living in her own mess if she doesn’t complete this training and get reinstated at her job.
Just like … everybody at work was stuck doing damage control for her.
“Oh,” she says out loud. Another epiphany.
This is not the kind of epiphany that comes with a rush of feel-good brain chemicals and self-satisfaction. Rather, it stings a little, like those moments when you catch sight of yourself in a mirror and realize you’re much older than you think you are.
She pushes that feeling away, and concentrates on the triumph. Because she understands—she thinks—how to beat the training.
And there it is, that rush of reward, that sense of everything falling together. She’s supposed to learn empathy. That’s it. She needs to deduce the ghost’s needs and fulfill them, thus freeing the ghost, and herself.
And learning something in the process.
How fucking heartwarming, Marie thinks, and manages just in time to stop herself from saying it out loud where the simulation can record it. One must fool the system in order to hack it. She also doesn’t say, I could have told you I was special. Your silly games won’t work on me!
She pets the book in her pocket. The poltergeist is horrified by the desecration of the beloved’s bones. So … Marie must give them a decent burial? That seems logical.
Communities have always seemed to Marie the sort of thing from which you derive power and the satisfaction of being a center of attention. She’s never really thought, before, about what communities do. But now she has to act like a community member, right? Not just somebody who reaps the benefits of those social connections, but somebody who provides those benefits for others, as well.
Somebody who wouldn’t, say, borrow a coworker’s development work to complete her own project without asking first.
So … what would a community-conscious person do?
Bury the body, and release the ghosts. Obviously. But the cobbled ground is too hard for burying. There’s the sea below, and perhaps a burial at sea would be enough to wash the bones clean.
Marie turns to frown at the castle, and sees the curl of smoke rising from its tall chimney.
Oh. Well, of course.
It takes her a while to find the right chair, her whole body shivering and shuddering as the faceless ghost follows her around the room like a hungry puppy. Not the ornate chair up on the dais, obviously. But a smaller one, not much plainer, well-upholstered in green brocade, that sits against the wall where the disassembled trestle is hung. It’s too light for its size, which is the first thing that makes her suspicious. And it looks fitted for a Duke’s child.
When Marie smashes it, she sees that the legs and back and arms are all made of hollow cylinders, and inside each cylinder there are human bones.
It all burns surprisingly well in the big fireplace. She says some socially appropriate words, then rubs her freezing hands before the fire. It actually warms her a little now.
The faceless ghost bows deeply and dissipates. Marie waits for the simulation to end.
The simulation does not end.
But the ghost is gone.
“Oh, dammit,” Marie says. “The horse.”
She’s been standing in the stable for subjective hours, watching the pattern of the haunting play out, leaving when the heat becomes intolerable and sucking in gasps of cool night air. She tries putting her body between the ghosts. She tries just walking away from the castle.
When she wakes up this time, at least she’s not being rewarmed. That’s as good as a cookie. She’s drowsy and warm and annoyed, because in the next room somebody—not Jeff, but another male voice, somebody she doesn’t think she knows—is talking arrogantly.
“We are still waiting for you to justify this use of funding, Dr. Schiller.”
The person who answers is Jeff. “It’s within the parameters of my mission statement, Mr. Cohn. Altruism and greed. And this part of the research is self-funding. People and institutions pay for the soft-skills training program—”
The first voice again. “The institute as a whole certainly is not self-funding, whatever this wild goose chase does or does not do. You work for us, Dr. Schiller.”
“I work for—”
“We pay for the institute. And I will tell you right now that we don’t want a program to make people less greedy, better citizens. More thoughtful about their decision-making. We don’t want them more empathic. How does empathy help you get ahead? How does good decision-making help us market to them?”
“My patient is awake,” Jeff says coldly. “We’ll have to continue this discussion on some other occasion.”
By the third week, she’s gotten really good at getting herself to the stable as fast as possible. She doesn’t even bother with the book, just walks into the great hall, breaks up the chair, and tosses it on the fire. Then it’s off to the stable to run through the simulation there repeatedly, trying to find a solution to send the ghosts of horse and stable boy to rest. She tries assorted things—including burning the new stable down by hauling the oil lamps up to the ceiling.
It burns, all right. But that doesn’t lay the ghosts.
She stays there, going outside at intervals when she can no longer bear the heat, trying futile would-be solutions, until somebody outside takes pity on her.
There’s no conversation in the next room when she wakes up this time. Just Jeff, sitting by the bed she’s on.
That hasn’t happened before.
“How are you feeling?” he asks her.
“Grumpy,” she says, because he knows that and part of beating the system is being as honest as you can until you know it’s the right time to be dishonest.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“There’s no right answer!” she says. “This stupid thing.”
The worst part is, she’s paying for these sessions. And she’s paying to fail them.
“You know you’re here voluntarily,” Jeff says. “Of course I want to keep you in the program. But you can walk at any time.”
“Voluntarily,” she says bitterly. “If I quit I lose my career.”
“And stay who you were.” The way he says it, she knows he thinks a changed her is a superior option. She is not so sure. She likes who she is.
She likes not giving a damn about anybody. They all just want to use you, anyway. Like that guy she’d overheard giving Jeff an earful the week before. That’s humanity, right there. At flower in that greedy sucker.
It obviously hasn’t hurt Mr. Cohn’s success to not give a rat’s ass about anyone or anything except his profit margin. Based on Jeff’s diffidence in opposing him, she’d guess it was, in fact, the exact opposite. His ruthlessness seems to have facilitated his success.
Jeff looks at his hands. She feels a flash of pity for him, an unfamiliar and uncomfortable sensation that she has to examine for a while to recognize it. Once she does, horrified, she shoves the feeling away.
Oh, damn it. Tell me this hocus-pocus isn’t actually working on me!
It is sinking in that if she keeps doing this, she might lose herself. Lose who she is. Give it up on purpose, in fact, to be somebody different. Somebody a little more socially acceptable. A little less … what was the word they used?
A little less antisocial.
She looks Jeff in the eye—she has to turn sideways to meet his gaze directly—and says, “Who’s the guy who wants to shut the program down?”
Jeff frowns at her.
“I overheard him yelling.”
He nods, the frown drawing his brows together. “He’s got more money than God and funds us as a tax write-off.” Which isn’t an answer, but isn’t as evasive as she expected.
“Sounds like you’re not as docile as he’d like. Couldn’t you just give him what he wants and get him off your back?”
“That would be even less ethical than discussing it with you.” He smiles. It’s wide enough to let her know that he’s not angry. She thinks.
She’s abruptly afraid that she isn’t any good at reading people. She always thought before that she was excellent at it. Excellent at manipulating them. Now, suddenly, she wonders. Suddenly, her confidence is shaken.
“Are we doing a therapy session today?” she asks.
“Do you want to unpack?”
“I want to go home,” she admits. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing next, and I think I’m just going to get frustrated and angry if we try to talk about it.”
Jeff pats the edge of the bed, not quite touching her. “That’s a good bit of self-awareness,” he says, standing. “See you on Monday?”
“I … let me think about it.”
As Marie is signing out at the reception desk, an older white man in a very well-tailored dark suit walks past her. He doesn’t check in, but moves with the preening arrogance she associates with the investor class. Cohn, she decides, watching him pop his cuffs before he walks through the door into the laboratory.
She means to turn away and leave. If they shut down the program, that means she’s free, right? Cut loose. Work can’t hold it against her if she doesn’t have a cutting-edge retraining program to report to.
But the receptionist catches her gaze and rolls her eyes, and Marie can’t help but roll her own in agreement. And when she turns away, she feels warmed inside by the unspoken but shared Christ, what an asshole that has passed between her and this relative stranger.
All week she waits to see if the call will come cancelling her appointment on Monday. It doesn’t, and by Friday night she admits to herself that it will not come. Nobody is letting her off the hook this time. She’s going to have to figure it out for herself. Is she going, or is she staying the course?
Sunday night she still hasn’t decided. She lies in her bed, staying up way too late if she’s getting up early enough to go to her session, window-shopping on her phone.
Putting it off, she finally understands.
Well, it’s too late to cancel, anyway. If she doesn’t go in tomorrow—today, now—she still has to pay for the session. She might as well. It’ll give her a chance to say goodbye to Jeff, anyway.
That’s what a normal person would do, she supposes.
She sets her alarm.
After the session, which is just as frustrating as that of the week before, Marie walks into Jeff’s office one more time. She sits down in the chair.
He says, “What are your thoughts on today’s experience?”
“Same frustrating nonsense,” she says. “How do you solve a problem where everybody has been dead for hundreds of years?”
Jeff waits, as if she’s merely pausing to collect her thoughts.
Maybe she is. Marie stares down at her fingers. They’re a little waterlogged, still; prunish at the tips.
It comes to her with the vividness of kinetic memory, the rush of sensations that tell her what she is experiencing and how. It comes to her in a
with all that freight-train rush of pleasure. She’s figured it out.
She can’t believe it. She’s utterly confident now: she’s actually figured it out.
She says to her hands, but really to Jeff, “You can’t help the horse, can you? Or the stable boy? I mean, I can’t help them.”
“What evidence led you to that conclusion?”
“The horse wants to get out of the burning barn. The stable boy wants to rescue the horse. There’s no way I can make those things happen.”
“Okay,” he says, nodding. “What does that tell you, then?”
She rubs her nose with her knuckles and blows across the back of her hand. Being submerged for so long makes the corners of her eyes sting, apparently. Makes her voice sound thick. That’s definitely what’s going on.
“Some mistakes you can’t make up for, no matter how well-meaning you are.”
“I think that’s fair,” Jeff says. “I think you’re right about that one.”
“It’s my professional opinion that you’ve created a really frustrating narrative arc here.”
He gives her a startled, amused-pleased half smile. “I’m not here to tell you a story.”
She says, “I have realized that … I’ve done lots of things that people had to clean up after.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“Guilty.” It pops out, unconsidered, and she wants to slap a hand over her mouth and push it back in. Then she squares her shoulders and says, “Guilty,” again.
He’s silent for a minute, and she doesn’t feel the need to fill it in. Finally he sighs and stretches. She can hear his spine pop.
“This will be our last session,” Jeff says, apologetically. “I’m sorry for the lack of notice, Marie. Our funding is being pulled. You’ve participated in good faith, though, and here’s your paperwork to recommend that you be reinstated in your position.” It rustles when he hands it to her. “It’s not your fault—”
He sighs and waves his hand. She notices the bruised look around his eyes for the first time.
“So I’m cured, doc?”
“No,” he says, laughing, then flushes and cuts himself off with an irritated hand. “I’m sorry. What I meant to say was, I think you’re making some very positive changes. Becoming more self-aware. I hope—”
He sighs again. He considers for a long time.
“I hope you’ll find a good therapist and continue exploring and tuning your social adaptations.”
Marie feels a spike of anger. She wanted the pat on the head. She wanted a “Good girl!” and a seal of approval.
But she also knows she hasn’t really earned that yet. And now she’ll never have the chance to.
Redemption is a process, not a destination.
She folds the paperwork and tucks it into her handbag. “He offered to keep you open if you changed the focus, didn’t he?”
Jeff cocks his head. She has his full attention now.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he says, speaking carefully.
“Cohn,” she says. “He offered to keep funding you. If you broke your process the way he told you to.”
He looks at her. Studies her face.
Stands up abruptly and takes a flash drive out of his pocket; places it on the edge of the desk near her. “It’s a pity I have to turn all this program code and the results over to Cohn. But he’s the legal owner of the data. Excuse me, Marie, I have to run to the lavatory. I’ll be right back to finish our session.”
The door swings shut behind him and his footsteps fade down the hall.
She stares at the flash drive. It’s an Angry Bird. The yellow one. All the rage, in the dim historic year of 2011.
It might as well be a poisonous snake, curled up and hissing on the desk edge. She reaches out for it reflexively, but then her hand hovers, not touching. The fingers bent, but not closing.
She thinks, I could save other people from having to go through this rigmarole!
She looks toward the door. It’s still shut. No footsteps.
And there is the angry cartoon character on the desk edge. Staring at her.
Full of someone else’s data.
I could save other people from having to go through this. Cohn will bury this information. Or find somebody who will use it for what he wants.
Or … I could save other people from having to waste huge chunks of their lives cleaning up after people like me. I could leak this. The research could be duplicated.
Somebody else could copy Jeff’s work.
She chokes on a laugh at the irony.
Her fingers close on the flash drive. Clench around it. She slips the whole hand into her pocket. The fist stays there.
She’s already standing and turning when the door opens. She didn’t hear the steps. And she’s surprised Jeff didn’t give her more time. Did he think better of leaving her alone with his data?
But it’s not Jeff in the doorway. It’s Cohn.
He blinks back, as surprised as she is. “Miss … Katz, isn’t it?”
She nods, tight-lipped. The triangular bird cuts into her palm.
He holds out his hand. “I’m Don Cohn. I’m the director of this program.”
She can’t get her fingers to let go of the bird to shake his hand, so she shoves her left hand into her other pocket. It probably looks more natural that way.
“I gathered,” she says politely.
“I understand you’re a game interface designer.”
“That’s true.” She hadn’t even realized he had noticed her existence. Apparently he’d researched her.
“We’re going to be making some changes here.” His eyes narrow. He retrieves the hand she hasn’t shaken. Waves it airily around. “Taking this functionality into the private sector. Building something more … fun. More profitable.”
“Oh,” she says. He’s stepped into the office. Jeff is now framed in the hallway behind him, frozen there. Silently.
She sees it. A VR game—maybe VR waterparks!—selling total immersion in an alternate reality. And buried in the code, patterns of choices that might make people … easier for this man to manipulate.
She wonders what sort of politics this man supports.
Admits to herself that she doesn’t have to wonder.
“We could use people like you. I could make it worth your while.”
“Worth my while?” she says.
Jeff, in the hall, makes a noise.
Cohn doesn’t turn. “Oh, hello, Dr. Schiller. Security is on the way to help you clean out your desk and check over what you’re taking with you.”
Marie’s fingers close tighter. She’s going to draw blood if she keeps squeezing.
Cohn says, “Name a starting point. What are you making now?”
I haven’t been paid in over a month, she thinks.
The job is going to be there. Jeff signed off on her going back. And she’ll have to face all those coworkers, a whole industry that knows how she screwed up.
The key fob bites into her hand. All she has to do is take her hand out of her pocket and press it into the one that Cohn is extending again.
And she’ll never have to face those people again. Or if she does, it will be with the insulation of plenty of money and visible success.
“I’m thinking a director-level title,” Cohn says.
Jeff flinches visibly. She doesn’t make any sign that he’s there. She knows what he knows. She’s being bought off. Probably Cohn will make similar offers to other subjects in the protocol. There will be jobs—good jobs—and NDAs.
The job will probably last as long as it’s convenient.
The NDA will be forever.
She’s too much like Cohn to think she should trust him. And even if she was ready to gamble on it—just to get away from the shame of going back where she came from—what he wants to do is … mind control. And now without informed consent.
But it would be so much easier not to face those people who are disappointed in her, now that she realizes what their disappointment is.
Better in the long run, though. For her as well as them. For one thing, it’s pretty likely that Cohn’s plan is the sort of thing that ends with somebody going to jail.
“Thanks,” she says. She takes her hands out of her pockets. Empty. Lets them fall to her sides. She’s shivering with the effort of keeping her voice level and calm. “I really appreciate it.”
“But I like my job a lot. I think I want to stay in it.” She brushes past him. She meets Jeff’s eyes as he steps aside to let her go.
“See you around, Doc,” she tells him. And makes her escape, as rapidly as is plausible, up the hall.
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About the Contributors
Elizabeth Bear is a Hugo, Campbell, and Sturgeon Award–winning science fiction and fantasy writer, with thirty novels and over a hundred short stories spanning multiple genres including science fiction, fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk, and more. Wired magazine called her “one of the hottest fantasy writers around.” Her most recent novel is Stone Mad: A Karen Memory Adventure. Follow her on Twitter at @matociquala.
Dennis Bonilla is the Chief Technology Officer at Variable Labs, Inc., where he creates training systems that produce measurable change through virtual-reality experiences. His clients include Google, Facebook, and the United Nations. He has created data visualization and collaboration systems for NASA, and has supported committees advising President Obama about options for human spaceflight. Follow him on Twitter at @harbingeralpha.
Melissa Gay is an award-winning illustrator of books and tabletop roleplaying games. Her credits include book covers and illustration projects with Hugo, World Fantasy, and Stoker Award–winning authors, as well as critically-acclaimed games. Her work has been featured in the annual Infected By Art anthologies for Imaginative Realist painting. Learn more about Melissa and see her work online at melissagay.com.
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About the Center for Science and the Imagination
The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University engages in research, outreach, and radical collaborations to reinvent our relationship with the future. From writers, artists, and teachers to scientists, engineers, and technologists, we bring diverse intellectual practices together to reignite humanity’s grand ambitions for innovation and discovery. The center serves as a network hub for audacious ideas and a cultural engine for thoughtful optimism through programs like the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, a celebration of Mary Shelley’s novel and its scientific and cultural legacy. We provide a space for productive collaboration among the humanities, arts, and sciences, bring human narratives to scientific questions, and explore the full social implications of cutting-edge research. For more information, visit imaginationasu.wpengine.com.
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About the Contributors
Sandra K. Barnidge is a writer based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and her work is published in Atlas Obscura, Nimrod, Heron Tree, and elsewhere. Before moving to the Deep South, she was a science writer in Wisconsin, and she’s passionate about using storytelling as a tool for educating the public about environmental and social issues. She’s currently pursuing an MFA degree in creative writing at the University of Alabama.
Vajra Chandrasekera is a writer from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and a fiction editor for Strange Horizons. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Analog, Black Warrior Review, and Clarkesworld, among others.
Tony Dietz is an Aussie with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Sydney University and a doctorate from Oxford. He served in the Royal Australian Air Force and has worked as a research scientist for NASA. Tony currently lives, works, and writes in Arizona, where he collaborates with the Central Phoenix Writing Workshop. The first line of “Darkness Full of Light” came from his daughter’s fifth-grade “What I Did Last Summer” essay. The rest of the story arose from his fascination with the deep, the future, and the tale of Joseph and his coat of many colors.
David Samuel Hudson is a Maltese author and journalist. He holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, where his manuscript was shortlisted for the Janklow & Nesbit prize. His short stories have appeared in Schlock, Scribble magazine, and others, and his flash fiction in Ad Hoc Fiction books. He has been longlisted for the international Bath Flash Fiction Award. He mostly writes science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism, and is currently working on his debut sci-fi novel.
Rebecca Lawton is a writer, fluvial geologist, and former Colorado River guide. She’s won the Ellen Meloy Award for Desert Writers, WILLA for original softcover fiction, Waterston Desert Writing Prize, and residencies at Hedgebrook, The Island Institute, and PLAYA. She received a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair to research her second novel, 49 North, about international water crime. Her first collection of essays, Reading Water: Lessons from the River, was a San Francisco Chronicle Bay Area Bestseller. Her latest book, The Oasis this Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West, is due out from Torrey House Press in 2019.
Barbara Litkowski holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Butler University. Her short fiction has appeared in Subtle Fiction, Blue Lake Review, and Luna Station Quarterly. She was selected as a finalist in the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and is a former recipient of the Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist Program grant. She lives with her husband in Zionsville, Indiana.
Jean McNeil has been writer-in-residence in Antarctica, the Falkland Islands, aboard ship-based expeditions to Greenland, Norway, and Iceland, and across the Atlantic Ocean. Her travelogue and memoir of Antarctica, Ice Diaries (ECW editions), won the 2016 Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Her most recent novels are set in east and southern Africa, respectively: The Dhow House (2017) and Fire on the Mountain (2018). She lives in London, UK. Learn more at www.jeanmcneil.co.uk.
Leah Newsom is a fiction writer and Arizona native. She is an MFA candidate in fiction at Arizona State University.
Mitch Sullivan is a science fiction enthusiast and writer from Australia. He completed a PR major at university that he has since used exactly once, which was in the creation of “The Office of Climate Facts.”
Born in Toronto, Jean-Louis Trudel holds degrees in physics, astronomy, and the history and philosophy of science. Since 1994, he has authored (alone or, in collaboration with Yves Meynard, as Laurent McAllister) three novels, four collections, a historical guide to science fiction in Quebec, and twenty-six YA books, as well as numerous short stories in French and a smaller number in English. His cli-fi story “The Snows of Yesteryear” appeared in Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi (Tor, 2014), was reprinted twice, garnered an honourable mention in Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and became the title story of a cli-fi collection available in English and Italian.
Angie Dell is the associate director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, and a writer, editor, letterpress printer, and book artist. She is also on the board of the NonfictioNOW conference, and owns and runs Shut Eye Press. Her creative work is interested in challenging objectification and disassociation, both through an ecological lens and through the human body, and her books and writing have been published or featured in various collections, libraries, journals, and galleries.
Joey Eschrich is the editor and program manager at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He’s also an assistant director for Future Tense, a partnership of ASU, Slate, and New America that explores emerging technologies and their effects on policy, culture, and society. He is the coeditor of Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere (2016), Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction (2016), The Rightful Place of Science: Frankenstein (2017), and Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures (2017), which was supported by a grant from NASA.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a science fiction writer. He is the author of more than twenty books, including the international-bestselling Mars trilogy, and more recently Red Moon, New York 2140, Aurora, Shaman, Green Earth, and 2312, which was a New York Times bestseller nominated for all seven of the major science fiction awards—a first for any book. He was sent to the Antarctic by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers’ Program in 1995, and returned in their Antarctic media program in 2016. In 2008 he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California, San Diego. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages and has won a dozen awards in five countries, including the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. In 2016 he was given the Heinlein Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction, and asteroid 72432 was named “Kimrobinson.” In 2017 he was given the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society.
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