Shawna felt remarkably good. Better than she could remember having ever felt, frankly. That was before she opened her eyes. She thought she might have finally mastered the relaxation routine that kept stumping her at yoga class. Close your eyes, control your breathing, focus on your toes, that kind of thing. The main problem was work of course. She had to rush out of the office, jump in the car, and battle traffic to get to the class on time. By the time she got to the gym she was so brimming with nervous energy she probably glowed in the dark. When she finally managed to cool down, she tended to fall asleep on the mat.
She was fully awake, not in that in-between state where you could still grab the tail end of an interesting dream. She had gotten better at catching those lately and the dreams had gotten better too, in full color, with all senses in full gear, including touch which was a really interesting improvement. All right, maybe she should open her eyes and get up. She was starting to feel tension in her back; she had been laying in the same position for too long. A light breeze caressed her arms and legs. She must have been sleeping on top of the sheets and left the bedroom window open last night. Oh well, the screens kept the bugs out, no worries.
Shawna opened her eyes and nothing made sense. Unless she was still asleep after all and this was the most ass-kicking dream she ever had. She said: “Wait a minute,” and heard her own voice very clearly, no freaky echo or deep-into-a-barrel reverb effect. She sat up; she was not in bed, there were no sheets, no blankets, no bedroom walls or screened windows. She was in an open field and her hands were flat on the ground, blades of grass shooting between her fingers, the sun at midday right above her head. She got on her feet, a trifle unsteady. How much did she have to drink last night; did she blackout? She was dressed – thank heavens for small favors – but not wearing anything she had in her wardrobe. It looked like a lab coat. She worked as an account exec in an ad agency, she hadn’t worn a lab coat since high school. “This is ridiculous,” she muttered. She was barefoot, but her feet were clean. How did she get to this field? There was no house in sight, no landmark of any kind. It had to be a joke, a silly prank; somebody was having a ton of fun at her expense. There had to be a camera hidden somewhere, or a drone flying high above, and her friends were having a side-splitting moment. She screamed: “Okay, enough already, come and get me, you idiots!”
Sure enough, there was a drone overhead. Unlike any she had ever seen, but she hadn’t seen that many and the technology was moving too fast to keep up with anyway. It was an interesting contraption, this one. Like a soap bubble or a Christmas ornament. She had an ornament like that. A glass ball that she always packed carefully, on top of the crate, afraid it would get crushed. She couldn’t remember where she got it. Maybe it had been in that box of old decorations, with the little coffeepot and the glass deer that always went on the tree first, in the best spots. Her parents didn’t leave her much, but hey, it was the small things that mattered, right? That drone was special. She couldn’t see any machinery inside and it appeared to be completely see-through. It had to be an optical illusion, with mirrors cleverly angled. She waved at the drone – Smile, you’re on camera! – and shouted, “What do you want me to do now? Where’s the car?”
The drone floated above her head for a while longer, then drifted away slowly. Shawna followed it. What else could she do, what else was she expected to do? The thing stayed ahead of her, moving at a steady pace, stopping when she did, like a patient guide. She crossed a line of trees and a deep valley spread in front of her. The view was stunning. Forests and grass fields all the way to the horizon, and a river the color of blue silver at the bottom of the valley, snaking lazily. So perfect. “Where am I?” she said. She expected a village in the bend of the river, a hamlet clustered around a church spire, a road at least, but there was nothing except that perfect and luscious nature. A completely silent nature. That was so strange. Birds were most active at daybreak, less noisy during the warmest part of the day, but to hear none at all was unnerving. She had never tried drugs, but she knew this was not some wicked hallucination. The ground felt springy under her feet and she smelled crushed grass and the sweet scent of wildflowers. Besides, could your stomach rumble if you were hallucinating? “I’m hungry,” she said, “and really thirsty.” The glass drone did a little somersault and a thin ray of green light shot out of it. It pointed right and Shawna turned that way, instinctively. She chuckled. It was funny, in a way, talking to a drone and following its instructions. “Guys,” she said, “I know you’re watching me. I’ll be a good sport and go along with the game for now, but you better lead me somewhere. Good treasure hunts always end with a prize. Get your bubble to flash or something if you get the message.” Obediently, the drone did a little hop and Shawna laughed. Communications were established. “We’re making progress,” she said. “Good.”
Following the drone, she went through another clump of trees and the view changed. The river was still there, the same silvery ribbon, but there was a construction on the right bank. As she approached the building, the structure changed. It grew turrets and slate roofs, a drawbridge and crenelated walls. It turned into a castle! And not just any castle, but something very similar to that logo from the Disney movies. Was it Disneyland or Disney World? She could never remember which was which. The castle seemed to morph as she was watching – a new turret appeared, the roof color changed, the drawbridge turned into a stone bridge complete with balustrade.
“Cool special effects. Congrats. You guys must have been planning this for months. What’s the occasion? It’s not my birthday,” she said to the drone that had stopped at the same time as she did. There was an answer, not in words alas, but as a short burst of blue light. Given enough time, she might manage to decode these visual prompts. “That is stupid,” she said. “I’m not planning to be in this make-believe place for that long.” How long exactly? She shrugged the thought away and walked down the hill, the drone leading the way.
The bridge that hadn’t been there ten minutes ago was a solid construction and the arch leading to the castle’s courtyard looked ancient, with grey moss – or was it algae? – spotting the walls. This thing had to be centuries old, yet she was certain it hadn’t been there before she reached the top of the hill. It reminded her of a friend who loved video games and gushed about VR – You’re really there, Shawna! I swear! You have to try it! – “Well, buddy, I don’t want to spoil your fun but this beats anything you ever showed me, because there’s no doubt in my mind, I am really here!” And the castle was really there too. How was that even possible?
The courtyard was similar to many she had seen during European vacations. Irregular cobblestones with weeds growing wherever they could find a foothold. She looked up and there was the main tower, complete with mullioned windows. She knew enough about architecture to realize this castle was a historical hodgepodge, as many were. Successive generations and owners added their touch to the original plan. “I bet this place has modern plumbing and hot showers,” she said. She didn’t see any power lines but those could be underground.
“Let’s find the kitchen,” she said. The drone blinked green, the universal symbol for ‘go ahead, proceed.’ In this case it also meant ‘follow me.’
The castle was impeccably clean, the marble floors were glossy, there were no cobwebs on the curtains, and not a speck of dust on the heavy wood furniture. It smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon. There wasn’t anybody around. “It must be Sleeping Beauty’s castle,” Shawna said, amazed. The drone blinked blue. Was it pleased, did it take that as a compliment? She talked to it directly. “It’s my favorite fairy tale; how did you know that? But you have the story wrong. The castle wasn’t deserted, it was asleep. The guards were sleeping standing up, leaning on their halberds, the cooks and the kitchen helpers were snoring, holding spoons and plates, a scullery maid had dropped next to a bucket with a rag in hand, all of them were struck senseless in the middle of the job. If you want an illusion to be realistic, you have to pay attention to details.” She knew what she was talking about; her job was to sell fantasy after all, even if it was built around frozen dinners or over-the-counter meds. The drone blinked blue again and led her further down the hall. And there they were, the guards and the servants, asleep as she had just described them. “Wow!” she said, impressed. “How did you do that? It was super fast. What happens if I pinch them?” But she knew the answer already. Nothing would happen. You don’t break a curse by pinching people. She poked one of the sleeping guards anyway. It wasn’t a wax figure or a stuffed dummy. The man was breathing and at room temperature. “Bubble,” she said, “I feel I know you well enough now to name you. Bubble, that is freaky good. Is there a sleeping princess upstairs, in this seriously over-engineered Magical Kingdom? I’m not into girls usually but if it’s a choice between waking her up or letting her sleep till the end of time, I’ll sure give her a kiss to remember.” The drone flashed purple. She chuckled. “Are you timid, Bubble? Too bad, because I’m starting to enjoy this big time.” That was a lie, but considering there wasn’t a way out right now, she might as well make the best of it. And there was no denying she found the game interesting. She was curious to see what else her friends had cooked up.
The drone was going to the right but she ignored it and walked to the massive staircase. She was still hungry but that could wait. There was a princess to wake up!
The drone zoomed over her head and positioned itself on the first landing. It was sending off flashes of pink and orange. “Are you angry, Bubble?” Shawna said. “You haven’t finished decorating the upstairs yet? What should I do if you turn red, run for my life?” She went up the stairs, closing the distance with the drone. She reached out to touch it and the drone retreated, an arm’s length away. As she went up, the staircase got narrower, darker, and turned into a tight spiral. “I know what you’re doing, Bubble,” she said. “You want me to give up. You don’t know me. I’m a stubborn girl.”
The drone must have got over its show of temper because it flashed blue again, and light poured into the stairwell. Shawna saw a small landing ahead and a closed door. It was a normal size door, not one of these Alice In Wonderland variable geometry entrances. “Logical,” she said. “We are staying in the story.” The drone moved aside to clear the way, still carefully staying out of reach.
It was a plain wooden door, no cabalistic symbols, no sculptures or decorations of any kind, just solid oak. Shawna took a deep breath and reached for the black door handle. It felt cold to the touch.
“What does this prove?” the head technician said. “The subject is compliant. We expected her to be. The environment is non-threatening.”
“A lot of work has gone into making the environment familiar, Eta. The subject’s reactions confirm the excellent job done by the design team. We had little to work with – fragmentary images, literary descriptions, a few biological samples. A setting can be believable when you describe it and still feel completely off in real life. Her thoughts supplement our data nicely. She has a rich imagination.”
Eta shrugged. “I think we would get more relevant information if we interviewed her directly. We dedicated significant resources to this project, Chi; we have to show actionable results. Management won’t be satisfied with a more accurate fairy tale. Real events from the Summer of 2018. That’s what we’re after. You know how important it is.”
“We will interview her, absolutely,” Chi said, “but we have to proceed carefully. Her brain cannot absorb a massive data dump. How would you feel if you were told that five hundred years went by since you last had lunch, and everything you knew didn’t exist anymore?”
“I would scream my head off,” Eta conceded.
“We want her fully aware and feeling safe. We put her in a simple natural environment and she didn’t panic; she’s displaying curiosity which is the best we could hope for. Remember the other attempts. We never got that far.”
Eta stared at the large mission screen. “She’s a good subject, granted.”
“Her name is Shawna,” Chi said.
Eta smiled. “What about your directive? Never name them. Are you breaking your own rules?”
Chi thought that Shawna had said it best when she named the drone. He felt he knew her now. None of the other subjects had lasted long enough to be on a first name basis. Eta might understand but he wouldn’t care, and he wouldn’t respond kindly to an evaluation that didn’t fit neatly in an equation. Although you could fit anything in an equation, providing you conjured up enough parameters and unknown values. Shawna had been an unknown of the first-order. Finding her, perfectly preserved, in that collapsed primitive hospital was a complete impossibility. All the other subjects were at least two hundred years younger. Shawna came from a time period that had not perfected the slumber technology. Yet they had been able to wake her up and she was functioning, apparently intact.
“She’s an oddity,” Chi said. Maybe that made her more likely to withstand the truth. He hoped so. He had grown fond of her.
“How are you going to get her out of that fairy tale and into the real world?” Eta said.
“In small increments,” Chi said. “Shawna is entering the castle’s bedroom now and we’re going to flip the story. She will become Sleeping Beauty. We’ll put her back to sleep and when she wakes up she’ll be in a twenty-first century hospital room. We’ll tell her she was in a car accident. Our scripts are realistic and we can replicate the correct speech patterns.” It would take time but he was confident they could transition her successfully. He wasn’t that confident when they brought her body to the orbital station. They all thought she was a bizarre archeological artifact. Now she was something close to a miracle.
Even if Chi would never dream of using that word.
# # #
M.E. Proctor has been telling and writing stories for as long as she can remember. After forays into SF, she’s currently working on a contemporary detective novel.
She lives in Livingston, Texas, with her husband Jim, also a writer, and her cat Margot, a keyboard artist in her own right.