We Have Always Died in the Castle, by Elizabeth Bear
Crowd Futures is a new experiment in collaborative storytelling from the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. Since September 2017, we’ve been working with author Elizabeth Bear, artist Melissa Gay, and a group of content experts to tell a crowdsourced story about emerging technology. Through a series of conversations, comments, queries, and decision points, we landed on a Gothic story about virtual reality for empathy and social good.
As we move into the final stage of this process, we want you to vote on the final direction this story will take. Read this draft of the story — which still needs an ending — and help us decide how to wrap it up by voting at http://crowdfutures.us!
(Note: this draft might have some irregularities in spacing and grammar. Please excuse our clutter as we move toward a final version.)
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 on a plume in the unstirred air and fingertips prickling despite having tucked them into her arm pits. 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 with an ornate chair on it, and some other furnishings scattered here and there. A trestle hangs on the wall. Some tapestries. The floor is tongue and groove, and so is the ceiling. The underside of the boards above her is rough; the ones under 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, she can glimpse a wintry sky.
The hair on the back of 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, seat 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 also would have signed up to get stuck full of those needles too, in preference to losing her job, not that — she firmly believes — she did anything the justify being fired over.
And if it doesn’t work, hey, no loss to her. She’s a human interface designer, 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 does not feel it except as a distant, residual chilliness in her extremities, as if she’s come inside after shoveling and hasn’t yet shaken the clinging cold from her limbs. She cannot feel much of anything, she realizes. Not the weight of her body. Not those fine hairs on her neck. 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.
Just as she tells herself that, she’s back in her body. Back on her own two feet, standing on the unreality of that cantilevered wide board floor. She thinks, you would have to travel to places far and remote to find trees in the world today to equal the trees felled to provide this lumber. Just as she thinks it, she realizes how ridiculous she’s being. The trees to make these boards never existed, except for in the designer’s imagination.
Marie’s head is craned so far back that her neck aches, looking up, watching as a veil of filmy gray like blowing mist appears 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 in Marie’s bones 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 it were a pillow she was screaming into.
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, sure, 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, finally. 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.
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 a current of 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 managing not to bark her toes on the lintel. 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. And if it were, 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. Such pain would bring tears to eyes, and slow her to a stagger.
She cannot afford that. Not if she’s going to work out how 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 they 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 to herself, 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.”
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. Marie 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. Who doesn’t treat her as well as she deserves and respect her. Don’t understand how special she is. It’s those jerks who should be in this tank, not Marie.
She’s not panting any more. As she sneaks around and observes — and wallows a bit in her scorn for the people who think 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 whole reason she is here is just their jealousy.
She feels her heart begin to slow. Reminds herself that it’s just a simulation. That it is 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 heart slows and 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 protective instinct not to is strong. Could she manage to? Even knowing that she can come to no real, lasting harm in here? That the tank will not hurt her?
She can imagine the sickening vertigo of the fall, 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 anyway.
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 about three times as broad, and she can see that the walls are probably 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 gets.
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.
It wasn’t the wind. It was the unresonant thump of something heavy being thrown against something hard, and then the subsidiary 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 of her 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 constant 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 two 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 are handwritten in an ornate, indecipherable calligraphy. Marie glimpses the bright colors of an illumination further along, where the pages are riffled.
Books such as 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.
Those are treasures. No one would leave them tossed in a damp corner with the straw and 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 atop them with a wounded-bird flutter.
The next thing to come flying is the iron bookend, and this time Marie is watching as it lifts off the desktop as if hefted by invisible hands.
Marie 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.
“You can’t expect me to just wander around looking at dead people!” she storms. 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.
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 ruffled 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 is in a foreign language that looks to her like Latin. She does not read Latin. She sets it 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 with much handling. It is 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, even though 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 —
Yes, and 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 a little 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.
Marie thinks, 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 it was the price of keeping her job. 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, of a sort?
What made 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 who had 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 of finally solving a particularly satisfactory problem.
Oh, of course. 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 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 those 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.
He says, “Do you feel that the program is designed to provoke guilt?”
That gives her pause. Which makes her angry, because she’s sure it’s designed to. She calms her anger, because 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.”
“Go on,” Jeff said evenly, into her silence.
She groped, trying to find the right answer. Nothing about his aspect helped 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 now 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 runthrough 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 it’s not nearly as cold in the room while 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 5 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. 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, square, narrow castle, in what seems like a perfectly normal summer twilight. 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 that of creeping winter.
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) — and within them 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 and sound 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 to read by.
Someone inside the barn can hear her coming, or possibly is just protesting confinement in a general sort of way. There’s a repetitive thump almost like rattling cannonfire, 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 the Texas than Austin, where she now lives. Her parents had horses.
She likes horses.
She walks inside the barn.
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. This is a stable, a long row of standing stalls opening onto a wide central corridor, and it’s 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 is 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 Marie thinks if she had to light a barn with fire, she too would be so 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, or 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. Marie 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 bits of historical tidbits, mostly about Kings of England — is that there’s a fascinating trainwreck of a story here, delineated in a series of… well, nothing so formal as journal entries. Cries de couer.
She notices that she’s been wiping sweat off her forehead in between turning the pages when 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. Marie 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 as a massive horse, wreathed in flames, barrels down the stable aisle. His hooves thunder. He screams. A stable boy runs toward him, trying to head him off. He’s making for the door to the outside, next to which Marie was sitting. The stablehand — 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 of its own. “No!”
The horse shoulders him aside, knocking him sprawling. It charges 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 barn. The real barn stands all around her still — the unreal real barn. It is only the ghost barn that fell. The only thing of all of this that 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 could not see it 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, having, Marie presumed, 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 themself 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 probably 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 and get a snack.
“This,” Marie says out loud, in deep frustration, “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 character in a genre-savvy 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. 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 abruptly — 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 shoved into 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.
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 frozen 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, and the fire warms her chilled and aching bones. 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. Schoen.”
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. Schoen.”
“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 stare at the horse ghost until the simulation takes pity on her. She tries assorted things — including burning the new stable down my hauling the oil lamps up to the ceiling.
It burns, all right. But that doesn’t lay the ghosts.
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.
“There’s no right answer!” she says. “This stupid thing.”
The worst part is, because her employer mandated this course of instruction as a condition of employment, she’s paying for the sessions. And she’s paying to fail them.
“You know you are 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, herself, 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 shoves away.
Oh, damn it, Marie thinks with dawning horror. Is this hocus pocus actually working?
Now that Marie realizes the therapy is working, she has a choice to make — as do you. Does she:
— Continue to put herself through the simulation and become a better, different person?
— Refuse the training, lose her job, and stay who she is?
Vote online now through January 19, 2018 and look for the final version of the story in a free ebook later this spring.