Audrey Beacon is a winner. Because of her slogan writing ability, she’s won a fabulous vacation – one which only the rich and famous get to experience. It’s a big leap for her; she’s a small town girl, in a dull dead-end job; she’s never had an adventure. Nevertheless, she accepts the prize and is whisked away to a fabulous cruise ship and then the prize: a RAVE – a dream-generated reality adventure. She picks a time-travel RAVE, and goes to 1850s Nebraska.
While in her old West adventure, Audrey meets White Star Smith, an Native American man who has little tolerance for undisciplined females. He’s not hesitant to show his displeasure in order to help Audrey improve her attitude and behavior. Audrey feels totally free to let go for the first time in her controlled, unadventurous life, because of course White Star isn’t real. In short order, Audrey is in love.
Coming back to the real world is tough, and gets harder when Audrey realizes that White Star might actually be a real person. So what was he doing in Audrey’s RAVE? That was not part of the deal!
Can he love her, despite her low social status? Can she show him that she loves him, or is her heart too much to risk?
Audrey Beacon was a winner. It inspired her as she was packing her things to pirouette around the small room, brushing the bed and nearly running into a closet door. She held her little black cocktail dress to her chest like the dearest of dancing partners and she hummed a jaunty tune as she worked.
She paused to pick up and read the brochure on the tablet computer near her suitcase on the bed for the thousandth time. ?Romantek Adventure Vacation Experiences,? it said in bold red letters. ?Your RAVE will be every joyful thing you can imagine, all the challenges you?ve been waiting to face, and a dream come true. Memories from your RAVE will last a lifetime.? Then, the brochure listed the wonderful benefits the nanite gel immersion would have.
The microscopic nanites would resurface skin, draw impurities from the body, and even sculpt by removing unwanted fat deposits. Audrey was a bit on the thin side, so she had told them when she signed the paperwork that she didn?t want to lose weight or what little bit of padding she had. The Romantek rep had been very understanding and made notes in her records.
The next few pages covered the various places and times she could choose to set her dream vacation. They all seemed magical. Although Audrey had tried to ?think outside of the box? she ultimately realized she wanted to stay within North America, and with English speakers. There were several time periods she might have chosen, including something prehistoric or something set in the future. But Audrey was uncomfortable with anything too unfamiliar, so it had seemed like her best bet was to pick the United States circa 1850. From what she read in the brochure, it was a time of rough changes to the country, but full of chivalry and romance as well. It sounded civilized but not boring. During her second conversation with the Romantek rep, she had made her choice known and the wheels had been set in motion.
The sales brochure also set out rules for the game aspects of the dream, and as Audrey continued to reread the disclaimers, a sense of trepidation shivered along her skin.
?Although the vast majority of RAVEs involve computer-generated opponents and companions, Romantek reserves the right to include depictions and avatars of real people as part of your experience,? she whispered. She didn?t understand the disclaimer entirely, but she didn?t care. This was a golden opportunity, no matter what caveats they put on it.
When Audrey had entered the contest to win a RAVE, she?d never actually expected to win. But the Big Nutz peanut butter company had picked her. It was amazing! She had never won anything before in her life, and to think she?d won something that everyone wanted but only very few (and very rich) people got to experience. Ever since the comm with Big Nutz, she had been busy preparing for the weeklong escapade. Although she would only be gone one week, they assured her that those five days would feel like ten days, as long as she followed the simple rules. It was like a game? in a dream? in an adventure.
Of course, RAVE offered many different versions of their adventures. She had won a bargain, basic adventure. Winning a deluxe adventure would have been too much to ask, naturally. There were options for other adventures that she couldn?t access. With some of the more advanced packages, participants could live out their adventure through an alter ego persona. Audrey was relieved that she would be playing under her own name. Acting out another character would have been confusing.
It was a little scary of course, and somewhat out of character for her to take part in an adventure of any kind, but she wanted to step out of the corner she had painted for herself. She had dithered for several days before even entering the contest, and really, if the truth were known, she would have actually preferred to win the second prize chunk of cash., But given the Romantek brochure, she had decided to take a chance when they told her she had won. It was only make-believe, after all. How dangerous could it be?
Tucking her dress in her suitcase, she added a few toiletries and closed the bag. A limo would be picking her up early the next morning. As she put on her flannel pajamas and crawled into bed, she tried to imagine all the wonderful things she?d see, feel, and hear as she dreamed her vacation while her body was pampered in the nano-tank on the luxurious cruise ship.
As she understood it, the more she imagined in the days just before her RAVE, the more likely her dreams would come true. The chip already implanted in her scalp was recording it all for use in her RAVE script.
It would all start tomorrow, but tonight, sleep.
* * *
It was still dark when Audrey got into the limo. She didn?t have to state the destination, the self-drive luxury vehicle was pre-programmed to take her to only one place, the heli-jet terminal in downtown Omaha. It was about a thirty-minute ride, but the excitement made the time whiz by. The sun was coming up on her right. Soon she boarded the private heli-jet and began her journey to New York, where she boarded a long-distance heli-jet to Reykjavik.
She had never been to Iceland before. Actually, she?d never been further than Omaha before, so every sight along the way was new and wonderful. She thought maybe could write a book about this adventure, though there were quite a few books about Romantek RAVES already. Still, every person?s experience was different, personalized, so there were thousands of stories to tell.
This one would be Audrey Beacon?s RAVE, and would be the best story of all. She wondered if Mr. Finster at work would allow her to make notes as she thought of what she wanted to say upon returning from the vacation. He hadn?t been too happy about her going at all, claiming that such pursuits led to immoral behavior. He thought Audrey was too na?ve to withstand the temptations Romantek would offer her.
Basically, he was ultra-conservative and pious, believing Audrey should get married and settle into dependency as his wife had done. It was an old-fashioned notion, but one encouraged by his social and religious organizations. He had the support of his peers, and that was a dangerous thing.
Audrey wasn?t afraid of temptation. Her morals were modern, but conservative. She believed that caution was the wise path, but you still had to move forward with your life. Besides, she was entitled to a week off every year, and it had been three years since she had taken any time at all. Finster had been miffed at having to hire a temp to do the administrative work Audrey usually did, but he worked her like a slave robot and made demands on her time. Audrey exhausted more often than not. Even though it was risky?she wasn?t the kind of person who dabbled in adventure or took chances with her job?she wanted to do this. Or, at least, she was willing to do it this time.
If he hadn?t been so cheap, Mr. Finster could have bought himself a bot to do her job and so Audrey tried not to be too irritated. Everyone worked hard, she told herself. The economy was bad and she was lucky to have a job at all.
The long-distance heli-jet was very luxurious and she had it all to herself. It was only a two-hour flight from New York to Reykjavik so Audrey tried to soak up every minute. She often murmured into her old, second-hand comm unit, making recordings of what she saw along the way.
Soon enough, she arrived in Reykjavik where another tiny heli-jet took her and five other passengers to the Romantek cruise ship about 300 kilometers offshore.
There had been quite a bit of controversy about the Romantek technology when they started up, so the company chose to take its facilities offshore. Now the cruise ship parked outside of various ports around the world, picking up passengers as they moved from friendly country-state to country-state.
As they hovered above the ship for a few minutes, Audrey got a good look. It was modern, sleek, the latest version of a small luxury cruise ship. It had seven decks and could carry about two hundred passengers. All that was in the Romantek brochure, but seeing it herself raised her excitement level several rungs. She noted a pool and an outdoor bar on the pool deck. There was a single exhaust stack, but that was only for looks. The ship had a small nuclear pack powering it, so no exhaust.
A smiling woman carrying a tablet, flanked by four Daedalus Six model bots from Orion Industries, greeted the six passengers. Audrey recognized the bots from an ad she had seen somewhere. The woman shook hands with each person and started assigning the bots. The two couples who had been on the flight had one bot assigned to each pair, but Audrey was assigned her very own, personal bot. She felt like a zillionaire.
The bot took her bag and led her deeper into the ship, where there was a grand atrium. Beautiful plants from all over the globe graced archways and hanging gardens on the glass walls. It was warm from the sun, but not too warm for comfort.
Audrey?s cabin was on deck five, among the most deluxe cabins aboard the ship. She had read about the cabins in her brochure. Hers was bigger than her whole apartment?granted, her apartment was unusually small?and it had finely finished d?cor, meticulous in every detail. There was a separate sitting room, a bedroom, and a bath. It seemed so extravagant considering that she would only occupy the room for one night before she went to the dream deck, and one night after she?d finished her RAVE. But it was hers.
After the bot left her, updating her tablet with the proper app for the ship?s itinerary, she shucked off her shoes and let her toes squeeze the deep pile carpet. It was the softest she had ever felt. She ran her hands over the Australian leather couch and chairs, and tested the real maple wood of the tables and desk. She had to bounce her bottom on the huge bed, testing out its perfect springiness.
Satisfied and delighted, Audrey fell back on the bed and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, grinning from ear-to-ear. This RAVE was a dream come true already and she hadn?t even made it to the dreaming part yet.
Still, a frisson of indecision poked at her, ruining the moment. Was she doing the right thing? Should she back out before it went too far? Was she so out of her league that she was going to embarrass herself?
No. How could you embarrass yourself in your own dream? Duh.
She unpacked and rested, having a small meal brought to her by the bot. Audrey never ate out so having her meal catered was a magical moment. Normally she pressed a few buttons on her Auto-Cook and ate whatever meat and veggies it popped out.
This meal had rice! Real rice, all grainy and brown, the starch melting on your tongue as you savored every mouthful. North Americans rarely had rice anymore because the government had determined that starchy carbs were bad for you, especially after the fungus scare forty years ago. But apparently, Romantek bought from Asia or off the black market, because they had this exotic treat on their menu for anyone to order.
The sun set early this time of year so far north and by five o?clock it was dark. A cocktail party was beginning on the Palace deck. Audrey slipped into her cocktail dress?bought with the little bit of prize money that accompanied her trip?and tried to control herself as the bot escorted her to the party.
There were perhaps a hundred people there. All the rest must have been on the Dream deck, enjoying their RAVEs. Audrey met a number of people, with whom she chatted animatedly. Mostly they were couples who had saved up for decades to have this opportunity. But a few were men and women?rich ones, she guessed?who had come to Romantek out of boredom. It was possible they needed a break from working, too, she admitted. Everyone worked so hard, but that was life.
A couple of times Audrey caught herself flirting and normally she would have shut down that behavior rapidly?she didn?t want to start anything she couldn?t finish?but this time she let herself go. She would never see these folks again and this was her vacation! Besides, one of the goals she?d set for herself for this RAVE was to dream up some hunky guy and have a torrid affair. It was only make-believe and there were no commitments in her personal dream world. It made her squirmy inside in anticipation.
There was one fellow who, a little tipsy from alcohol, tried to monopolize Audrey?s time. He was tall, spare and gray-haired in a distinguished way. He was way too old for her to consider seriously, but she spent time with him, enjoying his conversation and the banter that went along with flirting. After a while, she floated away to another group to mingle and take up a flirtation with another fellow and his wife. It was harmless, she told herself. Besides, once the purser called her number, she would be leaving these people to embark on her adventure.
* * *
Across the room, Owen White watched Audrey, a tilt of pleasure on his lips. She was gorgeous and vivacious. Her light brown hair was long, wavy, and completely out of fashion, but on her it was perfect. Even from the other side of the room, Owen?s enhanced sight could detect her eye color and he?d be damned if that vivid blue wasn?t the real thing! She was a gem, he decided, and he had to meet her.
Would she flirt with him so shamelessly? Was it a habit? Perhaps she was loose. It was old-fashioned of him, but loose behavior in a woman made him wary. The young woman?s flirtation with so many people bothered him. She seemed out of control, somehow, and risked the wrong sort of attention.
He was making his way across to her, trying not to get waylaid by too many other passengers eager to meet him, but they rang the bell for dinner and people filed out. Owen lost sight of her as the group moved along. His dining table was removed from hers, and for a moment he was tempted to change the place cards, but he knew he was seated in a place of honor, so he refrained from cheating. His pursuit of the girl with the light brown hair would have to wait until the end of the trip. He?d set out to find her when he got back from his dream sleep.
* * *
Audrey tried not to be nervous as they lowered her into the nanite gel. It would give her nourishment and remove waste products as she slept. And the makeover was a really amazing perquisite, adding enormously to the value of the Romantek experience. She was so excited!
The moment her body moved into the gel, she felt a tingling sensation on her skin. It had to be the physical experience stimulation beginning. She tried to relax her head against the contoured headrest that would transmit the dream to her, but as her head went down under the gel, she held her breath. It was scary, but eventually she let go, taking a shuddering breath, and all she felt was the lukewarm gel seeping into her body like a warm breeze. She didn?t choke, gag, or cough, which was very reassuring. The gel smelled like newly cut grass and carnations.
She had heard that sometimes returning from the dream was disorienting, and took several days to recover. Audrey hoped that wouldn?t be the case for her, she had to get back to work as soon as she got home. There would be no recovery time for her. In the meantime, she was immersed and beginning to relax.
The human nurse said something Audrey could barely understand as she tiptoed away from the tank. It sounded like, ?It?s going to be a wonderful experience so relax and don?t worry.?
Audrey worried anyway, until a wave of sleepiness stole over her. She fought it for a moment, but her eyes drifted closed and the world shifted.
Light poked her eyes as she blinked into the small western town circa 1850 CE. Stumbling slightly, Audrey bobbled the tray she carried, but recovered quickly. She stood before a sheriff?s office, her hand on the doorknob. Apparently, she?d been about to go in.
Squaring her shoulders, Audrey took a deep breath. This was it. She was in the adventure. She turned the knob and went inside.
The room was small, sparingly furnished with a desk and two chairs. A coatrack was attached to one wall, sporting a long leather duster that was much the worse for wear. A broad-brimmed cowboy hat hung next to it. Dust motes flickered in the light from the dirty windows.
The man who sat behind the desk looked up from a stack of papers?real papers!?and gave her a smile. He had a bushy brown moustache that covered his upper lip and disappeared at the seam of his mouth. His eyes were deep brown and friendly, crinkled at the corners as if he smiled a lot, or spent a lot of time squinting in the sun.
Audrey had the impression that both of those reasons came into play. The badge on his chest confirmed that he was the sheriff. And despite the moustache, he reminded her a little bit of her father. Not enough to be her father, of course, unless he was a dream character and she was supposed to recognize him as family.
She returned his smile.
?I brought your?? She faltered. Was this his lunch or dinner? She should have noted the placement of the sun so she?d have an idea of what time it was. Damn. She was messing up already.
?Lunch!? he said, standing up. ?What did Elmira make for me today, Miss Audrey??
Ah. So he wasn?t her father. No father would casually address his daughter that way. Audrey set the tray on his desk and moved the napkin away. There were two plates, each with mashed potatoes?Audrey?s mouth watered, she hadn?t had potatoes since she was a girl?gravy and some sort of meatloaf. There were peas on the side and what looked to be a slice of cornbread half-dipped in the gravy. The whole presentation looked fabulous. Audrey wondered if the second plate was for her, but the sheriff cleared that up quickly, nodding toward the narrow hallway across from the door.
?He?s probably a mite hungry,? he said. ?Ain?t had nothing since yesterday, near as I can tell. Course, he was drunk as a worm in a whiskey barrel when I picked him up last night.? The sheriff took one plate and cutlery off the tray and sat back down at his desk, digging right in.
After a moment, as Audrey stood there wondering what she was supposed to do, he gestured toward the hallway with his fork. ?Go ahead, Miss Audrey. He?s safe. Door?s not even locked. I don?t think he?ll do you no harm. Seems like a peaceable sort, for all that carrying on last night, but if he gets fresh, you holler and I?ll come running.?
Audrey picked up the partially laden tray, licking her lips, wishing the wonderfully fragrant food was for her, and walked slowly toward the dark hallway. Her long dress swished as she walked, petticoats rubbing against her legs softly. She realized she was wearing a sun bonnet, and her hair was tucked up underneath. The ribbons at her throat held it securely. She was covered head to foot, very modestly, in brown, blue and cream calico.
A few bright sunbeams splashed the floor as she walked down the aisle?sunbeams shadowed by bars and grillwork. She was in the jail. Audrey?s steps slowed. It appeared that no one was in either cell to her left and right, but as she worked her way down the hall, she saw another shadow on the floor. There was a person in the third cell, on the left side of the jail.
As she approached, the fellow looked up, standing politely when he saw her. ?Ma?am,? he said.
He had a deep, rich voice, slightly rough. She had longed to find someone with that kind of voice just so she could listen to it on her comm! She didn?t know if any current actors had that voice because she couldn?t afford the cost of entertainment vids, but she was glad to have heard it this time, even though this was only a dream.
?Hello.? She gestured with the tray. ?I brought you your lunch.? Balancing the tray on her hip, she stood at the heavy cell door for a moment, undecided. He could be dangerous. But no, the sheriff hadn?t even locked the door. The man was there on his honor. That made him safe.
Well, nothing in this dream would harm her in real life, which comforted her nerves greatly. She opened the cell door with her free hand and he stepped back away a few feet. The cell was small, with only a bunk and a bucket, so he didn?t have very far to go to move away.
?I?m right grateful, Ma?am. Let me take that.? He took the tray and put it on the bunk, next to his battered hat.
He was chiseled and handsome. Obviously from a Native American background, if his burnished skin and dark eyes were any clue. He wore his hair long, straight, and touching his shoulders. He looked a little dusty and smelled like sweat and horses. The scent went straight to Audrey?s hindbrain and rang a bell. It was a peal that made her nipples hard and a flame begin to burn in her belly. Was this the man she hoped to have a crazy, make-believe affair with? She couldn?t remember dreaming up anyone specific, but she knew the Romantek chip had recorded everything for the last week.
No. This couldn?t be him. As appealing as he was, he was in jail, for charges she wasn?t sure about. Probably not serious crimes, or the door would have been locked, but a miscreant nonetheless.
Still, this was her dream, so she?d stay and flirt for a moment, drinking in his beauty, that voice, and his intoxicating scent.