This is a fairy tale, and I'm the princess.

I had only been working in my lab for a few minutes, when the computer said. "I can fulfill your fondest desire."

Shocked, I looked around. I knew it was pointless, because my lab is so secure that not even the most skilled hack could get into it. It was underground, connected to my quantum slip-stream instead of the internet, and had its own source of energy. The only other one who could open the door was Charles.


I checked, but the door was locked and Charles was not there.

"Even that desire," the computer said, and there was humor in its tone. Its tone. That was another strange thing; the voice was not coming from my speakers. It was filling the room, but there was no echo.

It was in my mind.

Oh, great; I was cracking up! The pressure to succeed had robbed me of my sanity. . .except that I knew I wasn't insane. Yeah, I know; someone insane always denies it. Still, I knew my mind; I had been under no pressure, because we were succeeding.

Yes, it was a fairy tale -- a tale of a lone innocent and a great power, a genie that could save the world.

Or destroy it.

I am not a beautiful fairy princess. Beautiful? Me? I am thirty-five and have never been kissed, so I only qualify as innocent. I wear steel-rimmed glasses instead of contacts. Such vanity would be an utter waste.

I have a step-mother, so perhaps I'm more like Cinderella -- but my step-mother never made me clean the fireplace. In fact, she supported me through school and college, and guided me through my inheritance.

The genie from the computer bottle said, with gentle patience, "Are you interested?"

'Interested' was too mild a word, but I recalled stories of wishes going wrong, such as The Monkey's Paw, so I said, "What's the cost? What do I need to do?"

If I was granted a wish, what would it be? Not beauty, not riches, but a life! I've never fallen in love, never partied, never found someone who really cared for me. If this could be done, I admitted to myself, I was willing to do a lot.

I majored in computers in college including two doctorates in the field, so I used my inheritance to set up a computer company. I named it Pandora, because my first name is Dora -- at least, I thought that was the reason at the time. Now I wonder if a certain amount of prescience wasn't involved. I had opened a box that could release havoc on the world. I had accessed much more than a genie when I explored my quantum computer. . . .

This had started as a normal day -- hectic!

"Take a look at this, boss-lady," Sylvia said, handing me some advertising roughs. "I squeezed them down another thou," she added.

That was why I had hired Sylvia; she could get a dollar's worth out of a dime, and was expert in all things financial. Well, in all honesty, I also hired her because of Charles.

When I formed the company, I hired Charles Grayson as my assistant. He walked into my utilitarian cubicle of an office -- cream-colored walls, a desk that existed to hold my computer, and there was a stainless-steel chair in front of my desk. It had a padded seat and padded back.

I saw him take in my office with one glance. It was obvious that, like me, he valued utilitarian much higher than ostentation.

His photo was included in his impressive resume, but that didn't prepare me for the shock when he came in. He was not just handsome, he was absolutely gorgeous -- but his brain was even better, and that was why I chose him. I desired him; no, I longed for him desperately -- but I controlled myself, because he was married.

Wordlessly, I nodded at the chair. Fighting to manage my voice, I told him, "You're hired. I think your help will be important in making Pandora a success." Sure, it was stiff; I was doing good to even talk.

With his fabulous grin, Charles said, "Hey, that's great! Could I make a suggestion?"

I lifted an eyebrow and he gave me the resume of his wife, Sylvia. She was physically his match, and mentally as well.

"You won't find anybody better at finances!" Charles proclaimed, and I agreed.

I looked over the roughs Sylvia handed me. They were all designed around a drawing of a PC, a drawing that practically glowed. "Pandora's Quantum PC!" it bragged, and went on in mouth-watering detail. "That's great, Sylvia," I said. "Cutting a thousand from the bill's just icing on the cake. Sweet icing," I added.

Charles came up, grinning in a way that had my heart in my throat. "Orders will be pouring in," he predicted. "Won't even need more ads -- word-of-mouth will make this thing soar!" He looked at me. "Your discovery of the quantum slip-stream was pure genius, Dora."

With his compliment, I thought: "Prince Charming, indeed!" Still, he was right; the quantum slip-stream was the key to our success. In college, it had come to me: Scientists had built their concept of the universe from many clues -- interpreting information from prisms, telescopes, radio waves, infra-red and on and on. I realized that there were more clues around as well, things others hadn't even yet considered.

I just needed a way to tap those clues.

Quantum mechanics seemed to hold the key, if I could just -- so to speak -- tame it. Which, after long years, I did; I called it a quantum slip-stream, because of the way it all slipped about. I created a quantum search engine, aping the creative genius of such greats as DaVinci, Einstein, and Stephen Hawkin. Turning bytes into data. With it, I searched for disparate clues, added them to others, and -- voila! -- a quantum mainframe was developed and it made Pandora very successful. Leading, of course, to the quantum PC, which needed only a small amount of tuning to be on its way.

That 'tuning' was why I was in my lab tonight. "I have a message I want delivered," the voice said, and went on to list a top scientist, the nation's attorney-general, the most successful movie producer, an influential bishop, and the man currently most visible in media commentary.

"Oh, sure," I said. "I'll just call their secretaries and make an appointment!" Sarcasm dripped from my voice.

"They will see you," the voice continued. "Look at this." A series of equations and diagrams appeared on my computer screen. I had aced all forms of math -- partly because women were not supposed to be into math, but mostly because it fascinated me. I stared at what was scrolling by, and gasped.

"That's -- that's describing the Big Bang," I whispered in awe, "including the start of it! Scientists have been fighting about that for decades!" I shook my head in wonder. "That will certainly get the scientist's attention!"

There were equally strong attention-getters for each name I had been given.

"Okay," I said, reluctantly giving in. "What's the message?"

(What will make my dream come true?)

"It's the same for all of them," I was told. There was a solemnity to the voice. "As I planned, mankind developed intelligence equal to my own. Man is here to find the answer to the problem of temptation. It's an answer I have searched for fruitlessly, and I need it! Back home, you aren't considered mature until you have solved that problem. Your scribes and scholars got a lot of it right, but they put in a crutch for the true answer. They created Satan. 'The devil made me do it!' is not a solution!"

"There is no Satan?" I asked in astonishment.

"Do you believe there is?"

". . .Well, I guess not. Still, as far as temptation goes, psychiatrists --"

"--Blame the Freudian Complex, poor upbringing, and society's weaknesses to explain it," the voice interrupted impatiently. "Crutches. It's so easy to blame anyone but one's self for failings." Then it added, "The scribes had one thing right when they said that all men are born into sin -- if you accept that temptation leads to sin.

"Avoiding temptation and resisting it are not answers, because you need to know how to accomplish those goals.

"I am very patient. When I entered this dimension, saw all the chaos, bundled it all up and suffused the ball with order, I knew that its explosion would, by my own rules, lead to the evolution of man. I hoped that one of them would come up with the answer that had escaped me and would spread it throughout the land.

"It hasn't happened. Man has had millions of years, but now my patience is expiring. I must have the answer. One more year is all they have, or I'll start pulling the universe back into myself." After the silence of a moment, my printer started spitting out sheets.

"That is my message. You will have your desire met when all have been delivered."

After that, I had many questions and was given many answers -- like our minds will continue in him, living in Heavens and Hells of our own creation -- but that is not the story.

Midnight will end the year. Enjoying a slight breeze in the pleasant night, Charles and I sit on the grass of our yard that. I say, 'I' sat there, and that's true. . .but I was in Sylvia's body. Snuggling closer, I felt the dried grass crackle under me. "Sylvia," Charles said, "It's hard to believe, but you're even more loving." He chuckled and added. "Not that I'm complaining."

Sylvia and I had exchanged places -- but only I knew the difference.

I rested my cheek against his. "I'm just gaining a deeper understanding, Charles," I murmured, looking up at the stars.

Then darkness started slowly obliterating them all.

Fairy tales don't always have a happy ending.