The day Ben has dreaded for years has finally come, the day of his release from prison.
He strides into the Great Hall to bid farewell to his fellow knights and squires. Sir Gilthwaite hails him with a raised, mailed fist, his other hand clutching the leg of a roast grouse. Sir Bryllwyn, the senior member of the order, a pockmarked, red-bearded giant of a man who lost his left ear in close combat with a Moor, stands from his chair and roars at him in greeting, his words indistinct, as he also lost his tongue. Two other Crusaders, the youngest of the crew, whose scripts and characters Ben spent less time on, making them less distinctive than the others, respectfully nod at him, then go on eating. They are watched by a hungry raven, Angel Fire, whose cage hangs from the ceiling by a gold chain. The gold was an indulgent, capricious touch – the chain would have been made of iron, Ben’s research showed – and he was docked two ReCoins for the error, but when given the chance to correct it, he declined. His castle world, he felt, belonged to him, and the ReCoins he’d earned devising and building it were his to sacrifice if he desired.
In the lower right corner of the screen, next to the box displaying his ReCoin count, a digital clock ticks swiftly down. The Exit Protocol will start in moments. “Goodnight, my faithful brothers.” He bows to them. He hears the hinges of his armor creak and exults for the last time in the magnificence of his build and stature. Soon, he will shrink six inches in height and lose the strength to draw the bowstring that slew so many foes. Soon, he will leave the Forest of Four Peaks and return to the dismal flats of his old life.
The Exit Protocol blacks out the screen. He finds himself seated in a small office decorated with stubby desert plants and color photos of Olympic athletes, both on the stand wearing medals and in action, kicking balls and grappling on mats. Across for him, on a backless stool with casters, a slim young fellow in a loose grey jacket with a pocket ID badge that read “Russ” is already speaking to him about his future.
“The good news, before we preview the conditions of our changed society,” says Russ, who is clearly some sort of recording or transmission – a bit too speedy, with tiny skips – “is that you’re already inside your new apartment. You’re situated, Ben. You’re safe at home.”
He’d suspected as much. They‘d moved him in the night. He woke up sluggish this morning, drugged, confused, a medicinal, bitter taste coat- ing his gums and tonsils.
“Where am I? Am I back in Utah?”
Russ nods, then activates a series of slides that appear to float at his right shoulder. Ben ignores his narration and fixes on the images. There are hospitals, tram depots, schools, apartment buildings, all of them new and built in a clean style combining classical geometries and faintly primitive ornamental touches with a Central-American, Mayan feel. Some of the buildings stand in fields and deserts, alone and pristine, as though waiting to be inhabited. Or perhaps they’re served by tunnels Ben can’t see. His impression is of a world grown serious, of a country devoted to austere essentials. The last set of slides shows people absorbed in life, in offices, laboratories, lecture halls, on the parade grounds of military bases, and at home with their families doing household chores, helping children with homework, celebrating birthdays.
“A quick collage,” says Russ. “A taste of things. In some ways, it may not look like much to you, but the point, I think, is renewal, regeneration. We’ve cleaned up our act, Ben. And none too soon, I’d add. Impressions? Observations? Questions?”
“Why is no one wearing headsets?”
“And no more contract violence,” he joked. “No more broken limbs. Honest associates and smart decisions!”
Russ smiles and sits up straighter on his stool. “I thought you might catch that. I’m very glad you did. You’ll probably find this ironic, considering, but they’re illegal now. Prohibited. Not as penal tech, quite obviously, but in ordinary life. In fact, the reason we still use them here is precisely the reason they’ve been banned out there, along with other Class A Escapist Instruments. They isolate. They lead to disengagement. Amusement is one thing – we all need relaxation – but fully exiting the Cognitive Commons, just vanishing down your private little dream hole, is something society realized it just can’t tolerate.”
“When did it realize that?” Ben felt apprehensive. In his mind flashed an image of Angel Fire, caged.
“A while back. It hard to say,” said Russ. “But the Fantasy Codes weren’t passed until two years ago. A bipartisan triumph, frankly. Cause for hope.”
They spoke a bit longer. The focus was on the practical, including the use of Ben’s ReCoins for goods and services. Russ said Ben’s supply would last two months, but he urged him to seek employment well before then and join the increasingly vibrant GenCoin sector. He reminded him to wear his HealthBand, to heed its advice on diet, sleep, and exercise, and to check in according to schedule with Department. “And no more contract violence,” he joked. “No more broken limbs. Honest associates and smart decisions!”
Then he turned off Ben’s headset and set him free.
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