Daniel turned and began shuffling out with the crowd. Somehow the security force was able to get everyone in a single-file line heading out the doors, scanning them one by one. As soon as Daniel set foot outside the outermost door, a short man in a greasy hairpiece caught his arm.
“Mr. Daniel Princeton?” he asked.
Daniel nodded, wondering why, out of everyone else, he would be singled out, and they would know his name.
“My name is Curtis,” the man said, “If you would follow me, please, your bus is over this way.” He scuttled off past the generic black shuttles, to a white one that was the largest road-permissible vehicle that Daniel had ever seen.
Curtis approached the door, and it opened automatically.
“Welcome, valued workforce member,” a female mechanical voice intoned.
Daniel ascended the steps into the vehicle, and the driver turned to him and waved. Daniel glanced at his nametag. “BRANDON,” it read, “Android.”
“Down this row here,” Curtis was saying from behind him as the android turned back to the steering wheel. “If I may—“ the greasy little man motioned and Daniel stood against the partition as Curtis squeezed past him in the narrow passageway. This was the strangest bus Daniel had ever been on, because the seats were more like enclosed, private “cabins,” like on a train.
Curtis led him down to about the midpoint of the bus, and pointed to a small plaque with the name “BENEDICT” on it.
“Here is your cabin, sir,” he stated, “and here is your nametag.” He handed Daniel a small gold pin with the same name, “BENEDICT” engraved on it. Daniel held the pin against his shirt, and it automatically fastened itself. The rim of the plaque next to his door lit up green. Curtis nodded with satisfaction, but Daniel shook his head in bewilderment.
“But my name is not—“ he began to protest, but Curtis raised his stiffly-waxed eyebrows at him.
“And my name is not Curtis,” he sighed with understanding. “It doesn’t matter; they have a certain computer system for registering employees, and it only allows certain names to be used. You work for Byblos, and your name is Benedict. Now,” he opened the door to the compartment, “as long as you are within twelve inches of your compartment, it will unlock automatically. Any further than that, and it locks, and no one can get in. Food service and entertainment choices will appear as soon as this door closes. You may make your selection and it will be served to you via the chute directly in front of your seat.”
As Curtis spoke, Daniel scooted into the small compartment and found it entirely occupied by a large chair. He sat in it, and a seatbelt immediately snaked across his lap, while the back of the seat slowly scooted upright until it supported his back.
“The seat responds automatically to your body’s position,” Curtis explained, “It is fully reclining, and there are blankets and pillows available in the recess to your left, while electronic hand-held devices and attachments are in the recess to your right.” Curtis nodded, satisfied that he had gotten through his spiel without incident. “Enjoy your trip, Mr. Benedict!” He closed the door, and immediately the room plunged into darkness. Seconds later, lights flickered back on—but the appearance of the room seemed very different. No longer was he sitting in a small chair in a tiny cabin. Now Daniel (now called Benedict) found himself reclining in a plush armchair in what appeared to be a spacious lounge. A waitress wearing a close-fitting blouse and pencil skirt approached him with a tray in her hands.
“Welcome, Benedict,” she said in the same voice that had greeted him when he stepped off the bus, “Can I interest you in a beverage?” She held up her tray in front of him, and immediately a long list of every sort of beverage, alcoholic and not, appeared on its surface. “Touch the screen to make your selection,” the female voice instructed, and Daniel suddenly realized he was viewing a life-like projection. He stared in amazement; the detail extended the full 360 degrees, and the only thing that felt out of place was the fact that he could not leave his chair. He turned back to the “waitress.” She was still holding the tray for him. Daniel leaned forward and scrolled through the list. Nearly every beverage in existence… but all he wanted was some simple refreshment. He tapped “Water” on the list, and the waitress asked, “Will that be mineral, bottled, or iced?”
“Bottled,” Daniel replied automatically aloud, but the waitress responded anyway. She walked out of the room, and Daniel heard a chime ring right in front of him. He watched in amusement as a second waitress appeared, bearing a bottle of water on a tray—but when she extended it to offer the bottle to Daniel, he found that the projection aligned with the chute, so that he was grabbing an actual bottle off of the projected tray in the projected hands of a projected waitress.
As soon as he received the water, the waitress immediately followed up with, “Would you like some entertainment?”
Instantly, a chorus-girl in a gaudy, revealing outfit appeared in front of Daniel, leaning toward him with disturbingly convincing realism. “Want to play?” she crooned.
Daniel desperately closed his eyes and waved his hand, as if to wipe away the image, “No!” he cried frantically.
When he opened his eyes again, the girl was gone and in her place a slot machine. The lights flashed and the handle gleamed tantalizingly as a male voice questioned, “Want to play?” in the same inviting tone as the chorus-girl.
Daniel waved his hand and declared, “No!” a second time, and the slot machine disappeared at his command.
No sooner than it had vanished did the waitress “return,” this time bearing a tray that flickered through images of every food Daniel knew he craved.
“Would you care for something to eat?” she asked.
Daniel knew how much he wanted the food, but he also knew the dangers of gluttony, and giving in to your cravings. He hurriedly chugged the bottle of water still in his hand, grateful for the way it filled his belly, even just for the moment.
“Not right now, thanks,” he replied to the projection.
The waitress did not miss a beat.
“Can we interest you in a TV or movie selection?” she pressed.
Daniel considered this request, knowing of only one video he would be interested to see, but the “waitress” may be reluctant to provide.
“Can you show me what’s passing outside?” he asked the waitress.
The projection of the lounge flickered, and Daniel suddenly found himself sitting on apparently nothing on the Victory Highway as East St. Louis sped past him. Quickly, he turned his head, and the detail tracked with his field of vision. Looking toward the northeast, he had barely time for one last glimpse of the Gateway Arch before it disappeared over the horizon, blocked from his sight by so many steel and brick buildings.
Daniel immediately recalled how his entire life had been lived within sight of that arch. No matter where he was, he could always orient himself with it. It was the one constant landmark in his life—and now he was on his way to California. Who knew when or if he’d ever see it again? Daniel’s heart lodged in his throat, and his eyes began to burn.
“Turn the lights on,” he choked out, and as his mind returned from the projected settings to the reality of a tiny, enclosed cabin, traveling west to his new work location, the words of Justin Mandalord, as expressed to the Executive Director, Mr. Kim, came back to him.
The man had stood in the atrium of Integra Communications, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear,
“If you do not follow the bylaws laid down by my forefathers, the company founders,” he declared, “God has shown me that a king will arise from his castle of gold and take this company away from you.”
Of course, no one could have known then that he didn’t mean a real king, like a foreign dignitary, or an actual castle—but a Mr. King, who “ruled” in the “Golden State.”
Daniel lay back in his seat and wept for his homeland.