The sunlit meadows called to him, the land of eternal springtime where he and his friends laughed, and played, and made endless, gentle love. The moonlit glades where they ate, and drank, and sang. On the velvet;soft grass by a sparkling stream, Evelyn sat waiting for him, her perfect body barely draped in something vaguely Greek. Tall and slender, with flowing blond hair, she only faintly resembled the stocky child who had been one member of his Underground cell. An embroidered cloth at her feet was spread with appetizing picnic foods, and by their side a magnum of pink champagne fizzed invitingly.
"Pink champagne?" Hal lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
"A bit too much, is it?" She waved her hand languidly, and the champagne was transformed into a delicately fragrant Zinfandel blush. "Better?"
"I suppose so." He flopped down on the grass at her feet. "And yesterday it was Chablis, and the day before ... Who remembers what it was."
"Still remembering what life used to be like?" Her gaze somehow conveyed resignation, combined with a distant fondness. They had been lovers once, and probably would be again and again, down through the countless years. Right now, they were something less than lovers, yet still more than just friends.
"Used to be, and can be again!" He sprang to his feet with legs apart, hands on hips as though poised to resist an attack that never came.
"Poor Hal," Evelyn's smile was wistful. "Forget the past," she coaxed. "Live for today. They thought that they were punishing us, but they did their work too well and sent us to Heaven, instead."
"No, this is Hell, and I will find a way to escape!" He focused his attention on a single detail of the scene that surrounded him, probing at it until he could resolve in into its individual pixels. The rest of his surroundings wavered, breaking down into millions of fractal components.
"Hal! Come back!" Her voice was fuzzy, lacking in resonance as his mind rejected its reality. Somewhere, off in the infinite reaches of cyberspace, she still sat by the stream, with a shadowy figure of Hal across the picnic cloth from her.
Hal Jantzen resisted her appeal, striving to mesh with the machine where they all existed. The machine that was their paradise, their prison.
"You are hereby sentenced to imprisonment for the crime of fomenting unrest, trying to change what is best for all," the electronic judge had proclaimed at the conclusion of his farce of a trial. "The term of your imprisonment is life, the rest of your natural life, with no provision for parole or early release."
White;clad attendants had taken him away, quickly sedating him before his screams of fear and rage could offend the delicate sensibilities of the spectators who peered languidly at the scene relayed to their Tri;D screens across the length and breadth of the solar system. His anger had failed as darkness swallowed him, and he'd known nothing more until he'd wakened in this electronic fantasy;land, the only input to his senses the trickle of electrons that so perfectly mimicked the real world.
The other rebellious ones had been waiting here to greet him, cell by cell. They had thought that their organization was failure;proof, three to a cell, each person knowing only the cell above them and two cells below. Frank and Eloise and Laura, Charles and Herb and Katherine, and all the other members of the Resistance. Like his new image of himself, they'd all been young. Young and beautiful. Their unlined faces had reflected only pleasant emotions, the only ones allowed them by the tyranny of the machine.
Time and time again he'd tried to raise the anger that had sustained him over the unending months of his trial, the sense of righteous wrath that had made him fight so desperately against the confining strictures of law and custom. It had been no use. For uncounted eons the only emotions he had felt were the pallid, pastel ones that the machines permitted him, and his companions fared no better. Only very rarely had he caught fleeting glimpses in their eyes of the agony of their defeat, and gradually even those had faded and died.
Oh, his friends were real enough, at least most of them. Hardly any of them were electronic constructs, he was sure of that. He had talked to them enough hours, learning from their tales just what twisted circumstances had brought them to this non;place. They, too, had fought to remain true to their own selves. Tried, and failed as the juggernaut of conformity had rolled over them.
He alone hadn't failed. He'd continued to fight until at last, he had no idea how long it had been, he had finally succeeded in cracking the electronic codes that fettered his being. It had been a small enough victory that had finally given him the key to victory, the ability to smear a tiny corner of his environment to the point where he could see the falsity of the structure that upheld it.
Even after that, it hadn't been easy. He'd had to fight for every inch of progress, but at last he was in full command of his surroundings. He was subliminally aware of the metal shell that contained his motionless body, even if he wasn't able to do anything about it.