Over the next few days, Dan’s guilt intensified. He hated that he was lying to Heleer. He hated more that she believed him, that he was actually deceiving her. And when the Barrier went back up as RR had said it would, Dan hated that he hadn’t taken the chance to get out when he had it. He could try to convince Heleer any time; opportunities to escape were rare, if they ever came at all.
Whenever Dan saw Heleer – in the mornings, when they ate, after SR – she would smile at him, and Dan would feel a stab of guilt. He knew that if he told her that he still wanted to escape, everything about her he had grown to need would be taken from him. He couldn’t let that happen. At the same time, if he continued with his lie, he soon wouldn’t be able to even look at her without feeling an overpowering sense of guilt. He couldn’t let that happen either. Dan couldn’t live like this. Something had to change.
Dan decided that the only thing he could do was escape, and force her to escape with him. She wouldn’t like it. She wouldn’t want to leave. But once she saw what was out there, once she knew just how limited she really was, she might agree that escape wasn’t such a bad idea. It would be a start if nothing else.
Normally this decision wouldn’t solve the current problem. Deciding to escape and having the opportunity to do so were two very different things. Or at least, usually they were.
Ever since the Barrier had dropped, the power had gone out several more times. Each time, Dan and Heleer had been trapped in the SR Unit, unable to do anything but wait for the power to go back on. But each time, Dan had seen that the Barrier had vanished for a few minutes. If the power kept going out, it would only be a matter of time until it happened when Dan was free to escape. He resolved that when the opportunity next presented itself, he would take Heleer, and they would go. They would find their way out.
Dan’s chance came a few days later. He was sitting at the metal slab which served as a table, waiting for Heleer to finish showering, when the floor shuddered slightly. Dan looked up. There had been several minor shakings throughout the past few days.
The lights clicked off, and then back on. That was a sure sign. Dan stood up, his body tense with excitement. The lights flickered. The walls trembled. And then the Barrier evaporated.
It was at this moment that Dan made a decision he regretted for a long time. His excitement overpowering his logic, he forgot about Heleer for a split second, and launched himself into the hall.
It was straight and narrow, with gray metal walls. Cameras dotted the walls every few spaces. The hall made a sharp turn some ways away at either end. That was all Dan could take in before a cry behind him brought him back to his senses.
Heleer was standing there, her hair wet, staring at him with an expression which made Dan’s late guilt seem like nothing more than a minor discomfort.
“Dan! What – What are you doing?” Her tone was blank of anything but shock.
Dan tried to think what to say, but he couldn’t find the words.
“You lied? This whole time, you lied?”
Dan knew the Barrier could come back on at any second. The lights had never gone out fully – a sure sign that the outage wouldn’t last. But he came back towards her, though he didn’t cross into his home. He had to convince her. He had to bring her with him.
“I had to,” he said. She needed to understand. “I did try to be content, Heleer. Really, I did. But it was no use. I have to get out. I have to. If you could just see what I saw, you would understand. You would want to get out too.”
Not much of this seemed to have gotten through to Heleer. She was still staring at him in shock and disbelief. “But you… I… I thought you were content,” she said blankly. “I thought you were happy.”
Dan took a step closer to her. He did not, however, step back into his home. He wouldn’t set foot there again if he could help it. “I was happy,” he said. “But the only reason I was content was because I knew I would escape one day. I could be patient because… every day felt like I was drawing closer to getting out.”
Dan could see what he was saying was hurting Heleer. After all, she was just realizing that he had been deceiving her for years, and that he had never really abandoned his hope of escape, even if he had tried all he could. But there was another emotion on her face which Dan found odd: fear. Why should she be afraid?
“Look,” Dan said, the pressure of the situation starting to get to him. “I wanted to tell you. I really wanted to tell you. But I just couldn’t.”
“Why not?” Heleer asked abruptly.
“Because you were happy!” Dan said without thinking. He glanced up and down the hall. Any moment, the Barrier would snap back on. He looked back at Heleer. “You were happy,” he repeated. “I didn’t want to take that from you.”
The fear in Heleer’s face seemed to be growing, mirroring Dan’s own rising tension. “I was happy,” she said, a quaver in her voice, “because I thought I had succeeded. I thought – I thought”— she drew a breath and continued on, as if forcing herself to say it all —“I thought I had stopped you from doing what I could never stop my mother from doing. Yes, Dan,” she said, a glint of panic in her eye, “I tried to stop her. Over and over I tried to keep her from leaving, to show her that she had all that she needed. But I never could. I didn’t try hard enough. She’s dead because I couldn’t convince her to stay. And you… you stayed. You did what she didn’t. I had convinced you. I had. And now… now you’ve proven me wrong.” She uttered the last words in a slow breath, as if she was just realizing what they meant.
There was a click, and a barely audible buzzing. Dan knew the sound by now. In a matter of seconds, the Barrier would come back on. They had to leave now.
“Come with me,” he said. “You’ve got to come with me.”
Heleer didn’t move.
It was Dan’s turn to feel panicked. He had to get Heleer out of there. She had to come with him. “Come on!” he said, half shouting, half pleading. She still didn’t move. Dan threw caution to the wind.
“Look,” he said, reaching out and grabbing her arm, though still not crossing into his home. “I can’t live without you. I need you,” he added, when she tried to pull away. “You’ve made me see things that I never would have before.”
Heleer succeeded in freeing herself, and took a step away from Dan. “Apparently I didn’t make you see enough,” she said. A change was coming over her. She seemed to be calming, closing off, her panic settling into resolve.
“No.” Heleer’s eyes, those same eyes which Dan felt he could peer into for hours, were now cold, locked against him. She had made a decision.
“Go,” she said.
“Go,” she repeated, motioning him away. “It’s over. I failed. You won. Go now.”
There were few things which could have convinced Dan to cross back into his home, but the need to bring Heleer back into his life was one of them. He had raised his foot to take a step forwards, but fate, it seemed, had other plans.
The Barrier snapped back on between them. Dan lowered his foot, unable to go further. Knowing now that she couldn’t come with him, he looked into her eyes, pleading, trying to convey through a look what his words couldn’t.
She held his gaze for a moment. Then she resolutely closed her eyes, and turned away. The simple motion felt like a blow to Dan’s stomach. He felt his throat tighten, and a red burning at his eyes. Heleer might have said he had won, but Dan knew better. He had just lost everything.
There was, however, nothing he could do about it. The Barrier was back up. Glancing behind him, Dan saw the camera pointed directly at him, watching him. He still had his gloves. He would get out. He would escape. But he would come back. He would come back to Heleer, and he would keep coming back until she left with him. Nothing would make him give up. With a last bitter look at Heleer’s back, Dan took off running down the hall.
At first Dan didn’t see what he was passing. He simply followed the hall, turning left with it and running down a corridor, featureless except for the cameras spaced evenly apart on one wall. Each turned and followed him as he ran past. It was only when Dan came to a four-way intersection that he had to pause and figure out which way to go. Only then did he realize what made up the walls opposite the cameras.
They were Barriers. And behind each Barrier was a home, identical to the one Dan had just left. He quickly spotted the familiar bed, bathroom, and double SR Units in each one of them. They were all exactly the same. The only difference was the people.
Dan staggered back. Because of Heleer, Dan had known there must be other people, but he still wasn’t prepared to see them. Directly across from where he stood was a boy not much older than twelve, staring at him dumbfounded.
Dan glanced at the next home. Two adults, a man and a woman, had frozen in the middle of their meal, and were watching him with expressions of utter confusion. Dan returned their stare blankly. He glanced down the rest of the hall he had just run up. It was the same. One wall was cameras, the other was a Barrier followed by a home identical to Dan’s. Each held different occupants, all staring at Dan with varying levels of confusion. Dan looked down the three other halls branching off of the intersection. It was the same.
Dan now knew where he was, and what he was looking at. He was in a prison, and these homes… they were cells. Just as his had been. He took off running, not knowing where he was going. He had to get out of here.
He ran straight, streaking by more identical cells. Nothing ever changed. The gray walls remained the same, the cameras all turned and followed him, and the cells flashed by, each as identical as the last. Dan finally skidded to a halt next to one cell, unable to tear his eyes away from what he saw.
This cell was slightly different. It still took up the same space, but the SR Units were replaced with a single SR Cube, filling up almost the whole second floor. Dan stared at it, bewildered. Only briefly though. He was quickly distracted by the three children staring back at him from the first floor.
Three. Three children. Until now, Dan had always assumed the concept of siblings was something dreamt up by the SR Unit, but here he was, looking at two brothers and a sister. And behind them, seated at the table, were their mother and father. All were looking at him with confusion – and a hint of fear – in their eyes.
Dan’s eyes traveled between the family to the large SR Cube above them. Could they possibly all be meant to be in it at the same time? Could they possibly experience the SR together? What would that even be like?
The floor shook, tearing Dan from his thoughts. The lights flickered. Not giving the family a second glance, he took off again, speeding down the hall, choosing a turn randomly at the next intersection.
As he ran, Dan was beginning to realize that he was lost. The design of the prison he was in seemed fairly simple – it was just block after block of cells, arranged in orderly rows – but he had yet to find any hint of a way out. ‘I should have thought of that before I escaped,’ he thought to himself. But then again, what could he have done? It wasn’t as though there was a map anywhere.
Dan ran through several more intersections, until he finally came to a different one. Here, there were only three hallways; one to both the right and left, and the one Dan was in. While the hallways were exactly the same, the ceiling directly above the intersection was gone, leaving just a square hole. Looking up, Dan saw that where the ceiling should have been, there was instead a large shaft, going up, and up… and up… and up… Dan felt dizzy just looking at it. He realized he was nowhere near the surface as he had been when Darren had broken him out. And then he saw something truly horrifying.
He could see that at regular intervals, the shaft branched into intersections identical to the one he now stood on. There was a whole other level on top of the one he was in. And another level on top of that. And another. It went on and on until Dan couldn’t see anymore. He looked down, his mind reeling. If each level was as extensive as the one he was in now, how large was the prison? How far down was he? How many people were in it? Dan couldn’t comprehend the number. And then a worse thought occurred to him: how would he get out?
There were no handholds on the wall. No ladder, stairs, or anything else to climb up with. He couldn’t get out that way. There had to be a door or something somewhere. If he could just find it… Dan turned on the spot, peering down each of the hallways in turn. There had to be a way out. There must be, if he could just—
Dan had heard the phrase ‘blood run cold’ before, but only now did he know what it meant. He spun around quickly and staggered backwards, his hands quickly finding the solid wall behind him.
RR took a step towards him, her metal body glinting dully in the light of a thousand Barriers. “What are you doing here?” she asked calmly.
Dan couldn’t say anything.
“I know what you want,” RR said. “I know you want to get out. But you have to listen to me, Dan.”
“Why?” Now that Dan was over the initial shock, he was regaining his courage. Everything was out in the open now. He was either getting out, or he wasn’t. “Why do I have to listen to you?” he asked. “I know what you are, RR. You and the other soulborgs – they’ve imprisoned us. All of us.”
It was RR’s turn to be silent.
“How many are there, RR? How many just like me?”
“Fortunately, not many,” RR said, half to herself.
“Fortunately? Why is that fortunate? So that others won’t try to escape? So that they won’t see what you’ve done to them?”
“And what have we done, Dan?” RR asked, seizing on his words. “Hmm? Ask yourself, what have we really done?” She didn’t give him time to think about it. “You think you know the outside world because you caught a glimpse of it, but you know nothing of it. Your whole life you’ve had food to eat, clothes on your back, and a bed to sleep in. You take those things for granted because you know nothing else. But if you were to live out there in the real world, even for a day, you would realize those things aren’t given to you, Dan. You have to work for them. Hard. And most of the time, what you do isn’t enough. If you were out there for one day, you would starve, freeze, and have nowhere to lay your head as your body slowly shut down. You say we’ve imprisoned you, when what we’ve done is really helped you beyond your wildest dreams.”
Dan glared at her. “Then let me out,” he said evenly.
“Let me out. If you think I would come running back to you after a day in the ‘real world,’ then let me out. Let me feel it for myself.”
RR didn’t speak.
“What are you afraid of, RR? If you’re right, then I’ll come back to you never wanting to escape again. You know that. Unless what you say isn’t true…”
“It’s true,” RR breathed. Her tone had changed, and somehow, some way, Dan knew she was speaking the truth. “Life beyond these walls is hardship. Maybe you would find a way to succeed, but even if you did, once you knew how hard it was, you would jump at the chance to have your every need met for you. You would jump at the chance to live a life without worry or care.”
Dan watched her, the yellow eyes refusing to blink under his gaze. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe I would. Maybe I wouldn’t. I don’t know. And I don’t think you can know either.” He meant what he said too. He had seen only a glimpse of what was beyond the walls. RR could be right. Then again, she could also be wrong. “There’s only one thing I do know right now,” Dan said. “I want a life where I have to worry. I want that, because”— he thought back to Heleer —“a life without worry, without care… that’s no life at all.” He lifted his eyes and looked RR right in the face. “That’s just existence.”
RR watched him silently. Then she sighed. “You’re beyond repair, Dan,” she said. Then, before he could react, she lifted her arm. She held something small and black in her metallic hand, which she pointed at Dan.
Dan knew something was about to happen. He knew instinctively that he should duck. But there was no time. There was a flash of light, a moment where nothing seemed to happen, and then Dan’s mind clicked off.