Dan was patient for what he would later know was six years. At first it was hard. He would find himself staring at the Barrier or the Shaft, or watching the lights on the far wall whenever they appeared. But he forced himself to think about something else. With nothing else worth thinking about, his thoughts often turned to Heleer as a result.
He had grown to appreciate the patience she had taught him. And she had taught him, with great zeal. She had started focusing his mind on the things he had, and had shown him how to be content with the way something was, instead of thinking about how it could be better. It had taken time, but Dan had slowly come around to her way of thinking. He was content. He really was.
And yet, the desire to escape remained. Dan still wanted to get out. He still wanted to see the true sky, feel the vastness of it, and look into its depths. The idea still scared him some, but he found that he liked the feeling. It was the unknown. He felt drawn to it.
But he knew that he couldn’t reach it, not yet. And so he continued with the schedule, each step of it feeling like just another step closer to finally escaping. Whenever he stepped out of the SR Unit, Dan felt content, knowing both that his life here with Heleer was fine, but also that he was merely biding his time until he could escape.
True to what he had said, though, Dan was not obsessed. In fact, the one thing he paid the most attention to was Heleer. He had long ago realized that without the patience she had given him, he would have given up (ironically what she wanted in the first place).
He had realized that she had no reason to stop him from escaping. She had only said something because she didn’t want him to meet the same fate as her mother, and for that, Dan was grateful. He never forgot what she had done for him, even if she herself didn’t know the full extent of it.
Most of the time, though, these thoughts lay at the back of Dan’s mind, collecting dust. After six years, only two thoughts remained at the forefront: escape, and contentment. This meant that while Dan was content with what he had, he saw it all as temporary. When the opportunity presented itself, everything would change. This was why he never really relaxed, never really simply sat back and admired something for what it was. One day, that changed.
He had spent the entire day trying to survive in the bleakest landscape the SR Unit had ever conjured up. The ground had been dry and parched, the faintest wind had picked up dust and sand and blown it in his face, water had been non-existent, and the sun had scorched his skin until he thought he was burning up. He wasn’t sure what the soulborgs had been trying to do, and neither did he care. He was simply grateful to be out of the SR Unit, and standing under the refreshingly wet stream of warm water coming from the shower.
For what Dan knew was far too long, he just stood there, soaking up the wetness of the water. He felt like he could stand there forever, with his eyes closed, feeling the overpowering heat leech out of his body and down through the drain. At first it had been hard to be content with everything, but right then, right now… Dan wanted nothing more.
After his shower, Dan sat down to the same meal he had eaten all his life. He didn’t care though. He didn’t care that it was the same gray lump he had seen every third day. To him, it was the most welcome sight there could be. He chewed it slowly, savoring its non-existent flavor, simply happy to have it.
A flicker of light caught Dan’s eye. The light was back, dancing on the far wall. He stopped chewing for a moment, watching it, the old flare of excitement leaping up within his chest. But it was weak. The familiar burning desire to escape was no longer a raging inferno, but a smoldering remain.
Dan glanced across the table to where Heleer sat, eating and unaware of what he had seen. As he watched her, he felt for the first time that if the Barrier were to drop right then and there, and he could just walk out, he wouldn’t. He would stay. And why not? Why put an end to all this?
Dan resumed eating, the desire to escape still smoldering within him, unwilling to go out completely. He did still want to escape. There was no denying it. He wanted to know what was beyond the walls which had surrounded him all his life. He wanted to know what was out there, waiting to be discovered.
Heleer paused her eating to drink some water. The motion made Dan look up. She had changed since she had arrived in the Shaft. She had grown, though Dan was still taller than she was. The shade of her skin had lightened slightly since Dan had met her, though its exact color defied all labels. It was just an imperceptible shade darker than Dan’s fair skin. What Dan loved the most about her though, was her hair.
He had never lost his fascination with it. It had grown thicker, cascading down from her head in light brown waves, resting gently on her shoulders in soft folds. He still found the memory of its feel a thing of curiosity. The texture was something nothing – not even the SR Unit – could duplicate.
Dan watched her silently for a moment. Heleer had come from beyond the walls. Once, she had been one of the unknown things which Dan had so dearly wanted to discover. Well, she was here. His wish had been granted. Wasn’t it enough?
The table began to retract into the wall, pulling the trays with it. Dan grabbed the last bit of food and got up, automatically folding his chair and putting it back in the wall. Then he stepped aside to make room for Heleer as she stowed her chair as well.
Dan observed how automatic his response had been. The schedule had been a part of his life as long as he could remember. There had once been a time when he had resented that. He remembered how that had ended: his metal gloves kept the memory fresh.
Still, he longed for freedom. He longed for no walls, no barriers, no schedule telling him what to do and when to do it. He longed for freedom, and yet… he didn’t. He remembered how it had been when he had rejected the schedule, and sat alone in silence for hours. He had never realized it before, but he was grateful for the schedule. He might want freedom… but he no longer resented the schedule as he once had.
The light over the stairs went out, leaving only the ceiling in the bedroom lit. Dan crawled into the bed first, sinking into the soft mattress. He tried to let his tense muscles relax. Heleer crawled in after him, and lay down next to him. They usually slept well apart, but when she was particularly happy or content, she liked to lie next to him. Dan didn’t object. His arm found its way around her, and they both lay there, silent and comfortable, waiting for the lights to go out.
Heleer sighed. “My bed never used to be this soft,” she said. She had told Dan this before. From what he had gathered, she had used to live in a home identical to his, except that she had slept in a separate bed. “It was too hard for me,” she said. “I used to like to crawl into the big bed with my father. He’d always let me.”
Dan said nothing, his silence inviting her to go on. She rarely talked about her parents.
Heleer didn’t continue, however. She lay there, her head on Dan’s shoulder, idly watching the camera in the far hall.
After a moment she spoke quietly, without moving her head. “I’m glad you listen to me, Dan,” she said. “No one ever listened to me like you do.”
“Didn’t you say your father did, once?” Dan asked.
“I could talk to him,” said Heleer, “but he didn’t listen. Not really. I actually don’t know if he ever even heard me.”
Heleer was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know what happened to him, exactly,” she said at last. “Mother never told me, and he rarely said anything to me at all. It was like he was trying to distance himself from us, both me and my mother. I would talk, and he would listen, but he never replied. He never said more than a few words.”
“What about your mother?” Dan asked softly. He asked softly because he knew that Heleer still didn’t like talking about her.
“She spoke to me,” Heleer said, still not moving her head. “But she was always… obsessed. In the end, the conversation always returned to that.”
Dan felt a twinge of the old excitement. “Why though?” he asked. “Why did she want to escape?”
Heleer said nothing, and for a moment Dan was afraid he had gone too far. But then she spoke.
“She told me once she had seen the outside world. She never told me how, though. I was interested in the idea at first. I wanted to see it for myself. But when I saw how focused on it she was, how she couldn’t see anything but it… I knew I never wanted to see it. Not if that was the price.”
The lights clicked off, and Heleer snuggled deeper into the bed, shifting to her side and putting her head more comfortably against Dan. Dan was glad the lights had gone out when they did, for he had felt a rush of the old excitement when Heleer talked about her mother. So she had seen the outside world too. If only he knew how…
“I’m glad you’re not like my mother, Dan” Heleer murmured. “I’m glad you can see what’s around you, and I’m glad you’re content.”
Dan moved his legs deeper into the bed and pulled the covers up to his shoulders. Heleer lifted her head for a moment so he could move down, and then let it rest once more against his shoulder.
After a moment, she asked him something, so softly that Dan almost didn’t hear it. “Promise me something, Dan. Promise me… promise me that you’ll never leave me. Never leave me, like my mother did.”
Dan knew perfectly well what she was asking. In the darkness, he glanced at the Shaft, but he kept his arm around Heleer. He looked at the Shaft for a long time. He meant to escape. Nothing could change that. But he looked back at Heleer, her head on his shoulder, and he knew that being patient wasn’t all that hard.
“I’ll never leave you,” he said. “Never.” She snuggled closer to him in reply.
You know what she was asking, said a voice in Dan’s head. It was his mother. She always seemed to warn him when he was doing something he knew he shouldn’t. You know what that promise meant to her. You should have told her the truth. You should have said you still mean to escape.
But Dan didn’t want to listen to his mother. He knew that if he told Heleer the truth, all of this – his glance took in his home, and Heleer, now sleeping next to him – would be thrown into disarray. It would be a mess; one Dan didn’t want to have to deal with. No. No, the simplest solution was just to say he would stay.
He half believed it anyway. What harm could there be?