For the first time since they had met, Heleer didn’t speak to Dan when she got up. She answered Dan’s questions, but always in as few words as possible, and with no hint of wanting to continue the conversation.
Dan knew she must be formulating how she would convince him to stay, but she was too late. He had made up his mind. He was going to escape, and he was going to do it soon. Once he knew how to get into the Shaft and past the hatch, he wouldn’t wait any longer.
During breakfast, Dan could see that Heleer was displeased. He caught her frowning at him several times, though she quickly looked back down at her food whenever he glanced up. Occasionally she would take a breath, as if she were about to say something, but no words ever came.
Dan wondered why she didn’t want to escape. He knew she was content with her life here, and that must be because she had never known anything else, but there had to be a reason for her reaction. She was afraid, afraid of anything beyond the walls of her home. That must be it. She had said she didn’t know what was out there… maybe the idea scared her. It had scared Dan, at first. Maybe if he could just show her… somehow let her know there was nothing to be afraid of…
No brilliant ray of inspiration struck, however. They finished breakfast in silence, and then went up to the SR Units. Heleer stepped in and closed the door without a word. Dan looked at where she had disappeared. Maybe something would occur to him during SR. He hoped so. He wanted to convince her. He wanted her to understand, to see what he had seen, to feel the same drive he felt. He didn’t know why. The most he could say was that it felt important. She had to know.
All that the SR Unit did for Dan, however, was further convince him that he needed to get out, to escape. It was almost as if the soulborgs were playing with him. At first Dan was in a desert, with a massive dune towering above him and a hot wind throwing biting sand in his face. He struggled up it, finding easy purchase in the sand. It didn’t shift or slide like real sand; Dan knew that now. The memory of real sand filled him with anger at the soulborgs, and a burning desire to get out. He surged forwards, clambering up the dune. But just before he reached the top, the ground vanished from beneath him.
Dan fell in darkness until he landed in water. Sputtering and coughing, Dan broke the surface to find himself in a small pond. It was daylight, and now he was in a green valley, grass and trees all about him. Birds were singing, bees were humming, the air was slightly warm and carried the scents of a hundred flowers with it. The grass came up to Dan’s knees, waving back and forth in a lazy wind.
Dan saw none of it. His eyes were immediately drawn to the edges of the valley, where two great mountains rose up, higher and higher, until their peaks became lost in clouds. The trees gave way to dark pines on their slopes, and a shadow hung over them.
Dan didn’t think twice, but made his way towards them, pushing through the tall grass as quickly as he could. Once he entered the pine forest, the birds stopped singing. The air got colder. A new scent was carried on the chill wind, the scent of pine and old, rotting wood. It was much stronger than it should be. Dan’s nose itched at the pungent odor. But he pressed on all the same.
Much too soon, the pines ended, leaving only bare rock. The mountain face went almost straight up, forcing Dan to climb. There were virtually no hand holds. The sun beat down on his back, no longer warm and gentle, but now fiery and cruel. Dan didn’t care, however. He needed only the smallest purchase with his metal gloves, for unlike his old hands, they never seemed to cramp or tire. They could hold onto something indefinitely, as long as his arms didn’t give out.
Dan pulled himself upwards, bit by bit. The mountain seemed impossibly high. Dan looked down at one point, and was surprised to find that he had only gone up a short way. That wasn’t right though. He knew he had climbed much more than that. He glared at the ground. What were the soulborgs trying to do? Convince him that he could never escape?
Scowling, Dan threw himself into climbing faster. No matter how high he went, though, the clouds got no closer, and the ground always seemed just a short drop away. But Dan refused to give up.
After a solid hour of climbing and getting nowhere however, Dan’s arms could take no more. They gave out as he reached up for the millionth time, and he tumbled, landing much too quickly on the rock below. Except that it wasn’t rock as it should be. It was soft, long grass. Dan blinked. He was back in the peaceful valley.
Dan lay there for a while, glaring at the full blue sky. It wasn’t the same as the real sky. Dan could tell the difference. Having seen the full night sky, having felt like he was going to fall into its unreachable depths, Dan realized just how flat the SR sky really was. It was a good imitation, darker at the center and lighter at the edges to simulate depth, but Dan knew better. It was just a wall; just another barrier keeping him from seeing the real sky.
Dan was exhausted, but anger was coursing through him. He wouldn’t let the soulborgs tell him that he was stuck here and might as well accept it. He knew what they were doing with the soft grass, the calming bird songs, the distant sound a brook somewhere nearby. They were telling him that his life here was perfect, and that trying to get out was pointless. But that was where they were wrong.
It wasn’t pointless.