“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.”
Dan could still see her face, and the hurt he was causing her. He understood now. She thought she had done the one thing she never could: shown someone how to be content with what they had. He had done more than prove her wrong. He had taken away the only victory she had ever fought for.
“Heleer, please,” he said. “I didn’t mean it. I’ll stay. I’ll be content. I’ll never try to escape again. Please, just… just don’t do this.”
She looked at him a moment longer, and then turned away.
“Go,” she said, her back facing him.
She didn’t answer.
Dan sat bolt upright. He had shouted her name aloud. He closed his eyes, trying to rid them of the image of Heleer’s face. He had to fix this.
Dan opened his eyes again, and took in his surroundings. A stone room, a table and chair, single door, and a bed. He was still in SR. He was in the same room he had started in.
Dan didn’t hesitate, but got to his feet and made for the door. The only reason the soulborgs would keep him in SR this long was if they wanted him to do something. Well, he would do it, whatever it was. It was the only way out. After that, he would find Heleer, no matter what it took.
He had gotten half-way across the room when the door opened and someone stepped inside. It was the same soulborg who had spoken to Dan outside in the large hall. The one with Darren’s symbol. Dan stopped.
The soulborg closed the door behind him, and then stood there, watching Dan.
“You may call me NT9,” the soulborg said after a moment.
The same emblem Darren had worn was clearly visible on the soulborg’s shoulder. “Are you a friend?” Dan asked.
“Yes,” NT9 said.
“Then let me out.”
“You are not in SR.”
Dan said nothing. If he wasn’t in SR, then the soulborgs must have built this place, and why would they use stone and wood? Why not the same metal that they always used? And plus, if he wasn’t in SR, then the strange human-bird hybrids he had seen had to be real. No, he had to be in SR.
“Look around you,” NT9 said. “Nothing here could be simulated by a SR Unit. The detail is too exact. The construction too precise. The SR Unit can mimic, but it cannot create. All of this is real.”
“Including those bird-humans I saw?” Dan said, raising an eyebrow.
He expected a ‘no’, but NT9 nodded. “Including them, and they’re called kyrie.”
Dan said nothing. He still didn’t believe him.
“Consider what you can feel,” NT9 said. “Consider the stone beneath your feet. Could anything feel that way other than a surface outside SR? Have you felt anything which does feel like it belongs in SR?”
“It’s an upgrade then,” Dan said. “A more realistic SR.”
NT9 suppressed a laugh. “No,” he said. “I doubt SR could be made any better than it is now. This… this is reality, and it’s something no soulborg will ever be able to mimic perfectly.”
Dan watched NT9 for a moment. “I don’t believe you,” he said. But even as he said it, the sense of fear he had felt before returned, stronger this time. Despite his best efforts, everything NT9 said made sense. Dan had seen nothing which belonged in SR, and encountered only things which belonged in the real world.
NT9 watched him. “I think you do believe me,” he said. “My processors can read Mariedians like a book, and you’re beginning to grasp the truth.”
Dan’s fear was growing steadily. “Where am I then?” he asked.
“You are not on Isadora,” NT9 said. “You are no longer a prisoner of the Khyta Soulborgs. You are on a different planet. You are on Valhalla.”
It took Dan a few days to finally come to terms with what NT9 had said. At first he stubbornly maintained that he was in SR. However, after two days had passed and nothing had changed, he found himself beginning to believe he really was no longer on Isadora. He at least wasn’t a prisoner of the soulborgs anymore. And if this was SR after all, then Dan could see no way out of it. All he could do was play along and wait for it to end.
Having decided that, he turned to the next most pressing thing: finding Heleer. If NT9 was right and this was some faraway planet, then Dan had to get back to Heleer as quickly as possible. The next time NT9 showed up, Dan asked him how he could do this.
“The only way you can go back,” NT9 said, “is by the same way you arrived. You were summoned here by Vydar, and only by his hand can you be returned.”
None of this had made an impression on Dan. “What?” he asked.
“Vydar is a Valkyrie,” NT9 said, “one of seven here on Valhalla. A Valkyrie is a being who has drunk from one of fifteen magical wellsprings scattered throughout this land. Upon drinking, they receive visions of creatures and people from different times and places. With practice, they can use the wellsprings to pull those people from their own times to here, Valhalla. We call the process summoning. Vydar is one such Valkyrie, and he has summoned you.”
Dan was silent for a moment. Only some of what NT9 had said made sense. “Why?” he asked.
“We’re at war,” NT9 said. “We have been for a long time. The other Valkyrie want the power of the wellsprings for themselves, and have been fighting amongst each other ever since they were discovered. And the abilities granted to them by the wellsprings means that they can summon armies to fight for them.”
“And that’s where I come in,” Dan guessed grimly.
So that was it. Assuming this all wasn’t just an elaborate simulation, Dan was stuck on a distant planet, expected to fight in a war he cared nothing about.
“Why me?” he asked. “I’m no warrior.”
NT9 shrugged, the metal plates of his body sliding and flexing smoothly. “No one but Vydar himself can know the reason. He’s summoned more than warriors. He’s summoned people to build this very citadel we now sit in. He’s summoned healers and farmers. Not all are warriors. In time, your use will become apparent. Suffice it to say that all those who Vydar has summoned have proven their worth in some way. You will be no different.”
“Won’t I now?” Dan muttered under his breath. “So how do I get sent back?” he added so that NT9 could hear him.
“You will have to prove your worth. The same promise has been made to all who Vydar has summoned: serve him well and do your part to win this war, and when it’s over, Vydar will send you back.”
“When it’s over?” Dan repeated. “I can’t wait that long, NT9. I need to go back now. I need to—”
“Nothing will have changed.”
“I – What?”
“Nothing will have changed,” NT9 repeated. “When Vydar sends you back, you will go back to the same time and place he took you from. Your life will resume as if nothing had happened.”
Dan sat back in the chair. So he could go back and fix the damage he had caused. If NT9 was right, even the few days he had already spent here would never have happened for Heleer. If he was sent back.
“When?” he asked.
“When will the war be over?” NT9 said. “No one can be sure. The enemy has steadily been losing ground for some time; most believe the end of the war is near. But no one can be sure. You will be sent back when your duty to Vydar is fulfilled.”
Dan sat up straight. “Duty?” he echoed.
“Duty,” NT9 repeated. “He saved your life,” he added at Dan’s look. “I don’t know the specifics, but nearly every warrior Vydar has summoned would have been killed or injured if he had not intervened. Can you say this is not your case?”
Dan remembered RR pointing the small black object at him. He remembered her words: “beyond repair.” Had she been about to kill him? Dan hadn’t thought she would, but ‘beyond repair’ certainly sounded like it. Maybe Vydar had saved him.
NT9, reading his face, nodded. “You owe him a debt,” he said. “Repay that debt. Help Vydar win this war, and he will send you back.”
Dan slowly leaned back, thinking. It was too convenient to be a coincidence. This Vydar needed soldiers, and everyone he summoned happened to instantly owe him a great debt? How likely was that? Although Dan knew very little about him, he was beginning to dislike this Vydar. He sounded manipulative, like he didn’t care about the lives he summoned. He might have saved them, but only to throw them into a war they cared nothing for.
NT9 got up to leave. “You may not want to go back to your old life, you know,” he said, turning at the door. “Many don’t.”
“Why’s that?” asked Dan, still thinking.
“Once you’ve seen Valhalla, you’ll understand. For many, this land is a better place than the one they left. You might wish to stay.”
Dan thought about that. He was fairly certain that anywhere would be better than the cell he had lived in. But then he remembered Heleer, and a sudden feeling of longing washed over him. No place would be complete without her.
“Is Vydar the only way back?” he asked.
“Yes,” NT9 replied. “Only the Valkyrie can send people back. There is no other way.”
No other way. RR had once said something similar to Dan, about escaping his cell. Well, she had been wrong. Dan had gotten out, and he believed he could get out of this Valhalla too. Valkyrie or not, he would see Heleer again.