Dan was returned to Isadora as he had requested. He said goodbye to Jaseff and Francois, the only two besides himself who had survived out of the forty or more who had set out from Hyleran. Francois didn’t understand why Dan wanted to go back, but Dan thought Jaseff saw an inkling of the truth.
Dan knew that he wouldn’t be able to use his gloves to escape. He had used them too many times for them to go unnoticed. Once he returned, they would be replaced, and he would have to find a new way to get past the Barrier.
Before leaving, Dan found NT9 again. NT9 assured him that RR had not been about to kill him when Vydar summoned him. Dan was too valuable for her to do that. He would be knocked out, and questioned when he woke. If they decided they could still use him somehow, he would be spared. If not, he would be studied, in hopes that what had gone wrong with him didn’t happen to any others. But he wouldn’t be killed. Even in his ‘damaged’ state, they could still learn from his mind.
Dan however had a plan. He hadn’t come all this way just to never see Heleer again. He would make sure they were together no matter what it took, and after speaking to NT9, he knew how. It all rested on RR.
As he had expected, the moment the world stopped spinning and the swirling colors resolved themselves into the familiar walls of the prison block, Dan was knocked out. He woke what seemed a short time later, lying on a soft – if thin – bed, even white lights above him.
The first thing he did was look at his gloves. They had been changed: he could see that the safeties which NT9 had installed were gone. There had been no way around that. And that meant…
“You have returned from Valhalla.”
Dan glanced to his left. RR was standing there, watching him with her unblinking yellow eyes, their glow muted behind their protective plate. Even though he knew now what she was, and what she was doing, the sight of her calmed Dan. He felt himself relax.
RR leaned forward. “What general did you serve on Valhalla?” she asked.
Dan remained silent. The soulborgs couldn’t be allowed to get that kind of information from him. Not yet.
“What generals were alive when you left?” RR pressed.
Dan was silent.
RR sat back. For a moment they simply watched each other.
“I know you need me,” Dan said.
RR watched him silently.
“You need me,” Dan repeated. “I know all about what you use us for, the other prisoners. I also know about Valhalla. I’ve lived there for the past months.”
“Continue,” RR said, her voice unphasable.
“You can’t afford to kill me,” Dan said. “Every Mariedian you kill sets you back years, I know that now. You need us. You need me.”
RR watched him silently.
“I want to strike a deal,” Dan said. He waited, hardly daring to breathe.
“Continue,” RR said after a moment. She showed no emotion whatsoever.
“Send me back,” Dan said, speaking carefully, afraid he would say something wrong. “Send me back to Heleer. I won’t try to escape. I won’t tell her where I’ve been, or what you’re doing. I won’t tell her anything. You can continue collecting your data from both of us.”
“You will try to convince her to escape,” RR said calmly. “You have demonstrated before that you cannot refuse the urge to escape, and you will want to take her with you.”
“Yes,” Dan agreed. “I will try to convince her. But if you watch us half as closely as I think you do, you know that nothing I say will convince her to leave.” He took a breath. “It will be the other way around. She’ll eventually convince me to stay instead.”
RR was silent, but Dan had just realized something.
“That’s why you put us together in the first place, isn’t it? So that I would want to stay? You knew she could convince me.”
RR was silent for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “That was our… original goal.”
“I’ll stay there,” Dan said. “I’ll be content, and I won’t try to escape. You can keep studying both of us, and in time, you’ll learn everything I know about Valhalla. I know you’ll use the SR Unit to eventually trick me into telling you.”
He leaned forward. This wasn’t part of his plan. “I want one thing in return,” he said. “One thing, otherwise I won’t cooperate, and you’ll lose me, and everything you could learn from me.”
RR watched him silently.
“I want to know who my parents were, and why I can’t remember anything about them.”
RR watched him for what was surely a full minute. Neither of them spoke. Then, seeming to come out of deep thought, RR’s eyes flared briefly brighter, then dimmed to their normal strength.
“Your parents were rebels,” she said tonelessly. “They were part of a coordinated attack on this complex, and were wounded. We saved them, repaired their wounds, and gave them a place to stay. They called it a prison. They tried to escape. They did so twice, damaging the minds of many others in the process. The second attempt was deemed too damaging to repair, and too expensive to quell. They were allowed to escape, along with those they had freed.”
A slow smile crept onto Dan’s face. His parents were rebels. They had helped others see their horizons. They could even still be alive.
“I’m ready to see Heleer,” he said.
RR didn’t lead Dan down the halls as he had expected. She showed him to a panel in the wall which slid aside to reveal a tall box: the Shaft. Dan would be sent straight to Heleer, with no chance to see any of the other prisoners. He supposed it made sense.
As he stood in the Shaft and it rattled its way towards his old home, he knew what he would have to do. It was his horizon to show others theirs. Well, he couldn’t reach anyone except Heleer at the moment, so she was who he would have to convince first.
Dan had seen struggle and success. He had seen grief and joy. He knew now that there was a difference between happiness, and simple contentment.
He would give Heleer the struggle she needed, but when the time was right, he would give in. She would win. That would be the first time she had ever fought for something, and gained it. It would have to be real. Dan would have to give up his horizon for her. And he would, because he knew that once she tasted the happiness of success, she would want more.
That desire would grow, like it had grown in him, until one day, when the time was right, she would convince him, as he would need her to, to pursue his horizon once more. And then, together, they would escape at last, and pursue their horizons together.
It would be a long time before Dan saw the outside world again. It would be years, maybe even decades. But he would see it again. Heleer would make sure he did, even when he himself did not want to. She would have to.
The Shaft rattled to a halt, and the panel slid open. RR had said that Heleer was in the middle of SR, so Dan wasn’t surprised to see no one to meet him. He stepped out of the Shaft. The panel in the wall slid closed soundlessly, and the Shaft rattled away, the sound eventually disappearing.
His home was just as Dan remembered it: the bedroom, the stairs in the narrow hall, the bathroom beyond. In the hall beyond the Barrier, reflected on the far wall, Dan saw the blue-white light he had seen so many times before: flickering, dimming, growing, on and off. He remembered what Bern – the Mariedian he had met in Hyleran – had told him. “We set patterns of flickering Barriers, sequences pointing to the service entrances.” Finally, he knew what that light must be. He was seeing the reflection of the neighboring Barrier flickering.
Dan smiled. When Heleer convinced him to escape, he would know where to go. He saw the camera watching him from the wall, and smiled at it. He might not be home yet, but he would be.
When Heleer was ready.