Dan woke early the next morning. The first thing he did was roll over and see if Heleer was still there.
She was. She was still curled up on the floor, facing away from him. Relief and excitement flooded Dan. So it hadn’t been a dream then. She was really here.
He lay there watching her for a few moments. She was still sound asleep, her breathing gentle and steady. Her hair fell from her head in graceful curves and spirals, looking for all the world like a light brown waterfall, frozen in time. It looked smooth and soft, and Dan found himself itching to touch it, to feel it, to run his hand through it.
She wouldn’t want you to. The cautionary voice was his mother’s. At least, it was the voice Dan had imagined for her. You know that. If she wakes up, she’ll be angry. ‘Yes,’ Dan thought. ‘If she wakes up. If I’m gentle, she’ll never know.’ His mind decided, he slipped silently to the floor and made his way over to her.
It was still dark, but Dan had been in the dark in the SR Unit before, and Mother and the Barrier provided just enough light for him to see where he was going. He knelt down beside Heleer, completely silent, and looked at her hair, soaking it in with his eyes.
Dan knew he had to be careful. Very slowly, he reached out a hand, and traced the line of an outlying strand with his metal finger. He could barely feel it through the glove, but he saw it bend and curve under his touch. The sight intrigued him.
He went further, finding a whole lock which twisted and fell to the floor as one. He traced this too, but found that he still could barely feel it. He looked at his gloves in exasperation. Not for the first time, he wished he had never jumped at the Barrier.
Determined to feel the hair for real, Dan used two fingers. He could see it bend and shift as he touched it, but the touch was too light. He still could hardly feel a thing. Being as cautious as he could, he used his whole hand, inserting it behind a portion of Heleer’s hair and letting it slip through his fingers like so much water. And finally, finally, he felt it. It was smooth. It was soft. Dan was amazed at how supple it was.
Unfortunately, he had gone too far. Heleer woke with a jolt, flipping around to see Dan crouched right beside her. She immediately scrambled to her feet and backed towards the Barrier, staring at him with a look which – while he didn’t understand it – Dan found very disconcerting.
“Don’t do that!” she said, her eyes wide.
Now while Dan had known that Heleer wouldn’t want him to touch her hair, he hadn’t known why. Some instinct had told him she would react this way, but the reason eluded him. He was therefore simply curious.
“Why not?” he asked.
Heleer looked at him incredulously for a moment (Dan found the look fascinating). “Don’t you know not to creep up on someone like that when they’re sleeping?” she said.
“No,” Dan said. “I’ve never seen anyone sleep before.”
Heleer made a sound of disbelief. “Of course you have,” she said. “What about your parents?”
“I never knew them,” Dan said.
There was a pause. Heleer looked at him blankly for a moment. “Why not?” she asked.
Dan shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “The first thing I remember is waking up in this room when I was little. I don’t remember anything before that, including my parents.”
Heleer’s whole demeanor slowly changed. The shock and anger in her face slowly drained away, becoming replaced with what Dan could only describe as sympathy. He found this an odd emotion to exhibit.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I wish I had known them, or at least be able to remember them, but, I mean, it’s fine.”
“Fine?” Heleer echoed blankly. “They’re your parents. How can not knowing them be fine?”
Dan couldn’t really answer this. Growing up without his parents, Dan didn’t really understand what it meant to have them. He knew they had been there at one point, and he often wanted them with him, if for no other reason than to have someone to talk to, but did he really miss them? No. How could he? He had never known them in the first place. He wished he could remember them, certainly, but he had lived just fine without them. So to him, not having them in his life really was fine. It was something he didn’t like, but something he had lived with as long as he could remember. Not knowing how to answer Heleer, he instead latched onto what she had said.
“Did you know your parents?” he asked.
“Yes,” Heleer said, a hint of hesitancy in her voice. “I did.”
“What were they like?” Dan asked. Perhaps by hearing what Heleer’s parents were like, he could catch a glimpse of what his own must have been like.
“I grew up with them,” Heleer said. “They were… They loved me. And I loved them.” She looked at Dan. “I can’t imagine not knowing who they were, or what they were like. Do you know what happened to them?”
Dan shook his head. “No,” he said. “But they’re out there. They’re waiting for me.”
The metal slab extended from the wall, bringing breakfast. Both Dan and Heleer automatically moved towards it.
“How can you be sure?” Heleer asked as she sat down.
Dan thought about it for a moment. “I guess I can’t,” he finally said. “But I feel like they are. I hope they are. They’re out there somewhere, beyond these walls, beyond the—”
Dan had been about to say, “beyond the horizon,” but the expression on Heleer’s face made him stop. On the word “walls,” she had changed, her mouth suddenly going tight, her hand motionless, holding a piece of food halfway from the tray.
“What?” he asked.
Heleer put the piece of food in her mouth and chewed slowly. “I don’t think you should think about what’s beyond the walls,” she said at length.
Heleer took another bite. “Well think about it,” she said. “The soulborgs put you here and wiped your memory. There must be a good reason for it. I trust the soulborgs. I wouldn’t go looking for something they made me forget.”
It was Dan’s turn to pause. He had never thought about it that way. Now that he did think about it, why couldn’t Darren be wrong and RR right? Dan had seen the walls, but they could just as easily be keeping something out as keeping something in. Maybe it really wasn’t safe beyond his home after all.
But then, in the hallway beyond the Barrier, on the far wall, Dan saw the same flickering lights he had seen several days ago; the shimmering display of white and blue, dimming and growing against the wall.
Watching those lights, Dan felt a sudden surge of excitement. His parents could be out there. He knew it. They could be just beyond the horizon. Why wouldn’t the soulborgs want him to know them? What harm could there possibly be in it?
Maybe there really was something dangerous beyond the walls of Dan’s home. Maybe there wasn’t. But the longer Dan thought about it, the more convinced he became that his parents could be out there. And what was a little danger compared to the prospect of meeting them?
Throughout the day, Dan kept waiting for Heleer to disappear. He was sure she would soon go back to wherever she had come from, and he wanted to spend all the time satisfying his curiosity about her that he could. She never left, however.
Dan was shocked when, after breakfast, he and Heleer ascended the stairs and found the second SR Unit to be open. Heleer walked over and got in it like it was the most normal thing in the world, closing the door before Dan even had time to say a word. She glanced at him as she stood there, waiting for the Unit to start, perhaps wondering what he was staring at now.
When the walls turned to white mist and Heleer was hidden from view (‘So that’s what it looks like from the outside,’ Dan thought), Dan was sure that she was gone for good. He would step out of his own SR Unit in several hours, and she would be gone.
But he was wrong. She was there when he got out. She showered first just as she had last night. She was still there after he had showered. They ate dinner, and then it was time for bed.
By this time, Dan was itching once more to feel Heleer’s hair. It might have seemed like an odd desire to anyone else, but not to Dan. For one thing, he had never seen hair remotely as detailed as hers (he now knew the SR Unit took shortcuts with such things as hair). The sight of it made him extremely curious. That and the fact that his gloves tantalized him, letting him feel just enough only to know that he wanted more, contributed to his burning desire to feel the softness of the strands flowing through his fingers once more. He knew however that she would never let him, so he formed a plan.
He let her sleep in the bed.
He moved over to one side, allowing her to crawl in and lie down (admittedly as far from him as possible). She rolled over so she faced away from him, just as Dan had thought she might. He waited. It seemed to take forever after the lights had clicked off, but eventually her breathing slowed, and became more even. Dan propped himself up on one elbow to check. She was asleep.
Excitement began to course through him. He sat up a little straighter so that he could use his left arm. He reached out for her hair, so close, flowing over the pillow, but stopped just inches away.
When he sat up, he had seen her face. She was sound asleep. Her eyes were closed, her mouth in a slight frown, and a stray strand of hair lay across her forehead. Dan looked at her face. It was without doubt the calmest thing he had ever seen.
Her eyelids fluttered briefly as her mind slipped into the shadow of a dream (something Dan knew from the SR Unit). Watching her lying there, perfectly calm, Dan realized something: she trusted him. Maybe not entirely, but she certainly trusted him enough to sleep in the same bed. She knew he wanted to feel her hair. She trusted that he wouldn’t do it, and here he was, about to do it anyway.
Dan gently lay back down. The knowledge that she trusted him gave him an odd feeling. It was something he had never felt before, a sort of calm excitement in his chest. Somehow, he knew instinctively that if he betrayed her trust, it would take him a long time to get it back. Maybe he never would.
He tried to define the feeling he had. He finally settled on ‘protection.’ That wasn’t quite right, but it was close. He was protecting her trust. He knew that if he felt her hair, that trust would be destroyed, and along with it the sense of protection he now had. He didn’t want to lose that sense.
Dan turned his head and glanced at Heleer. For the first time since meeting her, he began to see her as an actual person. She was no longer just an attraction or a spectacle, something to be marveled at. She was a person, with her own desires and ideas. She wasn’t like anything dreamed up by the SR Unit. She was real. She was like him.
Dan turned back and stared at the ceiling, thinking. If there was one thing Heleer had shown him, it was that there was indeed a world beyond his home. She was just one person, and Dan knew it would take him years to discover everything about her, possibly much longer. What else could be out there? What else could be waiting to be discovered or experienced?
Dan glanced at the walls surrounding him and the Barrier keeping him in. ‘I am a prisoner,’ he thought. ‘Darren was right. There’s so much out there, and I’m being kept from it. I have to get out.’
He turned back and looked at Heleer briefly. ‘And I will get out,’ he thought. ‘In time.’ There was nothing he could do right now, except be ready when the chance arrived.
He looked at Heleer a moment longer. “Good night,” he whispered.
Then he rolled over and was asleep almost instantly.