Dan had grown to hate SR. It had started slowly, but over time it had grown, until Dan hated having to step into the SR Unit every day. He had always known that the soulborgs controlled it, but after Darren had come, he had slowly begun to realize just how much they used the SR Unit to control him.
He had begun to see how they subtly suggested things through the location, objects, or even people present. When he was focused on escaping, they had presented him with a series of horizons, only to show him a worse world beyond them than the one he had left. They had tried to show him perfect worlds with everything he wanted. They showed him obstacles which were impossible to overcome. But Dan had seen through it all eventually, and his anger at them and the machine they used had only grown.
These days he wasn’t always sure what the soulborgs were trying to do. Sometimes he could guess their motive, but usually he couldn’t tell. Occasionally he wouldn’t even be given a chance to think about it, as the soulborgs threw simulation after simulation at him. Today they had stepped up their game.
They were throwing buildings at him.
Dan had seen all manner of buildings in SR, from the simplest mud hut, to animal skins stretched across logs, to walls made of plaster, to wooden houses, to metal skyscrapers, to gigantic buildings made out of materials Dan could only guess at, and everything in between. He had seen them built, lived in, and destroyed. Today he was in a city of skyscrapers, abandoned, derelict, and windowless. They were dark. They were rusted.
And they were falling.
All around Dan, the skyscrapers were crumbling to the streets for no apparent reason, or suddenly swaying to a side to come crashing down, forcing him to dodge falling debris.
Dan knew he could never get injured in the SR Unit. He was fairly certain that being struck by falling bricks, sprayed by shards of glass, or knocked to the ground by gigantic metal girders would all be deadly, but the most that ever happened was bruising.
Not to say that the bruises weren’t painful. Dan felt it when he wasn’t fast enough, and the side of a building fell on him. His skin never broke, but he felt the impact, and the jarring blow to his bones. He felt a thousand pinpricks of pain on his skin as glass shattered around him, even though there was never a single drop of blood.
That was why he ran, dodging the falling buildings as best he could, even though he knew there would be no lasting injuries. That was also why he was protecting his head with his metal gloves, and why they were the first to receive the blow when a metal support detached itself from a nearby building, and fell on top of him.
Dan was thrown to his knees by the impact, but the metal support bounced off of his gloves, and fell to the side. Dan’s arms felt jarred, but there was no new bruising. There was no effect at all. The gloves were completely unaffected. He knew they were actually his arms, and not gloves at all, but he had never stopped calling them that.
Similar things had happened before, where Dan used his gloves to block things. But for some reason, with buildings falling and crashing all about him, and thunderous explosions of glass and metal deafening his ears, something clicked in Dan’s head. He suddenly realized what he could do. Not just in SR; he had used his gloves plenty there. But what Dan had never realized, was how he could use them outside of SR.
If his gloves could absorb a blow like they just had, how powerful were they? Powerful enough to pull away the panel hiding the Shaft? Or for that matter, could they get the hatch in the back of the Shaft open? Dan wondered how he could do that; Heleer had said it was bolted shut. He looked at his gloves, temporarily forgetting about the rubble falling about him. Could he just… punch through it?
Dan surged to his feet, deflecting another oncoming girder with his gloves. The metal fell to the street with a clang. Dodging a tumbling wall, Dan ran to the nearest still-standing building, drew back his fist, and punched the wall.
It hurt. A lot. Even though his whole hand was technically metal, he still felt the impact, and the corresponding pain in his metal knuckles and fingers. For a moment he thought he might have broken them.
But his glove also punched straight through the cement wall. Dan’s elation was somewhat dulled by the intense throbbing pain in his hand. It grew and grew, causing the muscles in his arm to tighten unbearably.
Unable to stand with the pain surging from his arm, Dan dropped to his knees, and then to the ground, cradling his burning arm. The pain overpowered his mind for a brief moment, and unable to contain it, he let out a single, terrible, uncontrolled cry.
Then the pain began to recede. It was slow, but it was infinitely better than it had been. One by one, the muscles in Dan’s arm relaxed, though the fingers of the glove remained stiff and sensitive. Dan struggled to his feet, still holding his arm carefully. Every time he moved it, sharp stabs of pain shot up it, so he tried to keep it as still as possible.
He glanced at the wall. A hole went cleanly through it, and he could clearly see that the wall was nearly as thick as his head. He smiled to himself despite the pain. If he could do that, what else could he do?
By the time the SR Unit finally shut off and the door unlocked, Dan was sore, beaten, and his entire right arm was stiff and painful. But he was excited. He couldn’t wait to see what his other arm could do.
While Heleer showered, Dan sat at the table, looking at his gloves. While he had been showering, he had been wondering how his gloves could help him escape. Could they punch right through the Hatch? Or go through the Barrier?
Dan glanced at the Barrier. Why not? It was worth a try.
Cautiously, remembering all too vividly the last time he had touched the Barrier, he put out his hand until the palm was mere inches from the invisible field. He felt nothing. He remembered last time feeling static all up and down his arm. Maybe they could go through the Barrier!
Confidence growing, Dan placed his entire palm on the Barrier. Absolutely nothing happened. Dan watched his hand for a moment, and then a grin slowly spread across his face. Nothing was happening. For some reason, the Barrier couldn’t push the gloves back.
Excited now, Dan pushed the glove further. He started to feel resistance, but it began to slide through the Barrier. Dan could see the blue outline of it where his glove entered it. And then he saw something else. He saw another blue outline, just beyond the first. His glove was beyond the Barrier. It was in the hall.
All sound and time seemed to dim for Dan. He just stared at his glove, not quite believing what he was seeing. He pushed his arm further, almost to the elbow, but the moment the skin above the glove touched the Barrier, he could go no further. His gloves might be able to get past the Barrier, but the rest of him still couldn’t.
Then the questions began to arrive: How could his gloves help him get through the Barrier? Dan had never even considered getting out through the Barrier before, but now it was suddenly a possibility.
Something, some unknown sense, made Dan look behind him. He had been so focused on the Barrier that he hadn’t heard the water turn off, or Heleer come up. She was standing just inside the bathroom now, wet hair falling about her head, staring at him blankly. While nothing but shock registered on her face, Dan knew what she was thinking. He felt a horrible sinking sensation, and quickly pulled his glove from the Barrier. It slid back easily.
Heleer said nothing. She continued to look at him with surprise, but after a moment, she walked to the table and sat down. Then she just looked at him. It wasn’t as if her face was impossible to read. There was just nothing there.
After a moment, Dan couldn’t take anymore. Someone needed to say something. “Heleer,” he said, “I—”
“Did you mean what you said last night?”
“I – What?”
“Last night,” Heleer repeated. “You promised me something. Did you mean it, or are you planning on leaving me?”
Dan knew there was only one answer he could give. He tried to soften the blow as much as he could. “I’ll never leave you,” he said. “When I escape, I’ll take you with me.”
Heleer didn’t even blink. “You know what I meant. Don’t you?”
Dan nodded, not able to meet her gaze.
Heleer reached out and lifted Dan’s chin, forcing him to look her in the eyes. The motion wasn’t lost on Dan; she knew he was still curious about them.
“Lying is wrong, Dan,” Heleer said. “When you deceive someone, it means you can’t be trusted. Do you understand?”
It was actually fairly normal for Heleer to tell Dan what was right and wrong. Growing up alone, with only a simulation as a source of information, Dan had very little idea of morals at all, besides what his conscience told him.
“Promise me again,” Heleer said. “Can you be content with everything we have, or will you continue to want to get out?”
Dan wanted dearly to say he would always be content, but he couldn’t. He paused. Heleer closed her eyes, so that Dan could no longer see them. The message was clear: Dan could escape, or he could have this life, this place… and her.
Dan looked down. He couldn’t give up either. He glanced up at her. Her eyes were open again, and she was watching him, waiting for his reply. How could she trust him if he lied again? But how could he keep her if he told her the truth? He knew she would still be there, but the smiles, the laughter, the joy… that would be gone. She would be gone. He couldn’t take either consequence.
As much as Dan hated to do it, he knew there was only one way out. He would have to lie again. He couldn’t give up on reaching the horizon, and he couldn’t give up Heleer to reach it. There was no other way.
“I promise,” he said, fully aware that he was doing exactly what she had just told him not to do. “I’ll stop trying to escape. I’ll be content.”
Dan wasn’t sure if Heleer believed him. If he was reading her right, she wasn’t sure about it herself. She must have decided to accept it, however, because when the food arrived, she picked up her brown cube and began eating silently.
Dan followed suit. In a dark part of his mind, he knew he had just dug himself in deeper. He would work it out. Eventually. But for now… he couldn’t risk losing Heleer.