Chapter Nine – Nightmare

Over the next few days, Dan’s conviction that they were prisoners grew. He went over and over it in his head, also considering what Heleer had said about the soulborgs protecting them. Sometimes he was sure he was right. Sometimes he thought she was. The only thing he knew for certain was that every time he thought about his parents, his desire to see them grew.

After a few days, Dan decided that Heleer was really here to stay. He was eager to satisfy his curiosity about her, and she seemed to want to know more about him, but unfortunately, they had very little time to talk to each other. They could only do so at meals, and they both knew that if they talked too much, they wouldn’t eat fast enough, and the food would be taken away. For this reason, Dan had to watch Heleer closely, and decide what she was like based off of her actions.

One of the first things he discovered was that she didn’t like to talk about what might be beyond the walls. Her answers always became short, and she quickly changed the topic whenever Dan brought it up. He tried to subtly ask her why, but she wouldn’t tell him. Every time he got close to the subject, she changed the topic. He hadn’t even been able to tell her about Darren, and how he had gotten out.

Although he couldn’t be sure, Dan felt like Heleer began to trust him more. His only indication of this was that she wasn’t sleeping as far from him as possible anymore. It was a small thing, but it was all Dan had to go off of.

He was also quickly finding that Heleer knew a lot which he didn’t. She had grown up with her parents, and they seemed to have told her a lot about what was normal and expected, including what was right and wrong.

Before Heleer, Dan had no concept of what was right or wrong, besides what his conscience and basic instincts told him. He supposed people in the SR Unit had told him at some point, but he had ignored them once he knew they weren’t real. Very slowly, because of their limited time, Heleer began to teach him things her mother had taught her, like how patience was a virtue, and lying was wrong. Dan was intrigued by this. He wasn’t sure if he agreed with it all, but he was intrigued all the same.

They passed several days in this way, following the unchanging schedule one step at a time, talking when they could, observing when they couldn’t. Despite having lived together for at least two weeks, Dan still felt like he hardly knew Heleer. And then one night, things changed.

Dan had been asleep for a while. It was the middle of the night. He was just beginning to have a dream about finding his parents (a common occurrence in his dreams), when he was yanked from sleep by the loudest scream he had ever heard.

Groggy with sleep and unable to see anything, Dan struggled to sit up. He felt motion next to him. He heard heavy breathing. Heleer.

Groping in the darkness, Dan reached out for her, and one of his metal gloves found her shoulder. Even with his dulled sense of touch, he could feel her shaking, almost weaving on the spot. It took Dan a moment to realize that she was crying. She was trying to muffle the sound with her hands, but it didn’t do much to disguise the fact that she was sobbing without restraint.

A nightmare. Dan had had them before. That must be what had happened. He instantly felt like he should do something, but he didn’t know what. He tried to think back to the last time he had had a nightmare. What had he needed? He thought hard. He had wanted his father. Someone there to let him know it was all right. That it wasn’t real.

Dan slid closer to Heleer, moving his hand behind her and resting it on her far shoulder. Her sobbing only increased. Dan wasn’t sure what to do. “It’s all right,” he said. “It isn’t real. It was just a dream.” She was still crying, and Dan realized she was actually shaking too. Just because she was crying, or out of fright, he couldn’t tell. Unsure what else to do, Dan just repeated himself to her, trying to put some calmness into his words.

Eventually Heleer stopped shaking, although she was still crying. Thinking that what he was doing must be working, Dan kept up a steady flow of reassurance, lightly patting Heleer’s shoulder as he did so. Tears still leaked through her hands, but her crying had at least lessened in volume.  

After a few minutes, Dan was just beginning to think that this was slowing too, when she did something he could never have foreseen: she rolled over onto her side, right next to him, and laid her head down on his shoulder.

Dan hadn’t expected this. For a moment he just sat there, wondering what to do. But as Heleer continued to cry quietly, he brought his arm around her and held her close. It was the only thing he could think of.

His fingers brushed something, and looking, he saw that her hair was just touching his gloved hand. ‘Not now,’ he thought. But he did it anyway. Almost without thinking, he found his hand on her head, in her hair. He quickly changed the motion to something Heleer had told him her mother had once done: he began to stroke her hair. He was very gentle, because he knew his metal gloves were a lot harder and a lot colder than a normal hand.

Slowly, Heleer began to calm down. Her breathing slowed, and her crying subsided. She drew closer to Dan, and settled more comfortably against him.

“What was it?” Dan asked quietly.

“SR,” Heleer said. “Something I saw in SR. That and… something else.” She took a shaky breath, but didn’t say anything more. Dan didn’t press her.

After a time, Heleer fell asleep where she laid. Dan was careful not to move a muscle, not wanting to wake her. The only thing moving was his hand, still stroking her hair. Dan stopped the moment he realized he was still doing it.

By this time, Dan’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and the faint blue glow of the Barrier. He looked around at the darkness, and then back down at Heleer. There was that calm face again. Gentle breathing, a slight frown; Dan realized she must trust him a great deal to sleep so close to him. He didn’t want to lose that trust. He wanted to protect it. But he looked at her face again, and realized something else as well: there was more to protect than just her trust. Much more.

There was Heleer herself.

Dan sat there for a few more minutes. He was tired because it was still the middle of the night, but he wasn’t in the best position to go to sleep. The most he could do was lean back a few inches. The thought of actually trying to move Heleer to her side of the bed never presented itself. Unable to really lie down, Dan was forced to look straight ahead. He saw Mother in the hall beyond, watching him.

Heleer twitched in her sleep, and Dan instinctively held her closer. He looked at her face, now ruffled with a dream. ‘The SR Unit did this to her,’ he thought. ‘She woke up because of it. She was afraid because of it.’ Dan felt a surge of anger at the SR Unit, which when he thought about it a moment later, made no sense whatsoever. The SR Unit was just a machine.

Dan glanced at Mother. ‘But that machine came from the soulborgs.’ He glanced around. ‘It all comes from the soulborgs. The walls, the Barrier, the schedule,’— he paused as he saw Mother again, still watching —‘and the cameras,’ he finished.

He remembered what Darren had said, about how the walls were keeping him from something, and that there must therefore be something to keep him from. He remembered too what Heleer had said, about trusting the soulborgs, and how they were protectors, keeping them safe from the dangers outside. But as Dan looked at his small home, the place he had grown up in, he suddenly realized something: this was no fortress, designed to keep them safe. This was a prison, designed to keep them content. It was a prison, and the soulborgs… they were the guards.

Despite this train of thought, Dan’s fatigue was beginning to catch up with him. His eyes were growing heavy, but he saw Mother one last time before they closed. In a brief moment of clarity, he realized she wasn’t watching over him. She was watching, always watching, to make sure he never tried to escape.

A flicker of light caught Dan’s eye. The light was back, dancing on the far wall. Dan watched it for a moment, wondering what caused it. He wanted to know. He wanted to see beyond the wall. In the seconds before he went to sleep, he promised himself one thing: he would find out what made those lights. One day… one day he would know.

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