Dan woke as suddenly as if someone had shaken him. He glanced at the ceiling. A faint gray light, barely enough to see by, illuminated the center of the usually dark metal ceiling. He had five minutes, then.
He stretched, pulling his arms as far past his head as he could. They met up with the warm metal wall behind him, the faint heat quickly passing through his arms and into the rest of his body.
Dan sat up. It was completely dark. The only light, indeed the only thing he could see at all, was Mother. She wasn’t actually his mother; Dan knew that. She was simply a camera mounted on the far wall, its single red light the only thing visible in the darkness. Dan called it Mother though. She was always there, watching over him. It made Dan feel safe, knowing that she was there, protecting him.
“Good morning, Mother,” Dan said. There was no reply, just as there hadn’t been for all the fourteen years of Dan’s life. This didn’t bother Dan though. He knew someone else was on the other end of that camera, watching over him. How he knew this he couldn’t say, but it made him feel safe, like nothing bad could ever happen to him.
There was the faintest of clicks, and a soft white glow appeared in the center of the ceiling, just over Dan’s feet. It grew steadily in brightness and size, until the whole ceiling was emitting a gentle white light, chasing the shadows away completely. Time to get up.
Dan swung his feet over the side of the bed and stood up, stretching again. A patch of ceiling to his left, hidden by the edge of the wall, lit up, and Dan moved towards it automatically. Mother turned, following him with her unblinking gaze.
Dan’s home was a simple one. It was rectangular, with metal walls, a floor of some slightly softer material, and a ceiling which served as a light source. On one end of the home was a room with a bed, big enough for two, and on the other was a small bathroom, complete with sink and shower. Between the two rooms a narrow flight of stairs led up to the second level. The stairs were set off by two inner walls.
There was no fourth wall to Dan’s home. Instead, a field of energy stretched where it should have been, invisible save for an occasional blue flicker. It stretched across both levels of Dan’s home, leaving only a small gap between it and the floor of the second level. He was careful to stay well away from it. RR had said that if he touched it, he would die.
RR was the only other person Dan knew, besides Mother. She was very different from Dan, encased in metal, and they had only met a handful of times. But Dan felt like he knew her. She was like a mother to him. A real one, which walked and talked and had even comforted him once.
Dan turned into the short hallway where the stairs were, and pressed a button on the wall. A panel slid open at his feet, revealing a small opening only a few feet wide. From within the small compartment, Dan withdrew a metal object, which, when he unfolded it, proved to be a chair.
Dan put the chair directly in front of the short hallway, facing the bedroom, and waited. Exactly five seconds later, a thin metal slab extended outwards from the wall, almost touching the nearby energy barrier. Dan scooted his chair up to it. A few seconds later, something clicked inside the wall, and a tray slid onto the slab, containing food.
The food was unremarkable. It consisted of water in a tall container, and a single block of brown, texture-less… something. Dan, however, began eating eagerly, tearing off bits of the brown food with his fingers, and drinking the water in great gulps. To an outsider, the food would have looked hardly palatable, but to Dan, it was a filling meal. It was the only meal he had ever known.
Halfway through his meal, Dan glanced up. Beyond the Barrier, a hall stretched to the right and to the left, out of sight beyond the walls of Dan’s home. On the far wall, Mother was mounted, still watching. Always watching. But every now and then, Dan caught a glimpse of something else on the wall. He saw it now.
Far to the right, almost blocked by the wall, Dan could see a patch of color. It flickered between blue and white, fading and growing brighter. Dan had seen it many times, but he had never figured out what it was. He knew there must be something beyond the right wall which was causing that light, but what could it be?
Dan watched the light for a moment, but then turned back to his food. He couldn’t be distracted. He had found out long ago that he had a limited about of time to eat his breakfast, and then it would all slide back into the wall. He didn’t want to go hungry.
Sure enough, there was soon a faint click, and the metal panel which had served as a table retracted back into the wall, taking the now empty tray and cup with it. Dan automatically got up, folded his chair, and put it back in the compartment in the wall.
Dan stood at the foot of the stairs, excitement beginning to build within him. He was ready to begin. In a moment, the ceiling over the stairs lit up. Dan raced to the steps and climbed them, emerging on the second floor.
Aside from a low wall to guard where the stairs came up, the second floor was completely bare except for two identical cylinders of glass, set side by side, big enough for Dan to lie down in if he wanted to. Various metal casings and thick cords of wires protruded from their sides, bolting them to the floor, ceiling, and wall behind them. RR had called them SR Units.
One of the contraptions was open, its glass door ajar exactly like Dan had left it the previous day. The second Unit was closed. It had always been closed. It looked exactly like the first Unit, and Dan had always wondered why there were two. He only used the first, and the second had never opened anyway, even though Dan had tried a few times.
Dan ran the length of the room. It wasn’t far, but he could still get five or six strides in. At the far wall, he leaned outwards, putting his head as close to the Barrier as he dared, trying to see beyond the wall, to where those flickering lights had been. It was no use. The wall went out too far. Dan had never been able to see past it.
The first SR Unit lit up, its glass walls emitting the faintest of glows. Dan turned towards it, but then, without warning, the floor shook and there was a great, reverberating rumble overhead. Dan crouched down, hands pressed against his ears, looking up at the ceiling fearfully. He had heard the sound a few times before, but he still didn’t know what it was or why it happened. It frightened him. It was too loud. Too sudden. Too unpredictable.
It’s okay, son, said a voice in Dan’s head. Up you get. It’s gone now. The shaking had indeed stilled, and the sound had gone as quickly as it had come. Dan glanced down at Mother, still watching him. The sight was reassuring.
That’s it, said the voice as Dan got to his feet. There was, of course, no voice in Dan’s mind, only his imagination. When Dan was frightened though, he liked to imagine someone there to protect him. Someone strong. A father, perhaps. His father. Dan hadn’t the faintest idea what his father had looked like. He knew he must have had one, but he had no memory of either him or his real mother. Just the voices he made up for them in his head. It was all right. After all, he had Mother and RR. They would never leave him.
Everything was silent now, so Dan quickly crossed to the SR Unit and stepped inside, closing the glass door behind him. It was here that Dan spent his days. He would have it no other way.
RR had told Dan what the SR Unit was, and what it did. He had been very young when she had explained it, so he hadn’t understood most of it, but he knew it was a simulator. It was capable of creating almost anything, though RR had told Dan that she and the others like her controlled exactly what it made.
It was more than a mere simulation though. The air changed temperature, the water was wet, and sharp edges hurt. Dan knew that these things were not illusions. Once he had left the SR Unit after trying to cross a stream, and his clothes had been wet. Once he had fallen on some rocks, and while not cut, his arms were bruised afterwards. And while the Unit was small, it somehow enabled him to run as long he wanted to. He ran, swam, and even climbed in the SR Unit. There was no telling where it would take him. That was why he woke up excited each day.
Dan stood in the middle of the SR Unit now, waiting expectantly. The door sealed behind him. He knew that it wouldn’t let him out until several hours later, at the end of the day. That was fine with Dan. His breakfast kept him full, and the SR Unit was far too much fun to leave anyway.
For a few seconds nothing happened. Then a white mist filled the Unit, hiding Dan’s home from view completely. Dan could feel it eddying past him, and moisture began accumulating on his skin and in his short hair. RR had told him that the mist eased the transitions between simulations. Any moment now it would disperse, and Dan would find himself in a new place. A grin spread across his face. Where would he go today?
Exactly twelve and a half hours later, the door to the SR Unit opened, and Dan staggered out, tired but happy. He had spent the day running through fields, crossing streams, climbing cliffs, and a host of other activities. The SR Unit wasn’t usually as taxing, but Dan found the exercise fun. The ceiling over the stairs clicked on, and Dan obediently went down them, the lights in the SR Unit shutting off as he left.
This time Dan went to the second room on the first floor: the bathroom. Here he deposited his dirty clothes in a basin on the wall, and stepped into a square marked on the floor. Almost instantly, a jet of warm water doused him.
There were no walls to the shower. Mother continued to watch Dan, even as she had done all day long while he was in the SR Unit. Dan saw her a few times through the water, watching him, but the only thing he felt was happiness that she was there, and reassurance that she was watching over him. The fact was that Dan didn’t have the faintest inkling that showers are supposed to have walls, or why. His never had, and it was the only shower he had ever known.
After he had scrubbed himself clean, the water turned off and Dan grabbed a nearby towel. His dirty clothes had somehow been cleaned and folded while he was showering, and when he was dry, Dan put them on. They were warm and soft to the touch.
The ceiling clicked on in front of the hall, and Dan automatically hung the towel back where it belonged and left the bathroom. He ate his dinner, watched the slab of metal slide back into the wall, and then got up and put the chair away.
The ceiling clicked on in the bedroom. The bed had been cleaned while Dan was in the SR Unit, and the sheets were warm and soft. Dan burrowed deep into them, his eyes already heavy with sleep.
The light in the ceiling clicked off, slowly fading away until all Dan could see was Mother’s single red eye, still watching him.
“Goodnight, Mother,” Dan called. There was no reply, but Dan didn’t need one. He knew she would watch over him throughout the night. Dan let out a contented sigh, and then rolled onto his side, dropped his head to his pillow, and was asleep almost instantly. Tomorrow he would do it all again.
He could hardly wait.