A few days after RR had spoken to him, Dan realized two things. Firstly, he knew he wanted to get out, and he believed he could. He knew there had to be something out there, because everything – the walls, the Barrier, RR herself – were trying very hard to keep him from it. This also meant that there had to be a way to get out in the first place; why else would there be walls and barriers?
The second thing Dan realized – after a few days of racking his brains on how to get out – was that he was stuck here. He couldn’t get out, no matter how much he tried. However, because he believed there must be a way, he decided that the opportunity would eventually present itself. He had gotten out once before, hadn’t he? Maybe it would happen again. All he had to do was wait for it.
Knowing this changed Dan’s daily schedule. Everything remained the same, but he threw himself into completing each step, knowing that he had to be ready, always ready. When the opportunity to get out presented itself, he would take it. He wouldn’t pass up a second chance to see the horizon he now knew was out there.
It was a few days after this realization that things changed forever.
There was very little sense of time in the SR Unit. Things tended to switch from day to night, from inside to out, as the scene shifted. But the schedule never changed. That was why one day, when the SR Unit finally faded, and the walls became transparent, Dan knew something was wrong. He knew he hadn’t been in the Unit long enough. It had ended early.
Confused, he pushed on the door. It opened easily. Dan stood there for a moment, wondering. What was going on? The SR Unit had never, never ended early. What could it mean? Something had to be going on.
Cautiously, Dan exited the SR Unit. Nothing seemed out of place, but glancing through the Barrier to the wall beyond, he could see light reflected. A light was on downstairs. The bedroom light, judging by the position.
Curious, and a little wary, Dan descended the stairs and entered the bedroom. Nothing seemed out of place, except for the light. Dan looked at the ceiling, thinking. Had something happened? Was this the chance he had been waiting for? Could he be about to see the horizon again?
Dan was just starting to get truly excited when a sound met his ears. It was a sound he had only heard a few times before, but he knew what it was: it was the sound of the box in the Shaft coming closer.
What did this mean? The only time the Shaft was used was when RR came to him. Why would she be coming now? Maybe she had taken pity on him? Maybe he would see the horizon after all?
There was a soft thump against the wall. The box had arrived. Any second now, the panel would slide away, and Dan would know what was going on. He stood there, next to the hall, excitement coursing through him. After a second the panel slid into the wall, revealing the Shaft. And there was definitely someone inside it. But it wasn’t RR.
At first Dan had no idea what he was looking at. He knew it wasn’t RR. It wasn’t metal for one thing, and it was much too small. A second later he realized it was a Mariedian, like himself.
The only Mariedian Dan had ever seen was Darren and the two people with him. He had never seen skin, eyes, or hair, besides his own, because they had been completely covered. Not so now. He could see bare feet. He could see small hands. He could see long hair, bare arms, and two small light brown eyes, watching him. And then he realized something else. He had seen all manner of people in the SR Unit, and he knew enough to suddenly tell that the thing huddled in a corner of the Shaft, was, in fact, a girl.
The girl’s eyes widened as she saw him, but then they narrowed. She made no move to get out of the Shaft. She watched Dan steadily, as if waiting to see what he would do.
However, Dan hadn’t the faintest clue what to do. Darren and RR were the only real people he had ever met. He had no idea how to react to a girl suddenly appearing in the Shaft, so he did nothing. He just stood there, staring at her, in a general state of surprise.
It was about a minute before the girl moved. Her eyes never left Dan, but she slowly got to her feet, and took one small step forwards, so that she was just inside the bedroom. The panel slid closed behind her instantly, and Dan heard the Shaft begin to slide along invisible rails, the sound slowly fading away, until it was gone.
The girl looked him up and down, her eyes still slightly narrowed. At length, she looked up and said, “Who are you?”
Dan couldn’t answer. There had been so much else going on when he saw Darren. Here there were no distractions. Everything about the girl intrigued Dan, largely because it was all new to him. He had never seen another person’s mouth move when they talked. He had never seen hair move as the head did (Dan’s own hair was quite short, but the girl had very long hair, reaching to her shoulders). He had never seen any eyes but his own, and it was these he was the most fascinated with. He stood there, dumbfounded.
“What’s your name?” the girl repeated. Her voice wasn’t hard or impatient. If anything, it was a bit scared. It was this last realization which finally jolted Dan back into action. He had never really heard a voice with emotion behind it before, besides his own.
“I’m Dan,” he said, his voice cracking slightly. “Who are you?”
“Heleer,” the girl said.
“Why are you here?” Dan asked blankly.
Heleer glanced at him. “I don’t know. I thought you might.”
Dan shook his head. The longer he looked at Heleer, the more he became curious about her. He had never seen anything like her. She was about his height, so he guessed they were around the same age, but there was so much about her which was different and new. “How long do you think you’ll be here?”
“I’m not sure,” Heleer said. Dan rather thought her voice quavered slightly as she spoke, and he saw her eyes darting around the room, examining the walls and ceiling. “Maybe a few minutes. Maybe a few days. Maybe forever,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
Forever? Forever? He might be able to study this strange Heleer forever?
There was a click behind him, and the lights in the bathroom switched on. Normally Dan would have moved towards it without thinking, but he was rooted to the spot. The novelty of Heleer ruled out all else. Heleer apparently did not have the same problem. She took a step towards the bathroom instantly, but then stopped, watching Dan.
“What?” she asked.
It finally dawned on Dan that staring at her might not be the best idea. He couldn’t take his eyes away, but tried to assume a more natural position. “It’s just… I’ve never seen anyone like you before.”
Heleer regarded him with a slight frown. “So?”
“I’m – I’m just curious. That’s all.”
Heleer suddenly seemed to look closer at him. “What’s wrong with your hands?”
Dan looked down. The gloves glinted dully in the light from the ceiling. He had gotten used to them, though they were clumsy and heavy at times, and couldn’t feel things as well as his old hands.
“Nothing’s wrong with them,” he said. “I just injured them, that’s all.” He wanted to talk about Heleer, ask her questions, satisfy some of the curiosity boiling within him. Who cared about his gloves?
Heleer however didn’t say anything else about them. She looked up at the ceiling, and the light coming from it, then back down at Dan.
“Did you… want to go first?”
What? Dan didn’t have the faintest idea of what she was talking about.
Possibly seeing the confusion on his face, Heleer pointed to the bathroom ceiling. “The light,” she said.
Dan’s mind finally clicked into gear. Of course. The schedule waited for no one. He had found that out the hard way. It must be time to shower.
“Did you want to go first?” Heleer repeated, looking at him politely.
First? Dan had never shared his schedule with anyone. He wasn’t sure he knew how. “Uh… no?”
Heleer looked at him. “In that case you’ll need to move,” she said after a minute.
Dan realized he was blocking the way to the bathroom, and quickly stepped forward into the bedroom so that she could pass. She seemed reluctant to leave the Shaft, but after a moment, moved past him quickly. Dan watched her, too stunned to say anything else.
Dan watched Heleer walk into the bathroom. Something about the way she moved around it instantly told him that she was familiar with the layout, and for a moment he wondered how she could be. He was far too distracted though; the thought fled from his mind quickly.
Heleer walked up to the bin where Dan put his dirty clothes, but then turned, looking at Dan expectantly. Not sure what she wanted, Dan just looked back.
“Could you go somewhere else?” Heleer finally asked.
Dan stared at her blankly. “Why?”
“Because I asked you to.”
Dan was used to ignoring what people said, largely because everyone he had met aside from RR was created by the SR Unit, and therefore fake. Something about the way Heleer said it though made him fully realize for the first time that she wasn’t fake. She was a real person.
“Okay,” Dan said, just as blankly. He moved back into the bedroom and sat on the bed. A moment later he heard the water turn on. He stared at the Barrier, his mind a fog of whirling thoughts and questions.
It must be said that while Dan was exposed to all sorts of information and scenarios in the SR Unit, he was fully aware that none of them were real. He didn’t see them as part of the ‘real world’, because to him, he knew of no world outside of his home. At least, until Darren had come.
Dan had seen plenty of girls before in the SR Unit. But they had never been real, and Dan had treated them that way, as if they were temporary, mere shadows of actual people. Until now, he hadn’t even known if a girl was a real thing, or just something created by the SR Unit. This was why he was so stunned to see Heleer, perfectly real and – for the moment – permanent, in his home. He had so many questions. What was true? What was just made up by the SR Unit? There was too much to wonder about, too much to ask.
He only hoped she would stay long enough to have his questions answered.