And so the nights passed for Stoney as he wrestled with the
possibility that he would have to make a choice between staying on the outside
with Merrybelle or returning to Sunshine where, increasingly, he felt he belonged.
Each night he fell asleep wanting nothing more than to forget the girl and go
home, and each morning he would descend to breakfast, lay eyes on her, and
immediately forget his arguments of the evening before.

As they awaited word from the feds, he and Merrybelle filled
their days with chores on the farm, jaunts into Vigilanceville, long walks
beneath the green bowers of the forest, and warm evenings talking on the front
porch or laughing at the actors in the latest televised dramas. All the while, Stoney
was certain Merrybelle was as cognizant as he that a decision would soon have
to be made, a very serious decision that would affect them both for the rest of
their lives. At night, alone in his room, Stoney sometimes trembled at the
thought. Doing nothing to discourage the belief on her part that he wanted
nothing more than to stay with her made it increasingly difficult to deny her
affections and return to Sunshine. So much did he dread that moment that he
grew more and more nervous, to the point where his heart pounded and his hands
shook. Finally, the waiting became too much. Admitting to himself that he was a
coward, and hating himself for it, Stoney decided to return to Sunshine before
the others discovered his absence.

And so, late one night, several weeks after his arrival,
Stoney Vander, dressed in the clothes with which he had first left home,
slipped quietly from his second floor room and left the house. Behind him, on
the dresser, he had placed the portable message screen given him by the Daidins
with a note explaining his reasons for leaving, all of them lies. Ashamed and
relieved at the same time, he engaged the near-silent turbines of Merrybelle’s
ground car and, as it rose on a cushion of air, pushed it from the front yard
to the gate at the entrance of the farm.

Looking back, he wondered if he was making a mistake; but brushing
the thought aside, he entered the ground car. Punching Merrybelle’s personal
code into the ignition pad, something he had seen her do many times, he brought
the fans up to full power and, with a dull whine impossible for anyone to hear
from the house, directed the vehicle up the road to the crest of the hill over
which Stu Daidin had first brought him to the farm.

Dawn was brightening the eastern sky when he passed beneath
the ragged remnants of the camouflage netting and entered the portion of old
road that had been abandoned to the encroaching forest. Leaving return instructions
in the ground car’s nav-system, he jumped out and watched as it spun on its
axis, picked up speed, and headed back to the farm. Turning, he continued
walking along the pitted and cracked roadway until it emerged onto the grassy
dell where he had landed his air car weeks before.

Catching sight of the car among the tall grasses, its familiar
lines brought back to him all the comfortable feelings of home. Suddenly, he
was more eager than ever to leave the green wild and return to the family and
friends he had abandoned so precipitously. How they must have worried!
Anxiously, he waved the door of the car open and, as the vehicle rose on a
cushion of air, he took the conductor’s seat and coded the ignition pad. All
systems showed green and, as the fans increased their rotation to full flight
mode, he cast a last look at the distant tree line, engaged the directional
compressors, and moved quickly to gain altitude.

Immediately, he saw the green wild spread out beneath him to
the line of hills beyond which lay the world of Merrybelle Daidin. For a
moment, he felt a pang of regret at not having had the courage to remain. But
he ignored it and determined to make the most of life in Skyview Tower. A few
minutes later, the hills had disappeared beneath the horizon and the misty
towers of the Municiplex began to appear in the distance. Gradually, they resolved
themselves into gleaming cylinders that pierced the thin clouds of vapor that
presaged the coming of a storm front over the great lake on whose shores the Municiplex
stood.

Soon, Stoney reduced the air car’s speed as he found himself
among the familiar towers. Presently, Skyview Tower came into view and an
automated beacon from the car signaled the family’s stall to open. The next
moment, he felt the air car settle onto its accustomed markings as its power
wound down. Gradually, quiet returned to the stall as first the outer door
closed shut and then the turbines stopped.

Alerted that the stall door had been activated, Aris Vander
appeared at the lift entrance, a look of profound relief on his face as he saw
his son exiting the vehicle. He was joined by Vivy Vander-Hool, who could not
contain her happiness at seeing her son return.

Stoney embraced his mother and shook his father’s hand.
Together, they returned to the living unit, where Vivy prepared a quick meal,
which to Stoney’s relief did not include the flesh of animals. After he had
eaten and the family had settled in the living room, Stoney told them of his
adventures.

“I have been to the outside and discovered many things
different from what we learn in our history books,” Stoney began. When he had
finished, his parents had many questions, most of them tinged with horror at
the lives of those desperate remnants of a war fought hundreds of years before.

“My heart goes out to those poor creatures,” said Vivy, her
hand held delicately over her breast. “To be ruled by the superstitions of
religion, to feast on the flesh of fellow beings, to submit themselves to the
uncertainty of random pairings . . . brrrr.”

“It does all seem quite incredible,” agreed Aris from where
he sat at the end of the sofa. “And you say this Stu Daidin grew his own
foodstuffs from the ground beneath an open sky and not hydroponically?”

“I found it hard to believe myself until I saw it with my own
eyes,” replied Stoney, who had played down his relationship with Merrybelle.

That night, alone in his own room at last, Stoney had time to
think, and what he found was that he missed the exciting presence of Merrybelle
Daidin. He missed the softness of her touch, the sound of her carefree
laughter, even the times when she ignored him through some slight he hardly
knew he had caused. At the same time, he feared what remaining with her would
have done to him. Would his own personality have been subsumed in a
relationship with her? Would he come to forget his life in Sunshine, or would
he live to regret every day his decision to remain with her? Angry at not
knowing, he worried that regret at a possible lost opportunity would haunt him
the rest of his life.

And so the weeks and months passed, until some years
following his impetuous excursion he found himself promoted to entry-level
designer and assigned a new mate. In this he was luckier than his sister
Immomia, in that he had been paired with a citizen of color, enabling himself
and his partner to occupy a choice living unit with a view out the west side of
Skyview Tower.

Less fortunate for Stoney’s conscience was that on
exceedingly clear days he could see the dark line of trees that marked the edge
of the green wild. On those days, he could not keep his thoughts from drifting back
to Merrybelle Daidin and the life he could have had with her–but for his lack
of courage. Ashamed and frustrated, he would turn from the window banks and
watch his partner take up her prayer mat and prepare to leave for her office in
Sunshine’s administrative level. By the door he would see the hated vest-smock
he wore as an entry-level designer and be reminded yet again that it was often
his ideas that had allowed his unqualified superiors to advance. At those moments
he would suddenly be overcome by the now-familiar urge to flee; to find an air
car still in operating condition and escape from the Municiplex, return to
Merrybelle, and beg her forgiveness.

But a moment later the panic would subside, and only a vague
emptiness would remain. Instinctively, he would don his vest-smock, leave the
living unit, and join the line of his fellow citizens as they headed for the employment
levels. And as he squeezed into the lift that would take him down to Design
Wing, Employment Level IV, he knew that he was not simply headed for another
day of work, but descending into a personal hell of lost opportunity and
regret.