Dan was fighting the sand. It kept sliding down the dune, trying to pull him with it, but he couldn’t let it. He looked up again. There was the horizon, close now, almost within reach. He was on all fours, trying to climb up the dune. He put another hand up, but he only clutched at more sand. The grains slipped through his fingers, and then tried to pull his feet down. He had to get up there. He tried again and gained a little bit. Another foothold. Another. He was close. He could almost see over the edge of the dune. He lifted himself up, and—
The ceiling clicked on. Dan woke up instantly, the dream fading. He looked up. One hand was outstretched, reaching for something beyond his grasp. The only things here were walls. Solid gray walls. Dan stared at them blankly for a moment. He frowned. He twisted around and pushed on the one behind him. It didn’t move. It didn’t even give a little bit.
The thought of actually trying to get out didn’t occur to Dan. He was simply annoyed that he couldn’t see the horizon anymore.
Dan got up, retrieved the chair, and ate his breakfast (water and a solid gray lump this morning). There was no doubt in his mind that Darren had pulled him from his home last night, and that he had seen sand, sky, and flown in a strange machine. The memory wasn’t fading, like a dream normally would. Therefore, it was real. That was all the proof Dan needed. The soulborgs must have found him and brought him back here. Dan wasn’t sure why he couldn’t remember that part.
Dan was distracted as a dark wisp of vapor escaped the slot where the food appeared. He watched it go, up towards the ceiling, where it evaporated. He had seen it before. It was quite common actually. But this time he kept looking at the place where it had disappeared, wondering. Where had it come from? It couldn’t have just appeared. Something must have created it. Something somewhere… else. Beyond his home.
Dan hadn’t finished when the table retracted, taking the food tray with it. He grabbed the last of the gray lump before it was whisked out of sight, stuffing the last few bites into his mouth and turning to the stairs as the ceiling above them lit up.
As he climbed, he finally remembered the hole in the ceiling last night. He rushed up the last few steps and looked eagerly upwards, but it was gone. There wasn’t even a scratch or dent. Just a soft, even white glow. Disappointed, Dan looked at the SR Units. Both were perfectly intact, undamaged, the closest one open as it always was.
For a moment Dan thought he might have imagined the whole thing after all. But then he saw one small detail: the door to the SR Unit wasn’t where he had left it. He always left it wide open; this door was just barely ajar. That proved it to Dan: something had changed.
Seeing that door changed something in Dan. He stood there, at the top of the stairs, staring at the SR Unit, excitement growing within him. He had left his home last night. He knew it now. He had seen a whole world he didn’t know existed, felt things he had never imagined, seen things he had never dreamt. And there had been more, so much more, just beyond that horizon.
Dan stood there for a minute, excitement coursing throughout him. Finally, he looked around. He saw the three walls, the energy barrier, and the unmarked ceiling, and he knew.
“I want to know what’s out there.”
His own voice startled him; he hadn’t meant to say it out loud. Once he had though, he realized it was true. He wanted to go back, to look again, to explore. He wanted to know what really was beyond that horizon.
A soft red light clicked on over the SR Unit, accompanied by a single note. Dan knew what it meant. He had to get in the Unit. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to see the horizon again. Just to see it. To see the sand and feel it. He stood there, undecided.
The note sounded again. Still Dan didn’t move. “No,” he said aloud. “I want to see the sand and the sky again. I want to see them again. Then I can go back to the SR Unit.” He nodded his approval at his own words, and as an afterthought, sat down on the floor against the wall.
A minute later the red light went out. Dan wasn’t sure what he expected to happen, or what he might do. All he knew was that for the first time, he wanted something his simple life couldn’t give him.
Dan sat there for five more minutes. Nothing happened. ‘I want to get out,’ he thought to himself. ‘I want to see the sky and feel the sand again. I can’t do that here or in the SR Unit.’ He glanced around. ‘That means… I have to get out of here. I have to find the sky again.’ Dan thought about this. It made perfect sense. He had to get out.
Dan stood up. There were only two ways out of his home. The most obvious way was through the energy barrier. However, RR had said that if he touched it, he would die, so Dan knew he couldn’t get out that way. That left the Shaft.
In the bedroom wall, on the right side and closest to the Barrier, Dan knew a whole panel could slide away from the floor to the ceiling, revealing a man-sized hole. In this hole was a tall box, into which a person could step, and stand comfortably. Dan had seen RR use it when she came to him. It was how she arrived and left. It must be the way out.
Having made his decision, Dan turned, and went back down the stairs. He would simply have to force that panel open somehow. The first problem with this plan was that all the lights downstairs were off. He couldn’t see where he was going. Fortunately, he knew his home so well that he hardly needed the lights, and found the panel quickly.
He could feel the grooves in the wall where it was. He pressed against it. It didn’t move. He shoved with all his might, he tried hitting it, he even ran the length of the room and slammed into it, but all he got was a bruised shoulder.
After several more minutes of trying to get the Shaft to open, Dan had to admit it wasn’t working. He went back upstairs, thinking he might as well get in the SR Unit and try again later, but the Unit didn’t work. Dan closed the door and stood there expectantly, but nothing happened. Dan couldn’t understand it. In all his years, the SR Unit had always started up within a few seconds of him closing the door. After ten minutes though, he realized nothing was going to happen. He tried the door, and found that it was open. At least he wasn’t trapped in the Unit. He was, however, stuck. If the schedule held – and it had remained the same ever since he could remember – he had to wait at least another eleven hours before anything happened.
After another hour Dan realized he now knew the meaning of a word he had heard once in the SR Unit. The word was ‘boredom’.
Nothing was happening. The light never changed. Dan had tried the SR Unit several times, but it refused to do anything. Everything was completely silent. Mother had been watching Dan for an hour straight.
After a few more minutes, Dan finally decided he couldn’t have what he wanted. He couldn’t see the sky or feel the sand again. He couldn’t struggle to reach the horizon. He was surrounded by walls and a Barrier, with no way out.
It wasn’t the defeat which Dan disliked the most. He had lived his entire life under a predictable schedule. He woke up at a certain time, ate at a certain time, entered the SR Unit at a certain time… he did everything at the same time, in the same order, every day. Now that the schedule was in disarray, now that Dan had nothing to do, he found he missed it. He needed it. Without it, he was… lost.
Dan stared glumly at Mother, and Mother stared back. He suddenly wondered what his real mother had been like. He had asked RR once, but she had refused to tell him. He didn’t know why. He imagined her as kind and comforting. He remembered RR had comforted him, in the beginning, when he was scared. But she was cold and hard. Surely his real mother hadn’t been like that? Dan sighed. More than anything, he wanted someone to talk to him, someone to pass the time with. He closed his eyes, willing himself to hear her voice…
After another hour even his imagination was no escape for Dan. He didn’t even know how long it would be until the schedule resumed with dinner. He didn’t think he could wait that long. He had been doing something his whole life, always moving towards the next step in his unending schedule. Now that he had ignored the schedule, the steps were gone, and he was beginning to realize just how much he needed them. He had to do something.
But there was nothing to do. So Dan just sat there, watching the Barrier flicker occasionally, the only sign that there was a fourth wall at all. He found himself thinking about what RR had said, about the Barrier killing him if he touched it. With nothing else to think about, he found the thought mildly interesting. He had never thought about death before. What was it, really? What did it feel like? How could you – your thoughts and emotions – just… stop? What happened to them?
The longer Dan thought about it, the more interested he became. He couldn’t grasp the concept of simply not existing. Was there maybe somewhere he went when he died? How could he be dead then? But how could he be dead, if there was no he at all? That certainly didn’t make sense.
Dan actually sat up straighter, thinking. Now that he thought about it, he wanted to experience death. Not out of some morbid fascination, but just due to curiosity. It was something he didn’t know. Something he couldn’t explain. He tried to find an analogy for it. It was like… like… like the horizon Darren had mentioned.
Dan paused. The horizon. Well, why couldn’t death be a horizon? They were both unknowns, after all. Dan had no idea what was over the rise for either one of them. He couldn’t reach the one, and there certainly wasn’t anything going on at the moment. What was to stop him from exploring the second horizon? The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became.
Dan, however, was not stupid. He knew that death meant killing himself, and that meant, as far as he could figure, no more him. He couldn’t very well see what was on the other side of death if he wasn’t there to see it. But he also wouldn’t be able to see it without dying.
Dan thought about this for a moment, and finally came to a conclusion. Maybe if he just brushed the Barrier, he could experience death a little bit, and then come back from whatever it was. It made sense to him. (It must be said at this point that living in isolation for fourteen years left Dan rather ignorant on certain important subjects, such as the fact that there is very little ‘middle ground’ with death.)
Dan got up. The prospect of reaching a horizon – any horizon – was exciting. Dan crossed to the Barrier and stood in front of it, his face mere inches away from the flickering blue light. Excitement beginning to pound within his ears, he lifted a hand, and slowly reached for the Barrier.
The closer he got, the more he could feel. At first, the hairs on his hand stood up. He could feel a prickling all across his fingers. He went further, and soon he began to feel resistance, like he was pushing through water. The resistance got stronger, and soon Dan’s palm was actually hurting, as if the skin was trying to pull away from the Barrier. Determined, Dan pushed his hand the last few inches, and finally felt the Barrier.
The instant he touched the blue field, a jarring shock went through Dan’s arm, and he was flung backwards. He landed on the hard floor a split second later, his hand burning with pain, and his arm numb.
But he wasn’t dead.
Dan wasn’t sure if he was excited or disappointed. RR had said the Barrier would kill him if he touched it. So why hadn’t it? After a moment, Dan decided that he hadn’t touched it long enough. He had barely brushed it, and that had only been for the smallest of moments. He needed something to keep him in contact with it, something like – Dan glanced around – something like the edge of the upstairs floor.
The Barrier extended upwards, covering both floors, but the upstairs floor stopped just short of the field, leaving a small gap a few inches wide. Dan was fairly thin. He figured he could slide through the gap to the floor below easily, with just enough room to barely brush the Barrier. If the Barrier pushed him back as hard as it had, Dan would be pressed against the edge of the floor, and stay in contact with the Barrier for much longer. Then he would slide down to the first floor.
Dan went over the plan a few more times. There was nothing left but to try it. Dan walked to the Barrier and looked at it, breathing deeply. He stepped closer until he was standing on the very edge of the floor. He could feel the hairs on his face standing up, as whatever strange energy made up the Barrier played across them. He was mere inches away from it. He put out his hands – he didn’t want to slam face-first into the Barrier – took a deep breath, and jumped.
The Barrier was a lot stronger than Dan had expected. It flung him back with the force of a wall crushing him from above. Dan slammed into the edge of the floor just as he had anticipated. However, from there, his plan went wrong.
Dan wasn’t quite as thin as he had thought. Even being plowed into the edge of the floor, he was still in full contact with the Barrier, his arms pressed flat against it. The Barrier was pinning him to the edge of the floor, preventing him from going down or back up. He was stuck.
And then the pain came. Every piece of skin in contact with the Barrier felt stretched, like it was doing its best to pull away. His arms and legs were quickly becoming numb. Dan was holding his body away from the Barrier with his arms, and he soon began to see faint blue lines of energy coiling around them, singing the hairs, causing smoke to wisp upwards. At first it just prickled, almost like an itch which Dan couldn’t scratch. But soon it became sharper, more persistent. The sensation got deeper into Dan’s skin, and became more intense. Now it was like a burning sensation – something Dan had only felt in the SR Unit. Pain started to run up and down his arms.
Dan tried to move them, but he couldn’t. They seemed to be glued to the Barrier, frozen in place. All the muscles in his arms were taut, tight as if Dan was holding onto something for dear life. They were already beginning to feel tired through all the burning, but Dan couldn’t move them. He tried to pry himself loose with his legs, but those muscles started to tighten too. Soon Dan’s chest constricted, and he could barely breathe.
Dan was starting to panic now. The pain had spread to his shoulders. His muscles were burning; he could now visibly see electricity coursing up and down his arms. He tried to struggle, but by now his entire body was locked in place, unable to move. Dan forced himself to calm down. If he could just straighten his arms, he’d fall right down to the first floor. But he couldn’t move them. He tried and tried, but all he did was get short on breath.
Breathing was becoming harder too. Red spots were beginning to appear in Dan’s vision, and with each breath his chest seemed to lock up tighter, growing smaller, forcing more air out and letting less air back in.
Dan finally realized that he couldn’t do this much longer. Something was going to break: him or the Barrier. He very much doubted it would be the Barrier. Darkness was clouding his eyes, narrowing down until he could see almost nothing. The Barrier was pressing against him, harder and harder. He suddenly remembered what Darren had said: “Why are they keeping you from getting out? Because there’s something to keep you from.”
‘Ah,’ he thought vaguely. ‘There must be something out there.’
And then the darkness took him, and Dan knew no more.