When you’ve woken up at the same time for your entire life, it’s a hard thing to wake up several hours early. That’s why, even with the rumbling, shaking, and thunderous booms coming from overhead, it still took Dan a few moments to fully wake up. Only when an ear-splitting crash jarred the walls and floor did he really sit up, cowering under his sheets.
Everything was still dark. The only lights were Mother, still watching over him, and the faint blue from the walls where the Barrier was emitted. Neither offered Dan any clue as to what was going on.
The first hint he had that this was more than just another rumbling and shaking was when something – a sheet of metal about as long as Dan’s arm – fell through the gap between the second floor and the Barrier, hit the Barrier, and was shot back across the floor, stopping against the foot of Dan’s bed with a clang.
Dan looked up. He could hear it now: that same rumbling and humming he had heard several times before. It was much louder this time though. It seemed much closer. All the walls were shaking violently; even the bed was trembling.
Part of Dan wanted to stay put; to burrow into the sheets and pretend nothing was happening. But a deeper part of him wanted to get out of bed and go upstairs, to see what was going on. As Dan sat there, trying to decide what to do, a new sound met his ears: a series of soft thuds overhead. And then something Dan had heard only in the SR Unit and from RR: voices.
“Block fifty-seven, I think. We’re far from any support.”
“How many do you think we can get out?”
“If they cooperate? A good twenty cells.”
“Let’s go then.”
Dan froze as he heard something – someone – come clambering down the stairs. He was the only person who had ever used those stairs. The sound of someone else coming down them was just so wrong that Dan didn’t know what to do.
A moment later lights appeared on the far wall beyond the Barrier, dancing white lights, brilliant, hurting Dan’s eyes. He shielded his face from their brightness, and looked to the left wall, where he knew the stairs ended. What was coming?
Something big, dark, humanoid, and heavy – judging by the footfalls – issued from the hall. Dan didn’t scream. He didn’t move. He didn’t have the faintest idea how to react, so he just sat there, trying to make himself small.
The figure was joined by a second. They each held something long and thin, like a perfectly straight stick, only more angular. A light issued from the ends of the sticks, and the two figures waved them around, shining them on everything. After a moment, one of them turned and shined its light on Dan.
“Found one,” the figure called to its companion. They both came over. Dan shrank against the wall.
The figure raised its light, casting both it and Dan in a dim reflection from the wall. Dan could see the figure now. It had the shape of a man – or at least what Dan knew to be a man from the SR Unit – but it was covered in some sort of black clothing. Dan couldn’t see an inch of skin.
“What’s your name, son?”
The voice was far softer than Dan had been expecting. It was gentle, just as gentle as the time RR had comforted him. Perhaps gentler. Dan instantly felt himself begin to relax, a reaction which he found odd, given that he didn’t know what was happening. He said nothing.
“C’mon, Darren,” said the other figure, his voice much rougher. “We can do introductions later.”
The first man held out a hand to Dan. “Come on,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Dan blinked. “What?” he said. Out… of here? What did they mean? The hall? Was he actually going to see the hall? Dan suddenly grew excited.
“Okay,” he said, sliding his feet out of the bed. He was a bit frightened by the sudden appearance of these men, but since the only other real person he had ever met was RR, the concept of distrust was foreign to Dan. Besides, they didn’t seem afraid of the loud rumbling which was still thundering overhead, and that made Dan braver.
Darren stood there for a moment, as if Dan’s reaction had caught him off guard. “Okay,” he said, recollecting himself. “Let’s go up here.” He took Dan gently by the hand and led him up the stairs. Dan went willingly. Obviously these two knew some secret way to get into the hall. No one would be foolish enough to go right through the Barrier. It would kill them. RR had said so.
Dan wasn’t prepared for the sight which met him when he reached the second floor and turned around to face the SR Units. Both Units were shattered, pieces of glass littering the floor, sparks flying from the walls where cords had been severed. Dan barely saw that however. Directly above him, big enough to lift his entire bed through with ease, was a hole in the ceiling.
Dan had spent his entire life in his home. He had never left it, and he had never seen anyone else save for RR. He knew nothing of what might be beyond his home, or indeed if there was anything beyond it, aside from the hall beyond the Barrier. To him, his home was the world. He knew RR went somewhere when she left, and he knew the lights outside on the wall must come from somewhere, but the idea of actual places and things beyond what he knew… such a thought had never occurred to him.
That was why, upon seeing a black sky spread with an unfathomable number of tiny pricks of light, Dan reeled back against the wall, petrified with fear. His mind could not comprehend what he was seeing.
The man, Darren, had evidently been expecting this. He knelt down next to Dan. “Hey,” he said in the same soft voice, “it’s okay. It’s just the sky. It’s not going to hurt you. Come on.”
Dan didn’t budge. He had seen the sky before, in the SR Unit. He knew what it was. But somehow, the Unit had never conveyed the depth of the sky: the immensity which Dan now stared at, feeling as if he might at any moment start falling into it. The sight scared him, but he couldn’t look away.
“Come on,” Darren said again, gently pulling Dan forwards. “We’ve got to go.”
Dan finally tore his eyes away from the sky, though he still trembled, knowing the vast nothingness which was above him. “What about Mother?” he asked, looking up at Darren.
“Mother? Your mother is here? Where?”
Dan pointed to Mother, the single red eye still watching them. Both men looked at the camera for a few seconds.
“That’s sick,” said the second man after a moment. “We have to get this kid out of here, now. Darren, you get him out, I’ll get the Barrier open.”
Out? Barrier open? Dan didn’t have time to wonder. Darren suddenly grabbed him about the waist and lifted him up to the hole.
The sky came closer, and Dan shielded his head, crying out in fear. A new pair of hands grabbed him beneath his arms and pulled him up. Darren let go. And then Dan felt something beneath his feet; something he hadn’t been expecting.
He was standing on sand. The only thing Dan had ever stood on was whatever the floor of his home was made of. He had grown up having something solid, if a bit springy, under his feet. He had felt many things in the SR Unit – water, rock, grass, even sand – but they always seemed to give under his feet, disappearing from underfoot to reveal a more solid surface beneath. What Dan now stood on was nothing like that.
His bare feet sank slightly in the grains. Panicked that he was sinking, Dan struggled, and felt the sand resisting his feet, hampering him. Sand never acted like that in the SR Unit. Dan had always been able to push it out of the way, finding the more solid floor beneath. This was different. There was no floor, only more sand. After a few moments of struggling, Dan’s curiosity got the better of him, and he simply knelt down, trying to see the sand clearly in the darkness.
“This way,” said a voice very close to Dan. Dan jumped. This voice was different. Softer, a bit higher. He had seen women in the SR Unit, and decided that this must be one. He honestly couldn’t tell. Every inch of her was covered in black like Darren. The only thing which wasn’t black was a small white patch, easily visible against the dark fabric, stitched on the left shoulder. Dan looked closer. It was some sort of symbol: the outline of a hexagon with two vertical lines running from top to bottom. Dan wondered what it meant.
There was a sound of grunting, and Darren heaved himself out of the hole behind Dan. Watching him emerge, Dan noticed that he had the same symbol on his shoulder. The woman quickly turned to him.
“Interceptors two miles out, Darren. We don’t have time to wait. There will be another opening. We can get the others out then.”
Darren nodded. “Stay here,” he said. “This is our only entry point; they’ll all be coming up through here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The woman nodded, and Darren took Dan by the hand, leading him away. It was only then that Dan saw – and heard and felt – what was directly in front of him.
He must have been so interested in the sky overhead and the sand underfoot that he hadn’t noticed the powerful wind whipping against him. Then again, he was used to wind. There was at least one powerful wind almost every day in the SR Unit, sometimes more, and this at least felt exactly the same. Except for the fact that sand was in the wind, stinging at Dan’s face. And that the wind was coming from a gigantic black object which was making the loudest noise Dan had ever heard.
He had no idea what he was looking at: black panels, whirring blades, sleek pistons, powerful landing legs; none of this made any sense to him. All he knew was that the powerful wind was coming from whatever the machine was, and that it was loud. Now, at last, he understood where the rumbling had been coming from. The very ground was shaking because of this machine.
Darren kept a tight grip on Dan and led him right up to – and then into – the machine. They went up a dark ramp, lit only with tiny lights, and into a dark interior, lit only with a red glow. Before Dan had finished taking in his surroundings, the ramp rose up off the ground, sealing them in, and the noise increased.
“Sit down here,” Darren said gently, guiding Dan into a seat. He pulled some sort of straps over Dan’s chest, which held him securely to the chair. “Don’t worry,” he said, possibly spotting Dan’s fear. “Everything’s fine. Just hold on.”
Hold on? What for? What was he supposed to—
Dan suddenly felt himself lift off the ground. He looked down: his feet were still solidly on the floor, but he could feel it in his stomach: they were definitely in the air.
Dan was very curious about things. But now his fear started to outweigh his curiosity. He wanted to get out of this machine. He wanted to be back on the ground. He wanted more than anything to be back in his warm, comfortable bed, fast asleep. He closed his eyes as he felt the machine accelerate forwards. It was moving much faster than he had ever moved in his life; he could feel it.
And then it wasn’t. There was a horrible boom, the motion stopped almost instantly, and Dan’s hearing stopped as well. His eyes flew open. He could see things happening all about him: sparks flying, Darren yelling, lights flashing, but he could hear nothing. He found this mildly disturbing.
And then they started to spin. Faster and faster, and now Dan could sense that they were going down. His hearing was starting to return very slowly: he could hear a faint ringing as if from a long ways away. Dan saw Darren turn and yell something to him, and then… it all stopped.