Dan woke slowly. He felt as if he was being pulled from a very deep sleep, from a smothering dream in which the only thing he could see was a thick darkness. Slowly, awareness returned. Dan pulled himself from the last traces of unconsciousness, and opened his eyes.
SR Again. Dan’s heart sank. He was looking at a dark stone ceiling, with a faint light flickering on it, probably from a candle nearby. He didn’t need to see any more. He was back in his cell, locked in the SR Unit.
Or was he in his cell? Surely RR would have returned him to his home? But what if she hadn’t? What if she had sent him somewhere else, somewhere… somewhere without Heleer?
Heleer. He saw her face in a flash of memory: the disappointment, the hurt, the despair. He had to reach her, to fix the damage he had caused. He couldn’t wait for the SR to finish. He had to get out now.
“Let me out,” he said calmly, looking at the ceiling. Nothing happened. He hadn’t really expected it to, but he was far from giving up. “Let me out,” he repeated, keeping his voice calm and firm.
Silence was the only reply. After a minute, Dan looked harder at the ceiling. Something was wrong with it. It didn’t look right. It didn’t look like it belonged in the SR Unit. What was it? The detail? The shape? It looked more… realistic.
Dan shoved the thought to the back of his head. Maybe he was in a different, newer SR Unit. And if that was the case, then he was definitely not in his home. He had to find Heleer.
He swung his legs off of the bed he was lying on and sat up, facing the room he was in. It was stone, massive blocks making up the ceiling, floor, and walls. The was a single wooden door in the far wall, and a wooden table and chair in the middle of the room. On the table was a candle, its bright flame the only source of light. The only other piece of furniture was the bed on which Dan sat, the wooden frame holding a thin mattress of some sort, and a single rough blanket.
Dan took all of this in, noting as he did so that everything had the same level of detail as the stone ceiling. Nothing here looked like it belonged in SR. It was rougher, more detailed. The thin blanket which had been covering Dan fell away as he sat up, and glancing at it, he saw that it too was detailed beyond anything the SR Unit had ever created before. He held it up to his face, looking at it closely. He could see each individual thread, weaving its way through all the others. He could move them with his fingers. It was at that point that Dan realized something else.
Nothing felt right, either. Everything in the SR Unit felt soft, pliable. If Dan held a rock and squeezed it slowly, his fingers would create dents in it. The rock would feel hard, and it would take some time, but it could be done. Everything in the SR Unit was like that, not quite solid, from metal to water. Everything except the blanket Dan now held. And the bed he was sitting on. And the floor his feet rested on.
Dan dropped the blanket, stood, and crossed to the table. He looked at it for a moment, and then pressed both of his hands down on it. It didn’t budge. He pressed harder. It was as solid as… well, as the walls of Dan’s home.
Dan turned on the spot, taking in his surroundings once more. What kind of SR Unit was this? And why would RR put him here? Indeed, why would she put him in SR at all? Hadn’t she said he was ‘beyond repair’?
Dan had to find out what was going on. He had to get out of this SR, find Heleer, and then figure out what to do. He crossed the room to the door and tried to lift the latch. It was locked. It remained stubbornly in place, the metal feeling far too solid for the SR Dan knew.
Undeterred, he raised one metal arm, and smashed it down on the latch. Splinters of the surrounding wood shattered as the latch fell to the ground with a loud clang. Dan kicked it aside and shoved the door open.
A long stone hallway stretched to the right and left. It was narrow, but it reminded Dan a bit of the metal hallway outside his home. Torches lined one wall, spaced evenly like so many cameras. Opposite them were wooden doors identical to the one Dan had just opened. The similarities to the metal hallway sent a shiver down Dan’s spine. If he entered this hall as he had the other, would things end the same way?
Dan shook his head to rid it of his thoughts. The only thing which mattered right now was getting out and finding Heleer. Dan had spent years in the SR Unit, and knew there was no use in trying to find the interior wall and breaking out. Not only would he never feel it, he knew he could never break it. He had tried plenty of times when the power went down.
No, as much as he hated it, the only option was to play along with the soulborgs’ game, and find Heleer the moment the SR ended.
Dan set off down the hall. It was completely silent, the guttering of the torches and the echo of Dan’s bare feet the only sound. The hallway wasn’t long, and soon Dan came to a left turn, which he took. It led into another identical hall, except Dan could see that this one ended a distance away with a wide wooden door. The only other difference was that this hall was not empty.
Two men were halfway down the hall, leaning casually against the wall, looking at a piece of paper and talking quietly. Dan couldn’t make out what they were saying. He didn’t break his stride, but made straight for the door. They were nothing more than creations of SR.
The two men looked up as Dan walked past, taking in his simple clothes and bare feet. They exchanged confused looks, but said nothing. Dan glanced at them as he passed, and then paused. Their faces… they were detailed. Detailed like Heleer. Detailed like the faces Dan had seen behind the other Barriers when he had escaped. He had never seen faces like that in SR before.
He had to know what was going on. He forced himself to keep walking, and soon found himself before the wide door. Glancing back, he saw the two men still watching him. One of them looked like he was on the verge of calling out, but Dan gave him no chance. He shoved on the wide door, and it opened easily.
Light and sound flooded Dan.
Before him, stretching to either side, was a vast wide hall. The far wall was lined with windows set into the stone wall, and light was pouring from them, bathing the hallway with a bright, even light. And walking in the hall, moving past Dan without giving him so much as a glance, was a vast crowd of people.
Some were men. Some were women. And some were… different. Dan had seen many creatures in SR, some of which he supposed must be real. But he had never seen what he now saw, flying through the hall above the crowds.
They looked like humans, but had large feathery wings sprouting from their backs, with which they were flying like oversized birds, albeit gracefully, Dan had to admit. He watched them for a moment, wondering why the SR Unit had created them. No matter. They weren’t important.
Dan took a few steps forward, so that the people passing by were just an arm’s breadth away. They were all detailed like the two men Dan had seen in the hall. Nothing here looked like it usually did in SR.
Dan turned on the spot, taking in the detailed stone walls and high ceiling, the detailed faces rushing past him, and the strange flying human-bird hybrids flying past overhead. This was all wrong. SR had never been this detailed, this precise.
“Are you all right?” said a voice behind Dan.
Dan turned. One of the two men he had passed had followed him, and now stood in the doorway.
“Are you lost?”
Dan, used to treating people in SR like they were simply images dreamt up by a machine, ignored the man. He moved to the right, and started to feel the stone wall. It was solid. As solid as the walls of Dan’s home.
“What happened to your arms?” The man had taken a few steps towards Dan, and noticed his gloves.
Dan turned, confused. Until now, no one in SR had ever said anything about his gloves. They had accepted them just as if they were normal arms.
Dan glanced at the man, the stone, the wooden door, the people rushing past, and the light streaming through the window, and a slow sickly feeling began to creep into his stomach. This wasn’t right. None of it was.
“What’s going on here?” Dan breathed.
“What do you mean?” the man asked, coming closer. “It’s all right, nothing’s wrong.”
A hint of fear lodged in Dan’s chest. “This is all wrong. All of it. What’s happening?”
Two women paused as they were walking past, glancing at Dan. A younger man stopped as well, his expression curious.
“I want to get out,” Dan said, not speaking to any of them in particular. He had always assumed the soulborgs could hear every word he said in SR.
“Out?” one of the women repeated. “Out of what? The Citadel?”
Citadel? Dan ignored her.
“Let me out,” he repeated.
“He’s new,” one of the men said quietly. “Came from the hall.” He jerked his thumb towards the hall Dan had exited.
“What’s going on here?” a calm voice asked. Dan turned, and felt his breath catch and lodge somewhere in his stomach.
A soulborg stepped around the corner. Soulborgs had never appeared in SR. Ever.
This soulborg was quite different from RR. He spoke with a male voice, and his eyes, instead of yellow, glowed white. They were also uncovered, instead of behind a protective mask like RR’s eyes had always been. The sharp light of them made Dan blink.
The soulborg came to a halt in front of Dan. His body was different, composed entirely of plates of varying shades of gray. There was one other difference too: emblazoned clearly on the soulborg’s shoulder, was a symbol: a hexagon and two vertical bars.
It looked familiar, and after a moment Dan remembered: it was the same symbol Darren had worn. RR had once told him that was the symbol of an enemy. But Dan knew better now. He knew Darren had been his friend, and RR had been the enemy. And if this soulborg had the same symbol as Darren…
“I want to get out,” Dan said, speaking directly to the soulborg. “Let me out.”
The soulborg said nothing, but continued to watch Dan. The small crowd forming around them glanced from one to the other.
“Let me out,” Dan repeated, the sense of fear in his stomach growing. “Let me out. Take me to Heleer.” Still no reply. “Let me out!” he shouted, taking a step towards the soulborg.
“You are not in SR,” the soulborg said quietly.
All other sound ceased for Dan. He had eyes and ears only for the soulborg before him.
“You are not in SR,” the soulborg repeated.
Dan didn’t believe this for a second. “Yes, I am,” he said. “Now let me out.”
Again, the soulborg was silent.
Dan didn’t care if this soulborg was an ally or not. He had to get to Heleer, and he was willing to do anything to make that happen. He took another step towards the soulborg and raised a metal fist, preparing to do he wasn’t sure what.
“Wait!” the soulborg cried.
Dan didn’t wait, but a moment later he realized the soulborg hadn’t been speaking to him. Before he could bring his fist down against the soulborg, there was a rasping sound behind him, and Dan heard – and a moment later felt – a blast of something hot strike him in the back. He staggered forwards, trying to keep his balance, and then his mind shut off.
Completely. Totally. Unconsciousness covered Dan like a smothering blanket.