When Dan woke again, he immediately knew something was wrong. He seemed to be sitting in something hard, but when he opened his eyes, it was too dark to see what it was. Everything was black. In addition, Dan instantly felt a multitude of bruises across his body begin to dully ache. They were everywhere, but seemed to be concentrated on his back and chest.
It took Dan’s eyes a few moments to get adjusted to the darkness. Slowly, the faintest of blue glows came into view, showing Dan only the roughest of outlines. He looked around, trying to figure out where he was.
He was in a square room. It was dark. The only light came from two blue strips running along the side walls. They glowed faintly, but hardly offered much light. Dan could just make out a single door set in the wall through the gloom. It looked very solid. That was it. Nothing else was in the square room, aside from the metal chair Dan was sitting in. Somehow the plainness, the single door and single chair, the darkness… it started to scare him. What was this place?
Dan tried to get up, but fell back instantly, a terrible sensation in his stomach. His arms… something was wrong with his arms. They felt… wrong. He could feel them, and he could feel the chair they rested on through them, but it was as if the senses were dulled somehow. His fingers also seemed very clumsy to him, and both arms felt oddly heavy. Dan looked down.
They seemed to be covered in thick metal gloves. Dan felt a surge of relief. He lifted one and looked at it. It seemed normal enough. There was no more electricity coursing up and down it, and the pain was gone. Curious as to why he was wearing gloves, Dan tried to pull it off. It wouldn’t move. It seemed to be glued as tightly to his skin as if it belonged there. Dan gave up after a few seconds and just looked at it, wondering. It was a curious glove, covering his hand and going all the way up his forearm, stopping about two inches from his elbow. There was an identical glove on the other arm.
The door opened.
Dan scrambled back, but then relaxed as a familiar figure entered the room, closing the door behind her. It was RR.
RR was a soulborg and, until last night, the only other actual person Dan had ever met. She had been with him since the beginning, and even though he had seen her only a handful of times, Dan felt at ease when she was around. He knew she would never hurt him.
RR was comprised of dark gray metal plates, and an occasional dark blue one. Her eyes, glowing softly from behind a protective screen, were a calming shade of yellow. Aside from the fact that she was metal, she was humanoid, complete with a head, legs, and hands. She now approached Dan.
“Explain,” she said shortly, pulling up a chair seemingly from nowhere and sitting down in front of him. Her voice was not metallic or robotic as one might expect. It sounded perfectly natural, like the voice any woman might have.
Dan knew what she meant. “I was bored,” he said. “I just wanted to see the sky again, but I couldn’t get out. I was bored, and I didn’t know what the Barrier would feel like.”
“So you just jumped at it? Just because you were curious?”
Dan nodded. It was more or less the truth. Something told him that RR didn’t need to know the whole story.
RR sighed. “You can’t do that again. Do you understand, Dan? You must never touch that Barrier again.”
“But I— Wait,” Dan said, realizing something, “you said the Barrier would kill me!”
“It nearly did,” RR said. “We got there in time, but a little longer and you would have been beyond our care. As it is, your arms…” She gestured to the gloves.
Dan looked at them. “What? Why do I have gloves?”
“Those… aren’t gloves, Dan. They’re your arms now.”
Dan stared at the gloves. His arms? What did RR mean? His arms were right here, inside these gloves.
“The Barrier you jumped at is a reactive pulse field,” RR said. “It works by utilizing compressed shockwaves to knock back anything it touches. The force is very powerful. If an object stays in contact with the field for very long, like your arms… well, human tissue isn’t designed to withstand that many pulses per second. Seventy percent of your arms were useless by the time we got you down.”
“Useless?” Dan repeated. “I can use them just fine.” He lifted his arms and opened and closed his fingers to show her.
“Your bones were fragmented, Dan.” RR said. “Your muscle fibers were torn apart. Your veins were gone. Your nerves were overloaded. Your tissue was turned to liquid. A little longer and there wouldn’t have been any arms left to salvage.
“We repaired you with soulborg technology.” RR tapped her own metal arm. “We were able to fix the muscles and bones, but the nerve damage was extensive. The pulse field overloaded them so quickly that they couldn’t sense much fine input through all the static feedback. We had to set up a resonator in each arm – a small-scale replica of the pulse field – to imitate the effects. That way the nerves sense what they expect, and can tell the variations which are sensory inputs. You won’t feel things quite the same way ever again, Dan, but at least you’ll feel something.”
Dan looked at his gloves again. “These are my arms?” he wondered aloud.
“They’ll be as good as the ones you were born with,” RR said. “A bit stronger, a bit sturdier, but a bit less sensitive to what they’re feeling. You’ll have to get used to them. You can do that later, however. Right now, we need to talk about you.”
“What about me?” Dan asked, still looking at his glove-arms.
“Do you want to leave your home?”
The question caught Dan off guard. “Do I — Leave — What? No! Of course I don’t want to leave!”
“Then why didn’t you get in the SR Unit this morning?”
“I was excited.”
“I just wanted to see the sky again. To feel the sand. It was totally different than the SR Unit. I could feel the sand pushing against me, it was—”
“Stop.” RR held up a hand. “Dan, listen to me. You must not leave.”
“You are safe here.”
“I was safe out there, too.”
“You were abducted and nearly blown up. You were very far from being safe.”
“But… But Darren seemed like a friend. I liked him.”
RR was silent for a moment. Then she got up, and leaned forward close to Dan. “Look at my shoulder,” she said.
Dan looked, and as he did so, the metal changed, fading, warping, until a red shape was visible. It was the outline of a red triangle, with a smaller triangle attached to each edge. He looked up at RR expectantly.
“That is the symbol of a friend, Dan,” RR said, sitting back down. “Whenever you see that symbol, you will know that you can trust the one who carries it. Anyone who does not wear that symbol, or carries a different one, is an enemy. Do you understand me, Dan? You cannot trust them.”
“But Darren wasn’t an enemy,” Dan protested. “He kept me safe.”
“No, Dan,” RR said. “He took you away from us. He took you where it is dangerous.”
“But…” Dan remembered what Darren had said. “But there’s nothing out there. I saw it, RR. It’s just a bunch of sand.”
“There is more than a bunch of sand out there, Dan,” RR said, her tone serious. “If you try to leave again, I cannot guarantee your protection.”
“What do you mean?” Dan asked. “What’s out there?”
RR’s eyes flashed briefly brighter. “Redacted.”
Redacted. Dan’s heart quickened at the word. He had only heard it mentioned with one other topic before.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean redacted. I can’t tell you what’s out there, Dan. It’s for your own safety.”
“Enough.” RR held up a metal hand. “I’m doing this for your own protection, Dan. Do not try to leave again. Even if you were to get past the Barrier, there is no way out of this place. Do you understand me? No way out.”
Dan had no memory of being returned to his Home. In fact, he couldn’t remember anything after RR had spoken to him. It had happened a few times before, so Dan knew that the soulborgs had wiped a portion of his memory. The next thing he knew after speaking to RR, he was sitting on his bed, watching the Barrier with a frown. RR’s words still echoed in his head. No way out. No way out.
“Why are they keeping you from getting out? Because there’s something to keep you from.”
Dan remembered Darren’s words. RR could say what she liked, but Dan had seen what was out there. For the first time in his life, he began to doubt RR. Maybe Darren was right. Maybe she was trying to keep him from something. Then there was the matter of ‘redacted’.
One of the first things Dan could remember asking RR was where his parents were. The answer had always been the same: ‘redacted’. Who they were, what they were like, why he couldn’t remember them, the answer was always ‘redacted’. Dan knew what the word meant, but he had come to associate it with his family. Now that he knew whatever was outside his home was also ‘redacted’, he couldn’t help but wonder: what if his family was out there too? What if his parents were waiting for him somewhere beyond that dune?
It was probably a foolish hope, but Dan chose to hope for it all the same. It gave him something to do. And he did want to know who his parents were, and why he couldn’t remember them. Until Darren had shown him the outside world, it was in fact the only thing he had wanted.
Dan clung to that hope throughout the rest of the day. He sat on his bed and imagined what his parents might look like. He pictured cresting the dune of sand and seeing them at the bottom, waiting for him.
When Dan’s dinner finally slid out of the wall, he pictured his parents eating across from him. When he crawled into his warm bed, he pictured lying next to his mother and father, wondering vaguely if that was why the bed was so big. It must be. It certainly wasn’t made for just him.
Dan thought about this. ‘Maybe that means that one day they will be here,’ he thought. ‘Maybe RR somehow knows that, and made this bed large so they would have a place to sleep.’
And so Dan’s imagination went, excited thoughts chasing excited thoughts. It was long after the lights in the ceiling had clicked off that Dan finally fell asleep, his dreams full of cresting horizons and faces he couldn’t quite recognize.