Dan felt like he should have heard something. He definitely should have heard the machine crash. He knew he should have heard the sand which blasted into it. He should have heard the explosions as flames burst into existence along the walls. But the only thing he heard was a faint click, as Darren crawled over to him and pressed a button, releasing the straps holding him.
Without his hearing, Dan somehow felt removed from everything. He let Darren pick him up and haul him out of the smoking machine. He let himself be set on the sand while Darren went back into the machine, and emerged a moment later carrying cases and equipment.
Dan looked up at the immense sky above him. It was even bigger now, since Dan wasn’t looking at it through a hole. There were more lights in it. The white ones stayed put, but there were a few red and blue ones chasing each other, occasionally launching golden lights at each other. Dan watched them curiously.
“We should move back here.”
Dan jumped as Darren spoke. He had heard him. Very faintly, but he had heard him. He could hear flames now, too, and feel an intense heat coming from the machine, which was lying on its side in the sand.
Darren pulled Dan away from the flames, and across a stretch of sand. Dan struggled to move forward. He didn’t really sink in the sand, but it kept shifting and sliding beneath his feet. Sand in the SR Unit mostly stayed put. More than once Dan slipped and almost fell, but Darren kept a grip on his arm. Together they moved up over a small dune and down the other side, and finally found a large rock, behind which they crouched.
“We’ll be safe here,” Darren said. “For now. Someone will pick us up.”
Darren’s words didn’t make much of an impression on Dan. He was far too interested in the sand and the sky. He preoccupied himself for a minute, watching sand run through his fingers, until he looked up, searching for Mother. He had never been disappointed: she was always watching. That was why, when after glancing about frantically and realizing she wasn’t there, Dan got truly afraid. For the first time, he realized he was beyond his home.
“Darren!” he cried, leaping to his feet. “Where am I?”
Darren pulled him down. “Keep down!” he hissed. “They’ll see you.”
Dan blinked. “Who?” he asked, his curiosity temporarily outweighing his fear.
“Soulborgs,” Darren replied. “There’ll be scouts out here soon. We don’t want to be found by them.”
Soulborgs. The name was familiar. Dan remembered after a moment. RR was a soulborg. She had said so.
“Why don’t we want the soulborgs to find us?” Dan asked.
Darren looked at him. “Because… What do you mean? You just escaped from them.”
“Don’t you know you were in a prison?”
None of this was making any sense. The last thing Dan knew, he was in his bed, asleep and happy.
“Look,” Darren said, turning to him, “the soulborgs aren’t your friends. They have imprisoned you in that tiny cell you call home. You think it’s a good life, but that’s just because you don’t know anything else. Listen: the soulborgs are your enemies. They want to control you, your life, your thoughts, your very emotions. My friends and I fight them. We’re trying to free you and the others like you, so that you can know what life really is.”
Dan hadn’t understood much of this. There was only one thing which lodged in his mind:
“There are others like me?”
“Other prisoners, yes.”
“You’ll see them, once someone comes for us. We’ve saved hundreds. Maybe thousands. It isn’t easy, but we won’t give up. We need to do this.”
Darren scratched his head. “Because most of them don’t even realize they are slaves, imprisoned. They don’t realize what they’re missing. They deserve that much. It’s only right.”
Dan was confused. It must have shown on his face.
“Alright,” Darren said. “Look over there.” He pointed to the horizon.
In the darkness, Dan spotted for the first time the point where the sand met the sky. It rose up and down to the left and to the right, peaking in great dunes and falling away in sheer valleys. Dan had seen something similar many times in the SR Unit, though it had never seemed quite so vast, extending forever on both sides. In the SR Unit the horizon had always seemed flat; out here the distance felt real, the horizon far off. He looked expectantly back at Darren.
“What’s out there?” Darren asked. “What’s beyond that horizon?”
“Beyond?” It must be said that the whole concept of things existing where Dan couldn’t see them was one he had never thought of, much less understood.
“Beyond,” Darren repeated. “We’re on this side of the horizon. What’s on the other side?”
Dan blinked, suddenly understanding what Darren was saying. There was a whole desert on the other side of those dunes? A whole world? Dan shrank back. To someone who had lived in as small a room as he had, the idea of so much space was frightening.
“It’s nothing to be scared of,” Darren said. “You should be excited about it.”
“Why?” Dan asked, still looking warily at the horizon.
“Because anything could be out there. Literally anything. Think about that for a second.”
Dan did think about it. He found the idea frightening.
Darren pointed in a different direction. “Look back there,” he said. “That’s where you came from.”
Dan looked in the direction Darren was pointing, and saw a mass of brilliant white lights and low gray buildings. He had come from there?
“Those are soulborg buildings. Prison complexes. See the fences and walls?”
Dan looked. He did see fences and walls. They surrounded all the buildings. They were high, and some of them had spikes on the top. Nothing could get past them.
“Now,” Darren said. “Why do you think those walls are there?”
Dan thought for a moment. “To keep us safe? To keep bad things out?”
“Bad things?” Darren echoed. “Look around. There’s nothing out here. No, those walls are there to keep you in. The soulborgs don’t want you to leave. They want to control you. They need to control you.”
Dan was getting confused. “But why don’t they want us to leave?” he asked.
Darren pointed to the horizon. “That’s why. You want to know why they have fences and walls? It’s to keep you from reaching that horizon and seeing what’s beyond it. It’s to keep you from realizing that you’re actually a prisoner. It’s to keep you from looking over the edge of that horizon, and realizing that there is a whole life waiting for you, a life you didn’t even know existed. Why are they keeping you from getting out? Because there’s something to keep you from.”
Dan didn’t know how to react to this. His mind was still too preoccupied with sky and sand to really process what Darren was saying. That and the fact that one of the blue lights in the sky was growing bigger had him distracted.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the growing light.
“Run!” Darren yelled the instant he saw the light. “The soulborgs have found us! Run!”
“Where?” Dan cried, afraid in the sudden chaos.
“To the horizon! Run, and don’t stop until you’re on the other side. Someone will find you there.”
“Go!” Darren shouted, giving Dan a shove in the right direction.
Dan ran. Or he tried to. He had never run in actual sand before, and was soon stumbling and floundering. He kept the horizon in sight, however, and made for it, starting to climb a massive sand dune which was in his way. He didn’t look back. Not when he heard a terrible crash. Not when he heard a strangled cry. Not even when he heard heavy footfalls behind him. He kept climbing the dune until there was a brilliant flash of light, and all sensation ceased. Darkness took him, and Dan faded from consciousness.