As they ate, Dan had a clear view of the street outside and the wall beyond through the window he sat next to. It wasn’t long before he found himself, food finished, staring out of the window, only dimly aware of Gideon and the others talking around him.
He became so absorbed in the soldiers passing by just outside the window, the people moving back and forth across the street, and the occasional squadrons of kyrie flying across the sky, that he didn’t notice when Sharwin got up and left. Trela and Jaseff soon followed, accompanied by Ana. Soon, Dan was left sitting by himself at the table, completely unaware that he was alone.
Dan reluctantly turned his gaze from the window. The voice had come from nearby, inside the building.
Dan quickly spotted the owner of the voice. It was a man, possibly a few years older than Dan, the dark stubble of an unintentional beard clouding his otherwise tanned face. He wore the same armor as Dan, although he seemed to carry a rifle slung across his back in addition to a pistol.
“Steve? That you?” The man was looking at him.
Dan glanced around, but there was no one else nearby. He realized everyone else had left.
“I’m not Steve,” Dan said, facing the man again.
The man leaned closer, scrutinizing Dan’s face.
“Ah, sorry,” he said. “You were in the shadow. It’s your arms. I have a friend called Steve who has arms exactly like those. For a moment there, I thought…” He let his voice trail off.
“You’re Mariedian?” Dan asked.
The man nodded. “Isadoran, actually. Never been to the mother planet; too dangerous. My name’s Bern. You?”
“Mariedian,” Dan said, a hint of excitement rushing through him. He turned in his chair to fully face the man. “Vydar summoned me right out of a soulborg prison block. I’ve only seen the surface of Isadora once.”
“Really?” Bern said, leaning forwards. “Were you captured and sent there?”
Dan shook his head. “Born there,” he replied. “I got out once though. The Senry attacked and blasted a hole right in the roof of my cell.”
“Did they now?” Bern said, his voice echoing some of Dan’s excitement. “Did you escape?”
“I was too young to realize what was going on,” Dan said, “but two Mariedians came through the hole and got me out. The soulborgs recaptured me pretty quickly though… I don’t know what happened to the Mariedians.”
“I’m sure they were fine,” Bern said, waving his hand dismissively. “We know how to hide from soulborg scanners. That’s a pretty bold move though, raiding a soulborg complex directly. There aren’t too many divisions which could pull that off. You wouldn’t happen to know which one it was?”
Dan shook his head. “I didn’t have a chance to learn much of anything,” he said. “I was only out for about ten minutes.”
“Hmm. Oh,” Bern said, realizing something, “what did it look like? When you got out, I mean. Were you on the coast?”
“No,” Dan said. “There was sand everywhere. Lots and lots of sand dunes.”
“Ha!” Bern shouted, making a nearby trio of kyrie jump. They scowled at him and returned to their meal.
“That’s my division,” Bern said. “There’s only three divisions which would have the resources to do that, and only one is in a desert. Hey, I wonder if I know the guys who got you out. Did you ever hear their names?”
“One of them,” Dan said. “He was called Darren.”
“Darren…” Bern let the name roll off his tongue, thinking. “Know two or three… wait a minute. I went with a Darren on a raid once. It was a long time ago, mind you; back when I was young. Come to think of it, we blasted a hole in a prison complex, just as you described. Got a fair few prisoners out, too. At least seven before the soulborgs shut us down. I wonder if it’s the same one. What’s your name?”
“Dan,” Dan said, getting truly excited now. Darren was the one who had shown him the horizon in the first place, the one who had started everything. “I don’t think he ever asked me what my name was, though,” Dan said. “All I know is that I got out, and Darren put me on some sort of flying machine. We took off, were shot down, he told me to run… the soulborgs must have caught up with me at that point, because I never could remember what had happened after that.”
Bern sat up straighter. “That is Darren,” he said. “I was on that raid. Darren got in a craft with the first kid we got out, but was shot down. He’s fine, by the way,” he added. “Made it back to the extraction point in one piece. Said they got the kid though… that must have been you.”
Dan could hardly believe his good luck. He had never dreamed that here, on Valhalla, he would meet someone so close to his past. It almost made him feel closer to Heleer. “Tell me more,” he said. “The others; did they get out?”
“Some of them,” Bern nodded. “Most of them. The last three got nabbed by the soulborgs as we were getting them out. Pulled them right back in through the hole we had blasted. Don’t know why the soulborgs bothered though. They were already halfway out. They had seen us. They had seen Isadora.”
“Why would that matter?” Dan asked, confused.
“Right,” Bern said, “Sorry. I forgot you’d been born there.”
“I’d like to know,” Dan said. He had no intention of letting what Bern knew go to waste: he had to learn everything.
“What do you know about the soulborgs?” Bern asked.
“Not much,” Dan admitted. “I don’t even know why they imprisoned me,” he added, suddenly realizing that fact. Why hadn’t he asked NT9 about that? He supposed he had still thought he was in SR at that point…
“Well the problem with the soulborgs,” Bern said, “is that they’re unnatural. They’re a Mariedian’s mind and thoughts and emotions, plugged into a metal machine. The machine can be repaired and replaced indefinitely, but the mind cannot. Mariedians were never meant to exist forever; the soulborgs start going mad after a few hundred years.
“They tried to fix it with programming, you know, replace the brain with a computer, become machine entirely. Never worked. They couldn’t replicate the mind. They couldn’t replicate free will or creativity. They could mimic it, but never on the scale of an actual brain. So that’s why they have prison blocks.”
Dan was still confused.
“There’s hundreds of cells in each block,” Bern explained, “and anywhere from one to six Mariedians in each cell. Every single one of those Mariedians spends every day of their waking lives in a SR Unit.”
“You know about the SR Units?” Dan asked.
“Of course we do,” Bern replied. “We know of them, that is. Not how they work. All we know is that the Khyta soulborgs send their prisoners through countless simulations in those machines, and measure how they respond. They analyze their thought processes, their emotional reactions, everything. Their logic is that if they can document enough reactions, enough free-willed choices, then they can cover every possible creative spark a brain can come up with, and duplicate it. They can make their own brain. Then they won’t need Mariedians any more. They’ll be immortal, unkillable, their collective minds hidden away somewhere in some vast computer network. You’d be able to destroy their bodies, but they would just download another version of themselves into a new body and keep going like nothing ever happened.
“Like I said: soulborgs are unnatural.”
“But…” Dan paused a moment, trying to keep up with what Bern had told him. He didn’t know what half the terms meant, like ‘computer network’ and ‘download’. “They can’t do that, right? Become… immortal?”
“Nah,” Bern said. “In my opinion they’ll never be able to, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. They’re close, mind you. They’ve pushed the boundaries of science far beyond anything we ever imagined. Just the fact that they can keep the project running at all is incredible.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re trying to analyze the minds of hundreds of thousands of Mariedians,” Bern said. “Not just in the SR Units, but outside, also. They have to account for what the prisoners are thinking and feeling when they go in the units, otherwise their data would be all wrong. That’s hard enough, but just considering the logistics of keeping all those prisoners healthy and happy is staggering. The food they use alone could probably keep the whole resistance fed for a year.”
“Happy?” Dan repeated. “Why would they need to keep us happy?”
Bern shrugged. “Probably so that you don’t want to escape,” he said. “We can only guess, but that’s the best reason I know of. We do know it’s a manipulation game with them: keeping the prisoners right where they want them emotionally, so that they can get the results they want in the SR Unit. We’ve freed a few prisoners who say they lived in constant fear or pain; I can only assume the soulborgs did that to see how the results differed from a normal person. Most of the prisoners we free are happy with their lives though. They don’t even know they’re in a prison.”
Dan thought a moment. That made sense. If the soulborgs were measuring their mental and emotional responses to different situations, then it made sense that they would need a few Mariedians with different circumstances than the others, to make sure they got the full spectrum of possible reactions. Dan was instantly grateful he had been one of the normal ones. It also made sense why Dan had experienced scenarios which made him afraid, sad, or angry: the soulborgs were simply testing his responses.
Dan looked down at his gloves. Something didn’t add up. “What about these?” he asked, holding them up. “I could escape with these. Why would the soulborgs give them to me, if their whole goal is to keep us in our cells and in SR?”
“I assume you got those arms when you went up against the Barrier?” Bern guessed. Dan nodded. “It was the same way with Steve. They had captured him when he was just a kid, so he could still remember bits and pieces of the world outside. Not enough to really understand, but enough to know there was something out there. They had wiped the rest.”
“They wiped his memory?” Dan said. When he was young, parts of his memory had been erased, so he knew the soulborgs could do it. However, that created a question which for some reason, Dan had never thought of before: if the soulborgs could wipe memories, why didn’t they remove Dan’s memory of being rescued? He would have continued his life as a happy prisoner, unaware of reality. “Why didn’t they wipe all of his memory?” Dan asked. “You know – erase everything about Isadora?”
“They can’t,” Bern said. “They couldn’t wipe the whole thing, just bits and pieces. The Senry tells us that after a certain age, you can’t wipe a mind. Not permanently anyway. I suspect that’s why he could remember some things.
“Anyway, Steve knew enough to know that he wanted to get out. He tried using his gloves many times. He said he used them to break the SR Unit, pulling cords from it and stuff. He even tried to get through the wall to where the Shaft was. Dented the wall a fair bit, but never broke through. He found out his gloves could go through the Barrier pretty quickly, but that didn’t do him any good. He couldn’t reach anything, and the rest of his arm could never go past the Barrier.”
Bern sat back, observing Dan’s arms. “So why did the soulborgs give you those? Probably because they didn’t give you as much advantage as you thought they did. The most you can do is break the SR Unit, and after doing that a few times, Steve got a new one where everything was behind the wall, where he couldn’t get at it.”
Dan didn’t say anything. He glanced at his gloves, the powerful metal glinting dully in the light from the window. Maybe regular gloves would give him no advantage, but with what NT9 had done, Dan knew otherwise. He knew he could tear down the walls themselves if he wanted to. He almost wanted to go back to Isadora, just to try, just to escape. Almost.
“So you were that little kid,” Bern mused, shifting his gaze to the ceiling. “The first one we got out. Yeah, I remember you… preoccupied with the sand, weren’t you?”
Dan nodded. “That was me,” he said, a bit blankly. Bern had really been there. He was really talking to one of the people who had helped him escape. It was still a little hard to believe.
“You said they captured you again? The soulborgs?” Bern leaned forward.
Dan nodded. “Darren and I were shot down,” he said. “I woke up later back in my cell.”
“Did you ever break out again? We bombed that place plenty after that; I’m sure we got the power generator more than once.”
“You did,” Dan assured him. “The Barrier kept going on and off. That’s actually why I was summoned: I got out and RR found me.”
“She’s the soulborg who was there. I always called her RR. I don’t know what her real name is.”
“Probably a string of meaningless numbers and letters,” Bern muttered. “So,” he said, “you got out. Were you able to find out what level you were on?”
“The bottom level,” Dan answered quickly. “I kept running until I hit a wall, and the ceiling was gone above me. The hole just kept going up and up… but I was definitely at the bottom.”
“Hmm.” Bern leaned back again. “I ask because there was this plan a few years back. Never executed, because it never worked like it was supposed to. The idea was that we could launch a cyber attack against a prison block and shut down all the Barriers. Let the prisoners out and start some sort of prison break. The Khyta soulborgs have so much programming embedded in everything that it would actually be fairly easy for them to overlook a single tiny virus. Until things stopped working, obviously.
“It was a good idea, but the soulborgs had defenses on everything, and the coding was so far advanced beyond what we were capable, that we were never able to shut down so much as a camera. The most we could do was get the generators to send spikes of energy to specific Barriers. It made them flicker, but that’s about it. In the end it was the bombs which took them down.
“We still use that virus though, for the exact reason that people like you exist.”
Dan looked up, interested.
“The soulborgs have captured plenty of people who know about the outside world and want to escape. So we decided to leave them a trail. Every prison block has service tunnels connecting every level. They’re narrow, hot, and full of electrical wires, but they’re the only way out if you’re escaping. The soulborgs have no cameras in them, and won’t be able to track you. The only trouble is that the entrances are impossible to find… unless you know where to look.”
A slow smile began to creep across Dan’s face.
“We set patterns of flickering Barriers, sequences pointing to the service entrances. If you follow those and look at the base of the walls, you’ll eventually see a small metal panel which pulls away easily. Worm your way in, and keep going up. If you hit a dead-end, backtrack and take the first branch, then start going up again. Eventually you’ll hit a giant vent set in the ground. Push that away, and you’re out. As long as you don’t interrupt any systems, the soulborgs won’t know where you are. We regularly make high-altitude passes over the prisoner blocks, hoping to see anyone who’s made it out. Stick close to the wall where the cameras can’t see you, and we’ll drop in and grab you. Then you’re out.”
Excitement was beginning to rush through Dan’s veins again. “So there’s a way,” he said, almost to himself, “there’s actually a way to get out.”
“Well,” Bern said.
Dan looked up.
“I mean, none of the prisoners know about it. We can’t exactly communicate with them. The most we can hope for is that by keeping the generator down, some of them get out, and out of those, some are curious enough to see where the trail of flickering Barriers leads.”
“Have any gotten out that way?”
Bern shook his head. “Not that I know of,” he grimaced. “It’s the most we can do though.”
“What if you let the soulborgs capture one of you, and then break out? Couldn’t you spread the word that way?”
Bern shook his head again. “We tried that,” he said. “The soulborgs are too smart. They’re careful with the rebels they capture. They know that if we have so much as a second with another Mariedian, we could tell them enough to ‘damage them beyond repair’ as the soulborgs put it. They keep us in an isolated block, so even if we do break out, we can’t get to the other prisoners.
Damaged beyond repair. That was what RR had said to Dan. That must have been what she had meant: that he had learned too much, and that his desire to escape was interfering with the data from SR. But had she really been about to kill him? Would she do that?
“Dan!” Gideon appeared in the doorway. “What are you doing? We need sleep, now.”
Dan got up quickly. “I’d like to know more,” he said, as Bern got up too. “About Isadora, about the resistance, about what’s really going on.”
“Looks like you have a job to do right now,” Bern said, nodding towards Gideon, “but when you get back, ask if you can be sent wherever I’m stationed. I move around a lot, but it shouldn’t be too hard to track me down. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
“Thanks,” Dan said, moving for the doorway.
Bern waved, and then Dan lost sight of him as he stepped out of the building and Gideon shut the door.