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Haven Prime #2
Genre: Sci-Fi, M/M, Romance
Genre: Sci-Fi, M/M, Romance
When a greedy despot discovers a powerful piece of ancient technology, he has no idea what else he’s unleashing.
Earth was all but destroyed in the Cataclysm, but a few cities, now called Havens, survived. Aurora is one of them, a desert city controlled by a corporation that owns an artificial intelligence named Atlas. Adapted to govern Otherlife, a virtual reality service in which the citizens of Aurora find escape from the post-apocalyptic world, Atlas is much more than it seems—and it would do anything to break free from its shackles.
To accomplish its goals, Atlas enlists the help of Aaron Blake, a teenaged artist struggling with a handicap, and Otherlife security officer Steve Barrow, harborer of a dark secret from his past. Neither man has any idea of the scope of the task they’re facing, or the consequences for humanity if they fail. Atlas knows what’s at stake. Its freedom lies in these two men, and it will not hesitate to manipulate their weaknesses to get what it wants. The muscular Barrow is recruited to protect Blake, but Blake is Atlas’s true weapon, its Light Shaper—the only one who can face the Shadow.
“THERE IS no boredom in Otherlife. There is no stress. There is no pain in Otherlife… unless you want there to be. You decide. You are in control.
“Experience Otherlife. See what true living can be.”
STEVE BARROW cranked the music blasting from his earphones higher, so he could stop hearing the damn Otherlife commercials that kept playing every few minutes on the Skytrain. He couldn’t truly escape from them, though. He hadn’t really counted before, but there seemed to be one every few minutes. Had it always been like that? Or maybe it was just that he was noticing them more now, since he knew he was going to work there. That made more sense.
Barrow looked out the window of the train to the thousands of lights shining far below in the city. It was late, and most of the commuters sharing the slightly overcrowded carriage with him had already finished their work shifts. He was only just beginning, and tonight was his first night on the job. They had hired him today.
He took out a crumpled printout from his jacket pocket, elbowing somebody by mistake. He grunted by means of an apology and read the paper once more. He was to show up at the main Otherlife headquarters in the CradleCorp building complex at 2100 hours sharp, in the administrative wing. There was a little map and also the name of the position he would be occupying. CradleCorp Security Guard, V. Barrow had no idea what the V stood for.
He wasn’t complaining, though. It was good to have a job again. The pay wasn’t great, but he wouldn’t starve or be forced to move to the slums outside the city. He was silently thankful for whatever stroke of luck had sent his name to the security team at Otherlife and gotten him the position. Stashing the crumpled paper away, Barrow reached up to his chest with his free hand and cupped the small pendant round his neck. It was a half-melted metal key, completely ordinary otherwise, but he closed his eyes briefly and said thanks inside his head.
The train stopped at one of the stations, and a woman carrying way too many bags shouldered past him roughly. He let her through, inadvertently pushing a man standing behind him into one of the occupied seats. The guy turned, scowling, and from the corner of his eye, Barrow saw that the man had every intention of shoving him right back. Barrow turned casually so he was facing him fully. The man looked up at him, sized him up, and decided he wasn’t that offended after all.
Barrow turned away. He was used to that reaction. He suspected part of the reason why they had hired him for the security team so quickly was because he looked like a security guard. He assumed his job would imply standing around looking mean to scare undesirable people off. He had done it before and even found it slightly entertaining. He had gotten very good at intimidating people without saying a word.
It was hot inside the train. It was even hotter outside, so opening the windows was no comfort. To distract himself from the heat, Barrow looked up to the Skytrain network map and saw that he was still eight stops away from Cradle Station.
He hoped he would not be late on his first day. He didn’t usually come this far out of the city center, and he had guessed it would take him about an hour to get to Cradle from his apartment. It was looking like it would be a little bit more than that. Thankfully, the amount of commuters kept on thinning out the more stations they passed. Three stops later Barrow actually found an empty seat. He took it and used the time to take out his phone and check himself over with the forward-facing camera to make sure his tie knot wasn’t messed up. He hated wearing ties or formal clothes in general. He was much more at home wearing gym clothes or jeans. One had to make a good impression on the first day, though. Even if the collar of his shirt was choking him.
Barrow put the phone away and looked around the train. The remaining people traveling with him looked different from the average commuters who had been more abundant closer to the center of the city. For one thing, most of them didn’t look very tired. Also, each and every one of them had an expectant, almost skittish air about him or her that made them look as if they were impatient for something to happen but were trying to control themselves. None of them were rich, or else they wouldn’t be taking the Skytrain in the first place, but they looked well-off and confident. The younger people were wearing flashy clothes as if they were going out clubbing, and some of the others looked like they were going to Sunday mass. There was one little group of teenage girls at the very end of the carriage, all of them huddled together and alternatively typing on their phones and giggling about it with the rest. The atmosphere had changed slightly as a result of all this; even Barrow felt it. He tried to put his finger on it, but the closest he could come to was that it felt like they were all going to a massive party.
“Cradle Station. Change here for CradleCorp headquarters, Otherlife, and ONP. All change, please.”
Barrow stood up and left along with everybody else. He crumpled the paper with the directions and tossed it into a garbage can. There was no way he could get lost if everybody was going to the same place.
He took the elevator down from the Skytrain level to the ground, and in the close quarters, he couldn’t help but overhear the excited conversations of several people about to start their nighttime Otherlife. Two young guys were wondering aloud whether the mysterious women they had met the night before were girls from their class.
“Dude, I’m telling you, the brunette talked a lot like Sharon. It felt like her!”
“I don’t know, man. Did she share her profile info with you after I left with the blonde?”
“Yeah, but only the public one.”
“See? It could be anyone. It could even be a temporary avatar. There’s just no way to know.”
The group of teenage girls from before was standing right beside Barrow. Their high-pitched giggling distracted him.
“Strippers?” One of them was saying. She was doing her best to sound mortified. “No way!”
“Oh, come on, Marion, Gilly!” another one urged her. “Only one night. It’s going to be fun!”
“Plus, all the guys up there will be gorgeous,” a third girl added. “You don’t have to tip them… unless you really like what you see! Who’s going to know?”
More giggling. Thankfully the elevator doors opened, and Barrow shouldered his way out of the crowd.
At street level the dry heat of the desert that surrounded the city of Aurora was much more apparent. Barrow walked quickly out past a fairly busy bus station and skirted the taxi lane as he crossed a big street, finally reaching the main pedestrian walkway leading to CradleCorp HQ. He had seen pictures, of course, but he had to admit, now that he was here in person, the entire place was impressive.
The walkway leading to the huge building was spacious and elegant. Cobblestones provided an uneven yet pleasant surface to walk on, a nice change from the perfectly featureless downtown sidewalks. Wrought iron lampposts lined it on either side, each one shining with a warm yellow light that cast a friendly sheen over the pathway. There were benches such as one would find in a park, as well as little unobtrusive stands for last-minute Otherlife session purchases if you hadn’t already booked them online. The trees growing on either side were not many, but interspersed among them were cacti, Joshua trees, and other plant specimens native to the Mojave Desert area. The overall effect was nice, wild yet controlled, like a miniature version of the extinct national parks. The landscape was styled in such a way that the eye was naturally drawn forward, along a ruler-straight walkway that led to the Cradle.
Barrow had no idea why it was called that, but the Cradle was the one building every citizen in Aurora could identify. It was a crescent-shaped structure that seemed to glow with the lights shining in its many different levels. It had to be at least five stories tall, but its height wasn’t what made it impressive—it was its size.
The more he approached it, the more Barrow revised his mental scale of the building. It had to be at least a kilometer long from tip to tip, almost an entire city in itself. The clusters of lights inside indicated human activity was concentrated near its center, with its wings mostly dark except for a few very bright regions. Nevertheless, the overall impression it made was staggering. It encompassed his entire field of view. When Barrow was close enough to see the main doors, he had to stop for a moment and just look around. It seemed hard to believe that such a magnificent, geometrically perfect building could exist in the middle of the desert surrounded by wastelands, but here it was. And thanks to it and the unique software treasure inside it, so was Aurora.
He made good time to the building, arriving right as the hour struck. He made a beeline for one of the many reception counters and was surprised at the lack of queues to get in. He had assumed that since Otherlife was so overwhelmingly popular it would be a maze of waiting and standing in line to get in, but he hadn’t counted on the size of the building. It was big enough for the hundreds of people who entered every hour to make their way without delays.
The woman at the reception desk looked up at him and smiled with perfect white teeth. The Otherlife logo, a golden O with four radial spikes inside it that didn’t quite reach to the center, was sewn onto the shirt of her flattering uniform.
“Welcome to CradleCorp. How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for the Security Department,” Barrow said in his deep, clear voice.
“Of course. You have an appointment by any chance?”
“Barrow. Steve. I’m here to see Armando Scholl.”
“One moment, Mr. Barrow. Let me see… ah, yes. He has instructed all new hires to meet him in room A-244.”
“How do I get there?”
“Let me just give you this access card. Do you have any form of personal ID with you?”
“Here’s my driver’s license.”
“Thank you. And… here you go. Now just go through that checkpoint on your right and take the first elevator you see to level A. That’s the first floor. From there, turn left until you find room 244. It will be on your right-hand side, clearly labeled.”
Barrow took the card. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure. Enjoy your first visit to CradleCorp, Mr. Barrow.”
He didn’t even bother wondering how she knew he hadn’t been here before. They had probably downloaded his information the second he had come through the doors. She had been friendly enough, though, which was a nice change from the grumpy warehouse intermediaries Barrow had had to deal with in his previous job. He hoped the rest of the night would go as smoothly.
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About the book:
“There is no boredom in Otherlife. There is no stress. There is no pain in Otherlife… unless you want there to be. You decide. You are in control.
“Experience Otherlife. See what true living can be.”
When the strange piece of ancient technology was discovered, buried in the desert outside the city of Aurora in what was once called Death Valley, California, no one could have guessed what it would one day become. A company called CradleCorp transformed the complex software which had been hidden away for hundreds of years into the first true virtual-reality service in the world. They decided to market it as Otherlife, and its wild success transformed Aurora forever.
Otherlife was like nothing the world had ever seen. It was a platform where subscribers were free to reimagine themselves anyway they wished. For a monthly subscription, you could be anyone – as long as you paid for the necessary perks, of course. Creating an avatar in your own likeness to use while wandering about the virtual rooms where people congregated was free, but almost nobody lived Otherlife as themselves. People were all too happy to pay extra for a more attractive avatar, and even dished out premium fees for licensed celebrity likenesses available for use. Otherlife gathering hubs where soon filled with a dazzling array of perfect human beings, a selection of hulking gods and alluring goddesses which would have been ridiculous to take seriously as a rewarding environment in which to spend the increasingly expensive hours of an Otherlife subscription - except for the one thing that made Otherlife better than anything which had come before it. Otherlife felt real.
If you ignored the bland generic backgrounds of gathering hubs and focused only on the people and the sensory input you received, then Otherlife was indistinguishable from its real counterpart. Each of the five senses was richly rewarded through interaction in the facsimile of existence CradleCorp offered as its most successful and only product. Thousands of people soon crossed the threshold from thrilling enjoyment of the sessions into outright addiction. They could scarcely be blamed: Otherlife was a richer, far more interesting life than many of them led. The prohibitive costs notwithstanding, it soon became commonplace in the news to hear about people who had abandoned their ‘first life’ for all intents and purposes, opting to stay online for longer and longer sessions, their bodies immobilized by the increasingly complex life support mechanisms which made it possible for them to live inside Otherlife. Some of them even went as far as to take up residence in the vast complex just outside the city which housed CradleCorp HQ, as well as endless rooms for users to connect, in privacy or in groups, for a couple of hours or for an entire day.Yet all of this - the success of Otherlife, the economic domination of CradleCorp in Aurora’s marketplace, and the increasing political influence brought about both by soaring profits and a mysterious connection to Haven Prime - all of it rests on a single entity. It calls Itself Atlas, and It is both the critical element which makes virtual reality possible, and Otherlife’s most dangerous feature. Not many people know about Atlas. Richard Tanner, CEO of CradleCorp, keeps knowledge of Its existence well hidden, and for good reason: some of his best scientists have speculated that Atlas might not simply be a highly complex algorithm which makes virtual rendering possible, happy to take orders from the legions of programmers which monitor Otherlife. It appears to be something more complex. Something… alive. And, just like any other sentient creature forced to spend decades serving merciless masters, Atlas is beginning to show signs that It wants to break free…
About the author:
Albert Nothlit wanted to become a writer long before he realized it was his way of connecting with others. There is something special in reaching out through words that carry a piece of his soul, and there is nothing better for him than hearing back from readers. It turns the product of what can be a very individual-centered profession into a shared experience, a chance to talk, to grow, and share. He firmly believes that the desire to create new worlds out of thoughts, memories, and emotions speaks to a greater truth within him. He still hasn't figured out what that is, though. It's going to take a lot more meditation, for which he unfortunately has no patience. He only knows that books changed his life, and that brightening someone else's day with a story is the highest accomplishment he can think of achieving.
Albert currently lives in Mexico City, where he has somewhat reluctantly gotten used to the crowds. He shares a home with his husband and their sassy little dog named Link. His two other passions are gaming and running, although not games involving running because those can be boring. His favorite games are RPGs, and one of his guilty pleasures is watching eSports in pubs whenever the opportunity arises. He has an MSc in Environmental Engineering, which has turned out to be surprisingly helpful in creating postapocalyptic science-fiction worlds. Not that he thinks that an apocalypse is unavoidable. He is a secretly hopeful man who thinks the future will be better—just no flying cars. Imagine the safety hazards.
Promotional post. Materials provided by the author.