A SHADOW moved, and the scientist screamed. He shut his eyes tight and stood there trembling.
No. No. It’s not there, it can’t be. It’s not there!
He did not want to open his eyes and see it, but the alternative was worse. Fear won out, and he parted his eyelids cautiously. His gaze darted all around, and his breathing came in shallow, short gasps.
The shadow was gone.
The scientist breathed a shaky sigh of relief and clutched the little quantum drive he still carried in his right hand a bit less tightly. He was alone. That was good. Maybe he had imagined the shadow. Or maybe it still hadn’t found him.
He started walking again, making his way along the abandoned hallways of the laboratory. His footsteps echoed on the metal plates of the floor, and eerie creaking noises were awakened by his passage. The lighting overhead was uneven, neon tubes flickering in some places and completely burned out in others. The ceiling was low and curved, as it had always been, but now the scientist felt as if it would crush him. It was as if the ceiling were trying to remind him of how deep underground he was, trying to whisper there was no way out. That he was the last one left alive.
The quantum drive dug into his palm painfully, but he welcomed the sensation. It was a distraction for his mind, at least. There was still one thing he had to do, and he knew he had to hurry. His footsteps picked up speed, and his lab coat trailed behind him as he rushed through the many corridors that he knew by heart. He passed a few dead soldiers on the way, lying facedown or clutching their weapons or on their backs staring up at the ceiling with sightless eyes. The scientist did not want to look, but he couldn’t avoid it. He knew all of them by name, and seeing each one’s corpse drove a fresh spike of fear-tinged pain into his heart.
He reached a very long corridor eventually. It was the way into the mainframe, the cradle room itself. On the other side of the corridor was the door he was looking for, within reach at last.
The shadow was there waiting for him.
The scientist nearly laughed, but all that came out of his throat was a croak of horrified desperation. There was nothing casting that shadow on the door across the hallway, and it didn’t come from behind the flickering, broken lights overhead. It was a shape too solid to be imaginary. It wasn’t moving this time, and much of it was hidden by normal darkness. It was hard to tell what it was… but it did have a head.
The scientist knew it was watching him. He also knew he had to get through the door and deliver the lockdown program to the mainframe before it was too late. He could not let the shadow get into the servers. Enough people were already dead.
He took a step, and then another. His feet felt like lead as he approached the door that the thing was guarding. Recent memories of his ruined city flashed through his mind as he forced himself forward. He relived the surprise of seeing the horrible newsfeed images and the crushing devastation of certainty that followed. He thought of the dumbstruck hopelessness everyone at his outpost had shared as the missiles were launched without anyone authorizing it. There had been nothing they could have done. And now they were all dead.
The scientist realized he was crying now, although he did not know if it was for himself or for everybody he had known. He was terrified of that shape ahead, the thing he knew had caused all this, but he had to get through that door. He had to lock down the network and save the priceless software inside before it could be infected too. It was all that was left.
The scientist moaned an animal sound of horror when he realized the clicking sound had come from the shadow’s head. He could feel its eye upon him, and as the shape moved and was revealed fully, he could see it balancing gracefully upon its single segmented leg. It wanted him to come closer. And when he did, he would die as all the others had.
Something snapped in the scientist’s mind when he realized there was no way out. Like a half-forgotten dream come suddenly, he felt a moment of incongruous relief as he accepted he was going to die. He used the moment well. He gritted his teeth and forgot everything but his mission.
Then he charged at the closed door.
The shadow blurred out of sight, and the scientist crashed through the weakened door behind it. He stumbled into the room, the one place in the compound that was still working to perfection. He hurried; there was no time. He could feel the shadow coming.
He tripped once over the heavy cables connecting the experiment to its power supply and landed badly, right on his knee. He cried out in pain and tried to stand up, but the knee gave out immediately. Then he tried again, clutching at servers, and he hobbled the last few steps to the mainframe despite the pain. He fumbled with the quantum drive for an agonizing second before he gripped it tight and, with a single purposeful motion, connected it to the one unprotected port in the entire machine.
The effect was immediate. Power feeds were diverted; data streams stopped flowing. The experiment in the center of the room dimmed inside its magnetic cradle as the forced lockdown isolated it in seconds. The low, ever-present hum of machinery died down and gradually left only silence behind.
And shadows, of course. The lights were flickering now, and with each one that went out, the darkness grew more absolute.
When the last light went out, the scientist dared to hope that now he was safe. After all, there are no shadows in total darkness.
Black on black, it came for him. He sunk to the floor, whimpering, backing up against the powered-down server that could do nothing to save his life.
The shadow moved closer with awful, deadly grace.
“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.
He left and followed her directions to the nearest elevator, then hit the button and stepped inside it when it came. He saw that the floors were labeled G, then A to D. He punched the button for floor A and waited patiently for the few seconds it took the machine to lift him up one level. The doors opened smoothly, and he stepped into a very long carpeted hallway that ran from left to right. Straight ahead, huge windows gave him a somewhat commanding view of the area above the reception, and farther ahead he could see the night sky over Aurora. He turned left and started looking for room 244. There were doors set at regular intervals on his right side as he walked, all of them even and starting at 2. Then came 4 and 6. He quickened his step, realizing it would be a long walk to 244, and checked his watch to see whether he still had time to make it. Well, he would probably be a few minutes late, but nothing too serious. He doubted everybody would be on time anyway.
Ten minutes later he was passing room 212, and he was beginning to understand how vast the building really was. He had been walking quickly, nonstop and passing door after door. The occasional windows that let him see inside the rooms were mostly dark, although many had been occupied from rooms 2 until around 98 or so. In that area, the hallway had widened and branched many times over on either side, leading to rooms that he quickly found were not what he was looking for. They were mostly labeled with letters instead of numbers, and the people inside coming and going had all been customers. Since it was a relatively busy time of night, some of the hallways had been packed. Barrow had had to squeeze himself between more people than he would have liked several times already, trying to find a way to get back to the main hallway. Eventually he had done it, with relief. The only problem was that he was now really late. He had since passed the busy areas of the building on this level, though, and he had only come across a few people going the other way for the last couple of minutes or so. He looked at his watch again. Well, no sense hurrying up now. He would just apologize and say he had gotten lost. If they kicked him out, fine. He didn’t really like this place anyway, or the entire Otherlife escapist philosophy. He was only here because he desperately needed money.
He made it, finally, and barged inside without knocking. He found himself in a very big room that looked nothing like what he had expected. He had been visualizing a conference room or something, with somebody in a suit lecturing them or maybe handing out information for them to memorize. Instead he was in what looked like the operations control center of a big airship. The walls on two sides were gigantic monitors partitioned into smaller areas that showed all kinds of different information. There were scattered work terminals in which people were seated, typing away, talking over the phone, or otherwise looking very busy. The place was set in three tiered levels, with the highest level being the one where Barrow was standing, directly outside the door. From his vantage point, he could see not only the terminals on the middle level but also what looked like a row of oddly lit chairs at the very back of the bottom level that had bizarre-looking helmets hanging above them. They were arranged in a semicircle, and several of the chairs were occupied, although more than half were still empty. A single chair faced the others, at the center of what would have been the circle the chairs were making. It had a bulkier setup than the others and looked more like a pilot’s seat than a normal seat.
The top level was empty aside from a row of lockers set against one of the dark walls. Lights hung from the ceiling, but they were dim, and most of the illumination came from the bright monitors of the screens set around the terminal operators. There was a single big open area behind the strange chairs at the very bottom, where some people were casually talking in groups of two or three. Aside from them, though, the atmosphere in the room was one of frantic activity. It was far from quiet, with the air full of voices, electronic sounds, and the occasional monotone computer message. Barrow was familiar with operations control centers from his previous job, but a quick look at the information displayed on the monitors showed him that he couldn’t understand any of it. It looked like they were monitoring stuff, and if he had to guess, he would have said they were probably keeping an eye on the users inside Otherlife’s network, but he wasn’t sure.
Barrow looked around, hoping to find the chief of security somewhere. There was no sign of Armando Scholl, though. Also, everybody was ignoring him.
With nothing better to do, Barrow descended to the lowest level where some scattered people were talking. He assumed those were the new hires, like him, and he was not mistaken.
“Hey,” Barrow asked the nearest one. “Are you here for training?”
The blonde woman nodded. She was dressed formally, for the induction they all assumed they would be having. “We all are. The security chief had an emergency to attend to. We’re waiting for him to return.”
The man with glasses next to her gestured to the chairs impatiently. “It’s been almost half an hour. I honestly have no idea what they are doing in there.”
Barrow followed the man’s gesture to the occupied chairs. He realized for the first time those chairs were connection terminals to Otherlife, very similar to the ones that customers would normally use. He had seen the commercials on TV often enough to recognize the helmets, only here they seemed either much older or a different type of build, without the smooth glossy finishes of the advertisements. Complicated arrays of cables sprouted from the back of the helmets and rose to a central node set on the ceiling of the room, each cable twisting and braiding itself with the others. The operators who were connected were all wearing the Security Department uniform too. And the man seated in the center had to be the Chief of Security.
As he was checking them out, the main operator chair made a powering-down noise. Barrow and the others stepped closer, and after a pause of a few seconds, Armando Scholl, Chief of Security in Otherlife, took off the helmet and opened his eyes.
He stood up stiffly from the chair, already surveying them with calculating brown eyes. He was scowling, his mouth set in a thin straight line, and Barrow was uncomfortably reminded of a prison warden’s appraising look as Scholl looked at each of them in turn. Aside from Barrow, there were five others. Barrow was the tallest of the lot, and at that moment standing out felt like a disadvantage.
Scholl cleared his throat.
“Evening, and welcome to Otherlife. My name’s Armando Scholl. For as long as you last in this job, I’ll be your boss. I already know all your names, so we won’t waste time making introductions. You don’t need to know each other to do your job well in here. Any questions before we begin?”
Barrow exchanged glances with the blonde woman, who appeared to be as confused as he was. Scholl was very direct, that much was obvious. Barrow found himself liking his style.
“If not, then get moving. Pick a chair, and meet me at Hub Node 01.”
They moved. Barrow picked the closest chair and sat down, pleasantly surprised to find out that it was a recliner and much more comfortable than his couch. He grabbed the helmet hanging a few centimeters above his head with both hands and pulled it down. This was the tricky part. He had to act like he knew exactly what he was doing even if he had never connected to Otherlife. He had lied in his résumé and in his interviews to get this job, and he wasn’t going to screw himself over by asking how to connect or what “Hub Node 01” was.
He watched Scholl on the command chair as the Chief lowered the helmet over his head and pressed something once he had it in place. The thing hid his entire upper face, leaving only his nose and mouth uncovered. The helmet came alive with light, and Scholl relaxed in his chair. Loud beeps to Barrow’s left and right signaled the successful connections of the others.
Well, it couldn’t be that difficult. He lowered the helmet fully and let it cover his head.
He couldn’t see with the thing on, and the heavy padding muffled sounds. He waited for the helmet to do something, but it didn’t cooperate. What had Scholl done? He had pressed something on the outside, hadn’t he? Seconds ticked by as he felt around the outside of the helmet, blindly looking for a button to press. One of his fingers finally found a tiny lever, and he flicked it. There was a buzzing noise but nothing more.
Dammit! Where is the on switch?
His left hand finally found three buttons set directly outside his temple. He pressed first one and nothing happened. The second one, same thing. The third one, and still nothing.
“Mr. Barrow,” a voice said. It was Scholl; Barrow could hear him through the padding on his helmet. He must have disconnected to talk to him physically again. “We are about to begin training. We’re late already, and considering you arrived nearly thirty minutes after the original meeting time, further delays because of you will not be tolerated. Connect now, or get the hell out of my command center.”
Fuck. He knows I was late. How the hell does this work?
Barrow hit all three buttons on the helmet at once in desperation, and to his great relief, the machine buzzed to life. There was a brief clicking sound and slightly increased pressure as the helmet molded itself to his head. Then came the electrodes. Barrow gritted his teeth. It was good that he did, because the pain the microscopic filaments inflicted as they drilled into his skull was surprising. It was also, thankfully, very brief. He established the connection without really being aware of it.
When Barrow dared to open his eyes again, the world around him had shifted.
He was inside Otherlife at last.