A warm Love Bytes welcome to author Albert Nothlit who visits Love Bytes today to talk about his new DSP Publications release Light Shaper.
Hello! In celebration of the release of Light Shaper, I am happy to present character features for the two protagonists of the story.
Aaron doesn’t like his name. He is an artist, and he insists on being called Rigel even though his best friend Misha thinks it’s stupid, but she doesn’t understand. Rigel is still trying to find his place in the world, and using his self-given artistic name is a way for him to emphasize the fact that he wants to start over. Bad things have happened in his life, but he hasn’t given up hope. He can still turn over a new page. He is going to make it work – somehow.
It all started with the death of his parents. Rigel had a bad feeling as he watched them leave for Haven Prime that day, and his gut instinct turned out to be right. When the airship in which his parents were traveling was just a few kilometers away from home, it went down. There were no survivors. The police never found out why, and it was a major mystery for a while, but of course people forgot. They moved on, and only those directly affected by the tragedy remembered as years went by. Rigel was one of those people. Ever since that day, he’s had to make it on his own, even though he’s technically still a teenager. Some of his friends in college envy his freedom, like the fact he doesn’t have to answer to anyone for what he wants to do. Rigel, though, would gladly exchange all the freedom and the money he was left for one more day with his mom and dad.
And then there’s the problem with his hands. It started with mild discomfort after painting, or faint tremors after some hours of using the computer. Little by little, though, the problem got worse. Discomfort turned to pain, and it would not go away. Rigel refused to see a doctor until it was no longer an option to go on without professional help. The diagnosis he got was devastating. His hands were getting weaker all the time, and the treatment did not help. He had to drop out of college because he couldn’t keep up with the work, not when he could barely lift a paintbrush without grimacing from the pain. Now, he doesn’t know what to do. What good is an artist who can’t use his hands?
Barrow really needs this job. He was offered a position as a security officer in Otherlife, the virtual-reality service which has made Aurora the only city in the world where people can live two lives if they so wish. It’s a good job, and Barrow is confident that he can get it – if he manages to keep his past from screwing up this opportunity.
Barrow was a security officer on board the airship Titania for most of his twenties. He learned a lot, and he got to see the other Havens of the world, something very few people can claim to have done since it’s so difficult to travel in the wastelands which spread over the entire land surface of the planet, with the exceptions of the safe cities, the Havens Kyrios built for humanity centuries ago. He was good at what he did. He earned the trust of his captain, and even allowed himself to think that, although he had been nothing but a child from the slums outside Aurora, he had managed to turn his life around through dedication and hard work.
Then the incident onboard Titania happened. During his watch. He acted as he thought best, saving an innocent person in the process, but what he did was still a crime. Even though the entire crew offered to back him up, to defy the authorities even if it meant they would all be sent to prison, Barrow could not accept such a sacrifice. He left his dream job, forced to hide from the law. He has not been able to get a steady job ever since. He doesn’t regret doing what he did, because it was the right thing to do, but money is tight and he’s getting desperate. This job opportunity at Otherlife could be his last shot at rebuilding his life. He’ll make sure to get it, no matter what.
“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 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 t. 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.
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.