If you enjoy futuristic what-if books like The Hunger Games or The Matrix, give this series a read.
- Victoria Harvey, Ivy's Ecclectic Reviews
"Intriguing meld of virtual reality, species extinction, and corporate evil." - Wendy Stephens, Director, United States Board on Books for Young People
- Jessica Waggoner, Books-a-Million
"The author stayed true to the dystopian grimness of the world and kept my attention. I think I finished it in about four sittings!"
- Julie Short, Julie Short review blog
When the real world is emptied of all that you love, how can you keep yourself from dependence on the virtual?
Animal activist and punk rock star Larissa Kenders lives in a dystopian world where the real and the virtual intermingle. After the disappearance of her soulmate, Andrew, Kenders finds solace by escaping to Nirvana, a virtual world controlled by Hexagon. In Nirvana, anyone’s deepest desires may be realized - even visits with Andrew.
Although Kenders knows that this version of Andrew is virtual, when he asks for her assistance revealing Hexagon’s dark secret, she cannot help but comply. Soon after, Kenders and her closest allies find themselves in a battle with Hexagon, the very institution they have been taught to trust. After uncovering much more than she expected, Kenders’ biggest challenge is determining what is real – and what is virtual.
Nirvana is a fast-paced, page-turning young adult novel combining elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance. Part of a trilogy, this book introduces readers to a young woman who refuses to give up on the man she loves, even if it means taking on an entire government to do so. Are you ready to enter Nirvana?
Read an Excerpt
By J.R. Stewart, Talia Crockett, Christine Szarmes
Blue Moon PublishersCopyright © 2015 J.R. Stewart
All rights reserved.
"IT WORKED!" Andrew rubs my hands together. "How did it feel?"
Even though a strong pressure is still pushing on my head, I assure him, "Like a cooling sensation running throughout my body. As if someone turned a tap on."
Andrew's use of an implanted, microscopic wireless device that links neural activity directly to electronic circuitry still needs some tweaking. He's always pushing the envelope for this virtual reality system, and he keeps any changes close to his belt until he's completely beta tested everything, so we are the guinea pigs.
Not that I mind–everyone has some kind of nanotechnology in their body–but we are the only ones who have them in our brains. Nanobots are used within circulatory systems to destroy tumours and regulate blood pressure, but Andrew's research takes science beyond medical treatment. Andrew is the head programmer for Nirvana, so he can do things differently. Usually this kind of research would be conducted on lab animals, but that's where my influence has changed his procedures.
"Look at me." His brown eyes search mine. "You can see everything?"
I nod. And then I do a short dance to test every limb, all a part of our startup procedure.
Nirvana is a refuge from the real world, which has growing complications regarding the stability of our environment and life in general, not to mention a crumbling economy and massive unemployment rate. It's Hexagon's virtual reality system, a way they keep the populace placated and appeased while they exert absolute rule and control.
While it's a difficult time in the world for many people, I can still eek out a living as a musician. People need entertainment and an escape, and although we don't have the glitzy concert venues of the past, we still offer music in the dreary concrete halls of bunker complexes.
In Nirvana, however, things are different. Programmers code at a fast pace to recreate the world as it once was. They pull in images, video feeds, and audio to superimpose into a virtual world that feels as real as the one we knew just a few years ago, before the Extinction happened.
Right now, my nanobot produces a virtual image of the screen that is augmented in my field of vision. Eventually, Andrew wants this operating system to be controlled by a person's own thoughts, but for now it's linked to the curved touchscreen on my watch. To the average person it looks like a regular watch, but a small holographic disc on the buckle is my connection between the virtual and real worlds. Ours is a holographic world, with holo-phones, holo-albums, holo-readers; you name it.
We're standing outside of Madison Square Garden on a warm summer evening, with crowds of people pouring out of Penn station, yellow cabs streaming by, and smoke billowing from the hot dog vendor's stand.
"Remember," I say to Andrew, "when we camped out all night to get tickets for that benefit concert?"
Andrew squeezes some mustard on his hot dog and hands it to me. "You vowed you'd play here the next time one was held!"
"That was before the Extinction. There's no Madison Square Garden anymore. Not even New York."
He puts his arm around me and leads me to the front doors of the arena. "Not in Nirvana. Here, everything exists." He stops, and directs my attention to the marquee. "I built this one especially for you."
I look up and see the posters. "Sixty Sextet Our World Benefit Concert" towers above a larger-than-life bee symbol in intense colours. On another poster, there's Lexie and I. We're in one of our most famous concert shots: Lexie straddling the drum stool, and me executing my signature dance move with legs splayed out in a mid-jump.
"It's a great facade," I say encouragingly.
"Facade?" Andrew's voice holds a tinge of surprise. "I've recreated everything, right down to the 76 Balcony and the iconic Garden ceiling."
He leads me into the Chase Square entrance from 7th Avenue, where previous Sixty Sextet concerts play on the ceiling video screens, and the bee symbol is splattered over an array of merchandise. I stop to look at the t-shirts and sweatshirts, the ball caps and purses, the holo-albums and holo-phone cases. I turn back to Andrew.
"How long did it take you to do this?"
"That's what my late nights were for during the last weeks." His smile reaches from ear to ear at my surprise. "Nothing but the best for my fiancée."
I pick up a concert program. On the back are a number of previous concert images and reviews from the university circuit and smaller venues we had played in Toronto, like the Horseshoe Tavern and the Rivoli:
"Larissa Kenders is one of those raw, expressive musicians whose work makes you feel like an addict. There are not many artists with a voice this vibrant and alive."
"Sixty Sextet seeps into your skin and excites your senses. Their lyrics have bite and a dark beauty that leave you longing for more."
"Lexie has led a charge through the punk community, leaving a vibrant and explosive mark in her path. Her sharp and edgy style will inspire artists for years to come."
I place the program back into the stand. As long as my music is still being heard, that's what matters, but it reaches a smaller audience now with Hexagon exacting so much control. The whole point of our music is the message.
"Thanks, Andrew. I could just stand here forever and take it in."
"You'd disappoint your fans." He points to the lineup forming outside. "It's live," says Andrew. "Old fans. New ones. It's a sold out show."
"In virtual," I confirm.
"Real life," he says with a smile. "They bought tickets to get exclusive access to this virtual concert, and can continue to do so even after tonight. It's a paid experience, and every penny goes to Our World. Hexagon has waived all revenue benefits, so one hundred percent goes to your charity." He's trying to read my face, but I'm still in shock. "It's the first virtual concert of its kind, and Sixty Sextet is paving the way."
I can't believe it. My band, here at Madison Square Garden. Here, where Elvis Presley, John Lennon, U2, all the greats through the centuries played.
"When is the concert?"
"Tonight. Makeup's waiting for you backstage. So is Lexie." I gasp. "She's here?"
Andrew chuckles. "She knew about it all along." He takes my hand and leads me toward the security team. "Happy Birthday, sweetheart."
An hour later, I'm belting out the lyrics to "This Isn't Our World" on a walkway suspended above the crowd and in between three stages. One stage, surrounded by security, is a dance floor that rotates fans from the crowd. A sea of people topple over one another to climb up for one song and grind their bodies to the music. Throughout the whole song, I dance between the two stages to connect with each end of the arena.
For the next song, Lexie straddles the drums in her true fashion while I belt out "Sinkhole," haughtily tossing back my head, fast, cutting, and assured. The searchlights scan over thousands of happily screaming, dancing fans while the camera zooms in on them, projecting their faces on the screens. The crowd is full of teens and preteens, and to my surprise, older adults.
We play through all of our songs, with animated renderings, digital projections, and other effects that Andrew created for me. For our finale, the lights dim and there's only one spotlight on Lexie, with her spare and stirring drumbeat, and another on me. I start into "Honey," a song we haven't played since it was banned by Hexagon, but here in Nirvana, all is possible. A movable catwalk descends, with long screens on either side, running the length of the arena floor and rotating images of our world a decade ago. As the lyrics take us through the Extinction, the images change to show the depleted plant life, the dying animals, the erosion, and then the floods. I can't believe that Andrew has created all of this for me. I walk slowly as if on a funeral march, passing between the screens as through a hallway. In the crowd, lights are flickering, and there isn't one sound until I invite our fans to sing the chorus with us.
"Honey, we still taste you,
Earth, we still need you ..."
As I head back to the stage, I stop in front of the first screen depicting an image of the current Lake Erie, its lakefront one-sixth of its original size, with dead fish floating on the surface. My silhouette is visible in the projections on the screen, and I hold up my hand in a salute.
"Coho Salmon, we still taste you,
Lake Erie, we still need you."
I turn and gesture to the crowd, and the new chorus is repeated. I continue toward the stage, stopping in front of each screen as it rotates through all of the images. I salute each animal, each natural landscape, with the crowd echoing the chorus, while Lexie builds the drumbeat into a crescendo. Fans storm the dance stage, jumping into the crowd with every salute, turning the floor into the largest mosh pit I've ever seen. Lexie slows down the drumbeat, bringing the crowd back to what's important, and we dim all the lights, with only the images on the screen illuminating the entire stadium.
Then I say, "Never forget. Every one of you ... we all ... are punk rockers for the cause that matters." Lexie gives one last drumbeat and we leave the stage.
I still can't believe that Andrew created this gift for me, a stage that worked visually, sonically, and thematically for all of my music. I run backstage to thank him, but he's nowhere to be found.CHAPTER 2
I WAKE up in bed, alone. I look around me to get my bearings until I see a familiar photo of Andrew and I on the night table. I'm home. In our bed. I sigh and lay my head back down on the pillow.
When I'm in Nirvana, I don't want to come back here. I've known this green world longer than the desolate one in which we now live, and I'm always hopeful that I'll open my eyes and find out it's been a bad dream. How can plants be gone? How can plentiful food no longer exist? It all happened so quickly that I can still hardly believe it. One summer, trees that had hung heavy with pink peaches or clumps of juicy cherries were empty. In the fall, there wasn't one bright orange pumpkin patch. Then orchards with rows of red apples became only a memory. It was only wheat, rice, and corn that grew, through wind pollination. And pigs were the only livestock left. Sextets wrote songs about it. We led marches and did cross-county tours to save the bees, but nothing helped.
I kick my legs out of bed and slip into my knitted slippers. In a world where everything is so automated, I love the feel of the wool slippers knitted by my grandma when I was a girl. I pad into the dark hallway and toward a slant of light coming from the living room.
Our home is small but comfortable. The dining table is a convertible sphere-shaped cone that opens itself up, pod-like, into a round surface with two seats and a light at the centre; or, the middle section pulls out into a desk with a glowing blue light at the base. Andrew is hunched over the workspace as he usually is, a large holographic screen directly in front of him and our dog Chopper laying at his feet. What a pair: a mixed-breed that was half-starved, and the most valued scientist in Hexagon. He turns when the floor creaks upon my entering.
"How was it?" he asks.
"The usual. A cooling sensation leaving my body."
"The watch is comfortable?"
"Without a doubt." I sit down across from him, and Chopper pads over to nudge his muzzle into my hand. "It's ready, Andrew."
He sighs. "I just need to test a few more things."
"For what?" He's always so cautious when developing new software.
He clicks off his screen and turns to me. "I've come across something."
"You always do. And then you spend months perfecting it."
"Look at all the neurological problems the first headsets caused. If those developers hadn't rushed things ..."
I wave off the notion. "That was ages ago. Besides, you're using nanobots. They're a medical wonder. There are no side effects."
He just looks off into the distance while Chopper walks back and forth between us, vying for attention.
"Andrew, look at what I just experienced. It was mind-blowing." He's the most confident, brilliant man I know, but the instant he has a breakthrough, he always has these moments of doubt.
"This is different."
"Of course it is. It's not just entertainment; it can be used for educational purposes. Medical. It's limitless."
"That's the problem," he says. The dark circles around his eyes are deeper today, and I'm worried about him.
"You're seeing a problem where there isn't one." I grab his hands. "You always get scared, but this is it. This is the future."
"That's just it." He hangs his head and scratches the backs of Chopper's ears. "Not everyone uses it in the same way."
"Andrew, what's going on?"
"It's huge." He sighs and turns back to his computer. "I'll tell you over coffee tomorrow."
I understand the code. It means we can't talk about it here. Hexagon has surveillance equipment everywhere, even in our private home. We have our own secret language and codes to circumvent that. "I'll tell you over coffee," really means, "I'll tell you in a private place." It has to be a statement that doesn't stand out, but that we know would never be true. Neither of us drinks coffee. I know that, during the day, I'll get more info from him.
It frustrates me, that a person in Andrew's position is still subjected to this kind of scrutiny. But, if you're not a board member or stakeholder, you don't count in Hexagon's world.
I remove the steel-grey leather band and return the watch to him. "Did you see the concert?"
"All of it? Were you there?"
He turns to me, his eyes sunken. "You know I never lie to you." He rubs his eyes. "I saw your first song, but I had to come back here."
"You didn't see it live?"
"I'll watch it on replay."
I sink into the chair next to him. "It felt live to me."
"It's supposed to." He reaches out his hands. "I wanted you to have a birthday you'll never forget."
"I won't ever."
"Are you coming to bed?"
"I want to. I really do."
I wave him off. "I understand."
But do I? I get the creative process. I take the same approach when writing a song. I don't talk about it, I don't share it, not until it's done. Andrew and I are similar that way. We're music and science. It's creation and invention; writing a melody or an equation, conceiving new lyrics or a theory. So I give him a brief shoulder rub and head into the kitchen to make him a midnight snack. When I come back to the room, however, he's shaking his head and muttering to himself. Whatever he's stumbled upon, it's not all good.CHAPTER 3
THE SHRILL five a.m. siren jolts me awake to the usual calamity. The bunker's stale air; the pelting of dust balls and stray debris. I groan and hear Andrew's chuckle. When I open my eyes, he's getting dressed.
"Are you leaving already?" I ask.
Andrew leans down for one long kiss. "It's eight o'clock." I bolt up in bed. "The five a.m. just went off."
"Nope. You slept through that one."
I groan. "I'm late."
He leans over me. "You always are, Kenders."
I rub my eyes. "When will you be home?"
"Late. I've got a meeting with my boss."
I let out a long yawn. "Cheating on me again?" I wink.
He laughs and pulls out my photo from his breast pocket. "I've got this framed on my desk."
"You should get a better picture."
"The green dress matches your eyes."
I turn up my nose. "My grad photo is outdated."
"It says everything about you. No one dictates what Kenders does. You wouldn't wear school colours like the rest of the class did. Your green dress stood out, just like you do."
He's right. Our punk band was protesting the loss of habitat for bees, and this wardrobe choice was one of many anti-establishment statements we made that year. Since 2080, when Hexagon became the university's major sponsor, it had been a new tradition to wear school colours. We boycotted that convention, and even at graduation we were handing out flyers, standing up for what we believed in.
Excerpted from Nirvana by J.R. Stewart, Talia Crockett, Christine Szarmes. Copyright © 2015 J.R. Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Blue Moon Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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