Read the First Chapter of Leslie Stephens’s Dystopian Debut You’re Safe Here

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Read the First Chapter of Leslie Stephens’s Dystopian Debut You’re Safe Here

The wellness industry often seems as though it’s equal part genuine sincerity and a straight scam. From juice cleanses and Soul Cycle to whatever is going on with Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, it’s a consumer realm where it often feels like literally anything goes. The idea that this industry—and the intense feelings it often inspires—could be a key player in the dystopian future that so many of us fear, well…it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. And neither does the premise behind You’re Safe Here, an uncomfortable exploration of what happens when we give the tech industry a little too much control over our own well-being. 

The fiction debut from Leslie Stephens, the writer behind the popular Substack newsletter Morning Person, the story follows Maggie, a pregnant lesbian trying to find a way to repair her relationship with her fiancee Noa after the pair have drifted apart. Desperate for some space, Maggie signs up for a WellPod voyage, a two-month isolated sabbatical in a box in the middle of the ocean that’s meant to help its passengers regroup and be reborn emotionally and spiritually. But in her absence, Noa learns that the fancy WellPods aren’t everything they appear to be—and the company they both work for has a long history of cover-ups. 

Here’s how the publisher describes the story. 

In 2060, the WellPod is the latest launch from the largest tech company the world has ever seen—a fleet of floating personal paradises scattered throughout the Pacific Ocean, focused entirely on health, solitude, and relaxation. Created by an enigmatic founder who will stop at nothing to ensure her company’s success, it is the long-awaited pinnacle of wellness technology. For newly pregnant Maggie, the six-week program is the perfect chance to get away…especially since the baby isn’t her partner’s.

Noa Behar isn’t a perfect fiancée. She’s too distracted, too focused on her work in helping program the WellPod to give Maggie the attention she deserves. But when she discovers something rotten beneath WellPod’s shiny exterior—a history of faulty tech and dangerous cover-ups—she knows one thing: she’ll do whatever it takes to keep Maggie safe.

The problem? The malfunctioning WellPods are already at sea. And there’s a storm coming…

You’re Safe Here will hit shelves on June 25, but we’ve got an exclusive first look at the book’s first chapter for you right now. 

1

Maggie

Zone 874, Pacific Ocean

29 Days Post-Launch

Although she was hundreds of miles away from any actual dove or sparrow, Maggie woke to the sound of birds. She rolled onto her side, the memory foam cradling the weight of her hip as she awkwardly maneuvered herself to face the sunrise. She assumed the Routine Engineers played the recording every morning to ground her in something familiar, but there was no one she could ask.

The sun hovered just below the horizon, barely visible through the thin layer of fog that blanketed the Pacific Ocean. On Maggie’s first morning, she could barely pull her eyes away from the thousands of shades the ocean and sky held. Now she hardly bothered to glance at the rolling waves that gently rocked her waterlocked Pod. Only a month in, and the ocean had already become little more than wallpaper to her.

A damp cinnamon smell wafted from her bedside table and Maggie sat up to receive the latte that had emerged from a coaster-sized opening. Leaning against the bed’s low backboard for support, she tilted back the cup. The solution of crushed root vegetables and mushrooms coated her tongue, leaving a slightly fungal aftertaste that felt like confirmation of the adaptogens’ efficacy, even as their grit made her gag. When Maggie could see the brown sludge that coated the bottom of the mug, she placed it back on the coaster, triggering its descent into the table at the same time her gratitude journal slid out from a lower compartment. A sense of satisfaction from her devotion to her own health momentarily cut through the loneliness and boredom. She rested her hand against her swollen abdomen and took a deep, cleansing breath of purified air before retrieving the journal. 

“Spin class begins in fifteen minutes. May I begin preparations?” Emmie’s voice came from the column that rose from the center of the Pod to the peak of the domed glass walls that encased Maggie like a cloche force-flowering a seed.

During Orientation, Maggie had selected the founder, Emmett Neal, as the voice for Emmie, the therapeutic AI the Pod came equipped with. Although there were now countless tones and dialects to choose from— including, creepily, her own—Maggie still preferred Emmett, who had always voiced her Emmies.

“Sure,” Maggie answered, stretching her arms, and then the word into two unnaturally high-pitched syllables. It was the same tone she used when critics and collectors used to visit the small, contemporary Japanese art gallery off Highland. She’d worked there for years as an assistant, even after she realized her interest in art was limited to centuries long past.

As soon as she completed her journal response, Maggie slipped out of bed and into a matching set of cream-colored leggings and a sports bra. The Pod similarly transformed itself: the glass clouded to let in less light as a floor tile flipped over, its smooth surface replaced by a bike perched on a platform. It was a similar model to the one she had used in her apartment, with slightly updated features.

Maggie leaned forward to tug her bra down, securing the band beneath her breasts, and stepped into the narrow clip-on shoes, which felt stiff after so much time spent barefoot. She hopped on the bike, locking her shoes into the pedals, and placed the VR goggles that dangled from its handlebars over her eyes. They automatically tightened around her head as her EarDrums activated, transforming the Pod into a narrow road. Maggie straightened her arms against the handles to arch her back as she waited for class to begin.

Emmie’s authoritative yet warm voice filled the air as if the sky were equipped with speakers: “Welcome, Maggie! Get started pedaling at an easy pace as I tell you a little bit about today’s ride.” She explained the “game plan,” which consisted of rolling hills and eight sprinted intervals that would sweep her through gorges with moderate inclines on a road long since lost to an avalanche of erosion on New Zealand’s South Island. 

Maggie pushed her heels down into a passive stretch before she slowly began pedaling, taking in the scenery. The gravel road led straight into the base of the Southern Alps, threading a crystal-blue river and pine-dotted meadow as Emmie’s voice brimmed with motivation, indicating it was time to begin the warm-up. Maggie mirrored the cadence of the pace-setting avatars in front of her and began pedaling down the road, against the flow of the river. She focused on their feet, allowing herself to be hypnotized by their rhythm, left-right-left-right-left-right . . .

Maggie had just crested her first “rolling hill” when she heard a pre-historic screech so jarringly out of place against the calm, it ripped her out of her flow. She pulled the goggles off just in time to see a flash of white disappear into the water. It happened so quickly, she almost doubted her eyes until she saw a head pop back up to the surface, victorious with a tiny fish in its mouth. Without averting her gaze, Maggie stopped pedaling. She had a sense that if she even blinked, the spell would be broken and the bird would disappear.

The bird bobbed buoyant on the surface of the ocean, unaware of Maggie, who’d carefully unclipped and was now inching in a low crawl across the Pod’s tiles toward it. It was preoccupied with the task of rearranging the fish into a position it could swallow, until its erratic head flicked in her direction. For a brief moment, Maggie was afraid the bird would take off. She froze as it lifted its wings slightly, then settled back down, apparently deciding the threat wasn’t worth the effort. 

It had been nearly two weeks since Maggie had seen any bird or wildlife that didn’t come from the ocean itself, and, despite the Pod’s seamless glass dome, she could only guess at her exact coordinates, the endless blue affording occasional, subtle hints as to where she might be. It felt so remote, she might as well be on another planet.  

Once, a water bottle with writing Maggie recognized as Thai floated against the rim of her Pod, though that hardly confirmed her location, beyond what she already knew from Orientation. She and the other Travelers were somewhere in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the ITCZ. Its name made it sound more intimidating than it actually was: a dead zone along the equator notorious for trapping sailboats for months, but ideal for a vessel that was built to hardly move at all. Its nickname, the Doldrums, felt somehow friendlier. Its other nickname, the Trash Highway, was given for the floating debris that also got caught there, though Maggie had yet to see anything larger than the bottle. It had spent several days knocking against the side before the current took it to whatever trash heap would serve as its final resting place.

The bird let out a low, guttural squawk. It looked like something you might find in Hawai’i. From this distance, Maggie could see its thin red tail spread elegantly behind it. Its light-pink beak was turned down in a permanent, contemplative frown, made even more dramatic by the smudges of charcoal-black that lined its eyes. It was a bird of paradise. Maggie suddenly felt determined to identify and understand the bird, with an instinct that seemed to belong to Noa more than it did to her.

For as long as Maggie had known Noa, she was always rescuing things. She had saved snails, feral cats, an injured skunk, and every one of Maggie’s houseplants. Maggie had once watched Noa mindlessly— almost automatically—nudge an errant nasturtium back into the safety of a neighbor’s flower box as they walked past it, protecting it from a violent fate by a stroller or jogger.

On one of their first dates, Noa had arrived to pick her up with a dog. Maggie had opened her screen door and extended the back of her hand toward the animal’s broad face, then retracted it when she realized the creature was covered in mud.

“I didn’t know you had a dog.” She had only known Noa for a few days at that point, but Maggie already loved the way her lips rested in a smile, primed to broaden into a full, infectious grin at any moment.

Noa was holding the dog by a piece of twine knotted haphazardly around its neck. Actually, Maggie realized, both Noa and the dog were covered in dirt. Noa’s short fingernails still had mud caked under them from her weekend spent volunteering at a local farm, thin crescents of black earth.

“I don’t,” Noa explained, bending down to scratch the dog’s ear, both of them smiling, “but she darted in front of my car as I was driving over.” The image of Noa hitting the brakes, then welcoming the dog into her passenger seat (the trunk wouldn’t have even occurred to her) made Maggie smile.

“It was just a few blocks away,” she added, “and I didn’t want to be late, but could we head back to see if we can find her owner before dinner?” By now, her grin had attained its full, natural state.

Maggie briefly wondered what would happen if she said no. Would Noa write her off as callous? Refuse to see her again? Come back to get her once Noa had joined the dog with its family? Noa was oblivious to the fact that Maggie had rushed home from work to get ready, the half-moons of her own nails diligently cleaned before she had applied a neutral, barely-there pink polish.

Of course she said yes. She would have adopted the dog on the spot if Noa had asked. There was a confidence to Noa that made it seem like every suggestion she made was the right one, a quirk that might have been a flaw if she didn’t also listen to Maggie like she was the most important person in the world.

Noa still hadn’t seen the inside of Maggie’s apartment, but if she was curious she hid it well. Maggie left the door wide open as she turned back to grab her purse off the bed while Noa bent down to rub the dog’s face, not so much as glancing toward the light emanating from the bedroom.

“You look beautiful, by the way,” Noa said, rising, when Maggie turned from locking the front door. Her hand took Maggie’s, pulling her in so that their bodies pressed together completely. Noa’s lips lingered on hers past the point of an appropriate greeting for a second (or had it been third?) date, but Maggie stood still, willing Noa to do the same as they breathed the same air. After a few seconds, the dog barked, and they both smiled, their lips curving together with a natural comfort that belied the few days they’d known each other.

By the time they found the dog’s owner, Noa had already named her. She called her Tocaya, the Spanish word for “namesake.” She loved that it also meant “touch” in Portuguese, her mother’s native language. It turned out to be the perfect name, considering Tocaya’s warmth toward everyone she met. Each time they approached a house, Tocaya would wag her tail so fiercely, Maggie and Noa were sure they were at the right one, until they learned they couldn’t trust her—she was just happy to be on a tour of the neighborhood, and seemed to have no interest in cutting the evening short by heading home.

“Or, we could adopt her,” Noa said at one point, as they walked away from yet another house.

“We?” Maggie answered.

“Yes, we,” Noa said, grasping her hand and flashing a smile. “I mean, technically she’d be my copilot. I could maybe even train her to herd. She’d have to earn her keep. But I think we can arrange visiting rights.”

“Every other weekend and holiday?” Maggie joked back.

“Fuck that.” Noa rolled her eyes. “She’d need to see you every day.” 

“Oh, would she?” Maggie teased, raising her eyebrows.

From the very beginning, there had been no games—although they did, to Maggie’s immense relief, finally find the dog’s owner. Noa liked Maggie, and Maggie liked Noa. They were a “we” from the instant they met, settling comfortably into a routine that felt different from any relationship Maggie’d had since college. Another way to tell it was that Noa adopted Maggie that night, staking her claim. Both far from family, they could be each other’s family. Maggie wanted to walk into Noa’s arms and never leave them. Let them envelop her in dirt and earth and grime.

The memory of being held by Noa sent a pang of guilt through Mag- gie so sharp she physically recoiled. It felt back then like there was nothing easier in the world. Noa: bringing just three boxes to move into Maggie’s apartment, the bottom of one filled with rose quartz and rocks; gripping Maggie’s hips as she pressed her mouth, like a deep kiss, between her legs; naming her favorite trees on their block after old Hollywood actors, then greeting Garland, Brando, or Mae every time they walked past. Noa hadn’t named a single plant or tree at the company-subsidized apartment complex they moved to as soon as she was hired at WellCorp. Maybe that was when everything began to go wrong.

Maggie knew Noa wanted to go back to the ways things were before she had taken the job, but was that possible? And did Maggie even want that? Even now, she tried to forget the memories she had of herself before WellCorp: constantly feeling like something was missing, just out of reach; waking every morning with her brows tightly knit, then consciously relaxing her face into something softer so Noa wouldn’t see; standing for hours at the gallery saddled with the nagging sense that there had to be more to life. It was impossible for Maggie to simply think of Noa now. Any memory was an attempt to either justify her guilt, punish herself, or explain away what she had done. Her entire life could be defined by jobs, relationships, apartments, and conversations she’d fallen into, then itched to get out of. She was always combing through them for clues, even as an invisible riptide pulled her away.

Maggie walked awkwardly across the Pod’s slick tiles in her cycling shoes and retrieved her Device from the small desk. She swiped to Well-Corp’s preloaded app, which contained every recorded song, book, movie, and television show. She had access to it all, a modern Voyager Golden Record, so long as Emmie decided it was productive to reaching her peak fulfillment.

The cursor glided across the bar as she typed in tropical bird species. Millions of results funneled in, organized by relevance: a novel about a runaway, poetry inspired by the Hawai’ian Islands, something titled Birds of a Lesser Paradise. She tried again: audubon, ornithology, seabird encyclopedia. Millions of results crossed her screen, none of which yielded the database she’d hoped for.

Maggie wanted to believe that the Device’s omission was for her own protection, but felt a twinge of injustice for the bird, whose identity had been veiled in unchosen anonymity. Sometimes the Pod’s omissions felt arbitrary—she had only wanted to know its name.

The bird bore little resemblance to Tocaya, its reptilian brain several branches away on the tree of evolution. She named it after the dog anyway. It had finished eating and was now floating perfectly still, watching the ocean for bits of food too small for Maggie to see. Behind her, the Pod rearranged itself, shifting furniture for her next activity, but Maggie stood, her face nearly touching the glass. The bird could take flight any second, and she wanted to be there when it did.

Time never behaved the way Maggie wanted it to. She often had the sense that she was watching her life slip through her fingers like sand. She ached for more time with Noa, even though it had been her idea to get away. The Pod was supposed to provide that pause, to give her more time to understand what she wanted to do with her future. She’d expected that the uninterrupted time in nature would transform her, or at the very least give her clarity, but it had already been a month and she was no closer to a decision.

You’re Safe Here will be released on June 25, but you can pre-order it right now. 


Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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