The Outside was a graveyard. Humanity had died beneath the curse of its sun and seas—had fallen beneath droughts or floods, beneath hurricanes or wildfires. A small remainder had survived: the ones who'd made it to Paradise before the ruined planet took vengeance on them.
"Hello, Alya." The calm, pleasant voice of an AI echoed through the room. "Great that you're up. A doctor will attend to you shortly." A doctor? "Thank you. I... sorry, where am I? What..." I swept an eye over the room. White-walled. Snowy linen sheets on the bed. Eerily silent, eerily empty. "What am I doing here?" "I am not permitted to answer. A doctor will arrive shortly."
I pressed my hands to my temples, head spinning. Something was wrong in a way I couldn't quite grasp. It was like someone had torn into and ransacked my mind, like a hundred drummers were pounding at my brain, and paradoxically I—felt clearer. As though a veil had been lifted from my eyes.
Bang! I yelped, nearly jumping out of my skin as a man slammed open the door. A mad grin curved his lips. "You're awake! How're you feeling? Doctor Richford." He strode over, white coat fluttering behind him. A transparent clipboard swung between his fingertips. "I'm... confused. What's—"
"Ah. Disorientation. Common side effect of the neutralizer. You remember your job? Name?"
I stared at him, reaching for the information: everything was murky, buried far below a tossing sea. Who am I? "I... no. Yes. Alya Kettlyn. My job... I don't know. What's a neutralizer?"
What's a neutralizer? Some distant memory surfaced—the same question passing from my lips to another doctor. A warm reassurance. A needle sinking into my arm, a tingling uneasiness. The world sinking into darkness around me.
Doctor Richford smiled. Maybe it was the memory, or how his fingers kept tapping the clipboard or how his eyes were perpetually glazed over, but a cold shiver barreled down my spine. Something was wrong. "You were Head of the government's Science and Technology Department. Creating and improving the lovely things—like our AI—" He pointed to the ceiling and winked. "that make life even better in Paradise. You were promoted recently—"
"To become a member of the Council," I murmured. The heart of Paradise's government: they kept the city running. I'd been honored. Random fragments flickered past my mind, and I clung to them desperately, trying to piece the bits together like a puzzle.
"You're remembering! Good, but careful, now—"
Puzzles. I'd loved jigsaws as a child. And when I grew up I'd come to love science—for its potential to solve almost any problem, improve virtually every situation. Yes, that passion was who I was.
What else? I pushed harder against the emptiness in my mind. What—
A white-hot flash of agony slammed into me. A choked scream tore itself from my throat, my head throbbing throbbing throbbing—and I stopped pushing, gasping. The pain receded, the memories returned to obscurity, and the doctor stared in alarm. "Careful! Don't try to remember everything at once!" He tutted fiercely. "Impatient. Fine. I'll speed up." I resisted the urge to shut my eyes. "What I tell you now, only the Council knows. Paradise is not what you think it is."
The bland surroundings, oddly soothing with their lack of stimulation, made sense now. He still didn't.
"Pictures of the Outside, captured by a drone. Seeing's believing." He handed me the clipboard, and I thumbed slowly through the printed images attached. A field, grass mostly scorched, but with patches of green breaking through. A landscape of dry, cracked ground—but with trees, standing defiantly tall on it. A flock of birds. Animals I didn't recognize, that didn't exist in Paradise. Signs of life. And the last photo...
"Yep. Shocker. Oh, my, you've been told a pack of lies. Anyway. It's true that Paradise is the safest place on earth. We began as an experiment: a controlled ecosystem in a metal dome large enough for a million. A small, alternative world, just as we are today. What Paradise doesn't know is that the Council—the first Council—believed peace couldn't last if humans were left to their own devices. Cynicism? Wisdom?" He tilted his head thoughtfully. "Either way, they developed Imperium: a drug that renders you... susceptible, let's say, to influence. So the Council can assign jobs, friends, lovers, etcetera to everyone, and they just trot along in innocent obedience. The drug tells them what to love; our little society remains a perfect, stable success. Great, isn't it?"
A searing silence blanketed my mind. "No," I breathed.
"No?" A strange undertone in his voice made me look up. His eyes were still glazed, but his features were... sharp, suddenly.
"No! I just meant... what happened Outside?"
"Ah. Still confused? That'll pass soon. Just your brain trying to figure out who you are and who the drug made you. No difference, really. At least, that's what the Council said." He grinned, Cheshire Cat-like. "Well, the Outside was dangerous, but habitable. It is even now! Just... The Council couldn't say they'd drugged everyone, so they sealed off Paradise. Nothing can get in. We were built to withstand any force of nature."
We could help them. I schooled my face into neutrality. The picture of a settlement brimming with people stopped shaking in my hands.
"Everyone in the Council knows."
He laughed. "They embrace it, or learn to. How else would they run Paradise? Perfection comes at a cost."
I studied his face, those glassy eyes. A sign of Imperium, perhaps? The beginnings of a plan came together, the first pieces of the puzzle. They'd made me a problem-solver: to keep protecting Paradise, no doubt. But they'd made the mistake of letting me choose what problems to solve.