Utopia Rule #1: Don't ask questions.
In a bioengineered society of comfort and safety, the only relationship that matters is between a Citizen and her Community. But what if the Community is hiding a terrifying secret? Their planet is dying.
When Maribel, a scientist and mother, uncovers the truth, the heavy hand of the Community tries to crush her and everyone she cares about. Armed with only her wits and a few unlikely friends, Maribel fights back. But there's only one way to take on the Community: From the inside.
Big Brother meets Lost in Space in this boxed set of three sci-fi novels. Experience time-bending space travel and exhilarating first contact adventures among alien civilizations all against the backdrop of one family's desperate struggle for survival.
"The premise and the plot of this book hooked me...kept me turning digital pages right to the end."–
The Kindle Book Review
"Bruns takes the world of fantasy and sci-fi by storm in this first book in The Dream Guild Chronicles... reminiscent of such classics as 1984 and Brave New World."– Litterarum Studiosus
"Above all else - remember... The mind is the true voice of a Citizen. Now do your civic duty, Citizen, and read this book.– Amazon reviewer
"The best science fiction examines ideas borne by our times. The world of Irradiance is a dystopia that holds a mirror to our own society, tackling issues such as genetic engineering, climate change, creeping totalitarianism, and the decline and ultimate detachment of the individual. Wrapped around these core ideas, author David Bruns weaves a riveting tale of a family caught in a whirlwind."– Amazon reviewer
The Control Officers set up their calibration equipment in the next room. Maribel could hear them through the wall as they moved furniture around and cracked open the large, black packing cases she had seen in the foyer when she came into work that morning.
She swiveled her chair in the dark and tried again to focus on the star cluster she was working on this week. Maribel was in the Star Chamber—alone, thankfully—and though she had nothing to hide, the mere presence of the Control Officers made her uncomfortable. And this story about crystal calibration seemed odd, to say the least. She'd never even heard of such a thing before this week.
Maybe this calibration setup was a front, another government crackdown on dissenters. She had overheard two scientists from the Pulsar lab saying they'd heard about someone from the Gas Giants section who went into calibration and never came out again. Maribel shook her head in the darkness. Community dissenters were a myth. What were they dissenting about, anyway? The Colonists had been defeated in the last election—again—and life goes on.
She turned her attention back to the star cluster and began her scan for habitable planets. The three-dimensional picture feed from the orbital sensors was particularly clear today: all the better for the more sensitive measurements. The work was painstaking, like trying to pick apart knotted string in the dark, and some of it relied more on intuition than hard data analysis. Suitable planets needed to be just the right distance from their particular suns, then have the right atmospheric elements, then—
She felt the tickle of a mental message. Maribel? It was Dr. Olgana, her department head. Can I see you in my office, please? It's your turn.
Maribel felt a spike of fear in her belly and her crystal took on a deep red tinge. She sucked in a deep breath and held it until the little dots of light above her went fuzzy, then let it out slowly through pursed lips. The first rule of dealing with any Control Officer was to manage your crystal feedback.
She kept her red glasses on when she exited the Star Chamber so as not to ruin her night vision. Maybe this would be just a short interview and she could get back to work. Maybe she would never have to see what was in those packing cases in the next room. She took another deep, deliberate breath.
Since Maribel and her colleagues spent most of their time in and out of their Star Chambers, the lights in the Habitable Planets section were normally dimmed. Today a line of bright yellow showed under the closed conference room door next to Maribel's chamber. She held the deep breath a little bit longer.
The light level was raised in Dr. Olgana's office as well. The older woman sat behind her blank desk-screen, a study in gray: gray hair, gray eyes, gray crystal, even an ashen tinge to her pasty skin. She gave Maribel a neutral smile and nodded her to the only empty chair.
You can take off your glasses, Citizen. You won't be going back to the Chamber today, she messaged. Maribel tensed at the use of the formal "Citizen" from Olgana but said nothing. With a Control Officer in the room, formality was a wise choice.
Maribel took her seat and turned her attention to the other two people facing Olgana. The woman was another scientist from Habitable named Luca. Although she had transferred in a few months ago—more like a year, now that Maribel thought about it—she couldn't say she knew anything about her. They both spent most of their lab time in their Star Chambers or worked from home when they were writing a report.
Luca fidgeted in her chair. With her short, spiked hair and round face, the woman normally struck Maribel as perky, with a quick, shy smile. But today, Luca looked sick. The skin around her dark eyes was creased with worry, and the crystal in her forehead was pulsing shades of uneasy red. She had scooted herself to the edge of her seat, as far away as she could get from the Control Officer occupying the chair between Luca and Maribel.
The man swiveled his head in Maribel's direction and gave her a curt nod. Maribel had heard the rumor that Control Officers were actually robots, but this one looked more reptilian than mechanical. His eyes were pale, almost transparent, and his crystal sat like a dark diamond in his forehead. His short, whitish hair was parted precisely in the center of his head, leaving a straight line on his scalp that pointed directly at her. From the insignia on the shoulder of his white uniform she could see he held the rank of captain, and the pin on his chest told her he was military police. Reese had taught her all about military ranks and insignia; he would be proud of her right now.
Captain? Olgana said, interrupting Maribel's thoughts. You have our attention. Please tell us what all this is about. The coloring in Olgana's messaging was careful, deliberately bland, but Maribel sensed an undercurrent of emotion in the old woman that surprised her. Olgana caught her eye and gave a tiny shake of her head.
The Control Officer swung to face Olgana. We're here to conduct crystal calibrations. We've seen some anomalies in network response from a batch of implants in the year groups 6972Alpha to 7168Delta. His mental imaging was surprisingly smooth, almost hypnotic. Maribel felt herself relaxing. He waved his hand lazily. Probably nothing more than some recycling impurities. We can tune out the issues and be on our way.
Maribel nodded, and saw Olgana and Luca doing the same. That made sense. She had heard on the newsfeeds that recycled crystals—and after five hundred years, who didn't have a recycled crystal?—were having some issues. But wait a minute . . . that didn't make sense at all. She had her crystal implanted when she was thirteen. She'd never had any network problems.
She shook her head and looked at the captain. His unblinking eyes locked onto hers, drawing her in, pushing away the doubts. Maribel relaxed. His mental tones were so soothing. She found herself nodding again, and noticed the other two women never seemed to have stopped agreeing with the captain.
He rose to his feet in one sinuous motion and all three women stood at the same time. He inclined his head at Olgana. Thank you, Citizen. I can manage from here.
Olgana sat back in her chair with a thud, a vacant smile on her face.
The captain grasped Maribel and Luca each by an elbow and steered them toward the door. Maribel stared stupidly at his long white fingers curled around her bicep. That's wrong, she thought. He should not be touching me. She thought about Reese. Maybe that's what this is about, her and Reese. She pawed clumsily at his fingers with her free hand.
Touching is against the—
Then the captain was back in her mind again, calming honey tones blunting the edges of her concern. It's alright, she told herself, just this once. She dropped her free hand back to her side.
They passed through the dim hall and into the brightly lit room next to her Chamber, the one where she had heard him setting up his calibration equipment earlier. Another man met them at the door and took Luca's arm. The captain guided Maribel to a low, cushioned table and pushed her gently down. It felt strange to have the man's hands against her shoulders, but she didn't complain. It was alright. Just this once.
In one quick motion, the captain pulled thick cuffs from beneath the cushions and strapped her hands to the table. He repeated the action on her feet, and as he moved out of the way, she saw the other man doing the same thing to Luca.
A wave of panic swept over her and she struggled against the restraints. She felt the table rising underneath her, stopping when it reached the captain's waist. He jerked the pillow from beneath her head and lifted up two shiny metal pieces on either side of her face. He clamped her head in place, smoothing her long, blonde hair out of the way and taking care to ensure her ears were not covered.
Her breath came in great ragged gasps and she knew the color in her crystal must be fluctuating wildly. What are you doing to me? she messaged to the captain. He ignored her. The magnetic draw of his pale eyes and the soothing tones of his mental imagery were gone, replaced by an icy barrier of indifference.
He kneaded a handful of black material, his pale fingers working and shaping the dark clay substance. He rolled it between his palms into an egg shape, then pressed it over the crystal on her forehead so hard that Maribel winced. Silence descended over her mind as he sealed the cold putty against her forehead.
A feeling of vertigo overtook her, and for a moment, Maribel thought she might be sick. It felt like disconnecting from the Community, but much more violent, like her mind had been stuffed into a bubble. The captain was only a few inches from her face, but she could not sense him at all. Her head was completely silent; even her natural telepathic abilities were gone.
She felt a scream building in her throat. She gritted her teeth and fought it back.
His lips were moving. "Can you hear me?" he said. His voice was soft and his breath felt hot on her cheek.
Maribel nodded as best she could in the head restraints. She could hear Luca retching on the other side of the room.
"Tell me you understand what I am saying. Respond verbally," he said patiently.
It was a trick, she knew it. They were trying to trick her into speaking. Everyone knew speaking was not allowed—the Edicts told them: "The mind is the true voice of a Citizen." She pressed her lips together.
The captain sighed. He pinched the tender skin under Maribel's arm. Hard.
"Ow!" she cried, struggling against the restraints.
"There," he said, with a low laugh like they were sharing a secret. "I knew it. Anyone who spends time with a Bender knows how to speak. You can't fool—"
"Captain, I need some help over here," the other man called out.
From the corner of her eye, Maribel could see Luca was free of her restraints and sitting on the edge of her table. Her head was bent between her knees and Maribel could hear her choking. The captain elbowed the man aside and bent over Luca. Between coughs she whispered something and the captain moved his face even closer. In a blur of spiked hair, Luca snapped her head up, catching the captain in the face with the crown of her head. He made a grunting noise and sat down on the floor hard. Luca darted for the door.
There was a flash of light. The spike-haired woman made an oof sound like she had been punched in the stomach and fell out of Maribel's field of view. She did not hear Luca moving. The sharp smell of ozone filled the air.
The captain struggled to his feet and slapped the other man across the face. "You idiot!" he hissed. "What if she tests positive? How do we explain the damage?"
When he turned toward Maribel, his face and crystal were bright red and a trickle of blood ran from his lip. He slipped beyond her sight as he knelt on the ground next to Luca. Maribel strained her cheek against the restraint. She could hear the captain cursing in one long, continuous stream. He stood up, holding Luca underneath the arms, and dragged her across the room. The second man helped him get her back on the table.
Luca lay still. Her round face lolled loosely toward Maribel, eyes open. Neither man bothered with the restraints.
Maribel tried to scream, but it came out as a whimper. Tears filled her eyes and spilled down against the metal clamps on either side of her face. Her breath came in shallow gasps, and the room began to swim in her vision. The captain let out another curse and slapped something over her mouth.
"Breathe," he said, flicking her in the forehead with his index finger. "Breathe normally."
Gradually, everything came back into focus. Luca's body was covered with a white sheet, and the captain spoke to his colleague in an urgent, hushed voice. All Maribel could make out was the words "staff" and "reset." The man nodded and left the room. He took the stun pistol with him.
The captain sucked on his cut lip as he turned back to Maribel. "Such a waste of resources," he said, shaking his head. He rolled a cart next to Maribel's head and held up two silver leads. He bent over her face, carefully inserting the wires into the black putty that covered her crystal. His breath had turned sour and the only thing Maribel could hear was her own labored gasps. Her vision turned glassy as she began to cry again.
The captain stepped back and flipped a switch on the cart. "Be calm," he said. "This will be over in a few minutes." A pleasant hum filled Maribel's head.
The captain spoke into a handset. "You should be getting a signal, doctor," he said. "Starting the test sequence now."
The tones in Maribel's head changed again. After the last few minutes of complete silence, she drank in the sound. Maybe this really was some kind of calibration; she closed her eyes. The tones grew louder, more probing, more insistent. Her head throbbed against the restraints. Images streamed through her head unbidden: the first time she saw the ocean, Reese, their apartment, her twin sister the day they took her away . . .
The captain was talking into the handset again when she opened her eyes. He was smiling, a cold curling of the lips that did nothing to warm his colorless eyes. "That's excellent news, doctor. We'll proceed with the harvesting procedure right away." He paused to listen to the reply and his face clouded over again. "That's not necessary, doctor. We've already made arrangements for a recycling pickup. My colleague is handling the rest of the staff now."
Another pause. "We have it under control, doctor," he said in a testy voice and cut the connection.
The captain treated Maribel to another icy smile. "You're a very lucky woman," he said as he opened and shut drawers on the cart, laying items on a tray next to Maribel's head. She pressed her cheek against the clamp and shot her eyes all the way to the right. She gasped when he held up an incredibly long needle.
The captain looked up and caught her eye. "Oh, I don't need you conscious for this next bit." He adjusted the settings on the cart and a deep, throbbing sine wave pulsed in Maribel's head.
Her eyes slid closed.
Maribel woke with a start in the dark. No, not completely dark: starlit. She flushed with embarrassment. She must have fallen asleep in her Star Chamber while working on the latest classification. The star cluster she'd been scanning waited patiently above her, the sensor data spooling underneath it in an endless stream.
She sighed. Better to do this tomorrow with a clear head. Maribel stood and had to sit down immediately from the pain. Her back, her abdomen, her head, between her legs—everything ached. She must be getting sick; all the more reason to go home.
Maribel walked stiffly out of the Chamber. All the offices were dark except for Olgana's. Maribel waved as she passed by her department head's door. The older woman looked up at her and smiled. Her face had a vacant look and her desk-screen was blank.
Have a nice evening, Maribel.