Beneath the Surface
Rebecca Langham © 2017
All Rights Reserved
Alessia’s mother roused her from a peaceful sleep. “Darling,” Rey whispered. “They’re coming for us. We need to move.”
Alessia blinked several times, forcing the tiredness from her eyes as she looked about the dimly lit cave. Outside, an owl hooted and tree branches fought back against a gust of wind, but she heard nothing else.
“We’ve talked about this,” her mother said, guiding her up from a nest of blankets and cushions. Alessia had never heard Rey so concerned. “You need to get moving.”
“But I want to stay with you,” Alessia replied. Her mother, and the reality of the situation, were coming into focus.
“I know, Lessi. But if you do, it’s more likely they’ll track us all down. Start down the eastern tunnel. Go carefully and try to stay as quiet as possible. You know where to meet us when they’ve left.”
Living in a cave may not have been especially comfortable, but at least they knew their way around in the area closer to the cave mouth. Within minutes of leaving her mother’s side, she felt lost, having no experience of navigating this area of the system.
Alessia slid a hand along the smooth, slime-covered rock of the cave wall. Shuffling along at a snail’s pace, she played a life-threatening game of hide-and-seek. The edge of her shoe acted as a poor guide, but it was all she had to help her avoid any sudden drop-offs. A depression in the stone could be anything from a small trench to a gaping hole one could fall through for hundreds of metres. Caves were like wild animals. They could protect you, take small bites out of you, or swallow you whole. For a moment, she wasn’t sure what was more terrifying: being captured, or trying to find a place to hide.
She inched along the wall as quietly as possible, until the echo of hurried footsteps brought her to a halt. Her legs felt like hollow reeds, liable to snap at any moment. Be calm. It’s just how sound works down here. The humans could be anywhere. You’re safe, she told herself, it’ll be all right.
The footsteps faded, leaving only the steady dripping of water from stalactites. Alessia put a hand to her chest and willed her heart to slow its exhausting pace. She didn’t want to pass out before she had moved deep enough to avoid detection. It took all her strength not to call out for her parents, to see if they had been rounded up, or if they’d managed to find somewhere to hide.
Get moving. She probed forwards with her foot once more.
No matter how many times she blinked, Alessia’s eyes would not adjust to such thick darkness. Her family rarely ventured so deep underground, and for good reason. Supplies were scarce, reserved for passages closer to the surface, and not to be wasted in such labyrinthine zones. With no food, water, or even so much as a torch, she had to move far enough into the tunnels to hide, but not far enough to lose all hope of finding a way back out.
The ground gave way, and her leg plunged through the earth, taking her courage with it. Her arms flailed as she fell, seeking something to stop her fall, but they found no purchase. Alessia cried out as her backside hit the wet rock, her leg lodged in the hole she had fallen through.
An icy sense of fear stabbed at her chest. They’d probably heard her. With eyes clenched shut, she forced herself to take slower, deeper breaths. One. Two. Three…she counted to twenty before she let herself believe no one was running towards the sound she’d sent reverberating through the space.
Finding the ground, she pushed herself up. A bolt of pain shot through her thigh. The unpleasant sound of fabric tearing frightened her more than the warm blood gushing over her knee. Alessia bit her lip to hold in another cry.
Damn it to hell! The thought screamed its way through her body. She felt the waxy indignation of it in every muscle. She pictured her mother’s face, paler than ever, as she had pulled Alessia to her just before they parted ways; a tight hug goodbye before tossing their wrist-lights to the ground. Alessia shook her head, banishing the image. Rey, her mother, was fighting her own battle somewhere else. She couldn’t even hazard a guess as to why her father wasn’t there when she’d been roused. She was on her own.
Alessia needed to focus on reality. It was pointless to wish they’d stayed together.
Trying to pull her leg out again might cause more damage, and then she might be unable to walk, which meant death. If she didn’t, though, she would be trapped in that spot, left to her own thoughts until her body gave out. There wasn’t a choice. She had to free herself and it was going to hurt.
A flash of light swept across the wall in front of her. The sudden severity of it burned her eyes and she clenched them shut. When she opened them again, two more beams of light joined the first. She had been walking towards a dead end draped in sand-coloured sulphurous flowstone. And now they’d cornered her. It was over.
“Boss! I’ve found one!” came a bombastic voice. “Down there. Looks like a teenager.”
Heavy footsteps moved closer, dashing through puddles and navigating uneven ground. They’d found her. The human government had changed its mind about her family’s freedom, as they’d been bound to do eventually, and they’d hunted them down. Her fear evaporated with each outward breath, with each jump or sweep of the torchlights. The terrifying darkness that enveloped her had been broken, and for the moment, that was all that mattered.
“It’s the daughter,” said another voice, more mature than the first. Alessia glanced at the dancing beams of light, two of them growing larger and rounder as the United Earth Alliance’s bounty hunters closed in on her.
Alessia’s leg throbbed. She bent her elbows, leaning back to rest on her forearms. Tightness had taken hold of her body, and it brought on a manic kind of exhaustion. Two men approached and stood before her. The older of the two, a sweaty beast of a man, took another step forwards. He bent down and examined what could be seen of her leg before dimming the light and turning it towards her. After the dense darkness, it was too bright, and she turned away.
“Well, then. Premier Abel will be pleased we found you all alive, Alessia.” His voice dripped with pleasure at his own achievement. She released a soft sigh. The UEA had gone back on its promise to her family. They’d get nothing from her.
Dropping the light between his legs, he leaned forwards and rocked on the balls of his feet. Stale remnants of musky cologne made Alessia’s stomach clench, but she kept her face as still as she could. Her discomfort belonged to her alone.
“It’s for the best, girl,” he told her. “This isn’t exactly an ideal way to live, is it? In the dark. Now, let’s see about getting you out of this hole.” The man stood, removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and then wiped the condensation from his glistening forehead.
“You’re not going to kill me?” Alessia asked, her mouth dry.
“Kill you?” he laughed. “Of course not! We’re not monsters.” He faced the other man. “Spray the wound and get her out of there, Mick. Let’s see about taking these people somewhere safe and protected.”
Quadrant Four Colony – Fifteen years later
The projected silhouette of Lydia’s figure cleared within seconds, becoming a near-exact copy of her. Only small errors in the translation of shades, as well as the stagnant nakedness of the image, gave the shape away as being a lifeless facsimile.
Air whipped around her, the cold gusts examining every microscopic detail of her body. Baseline data, they called it. Pearsal insisted on monitoring any changes that occurred during a new employee’s stay. Lydia had expected to be profiled upon her arrival, and yet, forewarning didn’t make it any easier to have a nude version of herself be the subject of scrutiny for Dr Levi and his technician. Though clothed, she felt as exposed as the naked hologram. It was, unfortunately, a far too familiar feeling.
Lydia knew if the scans showed the onset of any illnesses, the Quadrant Four Colony—Q4C—would put her on the next transport home. The possibility of being sent back to her father’s apartment made her nervous. She needed to stay. To work.
A brief click indicated the end of the scan. Lydia pulled the zipper of her gum-leaf-coloured jacket to the top, one more barrier between herself and the medical staff. Dr Levi exchanged a few words with another man and then waved his hand across a control node.
Examining him more closely, Lydia figured Dr Terrance Levi’s angular jawline, coupled with his stylish greying hair and hazel eyes, must have endeared him to many. Despite his pleasing exterior, something about the doctor’s countenance made Lydia want to keep her distance.
The colony doctor pulled his shoulders back as he walked through to her side of the glass divider. The transparent door closed behind him, leaving the two of them cut off from his technician. Tucking one hand into his coat pocket, he grinned down at her. “Just crunching a few numbers, Mrs. Barrett.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. “It’s Ms. I’m his daughter. I’m not married to him.”
“Right.” His grin grew wider. “Nice jacket.”
Lydia folded her arms across her stomach and re-directed her gaze to the floor.
The doctor’s technician touched a control panel to activate the comm. “No anomalies have developed since the prescreen. You may now proceed. You will be met by another teacher, Jez Blumers, for your employee orientation. Welcome to the Q. Four C., Ms Barrett.”
“There you have it, Miz Barrett,” Dr Levi said, plainly pleased with his dramatic pronunciation. “You’re all set. Come and see me sometime, yes?”
“Hopefully not, Doctor. I’d prefer to stay healthy.” She flashed him her best passive-aggressive smile.
“Not all visits to the doctor have to be…curative.” He smirked. “Though, there are all sorts of cures to all sorts of deficiencies.”
Lydia blinked. There was no point responding to him. It wasn’t the first time she’d met someone like Levi, a person who saw her as some kind of pop-culture toy to be prodded for their own amusement. Being in the public eye gave people a disconcerting sense of entitlement towards her, as though it were acceptable to make comments dripping with innuendo just because they’d seen her face splattered across the media.
Looking past Levi, she asked the technician, “How do I get out?”
Dr Levi smacked his lips lightly, then left the room.
A door, not even noticeable moments earlier, opened to her left, and Lydia stepped through. The air had a mild rusty quality. A Pearsal logo glared at her from the opposite wall—a familiar image—the top section of the P housed a thin slit reminiscent of a serpent’s pupil. More prevalent than the United Earth Alliance flag, the logo and its associated corporation had existed long before the eradication of national borders, extending garish tentacles into almost all areas of life. Babies were given a Pearsal Rattle the day they were born. Lydia’s mother had once told her Lydia had never really taken to hers.
“Are you Lydia Barrett? The new teacher?” a woman called out as she walked towards her.
She assumed her to be Jez Blumers. Lydia held out her hand and smiled. “Yes, that’s me.”
Jez kept her hands behind her back, though she did return Lydia’s smile. “It’s good to finally have a replacement for Max; he’s been gone for weeks and teaching all the Outsider children on my own has become jazzin’ exhausting. Oh, shit. Sorry. I didn’t even introduce myself. I’m Jez.”
She kept speaking, but Lydia didn’t hear. At first, she couldn’t pin down exactly what made Jez so unusual. The woman looked to be about twenty-seven; she and Lydia could’ve been born in the same year. Maybe it was her stature, her shoulders so much leaner and squarer than her own. Lydia felt she could never match the woman’s confident air. It came through in the way she held herself and was emphasised by long blonde hair curling down her back and shoulders in a sophisticated sweep.
No, she thought. It was Jez’s bright, golden eyes that captured and kept her attention. Lydia had known it was a common trait in Outsiders, but she’d never actually seen it before. Lydia decided she liked gold-coloured eyes, which were all at once unique and beautiful.
Outsiders, when standing next to humans, always seemed so pale, their skin ghostly white yet nuanced like alabaster. From what Lydia had seen in videos, their ears were also ever-so-slightly pointed at the top where a humans were rounded. Jez’s appearance lay somewhere in between. At first glance, she seemed like a Caucasian who’d not seen the sun in quite some time, someone whose ears were simply on the angular side. Jez’s expression hardened for a moment, and Lydia realised, with a pang of guilt, she had been staring.
“I gave up wearing false lenses years ago,” Jez told her, as though trying to read her thoughts. “I’m half human. The important half, anyway.”
An alien half-caste. Lydia hadn’t realised such a thing was possible. Her father had always described the Outsiders as ‘fundamentally different,’ but for Jez to exist the aliens must have a great deal in common with humanity, genetically. A common ancestor? None of the histories had ever mentioned that, though.
“Well, wherever you come from, I’m glad to meet you,” Lydia said, making every effort to mask her own social ineptitudes. Making new friends had always been a cumbersome task in her opinion. Doing so whilst trying to politely acknowledge the person in front of her was part-alien was a whole new level of awkward. She had a talent for saying the wrong things, so it was best to keep things simple.
Jez once again adopted the benign tone she had used earlier. “Now that’s out of the way, can I show you around? I wanna finish this up before it hits six so I can make it to the card game.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to… Yes. Lead the way.” Lydia was relieved her awkward staring hadn’t seemed to cause irreparable offence.
Jez led Lydia down a passageway that took them to the secured doorway between the administration areas and the restricted human zone, or H-Zone, where those who worked in the colony lived. As they boarded the elevator, Lydia struggled to focus her thoughts. She was being led through an underground government colony by someone who was half-alien. Which of Jez’s parents was human? What sort of situation could facilitate a human and an Outsider having sex? There were ways to conceive children artificially, but Lydia couldn’t imagine anyone toying with that kind of thing. Ignoring the UEA charter regarding Responsible Application of Science and Technology would be a dangerous practice for anyone, government contracted or not.
As the governor of this quadrant of the planet, her father had much to say about Outsiders. It was one of the few topics the two of them discussed in recent months as she waited for her contract to begin, though it appeared he had distorted certain details. She was not surprised. He had been democratically elected to oversee a quarter of the planet, a collection of what used to be countries and states before the Fall of Nations. Though Quadrant Four couldn’t be considered as wealthy or influential as Quadrant One, Damon still had more authority than most, and somewhere along the way, that authority had become more important to him than simple things like being truthful with his family.
“They weren’t exactly using their imagination when they designed this place. It’s cleaner than a government toilet though. I hope you like eucalyptus-scented antiseptic.”
Listening to Jez as they made their way through the complex, Lydia didn’t know what to make of her. Jez’s drawl was unusual for someone living this far south of the equator. At times, she spoke with the same abruptness you’d expect from a SinTral Hooker. At other times, she seemed as polite as a teenager meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time.
Jez explained that the four different sections within the H-Zone were each on a different floor. With only the top quarter of the building above ground, the whole place felt restrictive in the way that only a sterile, government-owned complex could.
Section A, found on the lowest level, was divided into cafeterias, game rooms, and an expansive gym. The vastness of the space amazed Lydia, as did the stench of stale sweat wafting from a virtual-reality leisure zone. Jez informed her that VR contact lenses didn’t work down there. People had to resort to old-fashioned pod-consoles, the kind that required masks. It was a primitive system.
Jez also told her the gym was usually close to empty, not uncommon since the development of Dietex, Pearsal’s weight control drug. Lydia was pleased because she planned on spending a lot of time in that gym. Running cleared her head far more effectively than any drug. Skinny doesn’t mean healthy, as her mother always said.
“See him?” Jez directed her gaze towards a Latino man about to enter the gym, a few years older than them but somehow youthful nonetheless. He acknowledged two women walking past him with a bombastic greeting.
Lydia nodded. Why was her guide pointing out some guy?
“That’s Rafe.” The upper corner of Jez’s mouth curled into an uneven smile. When Rafe disappeared into the gym without looking back at them, her smile subsided. “Anyway. He’s nice to look at, isn’t he?”
“Mmhmm,” was all Lydia could manage. The question felt like a trap.
“On we go,” Jez said.
On the second level from the bottom, Jez stopped in front of a door labelled Cube 11.
“Your very own cell. You’re bloody lucky they don’t make you share anymore. Two people in here would’ve been as suffocating as an N-C glitch.” Lydia’s skin tingled as she thought about the reality of a Neuro-Comm sending wayward signals to her brain, fast and relentless sets of misinformation that could completely debilitate a person. Suffocating was a polite word to describe such a feeling. Jez cocked her head as she continued. “Go on then. The lock should be programmed.”
“Okay,” Lydia raised her hand. The familiar spark of her subdermal marker tickled beneath Lydia’s skin, working its way through her thumb towards the black, glossy pad next to the door as she touched it.
Having confirmed her identity, the opaque glass door slid open. Automated lights flickered to life, as did the climate control system, cooling the room in moments. Like the rest of the building, the walls were as grey as an antiquated revolver. A motel-style landscape painting hung on the left wall.
Regret latched onto the inside of Lydia’s gut like a parasite. What a gloomy, claustrophobic place she would live in for the next three months. Moving away and teaching such a unique group of people still appealed to her, but the accommodation was nothing short of depressing. There wasn’t even a private lavatory or shower. It was all communal.
Two people used to share these. Lydia found it hard to imagine. Her father may be a large part of the reason she needed to leave New Sydney, but still, she owed him some thanks if he changed the accommodation system down here. It might have been nice if they’d added some artificial windows, though.
The far wall was coated with a clear layer of glass that rested atop a foundation of indium tin oxide. It was Lydia’s only means of accessing the Hive. A disc protruded from the top of the glass panel, allowing for the projection of interactive holographic data. Remote access to the Hive, the UEA’s worldwide virtual environment, had been cut off the moment she stepped on the transport. The rules of virtual connectivity that existed elsewhere did not apply in a place subjected to such strict security protocols. How sad it was that a wall of circuits was her only connection to the world beyond the complex.
“You can get any information about the Outsiders you’ll be working with through the colony network, though it won’t let you save or send any of that data, obviously.” Jez wandered around the open-plan living space, opening empty drawers and then closing them again. “You’ll also find the approved lessons and activities. Double-check those before you do anything with the kids. The ‘teacher’ title is a bit generous for what you and I do here. Let’s consider it more as structured babysitting. Alien babysitting.”
Lydia knew as much already. Teaching human children wasn’t much more than that either, not now that the Hive, a seemingly limitless virtual world, allowed for a ratio of one teacher to every five hundred public students. Education had been completely streamlined since the Fall of Nations. A devastating pandemic like the one preceding the breakdown of national borders managed to bring with it a whole host of consequences, even the kind that resulted in a complete corporate take-over of education systems. Everything from teacher training and student testing to resource management and funding was managed by Pearsal.
Jez leaned over the bed, pushing her knee into the mattress. “It isn’t the most comfortable bed, but I’ve seen worse in some of the other cubes.”
“I’m sure I’ll make do. I don’t always sleep well, anyway.”
The corner of Jez’s mouth curled into a half smile. “Not needing much sleep might make your life easier. I think you’ve got noisy neighbours.”
Lydia paused for a moment. Jez was right. Beyond the light, rhythmic buzzing of the ventilation system, voices from the rooms to either side of hers could be heard through the walls. “Maybe I’ll hear some good gossip,” Lydia quipped.
“I bet. We can’t even stream Living Blogs in here. People have to amuse themselves, somehow.”
The tips of Lydia’s ears burned hot. Was Jez suggesting the H-Zone was basically a hotbed of sexual activity? She hoped not. She wanted to keep herself well and truly away from trouble during her contract term.
They continued their tour of the colony. Long-term employees had larger studio apartments decorated with washed-out pastel colour schemes. Jez pointed out that those rooms included double beds, twice the storage space, a small lounge area and a kitchenette.
“Mine is Studio Seven. If you need anything, just come find me.” The lack of enthusiasm in Jez’s voice told Lydia the offer was an empty one.
“Do you do much cooking in there?” Lydia searched for a topic that would allow a less one-sided conversation.
Jez responded with a shake of her head. “No, why bother? There’s a perfectly good AI chef in the cafeteria.”
“Makes sense. I just thought, maybe that man you pointed out, Rafe…” She regretted the comment immediately. Jez’s interest in him seemed obvious earlier, but Lydia knew better than to make assumptions about people’s relationships. Interactions between two people were so rarely what they seemed to be on the surface.
“You thought what?” Jez raised one eyebrow. “We cook together or something? A little holo-lit dinner?” Jez’s eyes flashed, and her pale cheeks darkened.
“I suppose, yes. That is what I was thinking,” Lydia said.
Lydia’s grandmother would’ve described the silence that followed as being as awkward as a stain on a toilet seat. Her father would’ve just described it as awkward.
Jez drew in a long breath. “Listen, that’s about all there is to show you. You’ve already seen the top floor where the transports come and go. There are also a few offices for the management types, as well as a medical centre, canteen…the usual.”
Lydia was relieved. She had no talent for recovering from such a faux pas. “Thanks for being so helpful.” Lydia hoped keeping her responses simple would prevent any further social missteps.
Jez arched her chest and shoulders upwards, drawing in a breath. The tension in her face started to subside, and she spoke again, her tone amiable once more. “There’s a bunch of us who play cards sometimes, if you want to come along. You should see Rafe shuffle; he’s a pro!”
“Cards? As in, real cards?” She didn’t think anyone played games like that except through a holo or a Hive tablet.
Jez came as close to laughing as Lydia had seen so far. The woman’s disposition changed faster than the East Australian wind outside the compound.
“Yeah. Real cards,” Jez said. “We had a bit of an accident one time with a holo-pro and a bottle of vodka, so we decided it would be safer to just avoid any expensive repair bills in the future. The group changes every now and then, but tonight there’s about five of us. We meet in Games Room Three if you wanna tag along.”
“Sounds great, but I think I’m better off just unpacking some things and having a look through what I’ll need for Sunday morning. I’ll find my way back to the elevator. Enjoy the cards!”
“Hey, no probs, Lydia. Get to know your own space a bit. Just. Well, maybe think twice before telling everyone what your last name is, okay?”
Lydia was unable to hold back a soft groan. “Surely no one cares. There are no journalists following me around down here.”
“Some folks might just think you’re flashing the Barrett name about to try and get special treatment or something. Best to keep it quiet if you can. Just trying to be helpful.” The statement seemed insincere, but they’d just met, and Lydia had no desire to call the woman on it.
“Yeah. Thanks,” Lydia replied. “I don’t know that I’ll be able to keep it a secret if anyone in here has ever watched a feed. There were always cameras following me in New Sydney. But I can try not to draw attention to it, of course.”
“You do that,” Jez countered.
Lydia’s first thought was to put her hand out again, but then she remembered Jez’s reaction the first time and waved instead.
Leading the way to the O-Zone two mornings later, Jez’s thick blonde curls swayed as she walked. She was taller than Lydia had realised on the night of her arrival. Even with muskin ankle boots on, Lydia was still shorter.
Being underground in the cool air helped prevent Lydia from melting into a nervous puddle of buttons and synthetic denim threads. Curiosity had kept her awake all night and, just as she was about to leave the H-Zone, her eyelids wanted nothing more than to close.
When they reached the far end of the umbilical passageway, Jez nodded towards the glossy plate beside the door. Lydia pressed her thumb against it, but rather than the gentle tingle she expected, her thumb burned hot. “Bloody hell!”
Jez shook her head. “Sorry. Those morons didn’t extend your security clearance to this end. If we tell one of the protectors inside, they should be able to fix it all up.” She reached out and triggered the door.
“Here we go, the Quadrant Four Outsider Colony.” Jez spoke as though reading from a well-rehearsed script, her eyes fixed ahead as they entered.
After the near silence of the passageway, the chatter and movement inside the brilliantly lit Outsider district assaulted Lydia’s ears. She couldn’t see any of the Outsiders, but their voices and footsteps echoed from inside their rooms. She’d been curious about the aliens—the only aliens to have ever appeared on Earth—since childhood, but Lydia hadn’t understood the depth of her curiosity until that moment. It swelled inside her chest.
“Are the levels set out much the same as on the human side?” Lydia asked Jez.
“Sort of. There are four levels in the O-Zone, but they are subdivided. You won’t need to worry about half of them. The lower level is much larger here than on the human side. For the workstations.”
“What kind of workstations?” Lydia said.
“Production floors,” Jez said as she nodded at one of the guards. “Anything from nano IDs to solar power cells. The Os can make things about three times faster than human workers and use less equipment. So, having them involved increases the global production rate and lets us save renewable energy for climate control systems. Helps the big men upstairs skirt around the hefty carbon emission taxes. This might all run under government orders, but it sure doesn’t hurt Pearsal’s bottom line. I bet they were pretty damned pleased to get the colony operation contracts back in the day.”
“Hurry it up!” Lydia couldn’t see who the protector ahead of them was yelling at. He stood in a doorway and looked inward. “Come on. Clean it up. You’re late for work detail.”
The protector’s black straight-legged trousers, button-up shirt, and clunky boots made for an unimaginative display of authority. The bright-yellow pulse weapon attached to his belt sent an immutable message. From what she’d seen through VR, even a low-voltage blast from a Pulser would be enough to incapacitate a person.
Lydia hadn’t considered the means used to keep the alien population under control. In fact, she hadn’t thought about them needing to be monitored at all. Weren’t these colonies supposed to be self-determining communities? A safe-haven for a seemingly problematic population? The presence of the guards, protectors, usually near a socialisation table, suggested otherwise.
As they approached another soci-table, Lydia caught her first glimpse of a female Outsider. By human standards, the woman might have been in her early thirties. Outsiders were, overall, like humans, but she wasn’t sure if they aged the same way. Come to think of it, Lydia couldn’t recall hearing much at all about an Outsider’s lifespan. Surely it was something that had been observed and studied. Why weren’t the general population aware of such details? Why hadn’t she herself ever thought to ask the question before now? She dismissed the thought for the moment, preferring to focus on the Outsider woman.
Her eyes focused on a frayed novel. She seemed to be taking advantage of the fleeting peace offered at that time of morning. At least, that’s what Lydia would have been doing.
The woman’s deep fascination with whatever she was reading could be seen in the hunch of her shoulders and the deep lean of her chin into her free hand. With the shoulders of a swimmer, the woman seemed athletic despite her small frame. Long, straight hair fell across the Outsider’s shoulders and spilled down her back like a velvety yellow cape. Her toned shape and quiet concentration all made Lydia want to stop. To speak to her. To ask her name.
Lydia took a quick hop to catch up to Jez. “The woman back there. She was reading a book. The books are supplied by humans?”
Jez stopped walking and glanced over Lydia’s shoulder. “Ah, yes. Alessia’s often there before work duty, reading whatever she can get her hands on.” Her voice reflected a degree of passive disapproval. The Outsider must have heard her name, because she looked up, her eyes as purple and as fascinating as the Dwarf Irises her grandmother used to grow.
“I’d be careful of that one. She’s got this way of getting in your head. One time, I found her sitting outside of my classroom, cross-legged on the floor. She must have been listening to a lesson or something.” Jez’s gaze was still fixed on Alessia. “I told her to bugger off. She did, eventually, but she just looked at me for a while first. You know? That freaky, alien expression?”
Lydia didn’t reply. She struggled to seem disinterested in Alessia, but even across the distance between them, the Outsider’s eyes found her own. Lydia couldn’t see anything ‘freaky’ about her. All she saw was a curiosity to match her own. She hoped she wasn’t imagining it.
Jez kicked the toe of her shoe against the floor. “I guess you’ll see it soon enough,” she told Lydia as they continued. “But, yes, reading is fine. If they weren’t allowed to do anything, I imagine they would all go mad.”
Lydia nodded, though she didn’t fully understand. Regardless of small freedoms, the place felt like a prison.
“Most of the books are just old crap. They’re left over from before the Hive Archive System went live,” Jez said. She held her hand outward to indicate their arrival at the school. They hadn’t walked far at all, but Lydia’s head felt explosive. There was so much to process already, and she hadn’t even taught a class yet.
“The classrooms are pretty close to a lot of the living quarters. Most of the families are on this floor, a few single inhabitants. Mess hall is downstairs. They eat at set times based on the job they do.”
The first thing Lydia noticed about the tiny school was the aroma. She’d never experienced a combination of scents quite like it before: aged paper, wood, and a sweet floral odour.
The school’s two classrooms captured characteristics of the past that made Lydia feel at home. Watching sensory films set in years gone by, she’d often mused she might have been born in the wrong era. The nostalgic mysticism of the quaint school transported her to another realm.
“Good morning, Mistress Jez.” An androgynous voice rang out from the back corner of one of the classrooms. Lydia hadn’t noticed the Outsider at first; he’d been kneeling on the floor. She didn’t know where to turn her attention first. Like Jez, his irises were molten gold. His hair was a tawny orange-brown and fell messily over the tops of his ears. The man’s face was the colour of the moon and was smooth and hairless aside from his neat, narrow eyebrows. Lydia was tempted to reach out and run her fingertips along his cheek, just to find out what it felt like.
It just wasn’t the same as seeing them—the aliens—in videos or images.
Jez squared her shoulders and one hand moved to her waist. “Peleus. This is Lydia Barrett. She’ll be working in the other room as of this morning. You fixed the broken desk?” Lydia was taken aback by her tone. Jez wasn’t quite rude, but she’d ignored Peleus’s greeting and avoided looking him in the eyes.
Peleus turned his attention to Lydia and nodded, a smile revealing brilliant white teeth. “Mistress Lydia. Welcome. Please let me know if you find anything in this area that is out of order. It’s my job to fix things,” he said.
The sweetness that filled the air had grown stronger when he moved closer. It was him, Lydia realised. Was that a natural odour? Some sort of pheromone perhaps? Surely they didn’t bother with perfumes in this sort of an environment.
She tried to smile back, though she could feel Jez’s disapproval passing over her like a cold fog. “Thank you, Peleus.”
Her colleague had started to sway ever-so-slightly from side to side as her eyes glazed over, a clear sign of impatience. Peleus dropped his chin and slipped past them, through the entrance, and out of sight.
Jez took a deep breath and seemed to return to herself. “You’ll work in the left room. Did you take the course in twentieth-century teaching methods at the Pearsal College?”
“I did. I really enjoyed—”
“Okay, good. I know it’s a history elective, but you’ll need it. There’s absolutely no Hive access and minimal use of projectors or screens. No implants. As far as the Outsider kids are concerned, we all use offline tablets, some paperbacks, two-D video and…well, I suppose you were told all this before you got here?”
“No, no, it’s good to hear it again. I appreciate it,” Lydia replied. Feeling brave, she spoke again. “Peleus seems friendly. He is so much more—” Her hands drew circles in the air, looking for a way to finish the sentence.
Jez interjected. “Human than you expected?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean…yes. I’m not sure what I expected, though. It’s not as if I didn’t know they’re shaped the same as us. But his whole demeanour…”
“As long as you remember we’ve got a job to do and that is to keep the children calm, sensible, and busy while their parents are working on the bottom floor, then it won’t really matter what expectations you had. Looks like we’ve got about thirty minutes before everything kicks off for the morning. Do you know what you’re covering?”
“You’ll do great,” Jez said. “It’s good to have you here, Lydia. I know I might be a little intense sometimes, but I just say what I mean.” She smiled, touching her hand to Lydia’s shoulder. “You’re about to teach Outsiders. Don’t start to feel like one yourself.”
With one last nod, Jez entered her classroom. Lydia remained in the doorway of the other room. Shit. In a few minutes, the place would be full of children from another planet. What had she gotten herself into?