Breaking the Surface
Rebecca Langham © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Lydia wanted so badly to pace, to burn away her fear one exaggerated step at a time, but there was nowhere to go, no floor space to haunt. The Camp had been a sanctuary for them all, keeping her friends safe from unwanted attention since they’d taken their first steps as free people, but now it suffocated her. It may have been off-the-grid, but the complex was also small. Too small.
Given the number of people in the control room, she had to settle for crossing her arms over her stomach and gritting her teeth. But even then, she couldn’t silence the dissenting voice in her head. Something wasn’t right. Why would the United Earth Alliance be demanding a meeting so forcefully?
The UEA had been quiet in the two weeks since the Outsiders relocated from the colonies, granting an eerie yet welcome period of radio silence. Now they’d not only made contact, but threatened legal action if Alessia and the Green Hats didn’t acquiesce to an immediate communication with one of the government’s top advisers.
Lydia’s stomach churned.
As though reading her thoughts, Alessia slid her hand into Lydia’s and squeezed her fingers. Lydia forced a weak smile as she turned. “I don’t trust them.”
Alessia’s face—which, more than ever, reminded Lydia of a finely carved alabaster statue— softened.
“Of course not,” she replied, her tone sympathetic yet firm. “But it may not be wise to ignore the request. This could be nothing more than an administrative issue and I don’t want to invite trouble, not so soon after the release.”
“I don’t think you can ignore it, Ly-dee.” Helen swivelled gently in an office chair, forearms resting on her thighs as she considered her daughter. After all those years without Helen’s presence, hearing that fruity voice still managed to surprise her from time to time. Lydia had believed her mother to be dead for years. Finding out she hadn’t died, but rather become a kind of political hacker, was unsettling to say the least.
Life had changed so much in the last nine months. Alessia did not remain trapped beneath the ground, and Helen had re-emerged from the void.
No longer living with her politician father, even Lydia had been partially freed from the web of her old insecurities and frustrations. Sometimes though, it seemed like those frustrations had dissolved only to be replaced by a whole slew of new concerns. It had been a lot to process.
Helen sighed, a little too dramatically. She reached for a cup of tea she’d left cooling on a nearby bench and cradled it between her hands. “We knew they’d get their claws back in sooner or later.”
“Two weeks,” Lydia huffed. “They only waited two weeks. Please can’t we refuse?” The frustration in her voice exposed Lydia’s raw emotional state in a way she wasn’t comfortable with. Until recently, she’d worked hard to present a subdued version of her thoughts to the outside world. With such a prominent father, she’d had to if she had any hope of protecting herself from those who sought to exploit her. Whether it be to splash her personal life about the goss-channels, or to pressure her to influence her father regarding some political issue or another, there had been no shortage of people trying to use Lydia. It had been a kind of self-preservation to surround herself in the dark veil she’d become enveloped in, making it harder for people to really see her. But then Alessia had burst into her life, a quiet yet powerful blaze of light.
Alessia and the other Outsiders had reached right into her and reawakened feelings and sensations she’d muted long ago.
“Is refusing a good idea?” Peleus looked up from where he sat cross-legged on the floor a couple of metres away from Helen. Peleus had been one of her earliest and most faithful followers and friends, embracing her efforts to slowly change culture in the colony by sharing positive stories and messages with the children. “They’re providing accommodations and integration assistance to the four thousand Os who’ve had their entire existence uprooted. Not taking their meeting might give the UEA reason to withdraw support.” As Alessia’s confidante, Peleus’s presence always lent a certain sense of thoughtful tranquillity to a situation.
Alessia pulled Lydia closer until their bodies pressed together, banishing the air between them and soothing Lydia’s nerves a little. They’d barely had time to catch their breath since Release Day. When they had finally pushed their way through the obscenely large crowd of onlookers in Thracia after the ceremony, they’d boarded an air-transport and come directly here to the Green Hat headquarters in Quadrant Four.
Affectionately known by its inhabitants as the Camp, the secure underground complex supported a community of approximately a hundred people. Every one of them had dedicated their lives to undermining the UEA’s ever-worsening abuses of its own laws.
The main control room at the Camp was capacious and circular, with curved desks and ergonomic chairs that hugged the wall. Each workstation offered a user access to the G-Hat virtual network, but to connect with the outside world, one had to utilise the cylindrical, glassy tower in the centre of the room. A reflective pillar when inactive, the hub featured a projector that sent holograms into the middle of the tower as required.
The hub worked much the same way as any Hive wall, but with some modifications helping to prevent hacks into the rest of their system. It was also perfect for situations in which more than one person needed to participate in a communication link. Lydia believed the entire setup was nothing short of spectacular. No doubt they’d been able to develop the untraceable consoles only because of whatever financial support the MacNay Corporation had been providing.
Still, Alessia and Lydia had traded one isolated abode for another. At least this one wasn’t full of protectors or tainted by decades of oppression. Greys had been replaced with blues, locked doors with open spaces, and obstacles with possibilities.
The dormitory was unfortunate, though. Each night, the enticing heat of Alessia’s body rejuvenated Lydia, yet they were acutely aware of the other people sleeping nearby, and so Lydia had accepted the fact they’d have no privacy for the foreseeable future.
In truth, she experienced relief and disappointment in equal measure. They’d only spent a few weeks getting to know one another in the Q4C, after a month of silent glances in crowded corridors. The six months of separation following Lydia’s departure had done little to quiet Lydia’s fears her connection to Alessia wasn’t as strong as she’d thought, that perhaps she’d imagined the whole thing given the immediacy of their attraction. Slowing things down, being with one another without expectation, could be the best way for Lydia to validate the tether between the two of them.
The rest of the refugees had been relocated to government-sponsored accommodations in the major cities of Thracia and New Sydney. Only Peleus and Fermi knew exactly where to find Alessia, and Lydia wanted it to stay that way for the moment, regardless of Alessia’s initial protestations.
The entire world knew Alessia’s face now, and there was no way to predict how she’d be received by the mainstream population or what her own people might expect from her as their de facto leader. Leader.
Lydia rested the side of her face against Alessia’s bicep. Her stomach clenched as she capitulated. “Peleus is right, isn’t he? We should hear them out.”
Alessia kissed the top of Lydia’s head, then nodded. “Yes.” She looked at Lydia’s mother. “Helen, I’m ready.”
Lydia inhaled slowly as she encouraged her insides to untangle themselves. Reluctantly, she stepped away from Alessia. She couldn’t control everything, nor should she try.
“Okay, then,” Helen said after a few moments of thoughtful silence. Her chair slid backwards as she bounced to her feet. “Let’s find out what the Great and Powerful Premier wants.” Helen tightened her shoulder-length ponytail before taking up a position next to the hub, opposite Alessia. Touching her hand to the glassy surface, she spoke at the pillar. “Okay, my dear, I need you to open a secure line. And I mean secure.” The surface glowed orange beneath her hand and continued to brighten as Helen stepped back.
“Yes, ma’am,” replied a sassy male voice. Lydia couldn’t help but smile. Her mother had always had a thing for Texan accents in historical VR books.
Helen’s handprint pulsed several times before fading. “I’ve acquired a line, Helen. I think you’ll find it to your likin’.”
“Nice work, Eddie.” Helen’s voice possessed a touch of flirtation, as though she were catching up with an old sweetheart. Peleus and Alessia watched on, seemingly fascinated. Helen grinned. “Welcome to the surface, where reality is no longer a fixed point.”
“That man,” Peleus started, his voice low and soft, “he’s not a real person?”
Helen shook her head. “Nope. Eddie is quite convincing though, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” Alessia said, her eyes fixed on the now dormant hub. “It seems humanity has the means to create a great many marvels. You don’t find it disconcerting?”
Helen slipped her hands into the pockets of her pale green coat. “He’s a standard network program. All pretty normal around here.”
Lydia sensed Peleus and Alessia’s confusion and sense of wonder. The pair considered one another, a wordless understanding appearing to pass between them, carried by their expressions. It was both bizarre and fantastic to see elements of a familiar world through new eyes.
Lydia’s face grew hot as guilt suddenly stabbed at the pit of her stomach. She’d yet to tell Alessia what Petra had shared with her: Tarpeia’s greatest and most terrifying truth, smuggled out of the colonies in the mind of a hardened young woman. The Outsiders were not refugees escaping war on a distant planet. They’d been manufactured. Designed, bred, and manipulated by the same people who’d pretended to protect them. Everything the world understood about the Os, everything they understood about themselves, had been a lie.
Petra didn’t seem to have the emotional capacity to absorb such a momentous truth as the one Alessia’s grandmother had shared. And Lydia couldn’t blame her. At least ten years older than Petra, Lydia still struggled to absorb it, too.
As the only Outsider anywhere near Tarpeia before the old woman’s death, Petra had inadvertently become responsible for either maintaining or completely shattering the historical identity of all Outsiders.
Outsiders. Not aliens as everyone had believed, but engineered beings manipulated for some sort of long-term UEA scheme. Such knowledge weighed heavily, like a psychological albatross making it impossible for Lydia to think straight. She understood why Petra had passed the burden to someone else, but Lydia wished she didn’t know. It wasn’t her place to make the decision to tell Alessia or anyone else.
“Ready when you are,” Helen said.
“You’re sure they won’t be able to trace our location?” Lydia did her best to maintain some composure in front of the group.
“Don’t worry, darling girl. We can’t guarantee anything, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to work out where we are. Tobin has locked all of this down.”
Uncle Tobin, her mother’s eccentric work colleague who’d disappeared in a cloud of conjecture and politics years ago, had made a life as a leading technology expert for the Green Hats. Lydia still couldn’t believe he was alive. Though lately there was a lot she could barely believe.
“They initially demanded to see Alessia in person, so it’s a win they’ve compromised to accept a holo-meet instead,” Helen added.
Alessia indicated she was ready.
“Eddie, stitch the line to the path left for us in the UEA system,” Helen said. “Finick said it would be there.” A whirring noise indicated a successful audio-only connection. “Global Premier, are you there?”
Here we go.
“Yes, I am. Hello, Ms. Barrett. We’d prefer to engage the holo-meet system, though.” Finick’s familiar voice sounded no more or less real than Eddie’s, and she could understand why her friends had found the computer’s intonation disturbing. Lydia watched Alessia, searching for some sign of a reaction to Herod Finick’s greeting. There was none.
Sometimes Lydia thought Alessia had mastered the art of disconnection. At other times, she suspected her stoicism was a facade, that Alessia experienced everything deeply, perhaps too deeply. There was something so ethereal in respect to Alessia, almost spiritual. She was a woman tuned to a frequency all of her own.
Lydia’s girlfriend was an enigma. Girlfriend. What a word. It did nothing to describe the way Lydia felt about the woman in front of her. No single word did.
“Fine,” Helen said in response to Finick’s request. “Turn on the holos if you must.”
Lydia had expected to see Finick’s slick face and expensive tailored suit fill the centre of the hub pillar. Instead, a stunning middle-aged woman appeared, thoughtful purple eyes surveying the group. She wouldn’t have been able to see Peleus where he was sitting, but the red-haired Outsider woman would be able to see Helen, Lydia, and Alessia. Her gaze fell on Alessia’s face, her eyes all at once sad and ecstatic. It was then Lydia realised who she might be. But was that possible? Could she…
Alessia and the woman inspected each other in silence, the disbelief passing between them almost tangible.
After wiping a tear from her cheek, the older woman spoke, her voice strained as though coated in grief. “Lessi.” Taking a second to compose herself, she touched her index fingers to her lips and tried again. “You’re more magnificent than I could have believed.”
Sweet Earth. It really was Rey.
An uncontrollable smile spread across Lydia’s face, her heart warm with the knowledge Alessia wasn’t as alone as she’d feared. Despite having never met her grandmother in person, Alessia’s hopes for a familial connection had been very real, and to have such hopes dashed—to find out Tarpeia had died—within moments of achieving her freedom had been devastating. Lying in bed that night, Alessia’s silent tears and cold skin had told Lydia precisely how much she’d wanted to see Tarpeia.
But now, perhaps, Alessia could find whatever she’d needed from Tarpeia from another source: her mother.
Lydia was then struck by a sharp and uncomfortable thought. Rey’s alive, but she’s with Finick.
“It’s you.” Alessia moved as close to the hologram as the cylindrical tower would allow. She held her hand to the hub, and Rey mirrored the gesture. Mother and daughter stood virtually toe-to-toe, hands parallel, yet they could not touch, could not embrace. Lydia fought tears trying to claw their way up the back of her throat, not wanting to interrupt a moment which wasn’t hers.
“Where are you?” Alessia said, somehow managing to remain reticent. If their roles had been reversed, Lydia wouldn’t have been even half as calm as Ali.
“I’m not quite sure, Lessi,” Rey replied ruefully. Her attention moved to something on her side of the transmission, something off in the distance. Her eyes became glassy as she spoke again, her voice anguished and insistent. “Please. Please be careful.”