Breaking New Ground #2 – 0102. Looking Down

Like the persistent creeping of swelling waves approaching high tide, apprehension grew in Alex Wright. As he sat listening to the familiar cautionary tales of early human colonies, the stories of the great storm in their 5th year, the collapse of south-tree in their 40th etc. he couldn’t help but be distracted by the hot knotting of dread that grew in his throat. He’d endured for too long and was subsumed by impotent embarrassment when his teacher finally read aloud the next chapter, “Family Lineage”, and 30 pairs of eyes turned to look at him.

Building a population on a fresh new world relies heavily on a library of gene samples and large vats of an amniotic concoction that are called concubators. Simply described, concubators automate the conception, gestation and birth of humans in a carefully controlled environment at a carefully controlled rate. Its said to have many advantages, but the main one is the ability to artificially adapt an entire generation upon arrival to a new planet with an unknown environment. Its social effects are less well known, but the reliance on this system does put a great focus on how well gene combinations thrive so that the best variety could then be re-sampled when the time comes to colonise elsewhere. After all, they wouldn’t want to waste limited resources maintaining weak lineages.

Preemptively, Alex had decided to physically separate himself, by attending class remotely. Instead, he sat in his living room wearing an AirHead helmet. Everybody had one, they enabled VR communication, entertainment, oxygen delivery, toxin filtration, flight navigation and plenty more as standard. Life without them was impossible. They were also intensely personalised with ever more imaginative paint jobs, re-designs, moving and materialising parts; they were seen as an extension of oneself, more so than a person’s actual face because most people interacted with their helmets on. Only families would recognise each other’s faces.

Alex’s AirHead was mottled brown and orange and shaped like an eagle, pointy and narrow with feather like panels sweeping backwards. Beneath it, looking into the classroom projected onto his visor, he flushed a deep magenta as hot embarrassment refused to surrender him. He was however spared from giving anyone else the pleasure of knowing his agitation, by having the forethought to set his own holographic representation to show a steadfast ‘neutral’ face. This projection, called a perspro, was not to deviate from its default recorded setting of simply showing Alex’s listening face. At least his discomfiture was secret.

It stemmed from a publicly well known fact. Alex Wright was one of the few kids on his planet to come from a family lineage that began the old-fashioned way. One man with one woman with no fancy gene selection and a mountain of shame. The fact that this started well over 10 generations ago with the very pioneers that gave rise to the planet’s civilization didn’t matter at all. If anything, it made it worse, ‘they should have known better’ apparently. It used to be deemed a great honour, children of passion heralded to be great artists or leaders, but now the threat of resource scarcity shifted perception and such families are thought of as reckless and unstable. In no small part because it was thought that non-selective birth carried a higher risk of undesirable physical traits or defects.

Alex had heard all of this before and though he’d never had these thoughts or feelings hurled at him, it was discussed matter-of-factly, lineage superiority was so well institutionalised that he struggled to distinguish it from a fact of reality itself.

The teacher drew the lesson to a close, saying

“Class, for those of you wanting to be considered for the pioneer’s programme next year, you need to submit your cover letter by midnight tonight”, she looked at Alex’s perspro “Be warned though, it’s not for the faint-hearted”

The class timer buzzed and without concern for self-decapitation, Alex tore off his AirHead and threw it on the sofa as it folded down to a more compact size. His embarrassment was supplanted with anger. “’faint-hearted!’, how dare she!”. She’d delivered surreptitious abuse by hinting at a physical ineptitude in her faux-warning. It rang around Alex’s head, clearly translated to “You’re not to apply for the programme”.

Alex collapsed onto his bed deflated. He reached for a pair of gloves that lit up as he put them on, flexed his fingers and selected ‘guitar’ by twisting a black dial on the back of them. He started to absently pluck through a soft blues melody, letting his eyes rest, only taking in sound. He opened them and resisted the urge to focus on anything and instead continued to stare through his bedroom skylight into a cold white-blue sky. It looked like morning but at this altitude the sky was always thin and pale. Just as his eyes began to focus on an orphaned cirrus strand, Alex was spared the effort, as the vista was utterly overwhelmed by a larger cloud that engulfed his house.

I didn’t want to apply anyway, but now it looks like I’m scared!” he burst out loud as his musical notes faltered. He wondered again why his family were so set on maintaining the practice of so called ‘natural birth’, but remembered the endless arguments he’d had and the ‘tradition’/‘our right’/ ‘nature vs. nurture’ speeches he’d been the unwilling audience of.  

Alex lived high on one of his planet’s many terraforming trees. His family weren’t trusted with much responsibility, but they were comfortable enough in the middle of the main canopy, looking after the oval of black glass and metal assigned to them.

Alex came from a family of energy collectors, in fact Alex came from the planet’s very first energy collectors, to his dismay. It was difficult work that comprised of the near continual cleaning of the solar panel’s black glass to help the family adhere to their strict absorption quotas. It was their job to bring in as much light energy as possible to serve as fuel for everyone else. His Dad was excellent at it and his younger brother was showing similar promise.

With the view gone, there was nothing to distract Alex’s thoughts from his classroom humiliation. He threw off his gloves and left his bedroom without purpose. The main room of the house was a wide and flat oval shape, with a low curved ceiling, and a floor that stepped down into a seating area. At the tip of the leaf-like structure, on the wall opposite where the 3 bedrooms were, was a panoramic window that usually boasted an endless blue view, sliced by a thin orange line that betrayed the planet’s curve. However, currently, it was a grey fog.

Alex walked towards the panoramic window and tapped the panel on the wall. It buzzed back in refute. Alex jumped back over to the sofa, pulled on his AirHead, and tapped the panel again, this time it gave an affirmative beep and glowed amber. A slight judder ran through the house, and a balcony slid out from under the floor, cutting into the surrounding cloud. A clip from Alex’s belt automatically shot out and hooked onto a pole that ran from floor to ceiling, and out onto the balcony. With that, the door slid open.

A cacophony of wind and an eruption of moisture filled the living room. He stepped tentatively onto the platform which was still moving and had its outline flashing in orange on his HUD. Alex was instantly drenched with near frozen water as various warnings popped up violently on his visor. He edged his way closer to the platform’s precipice using the amber LEDs to guide him, but as he got closer, the cloud suddenly cleared and the blistering abyss fell beneath him exposing the planet’s surface many miles away. He scrambled frantically back falling to his hands and knees to feel the secure metal beneath him. He was used to being this high, he just wasn’t used to seeing the huge falling potential presented so suddenly or so raw. He laid on his back with a tight grip on his tether to help regain composure. Strangely, looking up at the infinite sky and space beyond it, didn’t seem as intimidating as the finite below.  

Alex noticed, high above, on one of the newly built upper canopies, two black streams were careening through the sky, punching holes in the juvenile clouds that were condensing around the intruding metal and plastic. They were making a deliberate motion towards this leaf. A slight concern took hold in the back of his mind, but he waited for a closer look.

Picking up speed the shapes came closer, and whilst Alex recognised his Mother’s AirHead she was accompanied by someone unfamiliar. The two landed on the balcony which clearly functioned more of a landing pad for these sorts of journeys than an observational deck, and sent a slight shudder through the leaf. They wore very similar clothes, black flight cloaks with shimmering purple hexagons on the inner lining and black altitude boots. Their AirHeads were very different though. His Mother’s was the familiar purple and lilac streamlined teardrop, whilst the other was alien to Alex, a smooth oval with a bright orange half-moon under the chin.

Alex’s visor lit up with a video conference as his Mother came to hug him.

“I’ve only gone and smashed it”, said a boy’s voice, it was his younger brother.

“What the hell! How have you got a flight suit, you’ve not managed to pass?!” Alex said in disbelief, grabbing his brother’s hand in congratulation.

“Yep! Just got the skill you know, bit of talent, takes a proper man you see, designed it too, proper cool isn’t it!?” he boasted, knowing Alex was envious

“Youngest person to pass the flight test ever apparently! We had to celebrate and get his first gear straight away”, his Mother chimed in proudly.

“Damn, I need to get mine sorted now, no excuses!” Alex said.

They walked inside and with a re-pressurised hiss the leaf’s windows sealed out an intense amount of wind noise, and the balcony retracted. They took off their AirHeads to reveal their faces. His brother, almost as broad as he was tall, with a round bald head and orange chin beard and his Mother, small, slightly hunched, pale with short inky black hair, beamed with pride. It was a true rite of passage to get your flight licence and meant the endless hours of travelling via public Beltcable routes were no more, a freedom Alex was close to achieving himself.

“So glad I’ve managed to get it done now. Alex you need to get it sorted, it’s about this time of year that dust cloud comes back and you’ll not be able to do your lessons if it hits soon” His brother warned, reminding Alex of the mighty dust cloud that encircles the planet wreaking havoc in its path.

It was caused by the arrival of the very first seed pod thundering into some very loose ground and caused it to flare high into the atmosphere, clump together with the moisture clouds and then gather momentum as the wind pushed it around the planet, passing back over the terraforming trees once a year or so, effectively shutting them down for a month.

“Alex, can you make some tea whilst I check the quotas please?” his Mother asked rhetorically.

“How was it then?” Alex asked his brother whilst moving to the kitchen to scroll through the tea options.

“So damn good, I had two minor fails; using my hands to slow descent rather than cutting the boots earlier and deactivating the AirHead before I’d come to a complete stop. That could have been a major but they let me off because most people do it to look cool when the arrive back on the starting pad, which it does” his brother relayed an only slightly rehearsed retelling of his test, presumably told not long since to their Mother.

Alex laughed whilst making three different coloured teas, “no Jack I mean what was the first unassisted flight like on the way back?”

“Oh legit! Like you’ve no idea. So freeing, so quick, but to be fair it is damn scary” he said excitedly

“He was running flips and tricks straight away, nearly got his flight cape tangled up, scared me half to death” their Mother interrupted without turning away from a large screen of numbers and graphs.

The landing pad warning lights flashed and began to extend of its own accord.

Again, without turning away from the work, “That’ll be your Dad, I’d put the cape in your room Jack as he might not be best pleased we upgraded you, we don’t have much energy to spare to be completely honest”, and she gave a laugh that sounded only slightly nervous. “And Alex, do me a favour and shift those tools off of the side will you?”

Both Alex and Jack did as they were asked and even though they didn’t see it, they felt their Dad’s arrival as he thudded into the leaf sending ripples through the structure. Everybody replied to this familiar sound with loud greetings of their own from wherever they were in the leaf.

“All this shouting but nobody’s come to greet me” their Dad complained, half jokingly.

“I was coming down now” Alex protested

“You’re home early” he said prying slightly

“Yeah I VR’d in today, only had a few lessons so wasn’t worth the journey” Alex lied, knowing his Dad had no idea about his lesson structure.

“We’re down a couple of units vs. forecast” their Mother said, accompanying the news with a dry peck on the cheek.

“Shit I’ll go back out now shall I?” the Dad replied sarcastically

“Yeah could you?” the Mother retorted with the attitude dialled up further.

“Bloody hell, crack that whip why don’t you”, he said with an air of self-pity, kicking off the altitude boots and slumping down onto the sofa.

Alex’s Dad was about his height, shorter than Jack, but about as wide. He had enormous shoulders which gave his frame a very square shape, emphasised by two thick but short legs. Alex’s Dad shared his name with his youngest son, but unfortunately for Jack, also his hairline. Their Dad however hadn’t felt the need to balance it with a beard and instead had a permanent ruddy tan across the bottom of his face from where he’d occasionally need to open up his helmet for a closer, unmediated, inspection of his work on the leaf.

“What’s with the threads?” Alex asked, noticing a new flight suit. It seemed everybody was treating themselves.

“Got to look the part son! Latest flight suit, retractable sail and half price on these tuned up altitude boots. Also took the Airhead v2 for an upgrade and re-sprayed it ‘gun metal grey’” he boasted. Alex was surprised, having just heard about their insufficient quota for the month that his Dad would spend so frivolously.

“Looks good, I heard those boots or crazy expensive, supposed to be twice as powerful as the previous version, two canopies in a blast I read”, Alex was fishing slightly

“Yeah no, I got a deal on these, plus, speculate to accumulate son”, his Dad replied shrewdly, mitigating against Alex’s implied questioning.

“Yeah sure, assuming we can speculate” Alex said trying to adopt an air of indifference but betraying his intent with specificity

“Alright, don’t need you to tell me how to manage energy quotas, who are you like, Apollo?”

Alex laughed it off half nervously, “Anyway, suppose you heard about Jack?”, Alex tactfully changed the subject before he irritated his Dad beyond redemption.

“No, what?”

“Jack!”, Alex shouted, not wanting to give away the surprise, but also creating a bit of suspense that would have both Jack’s assume the worse and get Alex out of the firing line.

“Passed the flight test today” Jack said as he came back into the room

“Excellent, well done son. We’ll have to make sure we get you a good flight suit then so you stay practiced. Important to get out there as soon as possible”, he was genuinely pleased if a little subdued, Alex felt like the praise wasn’t without a trace of disappointment that his eldest had yet to achieve his flight suit.

In an effort to regain some favour by comparison, Alex blurted out.

“Well that’s sorted he’s got a new flight cape already”, his brother Jack looked openly incredulous at this, tutting and raising his hands palms up to ask ‘what the hell’. Alex immediately felt bad compounded by a stern eye from his Mother. He didn’t mean to bring her into it too.

“Well what do you need me for then, hope you got a decent one” his Dad said and fell silent.

A few hours went by as his family pottered about their leaf, tidying, chatting and watching things on their AirHeads, trying to forget about the day. Jack Snr borrowed Alex’s Mittar, his guitar gloves, for a while and played similar melodies to what Alex performed earlier. They remained mostly individual, but before it was time to eat they came together to prepare their gear for the next morning. It was an efficient ritual undertaken by all families in their own way but always consisted of checking each other’s equipment for safety and maintenance. The most important part of this process was the distribution of the week’s energy supply. Every flight suit, AirHead, Altboot and belt cable, everything worked off of the same energy supply. It’s what civilization ran on.

On the wall beneath the screen of orange and black numbers and graphs were 4 circular recesses roughly 6 centimeters in diameter. Their father tapped the screen and brought up an image of a battery, it was filled with a yellow light, animated to look like liquid, and was just short of filling the battery to the top. Alex, Jack and Claire took out small canisters about 15 centimeters in length from their equipment and slotted them the holes beneath the screen.

Jack Snr then tapped a few numbers on screen and as he did so, their canisters glowed from a dim pale yellow to a vibrant blistering orange, humming with intensity. They filled whilst the battery on screen drained. Only Jack Snr’s canister was bright before it was filled and only took a second to top up, which was met with a look from Claire that Alex struggled to recognise.

Sitting at the table, the Wrights had an unrestricted view of almost all of the eastern hemisphere. They were so high up that despite it being nearly pitch dark on the surface at the base of the tree, the planet’s size and curvature meant that for them, it was still dusk. The distant star glowed yellow, dirtied by the encroaching dust storm simmering just beyond the horizon, yet for all the toil and pain it brought at least it made for gorgeous sunsets.

The two brothers sat along one edge whilst the parents seated themselves as sentries at the head of the table. They ate with sparse conversation but occasionally broke into debate or discussion about things that happened during their day. Alex raised his own topic, hoping to find a productive forum here:

“One of my teachers today made a dig at me saying I shouldn’t apply for the pioneers’ programme” Alex floated the topic to the room

“Yeah screw that, why get blasted off and have a massively difficult life when you can enjoy yourself here” Jack’s opinion was clear.

“Because it’s a huge opportunity, you get paid loads even just for training” Alex said unconvinced by even his own argument

“Yeah but you can’t take that money with you. And I mean like, actually, you can’t, there’s nothing to spend it on” Jack’s logic was undeniable, the money was a pointless incentive.

“I guess, it’s also a great honour, a chance to be part of something huge” Alex tried a different, less tangible benefit to convince his audience, Jack barely dignified it with a response and just said “yeah, a chance”.

“Do you want to apply?” Alex’s Mother said,

“Don’t know really, it’s that or the photosynth training.” Alex said

“Nothing wrong with that”, his Dad cut in

“Nobody said there was” his Mother said, preemptively defending Alex

“Yeah that’s fine, I was just talking about it that’s all” Alex said, he was particularly defensive because he knew he did a bad job of hiding his disdain for the work of his family. He wasn’t ashamed by it nor did he think it was beneath him, it just didn’t excite him at all and he’d helped his Dad out enough to know it wasn’t for him.

“Well”, his Dad said, making everyone slightly nervous for what might follow, “If you want to do it, you’ll pass. If not, you practically know how to be a Photosynth anyway so you can fall back on that”.

It was a breath of crisp cool air for Alex, his father’s support was infrequently explicit but was steadfast if given. Despite being brought up as a hypothetical that statement set it in stone. His apprehension, systematically instilled him in, gave way to a resolute ambition, he was going to apply.

“Cheers, I’ll do it after dinner” he said, remembering the deadline was tonight.

The conversation meandered again, but was interrupted as the landing pad began to slide out without a the usual warning sounds, almost disappearing into the darkening sky. Jack Sr glanced over at the panel, presumably to see who’d activated it, and then stood up with unusual vigour for somebody mid-meal. Without wearing his flight suit, Jack activated his AirHead to take form around his head, and as it did, he stepped out onto the platform.

The family watched as Jack had a fairly brief, but animated discussion with a grey caped, grey helmeted man. Their peripheral vision strained to deliver the details of their meeting, but surprise forced Jack Jr, Alex and their Mother Claire to give up disguising their espionage when they saw the two men remove their helmets to talk face to face.

“Shit! He’ll choke!, I didn’t know you could even take the helmets off!” Jack shouted, voicing the thoughts they all shared, but knew full well that his Dad liked to tinker with the technology.

“Well, some models can be upgraded as such, and can be required in some lines of work”, Claire said matter-of-factly, trying to legitimise their Dad’s behaviour

“He’ll freeze first” Alex said

Their helmets were back on as quickly as they took them off, leaving Alex with only a very brief glimpse of the man in the failing light, he looked aged with a grey white goatee. They returned to their food as Jack Sr re-entered the leaf and headed over to the panel, he pressed a few buttons and dials, then sat back at the table.

“Anyone we know?” Jack jr asked, Alex was grateful for his lack of tact here.

“Just work son”, Sr replied, which caused Claire to betray the most subtle of eye rolls.

As if answering a cue that the family weren’t privy to, the warning light control pad changed to a bright cerulean accompanied by a tinny voice of a digital assistant announcing a police override.

They all spoke over reach other confusingly only to be forced into silence by Jack’s agitated voice.

“They’re just here to ask some questions, I might have to go with them but it’ll be fine. Just carry on as normal, if I do go I’ll be back tomorrow”. He stood and gave Claire a peck on the forehead. “Boys, listen to your Mother”, and headed into the bedroom to get changed. The last line made Alex feel uneasy.

The platform rapidly extended, quicker than it had before, as if trying to catch a falling target. With a thunderous landing, 3 black plumes sent an unwelcome shudder throughout the house and stood slowly to a great height of at least 7 foot from the sole of their altitude boot to the tips of their domed AirHead helmets. They were dipped complete in black presumably for the most efficient level of energy absorption and had long cloaks that exaggerated their grandeur whilst also giving them a spectral quality. Their helmets completely covered their heads and faces had no semblance of facial features, causing a surreal depersonalisation by design.

An automated voice pierced through the house.

“Mr Jack Wright, please step out of the house onto the platform with your flight suit and suitable headgear on”.

There was no movement from the bedroom. Rather than repeat themselves, they simply walked towards the door as the same automated voice explained “Entry permitted under warrant 781002, doors opening in 10, 9, 8”. This gave Jack Jr, Alex and their Mother, enough time to grab their headgear to protect against the rush of thin breathless air.

3,2,1”. They stepped into the house as the door acquiesced to their authority. They brought in with them a bitter cold and deafening roar of night air, only emphasising their ghostly imposition.

Jack Sr stepped out of the master bedroom with his headgear on.

“You utter ba…” Jack began, but before he had the satisfaction of resistance, all their visors went back, and silent.

Dim red text then came into view on screen that read “Civilian dis-rest in progress, operators are quelling the situation, please remain calm. If you are under arrest, please confirm your understanding of the following rights …”

Alex made a futile attempt to exit out of the lock-down, shout to his family and remove the helmet. He was given a swift knock to the shin for his efforts, which could have come from either the enforcers or his blind stumbling. Either way, he decided the best thing to do would be to sit down and avoid further injury.

After a minute and a half, which stretched out endlessly in his black digital cell, Alex’s senses were restored. He looked around in a panic seeing his brother and Mother, but not his Dad. He spun to look at the landing pad and glimpsed the figures as they melted away into the midnight blue with the weight of his Dad strung up by cables and distributed between them, wholly arrested. Struggling to stay composed as a wave of adrenaline crashed over him Alex sat looking down through the circular trap door that made the central feature of their living room, the only other exit from the leaf that wasn’t the landing pad and around which the sofa curled. He wasn’t sure he could see them anymore, but that didn’t stop him staring. He spoke quickly with his Mother and brother.

“Why though, there’s not much they could have arrested him for, what cause? You can’t arrest someone for not meeting energy quotas, he doesn’t control the light? And taking him away from the work isn’t going to help matters is it? Just make it worse?”

Claire and Jack were trying to interrupt Alex’s stream of consciousness, but were rebuffed by its pace.

“Who was that old guy, what did he have to do with it, he arrived only just before. Dad then went over to the panel actually, let’s check out what he was looking at”.

“Alex, calm down, he’ll be back tomorrow I’m sure it will be sorted”

Alex fiddled with the panel but his cursory investigation was fruitless, he huffed.

“If Dad knew they were coming he’d obviously close it all down Alex” Jack said insightfully, he was taking this well.

“The old guy will know, I’m sure I can find him on the census database and then I’ll head out to ask him” Alex began muttering

“Alex there’s no point rushing after them, he’ll be in a cell this evening” his Mother called after him as he rushed around for his helmet, “I need you both here to help meet the energy quotas”. This spurred Alex on all the more.

“Yeah bro, Dad said to do as Mother says, we’ve got to keep everything going” Jack added.

Alex wasn’t sure if he was being pulled to help his Dad, or pushed away from the responsibility trap of helping maintain energy levels, but he was set on heading out. He sat on the sofa edge, unable to sit still.

“Okay look, I’m going to find out what’s happening, you guys sit here if you want but I’m going” Alex said, regretting his phrasing but unable to take it back.

Alex stood up, closed his visor and dived headfirst through the living room’s trap door, his belt cable automatically hooked to the guide pole as he did so, catching his weight as he sank through the floor, disappearing.

Alex slid down a intricate network of magnetically connected poles cable work, occupied by only a few other travellers at this time of night. It looked incredibly precarious as he balletically navigated a web clinging to the underside of hundreds of leaves, miles above the ground, spinning and whirling around overlapping branches of poles. He reached the tree’s main trunk, a few hundred meters away from the leaf, and paused. Searching the database for a man in their locale that bore any resemblance to the evening’s earlier stranger. Alex’s heads up display, brought up face after face faster and faster. Alex muted a call from his Mother, and then again from his brother.

Bingo, he had a match, and it wasn’t far, he looked down, and a red dot highlighted the destination, with a marker and route. He’ll be there in half an hour, sooner if he rushed. He kicked the trunk of the tree with a violence so strong it looked as though he wanted to bring the whole thing crashing down, and shot like a dart towards the red marker that flashed brightly against the black sky, “ETA: Twenty minutes past Midnight”.

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