Breaking New Ground #3 – 0103. Looking Through

His long and winding journey towards the leaf-house initially caused a lull of energy and excitement in Alex, crashing his adrenaline high. Despite living high on the tree, the trunk was still close to half a kilometer in diameter and although that’s much thinner than at the base, the juvenile cables were an inefficient way to travel. Once you’d hooked in, they guided you between the clipping stations, carrying you as a passive passenger, leaving you to your own thoughts or to be entertained through your AirHead. As such, It was later than he’d hoped, not helped by fumbling cold hands at the clipping stations, and desperately trying to avoid the suspicious questions from the HyXyPhlo operators as to why he was out so late and in such a rush. Other than these distractions, and not being one to waste a moment, Alex used this down time to plan his interrogation of the visitor.

Now that he had finally arrived, somewhat clandestine at this time of night, his heart began to pound again, confirmed by an elevated HR blip warning on his AirHead. Despite the delay, Alex took a moment or two to lower his excitable energy, to both set his own expectations and not come across as manic, and approached the trap-door calmly. The visor minimized his route map by saying “You’ve arrived, 10 minutes after estimated”. Somewhere in the back of his mind, buried beneath excitement and a focus on the present, a flag went up concerning the time; he ignored it. 

Alex’s final glide was done with practiced impassivity. He wanted to look like he’d often been here, beneath this particular leaf-house, and that his navigation through this section of the cables was habitual. His Airhead’s design of patchwork orange and browns could have passed for camouflage against a sunset palette, however it was too dark for that now, night was Alex’s most effective cover. 

With one last transition of the auto-clips, he was dangling beneath the door to the leaf-house. The very leaf-house Alex had identified as being the home to their mysterious and foreboding visitor earlier that evening.

He paused, realising a conundrum; If this man knew Alex’s father had been arrested, just after he landed on their platform, he might not answer Alex’s questions for fear of his own safety. But equally, if Alex kept the reason for his visit to himself, it would be difficult to explain why he’d come all this way. He could say he’s here to ask the man not to come round again but Alex doesn’t know why he was here in the first place, and that wouldn’t create a positive atmosphere conducive to receiving answers to questions. Perhaps he should be straight up, explain the arrest and accuse the visitor, his reaction would give Alex some information to act on at the very least. Alex didn’t even have much assuredness that this was indeed the man he was after, just a brief glimpse and a trawl through the public network by way of an ‘investigation’.

Settling on the ‘straight up approach’, Alex moved upwards to the door in a gesture that was too overly casual and that he made a mental note to feel awkward about later. He tapped the access pad besides the trap door. Cold confusion rushed over his skin in a feeling that he imagined a flight suit losing power would feel like; The pad didn’t respond. Not that it responded with a red access denied symbol, or do not disturb warning or anything remotely expected, but that it was simply an inert panel of glass and metal, with no energy in it at all. This was a rare, disturbing sight. 

All leaf-houses had fail-safes when powered down. In the instance of an emergency the house can power-down, leaving all access ports sealed but unlocked. This way nobody can accidentally be trapped in if they have an accident or simply forget to maintain energy flow. It only really happens when there’s a branch wide renovation leaving houses empty for a while or if the occupier has unexpectedly died. All the other leaves on this branch had a soft glow to them, so Alex was forced to assume the latter had befallen the mysterious visitor. 

There was however another time when energy is completely cut, and that’s during a full scale raid by the elite police force Yellow Jackets. Only they had the controls to freeze energy assets flowing into a house. If the person under-investigation was unprepared, they’d be caught without a chance to recharge their suit and escape, or resist by electromagnetically locking their doors.

Finally making his way inside, Alex climbed the recessed ladder of the trap door hatch, briefly peered into a dark room and quickly entered, sealing the door behind him. The rooms were ghostly dark, space-black with moon lit glass and plasteel beaming across in spectral flickers, exacerbated by the light correction of his AirHead helping him see. Although anybody watching the house would have seen him enter, he was still nervous to use his head torches.

The space was only slightly alien to him as all leaves are built to the same specification; only the personal touches were different, and in an effort to find clues, Alex tried his best to determine what details seemed expected and which seemed out of place. The uncanny similarity to his own home began to gnaw at Alex, making him feel more disturbed than he would have if he were in a completely unfamiliar place. He felt comfortable, but out of place. Just as his mind was beginning to re-orientate itself to the space using familiar sights as mental anchors, an unexpected detail would jar him back into uncertainty. Broad shapes and spaces, the distance between the walls and furniture were all the same, but the details of decoration were unfamiliar, it could have been his own home at a different point in time. 

The room was untidy, that much was obvious. Furnishings were in disarray and various items lay strewn across the floor. There wasn’t anything that Alex could really identify as concerning as he desperately scanned for clues. It struck Alex, for possibly the first time in his entire life, just how much of a leaf-house was dependent on the energy flowing into it. It was quite literally dead without it. The basics like food and water were reliant on digital dispensaries, that was obviously taken for granted, but a stronger impact on Alex was made by the absence of life in the leaf-house, family pictures, the stats they lived by, the entertainment consumed etc. all needed the precious flow of energy to survive; the leaf had lost its personality.

With nothing to show for his searching, Alex accepted he didn’t know what he was looking for. He felt that this should put him at ease, if he doesn’t know what happened, he can’t be worried. But the opposite effect was true, the uncertainty coupled with the mausoleum atmosphere, filled his stomach with a sense of dread. Alex looked over to the bedroom door, any personal clues that could survive without energy, would be in there. 

A loud scraping of metal on metal screeched through Alex’s ears, eviscerating the silence. Sliding the door back took a lot of effort and another realization was made into just how assisted living in a house full of energy is. Alex placed a tentative footstep over the threshold, and then forced himself to step fully into the bedroom, frantically scanning the room to see as much as he could, as quickly as he could whilst also being scared of what he might see. 

Alex was again struck with an uncanny feeling that he was back in his own bedroom, or peering into the bedroom of his future, grey and cold with neglect. In an effort to shake the feeling, Alex crossed over to the slightly ajar wardrobe doors. Any light he could see by in the bedroom hadn’t made its way into the wardrobe, resulting in a black so dark his eyes invented shapes in it, spilling out from where the doors refused to meet. 

Over-zealously, anticipating resistance from a de-powered door and in order to over-correct his own fear of what he might find, Alex yanked the wardrobe open. A black robed figure loomed over him, shooting hot fear through his body so powerful he felt he had been doused in boiling water. Alex quickly identified the assailant as being nothing more than a flight suit and a complex looking AirHead on a hanger and hook, that had been moved by Alex’s aggressive door handling. Despite this though, Alex still couldn’t look straight at it and with a sudden tug, pulled the items off of the hanger, letting them fall to the ground in a less than human like shape to stop it suddenly leaping into life. 

Looking at the floor, Alex is again hit by a bizarre feeling of prescience, as the AirHead and lifeless robe outline a fetal form huddled and flat on the ground. Or was Alex vulnerable to trickery by the lethal coupling of an adrenaline imagination and darkened vision. 

AirHeads, the personalized representation of a person and the medium with which they interact with the world outside their leaf-house, will be the best way to find out who this man was, or is. Becoming giddier with anticipation, Alex reached down to pick up the airhead, whilst pulling off his own. It was heavier than expected and a momentary disorientation overwhelmed him as he plunged himself into the darkness that had been kept somewhat at bay by the light correction augmentation of his visor. 

Alex stared into the stranger’s AirHead visor, bringing it to eye level as though to talk to it. When they were originally developed, generations ago for the first colonists, AirHeads maintained some semblance of a human face, a design based around the shape of eyes, mouth and nose to make them less impersonal when an entire population wore and interacted through them. Over time, the helmet designs became more and more abstract and obscure, to the point where now each and every airhead is a blank canvas for personal creativity. This one, however, was different, it included some of the old conventions, long red ovals stretching from the middle of the face to the ears that somewhat resemble eyes – a grey grill patterned half moon by way of a mouth and small white curls near the ears. Alex stared into it, trying to decipher some of the meaning in this custom design. It was impenetrable to him beyond the fact that it was different.

Turning it over slowly, he connected it with his suit and pulled it down on his head. A moment fell away into an expansive couple of seconds, filled with nothing but tense anticipation. As Alex stood on the precipice of expectation for a flicker of a second too long, he relinquished any reckoning that it would ever activate. A dud, left behind to gather dust. 

In that same instant, as though to personally defy Alex, the visor erupted in colour. The sensory onslaught forced his hands to the helmet ready to tear it off. He paused as his eyes began to adjust to the bombardment, and as he lowered his hands, Alex lost himself in a wholly unusual world following none of the conventions he’d experienced through his own visor. Alex’s blue and grey static overlays of information were nowhere to be seen, replaced instead with fluid orange purple and black shapes and an unfamiliar language. After a couple of minutes to look around, Alex’s attention fell on a small plant pot icon, with a single stemmed flower sprouting two leaves and an orange flower head of closed petals.

Looking at it in the way required to select it, a knack all AirHead wearers develop, he was presented with a complicated screen that looked to be requesting a specific series of inputs. Curiosity overcame Alex and he began to fill it out and after entering his family identifier, the screen changes again to send a beam of light across both of his eyes, the flower head opened up and then the whole icon disappeared. 

Silently and without warning, the floor beneath Alex disappeared, the midnight black rushing up to catch his falling body. Alex inhaled quickly forcing his hands out as his legs weakened, his body reacting before he was able to process what was happening. As suddenly as it happened he collided into an invisible metal floor, slipped on the floating flight robe, and landed face down on the invisible surface, staring through the many miles between him and the surface, levitating. It would have been a pretty sight were he not terrified.

Confused and panicked, stuck in a perpetually precarious position, Alex wrenched his head back against all instincts to look around. He was surrounded by thin orange lines and pulsating purple boxes. His senses drained of the simultaneously sharpening and dulling effect of adrenaline allowing him the realisation that he was still in the bedroom. Alex loudly exclaimed his surprise as he realised that this AirHead had x-ray augmentation. Alex could see through walls! Or at least it looked like he could. He was unable to tell if it was just a guess of what was beyond the walls, or actually showing him the world beyond. This was a power unheard of. 

Exactly how it worked he couldn’t fathom, but Alex didn’t have much time to enjoy his new found power, as through the wall he saw four Yellow Jackets flying towards the leaf in a threateningly calm rise and fall of short floating bursts from their boots. Even if it wasn’t what was truly happening behind the actually opaque wall, it brought Alex back to his senses and forced him to leave. Almost as though they knew they’d been spotted, energy flooded back into the house to lock the doors, illuminate and disorientate trespassers. Alex was trapped.

As a deep yellow-orange alert throbbed through the house, and the cerulean blue circle of the landing pad lit up. 4 yellow and orange caped men with yellow pointed helmets hovered in front of the panoramic window with only a faint humming sound. Without needing the landing pad, with a sinister and graceful glide, they approached the leaf’s window which slid open automatically to welcome them. 

Alex stumbled out of the bedroom as though to lessen his trespassing by not being in such a personal space. When confronted with the Yellow Jackets, AirHead to AirHead, he stood like prey in headlights unable to look away from their casually carried weaponry. Not one to make the same mistake twice, at least when it comes to physical injury, Alex froze, expecting to be swaddled in blackness as the police override removed his visor’s sight. Though this time was different as the new AirHead presented a message reading: “Countering police override”, and then suggested two routes leading out of the leaf exemplified by a ghostly figure running both routes, one in green, one in red. The green person ran to the trap door, whilst the red jumped through Yellow Jackets and onto the extending landing platform. An error annotation read “No jump boots found for flight”, discounting the red route as a viable option.

The yellow jackets spread slowly around the room approaching their target, guard lowered assuming the police override made Alex an easy target. Through his new visor, Alex could read lines of communication moving between the Yellow Jackets, though he was too nervous to process them. With great effort, Alex shook himself free of fear, sprinted forward and slid on his side towards the trap door, exactly copying the green ghost image on his visor and visibly startling the Yellow Jackets who recoiled in surprise. With the energy returned to the leaf, the automatic clip of the travel cables caught Alex as he fell through the trap-door which slid open with a hiss to mock the Yellow Jackets. 

After a few minutes of swinging frantically from side to side, navigating quickly but aimlessly down through the ziplines with the aim of putting plenty of distance between himself and the Yellow Jackets, Alex allowed himself a breath to calm down and feel safe. He looked around the AirHead’s visor with bewildered curiosity, trying to glean a clue or series of menus that might help him understand what he was wearing. Before he could explore the interface, a knot tightened in his stomach almost before he recognised the reason. A tinny hum of the Yellow Jackets repulsor boots came up rapidly behind him, stopping him from focusing on anything else. A cold thud punched into his shoulder, his back and then his thighs, followed by the stiffening of muscles and suit as energy darts sapped his body and suits energy. 

His AirHead stuttered and went blank, leaving him trapped in much the same way he was when his Dad was arrested, though in a much more precarious situation. A sharp slap to his arms and legs snapped them to his side as he became bound tight by a whip cord. Like a Caterpillar’s chrysalis, Alex clung to his cable helplessly dangling. Without the AirHead’s oxygen flow or the energy cells providing a barrier of warmth, shivvers violently shuddered through his body and felt himself losing consciousness. 

His final thoughts were of self-admonishment. A rash attitude resulted in nothing but a new toy to play with and a whole lot of trouble with the law. They’ll probably take the AirHead as evidence. This will cost a lot of energy and pride to get out of this mess. Alex spoke aloud, though struggling to hear his own voice, “Leaving the family like that, for my own glorification, and ending up here, impotently crawling the underside of a leaf, easily captured and unable to move like a dead insect. Stupid.” Thinking internally where thoughts flowed more easily than speech, he continued. “It was purely selfish, just something to spice up my own life, a thinly veiled act of selfishness beneath a veneer of altruism for others, to try and ‘help’ the family.” 

As these thoughts flushed out any excitement he’d felt throughout the evening, they left behind a gut-punching realisation. He’d missed the deadline to apply for the pioneers programme. As though to spare himself of facing that thought head on, he acquiesced to unconsciousness.

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