Breaking New Ground #5 – 0105 – Looking Out

It was an uncomfortable and quiet journey home. The YellowJacket officers seemed to resent transporting the newly freed, and the lack of tight control over his swinging was disconcerting to Alex. Alex had to assume it was also discomforting for his Dad because he couldn’t tell and communication between them was blocked. They were deposited back through the trapdoor in their leaf like two old bags of clothes thrown into an attic, and they deflated as such. It was dark, the ‘night’ Alex had spent in a cell had actually only been a couple of hours, and so he didn’t feel rested at all. 

Alex wasn’t sure if his Dad knew about the second AirHead he’d found in the visitors house, or if he knew that he’d been allowed to keep it by the YellowJackets. It wasn’t unheard of for people to have 2 AirHeads, but it was rare. Alex didn’t even know if his Dad knew he had made it all the way to the empty house. Alex was sure though that his Dad wouldn’t know of the deal proposed to him by the Sheriff. 

Alex didn’t know if he would help the Sheriff or not.

Confused in the face of too many unknowns to properly navigate a conversation, Alex took advantage of fatigued bodies, tired minds and a dark night, and unceremoniously slumped off to bed with his police issue holdall bag, trying to hold it innocuously so as to not betray the weight or shape of an extra AirHead. Let’s not start anything now, that’s tomorrow’s problem, he thought.

Collapsing onto his bed, a momentary thought shunts itself into his mind, concerned that this again could be a trick of the police, but he was too tired to care, and so pulled off his Airhead, socks and gloves, and slept. 

Hammer-like banging and a low humming of machines aggressively coaxed Alex out of sleep. For a few seconds his mind refused to accept consciousness, hoping that sleep would win against the noise, but the noise persisted and Alex twisted onto his back accepting his fate by pulling on his AirHead. The morning’s noises are commonplace, often serving as Alex’s alarm clock, jolting him awake anytime between six and seven. They have the simultaneous effect of making Alex feel anxious, like surprising loud noises would, and calming him, as they’re caused by his Dad’s preparation before heading out to work, indicating to Alex that there’s an emptier house.

The AirHead scans his retina for a fraction of a second and loads up his LifeView, a customisable sandbox of different information panels, Alex was fairly minimalist in his approach, but did have his most important panels always open. However the first thing he noticed was a yellow and black checkered banner running across the top above all other panels, ‘Witness protocol in effect’ and a timer counting down from 120 hrs, including a circular yellow and black telephone icon with ‘Sheriff’s Office’, next to it. Alex was hoping for a few minutes of normality before facing reality, but this forced him to remember yesterday’s interrogation and accept that he was being tracked.

On autopilot, Alex reviewed his messages (upwards of 12 unread), energy balance sheets, latest news (both political and entertainment), popular content trends and lastly his to-do lists both personal and school related. As though he’d been punched in the chest, Alex leapt upwards and landed on his bedroom floor! Of course, the application! 

Banging his head against a wall of panic he rushed out of his bedroom still dressed in yesterday’s clothes and into a brightly lit family room. As though punishing him his AirHead took a few nano-seconds longer than it should have to dim the visor, forcing Alex to take the full morning glare of the powerful low rising sun. It was a Saturday, one of the last sunny days before the annual storm, so the windows were fully transparent to enjoy the last of the sun. 

His visor, recognising his proximity to his Mum, overlaid her face onto the image of her AirHead, the fact that she was clearly engrossed in some reading didn’t matter to Alex, as he immediately interrupted her morning calm and coffee. Alex did, however, feel some latent guilt for the argument he’d had, not with her, but rather at his understanding of her, as he was being interrogated, and so began a little more contrite than usual.

“Mum, sorry, the pioneer’s programme application, I think the deadline was yesterday!”

With a look of concern, but certainly not matching Alex’s urgency, she replied:

“Can’t you send it anyway and just explain, maybe include the police arrest reference?”

This took Alex off guard. He realised he hadn’t spoken to anyone about his arrest, the interrogation had confused his memory of what he had or hadn’t said, and to whom. Taking a mental step back, Alex went and sat next to his Mum. Apologising to his Dad was easy, it was the only way to end the argument, to re-establish the hierarchy and take the, usually proverbial, lumps. Apologising to his Mum, because it was usually genuine, was harder.

Look, Mum, I know I shouldn’t have left last night; I needed to go and find out what was happening, I just…

Not yet turning to face him, still seemingly engrossed in reading, his Mum interrupted, 

Did you find anything Alex?

“Well, I mean no, but what did you want me to do just sit around?!”

It wasn’t clear if his Mum’s impassive face was a setting selected from her PersPro or if she was genuinely dis-interested. Either way, it prompted Alex’s accusatory tone, in an attempt to get a reaction so that he could diagnose his Mum’s response to last night’s antics. This was met with a sigh and a tut, barely audible through his AirHead. She turned to Alex, with a look of only slight concern:

“I’m just glad you’re back now and okay, if your Dad wants to get messed up in things leave him to it”

Alex’s mind squirreled away the latter half of the sentence, ‘messed up in things’, he couldn’t give it any attention now. 

Okay Mum, thanks”. Alex’s guilt prompted him to try and make it up to his Mum, by dropping their verbal ripostes, which was how the two usually communicated, and instead saying:

Do you mind giving me a hand with this application, if we can’t do it we’ll need to go into town, could have a scan around the shops whilst we’re there”.

Either recognising his efforts or simply being persuaded his Mum attested, and seemed to brighten up a little, though again, this could have been a PersPro setting, it was difficult to tell. 

The pair worked on the application, pulling it up in a shared viewing window on their AirHeads; it was straightforward for the most part which compounded Alex’s guilt for not having done it sooner. It asked for the usual identity information and lots of personality type questions that his Mum kindly stayed quiet for as he made his choices, though he was sure she’d made a few comments under her breath with her commlink muted. He was sitting next to her after all, and the AirHeads couldn’t seal in every sound. The application didn’t request any lengthy personal or professional statements, instead requesting a link to his online portfolio (common place for all students to have their work accessible online). The remaining questions varied from logic puzzles to reasons for applying, and specifically requested quite short responses (as almost everything was completed via speech-to-text, the ancient convoluted language of forms, applications and legal documents had fallen out of fashion, as it takes too long to hear or speak).

The completion of the form was smooth and Alex was optimistic for his chances, until he was brought crashing back to earth upon submission. “Error, deadline elapsed”

Fuck” Alex punctuated. “Come on then let’s head into town

Sure, I need to grab some things for your Dad anyway

Alex quickly changed into a fresh flightsuit, and went to leave his room, before glancing back at the yellow and black holdall he’d been handed when released from the Sheriff’s. He zipped it open and took out the AirHead. Pausing for a minute to look back at his open door to hear for his Mum’s readiness, then quickly replaced his AirHead with the new one. 

Entirely driven by the curiosity of his new toy, but justified by his wish not to be monitored, Alex left his familiar mottled brown and orange AirHead in the bag and donned this new one. It went unremarked upon by his Mum either from being unaware due to the superimposition of his face on her visor or because she was deliberately avoiding talking about it. 

She activated their flight tether, a simple cable that linked their belts and an automatic override of his flight suit that mirrored her movements, so that they could travel together into town. It was a quick glide into the center of the tree, even with his Mum’s cautious flying, but it gave them enough time for some idle conversation, and Alex cautiously brought up the interrogation and the Sheriff’s request for information. Either diplomatically or simply disinterested, his Mum’s advice was to follow his own reasoning. He resolved to keep his eyes and ears open, but only reporting back to the Sheriff if he felt something was clearly warranted, as he wasn’t entirely convinced the Sheriff’s motives had his Dad’s interests at heart.

They touched down on the arrival plaza and Alex was released from the slightly embarrassingly adolescent tether. From the arrival plaza, a broad flat plain on which hundreds of people are landing and launching, they joined the spiraling travelator that moves them into the center of the circle and into the stem that joins the main trunk; like marbles circling a funnel and into a tube.

The commercial district encircles the tree and stretches up 30 or 40 floors and below even more. Security officers and workers flitted in flight between the floors as seen from the glass walkways and balconies, but they were the only people allowed to use flight suits inside the tree’s core, despite the general public being used to sheer drops and exposed heights and  equipped with flight suits. Looking into the lateral distance from these balconies showed how massive the trunk of the tree was, only after kilometers of distance could the curve be noticed as the walkways bent into a tiny far off point. 

From the roots of the tree an expansive delivery network twisted and curved beneath the surface of the tree’s trunk, branches, leaves and up to the highest seed pods, rarely visible except for their final delivery point in each leaf. Utility workers were the only class to enjoy these decorative veins of orange energy, bluegreen pulses of water and mist-white oxygen tubes mingled with webs of purple and silver service cables. Everybody else settled for a view of the mostly grey-black monochrome monolith built of steel and solar panels.

The shopping plaza was the exception. In contrast to the structure’s general aesthetic, a cacophony of visuals began as customers moved into the interior. The travelator made for a captive audience forced to hear advertisements for the outer ring’s exclusive establishments. Health spas, high cuisine restaurants and luxury shops lined the outermost rings, positioned closer to the landing plazas for a more convenient experience and endless views of the planet. The adverts also served to give a healthy dose of an inferiority complex for most viewers, now eager to prove themselves by overspending. 

Skipping these exclusive concourses as most do, Alex and his Mum join the throngs of eager shoppers in the deeper concentric shopping rings. Layers of vibrant screens vie for attention in a gaudy assault of blues, pinks, yellows and reds; each screen is more invasive than the last as their attempts at getting you to look at them become more extreme, in both form and content. Vibrating and pulsating screens showcase new suit accessories on provocative models, other images jump from screen to screen to follow your gaze and force acknowledgement of the latest gendered fragrances. Overall it’s an assault of adverts and shop windows, flaunting so-called essential products, services and lifestyle choices available for high priced but assuredly good value expenditure of hard-earned energy. It was inebriating, and even the thriftiest fell prey and complied eventually. 

If a shopper somehow resisted the temptation to stop and browse, or give up and go home, and ventured into deeper rings, the scene changed again into muted beige tones, as displays swapped adverts for directions and information about the surrounding offices, administration units and perfunctory hotels. This was Alex’s target, to pass through unscathed and out into the administration district for the first order of business, his application. 

“It’s not far actually, but I think there’s a queue, says 30 min average time there” Alex said pulling up directions to and information about the application center. Anytime somebody referred to a disembodied ‘other’ with a verb, ‘says’, ‘sent’, ‘shows’ etc. it always referred to the AirHead’s interfacing with the information networks.

“Well, you head there then, I’ll get the other bits done” his Mum replied reasonably, though this did disappoint Alex, as he wanted to find out what she was doing, and what the errands were for his Dad. Unable to think of a reason to stick together, they separated and Alex linked his location beacon with his Mum, though this was not reciprocated.

Alex detoured through the entertainment district, his favourite. It was a silver lining to separating from his Mum as she always tried to steer him away from this plaza. Today though, Alex frustrated himself because he didn’t have time to take it all in and re-acquaint himself with the trends and fan favourites of VR games, experiential movies and holo-shows, glimpsing only the new releases. He needed to get this application off of his to-do list before he could allow himself any other distractions. That said, the advertising was pervasive, and Alex did glimpse something interesting. 

The way shopping in the plaza worked was different to the old format of physically collecting items and then purchasing them. Instead as you browsed you would curate a digital shopping ‘collection’, pay through your AirHead and race your items back to your Leaf. It made it easier for transporting whilst flying, and also made every purchase feel like a present, as the act of paying and receiving were separated. You could even add to your collection directly from the ads jumping out at you, removing the need to visit the store at all, and even browse the digital store from elsewhere on the plaza, never missing an opportunity to scratch the itch of consumerism even if you resisted it in the store itself. 

In fact, in extreme cases, ads would auto-add the product to your collection, so it wasn’t as simple as idly strolling through the vicinity of the stores, you needed to stay vigilant to what you were looking at and possibly even buying without knowing it. Though these items could be returned without cost and refunded straight away, it was just additional effort, for typically innocuous and inexpensive trinkets; they usually ended up in recycling tubes.

The interesting glimpse was the last shop Alex passed. Its windows were evangelising about a new entertainment product on the market. For someone that enjoyed staying up to date with technology, entertainment, and anything that proposed to blend the two, seeing a ‘brand new and innovative product’ on the market that he was unfamiliar with was unusual. 

The shop was a pet store, or rather modelled as one, with all manner of animals flying, running, jumping and even swinging around behind the glass. Names were displayed on Alex’s AirHead as he synced with the store’s advertising. “A 100% unique and personal AirPet – always have your buddy at your side, as you look after them and watch them grow”, He heard and read through his AirHead. Having personal animals fell out of fashion before this planet was even discovered, but it seemed there was a market for them again, though sanitised into 1’s and 0’s. Alex opened up a peripheral window and did a quick search for the product, minimizing the window for later reading. He pressed on more quickly in the hope to return sooner. 

Arriving at the Application Processing Center a strictly minimalist waiting room was full of people eagerly wanting to speak to a real person face to face who could help them navigate the twists and turns of society’s labyrinthian bureaucracy. Alex wasn’t too frustrated with the process and his ticket was assigned to him as he entered the room which gave him priority over all those waiting online. Actually he was quite glad for a pause as it gave him an opportunity to read up on the ‘digital pets’. 

Yet, he couldn’t focus. He re-read sentences, getting distracted half way through and not understanding what he’d just read. 

The Sheriff’s questioning was on his mind, his and his Dad’s arrest was on his mind, and the strange powers of this new AirHead were not only on his mind but constantly teasing him with its surreptitiously small sprouting plant pot icon. He could activate it now, see what it does…but decided against it. It was overwhelming enough in the dead of night in a quiet neighbourhood, he wasn’t sure he’d cope in the middle of the day in a busy public space. 

His visor interrupted his internal debate with a summon to one of the consultation rooms.

The application resubmission process was humiliating. After being chastised for missing the deadline in the first place, he was made to complete the entire thing again without reference to the application he’d submitted previously. Before accepting the application, the processor, with an almost digitally bland voice, asked pointed questions about his family and lineage. He was forced to accept the apparently inherent inferiority of natural, unaltered lineages, and verbalise the folly of attempting to be a coloniser. Finally, and flatly, the submission failed again, even with the processor’s enhanced permissions, due to ‘investigative authority restrictions’ which had paused any formal activity for Alex’s family, a.k.a a police block. A knot formed in Alex’s stomach, if he wanted to progress, he’d have to acquiesce to the Sheriff’s request.

Leaving frustrated, with the application suspended in limbo, Alex was accosted by adverts, tailored to his current mood and was unable to resist the large round eyes of a puppy that bounded towards him as he entered back into the entertainment district. Impulsively and with that familiar cocktail of frivolity’s guilt and buyer’s gratification, he bought his pet which was immediately delivered virtually to his ‘AirHead Ecosystem’. He opened up the new ‘companion’ options of the AirHead immediately but was swamped by acknowledgements and conditions to read through and sign; he’d had enough of forms for today and ignored them feeling hollow as he couldn’t yet experience his indulgent purchase. 

Dissatisfied with his retail therapy, Alex re-joined his Mum outside the AirHead store, a pilgrimage every shopper makes to see the latest unaffordable products in what resembles more like an art gallery than a shop. 

The two had a brief and evasive catch up, Alex avoiding the truth about his blocked application, instead saying it was fine, and in return not probing too much about his Mum’s errand running, though he noticed she did look rather subdued or tired, indicating she’d gone quite a distance. 

Typically, one joins the ‘audience’ for the daily unveiling of software updates and hardware tweaks, but Alex was no mere spectator today, instead having booked himself, or rather, his AirHead, in for a diagnostic. 

Removing one’s AirHead in public was unheard of, so much so that shopping for new ones, trying them on or having them repaired was done within private changing rooms with only the technician present, if necessary. Without having it confiscated, suspecting it to be a specific class’ tool, Alex wanted to know more about the special features of his newfound AirHead. The technician placed the airhead on the diagnostic dummy head and immediately frowned, took it off again, excused himself and left the changing room with it. Alex felt alone, exposed and nervous. He felt cut off, naked and noticed how quiet the shop was without the distant ads playing through his AirHead. 

A different technician returned, or possible the same person with a new AirHead returned, it was never possible to tell, and shoved the AirHead against Alex’s chest saying:

You shouldn’t bring this here, leave and be more careful; you’re lucky I was working today, the others wanted to report you”.

Bewildered and embarrassed, Alex wanted to argue back and ask why, but the man had meanouvered Alex back out into the promenade, making a scene as though he was throwing him out for being unruly. 

As Alex put his AirHead back on, a line of text displayed from the stores’ general comms; “The edits made to your Airhead software represent more than amature customizing and won’t be tolerated at any official AirHead store. We thank you for your past custom, but will be unable to support this device henceforth”

A snap landed at the back of Alex’s head, and though not painful, did surprise him enough to cause a sharp flinch forward. The calling card of his mother’s frustration, followed by comment through gritted teeth:

“What on Earth? Stop it, Stop it now” as Alex gesticulated to the shop indignantly. 

Mum no idea, I took my AirHead in for an upgrade and they threw me out!” Alex protested, though did in fact have some idea now he’d had a chance to think about it.

“You obviously said or did something Alex, they wouldn’t just throw out a paying customer. I don’t care what they did or you did, just calm down and let’s go”.

This triggered something in the back of Alex’s mind…something that he read in the statement as he was thrown from the store…‘not tolerated at any official store’, official’. Alex thought…what about an unofficial store then? 

“Mum, I need to go to a repair shop before we go, I’ll meet you back at the landing plaza”

“What, we’re supposed to be heading back now”

“I’ll be quick sorry, you can hang on a minute or two”

“No Alex we need to get going” But Alex had already started to leave,

“I’ll catch you up”

Alex bolted off, colours blurring into rainbows as ads leaped out and tried to keep up with Alex’s pace, music and conversations from shops jumped out and instantly died in a regular beat as he passed entrances. Within the AirHead he pinpointed the district of independent market stalls and shops and pressed on at a near sprint. The excitement of potentially finding out more about this mysterious device gave Alex a short term distraction from his dilemma of personal progression vs. familial betrayal. Any attempt to think about it just devolved into a vague moral argument. For now, running towards a shop to tinker with his probably innocuous AirHead felt appropriate, more manageable. 

Contrasting the vibrant tech district this promenade of sprawling market stalls and pop-up miscellaneous-junk sellers shops was much duller and dirtier visually; the colourful adverts and accompanying electronic music had gone instead replaced with numbers and statistics jumping out both on the visor and through the headphones; X kilograms of Y metal for Z energy credits, “We Buy Your Old Boost Boots!” and the like above every store and from all angles. There were also overlays on every product on display emphatically explaining that that product is the very best price you’ll find anywhere. 

However, like elsewhere in the shopping district, it was overwhelming. 

This volume of information was hindering Alex’s search for a low-key and morally ambiguous looking store with which he could discuss his Airhead. He was starting to panic knowing that his mum was waiting on him, and by extension, keeping his dad waiting. Compounding this time pressure was the increasingly dense stalls suffocating Alex’s movement as he struggled between stalls shoulder width apart. 

A shimmering holo-cover caught Alex’s eye as it flickered against a nonexistent breeze beneath a sign ‘Bespoke Diagnostics’. It was a little on the nose, but Alex didn’t have time to keep searching, and it was the first one he’d seen that specified anything beyond simply buying, refurbishing and reselling. 

Stepping over the threshold brought three thoughts screaming into Alex’s head. The first was the acknowledgement that this shop had an overwhelming smell of grease, sweat, fatty-foods and synth-smoke. The second was that he wasn’t sure who he expected to find and what he was going to ask them, and third, intrinsically linked to the first two, was how this was a big mistake and he didn’t want to be here. 

The shop was a maze of machinery, metal sheets and wiring reels stacked from floor to ceiling. Navigating through the shop it gradually changed into a factory of some sort, though what it was producing was unclear, and Alex needed to squeeze chest to chest as customers and employees moved around, giving him nothing more than casual glances. 

Alex wasn’t sure what he was looking for and whilst he wasn’t consciously following his nose he did notice the dank musk’s intensity grew stronger as he moved deeper and towards what resembled an office. Pushing back the door, which took some effort as it was both un-powered and cluttered, revealed two men Alex would never forget. Well actually it revealed three men, but it tells you more about the other two that Alex didn’t even realise there was a third.

The first thing that struck Alex was that he could see their faces, unmediated, non-persproed faces; they weren’t wearing AirHeads at all and though there were two AirHeads on their desks, they looked like much older models. It made Alex feel uncomfortable that he was able to see their gaze as they casually but effectively surveyed him, not ending the conversation in progress with another patron, friend, employee (it was hard to tell which, possibly all three). Even with the translation and transcription options enabled Alex struggled to follow along as he waited nervously. They were speaking an odd mix of colloquial English, technical jargon and slang he didn’t know interspersed with in-jokes and references. 

The larger of the two was leant back in what Alex assumed must have been a reinforced chair, reclining behind a large desk of papers, pens, odd bits of unfamiliar electronic parts and other curiosities. He winked at Alex in a disarmingly assertive manner, acknowledging his presence but making it clear he was presently occupied. He was dressed in a huge beige shirt and denim shorts that Alex could probably fit into just one leg of. He was bald, though so were most people above the age of 25 in a society that wore helmets for all but sleeping hours.

Being the interruption, Alex waited in the door frame for half a minute, surveilling the room. It was either very small or just felt that way from the overwhelming size of the other two men. Alex wondered how on earth they travelled around the tree, settling on the idea that they probably didn’t bother at all, corroborated by their lack of AirHeads and suits.

The smaller man, though ‘the slightly less massive’ was probably a better way to describe him, was as small in confidence as he was large in body. Squatting on a hovering office chair that was split apart at the seams like a ruptured sausage casing, his arms and legs tucked tightly into himself with his back arched over an access terminal; he looked like he was caught in a difficult cycle of trying to hide his massive self, and in failing to do so redoubles his efforts whilst self-consciously pulling his shirt away from his skin as though trying to get some extra breathing room or stop the shirt irritating his skin, or both. 

Alex’s attention snapped back to the other one as he said; “Now fuck off”, and planted his tree trunk feet down on the floor, rose slowly to his full height of 7 foot 1 inch and gently slapped his customer/employee/friend on the back. 

The behemoth loomed towards Alex and gestured towards the door as though they obviously needed to head through there, and it made Alex feel a bit stupid for not knowing that already. 

“Nah then muck, what’s tha-fter?” 

Confused, Alex began to mumble the words he’d prepared by way of an introduction, tripped over them as he spoke and instead heard himself asking what this place was, what work they did, why the man didn’t wear a helmet and what the issue was with his helmet all at the same time. It came out as a stuttering confused mess. 

Unphased, perhaps because the sound hadn’t yet travelled up to him, the goliath replied:

Orate ahkid, names Mark” he said extending a huge hand

Alex”, was all that could be mustered in reply, noting the surprisingly soft grip of the handshake. It seemed he was being ushered on a tour, but how this man was going to navigate the narrow corridors of his own wares Alex couldn’t tell. 

Either making an effort to use words Alex knew or Alex was starting to decipher the language, Alex heard: “Tha buyin or selling like?” as he stooped beneath a doorway opposite the office. Alex began to follow until he realised it was the toilets, then waited by the door, feeling like a puppy following its owner, and embarrassed about it.

Say again?” Mark said raising his voice from the toilets, prompting Alex to continue talking, as though this was a natural way to do business. Alex found his sense when remembering that his mum was waiting for him.

“My AirHead, I was hoping somebody could take a look at it, it’s malfunctioning”.

Aye, tha’s berra off

Alex paused, unsure what next. 

Returning from the toilets and wiping his hands across his chest leaving a wet hand smudge.

Gis it then, dunt tek two head like it i’nt Jamie’s missus”.

Having taken off his helmet already today, something never normally done twice in a day, Alex felt strange being asked to take it off again, and hesitated. Mark didn’t push the subject, but simply went back into the office and collapsed into the chair which, miraculously, supported his weight, his head lolled back against the indecipherable wall sized display screen behind him and he seemed to drop off to sleep. 

All this took about 10 seconds, before Alex even managed to reply. So to hurry things along, and not sure what else to do, he took off his helmet. Alex felt the same feelings as 15 minutes earlier, but continued and placed the AirHead in front of Mark who lifted it without opening his eyes. He didn’t try to put it on, instead looked it over, peered through the neck opening and onto the visor, probed with a couple of tools instruments from his drawers, asked a few questions to his colleague (who Alex learned was the aforementioned Jamie). 

He threw it back to Alex. 

Nowt up wi’it, int yours though like, am pals wi chap who’it is. But nine tenths init. Did rate comin’ ere’ kid, be a rate faff at a proper store. Calm down it’s still rate, not dodge or owt, just ‘ad a tinker. T’be ‘onest only good Air’ed is a stripped un but these ‘acked uns are orate number twos, just lets thi sideload thi’own software

Bewildered by what he was hearing, and how it was being said, all Alex could manage in reply was “Surely that’s illegal?”

Mark let out a chuckle that shaked his whole body much like a baby’s first laugh that causes them to fall backwards. “Fuckin’ rate, they bloody wish. Keep to thi sen yeah cos if they catch wind it’ll change. Called ‘the right to repair’, a sacred n ‘allowed law” Mark mimicked a catholic cross gesture “‘ant gone away, big corps don’t like it, repairing code means you need to be able to add your own dunnit?, and it’s in this blurry line that these helmets operate”

Alex was following along, and getting excited by what he was hearing, “So it’s fine as it is then, it just allows for some extra code?”

“Aye kid, but bloke who ‘ad tha before thi is sharp like. Probably quite a few tweaks like” Mark answered, punctuated by another wink.

Emboldened Alex said: “Yeah the x-ray vision” but immediately regretted divulging the information, he didn’t have evidence Mark knew the owner. 

“Int x-ray, but ah, there’s more am sure like just fiddle around wi’ it.”

Alex was relieved that he wasn’t carrying some hugely illegal target on his head, but did want to be told more about what he could do with the AirHead, ‘fiddle’ with it felt a little anticlimactic.

Whose is this, are they going to come after it?

Fuck do ah look like John Soothsayer?” followed by another chuckle, “Doubt it like kid, he’ll ‘a’ fucked off some-wier, yours nah”

Noticing Mark avoided Alex’s first half of the question, Alex dipped his toe in the water again. 

Whose is it then?”

“Carlos Maddox”

How irritating. The question was answered but Alex was none the wiser. Doubling up the irritation, Alex’s mum called through and was swiftly muted, and all calls momentarily blocked to pre-empt her next attempts.

Continuing Alex seemed to begin to adopt the hyper-local language: “Who’s that like”

“Tha what? He’s a bloke like, fuck knows how do you answer that like?

Fair enough, Alex thought. “Well, why’s he made this then”

“Ah rate well yeah that’s the question init? Energy, credits, moolah, cash dosh and dollars. Call it thi likes, s’exchange that matters, ‘ow it moves not each stack. Don’t get me wrong like, tha nos? A rack of energy cells at ‘ome makes for an easy life like, but a yung’un like thee wants to make ruffle some feathers. You get this tha’s a smart lad.

Alex didn’t ‘get this’. At all. But Mark continued.

“Brokerage, taxation, finders fees, all that. Trim a li’l bit off of everything, nobody notices a slither, nobody cares, in fact they want it, makes them feel they’ve earned it. That’s w’ere real money is now. But dunt’ matter really does it, gonna be dead and buried in a bit. Knowing where and how the energy flows, that’s where power lies.”

In a move that didn’t seem as crass as it should have been, Mark opened up a lock box case of energy cells and the orange glow lit his half of the room. From the size of the case alone, assuming it was full, there was at least a year’s worth of his Dad’s wages in there. 

So ‘ere i’ve got a stack right, wat does it tell thi eh?”

Alex shrugged.

“Thas rate ah-kid dunt tell thi owt. ‘Ow it got ‘ere, what am gonna do wi it, weer it’s guin, that’s power. This ere” he tapped Alex’s airhead, still on his desk “shows you all that like, bloke that made it wa’ fuckin’ nuts, but sharp like, a talent. It’s not xray, it’s the flow of energy, society’s structure itself.”

Taking it in, Alex looked down at the AirHead. It looked the same, but he was now much more excited about it. Happy to have an attentive audience, Mark continued.

“Though let mi tell thi ‘bout this stack ‘ere. People luv antiques right, and I’ve got racks and racks o’ metal boxes, so I laser engrave some old earth logos on em, kick them around the yard for a bit to rough em up, and flog em for a bit of cash like” 

A man with an AirHead fashioned like a bulldog, with a short stature and gruff bullet point talking style that was emphasised with coughs and throat clears interrupted Mark’s unpunctuated legato. Whilst Mark was occupied, the ball of flesh and dust for hair known as Jamie scoffed and swizzled round in his chair.

“And what, pray tell, doth thou intend with such a device good sir? It sounds useful perchance for one akin to accounting at a grand scale, something perhaps beyond one’s capacity if one may be so bold. Anti-tech luddites know not the usefulness of the latest gadgets and gizmos, buying into conspiratorial nonsense rather. I for one would don my AirHead were permission granted” 

Though he knew the words, their use was far more confusing than Mark’s jury-rigged language. This childlike attempt at sounding important and educated whilst at the same time desperate to either differentiate himself from Mark or mock him, made Alex dislike Jamie. The hate didn’t fester too long when on cue, from the depths of the factory’s labyrinth, Mark’s voice carried into the office.

“Don’t listen to that fat lazy fuck, he’s too busy funnelling his wages into Sorcers and Sock Lovers Online or whatever its called. Fire up your AirHead and see how much he throws into that nonsense like”. 

This made Alex jerk forward with a laugh, but stifled it so as to not offend the dislikeable but still giant colleague of Mark’s. The man Alex was with simply rolled his eyes and shrugged it off, pulled his t-shirt away from his chest and continued his work. 

As a respect for Mark’s conventions Alex pulled on his AirHead only once he was out of the factory. Alex logged into the sprouting plant pot icon but this time didn’t accidentally enable the ‘x-ray’ mode, (though he needed a new name for it now), so as to not overwhelm himself. 

Instead, he took a look around the interface more calmly than when he first looked, though this lasted for all of 5 seconds, before the missed call notification leaped into view. He’d been talking to Mark for much too long, and his mother’s patience had evaporated. 

Immediately his heart rate leaped and he broke into a run. He was automatically aided by the new features of the AirHead which guided him with optimum routes through ever changing levels of pedestrian density and timing of elevators and travel-ators, showing his path via a ghostly outline of the visitor, now known as Carlos. He was weaving through the levels and making great time but would still be very late and no doubt incur a bit of wrath, hopefully from just his mum, but quite possible from his father too. 

The AirHead prompted a new message in a thin grey text that Alex hadn’t seen before. ‘Elevated heart-rate noticed, ‘Danger Sense’ enabled’

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