Alex blinked his bedroom into existence and took a few seconds to double check his surroundings, comforted by their familiarity. A feeling of exhaustion weighed him back into his bed, keeping his body occupied whilst his mind puzzled through the evening's events. The clouds through his skylight were a blistering white, far too bright for Alex to look at directly. His bed was gratefully accepted by his weary body but also seemed at once too stiff and too soft to let Alex get comfortable enough to fall back to sleep. He put this down to his aching body struggling against being apprehended. Energy sappers took their toll, and struggled to differentiate between the body's and the suit's energy.
Alex's mum entered with an unfortunately familiar expression, frustration.
"Where did you end up last night Alex?" his mother asked through a clenched jaw. It immediately struck Alex just how significant a breach of trust it was. The usual process for their arguments was an immediate shouting match of rights and wrongs, followed by a few snide remarks and a period of silence. It never began with concerned questioning, and that immediately disarmed Alex.
"Mum", Alex began, hoping to reinforce either the authority hierarchy he'd breached or the maternal softness in his mother, hopefully both. "I just couldn't stand around whilst they took Dad away for no reason".
"I didn't ask why you went, I asked where did you go?! I was worried!", the loud reply came. The shouting was back and its familiarity was oddly comforting. Though her persistence was new. Usually this would have already devolved into an emotional tirade by the second sentence.
"Mum I don't know, somewhere a few branches below us, I just tried to follow the weird man that saw Dad and ended up at some random abandoned house", Alex tried to make it seem like a fruitless errand, to switch his mother's perception of his dangerous and rebellious impulse into a childish waste of effort, though he knew it was both.
"Why Alex! What has that man got to do with you!?", ah now this was more like it, this was an argument he could navigate, fight fire with fire and we'll both burn out. It will be a short argument.
Matching the tone, Alex replied "With me!? Why don't you ask Dad. Clearly something's going on otherwise the police wouldn't have dragged Dad away!"
"So you ran off, in the middle of the night, with no plan, for no reason? Surely you had an idea of who he was?" her voice, calmer now though still very irritable and grating. Perhaps Alex overestimated his mother's aggression, but he knew when to press an advantage.
"It's better than sitting around here and waiting god-knows how long. At least I wanted to do something about it", the final line, carrying an accusatory tone, would ignite the remaining embers or douse the flames entirely. Surprisingly, it did neither and she sighed.
"Your father's back already, and would probably like a word". A statement that worried Alex greatly. She left and the door snapped back open as quickly as it closed.
Unblinkingly Alex watched his dad enter and sit on the edge of his bed. It would be a long, emotional conversation. One that Alex would just have to agree with so that it wouldn't drag out into a long lecture about life. Knowing it would be an attempt in vain, but the only chance he'd get to control the conversation, Alex began a subtle offensive:
"Who was that man who came by?", the question was met with a quick piercing look.
"Don't start Alex. Why did you leave your Mum last night?" The guilt offensive was a familiar, but no less effective, opener preferred by Alex's Dad.
"I was trying to help you!" Alex protested
"How's that then?"
"Well I wanted to find out who the man was and get some idea of why you were taken when you've done nothing wrong!" His Dad's calmness wasn't a usual strategy, and Alex could feel himself starting to dig a hole he'd struggle to climb back out of.
"No, I don't think so. Have you?" This was odd but a welcomed difference from admonishment.
"Everyone's done something wrong Alex, it just takes a keen eye to see what it is", this was cryptic but not an entirely departure from his Dad's philosophical waxing.
Alex was feeling confident he was clearing the woods, "Well you can't have done anything that bad, you're back now", and almost sensing Alex's growing comfort, his Dad re-doubled his efforts.
"That does not justify your actions last night, all isn't well that ends well Alex", rising to a near shout towards the end, unlike his mother, Alex knew that fighting his dad's fire with his own was like trying to starve a volcano of its fuel with a match.
"No, sorry, it was selfish really" the words choked Alex, but he knew it was par for the course to say them, and saying them sooner ended the conversation sooner. It looked to do the trick, as Alex's dad betrayed a slight smile, and nodded.
"So tell me about this new helmet, it's a bit broken?" a welcomed change of conversation, Alex jumped at the opportunity. Typically a departure from the lecture was only a brief respite to settle tempers in preparation for round two, which was a reinforcement of the warnings disguised as a compromise, but much like the apology, the sooner you got through it the sooner you were left alone. So Alex corrected his dad excitedly:
"No it's not! It's amazing! I don't know who your friend is, but his AirHead let's you see through walls"
"What do you mean?" his dad asked simply
"I mean, you put it on and all walls disappear, well, not entirely they still glow which I think is showing you the actual flow of energy, no idea how though, but yeah, I could see the police approaching through the walls" Alex said, stumbling over his words in excitement
"Interesting, and was that always the case, or could you see normally too?", a good question that Alex was happy to answer.
"No, well not straight away, there was an little plant sign-in icon thing i've never seen before, I put our family details in there and it then did the crazy xray stuff"
"I see, what details were they?"
"What do you mean? Just our family details, try it on" Alex took a quick look around the room for the AirHead, but couldn't see it. He scanned around the room again, quicker this time. "Shit where is it?" Alex said in desperation looking at his dad, who looked back emotionless.
With a dizzying lurch that wrenched at Alex's guts, hid dad, the bed, the sky and the walls dissolved around him, revealing a white metal mesh cage. His whole bedroom faded away like water evaporating. It was an uncanny moment that left a taste of sickness in his mouth and thumping hot nausea in his chest.
Alex's Dad was replaced by an expressionless mask of white ripples, moving up and down across the curvature of the headgear. These milky ripples had faint signs of facial features, as though somebody was pressing their face against the inside of the helmet. Two pale hands reached up to the helmet and slid it off, like a snake shedding its skin, to reveal an even paler face wearing a crestfallen expression. Alex was scared, and even though there was no actual temperature change in the room, he was shivering. Stranger still was the voice that came from the thin grey lines of a mouth, a hollow quiet tone that was somehow always lowering in tone, perfectly matching the man's grey eyes and short grey hair.
"Alex, I apologise for the subterfuge. I know it's uncomfortable the first time you experience an interrogation. I'm the YellowJacket Chief Sheriff for this level of the tree. It was simply part of procedure and now that the questions have been asked we can stop the theatrics"
Unable to respond Alex simply stared at the gaunt man.
"I see. Well Alex, simply put. We have evidence to suggest your father and some associates are working to prevent the launch of the next seed rocket"
Alex replied in a burst of confused breaths: "What, no, what?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so. But as I said, it's evidence suggesting, not proving. And I'm not in the habit of wasting energy to build cases against innocent people".
With fear somewhat abating as the pale man spoke some semblance of fairness, Alex responded with a slightly shaky voice "So you'll let him go?"
"I want to Alex, I do. But the conditions of his bail are quite restrictive for charges like this, it is tantamount to treason, don't forget. We're not being draconian here".
"But he's not done anything?" Although Alex had no reason to think his Dad had done anything wrong, he wasn't kidding himself into thinking he knew everything about his parents. As such, this protest came out as a question.
"Sure. We're very worried that there are some people dragging your dad into some shady business, it's not his fault", came a stoney placating tone, "And I think we can get him out and send him home with you".
Alex's nervousness began to settle into a steady resolve as he heard of a way to free both himself and his father. "How?" he said eagerly.
"You're familiar with the concept of 'bail' I'm sure, I mentioned it a moment ago?"
"Sure, how much energy will it take? Take my reserves"
"Wait now, not all bail is paid with energy. Any exchange can work at the sheriff's discretion. To free your dad, and to make sure he doesn't end back here. We need to make sure there isn't, as you say, anything going on. Make sense?"
"Excellent. We're keeping an eye on his comings and goings from your house, to prove he's not interacting with any other suspects. But of course we don't know what's happening inside, I can't prove his innocence when he's at home. Are you following?"
"Well yes but…" Alex was interrupted
"Great, so what I need is for you to keep an ear out for your Dad's communication at home, keep a note of any raised voices, any distressing conversations. Note it down and give us an update at the end of each day, just a brief call on your AirHead would be perfect"
With a raised eyebrow, Alex replies somewhat incredulously: "What? I can't snoop around and spy on him!"
The grey man, now almost completely translucent, replied with the faint shimmer of a smile "No Alex of course not, you're not spying. Gathering information for a person's defense is a very typical part of the justice process. Think of it as your way to protect your family. As we said, your Dad could be in danger and scared to come to us for fear of what might happen to his family, to his two sons. With you helping us, you're helping him stay safe. Ask yourself, did he look comfortable when he was visited last night?"
"Well, no not really" Alex admitted
"Okay good, see that's usable, clearly he didn't want to see that man, this is already helping us" the man stood up on two short skinny legs, not much taller now than he was when he was sat down. "Look, we don't expect you to expend this energy without something for yourself. Help us to prove your dad's case and we'll fast track your Pioneer's Programme application. I believe your little adventure last night has prevented you from submitting yourself to be considered as one of the next off-worlder?" an edge had creeped into the sheriff's voice reminding Alex that he wasn't in a position to bargain and to not try.
Alex was left alone to change out of his police issue cell clothes and back into his flight suit. He was being watched on large screens by the Sheriff who sat with his hands clasped together over his knees as he leaned forward, as though studying a zoo exhibit. The room is octagonal with huge screens on each segment, showing the inside of each cell. Only one or two have anything other than the blank white meshed walls, and they show two very different scenes, no doubt in preparation for interrogations. Four desks face outwards at which are sat YellowJacket operatives changing various controls to refine the scenes they're building.
One approaches the Sheriff, and despite being much taller and standing, seemed to shrink besides the Sheriff.
"High Sheriff Sylvan, Sir? Will he help us?"
"He will help us. He's naive and addled with life's choices, easily controlled." Then after a pause, he looked at his subordinate, "Did you hack the AirHead?"
"We bugged his Airhead, and included a quick dial option to your office as requested Sir".
"But you failed to hack the other AirHead, the one he claimed did something special?" Sylvan said with a tinge of disappointment.
"Don't try to skirt around me, Lieutenant, I asked 'Did you hack the AirHead' and you replied with arrest procedure changes made to an AirHead, that isn't what I asked and so means you failed but don't want to or simply can't admit it".
"Sorry Sir, correct. We deconstructed the code and whilst there are partitions in the software they appear empty, even when we entered his family details".
"Not so difficult was it? Give the AirHead back to Wright-son. He'll be eager to re-try it no doubt and we can see if we can monitor its effects then".
"Sir". Came the affirmative reply, and in a few moments, the AirHead was returned to Alex, as he was escorted out of his cell, and into a holding area, where his Dad waited without expression.
"Dad, look I", Alex wanted to get the first word in.
"Be quiet" his dad growled, and the two said nothing as they were escorted back to their leaf, tethered to YellowJacket officers and pulled from cable to cable on the ascent back to their leaf.