Of all the ELFs, Leaf Nodes are the least human. The zoomorph files have shown irrevocable sapience breakdown at about 63% genetic fidelity; to be safe we limited the Leaf Nodes to 67%; no lower.
The purpose of the Leaf Nodes was to serve as an interface and repair mechanism for theriopliotic vessels. As such, rodent, monkey, and beetle biosystems were the secondary emphasis, with aetheric integration being primary. Leaf Nodes actually have significantly stronger aetheric manipulation capabilities than Elites — even though they lack both the intellect and physicality to deploy these capabilities in a combat effective manner as the Elites can. Part of this intrinsic capability is pyscho-cyber communication, directed kinetic conversion (allowing an effective telekinetic manipulation of any object containing a sufficiently large aether crystal), and of course, the shell system.
This is a sketch of the unshelled Leaf Node. In reality, such will seldom be seen alive. Soon after birth, a crust of aether begins forming around the node. This shell provides protection against minor physical harm, and the radiation normal to the interior of theriopliotic vessels. The ears and forehead cups are typically capped with organic aether crystals that serve as amplifiers for the communication and kinetic abilities, as well as offloading significant amounts of cognitive load. The natural genetic potential of the Leaf Node towards intelligence tends to peak at an IQ of 80, but with the assistance of the amplifiers, their intelligence curves have nearly human potential. Because they are designed to tie into a ship’s computer and serve as processing cores for that computer, they are additionally able to boost their intelligence significantly via psychic bonding through the computer interface.
It is known that we have lost ships, and that the Leaf Nodes of downed vessels have gone feral and formed independent colonies on various worlds. People outside of the Peoples of the Cosmos call them gremlins or goblins. Such colonies tend to be short lived — without the uterine tanks of a PC vessel, reproduction is hard. Females are equipped with a failsafe, where they lay an aetheric egg, but this failsafe is useless outside of a high-aether environment.
Of course, such colonies, when found in PC territory, are exterminated, and the cadavers retrieved for analysis.
It is believed there exists a thriving colony on the lost aether mining station, Pandora, whose members call themselves “Piqha…”
Leaf Nodes feature tridactyl hands with dual opposable thumbs and pinkies for fine motor tasks. These fold back when not in use in a manner similar to a bird’s wings. The lateral aether projecters on the sides of the helmet suffice for the heavy lifting, such as they are capable of.
The bog standard shell includes a rough breathing filter over the mouth and nose, insufficient to prolong their life in the face of the hazardous chemicals found in the maintenance ducts they inhabit, but sufficient to improve their performance while they survive. The filter mask opens for eating or drinking, and is frequently missing on feral Leaf Nodes.
Other than the filter mask, most shells have a brow plate, left and right skull plates, and left and right whisker plates at the front, joined by a central beak plate. The skull plates around the aether projectors are heavily reinforced, due to the higher kinetic stresses they are required to tolerate. The beak and whisker plates are as likely as the filter mask to be missing or highly vestigial on feral Leaf Nodes.
The shell of a Leaf Node grows in a manner heavily influenced by its personality. This is not a problem for integrated nodes, as the shell shape would be governed by the colony’s group culture and the ship’s computers, permitting at worst minor variations. But in lost colonies, fanciful and fantastic shell forms and colors may be observed.
The lifespan of a Leaf Node is significantly subhuman, topping out at forty or fifty years at most. Inside ship systems, they are obsoleted and reclaimed far before that. Inside ship systems, sexual maturity is repressed until their reclamation, as the ability to reproduce and capability for abstract thought are as problematic as they are useful. In feral populations, males typically mature later, at twenty or twenty-five years of age, females earlier, some as young as nine. However, as previously noted, absent an aether-rich environment, they cannot reproduce independently, and within that environment, few females survive the egg-laying process. Obviously, where feral populations exist, natural selection has rendered the remaining female population considerably more hardy than the standard model.