The sky is rife with many-colored wings. There are the burnished chrome airfoils of the commuter jets, the orange, green, and purple branded gliding fins of the three competing wirehopper services, the sunset-red of the curtainlike streamers of magneto-nylon flowing behind the pleasure gondolas, and the black rotors of the occasional Envoy service vehicle. Amid this ecosystem of Shanghai’s sky swims a dark gray drone with a body no larger than a clenched fist. It bears no logo or corporate sigil, only a blocky, non-deterministic fractal pattern that changes slightly every few seconds. It glides near-silently through traffic, unnoticed by most passive scanners and causing inexplicable software errors in those that attempt to identify it.
The drone dives suddenly, swerves past rusting cables, a glass-tubed skybridge, two clotheslines, and an immense and gaudy neon sign in the shape of a grinning Buddha. It hovers twenty feet above the street for a long moment before slowing descending towards a dour-looking teenage girl in earbuds leaning against a street sign and staring intently at her phone. The drone pauses at the level of her eyes and waits. The girl, unblinking, simultaneously pages through a news feed and watches a video of a man in a lab coat speaking. The drone imperceptibly drops in altitude, its rotors seeming to sigh, and emits a piercing, modulating tone like two untuned train whistles.
“All right, all right,” Yao says, grimacing. She produces a card and presses it against the base of the drone, which becomes silent again and releases a beige marble into her hand. Yao and the drone depart in separate directions: one straight up, one through an alleyway back towards school.
The audio stream from the video continues in her earbuds: “Though long rumored, Sun Hu represents the first confirmed case of PIDC that was transmitted not by physical contact, or by air, but through electronic means.”
* * *
Yao’s room is humid, almost stifling. The windows are fully opaque and hot, wet air blasts in through a vent in the floor. The only light comes from her computer, a silvery oval flickering dim magenta. Her mouth is a grim mark on an eyeless mask. Her tongue presses against the back of her teeth uneasily. She scans through her interaction logs, looking for anyone who’s linked in any way to the Dreaming Sickness and mercilessly severing any contact with them. It’s slow going: Yao has many, many connections.
Her palms begin to sweat. She can’t focus, her mind summoning unbidden images of pox-marked tongues, halo-eyed stares and trembling fingertips, only to thrust them away as though the image itself held this black contagion. But it couldn’t. Not possible. Still, better to purge any conceivable connection to it.
She hits her first snag when it turns out that one of her contacts was a digital trap: a hypercompressed blob of nearly-empty data that, when accessed, expands like mutant blowfish to occupy all available memory. The scrolling freezes, Yao’s audio stream halts, the touchscreen becomes motionless portrait on glass.
“No, no, no,” she whispers, almost croaking. “How the hell did that get in there?” The contact’s name, glaring up at her from the unresponsive screen, is Bonedaddy3000.
“Damn. Damn,” Yao blinks for what feels like the first time in hours. She slams a palm into her computer and lets it fall on crumpled sheets. She knows whose work this is, knows that no one else would be so disgustingly retro.
She reaches over to the wall, without looking, and flips a big metal switch with a heavy thunk, unthrottling her uplink connection. She takes the beige marble from her pocket and pokes a wiry tube through its surface. Her breathing is quicker.
I am not my body.
She puts the tube to her mouth, and almost instantly a thin stream of liquid flows out of the marble. She props herself against the wall with a pillow under her lower back, legs lazily spread.
I am not my brain.
The taste that of stale water, iron and rust. But not bitterness. This batch is the purest she’s found in a while. She will use this supplier again. She feels her hands tingle, phantom fingers twitching and uncurling. Her tongue feels the edge of the tube, feels the pouring.
I am action and knowledge.
Her eyes see through her bed. The magenta light in the room blossoms into the thousand million colors of data. She stands up and sky bends, the tide red-as-blood recedes. The heads of her former enemies clatter noisily that they might warn her new ones of her coming. She drinks their secrets like a pagan goddess might the blood of a warm sacrifice. Now, her real work can begin.
Penelope glided back to the conference room with a smile spread across her lips. Her eyes captured Gretchen’s perplexed stare as the secretary, once more, was witness to her boss’ odd behaviour.
The morning meeting was dragged on until nearly noon. She hadn’t prepared herself for the long discussions presented at the table. When she arrived back at her office she exhaled deeply, as to rid herself of the stressful morning she’d just endured.
She found her phone at the bottom of her top drawer and was greeted with a text from Shannon:
I’m heading to the lab. My brother wants my head since I’ve been gone all weekend. It’s going to be a VERY long day.
Penelope replied quickly, put her phone down, and started drumming her fingers on the desk as her constant thoughts on him gave her an idea. To accomplish what she’d planned she’d have to be out of the office by 3. That meant skipping lunch and no text exchanges. She needed to squeeze as much work in as possible. Against all odds, she left her office at precisely 3 o'clock and on her way home she dialed Shannon’s number.
Chrysopelea paradisi - Paradise Tree Snake; GIFs might be showing Chrysopelea ornata - Golden Tree Snake; their coloration widely varies (thanks for the comment lawsafizzix). Read more on National Geographic and flyingsnake.org. Watch Jake Socha TEDxVideo:
Unlike most seabirds, the frigatebird does not have waterproof feathers. Landing in the water during a transoceanic flight would quickly drown the bird, so instead they stay aloft. But until recently, scientists did not realize just how adept the birds are. Studying tagged frigatebirds in flight, researchers found that the birds could reach altitudes of 4000 meters and that they could soar without flapping for up to 64 kilometers! They achieve these heights by seeking out clouds, which mark strong atmospheric updrafts. The birds ride these thermals up to the cloud tops – well into freezing conditions – and then glide slowly back down.
Their bodies are impressively built for slow glides. Frigatebirds boast a low body weight for their large wing area. This ratio is known as wing loading, and it’s a fundamental characteristic of any flier, avian or otherwise. Low wing loading is key to gliding longer because it reduces the speed at which a glider loses altitude. (Image credit: D. Brossard; research credit: H. Weimarskirch et al.; via @skunkbear)
BK: Once I applied Mike’s note about not making the wings baggy, the suit finally came together nicely. We never managed to weave the following bit of backstory into the show, but the idea is Asami designed these modern wing suits for the new Airbenders.