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Chapter Four: Present Day

Chapter Four

Present Day

“Watch ya put on a hat before you sit out there for hours,” Marca warned Eoghan as he opened the folding glass wall that made the Sealport Sound view his own personal mural. He chuckled as she grumbled, “And I’ll be wearin’ mine as he lets out all the bought air. Blasted movin’ wall. Dumbest thing I evah...” 

The old Mainer woman had been the housekeeper for the former owner of his home, who had begged him to keep her on when he purchased the rambling granite manse. At first he had resisted, craving his privacy. But Marca was more introverted than he, delivering him unrequested meals and refusing to share them even upon the most sincere invitations.

Marca did not approve of his renovations to the old stone house.

The wide half-moon deck was his favorite place, his own design of metal and wood and edged in the same gray granite as his home. Cold or not, the view was spectacular. And perfect for a flight.

Under his arm, the snowy white owl sat still until he had set it on the flattest stone he’d picked out just for this purpose. With a flip of a hidden switch, its body hummed with subtle mechanical sounds, but remained inanimate. Eoghan fitted his face with a VR helmet and pulled on wired gloves, then on the screen display before his eyes but invisible to the world, he pulled up the software program he had written. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was still waiting for his final delivery of product, but considering the work he and then his company had done for them so far, knowing they would ultimately get first right of refusal on the sale of his patents was enough to keep them from pestering.

He summoned the flight simulator that interacted with the corded gloves and turned on the owl’s eyes so he could see its vision through his goggles. With a few more commands, the bird opened its four-foot wingspan and leapt off its launch pad. He heard Marca gasp as she always did inside, then mutter curses about technology going too far.

Eoghan was pretty certain it was exactly as far as he’d always dreamed. It had taken him hard years of study and fighting for grants, balancing side jobs to keep his grad school debt at bay, to build a computer tech venture from the ground up. Now he no longer ran the company; its stock kept him very comfortable and its distance freed him even more. Free of meetings and disapproving board members scouring the news for fresh ways to claim him unfit to lead. Free to focus on proving his algorithms for artificial intelligence-assisted flight could be paired with carbon-nanotubule building methods to create a bird that man could fly inside, if only in a simulated way. This snowy owl had taken almost a dozen test flights and while landing was not quite perfected, it gave him flight. Gave him what he had imagined since childhood.

Its skeleton was almost an exact replica of a real owl’s, with hydraulic fluid and carbon-nylon mesh fibers instead of blood and muscle, and the power of lithium-ion batteries instead of a real metabolism. And with the reluctant help of a confused taxidermist he’d found in Canada, it looked indistinguishable from a real owl. Truly, the feathers had helped with smoother flight, matching the serrated wing edge of a real owl.

Through its eyes he flew out over the sound and his software responded beautifully: when he wanted to gain altitude, it judged the prevailing winds and decided through its own artificial intelligence whether to flap or simply angle itself to rise. He could circle, though still a little wobbly. He could stay aloft but focus his eyes on the dorsal fin of a dolphin in the sound, then zoom out to take in the point, the lighthouse. The autofocus was doing a marvelous job at finding the right spot in his vision, which meant the pupillary tracking he’d built into the VR goggles wasn’t buggy either. In fact, he could even see a hiker along the lighthouse point trail.

With a dip of his hand and eyes, the bird’s programming responded and sent him on a tailored dive towards the point, zeroing in on the hiker with long dark hair. A woman. Slight, not very tall, but willowy and pale, dark-haired. He stretched the camera zoom to its limits. Morning sunlight glinted off something she was wearing and, magnified by his zoom, blinded him momentarily inside the goggles. He made an instinctive move, squinting and twisting his eyes away, and threw the bird off its smooth glide along the air. He tried to transition to a banking turn, but the lack of wind from the direction he turned lost him altitude, and the software corrected with a few ill-timed flaps of wings that added too much acceleration. The bird was now headed full power for the cliffs of the point.

“Whoa,” he whispered to himself, and pulled its head up so its tail tucked down, buffeting against the wind and settling in for an awkward landing on the rocky, uneven beach at the foot of the cliffs. Time to test the takeoff skills with a real-life launch pad.

Next Chapter: Chapter Five : The Maine Province, 1722