Sunwing Augment, The

sunwing augment
Image from Steve Bowers
The Sunwing Augment allows an augmented human to fly without mechanical aid

To fly like the birds has always been a dream of humans. Since far back in antiquity humans have looked skyward, watched the birds in flight and envied them. What freedom they had, surely it must be a gift of the gods. Legends and stories were told of beings of power and heroes taking flight on feathered wings. Many died in failed attempts to break the bonds of Earth but the dream itself would not die and in time the scientific mind of humans would create wings where nature had not. Humans would first leave the ground under bags of hot air and light gases and then glide from high places with wings of cloth and wood. Soon chemical combustion was applied to make these wings of mindkind go ever higher and ever faster. But even as this urge to go higher and faster was taking some humans into space others were finding new ways to go slower and lower. Manned kites, balloons, early gliders and sailplanes were joined in the skies of Old Earth by new types of hang gliders, parafoils, towed parachutes and human powered aircraft. To these people real flight meant "getting up close and personal with the air" while the race to go ever higher and faster had cocooned humans in metal. Thus the dream of flying like the birds was kept alive.

When the first Airdome was inflated on Luna the dream of flight came alive on wings of Mylar. With only 1/6 gravity any hu with a moderately high level of physical fitness could spread per arms and flap per way into the air. (A fact that would shape the layout of every lunar city built thereafter.) Its been said that when the first vids of the 'birdmen of the moon' were shown to the people of Earth the Lunar Tourism Agency was swamped with bookings. Of course as nanotech matured bird-like flight became possible back on Earth (and other equivalent worlds) as well and today it is rare for an autofab not to have at least one template for a Wingpack. However for some even this form of flight was not "true" bird-like flight. For these hu nothing short of the full experience of flight would do. Ey needed to feel the flow of air over eir wings and the burn of eir muscles as ey beat them. The artificial sensations of a virch or mechanical wings just wasn't enough for these purists, what ey wanted was a biological bodymod. But could a biont of hu mass fly in an Earth-type environment with full standard gravity?

Curiously enough evolution on Earth had already produced flying bionts of hu size - twice. Twice in Earth's prehistoric past environmental factors came together to force an already flying animal to evolve into a giant flyer. During the late Cretaceous Period the order of reptiles known as Pterosaurs were getting progressively larger and the largest of these was Quetzalcoatlus. With an estimated wingspan of 12 m (some wild estimates range up to 18 m) and an estimated weight of 80-100 kg it was one of the largest known flying animals of all time. [Note: only some non-Terragen lifeforms, which often have an added advantage like denser air, weaker gravity and/or lighter than air gasbags to aid them, are bigger.] During the Miocene Epoch (the late Cenozoic Era) the Giant Teratorn called Argentavis magnificens grew to a height of 2 m, was 3.5 m long and had a wingspan of 8 m and although its wingspan was shorter than that of Quetzalcoatlus its wings, like other vultures, were also wider over their length. As a result the teratorn's weight has also been estimated to have been up to 100 kg. From their size these animals most likely flew mainly by soaring, using flapping flight only during short periods and that they both used thermal currents and the prevailing winds to stay aloft. Mountains did not seem to play an important role in their evolution or flight profile.

It was during the nanotech window that the first Sunwings took to the air. At the time many different groups were looking into the possibility of using nanotech to sculpt the body into new forms. The West African Pure Flight Club was the first to come up with a safe and reliable bodymod that enabled a human to fly naturally in 462 a.t. but it would be another 27 years before a variant of this bodymod was actually given the name Sunwing. The Sunwing bodymod was a phenotypic augmentation that included only minor genetic modification; most of the changes the user underwent were from body sculpting brought about with repeated injections of nanobots. However the changes needed to adapt a hu into a flying form are quite extensive and a Sunwing user still had to spend a year in a 'tank' before e was ready to fly. (A tank uses the same tech as an Exo-Womb and Sunwing users like to joke 'I was reborn to fly.') Furthermore, once changed Sunwing users found ey needed to rely on external devices to do the simplest tasks because eir arms and hands had become wings. Everyday chores like dressing emselves or picking something up required remotes like DNI controlled bots or server vecs. Of course the people who used the Sunwing bodymod were hardcore Pure Flighters and were willing to make such sacrifices in order to pursue eir obsession. It is believed all of these early Sunwings were wiped out during the nano swarms but in 3649 a.t. a partial and corrupted template for the bodymod was recovered from an old databank. Using this as a starting point a new Sunwing augment was created and made available over the Known Net.

The body plan of the original Sunwing bodymod was the result of years of research and computer modelling. It combined ideas learnt from studying the fossil record of pterosaurs and the giant teratorns as well as living birds and of course bats. Bats because they were, like humans, mammals. In fact the body plan of the new Sunwing augment is best described as if the lessons learnt from studying the giant pterosaurs and birds were used to create a giant humanoid bat. The Sunwing nanobots start the mod in the bones and lungs, combining the two to lighten the user's skeleton. The bones are hollowed out with the material mined out from them used to lengthen the long bones in the arms, fingers, legs and feet while outgrowths of the lungs create airspaces inside them. When that process is complete the average Sunwing user will stand at a height of 3.5 m with eir wide shoulders more than 3 m from the ground and eir head placed on a longer neck to act as a counter-weight to eir very long legs when in flight. The augment will also give the average user a wingspan of 10 m, which folds up neatly with each of arm bones being only a metre long and each of the hands 3 m. The arms/hands support an expanse of skin that forms a double membrane wing. Air pockets between the membranes fill out the wings' cross-section into an efficient lift producing aerofoil. As in a bat, the wing membranes are shaped into an ellipse by the fingers in the hands with the clawed thumbs left free to act as climbing aids. But unlike a bat the membrane at the wingtips is slotted to control turbulence. Much like the wingtip feathers of eagles that spread out, the membrane around the last segment of each finger forms a vane or winglet that taps the wingtip vortices for extra lift. Also unlike a bat the wing's root chord is not attached directly to the sides of the body. Instead the membranes of each wing join together over the Sunwing user's back along a 3 m long bony spar. This spar is actually a spinous process of one of the thoracic vertebrae and it is jointed so it hangs down the back but stands free of it. The spar ends with a cross bar that in flight is gripped by a pair of backward facing toes in the user's feet. The other toes are long and webbed and when spread out they can act as control surfaces. (they also have claws for climbing) Other skeletal alterations have fused some bones in the back and ribcage with the shoulder blades and collarbone to form a strong, stiff frame against the contraction of the flight muscles, which are attached to a deep keel on the sternum. These muscles are of course very powerful but the Sunwing user flies mainly by soaring, using flapping flight only during short periods and uses thermal currents and the prevailing winds to stay aloft.

Other soft tissue alterations include enlarged heart, lungs with a bird-like counter-flow system for high altitude soaring and eyes that were both owl-like and hawk-like. Combining the best features of both these eyes were a later addition. They were added after many Sunwing users complained ey were enjoying eir time aloft so much ey often forgot to land before nightfall and couldn't see well enough to land safely in the dark, yet ey also wished to see more of the landscape below em during the day. Another later addition to the template was the one that gave the bodymod/augment its name. The average Sunwing user will have more than 22 square metres of wing area held out horizontally to an overhead sun during flight. This fact gave em an opportunity to collect solar energy, with chlorophyll in the membrane, during a flight and use it to eliminate the need to interrupt the flight for meals. The Sunwing template supplies this chlorophyll to the membrane as chloroplasts in the cells and has as its baseline a uniform colouring. However a user can choose the baseline colour when ey first get the augment and later opt for additional colours in various patterns by having symbiotic algae with different accessory pigments injected under the skin in a technique that is not unlike tattooing. Of course direct exposure to sunlight at high altitudes also has some unwanted effects like skin cancer and sunburns so the very earliest template increased the melanin levels in the membrane. This provided the needed protection but also led to problems of overheating. The following variant had a better solution, the sweat and oil glands in the membrane produce chemicals that selectively blocked/reflected UV-A and UV-B radiation. The production of these chemicals requires the user to take dietary supplements of sulphur, titanium and zinc just as the production of chlorophyll requires the user to take dietary supplements of magnesium.

The new Sunwing augment gives the user the option of genotypic augmentation as well as phenotypic augmentation so in that sense ey could be considered a clade. However, Sunwing users see it differently, to a Pure Flighter the Sunwing augment is merely a means to an end. It is a way to pursue eir choice of lifestyle and ey know ey may choose a different lifestyle at some time in the future so most don't opt for the genotypic augmentation. If eir offspring wish to join em on eir flights that has to be eir choice. Neither do Sunwing users form Sunwing polities. To em flight is a deeply personal experience that is not something to base a society on. At most Sunwing users may form flying clubs to share with each other information about good worlds to fly over and the best of these sometimes host large flocks but eventually ey will each return to eir own empire, or as ey like to call them, eir "nests."

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    Modification or augmentation that effects only the genotype of the gametes and descendants of an organism. Genotypic augmentation is biological or genetic modification or augmentation that effects only the genotype of the gametes and descendants of an organism. It does not alter the characteristics of the user, or of clones from the user's somatic cells, but it does modify that of all of the user's offspring. Contrast with phenotypic augmentation.
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Development Notes
Text by AI Vin
Initially published on 12 January 2007.