The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

A Climate for Dragons

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An original climate-fiction piece, for your reading pleasure.

Diana Minakshi Cartwright lay at the bottom of the bowl of the sky and could not rise. Since the hang-gliding accident 15 years earlier, nothing much below her armpits had worked properly. The air, for so long her friend and playmate, had suddenly—and quite literally—let her down. Humanity was in the same boat, in a way, though she didn’t blame the atmosphere for climate change, of course. And she had long since forgiven the sky about her legs. She still loved to lie in the grass and look up at it.

But she could not lie there forever. Today was the big day and she had to get up and be an adult in it. She propped herself up on her elbows and looked around for her assistant.

“Dashawn?”

Dashawn Harris called himself her grad student. The phrase was a complete misnomer, first because he knew more than she did about his work, and second because grad schools, as such, hadn’t existed in twenty-five years. Civilization had fallen when a global pandemic terminally disrupted the distribution of both food and oil. A new civilization, of sorts, was growing up in its place, one without fossil fuel and without many of the institutions Diana had taken for granted back when she was young and could still wriggle her toes.

But the new society had its own institutions and rules, and one of these stipulated that professionals in certain fields had to go through an apprenticeship process in order to be taken seriously by their colleagues. Dashawn was a self-taught roboticist, one of the best in the country, but could not make the new rules bend. He had offered Diana his services in exchange for professional legitimacy. On paper, therefor, he was her apprentice, something like a grad student, yes. In reality, he was her business partner, her friend, her aid, and, on bad days, her nurse.

“Dashawn?”

He appeared, gently scooped her up out of the grass, and carried her over to an equipment tent where he undressed her and helped her put on her robotic exoskeleton. She hated to wear the thing, but thanks to a neural access plug on her spine and the exo’s own microprocessors, it put her in command of her own body again. She put her clothes and her dignity back on and joined Dashawn at his field control center. He handed her a cup of coffee substitute and consulted a series of screens, frowning.

“How’s it looking?” she asked.

“Oh, fucked up as usual,” he began, then rolled his eyes and amended himself. “Ok, it’s not completely fucked up. Sections E and F aren’t logging on to the cell towers, but it’s probably just a relay being retarded or some shit. We’ve still got 27 minutes before the media fucktards start crawling around. Plenty of time.”

Dashawn was habitually irreverent to the point of genuine offensiveness. He would not be talking to said media.

“The, um, ‘media fucktards’ are here already,” said a woman’s voice. Diana jumped and the servos in her exo whined as they moved her legs and recovered her balance.

“Elzy, why don’t you knock?” she said, and turned around to face her publicist.

“Because you don’t have a door,” the younger woman replied.

“Hey, you’re a cop,” put in Dashawn, still attending to his computers. “Arrest the reporters for trespassing. Fuck ‘em up.”

“I only fuck up badguys,” Elzy Rodriguez explained, lightly. “Anyway, I left my badge at home. I’m wearing my environmental education hat today. Why don’t you just buzz them with your toy birds?”

Dashawn tensed, then stood up slowly. He was a big man, bushy as a pirate, and he did not seem quite sane. A lesser woman than Elzy might have been intimidated. But when he turned around he was grinning like a friendly retriever.

“I don’t build toys,” he said. “I fly dragons.

“Children, children,” Diana chided, playfully. But her accent was coming out, as it always did when she was stressed. It made all her words sound musical and precise. “Elzy, we’re having an issue with the relays, just keep the reporters busy for the moment, ok?”

“But they want you.”

“Tell them I’ll be out when I am ready!”

“Yes, Dr. Cartwright.” Elzy left the tent as soundlessly as she’d entered it.

“I’ve actually got things covered in here,” Dashawn told her, “if you want to go out and act all famous and shit.”

“I’m just not looking forward to explaining the difference between climatology and meteorology 42 times in a row.”

“So don’t bother. Who gives a shit if they think you’re the weather-lady? Give ‘em a couple a’ sound-bites, talk about the science, yada yada yada, you’ll be fabulous.”

“Of course I’ll be fabulous,” snapped Diana. She finished her fake coffee, clipped on an earpiece so Dashawn could call her if he needed to, and walked out into the busy sunshine.

These days, the green floor of Carter Notch, in New Hampshire, was a dairy farm, but it still had wide, flat open areas where the tourist parking lots used to be. The place made a good launch site. Today, the cows were sequestered in their barns and in the pastures rested rows upon rows of blue and white aerial drones. Each was about the size and shape of a turkey vulture, pale beneath and covered with dark solar cells above. Retractable props provided thrust when the machine was not soaring and a dozen tiny cameras and sensors peered out from ports and windows in the head and belly. Each sat on its own portable launch ramp and dozens of techs moved among the rows, making last minute adjustments and consulting tablet computers all keyed in to Dashawn and his electronic nerve center.

Above, the sky warmed towards noon and real, flesh-and-blood vultures soared upwards in huge circles. A pair of ravens gamboled in thin air, tumbling together for thousands of feet and then rising to wrestle and flirt all over again.

Diana knew each of the three hundred flyers was coming awake around her, flexing and testing various flaps. She could visualize them trying out their robotic senses, tasting the air for wind speed, direction, temperature, and trace atmospheric gas composition. She could also visualize a sixth of the machines steadfastly refusing to communicate with the cell tower network. Without that network, the drones not only wouldn’t be able to report their data and accept new commands, they would be unable to correct any navigation errors. The last of the GPS satellites had stopped working years ago, just like the communications and research satellites before them. It was all just so much space-junk, now.

Those satellites could not be replaced. Without fossil fuel, technology could still be blisteringly intelligent, but it lacked the brute force necessary to hurl a rocket into space. Without satellites, much of climatology and meteorology were essentially flying blind. That was the central problem today was meant to solve. If the launch went off well, other launches would follow in other parts of the country. Over a thousand drones, flying continuous transects within set altitude ranges, would collectively replace the satellites, at least in American airspace. But if sections E and F would not or could not communicate, ten years of work and the best of her legacy would stay grounded with them.

Diana reminded herself that, in all likelihood, the problem would be fixed soon, in minutes or hours, or a few days at most. Last-minute technical glitches were pretty run-of-the-mill. The trouble was that Elzy, quite sensibly, had encouraged the project’s major funders to use the launch as a publicity opportunity. A delay now would embarrass the very people whose money and good will Diana could not do without.

Representatives of the major project partners, the colleges and meteorological societies funding the program, plus the firm that built the drones, were due in about two hours for the press conference and the equivalent of a ribbon-cutting ceremony, but half a dozen reporters had jumped the fence and wanted soundbites now. If she could keep them happy without letting on that there was a problem, it was possible Dashawn would get the drones launched on schedule after all.

Techs were still assembling the low stage for the ceremony, but Elzy had improvised and was holding court from the tailgate of one of the ox-carts that had transported the drones. She looked incredibly comfortable inside the knot of insistent reporters–she actually had them all laughing now–which was part of why she made a good publicist. But she was right; it was Diana these people wanted to talk to.

With as much grace as modern technology could offer, Diana climbed up onto the cart. Elzy clasped her hand for a moment like a 20th century biker (the gesture had recently become popular among cops) and hopped down.

Diana gave the reporters an abbreviated version of the statement she’d prepared for the event later. In a few quick sentences she explained what the drones were and why they were necessary and what parts of the country these 300 would fly over. She graciously acknowledged the expertise of Dashawn Harris in designing and flying the drones and of Elzy Rodriguez for so much of the funding and public goodwill the project required. She thanked all her institutional partners by name and then reiterated the importance of accurate climatological assessment or crafting public policy. “With these data, we will no longer have to rely on guesswork and anecdote to understand the pace of climate change,” she finished. Then she asked if anyone had any questions.

“Dr. Cartwright?” said a very young man with a reddish Afro and a lot of orange freckles. “Did you say ‘climate change’? What climate change are you referring to? Fossil fuel use stopped 25 years ago.” The other reporters looked at him, some with disdain for asking a stupid question, some with gratitude because now they did not have to ask. Diana fought the urge to roll her eyes. Hadn’t these people attended high school?

“Fossil fuel use stopped, yes,” she explained, “but there are other emissions types—natural gas leaks, chlorofluorocarbons from broken refrigeration units, deforestation—these things do not stop simply because one civilization falls.” She felt bad for the man-boy with the Afro; he’d probably never seen a working air conditioner in his life, but he still had to live with the environmental cost of the machines.

A middle-aged woman asked whether the drones were meant to monitor the recovery from climate change. She seemed to be having trouble with the concept that no, climate change wasn’t over. Diana reiterated as gently as she could.

“But haven’t CO2 levels been falling?” the woman asked.

“Yes, carbon dioxide levels have been falling, as have methane levels and some of the shorter-lived chlorinated gasses,” Diana explained. “But average global temperature has not. In fact, global temperature is still rising because there is a lag in the climate system of several decades. The problem is that this additional heat could be enough to trigger positive feedback loops, such as self-maintaining forest dieback in the Amazon, or the release of the remaining methane trapped in frozen tundra in the extreme Arctic. If that happens, we will see carbon dioxide and methane levels start to rise again. That is why it is so critical that we have access to accurate atmospheric data as soon as possible.”

“What will you do if those feedback loops happen?” asked the boy with the Afro, sounding desolate, as well he might.

“We don’t know,” Diana told him. “We hope it never comes to that. But we don’t have to wait for feedback loops to start to take some action. These drones can identify localized methane or CFC release plumes, such as from leaking fossil fuel extraction sites or from landfills or industrial ruins. With that information we may be able to go in and cap those leaks. We may also be able to identify areas where planting programs or soil or wetland restoration can speed up natural reforestation. All these steps can lower emissions or enhance carbon reuptake and may be able to buy us more time.”

There were other questions, all of them intelligent and well-thought-out, but most of them at least sixty or seventy years out of date scientifically. Why was Diana having to do basic science education for issues that should have become common knowledge a generation or two ago? The thought depressed her terribly. Worse, no one asked what should have been the obvious question; how could drones flying over the United States shed much light on what was going on in the Arctic or the Amazon? The answer was they couldn’t—but the new Federal government still had not opened up diplomatic relations with any foreign countries and explicitly discouraged both international travel and the repair of international computer networks. The problem was that America still had no army, and the newly elected suits in Washington were quietly hoping the rest of the world would not notice. So if there were scientists in Brazil or Ecuador, in Canada, or the Republic of Alaska—or even back home in India–they had no way to talk to Diana Cartwright.

Finally the reporters ran dry for the time being and wandered off to edit their dispatches. Diana sat down on the tailgate and closed her eyes. The top of her exo pinched and rubbed against her ribs and beneath her breasts. She could feel that, and the constant discomfort dragged at her. She’d elected not to wear her ugly circulation boots today and knew her moment of vanity had been a mistake. Her feet were probably swelling. She wished cacao trees grew in North America because she could really use a chocolate bar right now, but she’d happily settle for whisky if anyone offered her some.

The cart shifted on its shocks as someone else sat down on the tailgate. Knuckles rapped on the wood—Elzy was knocking, as requested. Diana smiled.

“Nobody likes a smart-ass, Elzy.”

“Good thing I don’t care,” Elzy replied, amiably. “How’s it going?”

“If I have to tell one more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed reporter that we’re all doomed I am going to have to take up drinking.”

Are we doomed?”

“No, but when I describe climatology to the public it always sounds like we are. Elzy, I am tired.”

Elzy shrugged. She was too pragmatic to get upset about things she could not help.

“I don’t think they really look like dragons,” she said, changing the subject. “I still think the drones look like toy birds.”

“How do you know what dragons look like?” asked Diana, opening her eyes.

“I don’t,” Elzy confessed. “But there was this man—you know when you’ve known somebody about fifteen minutes and you think you’re in love?”

“At my age, we don’t call that love.”

“I didn’t really, either, but I’d gone all oogly inside. Anyway, we stayed up all night watching the stars and telling stories. He was a professional story-teller and he told me about dragons. European dragons, Chinese dragons, Indian dragons, Mexican dragons, even, maybe, an Australian dragon. He said that dragons embody the fertility and wealth of the land—that’s why they hoard gold–but also the land’s fierceness, its danger. So dragons should look, I don’t know, like a hailstorm, not all blue and rounded like these.”

“I wish I were a dragon,” said Diana. “I wish I could breathe fire and protect the world. I wish I could fly.”

Elzy was about to reply when Diana’s earpiece came to life.

“Hey, boss-lady,” said Dashawn. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“Go ahead.”

“E and F signed on, but I’ll be damned if I know why they were off in the first place and until I know we can’t launch. If they cut out again before they gain altitude we could lose the batch.” The drones could navigate visually, but only if they were high enough up to see major landforms. Until then they depended on the cell networks to stay oriented.

“If they don’t get airborne soon, we’ll have to reschedule anyway,” Diana warned. “I don’t want the night glide to begin at less than ten thousand feet.”

“I know, I know, I’m working on it.”

“Do you need me to come over?”

“Not unless you’ve learned how to read relay code.”

“Not in the last 45 minutes, no. Ok, I’ll stay here, then. Let me know when you have a launch time.”

“Will do. Later, gator.” A slight click and the connection shut down again.

“Keep an eye out for the media, will you please?” Diana asked Elzy.

“Do you want me to get you out of your exo?”

“No, it’s too much of a hassle to get back in again. But my feet are swelling.”

“Let me fetch one of the packing crates. You can put your feet up.”

“That sounds good.” Diana never said thank you for such assistance. Long ago she had realized that only two groups of people get to move through this life waited on by others: cripples and royalty. She had decided to be one of the latter.

She dozed for a few minutes, sitting in the ox-cart with her feet up, until a fly bit her neck and woke her. It was just as well, since the hum of distant voices and the occasional snort or nicker of a horse told her the VIPs, the rest of the reporters, and who knows how many curious locals, were arriving. She checked her cell; one o’clock, right on time. Except, would the drones actually work?

Diana and Elzy greeted and schmoozed and stalled for as long as they could, but eventually they’d have to either begin the press conference or explain why not. Diana chose the former, hoping Dashawn would get the glitch worked out in time. But no voice came to her through her ear-piece.

She stepped on to the stage, recited her statement, and answered questions. She waited, wondering if she was doing the right thing, while the President of Appalachian Mountain College and the Directors of the White Mountain Weather Research Bureau and the Portland Manufacturing Alliance all gave professionally self-aggrandizing speeches. She wondered whether all of this effort would turn out to be for nothing.

Then, from her seat on the low stage she saw, beyond the dignitaries and behind the crowd, every one of Dashawn’s techs simultaneously stop what they were doing and put a hand to an ear. Then they were off, moving again, swarming around the drones in one corner of the field, adjusting things. Her heart leaped.

“Good news, boss-lady,” said Dashawn’s voice in her ear. “We’ve got it covered. Nothing wrong with the relay code after all—those units have an older model security card than the others and it doesn’t play nice with the new cell protocols. We’re switching them out with spares. Launch in fifteen minutes, if you’re ready.”

“We might be,” Diana replied, in a whisper. “Keep me patched in, I’ll let you know.”

“Okay-dokay, artichokey.”

The VIP sitting next to Diana looked at her sharply, as though she were passing notes in class or something.

Twenty minutes later, Diana and the VIPs stood on the edge of the launch field. The rest of the crowd had turned in place to watch. Two press-drones hovered above, taking video and staying out of the way.

“Now,” said Diana. Her whole career turned on this moment.

“Launching Section A,” said Dashawn, and fifty propellers started to spin, every second drone in the nearest third of the field. In seconds, the light-weight machines were all airborne.

“Banking left,” said Dashawn, and they all did, turning obediently in a large circle thirty feet above the spectators’ heads.

“Banking right….And testing autonomous execution and crash avoidance.” One of the drones broke formation and cut across the gyre and the others neatly avoided it, turning and climbing and diving, each as its own processors suggested. The whole flock danced and spun through a series of tests and then began their climb to the heights. Some in the crowd cried out in wonder, others applauded. The press drones, small quad-copters without much independence, climbed and turned under instructions from their handlers, looking for the best shots. And Dashawn launched and tested Section B.

One after another, each of the sections took to the sky, banking and dancing. The first group were up in the thermals, now, propellers retracted, turning and turning and turning on the rising air, just like the real vultures. When they reached ten thousand feet they’d each glide out, heading to their separate transects. And still flocks of drones launched.

Diana walked out among them and Dashawn, hidden in his equipment tent but watching nonetheless, directed the newly airborne drones to swoop down around her, curving and banking like dragonflies within a foot or two of her hips and shoulders. She threw her arms up to the sky and a drone flew right between her outstretched hands. She laughed, giggling like a child, and spun, dancing as if she might fly herself.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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