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Welcome to the website of Ken Hughes, author of the paranormal thriller Shadowed and the upcoming contemporary fantasy The High Road.

Flying — Is The Sky the Only Limit?

Power Plays (can we be canny with the uncanny?) – Study 102

So you can fly…

Where? Where do you let it take you, just what might have drawn you to that particular superpower or gadget or spell, and what’s out there that might bring you down again?

And–is it worth it? For everyone who’ll gush about the joy of personal flight, you’ll find someone else who warns you this power doesn’t live “up” to its reputation. So let’s take a closer look at how you might really use that ability, and how you might master it if it’s what you need.

First of all, let’s not lie to ourselves: as long as most of our world is the open space over our heads, flight can’t stop being awesome. Having cars never stopped athletes from pushing themselves to run faster, or hikers from searching the countryside for hidden corners. Or stopped anyone from tearing up the road with a Maserati, if we get the chance. And that’s only the start of what flying can do.

But more than that, ask yourself whether you want

  • to travel a wider world, and search it for just the edge you need
  • to get the jump on threats–or openings–anywhere, before anyone else can react
  • to leave your enemies in the dust below you, or chase them down or outmaneuver them
  • to do it all as a living symbol everyone’s likely to see

(Watch that last one, because one of the great limits of flight is how people will be watching you.)

 

Choosing Your Wings (a difference of a pinion)

So how do you fly? That is, what opportunities can you find where your world is ready to put someone in the air–or maybe, to show you a form of flight that’s just that precious bit better or more personal than most people already have? And how else are these going to change what you do?

Tech: Jetpacks, rocket sky-sleds, and the like might be the easiest flying to get hold of, if you can make or take a machine that’s even that crucial bit better at keeping flight under your control. (After all, the US military had and rejected a working jetpack in the late 1950s; the classic problem is cramming more than 30 seconds of lightweight fuel into them.) Or if that problem’s already been solved, you might join up with whatever group needs a pilot. This might be the most thorough approach to flight, since engineers are probably already working on whole sets of other gadgets that can go with it, from navigation to weaponry. Still, technological flight usually develops raw speed better than it does that physics-twisting maneuverability you might dream of, and you may regret every machine you didn’t think of in your planning.

Iron Man’s gear is heavy enough to explain all those hard “take a knee” landings for the cameras… but would you want to do them if you weren’t in armor?

Wings: Natural wings may be the most spectacular way to fly, but they also aren’t as simple as they sound; you’ll need more than “just” a strong pair of wings to hold you up. If that’s all you had, one rough formula says you’d need a wingspan of about three times your height just to get off the ground (as in, needing almost a helicopter-pad’s space to land or launch safely, never mind zipping through an open window). More workable wings seem most likely if they get some extra lift from another flight method, or at least an all-around superhuman metabolism to boost them. All in all, this sounds like you’d have to be of a whole species that was meant to fly.

Mount Up: Ride a dragon, a winged horse, or another oversized flying creature. You’ll need to be in a more or less magical environment to find these (unless the beast flies by being a natural balloon), and it may all depend on how well you can tame or befriend your mount–and of course, working with it afterward certainly will. But in many ways, this might be a counterpart to the technological route: the possibility’s likely to be already out there in your world, meaning you could be joining up with people who’ve already learned the art rather than being the first to discover (or rediscover) that it’s possible. The other parallel is that, of course, how much you can do besides fly is a bit different if you’ve got a giant eagle as your partner, rather than an immense, spell-savvy dragon.

Shapechanging: Or maybe instead of flying “like a bird” or on one, you could fly as a bird by changing your shape. This might be the most intensive flying power there is, since you have to master all the complications of rebuilding your whole body, and yet after that work it becomes less about flight and more about its vast array of other options. For flying itself, becoming a hawk simply won’t give you the really fast speeds, let alone let you carry a friend to safety… unless you then change to a horse. (Although if you can become a dragon in the first place, things do change.)

Raw Power: Master an energy like levitation, riding the wind, or all-around magic. This might be choosing one of a world-full of possibilities: you could track down the flying carpet that’s one of a legendary wizard’s more specialized creations, something that’s just what you need but not as well-guarded as his most powerful legacies. Or if the key to true telekinesis or your own sorcery is within your reach, you can throw yourself into just how much power you could master there, with flight only part of your arsenal.

 

A Higher Standard

Before you start chasing the wind, stop and think of one thing.

Much as we like to think of flying as almost another word for freedom, we have to think of this as the First Limit of Flying: everyone can see you up there. The two are almost inseparable: flight is the freedom to cross more distance and soar over barriers–otherwise known as passing by more blocks or miles that might be crowded with people, while keeping yourself up away from the walls and hills that normally hide you.

(In other Power Plays studies, more of this would be saved for the Hidden Power and Worldwide Power variations at the guide’s end. But for flight, they can’t be separated from the rest.)

So think of what this means, and how your flight is part of your world.

The longer that power has been out there, the simpler this is for you, or at least the more mapped out. If you’ve won a place in a longstanding Rocket Soldier Corps or Griffin Brigade, the crowds will know what to expect from you; more likely you’ll be dealing with your group’s regulations on how often you can leave your duties to drop in on your family.

But the more you have the sky to yourself, the more of a stir you’re going to make. Think of your own love of flying’s liberation and power, and how everyone below you has come from the same “ten thousand years of being teased by the birds.” Can you keep “Wow, he can go anywhere!” from becoming “Don’t trust him, he could go anywhere!” or “I would have gotten to that burning building, if he’d shared his secret with the rest of us…” Yes you could fly over to impress the girl you just met, but how many people will see you, and will they think it’s a fitting use of your gift?

And it may be worse yet if you’re tapping into a wide but secret tradition of power; there’s a special frustration in being the hidden wizard whose one gift is levitation, and knowing his peers may never risk him using it when it’s liable to expose them all. And consider: if your stabilizing a rocket pack or taming a dragon proves that it’s possible to a whole grounded world, are you responsible for every imitator or enemy who starts their own flight project?

(Or just try having wings and not being judged by the standards of an angel–and people may never really stop that unless you can grow a lot more feathers. And a beak.)

So before you ever take off, you want to be ready for how your life is going to change. You could try to inspire the world, if you think you can be ready for the public eye at every hour. You could try to keep your flights secret, probably working by night–though even that can start its own rumors about shadows in the sky, or your enemies being “mysteriously attacked out of nowhere.” The simplest answer might well be to split the difference by wearing a mask… as long as nobody ever tracks you back to your other identity.

Then again, flight isn’t a power that works best when you’re too afraid to use it. Many of its best uses come from sizing up an opportunity or danger in an instant (we’ll get to that), and another part of its appeal has always been to the showboat in all of us.

Or as Smallville told its still grounded and camera-shy hero, “People need to look, up in the sky.”

Now that you’ve been warned: let’s take a look at what you can do.

 

How Wide Is Your Sky?

To put it simply, flying gives you two gifts: speed and altitude.

When we think about flying, it’s never long before we all start saying “How fast?” And think of the difference in having a flight speed that could about keep pace with:

  • Running– say 13 miles an hour
  • Birds (average)– 25 mph (or 60 at short bursts)
  • Cars or simple planes– over 100 mph once you’re clear of traffic
  • 747 jetliners– about 555 mph
  • the SR-71 spyplane– 2200 mph

Combine that with differences in endurance: the classic 30-second jetpack was mostly limited to hopping a river or reaching one rooftop. But going at 100 mph for hours would give you whole different options than a one-minute sprint of 555 (eight hundred feet a second).

Because… you’re going to be living with that whole new scale of life, and how it changes your world.

For most people, getting around takes some effort; someone might need five minutes to pull together his willingness and his coat to leave the house, knowing how much travel time he’s committing to. But those same five minutes might take you two miles at “bird” speed, well across town–or eight miles as a traffic-free “car,” or forty-five miles as the jetliner flies.

In five minutes.

How would you look at the world, your day, and your whole life the longer you had all that within reach? Without all the “buffer time” getting around, how much would you do each day? Eat breakfast in a new neighborhood or new landmark each day? Search out just the right scientists or artists to give you an edge at… whatever work seems worthy the scale you live in? Shake the hand of every relative you have?

Flying helps you go from anywhere (or above it) to anywhere else, to build on any connection you can between them; instead of distance, what can pull you down are the effects of being seen.

And yet… the longer you’ve held your flying power, the less you may want to avoid trouble. It’s harder to turn away from someone in need who’s across the street, than across town. But what if that crosstown hop was as narrow as a street to you?

Flying gives you the freedom to go anywhere, and all the consequences of how many people see you on the way. But more than that, you can start to feel the responsibility for wherever you don’t go.

So… how can you use flying against an enemy, or for rescues or other uses it opens up?

 

Air Supremacy

There’s a Second Limit of Flying: it’s the freedom to go somewhere but not to do anything more on arrival. Except… flying usually is more than that.

If you fly using telekinesis or a dragon, of course reaching a place quickly is only the start of what you can do. But even if your only asset is the wings on your back, you can take full advantage of what that means.

Imagine:

  • If it takes only five minutes to rush out to the collapsed cave your friends are trapped in, is it worth making it ten minutes for you to detour and arrive with the one set of tools that could let you save them?
  • Then again, can they last that full ten minutes? Shouldn’t you be keeping the best gear with you at all times, in case some word of trouble comes in?
  • In fact, is five minutes enough? Why didn’t you make sure you knew they’d be risking that cave, and take those five minutes’ flight time to get you there before they went in?

–Now you’re thinking like a flyer. Having a world of preparations almost within reach is one of your advantages.

The other edge in that lesson is in how fast you can read a situation. Flying’s also about instinct; if you can spot the moment an opportunity appears, you can swoop in and act before that window closes. Whether it’s winning a battle or reaching a reclusive leader, the faster you can recognize the best moment–and how wide an area you can cross to exploit each one–the more leverage you have over the whole situation.

Part of that is remembering that flight is not only speed, it’s altitude. You’ve got the whole third dimension to manuever in, compared to the people who work their way along the ground; a wall or fence without a roof isn’t even a speed bump to you. And, most of the walls and terrain that limit other people’s views of their environment aren’t even angled to stop you from searching them from above.

So you can arrive at just the right instant… and the reverse, you can wing away the moment things go wrong or you’ve finished what you need, and nobody but other flyers are likely to chase you. (Or if a ground-bound enemy tries to run away, he’s just giving you a chance to show off.)

And you have that same advantage when you’re not looking for trouble. As long as you don’t let your guard down too far, you might flit away from an enemy ambush on just an instant’s warning–then turn around and tail them or counterattack on your own terms. Except for–

The Third Limit of Flying: it’s only as good as the room you have. A rooftop or an open street might as well have an open door above it for you, but dodging through a forest will be more of a challenge… and anywhere indoors will be harder still. (Let alone heading into a basement or cave, where there won’t even be windows out.)

On the other hand, any open space is yours to watch and control; plains, flatlands, or oceans. You have an even greater advantage in rough but still open terrain, where anyone struggling through sand or over rocks might wish they could soar free. And mountains are better still, a three-dimensional playground of surfaces you can rest on or hide things within, that might take other people a lifetime to explore the way you can.

So open space is always what you want, right?

Except…

Here’s a doozie, a Fourth Limit of Flying: they can see you, so they can shoot you.

Flying may let you stay out of arm’s length, but looking down over all those walls and ridges also makes it all the easier for an enemy to send something up after you. Scratch that, it lets every enemy below start filling the sky with bullets or arrows on hopes of a lucky shot. Or worse, they might have an antiaircraft missile, or whatever precise, long-range attack they can build from the same background of power that put you up in the air. If your luck is truly bad they’ll send up their own flyers; if they’re faster and stronger than you, you can’t even cut and run unless you can shake them.

Peter Pan may revel in flitting out of reach of the pirates, but Wendy was pretty well shot from the sky when she got to Neverland. In her first five minutes.

Twice.

One way you might keep control in the air is the same way as to avoid public attention, and the main thing that helped (some) World War II bomber crews survive antiaircraft systems: move by night. Flying lets you pick your goal and take the initiative, so stealth helps you keep that advantage.

But flying at night weakens some of your own advantages too, and turns one completely against you. When you could have spotted your target and picked your moment with ease, now you have to make out what you can by moonlight or what lights people have lit below. (And that’s if you even have enough night-friendly landmarks to find your goal without losing half the night.) Worst of all, using anything like your full speed near ground level could slam you into any outstretched rope or branch that’s there, and the “clothesline” will be the last thing you (might) ever see.

Just how you fly might make all the difference here. If you’re riding something as loud as a rocket or as big as a griffin, you might as well give up on sneaking in close, and instead either stay up high or come in fast. Shapeshifters can sidestep the whole problem, day or night, by going in as an innocuous bird that will have better senses than human anyway. Or any technology or other sensory powers might help you find your way around at night, but if they exist that means the sentries could be using them too…

Still, a daylight raid may be even worse. If you’re careful your enemy might not look up at all… but the more aware they are that they’re fighting a flyer, the more people will be watching all three dimensions with weapons ready, or keeping themselves below trees or indoors (or worse, underground). In fact, beware of any accomplices your enemy has that might get word out ahead of you, unless you’re sure you can outrace that message.

(This might be the final answer to whether flying is better than invisibility: if you have both, you’re pretty well unstoppable! –Although neither power works as well in tight spaces.)

Still, if you choose your battlefield you can catch your enemies outdoors, say as they move from place to place. You can try to keep them on terrain that will slow them and let you rise up to grab a birds-eye view of his movements but swoop behind cover before he can shoot back. In fact, you may never find a better site than a city street: those even rectangular walls are just the thing to look easily down between and then duck below again whenever you want.

(But if they do catch you in open air: fly perpendicular to their line of sight to you, so they have to twist their aim more sharply to follow you–and of course twist some so they can’t simply “lead” you and shoot where you’re going to pass. Often the best move is to dive straight down, for the extra speed and to get you nearer to cover. Depending on how well you know your maneuvering limits, of course.)

Or you could use your mobility to lure them away, then double back to whatever they’re guarding–at least if you can convince them to chase someone they can’t catch. This might mean hiding your wings at first, or convincing them they’ve shot you down; in nature this is actually called the “broken wing trick.” Or even if they can keep up with you, you’re still being the perfect decoy to let your friends slip in instead.

If you do have to penetrate any kind of closed building, you’ve lost most of your options. (Even sneaking in an upper window only gets you so far.) Still, ordinary stealth might be the last thing they’d expect from you, or you can pounce on sentries or find other ways to try to get in before they can react. Always try to stay near windows so you always have your escape route. But if you’re willing to simply destroy a place, it’s far easier to stay up high and drop firebombs, rocks, or anything else from a safe distance.

One last warning: the more you operate against an enemy, the better-protected your own home base has to be–or the more sure you are that nobody recognizes you or follows you home. Without that care, the easiest way for someone to eliminate a flying enemy is to catch him in his sleep. (The same as catching anyone else.)

 

“Hidden Power” variations

To sum up what’s been said before: flight is a challenge to use often, if you don’t want your world to know powers like it are possible. As usual there’s a real advantage in scouting, escaping, or attacking against someone who hasn’t heard about your tricks, since “nobody every looks up.” But that’s still a mighty cramped use of flight, compared to embracing the fun and freedom of going anywhere. It might be better to let the world know it does have a flyer–though that’s its own burden unless you can conceal that it’s you.

 

“Worldwide Power” variations

Handy though it would be to be the only one in the sky, flying is simply more practical when people have had more time and other flyers to help them accept the idea. It’s almost the only way to avoid society expecting too much of you, and it helps them work out just how many ways you can be useful.

Even airplanes don’t keep personal flight from having their value. These powers still streamline the process of getting into the air where planes don’t have runways; flyers like you might replace anything from the police who rappel down buildings to the elite bicycle couriers. (And yes, as you pass by you can help cats out of trees.) Some day you’ll be needed for an aerial rescue or as scout for an army; even before then you still have the joy that you’re flying.

 

Life Lessons

What does it mean to be someone who can fly? You’ll find pressures that could pull you one way, or another.

On one wing is the luxury and peace of knowing there’s no unenclosed place anywhere that you can’t reach… and no place you can’t leave if you need a break. You always know the world is bigger, and you’ll appreciate nature every time you watch the sun rise from above the clouds–or when the weather turns bad enough and grounds you faster than most human forces ever could.

You’ll face off against a touch of arrogance: you can see the world as a vast dome, with most people trapped on the bottom. You might resent the weight of all their eyes on you, and how they all seem to expect something from you, and yet they can’t understand what it’s really like in the air.

Or you might appreciate how every flight can let you meet someone completely new, that makes you throw out whatever you’d taken for granted about humanity… and also how much people are the same no matter where you find them. You could easily find yourself growing protective about all people, everywhere, but haunted by the fear that since you can go anywhere, you’re never doing enough.

Flying makes anything a little more possible, as long as you can reach it through the open air. Once you’ve felt that freedom, you’ll never stop asking yourself:

Where will you go?
 

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