Read whatever allegories you want into this story.
Atalie's balcony was kind of like being in Heaven, except instead of fluffy white clouds, we were surrounded by a yellow haze of petrochemical smog that glittered with a million dead nanomachines.
I flexed my wings uncertainly, looking at the street below, small and distant, littered with motes of garbage. The hushed sound of traffic rose from the city, police sirens like discordant birdsong.
Atalie stood behind me, her hands on my waist. "Jump," she said, pushing on me lightly.
I resisted, pushing back against her. She got these wings mail-order from the East, the very latest wetware plug-ins. Intricate down to the nanoscale, they moved and felt alive, like the wings of an enormous white swan. Except, at the joint between them: a grotesque knot of dense muscle, all the power needed to lift a human into the air on wings, leeching off nutrients from my blood, like some manmade parasite - well, symbiont, I guess.
Atalie ran her hands along the tops of my wings, brushing her thumbs through the feathers. No, her wings, financially. But I could feel her touch against them perfectly, feel each feather as the wind rustled them out of place. I could move them like a second set of arms, long-fingered and sluggish with latent strength.
The manual was as thick as a telephone directory, poorly translated from Japanese to Mandarin to English. Half its bulk was medical disclaimers, warning about the dangers of flight, of pulmonary and neurological damage, go immediately to hospital if you experience any of the following and then a list of every sensation you have ever experienced or heard of.
And at the front it said to just let the wings install themselves, to trust them to push polymer connections into your spine and hoses to your heart, to glue itself to your back and become a part of your body. But for fuck's sake scan for software updates first.
Yeah, right. Atalie was a dab hand at this stuff. Where she got the money for wings in the first place. She was the proverbial one-eyed king, a degree in nano-engineering, hands-on experience, but made redundant, cast off in the land of the nanotech-poor; fixing our meagre, antiquated goo-and-paste systems and making a minor mint from what money we could spare.
Atalie would never trust a machine to know what it was doing in her body, would always want to oversee it herself. That's where she got the horns and tail. Just needed a mirror for the horns, though I had to help with the other. Wings were too hard though, like nothing she'd ever done. She needed to see how they worked on another person, a willing guinea pig, only then could she trust them on herself. That's where I came in. I was never able to say no to her.
I liked the idea of having wings, aesthetically. She stripped me to the waist and stuck a dozen monitors around me; heart rate, blood pressure, EEG and more. Lay me on my front and set the wings on my back. She let them work slowly, pushing into me on the molecular scale, clean and sterile, no blood. I could feel the connections and wires a certain distance inside me, and then just something weird going on deeper. Worst was when it anchored on my skeleton, feeling my spine bend and flex under its direct manipulation, out of my control. Atalie held my hand and soothed me. It was over quite quickly, though Atalie took it slower than she could have done.
I stood and flexed my wings. It felt natural, of course, the software came as standard, now plugged in to my brain. They were huge, bigger than they seemed when folded up. I stretched them wide and touched opposite walls with my wingtips.
By the way, Atalie had said, you realise they're fully functional? You can fly.
I jumped up and down a few times, spreading my wings to slow my descent, angling them to glide across the room.
Come on, Atalie said, taking my hand. Let's try taking you a little further.
And so I was on her balcony, halfway up an empty, lightning burned tower, looking down at the world. It was cold, just in my jeans, but that wasn't why I trembled.
"Jump," Atalie said again. "You'll glide down just like before, just a little further. Maybe try and flap, see if you can gain height."
I shook my head. "What if I hit something? What if the wind flings me against the building?"
She wrapped her arms around me, rested her cheek on the back of my neck. "Trust me," she whispered. Slowly, she drew her hands back around my waist, caressing around and up to my shoulder blades, either side of the knot of muscle on my back. She rested there for a moment, her breath warm on my back.
And then she shoved me hard.
"You're making this harder than you need to," Atalie said, as I tried to scramble back up. I clung onto the balcony railing, my wings folded up to stop them catching the fierce wind, stronger even than I had feared.
She leant over me, placed both of her hands over one of mine. "Just let go and spread your wings."
"I changed my mind," I shouted. "I don't want to. Help me up."
She placed both thumbs under my fingers and lifted. I managed to hold on for about a minute, begged and pleaded, but she won, sending me swinging hard into the wall. I hung from just one hand.
This time I held on with all my desperation. She tried as hard as she could, screwing up her face with effort, and then had to stop, panting for breath. She got down on her knees, face level with my remaining hand. She looked at me through the bars of the railing.
It felt like a fight to the death. She was my mortal enemy now. I had nothing to say to her, just struggled vainly to lift myself up with one arm.
Tenderly, she kissed each of my bone-white knuckles in turn. And then I felt her teeth against the back of my hand.
I let go before she could bite down.
I fell, terrified, the wind ripping through my hair and feathers. Above I heard her scream at the top of her voice: "Flap your wings!"
The ground was far below, but approaching too quickly. I started to tumble, became confused. The murky grey-yellow expanse of the sky seemed more frightening than the solid ground below. Which way was I falling? How could I stop?
There was a skyscraper, maybe two, walls marked with grime and decay. Would I hit one of them? Was I being blown by the wind as I fell?
I flung my arms out above my head, tried to stretch out my wings but couldn't tell how much I succeeded. My legs seemed to kick out violently of their own accord. As I stretched out my wings feebly, they were buffeted back by the wind. Was I trying as hard as I could? I was going to fall to my death. I was sure.
No conscious thought anymore, can't think in a situation like this. Instinct took over. I screwed up my eyes, probably screamed, fought with all my strength - all that knotted ball of strength between my shoulder blades, to spread my wings out wide.
They flew open, powerful and sudden, as if spring-loaded.
They caught air like a pair of enormous hands grabbing onto something tangible, yanked back on me, the change of direction like a punch in the stomach.
I opened my eyes just in time to see the side of the building I was about to fly into, angled my wings to change direction, but too late. I stuck out my knee to cushion the impact, saw stars as the collision connected hard, and then fell a little further, my wings knocked too far forward.
I spun out of control, panicking, until I seemed to wrestle out of it - finally hung suspended from my second pair of arms, my legs dangling over the street far below. I looked up. I must have fallen about half the way down from Atalie's balcony. I couldn't even make it out. Then, disoriented, I wondered if I was even looking at the right building.
The wind pushed against me quite hard, then, but I turned into it, swooping down, pushing through the current. Maybe this flying stuff wasn't so hard after all. I was drifting down slowly. There was no reason, I didn't think, that I would be unable to glide down all the way. Perhaps a good hundred metres still to go.
Experimentally, I pushed down with my wings. With a sharp rush, I gained height. How much, I wasn't sure - but, that was it, I was really flying. I beat down a few more times, faster and harder. I soared up, into the air, looking down at the city streets to reorient myself, heart pounding in my chest.
Landing was easier than I expected. The wings probably gave me a lot of help with that - safe landings were the first thing the manufacturers wanted to put in the software, I bet. I touched down birdlike on the balcony railing and hopped in through the open French windows. Inside, I could hear a phone ringing.
My mobile was sitting on a coffee table, vibrating back and forth. Atalie was nowhere to be seen. Picking it up, I found that she was the one calling. I answered.
"Where are you?" she asked, timidly.
"I'm in your apartment, where I left my mobile."
"Oh, right. Oops. You should have, like, a million missed calls from me. I've been looking everywhere for you. I'm sorry about the whole pushing you thing. Are you mad at me?"
"I'm not sure."
"Stay where you are, I'm coming back up."
"Wait, are you in the street? I'll come down. It'll be quicker."
She laughed - relieved I think. "I'm in the main square. I look forward to seeing you in the air."
"I don't think I'm going to give you these things back, you know."
"Oh, go on. I can order another pair, but I want to try it out myself before then. You'll have to be the one pushing me off the skyscraper."
"I'll think about it," I said, walking out onto the balcony. My feathers rustled in the breeze, and I spread my wings.