Fiction

Early adopter

ONE TWO THREE running, jumping hops and I launch into the sky, wings beating down hard, plastic feathers scraping car park gravel. It’s easier with a platform to leap from, but just like the brochure says, you can get Aloft Anywhere TM with the Ascenze Icarus.

I flap flap flap for altitude and speed. Twist to avoid powerlines. Weird how true the wings are. They follow my arms after just a little lag. Faithful, doing so much work, battering the air to keep me borne.

I cruise over the suburbs, gaining height. Clear day. Off to my right I see towers rising in Melbourne’s centre, and the West Gate Bridge and the Yarra River and the sweep of Port Phillip Bay.

The wings are ridiculous, dangerous. Dale, the Ascenze sales rep, told me as much last time we talked, after I paid. He said I’m brave. Told me he’s proud of me. Dale’s a great guy. The trick to surviving, he said, if there is a trick, is to find a safe flight level and stay there. Too high, or too close to an airfield, and you get sucked into a jet engine. Too low, and birds – real birds – and drones can be a problem. There have been fatalities in the US. Mostly people doing stupid stuff like chasing tornadoes.

I try a few swoops, tuck my wings in close to my body and fan them as I gather speed into the dive. Cockatoos wheel and break, disturbed by the silhouette I cast above them in the blue sky.

It’s just me up here. It’s just me. There aren’t any mourners or lawyers or concerned family friends. Mum is a long flight north, rattling around in our house, practising her own glide on a supply of antidepressants. We’re both doing what we need to do, and there’s no one left who has the right to judge. People are entitled to their opinions, but – but…

Beautiful, these wings, just like the brochure said. A feat of engineering! A marvel of aesthetics! And Dale was right: airborne, I hardly feel the power pack behind my shoulder blades. That’s the real game changer, that battery. It makes everything possible. For centuries, all those would-be birdmen ran into the same problem: to get something as heavy as a human off the ground, you need gigantic wings, seven or eight metres each from shoulder to tip. But if you make wings like that, human muscles aren’t strong enough to shift them. Adding a conventional motor just increases weight. A spiral of failure, until the power pack came along.

Small – smaller than a briefcase stuffed with probate documents. Light – lighter than a textbook for a failed university course. There’s enough stored energy on my back to run one of those houses down there for a month. On either side are two pistons feeding into wing spars, tethered to my biceps to copy the movement of my arms. When I flap, the wings flap. If I drop my left arm a fraction – like this – the left wing adjusts, and I bank into a graceful turn.

Oh wow – I’m really moving now. Thank god for this hood. It covers my eyes, my ears, my hair. It makes me look like a hawk missing its beak. I wiggle my feet in the big heavy boots, strapped into big metal claw feet. These are a gimmick, I know, but Dale recommended them. He’s old but he’s a good guy. He really likes me, he smiled and put his hand on my shoulder when he said goodbye. The metal feet add weight to the system, but to anyone watching from the ground they complete the look. A giant bird is up here, surveying, circling. And the pneumatic shock absorbers are protective if there’s a rougher-than-usual landing.

From up here, houses sprawl like Lego spilled on a kitchen floor. I like it up here but it’s too far away. I want to get close enough to see faces, maybe frighten some kids. These bird suits are so new, so expensive, that there are only four of them in the whole country. That’s what Dale said. So new that the regulator hasn’t made any rules about where or how I can fly. Total freedom, the sky is yours, he promised, at least for right now, and I mean to take advantage.

I bare my teeth in a grin as I descend, air buffeting lips and tongue. I let loose a loud cry like a warning to my prey: caw, caw, but it’s lost to the wind. I’ll write to Ascenze Customer Care and tell them to add a microphone and loudspeaker to the next model. At least some sort of horn. Maybe a button you can press to blast out ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. They’ll listen to me, I’m more than a customer. I’m beta tester. My opinion is greatly valued.

I flatten out into a fast glide about forty feet above street level. Stretched out, I cruise above and watch my shadow, wing-tips sliding over the footpaths on either side of the road. I get a momentary glimpse of a woman below looking up at me, scowling, giving me the finger, and then I’m past her. Dogs let out high-pitched panicked barks.

Bloody hell, the feeling of speed this close to the ground is something else. I tilt a little and bear towards Doncaster shopping centre, but as I do so I hit a pocket of air. No: a pocket of no air, a low-pressure zone. I lose the lift, dip. Hurtle forward fast, ground comes falling up!

I flare wings and flap hard forward and down, bleeding speed working to correct. An ugly bungalow leaps at me, yellow-brick with a tiled roof. I’m falling too fast, there’s no way to avert. Lean back, gather legs under me brace for impact. Claw feet hit first, crunching near the roof’s peak, tearing a hole and cracking all the tiles around. Shock absorbers take the bulk of the force, but still my feet feel like they’ve smacked concrete. Right wing curls against the front wall of the house. I hope like hell I haven’t done any structural damage to the suit. You wouldn’t believe what they charge for maintenance on these things but I guess it makes sense, it’s all carbon fibre and advanced composite materials and there are only a couple of guys here who are trained to work with that stuff.

It takes a while to get my breathing under control. Stop shaking so bad. I see an old man come scurrying outside and for an awful moment he looks like my dad. But then he starts to shout something and he doesn’t sound anything like my dad, and I can move again and I decide it’s time to be on my way. Clomp clomp along the spine of the roof until I come to the end. I launch flapping back into the blue.

 

WHEN I’M SAFE up high, I spend a while turning figure eights. I’ve been reckless, I know. Reckless and stupid. It’s Dad’s voice I’m hearing. Or the voice of my accountant, who told me not to buy the wings. My share of the estate was just enough to cover the cost, but they’re – what did he say? – frivolous. A depreciating asset. And me with no job. Should I have offered to pay the old man for the damage I did to his roof? But I’m two suburbs away now and it’d be hard to find the house again. And I might have caused a scene and I don’t think I want to find out.

It’s calm up here. And lonely, but that’s okay. I’m an only child; I like being alone. All smart people feel alone, and I’m smarter than anyone gives me credit for. Some people are destined to be makers, fighters. There are cooks, healers, statesmen. I am a man of leisure. Everything we’ve given you, you’ve wasted. But I’d rather you were a happy failure than a miserable success. My dad. The last, nicest thing he ever said.

No one gives me any credit. What the ground people don’t understand is I’m doing this for them. Sure, most can’t afford an Icarus. Hardly anyone, not one in a million. But Dad worked hard for these wings, even if he didn’t know that’s what all his striving would buy. He wanted me to be happy, a happy failure. Maybe one day everybody will be able to afford an experience like this. Probably not but who knows? It all starts somewhere, and right now those people – the angry woman, the children, the dogs, the old man – can look up. They can see, they can wonder at what humans can accomplish. I’m their astronaut, a symbol of what can be achieved.

On the other side of town, I look for a good place to land. Dale warned me that most of the metro airfields are teeming with police, government inspectors, protesters. He’s got my back; I should send him a bottle of wine.

I find a good spot in the middle of a dusty football field. I come back down to Earth, just the same as everyone else, and I phone my driver, tell him to come pick me up.

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