We skimmed out of the clouds just above the mountains. "Mount Isolation," I informed my companions. "Access Peak. Grave-Talbot Pass."
"Look at me," said Jacques. "I'm a mountain parrot!" He flew in tight circles around us, cawing loudly.
"That parrot needs a perch," said Kevin. "How about there?" He pointed up the valley to the wall of rock at its head.
"Homer Saddle," I said, my little voice still faithfully feeding me the names.
We levelled out, Jacques clowning around us, and flew the length of the valley in formation.
Kevin reached the rock wall first. He stretched his wings to their fullest extent and dropped gracefully onto the far edge of the narrow saddle. Nicola and I joined him on either side, and with much preening of imaginary feathers, Jacques joined us too, hopping from foot to foot.
"I need to go," he said.
We watched the stream of urine arc over the edge of the saddle, catch in the updraft, and fly up again, thoroughly wetting Jacques's bodysuit. When we stopped laughing, I told Jacques he should find a lake to wash in. "There's one to the south, Lake Thompson," I said. He took off at once.
"Think we should follow him? The water will be very cold."
"I'm sick of that idiot already," said Kevin. "A few minutes without him would be bliss." So we sat and watched him dwindle among the mountains.
When Jacques reappeared from his dip, he was swooping in a way that was either a poor imitation of his beloved mountain parrot or the sign of a flyer in trouble. "Jacques, are you—"
Too late. Jacques was closing fast, but in no controlled way. One wing hung limply. He rose in the air, called something in exaltation or despair, and plummeted, smashing headfirst into the granite wall some two hundred meters below us. Wings folded, he bounced off the granite and plummeted straight to the base of the cliff, landing in a jumble of rocks near the southern tunnel entrance, where the old road emerged from the darkness.
We flew down and looked at him. He was broken.
"I told you he was an idiot," said Kevin.
"Well," shrugged Nicola, "at least he had his fun."
We'd had enough adventure for one day. We left Jacques where he lay and flew south to find shelter.
We spent the night in the dubious refuge of an abandoned cabin at Te Anau Downs. There was no food, and these bodies needed food. To feel hunger was interesting.
Morning. It is always cold here! Nicola was all for pressing on to Invercargill, but neither Kevin nor I felt quite ready to tackle such a big city. We settled for a leisurely flight across country, following the scarcely-used roads. In the early afternoon, we found a café still open in a town that clung on where two roads met. Though we furled our wings tightly before we entered, the woman behind the counter (the first downsider we had encountered at close range) looked at us with deep suspicion. But when Nicola put money—actual physical coins—on the counter, she gave us what we asked for.
So this was how our ancestors ate! Not on the wing, of course.
"This stuff is toxic," I said, forcing down a green, ill-flavored mouthful.
"Of course," said Kevin. "That's why they die."
Towards evening, muscles pleasantly weary, we flew down a line of hills towards the largest town we had seen thus far on our journey.
"Gore," said Nicola, forestalling me. "Let's avoid it."
"So where will we sleep tonight?"
"Homestay." She paused. "Many farms derived extra income from taking in travelers on a per-night or per-week basis. Some encouraged guests to take an active part in farm life. Accommodation was typically in quarters built for farmhands whom the farm no longer needed to employ."
Just off the main highway and short of the town, we found a compound that appeared to meet our requirements. Kevin wanted to buzz the sheds and outhouses, but wiser counsel—that is to say, mine—prevailed, and we landed a few hundred meters up the road, then puffed and stumped towards the farmyard.
Before we entered the driveway, we checked that our wings were so tightly furled as to look no more than ridges of muscle on our backs, and critiqued the colors we had chosen for our bodysuits, each as close to natural fabrics—shaggy things like wool and cotton—as we could make them. Our supply of coins was not limitless; and doubtless, the more bizarre we looked, the more we would have to pay for our accommodation.
Kevin took the lead as we crunched up the driveway, and knocked first. The door was opened by a woman and a dog; that is, I presume the woman turned the handle, but the dog leapt in front of her, growling ferociously. Its hackles rose as it met my gaze.
"What do you want?" the woman asked above the din.
"We are travelers who seek a room for a night, and perhaps longer," I said. "We have money."
"You're not from around here."
"We are tourists."
"A long while since we've seen any of those."
There was nothing I could say to that. We waited while the woman looked us over and the dog growled.
"Harv!" she called.
A man joined her in the doorway. He was large.
"What do you want?"
"We are travelers who seek a room for a night, and perhaps longer," I told him. "We have money. Will you keep us standing on your doorstep all night?"
"Guess not," said the man. "Come in."
We filed past the dog into a room filled with shapes and noise, too much to take in all at once. Three extra places were found at the table. Nicola and the woman talked, and money changed hands. The woman led us from the table, down a long corridor, and across a yard to a bunk room that lay empty. It was very cold, but she found a heater and switched it on. There were four bunks; this reminded me of Jacques.
Then back to the dining room for food and conversation. The food was a mixture of warm things in a thick sauce, very tasty and filling. The conversation mostly proceeded between the inhabitants of the farm: the older couple we had met at the door, various sons and daughters and relatives, and workers who were, in many cases, also relatives or daughters or sons.
"It is a complex kinship network," Nicola whispered to me.
"Why are there so many of them?"
"Let me see. Ah. Following the oil depletion crisis of the early twenty-first century, farms could no longer rely on the internal combustion engine for transport energy. They were forced to revert to human and animal muscle power for many tasks."
"Tell us something about yourselves," said Harv McKenzie, leaning towards us. "Where are you from?"
"We are from Germany," I said. It was not entirely false. "We are on a flying holiday."
"There's not many people can afford to fly any more," said Harv.
"We are quite rich," I explained.
"So where's your airship, or whatever you're using?" asked a woman across the table.
"We don't need those," said Kevin, "because we have these." He stood and unfurled his wings.
Those on Kevin's side of the table scrambled out of the way. Voices were raised in shock and outrage, mine among them. Kevin's wings reached almost the length of the room, and stood iridescent in the buttery light, defying easy explanation.
"What the hell are those?" asked Harv.
"Isn't that obvious? They're wings."
"Yeah, but what are they made out of?"
"A nanotubule matrix bonded with . . ." I had never troubled myself with such details, but Kevin was young enough to delight in showing off his—or rather his little voice's—technical knowledge. Before long he was persuaded to lead a party of the easily impressed outside to show them his wings in action. Adulation at a stroke: he would be in his element here.
Nicola and I were also questioned, and admitted that yes, we too had wings, but that we preferred to open them only when needed for flight.
"Or in private," added Nicola. Her gaze swept the room as she said it, and I saw male gazes linger in return.
The thirst for new experience is universal. Neither Kevin nor Nicola slept in our quarters that night.
I was woken deep into the night by a knock on the door. "Who is it?" I managed, still surfacing from the unfamiliar depths of sleep.
A female voice. "I was wondering . . ."
It was the woman who had opened the door to us. Her skin as I caressed it was pitted and cracked, roughened by time and use. On the narrow and uncertain surface of the bunk, I folded her in my wings, and we made love until light leached into the morning sky.
The next few days passed pleasantly enough. When we were not satisfying the questions and the desires of our acolytes, we flew sorties over the neighboring hills, or did our comical best to help around the farm. As we did so, my contempt for these dwellers in the flesh was replaced, or at least moderated, by admiration: they did so much with so little!
Topside, we thought of the ground-dwellers, if we thought of them at all, as scrabbling and dying in a sea of blood, mud, and poverty. But here, though they surely had the mud—we had to wash it off each others' wings before we took flight—they had made some kind of life for themselves. Their land would grow many crops if they treated it well, and they now had no choice but to do so. Though most work had to be done by horse or by hand, they grew enough food to feed themselves and produce a surplus.
Saturday was market day. The horses' breath sent clouds of steam into the dawn air as, hoof by careful hoof, they eased the farm's wagons down the hill that led into the town.
Gore: blood, also a triangle of land. The market was held on that triangular commons, next to the river. Our stall had been erected in advance, and soon it was filled with the finest of the week's produce. Locals squelched through the mud and the horseshit, bargaining for this and bantering for that.
We attracted much attention. "Show us your wings, mister!" pleaded a small boy. I stared at him until his father, somewhere between apology and truculence, took him by the hand and dragged him away. A crowd of the curious and the scandalised gathered to gossip and point. But those who came to gawk stayed to buy, and the stall did good business.
I was wondering when we'd break for breakfast, or lunch, when Cousin Amy came running up to us, her face distraught. "Come quickly, it's Kevin . . ."
Physical labor had limited appeal to Kevin. He had found his way to the nearest tavern and got himself shamefully drunk with young men of a similar disposition. They had dared him to show them his flying prowess, and now he was trying to oblige.
"I," he called from the top of a clock tower, "can fly! Look at this!"
He performed a drunken circuit above the upturned faces below, barely regaining his footing as he landed.
I was still hesitating when Nicola took off from the edge of the crowd. Kevin took this as a challenge.
"This silly cow thinks she's a better flyer than me! Think again!"
Kevin, being Kevin, had chosen wings optimised for maximum power rather than maximum control when he specified his body for our downside adventure. Though he was weaving all over the sky, and Nicola was taking a dead straight line after him, he still outraced her. By now, I too was in the air, watching as Kevin swooped low over the river. I saw the tip of one wing catch the top of a wave. He dipped dangerously towards the water, recovered, and raced under the twin bridges that linked the west and east sides of town.
The rich Southland soil produced more than even market day could absorb, and it was all transported by electric train, north to Dunedin, south to Invercargill. It was the northbound train that hissed onto the rail bridge as Kevin flew under it, and it was the northbound train that caught him a glancing blow as he flew up from beneath the bridge, preparing to loop the loop. He disappeared under the wagons.
From death to funeral took a long time. The local coroner insisted on an inquest, primarily, I suspect, to satisfy his curiosity about this winged apparition. I offered my help, but he declined it. A proud man, the coroner.
A verdict of accidental death was returned. At the funeral, I was asked to say a few words.
"Kevin was my friend," I began. "He enjoyed his sojourn in your world very much. Sadly, he left this world too soon. He has gone where we all must go, and I will see him there myself in due course. I hope and believe that he is happy there."
This went down very well, and Nicola congratulated me later.
And now we were two. I cannot say that I missed either Kevin or Jacques greatly as individuals, but I began to feel lonely now both of them were gone. Hannah McKenzie had stopped coming to my bed after Kevin died, and would not tell me why; her husband treated me with the same bluff good humor as before, so it did not seem that he had discovered us. I was beginning to feel less like a tourist and more like a member of the household, but I did not want to spend the rest of my downside days on a farm.
While Kevin was spreading his favors widely among the young women of the farm, Nicola had taken up with a sturdy young man called Bill. One night, she came to me instead of him. I awoke, warm and sleepy, to see her bending over me.
"I want to stay here," she said. "I want to have a baby."
"Can you have a baby?"
"I don't see why not. This body is fully functional."
"But what about your work back home?"
"What about it? Reactivate my consciousness when you get back."
"But then you—this you—can never return." (It was our law that only one instance of each consciousness could exist in our polity.)
She made a face. "I'm sick of it. The perfect weather, the perfect lives, the perfect endless happiness. I prefer this world, the real world, where things get old and die. I want you to cut off my wings."
I mouthed incomprehension.
"Have you looked in the mirror lately? Spread out your wings and look carefully."
In the light from the yellow bulb, I saw that she was right. When the probe dropped us below the tropopause and we flexed our wings for the first time, we had thought them indestructible. But they were beginning to fray at the edges from the heavy air and hard uses of this world, and down here we had no way to repair them.
"As long as I have them," said Nicola, "there'll be the temptation to fly away. Cut them off."
"Does Bill agree?"
"He doesn't know."
As she knelt in front of me in that narrow room, I felt an overwhelming urge to possess her; overwhelming, but futile, since she would no longer have me. How marvelous it had been to feel our wings beat together on our first night! And now she would rather stay with a man whose life could be measured in years.
Working with care and without undue haste, I cut along the lines of attachment between her wings and her back.
"You'll still feel the urge to flex them from time to time," I warned her; then, "Don't shrug. I don't want to slice through your flesh."
Next morning, I rose early and went outside. The autumn was deepening towards winter. The ground was cold beneath my boots as I dug. In went Nicola's wings, then I filled the hole up again, and took off my boots.
It was almost dawn. Soon the farm would be rising. I removed my farm clothes and sprang into the air in the brightly-colored flying suit that had brought me here. So good, to be free again! Soon I would awake in my familiar world, a consciousness inside a computer in a European Space Agency satellite launched seventeen years ago from Guyana, in that final brief flowering before the oil ran out and the world ran down. There we made the things of the mind, and our machines carried out our desires.
Up I flew, and the sun splashed across me as I rose into the dawn. I let out a great shout, swooping and diving in the photon wind. This, I would miss; this, and the ground spread out like a banquet below me. Up. I would not reactivate Nicola's consciousness when I returned. She would surely tire of her life on the farm before long, and end it, and so return to her real life, topside.
Up again, and now the air was too cold and too thin to sustain me. My thoughts dove away from me, and my body tumbled after them. An impact, a brief moment of blackness, then I awoke in my own world. Kevin and Jacques were there to greet me, and we spoke from mind to mind, and walked out together under the perfect, illusory sky.