by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, January 2018
“You can’t come on the voyage,” the Ululu sneered, folding his wings in a very cross manner. “Winged folk only.”
Evben tried to object, but all the other avians lounging about the bar took up the Ululu’s catchy cry: “That’s right! Winged folk only!” The feathers around the Ululu’s eyes crinkled happily; if he hadn’t been a beaked species, he’d have been grinning. The Ululu had been looking for a way to exclude Evben from Avian Night at the All Alien Cafe since she’d first started coming, but the cafe owner stood up for the little mousey alien’s right to participate. Even if she wasn’t any sort of bird.
“Fine,” Evben squeaked at the much larger aliens. “I’ll get wings.” She jumped off the gigantic bar stool and did her best tiny impression of storming out while the cackling avian laughter echoed in her big round ears.
There were five weeks until the avian voyage to New Jupiter, the closest gas giant to Crossroads Station. That wasn’t enough time for Evben to teach herself engineering and design her own wings, but she had some savings, and a robot friend who worked at Robots 4 Robots was able to get her a rush order on a special commission. Robots 4 Robots didn’t usually take commissions for organic augmentations, but they’d built winged robots before, so they had the necessary designs. Besides, a pair of wings small enough for Evben — her species was among the tiniest aliens on Crossroads Station — required so little ultra-light aluminum that the cost of the materials was next to nothing.
When the avians lined up for the shuttle to New Jupiter with their space helmets under their wings, Evban cautiously joined the end of the line. She held her own tiny space helmet with one paw, and she twisted the tip of her long tail nervously with the other. One by one, the avians boarded the shuttle, but when Evban tried to get onboard, the Ululu blocked her path with one of his long stick-like legs.
“No wings, no ride,” he said.
Evban put down her space helmet, tucked her paws into the handholds on the metal wings folded tight against her back, and then she spread her arms — the metal blades of the mechanical wings fanned out. They felt so good on Evban’s back, sprouting from her shoulder blades like real wings should, that she skipped a little dance and twirled. Her long tail followed her, and her wings fanned gracefully.
The Ululu snorted. “Those aren’t real wings,” he said, but one of the other avian aliens — a double-winged Eechie — saw Evban’s little dance and screeched excitedly.
“I already have two sets of wings, but those are so cute, maybe I should get another one!”
Several puff-feathered Rennten peeked out to see what all the commotion was about and immediately began cooing over Evban and her tiny metal wings. It was more attention than any of the avians — other than the Ululu — had ever paid to Evban before.
The Ululu’s feathers ruffled angrily, but he had been overruled. Evban scurried between his long legs and boarded the space shuttle with the others.
On the flight to New Jupiter, the Rennten clucked traditional roosting songs, and the Eechie did a double-winged dance that had them all flapping in laughter. Evban flapped her little metal wings right along with them. She’d never been happier.
New Jupiter swelled in the space shuttle’s windows like a red and gold balloon. When it filled the entire horizon, the s’rellick shuttle captain turned to her avian passengers and hissed with her forked tongue, “Helmetssss on!”
Amidst much clucking and cawing, all the avians put on their helmets. They looked like they’d stuck their heads in bubbles.
“We’re sssskimming the atmosssphere,” the s’rellick captain hissed. “When I pop the hatch, go have your fun. I’ll sssswing by to pick everyone up in a few hourssss.”
The Renntens hopped about giddily, and the Eechie stretched her wings, readying to fly. The Ululu glared at Evban over his beak and said, “There’s no shame in staying on the shuttle.”
When the hatch popped, Evban was the first to run, jump, and flap her way into the thin New Jupiter atmosphere. Pink and gold clouds streamed past her, dispersing in the wind of her wings. She was free! She was one of the avians! She was… falling.
Evban tumbled through the golden clouds; their colors thickened and deepened through shades of orange to brown. Evban flapped her ultra-light aluminum wings as hard as her little arms could, but she didn’t have the strength for it. She kept falling.
Until thump, she landed on the feathered back of the Ululu. “You’re not a bird,” he said, and in spite of her wings, Evban found herself in no position to argue with him. She readied herself for his rebuke. “But you have wings, and you should learn to use them better than that. Don’t flap. Glide.”
The Ululu shook Evban off his back, and the little mousie creature found herself falling through New Jupiter’s clouds again. But she focused on the Ululu’s words and tilted her wings this time. Instead of pushing with all her strength, she leaned into the gas giant’s winds.
“There you go,” the Ululu said. “Now you’re flying.”
Evban lowered one wing and spiraled around, feeling the rush that she’d heard the avians talk about.
“Keep close,” the Ululu said. “I didn’t sign up for giving flying lessons, but I don’t want to see you fall into the crushing depths of a gas giant either.”
Evban circled back with her long tail streaming out behind her. She settled into the Ululu’s backdraft and squeaked quietly, “Thank you.”
The Ululu grumbled, “Don’t mention it,” but he didn’t fly away. After the two of them soared in formation for a few minutes, the Ululu added, “You’re not used to flying, so your wings may get tired. If you need to, you can rest on my back again.” Evban heard a touch of respect in his voice.