Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Winged (Biological Augmentation)

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The wings ripped out of her back, tearing through their membrane, raining epithelium on the floor and causing the blood to run in rivulets down her shoulder blades and spine.

‘Interesting,’ the scientists said to each other as she screamed herself hoarse. One had offered her a hand to hold through the pain but she had refused, instead panting ‘Painkillers, painkillers!’ To which they shook their heads. So instead she scraped her nails off the floor as she clenched and unclenched her hands, forehead on the cold ground like she was praying, buckling under the contortions and spasms as the wings burst out of her body in fits. They were bigger than her, a heavy weight pressing down on her fragile body, an unwieldy menace that could break bones with one twitch. That’s why the scientists stayed back as she and they writhed.

Finally, the movements were still. She lay where she was, sobbing at the throbbing ache in her upper back, the pain that panged down to her hips one way and down her shoulders, neck and arms the other. It was a body-wide migraine. Only after they had seen that the wings were safe and quiet, did the doctors rush in and press cool pads onto her, wipe up the blood and mucus and bandage the wings so they could not lash out and harm anyone. She could barely stand – her muscles were overwhelmed by bodily assault – but they picked her up and put her onto a trolley, and wheeled her away, face-down, still crying into the pillow. Never human again, she thought. I’ll never be right again. And – as they had done for months now – the weight of her monumental change in human anatomy pressed down on her, twitching, itching to fly.

 +

 A year earlier, a woman known as Cassandra Day was seated at a table in a room in a blank-faced building in London. A mix of circumstances had brought her to rock bottom: she was penniless, heading towards prison time, and contemplating suicide. Dr Johnson, the leader of the project, had specifically requested people like her for his project. People who needed hope, he said to his employees, who needed a purpose and the support that modern life wasn’t giving them. People whom no-one would miss, he added silently to himself. But Cass didn’t know that, as she sat at that table, wondering why she had been brought there, and if she cared, and whether life was worth the effort and heartache at all.

Dr Johnson sat opposite her and explained the project. She didn’t believe him, didn’t believe such a fairy tale was possible, but she said nothing in the face of his lab coat and jargon. If nothing else, it would be free board and sustenance without the stigma and harassment of jail. The worst that would happen was dying, and she wasn’t so averse to that right now. So she would have agreed anyway, even if the doctor had not put that fatal seed of hope in her heart.

This will be ground-breaking,’ he said. ‘You and the other participants will be the first to ever undergo such a potential shift in anatomy. You will be the first of your kind. It will not only make a huge difference to science, but also to the world.’

She raised her head at that.

 ‘A difference to the world?’ she repeated.

Dr Johnson nodded, the strip light glare falling over his lenses as he leant forward and smiled.

‘History will remember the first winged people. You and your cohort will mark a new era of human endeavour, a turning point in man’s quest to improve himself. As I said, for body modification, this will be…ground-breaking.’

He made that pause for dramatic effect and it worked exactly as he desired on Cassandra. She looked at the table, and thought about what a useless piece of shit she had been her entire life up until now, and finally saw the chance for redemption.

‘I’ll do it,’ she said.

The doctor smiled and pushed the forms towards her, and without reading them she signed away her future.

 +

More cries of pain echoed through the hallway. Cass turned her face towards the door and watched the shadows flicker across the light round the edges. Her neck was sore, but the ache everywhere else in her body, coupled with the overwhelming exhaustion, made movement impossible. She thought of Giles Corey, and how the rocks pressed down on him in Salem as he refused to answer for his innocence or guilt. She felt pressed half to death as well, except Corey’s rocks were not tied to his skin and flushed with his own blood. Still the tips twitched and nervous impulses ran along the new bones and muscles.

I wonder who it is, she thought. Sounded like a woman. The two who had been closest to breaking – those with the biggest tumours on their backs after her – were Robert and Kelly, so it was likely Kelly. She wondered if her eighteen-year-old frame would handle it. Cass couldn’t imagine how scared the others must feel right now, if they could hear the screams in their rooms. But it was lonely, being the first, being left here in the dark with this weight above her back. As if they expected her to sleep.

Last week, Dr Johnson had shown her a picture of a bird’s wing, saying how the bones mapped onto the human arm, with radius and ulna and only one finger and tiny thumb. ‘In a way, we’ve made you grow two extra arms,’ he had said.

Two extra arms would have been useful, and she would have known how to use them. The unwieldy bandaged lumps on her back would never be natural to move. But, she thought as she heard male cries join the female – that was probably Robert – at least I won’t be the only freak in existence.

 +

Day after day of physical exams had taken place before they started giving her the drugs, and those drugs were only in preparations for the injection into her back. In the week before then, the subjects had come to know the basics of each other – age, place of origin, simple likes and dislikes – without delving too deeply into why they were there. Robert was a recent divorcee who said he had nothing to lose. Kelly was in trouble with the law as well, and struggling to come off cocaine.

‘I only joined because of the pain meds,’ she joked.

After a few days, Cass treated her like a younger sister, and Robert like a stepfather. They all knitted like family, and it was necessary to have that support once the injections were done.

The needle sank into bone and left two red ridged marks on her shoulder blades. The very next day, they had become two tender lumps, and Cass had to say goodbye to sleeping on her back for ever after.

‘I’m a monster,’ Kelly had cried as they continued to grow, as the scientists continued to pump them with cells and nutrients and chemicals. When Cass looked at Kelly’s back, she saw the hideous purple stretch marks, the spider’s web of veins and capillaries spread across the surface of those two mounds. When she reached around to feel her own back, she could feel tensely packed liquid, like a water balloon. If she tried hard enough, she would touch the fragile bone beneath it all, quivering beneath the surface. Everyone, both young and not-so-young, cheerful and pessimistic, looked a freak with their humpbacks.

‘No-one else has ever done this,’ she said to Kelly. ‘We’re pioneers, not monsters.’

‘In the future this won’t seem strange at all,’ Robert said, wincing as he instinctively tried to lean back in his seat. ‘But the people who do it first always have a hard time of it.’

So the tumours grew, and they had to reconfigure their sense of balance to cope with the new weight on their shoulders, always leaning slightly forward so they didn’t tip over. Specially made clothing was all that would fit their humps. When she banged against doorways, and bedposts, and other people, the pain ran right forward to Cass’s chest and down to her hips.

Every two days, she lay on her front in the lab while they injected and took samples and prodded and measured her humps. Hands rummaging all over a part of her body that was no longer hers. Dr Johnson showed her the imaging of it: a fuzzy white twiglet in a tweezer-shape. As time went on, one side grew thicker, while the other grew dendrites like a frosted branch.

‘It shows that you’re young and have looked after your body,’ he said. ‘They’re growing far faster for you than for anyone else. At this rate, you’ll be the first person to ever have wings.’

She was proud when he said that, but as the lumps grew larger and larger and threatened to eclipse her torso in size – preventing her from walking without aid – the fear grew greater than the pride. She told herself she was not a monster when she looked in the bathroom mirror, but it never quite sank in, no matter how sincerely she said it to other people. But maybe that was because she knew she had a deep wickedness, a monstrosity that was the reason she had first been brought to this place.

 +

In their spare time, the company paid for courses for everyone. Training courses, language courses, anything that wasn’t too strenuous on their bodies and would help them in the outside world. ‘It’s how they get more public funding,’ one of the others said. Helping the needy.

‘More like keeping us occupied so we don’t make a fuss,’ Robert said.

Cass had asked for a laptop connected to the net for her studies. A week later they confiscated it from her.

‘We don’t need the police bothering us,’ Dr Johnson said – the first moment she had seen him truly flustered. ‘Part of the condition of us keeping you here was that you wouldn’t cause any trouble. You don’t want to go to prison looking like that now, do you?’

But she couldn’t help it. The lack of information about outside was driving her mad. There were newspapers and books here but there was no connection to other people outside, there was no social media, there was no way to find him. And she still thought about him all the time. She wondered what he was doing, who he was with, what he would think of her if he knew what she was doing. How amazed he would be when he saw her with wings. He would apologise for sure, then. He’d say he was sorry.

They gave her the laptop back with the wireless disabled. She ignored it apart from writing her assignments, seeing little point in it otherwise.

 +

When they wheeled Kelly next to her, the two shared tear-filled half-smiles.

‘What do they look like?’ Kelly asked her. Cass moved her eyes up, but all she saw was a mass of bandage the same shape the hump had been.

‘Big and uncomfy,’ she replied. A tear leaked out of each of Kelly’s eyes as she tried to keep smiling.

‘I didn’t really realise what this meant,’ she said.

None of them had. That was the point. Only people who didn’t think through the ramifications had said yes.

 +

The next morning, they took Cass into a lab and asked her to stand. She thought they were joking, since she could still barely move for the ache, but the starched white coats insisted. So she pushed herself off her front, and as her spine bent a spasm jolted up and into the wings, and with a cry she flopped down again. A few quick x-rays, latex fingers prodding around her flesh, and they demanded she try again. She looked at Dr Johnson, pleading with her eyes.

‘I know you can do it,’ he said. ‘Come on, girl.’

They hovered around her, telling her to keep her spine level, to bring up her legs under her, and finally to straighten to sitting. She unfurled upright, wobbling a little but used to the weight behind her. More soft words and guidance, and she shifted to the edge of the gurney, placing her feet on the tiles below. Two assistants on either side, ready to grab her hands and help her, when the doctor’s voice broke through:

‘Let her do it alone.’

I’ll collapse, she screamed inside. But he was not going to help her, and she’d better show him that she was even stronger than he forced her to be. So she pushed off the gurney and the full force of her weight bore down on her ankles, no more painful than it had been yesterday with her tumour.

A full second later, gravity hit her wings, and pulled at the join where the new muscles met the old. She stumbled back, reaching round to grab them with her hands. Two bandage-covered points met her, and instinctively she pulled them forward to relieve the weight off her spine, the same way she had used one arm to hold up the other when she had broken her collarbone as a child.

‘Interesting,’ Dr Johnson said. ‘Clearly more support is needed. Help her with that, McKay, and Davis, get a mirror. I imagine Miss Day will want to see what happens next.’

More assistants put their hands on her wings, keeping them up, and she resented their touch over what, she was slowly accepting, was hers. When the mirror was brought in and placed in front of her, she barely saw her ragged face, strain as she did to see the edge of white behind her. One by one, they cut and peeled away the bandages, and she felt them fall away as she would feel something fall from her hair. At last, air hit her new surface, and the assistants stepped back.

A breath. She stretched her weak muscles, and over the tops of her shoulders, she saw dirty white feathers move. Her third and fourth elbows were still being supported, and with that she could really stretch them. She felt herself brush against skin and cloth as the feathers, in the mirror, expanded and eclipsed the people behind her. Her head swam.

I’m a bird, she thought.

Dizziness overtook her and she was hastily helped back onto the trolley. In her delirium she decided that none of this was real, none of it was truly happening, that it was all some long fever dream before she died. But the doctor’s ecstatic face as she was pushed past him, as he ordered the next one to be brought in, pierced through the haze enough to remind her of the truth. She woke several times over the next half hour, and each time she woke she reached into her new limbs and made them move, reach, spread out. Then the dizziness of the exertion would cover her mind again, and she’d fall to a half-fainted sleep, resting until the next test of her new strength could be made.

 +

The barrage of tests stepped up once she was well enough to stand without support. The muscles of her neck and shoulders became hulk-like with the steroids they put into her, but at least she was strong enough to support her own weight – unlike Kelly, who was still stuck crying in bed, along with many of the others, their vertebrae and spinal columns strained too far by the pressure. The men were having a better time of it, but like Robert they had unexpected complications: wings far smaller than expected, blood-pressure critically low through the new channels, tips turning black and coming off. A healthy young man would have grown wings that thrived, but no-one in Dr Johnson’s experiment was considered “healthy.” After two weeks, Cass was the only one hale and strong, and Dr Johnson’s eyes shone when he saw her come into the lab.

‘Try to beat them as hard as you can,’ he asked.

She expanded and closed her wings like an accordion, and the resulting gust of wind thrilled her. A few more beats, and the charts on the walls flapped and trays of instruments trembled. Cass and the doctor both laughed.

‘I think it’s time to take you to the gym,’ he said.

The warehouse gym had been used to keep them in shape from the start, but was now empty of subjects. Still in her backless gown, though happily with pyjama bottoms on, she stood in the middle of the mats, and beat her wings as hard as she could, feeling her legs buffeted by her own gale. Pushing herself, she thought she would try to flap them faster as well, and as soon as she did, the air gathered under her feathers and pulled her two feet up off the floor.

She fell back down, nearly fainting again, laughing wheezily at the fun of it all. Dr Johnson ran to her and propped her up, manic with happiness.

‘She’ll fly,’ he murmured to himself, before repeating it louder and louder: ‘She’ll fly. She’ll fly!’

I will, she thought, I will, I’ll fly, and no-one will ever hold me back again!

 +

They were jealous, of course. It was mankind’s dream to fly. Kelly was too dejected to speak to her, Robert too sour, every one of them suffering too much to stand her happiness. Even the staff looked at her in envious disdain. She was surprised by how little she felt at the loss of them all, when they had been so close before. But she was full of obsessive wonder, and pride, and their rejection meant nothing to her now she held power in her body, in her second arms and all that supported them.

In the gym, she flew higher and higher, from a few inches to a foot to a metre. It was too hard on her muscles to go beyond that. But birds rarely flew far without the support of wind, Dr Johnson said. So they took her out to the car park, where the high walls of the compound shielded her from sight. It was deliciously easy to float in the breeze there. The utter freedom of being high above anyone else, without support from any machine or contraption, was intoxicating, and she begged Dr Johnson to let her out again.

‘We don’t want to push you too hard,’ he said.

She told him that he hadn’t considered that when they were all toppling over from the weight of wings, when he had forced her to stand mere hours after her back had been torn apart. He hadn’t thought of it when dealing with the other subjects and their twisted spines and deformed bodies.

His eyes narrowed at that point, as if he had only just realised that she had life in her, and wasn’t just a toy doll he could command without protest.

‘Maybe it would be best if you rested,’ he said. ‘The gym will do for what little exercise you need, until I find a suitable place to unveil you to the world. The outside is still a little dangerous for you right now.’

Dangerous for you, she thought, because I could fly over the walls and you know it.

For three days she sat in her room, wings curving round her body, stroking the feathers, always marvelling at what had become of her. A plan was born in her mind, hatched the moment she first stretched those wings and knew her own potential. It would be easy, because she was powerful. All it required was patience, and when it came to certain projects, she had a full supply – as long as she knew the prize would be worth it.

On the third day, the white coats took her to the gym and she delighted in stretching herself, pushing her muscles to a beautiful ache and making her heart hammer. She couldn’t do much more than ascend and clumsily descend, but she knew she would glide far if she had the air beneath her.

Dr Johnson came to watch, as smug as always on seeing her progress. He waited for her to finish and take her post-training, agonising shower (the water pressure was always too high), before telling her the news:

‘I have a date,’ he said. ‘There’s a conference next week, and I’ve promoted my place at it. In ten days, you will be the envy of everyone, and famous as a wonder of science.’

She wondered if she would be famous like a conjoined twin in olden times. Gawked at, pointed to. When the police had taken her in, when they had walked her along the landing, down the apartment stairs, and out to their car, all the neighbours had peeped out their curtains and whispered to themselves: that’s the girl I told you about. Would all the researchers at this conference be like Dr Johnson? Would they talk about her like they would a cadaver, even if she was right there?

The plan burned in her mind, and she knew she had to seize these next few days.

‘What day of the week is it?’ she asked Dr Johnson.

‘Thursday,’ he said. ‘The conference begins a week on Monday. Don’t worry, you have plenty of time to prepare – you’re a marvel enough as you are.’

His flattery touched her, but she knew she couldn’t put faith in him.

‘What’ll happen to everyone else?’ she asked.

He looked surprised, as if he had forgotten what so many of his assistants were dealing with day in and out, as if he thought she hadn’t noticed the cries and shouts and recriminations bounding off all the walls outside her room.

‘Surgery and rehabilitation,’ he said, nonchalant. ‘With any luck, they should all go back to normal within a few months. We’ll be able to examine their excisions and see exactly what went wrong with so many of them. Next time, we’ll be able to improve our success rate.’

Next time.

She’d always been shoved aside for someone better.

It was Thursday. She knew where he would be tomorrow night. She knew how to get out. Dr Johnson would see that she was not the peaceful specimen he thought she was.

 +

Cassandra broke the window easily with a fierce beat of her wings. The noise made her jump – she didn’t think it would be quite so easily. The sense of her own strength swam through her head as the alarms rang, and she managed to squeeze herself and her wings out the smashed frame and into the cold, free air. She gulped in a few breaths, flexed herself wide, and jumped as she heard footsteps behind her.

She didn’t fall. There was an instinctive expectation that she would plummet to her death, but instead she felt like she was barely moving, as the draft pushed up against her body and kept her high. Adjusting the angle of her wings, she tipped into descent and the wind blasted against her face as she flew down, eyes leaking from both air force and joy.

With straining muscles, she flapped hard and brought herself still over a low rooftop. People were out on the streets, already shouting drunk. A Friday night in the East End – not long until trouble would brew around here, and she was still quite physically weak. Nevertheless, she had to move, and risk being spotted. It had been months, and the ache of longing had grown quiet in the face of her transformation – but now she had the chance, and the means, the desire flared up, making it impossible for her to do anything else.

It was harder to fly than she realised. She had to fight the wind, and rest on every rooftop, and by the time she was in Hackney her she couldn’t move her left wing muscle for pain. From there she had to roof-hop, with a clumsy seagull-like flap to keep her aloft. Finally, though, she saw the Empire come into view, just in time to see the crowds stream out of the doors, chatting about the show that night, laughing as they remembered and retold the best jokes they had heard. He would be here, she knew. The crowd might be too dense to see right now, but she knew the route he would take.

After a rest, she continued on, careful to avoid the lights, trying to balance being unseen and able to see. She walked and hopped up the street until she came to his turning, past the tube station, and there the exhaustion and pain took her and she lay on the rooftop, head dangling over the edge, watching and waiting in the dark.

There! Her heart cried out with glee. She still knew every part of him inside-out. His messy short hair, his crow’s feet and laughter lines, his stubble. She thought for a moment she could die happy at just the sight of him – and then she saw the woman beside him.

Black-dressed, leather jacketed, red-lipped nothing, she was. They held hands. Cass watched as they walked, and where he should have turned left to continue to his flat, they went right, ducking by the bus depot. Out of sight.

Cass struggled to her feet. Never had she felt so poisonous as she did at that moment. Without a care to the people nearby, she ran and flung herself across the road, onto the opposite roof. Shouts of ‘Did you fucking see that?’ followed her, but she ignored them as she ran to the other edge of the roof, and looked down.

There they were, all squished against the wall like filthy rats, one dark-haired dark-clothed giggling mess. I broke a window, Cass thought. I could break them both easily. That’s what I’ll do.

‘Jack!’ she called out.

The pair broke apart, looking around. He was frightened already. Good. She felt her poor muscle, worn out from the effort, and begged her gift to last one moment longer. Then she dropped off the roof.

The streetlight gleamed behind her as she floated down to the couple. The girl shrieked, and Jack gaped. Cass thankfully rested her feet on the ground, and let her wings drop. All over her shoulder was in pain, but it felt nothing compared to the pain inside her heart.

‘Remember me?’ she asked.

‘Oh dear God,’ he said, falling to his knees. The girl turned and ran back to the street as fast as she could. Cass was glad to have Jack to herself. Even now, after everything, she loved him. If only he had ever understood that.

‘I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me,’ she said to him. ‘You’ve no idea how much I’ve missed you.’

‘Oh God, Cass, I’m – I’m so sorry!’ he said.

Her anger softened. Did he finally understand, after all? Understand all he had done, and all he meant, and all she had become because of him?

‘It’s okay,’ she said, ‘I forgive you. I know I scared you a little, but you never needed to take it to the police, Jack – I would never hurt you, right? I love you. I’ve always loved you.’

She took a step towards him and he shrank back. His eyes were wide as moons, mouth and eyebrows contorted into a terrified grimace. He had hurt her beyond anyone else in the world, when she had only wanted to stay with him and love him forever – and no-one understood that. Don’t go near him, everyone had said, don’t contact him, or else – said her family, friends, police, court. As if they could stop her thoughts always returning to him, as if they could arrest her constant, bittersweet yearning. They didn’t understand that they were meant to be together. They didn’t understand, and they had no control over her any more.

‘Please,’ she said, reaching out her hands, ‘don’t you want to come with me and talk to me? I’ve got so much to tell you about what’s happened to me. You wouldn’t believe it–’

‘Oh fuck, oh God, please don’t,’ he sobbed. ‘Cass, I’m so, so sorry – I didn’t mean – I never meant – fuck, I didn’t have a choice, you were calling every day, threatening the people I loved – I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t work, I had to get you out of my life – please, you know I never, ever meant to push you to this…’

She drew back as the realisation sank in. For a second she felt less corporeal, less real, just for the idea of it.

‘I’m not dead,’ she said.

Jack’s shoulders stopped shaking and he stared. She, with her wings, in her specially-made white nightie – the thought made her feel ill.

‘I’m – I’m not dead, Jack, I’m alive. They experimented on me so I’d stay out of jail – I grew wings – look, I’m real!’

She lunged forward and brushed a hand across his warm face, but for once the touch held no delight for her. He cried and jumped back, stumbling onto his feet.

‘Jack – Jack, please!’

He swore, over and over, shaking his head, before finally his will gave way and he ran. Cassandra was left in the shadow of the building, feeling every ounce the monster she had always been.

She struggled to the rooftop again, away from the curious people in search of the screams. At dawn, security found her, and the police – and Dr Johnson – took her soon after.

Dr Johnson was most disgruntled.

‘You’ve pulled your muscles after all that,’ he said, during the examination. Like old times, she was on her front, crying into her pillow. ‘I hope to God you haven’t done any lasting damage. I’m putting an ankle monitor on you from now on, so this doesn’t happen again.’

Kelly and Robert and everyone else had been transferred away to home and hospital without a goodbye. She was the only one who could never resume her old life, the only freak left out of them all. All that freedom, all that power, but she’d never be allowed to use it, and she’d never see outside again – not that there was much point, any more. I might as well have gone to prison, she thought. I might as well have killed myself.

‘Cheer up,’ Dr Johnson said the next week, as they were being driven to the conference. ‘Remember, you’re a pioneer. You’ve opened a new door for humankind. And after the hole you were in when I found you – well, I’d say you’ve redeemed yourself now.’

She wrapped her wings around herself like a cocoon. That was all her new arms were any good for.

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Written by G.J.

17/07/2013 at 3:04 pm

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