by Lauren Rivers
Paul’s eyes stirred open from the beam of sunlight that had broken through the shades and cut across the bed right at his forehead. Only half awake, he rolled over in an attempt to get a few more minutes of sleep as he noted his alarm clock had ten minutes to go before it was set to wake him. He often had the tendency to wake up just before his alarm sounded, ever since he was a kitten. Despite his best effort, he shook his head and felt compelled to get up anyway. The brown shorthair pulled the covers off of his body and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
His uniform rested over a chair in the corner. He had placed it there just so he would not need to search his closet for it when he awoke. A patch on the right breast read simply “Whitmore.” Paul gently slipped it on and felt a small measure of pride as he observed his reflection in the mirror above the dresser. Somewhat plain in design, it was functional and comfortable, complete with slits for avian wings along the back. He had requested it custom made for his feline form since most avian uniforms had a larger hole for the feathered tails most birds sported.
His lover continued to sleep peacefully on his side of the bed. The hazel-eyed penguin was still shirtless underneath the covers with a warm half smile on his face. The previous night Lucas had suggested they have a little fun to relax the feline. Out of the two of them, his sweet penguin was the more carefree.
Despite the fact that Paul had other things on his mind, he had found the distraction relaxing nevertheless. Now that it was the next day, however, he once again found himself preoccupied. “Today’s the day.” His paws felt sweaty, and he rubbed them on his uniform in an attempt to dry them off. He leaned over the oak dresser and looked into his own reflection’s eyes as he let out a long breath.
“You’re still worrying about the First Flight test?” a voice rang out from the bed. Lucas still had his eyes closed, but apparently he had woken when Paul got out of bed.
“I can’t help it. It’s all I’ve been thinking about for weeks now. Hell, the last five years of my life. Ever since I signed up for this outfit.” The chocolate-furred feline gestured at his Air Force uniform.
Lucas sat up quietly and climbed out of bed, revealing his well toned chest. He took a step closer and touched Paul’s shoulder as he leaned in to rest his head against the taller feline. “Is it the test that’s got you nervous or the fact that Ryan will probably be there?”
Paul scoffed at the mention of his ex, Ryan West. “He’s free to try out just like any other flight capable bird interested in joining the elite aerial combat unit of the Air Force. Just because he never supported me trying out for the group doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve the chance.”
“I didn’t say he didn’t deserve the chance, though I know that his being there won’t make this easier on you,” Lucas replied. The penguin leaned against the dresser.
“I can handle it. It’ll just make me focus harder. They’re the best of the best in aerial troop support. I joined the Air Force and requested this assignment specifically just so I’d have the chance to try out.” Paul looked out of the window of their apartment and in the distance saw the imposing shape of the base to which he was assigned. He touched the glass with his paws for a long moment before he turned to step into the extra bedroom, followed by Lucas. “Thanks to you, I’ll get that chance.”
Lucas touched his lover’s face and pressed his beak against his cheek in an avian kiss. “I’m just glad the artificial wings work with felines since they were designed for avian veterans.”
“Me too.” Paul took a deep breath as he looked over at the long table against the wall. Upon its surface rested the set of high tech mechanical wings. “Thank you for getting them for me.”
“I just happen to know the right people. My father helped to design them.” The penguin ran his webbed hands over the material that made up the feathers.
Paul had only used them a handful of times before. To adapt them to his body required a very complex neural connection obtained by an interface that penetrated the skin and took a moment or two to establish a connection to the brain. Once the connection formed, the wings behaved as if they were his own flesh and blood. They were made from an advanced and lightweight material. The skeleton was a flexible but firm metal, and the feathers a silk-looking fabric with a thin layer of the same metal forming feather shapes. If his boyfriend had not been able to help him get one, it would’ve taken him ages to afford it on his own.
Paul leaned over the artificial wings and touched the edges of the feathers with his paws. “They’re incredible.”
“A miracle of modern science,” Lucas agreed.
“They are that. With any luck, by this time tomorrow I’ll be a member of First Flight.” Paul ran his claws through his thick brown hair, blowing the blonde lock above his right eye out of the way.
The feline relaxed when Lucas put his webbed hand on his lover’s paw. “You’re not in yet. You still have to pass the test.”
“Thanks for reminding me. I have two chances to pass—today, and two days from now. If I can’t do this, then I have to wait another year before they’ll even let me try again.” Paul looked at the interface as it rested in a specialized container on the table. It was kept in a bio-organic gel to keep it ready for use and to keep it from interfacing with anything it wasn’t supposed to. It was what they called “smart software” with just the smallest bit of AI—not enough to control anyone, though it did know how to operate itself until connected to an actual mind.
“That’s assuming that you even get to keep those wings that long. I was only able to get them for you by assuring my father’s contact that this would be incredible public relations for his company. If you don’t pass, they’re going to want those back or ask that you pay the bill.” Lucas rubbed his beak against the feline’s neck as he wrapped his arms around him from behind.
“Thank you for that ray of sunshine,” Paul commented before he gently pulled away from his boyfriend. He took out some adjustment tools and pressed the button on the diagnostic control panel attached by a wire to the interface that would join his body at the base of the neck. The wings spread out to as far as the room would allow, and he picked up a thin tool about the size of a screwdriver with a light that glowed at the end of it. He gripped it in his paw and held it over the wings in a few places before he nodded in approval. “That’ll do it, I hope. The wings were acting a little sluggish during my test flight yesterday.”
Lucas patted the cat on the shoulder. “Good luck, man. Better you than me, that’s all I can say.”
Paul turned towards the shorter penguin and ran his paw over his lover’s smooth head. “You never wanted to fly?”
“If I want to fly, I’ll get on an airplane. I’ll leave the flying with wings to you and those other birdbrains. By the way, don’t get stuck in a tree.” Lucas chirped in amusement and received a swift smack on the back of his head for his trouble. “Ouch!”
“Serves you right. They have never once found a feline skeleton stuck in a tree, and you know it!” With the touch of a button, Paul compressed the wings to their smallest size before unzipping the avian jumpsuit, enough to allow unrestricted access to his back. This species unique jumpsuit left plenty of space in the back for the user’s wings. For most that wore a uniform like this, it was as natural as slipping an arm through a sleeve. He, on the other hand, had to slip his wings on first.
Lucas held up the small, layered metal object that for the moment resembled a long oval shaped egg and raised an eyebrow, pressing it against his lover’s back as he had been shown many times before.
At first nothing happened. Suddenly, the interface touched against the cat’s neck, and Paul gritted his teeth at the unusual sensation of the advanced technology interfacing with his body. The center of the wings connected to his spine as it attached itself to his feline form. He grabbed onto the table and dug his claws into the wood, the prosthetic digging the needed neural connections in the back of his neck. He closed his eyes for a moment until he could feel the wings as if they were a natural part of his body. Paul had once likened the sensation to someone jabbing a thousand needles into his back and neck. It took a good minute and a half before he felt normal again. He tried to remember the exercises he had to go through to initialize the wings. The first was to spread them. He focused his mind, and the elongated egg became a large wingspan of delicate metallic feathers, though each was lighter than air. The sight of a winged feline was impressive even to him as he looked over his body in the mirror. “I never get used to that.”
“Maybe because felines don’t come with wings as standard equipment,” Lucas said.
“Perhaps not, though they do come with strong flexible muscles and a built in righting reflex.” Paul looked at the clock and then towards the front door. “I’d better get going.”
“Good luck, today, all right? If you don’t make it, there’s another test two days from now. You’ll get in, I’m sure you will.” Lucas gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek.
Paul kissed his boyfriend once more before he rubbed him on the shoulder and headed out the door. It was a short drive to Laughlin Air Force Base, and he found it uncomfortable driving with the artificial wings, even in their closed form. Before he even walked in the door, he knew that this was going to be a complicated effort. He had not expected it to come easy.
Once he had arrived at the base, he spread his wings and flexed them quickly to be certain their response time was as expected. He was inwardly grateful that he had gotten one of the newer models as some of the older ones were known to have up to a two second lag from thought to action which—given what he was trying to accomplish today—would be unacceptable.
Paul flashed his identification to the guard that allowed him access. He wasted no time at all proceeding to the center field where the other recruits would be waiting. His whiskers twitched as he spotted Major Gil Curtis, the blue jay overseeing the tests. He had only met him once. Obviously the avian was particularly proud of First Flight, and he was the bird he needed to impress the most. The base consisted of mixed species postings, though in the center there appeared to be only birds for this generally species-specific test.
The aroma of freshly cut grass entered Paul’s nose. He attempted to inhale discreetly as he knew any moment now he was sure to be noticed. His dark gray jumpsuit blended in with everyone else’s, though it was impossible to not notice that he was the only feline in a crowd full of avians. He stepped up to Major Curtis and saluted. “Private Paul Whitmore, reporting for First Flight test, sir.”
The blue jay raised an eye in sheer curiosity as he regarded the young brown-furred feline with some hesitation. “You do understand that this test is for an avian only unit, don’t you?”
“I am aware that at present the unit is avian only, sir. However, I request permission to change that.” He continued to stand at attention for his superior officer, looking straight ahead and holding his artificial wings close to his body.
“I’d be more than willing to allow you to try out, son, though you don’t have the requisite equipment.” Major Curtis shook his head and spread his wings to illustrate his point.
Paul simply spread his own wings and continued to look downwards until they were fully spread, at which point he looked up at the Major again.
“Will these do, sir?” Paul requested respectfully.
It was obvious that the blue jay had not expected him to have the mechanical wings, though he did not let his surprise show beyond a slight bob of his head. “Very well, son. If you insist on going through with this, I’m not going to stop you. Nevertheless, I would advise you to reconsider. The other birds you’ll be taking this test with have a lifetime of flight experience and far superior sight.”
“If it was easy, everyone would do it, sir.” Paul continued to stand at attention, his tail hung lazily behind him.
“Very well. Five minutes, all of you!” Major Curtis nodded once more towards the young cat before he began final preparations for the test.
Paul let out a deep breath. The first hurdle had been taken care of successfully. He had been given the chance to take the test. The next would be the test itself.
“What in the hell are you doing here?” a voice called out from behind him, coming from an individual Paul had not parted with on the best of terms.
“Ryan, it’s been a while.” Paul attempted to appear unsurprised. He had not seen Ryan West for over six months since the red tailed hawk had broken up with him for his repeated desire to join First Flight, a feat they were both about to attempt.
Ryan ignored Paul’s effort at small talk and puffed up his chest. “You should go home before you embarrass yourself.”
“You know how important this is to me,” Paul said. The cat had kept the red tailed hawk up many nights in a row listening to his desire to join the elite unit for months. Eventually the bird snapped and told the feline in no uncertain terms that it was a foolish dream and he should just let it go. When the cat refused to do so, Ryan left him, no longer willing to listen to anything he had to say. They had not spoken again until now.
“You’re going to get yourself hurt. You’re a cat, and this isn’t the place for you.” It was the same argument Ryan had given him when he walked out.
Paul was unshaken in his resolve. “I’m taking that test, with or without your permission. I’ll pass, too.”
Ryan laughed, his wings spread wide for a moment before he stepped closer to the feline, regarding the artificial wings with disdain. “Yeah, I’m sure you will.”
“I’d like to see you do better,” Paul spat back, not certain what else to say. It looked like Ryan was going to say something else when Major Curtis returned to address the recruits with their instructions.
The blue jay adjusted the shirt of his uniform and held the talon of his forefinger up to his beak to wordlessly request silence. Since all of the privates were aware of his lack of tolerance for foolishness, they all clammed up without another word. “As you know, this is the test for membership in the elite unit known as First Flight! We are the best because we recruit the best. I am not going to mince words. Many of you will not pass this test. It is a measure of your ability to fly and your ability to aim quickly. You will all be issued a standard laser rifle, modified with a specific frequency. You will not lose your rifle, or it will be considered an automatic disqualification! Do you understand me?”
“Good. The test is as follows. You will pick up your rifles at the starting point. You will take these weapons and immediately commence flight. The test consists of three sections. The first will measure your ability to evade ground fire. Several volunteers have set up along the testing area with laser rifles modified like yours. They will tag you if you have been hit. Likewise, if you should hit another recruit, it will register that information as well. Now I’m certain I don’t have to say this to any of you, but if I see anyone purposely taking out another recruit, you will be removed from the test and will not be allowed to take it again for another year. Understood?” The blue jay once more scanned the row of birds and one cat with careful speculation.
“The second area has several artificial canyons and caves that you are to fly through. You will find your way to the other side within one minute. You are not allowed to fly over the testing area. I trust that is understood. The final section will require you to hit six targets with your rifles. Every bird must hit all six targets! Any recruit that hopes to join First Flight should have no problems with any of those objectives. Am I correct?”
“Get to it.” The blue jay nodded one more time to the recruits and stepped aside.
Paul felt Ryan push him out of the way as he moved to grab his rifle. The feline cursed silently, stumbled, and picked himself up before anyone noticed. He hissed at the red tailed hawk as he knew they were in competition, though he had not thought that his ex-boyfriend would be that resentful. He looked up at the starting area and reached it after half of the privates had already taken wing. Paul settled his paw on one of the rifles, a long and black standard issue with a suitcase handle on the top. It resembled an M16 rifle in design, though projectile weapons were becoming much less commonplace.
He slung the strap over his shoulder, spread his metallic wings as wide as possible, and prepared himself for take off. Paul closed his eyes for a moment and flapped them several times in quick succession, feeling the vibration pass through his body from the sudden aerial movement. “I know it may be cliché, but, wings, don’t fail me now!” The brown feline opened his eyes and looked below him at the test area. “Here goes nothing, I suppose,” he said.
The first test area was littered with a number of trenches where the soldiers that would attempt to shoot them down were hidden. He perked his ears up in an effort to detect any incoming fire. Though he knew he lacked natural wings, felines possessed a number of skills superior to his avian competitors. His hearing allowed him to avoid the first shot before it even got close. Paul concentrated hard to avoid the next several shots from the ground that all seemed to come in at once.
Faux laser blasts from the ground struck two of his competitors. That meant they had failed and were ordered to return to the starting point. Paul dove to avoid another blast and then banked to the right to climb a thermal current up higher when his ears registered the whine of another laser blast. He attempted to control his breathing and, unlike some of the others, did not fly at his top velocity. The cat recalled that his boyfriend Lucas had told him that flying full speed was not always in his best interest. It was similar to how a sprint was different from a marathon. The key to the First Flight test was not to get it done at the shortest time but to accomplish all of the required goals.
Paul passed through the first area unscathed. He was more afraid of the second section. He entered one of the marked caves and held his wings in a ready position, prepared to react at less than a moment’s notice. The caves were tight and difficult to maneuver in. It was obvious that if he crashed or landed he could not take off again. Sensors littered the floor to be certain someone did not do just that. While in the field it would be feasible for one to land, the possibility also existed that enemy units could be set up in the same cavern in another scenario. Were that the case, then if one landed it would mean capture or death at enemy hands.
Left, right, then left again! Private Whitmore breathed heavily as he rapidly adjusted his course from one second to the next. Even though the wings were not his muscles, it still required the same energy and concentration to control them. He looked ahead to the dimly lit walls of the cave and wondered to himself when he would find the exit. He noticed more than a few avian recruits had landed or crashed due to the lack of light in the cave for which his feline eyesight was better adapted.
Sunlight appeared up ahead, though he knew that the next section would be far easier for the avians than him. He had not seen Ryan yet. The red tailed hawk had obviously made it through to the third section, a fact that did not surprise the cat at all. Paul emerged from the cave at full speed. He flapped his wings once clear and attempted to determine the locations of the six targets now that he was free to maneuver. He fired the first shot as soon as he saw the bull’s-eye and then banked to his left to target the second. Paul took a moment to glance ahead and saw that Ryan had already finished the test! He tried his best not to let that throw his concentration.
Paul shot the third target, then the fourth, with the whine of his faux laser rifle accompanying each shot. He noted the sound was very much like the real thing, though he began to become worried when he realized that there was only one target left. After scoring a direct hit, he scanned the testing area to see if he could spot the one he missed. He swore to himself as he brought his wings in for a textbook landing and held his rifle up for the waiting airman that collected the arms.
“Almost a perfect score, Whitmore, I have to say, that was a lot more than I had expected from you,” Major Curtis declared. The blue jay nodded respectfully at the feline, offering him a salute. “You did very well.”
“Not well enough,” Paul complained, knowing a perfect score was the only one they would accept.
Major Curtis placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry you didn’t pass, son, but most don’t. We can’t take anyone that doesn’t think outside the box and expect the unexpected. You did a good job. Take the compliment and appreciate it. You can take the test again another time if you’re up for it.” The blue-feathered bird gave him one more nod before he returned his attention to the other recruits.
Paul immediately noticed that Private West had already been given a temporary pin that signified his acceptance into the unit. “I see you passed.”
“I see you didn’t. Maybe now you’ll listen to me. Cats don’t belong in the sky,” he stated, matter-of-factly.
Irritated by his ex-boyfriend’s lack of mutual support, Paul snapped at him. “I’m sorry, but in the Air Force I come from, quitting isn’t in our vocabulary.” The cat collapsed his artificial wings and turned away so Ryan would not see him as he growled. He flexed his claws a couple of times and wished he had something to slash, but that would have to wait.
Several hours later, Paul returned to his home after the duty shift had ended. The lights were on in the kitchen where he smelled the aroma of dinner. As much as he didn’t feel like eating, his stomach had other plans. It protested loudly and insisted that he get something to eat whether he wanted to or not. He entered the kitchen as Lucas turned off the stove and placed pasta and meatballs on a plate for him.
“I’m not going to ask how it went,” Lucas commented while he arranged two place settings.
“I didn’t pass,” Paul stated simply.
Lucas handed a plate with the food already on it to Paul and then joined him on the opposite side of the table. “I gathered that. Otherwise, I suspect you’d be in a much better mood than you are right now. Eat something and tell me about it. That is, if you want to.”
Part of Paul didn’t want to. The urge to just go to bed after a silent dinner felt pretty strong. He swallowed as he took his first bite of the food and made himself chew. Once he had finished and moved on to the second forkful, he looked across the table at the penguin. “I don’t know what went wrong.”
Lucas paused his meal to place a webbed hand onto his lover’s paw and did the same with one of his feet. The penguin always knew how to make his feline lover feel better, even when nothing had really changed. “Maybe nothing went wrong.”
Paul wrinkled his muzzle and twitched his whiskers in disbelief. “What?”
“I said that maybe nothing went wrong,” he repeated.
“I know that. Why?” The penguin looked at him with curiosity.
Paul knew that he was trying to make him angry so that he would be more focused on what to do next rather than wallowing in self-pity. The feline searched his memory of the test to identify what he had not succeeded in doing. “I didn’t hit all six targets. The test was divided into three parts. First you dodged, then you maneuvered through some caves with tight quarters, and then you had to hit six targets. I hit five of them, and I didn’t see the sixth.”
“They failed you for that?” Lucas asked doubtfully.
“Yeah, they did. First Flight is an elite unit. You only get in if you pass the test with flying colors, no pun intended.” Paul shoved another mouthful of food into his muzzle to keep himself occupied for a moment, muzzling any acerbic remark he might have made.
“Where was the sixth target?”
“I don’t know,” Paul said.
Lucas tapped his fork on the table a couple of times. “Did anyone else hit the sixth target?”
“Yeah, Ryan, and a couple of other privates.” Paul raised an eyebrow at the penguin. “Why, what are you getting at?”
“I don’t know yet.” Lucas looked directly at him for a few moments.
Paul already knew exactly what he was looking at. He had not removed the artificial wings since he had come home and sat down. They rested in their standard default position. This was the same way most avians appeared when they simply sat down with their wings close to their body. The cat knew there was no reason to keep wearing them for the time being, yet he could not bring himself to take them off. “I keep going over the test in my head. I don’t know what I missed.”
“You’re obsessing again.”
“This is important to me.”
“I know that,” Lucas responded. “I also know that brooding over your failure isn’t going to help you. Now I think you need to just take those things off and relax and forget about the test for tonight.”
Paul pulled his paw away as the penguin reached over to touch it. He immediately felt guilty about doing it and reached back out. Once his fur touched his lover’s webbed hand, he simply felt the flesh along his paw pads and looked at the penguin before him. Lucas had never once expressed the desire to fly, and he obviously had the connections to make it happen since he was the one who had obtained the prosthetic wings for Paul. These miracles of science and medicine had enabled him to be able to fly, something no feline had ever done previously. “How come you never wanted to fly?”
“What?” Lucas questioned, surprised.
“How come you never wanted to fly?” Paul repeated. The feline kept his eyes soft as he meant no offense; it was simply that he had been so focused on his own hopes and dreams that he had never thought to ask his lover why he had not asked to try the wings himself.
Lucas dipped his head down towards his plate, and his beak opened slightly letting out a mild sigh. “I just don’t.”
“Any particular reason why?” Paul probed.
“No. Why does one person like sports and another couldn’t care less? There’s no real deep story behind why I never wanted to fly. It’s just something that I don’t really think about. Penguins aren’t the only birds that don’t fly, and it’s never bothered us as a breed that we can’t. We’re still birds as much as any other avian race, and though some of us might dream of flight, most of us are happy on the ground being who and what we are.” Lucas shrugged at the artificially winged cat and took his cleaned plate to the sink while Paul continued to eat his own meal. The penguin turned on the warm water to clean his dish as he continued talking. “Of course, those that can fly think it’s their birthright and get rather flighty when they lose a wing. That’s why penguins invented those wings you’re wearing.”
Paul looked over his shoulders and slightly spread the mechanical wings, looking at the metallic feathers that covered them. “So why did a penguin invent these if he didn’t want to fly?”
“To remind the other avians that we’re still birds and that we think like birds as much as they do.” His lover put a webbed hand on his shoulder, still slightly wet from the sink. “Sometimes they need a reminder.”
Paul ate another forkful of spaghetti as he thought about the five targets again. Most of them were placed along the ground, but obviously the sixth had to be somewhere that the other recruits had managed to hit. “Maybe that’s it.”
“What?” Lucas raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“Maybe I need to think like a bird,” Paul responded. When he had taken the first test, his eyes had been focused at first on the soldiers on the ground that fired upon him with their simulated weapons. He then turned his attention to the caves that they were directed to enter, and dodged the obstacles and other recruits that failed to make it through the cave without landing. Lastly he emerged and watched the ground for the targets, though a bird would not place all the targets on the ground. Logic suggested that from an avian mindset, the sixth target must be elevated! He thought further and then recalled that he had not seen anything ahead of him when he had exited the cave. The only place he hadn’t looked was behind him.
Lucas looked into his eyes as he considered the test. “You want to let me in on what you’re thinking?”
“I’m taking the test again in two days,” Paul declared after he completed the last bite of his meal.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Lucas prompted.
The feline nodded in confirmation at his avian lover. “I am.” Paul stood up to his full height and flexed the artificial muscles in his wings. “I’m this close to succeeding. I can’t quit now.”
“Maybe you should wait another year before you retake the test.” Lucas stood behind him and wrapped his arms around his soft furred waist.
“If I do that, I’ll have to give these back, and I won’t spend the next year admitting to Ryan and everyone else that I failed. I can’t fail.” He gently spread his wings enough so that it broke their embrace, and he turned to face Lucas. “You’ve done more for me than I ever could’ve asked. Please tell me that you’ll be behind me all the way.”
Lucas hesitated for a moment, but his eyes did not waver in the slightest. The penguin touched a webbed hand to his chest and rested his head against the brown feline’s body. “I’ll always be behind you. You know that.”
“Thanks.” Paul gave Lucas a kiss as he leaned forward to press his muzzle against the avian’s beak. He pressed his tongue against the shorter bird’s own and held the gesture. When they finally separated, he pressed their forms together in a simple embrace. “I owe you so much.”
“Succeed at the next test. That’ll be thanks enough. I want to be able to tell everyone that my boyfriend is the first non avian in First Flight. I can’t do that if you don’t get in.” Lucas gave him a supportive smile.
The feline instinctively wrapped his artificial wings around his lover in an intimate gesture he had seen so many birds simply take for granted. He purred quietly as he realized that he didn’t even consciously tell the artificial limbs to do that. Perhaps he really had begun to start thinking like a bird. The first time he had placed the prosthetic wings on his body, they had felt alien. Now it felt like they were a part of him and always had been. He rubbed them against his lover’s body and out of curiosity reached out to touch the feathers. Despite their appearance, they were actually quite soft. He rubbed one of them gently between his fingers and wondered how long it had taken for the penguins to invent artificial wings just like this.
Two days remained for him to prepare for the test a second time. He would need to improve his maneuverability and his reactions. During the exam, he would need to think like a bird and a feline at the same time. Paul silently exhaled, as he knew that this was a test he could never truly prepare for because he had to be prepared for anything. He kept the wings on his body the entire time between now and then, thinking that perhaps it would help him to think the way birds do. Twice a day he took test flights to practice his maneuverability.
He woke up early on the day of the final test that Major Curtis would offer the recruits. He watched Lucas sleep for a short while and touched his shoulder with his paw. The major would not wait for anyone; he was certain of that. Just as he turned to walk away, he felt a webbed hand grab his arm and looked down to see that Lucas had stirred awake. “I didn’t want to wake you,” the brown-furred cat told him.
Lucas yawned and propped himself up slightly. “I couldn’t let you go off to your big test without a kiss for luck.” The penguin pressed his beak against the cat’s mouth as they enjoyed an all too brief moment of affection between them.
“Thanks.” Paul kept his paw in contact with his lover’s hand as long as he could until he finally turned to walk out the bedroom door and head towards Laughlin Air Force Base. He turned back to see that the penguin had already fallen back asleep in the time it had taken him to make it to the hallway. The sight made him smile.
Private Paul Whitmore made it to the base well in advance of the scheduled test time. It was to be the same test as two days earlier; however, the locations of the ground shooters and other such things would be altered to ensure that anyone retaking the test would not simply go through the motions and pass due to sheer repetition. He stepped towards the test area and looked up to see that Ryan was already there. The red tailed hawk had wasted no time in donning his new First Flight uniform and insignia. He had come to watch the test and no doubt comment on the new test takers. The surprise on his face clearly suggested he had not expected to see Paul again. “Ryan,” the cat said respectfully.
“What are you doing here, Paul?” he asked with a practical sneer on his face. “You already failed. Go home and take those mechanical things with you.” He spread his wings slightly to appear more imposing. The effect did not work on the small cat.
“I’m here to take the test again. This time I’m going to pass.” He did not waver in the face of the much taller avian. Paul formed his paws into soft fists and stood his ground. No one would prevent him from taking this test, not even his ex-boyfriend. “Stand aside.”
“You really think you can join First Flight with those?” the hawk shouted as he gestured towards the artificial wings.
Paul did not even turn around when he responded. He simply stopped and spread them in an avian gesture of pride. “I can name at least four avian airmen who did.” He resumed his approach towards Major Curtis and saluted the blue jay with all due respect. He would never admit it, but he nervously swallowed when the avian saluted back. This was his last chance this year to join the specialized team. He could not afford to fail.
Major Curtis stepped forward to address the men. “Gentlemen, this is the final recruitment test for First Flight for this year. No doubt all of you standing before me know that the aforementioned unit is an elite team of avians with a dedicated roster of airmen. This is a test of skill, a test of adaptability, and a test of maneuverability. You will need all of your skills as birds to pass this test and join the recruits before you as members of First Flight. You will be issued a laser rifle that has been modified with a specific frequency to correspond to each recruit. You will not lose this rifle, or you will be automatically disqualified. Your task is simple. Evade the enemy fire until you reach the caves. You will fly through those caves without crashing or landing, and believe me, we will know if you do. Provided you accomplish those two goals, your final test is to hit all six targets before crossing the finish line. Anyone that achieves all of these goals will be welcomed as members of First Flight. The rest of you, you’re welcome to try again next year!”
Paul felt a small amount of déjà vu as he looked out against the line of rifles on the table in front of him. He glanced to the right to see Ryan with his arms folded, wings held in an aggressive stance. The fact that his ex-boyfriend essentially stood judgment over him angered him slightly. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised at Private West’s attitude. He had been against the idea of him trying out since the moment he’d heard it. Nevertheless, the fact that he wasn’t even going to give him a good luck gesture of mutual sportsmanship disheartened him slightly.
The air smelled crisp this morning; no doubt it would help as the artificial wings were rather exhausting to his feline anatomy. Paul stepped up to the table and took his modified laser rifle. He waited until he had enough space to take off and began to run. Unlike many of the avian recruits that seemed to prefer a vertical takeoff, he leapt forward until his forepaws struck the ground and with a thought began to command his wings to lift him off the ground.
Wind flowed all around his body when he lifted into the air and entered the test area. He had only a moment to assess the locations of the other recruits as they all took up positions nearby and entered the first area of the examination. Paul cursed to himself as the first recruit was struck by a soldier in the ground, and the avian flew to the aerial corridor designated for those that failed mid test.
A blue jay and a golden eagle were the next two recruits to fail the test. He knew that now that three of the candidates had been knocked out of the running, only seventeen more remained. Several of the recruits were clumped together, and a single shot from one of the ground soldiers caused one to fail the test and inadvertently knock two others out of the sky.
Paul looked down to see a laser blast headed in his direction. It approached far too rapidly for him to dodge out of the way, so he wrapped his wings around his body and went into free fall. The split second reaction had just barely caused the bolt of energy to fly past his body and into the sky. He spread his wings again and used the air currents to glide him back up to a satisfactory cruising height. “That was close,” he said mainly to himself.
Two recruits sped past him and entered the cave at full speed. Even if he had not taken the same test two days ago, Paul would not have recommended that course of action. Unsurprisingly, when he himself entered the mouth of the cavern, he spotted both of the birds in a rather undignified heap as he flew past them using his memory of the previous test to guide him safely through the complex structure. He kept his attention in front of him as he turned to avoid a low hanging stalactite, one of the many natural obstacles in the cave.
He held his breath as he realized he was almost to the third part of the test, the section he had failed the first time. Mild panic began to fill his thoughts upon his approach to the cave exit. His path was clear, and he would once again have to hit all six targets. Paul already knew that the ones on the ground would surely have been moved, but he had to think like a bird. Where would the avians place the sixth target?
Time almost seemed to stop while he considered the question. Birds prized their wings most of all, and they considered themselves masters of the sky. Seldom was that impression undeserved since they were excellent natural flyers, those of them that possessed the ability. Avians like Ryan and Major Curtis had been born with their wings. They had flown since they were hatchlings, the skill as familiar to them as breathing was to Paul. Lucas had never had the ability; he was earthbound like Paul had been for most of his life. Yet what was it he had said about the artificial wings? Penguins had built them to remind the other avians that they were as much birds as any of them and that they thought like birds.
Paul considered that in order to pass this test he had to think like an avian and not like a feline. He imagined himself in the position of the test administrator and where he would put the targets for a bunch of eager young recruits. It would need to challenge them, for obviously were it easy it would not be a true test of their abilities. He also considered that tests for the military were not always about following orders like a robot. From time to time, they wanted to see who would read into their instructions and complete them beyond the obvious answer.
Birds were all about the ability to fly, as was this test, so the sixth target had to be somewhere above ground! Paul shook his head as he had not even considered that possibility until Lucas had brought his attention to the reality that he may have had artificial wings but didn’t think like avians. Armed with this knowledge, he gripped his paws around the rifle and bared his pointed teeth. As he emerged from the cave, he did a barrel roll and saw the target marker above the mouth of the cave. He aimed his weapon and fired. The sound of the target being struck hit his feline ears with a satisfying clink as he rolled over again and began to take out his targets on the ground. His modified weapon struck a second target, then the third, and he searched both high and low for the next one. He spotted it carefully hidden inside of a little valley below him and dove towards it so he could get a more direct shot. The blast struck the target in the center as he curved upwards. Dirt flew into the air, disturbed by the sudden alteration of air pressure.
Paul sneezed in annoyance, but once he was clear, he saw the fifth target to his left and aimed his weapon. He lined the shot up carefully, but before he could squeeze the trigger, a passing recruit knocked him out of the air. Unable to tell whether or not it was intentional, he fell from the sky. The cat brought his wings in then spread them in order to slow his fall. He flapped the metallic wings hard several times to get himself more altitude as he once again drove himself towards the fifth target. This time he did not hesitate. Paul immediately squeezed off a shot at the fifth and searched the area for the sixth and final target.
On his right, another recruit fired at something. It had to be what he was searching for! He took off towards his last position. Holding on to his modified laser rifle, he brought himself into a graceful roll that brought his wings close to his body as he fired the final shot that would end the test for him. The beam headed towards the target, and Paul held his breath for a second, fearful that it would miss. To his relief, the beam struck the target on the edge and registered the hit.
Now all he needed to do was report to Major Curtis at the end of the testing area. He spotted the blue jay with his arms folded and his wings held up in a casual position. Paul prepared to land with his usual feline grace and made barely a gentle thump on the platform. He lifted off of all fours as he saluted Private West and Major Curtis. “Sir!”
“Impressive work out there, young man,” Major Curtis reached out to shake his paw. The avian’s grip was rather firm and powerful, almost to the point that the smaller cat winced slightly. “You’ll make a fine addition to First Flight. I want you to report for duty tomorrow morning at 0800 hours for your official induction into the group and a debrief.”
“Yes, sir.” Paul eagerly nodded, hardly believing that it was real. He had dreamed of this moment since before he had entered the air force. It would take some time for the other members of the group to accept the fact that a non-avian had made it into their exclusive club, but perhaps in time he would be able to earn their respect. He nodded once more to Major Curtis, who had returned his attention to the other recruits that were approaching the finish line, so to speak.
Private West folded his arms and looked at the brown feline with a hard expression, though it softened as he approached. “Nice work.”
“I’m surprised to hear that from you,” Paul admitted, recalling that the red tailed hawk had resisted the very idea from the moment he had mentioned it to his former lover. “You’ve never really supported the idea of a non avian in First Flight.”
Ryan looked down with some embarrassment as he lowered his wings in a posture that obviously suggested regret. “I know I didn’t. Hawks in particular are rather prideful. You know that. I shouldn’t have treated you the way I did during the test, and I probably shouldn’t have just dismissed you when you brought up the idea back when we were together. I’m sorry, Paul.”
“Apology accepted. Though I suppose that if you hadn’t, I never would’ve met Lucas, and I wouldn’t have been able to get these.” He spread his mechanical wings so that the red tailed hawk could get a good look at the rather unique biomechanical enhancement. “It was my dream, but he made it possible.”
Ryan gently ran a talon along the surface of the material that made up the covering for the feathers and felt one between two of his fingers. He appeared puzzled for a moment as he casually looked over the entire set of wings. He slapped both hands down on the smaller cat’s shoulders. “Artificial wings. Seems weird.”
Paul couldn’t argue that the idea seemed rather hard to get used to, though both the single and dual winged versions had allowed more than one war veteran to fly again. “You get used to it eventually, though as far as putting them on, that you never quite get used to.” He looked up at the red tailed hawk slowly. “Do you think that the other birds in the unit will accept a feline among their number?”
“You might have some holdouts. I’d be lying if I said I was completely comfortable with the idea. I still don’t know if this is the place for you, but you earned the chance to prove it, and I’ll stand by anyone that wears the uniform and flies the skies with me. It’ll take time. Attitudes don’t change overnight, least not those of a group,” Ryan told him.
“In other words, be prepared for a rough ride.” Paul expected that some of the birds in First Flight would give him a hard time; in fact, some of them would probably outright try to get him to quit. It didn’t matter, though. He was a member of the elite unit, and he didn’t intend to let anyone force him out or keep him from serving. He was going to make history and perform his duties with distinction.
“You didn’t think that anything about being in First Flight was going to be easy, did you?” Ryan questioned.
“No, I suppose not.” The feline relaxed slightly as he watched the last few recruits land on the platform as the test for this year completed. He once again kept his attention towards Major Curtis as the blue jay motioned for all of the recruits that had passed the test this year to stand in a line. Paul stood next to Ryan while the pair kept their attention in front of them. The blue jay paced the length of the line twice before he looked at the recruits and saluted them.
“You did an excellent job today, men. Those of you standing before me now have earned the privilege of serving in First Flight. Very few recruits successfully pass the test each year, and the eight of you have passed with flying colors. Tomorrow you will be reassigned to your new unit and begin your duties with us, and those of you that passed the test today will be issued the appropriate uniform upon reporting for duty. Take great pride in your accomplishments. You’ve earned the right to celebrate. Just don’t celebrate too much. I expect you all to be ready to work tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred. Dismissed!” The blue jay saluted the row of seven birds and one cat, turning to head towards the main building of the base.
Once Major Curtis had departed, Paul relaxed his wings and nodded once to Ryan before he headed off to report to his normal duty assignment for one final day of service. He flexed his wings to remind himself that from this day on, everything had changed. Tonight would be a special night, one requiring the proper celebration.
Lucas waited for him on the front steps of the house. He waved at the feline as he pulled into the driveway. An expectant look covered his face as he waited to find out whether they would be celebrating or consoling the cat this evening. “So how did it go?”
“I passed.” Paul closed the door to the car and looked as casual as he could. Suddenly he found himself being picked up by his boyfriend as the penguin whirled him around in the air in excitement. The two kissed for a good long moment while each of them held the other in their arms. Paul slowly opened his eyes and touched his paw to his lover’s ebony and white face. “I can hardly believe it.”
“You can hardly believe it? Neither can I!” Lucas held his mouth open in surprise and sheer joy as the two headed into the house.
“Hey, are you saying you didn’t believe I could do it?” Paul joked.
“You? Not a snowball’s chance in hell!”
“I report for duty first thing tomorrow. I still can’t wrap my mind around it. I’m the first non avian to ever join First Flight.” Paul held his paws together to keep them from shaking. He had earned himself a well-deserved honor and a privilege, and he intended to appreciate it for all it was worth. He wrapped his artificial wings around his lover’s body and held him tightly. “I owe it all to you.”
Lucas blushed and held a webbed hand to his face. “I just gave you the tools you needed. You went the distance and got the job done.” The penguin rested his head against the feline’s chest and silently breathed into his lover’s fur.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Paul said as he gently touched his paw to his lover’s smooth chest. He inhaled his scent and let the aroma of his avian partner linger for a moment.
“I’m sure you would’ve found a way. A stubborn cat like you would’ve taken the test even if he had to flap his arms with a stick and two big leaves taped to them.” Lucas laughed at his own comment and touched the artificial wings. “Although I’m certain these made it a far sight easier.”
“Just a little,” the feline admitted. He breathed out slowly and spread his wings once more. As much as he enjoyed wearing them, he had to admit they were tiring to use. He kissed his lover on the cheek and walked into the next room where he normally stored the artificial appendages and touched the input on the connector to the back of his neck that deactivated the wings. They slowly compressed in on themselves like an oriental fan collapsing, until they returned to the elongated egg-like shape they held in their deactivated form. He grunted in mild discomfort as the wings slowly undid the neural connections to his nervous system and brain, gently dropping off of his body. He picked the prosthetic back up and replaced it in its usual spot, turning the lights off as he walked out of the room.
Lucas had already taken off his shirt as he waited for his lover in the kitchen. He reached out a webbed hand. “How about we take this somewhere else, and we celebrate properly, just the two of us?”
Paul ran his claws through his brown and blonde hair and let out a rather interested purr that rumbled through his chest. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.”