Delroy felt small and fragile in his new body, especially down here on the ground in the midst of a crush of reporters. He'd given plenty of press conferences in the past, but in those days he'd always been the most physically imposing presence in the room. Now he was smaller than the podium on which he stood to reach everyone else's eye-level.
Height — or lack of it — was an indicator of status, hardwired into humans through aeons of evolution. The journalists knew that Delroy was the same person whom they'd admired as an Olympic sprinter, but their body language no longer deferred to an alpha male. "Show us your wings!" they cried, in the patronising tone of grandparents talking to a child.
Delroy smiled, with a fierce exultant grin. This was the challenge: to regain respect, to start afresh and surpass everything that he'd achieved in his old body. He spread his expensive new wings, and flapped them once. The closest reporters flinched from the whip of his scarlet feathers past their faces.
"Joining the High Flyers" is a sequel to my previous story "The Prize Beyond Gold", which depicted the restrictions upon athletes in a world of ubiquitous body resculpting. I wrote the first story as a standalone piece, but after it was published, I realised that in focusing upon the Standard humans, I'd only shown half of the picture. I found that I wanted to explore the other side of society: the Enhanced humans who could have any bodies they wanted. And so I wrote this sequel, to examine what life might be like among the high flyers.
Thematically, the situation needed to be the opposite of that in the previous story. The Standard athletes operated under a rigorous set of rules that forbade "genetic engineering, post-natal resculpting, performance-enhancing substances, or any of the very long list of other techniques that had been banned to maintain the purity of the record books". But the Enhanced humans had the freedom to do anything they liked: they could change their bodies as they pleased. How could competition exist in these circumstances, without any rules? How would rivalry manifest?
In answering these questions, and creating the milieu of life in the air, I had two main influences. The first was Jack Vance, who often wrote about characters competing for status in various exotic ways. This story's cloud castles, and their proud inhabitants, are not based upon any specific Vance model, but I think it's a scenario he would have relished.
My second influence was the history of Christianity as narrated by Edward Gibbon in chapter 37 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He describes the popularity of monasticism, and how the early anchorites endured ever stricter forms of asceticism. Simeon Stylites famously lived on top of a pillar in the remote desert; his advice was regularly sought by pilgrims and even emperors. To my mind, it's an intriguing paradox that you can ostentatiously withdraw from the world, but still communicate with people and give out advice. The notion of competitive asceticism, and withdrawing ever further from the world while still issuing pronouncements upon it, inspired me to create the character of Augustin, the winged hermit who lives "in the lofty vaults of the sky in order to flee the sinful Earth and reach closer to God".