In the cab on the way to my interview, I was understandably nervous. If I got the job, it would be my first since graduating college a month ago. I had applied for the position of secretary with the interstellar embassy on a whim, without ever having seen a picture of the ambassador or any of his people, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I did at least expect arrogance as they called their planet ‘Heaven’ and their race ‘Angels’.
“Serves me right for assuming anything.” I thought to myself when the ambassador opened the door. It almost had to be the ambassador or at least one of his race. He was so good looking as to be almost pretty and his brown-black wings, though folded tight against his back, barely cleared the floor and filled the doorway. Outspread, they would be awesome. The Angels race- name was probably given them by the first human that saw them. It was very descriptive.
“Hi. My name is Sian Ferris. You asked me to stop by to interview for the secretarial position.” I said, managing not to stammer.
He smiled. “And here you are. Please, come in.” He stood away from the door to let me in, then led me to a small parlor off the hall and asked me to have a seat. Some of the chairs struck me as being an unusual shape but I chose one that seemed normal enough and comfortable. After serving me a cup of tea, Earl Grey laced with cinnamon, he sat down backwards on one of them. No, not backwards. The chairs were shaped so that that was the proper way to sit in them with a narrow front and no back at all. Naturally he couldn’t sit in a chair with a back. It would cramp, if not damage his wings.
“Well?” he said as he sat down.
That confused me. “Excuse me?”
“Do you think that you could be comfortable working with me? I am, after all, alien. Not everyone is at ease with that.”
At ease? No, not really. You’re far too pretty. I couldn’t say that. “Yes sir. I think so. I mean, I wouldn’t have applied if I didn’t think I could work for you.” I didn’t have any prejudice about aliens anyway. “What should I call you, sir?”
“Jeremy. It isn’t exact but it’s the closest name I could find.”
“Why not use your own?” I asked, curious.
“It’s not pronounceable. At one point it requires vibrating three vocal chords at the same time on different tones and your people don’t seem to be physiologically capable of that. Anyway, I wanted it to be easy and familiar.”
“Is that why you use your first name instead of your last?”
He laughed. “No, I don’t have a last name. There are so few of us that we only need one. Your planet amazes me. With so many people, two and even three names are not enough and there are duplicates.”
“Ambassador Jeremy.” I said, trying it out. “So. What will my duties consist of?” Talk like you have the job. Always talk like you already have the job.
“This and that.” He took a sip of tea. “Personal assistant might be a more accurate description. I need you to help me organize the house, including a cook, since I’m likely going to be to busy to attend to it myself. Also a driver and a car set up for me, unless you’d like to teach me to drive.”
“Can’t you just fly?” It was rude but I couldn’t stop myself.
“No.” His wings shifted slightly, ruffling and startling me. “I don’t want to emphasize the differences, I’m here to emphasizes similarities between our two races. Besides, I have found that there are some people who resent me, even before they have met me.” He must have run across prejudice. Already. “Also, long distance flying here would be difficult at best. Your gravity is greater and your air is so thin. Even if it would support me, I’d be out of breath in no time at all.”
“When would you like me to start?” I thought I was being pushy but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Tomorrow, if you like.” he paused. “There are several extra rooms here. Would you like to use one of them or do you already have a place to live?”
That made me grateful. Washington rent was sky high, even more for a protected building. “I’d rather stay here. It would be more convenient.” Now. How to tell my mother that I was moving in with a guy who was literally ‘new to the planet’. Mom would laugh herself silly. I started to get up but Jeremy stopped me.
“Before you decide that, let me warn you.”
“You may be safer if you aren’t close to me. I’ve had several threats and at least twice vandals have slipped through security.” His face was sad.
I had a flash of insight. “You’re very lonely?”
“I miss my family.” he said simply.
“Oh. Are you married?” Which family?
He laughed. “No, not at all. I’m too young for that.”
“How old are you?”
“Thirty. Of your years. But it corresponds in life cycle to about seventeen for your race. Late adolescence.” Oh. No wonder he looked so young. For him, he was.
“Shouldn’t they have picked someone older? Ambassador is a hard job.”
“I volunteered. What was needed was someone old enough to be rational but young enough to be flexible and look on it in light of an adventure. The same reasons I’d like you to work with me incidentally.”
“You’ve lived here long enough to know your way around town, both literally and figuratively, but you’re young enough not to have too many preconceptions.”
That surprised me. “So you didn’t want a lot of experience?”
“No.” Jeremy got up and stretched and I gaped. The room had seemed very sparsely furnished until then, but he barely missed jamming a wingtip on the tea table by the window. He must have a twelve foot span and I felt insignificant and ugly by comparison. Talking, I had almost forgotten he was alien. Then I realized he must have done that on purpose for just that reason.
Jeremy folded his wings again. “Why don’t you spend the rest of the day settling in? My bedroom is the first one on the left at the head of the stairs but you’re welcome to any other room in the house. Should you need furnishings, call this store,” he handed me a card from one of the more exclusive shops in town “and tell them where to deliver whatever you need. Anywhere else, you’ll have to set up an account.” He turned to go.
“Jeremy.” He stopped at the doorway and looked back.
“Would you say your name for me? In your language?”
He smiled and said a three syllable word that was more three entwined chords of music than anything, then was gone.
I found that my job was a combination of receptionist, appointment secretary and housekeeper. At first, I was nervous but I soon began to find it fun when I realized that Jeremy was giving me the leeway to do almost anything I wanted with the house. His only request was that I keep the staff down to a minimum, he was uncomfortable with many strangers in the house.
Given that attitude of his, I was surprised the first time he asked me to attend a dinner party with him. I expected him to be ill at ease but he seemed to enjoy it. It wasn’t until we were home that I realized he’d been acting. “My public persona” he called it, fatigued. After that, I would often ask that we be excused early, pleading another breakfast or morning appointment the next day. Sometimes it was even true.
One such morning, Jeremy didn’t respond when I knocked on his door. As his appointment was with some fairly important business men, I went in to wake him.
He was sleeping on his stomach, necessarily, with his wings folded but as I came in, he fluttered them then stretched full span. I had wondered why his bed was in the centre of the room with no other furnishings. I didn’t wonder anymore as I ducked under his left wing just before it knocked me over. Crouching down, I slid over to his bedside and was scooped up on the bed as he partially folded his wings again.
It was a moment out of time. His left wing curved protectively over me, covering me but just barely touching. He radiated warmth and the morning light filtering through his feathers was muted and soft. I would have liked nothing better than to curl up in that strange protective embrace and go back to sleep. With a sigh, I pulled myself together and remembered my duties.
Tentatively, I laid my hand on his back, at the base of his wing. I was not so much trying to awaken him as satisfy my curiosity about his wings. Until now, I hadn’t ever so much as seen him without a shirt.
The first thing I noticed was that he was burning hot. If he was feverish, perhaps I’d do better to let him sleep and reschedule his appointments for today. His heart was also beating a mile a minute. Slightly alarmed, I rubbed up and down his back across a swelling at the base of his wing, under the shoulder blade.
“Jeremy.” I said.
“Ummmm?” he almost hummed at me, chords rather than notes.
“Jeremy, wake up.”
His eyes fluttered, and opened.
“Sian?” He wasn’t fully awake. He said my name in several tones at once, rich and resonate. He came more awake as he focused on me and jumped slightly. At once he folded his wings tightly and sat up.
I blinked at the sudden light. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“Well, I’m a bit surprised.”
I realized that I was still lying on his bed and reddened. “Oh! I’m sorry. You didn’t answer your door and I thought I’d better make sure that you were awake. It’s not what it looks like, when I came in you almost knocked me down.”
Jeremy looked puzzled then laughed with understanding. “I’m glad you prevented that, I’d have been mortified.”
I stood up, casually professional again. “Would you like me to reschedule your appointments?”
“Just for sleeping in? I think not, I’ll only have to hurry a bit.”
“You’re sure you feel alright?”
He must have been puzzled that I’d asked twice. “Of course. Why?”
“Well, you felt feverish and you’ve got….well… a lump on your back. If you’re coming down with something….”
His laughter interrupted me, bright as the sunshine. “I’m not ill. My temperature is higher because my metabolic rate is higher.” Which also explained the swift heart beat. “But I don’t know anything about a lump. Where?” He turned slightly away from me.
“Here.” I put my hand back on it.
He stretched his wing out on that side and moved it slowly back and forth causing the swelling to move, as well as flexing a wide band of muscle around his rib cage interestingly. “Right there?”
“Sian, that’s my wing blade.” His eyes were dancing but he spoke gently.
“Oh.” I thought about it. “What’s a ‘wing blade’?”
“Um. A shoulder blade for my wing.” Seeing that I was blushing, he continued. “You couldn’t have known, but I assure you, it’s supposed to be there.”
After that Jeremy was much less closemouthed about his world. With some direction from my timid questions, he taught me the basic biological differences (some real surprises there), the general social structure (which wasn’t very different) and, at my request, the language. I couldn’t speak it, of course, but I learned to understand simple phrases and most single words. The written language was more difficult. It most resembled Chinese because all of the characters were words rather than letters. I finally realized that the ideograms were from an aerial view and got along better.
It was some time after Jeremy explained the family structure of Heaven to me that I noticed that his manner to me was that of a brother. It was accepted that an unmarried man would take a sister or young aunt to social functions rather than a date. I encouraged this by acting the role as closely as I could manage and helping to alleviate his loneliness. Most of the time, it worked.
It worked so well, in fact, that I actually got to watch him fly from time to time as exercise. As he explained, if he didn’t, the muscles would atrophy from lack of use and he would be considered a cripple when he returned home.
Mostly he would take a morning or two a week and fly about the walled garden several times when no one was watching. After the first time I asked him why he should be so reticent. Watching him, I was awed and entranced. He turned my questions gently away with comments about not appearing too different.
I thought this was silly and said so repeatedly. I teased him about not being himself and about his excessive caution, although with me he began to be less cautious. While he was teaching me, he would sometimes absently preen a wingtip, combing out the feathers with the underside of his nails which were delicately furred, like a brush, for the purpose.
Perhaps it was the slow relaxation of his vigilance or perhaps he was simply unequipped to comprehend the cruelty of some minds. Either way, he found nothing odd when a waiter at one of the Cambodian embassy’s roof parties called him aside. Later, the Cambodian government was exonerated from any guilt. The waiter was hired from the same catering service used by every embassy in Washington.
When Jeremy stepped around a delicate landscaping of small trees, he found not only the waiter but quite a few of his friends, all very intoxicated. He managed to knock several of them down before they immobilized him.
Taunting him and laughing, they cut into the base of his wings, flush with his back and down to the bone. That it didn’t hurt, frightened him more than if it had. Pain would have been preferable to the wave of nausea and dizziness that washed over him.
I missed Jeremy and went looking for him just in time to see his attackers pick him up and throw him over the edge of the roof. At first I didn’t understand what was going on, then heard them yelling.
“Fly away now, birdman!”
I ran down the stairs to the front of the building. Jeremy lay on his back in the street, one leg twisted under him and both wings twisted and torn. In the air his instincts had taken over and he had tried to fly, at least enough to break his fall. With his wings already damaged, all he had managed to do was turn his fall into the worst possible landing. He was blessedly unconscious but as far as I could tell, he hadn’t hit his head. When one of the embassy officials ran out after me, I sent him to call for an ambulance and stayed next to my injured friend.
The next several hours were very long and very worrisome ones but the only things I could remember afterwards were that Bethesda’s doctors were all very noncommittal and polite and that the waiting room was the nastiest shade of green I had ever seen. I was grateful that I had been so curious about the differences in the races. Several times, one of the doctors or nurses would come and ask me rather pointed questions, trying to figure out which types of medicine would be safe and how they might affect him. Finally they told me which room he was in and let me go in to see him. I tried to take heart at the fact that it wasn’t intensive care.
He wasn’t awake when I came in. He was lying in his typical position, face down, but with a hideous difference. Both his wings had been amputated and his back was a wide swathe of surgical dressing. I controlled myself with an effort. I turned quietly and left the room to find the surgeon responsible.
“We couldn’t have done anything else, Miss.”
“So you just cut off his wings. Why not the arms too?” I was so angry that I barely heard myself.
“His arms weren’t partially amputated already. Believe me, if I could have saved them, I would. Besides the rather crude attempt at cutting them off, he tore the muscles trying to use them.” The doctor sighed. It hadn’t been an easy decision to make and he knew he was going to have to justify it. Not just now, but probably for the rest of his life. And the most difficult person to justify it to was still under anesthesia. That, he was not looking forward to.
“Torn muscles can heal.”
“Yes ma’am. But the bones were shattered by his landing on them and there was a severe risk that we wouldn’t be able to stop the bleeding in time to save him, never mind the wings. If his bones weren’t hollow, the fall alone would have killed him, but it does mean that they shattered very badly. Even if I had been able to save them, he never would have used them again. I did the best I could with what I had.” He hadn’t mentioned the lack of compatible blood, or familiarity with the anatomy of Angels, but I knew anyway. As it was, he felt more incompetent than he had since his first semester of medical school.
I didn’t have the heart to badger him anymore. He was young and serious and probably good at his job. Besides, all the ranting in the world wouldn’t give Jeremy back his wings. I went to sit with him until he woke up.
Jeremy didn’t really wake up that whole first day. Several times he opened his eyes and asked where we were, but the next time he would have forgotten and ask again. This allowed me to deal with my own anger and hurt some before he woke up; I knew I wouldn’t have very much time to do so afterwards. I slept a little, sitting up in a chair and holding his hand but by the time he woke, I had already been awake for several hours. I sat watching him, remembering the last time I had watched him sleep, folded under his wing. This time, like that, his eyes fluttered then opened.
“Sian? Where are we?” He looked about, only moving his eyes.
“Bethesda Naval Hospital. How do you feel?” I braced myself. He was in for a nasty shock and it would be very soon.
“Sore. And hungry. What happened?”
“You’ve been asleep for a day and a half. How much do you remember?”
He closed his eyes for a minute. I thought he might have gone back to sleep, then he spoke.
“I remember falling off the roof… and what went before. I don’t remember landing. I don’t hurt, much, so it can’t be that bad.”
I closed my eyes for a second to collect myself, then said “No, it’s worse.”
Jeremy watched my face, gauging the seriousness of my expression. “How much worse?”
“You landed on your back. They don’t know how to set wings here so…” I trailed off unable to finish.
“So I’ve broken my wings and now they’re useless.” His voice was very still.
I remembered an old saying of Grandfather’s. ‘It’s no kindness to kill a man slowly.’ There wasn’t any easy way to tell him, stretching it out would only prolong the worst of it.
“Jeremy.” He looked up at me. Quickest was best. “You don’t have wings anymore.”
At first, he seemed not to have heard me. Then he thought that he couldn’t have heard me aright. After my words had had time to sink in, he moved to try and bring a wingtip around. It was a gesture I’d seen a hundred times and I could see the muscles of his back flex under the stitches. I laid my hand on his back.
“Don’t. You’ll tear the stitches loose.”
Jeremy stopped as commanded and relaxed. Then, in one swift fluid motion, he was standing. I reached to catch him automatically and he caught hold of my arms just in time to keep from falling. Belatedly, I realized that he wasn’t dizzy, he had overbalanced himself. Instead of sitting down again, he stubbornly walked to the mirror over the sink, maintaining his balance carefully, by concentration.
His eyes in the mirror had the curiously unfocused expression of someone searching for something absent. All colour washed out of his face and he crumpled to the floor. I had been standing back and jumped to his side. A dry corner of my mind suggested that a sedative would have been very therapeutic right now, they should have been prepared. He shook my hand off without looking up, his face buried in his hands. He was humming and as I listened closely I could only understand a few words. They were arresting though, words like ‘cripple’, ‘outcaste’ and ‘exile’.
“That’s not fair.” I had to pull him out of this shock. It was natural but it wasn’t good for him.
Jeremy took a deep ragged breath. “No, it isn’t. But neither is this. I hate your planet, with its thin stinking air and its heaviness and its crowds and crowds of people wherever you go. I wish I had never come here, never heard of any of you. I want to go home.” He was crying now, long tortured sobs and low keening.
I wanted to hold him but was afraid of being rebuffed again. Then I remembered how very young he was and how very alone and far from home. I sat down next to him on the floor and pulled his head down on my shoulder. At first he fought me then clung to me until his crying quieted.
After his initial catharsis, Sian never saw Jeremy break down again.
“I can’t fly; I am crippled; I can’t fly…” That thought kept going around and around in my head. At first I didn’t really believe, couldn’t believe, that I no longer had wings. I didn’t think that it showed much in my manner until a week or so later when Sian stood me in front of a mirror.
“You’re going to stand there for as long as it takes. If you promise not to stop looking, I’ll leave and let you come to terms in your own way.”
“But not in my own time.” I said, trying not to sound bitter.
“No. If I leave you alone and don’t make you do this, you’re going to put it off as long as possible. The first step to getting better is to stop trying to pretend that nothing’s changed.”
Perfectly true of course but not what I wanted to hear, or do for that matter. Sian didn’t give me a choice.
There were quite a few things that she gave me no choice about over the next several weeks. Even when I was sure that I could not do something, she was convinced that I could. And somehow she always won. I must have dismissed her a dozen times, except that she wouldn’t be dismissed.
“We’ll talk about that later.” was all she would ever say.
I spent much of my recuperation after that vibrating between anger and depression, neither of which did me any good. What Sian did not, could not know was how serious an injury this was considered by my people. Well, not my people any more. My parents probably would not disown me; I hoped that they cared that much, but I was worse than dead to the rest of my race.
There were, of course, others of my race who lost their wings through accident or injury. Most were immediately and mercifully put to death. Those that chose to live were interred in communities where their lack would discomfit neither themselves or others. I had never questioned this system before but now I found myself wondering just what kind of life these misfits led, now that I was one of them.
Bethesda’s doctors finally let me go after some word of caution on everything from bathing to keeping my balance. I didn’t listen. I couldn’t have cared less about taking care of myself at the time. Sian listened and I am sure that some of the nasty things she did or made me do for weeks afterward were doctor’s instructions. In this the cultures were remarkably similar, all doctors have a wide streak of sadism in them.
For me, returning to the embassy was something I dreaded. Not so much the structure or anything in it, but the communications link. I did not look forward to calling either my parents or the Wise Council with the news of what had happened.
I decided to make the official call first so that if I broke down while talking to my parents I could go hide until I calmed without unfinished business hanging on me like a tether. To this day I can’t remember what was said on either side but I remember feeling almost cheerful when I messaged off. I had won the right to continue as ambassador, partly because it wasn’t considered an important position, rather like exile, and partly because it was thought that I would be at less risk than any other of the people. After all, I no longer had any wings to loose.
The next call would be much more difficult. Sian made me take a break between the two and have a small cup of tea with her.
“So, you’re still on the job.” she said matter of factly.
“It seems so.”
“I didn’t really mean to but I couldn’t help overhearing some. They didn’t seem to care much.”
That startled me. With everything else I had almost forgotten teaching Sian to understand my people’s speech.”I don’t think it’s that.” I replied. “We are an insular society and reserved with outsiders. This” I said indicating my shoulders. “makes me an outsider, of sorts.”
Sian came half out of her chair, her rage fairly sparkling off of her. Most humans have very readable body language but Sian always seemed to be shouting with hers.
“That’s such trash!” she exclaimed. “You’re still the same person.”
“Not really.” I had to smile a bit. Sian started to say something then subsided. “In my culture it is believed that a major change in life creates a new person. It’s perspective, as when you were learning our alphabet. Until you saw it from the same perspective, you couldn’t understand it, not really. I now have a different point of view than I did before. I remember that view point but it is no longer where I am now. So after any major life change; birth, flight, marriage and so forth, we tend to tread cautiously around this new person until the changes have manifested and settled. All my people will be a bit wary of me until they get to know me again. If any of them try.”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Because I am crippled and my people have no use for the infirm.” I spoke with bitterness but no thought.
Sian crossed her arms and glared at me. “Am I crippled?”
It dawned on me what I should have realized before I spoke. I could not claim disability with her without also calling her entire race crippled. I cast about for some way to unsay what I had just said and found nothing.
“Well?” she said, then relented. “It’s okay. We weren’t ever supposed to fly so not being able to is normal. It isn’t for you, I know. But you’ve got to stop thinking of what you can’t do anymore and concentrate on what you can.”
“I think should go ahead and call them now.”
Sian smiled at me. She knew I was changing the subject as well as I did but let me anyway. “Okay. I’ll be in the office if you need anything.” If you need me. She hadn’t said it but I heard it anyway.
“Sian.” She stopped and looked back. “Would you stay?” Suddenly she felt like my family and the people I had to call felt alien and strange.
Sian sat down out of range of the pickup but within my line of vision. I could feel her presence like an anchor as I keyed in my parents code.
My mother answered then just stared at me, not saying anything for a long time before she called my father. When he came he spoke before he looked. “Jeremy! How are you? We haven’t heard…” he stopped as soon as he saw me. After a second he shook himself and started again. “What has happened?” The suddenly cool distance of his voice stabbed at me.
I explained as briefly as possible and he did me the courtesy of not interrupting.
“So what will you do now?” He asked when I had finished.
“The Wise Council wishes me to continue here at this time.”
My father nodded. “Yes. That would be best.” he paused. “I also have an odd message from your Uncle. I didn’t understand it when we received it and I don’t think I understand it all yet but it’s clearer. As it is for you, perhaps you will know. He said ‘Tell Jeremy to call me when he stops feeling sorry for himself. This is nothing. And tell him not to take too long about it.’”
I pondered. “Is that all?”
“That is all he said. Chalan never wastes words.” He stopped and waited. I could see my mother, needing to cry but unwilling to do so in front of essentially a stranger. Then in a warmer tone than he had yet used he said “Jeremy, I am sorry this has happened. Call your Uncle. He may be able to help you.” He lifted his hands in farewell and killed the connection.
Sian stood up. “Your so-called Wise Council was nicer than that.” She pointed accusingly to the station, grey and silent now.
“Give them time to adjust.” I sighed and closed my eyes. “This must be as difficult for them as it is for me.”
Instead of arguing, as I expected, Sian changed the subject on me. “Who is this uncle of yours?”
“Chalan. He is the family different.”
“The one who sees things from an unexpected view and acts differently from anyone else.”
“Oh, the black sheep.” Now that she had said it I remembered the term.
“Yes, mostly. He sees things that are not yet there or have passed away. Sometimes it makes him hard to understand but he is well respected. And always obeyed.”
“So now you have to call him, right?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. He specifically said ‘when he stops feeling sorry for himself’ and I haven’t, not really.”
“So when are you going to stop feeling sorry for yourself?” she challenged.
“It’s not something I can just decide to do!” I snapped.
That stopped me. I couldn’t think of a thing that was a real reason instead of just excuses. Then Sian challenged me again.
“Are you crippled?”
“I can’t fly.” I was temporizing and knew it.
“So? Neither can I but it doesn’t make me crippled.” She paused to see if I had anything to say. When I was silent she went on. “Disabled is a state of mind. If it’s a state of mind you can make a decision to think otherwise. So you’ll do things differently now. Doesn’t mean you can’t do them, just find a different way.”
I know now why my people pull away from one who is changing. My perception had already shifted several times and this time I felt it shift. I could do anything, even fly, I just had to figure out how.
Sian saw me change and she clapped her hands and crowed. “Now call your Uncle!”
Uncle Chalan answered almost before the chime. Sian was startled but I had known him since before my pinions were grown and expected him to be startling. His hair was iron grey now but his face was as stern and his eyes as black as I remembered. He stood with his unusual copper wings folded tightly as a backdrop.
“That was swift.” he said without preamble.
I sighed inside myself. “Hello Uncle. How are you?” If I couldn’t ground him just a little I’d never be able to understand him.
“Too old and too busy for small talk, Small One.” The old nickname warmed me. “If you didn’t get over it on your own, at least you had the sense to listen to your pretty assistant. Tell her to quit hiding and come in view. Where are you, m’dear?”
Sian stepped into range behind me and whistle-sang “Here, Uncle.”
“Hum. A bit monotone but not bad. You almost sound like a fledgling. Don’t bother to put yourself out, however. I can understand your language even if I can’t speak it.” This was dissembling on Uncle’s part. He’d taught me over half of what I knew of English, claiming all the while that it sounded like gargling glass. He’d shifted his gaze back to me.
“So you think you’ve gotten over your self-pity, have you?
“I think so, Uncle.”
“Well.” He thought for a minute. “What are you going to do now?”
“Stay here and finish out the job I promised to do.”
“No, no, no. Not what I meant at all. What can you do now?”
“Oh.” I should have guessed he’d be more abstract than that. “Anything I want?”
“Don’t sound so unsure. If you are sure then you can. Uncertainty breeds failure. Don’t try, do.” He waited for me to say something.
“Do what?” I said, having lost his meaning.
Suddenly he grinned at me, sun breaking through clouds. “Fly, of course.”
I blanched. Sian shifted behind me but wisely said nothing. “How?” I said bitterly.
“Thought you hadn’t quite gotten out of you. Quit feeling bad. Be sure. Then fly, Small One.” He vanished but not before I had seen his hand signal, ‘Love you’.
“He’s crazy.” Sian dropped into a chair. Since talking with my Uncle exhausts me, I could understand how she felt.
“No.” I said. “Not crazy. Difficult to understand but not crazy.”
“Then he’s cruel.” she returned. “I thought your parents were bad but this…”
“No, not cruel either. He may be the only one in my family to whom this will make no difference at all.” I turned the conversation over in my mind trying to understand what Uncle had told me.
“He talked as if he didn’t know that your wings were gone. He didn’t even mention it.”
I laughed, I had to. “He already knew. He knew when he left the message with my father. And we talked of nothing else.”
“How could he have known?” Sian asked. “You didn’t even call the Council until today.”
“He sees futures.” I replied and shrugged.
“I thought that was a metaphor! You mean he actually can tell what’s going to happen?”
“Yes, of course. Not many of my people have the skill but a few do. Except that it is not ‘the’ future it is a likely future and can change. Some of your people can do this also, I’ve heard.”
“Most people think they’re fakes.” Sian said, still a bit shaken.
“Why would they lie? The gift is not revered so much that any would want to have the problems that go with it.” I said.
“Maybe not in your culture but it would be here if anyone believed in it.”
I gave her a long look then asked her gently for some time to think. I needed to understand what had been told to me, not make cultural comparisons.
The rest of the day and most of the next, I wandered about the house and grounds. Not really going anywhere, just moving so I could think clearly. I had wandered out into the walled garden where I used to exercise when insight struck me. Follow Uncle’s instructions exactly. I stood still and closed my eyes.
‘Quit feeling bad.’ That was easier said than done until I remembered Uncle’s voice calling me ‘Small One’. So. Now I felt warm inside, a good feeling. Next. ‘Be sure.’. Again, easier said than done. I let my mind drift and eventually began to remember when I first began to know I could fly. Now, fly. I knew how, I had for years. It was an automatic thing, like walking or breathing.
I heard Sian come out to the garden then her quick steps stopped short. I opened my eyes and found her staring at me. And no wonder. By not thinking about it, I was hovering about six inches off the ground. I landed rather ungracefully with a bump.
She kept staring. “You were flying.”
“Well, yes.” Some how it didn’t even surprise me.
“Without wings. You were flying!” She took a deep breath. “How?”
“I already knew how to fly, I just remembered what it felt like.” A simplistic explanation but it had been so simple. All I ever had to do was believe that I could.
Sian ran and hugged me hard. She had become more like a sister than my own ever had been and I was very glad that she was the first to know.
I called Uncle Chalan that evening. I had found that, though I could fly, I tired very quickly and I would have to practice, flying a little farther each day. I also found that if I held Sian’s hand, she could fly with me with very little extra effort.
Uncle answered almost before the chime as was his habit. “Well?”
“I can fly!” I was almost bouncing.
“So what else is new Jeremy? You’ve been able to fly since you were six years old.” My face must have registered disbelief or something because he laughed. “You catch on quickly Small One.” He pulled a wingtip around to groom it. “Pretty, aren’t they? But purely decorative for adults. By the time we are grown, our wings aren’t doing much more than that. We fly because we know we can.”
“But why didn’t anyone ever tell me? I mean, after the accident, no one said any thing to me about this and…” I asked, song tumbling over itself in my eagerness.
“They have forgotten. We have been keeping the crutches of childhood because we believed we needed them. Only the littles need the extra support of wings to fly. When we are grown, the mind is all we need.”
“I can’t go very far.”
“Not yet. Practice and grow stronger. Then, come home.” He started to go but I stopped him.
“Do I still have a home?” I said soberly.
“With me if no where else. And bring your assistant.” He cut the connection abruptly.
I was delighted to have a reason to take Sian home and show her my beautiful planet. She was rather less than enthusiastic. Travel home for me was not difficult but Earth did not want casual citizens visiting our planet and Sian was swamped under a mass of paperwork. She told me not to worry, it would all be done by the time I felt strong enough to go.
It was not. It was not even visibly smaller and Sian was almost in tears from weeks of frustration. Finally I lost patience. I told her to bag it all up and come with me.
As Ambassador, I had every right to an immediate audience with the President of the Planetary Coalition. I invoked it, along with diplomatic privileges for Sian so that she could accompany me. I stalked into his office and dropped the bag on his desk.
“Mr President, are you trying to give my assistant a nervous breakdown?” I said evenly.
He looked shocked but recovered. “Why, of course not, Mr Ambassador. It’s just that our planet and our country require…”
I cut him off. “I don’t care what your country or your planet requires. As a person in my employ and resident of my planet’s embassy, my assistant is a defacto resident of my planet, subject to diplomatic privileges and immunity.”
“Not unless she’s an immigrant.” He shot back.
I turned to Sian. “Would you like to be a citizen of Heaven?” I asked her. “It doesn’t require you to give up any other citizenship you hold except during a time of war.”
She giggled. “Well, sure. What kind of paperwork do I need to fill out?”
“None. I told you, we don’t have very many people. All you have to do is tell me you want to become a citizen and all I have to do is say that you can. So it’s done.” I said.
The President jumped up. “Now see here, you can’t just make her a citizen just like that!”
I favored him with the coldest look I could muster. “Actually, I can. It is well within my authority. Because your planetary government prefers to bog it’s decisions down with what I have heard quaintly called ‘red tape’ does not mean that we must. You have absolutely no right to tell me what kind of procedures I must follow on internal affairs of my government. Sian now has all the credentials which my government requires and will be leaving with me to pay a visit to home.” I indicated the bag on his desk. “If you want this waste paper filled out, do it yourself. Good day.” I turned on my heel and left him gaping after me with Sian right behind.
We managed to get all the way back to the embassy before she started laughing. Which was just as well because she went on for quite awhile once she started.
“I have never heard anyone told off so well. I wish I’d dumped this in your lap weeks ago. And that fiction about having dual citizenship, that was priceless!”
I grinned at her. “That’s no fiction, I really do have that authority.” She gaped at me finally realizing that every thing I had said was the bare truth. “As to dumping it in my lap weeks ago, it probably wouldn’t have worked then. I was just afraid that he was going to keep you from going or make us both late. My uncle wouldn’t like that so I thought quickly.”
“So you faced him down just so you wouldn’t have to explain to your uncle?” She started to go off into gales of laughter again then stopped suddenly. “Is he that scary?”
“No, not really. But he does hate to be disappointed and can make you feel really bad about it.”
“Is he important? I mean in your government, not just to you.” she said.
“He’s Chalan. That doesn’t mean anything to you but it would to anyone from my planet. The ones who see are highly respected. He’s one of the few who could argue with the Wise Council and win. So even though he has no official position, he does have a great deal of power. My people tend to go by actual power than by titles.”
“Oh.” she hesitated. “Should I be nervous?”
“No, he likes you.” I said.
“Well, he loves you and you’re nervous.”
“Yes, but he used to correct me when I was small. That sort of thing stays with you. Besides, we’re not going to disappoint him. At least, not if we hurry and pack.” She met my eyes and we both went to pack, very quickly.
The interstellar trip was both very long and very short. Sian asked questions about everything and kept me from worrying over much about our reception when we arrived. I am not sure that at least half of her questions were not designed with just that in mind.
As it was, Uncle Chalan met us before we had even disembarked. I was suddenly shy and ill at ease about walking about and being stared at until he nudged me in the back of the head with his leading edge.
“Yes?” I asked, looking over at him.
“Don’t be so self-conscious lad. They’re staring at me, not you.” He chuckled in an undertone.
Sian caught this and gave me a quizzical look.
“Uncle is something of a recluse and he is…distinctive. From time out of mind, copper wings have been very rare.” I explained in answer to her look.
This reassurance helped me get from the landing to Uncle’s house. Then the strangeness caught at me again. On Earth it had not been so bad, there were stairs to the upper floors and the rooms all had too much furniture. Here at home the sparse furnishing, high ceilings and upper floors with no stairs all struck home again. If I had not learned how to fly again, the grief would have been crushing. As it was, everything served to remind me of my loss.
I wish I could better remember my first impressions of Heaven, but everything was so strange I was overwhelmed. Everything seemed different. And all these incredibly beautiful people flying around and staring at us as though we had crawled out from under the nearest rock. I remember keeping a close eye on Jeremy but he seemed okay. Not exuberant, but he must have been hurting some. Chalan was gracious and brusk by turns. He seemed almost impatient with some very difficult concepts and patient as the earth itself about more simple things.
All the structures seemed too delicate and aerial to be real, they didn’t look like they would hold a gnat. And there were no stairs or roads or sidewalks of any kind. Gardens were landscaped but there weren’t any fences or anything. The vegetation didn’t seem different, much (I’m no botanist) but the animals were very strange. Chalan had a house pet called a ‘thale’, kind of like a cat or dog, that was affectionate. It was fur covered and wriggled when petted, making a low humming sound but it had six legs, tiny pin-sharp claws going in a straight line from paw (?) to the first joint, of which it had three on each paw plus the shoulders, and eyes on the top of it’s head rather than the front.
Chalan’s house was not so different but I found out later that a door on the lower level was an eccentricity which he had because of the thale. Most entryways were on the third level or above, to keep ground creeping animals out. Also, while I found it huge, rather like a warehouse designed by Escher on one of his strange days, it was small compared to Jeremy’s parent’s house. That was like a rabbit warren on three dimensions.
The day after we arrived, Chalan knocked on my door before daylight. When I had hurriedly dressed and made my way to the “kitchen” (which actually was not very different) Chalan had already made ‘somethings’ for breakfast and had, oh lovely!, made tea! When I tasted it I was surprised that it tasted just like Earl Grey… then I found out that it was, brought from home by Jeremy as a gift for his uncle. Jeremy himself seemed brighter, as he always did in the morning, but apprehensive. Chalan grinned at him over the tea, an expression that suddenly made me as nervous as Jeremy obviously was.
“Why so jumpy, Small One?” he whistled.
“I am wondering what is next. You must have called me home for some reason. And I am guessing that it is only a small matter of time before you tell me.”
Chalan laughed. “Well, yes. Don’t you think your parents should know about your discovery? Not to mention others in your situation. Remember how angry you were that no one told you that you did not need wings to fly?”
“So what do you want me to do, teach the whole planet how to fly without wings?” Jeremy asked, slightly exasperated.
There was no laughter in Chalan now and Jeremy only gaped at him, unable to believe what he was hearing. “You’re serious!”
“Of course I am. What other could teach it as well? And what other reason could there be for you losing your wings?”
“But who could, or would, take my place as ambassador?” Jeremy wanted to know.
I spoke up. “Anyone could. I could walk them through the first couple of weeks and keep things going…”
Chalan shifted his attention to me and I was almost sorry I hadn’t kept still. ” You won’t have time” he whistled at me. “You’ve got your own things to do and they don’t include babysitting. If no one else can be found, I will go. Now finish up… a parental visit is in order this morning, I think.”
To my surprise, Chalan insisted that we fly to Jeremy’s parents. I was still a bit nervous about it, but Chalan took my hand firmly and simply took off, leaving Jeremy to catch up. Which he did, and took my other hand. That made me feel better, Jeremy was familiar and secure.
Jeremy’s parents were a lot surprised, a little glad and very scared by his new found ability. I was confused by their attitude… I would have expected them to be a lot glad and a little scared. Then, over the next few weeks I began to see it from their point of view. Heaven was a very structured world and change came slowly, with much deliberation, until now.
Once he began, Jeremy’s experience dealing with ‘aliens’ began to stand him in good stead. He brought his people around, a few at a time, then more at once to his point of view. He had a rather irrefutable argument when he would begin by flying into a conference so that they people he was dealing with either could deny that they had seen him or accept the truth.
There was one group who believed him wholeheartedly from the beginning because they wanted him to be right so much. These were, of course, the flightless ones, relegated to benign concentration camps by the flying portion of the population. Jeremy spent most of his time with them initially, until most had learned to fly again. There were several for whom flight was not possible. Most were simply too young to have developed the ability to do without wings… they would grow into flight, being only a few years later than most. But one man confused Jeremy and himself completely. He had never been able to fly, even though there was nothing wrong with his wings and he was quite old enough to do so in any case.
Finally, in desperation, Jeremy had his uncle meet with this man. Chalan simply took a long look at him and shook his head.
“This had to happen eventually. There is no reason he cannot fly… except that the part of his mind that allows it is not there.” Chalan told him.
Soork sighed deeply, then grinned. “Well, it was a nice daydream for a bit, youngster.”
“But…” Jeremy began.
“No. The corollary that it is a part of your mind that allows you to fly without wings is that, very occasionally, there will be a person born without it. The humans don’t have it, after all.” he said. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve never been able to fly and, besides, you’ve still opened up a whole new career for me.”
Jeremy was puzzled. “How is that?”
“Well, you are needed here, very much. It will take a generation to finish what you have begun. But we still need an ambassador to Earth… and I think I am better qualified by reason of my lack of flight than anyone else.” Soork grinned again. “Chalan, a word in your ear…”
They went off together and, when I returned to Earth, Soork came with me as the new ambassador. I saw him from time to time but I had to resign my position as personal assistant. Though I liked Soork and I kept in touch with him, and Jeremy and Chalan, Jeremy’s discoveries had started me thinking about the way we handled physical therapy for ourselves. So, in short, Jeremy taught what he learned on his planet and I applied the principles to our own world, with a fair amount of success.
“Uncle! Tell us a story!” Samara whistled.
Chalan shook himself from his half-doze and smiled at the ring of small bright faces clustered around him. He was very old now and even the bright copper of his wings was greyed. He stretched and murmured slightly at the stiffness, then settled into his role, perhaps the most important one he had ever had, and began.
“Once upon a time there was a young man who happened to have the misfortune to loose his wings. But because he would not be crippled, he learned to fly again anyway… and changed the world forever by doing so. And it happened just so…”
Word Count 8971