AmbassadorThe baby's white bony wings unfold, mucus-shining, lined with the tines of naked feathers. Ridiculously small. She is otherwise human.
"What should we call her?" the mother asks.
The father is silent.
"She must have a name," she continues. "Let her be Sarah, after my mother."
The father nods slowly. "She takes after you."
She meets his eyes, then looks back at the baby. "She is beautiful.” She strokes the child's face, and the delicate wings. “A bridge between us.”
“Let us hope it is enough," he says.
She nods absently. She begins to sing to the child, a soft lullaby.
The sailor plucks a tune
A gull calls in the bay
Her harp is marked with runes
A zephyr starts to play
Sarah's footsteps echo across the steel deck. The sea wind puts goosebumps on her arms, which she hopes will stop her stomach from turning.
"Ambassador Cygnus," calls a voice, casting out over the deck of the ship. "Ambassador Cygnus, to the bridge."
She listens to the feedback dissipate, the click of the microphone cutting out. Then she turns and makes her way towards the bridge. Her back aches, she's seasick, and she dreads what she is about to be asked to do. Yet she remembers her mother's words: you will never perform under ideal circumstances.
The sailor listens closely
The sea is filled with sound
The strings are calling softly
Though no one is around
She ascends the steps to the bridge carefully, gripping the railing. The wings would be a wonderful help to balance, she thinks, but she is under orders. They are not to be displayed outside the bridge.
They ache. They long for movement, curled and imprisoned in the jacket of her uniform.
Through the door to the bridge, the dim light of digital readouts illuminate many faces, many eyes. They are all on her. The expressions are hard to read. Some hope, some fear.
Mostly fear, she thinks.
The captain approaches her, nods deferentially. "Are you ready?"
She nods. "As ready as I'm going to be."
He smiles awkwardly, watching her. "Are you sure you're feeling alright? We could put this off another few hours..."
"No. There's no point."
He nods, looking worried, and steps aside.
"I feel fine," she lies. "I'll be fine." She walks past him before he can reply, to the front of the bridge.
She sees the microphone, sitting, waiting for her.
Her heart thumps once as she walks toward it. She forgets the lights, the faces, where she is. She knows what needs to happen, dreads it. She moves automatically. She undoes the buttons on her jacket. She is vaguely aware of people shifting away from her, giving room.
The last button undone, she lets the jacket drop, and the wings begin to spread slowly, unwinding like coiled springs.
The gull speaks to the sailor
The sailor hears the storm
The harp speaks to the jailer
That sleeps beyond the shore
The sound of the wings unfurling is almost deafening in the silence. A scraping, resonant, metallic sound. The sound of sandpaper on steel, of a bow being drawn, of an orchestra tuning.
The strings, so many strings, are drawn out of her back slowly, each pulled taut by one of the naked spikes lining her wings. The feeling is unpleasant, the vibration too deep, as if she is pulling herself inside out. It takes a moment, and the sound draws out, feeding the nausea in her stomach. She leans tips forward slightly, and quickly stops herself, one hand on the panel gripping too tightly.
She waits. Finally, wings fully extended, the sound of the drawing dissipates in a chromatic hum. She takes a deep breath, then turns her head carefully. She meets the captain's eyes.
Looking more worried than before, he nods.
She turns back to the microphone. She is careful with her movements, is afraid of bumping into something, of falling over. She wonders if she could get back up. Wings aren't meant for rooms, she thinks.
She lifts the microphone slowly, licks her lips. She remembers her training. Set stance, mouth ajar.
Then she begins to sing.
The sea speaks up in laughter
The sailor asks for grace
The storm is chasing after
And each star hides its face
She finishes the last line of music, letting the sound stretch out. Ecstasy and exhaustion. She is bone tired, can still feel her insides shaking, her head throbbing from the hum. She wonders what it sounded like to anyone listening.
Eventually she remembers where she is, the people around her. On reflex, her wings fold gently back, soundlessly now. Once they are folded, she picks up her jacket and turns around. The eyes in the room avert quickly. She catches one set briefly, one of the soldiers, before he looks away.
Now it's their turn to forget she exists, absorbed in the monitors. Her work is done. She moves toward the hatch slowly, stumbling once.
The jailer now is woken
A hand pulls at the seam
The shroud of night is broken
The dark fades like a dream
"Thank you," the captain says quietly as she passes, without looking at her. She glances at him, sees a kind of reverie in his face. She keeps walking. There will be time for emotion, later, but now she has to get outside.
She stops outside the hatch at the top of steps, and the wind blows cold on her face. She's looking down at the water. She can't help but look anywhere else. There are no stars, no sun, no moon to see, in any case.
The water is dark, rolling slowly far below the ship. She waits, and her heart beats faster. How long? They shouldn't need the monitors. They should be able to hear it.
There. A sound, low and distant, sonorous. Sarah feels her knees shake, begin to buckle, but holds herself up on the railing. The water is shimmering, then dappled as the sound peaks, as if rain were falling. The surface of the sea shines in one brief instant, reflecting the lights of the ship.
Finally, the sound fades. The speaker immediately clicks on. A voice, unable to fully mute its excitement, says: "Susurrus effect confirmed. Return to your stations."
Sarah watches the water for a long time, and listens to the waves pound the hull of the ship. Finally, she looks up at the sky. There are no clouds, no stars. Just a black abyss. It disorients her; she feels the world is tipping, but she does not look away.
"Was it enough?" she whispers. "Will you give them back?"