Second Sister was nearly to her quarters when Twenty-Five Clicks came darting around the curve of the corridor followed by his entire flight. They were all chattering to each other in their high-pitched language that pinged off her frill and set the tips of her antenna tingling unpleasantly. She suppressed a compression and stepped to the side of the corridor, hoping that their agitation had nothing to do with her.
“Doctor!” Twenty-Five Clicks called out, barely bringing his voice down into a polite range.
Second Sister sighed and laid her frill in a neutral flatness even if she couldn’t quite control the tight curl of her antenna. The Winged were so very impolite. But she had a job to do if they were using her work title instead of her name. She cast a single longing thought towards her comfortable perch in her chambers and then turned her attention to the approaching flight.
“Base commander,” she greeted the Winged.
The thirty-odd little mammals spent a moment vying for the few surfaces on her body where they could perch and then the rest settled for clinging to the walls. They were still chattering worriedly among themselves but now their eyes were focused on their wing leader. Twenty-Five Clicks was clearly taking a moment to compose himself by grooming his sensory horns with his winghooks. Second Sister waited for him to finish with what she hoped was patience. He finally looked up into one of her eyes and took a deep breath. He pointed one wing towards the communal work space.
“Human Friend Pierce,” he finally managed to say.
Second Sister fought the urge to extend her frill and simply began walking in the indicated direction. She should have known it would take some form of human madness to set the Winged to such frantic flight.
“What precisely is the matter with Human Friend Pierce?” she asked.
The Undulate naming system that the Winged had adapted felt sticky on her mandibles, but she knew calling First Brother by his proper name would only confuse the flight of Winged further. They were currently following her by hoping along the catwalks that lined the higher levels of the walls, avoiding flight in order to stay calm and focused. Finally one, presumable the flight medic, managed to speak.
“He has taken severe outer membrane damage,” the medic said.
Second Sister tilted her head at him sharply.
“What wasn’t this called in as a medical emergency?” She asked.
“He insisted he was fine,” Twenty-Five Clicks interjected. “And he is not listed as a stupidly stubborn human in his records. We decided to get you to come analyzed the damage before we set the alarms ringing.”
“Reasonable,” Second Sister agreed as she paced along. “Humans are famous for being able to take damage to their outer membranes.”
“Yes,” the flight medic agreed. “They are covered in that forest of micro-fauna that protects them.”
“And they have that massive layer of fat under it all too,” another pointed out.
“Landers,” Twenty-Five Clicks said in a grumbling tone.
“Is there something you are hiding from me?” Second Sister finally asked bluntly.
Tellingly the entire flight fell silent as they approached the door to the communal work area. They glanced back and forth at each other, using their narrow binocular vision to avoid her broad gaze. Finally the medic spoke up.
“We have speculation that we do not wish to share,” he explained, “as it is all but baseless.”
“I would appreciate it,” Second Sister said curtly.
“Well,” the medic squirmed from his perch on her primary joint. “The damage seems to be a reversed image of Undulate text. It appears random-”
“But you fear that he may have deliberately applied the damage to himself,” Second Sister concluded. “That it is some form of ritual scarification?”
An uncomfortable murmur spread through the flight and Twenty-Five Clicks fluffed himself out in indignation.
“Human Friend Pierce is an exemplary Ranger,” he snapped. “He would not waste time on personal decoration of any sort while on duty.”
“And this occurred while he was on duty?” Second Sister asked.
“Yes,” the medic hurriedly interjected. “He went into the tactile isolation console to work on his Undulate translation and had the damage when he came out.”
“I thought he was doing field work today?” Second Sister asked.
“He had a bad night,” Twenty-Five clicks explained. “Something to do with digestion and that new plant protein he tried yesterday, and he didn’t feel that he was competent to maneuver the transport safely. So he decided to work on his training.”
Second Sister clicked thoughtfully to herself as she opened the door. First Brother was at the far side of the large open space sipping a cup of the common human stimulant. He was slumping against the counter in that nearly Undulate way humans had when they were extremely tired. She eyed him critically.
“Where exactly is this damage?” She asked the Winged.
“Right on his face,” Twenty-Five Clicks said. “The wide fleshy part.”
Second Sister gave a confused click and paced forward to get closer to the human. She heard a chatter of confusion start up among the Winged as they approached the human and the sound seemed to catch his notice. He lifted his head and blinked at them slowly.
“Second Sis,” he greeted her before letting his oral cavity gape in an attempt to draw in more oxygen.
“First Brother,” she replied with a polite tilt of her head.
He returned the gesture, causing the light to fall over one side of his face and she suddenly saw the damage the Winged had seen. There were indeed many reversed lines of the sprawling Undulate language imprinted on his epidermis.
“It was way worse!” one of the Winged above her insisted.
“What was worse lil guy?” First Brother asked, squinting up at him.
“Your face,” Second Sister informed him.
He stared blankly at her and she reached up to grasp his chin with one hand, turning his face to examine the damage. His eyes tracked hers in that rolling, disconcerted way humans did for a few seconds until he burst out laughing.
“Something’s wrong with my face?” he asked.
“You have taken damage,” she replied. “It looks like pressure damage.”
The human gave one of those deep lunged grunts that only his giant mammalian lungs could produce and easily pulled his chin out of her grasp. He turned to the reflective surface of the nutrient warming device and titled his head to get a look at the fading marks.
“Ah,” he said, “I fell asleep while practicing Undulate touch writing. The reversed grooves must have left these marks.”
“Do they pose any danger to you?” Second Sister asked.
“Nah,” the human dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “S’like corduroy line or whatnot.”
“That give me no relevant information,” Second Sister pointed out.
First Brother stared at her with blank, unfocused eyes for several long moments, giving Second Sister plentiful time to assess the situation. The Winged were still disturbed and the human was clearly not operating at full mental capacity.
“First Brother,” she said firmly. “It is my opinion as the base medic that you should spend the rest of the day resting in your quarters.”
“But,” whatever First Brother was about to say in protest was lost in a massive yawn that seemed to stretch out his spine and curl his entire body in odd directions.
“Maybe you got a point,” he said when the yawn was done. “I’ll get back to bed.”
“And this flight will escort you,” Second Sister said quickly.
“Sure, sure,” First Brother said, holding out his hands invitingly as he shuffled towards the door.
The Winged followed their Human Friend Pierce eagerly, abandoning Second Sister to the blissful silence of the now empty work space. If she hurried she might be able to make it back to her perch before there was another medical oddity.
Thank you all so much for your updoots and feedback. It gives me the will to go on. Want to see more? Think about becoming a Patreon. Tea refuses to buy itself and the more time one has to spend on a day job the less time there is for befuddled aliens.