Healing in His Wings: When the crew of the Starfire is struck by a mysterious plague, help comes from an unexpected source: the healers of a nearby planet. First Officer Ryan Nelson is sent to act as liaison officer between the Petari and the Starfire and finds unexpected healing in their tender care.
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Most days, Juo-ta-ri found being an apprentice healer a lot less interesting than he had dreamed of it being as a child. Despite being an innate gift that all Petari possessed to some degree, healing was a science in the view of his people, something to be studied and mastered by those who chose that route. Juo-ta had long since grown tired of the dry lessons, but Pol-ta-dar-ri, his mentor, was insistent. Juo-ta would be allowed to move on to the practical side of healing only when the older man decided he was ready.
The sound of his mentor’s voice calling his name drew the young Petari out of his musings. “Yes?” he asked, his voice sheepish at having been caught daydreaming when he should have been studying.
“I need your help,” the old healer replied, “and I think for once you will enjoy the task.”
“Helping you is never a burden,” Juo-ta insisted.
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Pol-ta-dar mused, “but you would rather be doing practical studies, I know. This is your chance. We have fifteen patients with the Mardonese plague and we can only treat ten of them at a time. I want you to figure out which ten are most in need of our help.”
“Mardonese plague?” Juo-ta repeated. “But there hasn’t been an outbreak of that in two centuries. Who is sick?”
“Space explorers,” Pol-ta-dar replied with his typical smile. “They have asked for our help.” The older man watched with great amusement as his apprentice’s eyes grew wide. The young man’s mouth opened and closed reflexively several times before he managed to squeak out a reply.
“Space explorers?” His face darkened. “You’re making fun of me.”
Pol-ta-dar shook his head and handed his apprentice the data pad. “Find the ten we need to help most, and then check the data on Ryan Nelson. We need to make sure he is not infected.”
Juo-ta took the pad and stared at the numbers in front of him for a moment before they registered. Foreign names… unusual blood patterns. “You’re serious!”
“Yes,” Pol-ta-dar replied, a tinge of impatience now coloring his voice. “Hurry. They expect to hear from us within the hour.”
Nodding, mind already lost in data that was real and not just another practical exercise, Juo-ta grabbed another data pad and began making notes as he looked for the key indicators of the disease, his mind racing as he tried to remember everything he had read on the relatively obscure plague.
It took him every bit of the hour Pol-ta-dar had allowed him, but Juo-ta finally came up with the list his mentor had requested. He flew into the other room, his voice trembling with excitement. “I did it, sir. I got the list together.”
Pol-ta-dar took the list from his apprentice and examined it carefully. He had come up with the same list of names. “Well done, Juo-ta. Now, if you hurry down to the landing pad, there is a group of soldiers waiting to fly you to the explorers’ ship to collect our patients.”
“Me?” Juo-ta asked. “But why me?”
“Because the rest of us have things to get ready here,” Pol-ta-dar replied honestly. “The Council has only agreed to allow ten of us to treat them, which means we must be involved in the preparations, but I don’t want them traveling without some medical assistance. The Council said ten healers. It didn’t say anything about apprentices.”
“Thank you, sir,” the young man exclaimed, throwing his arms around his mentor before launching himself out the door toward the landing pad where, as promised, a small shuttle awaited.
“When you’re strapped in, Healer Juo-ta-ri, we can take off,” one of the soldiers said respectfully.
Trying to hide his surprise at the courtesy, Juo-ta fumbled with the unfamiliar straps until he was finally ready to go.
Hearing the shuttle take off, Pol-ta-dar opened a link to the Starfire and waited for someone to respond. A few moments later, Captain Rusk’s fair face appeared on his screen.
“As promised, Captain,” the healer said, “here is the list of names we will treat first. A shuttle is already on its way to collect them. And your first officer is welcome to join them. He will need to stay planetside until the epidemic is under control so he does not risk becoming infected by his return to your ship.”
Relief flooded Ryan, though he hid it carefully, at hearing that he was free of the terrible disease. It did not make him less aware of his comrades’ plight, but it did free him of one worry, leaving him ready to concentrate entirely on making sure his friends got the best possible care from the Petari. Looking at Captain Rusk for permission, he stepped into range of the conference feed. “How long do you think I’ll be there for?” he asked. “So I know what to bring.”
“At least a few weeks,” Pol-ta-dar-ri replied. “It will take that long to help those who are already sick and make sure no traces of the disease remain among your crew.”
“That is quite a stay,” Captain Rusk interrupted. “I assume you have suitable quarters for Mr. Nelson.”
“The healers have space on the outskirts of town,” Pol-ta-dar-ri explained. “I can arrange for your officer to stay in town in private quarters, but it is a fair distance from where the patients will be. The other option is for him to share quarters with my assistant. The apprentices and junior assistants live on the grounds of our hospital, and Juo-ta-ri is currently without a roommate.”
The captain looked at Ryan, her eyes telling him the decision was his to make.
“I’ll stay with your assistant if that’s appropriate,” Ryan replied, wanting to be as close as possible to his crewmates.
“I would not have offered otherwise, Mr. Nelson,” the healer pointed out gently.
“Just checking,” Ryan muttered, feeling his face flush at being reprimanded, however kindly, by the Petari.
“Bring lightweight clothes as it is rather warm here this time of year,” Pol-ta-dar-ri went on as if Ryan had not spoken. “Linens for the bed will be provided as well as towels for the fresher. You can eat with the healers so you need not worry about supplies unless you have a restricted diet of some kind.”
Ryan shook his head. “I eat pretty much anything. How soon will the shuttle be here?”
Pol-ta-dar-ri looked away, clearly consulting a chronometer. “You should have about an hour,” he replied. “There is no rush except in how quickly we can get treatment to your crew.”
“And that is quite pressing,” Captain Rusk interjected. “We will be ready when your shuttle arrives.” She glanced at Ryan. “Dismissed.”
“Ma’am,” he acknowledged with a nod to her and one to the Petari healer before leaving the bridge. Reaching his quarters, he pulled out an old duffel left over from camping trips with Nikolai. Thinking of his lover still hurt, the memories as fresh as they had been the day the news reached him that the other man had died in a climbing accident on Regulus. Ryan never did get all the details, not being family in the eyes of Nikolai’s conservative kin, but he knew it was something stupid, some little oversight that his lover, an experienced climber and native of that planet, had overlooked because he was overconfident. “I miss you, Nikki,” he murmured, his fingers tracing the strong lines of the albino face in the photo he still carried with him.
Pushing those thoughts aside, he began gathering his lightest weight uniforms and folding them neatly into the duffel. He and Nikolai had talked about what would happen if something happened to him when he shipped out with A.E. He had made Nikolai promise not to grieve too long. The grief was no longer fresh in Ryan’s heart, but he had not been able to force himself to move on. He had tried. He had looked at every port they stopped in for someone, searched among the crews he served with, trying to find someone, anyone to catch his interest. He occasionally felt a spark, but his guilt at Nikolai’s death and his sense of betraying his lover despite the promises they made kept him from acting on the moments of passing interest. Trying to remember now, he could not picture a single face that had caught his eye since Nikolai’s death.
He gathered a few toiletries as well, not sure what would be available for him on the planet’s surface. Pol-ta-dar-ri had mentioned linens, but not soap and the like. Better to be prepared than to have to do without. He supposed he could have Captain Rusk send anything he needed from the ship down with the second group of patients, but he had no idea how long that would be, given what Pol-ta-dar-ri had said about the time required for healing, and he did not relish doing without toothpaste for weeks. Chuckling at that image, he finished his packing, debating for a moment whether or not to slip Nikolai’s picture in his bag as well. He had not been without it for more than a few hours since his lover’s death, but he had spent the vast majority of that time either shipside or at his apartment on Earth. This would be neither and he did not want anything to happen to it. It would be the final betrayal of his lover, and he could not contemplate that. Tucking the photo back in its spot, he traced the other man’s features one more time before shutting the bag and hefting it to his shoulders. “See you in a few weeks, lover,” he murmured, leaving the room to meet the incoming shuttle.
He arrived at the docking platform at the same time as Captain Rusk and Dr. Shelton.
“The shuttle will arrive in a few minutes,” the captain informed them. “I hope we will not offend our new friends by not arranging a full diplomatic welcome, but I would rather maintain the quarantine.”
“You’re most right in that decision, Captain,” Dr. Shelton affirmed. “I have been going over the protocols the Petari healer sent for containing the plague and quarantine is the first and most important. He also suggested some ways to purify the recycled air so it will not be spread that way. As soon as the transfer of patients is complete, I will institute those suggestions as well.”
“Do that,” the captain agreed, “and anything else he suggests. I refuse to let this plague take any more of my people if there’s a way to stop it.”
“It will mean making a few adjustments to the ship’s climate system,” the doctor warned.
“You have my authorization to do whatever needs to be done,” Captain Rusk told him as the warning klaxon sounded to inform them of an approaching ship. “Call on whomever you need. I trust you not to break the quarantine except when absolutely necessary.”
The doctor nodded, but the captain’s attention was already focused on the sleek shuttle executing docking maneuvers with the Starfire. The pilot was clearly competent, the shuttle sliding into place with no hesitation, an airlock arm extending to match up with the portal on her ship. She nodded to her first officer, who sealed the airlock. “Open the iris,” she directed when she saw the green light come on, indicating a successful seal.
Ryan flipped the lever that would open the seal and prepared to meet the beings who would save his friends. The iris opened, allowing the Petari to board the ship.
“Captain Rusk,” Juo-ta said with a formal bow as he paused at the entrance to the ship. “Permission to come aboard?” The soldiers had coached him in transit on their protocols. He only hoped they would be appropriate for the explorers as well. He reminded himself that they were explorers and thus had experience with many different races from many different planets. Surely they would be willing to accept his overtures in the spirit they were offered.
“Permission granted,” the captain offered immediately, returning the bow. Behind her, Ryan and the doctor offered bows of their own. “Forgive me, but Pol-ta-dar-ri did not tell us your name, only that his assistant would be on the shuttle.”
Juo-ta blushed, though the color barely showed on his honey-brown skin. “Juo-ta-ri, at your service, Captain Rusk,” he said, introducing himself even as he blinked in surprise at having been promoted to Pol-ta-dar’s assistant. His mentor had not informed him of that.
“Welcome aboard, Juo-ta-ri,” the captain said. “Allow me to introduce our doctor, Dr. River Shelton from Sirius, and my first officer, Mr. Ryan Nelson from Earth.”
Juo-ta could not figure out where to look first without fear of seeming rude or provincial. The explorers were all so different, from him and from each other. The captain was tall and slender, so light of skin and hair that she seemed almost colorless to him except for her vivid green eyes. The doctor was shorter and stout, his green skin nearly matching the captain’s eyes, with almost no hair at all. The first officer was slightly taller than the captain, but with darker hair that covered not only the top of his head but his upper lip as well. “Doctor River Shelton, Mr. Ryan Nelson,” he acknowledged, bowing again though not as deeply as he had to the captain.
“Juo-ta-ri,” the two men replied with matching bows.
“Call me Ryan,” the first officer added, his eyes studying the Petari. He already knew they were a humanoid race, but while Pol-ta-dar-ri had been kind and Teo-ta-dar-ri had been distinguished, they were both older. The Petari standing in front of him now was young and willowy. His dark hair fell to his shoulders and curled around his face, making Ryan’s fingers itch to touch, just to see if it felt as silky as it looked. He saw no trace of facial hair, but neither of the other Petari had any either, and many of the aliens they had met over the past three years had been fascinated by his mustache, so that did not strike him as odd. A slight movement behind the Petari drew his attention and he shifted his weight slightly to the left to get a better look. He managed to keep his jaw from dropping only by force of will.
Black, feathered wings folded tightly against Juo-ta-ri’s back. “If we’re to be roommates for my stay planetside, we may as well do away with all the formalities. I can barely stand for the captain to call me Mr. Nelson all the time, much less anyone else,” he added by way of explanation when he realized he had been caught staring.
“Roommates?” Juo-ta asked, not sure what the man meant.
Captain Rusk could have smacked her first officer, but she refrained in the presence of the stranger. “Pol-ta-dar-ri offered Mr. Nelson accommodations within the hospital, saying there was an extra bed where he could stay near our crew. I take it he did not ask you if that suited before he offered.”
“No,” Juo-ta answered honestly, “but I do not mind. It is not as if I spend much time in my room anyway. Pol-ta-dar-ri keeps me quite busy.” Turning to the first officer – Ryan, he reminded himself – he added, “If we are dropping the formalities, then please call me Juo-ta. As you say, hearing my full name becomes tiresome after a time.”
Ryan smiled, his eyes still fixed on his new roommate’s wings. Were all Petari winged and they simply had not noticed it over the video feed? Or was this something unique to a smaller segment of the population? He supposed he would find out soon enough. Unless Juo-ta was pilot as well as healer, there would be other Petari on the shuttle.
“If you will come this way,” Dr. Shelton interrupted, “we can arrange for the patients to be moved.”
Juo-ta nodded and the four of them walked through the ship toward sickbay.
Adjusting the straps on the harness the Petari soldiers insisted he wear, Ryan looked across the cabin at his companion. He had the answer to one of his questions. The Petari had wings. Thick, dark, feathery wings whose movements said as much about their moods as their faces did. He had already picked out the solicitous gesture Juo-ta had used as he worried about the patients and that the soldiers had mimicked as they oversaw the loading of the patients and his own seating. He thought he had seen a bit of annoyance in a couple of the soldiers at Juo-ta’s insistence that the patients be arranged just so. He had also, to his relief, detected a stubbornness in the healer that he respected and admired. Though clearly younger than the soldiers, Juo-ta had refused to be bullied or in any way compromise what he considered best for his patients, and while the soldiers had been annoyed, they had given in eventually, arranging things to the healer’s satisfaction.
“So give me an idea here,” he said, turning his attention to the Petari sitting next to him. “How long will it take to help the people we’re bringing with us? How long before we can get to the ones we had to leave behind?”
Juo-ta flushed slightly at the question. “I don’t really know,” he replied honestly. “Pol-ta-dar-ri overstated my position when he called me his assistant. I’m really just a senior apprentice, and all I know about the Mardonese plague comes from a textbook on eradicated diseases. Even then, the patients were Petari. I have no idea if your crew will react as quickly to our therapies. Pol-ta-dar-ri could give you a better idea perhaps.”
Ryan had to appreciate the other man’s honesty, the trained part of his brain reminding him that he had no idea if the Petari were divided into male and female. They had met one race of hermaphrodites who had no concept of gender. Ryan had found the mix of male and female characteristics disturbing, though he had kept those feelings to himself. He had seen no such mix from the Petari, everything about those he had met clearly in line with his idea of the male gender.
“So tell me about Petarus,” he said, changing the subject from the issue of healing. There was no point in pumping Juo-ta for information he did not have, after all.
“What do you want to know?” Juo-ta asked, the question so vague that he hardly knew where to start.
“Well,” Ryan began, trying to decide exactly what to ask, “do all Petari have wings? I’ve met a lot of different races of people in my travels, but you’re the first I’ve met with wings.”
He tried to keep his voice and face neutral, but the sensual curve of the feathery appendages fascinated him. He wanted to see if they were as soft as they looked, if they were sensitive to the touch, telling himself it was professional curiosity.
Juo-ta’s wings rustled self-consciously, only adding to Ryan’s fascination. “Really?” he asked. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met without them.”
Ryan chuckled self-deprecatingly, turning enough that Juo-ta could see his back. “Nothing interesting here,” he joked. “Just a plain old back.”
Juo-ta disagreed. The unbroken line of muscle intrigued him. Before he realized what he was doing, his hand had reached out and traced the curve of the other man’s spine, wondering what it would be like to live without wings, to be free of their weight and bulk. Most of the time, he did not even think about them, but now, seeing Ryan lounging comfortably against the bulkhead, he tried to imagine moving without wings, wondering how the other man kept his balance. Then he thought of home and all the times he used his pinions and realized that, on Petarus at least, not having wings would be a real disadvantage. “We’re fortunate that my room is on the ground floor of the dorm,” he informed the officer. “You’ll be able to come and go as you please. It’ll be more difficult at the hospital though.”
Ryan looked confused for a moment before comprehension dawned. “No stairs,” he murmured.
“No what?” Juo-ta asked, and Ryan realized he had found the limits of the universal translator embedded in his brain. It could not translate a word or concept that did not exist in one of the languages.
“Stairs,” Ryan said again. “It’s how I walk from one floor to another.” He sketched them out with his hand, but no comprehension dawned. “When we get to the surface, I’ll draw them for you so you can see,” he said finally.
The announcement that the shuttle would be landing soon ended their conversation, leaving each man alone with his thoughts. Their discussion focused Juo-ta’s thoughts squarely on the problems that would arise given the man’s lack of wings, trying to come up with alternate solutions while all the time wondering what it would be like to carry him from floor to floor.
Ryan kept replaying the touch of the Petari’s hand on his back. He had been touched countless times since Nikolai died, by friends and strangers alike, those who attracted him, as honesty compelled him to admit Juo-ta did, and those who had no effect on him physically. None, though, not a single touch since he had kissed Nikolai good-bye three years ago had set his nerves singing the way the simple touch of the Petari’s hand down his spine had done. He chided himself for being ridiculous, for reading anything into the action but a healer’s fascination with an alien species. He had felt that fascination; he knew the power of its draw. He could not let himself begin to imagine that it was more than that.
For either of them.