Batfolk origin story

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A prequel to Ben's planned webcomic Flight in a Cage, as presented at the 2013 Spring Equinox Storytelling and Suishi Feast

With her leathery wings hugged tight to her chest, and her foot-fingers dug deep into the soft crumbly dirt of the trail, Dela stared dubiously over the ledge at the large sandpit ten long meters below. At three Martian years of age, she was already more than a meter tall, but ten meters still seemed much too far to fall. Her parents, standing off to the left of the pit with a few other onlookers, had finally given up on shouting encouragements. They had told her that she could do this, that it would be easy, and that the super-soft sandlike material would catch her gently if she fell. But they didn't have wings of their own, so how could they know?

She turned and walked away from the edge, along the path between farm fields leading back toward the great red cliff face that formed one wall of her world, which at least put her plight into perspective. A sudden motion at the top edge of her vision caused her to glance up sharply. From the railing of a balcony cut into the cliff face, not far below the ceiling of the kilometer-high half-dome designed to keep out the formerly-unbreathable Martian air, a crow had leapt and was gliding down the cliff. Then it suddenly beat its wings and swept outward into the 'open' air -- but was forced to turn back several seconds later as it approached the wall of the dome.

Dela bent to the left in unconscious imitation, and felt her wingtip brush a slippery lettuce leaf a meter away from the trail. With a start, she realized that she had spread her wings wide without noticing. She almost thought she could remember what flying was like!

Dela's ancestry was no simple thing; in her DNA, three long-separated branches of the evolutionary tree had been brought back together. The genetic artistry that had shaped her wings from those of a flying fox, and her foot-hands from those of a chimpanzee, had also given her a brain subtly different from that of an ordinary human, including a suite of instincts born in a forest in the Paleocene, over fifty-five million years ago.

His name, if he had one, would have been Longfingers. Unlike his parents and siblings, with their neat little webbed paws, he could barely pick up a piece of fruit in his ungainly webs, longer than his torso and streched between fingers thin as twigs. But to compensate for that minor inconvenience, his mutation also gave him a marvelous advantage in leaping from branch to branch through the tropical forest where he lived, a forest that had only recently reached full maturity again after the great Chicxulub catastrophe. No sooner had his sharp eyes picked out a big, juicy clump of fruit on a high branch of a nearby tree, then he would leap into the air, spread his webs wide, and land much closer to his goal than his swiftly following clan-mates, who would then clamor for a piece of his prize.

Thanks to his prowess in foraging for food, Longfingers was a leader of his clan and had many mates and children. But despite his success, his clan-mates were sometimes surprised to find him sitting strangely still in the upper branches of a tree that stuck up above the forest canopy, watching the great wheeling flocks of Lithornithid birds with something in his eyes that a human might describe as longing.

As she watched the crow circling high above her, Dela came to an abrupt decision: she could do this. Without giving herself time to think, she whirled around and pelted back down the trail toward the ledge, wings held high over her head, fighting her human instincts every step of the way. She clenched her foot-fingers into fists to prevent them digging in and slowing her down. Her right foot turned sideways of its own accord, in a last-ditch effort to stop her mad rush, but instead it slipped backward in the loose dirt and actually helped to tip her forward off the ledge and into the air.

Her wings snapped out to their full extent, and the wind whistling over them felt right. But to her human eyes the sand pit rushing up at her looked terribly wrong. Her flawed human intuition told her to try pushing the air down with her wings, but the air pushed back, hard, turning her intended powerful wingbeat into a useless flutter. She began to panic, flailing at the air, trying to find the right motions by guesswork, and then it was too late.

She hit the sand, sank in a little way, was buoyed up as if in water, and coasted to a halt, feeling a little disoriented and with aching arm muscles from the lost battle with the air, but basically unharmed.

A great-great-granddaughter of Longfingers was not so lucky. She might have been named Lookout, for her habit of sitting in high places like Longfingers, but with a watchful eye for danger and a loud, piercing voice to warn her clan to scatter. The larger birds, which had mostly stayed out near the distant seashore in Longfingers's time, were beginning to range farther inland more frequently, and some of them viewed Lookout and her kind as tasty snacks.

One fateful day, Lookout spotted a vulturelike Neocathartes flying past the clump of trees in whose upper branches her clan were foraging. It didn't seem interested in them at first, but then suddenly veered in their direction. Lookout immediately started screeching a warning, flapping her webbed arms like a bellows to help push air from her lungs faster and louder, to reach the ears of the most distant clan member.

But Lookout's high post was too visible to the hungry bird, which headed straight for her. She dove off the branch and began to glide down into the canopy, but the bird was gaining on her. She also saw several of her brothers and sisters a short way ahead, not scattering fast enough, so in mid-flight she began to shriek again.

Following an instinctive pattern that had never applied to this situation before, her arms moved up and down in time to her calls. This disrupted her glide path and she spiraled out of the way of the oncoming Neocathartes, which moved on toward more predictable targets. But her accidental salvation was short-lived, for having no real control over her flight, Lookout was unable to avoid the rock-hard tree trunk that her brief experiment with flapping flight had put in her path.

Many subsequent generations of Lookout's clan reinvented this strange behavior pattern before one of them finally found a successful variant.

As she scrambled out of the sand pit, more excited than discouraged, Dela thought she could feel this history thrumming through her wings. She ran up to her parents, who looked like they wanted to console her for her failure. Her father tried to give her a hug but she brushed his arms away.

"I know what I have to do!" she said breathlessly, "I just have to turn off my walking brain and turn on my flying brain, and, and not let it turn off again! My wings will...will know how…" She trailed off. Her parents were smiling, but their blank looks told her they didn't really understand.

"Well," her mother said, "now that you know it doesn't hurt to land in the sand, it shouldn't be as scary next time." And that was true, she did have more confidence now that the fear of pain was diminished, but it wasn't the important thing.

"You've got that look again," said her father. "It's true, we don't know what to say, or how to help you. No one's ever done this before! But you're doing great."

Dela shook her head and walked away. Yes, she was unique in a way, but the important thing was the fact that someone, some being, had done this before. She had a clear image in her mind, something vaguely remembered from school, embellished by her imagination: an image of a dozen small batlike creatures gliding through a twilit forest, all drifting downward from a higher branch to a lower one, and a lone member of the same species lifting above them, driven by awkward but steady wingbeats. She couldn't see the exact details of its wing motions in her mind's eye, but she thought she could feel them faintly in her muscles, even as she climbed the stairs to the top of the ledge with her wings folded neatly over her shoulders.

Her legs were tired when she reached the top, but she didn't want to wait -- she might lose that tenuous mental connection to her proto-bat ancestor. Starting farther from the edge this time, she put everything she had into the sprint, leaning forward as she ran, already supporting some of her weight with the lift from her partly extended wings. With her last step she went into a momentary crouch, left foot-hand gripping the edge, then straightened and pushed off into the air.

Again her body tilted downward, beginning her descent to the sandpit, and she craned her neck back to bring the horizon into view. She focused on the air above the wheat field that extended from the far edge of the sandpit to the wall of the dome, and thought fiercely, I want to go there.

And her wings responded -- slicing sharply forward through the air, providing a sudden burst of lift that she felt in her stomach, like the deceleration of a downward-moving elevator. Her wings folded in, slid back, then extended and cut forward again, and again, and again, starting to move up and down as well as forward and back, but always angling to stay nearly edge-on to the wind. For a few seconds she focused on nothing but the wingbeats. Then, looking around, she realized that she had stopped falling and actually begun to rise!

A ragged cheer sounded to her left as she flew past the edge of the sandpit, and she turned her head to look back, which was a mistake. The leading edge of her left wing slapped her cheek, which was enough to throw off its rhythm, and now she had to flap consciously, in an awkward imitation of the natural, fluid motion directed by the flying-fox part of her brain. She began to lose altitude, and tried to turn back toward the sandpit, which nearly put her into a tailspin. Straightening out again, with the ground still coming closer at frightening speed, she began to take great scoops of air with her wings to slow herself down, and bent her legs to prepare for the shock of landing. As the wheat stalks began to whip against her legs, her human instincts kicked in and she folded her wings in front of her to protect her face. She plowed through several rows of wheat before hitting the ground, somersaulted twice and finally skidded to a crunching stop.

All her limbs were covered in bruises. Her wings and foot-hands were bleeding from dozens of cuts. Tears ran down her face, tears of pain, shock, and frustration -- and profound joy. I can fly, she thought, over and over. I can fly. It wasn't pride in her abilities she felt, but amazement at having joined an ancient and illustrious line of flying beings, from the first web-handed gliders to the oldest true bats, down through the ages to the thousands of bat species living on Earth when humans learned to shape genomes, to the family of bat-winged chimpanzees that still lived in the lab inside the cliff, two levels down from Dela's home. And she knew there would be more people like her, a whole new species of flying creature, Homo chiropteron -- new and yet not truly new. The children of Longfingers and Lookout would live on.

Sources cited

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