James R. Lane

 

James R. Lane

 

Short Story - Blind Sight

 

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BLIND SIGHT

©2001 by James R. Lane

All Rights Reserved.

 

Chapter 1 - Boo!

Cold, merciless sky riders noticed a small brown figure working its way resolutely up the side of the mountain. Occasionally the flyers would drop down close enough to the scraggly tree and boulder-strewn landscape to reassure themselves that the land-bound figure was, indeed, too large to deal with, then ride the winds back up to a more-comfortable altitude.

One better suited for hunting.

 *****

Springtime mountain winds were frequently cold, and Jayson felt their bite even through the dun colored, tight-woven material that covered his thick fur. He slowly worked his way around one of the large boulders that were scattered like pinecones on the side of the unnamed mountain he was exploring, and at first his reward seemed to be nothing more than an increase in the ever-present wind.

"I…I gotta turn back, try a different route," he muttered wearily. "This is getting me nowhere fast, and---" He stopped, and his electric blue eyes grew wide. "Oh Gods!" escaped his thin lips as he drank in the lush vista that lay like a stunning painting before him. "The old map spoke true---right in the middle of this mountain range, a green hidden valley!"

Jayson quickly looked around, then scrambled to the backside of the boulder. After hurriedly shedding his backpack and walking stick he retreated nearly thirty feet from the rock, then sprinted directly toward it and, at the last moment, he used his long, powerful legs to help launch him to the top of the boulder. His new viewpoint let him peer between the trees and across most of the scraggly underbrush growing on what he was shocked to realize was actually a huge circular ridge, just like the rim of an oval-shaped bowl. From his perch, a good twelve feet above the ground, he could see for many miles, and nowhere along the length of the wondrous valley could he see signs of habitation. His lofty vantage point also let him better appreciate the staccato broken line of the ancient hardtrail he'd been trying to follow.

The wind suddenly gusted, making his long, erect ears flap and his eyes squint to slits. "Damn!" he swore, then muttered, "It's cold up here, but I bet it's warm enough down there for me to shed these pants and jacket." Jayson glanced at the sun and estimated how much daylight remained. "Three hours before dark---plenty of time," he stated with a grin as he hopped lightly down from the boulder. After retrieving his backpack and staff, he started working his way down into the valley, which was oriented in an unusual east/west direction, instead of the more common north/south.

His tiny pink nose twitched and itched from the assault of incredibly rich plant life smells, and his stomach began noisily reminding him that he hadn't eaten much since breaking camp that morning. "Yeah-yeah," he replied to an especially thunderous grumble, "I know you're empty, but that won't be for long." To emphasize that, Jayson grabbed a handful of succulent spring growth, and after a cursory inspection and a quick shake to dislodge any insect life, he began munching on the greenery as he cheerfully trotted down the mountain. "Lots more where that came from, belly-o-mine," he mumbled as his large front teeth made short work of the plant life.

Several hours later found him more than halfway down into the valley, and almost out of daylight. It took him only minutes to pitch his featherweight tent, and then he built a small fire to warm water for tea. Almost without warning the sun dropped below the southwestern mountain ridge, plunging Jayson's modest camp into deep darkness. He could hear the nocturnal animal life beginning to stir, and he made sure he had an ample supply of dry sticks for his fire. "At least I haven't found signs of feral wolves," he unconsciously whispered. He shivered at the thought of facing such horrors, and quickly checked to make sure his treasured prehistoric flintlock pistol was loaded and primed. He'd had to use it twice in the month since he'd left his oceanside home, but luckily for him in each instance the feral wolf pack had withdrawn once one of the members had been shot. The beasts were far removed in intelligence from their civilized cousins, and the brutes didn't realize Jayson couldn't reload the crude pistol quickly enough to get off a second shot before they could pounce on him. "Dumb beasts," he grumbled. "Why didn't they all evolve!"

A full moon leapt over the top of the easternmost ridge, and in a short while it was well into the sky. The forest was relatively quiet and Jayson's nose detected no threatening scents on the evening breeze. "Bedtime for this boy," he mused around a buck-toothed yawn, his belly full of foraged greenery. He spent an energetic few minutes bare of all clothing while standing at the edge of the clearing, well away from his tent. There he worked an odorless bug repellant powder into every inch of his fur, and moments later began brushing outraged fleas and a few frantically scrambling ticks out of his pelt. Once done, he carefully dusted the powder into his clothes, then hung his pants and jacket on a nearby limb to air. Chilled and weary, he climbed into his sleeping bag, and leaving only his head uncovered near the tent opening, Jayson prepared for another uneasy night's sleep in the wild.

And just as his eyes were beginning to close, literally out of the corner of his right eye, he saw the moon blink.

It took a few seconds for the aberration to register on his sleepy brain, but once it did he came fully awake, his eyes wide and his ears up and sweeping the surroundings for telltale sounds. Tense moments passed before Jayson suddenly heard a faint yet heavy flap-flap-flap, and then the moon blinked again. No owl was that big, and anyway, the stupid birds flew silently. He knew this was something else, and his primordial instincts screamed that he was in trouble.

A careful roll out of his sleeping bag allowed him to grab his pistol and quickly sling his large utility knife, snug in its bandolier-style sheath, over his head and left shoulder. Then, moving as quietly as he could and keeping the lighter fur of his chest, belly and the underside of his tail down against the ground, he tried to blend into the spotty shadows as he scurried toward the protection of nearby bushes.

"You're wasting your time, friend," came an ethereal voice from high in the tall evergreen trees. "I see as well in moonlight as you do in the daylight, and I can even track you even when there's no light at all. Still, there's no need to fear me; I certainly mean you no harm."

At the first sound of the strangely accented voice Jayson had dived under a large bush, then froze, hoping to become invisible. Yet the heavy vegetation apparently made no difference to his unseen watcher. "Since I have no weapons, I'll make you a deal," the unearthly voice stated. "You put down that silly gun and don't wave your knife around, and I'll drop down for a visit. You can even revive your fire if it will make you more comfortable, though if you have any sexual or body taboos I must warn you that I don't cover my fur."

Jayson resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to escape this confrontation if, in fact, he could even survive it. Eventually he said, in as steady a voice as he could muster, "If I give up my gun I put myself at your mercy, and I have no desire to wind up dinner for a…a monster!"

A sudden series of shrill barks came from the darkness above; apparently the visitor was laughing. "Friend," the ghostly voice cheerfully called, "you are the last thing I would consider eating. In fact, you most likely would enjoy many of the same delicacies I do." The unseen creature let Jayson digest that for a few moments before adding, "If you insist on huddling under that bush all night the only thing you'll accomplish is to make yourself uncomfortable. I'm quite content to, uh, hang around up here."

Several quiet moments passed, then Jayson bravely declared, "Until I see who---and what---you are, friend, I will keep my pistol and knife handy, but I will not threaten you with them if you make no hostile moves. Agreed?"

The mysterious voice seemed to chortle for a moment before going silent. Jayson's sensitive ears picked up a faint noise, as of large claws on tree bark, then he heard something far different---and far more ominous---a sound as of a sail suddenly snapping taut in the breeze, followed by a swoosh; then he caught a gust of strangely-scented air. He reflexively cringed and blinked, and when he opened his eyes he noticed that the small clearing near his faintly glowing fire pit was no longer empty. His visitor had arrived.

"As I told you," the dark, erect form clearly announced, "I have no weapons." It fanned a huge black wing over the embers of the fire, and the faint red glow momentarily brightened to show Jayson a figure straight out of legendary, prehistoric Hell. "Are you going to huddle under that bush all night?" the creature asked, then used a prehensile, long-toed foot to pick up a nearby stick, poke the embers to life and deftly add several more sticks to the pit. In moments the fire had been rekindled, and Jayson could better see his visitor. This, however, didn't lessen his wide-eyed terror. "Well?" the demonic figure asked, his head slightly cocked to one side.

"W-what are you?" Jayson managed to squeeze past the paralysis in his throat.

His visitor made sure to position the fire between them, then he spread his membranous wings wide and slowly turned completely around. "My name is Rolf," he stated evenly. "My distant ancestors were called bats, and we kept the species name when we became intelligent and…and after we gained our independence." Rolf had large, dark eyes and a moderately long muzzle full of needle-like teeth---and he was very male. "Now I think it's time for you to grow some backbone and quit cowering under that bush like your timid little rabbit cousins do."

Jayson felt the sting of embarrassment, made doubly sharp because the bat's statement was true on all counts. His distant ancestors had, in fact, been "timid little rabbits"---he frequently saw the small, shy creatures in the wild---yet the instinctive caution he felt was honestly earned. An untold number of rabbits had served as food for countless billions of carnivores, and while he was much larger and far more intelligent than his ancestral cousins, Jayson still felt a tickle of horror at the thought of becoming some murderous monster's dinner. But something told him he had misread this situation, and that the monster looming before him was not what it appeared---what he appeared to be, Jayson quickly corrected himself. The creature's blatant maleness made the young buck feel---inadequate.

The tall chiropteran stood quietly as his lepus counterpart scrambled out from under the bush, and Jayson quickly bounced to his feet, powerful legs tense, all senses still at full alert. But Rolf made no threatening moves; in fact, he unhurriedly wrapped his huge wings around himself like a long leathery cloak, leaving just his big-eared, fennec fox-like head and the long, clawed toes of his feet uncovered. The creature's large, shiny-dark eyes slowly blinked, waiting for Jayson's next move.

"My…my name is Jayson, and I, uh---I'd offer you a seat, but there really isn't one available."

"That's not a problem," Rolf stated. "My kind seldom sit, and as long as I'm protected like this I don't have to stay active to stay warm. You, however, must be feeling the night's chill, so please feel free to either wrap yourself in your sleeping shell or cover your fur with---what are they called? Ah, yes---clothes."

Under the bush had, indeed, been cold and damp, and Jayson wasted little time in brushing the dirt off his fur and donning his trousers and jacket, but he kept his pistol and knife within easy reach. The spooky visitor watched him without comment or discernable expression, and when Jayson was dressed Rolf pointed out, "You really don't need to fear me, friend Jayson. Even if I tried to attack you---and I assure you I won't---I dare say you could easily outrun me, especially through the dense undergrowth. You can see that my legs aren't suited for running; I'm not even comfortable walking more than a short distance." He slowly extended his leathery wings, which were mainly thin black skin stretched from his ankles all the way up his dark, fur-covered body, flaring out to the ends of his long arms and spider-leg fingers. "Imagine trying to quickly work these through a thicket of limbs and spine-tipped bushes. And if I tear a wing I can't fly, which means that, alone and out in the wild I…I would probably die." Rolf rewrapped his thin wings tightly around his body for warmth. And he briefly shivered.

A few moments passed with no words spoken, then Jayson hesitantly ventured, "The only, er, bats I ever heard of were mythical creatures, small as mice, but they…they d-drank blood."

Rolf blinked slowly, then started laughing in his peculiar, high-pitched barking manner. It wasn't an evil, spiteful sound at all, and after a few seconds Jayson found himself beginning to chuckle. The cocooned creature was now quivering all over with the growing intensity of his mirth, his pointed muzzle hanging open and his eyes squeezed shut. Eventually he strangled and started coughing, but even though he was having trouble catching his breath he still managed to keep on cackling. Jayson was astonished at how "normal" the tall, alien creature suddenly seemed. He reasoned that anybody who could laugh like that, even if Jayson didn't exactly understand what the bat-being found so amusing, must have more in common with "regular people" than not. He walked over to his tent and tucked the pistol into his sleeping bag---but he kept the knife.

The explorer's actions didn't go unnoticed by the still-chortling flyer and, after he'd regained a measure of composure, Rolf explained, "My apologies, friend Jayson, but your innocent comment caught me so off-guard that---well, it will all come in time. Please understand that my race of bats eats only fruits and vegetables, and we have little in common with the horrible little blood-drinkers. Those were called vampire bats, and while the last one is thankfully ages dead, their infamy haunts us still. Rolf was quiet for a moment, then ventured, "May I briefly approach you without causing you to run for your gun or wave that scary knife in my face?"

It was Jayson's turn to blink in surprise, and while he was still apprehensive---and was sure the bat could smell his fear---he eventually nodded his permission. The mysterious creature loosened his wing cocoon and slowly came around the fire, and it was obvious to the lepus that, indeed, Rolf didn't walk with much grace or ease. Still, his dark, fur-and-leather form was imposing, and Jayson automatically shied away when the creature got within reach. Rolf stopped. Jayson momentarily shuddered, then stood his ground. This close, the bat's scent was musky male, yet not really offensive.

"Sorry, friend Jayson. I simply want a better look at the material you are wearing." Eyes wide, Jayson held out a trembling left arm and the bat gingerly extended a spindly wing-strut finger---tipped with an impressive black claw, Jayson noted with alarm---out and lightly stroked the fabric of his sleeve. "This is amazing," Rolf said almost reverently, then retreated to a mutually comfortable distance. "I've only seen such material in an ancient---well, in some amazing ruins we found." He looked sharply at the rabbit and Jayson reflexively flinched. "You…your people didn't make this---cloth---did they?"

"Uh, no. Hundreds of years ago we…we found strangely designed, mysterious structures that contained giant rolls of it. There were other, similar structures nearby that had towering racks of pants and jackets; some of them impossibly tight, others so loose nobody can wear them. We only cover our fur in weather extremes, and as an explorer I have a need for lightweight, highly durable protection. Still, this is far too valuable for ordinary use, and at home we use clothing made from woven plant fiber---when we wear anything at all." Jayson noticed that the bat had a yellow, metallic-looking string around his neck, as well as one around his right ankle. This close he could see that the creature's teeth, while sharp and numerous, weren't the long slashing teeth of a predator. He relaxed a bit more.

"What do you know of your ancient history?" Rolf gently asked.

"What do you mean? We…we believe that we originated somewhere near the ocean, in an area not too distant from where we currently live. Legends say that the gods took woodland creatures we call rabbits and breathed upon them, making the first of our kind. We still have small wild cousins, just like the wolves have slightly smaller feral kin---horrible monsters that kill and eat us when they can." He shivered. "The civilized wolves are the only other intelligent people we knew of until---"

Rolf barked a laugh, interrupting with, "Until I dropped into your life?" Jayson started to say something else but the bat quickly added, "Your reaction told me as much."

"But---how is it we speak the same language, use the same gestures and body language?" the rabbit asked, changing the subject. "We've always known of the civilized wolves, and they of us, and while they eat flesh---" he shivered again "---they prefer to raise and eat mindless creatures called cows. Although we're not exactly friends, we trade goods and co-exist without much trouble." He suddenly yawned. "Sorry."

Rolf sighed while he slowly shook his vulpine-like head. "Let me suggest this, friend Jayson: You've obviously traveled all day, and this is your proper time to sleep. I, on the other hand, slept part of the day and only a short while ago began scouting around. I saw a light where I knew one shouldn't exist, and here I am. But now I'm hungry and my nose tells me there's food not far from here, so I'm going to go fill my belly, look around a bit, maybe take a nap, then I'll meet you back here in the morning."

Jayson was again shocked. You're---not angry? I, uh, guess I'm trespassing on yours or somebody's land, but if you give me a chance I'll go away and---"

"Angry?" the bat barked. "Friend Jayson, I'm thrilled! Like you, I'm an explorer, and when the night's passed and you're rested I want to talk to you. I believe that both our people, as well as the wolves you know and several other species of people yet unknown to you, have linked histories and a common beginning." Rolf barked another quick laugh, adding, "And I think you'll find that beginning to be somewhat different than you imagined."

The bat skipped back a few feet, then spread his wings. "I'll make a sweep of the area to check for danger, and if I find nothing I'll see you in the morning!" And with that Rolf sprang into the air, and with a few powerful beats of his wings---

---Was gone.

 *****

 Chapter 2 - Humble Beginnings 

Jayson didn't sleep well, even compared to how poorly he'd been sleeping most nights on the trail. Slumber was a long time coming since his ears kept automatically straining to pick out unusual sounds in the night---sounds like the return of a very large, very mysterious bat. Even when he did drift off, Jayson woke at least once an hour to nervously scan the small clearing and the moonlit sky for signs of his nocturnal visitor.

Perhaps that was why he overslept, and possibly would have slept well into the day had not the strong morning sunlight finally worked its way into the open end of the tent and onto his face. He squinted hard, took a deep breath and twitched his ears as an insistent fly tried to investigate them, then his eyes popped open in alarm.

"Good mid-morning, friend Jayson," came a cheerful-sounding voice just out of the rabbit's line of sight. Jayson's ears located the voice's source an instant before his blurry eyes did, and they saw the previous night's visitor standing in a patch of sunlight, his wings spread to absorb the welcome warmth. In the daylight Rolf displayed deep reddish-brown fur over most of his body, except for his wings, which were bare black skin. When he swung around to face the front of his body toward the sun Jayson noticed that the bat also sported a small, tapered tail. Something about the way he looked didn't seem quite right, though, and it took Jayson a few groggy moments to realize what it was.

"Your…your eyes! What's---?"

The bat chuckled, then explained, "My people are mostly nocturnal, and while we can see in full daylight, the glare is most uncomfortable. When we are active during the daytime we wear covers over our eyes."

"But---how can you move around if you can't see?"

Again the bat laughed, enjoying Jayson's confusion. "These eye covers are not completely opaque; they simply mute the strength of the sunlight to a bearable intensity."

As he studied them Jayson could see that the dark covers seemed to be nearly twice the size of the bat's eyes, and were a bit less than half a bubble in shape, held securely in place by a pair of thin strings attached to the covers' edges. Rolf reached a spindly finger up and lifted one cover slightly. His shiny dark eye could be momentarily seen beneath the hemispherical cover, then it was again hidden when the cover was released.

"I didn't, uh, see you carrying them last night," Jayson hesitantly ventured, embarrassed at admitting that he'd studied the creature's body.

"I didn't have them with me last night," Rolf stated, suddenly distracted by an itch below the back of his neck.

Jayson found that this was getting stranger and stranger. "Did you go home and get them?"

"Home?" the bat replied with a surprised bark. "Friend Jayson, I wasn't joking last night when I told you I was an explorer. My home is many flight days from here, and while I don't carry as much equipment as you, I still travel with certain essentials. My eye covers---they're called sunshades---were back at my camp."

Oh.

"And now, friend Jayson, if you have no objections, I think it's time we talked. You have camp-related duties to perform, and at some point I'm sure you would like breakfast." The bat waved a wingtip at a two-foot-square piece of close-mesh netting, upon which was a stack of fruits, berries and fleshy leaves. "As I also stated last night, I think you'll find we share similar dietary habits." While the rabbit stared wide-eyed at the variety of foodstuffs Rolf had brought him, the bat added, "I'll wager that, like us, your kind instinctively knows what's good to eat, and what's not."

By this time Jayson had climbed out of his sleeping bag and begun grooming his fur with a long-bristled brush. When done he padded over to inspect the food, and after picking up a small, strange-looking fruit he carefully sniffed it, then touched a tiny pink tongue tip to it. Moments later he popped it into his mouth and found the flavor delightful. "What---?"

"Sorry, friend Jayson, but I have no idea what it's called. I just know that it tastes wonderful, and when I first saw them I ate so many that they---disturbed my digestion." He barked a rueful laugh, then laughed again when Jayson looked concerned. "There's no need for alarm; my distress was completely of my own doing. The humans called eating to excess 'making a pig out of oneself'. While we know what pigs looked like, sadly, there are none left alive."

"Wait!" Jayson said with a start. "What's a…a hu-man? We know of many legendary creatures, as well as some that were supposed to have actually lived ages ago, but I've never heard of an animal called a hu-man."

Rolf sighed. "We really do need to talk, friend Jayson, but before we do that I have an unusual-sounding request." The rabbit's eyes widened a bit, but his instinctive paranoia didn't raise any alarms. "Last night you were understandably cautious about me, but I hope that in the light of day you can see that I mean you no harm---in fact, with your impressive teeth, powerful legs and claws, you are more of a threat to me than I am to you." The bat let Jayson digest that for a moment, then continued, "Since neither of us have ever seen each other's kind before, I propose a closer mutual inspection." Jayson's eyes again widened and he tensed, and the bat quickly added, "I propose nothing rude or 'improper', friend Jayson; it's just that with a better understanding of what we are, there exists much less chance of future misunderstandings. To this point you and I have mostly kept a comfortable distance between us, but there may come a time that, for mutual aid or benefit, we might need to rely on one another's inherent abilities."

Jayson was astonished. If the bat isn't lying, he reasoned, the creature must be as nervous about this meeting as I am. "You…you're afraid---of me?"

And by looking closely at Rolf, Jayson found that he could, indeed, read at least some of the bat's body language, and the creature truly did appear to be somewhat apprehensive. "Friend Jayson," the dark creature answered, "not even considering your large knife and pistol---of which I have nothing equivalent---if your kind have physical abilities similar to those of your small, wild cousins, then yes, you could say I am understandably nervous about having you within striking distance." This time the bat's barking laugh seemed forced. "Rabbits are solidly built and strong, while we bats are relatively fragile."

"I thank you for the wonderful food," Jayson said, "and if your idea of an 'inspection' isn't as obnoxious as those often done by wolves," and he laughed, "then I guess there's no harm in it."

The bat cocked his fox-like head in a perplexed manner, then ventured, "I'm sorry, friend Jayson, but while I know that civilized wolves exist, I've never seen them, and I don't know what kind of 'inspection' you're talking about."

This time Jayson really did laugh, and when he settled down he explained, "If you've observed the wild ones, you've probably seen their greeting and inspection rituals---rituals that are also used by their larger civilized kin."

Rolf seemed shocked. "You mean---licking and sniffing each other's---?"

"Yeah," Jayson finished. "Having your butt goosed by a cold wolf nose is almost the worst thing I can imagine."

The bat added, "I would think our females would, for obvious reasons, resent it even more."

"I've not seen your…your females, Rolf, but I know that our females are outraged by it, as well as several other offensive things they are known to do."

*****

A solid hour passed while the two explorers politely studied each other's physiology, and Rolf was as much amazed at how Jayson's body was adapted for bipedal walking as the rabbit was at Rolf's huge, leathery wings. Jayson's skeletal structure, as well as the shape of his skull and placement of his eyes, varied somewhat from that of his small wild cousins. His hips were rotated to allow him a comfortably erect stance, his rear legs and feet were articulated to better support an upright body position and his front legs were true arms, proportionally longer than his wild cousins' front legs and fitted with stubby-fingered, dexterous hands on the ends instead of simple animal paws. While he still had a rabbit-like muzzle and tall, erect ears, his eyes were set in the front of his face, giving him true binocular vision.

But he still had a properly expressive rabbit tail.

Rolf's species was directly related to fruit bats, also known as "flying foxes", mainly called that because of their vulpine-like heads. He regularly used his long-toed feet in place of "hands" since, like true bats, his arms, hands and fingers were incredibly long and spindly, and were connected by thin leathery skin. His kind were strict vegetarians, and also enjoyed the wild bat's natural sonar capabilities. While his eyes were well adapted for low-light conditions, he could comfortably navigate in total darkness, seeing solely by reflected ultrasonic sound.

"You mean," Jayson asked, amazed, "that you don't really need your eyes at night?"

"All bats have that capability," Rolf explained, "and many of the little flyers you notice flittering around in the darkness are not birds, but are instead bats chasing down and feeding on bugs." He softly chuckled. "Even though you were well-hidden from my eye sight under that bush last night, my ear sight showed me not only where you were, but that you had both your pistol and your knife with you."

He sighed. "Unlike the small, wild rabbits that are your kin, you'll never see my direct ancestors. Fruit bats lived in a terribly far-off land, and the humans only brought them here for their amusement---and other things."

One thing was plainly evident: While the bat appeared to be reasonably clean, he was obviously plagued with fleas. After the fourth pause in their "studies" to allow Rolf to contort himself enough to scratch vigorously behind his neck with a foot, Jayson carefully ventured, "You don't have any kind of vermin repellant?" To the bat's sharply barked negative---he was still busily chasing the flea---Jayson asked, "What do you do about them---other than scratch?"

The bat was almost breathless from his contorted exercise, and after he straightened up and absently brushed at the back of his neck with a long finger he said, "We spend time every day grooming each other. Other than smelly poisons that oftentimes make us sick, we know of no other way to get rid of the little devils." Rolf seemed to stare at the rabbit for a moment before adding, "Yet I've not seen you chase the first flea, friend Jayson. May I ask how you manage to ignore them?"

The rabbit laughed, then said, "I love them no more than you, but we make and the wolves buy from us an odorless powder that most bugs hate. I dust myself with it daily. If you'd like I'll let you try it---"

"Thank you for your kind offer, friend Jayson, but I will pass on the powder for now. It would be my luck to have a bad reaction to it---such things do happen, you know---and with no medical treatment available this far from home, I could die." The rabbit nodded; he knew what allergic reactions were like. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble, though," the bat ventured, "I'd appreciate it if you could try to catch the little monster that seems to have moved down between my shoulders."

Rolf squatted on his short haunches and steadied himself by bracing his wingtips against a nearby tree. Actually touching the alien creature was something Jayson hadn't planned to do, but as a fellow fur-bearing person, he couldn't very well refuse the bat's request. "Where exactly between your shoulders?" he asked, and was almost poked by a long, claw-tipped finger as Rolf guided Jayson directly to the offending flea. After a moment digging through the bat's short, silky pelt the rabbit spied the tiny black vermin as it tried to make its escape. A quick finger pinch and a quicker pop between Jayson's large front teeth took care of the flea, and Jayson spat the bug's remains onto the ground.

"That fast?" the bat asked, amazed. "I can't believe you caught it so quickly! Your eyes must be far better than ours to do such a thing." He chuckled, adding, "You could become very popular selling your services to our flea-plagued citizens, friend Jayson, so you might not want to spread the word about your wonderful flea-chasing powder too soon."

"But---"

"I know, I know---I'm getting ahead of myself," Rolf stated as he stood and turned to face the rabbit once more. "I humbly thank you for your help, friend Jayson, and now it's time to tell you of amazing wonders, dark horrors and the people---not gods!---responsible for the very existence of all intelligent life in this world today.

"They were a species of nearly furless biped animals called humans. Some think of them as gods, but in reality they were merely blood and bones, in many ways not all that different from any of us.

"Humans were of one species but several races, and those minor racial differences led to senseless slaughter and suffering beyond our comprehension. They also worshipped a multitude of artificial deities apparently designed by their spiritual leaders to be loving yet childishly vengeful, and always mutually incompatible with other gods. Their gods were supposed to be perfect, but it doesn't take an intellectual giant to see that the gods were simply neurotic reflections of their own faults and weaknesses."

"How…how do you know this?" Jayson asked, shocked. "You speak of nightmare creatures, not powerful, wonderful beings capable of…of---"

"Friend Jayson," the bat said, "hundreds of years ago my people found extensive historical records buried deep inside an artificial cave. Apparently we were supposed to find them once we reached a sufficient level of civilization, and since then we have found additional records that confirm what we learned earlier. Have you not wondered why you and I speak the same language? Don't you and the civilized wolves easily converse, and haven't you wondered why, considering your vast differences, that such a thing is possible?" The rabbit's eyes were wide, his mouth open in stunned silence. "We know of three other intelligent species, and we all speak a common language, a universal language designed and developed by the humans to be suitable to our individual physical forms. It's not, however, the common language used by humans, since such a thing apparently did not exist. Part of what we found in that first discovery was a device that, even after what we discovered to be thousands of years of storage, still worked well enough and long enough to show us what they looked like, how they moved, and even how they sounded. But friend Jayson," the bat said dramatically, "even that was not the most amazing part of all this."

Jayson's curiosity was like an infestation of lively fleas, making him twitch and shiver in almost every part of his body. He thought that if the bat didn't tell him this "most amazing part", he would surely bite or rip or kick it out of him.

"You should hear this sitting down, friend Jayson, because the shock may make you faint."

"Nothing could be that terrible," the rabbit complained, but he grudgingly complied with Rolf's suggestion.

"The humans were masters of biological processes we can't even begin to understand," the bat explained, "and they applied those processes not only to themselves, but also to our smaller, wild cousins." Jayson nodded; this dovetailed with his own religious views. "But they didn't create our kind out of benevolence or wonderful motives." Rolf's thin, black lips drew back in a snarl.

"We were pets, really nothing more than…than slaves."

Jayson was caught completely off-guard by the bat's revelation. He'd expected some mysterious motive, some lofty reason. Discovering that one's entire people were nothing more than playthings to cruel, disgusting-sounding creatures was something he'd never even dreamed of.

"Even now," Rolf growled, "were a human to walk up to a civilized wolf, the wolf would have to submit, to serve; they were carefully bred to be that way. Actually, they were bred to be totally loyal bodyguards, just like you rabbits were bred to be---well, besides playthings for their children, the humans apparently used many of your kind for sexual amusement." By this time Jayson had quit twitching; he was, in fact, literally numb with shock.

"My own kind were also kept for amusement, often for nothing more than…than 'sex toys', but there weren't that many of us because, unlike you rabbits, we weren't considered all that attractive. Still, because we can fly we were considered to be very exotic, and only the wealthiest could afford to…to buy and keep us. There were other species bred for other reasons, and some of them remain unknown to us. Since we are apparently the only ones they created who can fly, some of us spend as much time as we can afford in exploration. Finding you and the wolves you speak of is a major discovery, friend Jayson. That brings the total of unaccounted-for species down to three, and we have no indication that any members of those remaining species still survive."

Jayson was not only numb, he was experiencing emotional overload. Sex toys? Were the humans truly monsters, or were they simply insane? Was there really a difference? Did it even matter? Rolf explained in graphic detail exactly how the humans utilized their living "sex toys", and Jayson, young, unmated and still quite naïve about certain physiological processes, became increasingly outraged. Eventually he reached a point where he felt as if he would explode, and in fact he did release some of the psychological stress in a "dying rabbit" scream that literally scared the piss out of Rolf. The bat started so suddenly and violently when Jayson belted out his anguished cry that he momentarily lost control of his bladder. Pungent yellow bat urine squirted in various directions as the terrified creature frantically beat and clawed his way into the air and away from the incredibly loud wail of the outraged rabbit.

Several minutes passed during which Rolf calmed himself by swooping and gliding in the cool, above-treetop winds. On the ground Jayson, his fury now spent and his dignity bruised by the knowledge that he'd scared his new friend so badly, found a non-bat scent-stained section of the clearing and sprawled on the ground to await the flying creature's return.

In time Rolf swooped low and flared out to a less-than-perfect landing. "Friend Jayson, I am sorry for---"

"Rolf---friend---it is I who owe you an apology," Jayson interrupted. "Had you done something like what I did to you, I would have probably provided the foliage with both water and fertilizer." He barked a sharp, humorless laugh, then added, "Having my religious world turned completely upside down was quite a shock, and I guess I'm still somewhat numb. It's not every day you find that the gods you give credit to for breathing life into your people actually lived, but were, in fact, demons more vile than your worst nightmares."

The bat slowly shook his head, saying, "But you didn't let me finish, friend Jayson. Not all humans were monsters." The rabbit started like his tail had been tweaked, and Rolf quickly continued, "There were a LOT of humans---many billions of them. They ruled the land for thousands of years, and during that time they built great civilizations and did wondrous things, including artwork that even now defies comprehension. They also wrote countless volumes of philosophy and created music that evokes emotions we didn't know existed."

He carefully folded himself onto the ground near the rabbit. "Despite all of their flaws, friend Jayson, some of them really were like gods. But in their greatness there was also great ego, and a far greater evil. Their science and technology is like magic to us. We understand many of their written languages and can read of the marvels they did, but we have no means to duplicate the machines that made the devices that helped them do their miracles---as well as their evils."

"How do you know all this, Rolf? Why haven't my people, or even the wolves, heard of this?"

The bat sighed, then said, "From what we can only suppose, friend Jayson, your people, along with many other 'created' species, fled into the wild during the nightmare times I've not yet told you about. You see, we furs (that's what they called all the non-human people---'furs') didn't rise up in revolt like you would think an enraged group of slaves should do. No, we were well controlled, both by conditioning and by the selective breeding that helped create us in the first place. Pain-inducing collars managed those individuals that showed any hint of rebellion. If the fur did something a human master didn't like, the fur was punished---severely. No, what brought about our ancestors' freedom was the total collapse of the human civilization."

Rolf shoved his vulpine muzzle close to the rabbit's nose. "They murdered themselves!"

Jayson's back was comfortably warm from the sun, but he felt a sudden chill skitter down his spine. "How? Why?"

"One of their countless biological experiments turned on them, friend Jayson. They had produced a…a special virus, a kind of controlled sickness that could often be used to fight physical ailments. They had done it many, many times before. They had even used special viruses on our primitive, wild ancestors. Those viruses helped change us at the most basic level, eventually making us into what we are today."

The bat clacked his jaws for emphasis. "Only this time the virus they created turned against them, and before they could devise a means to fight it the virus killed them, killed them down to the last individual." His voice sounded weak, almost crying. "It killed over eight billion people---and it killed our gods."

Jayson was again speechless. He couldn't imagine that large a number of anything, much less nearly hairless, ugly biped monsters. And he certainly couldn't imagine that many people dying at their own hand. And why was the bat saying on one hand that the humans were not gods, yet moments later claiming just the opposite? "I ask you again, Rolf---how do you know all this?"

"That's the most incredible part, friend Jayson. Their ages-dead scientists told us!" Jayson was about ready to physically attack the bat out of sheer frustration, but before he could do that the creature added, "Some of them really did love us, as parents or…or gods must love their children. You remember I told you we discovered an amazing device that showed us what the humans looked like, and how they sounded?" The rabbit nodded. "It displayed moving, life-like images, and those images spoke to us!

"The humans the device showed us were scientists, and they were dying. But before they died they explained to us many of the things I told you, and they told us where and how to find out more. Much more." The bat's voice momentarily became flat, dull. "We learned of things, terrible things, things that nobody should ever know. Things that we are forbidden by our own leaders to even discuss, much less pass on to other species."

Rolf reached a spidery-fingered hand to Jayson's shoulder. "Friend Jayson," the bat whispered intently, "they knew how to melt the world! The humans had the ability to make this entire world burn like the sun up in the sky! Some of their leaders actually threatened to…to do that if other leaders refused to do their bidding! They fought horrible wars beyond anything we can comprehend to keep the evil leaders from carrying out their threats, yet after losing millions of soldiers and civilians in these senseless wars, they turned around and loosened a virus on themselves. That…that plague killed them just as completely as if they had unleashed the world-melting weapons."

Jayson was surprised when the bat removed his sunshades and wiped tears from his large, dark eyes. "Those few scientists I spoke of used their last desperate hours of life trying to convince us that they weren't all evil, and they begged us not to hate them as a species." Rolf wiped his eyes again, and sniffed ineffectively at his running nose. "Friend Jayson, they had no idea who---or even exactly what---might ever find their message, yet they spent their final moments telling us what monsters they were, and…and pleading for forgiveness!" The bat mewed in a pitiful hiccupping squeal that Jayson realized was the creature's way of weeping.

"They gave us every reason to hate them, and while we do hate what some of them did, we…we also love them for giving us life!" Rolf was literally pleading for the rabbit's understanding. "Is it---is it so wrong to love monstrous gods when…when so many of them actually loved you?" He collapsed into a sobbing heap.

Jayson didn't know exactly what to do, but he instinctively felt the bat's need for society, for the reassuring closeness of others. Moving slowly so as not to startle the distraught creature, Jayson crawled over to the sobbing bat and gathered his strange body up in his arms, as one would comfort a heartbroken child. Rabbits huddle together for security and bats live in colonies for a similar reason, and Jayson unknowingly provided exactly what his friend desperately needed---companionship. There was nothing sexual in Jayson's action, nor did Rolf respond in an improper way. The bat clutched at Jayson and cried on the rabbit's shoulder like someone who had just lost a parent.

As time passed Jayson thought of what had been, and what had been lost, and he, too, wept.

 

*****

Chapter 3 - Reasons 

Darkness wasn't far off, and both Jayson and Rolf were working to move the rabbit's camp to a better location---one that hadn't been widely scent-marked with pungent bat urine.

"Rolf, if you apologize one more time about spoiling my campsite I'll scream again, and then we'll have to do this all over again." The lepus was pragmatic about the accident; he simply wanted a better-smelling place to spend the night. "And if I don't have time to find some food, I'm going to be looking long and hard at you. Those few berries I ate before you piddled all over the landscape ran out long ago." He showed his impressive front teeth to the bat. Rolf yelped and bounce-flapped out of reach, then stared apprehensively at the rabbit before deciding that the comment had been made in jest. Maybe.

"The final thing you need is to build a fire pit, right?" the bat eventually asked, and received an ear-wagging nod in return. "Fine. Do that and I'll go find food for us both. Then, with your permission, friend Jayson, I'll move my camp to the corner of this clearing. I really don't like sleeping alone."

The rabbit paused in his work to scowl at the dark creature. "There's not enough room in my tent for both of us, and---"

"No-no!" the bat injected. "I would simply like to have someone nearby. My camp is several miles away, and while I, like you, am relatively self-sufficient, I believe in the wise adage of "safety in numbers", even when the numbers are very small."

Jayson resumed working on his small fire pit. "I certainly have no objection, but the corner you pointed out doesn't have much room to pitch a tent or---"

"I don't sleep in a tent, friend Jayson, and I have very little equipment, so I don't need much space on the ground." He made sure he had room for his wings, then he called as he bounced into the air, "I'll be back!"

And with a few puffs of swirling dust, Rolf was gone.

***** 

The rabbit's water bag was almost empty, but at this point he wasn't worried; his kind received much of their daily liquid from the food they ate. Come tomorrow he would look for a stream. Food, however, was another matter. His empty stomach was cramping painfully, and he was reluctantly beginning to eye the nearby scraggly undergrowth.

Night had descended upon the small campsite with the speed of his bat friend's swooping landings, and Jayson had a small, cheery fire going and a pot of herbal tea heading toward a boil. His large ears automatically oriented on a faint swooshing sound, and before his eyes could find its source the bat swooped in to deposit a netful of vegetables and fruit. Releasing the grounded net that had been clutched in his foot claws, he flapped a short distance away and made a dignified landing.

"Dinner is served!" the bat cheerfully announced, and after hobbling back toward the booty, he lent a foot to help a wide-eyed Jayson unwrap the net. "Like this morning, I don't have names for most of these tasty wonders, but I've eaten all of them at one time or another, and I think you'll approve of the selection."

"Approve?" the rabbit cried as he examined the haul. "This is…is great! Thank you, Rolf!" Jayson began poking food into his mouth, but a few minutes later he noticed that the bat was not eating. "Whumnf rrunhk?" he mumbled unintelligibly, his cheeks bulging with juicy fruit. After a time he swallowed and tried it again. "What's wrong? You're not eating."

The bat barked a soft chuckle. "I sampled while I was collecting, friend Jayson. When you've eaten your fill I may top off my stomach---if there is anything left." He laughed again and the rabbit resumed eating, but the lepus made sure to leave some of everything for his new friend to eat.

When they were both done only husks and rinds remained, and Jayson directed the bat to the small pot of herbal tea. "With your long, thin muzzle you might prefer to drink this from a bowl," the rabbit said as he portioned the hot liquid into containers. "While I have no sweetener for it, this tea is not bitter like some, and it warms the body before sleep." Jayson suddenly blinked, then added, "Oh. I forgot; this isn't your normal time to sleep."

"While my wild kin live a mostly nocturnal life, one of the first things we had to learn when we were forced to fend for ourselves as sentient beings was to live our lives by the 'clock of necessity', and not by the hour of the day or night." When it appeared that Jayson didn't understand the reference, Rolf explained, "There are many things that are better done during the light of day---exploring being but one of them---so we learned to function effectively regardless of where the sun is."

"When you found me---?"

"I had flown and explored until I grew tired, then I made my simple camp and slept until nearly dark. As an explorer, I know to look for signs of civilization at appropriate times. During the day I look for plumes of smoke as well as obviously artificial constructs. Shortly after dark I look for lights and fires where none would naturally exist. I saw both the smoke from your campfire just before dark and then its glow once the area had been plunged into darkness."

Rolf accepted a small metal bowl partly filled with hot tea. The bowl was too hot for him to hold with a bare foot so he set it on the ground and, crouching low, daintily lapped at the steaming liquid with a shockingly long, red tongue. Jayson had a small metal cup with a loop handle, which allowed him to hold the cup without burning his stubby fingers. He alternated blowing gently on the liquid and sipping noisily from the cup.

"This tea is wonderful!" the bat cheerfully exclaimed. He carefully fanned the bowl with part of one wing, then lapped for a few moments before repeating the process. It didn't take long before the bowl was empty, and Rolf looked longingly at the small pouch containing the remaining supply of tea leaves.

Jayson laughed, then explained, "It's not a good idea to drink much of it before going to sleep. If you do, your bladder will wake you in the middle of the night, and you will pee three times the amount you drank." The bat nodded his head; evidently he was familiar with similar drinks.

"Tomorrow---" Rolf began, then yawned heavily. "Tomorrow, friend Jayson, I would like to find out why you are out here all alone. You know why I'm exploring, but from what you've told me we are not looking for the same 'treasures'." He yawned again. "For now, though, I bid you a good night. I will sleep better knowing you are near." The bat stood, then made his clumsy to the nearby corner of the small clearing where his tiny pack rested on the ground. He dug in it with a foot, then extracted a long, thin sheet of tightly-woven dark fabric. Rolf bounced into the air and flapped up to a relatively thin horizontal branch some twenty feet above the ground, then flipped over and grabbed the branch with his free foot, all in one quick motion. This left him dangling upside down by the prehensile foot, which was wrapped entirely around the small branch. Using his long clawed fingertips and the free foot the bat wrapped and tucked the cloth around both his legs, then grasped the branch with the second foot. In moments he had swirled the cloth over his back and wings, then he totally cocooned himself with his cloth-covered wings.

"In the warmer land where I live," his sleepy, muffled voice explained, "we don't use artificial coverings at all, and I could get by without it even now, but why be uncomfortable when you don't have to be?"

"Why, indeed?" Jayson muttered as he snuggled deep into his own artificial nest. It was strange, he thought just before sleep claimed him, but knowing the bat was sleeping high in the nearby tree made him more at ease than he'd been since leaving home. However, what he planned to reveal might make the bat wish he'd never left the comforts of his colony.

Tomorrow.

*****

Tomorrows invariably turn into todays, and some mornings are better than others. Sunrise found the campsite layered with generous dew, and what woke Jayson was the fact that his long ears, the only part of him outside of the sleeping bag, were both cold and wet. He shivered, then crawled out to greet the strengthening light. Rolf was still high up in his tree, and looked for all the world like an enormous, brown fabric butterfly cocoon. Jayson dug a long-bristled brush out of his backpack and vigorously attacked his matted fur, finishing with his soggy ears. The bat still hadn't stirred, so Jayson picked up a small seed cone and, tossing it gently, bounced it off the hanging figure.

For several moments the cocoon showed no sign of life, and Jayson was contemplating repeating the assault with greater enthusiasm. Then, in one quick, continuous movement, the fabric cover and the underlying leathery wings unfolded, and Rolf, hanging head-down, greeted the morning light with muttered curses and squinty eyes.

"And a good morning to you, too!" the rabbit called, laughing. "I'm glad to see nothing crawled up the tree and made a meal of you, but of course such a monster would, no doubt, have dined on my poor body first."

"I have no doubt," the bat drolly replied, "that your energetic screams would have awakened me in time for me to make my escape." Both creatures laughed, then the bat fluttered to the ground where he shook the dampness off the strange, moisture resistant cloth and returned it to his tiny pack. "While I doubt we'll be staying here another night, friend Jayson, I'll be considerate and relieve myself of last night's tea elsewhere." He donned his sunshades and grabbed a fine mesh net in one foot before bouncing into the air. "And I'll bring us back some breakfast!" the bat called as he flapped energetically away.

Jayson watched the dark figure until it disappeared over the treetops, then briefly shook his head. "Bats."

*****

The sun hadn't climbed much higher before Rolf was back, and like the day before, he'd returned with an abundance of tasty fruits and vegetables. Also like the day before, he'd eaten while he gathered, which meant most of what he brought back was for his ground-bound friend. This time, however, Jayson ate slower, and while he ate he satisfied the bat's curiosity as to why he was exploring. Unfortunately, it was not what the bat expected to hear.

"Rolf, while you range far and wide, happily looking for the 'long lost' people of your legends, I and my people have a much more pressing reason to explore." The bat blinked, confused. "We live in clusters of towns along the ocean shoreline, in the more moderate climate zone. From what you told me yesterday, your people must live well south from us, in the warmer parts of the land."

"True, friend Jayson. The humans created us in vast laboratories located in areas where we would be comfortable. We found highly detailed maps that show this land we know of as home is but one of several enormous land masses, all of them once inhabited and ruled by the humans." He sighed. "Everything we are, everything we've done is but a fly speck compared to their might and glory."

The rabbit momentarily growled, "Insignificant though we may be, at least my people, and I hope yours, don't make slaves out of lesser beings."

"No!" Rolf quickly responded. "And neither do any of the other people we know. We were all once there, and the idea horrifies us."

"Well, friend bat, it's time you got used to the idea, because there is a power from across the ocean that plans to bring that very horror back to our land, and soon." The bat's mouth hung open in disbelief as Jayson continued. "Two months ago a strange-looking, battered boat was found beached on our shoreline. Both below and on the deck were bodies of a type of creature we never knew existed outside our nightmares. They had apparently been through a terrible storm and suffered fatal injuries during the experience, but cold weather may have played a factor in killing them, too. In itself, such a discovery would not cause us to panic, but there was one deciding factor that could not be ignored.

"One of them was still alive."

"What did they look like?" the bat squealed, excitement momentarily overriding Jayson's grim mood. "It's possible they are one of those species we seek!"

"If so," the rabbit stated dully, "then in finding them you will doom your people to a fate far worse than even the humans envisioned." That statement brought Rolf's excitement to an abrupt end, and he waited apprehensively for Jayson to continue. "Whatever their origin---and I suspect it was at the hands of the humans---and whatever the reason for their original existence, they now exist for no other reason than to expand, conquer and kill. They are very powerful, they are incredibly cruel, they eat only flesh---any flesh, all flesh---and they are migrating to our land."

The bat was so terrified he couldn't keep still. Jayson's low-key delivery hadn't muted the gravity of the message, and while Rolf wanted to hear more about the invaders---desperately needed to hear more---his fear wouldn't allow him to stay on the ground. After frantically trying to look in every direction at once the chiropteran retreated to the only safety his kind knew, the air.

Jayson understood fear; his people lived in uneasy truce with so-called civilized wolves. He also knew of occasional incidents---all carefully suppressed for fear of causing universal panic---whereby their supposedly civilized lupine neighbors had dined in secret on the flesh of their civilized, intelligent rabbit neighbors. One such victim had been his childhood friend, and Jayson even knew one of the wolves that had been involved in the killing---and the eating. Still, to help maintain the dubious peace between their two species, everyone had to pretend such horrendous things didn't happen.

Rolf had flown off screeching mindlessly, and after a few moments the lepus simply resumed packing his equipment for travel. The bat would either come to his senses and return, or not. There was nothing Jayson could do to bring him back, so instead of fretting about something over which he had no control he made ready to continue his exploration of the hidden valley. This was the most promising place he'd found as a refuge, a place of safety for his people who were currently living along the soon-to-be-invaded seacoast.

The wolves defiantly stated that they wouldn't allow anyone to force them from their home. That attitude suited Jayson just fine. With luck, he mused, the invading monsters would kill them all.

 


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