Legion Worlds; Starhaven
Ayla was bored, bored, bored on monitor duty, so much so, that when Dawnstar passed through the room, clearly headed out, Ayla quickly said the first thing she could think of to strike up a conversation.
“Dawny, why do you flap your wings in space?”
Dawnstar stopped, hand on the door-frame, and looked back at her team-mate, who continued nervously.
“I mean, there’s no air, so is it just habit?”
Dawnstar tilted her head for a moment, unconsciously bird-like, and stepped back into the room before answering. “Like any muscle, the muscles in my wings cramp up if I hold them in the same position too long, so I flex them from time to time, even in space.” She adds with an edge to her tone, “And my name is Dawnstar, not ‘Dawny.’”
As she speaks the statuesque woman begins raking her fingers through the feathers of one wing, which has partially folded down in front of her, separating and preening the individual feathers. Her face appears distantly amused as she regards the now-silent Ayla, “Did you think up any other questions, or is monitory duty so boring that your brain has gone numb and you just want to scream?”
Ayla’s face falls, and she admits, “That last one, about screaming, yeah. Is it bad to wish for a disaster?”
“Maybe so, but I also am bad, if that is the case. I do not enjoy the waiting.” Dawnstar admits.
Ayla laughs, before they both grow quiet, and before the moment fades, pipes up again, “Do you even have to flap your wings at all? Even in atmo, you break the sound barrier, and your wings barely move half the time…”
Dawnstar stretches luxuriously, her magnificent wings reaching out over two meters on either side. “On Starhaven, where the gravity is less than that of Earth, our wings are still not mechanically sufficient to bear our weight. The treatments designed to prevent bone loss and muscle degeneration in the low gravity of Starhaven had an unusual side-effect in a small percentage of the earlier settlers, strengthening their molecular bonds and suffusing them with inter-atomic energy that can be tapped into to strengthen our frames, support our weight, toughen our skin and allow us to survive extended periods in harsh environments.”
“The first generation,” she continues, “could hold their breath for forty-five minutes. And their children passed on the trait, until, dozens of generations later, every native of Starhaven reacted to the treatments this way.”
Ayla processes this before some part of her brain objects, “Dozens of generations? I thought that Starhaven was a relatively young colony?”
Dawnstar smiles, “If you search the right records, you’ll find that our ‘colony’ is older than our presence on Earth. Our legends tell us that we came to Earth from the stars, to escape an Ancient Enemy. Our buried kivas and cliff-dwellings built under ceilings of overhanging stone were designed to hide our peoples from the view of pursuers from above, not mere land-bound threats, which concerned us not at all.”
“Ancient Enemy?” Ayla repeated questioningly.
“The stories are unclear. Perhaps it was an alien race. Perhaps it was a space monster of some sort. Perhaps it was even a civil war with members of our own species.” Dawnstar concedes. “Whatever the threat, my people came from the stars to hide, following the Secret Ways to this world. After a time, it was determined that the threat was gone, and we returned the same way to Starhaven. Our own records are confused, having been told and retold by storytellers over thousands of years, and many believe that we came from another world entirely, before we came to Earth, and that Starhaven was our third home. Others say that we have always lived thus, and that our visit to the North American continent was not our first visit to Earth, and that we have had many homes on many worlds, in times that are no longer remembered.”
“What are these ‘Secret Ways?’ Did your people have space travel, thousands of years before Earth?” Ayla asks, head now propped on her fists as she regards her teammate attentively.
“We call them secret, and keep the mystery…” Dawnstar begins, before grinning slightly, “because we don’t know.” She continues, “I suspect there was some sort of wormhole or stargate system in place, although the means to locate and trigger it have been lost, perhaps deliberately, if it led to regions controlled by dangerous forces, or was being used to transport our enemies into our places of refuge. Perhaps our ancestors destroyed the Secret Ways, and then obscured all traces of their nature, to prevent them from being re-discovered, or repaired?”
“Your people didn’t have wings, when you were on Earth, right?”
“No, it was on Starhaven that a geneticist first developed a technique to grant wings to a select few volunteers, hoping that the low-gravity of Starhaven combined with the inter-atomic strengthening regimen we had developed would allow them to clumsily fly.” She continues to preen her feathers with the fingers of her hands, working on the other wing this time. “The experiment was successful, but his safety protocols were not sufficient. A deranged individual broke into his laboratory and flushed the gene-altering virus into the water supply, causing every resident of Starhaven to begin mutating out of control. Our population at the time was only in the thousands, and within a months’ time, all had wings.”
“Some few, very, very few, chose to undergo corrective genetic surgery, to have their wings removed, but for the greatest part, we embraced the change, and a culture that had been very traditional and insular embraced this new freedom, this third dimension, with relish. It was as if our people, after many centuries living in hiding from an Ancient Enemy that had faded into a tale to frighten children, had stepped finally into the sun. Our population exploded across Starhaven, and, possibly for the first time in our history, we considered developing colony worlds of our own, instead of living in environments that other cultures deemed too inhospitable to support life.”
Dawnstar is silent for a time before continuing, “But the gene-altering mutation was not entirely without flaw.” She steps over to the computer and calls up some data, her fingers dancing over the keys, despite Ayla never having seen her work a computer before. As the data scrolls into view, Dawnstar reads aloud, “Approximately 1 in 100 children born on Starhaven have claws instead of fingernails and toenails, and some choose corrective genetic surgery to remove those claws, while far more choose genetic modification to instead grow these claws, as it has become,” her face twists into a scowl, “’trendy.’ One in 12 grow feathers among their hair, with some developing only feathers, in place of hair. Some male children even develop feathers in place of body hair, although this is much rarer.” Reading on, she continues, “Two in three has sharper than human-normative eyesight, from three to ten times human norms,” she looks up, “including myself,” before continuing, “with a third of those having eyes of avian appearance.” she looks up again flashing her warm brown eyes, “Not including myself, obviously.”
“The only mutation that is universally corrected with genetic surgery is the one in 200 children that is born with a beak-like structure in place of nose and mouth, as our people believe that to obscure your face is a sign of dishonesty and disrespect. Because of that custom, we’ve always had a problem with the Thanagarians…”
“Because of those beak-helmets the ambassadors always wear?” Ayla finishes.
“Correct.” Dawnstar accedes. “I could also claim that the mask was the reason why I was so often in conflict with Sensor, when she was Legion leader.” Dawnstar says, sounding hesitant for the first time, “But that would not be the entire truth of it.”
Ayla keeps her counsel, allowing Dawnstar the option of continuing on in this revelation, or changing the topic.
“I am… independent.” Dawnstar begins. “Perhaps others would say instead over-proud, or stubborn, or headstrong. Certainly my parents used such terms often.” she admits ruefully. “Sensor is a queen of her people, and brought a certain commanding style to her leadership that I found offensive, at times, as if she was demanding a level of respect more appropriate to her subjects back on Orando, than her Legion peers.” She pauses before softening her tone, “I don’t mean to place the blame on Projectra, as I was the one who rankled at her tone. She did not deliberately set out to provoke me, and I am responsible for my own feelings.”
Ayla senses that it is time to change the topic, as it has veered into uncomfortably close, for Dawnstar, at least, and she offers her a way out, “So, back to the flight thing, you said that your wings weren’t large enough to even let you fly on Starhaven, but that growing wings changed your society?”
Dawnstar looks startled at first that Ayla has changed the topic, but then relieved, as she plunges on to the new subject. “The process that strengthened our internal energies, I may have mentioned, also partially supported our weight, in addition to strengthening our frames, and the combined effect allowed us to fly, clumsily at first.” She flicks some more data up on the screen, as if to refresh her memory, and Ayla is relieved to see that her stance is again confident, “Over time, our people learned to tap into these energies, to direct them as a form of propulsive force, and the larger our frames, the more potential energy we seemed to contain, so that those with wings found themselves able to generate thrust from the energy stored within the wings, in addition to by simply using the wings themselves.”
“But you can hit lightspeed, out of atmosphere, and break the sound barrier in atmo…” Ayla begins questioningly.
“One in a thousand of us benefits from a rare mutation that allows us to endure a hundred times more of the stabilization treatment than normal. I have so much potential energy stored within me that I can lift myself off of the ground without ever beating a wing, and propel myself at great speeds. The energy also strengthens my body to handle great accelerations that would crush the organs of an unprotected person, and resist the effects of friction and micro-impacts during high speed travel.” She looks up, “But I am not invulnerable. It would be logical to assume that the more energy I use for thrust, the less would be available for protection, but, for reasons I do not understand, the faster I go, the stronger my protection becomes, so that when I am flying in space, at near the speed of light, I only have to avoid visible space debris, which my tracking powers identify seconds before I reach them.” She nods again to Ayla, “And that is why I not only move my wings in space, but sometimes change position and move around, rather than flying in a straight line, like Mon-El. Impact with a stone or bit of ice the size of a fingernail at the speed of light would produce a tremendous explosion that I would not survive.”
Ayla frowns a bit, as she imagines that. “But why don’t we see stuff exploding off of Mon-El when he flies?”
“His eyes glow with energy from the sun as he flies. Anything that would impact with him is reduced to vapor as he reaches it.” Dawnstar explains. At Ayla’s raised eyebrows, she clarifies, “I asked him about it. Sometimes we talk, when the rest of you are in the ship, but mostly, he is quiet.” She looks thoughtful before continuing, “I think that’s the only reason he does that, is for the quiet. He could just let the rocks hit him and explode. It wouldn’t harm him.”
For a moment, Dawnstars’ voice sounds wistful, and Ayla realizes that if the tracker had joined the Legion much earlier, Shadow Lass might have had competition seeking Mon-El’s attentions, as the winged Legionnaire had much in common with the stoic immortal…
Deciding it’s best to change the topic again, Ayla breaks the sudden silence, “Does Drake do the same thing?” At Dawnstar’s puzzled look, she clarifies, “Release anti-energy in front of him to dissolve space debris? He sometimes flies outside the cruiser, as well…”
“Yes, Wildfire does something similar,” Dawnstar says in a clipped tone. Something about her body language has changed, but Ayla has just been struck by another thought and it blurts out before she recognizes the change in mood.
“You said that your people have a problem with masks. That must make it difficult with…” she begins before Dawnstar cuts her off.
“If I want to see Wildfire’s face, I can look into the sun. The effect is the same.” she says curtly, walking towards the door. “Good night, Lightning Lass.” she adds perfunctorily before the air cracks and Ayla’s hair is tousled by the wind kicked up by her abrupt departure.