An essay by Dr. Henrik Ahlstrom, as provided by Dantzel Cherry
Art by Shannon Legler
DR27-6 wobbles one last time, and a crack laces across the marble shell, etched by a small egg tooth. White and red fluids spill out. The tooth saws back and forth a few times, then stops.
I dim the lights and wait.
Another few moments and an azure head pops out–a male, then. His slanted copper eyes shift around the room.
He’s calm, which means he hasn’t recognized me as a threat yet. I know the cameras and monitors are at work, so I wait patiently. One step onto the heated rocks, then four more in quick succession for the rest of his body to be free.
Something threatens him–the basking bulb, presumably–and he releases FPI44. Moving at such high pressure from the oral glands, the FPI44 compound bursts into flames and I measure seven inches. I suppose that makes DR27-6 the fiercest, strongest specimen in this round of the project, but this is not enough to get my hopes up. He will likely end up like the rest. His fierce eyes, though … they burn with life.
The blue on his head spreads downward and shares space freely with marigold until intermixing with crimson on the sailfin. His wings are beautiful, and functional–at least in theory. They’re useless in the first few hours of life. Once we engineered functional wings in stage 2, we added the gene expression inhibitor to turn off the God-given poison production in the oral glands, and added the FPI44 gland specific inducer in stage 3, which doesn’t agree with the neurons required for flight. I convinced Tom to speak with Monsieur Benefactor about being content with flying, non-fire-breathing dragons, but Monsieur was quite insistent.
Officially we name them with sterile, passionless identifications such as DR27-6, so that’s what I record for Tom and the herpetologists. But alone in the basement like this, wild eyes glaring at me, he is more. DR27-6 is Fafnir, the strongest dragon of them all.
I should stop reading so much.
Eventually Fafnir looks for his first meal, stalking over to the plates under the warm lights and investigating his choices: superworms, fruit, pellets, fresh fish. He hovers over the wriggling superworms, smelling, considering. He snatches one from the plate, then another, and another.
He eats until he is full, then prowls about his enclosure. He stops by the same basking bulb that startled him earlier and stares at it in apparent contentment this time. I wait, hoping he will act differently than the others at this point. The scientist in me knows I should be fully invested in this experiment’s success, but it’s a heavy toll to watch the fire burning out of a creature that’s lived for so long in our imaginations, yet only takes a few hours to die.
After a seven-year PhD and two post docs, I work for Monsieur Benefactor, who has no intention of letting Tom or me publish our work these last nine years. Sometimes I argue with the pragmatic Tom about our agreement, outraged that when–if–this is completed to Monsieur’s satisfaction I’ll have a great deal of money from his private accounts, but I won’t be able to account for all these wasted years on my résumé. I rage about Monsieur keeping these sorry creatures secret for himself and his select friends. Other times, I look at the specimens I am tinkering with and am relieved no one knows what I’ve done.
I forget about Monsieur when Fafnir’s wings, warm and dry at last, stretch open, preparing for flight. A breakthrough!
This time, I think, the FPI44 gland inducer and the neurons threading from his brain to his wings finally agree; they can coexist in the same body. Fafnir is only moments away from fulfilling his destiny–my destiny. I swell with pride. Perhaps Monsieur and I are more similar than I’d like to admit.
The wings pull downward, a flapping motion from a baby. He lifts off the ground for one glorious moment.
And then Fafnir jerks his head side to side, no longer the strange but normal bobs of a healthy lizard, but that of a dragon in seizure. He convulses and shoots out more FPI44. The flames scorch the superworms and they writhe about, just like Fafnir.
Again and again Fafnir vomits fire, simply because his neurons will it so. His feet pull him around the enclosure, frantic, and he slips into his water pan. Flames still shoot out, sometimes stunted by the water when the angle is right, and sometimes not. I struggle to record this part, but cameras and monitors don’t catch everything the human eye intuits, so I continue. I wish Tom hadn’t missed today’s hatchings–he detaches himself from this so much better than I.
The FPI44 built up in Fafnir’s body is nearly depleted, and so is his energy. His head droops into the water pan. I fear he will drown himself. I can’t be a scientist now–maybe I could for DR27-6, but not for Fafnir. My hand shoots out and pulls him away from the water, though I consider whether drowning wouldn’t be quicker and kinder than the tortured breakdown of brain and body.
Even as I expect that awful stillness to enter his body any moment, Fafnir, trembling, lifts his head and sniffs the air. He stiffens at whatever he smells and bites down on my thumb. I flinch but fight the instinct to fling the creature away.
Though those small teeth draw only a few drops of blood, Fafnir laps the deep red liquid until my thumb is clean. Again he bites and licks my wound. I dread a third time, but he seems satisfied. No longer shaking, my dragon stretches his marigold wings luxuriously and flaps them against the air, flying in a clumsy circle before landing back in the safety of my outstretched palms.
Two incubators away, Fafnir’s brother DR27-8 wobbles into life.
After earning a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from Stanford University, Dr. Henrik Ahlstrom completed a post-doc at University of Virginia Center for BioTechnology and another at Scripps Research Institute as the primary investigator for the groundbreaking paper, Directed Induction of Foreign Tissue Growth in any Eukaryotic Host. After a short stint as Chief Scientific Officer for Bilon Therapeutics, he has since been involved in an undisclosed research project for a private laboratory in Belgium.
Dantzel Cherry teaches Pilates and raises her daughter by day. By night and naptime, she writes. Her baking hours follow no rhyme or reason. Her short stories have appeared in Fireside, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and other magazines and anthologies.
Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“Birthing Fire” previously appeared as the 2nd place winner in the Story Star Publishing Short Story Contest in 2012.
“Birthing Fire” is © 2012 Dantzel Cherry
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Shannon Legler