Miriam’s biting her nails, has been for two hours. Two hours ago the first egg began to rock, and that’s when she bit her right pointer finger down to the quick.
She’s got Band-Aids wrapped around two fingers now, and there are four eggs rocking. She’d only expected one. Only hoped for two. Four of seven is beyond hope, beyond anything.
Four Deinonychus. Four living dinosaurs.
She feels a rush of anxiety that makes her nauseous and deals with it by chewing more firmly on her pinkie. She shouldn’t be doing this, she should’ve kicked this habit back in middle school, but her other stress response is to cry and that doesn’t seem fitting.
Chris-from-security taps her shoulder and she just about shrieks. He looks like he might comment, but they’re all strung too tight, and he just says, “Time to go in.”
Miriam nods and almost wipes her hand on her scrubs before remembering. “Another Band-Aid, please?” She’s the PI, which is the sort of horrible thing that should be happening to someone else, very far away from her, except she’d possibly kill for the chance to be here now. It means Principal Investigator, but it really means she’s the first in, last out, put more into this project than any two interns together.
She’s also the only person with a degree in animal behavior on site, so that makes her the designated raptor parent. There’s even a sign on her office door: OFFICIAL RAPTOR MOM, KNOCK BEFORE ENTERING.
She gives a quick smile to the medical team, who wave her on her way, looking more than usually stressed, and then she’s through two sets of clinging plastic and one fiberglass door and into the containment chamber.
They’ll have to come up with a better place for the hatchlings, but everyone had agreed on keeping the eggs in the small glass rooms until they hatched—or didn’t. In here the eggs were safe, protected from any changes in temperature or humidity, a tightly controlled container until any successes are stable enough to be transferred into the mostly prepped hatchling rooms.
She kneels down next to the cluster of eggs. A herpetologist has been keeping an eye on them every twelve hours, although she’s not sure they shouldn’t’ve hired an ornithologist instead.
This is the first successful clutch, and the third batch of eggs produced using extracted dinosaur DNA. The first clutch had the gaps in DNA filled with bullfrog sequences, something any geneticist could’ve told John Hammond wasn’t going to work. Frogs were anamniotes, and dinosaurs, whatever else they did, had laid amniotic eggs. That clutch had failed to form a hard egg shell, collapsing in its own yolk, a waste of millions of dollars.
The second clutch was spliced with alligator. This one was viable, and made it to hatching, but on breaking through the eggshells, the animals turned out to be deformed and unable to breathe.
This time they’d done an x-ray on the eggs every third day. This time, they’d used bird DNA. This time, everything had gone perfectly—although she’s pretty sure that’s about to change.
The eggs are rocking more now and have hairline cracks. It’s only a matter of time before…
She very nearly puts a finger back in her mouth, but remembers just in time the danger of infection, not to mention that there’s four cameras on her right now, waiting to record the historic moment.
One of the eggs tips over and she stops breathing. It shudders, vibrates, and with a crack that’s louder than it should be, part of the shell breaks off. Into the opening is shoved a nose, pale beige, wrinkled, and both scale- and featherless.
The hatchling squeaks, withdrawing the nose and replacing it with two claws. It—she, Miriam corrects herself, still not breathing—claws at the shell, breaking away more of it.
Clearly, something has gone right, Miriam thinks vindictively and waits and watches.
It takes another few minutes for any more progress to be made as the hatchling rests, but then progress is decisive: she manages to get all four feet in action and kicks out the middle of the eggshell. For another minute, the hatchling sits there, breathing heavily and resting, and Miriam examines her closely.
There seems to be far too much leg, which is at least partly because most of the head and tail are still obscured. As it is, the infamous sickle claws are plainly evident, as is a full assortment of the other claws, two more large and one small on the hind feet, three on the arms. The skin continues to be beige and without any sort of covering, tight around the thighs and shins, wrinkled at the joints.
The hatchling makes a high pitched squalling noise, and flails until she’s completely out of the shell. Not quite able to stand, she sits on her hips, canted to one side. Her tail is skinny and shorter than expected, chest narrow, neck short and seemingly too frail to support the massive head. She already has a complement of teeth and her eyes are open: multihued brown with huge pupils.
For a second they stare at each other. The first adjective Miriam reaches for is ugly, but that isn’t fair—the hatchling is cute, definitely, she just also seems to be built from an assortment of spare parts.
She has to suppress the urge to shower the hatchling in food. The DNA was spliced with bald eagle genes—out of a sense of misplaced patriotism, has been the joke since the day Alessandro suggested it—and bald eagles don’t get fed for almost a day after hatching.
Instead, she waits and watches.
The hatchling makes a valiant but futile effort to stand, falling back over on her hip.
The sound of more breaking eggshell catches Miriam’s attention and she looks at the other eggs. Two of the other hatchlings are mostly out, and the third has her head out and is now resting. All are skinny, wrinkled, and beige.
Faced with the prospect of four apparently identical dinosaurs, Miriam invokes her privilege as dinosaur handler and names them. The first one is Alpha, the two partially covered in eggshell are Beta and Delta, and the one with her head out is Gamma. And anyone who wants them to be known by their registry numbers, Miriam thinks, can just deal.
She hesitates, then waves her hand at the dinosaurs. Alpha sits upright, balancing on her hipbone, neck elongated. If she had ears, they would be pricked. Beta shakes her head back and forth, while Delta eyes the movement for a moment before deciding it must be okay. Gamma rocks her egg over and shatters it, lying in the wreckage looking confused.
There’s a moment when all four are safely out and looking around—Alpha has succeeded in standing and is trying out walking—and Miriam consciously breathes. So many things could have gone wrong, from the DNA splicing to the DNA being corrupted to begin with to wrong assumptions about incubation in dinosaurs to… The mind boggled. But they hadn’t. Instead, a nearly infinite number of things appear to have gone right and now she has four wiggly leathery children to raise to a happy and nonaggressive adulthood.
The thought makes her shudder.
Then one of the hatchlings gags and all of her attention is very much in the here and now.
She looks over and she was wrong, Alpha isn’t gagging, not in any way she knows; seizing, muscles clenching, but not trying to bring up the food.
She reaches out, touching the hatchling for the first time, slides one hand under her rib cage—they’re so small, the eggs were barely four pounds at last weighing—lifts, pulls her close to her chest in approved bird handling manner. Alpha isn’t breathing, eyes wide, heart fluttering under her fingers. Miriam only hesitates a moment before bending down, pushing the hatchling’s head up, and locking her mouth around the end of the hatchling’s nose.
She breathes—once, twice, three times—and pulls away.
Her hasty CPR has done something: Alpha’s breathing again, short shallow breaths, but they are present.
The question now is what happened?
Miriam hasn’t let go of Alpha, and the hatchling squeaks loudly, wiggling in her grasp. Eventually the hatchling manages to get her claws up and scores six deep lines across Miriam’s hand and wrist.
Without thinking, Miriam gasps and pulls back, dropping Alpha on the floor. Fortunately, ten million dollars in dinosaur seems to be forgiving of six inch drops, and all Alpha does is shriek in delight and go careening across the floor towards her siblings.
This time three stop breathing: Alpha, arrested mid stride to curl up and heave; Beta, coming to join her and now thrashing her head around; and Gamma, scratching at her mouth with both sets of claws. Only Delta, who Miriam can already tell is timid, remains near her eggshell and unaffected.
Something has gone horribly wrong and she’s not at all sure what it is. One hatchling panicking was to be expected, but not three. Not repeated panicking, that stops breathing.
She looks around, covering the scratches on her wrist with her other hand. Now Delta moves, taking three unsteady steps towards Gamma, only to fall over and begin the same thing as all the rest.
Miriam’s breathing too fast and too shallow and her thoughts are both frantic and useless. Some sort of gas? Who would inject it and why, if they wanted the project ended there were a million chances before this. A genetic disorder? But surely Genetics went over the DNA a thousand times? No, she’s back to gas in the containment room, which must mean it will be getting to her soon. A nasty thought but without other options—
Gamma gouges her own muzzle open but still can’t breathe. Miriam lifts the hatchling up, taking another set of scratches on her hands, gets her claws away from her mouth, tries to figure out why.
Next to her, Alpha takes a step towards Beta, stumbles, and falls, ten million dollars of bioengineering sliding sideways on the floor. They have bird bones, fragile hollow bird bones, but she gets back up again, shaking her head back and forth from the impact. She steps, and this time Miriam sees the shaking in her thighs, the way she’s nearly too young to stand.
No—Miriam puts it together. Not too young. Too weak. She’s not breathing, none of them are. They’ll faint from exhaustion soon, whatever the problem was, and who knew if they’d ever wake up again.
“I need four O2 tanks with baby masks right now,” she says, knowing the cameras will pick it up, knowing everyone outside the containment chamber must have been waiting for a reaction from her.
She hesitates, weighs the options. “They’re going to need to move to Medical. I want them unconscious and on an O2 feed asap, and then we can look into what went wrong.”
There’s activity around her, outside the glass, but her first priority is inside. She holds Gamma gently, woozily looking around, keeps her claws away from her face, starts collecting the others.
By the time she has them all collected, one under each arm and two in her lap, they’re unconscious anyway and it’s a matter of passing them off one at a time to a med tech, who slips the oxygen masks on and then, unprompted, adds an IV drip.
“Fifty percent sucrose solution,” the tech explains when the last one is on a rolling cart and on her way to the Medical bay. “With the glycine they need—you were debriefed on this?”
She was, she’d voiced her protests at the time, and she’d completely forgotten about the issue until this moment. John Hammond, in a fit of paranoia, had decided the best way to keep the dinosaurs on his island and not a competitor’s was to have the embryos modified so they couldn’t produce one of the non-essential amino acids. That that had been pulled off without a hitch was frankly miraculous; the eggs had then had a pack of glycine inserted and all of their meat had already had the tablets added.
“Could that have contributed to the collapse?” she asks, struggling to focus.
The tech frowns. “Don’t think so,” he ventures finally. “If they were suffering from glycine deprivation it’d be a lot messier.”
She groans and stands up, muscles cramping. “I’m struggling to think of what it could be.” It’s hard to admit failure—she fought her way to this position and is terrifyingly aware of how tenuous it is—but better her failure than their death.
He shrugs. “Run tests, I guess.”
Run tests they do. Test after test, on the hatchlings and on the supply of beef, in a hellish circle of suspicion. The hatchlings are on a two hour cycle: two hours unconscious on the drip, two hours awake activity, and it only takes one incident with one of the vets to learn that Miriam might have been bitten, but the hatchlings have imprinted on her and no one else. They decide it’s fortunate the vet got off with only four stitches—Gamma had been at a bad angle for the attack, although she’d made the best of it.
It’s a hellish week.
The first time the hatchlings are taken off O2, they’re all taken off at once, and within five minutes they’re all seizing up again. At that point the schedule is redone. Each hatchling is on a rotating five hour schedule: four hours unconscious, one hour awake and calm. It means Miriam gets one hour of sleep in every five, but that’s manageable.
The dinosaurs are each about five pounds and a little under twelve inches long. Out of the egg, their skin turns into a darker brindle within a day, and since each has her own patterning, it becomes easy to tell them apart.
What isn’t easy is keeping hours at thirty-seven that would’ve done a number on a college student. She sneaks meals when she can, but she can’t risk eating in the same room as the hatchlings, and by the time she turns Gamma back over to Medical, she’s ready to collapse into bed. By day 3 they set up a cot in Medical for her, so she just needs to knock them out and fall asleep herself.
On day 6 she becomes uncomfortably aware that her paranoia has passed normal boundaries and crossed into threatening. She’s more than half convinced that someone is doing this to mess with her, that there’s nothing wrong with the hatchlings at all and they could wake them all up right now, that there’s everything wrong with the hatchlings and they’re blaming it on her, that the hatchlings are dying and they’re keeping it from her because they want to make her suffer.
On day 8 her vision develops auras and it feels like the ground never stops shaking. With the hatchlings she keeps herself calm and controlled, picking up new wounds every day but never reacting in anger. With her co-workers all bets are off.
On day 9, she’s called out of the raptor room—as one of the techs dubbed it—and into a meeting with Medical. She goes reluctantly, unwilling to leave Beta unsupervised and with the firm impression her colleagues are trying to murder her. But it’s good news, and something in her gut finally relaxes.
“We found it,” Roger, head of the medical team, opens with. “Both the Deinonychus and the bald eagle DNA had a gene segment involved in the development of the heart. We’re still not sure exactly how—”
Miriam’s fogged-but-hatchling-obsessed brain makes the connections before Roger can explain. “They have a heart defect.”
She collapses against the wall. “Now what?”
“Genetics is working on a fully functional heart, but those won’t be ready for surgery for a few weeks. Until then, my team will have a stimulant ready tomorrow.”
She puts her hands over her face, sighing and shaking. “They’re safe,” she says, scarcely more than a whisper.
Roger smiles. “Still need to test it, but yes. They’re gonna make it.”
Two more thorough debriefings later, Miriam finally makes her way to her quarters to sleep.
Eighteen hours later she wakes up. Showered, fed, and dressed in something other than scrubs, she makes her way back to Medical for the removal of—thus far—the only set of stitches, gained in that hectic first day.
“It lives,” one of the techs hisses in jest.
She rolls her eyes and checks in with Nina, the personnel doctor. Nina is unimpressed as a general state, but particularly so now. “Get on the scale, and then I want to do a full physical.”
Miriam raises her eyebrows. “Why?”
“Nine days without REM sleep means you could done severe damage, and I want to know what,” Nina snaps.
Miriam wants to say something back, but she has a point, Miriam knows it, and there’s no real point in arguing with a pissed doctor anyway. Obeying, she gets on the scale and lets Nina put her through the physical. To neither’s surprise, she’s lost weight and muscle tone, her reflexes are down, and her blood pressure is up. Nina tells her to “sleep next time, dammit” and sends her on her way.
She would like her next stop to be the hatchlings, but unfortunately she has to make two phone calls first. They hadn’t known how much splicing with bird DNA would affect behavior, and it’s impossible to tell now what’s caused by bird DNA and what’s caused by bird-like dinosaur DNA. Either way, they’ve imprinted on her, they move like large naked crows, they attack their food like an eagle, and they sound like a sparrow. She needs help, and she needs it last week. Next week, with the next ship from the mainland, will have to do.
First call is John Hammond, to obtain ostensible permission. “I need to hire another person.”
There’s silence from the other end of the line. “I’m sure there’s a good reason.”
“A falconer. He’s a personal friend and wildlife biologist, but I need him for his experience with young falcons.”
“On site, apparently,” Hammond says dryly.
“Yes, on site and with full clearance. I know it’s risky but no one here’s prepped for birds, not like this.” She’s falling over her words with how important this is, and has to take a deep breath to slow down. “My background is in behavioral differences between wild and captive raised animals, and yes, I do have a publication on California Condors. But this isn’t the same situation; handling has to be much higher here than at the condor centers, and these animals are much more dangerous. I need an advisor who has direct practical experience in dealing with large, predatory birds at very young ages. And I can trust him.”
Hammond grunts. “How much is this gonna cost?”
This is where she tenses up, because Ibram might be a personal friend from grad school but he is who he is and works where he works. “A plane ticket from Dubai and passage on the next ship from Costa Rica; he’s a professor there so he’ll expect a similar salary to me.”
“Can’t find anyone cheaper?”
Miriam is glad he can’t see the anger on her face right now. “He trained the Saudi royal family’s falconer. He is one of the best and I need that right now.”
There’s another long silence. “Go ahead.”
She thanks him and hangs up.
In some ways, the second call is going to be harder.
There’s a grunt on the other end of the line and the sound of shuffling fabrics.
“Shit did I catch you in the middle of—” She doesn’t even want to follow that thought to its conclusion.
“No, no,” Ibram says, annoyance plain, “it’s only four in the morning and I was, for some reason, asleep.”
She holds up her watch and blinks at it. Seven pm, Costa Rica was two hours ahead of San Fran, made it six hours behind London, and Dubai was three hours ahead. “Sorry,” she says sincerely. “It’s been a rough day.” Several days. Week. Almost two now.
He grunts again. “So what is it?”
“A job offer.”
“I have a job.” Yes, and he is on a tenure track, and she isn’t at all jealous, except that she has dinosaurs and he doesn’t. Perhaps tenure is overrated.
“I need you to take a break.”
He sighs. “How long?”
She tries to estimate time in her head. “A year?” It’s hesitant and sounds it, but she doesn’t know how long until Hammond opens the park, and until then, everyone on site stays there.
“I have six months of sabbatical.”
“I need a year,” she says flatly. And then pulls another card out. “Co-credit on my next papers.”
He pauses, clearly struck by the idea. There’s a great deal of information in falconry methods, but only so much diversity there. “How many papers, and what on?”
“At least three,” she can think of four off the top of her head, but Introducing Foods to the Infant Dinosaur he had nothing to do with, “and it’s under an NDA.”
Ibram mutters under his breath. “Any clues?”
“I need you as a falconer, not a wildlife biologist.”
“Ah,” he says, and she has him. Ibram hates rehashing old ground, was never interested in repeating experiments, and ‘need a falconer’ plus the NDA practically screams ‘new species’.
“First class flight from Dubai to Costa Rica, then a ship from there. Can’t guarantee good accommodations on the ship, unfortunately, but you’ll be well taken care of here.”
“And the birds?”
She grins. “NDA.”
More muttering. “My salary paid in full, you understand. And first author credit on at least one paper. And I need time to think.”
Sounds more like he needs time to make his excuses and clear his class load for a year, but she’ll take it. “Twenty four hours. No,” she does math, “thirty. Sleep, think, sleep, then call me. I need you here in a week, okay?”
“I haven’t said yes yet,” he grumbles, but she knows she has him. “Okay. Thirty hours.”
“Thank you, Ibram,” she says sweetly.
He curses her in Arabic and hangs up.
She laughs. They met at Berkley as two of the few religious-and-not-Christian students in the graduate biology program. She was after animal behavior, and he was going into wildlife management, but they met in a stats class when she was requesting time off for the High Holy days and he needed a delay on an assignment for Ramadan. After that it was inevitable. They’d never dated but that hadn’t stopped assumptions. Nor had they cared, honestly. If that was the only reason gossips could find for two intelligent students with similar research interests to spend time together, so be it.
With a contented grin on her face, she goes off to sit with the hatchlings.