A Bird in Hand
This story was published in Fables from the Fountain, an anthology edited by Ian Whates.
Written as homage to Arthur C. Clarke's classic 'Tales from the White Hart' (and as a fund-raiser for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the UK's leading literary prize for science fiction novels), the book features stories by Neil Gaiman, Stephen Baxter, James Lovegrove, and others.
The Fountain is a traditional London pub situated in Holborn, just off Chancery Lane, where Michael, the landlord, serves excellent real ales and dodgy ploughman's, ably assisted by barmaids Sally and Bogna (from Poland).A group of friends—scientists, writers and genre fans—meet regularly in the Paradise bar on a Tuesday night to swap anecdotes, reveal wondrous events from their past, tell tall tales, talk of classified scientific invention and, maybe, just maybe, save the world ...
Perhaps you've gathered the impression from my colleagues' stories that our little social group that meets at the Fountain is, shall we say, a trifle stuffy, and excessively interested in the nuts and bolts mechanics of space flight, astrophysics, and the like. Not to say oestrogen-deficient. Well, you'd be mostly right—but not entirely so.
As it happens, we harbour a secret cabal of biologists, geneticists and paleontologists. There is the formidable Laura Fowler—a poster-child for nominative determinism, running her very own research group in avian phylogenetic taxonomy. There's Graham O'Donnell, who spends most of his time bossing servers around these days—he's a secret master of bioperl ninjutsu—and whose hobby is updating his tick-list, kept in a remarkably dog-eared copy of the Good Beer Guide. (Rumour has it that in his spare time he's working on an evolutionary taxonomy of brewer's yeast strains...) And there's Bogna, although precisely which area of the biological sciences she worked in before hearing the call of the hand pump is a closely guarded secret.
And there are the single Tuesday polymorphisms (as the geneticists call them) who turn up for a single session then disappear again. Like Kayla Martinez, a skinny blonde with the pallid complexion of the post-doc researcher who has gone too long without exposure to sunshine, who Prof Laura brought along one evening.
"For God's sake don't risk the ploughman's," Laura warned her new protégé: "the cheese is unpasteurized and as for the pickle, Graham's sure it's recycled from an experimental growth medium for GFAJ-1—"
"GFA-what?" chirped up Prof Mackintosh, looking mildly dyspeptic.
"The arsenic-tolerant extremophile from Lake Mono." Graham twitched slightly and peered at his nail beds. "You can never be too sure."
"Have new lunch," volunteered Bogna: "duck liver paté and salad."
"That sounds interesting!" Laura paused. "What is it?" She asked with evident concern; for our new visitor, Kayla, had turned even more pale than before.
"Duck!" Spat Kayla. "Oh God!" She raised her glass and chugged back a good solid mouthful of the Old Stoatmangler that Dr Steve had placed in front of her, presumably to help with her anaemia. "Duck!" She hiccupped. "M'sorry." She covered her mouth.
"Duck?" Laura looked puzzled. "I thought you liked the Anatidae? Wasn't your thesis on -"
"The role of short interfering RNA sequences in controlling POU transcription factor expression in Cairina moschata." Her face wrinkled in an expression of infinite disgust. "Not actually a member of the Anatidae, but close enough for government work."
"Anatidae?" Prof Mackintosh echoed. "Would someone care to translate?"
"Ducks," the Raven volunteered sepulchrally, eliciting another shudder from our delicate visitor. "Isn't Cairina moschata the Muscovy duck?"
"Yes, yes it is," said Laura. "And Kayla here knows more about what goes on in the first four days inside a Muscovy's shell than just about anyone else on the planet." She turned concerned eyes on her protégé. "What happened? Was it something to do with that Kansas fellowship you took?"
Kayla nodded mutely. "Oh God," she mumbled. "Ducks." The word seemed to resonate with horror for her. "I'm going to have to find a new area," she added disconsolately. "I just can't face them any more, after what happened. I mean, I've got full-blown ornithophobia. Panic attacks, cold sweats, the lot." She pulled a wadded-up tissue from the sleeve of her cardigan and honked mournfully into it. "I can't even face down a piece of paté: too many bad associations. I know it's irrational, but..." She trailed off. There was a faint mutter of she's clearly quackers from over the hubbub of the bar, but nobody showed any sign of noticing it.
"The contract didn't renew?" Asked Laura. "And you're back here now — are you applying for any posts?"
Kayla shrugged. "I'm trying to catch my breath. Thinking about what to do next. Maybe move sideways into mammalia..."
"What about dinosaurs?" Dr Steve asked brightly: "I hear there's a lot of money in trying to breed—did I say something wrong?"
He trailed off, staring after Kayla's trail—for he'd barely started on this fertile line of enquiry when our visitor departed at high speed in the direction of the Ladies, hand clutched over her mouth.
"Birds are a specialized sub-group of theropod dinosaurs," Laura said slowly. She turned and stared at Dr Steve with narrowed eyes. "The one remaining family of dinosauria that didn't go extinct at the end of the Cretaceous. Did you mean to trigger her phobia or did you just let it slip out by accident?"
"Birds? Are dinosaurs?" Steve looked genuinely perplexed. "Are you kidding me?"
Prof Mackintosh rolled his eyes. "Even I'd heard of that!" he announced. "There was something in the comics about it just the other week—Tyrannosaurus Rex apparently had feathers, did you know that? And it laid eggs. Probably quacked like a duck, too." He prodded the brick of pinkish paste balanced on the edge of his plate. "I wonder what a pâté de foie Tyrannosaur would taste like?"
"Don't," advised Prof Laura, her eyes tracking towards the flight path to the Ladies loo. "I suspect she could tell you a story or two."
"Why Kansas?" Graham chipped in. "I thought it was overrun by fundy nutters of the evolution-denying persuasion?"
"Excuse me." It was Kayla. Somehow she'd returned from her hurried nose-powdering excursion without taking the obvious route back from the lav: she looked pale but determined. "I really ought to be able to handle it better, I'm afraid. I'm sorry, everyone."
"Sorry for what?" Asked Dr Steve.
Kayla sighed. "It all started with the Demon Duck of Doom and the American televangelist." She paused to wet her whistle: "Not many people know this, but back in the middle Miocene, the Australian outback was home to a gruesome predator. The current thinking is that modern neornithines survived the K-T event—the great extinction that killed off their cousins, the dinosaurs—because they were small flyers. They could breed fast and fly long distances to scavenge while the food chain the big cousins depended on collapsed in disarray for decades or centuries. But in the millions of years afterwards, they radiated; new lines appeared, including big, flightless birds. Like Bullockornis. Think of a duck that stands 2-3 metres tall, weighs a quarter of a ton—about the same as a male African lion—and has a beak like an axe-blade. Bullockornis was a predator, a giant flesh-eating duckckck." She made a choking noise with the final word, and paused to take deep breaths before continuing.
"Frank Kottleman was a preacher from Wichita. He was on a revival tour of Australia when he went round a museum in Darwin, of all places, and saw a mounted Bullockornis skeleton. It was a 'know thine enemy' scouting expedition; he was looking for chinks in the enemy armour, because Frank was a rock-ribbed young-Earth creationist. And I think Bullockornis caught his imagination. Especially the display copy, which described it as the Demon Duck of Doom—it's the sort of thing that sticks in a young child's memory and gets them interested in paleontology, I guess. Frank was one of the trustees of the Kansas Biblical Dinosaur Museum—you've heard of them? Lots of dioramas of Jesus riding a big Raptor, Adam and Eve feeding their family from a single Apatosaurus egg, that kind of thing."
"Biblical Dinosaurs," mused Prof Mackintosh: "do you suppose they're kosher? If they've got feathers and beaks -" His mouth shut with an audible click, then he glared at the Raven pointedly: "Ouch."
"Excuse me." Kayla swiftly necked the remains of her beer. "Oh god, the memories." She held her glass up.
Such signalling is stock in trade among the thirsty post-doc: Bogna had it out of her hand in a split second, before plonking down the pot of Puddles' Old Mouthwash that Graham had sportingly paid for while she was holding forth on the subject of giant flesh-eating Australians. "Aha," she said appreciatively, taking a mouthful. A moment later her lips crinkled appropriately. "Where was I?
"I didn't know this back then. All I knew was that I was an unemployed post-doc, and then this letter arrived inviting me to a job interview in Kansas, with a business-class return ticket attached. It was pitched from an outfit called Witchita Taxonomics, who keep a very low profile and mostly look—from the outside—like a biotech company. And nobody at the interview asked me anything about evolution," she said, a trifle defensively. "I was really pissed off when I found out who WT was really working for, but by then it was too late. And I needed something to do before the next round of research funding back home."
"Would you like to tell everyone what the job was about?" Laura prompted.
"Oh, all right. Kottleman and his fellow creationists aren't totally stupid. They run this bible museum with animatronic Ceratopsians, but they know it's not going to convince everybody that they're right. What they really want to do is to show real dinosaurs living cheek-by-jowl with human beings—and to bring their dinosaurs to life without any need for evolution. If, they reason, you can transform a bird into a dinosaur by epigenetic phenotypic modulation—by controlling which developmental genes are expressed and in what sequence, rather than by crudely hacking new genes into the thing—then they think they've got a disproof of Godless Darwinism to point to, as well as a really cool (hence profitable) museum exhibit." She paused.
Dr Steve was looking a trifle vacant, his jaw adrift in full-on flycatcher mode. "Whut?"
"They don't understand evolution or genetics," she said, a trifle crossly. "They're hung up over a book published in the 1860s—they haven't got a clue about the state of genomics today, they just know they don't hold with it. And the only model they've got is as obsolete as classical Newtonian physics. No, worse."
"Would you care to explain?" Asked Prof Mackintosh. "What obsolete model are they using?"
Kayla paused for a moment, then launched into her explanation: "Back in the 1940s, when Franklin, Gosling, Watson and Crick worked out the structure of DNA, the general layperson's understanding was that the genome was like a construction blueprint for a cell; that each base pair corresponds to an amino acid at some sequential point in a protein molecule's polymer chain. But that's actually wrong. A bit later, we discovered introns—sequences of 'junk' DNA separating the exons that code for proteins. Much later still, we worked out that the introns are actually a mess of different things, ranging from endogenous retroviruses hitching a ride on our replicators to anchor points for short interfering segments of RNA that control whether a particular gene is switched on or not. And we've got far fewer genes than anyone imagined; only about thirty thousand, rather than the third of a million to million originally posited. Genes are, if I can steal a computing metaphor—well, in the 1970s we thought the genome was like a computer program which, executed on the machinery of a cell, would generate another cell and copy itself. But by the 1990s we worked out that the genome is more like the statically declared data embedded in a running program, and a cell is actually the executing state vector of that process. If you look at it, you're seeing a snapshot. All the DNA does is hold the initialization state of a bunch of variables -"
Dr Steve's mouth was a-droop again. "Are you calling my cells a computer?"
"It's an imprecise metaphor." Kayla frowned. There was fire in her eyes and colour was returning to her cheeks. "The point is, the genome is just a bunch of templates for polypeptides. How the genome is expressed - which bits are switched on or off—is the important thing in determining how an organism develops. You can build a whole bunch of different phenotypes—different sets of physical traits — using the same chromosomal toolbox, just by switching different bits on or off using epigenetic switches. Which is what they wanted me for: to turn a Muscovy Duck into a phenotypic replica of a Bullockornis, and to use the Bullockornis to incubate the eggs for a T. Rex."
Prof Mackintosh: "So you're saying, a duck has all the right genes in place, you just need to express them in the right sequence and it'll grow up into something different but related? If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a Tyrannosaur..."
Kayla looks pained but Laura is nodding. "You need to knock out some key developmental genes, and possibly insert a couple of additional ones, but it's like humans and chimpanzees; 99.4% of our genome is identical! What makes the difference is how the gene expression is modulated, the whole epigenetic structure that keeps them coordinated."
Kayla takes a long swallow of mouthwash; for a moment she looks as if she's about to gargle and spit, but she swallows convulsively. "The difference between Cairina moschata and a workable phenotypic Bullockornis turns out to be less than 0.2% of their genome. We added pathways to express some digestive enzymes looted from the bald eagle, but mostly it was a matter of rearranging the POU transcription sequence — that's where Wichita Taxonomics comes in. They've developed an expert system for redesigning avian epigenetic modification—given a complete genome sequence and a partial map of the short interfering RNA space for that organism you can turn Bird A's offspring into something resembling Bird B. And most of the time it'll breed true. They made Kottleman and his investors a small fortune by breeding a commercially viable strain that expresses sex-specific pigmented beaks before hatching, which allowed their biggest battery farm customers to deploy computer vision systems in the Texan Turkey-sexing wars; when they hired me, they were pitching for a fat DARPA contract to breed mine-hunting penguins for the US Navy—but they had bigger goals."
She sighs. "I didn't get to work on the cyborg velociraptor program for the USMC. Didn't want to, for that matter: bad enough using animals to go after improvised explosive devices, but wiring up their brains to ... no. On the other hand, Bullockornis was an interesting intermediate step to what Frank really wanted. Which was a T. Rex. Which we delivered."
Dr Steve's mouth flapped, uncharacteristically speechless for a moment. Then he gathered himself with some aplomb. "I don't believe a word of it," he said with stiff dignity. "Fundamentalist theme parks with Tyrannosaurs? They'd never get it past the insurance company. And anyway, we'd have been reading about it in the tabloids! You -" He pointed a shaky finger at Kayla—"are trying to gull us!"
"It's clearly a flap about nothing," Prof Mac added.
Kayla clearly didn't share their love of the pun sublime. But she hadn't come unarmed. Sliding a hand into her bag she flipped a glossy card on the table. It landed face-down, and Graham reached out to flip it rightside up.
"Tyrannosaurs had feathers?" Croaked Dr Steve.
"You can see it in the fossil record," Kayla replied sharply. "Yes, Tyrannosaurs did have feathers."
"But... magenta? And pink?"
"We're not sure about the pigmentation," she admitted. "We've recovered fossilized melanosomes from Sinosauropteryx and other theropods, but the evidence for T. Rex is patchy. So we had to take an educated guess." She tapped the picture and the e-ink card came to life: the flanks of the sleeping monster rising and falling slowly as it lay atop an examination table big enough for a small elephant. "This is Janet, our first juvenile. As you can see, they pack on weight fast—from a five kilo hatchling to three hundred kilos of bad tempered biteyness in eleven months—but take a while to mature to reproductive age." She pulled out another e-card. "Here's Brad, our second." She swallowed queasily. "Actually, he was called Sheila when he first hatched. Nobody's too clear about how to sex juvenile Tyrannosaurs, which is why we had the, uh, accident."
"Sexing Tyrannosaurs -" Dr Steve tried hard to regain his grip on the conversation before it slid into surrealism. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Because Kottleman was trying to breed them," Kayla explained. "The current young-Earth creationist theory is that if they can demonstrate something that walks like a Tyrannosaur, quacks like a Tyrannosaur, and breeds true but is actually derived from a present-day duck, then they can plausibly claim that the theropod dinosaurs were simply hit by a viral pandemic during the Fall from Eden and turned into birds overnight, as if by magic." She pulled a face. "That, and the biblical dinosaur show is a huge fund-raiser. But first you've got to get them to breed true."
She drained her glass and held it up. This time it was Prof Mackintosh who shambled tipsily barwards to obtain a pint of Penguin Bitter.
"The trouble with dinosaurs is that nobody knew what the soft tissue arrangement really looks like, and nobody could even guess at their mating behaviour. Birds and lizards don't have a separate vagina and anus, they have a cloacal orifice and the eggs and sperm pass through this—in fact, most male birds don't have a penis; they produce sperm and store it in the seminal glomus, a pouch just inside their rectum. To fertilize a female they need to insert the sperm into her cloaca -"
"Are you telling me that all dinosaurs are godless sodomites?" demanded Prof Mac: then in his best high-kirk sermonizing voice, as practiced on countless hordes of bored undergraduates, he added, "and what, pray you, does yon Baptist minister of religion say to that, in the name of all that's holy?"
"I think he'd have said that God moves in mysterious ways, especially in the men's room at the leather bar he hung out in on bear nights. Allegedly." Kayla's cheeks were fading back towards their former paleness. "World's worst-kept secret: those ministers of religion who preach loudest and shrillest against teh ghey are often that way inclined themselves. But yes, sodomy definitely goes together with dinosaurs. Ahem." Another mouthful of beer disappeared into her mouth. "Anyway, we needed to sex our Tyrannosaurs and collect sperm samples. Now, bird testes and ova are internal, and most birds don't have penises; even those which do, like the Anatidae, store them internally until they've mounted a female, at which point the organ everts—expands and sort of turns itself inside-out—very fast. The problem we had at the Dinosaur Museum lab was that the reproductive organs are soft tissues, so they're murderously hard to X-ray. Avian penises in particular are usually small and hard to find. Nobody's built an MRI scanner big enough for a half-ton juvenile raptor, and you can't even sedate the beast and stick your arm up its anus to sex it by palpation—until they've gone through an entire life cycle and we've had a corpse to dissect we won't know enough about Tyrannosaur anatomy to be sure if we've got it right. All we could go by at the time was comparative blood titres of testosterone and other androgens. Which is how we figured out that Brad was probably male, and should have a sack full of sperm to milk.
"Well." She put her beer down. "We had a meeting about it on the Friday, discussing ways and means. Frank sat in on it—as our customer and the owner of the Museum he had every right to—and I should have realized he was taking notes. Why don't you stick a shocker up its back passage? He asked. That works for most poultry. Which got us onto some reminiscences from when he was growing up on his dad's farm, where they bred Muscovy ducks. And then onto some, um, strictly non-professional speculation of an increasingly prurient nature. As you can imagine, Frank was a man of god rather than science; his concern was strictly that we couldn't use male stock in the proposed Jesus rodeo, lest the ladies and wee ones in the audience see something they shouldn't. And he took a startlingly in-depth interest in the topic at hand." She frowned furiously. "That should have tipped me off. But anyway, we agreed to try electrostimulus first, using a stimulator sized for bison. And to sedate Brad on Saturday—they tend to be very docile once you've fed them a twenty kilo turkey loaded with a quarter of a gram of oxazepam—in preparation for the exam the next morning."
She swallowed. Another mouthful of beer vanished.
"I blame myself," She said softly. "When you're working with lab animals someone has to go in and feed and medicate them every day, clean the cages or animal enclosures in the case of the bigger beasts. It's a lot like running a zoo. So it's a seven days a week operation. I went in to check on Brad on Saturday, and he was fine. A one year old adolescent Tyrannosaur isn't something you'd want to be alone with if he's hungry, but with a bird in his stomach he's about as docile as a well-fed alligator. Although a lot cuter, with the colourful chick-down just beginning to give way to adult plumage, and the disproportionately big eye orbits—they're not as lizard-like or scary as the movie recreations make out. Baby Tyrannosaurs aren't totally independent; they rely on their mother to bring food to the nest, so for the first couple of months they squeak and hold their open mouths up and jump up and down, flapping their forearms, which are disproportionately big when they're young. I'd taught Brad to sit up and beg, because it made it easier to feed him: you'd lean over the viewing balcony in his stall—it was three storeys high and about the size of a small aircraft hanger, to accommodate adult growth, but as a chick he was lost in it—and drop chunks of cooked turkey right down his throat. Even as an adolescent, all of four metres long from beak-tip to tail, he was pretty hard to find.
"Anyway, when I left on Saturday, Brad was sacked out in his nest, snoring off a Thanksgiving-grade tryptophan binge. Not to mention the Serapax. I filled out his daily worksheet, updated the logbook, and went home for the evening."
She took another long drink, lost in thought.
"When you're running an animal operation there are some things you do and some things you don't do. You don't ever go and work with a big carnivore on your own—anything that weighs more than you, basically. You make sure there's always someone who knows where you are. And there's a key control system to get access to the animal rooms. But the flip side is that if it's a private institution, nobody's going to say 'no' to one of the directors on an inspection tour. As far as we could establish afterwards, Frank had gotten a little bit too curious about certain aspects of theropod soft tissue anatomy, and he decided to go down to the lab and see what was on the slab. Doubtless he figured that while Brad was doped up to the nictitating membranes and still weighed less than a Siberian tiger he'd be safe to poke. Not to mention to stroke. Frank had heard about the birds and the bees, but obviously it hadn't entirely satisfied his curiosity: that, or he had decided to trade in his ministry for a place in the Guiness Book of World Records and a permanent seat on the talk show circuit. So he went into Brad's enclosure on his own, some time on Saturday night, wearing nothing but leather chaps and carrying a king-sized bottle of lube and a remote-control vibrator."
She shuddered again.
"Wait a mo." Prof Laura stared at her with an expression of dawning, profound horror. "I thought you said you'd used a Bullockornis to produce the eggs? And you'd bred them from Muscovy Ducks?"
"What's so bad about Muscovy Ducks?" Asked Dr Steve. "I thought they were good for eating..?"
Prof Laura turned to him. "Better put down your beer, dear." She nodded at Kayla. "Is what's coming what I think it is?"
Kayla nodded again. "Muscovy ducks are weird even by bird standards. Unlike most aves, they do have a penis—two-thirds the length of their body and corkscrew shaped, because Muscovy Duck sex would get any of you gentlemen who tried it a life sentence with a minimum twenty year tariff. Sex among the Muscovy Ducks is a lot like rape, so there's a biological arms race in train—the females have bizarre oviducts with lots of dead ends, to make it harder for the rapists to fertilize them. Because penetration is forceful the males are noted for their rapid, even explosive, eversion—they can go from fully internally retracted to money shot in two hundred milliseconds."
She paused for a few seconds, her gaze turned inward. When she started speaking again, her voice was shaky. "I found them the next morning. Frank and Brad. I called an ambulance, but it was too late. Brad was... we had to shoot him with a sedative dart before we could get the vibrator out. It wasn't pretty. The Kansas animal protection league threatened to sue the Museum into a smoking hole in the ground when the news got as far out as anyone was willing to let it. They're not as big on animal cruelty as we are here in England, but bestiality pushes their buttons. And as for Kottleman's New World Ministry, they wanted nothing to do with it. There was a security CCTV in the stall, but the contractors cheaped on it. Like Muscovy ducks, a T. Rex can go from fully retracted to erect so damn fast that it happens between frames. Even a juvenile like Brad—well, when the dildo started to vibrate, Brad reared up. And Frank, standing in front of him, got it in the face - full force, like a boxing glove with Mike Tyson behind it. Brad's erection punched Frank's lights right out. And then Brad did what comes naturally, and ejaculated.
"Which gave rise to an office memo that did the rounds the next morning, and some very bad taste jokes. Starting with, what do you do when you see a Tyrannosaur coming?"
Dr Steve: "Duck?"
"That's one answer." Kayla paused for another mouthful of beer. "It also resulted in the issue of a memorable health and safety memo announcing the discovery of a new hazardous practice which was to be avoided: inhalation of dinosaur semen. Which, ladies'un'gennelmen, is why I am back in the UK and looking for a new research post, and why I confidently predict that you will not see dinosaurs in zoos any time soon—or at least until appropriate safe handling procedures are developed. Even though the autopsy report concluded that death by fowl play was everted!"