Sarah parked the car and switched the headlights off, allowing the dark to take over. Refusing to let her imagination populate the countryside with monsters, she fished a torch out of the glove compartment, got out of the car and locked it, an automatic response. Overhead the stars wheeled bright in the midnight sky, a scattering of diamonds on velvet, seeming much nearer than they did in the city where the harsh, competing glow of streetlights and house lights drowned out their distant clarity.
Mark's house was somewhere along the lane, she thought, and started along it, heading away from the road. She couldn't remember how long he'd lived here, whether he'd been commuting so far when she knew him or if he'd moved more recently. It had been ten years. It was a shame, she thought, that even now, she was probably the closest person to him. They'd asked her because of the science, of course, but still.
She'd known Mark when they had worked together as postdocs in Dr Brein's lab, in the Dawes Institute. She remembered him as bright and almost obsessively driven, not an unusual combination of characteristics for a postdoc in such a competitive field. When she'd left, he'd stayed - got his own lab, and stayed there. She'd been a little surprised that he'd achieved so much so young, and still was, even though she knew now that he'd never gone beyond getting a lab technician. But he had generated papers, so nobody at the Institute had cared enough to intervene. His research was always top-quality.
Ten years after she had moved, long after she'd become established herself, Mark had been arrested for malpractice and the court had asked her help as a foremost expert in the field. They never told her what he'd done, just asked her to review his notes - 'as an independent expert', they'd said. They wanted to know exactly what it was he'd been researching.
It had taken her six months of work, ending up at this point, miles from the nearest city, scrambling through a deserted forest on the way to an abandoned house whose owner was in jail. Six months of poring over notes which may as well have been written in code for all the sense they made to her. It wasn't that he'd encrypted them, as such, it was more his atrocious handwriting and his insane leaps of not-really-logic. All she had were lab books, his and his technician's (thankfully she at least wrote legibly). They recorded what had been done, but not why, nor why he had gone from one attempt to introduce a suite of related genes to the chick genome to picking on an entirely different system to work with, to introduce a different set of genes. And the target genes, for the longest time, they made no sense either.
She had wondered if the authorities wanted her to confirm he had transgressed the bounds of his licence. Transgenic animals, transgenic chickens, weren't illegal, as long as they were covered by his personal licence and the project licence for the Institute. She didn't think that in this case, they were, but if the authorities didn't know that, he hadn't done anything obviously illegal. But if they already knew that, why would they ask her to review his notes? Why did they even need her and her supposed expertise? It had not taken her long to work out that the genes he was trying to introduce, coupled to the regulatory systems belonging to an entirely different set of genes, did not come close to the immune system research he was supposed to be doing; surely anyone competent - and able to cope with the handwriting - should be able to verify that. Even the lab technician's word in court should do for that.
The reality she had guessed at was stranger, which is why she had chosen to come out to his house to find out if what she had concluded was true. Perhaps it was partly to do with her own reputation; she didn't want to suggest something so laughable without proof. And it was partly because she was worried about the outcome of his experiments. If he really had done what his notes implied, there were some major containment issues. The results were not at his lab, were nowhere to be seen. He hadn't really documented them as such, either; her assumptions were unjustified, hunches, intuition, and not to be relied on.
She'd relied on them enough to come this far.
The torchlight flickered over the brickwork of a building situated partly behind a stand of trees. She found the nameplate on the mailbox: Mark Hopkins. The house looked appropriately deserted, dark, silent. It had an abandoned air. The front door sagged slightly where the lock had been forced. As she had thought, they had already searched here. Had they found anything they weren't telling her? Probably. Was there anything left for her to find?
She stepped through the front door, catching herself as her foot twisted on a bulky object on the floor. Her fingers scrabbled briefly along the wall and caught on a switch. Amazingly, the light still worked, although one of the three bulbs had gone. The uneven illumination revealed a hall strewn with the clutter of a life abandoned; envelopes, parcels, boxes and laundry decorated its length. The object she'd tripped over was an ornament of dubious taste, a badly-cast dragon slumped menacingly on what was supposed to be a treestump. It looked more sick than threatening.
Several doors were clustered at the end of the hall, and she tried each in turn, revealing a messy but - thankfully - uninhabited kitchen, a lounge with a table heaped high with papers and a laptop balanced precariously on top, and a toilet. She scanned the upstairs, and found that just as predictable. Nothing interesting, nothing to indicate her wild flights of fancy could be anything other than her own overactive imagination.
On her way back down the stairs, she spotted a set of newspaper clippings attached to the wall. Most were brief descriptions of palaeontological diggings, of all things. Sarah frowned; she hadn't known of Mark's interest in palaeontology. One she recognised, though, as something they had laughed about ten years ago, on one of the rare occasions Mark had come to the tea room with the rest of the lab. One of those sensationalist stories that tabloids so like to run, about a chicken born with four legs and two wings. "It must be a duplication of the pectoral region," she remembered saying, and Mark joked about it being the next evolutionary step. The chicken in the picture hadn't looked very much like a super-chicken. Of course, he had said, vertebrates had never had more than four limbs; pectoral and pelvic pairs. Evolution had never ventured down any other path. It had been about four months later that she had left, and soon after that, he had set up his own lab.
Sarah had forgotten that episode, but it only gave new life to her suspicions. She hurried back to the kitchen, which she'd only glanced into before, and found a door to the outside, to the back of the house. Like the front door, it was unlocked. Beyond it was a small garden with a patio, both horrendously overgrown. In the ground, there was a trapdoor, leading to a coal cellar, of all things. Sarah switched her torch back on again, and found in the corner what the previous searchers had missed.
The mostly-hidden door led to a large underground room. It wasn't really a lab; even Mark would have had trouble stealing enough equipment to set up a proper lab. It did have an excellent climate control system, now nonfunctional, and in the far corner stood an artificial incubator commonly used in labs to raise chicken eggs to hatching. It was, of course, switched off and cold. Mould had ventured within, greening the sides of the main chamber. Nothing had grown in that incubator for quite some time.
She swung round, flashing the torch around the big room. Nothing moved, nothing stirred at the stimulus of the light. In the corner where she'd come in, her torch highlighted switches and, feeling slightly silly, she moved back to the door and flipped them. Great fluorescent lights hummed to life, illuminating every part of the room with a harsh, artificial glare. Sarah winced, hiding her eyes until they adapted to the sudden light.
Revealed, the room in fact held three incubators, the two she had not seen before being kept in separate chambers behind glass doors. The floor was swept dirt, and uneven, and now, visible in the bright light, was what she had half expected and feared. Small bones, tiny bones, sprinkled the mounded floor, gathered in sad little clumps where the owners had perished. Sarah walked to the nearest cluster, the lit torch hanging pointlessly by her side, and bent over it.
The little skull was distinctly bird-shaped, and the wings had been feathered; scraps of dusty fluff still clung to the tiny bones here and there. They were still mostly in the positions they had occupied in life, albeit now mixed up on top of each other. The skeleton was barely disturbed; this must have been one of the last to die after its creator had been forced to abandon it in the sterile cellar. As well as the two sets of wing bones, the creature had hind legs, curled underneath it, which were also birdlike. And it had forelegs. Small forelegs. Judging from their size, they could not have borne much weight, but they were definitely there, and more than vestigial.
Sarah stared at the tiny skeleton for what seemed like an age. She had come to verify suspicions, to set her mind at ease and to confirm biocontainment. She had not expected to feel so sorry for the thing that Mark had created.
She left the room as she had found it, dark and bolted shut, undisturbed. She didn't have a clue how she would report this, but perhaps.. perhaps she wouldn't. She could make a perfectly good report on the lab books Mark had left without touching on the conclusions. The walk back to the car was shorter than she had expected, but she was glad to be able to get in and drive away, a long way from Mark's basement and the sad remains of his engineered creations, his hopeful monsters.
There was no real reason for Sarah to have chosen to come at night. It could be because she knew that she was breaking and entering, and such an illegal act, she felt illogically, should be done under cover of night. In any case, she was long gone by the time the dawn lit the woods, the rosy sun fingering the leaves of the trees surrounding the deserted house.
As the light crept over the forest, something flicked across the glade behind the house. It landed on a tree, folding its wings clumsily behind its back. Its weight was borne mostly on its hind legs, but it gripped the rough bark with its fully functional forearms, and although its face was distinctly beaky, it was not the face of a bird.
The little feathered dragon preened itself in the rising sunlight.