You hadn’t heard from Steve since your tour in the Zoo last summer. What you had together can only charitably be described as a fling – more accurately a series of awkward encounters that were fun enough, but ultimately lacking any chemistry. Still, he’s cute and ultimately destined to be a field zoologist, and you can’t help but picture him and all of his boyish enthusiasm irritating the hell out of prides of endangered lions in Africa. Nevertheless, you were surprised to see his name come up on your phone on a dark and blustery February evening.
“Well this is a surprise,” you say when you answer the phone.
“Emma!” He whispers breathlessly. “They found something, you need to see this.”
“Steve, found what? What do you mean?”
He takes a few deep breaths and continues more slowly, but he’s still keeping his voice down. “A barge ran into something out on the lake, a creature. They brought it to us because they didn’t know what else to do. Director called the feds and I know they’re going to make the whole thing go away.”
“Okay…a creature? What do you want me to do?”
“I’m not going to tell you what it looks like, you won’t believe me. Listen, you’re so much better with internal medicine than I am, and you have access to a lab. Bring your kit.”
“Steve, it’s ten below outside…”
“Emma, something amazing is lying dead on a slab in the west receiving warehouse, and it won’t be here long. I want to figure out what it is and I need your help.”
You start to wonder if Steve thinks he found the Loch Ness monster, but Steve isn’t an idiot, and your curiosity overrides your common sense.
“Okay, okay. I’ll leave right away, give me an hour.”
“Hurry! Text me when you get here and I’ll let you in.” He hangs up.
It doesn’t take much digging in your tiny apartment to load a bag with some basic necropsy supplies, you even drum up a few sterile sample collection kits. Bundled up against the bitter cold, you hop in your battered 1992 Chevy S10 and head in to the city.
The Lincoln Zoo’s west receiving warehouse is essentially a huge barn. Large enough to organize entire herds, it typically sits empty, lurking on the outskirts of the zoo’s grounds with easy access to a truck route and a BNSF rail siding. You park next to Steve’s Jeep and knock on the office door, shivering in the cold. After a minute of knocking, Steve answers. He’s wearing surgical gloves and a smock stretched over several layers of hoodies. He grins warmly when he sees you, but there’s a manic look in his eyes.
“I’m so glad you came, come with me!” He practically bounces through the office out into the warehouse proper.
The main area of the warehouse is half the size of a football field, lit brightly with the sort of dirty yellow lights that only exist in old 4H halls. It is completely empty, save for the corpse of a hundred-foot-long dragon splayed out in the middle of the floor.
It takes you a minute to process, but there’s no mistaking it, it’s straight out of a fantasy novel. Blue-black scales that shimmer in the light like oil on water, a pair of heavy rear haunches and much less developed ones up front, shattered wings that would probably span five hundred feet, a head the size of a delivery truck bristling with spikes and teeth, orange and green gore. You drop your bag.
“I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,” Steve says reverently, his voice echoing in the empty room.
You pick up your bag and approach the massive creature. It had obviously been beaten to hell, its bones broken, extremities at odd angles, and several gaping wounds, one of which in its belly you could walk into without ducking your head. If it had been found in the lake, it had probably been dead less than a day.
“I…,” you sputter,”…I don’t believe it…. What is this thing?”
“If you say ‘it’s a dragon’ Steven Taylor, I swear I will stab you.” Steve shrugs and gestures to the animal.
“It’s a female,” he says,”from the outside it’s a great big iguana. Not sure about the wing structure.”
You approach the head and crouch down and look into its mouth. “Think it can breathe fire?”
“I wasn’t going to poke around in there without backup.”
With a shaking hand you reach out and touch the front of the beast’s snout and you get a jolt – like a really bad static charge. Instead of tingling, your whole body feels warm, like a jolt of adrenaline, which it probably is. You gasp.
“Yeah,” you say finally,”thing shocked me.”
“I’ve been poking at it for a few hours, hasn’t shocked me yet. Listen, I don’t know when the feds are getting here, so we should get some samples and get out.”
You nod and start unpacking your kit. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, you and Steve meticulously gather photos and samples from around the creature, but you decide you’re not willing to leave without an organ.
“Steve, you’ve got the smock, why don’t you dig into that belly wound and get a piece of a liver or something.”
“Has that line ever worked?” He grabs the largest sample container and skulks off to the other side of the creature. “Huh.”
“Where’s the belly wound?”
“You could drive your Jeep through it, Steven.”
“No, I’m serious.”
You look up from trying to dislodge a scale and see your reflection in a great orange eye. It blinks. You scream and run backwards a few yards and notice that many of the more grievous wounds on the beast are gone. The thing takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“Holy fuck!” screams Steve from the other side of the animal. “Emma, this thing isn’t dead!”
“I can see that!”
Steve comes rushing around the other side of the creature, grabs you, and starts pulling you towards the door, but the dragon begins thrashing violently and blocks your path. You both scurry to the far corner of the warehouse and try to stay out of the thing’s way as its head, tail, and, increasingly, wings thrash around.
“Okay, what now?” you stammer, keeping an eye on the beast’s thrashing.
“I’m still a little stunned by the dead dragon coming back to life and healing in front of our eyes….”
Over the sound of the thrashing of dragon against concrete, you hear the sound of the office door clanging open and a man’s voice approaching.
“Okay, so go ahead and pull the truck up to the – holy shit!” The dragon picks that moment to let loose an unholy, ear-splitting roar. “That is not a dead dragon, Pinkie!”
“No sir,” yells another voice, “looks like a pretty spry dragon.”
“Hey,” you yell over the roaring, “we’re trapped in here!”
“Doctor Leibovitz?” yells the first voice.
Steve practically shrieks, “I’m Taylor, Janet’s assistant, we’re trapped back here!”
“Alright, alright,” yells the voice, “hang tight, this is a new one on me too.”
You hear the man’s voice receding, it sounds like he’s yelling into a radio or to people waiting outside. With a stomach-churning crunch and a blood-curdling screech, the last major broken bone in the dragon’s wing snaps into place. The room goes still, the beast shuddering in spots and breathing deeply.
A few tense moments pass. You hear the sound of a large truck idling outside the building, but nothing else beyond the strained breathing coming from the dragon, Steve, and yourself. After a time, the dragon begins to stretch its extremities – first the tail, then it stretches each wing until they brush against the walls and rafters, then finally it reaches out its neck and cranes it around until it comes face-to-face with you.
You and Steve are both shaking in terror as its hot, briny, and somewhat sulfurous breath washes over you. It sniffs. Then the beast pulls back its head until it can focus its eyes on you. You’re not sure if Steve feels the same thing, but when you meet the creature’s eyes you get a strong sense of incomprehensibly-deep time, of cold, a fitful sleep, and dim memories of flight – hunts over craggy mountains.
There’s a breath, a single beat where you’re looking into its…her..eyes. She blinks slowly, then leaps and crashes through the roof of the warehouse and out into the dark. The sheet metal roof and structure come down and leave you and Stave buried, but amazingly unhurt. The already freezing temperatures inside the warehouse plummet to the dangerously freezing temperatures outside, leaving you and Steve holding each other, shaking uncontrollably in cold and shock.
After ten minutes, or an hour, you’re not sure, a large chunk of sheet metal over your heads lifts back with a creak, revealing a side of beef stuffed into a SWAT uniform. The man is massive, with close-cropped ginger hair, freckles, and rosy cheeks that sort of fade into his collar instead of becoming a neck. He’s wearing what can only be described as black tactical gear, save for the thick leather work gloves he’s using to handle the twisted metal.
“Sir!” he shouts over his shoulder, “Found em!”
You try to stand, but your legs won’t hold you. The man reaches into the space and lifts you out with a grunt, carries you a few feet, and sets you down on a steel rafter from the ceiling. While he’s doing the same for Steve, you gaze up at the stars through the hole in the roof, largely obscured by Chicago’s lights, but it’s a cold, clear night.
As Steve is being set beside you, another man jogs up. This one is normal-sized, maybe late thirties, kinda boyishly handsome. He’s wearing a black parka over his black SWAT gear, and he rapidly bundles you and Steve up in a couple of emergency blankets, then he and the other man start popping chemical hand-warmers and stuffing them into the blankets with you.
“You two hang tight,” the man says, “we’ve got help coming, but it’s probably best we stay in the building till they get here.”
“Y…y…you said…,” you try to get out through the shaking, “You were expecting to find a dragon here.”
He crouches down in front of you and starts pouring hot coffee from a thermos into a pair of cups. It smells like heaven. He half-smiles, half-grimaces.
“Yes, Miss Brown, I was expecting to find a dragon. A dead dragon recovered from the lake.” He hands you and Steve the coffee, and you both sip the hot, bitter stuff as fast as your shaking will allow.
“How do you know my name?”
“Ran the plates on that beater out there. What I’d like to know, more even than what you two were doing in here, is how that thing stopped being dead…”
“We have no idea,” Steve says, ”I was studying it for hours, then a bit after Emma got here, it just started putting itself back together.”
The man studies the two of you intently for a moment. You start to taste something coppery in the coffee. There’s a clang…Steve’s coffee cup hitting the floor. Steve is slumped over, drooling. Everything starts getting swimmy. You look up at the man in the parka.
“What…what are you?”
He cocks his head to the side like a puppy, then reaches out to grab you as you topple forward. But you’re unconscious long before you get there.