Decontamination

Never leave the incubator unattended.

That’s the first lesson they teach you when you start at the lab. I wish I had listened.

Thankfully, the explosion was contained to the one room. The building has been evacuated as per safety protocol, and the cleanup crew is busy decontaminating the area while the head of the department has me fill out a statement for the report. I’ve never felt so guilty in my life. That’s saying something.

I have a bad history of putting living beings in danger. I squashed my sister’s hamster as a kid, ran over my neighbor’s cat as a teenager, and lost my friend’s dog on the street in my first year of college. And now I’ve endangered at least a dozen human beings by accidentally unleashing bacteria all over the laboratory. Unknown, unpredictable bacteria. There’s no telling what damage I could have caused if I hadn’t been alone when the incubator burst.

The cleanup crew has finished their work and is filing out of the lab. I’ve been told it’s safe to go back inside. While everyone else leaves, I throw on my cleanroom suit and head in to grab my notes. As I pass by the busted incubator, I feel a horrible sinking sensation in my stomach. Years’ worth of research has been lost tonight, and it’s all my fault.

I open my notebook and flip to the last filled pages. I want to figure out what went wrong. Could I have set the incubator temperature too high by mistake? Was there a malfunctioning piece in the machine? Or is this all just happening now because bad luck follows me wherever I go?

A tear splashes on the corner of the page. I wipe my eyes as I take a pen from the table and scribble a quick note about the explosion. After replacing the pen and skimming through my notes one last time, I close the notebook and glance up at the clock on the wall. It tells me I’ve been here over half an hour, much longer than I’d anticipated. Better start heading out.

Replacing the notebook on the table, I hurry back to the adjoining chamber to remove my suit before I head out, but I stop just inside the doorway when I hear voices in the hall. They must think everyone has already left. Standing still, just out of sight, I listen to them talk about the incident. I recognize two voices: the head of the department and the director of the lab. The director is saying it was lucky no one was injured by the explosion, otherwise the consequences could be catastrophic. The results from the last lab mice test came back this morning; they’ve just discovered that the bacteria we’ve been studying induce a lethal reaction in the subject.

My heart starts to race and I break into a sweat, but I dare not make a sound. The department head asks if we should quarantine everyone in the building, but the director reassures him that the bacteria are not airborne; infection only occurs from direct contact with the subject’s blood. Even if anyone had been contaminated, they wouldn’t last long enough to spread the disease beyond this isolated research facility, as the infection is fatal within hours. The head of the department mutters a curse against “that damn clumsy student”. He wishes I had never set foot in the lab in the first place.

I’ve heard enough. Moving away from the door, I turn and hurry back into the lab. This time I don’t bother with the suit, heading straight through the door toward the notebook and pen on the table before making a beeline for the room on the other side of the floor. Tears return to my eyes as I rush past the broken incubator.

All your faultAll your fault

I’m no stranger to being cursed. Most people who know me end up wishing they’d never met me, usually after my bad luck causes them some sort of injury. Nobody likes me. Nobody ever wants me around. I don’t blame them. I’m a jinx, a curse, a disease.

You’re the real infection

I rush into the freezer and slam the door behind me. I lean back against the wall, open the notebook, and start scribbling words on the blank pages in the back, important notes to all the people I’ve loved and wronged. By now the tears have blurred my vision so much that I can barely see the letters anymore. Tremblingly, I rip the last page from the notebook and clutch it close to my chest. Now all that’s left to do is wait.

A strange calm overtakes me as I flip through my notebook for the last time. This is best for everyone, I tell myself. Everything happens for a reason, right? Yes, they’ll all be better off this way. Shivering, I get to the last of my notes, the secret of how some loose shards of shattered glass and metal struck me in the explosion.

My strength begins to leave me and I stifle a cough. I close the notebook as well as my eyes and pull my sleeve down, covering the gash in my hand where the glass tore right through my glove. This is how they’ll find me in the morning, tears frozen on my cheeks and a piece of paper clutched tightly in my hand, containing a single word that says everything…

Contaminated.

Dance of the Fairies (Part 2)

Welcome to the conclusion of “Dance of the Fairies”. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy!


The music gradually died down as Cindy, Joey, Shea and Eldan moved toward the center circle. The next thing the children knew, the fairies were all staring at them in awestruck silence as they stood before the queen.

“Your Majesty”, said Shea, bowing deeply alongside Eldan while the children stood wide-eyed behind them, “we found these two humans watching from the outskirts of our sacred field. We beseech your judgment of their permission to stay.”

The queen fluttered down from her high throne, and Shea and Eldan moved aside to allow her passage to the children. Cindy and Joey gazed at her in wonder; though she was considerably smaller than them, they felt humbled in her presence. The great fairy studied them seriously for a minute, then broke into a smile.

“Welcome, children,” she said kindly. “I see you’ve discovered our secret festival. Please tell me your names.”

The children glanced at each other awkwardly before turning back to the fairy. The girl was the first to find her voice.

“C-Cindy.”

“…Joey.”

The queen considered them both for a moment before nodding, never breaking her smile for an instant. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cindy and Joey. I’m Queen Tianna. Welcome to our magical field!”

“The pleasure is all ours!” Cindy replied. The queen’s kind smile had melted away all her fear.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Eldan spoke up, “but what should we do with these…visitors? You have only to say the word, and Shea and I will readily escort them out.”

Queen Tianna grew serious again. Without taking her eyes off the humans, she fluttered down to lift each of their hands as Shea had done. She held onto their forefingers for a full minute, the silence deafening around them… until at last she smiled once more.

“There’s no need for that, Eldan,” she said sweetly, still gazing intently at Cindy and Joey. “These children are pure of heart. They will be our honored guests tonight!” The queen announced this to the entire field, then lowered her voice again as she addressed the visitors directly. “What do you say, children? Would you like to dance with us?”

“Would we ever!” Cindy exclaimed, then suddenly catching herself, she added with a polite bow, “I mean, it would be an honor, Your Majesty.”

Joey bowed as well, and the entire field of fairies cheered as the music started up again. Immediately, two pairs of fairies carrying a crown of flowers each came forth and placed them lightly on the children’s heads. The two were then escorted toward the center circle, Cindy giggling as she caught sight of Shea triumphantly sticking her tongue out at Eldan.

The rest of the night passed by like a dream. Cindy and Joey twirled together in the light circle to the cheering of the fairies around them. They gleefully lead lines of dancers around the field, clapped and chanted along to the music, and joined hands with the fairies to spin around the great center circle. They even had the honor of joining the final dance with Queen Tianna herself. It was a night they would never forget for as long as they lived.

At last, the night passed away and the morning sun began to glow on the horizon. As the music and dancing finally stopped, the queen fluttered before her guests to share a few final words with them.

“Thank you for joining us tonight, children! You have made this a most magical evening indeed! Know you are always welcome to our full moon festivals. May the Mother Earth always bless you both!”

“Thank you, Your Majesty!” Cindy and Joey exclaimed in unison, grinning and bowing deeply.

The other fairies had already begun to disappear, one by one in little fading balls of light. Shea waved her new friends goodbye, and even Eldan smiled as he disappeared with her. Queen Tianna was the last to vanish, leaving the warmth of her kind smile hanging in the air. The light circle faded away, and before they knew it, Cindy and Joey were standing in the middle of what appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary field at dawn, with no sign that anything magical had ever happened there.

Joey reached up to take the flower crown off his head, and stood staring at it as if in a daze while Cindy started walking back toward the rocks. Timidly, he turned his head up and called to her.

“Cindy?”

Cindy stopped and turned around to face her friend. Joey shuffled his feet awkwardly for a moment, gathering courage as he glanced at his crown, before looking her in the eyes again and speaking up.

“…Do you think we could come back here, at the next full moon?”

A smile spread across Cindy’s face. She walked up to Joey and took his hand in hers.

“It’s a date!”

Joey grinned and squeezed Cindy’s fingers as she replaced the flower crown on his head. Holding hands, the children left the field together, laughing and skipping all the way home. It had been more than a magical evening, a night they knew even then that they would remember for the rest of their lives together. Every full moon from then on would bring about the same cheerful thought: the next dance of the fairies could never come soon enough.

The End

Hope you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading!

Dance of the Fairies (Part 1)

“What are we looking at?”

Shh!

“But there’s nothing here!”

“There will be! Now be quiet!”

Cindy covered Joey’s mouth with her hand. He brushed it off, but did as she told him nonetheless. The two children huddled closer as they stared over the rocks at the empty field ahead.

“I still don’t get why you brought me here,” Joey whispered after five uneventful minutes.

“You will.” Cindy glanced up at the full moon just beginning to poke through the clouds. “It’s almost time.”

They sat quietly for another several minutes, waiting. Joey opened his mouth, about to complain that it was cold and this was boring and he wanted to go home, but the words never left his throat. Just then, a circle of light appeared in the middle of the field, in the very spot Cindy had pointed out when they arrived.

“C-Cindy?” Joey stammered, suddenly afraid. “W-What’s happening?”

But Cindy didn’t seem to notice her friend cowering beside her. She was too busy grinning as she leaned over the rock for a better view.

“Here they come!”

She quivered with excitement as little balls of light began to appear across the field. One by one, the floating lights materialized into tiny glowing figures with wings. Joey’s eyes grew wide as he stared into the field, unable to believe what he was seeing.

“Are those…?” he gasped. Cindy nodded without taking her eyes off the scene ahead.

“Fairies!”

The fairies all gathered around the circle of light in the middle of the field. One of them, who was slightly brighter than the rest and wore a crown on her head, raised her hands to call for silence, a request immediately respected by all the others. Cindy turned to Joey, who was now leaning over the rock beside her.

“That’s the fairy queen!” she whispered. The two of them watched quietly as the leader of the fairies began to speak.

“My children!” she said in a kind yet authoritative voice. “Tonight, let us give thanks to our Mother Earth for her bounty. Let us praise her, that we may never find ourselves wanting of her generosity. Let her know that we are eternally grateful for her kindness. So sing and be merry, my children! Tonight, we dance!”

The queen raised her hands again and all the fairies cheered. A small group beside her began to bang and strum on tiny instruments, and soon the air was filled with music. Cindy and Joey watched, enthralled, as some of the little glowing figures joined hands and danced around the center circle while others twirled through the air in pairs. It was a sight to take the breath away.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” Cindy sighed dreamily, her head in her hands. Joey nodded without even realizing.

“They really are.”

The children giggled as they watched the fairies dance and sing. Before long, they too found themselves getting caught up in the spirit of the music.

“May I have this dance?” Joey said in a mock grown-up voice as he stepped back and bowed to his friend. Cindy curtsied and waved an imaginary fan.

“I thought you’d never ask!”

The two friends laughed as they imitated the fairies, twirling around in circles until they were dizzy. Then…

“Hey!”

Cindy and Joey froze, their smiles vanishing instantly. They turned around slowly to see two glowing figures floating before them, watching them with wide, pale blue eyes.

“What are you doing here?” one of the fairies asked, his brow raised in suspicion. While Cindy and Joey exchanged awkward looks, the other fairy turned to her companion.

“Don’t frighten them, Eldan!” she said in a much softer tone, taking him by the arm. “They’re not hurting anyone. They’re just children!”

“Human children, Shea,” said the first fairy as he turned to his friend. “You know we don’t allow humans here. What would the queen have to say about this?”

“Why don’t we ask her?”

“You want to take them to the queen?”

“Why not?” Shea smiled. “They clearly like to dance too! I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. She might even be delighted to have them join us!”

Eldan glanced at the nervous children, then turned back to his companion and sighed in defeat. “Fine, if you say so. But if we get in trouble for this…”

“We won’t.” Beaming, Shea fluttered over to Cindy and Joey and extended her hand to them. “It’s okay, don’t be afraid. Come with us! We don’t bite!”

“Speak for yourself,” said Eldan, sparing a piercing look at Joey. The boy drew back at those words, but Shea calmed him with a gentle laugh.

“He’s joking, sweetie. This guy couldn’t hurt a fly if he wanted to!”

The fairy fluttered down between the children and reached out to touch their hands. Dazed, Cindy and Joey stepped forward as Shea led them by their forefingers out from behind the rocks and into the field, Eldan following close behind. They didn’t know what to expect, but of one thing they were certain: the night was about to get far more interesting.

To be concluded next Friday

Too Many Variables

I really thought amplifying DNA would be easy. Molecular biology seemed simple enough in theory: extract, amplify, sequence, analyze. But I had no idea how difficult it would be to work with so many variables.

After my third failed polymerase chain reaction attempt, I started to wonder what I could be doing wrong.

Was I using the right concentrations of each reagent? Buffer at 1X, MgCl2 at 1.5mM, dNTPs at 200µM each?

Were the primers optimized for my DNA template? Had they been designed for the correct gene? Did they have the right length, melting temperatures, GC content?

Were the PCR cycles optimized? Was I using an annealing temperature within a few degrees of the primers’ melting temperatures? Were the denaturation and extension times long enough to assure proper replication of the DNA fragments?

Was the electrophoresis gel being prepared and run correctly? 1% agarose gel with GelRed in TAE buffer, run for about 10V per centimeter between the electrodes?

Or what if – shudder – the problem was in the DNA itself? What if the extraction had failed, and I’d have to start the entire project over from Square One?

No, no, calm down, I told myself. One step at a time. First, eliminate the variables you know aren’t the problem. There’s no reason the extraction should have failed; the quantification returned optimal concentrations of DNA. These are the same universal primers used in countless other studies, specifically designed for the cytochrome-b gene. The thermocycler and the electrophoresis apparatus have already worked before. There’s nothing wrong with the gel because the ladder and primers appear in the UV photos. That’s already five ticks off the checklist.

Now start with a positive control, a sample you know has worked with these primers before. PCR #4: did it fail to amplify along with the others? Yes. Good, then the problem isn’t the DNA.

Next step: new aliquots. Replace the water, the buffer, the MgCl2, the dNTPs, even the primers. Everything must be fresh to minimize contamination. Double-check the concentrations before preparing the mix. PCR #5: still no bands in the gel. No problem; just move on to the next step.

Try altering the reagent concentrations. Use more DNA template, double the primers, increase the amount of MgCl2. PCRs #6-8: nothing. Don’t panic, it’s all part of the process. You’re zeroing in on the problem now.

Adjust the PCR procedure. Increase the number of cycles, raise the annealing temperature in increments of 2ºC, lengthen the initial denaturation and final elongation steps. PCRs #9-12: still nothing. It’s okay, every failure is just another step closer to success. These tears are totally normal; nothing to be ashamed of.

For weeks, I tried everything I could think of. I replaced the reagent aliquots three times. I used half a dozen standard PCR procedures from various troubleshooting references. I ran gradient tests and touchdown tests and hot-start tests. Zero, nothing, zip.

Finally, after over a month of PCR attempts and no results to show for it, I was at my wit’s end. One morning, when I was alone in the lab, I broke down into a sobbing mess. I couldn’t look at the thermocycler anymore, that beast of a machine that I had to work with every day. I felt like a knight facing off against the same dragon over and over, knowing that hours of battling would only get me burnt every single time.

So I resolved to take a break from it all. No more PCRs for a while, not until I could work up the energy to start trying again. Today, I would just sit at the desk and read papers while indulging in a bag of cookies. Stale cookies. Really stale cookies. Seriously, how old were these?

I turned the bag over to check the date on the back…and that was when it hit me. Could it be? Immediately I dropped the bag and ran to the freezer. The stock solutions were stored in the back of the bottom shelf; I searched through them one by one until at last I found what I was looking for, printed clear as day inside the lid of the Taq DNA polymerase box. “Expiration date: Oct 2010.” Of course! No wonder none of my reactions were working: the enzyme was over five years old!

My first grin in weeks spread across my face, and I was suddenly overcome with an urge to shout “Eureka!” I hurried to my professor’s office and told him about the expired reagent. He quickly ordered a new stock and it arrived within two weeks. Sure enough, the next PCR I ran yielded the most beautiful set of bright DNA bands I had ever seen in a gel. I wanted to kiss that UV photo. My very first successful DNA amplification! And it only took two months longer than expected.

Never again will I underestimate the work of a scientist. Molecular biology may seem simple in theory, but having learned my lesson the hard way, next time I’ll be prepared for the challenge of working with too many variables.

The Silver Queen (Part 2)

Welcome to the conclusion of “The Silver Queen”. If you haven’t yet, read Part 1 here. Otherwise, enjoy!


The night was dimly lit by the full moon Faye knew was hiding behind the clouds coating the sky. The drake followed the marks she’d left in the trees, pondering her wish all the way to the clearing. New colors were insufficient; she should definitely wish for a different form too. Her gossamer wings were just as pathetic as her dull scales. She much preferred leathery ones, or feathered ones, or even fins. Why couldn’t she have been born with any of those? Instead, she looked like an oversized butterfly. Hopefully after tonight, she never would again.

The clearing was even more beautiful than she’d remembered it in the daylight. There was the pool, just as the dwarf had described. All she had to do now was close her eyes and make a wish. Simple enough, right? Right?

No room for doubt, Faye. Believe.

Faye took one last look down at her plain scales before turning up to the thinning clouds. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

“I wish…”

She paused. What was it, again? To be red and gold? To have feathered wings? To have more magic than all the other drakes combined?

Don’t overthink, Faye. Wish for what’s in your heart.

“I wish to be a new me.”

A soft breeze blew through the clearing. Had it worked? Was she here? Faye dared to lift her eyelids a tiny crack, but nothing seemed different. Unable to stand the suspense, the drake opened her eyes and looked down.

She thought she’d be prepared for disappointment. She was wrong. The sight of those same old white scales seemed to pierce her heart like a sword. Maybe she didn’t believe hard enough. Or worse, maybe the dwarf was right, and there really was no witch.

No, there has to be a chance.

She wanted to believe there was still hope, but several more tries yielded no results. Heartbroken, Faye approached the pool to stare at the plain dragon in the water, doomed to be ordinary forever.

I’ll never be special, she thought, her tear rippling the water. I’ll never be anything but me.

The white dragon turned away, ready to head back home in defeat, when a sudden noise prompted her to look back in alarm. As the clouds shifted, the moonlight revealed a small figure standing across the clearing…

Terror overtook Faye the second she spotted the human child. It was a dark-haired female, six years old at most, and she wore a long dress that was torn at the knee. She too had tears in her eyes.

The drake didn’t have time to hide from the girl before their gazes locked. What now? Humans were dangerous, even little ones. Dragons were taught to scare them away with magic, but that advice wouldn’t help an Achromatic. She’d have to run and hope the creature wouldn’t believe ever having seen her in the first place.

Before she could move an inch, however, the girl’s small voice broke the minute-long silence.

“Fairy queen?”

Whatever fear the drake felt vanished instantly. Fairy queen? Only a child could reach such an outlandish conclusion. She wasn’t a fairy, much less a queen. She was a dragon! A small one, yes, but a dragon nonetheless.

“Fairy queen! Fairy queen!”

Suddenly annoyed, Faye decided to react, to prove that she was no fairy, that she was something far greater than those tiny creatures who wasted their time floating among flowers. But upon turning away to prepare the scariest roar she could manage, the young dragon suddenly froze at the sight that met her pale blue eyes.

The image in the water was so magnificent that it took Faye a full minute to recognize it as her own reflection. The moonlight had illuminated her scales to a shimmering silver, and her translucent wings had come to life in an opalescent display such as never had been seen on the back of any beast. It was a sight that took her breath away.

With fresh tears in her eyes, this time of joy, the dragon only returned to her senses when she felt a tiny hand on her right front leg. Looking down into her eyes, Faye noticed the child’s tears had been replaced by a smile.

“I’m Flora.”

No longer afraid, the silver drake glanced at the child’s torn dress, and somehow she knew what she had to do. The moon’s magic in her veins guided her to lower her head and exhale a soft breath over Flora’s injured leg. The human’s gratitude for healing her knee warmed Faye’s heart, and she felt unexpectedly calm as the girl placed a hand on her head and looked into her eyes.

“I wish to go home.”

Fairy queen

The dragon smiled. Normally she would never consider helping a lost human, but the moonlight on her scales had given her much more than the magical color she’d always wanted. Now she had a purpose. Faye stepped back and bowed to let Flora climb onto her back, then spread her multicolored wings and took off toward the village south of the forest.

Try as she might, Faye never remembered everything that happened after that. She recalled standing in the shadows at the forest’s edge while Flora hugged her and promised to meet her every full moon, and she recalled watching the girl wave one last time before running into the village. The next thing she knew, she was back in her clan’s cave, still beaming in disbelief that her wish had come true. She was a new her.

A week later, the white drake watched the magic competition from a high rock in the fields, a smile on her face at all times. Faye had no desire to join the solar dragons anymore, nor did she bother to reveal she was a lunar dragon when the anticipated bullying began.

“Monochrome!” “Colorless!” “Pale-face!”

But Faye no longer cared. They’d tire of name-calling soon enough, but even if she never got a chance to prove herself to the other dragons, the drake was content to know there would always be someone looking for her whenever the moon was full, someone who had seen the real her and had made her believe she was special. Faye wouldn’t give up being Achromatic for all the colors in the world, now that she knew she was something far greater than an ordinary dragon. In a human’s eyes and in her own heart, she truly was a queen.

The End

Hope you enjoyed the story! Thanks for reading!

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