Dr Yang Zhang’s lab does genome structure sequence modelling and analysis. Over the past
The rumble of thunder he understood. The rain that fell in sheets and cooled the air inside his home was familiar. But the noise outside was new. Even in a storm he knew by heart the sounds of his home and everything around it, so the moment the noise reached his ear he awoke. The sound of metal clacking against stone came from the path over the ridge that his home stood over. He roused in time with rolling thunder, stood tall and stretched off the broken nights sleep. He paused a moment to listen through the rain and heard it again. Rhythmic, and then random, as more of the same noise reached him. He frowned deep. Too close to his home. A moment later, from the same direction came a single word, shouted and then lost in the storm, ‘ALASTAIR!’. He formed the word in his mouth but didn’t recognise its meaning.
The rain covered the sounds of his movement as he left and walked into the rain. He could feel his feet sink into the mud, saw the branches break as he pushed up to the ridge edge and smiled. The storm made everything else silent. Everything that was familiar. He saw three people walking with hoods pulled over their faces. They were wrapped up tight against the storm, leaning into the wind as they pushed up the hill. The metal studs on their boots had given them away and every few moments another would call out, ‘ALASTAIR!’, to have their words swept away. He crouched down out of habit more than caution, he knew they wouldn’t look up to the ridge, the trees that flanked that path would cover him anyway, and he listened closer. The leader was muttering curses in their strange language loud enough so they could hear themself but not so their companions would hear over the rain. He smiled at the leader, they appreciated a storms imposed silence too.
He had been around these kind of people for since he had made his home in their mountains 7 or 8 months ago. People from their town had walked close by and he’d gone and listened at night when their town was alive with fire lights and music. He’d been around them long enough to pick up that this leader was cursing the storm. He smiled again, pityingly, no one could break a storm like this, cursing would do him no good.
The three figures trudged along the path and through the wind like they walked through water. He slunk over the ridge and dropped onto the path behind them. He followed them just five strides behind the last figure. They didn’t notice him, they were too busy looking at the ground in front of them, or the trees around them, and heard only the rain that poured. They kept shouting, ‘ALASTAIR!’ He wondered if they knew their voices barely carried off the path, never mind through the trees.
Eventually they reached the cross roads a mile from his home. They stopped and gathered together under a tree and brought out a large piece of paper. He slunk off the path and, silent in the rain, climbed the tree to hide over their heads. He could tell the lines on the paper were a map of the mountains, he was surprised to see it was not ruined in the rain and he silenced his thoughts to listen,
‘... not wait for the rest of us, wrap her up and run home. She must be scared to death. If we hear you we’ll head back too, otherwise, don’t stop until morning. Clear?’ The two figures rustled as they nodded. ‘And, if the worst has happened, use your best judgement, don’t put yourself in danger in this weather, it's not great but we can finish looking when its clear.’ The leader looked at his companions, ‘Alright.’ They rolled up the map and put it back in a bag. ‘Let’s go.’ The figures nodded once together and turned and walked down different paths.
More than anything, he was impressed with himself that he was confident he understood what they had said. He had always been quick to piece things together but a spoken language like this was new. He decided to follow the leader and dropped into step behind him, silent behind the rain, watching where his head would turn and following his gaze into the dark stormy wood. He knew if he couldn’t see anything beyond the trees then they couldn’t either. He had been this way before so was not surprised or frustrated like the leader when they came to a sheer rock face that blocked their way. He darted off the path as they turned around and shouted that word again, ‘ALASTAIR!’ Their voice became quiet and deep with sadness, ‘Where the fuck are you child.’
He nodded to himself. Knowing the leader would have to go through the trees and further up the mountain to continue their search he slunk deeper into the woods in search of the second figure. He found them in a small clearing, knelt over animal tracks on the ground. He heard them talking to themselves, but in another language, one completely new to him. He frowned with the thunder but waited. A few moments later they stopped speaking to themselves and went entirely still, holding their hands over the tracks, suddenly unflinching to the rain. He crept around the clearing so he stood, hidden, in front of them. They had their eyes closed as if asleep but knelt upright and he could make out their eyes moving behind closed lids.
He took a deep breathe and crept out of the tree line. They didn’t react. He stalked around them, so he approached from the side. They didn’t react. He came close enough to touch them, and looked at the tracks. They were obviously boar tracks, a big boar at that, but he spotted what they had seen. A length of torn white fabric trampled into the ground. He crouched down, scooped it up, and fled back into the trees. They didn’t react.
It took longer to find the third figure because they had gone off the path and had started walking in circles. He eventually heard the same shout, ‘ALASTAIR!’ but with far less conviction than before. This one looked afraid, they clearly thought themselves lost and the rain, silencing everything else, was a wall they could not surmount. They were beginning to shake and their shouting became more frantic. Feeling pity, he crept ahead of them as they were walking away from the path and as they passed under a thicker tree he snapped a branch under foot. They stopped and looked up, frozen with fear. They didn’t see him but they looked toward the sound. And didn’t move. He rolled his eyes. He crept to another, waited for a clap of thunder to finish and snapped another. At the second violent crack they turned and ran back toward the path.
He nodded to himself, thinking now that he understood what they were doing. He took up the fabric he had taken from in front of the second person and inspected it. It was thick, and under the mud that fell in the rain it was a stark white colour. He wasn’t familiar with the fabric but it had a peculiar scent to it. He was never the best at tracking, especially via scent, but since this one was so different from the forrest, though it was slight, he was confident he could find it. He ran back toward the clearing where he had found the fabric. Moments later he was there and, now knowing what to look for, found the scent on the ground ahead of the clearing, where the boar tracks led. The second person had gone. They had left their own tracks and they were going in the right direction so he followed. He never left tracks himself, he was always good at that.
It took very little time to catch up. They were walking more purposefully than the others, with more confidence but had stopped shouting. He kept following them until they started walking in the wrong direction. He walked to where they had broken from the scent and looked around. Where they were going he saw very subtle signs of a boar rushing through the trees. Partially broken branches, disturbed mud. He was impressed at their tracking ability, he would have missed that. But he had the scent and looked toward where it led, toward a rock formation beside a stream. He rolled his eyes towards the better tracker on the wrong trail and followed the scent.
More quietly than the clacking of metal on stone from the people’s boots he heard whimpering coming from beneath the rock formation. He approached carefully and listened. Someone was crying just louder than their chattering teeth. He got low to the ground and slowly moved around the rocks. Looking around a corner and underneath he saw a small person with long dark hair caked in the mud they lay in, huddled with their legs hugged tight to their chest. He slowly moved around the rock to look at their face. Their eyes were closed tightly and their whole body shook. He knew they were afraid. He stepped away and behind the rocks again, considering.
He climbed on top of the rocks and a lay on them to divert the water dripping onto the person. Carefully he formed a word in his mouth. It was easier knowing it was not a normal word for their language but he found the sounds hard to imitate, ‘Alastare’ he whispered into the wind. Their eyes opened slowly and they got their breathing under control. ‘Alastair.’ He said again, more pleased with his pronunciation. They were sure of what they heard that time and sat up,
‘Who, who’s there?’ They were careful, cautious, he respected that. He came down behind the rocks making sure to make controlled, soft, scuffling noises so they knew he was there but without startling them. He slowly, with head bowed low, crept out in front of the rocks. They looked afraid, their mouth fell open and they backed up against the rocks. He looked at them and said again, ‘Alastair’. He continued to sink lower in deferral. They didn't say anything but their frown turned to curiosity and they came forward, reaching out for him. He moved carefully closer. Their hand reached out into the rain, he turned to stand side on and lifted a wing so the mouth of the alcove was covered. He let them touch his face, felt their soft, squishy skin brush his scales.
Lightning lit the rocks and he could see wonder and fear mixed in their brown eyes as they saw his green scales lit up in stormlight and rain water. She jumped back at the thunder clap and looked sad again. He didn’t know what to do. He turned again and used his tail to clear the ground under the rocks of leaves and mud, then he carefully moved under the rocks and put a wing between them and him. He faced the cleared piece of ground and breathed hot, dry air over the ground, evaporating the water and drying the soil. He lifted his now warm wing and stepped out of the rocks. They looked at him again, he was sure there was more wonder than fear this time. They crawled onto the cleared ground and lay on their side. They lay still watching him in silence, he watched back meeting their eyes, and their teeth stopped chattering. He’d never been so close to one of them before. He edged closer, just under the rocks and wrapped a wing over them. He breathed another deep, hot breath over his wing and around the space to trap the heat between the rocks and his body.
They stopped shivering and fell into an exhausted sleep. He lay awake for a while listening to the rain and heating the rocks every few minutes. The storm was quelling and the thunder stopped altogether. He rested his head on the ground and spoke his first word into the silencing rain until he fell asleep too.