Flight of the Stegosaur

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Digital drawing. Hovering in the sky, left side view of a stegosaur-like dinosaur with a bulky body, claw-like toes, bony spikes on its tail, a long neck, protruding snout and bony plates along its back. The dinosaur’s mouth is open in what appears to be a smile, eye looking at the viewer. From within the middle of the bony plates there emerge pairs of delicate veined wings like those of a fly or beetle

The stegosaur watched the beetle flick open its hard outer wings and extend the flight wings underneath.  She watched the beetle launch himself into the air and hover, floating to and fro before he droned away.  She watched in study of the beetle’s ability.  And she watched in envy of the beetle’s ability.

She heard pebbles shifting behind her, but she did not turn.

“You’re looking in the wrong direction,” a voice said.

The stegosaur smiled and swung her head around. 

“If you want to fly, there’s the way,” said the little limusaurus.  She tossed her head back as she strode over to the stegosaur.

The stegosaur did not shift her gaze from her friend as a streak of light shot up into the blue sky and beyond.  The sound of the shockwave would soon follow.  It was the second launch since the turning of the moon. 

“Good morning to you too,” the stegosaur said.  “I’m still not interested in flying through space.”

The limusaurus shook her head.  “Why not?  I am.”  She opened her beak-like mouth.  Her tongue flicked out.  “I still keep feeling them, as if I still have them.”  She was speaking of her lost teeth.  The limus were unique among the raptors.  As they reached maturity, they lost their teeth and grew beaks. 

The stegosaur turned all the way around.  “You know, Hop, if you want those teeth back—“

“No!” The limusaurus known as Hop hopped back.  She raised her forelimb and pointed at her friend.  “You’re not experimenting on me.”

The stegosaur laughed.  The two friends had met because Hop had volunteered to let her study the impending transformation from toothful snout to toothless beak. 

“We are more than these forms in which we’re contained, aren’t we?” the stegosaur said.  “And if that’s so, then what’s the harm in a few modifications?”

“Modifications!  Glint, what you’re proposing is more than modification.”

The stegosaur known as Glint sighed and followed where her friend led her.  The two strolled a well-worn path.

“Did I ever tell you that I applied?” Glint asked. 

Hop grunted to indicate that Glint should continue her story.

“I didn’t want to go out into space—not particularly—but it was the only way that a stegosaur could fly.”

“What happened?  Change your mind?”

“I was rejected.”

Hop grunted again.  “Rejected.  You?”

“I was fresh out of schooling at the time.  The rules of application were stricter then, but even now, I’m not sure I’d make it.  I still applied, again and again.  I kept at it and I kept trying to gather accomplishments, and make myself an expert in some field that would be of use to…well, the general purpose of scientific advancement.”

“You didn’t start off with genetic experimentation?”

Glint shook her head.  “No, no.  I thought I would end up studying plants.  Or oceanic science.  Or emerging mammals.”

“Those seem like very different topics.”

“I was a little aimless.  I was only sure about one thing.  I wanted to fly.  I’ve always known that.  But I didn’t know how.  How would I get up there?  What path would lead me up there?”

The two friends reached the entrance to the vast campus of the research institute where both worked—one as a scientist and the other as an educator.  The manipulation of genes was only allowed in living beings who fully understood and could agree to a given specific procedure.  That meant the institute had an entire division whose responsibility was the education of those who volunteered for the various active research studies.  Hop had been so impressed by the division during her time as a volunteer that when that time was over, she applied for a position as a worker.

The two passed an open field where a tyrannosaur was running back and forth at astonishing speed.

“Is it a good idea to make them even faster?” Hop commented.

Glint glanced over.  “I’ve met Rock.  He’s actually nice…and, not just for a tyrannosaur.  I mean, he’s just nice.”

Hop threw up her forelimbs.  “I’ll take your word for it.”

They entered a colonnaded structure with a high roof, passing a giant pool in which a few brachiosaurs waded, two dipping their heads below water.  They would not need to come up for air for another several hours. 

A tyrannosaur who could run twice as fast as his fellows.  Brachiosaurs who could breathe underwater.  These were modifications.  But Hop was right.  What Glint proposed to do to her own body went far beyond modification.

She lumbered alongside her friend.  Even when she ran, even when she galloped, she felt anchored to the earth.  Tens of millions of years had gone by.  The dinosaurs had developed technologies that could take them to the stars.  But they still hadn’t found a way fly around on their own planet—aside from those who could naturally fly.  They could either succumb to gravity or escape it.  Nothing in between, it seemed. 

Glint would find a way.    

All the flying creatures had always fascinated her, and she studied every one she could see.  The beetles enchanted her the most.  They too seemed so lumbering, so heavy.  Their bodies were covered in armor, and yet, their muscles were strong enough to lift that armor up and away, revealing the most delicate wings beneath, wings that could not possibly serve any purpose but to be decorative.

And yet, when those wings thrummed, faster than Glint’s eyes could see, they lifted the beetle up and into the air.  The flight was clumsy compared to that of other insects.  But it was true flight.  And it was the inspiration for her idea.

She was proud of the dorsal plates along her spine, proud of being a stegosaur.  But those plates always seemed to be a block to her goal of having wings.  And wings were necessary for flight.  She understood too that she couldn’t directly translate the idea of beetle’s wings to a dinosaur of her size.  Gravity acted far more strongly upon her than it did upon a beetle.  She would have to find some way to maneuver vertically within the field of the planet’s gravity. 

There, she had made some progress.

Glint and Hop passed by the great hallway that led to the education division’s lecture and study rooms.

“Come by my lab after your morning session,” Glint said.  “I’ll show you what I’ve done so far.”

***

Glint squinted her eyes at Hop.

“You can come closer,” the stegosaur said.

Hop yelled from across the laboratory.  “If you tell me what I’m about to see, I might.”

“But that’ll ruin the surprise.  Come closer.  I’m not going to explode.”

Hop shook her head. 

Glint wasted no more time.  “Don’t blink,” she teased.

The stegosaur took a breath.  She had to concentrate.  It wasn’t reflex yet.  It happened so slowly that she couldn’t tell at first.  She heard Hop cry out and stride closer before she could see that she was rising into the air.

“How?” Hop said as her gaze followed Glint.  She was soon craning her neck.  Her beak had fallen open and her eyes reflected wonder.

Glint laughed.  She was eager to answer her friend’s question, but she couldn’t help but to laugh.  She had laughed the first time she’d risen into the air—that is, she had gasped and then laughed.  But this was the first time she had done it in someone else’s presence.

Hop started laughing too.  She hopped to one side than the other, peering up at Glint. 

“Looking for strings?” Glint asked.

They both burst into laughter again. 

“You’re giddy!” Hop said.  “How thin is the air up there?”

And they both burst into laughter yet again.

Between gasping breaths, Hop managed to ask again.  “How?”

Between fits of relentless giggles, Glint managed to answer.  “Magnets!”

***

Magnets.  It seemed easiest to start there to find some solution to the problem of balancing vertical movement within the planet’s gravitational field. 

When they both had calmed down and when Glint had gotten her feet back on the ground, she gave a more detailed explanation. 

“The hospital let me borrow time with the phasing machines they use for training new doctors,” Glint said.  “They’re older model machines, but still in top shape.  They keep them that way for emergency use.  It was a little uncomfortable at first, but not painful.  Once I found metals that would not be toxic to me, even over time, the biggest challenge was figuring out where to implant the magnets within my body, so they would work together, and so they didn’t cause any tissue damage, especially during levitation.”

The key was using thousands of smaller magnets, distributed just under her skin, and a few larger flatter ones in her feet. 

The concept was simple.  It was just that no one had bothered to try it before.  It was just that there didn’t seem to be a need.

“Sometimes people don’t know they need an invention until it’s invented,” Glint said. 

“But how do you control them?” Hop asked.

“Very carefully.”

Glint did not leave her answer at a jest.  She explained that each of the tiny magnets was connected to a network of nerves that all converged upon her central system of nerves.  That meant she could control them by will.  She hoped the nerves would develop a reflex loop, secondary to the voluntary circuits.  But even if it remained at voluntary levitation, it was becoming easier to manage. 

And so Glint managed to make herself float a considerable distance off the ground using magnets. 

“An impressive accomplishment, my friend,” Hop said, gazing up as Glint performed a second demonstration.

“It is.  But I won’t rest there.  I don’t want to just hover over the Earth.  Remember, the aim is to fly.”  Glint teetered in the air, tilting to one side.  She focused and righted herself.  She grinned.  “It…doesn’t have to be graceful flight.”

***

And now would come the part that required all of Glint’s expertise.  She had only experimented on theoretical models.  Those models accounted for every possible variable.  But as she knew, as all researchers knew, there was no such thing as the perfect model. 

The effects of the magnets could be monitored.  If need be, they could even be removed in one, maybe two turnings of the moon.  But there was true danger in what she would be attempting next.  Because of that fact, Glint was afraid that she would not be allowed to risk her own safety for the sake of an experiment that—in the eyes of most—was whimsical and unnecessary. 

She was tempted to continue working alone.  It was for that very reason that she had revealed her plans to at least one other, trusting that Hop would be the needed voice of reason.  But she couldn’t have worked alone anyway.  Even if she wasn’t the subject of her own experiment, she would have needed help in executing it.  She had the expertise in genetic manipulation.  But not in molecular surgery.  Not in cellular reconstruction.  Not in the half dozen other specialties involved in the intricate procedures that would transform—metamorphose—her body.

Even with the magnets, her mass would need to be shifted.  Her limbs would need to be altered.  She wouldn’t be as adept at running anymore.  She didn’t mind.  She was a slow runner anyway.  The most dramatic change would be to her dorsal plates, and her spine.  Delicate but powerful muscles would be built along that spine.  The plates would be designed to split open, like the elytra of beetles, each to reveal a pair of delicate wings, delicate enough to add little to her overall mass, but strong and sturdy enough to move that mass through the air once the magnets lifted her.

***

The moon turned, and the Earth spun around the sun, once, twice, more than ten times.  In all that time, Glint endured painful surgeries, disorienting molecular disruptions, hours of mundane and repetitive exercises, revisions and iterations to every aspect of her project, doubts from within herself, and doubts from without.

Time and again, there were those who cautioned her that as much as she might wish to fly, the experiment was not worth her agony, and certainly not worth her life.  

Hop was among those who understood that in Glint’s eyes, there was as much danger in abandoning the prospect of flight as there was in paying the price she had paid to pursue the chance to fly.

“Know your limits, Glint,” Hop often reminded her.  “I’m trusting you to stop if you reach them.  Stop yourself before I’m forced to stop you.”

She did stop.  Glint stopped to heal.  She stopped to recover.  She stopped to adapt and adjust.  Though she was eager for her dream to come true, she recognized that she was not running a race.  Rather she had embarked upon a journey, a long journey, full of hard work.  A long journey with many small triumphs along the way.

Glint was already famed and acclaimed.  Her use of magnets for instance became widespread.  A much simpler and pain-free process to begin with, the phase magnetization procedure was refined over and over until it become commonplace.  Other dinosaurs used the magnets to levitate, and then attached machines to themselves to propel their bodies through the air. 

Glint had used such propellers too.  Though she liked the romantic idea of her first flight being with her own wings, she used the personal flight machines so that she could study and make observations from the air.  For she had hit a hurdle, one that kept her anchored to the ground.

***

Glint had completed the process of transforming her body.  Unlike some insects, who underwent complete metamorphosis, appearing so different from their larval forms that they were considered different animals altogether by the ancient dinosaurs, Glint still appeared very much like a stegosaur.  Her limbs were smaller.  That was all.  But once she levitated, she could make her dorsal plates split apart and deploy several sets of broad shimmering wings.  Her flight muscles were as strong as they could be.  Her spine was fortified.  And she had enhanced the workings of the magnets within her.  They could operate by reflex now.  But there was some physical limit she could not overcome. 

She had recruited the best mechanical engineers and physicists, to examine the blueprints and internal images, and the calculations and graphs, and every piece of data about the operation of her wings.

They had all come to the same conclusion.

Glint could not thrum her wings fast enough to propel herself the way the personal flight motors did.  Her flight muscles grew too tired too fast.  It was a physical constraint, a natural constant, a bodily barrier she could not overcome. 

The personal flight motors worked so well and required little fuel.  Once again, there were those who challenged Glint’s quest.  And to be fair to her detractors, she asked herself the same question that they asked her.  Why bother with flight muscles that tired before they even got started when the flight motor could hum along for great distances? 

Glint had wanted the wings to be fully biological.  As an exercise, she studied and consulted others about every type of biological motor known to dinosaur.  And she wondered if there was some way she could install an organic motor for each pair of wings, instead of flight muscles, or perhaps in support of the muscles.

She wondered if there was any kind of biological motor that did not require constant effort to work, a motor that could speed up once triggered, rather than slowing down.  It would have to be stopped before it overheated, and to prevent fatigue and damage to the wings and associated anatomy.

“But can it be done?” she asked late one night, as she pondered over sketches and blueprints, frenzied messages from experts, and proposals both probable and outrageous from her own musings.

***

So she went about working and tinkering with the help of her colleagues.  She did indeed turn her wing muscles into motors, motors that gained more power and speed the more they worked, transmitting that speed and power to her wings in bursts.  A range of operations was set, with limits based on the limits of Glint’s body, and in particular, her flight muscles.  

After she had healed and exercised, and tested the safety of her invention, she was ready to try again.

Her colleagues were present, those who had worked with her on her project day in and day out. 

She had made a list of others whom she might invite to her test flight: fellow scientists who had inspired breakthroughs, friends who had helped care for her while she healed, good-natured skeptics, ill-natured naysayers…

But for now, only one other was present.

“How far back should I stand?” Hop asked, glancing around at the empty field. 

The others present chuckled.  But Glint only smiled.

After ten rotations around the sun, Glint was adept at the use of her magnets.  She used them to rise.  Nervous but excited as Hop and her colleagues watched from below, she lowered her dorsal plates and let spring forth her several pairs of delicate wings.  She triggered the motors of her wing muscles and started fluttering her wings, clumsily and out of sync at first, but then concentrating and fluttering them in concert, faster, and faster, and faster.  Her flight wings produced a low almost comforting drone.  She began to move forward and up, climbing higher into the sky.  She heard the cheer of the onlookers.  Carefully and slowly, she adjusted her flight and turned toward them.

Her colleagues cried out in waves of cheers.  Hop hopped up and down and waved.

Glint smiled, not in triumph, but in joy.

Because she had done it at last.

She was flying. 


Copyright © 2022  Nila L. Patel

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