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Domesticating Dragons: Chapter One

       Last updated: Friday, November 6, 2020 21:47 EST




    Three years, five months, and thirteen days after my dog died in the canine epidemic, I walked up to the door of Reptilian Corporation wearing a suit I couldn’t afford. The company leased a shining 20,000-square-foot facility in downtown Phoenix. I’d seen plenty of fancy buildings before, but this one took the cake. Ten stories of glass and steel nestled in a verdant landscape of trees, shrubs, and actual grass. It looked like a strange mashup of biotech and an Ivy League campus. The irrigation bill alone had to cost a fortune. I put my hand on the warm metal door handle and paused to take a deep breath. Six years of work had brought me to this moment. Don’t blow it.

    I tugged the door open. A rush of cool air greeted me, carrying with it the faint metallic smell of recent construction.The lobby alone was the size of an aircraft hangar. I approached the security desk just inside, where a redhead in a sharp business suit greeted me.

    “Can I help you?”

    “I’m here for an interview.”

    “I didn’t know we were interviewing.”

    Damn, she was gorgeous. Probably twenty years old and so far out of my league it wasn’t even funny. Focus, man. “Well, it’s more of a meeting.”

    “Your name?”

    I’d made the mistake of glancing upward and found myself staring at the dragon frescoes painted on the ceiling three stories up. It looked like a reptilian invasion of the Sistine Chapel. They were obsessed with dragons here. “Noah Parker.”

    She tapped out a few keys. “There you are.” The desk between us looked about a hundred years old. It was probably one of those reclaimed wood jobs, an old ship or something. She slid a black portable flatscreen onto it, in a weird juxtaposition of traditional and modern. I looked around but didn’t see a stylus.

    “Where’s the pen?”

    “It’s a palm scanner.”

    “Right, of course.” I reached out to put my right palm on it, like it was no big deal. Like I spent every day passing through state-of-the-art security at one of the nation’s hottest biotech companies. Light bloomed beneath my thumb, and her computer chimed softly.

    She printed a security badge with visitor in bright red letters across the top, just above my picture. Which looked to be my DMV photo, not the most flattering image ever. I grimaced. “Thanks.”

    “Take the elevator to the seventh floor. Someone will meet you in the lobby.”

    I clipped on the badge so that the fold of my suit jacket hid most of the horrific photo. “So, what’s your name?”

    She shook her head. “That’s need to know information.”

    “Well, maybe I need–“

    “No, you don’t.”

    Ouch. I stood there with my mouth open for a good half second. “Did you say seventh floor?”

    “Seventh floor.” She’d already turned back to her flatscreen.

    I wasn’t off to a good start. The awkward interaction shook me up. I caught the next elevator and sighed in relief that I had it to myself. The doors hissed open on the seventh floor to reveal an empty lobby. I stepped out and glanced around. Glass doors lined both sides of the atrium, their glowing red access panels making it clear that I wouldn’t be allowed through. “Hello?”

    The muted click-click of heels echoed from behind the door at my left. It slid open to reveal a dark-haired woman with a slim tablet and a face I recognized. My breath caught. It was her.

    Evelyn Chang was one of the top genetic engineers in the country. I’d met her once at a conference when I was in grad school. She was at Cal Tech back then, but already making a name for herself. I doubted she remembered me. She smiled. “Noah Parker. I was just reading your dissertation.”

    “Oh.” I didn’t really know what to say. “What do you think?”

    “Your biological simulator sounds promising. Does it work?”

    My simulator was a computer program that read in a genome sequence and predicted the organism it encoded. A company like Reptilian would naturally be interested in its commercial applications, even if I hadn’t written it specifically to get their attention. “It’s not perfect. But the results so far have been really encouraging.”

    “That’s good to hear. How about a little tour?”

    “I’d like that.” More than I dared tell her.

    She led the way through the secure door from which she’d come. I followed, my head still spinning from the fact that Evelyn Chang had been reading my paper. The hallway opened into a wide two-story chamber. The air felt uncomfortably warm, maybe ten degrees above ambient temperature. Sunlight streaked in through circular skylights that, oddly enough, reminded me of the hydroponics closet back home.

    “This is the hatchery,” Evelyn said.

    “I didn’t realize you hatched the dragons in-house.”

    “Only our prototypes. Most of our orders get shipped out as eggs.”

    I counted eight steel-and-Plexiglas doors on either side, but only two that seemed to be in use. Which was odd. I mean, the place had a license to design dragons. With Evelyn here running the show, you’d think the hatchery would be booming. Maybe I wasn’t getting the whole picture, but I filed this away for later.

    The far door opened to admit two people in white jumpsuits pushing a wide cart between them. I scrambled aside. A foam cushion topped the cart. In the center of that rested an oblong stone about the size of a watermelon. It had the color of desert sand: pale yellow beneath a whorl of reddish earth tones.

    “Hey, Jim,” Evelyn said. “Mind if we have a look?”

    The white-clad orderlies paused but kept their hands on the cart. Dark-tinted masks obscured their faces. How did Evelyn know who they were? My eyes slid down to the stone. My breath caught.

    “Is that–“

    “A dragon egg. Go ahead, you can touch it.”

    I felt nervous doing so. The thing looked so fragile. If I damaged it, there was no way this meeting would have a happy outcome. Still, this could be my only chance to ever touch a dragon egg, so I figured I might as well. I laid my palm on it. The shell felt rough, almost porous. “Oh my God,” I whispered. “It’s warm.

    Evelyn smiled. “Fresh off the printer.”

    One of the white-clad staffers, presumably the one called Jim, cleared his throat.

    “We should let them get it into the pod,” Evelyn said.

    I nodded and forced myself to lift my hand. The memory of that warmth lingered, though. I watched them wheel it away and into one of the active incubator rooms. Well, even if nothing came of this meeting, I had a pretty good story to tell.

    Evelyn led me through another set of doors and back into the world of ambient temperature. We encountered no one else in the long, sterile hallway. A muted hum came through the wall on the right-hand side. It was faint, but unmistakable: the whir of server cooling fans. Maybe it was just my anticipation, but I could sense the power of those machines. The nearly limitless potential.

    Her office, a rectangular room almost as large as my studio apartment, waited at the end of the hallway. Glass windows on two walls offered a stunning view of downtown, only partly obscured by the exotic plants growing in pots along the windowsills. I’d taken enough botany to recognize the Venus fly traps, sundews, pitcher plants?.?.?.?all carnivorous species.

    I tried not to ponder the significance of that.

    Evelyn gestured me to the thick leather guest chair, on the near side of the most notable piece of furniture: a wide steel desk in the shape of a half-donut. She took the much-plainer swivel chair in the donut-hole, perching on the edge as if she might pop back up at any second.

    I settled into the guest chair with an awkward squelch. I winced. It must be one of those chairs that made awkward noises whenever you moved. Just what I need.

    “How much have you tested your simulator code on other organisms?” Evelyn asked.

    “Quite a bit, actually. I worked my way up to frog before I hit the limits of our computing resources at ASU.”

    She smiled the knowing smile of someone who didn’t face that problem. “Are there any other limitations, beyond the computing requirements?”

    “It needs a high-quality genome sequence. The more annotation content, the better.”

    “What species do you think would be the toughest to run on it?”

    “If you mean biological and legal complexity, then it’s obviously human.” But that’s the easy answer. A Genetics 101 student could get it right. I ran through my mental list of test simulations. “But if you mean genomic difficulty, I’d say one of the gymnosperms.” Plant genomes were nasty things: large, repetitive, lots of copied genes and pseudo-genes. “Norwood spruce, maybe.”

    She gave a sharp nod, as if my answer pleased her. “Do you know what I’m going to ask next, Noah Parker?”

    “Whether I’ve run it on the dragon reference?” That was the genome sequence Reptilian had assembled to produce their synthetic reptile.

    “Well, have you?” she asked.

    “I haven’t, for three reasons. First, it would take more computer than I’ve got. Second, the public version of the dragon genome is still a little rough.” Right then I remembered that she’d probably played a big role in that project. I cleared my throat. “No offense.”

    Evelyn shrugged. “We never claimed it was more than a first draft.”

    “Well, the third reason is, I’d want to compare the results to live subjects.”

    “You could have just bought some of our dragons,” Evelyn said.

    I can’t even afford this suit I’m wearing. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    “In its current form, the simulator only models physical characteristics. Is that true?”

    “Yes. That’s what most end users are interested in.” Biotech and seed companies cared mainly about physical traits, things that affected the bottom line. Still, they had deep pockets, so my university was happy to issue the licenses. Reptilian hadn’t licensed it yet, but I hoped that was where this was going.

    “What about behavioral traits?”

    The question caught me by surprise. As much as I’d enjoy modifying a few of my younger brother’s behaviors, that had never been my focus. So why is it hers? “They’re a lot more complex. Harder to predict from genetics alone.”

    “Tell me about it.” She shook her head. Then she seemed to get an idea and stood. “I want to show you something.”

    I followed her out of her office and down another hallway to door labeled Holding Facility.

    She pressed her palm to a biometric scanner, which glowed green in response. The door hissed open. “This is where we keep dragons after hatching.”

    “You keep live dragons here?” I couldn’t imagine why. The unhatched eggs would be low maintenance. Living dragons, not so much.

    “Just some of the experimental models.” Evelyn stopped before a large window that let out into darkness. She activated a control panel and hit a button. Light bloomed on the other side of the glass. It was a holding cell, about ten feet square, and a large scaled creature the size of a Labrador lay curled up in the corner. Dark, leathery wings rested against the serpentine body.

    “This was one of our early prototypes,” Evelyn said.

    The dragon’s eyes flicked open. It uncurled and stretched, almost like a cat, and rolled to its clawed feet. It was much bigger than that, though. About the size of an adult mountain lion, by my guess.

    I took a step forward and put my fingertips on the glass. “I’ve never been this close–“

    The dragon hurtled forward and slammed into the Plexiglas. Right in front of my face. It hissed and snarled and bared its teeth and threw itself at the Plexiglas again. Wham. I scrambled backward and, and nearly fell. “Jesus!”

    “They’re a little wild,” Evelyn said.

    “Yeah, no kidding.”

    She switched off the lights again. Darkness hid the dragon’s body from view, but not its eyes. They glowed with a fey light, watching me without blinking. I shivered as I followed Evelyn back to her office, doing my best to ignore the repeated thuds of the dragon hitting the Plexiglas. A little wild, my ass. Were it not for the barrier, that thing would have ripped my head off.

    No wonder they needed a biological simulator.

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