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Domesticating Dragons: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, November 9, 2020 07:20 EST



The New Guy

    I took the elevator up to seven, where no one was waiting. I suppose I could have lingered in the lobby, but I imagined I could feel Fulton watching me over the security cameras. If he saw me waiting, he might decide to fill my time with more invasive security questions.

    I tiptoed through the hatchery, where the same pair of white-garbed staffers ignored me. I watched as they entered one of the hatching pods and team-lifted an egg, rotating it forty-five degrees. They lowered it back into the foam holder with exaggerated slowness. Like a mother with a newborn infant. Sunlight bathed the entire pod like a spotlight. Warm air spilled out the open door; it had to be almost a hundred degrees in there.

    I might have remembered it wrong, but this seemed to be the same egg from my last visit. The skylights for the other pods remained closed, which cloaked their empty egg-beds in twilight. Maybe I’d caught a lull in the design-print-hatch process, but the stillness to the place worried me. No eggs meant no dragons, and as far as I knew, dragons were the company’s main source of revenue.

    I hurried into the open door of Evelyn’s office. She sat behind no less than six holo-projector screens but had her eyes on one and was speaking into a headset. “Yes, Robert.”

    The back of the screen was opaque, but I had a feeling she was on a video call with the big boss. I started to retreat, but she spotted me and beckoned me inside. When I tried to back out, she beckoned harder.

    “We’ll get it done,” she said. “Okay. Bye.” She eased the headset out of her hair and smiled at me, showing white teeth. “Noah Parker.”

    “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t know there would be a security interview.”

    She waved off my apology. “It’s been a crazy morning all around.”

    Tell me about it. I gestured at where the screen had been. “Was that Robert Greaves?”

    She nodded. “He’s breathing down my neck about the wild dragons. Which is why I’m glad you could get started. Come on, I’ll introduce you to our team.”

    We passed through a set of Plexiglas doors to an odd-shaped room. The walls formed a hexagon. No, a pentagon. Five walls and five cozy workstations encircled a lab instrument the size of a minivan. I caught glimpses of it as we walked around to the right. Robotic arms zoomed back and forth on titanium guide poles, like an oversized 3D printer.

    “What’s with the robotic arms?” I asked.

    “That’s our biological printer.”

    I sucked in a sharp breath. “The God Machine.” I’d heard whispers of the instrument that turned genetic code into viable dragon eggs. I couldn’t wait to see it in action.

    “Ha! You heard about the nickname.”

    “It’s sort of public knowledge.” Then I saw the tall stacks of high-end grid servers behind them. Switchblades. A new class of high-end computers, and there were dozens of them. Completely secure, nearly limitless on-premise computing resources. After working so long and so hard to get here, being this close to them sent a chill down my spine.

    We approached the first workstation, where a thirty-something engineer hunched over his keyboard. The engineer part was just a guess; he had the intense stare and terrible posture that usually came with a highly organized mind.

    “This is Brian O’Connell,” Evelyn said.

    The man went on typing, oblivious to fact that we stood right behind him and Evelyn had just said his name.

    “Brian?” Evelyn touched his shoulder.

    He flinched and tore his eyes from the screen with obvious reluctance. “Oh, hey.”

    “This is Noah, the new design trainee.”

    We shook hands. His wrapped mine like a warm blanket. He smiled in a friendly way beneath his dirty-blonde goatee, a spot-on match for the uncut hair. Between that and the comb-over, he looked almost like a monk. But his eyes burned with blue fire, even as they slid away from mine back to his screens.

    “Brian wrote the code for our biological printer,” Evelyn said.

    “The thing that built the dragon eggs? I’m impressed,” I said.

    He mumbled something that might have been thanks. Evelyn ushered us out into the next workstation, where a dark-haired girl sat with excellent posture, typing no less than 120 words per minute. She turned to greet us with a big smile, perfect teeth and everything. Right then, Evelyn’s phone buzzed and she had to step away. Leaving me alone, to fumble out my own introduction.

    “Hello. I’m Noah. The, uh, new guy.”

    She shook my hand with delicate fingers. “Welcome! I’m pretty.”

    “Oh.” Her self-awareness threw me for a loop. “I agree.”

    She giggled. “No, I’m Priti. Priti Korrapati.”

    Oh my God. I felt my face heating and wished I could melt into the floor. “Right. Sorry about that.”

    “Happens all the time.”

     “So, what do you do for Evelyn?”

    “I’m a designer. Started out in plants, made the jump to reptiles.”

    I gave her a side-look. “What kind of plants? Arabidopsis?” That was the one of the best-studied plants in the scientific community. The rest of the world knew it as mustard weed.

    She smiled and shook her head. “Oryza sativa.”

    “Rice? No way!” Rice was second only to corn in research dollars. The big agribiotechs put a lot of money into genetic engineering. “In the private sector, I’m guessing.”

    “You guess correctly.”

    God, I loved her accent. I wanted to keep her talking. “How does that compare to biotech startup world?”

    “It’s quite similar, actually. Perhaps a bit more intense.”

    “Perform or die.”

    “Maybe not that drastic. But you have the idea.”

    Evelyn reappeared; a stray hair hung across her face. “Sorry about that.” She gripped her tablet so hard I thought she might break it.

    “Everything all right?” I asked.

    “Yes, but we’ll have to cut this short. They want me upstairs.”

    “No problem.” I turned back to Priti. “Nice to meet you.”


    I rejoined Evelyn and moved on to the next workstation, which I thought might be mine. But a heavyset guy in a ball cap slumped in the chair, either deep in thought or totally asleep.

    “Frogman?” Evelyn whispered.

    Did she just say Frogman?

    He woke like a hibernating bear. His eyes came into focus. “Evelyn. S’going on?”

    “This is our new designer, Noah Parker.”

    “Paul Myers.” He gave me a friendly nod. “Good to meet you.”

    “Did she call you Frogman?”

    “Everyone does. Did my graduate thesis on Xenopus.”

    “I’ll bet that’s useful.” Frogs were a great model for developmental traits. Amphibians were about as close as you could get to dragons and still be in a valid genetics branch. I had to admit that my weak point in genetics might lie in the developmental realm. I’m going to need to talk to this guy.

    He didn’t seem like much of a talker, though. He offered a noncommittal grunt and put on noise-canceling headphones. Evelyn quietly beckoned me out, into the second-to-last workstation. No one sat in the chair, but a half-circle of empty energy drink cans said the place was occupied. If I had to guess, I’d expect whoever sat there was probably in the nearest restroom.

    “That’s Wong’s spot,” Evelyn said. “He had to fly home to get his visa renewed, but he should be back in a couple of weeks.”

    “Where’s he from?”


    That caught my attention because I’d been dabbling in Mandarin as a second language. “What part?”

    She pursed her lips, as if reluctant to answer. “Shenzhen.”



    “Oh.” Shenzhen was home to China’s government-sponsored research laboratories. These were basically the genetic engineering version of sweatshops. The government recruited the best and brightest right out of high school, and worked them eighty hours per week, fifty-two weeks a year. Most of them slept in the lab. At the end of each month, the least-productive ten percent of the workforce got their walking papers. “How long did he last?”

    “Two years.”


    “He kept his sense of humor. You’ll like him.” She ushered me into the fifth workstation, a kind of wedge-shaped cubicle about six feet wide and ten feet long. “Here’s your spot.”

    A leather chair and glass-top desk took up one half of it. A conveyor belt from the God Machine took up the other half. I sidled up to it for a better look inside. Warm air flowed through the gap like a furnace. There they are. The grid servers gave off a gentle hum. Their LED screens cast a soft blue light on the titanium inner frame. The robotic arms had gone still, obscuring my view of the central printing chamber. Conduits and cable guides kept all the wiring neatly organized, and I couldn’t see a speck of dust. Clean as a spaceship.

    I liked a good clean lab. It spoke to the people in charge. I started to say as much, when I noticed the strange device on the floor beneath the printing chamber. It looked like something out of the Atari museum, a jumble of black plastic and looped wires about the size of a shoebox. Old-school status lights blinked erratic green and amber at the base. “What’s that?”

    “That’s the Redwood Codex.”

    Redwood Codex. The words carried an aura of intrigue. “What does it do?”

    “It’s the secret behind Simon Redwood’s successful prototype. But that’s a story for another time,” she said. “You want to try logging in?”

    I really wanted to ask more about Redwood, but she looked like she was in a hurry. “Sure thing.”

    She gestured me to the chair. I slipped into it and rolled up to the flat glass table. But there was no keyboard or mouse or anything. “Where’s the–“

    She took my wrist and guided my palm to the cool glass surface. A narrow line of blue-white light traced my fingers, followed by the muted glow of a palm scan. A soft chime sounded, and then touch-controls illuminated in the glass: keyboard, finger-pad, and some kind of an intercom. Two feet in front of my face, an opaque square appeared in midair. I fought the urge to wave my hand through it.

    Projection monitors. Oh, my sweet lord. I didn’t think I’d get them, too. I exhaled slowly, and my fingers found the keys. There was even faint tactile feedback as they slid into place. Incredible technology. “I’m in.”

    Evelyn’s tablet beeped. She glanced at it, frowned, and let out a little sigh.

    “What’s wrong?” I asked.

    “Nothing you need to worry about.” She shook her head, as if to clear it. “The systems group already ported your simulator code to our servers. Now you’ll just need to customize the interface to our design program.”

    “What are you using for that? GeneDesign?”

    “No. It’s something we cooked up in house.” She reached across to touch a button on the keyboard. A new application bloomed on the screen in front of me.

    “DragonDraft 3D,” I read. “Never heard of it.”

    “It’s our interface to the Dragon Reference. Every gene, every variant, every regulatory sequence.”

    I sensed a hint of pride in her voice. “You wrote this, didn’t you?”

    “It’s my claim to fame around here.”

    “Well geez, if you’ve got that then I imagine the dragons pretty much design themselves.”

    “In the hands of the right person, absolutely. Let me show you.” Her narrow fingertips danced across the keyboard. “We’ll start a basic flying model.”

    A grayscale dragon appeared in mid-screen, rotating slowly in two dimensions. It was a clunky low-res image. The triangular head reminded me of a viper, but the neck and body resembled a lizard on steroids. Evelyn hit a key, and the dragon spread its wide, leathery wings.

    Evelyn tapped another key to bring up a window of slide controls: Body Size, Wingspan, Musculature, and at least a dozen others. “We’ve mapped the genetic basis of key physical traits.” She slid down Body Size, and the dragon shrank. She nudged up Claw Length, and the talons on the feet grew from meek to downright frightening.

    She tinkered with more of the feature sliders, and I noticed something about the draft interface. Whenever she slid a feature downward, the number in the top right of the screen jumped up from zero. When she slid it the other way, the numbers descended. If it got to zero, the slider wouldn’t move up another hair.

    “What’s this number up here?” I asked.

    “Feature points. They govern how many advantages we can give to any one dragon.”

    “What if you need to increase something, and you’re at zero?”

    She shrugged. “You have to take them from something else. Speed for stamina, body size for cranial capacity, that sort of thing.”

    “Seems a little restrictive,” I said.

    “Remember that dragon you saw on your interview?”

    “The wild one? Yeah.”

    “What if it were twice as big and three times as smart?”

    “Oh.” I chuckled. “Good point.”

    “Besides, we’re trying to develop a prototype that’s calmer and less predatory.”

    That surprised me a little. According to everything I’d read, Reptilian’s hog-hunting dragons were a commercial success because of their aggressiveness. “Why would you want to do that?”

    “A predatory dragon has only limited market potential,” she said.

    “What would you do with a?.?.?.?non-predatory dragon?”

    “Do you know how many dog owners there are in the US?”

    “That’s easy. Zero.” A few years had passed since the outbreak of the canine epidemic, but dog populations still hadn’t recovered. Every descendant of the gray wolf proved susceptible to the contagion. That meant all dogs, no matter the breed. The epidemic had originated in Asia but quickly spread to other continents. There was no cure. No stay of execution. Once your dog developed the tell-tale lesions on his muzzle, it was too late. We kept waiting for them to announce a cure or some kind of treatment. Lots of smart people tried. Companies, too–after all, dogs were a billion-dollar business. None of it mattered. Nothing could stop the epidemic. After the fourth or fifth failure of a promising therapy, we stopped getting our hopes up.

    “Before the epidemic,” Evelyn said.

    I shrugged. “Probably twenty million.”

    “Try forty-five million.”

    “Wow, that’s a lot. But dogs aren’t coming back anytime soon.”

    “That’s the point.”

    Realization dawned on me then. “You want to sell dragons?.?.?.?as pets?”

    “If we can produce a domesticated model, yes.”

    I wanted to tell her she was crazy, but it probably wasn’t the worst idea. “All right, I’ll give it a whirl. How do I design one?”

    “Design privileges are something you’ll earn over time.”

    “Oh.” I didn’t have to fake my disappointment.

    “It’s your first day, Noah,” she said.

    And I’m an unknown quantity. “I guess have to prove myself, huh?”

    “Everyone does.”

    “Any suggestion for how I do that?”

    Evelyn smiled. “Get your simulator code up and running. Then we’ll talk.”

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