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Domesticating Dragons: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Friday, November 13, 2020 06:31 EST



Design 48

    The utility of a biological simulator in a place like this was obvious, at least to me, but I’d still have to get the design team on board. I believed in my program’s logic–so did Evelyn, or she wouldn’t otherwise have brought me in–but integrating it with the existing design program was a major challenge. It had to be seamless, built right into DragonDraft3D so that the designers could run simulations at every step of their process. That’s a lot harder than it sounds. I knew my own code inside and out, but the design interface was unknown territory. I had to understand it inside and out before I could do anything.

    I probably put in seventy or eighty hours that first week. Day blurred into night. One particular advantage of installing a new software package into Reptilian’s systems is that I was temporarily granted high-level administrative access. And so, while my main focus was installing the simulator code for everyone, I also created a private virtual workspace for myself. A place where I could tinker with genetic code and dragon designs without anyone knowing about it. As long as I kept file sizes reasonable and didn’t use too much computing power, this little testing ground would give me a private sandbox.

    I was going to need that privacy. Indirect as it might seem, the path was pretty clear to me. Get my simulator up and running. Establish myself as a key part of the design team. Then I’d have access to the company’s computing resources and their all-important God Machine. That’s when the real work, the work I’d actually come here to do, could finally begin.

    At the moment, however, dragons were the bread-and-butter. The visual models produced by DragonDraft3D were clunky, monochrome things. The general shape and number of limbs were correct, but that was about it. My simulator already offered a dramatic improvement, but I knew I could do better. The company’s private servers–the Switchblades–offered more computing power than I’d ever imagined. So I expanded my code as I went, adding new subroutines and deeper features. The designs evolved into ever more precise biological models. Evelyn was going to love them. I’d have shown her right then, but it was Sunday. How did it get to be Sunday?

    It was probably for the best–I still hadn’t tested the latest updates. But first, I needed coffee. My legs carried me out of the pentagonal design lab. Only when I passed through the sealed door did I notice that the entire room had a soft, deep hum to it when the God Machine wasn’t running. It had a smell, too: a faint hint of metal and oil beneath the hot silicone.

    The door whispered shut behind me, dampening the noise. A new aroma wafted to my nose, and I followed it like a moth to a flame. Down the white LED-lit hallway, around the corner, and into the break room. Evelyn had pointed it out once on my tour, and I’d mentally bookmarked it for a closer look. A rectangular glass table sat in the center of the room, flanked by half a dozen ergonomic chairs.

    Swedish-made furniture, by the look of it. High-end stuff. But my tired eyes skimmed right across it to the counter on the far wall. There was a second machine in the building that made dreams come true. This one dispensed not dragon eggs but liquid delight from a dark master. The screen brightened as I got near it. A wonderful array of drink options beckoned. I pressed the rectangle that read Cappuccino.

    The panel flashed a confirmation, then opened a new window: a live camera feed of the machine’s interior. My cup took shape in red plastic on the metal platform, the 3D-printing arms spinning around it as they shaped it. The instaplastic material hardened in seconds, while puffs of steam announced that the milk was ready. Part of me thought this was too cool, too easy to be real. So when the panel slid open to reveal my serving of freshly-made coffee, it was quite a moment.

    I cradled the still-warm cup in my hands, brought it close. There was even a little Reptilian Corporation logo etched on the outside. Steam drifted up from it. I closed my eyes and inhaled. “Ah, sweet elixir.”

    Frogman shuffled in, headphones on. “Hey.” He hit the button for black coffee.

    I watched the vidfeed over his shoulder. “This is a hell of a coffee machine.”

    He grunted. “They like us well-caffeinated.”


    “The board of directors.”

    “Oh.” I nodded sagely. “I suppose I thought Robert Greaves called the shots here.” That’s what most of the industry-analysis articles claimed. Redwood, despite his founding the company, let his old friend run the day-to-day.

    “Who do you think runs the board?” He shuffled out.

    Good point. “Is Simon Redwood around much?”

    “If he is, I haven’t seen him.” He shuffled out.

    I felt a small stab of disappointment, because I wasn’t lying when I told Fulton that I had a slight Redwood obsession. Granted, Frogman didn’t strike me as the most observant person in the world. Redwood could probably dance a jig in the corner of his module and he might not notice.

    I swirled my cappuccino, admiring the perfect froth level. On my way back to my workstation, I noticed that all the designers were working on Sunday, too, other than the mysterious Wong. Everyone at Reptilian went the extra mile. I hoped I’d live up to the reputation.

    Thanks to the caffeine infusion, I banged out a couple more hours of work before heading home.

    Monday couldn’t get here soon enough.



    I crashed hard that night. When my alarm went off at six a.m., it was painful. But the promise of showing off my simulator got me up and moving. I beat most of the designers to work, but not Evelyn. She sat behind her desk, sipping espresso behind a phalanx of holoscreens.

    I knocked softly. “How would you like to test drive the new biological simulator?”

    She craned her head around a screen to look at me. Her brow furrowed. “You look exhausted.”

    I shrugged, uncomfortable under the sudden scrutiny. “I was up late.”

    “Again? You’ve been putting in a lot of hours, Noah.”

    “Have I? Hardly seems that way.”

    “Seventy-six hours last week, based on the server logs.”

    “I like to keep busy.” And I hadn’t realized she’d be keeping tabs on me, either.

    “You should pace yourself. But since you brought it up, let’s see what you’ve done,” Evelyn said.

    I came around her desk. “Already sent it to you.”

    She brought up DragonDraft3D in a new holoscreen and loaded a design. “This is the original dragon, the hog-hunter.” She launched the simulator with a flurry of keys. A three-dimensional dragon shimmered into view, rotating slowly in full color. It was lithe but muscular, with impressive sets of teeth and claws. The scales had a dull brown and green color to them that reminded me of Texas dustbowls. I mentally celebrated the fact that I’d thought to go full color.

    Evelyn gasped.

    “Do you like it?” I asked.

    “It’s very impressive.” She put two fingers on her touchpad and spun the model around. “The physical traits look spectacular.”

    “I thought so, too.” And I didn’t even cheat. I could have, too. I could have taken photos of the real-world dragons that hatched from Reptilian’s eggs, and made sure my simulator predicted them perfectly. But that would only work once, and someone at Reptilian would probably be able to figure it out pretty quick. I didn’t dare risk coming off as dishonest.

    “There’s another model I want to try it on.” She tapped a few commands. “Will your simulator run in real-time?”

    “It should.” The simulator would work on any organism, theoretically, though I’d done most of my testing on higher-order animals.

    She loaded a design labeled 48 and launched the simulator. The visualization took longer to load this time, even on the fancy servers.

    “It’s a little slow,” Evelyn said.

    Ouch. I couldn’t resist a parry. “You must have made a lot of modifications.”

    Her cheeks flushed a little, and I wished I’d hadn’t said that. Typical Noah, open mouth, insert foot.

    “Then again, I haven’t had access to your level of computational firepower,” I said. “I’m sure there are things I could do to speed it up.”

    The simulator finished loading, and the image of the resulting dragon appeared in midair in front of us. Right away, I could spot the differences from the hog-hunting model. An almost friendly stoutness had replaced the sleek lines of the hunting model. All the sharp edges had been smoothed out, from the ridges on the back to the size of the claws and teeth. They’d practically made it playful. From the size of the cranium, it would be smarter, too.

    “This is a very different dragon,” I said.

    “It’s meant to be.”

    “Not for hunting hogs, I hope?”

    “More like playing with kids.”

    I gave her a sidelong look. “You’re serious about that domestication thing, aren’t you?”

    “There’s a huge market if we can produce the right reptiles for it.”

    Again with the market talk. A hint of worry began nagging at the back of my head. “So how close are we?”

    “Not very. Our dragons want to be predators.”

    “That’s not too surprising, given the genetic sources,” I said. The Dragon Genome was a composite based on the genomes of lizards, snakes, and rodents. Predator instincts would be strong. “What have you done to tweak it?”

    “Already more than I thought necessary. Physical traits, intelligence, metabolism, the works.”

    “I assume you brought down some of the hormones.”

    “If we lower them any further, the thing won’t want to get out of bed.”

    “Do you mind if I?.?.?.” I gestured at the design.

    She slid over. “By all means.”

    I slid up next to her and scrolled through the design in DragonDraft3D. Jeez, she’s not kidding. I counted no less than thirty genetic modifications to the endocrine system. “Wow. Not bad.”

    She smiled. “You’re not the only one who can put in seventy hours a week.”

     “Touché.” I scrolled down the list of enhancements. “I don’t see any neurotransmitter mods.”

     She grimaced. “I don’t trust those. Too unpredictable.”

    “They’re a billion-dollar industry, you know.” Second only to lipid-lowering medication, the last time I checked.

    “Without a way to predict the outcome, I’ve been reluctant to tamper with those networks.”

    I shrugged. “A little mood-centering might go a long way. Otherwise it’s running on survival instincts.” Most wild animals lived by instinct: fight, eat, mate, survive. You almost had to target those pathways to domesticate something.

    Evelyn sighed. “It can’t hurt to try. Any recommendations?”

    “I’m partial to serotonin receptors.”

    She rolled back in her chair and gestured at her desktop panel. “Go ahead.”

    I felt the grin spread across my face. “Really?”

    “Sure. I’m in edit mode anyway.”

    I pressed three fingers down on the glass to resize the keyboard–she must have teeny tiny hands–and found the right menus in DragonDraft3D. To Evelyn’s credit, there were modification commands for every neurotransmitter pathway I’d ever heard of.

    I kept mine subtle: first, structural change on the serotonin reuptake channel, to slow it down. Serotonin stimulated positive reinforcement: the longer it stuck around, the more a dragon would be content with its current stimuli.

    Of course, satisfaction might not be enough to counteract the wild aggression of the juvenile Evelyn had shown me. A secondary adjustment couldn’t hurt. Dopamine seemed like the best option. I didn’t dare tamper with dopamine release; that would be akin to putting the animal on heroin. Instead, I goosed up the sensitivity of the receptor to help the dragon get happy, as they say.

    I double-checked the modifications and nodded to myself. “Let’s try that.”

    Evelyn copied my three-finger shortcut to resize the keyboard. “Looks like you’re getting comfortable with our systems.”

    Whoops. I’d spent so much time on them the week before, I didn’t realize how familiar it felt. “I’m a quick learner,” I said, chiding myself for such carelessness. The less she knew about how comfortable I was with their systems, the better. They still hadn’t taken away my sysadmin access.

    “So it seems. But we’ve made enough tweaks to this model. I think it merits a live test.” She hit a bright red rectangular button in the top right corner of the keyboard.

    “What was that?” I asked.

    She smiled, and her eyes glowed with joy. “The print button.”

    It took a lot of self-restraint not to run back to the design lab. By the time we got there, the God Machine had already whirred into motion, its robotic arms bobbing and weaving like the needles of a possessed sewing machine.

    “How long does it take?” I asked.

    “Seventeen minutes, give or take,” Evelyn said.

    I pulled up the design simulation on my workstation while we waited. The specs looked good, but I didn’t really have a way to guess at the dragon’s aggression. If they really wanted to tap into the consumer market, the dragon would have to be gentle as a lamb.

    Finally, the arms of the God Machine went still. My conveyor belt purred into motion. I peered down into the darkness of the print chute. A round shadow appeared and zoomed toward me. Color bloomed when it hit the light: chestnut brown, with flecks of black and ivory. Kind of like a sparrow’s egg, except this one was the size of a small watermelon.

    “God, it’s gorgeous,” I breathed.

    “I never get tired of seeing them come out of the printer,” Evelyn said.

    “This one looks different from the one I saw on my tour.”

    “They’re all unique. Like snowflakes.”

    “Even eggs printed from the same design?”

    She shrugged. “The patterns are always similar, but there are subtle variations.”

    “Hmm. Biological noise?”

    “I suspect it’s from the Redwood Codex.”

    “I can’t wait to hear what that is. Other than a fire hazard, I mean.”

    She laughed. “That fire hazard is the reason we produce living dragons, and our competitors do not.”

    “What does it do?”

    “You’d have to ask Simon Redwood.”

    Oh, please be serious. I’d have killed for five minutes him. “Sure. Where’s his office again?”

    “He doesn’t have one.”

    Damn. “Have you met him?”

    “Once, very briefly.” Her eyes glowed.

    I leaned close to her. “What did you think of him?”

    “I thought, this man is crazy as a loon.” But she smiled, and I knew she was kidding. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that maybe she was a Redwood believer, too.

    The arrival of the hatchery staffers prevented me from asking a hundred more questions about Redwood. The handlers hefted our freshly printed egg into their foam-topped cart and whisked it away to the hatchery.

    “They don’t waste any time, do they?” I asked.

    “We don’t like the temperature to drop more than a couple degrees. And the hatchery staff are?.?.?.?attentive.”

    Now there’s an understatement. “When will the egg be ready to hatch?”

    “Almost two weeks.”

    “Aw, why so long?”

    “We’ve pushed it down as much as we could,” Evelyn said. “Any faster and the lungs won’t develop by hatching.”

    “It’s going to kill me to wait that long.”

    Evelyn gave me an indulgent smile. “That’s what I said about design 36.”

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