“Fire-breathing Dragon” by Dan Koboldt
“Fire-Breathing Dragon” is set in the world of Dan Koboldt’s Build-A-Dragon Sequence, a series best described as “Jurassic Park meets the Build-A-Bear Workshop.” First entry Domesticating Dragons was followed by this year’s Deploying Dragons
I opened my front door and came face-to-face with a dragon. It was chestnut brown, about the size of a Labrador Retriever, and quite occupied with urinating on the rosebushes.
"Hey, stop that!” I shouted.
The dragon ignored me. It was one of the flightless models. Probably a Rover, but a good twenty pounds overweight. Must belong to one of the neighbors. I watched it waddle over and sentence another rosebush to death.
I groaned. "Come on, I just planted those."
I got into my car and headed for work. I glanced in the rearview just in time to see the dragon bound up the street to wreak havoc in another neighbor’s yard.
Goddamn dragons. They were everywhere now and that was partly my fault. I worked for the company that built them. The company that turned a creature of myth into a living, breathing household companion; the company that had made the Fortune 500 list for two years running.
The Build-A-Dragon Company.
Our building was a shining 20,000 square foot facility in downtown Phoenix. You might think it was the deep talent pool or the strong biotech economy that drew us there, but you’d be wrong. It was the desert. May through October, the average daily temperature was over ninety degrees—the ideal hatching temperature for dragon eggs. Even in the cooler months, the hatching pods captured enough sunlight to keep the eggs warm. A good thing, that, because it was a green building. Supposedly carbon-neutral, though I’m not sure how anyone would verify it.
I rode the elevator to the seventh floor and, because I was running late, took the shortcut through the hatchery. This was always a chance maneuver: it was a more direct path to the design lab but there was always a possibility I’d be run down by the over-eager hatchery staffers. The heat from the room rolled over me when I tugged open the heavy door. Most of the hatching pods were active at the moment so the room was a flurry of activity. I dodged and shimmied my way through the maze of egg carts and uniformed staffers. They wore white jumpsuits, hooded, with tinted face plates to protect their vision from the UV radiation. It was like spending twenty seconds in a low-budget science fiction movie, and then I was through.
I let the second door shut behind me and caught my breath. This room was darker and more spacious. Quiet, too, except for the hum of high-end computers. The thing that made it all possible, the biological printer, occupied the middle of the chamber. Designer workstations were arrayed honeycomb-style around it. I slid into the one of these just as the printer stirred. Every egg-printing started with the same high-pitched whine of the long robotic arms coming up from their rest position. The cacophony of whirs and hums that followed was like a fingerprint unique to each dragon. I’d heard enough printings to imagine I knew what each one sounded like. This one was a Laptop, one of our smaller flying models. Second only to the rosebush-killing Rover in popularity. They were both on the tame end of the spectrum. Good for families. Steady sellers.
Boring, in other words.
For my part, I really loved the custom design jobs. These were a premium add-on. The design queue was empty when I got in, but our status feed said was an order pending. I was watching for it, but I imagined the other designers were, too. The egg printer fell silent at last. A team of hatchers showed up instantly to claim whatever it was. The hatchery would be almost at full capacity with that one, but I was hoping we’d squeeze in one more with that pending custom. The moment the hatchers left, I heard the unmistakable harried click-clack of high heels.
Evelyn Chang moved through life—and her career in biotech—at 1.5x speed. She was a geneticist by training, and joined the company back when we only offered a single dragon model. She was the one who recruited me, and more importantly, she was the one who handed out custom orders if it looked like there might be a fight over them.
“Good morning, Noah,” she said.
“Morning,” I mumbled. I hadn’t had my coffee yet, and keeping an eye on the customs queue was currently occupying most of my few active neurons.
“We have a new custom order.”
“Oh?” That perked me up.
“A priority order, in fact.”
For an additional fee, you could get priority processing of your custom dragon order. In theory this put your order at the front of the line so that your dragon arrived faster. Then again, if there was no line, it didn’t really make a big difference. “Go on,” I said.
“An executive priority order.”
I chuckled. “Now I see.” For yet another additional fee, an executive at Build-A-Dragon would personally take your order to the design team. In theory this made sure you got even higher priority and even faster delivery. Again, all that was assuming that there was a line of orders in front of you. Maybe five percent of customers paid for priority customs, and only a fraction of those went the executive route. I only knew of two previous executive priority orders. They’d gone to Korrapati and Wong, fellow designers. Impressive orders both, and I’d been a little envious. I drew in a sharp breath. “Do I get this one?”
She smiled. “It’s your turn.”
“Finally!” I reached for the embossed folder she carried. “I can’t wait to see what they want.”
She held it away from me. “The request is for a large flying model. Somewhere between the Rover and the K-10.”
“Whoa, that’s big.” The Rover, as I’ve said, was our most popular model and about the size of a Labrador Retriever. K-10s ran larger; we mainly sold them to law enforcement. “It’ll need a large wingspan. And a lot of calories.”
“Caloric intake is not a concern.”
“Okay.” I wasn’t sure I bought that, but anyone who could afford executive priority service wasn’t living hand to mouth. “Who’s the buyer?”
She pressed her lips together. “Confidential.”
Of course it was. “What do they want?”
“The dragon should be an acrobatic flier, and ideally nimble on the ground.”
So perfect in every way, basically. I managed not to roll my eyes. “Coloring?”
“Emerald green. Iridescent if possible.”
“Hmm.” Green was a popular coloring choice, but the iridescent part added a new twist. It wasn’t something I’d designed before, but I liked a challenge. “I think we can do that. Anything else?”
“One more little thing. It’s in the file.” She handed me the folder.
I flipped it open and my eyes went to the buyer information. Which, of course, was redacted. That included the telephone number of the buyer, but based on the length of the black stripe, it was an eight-digit number. North America. Everything else was so heavily redacted, I couldn’t get a read.
I moved on to the feature requests. They were extensive to say the least. Almost every checkbox was checked, and the buyer had filled out the “Other Requests” text box right up to the character limit. I skimmed it for clues about the mysterious buyer. The grammar was perfect and they clearly knew their dragons, but there were no further insights. Oh, except for the little thing she hadn’t wanted to say. And I knew right away why.
“Fire-breathing if possible,” I read aloud.
“Are you serious?”
She shrugged. “It’s what the buyer wants.”
“We’ve talked about this.” More specifically we’d talked about how fire-breathing dragons violated too many principles of biology and physics to exist in the real world.
“Maybe there’s something we haven’t thought of yet. If there’s anyone who can find the answer, it’s Noah Parker.”
It was an obvious play to my ego. Especially because she’d said it loud enough that the other designers might hear. Almost like a dare. If I refused, she might decide someone else should have first crack at the design, and I couldn’t let that happen. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll take another look.”
“Good.” She smiled, undoubtedly pleased with herself.
“With or without the fire-breathing, there won’t be enough points for this,” I said.
The points system governed how many advantages we could give to dragon prototypes, which is what this custom job was. A one-off prototype. Features like size, strength, wingspan, and intelligence all took feature points. In theory, this kept us from creating a super-predator that might start picking off humans. While I understood that intellectually, the point limits were a source of constant frustration.
“You can have fifty points beyond the limit for this design only,” Evelyn said. “Use them wisely.”
Ooh, an exception. Finally a reason to color outside the lines. Now all I had to do was figure out how to make a fire-breathing dragon.
Once Evelyn had click-clacked away, I touched the glass-and-steel surface of my workstation desk with my right hand. Soft blue light sprung up around my fingertips. A soft chime sounded, and then projection monitors sprang into existence at eye level. The desk surface lit up with my custom keyboard, which I’d resized and mapped out with new hotkey commands. I touched one to bring up DragonDraft3D, our genetic engineering program, into screen one. Screen two had links to all of my saved designs as well as the mainline prototypes—the dragons we’d designed, field-tested, and put into mainstream production.
The new custom dragon didn’t match any of our production models very well. We had several flying dragons, of course, but they were specialists. The Laptop, for example, was a small and nimble flier suited for city living. They ranged upward in size all the way to the Pterodactyl, a powerful aerial model that had a tendency to fly into stationary objects. Still, flight was the hardest capability to get just right, so I started with a basic flying prototype. I used the built-in design sliders to goose up the body mass and wingspan until they were close to the buyer specs.
I ran the design through my biological simulator. That was my claim to fame around here, my graduate thesis project. It was a computer modeling program that simulated an organism based on the DNA sequence. It could predict physiology, traits, and even behavior with reasonable accuracy. Granted, for a complex organism it needed insane computing resource to do so. Those computers were stacked all around the egg printer. Switchblades. A type of next-generation server that wasn’t even on the consumer market yet, and we had dozens of them. It sure beat cloud computing where you paid for every cycle. In fact, the Switchblades were one of the main reasons I came to work at Build-A-Dragon in the first place.
The simulated dragon bloomed into existence in midair above my desk. All of our dragons had four legs, even the flying models. We’d experimented with bipedal prototypes but they were ungainly beasts on the ground. Like it or not, dragons were terrestrial animals. Even the best flying models spent most of their lives on foot. Just because they could fly didn’t mean they always would. I’d pointed out once that they were like Osceola turkeys in this way. The marketing folks asked me never to say that again.
The rendered image had the look of a classic dragon. It was larger and more muscular than the Rover model, but leaner than a K-10. I ran the first battery of motor-competence tests—designed to predict how well the dragon could do things like run and jump—which it passed with flying colors. I’d increased the tail length, which didn’t cost many feature points but helped enormously with balance. Unfortunately, my simulator said the dragon would be several kilograms too heavy to get off the ground. Even when I pushed the wingspan to the sustainable maximum for a dragon its size.
“Well, damn.” I tried some adjustments to the wings and body shape, but the ratio only got worse. So much for the rest of this design coming easy. “Hey, Wong?”
A rumbling sound from the adjacent workstation answered me. Andrew Wong rolled out to where I could see him over the half-wall. He was my friend and fellow designer, here on a work visa from China. And man, did he put in the hours. He beat me in to the office every day and was usually still here when I left. Not long after I’d come to Build-A-Dragon, he and I had cracked domestication together. We’d been close ever since. “Hey, what?” he asked.
“Ni mang, ma?” I asked in Mandarin. Are you busy?
“Never too busy for number one designer.” He gave me his crooked smile.
“Yeah, yeah. Come look at this, will you?”
He didn’t get up, but rolled out to the end of his workstation in his chair, turned the corner, and pushed himself up into mine. He had a hell of a work ethic but he conserved energy like a contestant on Alone. Which was especially funny because he was a somewhat portly guy. He scrutinized my dragon for a full rotation. “Looks like a strong dragon. Very powerful.”
“Yes, that’s what the buyer wanted.”
“Who is buyer?”
“I don’t know, it’s redacted.”
He nodded, far more accepting of the anonymity than I was. “Tail looks longer.”
“I figured it would help with balance.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s too heavy to fly.”
He shrugged. “Get bigger wings.”
“They’re already at maximum.”
He produced an apple from his pocket, took a huge bite, and then gestured with the rest of it at my dragon’s rendering. “Need to cut weight.”
“I know, but from where? It needs the musculature to move.”
“Maybe the head,” Wong said.
If I reduced the cranial capacity, it might reduce the weight by half a kilogram. It would gain back some feature points, too. “That might help some.”
“Just don’t reduce too much. Or else you end up with…”
“The Pterodactyl, I know.” The wingspan had consumed so many feature points that few remained for intelligence and perceptive vision. Which was why it had a tendency to plow into the side of buildings. It got so bad that someone smartass had started an online petition to rename it the Terrible-dactyl.
“That still won’t make it light enough.”
“You know what to do,” Wong said.
“No, I really don’t.”
He took another giant bite of his apple and either didn’t see me wince or didn’t care. “What nature did.”
“This kind.” He put his apple in his mouth, intertwined his thumbs, and made an unmistakable flapping gesture.
He shook his head.
“Birds, then.” This won me a thumbs-up. I hadn’t really thought about birds for the wing design. “Designing a feathering system would be complicated.”
“Not feathers. Bones.”
“Oh, right.” Duh. Birds had hollow bones, which significantly cut down on their weight. I did some quick math. “It might work. But will the dragon be strong enough?”
“One way to find out,” he said.
I dove back into the design, adjusting the genetic program for the skeletal growth plates to produce bones that were mostly hollow. The mass reduction proved just enough to let the dragon get aloft, at least from what my simulator predicted. Now it came to the true difficulty, giving it the ability to breathe fire.
Surprisingly, even though this seemed to be a common trait of dragons in folklore, there wasn’t much science involved. No creature on the planet could breathe fire. The bombardier beetle probably offered the closest example from real-world biology. It has two glands near the base of its abdomen filled with hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone. When threatened, the beetle releases the chemicals into a vestibule containing catalases and peroxidases. These enzymes rapidly break down the hydrogen peroxide and catalyze the oxidation of hydroquinone. It’s what chemists call an exothermic reaction. It makes a loud pop and produces a hot, noxious spray that the beetle can direct with surprising accuracy. As many would-be predators have undoubtedly learned.
The bombardier offered a decent starting point, but it was a complex system. I’d have to design the physical glands, and the nervous system that controlled them before I could start on the biochemistry. Even if I pulled it off, I’d essentially produce a dragon with defensive flatulence. Something told me this mysterious and demanding buyer wouldn’t see that as breathing fire. Neither would I.
Wong, uncharacteristically, was out of ideas.
“Ask Evelyn,” he said.
I found her in the hatchery, of all places. The air was three degrees above ambient and smelled faintly of the desert. None of the hatchery staff were in view; they must be between egg turnings. Evelyn stood a few feet away from one of the pods, staring at the egg through the window. She wore her usual dark business suit and white blouse—and her ever-present tablet appeared in sleep mode. For her, it was a strange look indeed.
“Nihao, lao bahn,” I said to her. Hello, boss.
She didn’t jump, but offered the indulgent smile she reserved for when I practiced Mandarin. “Nihao, Noah Parker.”
“I’m not sure I’ve seen you in this room before.”
“I used to visit more in the old days.”
“Old days?” I chuckled. The company hadn’t even existed a decade.
“When we were printing only the Guardian.”
She meant the original dragon prototype that the company founder, Simon Redwood, had developed to control feral hog populations. It was a wild creature but incredibly effective at hunting hogs in the thickets and swamps they liked to call home. Too effective, really. Now that prototype, the dragon on which Build-A-Dragon was founded, barely sold at all.
“So, I’ve hit a wall on the custom job,” I said. “Mainly with the fire-breathing.”
She nodded. “You looked at the beetle?”
“Of course. We could go that route if you wanted, but it’s a complex system for what amounts to a pepper spray.” I paused. “It’s the wrong end of the dragon, too.”
“We could put it on the snout.”
“I suppose, but if the dragon is airborne, it would fly right into it.” Benzoquinone, the chemical that was ejected by the reaction, had a powerful effect on membranes of living organisms. Especially the eyes, which meant the dragon might blind itself mid-flight.
Judging by her frown, Evelyn had reached the same conclusion. “That does seem like a problem.”
“There’s always the cobra,” she said.
“You want it to be venomous?” That seemed even further from fire than explosive sprays.
”The spitting cobra, Noah.”
“Oh. No, I hadn’t looked at that.” At least it was the front end, and arguably easier to control. “I’ll run it down.”
“Keep me posted.”
When I got back to the design lab, the egg printer had swung into motion, its long arms pivoting and spinning as they worked. I poked my head into Wong’s workstation. “What’s printing?”
That was our dragon version of the German Shepherd, which sold almost exclusively to law enforcement. “Customized?”
“No, standard,” he said, with a hint of disappointment.
I didn’t blame him. Custom dragons were more fun, even when they were frustrating. I dove into research of the so-called spitting cobra. Africa and Asia both had species that could spit venom through front-facing holes in the fangs. Like the bombardier beetle, spitting cobras tended to use this system for defense from predators. Development of the ability and changes in the venom were examples of convergent evolution—multiple independent species evolving an ability that provides a selective advantage. In this case, the pathways for venom production had evolved to maximize the pain inflicted on a predator. Obviously we’d need the glands to be filled with some kind of fuel rather than venom, but it might work as a delivery system. At the very least, it wouldn’t come out of the dragon’s ass.
The fuel, though, was going to be a problem. Flammable liquids required significant energy input to synthesize. We might address that with a high-calorie diet. However, the bigger problem was that flammable liquids tended to also be carcinogens. Even if we could find a way for the dragon to synthesize them, they’d be like poison. Granted, I’d given dragon genetic defects before—usually for a good reason—but exposing a dragon to a hazardous chemical just for a visual effect seemed wrong.
I shoved back from my workstation. “I give up.”
Wong must have heard me. He rolled out far enough to make eye contact. “On which part?”
“Fire breathing. There’s no safe fuel.”
“If good for nature, nature would have made it already.”
“Exactly.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. That was why we so often looked to the natural world for useful design features. If no creature could sustainably breathe fire, maybe it meant that natural laws prevented it. “I think it may be time to try the mechanical route.”
“Did Evelyn say you could?”
“No, but she didn’t say I couldn’t, either.” At this point, I was ready to try anything.
I drove out to the desert in my Tesla late in the afternoon after swinging by the condo to pick up Octavius. He was my pet dragon, a failed prototype I’d printed as an experiment in my first year at Build-A-Dragon. All of his feature points went to intelligence, so he was clever and resourceful, but about the size of a chihuahua. That was far smaller than the custom model I was currently designing, but I figured that we were testing the principle out, not the final equipment.
That equipment rested in a foam-padded crate in my passenger seat. It, too, was a prototype from our dragon equipment laboratory. The engineers who worked there had been enormously helpful; they’d tinkered with the idea of a miniature flamethrower for our dragons, but figured it would never get past safety review. Since this was a custom job, most of our safety protocols didn’t apply. As long as customers signed the waivers, they could have pretty much any dragon they wanted. And if they were well-heeled enough, they could even get around the points system.
Octavius soon figured out where we were headed. The heat and sunshine of Arizona took on special qualities out in the desert. The change in light patterns was apparent even through my tinted windows. He perked up from where he’d dozed on the back seat and perched himself to look outside. When he saw the browns and dusty yellows of desert country, he chirped a question at me.
“That’s right, we’re going out to the desert,” I said. “Do you remember Big Mesa?”
He crooned far too loudly and began bouncing around in the back seat.
“Hey, watch the leather!” I shook my head and laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Big Mesa was one of our favorite geocaches, located in a large nature preserve outside of Phoenix. It was almost an hour drive from Scottsdale, but that made it remote enough to guarantee some privacy. Octavius was technically unregistered, and the equipment in the wooden crate might draw further unwanted attention. I parked in a distant lot well away from the main roads and got Octavius suited up. The harness was too large for him, so I adjusted it down to the smallest possible setting. The fuel tank rode up against his belly, and the apparatus extended up to his snout.
I tapped the clamp-trigger in front of his head. “See if you can bite this.”
He promptly latched onto my finger.
“Ow! Not my finger!” I shook him loose. “Jeez.”
He gave me a look like, You said to bite you.
“Bite this metal thing, please.”
He obliged me and bit down gingerly on the metal trigger. A small tongue of flame flicked out from the end of the tube.
“Whoa, that’s incredible.” The engineers had really done a bang-up job. “I think if you bite down harder, it’ll—“
He chomped down and a gout of flame roared forth right into my face. I shouted and tumbled backwards on instinct, falling hard on the ground. It singed my eyebrows and left a too-hot feeling over my skin. For one terrifying moment, I worried he’d blinded me. Slowly the orange after-images faded. My face still felt hot to the touch, but I thought I’d maybe avoided any lasting damage.
“Be careful with that!”
Octavius at least had the grace to look remorseful.
After a few more false starts, he got decent enough at the controls for a flying trial. He took off sluggishly. The apparatus increased his weight by a third, and I could tell it affected his flying ability. He did make a couple of lazy circles, spraying the miniature flame-thrower once or twice when he passed overhead. Then he seemed to tire, and banked toward a stand of saguaros on the far end of the plateau.
“Oh, please don’t—“ I started, but I was too late. He tried another gout of flame when he was too low, and it sparked a fire. I was already running with the fire extinguisher. I stumbled and nearly fell on the uneven terrain. When I got close, I saw the saguaros themselves weren’t burning. It was the buffelgrass on the ground around them. This was an invasive plant from South Africa, and it burned like dry kindling. I doused it with the extinguisher and stamped it out with my boots to be sure. After that, I was ready to call it a day. Octavius was flagging, too.
“Let’s go home.”
I freed him from the harness and carried him back to my car. Both of us were covered in char and reeked of the chemical smell of fire-suppressant foam. He whimpered a little as if upset, but I stroked his flank and reassured him. “Don’t worry, buddy. You did great. Dragons just aren’t meant to breathe fire.”
When I got to the design lab the next morning, Evelyn was there waiting for me. She stood by Wong’s workstation chatting with him in Mandarin, but the way she straightened when I saw her suggested she was killing time until I arrived.
“Good morning, Noah Parker,” she said.
“Good morning.” It was early and I hadn’t had my coffee, but I summoned the energy to be polite. “Were you looking for me?”
“Yes. Is that custom model ready yet?”
“Nope. I still can’t get the fire-breathing to work. I even tried a mechanical system.”
“Did it work?”
“Great, if our buyers don’t mind random things catching on fire.”
She leaned close to me and wrinkled her nose. “You smell like smoke.”
“Like I said, things caught fire.” I slid into my workstation and brought up the current design in the simulator. “We’ve got the other specs down cold. Wingspan, body type, everything.”
She studied the rendering of the dragon as it rotated slowly over my workstation. “It looks like a good design. Hits all of the requested features, certainly.”
“Except fire breathing,” I said.
“How far did you go over the feature point limits?”
“Not very much, now that you mention it.” I’d been so focused on dealing with the design challenges that I hadn’t paid that much attention to my point totals. They were outside allowable spec, but barely.
Evelyn glanced at Wong, and then back at me. “What if you reduced the size of the dragon by twenty percent?”
“Well, we’d probably be within the limits, but that’s not what the buyer wants.”
“Try it and see.”
I managed not to sigh, but I obliged her and brought the size down by twenty percent. The rest of the ratios were the same, and it actually helped with the flight ratios. “That’s twenty percent smaller. We’re back in normal feature point range.”
She studied the rendered image again, and then gave a sharp nod. “Let’s print a prototype.”
I nearly thought I’d mis-heard. We sometimes printed early prototypes for mainline production models so we could evaluate them for market potential, but we never got to devote that many resources to a one-off custom job. Then again, I’d never designed one with executive priority status. And for the moment she seemed to be letting me skate on the not-breathing-fire thing.
“It would let us evaluate a scaled-down version,” she said.
“Hey, sounds good to me.” I hit the hotkey for print before she could change her mind. Because we’d come back into the feature point limits, I didn’t even need any special clearances. The egg printer emitted the high-pitched whine that said it was getting started. It whirred and hummed for a few minutes, a new pattern of sounds for a one-of-a-kind dragon design. Then the arms fell silent and the egg slid out on the conveyor belt beside my workstation. It was a perfect ellipsoid cast in a rich dark green with subtle glints of amber. Almost as if the God Machine—as I sometimes called the printer—had sensed what I’d tried to do with the fire.
Evelyn brushed it with her fingertips and sighed. “It’s marvelous.” She laid her palm on the side. “Oh, and warm!”
“They always are.” I put my hand on it, too. The surface was hard and smooth. Still warm, of course, but starting to cool.
As if summoned by this thought, a pair of hatchery staffers marched through the door pushing a metal cart between them. Evelyn and I stepped out of my workstation to clear a path for them. We knew better than to stand between hatchery staffers and a fast-cooling egg. They team-lifted it into a snug foam holder atop the cart and wheeled it into the hatchery.
“And now we wait,” I said.
Two weeks later we met outside in the outdoor arena located behind Build-A-Dragon’s headquarters. It was essentially a large, Roman-inspired amphitheater, with twice as many seats as we had employees at the entire company. Since this was for a custom design rather than a possible mainline prototype, only Evelyn and Wong and I had come to watch it. Two hatchers rolled out the egg, which was strapped to a transport cart. They released the harnesses and team-carried it to one of the nesting areas. These were wooden boxes, two feet by two feet square, in which the Herpetology staff had built nests with soft, dry plant material. Supposedly it resembled lizard nests in the wild. The hatchers placed the egg into this, returned to their cart, and pushed it into the building.
“Why don’t they ever stay?” I wondered out loud.
“Their part is done,” Evelyn said.
“Still, after tending the thing for two weeks, wouldn’t you want to see it hatch?”
“It’s their choice, Noah.”
“Very weird,” Wong said.
“See? It’s not just me,” I said. Then again, a guy who’d ridden a scooter out to our seats in the arena rather than walk a few hundred feet might not be the best supporter.
“You should worry less about them and more about whether your dragon design meets the buyer’s requirements,” Evelyn said.
“Right, right. Who is that buyer again?”
“You know I can’t answer that.”
A crackling noise drew my attention back to the egg. Hairline fractures spiderwebbed up from the bottom to the top. Then the shell split open. The dragon emerged, blinking in the bright sunlight. It shook itself to shed the last of the shell fragments. Then it spread its wings. I drew in a sharp breath. It was one thing to see a computer simulation of a new dragon, but something else entirely to see it in person.
“Nice wings,” Wong said.
“Think it will fly?” Evelyn asked. “It’s more muscular than our flying models.”
Wong winked at me. “It’s lighter than it looks.”
The dragon was almost clear of its shell. Now came the vital imprinting exercise, where a human handler fed the dragon its first meal. Something about that act created a bond between reptile and humans. We often let the dragon-wranglers from Herpetology do this part, but Evelyn wanted to keep this small. I picked up the tray of raw meat that sat between us and offered it to her. “You want to do the honors?”
Evelyn looked surprised. She knew how much I loved feeding the dragons. Still, she accepted the tray and stood. “That’s very generous of you.”
“Well, it’s your dragon, isn’t it?”
She faltered and looked back at me. “What?”
“You’re the mysterious buyer of this dragon.”
She said nothing, and that told me I’d guessed right. The dragon, meanwhile, had no patience for word play. It had smelled the meat, and now let out a screech of impatience. Evelyn hurried off to feed it.
“How did you know?” Wong asked.
“From the request form I figured it was someone who understood our dragons fairly well. And she’s been around more than usual for this design. She was even there for the printing, you know?”
We watched Evelyn offer the dragon a strip of raw meat. It lunged for the food, teeth flashing white in the sun. She didn’t even flinch.
“The dragon is like her, too,” I said. “Strong and adaptable to any situation.”
“Close to perfect,” Wong agreed.
“Plus, it’s her favorite color.”
He gave ma side-look. “She likes green?”
“Emerald green. You didn’t know?”
“Come on, Wong. You should really pay more attention.”
We walked over for a closer look at the dragon, which had consumed half of the meat on the tray. Evelyn couldn’t feed it fast enough. The wings looked even more impressive up close, and the cords of muscle rippling about its shoulders suggested a powerful flier. I couldn’t wait to see it in the air. Evelyn glanced up at me and smiled. “You did well, Noah Parker.”
“It’s good to have a customer with discerning taste. Sorry I couldn’t pull off the fire breathing.”
She laughed. “Wong, how long did you spend trying to crack fire breathing before Noah joined the company?”
“Three months. Maybe four.”
I was aghast. “Dude, you said you didn’t have any ideas.”
He shrugged, completely unfazed. “Tried them already.”
I rounded on Evelyn. “Why did you request fire breathing in your custom if you knew it wasn’t possible?”
“I like to give you a challenge, Noah. It keeps you on your toes.” She gestured at the dragon. “You focused on that and didn’t obsess over the other features, so they came out perfectly.”
I bit back a further retort because she was right; the dragon in front of us was one of the best customs I’d ever designed. It was sleek and graceful, and the emerald color really worked. It might not breathe fire, but it would fly like the wind.
I nudged Wong. “You knew about this the whole time?”
“Of course.” He gave me the crooked grin. “You should really pay more attention.”
Copyright © 2022 by Dan Koboldt
In addition to his work for Baen, Koboldt is the author of the Gateways to Alissia trilogy (Harper Voyager), the editor of Putting the Science in Fiction (Writers Digest, 2018), and the creator of the sci-fi adventure serial The Triangle (Serial Box, 2019). As a genetics researcher, he has coauthored more than 80 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals.
Dan can be found at dankoboldt.com and on Twitter at @DanKoboldt. On his blog, he runs the popular “Science in Sci-fi / Fact in Fantasy” series, where experts in various fields contribute articles about how to write more realistic fiction. Articles from this series were collected into a book that came out in 2018 from Writers Digest. Kobolt’s “Putting the Science in Science Fiction” blog can be found here: dankoboldt.com/science-in-scifi. He has also written nonfiction articles for Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, and Baen.com.