Domesticating Dragons – Snippet 07

“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.”