Chapter 1: Why a dragon?

“Why a dragon?”

Randall waited while Stan disengaged himself from a pack of (Randall guessed) major stockholders. They seemed to have the requisite combination of interest and ignorance that, in Randall’s experience, marked those who had money invested in a project, but not much skin.

“Randall!” Stan was still shaking someone else’s hand when he recognized who had asked the question. The din in the room was that rumble-bumpy-sounding mixture of too many people talking too loud in a too small space. Because everyone is almost shouting, you can’t understand anyone except a person with their face inches away from yours who is almost shouting.

“Randall,” Stan repeated, finally free of this particular crowd of well wishers. “You made it! That’s great. I wasn’t even sure I had the right address!”

“You didn’t,” Randall semi-shouted back. “But Professor Burke forwards a bunch of my stuff every month or so. I only got the invitation the day-before-yesterday. That’s why I didn’t RSVP.” He paused for a moment to drink a bit of his lemon-lime soda. All this not-quite-yelling made his throat sore.

“Anyway,” Randall repeated, “Why a dragon?”

“Ah! You’re the first person to ask that. Mostly they ask about our first contract.” Stan gestured behind his shoulder to a group of men and women in full-on business dress who were talking to a reporter from some cable news finance program. There was a lot of wide-gesturing by one fellow in a dark gray suit, with much nodding and occasional small-gesturing by the other corporate tribesmen.

“The submarine people, right?” Randall asked. He’d read something about the submarine people in “USA Today” on his flight into Boston.

“Right… them.” Stan couldn’t seem to stop smiling. Randall didn’t blame him. Randall should smile. His major-major project looked like it was going to go off with a huge bang. And he was engaged to possibly the most perfect person Randall had ever met. Caitlyn was drop-dead gorgeous, had two PhDs in some kind of sociology that promised to cure poverty within the next fifteen minutes, and never, ever made Randall feel awkward and stupid. Most beautiful women made Randall feel awkward and stupid. Even the not-so-beautiful ones had the same affect. Hell, even ugly men often made Randall feel awkward and stupid.

The noise got worse for some reason. Ah. Another twelve people had just showed up. The lobby of the hotel had seemed big when Randall checked in that day around noon. Now he felt like he was in an enormous elevator. And he wanted to get out. But he had to at least say hello to Stan. Or else, why bother coming at all.

“So,” Randall tried a third time, “Why a dragon?”

“Right! Well… for most people, molecular engineering and oceanic topographical surveying and retinal surgery are about as sexy as… well…”

“Molecular engineering, oceanic topographical…”

“Right! Exactly!” Stan grabbed Randall’s elbow, knocking a bit of lime soda onto his sports coat, and turned him to face the object at the center of tonight’s crowded gala.

From up close, it looked very much like a huge, cubic fish tank. With a dragon the size of dachshund curled up around a chunk of uneven rock at its center.

As Randall watched, the dragon turned its head slowly from side to side and rolled a shoulder like a swimmer loosening up before a race. The bat-like wings, folded along its side, lifted and fell with its breath. They seemed to Randall like they were floating on liquid.

Stan pulled Randall closer to the tank, within a foot of the glass. Although dozens of people were watching the creature inside, few ventured that close to the glass cube.

It is pretty freaking big, reasoned Randall. When standing that close, the tank almost seemed to lean over you from above. It had to be at least fifteen feet tall. And although the glass of the walls was clearly solid, having a creature of myth staring at you from less than ten feet away was somewhat… unnerving.

“Watch,” Stan said into Randall’s ear. As if he hadn’t been watching already. Stan took his hand away from Randall’s elbow and made an elaborate gesture that reminded Randall of sign language. Immediately, a small door slid open in the base of the cube. It hadn’t been visible before, but now irised to reveal a black space beneath the glass floor. The huge cube was sitting on a base of some black, opaque substance that Randall assumed was stone or some plastic composite. The hole seemed to drop down into this base, and while Randall was still trying to decide how the device had recognized Stan’s gesture, a bunny popped out.

The bunny was your standard, white, cute, pet rabbit. He took one little hoppy-step away from the hole — which promptly slid shut — and began to test the air with his pink little nose.

Motion! “Ah!” The noise from the crowd around the cube was a dozen simultaneous expressions of surprise. Randall took a step back, noticing that even Stan seemed a bit startled by the dragon’s take-off. It had been almost instantaneous. Randall had been looking at the rabbit and had only seen the dragon rise out of the corner of his eye. But it had been fast, he was sure of that.

Now, though, the dragon was flying. Circling the cube in diagonal loops near the top of the enclosure. More and more people were turning toward the center of the room, and the noise level seemed to have dropped off a bit. Randall could hear the dragon’s wings beat, softly, as it banked and rolled. Randall was reminded of ice skaters. Speed and grace, constricted by the bounds of a closed space.

The rabbit noticed the movement, too. At first, it froze. It seemed to want to make itself smaller… head down low against its chest… rear legs quivering. But then the dragon let out a cry — something between the caaww! of a crow and a woman’s scream — and the rabbit ran.

The prey’s dodging and sprinting had nothing of the predator’s grace. Pure terror bulged from the round, pink eyes whenever the rabbit stopped for a moment to change direction. The dragon didn’t seem to change its pattern, but just dipped lower every third or fourth circuit. Each time it did that, the rabbit wrenched to a stop and ricocheted off in another direction.

More and more of the people surrounding the tank fell silent. Randall could still hear other conversations, beyond the row of onlookers, but they were distant. He could clearly hear the scatter and pop of pebbles as the rabbit churned the grit on the floor of the tank.

“She’s toying with it,” Stan muttered. His smile — which never stopped, Randall noticed — was a little different. Less rock-star-surrounded-by-groupies, more… proud father.

Finally, the dragon cut out of a looping roll and hung mid-air, wings outstretched, near the top of the tank. Randall knew it was his imagination, but he seemed to hear the rabbit’s heart beating… fast like the vibration of a sewing machine or a lawn-mower.

The birdlike scream, again. People near the tank visibly flinched. Then, still graceful as a dancer, the dragon folded its wings against its side and dropped straight down fifteen feet. The rabbit tried to reverse direction, but was caught on two-inch long claws and between jaws like an alligator’s. The dragon wrenched its head just as it struck and hurled the rabbit against the transparent wall of the tank, directly opposite from where Randall and Stan stood. The people on that side — some of whom being the aforementioned submarine people — jumped backwards as the bloody animal thump-smacked against the glass and fell. A splotch of blood and fur dripped down the wall, clearly visible from every angle.

The dragon swooped over the twitching rabbit and picked it up with one claw, throwing it again to land among the rocks in the center of the tank. After a final circuit around the top of the tank, the lizard landed, still graceful, atop the pile of stone and sat quietly, fanning itself with its wings. One of the rabbit’s legs jerked a few more times and then was still. The dragon leaned low, rolled the body of the rabbit away with its nose, and curled up, resting, as it had been earlier.

The applause was slow to start, but eventually everyone around the tank was clapping and a few were even cheering.

If they were cheering for the dragon, thought Randall, that would just be sad.

But they weren’t cheering for the dragon, he knew. As did Stan, whose smile was broader than Randall had ever seen.

Randall saw the crowd behind Stan part, and Caitlyn shouldered through, coming to stand with an arm around Stan’s waist. She had red-blonde hair, skin as white as bone, green eyes and a slim, fey body that never hurried. She smiled a bit blankly at Randall, and then recognized him.

“Randall! You made it! Stan had me check the RSVPs last night and we were pissed you weren’t gonna show!” Her voice was out of character with the rest of her. She was a Southie, born and raised in a part of Boston where blue collah people wooked haad and got wicked shit-faced on Rolling Rahk at beach pahties on Mahthuh’s Vinyud. Her voice was one of the things that made Randall like her so much. She didn’t care that it was out of character. It was her character, so screw you.

She also didn’t care that everyone assumed she was Irish Catholic. Five or six generations ago, her family had been mostly Welsh and Anglican. At some point in the late 19th century, they’d stopped being Anglican and started being Presbyterian. At some point in the late 20th century, she’d stopped being Presbyterian and started going to synagogue with Stan. She was planning on converting. Although, she had once told Randall, you can’t really convert to Judaism. You were always going to do it, so it wasn’t conversion. And you didn’t talk about it. It was like not spelling out “God.” Converting to something that you couldn’t convert to was so totally in keeping with Caitlyn’s personality that Randall had laughed out loud when she’d tried to explain it.

She leaned over and hugged Randall with one arm, the other still around Stan’s waist. “What did you think of the show?” she asked.

“Cheery,” he replied. Then he paused, and all three said in unison, “Cheery, but violent.” They all laughed at the Monty Python reference and Randall wondered why he hadn’t made the effort to come back to Boston more often over the last five or six years. The only real friends he had ever made were here. Harvard. MIT. BU. Wellesley. All during graduate school. All very weird, socially retarded geniuses with a love of Python, Star Trek, D&D, Neal Stephenson, J. Geils, W.B. Yeats and irony. When you went the first twenty-odd years of your life without good friends, the ones you finally make are bonded to your soul. Or, it had seemed that way, until they all scattered to jobs and families and other universities and… whatever.

All except Stan and Caitlyn.

It made Randall sad. To see them here like this, so much like how they’d been when they’d all met. A frozen couple from the “good times” of Randall’s youth. After he’d escaped from the horrors of childhood and puberty… before he’d been tricked into the cubicles of corporate engineering.

“Why doesn’t it eat the rabbit?” someone behind Randall asked.

Stan turned and answered, “She had one earlier this evening, during the official press conference. So she’s not hungry.”

“She?”

Randall turned and looked at the questioner. It was one of the submarine suits.

“Yes,” Stan said. “She. Male dragons aren’t as pretty. And they tend to be very skittish around crowds. The females have much brighter coloring and are more flirtatious. As long as you don’t tap on the glass. She hates that.”

“She.” The suit was drinking whiskey, straight. Randall could smell it from five feet away.

Stan’s smile dropped a fraction, but he was just disappointed… not really upset. “Yes. Again, yes. She. The more you put into something like this, the better. I can tell you where she was born and captured, what her siblings looked like, how many times she’s been in heat, what her favorite food in the wild was… it all goes into the programming.”

“Ah,” said the suit. He took a sip of his very aromatic whiskey and nodded. “But we don’t really care about that program. We don’t need it. It’s fine for… this,” he gestured with his glass at the crowd, the lights, the waiters. “But we just need the box. When do we get the box?”

Now Stan actually stopped smiling. He disengaged Caitlyn’s arm from around his waist and put his hand on the suit’s arm. Stan said something into his ear that Randall couldn’t hear, and the two of them went off into the crowd of other suits, Stan talking and they nodding.

“Jacques Cousteau woulda been disappointed in those fucking drones,” Caitlyn said. Randall looked away from Stan and down into her green eyes. He had thought he’d loved her, once. A long time ago. He’d even said something to that affect when drunk. But she’d heard it from many and many a better man, and had steered him home, ego intact, with a clear understanding of their friendship. He’d been embarrassed the next day, and had never mentioned it again, and had always been glad that he hadn’t done anything so stupid as to endanger that friendship… or Stan’s.

“Yeah,” he replied. “For marine seismologists, they seem pretty dull.”

Caitlyn barked a loud laugh and a few people near them turned to stare. She waved them away like you would a deer fly and they went back to their own conversations.

“He never answered my question,” Randall said. He still had to talk a bit louder than he liked, but the show seemed to have subdued people in some way. The room was still a bit quieter, as if the major action was over.

“What question?” she asked.

“Why a dragon?”

“Ah. That’s easy. I made him do it.”

“You?” Randall was pretty sure that Caitlyn could make any man — except Stan — do what she wanted. Stan wasn’t, as Caitlyn had put it to him once, “testosterone poisoned,” which is one of the reasons she loved him so much.

“Sure. He started the demo program with ideas of special-effects wizardry. Gleaming spheres and explosions… views of canyons from above… space stuff… all wicked boring and very two-and-a-half-D. I told him he needed something with no fourth wall.”

“No fourth what?”

“Fourth wall. It’s a theatre term. What’s between the stage and the audience. All video, which is a flat version of theatre, has a fourth wall. The frame around your TV. The curtains at the movies. The tall, bald man in front of you keeps picking his ear. It all relies on ‘willful suspension of disbelief’ in order to maintain the narrative illusion.”

“Right. Which is why the movies are better than video.”

She gave him a short stare for a moment then said, “Right. Bigger screen. Better acoustics. Less distraction. No phone, no cat, no upstairs neighbor with a wooden leg.”

Randall smiled at that. It was a reference to his first apartment in Cambridge. There really had been a man directly above him with a false, if not wooden, leg. The cadence of his footfalls had been somewhat disturbing. Caitlyn called it charming.

“So,” she continued. When you get into fully realized, three-dimensional projection, you have a choice. Either do another version of video, but with true depth, or…”

“Emulate something that doesn’t require disbelief.”

She smiled and touched him on the nose. “It came down to either Elsie or birds.”

“Elsie? The dragon’s name is Elsie?”

“What’s wrong with Elsie?” She looked hurt.

He shrugged, but pushed on. “It’s a cow name.”

Her mouth fell open and she looked truly gob-slapped. “A cow?”

He chuckled a bit, not unhappy to have gotten a shot in. “Yes. A cow. Elsie. Cow’s are always named Elsie or Daisy or Bertha or…”

“You prick!” she slapped him on the shoulder and he pretended that it hurt a bit, which it didn’t.

Stan came back from his chat with the submarine people.

“You two been catching up on old times?”

Caitlyn made a sour face. “We’re not old enough to have old times.”

“No,” Randall said. “She was just telling me why you went with a dragon instead of birds.”

Stan nodded and snared a drink from a passing waiter. He took a pull and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Yeah. She wouldn’t let me do birds. No… what was it you said?”

“No élan.”

“Ah,” said Randall. “There must be élan.”

Stan grinned (the smile was back) and gestured at the room around them. “They’re all fascinated. She was right, of course, about the dragon. Nobody cares about the frame rate or the variable opacity or the sensors…”

“Which have nothing to do with the tank, either,” put in Caitlyn.

“Of course not,” Stan continued. “They look into the tank and see a small dragon living in a… what do you call an aquarium with no water?”

“A terrarium,” answered Randall.

“Exactly. We all had a weird friend who had a pet lizard or snake or something as a kid. Right? So we all know what to expect from the big, glass box. Some sand or cedar chips on the floor. A bowl of stagnant, nasty water. Some bugs or pellets in a tin dish. And on a branch or a rock…”

“The ‘weird pet kid,’” put in Randall. “Who, as you know, was me.”

Caitlyn punched Stan in the arm this time as he pulled a slightly guilty look. “I forgot. Was it a snake?”

“Iguana.”

“It’s legal to own an iguana?”

“I don’t know. I never asked the nice man at the pet store. If it was illegal, he wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping the iguana business under the counter.”

Stan nodded. “Anyway, sorry about the crack.”

“It’s OK,” said Randall with a wave of his hand. “I was weird. So were my parents. It just didn’t seem weird to us at the time.”

“It never does,” said Caitlyn. “I mean, we don’t seem weird to us now, but lots of people probably think we are.”

“Not for long.”

“What do you mean by that, Stan?” she asked.

“When you’re as rich as that big, glass cube is going to make us, you can’t be weird.”

That shut her up for a moment.

Randall broke the silence. “Right. At most, you’re eccentric.”

Stan nodded, deep in thought. Caitlyn squeezed Randall’s arm, blew them each a kiss, and went off to find the ladies’ room.

Before Randall could say anything more, a group of four people who all looked far too awake for this time of night swept in and began asking Stan questions about the tank. He gave Randall the sign language version of, “I’ve got to talk to these twits for a few, but I’ll be back soon.” Randall nodded, and was left almost alone by the glass cube, as only a few others remained standing near it. None of them were looking in. They were just there. Having conversations.

Randall walked up close to the glass, so close that he could feel his breath coming back on him. The dragon — Elsie — seemed to be asleep. Curled into a somewhat fetal ball, wings stretched back behind it… her. But when Randall looked closely, he could see that her eyes weren’t completely closed, and her front, right paw was moving slightly.

He bent down to look even closer and saw that she was drowsily tracing geometric patterns with her claw. Squares, spirals, triangles… all sketched from blood that had pooled in a hollow of the rock on which she lay.