A Tiger by the Tail

Now, this is going to be a prompt-and-three-quarters!

Dragonettes was intended to be the first of a series of linked fantasy short stories. The idea was that I would eventually have bamboozled myself into writing an entire novel, sidestepping the bitter anguish of sustaining a plot for a whole 100,000 words. Grandiosely, I had even christened the entire, never-to-be-written collection DRAGONISTICS.

I’m donating the first 1664 words of Dragonettes to any writer – or non-writer – maybe just someone looking for a challenge. They are in fact the only 1664 words, the rest having once been in my head, where no longer seem to be. You might decide to take up where Dragonettes ends. You might just take the basic idea and run with  it according to your own imaginings. It doesn’t even have to be dragons – it could be any shipment of any commodity that turns out to be so much more of a handful than the hapless – but not entirely blameless – buyer anticipated. A case of having a tiger by the tail.

Dragonettes

Astin had been looking forward with less and less enthusiasm to the delivery of his dragonette consignment the closer the time came. This was unexpected since they represented a multi-million profit-making opportunity, of which Astin was in desperate need.

He had been waiting five and a half months since he placed his order with Dragonistics on Ioflviea22, claiming to be ordering on behalf the University of North Anglia, but working from home in Brentwood. Fortunately Ioflevia22 was sufficiently remote from Earth for North, South or West Anglia to sound no less probable than East Anglia. Also fortunate that, between themselves, Ioflevians habitually communicated telepathically, and so had little interest in the primitive data-sharing electronics of what they regarded as the lesser alien races. Afire with his latest idea he had attempted to contact Dragonistics direct via the InterPlanet link in their VidAd. It took a long time to get through. Astin had a distinct sense of Governmental security being clicked through, of labyrinthine researches being done into his character and background, over and above what he had already supplied.

There was always an overlay of static, both visual and auditory, on visuals originating from such distant planets, but Dragonistics’ interference was more pervasive than most. The individual facing him on screen was large, he could see, somewhat odd-shaped and knobbly, and his, her or its voice combined booming feedback with a kind of underwater gurgling. Astin wasn’t particularly curious, and even if he had been he would have been careful not to show it. You got used to seeing all sorts, humanoid, android, serpentine, many-eyed, shape-shifting. To appear surprised or amused would have been unthinkable, a breach of InterPlanetary etiquette. Astin imagined that to who- or whatever that was at Dragonistics, he would appear like a small, pinky-browninsh worm with, at intervals, matched pairs of limbs or possibly antennae, only the upper pair of which was visible behind the desk, together with a smooth, round head incorporating a hole, from which issued guttural sounds.

The individual also seemed somewhat irritable, for a sales representative. Speaking through some kind of translation module it redirected Astin to a call centre operated by Dragonistics’ UK Agent located, unromantically, in Bristol.

There was a waiting list for this particular commodity, for it had to be harvested, and harvesting it was not at all easy. In placing his order he had been abundantly clear as to his requirements: dragonettes, not dragons; first-gen yellows, blues and reds only, none of your greens and your oranges and definitely no purples. Oranges he had been advised on good authority were unreliable, docile one minute, rampaging the next; purples were downright scary and aggressive and greens, possibly the most worrying of all second-generation dragons, were utterly devious but in such a charming and magical way that they would lull one into a sense of false security. And all of them were too big.

The dragonette idea had come to him in a dream, and an enchanting dream it had been. Astin’s dreams tended to be bog standard black and white, but this one had been in colour. More than that, it had glittered. It was jewel-encrusted, somehow. No, that wasn’t right. There had been no actual jewels on his dream dragonettes, but he had got the feeling of jewels, an impression of…value. The dream had inspired him as no dream had ever done before.

He had also been very definite about the way they were to be accommodated on their journey, stipulating the sturdiest possible crates, lined with lead sheeting. Even the breathing apertures were to be covered in lead-mesh. Astin would have preferred thicker sheeting and mesh than he was actually getting.

“For interplanetary freighting purposes, lightweight is the only option,” the bored girl on the telescreen informed him, followed by some monotone mumbo-jumbo about wormholes, stress-factors and hyper-flexibility.

Now, suddenly, onscreen was a small wincing man with a greasy comb-over, confirming arrival at Spaceterminal BetaZee. It was Dragonistics Earthside agent requesting immediate pickup.

Immediate? Ah, er, I wasn’t expecting them until next week. ”

“My client company contracted with you to feed and house the consignment on its journey to destination planet, sir, but from the moment they made touchdown Earthside they became your own responsibility. Sorry sir, but they’ve been in our warehouse a couple of hours now and to judge by the hubbub they’re creating they’re already getting pretty hungry.”

“Um, what do they eat?”

“You import a crate load of dragonettes without even knowing what they eat?” exclaimed greasy comb-over, momentarily shocked out of his customer-service persona.

“Well, I assumed – meat, of some kind…?”

“Hungry enough, good buddy, and they’d eat your dog, your cat or even your baby.” The man seemed to have abandoned his customer-service hat altogether now, laughing, but not entirely humorously. Astin simply could not tell whether he was joking. Pray God he was joking or he was going to shift a crate load of merchandise that turned out to eat pets and babies. He could not bear to continue the conversation.

“Give me a couple of hours and I’ll be there.” Transferring straight online, he was relieved to discover that there was a feedstock store selling something called Dragon Kibble. This appeared to be version of dog biscuits and was described as a Dietarily Complete in Every Aspect for the First Generation Dragon. The store displayed no advertisements for Second or Third Generation Kibble. Maybe there was no fooling the bigger ones with biscuits. No, it would be a similar sort of stuff, just maybe bigger kibbles, wider range of nutrients, larger portion per dragon. Irrelevant in any case since, providing all went to plan, the dragonettes would not be in Astin’s possession long enough to even think of breeding. The real-world store traded out of industrial estate only slightly off Astin’s route to BetaZed’s bonded warehouses. He paid over the odds for 15 x 30ltr sacks of the Kibble on the understanding that he could detour to pick them up.

“Sure, have it ready on a pallet for you. Sorry, but I’m legally obliged to confirm this with you, sir, though I’m sure you’ll be up to speed on the Import of Extra-Terrestrial Species Regulations. Dragons for the purposes of academic research only?”

“Oh, absolutely.” He lied. Astin’s plan was to be the first to sell the little beasties on the black market, but he was hardly going to admit that.

A crate of dragons, dimensions unknown, plus a pallet of 30 litre Kibble sacks – he would take the bigger of the two vans. Luckily Dolorez was not due back until tomorrow, which meant he would be able to get his contraband safely stowed away in his lockup facility before she got a chance to fasten her beady eyes on it.

Dolorez was his receptionist, though she referred to herself as his partner, which she was not, in either the matrimonial or the business sense. He wasn’t even sure if she qualified as “his” at all since the minute Martin Merriweather, his chief rival in the export-import business, insinuated a handsome, sparkly-toothed head around the door of the receptionist’s cubicle in Astin’s commercial premises, Dolorez disappeared. For all Astin knew, Merriweather and Dolorez had been together in the Bahamas for the past two weeks, indulging in unimaginable sexual shenanigans and converting their spray tans into real ones; she’d told him a girls-only trip but then she’d told him many things.

It was a nervous drive to BetaZed and an even more nervous one back. At the warehouse he had ripped the top of one of his newly-acquired sacks of Kibble, opened the feeding hatch and ladled some inside. The lead coating obscured his view. He caught glimpses of multi-coloured flashes and heard a miscellaneous kind of roaring-growling as his dragonettes scrabbled for their food. What was really unsettling was the violent way in which twenty smallish, seething creatures were making the crate jump; it was an earthquake-in-a-box. Excruciatingly delayed by rush-hour traffic he was forced to pull off at a service station and throw in more Kibbles. He now saw that there was a tube connecting the outside of the dragonette container to what appeared to be a dispenser tank of some sort on the inside. Online in the driving seat he typed Do dragons drink water? He got through to some kind of academic chat line in which he learned that they did, though it might be said not to be their preferred tipple, LOL. There was obviously some kind of crusty in-joke going on here but Astin was way past figuring it out. He locked the van and scuttled into the service station, emerging with several plastic bottles of warmish still water to pour down the tube. Best not to risk carbonated, he decided.

By the time Astin and his cargo got back to the rented factory unit on the outskirts of Brentwood he was hot and tired, the dragonettes were restless and dusk was on its way. Worse, the Merriweathermobile – the latest of a series of shiny, expensive, vehicles acquired on finance, which Merriweather changed on such a regular basis that it was easier to think of them as a species – was parked outside. This one was so long it covered the whole length of the front wall. Astin’s car was only as long as the window. Through the window, unsurprised, he spotted both Merriweather and Dolorez. They were not exactly entwined, but looked as if they might have been, fairly recently.

He supposed it had been too much to hope that Dolorez either wouldn’t notice the dragonettes or wouldn’t be interested in them. Her eyes narrowed as she watched him, with the unwelcome but unfortunately necessary assistance of a tanned and toothsome Martin Merriweather, decanting the little, jewel-like, rainbow-hued creatures into the heavy-duty cage he had bought some time ago. Her surgically retrousséd nose positively quivered. He had no problem in recognising that look. Dolorez wanted.

 (Over to you now…)

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