Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Four: Addie Considers the Multiverse
“Dragons,” Tristan says darkly, when I ask him, “are the epitome of derivative bullshit. Intellectual dishonesty.”
We’re at the Eagle’s Nest, down the street from No Dragons Press, celebrating our first newsletter after the redesign. Tristan has been in a remarkably good mood for most of the evening, but my question seems to have tipped him back toward his usual dour dramatics. With that scowl he looks just like the Tyrannosaurus on his T-shirt, snarling over its shoulder in classic work-it pose.
“Cardboard cutouts,” Tristan continues, gripping his water glass like he’s trying to crush it. “The laziest form of magic. At least with wizards and incantations there’s some hint at a scientific process, even if the laws of nature never make any sense. But dragons? Dragons!” He punctuates this by leaning over to suck angrily at his straw.
I have no difficulty imagining how this man might have butted heads with an advisor to the point where he felt he had to quit—or was forcibly removed. I can easily see either version. I smile at the top of Tristan’s head.
“But think about sci-fi,” says Nate, swooping in with a round of drinks: soda for Duc, hot chocolate for Tristan, beer for us. (Only Tristan would order hot chocolate at a bar.) “What about artificial life forms? What about star power?” He’s only caught the tail end of Tristan’s tirade, but he seems familiar enough with it to pick up the thread.
I catch Duc’s eye across the table as he unzips his jacket, revealing a “you are here”-style map of the solar system underneath. He shrugs. I wonder if he and Tristan do their shopping together.
“That’s happening,” Tristan is saying. “Right now. Don’t you read the news? Aren’t you alive? There are artificial life forms, right now. And we are in fact using solar power to—”
“But not like that,” Nate breaks in, “not like the stories. There are no undercover androids infiltrating government agencies. No terraforming. No Dyson spheres. No luxury interstellar voyages.”
“Not yet,” Tristan says in a clipped voice, his face stubborn. He lifts his mug and buries his face in it, displaying the same stubbornness that had caused him to uproot an entire engineering project and move it into Nate’s basement rather than abandon it.
Nate grins, and when he catches my look out of the corner of his eye, his grin widens.
I return his smile, but I’m suddenly thinking too hard about how to shape my face, so I reach into my pocket for something else to think about.
I immediately wish I hadn’t. My phone, when I check it, displays two texts from Bradley. The first is from an hour ago: It’s cold out there—why don’t I come pick you up after your meeting? It must have come in while we were closing up shop or heading here. The second, a clear follow-up to the first, I’d missed by just a few minutes: Working late?
I scowl at my phone. It is cold for the season, and ordinarily I would accept his offer without a second thought. I may be a born-and-bred Midwestern girl, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy being cold.
But if I tell him to pick me up, I’ll have to tell him where I am. And if I do that, he might come in to find me instead of calling me from outside. And if that happens, I’ll have to figure out how to explain to my new coworkers how awkward and strange our relationship has become. Or maybe I won’t have to explain, but I’ll definitely never be able to forget that they were witness to my boring, broken relationship, my stupidity. My failure.
I’ll take the bus, no worries, I text back quickly. Then I add Thanks and slip the phone back in my pocket.
When I look up, Nate is still looking at me, or maybe he’s looking at me again; in any case, his grin has diminished to a manageable capacity, and I can return his smile. But it’s odd. There’s this look to him—a warmth I don’t deserve. Like I remind him of someone.
He looks like he might be a little drunk; there’s a mischievous gleam in his eye that isn’t usually there when he’s interacting with Tristan. His standard procedure seems to be to humor him with infinite patience, whatever direction his thoughts take, but tonight Nate is clearly enjoying needling him.
“Hey, and another thing to celebrate—you made it through your first newsletter!” Duc lifts his glass in my direction and the others follow suit. “Congratulations!”
Tristan looks to have forgotten his pique. “Cheers,” he intones.
“So what do you think?” Nate asks. “Any last questions before you decide whether to join us or run screaming?”
“Or last words?” Tristan adds between slurps. Is this Tristan being playful?
I give my beer a few extra moments of attention before answering. When I lift my face from the foam, I find Tristan looking at me intently over his T-rex.
I decide Tristan’s problem with dragons must be one of logic, of continuity. He wouldn’t discount them on principle, it seems to me, but on their improbable origins. How to explain a world where giant reptilian beings—intelligent beings—coexist with humans during recorded history?
Glancing back and forth between Tristan and Duc, I have a sudden idea.
“What about multiple universes?” I say, and I project my voice to cut through the music, but we’re suddenly between songs and several heads turn toward me at once from surrounding tables. Duc smirks at me across our drinks.
“I mean, think about it,” I press as the rhythmic intro to a Zeppelin song fills the ringing silence. I squeeze my elbows in to rest on the table. “There are infinite universes, right? Or at least other universes? And aren’t dragons basically just flying dinosaurs? So maybe, in some other universe, the dinosaurs continued to exist, and the meteor thing never happened, and . . . I don’t know, somehow some of the dinosaurs were able to cross over from one universe to another. Or maybe humans also had a chance to evolve, like, in some other part of that world—and through whatever set of circumstances, they were suddenly face to face.”
I stop to catch my breath, take a drink. Over my foam, I catch Nate grinning at me again. I’m on a roll, in a groove, the confluence of beer and marijuana and rhythm heightening my logic, each new point coming to me just as I articulate the one before it. I’m no scientist, but I’ve read my share of Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and as an open-minded layperson in a world of Higgs-Bosons and quantum entanglement, who am I to discount something just because it sounds absurd?
Holy fuck, pterodactyls. This grand culmination of my idea hits me in a swoop of brilliance, and I snag a quick final pull from my beer as I prepare to enlighten the rest of them.
That’s when I notice an odd shade of pink creeping across Tristan’s face. I wonder if perhaps no one has ever mentioned the multiverse to him—or at least in this particular context—and he hasn’t quite developed a response to the idea.
“Magic dinosaurs!” he snarls at me. He whirls away, stomping toward the door as a tom-heavy solo plays him out.
Duc gives me a wry smile. Then he takes a final drink of his cola, stands, and follows Tristan across the bar and out the door.
I look at Nate, stunned and bewildered, as the drums crescendo to a frenzy.
He shrugs. “Magic dinosaurs.”
My stomach plummets.
“Well, there goes that job,” I say, as lightly as I can, though I don’t sound very convincing.
I haven’t wanted anything for a while, not really, because nothing I haven’t ended up getting has left such a yawning void. But my stupid mouth has once again lost me an opportunity for something new and interesting, and this time I really did want it.
But when I look back up, Nate is laughing.
“Oh, you definitely have the job,” he says, appearing completely unconcerned about Tristan’s sudden departure. He leans back in his chair, a contented smile between the two black holes in his beard. He throws me a wink.
“You fit in already.”