I haven’t always been this way.
Once upon a time, I was just a normal apprentice, hoping to become the next ship’s mechanic.
I was rubbish, but that didn’t kill my dream. I tinkered long into the night, struggling to grasp what made all these machines work.
Then one day, Eratosthenes was born.
I hadn’t known fear until that day.
I’d fallen asleep at my workbench, as happened far too often back then. I felt something nuzzling my head, and reached up to swat away cook’s dog, who had a bad habit of slobbering all over me and my work.
Except it wasn’t cook’s dog nudging my head; it was something metal, something that squeaked and clicked.
I looked up, squinting through my rampant curls, and whatever it was chirruped in alarm. It had apparently gotten itself entangled in my hair, and was starting to panic. Before I could reach up to help it, I saw a small flash, felt a burst of heat, and smelled burning hair.
I couldn’t help it; I yelped, and jumped up, fumbling for the fire bucket I always kept on my bench. This seemed to make whatever miniature pyrotechnic that was nesting in my hair panic even more, and there was more fire before I could dunk my head in the bucket, quenching my hair.
Whatever racket I had caused brought the crew running, many of them half-dressed and bleary-eyed. I’m sure I was quite a sight; head dripping wet, scorched hair, and some mechanical contraption mewling and struggling to free itself from my hair. Once they were all sure there was no fire, the laughter and teasing began. As this was not the first time I’d made a complete fool of myself, I took it in stride, disentangling what turned out to be a small animatronic dragon I’d been tinkering with from what remained of my hair. I hoped I hadn’t damaged the inner workings too much with such a thorough wetting, and resolved to cut my hair short to prevent future catastrophe.
“How could you be stupid enough to leave a fire-breather activated?” the master mechanic scolded, as I cleaned my workbench.
“I didn’t!” I protested. When I’d fallen asleep, the dragon hadn’t even been in working condition. It should have been impossible for it to be activated, even by accident. So how it the world had it whirred to life?
The question bothered me all day, even as I assisted in engine maintenance and, apparently, put in the most successful day of my apprenticeship thus far. The dragon simply could not have been in a condition to wake me up, and set my hair on fire.
As soon as I had finished with the work of the day, I rushed back to my workbench. The dragon was disassembled, so it could dry without rusting, and I started a minute inspection of every piece as I put it back together.
Nothing. Each piece was as ordinary as the next one, and vital components were still missing when I tightened the last screw. As it was, it was little more than a fancy paperweight.
Then it moved. And I shrieked.
After assuring the night watch that nothing was on fire and I’d just been startled by a spider, I picked the dragon up, peering at it suspiciously.
“How are you operational?” I muttered, lifting its wings and inspecting its underbelly.
“Do you mind?” the dragon squawked, and I almost shrieked again.
“Did you just talk?” I whispered, certain I was losing my mind.
“Yes, obviously. And stop poking at my belly, I’m ticklish!” the dragon batted at my fingers, and hopped down to the workbench. “I was only born last night, but I’m fairly certain it is not common practice for parents to try and drown their offspring.”
“Parents?” I spluttered, “I’m not your parent! I don’t understand why you’re even working, let alone talking?”
“Am I not meant to talk?” the dragon looked down at himself, and I swore he looked surprised.
“You’re not even meant to move on your own!” I plunged my fingers into my hair, as if trying to pull a logical explanation out of my own brain.
The dragon looked at me curiously. “Then why can I move? Are you some kind of witch? Am I a spell gone horribly wrong?”
“Witches don’t exist,” I said automatically, “neither do sentient fire-breathers. I’m clearly hallucinating. The CO2 scrubbers are malfunctioning again, and I’m actually passed out on the floor. This can’t be happening.”
The dragon flapped his wings, and landed on top of my head. “I don’t know what to tell you, but I’m pretty sure I exist. I’ll just have to take your word on witches.”
I swatted him off my head, silently berating myself for even thinking of it as a him. The dragon was a machine having some kind of a bizarre malfunction. I’d have to take him to the master mechanic in the morning.
I decided the best way to handle to problem, for the moment, would be to ignore the dragon and focus on one of the other projects littering my workbench. I hardly noticed when the dragon settled on my head again, and had nearly forgotten him when he suddenly spoke.
“That gear is faulty,” the dragon hopped down to my wrist, peering at the gear in question, “whatever this is meant to do, it won’t work until you put in a new gear.”
“And just how do you know that, mister I-was-born-yesterday?” I griped, rummaging in a drawer for a replacement gear. It was worth a shot.
The dragon shrugged. “I just do. Kind of like I knew how to fly, or breath fire. Sorry about the hair, by the way.”
I ran a hand over my head, grinning slightly. “Really, you did me a favor. I’d been looking for an excuse to get rid of that mop.”
“Oh,” the dragon perked up, and scampered up to my shoulder to observe the test of my handiwork.
The offending part belonged to the aiming mechanism of one of the ship’s laser cannons, and I went out on deck to reinstall it. I didn’t know how to fire the cannon, but I had enough of an understanding of how to aim to know whether my work was done. I think I made the night watch nervous, tinkering with the cannons, but nothing exploded, and the targeting mechanism was functioning properly again.
“You’re more useful than the typical fire-breather,” I yawned, cupping the dragon in my hands.
“What do the other fire-breathers do?” the dragon asked, hopping to the shelf by my bunk as I kicked off my boots.
“They just breath fire, and fly where commanded,” I replied, climbing into bed.
“How boring,” the dragon gave a creaky yawn, “I’m glad I’m not typical then.”
“Me too,” I smiled, drifting off to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I was half afraid I had dreamed the whole thing. But there the dragon was, chasing his tail over my legs.
I laughed. “You realize that’s attached to you, right?”
The dragon stopped spinning and looked up at me. “I am completely aware of that,” he replied snootily, “but such might not always be the case, and chasing it is good practice in case I’m ever pressed to catch it.”
I nodded seriously. “Of course. You never can tell when a tail bandit is going to show up.”
“Exactly.” The dragon skittered up my arm, and nuzzled under my chin. His body was pleasantly warm, and he generated a soft vibration that sounded suspiciously like purring. I realized with a start that I’d accidentally invented myself a pet, but I’d failed to name him.
I reached up to tickle him under the chin. “What do you want me to call you?”
The dragon jumped up onto my head, and hung his head upside-down to look at me. “What, like my name?”
I nodded, trying not to go cross-eyed.
“Hmm,” the dragon jumped, did a somersault, and landed on my stomach. “I quite like the sound of Eratosthenes.”
I chuckled. “Nice to meet you Eratosthenes. I’m Aife.”