Nature Future Conditional

An encounter with a dragon

Sitting in a local hostelry the other week, I got talking to a strange man. He was dressed in a dark suit that had seen better days and that had better fit a previous owner. Creased and stained and smelling very slightly of camphor, the man himself was little better. But we exchanged pleasantries, as you do, made mention of the weather and accidentally found common ground over a recent article run by the BBC that mentioned in passing the viability of dragons.

My drinking partner, it turned out, was something of an authority on these lizards of legend and he insisted that there was more to the creatures than just a few fantasy tales involving knights in shining armour. To prove his case, he produced a scrap of paper (which I later recognized to be a betting slip that had lost him a fair amount of money) on which he scrawled a convoluted set of instructions. He grabbed my arm and said: “Take this to the British Library and follow the path.” He tightened his grip. “But tell no one of the route, that must remain a secret. Oh, and don’t back the favourite in the 2.30 at Haydock Park tomorrow.”

Intrigued I agreed to his demands, and he pressed the crumpled paper into my palm, necked my drink and walked out of the pub. I could do nothing but follow his instructions, and so it was I found myself ensconced in the darker recesses of the British Library the following day, following his instructions, which led me to a handwritten text hidden inside an old book. Although I am sworn to secrecy over the exact location of this text, I can tell you what it said.

Written in typical shorthand, it appeared to be an original page from Samuel Pepys’ diary. The paper had clearly been ripped from another book and at some point had been screwed up and probably thrown away, as it was very creased and somewhat stained. The text was relatively short and, to my surprise, I found that my hand was shaking as I copied it down. Having translated it from the shorthand, this is what I saw:

“September 2, 1666. Unbelievable. If mine eyes had not seen this for myself, I would give no credence to the account I am about to commit to page, but it is the truth of the matter and I cannot write a lie. The night was hot, and I had been abroad unusually late. I found myself not far from the river when I became aware of a commotion emerging from a nearby baker’s shop. There I encountered the shopkeeper who was arguing with his assistant over the ashes in the oven. In front of them lay what looked to be a large egg of lustrous hue. I enquired of them as to the source of their disagreement and as one they pointed to the egg. They had, it seems, uncovered the same from the back of their oven, too hot to handle. I was about to investigate further when the egg gave off a loud retort and cracked from end to end. Smoke and steam hissed from the gap. Needless to say, all three of our mismatched party stepped back and could only watch in amazement as a young winged lizard emerged from within the confines of its birthing home. That, I concede, was strange enough, but what happened next will forever haunt me. The creature turned to regard us with disdain as we stood frozen in the doorway; it sucked in a huge breath and then exhaled a stream of fire. Startled, we ran into the street and the baker was past the crossroads before I had chance to converse with him further. I resolved to repair to my house to rouse my companions and to investigate this strange beast. As I began my journey home, I noticed that the unfortunate baker’s home had caught alight, and as I left Pudding Lane I was filled with a terrible sense of foreboding. As time now shows, I was right to so worry. The conflagration that I later watched from Tower Hill had begun beneath my very nose. I resolved there and then to make no mention of what I had seen for fear that my friends would suspect foul play or an overactive imagination. Indeed, I am not even sure that I should leave this account in a place where it might be seen. I must give more thought to how I might account for the strange events this night.”

And there the note ends. Pepys’ diary is notorious for the relatively scant mention it makes of the events in 1666 that destroyed a huge swathe of London and for his initial dismissal of the conflagration as unimportant. And there lying in front of me was the likely reason why.

Of course, I must investigate this further, but events have again taken a turn for the strange. This week, an article has appeared in Nature’s News & Views section noting that the human race is sleepwalking its way towards disaster: evidence confirming the long-term existence of dragons has emerged. The article, co-authored by Andrew Hamilton, Edward Waters and Robert May (former science adviser to the UK government), reveals that humanity is creating the perfect conditions for a resurgence in dragons and issues a call to action that we would be foolish to ignore. My brief encounter with unpublished Pepys, suggests that the influence of dragons in our history runs much deeper than might have been thought. It is certainly a reason to reflect — and perhaps to exercise a degree of caution if you find yourself near a large, fancy egg any time soon …

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