Excerpt: Smoke Signals

Mike stared at himself in the bathroom mirror and tried to force the look of sheer stunned anxiety off his face. He ran his hands over his hair, half trying to soothe himself, and half trying to make sure it was all where it should be.

He had to make a good first impression on the dragon, he reminded himself.

The dragon that was waiting in their front lobby. No big deal, right? Dragons were in the news all the time, even if they didn’t usually mingle with normal people like him. He’d watched a TV interview with a dragon just the other day, even. They were people just like anyone else.

Breathe, he told himself. Chill out. So it was going to be a weird day.

At least it wasn’t going to be boring.


It was a Wednesday, and it had started out pretty average.

“Right, ma’am, is there anything else I can do for you toda—aaaand she’s gone.” Mike took off his headset and drew a deep breath. The caller’s complaints—delivered, of course, at top volume—had left his adrenaline running high enough that his headset rattled as he put it down. But hey, having a bad call right before a break was better than having a bad call right after.

Too bad that he could have solved her problem in two minutes if she’d have let him get a word in edgewise.

It was the second-busiest day for customer support at the SmokeSignals game platform, with the week-long Black Friday sale in full swing. Which meant, of course, that it seemed like everybody and their mother was calling in with some kind of issue.

Next to him, Diane, his fellow Team Lead, muted her own headset. “Going on break?” At his nod, she wrinkled her nose. “If I get one more person wanting a refund because they bought a game way before the sale, I’m gonna—” She hit the button again. “Yes sir, of course. Usually we can only offer price adjustments up to a week after purchase, but—”

He made a sympathetic face and scooped up her coffee cup as he went past. She gave him a thumbs up and flashed him two fingers twice. Double sugar, double cream—he saluted with the cup and headed into the break room.

It was a good place to temporarily unwind from the rush of the day, blocked off entirely from the sights and sounds of the call floor outside. He poured himself a cup of black coffee—maybe not the best idea when he was still wound up, but there was nothing like the comfort of familiar addiction—then sank down onto the couch. He’d knit, take a breather, and everything would settle itself back into place.

He got a few rows down on his knitting before his break was up—still, it always went by far too quickly. But it had done the job; he felt better already, ready to return to the real world and whatever mundane unpleasantness it had to offer him. He put his yarn away, poured Diane her coffee, and headed back out to the battlefield.

But coming out of the break room was like stepping into the Twilight Zone.

It didn’t seem like anybody on the floor was on a call, which would usually take a priority system failure or some kind of divine intervention. Instead, everyone was talking amongst each other, conversations ranging from hushed and uneasy whispers to outright excitement. Several of them were casting him glances that made him immediately nervous; he caught himself smoothing back his gelled black hair, confused and uncomfortable under the scrutiny.

He hurried back to his desk, certain that Diane would catch him up on whatever it was, but found that she wasn’t alone. The Floor Manager, Adesha, was talking to Diane as he walked up.

“I mean, I can,” Diane was telling her. “But I’d have to put some other priority cases aside. If Mike’s willing to take it, that’d work out better for me—” Diane shot him an utterly weird smile as she noticed him past Adesha’s back. “—And there he is.”

Adesha straightened and turned to look at him. “Hey Mike,” she said, in a super strained tone of voice. “There’s, uh, a customer up front I’d like you to handle.”

Since SmokeSignals specialized in only digital distribution, the offices were entirely corporate. There was no offline customer-facing store, and while they sometimes got confused locals who had found their address and mistook them for a regular game store, those were quickly turned away by the front receptionist.

Still, in the rare occasion that there was someone with legitimate business or concerns, a Lead would get sent out to deal with it, just like any other escalation. A nervous reaction like this was definitely new.

Mike put Diane’s coffee cup down on her desk and lifted his brows at Adesha. “Is this the kind of situation where security should deal with them instead?”

“No! No, nothing like that,” Adesha said. She cleared her throat. “It’s a rather, um, unusual customer. I’ve talked with upper management and after hearing what the customer wanted, they said they should see if one of our Leads would be willing to help him out with the offline assistance he wanted. It’s basically an off-site client visit?”

Unusual, but it still didn’t explain her weird reaction. He’d done off-sites before, and so had Diane, though usually on the seller side rather than the buyer—game studios, mostly, or other tech companies who wanted a demo, a reason to host with SmokeSignals rather than any of their competitors. While it was an uncommon task in their duty roster, it was nothing that should have required this kind of preamble. “Okay,” Mike said. “Spill, please?”

“It’s a dragon,” Diane told him, disbelief tinging her words, her brows high. “An actual dragon showed up here. It’s just… waiting out there.”

Mike stared at her blankly.

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