Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part 6, by Edward King

#action #adventure #crystal #crystal dragon #dragon #mystery #russia #siberia

Read the previous part here. Artwork by phalanxus.

When Sedgwick and Hammer got back to their room, the power was out.

“It must be something to do with the dragon,” said Sedgwick. He looked around. “Candles,” he said.

He pulled two out of a drawer where Hammer glimpsed various other articles of seduction, set them on the small coffee table in between the two beds, and lit them. He opened the door to the fridge and retrieved two beers from the dark interior.

“What I know,” said Sedgwick. “Not much. It started last night.”

Sedgwick left the party in room 308 early. Samantha was texting him relentlessly. He made it back to his dorm room and tried to call her, but he couldn’t get through.

He went outside to get a breath of fresh air.

The whole thing with Sammy had begun as a summer fling a year ago. Did he love her? No. He couldn’t.

But there had been moments. Her rubbing sunscreen on his back before tubing the river. Exhausted afterwards. Her looking into his eyes.

“What am I going to do when you leave?”

He shrugged it off like it was nothing.

Maybe there was something there. Something worth preserving.

But no. Now was now. He typed out the text on his phone: “Sammy, we need to talk when I get back. I’m not sure if this is working.” Hit send.

It was then that he noticed the hooded figure along the periphery of the compound, inside the fence. He wore a ratty grey trenchcoat. His face was swathed in shadow. He was fingering a small, glowing box, like an illuminated rubiks cube.

“He was muttering something,” Sedgwick told Hammer, in their candlelit dorm.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know! ‘Blah, blah, blah, I’m muttering something.’”

“Never mind. What happened next?”

“He saw me and dropped the cube. It sort of shattered on the ground and there was a rumbling, like something was angered. A glow, like, emanated from all of the pieces, and formed itself into a ball. It darted inside. I followed it.”

“So there it was, this glowing orb, just hanging out in the hallway of the dorm. I was just standing there, like, aghast. Then other people started to come out.

“At first they didn’t know what to do. Then they brought out their phones and started taking pictures.

With each picture they took, the light seemed to gain more and more form. First it separated into two glowing eyes. Then a head started to appear, long and snakelike, with flared nostrils. Then a long body.

“That’s about where you came in,” said Sedgwick.

%

Hammer woke up early in the morning after sleeping poorly. He had dreamed of a golden dragon soaring through the clouds.

The sky was just getting light. Suddenly the speakers around the dormitory blared, and a dry voice intoned: “all assemble for an emergency meeting! Meet in educational building two in five minutes.”

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Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part Five, by Edward King

#adventure #crystal dragon #russia #science fiction #scifi #siberia

Fenimore Cooper Jr. High was in the new part of town, and as such was pervaded by a new, clean, soulless feeling. It had no history. No stories imbued its plastic stacking bleachers, its computer labs.

Sedgwick lugged in his beat-up Marshall amp–his father’s. You could see, in the leather covering, years of rings from coffee mugs and beer bottles, burn marks from when it was used to hold an ashtray. Its glass tubes had held the riffs of hundreds of late, stoned nights, of shows; of the strained bends of a man struggling to define himself as he entertained others, to exist in place as time moved all around him.

It meant a lot to Sedgwick.

Sedgwick’s father had decided in his youth that making rent should be a monthly struggle, an item of low priority compared to the More Important Things: music, late nights, experiences.
He had loved Sedgwick’s mother with all his heart, and lived passionately and fully then.

When Sedgwick was born, he took a job at a call center. Suddenly his status mattered; he couldn’t simply tell a manager to “eat it,” walk away with a smirk on his face, and look for a new job after that night’s show.

Once he accepted this, he moved up quickly. He found that while the people around him accepted their fate blindly, complaining about the menial tasks that they were daily subjected to but ultimately not acting to change anything, he saw ways that things could improve.

He built good relationships and earned the higher-ups’ trust. But in the process he became distant. He was determined to provide for his family, but as he moved up and earned more his mind became more occupied with work than what he was working for.

The amp made Sedgwick picture a different version of his father. This one had trouble paying rent still. He taught his son how to play the guitar.

Sometimes this version still showed through. His dad could be convinced to play the guitar again, and Sedgwick saw the wild, free version of his father that he held in his admiration.

%

Sedgwick came running towards Hammer through the snow. His cheeks were flushed and he looked distinctly paunchy and unfit, not the confident figure he cut indoors. He had played soccer in high school, Hammer remembered, but clearly he had let his body go in four years of college. Still, Hammer was bizarrely glad to see him.

He managed to breathe, “what the hell?”

“Come inside,” said Sedgwick. “I’ll tell you what happened.”

What little I know, thought Sedgwick, leading Hammer back inside.

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Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part Four, by Ed King

#adventure #crystal dragon #dragon #russia #siberia

Hammer stepped out into the hallway. Five Oilberger recruits stood with their mouths open, their expressions split between wonder and horror. What seemed to be a silver, glowing dragon floated above their heads. Sedgwick was among them, but his expression was different. His face wore an unafraid, unsurprised look that startled Hammer.

Its had a texture like a silver cloud. Its body formed a spiral twisting downwards from the head. Its head was that of a dragon: slitted eyes, flared nostrils at the end of a long snout. But it was pixellated: each shape that made up the head had square edges. When it opened its mouth, silver tongues of fire leaked out in clumps of square pixels, unfolding in jerky frames. It was like seeing the guts of a computer projected into reality, simultaneously grand, intimidating, and buggy, incomplete. It filled up the narrow space of the hallway but it seemed shrunken-down, too grand for its small form.

One of the recruits stepped close and reached out to touch the silvery substance of the dragon. The dragon’s head immediately snapped downwards and a ball of white of light grew inside its mouth. It extended into a beam that hit the recruit in the chest. It knocked him back against the wall, and he lay there.

Hammer stood, immobilized, in the door. He was reminded of when he was young, and had seen a grizzly bear on a family vacation. It had been so majestic, and seemed so calm as he took pictures from the window. When he tried to roll it down, but his father had gripped his wrist, furious. Later on, his older brother had shown him a video of a bear attacking a group of tourists. But this was no bear–it wasn’t made out of fur and skin and muscle. It seemed to be made out of light.

Suddenly, with a flash, Alex’s head appeared on its body. The face of his girlfriend from home was unchanged from the first time he had seen it: her delicate eyes, their shape between the rough slant of her father’s and the round expressiveness of her mother’s ending in flares of mascara, her full, defiant lips. Hammer couldn’t believe it. He felt a pang in his heart as he recalled walking up the wooden steps to her small apartment in Boulder, so far away from this fluorescent corridor in the middle of a Siberian night.

Then it changed back into to the silvery dragon’s head. The eyes seemed to bore into Hammer’s. Then, suddenly, the whole body turned around and started moving down the hallway, towards the exit.

Hammer stood frozen for a moment, and then pursued. Even as Sedgwick tried to stop him, grabbing his wrist from behind, he knew that he couldn’t let the apparition escape. It was his only link back to Alex, his only connection to home.

The being accelerated down the hallway, heading towards the metal door that led to the outside. As Hammer caught up to it, he could hear the cold wind whistling harshly outside. It lowered its head and charged towards the door. The same beam of light that had attacked the recruit hit the door, blowing it open forcefully on its hinges. It swung around and hit the outside wall with a clang.

He ran after it, pushing himself against the burning of his lungs as it pulled away. It was heading for the chain-link fence that separated the Oilberger plant from the sleepy town of Novostok.

The dragon glided with intimidating grace over the fence. As it did, it started to grow. Its body lengthened and its head drew larger, until it had exceeded the size of any earthly animal. It filled up the dark space of the night, drowning out the pale stars. Hammer had to snap back to reality to stop himself from running into the fence, which was topped with spirals of wire tipped with glinting razorblades.

As the dragon’s silvery body passed over the fence, stretching to a grandiose length, part of its underbelly scraped against a blade before the dragon adjusted and pulled its tail into a higher arc. A scale of glowing matter peeled off and floated down to the ground, growing dimmer as it fell.

Hammer ran sideways along the fence, searching for an opening, but soon he knew it was useless. He watched the dragon recede into the night, gliding over the houses of Novostok. Its light slowly faded and the stars appeared again.
Hammer noticed his breath again. He had no idea what he had just seen, no context in which to place it.

More details of his surroundings leaked into his stunned consciousness. It was cold. A few flakes of snow started to fall around him, illuminated in the floodlights above the fence. Someone was jogging towards him, breathing heavily. Sedgwick.

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Stories

The Crystal Dragon: Novostok, Part 2, by Ed King

#adventure #china #crystal dragon #russia #siberia

HammerBen Hammer, 22, our hero. Recently moved to Siberia to work for an oil company. stumbled drunk through the hallways of the OilbergerPronounced Oil-ber-zhay. The company at which Hammer is employed. dorm.

Hammer pulled a crumpled informational packet out of his pocket to find his room number. The letters swam in front of his face.

He slid the door open and in the square of light that spilled into the room saw Andrew SedgwickHammer’s childhood acquaintance, 21. Hammer doesn’t like him. lying on the single bed, mouth open, trail of drool causing spreading dark spot on the sheets.

%

Hammer woke up not entirely sure where he was. He opened his eyes and turned to the left; found a window and parted the blinds a crack. Outside was darkness, and cold, and the knowledge of where he was. Siberia.

He turned to the other side and noted that the other bed was empty: Sedgwick was gone. He picked his crumpled pants off the floor and took his cellphone out of the pocket to check the time. It was two a.m.: just four hours until the first training class.

The night before, the cold had somehow been mixed up in all the romance of arriving and not bothered him. Now, when he was still half asleep, it seemed like something that was intent on destroying him. He had to remind himself that he was only in Siberia for six months. After that, training was over, and he could return to America.

Hammer thought about Sedgwick for a moment. The mop of curly hair, the almost-handsome face, the little gap in his front teeth. They had never had a conversation that went beyond discussing a homework assignment, and yet Sedgwick seemed to show up in every phase of his life, poking his goofy face into seemingly every school and team and extracurricular activity in Hammer’s life.

He thought about the science fair they had been assigned to together in the last year of junior high. Hammer had planned a project about sound waves. His father, a math teacher, had told him that any wave can be decomposed into a series of smaller waves added up. Hammer had used a high-speed camera to take films of guitar strings vibrating and superimposed them onto each other, playing the sound along with the video to demonstrate. He thought it was beautiful that even the most complex things were made up of simple components. He thought about how even his voice could be broken down into simple sine waves, vibrating, circular.

On the day of the fair, while Hammer set up his computer to play back the videos, Sedgwick hooked his guitar into the gym’s sound system. He turned it up as loud as it could go and started to play the national anthem, Jimi Hendrix-style. A teacher or rule-minded student quickly shut off the sound, but not before a gaggle of admirers had made their way to Sedgwick, leaving only a paltry few to witness all of Hammer’s hard work.

They won the science fair. Hammer swore off his dream of being an engineer for weeks. He couldn’t believe that after all the work he had put in, Sedgwick had stolen the show. And yet now, here they were: engineers for the same oil company. None of Hammer’s hard work had mattered.

He was thinking about all this when he heard the scream.

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The Crystal Dragon: Novostok by Ed King

#adventure #crystal dragon #russia #siberia

PART 2: NOVOSTOK

Sedgwick and Hammer were no better friends by October of that year, when they were sent  off to full-time employee training in Siberia. Neither one of them had been out of the country before. Hammer faked disinterest by telling his mother on the phone with a scowl that they had laundry in Russia too.

Sedgwick spent the time leading up to his departure surrounded by friends. There was a Russian theme party where vodka was slopped on fake beards and manifestoes were read. There were late-night discussions with the inner circle, sitting on hills overlooking highways, and postulating on moving on and the ultimate meaning of life. But there were no regrets, because the one thing that was certain was that one had to do something with one’s life, and working for an oil company was as good as anything else. Moving to Siberia for six months became a grand adventure in the midst of the tumult of life.

At Novosibirsk airport, Hammer waited for the bus that would take them to the Oilberger facility. He shivered at the cold, despite the Russians walking in and out of the sliding doors in light clothing like it was nothing.

Hammer spotted Sedgwick’s mop of curly hair. He seemed to have already found a group of followers to hang on his words. Hammer stayed standing with his hands in his pockets and avoided Sedgwick’s wave.

When the bus came, he got on board and looked out the window at the airport’s facade.  Though it was modern, it still conveyed a chilling Soviet feeling through the unfeeling size of the block letters that stood above it: АЭРОПОРТ Топма.

On the bus, Hammer looked over his acceptance letter again. In the corner was printed an image of a grey pixellated dragon. Its body was made of cubic segments, twisted around in a perfect spiral, and from its mouth spewed blocks of blue fire. What could it mean?

The bus crested the hill and suddenly Hammer could see the town of Novostok approaching, a carpet of twinkly light under the illuminated steel specter that he knew must be the Oilberger plant. It was perched on the hill on the far other side of Novostok. He could see its silos and ramps and support structures already, illuminated with ghastly clarity by the floodlights that stood all around it. His first impression was of a dragon perched on the hill above the town.

The bus continued up the snowy road. On the outskirts of town, they passed a sign that said “Добро пожаловать в Новоград,” which Hammer guessed meant something like “Welcome to Novostok.” He had expected the town to be asleep, but as the bus made its lumbering turns through Novostok’s narrow streets, he was surprised to see many of the houses still lit up. At one corner, the houses opened up to a square centered around a stone obelisk. Children were playing barefoot soccer with makeshift goals of winter jackets. Hammer reached over to tap Sedgwick, but he still had his headphones in and seemed to be asleep.

The bus turned onto a steeper road and continued uphill. Several houses still clung to the side of the street, but the lights of the town started to fall away behind the bus. Now the plant was mostly hidden from view, and Hammer was filled with a deep sense of foreboding.

Sedgwick was still asleep as a section of the barbed wire fence surrounding the plant slid aside on its electronic rails and the bus pulled into the compound. Hammer only caught a glimpse of the red machinery towering above the bus before they pulled into a hangar, and it was hidden. He felt his heart beating as he got up to take his bag down from the luggage rack. Sedgwick was just beginning to stir. Hammer could still feel the deep sense of foreboding as he walked down the aisle and off the bus.

Slowly the Hammer and the rest of the workers filed off the bus. They stood in a huddle beside it, sitting down on their suitcases or leaning on them standing them up for support.

They were in a large warehouse lined with rows of shelves and lit by floodlights high above, which seemed to throw more shadows than light on the room. A forklift passed slowly down a row far away from the bus, its side lights flashing. Hammer, wondering what they were supposed to do now that they were off the bus, looked around for signs of initiative, but found out nothing. They were waiting.

A door opened at the far end of the warehouse, throwing light into the room. The workers turned their heads to watch three figures walk out from the door. Those who were sitting stood up and the rest straightened themselves up. Two men in suits and a tall, thin woman were walking towards them.

The woman stopped in front of the new recruits, the two men she had been walking with moving to stand behind her on either side. She surveyed the men before her quickly.  Her small pupils darted around in the intense wide whiteness of her eyes like sparks, inside the larger blackness of her skin. It hinted at an intelligence like a computer behind those eyes. But he detected traces of amusement somewhere in their corners.

“Good evening, everyone,” she said. Her accent surprised Hammer–it was American. “I will be your training coordinator over the next six months. My name is Ms. K. You will not learn my first name.”

Was she joking?

“You are Oilberger’s new recruits for the year of 2009,” she continued. “You come from universities around America, and you have worked exceedingly hard. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t come from the top of your respective classes.” Hammer stole a look at the side of Sedgwick’s face. He was grinning.

“Over the next six months,” she continued, “you will all face challenges such as you never thought you would have to face in your lives. These will not be academic challenges. Though many of you have been away from home before, many of you will find that you are not prepared to deal with the loneliness attendant in living in an isolated community in a nation whose language you do not know, whose culture you do not understand, and whose environment you are not equipped to survive.”

Hammer turned to Sedgwick—meaning to ask, what environmental obstacles, exactly, were they going to have to survive?—but Sedgwick still had that dreamy look in his eyes.

After the meeting, Sedgwick pulled Hammer aside.

“Hey, people are drinking in Schmiddy’s room later if you wanna come,” he said. “It’s room 308.”

“Schmiddy?” said Hammer.

“You haven’t met Schmiddy? Cool guy.”

Some time around ten o’clock, Hammer found room 308 in the new workers’ dormitory. He knocked on the door hesitantly. He had always been bad at meeting new people.

There were eleven or twelve people crammed into the narrow confines of the dorm room. They looked uncomfortable—heads rested on walls, backs against table legs, too many on a bed with their legs dangling off the sides. Sedgwick, though he was seated on a bed against the wall, was somehow in the center of the room. His face positively beamed as he talked. His hands gesticulated around like planets in orbit, and the other heads followed him around like stargazers’ telescopes.

Hammer settled in to a little spot between a dresser and a bedpost. To Sedgwick, who knew him, this was trademark Hammer: the alert eyes, following the conversation; the scowl that hid any ghost of a reaction from his face and deterred anyone from addressing him. To the others, he didn’t make much of an impression. Hell, he hadn’t even introduced himself. He just kept pulling out his phone and kept taking little pulls of the whisky bottle that was being passed around.

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Stories

The Crystal Dragon, Part 1, by Ed King

#adventure #crystal dragon #russia #siberia

Sedgwick and Hammer had known each other for a long time. That’s not to say that they were friends—the closest they had come to that was when they had first met, at seven, and had lasted until Sedgwick learned the size of Hammer’s Pokémon card collection, among other things—but it’s hard to know a person for that long without learning a certain amount of information about them. They had somehow gone through life together—raised in the same neighborhood, went to the same elementary school, then onto Fenimore Cooper Jr. High, John Winthrop High, and Tennessee State University.

In the March of his senior year of college, Hammer walked in the door of Trang-Lo’s Chinese café accompanied by Alex Long, his girlfriend of the last five months. Stuffed into his pocket was the acceptance letter from Oilberger which, if signed, stipulated that he spend the next six months in training at the company’s research facility in Novostok, Siberia. This was a fact that he had meant to bring it up before leaving Alex’s apartment, but his nerve had failed him.

Trang-Lo’s was, in Hammer’s opinion, awful. But it was cheap, and just down the hill from Alex’s apartment, and its crab cheese wontons were, in Alex’s words, “like crack” to her. He usually ordered a plate of fried rice and pushed the scrambled eggs to the side—those being, in his judgment, the most likely refuge of the food poisoning he was sure that the restaurant would give him some day.

Alex ordered her plate of wontons at the counter and they found a table that wasn’t too dirty to sit down at. Class was long over, and students were just beginning to come up the hill again for dinner. Through the window, Hammer saw Andrew Sedgwick coming up the pavement with his usual group—Annie Brinecker (were they dating or not?), Brandon Chiu, Kandell Rhydecker, and a few people he didn’t recognize.

He watched them come in through Trang-Lo’s swinging screen door to stand in line at the counter. They were already visibly drunk.

Unfortunately, this was Sedgwick’s group’s usual haunt. More often than not, when Alex got her wonton craving late at night, after they walked down the noisy street together to the restaurant, they were there, drunk, leaning back in the restaurant’s cheap plastic chairs and recounting stories from the night. Alex usually seemed amused by their antics. Hammer hadn’t let on that he knew Sedgwick.

But today, it was six o’clock—much earlier than usual for them to be stumbling in.

Sedgwick was wearing a backpack, and before he sat down he produced a bottle of champagne from it. He began to pour it out into the clear plastic water cups stacked by the napkins and packets of chili sauce at the front of the restaurant. As he did so, he recognized Hammer sitting across the room. He left the cups half-poured on the table and wove around plastic chairs to drape his arm across Hammer’s shoulders.

“Hammer! It’s been a long old lonely time. I’ve been meaning to ask—didn’t I see you at the Oilberger recruitment meetings a while back? In the fall? Did you ever end up applying or what?”

“Oh, yeah, I applied. Alex, how are those wontons coming?”

“Not too bad.” She turned to Sedgwick. “I didn’t know you two knew each other.”

“Oh, yeah, Hammer and I go way back,” said Sedgwick. “I’ve seen him naked probably… dozens of times.”

“I wish I’d seen him naked that many times,” Alex said.

Hammer blushed. He reached over to grab her hand, ready to give it a gentle pull and thereby escape the situation that he saw developing before his eyes. She resisted.

“When are you supposed to hear back about that anyway, Ben?” she said.

Just then, Brandon Chiu, Sedgwick’s right hand man, stood up at the other table. He lifted his plastic cup filled with champagne and started to tap a plastic spoon against it. Seeing that this didn’t produce a sufficiently attention-grabbing sound, he cleared his throat and said, “Speech. Speech!”

Everyone more or less became quiet.

“As we all know,” he began, “in the course of human history… there are many times whereupon truly wondrous events come to pass. And wondrous events… like many other kinds of positive events… must be celebrated… in the manner of Dionysius… with a toast. And just such a toast I would like to give.

“Andrew Sedgwick…a man that many of us have known for a long time… will soon pass from us. He has been a student in this wonderful university for many long years, but now he must pass from this university, as we all someday must, to become a student in another, equally wonderful university… the university of Life.”

There was general applause from Sedgwick’s friends.

“That’s right, my friends… old friends, new friends… the couple sitting at the other table over there that Sedgwick appears to know… the bearded fellow spilling rice on his computer… we are here to celebrate tonight because our friend Andrew Sedgwick has been offered a job at the fine establishment of aerospace engineering we know as Oilberger.”

Alex turned to Hammer. “Ben, does that mean you’re going to hear back soon, too?” she said. He looked from her to Brandon in alarm. There were still three uneaten wontons on Alex’s plate.

“And what a fine first chapter Life has lined up for him—six months’ training by this fine establishment in the fine Russian territory of Siberia!”

Alex turned to Hammer again. “Training is in Siberia?” she said. “You told me they were saying it was still to be announced.”

“Well, I only just heard back today…” Hammer said.

“So you did hear back?”

“I… yes. I was going to tell you later on.”

Alex didn’t say anything. Her face resolved into something that looked like a grimace, which she then formed forcefully into a smile.

“That’s okay,” she said. “We can talk about it later. Why don’t we just go?”

As they got up to leave, Hammer saw something building on Sedgwick’s face—as if he was getting ready to drag the two of them into the whole drunken mess—but it faltered, and Sedgwick didn’t say anything as the screen door of Trang-Lo’s swung shut.

%

Back at the apartment, Alex and Hammer leaned against the wall. It was dark, but slats of light from passing cars illuminated their faces at intervals.

“Are you going?” she asked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I have to.”

“Do you?”

NEXT TIME, ON THE CRYSTAL DRAGON–A MYSTERIOUS SEAL LEADS HAMMER TO THE TOWN OF NOVOSTOK, SIBERIA!

Read the other parts of The Crystal Dragon: stories.

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