The Crystal Dragon: Novostok by Ed King

#adventure #crystal dragon #russia #siberia


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.

Follow Ed at @edjamesking

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