short :: The New Old

.:. T.I. Pendraig

THE NEW OLD

Sunsets in the valley were always spectacular in autumn: colours bloomed across the sky like strokes of pastel, highlighting golden foliage and the chartreuse body of the Moatwood train. Despite seeing it a dozen times a month, the sight is calming, still; it hearkens back to days spent in my grandfather’s garage, surrounded by tools, dogs, and the smell of wood smoke. Home isn’t too far from the station, a brisk walk on most days, with the sun fading beyond the hills just as I reach my door. This, every day, like clockwork.

Stepping down the last stair is where I pause, habitually now, to enjoy another phenomenon I could set my watch to. The whoosh of displaced air, the movement of muscular wings: two dragons I’ve nicknamed Emperor and Ether soar past, a mile above. They live somewhere near the top of the east mountain, although officially we’re not allowed to go looking. Four years ago, dragons soaring past backwoods suburbia? That would have been a two-episode bomb of a show, or a nightmare. But four years is a long time to be surprised by something. The first time I saw a train here, I chased it in delight for two minutes like a loopy idiot; the first time I saw an actual dragon, I ran screaming the other direction, also like an idiot. Lucky for me, dragons don’t like noisy food.

Dragons were a shock to the system, everywhere. Not like trains. Of course trains don’t merit cult followings, do they? There’s a name for the day dragons were discovered, even: Arthur’s Arrival. The first dragon being Arthur, of course.

The behemoths don’t take long to pass out of sight or hearing, not travelling at those speeds. Dragons are nothing if not quick; surprising, for such enormous creatures. Once they’re gone it’s a quick jot to Main Street; it follows a wide, winding creek which passes under the train four times from one end of the valley to the other. My home is some ten blocks down, on the other side. I cross under what may be my favourite bridge, on Rex Lane, after seven.

Rex Bridge isn’t the charming hidey-hole it used to be. During melting summer days in primary school, my brother Zach would stash filched soda bottles along with our comics in a cooler in the eaves; in winter we pelted passersby with snowballs while hidden behind the railings, relishing the sting of cold iron as we leveraged ourselves up; and four years ago, this was our secret spot to see the dragons. Dragons! We kept blankets and snacks hidden in that same beat-up cooler, joked about D&D and Jurassic Park and Jumanji, and stared slack-jawed every time Emperor flew by above. It was a hidden spot, known to us and a few local punks; dirt pathway, roots all over, and nowhere for bottles to go except downstream.

Vivi used to run dragon tours, four years ago. That first year, with scientists losing their minds about the illogic of real dragons, “Vitamin” Vitaly was the town’s encyclopaedia on all things dragon; he ran the best tours along the western crest, through Rail Avenue, and Eastern Pine. Everything I know about dragons I learned first from him. Zach traded his entire collection of Pokemon cards for a promise to keep our bridge private; and not a word was whispered from Vivi, ever.

Now of course, a blue signpost by the banks details dragon stats and the first official sightings. Lamps flicker on under the bridge, on auto timers. There are trash bins and recycle bins and signs above them lambasting litterers. On weekends I see people with pricey cameras and pricier shoes clamber off at this stop, tripping over each other to find a decent spot for the half-hour wait before a sighting. I haven’t seen those gangly punks come by here in months; too mainstream, too busy.

Sounds echo under the bridge; I know the sound of my trainers on the pavement, my breath in the cooling air, the snuffling and chirping of the local nightlife as it wakes. Clattering? That’s new.

–If there is any benefit to the buyout of our viewing spot, it’s that I can see exactly what my foot’s just kicked into the wall. Reaching down for it, it’s a choice between a smile and a frown. What’s a 3rd gen dragon doll doing down here? These were all the rage two years ago, everyone wanted a hand-sized anamatronic to sit on their desk. Now, these models are impossible to find. Some poor little sap must be heartbroken to have forgotten this, that’s all I can say.

The left wing is bent inwards along the ridge, and some by the joint. There are scrapes on the legs, minor fixes. No one’s tossing this out for cosmetic damage, surely. But what to do with it? Well. I am nearly home.

The pathway curves upward as it meets with the street. Ahead, homes are blinking in the deepened dark; I can smell curry and pine and exhaust. The day the news was leaked, I was eating cold curry, sitting on the floor by my only bit of furniture, a trusty old coffee table Zach borrowed from our harpy aunt. Talking heads ranted at each other on live feeds: questioning the validity of fossil examinations from rivals, arguing about an overhaul of school textbooks, and in one case getting into a brief bit of fisticuffs. I laughed so hard at that one, I nearly swallowed a bite whole. So much for objectivity.

My flat is tucked away from the street, a smaller two-bedroom that’s home to a sad aloe plant and dusty technical manuals. Photos of my old cat clutter the kitchen in lieu of traditional kitchenware. You might say I don’t cook much.

Sandwiches and smoothies, those are my speed.

Most of my food comes in a box: rounded soup containers from Amelia’s, flat square boxes from Mariano’s Pizzaria, noodles from Ping’s, and tonight, a container each of bland pesto pasta and Caesar salad. I spend far too much on takeaway food, likely — but then, I don’t have much in the way of other spendthrift hobbies. I have no Netflix even, just old tapes from the one rental store that hasn’t sunk yet.

The dragon doll I set at the far end of the table, next to the salt and pepper shakers. They’re in the shape of sparkly unicorns, because Zach thinks he’s funny. He’s getting foot-eating shark slippers from me, though; all’s fair. Every bite or two I glance at the doll. A year or so ago the specs were leaked online; if it’s a matter of springs or gears stuck out of place, that’s an easy enough fix. The wiring I can check. If the chips or sensors are damaged this little dragon is going to be visiting for a while, but short of that? We can get him home.

Of course before anything else, I need to know which version this doll is. Pendragon Global released three iterations of the 1st generation dolls; and seven for the 2nd generation. This one, given the design of the wings, I’m guessing is 3rd gen. There are 17 iterations. I’ll have to find the proper specs.

My trusty search engine is fairly good about offering results related to the tech field; after years of learning, no wonder. When I type chips I get recent CPU models; when I type common bugs I get forum discussions for patches and workarounds. Of course, when I type dragons I get a Wiki page, top-selling 7th gen models, and a link to the local dragonlet zoo. Not really what I’m aiming for. We want Pendragon doll specs.

Pendragon dolls on sale, no.

Pedragon doll manuals, also no.

Pendragon Global press release about the modification of—no.

It’s a brief hour’s work, finding the correct set of keywords for the leaked spec sheets, and verifying that there aren’t any nasty surprises bundled with the files.The little doll sitson the desk as I poke around my workroom to retrieve my toolkit, and it sits atop my trusty stool as I remove the wings. They are so thin, the circuitry so carefully designed. Beautiful. It is a 3rd generation, as I thought – the Ephemeral series: changeable wings and, like all 3rd gen and after, an app for interfacing with the doll.

The casing is a bit like armour, with five interlacing plates. Two sit at the top not unlike a gingerbread house, one encases the neck up to the jaw, and two curve underneath around the legs. With the wings detached it’s a simple process to decouple the top plates from each other; underneath are located motors for the wings, the tiny CPU where a heart would be, and various sensors and circuits. Dragons are real, now, they can be studied. It is obvious in this doll that the creators studied as much as possible. The original dolls were a mess of classic Whatever Works wiring, a true MVP; Zach and I took apart a 1st gen when a friend’s niece stomped on hers. But this, this is beautiful.

TING-TING TING. TING-TING TING.

‘Hello, this is Mark.’

On the other end is Zach, of course. I wonder sometimes if he owns any sort of timekeeping device. Likely not, if his phone calls and surprise visits are anything to go by.

‘Mark, my dude!’ Zach laughs; it’s an old joke, but he still uses it, the idiot. ‘You’ve got the study book for that mechanics course stashed somewhere, haven’t you? I’ll be in town Tuesday, maybe I’ll stop by for it?’

‘Zach,’ I huff, ‘you realise I took that exam four years ago, don’t you? Why would I have the study book still?’ I’m smiling, though I expect to Zach I sound cross. Zach makes a rude, unintelligible sound, which is meant likely to suggest disbelief. He might have inhaled dust, that’s also possible.

‘Mark. Mark. This is you, Mark.’ His voice is utterly dry. Obviously you have it still, goes unsaid. –He isn’t wrong. I don’t toss those things out. I could, if I needed to.

Really.

He says Tuesday, which for Zach means anything from an hour to six days from the moment he thought of it. I could probably dig it out of its boxy cardboard home in time for either.

‘Prat. I might have it, might. But I’m working on something at the moment so I’ll look later. And you owe me muffins.’

‘Muffins straight from Auntie Helga, promise! What’s this project? Not another junky wall clock. Details, details!’ he chirps.

‘I happen to like my junky wall clocks, thanks so much,’ I protest. ‘No, it’s a 3rd generation Pendragon doll. Found it under the bridge on the way home. Wing’s broken a bit but the circuitry looks fine so far.’

Zach’s response is a long, ‘Ooooooh.’ I can see the accompanying wiggly fingers in my head. What an idiot. He’s helpless with anything involving finesse, really. He’d have followed me into engineering if he could; I expect it’s better for our collective anxiety levels that he opted for welding.

‘What’s the plan – you’re keeping it once it’s fixed?’

I can feel the crease of my brow as I affix the wing to padded clippers. I’ll need a smaller tool than my pliers to fix the bent sections, perhaps some heat as well. ‘Keep it? No, I figure I’ll bring it back to the bridge. The poor sod might come looking. You know how hard these are to find.’

Zach huffed; he knew, better than I did. Collecting was his thing, like tinkering was mine.

‘I suppose that’s the thing to do…but, really, you’re just going to hope for the best? I’ll feel bad for the wee dragon, sitting out there in the cold, alone…’

He’s wheedling. Of course. Classic of little brother everywhere, I expect.

‘Not yours, Zach. F for effort.’

He laughs in response. ‘I haven’t said a thing! No, I don’t like those dolls, really.’ I can hear muffled clinking in the background. Is he by the forge with the phone again? Idiot. ‘You remember those action figures mum brought home in a satchel? Knights and horses with barding, hunting dogs, and dragons.’

‘In my satchel? I remember.’ I remember asking for an entire month before he was willing to share the dragons. The horses? All mine. Still mine. They’re in a box, somewhere.

‘Yeah, those I like. And that purple one with four wings, with the gilded spine? I’ve got that on my desk. Pride of place.’

‘Not Pendragon, then. The other one. Silber – Schill – no, Schleich? They’ve got dozens of models, haven’t they? Colourful.’

I can imagine Zach’s habitual bobblehead of non-confrontational disagreement. It tends to accompany the quiet hiss I hear as he sorts out which words to say.

‘They’ve got 11 at last count. But I don’t much like them either. Not the new ones. Before Arthur’s Arrival? I liked those – pure fantasy. But now dragons can be wrong, can’t they.’

He’s got a point, really. Now that we know what dragons look like, how they move, what they eat, how they act, there is little room for creativity. It’s another thing we have to learn to be correct. For Zach at least, I can well imagine the frustration. He thrives on extemporary details, on riding the whim of fancy. His best works are done with only rudimentary blueprints.

I hum in agreement.

‘Well then in that case, once he’s fixed this dragon is going back to the bridge with me. Have a look at that, I’d say the wing is fixed. Ta da!’

The clicking ceases. ‘Send a few photos, at least. O’Reiley will be green with envy.’

I can hardly help the smile. ‘Someday you’re going to call your lady friend by her proper name.’ Another running joke. She’s been “O’Reiley” since primary – Mr Bronn’s class, room 4.

‘Won’t!’ he sings.

‘As you say, Zachariot. Call me tomorrow about the book, you prat.’

With a jaunty agreement, the line goes dead. I toss the phone toward the bed, and glance at the finished wings. Nearly done, I’d say. Test the circuits, check the power, then to bed.

Oh, and photos, of course.


East-facing windows. A pale white glow through wavering curtains, and a lingering chill to keep ice cream from melting. Ah, sunrise. How little I missed you. Feather pillows and layers of cotton sheets, much better. Five minutes. Maybe two. At least two.

GRROOAAR!

The dragon.

My eyes may be blurry and my thoughts useless and muddled, but I’d know that tinny roar anywhere. It is alive, I say! Sat on the side table is the little 3rd gen, wings fluttering slowly in time to the reddish glow of its mechanical chest. Steady heartbeat, yes. Lighting centred in the chest, fading up along the neck, yes. Roaring at sunrise, also yes. Success!

Ah, farewell to warm blankets. Hello to cold toes. And a lively little dragon, too! The doll roars a third time as I shuffle toward the door. I imagine he’s congratulating me on my perseverance; it takes willpower to abandon the bed in this weather!

Breakfast is coffee, with a side of beans on toast. Mostly coffee.

My train is a quarter past six. Despite the chill, the morning walk is enjoyable, quiet. Much the opposite of the office, certainly. Not a large company by any means, but we build things and smash them on a daily basis; music blares, people shout, and breakable things are dropped often. The morning walk is my bit of zen, my calm before the storm.

Ahead is the crossing of the bridge. A warmer light is just reaching the tops of the trees when I hear that tinny roar again, from my satchel. Reaching in, he roars a second time – and above, it echoes in surround sound. Emperor, right on schedule! What a scene to have the little dragon bring the morning in alongside his flesh-and-blood likeness. This, this is why these dolls are so popular. Breathtaking.

The railing under the bridge is winder in turns, likely for coffee mugs or the elbows of bored children. It’s a perfect spot for the Prendragon doll to sit, facing the train to see me off. I’ve left a note with him, attached like a gift bow to one clawed foot; an appropriate message, I think, for when he is reunited.

‘Bye-bye little dragon,’ I say with a wave. I wish him the best, but I’ve got my train to catch. He’ll find his way home, dragons always do.

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