The Crystal
by Peter Dingus

“What the hell is this?”

I look over and see Matt, standing up river from me, hunched over something he’s handling. I can’t see what it is, he’s turned obliquely from me, hands out of sight, inadvertently hiding whatever he’s working on. I look down at my pan, shiny wet rocks in the afternoon sun, water dripping through the screen at the bottom. A couple of golden specks catch my eye.

“Hey, Dee, check this out,” Matt calls to me.

“Yeah, one minute.” We’ve been out here for a couple of days now, and after panning for gold for about fifteen hours, I calculate that, at current market prices, I’ve made about two dollars--American.

I met Matt in college, in the late nineties. During that time, we’d been close. After school in upstate New York, I left for California and we drifted apart. A couple of weeks ago, I got a call on my cell and didn’t recognize the number; it was Matt. Apparently, he and his wife were separating after ten years of marriage. As he poured his heart out, awkwardness slowly morphed into camaraderie, then empathy. In the course of our conversation, I happened to mention I was going on a hiking trip to northern California. Somehow, one thing lead to another and we decided it would do Matt good to get away.

It was my idea to come up here to Willits, in Mendocino County. The town of Willits was founded by the Willits brothers, who came out from Indiana in the 1850s, struck it rich, and founded the town. Over the years that followed, the small rivers up here have attracted many a would-be millionaire.

I collect my pin-sized particles of gold from the pan, put them together with the thin dust I’ve accumulated at the bottom of a plastic tube, and then replace the stopper. I shove the tube into my jeans pocket in mock triumph. I look up. He’s sitting on the river bank now, still working at something that I can’t clearly make out.

My back’s killing me. Bending over hour after hour, squatting in the cold river runoff from snowcapped mountains, and sifting sand is making me feel every bit of my forty-one years. I put the pan down, place my palms on my lower back, and bow toward the sky. Yeah, that feels good. I step out of the water at the river bank; my boots make a squishing noise as I walk toward Matt.

“What’s up, man, found the monster nugget?” Later, I would learn that this single statement was prophetic.

Matt’s so occupied with his prize, he doesn’t even respond. He continues to work at whatever he’s got with one-hundred percent attention. I squat down next to him and slowly take in the object of his toils. It’s a partially-incrusted crystal of some kind, with hardened sandstone covering most of it. The crystal is unusually large, about the size of the cork from a wine bottle. Matt’s scraping the stone off with a sharpened chisel, and I notice no scratches on the crystal where he’s scraping.

“What is that?” I ask.

“Huh?” He finally looks up. “It’s a diamond,” he says authoritatively. After all, he’s a geologist, this is his field.

I laugh nervously. “That can’t be a diamond, it’s too big. And you wouldn’t find the world’s biggest diamond in a place like this, on the surface, just sitting in a river bed--would you?”

“No,” he agrees. “No you wouldn’t.” He blinks and reexamines the crystal in his hand. The uncovered part gleams in the after-noon sun in a kaleidoscope of brilliant blues and golds. “You’re right, this thing’s all wrong.”

“How do you mean?”

“This isn’t the right geology for diamonds--up in these mountains, which are mostly formed of sedimentary rock. Diamonds are usually found in igneous rock, thousands of feet underground. They can be conveyed to the surface, then unearthed over thou-sands of years by erosion, and washed down the mountain. But in a hundred and fifty years of prospecting, no diamond has ever been found here.”

Matt takes another look, holding the stone between his thumb and forefinger, and raising it up toward the sun. He slowly rotates it, and I see a prism of pin-prick lights dance across his face.

“This is all wrong,” he mutters again. “Raw diamonds don’t look like this. This diamond was cut and highly polished. Look.”

He gives me the crystal, and I examine it carefully.

“You see the crystal planes forming symmetrical octagonal levels? This thing was cut with incredible precision. I’m not a diamond expert, but I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in a book. And look at the bluish specks that blanket the interior. What the hell is that?”

I examine the crystal, slowly rotating it in my hand. The hall-of-mirrors crystalline arrangements are hypnotic. And, as Matt said, there is a dense distribution of blue dots. They litter the interior of the crystal and are so small and pin-point perfect that you could miss them, if you weren’t straining to see them.

“Are you sure this is a diamond?” I ask. “Maybe it’s one of those space-age plastics that people talk about.”

Matt snorts, takes the crystal from my hand, and places it on a stone. He finds a pair of pliers, a hammer, and a chisel. Holding the crystal with the pliers and placing the chisel on the crystal, he raises the hammer high above his head and savagely brings it down on the chisel. There’s a loud metallic twang that reverberates off the rock walls of the river bank, and a crack from the rock beneath the diamond. He hands the crystal back to me and I stare in amazement. There isn’t so much as a scratch.

“This is a carbide-edged chisel,” Matt says, “sharpened to a knife’s edge. Yeah, that’s a diamond, not some high-tech plastic.”

“Maybe it was manufactured,” I reply--“you know, synthetic.”

“Not this big,” Matt counters. “There’s no way a diamond this big could be manufactured. Most manufactured diamonds are like powder. Some can be the size of a small pea, but nothing like this. It would take tremendous pressure and temperature to produce something like this, far beyond anything we could generate artificially.”

The discovery kills our enthusiasm for panning, and we spend the rest of the afternoon discussing the crystal. When the sun goes down, we build a campfire and cook up some franks and beans with a healthy smattering of bacon pieces. After dinner, I break out my bottle of sour-mash bourbon and take a healthy pull as we sit around the fire. I pass the bottle to Matt. There is no moon, but the stars are out in force, almost like we’re in outer space. I can see the darkness of the pines blot out the stars all around us, making it seem as if we’re in a deep well looking up. The radiance of the fire dances across my face, giving me a warm feeling outside, while the bourbon does the same for my insides.

“So,” I say, “we going to share the rock?”

“Fifty-fifty, that was the deal, as I recall,” Matt replies.

“Huh, that was easy.”

“Yeah, well, look at it this way. Either this thing’s the find of the century, in which case there’s plenty for everybody, or it’s worthless, in which case there’s not much to talk about.” He takes a last pull on the bottle before handing it back.

#

I wake to noises I can’t quite place--low moans followed by what sounds like gurgling. I’m sleeping outside under the stars and feel exposed. I roll onto my knees and get out of the sleeping bag, find the flashlight, and pan the campsite. I expect to see the reflection of eyes--raccoons, or maybe a black bear. There’s nothing, just the low light of dying embers in the fire. I stand quietly and listen. There it is again. I turn slowly in the direction of the sound and discover it’s coming from the tent. I creep up on the tent, unzip the door, and peer inside. I can’t see anything, but I hear rustling, then agonized moans, followed by a scream.

“Oh, shit.” I stumble backwards, away from the tent door, and manage to stay on my feet. I turn on the flashlight and approach the door gingerly, pulling back the flap, and shining the light in front of me. As soon as the light hits him, Matt jerks upright into a sitting position, like he was spring-loaded. It takes a moment for my brain to register what my eyes are seeing. He’s sitting there, his eyes bugging out so far that he resembles a cartoon character. Drool is streaming down his chin as he stares unknowingly at me.

“Hey, man, what’s going on?”

Matt lunges at me, and this time I do stumble backwards and fall down. He pops out of the tent like a jack-in-the-box, and before I know it, he’s on top of me. I’m at least as strong as he is, ordinarily, but he seems to have the superhuman strength of a mad man. He grabs the flashlight from my hand and examines it unknowingly, like he’s trying to figure out what it is.

“Hey!” I yell. “What’s going on?”

That gets his attention. He puts the flashlight down and regards me with glassy eyes. He’s got me pinned, sitting on top of my chest. He reaches down and touches my face, softly at first, and then, all of a sudden, he pinches my cheek really hard. I yell and buck, arching my back with the strength of the condemned, taking him by surprise, and throwing him off me. I roll away and jump to my feet. We stare at each other in the dim red light of dying embers. I’m caught between fight, flight, and pissing my pants; I choose flight.

I turn and run for the car, patting the outside of my pocket for the key, rewarded with its hard plastic outline. I thrust my hand into my pocket and pull it out. Once it’s secure in my hand, careful not to drop it, I feel for the depression that is the door button and push it. I’m rewarded with a beep and the engagement of the interior lights.

I jump in the car, gun the motor, and before taking off, look out the side window to see if Matt has pursued me. To my surprise, I see his dark outline in front of the fire, just standing there, approximately where he fell. I can’t tell if he’s looking at me, it’s too dark. I put the car in drive, and slowly roll away, half looking at the dim light of the camp receding in the rear view mirror.

I drive a mile down the dirt road and stop. “What the hell was that?” I say out loud. This is crazy; I can’t just leave him like that. Maybe he’s having a nervous breakdown over his separation; maybe it’s an aneurism. He’s got to be sick, doesn’t he? I can’t take the only car and leave him in the middle of nowhere. If I go back to town with a story like this, and bring the cops, they’ll probably shoot him if they find him in this state. I sit there, gripping the wheel, and know I have to go back.

I slowly make a three-point turn on the narrow road and start back for the camp. A quarter mile from camp, I turn the head-lights off, pull over, and leave the car. I’ll close the rest of the distance on foot. This way I can acclimate to the dark and not signal my return. I have to approach him carefully, make sure he’s not armed with a chisel, or knife, before I get too close.

I can see the glow of the campfire through the trees as I approach. Kneeling at the base of a fat tree, on the perimeter of the camp, I find Matt in the clearing, just standing there. He seems to be looking up. I follow his gaze. The sky is clear, and the stars are bright. I can see the dim haze of the Milky Way stretch across the sky. I slowly walk into the clearing and start closing the distance between us.

When I’m about ten feet away, he says, “So, you came back.”

He’s still facing away from me, looking toward the sky. His voice is calm, each word precise and clearly articulated. The contrast with what happened earlier sends a chill through me. People don’t behave this way; I take a step back, unable to speak.

Matt turns and looks at me. His face is no longer contorted in a mask of insanity. Quite the contrary, he seems calm, at peace.

“Don’t worry, Dwayne, I won’t hurt you.”

“What the hell is going on, Matt? What’s this about? Are you ill?”

“I’m not Matt,” he answers.

“Is this a joke?”

He looks around and picks up the flashlight, then takes a step toward me. I take a step back. He holds the flashlight out; he wants to give it to me. “Here,” he says.

I edge closer and snatch it out of his hand, trying to minimize my exposer. This could be a trick of some kind. I step back again. He smiles slightly, starts to unbuckle his belt, then unzips his fly.

Oh shit, this can’t be happening. Now it’s turning into a freak show. He drops his pants, and I see something stuck to his upper thigh. He just stands there. I look at the flashlight in my hand and turn it on, shine it on the spot, and gaze in amazement. Throwing caution to the wind, the sight carries me forward. I drop to my knees and examine the thing more closely.

“It’s the crystal,” I mutter. “The diamond, it’s stuck to your leg.” The thing has fine threads emerging from it, many threads. They’ve punctured Matt’s leg, depressing the skin, demonstrating how tightly the object has fastened itself. The diamond glows bluish in the flashlight beam, and I can see a myriad of golden flecks fluidly dancing in the stone.

I look up at him. “What is it?”

“It’s me,” he answers. “At least what’s left of me.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m someone who died a long time ago.” He looks at the sky. “I’m from up there.”

I’m dumbfounded. I don’t know what to say. Am I going crazy? Is this a bad dream, the result of a tainted batch of bourbon?

“C’mon,” he says. “Let’s sit by the fire. Let me tell you a story.” He pulls up his pants, then heads for a log near the fire and sits. He looks at me. “C’mon,” he calls, “I won’t hurt you.”

“You won’t hurt me. What was that before, you know, when you jumped me?”

As I approach the fire, he says, “I was making the connection to Matt’s nervous system. I thought he was my host. I didn’t know you were aliens. There was a lot of confusion, but it’s fixed now. It won’t happen again, don’t worry.”

“Aliens,” I echo. Matt looks at me, he knows I’m not buying it.

“The crystal attached to my leg is an implant,” Matt says. "Members of my species have implants like this one. The implants are part of us. They help us think. They carry the wisdom of those who came before. We are not separate like you. We are linked. The implants also facilitate that.”

“But you’re alive. You’re talking to me. You can’t tell me you’re some kind of networked pacemaker from outer space.”

For the first time Matt laughs. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Our lives are so different. It’s hard to,” he pauses, looking for the words, “paint a picture of what I am. You’ll have to accept what I say at face value. I don’t know how to convey the nature of our lives to you.”

“Where are you from?” I want him to keep talking; maybe he’ll give me a clue as to what’s really going on. I don’t believe he’s the remnant of some space alien. Truth is, I don’t know what to think. Maybe Matt’s delusional, but the sight of the crystal attached to his leg is hard to explain.

“Yes, that’s a harder question.” He looks at me; “where am I now?”

“Is that a trick question? You’re on Earth, of course.”

“Of course,” he answers. “And where is that?”

I go to respond, but he cuts me off. “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been looking at the stars, trying to reconcile their relative positions, trying to account for changes in position due to time and distance. As far as I can tell, I died in the neighborhood of that star.” He points to a star high in the sky, just to the right of Orion’s belt, then says, “about half a million years ago.”

“How’s that possible? A half million years, that’s longer than human history. How could you still be active? How did you get here?”

“Don’t you believe there is life on other worlds, Dwayne?” Matt smiles at me; he knows what I’m thinking.

“The positions of the stars are different on this planet than they were at the place of the accident that killed my host,” Matt says. “By reconstructing the changes in position, I can calculate approximately where I’d have to be now in order for the sky to look like this.” Matt glances up at the stars again.

“Accident, what accident?”

Matt slowly shifts his gaze toward me again. “Half a million years ago, members of my species were mining that star.” He points to a star in the southwestern sky, about forty-five degrees above the horizon. “We were siphoning plasma columns from the star. We use the energy to create exotic matter, which powers our machines. One of the terminating stations must have become unstable and exploded. I can only guess, but I must have been disintegrated and my implant expelled into space with sufficient energy to escape the gravity well of the star. The distance I estimate between that star and this one, and the escape velocity from a star of that mass, puts the time to get here at about half a million years. There’s no way of knowing how long it’s been since the implant fell to Earth.”

I’m mesmerized by the story. Even if Matt was having some psychological breakdown, he couldn’t come up with a story like this. Is it possible? Could this be true?

My face betrays me; Matt’s staring at me, aware that I’m starting to believe him.

“Oh shit,” I whisper. I look at Matt. “Can you contact them? Can they come here?” I’m imagining every invasion story that I’ve ever seen or read--War of the Worlds, Independence Day.

“What’s the matter?” Matt asks. “You’re alarmed--why?”

“If you come in force, that’s bad for people like me, isn’t it?”

Matt looks truly baffled, he just stares at me. “What are you talking about? Bad for you--why?”

Then he slowly gets it. “You’re worried about an invasion, a forced takeover of your planet.” Matt looks at me with a blank expression, and then suddenly breaks into uncontrolled laughter.

“That’s not funny from where I sit,” I whisper, and start to stand.

Matt stops laughing once he senses the tension. He’s instantly sober. “Please Dwayne, please sit. Nothing like that is going to happen. You are completely safe.”

“Why am I safe? Planets like Earth must be rare. All life needs air and water, and Earth has lots of both. Why wouldn’t you come and take it?”

“You are pretty far out on the galactic arm,” Matt says. “Stars are far apart here. You have no experience with other life.” He looks at me and seems sincere. He’s trying hard to make me believe him.

“But the galaxy is full of life,” he continues. “Occasionally, civilizations become advanced and star-faring. Farther in toward the galactic center, where stars are closer together, advanced civilizations are generally aware of their neighbors. Conflicts are very rare for two important reasons. First, in terms of air and water, there are many comets beyond the inner planets in most star systems. Many of those comets have more oxygen and water in them than your atmosphere and all your oceans combined. Many asteroids have more metals and rare elements than your people have ever mined. A species as advanced as mine has all the resources it needs, an infinite amount really. Second, once a civilization becomes advanced enough to travel between stars, it must have either subdued its predatory instincts, or vanished in a blaze of self-destruction. That’s been our experience.”

“You’re safe,” Matt assures. Then he smiles. “And even if I were a bloodthirsty monster, it’s been half a million years. The power systems in the implant are exhausted. I can barely raise enough power from Matt’s chemical energy to maintain this connection, much less transmit over a couple of hundred light-years of interstellar space.”

Somehow I believe him. He doesn’t seem like a monster. I reach over as I sit and grab the bottle of bourbon, remove the cap, and take a pull. “Man, I needed that. After the story you just told…” I shake my head and take another hit.

Matt’s grinning. He sticks out a hand. “You gonna bogart that bottle?”

“You don’t talk like a space-alien.” I pass him the bourbon.

After a satisfied pull on the bottle, Matt says, “I’m in Matt’s mind. I have his experiences. I know you like he knows you, Dee. That’s another reason you’re safe. I’ve only been human for a short time, but I’m sympathetic to your situation. And if I feel that way, my species would understand. We’re not separate like you, we have a communal understanding.”

Matt winces and sits back. The effort of recounting his story has depleted him. In his reclined position, I see him more clearly. He doesn’t look good. In the dim glow, he looks over-heated. He’s sweating even though it’s chilly, his eyes look red and sunken, and his hands have a noticeable tremor. I get up and move toward him as he follows me with his eyes. I stop and stand over him. I’m no longer scared. I don’t know when it happened, but this doesn’t feel as weird as it did a short time ago. I bend down and put my hand on his forehead. He’s damp, and very hot.

I squat down on my haunches; we’re face to face. “You’re sick, what’s wrong with you? You’re burning up.”

“It’s an immune reaction,” Matt says nonchalantly. “The connections I’ve made to Matt’s nervous system don’t have human antigens. Matt’s immune system is attacking his nervous system. I’ve tried to correct for it, but there’s too little time and I’m too weak.” He smiles meekly. “If I let this continue, Matt will suffer permanent neural damage.”

He looks at me. “I have to disengage now or your friend may not recover. I placed him in a coma so that I could occupy the machinery of his mind, but I have to bring him back very soon.”

“And where does that leave you?”

He smiles. “About a half million years out of time; your friend will be fine.” With that, Matt closes his eyes and slumps forward. I lunge and catch him before he accidently falls too close to the fire. When I sling his arm over my shoulder and hoist him up, something falls through his pant leg and rolls into the firelight, sparkling like a diamond.

The End

If you enjoyed "The Crystal" take a look at my speculative fiction books on Amazon Proteus Rising and Worlds in Transition


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