The Great Game is part 2 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Great Game, Part 2 — The Great Game
by James Vachowski
Where do you go in such a hurry, young one?
The football pitch? Bah! Athletics are absurd habits, child. Ah, but I forget that youth is wasted on the young! One would hope that your schooling would encourage you to seek exercise for your mind as well. Hmm. I cannot help but wonder what passes for education these days.
There is but one sport: Chess. It is the Great Game. The chessboard never lies, young one. The movements must be precise, yet in line with a grand strategy to ensure final victory.
And sportsmanship, that lie propagated by coaches everywhere, does not exist in chess! Yes, we all occupy a certain station in life, but make no mistake, some lives are inherently more valuable than others. Pawns and kings may appear to occupy equal spaces on the board, but whom do you think will be sacrificed first?
And perhaps most importantly–once the Great Game begins, the battle is absolute. There are no negotiations, no neutrality. You either emerge victorious, or are destroyed. Unwilling participants pray for a quick decision, else the Game will stretch on for eternity, with endless armies of pawns sacrificed in a bloody stalemate.
Learn the Game, child, if only to reveal your true role in life: that of King, Knight, or lowly Pawn.
This lesson is one that I learned well… sit down for a spell and I will share it with you. It was during the War, of course. I was assigned to Teheran for a spell.
What? Where? Consult your atlas, child! Is geography no longer taught? Remind me to call upon your headmaster without delay. Ah, but perhaps I am too strict. After all, Teheran would still be a backwater today if not for one thing: oil.
Armies are not machines of war; they are living beings, and oil is the lifeblood. Without oil, machineguns seize up, ships sit at harbor, tanks grind to a halt. It was clear from the very beginning that whoever controlled the oilfields of Persia would emerge victorious, but the Regent had announced his neutrality, seeking to profit from both sides.
It was not long before a cable arrived from Niles, who was stationed in Baghdad. Niles and I were old chums from Eton, back in the days when there was still such a thing as proper education. More like brothers, actually: we entered his Majesty’s service together only days after Arch-duke Ferdinand was shot. May I assume that your lessons have familiarised you with that incident?
Thank you. Now, since I hadn’t seen Niles since the start of the war, I immediately set about decoding the telegram. Niles had learned that one of the Sultan’s spies was en route to Pasargadae, seeking an ancient weapon of great power. My forehead grew taut. There could be no uncertainty as to his goal.
What was it, you ask? Well, child, since the quality of your schooling is most clearly in doubt, allow me to fill you in on the past fifteen hundred years of your world’s history. It may surprise you to learn that Persia was once a true Empire, but declined sharply following the death of the great king Cyrus. Legend holds that all of his might sprang from an ancient totem which he carried until death and took to the grave: The mace of that mighty warrior, Rostam.
Now where was I? Ah, yes. A request from a true friend is nothing short of an order. I raced out of the offices, pausing only for my pistol and knife. But on the edge of town, it occurred to me that I should go in disguise. I stopped at the bazaar and purchased a robe of the softest termeh, wrapping a turban ‘round my skull. But when I tried to leave, the scurrilous merchant grabbed my hand and would not let go!
I was wary, with a nose for danger, and it was with my hand on my knife that I followed him out the back flap of his tent and up the dusty clay stairs of a pigeonhouse. When we reached the top, the merchant flushed open a rotten door and we stepped out onto the roof. And there it was.
It looked like a perfectly ordinary house rug, but of course that was part of its power. The merchant gave me a wink with his scarred eye and held his hand over the fabric, which rose and hovered inches off the roof. He bade me sit, and as the carpet’s master, ordered it to serve me. I could not conceal my delight, and the man grinned back with crooked teeth. I pressed my wallet, stuffed with dinar and rial, into my ally’s dirty hands as I alit.
The remarkable contrivance never fluttered as it rose gently but swiftly over the city. Our route was southerly; our journey brief. I had scarcely time for a cup of tea before the setting sun lit up the ruins of Pasargadae on the horizon. I stepped down to the ground and into the storied past. The carpet did not tarry, but flew back off the way we had come. I spied a nearby pistachio tree in the shadow of Cyrus’ tomb and climbed up to hide in its blossoms. I was prepared for a long wait.
I needn’t have been.
Just moments later, I saw the spy approaching the tomb, his shadow stretched long across the clearing. If his thick beard did not mark him as an Oriental, the tight sleeves of his caftan and cheap sandals on his feet surely did. The rifle he carried made his intent plain to see.
My orders were clear, and I saw no reason to question them. I braced my pistol hand on a tree branch. Steadied myself. Squeezed the trigger. The Turk dropped.
I holstered the sidearm, dropped to the ground, and approached. My knife was in hand, but I sheathed it once I saw the poor devil. It was clear he was not long for the world. A wave of sympathy came over me then, child, for it was neither of our faults that war had come to pass. Only the geographies of our births made us enemies. I dropped to one knee to comfort the chap in his final moments…and saw that his beard had fallen off!
The man was no Turk! It was my dearest friend Niles, in disguise! I let fall my turban and saw his eyes go wide with recognition! He could not speak, but in those final moments, as I held his hand while he passed from this world to the next, I thought I saw forgiveness in those eyes. At least I hoped I did.
With trembling hands, Niles reached inside his caftan and thrust a paper out at me. Through my tear-streaked eyes, I saw it was a cable message, almost identical to the one that I received me. The message was the same, concerning the Turkish spy seeking a powerful weapon; the only difference was that his cable bore my signature!
With a last gasp, Niles passed into history himself, and the entire shameless plot became clear to me. The Turks had sought to eliminate Niles and myself, the King’s two greatest spies, but were simply not capable of doing so themselves. The only hope that they had was to pit us against each other! Oh, what cowards! Never trust a Turk, child!
I held Niles and cried through the night, until the sky began to lighten. Time was growing short. That place would not be safe in daylight, so I forced myself to move. I buried Niles in a shallow grave next to Cyrus’ tomb, two great warriors side by side for eternity. Somehow I found the strength to move on, though still I know not how.
The nearest unit was the South Persia Rifles at Bandar Abbas, and it took me the better part of a day to make the hike. General Sykes knew Niles well, of course. Who hadn’t? As a true gentleman, he shared my grief, but we both knew that one death does not end a war. He gave me orders to serve as Niles’ replacement in Arabia, and offered me an armed escort of one hundred men. I thought it better to make a quieter journey, and refused. Under cover of darkness, I stole a fisherman’s dhow and cast off into the straits of Hormuz.
Ah, child. Forgive my criticisms of your education, for an old man is seldom right and never happy. Your teachers would say that it was the pull of the tidal currents that carried me out to sea that night, but I know in my heart that I sailed off on an ocean of my tears.
About the Author
Hi, my name is James and for everyone out there who’s been considerate enough to advise me not to quit my day job, don’t worry– I haven’t. I currently work as a security manager for an independent traveling circus, where I strive to ensure that your next ride on the Cyclone is in full compliance with most, if not all, applicable state safety regulations.
When I’m not living my dream of seeing the great people of this great country from the parking lots of local shopping malls and Moose lodges, I write fiction.
About the Narrator
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.