The Empty Quarter is part 3 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 3 — The Empty Quarter
by James Vachowski
My dearest child,
I was delighted to receive your most recent correspondence. In response to your inquiry, it would give me the utmost pleasure to assist with your History essay. I did indeed serve with Colonel Lawrence during the Arabian campaign, but in those days, before his fame reached its peak, Lawrence of Arabia was known to us simply as Toms.
Toms and I met during the battle to capture Aqaba. He was a mere Major then, and a middling one at that. I had been on liberty at the time, as an honored guest of the Sultan of Oman, enjoying a brief respite from the relentless pounding of the guns that became all too short. The call of duty was tapped across the telegraph wires during the Great War, and after a brief decoding, my summons was clear: Toms and his men were mounting an attack, and my assistance was vital. I was needed to scout the enemy’s defenses, lead the camel cavalry to victory, and other such matters of war. Simple drudgeries, of course, but left to lesser hands, they would doubtless be botched. That is the curse of greatness, child. There is no rest for the skilled. With a sigh, I pushed back from the dinner table, taking one long, final look at the stuffed grape leaves that would lay there unfinished.
A map of Arabia was laid out before me. The route from Muscat to Aqaba appeared straight and true, the path across the desert worn smooth and even by the footsteps of countless years of caravans bearing pearls and frankincense. I pointed to the area marked Rub’ al-Khali, and ordered the servants to pack a camel and bring my rifle. The Sultan offered me a company of his swordsmen, but his guard would have slowed me intolerably. I kissed his rings and bade my goodbyes, packing his hospitality firmly in my memory.
Ah, my child! I swear that the mistake was not mine, but that of the mapmaker! With the paper laid flat on the table, the journey across the Empty Quarter seemed no more difficult than a day’s hike through Lancashire. But by mid-day, a hundred miles into Arabia, my perspective had changed greatly. Waves of sand crested and swelled into hills and valleys, showing no mercy. Each grain of sand acted in concert, taking every opportunity to trip the camel’s hooves. The beast was not as nimble on his feet as I, and one stumble was all it took. His leg sank into the sands, and before I could turn back to help, his hump had disappeared beneath the dunes.
It was a great loss. Not so much for the camel, the worthless cur, but for my provisions that were saddled to his back. I had no time to ponder my woes, however, as the sun was high overhead, pummeling down its heat. Time was of the essence.
I broke into a jog and quickly crested the dune, but was stopped by the sight of what lay before me. Nothing but barren hills and mountains of virgin sand. They continued on as far as the eye could see, appearing almost as daunting as an endless ocean. For the briefest of moments, my child, I almost felt somewhat despondent.
Ah, but no amount of self pity would carry me to Aqaba. I made haste, with one foot lifting me up and the other setting me down, stepping lightly over the sands that shifted with each puff of wind. But there is a reason it is called the Empty Quarter. Were it not for the trail of footprints that I left behind, there would have been no sign of my passage at all.
It felt like days, but as the sun had not budged from its high perch, I knew I had been walking for mere hours. But Time was irrelevant. The desert sands fill a cosmic hourglass for the Gods, and I was merely a man, complete with human needs and weaknesses. There I was, teetering on the verge of collapse from thirst, when a dune shifted away in front of me. From afar, I caught a glimpse of a large city surrounded by a high wall. Insane with both joy and desperation, I broke once again into a trot.
I had heard whispers of the Mirage, of course, when the desert sun shimmers off the sand and fools the eye, but my heart rose in my chest with each stride forward, as I closed in this Arabian metropolis. The main gate was no more than a mile off now, and my pace quickened into a full run. There was no longer any doubt in my mind. A jewel of a city such as this, not found on any map, could only be the fabled Atlantis of the Sands: The Lost City of Iram.
A waving motion up ahead caught my eye. At first glance, it seemed like a silky yellow banner fluttering in the gritty breeze. I approached, and the object came into focus. It was the fine, feathery hairs on a lone saluki’s ears. The dog stood motionless before me. It regarded me in a most curious fashion, almost with an air of disdain.
The sight of a stray in the desert was curious, to be sure, but my thirst was paramount. I made to pass it by for Iram’s gates, but the hound glided sideways to block my path. Its haunting eyes glowed with a shade of lapis lazuli. Such a strange creature, it did not at all seem odd when it opened its mouth and spoke to me. “None Shall Pass Before Answering My Riddle.”
I would have spat at the mongrel, but my mouth was dryer than cotton. I made to kick the beast, but my legs were too weak and trembling to heed my will. After a moment’s consideration, I sat, cross-legged on the boiling sands. “Give me your riddle then, creature. But be quick about it.”
The saluki’s thin beard waved from below his chin as he spoke. “All men are given it, but never an equal amount. It is the most precious commodity, yet it cannot be bought or sold. A man’s supply is finite, yet almost all men choose to squander it.”
Does this seem absurd to you, child? Stopping to argue with a dog in the desert while dying of thirst? I must assure you, it did so seem to me. I rose in disgust and made for Iram, meaning to push the beast aside, when it let loose with a roaring bark. I was knocked backwards and off my feet by his breath, which was as powerful and silty as the desert wind.
“None Shall Pass Before Answering My Riddle.” The saluki cocked his neck skyward, charting the endless path of the sun through the sky. “Answer Before Sunrise, Else Be Eaten.”
Might I assume that the science of Logic is still being taught at your school, child? Such a lesson would help you to understand my calculations. It stood to reason that since the hound had promised a coming sunrise, the sun would first have to set. The thought of an approaching nightfall lifted my spirits, and I again crossed my legs and waited patiently. My plan was simple, as most great ones are. Under cover of darkness, before the moon rose to its apex, I would slit the dog’s throat and pass by at my leisure.
The sun fell with unexpected quickness, and the heat of steam ovens gave way to an unexpected chill. With my coat and blankets still tied to the back of the Sultan’s worthless camel, I could not help but shiver. The saluki took notice of this. He took two steps toward me, and used his paw to set a dry patch of brush aflame. He retreated to his post and I pulled close to the fire, giving him a nod of thanks for the charity.
Of course the whole encounter was curious, but as I sat there I noticed that the flaming brush gave off no smoke. I was intrigued, and gave the saluki a second look. He met my gaze, a cache of untold wisdom hoarded behind his blue eyes. The truth was plain to me, and my heart fell. This was no dog but a mighty Djinn, a servant of the winds born from smokeless fire! I sheathed my knife and set about devising a new plan. Battling the eternal was not an option. My only hope was to outwit him.
Unfairly quickly, the vast night sky with its dark blanket of stars began to lighten. Dawn was not far off. The saluki began to paw impatiently at the sand, and I grew nervous. I pondered his riddle again, but it seemed to be only an absurd piece of fantastical nonsense. Hopelessly, I sifted handfuls of desert sand through my fingers. If the desert was indeed an hourglass, it seemed that my minutes were quickly running out.
The saluki trotted forward, his paws leaving no tracks in the sand. Now child, if you only learn one lesson from me, then learn this: Death is a certainty for all men. When it becomes apparent that you can avoid it no longer, meet it standing up. I clenched my jaw, and used all my strength to rise to my feet. “Is it Time, Oh Djinn?” I asked.
The dog stopped. His eyes lightened by the most minute shade, betraying his surprise. “It is indeed.”
He glided aside, and it was my turn to be surprised. We both held the other’s gaze. I was puzzled, but wisely held my tongue. In a flash of insight that hit me like a mortar shell, the truth was before me! The answer to the Djinn’s riddle had been Time!
I made haste for the gates of Iram, vowing to waste precious Time no more. The well was located in the city square, and I drank my fill several times over. I will not waste ink describing the wonders of the Lost City, for they were beyond words. Even as I beheld it, I could not help but wonder if the city was just a dream. But I know that Iram was real, as my dreams from those days have long since gone where dreams go, but the memories of that city I have held forever.
The Djinn must have still been in dog form, because I heard such a howl that carried across the desert. At first I thought that it was a cry of despair over losing such a tempting breakfast morsel as I, until I looked up into the endless morning sky and saw the approaching wings of two giant falcons. His call had been a salute of respect for an equal combatant, meant to summon the courtesy of a safe passage for me. The falcons swooped in, caught my robe in their talons, and alit with me across the deserts of Arabia.
Ah, but I grow weary, child. The hand that could once hold an Enfield rifle at shoulder arms for days on end now tires after holding a pen for an hour. The falcons set me down outside the walls of Aqaba and the invasion went smoothly despite Toms’ customary ineptitude, but please consult your History professor regarding the less significant details of that affair.
All my best wishes to you and your Headmaster.
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.