Posts Tagged ‘James Vachowski’

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Cast of Wonders 139: Little Wonders 6 – A Little Laughter

Show Notes

You’re listening to Little Wonders, our thematic flash fiction collections. This episode we bring you A Little Laughter.

Special thanks to Kevin McCloud and the Free Sounds Project for providing music and special effects.


Continue?

by James Vachowski

Fog fades away.  Darkness lifts. I struggle to find my feet as vision returns.  The room is empty. Signs of a struggle.

She’s gone!

Off and running with no control of my body as I fly on a path towards revenge.  An unseen hand guides my movements. Of course I know who took her. Who else could it be but Ryoku?  Damn him! If only we had left when he first made his threats…but this is no time to dwell on the past.

Rushing forward, unable to turn back.

Through flat, muted ears, I can almost hear the timer that ticks down the seconds we have left.

My steel jaw clenches as I will the fury down into my tightened fists.  Rage funnels through them as I pummel wave after wave of Ryoku’s goons, henchmen, thugs, and anyone else foolish enough to stand in my way.

Down the stairs.

Through the alley.

Over the barbed wire fence, ducking a pair of rabid junkyard dogs.

Forward still, rushing onward towards my love, and vengeance.

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 65: The Great Game, Part 7 – The Mustard Wyrm by James Vachowski

Show Notes

The Mustard Wyrm is final installment 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.


The Great Game, Part 7–The Mustard Wyrm

By James Vachowski

What is that infernal screeching?  In God’s Holy Name, child, leave that poor cat alone!

Eh?  Music?  So you say.  To these ears it sounded more like a banshee being skinned alive.  Do yourself a favor and quit now, while you still have your youth. Your talents clearly lie beyond the world of music, and I dare say you will need all available time to discover your true skill.  By virtue of your heinous display of what I can only assume was intended to be a strain from Schubert, it is safe for us to rule out the violin as your life’s calling.  

Besides, any devotee knows there is but a single instrument worthy of mastery.  Which one, you say? Do you jest? Surely your music professor has taught you the wonder of the bagpipes?  No? Child, the pipes are the birthright of the Highlanders, the instrument of ancient Scottish kings! Here now, be a good lad and wrap that quilt round my knees.  Close the window as well. The night grows cold, and I fear we have tormented the neighbors enough for one evening, what with your attempts at harmony.

How old are you again, child?  No, forget I asked. Even if you were my age, the tale I am about to tell would still be too much for your precocious ears.   It happened in Ypres, that cursed town in a cursed country. Our men stood shoulder to shoulder with our boys, some very near to your age I should say, lined up to charge at the endless waves of men and boys on the opposite side.  Despite all I had seen and done thus far, it was early in the War and the fighting was still furious. The job of messenger was usually left to the youngest boys, but as every set of legs was needed, my fleet feet were conscripted for running to and fro between the lines.  I dashed back and forth with each shifting of the barbed wire strands, ensuring the field marshals could accurately sight their deadly artillery fire. The booming shells continued to fall as the longest day poured into night, and I wager that I killed more men using my feet than I ever had with my hands.

The stars disappeared from the sky, drowned out by the powerful artillerymens’ flares.  Kitchener’s Wood itself was a casualty, the trees snapped in half from the day’s constant bombardment.  The impact of the shells shook the Earth into a steady low rumbling and rocking, not unlike a ship at sea.  Minute by minute, yard by precious yard, our fire rained down upon the Germans and forced them to cover. Our advance was costly but steady, and for the briefest of moments I thought that we might have won.

The stench of corpses filled the air for a few brief seconds, till a gust of wind beat forth from the east.  It was a hot, steamy air, but I shuddered as I felt it on my skin. The jets of current pulsed toward us in rapid surges, as if powered by the very bellows that stoked the fires of Hell.  Behind me, one of the boys in our company shrieked in terror. He held his pink finger skyward, pointing toward a looming shadow flying low in the sky. In spite of myself, I felt my legs freeze thick to the ground.  Of course I had seen dragons before, my child, but never one as fierce as this!

The black beast was closing the ground quickly, spurred forward with each flap of his leathery wings.  His neck twisted up to inhale great gulps of air, then rolled back down toward the earth to spew forth a thick yellow cloud.  The sky around the creature became tinted with haze as the cloud sank down towards our men. It brought with it a sour, acrid taste that burned on my skin.  Some of our number were already bent over at the waist, retching and gagging like dogs with the sickness.

As the dragon circled overhead, filling its demonic lungs with more fresh air for another pass, the bravest of His Majesty’s troops struggled to form a skirmishing line for our defense.  What a sight it was, child! The Moors from Algeria stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Enfield rifles were brought to bear, held at eye level among the line of fezzes and turbans.  Their sharp cracks echoed out on either side, but it was no use. Even the sharp steel bullets just bounced off the beast’s hide.

For all of the times I had cheated death, my child, I couldn’t for the life of me see a way out.  The battle seemed as futile as the War itself, and all of our victories were about to be for naught.  The rest of our troops scattered to the trenches for cover, wrenching off their doughboy helmets to don canister masks in the hope of some scant protection.  The beast blew down a second cloud of the mustard-colored gas, which swirled around us in thick plumes. Men of the fittest health were crippled in seconds, their bodies collapsing down into convulsing piles of broken flesh.  Death comes to us all, I had reached that conclusion long before, but no man deserves to die like those wretches did. Dozens went down, then hundreds. Before long it was thousands.

I had tried to hold my own breath, but reached my physical limits after just ten minutes.  My lungs nearly collapsed at that first inhalation of gas, and my head spun as I fell to the ground.  Though dizzy, I could still see that great black dragon circling overhead, preparing to make one last pass over the battlefield.  His Majesty’s troops were falling beside me in all directions, fighting a futile battle for fresh air. A lone Scotsman collapsed to my right, with a look of despair cross his fair face.  Our eyes met, and we shared the same thought—that as quickly as this battle was sure to be over, the War would end just so.

With an air of resignation, the Scot pulled himself to his knees, dusted off his tartan kilt, and reached for his pipes.  Breathing more of that foul air surely doomed him, but he did it still, as he pulled his pipes to his lips. With a final breath, he blew the first note of a Highland tune, no doubt intended as a funereal goodbye to his comrades.  The slow, droning buzz carried out across the forest. From the corner of my eye, I spied several other mops of red hair raising themselves up from the ground, heads lifted aloft by the sound of their homeland.

And then, from above me, I saw it!  The fierce dragon was beating his ferocious wings even harder, an act which sent him spiraling up in angry circles.  It was clearly an attempt to distance his evil ears from the glorious sound of the pipes, and I stirred myself to nudge the Scot and draw his attention.  The lad received my message, sucked in another deep breath, and redoubled his efforts. The sweet melodies of Edinborough carried out over the battlefield, sending the dragon even higher in the sky.  The putrid yellow gas lifted momentarily, which allowed our men to find their legs and scatter. Several other companies bade their pipers to join in the tune, and before long the earth was shaking not from the pounding of artillery, but from the buzz of bagpipes.

Lifting my head to the night sky, I caught sight of the dragon.  Above the clouds, writhing in the light of the moon, the beast was clearly tormented by the symphony of such beauty.  Unable to escape it, he wrapped his wings around his head to muffle the sound. But those bony wings could not drown out the noise completely, and a shout of joy went up as the men saw the dragon stop circling.  Indeed, with his wings occupied in such a defensive manner, the creature could not fly at all!  

A rush of joy rose in my heart as I saw the wrym start to plummet from the sky, but the feeling turned to dread when I observed him directly above me!  I tried to run, but it was no use! In less than a second the creature had collapsed to the ground, the impact sending shock waves across the whole of Europe.  My legs went numb beneath the weight of its tail, twitching and shaking with rage, and my body turned cold as the beast’s head twisted around to face me. Its horrible white fangs gnashed out, and I steeled myself to receive a final blast of the deadly mustard gas.

But our troops had regrouped, and before the dragon could exhale again, it was swarmed from all sides by a squad of brave Gurkhas. Their curved blades found the mark over and over again, until finally the beast lay unnaturally still.  I felt hands pulling me by the shoulders, out from under the carcass and a safe distance away. It may have been an hour before we were sure it was truly deceased, but when we were, a cry of victory rang up over the battlefield.

It was my last battle, child, for a soldier without legs is by necessity an ex-soldier.  For me, the War was over. I gave my final order from a hospital litter, directing the Gurkhas to behead the fierce creature.  Some days later I would present the dragon’s head, horns and fangs and all, to His Majesty King George in exchange for the Victoria Cross. A fair trade, I would say.  The War continued on without me, as wars before and since have done, and now precious few seem to notice the battles a pensioner fights.

Ah, but the tales of my life have been long and hard in the making, and I tire of telling them.  Bring the blanket, child, and draw the curtains. The night is growing cold.

Episode 61: The Great Game, Part 6 – When Stars Fall by James Vachowski

Show Notes

To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.


The Great Game, Part 6–When Stars Fall

by James Vachowski

Child!  Quickly now, come here!  Pull the drapes back, there’s a good lad, and roll me to the window.  See…there! That flash of light! 

What?  A meteor?  Don’t be a dunce, child, there’s no such thing.  That was a star falling from the heavens, as sure as I’m alive.  But draw the curtains now, if you please. A single shooting star is an omen of luck, but seeing several foretells death.  I’ve seen enough death in my time, and I fear that my own summons cannot be too far off.

Ah, thank you.  The stars are beautiful flashes of silver from afar, but terrifying when viewed up close.  What? Of course I’ve seen a star up close, child! In fact, I’ve actually ridden in one!

Eh?  You don’t believe me?  Your disbelief is clearly fueled by pure envy.  Here, pull up a chair and I shall explain. It was in Egypt, of course, that mystery of a nation.  The city of Cairo was a sunlit nightmare by day, the heat rising up from the dusty streets and back alleys, but at dusk the air would cool and the imam’s call to prayer brought with it a pleasant peace.  I would take my ease after each long day of directing Allenby’s moronic staff, content to lie on the roof of the Embassy and contemplate the pantheon of stars stretching out in the inky night sky. Our Earth itself is so young compared to the stars, but to be in Egypt is to be within Time itself.  Ah, the memories! Yes, Cairo was probably my favorite posting during the War… at least until the bombs started dropping.

The Kaiser was a wily strategist, you see, and he aimed to cut a swath through the Levant by capturing the Suez.  The canal was nothing more than a dredge torn through the Sinai, but during the War it became the lifeblood of our troops.  Without it, transports bearing supplies and troop reinforcements would grind to a halt. If we lost the Suez, I wager to say that we could all but surrender India.

We knew an attack must be coming, child, but we knew not how.  Our sharpest eyes were fixed towards the West, scanning for telltale dustclouds signifying the movements of enemy troops across the desert, but all was still.  Then, from nowhere, a series of slow-moving shapes caught the sun’s rays on the horizon. They shimmered in the light, making their forms impossible to discern until they were nearly upon us.

Zeppelins!

The Kaiser’s aeroforces had slipped over our outer perimeter, racing in from Bulgaria on a brisk easterly wind.  The watchmen raised the hue and cry too late, as the attack had caught us by surprise! While our men scrambled to arms, struggling to winch our machine guns skyward, the first bombs fell.  The bloody Krauts walked them in on their approach, each successive impact louder and more forceful.

My actions were more of reflex than bravery, child, as my swift legs covered the mile to the airfields in mere seconds.  I ran towards the nearest Sopwith and threw the propeller, twisting the engine to life. In a flash, I was aboard and taxiing down the runway, explosions falling nearer and nearer behind me.  I pulled the throttle back with all my might, willing the aircraft to rise just as the runway came to an end. Feeling the impact behind me, I risked a glance back. The entire runway was pocked with craters, all of the hangers ringed with flames.  In less than a minute, an entire wing of the Royal Air Corps had been destroyed!

All save for me, that is, but I feared my fortune might be short lived.  Dozens of fighter escorts left their zeppelins and swarmed towards me, hailing down waves of bullets that turned the skies black.  Five of them, then six and seven, went down in my crosshairs before a single lucky shot clipped my tail fin. The plane started spiraling downward at full speed as I fought to hold control, black smoke belching from the engine.  Greasy hydraulic fluid spurt forth across the fuselage and streaked up over the windscreen. It was at that point, child, when I reassessed the odds I faced. As much as I despise cowardice, I began to think that a hasty retreat from the battle might be prudent.

With every last ounce of strength in my arms, I muscled the throttle back and somehow got the small plane level.  We buzzed over the city rooftops, the Kaiser’s aeroplanes hot on my tail as I headed west, hoping to lose them in the setting sun.  The pilots were tenacious beasts, though, no doubt hoping to win the glory of bringing me to ground. I heard the staccato hammering of their propellers as the fleet grew ever closer, their poorly aimed bullets whizzing close by.

We cleared the city walls, crossing low over the Nile River, and my hopes grew dim.  Before us lay naught but open desert, with no cover for my escape. In an instant, though, a thin cloud passed over the setting sun and I spied the pyramids of Giza!  My heart lifted, and I opened the choke to dump the remaining fuel. The little Sopwith shot ahead of the pack. I knew the gain in speed would be short lived, but hoped it would be just enough to make one last run for cover.

My plane came in long and low, the rubber wheels bouncing thrice off the rocky desert sand.  I shot straight for the Great Pyramid of Cheops and just as I had planned, the German planes pulled back.  The fools thought I was landing in order to surrender, so they gave me room. At the last second, however, I stomped down hard on the pedal to bank left.  The first two of the Kaiser’s men shot past as I tilted around the base of the pyramid. I was so low that my wingtip grazed the sand, and it took all my skill to wrench it back level.  Seconds later, I pointed the nose into the sand for a hard stop, landing directly between the legs of the Great Sphinx.

There was no time to pat myself on the back, though!  The sound of buzzing propellers grew louder, followed by rows of bullets zipping into the sand behind me.  Ahead, I spotted a dark doorway at the base of the Sphinx, so I raced forward and dove inside, straining to push the stone door back on ancient hinges.  It slammed shut with a thud, just as scores of bullets impacted on the outside.

I was safe!  Trapped inside of a rock, yes, and surrounded in thick darkness, but safe!  I paused briefly, hoping to catch my breath. My hands trembled as blood surged through my veins, and I fought to clear my head.  It seemed there was no way out, and I wondered if I had just traded a swift dispatch from German machine guns for a slow demise by way of asphyxiation!

After several more long moments, my eyes began to adjust to the darkness.  I sensed the dimmest blue glow, and could make out what appeared to be a long tunnel that cut through the rock.  With a heavy heart, I summoned my courage and shuffled further along. There was no way of knowing what awaited me, but what lay outside the Sphinx was an absolute I had no desire to face.

I must have walked for a hundred yards, or it could have been a hundred miles, before the rock opened around me and the light grew exponentially brighter.  It was an open chamber, child, in the heart of the Great Pyramid itself! The floor was surfaced in slick marble, and when my eyes came to focus on the center of the room, I could not hold in my gasp.  There before me was a great silvery object, shaped like a walnut and pulsing with cool blue light. Believe me when I say that I had traveled half the world by that time, but had never beheld such a wondrous saucer.  Even now, with all my years, I struggle to describe it.

My shock at this sight was such that it seemed no more unusual that the starry craft should be tended by an equally obtuse pilot.  He stood half my height in his naked, grey skin, with a bald bulb of a head and the black eyes of a cat. I should have been scared, I suppose, but I knew not what to make of him.  We stood there regarding each other for the longest moment. Looking back, I suppose he should have felt the same curiosity about me!

We spoke no words, but somehow I knew he sensed my anxiety.  A picture of the Kaiser’s mighty zeppelin air force flashed through my mind, and I spotted the creature’s head tilting slightly sideways.  I don’t know how I knew, but I knew, that we were sharing the same image. His chin dipped forward in the most imperceptible of nods. Slowly, he opened his hand and pointed four fingers toward the cosmic galley.  It was an obvious invitation; one I had no intention of refusing.

A hatch appeared before us, closing just as quickly once we climbed aboard.  A seat stitched from the finest Corinthian leather rose to meet me. My newfound ally stood tall, somehow bringing the craft to life with his mere thoughts.  I felt the briefest pulse as the ship flashed blue…and in an instant we were outside, thousands of meters in the air! When the shock of the teleportation had passed, I found myself looking down on the Kaiser’s fleet of dirigibles.  Night had fallen, and we floated overhead as just one more blue star in the sky.

The sight of those murderous blimps below filled me with rage. The creature must have sensed my heated thoughts, for he dipped his head in a nod of acknowledgement.  Seconds later, we were slanting downward, diving straight towards the airfleet! Jets of laser-hot rays shot forth from our ship, turning the mighty gas-filled zeppelins into nothing more than a quick succession of floating fireballs.  This battle was over before it even had a chance to begin, my child! Ah, the horrors of that War still play fresh in this old mind, but none more so than the sight of those burning steel hulls tumbling downward to melt into the still desert sands.

Before I could comprehend the sheer impossibility of what had just transpired, I found myself standing down in the desert itself, just outside the city walls, watching the last of the zeppelins burn.  From the corner of my eye, I spotted a blue burst of flame rising up into the sky. The airship was bound for the heavens, I suppose, or to some other galaxy in need. And though my eyesight is not what it once was, I still look towards the constellations each night, hoping to catch a glimpse of my old friend and his star ship.  Alas, I have never again seen a falling star quite like his, but sometimes I look up in the sky and wonder…

Episode 58: The Great Game, Part 5 – The Dark Continent by James Vachowski

Show Notes

The Dark Continent is part 5 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.


The Great Game, Part 5 — The Dark Continent

by James Vachowski

Light a lamp, child, and be quick about it.  The day is fading, and my eyes are not what they once were.  Ah, that’s the rub. This room closes in when night falls. Oftimes I find myself back in the dense brush of the Kalahari.  Were you to speak a smattering of Bantu, odds are fair I would mark you by size as a pygmy Bushman.

What?  A Bushman, child!  Do you mean to tell me you have no knowledge of the fiercest warriors on this Earth?  The scourge of the Dark Continent? Those diminutive spearmen have dispatched tens of thousands of Her Majesty’s riflemen to their end, and it is no embellishment to say that I was nearly one of that number.

Your professors might say Africa was a secondary theater during the War, but it became a most primary concern for my soldiers once tiny spears came whistling over our heads.  It was a covert mission you see, one of the utmost importance, and so the General would assign it to none but myself. We were en route from the port of Dar es Salaam to rendezvous with a reconnaissance team atop Mount Kilimanjaro, in the heart of the Kaiser’s territory in East Africa.  It was a dangerous task, made more so by the thousand-mile trek through the wilds of Zanzibar.

We were barely a week’s march into the brush when the fiends encircled us and attacked!  Tiny spears rained from the treetops, blowgun darts felled men like killer bees. Our brigade was halved in a matter of seconds by this treacherous ambush.  My men took up defensive positions, bless them, but it was only for show. Thousands of pygmies stepped out from behind tree trunks and sawgrass bushes. Clad only in leather loincloths, with ritual scars etched across their chests, their intent was clear as they bared their filed teeth.  Their battle leader approached, and I had no choice but to lay down my arms in surrender.

The Bushmen were clearly indentured mercenaries of the Kaiser, so I doffed my pith helmet and demanded parlay, hoping to channel the spirit of the great explorer Livingstone.  I doubted that the dark warrior fully understood the meaning of my flowery greeting, but I assume that he received my peaceful intent, just by the fact that I was still alive. With a shrill whistle, the leader summoned a spotted giraffe, who prostrated himself to receive passengers.  He and I climbed aboard, and we cantered across the bush at treetop level, occasionally ducking to miss stray branches.  

Hours later, with the sun still perched high above, we arrived in the Bushman’s village.  It was nothing more than a few haphazardly constructed straw huts surrounded by a circle of thorns, but the village came to life as we made our entrance.  Dusky women clutching babies to their breasts edged forward to gawk at my fair skin. The giraffe slid to a halt in front of the largest hut, graciously laying for us to dismount.  

The chieftain emerged from his hut in due time; whether he was intentionally making us wait or simply needed extra time to arrange his finery, I know not.  He was a giant among the Bushmen, standing three and a half feet in stature, wearing a loincloth spun from pure gold fibers. A beaded crown topped his nappy head, but his face was concealed behind a carved wooden mask.  A gigantic cowrie shell stood in place of his lips. By magic, its edges moved with the weight of his words as he spoke.

“Welcome to our home,” he said, in a clipped form of pidgin English, “and yours as well, at least for a short time.  You shall serve as our dinner of course. Bring your men ‘round forthwith. They are to be decapitated, disemboweled, and stewed.”

Forgive an old man a pun, child, but the thought of having my men slaughtered in such a fashion was quite distasteful.  My mind raced as I struggled to bargain for their lives. In an effort to buy time, I fell to my knees and kowtowed before the chieftain.  “My Lord,” I said, “Such a feast might be fine, but my men are exhausted from the War and our long journey. I fear that the stringy meat on our bones might not be pleasing to your royal palate.”

A shadow of worry crossed the chieftain’s mask.  “Yes…” the fiend hissed, “that would not do at all.”

Seizing this window of opportunity, I went on.  “Might I suggest an alternative, your highness? Perhaps my men would better serve your village as slaves.  They could bear fresh water daily from Lake Victoria.” The thought of my troops baking under the red sun and suffering a slow, exhausting demise was not much better than the image of them being eaten, but at least it would postpone their deaths for weeks, if not months.

The cowrie shell twisted into a wrinkled smile.  “Yes…” the chief hissed again, “that would be of great benefit to my tribe.  Water is hard to come by in my kingdom, and your soldiers might prove very useful to us.”

He had been sold on the idea of luxury, so I seized upon the power of negotiation.  “It is settled, then. As a representative of my men, I will submit to a challenge. If I fail your test, we will surrender ourselves completely as your servants.”

The carved wooden eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “Why should I test you, white man? Your army is still surrounded.  I could give the order and have them all killed in a matter of seconds.”

I smiled at that, sensing my position of advantage.  “Ah, my Lord, but if you kill us, then who would bear water to your village?”

The oversized mask nodded up and down.  “’True…”

I went on.  “So I have your word then, sir?  If I pass your challenge, we shall have our freedom.”

A long pause before he answered.  “Yes…” the cowrie lips hissed, “you shall. I propose a riddle.”

The tribe gathered around us let out a collective gasp, and I felt my blood run cold.  It was said that the African riddles were older than the continent itself, and no white man’s mind could fathom their depth.  But before I could refuse the challenge or protest the unfairness, the tiny sorcerer spat forth his puzzle:

“Who has more courage than a Bushman?”

My face flushed as I stalled for time.  It was a trick question, with no right answer.  To state that any other being was more courageous would surely be viewed as an insult, and I would be killed immediately for insulting the chieftain’s honor.  A squad of warriors nearby sensed this, and bared their filed teeth in anticipation. “Surely there is none, sir” I cried. “A Bushman is the fiercest, bravest warrior. He is true of heart, and none can best him in battle.”

The chieftain grinned an evil grin.  “Your words are just, but do not answer my riddle.”  He summoned with his arm, and a pair of warriors stepped forward.  Their intent was clear by the sharp spears that they shook over their heads.  I swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to scream. It seemed I was headed for the stewpot, my men for short lives of servitude.

I steeled myself as they approached, vowing not to die without a fight, but my mind was still caught up in disbelief.  “Two Bushmen” I whispered quietly, shaking my head at my fate. But suddenly, the ashy soldiers stopped. They turned towards their dear leader, as if for confirmation.  I glanced up in confusion and did the same.  

The chieftain’s cowrie shell lips wrinkled into a sly smile.  “More flattery, white man….but it is true. The only thing that could be braver than a Bushman warrior would be two Bushmen.  Your words have earned your freedom, and safe passage through my realm.”

The women of the tribe ululated in a chorus, and a few celebrated by throwing their children into the air.  They would be denied their cannibalistic feast, but did not appear distressed at the prospect of continued hunger.  As I fought the urge to grin, I bowed low once more before the fierce warrior king, thanking Providence for his mercy in the darkest of the world’s wastelands.

My men were brought forth within minutes.  The tribe produced a feast of roast bushmeat and steamed cassowary eggs, then went about preparing mounts for the rest of our journey.  The soldiers wept at the news that we were to be spared, and the clamor they made was a joyful one. We spent the night in merriment, bonfires burning late in complete ignorance of the jackals prowling outside the thorn ring, or of the Huns marching outside the continent.

Ah, child, to see Kilimanjaro again.  The peak was still capped with snow when we arrived at the observation post several days ahead of schedule.  We were loaded down with gold bars and raw diamonds that we had literally scooped up from the red clay during our ride. Valuable treasures, to be certain, but they were naught compared to the priceless look on the reconnaissance mens’ faces when we arrived with our caravan of zebras!

Episode 54: The Great Game, Part 4 – In The Bowels of the Sick Man by James Vachowski

Show Notes

In The Bowels of the Sick Man is part 4 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 4 — In The Bowels of the Sick Man

by James Vachowski

Child!

What is that swill you have brought me?  I called for coffee!

From Colombia, you say? Where? South America? My dear lad, America is but a speck along the timeline of history and hardly worth mentioning, much less pinpointing on a map. Ah, but real coffee… now that is something timeless. 

Of course, there is only one place on earth where one can get such a draught. Hmm? I mean Istanbul, you fool! Here now, if you cannot manage to make proper coffee then at least steep a kettle for tea, and be quick about it.

Where was I? Oh yes, Istanbul. During the War it was a dusty den of thieves, as I imagine it still is today, but a loyal soldier does not have the luxury of choosing his assignments. I was sent on this secret mission behind enemy lines for one purpose and one purpose only: to assassinate both the Sultan and his Vizier. Their motorcade was due to arrive at the Blue Mosque for early services one Friday morning, and I was ready as always. I had surveyed their route and cached my arsenal of weapons. Child, believe me when I say that the Great War would have ended in a quiet fizzle had I seen my task through and not stopped to take a bath.

What? A bath, child! Surely you are familiar with the magnificent luxury of Turkish baths? No? Well, it is my hope that one day you might experience them. This particular bathhouse was a palatial steam room, built of the finest Italian marble. I had just begun to relax and prepare my mind for the mission to come when a squad of the Sultan’s own bodyguards crept up behind me, their scimitars at the ready.  My plot had been discovered! It took all of my speed to elude their grasp and disappear away into the thick clouds of steam. I shimmied down a drainpipe and was off, flying through the city’s back alleys in a wet, nude blur. The mist of the bathhouse shifted into a thick cloud of opium smoke as I raced through the bazaar, pausing only long enough to steal a caftan and a pair of slippers. The chase was on! 

I fled the city heading west, hoping to seek cover in the Taurus Mountains. We ran for miles, until the setting sun glowed blood red in the sky, but still I could not break away. My chances looked grim indeed! The Sultan’s cadre was hot on my heels, their rifle shots whistling perilously close above my head.

That might have been the end of me, child, had I not spied the slightest opening at the base of Mount Ararat. A cave! I dove, stretched, and was in, just as a ricochet hit the talus slope above and triggered a landslide! I was safe, ‘tis true, but how I was to escape I knew not.

I crouched there, silent, listening to the cries of frustration from the Orientals above as they searched in vain for another entrance into the cave.  I willed myself to remain motionless, holding my breath for several hours until finally hearing their jackbooted footsteps as the soldiers climbed further up the slope. In time my eyes adjusted to the inky darkness, but there was naught to see but the blackest of nights.

Then, from afar, the sooty air was pierced by a soft glow. A magical light in the distance seemed to hover at ankle height as it slowly drifted towards me. Having no pistol for defense, I could but brace at its approach. Both my fear and the cavern’s dank chill set me to shivering. The light fluttered onward, coasting slowly to a stop when it was several paces out. It was only at that distance did I discover its true nature, when I saw that the glow was no more than a lantern of faerie fire held aloft by the stoutest of cave gnomes!

The squat beast made not a sound, but his beardy lips sneered at my disheveled and sooty appearance.  In a flash of movement unnatural to his thick stature, the gnome lunged forward and clasped a set of irons around my ankles. I was his prisoner! The fat monster kicked me square across the rump to set me moving and I followed his command, shuffling and clanking my way further into the cave.

Down and deeper we marched, splashing through a chilly stream that cut sharply into the rock floor.  Blind fish and salamanders brushed past my shackled feet as the chill air turned to a raw cold. My legs stiffened. Up ahead, an eerie glow of mystical origin lit the tunnel and the gnome sheathed his hellish light, as he required it no further. Before us lay the gnomish metropolis of Underworld, capital city of all subterranean dwellers.

Millions of glow-worms dangled perilously from stalactites overhead, giving the city a starry light of full noon. The gnome-kin filling the city streets below us plodded furiously about their labors. Most bore barrows of coal, but a select few worked under heavy guard and struggled to heave carts loaded with precious gems. The scene was extraordinary, child! Were it not for the cavernous ceiling above it should have almost seemed that I was back in the great city of London, but in miniature of course.

Ah, but the opportunity to gaze on in wonder did not last. The gnome spurred me onward with more kicks to my seat, and his weighty boots sent a wordless message that left no room for misinterpretation. I wondered as to our destination, but not for long. Further down we went, into the very heart of the gnomish mines. Waves of steam heat from the forges passed over me, soaking the thin cotton fibers of my caftan and dripping down off my skin in layers of sweat.

Slavery is unjust, child. All who have known bondage will agree. There I was, conscripted into servitude, forced by the stinging end of a whip to mine coal for those wretched creatures! Hour after hour I toiled as endless night gave way to endless night. The pickaxe shaped my hands first with calluses, then with blisters, then finally with raw sores. Were it not for the powerful strength of my youth, my back would have surely snapped from the strain. I strove to keep pace with their demands, but no sooner did I fill a barrow with coal than the tiny ogres would beat me mercilessly, enjoining me to ferry the load over towards their giant smelting furnaces.

I could not believe the sight that my eyes beheld! The War to End All Wars even had fronts beneath the Earth, child! The gnomes were obviously in league with the Sultan, helping to churn out steel for his thousands of artillery batteries. Judging by the frantic pace of the work, I knew they must have been mounting a massive defense against our forthcoming invasion of Gallipoli, miles to the east and leagues above our heads. The information was priceless, but I had no way to warn General Sir Hamilton of the trap that was being set!

At seeing the industry of these creatures’ black arts, my resolve was strengthened anew. I might have been briefly detained from the battlefield, but I was most certainly not going to give aid and comfort to the enemy by working in those gnomish mines! I set my mind to work on drafting a daring plan of escape. Naturally, one was not long in coming.

I pushed myself to work harder and faster, finally gaining the evil gnomes’ trust by convincing them that I had dedicated myself to the Sultan’s cause. I mined coal by the truckload, veritably sprinting each cart down to the smelting furnace now! The furnaces’ fires grew hotter and hotter, the black smoke curling back down through the cavernous passageways until the miserable creatures had no choice but to open the chimney’s flue.

It was then that I made my move! My caftan was still soaked from the steam and the sweat of my labors, so I bunched up the fibers and held them aloft over my head. At a full run, I leaped over the flames from the gnomes’ infernal fires…and was held aloft! The quickly-rising heat from the furnace below filled my damp robes and lifted me up through the faerie chimney. Mobs of surprised bats flurried about in a blind scrabble, rushing to clear from my path of ascent. Rising at a yard per second, I saw the freedom of the blue sky opening up above me.

Quickly, I spread out the folds of my robes to capture more of the heat.  In a flash of blinding sunlight, I was free! I curled the toes of my slippers about the hem of the fabric and sealed my legs tight, forming a balloon of hot air between my loins. I was still going up, over the peak of Mount Ararat, when I spotted an entire company of the Sultan’s cavalry still searching for me on the surface below. At altitude, as I passed through the wispy mustaches of cirrus clouds, the soldiers’ fezzes seemed to me mere specks of burgundy velvet on the rocky plains below. Their angry rifle shots, though aimed true enough, fell pitifully short.

Safe now, I re-fastened the grip on my robes as I floated back eastward, drifting silently over the blessed faerie chimneys of Cappadocia. Such a sight, child! The raw majesty of this hard land concealed too well the evil that lurked within the bowels of the Sick Man of Europe. As for me, even though I knew all too well of the terrible battles for which I was headed, for the briefest of moments even the wretched Ottoman Empire seemed a beautiful place.

Episode 50: The Great Game, Part 3 – The Empty Quarter by James Vachowski

Show Notes

Tags:

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. (Continue Reading…)

Episode 46: The Great Game, Part 2 – The Great Game by James Vachowski

Show Notes

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.

Episode 43: The Great Game, Part 1 – Khyber by James Vachowski

Show Notes

Tags: Cast of Wonders; Fantasy; Young Adult fiction; James Vachowski; Barry J Northern; The Great Game

Khyber is part of a series of stories called The Great Game. There’s seven in the series and we’ll be running all seven on Cast of Wonders over the coming months, probably once a month. This is our first series; we hope you’ll look forward to it as much as we are!

The Great Game is by James Vachowski. James works as a “quality assurance technician” for airport Duty Free Shops, where he strives to ensure that your next tax-exempt purchase meets or exceeds your high standards. When not living out of a suitcase and hopping between glamorous international terminals, he writes fiction. You can find out more about James at his website or on Twitter, Goodreads or Facebook.

Your narrator is Cast of Wonders’ Editor, Barry J Northern.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.


The Great Game, Part 1 — Khyber

by James Vachowski

So it’s a story you want, is it?

Then be gone from here. Stories are but lies, gift-wrapped in sugary coatings that tickle the listener’s ear. If it is stories you want, run along to the lending library with the other children, where you can waste your days reading of wizards and faeries and their ilk.

But if your heart seeks the truth… then I may indeed have a tale for you.

Of course you know that I was in the Great War? Well, those of us fighting, we never thought that someday our actions might be considered great. But then, historians have the luxury of being nearsighted. War is terrible, child. It seems senseless. So many men struggle to understand it, but they cannot. For now, it will suffice you to know that for whatever the reason, in war, men and women do things that they must. There is no more to it than that, but certainly no less.

Thankfully my job kept me away from the ghoulish fronts, as I dealt in information. Today they would call me a spy, but back then my proper title was Messenger. Field Marshals and their Adjutants would not dare to act without first seeking my counsel.

I remember one mission particularly well. The Armies of the Crown had just been ordered west, towards war, leaving behind but a skeleton force in the Indies. The quiet that followed was brief, as the Bengals soon began plotting an uprising. As the fastest runner in the service of the Maharajah, I was chosen to travel to Kabul immediately, to contact the Khan and beg for the help of his armies.

There was no time to waste. I dressed quickly, donning the salwar qameez with a pakol on my head. I laced my lightest sandals snugly, while my men readied a sack of provisions. As the sun rose, I set off at a run towards the peaks of the Karakorum Range.

All day and into the night I ran, over the rolling crests and valleys, until finally I paused to catch my breath at the summit of the Khyber Pass. Before me, so deathly quiet, stood the village of Landi Kotal. Imposing by itself, to be certain, it became even more so when I saw who stood guard within: none other than those legendary Untouchables themselves, the Bandit Children of Karachi.

The Bandit Children were indeed youngsters, but they bore such slight resemblance to you, my child. They were children by virtue of age alone. Urchins born without families and suckled on an infancy of thievery, they were cast out of their packs and into the world of men once they turned eleven.

The Bandit Children spotted me and recognized my mission. The pack held no affection for the Crown, nor anyone or thing else for that matter. They set upon me immediately, their dirty little paws snaking into my pockets, clawing and grasping for whatever they could steal.

I feared for a moment that my time on this mortal plane was over, but just then the morning sun crested over the peaks of the Hindu Kush. By night, the Bandit Children were bloodthirsty beasts, but in the light of day they withered back into sad, pitiful children. While the Untouchables were tearing at their rags and wailing laments towards the Sun, I ran by them and down the Pass in a burst of energy.

As I ran, I feared that my mission had been placed in the gravest jeopardy. Just at that moment, as if I truly needed another obstacle, a huge brown bear burst forth from the woods and charged me! Alas, I had no choice but to kill him with my two hands.

I looked down at the dead behemoth, and inspiration struck. With a cut and a snip, I removed the bear’s skin and wore it as a disguise. I then continued my run along the Pass, with my best effort at mimicking a bear’s shambling gait. Other Bandit Children, entire packs of lost souls, fled in fear from my approach.

I ran on. The day passed. As night fell, I found myself nearing the base of the Khyber Pass, the Torkham Gate in view. A feather of hope rose in my chest, but this fell all too soon when I saw that my path to the Gate was blocked. A lone Bandit Child stood in the road before me. He was slight in stature and unremarkable in appearance, save for the curious fact that he seemed to be made entirely out of wood.

Wood sneered with his oaken mouth. “I am not fooled by your disguise. You are no fierce bear, merely an errand boy of the King’s.” He scoffed. “Give me something to eat, and perhaps I will allow you to live for a few minutes longer before I summon my pack of thieves.”

I must admit, dear child, I was terrified. I dumped out my sack in a panic and set about fixing a meal for him. Wood crossed his twiggy arms and eyed me suspiciously. I cut open a flat piece of bread and stuffed it full with fig leaves, butter, marmalade, porridge, taffy, and honey. Wood snatched the sandwich from my hands and began to chew noisily, ripping off bites and smacking his pulpy lips with the worst manners! Oh, the way he ate! I wagered that he had not had such a fine meal in a long time, if ever at all.

While he chewed with his knotty teeth, I quietly edged further along the path… and took off past him at a run!

Wood was furious at my escape! He tried to shout to his gang of Bandit Children, but the sticky sandwich had glued his mouth shut! I ran through the Gate and down the road just as fast as my legs could carry me, which in those days was quite a pace.

And what of my mission, you ask? Well, I reached Kabul, mustered three companies of the Khan’s dragoons, and returned in force. The Bengals fled at our approach and the uprising was crushed, and just in the nick of time, I might add. I hesitate to use the word ‘hero’, but of course the King himself insisted on presenting me with the Victoria Cross.

Ah, but the road from India to London is a long and dangerous one, my child. And that journey is another tale entirely…