Not always a fan of first-person, I do sometimes attempt it. Originally, I wrote first-person exclusively. If you ask me, first-person ALWAYS suggests an unreliable narrator. I trust unreliable gods more than unreliable men.
I wrote this not long after I read Ender’s Game. I had also recently read Peter Straub’s Shadowland, and Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always.
As I’m going back through some of these older stories, I’m realizing that in most cases, my main characters, as I seem them in my head, are not far from my own age. Up until this piece, I don’t believe I had ever written a story about young children.
What’s that old Greek saying? Something to the effect of: a society becomes great when its old men plant trees they know they’ll never sit and enjoy the shade under. Close enough.
I don’t think that’s us.
There were only sixteen competitors left.
The Watchers began to escort Hines out of the Arena with little difficulty – he had fainted as soon as he discovered his fatal blunder. The other fifteen of us that had sat quietly on the edges of the darkness surrounding the puddle of light that bathed Hines and Jaspar during their bout, lowered our heads before Jaspar’s dry, crackling voice had spoken “Checkmate”.
The sound of Hines’s shoes scraping the dusty stone floor of the Arena as he was dragged out echoed throughout the cavernous Chamber of the Game, creating the illusion of a thousand giant rats scratching at the wall to get into us. I swallowed with difficulty and gave thanks to no god in particular that the passing of Hines would be quiet. I gave my thanks, however, much too soon.
Hines suddenly lurched upright with so sudden a spasm that it caught the Watchers off guard. In a flash he was running across the Chamber towards the darkened windows. Several metallic clicks were heard as Watchers fired their crossbows at Hines. Three bolts hit him in the back just before he collided with one of the windows. The glass shattered and Hines fell through in a sudden blinding ray of light. Everyone in the Chamber shielded their eyes, including myself. None of us had seen sunlight in a decade, and its fierceness both blinded and frightened us.
Jaspar was the only one not affected.
He calmly walked over to the window and looked out. He stood there for several seconds before the voice of one of the Watchers called him back. Jaspar waited only a second more before turning around and returning to stand with the rest of the sixteen competitors.
“There will be a day’s rest,” said the Master over the intercom.
And with that, sixteen young men filed into line and exited the Arena.
“What did you see?”
“Where are we?”
“Did you see any other people?”
“What happened to Hines?”
The questions were barked out, overlapping and repeated again and again, but Jaspar ignored them. Kilroy, the youngest of us started to cry. I kept to myself and stared at the mysterious thick soup we were given to eat each day. Like a robot I spooned a puddle of it to my mouth. I spared a glance to Jaspar, my new roommate, and saw he was quietly eating as well, as if none of the other boys were there.
“I heard he pisses in his sleep,” came a whisper in my ear. The voice belonged to Duraldo, who had been my roommate in the last round. “And I hear he likes to touch you when you’re asleep, because he’s sick in the head.”
I grunted. You would hear this same legend at the end of every round. Everyone gets new roommates as our numbers are halved, and it’s always this gossip you hear before the inevitable talk of the next round and who might be leaving us.
Duraldo nudged me and nodded his head towards Kilroy, who was still sobbing.
“What a waste,” he said. “He should have been long gone. Lucky bastard. Do you know who you want to pull?”
I shook my head and continued eating.
“I mean, I know you don’t get to pick, but is there someone you’d rather end up against? Someone easy?”
I didn’t answer and risked another glance at my new roommate. I didn’t want him to catch me staring, but it wasn’t an issue. Jaspar stared silently down into his bowl and continued to eat. Before long the other boys stopped asking questions, and finally Duraldo stopped talking to me long enough to eat.
The Room Bell rang and quietly we shuffled out of the cafeteria that had just a few weeks ago held a thousand boys. The echoes of our footsteps rattled around in the high ceilings as we departed for our rooms.
I jerked awake with a start, half expecting Jaspar have his hands down my pants, or standing over me urinating a puddle onto my bed with a morbid smile. I tried to sort out in the darkness if I had just woken from a nightmare, but no memory of it remained. I heard a shuffle to the left of my bed and a match was struck. There was Jaspar – he had been doing something.
“You were talking in your sleep,” he said.
I glared at him for a moment and then rolled over away from him, pulling my covers with me.
“I couldn’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about it,” he continued. “I need to tell someone what I saw.”
I sniffed and thought about it for a second. Honestly, I didn’t want to know what he’d seen out that window. I could still feel the burn of the sunlight in my eyes as if they were on fire. I sighed and rolled back over to face him.
“If I tell you,” he said, “will you promise me that you won’t tell anyone?”
Jaspar sat down next to my bed with his back to my nightstand, the candle he still carried cast odd shadows on the walls, like the specters of the competitors that hadn’t made it this far.
“Hines was hanging on to a railing,” Jaspar began. “The Chamber of the Game is at the top of a high tower overlooking an even higher cliff. There’s nothing to see but clouds … clouds so low like puddles of water. We’re so high that we’re above the clouds. I couldn’t save him. The poison on the bolts was getting to him. He was going to fall. I wanted him to see what was down there before he died, so I didn’t help him. I saw him disappear through the clouds … and then …”
Jaspar stopped talking.
The light from the candle flickered for a moment before it went out. I heard Jaspar stand and walk back to his bed. I lay there for a long time, listening to him breathe, before I finally nodded off into troubled sleep.
I remembered Smith from the first round. There were so many of us back then that was hard to focus on anyone but the people seated near you at the cafeteria or during a game at the Chamber. I remember when I had beaten … my God … I have forgotten his name …
“I watched you,” Smith said to me.
I ignored him and scanned his formation for some clue as to what he was trying to achieve. I was beginning to wish I had watched him during that game instead of focusing on my opponent. Smith was as plain as his name. His brown hair was thin and wispy and it appeared there was very little he could do with it besides let it flop lightly on the top of his head.
“I know all your moves.”
I hesitated with my fingers caressing the top of my remaining knight.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
I let go of the knight and considered one of my bishops, taking in to account the fact that his last two moves had appeared defensive, but that he might be attempting to lead my last knight into a trap.
“I congratulated you on your first win,” he said. “Do you remember that?”
Before he could finish I had his rook in my hand and had him in check.
“Bastard,” was the last word he ever spoke to me.
The eight of us left didn’t say a word at lunch the day after. Our rest periods were getting longer, and there were fewer Watchers left to guard us. Kilroy was crying again, Duraldo had given up his gossip for the spoon, settling to shovel things into his mouth instead of spew things out of it. Jaspar was pale and looking ill. A boy named Jean was staring at me across the long table but I cut my eyes away from him. He made me feel uneasy, and I didn’t know why.
Again I woke suddenly, hands rocketing towards my groin expecting to find the hands or head of some pervert pressing against me. Then I remembered that Kilroy was my new roommate.
And again, Jaspar was standing near my bed with the candle.
He pressed a finger to his lips indicating I should be silent, and then he motioned me out of bed and towards the door. The door was open!
I didn’t have time to ask him how the door had come to be not only unlocked but standing wide open as he grabbed me and pulled me stealthily out into the hall. To my surprise, Kilroy, Duraldo, and Jean were all waiting for us.
“Nicked a key from a Watcher that was napping,” Duraldo giggled.
The group of us tiptoed down the hall past the kitchen, avoiding the hall that lead towards the Watchers’ chambers. I knew where we were going, we all did. We opened a door and began to climb a long winding stair case, one that we had climbed time and again in this place.
With a loud creak, the wooden door to the Chamber of the Game opened and we all filed inside.
Duraldo made it to the broken window first. The Watchers had hastily thrown a brown canvas sheet over the gaping hole, but had yet to make formal repairs. He pulled the canvas away and the five of us peered out the window.
The moon was out, and terribly bright, but even its awesome beauty could not tear our eyes away from what we saw beneath us. Jaspar was right, we were in a tower on a cliff. What he hadn’t noticed at all though, was the identical tower several miles away across a giant expanse that seemed to be rippling like the surface of water, but with a huge gash cut in it stretching across in a straight line to the other tower. It took a moment to get our bearings and establish in our minds what it was we were actually seeing. Kilroy saw it first.
“Two armies. Waiting,” he whispered.
It was true. The raging seas on either side of the divide were vast armies of men, the moonlight glinting off their weapons and armor. A gap of several hundred yards in width separated them.
“Waiting for what?” Duraldo asked.
None of us had the answer, but we didn’t wait around to ponder on it further. Having seen what we had come to see, we fled back down the stairs. As we shuffled down the dark hallways back to our rooms, Jaspar stopped at a door. The others continued on, but I stayed with Jaspar. Quietly, and with a shaking hand he turned the knob of the door. I tried to stop him, but he had already opened the door by the time I reached him.
There was a sound like water dripping into puddles, and rocks being pushed along a stone floor, but the room was dark. Its size was difficult to judge in the darkness, but the echoes made it seem large. Something grunted in the dark, and was answered elsewhere in the room. I heard Jaspar light his candle, and there in the dancing shadows I saw Smith, his face disfigured … chewed on … without a body.
“Pigs!” Jaspar whispered harshly.
Pigs. And bodies. The bodies of every competitor who had lost his match. And puddles of filth and blood. I became violently ill to the delight of the pigs. Several trotted over to us, and the sudden reality of their size and demeanor made Jaspar and I both backpedal towards the door before quickly exiting and shutting it behind us. We gasped for breath for a few moments before we quietly walked back to our rooms, drowning in our sudden revelation.
Amazingly, Duraldo wasn’t talking.
Neither was I.
I was picturing Duraldo being eaten by pigs.
I was picturing two armies facing off against each other, waiting for something.
Duraldo made his move, an unwise move. I could see the next eight or so moves in my head and knew I had him beat. I had just killed Duraldo, but part of me wondered if I should throw the game so that he would live. None of the others knew what was in store for them, just Jaspar and I.
Duraldo smiled weakly.
And silently I sent him to his death.
Jean and I sat on one side of the lone table in the cafeteria, Jaspar and Kilroy on the other.
We ate in silence, our minds on the next day in the Chamber of the Game – one step closer to either death or answers. None of us had spoken to each other that day, not after hearing Duraldo’s screams down the hallway. Never in all my time in that place had I heard a boy dying. I’ve seen them shot with poison, dragged away gibbering and spluttering under the weight of their fears, but never had I heard a boy die until Duraldo’s distinct voice came thundering down the hallways to our rooms. Jean was my roommate then but I could hear Kilroy across the hall whimpering while Jaspar tried to console him.
“Pig,” said Jean.
Jaspar and I jerked our heads up and stared at Jean, Kilroy kept eating.
“I finally figured out what this stuff is,” he said, shoveling another spoonful into his mouth. “It’s pork.”
Jaspar and I did not eat again.
Jaspar was crying, his tears falling on the chessboard.
I silently wished he could cry enough to flood this place. I’d rather drown than know that another one of us had been fed to pigs.
“I’m sorry,” Jaspar said. “I’m so sorry.”
He set his knight down and for a moment I saw what he saw. That my life was over.
But no …
The fool … the damned fool …
He didn’t even see the pawn. The lowliest of pieces, and here ignored – and here exalted. I made the move and Jaspar gasped so deeply that he was still sucking in air when the Watchers took him.
Quietly I reached across the board and tipped his king over.
I woke slowly this time, wanting to feel hands touching me, wanting to feel the dampness of urine soaking through my clothes, wanting Jaspar to still be alive and with him the myths and legends that sustained us though they never manifested.
I was alone.
Across the hall, Jean was also alone.
Tomorrow would be the last game in the Chamber of the Game.
All the Watchers were in attendance. They surrounded us, lurking in the darkness just outside the light of the circle.
Jean was stalling.
“Where are you from?” he asked, faking a nice smile. “I’m from France. You know, I think we might still be in France. When they took me, I didn’t travel long. This must be France.”
I cleared my throat.
Jean laughed softly and made his move.
Thunderous applause broke out around us. The Watchers were cheering.
I hadn’t even noticed. Jean’s move was fatal for him. I didn’t even have to finish the game, it was over.
“I hope this is France so I can die at home,” Jean said as he was dragged away.
I was bathed thoroughly by women, fed rich fruits and breads, and then dressed in golden shining armor.
The Watchers set a plumed helm on my head and escorted me down deep, deep into the complex where I had lived for a decade. As we reached a door, an intercom clicked on and I heard the Master’s voice.
“Thank you for playing. Please remember, we are all counting on you.”
And then the intercom clicked off.
The door was thrown open and I was marched down a long gap between two opposing armies.
I looked over my shoulder and realized that I had come out at the base of the cliff I had seen in the tower. I couldn’t see the tower above me, for the clouds were thick and low.
It seemed like I marched forever with the procession of Watchers around me. Soon I noticed another plumed and golden-armored general approaching in the distance. We met at a table, and on the table was a chessboard.
We were seated and our helms were removed. The boy that was seated across from me looked foreign and younger than myself. He smiled at me, but I didn’t return the smile.
“Play,” said a voice.
The boy opposite me made his first move.
“Why?” I said.
I looked to my right and my left at the two armies. Then I looked to the Watchers. There was silence all around.
Then an intercom clicked on.
“Because war is inevitable. Because man is greedy. Because now bloodshed is unnecessary. Play the game, save your people. Win the game, win a kingdom.”
“Fortune and Glory,” the boy across from me said.
The fools had given me a ceremonial knife, sheathed as part of my ceremonial armor.
I grabbed its hilt, pulled it out in the same series of motions that propelled me from my chair, and before they could stop me I had leaped across the table and slit the boy’s throat.
The armies roared to life with a thunder that caused my eardrums to burst. The ground shook as the armies surged towards one another. The Watchers scattered in terror. The boy gazed at me emptily as his blood flowed over the board and between the pieces in puddles.
I felt myself rise away from the scene as the armies collided around me.
I saw my own king, in black obsidian, fall among the pawns.
I saw myself as the catalyst to the chemical reaction that was raging around me.
I saw the blood in puddles – on the board, on the ground, in the sky as clouds were turned red by the setting sun.
I saw the human race.