I found it in the back of my grandfather’s cupboard, as we were clearing out his house. A king piece from the game Dreaming Cogs, which he used to play in the park with his friends. He’d taught me too, and the feel of the piece brought back memories of his smile.
I dusted the tin king off with a corner of my tailcoat, wound the key in its back, and set it down. It marched back and forth, guided by tiny and intricate gear systems, trying to give orders to pieces that weren’t there.
“You know there’s been a revival,” my father said. “You should take that and play at one of the new clubs.”
I shook my head.
“I’m out of practice, and I don’t even know how this king behaves.”
But two days later, I walked into the pub where the Desperate Dreamers Club met, holding not just that king but a whole Dreaming Cogs set.
“I used to play with my grandfather,” I explained to their president. “I wanted one last game in his memory.”
“Membership is a shilling.” The president smiled. “Who knows, you might decide you want more than one game.”
She was right. The minute I started winding my pieces and setting them out, something swelled inside me. The world seemed brighter as I made my first move.
Grandfather’s king won for me. He was a custom piece whose pattern of orders caught my opponent by surprise. As his arm nudged my other pieces and then triggered their actions, the other side swiftly became penned in, unable to manoeuvre.
“I say, that’s a marvellous piece,” my opponent said as he shook my hand in surrender. “Don’t suppose you’re selling, are you?”
That had been my plan when I walked through the door, but I found myself drawn in another direction. Instead, I found a fresh opponent and set up a new game.
By the end of the afternoon, a small crowd had gathered around my sixth consecutive match. Somewhere in that crowd, I felt the memory of my grandfather watching me, encouraging and guiding.
“You’re dashed good at this,” my latest opponent said, dabbing at her forehead with a handkerchief. “And that king of yours…”
On cue, I tapped the king’s head, sending him into action once more. A cascade of pawns and my queen’s witch advanced in a dance dictated by the king, one that could easily have become a tangled disaster, but instead brought me inches from victory.
I smiled. Now I had the measure of grandfather’s piece, I could set up these complicated strategies. It was immensely satisfying.
“Is that king strictly legal?” one of the observers asked. “It doesn’t sound like a regulation mechanism.”
“Dreaming Cogs is all about custom pieces,” I said, remembering the first lesson from my grandfather. “Its beauty is in the unexpected.”
“Our sport has moved on since the days of backroom tinkerers and custom cogwheels,” the president said. Her tone had been sharp since I’d beaten her in my third game – losing to a new arrival had clearly stung her pride. “If you want to keep playing with that king, then you’ll need to find a registered craftsman to bring it up to standards.”
My jaw dropped. She wanted some stranger to mess with this beautiful, intricate mechanism my grandfather had made.
I took the king off the board, forfeiting the game as I did so, and clutched it close to my chest.
“You can’t touch my king.”
“Then maybe I should give you your shilling back. We only take regulation players here.”
Without another word, I gathered up my pieces and stormed out. Gasps and giggles told me how much sympathy I would have received if I’d pleaded my case. I’d thought I’d found a connection, but these people didn’t understand the game my grandfather loved.
It was a warm summer’s evening and so I walked to the park to calm myself down. Sitting on a bench at the edge of the rose garden, I took the king out of my pocket, wound him, and set him on the ground. My grandfather’s memory hovered in my mind, an image of warmth and kindness.
“Maybe I should let you go,” I said, looking down at the tin playing piece with its tiny crown.
Then I heard voices across the park. I looked up to see grey-haired women and men sat around a cluster of rickety wooden tables, playing Dreaming Cogs into the evening just like my grandfather had done.
With a trembling hand, I picked up the king and walked over.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you… Could… I wondered if…”
“What a splendid king!” a woman said, peering into my hands. “It’s almost as fine as mine.”
She plucked hers off the board to show me. Its shape was unlike any king I’d seen before, with two ordering arms and a turban instead of a crown. When she set it back down, her opponent made no objection.
“Could I play next?” I asked in a small voice.
Someone pulled up a chair for me, while another of them started setting up the board.
“My grandfather made this,” I explained, feeling like a small child showing off a toy.
“My nephew made mine,” the woman said. “I still don’t know all the tricks he built in, but who cares? There’s beauty in the unexpected.”
Smiling, I sat back and watched their match. In my mind’s eye, my grandfather smiled.
If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.
Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.
For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.
Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.
Learning from disciplines and genres other than your own is one of the best ways to expand your writing. It helps you look at the craft from different angles and come up with ideas you would never normally encounter. This is especially true when there’s someone smart and insightful talking on the subject. So while I don’t often write horror or games, Ian Thomas’s talk at Nine Worlds on making horror in games gave me some great food for thought.
Looking through my notes, there was plenty of stuff I’ll save for if I ever run live roleplay again. Things like using all your senses, knocking players off balance emotionally so that they stop and watch, or providing a pile of in character documents instead of a character description so that players would fill the gaps and imagine themselves into the character’s life. It’s thinking outside the default approach to games, which is how you make something that stands out.
But there were some lessons that clearly apply to writing as well.
Scare the player/reader, not the character. After all, it’s the reader’s emotions that will keep them engaged. And to a large extent, this applies to other emotions. Whether it’s leading readers into a crush on a romantic lead or making them really angry at the villain, those feelings are the real power in a story. So consider the readers’ emotions.
Put yourself in the player/reader’s shoes. What will they be thinking about at any given point, given the gap between what they know and what you know?
Leave gaps. Our human survival instinct means that we are constantly looking for patterns and jumping at shadows. So create a few bright, clear points where everything is specified, and then leave players/readers to find their way between them. Let their imaginations make it real.
Be careful not to break the player/reader’s mental model of what’s going on. That can wreck their immersion, and so the emotional momentum you’ve built. If you’re going to pull the rug out from under their feet, make sure it’s in a way that adjusts that mental model, not shatters it.
And if you want to read more on how Ian applies this stuff, check out the write up on the game God Rest Ye Merry, which friends of mine have been raving about ever since.
As I’ve mentioned here once or twice (or a bazillion times), I love conversations where philosophy and high culture tackle pop culture. Using geeky narratives to explore deep issues is my idea of fun. And I’m going to be doing it in public on the 4th of August on a panel at the Nine Worlds convention. If you’re going to be at Nine Worlds then please come hear me pontificate and other people share real wisdom. And if you’re not, hey, maybe next year.
I love novel approaches to story and games. So when I saw a flyer for a monthly “art, gaming and storytelling experiment” delivered to subscribers by post, I was never going to resist.
Each month, Cryptogram Puzzle Post sends you a bundle of beautifully presented and interconnected puzzles. There are pretty pictures, brain teasers, and a suggested playlist, all themed around a story of alchemy and nature. It’s so fricking cool.
I haven’t got far with my puzzles. I’m still stuck on the last page of the first set and the second delivery arrived days ago. But even that adds to the excitement. Having something fun come by post, instead of junkmail. The lovely illustrated envelope. The anticipation of knowing that it’ll arrive and of opening the envelope.
The modern world has made it easier to experiment with culture. The internet lets you reach a wide audience with niche products. But this means we can get stuck doing stuff electronically.
Cryptogram Puzzle Post is something a bit different. For that alone, I salute it. And spend hours obsessing over it, trying to solve that last damn puzzle.
Sometimes the bad guys win. Laughing Wolf had known that his whole life. How could he not know, when white men had been driving his tribe from their homes for generations?
As he watched Alfonse King and his goons follow Lizzie out of the saloon doors into the street, Laughing Wolf knew that this was one of those times. Lizzie had tried to do the right thing, had risked her future for the sake of the people in this town. For that, she’d been robbed of her power and her future.
Because sometimes the bad guys win.
Ernie appeared behind the bar and poured them each a large glass of whiskey.
“This one’s on me,” he said.
“Not today,” Laughing Wolf replied, pushing it away.
With growing determination, he stepped away from the bar and out through the swinging doors. Bells and feathers rattled against the coup stick in his hand.
This wasn’t over yet. He could start a new game, one where his coup magic would let him free Lizzie. But for that to work, he needed to start a fight.
“Hey, Figgis,” Laughing Wolf said.
King’s foreman turned just in time for Laughing Wolf’s fist to collide with his jaw. It was the most perfect and satisfying thing Laughing Wolf had ever done. Teeth and blood sprayed in a fine arc. The grumpy thug staggered back in shock and pain.
The coup stick pulsed with power. The worse the odds, the more glorious it was to count coup, and here he was facing six men with six-shooters.
As Alfonse turned to see what was happening, Laughing Wolf lunged at him with the stick.
There was a bang. Pain smashed through Laughing Wolf like a sledgehammer. His leg gave way and he sank to his knees, staring in horror at the pulped muscle and shattered bone that had been his shin.
He looked up. The world was spinning, but Alfonse King was perfectly clear, standing over him with a look of disgust. Beside him, smoke drifted from Figgis’s gun barrel, blood running from between his lips. Behind them, Lizzie looked lost and broken.
“Idiot,” Alfonse said. “I won at the poker table. I won at the great chess game tying you all to this town. I’ve never found a game I couldn’t win at, but you keep challenging me.”
“There are other games,” Laughing Wolf said, looking past them at Lizzie. “No-one wins by giving up.”
Lizzie looked back at him. Her slumped shoulders straightened. She cast aside the pack of cards she had been clutching and looked around.
Laughing Wolf could feel his strength fading. With a trembling hand, he raised the coup stick.
“Still fighting?” King took the gun from Figgis. He pointed it at Laughing Wolf.
There was another bang and a terrible burning pain in Laughing Wolf’s belly. He slumped forward, his face landing between King’s boots, his arm and the coup stick stretching out past the businessman.
“Stupid fucking redskin,” Alfonse said.
There was a click as the hammer was pulled back on a gun.
As the world grew darker, Laughing Wolf saw a slender hand pick up his coup stick. There was a rattle of bells and feathers and the soft thud of wood tapping flesh.
“What did you-” Alfonse began.
“Stop talking,” Lizzie said, her skirts rustling inches from Laughing Wolf’s face. “I counted coup. You’re mine now.”
Two of the other thugs were visible from where Laughing Wolf lay. They drew their pistols.
“Tell them to drop the guns,” Lizzie said.
“Drop the guns,” King repeated.
“Are you sure, boss?” Figgis said. “All she’s got is a damn stick.”
“A stick that could steal your boss’s soul,” Lizzie growled.
Laughing Wolf laughed. That wasn’t how counting coup worked. It just gave you control over someone for a while. But then, white folks seldom bothered to learn about other people’s games. Away from the poker table, they were easy to bluff.
Laughing brought blood to his lips. He wondered if it was better or worse that that didn’t hurt. But it was an idle sort of wondering. Everything seemed far away now.
“Drop the guns,” King repeated.
There was a thud of weapons hitting the dirt.
“Now tell them to leave town,” Lizzie said. “And not to come back.”
“Leave town,” Alfonse repeated. “Don’t return.”
One by one, the men walked away. After a few minutes, there was a sound of hooves disappearing into the distance.
“Ernie, grab a gun and keep it trained on Mister King here,” Lizzie said.
She knelt beside Laughing Wolf, her face inches from his.
“We’ll get you through this,” she said. “I’ll send for a doctor, and-”
This time it hurt to laugh. But it was worth it. This was the way Laughing Wolf wanted to go. The punchline of a joke on every greedy bastard who’d ever tried to trample folks into the dirt.
“Sometimes the good guys win,” he said.
Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
* * *
As a writer, I have a habit of doing the worst things to the characters I love most. Even when I’m ghostwriting, the secondary characters I create to fill gaps will often be put through the wringer. Maybe it’s a sign of a sadistic streak. Maybe it’s just that attention it how you show a character that you care.
Either way, it’s a habit that’s struck down poor Laughing Wolf, who wasn’t even in the original outline for this series. He emerged from between the details of Lizzie and Alfonse’s conflict, and now look at him.
Aren’t writers the worst?
If you enjoyed this, you can read the previous episodes of this little series here:
The One Night Town – Using magic at the poker table, Lizzie tries to learn more about a town on the edge of the old west.
Watching Ernie shuffle cards hurt Lizzie. It wasn’t that she wanted to hold them in her own hands, to feel the flow of magic through the deck. It was the sheer clumsiness of the man, the ungainly way he mashed the cards together. Watching someone make such a mess was unbearable.
The doors of the saloon swung open. Alfonse King stepped inside, his gleaming shoes clacking against the floorboards. He twirled the end of his moustache between his fingers. Behind him came Figgis in a crumpled old shirt, followed by half a dozen matching thugs, all wearing six-shooters.
“You came.” Lizzie pushed the empty seat away from the table. Alfonse dusted it off with a handkerchief before sitting down.
“I hear you beat the men hunting you,” Alfonse said. “I figure now you’ll get bored and start making me trouble. So I’m offering you the chance to leave town.”
“Just me?” Lizzie asked.
“I’ll release you from the spell so you can move on,” Alfonse said. “Let the past be the past.”
“Not interested,” Lizzie said, looking around the table. Laughing Wolf gave her a slow nod. Ernie just focused on the cards.
“But my offer still stands. One game, high stakes. If I win, you let down the barrier trapping folks here. If you win, I’ll marry you.”
“You said you’d marry me before.” Alfonse’s tone was bitter.
“This time I’ll be bound by my own magic,” Lizzie said. “You can put that old humiliation behind you.”
“What’s his stake?” Alfonse pointed at Laughing Wolf.
“My tribe’s knowledge of these lands,” the native said.
“Alright.” Alfonse nodded. “I’m in.”
Ernie slid a pile of counters in front of each of them and then dealt the first hand. The minute they placed their bets, Lizzie felt the power binding them to the game.
That was magic. It used you as much as you used it.
Within half an hour, Laughing Wolf’s stack of chips was almost gone. Lizzie wasn’t surprised. Alfonse had played in the most powerful cabals New York and Washington had to offer. It was all she could do to counter the card tracking spells and distraction cantrips he was using against her. Laughing Wolf never stood a chance.
“All in.” Laughing Wolf slid his remaining chips into the pot.
They flipped their cards over. Alfonse hadn’t been bluffing about his strength on this hand.
With a sigh, Laughing Wolf got up and went to stand by the bar, taking his brightly coloured coup stick with him.
The next hand went Lizzie’s way. Then two went heavily against her. She was down to a handful of chips. That meant less room to take risks, less chance to scrape back a win.
She gritted her teeth, trying not to let her frustration show. She’d thought she was onto a good thing. Instead, she risked having that snake Alfonse paw at her every night.
“You’ve been practising,” she said, trying to get him to open up a little.
“That and business are all I’ve got out here.” He ran his gaze up and down her body. “Until now, anyway.”
She won a couple of small pots, but not enough to balance the stakes. Then she let him win one so that she could run a spell through the winnings and try to expose his mood. But he sensed the magic and countered it by tipping Ernie with the critical chip.
Next, Alfonse hesitated over a big bet. She thought she had a winner and kept pushing the bets higher, only for him to reveal a full house, Kings over Queens, and take it all away.
Lizzie’s spirits sank. She was down to her last few chips.
“Why are you doing this?” Alfonse asked as Ernie slowly dealt the cards.
“I didn’t want anyone else to feel trapped,” Lizzie said. “Like I did back when we were engaged.”
Anger flashed across his face, the first real emotion he’d shown all game. Then he picked up his cards.
He tapped his finger and thumb together. Just a little gesture, but one she recognised.
The facade had cracked. He had a bad hand. But she didn’t have enough chips to make the most of it. He could just bet small, let her win, and wait to beat her later.
It’s late on Saturday night in the heart of Leeds. I’m sitting in a deconsecrated church with twenty people I met for the first time today, staring at my phone and waiting for a call I know will never come.
Everybody here is going to die. It’s my fault and it was the right thing to do.
This is New Pathways in Lycanthropy.
New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a one-day live roleplay (LRP) event. It was run at Left Bank Leeds by Penn Tynan and her splendid team of volunteers. It was intense.
The concept for the game was that, in 2014, a strange new disease had emerged. Quickly labelled lycanthropy, it effectively turned people into werewolves. We were playing people whose work related to lycanthropes, from police specialists to the manager of a celebrity spa facility to an insurance executive struggling to understand the disease’s repercussions. We were all attending a one day training course on lycanthropy-related issues.
Or so we thought.
Meet Alan, He’s Out of his Depth
I was playing Alan Kirk MP.
A local independent MP, I’d got my seat as an anti-corruption protest candidate. I thought that getting involved in lycanthropy was the best way I could do some good with my new job, so I’d got onto the Parliamentary Select Committee for Lycanthropy. Most professional politicians didn’t want to touch lycanthropy with a barge pole because there were few votes and no easy answers. They were more than happy to let me drink from the poison chalice.
Before I became an MP, I was a children’s TV presenter. As a politician, I was well-intentioned but completely out of my depth. It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling well.
Meet Andy, He’s Not Sure About This
As a live roleplayer, I don’t usually go in for anything serious. I find LRP incredibly emotionally engaging, but that can also make it very draining. So if I’m going to play, I normally play something silly.
My friend Jules convinced me to try New Pathways, even though it looked very serious. It was only one day and it was local, so there wasn’t a huge time commitment. Plus it was a one-off event, so I wouldn’t get into the energy drain of thinking about my character and the game between events. I was wary, but up for it.
This shaped the character I created. I needed to mostly be serious, so that I could engage with the game and its issues. The MP seemed an excellent choice. He was a character who would give me a reason to take on a role leading and enabling others, which is something I enjoy in a game. He was a nice guy, so I could be friendly and sociable. I also gave him an extra little emotional twist that I’ll come to later.
The children’s TV part was a concession to my inner fool. This way, if I got bored or things got too intense then I could dip into that background and start pratting about. If you’re going to LRP, make sure you’ve got a backup source of fun, because even the best events have lulls. You have to be prepared to take the initiative and entertain yourself.
Now you’ve met both my personalities, let’s see how they got on with the day…
The day started with a message from the local Lycanthropy Unit. There had been an incident in Leeds and we were on amber alert. Nothing to worry about, just slightly higher security than usual.
Given the public hysteria around lycanthrope attacks, this wasn’t uncommon. Certainly not worth causing a panic by telling people.
Following a brief charity meeting at a local café, I made my way to the New Pathways in Lycanthropy training course. There were a mixture of scientists, public servants, and people from the private sector.
It started off like any other training course. We couldn’t read the slides. The lunch was late. Stimulating conversations had to be cut short to keep the agenda moving. I met some nice people, though none of the scientists I was looking to make links with.
We had some fascinating conversations about the implications of lycanthropy. How it disrupted the lives of people and institutions. The different reactions everyone had to it. The lack of a cure and the different ways the disease could be prevented or managed.
Then rumours started coming in that lycanthropes were changing into their beast form around Leeds. This wasn’t meant to happen during daytime, especially as it wasn’t a full moon. Attendees with infected friends and relatives started looking worried.
The course organiser stepped outside to fetch something from her car.
As we would later realise, she was never coming back.
From what I’ve seen of LRP, there are two main approaches to the hobby.
There’s the approach that’s common in America and Western Europe, where it’s about an escapist experience. It draws mostly from tabletop roleplay games. It’s an exploration of culture in which the best games create immersive drama, action, horror, comedy, or whatever genre you’re in. Players might spend the weekend as wizards at a magical school.
Then there’s Scandinavian LRP. It’s much more strongly linked to art and improvisational theatre. It’s used to explore deep social and psychological issues. Players might spend a weekend as refugees crossing Denmark or as ex-members of a Scientology-style cult trying to recover from the experience.
The first part of the course felt very Scandinavian. Lycanthropy made a great metaphor for current concerns about refugees, health funding, disabilities, and gender divisions. Ten minutes of group discussions about werewolves got me looking at those things and their implications in whole new ways. How do insurers react to a new illness? How do we tackle prejudice when it’s grounded in self-preservation? How can you avoid stigmatising a community while still talking about limiting the spread of their illness?
So far, so interesting. And there were hints of something more coming down the line.
People working for the government received a red alert. There was a real lycanthropy crisis in Leeds and the city was in lockdown. We weren’t to leave the building.
Without the course organiser, we couldn’t carry on with our day as planned. People got bored. They got restless.
The scientists started investigating what was happening in the city. I made myself useful by calling in scientific equipment from the local Lycanthropy Unit, which was set up outside the hall. Some of the top experts in lycanthropy started working intensely on understanding why people were suddenly and unexpectedly turning into monsters.
Halfway through the afternoon, tragedy struck. Brother Simeon, a friend of mine who helped run a homeless hostel, had become infected. He turned into a beast and attacked people. The scientists tried to cure him with an experimental drug. They used too much and he died.
Along the way, he had infected another person.
I mourned for my friend and started making funeral arrangements.
Then I went back to being bored and restless.
This long stretch of the afternoon was when I had doubts about the game. The players of scientific characters had a lot to do. The rest of us, almost nothing.
In retrospect, it was important in pacing the event. It left us feeling helpless and vulnerable for later. But as I sat catching Pokémon and talking about TV shows, I wished I’d come up with an even sillier character. I really needed entertaining.
I needn’t have worried. I was about to be intensely “entertained”.
By half past eight, we’d identified three participants in the course who were infected with lycanthropy. The scientists had worked out what was causing them to transform and attack – a chemical compound released by terrorists. It was in the air. All we could do was contain people, stay safe, and wait for this to be over.
The lycanthropes had been locked in a room. They were getting agitated and battering at the door. We couldn’t contain them much longer.
Meanwhile, Alexander Smith, the government liaison sent to help the scientists, started freaking out. He was staring at his phone and talking about something terrible happening. I’d been trying to keep him calm during an earlier panic attack, so I went over to comfort him.
I saw the message on his phone. It said PURPLE ALERT. I didn’t know what that was, but nothing in capital letters is ever good.
Then the lycanthropes burst out. In ten minutes of chaos and panic, they were driven from the building. But along the way, they severely injured half the people there, leaving them infected with the disease.
One of the injured people was Alexander. With his throat half ripped out, it was doubtful we could save his life, never mind get him conscious to find out more about the purple alert.
Fortunately, as an MP, I had contacts. Going to a quiet corner of the room, I phoned the head of the Department of Lycanthropy. They were shocked to hear that I was caught up in the situation in Leeds. They explained the purple alert.
The contagion couldn’t be contained. For the sake of the rest of the world, in two hours time, the whole city of Leeds would be bombed with nerve gas.
We were all doomed.
And so the final act began.
Suddenly, the game had become intense and nerve wracking. There were werewolves battering at the door. Surviving and treating the injured gave everyone something to do.
We were a long way away from the reflective social scientific explorations of Scandinavian LRP.
I knew that the scientists on the course had made incredible breakthroughs today. That could save lives. I convinced my government contact that those findings needed to get out.
She agreed that, before the nerve gas attack, they would send a team to extract four uninfected people and any information they had developed. It was up to me to pick those people.
For me, this became about saving the most lives, not just in the room but in Leeds and the rest of the world. I had to keep everyone here calm and make sure that the science got out safely. I couldn’t tell everyone what was happening or there would be panic.
The four people I picked would live. Everyone else would die. It was on me.
The first pick was easy – the one uninjured scientist in the room. Anyone injured was infected, so they were out. I told Dr Lockheart about the situation, and he found two other people who understood the science. I took them quietly aside, told them the truth, and told them to be ready to leave when the time came.
One space left. One life to save. I didn’t want to waste it, so I found a group of creative types I’d been talking with earlier. I couldn’t risk telling more people the truth, so I started spinning a lie. There would be waves of extraction teams at five-minute intervals. There was space for one more person in the first extraction. Which of them would go?
In a touching moment, a couple who were novelists tried to convince each other to go, then decided to stay together. Their friend the artist would be the fourth person.
Then we got a call from some of the other scientists. They were hiding in the tent outside. They had developed a cure. They were coming in past the hordes of ravening werewolves.
In an intense and scary moment, they got in safely.
It was ten o’clock. We had half an hour left.
I got on the phone to the government and begged them to call off the attack. But without a method to distribute the cure, they wouldn’t do it.
And still, no-one else knew what I knew.
In thirty minutes, all but four of us would die.
These last two hours contained the most fascinating moral dilemmas I’ve ever dealt with in a game. I had to pick who lived and died. I had to decide whether to tell people the truth. Once the other scientists got back in, I had to decide whether I could change who was leaving. The more scientists involved with the cure got out the better for the whole world. But anyone I took off that list of four for extraction would die. Three of them knew that and might cause trouble if things changed.
By now, because I’d been helpful and authoritative, people were turning to me for information and direction. It was getting really, really intense.
Alan: Decision Time
Twenty past ten. There’s a knock on the door. Soldiers are here to take four people safely past the werewolves.
I call people over.
Dexter Lockheart, the first scientist I put on my list to live.
Libby, a museum worker who understands the science and knows the truth. Nice lady. Glad I got to save her.
Jessica, who runs a spa for wealthy lycanthropes. She was fun to talk with when I was bored. I’m not sure she’s the best human being here, but again, she understands the science, she knows the truth, and if I don’t let her out now I think she might cause trouble.
One space left. I’ve already asked the artist to wait for the “next extraction”.
I look at the other scientists. They’ve found a cure that will save thousands or millions of lives. They’ve worked incredibly hard under terrible circumstances. They’re a gift to humanity.
And I’m effectively killing all but one of them.
I grab the nearest one. I shove her at the soldiers. “This is your fourth.”
“You’re here for the first group?” someone else asks, wanting to know when the soldiers will be back for them.
“First group?” a soldier says. “What are you talking about?”
A vision flashes across my mind. A score of desperate people turning on each other for the sake of survival. Soldiers pulling out their guns. Scientists caught in the crossfire. The cure lost. All of today’s horror and tragedy coming to nothing.
“Just go,” I say. I’m a sickly MP who doesn’t get nearly enough exercise, and I’m shoving a gun-toting professional killer out of a doorway. I really hope they go with it.
Or maybe I don’t. Maybe I want people to hear the truth. Maybe I don’t want these terrible decisions to be mine.
The soldier turns and leaves, taking the four survivors.
Damn, that was close.
Andy’s not really in the picture any more. I’ve forgotten about Pokémon and TV. I’m just being Alan.
I sit down on the floor, staring at my phone. If it rings in the next ten minutes, then the scientists have convinced the government that we can spread the cure. Leeds will live.
If not, we all die.
“Are they really coming back for us?”
I don’t even see who asked the question. I’m too caught up in the fact that I’ve killed everyone here. I’m grieving my own lost innocence, the children’s TV presenter I once was. And honestly, I feel like shit. My meds, combined with the stress of the day, are taking it out of me.
“No,” I admit, to myself as well as them. “I’m sorry.”
I go around the room, apologising to people for not saving them. Most are understanding. One of them admires me for not saving myself.
I sit by the altar. Two people are there. I apologise. They say it’s OK. They thank me for what I’ve done today, helping everyone out.
I sink exhausted onto the floor.
“For what it’s worth, I would have voted for you next time,” one of them says.
“You wouldn’t have had the chance,” I reply. “I was going back for the next round of chemo next week, but we know it won’t work. I was going to be dead by the next election. That’s why I got into lycanthropy issues. Desperately looking for a cure for cancer in this new disease.”
The sound of helicopters approaches. I get up and try to call the government one last time. Not for my sake, but for all the good people in this room and all the other people across Leeds who are about to die.
It’s too late. The air smells strange. I’m choking on my own breath.
I collapse, phone in hand. I watch the world fade away. My last thought is that at least I won’t have to go through more chemo.
When I got home after New Pathways in Lycanthropy, I couldn’t sleep. I kept running over decisions I’d made in character. Had I made the right choices? What else could I have done?
Today is the morning after. I got up and took my friend to the station. Then, for the first time since I moved into my house, I sat on the doorstep. After everything I’d been through, I didn’t want to close myself into my comfortable bubble. I wanted to be out there for humanity to interact with. I wanted to see people, to exchange casual conversation with passing strangers, like I’d done with the people on that imaginary training course. Because I felt raw and vulnerable, and I remembered, in a way I hadn’t for a long time, that people are the only thing that truly matters.
I took a lot away from New Pathways in Lycanthropy. Some serious thoughts on marginalised groups, healthcare, and social issues. Some fascinating thoughts on game design. Some memories I’ll be dwelling on for weeks.
But what I mostly took away was the intensity of emotion I got from living Alan Kirk’s last two hours. It’s left me exposed to the world in the best possible way. I hope it’s something I can hang onto.
As Lizzie approached the town, a feeling of familiarity settled over her. It wasn’t the comforting feeling of seeing something well loved and long missed. It was the terrible familiarity of seeing something where it shouldn’t be.
This town wasn’t similar to the one she had just left behind. It was the same town.
Looking over her shoulder, she could see it behind her. A fistful of wooden buildings scattered along the dirt road, hills rising up to either side. The saloon called the Pawn Sacrifice stood out from the rest, with its balconies and its tall frontage.
She looked ahead and there it was again – the Pawn Sacrifice, jutting out of the same string of buildings.
With a snap of the reins, she urged Hunter to hurry through the town. They emerged on the far side, rounded a heap of rocks, and there the town was again. With growing speed and mounting frustration, she raced through the same streets a dozen times. Every time, she found herself back where she had started.
At last, she pulled up out front of the Pawn Sacrifice. An exhausted Hunter guzzled eagerly from the water trough.
“What the hell?” Lizzie yelled into the darkening sky.
“I said good luck.” Laughing Wolf, the native she had played poker with, stood on the porch of the saloon. “Guess it didn’t work out.”
“What the hell’s going on here?” Lizzie demanded, striding up to him.
“It’s the railroad company,” Laughing Wolf said. “They set this up to stop anyone leaving. Drifters, hunters, traders, even wild animals that wander by, we’re all trapped here.”
“Why?” Lizzie asked.
Laughing Wolf shrugged.
“It is what it is,” he replied. “Not my sort of magic. I just relax and enjoy what this place has.”
“Not your sort of magic?” Lizzie asked. “Wait, did you know that I was using powers during our game?”
“Didn’t bother me. You weren’t using them to win.”
“That bastard Figgis,” Lizzie snarled. “I knew there was something strange going on. I’ll hunt him down and make him let me leave.”
“No point. He’s just a pawn for his boss.”
Lizzie pressed her fingers against her tired eyes.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll stay the night, get moving in the morning, or whenever this wears off.”
“I wouldn’t mount your horse yet,” Laughing Wolf said. “It’s been like this for months.”
“Months? I can’t stay in one place for months.”
Lizzie tried to contain her growing sense of panic. She pictured the men she had fled from back east, men who nearly caught her a month before. Men with muscles and guns and debts they felt they were owed.
“It’s not up to you,” Laughing Wolf said. “Sometimes you’re a player, sometimes you’re a piece. Just relax, drink whiskey, play cards, wait for this to pass.”
“No. I need to get out of here. Who’s the top company man?”
“His name’s Mr King.”
A deeper discomfort settled across Lizzie.
“Not Alfonse King?” she asked, without much hope.
Alfonse hadn’t changed since the day Lizzie gave him back his ring. His moustache was neatly waxed, every hair on his head perfectly in place, his suit fitting him like a second skin.
“What an unexpected pleasure,” he said as his assistant showed Lizzie into his office.
The door clicked shut behind her and the two of them were alone.
“It’s certainly unexpected,” she said, surveying the room. A set of shelves held books on engineering, history, and games. Wine and spirits were lined up neatly next to glasses on a side table. The window behind the big wooden desk showed a view across low hills to where the railroad was being laid down.
“Why did you do it?” Lizzie asked.
“Do what?” Alfonse replied.
“This trap.” Lizzie walked over to a low table by the shelves. A game of chess was in progress across a board she had seen many times. It radiated power, just as the cards did when she was in the middle of a game.
“You always were smart,” Alfonse said. “I might as well tell, it’s not like you can get a message out.
“I want my railway to be the only way into and out of this place. No-one will be able to walk, ride, or run away. I’ll control the flow of traffic into one of the most valuable regions of the west. Imagine how much that’s worth.”
“You don’t need me to make your profit,” Lizzie said. “Can’t you let me go, for old times’ sake?”
Alfonse laughed bitterly.
“I should slap you for old times’ sake,” he said. “The humiliation you brought on me, my fiance running off like that.”
“Then how about a game?” Lizzie asked, pulling out a deck of cards. “If I win, you let me move on. If you win, I marry you. You can put all that shame behind you, tell people that you brought me back into line, or whatever you need to feel powerful.”
The thought of marrying him sickened her, but so did the dread at her pursuers catching up. It was a desperate gamble, but it was worth taking.
Alfonse looked at the cards and then at Lizzie.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I know who’s after you. I know what they’ll do. And I’ll take more satisfaction in that than I ever could from keeping you in my life.
“Goodnight, Lizzie. Enjoy your stay.”
Laughing Wolf looked up from his table as Lizzie slouched into the bar.
“I told you,” he said. “We’re not the players. Sit back and try to enjoy the game.”
Lizzie sighed and sat down beside him. There was a pack of cards on the table and a row of whiskey bottles behind the bar. There were worse ways to spend her final days.
“Fine,” she said, accepting her fate. “Deal me in.”
* * *
This is the second in a series of flash stories I’m stringing together into something larger. If you want to find out more about how Lizzie got to this point, you can read the first part, The One Night Town. And if you’d like to have the rest of this series delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll also get a free e-book.
Next time, events take a turn for the worse as the past catches up with Lizzie…
Lizzie tugged at the reins, steering Hunter and her little waggon into a side street outside the saloon. Already she could tell that this would be a one night town, a quick stop on her way to the mining settlements in the hills. There couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people living here. Tracking down the ones who knew about mineral deposits wouldn’t take long. Whatever her employers needed to know, she’d find it out tonight.
She got down from the waggon, checked the purse secreted in the folds of her dress, and tied Hunter up next to a watering trough. The horse guzzled eagerly at the filthy water, anything being better than the dusty landscape they’d been riding through.
As she walked along the creaking boards out front of the saloon, she noticed dust rising from a work site beyond the far end of town. It looked like the railroad was coming. Maybe there was something worthwhile here after all.
All eyes turned to her as she entered the saloon and approached the bar, a collection of reclaimed planks that had been proudly polished until they shone. She ordered a whiskey, to the surprise and delight of the moustached barman, and scanned the room while she waited for him to pour.
Only the middle of the afternoon, and already there was a poker game going on in one corner. Four men clustered around a table, cards in their hands and coins piled in front of them. One was a native, two labourers. The fourth man caught her eye. His suit might be dusty and patched, but it was better than most out here.
He’d be the company man.
“Room for one more?” she asked as she approached the table.
All four men showed the same mix of surprise and delight as the barman. The native pulled up another seat beside him. His smile was soft, but there was a hardness in his eyes. The company man grinned and ordered a bottle of whiskey for the table.
Even as she picked up her first hand of cards, Lizzie felt the power stirring in her guts. The same power she felt whenever she entered a game, the rituals of play letting her tap into her magic.
As she stacked up coins in front of her, she let some of that power flow into them.
The labourers didn’t interest her. Men like that understood the practicalities of mining, not the big picture. Instead, she started with Laughing Wolf, the native. His tells were subtle, but they were there. She could see by the twitching of a finger when he had a strong hand. Then she made sure to gamble more than she sensibly should, weaving her magic into the winnings as they slid across to him.
She knew that her power was working. Whenever one of the other men got lucky and won some of her funds, he would blurt out something about the resources she sought. Old Jim talked about a silver seam in the high hills. Ben, a lean youth with barely a wisp of beard, showed off his knowledge of how to dig coal.
But Lizzie wasn’t here for silver or coal. She was relieved when those two ran out of funds and had to leave.
Meanwhile, Laughing Wolf remained tight lipped. If he knew anything about minerals, then something else was protecting him from her power. Meanwhile, her funds were running dangerously low. As she watched her steadily decreasing pile of coins, she fought not to clench and give away her tension.
It was time to change tactics.
“Looks like I finally got lucky,” said Figgis, the company man, as he piled up winnings in front of him. “Reminds me of the day we found a gold seam out by Red Bend.”
Lizzie smiled inside. She played the next few hands carefully, challenging Laughing Wolf when he was strong, giving small bets away to Figgis whenever his eyes narrowed in triumph.
But things were tougher without a couple of easy marks to win hands against. For all that they had tells, Figgis and Laughing Wolf hid their feelings better than the labourers. Lizzie was struggling to win enough hands to stay in the game, and Figgis still hadn’t told her what she most needed to know.
The day was growing cooler, afternoon stretching toward evening, but Lizzie was sweating beneath her dress. She would hate herself if she’d given so much away for mere fragments of knowledge. Where was the win in that?
She had to take a real risk.
She dealt out the cards and watched the others look at their hands. Laughing Wolf’s finger twitched. Figgis’s eyes narrowed a little.
Someone was going to win big.
She glanced casually at the aces in her own hand. If she double-bluffed now, tried to signal that she was covering up weakness, maybe she could win a decent pot. But what if that didn’t work and she gave away her last real chance to lose to Figgis?
“All in,” she said, sliding her remaining cash into the middle of the table. As she did so, she chewed at the corner of her lip, a tiny gesture, but hopefully enough for Figgis to pick up on.
Laughing Wolf matched her bet. So did Figgis, barely suppressing a grin.
Laughing Wolf laid out his hand, a spade flush. His eyes gleamed behind his soft smile.
Figgis grinned wider as he presented a full house, jacks over threes, and the native’s face fell.
They turned to look at Lizzie, who in turn considered her own full house, aces over queens, enough to win the pot.
“Dammit,” she muttered, placing the cards face down in surrender. “I’ve got nothing. Was hoping you were both bluffing.”
Figgis drew the pile of coins across the table.
“Last time I saw this much gold, it was that big seam up by Blue Rock,” he said. “Gonna make a fortune off that when the time comes.”
“Fat good that does me now,” Lizzie said. Inside, she was beaming. Gold deposits were what her employers paid so well for. She’d head for a town with a telegraph office and let them know to come grab the claim.
As she stepped away from the table, the magic tying her to the game dissipated. For a moment, she thought she felt some other strand of power tugging at the table, but she shrugged it off.
“Pleasure playing with you boys,” she said. “But it’s time for me to move on.”
“Good luck with that,” Laughing Wolf said.
He too stood up, shovelling his winnings into a deer hide pouch.
“What, you giving up now?” Figgis grumbled.
“While I’m winning,” Laughing Wolf replied.
On her way out, Lizzie looked up at the sign board above the saloon. “The Pawn Sacrifice” it read. Strange name for a saloon, but then saloon keepers could be an odd lot.
She untied Hunter, got into the waggon, and rolled out toward the hills. As she rounded a bend, she saw another town in front of her, near identical to the one she had just left.
She smiled. As long as she could keep moving, who wouldn’t love this work?
* * *
This story marks the start of an experiment. Over the next seven weeks, I’m going to write a series of stories that connect together into something bigger. Hopefully, they’ll all be accessible on their own, but combined will make something more.
If you enjoy this then you might also enjoy some of my previous stories set on the Gambler’s Frontier, a western setting where games power magic:
Betting Big – gambling, magic, and otters fighting an alligator – it all makes sense on the Gamblers’ Frontier.