Disclaimer: Discworld is a product of Terry Pratchett's genius, and Doctor Who is property of the BBC.The Chess Players
A Story of Discworld…Mostly
This is a story about chess. Chess is one of those games that is universal. Every secondhand dimension has at least two boring old men who know how to play the game, often on the street in plain sight where normal respectable are trying to walk, normal, of course being relative.(1) The rules of the game differ from dimension to dimension and even in some cases street corner to street corner. Some chess sets are multi-leveled presumably on the assumption that this somehow makes it look futuristic and cool, which is simply silly. Other chess sets have a rather more angry disposition and the pieces will yell obscenities in a very high-pitched voice at any player who makes a mistake.
There is even an odd mild to middling dimension where the world has been rolled up into a ball and does a peculiar spinny thing on its axis while orbiting a nice hot star. The inhabitants of this strange little world believe that this occurs because of a mysterious and invisible force called gravity.(2) Now instead of worshiping it like sensible people with priest and rituals and such, they fiddle with lots of complicated numbers as if that makes it any less mysterious when in fact it simply confuses everyone. These are exactly the sort of people who would spend a great deal of time and energy building a machine who’s sole purpose is to play chess. Why exactly they felt the urge is a question of some interest among Transdimensional Behaviorists.(3)
On Discworld the people are more sensible.(4) Alright that may be a slight exaggeration. After all the world is a flat disc ridding on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the world turtle, so how sensible could it possibly be? But at least the people don’t go around making machines do what anyone off the street could do. It is a fact that everyone can play chess, albeit very badly.
This is not, however, the story of badly played chess, or for that matter machine played chess. This is the story of one particular game of chess that has continued off and on for the better part of a decade. The game in question was played in the bifurcated city of Ankh-Morpork. Ankh-Morpork is a delightful place especially if you enjoy having your nostrils raped, your head smashed in, and your purse stolen.(5) The Patrician, Lord Vetinari did not mind such things happening in his city so long as both parties received a receipt and paid their taxes. And by in large they did, if only because those who did not had a tendency to disappear.
Lord Vetinari was sane. Disturbingly so, in fact. Historically Patricians were twisted, paranoid, madmen. It was expected, and he people knew how to deal with it. Dressed in elegant black, Vetinari put many people in mind of a predatory flamingo. Tall and gaunt with a dash of the maniacal. He looked the sort of person who would smile a thinly as prisoners screamed in wretched agony. While this was occasionally the case, he didn’t make a habit of it. Besides Patricians were expected to have the odd miscreant tortured. All in all what scared people was how calm he was, how patiently he waited. You would wait terrified for the blow to fall, but he would wait just a moment longer. He ran the city in as orderly a fashion as was possible. And yes he was technically a tyrant but no one complained…twice. If when talking to him, he seemed a little distracted, that was because he had eight things other things on his mind and still managed to be six or seven steps ahead of everyone including you.
But that was not currently the case. At this moment he wasn’t juggling the affairs of state, or even contemplating the demise of mimes. No! At this moment, the Patrician was concentrating solely on the Game. For this was no ordinary game of chess. It was a game to make Death, who is proverbially fond of chess, scratch his boney head, and make Chess-Playing Machines cry. He studied the board intently, his eyes missing nothing. His opponent was cunning, perhaps even as cunning as Vetinari himself. He delighted in schemes and stratagems, plots within gambits that could ensnare the most wary. Vetinari found the challenge refreshing. His long fingers caressed the queen thoughtfully, a calculated gesture. He had no intention of moving that piece yet. His opponent knew that, and he knew that he knew it, etc…Vetinari deployed his knight disrupting his opponent’s carefully lain trap, or rather forcing him to bring his deeper plans into play.
His opponent smiled slightly. He was older now, Vetinari noted. His hair had grayed slightly in the years since they’d last played, and there were laugh lines around his eyes that hadn’t been there before. The man was still a mystery to Vetinari, which was an impressive feat in and of itself. There were few who could keep secrets from the Patrician’s casual interest let alone his serious inquiries, but this so called Doctor remained almost as mysterious as the day they’d first met. You would be hard pressed to find two more different men, physically at least. Where the Patrician was tall and angular, the Doctor was short and unassuming. He looked like your favorite Uncle or a kindly old shopkeeper, but appearances could be deceptive. Not even the wizards were entirely sure what he was.
Apparently the little man had prided himself on his ability to depose tyrants and dictators.(6) So upon arriving in Ankh-Morpork he’d decided to try his hand at toppling Lord Vetinari. He’d failed, though he came closer than the Patrician was comfortable with. Being understandably unhappy, Vetinari had put all his not inconsiderable efforts into eliminating the Doctor. He’d failed, though he too had come closer than expected. They had both been somewhat puzzled, neither having much practice at failing. They had determined to resolve their differences in a civilized manner: over a game of chess. Of course at their first few meetings, Vetinari had tossed the Doctor into his dungeons. Just to see what would happen. He had found out rather quickly, and these days they just play chess, well mostly.
There was something different about the Doctor this time. It wasn’t merely the grey in his hair but a sadness, a weariness that sat upon like a somewhat soggy towel. Vetinari found that he was…concerned, albeit only slightly. It was a strange feeling, slightly disconcerting.
“Where is your explosive friend?” Vetinari asked.
“Hmm?” The Doctor glanced up from the board. “Oh you mean Ace. She left. Places to go, things to blow up.” Vetinari nodded slowly raising an eyebrow at the Doctor’s move. “And the good Captain Vimes is still with us I trust?”
“It’s Commander now, and Duke of Ankh.”
“I’m sure he was absolutely delighted,” the Doctor said without even the slightest hint of sarcasm.
“Indeed,” Vetinari agreed in the same tone, as he sacrificed a rook. “Overjoyed in fact.” The conversation died down as both men turned their attention back on the game. Vetinari idly wondered what they’d do once one of them actually won. Wuffles broke the lull and gave an asthmatic bark. Vetinari glanced down. The Doctor’s pet cat, Wolsey was giving Wuffles a disdainful glare. Vetinari didn’t smile. “Wolsey seems to be getting on a bit. Almost as old as Wuffles I’d guess.”
“Yes,” the Doctor agreed. “None of us are getting any younger.” Vetinari looked up sharply at that, but didn’t say anything. He just waited. The Doctor didn’t say anything for the longest time. The clock ticked and tocked to it’s own particular rhythm. Finally the Doctor continued, just as even Vetinari’s vaunted patience was running thin. “I dreamed of the Watcher last night,” the Doctor said softly. Vetinari didn’t know who the Watcher was, but he could guess its meaning. Dreams such as that only ever meant one thing. He felt a peculiar sadness that only the death of a worthy adversary could cause.
“Is there anything…”
“No,” the Doctor said. “I promised Death a dance, and it doesn’t pay to keep her waiting.”
“Her?” As far as Vetinari knew Death was a black-robed skeleton carrying a scythe.
“Oh I don’t mean the Death of the Discworld,” the Doctor said. “He’s rather sociable once you get to know him. No the Menti Celesti are far less…generous.”
“Indeed,” Vetinari agreed. “Though perhaps more open to negotiation?” He ventured.
“I made a deal with her sister.”
“And presumably ‘She’ does not appreciate that.”
“You are as quick as ever,” the Doctor said. “But enough about my problems. How fares this city of yours?”
“Tolerably well,” Vetinari answered. “Except for the Dwarves and Trolls almost killing each other, and the Agatean Empire threatening to invade. Oh and um…check.” Vetinari smiled.
“So it is,” the Doctor agreed but somehow he didn’t seem overly concerned. Suddenly the door burst open and Drumknott came running in.
“I thought I said that I was not to be disturbed,” Vetinari said softly but anyone could recognize the soft warning in his tone.
“Yes sir, but it’s Commander Vimes sir. He’s…” In point of fact what Commander Vimes was doing was barreling through the door. He stopped short at the sight of the Doctor and frowned.
“What are you doing here,” he growled.
“And hell to you too. I understand congratulations are in order,” the Doctor smiled guilelessly. “The Patrician and I were just enjoying a little game of chess, but it appears that duty calls. I wouldn’t want to interfere with the running of the city.” He stood slowly and collected his hat and umbrella. “We must continue the game another time,” he said.
“Yes we must,” the Patrician agreed. The Doctor strolled away winking mischievously at the Watchman.
Commander Vimes narrowed his eyes. “Doctor,” he called stopping the little man in his tracks. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about the incident at The Dysk would you?”
The Doctor turned. “Not a thing Commander.” His face was such a perfect picture of innocence that Vetinari believed him…almost. After all for men like them, chess could never be enough. Let the games begin.
1 Though who’s relative exactly is a matter of some debate among certain groups of even older and more boring men.
2 Despite this belief in gravity, there are some people who have trouble believing in another mysterious and powerful force, namely god. Indeed the entire world is greatly concerned with the god question. They are extremely vehement in their belief and often go out on a killing spree in god’s name. Which is odd because no one seems to go on a killing spree in the name of gravity.
3 The prevailing theory put forth by Igor the Smarter is that the people there find chess to be utterly boring. True this is a fairly common opinion, but most people simply stop playing and forget about it in a few generations. Igor the Smarter postulates that since chess is such a complex and wide spread game and must have taken some sadistic bastard a lot of time to invent, the people of this world felt that it would be rude if no one played it at all. But if some one had to play it, it sure as hell wouldn’t be them. So the Chess-Playing Machine was born.
4 About gods at least. The people of Discworld don’t believe in gods, mostly because they’re in your face all the time. And the people of Discworld don’t kill in the name of the gods, mostly because the gods are ready willing and able to kill in their own name thank you very much and don’t need any help from you.
5 Strangely enough, there are people who enjoy that sort of thing. I’ve met them.
6 And not without reason. At the 39th Annual Tyrants & Dictators Convention the Doctor was voted the Least Popular Empire Toppler, primarily because he was actually good at it.