“My aim is true,” Alison Ashe wordlessly mouthed as she scanned Olive Street for the third time, expecting some detail to miraculously change. Three Gammas en route to Emery House, a pair of young lovers passing the arboretum after a romantic evening. Her heart was exploding and she was curiously out of breath; tough medicine for a not-particularly-brisk September stroll through the Quad. The mantra helped, to the extent that it could, to steel her nerves. But a shudder still powered through the nape of her neck and shook her shoulders visibly. Surely an onlooker would blame the cold. Unless that onlooker was in play. Then, she’d stand out like a beacon. Elvis Costello wouldn’t be enough.
The crest of Tony’s baseball cap was just visible above the ivy-laden balcony wall of the upper deck of Churchill House, where he kept watch. Alison reached for her handset to ask for another all-clear, but Tony had beat her to the punch.
“It’s time, Ally,” blared Tony, a little too loudly in her earpiece. “The asset is in a brown Duffel coat. Finish the drop and proceed to Frank Hall.”
“The play’s the thing,” replied Alison, breathing through another shudder and starting the ascent.
“Good luck,” Tony said, more softly, when he saw her take foot.
“You mean break a leg,” Alison countered. “Don’t wanna jinx it.”
“Right, right. Break a leg,” he remembered.
“And you call yourself one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”
The brown Duffel coat rounded the corner of Thayer and Euclid with enough clearance for Alison to hook a sharp left after the drop and move in on Frank Hall, the Life Sciences Lab. He had shoulder-length black hair and a day’s worth of rough stubble. He also had a stack of yellow flyers in his left hand, one of which he passed enthusiastically to one of the Gammas. When another sorority sister from the pack idly reached out for one, he looked flustered for a moment and handed her a flyer from the bottom of the stack.
Good, she thought. At least I’m not the only asset still struggling with tradecraft.
Alison made sure he could see her grey backpack and silver university pin secured firmly to the right lapel of her topcoat as she moved closer. With bright eyes, he offered her the flyer at the top of the stack.
“Did you hear The Format is doing a reunion tour? They’re playing the Strand next Saturday.”
Alison studied the flyer for something out-of-place. She didn’t have a lot of time, and she wanted to avoid looking conspicuous. She tried to memorize the sheet as she folded a crease down its center and slipped it in the front pocket of her backpack.
First off, 14/19/20 is not a date, so that’s something.
She kicked a few ideas around in her mind’s eye as she ascended the steps to the lab. Casually, she extended a hand toward one of the large handles on the double-doors. Locked. So much for casual. She gave the other side a try as well, fully aware it would not open, and that it would make her look like an idiot in the process. To the right of the doors was a keycard reader. God. I really am an idiot. Through the glass, she could see a graduate student descending a spiral staircase, assuredly on his way out. He had a clean, dirty-blonde crew cut and a look in his eye that indicated he would most definitely cure cancer this week; next week, tops.
Okay, Ally, she thought. Let’s lean into this “idiot pulling at the locked double-doors like a goddamned chimp” thing. Jean-Claude looks like he could use a damsel.
She unzipped her backpack and started digging around, trying to look frustrated as she searched frantically for her keycard. She pulled out a five-subject notebook and tucked it under her arm, stashed a Sharpie between her teeth, and started shaking out an Economics textbook like it was a mafia rat, and she wanted it to squeal. Fabio was almost to the door when she dropped the book, lost her balance from the change in equilibrium, and biffed it on the concrete.
She was fine. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men had the best single-combat training of all the assets in play. If she wanted to give Guile the old Ha-Du-Ken and make off with his keycard while he twitched on the steps, a crumpled mess of a man, she could. But damsel chimps had more leverage than Street Fighters, and she felt plenty empowered from where she was. On the concrete. Empowered and crumpled.
“Oh my god!” cried Malibu Biology Ken as he burst through the stage-left double door. “Are you okay?”
“I’m alright,” she let out in a tortured whimper. “I was just-” she trailed off there. Little Hans could fill in the blanks with his all-beef chivalry.
I was just leveraging your hospitality to break into your laboratory and steal priceless intelligence. Who’s a good boy? Are you a good boy?
At this point, Alison wasn’t sure even the truth would deter him. His “Mission Accomplished” banner was flying high as he helped her up and held the door, motioning her through with a sweeping gesture.
He is a good boy.
She made haste to a private alcove near the stairwell and reproduced the flyer for further examination. Her breathing still hadn’t returned to normal and she was vaguely worried she might have inadvertently common-law married Sir Lancelot back there. When she caught herself chewing on a strand of too-straight medium-brown hair, she knew she wasn’t focusing.
“Hey, Tony. Do you think you could take a crack at this flyer? I can take a picture of it and send it to your phone.”
“Better not,” Tony countered. “It’s not a secure line. Tinkers can absolutely compromise a civilian iPhone. Stay on the com and you can describe it to me.”
“Too late,” Alison replied through a smirk.
“Well, in that case I’d be happy to. Are you in the lab?”
“If the lobby counts.” Alison started taking in the floor plan, charting the least conspicuous route to the third floor and considering exit strategies in the unlikely event of a water landing, or more plausibly, a greased-piggy style chase sequence. “Oink, oink, motherfuckers.”
“Okay, Ally. Is there any sort of locker area?” Tony had grown to accept Alison’s frequent and perplexing non sequiturs over the coms.
“I’ll have a look.”
Alison took a few strides up the stairs with all the confidence and wherewithal of a prairie dog walking into a cobra’s Bot Mitzvah. I have got to calm down. She switched her earpiece from the com to her phone and thumbed through her recently played tracks. Oh, Elvis. The music sent a shockwave of resolution through her body, straightening her posture and imbuing her with self-assurance. It was like she had an Arthur Fonzarelli switch.
Oh I just don't know where to begin
Though he says he'll wait forever
It's now or never
But she keeps him hanging on
The silly champion
She says she can't go home
Without a chaperone
At the top of the stairs, the hallway branched off in three directions. The south wing revealed a few nondescript classrooms and offices. Nothing of imminent interest. Just east of the fork, an alcove tapered into two doors labeled Lab Eqp and Custodial. The north wing was blocked off by thick clear strips of plastic. It looked ominous, like an antechamber in a slaughterhouse or Stephen King’s breakfast nook. As she inched closer to it, a knot of nervous energy was born in her stomach and bubbled up to her throat, where it came out as a giggle because Elvis Costello had just come in with the chorus and it was too much.
Accidents will happen
We only hit and run
He used to be your victim
Now you're not the only one
A wave of tense curiosity slowed her to a crawl as she pushed a sheet of thick translucent membrane to the side and peeked into what lay beyond. She was moving like molasses. Dream running. Her skin turned electric as cold air rushed out of the space she had opened in the barrier. It swirled around her, a blood transfusion of adrenaline and existential dread, mainlined through every pore.
Her soul jumped out of her body, passing a crescendo of crackling fireworks in her skull as fifteen brain aneurysms sounded off in spectacular unison. She turned slowly, pounding at her inner jukebox for any remaining essence of Fonzi. A woman manifested, John Lennon glasses, her hair in a tight brown bun secured with a long golden pin. Cute for the Grim Reaper. Alison let out a sharp, indecipherable syllable mixed with an implied list of all the regrets she could muster in her short life and a sloppy, unflattering last breath.
“Excuse me,” the woman repeated. “You need your lab coat if you’re going into the North Lab. Do you keep it in your locker?” She gestured toward the door with the Lab Eqp placard.
“Oh, right. Duh,” Alison choked out, practicing her Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech. “Yeah. Yes. Locker. It’s- in my locker.” Cool, Alison. Icy, she thought as she Fonzarelli’d over to the Lab Equipment room. It was bigger than the storage closet she was expecting. Clean, neatly-labeled cabinets bearing a Chinese buffet helping of goggles, gloves, and Bunsen burners. She took in the OCD-themed Debutante Ball as she switched back to her coms.
“Ally. Alison. Do you copy?”
Oh, boy. Tony only called her Alison if he was worried. She must have zoned out a little. She glanced at her phone. Elvis was done crooning and The White Stripes had moved in with Blue Orchid.
“This is Alison,” she copied back with a spoonful of faux-southern honey in her voice. Tony let out a relieved sigh. “Found the lockers. Any luck with The Format?”
“Good. Yeah,” he replied. “Are the lockers numbered?”
“No, names. Graduate fellows, I’m guessing. Looks like a student lab.”
Tony was silent for a moment. He must have been hoping for numbers. Alison could hear furious typing in the background. “Any Nates or Sams?”
“Yeah, a Nathan Russel.”
“That’s it! Try 14, 19, 20.”
Alison made an indignant huff. “I said that first,” she whined sarcastically. She was starting on the locker. “Fourteen is not a month.”
“Did you say it, or did you think it really loud?” He teased.
“How did you figure out Nathan Russel?” She changed the subject.
“Oh, just a wild guess. Wikipedia says the members of The Format were Nate Ruess and Sam Means.”
“Gotcha. Good thinking,” She said, idly. “That band is not getting back together by the way. Those Gamma sisters are going to be so confused when they show up at some Kenny G concert.” The locker emitted a satisfying click as its tumblers fell into place. “I’m in.”
“You sound like a hacker in an eighties movie.”
The locker was empty albeit a single ivory figurine, four inches tall, depicting a Gupta sovereign on an intricate throne.
“Holy shit,” was all Alison could muster.
“What is it?” Tony inquired. “Notes? Journals? Spreadsheets?”
“It’s-” she could scarcely believe it herself. “The Raja.”
Tony was silent. He must have been taking a half-rusted slide rule to the mental calculus on this one. The prime objective. Sitting in a locker on an intel drop. She scooped The Raja into her bag as she waited for Tony’s Turing Device to crank out a fortune. It did seem a bit odd on second inspection. The figure wasn’t a king, per se. Female features. More of a Mantri than a Raja. Through the com, she could hear Tony’s laptop snap shut.
“Shit,” he exhaled. “This was an ambush. I’m seeing company.”
“Shit,” she mirrored, adding a couple more for good measure. “Shit, shit. Did they ping your phone? Fucking elephants.”
Tony’s voice was being swallowed up by a cacophony of grunts, pants, and bangs. “Don’t worry about the phone.”
“Shit. Tony. This is my fault,” Alison forcefully whispered into the com.
“Don’t worry about the phone, Alison. Just get the fuck out of there!” The com went dead there. Dead people don’t talk. Shit.
Alison took a deep, shuddering breath and switched her earpiece back to her phone. “Speak of the goddamned devil,” she exclaimed as she hammered through the door and shot down the south wing. Nate Ruess’s melancholy tenor was thundering over the orchestra in the final chorus of Be Calm. Alison’s stomach churned out a one-syllable laugh and she hit a full sprint down the hallway.
Take it from me, I've been there a thousand times
You hate your pulse because it still thinks you're alive
And everything's wrong
It just gets so hard sometimes
Her flat-footed gate and threadbare gray Converse All-Stars produced pounding echoes in the narrow corridor. That, or another set of footfalls. She didn’t dare look. Around the next corner she could see the dim red glow of what had better fucking be an emergency exit sign.
Alison’s All-Stars squealed against the laminate flooring as she rounded the corner, nearly sending her through the opposite wall. She lept for the emergency exit. The heavy metal door cracked against its jamb like a thunderclap, resonating past her down the hallway. It was locked.
“That’s against the goddamned fire code,” she blurted in frustration. A lot was happening. It was the only thing she could think to say. Now that she wasn’t moving, she confirmed that the second set of footsteps was definitely not hers. She crouched down out of sight behind the sharp corner landing and waited for sound to get louder.
My aim is true.
A leg came into her field of view and she tumbled low, taking her pursuant down like a linebacker. A tangle of arms and legs crashed into the far wall as Alison somersaulted over the toppling body. She caught a glimpse of his face as his shoulders battered squarely into the blue and white tiles. It was Malibu fucking Ken. The exit light flashed against a polished silver pin on his lapel.
It’s Malibu fucking Ken. AND, he’s a goddamned elephant.
For a split second, his eyes looked unable to focus as he reoriented himself. Alison wasn’t going to give him time to fight. His head was practically in her lap. Her training and instinct took over. She was in full Costello-mode. She threaded her arm under his chin and reached for the nape of his neck, right at the fold of the coller. She closed her eyes and twisted. And that was it.
At the end, his features fell into a look of indignance and irritation. But he didn’t say anything. Dead people don’t talk.
Alison Ashe walked home with a heavy feeling in her chest. She had walked right into an ambush. Two asset identities were compromised. She had killed a man. And Tony was dead. Tony was dead, and it was her fault. She looked down at her palm, in which she carried a gleaming silver pin, the likeness of an elephant etched into its surface. Another lump manifested in her stomach. This time, it stayed there.
“Sorry I got you killed.”
“The game is called Chaturanga,” Alison said across a two-top table over the rustling din of the lunch crowd. Paige Hall offered only a blank stare. Alison gave her a minute. She wanted this conversation to be shrouded in mystery, punctuated by dramatic flair; as it was when Tony first explained it to her. She steepled the tips of her fingers together, both elbows secured on the table, and nodded slightly.
“Chaturanga,” Paige repeated.
“It’s named after an ancient Indian board game: an early precursor to chess.” Paige was silent. Her mouth tightened and her brow furrowed a bit as a short strand of auburn hair fell out of her pixie cut and into her face. Alison continued. “It means ‘four factions.’”
“I thought it meant ‘four feet,’” Paige interrupted.
Alison was impressed, a smirk curling on her lip. She changed posture as if to ask “How do you know that?”
Paige answered the unspoken question, or perhaps the awkward silence. “It’s a yoga pose.”
Alison wasn’t sure how to process that knowledge. It somehow made the whole thing seem silly for the moment. Perhaps it was a bit silly. In any case, the game was very serious and important to her, and from what she could tell, anyone else in play. She continued.
“The original rules of Chaturanga are mostly lost to history. We know it was played on an eight by eight board and that the game revolved around the movements of four divisions of units: footmen, cavalry, chariots, and elephants.” Alison paused a moment to take a sip of her tea. It sputtered through the straw, chipping away slightly at the moody ambiance she was attempting to evoke. “Each unit has a unique moveset. Its own way to gain position against an opponent. There’s also a Raja, a king, which we assume is to be defended, and a Mantri, his counselor.”
“Like the queen,” Paige’s eyes were more engaged now. She was intrigued. “So, what’s the deal at Brown? What’s the game?”
“Pizza Margherita and two plates,” Paige jumped as the waiter dropped the meal on its rack in the center of the table, steam swirling in elegant patterns between them. “Anything else I can get for you?”
Alison gave a wry smile. “This looks great, thanks.”
The two made an unspoken agreement not to touch the pizza until it or the conversation had cooled sufficiently. Alison took the interruption as an opportunity to briefly study Paige. She was compact in stature and spoke with a bubbly spark. An All-American gymnast in high school. She was quick-witted and thoughtful. Alison could picture her dropping from an air-duct on an unsuspecting elephant asset, a look of dread and confusion on his agape, privilege-chiseled jaw. Paige went for a sort-of grungy look these days. Acid-washed 501s. Tattered brown canvas bomber, a mauve hoodie peeking out from beneath. Piercings. Alison had never considered herself posh before, but next to Paige she felt posh. And tall. She was losing focus. She clapped her hands and started in on Paige’s question.
“Chaturanga is a game of position and capture played between four factions, in this case representing specific university departments, over the course of the academic year at Brown. Each faction may recruit nine assets, essentially field agents, to engage in tactical espionage sorties to improve their positions toward the prime objectives.”
“Each faction defends a small, ivory statuette of a Raja; actual artifacts from the Gupta Empire,” Alison was on a roll. She felt like Ewen McGregor’s Obi Wan explaining the ways of the Jedi to young Anakin; which is to say slightly hokey, but leaning into it. “A Raja must be displayed in plain sight in a faction’s territory. If captured and held until the end of the second term, it’s worth nine points.”
“So it’s Capture the Flag,” Paige intuited in a low, lengthy tone, her brain engaged in a light mental-gymnastic tumbling pass.
“I will concede that Chaturanga shares some basic properties with Capture the Flag, but its heart lies elsewhere. Capture the Flag is a game about running. Sure, you can run plays, gambits, ruses. It’s not a bad game by any means. Nothing wrong with it. But Chaturanga is a game about thinking. It’s slow, methodical. Sorties can take weeks to develop. Position is gained and lost. Alliances are made and broken.”
“Do you wear little football flags around all year?” Paige posited through a giggle.
“We do,” Alison said, leaning out of an ambient shadow and gesturing to her coat. “Assets wear university pins on their right lapel. The pin is affixed to its base with a magnet. Pull the magnet off an asset and she’s dead. Your faction receives one point for eliminating an opposing asset.”
“Out of the game? For the rest of the year?”
“That’s right. And they can no longer talk about the game. No sharing intelligence, no plotting, no planning, no warning teammates of impending danger. Dead people don’t talk.”
Alison produced a second pin from her pocket and slid it under the pizza rack toward Paige, who started idly examining it. On its front face, a beautiful relief of the Brown University seal. Paige pulled on the seal, releasing it from its base. It was heartier than she’d imagined, requiring a forceful tug. The hidden side had an etching, equally beautiful, of an infantry soldier at attention.
Alison went on. “The underside depicts your faction’s symbol. Ours is the footman. They actually change each year depending on how your team ranks.”
“So is that last place?”
“It is indeed last place. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, AKA the Theatre Department, is very much the underdog these days.”
Paige was ready for pizza. She pulled three slices to her plate and started voraciously demolishing the nearest one. Alison appreciated a woman who could eat and didn’t have any baggage about it. A lot of her friends gave her judgy looks over their kale salads when Alison so much as thought about a carb. She smiled as she grabbed a slice and continued talking through mouthfuls of Buffalo mozzarella and sweet liberation.
“Engineering won last year, so they receive the coveted rank of elephant. Psychology earned the rank of chariot, the English department came in third to become the cavalry, and that leaves us, the humble footmen.”
Paige looked contemplative as she noshed away at a second slice. She abruptly pulled the top off her Dr. Pepper and wolfed down a massive gulp, leaving a trace of the black cherry elixir at the edge of her mouth. She toweled down with an errant sleeve and looked Alison in the eye. “Why?” She asked, finally. “Why do you do this?”
“There is a technical answer to that question,” Alison started. She tried for another swig of tea but was denied by the cruel sputter of straw against empty vessel. Paige tore the top off her cup and decanted a helping of Dr. Pepper from her own. Alison nodded in appreciation and continued. “There is an undergraduate prize awarded each year: The Thomas Carpenter Prize for Elocution. University departments vote on the winner. But there’s no actual contest, and the whole thing seemed arbitrary to the various academic leads. So, many years ago, four department heads proposed a chess tournament to determine the winner of their collective votes. And, over time, the ante kept getting upped until we have what we have today: Chaturanga, the great abomination.”
Paige threw an eyebrow. “But there are like 40 departments now.”
“You are correct. Stacking four votes is now functionally meaningless. I don’t think it ever really mattered, actually. I interpret it as a sort of grand-gesture protest to the pomp and circumstance we so readily offer to completely meaningless shit.”
Paige smiled. It was a mischievous, spritely smile. She was getting it. “So, in turn, we go all out on our own sound and fury signifying nothing-”
“But ours is fun.”
“But ours is fun.”
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