It is a little before midnight, and three old people, two women and a man, are laboriously climbing the stairs in a ramshackle old office building.
Lily, the youngest-looking of the three, carries a box-shaped package. She looks like a woman you might see in a shopping mall or a church though a little over-dressed and behind the times. The other woman, Grace, is wearing a long coat patched together out of sky-blue velvet and emerald silk and ivory lace and embroidered upholstery fabric. Her gray hair is tied back in a bun, and a tabby cat, the same color as her hair, rides across her shoulders. Collier, the man, is using a stout staff to pull himself up the stairs. All the bulbs have burned out; the only light, a soft golden illumination, comes from the top of his staff. He is bald except for a few tufts of white hair, like sheep’s wool, that surround his head. He stops, panting, and pushes up his round gold spectacles.
They come to the third floor and head toward the office at the end of the hall. Lily is moving too quickly; she steps on the train of Grace’s coat. There is a tearing sound and the cat turns and mews softly. When they reach the office Lily opens her purse, takes out a heavy old-fashioned key, and unlocks the door.
She switches on the light and they stand clustered together in the doorway for a moment. There is an old battered desk and chair in the office and nothing else. Dust is everywhere; it covers the furniture and is strewn across the floor. In the breeze from the open door it spins and coalesces in the corners the way stars are said to do out in space. The cat sneezes.
Lily sets down her bundle and flings open the window. The window does not look out on more office buildings but on a small park, the only patch of green in this city’s downtown. She says a few words and the dust vanishes out the window.
“They’re late,” Lily says.
“We’re early, more like,” Collier says. He shakes his watch and holds it to his ear. “This hasn’t worked very well, these last few decades.”
“At least we’re not late,” Lily says. “We never heard the end of it, that last time–“
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Grace says. “Come on, let’s play. They’ll be here soon enough.”
Lily arranges herself carefully on the floor, folding her skirt neatly beneath her. She takes the Risk game out of her sack and begins setting up. Grace lets the cat jump down from her shoulders and gathers her coat around her as she sits. “Oh, dear,” she says, holding up the torn edge of her coat. “When did this happen?”
The other two study the board intently. Collier rolls the dice.
“Went to a singles bar last night,” Grace says.
“You did not,” Lily says. “How’d they let you in?”
“Oh, come now,” Grace says. “I don’t look a day over–“
“Over ninety,” Lily says. The three of them laugh.
“I was watching the people,” Grace says. “There were these two young people — Well, by the end of the evening they were in love. Just like that. They never thought it would happen to them.”
“Grace!” Lily says. “You didn’t.”
Grace shrugs. “It was so funny,” she says. “They never expected it. I couldn’t help myself.”
“You’ll be tired tonight,” Collier says. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I used to stay out three nights running,” Grace says. “When I hit town people didn’t know what happened to them.”
“You were younger then,” Lily says tartly. “Collier’s right, Grace — you shouldn’t have done it.”
They play silently for a while. Collier has conquered Australia and is preparing to wipe out Lily’s forces when a bell begins to toll.
They stop playing. Each counts silently as the bell rings out twelve times. “Midnight,” Grace says.
They head to the window, looking for a glimpse of the other team. Lily sees them first. “Good lord,” she says. “Are they trying to wake up the entire city?”
“Terribly ostentatious,” Collier says, shaking his head. “They don’t know when to stop, do they?”
A blue and gold striped balloon is heading downward, toward the park below. A gust of wind comes up; the balloon swerves out over the street and bounces off a parked car. Suddenly, shockingly, a car alarm shatters the quiet of the night.
The balloon swings back over the park and settles down. Three people — two men and a woman — jump out of the basket and secure it. Even at this distance Grace can see that the other team is better dressed than she and her friends are, and that they move with more energy and confidence. It has been this way for the last several years, Grace thinks, if not decades. If not centuries.
She sighs. Well, perhaps this will be the year the tide of luck begins to turn in their favor, the year they finally start to win again.
The newcomers head toward the office building, and a few minutes later come in through the door. “Hello, hello everyone,” Reg says, smiling. He is a large man, with wavy brown hair and white even teeth.
“Are you trying to wake up the entire city?” Lily asks again, pointing out the window at the balloon.
“No, of course not,” Reg says, still smiling. “Don’t worry, Lily. No one will even notice.”
Victoria comes into the office after him and nods to everyone. She removes her leather goggles as she enters, shaking out her long red hair. Her hair is shiny with silver in places; Grace remembers when it was the color of a new penny.
“Oh,” Grace says softly, trying to hide behind Lily. John has come in after Victoria. He is as handsome as she remembers, a compact man, dark, seemingly filled with unused energy. The years seem hardly to have touched him. She and John had loved each other many years ago, before they had moved the game to the United States. Where was it? she thinks. Lima? No, Shanghai.
“You’ve probably woken up everyone within miles,” Lily continues, ignoring Grace. “The cops will be here any minute. We can just forget about the game this year.”
“Come now, Lily,” Reg says. “Do you hear cops?”
There is silence from the street below. Even the car siren has stopped.
“They do it to show they can afford to, Lily,” Collier says. “Ostentation, as I said.”
“Well, folks,” Reg says. “Are we ready to play?”
Lily puts the Risk game away in her sack. Victoria takes out the other board, the real one. This she unfolds until it covers nearly half the room. The six players range themselves around the board in a circle.
Grace finds herself sitting next to Victoria, who has apparently not finished pulling things out of her sack. Now she lifts out a small computer and sets it up on her lap.
Grace has never understood Victoria, whose only passion seems to be for mathematics. No, not her only passion, Grace remembers. Lily had an affair with Victoria — When was it? Was it before her and John, or after?
Collier throws the dice and Grace forces herself to concentrate on the game. They win the first turn. Reg glances at Victoria, his eyebrows raised. Grace feels a brief upwelling of hope at their consternation. Perhaps, just perhaps, the game will go differently this year.
Dice roll. Cards are drawn, pieces moved. In Madrid a comet appears briefly over the rooftops. In Mexico City a lame beggar stands and walks, in Caerphilly a blade of grass trembles though there is no wind. Grace takes off her coat. Lily stretches to relieve her back.
Victoria taps a few keys on her computer. “Ten,” she says tersely and Reg moves an onyx piece ten spaces. In the Tower of London one of the royal jewels gains another facet. A mullah in Addis Ababa dreams of a revelation but wakes uncertain, with the dream’s meaning just outside his grasp. “Seven,” Lily says with sureness, trusting to intuition. A cat closes its eyes in Vladivostok.
Grace finds her mind straying again, remembering other games, other centuries. Has it really been thousands of years since that first game, the one they played with stones and pictures scratched on the banks of the Nile? Victoria would know. Maybe she should ask her when this year’s game is over.
It has been so long that sometimes she doesn’t even remember what they are playing for. Something about intuition versus reason, or tradition versus innovation; that was Lily’s explanation, anyway. Collier thinks the contest is between right-brain and left-brain thinking; he has pointed out that all of them are left-handed, while the other team is all right-handed. Grace thinks of it as wavy lines versus straight lines, though when she tried to put this into words not one of them, not even her own team, understood it.
Really, though, it doesn’t matter. Lily tried to set her straight once, Lily whose fierce ambition it is to win the games the way they used to, all those many years ago. What matters is power, Lily said. What matters is control, is who will get to oversee the board, and the world, for the next year.
“Remember that red sports car they drove up in a few years ago?” Lily had said once. “And that cellular phone they had? That’s the sort of thing they can afford now, while we just get shabbier and shabbier.”
“A sports car?” Grace had asked, puzzled. “What would we do with a sports car?”
Lily had just looked at her in disgust.
The pictures on the board are deepening into three dimensions now. The first stage of the game is over and they begin to play for real, each feeling that they look over the rim of the world. Grace draws a card. She hears a shot fired and winces.
A storm rises up over the Greater Sundas. In Santa Fe a picture slides off the wall. A man in Sydney forgets his name.
They are all concentrating now, so strongly that the building is changing around them, shifting as it goes through various stages of its construction. Paint peels back to expose plaster, the warped boards beneath them straighten.
Grace holds herself up with her hand against the floor, which has acquired a bright sheen of polish. She feels tired, more tired than she would admit to Lily and Collier. With her eyes open she begins to dream, wondering if she is what they call senile now, if they will have to come and put her in a home. She dreads that more than anything in the world, to be in a wheelchair and helpless to speak of her memories and have them taken for the ravings of a crazy woman. . . . She is dreaming of the time (was it a few years ago or a few hundred?) when they had last been close to winning, and of the times before that, years uncounted, when the three of them had traveled the world, respected and loved. The sound of a siren cuts through her musing and she blinks to focus.
“The police!” Lily says. She throws down her cards. “Now you’ve done it! Someone saw that damned balloon of yours and called the police.”
“What do you know?” Grace says softly, coming back to the present. “There’s life in the old town yet.”
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Reg says. “Victoria–“
Victoria studies the board for a while, memorizing the pieces, and then nods. She throws everything into her sack, pieces of quartz and ebony, ruby and gold, and finally her laptop and the game-board. Grace draws her robe around her and makes a hump of her back, and the cat leaps to her shoulders. They hurry to the door and down the corridor.
Down the stairwell, Collier’s light dimmer than it was at the beginning of the evening. Out the front door, around the back to the park where they come face to face with the balloon. The sirens are growing louder.
“Come on,” Reg says impatiently. “Everyone. Let’s go.”
“In that thing?” Lily says. “Not a chance. I suggest you’ve forfeited the game this year by drawing the police. We’ll see you next–“
The sirens stop abruptly. “They’re right in front of the building,” Reg says, whispering urgently. A cold wind kicks up around them. “Come on — it’s our only chance. Do you have any idea what the police would do to three old people with identification dating from the nineteenth century?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Grace says dreamily.
Reg looks at her as if she’s lost her mind. “I’ll give you one last chance,” he says. “John, jump in the basket and make sure everything’s ready to go. Victoria and I will untie the ropes. Ready?”
Grace and Lily and Collier look at each other. They can hear loud walkie-talkies as the police come through the office building. Finally Collier says, “Why not?”
Grace shrugs. John hands down a footstool and they get into the basket. “Do you think it’s a trick?” Lily whispers to the other two as Reg and Victoria climb inside. John lets hot air into the balloon.
“I don’t know,” Grace says softly. She thinks of the wavy lines described by the balloon’s flight; she has felt an affinity with the balloon since she first saw it. “Maybe it’ll help our game.”
They cast off into the night. The police come out into the park; one of them points as the balloon lifts above the building. Another holds up the footstool they left behind in their hurry and throws it angrily into the bushes.
The balloon drifts over the city. Grace wakes fully, watching the small streets and houses, the small cars still traveling at this time of night. She waves at the toy people in their toy cars. She is reminded of other wild nights, other glories. She breathes deeply.
An airplane blinks across the sky. Now Grace notices that she has ended up next to John, that she is leaning against him in the crowded basket. “Look,” she says, pointing. “An airplane.”
“We’re too near the airport,” John says, correcting their course. “Keep watch for me, will you, Grace? They’ll tell us when it’s our turns.”
“Sure,” Grace says, feeling suddenly warmed against the chill. For the first time in a long time she thinks that things might take a turn for the better, though she still does not dare to look at John.
Even Lily and Victoria are working together, she sees, setting the board back up the way it was. The six people shift in the basket, trying to find space around the board. Grace moves closer to John. “A helicopter,” she says. “To your left.”
John nods and changes course.
Lily and Collier, Reg and Victoria begin the game again. “Twenty,” Victoria says, tapping her keyboard and then, “Thirteen.”
“Look at that,” Grace says. “All those buildings built along the freeway, out where nothing grows and there’s no water.”
“Progress,” Reg says with satisfaction, not taking his eyes from the game. John swings the balloon back toward the bright lights. The city lies beneath them, a much vaster game board with thousands of glittering pieces. The night is utterly silent. Grace feels as though she is flying.
“Grace, it’s your move,” Collier says.
Grace turns with difficulty from the view beneath her and draws a card. Reg is smiling again, as though certain of the game’s outcome. Grace pulls her robe closer.
“Remember that time in Shanghai?” Reg asks. “We were nearly interrupted there too. Soldiers, I think, wasn’t it?”
Grace finds herself blushing, unable to concentrate on the game. Lily has warned her about this often, has told her that Reg will do anything to win, to throw her off her game. She knows that Reg only mentions Shanghai to remind her of the time she and John had been lovers.
“It’s your move, Reg,” Lily says sharply, and at the same time John looks up and says, “No, it wasn’t Shanghai. It was much later than that.”
“Was it?” Reg says. He turns over a card. “I thought it was somewhere around when you and Grace ran off together, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, stop it!” Grace says. For the first time that night she looks directly at John. “You stop him, you’re a decent person. Though what you’re doing in his service is beyond me.” Flustered, she moves a jade piece without bothering to count.
Snow falls softly in the Atlantic Ocean. The players make their moves in silence, broken only by Victoria tapping on her keys and reciting numbers.
John clears his throat. “I stay with him because I am a decent person. Because I believe in what we’re doing.”
“Hah!” Lily says.
“Look at what we’ve done since we started winning,” John says. “Medicine — vaccines and penicillin. Communication all over the world. Airplanes. Computers.”
John’s words remind Grace of the first time she used a telephone. It was only a few years ago; she was calling a neighbor of hers who had moved. She remembers how clear the neighbor’s voice sounded, almost as if they were in the same room. An idea begins to grow within her, something new, something no one has thought of in all the long years they have played the game.
Lily is shouting, though, nearly driving the thought from her mind. “And look at everything else!” Lily says. “You can land a bloody balloon right in the middle of a major city and the only people who notice are the police. There’s no wonder, no sense of the marvelous. You and your computers! Look what you’ve killed!”
Grace makes an effort to grasp the thought. She says quickly, before she can forget again, “I wonder what would happen if we joined forces. There’s nothing that says we have to be antagonists down through all the ages of the world. Look how well we worked, escaping from the police. If we could somehow come together . . .”
The others, all except John, stare at her as if she has gone mad. They have all stopped playing entirely. Finally Lily says, “I told you you’d be tired.”
“Wait,” John says. “She has a point. What if this whole thing, all our competition, is only a false dichotomy? What would happen if we did work together? What could we accomplish?”
“You notice they only want to end the game when they’re losing?” Reg says.
“It has nothing to do with that!” Grace says. She throws her dice to the board. She is nearly crying.
“Grace,” Lily says, holding her. “Don’t.”
“We can go home if you like,” Collier says. He leaves unspoken what the three of them suspect: they will lose this game as well.
“No, that’s all right,” Grace says, picking up her dice. “I’ve never left one unfinished yet.”
They return to the board. Lily notices a move she has overlooked and makes it triumphantly, glaring at Reg when she is through as if to tell him his ploy hasn’t worked. A coin rolls down a gutter in Quebec.
Slowly, though, the tide turns against them. Victoria wins all of Grace’s cards. A dam is built in Mongolia. A cloud flies across the sky over a small town on the Rhine. Reg makes the winning move; he stands up in the basket and hollers triumphantly.
They can smell dawn coming from the east. Victoria begins to collect the pieces of the game; they have won the right to keep the board again this year. “We can set down wherever you like,” Reg says.
“Away from the freeway,” Lily says. “Away from the lights somewhere.”
“Done,” Reg says.
The balloon starts to drift lower, hovering over undeveloped land. The land comes up fast to meet it and they hit with a thump. Lily helps Collier over the side. Grace is still sitting on the floor of the balloon, frowning in puzzlement. “Grace?” Lily says softly.
Grace hands the cat to Collier and steps down, and then turns to help Lily. The balloon ascends, quickly growing smaller and smaller against the dawn.
“Damn!” Lily says, shaking her fist at the balloon, now no bigger than a leaf. “Damn!”
“Oh, well,” Collier says, sitting heavily on the ground. “There’s still next year.”
“Yes,” Grace says, adjusting the cat on her shoulder. She straightens, summoning the strength from somewhere. Another year in which to think about this new idea she has brought into the world, to study it, polish it, figure out a way she can present it to the rest of them so that they see it as she does. John is already on her side, she thinks. “Maybe next year,” she says.
Copyright © 1998 Lisa Goldstein
Originally published in Asimov’s, December 1998
Reprinted by permission.
Copyright © 1998 Lisa Goldstein
Lisa Goldstein has published nine novels, the latest being The Alchemist’s Door from Tor Books. Her novel The Red Magician won the American Book Award for Best Paperback. She has also published a short story collection, Travellers in Magic (Tor Books, December 1994), and numerous short stories. Her novels and short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and their cute dog Spark.