Our first meeting in 2017 was on 10th February. We were asked to write a piece of flash fiction on the theme of a game. Flash fiction is defined as a self-contained story between 300 and 1000 words long. It must have a proper beginning, middle and end and it should intrigue and satisfy the reader.
Mine, as the title implies, is about a dice game. I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll talk about the writing of it in an afterword...
After the excitement was over and the crowds had dispersed, the Roman soldiers took the crosses down and removed the bodies. The Jewish prophet had a spear wound in his side from which nameless fluids still dripped. The two thieves who had been crucified with him, one on each side, were unmarked, apart from the wounds left by the nails. Rigor mortis was well advanced, and all three bodies lay on the ground still grotesquely mimicking the shape of the crosses they had been nailed to. The soldiers stripped the bodies, looking for loot. The Jew had been wearing a robe that was woven in one piece without a seam. The soldiers seemed pleased to find that the wound in the Jew's side had barely stained the cloth. "We'll get a good price for that at the market," said one.
"Why do new recruits always say that?" asked another rhetorically. "That's not the way it works, lad," he continued. "We've got to gamble for the robe, and the winner takes all the profits."
The other soldiers nodded in agreement. That was the way things had always been done. The soldiers sat down in a circle. Dice were produced and the game commenced.
Leaning on a wall and concealed by the shadows, Adam the Time Traveller watched all this happen. He had come here from more centuries in the future than the soldiers had fingers and toes to count them with. That's my cue, he thought as the soldiers started to roll the dice. Time to teach them the error of their ways. How dare they sully that robe by gambling for it? He pushed himself off the wall and walked towards them. The soldiers were so intent on their game that they didn't notice him at first. He was pleased to see that the dice they were using were old and worn. It was difficult to make out the design etched on their faces. That will make things easier, thought Adam. What a stroke of luck.
"Garments as good as these," said Adam, "deserve to be played for with better dice than you are using."
The soldiers looked up from their game. "Piss off," said one of them.
Adam ignored him. "If you will let me play," he said, "I will show you noble dice which are fit to be used to gamble for the riches of kings."
He reached into his pouch and tossed his own dice into the gaming circle. They were white and gleaming, and each face was set with a pattern of shiny red stones. The soldiers were impressed. One of them picked the dice up and examined them closely. "What are these made of?" he asked.
"The dice are ivory," said Adam, "and the stones are rubies." Actually the dice were made of a dense white plastic and the rubies were just cheap synthetics, but Adam didn't think the soldiers needed to know that. They didn't need to know about the complex electronic circuitry hidden deep inside the dice either. Anyway, he couldn't think of the Latin for "silicon chip".
Adam reached into his pouch again and moved the control switch to the middle position. He couldn't think of the Latin for "wireless controller" either, but again, the soldiers didn't need to know about that, so he kept quiet. The soldiers rolled the dice experimentally. They seemed impressed with the solid way the dice fell and they nodded approvingly at the unpredictable scores that the dice showed. But all the while, unbeknownst to them, the circuitry in the dice was adjusting and tuning itself to the characteristics of each individual soldier's palms and fingers.
Eventually, in a tacit acceptance of Adam's proposal, the soldiers moved over to give him room to join the game. He switched the wireless controller to the top position and sat down. The tuning stage was complete and the dice would now recognise when they were being thrown by one of the soldiers. From now on, the soldiers' score would, on average, be lower than their opponents'. The bias was subtle and a prolonged statistical analysis would be needed to show that it was even there at all. But nevertheless, the odds were now very much in Adam's favour. If the game went on long enough, he was guaranteed to win.
The dice tumbled and rolled and the game reached its inevitable conclusion. The soldiers watched glumly as Adam stood up and carefully folded the seamless robe over his arm. "Thank you for the game," he said.
One of the soldiers said, "If you take the robe to Omar the Tailor in the market you should be able to get at least a hundred sesterces for it."
"Thank you," said Adam. There was an ecclesiastical museum in mid-twentieth century Rome that would give him more for this robe than Omar the Tailor could conceive of in his wildest dreams. But the soldiers didn't need to know that, so Adam simply said, "That's very good advice. In return for it, you can keep the dice. May you have much luck with them."
The soldiers cheered up. Perhaps their day wouldn't be a complete loss after all. As Adam walked away he heard them arguing about where they should go first to show off their new dice. He smiled. The electronic circuits in the dice were still active and he couldn't help feeling that the soldiers were about to embark on the longest losing streak of their lives. Serves them right, he thought.
I started to wonder if I could make use of an actual well known game that had taken place somewhere in fact or in fiction. The only ones that sprang to mind were Bergman's chess game with death (which is a cliché), Herman Hesse's glass bead game (which already had a whole novel devoted to it), Wild Bill Hickock's last poker game (which has appeared in too many stories already) and the dice game played by the Roman soldiers at Christ's crucifixion. I decided to use the latter -- the value of the robe they were playing for suggested it would be of interest down the ages and I began to wonder about a time traveller attempting to take part in the game so as to take the robe for himself and, incidentally, for posterity. Now I had the beginning of the story.
Obviously the time traveller had to win, therefore I needed some mechanism to guarantee that would happen. That gave me the electronic dice. And now I had a middle.
I liked the idea of punishing the soldiers for their temerity in dicing for the robe in the first place by giving them a long losing streak. Serves them right... And now I had an ending. The structure was complete.
Once I'd reached that point in my thinking, the story wrote itself. I just sat there and watched the words appear on the screen!
As you read, you may notice these sentences: Time to teach them the error of their ways. How dare they sully that robe by gambling for it? Those sentences weren't in the original. But then I showed the story to a friend and she said, "Why didn't Adam just go and buy the robe from Omar the Tailor after the soldiers sold it to him? It would have been a lot easier and a lot less effort." Damn! Now I needed to give Adam more of a motive for playing dice with the soldiers. Hence the extra two sentences. They also had the added bonus of strengthening the ending -- now Adam has more of a motive for leaving the soldiers with their long losing streak. And his last line (Serves them right, he thought.) makes more sense.