Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Ludonimicron

The whole thing occured in May, 1989.

I was the Mac and Unix lab supervisor at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, a Jesuit college. I was responsible not only ensuring that the professors and the students could use the computers, but also for maintaining network connections to other universities.

I spent a lot of time on the fledgling Internet at that time. Gopher was the 'next big thing', you might recall. It was a new way of accessing many new documents that were previously only available at other institutions. Suddenly, all of these documents came online and were accessible to anyone who knew how to use the software.

It was early May, the second or third. I was browsing around Gopher in some university's archives when I stumbled upon a link entitled "Research into the Ludonimicron". I admit that I was bored, and a bit curious. So I clicked the link.

The first page of the document appeared on my screen. Apparently, the paper contained information about a long lost book called the "Ludonimicron". The first page of the paper was basically an abstract, with the name of the researcher (Dr. Jim Benneth) and some esoteric lines about board games and mythology.

As I was ready to page down to the next page, my screen suddenly went blank. I remembered thinking that that was quite strange. I pressed a few keys until I found myself back in the parent folder, but the link to the paper was now gone. I rooted around on the site but couldn't find it. Nor was there any listing for "Ludonimicron" anywhere else on Gopher.

A call to the university in question revealed that Professor Benneth no longer worked at that university, and in fact, hadn't been seen in about four years. No listing for a Jim Benneth was in the local white pages of that university's city. And that was that.

I confess that I forgot all about it until a week later.

I was browsing through the stacks about Mythology at the university library at Yale, New Haven, when I came across a very old book on the shelves without any sort of title on the spine. It was bound in black leather and was closed with some sort of metal clasps.

Taking it down, I was able to open the clasps without much difficulty. The impression on the inside page revealed this to be "Essays on the Field of Board Game Mythology". Recalling my previous encounter with that subject last week, I decided to sit down and have a go at studying the subject.

I sat at one of the tables in the library reading the first essay, which was entitled "Polynesian Board Games of Antiquity". This was a fascinating essay about board games which occupied my time, interrupted only briefly by some commotion near the librarians desk. Apparently the librarian and her manager were having some sort of argument. When I looked up, they were looking directly at me but then quickly turned away.

I ignored them and continued with my reading. There were some detailed old maps of Easter Island on one of the pages. It was then that I noticed in a very old hand on the side of the map "est 950? ref. Ludonim." I was convinced that that was a reference to my mysterious book.

I was keen to continue reading, but I needed to use the facilities. When I returned the book was nowhere in sight.

I went to the librarian's desk asking if they knew what had happened to the book I was reading, but they denied having taken it or even knowing anything about it. Furthermore, they denied that such a book existed in their library. When I pointed out to them that I had taken it from their own shelves, they suggested, very curtly, that perhaps some individual had left it there by accident and had now retrieved it. In any case, they implied that there was nothing more that they could do to help me.

I wasn't convinced by this cold dismissal, but there didn't appear to be anything else that I could do, so I left. However, I decided that I needed to find out more on the subject. As I was planning a trip to South America the next week, anyway, I decided to do some research on Easter Island.

The only way to get to Easter Island is to fly to Chile and then take a single passenger plane out to the island. I arrived in Chile without much difficulty. At the airport I hailed a taxi and was picked up almost at once by a rough looking local. Aside from his unkempt appearance he also had curiously yellow eyes.

I asked him to take me to a local flight headed for Easter Island. He said that only one pilot goes regularly to the island, one Captain Lopez. I thanked him and we set off for and arrived at Lopez's hangar forthwith. Later, I learned that there were a few other pilots who also make the journey, although none with the regularity of Lopez.

One possibly significant event occurred before we left. As Lopez started plane, I saw him looking curiously at some of the instruments. I asked him if there was anything wrong and he said that he couldn't tell that something was definitely wrong, but he had a feeling that something was odd. He asked if I wouldn't mind a slight delay while he gave the plane another once over, just to be on the safe side. I said that I didn't mind.

What he discovered made my blood run cold. It turns out that the main fuel line on the left wing had been cut. It was quite fortuitous that we did this final inspection; without it, the plane would probably have fallen into the ocean halfway to its destination and I wouldn't be here to write any of this. It was unclear how the fuel line had been cut. Lopez discounted any foul play, since the plane's hangar was always locked when he wasn't with it. To this day, I haven't discovered how this could have happened.

Anyway, we arrived at Easter island without any further delay. Many of you already know about Easter Island's great claim to fame: great statues of various figures that dot the island at various intervals, seemingly at random. What is less well known is that these pieces sometimes move about.

Of course, I am not suggesting that they move by themselves. Obviously, the natives on the island move them occasionally for some reason. Why, it is not known. How is also not known, as some of these statues are quite large. Also, no one has ever seen anyone move the pieces, but it is generally assumed that the movement is done at night.

There are some local laws in place that prevent verification of this assumption. One of these is a curfew that is enforced on the island; all non-natives are required to stay indoors from dusk to dawn.

Although foolish in retrospect, my first few days I openly asked around, searching for any information about the "Ludonimicron". All that I got were polite stares and head shaking. It was obvious to me that no one knew anything, or was willing to say anything. I also noticed that I was very casually being watched. I put this down to general nervousness about tourists on the island, but I must admit that I began to get a creepy feeling on the back of my neck. I could never pinpoint a particular set of eyes on me, but their weight began to feel oppressive.

I hadn't meant to violate their local laws, but one evening I had to escape from this constant feeling of scrutiny. I snuck out the back of my cabin and wandered through one of the island's thick groves of trees. Ahead of me I began to see firelight and hear chanting and drumming. I crouched down among the foliage and crept up to the edge to see and hear better.

A great native ceremony was going on. People were dancing and jumping around one of the great statues. I watched for a few minutes, and then smiled to myself, convinced that that was all. Just as I turned away to go back, however, the dancing stopped. I stood for a few moments more, and as I watched, a table and two chairs were brought into the circle, and two of the dancers sat down. A chess board and pieces were then placed on the table and the two began to play a game of chess.

I couldn't see much from my vantage, but it looked to me like the pieces on the chess board were made to look like the statues that dotted the island. I smiled to myself. It's just a bit of local fun and games, not very much different from my own American culture. As I stood up and turned around, I came face to face with one of the island's native security guards. He wasn't smiling.

I was escorted back to my cabin and the next morning I was asked to leave the island. Forced to leave, more like. As the plane that I was on flew back into Chile, I could see the checkered fields of farms spreading out like a great game board around the airport.

I eventually landed back in Newark, NJ, and made my way to the bus that would take me to Grand Central Station in Manhattan, for transfer to the train back to New Haven, CT.

It was there that I met "Mr X". He wore a trenchcoat and dark glasses, even though it was three in the afternoon on a cloudy day. He called me by my name.

"Mr. Jonathan Berlinger?" he asked.

Started into the simple truth, I answered, "Yes. Who are you?"

"My name is unimportant," he said. "Mr. Berlinger, I've come to warn you that you are in great danger. You must stop your research."

"What are you talking about?" I asked him, slightly annoyed. "Who are you? How do you know my research?"

"Let's just say that I know what it is that you are searching for. I once searched for it myself. You have to stop. They know that you're looking, and they won't let you find it. Right now, you are in great danger."

Ordinarily I would have laughed at some stranger telling me this at a bus stop in New Jersey, but the way he glanced around when he said this made me shiver, even though it wasn't that cold out.

"What's going on?" I asked. "Who are you? Why are you telling me this?"

"Look," he said, in a voice barely above a whisper. "You don't know what you're getting into. You have no idea how far this goes. You and I and everyone around us are part of a game, Mr Berlinger. It's being played around us. You're making the wrong moves, and if you don't stop, you are going to be eliminated."

"Are you threatening me?" I asked, dumbfounded.

"Not me, Mr Berlinger. Not me. Look around you. All around you is the game. Do you think it's a coincidence that the heads of corporations are called the 'board' of directors. Chairman of the 'board'? Coincidence? And the military, Mr. Berlinger, always playing war 'games'. Listen to the military briefings. 'Strategy'. 'Tactics'. 'Game plan'. Mr. Berlinger, this game is more than you can handle. Please take my advice and get out of it while there's still time. It may already be too late."

I blinked. "Are you telling me that a bunch of people are running the world and playing it like a giant board game, sir?" I asked.

"No, Mr. Berlinger, I never said that a bunch of 'people' were doing anything of the sort. Now I really must be ... "

"Wait! I don't understand! No people can be that powerful. No human beings could ... No human beings ... No humans ... " I stopped and stared at my mysterious stranger.

"I really must be going, Mr. Berlinger. Good day. Please heed my advice." And with that, he disappeared into the crowds.

I must admit that my conversation with this stranger had shaken me. I got on the bus, thinking fiercely about what he said, and unwilling to believe what he was implying.

As the bus approached the Lincoln Tunnel, I began to feel a deep sense of fear and nausea. I looked up through the windshield at the mouth of the tunnel. As anyone who has ever approached the Lincoln Tunnel before knows, the inside of the tunnel is lined with lights, and you can see into the tunnel for some distance before the tunnel bends out of sight. On that day, I couldn't see beyond a few feet into the tunnel before my sight ended in what I felt was an inky, malevolent darkness. Only two lights gleamed in that darkness, and they looked to my fevered imagination more like eyes than lights.

I stood up and ran to the front of the bus and yelled at the driver to let me off. He told me to sit down. Only after I threatened that I was going to throw up did he pull over and let me off. I dropped off the bus and fell to my hands and knees as waves of nausea swept over me. As I watched the bus enter the tunnel, it seemed to glow briefly and then fade out of existence. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Everything seemed normal. The lights in the tunnel were back and the traffic was moving just as it normally does. All evidence was that my imagination had simply gotten the better of me, but I wasn't willing to take any chances.

In August I moved to Israel and changed my name to Yehuda. I got divorced and remarried. I moved three times, and I changed jobs about ten times. After fifteen years I have finally begun to relax. I haven't seen any more mysterious strangers or dark tunnels, nor have I run across any further mention of the mysterious Ludonimicron; of course, I have resolutely not been looking for it.

My life is now back to normal and I get on with my day to day activities. I'm happily involved in the game community as a blogger, a player, and a group organizer. All of the strange occurrences of that freakish month are now in the past. Every day I go to work and come home without any incidence.

Although, I do have a new coworker named William whose eyes are a very odd shade of yellow.



Anonymous said...

Wonderful! A very fun read.

Joe Gola said...

It is rumored that in 1978 Francis Tresham purloined a key to the rare book room at Miskatonic University library and subsequently spent three months studying a copy of the hateful Ludonimicon. In the following thirteen years he designed Civilization, 1830, 1853, 1835, and Advanced Civilization while locked in a garret in Providence, Rhode Island. In the winter of 1991 the was a horrifying crash in that garret; upon investigation scorch marks were discovered on the floorboards beneath Tresham's cot and a large section of roof had been pushed outwards by some powerful force. An friend of the designer with an interest in astronomy querulously noted that, from the vantage point of the bed, the pole star would have been clearly visible through the hole in the roof at the time of the explosion. This acquaintance was subsequently taken in for questioning but died of a mysterious brain fever while in custody.

Tresham was missing and presumed dead for another thirteen years until a game collector one day happened to wander past the grounds of a charity hospital on the outskirts of Cairo and spotted the designer lying under a tree in a near-catatonic state. He was rushed to his family in the U.S., but, while most of his faculties eventually returned, he was now only interested in abstruse historical events and showed no intention of designing games with the grand scope of Civilization or the 18xx series.

In a strange, garbled letter to Alan Moon he subsequently wrote:

The Dutch...it all started there...Widderich discovered the truth and it drove the man mad...did you know that the tulips are transmitters to the Kuiper Belt? The Protestants were subsumed by Kalakh'-zan in 1559. It was the war of all ages...and we lost! Now the Eternal Ones are coming. The wooden cube with a thousand young! God save us! God save us, Alan!

Coldfoot said...

Very good story, Yehuda. But you know...they could be reading this blog...

Anonymous said...

I work for the U.S. Federal Government. I will be happily forwarding the url for this post on to my superiors.

I may even get a reward.


Gerald McD said...


Anonymous said...

Great read!

Of course Ludonimicron is an anagram for "I'm old unicorn"...

gnome said...

Brilliant Yehuda... Now go play "the Lurking Horror"!