A lot of us have quietly wondered, from the start of Perplex City, what would happen to the co-operation and the community once the endgame started and players could smell the money. Would there be fights? Sharp elbows? Or one big happy family crossing the line together with arms linked, sharing the prize between them?
It turns out what there mainly was, was silence. Player after player announced they were heading for Fineshade Wood, but one word was conspicuous by its near-total absence from Friday onwards, and that word was Wakerley. It was as if Fineshade was gradually filling up with players until they were bulging from its sides like the famous PCAG fill-a-telephone-box challenge.
Either that, or like me they were finding their way across to Wakerley and not admitting it.
I was keeping a close eye on the forums from Thursday evening onwards, even venturing over to the Perplexorum for pretty much the first time ever. I wasn't after theories - I had plenty of those of my own - I was after progress reports. By Midnight Friday, having seen no-one I recognised as a player in the woods for two days and reading very little on the boards about Wakerley, it was tempting to conclude everyone was sitting back and waiting for either Fineshade on Saturday, or more solid proof of location.
Absolute rubbish, of course. Subsequently, all sorts of stories have emerged that suggest Wakerley was crawling with players - one skipped a work meeting to go Thursday, another remembers seeing me there on Friday, while yet another suspects his girlfriend may actually have relieved herself on the spot the Cube was buried. I do hope he's wrong...
And while all this was going on, two formidable teams were homing in on where I knew the Cube to be. Team Alice seems to have combined the backroom organisation of an Ellen MacArthur record attempt with enough earthmoving expertise to re-dig the Mines of Moria. Tally's team, meanwhile, was made up of some serious puzzle-solvers, including the player I'd always secretly expected to win - Guin.
I knew none of this, of course. I just knew that by sitting out Saturday I was handing the field of play over to everyone who'd been itching for the weekend to come. Some of them were going to make it over to Wakerley and, I fully believed, one of them would find the Cube.
Even without that expectation, Saturday was a dreadful day. I'm not as young as I once was (pushing 40) and I was paying for the running around of the previous couple of days with the headache to end all headaches. It was about all I could do to sit up in a darkened room. Beloved Other Half wasn't much better. Every so often, one of us would check the forums for a triumphant announcement that never came. As the afternoon passed I began to say "maybe tomorrow, after all..." Eventually someone - European Chris, I think - posted to say they were in the pub, Cubeless.
We were back in the game.
Sunday was another 4am alarm call, another drive through the dawn, another sunrise on the road. I went alone this time, and expected to find the car park full of Cube hunters. There was just one other vehicle parked on the road outside (it was too early for the gate to be open). Dog walkers, by the look of it. I had another clear run, and to my dying day I'll never know why that should be.
On getting back to the point where the misleading fencepost marked the junction of paths I had the shock of my life when I saw the digging behind it. This, presumably, was the spectacular efforts of Ixalon on Friday night, going over ground that Beloved Other Half and I had investigated a few hours earlier. I didn't know that - I thought it was Saturday daytime work - but I did know that if we had missed the Cube by inches in the dark on Friday, someone was sitting at home with it on the shelf even then. However, I was still confident about my identification of where the Cube would be - up the path, by CT's post - so I scurried over there, wondering whether I'd find more earthworks. I didn't. Instead, there were a couple of patches of disturbed ground in a direct line back from the post, investigatory scrapings made on Saturday by Tally's team as I later learned. It is impossible to exaggerate how unlucky they were. I don't know Hawk, but from the way he writes I suspect he has archaeological training - and more of it than I do*. Had his team-mates made those scrapings just four or five paces further from the post - or if they'd measured the 20 ammots specified on End of the Line - he would have spotted the signs I eventually saw on Sunday and the Cube would have been found there and then.
But it wasn't.
My turn again.
In interviews since winning, I've several times likened PXC to a long-distance cycle race where the competitors mosey along in a big, easy group for most of the time, not racing each other, a different person occasionally taking on the responsibility of going out the front. Then, near the end, everyone sprints like mad to the finish. I think it's a pretty good reference point, but those final 48 hours remind me more of a darts match, albeit one with three players, in which no-one can hit the double they need to win. First I missed on Friday daytime and early evening, then Ixalon and Mac Monkey had a shot Friday night, then Tally's team tried on Saturday. Come Sunday, I was back on the oche. So what did I do? I spent three hours digging in completely the wrong place.
Despite realising on Friday night exactly where the Cube was, when I arrived on Sunday I allowed myself to be swayed by a number of factors that made me ignore that insight and took me off in the wrong direction. Instead of digging 10m behind the quadruped fence, where its leg was pointing, I dug in front of it on the other side of the path. The soil looked like the photo in the Library of Babel, and when I measured 10m back from the post I hit a large mossy tree stump, while 10m forward was a promising clearing. It was enough for me to ignore End of the Line's stricture against right turns, and the directive to turn my back on the post. It was a beautiful trench I dug, with neat vertical sides so I could look for evidence of it cutting a previous hole, and with tree roots carefully preserved. It was long, and deep, and in places wide, and completely, utterly, pointless. In the end I had to give up on it and backfill it.
I talked to Beloved Other Half on the phone. I wrote at the beginning of this account that single-mindedness was one of the qualities that won this game. She very single-mindedly reminded me to follow the card exactly and try the other side of the path. "There's a tree stump," I said. "Try it anyway," she replied. I re-measured it, and found I'd got it wrong - the tree stump was safely out of range. The crucial line, straight back from the post and between nine and ten meters away from it to allow for variety in the definition of a cubit, was unobstructed. Unlike earlier in the morning, when I'd been digging in the brown earth and warm clay of the wrong side of the path, I was now back on the murky dark side with the hard clay just under the surface. It was relatively easy to clear the rotted dark topsoil away with the trowel and reveal the green-grey of the clay, but apart from a half-hearted attempt at an animal burrow there was nothing cutting through it - no old holes, refilled, for example.
A pair of dog walkers strolled by, complaining at the way children were shreiking in the distance, and I made the woman jump out of her skin with a cheery 'hello' from where I was kneeling deep among the trees. I chatted with the husband for a bit - he showed absolutely no curiosity about what I was doing whatsoever - and when they walked on I backfilled my latest investigation. I really had run out of ideas and was on the verge of trying silly things, like walking another 10m up the path. Things that would, in effect, have been giving up, even though they would have allowed me to pretend I was still searching. I packed my tools away and prepared to move on.
It was then that I realised I was practically standing on a spot where the topsoil was the colour of the clay that ought to be hidden underneath it. It wasn't 10m from the post, it was slightly further - practically a continuation of the line I'd just investigated, exactly where you'd end up burying something if you walked 10m, stopped, and leaned forward to start digging. Seeing sub-surface clay with just a very thin covering of the material that was several inches thick elsewhere was deeply suspicious. If this wasn't the evidence for a hole that had been dug and then filled in, I didn't know what it was. I unpacked my trowel and cut straight down into it.
I'm trying to remember, and I think at this point I already knew I was onto something good, even before I'd gone very deep. It was the most promising spot I'd yet seen - it fitted the clues and it had good archaeology - and it had come at a moment when I was at a pretty low ebb. Six inches down, my trowel nicked something dark in the side wall of the hole that crackled when I prodded it. Just a couple of square millimeters of whatever it was, and at that point it behaved exactly like the tree root bark I'd been finding since Friday - it looked the same, and it made the same noises when poked. I cleared more of the sticky clay away from it with the tip of my trowel, and found that it was definitely plastic - not bark, but a bag. Plastic bags get buried for all sorts of reasons, usually accidental, so I refused to allow myself to believe it was the Cube. Nevertheless, I rocked back on my heels to take a photo. It's not a great photo, all blurry, but nevertheless it turned out to be a pretty important photo - because moments later I cleared enough of the clay to run a gloved hand along the plastic and feel a hard, heavy, straight edge inside it.
That was when it hit me, that was when I knew I'd found the Cube.
I felt this great well of excitement rising in my chest, but I squashed it down so I could get on with the business of lifting the Cube before anyone else came along. It was absolutely stuck fast. I cleared the top, pulling the soil from above it back into the hole I'd just started (Hawk later correctly deduced this from examining the evidence I'd left behind, as he tried to decide if he'd found a hoax, a metal detectorist, or what). After loosening the clay round its sides I was able to hook the fingers of both hands into the plastic and heave upwards. Finally, the clay released it and I lifted it from the ground, heavy as a couple of housebricks. I opened the bag up to find the Cube swathed in bubblewrap, and the note from Violet. The Cube itself was deathly cold, so cold that the surface was mottled. It was beautifully polished, so I handled it as little as possible with my mud-covered gloves - thereby missing the engraving on one side. The note was, if anything, even more exciting than the Cube.
I phoned Beloved Other Half, from beside the hole.
"Well, it turns out Violet was CT," I said.
"How do you know?"
"She left a note in with the Cube."
* Footnotes: It's become clear since writing this that the players I've referred to as 'Tally's Team' weren't an organised group like Team Alice, but a collection of people who decided to work together after meeting each other in the car park. Hawk has since contacted me to say he's not an archaeologist, he's an engineering student who's watched a lot of Time Team. Well, all I can say is he had me fooled. And comparing notes with Guin afterwards leads me to believe the vehicle I saw when I arrived on Sunday morning was his - indeed, it seems quite likely that he was walking past the end of the path where the Cube was buried at the very moment I was digging it up...