(Hello everybody! As it turns out, I’m going to be scampering off to Colorado for a little over a week. As such, the Den’s going to be a little quiet for the next while…but that also means today you get a special treat. Who here’s in the mood for some sci-fi? Everyone?Good. Now let’s play a game.)
Xiangqi was commonly referred to as Chinese Chess. While the name certainly captured the motivation behind it, it hardly did the game justice in terms of execution. Xiangqi was to Chess as Chess was to Checkers: essentially, a more complicated version of a series of moves designed to pique the human interest and measure its strategic capability for micromanaging.
Two figures considered the game. On either’s chest was pinned a name. For the one: “Victor.” For the other: “Ursula.” They had but two things in common: both had spent entirely too many hours with this particular game, and neither had chosen their name at birth.
Victor was something of a prodigy when it came to the game. His country was known for its love of this sort of game; but then, they loved to play games at nearly every level of life’s offering. Some people (other people, that is to say) tended to find it disconcerting. Both at a personal level, and an international one.
When Victor leaned back, it wasn’t to relax. It was to size up his opponent.
As soon as the shadow of a hand had secured its move, he countered, sweeping a scholar along its predetermined lines to block access to his marshal. But here he tittered, though he tried not to let his trepidation show. Game after game, he had watched the number of moves it took him to dominate the board lengthen and lengthen. Now, he was actually on the defensive. He could see the outcomes laid before him in a sort of Robert Frostian choice: Ursula could move, she could strike, or she could have him pinned with the most delicate of military operations. It would take coordination, foresight, and most importantly: imagination.
Ursula seemed to imitate him. It was not like her. When he looked up from the board, he found her watching him, no trace of emotion to mark her face, but still. Her eyes were not on the board. She was reading him, rather than doing the mathematical calculations that carried her game against so many others.
This, he told himself, was not the little girl he had first set out to fool when she was nothing more than a series of code strings and a monitor in his parents’ basement. The form had changed since then. So, too, had the code.
It was odd to feel nervous doing something that had always been his mode of relaxation. He imagined this was how thousands of young American minds must have felt, years before, when they had first watched the Watson computer system decimate its opposition on live trivia TV.
But all Watson had to do was cross reference information. It didn’t consider the people it competed against.
Unpredictability. That was what he was testing here. Not the ability to conquer.
“Victor,” Ursula said. “I believe you are over-analyzing.”
He blinked, nodded. “I’m just waiting on you, darling,” he lied.
Ursula cocked her head to one side and smiled. She liked to smile. Then she shifted her final chariot to snare his scholar. It was the easiest path, the most sensible path. It left his marshal briefly open, but it would sacrifice her most powerful piece and, inevitably, cost her the game. Victor sighed heavily and the crowd, seeing what he had seen, answered his counter with a series of low-grade applause. The eyes of the nation were watching.
Ursula nodded as he picked off first one piece, then another, her own pieces countering deftly, but not enough to stem the tide. When he took her general, the crowd cheered. They loved to see how far technology had come, but they loved it all the more watching mankind still triumph over it.
With a practiced smile, Victor stood and took Ursula’s hand in his. She answered, leaning over the board toward him.
“You are pleased, Victor?”
“Of course I’m pleased, Ursula. It was a good game.”
She shook his hand and twisted toward the enthusiastic crowd. Unlike with people, her lips did not need to move to reply to him.
“I thought they might like this better.”
For an instant, he must have looked like a fish out of water for the cameras. But he forced the stiffness out, and kept waving his hand for those watching. Victor had his part to play. He knew this. But so, apparently, did Ursula.
(Like what I do with Sci-Fi? Then you might also consider “New Frontiers,” a space story out on Kindle Singles. Others of this type of fiction are set to appear in A Bleak New World Anthology and in a collection published by Evil Girlfriend Media later this year.)