by Andrew J. Müller

The machine’s jerky three-fingered ‘hand’ gripped the thin shaft of the Queen with surprising delicacy, lifted it from the board, looped over the over pieces and placed it in another square opposite the King. The electronic voice grated out in poor synthesized English "Check".

Marc Sevarn watched the robotic arm retract like an angle-poise lamp and go dormant. The automated clock switched over to begin marking his own time. He looked at the board and creased his brow. He glanced down at his own hand where it hovered by his pieces, fine thin fingers which he was told were ‘artistic’ whatever that was supposed to mean. He waggled his fingers in order, smallest to biggest, one fluid motion. He had the intelligence to do that, but always struggled during his rest periods to beat the machine’s chess playing skills.

He would have to protect the King he guessed. Scanning the board he saw a Bishop which could interpose, so he raised his hand and gripped the piece in his delicate fingers and slid it across the board between his King and the machine’s Queen. As he placed his piece down the sensors in the board switched the clock over to the machine’s time. The same sensor informed his opponent of his move.

Almost immediately the mechnical arm opposite sprang into life, gripped a Knight and took his Bishop. Marc Sevarn stared in annoyance as his Bishop was picked off the board and placed by the ever growing row of white pieces sitting idly in front of the angle-poise arm. The clock switched back.

If a machine could look smug Marc Sevarn was sure that the arm opposite was, even though it had switched off emotionlessly after it had made it’s move. His mind rationalised it that this machine was specifically programmed to play chess unbeatably whereas he wasn’t. The machine wouldn’t be able to play piano, or run a long distance race which Marc Sevarn probably could do if he was so minded. Yes, that was a good position from which to view his current situation, one of superiority when something else was going on. It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do.

The clock beeped and Marc Sevarn realised he wasn’t concentrating on the game. Hurriedly he moved a pawn and took the Knight. There! That would show the machine alright.

The mechanical arm shot out, gripped it’s Queen and took the pawn. "Checkmate" grated the voice.

Aghast, Marc Sevarn looked at the board. The machine was correct, of course, it always was. Everytime it declared Checkmate, which really was every time. Reluctantly he reached out and flicked over his King, ceding defeat as he always did, every day, every match. Always at the end of the game he wondered why he even tried and yet tomorrow during his rest period he would be here again struggling to find the gambit that would confuse that computer mind, the one move that wasn’t programmed into it’s silicon synapses with a thousand ways to counter it. It was a battle he was unlikely to win, he knew that, but some perverse need brought him back there everyday, some irrisistable urge.

The board flickered and vanished as the game switched off. Marc Sevarn glanced over at the wall chronometer and saw that there wasn’t time for another game, so he didn’t reboot the game. He was improving at least, months ago there would have been time for two or three games so quickly were his defeats happening back then.

He stood and looked at his opponent, it was a thin metal arm with a primitive hand at the end of it, balancing on a desk with a metal box underneath it. A small LED flashed on and off on the box, the only sign of activity from his conqueror. At least he had one revenge, he reached over and switched the computer off.

Marc Sevarn stood and went to the door to the rest room which smoothly hissed open to allow him access to the corridor outside. The corridor went around the station like a giant glass doughnut. He walked half it’s length several times a day and never glimpsed outside at the vista of space all around, the blue Mantule Nebulae cast wide wispy patterns above him, below him darkness stretched into infinity.

As Marc Sevarn walked along the corridor he was slowly joined by others dressed identically, all finishing their rest periods, all heading back to their work stations. After a few minutes Marc Sevarn arrived at his work station, a computer terminal, one of many in a row, all identical. Others who had joined his walk sat at the rest of the terminals and waited.

"All Mark 7 Units begin work". The voice came from a speaker in the wall, not loud and booming, not harsh, just matter of fact.

Marc Sevarn - and all the other Mark 7s - picked a cable off the desk and lifted it with the same fluid motion with which he had been moving the chess pieces. With his other hand he removed a small square of hair from the side of his head to reveal a metal rimmed hole. He plugged the cable into the hole and waited for a few seconds. A keyboard emerged from inside the desk and in unison all of the workers began to process the information which they had been programmed to do, no more or no less intelligently than the chess playing computer which Marc Sevarn was recently pitting his own, slightly more sophisticated, computer mind against.

A revised version of this story appears in BeWrite Book's "Chill" published in 2002.

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