Checkmate

free-scifi-story-checkmate

by J.S. Veter

Umam Preth was preparing a deadly concoction of three parts jaffiger and two parts sillin when the robot slammed through the window.

"Hey, Professor," the Vee3 said in greeting. Its manipulator field rolled it upright.

He watched the spilled jaffiger slip through the cracks of the plas-mesh floor. Without the jaffiger, sillin was only mildly noxious. It lapped innocently against the sides of the last martini glass in the universe.

"Physics have gone off," the Vee3 said. “Have you noticed?” Umam Preth swirled the sillin in the glass, then downed it.

"Offing yourself?" The Vee3 found a centre of gravity over the kitchen table and orbited it slowly.

"Trying to, damnit," Umam Preth said. The sillin entered his blood stream, bounced around it as if looking for something to do and then expired, leaving nothing but an ache in his many hearts. "You made me spill the jaffiger."

"Ah. Was that the last of it?"

"Yes it was." Umam Preth, his back to the shattered window (which, as of this morning, looked over nothing), put the empty martini glass on the cluttered counter. The clutter was unlike him. His wife, had she been alive and not a gradually decomposing mass in the bedroom, would have been shocked. But, having been a compassionate sort, she would have immediately known that something was wrong with her husband. She would have put on soothing music and rubbed his dorsal hump. She would have poured him a drink far stronger and much smoother than an incomplete suicide cocktail.

free-scifi-story-2-checkmate-veterSome more things to add to the list of things gone forevermore: music, back rubs and (Umam Preth burped) cocktails.

"Why are you here?" he asked the Vee3. "I told you to stay out of my sight."

The Vee3 continued revolving. "I stayed away as long as I could," it said, "but what with everything so, you know, gone, there was nowhere else to go." The robot spun on its axis. "You could pretend you can't see me," it suggested. "You're very good at that."

He growled at the robot. It had belonged to his wife. She'd had it since she was a child, had kept it in spite of its increasing obsolescence, in spite of his threats to replace it with something state-of-the-art. Hah. The joke was on him.

The Vee3 was once again the pinnacle of its kind.

So, for that matter, was Umam Preth. Had he had an audience any better than a rusty AI with a broken loyalty chip, he would have admitted he was (even as nothing pressed itself against the windows of his house) very pleased with himself. The very same Umam Preth, who'd been laughed out of the University Club for hypothesising that people had risen from the oceans, had now, finally, inarguably, achieved a position at the very top of the food chain.

Admittedly, these days the entire food chain consisted of himself, the Vee3 and a wizened apple he was saving for a special occasion. And his wife and her associated bacterial decompositors.

"How much longer do you think?" Umam Preth asked. The Vee3 extruded its eye stalk.

"Ten minutes, maybe more," it said.

"You can’t be more precise?”

"I have explained this,” the robot said. “It took three years for the outer system to be swallowed up, but twice that for the eastern hemisphere to disappear. All I have is an educated guess."

What can you do with ten minutes? He must have said it out loud because the AI suggested, "Chess?"

Umam Preth groaned. One of his wife’s attempts to endear him to the Vee3 had included programming the robot with the memories of 83 different chess masters. He had never in 37 years won a game against the Vee3. The Vee3 set up the board. Umam Preth chose white.

"This is cozy," the robot said. It was a line Umam Preth's wife had used. He could hear her tones in the AI's voice box. It should have soothed him to know that one small piece of her would exist until the end of all things, approximately ten minutes from now. Instead, it annoyed him that she wasn’t around so he could complain about her robot.

His wife's decision to kill herself had been no surprise. In the beginning, she had borne the end pretty well. They were together, she'd said. That was all that mattered, she’d said. But she missed her Book Club more than she'd thought she would, and the daily trips to the market, which she’d loved, became impossible when the rest of the world went away. The streets were gone, she'd complained, and the last time she'd been to the baker there had been no sticky buns, even though he'd always saved some especially for her. Umam Preth had wanted to point out that there wasn’t a baker anymore, either, but he’d bitten his tongue.

The Vee3 accessed its m-field and the game began.

His wife had been so interested in the world. All the small doings of friends and neighbours had been important to her. When they were gone, no matter how she protested that he was enough, he knew she missed them in the largest cockles of her hearts. Hers had been the second suicide cocktail he'd mixed. The first had been tested on the neighbour’s pet pooch. It had worked: the pooch, vomiting and dropping feathers, had stumble-fluttered to what it had thought was home but was, mercifully, nothing at all.

The third cocktail was the one the Vee3 had made him drop onto the plas-mesh floor.

Umam Preth supposed it was fair that he was the one left behind. It was his invention, after all, which had started all the ending. Best to witness it himself, scientist-fashion. He’d have taken notes if he could. He had his books, but there wasn’t a pencil to be found between here and, well, right over there.

With a sucking noise, the nothing moved into the house. The Vee3 announced its entrance as if announcing a dinner guest. Umam Preth, losing three pawns in quick succession, barely looked up. But when the nothing removed his wife's remains from existence, he banged his flipper on the table so hard it hurt.

"Look on the bright side," the Vee3 said in his wife's borrowed tones. "It works."

Which was the very thing the woman herself had said to him the night astronomers from seven different countries arrived at the same terrifying conclusion: galaxies were disappearing from the heavens and the epicentre of the phenomenon was, however improbably, Umam Preth's kitchen table. His wife looked at him with surprise. She'd told him for years that someday one of his inventions would work. It wasn't until the day one actually did that he'd realised she hadn’t believed it at all.

free-scifi-checkmateHe frowned at the glittering box and its flashing lights. “It’s not supposed to do that,” he said, fiddling with a dial or two.

“Seems a shame,” Umam Preth said, “seeing as how well it’s doing... whatever it is it’s doing.”

Unfortunately, it appeared Umam Preth had neglected to include a kill switch when he’d built the thing.

Still, they had decades. The universe was mighty big and the machine, though tireless, wasn't. Umam Preth placed his invention on the kitchen table. His wife draped an embroidered cloth over it so it fit in better with the decor. He went back to teaching. They considered getting a pooch. Stars grew few, then none, save their own sun. It got very bad for a while.

"You'd better make a move," the Vee3 said. There had been a long silence between them. The only light came from the Vee3's eye stalks and the last glow of the universe which powered Umam Preth's machine. The robot had captured his castle and knight without effort.

"I think now’s the time," he said. The Vee3 adjusted its m-field and the wizened apple, the very last apple in all of space-time (which was now jammed into Umam Preth’s cramped, cluttered kitchen), deposited itself in his hand. "I never liked these," he observed, turning the fruit. Its skin had gone wrinkly like his face.

The apple had ripened last summer on the tree in their back garden. His wife had made pies and sauce from most of them, but this one had fallen forgotten into the back of the fridge and waited there until everything else had been eaten. Umam Preth turned it over, realised that this apple was the last sunlight of the world that was. He sniffed it. It smelled like fridge. He took a bite. The skin parted under his teeth. He chewed, swallowed and found he still didn't like the damned things. He finished the apple, core and all, until all that was left was the stem and one tiny shrivelled leaf. He tossed those to the floor.

The nothing would take care of the waste soon enough. It had pressed into the kitchen, swallowed the cooker and the empty, powerless fridge, taken the pictures on the walls.

Then he saw a chance: three moves, clear as his eyesight was not. The Vee3’s battery level blinked at ‘low’. He hardly dared to breathe. Casually, he made his move. He had been here before. Once, he’d gotten within two moves of winning before the robot had cleared the board with a savage attack. Then it happened. The Vee3 placed its rook exactly where Umam Preth wanted it to.

“My turn, then?” he said, voice cracking over the question. He double-checked the pieces on the board, making sure there wasn’t a trap laid out for him. There was always a trap.

His hand hovered over his bishop. He didn’t see a trap. Didn’t mean there wasn’t one there. “Still my turn!” he said, pretending to ruminate. The Vee3 sank slowly to the table, its light blinking red. Please, please, please! he thought.

The nothing lapped across the kitchen floor, its pulses matching the hum of Umam Preth’s invention. He sank lower into his sling, made his move, held his breath. He had to be missing something. He’d been playing against the Vee3 half his life. He’d never won. Not once.

The Vee3’s knight slugged across the board. Again, right where he wanted it. He was going to win.

Umam Preth twitched his right flipper away from the nothing. He was going to beat the robot at last! What a way to go! This was even better than when he’d beat Professor Zsen Eb five out of seven. Ha! Who had tenure now?

His chair tilted suddenly as the nothing took its back legs. He stood, pounced on the robot’s king. “Check and mate!” he exclaimed. “Check AND mate! You didn’t see THAT coming, did you?” The Vee3 settled to the floor, all its lights red. “Wait,” he said. He scanned the board; it looked like checkmate. Yes. Yes! Yes? “You didn’t just let me win, did you?” The table lurched. He saved the game board from toppling to the floor, stepped back from the nothing’s gobbling. “You weren’t just being nice, right?” He pointed an accusatory finger, but the little robot was gone.

“I won, didn’t I?” Umam Preth asked all that was left of the universe. “I won?”

~~~

About the Creator

J.S. Veter's short stories have appeared in On Spec, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. She's published two novels and is currently writing a series of HiLo Sci-Fi books for kids 9-12 who like an exciting story but need an easier read. Jessica lives in Dundas, Ontario, with her family and her hens.

World's Shortest Creator Interview

Removed for your protection.

Thank you very much but could you please put it back on now.

[Eds. note: J.S. wasn't supposed to answer that one, but she's got the last laugh here.]

Do you hope to see lighters or iPhones waved when the song-story of your life is performed? Are you expecting a mosh pit? Or are you hoping that the crowd will stomp their feet in rhythm and raise their glasses, or some other response, perhaps?

No lighters. No mobiles. I want everyone to hold a chicken up (gently), and promise to love the chicken, and give it a multi-syllabic name, like Brunhilde, or Penelope, or Eglantine. And Penelope (or Eglantine, or Brunhilde) will learn to come when they’re called, running as fast as they can with their wings flapping because they know that being called means good things are going to happen, and everyone will learn to understand what chickens say and the world will be a more peaceful place because everyone brought a chicken with them on the day the story of my life was sung.

About the Artists

Genty, Agzam, and BUMIPUTRA are visual artists on Pixabay.

Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology, and he has a janky retro JRPG on Steam. He does the Space Squid illustrations, editing, and other squid stuff.

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