- White Pawn to k4
“That’s a good move,” says the older woman. Her scarred hands tremble slightly on the table. “Control the center of the board. I’ll, uh, need to think about my response.”
“Thanks!” says the young girl in pigtails, who seems surprised by the offer of conversation. “No hurry—we’ve got lots of time.”
Then all is silent, apart from the buzz of the compact black drone hovering above. Its miniature rotors whir while its dual cameras catch every nuance of expression in both their faces. They have not been told specifically that it is armed, but they know dire consequences will follow if either of them tries to cheat or leave the tiny room where they are sequestered together.
The woman reaches out to touch her queen’s knight, then withdraws her hand. “I guess you’re right. I wonder why they didn’t give us a time limit.”
“You do?” The little girl is surprised. “I mean, isn’t it obvious?”
…Black Pawn to k5
What do you do when, after years of persistent, fierce, and unremitting hostility, you and your worst enemy have finally reached the point of mutually assured destruction? When after all the spying, the careful courtship of allies, and the vast investment in military technologies, you both find yourselves with enough collected ordnance, not only to destroy each other, but to burn all life from the face of the planet seven times over?
Obviously, you de-escalate. “It’s the only rational option,” you tell yourself earnestly. Stand down, patriots; learn to divert your anger along other pathways. Disassemble your warheads and drones, set aside your rifles and grenades, your baseball bats and kitchen knives, and start to learn tolerance—or at least indifference—toward the half-comprehended threats and the alien customs of your foes.
But what if you—or rather, what if your parents’ parents’ parents—have simply forgotten how to do this? What if the weapons they built are so old you know only how to launch them, not how to take them apart? What if all your remaining holidays and festivals are celebrations of ancient conquests and battlefield victories? And what if all the other forms of playful, bloodless competition other societies enjoy—from fencing and fisticuffs to the gentlest forms of gameplay—have become like ashes in your mouth?
You still must find a way to prevent the very worst from happening. And once your cleverest statesmen and strategists have pursued ‘us or them’ to its outermost logical conclusion, you find that the problem is actually quite easy to solve.
- White Bishop to b4
“Hmm.” The older woman fiddles with the cuffs of her all-black uniform. “That’s pretty aggressive.” It’s clear she is talking mainly just to calm her nerves. “How long have you known how to play?”
“Just a day and a half.” The girl becomes flushed, defensive. “It’s not my fault! I know I should have learned earlier! But I never thought they’d pick me in the lottery. There are millions and millions—”
“Shh. It’s okay. I’m just the same. We all knew for weeks this was the game they’d chosen. But I never liked games much, anyway.”
“Me either. Plus, I have a cold.” The girl sniffles and wipes her nose against her pale white sleeve.
“Sorry to hear that.” The woman relaxes a little, laughs gently, takes a long, slow breath. “You actually remind me of somebody.”
“Really? Somebody on your side?”
“Yeah.” The woman sighs and makes her next move, apparently impulsively. “Never mind; it’s not important.”
…Black Knight to b6
Of course, the implants had to be foolproof. And they all had to be manufactured using exactly the same process, then distributed to both sides randomly. Fortunately, there are a few smaller foreign nations whose neutrality has been tested and proven. Their citizens are horrified when you ask them for assistance. But when you switch from efforts at bribery to outright threats, they quickly fall in line. Several months and a gauntlet of factory inspections later, the plan is ready to be implemented.
When your leaders send patrols to every town within your borders, equipped with huge racks of implants and surgical equipment, they expect resistance. And there is certainly some: a few angry local militias try to fight, a few counter-cultural types stage protests. Some smaller groups simply disappear into the wilderness and have to be chased down and confined. But for the most part, your people are amazingly compliant. Perhaps their fear has gone on so long, the threat of annihilation become so palpable, that even what the implants promise brings a welcome sense of finality.
- White Queen to r5
The older woman’s breathing has become shaky, and her face is suddenly wan, making the thin parallel scars on her forehead stand out. She seems unable to look at the board for more than a few seconds at a time.
The little girl is messing with one pigtail, bouncing a little in her oversized chair. “Are you gonna go?” She sounds more solicitous than impatient.
“Can I ask you something, sweetie? Have they told you anything—anything at all—about what’s going to happen to us when we’ve finished the game?”
“Oh!” says the girl. “Well, not really. When they came to our house to tell my Dad about the lottery, he was really mad; he told them they couldn’t take me away. But once they did, they said I’d be a hero forever! Whether I win or lose. And I rode in a helicopter!”
“Whether you win or lose?” echoes the woman. She leans to one side to glance at the little girl’s neck. Sure enough, the bump from the incision is there, just like her own, still a little raw but mostly healed over from the surgery. She sighs and reaches for the board.
…Black Pawn to q7
There aren’t many scholars or historians left on either side. But the few who remain are asked to find some type of game, or sport, or single combat that everyone will agree to.
Nobody from among your people has played chess for almost a century. But its ancient pedigree and its warlike subtext impress you. Almost as though the game’s original players were whispering to you, down through the centuries, that they understood your predicament. And you and your foes agree that it seems to fit the situation better than a mere test of luck or the type of contest that could be decided by brute strength or the guile of old age. Nobody ever studies the game closely enough to discover whether either player has a clear advantage.
- White Queen takes Pawn at b7
The woman in black shakes her head once, blinks, then picks up her Queen as though it were free to move. She holds it in the air for a few seconds over the other pieces.
“Uh, sorry,” says the girl wearing white. “I think that’s actually checkmate.”
“Sorry—what? What does that word mean, sweetie? I don’t think…”
The girl points to three pieces she has already moved, then to the woman’s king. With her free hand, she scratches at the tender bump on her neck.
“Oh, careful, honey—don’t touch that! You might….” But then the woman looks down again at the board, and her eyes widen. A low, desperate sob fills the small room as the game pieces scatter to the ground.
…and a silent signal is transmitted from the base of the vanquished Black King to a broadcast tower a mile away. From there, it propagates across two national borders into your country, where almost every citizen who has been staring at the screens that broadcast the game lets out a similar cry.
For some reason, it takes the implants a few seconds longer to be triggered than their foreign designers promised. But they function as they were meant to. Your fellow citizens—and you, of course, wherever you are—drop to the ground without another word or sign of protest. Within less than two minutes of the abrupt endgame, you have become a nation of the dead. And the world, at last, knows peace.