Companion in Zeor: Senior editor Karen MacLeod. This online version may have been scanned and OCRd from the typewritten original and then reformatted for the web. Scanned by Ronnie Bob Whitaker,
The Sime~Gen universe was created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. This story or its setting may not be reused without explicit permission of the copyright holder, Sime~Gen Inc. This story copyright © 1977, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2010, 2019 by Sime~Gen Inc. All rights reserved.
Black And White
R. K. Hageman
For the thing which I greatly feared is come on me, and that which I was afraid of is come to me.
The late-afternoon sun through the windows did little to brighten the room above the library which was the home of the Silver Springs Municipal Chess Club. Dark paneling, dark-red leather upholstery, and a coffee-colored carpet gave the place a dignified but cavernous atmosphere.
At this time of day, the club was mainly inhabited by the few old men who spent their days up there instead of in the Bent Creek saloon or on the porch of the general store. Later that evening, as on every Thursday, the club would hold its weekly formal meeting.
“Mate in two,” announced Judge Blackburne at the corner table. Before his retirement he’d been the circuit judge for three counties, but now he focused his careful thoughts on a smaller field, consisting of sixty-four squares, alternately dark and light.
“Now, wait a minute, Ethan—” protested his opponent, who then hesitated and scratched his eyebrow. Merritt McDonnell sighed and tipped over the white King. “One of these days, I’m fixing to beat you, even if it takes me a hundred years.” The doctor looked at his watch and frowned. “Wonder where Jay has gotten to. He’s late.”
“He’ll be along. You know how kids are, Doc.” A tall thin man folded up the paper and hobbled over to the table. “My turn to play the winner. You boys took long enough about it... I was about to start whittlin’ me a new wooden leg.”
“I know how kids are, Marko,” commented the doctor wryly as he surrendered his chair to the grizzled old soldier. “He was probably kept after school for getting into mischief.”
“Merritt, I swear you always see the dark side of everything,” replied Judge Blackburne, setting the board up again. “Jay’s not that kind of a boy. He’ll be along in his own good time. Choose, Marko.” He held out his gnarled fists, a Pawn in each one.
What none of the veteran chess players mentioned was the possibility that was never far out of mind—changeover. For a boy the age of Jaysen Protheroe, the odds were one in three that before long he’d turn Sime, and these men—surrogate grandfathers, in a way—would never see him again: one chance in three that Jay would either be shot down in the street, or that he’d stay alive, but be sent away, lost forever to his friends and family on this side of the Territory border. That was the price, in these grim days, of loving a child—any child.
Presently, Jaysen’s characteristic whistling floated up to the windows from the street below, followed by his steps echoing hollowly on the wooden stairs as they did every day after school. “Where’ve you been, Jay?” asked Marko Fischer, looking up from the board.
“School. I forgot, today was checking day.” He tossed his books onto the sagging leather couch. “The channel said I’m still just a kid. But she was real nice. Her name’s Sachiko. She sang for us, and gave all of us honey drops.” His diction was impaired by the piece of candy in his mouth; he didn’t notice Marko stiffen as he talked about the Sime Center channel. “Who’s winning?”
The judge gave him a long look. “I shouldn’t have to tell you, Jay. Use your eyes, son.”
Jaysen shrugged. “You’ve got a better position, he’s got more material. Could go either way.”
McDonnell looked up from his newspaper. “Jay, did your mother know that today was checking day?”
“Uh...yeah. I think I told her last week.”
“Then you better run over to the store and tell her what you found out. She’ll be out of her mind with worrying. Duty comes before pleasure.”
“Gosh, I never thought of that. I’ll be right back.” The dark-haired boy was out of the room and down the stairs with the usual adolescent exuberance.
Marko got up abruptly from his chair and stalked to the window. “Nice,” he said bitterly. “What’s got into him? They’re the enemy!”
“It’s getting’ on forty years, Marko, that the war’s been over.” The old doctor shook his head. “You’ve got to let it go sometime. And the Center staff are hardly enemies; they’re dedicated to preventing tragedies from happening.”
“Well, they’re too damn’ late. A kid turns Sime, it already is a tragedy.” He glared at McDonnell and returned to his game.
Jay ran down the stairs, waved to the librarian on his way out, and came out into the street. He headed down to the café, three streets down and one street over. When he put his head in at the door, the owner gestured with her thumb toward the kitchen. “She’s just started her shift, Jay...hurry and catch her before she gets those pies going.”
“Thanks, Miss Lou.” He slipped through the dining area and through the swinging doors to the kitchen. “Hey, Mom.”
“Oh, Jay.” His mother, already tired from her first job and starting on the second, dusted off her floury hands and came to hug him. “What did the channel say?”
“Nothing yet. Still a kid.” He shrugged. “I was already at the club, when Doc McDonnell reminded me that I should come tell you.”
“Well, tell him thank you. There’s some leftover spice cake there on the countertop—Lou said you could take it back to the club if you wanted. It’s perfectly good, but not fresh enough to serve.”
“That’s great! Bye, Mom. See you tonight.”
“Oh! What about Alanna?”
“She Established about two months ago, the channel said. Oh, and she said her folks would let her come to the meeting if I walked her home afterward. Can I do that? It’s not far to her house, so I won’t be much later than usual.”
“That’s fine, dear, but treat her like a lady, Jay... not like one of those old badgers you play chess with.” She reached into her pocket and gave him what little money she had on her. “Get her and yourself something to drink or a snack—never make a girl pay for herself. It’s rude.”
“Yes, Mother.” He kissed her, took the box of leftover cake, and vanished out the door, leaving it swinging in his wake.
“Come to order,” said Judge Blackburne, who was also the president of the chess club. “Before we begin play for the evening, we have some new business to discuss.”
“New business?” Doc McDonnell said, surprised. “Ethan, you’ve been holding out on us. I haven’t heard about any new business...”
The room was somewhat more crowded than it had been earlier in the day. Most of the tables were occupied now. His friends Hank and Kyle were there, as well as a few older students from the high school and some other adults from town and the next town over, GlenbRook. The only women in the club were Miss Evans from church, who was a businesswoman, and Miss Lasker, the high school’s math teacher. Jay’s friend from school, Alanna, had not yet arrived.
“We have been invited,” said the judge, unfolding a letter, “to compete in a three-city tournament on Midsummer Day, three months from now. There will be a total of 30 players, with each club bringing their 10 best players and one alternate in case of illness or emergency. The clubs who have invited us are Northwood and Bolton Wells.”
“Where will the tournament be held?” asked McDonnell.
“Let me see…” Blackburne said as he scanned the letter, “…ah, here it is. The club presidents are scheduled to meet next week, on the 18th of March to decide and agree on the tournament rules and procedures. Prizes will be awarded to the four top finishers.”
The judge’s announcement was met with considerable excitement. In a rural area like that, such an event would be a major source of pride and entertainment for the community. “How do we get in?” asked Hank, Jay’s friend from school.
To do him credit, the judge didn’t laugh at him, considering that Hank mostly played ‘skittles’ games, just for fun. “You have to be among the top ten players in the club,” explained McDonnell. “So, keep an eye on yours and others’ positions on the club ladder,” he said, pointing to the chalkboard. “If you want to improve your position, you need to practice and challenge your way up.”
The minutes of the previous meeting were read out and approved, and play began. The first hour of the evening was usually for open play, with whomever one wanted, or for impromptu lessons to teach and explore tactics and strategy. After the break, then the second hour would be dedicated to challenge games, where scores were kept and players’ positions on the club ladder were at stake.
A few minutes into the first casual games of the evening, they heard the first-floor door open and close, followed by footsteps hurrying up the stairs to the second level. Alanna Byrne pushed the door open and came in, puffing and breathless. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, “I had to watch my little brother until Mom got back from doing the marketing.”
“Hello, Alanna,” said Miss Lasker warmly. “I didn’t know you played chess. Welcome to the club.”
“Well, I know how, and I play with my dad and my older brother Ray. But I’ve never played in a club before.” She shucked off her pink knitted cardigan and hung it on the carved wooden coat pole. “What do I do?”
Jay looked up and waved from the table where he was playing with Mr. Morphy from the law office. “You can start a game with someone, or watch one that’s in progress, as long as you don’t comment on the game. That’s called kibitzing. Not allowed.” He grinned.
“I haven’t started a game yet, Alanna. Why don’t you play with me, and we’ll see how you do?” Miss Lasker indicated a table, and they both sat down.
Marko scowled at Hank, who was playing Black against his White. “Pay attention to the board, kid, not the cute girl.”
“Sure, Mr. Fischer.” Hank grinned and castled his King with the Queen-side Rook.
Jay found his attention divided, too. He really liked Alanna Byrne, the first girl he’d ever wanted to ask to be his girlfriend. But that wasn’t done in these days until one knew for sure that one was Gen and not going to turn Sime one day. The channel, Sachiko, had told him he was still a child, neither one, or the other. It was hard to be patient, to wait for her to officially declare he was a Gen before he could ask Alanna to walk out with him. ‘Soon,’ his mother had said. ‘You’re twelve now, it won’t be long to wait.’ A movement on the board in front of him brought his mind back from thinking about Alanna. He looked down, just in time to see Judge Blackburne cheerfully taking his Queen with a well-placed Bishop. “Hey!”
“You snooze, boy, you lose,” said the judge with a knowing grin. “You better not play that way in the tournament, or else.”
“How do you know I’ll even be in the tournament?”
The older man scoffed. “‘Course you will. You’re one of the best players this club has seen in quite some many years.” He bent over the table and whispered, “Why else d’you think Marko Fischer won’t play you anymore?”
Jay whispered back, “‘Cause he’s ornery as the day is long...”
The judge roared with laughter. “You might be right about that, Jay!”
“What’s so funny, Ethan?” asked the doctor with a chuckle.
“Nothing, Merritt. Just a little joke between Jay and me, is all.”
“You don’t play at school, do you?” the math teacher asked as she offered Alanna her closed hands to pick from. “At least, I haven’t seen you playing in the school chess room.” She usually didn’t play at school, either, but her classroom was near the rec room where the students played, so she knew who all the ‘regulars’ were.
“No, ma’am.” She picked the teacher’s left hand, which proved to contain the white Pawn. “I went once, but Jay was the only one who would play me. The other boys were mean and said girls can’t play chess.”
“Well, let’s prove them wrong, shall we?” Anne Lasker smiled as she finished setting up the black pieces on her side of the board. “Your move, Alanna.”
Soon it was time for the break between the first hour and the second hour, when play became more serious. “How did your game with Miss Lasker go?” asked Jay as he helped Alanna on with her sweater.
“It was really fun. Of course, I didn’t win,” she said. “But she explained to me what mistakes I made and showed me some things to do instead.”
“We’ll be back,” called out Jaysen as they left.
“Where are you two going?” asked the doctor. “And don’t be late back!”
“Just for some lemonade,” Jay promised. “We’ll be back on time, don’t worry!”
They walked down the stairs together. “Where are we going?” she asked. “It’s kind of late to find anywhere for refreshments, isn’t it? Besides that wonderful cake your mom made.”
“That’s where we’re going,” he said. “It’s not far, so we can get a lemonade and go back to the club.”
“Oh, all right. Then I can tell your mom how good the cake was.”
“She’ll like that.”
“Jay, who is that tall man who was playing Hank? The one who looks kind of angry?”
“Oh, that’s Marko Fischer.” He shrugged. “Don’t mind him, he’s always surly like that. He got wounded and lost his leg in the last Territory border war. He’s actually nice, but you wouldn’t know it by how he acts.” He held open the door for her as they went out into the street. “The Judge says Marko’s still fighting that same war, like he doesn’t know it’s over. He thinks all the Simes should be destroyed.”
“Well, that’s silly. There are new ones born all the time. If there weren’t any grown-up ones left, what would they do? Where would they go?”
“Yeah. Try telling him that. He doesn’t see it that way. He wants to murder them all, period. He thinks they aren’t people.”
The moon, a thick crescent, was hanging low in the west as Jaysen and Alanna crossed the street two blocks down, and walked up to the café where Jaysen’s mother worked. “Mom should be getting off her shift pretty soon,” he said. “That is, if everything went all right and she doesn’t have to work late or something.” He opened the door and the bell jangled over their heads. “Hi, Miss Lou.” It wasn’t busy that late in the café, but Jaysen still went over to take two seats at the counter. His mother had always insisted he sit there when he came, so as not to tie up a table where adult customers might want to be seated.
“Well, hi there, Jay. Your mom’s busy, so she can’t come out right now.”
“That’s all right. We came to order.”
“Oh! Well, then. What can I do for you two?” Miss Lou said, starting to pick up a couple of menus.
Jay shook his head, indicating that they didn’t need a menu. “I’d like a cherry lemonade,” he said, and looked to Alanna. “How about you?”
“That sounds good. I’ll have one, too.”
“Coming right up, kids.” She paused a moment. “You know, you two can have a table if you want, instead of the counter.”
Alanna spoke up quickly, as Jay looked uncomfortable. She guessed it hadn’t occurred to him. “Oh, we’re not here very long. We have to get back to the club soon.”
“The club…” Miss Lou looked confused as she set their tall glasses of lemonade, each with a cherry on top, on the counter. “Oh, yes, it’s chess club night, your mom said. I didn’t know girls went there, too.”
“They sure do,” said Jay. “Miss Lasker from school and Miss Evans both go there.”
When they finished their lemonades and Jay had paid and left a tip, Alanna said to Miss Lou, “Please tell Mrs. Protheroe, the spice cake was excellent.”
“I will surely do that. Have a good time, kids.”
As they walked back to the club from the café, Alanna asked, “How come chess is so important for you, Jay?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It just is, I guess.” He debated with himself whether or not to tell her, and took a deep breath. “Actually, that’s not right. Um… it’s kind of like the last gift my dad gave me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was little, seven-years-old, when he died. So I don’t remember very much about him. What I do remember is that he would sit down on Sundays with the newspaper and this wood chess set, and play over the game that was published in the paper. He was teaching me to play, so I could play with him. The first time I played with him, I got upset because, of course, I lost the game. I’ll never forget what he said.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘No, Jay, I’m not going to let you win. When you get good enough, son, you’ll be able to win by yourself. You’ve got to learn it’s a tough world, and nobody out there’s going to let you win, either.’ He didn’t just mean chess.”
“That was mean, that he didn’t let you win the game. You were just a little kid.”
“I understood what he meant. He wanted to teach me to win, not let me win. Anyway, he died. Mom had to go to work, and she had to have somewhere for me to go after school so I wasn’t home alone. She used to have me come to the café and read a book or do my homework. Then, one afternoon Dr. McDonnell and Judge Blackburne were at the café playing chess, and I got so excited to watch them play, and they let me play with them. So, then it just worked out that I started to go over there after school.”
“They were like your babysitters.”
Jay winced. By that time they were back at the club, and walking up the stairs. “Oh, gosh. Don’t say that,” he protested, embarrassed. “They were more like stand-ins for my dad.”
The next three months seemed to pass by in a blur. The last of the snows finally melted, heralding a pleasant spring. Jaysen and Alanna continued to be friends, and Alanna came to the weekly chess club meetings from time to time as her parents and her schoolwork allowed. Two more monthly “checking days” passed, and Jay still showed no sign of establishing selyn production, although his friend, Kyle, did.
One week, Mrs. Protheroe grounded Jay so that the only places he could go after school were their home, or the café—no chess club for that week, either. He had deserved that most severe (to him) punishment by working on a new opening variation he had learned from Miss Evans instead of preparing his homework for the next day. “But, Mom, I’m practicing for the tournament!” he had protested, to no avail.
“Jay Protheroe, I catch you without your homework done again, you won’t be playing in that tournament. Do I make myself clear?” She was not angry or furious, yet her tone of voice let Jay know that she meant exactly what she said.
“That’s better,” she said, squeezing his shoulder. “Have a good day at school, dear.”
Since that week, he had always been very careful to finish his homework and chores before going to the chess club.
Once school was out, the only blot on the beginning of a perfect summer was not being allowed to go on a weekend overnight camping trip with Hank and Kyle and Kyle’s father. “Jay, you gotta come—it’ll be great. We’re going fishing, and hiking, and everything. Why’d your mom say no?”
“Because I’m still a kid,” Jaysen grumbled. “She’s worried that if I—” He gulped, not wanting to say it aloud, “—if there’s a problem, we’d be too far away from help. Guess we could kidnap Sachiko from the Sime Center and make her come along,” he joked.
“Yeah, right,” Hank said with a rolling of his eyes. “Who wants some boring girl along on a guys’ fishing trip? Now if one of those channels was a guy, we could kidnap him instead...” “Be serious, Hank. Besides, they don’t eat fish, and if you kidnapped one to go camping, the whole county would be out looking for you.”
“Yeah, I know. Anyway… your mom doesn’t really think that you’re gonna … does she?”
Jay shrugged. “She’s a mom. It’s their job to worry about the worst possible thing that could happen.”
“Yeah, guess so. My mom does that, too. Well, wish you could come along. It’d be more fun with you than without you.”
“Thanks. Have a good time, and catch a fish for me.”
Finally, after three months of anticipation, Midsummer Day arrived and with it the tri-city chess tournament. The organizers called it that even though none of the communities was really big enough to be called a ‘city,’ mostly because it sounded better than any of the alternatives anyone thought of.
The night before, Jay was so keyed-up he couldn’t even think of going to sleep, as he sat in his room at the pine desk his uncle had built half a century before. He was scribbling furiously on slips of paper what defenses to use in certain openings, or what to do in case his opponent did this or that.
“Cheat sheets? At 1 O’clock in the morning? Jaysen Protheroe, you get that backside of yours into bed, on the double,” his mother admonished him. “Tomorrow, you and those other nine people are representing the town of Silver Spring, and if you don’t get some sleep you won’t be able to play well.”
“They’re not cheat sheets, Mom. I’m studying. I can’t sleep, Mom. I don’t want to fail everyone, or that we lost the cup because of me. I want you, and Doc, and the Judge to be proud of me.”
“Never mind them, Jay. I’m proud of you already, and your daddy would be, too, if he was here. A boy no older than you, and you’re competing for the town against all those people? You bet I’m proud.” She ruffled his curly brown hair. “Tell you what, son. I’ll make you up some chamomile tea, that’ll send you off to sleep right away.”
Despite his wrought-up nerves, it did, indeed, help him drop off, but his dreams were troubled. In one dream, he was trapped in an endgame position that he couldn’t win, but he couldn’t resign the game because all the pieces on the enormous chessboard were ten feet tall, and he wasn’t strong enough to tip over the monstrous black King. He couldn’t understand why he felt so small and the board and pieces were so vast.
When morning dawned, he was so soundly asleep that his mother had to shake him awake. “Wake up, Jay. I’ve got your best clothes laid out and your breakfast ready. We don’t want to be late.”
We? he thought, confused and befuddled with sleep. “Are you coming? I thought you’d have to work...”
“Are you joking? Of course I’m coming! Both Miss Lou and Mr. Simmons at the store wish you the best and were happy to give me the day off to see you play.” Wow. In the years he’d been playing with the chess club, his mother had never come to watch him play.
He was so overcome that he couldn’t think of what to say. “Thanks, Mom. That’s really something.”
“Don’t mention it. Let’s get going.”
True to her word, she had laid out his dark suit that he wore for church and other people’s weddings that they had gone to before. “The trousers might be a little bit short now, but no one will be looking at your ankles, anyway,” she said briskly, putting his bowl of porridge in front of him as he sat down at the kitchen table. He wasn’t sure he could eat anything, but he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t. He didn’t want to be distracted from his strategy later by his growling stomach.
He dressed quickly, and put on his good shoes. “Do I have to wear a tie?”
“Will the others be?”
He sighed. “The Judge? Dr. Blackburne? Probably so.”
“Then you should, too. It shows respect for your opponent and for the tournament.”
The tournament was being held in Silver Spring’s town grange, as it was the largest public building in the three townships, except for the high school.
When the Protheroes arrived, Jay went down to join the group of players and competitors, while his mother stood about chatting with some of the other local spectators, including Donald Haskell, who was covering the event for the county newspaper. “Ah, Mrs. Protheroe,” he purred, his silky voice sounding out of place among the hubbub. “Your son is one of the thirty competitors, isn’t that so?”
“Yes, he is.”
“What do you think of his chances? Does he have what it takes to win?”
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask him that,” she replied tartly. “What I do know, young man, is that ‘chance’ has nothing to do with the outcome of a chess match.”
Jay took his seat with the other competing players from their town. Both the Judge and Dr. McDonnell reached to clap him on the shoulder. “Why, you’re all dressed up, Jay. Looks like you’re going to a wedding or a funeral,” teased the Judge. “Good thing you’re here on time, as they’re about to announce the rules for the tournament.”
The county superintendent of schools, Mr. Paulsen, was acting as the master of ceremonies as well as the tournament director. “Welcome to the First Annual Mansfield County Tri-City Chess Tournament. We ask at this time that spectators remain quiet while the rules of the tournament are announced to the players. The first three rounds will be all-play-all, with opponents selected by random draw for the first round. In that round, no player will be matched with an opponent from his or her own team. In the second round, winners of the first round will play other winners, again by random lots, while those who lost their round 1 game will be matched with others who lost in that round. The same will be repeated for the third round. Following the third round, players who have a score of 0 or 1 wins in their first three games will be eliminated from the tournament.” He looked around, making eye contact with the players to make sure they all understood. The remaining players, those who have at least 2 wins, or 1 win and a draw, in their first three games will be entered into a single-elimination contest for the fourth and all following rounds until the last two players left will be playing for the tournament championship. Players will alternate colors of pieces from one round to the next. The tournament is declared open.”
Jay nodded, thinking. To move forward in the tourney, one had to win two out of the first three. He was trying not to be nervous, but the first round would pair him with opponents he didn’t know. He knew everyone in the Silver Spring club and their quirks and qualities, but whoever would face him over the board a few minutes from now would be an unknown quantity. Moreover, he was by far the youngest player in the tournament. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t eaten breakfast after all.
He looked at his math teacher, Miss Lasker, for moral support. She sat in her chair calmly, knitting a sweater in a leaf-green yarn and looking as if she were sitting in the park on a pleasant spring day. She smiled at Jay and gave him a wink by way of encouragement. Looking around the seated onlookers, he saw Hank and Kyle from school, and Alanna as well. They weren’t playing, but he was pleased that they had come to cheer him on.
One by one, the players came to the front and drew a slip of paper from the wooden box at the Tournament Director’s table. The Tournament Director checked his name off on the list. “Protheroe? Board 11. You’re playing with Black this round. Next round you’re White.”
Each table was numbered for the two boards set up on it; he found the table with the tag “11 - 12” and took his seat. His opponent hadn’t arrived yet. Each of the tables was set up with two chessboards, each with a clock, and a pitcher of water with four glasses. Jay poured himself some water, and sipped from it to calm his thoughts.
Before long, his opponent arrived at the table. It was an older man, with dark hair and blue eyes, and with a thin mustache and string tie. “Good morning,” he said formally. “I am James Alexander of the Bolton Wells chess club.”
“Jaysen Protheroe,” said Jay, introducing himself in turn. “Good luck,” he added.
“And to you.” Mr. Alexander smiled. He didn’t waste time choosing an opening, and began with P - K4.
This was the part of every game that Jay hated. Once the game was under way, one could see which moves were advantageous or not; but at the beginning of the opening, there were a dozen different possibilities, and how to decide which to use?[*] Any decision he made could be the wrong one. For a moment, his mind was blank until he remembered the Judge drilling him on strong defense lines for Black. Right. He pushed forward his Queen Bishops’ Pawn to QB4.
Alexander replied with his King’s Knight, developing towards the center of the board.
Jay’s Pawn was sitting out there undefended, so he moved up his Queen Pawn to protect it. Alexander moved his Queen Pawn forward without hesitation. Now both of his Bishops were free to move and he controlled more of the center than Jay did.
Jay took that Pawn, knowing that in all probability the White Knight would capture it in return. If he hadn’t taken it, Alexander could have moved it forward into the Black side of the board and become a threat. As he expected, the White Knight captured that Pawn.
How to respond? There were a number of variations to this defense, one of the most well-known. He could push forward the King Knight Pawn, or bring out the King’s Knight, which he decided to do.
It turned out to be a good choice. Judging by his neat mustache and string tie, Alexander seemed to be a fairly conventional person, not given to flamboyance or “flash and dash,” as the Judge would put it. So, the stronger the position that Jay could build for himself the better off he would be in the middle and end game, he reasoned.
He turned out to be right, as Alexander played more for strong positions than outright attacks. Unfortunately, Jay made a serious blunder that cost him that game. A momentary lapse in his concentration, given the tight position that White had created, was one lapse too many as his opponent calmly captured his Queen, and made a forking attack on his King and Queen Rook at the same time. Red-faced with shame, Jay tipped over his King to resign.
One more like that, and I’m eliminated from the tournament. Players had to have at least a score of 1½ wins in the first three rounds to move forward in the elimination rounds. “Jay, are you all right?” asked Anne Lasker as she approached him in the refreshment break between round 1 and round 2. “I saw you resign. What happened?”
“I don’t even know, Miss Lasker,” he admitted glumly. “I think I just lost concentration for a minute. He had set up an attack and I didn’t see it. The next thing I knew, he captured my Queen and forked my King and Rook. I could have kept playing and hoped for a draw, but it didn’t look too likely.”
Someone squeezed his shoulder, and Jay turned around to see the Judge behind him, and Dr. McDonnell advancing on him as well. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he apologized to his mentor.
“Easy, son. Something like that can happen to the best of us.” The doctor handed him an apple. “Eat something, shake it off and carry on. New opponent, new game, new approach.”
And I can’t muff this one, he told himself sternly. He looked around to see his mother among the spectators, and she smiled at him. She mouthed ‘I love you’ to him, and he smiled back.
In the next round, he would be matched with someone else whose score was 0, that is, someone else who had lost the first game, and was not a member of his own club. He drew a slip of paper out of the basket, and got a player named E. Marshall, and board #8.
When Jay got to board 8, he found that ‘E. Marshall’ was a woman. He felt awful—this game would eliminate one or the other of them from further competition. “Morning,” she said cheerfully, introducing herself with a handshake. “Elaine Marshall.” The sunlight pouring through the windows of the Grange hall glinted off her brown hair streaked with grey.
“Jaysen Protheroe,” he replied.
She smiled warmly at him. “Tell you what, Jay. We’ll play our level best—no draws, no resigning—and fight it out till we’re mated. May the best one win. Whichever one of us loses, we’ll cheer the other one on. Deal?”
“Okay.” That made him feel better, and they shook hands.
Jay had White this time, as per the rules. How to open? Aware of the pressure on him, he decided to play it safer and open with P-K4, as Alexander had in the game before. She responded with the same move, P- K4 for Black.
He brought out his King-side Knight, as did Mrs. Marshall. She was playing a different defense than he had used against Mr. Alexander playing the same opening.
Jay took a deep breath and sent his King’s Bishop across the board on its diagonal to threaten Black’s Knight, knowing he would probably have to move it back when she threatened it with the Rook Pawn to its left. He was momentarily surprised when she did nothing of the kind, but instead advanced her King Bishop’s Pawn to KB4. That was not what he had been expecting her to do, but he answered the threat with his Queen Pawn.
She captured his King Pawn and within a few more moves, they were embroiled in a melee of attacks and defense. This was the kind of game Jay liked, instead of the slow-paced positional game that slowly strangled one’s opponent into immobility. Mrs. Marshall grinned, and pounced on his Knight; he replied with a swift capture of his own, taking her Queen’s Bishop off the board. ‘Just play the game, son, and forget about everything else,’ he heard the Judge saying in his mind. The momentum of the game itself—give and take, attack and defend, encircle and escape—carried him along with it as if on an invisible flowing current. His embarrassing defeat in the previous round forgotten, he pressed forth his advantage as his opponent attempted to trap him in a web of combinations he couldn’t escape.
For a moment, his joy evaporated as he couldn’t see a way out. Then he saw what to do, realizing that his last Bishop would have to be sacrificed, but doing so would lead to a certain mate in three moves. He edged the Bishop forward and let out his pent-up breath, waiting. “Check,” he said softly, and pressed the button to stop his clock and start hers.
Mrs. Marshall reached to take the Bishop with her Queen, and stopped short. “Oh. Oh, my...” She could see the inevitable outcome of taking that Bishop, but there was no way that she could avoid taking it. Her King could not be moved out of the square where it was, and no other piece could be interposed between the threatening piece and her King. Nodding with approval, she took the Bishop. “Well done,” she murmured.
The game ended as it had to. His Pawn reached the last rank, became a Queen. She blocked it with a Rook. His last remaining Knight moved one more time. “Check, and mate.” He felt triumphant and abashed at the same time. “I’m sorry.”
She smiled again, brilliantly. “Don’t be, Jay. It was an excellent game. I thoroughly enjoyed it, every minute. One day you will be a truly great player if you continue on as you have begun. Best of luck.” She rose from her seat and they shook hands.
He left board 8, and walked about for a few minutes. Suddenly, he saw Alanna scrambling over empty chairs to reach him. “That was incredible! You were so good! I wrote down all the moves.”
The next round was just as crucial as the last one; if he won or drew, he continued to move on, but if he lost this game, he would be out of the tournament.
His opponent was a few minutes late arriving, so Jaysen saw Miss Evans and Miss Lasker having a brief tea break between games; they both waved at him and gave him a thumbs-up gesture for good luck.
A high-schooler named Sammy Larsen was Jay’s third round opponent. “Hi, I’m Sammy,” he said, grinning. “What’s your name?”
“Jay Protheroe,” Jaysen said. “Having a good morning so far?”
“Sort of. Won one, lost one. The noise in this place is like a boiler factory. How does anyone concentrate in here?”
They both sat down at board 12, and Jay awaited Sammy’s first move, as it was his turn to have Black again. It did not take long to see that Sammy had a taste for the flashy and unorthodox. He did not open with the King’s Pawn, but with the Queen’s Pawn instead.
Jay considered his options, and tried to second-guess this irrepressible youth and what moves he might be inclined to make. He chose an uncommon response himself, bringing out his King-side Knight. He could still hear Dr. McDonnell saying, ‘When in doubt, always develop a piece rather than push a Pawn’. The Knight to KB3 move would prevent White from pushing forward his King Pawn beside his Queen Pawn to control the center of the board.
What was worse than Sammy’s unusual moves and lines of play was his appalling sense of humor that led him to crack bizarre jokes. Moreover, he would favor his opponent with a knowing and eerie sort of grin that led one to think that he saw some disaster looming that his opponent was unaware of.[†]
Jay was just considering which of two alternative lines to play from this opening position when Sammy blurted out, “Hey, are you thirsty? Want me to get you something?”
I was trying to think, darn it. You just broke my train of thought! Then he realized. Oh, I get it...that was on purpose. “No,” he said politely. “But thanks.” Pay him no attention whatsoever. Jaysen closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as if he were about to make a deep underwater dive, and then another. Buddy, one of us is going to be eliminated after this game—and it’s not going to be me!
When he opened his eyes again, he spent a mere moment looking at the sun shining in the windows of the Grange, and saw a few floating dust motes sparkling in the light. Then he lowered his gaze to the board, and allowed his whole field of view to shrink down to encompass the 64 black-and-white squares in front of him, and nothing more. He didn’t see his mother or Alanna in the spectator’s seats, nor the other players at the same table, nor did he even hear the voice of the Tournament Director. Like an automaton, he made his move, slapped the clock, waited for the other boy’s move, and went on. Sammy had not played the usual Pawn to QB4, but rather brought out the King-side Knight instead, so he had to rethink how he wanted to proceed. He had already moved up his King Knight Pawn so to make room to place his King-side Bishop on the long diagonal for a future attack. He decided to castle now, before it became more difficult later in the game.
Sammy’s hand—that was all of him that Jay saw—picked up and placed his second Knight, the Queen Knight in the third rank to mirror the King Knight he’d already moved. Hmmm. he now had a strong central Pawn position of three Pawns abreast in the center of the board, two of them guarded by Knights. How to break that? Jay calmly pushed forward his Queen’s Pawn. One more square forward and that Pawn would attack two of those White Pawns at once.
Then, Sammy played his Bishop into the center, to protect one of those Pawns from a possible capture by Jay’s King Knight. The game went on. Sammy tried a few more times to distract Jay—humming a tune off-key, rocking back and forth, trying to start a conversation. When he began irregularly tapping his foot, Jay gave him a few minutes in case it was an actual nervous reaction, and then asked, “Could you stop that, please?” No luck. The annoying sound continued. Finally he put a stop to the incessant tapping by kicking the other boy, smartly, on the ankle.
“Hey!” Sammy protested.
Jay shrugged. “Sorry. I asked you to stop. You wouldn’t.” He pushed forward his Queen-side Rook Pawn, hoping to surprise Sammy into making an unwise move, and smacked the button on his clock. By this time he had established a well-placed diagonal ‘Pawn chain’ and he was ready to interpose a Pawn when Sammy threatened his Queen with a Bishop. With those Pawns, he drove the Bishop backward square by square until it could retreat no further.
Jay had no feeling of the passage of time as the game went on and they moved pieces in a complex dance, threatening, retreating, and threatening again. A swift flurry of exchanged pieces led to a position where Jay’s angled array of Pawns was mostly intact, the White Pawns were scattered in disorder about the board, and they were each down to six pieces left. Jay’s were in a tight cluster against the back rank, and Sammy’s were spread out, controlling much of the center of the board.
The center file was open. Jay took a deep breath and sent his Queen roaring down the center of the board to make a forking attack against the White Queen and Rook at once. Queen takes Queen, Rook takes Queen, and then Sammy’s last White Knight leaped into the corner to threaten both Jay’s King and Rook. The King must be saved, so Bishop captured the Knight and Bishop took Bishop in turn. When the dust cleared, Jay looked to be in trouble. He was down to King, Knight and Rook against Sammy’s King, Bishop and two Rooks; being down in material at this stage of the game could spell ruin. But Sammy had left his Rook next to Jay’s King, and Jay took it.
His King threatened to take the White Bishop as well, but Sammy moved it far back to its own first rank. Jay pursued and took it with the Knight, which Sammy’s Rook captured. Now each was down to King and Rook.
Jay looked up, and was shocked to see that no one else was playing, and nearly two dozen people were surrounding their table. Except for them on Board 8, everyone else had finished their third-round game, and lunch was about to be served. Even more surprising to Jay was that he had his very own cheering section—about eight of the Silver Spring club members were all behind him, eagerly watching and waiting to see the outcome of the game. “Don’t mind us, lad,” said Marko Fischer gruffly. “Have at it.”
Behind Sammy Larsen stood no one.
This was the endgame—a delicate and complicated dance, where one wrong move, one lapse of thought, any mistake at all would be a catastrophe. Jay saw at once that his King had to leave the safety of the back ranks and take an active part in his own defense. Square by square, the Black King moved forward, little by little hemming in the opposing White King. Now, the two forces were equally matched: King, Rook, and three Pawns on each side.
The end was not long in coming. At last, Jay had a Pawn on the seventh rank, ready to become a Queen in the next move, if only for a moment before she was captured by the White Rook. Moving that Rook meant that Sammy’s last Pawn was no longer defended, and would be taken by the Black Rook. With no more Pawns to promote, while Jay still had three, there was only one way it could end. With a glare of hostility, Sammy tipped over his King and stalked away from the table. “Cheat,” he spat and went to claim the ear of the Tournament Director. “They were giving him moves!” he whined, pointing to the jubilant Silver Spring team.
Jaysen found himself hugged by Miss Evans, and his hand shaken by the Judge, the Doctor, and Marko. “I don’t understand,” he blurted out, confused. “This is just the third round. I didn’t win anything...”
“Son, that’s the best game I’ve ever seen you play.” Judge Blackburne beamed. “Well done!”
Hank and Kyle and Alanna, along with his mother, came up too. “Man, that was something!” said Hank. “Talk about fireworks!”
“Never mind the fireworks,” grinned their friend, Kyle. “I’m starving! Let’s eat!” The caterers had been holding off lunch until that last game ended, and now were laying out an impressive spread for the players and officials. Most of the spectators wandered off to various nearby eateries, but Jay’s mother had brought box lunches from the café for herself, Alanna, and Jay’s friends.
Jay hardly remembered lunch or anything that happened, except one thing. Looking uneasy, an older woman approached the table where the Silver Spring team was having lunch. Her badge on her jacket showed that she was the president of the Northwood Chess Club. “Judge Blackburne, Mr. Protheroe, members,” she said as she approached their table. “May I have a word?”
“Certainly, Mrs. Staunton,” said the Judge, and offered her a seat. “What can we do for you today?”
“Please allow me to apologize,” she explained. “I was most displeased to hear that Sammy Larsen accused you of cheating. Even had he not lost that round, such unsportsmanlike behavior would have disqualified him from continuing on in the tournament.”
Jaysen squirmed in his chair. “I hate to say this. I didn’t cheat, Ma’am,” he said. “But he was sure trying to. He did all kinds of things trying to mess with me.”
“Yes,” she replied. “That was observed and reported by the players at Board 13.” Jay had not even realized that the adjacent players had noticed what Sammy was doing. “Technically, nothing he did was actually illegal. However, in the future, please inform the officials or the Tournament Director in such a case. I realize that you are inexperienced with tournament play, but kicking your opponent in the shins—”
“Jaysen Thomas Protheroe!” his mother cried out, horrified. “You didn’t!”
“—is generally considered bad form,” said Mrs. Staunton calmly. “We agree that you were provoked, so no action will be taken.” She sighed. “Sammy Larsen is not a bad player, all in all.”
“No, he isn’t,” said Jay. “I thought I was done for a few times there.”
“What he is, is a poor sport. We are going to address that at our next meeting. That kind of thing just isn’t done. In any case, congratulations and may you do well in the next rounds of the tourney.” She rose in a stately manner and returned to her club’s tables.
Jaysen didn’t eat much for lunch, however. He was too keyed-up, and had too much adrenaline in his system to be hungry. In fact, he was beginning to feel rather sick, but attributed it to nerves. Before long, he heard a ringing sound as the Tournament Director, or TD, tapped a brass bell to signal the end of the lunch period. Everything was running a little behind owing to the length of Jay’s last game.
“Now for the fun part,” remarked Dr. McDonnell. “These are the elimination rounds. Win, you move on; lose, you drop out. The pairings are random for the first elimination—really random. You might get one of us; you might get someone from the other clubs. This is your first time, Jay, so you haven’t had that experience before. Play like you just did, and it won’t matter what the outcome is...you’ve done all of us proud. Play hard, everyone, and may the best club win!”
The afternoon single-elimination rounds had been interesting, to say the least. Now, it was approaching late-afternoon, and there were only four players left. Incredibly, Jaysen was one of those four. So was the Judge, but they were not playing against each other. The Judge was playing against Mrs Staunton, the president of the Northwood club. Jaysen’s opponent was Michael Keres of the Bolton Wells club; he had defeated Miss Lasker in the previous round, who had beaten Marko Fischer in the round before.
Jay couldn’t believe the chain of events that had led up to this moment. He never for a moment dreamed that he would ever have made it to the next-to-last round of the tournament. He was absolutely certain that it would be his last round, in any case. Even if he beat Mr. Keres (which he assumed to be highly unlikely), it didn’t matter who won at the other table on Board 1; either Judge Blackburne or Mrs. Staunton would surely crush him like a bug. In fact, for a few moments he actually regretted having beaten his previous opponent, Nicholas Fine; if he had lost, he could now be watching the game between Blackburne and Staunton. That would be something to see, for sure.
However, he couldn’t take time to think about that. Mr. Keres had arrived to meet him at Board 2. “I see you’ve played very well today, young man,” his opponent said kindly, offering him a handshake. “Congratulations on your success.”
“Thanks.” For some strange reason, Jay didn’t want to actually touch the other man’s hand, but he did. He was really not feeling well at all. There was an odd and distant ringing in his ears, and the light coming through the windows of the old Grange seemed weirdly distorted somehow, as if he were looking at it through one of Miss Harper’s prisms in the school science lab. Politely, Jay touched hands for a second, and then sat down.
He had White. That meant that he had to decide how to open. His mind went absolutely blank. Right now, he wished he were playing Black, so that it would be his adversary’s decision, to which he would then have to react.
Well, when in doubt, do what’s familiar. He moved Pawn to King 4, the way he had started dozens—hundreds—of games in his life. Mr. Keres answered with Pawn to King 3. That got his attention; this might be interesting. Jaysen moved up his Queen’s Pawn alongside his King Pawn to get control of the center squares first.
His opponent played his Queen Pawn to meet Jay’s, which attacked Jay’s King Pawn. He could have captured it with the King Pawn, but decided to bring out the Queen-side Knight to protect it instead. If Keres took the Pawn, Jay could capture with the Knight, and be a Pawn ahead in material.
Black played his King-side Knight out of the opposite corner in what was almost a symmetrical position; Jay sent his Queen Bishop out on its diagonal to prepare for a castling maneuver. A few moves later, he sacrificed the Bishop to keep Black’s Knight from making trouble in the center.
He had hoped that he would feel better once he got into the game, but it wasn’t working. “Are you all right, young man?” his opponent asked. “You have to move... your clock is running.”
“I feel terrible,” said Jay, feeling himself break into a cold sweat. “I’m really sorry.” He raised his hand to get the TD’s attention. Mr. Paulsen, the Tournament Director, bustled over to see what was going on. Jay looked up at him. “Sir, I need to … adjourn.” No doubt—whatever he’d had for lunch was about to come back up. “I’m going to be sick.”
The TD didn’t hesitate. “Granted, thirty minutes. Go.”
Jaysen bolted for the exit with no thought of decorum. He never got as far as the bathroom, but clung to a post in the hallway, helplessly vomiting onto the tile floor. Did I eat something bad? No, I couldn’t have...
There were running footsteps behind him, and he heard Dr. McDonnell’s voice. “Jay, are you all ri— No, you’re not.” The older man’s firm hands guided Jay to a sitting position on the floor, several feet away. “You were fine earlier, weren’t you? What could have...?” He stopped short. “Oh, no. Oh, God, no.”
Shocked by the tone of McDonnell’s voice, Jaysen turned to look at him. His old friend looked almost as bad as he himself felt. The doctor’s face was nearly as white as his hair. “What? What’s wrong, Doc?” he asked, and then started to heave again.
McDonnell didn’t answer. Instead he got up, and ran to the door of the tournament room, and yanked it open. “Miss Lasker! Come quickly!”
He didn’t have to say it twice. The tall fair-haired teacher came out of the tournament room at once. “Anne,” he told her firmly. “Take your bicycle and go for the channel... what’s her name? Sachiko. On the double. Now!”
Miss Lasker took a second to process what he was saying. “What? Why? Oh, no. Jaysen? Are you sure?”
“What?!” Jay looked from one to the other with sudden comprehension. “No, no. I’m not—”
“I’ve been in medicine 40 years. I know a changeover when I see one. Look at the back of his neck.”
She came over and looked, placing a hand on Jay’s shoulder. “Oh, no. Sweet Lord, no...” Tears welled in her eyes.
“There’s no time, Anne.” growled the doctor. “Run now. Cry later—I’ll gladly join you.”
She nodded, pulling herself together. “Jay, don’t worry. Everything will be all right. Stay calm, don’t panic. I’ll bring Sachiko back with me.” She squeezed his shoulder briefly and ran for the door.
There was beginning to be a hubbub inside the tournament room. “Doc, I gotta finish the game! I can’t forfeit!” Jay tried not to start retching again. “The club’s counting on me!
“Jay, my boy. I’m sorry. I don’t think you can. You’ve got other things to worry about now. Where’s your mother? I didn’t see her in there.”
“She went to take Alanna home, and Kyle. She said she’d be back.”
“Very well. There’s nothing to panic about. It takes several hours to complete changeover.”
“But, but... Doc, it can’t be... there aren’t any Simes in my family!”
“One in three, Jay. One in three children of Gen parents is a Sime. How would you know there aren’t any? I guarantee there are some— it’s statistically impossible, otherwise.”
The Tournament Director came out. “What’s going on, Merritt? His adjournment is about to expire...” He frowned. “We saw Miss Lasker depart a couple of minutes ago. Is she going to get the boy’s mother?”
“No, Jim.” The doctor weighed his words carefully. “She’s going to the Sime Center. But, I do need someone to get his mother.”
“What? Why would she go there—?” Then it dawned on him. “Him? Now? Here?!”
“Not likely. It takes a while. She’ll come and pick him up, and they’ll take care of him there.”
“Mr. Paulsen, sir…” Jay spoke up, shuddering all over. His neck hurt and he had that weird prism effect going on again. “Please don’t forfeit me! I can finish the game!”
“Not in there, you can’t. People will panic. It’s no shame to resign, son—you had no control over this. You didn’t know what was happening…”
“Jim,” interrupted the doctor, “I need a place to look after Jaysen until the channel gets here. The hallway isn’t the best place.”
“Come with me,” said Paulsen. “Downstairs was the grange’s office at one time, and it contains a strong room.” He eyed Jaysen as the doctor helped him get down the stairs. “Merritt, are you sure he…?”
“Yes. There’s no question. In Simes, there is a gland at the back of the neck that becomes enlarged and very sensitive as changeover begins. I’ve been watching it the last ten minutes.”
“Is there anything that you need?” asked the TD.
“Yeah,” said Jay with an air of dogged determination. “Paper, pencil, and a chessboard.” I don’t care what’s happening to me. I refuse to give up.
The TD looked amused. Jay didn’t. “You’re serious? But, my dear young man—”
“Come on, Mr. Paulsen. I’ve never forfeited a game in my life, I’m sure not going to start now. And, well, it’s probably the last chess game I’ll ever get to play. At least let me finish it. They probably don’t even know what it is... over there,” he added glumly. For all he knew, life on the other side of the border was so strange and unfamiliar it might as well be the far side of the moon.
“Doctor, is this wise? Or even possible?”
“Like I said, the whole process takes a few hours. If he’s up for it, I don’t see why he can’t finish a game that takes less than an hour.”
The Tournament Director paused for thought. “Very well, I will consult your opponent, Mr. Keres.”
When he went upstairs, the tournament room was filled with hubbub. He was instantly surrounded by players and spectators, all demanding to know what was going on. He hesitated, trying to decide what to tell them. After all, it was just possible that the doctor was wrong... “Mr. Protheroe has been taken ill,” he hedged. “However, he does not wish to be forfeited out of his game, and would like to play on. Dr. McDonnell has him in a separate room, where he will be more comfortable.” Paulsen looked around as if daring them to argue with him. “He proposes to continue the game by means of sealed moves, if you are willing to play under the circumstances,” he said to Jay’s opponent on Board 2.
“Tell the truth!” shouted Marko Fischer, leaping to his feet. “You’ve taken him to the cellar. Why? He’s turned Sime, hasn’t he? Hasn’t he?” the old veteran demanded. “He’s one of them—one of those murdering m—”
“Marko Fischer,” roared the Judge from the middle of his game with Mrs. Staunton. “If you say the word ‘monster’ and ‘Jaysen’ in the same sentence, so help me God, you and I are going out in the street the minute the tournament is over!”
The Tournament Director’s voice rose above the noise in the room. “The nature of Mr. Protheroe’s ailment is yet undetermined. It may well be some perfectly ordinary illness or virus. However, the channel from the Sime Center has been sent for in order to ascertain his condition for certain. Dr. McDonnell has taken him to the strong room in the cellar merely as a precaution. No one here is in any danger, I assure you. Please take your seats.”
Slowly, everyone complied. Mr. Paulsen turned to Jay’s opponent. “Mr. Keres, in view of the circumstances, are you willing to continue the game playing by sealed moves?”
“I see no reason why not,” the young man said amiably, “provided that there is no opportunity for either my moves, or his, to be altered by the person acting as courier.”
“It should not be difficult to arrange that.” He looked around the people assembled in the tournament room. “We need someone to act as courier who has no stake or interest in the outcome of this game, so it should be someone who is neither a member of the Silver Spring club, nor of the Bolton Wells club. This would also disqualify any of Mr. Protheroe’s school friends. Do I have a volunteer?”
Mrs. Marshall from the Northwood club, Jay’s opponent from that morning, raised her hand. “I will do it.”
“Excellent. Please take this chess board, and this record of the moves so far made, and come with me.” They walked down the two flights of stairs to the former grange office and strong room.
A few moments later, Jaysen’s mother arrived back at the tournament, only to look around the room in confusion. “Where is Jay? He should be here…”
Miss Evans, from the bookshop, came over briskly to meet her. “Please, come out in the hallway so we can talk without disturbing the players.” Mrs. Protheroe followed her out, becoming more agitated. “Now, don’t be anxious. Jaysen is all right; I just saw him a few minutes ago. But—”
“But what? What’s wrong?” She did not sit down in the chair that Miss Evans pulled over for her.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Protheroe, I’m so sorry. We all are… but there’s no good way to say this. Miss Lasker has gone to bring back the channel from the Sime Center.”
Jaysen’s mother grew so pale that she seemed about to faint away. “Jay? What are you saying? That he—that he…”
“Is in the early stages of changeover. Yes. Both the doctor and Miss Lasker are sure of it.”
“Where is he? I must see him!”
“Dr. McDonnell has taken him downstairs in this building where there is a strong room. Just in case his breakout comes early, he and everyone else will be protected. Come with me.”
Just as the bookshop owner was walking down the stairs with Jay’s mother, Mrs. Marshall came trotting back up the stairs with a folded slip of paper and a beaming smile on her face. “What’s that?” Iola Protheroe asked, bemused.
“Jaysen’s next move!”
“What on earth? He’s not… surely not…”
“Finishing the game? Oh, yes he is. Any way he can.”
“Oh, mercy…” Mrs. Protheroe said as the Northwood club player continued up the stairwell. “My son is out of his mind.”
“Actually, I’d say he’s in his right mind, if you ask me,” observed Miss Evans. “Our Jay may win something here far more important than a game against Mr. Keres.”
“Why is she so happy?”
“Because—how do I explain this?” Coraline Evans had just understood this herself a few minutes before. “She’s just realized Jay is still the same old Jay; whether Sime or Gen, he’s still just Jay, who is bound and determined to do what he came here for—win this tournament.”
They reached the strong room and tapped on the double-paned glass window. Dr. McDonnell rose to open the door, “Oh, Iola, thank goodness you’re here.”
Jaysen sat in an armchair with a tournament chess board on the floor in front of him. A galvanized pail stood to one side as well. “Hi, Mom... Mom, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“No one knows ahead of time, honey.” She instinctively approached him and then checked herself, eyeing the doctor. “May I...? Is it safe to...?”
“No reason why not, at this stage. Go ahead.”
Mrs. Protheroe bent to hug her only son, possibly for the last time. He embraced her with a strength she didn’t realize he possessed. “Bluejay, I’m so sorry...”
Embarrassed at his childhood nickname, Jaysen blushed. “Mom... don’t call me that in front of everybody!” Then he realized what she’d said. “Why are you sorry, Mom? It’s not your fault I’m...” he gulped, and realized he had to face it sooner or later. “...that I’m a Sime.”
“That’s not it,” she said, tears running down her face. “I’ve spent so much time working, at this job and that job and any other one I could get after your father passed, that I missed half your childhood. These men at the chess club have seen more of you than I do—they are more your parents than I am...” A sob shook her slender frame. “And now I’ll never see you again, Jay.”
“No, Mom. You’re the best mother ever— don’t you think I know that? You work so hard just to take care of me and Suzi because you love us. We know it.”
“Indeed he does, Iola,” Merritt McDonnell added softly. “He never stops talking about you.”
They were interrupted by the sound of running feet and boots on the stairs. An Asian woman in her mid-twenties, wearing the uniform of the Sime Center staff, was first down the stairs, followed by Anne Lasker, looking worried. The channel looked startled to see four other people in the tiny strong room surrounding Jay in the armchair. “Hello, Jay,” she said warmly.
He sighed. “Hi, Sachiko. Fancy meeting you here...”
She looked around, the small overhead light reflecting off the fan-shaped mother-of-pearl clasp holding back her long, black hair. “In our culture,” Sachiko began, “it’s customary to say ‘congratulations’ to young people beginning changeover. They are entering their adulthood. Congratulations, Jaysen.”
“Thanks. Mom, Dr. McDonnell, Miss Evans — this is Sachiko Akiyama. Sachiko, this is my mom, Iola Protheroe. You already know Miss Lasker from school.”
More feet came running down the stairs, this time Mrs. Marshall. “Here’s Mr. Keres’ move,” she said breathlessly, handing the slip of paper to Miss Lasker, who passed it to Jay. “Took him a few minutes, it did, to decide how to counter yours.”
“Wait a moment,” Sachiko protested. “What in the world is going on here? Jaysen has to come with me to the Center, so we can care for him in his changeover. My Companion will be here in a moment once she secures the horses and cart.” She knelt beside Jay to check his functions.
“Not yet, I’m not,” said Jay forcefully. “I came here to play in a tournament. That’s what I’m going to do. THEN I’ll come to the Center with you. Doc here says there’s plenty of time.”
“Barring complications, yes, but...” Nonplussed, she watched as Jay read the slip of paper, and transferred his opponent’s move to the board at his feet. No one spoke while he contemplated the position, and wrote his own move on a different slip of paper, which turned out to be a sheet from one of the doctor’s prescription pads. Mrs. Marshall took the slip of paper, marked ‘Knight to King 6’, and vanished with it up the stairs.
“Jay! Jay!” It was Alanna’s voice, calling frantically down the stairwell.
“Jay, are you OK?” called Hank at the same moment.
Sachiko sprang to her feet. “No! Absolutely not! No more people!” The channel had reached her limit.
“Hey, how’d Alanna know? Mom, I thought you took her home...”
“It wouldn’t take a detective, son,” observed the white-haired doctor. “The wagon from the Sime Center arrived at the site of the tournament. You’re the youngest player, Jay, in fact the only one young enough to possibly be in changeover, and there are no kids among the spectators, except your friends. I imagine half the town knows by now, and the rest will know it within the hour.”
“I am going to seal off this room,” declared Sachiko. “Everyone has to leave now. Hug Jaysen, tell him what you have to tell him, but then no one may be in here with him except myself, my Companion, and the doctor. He and I’ve done this before, he’s safe from attack and he’s good at helping calm the patient. And he understands that I have to designate this room officially as Sime Territory so that I can remove my retainers to tend to Jay.”
“But, but, how will we...?” Jay pointed at the board.
“There’s a window right there,” said Miss Lasker with her usual aplomb, indicating the door. “We’ll manage.”
Sachiko’s Companion arrived, a slim woman with short curly brown hair and green-blue eyes. “I’m Alleta,” she said. “Alleta ambrov Kelin.”
“Good. Any trouble out there, Alleta?”
“None.” She frowned. “What’s happening, Sachi? Aren’t we leaving?”
“Not yet. Our patient refuses to leave until they have finished this... this demented game they’re playing.”
Jay looked up, tears in his eyes. “It’s not just a game, Sachiko. It’s my last game. Ever.”
“Shuven,” murmured the Companion. “That’s a new one on me.”
“Me, too.” Sachiko turned to the others. “Everyone has to leave now, except Dr. McDonnell. He donates selyn regularly, so Jaysen is no danger to him at all.”
“So do I,” said the mathematics teacher. “Can’t I stay, too?”
I must be hallucinating, thought Sachiko. Out-Territory Gens who WANT to stay with a boy in changeover? What kind of place is this, anyway?
Jay looked up. “Miss Lasker, could you stay with my mom? She’s going to need support more than me.”
There ensued a scene that Sachiko could only have imagined during the aftermath of a drunken shiltpron party. Five people had stationed themselves along the two floors’ worth of stairs. Alanna’s voice called from the top, “C6 Pawn takes Knight,” and each person called it out down the echoing stairwell, with Mrs. Marshall at the halfway point to verify that the last person, Jay’s best friend, Hank, called out the same move as the first person. Dr. McDonnell made the opponent’s move, and waited for Jay to respond. Jay gazed at the board and moved his Bishop across the board to check the Black King. “Bishop to King Knight 6, check” wrote the doctor and held it up to the glass window, and the move was duly called out up the stairwell and into the tournament room. Outside the strong room sat Mrs. Protheroe in another armchair, knitting a blue patterned sock. Her lips were moving in prayer.
Upstairs, in the tournament room, Alanna ran in the door and repeated Jaysen’s move to the Tournament Director who made the correct move on the board, seated across from Mr. Keres.
“Well,” remarked Mrs. Staunton, whose game against Judge Blackburne had ended half an hour before, “it’s not the prettiest game of chess I’ve ever seen—but it’s certainly the bravest.”[‡]
The judge shook his head, looking around him. Mrs. Staunton had, in fact, defeated him as a result of his getting into time trouble. He’d gotten so upset and distracted at hearing of Jay’s entering changeover, that he’d let his clock run out without remembering to stop it. He suddenly found he had only five minutes remaining on his clock. Being a player who liked considering his moves carefully, having to suddenly play with a bare ten to fifteen seconds per move threw him badly off his game. Finally, he’d resigned in the knowledge that he couldn’t really give his full attention to his own game without knowing that Jay was all right.
The tournament room was now crowded with players craning their necks to see what was happening on Board 2. Judge Blackburne thought he heard people murmuring in the background and taking bets as to whether Jay or Mr. Keres would win. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” exclaimed the Northwood club’s president. “I can’t believe this kid is still hanging in there, playing. And not that badly, either, considering.”
“I can believe it. Leave it to Jay.”
“Poor kid,” sympathized the other club president. “Do you think he’ll win?”
The judge sighed and shook his head. “No. His concentration’s blown all to hell, but he’s too dang stubborn to quit. You should see how he plays when he’s on top of his form.”
“I don’t know if he’d win a Brilliancy Prize for any of his games today, but if there were a prize for courage in this tourney, he should get it.”
Mr. Keres made his move: Rook to King 3, threatening a back-rank mate. The TD wrote it down on the record, and Alanna dashed out to call the move down to Jay. Keres squirmed in his seat, looking more and more uncomfortable. Finally, he looked up. “Judge, a word, if you please, while my opponent is considering his move.” He got up and walked over toward the windows with Blackburne. “I intend to offer Mr. Protheroe a draw. Will he take it? This is inhuman. I’ve seen a changeover; I cannot play on and force this unfortunate young man to continue the game in his condition. I understand that he refuses to resign.”
“You’re on move… 22, right?”
“Yes.” Keres wrung his hands, agitated. “Even if by some miracle, he were to defeat me—which I consider very unlikely—he will not be able to play against Mrs. Staunton for the trophy. He will be too ill. Yet, it is unfair for him to take this game as a loss due to circumstances truly beyond his control, when in health, an hour or two ago, he might have won it. He is a very strong player. It is also unfair for me to take it as a loss when I have a winning position. The fairest thing I can do for him is to draw. He and I split the point.”
The Judge nodded. Keres was right.
A few more minutes passed, as they heard the voices echoing in the stairwell. “I can’t believe this,” said Mrs. Staunton again. “Do all these people understand that your young prodigy is a Sime in changeover? Even as we speak?”
“Yes, they seem to…”
“And, yet, all of them are waiting to see the outcome, and many are cheering him on. I would not have thought that possible.” She marveled at the dozens of people gathered around, riveted by the drama taking place before their eyes.
“Everyone in town knows Jaysen Protheroe, and the older members of the club have practically reared him from childhood.” Even Marko, he reflected. But Marko isn’t here. The old fighter from the last Territory border war, who had been maimed in that decades-ago conflict, had left as soon as it was known that Jay was becoming an adult Sime.
Alanna ran back into the room, and reported Jay’s answering move to the Tournament Director. Then she came over to the Judge and whispered urgently, “Sachiko says to hurry up already. He’s in stage 2 now, and she needs to move him to the Center—not because he’ll hurt somebody,” she added hastily, “but it’ll hurt him to be moved if he waits much longer.”
“Yes.” He nodded to her and patted her on the shoulder. “You’ve been a great help to him and a comfort, Alanna.”
“You don’t understand, Your Honor,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t feel sorry for Jay. I love him.”
Judge Blackburne found himself suddenly unable to speak. He nodded to Keres, who wrote a brief message on a half sheet of paper and handed it to the Judge. Blackburne added a message of his own and gave it to Alanna. “Pass the paper to Jay,” he said. “Don’t call it out.”
The teenage girl took the slip of paper and folded it, with tears welling in her eyes. She dashed out of the tournament room for the last time, and didn’t hand off the note, but ran all the way down the stairs and sent the note sliding under the door marked, “Temporary Sime Territory.”
In the strong room, Jay huddled against himself, spasms of pain wracking his body. “Why is this so important, Jay?” Sachiko asked gently, stroking a tentacle across his face. “I don’t understand.”
“My club—the chess club here—are like my family. They’re the only father and grandfathers I have. They’re counting on me, I can’t let them down. If I lose, then the team loses the cup.”
There was a small rustling sound, and a folded piece of paper was sent briskly under the door. Dr. McDonnell picked it up and handed it to Jay, who opened it. Keres’s message read: ‘Black offers draw.’ Below that, the Judge’s characteristic handwriting read: “Accept the draw, son. It’s time. You’ve made us all proud.”
He’s right, thought Jay, though he hated to admit it. I can’t keep playing, I really can’t. He wrote “Accepted,” and signed his name. I didn’t win my last game, but at least I didn’t lose.
Two days later at the train station, Jaysen was waiting with a Sime Center channel named Eral, who would be escorting him to the First Year camp where he would live while he learned how to be an adult Sime. Eral debated with himself whether to explain to his young charge that most Gen families of Sime children did not come to see off their kids when they left—or ever had anything to do with them again—but he wasn’t sure how to say it.
Therefore, he was doubly shocked when not one or two, but ten people arrived in a group to meet Jay before he left. It seemed to be a small delegation: his mother with his sister, Suzi, Alanna, Hank, Kyle, Judge Blackburne, Doctor McDonnell, Mrs. Staunton from Northwood, Miss Lasker, and Miss Evans. Judge Blackburne was grinning and carrying a silver trophy cup. “Jay, got something for you. Get over here, son.”
Jay stared at the silver cup. “But… but, I don’t understand. I was fourth, wasn’t I?”
“Yep. Top four finishers get prize money. But, the club talked it over and seein’ as how our money isn’t going to do you much good over there,” he gestured in the direction of the Territory border, “we decided to send you off with something else, instead.” He looked at Dr. McDonnell, who handed Jay a medium-sized flat box. “You’ve had your eye on that ebony and maple set at the club for years. Figured you ought to have it for your very own. As for the cup, Mr. Keres won the last round against Mrs. Staunton, so he’s the county champion. But he said he felt bad because in other circumstances you could have probably beaten him. He decided to split his own prize with you as well as the point. He kept the prize money—but he’s giving you the cup.” He placed the silver trophy cup, easily a foot and a half high, in Jaysen’s hands. “There’s a letter to you from him inside the cup.”
Eral watched this in awed silence. There was Jay, his tentacle retainers in plain sight, and all of these people acted as though it didn’t matter in the least. Maybe to them it really doesn’t matter… is that even possible?
His friends and the club members, all came up to say their goodbyes, Miss Lasker with tears in her eyes. “You’re my favorite teacher,” Jay said wistfully. “Wish I could stay.”
“So do I,” she said. “You’re my favorite student, but don’t you dare tell on me. It’s our secret.” She offered him a handshake.
Last of all were Alanna and his mother. “Jay Protheroe, you stay in touch with me,” Alanna said firmly. “I’ll find a job over there somehow, I will. We can still be together.” They embraced, and Jay suddenly kissed her, knowing it might well be his last chance. They were only thirteen, but first love is first love.
There was nothing he could say to his mother—it had all been said yesterday, when she had arrived at the Sime Center to participate in her son’s changeover party, to the astonishment of the Center staff. “Of course I came,” she had said, with a hint of the feistiness she’d had in her youth. “My son’s a man now.” Now, Iola Protheroe held her only son in her arms for the last time. No words were necessary.
When it arrived, Jay got onto the train with Eral and his luggage, and headed toward an adulthood he had never expected, across the Territory border. As the train made its way through the town of Silver Spring, Jay saw a lone figure at a crossing, watching it go by. It was Marko Fischer. Jay waved at him from the window, and the old veteran waved back, once, and turned away.
Things returned to normal, or nearly normal, at the Silver Springs Chess Club. The same three old men continued to meet there every afternoon, at least for a while, except that Marko started missing days here and there, and finally stopped coming at all. For a while, they hoped to hear from Jay Protheroe, but after two months with no letter, the Judge, the doctor and the others resigned themselves to the fact they had lost touch with their youngest member. Alanna came to meetings as regularly as she could, in large part because no one at the club would rebuke her for loving a boy who was a Sime.
It was September when the town mailman stopped the Judge on the street outside the Bent Creek saloon. “Got something here for you, Your Honor, it’s a postcard.” He fished the card out of his bag and handed it over. It was addressed to “Silver Springs Chess Club, c/o Judge Blackburne,” with the address of the library.
The reverse of the card read: “Dear Judge and everyone,
Mail is slow across the border, but they tell me this ought to work. Pawn to King 4. Who wants to play me? Awaiting your response…”
Love, Jay P.
[*] Acknowledgements tohttp://www.eudesign.com/chessops/ CHESSOPS - A BASIC GUIDE TO CHESS OPENINGS.
[†] Moves in this game taken from J. Davidson vs M. Euwe, 1924 http://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1279754
[‡] See Chariots of Fire, ‘Sam’ Mussabini to Eric Liddell. “It’s not the prettiest race I’ve ever seen, Mr. Liddell, but it’s certainly the bravest.”
Author’s Note: If some of the names in this story sound familiar, that was intended. Except for Jay himself, all the chess players in the story are named for noted chessmasters of the past: Alexander, Blackburne, Byrne, Evans, Fischer, Keres, Larsen, Lasker, Marshall, McDonnell, Morphy, Paulsen, Staunton.
Companion in Zeor is Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2010, 2019 by Sime~Gen Inc. The individual story here is Copyright by the author, licensed to Sime~Gen Inc. for publication. All rights reserved.
The Sime~Gen universe was created by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. This story and its setting may not be reused without explicit permission of Sime~Gen Inc.
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