Old Mr. Pimbury

[This story’s over a decade old now, and was originally written for one of my daily LiveJournal posts.  Like most of my stories, I had the idea for years before I bothered to write it down.  The inspiration for this comes from a story called Von Goom’s Gambit written by Victor Contoski; I don’t think that mine is in any way derivative, but it is what initially got me thinking about other uses for chessboards. –M]

Mr. Pimbury sat in his apartment, fiddling with the chess pieces. It was Tuesday, which ordinarily meant he’d be out in the park playing chess with Mark Spitzer from down the street, but not today. Not next week, either, or ever again, for that matter; he’d spent last Tuesday in a suit, listening to people he’d never seen talk about how close they were to Mark, and how much they’d miss him. The man who’d delivered the eulogy referred to Mark as “Dad” and manfully kept from crying during a few parts of his speech, so Mr. Pimbury assumed he was Mark’s son. From the close and loving relationship he described, though, Mr. Pimbury would have had to assume he was talking about another Mark entirely. It occurred to him that perhaps another Mark Spitzer had also died, and that the speaker had somehow showed up at the wrong funeral; it was closed-casket, after all, and who would stop him in the middle of his speech? The idea amused Mr. Pimbury, and he played out a scenario in his head wherein the eulogist, having finished his speech and returned to the audience, suddenly heard the preacher mention Mark’s middle name and realized his mistake. He imagined the man’s panicked look as he attempted to decide whether it would be better to excuse himself in the middle of the funeral and flee immediately, or to wait until the end and slip out when everyone was milling about.

In the end, though, there had turned out to be no such confusion, and the funeral had ended uneventfully. Now Mr. Pimbury found himself back in his own apartment, twirling a knight in his fingers as he examined the Pelikan variant of the classic Sicilian defense. It provided a solid set-up for black, but it assumed a fair level of naivete on the part of the white player to have allowed himself to be put solidly on the defensive so early in the game. He shuffled the board backwards a few moves and considered a more unorthodox move; an early advancement of the queen to capture d4, then a retreat at black’s assumed e5. It was unusual, but if followed with a knight progression and proper placement of the bishops, while the rooks moved to the third rank — then within eight moves, near complete domination of the board could be guaranteed, all while keeping black on the defensive. Mr. Pimbury moved the second rook into position and sat back, satisfied. White had total control of the central square, without actually having a single piece in any of the four spaces.

As he reached for black’s queen, considering the best response, he smelled something burning. He had turned halfway around and begun to rise out of his chair, preparing to go turn off whatever he’d left on in the kitchen, when he saw the cloud of smoke drifting up from the center of the chessboard. Befuddled, he stared as it billowed upwards and resolved itself into a hideous, well-muscled humanoid shape. Its skin was the glossy black of obsidian, and streaked brown ram’s horns curled outwards from its brow. Its face was set in an expression of low cunning, and glistening slaver dripped from its prominent fangs. Each finger ended in a great curving claw, and its legs were those of a goat. It was also no more than three inches tall.

Mr. Pimbury stared at the tiny creature. “Who are you?” it boomed, in a voice that was extremely deep, if a bit quiet. “Give me your name, sorcerer, so that I might wait for the day when you shall be in my control.”

“What are you?” Mr. Pimbury asked, ignoring its question.

The demon snorted in derision, and twin gouts of smoke burst from its nostrils. “I am the demon you have summoned, fool.” It peered at the pieces arranged around it, and added, “Using the Valanian rite. You could not have made a slightly bigger form? You are right to fear my power, but diminishing my size does nothing to control my might.”

Mr. Pimbury gaped at it as it spoke, but perked up at the word “Valanian.” He didn’t recognize the term, but it sounded like the sort of name chess gambits often carried. “Do you mean this feint has already been created?” he asked. “It’s not in any of the books I’ve read.”

“Feint?” roared the demon. “Do you believe I am merely a diversion? I shall consume you, wizard!”

It raised its clawed hands, and crackling bolts of lightning leapt forth, only to diffuse in a shower of sparks when they reached the edge of the chessboard. The demon lowered its hands. “I see,” it said. “You do have a protective circle in place, after all. You are more cunning than I had believed. What will you have of me?”

“Tell me more about the Valanian technique,” Mr. Pimbury urged. “When was it created? I’ve never heard of this chess strategy.”

The demon looked lost. “What is chess?” it asked.

“Chess,” Mr. Pimbury repeated, sweeping his hand over the board. “Maybe you know it by a different name — sakki,ficheall, sataranji — no? Board of 64 squares, two opposed sides, sixteen pieces each, trying to capture each other’s king…surely you’ve played!” A note of desperation crept into his voice.

The demon suddenly grinned widely. “Ah, yes. Chess. So — all you want me to do is teach you what I know of chess, and you’ll dismiss me?”

“Teach me something I don’t know,” Mr. Pimbury agreed, “and you can go.”

The demon frowned at this rephrasing. “How can I be assured that you will not simply claim to have already known what I show you, and keep me here?”

Mr. Pimbury looked offended. “On my honor as a gentleman,” he said indignantly. The demon crossed its arms and tapped a hoof on the board. “How about this, then,” Mr. Pimbury offered. “Win a game against me, and I’ll release you.”

The demon snorted again, but said, “Very well then. The conditions are set.”

Mr. Pimbury smiled and began to reset the chess board. The demon watched him for a moment, then seized one of the advanced black pawns around its middle and lugged it back across the board. Despite being no larger than some of the chess pieces, the demon had little trouble moving them; it bearhugged the pawns, and simply balanced the taller pieces over its shoulder. As it was moving the last piece, Mr. Pimbury tapped the board with one finger.

“Queen goes on her own color,” he said. The demon shrugged and shoved the king and queen past each other. “Your move, sorcerer,” it said ominously. “Your death shall be as long and agonizing as this game shall be short. No mortal has ever beaten me at chess.”

Ignoring the demon, Mr. Pimbury opened with e4. The demon responded by matching the move, with e5. Mr. Pimbury then moved f4, to begin the king’s gambit — but the demon neither accepted the gambit, nor answered with the Falkbeer counter-gambit, but instead matched again, with f5. Frowning in surprise, Mr. Pimbury moved fxe5, capturing black’s king’s pawn. The demon roared in outrage.

“What is this trickery?” he demanded. “How dare you break ranks!”

Mr. Pimbury looked at him in surprise. “It’s a standard move. Pawns capture diagonally.”

The demon sat cross-legged in the space its two pawns had vacated and muttered something inaudible. Mr. Pimbury said slowly, “You’ve never played chess before, have you?”

Scowling, the demon admitted, “I have never, in my existence, so much as heard of this game.”

Mr. Pimbury sighed. “Okay. The ones in front, the pawns, they move forward one space at a time, except when capturing, where they move diagonally, or on their first move, where they can move two spaces at once. They can promote if they reach the final rank….”


“And that’s mate,” said Mr. Pimbury, carefully placing his bishop. “You know, you’ve really gotten much better in recent weeks.”

The demon glared at him. “I practice every night while you sleep, old man. Soon, I will defeat you, and escape your prison. Then you will rue the day you ever captured me.”

Smiling gently, Mr. Pimbury set the pieces back in their original positions. “Yes, so you’ve said.” He advanced a pawn to e4.

“You grow predictable, fool!” exclaimed the demon, hauling its king’s knight to f6. “I will crush your offense before it ever materializes.”

Mr. Pimbury smiled, saying nothing, and moved his own knight. The game progressed as most of them did, with the demon constantly throwing its pieces into combat; despite its haste and bloodthirsty playing technique, it was quite a good tactician, and Mr. Pimbury found himself working harder and harder to defeat it. However, he won in the end as always, pinning the demon’s king back in a corner after having captured nearly all of its defenders. The demon swore and accused him of cheating, witchcraft, trickery, and sorcery, as always. Mr. Pimbury left it there fuming and went for his daily walk.

When he returned, the demon was sitting in the middle of the board in a throne made of intricately stacked pawns. It was pretending to sleep, but when he entered the room, it opened its golden eyes and demanded, “Sorcerer! You will come play me now.” It rose from its chair and began sliding the pawns into position.

Surprised, Mr. Pimbury crossed the room and took his seat in front of the chessboard. “You’re unusually enthusiastic,” he remarked, taking his standard opening move. “Devised something new, I gather?”

“I have,” gloated the demon. “You will cower before the might of the Nihzkantan Gambit! None have ever seen through its guile or withstood its supreme crushing power.”

The demon’s strategy was markedly different. It played much more defensively than usual, arranging the pawns in a two-pointed wall to fend off attacks, and moved its pieces seemingly aimlessly on its side of the board — until, in a flurry of captures and trades, Mr. Pimbury found his king cornered by the demon’s queen, cornered and trapped behind his own pawns. He looked at the demon with appreciation as he laid his king on its side.

“Well done!” he said softly, but with genuine admiration. He settled back into his chair and leaned his head against the cushions. “Good game.”

The demon strode to the edge of the board and leapt off. Its body flexed and expanded in the air, growing at an incredible rate; by the time its hooves impacted the ground, it stood just over eight feet tall. Its horns stretched almost six feet across, tip to tip, and its skin seemed to absorb the light, reflecting nothing back. Smoke gushing from its nose, it leaned over Mr. Pimbury, reached out one clawed hand — and gently closed his eyes. “Good night, wizard,” it growled. “The game was long, and so, as promised, your suffering was short.”

It considered the chess board for a moment, and quickly shifted several of the pieces to new positions. It then advanced a rook, and a gaping black hole opened in the space above the chessboard. The demon made as if to step into the hole, hesitated, then swiped his hand across the board and scattered the pieces. The portal collapsed in on itself and vanished. The demon pushed the chair out of the way and crouched before the board. It gathered up the pieces in the palm of one giant hand and began to set up a new configuration. As it moved the final piece, a burning odor arose from the center of the board, and a tiny green shape started to materialize, with shiny green scales, a prehensile tail, and fiery red eyes. It hissed, “For what reason have you disturbed me?”

The demon glared down at it. “Tell me, imp: what do you know of the game called chess?”

Nova

[I wrote this story five years ago as a submission for the second Machine of Death collection.  The premise behind the stories there, and therefore obviously behind this one, is that there is a machine which, given a blood sample, can infallibly predict the manner of someone’s death, though not the time or the place.  The answers are often cryptic, but always correct.  The story wasn’t chosen for the collection, but I’ve occasionally thought about expanding it out into a proper book and releasing it on its own.  For now, though, it’s still in super-short story form. –M]

Timothy Higgins, forty-seven minutes old, is screaming.  The world around him is cold and unpleasant, filled with a light that hurts his eyes and populated by shapes he cannot yet distinguish.  Something sharp has just stabbed his finger, and he is howling at the unfairness of it all.

Doctor Liu feeds Timothy’s blood sample into the Predictor, glances at the readout screen and dutifully records “nova” in the section marked “Cause of Death.”  He is puzzled, but privately relieved; better an ambiguous reading than the glut of violent deaths he has been seeing lately.  Riot, war, starvation, suicide — Dr. Liu, for the first time in his life, is glad that his own prediction reads “car crash.”  Whatever is coming, he thinks, he’ll be lucky to miss it.

Timothy Higgins is the first last man on Earth.


Timothy Higgins, eight years old, is cornered.  Earlier in the school year, he and his friends had been comparing deaths to determine whose was coolest.  Jerry had won with “immolation,” once they all looked up what it meant.  Timmy had argued that a nova was immolation, only bigger, but the other kids had all laughed when Jacob had retorted that he probably just had an allergy to salmon.

Now, though, Jerry has a new sister.  Last night, he stole a look at her birth certificate, and the prediction said “nova.”  Jerry and the others have surrounded Timmy, backed him against a brick wall on the playground, and are threatening him.  Jerry tells him to stay away from his little sister.  Timmy tells Jerry to shut up or he’ll immolate him right now.  Jerry shoves him.  There is yelling and, before the playground monitor can break it up, blood and tears.

Later, Jerry passes Timmy a folded note.  Inside is a drawing of a boy with an exploding head, a ring of tears flying away.  Below the picture, it says, “You’re going to die in a tear nova, crybaby.”  That night, Timmy sets the note on fire in his backyard, and hopes Jerry’s immolation comes soon.


Timothy Higgins, sixteen years old, is sick of jokes about Chevy Novas.


Timothy Higgins, eighteen years old, is safe.  The government has instituted a draft for everyone 18-45 whose prediction reads “war.”  The political battle over the law was long and vicious, but in the end, it all boiled down to one feeling: the Predictors were never wrong, so there was clearly going to be a war.  Therefore, it was best to meet it with as well-trained and well-armed a force as possible.

Unspoken is the corollary — if there is going to be a war, better for it to be in someone else’s country.  The world watches with trepidation, and soon each country begins its own preparations.  Across the globe, protests break out.  People gather to burn their birth certificates in symbolic protest.  Hospitals are broken into, their Predictors smashed.  The first of the riots begin.


Timothy Higgins, twenty-six years old, is hiding.  The power has been out for days, and his cell phone has finally run dead.  His stockpile of food and water is enough to see him through many weeks, but the feeling of powerlessness weighs heavily upon him.  His prediction is no protection; tens of thousands of people now have “nova,” and in response, many of the recently-formed gangs have adopted the name.  The last Tim heard, there was no sign of instability in the Sun, and so the Novas on motorcycles outside seem the much more likely danger.  Therefore he hides, and wonders about his parents and friends, and hates himself.

The wars have not yet started, but everyone knows it’s only a matter of time.  Most of the nations have broken off diplomatic relations with each other on one pretext or another.  The governments are reluctant to send in their militaries to suppress the gangs; since many of the gang members carry “war” predictions, no one wants to pit another “war” group against them for fear of instigating The Big One.  It is left to the citizens to form neighborhood militias.  The ones with “starvation” predictions take on organizer roles; they have the most to lose by waiting.

Tim reluctantly joins a group, but quickly comes to love it.  Though he is still afraid to die, he finds that the fear is better than the self-loathing that came with living like a rat in a hole.


Timothy Higgins, thirty-nine years old, is terrified.  He and his wife have traveled over a hundred miles, negotiating their way through three gang border crossings, to reach a hospital with a working Predictor.  The doctor is delivering their baby now, and Tim is in the waiting room, unconsciously wringing his hands.  His wife banned him from the delivery room an hour earlier for pacing, and now he is by himself, just waiting.

The doctor calls him back in to introduce him to his son.  His wife, wan but smiling, holds the baby in the crook of one arm.  In her opposite hand is the birth certificate.  Tim rushes in, takes the certificate from his wife with trembling fingers, and reads: heart failure.

Tim lets out his breath in an exultant laugh and joyfully kisses his wife and his infant son.


Timothy Higgins, fifty-seven years old, is at war.  The report has come out at last — the Sun is failing, likely within the next century.  This is a surprise to no one, as millions of people now have the “nova” prediction, but the confirmation touches a match to the waiting powderkeg.  Several nations simultaneously declare preemptive war to protect themselves from invasion; others declare war in response to these acts of aggression.  The gangs rise up as well, some to join in, some to fight back, and some simply to protect their territory.  There is no safe place.

This time, Tim is the one to organize the neighborhood into a defensive unit.  He works side by side with his family and neighbors to raise barricades, for although his family has been predicted safe, others have less certainty.

The group takes comfort in Tim’s stolid demeanor, and when the fighting turns their way, they are able to repulse the attacks and take care of their wounded in relative comfort.  That night, Tim’s son compliments his leadership, and he feels an almost overwhelming burst of pride for everything he’s made of his small piece of the world.

Elsewhere, the violence escalates, and the nuclear bombs begin to fall.


Timothy Higgins, ninety-four years old, is crying.  Two days ago, his son failed to come by with the weekly groceries, or answer the phone when Tim called.  When Tim made his laborious way through the neighborhood to his son’s house, he found him still in bed, apparently asleep but unrousable.

Tim buries his boy next to his wife, and sheds tears for the son he always knew he would outlive.  He is not alone, though; since the communications networks began to be restored a decade ago, the Nova Network has risen to prominence.  At first just a collection of survivors with the “nova” prediction, it quickly became a force of repair in a broken world, reestablishing roads and utilities and rebuilding the Predictors.  As more Novas joined, it almost inevitably became a political movement.

Although portions of the world are still cut off from the rest, it is estimated that no more than a hundred million people remain.  Of those, over three-quarters are Novas.  The inevitability has brought with it a sense of calm, a strange harmony.  The Novas have been slowly gathering in the more inhabitable places, awaiting the day when they are the only ones left.


Timothy Higgins, one hundred and six years old, is resting.  He is sitting on his porch and looking up at the sky, though he is no longer able to see anything more than patterns of darkness and light.  The sun hangs low in the sky, huge and swollen like a rotten blood orange, oozing thick, red light over the landscape.  Beside him, and filling the nearby porches, are other Novas.

The last known non-Nova died of lung cancer this morning.  Without discussion, the Novas have gathered outside to watch the sky.  There are no more accidents remaining, no more mishaps or genetic defects.  There is only one end left, and they will all share it together.

As the sun swells to hurt even Timothy’s blind eyes, relieved only in spots by the shapes of people he can no longer distinguish, he hears the gasps of the surrounding Novas.  Someone takes his hand, grips it tightly.

The heat washes over him, and Timothy Higgins, the last man on Earth, smiles.