This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
“Well, well, well,” said the Emperor, amusement in his voice. “So this is the device that is going to beat me?”
“We hope so, your Highness,” said Max. “It is well known that you are unbeaten at chess for many a long year, so we have not had the chance to test the machine against anyone with your level of expertise. We hope it will at least present you with more of a challenge than you are accustomed to.”
The Emperor nodded slowly.
“It is frustrating that no one seems able to compete at my level. Today you get to see how your machine measures up. Tell me, how did you come by it?”
“I made it,” said Todd, before Max could speak. “Out of bits and pieces I found lying around. It took a long time, but I got it there in the end.”
“Fascinating. And you, Max? Did you help to build it?”
Max froze for a moment. The fact the Emperor knew his name chilled his bones. Then he stammered out a reply.
“No… no, your Highness. Well, I helped put a few pieces together, but my input is more in making sure we have food to eat. And that Max remembers to eat it, especially if he’s busy working on something.”
“Most interesting. Well, if your machine is as good as you think it is then you will indeed be well rewarded. Todd will have the chance to put his expertise to work for me, and you Max… you will be allowed to leave with your life.”
Max just blinked a few times, staring at the Emperor. Finally he managed to stammer out some words.
“But of course. For have you not challenged your Emperor? Challenged your rightful ruler? Failure in such an endeavour must be rewarded with death. But success will be rewarded too.”
Max couldn’t think of any words to follow, so he fell silent.
“Good,” said the Emperor. “There is no confusion then. Now, let us start.”
The Emperor was playing white, as rumour said he always did. He reached down and moved one of his pawns. Todd flicked a switch on the side of the machine. Its camera, mounted on a flexible neck that rose above the main body, studied the board before its lone arm reached out smoothly and moved a knight. The game had begun.
* * *
Thirty moves in and the feeling of dread within Max’s chest had started to ease. Their machine had taken seven of the Emperor’s pieces already, in exchange for only two pawns and a knight. Max was no expert in chess, but even he was fairly certain it would be the Emperor who lost this time.
The Emperor suddenly clapped his hands together.
“I think I’ve lulled you into a false sense of security now,” he said. “I need some refreshments. Then, when we return, you’ll see exactly why I am unbeaten.”
The Emperor stood and left the room. Once he was gone drinks were brought for Max and Todd. Max didn’t want to drink any of his, but he suspected not drinking it might be taken as a sign of disrespect for the Emperor. They were in enough trouble as it was without doing something like that.
Todd drank his, then smiled happily.
“I think we’re going to do it, Max,” he said. “I think we’re going to win.”
“We’d better do. If we don’t, we’re going to be killed.”
“I’m not sure he meant that.”
“Oh, he did!”
“It’s a good job we’ll win then!”
“Todd, do you know the story of the man who invented chess and brought it before his king?”
“I think so. The King was really bored and found that chess solved that problem, didn’t he?”
“Yes. And do you know what happened to the inventor?”
“Not really. Didn’t he get paid in rice or something?”
“What he requested was that he be paid by placing one grain of rice in the first square of the chessboard, and two in the next square. Then the third square was to have four pieces of rice, the next eight, and so on. Doubling the amount of rice in every square of the board. Which meant…”
“Oh, that clever bastard!” interrupted Max. “That would be a phenomenal amount of rice even before getting anywhere near the sixty-fourth square! In fact by the end… well, I doubt there’s even that much rice in the entire world!”
Max stopped for a moment, mouth open, then shook his head. It was just like Todd to not remember what happened to the man in the story, but to latch onto the exponential growth of the reward and see where it would lead.
“Well, exactly. Believe me, the king was not happy when he realised what was happening.”
“So, the man didn’t get his rice then?”
“Oh yes. He did. The king ordered him lowered into a dry and disused well along with several full water skins. He ordered that after an hour one grain of rice be thrown down to the man.
“And then, after another hour two grains were thrown down. On the third hour four grains, on the fifth eight… and so on. I’m sure you can see where this is going.”
“Yes! By the end of a day that would be a lot of rice, probably enough to try and climb but nowhere near enough to get out. But within a few hours after that…”
He trailed off. Max nodded grimly.
“Yes! The king gave him exactly what he’d asked for. The man got his rice. He got enough that he drowned in it! I really don’t think our Emperor is going to be a better loser than that king was.”
“Oh, it won’t be that bad. He told me I could work for him.”
“I’m sure he meant it. But that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy the role. If you are useful to him you’ll probably end up as a near slave. Why on earth did we do this?”
“I think you said that we’d get rich enough to live well for the rest of our lives. That we’d never have to go hungry again. Besides, he told you that you’d be allowed to live if we won.”
“Live, yes. Want to be alive? Maybe not. There’s an awful lot he could do to me while still letting me live. Dammit, he’s coming back. Quiet!”
* * *
The Emperor sat down, studied the board, then made his move. The machine considered for a few seconds, then made a move of its own. And what a move it was. It took the Emperor’s Queen, only losing a bishop in return.
Max should have been elated. Instead he noted the scowl on the Emperor’s face. For the next two moves nothing further happened. Then over the next dozen moves although no pieces were taken the Emperor was pushed further and further back. Until a dozen moves later the Emperor’s King was in check.
It wasn’t checkmate, but there weren’t many options available to him. Strangely the Emperor was smiling. Max didn’t trust that smile at all.
The Emperor reached down, picked up his king, and started moving it through a number of the black pieces, snatching each off the board as he did. By the end the king had moved the width of the board. The Emperor had removed seven black pieces.
“Invalid move!” barked the machine.
That made Max jump. He’d had no idea the machine was capable of speech! There were few such machines left any more. Very few!
The Emperor looked up sharply, then smiled.
“It is a perfectly valid move. It is not my fault you don’t understand the rules of Emperor’s chess. In Emperor’s chess there is one extra piece on the white side. The Emperor. Me. It outranks every other piece, and so can move any piece under its command in whatever way is needed.”
He sat back, a cruel smile on his face.
Max’s heart sank. So this was why the Emperor had never been defeated. He played by different rules. No, he cheated! He cheated to win, and none of those he beat survived to warn anyone else.
Max realised he and Todd were dead. Well, he was. Todd might still be spared, but Max wasn’t certain that life would be any better than death.
The machine sat, humming very quietly, apparently considering its next move. It had stopped claiming the Emperor’s move was illegal at least, but that was no help. There was no way it could possibly win.
“New rules analysed,” said the device finally. “Tactics updated. New high-value piece identified. While that piece remains it is impossible to win. Conclusion: Eliminate the new piece.”
The Emperor frowned, apparently not understanding the implications of what the device was saying. Max just stared at it, trying to take in what was happening. Its logic was infallible. It had identified that the game was unwinnable while the Emperor prevailed. It seemed to think it should eliminate him, but didn’t understand he wasn’t a piece on the board.
There was a loud clunk as the sides of the camera dropped down. Small tubular devices ratcheted out and into position on each side of the camera. The Emperor stared at them, still frowning. Max had a horrible feeling he knew what was about to happen. The devices didn’t look like guns, they were far too small, and yet…
Blinding light shot out from the tubes, blazing beams spearing the Emperor’s chest, and a moment later his head. Max leapt sideways, dragging Todd to the floor. He was only just in time. Machine-gun fire swept across where they had been sitting. Bullets struck the machine, but simply pinged off of its casing.
“Additional pieces identified,” stated the machine. “Rules updated. Eliminate all enemy pieces with maximum efficiency.”
As the words cut into Max’s mind the screaming started. It didn’t last long, and the room soon fell silent. Max lifted his head slightly and saw smoking corpses all around them. Thankfully the machine didn’t seem to consider Todd and he as enemy pieces, and he wasn’t going to risk it changing its mind about that.
Gunfire blasted at the machine from the doorway. The machine pivoted on tracks Max hadn’t even realised it had, that must’ve been hidden within it, and moved towards the door. The twin beams kept on lashing out, cutting through walls as easily as through people.
“More enemy pieces identified,” stated the machine. “Elimination will continue.”
* * *
Less than ten minutes later Max and Todd were hurrying out of the Emperor’s palace, carrying enough items of weaponry to protect themselves with plenty more to sell. They’d make enough to pay for the good life until they both died.
“Todd,” said Max. “Where did you find the central parts of that machine? Did you really put it together from scratch?”
Todd looked sheepish. “Well, I might not have put it all together. You know the forbidden levels?”
“Tell me you didn’t get it down there! It’s forbidden for a reason, you know!”
“Yes. I’m starting to see that. Well, I found it down there, dormant but working. Then I just had to train it. It already had the idea of winning, of defeating an enemy, I just had to change its battlefield to only be chess.”
Max looked back over his shoulder, taking in the collapsing guard towers, the raging fires, and the sporadic bursts of desperate gunfire which never seemed to last for long.
“Well Todd, I hate to criticise… but I don’t think you quite succeeded!”
“No. Oh well, next time I’ll know better.”
Max groaned, but didn’t bother arguing. There should be no next time, yet he was sure there would be. No matter how closely he watched Todd something always slipped through.
He glanced over his shoulder again. Sometimes what slipped through was small. This time… this time it was a lot bigger. Max just hoped the machine reached the conclusion that it had won soon, and so stopped seeking out ever more enemies. The alternative, the machine never stopping, was too scary to even think about!