Keaton sat hunched over the game board, considering the endless permutations. His clothing clung to his sweat and he shifted uncomfortably.
The room itself was very comfortable; the ornate game table sat in the center of a dedicated high-ceilinged room larger than most homes. Intricate gilding covered every surface, from the massive columns to the walking paths that hovered just above the reflecting pools in a modern interpretation of a zen garden. The enormous windows looked out over the ecumenopolis in its permanent twilight.
No, it wasn’t the room that made Keaton sweat. It was the motionless robushi standing just behind him, appraising him with its unliving eyes as it grasped the handle of its katana, ready to strike.
Keaton’s opponent sat across from him with a robushi at his back as well. He was called Buria, and Keaton knew little else about him. He worse an orange scarf beneath a heavy black robe, dark glasses, and a parka-like hood that wrapped tightly around his head like a helmet.
“You can take off your hood you know,” Keaton said.
Buria sat statue still, examining the board. “No,” he said. “It protects me from God.”
“How can anything protect you from God? I thought God could do anything; isn’t that the whole point?”
Buria looked up slowly. “You speak very casually, Mr. Keaton. My people believe any god who can be named can be deterred. It is only the entity that cannot be described with any name that can do anything, as you say, and no such entity can exist, because all things can be named.” He reached out, picked up a piece called a turnul, and advanced it two spaces.
The game was older than even the Empire, dating back to Earth. A grid of 64 black and white squares were the battleground for two opposing armies. Every configuration held a unique set of rules that could alter how each piece functioned, who was which player, the shifts in elevation, and even the winning conditions. It was widely considered the ultimate measure of intellect. But it wasn’t typically so deadly.
Kamiyah Winters was the most powerful person in the Empire outside the Royal Lines. She didn’t just own this penthouse, or even just this building, but everything you could see from its vantages, too. And that was but a paltry fraction of her holdings. She was looking for the brightest minds in the galaxy to work on a secretive new venture. Members would be selected by championing a tournament of gameplay. The losers were summarily executed.
Most had a mind codex on reserve—they weren’t suicidal—but they would awaken with no memory of their death, nor the tournament, or traveling to Ankaa Secundus, or even their invitation to partake. Such an awakening was a highly distressing thing, especially among such elite circles.
Keaton shifted again and wiped his brow. They were deep into the game now, and the configurations were increasingly uncommon.
A faif beside an opposing palatin cannot cross the palatin’s diagonal lines of sight. When a turnul occupies the highest elevation, the malkia takes the role of the monarch. When both players have an odd number of guards, they have twice the power, but the faifs may only move half the distance. When no corners are occupied, your clock runs 50% more quickly. And so on.
Buria was unmoving. Unsmiling. It was infuriating.
Keaton picked up a guard and captured a piece with it, setting down the taken turnul with smug satisfaction.
He heard the smooth sliding of metal against metal behind him and then his throat was very warm. He didn’t even feel the slice of the robushi’s nanoblade, it was so sharp. Keaton’s face fell upon the board, and the light dimmed as he watched his monarch roll away from the encroaching pool of blood and then off the edge of the table.
Notes: I used an image as a writing prompt for this piece. You may be able to find the image on the artist’s ArtStation page. Image by Stijn Windig, used with permission.