Visitation: 2

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp. Its name was not known. The consensus among those in the SM faculty was that it was not of the usual order of Hasps; no. It was a Category I, expressed in Form II. And it was the last line of defence, for nothing could stand against a naked Haccieter, against the final idea of a basic force. Why The Defence was where it was no one knew. The Wrecked Church was around 12,000 years old, and as far back as records went it had always contained the Hasp. In that ancient past some deal must have been struck, a trade of some still-incomprehensible value. What was in it? Friendship? That surely was a heresy. It was impossible to imagine.

In any case the Hasp could not be moved. Of course it had been tried. But it could not be done. It was fixed relative to the gravitational centre of Stize. There was also the problem that anything that came within a metre of it (99.2 cm, said the notices at the entrance) would disintegrate as a result of absurd tidal forces. Outside that radius, however, those gravitational forces simply disappeared. They did not tail off; they simply did not extend there.

They could see the Wrecked Church now, the shattered spire of six metal plates, most of the top half entirely gone except for where two of the triangular sheets stretched skyward, nearly touching before cleanly cut off as if by some unnoticed catastrophe, some antiseptic violence that had come tumbling from above. Copper green with intimations of wisdom, flying buttresses broken and left clawing at vaulted notes the hearing of which was like a musical gesture in the middle of its enactment, like a sign paid out in instalments, the long spinal nave of stone and its interdenominate vertebrae locked in place, the high holy orifices of the windows agape, unprepared after all this time—

“It looks pretty good for a ruin,” Garf said, sweating a bit now. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say but it doesn’t look very – ruinlike – doesn’t it?”

They stopped to look.

Bizzo leaned back and shaded his eyes. He said nothing.

“It’s a bit like that Cubist stuff. Not really Cubist, I mean, but like that – who was it – Worthow, I think.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

Garfield drew a hand across her forehead. “I wonder why I never noticed before.” She took two steps back and stretched out her hands in the direction of the structure, moved them mechanically up and down as if measuring something. “You really get a sense of its size, hm? Standing here. I suppose that’s it.”

“In Canon II there is a section on the influence of prehistoric art,” Sal said. Canon was the vast university library.“I think Worthow is mentioned. There’s a book called The Lineage of Art from Before Time. Brewer and Fentiman. It’s good.”

“It isn’t really a church, is it?” Bizzo said. He coughed. “All the later ones that were copies of these two, those were churches. But we’ve not got any idea what this was for.”

“No,” Sal said. “Although there are many theories.”

“Why isn’t there anyone around?” Garf said.

Sal went up to the door and pushed it open.

Above the long darkness of the nave light seeped from the clerestory, touching nothing. At the end a great flood from broken spire.

“I spoke to QC,” Sal said. He grinned.

Garf took in a deep breath of cold air. “And it didn’t let anyone in today.”

“It re-arranged things,” Sal said. “So there would be an empty window.”

Bizzo stood just inside the door, his hands in his pockets. “There’s something, you know, oppressive about this. This place.”

Outside was the human noise, the human suffering.

The very thought.

Garf opened her mouth to say something but Sal said, mildly, “No. No. I understand.”

They walked over in silence to the crossing. The North Transept was ruined and from where they were they could look out at the sun pluming outside, the trees, the rolling air. In the middle of the crossing  there was a shallow bowl worn out of the basalt floor and at its bottom there was, incongruously, a lift, a large steel box.It looked like it could take ten or so people at once.

They got in and the doors hissed shut and they immediately began to descend.

Down hypodermically through rock. This is the song of an unassailable people.

They did not stop for a while.

“What the fuck?” Bizzo said when the doors opened.

They were at the edge of a vast rectangular chamber tiled entirely with what looked like white ceramic. The scene was a study in perspective; the dark lines of rock which showed between the tiles ran from where they stood to the opposite wall nearly a kilometre away, across the floor, walls, ceiling.

The light came from everywhere and nowhere and was painful.

Near the far end of the chamber there was a black square, so dark it looked nearly unreal, like something projected into vision: a perfect cube ten metres in height. Around it the neat lines formed by the tiles appeared to bend, to warp and wrap in on themselves again and again.  A space around where light congregated endlessly, fawned without end.

“So that’s the casket,” Garf said. “Trippy.”

“Is that lensing?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Hmm,” Garf said.

“This shouldn’t be that surprising. What do you know about The Defence?” Sal said.

“It’s Type I,” Bizzo said.

“If you go to the SM faculty page you can find a list of well-defined Hasps and their properties. One standard way of classifying Hasps involves a Reissner-Nordström transform. You express properties about the Hasp by treating its derived properties as if it was a charged spinning black hole. Once you figure out a Hasp’s effective implied charge you can give it a certain mass. It’s not an actual mass, but you can treat it for certain calculations as if it has one. Basically you can figure out what Hasp in Form III would look like. The Defence is in Form II. But its inferred Form III mass – and it’s probably the only Hasp whose Form III mass has been precisely calculated, for obvious reasons – is approximately 4 billion solar masses.”

“Urk,” Bizzo said.

“That’s a big number,” Garf said.

“If you rank the well-defined Hasps by mass it’s pretty high up.”

“That is frightening,” Bizzo said.

Sal said nothing. He looked at the dark cube and said nothing.

The stuttered world made fiduciary to this.

“Is that number a limit?” Garf said. “What does it actually tell us about what this can do?”

“It’s not a limit,” Sal said. “That’s not what a Hasp contains. It’s an expression of actual gravitational potential, not potential gravitational potential.”

“I don’t –” Garf began.

“Garf,” Sal said, voice clear, cordial, knowing, “Don’t worry about it.”

Bizzo was staring. “We can’t go near that,” Bizzo said. “If the gravity is strong enough to bend light like that there’s no way we can go near that.”

“If it was a gravitational field, we’d be dead by now.”

“Terrorist!” Garf said, but put no heart into it.

“What is it? It not a gravitational field why’s the light fucked up like that?”

“I can’t get QC,” Garf said. She turned to Sal. “I just tried to make a query and got nothing.”

“There’s also no Composite Dust in the air,” Sal said.

“What is it?” Bizzo said.

“It’s a field,” Sal said. “It’s complicated.” He grinned like he had made a joke. “It only affects massless particles – photons – the way gravity does.”

“Okay.”

“It’s safe,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”

Garf looked hesitant. “Is The Defence doing that?”

“Of course.”

“And what’s that?” Garf pointed to the long gash in the floor where the tiles had been crushed in an arcing path that ended with the casket.

“Continental drift. The casket moves a tiny bit each year as Wassea drifts underearth it. Let’s go.”

As they walked the lines around the casket slipped and dilated like liquid. They came to the door in the side of the casket.

“We’re standing right here but I can see you just fine,” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“I shouldn’t be able to,” Bizzo said. “Not if this was bending the light.”

“It’s strange that the door’s just like that,” Garf said. “I’d expected something more impressive.”

“Security?” Sal said.

“Yeah.”

“It would make no sense trying to keep the Hasp in. And it can’t be damaged or moved, so there’s no sense keeping anything out.”

The door was visible only as a faint outline in the smooth black surface. A handle was set into it; Sal took it and pulled and the door hinged open smoothly.

Inside the light was dimmer.

It was on a small plinth and it was black.

“There’s a smell” Bizzo said. “It’s like the smell you get when you get into the car in the morning and the air-conditioners come on. But it’s sweeter than that.”

Garf went up to it. There was a circle inscribed into the floor: come no closer. She stopped a metre away.

How to stare this cruelty away?

A monument like the word if and just as improbable.

“It’s sort of muscly,” she said, “Very lean, like you can see through the skin to the muscle underneath. Is it crouching?”

“It’s like you took a military jet and made it into an animal,” Bizzo said. “You know what I mean?”

“It’s crouching,” Sal said. “It has its head between its knees. It’s digitigrade – you can see how the legs fold beneath it. It looks like it has an extra joint there. If it stood up in this form it’d be well over two metres tall.”

Anatomy. How to embroider a wound.

Teeth do not rot in the grave.

Garf shook her head. “It’s black.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t make out the – the contours of the limbs. Those are the arms wrapped around its – knees –  that is the neck, the neck, going down between them. It doesn’t look alive.”

“It’s not alive,” Sal said.

“Why would anyone want to come so close to something like this?” Bizzo said.

“If you look inside the circle,” Sal said, “You can see – although it’s hard to make out since the floor is so dark – you can see human remains.”

Garf brought one hand to her face, rubbing, checking.

“Those smudges?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Oh,” Garf said.

“This is such a strange place,” Bizzo said.

“I can’t get a feel of it,” Garf said. “It’s not – you know – threatening, now that we’re here. But it doesn’t have a present the way a sculpture has presence. It’s a gap. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m putting this across. I feel sad for it. I know this makes no fucking sense at all but it looks sort of sad. Not to move after all this time. It’s so fantastic it’s beyond fascination. I can’t even describe it properly. Seriously. If I go back out and someone asks me, ‘What was it like,’ I’m pretty sure I’ll say ‘I don’t know,’ and it’ll be really honest. And if they person says ‘What did it look like?’ I’ll say, ‘It was dark and crouching and made the light funny and smelt strange,’ and that sounds ridiculous.”

Garf looked at Sal. Sal looked at the Hasp and did not say anything for some time. Then he said, “Look at this. After all this time this is what we rely on.” His hands had been pressed together but he spread them apart now, raised them. “Look at this.”

A child before the blackness, hands raised, wrists loose, lost already in ritual.

“Uhm,” Bizzo said. There was a look on Sal’s face that he had no seen before, the look of something caged and now finding its larger intention, the latch in its trammel. It was not a rapturous look. It was slightly sorrowful.

“Rely on?” Garf said. “We’ve never used it in any way.”

Sal turned to Garf.  Then he turned to Bizzo.

“I wouldn’t know,” Bizzo said.

“This is the basic threat.” Sal pointed at the Hasp. “This is under everything. Isn’t it absurd? Isn’t it obscene? It is a threat so powerful it cannot be used. It is the basic violence under our structure. Do you know how other nations see us? To them we are already a Kingdom of totems. Providence picked bare. They don’t even contemplate conflict with us. And then they see this, our Defence. And what do you think they think? And we use that. I use that. Its hint is in everything I do: you cannot overcome us. Even if I did not want to I would be forced to.” He stopped and looked thoughtful and nodded, or maybe that movement was only imagined. “Look at this thing. I am the same as it. Don’t you think?”

Bizzo and Garf stood and looked at him and did not say anything. There was a light in his eyes and a deadly calm.

“Don’t you think?” Sal said. He held out his wrists. He smiled and there was nothing in it that was not genuine and warm. “Come on. Do not believe that I am something else. Under my skin there is a violence. There is a violence. Don’t look at me that way, Garf. It’s the most basic eloquence and it’s all here, all inside me. Hm?”

A wild and profligate gesture.

Him receding now, just like this, taken by therapeutic quantities of darkness.

“That’s not – a problem,” Bizzo offered. “It’s not easy, being the Leviathan, but it’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

Sal looked up and titled his head and looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, as if puzzled, thinking. “Oh, Bizzo, I’m not complaining.” It was a terrifying look, alien, suddenly, maybe cold, haughty. “But this encroaches on me,” he said. “Come now. You must know this. This is easy to see.”

Garf said, “But the Defence has never done anything. It’s not doing anything now.”

“Garf,” Sal said, “I am not an alternative. Do you understand? What’s – I don’t know, choose what you want – what’s truth to violence? What’s violence to greater violence? What’s me to a God?”

“You are saying you can’t control this,” Bizzo said. Sal looked at him blankly.

“It’s The Defence, Sal,” Garf said. “It’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a defence.”

“Do you think that this must be a defence? Do you really think that?”

Bizzo said, “What else could it be?”

“Suicide.”

“Suicide.”

“Yes.”

“Something to kill everyone?”

“Well, think about it. This whole world is already impossible to attack. There are too many forces conspiring against it. QC. Gates. Gatekeepers. Compydust. College AIs, if necessary. Armouries. But if we were all to die it would be through this.”

Garf said, “So this is about controlling it.”

“I’m not complaining about anything,” Sal said, “I’m just saying this is the way things are. I’m pretty okay with it.”

“I’m pretty sure you could stop that from happening” Bizzo said. “I’m sure there are ways to do it.”

“Why would I prevent it?”

“What?”

“Why would it not be me making that order?”

“What is this about?” Garf said. She had her hands in her pockets, her body tight against itself.

In a different world trees stood shocked in the sun, canopies small spaces and worlds apart.

“Kasakadei has written little thing. A monograph. Have you heard about it?”

“The ethics majors in Hakon mentioned –” Bizzo said.

Evitable and Inevitable Duties of Non-Existence. It’s what you would expect from Kasakadei. A tight airless thing. The arguments in it are not new – they are clarifications of some very ancient claims. Dusted off, restated to avoid some obvious attacks.”

“What is this?” Garf said.

“If it is not a moral evil to fail to create a utility-positive life,” Sal said, “then it follows.”

“What follows?”

“That it might be good that we all die. Isn’t strange that such a small concession, something look inconsequential, almost, could lead to this? Small things have big consequences.”

“When you say we you mean, all, as in all of us?”

“You see now why a Hasp is useful for this purpose.”

“What is this argument? I don’t see how anything follows.”

“It’s about an asymmetry. We all agree that it is wrong to create a life if it would be one of suffering. To cause the existence of such a life would be a moral evil. We therefore have a duty not to create such a life. But it is not clear that we must think that the flipside is true – that we have a duty to create a happy life, given the chance. But if there is no positive duty to create a life where that life would be a happy one – if that is not a moral good, then we are left with a conclusion that the happiness that a non-existent life passes over is not a morally relevant loss, while the pain and suffering that is passed over is a morally relevant gain. Do you see? This asymmetry means that we have a duty to create not life at all. An inevitable duty of non-existence obtains. No matter how gloriously happy the life we create is, as long as that life contains some sort of suffering, no matter how slight, that pain could have been avoided by not creating that life in the first place. Yes, no happiness would have been experienced, but if you think that failing to bring a utility-positive life into existence is not a moral wrong, then all this follows. The Inevitable Duty of Non-Existence.”

Bizzo was quiet. Garf was thinking.

Horror could be thus held purely by its skin.

Garf said, “This is an argument about why it is wrong to cause life to come into existence. It does not say that once life is created we should end it.”

Sal laughed. “Yes! Yes. But one does rather imply the other. And if the killing is quick there is little harm done.”

Bizzo said, “You don’t believe any of this.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth like an animal. “You don’t believe any of this.”

“Bizzo, darling, why do you ask me? Think about it. Any answer I give to these sorts of questions will not be motivated by my desire to tell you the truth but by the necessities of my position.”

“We’re clearly not dead,” Bizzo said. “So you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Sal said. “There you go, I guess.” He laughed.

“Shall we head?” Garf said. “We’re having lunch at Porales.”

“No,” Sal said.

“Come on, let’s go,” Garf said. She started moving toward the doorway.

Sal looked at her. “No,” he said smoothly, without any gap between Garf’s exclamation and his denial.

Garf stood as if paralyzed.

“You should know about the other argument,” Sal said. “Don’t you think? Evitable duties of non-existence. You should find out.”

“Why are we discussing philosophy?” Garf said.

“We’re not discussing philosophy at all,” Sal said, sounding surprised. “We’re discussing why I should not be minded to kill everyone.”

“Okay,” Garf said. She grasped her face and ran her hand down it, pressing into her cheeks. “Must we do it here?”

“The arguments are made rather sharper here, aren’t they?”

“Go on, then. Explain.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s an old argument, an ancient argument, really, that Zapffe Ipcress articulated fully in Grief and Sublimation. It’s an argument for an evitable duty because this duty is sensitive to the value of existent life itself; it matters how that life is to be lived. The claim is that happiness is not real. That is to say, it does not exist independently. Suffering is what exists independently, as the groundnorm. There is nothing intrinsic about the satisfaction of fulfilling desire because desire multiplies – and desire is only a kind of pain evolution has forced us to clutch at, reflexively, a lie of value that we must hum to ourselves over and over again. Ipcress’ words. Do you know what Ipcress writes in the second annex to Four Meditations? I can recite it for you. It slips into the mind quite easily:

“‘Conscious life, although nothing on the scale of cosmic time, is laden with suffering. This suffering is directed towards no other end but its own perpetuation. This is to be expected. All suffering directed elsewhere, which is to say all honest suffering, has long since ended. It is lost to us. What exists is that suffering which, by making a terror of everything, threads the barren and yawning needle of mere survival. We feel, deeply but pointlessly, that life nonetheless has some meaning, or at least some pattern-of-value. We feel that because we hold in ourselves an argument that, even if unarticulated, is as powerful as it is false. What is this secret argument? (1) To say an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters morally; (2) If it matters morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is; (3) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is like – that it feels like – to be that entity; (4) That feeling-of-being this entity possesses must be indicative of the relation of its interest to its being; (5) The relevant part of this feeling-of-being is desire; and hence (6) Desire must, if not identify precisely, at least indicate those interests that are morally relevant, and thus stake out within each life a space for meaning to develop. At each stage this argument proposes an erasure of suffering and its replacement with meaning, or something like it. Call it truth. Call it light. Call it nobility. Call it honesty. Call it freedom. Call it dignity. But it never shows its true face. That true face is that it is correct in one place only, and it locates a truth. Life is morally relevant – that is to say, it matters, but only because it is an evil. It needs to end.’”

Bizzo coughed. Garf was staring at Sal.

“Well,” Garf said.

“Do you agree?” Sal asked.

Do I agree?

“No. No, I fucking love my life, Sal. I would never give it up.”

Sal laughed. He looked at Garf and then at Bizzo. He. shrugged apologetically. “I think people should know about that argument. It is eight centuries old. It shouldn’t have taken Kasakedei to resurrect it, to put it in so-called analytic terms. It is worth hearing.”

“Sometimes I am terrified of you,” Garf said. “I mean that. Sometimes I am.”

“Sorry,” Sal said. He turned his palms up and that hint of good-willed gangliness came back.

“You didn’t bring us here to do – that, did you?”

Sal made a face of pretend-woundedness. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I came because I thought it would be interesting to see The Defence.”

“You don’t believe in that argument.”

“What can I say?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t believe in it. Crane has some sharp things to say about it.” He looked at them, gauging if this was enough. “I told you it’s not useful, asking me these things. Let’s go.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said. “I am suddenly famished.”

Sal looked at The Defence. He spoke to it. “You’ll be here, won’t you?” Lightly again. “This luminous grave. It must be good. Oh well.” He turned to Bizzo and Garf. “Let’s go.”

Consultation

“If you want to do it, you absolutely should,” The Magician said.

“What Alfen is saying,” Garf said, “Is that you would be an absolute moron to try.”

Alfen Vrodie-Stangster, known everywhere to people who followed the game as The Magician, winced and tried to smile at the same time and Sal felt a sudden stab of pity for her. “I don’t think the Leviathan is a – uhm – well, a moron, necessarily, in anything, Garfield,” she said.

They had been talking for a while and it was clear to Sal that Alfen was one of those people so monomaniacally nice that they became sort of boring. In Alfen’s case she was so flatly unaware of her banality that it was touching, in a way, an impairment that elicited sympathy.

Alfen was also the 6th-best player of the game on Stize, that is to say, stupendously, horrifically, strong. She was possibly, behind the World Champion, the most popular onplanet player. Alfen’s over-the-board inclinations were diametrically related to her personality; her over-the-board style was hyperaggressive, antipositional, wildly speculative, sacrificial. In her first ever First League tournament a 15-year old Alfen had played two games where she sacrificed, almost at whim, huge amounts of material for vague compensation that had evolved gradually into a welter of murderously subtle mating threats; the games were enshrined in brilliancy collections everywhere. The second, an Old Sicilian with a queen sacrifice on f6 on move 12, was held as a kind of rallying totem for attacking club players. “A magician,” the commentators had said then, had breathed as beautifully coordinated, classical positions withered under wild attacks, “This is the work of a magician.” The name had stuck. Alfen never stayed at the board when she was playing; she made her move and immediately walked off, to look at other games. Whenever she did choose to remain at the board she bowed her head as if praying, eyes closed, often with one hand covering them, unmoving, a pose that made her look as if she was weeping and was trying to hide it, but was rigid with concentration. Everything about it spoke to a magic, yes, this was The Magician.

Alfen’s style was fundamentally unsound; engines found refutations, obscure and cold-blooded but refutations nonetheless, to most of her ideas. “But sound chess is not so fun,” Alfen had said, earnestly, when she had been asked. “You know, I don’t understand the positions I get OTB. But my opponents don’t understand them either. So at the very least both of us have something to talk about after the game.” “I see,” the interviewer had said, looking skeptical. “That’s all there is,” Alfen said, “Really.” “And why do you walk away?” “The board gets in the way of calculation. If it’s a messy line then looking at the board makes you hallucinate, makes you see ghosts, forget that things have moved.”

“He is being a moron, Alfen,” Garf said.

“It does take time,” Alfen said, agreeably. She moved her head from side to side slightly as if considering seriously a suggestion she had just made to herself, confirming something. “I was at it for 8 years before I made it into the First League.”

“But it wasn’t so bad once you were there,” Sal said.

Alfen paused. “No. But that was not, uhm, so typical, really.” In fact Alfen was one of the very few Grandmasters that had not begun their FL careers with a string of agonising losses. Her particular style had come as something of a shock to most people. Most aggressive players who entered the FL did miserably. Aggressive players relied on two things for wins: getting good positions from which attacks could be launched, and on opponents cracking under consistent pressure. There was nothing shameful about the latter, nothing dishonest about the technique; it was just the way humans were. Four hours of perfect defense could be ruinously spoilt by a single slip. Everywhere outside the very highest levels of chess an asymmetry of economy existed; attackers had an advantage. Attacking moves were easy to find; defensive responses were often subtle and difficult to spot. For the attacker calculation was easy because the moves came in a neat sequence, like the path of an arrow: I will push my h-pawn, I will place my knight on f4, I will place my queen on g3. Mate will then happen. But for the defender, seeing even three moves ahead was difficult because there was no straight path; there was no arrow. Instead the lines branched and branched again, a thicket that extended beyond the horizons of brute calculation: if this, then this? or this? or this? And if that, what then? Is my endgame worse? Do a sacrifice a pawn now to stave off the attack or do I cling to my material? Do I defend or try to drum up my own initiative? And then a mistake would come, or a series of small inaccuracies that swell and crest into something greater, and out of the blue a forced sequence – a line with no branches at all, where each move and countermove allowed for only one response, a continuation rigid with clarity – that caused the position to fall apart.

None of this was true in the FL. Everywhere else, yes, this logic held, but not in the FL. A part of this was due simply to brute playing strength; the GMs of the FL could sneer at what their intuitions told them were unsound attacks, and they could simply sit and cold-bloodedly calculate their way through the wildest variations. And a part of this was because they knew enough theory that they would never allow an attacking player to get a good position in the first place. But there were threshold effects at work too. Any attack tended to burn bridges – often material would be sacrificed by the attacking side, so that if the attack was beaten off without a countersacrifice the attacker was left with fewer pieces with which to play the endgame. It was the most painful game for the attacking player: to see an attack peter out to nothing while the vast desolation of a long defensive grind in a lost endgame beckoned.  But more commonly it was simply the case that the attack expended all the positional trumps in a position – pawns aggressively advanced left behind weak squares, pale tremulous things over which the opposing player’s pieces swarmed, weak points suddenly appearing and multiplying until the position collapsed; or pieces clustered around the enemy kingside would leave unprotected other areas of the board where a vicious counterattack would gradually emerge, hints of counterplay that would constantly imply themselves, which would be replied to almost as an afterthought, but would demand more and more attention, would gnaw at the position until the attacker would eventually be defending, and the position would give way.

This was the basic problem for the attacking player: if the attack failed, the game would be lost. There was a general complaint, not unjustified, that in the FL it was nearly impossible to see out-and-out attacking games. Positional manoeuvring was everywhere, yes: subtle attacks on weak pawns, the rarefied combinatorical mathematics of endgames, but few actual attacks on actual kings. Many aggressive players, having made it to the FL, moderated their natural tendencies, traded the neurotically barbaric King’s Indian or Kmoch for quieter positional systems: the Caro-Kann, the Catalan, the Berlin, the Chebanenko-Sprung, the Quiet Game. All except for The Magician. In the cool waters of the FL she burnt like a cinder. She played games that held out the notion of there being some mysticism in the game, that represented gloriously unscientific commitment to complexity, to ideas that could be ramified but not tamed…

“You’re the only really aggressive player to be holding a title now, aren’t you? The only really, you know, romantic player.” Sal said. “The Noa.”

“Yes,” Alfen said, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t like it when my table gets relabelled, though. GM Vrodie-Sangster feels correct. Noa Vrodie-Sangster feels too flattering. I was very lucky.”

“Title?” Garf said. “Noa?”

“Uhm,” said Alfen, and looked unhappy at the idea that she would have to explain.

“Don’t you follow anything about the game?” Sal said.

“Fuck you very much,” Garf said, smoothly. “When you summit K7 on a mountain bike I’ll give you permission to mock.”

Sal laughed.

“It’s a lot more impressive than being good at the game,” Alfen said. “K7 is pretty ridiculous.”

“Tell her about being Noa,” Sal said to Alfen.

“I’d really rather – ” Alfen said, “Uhm, you know.”

“Hm?” Sal said.

“Please,” Alfen said.

“So,” Sal said. “There are seven tournaments in the FL that stand out, so-called Supertournaments. Invite-only, and very difficult to win. Named after the organising colleges: Intemper, Noa, Learnt, Tityrant, New, Ancient, Estuary. They’re all prestigious enough to be what you call titled, which means that if you win one of those you carry around the name of the tournament and it replaces your usual title. So Alfen is the Noa. Not a GM, the Noa.”

“There is a World Championship, though. I keep hearing about it. Where does the World Championship fit in?”

“It’s the Estuary title. It’s called the World Championship because of the format: you get a Candidates Tournament where all the six other titleholders and four other GMs (selected based on global ranking, I think) duke it out to play a long match against the current Estuary.”

“Murderous tournament,” Alfen said. “Ouch.”

“The current number one holds four titles,” Sal said. “The two most difficult tournaments are Estuary and Ancient. He holds both of those titles, the Great Pair, and is also the Learnt and Intemper. It’s a nice full title, isn’t it? Estuary-Ancient-Learnt-Intemper Saracen.”

“Being called the Ancient is pretty cool,” Garf said.

“It’s a quadruple round-robin,” Alfen said. “It’s quite exhausting.”

“What were we talking about?” Sal said.

Garf knew he never actually forgot what they were talking about. She wondered when she would stop noticing when he did things like that. “Alfen was saying something about doing well when she first got into the FL.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

“She was saying that doing well was not typical for newcomers. Implying, I think we can agree, that you are a moron.”

Alfen was gripped by what looked like genuine panic. “I—”

“I don’t think I’m typical,” Sal said, smiling. He didn’t say it differently but they were all silent for a moment.

“No,” Alfen said. “Of course not.” She looked aghast. She looked from Garf to to Sal and back again. “I did not—”

“Stop it,” Garf said, looking at Sal. “Don’t encourage him.”

“I am truly sorry, Leviathan,” Alfen said, looking like she could not live with herself.

Alfen never used Sal’s name; she always called him Leviathan. Sal did not mind; Garf did, it seemed, but did not say much about it.

Sal leaned back in his chair and put his legs on the table.“It does not matter,” he said. “I’m not particularly fussed by these things. I want to know what it was like. Tell me about theory. Did you have to learn a lot of theory?”

“Theory is really useful. I was not really an opening expert what I first entered but I had to learn quite a lot to keep up.”

Theory referred to positions that were well-analysed and well-known. Most theory was about the opening; there were over 1600 named openings and variants, many analysed to over 20 moves deep. There was far too much opening theory to memorize; most GMs specialised in a few select openings; a few adventurous ones experimented. Some theory was about certain types of endgames: the Lucena and Vancura positions in rook-and-pawn endgames, the Diagonal Technique for winning with knight and bishop against king – it went on. Most high-level games, and nearly all played in the seven titled tournaments, became theory; these games were memorized to be regurgitated as was necessary. Why waste time finding your own good moves OTB when you could play moves that better players had already determined to be good?

“How long does it take to get up to speed on modern theory?” Sal said.

“Uhm,” Alfen said.

“Tell him how long you took,” Garf said, “And he’ll work it out.”

Alfen shrugged. The gesture was comically exaggerated by the way she sat: hunchbacked, peaked shoulders framing her head like the folded wings of a bird of prey. A lump in her throat moved up and down with unreal vigour, like a piston. “It depends on how much of a theoretician you want to be. I know a decent amount but my gift’s not really there.  I find wading through theoretical minefields tiring. It took me about five years to get book-up enough to not worry about openings in the FL. But I’ve always preferred sidelines. I think I can bring out a drawing variation if I need it – the Berlin, the Marshall Gambit, but that’s not the usual thing. Those two took me –” her eyes flicked over Sal “—the better part of a year to get down.”

Sal looked thoughtful.

“Could I make a suggestion?” Alfen said.

“Please.”

“If you want to get booked-up fast I’d recommend covering all the basic openings and defences with d4 and e4, nothing fantastically deep unless you really like it, and then move on to largely non-theoretical lines. It’s not, uhm, that great, really, fighting theoreticians on their own ground. It’s better to get them out of book and then force them to find good moves OTB. Force them to actually play a game, to figure things out there and then.”

“Alfen,” Garf said, with viciously calibrated emphasis, “Sal has never played a game before. Not even one.”

Alfen looked surprised. “Well,” she said, is if this was clear and beyond contestation, “You do think he’s going to be the Estuary at some point, don’t you?”

“World Champion?” Garf said, suddenly realising something.

“To begin with,” Alfen said, looking at Garf.

Sal’s expression did not change but there was a shift in it, a new sheen to the smile, a different shade that had come over it and remained there.

Garf looked Sal and Alfen and did not know what to say.

“You’re not dumbfounded very often, you know,” Sal said, very lightly and precisely. His smile grew.

“But the risk,” Garf said. “If you lose, and everyone knows about it – if everyone sees the Leviathan losing – I mean, seriously, why – is it necessary to take this sort of risk? You know what role you play, you know how people will see it. Why would you do it?”

“Pleasure,” Sal and Alfen said, at the same time. But Sal was not smiling as he said this. He was looking straight at Garf and he looked, in a way, Garf thought, possessed, held by something.

“Yes,” Garf said. Her mouth felt dry. “Pleasure.” She saw then how Sal was different but could not put it into words. She looked at Sal. She felt studied. There was a test and she did not know what it was. “Okay. Okay. You know what? I’ll just not say anything about this. You two go on. You know what I think but you probably know better.” She was staring but she was not angry.

Sal laughed. “It’s just a bit of fun, Garf. That’s all. That’s where the challenge is.”

“As long as you don’t get too bogged down in theory,” Alfen offered, helpfully.

Sal was still looking at Garf. “O Garfield Keynes Hunter, you lack faith in your hyperbred superintelligent unkillable God-King.”

“Not so unkillable, I hope,” Garf muttered darkly.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Alfen. Sal raised his eyebrows and then he and Garf grinned.

“So,” Sal said at last, “So.” He turned to Alfen, who was vigorously biting her lower lip, looking a little mortified. “What were you saying? Oh yes. Well. I’d play to play some novelties, you know. It’d be nice for me to add something to theory.”

At the highest level novelties were some of the deadliest weapons available to GMs. A novelty was simply a new move; something in the opening unknown to theory. When one was played in a game for the first time the opponent would be suddenly be left bereft of theoretical lines, and would have to tread water and think as the position risked falling away from them, while the player who had prepared the novelty would sit there in the iron fortress of their preparation, playing every move instantly while vast agonies of thought and uncertainty went through the opponent. GMs agreed that one of the worst moments in a game was when the opponent banged out a new move and then walked off, and the realisation came that one was facing this new position alone, while the opponent came to it with hundreds of hours of glinting engine analysis. Of course not all novelties were devastating. As theory grew it naturally shut out novelties and congregated around the very sharpest opening lines.  Most novelties were quiet, subtle moves – moves to which many possible responses existed, or deliberately suboptimal moves not considered part of theory, designed purely to get the opponent out of book.

“I’ve never caught one of the top five in my prep before,” Alfen said. “You’d need dozens of novelties prepared before you have a realistic chance of catching anyone in prep. Too much theory. I’m not saying that you can’t do this, not at all – it’s just, you know, from the perspective of, uhm, efficiency –”

“Yes,” Sal said. “No, you’re making perfect sense.”

Alfen paused. “I still can’t really believe it.”

“Hm?”

“That the Leviathan would ask me to tell him about chess.”

“Garf knew you, so it seemed the natural thing to do.”

“We only met in first year, really. As you can tell I’m not overfamiliar with the game.”

“It’s still a bit overwhelming. Meeting the Leviathan and giving, uhm, advice.”

“Oh, Alfen,” Sal said. He put an arm around her, even though he could barely reach around her shoulders. Alfen shrank a little. “It’s very nice of you. Get used to it. I’ll probably be asking you stuff quite often. How are the players?”

“Uhm, in the FL? Or generally?”

“In the FL.”

“Well, they come in all flavours, really. When I started out they were mostly lovely people. But I got to know some who were really single-minded, very competitive.”

“Total towering cockwombles,” Garf translated. “Dickporpoises. It’s Alfen-speak you’re dealing with here.”

“Near the very top it’s all very professional. After a bad game against me they could get a bit, hm, cold, maybe—”

“They fucking detest your face,” Sal said. “They have passionate dreams about you dying in a tragic wanking accident. They hate you with all the metaphysical force they can muster.”

“—but they get over it really fast, and are usually really pleasant to have around. I really wouldn’t use the word ‘hate’, Garf. That’s a bit inappropriate. There’s some – ah – trash-talking, you know? Sometimes, not often. It’s just a way for people to get into the feel of things.”

“They convince themselves you’re shit to get themselves psyched up because the presence of a planet-sized ego sometimes does not get you that extra oomph, you know what I mean?

“Oh, no, no.” Alfen looked nervous, maybe a bit grieved at having to contradict someone so consistently. “We all really respect each other’s strengths. We’ve played each other to many times now, followed each other from one league to the next.”

“It’s all an awful morass of hateful, vindictive bile.”

Sal took Garf’s hand in his own. She thought of how much like a child he looked. “Garf,” he said, grinning, “You’ve really given up trying to persuade me not to do this, haven’t you?”

“Fuck fuckitty fuck fucking fuckery fuck,” Garf said, primly. “Fucks all around for everyone. Great.”

The Magician winced again.

Meeting Leviathan

“So what exactly do I call you? Am I supposed to go, like, yo, Leviathan, or do I kneel and go O Leviathan, or do I just go hey dude or what?”

Late Heavy Bombardment was pretty crowded. Way-on-Hill did not have a surplus of good bars and LHB was much treasured among the studentry. The World Championship was going on, so people had slowly pooled over the course of the evening to watch. No-one was using an engine; those were for later.

Leviathan was not sitting with anyone. He was alone at his table. He looked up at the screen and frowned slightly. He was young, maybe around 16 or so, and kind of thin but in an athletic way. He was wearing jeans, sort-of-sneakers, a plain ochre T-shirt. Not one of those loose-collared things so common in the current heat. His hair was short, brownish, maybe messy, with a tuft over the forehead and at the nape of the neck. He was both very good-looking and very nondescript. He hooked one heel over the other foot and leaned back in his chair and put the knuckle of his thumb up to one eye, rubbing.

When he heard Garfield he turned around quickly. He moved with a gangly kerfufflement that appeared to broadcast what were more or less good intentions.

“Hey,” he said. “Uhm. My name’s actually Salix. I guess you’d call me that.” He extended his hand.

“Salix,” Garfield said. She extended her hand; he shook it. She dragged a chair over and dropped into it. “Salix. As in, line?”

“As in line.”

“Hmm.” She rocked the chair backwards. “You should get something to drink. Do you drink?”

Salix shrugged; Garfield left and came back with a small shot glass of what looked like water.

“What’s that?” he said, eyeing it warily.

“What I’m wondering,” Garfield said, “is where all the descendants are. Shouldn’t there be a ton of them just sort of hovering around?”

“I’m not really attackable here on Stize, I think.” Smiling slightly.

“Fair enough. That’s Sudden Acute Paralysis, by the way.”

Salix looked at the shot glass. “So what’s this about, really?”

“Bet.”

“What do you get?”

“I can’t really tell.” Garfield gestured at the glass. “They say it’s good if you want to think. After – you know – after the paralysis wears off, obviously.”

“Fair enough,” Salix said. He downed the clear fluid and winced. “You’re not going to get –aack – anything more than this, I’m afraid. Aack.” He shrugged.

Garfield looked disappointed. “Well. It’s still a bet won. Must say I was hoping for a little more, though.”

“Sorry,” Salix said. “None of this stuff works on me.”

“Is it a design thing?”

“It’s a design thing. Poison etc.”

“It’s not poison.”

“Well, it impairs judgment.”

Garfield looked at Salix, aghast. “This is a university,” she said.

He toyed with the shot glass. “If you were in my position –”

“Yes, yes,” Garfield said. “Some blood factor?”

“Something like that, yeah,” Salix said.

“Let me see,” Garfield said, and grabbed Salix’s right hand. It was a tight and wiry thing. She peered at the veins. “Looks like the usual colour, though. I got told it was sort of greyish.”

“It’s not the usual,” Salix said. “I’m red all the way through.”

“Ahh,” Garfield said. “And your token?”

“Token?”

“You know, the –”

“Oh, you mean this.” Salix spread out the index and middle fingers on his left hand, exposing the little web of skin in between.

“There you go,” Garfield said. “The mark of the beast.”

“It’s a semicolon,” Salix said.

“It does look like one, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve got a little semicolon printed on me.”

“Can I ask you a slightly macabre question?”

“Um, yeah. Sure.”

“So you have this blood factor and it’s not the usual protective suite.”

“Yes.”

“So say that we were not on Stize, say that there was no CompyDust around, say there were no descendants either –”

“Oh dear,” Salix said. “No, or maybe yes if you went to great lengths.”

“So what exactly would happen if I stabbed you? Or shot you? And say you didn’t expect any of this.”

“It would hurt. A lot. From a close enough distance at least. I’d be pissed,” Salix said. He stopped and thought. “Probably really pissed.”

“Not death.”

“It’s all probabilistic, but yeah.”

“That’s very cool.”

Salix raised his eyebrows. “I’m sort of valuable, you know.”

Garfield stared and started laughing. Then she said, “Do you know what’s so strange? There’s all these people going at you edgewise because they’re so scared and it turns out you’re just like this.”

“Like what?”

“Bizzo!” Garfield yelled. People turned to look. Ordinarily people might have shushed them (Game 5 had started as a Greenfield and descended rapidly into a subtle and murderous tactical slugfest; the analysis was not easy even with the mind-clearing aftereffects of Sudden Acute Paralysis) but at this particular point in time they chose not to.

Bizzo was a person. He came over, coughing, shoulders inbent as a hierophant’s, greenly painful hair without conceivable symmetry or function under a polypoid flat cap, eyes dead.

“Hello, Garfield,” he said. His voice was oddly mild. It was nasal and soft-vowelled and sounded like it came through an ancient radio. Rhotic Rs. He was missing several teeth. “I thought you’d be here.” Bizzo had odd breathy Ts and his Is were more like OIs.

“Garfield,” Salix said. “You didn’t tell me your name.”

“I must have,” Garfield said, “Didn’t I?”

“Never mind,” Salix said. “Hi, Bizzo.”

“Bizzo, meet Salix, Leviathan, soon of the House of Leaves, the Latter Circuit, etc. Salix, meet Bizzard, singer-songwriter, fluid dynamicist, environmental terrorist.”

“Ex-environmental terrorist,” Bizzo said. Salix and Garfield waited as a curiously regurgitative cough intervened. “Nice to meet you.”

“Are you unwell?” Salix said.

“No,” Garfield said.

“Yes,” Bizzo said, “But I like it this way.”

“He’s from Hakon,” Garfield said.

“What about Hakon?” Salix said.

“We talk strange,” Bizzo said.

“They’re positively freakish,” Garfield said, with enthusiasm.

Bizzo coughed in protest or just coughed. “QC let me have the drugs,” Bizzo said.

“Was this in return for the terrorism?” Salix said.

“He was very good at it,” Garfield said.

“Did you do ecoterrorism for your Justification, then?” Salix said.

Bizzo scratched idly behind one ear. “On Ditarod, after Habermas,” he said, wistfully. “Those were damn good times.”

“I considered going there,” Garfield said, “But eventually I settled for the Undercover Infrastructure programme on Domis. Nothing as vivacious as terrorism.” She looked sad.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Bizzo offered. “You did a deep insertion.”

“It’s not like anyone actually died, though,” Garfield said.

“It’s not that great.” Bizzo said.

“Still.”

“Question,” Bizzo coughed, looking at Salix.

“Hmm?”

“Well – hrrm –not really a question.”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead.”

“More like a directive, really.”

“Okay.”

“You know, it’s a bit weird, you being Leviathan – you know what I mean.”

“I don’t mind at all, really I don’t.”

“Well, you’d better solve Ditarod soon. That’s it. You really have to solve that place.”

“I will,” Salix said.

“He’s got strong feelings about this,” Garfield said.

“I can tell,” Salix said.

Bizzo coughed again. “Salix, you could kill half of the people on Ditarod and it wouldn’t make a difference. I tell you the place is a total horror for the people. They have jobs, it’s unimaginable. All the days, again and again, they can’t choose, they don’t even have any time. I was thinking about what it would be like. You just sit there and your life is parcelled out and monetized away and when you get home you are so tired nothing can be done about it anymore. And then you realise you need to get your own food, or whatever, you need to get out and do more things – and the thing is you’re doing all this just to stay alive. They tie themselves to some office, it’s a really tiny space, can barely move, can’t talk, all that just so that they can pay for having a house. You know? It goes on like this for years and years. They’re so fucked-up – so many of them are so fucked-up – they’re better off dead. They don’t know that, of course.”

“Rant,” Garfield nodded. “Truth.”

“Sorry about that,” Bizzo said. “I must have sounded really condescending.”

Salix shook his head. “You should get a seat,” he said. “You can’t stand all night.”

Bizzo delicately angled himself into a chair and leaned back, eyes filmed with exhaustion. “Aaah,” he said.

“All those recreational drugs,” Garfield said. “Mainly I disapprove of the green hair.”

“How long was he on Ditarod?”

“Two years or so.”

Salix sighed. “He’s right, he’s right, but there are other ways to go about it.”

“Ask her about K8,” Bizzo wheezed enigmatically. Now his voice was so soft it was hard to catch what he was saying.

“Does he know what’s going on?” Salix asked.

“He’s perfectly fine, this comes and goes.”

“So what about K8?”

“Oh, she’s talking about K8 again,” Bizzo murmured.

“He looks properly blissed out,” Salix said.

“It comes and goes,” Garfield said.

“So what about K8?”

“I went all the way up it, in a bike.”

“Just a bike?”

“A mechanical mountain bike. It was a very good one, though.”

“No oxygen.”

“Just standard-body. Lost most of the fingers on my left hand on the way down but it got replaced. It was really weird.”

Salix stared. “You went up Stize’s fourth-highest mountain in a bike.”

“There was a lot of hopping around involved. I carried it sometimes when it got really steep.”

“That is ridiculous.”

“It sort of makes up for my not being a terrorist. And the training was awful. ”

“Wow,” Salix said.

“You’re not going to ask me why I did it, I suppose.”

“It’s not that hard to understand.”

Garfield went quiet and looked thoughtful.

Salix waited.

“You know,” Garfield said, “I went up K8 alone.”

“Well – ”

“I told QC that I didn’t want any help.”

“Okay,” Salix said.

“Actually this reminds me of something I was hoping to ask you.”

“Go ahead,” Salix said.

“This was when I was nearly at the top. It was very cold, still a little dark. You would expect all of that. And then when the sun came up it was so bright it was difficult to see. But just beneath the summit there was a dead person. Not all of it, I didn’t see the whole body. But there is this small overhang on the East Face, and these two rocks come together like a V, and there was – is, probably – someone crouched there. Sheltering from the cold, obviously. One hand stretched all the way out. That’s the first thing I noticed, actually. There was a stiff hand all wrapped up in a heavy jacket, orange, the normal colour.”

“I see,” Salix said. Abruptly there was something about him that was very observant.

“I’ve always wondered about that,” Garfield said.

“QC.”

“Why did QC let the climber die?”

“Have you asked QC?”

Garfield stared at Salix as if he was some kind of strange object. “I want to know,” she said, “what you think.”

“Whoever it was probably asked to be left there.”

“Do you think someone would do that?”

“Yes.”

“Why would someone do that?”

Salix put his head on the table. It was a strangely childlike thing for him to do. “I really cannot say.”

“You don’t think QC let it happen just because it could.”

“Just because it could.”

Garfield did not know how she ought to elaborate. “Just because it could.”

“I don’t know. What does that mean?”

“Was QC responsible? Did it do it?”

“The climber asked QC to stay away. I think that’s what happened.”

“I suppose,” Garfield said.

A little time passed. Around them on other tables pieces clacked softly on the analysis boards.

Salix cocked his head. “What?” he said.

He could imagine it, a hand out there, bright in the ice and the air, nearly all the oxygen gone.

“Nothing,” Garfield said. “I’m going to get some Sudden Acute Paralysis. Do you want some more?”

“It doesn’t work on me,” Salix said.

“Could you turn it off?”

“As in, my blood?”

“No, obviously. Just the immunity.”

Salix spread his hands in a gesture meant apparently to convey some sense of futility. “Oh well,” he said.

Games: 1

“I tell you it’s amazing.”

“It is amazing.”

“Surreal almost.”

“Very possibly.”

“If you think about it. If you step back and think about it it’s ridiculous.”

“I don’t even think you have to step back and think about it.”

“Did you notice how many people tuned in to watch?”

“My point exactly. Everyone could see that something ridiculous was happening.”

“The world no.2. One of the greatest. And yet.”

“It was humiliating.”

“It was humiliating.”

“Maybe we should all have expected it.”

“No, no –”

“You put Leviathan in the game, maybe you ought to expect this.”

“Two months, though.”

“It’s still pretty sick. I’m not denying the sickness of the entire enterprise. But maybe we should expect this of Leviathan. QC was being very coy about his expectations, you know? I asked it a couple of times and it went, oh, whatever happens happens…”

“It’s not even the win; really it’s the way he won it. He’s only known the rules for, what, two months?”

“It was – well, it was a model Makagonov.”

“It was the model. I mean that was disgusting. And so ambitious too. That is strange, isn’t it, that kind of ambitious play, that kind of opening? I mean he played for a full-court press. No gaps, no giveaways, no trading of strategic weaknesses, no risks. Just strangulation.”

Boa constrictor.”

“That was one of your brilliant moments, Lev, it really was.”

“Thank you.”

“They’re calling him that now, you know?”

“Of course. It’s such a good name. I came up with it.”

“Did you notice from the commentary box when h3, g4, appeared? People were shaking their heads, they were like, wow, he’s doing this.”

“Maybe this is his kind of style.”

“What? Sluggish brutality? No, no, I know what you mean.”

“The attack at the end. It came so slowly. So slowly. It was totally predictable and yet poor Hearst couldn’t do anything about it. Everything massing around the king. Boxed in and boxed in and then just swamped.”

“Did you notice when I talked to him afterwards?”

“Salix?”

“He was sort of dazed.”

“I don’t really think he was dazed, Mar.”

“I thought he was dazed. It was a long game.”

“I am leaning towards thinking he was annoyed, actually.”

“Annoyed? What about?”

“Never mind. Who knows?”

“Look. I understand he finds this all a bit exasperating. Believe me when I say I understand. I’ve been doing this gig long enough. But there is a price to pay, you see. He of all people should understand that. And I think he knows that we know that he should understand that, and I think he respects us for it.”

“You really think so.”

“I do really think so.”

“Well, maybe – ”

“Why are we talking about this? This is besides the point. What I really want talk about is the fact that we need to keep him playing. We’ve not had views like this before.”

“It’s high drama.”

“It’s such high drama. He still plays like an amateur, you can tell he plays like one, getting all these dodgy positions out of opening and defending and defending for five hours.”

“In the first league, when he walked right into all that preparation in the Dragon…”

“ ‘You don’t fuck around in the Dragon.’”

“ – and we thought, this is it, this will be a massacre, and then all these perfect Engine moves started coming out and then it was a draw.”

“The number of bad positions he’s saved.”

“The sheer number.”

“It must be calculation. Maybe he’s actually a tactical monster but doesn’t know it yet.”

“Did you notice something funny about the way he plays?”

“What?”

“I’ve been noticing things about him.”

“I tell you, this kind of fixation is very unprofessional.”

Unprofessional? You talk like a capitalist.”

“I tell you, I treat this like it is more than a hobby. It’s like I am getting paid for this, you know, getting wages and shit. I wake up and I do this. I have been doing this for a long time.”

“What I’ve noticed is that he never gets up.”

“What?”

“I was telling you I’ve been observing him. And he never gets up. Everyone else gets up. They make their move, they get up, walk around, they look at the other games. You remember when you used to play? There was just so much tension it was better to calculate while walking around. So everyone gets up, gets some coffee, stares at the screens. But he just sits there for six or seven hours.”

“The strange thing is that this should really make him boring to watch.”

“He looks like he’s in pain. Do you see that? He sits down and then he does not walk around. But he does this. Sort of buries his knuckles in his eyes and opens his mouth a little bit. It’s not like he’s thinking. It’s really like he’s gone beyond that. Maybe he’s trying to intuit something and he’s not getting it. He’s trying very very hard to do something and it’s not happening. It’s so strange, isn’t it? I mean this is the Leviathan, Mar, think about it, and he’s just letting us see him in pain for I do not know what reason. When he gets out of Stize he’s going to be doing all these really big things, you know, and he sort of needs to be infallible. But he does not look infallible when he’s sitting there being miserable.”

“But don’t you see? Don’t you see? That’s exactly it. It’s my experience that tells me that the pain and the pleasure of it are inseparable. That keeps the audiences coming, you know. It’s important that it is the Leviathan because now we see him without trappings. It’s like watching a monster struggle. You know when you first started following the First League? You would see this person who was legendary in the Second, a real class act, this person would  qualify and once this person came to the First this person got absolutely massacred. There is a certain obscenity to the entire process. It’s like watching some sleek predator come along and then get torn to pieces, absolutely destroyed, really, by a bigger sleeker predator, no fuss, just part of the job. Well we’ve got the biggest monster now, we’ve got the predator on the top of the pile and we’ve thrown it into a space where it has to struggle. It doesn’t know where or how to direct its powers. It’s beautiful.”

“Is he struggling, though? Since he started in the leagues he’s only lost two games, and he’s not lost one now for I think nearly twenty games. He’s been defending, yes, but he’s seriously good at it. Seb – Gelnik, I mean – said that all the people in the First agree that he’s the best defender onworld, you know.”

“But you see that he is in pain, don’t you?”

“There this thing he does, it’s also another one of the little quirks, where he stops looking at the board and then looks at the audience offstage, like he’s pleading with them for help or something. The first time I saw him do it he had this terrible position against Gelnik and he looked at the audience and I thought he looked so disappointed in himself. I thought he was going to shake his head and shrug at the audience and then resign. I really thought he was going to do that. You cannot think I am soft, Mar, because I am not and you know it, but I really felt sorry for him.”

“That was his famous save.”

“That was the famous save.”

“I think it’s simpler than that. I think he looks at them because he knows what’s going on. He feels it. I feel it too. It’s only a silly board game but he’s made it something greater for people. He’s made it something titanic. You know what I mean? He’s made the whole thing a giant theorem and he’s trying to prove it.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“Meh. It’s one of my best qualities. But you know what I mean.”

“We’re well into subtletyland here, if I might borrow your term.”

“It’s very deep but it’s also fun.”

“It’s fun but, well, you know. Now we have to talk about the big problem.”

“Because, damn it, it is a big problem.

“Vast, really.”

“Tremendous.”

“I don’t understand it.”

“We were just talking about how he’s in pain. I think it’s quite understandable.”

“No, no, we were talking about pain in the context of its allure.”

“In any case, he’s said no.”

“I don’t understand. It’s the Candidates. If he wins he gets to challenge for the world title.”

“It’s big.”

“It’s fucking shitdrizzlingly colossal.”

“Maybe it’s too easy for him.”

“We were just talking about him being in pain – I mean, seriously Lev you say the stupidest shit sometimes.

“I mean yes, he is in pain, but he’s just stopped losing. He’s struggling but maybe he knows the outcome of that process by now. I mean he just crushed the world no.2 in their first game. He wears t-shirts to First League games.”

“Well, it’s a cyclical thing, you know, what the young ones wear.”

“My point was.”

“We should get him to lose, then.”

“Mar?”

“I really like you.”

“Thank you.”

“Professionally I like you. On other levels I like you deeply, thrustingly even. I do really like you.”

“I really appreciate this.”

“But sometimes you are a total and towering wanker.”

“I don’t wank.”

“He’s Leviathan. If you made him lose he’d frown and CompyDust would melt your face off.”

“Hey. It was a joke.”

“It was a joke.”

“It was a joke.”

“A joke?”

“I wanted to see your reaction.”

“You’ve got my reaction.”

“Why are we talking about this? We need to get him to say yes for the Candidates.”

“Because we thought that it would be more interesting for him if he lost.”

“More interesting for the audience too.”

“Mar.”

“Yes.”

“Stop being a turd.”

“I’m not being a turd. I am trying to make this fun for people.”

“Fun for you, you mean. You have all these conceptions.”

“You know this Garfield. She’s good friends with Leviathan. Talk to her about it.”

“You could talk to him directly.”

“Hm. Well. He’s a bit scary.”

“I’ll talk to Garfield. She won’t buy any of your bullshit, though.”

“There’s no bullshit. Just say the true thing, which is that everyone really wants him to play in the Candidates.”

“Yeah.”

“We’re making history.”

“We’re all making history all the time.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

When Garf got up Salix was already in the shower. He came out naked and he went back onto the bed. He closed his eyes but did not sleep.

He got up and looked out of the window. He scrolled through some assignments. He went back to bed.

She sat up and looked at him. “You know Lev.”

He didn’t open his eyes. “Maybe,” he said. He meant yes if he said maybe that way.

“He says that you should play in the Candidates.”

“Hmm.”

“Do you know what I think?”

He turned around and looked at her. “Yes.”

“I think you shouldn’t give a shit what he says.”

She had fucked him but only once. He was asexual. She had not known that. Evolutionary dead end, ha-ha, he had said, sounding very unsorry about it. Two weeks after LHB she got him the stuff they used at the college Burning and then they had fucked. He said he enjoyed it. She was convinced he had. But they hadn’t fucked since. You should use that body for sex, she had said. It’s really a waste otherwise. He had said: I’m designed this way because this makes me more persuasive, you know. And it would be a good body anyway because I’m not designed to die. And then he laughed at something he found very funny.

Salix put his face into the pillow and exhaled forcefully. “People.”

“Breakfast,” Garfield said.

“Naked.”

She went and got something. When she came back Salix was no longer naked and he was again looking out of the window as he sat on the bed.

“Hey,” she said. She looked at him sitting over there. He moved his head like he was listening but that was it.

“Hey,” he said, into the air.

“Are you thinking?”

“No,” he said. And then he thought for a bit and said, “Yes.”

“Well, you should say no. You are too much about what other people think.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, and threw a pillow at her.

“Please,” she said.

“This is all crap, you know. I don’t want to play. I don’t want to play.”

“You sound like your age.”

“I’m hungry.”

“There’s something downstairs.”

While he was eating he abruptly said, “I know what it is, you know.”

“What?”

He put the fork down and went to the sink with the plate. “Audiences.” Salix had a voice he used, without knowing it, or maybe he was trying to look like he did not know it, when he was saying something serious. “The problem is the audiences.” He sat down again.

“Well,” Garf said, “The fuckers are mostly there to see you lose.”

Salix made a brief pained look. A not-wince. “Not the same.”

“As?”

“Enjoying something more because I might lose. I’ve not been doing that too often.”

“What’s the problem, then?”

“I don’t know. Well, no, I do know, but I’m not going to say it precisely. I look at them in the middle of a game and all their faces are just frozen in this strange hungry rictus. All the white faces in that light – the light makes them all stand out – and I don’t like it. It’s like if I walked over and slapped them they wouldn’t move. It’s just a mass of symbols down there. I don’t like it.”

“They’re enjoying it.”

“I tell myself, am I going to have to care about these people?”

“Do you find people very stupid?”

“No,” Salix said, slowly.

“Really.” Garf found Salix sometimes unreadable. “I always thought that you should.”

He grinned. “I find you pretty stupid.”

“Well,” Garf said, “You should tell Lev something if you are going to say no. It will be the official story.”

Salix yawned hugely. “They don’t need an official story.”

“Say that you detest these people, you detest the game, that it is altogether and without a shadow of a doubt so far beneath your station that you only play because you want to size up the shape and texture of people’s stupidity.”

Salix laughed. “I don’t mind people,” he said, “at all.”

“Say that Lev and Mar are total shitheads and they physically repulse you.”

“I could say that I love it too much, that’s it’s killing the rest my life, that the worst thing I could do to everyone is have me shoved down some solipsistic sinkhole built around a game wholes rules are arbitrary and whose entire central being is the idea of passive aggression. I’ll say that I know I have responsibilities and that I cannot betray these responsibilities even before these responsibilities have come to be. I’ll say that it pains me but that even now I understand the necessity of sacrifice, and I hope that what little I have left recorded will give some people somewhere some small happiness, some peephole that goes straight to my medulla. ”

“Say that your grades are slipping.”

Salix put his feet on the table and spread his hands. “They could check.”

“Say that you can’t stand the audience. Say that their breathing is hideous. Their eyes are hideous. You fucking detest their faces. Their pulpy ophidian faces. You hate the air in the playing hall. It’s too warm, it’s too cold, you have a neurosis they must build around you. You hate the sound the pieces make. You hate their gloss and their shine. You hate the way people move the pieces. You hate it when they remove the captured piece and put down the capturing piece in the same action and you hear that gross click. Say that it’s alienating and monstrous. Say that the players are arrogant and worse bathetic.  They have bad teeth. They twirl pieces beneath the table. When they leave the table they don’t pay attention to their swivelling chairs and the backs face you  and you are forced to sit there in the stink of their recently departed being looking at the back of a chair and you cannot calculate anymore. You will not grace their inattention, their slovenliness, their torpidity, with your effort.”

“Maybe I am bored by it. Maybe I feel I have exhausted the game. Maybe I am tired of closed pawn structures and the knights crawling to g3 in the Najdorf. Maybe I am tired at the stupid binary structure of it all and am frustrated at the perpetuation of a game that disencourages dialectic thought. Perhaps the real issue here is that the game is a shallowly disguised metaphor for sex and I am appalled at it because I can’t fuck. I have tried everything. I have spoken to Quistclose, I have spoken to Petromyzon, I have let little robots feel me in my soft places and nothing works, I am a great sucking antilibidinous vacuum and I am a constant that even a Haccieter cannot solve. The pieces are grotesque and tumorous. They are crenellated and thorny and bald. They take too much out of me. The entire performance requires of me faculties which I do not have.”

Boa constrictor. You know that is your name.” Garf looked at the clock. “I should head to the Centre.”

“I want a walk. I’ll come.”

“Have you seen the stuff we are doing?”

“You could show me.”

“You’ll be interested.”

Salix put his face in his hands and rubbed. “I should decide what to say to Lev.”

“I’ll get the car.”

“Can we walk?”

Garf made a face. “I can continue making stuff up all the way there.”

“Sure, do that.”

“Where’d we get them?”

“Last war.”

There were ten people in this room. There were many rooms but this was one room. The people in this room were very old. Their hands and faces were like maps. They leaned over their tables. They were allowed to drool. They had wires in their heads and wires in their ears. They looked at Garf and Salix when they came in and some of them smiled. “I tell yuh whot,” one of them was saying, “I tell yuh whot, I tell yoh whot.”

Garf looked at Salix looking at the people. “It’s these people,” she said.

Salix did not say anything. Then he said, “Audience.”

“It’s these people,” Garf said again. She didn’t hear.

The thing Salix was doing was finding an uncanny gap, and finding that it was moving.

“And what happens?” Salix said.

“I’ll play them something from the Trove. Watch.”

The people started moving. Their eyes bulged and their fingers warped. Their heads moved from side to side. Swung one way and then another way. Some of them eventually closed their eyes and moved their arms. They opened their mouths and made wavering noises. The one who kept speaking was silent.

“They’re very happy,” Garf said.

“I’m happy for them,” Salix said. “That they’re here.”

“Only works with stuff from the Trove. Not quite. But that’s basically it. We can’t really use any other music. That’s very interesting. Isn’t it interesting? We get a big load of stuff from a random metavirus we happen to meet in an obscure space, it does not tell us what the significance of this is or where it’s from, and it has this effect.”

“I’ve never listened anything from the Trove. Everyone listens to it now but somehow I never got around to it.”

“Look at these people. They’ve never heard this stuff and yet then can remember it. Doesn’t that say something interesting?”

“Maybe,” Salix said, and maybe he used his yes voice.

On the way out he said, “You’ve got stuff from the Trove, haven’t you?”

Garf said, “Oh yes. Lots.”

“What were they listening to?”

“It’ll pass it to your Buds. Wait. Can you hear it?”

“Yes,” Salix said, and then, later: “It’s very good.”