Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On the Second Floor, Chapter X

Day Eight

"You've gotten better at this game." Part of me couldn't believe it, refused to believe that Dayus could learn the game of chess so thoroughly in a single day; still another part of me found it maddeningly typical. Of course he would, the extraterrestrial with the huge head, infinitely smarter than I could ever hope to be, only had to think about it to achieve perfect play- why shouldn't I be fighting for my life after only twelve moves? What a bloody disgrace, the jerk.

"I would say your technique has diminished since last we played; perhaps your overconfidence has affected your strategic thinking."

"Yeah, I guess," I said, ready for any excuse to avoid admitting my obvious inferiority. Another devastating strike from his bishop put away my hopes for a renaissant defense. "I mean, I'm tired, too. I barely slept last night."

His eyes flashed with concern, even as he mercilessly analyzed my line for weaknesses, plotting to exploit them in his regicidal siege. I thought of how unseemly it was for a scientist; to get so wrapped up in his experiment as to descend to the level of his subject chimp, playing his little puzzle right along side, and outwitting him, and for what, what gain? It was nothing but some hyper-ironic, mundane tragedy, like an exercise in fooling no one. But all the same, he looked concerned.

"I know what you're thinking," I sighed.

"Do you?" was his only reply. He only had to call me on my tedious bluster.

"Yeah. Look, it has nothing to do with you, or this environment, or how 'comfortable' I am. Sometimes, I just can't sleep," and I yawned for emphasis. "And that, that, good sir, is why today I suck at chess." I brought out a rook, my last rook, blocking his approaching queen in a desperate, fatal gambit.

Attrition - it was my only hope. Attrition and stalemate, the only path and destination of dignity still available to me, and only one opportunity to seize it, if I could only erode his offense, take his key pieces, keep mine on the board just long enough...

"The truth is, my technique has improved." He indicated with his recording device as he explained. "Based on your description of the game's rules and objectives, I conducted automatic simulations to develop effective strategies." As he moved to reinforce his queen's position, he added, "if your playing has worsened, it's only because you are panicking."

"Probably. Do they have games like this on your world too?"

"There are similar principles which I was able to apply. But more importantly, I am worried about your sleeping problem."

Really worried, or only worried that I might spoil his experiment? "I told you, don't be. It's got nothing to do with you, or any of this, this stuff here. It's just a problem.. an issue I've always had, really."

"I may still be able to help."

"I've got pills," I said. "If I can't get any sleep, I'll just take them, and they'll put me to sleep." How pathetic, he must have thought, to hear such an admission. But it was the truth. I didn't need the sleeping pills every night. I didn't even usually need them most nights. On Earth, before my life went all science fiction on me, I might have one or two hopelessly sleepless nights a month.

I did my best to keep my pill consumption limited to those extreme instances, for fear of becoming addicted. But this was the second time in less than a week; was it stress, some sort of space madness? Or was I more dependent than I thought? Maybe that's why I was losing so badly; the insidious work of drugs on my tortured neurons. It made me sick.

"My medical technicians can help, once we have arrived at our destination."

"That'll be fine."

"Is that a yes?"

"That'll be fine." Only a few moves had passed, and my gambit looked increasingly hopeless, a lost cause for mankind. I was boxed in, immobile, effectively impotent. I was forced to reckon with the loss of my attack pieces; forced to choose between useless moves and stupid ones. And there, at the center of the board, hovered the instruments of my destruction, the horsemen of my own apocalypse, a pair of avenging knights, backed by a rook.

"Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide," I murmured, half-heartedly arranging my few remaining pawns in a defensive triangle. Got to give myself just enough room. Just enough to force a stalemate. Just enough to keep my dignity.

Three moves. Two counter-moves, with no third forthcoming. My goose was cooked. I sat defeated, trapped in a cage of my own design.

I slumped in my chair, tipping precariously on the back legs, and suddenly kicked the table; hard enough to make the smaller pieces jump, but not enough to erase the evidence of my disgrace. Computer simulations, eh? Dirty cheater.

"Would you like to play again?"

"No. No. No, I would not." I rose to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. "Definitely not. No, I'm too tired."

"This seems to be an unusual sort of exhaustion. Are you sure you're alright, Jonah?"

"Well if I'm not, it's your fault!"

"So you were not being honest when you said it wasn't?"

"Aw hell. Mother hell, you jerk. You ass," I fumed, "I'm all stressed out. I don't know what is up, what's true anymore."

Almost without looking, Dayus had been reorganizing the pieces, placing them neatly in the box (neater than they had any particular reason to be). His hands moved deliberately, but I could see on his face a look bordering on confusion. "Jonah," he said, holding his pause as if anticipating m response, "does it really bother you that much to lose to me?"

What? What!? What the hell!?

I nearly choked on my water, had to fight to keep my reaction subdued. Who's the jerk now, who's the poor sport? Who's the "real" bad guy here? No, no, this could not stand. I was not about to concede the bigger game.

"No, not really," I said, summoning my sincerest-looking smile for the mighty task. "I told you before, I'm stressed, and I'm not sleeping well. That's all, it's fine. It's all fine." I laid myself down on the couch, I closed my eyes, and kneaded my temples slowly with my fingers. I felt better as I rubbed my cheeks, focused, then unfocused, as I willed myself into a state of half-delirium. "I'm fine. How are you?"

If he wasn't confused before, he certainly was now. "I'm alright. Quite alright."

"Good, good," I closed my eyes, the better to conceal my thoughts. If anger, if accusations could get me no progress (and it sure looked like they couldn't), then I had other methods to employ. "How's your family, Dayus?"

"They are quite alright as well."

"What are they up to?"

"My son is board this ship, acting as a navigator. My wife is at home."

"Nice, I see. Your son, is he the one who sent us off course a few days ago?"

"...that was merely a minor, unavoidable course correction, due to factors beyond anyone's control." How adorable.

"I see," I said, feeling myself on the right track, guided by the warm inner glow of achievement. "How's your home planet?"

I opened my eyes to see his reaction, but he had averted his gaze; how very interesting! This was a spool of thread worth following, whether it led out of the labyrinth or not.

"You will see it in due time," he said, and I pressed for more with my silence, subtly prodding for an elaboration, provoking with a smile. I was shameless with my smarm offensive, but he had no defense against it. It must have been hard for him, with all he meant to keep hidden from me; but he couldn't leave, not with my behavior turning so strange. He had to stay, and he had to answer.

"My planet is a complex world, with many thousands of years of recorded history. It has seen the rise and fall of many cultures and civilizations, and today, it is home to what you would recognize as an advanced society. It is too...multifaceted to explain in any significant way in the short time which we have here."

"Now that is interesting," I said. "My planet is much the same: so old, so complex, so 'multifaceted,' sometimes it's difficult to know what to talk about. You know, scratch that. It's always hard, because it's almost impossible in principle."

"Nevertheless, your contributions have been invaluable to my research."

"But you see, that's the interesting thing." I was sitting up now, becoming animated as I sensed an opening, taking careful aim at the target even as he insisted on clouding the issue (perhaps there was an embarrassing admission? I could only hope!). "It's just so inefficient. Your method, I mean. You pick me up, you put me in your little box, that's fine, for what it's worth."


"No, hang on, I think I've got a real point here." Just shut up already. "You see, I'm only one human, and trust me, I'm not typical. I'm still not convinced that you don't have other people on this ship somewhere, but even if you had a hundred, you wouldn't get anything like an accurate representation of humanity, anything close to what you really want out of this whole endeavor. Most of them, they'd be ignorant of anything outside the everyday experiences of their own lives, and once you'd isolated them from humanity, they'd probably lose their perspective and forget half of that too. It's an even worse idea with only one subject; for all you know, I could have been a total idiot."

"Well, even if you knew nothing important about your people's history or culture, I would still have gotten useful data from the broader aspects of your personality."

"But you didn't need to take me off planet to do that. You could have just observed all of us humans at once, you know, in our 'natural habitat.' Or, here's an idea: you could have just approached us and said 'hello,' and we could have had an honest-to-goodness cultural exchange. Think of how much more productive that would be! Instead, you've put all the pressure on me; as if I could ever make sense of it all for myself, you want me to make it all clear to you? What good could that do?!"

"There were compelling reasons to bring a single human back with us."

"Oh really? Scientific ones?"

"Yes, of course. What other reasons would there be?"

"That, Dayus, is a very good question."

"Besides, I already explained this to you, at our first meeting. I did leave a contingent behind to make contact with Earth's governments, and conduct just the sort of research you suggest. When we re-establish contact with that party, we can contrast it with the information gained here.."

"OK, OK, I thought had you there, but I was wrong. Again." So much for my daring breakthrough. "Let's just forget it. What's it like on your planet? How do you, you know,get things done?"

Dayus was more relaxed now, perhaps calculating that my attacks had finally ceased. "Originally, there were many political divisions among my people, taking the form of nation states. However, over time, a super-national authority developed, which has unified disparate elements of our various cultures, superseding various local interests in favor of advancing the collective interests of our race." It didn't sound nearly so rehearsed when he said it, but I strongly suspected that it was.

"That doesn't sound so complicated to me. It sounds like your institutions have trended toward simplicity over time."

Dayus looked at me, becoming suddenly quite direct, as though he'd realized some critical error he'd nearly overlooked; there was a quiet intensity in his voice. "Jonah, I have studied dozens of civilizations across this galaxy. I have learned many things, and I believe it is a universal truth that societies never trend toward simplicity."

Oh. He was right,of course. How foolish of me to build his pedestal too high.

"No, no I guess they don't." I was growing more tired by the minute.

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