The Chess Prison (Fiction)
Sturmen read the pairings and quietly said, “we are on board one.”
He glanced one last time down the long table of checkered boards, the chess pieces; a gauntlet of mental violence. At the last board sits Fat Alex, eyes closed, meditating on the consequences of last place. Beyond Fat alex is the door that leads to the Redemption Room; once red paint now resembles flakey bloodstain on metal.
The inmate's plastic sandles kiss the grimy concrete as they enter the playing hall. Men in grey pajamas file in and sit down, chairs squealing for space, arms testing elbow room. Dust motes swirl in the grey murk light coming in from thick steel-meshed windows and the odor of scrambled eggs and cheap white toast lingers in the air.
The games begin sporadically, but all he can think about is the breakfast, the wet paper taste of it still lingering in his mouth. A wave of nausea passes. His eyes tingle and burn a bit, but he denies food posioning; nothing serious, just the nervous anticipation of the coming game.
Across from him sits Delshick, Mongolian features tightened, relaxed, tightened; ready for the game in his own nervous stiff way. He nods--yes there must be a victor today. His opponent adjusts his knights so they ever so slightly eye the center. Sturmen sips his oily coffee and from the bottom of his eye sees the Mongol slide his queen's pawn forward to the fourth rank.
They follow the tired patterns of play into the middle game, pausing occasionally to study the other man's face and perhaps ruminate on their mutual fate. In another life the movements would have been a distraction to keep the quietness at bay, a way to fill in time with competitive abstraction. But the barrel of time had stopped spinning and had ended at a loaded chamber of strange men striving for what they did not know.
Now the moves claw forward through the squares, edging for an outer plan, an open diagonal or an invisible constellation of force. The grid of the prison with its bars and cells and guards cements this feeling--yet even here, from time to time, there is a crack of an odd smile or abbreviated rusty laughter.
The game reaches the absence of history and prior analysis. The contours of the sparsely filled battlefield make a tightly formed ring like a pack of water buffalo whose perimeter is nipped and taunted by sharp hungry mouths. The Mongol's attacking forces lunge forward but then retreat from the solid wall of defense and then again, in another place Sturmen's barricades are tested and found solid.
They could go on this way for the next fifty moves and the game would be given up as a draw. The cycles would continue―for eternity in theory, until at last one of the them graduated to a higher ward or finished last and was sent to the Redemption Room.
Sturmen recalled the cold cell, the smell of mildew and urine; the unforgiving plastic mattress imprinting red welts on his skin; staring through the thick windows imagining clouds and sunlight. It was not enough for him to hold on waiting for another to claim victory because he grew tired and sick and in his exhaustion lost a game.
He veiled his intent from the Mongol. They maneuvered, lulling each other in the dance of gathering strength and darting feints until their steps began to repeat nearing the fiftieth move of the sequence. Delshick's eyes betrayed his relief and his pursed lips bobbed signaling respect. But on the forty eighth move the buffalo lunged forward scattering the nibble attackers into a retreat formation.
Now Delshick buried his fingers into his fine black hair and teetertotterd his large head on his elbows. How strange it was the he underestimated the possibility of counterplay. His opponent had won three games in the cycle and yet he still presumed there would be peace with this man who hungered for the higher wards. He clenched his mouth and grinded his teeth as if the others hearing the sound would make a difference, but for all his steady rocking and desperate grinding he could find not a thread of his force's former harmony. He was going to lose a pawn.
Delshick retreated his knight and eyed his opponent whose strange lazy eyes stared off into the air. His mouth was slack and his features betrayed no sign of emotion as his hand reached out and made one move and another. Many here had this aspect, their minds turned numb with the calculations of tactics, geometric nuanaces of positional play and the forced lines from the Tome; carving the moves, evauluations and ploys into their brains until their senses seemed like obstacles shadowing the true forms of movement and being.
The wolves were slowly pushed to the edge of the black and white terrain. His time, marked by the enlayed digital screen, had long since left hours and now was down in the single digits. Delshick glanced up and at once brought his eyes back to the table. He had looked up to the Arbeitors; to see if they knew what was happening and if they were ready for the result. In Delshick's case not so much was at stake--not like poor Fat Alex down the table who was also agonizing in the death throws of his endgame. Delschick would just continue in the cycles with the other inmates of the pawn level (minus two players who would soon be replaced with fresh fish) until he himself finished first or finished last.
The Redemption Room was a mystery. Some said it was a pathway to a lower ward in the system. This was doubtful, reasoned Sturmen, for the pawn ward was the entry point for all the players who had transfered here from other prisons, instituitons, rehabs, credit therapy, spiritual retreats, bad marriages, twisted homes, poverty, boredom, acting school, failed career's and lives lost in the confusion of the new age of eternal life.It still stung him to think that the ressurection had not brought about a fundemental change in the ways of lving.
The basic psychology of one's prior life was hard to shake and for the chess players this was especially true. In nearly every waker (chess addicted or not) he had winessed, after varied explorations, most fell back into the same routines and mind sets that dogged them all the first time around. Sure there were the eternities of thrill seeking that attracted the new borns; freestyle falling, volcano scuba, playing kill Lincoln (or whoever the target was that month), stop the bomb and innumerable other pursuits. Naturally the devout and curious went hunting for their versions of god in the vast soul-forged sprawls of Mecca, Nirvana or New Jerusalem. Other's try to settle down and aquire property, jumping back into the rat race to find the steady normality of a life in the Analog Kingdom.
The quiet consenus was that the Redemption Room was indeed a place of transformation; a soul press in which the hapless could be shaped into a living gear or soul skin; their imperishable body warped, crushed and forced into a new shape. The higher forces always kept the matter intact, not that it was impossible to splinter a body into many shards, but because a reclamation could be enacted and the material would come flying back together with the force of atomic fusion. The wavier he signed on admittance had obliquely stated as much: terminal reapropriation in the event of withdrawl of entry, noncomplience with agency regulations and underperformance.
A red flashing signal from the clock shook Sturmen from his thoughts. Delshick's time had overrun the limit. Sturmen won the game as well as the tournament. The guards stepped closer to the seated players who quietly rose from their chairs, all with the exception of the man who sat at the end of the table named Alex who stays for a time studying the final arrangement of the chessmen before he too rises. A guard escorts him to the Redemption Room without any screams or protests. The inmates watch him go and then the red door closes.
Now it is Sturmen's turn but the players do not watch him exit down the long hallway for they have already busied themselves with the return to their cells to study the tome and strategize for the next cycle.
The guards all look alike, black leather overcoats and metal masks under black leather caps. Sturmen knew, as the rest of the inmates knew, that beneath these uniforms there was nothing human about them. What man would seek a position guarding voluntary prisioners who endlessly played a pointless game ?
Only the shape of men, he thought as he walked down the hall eyeing the guards shoulders. Most likely robots of some kind or cyborgs; perhaps they were shells of spent minds, memories wiped clean and programmed to believe this was life. Out in the sprawl he had seen many androids and robots in the service industry, but in some locations actual human's did work so as to the impress clientele.
They lead him into another ward, similar to the last but somehow more clean and bright. There he is taken to his cell where he is encouraged to find that instead of a plastic mattress on a cinderblock bench he has an actual bed more akin to those in hospital rooms. They leave Sturman there where he lays down in the bed, idly flicking through postions in the tome.
At last he falls to sleep and in his sleep he dreams.