Adam Ouston is a writer living in Hobart, Tasmania. His work has appeared in places such as The Canary Press, Southerly, Island Magazine, Voiceworks, Crikey, The Lifted Brow, The Review of Australian Fiction, and the 2014 Transportation anthology. He is the recipient of the 2014 Erica Bell Literary Award for his manuscript The Party, which has also been shortlisted for the 2015 University of Tasmania Prize. He tries to maintain a blog at http://adam-ouston.tumblr.com.
This story first appeared in Issue 12 of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. f3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. e4 Nb6 6. Nc3 Bg7 7. Be3 0–0 8. Qd2 Nc6 9. 0–0–0 f5 10. h4 fxe4 11. h5 gxh5. A notorious theoretical position. One that is, I think, much better for black. My opponent has work ahead of him. Until now his moves have come quickly; my hand has barely recoiled and he’s making a note and reaching for the white. I’m the wrist and he’s the whip. Perhaps that can be attributed to the well-known pattern with which we’ve begun. 12. d5. There’s a pause before he does something that is new to me: 12 … Ne5. Then: 13. Bh6 Nec4. I might have looked at Rf7, but I did not like the fact that after Rh5 the knight is attacked with tempo. Imagine: 13. Rf7 14. Bxg7 Rxg7 15. Rxh5. Disaster. Ask any good player and he’ll say the key to winning is in being able to peer into the future. Although young, I am experienced and by now practically a soothsayer. I know what he’s going to do before he knows it. 14. Qg5 Rf7. The only move. I note it down and play again. 15. Bxc4. This one by me is questionable, all things considered. My opponent is a world-class grandmaster, after all. Not to mention the fact that he’s rated 100 points above me, in trouble and therefore capable of anything. Also, it’s the Moscow Aeroflot Open, which by 2009 is the strongest open tournament in the world. One worth winning. Objectively, though, my move is fine. I do not have to look at him to know that this is the first time he looks at me.
The superbolide meteor exploded 23.3 km above Chelyabinsk at 9.20 am 15 February 2013. As the shockwave headed for the city, O stood motionless in her office, having just put down the receiver. The direct line. She’d been speaking to X: the wife. X said she knew, and not only did she know, but her husband had admitted it. Admitted everything: what he and O had been doing and for how long. Four years. Four years, she’d said down the wire. Long enough for a lie to become the truth. Long enough to make the marriage the lie. Now it is me, said X to O: now I’m the other woman. I’m the one who has been forgotten. When you’re together I vanish without a trace. For her part, O could barely speak. Only yesterday, the fourteenth, Valentine’s Day, R had said that everything was coming to a head, that soon he’d be free. Promise. And now this. X had given her husband an ultimatum: her or me. X would stay if he stayed. She could handle the humiliation—she’d wear it like a tattoo and punish him with matrimony and curfews and weekends with the children. Would punish him with the love she still saw in him. Yes, X told him she would stay and she’d repeated this down the telephone in her broken radio voice to O so that he couldn’t, so that she could get there first and deliver the facts, straight and unadulterated. A man with facts is a corkscrew that can do nothing but twist. There was to be no manipulation. These were the rules. Alternatively, X explained to O, she could have him, but he’d never see his children. This, she said, would ruin him, and when you take a man you take his whole life and not just the parts that fit. And when you take a life it soaks into your bones and alters your future as well as your past. If you take him, X had said to O, you will turn into me. And in the end you too will be nothing, not even a ghost. Consider this a forewarning, for your own sake. I won’t cause you any damage: he will. He will make you disappear completely. With barely a word more O had hung up with both hands. Instinctively, her right hand shot to the ring on her left, yesterday’s gift, so new it was still cold. And she was still running it around her unsteady finger when the sky exploded.
15 … Nxc4. After thinking over this move for forty minutes, my opponent now offers me a draw. This is the second time he looks at me with eyes the colour of milkless tea. During his forty-minute contemplation I left the table four times. I think best on my feet, as most players do, and initially I stepped into the smoking area, less than five metres from the main hall, taking my coat and cigarettes. It was busy but silent, everybody caught up in attacks and counter-attacks. With the smoking ban it’s become impossible to remain at the table, and as there were a few other players out here, there were also arbiters and security guards. We stood smoking and gazing into the future, which was somewhere middle-distance. It was not until the guard moved that I realised I’d been staring at him. He raised his head and pointed his chin at me as though suspicious of something. They are paid to be suspicious, and so I guess he was simply doing his job. It made me uneasy and threw my concentration. I aimed my attention elsewhere and thrust my hands into my coat pockets and smoked half a cigarette because too much nicotine makes me drowsy. Half now and half later. I spat onto my fingers and held the ember like a pawn. Returning to my opponent, I found him leaning on his elbows and staring down into the coffee grounds of his bad beginning. In total, during the time it took him to make his move, I got up and returned three more times, to the bathroom mainly to splash my face, careful to avoid the guard but also aware of my growing need to smoke. My concentration wandered because I was winning and I could see the path to an important victory. And also because of the guard, whose eyes seemed to follow me even when I was beyond their reach. When, at last, my opponent offers me the draw I am even more certain of my advantage and see no grounds whatsoever for accepting his proposal.
Two minutes after the airborne blast, the shock wave reached Chelyabinsk. O was pitched forward onto her desk, not so much by the force of the explosion—which, by the time it got to the city was incapable of knocking someone down—but by the shattering hail of her ceiling-high windows. A luxurious shower of diamonds, one of which sliced through the flesh of the cheek just beneath her right eye. But O’s attention was elsewhere, and despite the horror of the situation, the people howling outside, the car alarms, her bleeding face, she reached for her telephone and dialled R’s number. There was a second of silence before she heard three ascending, desolating tones. A melody for the repudiated. Thumbing the receiver, she tried again. Nothing. The line was dead. Searching the treacherous floor, O found her mobile beneath the desk. She tried him again. Nothing. All telephone lines were down. Shaking the glass from her bag and holding a fistful of tissues to her wounded face, O dashed from the building, got into her car (the boom gate in the car park was still functioning), and drove slalom through the debris and emergency services people and vehicles out of the inner city. The radio was going to air and there were talks of terrorist attacks; already there was speculation about splinter groups and political statements and theories and predictions. There was no music, just talk, serious and quickfire, of the twin towers twelve years before, of London 2005. Stopped at a red light, a leather-faced man had come to her window, bleeding down the left side of his face; she heard his muffled pleas for help, to be put on the back seat and taken to hospital. But as he reached for the door handle the lights flicked green and O punched the accelerator and the engine howled through the spinning streets.
16. Rd4. I had to consider my position for a short while. My concentration has been thrown by his suggestion of a draw, and I am now conducting twin investigations: the game before me and the game he’s instigated with this surprising offer. If his intention was to distract me, he’s succeeded, but I have the upper hand, and perhaps I have it because of his own distraction in concocting this paraplay. He has not been paying attention and it shows. Strange for such a player to be threatened so easily. I’d have thought he’d be stronger. Still, I am young and hungry and winning and have won. He is right to be threatened. They have talked about me on the news and in magazines and on websites. I have given interviews and am a GM in my own right. Yes, he ought to feel vulnerable. More to the point: I’m only just beginning whereas his career is waning. But all this second-guessing has me hesitant, and I have reached out my hand and then withdrawn it several times. My opponent does not look up, his eyes locked onto the pieces, weighing up his options. Oddly, when I make my move, he gives a slight shake of his head, one that signals disbelief or disapproval, as though I have in some way insulted him. He has become dark and intense, and his gaze has a stabbing air about it. Am I to interpret this, as well as the game, as well as his cunning offer of a ceasefire? Is this how the good get grand? It must be, so I won’t allow any of it to matter to me. Besides, I have my own plans and ideas—my own ways. And perhaps he is falling into my palm with each condemning shake of his jowly head. I see his options. I know what to expect. His next move, Qd6N, will give me a serious initiative. I cannot stand waiting so I leave the table again.
O’s driving was erratic, frantic, out of control. Twice she completely mounted the curb while making a turn, and on one occasion she whipped through a red light, narrowly missing a paramedic on a motorcycle. Later, she would recall nothing of this terror drive across town. All she would remember was a feeling of nausea and of her body trying to eject itself. But as for the route she took and the laws she broke, nothing would remain. It was as though she was drunk or sleepwalking. Half way to the house of X and R, it suddenly occurred to her that neither would be at home. What was she thinking? It was, after all, a workday and barely 10 am. She would have to find him at his surgery. Altering her course with a violent slice across three busy lanes, she exited the ring road and horseshoed her way to another part of the city. She’d wound down her window for air, and the applause of the rushing wind was intensified by the wailing of more and more car alarms, which were often indistinct from the sounds of the emergency sirens taking over the city. The police copped her recklessness but were powerless to do anything. They waved their arms and shouted as she roared by, but they weren’t prepared to give chase: they had larger concerns. And all the while the radio continued to speak of disaster and cells and targets and continued to repeat the phone lines are down the phone lines are down. Regardless, O kept trying him, in vain. And by the time she pulled up outside his rooms, the dead signal had wormed its way into her ears so that even as she took the elevator to the seventh floor she could hear its doomsday chime ascending through the silent air within her.
I’m rethinking my previous move. I shouldn’t be but I am. I ought to be thinking ahead, predicting his strategy, recognising the patterns. The future. Think of the future. Well, really, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I know his patterns. I’ve seen this line of attack before. As I said earlier, his opening position was a well-known one. In truth, I am confident of a victory here, regardless of the tangential games that are now under way. I know where his next move will come from. I can see it as though it has been written. So why am I rethinking my last? Because it now occurs to me that there was an even better stance to take. I am kicking myself. Really I am. Imagine if I had played Nb2! Stupid that I did not. Stupid, stupid. A wasted opportunity, no matter how well I’m travelling. Yes, Nb2 would have been the far better choice. Though I am safe, no question. He cannot capitalise on my oversight. Such a move is well beyond him, would be well beyond any player. Still, in other situations such recklessness might spell the end of me, and I berate myself for my incompetence. I fumble in my pocket for my half-smoked cigarette, light it and draw in the warm haze. Its calming effects, however, are counteracted by the shady eyes of the security guard who has again singled me out of the half-dozen players milling about. He stands across the little arcade, arms folded, looking right at me. I try my best to keep my eyes down, exhaling at my shoes. But his look is oppressive, so I begin to move about, pacing from one end of the smoking area to the other. This is not unusual; most players prefer to move about when in thought. But I cannot shake the sense of being under surveillance, so I spit on my fingers, save the last third and head back into the washroom to splash my face with some cool water. As I enter, however, I interrupt a covert conversation between two arbiters standing by a far basin. Despite their hushed tones, their voices are amplified by the washy reverb of the clean hard surfaces. Did I hear my name? Did I hear them say Igor Kurnosov? I’m certain that I did. No question. Yes, it was undoubtedly me they were discussing. Further evidence is provided by their stunned faces and rapid silence in the manner of schoolboys sprung ogling dirty photographs. They fold their arms and turn to me and nod. Seeing as though I’ve caught them out I expect them to leave, or at least one of them, and for them to behave naturally and pretend that nothing’s going on. But they do none of these things. Instead, they simply stand there with arms locked across suits watching me. In the end it is me who does the pretending, acting as though I’ve heard nothing, nodding a greeting, turning on the cold tap and gently raising the tepid water to my fiery cheeks. The two arbiters don’t say a word, and the room floods with the waterfall of the running water and the nothing of the burning silence. I try my best to ignore them, and succeed until, as they pass behind me, making their way back into the main hall, one of them mumbles from the corner of his mouth: We know what you’re doing.
R was leaving the reception area as O entered. His dentist’s mask was swinging about his chin and his bib was still in place over the white scrubs and coat. He was looking down at his keys and not where he was going, so the pair practically collided. Although the blast had not affected this part of the city, R seemed to be in a state of emergency; he gave a start and looked around as though for help or as if he’d been caught out. O wanted an explanation. Two explanations: a) Why did you let your wife call me, you coward? and b) Who are you planning to choose? Me or her? You promised. You promised only yesterday. Three explanations: Why have you told her and not left her? R hissed at her to lower her voice (the staff craned their heads over the partition at the front desk) and to calm down. He had everything under control. Bullshit. Bullshit bullshit bullshit. A man whose wife calls his mistress is in control of nothing. A fourth question: Why is this even an issue? You’ve been planning to leave her for years. Wanting to leave her. Why is this even an issue? she said, waving the bloodied tissues in his face. Not now, he said. Not now. I can’t talk now. I have to fetch my son from school. X was fetching their daughter. O didn’t believe him. At 10.30 in the morning? Yes, said R. Following the blast, all schools were evacuated. The roads were now a plexus of parents darting between work, school and home. He said: X and R would rendezvous at home in thirty minutes. I can’t talk about this now. My child may be injured. She said: Bullshit. What about this? (She held up her bloodied but bejewelled hand.) We talk now. You tell me now, right now. What does this ring mean? Answer me. But R shrugged her off and took the stairs to the car park. He steeplechased three and four at a time while O stumbled in pursuit having to hold the clotting tissues to her cheek, the blood from which had run down her hand and soaked into the cuff of her white sleeve. She was too slow, and by the time O shouldered open the door leading outside, R’s car had already swung into gear. There was no telling what was true anymore. No way of knowing if she could trust him. Was he doing what he said he was doing, or was this just another escape? Had this explosion enabled the perfect diversion? Where was he going? To his wounded son? His wounded wife? She limped Quasimodo-like to her car and its awkward and illegal angle. But when she got in, turned the key and looked around her, R’s Audi was gone, vanished into the teeming streets, leaving her with a feeling of great loneliness and abandonment. After four years, this. Her right hand was soaked in blood; the few tissues she’d been holding to the deep gash in her cheek had not only been used up but had disintegrated. Fumbling in her bag, which still carried shards of glass from the explosion, she took up a new fistful and pressed them to her face. There was no sting; or if there was it was taken with heart. All she had was this: they would be home in half an hour. She didn’t know where his son went to school, so there was no cutting him off there; but she knew where they lived.
16 … Qd6N. 17. Bxg7 Rxg7. The only move! We are beginning to attract attention. The two arbiters from the bathroom are looking on, staring us down from across the table to my left. One has frameless glasses over sunken, shadowy eyes and wears a wide, silver, grinning goatee. The other is stern and grim as an American president. I do not know how long they’ve been standing there. It now occurs to me that my speed might be what’s causing the trouble. Whereas my opponent mulls over the board for up to forty minutes, I am quick to decide and play. Perhaps this seems rash or unschooled, but I am neither. I am assured and confident of victory. I am in no doubt as to my genius. In any case, though I don’t doubt my talent, my opponent only has himself to blame—what with such a poor start. But he is who he is, and my thrashing him is conspicuous. Another arbiter comes over, and beyond him I can see, as I wait for my opponent to make his move, the suspicious security guard looking in from the smoking area. There are perhaps a dozen other games being played—important contests—but the focus is on ours. Strange, seeing as though neither of us are favourites; perhaps my opponent, but not me, not yet. He is yet again taking his time. Following my latest move he had released another sigh, another shake of the head, and began writing in his notebook. This was more than simple note-taking; he was writing full sentences, all the while shaking his head and not once looking up at me or contemplating the board. Strange. Still I play: 18. Qxh5 Qf4+. My move is forced, but it is my opponent who is floundering and distracted. The onlookers are moving in. The official with the Rushmore brow is half leaning over the table next to us where another game is being played. He pays no attention to this one at all, but leans across, peering down at the black pieces—my pieces—and up at me as if he is asking himself, How has it come to this? How is this possible? My opponent’s move has exposed him: mate is threatened even though the knight is en prise. Things are unravelling for him; but, a true champion, he remains in the game. His breathing has become heavier and I can see thick tracts of emblazoned skin fluting up his neck and covering his face in either rage or shame at the injustice. I move. 19. Kb1. And leave the table once more. Outside I finish my cigarette under surveillance. I can see through the vertical blinds which have been levered open. Five arbiters stand behind my opponent. On the far side of the room another official is using a telephone and looking back at me. He nods his head in my direction, much like the guard had done earlier, throwing his melon as though pointing at me. Within the smoking area, apart than the primary guard, there are two other players standing alone in two separate corners. When I bring my gaze back from inside they lower theirs as though afraid of being caught. And not only do they avert their eyes, they make a point of turning their backs. So I am a target of the authorities and an outcast among players for doing well the thing we all value. Still, I will not be deterred. In fact it only serves to make me more assured in my prowess. As I’m about to return to the table, a close colleague appears and asks for a cigarette. When I hand it to him he smuggles a note into my palm. It reads: They’re on to you. Lose and live another day! I fold it and toss it into the rubbish. Upon taking my seat, the opposing move has been made. 19 … Bf5. As I knew it would be. The only option open to him. He knew it just as much as I did. But he took his time, perhaps allowing the room to do its work on me. He is clever like that, nothing surer. The following moves are straightforward. I invite any player of merit to give themselves three minutes on the clock to find these manoeuvres. I’m sure most of you would be able to do it! 20. fxe4 Bg4. 21. Nge2 … Losing immediately. Still, he waits. 21 … Qh6? No.Qf2? No. His hand hovers over the board like a lost spacecraft. Before: 21 … Qd2! 0–1. Black wins. Without shaking hands or signing the scoresheet, my opponent stops the clocks and, tipping over his chair, approaches the arbiters’ table, accompanied, I might add, by the arbiters themselves. And half an hour later I’m in a locked room where the accusations start flying.
Twenty minutes had already passed by the time O pulled up outside the home of X and R. She would not have to wait long. It was best, she thought, to remain in the car, for they lived in an apartment block and O didn’t fancy being seen by the neighbours. So she sat in the driver’s seat, belt fastened, holding her hand to her face and listening to the radio as the temperature in the car began to drop. It had been confirmed that the ‘sky burst’, as the announcer called it, was not the act of terrorist cells but the result of a meteor burning up in the earth’s atmosphere. The meteor itself, he went on to say, had come in low and flat and bright as though it wasn’t rock at all but a clump of sun. (Later there will be reports confirming that the explosion was brighter than the sun.) This horizontal trajectory gave everyone a fighting chance. Had its angle been more acute there was no telling the damage it would’ve caused. In the coming days scientists will confirm that a) the explosion packed almost thirty times the brunt of Hiroshima’s Little Boy, b) the meteor was a fragment of a larger body, c) its course was influenced by random ‘planetary encounters’, d) the boom it created took over twenty-four hours to dissipate, and e) there may be more on the way. Commentators will continue circling around the fact that this was the first space thing to have entered the earth’s atmosphere in 105 years; the first since the ‘Tunguska event’ which destroyed a remote forest in Siberia in 1908. Our meteor, however—what they will refer to as the Chelyabinsk meteor—was the only one to have caused serious injury and widespread destruction. The government will call for the deployment of a spaceguard to ensure our protection, an international programme designed to warn vulnerable regions of approaching ‘objects of extraterrestrial origin’. Effectively, this will entail forming a shield around the earth, or at least a galactic watchtower to patrol its outer reaches. O searched the dial for music, but all she got were more reports. Hospitals had been inundated, emergency services stretched to breaking, though there’d been no deaths. She turned off the radio. Silence was more fitting. With nothing else to distract her, the gash in her cheek began to throb and burn. She’d had to replace the tissues several times on the journey over, and she was now running low. The blood was caking black on her fingers. She’d need stitches. There’d be a scar. Like a pirate. Is that what she was? Is that what this was? Piracy of the emotional variety? Was she the contraband, or was he? Who had walked the plank? Who stood to be lost at sea? The ten minutes she thought she’d have to wait turned into half an hour, and that thirty minutes became an hour, and two and three. She couldn’t stay but she refused to leave. She got out of the car and walked the street, up and down, not allowing the front of the building out of her sight. The air on her face was cold and reduced the throbbing, though it was now giving her a lot of grief. She thought better on her feet. Her head cleared a little. If R had told his wife, that could only be a good thing. It meant that everything was in the open. No more secrets and lies. No more hotels and lunchbreaks and whispered telephone calls and surprise visits. No more guilt. Four years was enough. Too long. Yes, his telling her was good. It meant that he was a step closer to being hers. Still, she needed to speak to him, to ask him: is it me? Is that what all this has been for? Also, she didn’t want to give X the chance to talk him around, to hold his family over his head. True, she’d sounded calm on the telephone. In fact, she’d sounded perfectly meek, like the kind of person whose nerves would always get the better of them, the kind of person who wanted to be strong but could never trust themselves. All the same, she thought, the wounded have their ways. She wanted to be there when they arrived home. She wanted to claim him. After walking up and down outside the building for almost an hour, O returned to the car. She was dizzy and beginning to run a fever and the pain from her cheek was ascending steadily. To keep her mind sharp, she several times crossed the street and pressed their buzzer. She knew they weren’t home. She knew no one would answer. Still she buzzed. She was hungry and thirsty. During a lull in the traffic, she relieved herself in the gutter behind the car where there was snow. Later, she turned on the radio. More reports. The damage would cost the city billions. People were reporting the smell of gunpowder in the air. O took a long breath. She couldn’t smell it. All she got was the cold odour of her own blood, the scent of raw meat. There’d been several flies hovering around the car, and at the height of the day she’d had to fend them off; but as the sun vanished so did the flies, and the air turned icy and she’d put on her coat. By eight o’clock, however, even her coat wouldn’t do. She paced again, quickly; only, the faster she went the faster her heart pumped, and the faster her heart pumped the more her wound oozed. So she waited and she fevered and she shivered. Still, they did not come. At one point the pain was so acute that she leaned from the car and retched into the gutter. It was close to two in the morning when, half asleep, she saw R’s grey Audi stop right outside the building. At first she was numb, from the pain, the fever and her nearness to unconsciousness. It took a moment for her to come around. Her car was parked in a long line of cars, and the night was especially dark given the amount of blackouts around the city. She was confident he wouldn’t see her—none of them would. Not until she wanted them to. They were all there, the four of them. R and X emerged from their respective sides. O dropped her frozen hand to the door handle and made to move, but she stopped suddenly, half-in half-out of her car, when she saw R retrieve his son from the back seat. She could see it all very clearly. Beneath the little boy’s right eye was a large white patch covering his entire cheek. The bandage sported a tinge of red where the blood had seeped through. He was still wearing his pale blue school uniform, and the right-hand side was darkened with blood. O froze. There was a word lodged at the back of her mouth, one that would not unstick. The boy was not crying. He was wide-awake but with a disoriented look. His father picked him up and he did not wince or whine or tuck his head into daddy’s shoulder. He was like a doll. An expressionless, emotionless doll. A blown-apart Pinocchio. Arms slack by his side, distant stare as though he’d seen the slaughter of thousands. He seemed all the heavier for it. R looked as awkward as a new father. Careful of the head. Make sure you support it. Am I doing it right? The driver’s side door was left open as they went inside. He’d be back. If not, she’d buzz and put on a voice. She waited. She was not so cold anymore. There was no pain at all, not that she was aware of this fact. And when R returned, bouncing his keys in his palm, she made her move, leapt from the car and charged across the street as though it was the Night of the Zombies. Before she could make it, however, her injury got the better of her and she collapsed in the middle of the road, having barely coughed his steaming name into the darkness. R gave a start and peered across the road. Seeing the body lying motionless, he darted out before the traffic could draw near. It wasn’t until he scooped her up that he realised who it was he was helping, who it was he held in his arms. Staring down at her bloodied face, she materialised. Yes, it was her. O. He checked and double-checked. It seemed like a dream. She was heavy and slack, slacker than his son, the weight of the dead. He put his ear to her murmuring chest. And then he began to sob, and to sob, and to sob and to moan the moans of a large dog. He stood in the street for a long time, perhaps several minutes, letting the traffic go around him. One car stopped and asked if they were all right, but R had not replied and the driver had driven on. When at last he began to feel her weight in his arms again, he laid her across the back seat of the Audi, said nothing to his wife, and sped off towards the hospital he’d just come from. Despite being 2 am the roads were busy, a rare thing for their small city. He and O were always complaining about the difficulties such a lifeless town posed for their relationship. No late-night restaurants. No bars after midnight. A poor selection of hotels. R had the radio on; more stories of damage and the injured. He would have turned it off—he didn’t need reminding—but he wanted to hear the traffic reports. He was driving fast, much faster than he had driven earlier when rushing his son in. And not only was he speeding, but he was driving with just one hand on the wheel; the other was twisted around behind, holding O’s. She was unconscious, and R feared the worst. He could feel the ring. He couldn’t help but play with it, this novel addition on her limp finger. He drove faster, weaving through staggered lines of moving cars, blasting the horn, tucking in behind wailing emergency vehicles. At the last minute he caught news of a jam, and swinging down on the wheel, R yanked the car off the ring road, sending them on an alternate course, one that he hoped would be clearer. There were police, but they were too busy to worry about a speeder. This new route was twistier and the flying car tied itself in knots as though negotiating an obstacle course. The engine responded nicely. It was a fast car. Very fast and sleek and nimble and it cut through the night like a diamond. And with its high-beams glowing, R’s Audi seemed to be generating its own light and heat, its own power, as though it was more than metal and rubber and glass and diesel and two heartbeats, as though it was blessed with the ability to slide out of one time and into another. R was a great driver. No, he was confident, and this confidence applied itself to the road. He had no great skill for it, but he believed he could do it when required. He could bluff. Even himself. And through it all his attention was not only cast forward and into the future but also behind him to the woman laid out and still bleeding. Squeezing her hand his tears returned, and due to the combination of the car’s speed, the chaotic traffic, his cloudy eyes and divided attention, there was no seeing the young man standing helplessly in the middle of the road.
At first they don’t tell me anything, just to follow. There are the two arbiters, Rushmore and Goatee, the guard and my opponent. I am herded into a makeshift interrogation room furnished only with two chairs, an indoor plant and a poster of Bobby Fischer and his dying words: Nothing is as healing as the human touch. Overhead are three fluorescent lights that make everything appear more formal and accusatory. Hanging over the back of my chair are victory ribbons for every winner so far: 2002-2008. When the door is closed—though we can hear the mounting kerfuffle outside—Rushmore begins. I am charged with cheating, of having on my person an electronic transmitting device capable of accessing the chess engine Rybka. My movements away from the table during the game have also indicted me, and my demeanour further so: smoking constantly, leaving cigarettes unfinished, looking around, always over my shoulder, I appeared nervous. Guilty. In addition to this I was seen taking a note from another player. This player is also under investigation. The note, they tell me, has not been found. Do I know where it is? They assume I still have it on me, together with the electronic device. For his part, my opponent has been standing behind me breathing like a bull. Every now and then he releases a sigh that is accompanied by a tiny grunt as though he is a miniature tennis player or as though he’s in pain. I’ve heard these sounds before emanating from the unhealthy. Perhaps he is gravely ill. One must remain fit in this game. Keep one’s mind sharp and clear. Otherwise you are liable to get sloppy. This is sloppy. Naturally I deny the charges. I offer them my coat to search; I stand and turn out my pockets. The note. What about the note? Fearing for my colleague, I say that there was no note, that the whole set of accusations is ludicrous, that my opponent played poorly and that is why I defeated him so resoundingly. I tell them that this is offensive—to myself, to my fellow accused and to the fraternity. I will not stand for it. I am tired and hungry after a long day (it is now past eight o’clock). My opponent yanks open the door and storms out, slamming it shut as he goes. Rushmore tells me to wait. And I do wait, and over the course of the following six hours the arbiters and guards come and go and say little to me. At about two in the morning, Rushmore and Goatee and my opponent enter the room. According to Rushmore, my opponent returned to his car in the nearby car park and replayed our game using Rybka. My moves correspond precisely to those offered up by it. What do I have to say? What is my defence? Can I deny it? I do deny it; I deny it absolutely. The victory is mine, and I won it on account of my genius and my opponent’s stupidity. Perhaps I am overtired; I shouldn’t have used the word stupidity. As I say it I immediately regret it. What I meant to say was poor form, but it is late and we are all frustrated because everything is falling away and because victory is always hollow. My accuser fights back, saying something vengeful like, We’ll see about that! before storming from the building. Rushmore and Goatee are ancient men who have gone to bed early for decades. The latter is slumped in the only other chair, the one beneath Fischer. It is not clear if he’s awake. There are no more questions and there is a long silence. The room feels abandoned, even though there are three of us inside; it is as if we are already gone, as if in my triumph I have made us all disappear, thrust into a parallel dimension. When at last there is nothing more to say, and seemingly no proof to support their claims, they tell me to leave. I collect my things and the security guard shows me through the locked doors, and I walk into the freezing Moscow night that still thrums with life even in the depths of winter. It is as if I’ve entered some sort of time warp, or rather a time-and-space warp. The atmosphere is different. Even the buildings are different. It all seems more familiar, a distant city, somewhere like home. I have lit a cigarette and I’m crossing the busy arterial road fearing that I won’t get enough sleep before my match tomorrow when I’m snapped out of my reverie by the sudden roaring of a car hidden in its headlights.