Luna Station Quarterly is a speculative fiction magazine featuring stories by emerging women authors.
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Checkmate

Umam Preth was preparing a deadly concoction of 3 parts jaffiger and 2 parts sillin when the robot slammed through the window.

“Hey, Professor,” the Vee3 said. Its manipulator field rolled it upright.

Umam Preth watched the spilled jaffiger slip through the cracks of the plas-mesh floor. Without the jaffiger, sillin was only mildly noxious. It lapped innocently against the walls of the last martini glass in the universe.

“Physics have gone odd,” the Vee3 said. “Have you noticed?”

Umam Preth swirled the sillin in the glass, then downed it.

“Offing yourself?” The Vee3 found a centre of gravity over the kitchen table and orbited slowly.

“Trying to, damn it,” Umam Preth said. The sillin entered his blood stream, bounced around as if looking for something to do and then expired, leaving nothing but an ache in Umam Preth’s many hearts. “You made me spill the jaffiger.”

“Ah,was that the last of it?”

“Yes, it was.” Umam Preth, his back to the shattered window, which as of this morning looked over nothing, put the empty martini glass on the cluttered counter. Allowing clutter was unlike him. His wife, had she been alive and not a gradually decomposing mass in the bedroom, would have been shocked. But, having been a compassionate sort, she would have immediately known that something was wrong with her husband. She would have put on soothing music and rubbed his dorsal hump. She would have poured him a drink far stronger and much smoother than an incomplete suicide cocktail.

Some more things to add to the list of things gone forevermore: music, back rubs and (Umam Preth burped) cocktails.

“Why are you here?” Umam Preth asked the Vee3. “I told you to stay out of my sight.”

The Vee3 continued revolving. “I stayed away as long as I could,” it said, “but what with everything so, you know, gone, there was nowhere else to go.” The robot spun on its axis. “You could pretend you can’t see me,” it suggested. “You’re very good at that.”

Umam Preth growled at the robot. It had belonged to his wife. She’d had it since she was a child, had kept it in spite of its increasing obsolescence, in spite of Umam Preth’s threats to replace it with something state-of-the-art. Hah. The joke was on him.

The Vee3 was once again the pinnacle of its kind. So, for that matter, was Umam Preth. Were his audience anyone other than a rusty AI with a broken loyalty chip, he would have announced—even as nothing pressed itself against the windows of his house–-he was pleased with himself. The very same Umam Preth who’d been laughed out of the University Club for hypothesising that people had once lived in the ocean, and had finally, inarguably, achieved a position at the very top of the food chain.

Of course, these days the entire food chain consisted of himself, the Vee3, and a wizened apple he was saving for a special occasion. And his wife and her associated bacterial decomposers.

“How much longer do you think?” Umam Preth asked.

The Vee3 extruded its eye stalk.”Five minutes, maybe?” it said.

“You can’t be more precise?”.

“I have explained this,” the robot said. “It took three years for the outer system to be swallowed up, but twice that for the eastern hemisphere to disappear. Prediction is difficult.”

What can you do with five minutes? Umam Preth must have said it out loud because the AI suggested, “Chess?”

Umam Preth groaned. One of his wife’s attempts to endear him to the Vee3 had included programming the robot with the memories of 83 different chess masters. Umam Preth had never in 37 years won a game against the Vee3. The Vee3 set up the board. Umam Preth chose white.

“This is cozy,” the robot said. It was a line Umam Preth’s wife had used. Umam Preth could hear her tones in the AI’s voice box. It should have soothed him to know that one small piece of her would exist until the end of all things approximately five minutes from now. Instead, it annoyed him that she wasn’t around so he could complain about her robot.

His wife’s decision to kill herself had been no surprise. In the beginning, she had born the end pretty well. They were together, she’d said, that was all that mattered. But she missed her Book Club more than she’d thought she would, and the daily trips to the market, which she’d loved, became impossible when the rest of the world went away. The streets were gone, she’d complained, and the last time she’d been to the baker there had been no sticky buns, even though he’d always saved some especially for her. Umam Preth had wanted to point out that there wasn’t a baker anymore, either, but he’d bitten his tongue.

The Vee3 accessed its m-field and the game began.

Umam Preth’s wife had been so interested in the world. All the small doings of friends and neighbours had been important to her. When they were gone, no matter how she protested that he was enough, Umam Preth knew she missed them in the largest cockles of her hearts. Hers had been the second suicide cocktail he’d mixed. The first had been tested on the neighbour’s pet pooch. It had worked: the pooch, vomiting and dropping feathers, had stumble-fluttered to what it had thought was home but was, mercifully, nothing at all.

The third cocktail was the one the Vee3 had made him drop onto the plas-mesh floor.

Umam Preth supposed it was fair that he was the one left behind. It was his invention, after all, which had started all the ending. Best to witness it himself, scientist-fashion. He’d have taken notes if he could. He had his books, but there wasn’t a pencil to be found between here and, well, right over there.

With a sucking noise, the nothing moved into the house. The Vee3 announced its entrance as if announcing a dinner guest. Umam Preth, losing three pawns in quick succession, barely looked up. But when the nothing removed his wife’s remains from existence, he banged his flipper on the table so hard it hurt.

“Look on the bright side,” the Vee3 said in his wife’s borrowed tones, “it works.”

Which was the very thing the woman herself had said to him the night astronomers from seven different countries arrived at the same terrifying conclusion: galaxies were disappearing from the heavens and the epicentre of the phenomenon was, however unlikely, Umam Preth’s kitchen table. His wife had looked at him with surprise. She’d told him for years that someday one of his inventions would work. It wasn’t until the day one actually did that Umam Preth realised she hadn’t believed it at all.

Umam Preth had frowned at the glittering box and its flashing lights. “It’s not supposed to do that,” he’d said, fiddling with a dial or two. In retrospect, fiddling with it had not been a good idea. It was most likely the fiddling that had activated the failsafe.

Umam Preth vaguely remembered installing the failsafe after a few too many, but (as with so many things that happened when he was drinking) he was stymied as to how he might uninstall it.

“What’s it supposed to do?” his wife had asked.

“It’s for your birthday,” Umam Preth explained. “A new waste disposal to replace the one I broke.”

“That is sweet,” his wife said, kissing him. “How thoughtful. All the same, dearest, perhaps it’s best you turn it off now.”

“Seems a shame,” Umam Preth said, “seeing as how well it’s doing… whatever it is it’s doing.”

Unfortunately, it appeared Umam Preth had neglected to include a kill switch when he’d installed the failsafe.

Still, they’d had decades. The universe was mighty big and the machine, though tireless, wasn’t. Umam Preth placed his invention on the kitchen table. His wife draped an embroidered cloth over it so it fit in better with the decor. Umam Preth went back to teaching. They considered getting a pooch. Stars grew few, then none, save their own sun. It got very bad for a while.

“You’d better make a move,” the Vee3 said. There had been a long silence between them. The only light came from the Vee3’s battery warning and the last glow of the universe, which powered Umam Preth’s machine. The robot had captured Umam Preth’s castle and knight without effort.

“I think now’s the time,” Umam Preth said. The Vee3 adjusted its m-field and the wizened apple, the very last apple in all of space-time (which was now jammed into Umam Preth’s cramped, cluttered kitchen), deposited itself in Umam Preth’s hand. “I never liked these,” he observed, turning the fruit. Its skin had gone wrinkly like Umam Preth’s face. The apple had ripened last summer on the tree in their back garden. His wife had made pies and sauce from most of them, but this one had fallen forgotten into the back of the fridge and waited there until everything else had been eaten. Umam Preth turned it over, realised that this apple was the last sunlight of the world that was. He sniffed it. It smelled like fridge. He took a bite. The skin parted under his teeth. He chewed, swallowed and found he still didn’t like the damned things. He finished the apple, core and all, until all that was left was the stem and one tiny shrivelled leaf. He tossed those to the floor.

The nothing would take care of the waste soon enough. It had pressed into the kitchen, swallowed the cooker and the empty, powerless fridge, taken the pictures on the walls.

Then Umam Preth saw a chance: three moves, clear as his eyesight was not. The Vee3’s battery indicator blinked at ‘low’. Umam Preth hardly dared to breathe. Casually, he made his move. He had been here before. Once, he’d gotten within two moves of winning before the robot had cleared the board with a savage attack.

Then it happened.

The Vee3 placed its rook exactly where Umam Preth wanted it to.

“My turn, then?” Umam Preth said, voice cracking over the question. He double-checked the pieces on the board, making sure there wasn’t a trap laid out for him. There was always a trap.

Umam Preth’s hand hovered over his bishop. He didn’t see a trap. Didn’t mean there wasn’t one there. “Still my turn!” he said, pretending to ruminate. The Vee3 sank slowly to the table, its light blinking red. Please, please, please! Umam Preth thought.

The nothing lapped across the kitchen floor, its pulses matching the hum of Umam Preth’s invention. He sank lower into his sling, made his move, held his breath. He had to be missing something. He’d been playing against the Vee3 half his life. He’d never won. Not once.

The Vee3’s m-field was sluggish. Its knight crept across the board. Again, right where Umam Preth wanted it. Umam Preth was going to win.

Umam Preth twitched his right flipper away from the nothing. He was going to beat the robot at last! What a way to go! This was even better than when he’d beaten Professor Zsen Eb five out of seven. Ha! Who had tenure now?

His chair tilted suddenly as the nothing took its back legs. Umam Preth stood, pounced on the robot’s king. “Check and mate!” he exclaimed. “Check and mate! You didn’t see that coming, did you?” The Vee3 settled to the table, its lights dark. “Wait,” Umam Preth said. He scanned the board; it looked like checkmate. Yes. Yes! Yes? “You didn’t just let me win, did you?” The table lurched. Umam Preth saved the game board from toppling to the floor, stepped back from the nothing’s gobbling. “You weren’t just being nice, right?” He pointed an accusatory finger, but the little robot was gone.

“I won, didn’t I?” Umam Preth asked all that was left of the universe. “I won?”

A bit about the author:

Jessica's work had been published in New Realm Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and by Seventh Star Press. Her novel 'Gateway' came out in 2012. 'Six' was published in 2016. Visit author page