Friday 27 April 2012

Flash Fiction: Zugzwang

Abel Shanshi was sat at his usual table, carving a chess piece from bone. An ancient Maple Tree, planted when the first settlers had arrived from Earth, kept the hot, red sun off him.

Since the war he had carved three hundred and thirty three pawns. Always pawns. It was hard to tell what shape lay within a bone until he started work, but he was tired of carving the same lowly piece.

A disturbance in the afternoon’s calm approached and leant on the table, palms down, arms straight, breathing heavily.

“Hero Shanshi.”

Shanshi’s attention did not waver. After two more precise strokes he pursed his lips and blew on the piece. He held it away, scrutinizing it, then carefully put it down, sighed, and looked up at the young man.

“Hero Shanshi,” he repeated. “Help me, please.”

“My name is Abel. Heroes are for wartime, and the war is long past.”

The man huffed. “Hero, please. My daughter is missing. The Gublins have taken her.”

“Ask the fishermen. Maybe one of them will help.”

“I don’t need old men. I need you.”

“I am an old man. Go ask the fishermen.”

“What help will they be? They just sit there, catching nothing, arguing over the moons.”

“Do you think I fought the war by myself? Those old men are heroes too, every one.”

The young man shook his head in disgust.

“You are right not to call yourself Hero anymore.”

He pushed himself up with such force that the table rocked and the unfinished chess piece fell over. As he stormed away the piece rolled in a curve that took it off the table’s edge and into Abel’s waiting hand.

“I never called myself Hero,” he said, to no one.

He watched the man go to the fishermen and move along the bank from one to the next, gesturing back towards him with agitated movements. He could not hear the conversation, but he saw the fishermen reply, then return to their rods and their river.

There were no fish in the river, Abel knew. Just as he knew the Gublins would never take a child.

The Gublins had been the original settlers’ automated assistants. Their programs had degraded over the years and they lived harmless lives in the nearby cave network, endlessly repeating tasks that had long ago lost any meaning, passing time till their bodies simply stopped.

Abel began carving again. This one was no pawn, he was sure.

Several parched minutes passed, and he could feel the shape of the piece now. He looked up. The fishermen stood in a semi-circle just beyond the shadow of his tree. He felt the weight of their judgement, saw the crimson glint of the sun from their knives.

“A child, Shanshi? You have gone too far.”

An old wind rustled through the dry leaves above them. Bone dust drifted from the table with a whisper.

“Not a child,” Shanshi answered. “A queen.”


  1. The last three paragraphs tie this together quite nicely with a most excellent twist!

    Dude would kill for a complete chess set, it seems…

    1. Thanks, Larry. He'd kill for anything that wasn't a pawn, I think...

  2. This has a mature feel to it, like you've levelled up writingwise. The world and atmosphere is painted with deftness and I really like the pace and feel of it.

    Go John!

    1. Thank you, Pete, that's really great to hear. ^_^

  3. Great characterization. I really felt Shanshi's nonchalance.

  4. Not much difference between him and the Gublins, is there?

    Really liked the all-but-dead feeling here.

    1. Glad you noticed that, Tony. =)

      Thank you. =)

  5. Hero Shanshi, manipulator of events?

    Even a queen can fall victim to a lowly pawn.

    A compelling scene and dialogue,John.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I think he's just a tired, old man...

  6. I could see Shanshi giving a little smirk with his final line. Greedy man isn't he?
    Really, really liked the chilling calmness of his character and the task he's performing.
    Great story as always John!

    1. Thank you, Cindy. =)

      Not sure he's the smirking kind, but certainly something chilling and broken about his approach to human life...

  7. Nice, John. His explanation of why the Gubblin's couldn't have done this fits in very nicely with the ending.

    BTW, have you read Bone Diamond. Your flash has a similar chilling quality.

    1. Thanks, Aidan. =)

      Haven't read that. Just bookmarked it to have a look at when I've got a bit more time. Thank you. =)

  8. I loved the idea of Gubblins. ^_^ Beautiful dialogue John.

  9. Hi there John -- I love the fact that the shape he finds within 333 bones is a pawn every time. Neat.
    Liked the fishermen arguing over moons, and Gublins are a nice and interesting thing.
    Liked your whisper of bone dust, and that final queen. Just in time -- it looks like those fishermen are about to get straight to the point. St

    1. Thank you, Stephen. =)

      They're old soldiers, if something needs doing, they get it done (they'd just rather nothing needed doing, you know, there are fish to be fished (or not)). ;)