The Gambit

In Space, No One Can Hear You Checkmate

The Gambit
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Sergei Yurinov stared at the magnetic chess board with an intensity that betrayed reality. He already knew exactly what move he was going to make, and the next two after that. But he wanted to make a bit of a show for his American counterpart, to throw him off. Brett Mitchell had bet the Russian the next day’s spacewalk duties that he would finally best him in a chess match. Sergei had beaten Brett nine straight times – in the past week – but Brett was both stubborn and overconfident in himself. He was convinced he had found a flaw in Sergei’s play.

“What’s it gonna be Boris?” Brett had referred to him as such since Day 1. Sergei found it especially amusing since his father-in-law, who conveyed all the warmth of Stalin, was named Boris. Sergei found the moniker a reminder of home on Earth, as strange as that was.

Boris, nee Sergei, took a deep breath, furrowed his brow, and moved his knight to 6-d, trapping Brett’s queen between the knight and a pawn he had moved into a sacrificial position one move earlier. Either way, Brett’s leading lady was destined to fall.

“Shit! You commie bastard!”

Sergei smiled and sat back in his chair, which had been bolted down to the International Space Station floor next to the treadmill. The table and the other chair, also bolted down, had been introduced to the station a year earlier by an enterprising American named Chad Wilkins, who really wanted to play Battleship in his off-time aboard the floating satellite.

“Bullwinkle Moose, you capitalist pig, why do you continue to question Russian dominance in chess game?” Sergei was familiar with the cartoon, and had responded accordingly from the beginning of their stay, much to Brett’s delight.

Brett leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head, studying the board. Dammit, he thought, how could he leave his queen unprotected? She was the key to the whole thing! Still, he thought, for him to make that move, he had to leave something unprotected. Or overlooked something. Maybe he was being a tad too aggressive? Maybe, there was some opening somewhere, some piece left…

Then he saw it.

Brett moved a pawn, a simple pawn, to spot 3-e on the board.

Sergei coughed. The American had just made a move to halt his aggressiveness. His next two moves would have to go on hold as he played defense. Something he was not expecting.

“My comrade, nice move.”

The game was suddenly back in play, and Brett smiled and nodded.

“Sometimes we Americans have surprises up our sleeves, comrade.”

Sergei chuckled and looked over at his friend. He and Brett had been serving together on the International Space Station for the past six months, a skeleton crew of two while they waited for a reinforcement flight of four to join them in fifteen days. They had become friendly and had both been introduced to each other’s families via the video phone on board. Sergei promised Brett’s daughter Sadie a Matryoshka doll after he returned to Earth, and Brett promised Sergei’s wife Natashya (hence the nickname Boris) that he and his family would visit the Yurinovs at their country home outside of Moscow soon after the completion of his mission.

His initial plan for board domination thwarted, Sergei rethought his strategy. He could take the queen as he intended, but it would leave his key king defense in jeopardy. Or he could mount a strong defensive position, take out some of Brett’s key pieces, and set himself up for success later, hopefully. That, he thought, was the best move here, not to be bold, but to ensure a victory eventually. He reached for his bishop.

Suddenly, an alert rang out. Then another, distinctly different alert sounded.

Sergei and Brett looked at each other with quizzical expressions, and each retreated to their respective command communication lines.

The news conveyed to each of the astronauts by the designated government spokesmen was that the United States and Russia had each launched tactical nuclear strikes on the other and had decimated major population areas in the two nations. They were at war, and it appeared to be a war to the end, with total annihilation the only acceptable endgame. Each country blamed the other for starting the deadly row. And each astronaut had his orders.

“Officer Yurinov, you are to assume control and command of the International Space Station, apprehend the American onboard and place him in custody, and secure the station until a six man crew arrives to fully nationalize the vessel. The Americans must not be allowed to control this station. Do not apprise him of this situation. We will update you further as the situation progresses.”

“Astronaut Mitchell, it is of utmost importance that the United States maintains dominance in space, especially during this conflict. You are to take command of the International Space Station and protect it fully until we send a command crew to ensure American control. As for Cosmonaut Yurinov, you are to ensure he does not interfere. It is assumed that he is aware of the current situation as well, but do not say anything unless absolutely necessary in case he isn’t aware. We will update you further as the situation progresses.”

Brett slowly removed his communications headset and placed it on the console. He fell back in his chair, as the gravity of the situation overtook him. He peered back towards Sergei, who was still listening on his headphone on the other side of the hallway, face expressionless. Brett wondered what news he was receiving, but not really. He knew Sergei was getting the same message, with a Russian spin. Who was to know what the whole story was, who started this, what was left, if anything? Jesus, a nuclear apocalypse, and now he was expected to take control of the station. He had not expected this simple maintenance trip to become a military expedition.

As much as he abhorred it, Brett knew he was going to have to prepare for a hostile Russian takeover. He had to prepare for the unpredictable. Checking once again to make sure Sergei was not looking, Brett punched in the secret code in his safe, in which a single Beretta M9, already loaded, sat ready. He never imagined he would have to use it, but NASA had placed it in this safe just in case. When he had first been briefed on the existence of the gun, Brett imagined using it against a slimy, green alien trying to anally probe him. Instead, he was going to have to potentially use it against a man who had become a close friend.

Brett looked once again towards Sergei, but could not see him at all. He slipped the gun into the back of his pants and walked as normally as he could in this situation to the chess board. Sergei was already sitting in his seat, eyes focused on the board. Brett paused, a bit taken aback at seeing Sergei there, before taking his seat as well.

“So, comrade,” Sergei spoke without lifting his head, “your alert, anything of note?”

Brett watched Sergei’s hand go from his bishop, to his knight, tapping on its head while he waited on an answer.

“Just Houston checking in. You?”

Sergei looked up and studied Brett’s face. As if he saw something unexpected, or maybe exactly what he expected, he gave a half-smile and moved his hand back to his bishop, moving it in a position protecting his queen.

“No, comrade, nothing of note. Karolev, checking in. Supposedly beautiful weather in Russia today.”

"Same in America.”

Sergei nodded. “Your move, Bullwinkle Moose.”

His move. Brett knew that Sergei knew. And Sergei knew that Brett knew. And each knew the other knew they knew. So.

“So, what now, Boris?”

Sergei shrugged. “Well, now my bishop is protecting my queen. I am playing a defense move, comrade. But, I may play an offensive move next if the need arises. You understand, no?”

Outside the International Space Station, space extended into an infinite blanket of black, a deafening silence which conveyed a sense of peace and calm in the universe.

Inside, a replica of the silence, interrupted only by the occasional bip and boop from the station’s computers and other machines. Aside from that, nothing. Sergei stared at Brett in silence. Brett did the same.

Outside, below them, on the planet Earth, a nuclear apocalypse was underway because of a spat between two nations.

“Sergei, whatever is going on down there has nothing to do with us, ok? We don’t have to be a part of that.”

Sergei considered this, then pointed at Brett’s pants.

“I agree, Brett, but I also see you have a gun in your pants. So, I am not knowing if your words are true.”

Brett looked back to see that the pistol’s handle was, in fact, sticking out of the back of his pants. He had neglected to conceal it in his confusion.

“You should know, comrade,” Sergei said, while taking out a GSh-18 pistol and setting it on the table, “I too, have come prepared.”

At this, Brett sighed, and put his pistol on the table as well.

“So, what now Boris?”

Sergei laughed. “So, Bullwinkle Moose, we finish the game. As I said, your move.”

Brett paused, and then turned his attention back to the chessboard. It was obvious that there would not be a simple resolution to this conflict. Brett was not even sure if they would be able to define their conflict, at least on board the spacecraft. The apocalypse on Earth still seemed like a movie, or a science fiction story, something that did not seem real (and he could still not be sure it was real).

“OK, Sergei, here’s my move,” Brett said, as he moved his pawn forward two spaces to g-5. It was a safe, non-confrontational move, but protected his bishop.

“Ah, yes, Bullwinkle Moose, we are all pawns in this, are we not?” Sergei remarked. “Nevertheless, nice move, Brett.”

Brett wanted to know what Sergei knew. He needed to know before he could proceed in any of this.

“Sergei, what did your Russia man tell you about the situation down below?”

“Well,” Sergei replied, fingering a number of pieces on the board, “it appears your American missiles have destroyed several of my cities. Cities that include the one my family lives in. No word, though, on their fate.”

Sergei moved his bishop into position to challenge the knight Brett had protecting his king.

“I have been ordered, Bullwinkle Moose, to take control of this space station until our Russian reinforcements arrive. You?”

Brett shook his head sadly, “I have received the same news and orders. Russian missiles launched at American cities. An American ship is on its way.”

Sergei nodded. “As I expected. So, we are at crossroads, no?”

Brett stared at the two guns on the table. Each had the power to seal their fates, just as the missiles below had done for the two countries. Sergei sat surveying the chessboard, pondering all of his potential moves. Those of his opponent as well. Inside, he seethed at the thought of his family’s fate.

The briefings from both countries made it very clear that the situation down below was worse than they could imagine. Every major city in the two countries – Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Moscow, Yekaterinberg, St. Petersburg, had all been decimated. Even neighboring nations had felt the blow, as missiles rained down upon them. It was World War III, and the only safe haven was space, onboard the ISS. The presence of the two calls meant there were still remnants of the two nations left, but they both knew if they did return to Earth, it would be a much grimmer world then they left.

But before they could even consider a return trip, they needed to resolve the situation before them. One way or another.

“So, our cities are burning, our countries are at war. We are each supposed to take control of this station and, I assume, either imprison or terminate the other. Is that how you understand it, Sergei?”

Sergei nodded sadly, but with purpose. “Yes Bullwinkle Moose, and neither of us will allow ourselves to be imprisoned, yes? So…”

“So, termination.”

“Yes. Termination, Bullwinkle Moose.”

Brett considered this, and looked towards his friend Sergei. This was an unfair, shitty situation that they had nothing to do with, he thought.

“You know what? Fuck our governments. Fuck them for putting us in this position, Sergei. We’ve become friends, right?”

Sergei nodded, “Yes.”

“Right. So now these assholes are fighting over…well…actually I don’t know, do you?”

Sergei considered this. He thought back to his conversation with his superiors in Russia. He wrinkled his brow.

“I do not know what is cause of this war, Brett, they did not tell me. Only cities are gone and I must take over station.”

“Don’t you think we should know what happened to cause this? We’ve been up here only six months, and our countries had a pretty damn good relationship at that point. And now this? It doesn’t make sense, Sergei.”

Sergei looked up at Brett. The American had a point. A good point. What the hell was going on down on Earth?

“I will contact my superiors in Russia again. You should do the same. Let us try to find the cause of all of this.”

Both men went to their respective communications stations to follow up on the original messages they received.

“Houston, this is Astronaut Mitchell, come in Houston.”

Static, then a strange series of clicks, then static again, then a voice.

“Astronaut Mitchell, what is it? You have your orders.”

“Yes, Houston, I just wanted…”

Brett let go of the communication button briefly. This was a big question he was about to ask them. He needed to be diplomatic about it, since NASA was probably not the cause of this war, and he didn’t want to appear unstable or disloyal up in space, especially with another shuttle on its way.

“I just wanted to get a…more complete picture of the situation down on Earth. Were these missile launches accidental, or did we…I mean, did Russia…do something…?”

“Astronaut Mitchell, the United States of America retaliated against the Russian Federation after they launched a preemptive tactical nuclear strike on the people of New York City, following a trade dispute that could have been handled peacefully in an international forum like the United Nations. They chose to react aggressively, and murderously, and we responded in kind. Now, you have your orders. Will you follow through with them, Astronaut Mitchell, or will our advance team on its way be forced to court-martial you?”

Brett shook his head as if the speaker could see him. “No, no, of course not, sir. I will execute the orders I have been given, of course. I just wanted to get…”

“And you have what you need now, Mitchell. Secure the station.” Click.

And with that, Brett Mitchell knew that he had to kill Sergei Yurinov.

“The Americans have destroyed the Russian people of Moscow and other cities, with the express reasoning of a complete and utter takeover of the Russian continent. They disagree with our liberation of Ukraine and Georgia, and have dared to attack us rather than talk to us. In this, they will not succeed.”

Sergei seethed. “No they will not. No they will not.”

“We will be there within 36 hours, comrade. Is that enough time to complete your mission?”

“It is, sir, it is.” Sergei’s resolve hardened. Brett represented the Americans who attacked his nation. Killed his people. Maybe, likely, his family.

Sergei walked out towards the chessboard, only to find Brett already there. With his gun in his hand. Pointed toward him.

“So, Bullwinkle Moose. You are feeling guilty for your country’s aggression and you want to take me out, like the Dirty Harry?” Sergei mused with a smile.

“MY country’s aggression? MY country’s aggression? Are you…? Your country can’t resolve its issues through the proper mediums, and now we’re stuck with World War Three! Your leaders are psychopaths!” Brett cocked the gun.

“Now, Sergei, I know what you said before about imprisonment. But, let me assure you that once you see what the atrocities your country has unleashed, and once you acknowledge it, my government will see to it that you are treated with respect and dignity.”

Sergei smiled, looked at the barrel of the gun, and laughed. A big, Russian, full-belly laugh.

“Bullwinkle Moose! You think I care about this, this gun you have at me? My family are dead, my friends are dead, and it is all because of your arrogant American government. Shoot me, kill me. Take over this station, go ahead! My people are on their way up here to intercept the station. Your choice is simple, Bullwinkle Moose – be taken as prisoner of war, or of criminal of war after you shoot me.”

Brett smiled this time.

“Oh Boris, but you forget something. NASA has a ship on its way up here too. And you think they are going to lose a race to Russia? We’ve beaten you every step of the way since Sputnik!”

At this, Sergei’s smile withered a bit, but his resolve did not.

“OK, G.I. Joe, so you are getting tough with me now.”

Sergei slowly moved his hand behind his back, without Brett noticing.

“So it appears we come down to choice between nations, between who gets here first, no?”

Brett chuckled. “I told you Sergei, we’ll be here first.”

Sergei slowly pulled the small pistol he had tucked into his pants out, under the pretext of scratching his back.

“Yes, first. So you say. But how can you be sure of your team’s arrival here first?”

Brett, with his gun still trained on Sergei’s head, had a brief moment when he thought about what Sergei said. What if the Russians arrived first? He’d be dead for sure. Or what if the two ships arrived at the same time? Everyone would die. This stupid war. This was not something that concerned Brett and Sergei. They could be peaceful agents of change here. Dammit, he thought, maybe there was still a chance for the two of them to…

Sergei produced the gun behind his back. Both of them fired simultaneously.

______________________

The Chinese shuttle docked with the ISS, and five astronauts boarded the station. As they had anticipated, upon entering the station’s common area, they found two dead astronauts – one American, one Russian. Two guns lay beside them, and an unfinished chess game sat on its magnetic board.

One of the Chinese astronauts looked to the game and noticed something. He walked over, stepping over the dead astronauts, and faced the chessboard. He reached down, moving Brett’s knight up and over to the f-7 position.

“Checkmate,” he said out loud. He turned and smiled to his colleagues, who rolled their eyes and shook their heads, not appreciating the humor.

“Our messages got through to them,” the second in command of the Chinese mission noted. “Jamming their signals and replacing it with our own voice actors. I can’t believe it worked so well.”

The commander of the mission nodded solemnly.

“What they must have thought when they realized all was lost below…”

The group stayed silent and observed the two dead astronauts, in a moment of collegial solidarity.

“Well,” the commander said, “the station is now in control of the people of China. These men gave their lives for the glory of our nation. It is China’s turn to control space now.”

Thousands of miles below them, the people of New York City, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg all went about their daily business, with no knowledge of the conflict above them, in cities untouched by hostile weaponry, nuclear or otherwise.

science fiction
Adam H. Johnson
Adam H. Johnson
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Adam H. Johnson

The absurdity and wonder of the world fascinates me. This is why I am so drawn to both travel and humor, two passions of mine that I have indulged regularly. I am a civil servant by day, and an aspiring writer by night. Write on.

See all posts by Adam H. Johnson