The only winning move

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A landscape of barren, dark-grey stone. Above, a black sky dotted with pinpricks of light – as though someone had taken a piece of paper, repeatedly shoved a pin through it, and then put it in front of a something extremely bright. Like, say, the lights of an oncoming train.

There was no breeze. No sound. No moon.

Since the last thing David Snacknot remembered was playing Go with one of his colleagues at the University, this all seemed rather strange.

“Where in the hell am I?”

“Interesting assumption.”

David looked over his shoulder, giving the impression that while his head wanted to see what was going on, his feet wanted to stay pointing in the direction which might provide a clear run.

He found himself looking at a figure with its arms folded across its chest. Its black robe covered it entirely. Even its face was completely hidden by the fall of the heavy cowl.

At this point, David realised he wasn’t breathing.

He tried to take a breath, and found he couldn’t. Then, more out of habit than anything else he tried to panic, and found he couldn’t do that, either.

The cowled figure pushed back its hood. “Do stop opening and closing your mouth, Professor. You look like a goldfish.”

Unbidden, David’s feet shuffled around as he stared. The face before him was not what he’d been expecting. Not that he knew what he’d been expecting, but whatever it had been, it wasn’t this.

“A-are you… Death?” he stuttered.

“I dislike that name. Such negative connotations,” said the figure. The face was feminine, and it definitely had skin. Admittedly, very pale skin, and skin stretched tautly over angular – one might even say bony – features.

“Er…” said David, then stopped to consider the fact that, despite not breathing, he still seemed to be able to speak. He fought back an inexplicable urge to whistle. Just to see if he still could. Then he had to fight back the urge to giggle.

“I rather prefer Entropy,” continued the figure.

What is it called, thought David, when actors are laughing so much during a performance that they can’t say their lines?

“Because that other name, it’s really not what I do. I don’t actually have anything to do with the D-word. That happens before people get to me. My role is merely to move things forward.”

Oh yes, thought David. Corpsing.

“So,” said Entropy. “Shall we begin? Or perhaps I should say, end? Ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” repeated David.

Entropy beamed. “That’s the spirit! Hardly anyone laughs at my jokes! Oh! Spirit! Ha ha!”

David smiled weakly. His eyes slid from her face to the surrounding landscape, and something strange behind her left shoulder caught his eye. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.

“What? Ah, yes. Well, once upon a time, it would’ve been a pale horse. But we all have to move with the times.”

“A combine harvester?”

“There are a lot of you these days.”

David nodded slowly. I must be hallucinating, he thought. Just how much did I drink?

“The scythe just wouldn’t be practical.”

“No, I suppose not.” His rational side gave up. If he was dreaming he might as well go along with it. “Er, don’t take this the wrong way, but I thought Dea–, sorry,” he said quickly as she frowned, “I mean, in books and things you’re usually male.”

“How can you tell?”

“What?”

“I’m usually drawn as a skeleton.”

“Oh. Good point.” David resolutely fixed his eyes on her face.

“The people who draw me,” pointed out Entropy reasonably, “are not, generally speaking, people who’ve actually met me.

“Of course, yes. Makes sense. Wait a minute. If there are so many of us that you have to use a piece of heavy-duty agricultural equipment to do your job, why am I here on my own like this?”

Entropy smiled enigmatically. “Good question, professor.”

“Is it?”

“It is.”

“Is it a good question with an answer?” asked David, after a few moments.

“If you flipped a coin ten times, what would happen?”

“What’s that got to do with it?

“Just answer.”

“Well… I suppose you’d get a mixture of heads and tails. You’d expect half of each, but in just ten flips,” he shrugged, “who knows? Could be all heads, could be all tails, could be one to nine, or two to eight, or anything, really.”

“Very good. And if you flipped it one hundred times?”

“Then, assuming you had an evenly-weighted coin, it ought to come out closer to fifty-fifty. But I don’t see–”

“A thousand times? A million? A billion?”

“Closer and closer to an even split. And sore fingers,” he grinned. Entropy didn’t laugh, which seemed rather unfair, all things considered.

“Can you, perhaps, conceive of any other alternative?”

David frowned. “Not if the coin is evenly weighted…”

Entropy dipped her long, pale fingers into the folds of her robe and pulled out a coin. It glinted silver in the non-light. Slowly and deliberately, she pressed her thumb against her index finger, then balanced the metal disc on her thumbnail. With a soft ‘fthick’ the coin leapt upwards, turning over and over in a slow arc. David’s eyes followed it as it reached the apex, and then fell downwards, still spinning.

Clink.

He stared.

“You see,” said Entropy, “you’re like the coin.”

“On edge?”

“Exactly.”

The both considered the disc of metal for a moment, perfectly balanced on its side.

“Are you saying,” asked David slowly, “that I’m somehow between states? I could fall one way, or the other? I could… go back?”

“Perhaps,” said Entropy.

“Perhaps what?”

“Traditionally, in this circumstance, you would challenge me to a game.”

“Really?” asked David, champion Go player, “then I choose–”

“But in this case,” she interrupted, “I think perhaps not, given what happened the last time you proposed a game.”

Memories crawled through David’s mind like a drunk getting back to the house at 3am. They missed the lock, knocked over the furniture and set fire to a frying pan. He’d been playing Go with his friend Jian. And they’d been drinking. A lot. Because, because…”

Entropy shuddered. “Spit all over the playing pieces. Revolting.”

Oh yes. The classic Go variant: I bet I can fit more of these playing pieces into my mouth than you can.

“We’d been drinking,” he protested. “I wouldn’t do that normally.” Thirty-four, he’d managed. Then, before anyone could say Heimlich manoeuvre, here he was having a cosy chat with Dea– Entropy.”

“Traditions,” she mused, “are a very human idea. You spend all this time and energy inventing new and more efficient ways of doing things, but every now and then you insist on making life difficult for yourselves because great-great-grandma would have approved.”

Why had he drunk so much? They’d been celebrating, because…

“I don’t have a ancestors. Or descendants. I remember how everything was done, and I know how it will be done.”

“… brandy. They’d been drinking brandy…”

“And I do have a job to do. I can’t sit around playing complicated strategy games.”

“… because…”

“So with that in mind, pick a number.”

“What?” asked David, jolted away from his fractured memory.

“You say that a lot. Pick a number.”

“Any number?”

“Yes.”

“But there are an infinite number of numbers!”

“I didn’t say it would be easy.”

“Can’t you at least give me a, a, range?”

“I can say nothing.”

“What about fractions? Decimals? Irrational numbers?”

“It’s a round number.”

His birthday! They’d been celebrating his birthday! Jian had been meant to be keeping him away from the surprise party he wasn’t supposed to know about!

“Come along, Professor Snacknot, before the universe reaches heat death, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Fifty! It’s my fiftieth birthday! That’s a round number!”

“Fifty is your choice?”

“Yes!” It was an hallucination! His brain had just been trying to process everything. He’d been trying to find a way back to consciousness! Now he’d remembered, he could go back!

Entropy nodded and raised a finger. Arm outstretched, she drew a spiral in the air, the line picked out with glittering silver. The shape pushed outwards, creating a cone-shaped tunnel. In the distance, David thought he could see colours. The brown of a battered wooden desk, the green of an old carpet…

She pointed.

David ran towards the tunnel.

He could see the desk. See the toppled brandy bottle. See his carpet with round, black and white pieces scattered across it. See the two paramedics. See the figure lying prone on the floor.

He was close. He reached out. Almost there.

And watched in horror as his finger dissolved into a thousand glittering pieces.

Tried to cry out as the fragmentation spread up his arm and along his chest.

Felt his larynx splinter before he could make the sound.

The essence of David Snacknot scattered into trillions and billions of particles and drifted away on the silent winds of the universe, never to be joined again.

#

In the grey-stone dessert, Entropy climbed into the cabin of her combine harvester and patted its dashboard. She sighed. Despite what she’d said about traditions, she had rather preferred the horse.

“You’d think a physicist would’ve worked it out, wouldn’t you?” she said to the silent piece of heavy machinery. “There’s only one number where entropy cannot be. And only one number of playing pieces a very drunk, middle-aged man could survive having lodged in his windpipe.”

The combine harvester, of course, said nothing.

“I gave him clues. ‘I can say nothing’ I said. I mean, short of actually telling him the answer, what else could I do?”

The combine harvester rumbled and rose into the air in an upwards arc.

The silver coin toppled from its edge and fell heads up, a single, round disc of silver against the dark stone.


Author’s notes

This story began life as a piece inspired by the Fibonacci sequence. It didn’t really work, and I didn’t like it. But I had a sense that there was something there, particularly in the character of Entropy, so I picked it up again. I ended up gutting the original tale, chopping up and rejigging more or less everything bar the very beginning and some parts of the end. I hope you like it, and if you do it just goes to show: a writer should never throw anything away!


© Kat Day 2016