I passed the snowy expanses glittering in the sun, moving further and further every day.
Maybe today will be the day, I thought, as yet another cabin appeared in the distance. I urged the wolf-dogs on, hoping to finally make it. It has been almost a week since last I made it to any kind of house. I liked the white fields, filled with ever present snow. I liked the adventure, seeing the scenery move by, allowing myself, for the length of the adventure, to be lost in my thoughts. It has been wonderful, and it was necessary. The dogs were good and almost too eager for adventure as well. It worked for us. Yet at times, I lost all that eagerness entirely, replaced with a yearning for a warm hearth, a cup of hot tea in my arms, heading nowhere at all. A tempest could be raging outside, for all I cared in those rare moments. It was akin to being in a time capsule – the closest thing that felt like it. The cabin my shelter, my capsule, the last outpost in the whole vast expanse of the universe, and I its only inhabitant. Oblivious to the world.
That is what I enjoyed when I was younger, when I was absorbed in all the books and countless adventures of the heroes and saviors. As time went by, that grew rare. I do not remember distinctly when it happened, but there came a time when I forgot about the experience entirely. Times were hard. Not often there was time to be idle. Not unless one chose to give up the fight. And what a fight it was – entirely hopeless, most would say. There were so few of us, scattered, with no means of communication. We drifted blindly, like ice when temperature gives somewhat in the late months of spring. Drifting further and further into the unknown, often alone, sometimes stumbling into each other, mostly growing further apart, until finally the vast waters would consume us. Much like the ice melts, so does the resolve. It is hard to truly comprehend the effect being one with yourself has on a social being like humans. Dogs are fine, really, but eventually one longs for another that is alike.
When you are one, all you think about is the end. When there is two of you, all you can think of is the journey - to keep going, despite adversity – for each other’s sake. Because the thought of your companion having to bear the journey by themselves is worse than the worst nightmare, and more painful than any pain death could bring.
When I was much younger, my grandfather talked a lot on this. Of course, I did not really listen back then. It is hard for one with so much time and so little cares to understand a dying man. He often sat in his chair, listening to a record, and he cried. That was strange to me. Then when I came to his side, when he comforted himself somewhat, he smiled. I asked him why he smiled – I was not brave enough to question an older man for his tears. I am not sure why, but his words left an imprint on my developing brain: “Because I am the one who had to stay behind.” I understood that as him telling me that he was happy to have his beloved grandkid with him. Sometimes it is fascinating just how egocentric kids can be…
As the cabin drew near, I slowed down the sled. Evening was fast approaching, but I was in no rush. As it came to a halt, I raised and shook myself, trying to get blood going into my stiff muscles and joints. My fingers were completely frozen it seemed, and had a hard time bending. They were not as vulnerable to the cold in the past.
The lead dog looked at me expectantly, tongue sticking out, ready to go with me to the very end of this dying planet. A good dog he was. Too good, for a man such as myself. I untied all the ropes, letting all the dogs loose. The younger of the bunch instantly sprang into the snow, while the older ones stayed, in part to recover, in part because they knew the routine. Today was a day when routines did not hold, however. Looking long at these dogs that offered me the only company I could have, I felt an unfair pang of jealousy. How it would have felt, to just look forward, and carry a sled, with your comrades, thinking no further than the next step you had to take. No dread of the future, no loneliness, no comprehension of the overhanging doom.
“The less you know, the better you sleep.” What wise words, cliché though they are. I urged the dogs to leave. They did not understand the order right away. Even I did not accept what I was doing fully. I pushed them, and shouted at them, to have them leave. They did not need me anymore, nor did I need them. Even if they did need me, that did not matter any longer. Few things did.
I kept shouting, kicking at them, until most had started, unwillingly at first, bravely soon after, to leave me. There was a whole world out there for all they knew. Soon they will have forgotten all about their master, I was trying to convince myself.
Most of the pack was further now, observing from afar. The few that still stayed, defying me, were the three that have been with me the longest. How long we have had each other now. They looked at me, with intelligent eyes. To them, it made no sense, it went against all they knew. In that moment, they were surely more rational than I was. That came as no surprise however, humans are not very big on being rational. If every human always did the most rational thing to do, things would not be the way they are right now. I kept on shooing them, even though it pained me to do so. In my violent urging, I tripped and fell headfirst into snow.
I did not raise myself right away. I lay there for a while, in that biting white softness. When I finally looked up, there was only one dog left. It was the lead, the best dog I have ever met in all my life. The most intelligent, the most reliable companion one could ask for - in a dog. He seemed aware that this was the last time we would see each other. Looking at him, I could not stop thinking how selfish I was. And yet, I saw no other way. Not any longer. Before he joined the others, he walked slowly to me, unsure, with shy steps, just as he did the first time I found him all alone in the woods. He was all by himself and I became his whole world since then, much like he became my reason to keep going. That memory burned me. What I was doing now was nothing short of betrayal. But I was only a human. A broken human. The dog slowly came to me, and I embraced it. Not for too long though.
After a very short while, I pushed it away from me. He did not want to go, but a smart dog is a smart dog. He knew this was it.
He slowly turned and hesitantly followed the others. As he did, the bubbling emotions overwhelmed me. Grasping at the snow with limbs that had lost all strength, I howled, fragmented. A single tear rolled down the right side of my face and left an imprint in the fresh snow. I looked at it, a single question filling my entire being. How much longer?
At length, I raised myself and trudged to the house. Eventually you recovered. It took something each time, but a human is a human, he adapts. Despite wanting to, or ever believing he will, despite everything, he adapts. It is defiance against the harshness of existence.
What I did to the dogs was unfair. I knew it. I did not accept it because of my selfishness. We had stayed together for so long, surviving against all odds, and today I would be throwing all of that away. “The dogs don’t need to be a part of it,” I told myself. The truth was, I did not want to feel the guilt.
I approached the wooden hut, stepped on the solid porch. There was not a single doubt now. I found it.
I walked slowly to the door, the planks creaking beneath my weight. It is quite peculiar how, despite not having done it for a very long time, my feet precisely took the course they would take in the past. It came from within, with no afterthought. With a single glance at the door, which was in a state of abandon now, my heart started racing. It was familiar to me. Oh, how a single look at something so old and decrepit could set this old heart racing.
I opened it, and as it creaked and opened, I was transported to a different time. A memory that no longer existed and would be entirely foreign to any creature that now breathed. A memory easily discarded as it drifted by in a stranger’s dream, like so many other countless fragmented memories. And yet, as this memory stubbornly appeared before me, my tired brain seemed to whirl into action, gears turning as I suddenly remembered. I stepped inside. A small step though it was, with it I sealed my fate. I crossed every boundary and crossed out every plan. Now I was beyond saving. Not much longer now until it will be over. It knows where I am now.
He was now in his “last outpost” which to him was a beacon in all the craziness of the world of that time.
Accepting that soon it will be over, he trained his eyes on the objects that filled his vision – a table greeted him, with cups and mugs still placed on top of it, each as he remembered. A stand for the kerosene lamp, mugs and cups, dishes. An old kettle. Shaky chairs. Dusty bottles. Cupboards, beds. Shelves filled with old books and all sort of paraphernalia and flasks filled with spices and other things.
As he walked in, it felt as though a veil was pushed back. He was truly beyond redemption now. In this moment, he left it all up to chance. Maybe he could not handle being the driving force behind our survival. And I say our survival is all the more beautiful for it.
With a trained motion, he filled the kettle and set it to boil as a memory came to him. He walked to a cupboard. “There was my favorite one somewhere here… impossible to find elsewhere…” – he whispered to himself. The amount of excitement he felt from discovering that small amount of brew of his was comparable to what he felt when he fulfilled the arduous task of disabling the main engines of the accursed El Ajedrecista.
He kept talking to himself, as if to keep himself present in this cherished outpost of his, despite of all that has happened, in spite of it. In what time he had left, he simply wanted to be his normal self again, enjoying his favorite tea, doing things he wanted with a semblance of comfort.
He walked, lifting objects, touching them, unable to quite believe that he was where he was. So long he did not allow himself even the thought of coming to this sacred temple of his. Although all of it was dear to him, he walked past the rooms and spaces, and stopped short in front of a chess board. Likely the only one in existence then, as every other was eliminated by the A.I.
He studied the chess board, pieces arranged on it just as they were left all those years ago.
- What a strange sensation it is. To remember and not to remember at the same time.
He sat down at the table, with his favorite brew in his hand, steaming, with a fragrance that reminded him of less troubled times.
Focusing only on the eight by eight board he took small sips, savoring each one and deriving more pleasure from the tea than he has in the last decade. Only now within the confines of his very own home – his true home – could he begin to sense his tension drift away. It has taken a lot of composure and willpower for him to fulfill his duties. He drank his brew, talking to himself every once in a while.
- The color is a little off, and it tastes a little sour from what I remember, but it is as good as a man could have in this time, - he took the black knight, moving it to the the leftmost lane of the board, already seeing again the strategy the beginning of which sprouted in a mind much younger than his, and a lot more innocent, but a mind that once he knew as his own.
He slowly raised himself, every movement a challenge to his weary body. He took his chair, and dragged it slowly to the other side of the table, looking now at the possibilities for white. When he saw what any novice would easily see, a warm smile widened his chaffed lips. His opponent of that time, who was much older, and a lot more adept at chess, had not used an opportunity for an easy victory. Knowing his father, he made a harmless move, almost mimicking his father, who made expressions as though this move was very well thought out and had some secret plan behind it.
He kept up his ritual of considering, slowly making a move, raising himself and settling on the opposite side, and repeating it again. He did care for it, but if he had looked out through the window, he would see that the snowflakes were falling rapidly now as a wind was picking up. Every once in a while he jerked his head, whispering to himself ever so quietly: “It is not up to me now.” “If it is meant to be then it will happen…”
Despite being thus troubled, he mostly was able to ground himself in this little paradise of his. A tempest was already raging outside, but for now the hut seemed to hold out well. It was built with heart.
He chose to humor the child, just as his father would have wanted. Surely for a little while, he could be just a tad egoistical. With each move, he slowly cornered the white king, taking his possessions one by one, numerous figures already lining the side of the board. The white king wasn’t going down without a fight however, and a similar collection, this one smaller and containing black pieces, lined the other side.
As the storm intensified beyond natural, the house began to creak and shake. The weary man took no heed, his focus undivided.
As he kept playing, the roof began to dissolve out of existence, plank by plank. The wind and the cold could make their way within, only snowflakes – uninvited guests - flew inside. They landed on every surface, penetrating every sacred corner. The landed on the board, the chess pieces. They caused no hindrance however - this was a different place.
The roof vanished entirely and already the walls were disappearing. The game of chess continued.
A few more turns, and now the floor was shrinking. Most of the objects were gone by now. Still the game went on.
As he raised yet another time, the chair gave as its leg vanished, and he continued the game afoot then. There was some still some brew, and a few more turns yet were left.
The white king was cornered now, its demise clearly in sight. Another turn, and it would fall.
The last move. Checkmate. The game was over. The white king was defeated. As he walked to the other side, to admit defeat, the board began to melt away at the sides, claimed pieces clattering to the ground and rolling in the dirt. As he held the white king, to fell him, the board disappeared below it, leaving it suspended in his arm. Then the white king melted away.
A moment later the man was no more.
No wooden hut. No porch. No trace of that small world. It snowed and snowed, and soon no trace of it was left at all. Any creature which later passed through here had no suspicion that this place was what it was – the place where the savior of humanity was delivered on to oblivion.
Some may disagree, but all things considered, my grandfather fulfilled his role. It was up to fate now.
He could not know it, but choosing to leave it to fate, and withdrawing to his place of comfort like only a human would, he somehow ensured humanity’s survival. The A.I., El Ajedrecista, saw something in that so valuable, it reversed it’s mission and purpose of existence to be humanity’s survival.
I wish I could tell you that he did not despair until the very end. I wish I could tell you that he remained strong, knowing the majority of the burden of the humanity’s future rested on his shoulders. But he did despair in the end. Who is to say he was wrong to do so? We could not understand what that was like. All we can do is be grateful to him for his tremendous work and remember his effort. Let his story serve as a lesson to you, that in the darkest hour, when all fails you and it is over, there is a chance still.