∼ Presto Change-O ∼
Sitting on the park bench, checkerboard between them atop an old cardboard suitcase, the two brothers did not know they were being observed. Charlie, balding, and Ernie, white-haired, had been playing checkers at the Arvin Arms apartment hotel since 1958, when first moving into the then elegant structure.
They’d become so good at checkers neither could win against the other. But they enjoyed the challenge, the friendly contention, the feel of the pieces. So, one evening, one of them threw the game. The other knew immediately. But the way out was gratefully, if silently, acknowledged, and on the next evening, the other brother threw the game. Thereafter, without loss of face, they had settled into a routine.
It was growing dark, and cheery blocks of light appeared here and there on the face of the hotel. Finishing their game, they opened the suitcase and brought out a bottle of schnapps, a tin of pretzels, and a jar of pickles. Charlie took a pad from his pocket and under the soft illumination of the vapor light covered it with diagrams for a disappearing box toy.
They’d inherited their toy company from their father. He’d told them tales about back home in the old country, where he’d been a master toy maker, and he’d passed his talents and secrets on to them. The sons had gone on adding new toys — mechanical horses that could rear and gallop, archers that fired their arrows on target, acrobats who could handstand and walk the tightrope.
Even with the greatest care, the pirates who tried to pick apart and recreate the brothers’ toys always failed.
Charlie slid his drawing over to Ernie.
“So you put an object in here, shut the case, open it, it’s gone. Close and open it again, it’s back! Or put in one object and end up with another. You see?”
Ernie touched the paper and followed the lines and planes, tilting his head to one side. “Very simple, but it will take a little care to build correctly.”
Probe Leader Nhyuk passed a translucent lid over a gold-flecked eye and returned it and its lower twin to the eye-cups of the refractor scope. His high-speed ticks of annoyance shrilled against Pilot JJmkk’s vibrational surfaces.
“JJmkk! The resolution on this is execrable. The mercury mirror scope is –”
“Is another device irreparable until our return home.”
Nhyuk watched Charlie and Ernie closely, taking in their conversation as it flowed against his primary vibrational surfaces through a yoke fed into the spacecraft’s translation algorithms. His comb reddened with alarm and mottled with oranges of tension.
“Something doesn’t add up. Our initial observations indicated this planet was technologically primitive. But these two beings are discussing a transmutation device. That level of sophistication could severely impede colonization.”
“Perhaps they’re trying to present a false impression of their capabilities.”
Nhyuk’s comb straightened. “Cogitate, JJmkk! If they are aware of our presence, it means they can detect us in spite of our shields. That would confirm my hypothesis of advanced technology.”
JJmkk’s comb turned alarm-orange. “Shall I initiate planetary cleansing procedures?
“Didn’t the fusion coils on the cleanser fail during the last procedure?”
“Well, yes. Shall I set up teams to observe additional sets of these beings to confirm threat?”
“Protocol, JJmkk! ‘Minimum Engagement Safeguards the Collective’. How long before we leave this miserable rock?”
“Just over one planetary revolution. But with the damage the ship’s taken on the voyage out, we’ll have to make it a slow flight back.”
“Go find IIkmj and see if he can produce a pseudotype in time for me to safely interview these beings. Maintain a watch on these two and send a feed to my quarters.”
“Yes sir. By the way sir, our intra-matter exchange unit is still down.”
“Klith! What a voyage.”
The next evening Ernie and Charlie were once more on their bench. As usual the checkerboard sat atop the cardboard suitcase, but on the checkerboard rested a honey-enameled box.
“Beautiful work, Charlie. Have you tried it?”
“Ah, no. It will work. They always work.”
Ernie smiled and removed his lodge ring. “Let’s give it a maiden run.” He placed the ring in the box.
Charlie slid down the cover. “Hocus-pocus, grow a crocus, make us pancakes sure to smoke us!” He raised the cover. The ring was gone and in its place was a cat’s eye marble. He closed the panel again. “Hing-ping, jump and sing, open the box and find a ring.” He opened the panel and the ring had returned.
Cyberneticist IIkmj tapped a claw on the door of Nhyuk’s quarters.
The door slid open. Nhyuk looked up blearily from a monitor. “IIkmj! Will you join me in some zut?” Nhyuk held up a bulbous container of muddy brown liquid.
“Thank you, sir. That would soothe my nerves. Pseudotypes are complex and delicate creations and I should have had a month to build this one. Not a day!” He tried to assume a calm yellow comb, but barely kept his poison barbs concealed. “It’s too much!”
“Too much? How about two supposed primitives engaging in a fourth-measure matter transmutation, using a device no longer than a beak.”
“Sir, I’ve spent every waking moment with the science survey team. The damages to the ship have crippled some equipment, but we’ve detected nothing to indicate such sophistication. Everything is primitive!”
With an emphasizing beak clack at every word Nhyuk raised his primary frequency to near piercing. “I. Just. Observed. It. Happen.”
The cyberneticist was interested now. “This is exciting, sir. I’d love to duplicate the device. I’ll go review our emf monitors to determine the frequencies emitted!”
Nhyuk steamed. He had practically begged Central for a military cyberneticist. These civilians were a pain in the comb. “Unfortunately, IIkmj, our monitors read no radiation on any band we know of. We have an optical record of the transmutation, nothing else. What do you think of that? Do you find that interesting?”
IIkmj’s eyes revolved inward, beak hanging open.
Privately, Nhyuk was ready to start for home that moment, but the council had squawked about the expense of this colonization probe. He desperately wanted results. He didn’t want to end up on a watch station, spinning around some backwater moon in a rickety picket ship.
He shook himself. “Enough with the shock IIkmj. Whatever the case, it’s our duty to find out all we can in the time we have, so I hope my pseudotype is ready.”
As ready as it will ever be, Ikmj thought. “Of course, sir. You only have to assign a controller and we can transmit it to the surface.”
Charlie and Ernie faced each other across the checkerboard. The magic box rested beneath the bench. All was calm, quiet, usual. Charlie was losing the game tonight.
They heard a sharp wind and looked up to see dust whirling on the roof of the Arvin. The dust motes made little flashes and became sequins in an almost invisible skein of pulsing electron threads weaving a faint, softly hissing cocoon. In the middle, a shadow wavered, then steadied. The hissing stopped and the glow vanished. In its place stood a man, an old man. The brothers looked at each other with raised eyebrows, shrugged, and returned to their game.
They were still absorbed when a strange old man waddled up silently, eyes staring at a point between them. He spoke in croaking tones.
“Yes?” Ernie asked.
The stranger’s head swiveled toward Ernie. He did not blink. He stood, attentive, in a neatly pressed suit of odd cut, in black, gleamingly shiny oxfords, his white, neatly combed and parted hair capping a wrinkled face with bright blue eyes.
“Hello to you. My name is Nhyuk and I am interested in this game you play.”
“So are we,” Charlie grumbled, “if we’re not interrupted.”
Nhyuk swiveled his head toward Charlie. “Interruptions affect interest level?”
“Mr. Nook,” Ernie spoke up, “Have you never played checkers?”
Nhyuk’s head swiveled toward Ernie. “It’s new to me.”
“You’ve never played checkers?” Now Charlie spoke as one with sacred knowledge and a duty to pass it on.
Another swivel. “I would like to.”
“Ernie and I will teach you.”
Festooned with wires, Probe Leader Nhyuk sat quietly in a chair near the master beam controls. A series of thick yellow power leads snaked from the chair into the beam console. Another group of green-sheathed cables entered into a portable translation unit linked to the master computer. IIkmj and JJmkk hovered nearby.
“I tell you, JJmkk,” Ikmj said earnestly, “I wish a thousand times the Probe Leader had let one of my controllers handle the pseudotype. They are trained for this and are prepared for the risks.”
“What risk? It’s as easy as hatching an egg clutch.”
IIkmj’s comb blinked rapid magenta to orange. “That is the trouble; inexperienced pseudotype controllers think they’re safe, sitting up in the ship, pulling strings. But the mind is delicate, so delicate. And this,” he swept his hand to indicate the control setup, “we had to put this together so fast. It’s such a mess.”
“You worry too much, IIkmj. Look,” JJmkk fluttered a limb toward a monitor, “everything is going well.”
They watched a feed of Charlie at a checkerboard, from the point of view of Nhyuk’s pseudotype. “It’s just as if the P.L. were down there playing the game himself. When he’s finished we’ll have an exact intelligence profile on those two. We can extrapolate and get a good idea of the strategic capabilities of the civilization in general. We’ll know if they can threaten us.”
“Krrfff,” IIkmj sighed, “I hope so. I only hope.”
Nhyuk was pleased with himself. His awareness rested comfortably in the pseudotype. He felt something akin to glee. Here he was, right in the camp of the enemy. Undetected and invulnerable, he sat taking note of a flood of information that could be of use to Central. These creatures were so unsuspecting, and this silly game so basic. And that IIkmj! “Avoid stress,” he had pleaded, “your mind is divided. Let the computer play your moves if you involve yourself with their game.”
“Stress indeed!” thought Nhyuk as he moved a piece. In another few moves he would win. Then he would question them about the ‘magic’ box under the bench.
Charlie was loading his pipe. It had been a long time since he had played anyone besides his brother. The stranger showed promise. But Charlie knew he’d win the game in just a few turns.
“Your move, Mr. Nook.”
The pseudotype smiled and reached for a piece. It hesitated and reached for another. The smile dropped at one corner. Nhyuk saw he was going to lose! Well, what of it? Everyone slips up. After all, he’d never played the game. As long as they didn’t suspect him. But what if they did? Maybe they were testing him. Their technology against his. But they were potential enemies, so he should still try to win. He had been a fool for underestimating them. If only he could think properly. Something was not right. He must win, because…. the logic was flawed. What was the matter? What if they knew, they knew, they… ?
Nhyuk’s mind called out, Computer patch!
Supply moves to win this contest.
<No moves available to win or draw if opponent continues present strategy>
Nhyuk’s central core spun dizzily. He continued to move the psuedotype’s hand over the board; wavering from piece to piece.
“Mr. Nook, Mr. Nook!”
Probe Leader! — Mr. Nhyuk – Probe Leader – Mr. Nook – Probe Nhyuk – Mr. Leader!
The board fell to the ground. The brothers rose and struggled to get Mr. Nook to sit back down. One of his eyes was closed and his mouth was half curled open.
“Mr. Nook, you’re having an attack. Sit down!”
JJmkk and several crew members were attempting to hold Nhyuk down. He was fluttering. His comb was bright red and one eye was open and staring. His beak curled unnaturally.
“Don’t let him tear the leads!” IIkmj shouted. “My gods, oh, my gods.”
A med tech jumped in and injected Nhyuk. The Probe Leader made a mighty effort to stand and then fell back down into the seat, feathers flying. His comb paled.
IIkmj grabbed the pilot’s arm. “We must unhook him. The kluth injection won’t hold long. I have to bring the pseudotype back up to break contact properly. Send it to the beam-in point.”
The pseudotype slumped down onto the bench. He looked up at the two brothers.
“Mr. Nook, you’ve had some kind of seizure.”
“Ibble noma frjlik kam kwarsuK?”
Ernie looked at Charlie. “We better get an ambulance. Maybe it’s a stroke.”
Back on the ship, Nhyuk felt desperately nauseous. He knew something was terribly wrong. The translator had broken. At the edge of consciousness was a voice in his own language.
Return to beam-point. Repeat, return to beam-point.
His managed to make his pseudotype lean over and snatch the box from beneath the bench and run for the Arvin. Shouts in some language he no longer grasped followed him.
He stormed up the stairs, the stairwell echoing with the pounding of his footsteps. He smashed through the steel roof door, half tearing it from its hinges. He ran to the center of the roof, and stood with one arm dangling, bloodless skin ripped to shreds, box clutched under good arm. He was encircled by a humming net, fflizzled, and disappeared.
There was a glow on the receiving stage of the beam room as the pseudotype returned. The tattered figure stood at attention, one arm hanging loosely. Its good hand clutched the magic box.
As the cyberneticist reached for the control that would sever the connection to Nhyuk, the pseudotype turned to him, smiled, and lisped, “Your move, Charlie.” It pivoted on its toes and hurled the box with all the force of its steel-tearing muscles. The box blurred across the room and struck the control console, which began sparking. IIkmj yanked at the disconnect toggle while the pseudotype spun round like a mad figure skater. The loose arm flew off and narrowly missed JJmkk as he struggled to restrain Probe Leader. A damage control party burst though the doorway and collided with IIkmj backing away from the panel, which was spitting burning material in every direction.
Damage control’s energy damper shut down the gutted panel. The madly whirling pseudotype crashed to the deck and lay still. Nhyuk heaved a sigh and slumped back into his chair. Then the departure alert siren sounded.
Officer Slater had written enough. Or as much as he felt like writing. He wanted to go home. He wanted to stop listening to Charlie, and Ernie, and the hotel manager, and the witnesses. He wanted to pass this off as nothing, despite the shattered glass, the steel door torn half off its hinges, and witnesses galore from the park side of the building. Oh well, the river passed behind the building. Maybe the guy had jumped off and been taken away down river, past his beat.
Central Executive Rmtk paced back and forth in front of JJmkk. His anger was fading and the red of his comb along with it. He’d decided what to do.
“JJmkk. Your report. It’s quite satisfactory as is. We don’t need a second probe to that planet.”
“But sir, the conclusions are so… inconclusive.”
“Yes, well, they’re conclusive enough for me. Would you care for some zut?”
“No sir, thank you.”
“That probe was a mistake in the first place. Fabulously expensive. Taxed the ship passed its limits. Now it’ll be refitting for months.” Rmtk sipped his drink. “No, you’ve done a good job. It will mean a Probe Leadership. But that matter transmutation device. That worries me. And it worries the Central Council.”
“Sir, I believe we need to confirm whether Probe Leader Nhyuk is correct –”
“He certainly isn’t now — poor Nhyuk, sitting in the psychiatric center day after day making those absurd motions with his hands. I wonder what those fiends did to him.”
“Ernie and Charlie? Sir, as my report states, the makeshift pseudotype suffered an overload and produced psycho-feedback. The beings didn’t do anything to him.”
“Nonsense. And even if they didn’t, they might have, with the technology he suspected they had.”
“Sir, if we could go back and get another of those devices the pseudotype brought back. What we have seems so primitive.”
“You’ve seen the optical recordings of the matter transmutation. ”
“I’m sure it’s a trick. The remains suggest the box was made of plant fiber.” JJmkk didn’t know why he was trying. It was obvious there would be no more probes to the planet.
“Yes, JJmkk, well – any civilization that can make a transmutation device out of plant fiber is not a civilization we wish to disturb.” Rmtk slurped the last of his zut. “Is it?”
“No, sir, I suppose not.”
“And anyway,” Rmtk opened a storage panel and took out two objects, “cheer up. It’s not a total loss. We’ve been able to duplicate this.”
The pilot watched as Central Executive Rmtk placed the objects on a table, unfolding a flat one, doubling its size. From the second object, a box, Rmtk spilled out red and black lozenges.
“It’s a marvelous diversion. Would you care to play?”
Charlie and Ernie sat on their park bench. Snowflakes flashed in the light of the vapor lamp. They sat with the cardboard suitcase between them, checkerboard on top.
“Charlie?” Ernie tugged at his earlobe.
“It’s your move.”
“Sorry. I was just thinking about Mr. Nook.”
Ernie shook his head. “Ah, that was a strange thing. And they dragged the river for the longest time.”
“It’s too bad. With a little coaching, we could have made a pretty fair checker player out of him.”
“I believe so,” Ernie said, “but now, we’ll have to build another transmutation device… do you think he was a competitor from the home planet?”
“Presto Change-O”, © Warren Brown. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, March 24, 2023
Warren Brown is a dual Canadian/American citizen of First Nations descent, and lived for over four decades in Tulsa OK, having recently relocated with his wife to Lethbridge, Alberta. He has published fiction in OMNI, F&SF, Amazing, The Book of All Flesh (with Lana Brown) and other venues, and poetry in This Land, Nimrod, Dear Leader Tales, Speculative North, Smoke in the Stars, Abyss & Apex etc. His novel, What Happened in Fool the Eye is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites. He is a member of OSFW, SFWA and SFPA, and in the past has been a reader with Cosmic Roots.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, using stock from NASA and Omni.
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