PROLOGUE. THE GAME BEGINS
Through the transparent dome of the highest tower of Aristotle's magnificent palace on the planet Stygia, all Prince Ron Bo Khan would see was black on black, the blackness of infinite empty space, the blackness of the grave, the darkness of his own mood. Kahn was Chief of Staff of the Orion Arm Empire, there on a diplomatic mission for Emperor Makido. He wondered why the builders bothered to make it transparent. Beyond the dome was black velvet nothingness. They might as well have painted the ceiling and walls black. The effect would have been the same. The planet Stygia, about the size of Mars, circled a neutron star deep within the molecular cloud known as the California Nebula. That is why Kahn saw only darkness outside the dome. The thick dust of the nebula blocked all starlight beyond it. From Stygia the neutron star was too small to be visible to the naked eye. Hence, it was illogical to build a viewing dome. Within Stygia were vast underground cities.
Kahn was restless and irritated. He had cooled his heels in Aristotle's outer office for over an hour. Aristotle's secretary, a lovely blonde buxom beauty, who Kahn might have flirted with had he not known that she was a machine, told him that Aristotle was receiving diplomatic instructions and would be with him soon. Since ten years had passed since Mikado had received the Stygians' reply agreeing to this meeting, Kahn felt their representative must be well briefed. The delay was either a veiled insult or a psychological ploy. He sat down and relaxed. He knew something about psychology too. Not only had he been at the political game for a long while, but he was a good chess player, almost at the grandmaster level. He had beaten opponents with more chess skill than him himself by psyching them out.
Is this what I've traveled a thousand light years for, thought Kahn. When he left Olympia in the Procyon system three and a half years ago, he had been full of confidence and a sense of adventure. Now, he wished he was back at the busy capital, even with all the political infighting, intrigue and wrangling of Makido's court. The emperor had implied that his choice of Kahn for this diplomatic mission was a great honor, a sign of promotions to come. All lies, Kahn thought. If he was grooming me as his replacement, why would he send me on a mission that would last ten years? Ten years during which others close to Mikado can scheme against me. Kahn wondered whether this ten years away from the center of the great galactic empire was a punishment. He knew that Mikado liked yes-men. Perhaps he had been too straightforward and blunt when he advised the great one.
What was especially ironic, the mission had likely come about because of Kahn's own advice. He cursed himself for suggesting it. Mikado had a grandiose view of himself. He liked to think of himself as emperor of the entire galaxy, perhaps of the universe. In truth he ruled over only star systems in the Orion spiral arm that surrounded Procyon in a rough circle a thousand light years across. Although this was, of course, a vast territory, which included over four hundred million star systems of which a tenth, forty million, contained planets on which sentient beings dwelled, it was hardly the entire galaxy, which was a hundred thousand light-years across and contained four hundred billion stars, ninety-nine percent of which had never been seen by humanity.
When Mikado, an impetuous man, had learned that the Stygians, an alien race with a high technology, had sent starships into Olympian territory, he wanted to declare immediate war. Kahn had advised caution. He said to the emperor, "Before we embroil ourselves in war that we might lose, we must learn more about these aliens, what their intentions and goals are, the extent of their technology, the size of their empire, and whether they have allies. It would be folly to attack them without this knowledge. It's very possible that the aliens' technology might be superior to our own."
Mikado became furious. "It's impossible for barbarian aliens to have a technology superior to human beings. Humanity is destined to own the stars. And it's my aspiration--no, not aspiration but intention--to lead it to that manifest destiny. The universe shall be ours. All others must bow down or be crushed. After all, we are the chosen ones of Providence, just as I was chosen to by the gods to rule this empire."
That was the maniacal egotist who ruled the vast Orion Empire.
The truth was that the populations of the forty million planets within the empire could hardly be said to be controlled by Olympic Central Administration. On faraway systems, the average citizen was likely to not even be aware that he or she was ruled by the Olympians. Because the distance between systems was so enormous, communication among them was extremely slow and unreliable. Travel from star system to star system with Faster-than-light (FLT) ships took months or years. Electronic communication was impossible. In addition, Central Administration control was plagued by the sheer number of units. Each cluster of stars, each individual star system, each planet or space habitat, and sometimes political divisions within a planet had its own government, customs and local laws. It was a chaotic administrative nightmare. Kahn wondered how the empire could be said to exist at all. And now, the intrusion of a militarily strong and aggressive alien empire would make ruling the empire even more of an unworkable concept.
As for the Stygians, so little was known about them that even the word "Stygian" was simply what the traders who plied the edge of Orion Empire called them. What they called themselves was unpronounceable by human tongues. These traders worked not only on the fringes of the galaxy, but on the fringes of the law, being smugglers, sharp businessmen, and sometimes pirates. It was they who Kahn had to contact to set up this meeting with the alien race.
There was much about the Stygians that Kahn found enigmatic. Nonetheless, he was not too surprised. After all, they are an alien race, thought Kahn, and barely fifty years have past since the first contact with them. In all that time, to my knowledge no human has actually set eyes on an actual Stygian. All dealings with the aliens have been with their robot slaves. Even this diplomatic mission is with this robot Aristotle who claims to speak for someone called Growlgrr.
The robots were another mystery. Sometime before the first documented meeting of the races, the Stygians must have gained knowledge of humanity, because by the time of that first well publicized contact, they had built millions of humanoid robots so perfect that without disassembly it was impossible to tell them from human beings. For the first ten years of contact with the Stygians, it was thought that the robots were a lost race of humans.
Kahn reviewed his notes on his pockcomp, which were sparse, since so little was known about the Stygians. The first known contact was forty-eight years ago. An exploration ship working for a private development company had been surveying star systems in the NGC 7635 cluster for earth-like planets when they came upon a strange starcraft unlike any they had ever seen before. When they attempted electromagnetic contact, they received no reply. Thinking it a derelict, they boarded it only to find human-like beings who immediately took the explorers prisoner and using sophisticated mental equipment learned the official language of Olympia (used almost universally within the human empire) and much else about humanity. Since that time, contacts with the Stygians through their humanoid robots had been few and only with private individuals and businesses. A small amount of trade existed with them, but only via stellar systems in a sort of no-man's land between the Stygian and Olympian empires. According to what intelligence the traders gleaned from their robot trading partners, the Stygians controlled as much of the Perseus arm of the galaxy as the Olympian controlled of the Orion arm.
Finally the blonde robot said, "Prince Ron Bo Kahn, Aristotle will see you now." Kahn wondered how she knew. He had watched her and noticed no communication with anyone. His concluded that contact between her and her boss was telepathic.
The alien android's office was richly paneled in dark wood, or a substance resembling it. Otherwise, it was rather sparse, containing only a desk, a small table with a Stanton chess set on its inlaid checkerboard surface, and two armchairs.
Aristotle walked around the end of the desk and held out its hand. "Welcome to Stygia, Prince Kahn. Please accept my apologies for keeping you waiting, but a courier ship just arrived. I wanted to be sure I understood the latest dispatches from my masters before this meeting--in case of a change of orders."
Aristotle's appearance was that of a handsome dark-haired relatively young human male with a well-trimmed beard with features identical to Kahn's own. Kahn might have been looking in a mirror or at an identical twin. Kahn thought, It's another psychological ploy to dismay me. These Stygians are crafty, if not too subtle.
"I understand." Kahn did understand. Because galactic distances were so vast, electromagnetic signals were impossibly slow for meaningful communication between stellar systems. Hence, all messages from or to outside a system were by FLT courier ship. Even these took long months to arrive from distant parts of the galaxy.
As Aristotle shook Kahn's hand, he smiled and said, "According to your dossier, one of your hobbies is chess. Since we've come in contact with you humans, I've taken up the game and learned to enjoy it. It's one of the few recreations that you humans have where luck plays no part. It's all skill and logic. I'd be pleased if, while we talk, you would indulge me in a friendly match."
Kahn wondered where the alien android had learned chess. He decided that it had to be from the traders. This indulging in an intricate game while they negotiated was likely another psychological ploy, like keeping him cooling his heels in the outer office for an hour and giving his counterpart his face. Well, two can play at that game, he thought. I've beaten many of our own computers, why shouldn't I beat this arrogant android?
"I'd be delighted."
Kahn and Aristotle pulled up chairs on each side of the chess table. Aristotle took a black pawn in its left clenched fist and a white pawn in its right fist, put its hands behind its back for a few seconds and held his fists out with the pawns concealed. "Please choose."
Kahn tapped the robot's right fist. Aristotle turned his palm up. In it lay the black pawn. "It seems I have white and first move."
After Kahn placed his pawn into position, Aristotle turned the set so that the black pieces were in front of him. Kahn said, "Before we get started with either the game or our negotiations, tell me about your masters. What are they like? What I mean is, what do they look like, and what are their goals regarding contact with us? Trade? Conquest? Diplomatic relations? Some combination or other motive? And why do they deal with us only through androids?"
"They are not much different from you in appearance. They are mammalian but hairier. I have learned from your scientific journals that you humans are omnivores and descended from an animal that you call apes. The Stygians--which is the name given to them by persons of your race, not the name they call themselves--are carnivores. They are descended from an animal similar to your lions or other large felines. They deal through androids because they are reclusive and dislike contact with alien races. Does that answer your question or do you require more detail?"
"I would like more detail, but that will suffice for the present." Actually Kahn felt he learned quite a bit by those simple sentences. The fact that they were descended from catlike creatures, were carnivores and reclusive told him worlds about their likely psychological makeup, which should aid tremendously in attempts to deal with them--or make war on them. He tried another ploy. "You must be a rather sophisticated machine for your master to trust you with a diplomatic mission of this magnitude."
Aristotle chuckled. "Oh yes. The plastic and metal body that you see before you is but a tiny part of my being. Like one of your cells to you. Most of this planet is devoted to my essence."
"In other words this planet is one enormous artificial intelligence."
"To your way of thinking, that is true."
"And what of your master, Lord Growlgrr? Is he the emperor of the Stygian empire?"
"Actually, no. He is simply one of many warlords. However, he has been elected by the Stygian council as the..." Aristotle paused for a moment, "...there is no human word equivalent for his title ... to deal with you humans."
"I see. And what is that Lord Growlgrr wishes from us humans of the Olympian Empire?"
"He wishes for Emperor Mikado to concede all star systems west of a line running from the Cygnus Rift to Epsilon Aurigae to the Stygians."
Kahn rose to his feet in shock, almost tipping over the chess table. "Why, that's outrageous. Mikado would go to war before giving up that much territory."
"Then I'm afraid that you humans and the Stygians must go to war."
Kahn collapsed into the chair again. "Those were your orders? To make that impossible demand? This Growlgrr must've known what our reply would be. It sounds as though he intended all along to go to war with us."
"My masters love war, much as you and I love chess. Even if your emperor would've agreed to Growlgrr's demands, he would've found an excuse to attack you."
"I see. When will hostilities begin?"
Aristotle picked up a chess piece and moved it into position. "They already have. Pawn to King Four. Your move."