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Zugzwang

Once a software engineer in Silicon Valley, Curtis now writes speculative fiction and makes puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His short fiction has appeared in Leading Edge magazine and SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror, and is forthcoming in the Baen Books anthology Mission: Tomorrow. Curtis is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers' workshops. See his complete bibliography at: curtiscchen.com/stories.
"You lose," Lieutenant Darrow said. "Again."
He tipped over Erin's game piece, the one they were calling the king. Ton-Gla-Ben wasn't exactly like chess, but the mechanics were very similar, and the actual Quggano names were mostly unpronounceable by humans.
Erin hated chess. She also hated being stuck in this cargo bay, with the ship's first officer running her through a crash course in alien game theory.
"How long have we been in here?" Erin asked.
Darrow checked his wristcom. "Not that long." His atypical lack of precision meant it was longer than he wanted to say.
"This is useless," Erin said.
"You just need more practice." Darrow swept up the pieces. "Let's try a different opening."
"Tell me again why we can't just cheat?" Erin asked. "I wear a hidden micro-cam, you coach me through an earpiece?"
Darrow shook his head. "The Quggano are honorable, and they enforce honor in others. The competition chamber is fully radiation-shielded. And you'll be naked."
"Right," Erin said. "How could I forget the best part?" She was not looking forward to exposing her flabby, middle-aged body to a bunch of aliens. She wondered if there was still time to kill herself.
"Ready to go again?" Darrow reset the board to its starting position.
"Why are we even bothering?" Erin stood up. "I barely have time to learn this game, let alone get good at it. I might as well concede and save myself the humiliation."
"If you forfeit, we all become prisoners of war."
Erin groaned. She wanted to pace, but there was no room. The Myrmidon wasn't designed to carry passengers. Most of this compartment was still taken up by supply crates.
It was pure dumb luck that Erin had ended up here. A piece of space debris had killed her star drive, and she'd spent nearly a week adrift before the Myrmidon happened into range of her beacon. Unfortunately, a Quggano destroyer had also heard Erin's distress call, and intercepted the Myrmidon right after they picked up Erin's ship.
When Captain Yokota demanded a champion game--a variation on the ancient Quggano single-combat tradition--the aliens had named Erin as their opponent. That had surprised everyone on Myrmidon, but the Quggano's rules did allow each side to select a specific enemy champion to challenge. It didn't happen very often. Usually, neither side knew who was on the other ship, and the respective ship captains acted as champions by default. All of Myrmidon's senior officers had been trained to play Ton-Gla-Ben, and the XO, Lieutenant Darrow, was the best. So he was teaching Erin.
"You could get lucky," Darrow said. "You never know."
Erin sighed and sat down again. "Fine. Not like I have anything better to do with my last few hours of life."
"Wait," Darrow said as she reached for a light pawn. "Say the word. You have to say it when you start the game."
"I can't say the damn word."
"Just try. Please?"
Erin grumbled. "Gaalaann."
"Close," Darrow said. "But not quite. Gaalaann."
"What the hell does it even mean?"
Darrow shrugged. "Who knows? It's just part of the ritual. Come on, try again. More of an accent on the second syllable. Gaalaann."
"I can't hear the difference," Erin said.
"Listen closely," Darrow said.
The door chimed and slid open. Rayley, the ship's science officer, burst into the room, looking very excited.
"We've got something," Rayley said. "A way for you to win."
"A kid?" Erin gaped. "They've got a child on board?"
The conference room display showed an interior scan of the enemy destroyer: an overlay of radar, thermal imaging, and other passive radiation scans. There was definitely some kind of smaller creature running back and forth between two adult Quggano, an indistinct blue-green blob flanked by large, eight-legged, insectoid forms. Erin felt like she was watching some kind of bizarre nature documentary.
"Rayley hacked into their comms," Captain Yokota said. "The adults are some kind of state dignitary and his mate. Their presence aboard a destroyer is unusual, but not unheard of."
"And now you can call out the child," Rayley said. "Name him as your opponent."
"You know it's a boy?" Erin said.
"We know his name, his age, his bedtime--"
"It's allowed," Darrow said. "They never asked us to name an opponent. Most champion games involve the captains of the respective warships by default. The Quggano named Miss Bountain because they knew she was a civilian, and therefore hadn't been trained to play Ton-Gla-Ben."
"And neither has this kid," Rayley said. "He won't know anything about the game; his family's not military caste. But he's old enough to serve, according to their laws. They have to honor your champion request."
"The losing champion dies." Erin looked at the captain. "I'm not going to kill a kid. You must be considering other options."
"Sure," Yokota said. "I can blow up my ship."
Erin blinked. "What?"
"Nobody here is going to become a Quggano POW," Yokota said. "If you lose the game, we trigger the auto-destruct and hope we take those bastards with us."
"This is the worst day of my life," Erin said as she walked into the airlock.
"Stop saying that. You could still win," Darrow said, joining her inside and closing the inner door behind them. "And win or lose, you'll have more than done your part for the war effort. We've already transmitted a sitrep back to Fleet Command. Now that we know how the champion callout ritual works, we can target Quggano warships carrying civilians--"
"Great," Erin said. "So I'm going to cause the deaths of more innocent people."
Darrow stopped working the airlock controls and frowned at her. "They're not people. They're aliens."
Erin felt a headache starting. "Anyone you can have meaningful communication with is a person," she said. "It doesn't matter if they're human, or alien, or some kind of hyperintelligent computer virus. Life is life."
The airlock began cycling. Darrow turned back to face Erin and raised both hands, palms out in surrender. "I'm not qualified to argue philosophy with you, ma'am. All I'm saying is, we're at war, and I'd rather it be us instead of them who wins."
"Nobody wins if we're all dead," Erin said.
Darrow avoided her gaze, instead watching the airlock status lights very intently. "Miss Bountain, there is one thing I'd like to give you before you go in there."
Erin stepped back. "Look, Darrow, I'm sure you're a nice guy and all, but I don't even know your first name--"
Darrow gave her a shocked look. "I'm not propositioning you."
Erin hoped she wasn't blushing too much. "Well, I am just about to take off all my clothes here."
Darrow shook his head. "Not to boast, ma'am, but if we were going to do, um, that, I think it would last a little longer than the two minutes it's going to take this airlock to finish cycling."
"Fine. Sorry. My mistake." Erin felt like dying already. "What is it you want to give me, then?"
Darrow reached into a tiny pouch hidden inside the left sleeve of his uniform jacket and pulled out a small red capsule. Erin didn't need to ask what it was. She didn't want to accept it, either, but Darrow pressed it into her hand.
"Hide it under your tongue," he said, lowering his voice as if someone could eavesdrop over the noise of atmosphere filling the docking tunnel between Myrmidon and the Quggano ship. "It's all organic compounds, even the capsule itself, so it won't show up on any scans. If you need to use it, just bite down to break the seal. The chemicals will mix together and activate the--" He stopped and shrugged.
"Poison." Erin finished the sentence.
"It's very fast-acting," Darrow said, "and completely painless."
"How the hell would you know?"
"Look," Darrow said, "we don't know what the Quggano do with the losing champions. But no human who goes into the competition chamber has ever come out again. If it looks like they're going to do something that--if they're going to torture you, or worse--this will let you end it quickly."
Erin hated not being able to argue with him. She hated being afraid like this, feeling powerless and limited to only bad choices.
She took the capsule and shoved it under her tongue. It felt cold and hard, not merely lifeless but actively malignant. She hated knowing that she might actually welcome death soon.
The airlock finished cycling, and the bolts clanged open. Darrow pushed the door outward, and cold air billowed in from the docking tunnel. Erin shivered.
"Whenever you're ready, ma'am," Darrow said, turning his back. "Take your time."
Erin unzipped her jacket. "Worst day of my life," she muttered.
Erin didn't quite understand why the Quggano insisted that both champions playing Ton-Gla-Ben had to be nude in the competition chamber. Sure, part of it was to enforce the no-cheating rule, making sure nobody could smuggle in any devices to give them an unfair advantage over their opponent, but according to Darrow, most of it was based in the Quggano warrior culture. Something about having to strip down to your birth essence to reveal your true nature in single combat, shedding any impediments which might distract from your own personal ability.
She pulled herself through the docking tunnel, doing her best to ignore the swaying of the cylindrical passage and to not think about the fact that there was only a thin membrane separating her from hard vacuum. The lack of gravity was a welcome novelty, though she did grumble when she reached the other ship's gravity field and sagged again.
The Quggano airlock didn't look too dissimilar from the Myrmidon's, aside from the unfamiliar signage in their language. Erin briefly wondered if Darrow would find that a compelling argument for the aliens' personhood.
There were also markings on the floor--not quite arrows, but definitely a line leading out from the airlock and down the corridor. Erin followed the line into the Quggano ship, suddenly self-conscious about her nude body. Why hadn't she spent more time on the treadmill? Why hadn't she stuck to a healthier diet? Why hadn't she been more careful with her interstellar navigation?
Two Quggano guards met her at the entrance to the competition chamber. They looked like all the pictures she'd ever seen: tall and spindly, humanoid enough to be familiar but with enough bug-like features to make them unnerving. She had no idea what the child would look like.
After the guards looked her over and passed a scanning wand across every part of her body, they opened the chamber door and motioned her forward. Erin was very proud of herself for not fainting or stumbling as she stepped inside. The door closed behind her.
In the center of the square room was a heavy round table with two stools. Another door was outlined on the far wall. A grid of illuminated strips cast light from above. The walls, floor, and ceiling were otherwise bare. Erin wondered if every Quggano warship kept a special room set aside just for these contests, or if they hastily converted a cargo hold every time something like this came up.
She walked forward and sat down on the stool closer to her, which was mercifully padded with some kind of cloth. The only objects on the table were the Ton-Gla-Ben board and pieces. She looked around nervously, even though Darrow had assured her there would be no cameras or other recording sensors in here. It was some kind of point of honor that the two champions would face each other alone.
The game board had been oriented so that Erin was playing the dark side. That meant she would move second, and could be at a disadvantage. She wondered if her opponent would complain--or even notice--if she turned the board around, so that she would move first as the light side. Switching seats might be a bit obvious.
Erin picked up the dark king, which was heavier than she expected. The piece had been carved out of some kind of rock, apparently by hand. She could see that the lines cut into the sides of the conical shape were not quite straight. What kind of history did these objects have? Were they the Quggano captain's personal effects? A family heirloom?
She sighed and put the game piece down. Maybe Darrow had the right idea. It would be easier to fight the Quggano if she didn't think of them as people. But they were. Erin made her living as a merchant by treating all kinds of alien life forms as people. Her business was understanding what each species valued, and finding the most profitable way to trade between as many of them as possible. She didn't judge those species which prized things she found distasteful, like cannibalism or slavery; she just didn't do business with them. But she had to acknowledge that they were people. Maybe bad people, or just people she didn't want to hang out with, but still people.
The door in the far wall slid open, and Erin's opponent entered the chamber.
The child didn't look like a miniature version of an adult Quggano, as Erin had thought it--he--might. Instead of walking upright on his four back limbs, he scuttled forward on all eight legs. The door slammed shut behind him, and Erin barely caught a glimpse of two adults--his parents, presumably--watching as their offspring crawled forth into battle.
How the hell did I wind up here?
The young Quggano climbed up onto the stool across from Erin. His body was squat and round. His dark, bulbous eyes reflected the ceiling lights. She couldn't tell where he was actually looking; the Quggano's fly-like ommatidia radiated in all directions. It felt like the kid was staring at her. She folded her arms to cover her bare breasts--which was silly; an alien wasn't likely to ogle her naked body. But it just felt wrong, to be unclothed in front of a child.
"Hi," Erin said, after the silence had gone from awkward to weird. "I'm Erin. What's your name?"
The kid tilted his head slightly.
"Erin," she repeated, tapping her chest with one hand. She pointed at the kid. "What's your name?"
The kid raised one foreleg, aimed it at Erin, and made a noise that could have been interpreted as "AAARRRNNN."
Erin nodded and pointed at herself again. "Erin. Close enough. What's your name?"
The kid touched its own thorax and said something like "MMMAAAKH," with extra hissing at the end.
Erin stared for a moment. "Mikey?"
The kid repeated the sound and waved his antennae.
"Mikey," Erin repeated. "So. Nice weather we're having, eh?"
"GAALAANN," Mikey said.
He reached out with two limbs, picked up a light pawn, and moved it into the center of the board. The surface glowed momentarily, just as Darrow had predicted: it was recording each move, for archival purposes. It would also send a signal outside the chamber when the game ended. That was the only communication permitted between this chamber and the outside world for the duration of the contest.
"Well," Erin sighed, "I guess we're getting right down to business."
She pushed a dark pawn forward to block the light pawn from advancing. Mikey immediately grabbed one of his tall-bishops and shoved it forward.
Erin frowned, her hand hovering over the board. Why did this seem familiar?
"Light pawn to center," she murmured to herself. "Dark pawn to block, tall-bishop forward, then..."
She remembered. This was one of the first game openings Darrow had taught her, a simple strategy he called "tower defense." Erin lifted one of her side-rooks and moved it up next to her pawn, watching Mikey's expression. His mandibles twitched, but she had no idea what that meant.
As soon as Erin released her side-rook, Mikey moved his other tall-bishop into position to threaten the leftmost of her three knights. Completely by the book.
Was this kid just playing by rote? Did he have any idea what he'd been dropped into here? That he was literally fighting for his life?
Erin's vision blurred. She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked up at Mikey again. She had no idea what he was thinking, and she couldn't ask him, given the language barrier. They couldn't even talk about what was happening. They just had to go through with this ritual, and then one of them had to die.
It was an impossible choice. She knew how to break through Mikey's tower defense--if that was what he was playing--but she couldn't condemn this kid to death just because he didn't know how to play a damn game.
On the other hand, how could she sentence the entire crew of the Myrmidon to death, just because she couldn't stand the thought of being a murderer? Was her own psychological well-being worth all those hundreds of lives?
Mikey made a noise, jolting her back to the game. Erin interpreted his utterance as impatience, and she reflexively made the next textbook move, sliding her other side-rook forward to defend her knight.
As soon as her hand released the dark piece, Mikey moved his tall-bishop in for the kill, using another arm to remove the dark knight and set it on the table beside the game board. He lifted his head and made a cawing noise that might have been laughter.
Erin shook her head. He was playing exactly the way Darrow had shown her not to. Sure, Mikey's tall-bishop was now inside her lines, but he had left himself wide open to a counterattack. Erin could take out his tall-bishop with her side-rook, then send her other two knights in through the opening he had just made. She could decimate his pieces in half a dozen moves. There was still no guarantee that she would win, but if all Mikey knew about Ton-Gla-Ben was what he'd read in a book, she actually had a fighting chance.
"AAARRNNN," Mikey said, fluttering his antennae. He tapped the table with two legs. "AAARRNNN GAALAANN."
"Okay, okay," Erin said. "But you're not going to like it."
She captured his tall-bishop with her side-rook. Mikey stared silently for a moment, then moved his other tall-bishop forward, setting up to capture her side-rook.
Erin gaped for a moment. He'd just gone off-book, but not in a good way. There was no advantage to taking her side-rook now. Sending his other tall-bishop in was an obvious mistake. Was he just baiting her? Testing to see what this dumb human would do?
"What the hell are you doing?" Erin muttered.
She decided to do something off the wall. She took her rightmost pawn and shoved it forward. The move was completely irrelevant to everything that had happened in the game so far. Would Mikey ignore it and take her side-rook in an act of short-sighted vengeance?
He didn't. He moved his own light pawn forward, blocking the dark pawn she'd just released. Now they were deadlocked, removing an entire section of the board from play.
Erin frowned at him. "What the hell are you doing?" she said out loud.
She grabbed her leftmost pawn and moved it out, mirroring her last move. Once again, Mikey blocked with his own pawn. Now two entire lanes were unplayable.
"What the hell are you doing?" Erin repeated.
He stared back at her with giant, unblinking eyes. "GAALAANN."
Erin looked down at the board, then up at Mikey again. If he was going to play like this--short-sighted, reacting to low-value captures, focused on retaliation and spite instead of long-term gain--there was a very good chance Erin could beat him. And this was a single contest, not some kind of tournament.
One game, and then one of them would die.
"GAALAANN," Mikey repeated, tapping four arms on the table.
Impatient. Childlike.
She couldn't do it. She couldn't send this kid to his death. She couldn't live with herself if she did that.
If Captain Yokota chose to blow up his ship and kill his own crew, that was on him. That wouldn't be Erin's fault. It wasn't her fault that the Quggano had named her to play this stupid game, or that this idiotic war was happening in the first place.
But it would be her fault if she killed this child.
Her hand trembled as she reached forward and picked up a dark short-bishop. It was entirely too early in the game for her to send it forward, especially now that every piece would be channeled into the center of the board, but it was the surest way to guarantee a quick loss. Once her short-bishops were gone, she would have no close-in defenses for her king.
She dropped the short-bishop onto the board and withdrew her hand. She looked up at Mikey.
"You're not that dumb," she said. "Come on, let's just get this over with."
He tilted his head at her. He leaned forward to study the board. Then he picked up a light side-rook and moved it up behind the light pawn in his left side lane.
Erin blinked. He had just locked up that piece, too. Nobody was moving out of the side lanes until one of those pawns got captured, and that wasn't going to happen until somebody risked sacrificing a knight to do it.
"Look," Erin said, moving her center knight into position to attack the light pawn in her right side lane. "Look. See that? What do you do about that? Come on, this is basic--"
Mikey seized his other side-rook and placed it behind his right side lane pawn.
"What the hell are you doing?" Erin stood up. Her hands clutched the sides of her head. "Oh my God, what are you doing?"
Mikey tilted his head up toward her. "GAALAANN."
Erin folded her arms and sat down. "Don't tell me. That word does not mean what I think it means."
Mikey repeated the sound. Erin strained to hear any difference in inflection or tone, but her human ears hadn't been trained to understand Quggano. Mikey waved his arms at the board. Erin felt anger warming her cheeks.
"No," she said. "Fuck you, kid. There is no way I'm winning this game. Fuck. You."
With the last two syllables, she picked up and then dropped her third knight, putting it right in front of a light short-bishop. It was a ridiculously dumb move, exposing her to at least three different attacks, and it should have been irresistible to any opponent.
Mikey ignored the knight and moved his tall-bishop out of attack position.
Erin couldn't believe what she was seeing. She looked over the board, then looked it over again. Both light and dark positions were a mess. There was a chance that they could both end up blocking all possible avenues of attack and--
She gasped and looked up at Mikey. He tapped his arms on the table next to the board, dancing between the light side-rooks and pawns in the outermost lanes. The lanes which were now completely blocked.
He hadn't been impatient. He had been trying to draw her attention to his strategy.
"Smart kid," Erin said, smiling. "All right, short stack. Let's do this. Gaalaann."
She moved another short-bishop into the center of the board. Mikey made that cawing-laughter noise again, then moved one of his own short-bishops forward. Yes. Erin could see it now. She could see exactly what he was doing, and what he wanted her to do.
Neither of them wanted to win this game. Neither of them wanted to be a killer.
They were going to work together to reach a stalemate.
She tried not to think about what would happen after they finished the game. Darrow hadn't briefed her on what the Quggano would do with the champions if their contest ended in a draw. She expected it wasn't a possibility in single combat. Even with Ton-Gla-Ben, stalemate was rare, because it was easy to exploit even the smallest mistake.
But neither Erin nor Mikey was trying to win this game. They weren't trying to find an optimal strategy; they were actively working against themselves, cutting off lanes, blocking their own pieces, doing things that no serious player would ever consider. And they were both pretty good at playing badly.
She didn't know how long it took, but when Mikey made the last move--jamming a pawn into a circle of pieces surrounding the dark king, ensuring that nothing could get through--the entire board surface flashed. Whatever intelligence was built into it must have been able to tell that no further moves were possible. They had reached a verifiable stalemate condition.
Mikey pulled his arms back and waved them in the air.
Erin said, "Now what?"
Both chamber doors clanged open. Four Quggano guards, looking even bigger and more menacing now that Erin had gotten used to seeing Mikey's compact form, stomped into the chamber and grabbed Erin and Mikey. Erin didn't even have time to say good-bye, or offer a handshake to her opponent. She hoped they weren't both being taken away to be executed. Was not winning the same thing as losing?
Erin shivered as refrigerated oxygen cycled into the Myrmidon's airlock. She clutched her bundle of clothes against her body. The shivering was partly due to the cold air, but mostly because she'd had no idea what the Quggano would do to her for throwing the game, and she had feared the worst.
She had been pleasantly surprised when they escorted her back through the docking tunnel with remarkable grace and used their unexpectedly gentle pincers to nudge her into the airlock, where her clothes were still waiting in a pile on the floor. It would take her a few minutes to get over being scared out of her mind.
Lieutenant Darrow rushed forward as the airlock doors opened and threw a scratchy Fleet-issue gray blanket over Erin's shoulders. He guided her onto a bench in the corridor. A crewman waiting there handed Erin a cup of something dark and warm. Erin spat out the red capsule under her tongue, sending it skittering across the deck, and watched the crewman race after it.
"You did it," Darrow said. "I don't believe it. I mean, it's great that you won--"
"I didn't win," Erin said, pulling the blanket around herself. She felt not just cold, but numb. She gulped down the warm liquid. It might have been coffee, but the important thing was that it was warm.
Darrow frowned and knelt down next to her. "What do you mean, you didn't win? They let you go."
"S-stalemate," Erin stuttered. She took another drink. Her fingertips tingled as feeling returned to them. "Nobody won."
"That's--" Darrow stood up, his mouth open. "I've never heard of that happening before."
Erin chuckled. "First time for everything, I guess."
Darrow's wristcom chirped. He raised it to his face. "Darrow here."
"This is the captain," came Yokota's voice. "Get Miss Bountain up to the bridge. The Quggano want to talk to her."
Erin was glad that Darrow delayed the lift long enough for her to get dressed. Everyone on the bridge watched as she and Darrow walked out of the lift and over to where the captain stood, in front of the main viewscreen.
The display showed the Quggano bridge, with a similar array of personnel: the captain, wearing his ceremonial sash, in the middle; next to him, another officer; behind them, Mikey, flanked by his parents; and the rest of the crew at attention. Two dozen alien eyes stared out from the screen, dark orbs rotating back and forth occasionally. The Quggano stood perfectly still otherwise.
"Here she is," Captain Yokota said, motioning for Erin to stand next to him. "Our champion, Erin Bountain of Earth."
His eyes flashed a what-the-hell-is-going-on look at her. She shrugged and wondered what to do with her hands while the Quggano translator relayed Captain Yokota's message. She settled for folding her arms across her chest. No need for everyone on the bridge to see how cold she was.
"Captain FFRRHHHD congratulates both champions on their performance in the contest," the translator said. "It is an unusual outcome, but surely speaks to the skill of the competitors."
"Thank you, Captain Fred," Erin said. She heard someone cough behind her and saw Yokota shooting a dirty look over his shoulder. "I feel honored to have played Ton-Gla-Ben with a challenger as adept as Mikey."
This time, someone actually laughed out loud. Yokota snapped his fingers and pointed at the lift. Erin heard footsteps behind her.
"As tradition dictates, we will now open peace negotiations," the translator said.
"What?" Erin said.
"We accept," Yokota said, stepping forward. "Please let me offer--"
"Excuse me, Captain," the translator said. "Negotiations will proceed between our two champions."
"What?" Yokota said.
"They have proven themselves in the contest," the translator said. "They now represent our respective species in this proceeding. I will translate for Champion MMMAAAKH." He gestured with one arm, and Mikey's parents reluctantly released him.
"Get them to a conference table," Yokota said to Erin, under his breath. "Do not say anything else. You get them to the table, and then you hand off to me. You got that?"
"Don't worry, Captain," Erin replied. "I got this."
She ignored his glare and stepped forward to meet Mikey's image.
"Good game," she said.
The translator conveyed her message. Mikey said something in response.
"Champion MMMAAAKH respectfully requests a rematch," the translator said. "At your convenience, purely for sport."
Erin smiled. "Tell him I'm ready. Anytime, anywhere. Gaalaann."
Mikey waved his antennae and made that cawing sound again. The translator seemed confused. "Apologies, Champion Erin, I am not certain I understand your meaning."
"Gaalaann. It's what you say when you begin a game of Ton-Gla-Ben, right?"
"That is the tradition," the translator said. "However, the word itself can convey other nuances."
Erin glanced at Darrow. "Like what?"
The translator flicked one antenna. "It denotes a challenge, but the specific context can apply other connotations. In the most literal sense, I believe it would translate as: 'Follow me, if you are able.' What did you mean to say?"
Erin smiled at the people on the viewscreen. "That's exactly what I meant."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 19th, 2014


"Zugzwang" started as a flash fiction piece (from my "512 Words or Fewer" story-a-week project) which comprised abbreviated versions of the first two scenes you see here. At the time, I had no idea where the story might go after that, but I knew I wanted Erin to find an alternative to both of the terrible options being presented to her. I'm a big fan of stories in which people figure out creative ways to succeed, or redefine success in their own terms.

Thanks to the other writers in my Thursday-online and Tuesday-in-person critique groups, who offered great feedback and helped me with the ending. You're the best around.

- Curtis C. Chen

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