Monday, October 19, 2009

Fiction: Dark Blue

Creative Commons License
This work by Jonty Kershaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

    On May the 19th, IBM dismantled the outer casing of their newest supercomputer Dark Blue, separated the internal components, and, on the advice of their legal counsel and marketing department, had the remains melted, separated, blessed by a member of the Vatican Inner Council, and dumped into a variety of the deepest crevasses in the Pacific Ocean.

*  *  *

    For the events that took place that day to be truly understood and appreciated, this story must begin five days earlier in the tiny town of Niwot, Colorado, at IBM’s international headquarters. IBM had recently unveiled their newest generation of supercomputer, codenamed Dark Blue. The new model, the details of which were kept a closely guarded secret, was rumored to surpass the previous supercomputers Big Blue and Deep Blue exponentially.
    As a demonstration of the power of their new technology, the IBM marketing department had arranged a publicity chess match between Dark Blue and one Vasilley Prater, the Russian/Armenian chess champion who was the only person their supercomputers had never been able to defeat.
    Recounts of the previous matches were published in the major newspapers, describing how easily and thoroughly Mr. Prater had beaten the last four supercomputers of the Deep Blue line.
The match was to take place in one of the giant, stark-white storage rooms at IBM’s world headquarters. The room had been thoroughly cleaned and sterilized. Due to the delicate nature of Dark Blue’s systems, no one but the champion was to be allowed in this room. All spectators and members of the media were to view the game on massive projector screens in another, similar room nearby.
    The day of the match, the Viewing Room was abuzz. Television equipment operators fought desperately to plug their equipment into the live feed. Reporters deployed dangerous amounts of hairspray while their assistants danced about trying to find the best angle for the camera shot. Irritable old chess experts shuffled their buttocks and jostled each other with their elbows to make room for themselves and the little pegboards they would use to follow the game. Caterers struggled in vain to please a hundred egotists of various types.
    The three big screens spat and flickered to life. The screen on the left displayed a simple electronic representation of a chessboard with the pieces in their beginning positions. The screen on the right showed an overhead shot of the actual chessboard to be played upon. The slightly larger center screen showed a wide-angle shot of the Game Room. The Game Room was white and massive. So white and massive that it was hard to tell where the floor ended and the ceiling began. Cleverly concealed lighting cast the entire room in an even, soft white light. The room was virtually empty, except for a glossy black cable that snaked toward something small and out of focus in the center of the room.
    The camera began slowly to move, following the carefully snaked cable toward the distant objects. All this had been meticulously planned by IBM’s marketing division for maximum effect, and it was working. The Viewing Room was silent. Even the people harassing the caterers about non-vegan ingredients and peanut allergens shut up to watch it. There was no music. One reporter would later describe it as reminiscent of the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
    The setup in the center of the room slowly became discernible. A simple chair facing a simple wooden table with a simple chessboard and a robotic arm. The cable on the floor snaked past the table and into the outer casing of the supercomputer named Dark Blue.
    Dark Blue was about seven feet high and five feet wide on the side facing the table, and stretched back fifteen feet or so. It sat on four sturdy feet and looked somewhat like a giant iron lung. The body was made of some kind of knurled metal and painted a dull, military green. The body was seamless except for some vents and a rectangular computer screen facing the chess table. The words “DARK BLUE” were painted in oblique capitals on both sides of the body with dark blue paint. It made no sound.
    The glossy black cable provided power to Dark Blue, and also relayed information back to the Viewing Room, where it was connected to another identical computer screen and a rather old-fashioned-looking printer fed with a spool of green-and-white striped paper. Two men stood guard on each side of the printer, wearing pastel blue suits and garish tropical ties in an obvious attempt to appear casual. They stood at attention with a distinctly military bearing.
    Vasilley Prater entered the camera’s field of view, and shuffled toward the chair. He was a small man, and rumpled. The suit he wore was also rumpled, and of a cut fashionable not since his youth fifty years or so before. His long overcoat was of the finest Soviet-era gray polyester. As he arrived at the table, he took it off and looked around for somewhere to hang it. Finding no hook, he began to sweat and hyperventilate, and muttered to himself in a Slavic accent. In the Viewing Room his translator, a stern, Soviet-Era bulldog of a woman cut from the same cloth as his overcoat, spoke something short and sharp into a microphone. Vasilley nodded, clearly relieved, and folded his coat over the back of the chair.
He sat down.
The printer in the Viewing Room spat out a few lines of text. One of the guards tore the page from the machine and passed it to Vasilley’s translator. She read it out loud to Vasilley in Russian and then turned to the audience. “Dark Blue has expressed h… its admiration for Mr. Vasilley Prater, and has wished him the best of luck in the game.” Vasilley Prater muttered something polite in return, and the game of chess began.
The chess codgers hunched over their pegboards expectantly. The reporters shot a few clips of themselves rubbing their chins and looking thoughtful. The caterers stole bites of food.
The opening moves of a chess game are usually quite similar, and no one was expecting innovation this early in the game, but they were mistaken. Vasilley, who had won the coin toss and was playing white, moved a knight first. A silly, pointless move. The chess codgers gasped.
Dark Blue responded with an equally bizarre move.
Not immediately, however. The robotic arm that was to move its pieces seemed to be experiencing some kind of technical foul-up. It took about fifteen seconds for the arm to move over the chess board and move the piece, and another five seconds to return to its starting position. It whirred loudly as it did so.
The codgers were in uproar. None of them could fathom what was happening. The greatest chess player ever and the smartest computer both seemed to be trying to lose.
The game continued in the same fashion; Vasilley Prater thinking for a few moments and moving a piece, and Dark Blue responding immediately but taking almost half a minute to physically respond. Teeth ground together at the whirring noise that the arm was making. The reporters tapped their toes and estimated how much editing it would take to make the game presentable.
Seven moves into the game, the second smartest chess player in the world leapt to his feet with a yell of “Aha! I see it!” The other chess experts and the reporters and the cameramen and the caterers turned to him. “It is unprecedented! They are thinking so far ahead…” He choked on his own saliva for a moment. “Twenty. Perhaps more.”
    This nearly caused a riot. No one could think that many moves ahead. No one. The number of possible combinations of moves was astronomical. Quite literally astronomical. In fact, it is greater than the estimated number of atoms in the universe. The fourth smartest chess player in the world took a swing at the second, and broke his nose. Local police were called in to break up the ensuing catfight.
    The game continued in its seemingly random way. Pieces were scattered across the board. Every piece imaginable was moved into the most poorly chosen position in an attempt to lure the opponent into an attack. People began to develop permanent nervous ticks. Chess experts looked at their pegboards and openly wept. Reporters looked confused and perhaps scared. The president of IBM made a surreptitious phone call to his PR manager.
    Forty moves into the game. The players had virtually swapped sides on the board. Each player by now had converted all their pawns into a bizarre array of queens, knights, and bishops. Only the second smartest chess player in the world had even a glimmer of what was taking place on the board. The whir of the robotic arm had been rising in pitch, and the arm itself had been slowing down. It now took more than a minute for the arm to move a piece. Blood vessels began to pop in the viewing room.
    And not one piece had been taken by either player.
    Vasilley sat in a growing pool of his own sweat. Dark Blue, who had no moving parts, began to hum and vibrate, almost enough to upset the pieces on the chessboard. The seventh smartest chess player in the world forgot to breathe so long that he passed out. The eighth was found trying to hang himself by his necktie in the women’s bathroom. Reporters continued to look confused. The caterers, responding to the hysteria around them, started methodically stuffing their faces with canapés.
    The game clearly began to take its toll on both the players. Dark Blue’s vibrations took it on a journey a few feet back and forth across the floor. Vasilley was also shaking, and a wild, frenzied look took over his facial muscles. Later, one of the reporters swore she could hear the screeching and chattering noises of the jungle at night.
    On the fifty-first turn, Vasilley Prater spat out a loud “Hah!” of triumph, and moved a bishop diagonally one square over. No one, not even the second smartest chess player in the world, had the slightest clue what this move meant.
    Dark Blue began to emit squealing, groaning noises like the tearing of metal. It took an unprecedented three minutes to decide its next move.
    It took the bishop with a rook.
    Mr. Vasilley Prater raised his eyebrows in surprise, squinted at the board, and fell out of the chair. A thorough autopsy would later reveal that he had suffered not only a fatal heart attack, a stroke, and three massive aneurisms in various parts of his brain, but an impacted wisdom tooth had also severed his lingual nerve, causing him to choke on his own tongue.
    The Viewing Room was silent for half a minute. So was the Game room.
    Then the printer started up. Page upon page of nonsensical letters, numbers, and symbols spewed out. In the Game Room, Dark Blue stopped shaking. Popping noises could be heard. Smoke poured from places smoke couldn’t have poured from. After seventeen and a half pages, the printer stopped, the screens went blank, and Dark Blue shut down forever.
    The only words spoken in the Viewing Room in the next few moments came from the second smartest chess player in the world.
    “Thank God”, he said.

*  *  *

    On May the 19th, IBM dismantled the outer casing of their newest supercomputer Dark Blue, separated the internal components, and, on the advice of their legal counsel and marketing department, had the remains melted, separated, blessed by a member of the Vatican Inner Council, and dumped into a variety of the deepest crevasses in the Pacific Ocean.
    The president of IBM carefully shredded and reshredded the first seventeen pages of nonsense from the printer. Then he read the last page one last time.
    At the end of the nonsense, typed entirely in lower case letters and with no punctuation, were two lines of intelligible script:

nonononovasillev you bastard get up don’t do this to me get up and finish the game get up and play you son of a bitch play

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