The Pale Cast of Thought
By Jeff Baker
The phone rang as he was dreaming he was playing Kasparov. Koznowski rolled over and a hoarse voice called out his name.
“Bronson. Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s an emergency, Leonid,” Bronson said. “You need to get over here.”
“Here, where?” Koznowski asked.
“The Auditorium! He wants to talk to you!”
“Who wants to talk to me?” Koznowski asked, his eyes blearily focusing on the hotel alarm clock: 2:57.
“Aaron!” Bronson said. “He’s upset about the match and about losing to you! He says it shouldn’t have happened.”
Koznowski smiled to himself. The match had gone well; at least the audience had been pleased.
“Aaron is despondent. Aaron is talking about ending it all!” Bronson said.
“Aaron is a computer,” Koznowski said. “Computers don’t get despondent. Computers don’t talk about ending it all.”
“This one does!” Bronson said. “He wouldn’t shut down when we tried shutting him down for the night! And now he’s talking about erasing all his files! He’s locked us out of his system. We can’t even hack our way in.”
“And he wants to talk to me?” Koznowski sighed.
“Only you! He’s insistent! Nobody else!” Bronson’s voice was pleading. He’d probably been pleading a lot; he was getting hoarser.
“All right, I’ll be there,” Koznowski said, swinging his feet over the side of the bed. He hoed it was a dream. If it was, Kasparov might be waiting at the auditorium instead of Bronson.
The Auditorium at Kuyper University was a dark bulk at that hour. Inside, the only lights were on the stage. Bronson was pacing nervously in front of the glistening box that housed Aaron. Bronson looked up, saw Koznowski started to say something, thought the better of it and gestured towards the chair opposite Aaron. Then he rushed off the stage.
“Mister Koznowski,” Aaron’s voice, sounding not at all artificial came from the speakers. “Good of you to come.”
“Hello, Aaron,” Koznowski said. “I hear you wanted to see me.”
“You are a better chess-player than I. that is not supposed to be possible,” Aaron said.
“Nobody wins all the time,” Koznowski said sitting down.
“I am not programmed to lose,” Aaron said. “I literally know everything about this game. In losing to you, I was proved faulty. I should be discontinued.”
Koznowski didn’t know what to say. He kept remembering Hamlet’s soliloquy and the words “the pale cast of thought” kept running through his head. So did the meaning of “To be or not to be.” He’d memorized that speech in High School. And memories began to flood his mind. So, Koznowski began to talk. All the successes, all the failures and setbacks (there had been more of them) all the times he had considered giving up. All the reasons he had kept going. He had kept working at his career; grit his teeth, taken day jobs, subsisted on cheap corn dogs.
He kept talking through the night, and was feeling talked-out when he saw daylight under the doors to the auditorium. Finally, Aaron spoke up.
“I understand what you are saying, Mr. Koznowski,” Aaron said. “Defeat and failure are not unique. They are part of the human experience.”
“Yes,” Koznowski said. “They are.”
“I think I should shut down now,” Aaron said. “To live to fight another day.”
There was a buzzing and whirring from the box.
“To sleep, perchance to dream.” Aaron said. After a moment, the only noise on the stage was a low hum as one light steadily blinked.
Koznowski silently passed Bronson, who looked relieved, and headed back to his hotel. He had a flight to catch, but instead he pulled the drapes and went back to bed. In his dreams he was playing Kasparov and Aaron.