Tuesday, July 2, 2024

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 40: “A Swirl in the Dark” • by Paul Celmer

…Previously, in The Odin Chronicles

It was a quiet night at Weber’s Place. Just what Susan craved.  

The whispers from her alternate timelines were a constant torment. Sometimes, she was with Arthur; other times, Arthur acted like he’d never seen her before, and that broke her. Sometimes, she felt like she’d never chosen flight school to escape the family farm in Kansas. And had she discovered the plasma wall fenced the colonists in, or was it out? Everything was mixed up. Her time spent with Odin’s mysterious rock people felt like a dream, widening the fractures in her mind.

Or had she imagined the aliens on Odin III?

But they had given her something. The square gray slab of slate Susan had placed on the bar measured about half the size of a tombstone, but thin, and etched on one side of the square face was a 19x19 grid. Tiny symbols ran along the edges. Two leather bags lay beside the slab. One bag contained black pebbles, the other grey. She had managed to decipher the symbols on the slab—a coordinate system for arranging the pebbles—but the puzzle remained.

Susan alternated colors as she placed pebbles on the grid, but could discern no meaning. Why did they give me this? She ran a weathered hand through a black mass of disheveled hair. She did not want to end her life in this timeline before discovering the answer.

The bar door opened. Susan looked up as boots crunched across the dusty floor. A lean, tall woman in a flight suit strode in. She looked to be maybe in her late 60s, though her posture seemed thieved from a ballet dancer. Her gray hair flowed down to end in an intricate knot threaded into a silver ring that swayed just below her shoulder blades. Susan had seen her around Odin here and there and knew she commanded a contractor ship.

“Ha-Eun,” Ingrid said. “I thought the Bisjalu was due in two hours ago.”

“We had a little problem with a premature detonation of a thermo-nuke,” Ha-Eun replied. “Nothing serious.”

“Unflappable as ever. A Soju?” Ingrid asked.


Susan cleared the pebbles off the slab in a loud scrape.

Ha-Eun turned to look. “A Baduk player!” Her eyes sparkled.

“Baduk?” Susan said from a haze.

“The game. From ancient Earth. How did you get it?”

“Friends.” Tired of being mocked as a mushroom druggie, Susan said nothing of rock people. “But they didn’t say what it was.”

Ha-Eun’s eyes moved up and down Susan’s tattered clothes, her face softening in sympathy. “Baduk is incredibly old. At least 2,000 years before the Roman Empire of old Earth. Venerated for centuries in Asian cultures.”

“Teach me to play.”

Ha-Eun chuckled “This game takes years to learn. A lifetime, even. Although the basic rules are simple.”

Ha-Eun took a handful of pebbles and placed a few on the intersections of the grid. “The goal is to surround territory. You use your pieces to form lines, or fences, that surround the empty space. Pieces completely surrounded are removed. The side with the most space wins.”

“Sounds easy.”

“Except while you are fencing in territory, your opponent is also fencing in territory of their own. And when the two fences mingle, it becomes very difficult to discern who is fencing in who.”

“So these symbols are just a recording of moves in a game?” Susan pointed at the edge of the slab.

“Yes. Let’s take a look.”

Susan placed pebbles.

“Each move is one of thousands of possibilities. The players must hold all this in their minds.” Ha-Eun furrowed her brow in concentration.

Susan had trouble placing pebbles as the lines intertwined.

“Please, allow me.” Ha-Eun took over. She clicked pebbles onto the slab as if by memory.

“You know this record?” Susan was mystified.

“Of course! It’s from one of the most famous matches in history, in 2016 CE. The first time a human master was overcome by a machine. World champion Lee Sedol of Korea was defeated by AlphaGo, an early AI, in a five-game match. Master Sedol retired from professional play immediately after.”

“Maybe my friends are telling me I should retire. From everything.” Susan glanced out the window at little eddies of dust climbing under the streetlight.

A wave of concern smoothed the lines of concentration etched in Ha-Eun’s face, and she spoke more softly. “You’re far too young for such thoughts.”

Ha-Eun placed more pebbles. Susan concentrated.

“It looks like dragon tails twirling around each other,” Susan said.

“You are beginning to see.” Ha-Eun smiled. “Each game is like being lost in a mine in the dark, with thousands of crisscrossing tunnels. Some running right along parallel to the path you are on. Some leading far away. Which one is correct? Even for a champion like Lee Sedol, the alternatives can overwhelm.”

“I know the feeling, of being lost.” Susan raked her hand across her forehead. “So many possible paths, shadow lives haunt me… .”

“I’m sorry. To be lost is one of the worst feeling in the world, I know. On one of my first assignments, my ship crashed on the far side of Odin III, in a wilderness of mirrors.” Ha-Eun cast her gaze far beyond rough chiseled stone ceiling of the bar. “But that is a tale for another time. As in the game, in life, we must hold all the possible paths in mind as we move, with the only true map that can be trusted being the human heart. Master Lee fought on.”

Ha-Eun placed several pebbles. Then tears flooded her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Susan asked.

“The hand of God!”

“I don’t understand.”

“Move 78. Near the centerpoint. A move beyond AI’s search tree. A transcendent moment of human creativity. Master Lee was able to jump outside of himself, to see beyond the little fights in the corners and sides. To see the whole board at once. The AI crumbled after this one move.”

“You said Lee lost.”

“Yes. A five-game match. But in this one game, the fourth, despite the wealth and calculating engines arrayed against him, Master Lee found a path through.”

Ha-Eun touched Susan on the shoulder. “It’s late and I must go. You’ve been given quite a gift.”

Susan stared at the pebbles arrayed on the slab. Patterns emerged and dissolved, and then re-formed on another part of the slab in a constant swirl She did not let any one pattern sweep her away.

She had an idea what the rock people were communicating. The contemplative silence of death would have to wait. As Master Lee did, she could make one move at time, embracing the alternatives rather than fearing them. She could never unify her timelines, but she could dance them into a vortex.

Susan adjusted her goggles and left. At the far end of the street, dust swirled into cyclonic towers, a prelude to a storm. Flecks of time-sand sparked the same yellow-green of fireflies back on the Kansas prairie. The voices in her fragmented timelines marked branches of the decision tree in an epic game. They still murmured like leaves in an incessant wind. But the timelines no longer crippled. They gave her power.


When not traveling to parallel universes, Paul Celmer is a technical writer in Durham, North Carolina. His recently published flash science fiction includes “Spooky Action At a Distance” in Daily Science Fiction, “The Last Rosy-Fingered Dawn” in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and “Katafalka” in Stupefying Stories


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Coming Saturday: Episode 41: “The Gravity of Home,” by Kimberly Ann Smiley

New to Odin III? Check this out.

The Odin Chronicles: The Complete Episode Guide (So Far) 



Pete Wood said...

Do you play Go, Paul?