Its real name is Jackenpacks, after the inventor, but everyone calls it the Game. Everyone on my world is crazy about it, even though most people can’t play — you have to have the right mind talents.
My sister Gwen started showing talent at an early age. I was born when she was seven, and by that time she was already competing in kids’ matches. When I was eight and Gwen fifteen, she was winning regional matches against adults.
I used to follow her around, hoping she’d talk to me, but she was usually too busy. Occasionally she’d say, “Douglas, leave me alone,” but she didn’t really mind me. Her friends called me the shadow.
Gwen practiced with some interactive Game recordings made by Kurt Gale. Gwen idolized Kurt Gale as much as I idolized her. She practically had the recordings memorized. There was a program on early in the mornings before school that reran old Game matches, and Gwen always knew when it was Gale even before they announced him. She recognized his play style, she said. This humbled me, because I couldn’t tell the difference.
Gwen was sixteen when Gale came out of retirement for a tour, and she was nearly hysterical with excitement when she found out he’d be coming to our city. It was an open match, which meant that anyone with enough points could apply to play against him. Gwen applied, but no one expected him to pick her.
But he did. “It’s a political choice,” Mom said over breakfast the day we found out. “Gwen’s a local favorite.”
“I don’t care why.” Gwen was over the moons with excitement. She even talked to me about it. “I’m scheduled for his last match. Maybe he’ll be tired by then.” And she went to practice with her Kurt Gale recordings.
Our family had courtesy box seats with a great view of the floor and the display board. Gwen sat with us through the first half and got quieter and quieter watching the players. She could sense their moves, but I watched the board so I wouldn’t miss anything.
Kurt Gale was older than his picture on Gwen’s recordings. His hair was gray and he wore offworlder clothes that didn’t fit very well, which made me feel sorry for him.
Gwen had to leave at the interval, and after that I didn’t care about the other matches — I just wanted to see her win. I was positive she would because some of Gale’s moves seemed amateurish to me, but when I mentioned it to Dad he said, “He’s letting his opponents score. He’s a gentleman.”
Finally Gwen walked onto the floor, looking grown-up and trim in a new blue dress, her hair tied back with a ribbon. I was so proud to be her brother I wanted to stand up and shout it out to everyone. The crowd cheered and Gwen flashed a nervous grin. Gale had won every match so far.
Gale opened with a classic move and Gwen countered easily. She was lightning fast, but so was he. He gave her a few clumsy openings and she scored a few times, and then he scored a few times, and the play got so fast that Dad said, “That’s my girl!” and Mom murmured, “I think she might go international one day.”
Gwen paced Kurt Gale move for move. But then she made a mistake and Gale got another score in, and after that she couldn’t seem to get back on top of the game. At last she conceded — most matches end with a concede — and Gwen and Gale shook hands. The crowd roared, because Gwen had made a truly impressive showing.
I was bitterly disappointed, but everyone else seemed happy. When we met Gwen at the players’ door she was grinning.
The next morning I tagged along behind her after breakfast. I expected her to say, “Douglas, leave me alone” as usual when she went in to practice. Instead she just sat down on the couch and picked up the nearest Kurt Gale recording, and turned it over and over in her hands.
After a moment I sat down next to her. “I’m sorry you lost.”
She looked thoughtful. “Yeah.”
“You played better than him,” I said loyally.
Gwen was acting so grown-up it awed me. I had cried a little bit after I’d gone to bed.
“At least you got to meet him,” I said.
Gwen glanced at me. “It wasn’t him.”
“It wasn’t Kurt Gale. I don’t know who it was but it wasn’t him.”
“But it had to be. Everyone knows who he is.”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t him.” Gwen held the recording up. “I know his play style, probably better than anyone playing these days. And I know that wasn’t him yesterday. And I could have beat him.”
I gaped at her. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because everyone thought it was Kurt Gale. He’s a legend. You don’t dethrone a legend, you just make a good showing against him.”
I was too young to understand. Gwen put the recording down. “Do you want these to practice with? I think I’ve learned all I can from them.”
She never used the Kurt Gale recordings again, but I did, and they helped me improve. I’m still nowhere near as good as Gwen, though. She’s international now, and going to compete in the Worlds Tournament next spring.
Kurt Gale never had another tour, and he died two years ago. They showed his picture on the news, and I thought it didn’t look quite like the man who beat Gwen. But when I mentioned it to Gwen next time I saw her, she only said, “Whoever it was, he was good.” She was silent a moment. “Don’t tell anyone, Douglas.”
“I know,” I said, and smiled to show her I understood now.
Katherine Shaw lives in Pennsylvania with her dog and two cats. She has stories forthcoming in the Black Dragon, White Dragon anthology (Ricasso Press) and the Desolate Places anthology (Hadley Rille Books).