This story is based around the invention of an electronic method of measuring the human soul. Not everybody thinks this is a wonderful idea - some religious nutcases even want to kill the inventor. Our hero, Spencer, is detoxified and sent out by the world's biggest software company (not Microsoft!) to track down the inventor before the bad guys do. Many of the things that happen to him mirror the judgement scenes of the world's major religions, with the finale based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
This version is a publisher's proof, produced just before the publisher decided to stop publishing books. Life's like that sometimes.
It was Spencer's turn. The bishop seemed the best piece to move, not for any great strategic reason but because of the shape of its hat. He lifted the bishop from its square, moved it diagonally a couple of spaces through the air like a real chess player might do, and inserted it in his left nostril. It fitted nicely. When he took his hand away it stayed there. As an afterthought he took the second black bishop from the board and used it to plug his right nostril. This one stayed in place too. Perhaps it had something to do with those grooves on the bishops' hats.
"'S that how you feel about religion?" slurred the Professor. Their quart of Jack Daniel's was almost empty. An average nine year old could have beaten them both at chess, but happily they were finding it difficult to beat each other. They were sitting in their favourite chess-playing spot in the middle of the biggest disused lot in the city, ten acres of raw earth and rubble half a mile from the bay. The moon was close to new and still feeble. A few bright stars were beating the city glare.
"Agnostic defence." Spencer's voice sounded very strange inside his head, very nasal and disembodied. He liked the sound of it. Well-distanced from reality.
"Hundreds of years old, this game is," said the Professor. "It's easy to forget that. Two empires fighting each other. The king, his consort, his castles, knights and clerics, all at war."
The chess pieces belonged to the Professor, but if he disapproved of Spencer's unorthodox move, it didn't show. His eyes were open wide, as innocent as a child's. A change in the light caught his bulging cheeks, veins like scarecrow's hands clutching the cheekbones beneath the skin. His coat was open, showing off the single baby-pin that secured his fly. Apart from the ruined cheeks and trousers he looked like an ageing cherub. How strange, thought Spencer, that I can see your face and you can see mine, yet we rarely see our own. Even when they shaved it was usually blind. It wasn't as hard as mirror-people might imagine.
Behind the Professor was the contractors' yellow machinery, a big conference of hydraulic arms and dozer blades, a Japanese army resting from its daily battle with the soil. They were all Komatsu's and Hitachi's. Whatever happened to good old Caterpillar? Spencer had a brief vision of himself patrolling the fence around that Japanese compound, in uniform, with his flashlight and sidearm. A vision that would go back to a comfortable apartment in the small hours when the shift was over and snuggle up with an adorable girlfriend for the overlap hours, until she rose complainingly for work.
All history now. Can't change history. And it had never been his compound to guard.
He took the bishops from his nose and wiped them on his coat. Instead of putting them on their squares he put them to one side, on the red plastic crate the board was resting on, signifying that the game was a draw under rule 142C, the excess Jack Daniel's rule. If the Professor was right, and this was a war of empires, these two had just declared a ceasefire.
The Professor's description intrigued him. Two warring empires. A curious thought, except that wasn't the way wars were fought these days. Modern wars were fought by multinational companies for the hearts and wallets of the world's consumers, for dollars rather than land. Maybe it was time to bring the game up to date, invent a new set of pieces. The pawns as Mexicans and Chinese stooped over sweatshop tables. The bishops in advertising, with TVs for heads and passing out magazines. The knights as company accountants with tall stacks of cash, but taking it in rather than handing it out. The rooks as company attorneys, holding writs. The queen as chief executive officer in a high-backed chair. And the king? The king nothing more than a squiggly line on a chart - that most crucial yet vulnerable element of any company, its stock market share price.
A stronger flash of light caught the Professor's face. Spencer turned to see where it had come from. A raised freeway passed a dozen yards behind him, its concrete stilts holding the twin decks too high for the cars and trucks to be seen. Only their ghosts were visible; headlights turning the night air white or reflecting off the bottom of the upper deck, casting shadows circling behind the pieces on the board. But the light hadn't come from there. A white limousine was crawling down the contractors' track through the centre of the lot, between the broken concrete and banks of earth, its twin white eyes rising and falling with the bumps. Spencer didn't feel much one way or the other about its approach, except that it was an intrusion. Some half-lost memory told him it was a car he vaguely knew.