by Larry Hodges
“It’s over,” I said, over 2200 years ago. Poor Emperor Qin may have united and conquered all of China, began the Great Wall of China, and created the life-sized Terracotta Army (for God’s sake, why?), but he could only glare at the Go board. I was nice enough to only beat him in private. When there were spectators I always let him win.
“Someday I will beat you,” he said. “For real.” When he’d ordered all the scholarly books burned, they’d also mistakenly burned the only good one on Go tactics.
I was about to politely explain to the black-clad Emperor why my losing to a primitive barbarian like him was about as likely as a giant egg falling out of the sky, that he didn’t have to wear black all of the time, even if water, represented by black, was his “birth element,” and for that matter why his hunt for the “elixir of life” would also fail, when the sensor alarm beeped. I raced to the viewscreen, an anachronism here at the Qin Palace, where astrology was the height of science.
Flaming out of the sky was a giant egg. A Murt Egg. Oh God.
Believe me, you do not want one of these on your world. Once hatched, out comes a Murt, with flaming hair and laser eyes that rip everything in its path like a tornado in a black hole. It could take out half a continent in one pleasant afternoon. I know; I was trained to fight them. The Chinese were the most advanced civilization on Earth back then, and so I’d made Xian my home base as their guardian against the Murt. It was time to go to work.
I used the transporter to leave China and the Qin Dynasty–I would never return–beaming myself to the egg’s estimated landing spot on a large island halfway around the world. Did I mention that in the 46,136 known cases of a Murt egg hatching on a planet with intelligent life, exactly zero of those intelligent races survived? That’s why the Galactic Federation created the Anti-Murt Patrol (AMP)–not to save intelligent race number 46,137, but to save their own sorry little tushies. And that’s why I’d been assigned to Earth, to stop any such infiltration, which would lead to more Murts as they expanded through the galaxy.
The egg smacked into the ground like an irritated meteor, just missing me. And then it was just the two of us, mano-a-mano, Colonel Cag, the lone agent assigned to Earth, versus the egg from Hell. You’re probably thinking of chicken eggs, twelve innocent, defenseless ovals in a carton smiling up at you, just looking for a nice home. Now imagine them screaming in agony as you toss them on the fryer. That’s you if I don’t stop this rhino-sized egg from hatching. Its pure whiteness was a trick; inside was the demon spawn of, well, demons.
“Back off or get pinked!” came a high-pitched voice in Galactic Standard from within the egg, giving a pink warning flash. Great; a girl Murt. They were the worst. I shuddered, remembering what I’d heard about this most evil of beings.
“Are you shuddering?” asked the egg.
Great Dragon’s Breath! These things can practically smell fear, even from the egg. A little bravado was needed if I wanted to get the upper hand. “Why don’t you take your frilly dolls and go back into orbit, and hatch and die in the vacuum of space? I’d hate to have to pin a little girl.”
Being an ignorant isolationist species, you probably don’t know that I’m one of the Zinh, a shapeshifting and transmuting species. I transformed from my Asian human guise into a solid sword of quantum quasar-tempered metallic hydrogen–a Zinh secret–and shot into the air. Only an incredibly sharp point made from an incredibly strong metal shooting at an incredible speed can pierce and pin a Murt egg to the ground.
Kapow! I barely dodged the pink ray that shot from the egg. A nearby oak exploded in flame. More rays shot out, and I dodged, left and right, keeping the blade–me–edge-on to the egg to minimize its target. One mistake, and I’d get pinked. This was what I’d lived and trained my whole life for! I swerved left, then right, saw an opening, and dived.
But the egg was too quick as it spun away. Imagine a rhino flitting about like a dragonfly. Fortunately, we Zinh train with the rhino-sized dragonfly-like beings of Krong. Only–when sparring with the Krong, I didn’t have to dodge death rays that made me want to go back to mommy. We did put laser flashlights on their collars and practiced avoiding them, but that’s like training with lightning bugs to prepare for a fire-breathing dragon.
I found another opening, and another, and each time the egg barely avoided me, and each time I barely avoided its barrage of pink light. But one mistake, and it would all be over. I thought back to my years of training, trying to find that one bit of high-level technique that would allow me to prevail. There had to be something. And then I remembered the last piece of advice my master had told me before I graduated, a tactic so advanced, so unexpected, that none could withstand it.
“You fight like a boy!” I cried.
“Oh yeah? And you–“
I only needed like a hundredth of a second of hesitation, and that’s what I got as I followed my words by swooping in, willing myself to go faster than even its beams of light. My point sank into it and pinned it to the ground as it screamed. Success!!!
Well, sort of. Did I mention that defeating a Murt egg is basically a sentence of life imprisonment to the winner? Stabbing a Murt egg doesn’t kill it–almost nothing does, including a nuclear blast–so all I could do was keep it pinned there, for all eternity.
“Can’t we talk this over?” asked the egg, helplessly flashing pink and burning a nearby innocent elm tree. “I’m not even a baby!”
“Sorry,” I said. The egg bucked back and forth for a couple of centuries (I won’t bore you with the details, but there was a lot of insulting repartee–the Zinh are good, but the Murt have us beat there), but eventually it sighed and gave up. Finally! “Would you like to learn to play mental Go?” I asked.
Eternity is rather boring when all you have to pass the time is playing Go with a large egg while staring at its innards. As the centuries passed, my sword body solidified; I’d never be able to shapeshift or transmute again. The egg also aged, gradually looking more and more like an ugly rock, as I helpfully pointed out every chance.
You’d think the humans would be grateful for my saving them from utter destruction, but no. Minions of evil kept trying to pull me out, not realizing the malevolence they’d release. And then one day, as I was about to beat the egg in Go for the 1,284,265th boring time in a row (yeah, I’m proud of beating a baby), an old man with a long staff and tall, pointy hat stopped by. After looking about to make sure there were no witnesses, he sprinkled hydrochloric acid all over where I entered the egg.
“What are you doing!” I cried as parts of me began to painfully dissolve, but he only giggled and left.
“It’s so warm and sizzly!” cried the egg, faintly flashing pink.
A few minutes later a gangly teenager came by. He stared at me for a moment, then grabbed me by the handle.
“Don’t do it!” I screamed, but it was too late. With the acid eating away at me, he easily pulled me from the egg.
“Yes!” cried the egg. “And I only let you win at Go.” As the teenager held me up in triumph and declared himself king of England, I could only watch as the egg sank beneath the surface, where it would incubate and then hatch in about 1500 years.
I spent a few short years with this so-called king, where he used me to kill rivals to his throne, then he too was killed, and then I was lost for 1400 years, helplessly buried in the rubble of his ancient fortress as my energy slowly drained away. A hundred years ago I was found, cleaned, and spent years in various private collections as I was sold from back and forth, and finally put on display in a museum, though none know who or what I am. I’ve mutely watched as humanity advanced in so many ways, never knowing the danger below. But 1500 years have passed, and it’s about to hatch. My days are past, so humanity is on its own. Anyone for a last game of Go?
Larry Hodges is an active member of SFWA with 114 short story sales, 35 of them “pro” sales, including ones to Analog, Amazing Stories, Escape Pod, and 18 to Galaxy’s Edge. He also has four SF novels, including When Parallel Lines Meet in 2017, which he co-wrote with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, and Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions in 2016, from World Weaver Press. He’s a member of Codexwriters, and a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writers Workshop and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Writers Workshop. In the world of non-fiction, he’s a full-time writer with 17 books and over 1900 published articles in over 170 different publications. Visit him at www.larryhodges.com.