Originally, "Life and Death Problems" was listed on ffnet separately from "Hikaru's Game." Then I wrote "Wolf Pack" and I decided to put all the fics from the "Hikaru's Game" universe together. Sorry for any confusion!
Life and Death Problems
Touya turned on his desk and found a life and death problem waiting for him.
The goban grid was drawn perfectly: lines straight, stars uniform. Black and white circles for the stones, scaled to the correct size. When he hovered his finger over the screen a black stone appeared under his fingertip. Someone had put effort into this.
He scrolled down to the bottom of the message-because the whole thing was imbedded in a message, oddly-and found the sender's signature. He didn't recognize the name, but that didn't mean anything. There were lots of kids at Battle School who knew how to change their user names. He should know; he was one of them.
He scrolled back up. It was black's turn, and there was only one path to life.
Touya chose wrong. A few turns later, white had devoured most of the black stones. PLAY AGAIN? his desk asked him. He touched the screen, and the board returned to the way it had been when he'd turned on his desk.
This time he chose the correct sequence of moves. Black lived, white died, and then the entire board disappeared unceremoniously from his screen. The whole message was gone, in fact. He checked the log, but there was no trace of it.
How odd. He felt odd, in fact, like deja vu. The pattern he'd laid out felt familiar. But the name on the message didn't feel familiar at all.
He went to bed, thinking Who the heck is Sai?
- 0 - 0 -
"Shindou," he asked that evening, during their usual shidougo session, "did you send me a message yesterday?"
"Huh? You mean on my desk?"
Touya often found himself wondering how on earth Shindou had ever gotten into Battle School. "Of course through your desk. How else would you send a message? Through the post?"
"Why would I bother sending you a message when I see you all the time? I hardly even touch my desk. I'm terrible at using it."
Touya could believe that. "So you didn't send me a message."
Shindou rolled his eyes. "When you say things like that I can't believe you ever made it into Battle School. Checkmate."
"Oh, shut up. And there's no such thing as checkmate."
- 0 - 0 -
It took a few days before another message came, During that time Touya fought a battle and won it and watched his soldiers celebrate and drilled their mistakes out of them and was generally very busy. He'd nearly forgotten about Sai until he opened his desk one morning and was faced with life and death again.
It was a harder problem, but the correct choice was obvious, somehow. The stones practically played themselves. Touya was sure he'd played this game before. He'd been black, but white...who was white?
He watched the stones disappear again, and wondered.
- 0 - 0 -
"What do you want?" Waya asked suspiciously.
On a normal day Touya wouldn't even try to talk to this one. But Shindou's friend was supposed to be pretty handy with computers, and Sai was a Japanese name, so...
"Have you, by any chance, been sending me messages?"
Waya gave him a look that said That is a very stupid question. Then he said aloud, "That is a very stupid question."
"Then why are you asking me?"
"Someone named Sai keeps sending me...strange messages."
"And you think it might be me because...?"
"Shindou says it's not him," Touya said, trying not to sound weak, "and I can't think who else it might be."
Waya gave him another of those looks.
"You need more friends," he said gruffly.
- 0 - 0 -
Touya swiped his hands over the desk in frustration, sending a black circle scudding across the screen. The messages were coming more often now, and the problems were getting more and more difficult. Yet he could do them all.
He'd tried tracing the sender; his queries returned nothing. Maybe it was the teachers playing tricks on him, trying to make him go crazy. But he didn't think so.
He'd tried so many times, played the wrong moves again and again, hoping something different would happen. He could solve life and death problems, but he couldn't solve anything.
Eventually, hands trembling, he touched the board here, and there, and there, leading black to escape and white to death.
The stones disappeared without a trace.
- 0 - 0 -
"You're not supposed to beat me. This is shidougo. You're supposed to learn from me," Shindou told him in exasperation.
"Sometimes I get tired of being a student," Touya replied. But what he meant was, I get tired of being your student.
"Even if we play a match, and I let you place four stones, I'll still be teaching you."
Shindou understood what was unsaid. "If you don't want to do this, then don't."
Touya left, hand unplayed.
- 0 - 0 -
A battle. The uncluttered mess of combat. Muscles burning and throat raw, exhaustion and elation in equal measure.
Attack there, now, like this. He hardly had to think, his body just knew.
"Under and around!" he screamed to his toon leaders. He led them on a dizzying path between the artificial stars, letting his sense of gravity reorient over and over as they flew toward the enemy, always toward the enemy.
He made his men push off from one another in a formation they'd practiced a hundred times, watched them move in concert exactly as he wanted, smooth and warrior-like.
At a glance he counted the enemy's remaining soldiers. Calculated the losses he'd accepted in exchange for territory gained. Stars in his hand, victory at his fingertips.
This is a fight I can understand, he told himself as his heart pounded out its strange battle hymn. This is a fight where nothing is lost in winning.
- 0 - 0 -
When he returned to his room, the next life and death problem was waiting for him.
He shut off his desk.
- 0 - 0 -
"Are you all right, Touya?" one of his toon leaders asked. "You've been...tense lately."
The other boy gave him a doubtful look. Touya ignored him and bent his head over the diagram they'd been looking at. They were using his toon leader's desk, of course.
"You were too forceful here," Touya said. "You should have waited for Toon B's support."
His toon leader nodded unhappily.
"And during mop-up your men got overconfident. Ahmad shouldn't have been disabled. I want you to run a tighter ship."
Touya gentled his voice. "But it was a well-played game, nonetheless."
"Really?" the boy said, then caught himself. "I mean, thank you, sir."
His smile was so shy, young even, that Touya felt a startling sense of vertigo. He'd seen this scene before, he'd been a part of it, he knew. But he'd been sitting on the other side of it.
It was well-played, Akira.
A pang of remembrance, so sudden it hurt.
"Excuse me," he said, standing up, "I need to go check something."
- 0 - 0 -
He turned on his desk for the first time in days.
And thought: of course I know this game. I know all these games.
White was stronger than him. Far stronger. Yet his hands were gentle and kind.
Impossible, of course. It couldn't be him.
But Akira remembered the music of the wind chime as the paper tail spun, the breath of wind wafting through the verandah door, the soft clink of the stones and the warm voice of-
"Father," he whispered.
- 0 - 0 -
Waya stopped him in the corridor.
"I remember now, back when I was in Tiger Army, Shindou used to talk in his sleep. And once or twice...I'm not sure, you know, but I think he said 'Sai.' I didn't know that it meant anything at the time, but..."
"Thank you," said Touya.
But he already knew. Of course it was Shindou. It was always Shindou.
- 0 - 0 -
Shindou, whose eyes were guarded now. Who was still waiting for him, at their table with Touya's goban in front of him, where he always waited.
"How could I be sending you games from your father?" he demanded, after Touya explained. "Why would I be sending you games from your father?"
"I don't know. But you're the only one on this battle station with a connection to my father, and to his go."
"You don't think it's the teachers? Testing you, playing mental tricks on you? You've always hated that."
Touya shook his head.
"The messages have all been signed."
"With my name? That doesn't mean anything."
"Not your name. They've all been signed 'Sai.'"
Shindou's eyes snapped upward, met Touya's in disbelief and fear and a wild hope that made him look painfully young.
When he finally managed to speak, it was in a voice low and hoarse with grief. "Don't say that name. Not here."
Shindou lowered his head until their foreheads were practically touching, and Touya could feel how shaky his breaths had become.
"This is crazy," he finally said. "How can it be him?"
"Who?" asked Touya, but when Shindou spoke it was as if he hadn't heard.
"I wasn't lying when I said it wasn't me who sent those messages. But whether it was the teachers or...something else, it was connected to me. That's how much I can tell you, without...without me being like this."
Then Shindou looked up, eyes still haunted. "Will you show me?" "The games?"
Touya nodded, pulled away from Shindou and placed his desk on the table between them. But the screen was blank. He checked the message log: nothing. Flabbergasted, he said, "How can that be? I didn't turn it off, it was here when I left my room!"
"So there's nothing to show me."
"No, no, it was like this," Touya said, picking up the stones-the real stones- and placing them on the goban on the table, recreating the last problem Sai had sent him. "I remember my father told me black could escape without a ko battle. I couldn't figure out how to do it, and I lost that fight."
Shindou gave the board a surprised look. "This is really difficult."
"When I was six, yes. Not anymore. I know how to solve it," Touya said, and did just that.
Shindou watched silently as black devoured white. As Touya placed the last stone he could almost feel the summer wind ruffling his hair, hear the soft padding of his mother's slippered feet just beyond the wooden walls. But when he opened his eyes he saw only the smooth metal lines of the Battle School- and Shindou, whose face still wore that unreadable expression.
"The messages have been coming for weeks now. There'll be more," Touya told him, feeling desperate now.
"No, there won't." Shindou leaned back, eyes closed.
"I'm not lying," Touya whispered.
"I know. But you don't understand. Those games, the life and death problems your father gave you...it was a message to me, from your old teacher to your new one."
"You think it was my father who sent them?"
"Not exactly. Maybe there was a ghost in the computer system," Shindou suggested, in that maddening way of his. "But I understand what the messages were saying. You don't need a teacher anymore."
Touya felt a stab of fear. "No. It was too soon when I lost my father. It's too soon for me to lose you too."
"Teachers always leave," Shindou said, "when they think you've learned everything they can teach you."
"I haven't learned enough. I'm not ready."
"I wasn't ready when my...teacher left me. But I learned. In the end, the best teacher is the game."
"The enemy is the best teacher, the only teacher, that's what the teachers say," Touya said, head bowed. He was talking about a different set of teachers now. "Have you decided they're right? The only path to the Hand of God is alone?"
Shindou's hand crept over to his own, until their fingertips were almost touching. "I never said that. But...from now on, don't think of me as your teacher. Or your enemy either." His voice became determined, the way it did in the Battle Room. "I'm your rival, and you're mine. And you'll never catch me unless you shut up and play."
When Touya looked up, he saw something almost hopeful beneath the seriousness in Shindou's eyes. It eased the tight feeling in his chest, the sense of something passing and something new and harder beginning. He was not afraid anymore. Not when he could still hear the wind chime striking its gentle notes, feel the warm strength of his father's hand.
He took in a deep breath. "You're a terrible teacher anyway."
"I take it that means you accept my challenge."
"I won't go easy on you."
"That's my line, young grasshopper."
"What does that even mean?"
"It means 'how many stones are you going to place?'"
"Three," said Touya Akira, and faced his rival head-on.
- End -