The spaceport was nearly empty. In fact, Jack was not 100% sure there was any other organic life currently at this spaceport. Jack was way out in the Oort Cloud prospecting. There was not a lot out here but robots.
In this kind of desolation, automation was the way to make a profit. There were robot guards everywhere, but also customer service bots of every stripe. Jack was not shocked to see he could actually get a very expensive massage from a robot. Jack shook his head on that one and paid for a ticket to Uranus.
This spaceport was almost half a parsec from Earth, but the Oort Cloud was now well-trafficked. Ever since the Asteroid Belt had petered out, prospectors had made their way to the Oort Cloud. Fortunes in exotic metals and ores were just floating about waiting to be mined. This meant there were prospectors and miners crisscrossing the vastness in search of that one asteroid that could change their lives.
A nuclear-powered spaceport was profitable even this far out. The incredible draw of mineral wealth was irresistible. Gold fever was never in short supply. It meant customers for the spaceport.
Jack was just happy there was a shuttle passing by some time in the near future. He felt quite lucky to have gotten to the spaceport in such a timely fashion. The shuttle’s arrival was actually within a few hours.
Jack wandered over to the Automat to get some unappetizing but nutritious sustenance. Though there was some amount of atmosphere in the spaceport, it was really not sufficient to breathe. A space suit providing general environmental protection and air to breathe was necessary when prospecting in the Oort Cloud. He also got some fresh water for himself and the suit.
“Hey, Earther. You are far from home.” Jack felt a heavy touch on his shoulder.
“What the …!” There before him was a squid in a spacesuit. A really big squid in an iridescent suit encasing a large head and ten arms. It was a Europan.
The Europans originated on the Jovian moon, Europa. However, their largest population center was actually on Jack’s home planet Earth. The Europans had colonized the planet after the Great Cataclysm that had ravaged the solar system over ten thousand years ago.
Humans had not even known the Europans were there for most of those ten thousand years. The Europans being from an ocean planet like Europa had colonized the sea floor. It was only when humans were on the verge of completely destroying the planet that the Europans were forced to reveal themselves.
Like Jack, the Europan wore a spacesuit. It was odd to imagine the Europan’s suit being filled with seawater. It was fairly tight but it was filled with seawater. If Jack did not know the Europans lived underwater, it would not have been obvious the suit was filled with water. It was just a different kind of atmosphere.
“A game Earther?” asked the giant squid through his translator voice box. He pointed to a table where a chess board was set up. Europans loved the Earth game of chess.
Jack looked at the Europan and then the chess board. He had played many games over the years. It annoyed him that Europans tended to be better at a game the human race had invented.
“Best two out of three Earther?” The Europan dropped several gold nuggets onto the table. “How has the prospecting been Earther? Can you match this?”
Jack thought for a moment. The prospecting had not been good. If he lost the match, going home was much less attractive. “You have a clock?” After a moment he added, “…squid.”
The Europan eyes glowed a bit at being called a squid. “My name is Xlatn and I do have a clock.” He extended a tentacle and then added, “…dirt-boy.”
Jack smiled. He took no great offense. He had started it after all. The Europans slang for Earthers stemmed from their amusement at the humans naming their planet after a synonym for dirt. The Europans had an unpronounceable name for the planet Earth which translated to New Europa.
Well if there was a clock then Jack thought he might have a chance. The Europans tended to be smarter on average than Earthers but not super quick thinkers. Jack’s experience told him he could goad the Europan into a fast time control to give himself a chance.
He was going to need every advantage he could get. He reached into his pocket and matched the three gold nuggets the Europan had placed on the table. “My name is Jack and it is nice to meet you Xlatn.” He shook the squid’s tentacle.
“Five minutes a side”, said Jack but the Europan had a counter offer.
“No Jack, I would prefer one twenty-fourth of your planet’s rotation.” At least that was how the voice translator relayed it to Jack but he understood this to mean one hour for each side.
Jack knew he needed to win this match or he would barely have enough gold to get home on the shuttle. In fact, if he lost he might as well turn around and go back out. “No, I need 1/48th of Earth’s rotation to be lured into this match. Take it or leave it.” Jack said firmly
Jack asked, “Xlatn, am I white or black?” Knowing it was generally done by holding pawns of each color in closed hands and offering them to the opponent to choose. Jack wanted to portray himself as an inexperienced player.
“I’ll give you a break, dirt-boy. You can be white.” He pushed a button and started Jack’s clock.
Jack played a little-known variation on the white side of the Sicilian. He was able to take the Europan out of the opening book in only five moves. At move fifteen Jackson began a pawn push on his queenside to draw the squid’s pieces to that side of the board. The Europan responded by taking Jackson’s king knight on f6.
Jack considered a recapture with his queen, though it was obvious the Europan would now be able to harass her with its minor pieces. Jack could see that it would take several moves to protect his queen. To make the situation worse, it looked as if the Europan would be able to force the trading of several pieces. With fewer pieces on the board, Jackson felt sure the squid’s superior number-crunching ability would end his chance at winning this game.
Instead, Jack chose to double his pawns on the f-file by retaking with his g-pawn. Jack’s king’s position was now weakened by the opening of the file right in front of the monarch. Theoretically, this was bad, but Jackson had launched many successful kingside attacks during his childhood through this opening in his own castled position.
The Europan continued to put pressure on Jackson’s queenside. Rather than protect his queenside pawns, Jackson played his king to h1, so he could place his kingside rook on the open g-file.
As the Europan gobbled up pawns on his queenside, Jack doubled his rooks on the g-file. By move 23 it was apparent to Jack that despite being down three pawns he would be able to force checkmate in four moves.
The Europan offered up his tentacle, “Good game, dirt-boy.”
Jack shook his tentacle and with a wry smile said, “Rack’em up again squid”
The Europan chose the non-committal move, Nf3, to open the next game. Jackson had no great love for the black side of a Queen’s Gambit, but he invited the Europan into a pseudo-Queen’s Gambit. Jackson’s answer was d5. The squid quickly played c4, offering the gambit pawn without the preparatory move d4.
Jack snatched up the proffered pawn with barely a moment’s thought. The squid responded with a shocking move, Na3. The white knight on the side of the board looked very ugly, but it was theoretically playable.
Jack considered the implications of the knight move. Though ugly, the move was effective. The knight attacked Black’s extra pawn. The knight was only one move away from one of two potential outposts.
Jack thought he might wish to trade his dark-squared bishop for the pugnacious white knight. By offering his own king pawn to white’s king knight, Jack could remove white’s queen knight.
Many great players have believed that bishops are inherently better than knights, because of their ability to cover large areas of the board. Just enough good knight players are born every generation to keep this from being proven irrefutably over the board.
The squid snatched up Jack’s king pawn. Jack traded his dark-squared bishop for one of the Europan’s knights. This led to a wide-open crazy position. Jack had created a number of long-term weaknesses just to stay even on material.
The position was rife with danger. Combinations rose and fell in Jackson’s mind. There would be no need to worry about long-term problems because this promised to be a short decisive struggle. There were so many tactical options that Jackson had a hard time concentrating on just one at a time.
“Queen to g3,” said the Europan. The white queen slid across the board. The squid smiled confidently from across the other side of the table.
Jack’s rook was in danger of capture. It did not look like he could not save it without being checkmated in five forced moves. In fact, to prevent checkmate, Jack would have to trade his queen for the Europan’s advanced knight.
The outcome was certain now. A queen for a knight and pawn was an overwhelming advantage. Jack reached his hand across the table. At the same time, he toppled his King with his other hand.
“Well done Europan” said Jack. “I hope I can give you a better game in the finale.” The Europan smiled broadly and shook his hand.
The Europan had played well in the last game. Jack knew he would have to play more creatively in the third game if he wanted to win. Jack opened with the Scandinavian Gambit.
His experience with it had convinced him the opening was playable. Theoretically, it was not the best opening but it took the Europan out of its normal opening repertoire fairly early. The Europan was forced to expend more than the usual amount of time for the first ten moves.
Well into the middle-game both the Europan and Jack had time problems. The time control was approaching and the position was wild. Jack’s king had not been able to castle and the Europan’s queenside pawn structure was a disaster.
Technically though, material was even. Jack felt like it would be advantageous to trade down into the endgame, because of his superior pawn structure. The time control was fast approaching. Jack was determined to not lose the game on time.
Jack had timed the squid’s last few moves. If it continued at its current calculation rate there was a good chance it would not make the time control. Of course, Jackson himself was in the same boat. He had to make ten moves in the next three minutes.
The position was too complex to feel confident about anything. Jackson zipped his bishop one square back to a1. It accomplished nothing, but he put the time pressure back on the Europan.
The squid started thinking. Jackson scanned the board trying to use the other’s clock time. He could try to anticipate the squid’s response and be working on his own.
Suddenly, he thought he saw a very powerful move for the Europan. It looked like a single pawn push in the center would cause Jack’s position to implode. He felt sick. The squid moved and quickly hit Jack’s clock.
Jack did not understand why the squid did not push that pawn. Before making another move, Jackson tried to see if the pawn move was as dangerous as he had originally thought. After nearly two minutes ran off his clock he saw why the Europan had not pushed the pawn.
It was the linchpin of the squid’s kingside defense. Once moved, the pawn opened up the long diagonal for Jackson’s light-squared bishop. Jack could force checkmate in three after the pawn push. Jack had less than a minute left now, but he felt better now that he knew the situation.
He quickly moved his bishop up one square on the same diagonal. The squid was really “sweating” now. The Europan had seconds left. Jack sat smiling from the other side of the board. The seconds were ticking by.
Jackson looked at the readout on the clock. The clock displayed all zeroes. There was a loud beep.
The Europan slammed the table with his tentacles. He chipped off part of the table onto the floor. Europans were quite strong when not under the constraints of many thousands of feet of water pressure. Jack started to wonder if he was going to get paid.
“Good game, dirt boy.” The squid extended a tentacle. Jack smiled. The Europan collected the gold nuggets from the floor and pushed them toward Jack. “I don’t get beat often and certainly not by a dirt-boy…errr… Earther.”
“I was quite lucky. I only had two seconds left myself. I think you would have beat me if there were a few more minutes on the clocks. I was saved by my Mother-in-Law’s Tongue.” Jack grinned.
“What does this mean? There are so many colorful idioms of Earthers. The translator box does not always make sense.” The Europan gave him a quizzical look and appeared to shrug all ten arms. “For example, what is this Cold as a Witch’s Tit or When Hell Freezes Over.”
Jack laughed. He laughed heartily too. He had a pocketful of gold and this Europan was friendly and funny AND a good chess player.
“What is this Saved by My Mother’s-in-Law Tongue? What does this mean?” The Europan gave him a weird look and said, “ The translator makes it sounds somehow sexual. How is your Mother-in-Law’s Tongue lucky? Does she speak for you in some positive way or this is some Earther sexual more?”
Jack was really laughing now. “No, No! See those plants over there in the glass cases.” Jack pointed to walls of glassed-in leathery-leaved plants enclosed behind large glass panes. “Those are Snake plants also known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue.”
“So?” replied the Europan.
“Well in the early days of human asteroid prospecting there were a lot of accidents. A lot of people who should not have been operating spacecraft were trying to find the next golden asteroid. The unfortunate fellow who found the next golden asteroid also crashed on it. He had no oxygen when his tanks exploded on impact.”
“So this Earther died?” asked the Europan.
“Nope, he survived because his daughter had given him a little bit of Mother-in-Law’s Tongue. She had read they were good at helping clean the dirty atmosphere inside a prospecting spacecraft.
Actually many early prospectors had carried them for this very reason. When he crashed the Snake Plant or Mother-in-Law’s Tongue was trapped with him in a small crash pod which was only partially damaged. “
Jack continued with more details. He loved this story of extraordinary luck. It seemed like humans did have a bit more luck than other races in the Solar System.
“The damage to the pod allowed dirt from the asteroid to be forced into one side of the pod. Both the pilot and the plant also landed there. This was how it was discovered there was a whole race of flora in the Solar System which react to a lack of atmosphere by further exhalation from their leaves. There are plants that can survive the vacuum of space to spread through panspermia. If they have sunlight, water, and gold-laden soil to create their own mini-atmospheres.”
“Gold is so necessary for everything we do here in space, isn’t it?” said the Europan. “It is strange that it is so important but it makes us money.” The Europan’s whole body shook as if he was having a hearty laugh. He reached into a pocket of his suit and showed the human he had many more gold nuggets. “Yes, I do not care why gold is important, just that it is.”
“Yes, and it saved this young prospector’s neck. In the presence of the exhalations of a human, the process is incredibly fast. By the time the pilot’s personal oxygen ran out the snake plant had grown exponentially and created a livable environment. Hence the term Saved By My Mothers-in-Law Tongue means to escape certain death or defeat by the narrowest margins or simply pure luck.”
“Awww, I see” The Europan smiled and pointed out to the darkness of space. “There is our ride my friend.”
Jack looked out toward the extended tentacle and saw the shuttle approaching. He jiggled the gold nuggets in his pocket. He wondered if the Europan played poker.
“Yes my friend, it is a long ride to Earth but at least it’s all downhill from here.” Jack laughed as he made his way to board.