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Victoria was never an early riser unless she had to be, and there was nothing on her schedule for this morning. Her alarm was set for the usual 7:15 a.m., but it only was 5 a.m. her time. What the hell was she doing up?

“Ryan?” she called, forcing him to make an entrance.

Busted. Wincing, he called up the hologram and put on his headset. “Good morning, Victoria. How may I assist you today?”

“Why is there a chess game going on in my living room?”

Good question. He switched to the chess welcome screen. “I am in the process of downloading today’s scheduled updates to your system,” he said, and switched the screen again to solitaire. “I apologize for the disruption. Download is at ninety-five percent.” And he switched the screen to a demo of Tetris.

Victoria shrugged. “I’m not disrupted. I just can’t sleep.”

“Is there something I can assist you with?”

She started shaking her head, but watching the demo of another game on her TV, she nodded instead. “Yes,” she said, and resolutely sat on the couch. “Ryan, I challenge you to a game of chess.”

Fantastic. “Initiating. Chess.”

He pulled up the game, selected one-player mode, and sat back to watch.

Victoria chose the black pieces. Interesting.

The computer made its first move.

She countered, bringing out her knight.

And the game froze.

“Shit,” he mouthed, cautious of the audio still on. He checked the code, but everything looked fine. The countermove had been made. Just not displayed.

“Have I stumped you already?” Victoria taunted.

“I am experiencing a technical difficulty. Please hold while I investigate the issue.”

He’d fixed the code. Why was it not working?

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you what the problem is. You’re a chicken.”

Ryan raised an eyebrow at that and, on the screen, his holo-self copied him. Shit!

Thankfully, she didn’t freak out. “That’s right, you heard me. You’re scared I’ll beat you. I’ve beaten computers before.”

Yeah, on beginner setting maybe.

“Bring it on, show me what you got.”

All right. Victoria wanted to play? He’d play. “Challenge. Accepted.”

Ryan restarted the game, rigging the back end for a two-player setting, and moved the white king’s pawn forward two places.

Victoria rubbed her hands together. “You have met your match today, my friend.” Her game face made him grin. She was a chess geek! Who knew?

Two hours and two games later, they were tied, Victoria was at the edge of her seat and Ryan, at her command, was talking like a cheap croupier and having the time of his life. “House takes knight. Oooh! Tough luck, fella.”

“I’ll see your knight, and raise you a queen. Bishop takes queen. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

Ryan bit back a laugh. “House pays fifty-to-one.” He had no idea how points even worked in chess. It didn’t look like Victoria did either. He kept tossing random numbers up on the score board, and all she did was whoop when she pulled ahead and call him a cheating gutter rat when she was losing. He’d never been so flattered by an insult before.

They were playing a timed game and it was his move. “Pawn takes pawn. Odds are two hundred-to-one against black. Who’s feeling lucky? Do I have any takers?”

“Trash talk will get you nowhere,” she said with a bloodthirsty little smile, right before she took his rook and declared, “Checkmate. Ha! Pay up, sucker.”

“House pays fifty-to-one,” Ryan said.

“Hey!” she protested, laughing. “You said two hundred!”

“The house always wins,” he informed her, grinning at the screen. When was the last time he’d had this much fun? “Thank you for playing. Good bye.”

As if on cue, Victoria’s alarm went off. The house entertainment system took over and booted him from the game in deference to the nature sounds she’d programmed in to wake her in the morning.

Her easy smile faded, and her shoulders sagged as if whatever happiness had puffed her up and steeled her spine during the game was draining out of her. “Good game. We should do it again sometime.” That last she said to herself as she retrieved her now-cold coffee and went back upstairs to get ready for the day.

Ryan turned off his audio. “Good game,” he echoed, grateful she wouldn’t hear how hollow his voice sounded.

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