by Eric T. Baker
Review by James Walton

Aaron Hudson is an operative with Contraband Unit aboard the huge starship Jersey. He has sworn to protect assets of the ship, but it is a very difficult job. Catching criminals is relatively easy. Keeping the corruption to a minimum is the hard part. Of course Hudson is corrupted. Everyone in the department skims from the materials they recover but Hudson isn't greedy. He takes just enough to make it look good.

Unfortunately his partners are greedier than is safe for any of them. Soon their avarice gains them attention of an internal affairs unit and Hudson is set up to take the blame for all the thefts. Hudson is offered help from an unlikely source: a meat puppet. The human body grown specifically to be controlled by one of the ship's AIs is an investigator trying to shut down the Contraband Unit. Gaunt, the puppet/computer, is totally incorruptible but is willing to make a deal. Hudson is forced to decide where his loyalties lie. As a backdrop to the noir goings on is the highly evolved (or is that mutated?) game of Chess. Hudson was highly ranked in the Tournaments before he joined the CU and the game still occupies much of his attention and colors much of his thinking. There is a lot of skulking about and hiding and chases and innocent people getting hurt, all of it expected. The fools even shoot at each other inside a starship. I much preferred the work of Dashiell Hammet or John D. MacDonald, both of which Checkmate draws from.

I had a few problems accepting the idea of contraband on a starship. Yes, the ships are incredibly huge with millions of passengers, but there is a finite amount of material on board. The AIs keep track of things down to the last gram yet new things are manufactured constantly which places the ship and its passengers in jeopardy. True there are other ships in the fleet, all within shuttle distance, all with large numbers of passengers, but the ships are millions of miles from any planet. The fleet is a closed system. Where is all this extra material coming from? Of course, with so many people with nothing to do except get into trouble it's possible the computers create the contraband to keep the passengers occupied. If they got too bored they might do some real damage. These incongruities tempered my enjoyment of Checkmate. Its Science Fictional elements aside, the story could take place in a large city with no loss of story. In fact, it may make a bit more sense. Why would you spend billions and billions of dollars to transport a group of people who will be useless when the ship reaches its designated world? Are these people actually pampered prisoners, no longer wanted on Earth? Are they to lead a comfortable exile with mechanical servants? Of course, it is always possible that I missed something.

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