It was the second time he was sitting in her garden, and again her AI snake was looking at him from over her shoulder. The first time he had not thought about the intelligence he knew far exceeded the snake's own hardware, about the obviously engineered subliminal harmonics of the garden, or about the way the woman seemed to smile and nod at something the snake had softly hissed to her like a joke or a command. The first time he just listened to the offer and refused it with pride.
"Mathematically speaking," the woman had said, "fighting is indistinguishable from chess, and chess is no longer a game for human brains. We can put inside yours a computer trained to know the best move in the best moment, make your reflexes superhumanly knowledgeable in physiology, physics, and game theory, without overloading your conscious awareness." The woman's gesture had been apologetically vague, as if trying to explain a sense he did not have or a place he had never seen. "The closest I can come to a non-technical description is that it would make your instincts perfect."
The price quoted hadn't been small, but that was not why he had refused. What the woman was offering was a shortcut to becoming better. He was the best fighter in the world. Sure of it in his bones, if not yet recognized as such by the official rankings. To take a shortcut, even a legal one, would have meant he was not the best.
So he refused. Six months later he fought a man he knew was slower and less clever than himself. After the fight what little he could remember were the feeling of his fists hitting where his opponent was not, and pain coming in angles he had not known possible. The man had defeated him, of course, but he also had done it in the most humiliating way possible, and had made sure the humiliation continued long after the fight. A rematch was offered with the laughing assumption that he would be stupid enough to accept it instead of retiring.
He had not accepted. He might yet retire. His thoughts were coiled around a different idea, or the idea coiled around his thoughts.
The second time he sat in the garden he did notice the way the snake looked at him and the way the woman smiled as the automata instructed her.
"Mathematically speaking," the woman said, "murder is indistinguishable from chess." The price quoted wasn't small, but he accepted it. He got away with it, of course, and afterwards considered returning to the fights.
But his instincts had learned a different game, and he found himself unable to resist returning to the board.