Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen


Chess and fantastic fiction (I use the term here to include science fiction) began an enthusiastic encounter with each other at least as far back as Lewis Carroll, and the mating is still in progress. Both contain strong elements of conflict—Emanuel Lasker, one of the great players of all time, defined chess as a struggle—and both are set in worlds where time and space are subject to transformation, the ordinary rules of human existence do not apply. Therefore both tend to appeal to the same kind of mind; an interest in the fantastic is very often a sign of interest in chess, and vice versa.

The games in the stories in this book are not always chess, if we define chess by a certain precise set of rules, and configurations of pieces which are to be moved on a flat board eight squares by eight. But by Lasker’s definition the fit is good, because each story in this book recounts a struggle. The opponents are not always the humanity we know, any more than the games are always literally the chess we know, but a board game plays some essential part in each story, and in each some conflict beyond gaming is to be resolved.

Getting this book done has been something of a struggle, too, at times, though mostly it has been a lot of fun. We would like to thank all those who have cooperated and offered suggestions, in particular George R.R. Martin, and Ruth Berman and her friends Dennis Lein and Joyce Muskat.

Start your clocks!

—Fred and Joan Saberhagen


Gene Wolfe

Each day Lame Hans sits with his knees against the bars, playing chess with the machine. Though I have seen the game often I have never learned to play, but I watch them as I sweep. It is a beautiful game, and Lame Hans has told me of its beginnings in the great ages now past; for that reason I always feel a sympathy toward the little pawns with their pencils and wrenches and plain clothing, each figure representing many generations of those whose labor built the great bishops that split the skys in the days of the old wars.

I feel pity for Lame Hans also. He talks to me when I bring his food, and sometimes when I am cleaning the jail. Let me tell you his story, as I have learned it in the many days since the police drew poor Gretchen out and laid her in the dust of the street. Lame Hans would never tell you himself—for all that big, bulging head his tongue is slow and halting when he speaks of his own affairs.

It was last summer during the truce that the showman’s cart was driven into our village. For a month not a drop of rain had fallen; each day at noon Father Karl rang the churchbells, and women went in to pray for rain for their husbands’ crops. After dark many of these same women met to form lines and circles on the slopes of the Schlossberg, the mountain that was once a great building. The lines and circles are supposed to influence the Weatherwatchers, whose winking lights pass so swiftly through the starry sky. For myself, I do not believe it. What men ever made a machine that could see a few old women on the mountainside at night?

So it was when the cart of Herr Heitzmann the mountebank came. The sun was down, but the street still so hot that the dogs would not bark for fear of fainting, and the dust rolled away from the wheels in waves, like grain when foxes run through the fields.

This cart was shorter than a farm wagon, but very high, with such a roof as a house has. The sides had been painted, and even I, who do not play, but have so often watched Albricht the moneylender play Father Karl, or Doctor Eckardt play Burgermeister Landsteiner, recognized the mighty figures of the Queen-Computers who lead the armies of the field of squares into battle; and the haughty King-Generals who command, and if they fall bring down all.

A small, bent man drove. He had a head large enough for a giant—that was Lame Hans, but I paid little attention to him, not knowing that he and I would be companions here in the jail where I work. Beside him sat Heitzmann the mountebank, and it was he who took one’s eyes, which was as he intended. He was tall and thin, with a sharp chin and a large nose and snapping black eyes. He had velvet trousers and a fine hat which sweat had stained around the band, and long locks of dark hair that hung from under it at odd angles so that one knew he used the finger-comb when he woke, as drunkards do who find themselves beneath a bench. When the small man brought the cart through the innyard gate, I rose from my seat on the jail steps and went across to the inn parlor. And it was a fortunate thing I did so, because it was in this way that I chanced to see the famous game between the brass machine and Professor Baumeister.

Haven’t I mentioned Professor Baumeister before? Have you not noticed that in a village such as ours there are always a dozen celebrities? Always a man who is strong (with us that is Willi Schacht, the smith’s apprentice), one who eats a great deal, a learned man like Doctor Eckardt, a ladies man, and so on. But for all these people to be properly admired, there must also be a distinguished visitor to whom to point them out, and here in Oder Spree that is Professor Baumeister, because our village lies midway between the University and Furstenwald, and it is here that he spends the night whenever he journies from one to the other, much to the enrichment of Scheer the innkeeper. The fact of the matter is that Professor Baumeister has become one of our celebrities himself, only by spending the night here so often. With his broad brown beard and fine coat and tall hat and leather riding breeches, he gives the parlor of our inn the air of a gentlemen’s club.

I have heard that it is often the case that the beginning of the greatest drama is as casual as any commonplace event. So it was that night. The inn was full of off duty soldiers drinking beer, and because of the heat all the windows were thrown open, though a dozen candles were burning. Professor Baumeister was deep in conversation with Doctor Eckardt; something about the war. Herr Heitzmann the mountebank—though I did not know what to call him then—had already gotten his half-liter when I came in, and was standing at the bar.

At last, when Professor Baumeister paused to emphasize some point, Herr Heitzmann leaned over to them, and in the most offhand way asked a question. It was peculiar, but the whole room seemed to grow silent as he spoke, so that he could be heard everywhere though it was no more than a whisper. He said: “I wonder if I might venture to ask you gentlemen—you both appear to be learned men—if, to the best of your knowledge, there still exists even one of those great computational machines which were perhaps the most extraordinary—I trust you will agree with me?—creations of the age now past.”

Professor Baumeister said at once, “No, sir. Not one remains.”

“You feel certain of this?”

“My dear sir,” said Professor Baumeister, “you must understand that those devices were dependent upon a supply of replacement parts consisting of the most delicate subminiature electronic components. These have not been produced now for over a hundred years—indeed, some of them have been unavailable longer.”

“Ah,” Herr Heitzmann said (mostly to himself, it seemed, but you could hear him in the kitchen). “Then I have the only one.”

Professor Baumeister attempted to ignore this amazing remark, as not having been addressed to himself; but Doctor Eckardt, who is of an inquisitive disposition, said boldly: “You have such a machine, Herr…?”

“Heitzmann. Originally of Berlin, now come from Zurich. And you, my good sir?”

Doctor Eckardt introduced himself, and Professor Baumeister too, and Herr Heitzmann clasped them by the hand. Then the doctor said to Professor Baumeister: “You are certain that no computers remain in existence, my friend?”

The professor said: “I am referring to working computers—machines in operating condition. There are plenty of old hulks in museums, of course.”

Herr Heitzmann sighed, and pulled out a chair and sat down at the table with them, bringing his beer. “Would it not be sad,” he said, “if those world-ruling machines were lost to mankind forever?”

Professor Baumeister said dryly: “They based their extrapolations on numbers. That worked well enough as long as money, which is easily measured numerically, was the principal motivating force in human affairs. But as time progressed human actions became responsive instead to a multitude of incommensurable vectors; the computers’ predictions failed, the civilization they had built collapsed, and parts for the machines were no longer obtainable or desired.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred