“There goes a really decent guy,” said Grend. “He sees everything and he never forgets. Knows how everything works—in the woods, in the air—even in the water. Generous, too, whenever he has anything.”
“Hm,” Martin observed.
“Let’s make tracks,” Grend said.
“Pawn to N6? Really?” Tlingel said. “All right. The Bishop’s pawn will just knock off the pawn.”
Tlingel’s eyes narrowed as Martin moved the Knight to Q5.
“At least this is an interesting game,” the unicorn remarked. “Pawn takes Knight.”
Martin moved the Rook.
“Yes, it is. This next one is going to be a three flagon move. Kindly bring me the first.”
Martin thought back as he watched Tlingel drink and ponder. He almost felt guilty for hitting it with a powerhouse like the sasquatch behind its back. He was convinced now that the unicorn was going to lose. In every variation of this game that he’d played with Black against Grend, he’d been beaten. Tlingel was very good, but the sasquatch was a wizard with not much else to do but mental chess. It was unfair. But it was not a matter of personal honor, he kept telling himself. He was playing to protect his species against a supernatural force which might well be able to precipitate World War III by some arcane mind-manipulation or magically induced computer foulup. He didn’t dare give the creature a break.
“Flagon number two, please.”
He brought it another. He studied it as it studied the board. It was beautiful, he realized for the first time. It was the loveliest living thing he had ever seen. Now that the pressure was on the verge of evaporating and he could regard it without the overlay of fear which had always been there in the past, he could pause to admire it. If something had to succeed the human race, he could think of worse choices…
“Number three now.”
Tlingel drained it and moved the King to Bl.
Martin leaned forward immediately and pushed the Rook to R3.
Tlingel looked up, stared at him.
Martin wanted to squirm. He was struck by the nobility of the creature. He wanted so badly to play and beat the unicorn on his own, fairly. Not this way.
Tlingel looked back at the board, then almost carelessly moved the Knight to K4.
“Go ahead. Or will it take you another month?”
Martin growled softly, advanced the Rook and captured the Knight.
Tlingel captured the Rook with the Pawn. This was not the way that the last variation with Grend had run. Still…
He moved his Rook to KB3. As he did, the wind seemed to commence a peculiar shrieking, above, amid, the ruined buildings.
“Check,” he announced.
The hell with it! he decided. I’m good enough to manage my own endgame. Let’s play this out.
He watched and waited and finally saw Tlingel move the King to Nl.
He moved his Bishop to R6. Tlingel moved the Queen to K2. The shrieking came again, sounding nearer now. Martin took the Pawn with the Bishop.
The unicorn’s head came up and it seemed to listen for a moment. Then Tlingel lowered it and captured the Bishop with the King.
Martin moved his Rook to KN3.
Tlingel returned the King to Bl.
Martin moved the Rook to KB3.
Tlingel pushed the King to N2.
Martin moved the Rook back to KN3.
Tlingel returned the King to Bl, looked up and stared at him, showing teeth.
“Looks as if we’ve got a drawn game,” the unicorn stated. “Care for another one?”
“Yes, but not for the fate of humanity.”
“Forget it. I’d given up on that a long time ago. I decided that I wouldn’t care to live here after all. I’m a little more discriminating than that.
“Except for this bar.” Tlingel turned away as another shriek sounded just beyond the door, followed by strange voices. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” Martin answered, rising.
The doors opened and a golden griffin entered.
“Martin!” it cried. “Beer! Beer!”
“Uh—Tlingel, this is Rael, and, and—”
Three more griffins followed him in. Then came Grend, and three others of his own kind.
“—and that one’s Grend,” Martin said lamely. “I don’t know the others.”
They all halted when they beheld the unicorn.
“Tlingel,” one of the sasquatches said. “I thought you were still in the morning land.”
“I still am, in a way. Martin, how is it that you are acquainted with my former countrymen?”
“Well—uh—Grend here is my chess coach.”
“Aha! I begin to understand.”
“I am not sure that you really do. But let me get everyone a drink first.”
Martin turned on the piano and set everyone up.
“How did you find this place?” he asked Grend as he was doing it. “And how did you get here?”
“Well…” Grend looked embarrassed. “Rael followed you back.”
“Followed a jet?”
“Griffins are supernaturally fast.”
“Anyway, he told his relatives and some of my folks about it. When we saw that the griffins were determined to visit you, we decided that we had better come along to keep them out of trouble. They brought us.”
“No wonder you played like a unicorn, that one game with all the variations.”
Martin turned away, moved to the end of the bar.
“Welcome, all of you,” he said. “I have a small announcement. Tlingel, awhile back you had a number of observations concerning possible ecological and urban disasters and lesser dangers. Also, some ideas as to possible safeguards against some of them.”
“I recall,” said the unicorn.
“I passed them along to a friend of mine in Washington who used to be a member of my old chess club. I told him that the work was not entirely my own.”
“I should hope so.”
“He has since suggested that I turn whatever group was involved into a think tank. He will then see about paying something for its efforts.”
“I didn’t come here to save the world,” Tlingel said.
“No, but you’ve been very helpful. And Grend tells me that the griffins, even if their vocabulary is a bit limited, know almost all that there is to know about ecology.”
“That is probably true.”
“Since they have inherited a part of the Earth, it would be to their benefit as well to help preserve the place. Inasmuch as this many of us are already here, I can save myself some travel and suggest right now that we find a meeting place—say here, once a month—and that you let me have your unique viewpoints. You must know more about how species become extinct than anyone else in the business.”
“Of course,” said Grend, waving his mug, “but we really should ask the yeti, also. I’ll do it, if you’d like. Is that stuff coming out of the big box music?”
“I like it. If we do this think tank thing, you’ll make enough to keep this place going?”
“I’ll buy the whole town.”
Grend conversed in quick gutturals with the griffins, who shrieked back at him.
“You’ve got a think tank,” he said, “and they want more beer.”
Martin turned toward Tlingel.
“They were your observations. What do you think?”
“It may be amusing,” said the unicorn, “to stop by occasionally.” Then, “So much for saving the world. Did you say you wanted another game?”
“I’ve nothing to lose.”
Grend took over the tending of the bar while Tlingel and Martin returned to the table.
He beat the unicorn in thirty-one moves and touched the extended horn.
The piano keys went up and down. Tiny sphinxes buzzed about the bar, drinking the spillage.
THE IMMORTAL GAME
The first trumpet sounded far and clear and brazen cold, and Rogard the Bishop stirred to wakefulness with it. Lifting his eyes, he looked through the suddenly rustling, murmuring line of soldiers, out across the broad plain of Cinnabar and the frontier, and over to the realm of LEUKAS.
Away there, across the somehow unreal red-and-black distances of the steppe, he saw sunlight flash on armor and caught the remote wild flutter of lifted banners. So it is war, he thought. So we must fight again.
Again? He pulled his mind from the frightening dimness of that word. Had they ever fought before?
On his left, Sir Ocher laughed aloud and clanged down the vizard on his gay young face. It gave him a strange, inhuman look, he was suddenly a featureless thing of shining metal and nodding plumes, and the steel echoed in his voice: “Ha, a fight! Praise God, Bishop, for I had begun to fear I would rust here forever.”
Slowly, Rogard’s mind brought forth wonder. “Were you sitting and thinking—before now?” he asked.
“Why—” Sudden puzzlement in the reckless tones: “I think I was… Was I?” Fear turning into defiance: “Who cares? I’ve got some LEUKANS to kill!” Ocher reared in his horse till the great metallic wings thundered.