Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

Far and faint, through the noise and confusion of battle, Cinnabar’s bugles sounded the command of her King. Peering into the haze, Rogard saw that Flambard was taking precautions. SirTHEUTAS was still a menace, where he stood beside SORKAS. Sir Cupran of Cinnabar flew heavily over to land in front of the Queen’s Earl’s guardsman, covering the route THEUTAS must follow to endanger Flambard.

Wise, but—Rogard looked again at MIKILLATI’s chill white face, and it was as if a breath of cold blew through him. Suddenly he wondered why they fought. For victory, yes, for mastery over the world—but when the battle had been won, what then?

He couldn’t think past that moment. His mind recoiled in horror he could not name. In that instant he knew icily that this was not the first war in the world, there had been others before, and there would be others again. Victory is death.

But Evyan, glorious Evyan, she could not die. She would reign over all the world and—

Steel blazed in Cinnabar, MERKON of LEUKAS came surging forth, one tigerish leap which brought him down on Ocher’s guardsman. The soldier screamed, once, as he fell under the trampling, tearing hoofs, but it was lost in the shout of the LEUKAN Knight: “Defend yourself, Flambard! Defend yourself!”

Rogard gasped. It was like a blow in the belly. He had stood triumphant over the world, and now all in one swoop it was brought toppling about him. THEUTAS shook his lance, SORKAS his mace, DIOMES raised a bull’s bellow—somehow, incredibly somehow, the warriors of LEUKAS had entered Cinnabar and were thundering at the King’s own citadel.

“No, no—” Looking down the long empty row of squares, Rogard saw that Evyan was weeping. He wanted to run to her, hold her close and shield her against the falling world, but the Barriers were around him. He could not stir from his square, he could only watch.

Flambard cursed lividly and retreated into his Queen’s home. His men gave a shout and clashed their arms—there was still a chance!

No, not while the Law bound men, thought Rogard, not while the Barriers held. Victory was ashen, and victory and defeat alike were darkness.

Beyond her thinly smiling husband, Queen DOLORA swept forward. Evyan cried out as the tall white woman halted before Rogard’s terrified guardsman, turned to face Flambard where he crouched, and called to him: “Defend yourself, King!”

“No—no—you fool!” Rogard reached out, trying to break the Barrier, clawing at MIKILLATI. “Can’t you see, none of us can win, it’s death for us all if the war ends. Call her back!” MIKILLATI ignored him. He seemed to be waiting.

And Ocher of Cinnabar raised a huge shout of laughter. It belled over the plain, dancing joyous mirth, and men lifted weary heads and turned to the young Knight where he sat in his own stronghold, for there was youth and triumph and glory in his laughing. Swiftly, then, a blur of steel, he sprang, and his winged horse rushed out of the sky on DOLORA herself. She turned to meet him, lifting her sword, and he knocked it from her hand and stabbed with his own lance. Slowly, too haughty to scream, the white Queen sank under his horse’s hoofs. And MIKILLATI smiled.

“I see,” nodded the visitor. “Individual computers, each controlling its own robot piece by a tight beam, and all the computers on a given side linked to form a sort of group-mind constrained to obey the rules of chess and make the best possible moves. Very nice. And it’s a pretty cute notion of yours, making the robots look like medieval armies.” His glance studied the tiny figures where they moved on the oversized board under one glaring floodlight.

“Oh, that’s pure frippery,” said the scientist. “This is really a serious research project in multiple computer-linkages. By letting them play game after game, I’m getting some valuable data.”

“It’s a lovely set-up,” said the visitor admiringly. “Do you realize that in this particular contest the two sides are reproducing one of the great classic games?”

“Why, no. Is that a fact?”

“Yes. It was a match between Anderssen and Kieseritsky, back in—I forget the year, but it was quite some time ago. Chess books often refer to it as the Immortal Game… So your computers must share many of the properties of a human brain.”

“Well, they’re complex things, all right,” admitted the scientist. “Not all their characteristics are known yet. Sometimes my chessmen surprise even me.”

“Hm.” The visitor stooped over the board. “Notice how they’re jumping around inside their squares, waving their arms, batting at each other with their weapons?” He paused, then murmured slowly: “I wonder—I wonder if your computers may not have consciousness. If they might not have—minds.”

“Don’t get fantastic,” snorted the scientist.

“But how do you know?” persisted the visitor. “Look, your feedback arrangement is closely analogous to a human nervous system. How do you know that your individual computers, even if they are constrained by the group linkage, don’t have individual personalities? How do you know that their electronic senses don’t interpret the game as, oh, as an interplay of free will and necessity; how do you know they don’t receive the data of the moves as their own equivalent of blood, sweat, and tears?” He shuddered a little.

“Nonsense,” grunted the scientist. “They’re only robots. Now—Hey! Look there! Look at that move!”

Bishop SORKAS took one step ahead, into the black square adjoining Flambard’s. He bowed and smiled. “The war is ended,” he said.

Slowly, very slowly, Flambard looked about him. SORKAS, MERKON, THEUTAS, they were crouched to leap on him wherever he turned; his own men raged helpless against the Barriers; there was no place for him to go.

He bowed his head. “I surrender.” he whispered.

Rogard looked across the red and black to Evyan. Their eyes met, and they stretched out their arms to each other.

“Checkmate,” said the scientist. “That game’s over.”

He crossed the room to the switchboard and turned off the computers.


Fritz Leiber

Being World’s Chess Champion (crowned or uncrowned), puts a more deadly and maddening strain on a man even than being President of the United States. We have a prime example enthroned right now. For more than ten years the present champion was clearly the greatest chess player in the world, but during that time he exhibited such willful and seemingly self-destructive behavior—refusing to enter crucial tournaments, quitting them for crankish reasons while holding a commanding lead, entertaining what many called a paranoid delusion that the whole world was plotting to keep him from reaching the top—that many informed experts wrote him off as a contender for the highest honors. Even his staunchest supporters experienced agonizing doubts—until he finally silenced his foes and supremely satisfied his friends by decisively winning the crucial and ultimate match on a fantastic polar island.

Even minor players bitten by the world’s-championship bug—or the fantasy of it—experience a bit of that terrible strain, occasionally in very strange and even eerie fashion…

Stirf Ritter-Rebil was indulging in one of his numerous creative avocations—wandering at random through his beloved downtown San Francisco with its sometimes dizzily slanting sidewalks, its elusive narrow courts and alleys, and its kaleidescope of ever-changing store and restaurant-fronts amongst the ones that persist as landmarks. To divert his gaze there were interesting almond and black faces among the paler ones. There was the dangerous surge of traffic threatening to invade the humpy sidewalks.

The sky was a careless silvery gray, like an expensive whore’s mink coat covering bizarre garb or nakedness. There were even wisps of fog, that Bay Area benizon. There were bankers and hippies, con men and corporation men, queers of all varieties, beggars and sports, murderers and saints (at least in Ritter’s freewheeling imagination). And there were certainly alluring girls aplenty in an astounding variety of packages—and pretty girls are the essential spice in any really tasty ragout of people. In fact there may well have been Martians and time travelers.

Ritter’s ramble had taken on an even more dreamlike, whimsical and unpredictable quality than usual—with an unflagging anticipation of mystery, surprise, and erotic or diamond-studded adventure around the very next corner.

He frequently thought of himself by his middle name, Ritter, because he was a sporadically ardent chess player now in the midst of a sporad. In German “Ritter” means “knight,” yet Germans do not call a knight a Ritter, but a springer, or jumper (for its crookedly hopping move), a matter for inexhaustible philological, historical, and socioracial speculation. Ritter was also a deeply devoted student of the history of chess, both in its serious and anecdotal aspects.

He was a tall, white-haired man, rather thin, saved from the look of mere age by ravaged handsomeness, an altogether youthful though worldly and sympathetically cynical curiosity in his gaze (when he wasn’t daydreaming), and a definitely though unobtrusively theatrical carriage.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred