“Shit,” said Steve Delmario. “Only one important move to recite, Bunny. Knight takes pawn, that’s the move you ought to recite. The sac, the winning sac, the one you didn’t play. I forget what kind of feeble thing you did instead.”
Bunnish smiled. “My move was king to knight one,” he said. “To protect my rook pawn. I’d castled long, and Vesselere was threatening to snatch it.”
“Pawn, shmawn,” said Delmario. “You had him busted. The sac would have gutted that whale like nobody’s goddamned business. What a laugh that would have been. The bunny rabbit beating the whale. Old Hal Winslow would have been so shocked he would have dropped his clipboard. But you blew it, guarding some diddlysquat little pawn. You blew it.”
“So you told me,” said Bunnish. “And told me, and told me.”
“Look,” Peter said, “I don’t see the sense in rehashing all of this. Steve is drunk, Bruce. You can see that. He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
“He knows exactly what he’s saying, Norten,” Bunnish replied. He smiled thinly and removed his glasses. Peter was startled by his eyes. The hatred there was almost tangible, and there was something else as well, something old and bitter and somehow trapped. The eyes passed lightly over Kathy, who was sitting quietly amidst all the old hostility, and touched Steve Delmario, Peter Norten, and E.C. Stuart each in turn, with vast loathing and vast amusement.
“Enough,” Peter said, almost pleadingly.
“NO!” said Delmario. The drink had made him belligerent. “It’s not enough, it’ll never be enough, goddamn it. Get out a set, Bunny! I dare you! We’ll analyze it right now, go over the whole thing again, I’ll show you how you pissed it all away.” He pulled himself to his feet.
“I have a better idea,” said Bunnish. “Sit down, Delmario.”
Delmario blinked uncertainly, and then fell back into his chair.
“Good,” said Bunnish. “We’ll get to my idea in a moment, but first I’m going to tell you all a story. As Archie Bunker once said, revenge is the best way to get even. But it isn’t revenge unless the victim knows. So I’m going to tell you. I’m going to tell you exactly how I’ve ruined your lives.”
“Oh, come off it!” E.C. said.
“You never did like stories, E.C,” Bunnish said. “Know why? Because when someone tells a story, they become the center of attention. And you always needed to be the center of attention, wherever you were. Now you’re not the center of anything, though. How does it feel to be insignificant?”
E.C. gave a disgusted shake of his head and poured himself more coffee. “Go on, Bunnish,” he said. “Tell your story. You have a captive audience.”
“I do, don’t I?” Bunnish smiled. “All right. It all begins with that game. Me and Vesselere. I did not blow that game. It was never won.”
Delmario made a rude noise.
“I know,” Bunnish continued, unperturbed, “now, but I did not know then. I thought that you were right. I’d thrown it all away, I thought. It ate at me. For years and years, more years than you would believe. Every night I went to sleep replaying that game in my head. That game blighted my entire life. It became an obsession. I wanted only one thing—another chance. I wanted to go back, somehow, to choose another line, to make different moves, to come out a winner. I’d picked the wrong variation, that was all. I knew that if I had another chance, I’d do better. For more than fifty years, I worked toward that end, and that end alone.”
Peter swallowed a mouthful of cold coffee hastily and said, “What? Fifty years? You mean five, don’t you?”
“Fifty,” Bunnish repeated.
“You are insane,” said E.C.
“No,” said Bunnish. “I am a genius. Have you ever heard of time travel, any of you?”
“It doesn’t exist,” said Peter. “The paradoxes…”
Bunnish waved him quiet. “You’re right and you’re wrong, Norten. It exists, but only in a sort of limited fashion. Yet that is enough. I won’t bore you with mathematics none of you can understand. Analogy is easier. Time is said to be the fourth dimension, but it differs from the other three in one conspicuous way—our consciousness moves along it. From past to present only, alas. Time itself does not flow, no more than, say, width can flow. Our minds flicker from one instant of time to the next. This analogy was my starting point. I reasoned that if consciousness can move in one direction, it can move in the other direction as well. It took me fifty years to work out the details, however, and make what I call a flashback possible.
“That was in my first life, gentlemen, a life of failure and ridicule and poverty. I tended my obsession and did what I had to so as to keep myself fed. And I hated you, each of you, for every moment of those fifty years. My bitterness was inflamed as I watched each of you succeed, while I struggled and failed. I met Norten once, twenty years after college, at an autographing party. You were so patronizing. It was then that I determined to ruin you, all of you.
“And I did. What is there to say? I perfected my device at the age of seventy-one. There is no way to move matter through time, but mind, mind is a different issue. My device would send my mind back to any point in my own lifetime that I chose, superimpose my consciousness with all of its memories on the consciousness of my earlier self. I could take nothing with me, of course.” Bunnish smiled and tapped his temple significantly. “But I still had my photographic memory. It was more than enough. I memorized things I would need to know in my new life, and I flashed back to my youth. I was given another chance, a chance to make some different moves in the game of life. I did.”
Steve Delmario blinked. “Your body,” he said blurrily. “What happened to your body, huh?”
“An interesting question. The kick of the flashback kills the would-be time-traveller. The body, that is. The timeline itself goes on, however. At least my equations indicate that it should. I’ve never been around to witness it. Meanwhile, changes in the past create a new, variant timeline.”
“Oh, alternate tracks,” Delmario said. He nodded.
Kathy laughed. “I can’t believe I’m sitting here listening to all this,” she said. “And that he”—she pointed to Delmario—”is taking it seriously.”
E.C. Stuart had been looking idly at the ceiling, with a disdainful, faintly tolerant smile on his face. Now he straightened. “I agree,” he said to Kathy. “I am not so gullible as you were, Bruce,” he told Bunnish, “and if you are trying to get some laughs by having us swallow this crock of shit, it isn’t going to work.”
Bunnish turned to Peter. “Captain, what’s your vote?”
“Well,” said Peter carefully, “all this is a little hard to credit, Bruce. You spoke of the game becoming an obsession with you, and I think that’s true. I think you ought to be talking to a professional about this, not to us.”
“A professional what?” Bunnish said.
Peter fidgeted uncomfortably. “You know, a shrink or a counselor.”
Bunnish chuckled. “Failure hasn’t made you any less patronizing,” he said. “You were just as bad in the bookstore, in that line where you turned out to be a successful novelist.”
Peter sighed. “Bruce, can’t you see how pathetic these delusions of yours are? I mean, you’ve obviously been quite a success, and none of us have done as well, but even that wasn’t enough for you, so you’ve constructed all these elaborate fantasies about how you have been the one behind our various failures. Vicarious, imaginary revenge.”
“Neither vicarious nor imaginary, Norten,” Bunnish snapped. “I can tell you exactly how I did it.”
“Let him tell his stories, Peter,” E.C. said. “Then maybe he’ll let us out of this funny farm.”
“Why thank you, E.C,” Bunnish said. He looked around the table with smug satisfaction, like a man about to live out a dream he has cherished for a long, long time. Finally he fastened on Steve Delmario. “I’ll start with you,” he said, “because in fact, I did start with you. You were easy to destroy, Delmario, because you were always so limited. In the original timeline, you were as wealthy as I am in this one. While I spent my life perfecting my flashback device, you made fast fortunes in the wide world out there. Electronic games at first, later more basic stuff, home computers, that sort of thing. You were born for that, and you were the best in the business, inspired and ingenious.
“When I flashed back, I simply took your place. Before using my device, I studied all your early little games, your cleverest ideas, the basic patents that came later and made you so rich. And I memorized all of them, along with the dates on which you’d come up with each and every one. Back in the past, armed with all this foreknowledge, it was child’s play to beat you to the punch. Again and again. In those early years, Delmario, didn’t it ever strike you as strange the way I anticipated every one of your small brainstorms? I’m living your life, Delmario.”