Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“You ought to be complimented, Norten. I had to break you twice. The first time I managed to kill your literary career with Blue Show, but then while my back was turned you managed to become a terribly popular journalist. Prize-winning, well known, all of it, and by then it was too late to do anything. I had to flash back once more to get you, do everything all over.”

“I ought to kill you, Bunnish,” Peter heard himself say.

E.C. shook his head. “Peter,” he said, in the tone of a man explaining something to a high-grade moron, “this is all an elaborate hoax. Don’t take Bunny seriously.”

Peter stared at his old teammate. “No, E.C. It’s true. It’s all true. Stop worrying about being the butt of a joke, and think about it. It makes sense. It explains everything that has happened to us.”

E.C. Stuart made a disgusted noise, frowned, and fingered the end of his mustache.

“Listen to your captain, Stuart,” Bunnish said.

Peter turned back to him. “Why? That’s what I want to know. Why? Because we played jokes on you? Kidded you? Maybe we were rotten, I don’t know, it didn’t seem to be so terrible at the time. You brought a lot of it on yourself. But whatever we might have done to you, we never deserved this. We were your teammates, your friends.”

Bunnish’s smile curdled, and the dimples disappeared. “You were never my friends.”

Steve Delmario nodded vigorously at that. “You’re no friend of mine, Funny Bunny, I tell you that. Know what you are? A wimp. You were always a goddamn wimp, that’s why nobody ever liked you, you were just a damn wimp loser with a crewcut. Hell, you think you were the only one ever got kidded? What about me, the ol’ last man on earth, huh, what about that? What about the jokes E.C. played on Pete, on Les, on all the others?” He took a drink. “Bringing us here like this, that’s another damn wimp thing to do. You’re the same Bunny you always were. Wasn’t enough to do something, you had to brag about it, let everybody know. And if somethin’ went wrong, was never your fault, was it? You only lost ’cause the room was too noisy, or the lighting was bad, whatever.” Delmario stood up. “You make me sick. Well, you screwed up all our lives maybe, and now you told us about it. Good for you. You had your damn wimp fun. Now let us out of here.”

“I second that motion,” said E.C.

“Why, I wouldn’t think of it,” Bunnish replied. “Not just yet. We haven’t played any chess yet. A few games for old times’ sake.”

Delmario blinked, and moved slightly as he stood holding the back of his chair. “The game,” he said, suddenly reminded of his challenge to Bunnish of a few minutes ago. “We were goin’ to play over the game.”

Bunnish folded his hands neatly in front of him on the table. “We can do better than that,” he said. “I am a very fair man, you see. None of you ever gave me a chance, but I’ll give one to you, to each of you. I’ve stolen your lives. Wasn’t that what you said, Norten? Well, friends, I’ll give you a shot at winning those lives back. We’ll play a little chess. We’ll replay the game, from the critical position. I’ll take Vesselere’s side and you can have mine. The three of you can consult, if you like, or I’ll play you one by one. I don’t care. All you have to do is beat me. Win the game you say I should have won, and I’ll let you go, and give you anything you like. Money, property, a job, whatever.”

“Go t’ hell, wimp,” Delmario said. “I’m not interested in your damn money.”

Bunnish picked up his glasses from the table and donned them, smiling widely. “Or,” he said, “if you prefer, you can win a chance to use my flashback device. You can go back then, anticipate me, do it all over, live the lives you were destined to live before I dealt myself in. Just think of it. It’s the best opportunity you’ll ever have, any of you, and I’m making it so easy. All you have to do is win a won game.”

“Winning a won game is one of the hardest things in chess,” Peter said sullenly. But even as he said it, his mind was racing, excitement stirring deep in his gut. It was a chance, he thought, a chance to reshape the ruins of his life, to make it come out right. To obliterate the wrong turnings, to taste the wine of success instead of the wormwood of failure, to avoid the mockery that his marriage to Kathy had become. Dead hopes rose like ghosts to dance again in the graveyard of his dreams. He had to take the shot, he knew. He had to.

Steve Delmario was there before him. “I can win that goddamned game,” he boomed drunkenly. “I could win it with my eyes shut. You’re on, Bunny. Get out a set, damn you!”

Bunnish laughed and stood up, putting his big hands flat on the tabletop and using them to push himself to his feet. “Oh no, Delmario. You’re not going to have the excuse of being drunk when you lose. I’m going to crush you when you are cold stone sober. Tomorrow. I’ll play you tomorrow.”

Delmario blinked furiously. “Tomorrow,” he echoed.

Later, when they were alone in their room, Kathy turned on him. “Peter,” she said, “let’s get out of here. Tonight. Now.”

Peter was sitting before the fire. He had found a small chess set in the top drawer of his bedside table, and had set up the critical position from Vesselere-Bunnish to study it. He scowled at the distraction and said, “Get out? How the hell do you propose we do that, with our car locked up in that garage?”

“There’s got to be a phone here somewhere. We could search, find it, call for help. Or just walk.”

“It’s December, and we’re in the mountains miles from anywhere. We try to walk out of here and we could freeze to death. No.” He turned his attention back to the chessboard and tried to concentrate.

“Peter,” she said angrily.

He looked up again. “What?” he snapped. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“We have to do something. This whole scene is insane. Bunnish needs to be locked up.”

“He was telling the truth,” Peter said.

Kathy’s expression softened, and for an instant there was something like sorrow on her face. “I know,” she said softly.

“You know,” Peter mimicked savagely. “You know, do you? Well, do you know how it feels? That bastard is going to pay. He’s responsible for every rotten thing that has happened to me. For all I know, he’s probably responsible for you.”

Kathy’s lips moved only slightly, and her eyes moved not at all, but suddenly the sorrow and sympathy were gone from her face, and instead Peter saw familiar pity, well-honed contempt. “He’s just going to crush you again,” she said coldly. “He wants you to lust after this chance, because he intends to deny it to you. He’s going to beat you, Peter. How are you going to like that? How are you going to live with it, afterwards?”

Peter looked down at the chesspieces. “That’s what he intends, yeah. But he’s a moron. This is a won position. It’s only a matter of finding the winning line, the right variation. And we’ve got three shots at it. Steve goes first. If he loses, E.C. and I will be able to learn from his mistakes. I won’t lose. I’ve lost everything else, maybe, but not this. This time I’m going to be a winner. You’ll see.”

“I’ll see, all right,” Kathy said. “You pitiful bastard.”

Peter ignored her, and moved a piece. Knight takes pawn.

Kathy remained in the suite the next morning. “Go play your damn games if you like,” she told Peter. “I’m going to soak in the hot tub, and read. I want no part of this.”

“Suit yourself,” Peter said. He slammed the door behind him, and thought once again what a bitch he’d married.

Downstairs, in the huge living room, Bunnish was setting up the board. The set he’d chosen was not ornate and expensive like the one in the corner, with its pieces glued into place. Sets like that looked good for decorative purposes, but were useless in serious play. Instead Bunnish had shifted a plain wooden table to the center of the room, and fetched out a standard tournament set: a vinyl board in green and white that he unrolled carefully, a well-worn set of Drueke pieces of standard Staunton design, cast in black and white plastic with lead weights in the bases, beneath the felt, to give them a nice heft. He placed each piece into position from memory, without once looking at the game frozen on the expensive inlaid board across the room. Then he began to set a double-faced chess clock. “Can’t play without the clock, you know,” he said, smiling. “I’ll set it exactly the same as it stood that day in Evanston.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred