Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

When everything was finished, Bunnish surveyed the board with satisfaction and seated himself behind Vesselere’s Black pieces. “Ready?” he asked.

Steve Delmario sat down opposite him, looking pale and terribly hung-over. He was holding a big tumbler full of orange juice, and behind his thick glasses his eyes moved nervously. “Yeah,” he said. “Go on.”

Bunnish pushed the button that started Delmario’s clock.

Very quickly, Delmario reached out, played knight takes pawn—the pieces clicked together softly as he made the capture—and used the pawn he’d taken to punch the clock, stopping his own timer and starting Bunnish’s.

“The sac,” said Bunnish. “What a surprise.” He took the knight.

Delmario played bishop takes pawn, saccing another piece. Bunnish was forced to capture with his king. He seemed unperturbed. He was smiling faintly, his dimples faint creases in his big cheeks, his eyes clear and sharp and cheerful behind his tinted eyeglasses.

Steve Delmario was leaning forward over the board, his dark eyes sweeping back and forth over the position, back and forth, over and over again as if doublechecking that everything was really where he thought it was. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. Peter, standing just behind him, could almost feel the tension beating off Delmario in waves, twisting him. Even E.C. Stuart, seated a few feet distant in a big comfortable armchair, was staring at the game intently. The clock ticked softly. Delmario lifted his hand to move his queen, but hesitated with his fingers poised above it. His hand trembled.

“What’s the matter, Steve?” Bunnish asked. He steepled his hands just beneath’ his chin, and smiled when Delmario looked up at him. “You hesitate. Don’t you know? He who hesitates is lost. Uncertain, all of a sudden? Surely that can’t be. You were always so certain before. How many mates did you show me? How many?”

Delmario blinked, frowned. “I’m going to show you one more, Bunny,” he said furiously. His fingers closed on his queen, shifted it across the board. “Check.”

“Ah,” said Bunnish. Peter studied the position. The double sac had cleared away the pawns in front of the Black king, and the queen check permitted no retreat. Bunnish marched his king up a square, toward the center of the board, toward the waiting White army. Surely he was lost now. His own defenders were all over on the queenside, and the enemy was all around him. But Bunnish did not seem worried.

Delmario’s clock was ticking as he examined the position. He sipped his juice, shifted restlessly in his seat. Bunnish yawned, and grinned tauntingly. “You were the winner that day, Delmario. Beat a Master. The only winner. Can’t you find the win now? Where are all those mates, eh?”

“There’s so many I don’t know which one to go with, Bunny,” Steve said. “Now shut up, damn you. I’m trying to think.”

“Oh,” said Bunnish. “Pardon.”

Delmario consumed ten minutes on his clock before he reached out and moved his remaining knight. “Check.”

Bunnish advanced his king again.

Delmario licked his lips, slid his queen forward a square. “Check.”

Bunnish’s king went sideways, toward the safety of the queenside.

Delmario flicked a pawn forward. “Check.”

Bunnish had to take. He removed the offending pawn with his king, smiling complacently.

With the file open, Delmario could bring his rooks into play. He shifted one over. “Check.”

Bunnish’s harried king moved again.

Now Delmario moved the rook forward, sliding it right up the file to confront the enemy king face to face. “Check!” he said loudly.

Peter sucked in his breath sharply, without meaning to. The rook was hanging! Bunnish could just snatch it off. He stared at the position over Delmario’s shoulder. Bunnish could take the rook with his king, all right, but then the other rook came over, the king had to go back, then if the queen shifted just one square… yes… too many mate threats in that variation. Black had lots of resources, but they all ended in disaster. But if Bunnish took with his knight instead of his king, he left that square unguarded…hmmm…queen check, king up, bishop comes in… no, mate was even quicker that way.

Delmario drained his orange juice and set the empty tumbler down with self-satisfied firmness.

Bunnish moved his king diagonally forward. The only possible move, Peter thought. Delmario leaned forward. Behind him, Peter leaned forward too. The White pieces were swarming around Black’s isolated king now, but how to tighten the mating net? Steve had three different checks, Peter thought. No, four, he could do that too. He watched and analyzed in silence. The rook check was no good, the king just retreated, and further checks simply drove him to safety. The bishop? No, Bunnish could trade off, take with his rook—he was two pieces up, after all. Several subvariations branched off from the two queen checks. Peter was still trying to figure out where they led, when Delmario reached out suddenly, grabbed a pawn from in front of his king, and moved it up two squares. He slammed it down solidly, and slapped the clock. Then he sat back and crossed his arms. “Your move, Bunny,” he said.

Peter studied the board. Delmario’s last move didn’t give check, but the pawn advance cut off an important escape square. Now that threatened rook check was no longer innocuous. Instead of being chased back to safety, the Black king got mated in three. Of course, Bunnish had a tempo now, it was his move, he could bring up a defender. His queen now, could…no, then queen check, king back, rook check, and the Black queen fell… bishop maybe… no, check there and mate in one, unstoppable. The longer Peter looked at the position, the fewer defensive resources he saw for Black. Bunnish could delay the loss, but he couldn’t stop it. He was smashed!

Bunnish did not look smashed. Very calmly he picked up a knight and moved it to queen’s knight six. “Check,” he said quietly.

Delmario stared. Peter stared. E.C. Stuart got up out of his chair and drifted closer, his finger brushing back his mustache as he considered the game. The check was only a time-waster, Peter thought. Delmario could capture the knight with either of two pawns, or he could simply move his king. Except… Peter scowled… if White took with the bishop pawn, queen came up with check, king moved to the second, queen takes rook pawn with check, king…no, that was no good. White got mated by force. The other way seemed to bring on the mate even faster, after the queen checked from the eighth rank.

Delmario moved his king up.

Bunnish slid a bishop out along a diagonal. “Check.”

There was only one move. Steve moved his king forward again. He was being harassed, but his mating net was still intact, once the checks had run their course.

Bunnish flicked his knight backward, with another check.

Delmario was blinking and twisting his legs beneath the table. Peter saw that if he brought his king back, Bunnish had a forced series of checks leading to mate… but the Black knight hung now, to both rook and queen, and… Delmario captured it with the rook.

Bunnish grabbed White’s advanced pawn with his queen, removing the cornerstone of the mating net. Now Delmario could play queen takes queen, but then he lost his queen to a fork, and after the trade-offs that followed he’d be hopelessly busted. Instead he retreated his king.

Bunnish made a tsking noise and captured the White knight with his queen, again daring Delmario to take it. With knight and pawn both gone, Delmario’s mating threats had all dissipated, and if White snatched that Black queen, there was a check, a pin, take, take, take, and… Peter gritted his teeth together… and White would suddenly be in the end-game down a piece, hopelessly lost. No. There had to be something better. The position still had a lot of play in it. Peter stared, and analyzed.

Steve Delmario stared too, while his clock ticked. The clock was one of those fancy jobs, with a move counter. It showed that he had to make seven more moves to reach time control. He had just under fifteen minutes remaining. Some time pressure, but nothing serious.

Except that Delmario sat and sat, eyes flicking back and forth across the board, blinking. He took off his thick glasses and cleaned them methodically on his shirt-tail. When he slid them back on, the position had not changed. He stared at the Black king fixedly, as if he were willing it to fall. Finally he started to get up. “I need a drink,” he said.

“I’ll get it,” Peter snapped. “Sit down. You’ve only got eight minutes left.”

“Yeah,” Delmario said. He sat down again. Peter went to the bar and made him a screwdriver. Steve drained half of it in a gulp, never taking his eyes from the chessboard.

Peter happened to glance at E.C. Stuart. E.C. shook his head and cast his eyes up toward the ceiling. Not a word was spoken, but Peter heard the message: forget it.

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