Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

Hans rented a garret room, and ordered a meal of beer, tripe, and kraut. That was the last time anyone except Gretchen noticed Lame Hans that night.

And now I must leave off recounting what I myself saw, and tell many things that rest solely on the testimony of Lame Hans, given to me while he ate his potato soup in his cell. But I believe Lame Hans to be an honest fellow; and as he no longer, as he says, cares much to live, he has no reason to lie.

One thing is certain. Lame Hans and Gretchen the serving girl fell in love that night. Just how it happened I cannot say—I doubt that Lame Hans knows himself. She was sent to prepare the cot in his garret. Doubtless she was tired after drawing beer in the parlor all day, and was happy to sit for a few moments and talk with him. Perhaps she smiled—she was always a girl who smiled a great deal—and laughed at some bitter joke he made. And as for Lame Hans, how many blue eyed girls could ever have smiled at him, with his big head and twisted leg?

In the morning the machine would not play chess.

Professor Baumeister sat before it for a long time, arranging the pieces and making first one opening and then another, and tinkering with the mechanism; but nothing happened.

And then, when the morning was half gone, Lame Hans came into his room. “You paid a great deal of money for this machine,” he said, and sat down in the best chair.

“Were you in the inn parlor last night?” asked Professor Baumeister. “Yes, I paid a great deal: seven hundred and fifty kilomarks.”

“I was there,” said Lame Hans. “You must be a very rich man to be able to afford such a sum.”

“It was the University’s money,” explained Professor Baumeister.

“Ah,” said Lame Hans. “Then it will be embarrassing for you if the machine does not play.”

“It does play,” said the professor. “I played three games with it last night after it was brought here.”

“You must learn to make better use of your knights,” Lame Hans told him, “and to attack on both sides of the board at once. In the second game you played well until you lost the queen’s rook; then you went to pieces.”

The professor sat down, and for a moment said nothing. And then: “You are the operator of the machine. I was correct in the beginning; I should have known.”

Lame Hans looked out the window.

“How did you move the pieces—by radio? I suppose there must still be radio control equipment in existence somewhere.”

“I was inside,” Lame Hans said. “I’ll show you sometime; it’s not important. What will you tell the University?”

“That I was swindled, I suppose. I have some money of my own, and I will try to pay back as much as I can out of that—and I own two houses in Furstenwald that can be sold.”

“Do you smoke?” asked Lame Hans, and he took out his short pipe, and a bag of tobacco.

“Only after dinner,” said the professor, “and not often then.”

“I find it calms my nerves,” said Lame Hans. “That is why I suggested it to you. I do not have a second pipe, but I can offer you some of my tobacco, which is very good. You might buy a clay from the innkeeper here.”

“No thank you. I fear I must abandon such little pleasures for a long time to come.”

“Not necessarily,” said Lame Hans. “Go ahead, buy that pipe. This is good Turkish tobacco—would you believe, to look at me, that I know a great deal about tobacco? It has been my only luxury.”

“If you are the one who played chess with me last night,” Professor Baumeister said, “I would be willing to believe that you know a great deal about anything. You play like the devil himself.”

“I know a great deal about more than tobacco. Would you like to get your money back?”

And so it was that that very afternoon (if it can be credited), the mail coach carried away bills printed in large black letters. These said:










TO A LIMIT OF DM 2,000,000

Now you will think from what I have told you that Lame Hans was a cocky fellow; but that is not the case, though like many of us who are small of stature he pretended to be self-reliant when he was among men taller than he. The truth is that though he did not show it he was very frightened when he met Herr Heitzmann (as the two of them had arranged earlier that he should) in a certain malodorous tavern near the Schwarzthor in Furstenwald.

“So there you are, my friend,” said Herr Heitzmann. “How did it go?”

“Terribly,” Lame Hans replied as though he felt nothing. “I was locked up in that brass snuffbox for half the night, and had to play twenty games with that fool of a scholar. And when at last I got out, I couldn’t get a ride here and had to walk most of the way on this bad leg of mine. I trust it was comfortable on the cart-seat? The horse didn’t give you too much trouble?”

“I’m sorry you’ve had a poor time of it, but now you can relax. There’s nothing more do to until he’s convinced the machine is broken and irreparable.”

Lame Hans looked at him as though in some surprise. “You didn’t see the signs? They are posted everywhere.”

“What signs?”

“He’s offering to bet two thousand kilomarks that no one can beat the machine.”

Herr Heitzmann shrugged. “He will discover that it is inoperative before the contest, and cancel it.”

“He could not cancel after the bet was made,” said Lame Hans. “Particularly if there were a proviso that if either were unable to play, the bet was forfeited. Some upright citizen would be selected to hold the stakes, naturally.”

“I don’t suppose he could at that,” said Herr Heitzmann, taking a swallow of schnapps from the glass before him. “However, he wouldn’t bet me—he’d think I knew some way to influence the machine. Still, he’s never seen you.”

“Just what I’ve been thinking myself,” said Lame Hans, “on my hike.”

“It’s a little out of your line.”

“If you’ll put up the cash, I’d be willing to go a little out of my line for my tenth of that kind of money. But what is there to do? I make the bet, find someone to hold the stakes, and stand ready to play on Saturday morning. I could even offer to play him—for a smaller bet—to give him a chance to get some of his own back. That is, if he has anything left after paying off. It would make it seem more sporting.”

“You’re certain you could beat him?”

“I can beat anybody—you know that. Besides, I beat him a score of times yesterday; the game you saw was just the first.”

Herr Heitzmann ducked under the threatening edge of a tray carried by an overenthusiastic waiter. “All the same,” he said, “when he discovers it won’t work…”

“I could even spend a bit of time in the machine. That’s no problem. It’s in a first floor room, with a window that won’t lock.”

And so Lame Hans left for our village again, this time considerably better dressed and with two thousand kilo-marks in his pocket. Herr Heitzmann, with his appearance considerably altered by a plastiskin mask, left also, an hour later, to keep an eye on the two thousand.

“But,” the professor said when Lame Hans and he were comfortably ensconced in his sitting room again, with pipes in their mouths and glasses in their hands and a plate of sausage on the table, “But who is going to operate the machine for us? Wouldn’t it be easier if you simply didn’t appear? Then you would forfeit.”

“And Heitzmann would kill me,” said Lame Hans.

“He didn’t strike me as the type.”

“He would hire it done,” Hans said positively. “Whenever he got the cash. There are deserters about who are happy enough to do that kind of work for drinking money. For that matter, there are soldiers who aren’t deserters who’ll do it—men on detached duty of one kind and another. When you’ve spent all winter slaughtering Russians, one more body doesn’t make much difference.” He blew a smoke ring, then ran the long stem of his clay pipe through it as though he were driving home a bayonet. “But if I play the machine and lose, he’ll only think you figured things out and got somebody to work it, and that I’m not as good as he supposed. Then he won’t want anything more to do with me.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred