Peter thought for a minute, trying to recall the strategies that had motivated him ten years before. Finally he nodded. “You always lost the big games, Bruce. It made sense to put you up on board one, where you’d face the other teams’ big guns, the ones who’d probably beat whoever we played there. That way the lower boards would be manned by more reliable players, the ones we could count on in the clutch.”
“In other words,” Bunnish said, “I was a write-off. You expected me to lose, while you won matches on the lower boards.”
“Yes,” Peter admitted. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry,” mocked Bunnish. “You made me lose, expected me to lose, and then tormented me for losing, and now you’re sorry. You didn’t play chess that day. You never played chess. You were playing a bigger game, a game that lasted for years, between you and Winslow of U.C. And the team members were your pieces and your pawns. Me, I was a sac. A gambit. That was all. And it didn’t work anyway. Winslow beat you. You lost.”
“You’re right,” Peter admitted. “I lost. I think I understand now. Why you did all the things you’ve done.”
“You’re going to lose again now,” Bunnish said. “Move, before your clock runs out.” He nodded down at the checkered wasteland that lay between them, at the complex jumble of Black and White pieces.
Peter glanced at the board with disinterest. “We analyzed until three in the morning last night, the three of us. I had a new variation all set. A single sacrifice, instead of the double sac. I play knight takes pawn, but I hold back from the bishop sac, swing my queen over instead. That was the idea. It looked pretty good. But it’s unsound, isn’t it?”
Bunnish stared at him. “Play it, and we’ll find out!”
“No,” said Peter. “I don’t want to play.”
“Pete!” Steve Delmario said in consternation. “You got to, what are you saying, beat this damn bastard.”
Peter looked at him. “It’s no good, Steve.”
There was a silence. Finally Bunnish said, “You’re a coward, Norten. A coward and a failure and a weakling. Play the game out.”
“I’m not interested in the game, Bruce. Just tell me. The variation is unsound.”
Bunnish made a disgusted noise. “Yes, yes,” he snapped. “It’s unsound. There’s a countersac, I give up a rook to break up your mating threats, but I win a piece back a few moves later.”
“All the variations are unsound, aren’t they?” Peter said.
Bunnish smiled thinly.
“White doesn’t have a won game at all,” Peter said. “We were wrong, all those years. You never blew the win. You never had a win. Just a position that looked good superficially, but led nowhere.”
“Wisdom, at last,” Bunnish said. “I’ve had computers print out every possible variant. They take forever, but I’ve had lifetimes. When I flashed back—you have no idea how many times I have flashed back, trying one new idea after another—that is always my target point, that day in Evanston, the game with Vesselere. I’ve tried every move there is to be tried in that position, every wild idea. It makes no difference. Vesselere always beats me. All the variations are unsound.”
“But,” Delmario protested, looking bewildered. “Vesselere said he was lost. He said so!”
Bunnish looked at him with contempt. “I had made him sweat a lot in a game he should have won easily. He was just getting back. He was a vindictive man, and he knew that by saying that he’d make the loss that much more painful.” He smirked. “I’ve taken care of him too, you know.”
E.C. Stuart rose-up from his chair and straightened his vest. “If we’re done now, Brucie, maybe you would be so kind as to let us out of Bunnishland?”
“You can go,” Bunnish said. “And that drunk, too. But not Peter.” He showed his dimples. ”Why, Peter has almost won, in a sense. So I’m going to be generous. You know what I’m going to do for you, captain? I’m going to let you use my flashback device.”
“No thank you,” Peter said.
Bunnish stared, befuddled. “What do you mean, no? Don’t you understand what I’m giving you? You can wipe out all your failures, try again, make some different moves. Be a success in another timeline.”
“I know. Of course, that would leave Kathy with a dead body in this timeline, wouldn’t it? And you with the satisfaction of driving me to something that uncannily resembles suicide. No. I’ll take my chances with the future instead of the past. With Kathy.”
Bunnish let his mouth droop open. “What do you care about her? She hates you anyway. She’ll be better off with you dead. She’ll get the insurance money and you’ll get somebody better, somebody who cares about you.”
“But I do care about him,” Kathy said. She put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. He reached up and touched it, and smiled.
“Then you’re a fool, too,” Bunnish cried. “He’s nothing, he’ll never be anything. I’ll see to that.”
Peter stood up. “I don’t think so, somehow. I don’t think you can hurt us anymore. Any of us.” He looked at the others. “What do you think, guys?”
E.C. cocked his head thoughtfully, and ran a finger along the underside of his mustache. “You know,” he said, “I think you’re right.”
Delmario just seemed baffled, until all of a sudden the light broke across his face, and he grinned. “You can’t steal ideas I haven’t come up with yet, can you?” he said to Bunnish. “Not in this timeline, anyhow.” He made a loud whooping sound and stepped up to the chessboard. Reaching down, he stopped the clock. “Checkmate,” he said. “Checkmate, checkmate, checkmate!”
Less than two weeks later, Kathy knocked softly on the door of his study. “Wait a sec!” Peter shouted. He typed out another sentence, then flicked off the typewriter and swiveled in his chair. “C’mon in.”
She opened the door and smiled at him. “I made some tuna salad, if you want to take a break for lunch. How’s the book coming?”
“Good,” Peter said. “I should finish the second chapter today, if I keep at it.” She was holding a newspaper, he noticed. “What’s that?”
“I thought you ought to see this,” she replied, handing it over.
She’d folded it open to the obits. Peter took it and read. Millionaire electronics genius Bruce Bunnish had been found dead in his Colorado home, hooked up to a strange device that had seemingly electrocuted him. Peter sighed.
“He’s going to try again, isn’t he?” Kathy said.
Peter put down the newspaper. “The poor bastard. He can’t see it.”
Peter took her hand and squeezed it. “All the variations are unsound,” he said. It made him sad. But after lunch, he soon forgot about it, and went back to work.
A GAME OF VLET
In Ourdh, near the sea, on a summer’s night so hot and still that the marble blocks of the Governor’s mansion sweated as if the earth itself were respiring through the stone—which is exactly what certain wise men maintain to be the case—the Governor’s palace guard caught an assassin trying to enter the Governor’s palace through a secret passage too many unfortunates have thought they alone knew. This one, his arm caught and twisted by the Captain, beads of sweat starting out on his pale, black-bearded face, was a thin young man in aristocratic robes, followed by the oddest company one could possibly meet—even in Ourdh—a cook, a servant-girl, a couple of waterfront beggars, a battered hulk of a man who looked like a professional bodyguard fallen on evil days, and five peasants. These persons remained timidly silent while the Captain tightened his grip on the young man’s arm; the young man made an inarticulate sound between his teeth but did not cry out; the Captain shook him, causing him to fall to his knees; then the Captain said, “Who are you, scum!” and the young man answered, ‘”I am Rav.” His followers all nodded in concert, like mechanical mice.
“He is,” said one of the guard; “he’s a magician. I seen him at the banquet a year ago,” and the Captain let go, allowing the young man to get to his feet. Perhaps they were a little afraid of magicians, or perhaps they felt a rudimentary shame at harming someone known to the Governor—though the magician had been out of favor for the last eleven zodiacal signs of the year—but this seems unlikely. Humanity, of course, they did not have. The Captain motioned his men back and stepped back himself, silent in the main hall of the Governor’s villa, waiting to hear what the young nobleman had to say. What he said was most surprising. He said (with difficulty):
“I am a champion player of Vlet.”
It was then that the Lady appeared. She appeared quite silently, unseen by anybody, between two of the Governor’s imported marble pillars which were tapered toward the base and set in wreaths of carved and tinted anemones and lilies. She stood a little behind one of the nearby torches which had been set into a bracket decorated with a group of stylized young women known to aristocratic Ourdh as The Female Virtues: Modesty, Chastity, Fecundity and Tolerance, a common motif in art, and from this vantage point she watched the scene before her. She heard Rav declare his intention of having come only to play a game of Vlet with the Governor, which was not believed, to say the least; she saw the servant-girl blurt out a flurry of signs made by the deaf-and-dumb; she both saw and heard the guards laugh until they cried, hush each other for fear of waking the Governor, laugh themselves sick again, and finally decide to begin by flaying the peasants in order to relieve the tedium of the night watch.