“Can’t you stop them!” she whispered. The last of the mob was disappearing through the inverted pillars.
“No!” he said. “The game’s not over. You cheated—” and with a yell he dropped the whole thing convulsively, board and all. The pieces hit the floor and rolled in all directions, punching, jabbing, chasing each other, screaming in tiny voices, crawling under the board, buzzing and dying like a horde of wasps. The Lady and the magician dropped to their knees—they were alone in the room by now—and tried to sweep the pieces together, but they continued to fight and some ran under the dead guards or under the curtains.
“We must—we must play the game through,” said Rav in a hoarse voice. “Otherwise anyone—anyone who gets hold of them can—”
He did not finish the sentence.
“Then we’ll play it through, O Rav,” she said. “But this time, dammit, you make the moves I tell you to make!”
“I told you,” he began fiercely, “that I abhor bloodshed. That is true. I will not be a party to it, not even for—”
“Listen,” she said, holding up her hand, and there on the floor they crouched while the sounds of riot and looting echoed distantly from all parts of the city. The south windows of the hall began to glow. The poor quarter was on fire. Someone nearby shouted; something struck the ground; and closer and closer came the heavy sound of surf, a hoarse, confused babble.
He began to gather up the pieces.
A little while later the board was only a board and the pieces had degenerated into the sixty-four pieces of the popular game of Vlet. They were not, she noticed, particularly artistically carved. She walked out with Rav into the Governor’s garden, among the roses, and there—with the sound of the horrors in the city growing ever fainter as the dawn increased—they sat down, she with her head on her knees, he leaning his back against a peach tree.
“I’d better go,” she said finally.
“Not back to the Governor,” said Rav, shuddering. “Not now!” She giggled.
“Hardly,” she said, “after tying him and his mistress up with the sheets and stealing her clothes. I fancy he’s rather upset. You surprised me at my work, magician.”
“One of us!” said the magician, amazed. “You’re a—”
“One of them,” said she, “because I live off them. I’m a parasite. Don’t be too upset, my dear, but I didn’t quite end that last game with a win, as I said I did. It didn’t seem fair somehow. Your future state would have no place for me, and I do have myself to look after, after all. Besides, none of your damned peasants can play Vlet and I enjoy the game.” She yawned involuntarily.
“I ended that last game,” she said thoughtfully, “with a stalemate.”
“Ah, don’t worry, my dear,” she added, patting the stricken man’s cheek and turning up to him her soot-stained, blood-stained, paint-stained little face. “You can always make another virgin Vlet board and I’ll play you another game. I’ll even trick the Governor if you can find a place for me on the board. Some day. A clean game. Perhaps. Perhaps it’s possible, eh?”
But that’s another story.
WITHOUT A THOUGHT (FORTRESS SHIP)
The machine was a vast fortress, containing no life, set by its long-dead masters to destroy anything that lived. It and a hundred like it were the inheritance of Earth from some war fought between unknown interstellar empires, in some time that could hardly be connected with any Earthly calendar.
One such machine could hang over a planet colonized by men and in two days pound the surface into a lifeless cloud of dust and steam, a hundred miles deep. This particular machine had already done just that.
It used no predictable tactics in its dedicated, unconscious war against life. The ancient, unknown gamesmen had built it as a random factor, to be loosed in the enemy’s territory to do what damage it might. Men thought its plan of battle was chosen by the random disintegrations of atoms in a block of some long-lived isotope buried deep inside it, and so was not even in theory predictable by opposing brains, human or electronic.
Men called it a berserker.
Del Murray, sometime computer specialist, had called it other names than that; but right now he was too busy to waste breath, as he moved in staggering lunges around the little cabin of his one-man fighter, plugging in replacement units for equipment damaged by the last near-miss of a small berserker missile. An animal resembling a large dog with an ape’s forelegs moved about the cabin too, carrying in its nearly human hands a supply of emergency sealing patches. The cabin air was full of haze. Wherever movement of the haze showed a leak to an unpressurized part of the hull, the dog-ape moved to skillfully apply a patch.
“Hello, Foxglove!” the man shouted, hoping his radio was again in working order.
“Hello, Murray, this is Foxglove,” said a sudden loud voice in the cabin. “How far did you get?”
Del was too weary to show much relief that his communications were open again. “I’ll let you know in a minute. At least it’s stopped shooting at me for a while. Move, Newton.” The alien animal, pet and ally, called an aiyan, moved away from the man’s feet and kept single-mindedly looking for leaks.
After another minute’s work Del could strap his body into the deep-cushioned command chair again, with something like an operational panel before him. That last near-miss had sprayed the whole cabin with fine, penetrating splinters. It was remarkable that man and aiyan had come through unwounded.
His radar working again, Del could say: “I’m about ninety miles out from it, Foxglove. On the opposite side from you.” His present position was what he had been trying to achieve since the battle had begun.
The two Earth ships and the berserker were half a light year from the nearest sun. The berserker could not leap out of normal space, toward the defenseless colonies on the planets of that sun, while the two ships stayed close to it. There were only two men aboard Foxglove. Though they had more machinery working for them than did Del, both manned ships were mites compared to their opponent.
If a berserker machine like this one, not much smaller in cross-section than New Jersey, had drifted in a century earlier and found men crowded on one planet, there could have been no real struggle and no human survivors. Now, though the impersonal enemy swarmed through the galaxy, men could rise up in a cloud to meet them.
Del’s radar showed him an ancient ruin of metal, spread out for a hundred miles before him. Men had blown holes in it the size of Manhattan Island, and melted puddles of slag as big as lakes upon its surface.
But the berserker’s power was still enormous. So far no man had fought it and survived. Now, it could squash Del’s little ship like a mosquito; it was wasting its unpredictable subtlety on him. Yet there was a special taste of terror in the very indifference of it. Men could never frighten this enemy, as it frightened them.
Earthmen’s tactics, worked out from bitter experience against other berserkers, called for a simultaneous attack by three ships. Foxglove and Murray made two. A third was supposedly on the way, but still about eight hours distant, moving at c-plus velocity, outside of normal space and so out of communication with the others. Until it arrived, Foxglove and Murray must hold the berserker at bay, while it brooded unguessable schemes.
It might attack either ship at any moment, or it might seek to disengage. It might wait hours for them to make the first move—though it would certainly fight if the men attacked it. It had learned the language of Earth—it might try to talk with them. But always, ultimately, it would seek to destroy them and every other living thing it met. That was the basic command given it by the ancient warlords.
A thousand years ago, it would have easily swept ships of the type that now opposed it from its path, whether they carried fusion missiles or not. Now, it was no doubt in some electrical way conscious of its own weakening by accumulated damage. And perhaps in long centuries of fighting its way across the galaxy it had learned to be wary.
Now, quite suddenly, Del’s detectors showed force-fields forming in behind his ship. Like the encircling arms of a great bear they blocked his path away from the enemy. He waited for some deadly blow, with his hand trembling over the red button that would salvo his atomic missiles at the berserker—but if he attacked alone, or even with Foxglove, the infernal machine would parry their missiles, crush their ships, and go on to destroy another helpless planet. Three ships were needed to attack. The red firing button was now only a last desperate resort.