Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

Del was reporting the forcefields to Foxglove when he felt the first hint in his mind of another attack.

“Newton!” he called sharply, leaving the mike to Foxglove open. They would hear and understand what was going to happen.

The aiyan bounded instantly from its combat couch to stand before Del as if hypnotized, all attention riveted on the man. Del sometimes bragged: “Show Newton a drawing of different colored lights, convince him it represents a particular control panel, and he’ll push buttons or whatever you tell him, until the real panel matches the drawing.”

But no aiyan had the human ability to learn and to create on an abstract level; which was why Del was now going to put Newton in command of his ship.

He switched off the ship’s computers—they were going to be as useless as his own brain, under the attack he felt gathering—and said to Newton: “Situation Zombie.”

The animal responded instantly as it had been trained, seizing Del’s hands with firm insistence, and dragging them one at a time down beside the command chair to where the fetters had been installed.

Hard experience had taught men something about the berserkers’ mind weapon, although its principles of operation were still unknown. It was slow in its onslaught, and its effects could not be steadily maintained for more than about two hours, after which a berserker was evidently forced to turn it off for an equal time. But while in effect, it robbed any human or electronic brain of the ability to plan or to predict—and left it unconscious of its own incapacity.

It seemed to Del that all this had happened before, maybe more than once. Newton, that funny fellow, had gone too far with his pranks; he had abandoned the little boxes of colored beads that were his favorite toys, and was moving the controls around at the lighted panel. Unwilling to share the fun with Del, he had tied the man to his chair somehow. Such behavior was really intolerable, especially when there was supposed to be a battle in progress. Del tried to pull his hands free, and called to Newton.

Newton whined earnestly and stayed at the panel.

“Newt, you dog. Come, lemme loose. I know what I have to say: Four score and seven… hey, Newt, where’re your toys? Lemme see your pretty beads.” There were hundreds of tiny boxes of the varicolored beads, leftover trade goods that Newton loved to sort out and handle. Del peered around the cabin, chuckling a little at his own cleverness. He would get Newton distracted by the beads, and then… the vague idea faded into other crackbrained grotesqueries.

Newton whined now and then but stayed at the panel moving controls in the long sequence he had been taught, taking the ship through the feinting, evasive maneuvers that might fool a berserker into thinking that it was still competently manned. Newton never put a hand near the big red button. Only if he felt deadly pain himself, or found a dead man in Del’s chair, would he reach for that.

“Ah, roger, Murray,” said the radio from time to time, as if acknowledging a message. Sometimes Foxglove added a few words or numbers that might have meant something. Del wondered what the talking was about.

At last he understood that Foxglove was trying to help maintain the illusion that there was still a competent brain in charge of Del’s ship. The fear-reaction came when he began to realize that he had once again lived through the effect of the mind-weapon. The brooding berserker, half genius, half idiot, had forborne to press the attack when success would have been certain. Perhaps deceived, perhaps following the strategy that avoided predictability at almost any cost.

“Newton.” The animal turned, hearing a change in his voice. Now Del could say the words that would tell Newton it was safe to set his master free, a sequence too long for anyone under the mindweapon to recite.

“—shall not perish from the Earth,” he finished. With a yelp of joy Newton pulled the fetters from Del’s hands. Del turned instantly to the radio.

“Effect has evidently been turned off, Foxglove,” said Del’s voice through the speaker in the cabin of the larger ship.

The Commander let out a sigh. “He’s back in control!”

The Second Officer—there was no Third—said: “That means we’ve got some kind of fighting chance, for the next two hours. I say let’s attack now!”

The Commander shook his head, slowly but without hesitation. “With two ships, we don’t have any real chance. Less than four hours until Gizmo gets here. We have to stall until then, if we want to win.”

“It’ll attack the next time it gets Del’s mind scrambled! I don’t think we fooled it for a minute… we’re out of range of the mindbeam here, but Del can’t withdraw now. And we can’t expect that aiyan to fight his ship for him. We’ll really have no chance, with Del gone.”

The Commander’s eyes moved ceaselessly over his panel. “We’ll wait. We can’t be sure it’ll attack within—”

The berserker spoke suddenly, its radioed voice plain in the cabins of both ships: “I have a proposition for you, little ship.” Its voice had a cracking, adolescent quality, because it strung together words and syllables recorded from the voices of human prisoners of both sexes and different ages, from whom it had learned the language. There was no reason to think they had been kept alive after that.

“Well?” Del’s voice sounded tough and capable by comparison.

“I have invented a game which we will play,” it said. “If you play well enough, I will not kill you right away.”

“Now I’ve heard everything,” murmured the Second Officer.

After three thoughtful seconds the Commander slammed a fist on the arm of his chair. “It means to test his learning ability, to run a continuous check on his brain while it turns up the power of the mindbeam and tries different modulations. If it can make sure the mind-beam is working, it’ll attack instantly. I’ll bet my life on it. That’s the game it’s playing this time.”

“I will think over your proposition,” said Del’s voice coolly.

“Very well,” answered the berserker.

The Commander said: “It’s in no hurry to start. It won’t be able to turn on the mindbeam again for almost two hours.”

“But we need another two hours beyond that.”

Del’s voice said: “Describe the game you want to play.”

“It is a simplified version of the human game called checkers.”

The Commander and the Second looked at each other, neither able to imagine Newton able to play checkers. Nor could they doubt that Newton’s failure would kill them within a few hours, and leave another planet open to destruction.

After a minute’s silence, Del’s voice asked: “What’ll we use for a board?”

“We will radio our moves to one another,” said the berserker equably. It went on to describe a checkers-like game, played on a smaller board with less than the normal number of pieces. There was nothing very profound about it; but of course playing would seem to require a functional brain, human or electronic, able to plan and to predict.

“If I agree to play,” said Del slowly, “how’ll we decide who gets to move first?”

“He’s trying to stall,” said the Commander, gnawing a thumbnail. “We won’t be able to offer any advice with that thing listening. Oh, stay sharp, Del boy!”

“To simplify matters,” said the berserker, “I will move first in every game.”

Del could look forward to another hour free of the mindweapon when he finished rigging the checker board. When the pegged pieces were moved, appropriate signals would be radioed to the berserker; lighted squares on the board would show him where its pieces were moved. If it spoke to him while the mind-weapon was on, Del’s voice would answer from a tape, which he had stocked with vaguely aggressive phrases, such as: “Get on with the game,” or “Do you want to give up now?”

He hadn’t told the enemy how far along he was with his preparations because he was still busy with something the enemy must not know—the system that was going to enable Newton to play a game of simplified checkers.

Del gave a soundless little laugh as he worked, and glanced over to where Newton was lounging on his couch, clutching toys in his hands as if he drew some comfort from them. This scheme was going to push the aiyan near the limit of his ability, but Del saw no reason why it should fail.

Del had completely analyzed the miniature checker game, and diagrammed every position that Newton could possibly face—playing only even-numbered moves, thank the random berserker for that specification!—on small cards. Del had discarded some lines of play that would lead from poor early moves by Newton, further simplifying his job. Now, on a card snowing each possible remaining position, Del indicated the best possible move with a drawn-in arrow. Now he could quickly teach Newton to play the game by looking at the appropriate card and making the move shown by the arrow. The system was not perfect, but—

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