“Oh, oh,” said Del, as his hands stopped working and he stared into space. Newton whined at the tone in his voice.
Once Del had sat at one board in a simultaneous chess exhibition, one of sixty players opposing the world champion, Blankenship. Del had held his own into the middle game. Then, when the great man paused again opposite his board, Del had shoved a pawn forward, thinking he had reached an unassailable position and could begin a counterattack. Blankenship had moved a rook to an innocent-looking square and strolled on to the next board—and then Del had seen the checkmate coming at him, four moves away but one move too late for him to do anything about it.
The Commander suddenly said a foul phrase in a loud distinct voice. Such conduct was extremely rare, and the Second Officer looked around in surprise. “What?”
“I think we’ve had it.” The Commander paused. “I hoped that Murray could set up some kind of system over there, so that Newton could play the game—or appear to be playing it. But it won’t work. Whatever system Newton plays by rote will always have him thinking the same move in the same position. It may be a perfect system—but a man doesn’t play any game that way, damn it. He makes mistakes, he changes strategy. Even in a game this simple there’ll be room for that. Most of all, a man learns a game as he plays it. He gets better as he goes along. That’s what’ll give Newton away, and that’s what our bandit wants. It’s probably heard about aiyans. Now as soon as it can be sure it’s facing a dumb animal over there, and not a man or computer, it’ll attack.”
After a little while the Second Officer said: “I’m getting signals of their moves. They’ve begun play. Maybe we should’ve rigged up a board so we could follow along with the game.”
“We better just be ready to go at it when the time comes.” The Commander looked hopelessly at his salvo button, and then at the clock that showed two hours must pass before Gizmo could reasonably be hoped for.
Soon the Second Officer said: “That seems to be the end of the first game; Del lost it, if I’m reading their Scoreboard signal right.” He paused. “Sir, here’s that signal we picked up the last time it turned the mindbeam on. Del must be starting to get it again.”
There was nothing for the Commander to say. The two men waited silently for the enemy’s attack, hoping only that they could damage it in the seconds before it would overwhelm them and kill them.
“He’s playing the second game,” said the Second Officer, puzzled. “And I just heard him say ‘Let’s get on with it.’ ”
“His voice could be recorded. He must have made some plan of play for Newton to follow; but it won’t fool the berserker for long. It can’t.”
Time crept unmeasurably past them.
The Second said: “He’s lost the first four games. But he’s not making the same moves every time. I wish we’d made a board…”
“Shut up about the board! We’d be watching it instead of the panel. Now stay alert, Mister.”
After what seemed a long time, the Second said: “Well, I’ll be!”
“Our side got a draw in that game.”
“Then the beam can’t be on him. Are you sure…”
“It is! Look, here, the same indication we got last time. It’s been on him the better part of an hour now, and getting stronger.”
The Commander stared in disbelief; but he knew and trusted his Second’s ability. And the panel indications were convincing. He said: “Then someone—or something—with no functioning mind is learning how to play a game, over there. Ha, ha,” he added, as if trying to remember how to laugh.
The berserker won another game. Another draw. Another win for the enemy. Then three drawn games in a row.
Once the Second Officer heard Del’s voice ask coolly: “Do you want to give up now?” On the next move he lost another game. But the following game ended in another draw. Del was plainly taking more time than his opponent to move, but not enough to make the enemy impatient.
“It’s trying different modulations on the mind-weapon,” said the Second. “And it’s got the power turned way up.”
“Yeah,” said the Commander. Several times he had almost tried to radio Del, to say something that might keep the man’s spirits up—and also to relieve his own feverish inactivity, and try to find out what could possibly be happening now. But he could not take the chance. Any interference might upset the miracle.
He could not believe the inexplicable success could last, even when the checker match turned gradually into an endless succession of drawn games between two perfect players. Hours ago the Commander had said good-bye to life and hope, and he still waited for the fatal moment. And waited.
“—not perish from the Earth!” said Del Murray, and Newton’s eager hands flew to loose his right arm from its shackle.
A game, unfinished on the little board before him. had been abandoned seconds earlier. The mindweapon had been turned off at the same time, when Gizmo had burst into normal space right in position and only five minutes late; and the berserker had been forced to turn all its energies to meet the immediate all-out attack of Gizmo and Foxglove.
Del saw his computers, recovering from the effect of the beam, lock his aiming screen onto the berserker’s scarred and bulging midsection, as he shot his right arm forward, scattering pieces from the game board.
“Checkmate!” he roared out hoarsely, and brought his fist down on the big red button.
“I’m glad it didn’t want to play chess,” Del said later, talking to the Commander in Foxglove’s cabin. “I could never have rigged that up.”
The ports were cleared now, and the men could look out at the expanding cloud of gas, still faintly luminous, that had been a berserker; metal fire-purged of the legacy of ancient evil.
But the Commander was watching Del. “You got Newt to play by following diagrams, I see that. But how could he learn the game?”
Del grinned. “He couldn’t. But his toys could. Now wait before you slug me.” He called the aiyan to him and took a small box from the animal’s hand. The box rattled faintly as he held it up. On the cover was pasted a diagram of one possible position in the simplified checker game, with a different-colored arrow indicating each possible move of Del’s pieces.
“It took a couple hundred of these boxes,” said Del. “This one was in the group that Newt examined for the fourth move. When he found a box with a diagram matching the position on the board, he picked the box up, pulled out one of these beads from inside, without looking—that was the hardest part to teach him in a hurry, by the way,” said Del, demonstrating. “Ah, this one’s blue. That means, make the move indicated on the corner by a blue arrow. Now the orange arrow leads to a poor position. See?” Del shook all the beads out of the box into his hand. “No orange beads left; there were six of each color when we started. But every time Newton drew a bead, he had orders to leave it out of the box until the game was over. Then, if the Scoreboard indicated a loss for our side, he went back and threw away all the beads he had used. All the bad moves were gradually eliminated. In a few hours, Newt and his boxes learned to play the game perfectly.”
“Well,” said the Commander. He thought for a moment, then reached down to scratch Newton behind the ears. “I never would have come up with that idea.”
“I should have thought of it sooner. The basic idea’s a couple of centuries old. And computers are supposed to be my business.”
“This could be a big thing,” said the Commander. “I mean your basic idea might be useful to any task force that has to face a berserker’s mindbeam.”
“Yeah.” Del grew reflective. “Also…”
“I was thinking of a guy I met once. Named Blankenship. I wonder if I could rig something up…”
A BOARD IN THE OTHER DIRECTION
Iskander was senile.
Having no children, he was therefore, of course, entered in a state home. It would not necessarily have made any difference if he’d had any; the homes were lavishly funded, thanks to the votes of the young and guilty. But he might then have had visits and outings to look forward to. As it was, he had nothing to do except look at pieces he no longer knew how to move. On bad days there was nothing but the varying smells of food, deodorant, urine, and feces to occupy his failing senses. On warm days he could go into the garden.