A bright torus, checkered with blue-steel and white-steel magnetic squares, spun on the clear plastic axis attaching it to the clear plastic frame. The plastic was as near invisible as makes no difference, to kibitzers, but to the players it was half-glimpsed curves of light broken into rainbows and reflecting stray bits of color on the board and the blue and white pieces jutting out all over it.
There were some who had said they had seen that Iskander was failing even before Mbara of Uganda beat him, 13 variations out of 20. But others, who knew Mbara’s play better, said that they were both in top form and Mbara had genuinely become the better player. They said it was the shock of losing to a youngster which had ended him.
In fact, Mbara was quite old enough to be tagged as a spinster, married like Iskander to the game alone. It caused quite a stir when she married the following month—and to a nonplayer, at that.
The sunlight was clear and harsh on the dusty park ground. An ordinary chessboard was marked out, but the pieces on it were living men, armed with wooden swords and shields, and sweating heavily under their padding.
Iskander was delighted when he found himself faced with two visitors, at last, on a warm day. Dimly, he heard the words, “Copter ride.”
“Yes, yes,” he said eagerly. “Copter ride. Most kind of you, Mr… Most… Yes.” He plucked at the diapers he wore, trying to express his pleasure by freeing himself from the constriction, but they were fastened too securely. He was too excited at the prospect of a ride to mind, however.
But once they were in the copter, one of the men poked him with a needle. He sobbed at this unkindness until he felt himself growing drowsy, and then he went to sleep.
He woke to find himself on a couch in a sunny room. A woman of 65 or so sat rocking opposite him. She looked familiar, but it was not until he tried subtracting years from her face that he recognized her. He sat up slowly, pulling himself on the rim of the couch. “Hello, Miriam. Been a long time. Still in politics?”
“Yes. How do you feel?”
“Fine. And you?” But he had no sooner finished the formality of the exchange than he realized that he did not feel fine. He felt weak and—oddly—happy. The first was not unusual of late. The second seemed strange. It was not as if he had played an interesting game that day.
In fact, he had not played since he could not think when. At that thought, the pawns in his head leaped forward on a dozen different kinds of chessboards, and he knew that he could continue all those games to their ends. Which was as it should be, but not as it had been recently.
The bullet shot over the board… A green knight hop-frogged over a white to take a red pawn… The Fool circled idly around the other pieces and cut down the Moon….
“Well as can be expected,” Miriam was saying, and her words took up no more time than Iskander needed to orient himself.
“Testing some kind of intelligence drug on me?” he said as soon as she stopped.
One side of her mouth quirked up, and she leaned forward, saying, “Not exactly. It’s an experimental drug which allows the body to tap reserves of energy to overcome the effects of old age.”
“Indeed. What happens when the reserves run out?”
She hesitated, and stopped rocking for a moment. “Death? It’s not like you to be sentimental, my dear.”
“No, I suppose not.” She started the rocker going again. “It’s a dangerous drug, certainly. It’ll be quite a few hours before you need to worry about unpleasant side effects, though. If you want out of the project, before then, we can reverse it.”
“Who do you want me to play?” he said eagerly.
“I didn’t say it was chess.”
“What else could I possibly mean?”
“That’s not a fair way to put it, Zander.”
He smiled at her and shrugged. “No. But who do you want me to play? And why?”
She stopped rocking and stretched herself up out of the chair. “You get dressed and come out. I’ll show you.” She pointed at a suit draped over the end of the couch, and left the room.
Iskander looked down at himself, dressed in diapers, plastic pants, and sandals. He felt a quick flash of nudity-taboo embarrassment, followed by disgust at the appearance of his body. He tried to suppress that reaction as equally irrational, but failing, ignored his feelings as well as he could and simply began dressing. The suit provided was one of his own from a few years back. It had become a little too large for him, but the looseness of the fabric was pleasant.
“Ready,” said Iskander. He stepped through the door into a long, windowless corridor. He blinked for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the change in light.
“Good,” said Miriam.
An intense gentleman standing beside her immediately broke into protest. “Madam Chairman,” he said, “Have you warned—”
“Yes, of course. Iskander, this is Dr. Hudek. He will be very annoyed with me if anything happens to you.”
“Oh, do you play chess, Doctor?” said Iskander, bowing.
“No,” said Hudek, obviously puzzled by the question.
“No, he’s just a physician,” Miriam explained. “This way.” She set off down the corridor, and the two men followed.
A Bishop’s Pawn opening was unusual, but the QBP was a better fighter than a Live Pawn should be, and worth using as a major piece.
Miriam took them into a small room with a one-way glass wall opposite the door. It looked into a council chamber and was fitted up with outlets for tri-d cameras and tapers, along with pencil sharpeners and the other esoteric paraphernalia of the press.
“Do you plan to broadcast the game?” Iskander asked. He felt out of place, almost a little dizzy at being in a pressroom. He had watched broadcasts of other people’s matches often enough, and so he knew what such rooms looked like—or at least what the front sections of them looked like—and he knew that he had been watched many times from such rooms, but he had never been in one before.
“No, we’ll only record it,” Miriam said. “But there’s your opponent.”
He glanced quickly at the figure seated at a table going over some papers, and looked back to Miriam, astonished. “It’s not Mbara.”
“Zander! You’re impossible. Why should we risk your life to play her?”
“For the sake of the game?” Iskander made it sound joking, although it wasn’t really. “If it’s anyone else, why didn’t you get Mbara?”
“We would have,” Miriam said. “But she died in childbirth a few months ago.”
“So I wasn’t your first choice,” Iskander said regretfully.
“That’s irrelevant, Zander. By the way, you still haven’t looked at your opponent properly.”
Iskander looked. His opponent was… a dryad? It had delicate facial bones, like a woman, but a straight-lined body, like a man. It had brown skin, perhaps a little darker than his own, and long green hair, braced up over golden combs on the head, giving a crownlike effect, then falling like a cloak down the back. But even more than the hair, the set of the face and the lines of the body were wrong: the eyes too large and set too wide, the shoulders sloping down too much from the neck, the legs and arms too long. And the most startling wrongness of all was that each of the individual oddities looked right on it. It was not deformed, it was simply not human. And it was beautiful. He found himself tracing designs in the air with one finger. He wanted to get some clay—no, wood was better—and carve a copy of it to be the Magician in a set of Tarotchess pieces or should it be the Fool? But if he carved it dancing like the Fool, how would those long limbs shape themselves to show arrested motion? And what kind of dog would fit with a Fool carved in that likeness?
“Won’t you sit down, sir?” Hudek set a chair behind Iskander, nudging it close enough to touch his legs.
Iskander sat down automatically, then came out of it enough to smile at Hudek. “I’m all right, Doctor. Don’t worry.”
Miriam sat down in a chair level with his. “Well, Zander.”
“From outer space?”
“Right.” She nodded, as if granting him a point. “You hadn’t heard about the Visitors before, I think?”
“They represent a confederation of intelligent beings within our Galaxy. They maintain a fleet of scout ships to go around checking promising planets every so often to find peoples ready for membership. The basic criteria are space travel and world government.”
“Defined how?” said Iskander.
“Cautious, aren’t you? Yes, that’s the stinger. Defined as interstellar travel—which, we gather, is most economically managed by treating space-time as four spatial dimensions and traveling cross-time to go places—and a government with some reasonable power to enforce its legislation.”