Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“We don’t qualify, then. A pity.”

“No, we don’t. But we’re so close to it, I hate to let the opportunity go. And besides… I don’t trust people.”

Iskander simply nodded, but Hudek’s eyes went wide, and for the first time he forgot to address the nominal world leader with respect. “That’s a hell of a thing for you to admit!”

“Wait till you’re my age, Doctor, and maybe you’ll feel the same.” She turned back to Iskander. “They made a mistake about us. We were coming along nicely the last time they surveyed us, and they really expected to find us ready for membership this time. Which we almost are, close enough to cause confusion. So they entered openly—in fact, they walked in on a General Assembly debate.” For a moment her eyes gleamed with uncharitable mirth. “I’m afraid that if they find out the truth and reject us, we’ll do something silly. Heaven knows, we have enough tense situations threatening to become wars at any moment. If we can fool them and send them away arranging proceedings to invite us into their confederation, I think… I hope… it’ll give us that little extra incentive we need to make peace with each other… at last. We’ve been so close to peace so long, and so close to Armageddon.”

Iskander was silent for a moment. “And the space travel?”

“Less important in their reckoning. And easier. We’ll get it soon.”

“Mmm. Maybe so.” Iskander looked into the council chambers at the being, still intent on its papers.

“Or maybe not,” Hudek put in. “Maybe the rejection would give us that little extra incentive, as far as that goes.”

“Yes. Maybe,” said Miriam. “And if this gambit doesn’t work, let’s hope that one does.” She looked at him briefly and then turned back to Iskander. “We have all the forms of a world government now—encouraging that mistake is easy. But to keep them thinking we have four-dimensional travel—I’d like you to go out there and play a game of four-dimension chess.”

“So. I thought you were leading to that. You really do need Mbara—that variant was her invention. And did anyone ever play it except for her and me?”

“Not a complete game.”

“She was a fine player, you know. Playing against her was a kind of heaven, except for losing.” He shrugged and half smiled at his own egotism. “But if you don’t have her, I’d think a chess-playing mathematician with a specialty in n-dimensional geometry would be your best bet.”

“No. You’ve told me often enough that you can tell a master player from a good one. Our visitor claims to be a master at their equivalent of chess—I gather that it’s a good way of spending the time between planetfalls. Both of you will be handicapped, of course, playing an unfamiliar variant, but your familiarity with playing all sorts of variants, I hope, will see you through. You don’t have to win, you understand. All you have to do is play well enough to make him think you know what you’re doing.”

“All right.”

The medieval bishop two-stepped its way across the board, to join the slow-moving queen in attack.

They went round by the corridor and entered the council chamber. The alien’s big eyes opened even wider. It tossed its head eagerly and cleared away its papers into a sort of briefcase. It said something and a microphone at its throat said, “You are chess master Madam Chairman promised to invite?”

“Yes, how do you do.” Iskander bowed.

The alien mimicked the gesture. “White or black?” it said through its mike.

“White,” Iskander said without hesitation. He sat down at the table, opposite the alien, and said, “King’s pawn-one to king three, level one, cube one.”

A board at the side of the roam lit up: KP-1, K3-1-1.

“KP-1, K2-2-1,” was the answering move.

Iskander nodded. The alien was not going to make orthodox answers, but evidently it wanted to send its pieces out through all dimensions of the “board.” But Iskander had chosen white, and he was going to attack so vigorously that the alien would not be able to pursue its own schemes.

Methodically taking his pieces cube by cube across the fourth dimension of the game, he hunted the alien’s lesser pieces, first, and then its king. The alien was given to skillful use of the knights, cutting across several dimensions of the board at once, and making it hard for Iskander to keep in his mind the complicated structure of the game’s hypothetical playing field. Vaguely, he remembered that he and Mbara had once built a representation of a hyper-cube out of two cubes linked by diagonals which should (if they could have gone in another direction through a fourth dimension) have been perpendiculars. Then they had marked their hyper-cube off into tinier hyper-cubes, making a board to play on, instead of playing the game entirely in their heads. But the board was clumsy, and getting at the pieces was a bore; so in the end they found it simpler to do without it.

Iskander concentrated on getting rid of the dangerous knights. Two he got rid of in equal trades, and one in a trade of bishop for knight. He sacrificed a rook for the fourth, after much hesitation. The rooks, too, made confusing cross-dimension moves, but they only cut across one dimension at a time. He made the sacrifice and looked up to find his opponent’s wide grey eyes fixed on him. He met the gaze steadily, wondering if it was respect or curiosity. The alien’s eyes fell as it turned to consideration of its next move. Iskander found himself trying to imagine what material could reproduce the shifting colors that made up that grey. It wasn’t usual to put eyes into chess figures—they weren’t meant to be that realistic—but he decided that a chess piece made to that model ought to include eyes, anyway.

The alien took a strand of its hair in its fingers and fidgeted with it as it thought. The line of green flickered brightly against its skin.

That gesture could not be anything but nervousness, Iskander thought, and he played with renewed confidence.

After four hours or so, it occurred to him that his bladder hurt intolerably. He was surprised. Tournament players were used to sitting without relief longer than that. Then he remembered how long it had been since his last tournament and realized that he felt weak, besides. His head hurt, his chest hurt, his hands and feet were cold. “Excuse me,” he said, “I need to stop for a few minutes.”

The alien blinked several times, then stood up and stretched, shivering all its muscles in turn. “Acceptable,” it said. It bowed and left through the door opposite the one Iskander had used.

Iskander bowed in turn, cautiously, and looked around him. He raised his eyebrows at seeing Miriam still there in the room. “How are you enjoying the game?” he said facetiously.

“Very much.”

On second thought, Iskander corrected himself, she probably did understand much of what was going on, following the game through their reactions to the moves.

Dr. Hudek looked frankly bored and unhappy.

Iskander smiled at him and started out. He stumbled at the doorway, and Hudek promptly came alive, catching him so swiftly that it looked easy.

“Are you all right, sir?” said Hudek.

“I’m tired, I think.”

The doctor looked at him skeptically, but simply said, “Yes. Rest a little before you start again. That may help.”

When they resumed play, a half hour later, Iskander felt better, although he could tell that he was weaker than before, because he could feel the weight of his head. He propped it in his hands, and it stopped bothering him.

After two hours more, Iskander announced, “Three moves to mate.” He sat back and let his head droop against his chest.

The alien looked thoughtfully at the panel recording their moves and said, “I concede. Thank you. A brilliant game.”

“Thanks,” Iskander muttered. He thought perhaps he should think of a lengthier and more gracious response, but before he could find one, the alien spoke to Miriam.

“Madam Chairman, I have misapprehended. You travel to near stars, but you have not fourth-dimensional drive to go to far ones. So?”

Her smile shriveled into a blank poker face. She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Yes, that’s essentially so. How do you know it?”

The alien curved its arm and hand around to point out Iskander. “Chess master’s style. He plays as one not used to thinking in all directions at once—takes only three dimensions at a time.”

“I see.”

The alien curved its hand down to point out its briefcase. “When you have time, Madam Chairman, we will speak more. There is a concept among your peoples I find most difficult to translate: ‘national sovereignty’.” It used the native term, but its pronunciation was so awkward that they did not recognize the words until after the mike had given them the entire speech.

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