Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

“All right then.”

“A tobacconist should do well in this village, don’t you think? I had in mind that little shop two doors down from here. When the coaches stop, the passengers will see my sign; there should be many who’ll want to fill their pouches.”

“Gretchen prefers to stay here, I suppose.” Lame Hans nodded. “It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve been all over, and when you’ve been all over, it’s all the same.”

Like everyone else in the village, and for fifty kilometers around, I had seen the professor’s posters, and I went to bed Friday night full of pleasant anticipation. Lame Hans has told me that he retired in the same frame of mind, after a couple of glasses of good plum brandy in the inn parlor with the professor. He and the professor had to appear strangers and antagonists in public, as will be readily seen; but this did not prevent them from eating and drinking together while they discussed arrangements for the match, which was to be held—with the permission of Burgermeister Landsteiner—in the village street, where an area for the players had been cordoned off and high benches erected for the spectators.

Hans woke (so he has told me) when it was still dark, thinking that he had heard thunder. Then the noise came again, and he knew it must be the artillery, the big seige guns, firing at the Russians trapped in Kostrzyn. The army had built wood-fired steam tractors to pull those guns—he had seen them in Wriezen—and now the soldiers were talking about putting armor on the tractors and mounting cannon, so the knights of the chessboard would exist in reality once more.

The firing continued, booming across the dry plain, and he went to the window to see if he could make out the flashes, but could not. He put on a thin shirt and a pair of cotton trousers (for though the sun was not yet up it was as hot as if the whole of Brandenburg had been thrust into a furnace) and went into the street to look at the empty shop in which he planned to set up his tobacco business. A squadron of Ritters galloped through the village, doubtless on their way to the seige. Lame Hans shouted, “What do you mean to do? Ride your horses against the walls?” but they ignored him. Now that the truce was broken, Von Koblenz’s army would soon be advancing up the Oder valley, Lame Hans thought. The Russians were said to have been preparing powered balloons to assist in the defense, and this hot summer weather, when the air seemed never to stir, would favor their use. He decided that if he were the Commissar, he would allow Von Koblenz to reach Glogow, and then…

But he was not the Commissar. He went back into the inn and smoked his pipe until Frau Scheer came down to prepare his breakfast. Then he went to the professor’s room where the machine was kept. Gretchen was already waiting there.

“Now then,” Professor Baumeister said, “I understand that the two of you have it all worked out between you.” And Gretchen nodded solemnly, so that her plump chin looked like a soft little pillow pressed against her throat.

“It is quite simple,” said Lame Hans. “Gretchen does not know how to play, but I have worked out the moves for her and drawn them on a sheet of paper, and we have practiced in my room with a board. We will run through it once here when she is in the machine; then there will be nothing more to do.”

“Is it a short game? It won’t do for her to become confused.”

“She will win in fourteen moves,” Lame Hans promised. “But still it is unusual. I don’t think anyone has done it before. You will see in a moment.”

To Gretchen, Professor Baumeister said: “You’re sure you won’t be mixed up? Everything depends on you.”

The girl shook her head, making her blond braids dance. “No, Herr Professor.” She drew a folded piece of paper from her bosom. “I have it all here, and as my Hans told you, we have practiced in his room, where no one could see us.”

“You aren’t afraid?”

“When I am going to marry Hans, and be mistress of a fine shop? Oh, no, Herr Professor—for that I would do much worse things than to hide in this thing that looks like a stove, and play a game.”

“We are ready, then,” the professor said. “Hans, you still have not explained how it is that a person can hide in there, when the sides can be removed allowing people to look through the machinery. And I confess I still don’t understand how it can be done, or how the pieces are moved.”

“Here,” said Lame Hans, and he pulled out the board as Herr Heitzmann had done in the inn parlor. “Now will you assist me in removing the left side? You should learn the way it comes loose, Professor—someday you may have to do it yourself.” (The truth was that he was not strong enough to handle the big brass sheet by himself, and did not wish to be humiliated before Gretchen.)

“I had forgotten how much empty space there is inside,” Professor Baumeister said when they had it off. “It looks more impossible than ever.”

“It is simple, like all good tricks,” Lame Hans told him. “And it is the sign of a good trick that it is the thing that makes it appear difficult that makes it easy. Here is where the chessboard is, you see, when it is folded up. But when it is unfolded, the panel under it swings out on a hinge to support it, and there are sides, so that a triangular space is formed.”

The professor nodded and said, “I remember thinking when I played you that it looked like a potato bin, with the chessboard laid over the top.”

“Exactly,” Lame Hans continued. “The space is not noticeable when the machine is open, because this circuit card is just in front of it. But see here.” And he released a little catch at the top of the circuit card, and pivoted it up to show the empty space behind it. “I am in the machine when it is carried in, but when Heitzmann pulls out the board, I lift this and fit myself under it; then when the machine is opened for inspection I am out of view. I can look up through the dark glass of the black squares, and because the pieces are so tall, I can make out their positions. But because it is bright outside, but dim where I am, I cannot be seen.”

“I understand,” said the professor. “But will Gretchen have enough light in there to read her piece of paper?”

“That was why I wanted to hold the match in the street. With the board in sunshine she will be able to see her paper clearly.”

Gretchen was on her knees, looking at the space behind the circuit card. “It is very small in there,” she said.

“It is big enough,” said Lame Hans. “Do you have the magnet?” And then to the professor: “The pieces are moved by moving a magnet under them. The white pieces are brass, but the black ones are of iron, and the magnet gives them a sliding motion that is very impressive.”

“I know,” said the professor, remembering that he had felt a twinge of uneasiness whenever the machine had shifted a piece. “Gretchen, see if you can get inside.”

The poor girl did the best she could, but encountered the greatest difficulty in wedging herself into the small space under the board. Work in the kitchen of the inn had provided her with many opportunities to snatch a mouthful of pastry or a choice potato dumpling or a half stein of dark beer, and she had availed herself of most of them—with the result that she possessed a lush and blooming figure of the sort that appeals to men like Lame Hans, who having been withered before birth by the isotopes of the old wars are themselves thin and small by nature. But though full breasts like ripe melons, and a rounded comfortable stomach and generous hips, may be pleasant things to look at when the moonlight is streaming through the bedroom window, they are not really well suited to folding up in a little three-cornered space under a chessboard; and in the end poor Gretchen was forced to remove her gown, and her shift as well, before she could cram herself, with much gasping and grunting, into it.

An hour later Willi Schacht the smith’s apprentice and five other men carried the machine out into the street and set it in the space that had been cordoned off for the players, and if they noticed the extra weight, they did not complain of it. And there the good people who had come to see the match looked at the machine, and fanned themselves, and said that they were glad they weren’t in the army on a day like this—because what must it be to serve one of those big guns, which get hot enough to poach an egg after half a dozen shots, even in ordinary weather? And between moppings and fannings they talked about the machine, and the mysterious Herr Zimmer (that was the name Lame Hans had given) who was going to play it for two hundred gold kilomarks.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred