“How is it supposed to happen?”
Tlingel shrugged, horn writing on the air with a toss of the head.
“I really couldn’t say. Premonitions are seldom specific. In fact, that is what I came to discover. I should have been about it already, but you diverted me with beer and good sport.”
“Could you be wrong about this?”
“I doubt it. That is the other reason I am here.”
“Are there any beers left?”
“Two, I think.”
Martin rose and fetched them.
“Damn! The tab broke off this one,” he said.
“Place it upon the table and hold it firmly.”
Tlingel’s horn dipped forward quickly, piercing the can’s top.”
“…Useful for all sorts of things,” Tlingel observed, withdrawing it.
“The other reason you’re here…” Martin prompted.
“It is just that I am special. I can do things that the others cannot.”
“Find your weak spot and influence events to exploit it, to—hasten matters. To turn the possibility into a probability, and then—”
“You are going to destroy us? Personally?”
“That is the wrong way to look at it. It is more like a game of chess. It is as much a matter of exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses as of exercising your own strengths. If you had not already laid the groundwork I would be powerless. I can only influence that which already exists.”
“So what will it be? World War III? An ecological disaster? A mutated disease?”
“I do not really know yet, so I wish you wouldn’t ask me in that fashion. I repeat that at the moment I am only observing. I am only an agent—”
“It doesn’t sound that way to me.”
Tlingel was silent. Martin began gathering up the chessmen.
“Aren’t you going to set up the board again?”
“To amuse my destroyer a little more? No thanks.”
“That’s hardly the way to look at it—”
“Besides, those are the last beers.”
“Oh,” Tlingel stared wistfully at the vanishing pieces, then remarked, “I would be willing to play you again without additional refreshment…”
“You are angry.”
“Wouldn’t you be, if our situations were reversed?”
“You are anthropomorphizing.”
“Oh, I suppose I would.”
“You could give us a break, you know—at least, let us make our own mistakes.”
“You’ve hardly done that yourself, though, with all the creatures my fellows have succeeded.”
“Okay. You just scored one. But I don’t have to like it.”
“You are a good player. I know that…”
“Tlingel, if I were capable of playing at my best again, I think I could beat you.”
The unicorn snorted two tiny wisps of smoke.
“Not that good,” Tlingel said.
“I guess you’ll never know.”
“Do I detect a proposal?”
“Possibly. What’s another game worth to you?”
Tlingel made a chuckling noise.
“Let me guess: You are going to say that if you beat me you want my promise not to lay my will upon the weakest link in mankind’s existence and shatter it.”
“And what do I get for winning?”
“The pleasure of the game. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“The terms sound a little lopsided.”
“Not if you are going to win anyway. You keep insisting that you will.”
“All right. Set up the board.”
“There is something else that you have to know about me first.”
“I don’t play well under pressure, and this game is going to be a terrific strain. You want my best game, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid I’ve no way of adjusting your own reactions to the play.”
“I believe I could do that myself if I had more than the usual amount of time between moves.”
“I mean a lot of time.”
“Just what do you have in mind?”
“I’ll need time to get my mind off it, to relax, to come back to the positions as if they were only problems…”
“You mean to go away from here between moves?”
“All right. How long?”
“I don’t know. A few weeks, maybe.”
“Take a month. Consult your experts, put your computers onto it. It may make for a slightly more interesting game.”
“I really didn’t have that in mind.”
“Then it’s time that you’re trying to buy.”
“I can’t deny that. On the other hand, I will need it.”
“In that case, I have some terms. I’d like this place cleaned up, fixed up, more lively. It’s a mess. I also want beer on tap.”
“Okay. I’ll see to that.”
“Then I agree. Let’s see who goes first.”
Martin switched a black and a white pawn from hand to hand beneath the table. He raised his fists then and extended them. Tlingel leaned forward and tapped. The black horn’s tip touched Martin’s left hand.
“Well, it matches my sleek and glossy hide,” the unicorn announced.
Martin smiled, setting up the white for himself, the black pieces for his opponent. As soon as he had finished, he pushed his Pawn to K4.
Tlingel’s delicate, ebon hoof moved to advance the Black King’s Pawn to K4.
“I take it that you want a month now, to consider your next move?”
Martin did not reply but moved his Knight to KB3. Tlingel immediately moved a Knight to QB3.
Martin took a swallow of beer and then moved his Bishop to N5. The unicorn moved the other Knight to B3. Martin immediately castled and Tlingel moved the Knight to take his Pawn.
“I think we’ll make it,” Martin said suddenly, “if you’ll just let us alone. We do learn from our mistakes, in time.”
“Mythical beings do not exactly exist in time. Your world is a special case.”
“Don’t you people ever make mistakes?”
“Whenever we do they’re sort of poetic.”
Martin snarled and advanced his Pawn to Q4. Tlingel immediately countered by moving the Knight to Q3.
“I’ve got to stop,” Martin said, standing. “I’m getting mad, and it will affect my game.”
“You will be going, then?”
He moved to fetch his pack.
“I will see you here in one month’s time?”
The unicorn rose and stamped upon the floor and lights began to play across its dark coat. Suddenly, they blazed and shot outward in all directions like a silent explosion. A wave of blackness followed.
Martin found himself leaning against the wall, shaking. When he lowered his hand from his eyes, he saw that he was alone, save for the knights, the bishops, the kings, the queens, their castles and both the kings’ men.
He went away.
Three days later Martin returned in a small truck, with a generator, lumber, windows, power tools, paint, stain, cleaning compounds, wax. He dusted and vacuumed and replaced rotten wood. He installed the windows. He polished the old brass until it shone. He stained and rubbed. He waxed the floors and buffed them. He plugged holes and washed glasses. He hauled all the trash away.
It took him the better part of a week to turn the old place from a wreck back into a saloon in appearance. Then he drove off, returned all of the equipment he had rented and bought a ticket for the Northwest.
The big, damp forest was another of his favorite places for hiking, for thinking. And he was seeking a complete change of scene, a total revision of outlook. Not that his next move did not seem obvious, standard even. Yet, something nagged…
He knew that it was more than just the game. Before that he had been ready to get away again, to walk drowsing among shadows, breathing clean air.
Resting, his back against the bulging root of a giant tree, he withdrew a small chess set from his pack, set it up on a rock he’d moved into position nearby. A fine, mist-like rain was settling, but the tree sheltered him, so far. He reconstructed the opening through Tlingel’s withdrawal of the Knight to Q3. The simplest thing would be to take the Knight with the Bishop. But he did not move to do it.
He watched the board for a time, felt his eyelids drooping, closed them and drowsed. It may only have been for a few minutes. He was never certain afterwards.
Something aroused him. He did not know what. He blinked several times and closed his eyes again. Then he reopened them hurriedly.
In his nodded position, eyes directed downward, his gaze was fixed upon an enormous pair of hairy, unshod feet—the largest pair of feet that he had ever beheld. They stood unmoving before him, pointed toward his right.
Slowly—very slowly—he raised his eyes. Not very far, as it turned out. The creature was only about four and a half feet in height. As it was looking at the chessboard rather than at him, he took the opportunity to study it.
It was unclothed but very hairy, with a dark brown pelt, obviously masculine, possessed of low brow ridges, deep-set eyes that matched its hair, heavy shoulders, five-fingered hands that sported opposing thumbs.