Gambit Reflex

by Mitchell R. White

Captain has a rule, all visitors had to be escorted at all times. I was the only one on board who knew Robert Gentry, so I sat in the galley, waiting and worrying. I couldn't delegate meeting him, even to McElroy, the purser. McElroy was a worm, but even worms should be given a chance.

That was my philosophy, anyways. I'd done my time in stir, and pretty much kept my nose clean since. Now I did my shift as tool repair technician, hung out a little with the other techs and some of the rockhounds, and seldom played cards. I especially avoided the Captain's weekly poker session. Given my reputation that would only be a waste of good money. Sure, I did my time, but some folks won't let you live anything down. Besides, the Captain knew about my past where many others on board didn't. If I won he'd simply accuse me of cheating and dredge up my conviction. I'd lose big that way.

So I didn't play at all, except with the occasional new tech or miner who needed some lessons in practical probability theory. Keep the winnings light and even McElroy would stand up for you, should anybody complain.

Anyway, the two times I'd let McElroy into a game he'd left the table a few stads heavier. He owed me.

Not enough for me to dump meeting Robert onto him, though.

The last time I'd seen Robert was just before my little incident where the game got out of hand. I even thought of trying to pin the rap on Robert, but he turned up with an airtight and I got snagged anyway. It would have worked too, anybody could see that Robert was fully capable of killing a player accused of cheating. I tried to parlay my small size and innocent smile into freedom, but the jury hadn't seen it that way. So Robert and I had parted company, me to a two meter by three meter room and him to asteroid mining. I hadn't even looked him up when I got out. Nobody wants to have an ex-con hanging around, even an old best friend. I understood.

Then out of nowhere I'd gotten this strange radiozip, a viewgram actually, and now I was rubbing my sweaty palms on my pants and waiting. Waiting for Robert, who had obviously spent too much time in an oxygen-deprived vacsuit, given his statements in the zip. And if the years didn't make it tough there were the Llosians to worry about.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not prejudiced or anything. I didn't mind the aliens, even liked a few of them. One had saved my life, not long after we left Perish Station for the far rocks, when I got a mite too tanked and tried to show I was as good a rockhound as the next bloke. I would have never gotten back, the suit punctures were bad, but out of nowhere one of the roundheaded devils had scurried up, looped tentacles around me and charged off. I don't remember what happened next, what with oxygen loss and that rotgut potato jack and all, but I clearly remember waking up in Med Station 3 with Napoleon hanging on the ceiling above me, one eye staring me right in the face, a second eyeball reading a book held loosely in a hookarm, and the other watching my monitors. Napoleon, he'd been the one who'd grabbed me up after my badly placed charge had swisscheesed my suit and parts of my anatomy, so he'd stayed to see if I recovered. Besides being his right, they all knew I had a big stash of chocolate somewhere. How they knew I had not a clue, but if I died Napoleon would be a very rich Llosian for sure. And if I lived, he'd presume on my gratitude and still be relatively wealthy, he assumed.

He was right, of course, but under the circumstances I liked him well enough.

Robert didn't like Llosians, however. Okay, I can't lie, he loathed them, viscerally, instinctively, ever since we'd found them (or vice versa, I don't know the real story) nearly twenty years before. Within months of contact all of Known Space had polarized into pro- and anti-Llosian factions, and Robert went squarely into the latter. Something about them set him off immediately. He'd even had a big banner made up, back when we shared bunk space, that said Llosians are Llosers.

The more I thought about the possibilities, the more I didn't want to be here in the galley waiting for Robert Gentry and all the trouble that would surely follow him. It was too late, though, he came striding through the doorway even as I thought about leaving.

So I stood up, pasted a smile on my face that clearly didn't belong there, and waved, cautiously. Robert didn't see me at first, or didn't recognize me. He scrunched down a little to clear the top of the portal, then stood with his ham-sized fists on his hips as he surveyed the galley. He kept his space-tanned visage deadpan, his spectacular collection of scars making him look like old cypress wood. He took in the assembled ranks of humans and Llosians, eating and drinking or just talking, often in mixed groups. I tensed up for the inevitable explosion while looking for a hidey hole. Under the table looked like the best bet, but that was marginal in any case.

Robert moved into the throng and it was like Moses parting the waters. Without thinking folks and aliens gave him room. Some of the vacuum sappers were tough, hardened by thousands of hours in a stinking suit while handling huge equipment and even larger pieces of stone and ice. Robert dwarfed them all, and few would meet his eyes. The Llosians, who could only reach about 160 centimeters by stretching, were even quicker to make way. That's good, I thought.

I stuck out my hand, knowing full well that I would lose the use of it if he squeezed. He stepped closer, ignoring my hand, and with a stupid grin on his puss he suddenly began hugging me and pounding my back.

Normal human anatomy can only take so much. I got tunnel vision fairly quickly. I hugged back, not because he needed it, or would even feel it. I was afraid I wouldn't bounce if he dropped me. When I got a breath I yelled at him to put me down.

"Boy am I glad to see you, Jake! How've you been since the winningest team on three planets broke up?"

I glowered at Robert, but he didn't take the hint. I had a hard time not grinning stupidly right along with him.

"Well, if you're referring to my ability to save your hide at the blackjack tables, then nothing. I've given up that stuff anyway," I lied. "But I see you haven't quit being silly," I said as I waved the viewgram under his nose.

"Yeah, Jake, we gotta talk."

That was the second understatement in three sentences, a new record for Robert. "I agree," I said, "but first, let's sit and get something to drink. I have a table, over here in the corner." I pointed the way and Robert led off. The crowd was beginning to return to its normal boisterousness after the shock of his entry. I had to get him isolated so I could learn the truth without too many prying ears.

We reached the table and Robert eased his bulk onto the metal bench. It groaned, then gave a little squeal like a trapped rat. It didn't collapse, so I lost that bet with myself. I poured a couple of mugs of neokahv before sitting across from him.

"Whatever it is you've got planned, Robert, I can't let you go through with it," I said.

"Still worried that I'm paranoid about those bug-eyed beachballs?" Robert asked.

"Frankly, yes. More importantly, almost nobody here knows about my past. Or yours. Besides, that viewgram is all the evidence I need to get you committed to Charon Sanitarium, my friend." I hoped my tone got through.

"I can do it, Jake! And I will, with or without your help." He was leaning and whispering, eyebrows knitted together across his wide forehead.

I leaned forward at him, uncowed. "Robert, you listen and you listen good. I've worked hard to get this job, it's not much but it's all I've got. I won't let you queer it with some half-baked scheme to get rich." I paused for effect, but got none. "I will always be smaller than you, Gentryboy, but I'll aways be better with a knife too."

Robert leaned back and chuckled. "Your secret's safe with me, Jake. I'll even allow's how you're almost as mean as ever." He drained his mug, which looked like a demitasse cup in his hand, and held it out for more. I poured from the thermos while I considered my options.

"Okay, so maybe you're not paranoid. It's still a stupid stunt, Robert! What ever made you think you could beat one of them at any game, let alone chess? If you're not certifiably paranoid, then your just plain certifiable. I'd have you forcibly restrained if I thought there were any four people on board who could get the job done!" I gulped some neo, scalding my tongue. I pressed on before he could get mad at my empty threat. "You simply can't try this, Robert."

"Don't worry about me, Jacko me boyo, I can--"

Robert's voice cut off as something entered his field of view from behind me. I turned around to see Wan Loo Chow, top Llosian on board, and a personal friend of mine. Trouble for sure, and me trapped in a corner.

Wan Loo came up beside me, two eyes on Robert and one on me. I tried to imitate him by keeping one eye on Robert and the other on the Llosian, but it gave me a headache. Wan Loo crossed a pair of looparms in front of his round body and then bowed. The resulting motion looked like a family of snakes assaulting a partially deflated rescue sack.

"Excuse please, I have come to see one who wishes to challenge." Wan's third eye swiveled toward Robert. "You do us great honor, sir. It will be very interesting." Two eyes turned to look at me. "So sorry to interrupt, excuse please." Wan Loo retreated smoothly the way he'd come, after returning his tripod gaze to Robert. I noticed that Robert was leaning on the table, much to the table's detriment.

"You see?" he said. "They steal our names, our mannerisms."

"You told them?" I was horrified.

"Yeah, I sent a note to their delegation on board. I want to get the thieving little runts."

"Aw come on, Robert, lighten up!" I said. "They watch old movies, even flatvid stuff, and they like it. They're naturally imitative. Besides, you ever try to say one of their names? I once made the mistake of asking Wan Loo to tell me his real name. His Llosian one. I made him stop clattering after two hours, and he was so insulted at being interrupted that he didn't speak to me for a week. Even then I had to bribe him with a malted milk ball."

"I still don't think it's right," Robert said. "And they steal other stuff too. Technology, for one. Oh, I know the argument, they give better than they get. I don't believe it."

My patience was wearing thin. "Pal, I can see you're still not right about these partners of ours. Face it, they're here to stay."

"Yeah, but our relationship is about to change, Jake, take my word for it. It's all gonna change."

I didn't know what to say, and for once I managed to keep my mouth shut anyway. He'd learn the hard way. I didn't need to get caught in the middle of a war.

Robert suddenly grabbed the viewgram from under my elbow and flipped it over. I made one try for it, but since I wanted to keep both my hands I desisted when I saw he had the flimsy firmly under control.

"Who're all these guys, Jake?" he asked innocently.

"Oh, just a list of guys on board."

"Dumb, Jake. You used to make lists like this back when, you know. You always put the list on the notes you got, so you'd only have to track one piece of paper. I remember that." Robert was entirely too pleased with himself.

"You know how I am with names," I started.

"Yup. And all these little numbers. Gerry B, ten. Mike M, twenty. Captain H, a hundred. Hey, very impressive! Wouldn't be stads by any chance, would they?"

I nodded once, sharply. It never did a body good to lie to Robert.

"Must be fifteen names here. Tell me, what odds did you get?"

"Only ten to one. You know, just a few friendly markers, on the side."

Robert tossed the film back to me. "Yeah, no harm done. But I thought you said you'd given up on all that stuff."

"Have you ever known me to pass up on a sure thing?" I blurted out. I sat well back, as I didn't know how Robert would react. I hadn't felt so bad since I was caught stealing fruit as a kid. Taking advantage of an insane person, and an old friend at that. Killing that card shark, he'd deserved what he'd got. But I really felt badly about this.

Robert smiled. "It's only money, and yours in any case."

"You won't win, Robert."

"No. And yes I will," he answered, still smiling. He stood up and the table and bench both let out a whine of relief. "Why don't you show me where the big event will be held?"

A brightly painted Llosian separated himself from the bustle inside the loading bay airlock. He slidered over to us, blocking our path. I glanced at Robert, afraid he would ignore this barrier and simply step on the alien. I hurried to make introductions.

"Robert, this is Attila, better known as the Scourge of God. Attila, this is Robert Gentry. Is the playing area ready? Oh, and Robert, Attila is the designated Arbiter for your games. I hope you don't mind." I had no idea what I would do if he did mind.

"I thought you were trying to talk me out of all this," Robert said. "Now you tell me you've found an Arbiter."

"Well, just covering both sides of the options. You know."

"Yeah, I know," Robert smirked as he turned to the waiting Llosian.

Attila gave out his usual growling snort, but the effect was ruined by a soft hoot at the end. "The room is nearly ready. All that is needed is for the combatants to appear." Attila slid nearer to Robert and raised a looparm to point at the towering human. "But beware, Roman, we will crush you beneath our raging hooves!"

Robert grabbed the offending looparm and I made ready to duck an Unwilling Flying Object. Robert simply looked at the suckers under the twitching end, then shrugged his shoulders.

"So where's your hooves?"

Attila snorted again, retrieved his arm and made for the airlock.

"Excitable little fellow, isn't he," Robert said.

"He's just in character is all. Don't worry, for all his talk he's still the most impartial Arbiter aboard. He even ran the last two Worlds Championships."

That made Robert scowl, and suddenly I remembered that the last two Championships had been played between Llosians. Well, he was just going to have to get over this neurosis of his.

The loading bay airlock was a favorite hangout of the Llosians, literally. There were all sorts of tie bars, pipes, handholds and hook clips everywhere, making it possible for them to get about six times as many Llosians in there as it would comfortably accommodate in humans. Robert pressed past me and made for a chair at the far end of a checkerboarded table. Closer to the entrance stood an empty stringchair, a hammock for one of the aliens. Although it looked like it would be comfortable for a man, there were too few straps in the center and you would likely fall through if you climbed onto it.

There were a few spectating aliens already draping the walls, but the crowd looked surprisingly light. Only Ensign Hatfield represented the human crew, and few if any of the gaudily painted Llosians were good players. At least, that's what I knew about their reputation. My games were played with cards, dice and mechanisms, although I'm sure I could play a fair game of chess in a pinch. I wouldn't be caught dead playing a Llosian, of course. They were way too good. I thought about why as I pushed through to sit next to Hatfield.

Okay, they're better built for thinking. I had to give them that. Three independent brain lobes which could each be given subtasks. That meant they could monitor all the outside distractions, like the clock and game score, and still have two brains going on two different lines of calculation. And if really pressed they'd use all three lobes. If it came to a time scramble, as often happened between Llosians, they could move like lightning, using their supple tentacles in sequence to move the pieces and bang the clock.

I even saw an exhibition once where two of the aliens played three games between them, each with only five minutes on their timers. Talk about action chess! All three games ended in draws, however.

I popped out of my reverie when Robert's opponent showed. Sir Isaac Newton had on a wig of long curly hair, powdered with flour, it appeared. It was the most ridiculous getup I'd ever seen one of the little exotics wear, and believe me, I've seen a few. He slithered up to his seat in what he must have thought of as an elegant, formal stroll. It actually looked more like Medusa trying to commit suicide and failing. He kept having to reach up with one hookarm and right his wig, which didn't add to his stateliness any. A couple of stragglers followed, one more alien and Alma Rudnick, the engineer's aide. What possibile interest she could have in this match defied me, but she was easy on the eyes and would help relieve the boredom. Hatfield and I made room between us for her.

The airlock's inner door closed in stately fashion and the pressure began to drop. I passed around some gum to help with decompressing ears. Llosians preferred pressures of about fifty Torr, but would keep the chamber at about six hundred in deference to our needs. Still, that represented quite a drop. I noted that the Llosians had supplied a small oxygen cylinder, just in case Robert felt the need. He didn't notice, though. He was busy staring at his opponent.

Attila honked for quiet and attention, then introduced the combatants. Then he stated some rules. "One session, standard time controls of one hour for Sir Newton and three for challenger Gentry. Human has color choice, and has indicated preference for White. Winner gets five chocolate creme bonbons, or equivalent in chrome stads. Gentlebeings, shake appendages, and may the better player win!" Attila nearly shouted his last sentence, but ran out of air at the very end and squeaked like an unoiled grinder. None of the Llosians caught it, but Hatfield chuckled until Alma elbowed him to be quiet.

The game was no contest, really. Robert got a good opening and at one point looked to be pressing his advantage. He would stare at Newton in between every move, a most strange habit I thought, but it didn't seem to faze the alien in the least. Indeed, Sir Isaac spent most of the time with two eyes on the crowd, searching his fellows for indications of adulation or something. Once I thought Robert would complain to Attila that his opponent was cheating by getting some kind of signals from the crowd, but he didn't.

Maybe I was getting paranoid too, just a little. But I was also getting richer.

About two and a half hours into the session, Robert resigned. With remarkably good grace, I should add. He stopped the clocks, stood and offered his hand; he was even smiling. He signed the official copy of the scoresheet with a grand flourish, and didn't laugh when Newton dropped his wig. That happened when Attila gave him the prize, of course. Even a stolid oldster like Newton would get crazy at the prospects of five bonbons. He probably thought he had done better than in the Worlds Championship qualifiers, where he got a first-round loser's purse of a mere ten thousand chrome stads.

Now you see why we keep that kind of stuff under lock and key.

I rose to commiserate with my fallen comrade, but he would have none of it. "Where can we get a drink?" he asked.

I looked at my digital. "The bar's not open for an hour or two. I've got a stash in my room." I popped my jaw as the pressure rose abruptly in the chamber. "Soon as they get the door open we'll go there, okay? Mark, Alma, would you care to join us?" I asked politely, although I really wanted to get Robert alone. Gloating, like trivid watching, should be done with a minimum audience, in my opinion.

"No thanks, Jake." "Some other time." They both pushed past and disappeared into the equipment bay.

"Okay, let's go, Robert. By the way, can I say 'I told you so?'" I couldn't wait to tease him, just a little. I thought it best to do most of that while he was still in a good mood. If he turned morose I'd have to forego my fun.

Robert didn't say much as we traveled most of the length of the Sagitta to my bunkroom. He sure was doing an awful lot of thinking, though. Not like the old Robert at all, and that raised a new concern. If he'd learned to hold his anger in, what would happen when he reached the breaking point? I prayed I'd never find out.

Sitting with a glass of warm whiskey each, the good bottled kind that costs a small fortune, we saluted each other and mellowed out before dinner.

"Learned your lesson, Robert?" I asked carefully.

"Lesson? Nothing to learn. I've got them right where I want them."

"Aw come on, Gentry, don't go putting on airs! I saw how easily Newton got to you! He's not the best on board, either, not by a long stretch. Why, I bet Holmes gives him knight and move, and maybe even some time handicap."

"I thought I did quite well, considering it was an experiment," Robert said.

"Experiment? You mean you started on this without knowing what you were doing?" I took a big gulp of whiskey.

"Oh I knew, all right. I just had to check a couple of things. Besides, if I'd won, I wouldn't have gotten to play their best."

"You mean Holmes? He'll never play you now."

"You're wrong, Jake," Robert answered softly. "That's just who I'm gonna take on next."

I spilled good whiskey all over my go-to-meeting shirt. "You really are nuts."

"Nope. Can I use your comm port?"

"Sure, go ahead. I won't stop you."

Robert rose and stepped to my desk, looked at the scrolling directory and punched in a room code. I was surprised to see Attila, partially unpainted, appear on the screen.

"I warn you, Roman--" Attila began without preamble. He must have been disturbed while taking a hot sand bath. He actually came off as angry.

"Aw, cork it, pentapus. I exercise my right as loser to challenge you, your clan, or any you designate to a rematch."

Attila dropped his cartoon persona and snapped all three eyes to the communicator. "You have that right, but Newton was not the best."

"So bring on your best, sonny, hooves and all." Robert snapped off the conversation sharply. I would have an electronics tech fix the switch later.

"You've done it now," I offered.

Robert just nodded as he slugged his whiskey down. I wanted to save some of the good stuff for later, but he held out his glass for a refill. Oh well, if I could get some money down during dinner I might never need to worry about where my next drink of quality liquor would come from. I poured.

Terms for the rematch were delivered as we dawdled over neokhav. I needed the caffeine after the whiskey. Robert didn't show any effects from the alcohol, but looked to be on the verge of churlishness. He brightened up when Attila slidered to a stop in front of him. The alien was grandly painted and rouged, and looked like a cosmetics store after a terrorist bombing. Smelled like it too; he was going all out for this one.

The Llosian made a grand flourish while presenting a card. The card was from Oliver Wendell Holmes, their designated heavy hitter. I wondered if I'd gotten enough odds on the bets, but it was too late to change anything now. I'd just have to go with it. Robert rose slowly, bowing in stately fashion to Attila.

"I accept," he said simply.

Attila hooted a four-tone sequence and there was pandemonium in the galley. A mad dash commenced as aliens and humans alike headed for the equipment bay. We followed more slowly, Robert oblivious to the bumps and shoves he suffered while shuffling to his doom. I took a couple of wicked elbows and one instep trounce, but I'm sure I gave as good as I got.

"Any last words from the condemned?" I asked.

"Yeah. Only that I'm gonna win. And they know it. Look at them scramble for a good seat!"

I chose not to remind him that only Oliver would be seated.

The equipment bay had been completely rearranged by the time we got there. The crowd was way too large for an airlock this time, even one designed to pass heavy equipment. There wasn't even standing room.

Robert did his Moses imitation again, with considerably less success than previously. I tried to decide where I could stand and get a good look at the game that would make me rich and famous. Well, rich at least. Robert could have all the fame from this debacle. Then I saw Wan Loo Chow and Joe Paul Jeddy, two of my favorite multisnakes, swinging along the right wall. I decided to ask them to give me a hold up, if they didn't watch from right over the game. Hanging upside down always makes me nauseous, and we'd just finished dinner.

"Hey Wan Loo, give a buddy a lift?"

"Buddy? How much you offer?" he responded.

"You thief. Split a box of candied cherries with you," I offered. I'd been saving those cherries for a special moment. This qualified, but I still wanted some for myself.

"Too much," Wan Loo answered as he locked looparms with Joe Paul.

"Hey, come back here! All right, the whole box, so Joe Paul can have some. Eh, Joe? Wan? What do you say?" They started to strain for a lift without responding. I gulped. "I'll throw in two Hershey's bars. Original, none of those nasty nuts."

That got their attention, and the regard of nearly every other alien in the place.

"Enough," agreed Joe Paul.

"So okay, so get me up there."

Wan Loo softhonked with pleasure as he dropped a pair of hookarms to me. I hung on tightly. He pulled me up slowly for a Llosian, which is to say that I didn't quite disjoint my shoulders. Then Joe Paul pulled us both up. Suddenly I was in between two starfish who were fighting over me. I feared they would each win about halfway. They stopped moving and there I was, hanging between them with four looparms supporting me in a fairly comfortable manner.

"You too easy, Jake, you know?" Wan Loo said.

I thought about it. Okay, so I was soft. I probably could have made them share the cherries if I'd just said "Not enough" to their implied demand for more. There was no way I was going to miss this game, however. Not for all the chocolate on Ganymede! I relaxed and let Joe Paul and Wan Loo do their stuff. They were watching the portal with all six eyes, their human baggage completely forgotten.

Before I adjusted to the changed perspective of being a fly high up on the wall, Oliver Wendell Holmes appeared wearing white and black paint. He slidered in a way that the Llosians considered majestic. I'd seen this slow flowing pinwheel walk before so I wasn't completely revolted. I looked at Robert, who was staring at the board and adjusting the position of one of the pieces. Just as Oliver reached his seat Attila slid over beside the board and extended an arm upwards. Another alien reached down from the ceiling and hooked the tentacle and then flexed until Attila was hanging in the center of the bay, like a microphone at the boxing matches. This mike served as the bout announcer too.

"Gentlebeings, I give you the contestants!" Attila said. "On my third," a looparm straightened out from the ball of Attila's body, "is Robert Gentry, the challenger. On my second," a different arm pointed, "is Oliver Wendell Holmes, undefeated Champion of the Three Worlds."

The crowd went wild, making a sound like shooting an old steam calliope with an assault rifle. Oliver was good all right, at any game. Chess, checkers, Wei'ch'i, you name it, he was the best. A true genius, a games specialist, never beaten. And he claimed that his favorite pastime was tiddlywinks. I could understand that, given his unique physiology.

I chewed my lip, worrying about Robert. If he lost, and he certainly would, he might crack up completely. I didn't want to be around if he got violent. Maybe I'd made a mistake getting myself attached to a nearby wall. Too late, though.

Robert didn't look worried; more like composed. I knew he wasn't resigned to his fate, but every man has a big weakness. Robert's was his undying confidence in Robert. He looked up at me and said, "You look cozy. You notice how these pentapuses help each other?"

"It's pentapeds, and yes, they do make great teams," I said. Real clever fellows when you needed a front-row seat.

"Puses, peds, what's the difference? Let's get started!" Robert shouted to the room at large.

Attila dropped to the floor and Robert and Oliver sat down. They shook hands, sort of, and then Oliver indicated that Robert should start. But Robert turned to Attila instead.

"I want Black this time."

That brought a collective gasp from the onlookers. He wanted to switch sides, to the less favored color? Insane.

"Oliver, do you object?" asked Attila. Oliver simply began rearranging the pieces. That done, he pointed over to Robert to start the clock, one of Black's few prerogatives, but Robert snatched the tentacle tip up.

"I want the time changed on this thing."

"You want more time?" asked Attila, in his best threatening voice. "That is a violation of the agreement."

"No, less. I want one hour."

The crowd was much more restive, with conversations all around the huge bay. Attila swiveled his eyes in rapid circles until I thought he would fly off the floor. "Silence!" he demanded. Then he returned to Robert. "Llosians get one hour, humans three."

"I don't care that you multisnakes can use three different parts of your head at once, I want the times to be the same." Robert was nearly poking his finger through his clock.

The room was deathly silent, so I didn't have to raise my voice to be heard. "It's only fair, Robert. Three to one, you know that."

"Fair?" he asked. "You say I haven't got a chance anyway. Same time, or no game." He stared directly at Oliver when he said this, not threatening exactly, more like reading Oliver's face. How he could do that, I hadn't a clue. But it looked like he was trying.

Oliver dropped all five arms to the deck in surrender and Attila reset the timer. He handed it to Robert, who checked it carefully and then placed it beside the chess set, all without breaking it. Robert punched his button, Oliver grabbed a pawn; The Game was on.

Play went rather rapidly, the only sounds in the room being from the click of the pieces on the board and the soft ticking of the clocks. Everyone watched closely for the inevitable error from Robert, and the equally inevitable crushing attack from Oliver. I didn't see it myself, but supposedly Oliver had crushed twenty human Grandmasters in an exhibition, some years before. Two of the humans had immediately given up the game, as I heard it. So it wouldn't be a surprise when Robert slipped and went under.

I fancy myself quite a good player, though I'd rather be holding cards. The opening was easy to follow. It was all standard stuff, even a little stodgy and unimaginative on Robert's part. He was slowly conceding the initiative when there was a pause in the action. I reached for my hip flask.

A murmur rose from the spectators. Attila began his helicopter impersonation again, trying to restore silence. I took a swig and then looked at the position. I was shocked to see that Oliver was taking the first long think.

Robert stared directly at Oliver, ignoring the chessmen between them. Oliver was searching the board with all three eyes, occasionally sparing one for a quick glance at the timer. He brought a looparm up slowly and slid a rook over two squares. Robert nodded an acknowledgement. Joe Paul and Wan Loo were looking at each other with one eye each, and I had the creepy feeling that they were seeing through my head. I tried to turtle down out of their way, but they didn't notice.

I took a good long look at the position on the board, trying to figure out what Oliver's last move had done. The opening was just over so the fun was really about to begin. I thought I had it worked out when the players banged out a flurry of moves. I got the feeling that Robert was jabbing at his opponent, who was deftly riposting. That was impossible, of course, since Oliver had the better game. Another pause settled over the contest.

Voices rose again, and this time Joe Paul spoke up. "I say, that is most unusual." Joe Paul's comicbook British accent startled me so much I didn't quite get the meaning of his statement. I looked at the clocks and noticed that Oliver was thinking yet again. I was about to agree with Joe Paul when I found myself raised above the two aliens who held me. They wanted to confer.

After a few moments of this I got annoyed. I mean, I don't mind when two guys want to talk. It's just that I didn't like being pushed face-first into the roof of the bay. I was getting a crick in my neck, and besides, I couldn't see the board. I wanted to scream at my two assailants, but I knew that if I did we'd all three be evicted, forcibly. So I squirmed, forcibly. They got the message and lowered me to my original level.

I turned to Joe Paul. "What was that all about?" I demanded. I was more than a little peeved, though I couldn't get that across in a whisper. Not that those animated beachballs would understand in any case. That only made me madder.

"Well you see, my dear fellow, that big compatriot of yours has our Oliver in a bit of a sticky wicket."

What was this? Robert winning? Absurd. I scanned the board and decided that Oliver's position was sound enough. It even looked to me like Robert's last move, the sacrifice of a pawn, was incorrect. But you couldn't tell it by looking at Oliver! He was slumped down in his sling with two arms dangling to the floor. He had one eye watching the clock while the other two were madly searching the position.

What was wrong with that idiotic Llosian anyway? If he just took the pawn my investment would be secure.

He didn't take the offered material. After an eternity of indecision he made a strange move, leaving a knight for the taking. Sure, piece sacrifices are part of the game, and necessary technique for a strong attacker like Oliver. But this was a simple mistake! I'd never seen such an error from a Llosian in a serious game. Once in a quick game with time odds I'd seen Wan Loo lose two pawns and then the game to a new miner. Wan Loo claimed to have more than made up the initial loss in later games, played for money. But in a real battle? Never.

Robert swelled with confidence and straightened up before making his next move. The knight was ignored while he saved his own pawn. Just like the Robert of old, that fool would lose a stad to save a tenth bit.

Oliver was hypnotized by the clock, which showed that he was seriously behind on time and in danger of forfeiting. He made several quick moves, trying to recover by using Robert's time to think. Oliver now had two eyes dedicated to watching the clock hands.

Finally Robert slowed down and thought, pulling at his lower lip. I remembered that nervous habit of his, and I knew that it always preceded a monumental error. He'd once lost five hundred stads, nearly a hundred of them mine, because he stopped to think and pull his lip. Bad thinking will always lose, even with good cards. I knew I was in the chips regardless of the present position on the clock.

Robert made a move, a timid one, though he played it boldly enough. The way the Llosian onlookers reacted you'd have thought their Champ had been beamblasted. I couldn't understand, Robert had left his queen under attack! Oliver couldn't miss now.

But Oliver didn't move. He sagged down so low in his stringchair that only his eyes were above the edge of the board. He was holding onto all four legs of the chair, with his fifth arm dangling behind and scrabbling around on the decking. His eyes were not scanning methodically, and only one eye kept cursory tabs on his remaining time. I quickly took a healthy swig from my flask, then another. I leaned towards Wan Loo.

"What's the big deal?" I asked. "Doesn't Oliver win, or am I blind?"

Wan Loo drooped without letting go of me or the wall. "So sorry, but your friend win."

I was about to sarcastically refute his ludicrous statement when Oliver raised an arm and made his move. He pushed a pawn from in front of his king. Robert was half-sitting, half-standing as he reeled off a sequence of forcing moves. Oliver responded too quickly for the human eye to follow, as his time had nearly run out. Robert grinned wolfishly, teeth showing and eyes squinched, as he lifted a bishop and held it in the air. He looked directly at Oliver, who had returned all his eyes to scanning the board.

The black piece decended like a scimitar. Robert got so much mileage out of his simple gesture that the audience groaned in sympathy.

"Check," Robert said loudly as he settled back in his chair.

Oliver sat up and looked the situation over once. He started to make a move, then reached over and stopped the clock while handing his king to Robert. "Your game, human, and boldly played."

I nearly died in that instant. No, it wasn't heart failure, even though the game result would wipe me out financially. It was those two misbegotten, five-appendaged rapscallions I was stuck to. About the third time my head hit the ceiling I screamed. Not that it mattered, I was destined to bounce at least six more times. The pain was enough to make me forget that I couldn't get any air. After much too long the roundheads let me go.

They let go too well and I landed right in the middle of Attila. He bounced me off and I jumped to my feet in time to see the startled arbiter sliding rapidly out the door, hooting along the wall and ceiling of the corridor. I turned around and there was Robert, looking all too pleased with himself.

"Okay, Robert, you've had your little fun. Ha, ha. I don't know how much you had to pay these accomplices, but the joke's over and you can resign the game. You're lost!" I pointed at his queen, still under attack.

Oliver interrupted. "Quite the contrary, Robert has mate in three."

I looked where Oliver's two looparms were dancing the pieces around. He went smoothly through the moves, ending in checkmate.

I stared at Robert.

"You did pay them, didn't you? Say you didn't really win!"

"Sorry, Jake. I beat him, fair and square. At his own rate of play to boot."

I was so shocked I offered Robert my empty hip flask. How was I going to cover all those bets? Maybe the Captain would-- Not likely, though. Robert silently handed me back my flask.

"So how'd you do it, Robert? Cheat?"

"Didn't you watch the game, Jake?" Robert's face glowed with pride.

"Sure, but I didn't quite understand every move. So explain," I demanded. The thought of all that lost money was distracting me.

"Well, first I offered Oliver the initiative. Of course he had to return the offer." Robert looked at Oliver so I did too, and Oliver moved his eyes up and down in affirmation. "Then I offered him a pawn. Exactly ten moves later. Of course he had to make a counter-offer."

Robert was speaking English, I recognized every word. But there was no sense in them. I waved for him to continue his ranting.

"And then I offered him my queen, exactly ten moves later. Of course, he had to make a bigger offer! His king. So I took it. Simple." Robert leaned back in his chair, which creaked mightily, and then he laughed. Big, hearty laughs, lacking in bitterness or hatred. He had cured himself.

All I could do was stare. Oliver was agreeing, and the Llosians and humans in the equipment bay were still celebrating this most unique event. I felt like I was the only pocket of sanity in a sea of insanity. Or maybe the other way around, I wasn't too sure.

"So I'm dense. I still don't understand this 'offer, counter-offer' crap. And if it's that simple, how come nobody found this out before?" I had him on that one.

"Jake, Jake, Jake. You even seen any chess players who would give up something? I'm not talking about gambits or stupid blunders. Those are natural parts of the game as we know it." Robert stood up and extended his hand once again to Oliver, who shook it with two of his own arms. "I'm talking about give something away, on purpose. Malice aforethought, and all that."

"You mean sacrifices?" I asked.

"No, Jake. A sacrifice is when you give something to get something, by force. I'm talking about a simple gift."

"But that's offering to lose! Llosians don't do that," I countered.

"Let me try to explain it in your terms, Jake. You offered chocolates to one of them earlier, right?" I agreed. "Remember his response?"

"Yeah, the cheapskate wanted more." I was thoroughly groused.

"But he said 'Too much.' And what did you do? You gave him more!" Robert chuckled. "You've known all along, Jake, but you don't make the offer in an obvious and determined manner. The Llosians don't take you seriously. You're not rational, as they see it. That means you're just another mark for fleecing. Naturally they win then! After all, they can think three times faster than you."

I watched the men and aliens moving out of the equipment bay to continue the celebrations elsewhere. I began to see certain potentials in the concept. For instance, if I were to offer a Llosian a particular piece of property ....

I turned to Robert, who was lighting up an execrable stogie he'd snuck aboard. "Robert old buddy old pal of mine, perhaps I could interest you in a mutually profitable business idea, say, over a drink?" Robert pointed to the open portal. I considered all the possibilities as we strolled out.

The End

Copyright 1995 by Mitchell R. White. All Rights Reserved. Original Publication: CompuServe Chess Forum CHAT 1995, No. 3

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