‘Are you sure?’
‘The question has been posed in non-standard terms. I must ask you to be more precise.’
Avon drew in his breath, telling himself it would be quite irrational to smash the annoying machine. He needed it, now more than ever before.
‘I request the percentages, Orac. What is the probability that this will happen?’
‘If by “this” you mean the prediction I have just made on the basis of the available data – that the Federation will locate Blake’s base, penetrate it and breach his defences with the final outcome of either killing or arresting him – there is a 99,7% probability that it will come true.’
‘You are sure,’ Avon murmured.
‘The chain of causality changes in the unlikely case that you locate Blake before the Federation does – at this moment, it is impossible to determine how many time units their search will take. Disregarding this unknown quantity and inserting the variable of your meeting with Blake into the equation would result in a difference in probability distribution for the future events which may consequently branch into two possible directions. The first is…’
‘Shut up, Orac.’
Avon made a movement as if to pull out the activator key, but then he withdrew his hand. He knew Orac had to remain turned on in order to continue to periodically send out the distress signal.
‘Just continue to transmit,’ he sighed. He lowered the casing on the grass and then sat down and leant against a tree, feeling strangely empty.
He had known for a while, of course, that he was not the only one tracing Blake through the patterns of infinity. The Federation were looking for him, too: according to Orac, they seemed to have intensified their search in the last few months. Apparently, the damn hothead wasn’t content with simply managing to remain alive and free on this godforsaken planet. He must have begun scheming again – gathering resources, building an army, resuming his impossible dream of overthrowing the Federation – and, like a gigantic animal suddenly irritated by the buzz of an insect, they became aware of his presence. They found out that he was alive, and that he might begin to matter again. So they set out to find him and prevent it, once and for all.
It seemed, however, that just at the time Avon had teleported on Gauda Prime, something new had happened. Orac wasn’t definite – a report from the locals, or from a spy who had managed to infiltrate, someone in Blake’s group who had switched sides, or some trap set long ago that had been unexpectedly triggered – but the outcome was that the Federation suddenly had the missing piece of jigsaw. They were hot on Blake’s trail now, and Orac reported a drastic change in odds.
A gust of cold wind blew through the tall trees and then seemed to come to a halt. The inarticulate sounds of the forest, rustling, rattling, twittering, sighing, recurred in a slow, monotonous sequence, deepening the silence inside him and the awareness of being alone. With an ironic grin, he thought how everything he had counted on seemed to have collapsed in just a few hours – Scorpio destroyed, Tarrant most likely killed in the crash, the rest of the crew scattered and lost somewhere in this wooded area, and Blake –
Blake, soon to be dead, or worse than dead.
Well now, Avon said to himself, one needn’t become irrational in order to prove that… To prove whatever. Acting irrationally was counterproductive and wasted valuable energy which could be better invested in thinking, analysing the situation and doing everything that was technically possible to solve the problem, if logic suggested it was soluble at all. And he had already done everything that was within his power: instructed Orac to impersonate a distress beacon and transmit the signal for help periodically. Local settlements must be within transmission range, so someone was bound to read the signal and look for him – and, friend or foe, it was still Avon’s best chance of getting hold of a flyer and finding Blake’s base. All he could do until that happened was wait; and meanwhile, quarter the area carefully and attempt to locate the rest of the Scorpio crew. And perhaps also find a shelter for the night, he added, noticing that the sky had turned a darker shade of blue, and that the new gust of wind was colder than the previous one. He got up and resumed walking.
He was certain that, just a minute ago, he had seen a wisp of yellowish smoke coming out of the cabin; yet now, slowly walking in with his blaster at the ready, he saw clearly that the interior must have been uninhabited for quite a while. Inside, everything was in ruin, the broken construction of a bed, a rusty stove with a badly damaged chimney, blackened flagstones and ragged pieces of cloth hanging in front of the windows and trembling on the nocturnal wind like pathetic ghosts. Outside, in the forest, there was still some dim dusky light, but here in the deep shadows of the cabin it was already night. It was dark, musty and suffocating.
He was startled by a sudden swish of clothes and pointed his gun to where the sound had come from. From behind a supporting beam a dark figure stepped forward, its contours hardly visible in the shadow.
‘Don’t move,’ Avon said coldly. ‘Who are you?’
‘I am – unarmed,’ replied the man calmly, raising his hands to show they were empty. ‘Isn’t this the information you were really after?’
‘What do you mean?’ Avon still kept his gun at the ready, as in spite of his order the figure was slowly proceeding towards him.
‘Well now,’ the stranger said, ‘I think you’d agree that “Who are you” is a rather nebulous question. I could have replied by giving you my name and credentials, but what guarantee would you have that I was telling you the truth? Even with people you know very well, or think you know them, there is no guarantee that the next moment they may not change their ways and turn against you… Identity is largely an illusion. Those who cannot cope with contingency cling to it, but often pay dearly.’
Avon could now see that the man was tall and lean, and dressed in several layers of loose garments topped by a broad cloak. The colours were difficult to discern, and so was the face, still deep in the shadow.
‘Nicely put,’ Avon said. ‘Somewhat contradictory, though. You deliver a speech on distrust, and then expect me to believe – trust – that you don’t represent a threat to me?’
The man laughed softly. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as that. I simply said I didn’t carry a gun. And you could say that I don’t represent a threat to your physical well-being.’
He made another step forward, so that he now stood quite close, and the only object separating him from Avon was a low wooden table covered with debris and dust. Still pointing his gun, Avon walked over and searched the man thoroughly. He appeared to be very thin: Avon had an impression that there was hardly any body under all those layers of clothes. He found no hidden weapon.
As his eyesight gradually adjusted to the semi-darkness in the cabin, Avon was now able to discern the stranger’s face. He had cropped hair turning gray and a long face which still seemed youthful, thin lips and deeply sunken eyes. It would have been an unremarkable face, neither too handsome nor disagreeable in any way, if it weren’t for something very disturbing in the man’s eyes. Not in their shape, or eyebrows, or lids, or any other feature of the eyes or around them – but in the eyes themselves, which were glassy, strangely hollow, of indefinite colour, and gave an impression of incongruence in age, as if someone ancient took possession of a relatively young body and betrayed himself by peeping through its eyes.
The eyes remained glassy and indifferent even when the man smiled.
‘I suppose you intend to spend the night here…?’
For a moment, Avon was too mesmerized by those eyes to reply. He was almost frightened to look at them directly. Yet at the same time they attracted him with an almost magnetic power, and every time he averted his gaze he would immediately feel compelled to look again.
He continued to observe the stranger as he bent and took something from a sack which stood nearby (and which Avon hadn’t noticed before). It turned out to be a torch: the man turned it on and placed it in such a position that it cast its light forward, across the surface of the table. He dipped his hand into the sack again, and pulled out an old wooden case: he opened it, and its inside revealed a heap of black and white pieces, also made of wood.
‘A chess set?’ Avon frowned.
‘I think it is a good solution,’ the man explained. ‘Neither of us is so foolish as to fall asleep in the presence of a complete stranger. Of course, we could both pretend that we were going to sleep, and then spend the night on the alert... Instead, I suggest we play. It will pass the time… more pleasantly.’
He held out two pawns in his open palms, inviting Avon to choose.
‘We agree about this, don’t we,’ the stranger said, still smiling. ‘The life expectancy of those who trust isn’t very long. Black or white?’
Avon chose white pieces. He was himself surprised about the choice; but the game of chess was about winning, he reminded himself, and not about the preference in colours, and he wasn’t going to give up the advantage of the first move just because of his idiosyncrasies.
They searched the cabin and found two chairs which were relatively well preserved. Before they started playing, the stranger rummaged through his belongings again, filled a bowl with the water from his flask and prepared a long flexible tube which he connected to a tobacco pipe. Avon recognized narghile, which the Amagons habitually used. The stranger wasn’t an Amagon – they were of a darker complexion – but he had apparently travelled through various parts of the galaxy and acquired assorted customs. Jenna had claimed she had smoked narghile a couple of times, and that with refined sorts of tobacco the experience was quite pleasant; not really intoxicating, just soothing to the nervous system. Still, when the stranger offered him to inhale, Avon declined. The stranger shrugged, drew in, and calmly puffed a cloud of yellowish smoke. Avon now realized that this was the smoke he had seen from the forest, and which had compelled him to come in.
The chess pieces seemed ancient, as if they had passed through millions of hands, although the wood had been perfectly dried and seemed impervious to the passage of time. Avon was no expert in the game: he knew some basic openings and combinations, but for the most part he relied on his capacity for calculation and logical thinking. The game suited him as it didn’t require any emotional involvement: it was meant to be played with intellect alone.
The stranger was, however, apparently versed in the game, and very soon Avon found himself spending increasingly more time pondering about each next move; whereas the stranger played with ease and replied to his moves almost automatically. It’s lucky that we haven’t placed any bets, Avon thought, but he still loathed the prospect of losing. Indeed he found the stranger’s entire disposition disturbing: usually it was his forte, to unnerve enemies and associates alike with his icy calm and the air of intellectual superiority. But the stranger surpassed him in this same art: Avon felt, simultaneously with losing on board, that he was also losing the game of nerves and wit.
Besides, as the game went on, Avon gradually became aware that the fumes did have an intoxicating effect on him. In spite of what Jenna had said, he felt that the smoke affected him the same way Vila’s cocktails sometimes did: he was becoming dizzy, and his inner restraints and defences were loosening. He considered asking the stranger to put out the pipe, but pride prevented him. If Jenna could smoke that thing without getting dizzy, and if the Amagons could, and if this stranger apparently went on unaffected, then how come that he, Avon, should go to pieces? After all, he didn’t inhale it directly; besides, one of the window panes was broken, and the cabin door hung loosely and half open on its hinges. The fumes could not possibly be so strong as to make him drunk: it must be just his imagination, or weariness.
At one moment, Avon suddenly knew for certain that he was going to lose. Studying the board, encompassing all the pieces and their projected trajectories, he suddenly realized that regardless of his future decisions, regardless of the moves he made, the game had already been decided. The stranger had cleverly maneuvered him into a position from which the outcome was entirely predictable.
At that point Avon knew he should have stopped playing and congratulated his opponent; instead, however, stubbornly, against all sense, he continued to play the losing game. Whatever the intoxicating substance was that the stranger was smoking, it seemed to Avon that its effect compelled him to follow a course of action which his rational mind would normally never allow: with desperate determination, fully aware that he was doomed to lose, he continued to defend the White King to the very end. He could see all the moves coming very clearly, he knew in advance everything he and his opponent were going to do. First, the exchange of Knights. Then he would have to take the Black Rook, and pay for it heftily, but it was the only way to respond to mate; the remaining Bishop would have to be sacrificed; and eventually, the Queen as well.
Finally, inevitably, he was checkmated. He brushed his hand softly against the White King, toppling it and thus admitting defeat.
The stranger did not gloat nor make any remark. Another silent wisp of smoke flew from his nose and mouth. Avon no longer paid attention to it. He just kept looking at the fallen White King, surrounded by numerous black pieces, not understanding why he was suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of pain. He couldn’t quite articulate that painful emotion; or perhaps he could, but didn’t want to.
‘Do you know what an endgame is?’ the stranger asked.
Avon did not reply.
‘The term refers to the final stage of the game of chess, when the outcome is already known, and regardless of the moves the player makes, he or she is bound to lose. You may not be familiar with the technical term, but you clearly recognized the moment when our game entered that stage. I know you did: it was evident from the way you played. At one moment, you realized that you were doomed; yet you continued to play. Why?’
Avon was still silent. His hand reached out to the chessboard once more, and with a completely pointless, irrational gesture, he covered the White King, as if he were still capable of protecting him.
Before his eyes he now saw someone he knew, lying motionless on the ground, with a frozen expression on his face and his shirt soaked in blood. Some of the blood had flowed down his side, forming a dark pool. All around him were black-clad figures with guns at the ready, and for a while they also seemed to be frozen in a moment, silent like statues. Then one of them stepped closer and kicked the body. It shook with the blow but otherwise did not react; the limbs and the torso fell limply back into their previous position. Nevertheless, the arm holding the paragun extended, the black-clad trooper bent a little so that the barrel almost touched the victim’s forehead; and the weapon fired.
Instead of the discharge, Avon heard his own gasp, as he snapped out of the horrible fantasy. He felt sweat trickle down his face. He looked down at his hand clutching the white chess piece; then he looked up and met the dreadful, hollow eyes of the stranger.
‘It wasn’t just a chess game for you, was it?’ the stranger asked. ‘It seems you are caught up in an endgame in your life as well… Fighting a battle you cannot win… Trying to save someone you are bound to lose.’
Avon felt too intoxicated and dazed to say anything. Somewhere at the back of his mind, he deduced that he must have been drugged. Instead of tobacco the pipe must have been filled with some sort of drug, to which the stranger was apparently immune. But it was too late, and in his present state of mind Avon didn’t really care what sort of game the man was playing with him. He was still overwhelmed by the images of his drug-induced hallucination: the images whose implications he didn’t quite dare admit to himself.
‘I’m curious,’ the stranger went on. ‘You strike me as a person of considerable intelligence, and a pragmatic mind; yet you seem to be here on some desperate and completely irrational quest. Do you know what you are looking for at all?’
‘Someone,’ Avon muttered drunkenly, ‘who mustn’t die.’
‘Well now, I thought this was one talent we all shared,’ the stranger said wryly. ‘I’m sure you have survived many people’s deaths, so why should this one bother you in particular? Surely a person of your age and maturity must have come to terms by now with this particular lesson in life. Everyone has to die, sooner or later. And no one is indispensable.’
‘Almost no one,’ Avon whispered softly.
‘Mate,’ Deva said. ‘I’m winning again. Blake, it’s not much fun playing against you. Your mind’s not on the game. You never care very much about what’s going on on the board.’
‘I’m afraid you’re right,’ Blake chuckled.
‘You’ll never play a game of chess properly if you can’t get completely involved.’
‘That’s just the problem. I’m sorry, Deva. I really wouldn’t know how to feel enthusiastic about little pieces of artificial matter on a magnetized board.’
‘Well, perhaps you could use your imagination. For instance, you could think of your people in this base as pawns…’
Blake smiled at Deva’s mild teasing.
‘No. I don’t think I could.’
The conversation came to a halt, as both friends started thinking of the deeper implications of Deva’s metaphor.
‘So, what do you think?’ Deva asked. ‘How many more recruits before we can move?’
‘It’s not just a matter of numbers,’ Blake replied thoughtfully. Although he didn’t say it to Deva, there was one very special recruit he was waiting for. If only he would come, Blake thought, I would feel so much more ready to move… To Deva, of course, he always repeated that no one was indispensable. And it was a lie.
Absent-mindedly, he took a pawn in his hand. His mind now moved on to his newest recruit, Arlen, and something strange that had happened on their way to the base. He decided to tell Deva about it.
This was when the girl fell on the ground. He watched her clutching the wound, he watched the blood stain her fingers and the painful grimace distort her face. At that moment his natural impulse was to forget about his tests and mind games and offer comfort and relief to a fellow human being who was in pain; but the bounty hunter routine demanded that he should pretend to be heartless and detached. He pointed the gun at the girl and coldly ordered her to get up. Then he looked away, so that his look would not betray what he really felt.
At that moment, he thought he saw a human figure at the outskirts of the forest: a lean, tall man dressed in several layers of garments, wrapped in a broad cloak, with a large hood hiding most of his face…
‘The Man in the Woods? Don’t tell me?’ Deva sounded thrilled. ‘You really think you saw him?’
‘Oh, it’s a local legend. The natives of this part of Gauda Prime believe there is a Man in the Woods. Allegedly, he sometimes crosses the path of lonely travellers. That’s why it’s not thought advisable to travel through these forest on your own. And seeing him is supposed to be a bad omen. But it's even worse if you actually engage in a conversation with him… You see, he’s said to offer deals. Dangerous deals.’
‘I see,’ the stranger said to Avon. ‘If you desire so strongly to save this friend of yours, perhaps I might be able to help you… At a certain price.’
‘The thing is,’ Deva said, ‘You must never agree to deal with him. Never.’
‘I know who you are… your name is Avon. And I know you are looking for Blake. And I know,’ the stranger went on, commenting on Avon’s reactions, ‘that now you would like to take your gun and threaten to blow a limb or two off me unless I tell you where Blake is. But you can’t do it, because by now the drug has affected your motor functions thoroughly. You cannot even pull your gun out of the holster.’
Avon’s right arm fell limply at the side of the chair, while the left one still managed to hold the White King. He forced himself to lift his head and look at the stranger’s hollow eyes. The drug had benumbed both his mind and his body; but his emotions, it seemed to him, were crystal clear and more acute than ever.
‘What do you know?’ he asked, hardly able to control the movements of his lips and tongue. ‘What can you do? Where is Blake?’
‘I cannot tell you that, not in so many words. This is not how I operate. But I can rearrange the course of events, to a certain degree. Some moves on the chessboard may be changed. Some small achievements can be made. One mustn’t be too ambitious, of course. Some things are predestined to happen. It is an endgame, after all.’
The words sounded nebulous and completely surreal to Avon, but he was too drugged to care.
‘I have to warn him… reach him before the Federation does.’
‘If you are willing to trade.’
‘I… crash-landed on this planet. I have no valuables.’
‘I don’t trade in credits or gems. What I ask from you in return for my favours is something that even the poorest man has, although nowadays hardly anyone even believes that it exists. It is… a kind of vapour.’ The stranger puffed out some more yellowish smoke from the narghile. ‘Not really visible with our physical eyes.’
‘Just a local superstition, of course,’ Deva went on. ‘Allegedly, if you do engage in a conversation with him, he will eventually find out what the thing is that you desire most in the world. And then he will offer to provide this thing for you, if in return you give him your soul.’
‘My… what?’ Avon frowned.
He knew the word, of course: it was used casually in conversation, but nowadays no one had much knowledge of its original meaning and the concept it conveyed.
He recalled having read about it in some ancient files from the Central Dome Archives. This was in his student days, when he used to break security codes and access forbidden documents just for kicks. Soul. Yes, religious treaties and literary works alike mentioned the term: an abstract notion of some sort of essence in man, an allegedly immortal portion of a human being, his inner guidance, his better nature. Pre-Calendar rubbish.
He also recalled hearing about the mythological figure traditionally trading in this currency: eloquently depicted in the half-remembered stanzas of someone called Milton; named Sheytan in the Amagon legends; and called Diavo, and sometimes accompanied by his Baba, an old woman, in the stories Gan brought from his home planet.
Avon grinned broadly at the hollow-eyed figure who was staring at him from across the gameboard.
‘Oh, that,’ he said. ‘I thought it was already yours.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ the stranger said, ‘although you certainly committed some deeds which made me interested in you, and led me to believe you might be willing to trade. But your soul is still bound… by a certain strong faith, a deeply sworn oath of fealty which you have never admitted to yourself consciously. It resides in an unwavering belief you still cherish for one person. You see, you live without any certainties. You believe in nothing. You trust no one. Except… him.’
Avon was struck by these words. The intoxicating substance he had inhaled enabled him to be honest with himself, perhaps more honest than ever before. He thought of Blake again, the impossible hothead, with his irrational determination to save the whole galaxy, his crazy belief that even endgames should be fought, and could be won, his idiotic conviction that there existed some essential human goodness, and his suicidal, persistent inclination to trust… Blake who had an unlimited, unshakable, loving faith in the universe…
‘I see,’ he said. ‘So you take this last remnant of… what do you call it, my faith and trust… and in return, you will arrange that I find Blake before the Federation does?’
‘This is my offer.’
‘And you guarantee that I will succeed in making a difference? That the Federation will neither kill nor arrest him?’
‘He will not be killed by the Federation… nor arrested. I can promise you that.’
‘And I’m supposed to… trust you?’ Avon sneered.
‘Oh, I never lie,’ the stranger said seriously. ‘It’s just that my truths sometimes get… misunderstood.’
Avon looked at the White King, still nested in the palm of his left hand. His soul… in return for a chance to save Blake. In some morbid way, the idea appealed to him. He grinned.
‘Well, I don’t suppose anyone will notice the difference.’
The first thing Avon noticed when he opened his eyes was that he no longer had the White King.
He lifted his head. He had been sleeping bent over the small table, but the chessboard wasn’t on it. The chess piece he had held in his hand was gone, and so were all the others.