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by Robert Sheckley
Category: Science Fiction/Humor
Description: The players met, on the great, timeless board of space. The glittering dots that were the pieces swam in their separate patterns. In that configuration at the beginning, even before the first move was made, the outcome of the game was determined. Both players saw, and knew which had won. But they played on. Because the game had to be played out. Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was a Hugo and Nebula nominated American author. First published in the science fiction magazines of the 1950s, his numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical.Sheckley was given the Author Emeritus honor by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2001.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1953 Astounding Science Fiction
eBookwise Release Date: August 2009
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [27 KB]
Reading time: 12-17 min.
THE players met, on the great, timeless board of space. The glittering dots that were the pieces swam in their separate patterns. In that configuration at the beginning, even before the first move was made, the outcome of the game was determined.
Both players saw, and knew which had won. But they played on.
Because the game had to be played out.
* * * *
Lieutenant Nielson sat in front of his gunfire board with an idyllic smile on his face. He didn't look up.
The lieutenant was looking at his fingers now, with the stare of a puzzled child.
"Nielson! Snap out of it!" General Branch loomed sternly over him. "Do you hear me, lieutenant?"
Nielson shook his head dully. He started to look at his fingers again, then his gaze was caught by the glittering array of buttons on the gunfire panel.
"Pretty," he said.
General Branch stepped inside the cubicle, grabbed Nielson by the shoulders and shook him.
"Pretty things," Nielson said, gesturing at the panel. He smiled at Branch.
Margraves, second in command, stuck his head in the doorway. He still had sergeant's stripes on his sleeve, having been promoted to colonel only three days ago.
"Ed," he said, "the President's representative is here. Sneak visit."
"Wait a minute," Branch said, "I want to complete this inspection." He grinned sourly. It was one hell of an inspection when you went around finding how many sane men you had left.
"Do you hear me, lieutenant?"
"Ten thousand ships," Nielson said. "Ten thousand ships--all gone!"
"I'm sorry," Branch said. He leaned forward and slapped him smartly across the face.
Lieutenant Nielson started to cry.
"Hey, Ed--what about that representative?"
At close range, Colonel Margraves' breath was a solid essence of whisky, but Branch didn't reprimand him. If you had a good officer left you didn't reprimand him, no matter what he did. Also, Branch approved of whisky. It was a good release, under the circumstances. Probably better than his own, he thought, glancing at his scarred knuckles.
"I'll be right with you. Nielson, can you understand me?"
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant said in a shaky voice. "I'm all right now, sir."
"Good," Branch said. "Can you stay on duty?"
"For a while," Nielson said. "But, sir--I'm not well. I can feel it."
"I know," Branch said. "You deserve a rest. But you're the only gun officer I've got left on this side of the ship. The rest are in the wards."
"I'll try, sir," Nielson said, looking at the gunfire panel again. "But I hear voices sometimes. I can't promise anything, sir."
"Ed," Margraves began again, "that representative--"
"Coming. Good boy, Nielson." The lieutenant didn't look up as Branch and Margraves left.
* * * *
"I escorted him to the bridge," Margraves said, listing slightly to starboard as he walked. "Offered him a drink, but he didn't want one."
"All right," Branch said.
"He was bursting with questions," Margraves continued, chuckling to himself. "One of those earnest, tanned State Department men, out to win the war in five minutes flat. Very friendly boy. Wanted to know why I, personally, thought the fleet had been maneuvering in space for a year with no action."
"What did you tell him?"
"Said we were waiting for a consignment of zap guns," Margraves said. "I think he almost believed me. Then he started talking about logistics."
"Hm-m-m," Branch said. There was no telling what Margraves, half drunk, had told the representative. Not that it mattered. An official inquiry into the prosecution of the war had been due for a long time.
"I'm going to leave you here," Margraves said. "I've got some unfinished business to attend to."
"Right," Branch said, since it was all he could say. He knew that Margraves' unfinished business concerned a bottle.
He walked alone to the bridge.