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BLACK SCIENCE FICTION

MESSAGE FROM GOD

"The Atheist!"

Brother Xan started, a hand clutched his heart, stopped it for a long moment as his mouth dried.

And then, to confirm what he'd heard: "The Atheist is coming!"

The young acolyte burst into the enclosure. Xan looked up from his morning prayers.

The acolyte, seeing him on his knees, stopped.

Xan read two great awes in the boy's wide eyes. Nay, in his whole being. One awe was for the priest who had gone to Tan Argus III and played against the legions of the Evil One and beaten them all—except the greatest of them.

The Atheist.

Sam Mist.

Now Chess Champion of the Universe.

And that was the second awe—the greatest chessplayer in the universe was coming here.

"The—" He had to wet his lips. "The reason we don't have all those exceedingly clever devices like the rest of the galaxy is so we can pray to God without being disturbed—and here you come running and shouting." He spoke softly, preoccupied.

The acolyte made the sign of God, bowed low and touched his head to the wood before the altar.

"I beg your forgiveness, Brother Xan."

"It is God's forgiveness you need to beg—you interrupted His prayers."

"Yes." The youth raised his eyes upward toward the glory of Clur's swollen sun, stretched out his arms to either side and closed his lids and looked so happy in the radiance of the rising primary.

Xan bowed his head, remembering.... He had been so full of faith, so sure he could defeat the Atheist, that God would always be there in his time of need. Instead....

He had seen many evil things offworld: whores, and degenerates, worlds where women danced naked in the streets and forni cated at will. Abominations of nature—half man/half woman or half animal. Holographic displays of endless pornography. Worlds where war raged without interruption and worlds where disease was allowed to go unchecked and those who had died of starvation covered the sidewalks. And on Group worlds he had seen men and women and babies sold like any other goods or commodities, people tortured as public spectacle.

But nothing had shaken him like his confrontation with the Atheist.

Sam Mist openly avowed he was godless, that he drank, smoked, and had had carnal knowledge of many women. He was responsible for leading many young girls down the path to sin and degradation and lust. He had been a warrior of Evil Earth—killing so many that even he had tired of his blood lust. He was evil through and through.

In a time of waning faith in the galaxy, many thought that if he could best Mist, such a victory would stop the march of atheism and advance the cause of God.

Tears traced wet paths down his face as he remembered....

He had gone forth to face the infidel Sam Mist.

And the Atheist had beaten him.

Now the Atheist Champion was coming here.

To see him.

"Do you know why he comes?" he asked abruptly, interrupting the acolyte whose face beamed with the glory of his prayers.

"No. His starship set down and he asked to see you. They told him where you live and he is on his way now."

"And you beat him here?!"

"He is respecting our ways—he is walking."

Xan's eyes widened. The Atheist ... respecting God's ways. A miracle itself. But why was he coming to see him? Unless it was to gloat. To revel in his complete victory. The triumph of the Dark One.

"Then—then he should almost be here," he said, startled. He rose.

"Yes!" The acolyte rose also, almost hopping with excitement. He would be witness to the meeting of the two greatest chess players in the universe—one good, one evil.

Xan walked out of the prayer enclosure and halfway to the gate. There, he stood and watched. In the distance he saw a head top the hill leading to the final depression before the rise to his home.

The distance was still far, but in his mind he saw a full-lipped man beginning to get on in years, tall, dark (legacy of those of his ancestors who had been African though they had spent a period of bondage in a place called America), a face that many women found attractive, and in excellent shape. Pearly black eyes that twinkled at the slightest provocation. Xan nodded, remembering.

Then to Xan's surprise, as more and more of the Earthman rose over the crest of the hill, another head began to emerge—that of a little girl. Golden-skinned. Flat-nosed. Her African-American and Asensir heritage clear.

He had brought his daughter.

He remembered: He had married outside his species, going to far Asensir to win the woman of his dreams. And dark science had allowed their union to be fruitful. Again, Xan was confounded: Sam Mist, the Atheist enemy had brought his daughter to Clur, the holiest planet in the universe.

The girl was maybe three or four. He had little experience with such things, so it was hard to be sure. He had heard little of her—she was well-shielded from the media. She had pig tails—which jumped from time to time as she skipped. Her head kept swivelling around as she took in the sights of what to her had to be a strange planet. As it was for Sam Mist. The Infidel Champion had never been to Clur. But finally evil had come here. Head held high, the Infidel Champion walked toward him.

What did he want? Why was he here? To gloat? He had defeated him and his God on Tan Argus III. Had he come to wallow in evil's triumph?

Xan shook his head. God had not spoken to him in a long time. But then He had only whispered to him when he played chess, and he had stopped playing chess. He had failed the Lord on Tan Argus III. He had not been a worthy vessel of that Mightiness—else why had God abandoned him? Why had God let the Atheist beat him? And now, why was the Atheist here?

He recalled those bitter days following his defeat, when he thought long in the dark of the night of suicide. But that was the greater evil. Thinking of the acolyte beside him, he knew many held him in awe. But he did not hold himself so. He had not been worthy of God's gift. God had not helped him and the Atheist had beaten him.

Was there a smile on the Atheist's lips? Hard to tell at the distance. But he remembered the faint smile that had always seemed to be there as he stared at an opponent over the bridge of his clasped hands, deeply black eyes twinkling with suppressed amusement as he watched the indecision on an opposite face.

He had once laughed in an interview when someone asked if he prayed before a tough game. "Pray!? I train for my games the way a boxer trains for a championship fight. I condition myself physically and mentally to the absolute peak. Grueling, torturous practice, exercises, study, analysis, constant development. I have no time for useless prayer."

Xan heard a sound and realized it was himself. He was whimpering. He did not want this confrontation. It brought back the pain of the greatest defeat he had ever suffered. He bowed his head, clasped his hands. "Oh, God, Lord, have I not endured enough? Must I meet the Atheist again?"

But the Lord was silent. He spoke to him only over the chessboard. And Xan played no more; he could not stand to face that divine disappointment. Even though chess had been his life and soul—after Tan Argus III, he had given it up.

On that planet he had worn the standard sandals and thin red robe with cowl that left his face in shadow most of the time. He had been lean and gaunt from many fastings and much self-denial. Several priests had accompanied him to act as seconds, advisors and spiritual supporters. Each day he underwent a purification rite to cleanse his soul of the evil about him.

His head had been shaved clean of all hair, including eyebrows and facial hair. He had prayed constantly and when he caught sight of himself in a mirror he had noted his silver-grey eyes and his forehead furrowed with many wrinkles, caused no doubt by intense concentration during all the years of contemplation and prayer.

Once he and Sam Mist had come face to face. About the same height, their eyes had met on a level. Then the Earthman had shaken his head almost imperceptibly, perhaps in pity, maybe in contempt, and turned away.

But most of all he remembered their game, that game he could never forget. His shame: the Abandonment by his Lord.

Before the start of their encounter he had gone to a corner and chanted, rubbing his praying chains and gazing through swirls of smoke from the incense before him. And through the smoke he had seen the Atheist. Smiling. Confident he could best God.

He had shut out the crowds, the media, the whores, the alien creatures with hive minds, reptilian logic, the monstrous creations of dark science. Creatures without souls, that could never be saved.

When he looked at the harlots, he remembered how he'd come to the game of chess.

The days of his childhood had been simple and normal, much like those of any other child of Clur. Then the time came to decide his future. His parents, hardworking farmers, wanted something better for their only son. That was why, when he was old enough to decide his future, they guided him to the priesthood.

There were many candidates for few vacancies. One had to be stronger in faith than anyone else—unless one possessed unique abilities. He had no such abilities. He made it into the priesthood of Clur the hard way: by having more faith.

There were long years of training and study, trials and fastings—and intolerable aches in his body for a female. He knew it was Evil working upon him, so he prayed and ran around the preceptory's track. He ran around the track a lot.

"You should have a hobby to combat urges such as the need to be with a female," one of his mentors told him.

"A hobby?"

"Something that will absorb the mind completely for sex is primarily there. A hobby and physical exercise will cure everything."

He had noticed a great many of the brothers, their heads bent in religious solemnity, playing a strange game on a board of light and dark squares with strange, multi-shaped pieces unlike anything he'd ever seen before. The game certainly seemed to absorb their minds and to use up their nervous energies.

The next time he saw someone playing, he went over.

"What game is this?" he asked a bystander watching with arms folded who nodded from time to time as if he understood what was going on.

"Chess. It's from Earth."

Xan's eyes widened. "That's a place of Evil. Sex, violence and Godlessness. It's no better than the Group worlds."

The other disciple nodded. "True—but it's an interesting game."

"I want nothing to do with evil." He turned and walked away.

Shortly after that the officers of the Most Holy Church of Clur met to decide the fate of the game from Evil Earth. The Grand Council met in the Great Hall of the Grand Preceptory where they judged only the most solemn and important matters.

Those who would decide sat in their robes of red and white, of grey and military order black. In the middle of the circles of tiered benches stood a table and upon the table a board of sixty-four alternating black and white squares. Thirty-two pieces, half black, half white, took their places like the arrayed soldiers of two armies. But two armies that could fight again and again while their generals remained safe and inviolate except for whatever harm might come to the loser's ego.

The board and pieces looked so innocuous there. And before Xan could stop himself, he thought: How can such an innocent thing be held in question? Is there not a beauty in the formations, in the alternating of black and white squares, in the symmetry of the board?

Those who opposed the game noted its greatest player, Sam Mist, was a sinner and an atheist.

"All the more reason to champion the game," one reasoned. "Let us find a mighty player of God and send him forth to vanquish the Dark One's pawn."

The Council left the hall to make its decision. After a long period, they filed back in looking grim, and took their seats. The speaker squinted about at the tiered assemblage, the multi-colored robes of the priests and the less colorful, less uniform clothes of the common people.

"We have decided." He shook his head solemnly. "The decision is against—"

Everyone in the great hall leaned forward.

"—prohibition."

With official sanction, chess bloomed on Clur, and one day he asked another brother to teach him the moves.

He learned to play in only a few minutes, and then he committed himself to his first game—against his teacher. When the game was most complex, but it was clear his position was bad, he started to move a piece.

No—do not move the piece, Xan. There are better moves. Look for them. You will find them.

He quickly looked behind him, but there was no one else about. He found a better move and made it—and others. He won easily.

When his teacher gently placed his King on its side, Xan sat humble before the board, a feeling about him such as he had never had before. A hand patted him on the shoulder.

Well done, Xan.

Xan looked around. Again, there was no one.

The older priest looked at him with concern. "Xan, are you okay?"

Unable to speak, he nodded he was. Then he got out of the chair and went to his knees, clasped his hands and, tears pouring out of his eyes, said: "Thank you, Lord."

From then on his name and reputation grew. Among the Brothers of his preceptory, there was no one able to give him a good game. He played the champions of preceptories in his district and beat them easily too.

The game spread over Clur. More and more tournaments took place. Then came word that there would be a super tournament— pitting the greatest chessplayers alive against each other for the championship of the Universe—on a planet called Tan Argus III.

The Church immediately arranged a tournament of tournaments to choose the best player of Clur to go to Tan Argus III to champion their cause.

All the great players of Clur participated: Nyalur—who had journeyed to Earth itself and studied under their great Interstellar Grandmasters, Soyt of the military order of the Church—a tall, austere man with the look of a bird of prey and the mind of a machine. Against these and others Xan played.

When his games were bad and he was in despair, he prayed, and a voice—God's voice—would whisper: Look there, Xan. He would look and the move that would save him, that would hold his game, would be there.

He won the right to represent the Church on Tan Argus III. It was through him that God played and thus the Atheist and all the infidel universe would see that He was real and they must worship Him.

And then the tournament had started—and Sam Mist played so poorly it was clear he was being set up to suffer the worst defeat and humiliation of his career—with the whole universe watching.

But then things changed. After losing early and putting himself in a position from which he seemingly could not recover, the Atheist rallied. Game after game, he struck down his opponents, playing on a level never before seen.

Thus was Xan warned. His game with the Atheist would be no ordinary game. It would be Armageddon.

"Thank You. Once again You have aided me, my Lord," he had said after winning one of his games against another foe, though he had struggled.

Azu the military order priest gave him a hard disapproving look.

"God is mysterious," Xan said. "And sometimes He is not. He chose not to help me."

"Perhaps your faith is weak because of the distractions of this world."

"I will pray more tonight."

Azu nodded as if to say 'do so.' "The Atheist will not be so easy. The forces of darkness have gathered around him. He plays better than ever."

Xan looked up at the scoreboard. "Four players compete for first place—he is behind all of them. He will need a miracle to win this tournament."

"Never underestimate evil. His Dark Master will tip the stone so it falls in his favor."

"I will pray and fast. I will seek out any weakness in my faith. I shall pray that He aid me."

Azu nodded again.

"I will beat the Atheist," he vowed.

* * *

The air was electric with anticipation when the two turned toward their table. The ballroom grew silent as he stared at the Atheist. He knew there was in himself a wildness, almost a madness in his eyes, such was the intensity of his belief, his determination to win for his Lord.

He had played and beaten demon-possessed creatures from Hell and half-clad whores. Now he faced the ultimate representative of evil.

"Lord, the moment of Truth has come. I am the humblest of Thy servants.

"I thank Thee, Lord, for Thy help thus far. I lead—along with the Group champion, Pronus. I would not be thus without Your aid. A little more and I shall be champion and the universe—will know of Your Power.

"Help me to victory over The Atheist!"

He walked slowly to the table and board and stood looking at his opponent. As his lips moved in prayer, he quickly made the sign of God a dozen times.

Then, slowly, he pulled out his chair and eased himself into it, eyes never leaving the face of his enemy. He gripped his prayer chain more firmly than he ever had. He prayed as he looked into the very depths of the godless man, looked into the innermost being of one who was forever damned. Cursed.

"You look at me strangely, Priest of Clur."

"Spawn of the damned."

"Well, it's good to know such things." His dark eyes twinkled. A faint smile came to his lips. "Is it true you claim God speaks to you?

"I do not claim. He does."

"How does he speak to you?"

"He whispers in my ear."

"Will he whisper during our game?"

"If I need help."

"Then I will do my best to see that you need help. I want to hear this God of yours whisper in your ear. And I want to hear what he will say when I beat the two of you."

His fist tightened till his knuckles were white around the symbol of his god. His body was so tense he was fearful it might shatter if struck with a hard object.

The Atheist, on the other side, was almost relaxed by comparison. He seemed serene as he stared back and took deep breaths, flushing his system with oxygen.

There would be no draw in this game. It would be a fight to a decision—the Atheist's position in the standings necessitated that.

He opened with Pawn to King Four and Mist responded with his Pawn to Queen Bishop Four. Several moves later the Sicilian Defense became a Mist Dragon. The crowd, if possible, grew even more silent. The Mist Dragon was the greatest defense ever conceived—played by one many considered the greatest offensive player ever. He played over the games of Frank J. Marshall every night before he went to sleep, knew every one by heart.

Xan raised his eyes to the great ceiling of the grand ballroom. I will not lose. You protect me and guide me. But he shook his head as if to ask how much would he have to endure?

Xan moved.

Both sat hunched over the board, studying, eyes questing, endeavoring to penetrate to the very soul of the position, both seeking a way to gain the win. Their gazes ultra intense, their concentration such that what went on around them did not in trude—or if it did, neither gave sign.

They moved after long thought over each move.

His own tension showed only in that his rocking increased in the difficult moments—while he waited for the infidel to make his move.

The Atheist never showed any sign of nervousness or worry, being completely impassive even in the most difficult situation as the game progressed.

They exchanged pieces.

The position grew complicated.

He rocked and continued to go over the situation on the board. And over it. And over it. He could not help it. He looked at his clock—and then the position. He bent over until his nose almost touched the tallest pieces.

The Atheist pushed his chair back a little from the table as if to give him room.

Xan looked up at him; his eyes narrowed.

Mist looked at his clock. Xan's gaze followed his. His time was running out. He swung his head and eyes back to the board, to the position that would not yield to him. He closed his eyes. His lips moved in silent prayer.

The Atheist sat and watched him—and the clock.

And the Lord did not whisper.... Perhaps he did not need His aid.

He stopped rocking, reached over and picked up a piece, hesitated. The Lord was silent. Finally he put it on a new square. It was a move no one expected—an innocent, counterintuitive move that put a shocking amount of pressure on the Atheist's game. Suddenly the analysts were abuzz: Had he refuted the Mist Dragon?

The Atheist had smiled at the move, nodded to admit it was good, and leaned forward to concentrate more on the board. After a long while, he pushed a pawn. It was an unspectacular reply, yet strong enough to keep him on the hair thin edge of survival.

And Xan immediately made another move—a brutal, punishing one and put yet more pressure on Mist's position. So be it: he would win without the Lord's help.

And the Atheist again smiled and made another quiet move.

The experts shook their heads; the game was too complex, too deep for them.

When Xan walked near the audience, to take a break and relieve the tension within him, he heard them whisper: "Xan must have God whispering moves to him—else how could an ordinary being conceive such moves?"

"But," said another, "if Xan has God on his side, who does Sam Mist have on his, for he finds the answers to those 'divine' moves."

And he could only smile at that for he knew the Atheist's replies were less than adequate. He was right: in the next half dozen moves, he ripped apart the Atheist's Kingside position.

The grand ballroom was so quiet, a dust mote falling to the floor would have sounded like the crash of a skyscraper.

He couldn't help visibly trembling. Perspiration soaked his garments. His skin shone with it. Then he made a move, studied the board, and leaned back in his chair while Mist sought an answer. His fingers trembled as he wiped the sweat from his brow and face. He stared at the board. He spoke to himself, but later he learned it was loud enough for all to hear:

"I have him, My Lord.... I have him!"

With his castled position demolished, Sam Mist of Earth, the Atheist, moved his King to the center of the board. Xan's pieces harried the desperate monarch and forced it, under escort of pawns and heavy and light pieces which sacrificed themselves for his safety, across the board and into the enemy camp, into God's camp.

The audience stood.

He attacked and attacked and attacked, each time, seemingly, about to succeed, about to checkmate the Earthman's King. So many times he seemed so close.

But the King of the godless one somehow survived in a ring of remaining black pieces and pawns.

Then ...

"Lord,—"

a lone pawn ...

"—find—"

marched ...

"—me—"

down the corridor ...

"—a—"

unstoppably ...

"—move!"

and under the shield of the King ...

He cried in anguish.

and ...

None was forthcoming.

queened.

On the 44th move he had resigned to the Atheist Sam Mist.

Still hunched over the board in stunned disbelief, he looked at the hand in front of his face. The hand of the Atheist. For a moment he seemed to study the nails, the hairs on the back, the joints. Then he straightened up quickly, drawing his robes about him as he did so. It was more of a recoil—as one would from a snake.

He stood, pushed his chair back. His eyes swept over the man from Earth.

"I will not shake hands with a servant of the Evil One," he heard himself say.

He turned his back on the Atheist and walked away.

* * *

He said goodbye to those he had met on Tan Argus III and the reporters and started across the spacefield with his companion priests. A heavy fog shrouded everything.

Now that it was over, his soul was on fire. God had abandoned him. It was the end of everything. He saw only darkness about him.

Everyone was scattering back to the four corners of the galaxy. But even at the spaceport there was a reminder: a huge electronic board high overhead which displayed ghostlike through the fog the final standings of the now historic Tan Argus III Interstellar Chess Tournament.

He could not help but stand and read it:

1. Sam Mist (Earth) 10.5 - 3.5

2. Xan (Clur IV) 10 - 4

3. Pronus (Svessig VIII) 10 - 4

4. Hanor Hanor Hanor (Ultron) 10 - 4

5. Sa-Ra-Lu (Retalon) 10 - 4

6. Juror (Ahander) 8.5 - 5.5

7. Ii (Hwiur) 7.5 - 6.5

8. Aemyloc Lorc (Betallair) 7 - 7

9. Falas (Edrbnrt) 6 - 8

10. Crofton (Mars) 5.5 - 8.5

11. Kloss (Tan Argus III) 5 - 9

12. Propa 571 (Tanato) 4.5 - 9.5

13. The Quagis 4 - 10

14. Ernadalmus (Tut) 4 - 10

15. Hydo (Diotiodio) 2.5 - 12.5

16. Pydir Ye Dirpy (Dessi) WITHDRAWN

He looked around. His companions had gone on without him. He lowered his head and alone in defeat walked on toward the starship that would take him home to Clur.

"Xan!"

The voice came out of the thick fog but he recognized it: The Atheist. He changed direction—away from it, hoping the fog would conceal him. It did not.

The Atheist materialized in front of him.

Xan stared at him. "Come to gloat over the victory of your evil master? We have lost this round—my God and I, but we shall meet again, Sam Mist. And we will beat you. Evil helped you win."

Mist shook his head. "I won by myself. I believe in no God— either good or evil."

"Blasphemy!"

"No. Merely, the truth."

"You do not believe you will live after this?"

"No. There is nothing after this. We come from nothing. We go back to nothing. Nothing to nothing."

"I pity you, Sam Mist. Either in league with evil or an unknow ing tool of evil."

"It is I who pity you."

"Pity me? How is that?" Xan asked, looking at him incredu lously.

"This is it," Mist said, moving a hand to indicate that about them, the world, the universe. Life. "There is nothing after. There is no God—how I wish there were one. I wish with all my heart there were one—that there is something after this life is done. But I doubt it.

"You accept your god on faith. I can't. And I fear I am right. All your praying, my friend, will not make you live again. And the pity ... or perhaps the blessing ... is that you shall not be aware of it."

Xan looked at him. Something in the eyes—or perhaps the soul —of Sam Mist moved him. Tears welled in his eyes. He swallowed and spoke. He said with all the sincerity within him, "I will pray for you, Sam Mist. Every day, for the rest of my life, I will pray for you. Never have I spoken to anyone so filled with Evil as you are. It may be that you are hopeless, but I shall try."

"Evil, Xan? I am flesh and blood, I laugh and I cry. I eat and breathe and defecate."

"Blasphemy!"

"But true. I am but a man—my own man. I won not because I am evil—but because I am a good player—or better than others. You are a good player. Perhaps if you spent more time studying and less praying for divine aid, you would be better."

"I will pray for you, Sam Mist," he repeated.

"And I will study while you are praying. Remember that next time we play."

"Goodbye. God bless you and may you see the truth."

He started to turn away, ignoring the extended hand.

"Shall we not shake?" Sam Mist asked.

"I have been contaminated enough by the evil on this planet. I must return to Clur and cleanse myself." He shook his head sadly. "It will be a long and difficult task."

Sam Mist smiled, a mocking smile. Perhaps taunting. "I am but a man trying to be friendly. You have served your God as well as you could. Surely He will protect you from a mere handshake."

They looked at each other. Slowly he brought his hand up to meet that of the Atheist. The two lean hands met and clasped.

"Goodbye, Sam Mist."

"Goodbye, Xan."

And then the Atheist was gone, swallowed up by the fog.

And now he was here.

The Atheist.

He walked into the yard with his daughter. Unbelievable. Perhaps my praying has done some good. He had indeed prayed every day for Sam Mist's soul. Perhaps....

Sam Mist nodded. The dark eyes twinkled. A slight smile on his lips. "It's been a long time." He put out a hand.

Xan looked at it ... the past came back again.

I am but a man trying to be friendly. You have served your God as well as you could. Surely he will protect you from a mere handshake.

Xan sighed. Memories.... Against his will he started to raise his hand—and someone else grabbed it!

The little girl shook it up and down, grinning at him with perfect little teeth and eyes almost squeezed shut. She clung to his hand with all her might.

"I'm Mista!" she said. "I watched you and Daddy play a thousand times."

Xan nodded. There'd been a documentary made of the tournament. He understood it was still a big seller.

"It was a fantastic game! Wow—the possibilities! Every time I play it over—"

He looked down at her. Small. Surely no more than four Earth years. "You play it over?"

"Yes—when I'm analyzing it!" she said as if he were lacking in intelligence. She nodded emphatically. "If you'd made a pawn move on the thirty-fifth, you would've beaten Daddy."

Xan looked at the sky, the position formed again—and he saw—the move! After all these years, all the analysis by experts and computers. Why had no one seen it? He could have won—he could have beaten Sam Mist. Beaten the Atheist. Beaten the servant of the Dark One. He looked at Sam Mist. The same. Handsome. Lean. Eyes perhaps a little sad.

"So you found the move I should have made."

Sam Mist shook his head. "She found it."

Xan looked back at the little girl, knowing his eyes were wide in disbelief. "You found it?"

She nodded. "God told me it was there. I looked—He was right, it was."

"God?"

"Yes. He talks to me when I play chess like He used to to you. He gave me a message to give to you."

Not quite believing his ears, Xan repeated what she said, "God gave you a message?"

"Yes."

"For me?"

"Yes. I guess He would have given it to you but He only talks to you when you play chess and you haven't played in a long time."

He nodded; how had she known that? What joke was this? But the move. The move! Why hadn't God shown it to him on Tan Argus III? Why had God let the Atheist win?

He squatted down, eyes moist with tears. "What did God say?"

"He said to tell you you served Him well. He said to tell you 'well done.'"

"But I lost."

"Because you had to."

Xan started to shake his head to show he didn't understand. But he caught himself and suddenly he did understand. The Group had thought of him as a religious fanatic and so his victory at Tan Argus III would have been meaningless in their scheme of things. But Sam Mist was Solterran and Solterra and the Group had been locked in a great struggle for control of the universe. Sam Mist's evil had been minor compared to the Group's. They would have enslaved or killed everyone.

Though he had known it, he'd never admitted it: When Sam Mist made his run over the last half of the tournament, coming from so far down, making some of the greatest moves ever seen in the history of chess, their belief in themselves had been broken. He was an ordinary human being who played and beat the best players of the Group easily—and a priest of Clur to whom God spoke! After that, they'd known in their hearts they could never beat such a people.

They were still around, but Tan Argus III had been a psychological blow from which they'd never recovered. One by one their worlds were falling, their people being emancipated.

She nodded when she saw the knowledge come to him. "Any way, God wanted you to know that, to end your torment. So I had Daddy bring me here."

Tears falling, he hugged her. "Thank you, Mista."

"You're welcome."

Vision blurred with tears, he looked up at Sam Mist then, but he spoke to her. "Do you play your father?"

"Yes—all the time." She sucked her teeth, rolled her eyes. "He's not very good—he has yet to beat me."


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