From the very beginning of his career, Robert Sheckley was recognized by fans, reviewers, and fellow authors as a master storyteller and the wittiest satirist working in the science fiction field. Open Road is proud to republish his acclaimed body of work, with nearly thirty volumes of full-length fiction and short story collections. Rediscover, or discover for the first time, a master of science fiction who, according to the New York Times, was “a precursor to Douglas Adams.”
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Game of X
By Robert Sheckley
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Robert Sheckley
All rights reserved.
It had been a long, hard day. My appointments had been spread all over Paris; near the Opéra, across the river to Vanves, then back to the Faubourg St. Honoré, then back to the Opéra. Results: nothing.
It was close to seven when I dragged myself out of the Métro at the Cluny stop. It was April in Paris; an endless line of Diesel trucks barreled down the Boulevard St. Michel. A cold and hopeless rain was falling. I was tired, footsore and frustrated. My mouth hurt from talking French to sullen receptionists. I wanted to go back to my room and boil an egg. But I had promised to meet George for a drink.
He was waiting for me in an ugly little cafe near the Ecole. We talked for a while about the weather. At last he asked me if I had found a job yet, and I told him I hadn't. He became very thoughtful.
I have known George since high-school days, but we have very little in common. George is squat, purposive, and exceedingly practical. I am tall, unmotivated, and inclined to dubious speculations. George had come to Europe to fill a minor technical position in an obscure government agency. I had not waited for a specific invitation.
Being prepared to hold any job, I was offered none. I soon found that there was no future, nor even much of a present, in selling the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune. I did chauffeur (illegally, for scab wages) a gleaming Buick from Le Havre to Paris. And once I found a job playing bass with a French jazz combo in Montmartre. But in order to work with them I had to have a permit, for which I applied at the Services de Main d'Oeuvre du Ministère du Travail. I was turned down, since my employment would rob some deserving French bass player of the opportunity.
I was discouraged but not embittered. I liked Europe and wanted to stay. I wanted to live in an apartment in Rome, with icy marble floors, inadequate heating, no refrigerator, a loggia, a patio, French windows, a balcony, and a view of the Borghese Gardens. In a pinch I was even willing to forgo the loggia.
But alas, this modest goal seemed forever beyond my reach. My funds had come down to the vanishing point; with the last of them, I too would be forced to disappear.
"I might have work for you," George said, after considerable thought.
"Indeed?" I replied.
George looked around. We were completely alone except for three hundred students. Lowering his voice, he said, "Bill, how would you like to help trap a spy?"
"Sure," I said. "I'd be glad to."
"I'm quite serious about this."
"I realize that," I said. "I'm serious, too Will I get a chance to wear a trench coat and carry a gun in a shoulder holster?"
"No guns," George said.
"Will I at least be working with a lovely mysterious lady?"
"Not even that."
"You don't make it sound very interesting," I told him. "Maybe I should offer my services to MI-5 or the Sûreté."
"Listen to me," George said angrily. "It's no joke."
I started to grin; then stopped. In the fifteen years I had known George, he had made very few jokes, and none like this.
"I really think you mean it," I said.
"Yes, I really do."
I sat and stared at him. I had always wondered how one became a secret agent. Now I knew; one was asked into the business by a friend who was already in the business.
"Well?" George said after a while.
"Are you interested?"
"I told you I was. When do I start?"
"I wish," George said sternly, "that you would think for a moment before making your decision."
So I thought, just to please him. I considered my qualifications for the adventurous life of secret agent. I could fire an M-1 rifle with reasonable accuracy, and drive a sports car at modest speeds. I had helped sail a Hereshoff S-boat from Manhasset to Port Jefferson, and had once handled the controls of a Piper Cub. I could speak broken French, Spanish and Italian, and had taken three hours of instruction in judo. And, of course, I had read extensively about all aspects of the Vigorous Life in the pages of many now-defunct pulp magazines. In brief, I was as well prepared as the next man.
I also thought about how interesting this job could be, and how very little money I had, and how poor my job prospects were in Paris, and how I had no intention of returning to the States. I knew that George was serious, and even feeling a little grim about the whole thing; but I just couldn't get into an appropriate mood. I had always heard that Europe was filled with secret agents of all nationalities, sexes, sizes, shapes and colors; but the thought of George or me in that kind of work seemed ludicrous.
"All right," I said. "I've thought about it."
"You seem to be having a very curious reaction," George said coldly. I think I had offended his dignity.
"Sorry," I said. "I am trying to accustom myself to the idea. How long have you worked for the CIA?"
"I work for an autonomous organization. We cooperate with CIA, of course."
"And why did you ask me? I mean, isn't this sort of work kept inside the organization?"
"It usually is. But we need someone who's had no previous connection with us, or with CIA or any of the others."
"In order to trap a spy," George said, "one should use fresh bait."
That sounded the least bit unpleasant; but I couldn't blame him.
"Also," he added, "we had to have someone of the right age and appearance, whom we could trust. You are my oldest friend, and I trust you absolutely."
"Thank you," I said.
"Well, then, if you're still sure, let's go speak to my chief. He'll fill you in on the details."
George paid for the drinks. As we started to leave, he added, "You mustn't expect a great deal of money, by the way. We're tightly budgeted and it's only a brief assignment."
"I had expected nothing more than to serve," I told him. Perhaps I was insufferably breezy, but that was because George was so incredibly stuffy.
We went to George's office on the Boulevard Haussmann. There I was interviewed by a Colonel Baker. He was a small, neat, khaki-skinned man with steel-colored eyes and an ironic little mouth. His fingernails were badly chewed; I liked him very much.
The situation was explained to me. It concerned a certain Anton Karinovsky, a Roumanian by birth, a Russian agent by occupation. This man, under various names and disguises, had been making a nuisance of himself in Western Europe for some years. Colonel Baker had been given the task of doing something about it.
There had followed a long period of paperwork, surveillance, and just plain waiting. At last Baker's organization had identified, with reasonable certainty, a man whom they believed to be Karinovsky.
Some heavy planning followed, and then some fancy footwork, and after that a little sleight-of-hand. It had all culminated in a Scheme, known technically as an Entrapment. In two days, Karinovsky would be taking a train to Barcelona. I was to be with him on that train. I was the Bait; in the quaint jargon of the Service, I was known as the Cheese.
"It's all right with me," I said. "But I'd better warn you. I haven't handled a firearm since I graduated from the service."
Baker grimaced. "Didn't George tell you? No guns."
"He did mention that, and it's OK with me. But will Karinovsky follow our rules?"
"There will be no violence," Baker said. "All you must do is follow orders."
"To hear is to obey," I replied. And wheels began to turn.
Twenty-four hours later, a certain one-star American General on vacation in Pamplona received an urgent request from the two-star commander of the U.S. 22nd Armored stationed in Sangüesa. The General made a hurried search of his papers, came to an embarrassing realization, and fired off a coded telegram to his office in Paris. Shortly after receipt of his telegram, a certain civilian made a visit to Third Army Headquarters on the Avenue de Neuilly. There, in an office on the second floor, a frowning Colonel handed this personable young fellow a briefcase. The young man sauntered out of the building, looked around casually on all sides, and hailed a taxi. He was wearing a Madras sports shirt, Daks, an Italian silk jacket, and highly polished Scotch Grain brogues. Only his handkerchief, of an olive-gray GI hue, was not of impeccable civilian origin.
The personable young chap was myself, smack in the middle of Colonel Baker's Byzantine intrigue. I was supposed to be carrying some papers in an inobtrusive maimer to my red-faced General. Also, I was supposed to be looking like a man who was trying not to look like an American military attaché, a difficult bit of characterization. How Karinovsky was supposed to learn all of this was frankly beyond my comprehension. I considered the whole affair hopelessly complicated. Of course, I knew nothing of the tortuous ways of spies. And in any event, Baker had told me not to worry about it.
I arrived at the Gare Lyon and soon thereafter I was in a first-class compartment on the Sud Express, holiday-bound for Pamplona and the annual runninig of the gringos. The Cheese was on the move; and, amazingly enough, the Mouse was close behind.
I didn't have to look for Karinovsky; he found me, as had been anticipated. We had the compartment to ourselves. Karinovsky was a middle-aged man with a tough, square face, a dark moustache, heavy, pouched eyes, a busted nose, clipped gray hair, and big ears. He could have been a defensive linebacker, or a Hungarian infantry colonel, or even a Sicilian bandit. He said he was a Swiss watch salesman named Schoner. I said I was an assistant travel-agency manager named Lymington.
We talked. Or rather, Karinovsky talked. He was a soccer fanatic, and he went on endlessly about Switzerland's chances in the forthcoming match with Milan. We smoked the air blue, my Chesterfields losing out to his Gauloises. Onward we plunged through the green French countryside. By the time we reached Vichy, he had exhausted soccer and switched to Grand Prix racing. My eyes glazed at the flash and roar of Ferraris, Aston-Martins, Alfa-Romeos and Lotuses. I went through a pack of cigarettes in two hours, and started another. It was warm in the compartment. I mopped my forehead with the telltale khaki handkerchief, and thought I saw a feral gleam in Karinovsky's muddy little eyes. But there was no break in his monologue. The man was unstoppable. My bladder was near to bursting (an occupational hazard of spies, I learned later), and my mouth tasted like an ossuary. I think we were somewhere around Périgueux when he started to tell me about his life and times as a watch salesman. He was literally boring me to death. My nerves were worn to the quick by his dry, flat, rasping voice, and my mind was numbed by an avalanche of sports information, spurious opinions, and utterly predictable anecdotes.
I had a dangerous desire to shock him into silence. Instead, I excused myself and went to the john. I took my briefcase with me and returned in less than five minutes. Sure as death, we continued our conversation. But now, finally, the train was slowing down for the border inspection at Hendaye.
Karinovsky was slowing down, too. He began to chew his moustache. He looked suddenly mottled around the gills. He said he was feeling distinctly unwell, and I went for the conductor. When I returned, Karinovsky was slumped over holding his stomach. He seemed to have fever. The conductor and I began to speculate on appendicitis.
We helped him off the train at Hendaye. When we started again, I checked my briefcase. I saw at once that it was not mine, though the resemblance was uncanny. Karinovsky must have switched briefcases while I had gone off for the conductor. The one he had given me contained newspapers. The one he had taken from me had held a military progress report bearing a "Restricted" classification. The briefcase had also contained one thousand dollars in travelers' checks. So far, everything was going according to plan.
I rode the train one stop farther, to Massat. There I got off, went into a cafe called the Blue Moose, and waited for a telephone call. I waited three hours, and no call came for me. I caught the next train back to Paris and bought myself a very good dinner.
The next day I reported to Colonel Baker's office. The Colonel and George were positively overflowing with good spirits. Baker opened a bottle of champagne and told me what had happened.
He and George and one or two others had been waiting at the Hendaye station when Karinovsky got off. Politely but firmly they had wedged Karinovsky into a quiet cafe and spelled out the facts of life for him. To wit:
Karinovsky had stolen a briefcase containing an important military document, plus the sum of one thousand American dollars. The briefcase was easily identifiable; witnesses were available; and the owner of the briefcase was waiting in Massat, prepared to swear out a complaint and to pursue it to the fullest extent of French law. It should mean at least ten years in a French prison.
Karinovsky knew a bear-trap when he saw one. He had been tricked and trapped. He was ready to talk business.
Terms were discussed over the next half hour. Baker didn't tell me what they were, but apparently he had found them satisfactory. The case was closed.
Then George said, "But of course, you haven't heard the best of it."
"I wonder if we should tell him," Baker mused.
"Why not, sir?" George asked. "After all, he was involved in this."
"I suppose so," Baker said. He leaned back in his armchair. A reminiscent twinkle came into his kindly gimlet eyes. "Well, it happened in the cafe, just after Karinovsky realized how much trouble he was in. He was thinking furiously, trying to figure out where he had gone wrong, and why, and how, and who had trapped him so neatly. He thought for quite a while, and then he looked up with an expression of growing horror on his face. He said, 'Christ! That stupid military fellow on the train was in on it, wasn't he?' "
Baker had smiled and said, "Are you referring to our Mr. Nye?"
Karinovsky's shoulders had slumped. He said, "I should have guessed. Obviously, that idiot is in your employment."
"Not exactly," Baker said, in a sudden flash of inspiration. "You might more correctly say that we are in the employment of that idiot."
Karinovsky had gaped. "I do not believe you," he said. But it was obvious that he did.
Then Baker knew that he had created an interesting illusion in Karinovsky's mind. He had conjured up the image of a paragon of agents, of awesome intellectual powers and highly developed skills.
Always a pragmatist, Baker had accepted this unexpected windfall. He dealt in illusions, after all; it seemed to him that this one might prove useful if Karinovsky ever balked. Individuation, in the final analysis, was everything; accordingly, it was much more impressive to have the specter of Secret Agent Nye peering over Karinovsky's shoulder rather than some faceless organization. And, beyond this purely practical consideration, other possibilities glimmered like marsh fire: a shadow agent can undertake much more dangerous assignments than his fleshy counterparts. A specter is not susceptible to capture by normal methods.
Yes, there was work for Agent X—as Baker had already begun to think of him. Agent X utilized that law of human nature which makes con men the easiest victims of a con game. The law of autopredation, Baker decided to call it; the iron rule by which an inevitably merciful Nature turns the specialized strength of the predator into a fatal weakness, and thus betrays a vested interest in long-range averages.
So it seemed to Baker, flushed with the intoxication of success and believing, for the moment, that nothing was beyond his grasp. One word from him and phantom armies marched, and men of blood shuddered at their advance.
In a kindly voice he had said to Karinovsky, "Our Mr. Nye took you in, did he?"
"I used to consider myself a judge of men," Karinovsky said. "And I could have sworn that this man was a nothing—a nonentity—a thoroughly negligible person, and surely not a professional."
"Nye's always been good at giving that impression," Baker said. "It's one of his little specialties."
"If what you tell me is true," Karinovsky said, "then the man is a formidable operative. But of course, you planned out the details of this operation yourself?"
Baker thought about the long months of dull routine, the superb coordination of his team of agents, and his own brilliance in producing a scheme tailored for Karinovsky and none other. He wanted to tell Karinovsky about it. But he didn't. He sacrificed a moment of petty gloating in the interests of his new illusion.
Excerpted from The Game of X by Robert Sheckley. Copyright © 1965 Robert Sheckley. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.