This story is based on characters owned by Marvel Comics.
Just a Friendly Game of Chess
Part One of Three
New York City,
A future time…
It was a perfect vision of a spring day. The sky was blue and clear, the grass was emerald green, and the trees were in bud. All around, the sounds of life filled the air. Central Park was an oasis in the heart of the great city, and for generations New Yorkers have made pilgrimage here in the months of April and May, taking solace in winter's final ebb. It was the ancient renewal of life, old as humankind itself. The festive atmosphere was apparent on the faces of everyone there…except for a solitary figure making his way down the brick lined path.
Steve Rogers felt almost like a ghost as he passed through the crowd. He had known so many springtime's in his long life…the thought came to him that he was a thief, somehow, that he was taking more than his appointed share of days, but he quickly dismissed the idea. Such thoughts only led to self-pity, a thing he had no stomach for.
Straightening his shoulders, he continued on his way. He was lean and fit, his broad physique belying his age. His clothing was casual; beige pants, a crisp white button down shirt, and a tan jacket. A quiet purpose animated his pace. He had an appointment to keep, one he could not afford to delay.
As Steve rounded the bend, a young boy ran headlong into him. The child fell backwards, losing his grip on the balloons in his left hand, and the ice-cream cone in his right. Steve quickly reached out, catching the cone, then snagging the string before the colorful raft of balloons could float away. The boy's eyes were wide with astonishment.
"Wow! That was fast!"
Steve smiled, helping the boy to his feet. A woman ran towards them.
"Danny! I've told you about running around like that," the woman said, bending to dust the seat of the boy's trousers. She looked up at Steve, an apologetic smile creasing her face. "I'm sorry. I hope my son didn't hurt you?"
"Not at all." Steve handed the treasures back to the delighted boy. "Here you go, Danny."
"Thanks, mister. Gosh, you sure can move fast for an old man."
"Danny! That was very rude! You apologize right this instant."
Steve laughed. "That's all right, ma'am. I wouldn't want Danny to get into trouble for telling the truth. I am pretty old..."
Steve ran a hand through his short grey hair, demonstrating the truth of Danny's words. His face broke into an agreeable pattern of wrinkles. His eyes were clear and blue, indicating a mind that was still sharp. The woman asked again if he was certain he was all right, and Steve nodded, saying that he was. He watched as mother and son walked away, hand in hand. It was a heart-warming sight, and for a moment, it almost made him forget why he had come here today.
And then, an old, familiar voice spoke, reminding him.
"Ah, Steven, still playing the hero I see, even in your dotage. You just can't help yourself, can you, my old friend?"
The skin on the back of Steve's neck prickled at the sound of that voice. It was ancient, but strong, a small rasp to it like stone being dragged across cold iron. There was a lilt to the voice, almost charming in its theatricality, revealing a hint of culture, a remnant of Old Bavaria. Steve turned and spotted the owner of that voice, a man he was long familiar with, sitting at a small table in a shaded grove of maple and birch trees. It was a picturesque setting…but in its center, laid a heart of darkness.
Steve walked over and nodded at his old acquaintance.
"Steven. Sit, please." John spread his gloved hands over the chessboard. "I've taken the liberty of setting up the board. I do so love these games of ours."
Steve took his seat, looking the board over intently.
"Okay…what color do you want?"
"Ha! I see your humor is in good form. Let us not tamper with a winning formula, shall we? I will take Black, old friend."
Steve narrowed his eyes. "Since there's no red or blue, I guess I'll take white."
John smiled at that. His smile was a rictus. He looked older than time itself. Something about him was off, somehow. His baldness and sunken cheeks gave a skeletal appearance, highlighted by an incorrectness of his skin. Passersby sensed something wrong the very moment they entered the space around him. They shuddered, as if encountering a pocket of cold air, a remnant of winter's icy grip. Those who noticed him hurried past, with eyes averted. Those who met his gaze felt their blood go cold, although they could not say why. 'After all' they thought, 'he's just an old man, there's nothing to be afraid of'. Yet they were afraid. That night they dreamt of an ancient, hideous face, pealing back to reveal a skull, stained blood red.
John broke the long silence.
"The first move is yours, Steven."
Steve made his opening move. John appeared unimpressed, sniffing haughtily.
"Pawn to d4? I see you are feeling cautious today."
"There's a time to be careful," Steve said.
"And a time to be bold." A chill smile formed on John's face as he moved his hand to the board. "But, I should like to keep this a friendly game, for the time being. It is entirely too pleasant a day for mayhem. Pawn to d5."
Steve sighed. "Is it really necessary to call moves? I thought this was a friendly game."
"As you wish."
Steve made his next move, and John followed. After Steve's third move, his opponent sat quietly for a time, studying the board.
"If you are employing the Queens Gambit, you are going about it in a curious fashion." Getting no reply from his challenger, John made his counter move, and then looked up, quickly. "Ah, but where are my manners? I have not yet wished you a happy birthday."
"We've been through this before. Today is not my birthday."
John waved his hand, dismissively. "Nonsense. The day in which some inconsequential woman squeezed you from her cunt is irrelevant. This is day of your true birth. You were born in a laboratory, and your true parent was Erskine."
Steve put his elbows on the small wrought-iron table, clasping his fingers together. The expression on his face was steady as he spoke, but his knuckles flushed white with the effort of restraint.
"If you want this day to remain pleasant, I suggest you don't mention my mother again. Ever."
"My apologies," Johns said, with mock solemnity. "I meant no disrespect. I am sure that she was a wonderful woman...who baked you apple pies and tucked you to sleep every night, with kisses of perfect tenderness. As for my own mother, she was a drunken whore. My father was a brute, and he beat her mercilessly. Although she was a whore, I loved my mother and would try to protect her. Then he would beat me. It was scandalous! No doubt, my father would have been tried and convicted for his crimes…had not his father been Burgermeister of our small village. On my sixteenth birthday, I killed him and left for Berlin. My mother gave me a thousand Marks to help me on my way, money she no doubt earned through hard labor, on her back, with her knees spread wide..."
An obscene laugh escaped from John's lips. "So you see, I too have a high regard for the station of motherhood."
Steve moved his knight into play His expression was cold as he spoke. "People have it tough all over, Schmidt."
"Smith, please. I prefer my American name, Steven."
"A rose by any other name?"
John laughed. Steve went on.
"My point, John, is that a lot of people had it rough. Is that supposed to be an excuse for the way you turned out?"
"Whatever on earth makes you think I wish to excuse how I turned out?"
"Commonness and decency, two things for which I have no concern." He moved his Bishop. "I am utterly uncommon, Steven, as are all men of greatness. You yourself are uncommon—much though you pretend otherwise. I make no 'excuses', and why should I? I rose to the pinnacle of power in my first incarnation."
"And you were defeated."
"And I rose again. As did you. We are phoenixes, you and I."
"Speak for yourself. I'm perfectly happy being human," Steve said, advancing his second knight. The move caught Johns interest.
"Hmm…you are leaving a gap in your center. Are you trying to coax my Queen in to play?"
"There's one way to find out."
"Ah, Steven, what a gamesman you are! In all these past years that we have met to play, it is obvious to me that you have never studied the game. You play on instinct alone. Yet still, you are formidable. I suspect, had you put your mind to it, that you could have achieved the rank of Grandmaster."
"Like you, you mean?"
John was genuinely surprised. "You know about that? About my other identity?"
"You have several, or you did have, when you were younger. And yes, I know."
"That pleases me. I suppose it sounds egotistical, but I am quite proud of my achievements. My win over Askarov in the '29 championship was my proudest victory. Other than besting you, of course."
"It's only a game, Smith. I've known chess masters who couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time."
John erupted into laughter, clapping his gloved hands together. The sound was like bones clinking against velvet. "How very true! And we have both known heads of state that could do no better. I know at least two of them who sat in the Oval Office."
"I once knew one who presided in Germany."
"Again, very true."
"Steven, you wound me. Do you suppose that I still carry water for the Fuhrer? No, my friend, he was an imbecile of the first rank…and, yes, a savant, with flashes of brilliance. But mostly an imbecile." John sighed, pensively. "If Hitler had possessed a trifle less genius and a touch more competence, we would have won the war. We almost did, anyway."
John fell silent for a moment. "Oh, this is embarrassing…I have quite forgotten what we were talking about."
"Chess. And your views on military brilliance."
"Quite so. Forgive an old man, whose mind wanders. I am certain that you can relate?" John grinned wickedly at Steve. "Yes, mastery of chess require a particular brilliance—a strategic and tactical insight that sets one apart."
"If you say so."
"I do. I wonder if you knew that I often used to play against Rommel?"
Steve shook his head 'no'.
"Ah. It is nice that I can still surprise you. Yes, the General and I played on several occasions. Like you, he was also unschooled, relying on his military brilliance to carry him through. He was a tough match. I always fancied the idea of playing Churchill. He was a cunning old pig. I imagine he would have been good."
"Churchill was out of your league, in every possible way. It's your move, John."
John quieted, studying the board. Twice, he went to move his Queen. Twice he held back, searching his opponent's eyes. There were no clues revealed there, so he finally decided on advancing a pawn. After, he reached into the pocket of his overcoat (heavy black suede, despite the warm day), and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He went to light one, but paused, and turned to Steve.
"I'm sorry, do you mind?"
"By all means, smoke the whole pack."
John chortled as he lit the cigarette. "Yes, they are bad for me, I know. But at our age, one can throw caution to the wind, no?"
"Come Steven, be reasonable, and loosen up! After all, you are one hundred and fifty-five years old. You should live a little. Hmm…but then again, are you only ninety-five? It gets confusing, with all those years you spent on ice. How old do you say that you are?"
Steve voice grew distant as he answered, his voice colored by a long buried pain. "Ninety-five seems most accurate. I didn't really age in cryo-freeze."
"There are some who say that we have hardly aged at all. On the surface, yes, but inside, we are healthier than most men of thirty. The serum in our veins works wonders, does it not?" John took a puff on his cigarette, and coughed a little. Steve smiled.
"Keep smoking those and hopefully things will turn around."
"Oh, I will. Unlike you, I have faith in Erskine's concoction. I plan to see the next century. Longer, if I can arrange it."
John tapped his ashes off to the side, and then brought the cigarette up. He paused, examining it in thought. "What was it you GI's used to call them?" After a moment, his face brightened in glee. "Yes, yes, I have it. Coffin nails!"
John roared, laughing long and loud. The sound seemed to come from some deep cavern inside of him, echoing. He laughed until the momentum of it petered out. "How wonderfully gauche you Americans were. Are. You invent the very best slang in the world. It is your chief contribution to world culture."
"Don't forget the hula-hoop."
"You jest, John said, taking a deep draw on his cigarette. "I do not. Slang is far and away America's crowning achievement. It is the thing for which history will remember you. Along with the music you stole from your slaves. Yes, slang, jazz, and rock-n-roll. Can you 'dig it', man?"
It was Steve's turn to laugh, the sound a bitter indictment. "And yet you choose to live here."
"But of course. America is Rome. The power is here. When it ceases to be, I will move on."
"Your hubris might actually be amusing if it weren't so pathetic. America won't stay on top forever, no nation does. But she'll be running just fine long after you've gone to dust, Johann. Forgive me, John."
"I forgive you, Steven. I forgive you for all but your lack of vision. That I cannot forgive, for you should know better..." John's voice grew low with menace. "I will never die."
"Doctors call that a God Complex. Are you God now?"
"Why not? Someone has to do it."
"Somehow I just can't picture you in heaven."
"All right, hell, then!" Johh seemed to expand as he ranted, his words radiating power. "Read your Milton, Steven. It is better to rule in Hell, than to serve in Heaven. I shall topple Satan from his throne, and rename his kingdom Valhalla! My vision will see me to it. My will-to-power will carry me aloft. And mankind will bow its collective knee to my radiance."
The two of them sat, regarding one another in silence. Slowly, an impish grin curled itself around Johann Schmidt's lips.
"Well, after all...a man must have his dreams."
Silence descended. The world seemed to take little note of the two old men; birds sang, children played, people ambled. Seconds ticked into minutes. Finally, John broke the tableau.
"I grow thirsty. Would you object to calling time that we may seek refreshment? I should think our board will be safe until we return."
"I could do with a little something."
John rose, taking a slender, black walking stick he had leaned against the table. He smoothed a slight crease in his trousers. "Savile Row," he said. He paused, gazing at Steve's attire. "J.C. Penney?"
"Macy's, if you must know. They have a nice selection and the senior discount is excellent."
John smiled and motioned out towards the brick path. "I might suggest age before beauty, but where would that get us? After you, Steven."
With Steve Rogers taking the lead, the two old acquaintances walked out into the thronging crowd of Central Park, leaving behind for the moment, their chessboard. The game, however, continued…the stakes of which no one there that day could dare imagine…