Just a Friendly Game of Chess
In a quiet grassy section of Central Park, two old acquaintances sat across from one another. A chessboard sat between them, and a profound silence hung in the air. After a long pass of time, the silence was broken.
"I have yet to hear your answer, Steven. Will you accept my generous proposal to reunite you with the woman you love? I should think this would be your hearts desire."
Again, silence held. When Steve finally found his voice, it seemed to come from some faraway place. He spoke slowly, each word a revealing the wound that birthed it.
"My hearts desire…what would a twisted psyche like yours understand about the heart?"
"Enough to know that it is your greatest weakness. Perhaps your only weakness."
"Then you know nothing at all. Maybe, if you were a human being, you'd understand what it was to love a woman like Peggy Carter…and what it was to lose her. But you don't have the first idea, do you? I pity you."
"Save your pity. I too, once loved, when I was young and stupid. An imbalance of the hormones that I long ago dispensed with. Not so with you, for you still pine for your woman. The question remains; will you accept my offer?"
"To send me back in time? Do you really expect me to believe your lies?"
"It is no lie," John said, idly rolling a captured pawn back and forth across the table, using the tip of a bone-thin finger, the leather of his gloves creaking softly. "Perhaps you will recall a certain mad genius by the name of Victor Von Doom, the former ruler of Latveria?"
"Try again, John. Doom's been gone for thirty years—the nuclear strike that obliterated his stronghold took all of his weapons. SHIELD searched the wreckage, including his secret instillation in the Carpathian Mountains. His time machine was a myth, it didn't exist."
"You are wrong. Doom was a cunning adversary, brilliant and paranoid. Your people found the bases he wanted you to be aware of…I found the others. I recovered a prototype of his miraculous device, badly damaged. Eventually, my science division was able to make it functional again." John's eyes sparkled with mirth. "I only wish to share my good fortune with you. Say the word, and I will return you to your woman."
"Out of the goodness of your heart?"
John smiled, the depth of the grin threatening to split his face apart like dry parchment. "No, Steven. 'Goodness' is for cowards and weaklings."
"Okay, let's assume you really do have a time machine. Why not use it yourself? Take back a few nukes, some energy rifles, maybe a stealth fighter. You could finally live your dream of world conquest. Why not do that?"
"The answer is simple. I already have. By the way, your king is in check."
John moved his queen, pining Steve's king in a tight spot. Steve fell silent, searching for an out, and John smiled, clearly enjoying the moment. Steve ran through several stratagems, moving pieces to test his options. "Not that way," he cautioned Steve. "That would only lose you your Queen, and put off defeat momentarily. Ah, yes, that is better. You have gained yourself a reprieve, very good Steven. Now, where was I? Ah yes, time travel.
"I have made several trips to the past, each time laying claim to world domination. I have killed you five times now, my brother, which I must say was very satisfying. However, the physics of time travel is difficult to manage. First, when you alter the past, you create a separate reality, a new timeline. The world we know continues on, oblivious to any attempt to change it. The second problem is that time proves to be infuriatingly stubborn. Whatever change you attempt to impose, reality resists, always seeking to return to its previous track. It is possible to conquer the world, but difficult to hold. In the end, I learned what Doom had doubtless learned before me; changing the past is a fool's errand."
"So how could I manage it?"
"It is the big changes that are most dubious. Something as insignificant as a man returning to a woman would be simple enough. Oh, there are issues, I grant you. For one, there will be a substantial age difference between you and your English woman. She was what, twenty-five when you last saw her?"
"…She was twenty-six."
"Ah, a lovely age—she will still be young and beautiful when you return. You, unfortunately…well, I am certain I need not remind you of your age. In time, she will catch up to you, and as you know, you will hardly age at all as you wait." John's words began to drip with false sympathy, battery acid coated with honey. "Eventually the day will come when Margaret will die, which will be very sad…but you will know the exact date of her demise, which will certainly be convenient for making funeral arrangements. June 5th, 1999. That was just before your return, wasn't it, when your frozen body was found in the Artic?"
"You know that it was."
"Yes, I do."
Steve made his next move. John seemed hardly to notice, so great was his glee.
"I must say, it was terribly unfair that you could not say goodbye to Margaret, and see her one last time. But I can remedy that injustice, my brother."
"John, if you really were my brother, I'd go lay down on the nearest railroad track."
John laughed. "You are showing your age again, Steven. Railroads are all but gone…and computerized trains make such accidents all but impossible. Tell me, why does it disturb you to think of me as your brother? Cain and Able were brothers, why not you and I? The fact of our mutual hatred should not matter."
"It matters to me." Steve sat up straight, and his gaze bore down on John. "You're everything I stand against, Schmidt, everything I've dedicated my life to oppose. I despise your casual disregard of life. I despise your egotism. I despise your psychopathic talent for murder and destruction. And I despise how you just attempted to use the memory of Margaret Carter against me."
"And I despise you, Rogers. Your insipid belief in human nature, your emotional weakness, your refusal to accept the fact of your own greatness. Look at you, wearing the casual clothing of the average simpleton…but I know your true colors, even if you do not. We stand in a world of sheep, you the Shepard, me the Wolf. When I attack, you rise to oppose me, and what a warrior you are! Yet when the danger subsides, you try to melt into obscurity, playing the part of the sheep you save. How can I not despise such foolishness? Nevertheless, I respect you, for the greatness I see, even if you do not. And my offer to return you to 1945 yet stands, if you but ask. But this is my final offer."
"Good. I wouldn't accept a glass of water from you if I were dying of thirst. Did you really think I'd day yes?"
"So this was all some petty attempt to hurt me…"
Steve reached for his pocket watch, holding it for the first time in more than a century. He cradled it in his palm, gazing at the picture of Margaret Carter. Slowly, and with an effort he refused to let register on his face, he closed the watch, shutting away the image of the woman he once loved more than his own life. He looked up at John.
"Did you think you would break me with this?"
"Why, yes, I did. Have I not succeeded? Or perhaps I mistake that look of grief in your eyes?"
"You mistake. I wouldn't expect you to understand this, John, because first you'd have to have a soul, and yours is so burnt and withered I doubt it even registers as such. Peggy and I had five good years together, somehow managing to find our way to love in the hell and madness of war. Five years is more than a lot of people get in this life. Going back to see her wouldn't add to the happiness we shared, and not going won't detract from it, either. But I do want to thank you for returning my watch," Steve said, holding the timepiece up. "I got it from a little shop on Piccadilly Circus in '44. Thirty dollars was a lot of money back then. Thanks, John."
John glared at Steve, finding nothing to say. Steve slipped the watch into his jacket pocket, and returned his attention to the board. He made his next move, appearing to leave his king exposed. John quickly attacked with his queen, taking Steve's rook—and only then did he see the danger he had blundered into…a second too late. Steve smiled and made his next move.
"Knight takes queen."
A look of black rage spread over John's features. For a moment, it seemed as if his anger would spill out over his tightly held composure, but the moment quickly passed.
"Very good, Steven. I take some pride in your improvement. After twenty years of beating you, you are finally developing some real skill at the game. But the match is not over."
John moved his next piece and settled back into his chair. The sounds of the park, so boisterous earlier, had begun to lessen as the crowds thinned. The afternoon was growing late.
"I read with some interest last week that the President did not attend your annual security briefing," John casually offered. "That must have stung."
"The President was detained."
"Yes, meeting with a troop of Girl Scouts, wasn't it?"
"She received a full briefing on my concerns. The President is a busy woman."
"Oh, Steven, face facts. You are fading into irrelevancy. The young have always ignored the old; it is the way of things. The very day that you retired as Captain America was the same day that the world began to forget you. Oh, they honor the name of Captain America, the memory of him…just not the man. The Captain was a titan, a champion clad in armor and shield. You, however, are a graying old man. They humor you, and soon they will cease doing even that." John chuckled softly. "You do not help your cause, constantly beating the drum of warning, raving about a menace the world no longer sees."
"I have to hand it to you on that one, John. You fooled the whole world when you rolled over twenty years ago, betraying Hydra, turning on all your old allies. Handing over those Middle East terror rings was a masterstroke—even the Israelis signed off on giving you a clean slate."
"But you did not."
"I know you too well. There's an old saying, 'Satan's greatest trick was convincing the world that he didn't exist'. But I know you too well."
"It has been twenty years. Have I not kept my word? Have I made a single act of aggression?"
"What about your excursions to the past?"
Again, John laughed. "Oh, by all means, tell the world. There is likely a soapbox here in the park. That is where all the lonely old men go to spout their conspiracy theories, isn't it?"
"There are plenty of other things to indict you on. Hydra may be gone, but you still fund hundreds of right-wing paramilitary groups. Wherever there's someone willing to turn to violence to solve their problems, there you are, whispering poison in their ears, and funding their schemes. There's a sickness in cyberspace, a place where warped minds go. That's where the twisted cult of personality of the Red Skull lives."
"Yes, it's all as you say…but where is the proof? As far as the world is concerned, I am no more than a bogyman. Most people—even some in your own government—think me dead. You claim to revere freedom. What about the freedom of those who wish to hear my ideas? What I told you early was true; I have given up on military conquest. I called Hitler an imbecile earlier, and so he was, but he understood the nature of power, and how to achieve it. You are a student of history, Steven, surely you know how the Nazi's rose to power in Germany? After a failed coup attempt, Hitler stepped back…and let the people come to him. In time, they will come to me, and as you know, I have all the time in the world."
"So do I, John."
Steve Rogers stared hard into the grey-black eyes of Johann Schmidt. Schmidt held the stare, unblinking, as the seconds ticked on. After a time, Steve made his next move, and John followed suit, each man scoring on the other, the moves coming in rapid succession. The game entered its final phase. When the move was again his, John held for a long pass of time, studying his options. That was when a child came running up to the table, towing a string of balloons behind him. The boy stopped next to Steve, smiling broadly.
"Hi, mister. My mom told me to say thank you for saving my ice cream cone. Here, you can have one of my balloons."
Steve smiled, and took the offered balloon. "Why, thank you, Danny."
Steve looked over his shoulder, seeing Danny's mother standing on the path. He nodded at the woman. Danny looked across the table to where John sat, and then he leaned in, whispering into Steve's ear. Steve smiled.
"I think it would be all right, Danny. Why don't you ask him?"
Danny walked over to John. "Would you like a balloon?"
"What a friendly little chap you are. I would be delighted to take a balloon. That red one would be nice."
Danny's face scrunched up. "No…the red one is my favorite, but you can have this green one. I hope it makes you feel better. You look sad."
"Do I now? Well, perhaps you mistake sadness for concentration. I am trying to win the game."
"That's why I figure you were sad. You're going to lose in like, six moves. See? The white knight is going to put your king into checkmate."
The boy pointed to the chessboard, tracing lines through the grid, indicating an inevitable series of moves left to the remaining pieces. John's eyes glinted like black diamonds as he scrutinized the board, looking for a way out. He slowly looked up at Danny.
"What a clever boy you are. I see you have a gift for chess. That is a fine thing."
"Chess's okay. Well, so long mister. You too, mister."
Danny waved to both Steve and John, and ran off to join his mother. Steve turned his head slowly, grinning as he looked at John. John reached out, toppling his king in surrender.
"Congratulations, Steven. After twenty years trying, you've finally won a match. But don't put too much stock in it. As you said…it is only a game. I don't suppose I could interest you in a rematch? I promise, no more debate, no more sparing. Just a friendly game of chess."
Steve shook his head. "One game a year is more than enough."
Steve tied the string of his balloon to the chair, and stood to leave. As he did, John called out to him.
"Before you go, would you answer a question for me? Did I choose correctly with Margaret? There have been other women in your life that you have outlived; the SHIELD agent…that criminal whom you attempted to reform…the Gypsy girl from the Avengers…the Jew lawyer. Would I have been better served choosing one of them with which to attack your heart?"
Steve shook his head, weary of the game. "Still trying to get your whacks in. The boy was right, Schmidt. You are sad."
"I only ask out of intellectual curiosity. In any event, I believe I did wound you. Oh, not fatally, but I suspect, in the long nights to come, that you will remember this day. It is the little wounds that linger."
"For once, we agree. I've done a little digging of my own over the years. You've gone to great lengths to hide the facts of your early life, John, but I've managed to learn a few things. Your father was a brute, and he did beat you and your mother—he was notorious for it. He was also a chess master, one of the highest ranked players in Germany. Like father, like son.
"About your mother…I don't recall anything indicating her being a whore. She was well regarded in your village. She was a seamstress, a cook, a washerwoman, whatever she could find to keep the family afloat as your father sunk into alcoholism. After your father's mysterious death, your mother took up work in a convent, cooking for the nuns. She died in the firebombing of Dresden. I can't help wondering what Clara Schmidt's last thoughts were in this life..." Steve narrowed his eyes, piercing John with their intensity. "If I had to guess, I say she was praying for her son. What do you think, John?"
Stillness descended over the shady grove. John sat in silence, his eyes fixed on some faraway point, impossible to see. A gentle wind began to blow, catching the balloon he held. The string tugged free from his nerveless fingers, and the balloon rose into the air, disappearing from sight as it sailed over the tree line.
John stared at Steve, an incomprehensible look etched onto his features, a mix of emotions that might almost have been comical, were they not displayed on so hideous a canvas. He rose, and bowed to his opponent, stiffly, but with perfect form. When he spoke, his voice was thin and drawn, like wind through a graveyard.
"…A game well played, Steven." John wore an expression that might have been primal hatred, or the purest affection. Even he could not say which it was. "I will see you again next year?"
"I'll be here, John. For as long as it takes."
Steve buttoned his jacket, stuffed his hands into his pockets, and turned and walked away. The earlier warmth had given way to a crisp chill, in the fickle manner of early spring days. He walked up the brick lined path, which led out of Central Park and out to the city, bustling with life. He felt like the last person on earth, a solitude he had long ago learned to accept. He headed home, where he knew that ghosts awaited. Sleep would not come easily tonight for Steve Rogers…but old soldiers are accustomed to sleepless nights.
John Smith, formally Johann Schmidt, formally the terrible Red Skull, stayed behind. As the light of late afternoon waned into the purple-darkness of dusk, he remained at the table, where the chessboard sat in mute accusation. The wind picked up, scattering bits of trash left behind by the earlier crowds. Off where the trees grew heavy, a feral cat prowled, stalking some small prey. Schmidt did not appear to notice, he merely stared off into some unknown distance. What thoughts passed behind the obsidian curtain of his eyes, only poets and madmen might guess.