𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘪𝘮 𝘑𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘺𝘴
Once a week Doctor Bryan Young taught mathematics to some of his fellow inmates in Highstoke prison. Because of this he was allowed a single luxury. Once a month, guards escorted him to a visiting room where, for one hour, he played a game of chess with his son, Nicholas.
Nicholas had been a boy of nine when Bryan was first incarcerated, a bewildered boy who missed his dad and drew a simple pleasure from spending time with him. But ten years had passed, and sitting opposite Bryan in the visiting room these days was a near grown man with a face full of incomprehension and query.
After the guards departed, Bryan hugged his son. He knew at once, from the way Nicholas’s gaze searched his face, that this was the day. Questions were coming. What he didn’t know was how he was going to answer those questions in a satisfactory way.
The board had already been laid out on the table. It was left to Bryan, who had an eidetic memory, to set out the pieces in the correct positions from where the game had left off the previous month. It was not too difficult as only seven pieces remained in play.
“How’s your mother? And little Gracie. How’s she?”
“Not so little anymore, Dad. She’s seventeen.”
“I’d really love to see her. I miss her so much.”
“I can talk to her again, if you like.”
Nicholas watched in silence as Bryan placed the remaining pieces on their squares. Then it came:
“Dad, what are we doing?”
“What do you mean?” Bryan said without looking up.
“I know you’re a million times better at chess than I am, so why don’t you just checkmate my king and we can be done with this. Start a new game, if you like. Or play something else. Or just talk.”
“A new game? Why’re you in such a rush to have this game over and done with?”
Nicholas leant forward across the table. “Dad, we’ve been playing this one game of chess for ten years. I’d hardly call that a rush. You don’t have to worry about beating me. Honestly. I know you’re better. Cleverer. Way, way cleverer.”
“That may be true,” Bryan said. “But perhaps it’s not you I’m worried about.” He lifted a knight from the board and held it in front of his son’s face. “Maybe it’s this guy. This one game is all he knows. This is his moment in the sun.”
Nicholas cocked his head. “You’re worried about the feelings of a chess piece?”
“Yes,” Bryan said. “What happens to him when the game ends? Huh?”
“Nothing. He goes back in his box.”
“Exactly. And do you think he wants that?” Bryan waved one hand over the board. “Do you think any of them want that?”
“No,” Nicholas said, staring at his father with knit brow. “But then again, they’re just bits of carved wood, aren’t they.”
Bryan laughed. “Just bits of carved wood to you, maybe.”
“It’s just a game, Dad.”
Bryan waved the knight in his hand. “He doesn’t know that. To him, it’s… everything.”
Looking up, and seeing the incomprehension on his son’s face, Bryan sighed. “Don’t worry, Nick, I haven’t lost my mind. It’s just my way of trying to make you understand, that’s all. To try and make you understand without me having to say it out loud.”
“Understand why I did what I did.”
“Well, I’m very sorry, but I don’t understand.”
After a short silence, Nicholas said: “Do you ever think about him? About Bennett?”
Bryan stroked his fingers through his beard. “Of course I do. I think about him all the time. Apart from being a brilliant physicist and an esteemed colleague, I was fortunate enough to count him as a very dear friend. Plus, he was the only person who could ever beat me at chess.”
Another silence. “Then you regret killing him?”
Bryan sighed again. He met his son’s eyes briefly. He shook his head. “No. No, I don’t regret it.”
Bryan glanced up. Nicholas had his lips pressed together to make a white line, keeping a lid on the anger Bryan knew was bubbling up inside him. “Mum said he was one of the nicest people she’d ever known. ‘A very gentle man,’ she said. She said she never heard him raise his voice to anyone. Not once.”
Bryan shifted his eyes downward. “That’s true. He was a good soul. Very softly spoken, always. Although he did raise his voice to me once. But it was in excitement, not anger. After our discovery.”
Bryan shook his head. “It’s your move, son.”
Becoming agitated, Nicholas half stood, knocking the table so that some of the chess pieces toppled. A rook rolled and fell to the floor. “But you murdered him. You caved his head in with a lithium battery.”
It was the first thing that came to hand, Bryan thought about saying. But stopped himself.
“I know that, son.”
“Then you set fire to the lab where you both worked and burned the university’s entire science block to the ground.”
“I know. I know. You don’t have to remind me.”
The blood had risen to Nicholas’ face. He gritted his teeth. “But what I want to know, Dad… what I really want to know is why.”
Bryan leaned to the side and picked up the lost rook from the floor. He set it back on the board then righted the other pieces.
“Do you want to know the secret to avoiding checkmate?”
Nicholas glared at him.
“Castling. Castle early and often, as some wag once put it. Bring your king out of the middle of the board and into safety, and get your rooks on the move.”
Silence from Nicholas.
“Of course you want to try and avoid sacrificing your bishop.”
“Your move.” Bryan looked up.
Nicholas’s mouth fell open. He blinked. “Then you won’t tell me?”
“Not won’t. Can’t.”
Nicholas leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. He turned his head to the side and stared hard at the wall before facing his father again. “Listen, I don’t want you to be that guy, Dad. That guy who murders his best friend in cold blood for no reason. I think there must have been something. Something that forced your hand — something that meant you had no choice.”
When Bryan remained silent, only looking back at him, Nicholas slammed one fist down on the table, making the chess pieces jump. “For God’s sake, I thought you wanted me to understand.”
“God?” Bryan said. He chuckled to himself. “Do you ever wonder if God’s just a kid rolling around in the dirt making mud pies?”
“Do you ever wonder what the point of it all is? What we’re really doing? Looking. Searching.”
Bryan jerked one hand towards the ceiling. “Trying to make sense of that great expanse of black up there. Outer space. Dust and rock and gas, and us, sentient beings dumped right in the middle of it all, forced to try and make sense of it. Compelled to try and see what’s beyond it. Trying to understand where we are and why we’re here? Imagine if there was a God, son. Or someone. Watching. Waiting. Waiting for us to finally see. To finally find that last piece of the puzzle. To make that final move. The big push. Checkmate.”
“To see what, Dad?” Nicholas said. Bryan’s outburst had subdued him. “See what?”
“That we are…” Bryan squeezed his eyes shut. In his mind’s eye he saw the face of his one time colleague and friend, Colton Bennett. Saw him rushing into the laboratory they shared at the university with a pile of computer printouts. Saw him waving the papers. Heard him saying, It all adds up. There’s no doubt, Bryan. There’s absolutely no doubt. This is what mankind had been striving for! To know this! To know that we’re just… this is one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made!
And Bryan, after looking at the papers, had thought only one thing. What now? Now that we know this, what now? What happens next? And he had thought about his son, and his wife, and his beautiful daughter who had just turned seven. And he had looked around the room, and his eyes had landed on the big heavy lithium battery, and without thinking he had reached for it.
This is what mankind had been striving for! To know this! To know that we’re just…
“Pawns in a game,” Bryan said, opening his eyes.
“What?” Nicholas said.
“Your move,” Bryan said.
“No,” Nicholas said, shaking his head. “I won’t play anymore. What’s the point?”
“The game is the point,” Bryan said. “What’s the alternative? Put the pieces back in their box and pack away the board?”
“Why not?” Nicholas said. “Who cares about a lot of bloody pieces in a game?”
“Me,” Bryan said, more firmly than he intended so that Nicholas drew back and stared at him. “I do. I care. You know, Nick, I held Colton Bennett in my arms when he died. I explained it all to him, why I’d done what I did. It was a split second decision, but I was sure it was the right one. More sure than I’ve ever felt about anything in my entire life. And I think he understood. At least, I hope he did. I knew I couldn’t trust him never to speak of it. We’d worked so hard, you see, for such a long time. There’s a few more moves left in this game, Nick. Let’s play.”
But Nicholas shook his head. “I think I should go,” he said, standing. ✦