Original Fiction: Chess or Checkers?


“So you won’t speak to me on the record¬†about the upcoming operations in the region?” asked James Franklin.

Franklin ran his hand through what remained of his pepper hair as the General sneezed and shook his head. Franklin’s face made the face he’d make as a child when his parents wouldn’t buy him a toy.

He had expected this, no one ever answered his questions on the first go. It always took a bunch of poking and prodding before anyone would ever divulge anything good. For some reason people didn’t feel comfortable opening up to him, this made being a reporter hard.

Perhaps it had something to do with the way he looked, Franklin would think every morning when he stared at himself in the mirror. His face was thin, his cheek bones were almost protruding, and he was never able to keep his eyes on a single thing for very long. “You look like a rat,” was what his last girlfriend had said to him when he had asked why she broke his heart. Maybe it was why he only worked in print.

“Maybe if I didn’t use your name? You could be a high level anonymous source,” Franklin said.

The General brought one of his large, scarred hands to his mouth and bit on its knuckle. Hard. His eyes didn’t register the pain, they didn’t register much of anything. His pale grey eyes looked right through Franklin. They looked past him, through the walls, over the ocean, over a mountain range or two, to the battlefield he was preparing to fight on.

“I could stop in a few other offices on my way out, that way they wouldn’t know it was you,” said Franklin.

The General’s eyes finally focused on him. Franklin was reminded of a Grizzly he had seen when he covered the fires up in Yellowstone last year. It had given him the exact same look. The General removed the knuckle from his mouth, Franklin could see the teeth marks.

“One question, you can follow up, but only on that one topic,” the General said.

Franklin took a breath he hadn’t realize he had been holding. It was more than he had expected to get. He had expected to get shown the door, at the very least. He opened the voice recording app on his phone.

“OK then,” he said, “what will the upcoming operations consist of?”

Franklin couldn’t help but smile. With a question like that he was sure to be able to ask any follow up he wanted.

The General’s face didn’t register Franklin’s cleverness, he was entirely unimpressed.

“You can’t run with this for three hours, which is when the operation will be complete.”

Franklin’s finger tapped on the General’s mahogany desk, it made a light smacking sound as it stuck to the table slightly with each tap.

“We will performing a series of drone strikes on high level terrorist commanders. Three in all. One in the North and two in the East,” the General said.

Franklin’s eyes shifted from his phone to the general and back again.

“Will there be any civilians in the area?” he asked.

“The two in the East are on the outskirts of town and the one in the North is on the top floor of an apartment building. He is the only resident of the building,” said the General.

“So there will be no civilian casualties?”

The General knotted his fingers, his hands now resembled a single solid mass.

“Despite our best efforts, we can make no such promises,” said the General.

“But with all the technological advances that have been made,” said Franklin.

It was leading, he knew, but he had to try it. If there was one thing he hated, it was a non-committal answer.

“Let me put it to you this way,” said the General, “this is like a chessboard where we can’t really see what our opponent is doing. We get a glimpse every now and again, and we have people telling us the moves that are being made, but we still can’t see their pieces.”

Franklin looked at the picture of a younger General on his desk, back from when he was in Vietnam. When he was young and hadn’t yet shaved his head. His eyes were a lot brighter back then.

“Fair enough, but you acknowledge that there could be collateral damage? I mean, no plan ever goes off without a hitch,” said Franklin.

“We try to iron those out in the planning stages, but yes there could be collateral damage,” said the General.

The General picked up the picture from his Vietnam days, back when he was wide eyed and idealistic. “There will always be collateral damage, that’s how war is. It’s dirty and bloody and it hurts everyone involved,” he said. The fingers of his left hand traced over one of the many scars on the other.

“Those scars, are they from your time as an infantryman?” Franklin asked.

The scars wrapped around his hands, there was no part of them that wasn’t scarred.

“We had bombed a town three miles East of my position. When we got there everything was on fire. I got these pulling a boy from a burning hut. As a result I no longer have fingerprints. It’s all in the public record,” he said.

“What happened to the boy?” asked Franklin.

He couldn’t help himself, the question had just come out. The General looked at him, his eyes in the distant past.

“A month later we were on patrol and we got ambushed. We killed them all, they were new recruits. The kid was one of them. I’ll never forget the way his dead eyes stared at me. He must have wanted revenge for his family, he never got it,” said the General.

“Do you think the same thing could happen here?” Franklin asked.

The General bit his knuckle and stared into Franklin’s eyes. For the first time in the interview Franklin’s eyes held his gaze. The knuckle dropped from the General’s mouth and rested on his chin. The fingers on his other hand strummed on the table a single time.

“That’s part of why we’re trying to keep collateral casualties down. We don’t want to kill three terrorists only to have them replaced by ten, or even twenty, more,” the General said.

Franklin took a breath and leaned back in his chair. His eyes moved to his phone for an instant, it was still recording. He sat still, his fingers didn’t tap on the desk, his eyes didn’t wander, even his foot stopped tapping against the floor.

“That doesn’t really sound like a game of chess to me,” he said.

“That was meant as a metaphor,” said the General.

“I know, I meant that it sounds more like a game of checkers,” Franklin said.

The General leaned back and ran a scarred hand over his bald head. He sat there in silence for a few moments, his hand rested atop his head.

“I always hated checkers,” the General said.

Franklin smiled and reached for his phone.

“Don’t we all,” said Franklin

John Zurz

John Zurz

John Zurz

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