Tactics of MistakeGordon R. Dickson
The Tactics of Mistake
Gordon R. Dickson
START SCIENCE FICTION
An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
THE TACTICS OF MISTAKE © 1971 by Gordon R. Dickson. © 1999 by Gordon R. Dickson.
First Start Science Fiction edition 2013.
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Trouble rather the tiger in his lair than the sage amongst his books. For to you Kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but toys of the moment, to be overturned by the flicking of a finger …
The young lieutenant-colonel was drunk, apparently, and determined to rush upon disaster.
He came limping into the spaceship’s dining lounge the first night out from Denver on the flight to Kultis, a row of bright service ribbons on the jacket of his green dress uniform, and looked about. He was a tall, lean officer, youthful to hold the rank he wore in the Expeditionary Forces of Earth’s Western Alliance; and at first glance his open-featured face looked cheerful to the point of harmlessness.
He gazed around the room for a few seconds, while the steward tried unsuccessfully to steer him off to a booth nearby, set for a single diner. Then, ignoring the steward, he turned and headed directly for the table of Dow deCastries.
The white-faced, waspish little man called Pater Ten, who was always at deCastries’ elbow, slipped away from his chair as the officer approached, and went toward the steward, still staring blank-faced with dismay after the lieutenant-colonel. As Pater Ten approached, the steward frowned and bent forward to talk. The two of them spoke for a moment in low voices, glancing back at the lieutenant-colonel, and then went quickly out of the lounge together.
The lieutenant-colonel reached the table, pulled up an empty float seat from the adjoining table without waiting for an invitation and seated himself across from the tawny-haired, beautiful young girl at deCastries left.
“Privilege of first night out, they tell me,” he said pleasantly to all of them at the table. “We sit where we like at dinner and meet our fellow passengers. How do you do?”
For a second no one spoke. DeCastries only smiled, the thin edge of a smile that barely curved the lips in his handsome face, framed by the touches of gray in the black hair at his temples. For five years, now, Secretary of Outworlds Affairs for Earth’s Coalition of Eastern Nations, he was known for success with women; and his dark eyes had concentrated on the tawny-haired girl ever since he had invited her—with her mercenary soldier father and the Exotic Outbond who made up the third in their party—to join his table, earlier. There was no obvious threat in that smile of his; but reflexively at the sight of it, the girl frowned slightly and put a hand on the arm of her father, who had leaned forward to speak.
“Colonel…“ The mercenary wore the pocket patch of an officer from the Dorsai World, under contract to the Bakhallan Exotics, and he was a full colonel. His darkly tanned face with its stiffly waxed mustache might have looked ridiculous if it had not been as expressionlessly hard as the butt-plate of a cone rifle. He broke off, feeling the hand on his sleeve, and turned to look at his daughter; but her attention was all on the interloper.
“Colonel,” she said to him in her turn—and her young voice sounded annoyed and concerned at once, after the flat, clipped tones of her father, “don’t you think you ought to lie down for a while?”
“No,” said the lieutenant-colonel, looking at her. She caught her breath, finding herself seized, suddenly like a bird on the hand of a giant, by the strange and powerful attention of his gray eyes—entirely at odds with the harmless appearance he had given on entering the room. Those eyes held her momentarily helpless, so that without warning she was conscious of being at the exact focus of his vision, naked under the spotlight of his judgment. ”…I don’t,” she heard him say.
She sat back, shrugging her tanned shoulders above her green dinner gown, and managed to pull her gaze from its direct link with his. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him look about the table, from the blue-robed Exotic at its far end, back past her father and herself to the dark, faintly smiling deCastries.
“I know you, of course, Mr. Secretary,” he went on to deCastries. “In fact, I picked this particular flight to Kultis just so I could meet you. I’m Cletus Grahame—head of the Tactics Department at the Western Alliance Military Academy until last month. Then I put in for transfer to Kultis—to Bakhalla, on Kultis.”
He looked over at the Exotic. “The purser tells me you’re Mondar, Outbound from Kultis to the Enclave in St. Louis,” he said. “Bakhalla’s your home town, then.”
“The capital of Bakhalla Colony,” said the Exotic, “not just a town, nowdays, Colonel. You know, I’m sure we’re all pleased to meet you, Cletus. But do you think it’s good judgment for an officer in the armed forces of the Alliance to try to mix with Coalition people?”
“Why not—on shipboard?” said Cletus Grahame, smiling unconcernedly at him. “You’re mixing with the secretary, and it’s the Coalition who’s supplying Neuland with arms and material. Besides, as I say, it’s the first night out.”
Mondar shook his head. “Bakhalla and the Coalition aren’t at war,” he said. “The fact the Coalition’s given some aid to Neuland Colony is beside the point.”
“The Alliance and the Coalition aren’t at war,” said Cletus, “and the fact that they’re backing different sides in the brush war between you and Neuland’s beside the point.”
“It’s hardly beside the point—” began Mondar. But then he was interrupted.
There was a sudden hush in the buzz of conversation about the lounge. While they had been talking, the steward and Pater Ten had returned, behind an impressively large, uniformed man wearing the stripes of a spaceliner’s first officer, who now reached the table and dropped a big hand heavily on Cletus’s shoulder.
“Colonel,” said the shipman, loudly, “this is a Swiss ship of neutral registry. We carry Alliance and Coalition people, both, but we don’t like political incidents on shipboard. This table belongs to the Coalition Secretary of Outworlds Affairs, Dow deCastries. Your place is back there across the room…“
But from the first word, Cletus paid him no attention. Instead, he looked back to the girl—at her alone—and smiled and raised his eyebrows as if leaving it up to her. He made no move to rise from the table.
The girl glared back at him but still he did not move. For a long second her glare held; then it wavered and broke. She turned to deCastries.
“Dow…" she sa
id, interrupting the ship’s officer, who had begun to repeat his words.
DeCastries’ thin smile widened slightly. He, too, raised his eyebrows, but with a different expression than Cletus. He let her gaze appealingly at him for a long second before he turned to the shipman.
“It’s all right,” he said, his deep, musical voice stilling the voice of the other, instantly. “The colonel’s just making use of his first-night privileges to sit where he wants.”
The shipman’s face reddened. His hand dropped slowly from Cletus’s shoulder. Suddenly his size made him seem no longer large and impressive, but clumsy and conspicuous.
“Yes, Mr. Secretary,” he said stiffly, “I see. Sorry to have bothered you all…“
He darted a glance of pure hatred at Pater Ten, which affected the little man no more than the shadow of a rain cloud affects the glowing radiance of a white-hot iron ingot; and, carefully avoiding the eyes of the other passengers, he turned and walked from the lounge. The steward had already evaporated, at deCastries’ first words. Pater Ten slid into the seat he had vacated earlier, scowling at Cletus.
“About the Exotic Enclave at St. Louis,” Cletus said to Mondar—he did not seem to be disturbed by what had just happened—“they’ve been very good about lending me library materials for research.”
“Oh?” Mondar’s face was politely interested. “You’re a writer, Colonel?”
“A scholar,” said Cletus. His gray eyes fastened now on the Exotic. “I’m writing volume four right now, of a twenty-volume work I started three years ago—on tactics and strategical considerations. But never mind that now. May I meet the rest of the people here?”
Mondar nodded. “I’m Mondar, as you say.”
“Colonel Eachan Khan,” he said, turning to the Dorsai at his right, “may I introduce Lieutenant-Colonel Cletus Grahame of the Alliance forces?”
“Honored, Colonel,” said Eachan Khan, in a clipped, old-fashioned British accent.
“Honored to meet you, sir,” said Cletus.
“And Colonel Khan’s daughter, Melissa Khan,” went on Mondar.
“Hello.” Cletus smiled again at her.
“How do you do?” she said, coldly.
“Our host, Secretary Dow deCastries, you’ve already recognized,” Mondar said. “Mr. Secretary—Colonel Cletus Grahame.”
“I’m afraid it’s a little late to invite you to dinner, Colonel,” said deCastries deeply. “The rest of us have eaten.” He beckoned the steward. “We can offer you some wine.”
“And, finally, the gentleman on the secretary’s right,” said Mondar. “Mr. Pater Ten. Mr. Ten’s got an eidetic memory, Colonel. You’ll find he’s got an encyclopedic fund of knowledge on just about everything.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Ten,” said Cletus. “Maybe I ought to arrange to borrow you, instead of library materials, for my next research.”
“Don’t bother!” said Pater Ten, unexpectedly. He had a creaky, high-pitched, but surprisingly carrying, voice. “I looked at your first three volumes—wild theories, backed up by warmed-over military history. They must’ve been going to kick you out of the Academy if you hadn’t requested a transfer first. Anyway, you’re out. Now, who’ll read you? You’ll never finish a fourth book.”
“I told you,” said Mondar in the conversational pause that followed this small verbal explosion. Cletus was gazing at the small man with a faint smile not unlike that of deCastries, earlier. “Mr. Ten has an encyclopedic fund of knowledge.”
“I see what you mean,” said Cletus. “But knowledge and conclusions are two different things. That’s why I’ll be finishing all sixteen of the other volumes in spite of Mr. Ten’s doubts. In fact that’s why I’m headed for Kultis, now, to make sure I get them written.”
“That’s right—haul victory out of defeat there,” creaked Pater Ten. “Win the war at Bakhalla in six weeks and become an Alliance hero.”
“Yes, not such a bad idea,” said Cletus, as the lounge steward deftly slid a clean wineglass in front of him and filled it from the bottle of canary-yellow liquid on the table. “Only it isn’t either the Alliance or the Coalition that’s going to win in the long run.”
“That’s a strong statement, Colonel,” said deCastries. “Also, a little close to treason, isn’t it? That part about the Alliance, spoken by an Alliance officer?”
“You think so?” Cletus said, and smiled. “Is someone here thinking of reporting me?”
“Possibly.” There was abruptly a note of something chilling in deCastries’ deep voice. “Meanwhile, it’s interesting to hear you talk. What makes you think it won’t be either the Alliance or the Coalition that’ll end up having the strongest voice among the colonies on Kultis?”
“The laws of historical development,” said Cletus, “are working to that end.”
“Laws,” said Melissa Khan, angrily. The tension she had been feeling beneath the calm talk had become too much to bear. “Why does everybody think”—she glanced a moment, almost bitterly at her father—“that there’s some impractical set of principles or theories or codes that everybody ought to live by? It’s practical people who make things happen! You have to be practical, nowdays, or you might as well be dead.”
“Melissa,” said deCastries, smiling at her, “honors the practical man. I’m afraid I have to agree with her. Practical experience works.”
“As opposed to theories, Colonel,” flung in Pater Ten, gibingly, “as opposed to bookish theories. Wait’ll you get out among practical field officers in the Neuland-Bakhalla jungle in a practical fire-fight, and discover what war’s really like! Wait’ll you hear your first energy weapon sending its sizzle overhead, and you’ll find out—”
“He’s wearing the Alliance Medal of Honor, Mr. Ten.”
The sudden, flat, clipped tones of Eachan Khan chopped across the small man’s tirade like an ax. In the new silence Eachan pointed a steady, brown forefinger at the red, white and gold bar at the far right of the row of ribbons decorating Cletus’s jacket.
The silence continued a moment at the table.
“Colonel,” said Eachan, “what’s the trouble with your leg?”
Cletus grinned wryly. “It’s part prosthetic about the knee, now,” he said. “Perfectly comfortable, but you can notice it when I walk.” He looked back at Pater Ten. “Actually, Mr. Ten’s pretty close to being right about my practical military experience. I only had three months of active duty after being commissioned, during the last Alliance—Coalition brush war on Earth seven years ago.”
“But you ended up those three months with the Medal of Honor,” said Melissa. The expression with which she had watched him before had now changed completely. She swung about to Pater Ten. “I suppose that’s one of the few things you don’t know anything about, though?”
Pater Ten stared hatingly back at her.
“Do you, Pater?” murmured deCastries.
“There was a Lieutenant Grahame decorated seven years ago by the Alliance,” spat out Pater Ten. “His division had made an attack drop and landing on a Pacific island held by our garrisons. The division was routed and cut up, but Lieutenant Grahame managed to put together a guerrilla force that was successful in bottling our people up in their strong fortified areas until Alliance reinforcements came a month later. He ran into a traveling mine the day before he would have been relieved. They stuck him in their Academy because he couldn’t qualify physically for field duty after that.”
There was another, but shorter, moment of silence at the table.
“So,” said deCastries, in an oddly thoughtful tone, turning in his fingers the half-filled wineglass on the tablecloth before him, “it seems the scholar was a hero, Colonel.”
“No, Lord no,” said Cletus. “The lieutenant was a rash soldier, that’s all. If I’d understood things then as well as I do now, I’d never have run into that mine.”
“But here you are—headed back to where the fighting is!” said Melissa.
bsp; “That’s true,” said Cletus, “but as I said, I’m a wiser man now. I don’t want any more medals.”
“What do you want, Cletus?” asked Mondar, from the end of the table. The Outbond had been watching Cletus with an un-Exotic-like intensity for some few minutes now.
“He wants to write sixteen more volumes,” sneered Pater Ten.
“As a matter of fact, Mr. Ten’s right,” said Cletus quietly to Mondar. “What I really want to do is finish my work on tactics. Only I’ve found out first I’m going to have to create the conditions they’ll apply to.”
“Win the war on Neuland in sixty days!” said Pater Ten. “Just as I said.”
“Less time than that, I think,” said Cletus, and he gazed calmly about at the sudden changes of expression on the faces of all but Mondar and Pater Ten.
“You must believe in yourself as a military expert, Colonel,” said deCastries. Like Mondar’s, his gaze upon Cletus had grown interested.
“But I’m not an expert,” said Cletus. “I’m a scholar. There’s a difference. An expert’s a man who knows a great deal about his subject. A scholar’s someone who knows all there is that’s available to be known about it.”
“It’s still only theories,” said Melissa. She looked at him puzzledly.
“Yes,” he said to her, “but the effective theorist’s got an advantage over the practician.”
She shook her head, but said nothing—sinking back against the cushion of her seat, gazing at him with her lower Up caught between her teeth.
“I’m afraid I’d have to agree with Melissa again,” said deCastries. For a moment his gaze was hooded, as if he looked inward rather than outward at them all. “I’ve seen too many men with nothing but theory get trampled on when they ventured out into the real world.”
“Men are real,” said Cletus. “So are weapons… But strategies? Political consequences? They’re no more real than theories. And a sound theorist, used to dealing with unreal things, is a better manipulator of them than the man used to dealing only with the real tools that are actually only end products… Do you know anything about fencing?”