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Tactics of Mistake, Page 2

Gordon R. Dickson

  DeCastries shook his head.

  “I do,” said Eachan.

  “Then maybe you’ll recognize the tactic in fencing I use as an example for some I call the tactics of mistake. It’s in the volume I’m writing now.” Cletus turned to him. “The fencing tactic is to launch a series of attacks, each inviting ripostes, so that there’s a pattern of engages and disengages of your blade with your opponent’s. Your purpose, however, isn’t to strike home with any of these preliminary attacks, but to carry your opponent’s blade a little more out of line with each disengage so gradually he doesn’t notice you’re doing it. Then, following the final engage, when his blade has been drawn completely out of line, you thrust home against an essentially unguarded man.”

  “Take a damn good fencer,” said Eachan, flatly.

  “There’s that, of course,” said Cletus.

  “Yes,” said deCastries, slowly, and waited for Cletus to look back at him. “Also, it seems a tactic pretty well restricted to the fencing floor, where everything’s done according to set rules.”

  “Oh, but it can be applied to almost any situation,” said Cletus. There were coffee cups, as yet unfilled, spaced about the table. He reached out and captured three of these and lined them up, upside down between himself and deCastries. Then he reached into a bowl of sugar cubes standing on the table and brought his fist back to drop a cube onto the tablecloth by the central cup.

  He covered the sugar cube with the central cup and moved all the cups about, interchanging their positions rapidly. Then he stopped.

  “You’ve heard of the old shell game,” he said to deCastries. “Which one of those cups would you say the sugar cube’s under?”

  DeCastries looked at the cups but made no attempt to reach out to them. “None of them,” he said.

  “Just for purposes of illustration—will you pick one, anyway?” asked Cletus.

  DeCastries smiled. “Why not?” he said.

  He reached out and lifted the middle cup. His smile vanished for a second and then returned again. In plain view sat a sugar cube, white against white on the tablecloth.

  “At least,” said deCastries, “you’re an honest shell-game operator.”

  Cletus took up the middle cup, which deCastries had set down, and covered the sugar cube. Once again he rapidly switched around the positions of the overturned cups.

  “Try it again?” he asked deCastries.

  “If you want.” This time deCastries chose to lift the cup at the right end of the row as it faced him. Another sugar cube was exposed.

  “Once more?” said Cletus. Again he covered the cube and mixed the cups. DeCastries picked up the cup now in the center and put it down with some force when he saw the sugar cube he had exposed.

  “What’s this?” he said. His smile was definitely gone now. “What’s the point of all this?”

  “It seems you can’t lose, Mr. Secretary, when I control the game,” said Cletus.

  DeCastries looked penetratingly at him for a second, then covered the cube and sat back, glancing at Pater Ten.

  “You move the cups this time, Pater,” he said.

  Smiling maliciously at Clems, Pater Ten rose and switched the cups about—but so slowly that everyone at the table easily kept track of the cup deCastries had last handled. That particular cup ended up once more in the middle. DeCastries looked at Cletus and reached for the cup to the right of the one that plainly contained the cube. His hand hesitated, hovered over it for a moment, and then drew back. His smile returned.

  “Of course,” he said, looking at Cletus, “I don’t know how you do it, but I do know that if I lift that cup there’ll be a sugar cube under it.” His hand moved to the cup at the opposite end of the line. “And if I choose this one, it’ll probably be there?”

  Cletus said nothing. He only smiled back.

  DeCastries nodded. The customary easiness of his manner had returned to him. “In fact,” he said, “the only cup I can be sure doesn’t have a sugar cube under it is the one that we all know must have a cube—the one in the middle. Am I right?”

  Cletus still only smiled.

  “I am right,” said deCastries. He extended his hand out over the central cup for a second, watching Cletus’s eyes, then withdrew the hand. “And that was what you were after, in this demonstration with the cups and sugar cubes, wasn’t it, Colonel? Your aim was to make me figure out the situation just the way I have—but also to make me so unsure of myself after being wrong three times in a row, that I’d still have to turn the center cup over to prove to myself it really was empty. Your real purpose was to strike at my confidence in my own judgment according to these Tactics of Mistake of yours, wasn’t it?”

  He reached out and snapped the central cup with his fingernail so that it rang with a sound like that of a small, flat-toned bell.

  “But I’m not going to turn it over,” he went on, looking at Cletus. “You see, having reasoned it out, I’ve gone one step further and worked out your purpose in trying to make me do it. You wanted to impress me. Well, I am impressed—but only a little. And in token of just how little, suppose we leave the cup sitting there, unturned? What do you say?”

  “I say your reasoning’s excellent, Mr. Secretary.” Cletus reached out and gathered in the other two cups upside down, covering the mouth of each briefly with his hand before turning them right-side-up to expose their empty, open mouths to the lounge ceiling. “What else can I say?”

  “Thank you, Colonel,” said deCastries, softly. He had leaned back in his chair and his eyes had narrowed down to slits. He reached out now with his right hand to take the stem of his wineglass and rotate it once more between thumb and forefinger with precise quarter turns, as if screwing it delicately down into the white tablecloth. “Now, you said something earlier about taking this flight to Kultis only because you knew I’d be on it. Don’t tell me you went to all that trouble just to show me your tactical shell game?”

  “Only partly,” said Cletus. The tension in the atmosphere around the table had suddenly increased, although the voices of both Cletus and deCastries remained pleasant and relaxed. “I wanted to meet you, Mr. Secretary, because I’m going to need you to arrange things so I can finish my work on tactics.”

  “Oh?” said deCastries, “And just how did you expect me to help?”

  “Opportunities ought to present themselves to both of us, Mr. Secretary”—Cletus pushed back his chair and stood up—“now that you’ve met me and know what I’m after. With that much done it’s probably time for me to apologize for intruding on your dinner party and leave—”

  “Just a moment, Colonel… “ purred deCastries.

  A small sound of breaking glass interrupted them. Melissa’s wineglass lay spilled and shattered against a saucer before her, and she was pushing herself unsteadily to her feet, one hand holding her forehead.


  “No, no—it’s all right!” she said to her father. “I’m just a little dizzy, suddenly, that’s all. I’ll go lie down… No, Dad, you stay here! Colonel Grahame, you can help me to my cabin, can’t you—as long as you are leaving anyway.”

  “Of course,” said Cletus.

  He came quickly around the table and she took hold of his arm. She was tall, and she leaned the not inconsiderable weight of her healthy young body heavily against him. Almost irritably, she waved her father and deCastries back into their seats.

  “Really!” she said. Her voice sharpened. “I’m all right. I just want to lie down for a bit. Will you please not make a fuss about it? Colonel…"

  “Right here,” said Cletus. They moved off together slowly, she still leaning against him as they crossed the lounge and went out into the corridor turning left.

  She continued to lean on him until they had made a turn in the corridor that hid them from the lounge entrance, then she stopped abruptly, straightened up and pulled away turning to face him.

  “I’m all right,” she said. “I just had to do something to get you out of th
ere. You aren’t drunk at all!”

  “No,” said Cletus, good-humoredly. “And not a very good actor either, evidently.”

  “You couldn’t have fooled me, if you were! I can feel… ” She half-raised her hand, fingers spread out as if to touch him on the chest; and then dropped the hand abruptly as he looked curiously at it. “I can see right through people like you. Never mind that. It would have been bad enough if you were drunk. Trying to play games with a man like Dow deCastries!”

  “I wasn’t exactly playing games,” said Cletus, soberly.

  “Oh, don’t tell me!” she said. “Don’t you think I know what kind of idiots professional soldiers can make of themselves when they try to deal with people outside their own special military world? But a Medal of Honor means something to me, even if most civilians don’t know what it is!” Her eyes had slipped into line with his again. She almost wrenched her gaze away. “And that’s why I helped get you away from him just now. The only reason! …And I’m not going to do it again!”

  “I see,” said Cletus.

  “So you get back to your cabin now, and stay there! Stay away from Dow deCastries from now on. From Dad and me, too… Are you listening?”

  “Of course,” said Cletus. “But I’ll see you the rest of the way to your cabin, at least.”

  “No thanks. I can get there by myself.”

  “What if someone sees you doing just that and the word gets back to the Secretary that your dizziness cleared up this quickly, once you were out of the lounge?”

  She glared at him, turned and stalked off down the corridor. Cletus caught up with her in two long strides and fell into step.

  “About professional soldiers,” he said, mildly. “One isn’t just like another…"

  She stopped and faced him abruptly, forcing him to stop also. “I suppose,” she said, grimly, “you think my father never was anything but a mercenary.”

  “Of course not,” Cletus said. “A lieutenant-general in the Royal Army of Afghanistan, wasn’t he, up until ten years or so ago?”

  She stared at him. “How did you know?” Her tone was accusing.

  “Military history—even recent military history—is part of my field,” he said. “The University Revolution at Kabul twelve years ago, which ended up by taking over the government at Kabul, is part of it. The Afghanistani Army wouldn’t have had more than one General Eachan Khan. He must have emigrated from Earth not more than a couple of years after the takeover.”

  “He didn’t have to leave!” she said. “They still wanted him in the Army, even after Afghanistan gave up its independence to become a sector area of the Coalition. But there were other things … ” She broke off.

  “Other things?” asked Cletus.

  “You wouldn’t understand!” She turned and began walking once more down the corridor. But, after a few steps, the words came from her as if she could not keep them in. “My mother had died… and… Salaam Badshahi Daulat Afghanistan—when they began enforcing the death penalty for anyone singing the old Afghanistani anthem, he resigned. So he emigrated—to the Dorsai.”

  “It’s a new world full of soldiers there, I understand,” said Cletus. “It shouldn’t have been too—”

  “They found him work as a captain—a captain in a mercenary battalion!” she flashed at him. “And since then, in ten years, he’s managed to work his way just back up to colonel—and there he’ll stay. Because the Dorsai mercenaries can’t find employment for anything larger than a short regiment—and after his expenses are paid we don’t have enough left over from what he makes to visit Earth, let alone live there again, unless the Exotics or someone pay our way there on official business.”

  Cletus nodded. “I see,” he said. “But it’s a mistake for you to try to mend things through deCastries. He’s not capable of being influenced the way you hope.”

  “Mend things… ” She turned her head and stared at him, meeting his eyes this time in unthinking shock, her face suddenly pale.

  “Of course,” said Cletus. “I’d been wondering what you were doing at his table. You’d have been underage at the time your father emigrated to the Dorsai, so you must have dual Coalition-Dorsai citizenship. You have the right to go back and live on Earth any time you want to take up your Coalition citizenship. But your father can’t be repatriated except by special political dispensation, which is almost impossible to get. Either you or he must think you can get deCastries to help you with that—”

  “Dad’s got nothing to do with it!” Her voice was fierce. “What kind of a man do you think he is?”

  He looked at her. “No. You’re right of course,” he said. “It must have been your idea. He’s not the type. I grew up in a military family back on Earth, and he reminds me of some of the generals I’m related to. In fact, if I hadn’t wanted to be a painter—”

  “A painter?” She blinked at the sudden change of topic.

  “Yes,” said Cletus, smiling a little wryly. “I was just starting to make a living at it when my draft number came up, and I decided to go into the Alliance Military Academy after all, the way my family had wanted me to from the beginning. Then I got wounded, of course, and discovered I liked the theory of military art. So painting got left behind.”

  While he was talking she had come to a halt automatically before one of the stateroom doors lining the long, narrow corridor. But she made no attempt to open it. Instead she stood, staring at him.

  “Why did you ever leave teaching at the Academy, then?” she asked.

  “Someone,” he said, humorously, “has to make the worlds safe for scholars like myself.”

  “By making a personal enemy out of Dow deCastries?” she said, incredulously. “Didn’t it teach you anything when he saw through your game with the teacups and the sugar cubes?”

  “But he didn’t,” said Cletus. “Oh, I ought to admit he did a very good job of covering up the fact he hadn’t.”

  “He covered up?”

  “Certainly,” Cletus answered. “He lifted the first cup out of overconfidence, feeling sure he could handle whatever came of my shell game. When he turned up the first cube he thought I had blundered, not he. With the second cube, he revised his ideas, but was still overconfident enough to try again. When he turned up the third cube he finally woke to the fact that the game was completely under my control. So he had to find an excuse for stopping it and refusing to choose a fourth time.”

  She shook her head. “This is all the wrong way around,” she said, unbelievingly. “You’re twisting what happened to make it look the way you want it.”

  “No,” said Cletus. “DeCastries was the one who twisted it, with his actually very clever explanation of why he wouldn’t lift a cup a fourth time. The only trouble was, it was a false explanation. He knew he’d find a sugar cube under any cup he lifted.”

  “How could he?”

  “Because I had cubes under all three cups, of course,” said Cletus. “When I lifted one cube from the bowl, I palmed two others. By the time he got around to the fourth choice, deCastries had probably figured that out. The fact that the game turned out to be the avoiding of finding a cube, instead of trying to find one, misled him at first. But pointing it out by then would have been too late to keep him from looking foolish at having played the game three times already. People like deCastries can’t afford to look foolish.”

  “But why did you do it?” Melissa almost cried. “Why do you want to make an enemy like that?”

  “I need to get him involved with me,” said Cletus, “so I can make use of him. Unless I can make him annoyed enough to thrust, I can’t parry. And only by successfully continuing to parry every attempt he makes can I finally get his whole attention… Now you see,” he went on, a little more gently, “why you ought to be worrying about your own involvement with Dow deCastries instead of mine. I can handle him. On the other hand, you—”

  “You… “ Suddenly blazing with anger, she turned and jerked open the door. “You absolute—go mix yo
urself up with Dow. Get yourself chewed up to mincemeat. I hope you do. But stay away from me… And from Dad! Do you hear me?”

  He looked at her, and a slight shadow of something like pain passed through him. “Of course,” he said, stepping back. “If that’s what you want.”

  She went in, slamming the door behind her. He stood for a second, looking at its blank surface. For a moment with her there, the self-imposed barrier of isolation he had set up around himself many years ago, when he found others did not understand him, had almost melted. But it was back now.

  He drew a short, deep breath that was almost a sigh. Turning, he went off down the corridor in the direction of his own stateroom.


  For the next four days Cletus punctually avoided Melissa and her father—and was ignored in turn by deCastries and Pater Ten. Mondar, on the other hand, grew to be almost a close acquaintance, a circumstance Cletus found not only pleasant, but interesting.

  The fifth day out from Earth, the spaceliner went into parking orbit around Kultis. Like its sister planet Mara, Kultis was a green, warm world with transient icecaps and only two major continental masses, north and south, as it had been true with Earth during the Gondwandaland period of the home planet’s geological past. The shuttleboats from the chief cities of the various Kultan colonies began to come up to take off passengers.

  On a hunch, Cletus tried to phone down to Alliance Headquarters in Bakhalla for reporting and billeting information. But the space-to-surface circuits were all tied up by the party for Neuland, in the forward evacuation lounge. Which meant, Cletus discovered with a little quiet inquiry, Pater Ten speaking for Dow deCastries. This, of course, was blatant favoritism on the part of a vessel of supposedly neutral registry. Cletus’s hunch flowered into suspicion. One of those calls could well be concerned with him.

  Glancing around as he turned from the phone, Cletus caught sight of the blue robe of Mondar, who was standing by the closed hatch of the midship lounge, only a few steps from Melissa and Eachan Khan. Cletus limped briskly over to the Exotic.