infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror fiction
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z
 Tactics at Twilight
a short story by Michael Cobley

He stepped off the train beneath the station's arching immensity, and with a vague sense of recognition looked up. Gargoyles and masks stared down from elaborate stretches of stone and ironwork. Light from grimy gas lamps set high illuminated some areas, cast others in inky shadows. Pigeons perched on the lips of black circular niches, or fluttered in the maze of ceiling beams.

Shepherded off to one side by his guards, James Fordyce was aware of a strange continuity between this, the Glasgow Grand Terminus, and the college that lay a day and a life behind him. The pervasive feeling of power and the weight of years was indistinguishable from the atmosphere of Northminster Monasterial College. As if they were somehow part of the same building, a framework of authority expressed in architecture.

The hub of Empire indeed, he thought grimly as locomotive breath plumed the air.

Other passengers glanced his way as they strode by, haughty curiosity becoming masked dread when eyes saw the compasses-and-cross brooches his guards wore. Fordyce stared back, his sombre mood slowly refining into anger as he took in their fur-edged cloaks, jewelled collars, goldfeather fedoras, their meek prosperity. Then they were all past and his anger ebbed.

I've spent myself these six months, he thought. Fury requires vitality and I'm too old now for wholehearted hate.

Hegarty, the Commission Officer, returned with the rest of the Diocesan guard, one of whom held Fordyce's valise.

"Dr Fordyce," he began, "the remainder of your journey will be conducted under the jurisdiction of the Cardinalate of Glasgow. Follow me, please."

Part way along the platform an unlit staircase led down to a doorway bright with daylight. They came out in a long shelter half-open to the elements and echoing to the din of porters, crowds and carriages. A black-and-bronze coach waited nearby and as they hurried towards it the side door swung out and a thickset man emerged. Like Hegarty he wore a brimless cap of black velvet with matching mantle and tabard, except that his pockets and hems were trimmed with grey.

He nodded at Hegarty and turned to Fordyce. "I am Officer Maguire, his Eminence the Cardinal's secretary. Please take a seat, Doctor. We will be leaving shortly."

Stiffly, Fordyce stepped up into the coach where two Diocesan guards sat with pistols on their laps. He eased back into the soft upholstery, almost sensing their blank gazes measuring his strength, gauging his reflexes. He smiled inwardly at that: no need to worry, my friends - I go to my exile in peace. No more struggle.

The two officers exchanged document wallets and formal farewells, then Maguire climbed back in, closing the door behind him. Once settled opposite Fordyce, he rapped on the panelling overhead and the coach lurched into motion.

While Maguire thumbed through the wallet's contents, Fordyce peered out at the passing street. Umbrellas were up against a slight drizzle, and coffee shops and tea rooms were crowded. Along a decrepit alleyway he saw fine rain whirling in the grip of trapped winds, and water dripping from a cracked gutter.

"The report sounds most interesting, Doctor," Maguire folded the papers away and tied the wallet shut. "We'll have much to discuss during the sea trip."

Fordyce had a sudden hollow feeling.

"I'm not quite sure what you mean," he said. "The Commission was extremely thorough."

"As I see from the summary. However, there are a few points I'm required to clarify, the wider philosophical questions, for example."

Despair clouded his thoughts - Hegarty's silence all the way from London had been misleading. Still they were not finished with him.

"Officer Maguire, I am as you see no longer a young man. Is it not enough that when I die, my hypotheses will die with me?" He was surprised by the intensity in his own voice. "Is that not satisfaction enough for you?"

There was a moment of silence and he saw the answer in Maguire's mildly amused gaze: No, we must know it all.

"Calm yourself, Doctor," he said easily. "My role is not that of interrogator."

They alighted in the shadow of harbour offices, under a sky of turbulent cloud. A walkway led through an arched tunnel to the quayside where they took him aboard a sleek, single-funnelled schooner. His cabin was large, its fittings and furnishings comfortable if plain - pale wood predominated. Maguire handed Fordyce his leather valise, saying that dinner would be served in one hour. "You should rest till then; I'll have the steward wake you." Without waiting for a reply, he left and Fordyce heard the key turn in the lock.

Tiredly he unpacked the few possessions left him by the Commission assessors the previous morning. A nightshirt, long socks, a checked muffler, mittens, reading spectacles, a cloth-bound Iona bible, a slim volume of tables and his journal; the writing case was missing, his open razor too.

Yes, he thought wryly, they know what's dangerous.

He flicked through the journal, pausing over this entry or that margin note. It was as much a record of emotion as events, of how he had passed though caution and astonishment on his way to exasperation and anger. The Prerogative Commission had secluded him in their dark college where the Council of Examiners, a body he'd not heard of before, proceeded to analyse his treatise. After a month of polite, detailed questioning they announced that while they had reached a preliminary judgement they were prohibited against revealing any of its conclusions. The procedure, they told him, required a referral to the Enquiry Conclave.

Another unfamiliar committee, more anonymous men picking his words apart for a month, then another referral. For six months they had questioned and dissected and redissected with a hostility increasingly directed at him. Too late he realised what the subject of their investigation had become, and when the final committee sentenced him the treatise was mentioned only in passing. At the end, under guard and awaiting departure for London, the bitterness in him burnt itself out.

He closed the journal and dropped it back in the valise. Yes, Maguire's easy manner would become that of an interrogator, he was sure. Questions would be asked, confessions would be sought. Fordyce smiled bleakly and lay down on the bed to rest.

When the steward awoke him it was dusk and the schooner was under way. From the cabin's wide window he watched the shadowy city glide by. Oil and gas lamps glimmered all along the embankment, becoming haloed as evening smoke and mist mingled.

The dining saloon was adjacent to his cabin, entered by a plain door he thought was a locked cupboard. Only the table by the window was set out, its fixed oil lamp lit and casting bright pinpoints on the cutlery. Maguire, in grey cotton tunic and breeches, stood over an oblong chess table where pieces clustered. He looked up as Fordyce approached.

"Ah, Doctor. A pleasant nap, I trust."

"Yes, most comfortable."

"Good." He indicated the game. "An interesting practice opening, this one. I was wondering if we might play it through, a few moves a day until we reach our destination."

Fordyce studied the board. White's king was vulnerable, the pieces were scattered and missing a rook, a bishop and a knight. Black had lost only three pawns and a knight, and its king was well castled while the attack on White continued.

He shrugged. "Why not?"

They each made a move, Maguire playing White, before they sat down to eat.

"I read your report while you slept," said Maguire, once they were finished. "A thoroughly detailed document."

Fordyce sat fingering a White pawn and looking out at nightfall. They were passing a number of shipyards whose slipways sloped like great stone limbs into the water. Gargantuan vessels lay under construction, huge silhouettes dotted with the glowing points of work lamps.

"Thoroughly nonsensical, too," he murmured.

"You think that the Commission was unfair in its judgement?"

"Unfair?" He glared at Maguire. "Well, if you consider that I'm being exiled for questioning scientific orthodoxy, that all my work has been suppressed, that it may as well not exist because now neither do I - then, Mister Maguire, 'unfair' is too mild a word to express what I feel about the Prerogative Commission. Dogmatic and hidebound is what they are, prejudiced against recognising the truth."

"Except that the veracity or otherwise of your treatise was beside the point as far as the Commission was concerned."

Fordyce sat back, "I don't quite ..."

"The assessment of unorthodox scientific theories is not its function." The young man sipped coffee from a wide-based cup. "It is those that formulate them who are scrutinised. Surely you realised that."

"I couldn't fail to notice," Fordyce said with an edge in his voice. "But my treatise -"

"Is of no consequence, Doctor. You were questioned in order to discover how strongly you believed in your own work, your theories."

"Belief? My belief is that Newcombean orthodoxy is flawed."

"In the eyes of the Commission there is no difference." Maguire beckoned to the steward who cleared away the empty dishes. Fordyce frowned, gaze averted.

"Then the Commission is corrupt."

Maguire laughed, not unkindly. "It only seems so to those who would corrupt the Empire, knowingly or not. Consider what Newcombe's laws have brought us - an abundance of machines and inventions and constructions that would have been inconceivable only fifteen years ago. Precise knowledge, stability, unprecedented prosperity. However, there's a heavy price to pay for all this. Those very same laws also produce weapons of ever-increasing ingenuity and power - cavalry and cannon have given way to landships and steamcrawlers. It's even rumoured that Austro-Bavaria is building some kind of navigable air-fortress.

"But even if that rumour were not true, its word of mouth existence is dangerous; it excites interest, worry, distrust, lies and instability. Hearsay and rumour can be more powerful than truth, Doctor, which is why you are being exiled, not returned to your academy. The world is already a perilous place and the kind of rumour you would inevitably start would plant uncertainty at the roots of the nation. We cannot allow that to happen."

Fordyce was silent for a moment, surprised by such frankness and intrigued by the man's doctrine. "Is the Empire so fragile, then?"

"Yes! If ever we were to fail or falter in our duty, the consequences would be incalculable; doubt would replace trust, peace would dissolve in sedition and the provinces would demand more autonomy. England might even go its own way. This is what we work long and hard to prevent - anarchy and havoc. Wars that would make the Kashmiri Campaign of 1801 look like a minor skirmish in comparison."

Suddenly Maguire's words were somehow repulsive, they jarred with his relaxed demeanour. Fordyce sighed. "I can't share such an arid philosophy, I'm afraid." He stood. "Too pessimistic for me."

"Then would you care to discuss your own?" Maguire gave a slight nod toward the chess table. "Perhaps over a move or two?"

A subtle goad, thought Fordyce. "It seems that despite my nap I am still weary from the train journey. With your leave, I'd like to retire to my cabin."

"Of course, Doctor. Tomorrow, then."

"Yes. Tomorrow."

But he lay awake, pestered by thoughts, speculating endlessly on his unknown place of exile. Shetland? Maybe Greenland, or even the Faroe Islands - yes, the Faroes could well be the place, the end point of his life. Already he felt he had been erased from history, silently and smoothly removed as if by hidden machinery, carried by gear and rod into oblivion.

He smiled at the analogy. He would, he decided, put his own case to Maguire, question the man's assumptions, challenge orthodoxy. It might be the last opportunity to do so and he found himself almost looking forward to it. He drew the eiderdown up to his face and in minutes was asleep.

When he entered the saloon in the morning it was the steward who greeted him and presented Officer Maguire's apologies that due to pressure of work he would be unable to join the Doctor for breakfast. However he had made a further move in their chess game - the steward handed him a slip of paper - and looked forward to pondering the Doctor's response later in the day.

The steward then left and Fordyce sat himself in the window, looking from the scribbled note to the chess table and back. Maguire's play was strictly defensive yet effective - in just two moves he had turned Black's attack and strengthened his own position. After a moment's consideration, Fordyce advanced a pawn to let his bishop threaten the White Queen.

After breakfast he drank hot pungent tea while watching the shoreline go by in the drizzle. Coves, inlets, the mouths of lochs, and islands crowded with houses, towers and spires. All made a uniform grey by the fine rain. They had to be somewhere in the Western Isles, he thought. The waters were busy with boats and small craft, their courses regularly disrupted by the grandiose progress of freighters and passenger ships.

He spent the day alternately dozing and reading books from the shelf-nook in his cabin, and didn't see Maguire till dusk when the steward had just finished preparing their table.

"Good evening, Doctor."

"Good evening, Mister Maguire. You must have much work to keep you occupied for so long."

The Commission Officer made a dismissive gesture as he approached the table. "Merely routine business, paperwork and reports." He paused to study the chess table, "Ah, good", and was lost in concentration when the steward brought bowls of steaming vegetables and meats that filled the saloon with the aroma of potherbs.

"I was thinking about some of the things you mentioned last night," said Fordyce as they ate. "Frailty of the Empire and so forth. However, I remained confused on a point or two."

"Indeed? Perhaps I can elucidate them for you."

"Thank you - I hoped that you would." He gave his best camaraderie smile. "From what you said, it would seem that the Empire rests on and derives its strength from its morality and ideals and even from its scientific laws; the Empire actually embodies them all."

"Insofar as they are embodied in the Church, the Throne, and the Academies which together comprise the Imperial State - then yes, your appraisal is reasonably succinct."

"Yet, as you said, the Empire is a fragile thing and you labour night and day to ensure its continued stability." He leaned forward. "Which implies that the Empire's constituent elements - if not the concepts they rest upon - are in fact fatally flawed."

Maguire paused in his meal for a moment, then smiled. "So that in fact Newcombean science is defective and should be supplanted by your own." He laughed. "You do yourself an injustice with such an argument, Doctor, I have no reason to question Newcombe - the world is living proof that he discovered the natural laws governing the universe, and every day brings further proof that this is so. And while the Empire's institutions and beliefs function in harmony and discipline, it is wise to remember that the Empire is also its people. People are fallible, they tend to lose sight of the great Truths. It is people, not the laws of nature, that are flawed."

Fordyce arched an eyebrow. "An interesting viewpoint," he said. "But what I wanted to say was that in a way I agree with you - the Empire is an interlocking arrangement of organisations, components in a mechanism, a clock almost. However, the Empire, like a clock, only maintains its stability and function because of outside regulation -"

"You mean the Prerogative Commission?"

"And other similar bodies. Such regulation may be justifiable in the case of the Holy Northern Church, or the ministries of the Throne; the Academies should, I believe, be exempt from it and be free to hypothesise what they will."

Maguire was silent as he finished his food, and as the steward patiently removed empty dishes Fordyce gazed out of the window. Islands, darkening in the sunset, became twinkling displays as islanders lit lamps in their houses and towers.

"To me," Maguire said eventually, "what you propose is a recipe for anarchy."

"I can't agree. The Academies should be dedicated to formulating new theories, not indulging in the sterile praise of an old one, no matter how useful it is. A theory is like a machine for producing knowledge and new ideas: Newcombe's has been very successful, it's yielded a profusion of devices and applications. But the supply is not endless ... or rather the limits of Newcombe's theory will restrict what it produces."

"I see. So tell me, what are these limits that you mention?"

Fordyce leaned back in the chair, easing the aches down his spine. You're an old man, he thought, in a world of young tyrants. "Well now, if the Imperial Academy of Natural Philosophy was a scientific institution instead of a moribund priesthood, we'd already have that knowledge and more. As it is, I don't know - I'm only one man."

"But audacious nevertheless!" Maguire seemed pleased in some way as he rose from the table. "The Empire is like a clock, and theories are like machines - your analogies are ingenious, if somewhat irrelevant."

"Analogies can be very useful. In fact -"

"I fear that I must postpone our discussions once more, Doctor. We shall be putting into Stornaway some time after midnight and I have documents still to prepare for the Hebridean Cardinalate."

Fordyce watched him cross to the main exit. "Stornaway," he said. "Then on to the Faroe Islands?"

A nod. "Well deduced. We should dock in Thorshavn by tomorrow evening." He opened the door and stood in the light, his face sharply shadowed. "In the meantime consider your next play - I moved my rook earlier, before we ate. Good evening, Doctor." And he was gone.

There had been an urbane satisfaction in the voice that Fordyce found irritating. He brightened the table lamp and dragged his chair over to the chess table. White's rook now blocked the attack on the White queen, and was protected by the knight and a pawn. Maguire's playing style was controlled and deliberate, no risks. Not at all dissimilar, he thought ironically, to the doctrine of his masters and wholly in tune with the tenor of the times.

Was there no way of cracking Maguire's certainty, seeding him with doubt? He sighed, ran a hand through his thinning hair and let a few grey strands fall from his fingers. No, of course not, Fordyce thought, but that's no reason not to try. So far it's only been the borders of Newcombean science I've tackled - tomorrow I'll try my central hypothesis. Maybe that will rattle his cage.

He chuckled and leaned forward to inspect the board. After ten minutes he moved the Black queen out to take a White pawn. Then he went to his cabin, certain that the game was his.

He awoke slowly, listening to the sounds of the ship; the hull's tiny clicks, creaks and taps, and the engines droning like an iron choir from deep in the vessel. He lay still for a while, feeling tired and out of sorts - in the middle of the night he had been startled awake by a clatter of chains and footsteps, and for one panicky moment didn't know where he was. Then he heard Maguire's voice giving orders and memory surged back. Shivering in his cloak Fordyce had peered out of his cabin window at Stornaway harbour. Lamps on the quays glowed in the mist and the lethal forms of ironclads riding at anchor were long, dim phantoms in the night.

A salutary lesson, he thought now while dressing. Newcombe's laws make possible the modem warships that prowl the seas, protecting the Empire which in turn upholds the Newcombean hegemony. A strange interdependence.

Another piece of paper lay on the chess table, weighted down by the black bishop Maguire had taken last night. The message detailed the move in game notation then went on to express profuse regrets for his absence again this morning. Circumstances had conspired to deny him the opportunity of sleep until very late, thus unfortunately he would be unable to join Doctor Fordyce until midday. He hoped therefore that the Doctor would contemplate their game in the intervening period and formulate a worthwhile riposte.

He smiled. Riposte, he thought and shook his head

Beyond the saloon window the open sea spread away to the horizon. Winds tore spindrift from the choppy waves, hurling billows of fine spray into the air where gulls wheeled and hung. For the rest of the morning he divided his attention between their aerobatics and the chessboard.

Maguire entered ahead of the steward who brought a tray bearing glazed mugs and a bulbous samovar. Fordyce greeted the Commission officer politely and together they drank tea and talked over the game. As if by unspoken agreement it progressed at a leisurely pace, each player taking as long as half an hour before committing himself to a move. And Fordyce's confidence in victory slowly ebbed as the younger man deftly countered his attacks and forays. The attrition of play was weakening his own position faster than Maguire's and he began to see that the game could even reach stalemate.

At one point the conversation turned to the Scandic provinces and the dissent proliferating there; cells, cliques, factions, cadres, underground groups of every kind. Fordyce remarked that each one was like a doorway into some part of Scandic heritage formerly locked away behind imported Britannic, or rather Caledonian, culture.

"Aren't you forgetting the extortion, the bombings, the murders?" Maguire laughed. "Your analogies are notable for their inaccuracy, Doctor - the Empire is not a clock, Newcombe's laws are not machines, and the Scandic separatists, I assure you, are not noble antiquarians."

Fordyce nodded. "Well, you make my point for me. Analogies certainly are generalisations, not the truth. I compared the Scandics to 'noble antiquarians', if you like, for the simple reason that many of them are; it was the Mormaor governors who used arrests and ban orders to force them underground, so now they're all conveniently lumped in with the killers." He went on before Maguire could speak. "But yes, analogies are usually defective in some way, as are most interpretations and explanations -"

"In which you undoubtedly include scientific theories and laws such as Newcombe's." Maguire wagged an admonishing finger. "You're repeating yourself. How disappointing."

"I'm merely highlighting the main area of disagreement: the laws you regard as true, and inherent in nature, I consider to be no more than educated guesses, analogies of the truth limited by Nature in what they can accurately investigate." He gazed across at the unbelieving face. "My treatise deals with Newcombe on that very basis."

"Yet you admitted yesterday that you do not know where these hypothetical limits lie."

"I also said that there are no results to study. The necessary laboratory work has not been carried out, to my knowledge. But you need only consider the full implications of Newcombe's laws to discover the rough location of those boundaries. For Newcombe, the cosmos is an orderly and regular system, all things in it can be arranged according to our ignorance rather than their nature. All matter obeys the laws so every physical event is predictable, which implies that the world and all that it contains constitutes nothing but a single vast automaton.

"There have been other grand theories, of course. Some eastern philosophers maintain that the cosmos is perfect and regular at its heart. That although outward appearances may deteriorate and eventually vanish, the flawless essence in all its forms will continue, immortal. Other sages insist that the universe is an ordered whole, a directed unity which becomes progressively more mysterious the closer you get to the heart of its workings. But Newcombe was a mechanicalist, and his cosmos is an intricate clockwork assembly with every physical motion predetermined from the start and free will a chimera."

An overcast sunset had made the sea an ashen expanse and in the dim saloon Maguire's features were unreadable. He got up to light a table lamp and in a moment radiance bloomed. Fordyce watched the chess pieces cast long enigmatic shadows while their carved surfaces gleamed.

"Your comments regarding Newcombean philosophy seem entirely reasonable to me," said Maguire, returning to undermine Black's position on the board with another safe move.

"Then consider this: imagine that you are a natural philosopher who is utterly deaf and who has never heard any music of any kind. According to Newcombe, you could write out all of Von Wolfrem's concertos, say, merely by studying in detail the physical state of his body and predicting whereabouts on lined paper he'd place black marks."

"A somewhat frivolous example," Maguire said softly. "But again, the fundamental principle is sound."

"Frivolous," Fordyce sighed, reaching to advance one of his three remaining pawns. "Then let's take it a step further. Let us suppose that you, as the deaf natural philosopher, studied Von Wolfrem's body with infinitesimal care and obtained information of incomparable precision. You could then write scores that he never actually composed but which he could have written if certain external conditions had been different. If he'd eaten herring instead of pork, say, or drunk wine not brandy. And all this would be accomplished by you, the deaf philosopher, without the slightest need for musical knowledge or skill or judgement." He laughed. "The fundamental Newcombean principle is absurd, and becomes even more absurd if applied to the deaf philosopher himself."

Silence. He glanced up to see Maguire watching him coldly. Wordlessly, the Commission officer stood and went to the window. Past him Fordyce could see a sharp-prowed gunboat pacing them a short distance away, and beyond, low rounded hills.

"I'd be obliged if you would pack your bag, Doctor. We are approaching Thorshavn harbour."

Gripping the chair arm, Fordyce pushed himself to his feet. Suddenly he felt old and weary; the moment of defiance had passed and now only exile awaited. When he returned from his cabin, valise by his side, Maguire was standing near the chess table, a Diocesan guard at each shoulder.

"We haven't finished our game, Doctor Fordyce." His voice was pleasant, his smile feral. "But not to worry - I know how it ends."

Then he bent over the table, not faltering once as he plucked chessmen from the discard tray and rearranged the board. Till White's king again sat vulnerable among disorganised pieces, and again Black was poised to invade. In Maguire's hands the game became a weapon, a demonstration of the power that was one with his doctrine of Empire.

An outstretched arm indicated the exit. "After you, Doctor."

Fordyce met the terrible gaze for the space of a heartbeat, then turned to leave in empty peace. Outside, it was twilight.

© Michael Cobley 1991, 1997

This story first appeared in The Unusual Genitals Party.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

  • Shipbuilding, the impressive on-line anthology of Scottish science fiction, includes Mike's 'Corrosion', a short story first published by Interzone and since reprinted in Ikarie.

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)

top of page
[ home page | fiction | non-fiction | other stuff | A to Z ]
[ infinity plus bookshop | search infinity plus ]