The Open Secret
 
1
 

    The staff at sector HQ had already noticed that their commander was moodier than usual.  And some of them sensed that the military situation - bad though it was - was not alone to blame.

    The fall of Skyyon was disturbing enough.  It made one queasy to think of the central, polar city of Syoom conquered with hardly a blow being struck in its defence; the seat of the Sunnoad overrun -

     One could hardly bear to watch the films taken of those last hours in which laden hover-barges dropped like tears from the city to the plain below, bearing away to safety the most vital treasures and archives of Syoom.

     The loss was retrievable; indeed it certainly would be retrieved, provided that all went according to the long-term plan for victory.  Nevertheless - what a sickening gamble to have to make!

    All very well to repeat to oneself that it was all part of a strategic withdrawal, to coax the invasion from Fyaym into over-extending itself into a trap where it could be destroyed once and for all, and that this sharp medicine was better than enduring a long war which the Syoomean economy could no longer afford.  It was a bold and considered strategy; yet there were moments when it felt more like a walk on rotten floorboards with a void beneath.

    The burden fell most heavily upon those who saw the risks most clearly, namely upon Syoom's top commanders.  Especially, perhaps, upon omzyr Jovald Veon.  He it was who had led the most heavily attacked section of the retreating front.

    Up till now, however, the omzyr had managed with cool competence.  His staff had drawn strength and reassurance from watching him second-guess the weaving, looping paths traced by the enemy airships as they probed in widening circles through the spaces of Syoom.  And the orders he had given to his captains, to offer just the right amount of resistance to those ships, so as to convince their captains that the weak opposition they faced was the most Syoom had to offer - those orders had been masterly in their blend of insight and precision.

    Then came the news of Skyyon's fall, and something strange seemed to happen to Jovald Veon.

    The tension lines around his mouth grew tighter.  His voice cracked as he gave his orders.  Frequently, he accompanied his words by chopping gestures with his hands; at other moments he plunged both fists into his pockets and stared out through the silver columns of the HQ building, saying nothing at all, as if he were waiting for inspiration.  What was actually happening, unbeknownst to his officers and secretaries, was that inspiration had come.  It was bringing him to a decision that would cause controversy from that day to this.

    The most unsettling emotion is hope.  I never guessed that hope could be so threatening, or that it could ever come close to making me forget my duty; but then, I never expected that an enemy would hand me an excuse to say No to those of my people who opposed me, and Yes to the happiness which they have denied me.

    The fall of Skyyon could be his excuse - his personal excuse for action against his own private tragedy.  He was quite certain that he was going to take everybody by surprise.  Neither friend nor foe, neither superior nor subordinate, would guess until too late, how he had found his opportunity to act alone.

    The opportunity lay hidden in the fact that, apart from strategy and tactics, there was a third aspect of his job: his responsibility for morale.

    Not maintaining it, but deressing it, as far as appearances were concerned.  Conducting a pretence of despair, as part of the gigantic confidence trick which the whole of Syoom was playing on the enemy, and which required tremendous attention to detail.

    It was essential that the public mood seem dismal and defeatist, and since everyday talk in the conquered cities and towns stood a good chance of being connected with the war, these humdrum conversations formed a vast reservoir of deceit, though with a high risk of the entire trick being exposed in a moment of carelessness.  So far, Jovald had successfully maintained a sham radio dialogue with the occupied lands.  He sent gloomy messages exhorting people to bear their lot with stoic fortitude; he told them to be ready for sacrifice and to be brave whether or not final victory was achieved - and putting it this way, he made it sound as though he did not believe in victory.  Every report he received, he turned into an excuse to send more advice tinged with the message that Syoomeans must lower their expectations.  Often he made the point that the previous era, just ended, had been one long unequal struggle to postpone the inevitable, and it wasn't surprising that the final fall of the Rubidium Fort had opened the floodgates of enemy pressure, resulting in the present invasion, perhaps the end of Syoom.  "We must not complain if our light goes out, for it has shone fair in the history of our world.  No culture is immortal; all great civilizations have their term...."

    The population were playing along with this lugubrious stuff.  Intelligently taking their cue, they donned the defeatist disguise, with the result that the enemy eavesdroppers seemed completely fooled.  Meanwhile in reality in millions of Syoomean hearts the fires of hope were kept burning in secret.

    And now, from fooling the enemy, Jovald Veon turned to fooling his own side.

    Smoothing his face to mask his excitement, he crooked his finger at his second-in-command, Hyl Devadan.

    "Yes, omzyr J-V?" said the zynzyr, stepping quietly forward.  He had been w atching the omzyr as closely as he dared from the respectful distance of the monitor cubicles.

    "Hyl, I need to explain something to you.  Something I am about to do."

    "Yes, omzyr J-V."

    "The fall of Skyyon," said Jovald, "is going to put a lot of extra pressure on the deception plan.  On the one hand we need to make sure that the despair we are simulating does not become real; on the other hand we need also to make sure that the appearance of it deepens, as would happen, were it real.  And it must be done with finesse.  We've reached the dangerous point, where fear and uncertainty may make some people fight too hard too soon, and give the whole game away.

    "Now then, Hyl, you know the Sunnoad has given me this."  And the omzyr  held up an orange glass object shaped like a comb.  "You recognize it, don't you?"

    "The signet of discretion."

    Jovald carefully replaced the object in its pocket inside the folds of his cloak, and spoke in lowered voice.  "Just so long as there is no doubt in your mind.  I don't want any arguments from you or anyone else.  I have been given absolute discretion by Sunnoad Jad Darkal."

    Hyl's normally pallid face became even paler as he dared to ask, "Discretion to do what, omzyr J-V?"

    "To cook up something special for the Fyaymans."  Jovald said it challengingly, even defiantly, his face a touch shiny with sweat.  He hastened to add with a smile, " If the Sunnoad can trust me, so can you."

    "Of course, omzyr.  Are you about to leave us?"

    "Yes.  You are in charge of the base for the next few days.  I don't expect the enemy to push much further towards this spot; they're veering to sweep up the heartland.  But if they do come at you, you know the steps of the dance we've been leading them."

    Hyl Devadan saluted and was about to step back, but Jovald Veon continued, "You see, I want to be on hand, in occupied territory, to make personally sure, that the sauce is neither too cold nor too hot for this particular meal."

    Hyl Devadan, having received this confidence, drew himself up straighter and stood proudly at his new post in front of the winking status boards while Jovald departed.

 

2
 

 

    The best thing about the excuse that Jovald had given to Hyl was that, as far as it went, it was true.  When is desertion not desertion?  When you've been given discretion!

    Great feeling, secret elation - knowing you had people just where you wanted them!

    Great feeling....  though accompanied by a croaking whisper, that one may perhaps be behaving monstrously.

    Jovald was a public figure whose personal tragedy was well known.  To be famous on account of a one-in-a-billion fluke which had ruined his chance for happiness, was mortifying as well as miserable; not that he was too proud to accept sympathy - sympathy was welcome when it was offered on a friendly, individual scale - but he found it hard to stand being a curiosity for connoisseurs of misfortune, and he resented all the humiliating, mawkish attention paid to his peculiar ill luck.  Embittered, he found his professional success to be inadquate recompense.  Often he derided his own abilities.  What was the use of being acclaimed a great general, as Sunnoad Jad Darkal's right-hand man, if all his brains and strategic sense failed to be of help in the area where he most needed it?

    Until this morning, that is.

    Now all of a sudden an old daydream had materialised.

    Achieve a coup which will force the bigots to allow you the woman you love?  Today it may be possible at last! 

 

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