(This story was first published in the magazine Interzone, issue 126, dated December 1997.)

Calculated Risk

by Phil Masters

There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Case of Identity”

I suppose that it was Destiny that, two days before I had arranged to travel, the first fire since it opened should close the tunnel. I had to make new arrangements, taking the ferry over, at a time when thousands of others were having to do the same - and I couldn’t use my position to make things easier, because I was supposed to be travelling inconspicuously, if not actually secretly.

I did almost wonder, for a while, if there might be anything sinister about the coincidence; of course there was a lot of speculation, during those first few days, about sabotage. But those of us with contacts heard the truth even sooner than the public; the fire was nothing but an accident, some kind of electrical short in one of those big, badly-maintained trucks that come rolling up from Songhai. And in any case, I did not truly believe that anyone would use crude sabotage, merely to delay a meeting. To think such a thing would be madness.

None of which made me any happier when the ferry sailed late, thanks to the chaos in the port. I ended up arriving in Tanjah an hour after I’d meant to be at the caravanserai, and then spending another hour chasing round the local urban rail system. It didn’t matter, strictly speaking; the contact had said he’d be there for several days. However, tidiness is a virtue in my employment, and the string of accidents left me irritated and nervous.

The caravanserai was in the old section of town, just behind the docks that face the Atlantic - not actually a sailors’ flop-house, but not prestigious, either. I went in through the courtyard, got hold of the clerk, and had my man called; he was using the name ‘Kemal’. Then I hung around in the porch in the gathering dusk while he came down. I made sure that my face was visible to anyone in most of the inward-facing upper floor corridors, so that, if ‘Kemal’ was being sensibly careful, he could confirm that I was who he wanted to meet, and not some guard-dog sent to drag him home - or to dump him off the docks.

He appeared after a couple of minutes, and I recognised him straight away; a good memory for faces is another of my professional virtues. I’d met him four or five times at university parties during my stint at the embassy in Angora, before the Diwan decided that the guard-dogs might be feeling certain enough about my real status to start making trouble, and pulled me home.

His real name wasn’t Kemal, of course, although I would continue to use that throughout this mission. In Angora, he was rated as a shepherd, a member of the ruling classes, by virtue of his academic position, but his original family were flock, part of the controlled masses.

(In fact, that was, so far as I’d been able to judge, the reason that he was brought out to meet the cynical foreigners. His was one of those rare promotions that do still happen over there, “proving” that the Ottman system is indeed based on carefully assessed aptitude, and the fact that nine out of ten shepherds were born of shepherd parents just shows that aptitude is mostly genetic.)

Now, however, he was looking nothing like a Virtuous Leader of Society; he was looking like a university teacher who’s thinking of defecting. Amongst other things, he had a lightweight briefcase in each hand, which might not have been too prominent, except that both were chained to his wrists. I hoped that he hadn’t been wandering round Tanjah like that; never mind the Ottmans’ human guard-dogs, the Moravid police would have heard about him by now. However, the fact that he hadn’t had the cases hacked off his wrists, one way or another, suggested that he’d been discrete enough.

“Can we talk in a cafe?” he asked, “There’s one with quiet booths just down the road from here.”

It didn’t sound ideal, but on the other hand, nor was it as foolish as some people might believe. The chance of being eavesdropped at random by someone with the wit and determination to do anything dangerous would actually be low.

And the cafe was indeed reasonably discrete, but busy enough to provide a babble of voices to cover our discussion. Either this fellow was lucky, or he had some sense. We sat down, and I ordered coffee, while Kemal asked for Qat tea. Presumably his nerves were getting to him. He looked around carefully, then quickly detached his briefcases from his wrists and chained them to the table.

“We understand that you have information to sell” I said.

He nodded. “Two sets of information,” he said, indicating the cases, “separate, but related.”

“Really? You only provided samples of one.”

“And what did your experts make of those samples?”

I paused to think on that question; it was unexpectedly direct, obliging me to decide how much to acknowledge. I decided to be reasonably straightforward. “They were interested,” I said, “but a little puzzled. They considered that you were telling us about an interesting innovation in theoretical mathematical philosophy. They thought that the shepherds would tend to publicise such work freely, once it was complete. It would reflect well on the creative brilliance of the Ottman people, while they thought that it had no conceivable applicability to weaponry.”

“Weaponry? Perhaps not. And no doubt they suggested that it was the work of Persians or Indians in Ottman employ.”

I didn’t bother to comment on that - although he was right, in fact. He might be running from Angora, but he evidently had the usual Ottman touchiness.

“Anyway,” he said, “you passed as a scholar-diplomat when I first met you, so you evidently have some knowledge of social philosophy.” I nodded. “So you can tell me what you make of this material yourself.”

He pulled a sheaf of papers out of one of his cases, just as our order arrived. Then he passed them to me.

I took a few minutes to look through the material, then looked at him. “At first glance, it’s impressive,” I acknowledged, “at least if you accept the underlying Omarite ideological assumptions...”

“No,” he said, “there’s nothing there that you or I couldn’t defend in the most liberal schools in Granada or Cordova.”

That was a slight exaggeration - but not much. Omarite theories of social history may be tangled up with Ottman state ideology, but both the underlying theory and most of the theoretical developments are actually reasonably sound.

“Very well,” I said, “so it’s a remarkably detailed piece of historical analysis. I’d also say that it was purely an academic exercise, obviously, and not even very innovative.”

“That’s how it would look on its own, I suppose.” He was evidently edgy, but I also read him as strangely curious; he genuinely wanted to know what I might be making of all this. “But I’m guessing that your experts may have told you enough for you to guess why these two sets of information are related.”

I said nothing for a few moments, finishing the last thick dregs of my coffee. Then I looked him in the eye. “What are you asking for?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Your standard terms, I imagine. A new life. Protection. More money than I can ever make at home.”

In fact, we had enough on him to guess his motives; they were neither exceptional nor especially reprehensible, beyond the fact that they were basically selfish. He was unlikely to be any sort of idealist, although I imagine that he could have wrapped his explanations up in some basic sophistry if anyone had insisted. Of course, the fact that he was here, hiding in Tanjah, meant that he was committed; we could have him for any price. But we like to maintain our own facade of moral justification.

I nodded. “Accepted,” I said.

“Furthermore, you must get me from here to safety within the next...” he pulled out his timepiece “forty-nine hours. Preferably less. And I must be escorted by armed agents. All of this is not negotiable.”

That was odd, but doubtless he believed that he had good reason. “Accepted,” I said, “come on.”

When we emerged from the cafe, he turned back towards the caravanserai, but I caught his arm. “A moment” I said, fumbling a miniature torch out of my pocket. I pretended to have some trouble with the switch, flashing it on and off three times in the process.

The cover man reached us a few moments later. It was someone I’d worked with before, a shadow specialist called Isa; as the name suggests, he was a Christian, a north-easterner - but very sharp and alert. I was glad to have him along.

“Any side of trouble?” I asked.

“Not here.” Isa smiled. “Nothing yet. This fellow has been exceptionally lucky. But I’ve had some calls in the last hour; the Diwan have been checking the Moravid transit records. There’ve been a dozen likely guard-dogs on the last three or four flights into town from the east.”

“That doesn’t matter,” I said, although it had in fact confirmed my decision. “We’re extracting straight away.”

Isa nodded and slipped back into the shadows; I caught Kemal’s arm again, and steered him down the street, away from his caravanserai.

“Where are we going?” He was suddenly looking more nervous than at any time earlier.

“The docks,” I said, “I’m fulfilling our agreement.”

“Straight away? You have a boat there?” I nodded at that, and tried to study his expression in the half-light. My training in psychology was actually deeper than he probably guessed; although the social stuff helped me look like a respectable scholar to the Ottmans, it was the personal aspects - which any good Omarite despises - which assisted me in my real job. But at that moment, I was having trouble with him. Something about this plan was making him very nervous, although he wasn’t rejecting it outright; he was just considering it very deeply, as though he really had a choice. I wondered if he disliked sea travel.

“Very well,” he said, “if you consider this the best way to protect me.”

I led him down and along the waterfront, staying on the busiest and best-lit streets wherever I could. Isa and at least two of his colleagues would be covering us, but they would take several seconds to reach us if a knife or pistol suddenly came out of the crowds. I’d rather have had one of them closer - I’m no combat expert - but I’d been told that this wasn’t the best tactic in these situations; the specialists were better used monitoring for approaching threats.

That didn’t make me comfortable, however. At first, I thought that Kemal shared my worries, but after a while, I realised that he wasn’t watching the crowd at all. All his concerns seemed to be focused forwards.

Isa had signalled ahead, so when we reached the correct dock, two of the boat crew were on hand to welcome us. These weren’t people that I knew, but they had an air of efficiency; once we were aboard, I relaxed substantially. Kemal, on the other hand, seemed more worried, especially when the boat cast off straight away. I decided that he must get sea-sick.

“Don’t be nervous,” I told him, “it’s a calm night. Less than an hour across the Straights, and we’ll be going straight into a naval dock. You’re completely safe.”

But all he did was frown. I decided to leave him to whatever physical discomfort he might suffer, and went to confirm arrangements with the boat commander.

We discussed details of the signal to send once we were out of Tanjah harbour, and in truth, I relaxed and enjoyed the sight of the city lights astern. Those sorts of things always look better from a distance; Tanjah is not a place I would visit for pleasure, but on a warm night, with a calm sea, I could easily convince myself that it looked like a grand and sophisticated city. Psychology has terms for such states of mind, dating back to the poetic roots of the discipline.

In any case, the lights of the Andalusian shore soon grew almost as impressive, although they were still more distant. I turned round to look that way, and began to wonder how much longer I would be assigned to this subject; interrogating our defector would normally be handled by specialists, but my skills had some relevance, and sometimes the Diwan likes to maintain continuity.

It was while I was distracted by that thought that I heard the boat commander swear. I turned to follow his gaze, and saw a third set of lights - belonging to a medium-sized craft, which was clearly on a course to cross our own.

“They appeared suddenly,” I remarked, not yet reading the man’s state of mind, “should we turn aside to let them pass?”

“They appeared suddenly because they came up from underwater,” the commander snapped, and then he left me gaping while he shouted out commands to his crew. The boat came about, but I realised that we would have little chance to out-run what I soon recognised as a military diving galleot.

I hurried back to the cabin, and found Kemal white with fear. “What is going on?” I demanded, “what’s so special about this information that Angora would use a stupid tactic like this to keep it from us? And for that matter, if it’s so valuable, why didn’t they just send a few guard-dogs after you in Tanjah?”

“We are outside the safe space,” he garbled, “they couldn’t find me in that part of the city for another two days - almost three. But out here, they have focus.”

I decided that he was hysterical, and very possibly insane; I was only puzzled that I hadn’t noticed the signs before. I could only guess that he must have been operating entirely within his own conception of rationality.

Which did not explain the shepherds’ decision to send a suicide attack after him. It is hardly secret (or surprising) that both the Diwan of Security and the Moravid Palaces keep a sonar watch on the Straights; therefore, that galleot would, for a certainty, have been noticed, and it would soon be challenged, and either arrested or (if it chose to behave stupidly) sunk. Angora would subsequently have to make a lot of excuses. However, that left one large question; would the galleot be challenged in time to save us?

I pointed to the briefcases, which were still chained to Kemal’s wrists. “Can you summarise what’s in those?” I asked, “give me something we can radio to Grenada?”

Kemal shook his head. “Come on,” I said, “it’s a chance to save ourselves. If we can convince that galleot that the secrets are lost, they may decide it’s not worth the risk to attack.”

But Kemal still shook his head. “The historical study is too detailed,” he said, “and I don’t much understand the other part – the science - myself.”

“You can tell me what they plan to do with all this material” I said, just as an explosion sounded a little way from the boat.

Kemal shivered. “They are planning to murder 'Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar” he said, almost inaudibly.

It took me a moment to recognise the formal, medieval name from the notes Kemal had shown me in Tanjah, and I did not then feel much better informed. “He is already a thousand years dead” I said.

“He lived long enough,” Kemal answered. “He was strong - capable. Without him, your land will turn in on itself...”

Although I was still reading Kemal as sane, if frightened, I decided that he had slipped into terrified irrationality. “Please,” I said, controlling my own voice to express all the calm I could project, “there must be something we could broadcast to dissuade them...”

“I’m sorry,” Kemal interrupted, “There is nothing. They will want to stop as much of this as they can from reaching your masters.”

I was about to argue further - to appeal to his honour, perhaps, given that we had made a deal - when there was another explosion, much nearer than the first. The galleot was irretrievably committed now, blasting us with its guns - light weapons by naval standards, but doubtless heavy enough to destroy a civilian craft like ours. I heard a couple of shots fired from astern on our boat; evidently, the commander had broken personal arms out from some secret compartment. But I also immediately heard the commander tell the men to save ammunition and stay under cover; the galleot was fully enclosed and armoured, gun positions and all, and our weapons would not harm it. They would only help us if the Ottmans sought to board.

I came out of the cabin in a crouch, and found one of the crewmen lying flat, rifle in hand. My first words to him were drowned out by a booming explosion that seemed to burst on the water bare yards from the boat, throwing up spray that blew over both of us; evidently, the galleot was finding our range.

“How long can we keep ahead of them?” I repeated.

The man looked uncertain. “There should be a ferry somewhere to the east,” he said, “we’re trying to cut over that way. The crazies won’t want an audience. But that makes it easier for them to close.”

There was another explosion, completely deafening, and my first thought was a foolish awareness that this one had thrown up no spray. Then I realised that this was because the shell had clipped the bow of the boat, splintering woodwork and destroying most of the glass in the craft’s ports. I swore, and left the man holding his rifle and cautiously trying to judge the galleot’s position, while I crawled forward to find the commander in the wheel-house. Two more shells hit the water as I went; neither did any damage, but both were too close.

The commander had a vicious gash in his face, left by flying glass, but he was still alert and seeking to manoeuvre so as to throw off the Ottman’s aim. We spoke for a few moments, as yet another shell missed us, but I could offer him nothing that would help. Then, as I paused, trying to think of any contribution that I could offer to our efforts to survive, another shot struck the boat near the waterline, just forward of the cabin.

I dashed back, forgetting the need for cover, and leapt through the hatch. The first thing that I saw was Kemal, who had been thrown against the wall of the cabin by the burst; the second was water, pouring through the damaged hull and already filling the cabin up to my knees.

I reached the defector, and examined him. He was concussed and unconscious, but so far as I could tell, not fatally hurt. I could not find his handcuff keys in the confusion and half-light, and it was entirely possible that the locks he had used had complex mechanisms that needed special operations to release; if I was going to save the briefcases, I would have to save him as well.

As I was dragging him through the hatch-way, another shell struck astern, sending up splinters that grazed my face. The galleot had us crippled now, and was firing methodically; that last shot had destroyed our engine. I wondered whether they would now board us. It seemed unlikely; they were all too evidently willing to destroy us completely, and I doubted that Kemal had escaped with the only copy of anything important.

As I hauled Kemal out of the cabin, looking for life-saving equipment as I came, I glanced across the water. The galleot was coming in close now, and I could see its twin forward guns swivelling to track us. Its name - Mutual Loyalty Avenges Disloyalty - and identifying codes were painted across its hull in blockish Modern Kufic script, and I reflexively memorised them.

Then there came the roar of heavy propellers, and a stutter of lighter guns. Explosive shells burst on the water, and then on the hull of the galleot - and then the pair of Andalusian aircraft passed overhead.

They came twisting back for another pass, and I wondered whether the galleot commander would dive, or whether his orders were indeed so strict that he would continue shelling us. In fact, neither turned out to be the case. I imagine that his instincts were those of a sailor, who, commanded to destroy a foe at sea, instinctively determines to obliterate the foe’s vessel beyond hope of recovery - despite the fact that, in this case, his true objective was not the vessel, but that which it carried. His guns fell silent, and a massive bow-wave grew around the galleot as it gained speed.

By the time that the aircraft had come back around, their target was too close to us for them to fire safely, and they became spectators to this final assault. The impact shattered the boat completely, and the galleot ploughed on for two hundred yards, leaving only fragments in its wake. Then I heard a hiss, which I only later realised was the galleot filling its dive-tanks; but by then, the flyers - as determined as the galleot commander, or perhaps simply vengeful - had decided that they could now shoot once more. Their cannon had been more of a warning than a serious attack; on this pass, they fired short-range rockets, which holed the galleot three or four times. It sank in a few minutes.

I was watching all of this from closer than I liked, and hoping that no explosions would generate shock-waves in the water severe enough to kill. Fortunately, the rockets struck well above the galleot’s waterline; it probably only sank because it had already started to dive. When the first ship - a ferry out of Tanjah - arrived half an hour later, it found me and Kemal, wearing the floatation-jackets that I had found in time, along with the boat’s commander - a strong swimmer - and one of its crew, holding on to wooden wreckage. Two crew from the boat were killed; only one man from the galleot, one of the gun-crew, escaped its sinking. That one man’s survival pleased me, as it gave Al-Andalus and Al-Morav many options for embarrassing the Ottmans.

I was able to assert myself aboard the ferry with some effect, much helped by the signals the captain had already received from Jabal Tariq, and I even managed to avoid too many questions about the briefcases chained to my “friend’s” wrists.

Thus I found myself with time to sit and think, wrapped in a blanket in one of the ferry’s cabins. In this time, I reflected on Kemal’s claims.

Contrary to popular tales, training such as I have received cannot determine absolute truth. I merely have a fair chance of knowing whether a speaker believes that what is said is true, and of recognising the grosser forms of madness. We say that this science originally derived from the skills of poets as well as doctors - but I think that its founders also drew on the arts of simplest of popular story-tellers. And as they said, Allah Alone Knows Truth.

I formed the idea that I should tell Kemal that I accepted his story, and thereby gain his trust; although whatever he then told me might be the product of insanity, we could contrive to extract useful facts from it. However, I believe that I was deceiving myself at least as  much as I hoped to deceive Kemal. I do not think that I entirely accepted the implications of his words, but I found them, and the information he had provided, strangely consistent.

No doubt many people aboard the ferry were startled by the small army of military ambulances and officials that met us when we reached Al-Andalus, but very soon, plenty of contradictory rumours were flying about collisions between Andalusian and Ottman vessels in the Straights, and my own superiors left officials of the appropriate Diwans to exploit the situation.

I was led to the same ambulance as Kemal, which then rushed under escort to a secure hospital. Kemal was still nervous, although I judged that he was settling down. Then, after a few minutes, he came to a conclusion.

“I must tell you all that I can” he declared.

I looked around us; the vehicle held two medical assistants, and the partition between us and the driver had no effective sound-proofing. “Better to wait,” I said, “there will be a conference arranged...”

“No.” I saw that he was forming a strange determination. “The sooner I begin speaking, the better... I have no guaranteed safety now. The time and space around Tanjah were all that was certain. If I do die, I want the best chance... That it won’t be for nothing.”

“Revenge?” I asked.

“More than that,” he said, and he tried to say more, but I interrupted.

“I deduce that the guard-dogs have some kind of... science, which can observe the behaviour of individuals and other events in the recent past,” I said, “that would explain a number of other recent successes that they have achieved. And I gather that you managed to find or create a blind spot for yourself - a safety zone, in Tanjah.”

“Yes,” Kemal agreed, “but that is only a first-order application of the theory.”

“And a second-order application might serve to murder 'Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar?”

Kemal nodded. “Who unified and strengthened Al-Andalus a thousand years ago. Without him - with his weak brother in charge, most likely - the tension between mercenary soldiers and subjects, in the face of Christian enemies...”

“Would be catastrophic,” I finished for him. “Al-Andalus would fall.”

“Be weakened,” Kemal corrected, “enter irreversible decline. Its tradition of free thought would be lost, and it would never win an empire - or host a new age of learning.”

“But why would your nation do such a thing?” I asked, mustering tones of calm patience. “If they change history thus thoroughly, surely the rise of the Ottmans, centuries later, would never happen.”

Kemal coughed, half of a laugh. “Strangely enough, in some ways, history proves remarkably robust, when one examines it methodically - or empirically,” he said, “the Ottmans would rise, and conquer, and would never face any annoying reforming movements. The shepherds believe that it would endure for many more centuries...”

I can say that Kemal spoke what he thought was truth that night, and that he showed no signs of blatant insanity. While he paused to draw breath and muster his thoughts, I sat silent. Then, I found a question that I thought struck to the heart of what he had said, whatever the roots of his tale.

“Even so, individuals who are alive this day would not exist in this other history,” I said, “It would be a kind of - ultimate suicide. And all for the sake of a reasonable chance of success. Why should the shepherds elect to fight such a suicidal war?”

Kemal shook his head as if saddened by this question, although I was unsure whether the gesture was a sign of true unhappiness, or simply a rhetorical device. “You persist in misunderstanding the nature of the shepherds,” he said, “all of you. You see them as like a band of Vandal kings in one of your historical epics - hypocritical tyrants, proclaiming a set of ideals purely in order to justify their own power.”

“Do we?” I asked.

“But that is wrong, and I hoped that you - one who I know has seen these things at first hand - might understand that. They really do believe in the Omarite view of the world.”

“But Omarism - the world that encompasses them - would be destroyed if they did what you say they are planning.”

“Probably not entirely,” he declared, and I caught a note of true Omarite fanaticism there, albeit at second hand. “But I must make you and yours believe this absolutely. You must know that you are fighting to the death. Tell me how I may achieve this...”

“I do not know,” I admitted.

“This is not a war in which one may sue for a decent peace,” Kemal went on, “and the casualties cannot be kept low. There will be none, or we will all cease to be. If you elect not to give battle, you will all be swept away.”

“No,” I said. “Whatever happens, there will be casualties, and you will help determine them.” I spoke quietly, trying to ensure that as few others as possible heard what I said, but I somehow felt that I had to speak now. If the ‘Key Points’ of which Kemal’s documents spoke truly exist - and if human beings can somehow sense them - then this was one, and I had to act instantly if I was to influence what would follow. “If we accept what you say, we will be obliged to be ruthless and swift, and some scientists and planners who you name will die.”

I think that gave him pause, but only for a moment. “They have already accepted this, and more,” he stated. “I will name who must die.”

“I would guess that they may include friends of yours,” I murmured.

“Perhaps...” I was not reducing Kemal’s determination; rather, his ready-formed commitment was making him adopt a less flexible, more fanatical position in the face of counter-argument. I decided to leave matters there. “You have not grasped what I told you,” he suddenly snarled. “The shepherds will sacrifice the existence of everyone - themselves and all of us - in the name of a few centuries, perhaps a millennium or two, of secure Ottman glory. Or something with a similar name.”

“And we can stop them?”

“We can...” I think that then he remembered his situation. “If I can survive long enough to convince your leaders that I am not mad.”

“Very well,” I nodded, “I will pass on what you say.”

It was his turn to study my face. “I do not think that you really wish to fight this war” he said.

“Oh, I think that when we analyse your mathematical data, it will be consistent,” I said quietly. “I think that we will fight this war.”

“That is enough,” he stated, satisfied.

“However,” I could not help but conclude, for my own benefit alone, “it is a fact about some wars, that if one is fighting them at all, one has already lost.”

// END //

Footnote: The survival of the Caliphate of al-Andalus was actually brought about by participants on the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if. Thanks are due to all involved in that discussion, including Ian Samuels, who saved the life of 'Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar, and Donald Tucker, for suggesting the Platonic totalitarianism that he named Omarism.

(Copyright Phil Masters, 1997.)

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