The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

First Move

by S. Fowler Wright

USA "Inside" magazine

Chapter 1

        The President laid a fat fore-finger on the map. It covered Lichtenburg, and about ten miles of surrounding country.

        "We will use," he said, "one of the smallest bombs, both because we are of merciful minds, and because it is a frugal wisdom. We must not forget that what we spare will become ours. This is the area which we shall destroy."

        His finger rose as he spoke, and his pencil circled a space of about three hundred square miles, containing a population of about two million people.

        The Chancellor asked: "You think this war really necessary?"

        "I should hardly call it a war. There will be the one bomb, and surrender in the next hour. Can you think that they would prefer two?"

        "It would be irrational."

        And after that, there will be a great spoil. They will not be an exhausted nation, as were those who suffered defeat under the older methods of conflict - slow, cruel and stupid. They will not be like - shall we say - the Germany of 1945, unfit to export anything but their own diseases. They will pay a rich tribute in corn and cattle, and the manufactures in which they excel, and our people will thrive. We may even be able to give permission for selected women to have four children instead of three.

        The chancellor said nothing to that, for, though he did not like the idea of the destruction of the people and property of a friendly nation, it was an argument of great force. With the standard of living, and the shortened hours of industry which now prevailed, it had become absolutely necessary to penalise those who had unlicensed children, and yet, with the popular perversity which all statesmen have cause to dread, many resented a compulsory restriction, even though the previous fertility of the nation had been little more than was now the result of an admirable control. . . . And, as they both knew, there were the elections in May, and the party of reaction had been gaining in popularity to an alarming degree.

        The President was not content to observe that he had silenced his colleague. He wished to be sure that he had his active support, for he had learnt how valuable it could be, He went on: "If you see any objection I may have overlooked, I rely on you to tell me without reserve. There is none whose opinion I esteem more."

        That might be true. But the Chancellor did not think his reason for hesitation to be such as the President would approve, or would cause him to alter his decision. Still, it should not be withheld.

        "If I seem to hesitate," he said, "it is only because we have had such cordial relations with Polasia during recent years. It will be an attack with no pretext at all."

        The President laughed his relief: "It is not more than that? Then you can put it out of your mind? When it is done. we can find pretexts enough, which their government will not be alive to deny. . . . And you must not forget that it is only under such circumstances that an attack can be safely made. If they had suspicion, or we had raised cause of complaint, they might be as quick, or quicker, than we."

        "That is true, though Polasia is supposed to have given up the manufacture of bombs two years ago, as a gesture to lead the world."

        "Which they still may not have done, though I think they did. . . . Perhaps you fear that Alicia may be there? You must call her home. You could find a reason for that?"

        "Oh, no! She is at Eastburg, where her husband is ill. She will be safe enough. . . . I can see no flaw in your plan at all."

        The last words were said in a tone which cleared the President's mind of the disquieting doubt which had intruded a moment before. He felt that he would have his chancellor's co-operation, as had been the case in the political plots and trickeries of the previous twenty years. It was a support that he would have been sorry to lose, though at any sign of disloyalty, he would have been ruthless to clear his path. But, in fact, he had gone too far he had found something (it might have been thought difficult) at which his colleague's conscience rebelled.

        The two men parted with no diminution of cordiality, but, as the Chancellor entered his waiting car, he thought: "It is a monstrous project - monstrous almost beyond belief. But can I stop it?"

        It was difficult to see any way which might not ruin himself, which he was unwilling to do.

Chapter 2

        It was at an early hour of the following morning that the Chancellor rang up the President. He said: "I have been considering the subject of our conversation yesterday the last one before we parted. The idea seems thoroughly sound; but there is a minor detail which should not be overlooked."

        The President thanked him, and suggested that they should meet at once to discuss it.

        This they did, and he had an additional reason to appreciate the ability and thoroughness with which his colleague seconded the subtlety of his own mind.

        "You remarked yesterday," the Chancellor said, "in reply to my objection that we should have no pretext for the contemplated attack, such as would appear reasonable to our countrymen and other nations, that we could invent what we would, which the Polasian Government would not be alive to deny. It was sound reasoning. But did you not overlook the fact that Baron Linvi might have much to say which would be widely believed, and which would become a weapon to vex our peace?"

        "It is a good thought. He must be promptly removed."

        "But would there not be cause for suspicion in that? It would be a coincidence of a remarkable kind."

        The President could not dispute that. Baron Linvi was Polasia's Ambassador. He had held that office for several years, during which he had done much to increase the popularity of the country he represented, and establish that of his own. They could not doubt that his words would have more credence than their united assertions would ever have. The President asked: Can you tell me a better way?"

        "I think I can. Suppose the catastrophe were to occur at a time when Linvi were back in his own country?"

        "It is a good idea, but it would involve too great a delay. It is less than two months since he was there, and we know that his habit is to -"

        "But if he should go at once, by his own desire?"

        "If you know how that could be arranged. . . ."

        It might be no trouble at all. Suppose that we should propose conditions on which we would rectify the north-eastern frontier of their African territory as they have always desired? Could we not suggest such as he would wish to consult his Government upon orally or on which they would summon him for that purpose?"

        "It is a clever thought. You are a good comrade to have, as I have had occasion to say before. But it is not an idea which must get abroad. You had better see him yourself, and stress the secrecy with which negotiations must be conducted till agreement will have been finally reached. . . . When he is there, we cannot be too speedy in what we do.

        The Chancellor went away in a well satisfied mood. He knew the subtlety of the President's mind, and that to outwit him was as dangerous to attempt as it was difficult to achieve. But he thought he had done it now. To have such a private interview with Baron Linvi, without the President's knowledge, at such a moment would have been almost certainly futile in its attempt at concealment, and dangerous in its implications. To have informed him of such an intention without a fully satisfactory reason would have been almost equally likely to arouse suspicion. But he would not be able to do it with the President's knowledge, and with the approval of the particular privacy he desired. He had gained much for he had decided that it was an interview which it was essential to have.

Chapter 3

        The room where the Chancellor waited was large and lofty. It had windows, high, wide and richly curtained, at either end. At one, they looked down on the quiet dignity of the tree-lined street; at the other, upon the spacious garden at the rear of the embassy.

        The Chancellor was looking down from the rear window as Baron Linvi entered the room. He was slow to move, though his words of polite greeting were not delayed, so that he had only half turned as they shook hands.

        Then his eyes went back to the window. He said: "You have a beautiful garden."

        Baron Linvi answered: "Yes. It is very pleasant." His voice was casual. They looked down on a lawn that was wide and green. But he did not suppose his visitor had called to approve of the view.

        "Yes. It is often admired."

        "There is a peculiar privacy about a garden. . . . Especially for those who do not mind being seen, but who do not wish to be overhead."

        The Baron looked at his visitor more alertly. He said: "We should not be over-heard here,

        "No," the Chancellor answered, "I suppose not." But he continued to gaze at the garden.

        The Ambassador understood that a conversation of extreme privacy was desired. He said: "The garden is particularly attractive on such a morning as this. Shall we go there?"

        The Chancellor said: "As you wish."

Chapter 4

        The President received a police report next morning of the Chancellor' s movements during the previous day, which was no more than routine. He read that he had been overlooked in Baron Linvi's garden. For twenty-three minutes they had paced the length of the lawn. The Chancellor had done most of the talking. The Baron, especially during the latter part of the conversation, had appeared pleased.

        He destroyed this report, as was his custom, and resumed the work on which he had been engaged. It was what he had expected to read.

        Half an hour later, the Chancellor was announced. He said that he had promised much, alleging that they sought Polasia's friendship, and the healing of an old sore. Why should he have been a niggard of a price which would not be paid?

        The President assented to that, and resumed his work. For, as with the report, it was only what he had expected.

Chapter 5

        The Ministry of the interior received a note from the Polasian Embassy. It enquired concerning the address of a man, Belf Roder, otherwise known as Slita Rix, a citizen of Polasia who had been employed at the Embassy for a short time two years before, and had then disappeared. The finding of him had become urgent and the Embassy would be most grateful of any assistance which could be given.

        The Minister of the Interior replied, through one of his secretaries that he should be pleased to do what he could, but that nothing was known of the missing man. Was a description available? Within two hours, a very full description arrived.

        The Minister of the Interior was not indisposed to oblige the Ambassador over so slight a matter. He circulated the description to police stations throughout the country, with a request that search should be made diligently. But there was no immediate result and two days later the enquiry was repeated. In the course of a telephone conversation, it was represented to be a matter of great urgency, as the Ambassador was delaying a visit to his own country until this man should be found. Was there any connection between the two matters? The enquiry was made with diplomatic obliquity. How could there be? His Excellency merely wished to see the missing man before he left.

Chapter 6

        The President said: "It appeared that you had done well. That may still be so. It was a good trap, and he professed willingness to be caught. But this is an annoying delay. Have you any idea why he should require to trace this man with such urgency?"

        "Not the least," the Chancellor answered, with an apparent frankness which the President had no reason to doubt.

        "Might he not be asked? It might be a matter on which we could render whatever service might be required. The man may not be found in a week - or at all."

        "I have tried that. He replied that it is domestic to the Embassy He added that, if the man could be produced, he could dispose of the matter in a few hours, and he would be ready to leave. It would be difficult to do more. We cannot insist that he should go"

        "Is everything possible to find the man being done?"

        "It is not my department, as you know. The Minister of the Interior has issued instructions to the police of particular urgency."

        "Yes. . . . so I have been told. But time is too important to allow further delay. If the police do not find the man in the next twenty-four hours, they must find the nearest they can."

        "But what use would that be?"

        "He could impersonate this Roder or Rix."

        "Do you think that could be done successfully?"

        "Why not? The Embassy has supplied a most detailed description. It is not one to which it should be found difficult to find someone who would conform. . . . It might dispose instantly of this provoking delay. At the least, we might learn its cause."

        "Yes. It is a good idea." The Chancellor's face, as he gave this assent, expressed admiration for the President's sagacity and resource. The President felt he was receiving no more than his due.

Chapter 7

        A totalitarian state may have its defects, but it is certain to have an efficient police. It was reported promptly that there were eleven men among its hundred and thirty million who were extremely similar in appearance to the one who could not be found. Two of these were reticent regarding their past lives, or made statements not easy to verify. It was even possible that one of them might be the required man, nefariously denying his identity.

        Two days later, one of these men, calling himself Belf Roder, called at the Polasian Embassy, and, after some preliminary questions, was interviewed by the Ambassador.

        He had been warned that he ran a risk, even if his duplicity should not be discovered. It had been explained that the Embassy was extraterritorial, and that, should he be liquidated there, no protest could be made, especially as he must profess to be one over whom Polasia had a national claim. But he had been promised a large reward should he be successful in his deception, and discover the purpose for which he was required.

        He came back triumphant.

        The Ambassador had looked at him as though surprised at his appearance, for which there may have been occasion enough.

        "You are Belf Roder?"

        "Yes your Excellency."

        "I should not have known you."

        There was a discomforting silence. Then Baron Linvi said: "Well, here you are. . . . I will not ask you where you have it now. I want you to bring it back to me. How soon can you do that?"

        "I can assure your Excellency that no time will be lost."

        "I should suppose not. But I must have a more explicit reply. It is a small bomb which can be carried without remark. Shall we say within two days?"

        "Yes, your Excellency."

        With no more words, he was shown out, being unaware of the puzzled amusement in the Baron's eyes as he left the room.

        He had been accepted for what he was not. He had learned - or so appeared - that Roder had been entrusted with some kind of bomb, presumably not less than two years before, which he was now required to return. It was difficult to see how he could have learned more without exposing his own ignorance. Indeed, from Baron Linvi, was there more to be learned, beyond the reason for what he did, which would have been impudent to enquire?

        The President approved what he had done. He should have his reward. But his services would be required further. He must remain within call.

        He was shown out, and the Chancellor summoned. The President repeated what he had heard. He asked: "what does it mean?"

        The Chancellor understood that, knowing several things of which the President was not aware. But as he did not intend to mention them, they did not make reply easier. The production of a pseudo Roder had been outside the anticipations of either Baron Linvi or himself when their plans had been made. He saw that the Baron, with great adroitness, had taken advantage of a development which they could not have fore-seen. But how could he follow it up in the right way?

        The President observed his hesitation without guessing its causes. He asked: "Why should he talk of a bomb now? Do you think he can have guessed of our intentions? You would not have said anything indiscreet?"

        "Is it likely? . . . And may we not take it in the opposite way? - That he was planting a bomb which he is now alert to withdraw?"

        "Would he carry one about in his luggage. Or have entrusted it to one with whom he has not been in touch for two years? And of whom he had no address? We must think of something better than that."

        "Which, for the moment, I am unable to do. . . . I think it would be well to call on the Baron, for which I can find pretexts enough. I may learn something from his attitude. Even from what is un-said."

        "So you say. And it is most urgent that you should. What shall we do in two days? We have found a man. Are we also to provide a bomb, and of what sort is it to be?"

        "Yes, I must see Linvi at once."

        "So you shall. . . . Yet it may not be much help to us. . . . It may be that Roder should be destroyed by an accident we should greatly regret. We would deliver his dead body, after which they could not expect him to find a bomb."

        "So we might. But it would be wise to defer that course to the last. We could not bring him to life again, if it should become a preferable condition for him to be in."

        The President agreed that nothing should be done without careful consideration. But he reminded the Chancellor again that time was a restricting factor in their plans. He was not disposed to delay the attack on Polasia for more than a further week, even to secure the desirable detail that Baron Linvi should be there at the time.

        The Chancellor said that he would endeavour to arrange an interview with the Baron that afternoon.

Chapter 8

        "Your President," Baron Linvi said, "is a man of resourse."

        "Yes. It is a development we did not foresee."

        "But it may be simple for us."

        "What do you propose we do now?"

        "You can return to the President and tell him that I have exposed the truth to you without reserve, now that friendship between our countries is to be permanently secured."

        "The truth?"

        "So, of course, you will say. You will be unable to tell him where the bomb is, but he will not expect that. You will tell him that I say that he should watch Roder, so that he may secure it himself, which you will find that he will be anxious to do, though he will be puzzled at to what further use his Roder can be. You will tell him that he is a man whose conduct has roused distrust - but, all the same, he will see that there is now no cause for alarm."

        "Yes. It is difficult to see what he can do now. But you are right. I will go to him at once."

Chapter 9

        "Baron Linvi says that he has been in communication with his own government and -"

        "So he has. He has been using a new code, which we have not yet been able to read."

        "He says that he has their permission to be absolutely frank with us, if he should feel that course to be best, and he has been so to a surprising degree."

        "I suppose they have learnt our plans and are threatening us! Are we to conclude that they have such weapons themselves, which they are manufacturing still, despite the protestations which they have made? We must act instantly, if there be the least suspicion of that."

        "No. It is a different tale, and has an aspect of truth. It appears that when they gave up the manufacture of bombs they took a precaution which, they would say, was no more than a negative kind.

        "They manufactured one of enormous power, on a principle of which, so far as I know, our own scientists are not aware, and they planted it in this country. It is so designed that it can explode only in conjunction with another at a specific distance. He did not tell me what that distance may be. He professed that he did not know. But suppose it to be two thousand miles, and suppose it to be secreted in a central position here which would be an obvious choice then it would not be stimulated to dangerous reaction by any bomb within our own boundaries, and any manufactured elsewhere would be much too far away. But if we should send a bomb to attack Polasia, for instance they would both explode at a time when ours would be over the ocean a thousand miles, more or less, from their coast. Its explosion would do little damage, unless to a few ships, while theirs would produce wide devastation here."

        "So that, if the tale be true, he is giving warning to us."

        "It is certainly a warning which it would be reckless to disregard, but I do not think it is meant at all in that way. If it were so, would he not have told us before, instead of waiting until I went to enquire?"

        "Yes. There is reason in that. But do you see what it has become vital for us to do? We must find the man - the real Roder - and he must return the bomb, so that it may be rendered harmless to us."

        "But how can we, now that the Baron has accepted another as he?"

        "It is a difficulty, but it may be less serious than you suppose. The Baron has evidently failed to observe the difference once. He may fail to do so again when the real man is found."

        "Yes. But he would not be aware of the interview with his substitute, or of the instructions which have been given to him. How should we get over that?"

        The Chancellor checked himself to add lamely: "Well, it is useless to attempt to cross a bridge to which you have not come. Let us find the man."

        He had reminded himself of that which was equally well known to the Baron and himself, that there was no Roder, and no bomb; and that the faked Roder had not deceived the Baron, but he him and that they must find some way to maintain their deceptions, or Polasia and himself (about which he cared more) were likely to suffer much in the next month. But the fact was that, in the process of misleading the President, and arguing with sufficient realism on premises which did not exist, he had caused such confusion in his own mind that it had become difficult to distinguish clearly where truth or deception lay.

        It was on the following day that the Ambassador of the South American Union sent a very secret message to his President. It said: "I have received reports of some activity at the A.V.B. Station here. Any communications of urgency should reach me by Wednesday, when I am planning to go up into the mountains to recuperate from the heat of the city."

        However secret it might be, he supposed that it would be decoded and read before it had gone a mile from his door, for which there could be no remedy where it was routine to betray for gain. (But what harm could there be in it?)

        His expectation was right, for within an hour President and Chancellor sat considering it together.

        "He misses little," the Chancellor said. "He is a good man."

        The President pondered its implications before he replied: "Yes, so he is. . . . It is a message of several possible implications. It is the reply which will be important to us. I must see it the instant that it arrives,"

        But no reply came.

Chapter 10

        It was a week later that the Chancellor's daughter, Alicia, notified him that she was about to return home from Eastburg. He knew that the air-liner which she would use would touch down at Lichtenburg, but he did nothing to cause her to change her route, or delay her journey, from which it may be assumed, with good reason, that the plan for destroying the Polasian capital had been deferred, if not entirely abandoned.

        Yet, as the airliner was still some hundreds of miles distant from that unfortunate city, the sky before them was lit with blinding light, and there came the horror of distant sound. In a few moments the blinding intensity of the light was gone, and was succeeded by a great wind, and a faint, calamitous sound, at which the airliner swung round and returned at its utmost speed to the place from which it had come.

        The capital city of Polasia had become a lifeless waste, from which it may be too readily assumed that the President had overruled the scruples or discovered the deceptions of his less logical colleagues. But this would be wrong. Neither President, nor Chancellor, nor Ambassador would be further troubled by the somewhat complicated problem they had built, for they had ceased to exist. The fact was that the President of the South American Union had decided, since he had received the suggestion from his own Ambassador, in a previously agreed and arbitrary form, which it had been impossible for others to understand, that the elimination of his two major rivals would be no more than the act of a prudent man.

The End