Tuesday, 25 August 2015

No Apologies For The Infinite Radness 1.1.2 - "Round Here" (Counting Crows)

Or, as they will forever be whenever my father spots me loading one of their albums into the CD player, "Whingeing Crows."

You can see his point. The band's debut album August and Everything After is so wet with self-absorbed tears of bitter loneliness the disc could double as a rice paddy. Every song on there is in the first-person, and every one is lament to lost love, dying love, love cut short, or love misapplied, save for the two about insomnia and, weirdly, Omaha. Even the track about the desire for fame basically comes down to singer and primary songwriter Adam Duritz wanting to become an MTV staple because it will increase the chance pretty girls in bars will fuck him.

But, like "Mellon Collie...", the album I started this series with a cut from, there are times - teenage times especially - when this level of defiant refusal to consider anything beyond the four walls of your skull is a necessary response to the crowded world pushing its way into your head. The cure in bulk can be more dangerous than the disease, of course. There are perhaps few more embarrassing sights than seeing someone obsess over an album because it shows them that they are unique, just like the person who wrote it. Taken with a pinch of salt, though, and as part of a balanced musical diet, such self-indulgence is no vice.

Particularly when the music tastes as good as this track. The opening song on "August...", this was the first Counting Crows song I ever heard, and it's still their best. Almost ridiculously sparse, less driven by its three note riff than dragged stumbling forwards by it, there's an astonishing economy here that's gloriously at odds with Duritz's anguished vocals and dense lyrics - at least until the balls-out bridge. Duritz is walking a thin line here, constantly threatening to fall into pretentiousness on one side and nonsense on the other, just like "he's walking on a wire in a circus". High-wire acts show up a lot in his lyrics, as do rain and angels, all of which feature here. We're always looking up at things, in wonder and dread, waiting for them to fall. But we're falling too, or at least Duritz is; he's "under the gun" (something else to gaze up at in fear) but somehow he's falling further still. Everything here is falling or suspended, like rain becoming fog; everything not already in downward motion will come to it eventually. The only things rising here are ghosts.

Which is curiously appropriate for this song. It's not even a Counting Crows song in some sense, it having been written by Adam and his fellow members of his previous band, the Himalayas. That's a band which I know almost nothing about other than they created this thing, this beautiful, sparse, melancholy thing, that lives on long after the band's death. And like any ghost, it is incapable of change, no matter how hard change is attempted. The Crows are notorious for the degree to which they fiddle with their back catalogue on tour - this makes them a rather risky proposition live, unfortunately - and "Round Here" has gone through more variations than any other. Even by the time the band released their third disc, actually a double live album - the song had mutated enormously, first into an even more stripped down version, then into an eight minute stadium monster filled with guitars that don't so much duel as collapse sobbing into a heap together.

In almost all of its endless iterations the song remains capable of doing its job. But that first-pressed version, placed at the front of their first disc like an endurance test for those looking for the comparative endorphin-rush of first single"Mr Jones", is what the song will always be. A beginning and an epitaph, a ghost of a confluence. No matter how many versions of that ghost story Duritz went on and goes on to tell, the truth remains here unchanging. Round here we stay up very very late. And we stay forever.

Monday, 24 August 2015

You Can Check Out Any Time You Want, But You Can Never Have Your Cash

Update: I was phoned by someone in Park Inn management today. They were unreservedly apologetic, immediately agreed to pay the bank fines incurred during this situation, and asked what it would take to make me happy and willing to use them again in the future.  Not being very good at haggling, I didn't manage to say anything particularly helpful at this point, but nevertheless I've been offered my next stay there in a superior room, with breakfast, at an almost two-thirds discount, so long as it's within the next year. I am perfectly willing to call myself happy with that offer. Obviously this doesn't change the basic message here: if you're planning on using Park Inn by Radisson, please make sure to pay in advance. The takeaway message from management was that the failure was in not letting me know the block can take a week to clear, rather than the block not working as intended. Paying in advance solves this problem in its entirety.

My thanks to my various twitter peeps who also tweeted the hotel to complain about how badly things had gone wrong).

For anyone following my ongoing problems with the Heathrow Park Inn by Radisson, I include my complaint to them below.  Be warned, it's not at all funny. I love amusing complaints as much as the next person, but I tend not to write them, partially because it takes time to come up with jokes that I'd rather spend on enjoyable writing tasks, but also because I don't want to run the risk that someone amongst this shower of incompetents and jobsworths might find my complaint amusing.

So in no way think of this as writing to entertain. I just thought people might want to know how useless this chain has been in dealing with my problem.  Bear in mind that whilst this complaint is now written, as you can see, I haven't actually sent it, because the "email us" page at the Park Inn website doesn't seem to work. Irony? Crushing inevitability? It can be so hard to tell...

Dear Park Inn by Radisson

I was expecting to hear from your management team about this problem already, but since that hasn't happened (far from the first time I have been misled by your hotel chain) I shall comment here.

My stay was perfectly fine, but the financial snarl your hotel left me in following that stay was thoroughly unacceptable. Upon checking in, I was asked to provide the card I would pay for my stay with so it could be verified. Nothing was mentioned about blocking money in my account, but this is exactly what happened. This caused minor problems as I was sharing a room and my room-mate had not yet transferred his half of the money, meaning for the whole of Saturday 8th August I had effectively paid for the hotel (if I can't touch that money because you have blocked it, it is no different to you having taken it) despite your staff telling me I need not do it until the following day.  This problem was compounded by your staff failing to mention that the £50 deposit (which I had not been informed of prior to check in) was PER PERSON, meaning a further £100 was blocked in my account, all without my permission.

All of that I would have happily forgiven were it not for the fact that when I checked out of the hotel on Sunday and paid for my stay, your hotel didn't remove the block. As a result I had £172 removed from my account for my stay and a FURTHER £272 that I was not allowed to access for a full working week.

Some of the £272 you failed to unblock - I was promised by your staff the money would be unblocked immediately upon payment for the room - was money set aside various other payments due to come out of my account over the FULL WEEK you kept the block in place, which of course now could not go out.  I am therefore being charged by my bank for failing to make payments I had budgeted for and your chain then rendered impossible.

I did not remain idle during the five days you let the block linger. On Tuesday 11th August I phoned your Heathrow hotel to complain. I spoke to someone at the front desk who - after initially insisting this was a problem for the bank to solve, something I already knew untrue, and after following some persuading - agreed to phone my bank branch (Barclays, Durham) to cancel the hold, and to email me once this was complete.  No email ever arrived.

On that Tuesday I also made contact with the Park Inn twitter account, which started following me to offer more assistance. Despite multiple tweets to this account from me, this account only sent me one message a day. On the Wednesday (the day after I had complained to Heathrow Park Inn and received no sign of them working at my problem) I was tweeted to ask if the problem had been resolved. I replied at 9:32am that it had not. 20 HOURS later, I received another tweet asking for my reservation details (already given to the hotel in question) and email (likewise already available to you). 24 hours after THAT - almost five full days after I had paid for my room and almost three full days since my initial complaint - I received another tweet asking I give you 48 MORE hours to resolve the problem (a problem that could be solved by one phone call to my bank, let us not forget). By this point the hold had reached the end of its seven day life span and was automatically terminated. When I tweeted your account to let you know the situation had finally been resolved despite you taking no obvious action, your response was to tell me that this had always been a possible result of the system you use, information that would have been vastly helpful seven days earlier, but at the time it was given amounted to nothing but blame shifting (you implied in that tweet that my bank may have been at least partly to blame).

To sum up, then, I was not made sufficiently aware of a deposit being needed before arriving at the hotel (perhaps this was written somewhere and I didn't see it, but that in itself suggests it should be made more obvious), I was NEVER told that deposit was per person even when the money was being blocked, I was NEVER told my money would be blocked in the first place, the block wasn't cancelled even after I paid for our room, I was told this problem would be resolved on Tuesday 11th and it was not, and it took the Park Inn twitter feed almost three full days to get around to asking me for two further full days to solve this exceptionally simple problem. Having so totally failed at every stage to inform me of what you were doing and acting in any way to put right what you had gotten wrong, you then sent me a message saying this is just what happens, and maybe my bank was the problem.

The total cost of the fines I have incurred as a result of this catalogue of errors and failures is £8, which I fully expect to be reimbursed by you - a small amount, yes, but one I absolutely should not have to pay. It will take far more than that most minimal of gestures to ever persuade me to stay in one of your hotels again, but it would at least be a start.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Back To The Old House

When I first saw Cabin in the Woods I was not at all kind to its ending. But having found the film for three quid and given it another go, I'm rather less annoyed. I mean, it still sucks on a story level, but after further thought I can see two ways the allegorical force of the film's ending can help to at least lessen the damage done.

(Spoilers beneath the fold)

Monday, 17 August 2015

Translated Extract From "The Motherland Calls Collect", Memoirs Of Russian Chief Of Defensive Forces Ricsputin Crosschev (Part 3 of 3: Balls To The Wall)

One of last English phrases I came across when learning the language was "sell out". Composites like this tend to come late in language learning because of the difficulties they present. The term can be both a noun and a verb, depending on context. It has a host of different nuanced implications depending on who or what is saying it, and about whom or what. A political sell out and musical sell out share almost no similarities beyond the anger of those who judge themselves betrayed, And on top of everything, so much about western society is based on the axiom that selling things is a fundamental good, the idea it can be so easily turned into an accusation of malpractice is difficult to process.

But if there was ever anyone it was easy for me to recognise as a sell out, it was President Heywardo.

I didn't know this at the time, of course. The full story of how he sold first his citizens to the aliens, and then his military when they found out - that he was forced to rely on Colombian troops to protect his borders whilst he turned his own country into a cattle-market - had yet to reach Russian ears, or mine at least. All I knew then was that he was my only chance of getting out of China with my career intact.
"A strange way to run a diplomatic service," I said to President Kniwu, with all the innocence I could muster. "Or did your secretary double-book you, Ambassador?"
Revyu looked at me with venom, and then at his Premier with distinct worry.
"I am so sorry, Mr President. I don't know how this could have happened."
I had a fair idea. Selling your people en masse to an alien enclave presumably entitled you to some perks in terms of travel arrangements.
I didn't doubt Kniwu would suspect the same thing, but this wasn't the time for either of us to bring it up.
"Mr Revyu, please escort President Heywardo to rooms equal to his station," Kniwu said with impeccable courtesy. "Mr President, I will speak with you very shortly."
"Calumny!" Heywardo roared in response. "Infamy!"
Despite his obvious and immense agitation, the man who once led Venezuela allowed himself to be led away by Revyu, though he muttered darkly about blood in the streets right up until the doors closed behind them.
"I beg your forgiveness", Kniwu said once the sound of outraged despot had died down. "Now, what were we discussing?"
"We were discussing a mutual disarming of nuclear weapons," I told him, despite knowing full well he had not forgotten. This was Kniwu's way of smoothing over the bump we had just encountered, and been yelled at by.
"Yes indeed," he said, nodding. "Alas, you heard my ambassador."
"I heard him," I agreed, "But I see no reason to credit him. We stand on the brink of a historic era of world peace. Consider what we have seen. Alien activity is at its lowest since their arrival, and America has never been interested less in hegemony than it is right now."
"And the Middle East?" Kniwu said, his eyebrows raised. "Surely you're not going to tell me the situation there is anything short of calamitous? The Israelis are just looking for an excuse to start launching their own nukes, and I don't think it'll even need to be a good excuse. A cloudy day, perhaps a stubbed toe, a favourite show cancelled before the characters had time to develop. That's all it would take."
"I don't think so," I told him, trying desperately not to think of burning buildings with Russians trapped screaming inside. "From what I understand the entire Israeli government is one public fart away from being swept out of power. This isn't the twentieth century any more; it's hard to insist Iran are the biggest threat to the Promised Land when ultra-advanced alien races of unknown numbers and destructive power have started kneeling towards Mecca."
"'Ultra-advanced alien races of unknown numbers and destructive power', as you say," Kniwu said. "And yet you want us to toss aside our defences?"
"Not all of them," I replied. "Just a few. Mr President, you and I both know the aliens aren't going to be taken down by ICBMs. Our best pilots have interception records against these things that look like our planes were flown by rhinos. Throwing nuclear missiles at them is going to be like trying to drop feathers on a bullet train."
I leaned in towards him, just fractionally, and lowered my voice.
"This is it, Mr President. A moment they will remember forever. The first three-way multilateral disarmament plan in the history of our planet. And I promise, once this is done, I will talk to the Indians about joining us. They might do it simply to annoy the British.  What do you say?"
Kniwu looked at me for a long moment. He nodded once.
"General Buan?"
Buan sighed. "I would have dearly loved to utterly annihilate India. But it's like keeping your teenage clothes in case you're ever thin enough to fit into them again. You should just give it up and do something more useful with them. Give them to someone younger."
"Just so we're clear," I said, "You're talking about dismantling your ICBMs, not handing them in to a charity shop so New Zealand can get them at a discount."
Kniwu smiled. "You'll get your scalps, General. Just make sure the Indians get their hair cut too, if you wouldn't mind."
"Absolutely," I said, trying to keep my profound relief out of my voice. "It's second on the list."
"And first, if I might ask?"
I resisted the urge to reach for my phone.
"I'm doing everything I can to end the horrible spectre of nuclear war," I told him. "That doesn't mean there is no-one in this world I don't want killed."

The Chinese were as good as their word. I'd not even touched back down in Moscow before my sources confirmed a dozen Chinese nuclear weapons of various types had been irreversibly pulled to pieces. The thrill of learning this was unlike anything I'd ever felt before. I still can't find words to describe it all these years later.  It was like spending your whole life being told everyone in the world was a prisoner, and then learning you'd stumbled on the key. I am not a fool. I was under no illusions that I was ushering in a new age of intercontinental skipping through flowery meadows. But for all I feared Mercoyan's long-term plans, I was in my own way no less of a traditionalist. When you fight a man, you need to see the man. He might be in a tank, or a jet, but his presence is still felt, the literal beating heart at the centre of multi-million pound collection of metal alloys. Pushing a button to obliterate his home, his city, perhaps his very culture, is simply not who we should be.

Naturally, this was something I kept entirely to myself.

Usually, my trips to the Duma were an opportunity to, if not unwind, then at least feel tense somewhere I was less likely to be shot at. This time, though, events overtook me. Ambassador Kellzlov met me almost the moment I walked inside the building. She did not look in the happiest of moods.
"Where have you been?" she asked, her tone suggesting she was well aware the answer must be some subset of "Not where I was supposed to be."
"I'm afraid that's classified", I told her, hoping whatever was bothering her was sufficiently important that she wouldn't press further.
"Fine, keep your secrets," she sniffed. "I do know where you weren't, though. You weren't in the Mediterranean."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because if you were in the Mediterranean, you'd have felt the ground tremors reaching shore from the vast tectonic upheavals tearing apart the sea floor as the Dolphin God is born."
The pause that followed was not so much pregnant as discussing college applications.
"Are you hazing me, Ambassador?" I asked, "Because we've been in government for years, but if you've only just got around to it, I understand. You're a very busy woman."
"This isn't a joke," Kellzlov insisted. "I don't know what it is other than absolutely terrifying. Something is rising in the Med, and no-one has any idea what it is."
"If no-one knows what it is, why are we calling it "the Dolphin God"?" I asked.
"We don't even know that. I assumed the Atlantic Conclave came up with the name, but they don't have any idea what it is either. They've promised to investigate further, but..." She shrugged. "It's a long way down."
"What about the Pacific dolphins?" I asked. "If the Atlantics don't know what's going on - and I'm not for a second suggesting we should trust the word of a dolphin; those things are arseholes - maybe they've got some ideas."
"It's entirely possible," Kellzlov said. "I'd be happy to enquire further. You know, if the entire Pacific Conclave hadn't already fled into space."
"Fled into space?" This was profoundly disturbing news. When one half of the members of one half of the mammal groups who have gained sentience check out of Earth en masse, it's hard to convince yourself that things are running smoothly. Like rats leaving a sinking ship, I thought. Did the dolphins have a similar phrase, I wondered? Or did they watch the rodents fleeing their beleaguered vessels and wonder why the little creatures were so keen to not come and visit?
"This classified place you've been to," Kellzlov said. "Have they outlawed newspapers?"
"I've been busy," I said, sighing. "I still am busy, so if we could move this along? I'll send elements of the Biscay fleet towards Gibraltar; they've been on pollution duty for a long time now, some kind of blasphemous fish deity would make for a welcome change. Was there anything else?"
"Just one thing," Kellzlov replied. "Barely worth mentioning, really.
"A press release from the aliens. Disarm completely or we will exterminate your race."

The best press conferences are as short as possible. Actually, the best press conferences don't involve the press in any way whatsoever, but we can't always get what we want. I chose Red Square for the locale, and organised it with as much speed as possible. The resulting rush would raise red flags, I knew, but that couldn't be helped; I had to boost the signal as much as possible to ensure that, one way or another, it reached into space. Besides, the quicker I got it done the quicker it would be over, and the fewer journalists would be able to show up, like flies on my corpse.
Or humanity's corpse, I suppose. We would just have to see.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said, my mouth as close to the microphone as possible and my eyes looking anywhere other than the collection of ambulance-chasing chair-sniffers gathered in front of me, packed in close to share warmth and aid quick dissemination of lies. "I will read a brief statement. I will take no questions.
"For the last few weeks representatives of our government have been negotiating with the People's Republic of China regarding our nuclear stockpiles. In response to the Americans' unilateral disarming of several of its nuclear weapons, our country has followed suit on a missile-for-missile basis.  China, with its smaller nuclear capability, has dismantled some of its warheads on a two-for-one basis. Further negotiations are planned, and we reach out to each and every nuclear power to join us in making the world a safer place. Thank you."
And there it is, I thought as I strode from the podium. The cat, as the English say, was out of the bag. I wish it had been available to hold the press conference. Still, the truth had got its boot on. All that was left was to see who started shouting at me first.

Obviously, it was the Americans. Somehow they had come to the conclusion that western unilateral disarmament was a shining symbol of benevolent leadership, but eastern unilateral disarmament in response represented an unacceptable lapse of communication. Apparently with the nuclear age coming to an end the Americans were putting all their effort into weaponising hypocrisy.
"What the hell is going on over there?" some American dignitary bellowed at me down the phone line. I never bothered learning his name. He was loud and arrogant and utterly without self-awareness if that helps identify him, though I can't possibly see how it would. "We promised the whole world we would reduce our stockpile to the size of Russia's, and now you've undercut us!"
With my secret now out, I was tempted to be rather less circumspect on this matter than I had previously been forced to. But another round of disarmament talks would be an obvious good, now that the aliens were rubbing together their tentacles in front of their giant red buttons.  You would hope that the threat of utter human extermination would make Washington less petulant, less willing to cut their nose of to spite their face by having it obliterated by aliens. But childish pride is a fragile thing, and I had no wish to bet my life that there was nothing I could do that would break it.
"My apologies," I said, trying not to think of the generations of dead ancestors howling in outrage. "There was a mis-communication through standard channels. It was never our intention to announce our agreement with the Chinese to the world without letting you know first."
"That wouldn't have made us happier," the American replied. "It would just have made us angry sooner. We had a deal."
"I'm afraid no word of that deal reached us on Earth whilst our President is off-world." There seemed little harm in confessing Mercoyan's whereabouts; whatever my feelings of contempt for the Americans, I was sure the CIA had sufficient competence to have worked that fact out for themselves. "I'm sure you can understand there is not always time to discuss our intentions with every other country-"
"Every other country?"
"-But we hope for further rounds of nuclear talks, and of course hope also that the United States will be fully involved."
I hung up before the American could comment further. There was only so much bullshit I could eat in one day, and this was just an entrée. Our fearless leader was coming back from the moon.

"How fares Earth?" our President asked once we were all gathered.
"Can't we start with the moon?" Creltsin asked.
"The moon was a waste of time," Mercoyan replied. "An awful lot of show and nothing concrete. If the aliens have any wondrous technology they could tempt us with, they're hiding it very well. We'll keep communication lines open, but..." he shrugged. "A con man with six-eyes and fox ears is still a con man."
"Earth, then," I said. "The Israelis have bombed Iran. Several of our people - our people - are dead. I'd like to discuss response scenarios."
"Response scenarios?" the President sounded like he had taken a bite of something sour, but was rolling it around in his mouth to decide whether he could still palette it. "I am open to suggestions."
"Are you?" I asked, wondering if Mercoyan's visit to the aliens had involved some gentle mind-whisking.
"Not really," he responded. "That was my way of saying I've no sensible ideas as to what we could do about this, and I'm betting you don't either."
He had me, I realised. Ever since I learned of the attack I had been conducting reprisal raids and bombing missions in my head, but this wasn't planning, it was fantasising. Making Israel pay would be easy enough, but doing that without avoiding a new world war would be close to impossible, and that was before factoring in the trigger-happy aliens watching this world with cold, inhuman eyes.
Nevertheless, someone had to speak for the dead. That was always my least favourite part of a general's job, but a part of my job it was nevertheless. Who else could I trust to do it?
"So we do nothing," I said, hoping the sneer in my voice would paper over any leaking signs of defeat.
"Of course we don't do nothing," Mercoyan said, an edge of impatience in his voice. "We just don't to anything that involves guns, bombs, tanks or planes."
"So what does that leave us with?"  I asked. "Harsh language?"
"That's a diplomat's weapon," Oxfolov pointed out. "And this is definitely a war for diplomats."
I nodded wearily. He was right. They were all right. There was so much more going on right now, so many fronts on which we had to gain ground, or at least lose none. Starting a new war against Israel was strategic suicide; maybe other kinds of suicide too.
All of which was cold comfort. Logic empties no graves.
"Anything else, then?" the President asked.
"There's something rising in the Mediterranean," Kellzlov told him. "Something to do with the dolphins. We're checking it out."
Mercoyan frowned.
"Is it hostile?"
"I don't know," Kellzlov said with a shrug. "If it is it'll have to chew through the Balkans to get to us, though, so whatever it is, we'll at least see it coming."
"Like the dinosaurs saw the meteorite," I mumbled, but no-one heard me.
"Very well," the President said. "If there's nothing more, I think we're done here."
My eyebrows rose so fast and far I worried they'd escaped my face, like some obscure animated character in a mind-bogglingly ill-conceived children's show. No-one had told him about the nukes. Needing no further encouragement, I headed for the door as quickly as decorum would allow.
It was time to pay the Indians a visit.

(It was whilst I was on the plane to Delhi that word reached me that the entire Israeli government had fled into space. The gains of eighty years of blood and death relinquished in a heartbeat. What wars and rockets and intifada could not demolish had been gladly pushed aside for plush leather seats on a flight through the troposphere. Apparently every policy Tel Aviv ever enacted when building walls, bombing buildings, laying land-mines, constructing settlements, or planning missile shields all contained in the small print "Until we get a better offer".)

I had anticipated problems following my touchdown on Indian soil.  The state of near-war that existed between them and our Chinese allies was more fraught than ever, and I assumed our enmity-by-proxy would lead to cold shoulders and dismissive sniffs. Instead, my latest hosts were open and welcoming. Naturally, that made me suspicious, but I quickly discovered that what they were hiding wasn't hostility at all. It was something vastly more concerning; incompetence.
"How can we help you, General?" asked Ridlak, my counterpart in Delhi, as I sank into the chair he gestured to. The conference room he had chosen for this meeting was airy and sparse.
"You've heard about the three-way nuclear disarmament, I'm quite sure," I said. "It's a good start; some sixty warheads gone forever." I watched Ridlak carefully. He nodded, and nothing about the nod was insincere.  "But we can do more, and we'd like India to join in the talks.
"We'd like you to be the fourth country to announce a commitment to disarmament."
There were a lot of possible responses I was expecting to my suggestion. Anger at my presumption. Demands for explanation as to why I was in Delhi instead of London or Paris. Accusations of racism, veiled or blatant. A string of blistering yet inventive invective about their Pakistani neighbours and how they were just waiting for an opening to turn their eastern neighbours into next decade's clichéd horror setting.
What I got instead was this.
"Oh, we already got rid of all our nukes,"
"I'm sorry?" I said, astonished. "My ears haven't popped yet from the flight over, so I thought you might have said that-"
"We got rid of all our nukes," he repeated, smiling at my bafflement. "Think about it, General. Really think. It's like leaving a gun in your kid's nursery, except there a billion people in the nursery and your gun blows up cities."
I tried shaking my head violently to clear the fog I felt descending. It didn't help.
"But this is impossible," I insisted. "Our intelligence assets have been staking out every one of your likely nuclear installations for decades. That you could have demolished them all and no-one notice... did you do it all at once, or in phases?"
"All at once, I think. Soon as we took power."
"You think?" This was rapidly becoming surreal. "How is it you can't know that? Didn't you observe the decommissioning of the warheads?"
"Not all of them, no."
"Then how many did you see?"
"Roughly, or exactly?"
"Roughly's fine."
"Then roughly none of them."
Sometimes a person has literally no idea how badly they are asking to be punched in the face. This does not mean you feel sorry about punching them. Somehow on this occasion I managed to avoid temptation. When I die and Saint Peter is mulling over whether to let me into paradise, this incident will feature as a central plank of the case for the defence.
"So if you didn't see them go, and we didn't see them go, did they really go at all?"
"Is this a riddle?"
"No, it's a terrifying security lapse."
"The president assured me our nuclear capability was gone."
At last, progress!
"Could I speak to him about this, then?"
Ridlak nodded. "Let's go see him now."
"He won't be too busy?"
"For this?" He looked at me like I was simple. "This is about nuclear weapons, General. That's something you have to take seriously".

"Hello!" said President Healel as we entered his office, bounding from his chair like a dog and shaking my hand violently.  "How can we help our Russian friends?"
After reclaiming my throbbing hand I sat in the proffered chair. Healel and Ridlak sat likewise.
"I've come to discuss your nuclear capabilities," I told him.
"But we have no nuclear capabilities," Healel said, beaming. "You can't leave things like that lying around. Dangerous. Messy. Ugly. Plus no-one wants to be turned into a mutant, do they?"
"So you decommissioned them?" I asked, sailing past as much of those comments as I possibly could.
"Absolutely. Day one. Boom. Well, not boom; obviously.  Booms were exactly wanted to avoid. Booms and mutants. And face cancer."
"Did you observe the decommissioning yourself?" I continued doggedly.
"Dear me, no" Healel replied. "Why would I want to do that. Watching missiles pulled to bits sounds awfully boring. Launching one, now that would be exciting." He began flailing his arms wildly. "NYOWWWWM! WEEEEEEEEE!  KA-BOOOOM! That'd be amazing. But getting rid of them; who cares?"
"So who did observe the process?" I asked, feeling my spirit sink into my feet.
Healel looked confused. "It wasn't you?" he asked Ridlak.
"It wasn't," he replied. "You wouldn't even disclose the locations of our nuclear sites, remember?"
"Of course I didn't!" Healel said. "I've no idea where they are."
I was beginning to hope a nuke went off right there and then.
"So who does know where the warheads are, and what shape they're in?" I asked.
The two Indians looked at each other.
"Maybe..." Ridlak began "Maybe there's something in my files about this?" he ventured hopefully. "We could go check it; I have a system."
"Yay!" Healel said, clapping his hands in delight. "A field trip!"

There was I suppose a certain amusing irony in the fact that the Ridlak's office looked like a bomb had hit it. I confess I was not really in the mood to appreciate it. The filing system Ridlak had mentioned seemed in practice to mean "in the office and not yet actually on fire".
"Right," Ridlak said. "It must be here somewhere. Let's start at the bottom of these piles."
"What's at the bottom of those piles?" I asked.
"The things I threw down first. My system is less alphabetical than it is geological."
"Shouldn't we start with wherever you're keeping the launch codes?" I suggested.
"President Healel has the launch codes" he replied.
"Um..." said the President. "Not actually. I don't let people hand me sheets with important things on it. I tend to chew paper when I'm nervous."
"Calm down," Ridlak said soothingly. "If I have the codes they'll be in here somewhere too - AH! Here they are, see?"
Ridlak had liberated a small brown envelope from the bottom of a stack of papers that had now collapsed in an expanding cloud of what looked like field reports and requisition requests, though of course I couldn't read them. From the envelope Ridlak triumphantly pulled several relief maps of what I presumed were locations in India, and what looked roughly like our own launch codes, though in general Russian protocol suggests avoiding writing them down on the back of takeaway menus.
"Ta da!" said Ridlak proudly. "Now we can find the warheads and disarm them. Feeling better now, Mr General?"
"Not in the slightest", I said. "I've just learned that for years the Indian government hasn't been checking up on their nuclear security because they assumed they had no nukes to secure. I won't be happy until every one of the warheads is visually confirmed and dismantled."
"This isn't my fault!" Ridlak protested, sounding wounded. "Anyone could have made the mistake I did. I thought this envelope had a bribe in it from the last guy. Hindi has the same word for "nuclear device" and "gigantic illicit backhander"."
"Is that remotely true?" I asked.
"It is not."
"I'm leaving," I said, exhausted. "Please promise me that once you find your nuclear weapons you will send me evidence that they have been dismantled, will you?  Can you do that for me, General Ridlak? President Healel?"
"Yay!" Healel said again, clapping even harder this time. "A pen friend!"

Despite my trials in Delhi, the Indian government moved with remarkable swiftness to demolish their nuclear arsenal; once again I had the evidence I needed before my plane had even set me down in Moscow. India was now no longer a nuclear power. I returned to the corridors of Russian power feeling better than I had in months. Obviously, the universe had no intention of letting me get used to the sensation. I hadn't even reached my office before the next hammer-blow fell.
"General Crosschev?" came a voice behind me in a narrow, unimportant hallway. I turned round to see a man, African by look and accent, small and unprepossessing. He radiated introversion to the point it felt like he was avoiding my gaze even whilst he stared straight at me. This was the kind of man you could meet on the street, ask for directions, and forget them so immediately and so totally you can fool yourself into thinking you figured out the way to your destination on your own. This was the kind of man whose mother might almost have forgotten to give birth to him.
In other words, he was exceedingly, desperately dangerous.
"You're a long way from home, friend," I said, shifting into a stance exactly halfway between casually relaxed and I-will-burst-your-windpipe. "Somewhere in West Africa, if I were to guess."
"Angola", the man said. "And alas, I am not so far from home as some of my colleagues. This is no small task with which we've been entrusted. I was hoping to speak to your president."
"A common desire," I replied. "It tends not to last long once the process starts. Our president is currently indisposed". In point of fact, he was back on the moon. He claimed he was pressing the aliens to explore further any advantages they could provide us with, but I heard from other sources that the alien space vodka was very good.
"Then perhaps I can speak to you instead," the man said. He walked slowly towards me for a few paces and I felt my heartbeat increase with each footfall. "You are of course aware of the situation in Egypt."
"Naturally," I said. Actually I hadn't anything approaching the slightest clue as to what was happening in Egypt, but I was smart enough not to admit that. It's remarkable how those who will begrudge you the smallest scrap of new information will gleefully run through in ludicrous detail those facts they think you already know.
My Angolan visitor did not disappoint. "The Egyptian space-cruiser is close to completion; we estimate their first extra-atmospheric test flight will be within the week. When that happens, everyone on the planet will die. One or more of the alien factions has made that very clear. The first human to enjoy interstellar flight will murder every single one of her fellows back home."
"And you want us to stop it?"
"We want you to obliterate it in a radioactive cloud", the Angolan pressed. "The Egyptians must have nothing let they can recover, and no will left to recover it. This is about the safety of our species. If there is ever an occasion in which a nuclear weapon can morally be deployed, surely it is for something like this?"
"But why ask us?" I said. "Murdering people in the Middle East and insisting they be grateful is surely a quintessentially American hobby."
"I have a colleague in Washington", the man replied, "And another in Beijing. We fear however that they lack the will. The Chinese are too concerned about the Indians, the Americans too involved with themselves."
"I see," I said, as neutrally as I could. "I will take this under advisement."
"Advisement," he repeated sourly. "You mean you'll delay. Delay at a time our entire species is at risk." As his anger rose, much of his unassuming facade melted away. I moved my stance further from the casual end of the scale and much closer to the one in which trachea-shredding was paramount.
"We have protocols, sir," I pointed out. "I can't launch a nuclear missile without presidential approval. It simply cannot be done. I will bring this matter up with President Mercoyan when he returns, and I will take advantage of the time in-between to gather more information on this situation."
"More information," he sneered. "What more information could you possibly require?"
"You mean other than the word of a man I've never met who wants me to murder millions of people simply on his say so? A man whose only credentials is that he's got into this building without being detained or shot? I know more about Baryshnikov than I do about you, sir, and I wouldn't launch an ICBM on his insistence either." I paused for a second. "Though I suppose it would make for a rather more interesting conversation."
The mask dropped completely. The man took two paces toward me and adopted a combat stance. I did the same.  For several seconds we stood there, unmoving, staring. A Russian and an Angolan in a Mexican stand-off. Perhaps the hippies were right. The aliens really were bring us closer together.
Eventually, my opponent relented, shrugging as his pose dissolved back into his everyman aura.
"Fine. Talk to your president. Ask your questions. But waste not a second. We need a nuclear weapon. We'd much rather be given one, but we will take it if we must, and to hell with the consequences. That's the one unquestionable advantage of World War III."
He turned and headed back down the corridor, turning his head to offer his parting shot.
"It means humanity will still be alive to fight it."
I watched him go. Briefly I considered checking into how he got into the building, but I doubted I would ever get a satisfactory answer.  Besides, it seemed to me that he was the last Angolan I needed to be worried about, were his story true. I tripled the guard on our nuclear facilities, prepared agents for deployment into the Sinai, and resolved to wait either for information from those teams or for the return of Mercoyan, whichever came first. 

I was still waiting when the metaphorical klaxons sounded, and it was all over.

It was all over. Not in a hail of nuclear weapons or a lethal deluge of alien ordnance. Various disgraced politicians who had worked so hard to make the previous administration the paralysed, bleeding mass of corruption it was had found new sponsors and new puppets. Whilst we struggled with Israel and India and argued about Angola and Egypt - whilst a new horror arose in the seas of Europe intent on killing us all - they used these new resources to exert sufficient pressure on the Duma to get a snap election called. Much was said about our failure to cow the Americans (by which they meant we didn't actually start shooting Yanks over Moldova). More was said about our "craven retreat" in Iran, as though saving Russian lives should be a distant second priority to annoying Washington.  They even trotted out the phrase - as the header of a campaign pamphlet, no less - that "Russia can ill-afford to continue giving up her nuclear weapons whilst the Dolphin God arises to challenge humankind", a phrase so gloriously lunatic, so utterly without precedent in our language or any other, that the fact we caused it to exist in print has to count as one of the greatest achievements we could have hoped to accomplish.  Our opponent's message was incoherent, bellicose, heedless of logic or pragmatism, and stuffed full of aggressive posturing far beyond the point of obvious self-parody.

Naturally, we were crushed in the polls. When Mercoyan returned, it was in disgrace. I could have stayed, perhaps - a man without tanks asking the man with tanks to hand them all over is a difficult business - but the years had taken their toll. I was quite simply exhausted dedicating my life keeping safe those who would spit on me in the street for not letting more of our people die far from home.

But what else could we expect? Gratitude? Gratitude is not something that happens in government Your enemies loathe what you accomplish, your friends whine about what you don't. You either die in the job, or you're told your very survival proves you should have fought harder. In the final analysis, when the battle is done and the casualties counted, whenever the Motherland calls, she calls collect. It is a romance that can only flow one way. For most, Russia is a woman who simply ignores you utterly. For some, the lucky few, she will turn her gaze on to you, but only so she can use you. All she can ever offer is new ways in which to sacrifice, to give and give again, over and over, for a love that can never be returned. And yet we make those sacrifices gladly, we give up everything we have and everything we are, because there can be no other way.

I hope these chapters on the Mercoyan administration have entertained, or at least educated. All I ask is that you think upon the tolls that the story in these pages enacted. We are the sons and daughters of the Motherland, and like any good child, all that matters for us is our mother's happiness. But just because we do not begrudge these ruinous costs, it does not mean they are not there.

(Editor's note: A thorough investigation of Russia's financial records by internal sources estimate the total amount of money defrauded from the government by Crosschev to be somewhere in the region of half a year's budget for the entire Russian government. Not so much of a rouble of this has ever been recovered.)

Thursday, 13 August 2015

No Apologies For The Infinite Radness 1.1.1 - "Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness" (Smashing Pumpkins)

(Here's a music post I wrote up for the Dicky Crisps Radio Show on Facebook. The start of something unrepentantly rambling and pretentious and unselfconsciously self-absorbed. Exactly what this blog is about, basically. This should help cover the musical side of the blog whilst I continue to digest Life After Death for the DCDs project.)

The song so good I named this whole series after it.

I was always very proud of the fact that the first album I bought with my own money was the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie... Seeing them play "live" on Top of the Pops was a formative experience for 16 year-old me: the idea that if you're not actually allowed to play live you may as well use a toy dog to hit your keyboard for you struck me as incontestably correct [1]. I asked my much more music-savvy mate for a mix-tape of them, and that was it forever.

My friend put a lot of good stuff on that tape, but he only had an hour to play with and several gems failed to make it on the track-list. This was one of them. A quite gorgeous piece of wandering, sorrowful piano with synthesisers haunting the spaces in-between. A lone oboe - real or not, it doesn't matter; the oboe is the only instrument that sounds like a ghost of itself anyway - runs alongside and beneath. I'm always reminded of my favourite line from "Angels in America": 'If the duck was a songbird it would sing like this'. And if the image of a lonely duck singing a sad lament for its missing partner strikes you as both pretentious and ridiculous, then I ask you what better image could you possibly summon to kick off the most ludicrous double album of the 1990s and beyond?

Another friend of mine once failed utterly to find a way to tell a girl he had slowly been going crazy for how he felt, and was so devastated by this failure (he was 15; this is the kind of thing we mistook for profound suffering) he sat and listened to the saddest songs he had. Which is to say: he had this on repeat. The most perfect encapsulation of teenage self-obsessed misery he could find, and there didn't even need to be any lyrics. I knew exactly what he meant.

The first track on the first album I ever bought. Lying in the dark, waiting for the lights to come on. Waiting to get so far from where I was that I wouldn't need this song.

I'll let you know when that happens.

[1] Why they weren't able to play live in the first place is unclear. The Cure (who I also immediately fell in love with, though not to the same extent) were on immediately beforehand and they were clearly giving it some jet-black knee-length wellie. Maybe Corgan wasn't up to it. Maybe he wanted to totally rewrite the song into something unrecognisable and awful, like always, and ToTP was all "For fuck's sake, baldy!"

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Five Of Nine

Five things I learned at Nine Worlds.
  1. I'm still not a huge fan of conventions - too many people - but Nine Worlds does have the major advantage of being packed to bursting with panels offering insights and information absolutely critical for any cis-het white man to absorb if they want any chance of being a genuine ally. It's an open question how much I actually enjoyed the weekend, but I certainly feel pleasingly stuffed with knowledge. Indeed the process reminded me of nothing so much as the mathematics conferences I used to attend before I gave up research: learn cool stuff whilst getting drunk.
  2. Laurie Penny is tiny in person.  Plus, obviously, she's awesome. She didn't say a huge amount during the panel on Gender Fluid Time Lords, but her comment on how Missy dress sense is a reference to the suffragette movement was my second favourite observation of the weekend.
  3. My actual favourite observation came during the Is Horror Evil? panel (spoiler: probably a bit), though, where someone in the audience dressed as Squirrel Girl pointed out Nightmare on Elm Street is clearly referencing the US anti-war movement during Vietnam.  I got the chance to talk to Squirrel Girl (AKA Grace) later to get further details, and the theory is rather tasty. The key phrase here is "Wake up!" the central process by which the film's characters can survive, but also an anti-Vietnam slogan. Krueger is an indestructible enemy hiding from plain sight, unstoppable even when you burn him away (think napalm). The fear of the adults here is that they will lose a generation of children, just like the last generation of children. At first this idea confused me a little, since it implies that the original hunt for Freddy and his resurrection are both representing Vietnam, but after some thought of course that's obviously sensible. Vietnam was a long war. It may not have quite swallowed up multiple generations, perhaps, but if you think of the conflict in terms of the number of tours it involved, the idea of innocents becoming veterans and then watching new innocents go through the same wringer entirely makes sense.

    And of course, the parents want to tell their children how it really is, what they're really facing, but they don't dare, because society at large is putting tremendous pressure on them to say silent. Yes, the motivations and mechanics around not admitting to brutally murdering a paedophile are very different to not having a microphone to talk about horrific pointlessness of the war, but in each case there's a clear sense that these children are being denied the information they need to make sensible choices.

    Indeed, even the obviously fucking awful studio-mandated ending to the film makes some sense in this reading, because even when the anti-war movement wins, it only wins for about seven minutes. There's always a new group of subhuman brown-skinned enemy barbarians in foreign lands that needs to be bombed to keep us safe.  What links the parents and the children here is that both groups were/are absolutely convinced that proper procedure can't help them: that they have to take matters into their own hands.  And when Americans decide that, people die, and the whole damn cycle starts all over again. Freddy Kreuger isn't just the unkillable spectre of America's foreign boogeyman, he's the undying spirit of neoliberal interventionism.

    Joe Lieberman, yesterday
  4. The Radisson hotels (the Radisson itself and Park Inn by Radisson) at Heathrow have some real problems in terms of hiring enough staff and training them sufficiently well. I don't want to slag off the staff themselves too much - though some were rude and at least one was fairly sexist, which isn't cool no matter how much I want to punch upwards - but clearly something needs to be done. The Radisson seemed to have put no effort into putting on extra serving staff for a tremendously busy weekend, with the result that it could take ten minutes to get served at the bar even if no-one else was there. Jamie had to wait forty minutes to get a bowl of chips. There were also major supply issues: this is not the first time the hotel has hosted Nine Worlds, so I'm utterly bewildered as to how their restaurant/bar managed to run out of cider by Saturday afternoon. I saw one guy wait at the bar at the head of the queue [1] wait five minutes before he even got eye-contact, and was then brusquely told he couldn't have anything but lager. I confess to knowing almost nothing about business, but I still feel compelled to ask: what kind of business model involves not giving geeks sufficient access to alcohol? Not one, surely, that actually gives a damn about making money.

    Having said all that, the Park Inn by Radisson (where Jamie and I stayed) was much, much worse. Not at the time; the staff were nice and the room was fine. But the horrific snarl they've made of my bank account has utterly soured the whole experience. Upon arriving I was told that I not only had to pay £172 for the room, but a £50 deposit. Both these amounts would be payable on Sunday when I left, with the £50 swiftly returned to me once they'd checked I hadn't incurred any fees through the use of hotel facilities.

    On the morning of my departure I checked my bank balance and found things didn't add up. Without having told me, the hotel had blocked money in my account so I couldn't use it until I had paid them. Worse, they hadn't blocked out the £222 they'd mentioned, they'd blocked out £272, because the deposit is £50 per person, not per room, which no-one had bothered to mention. This caused slight consternation, but ultimately it didn't matter; I'd known I was coughing up £172 anyway, so I wasn't going to touch that money, and I trusted the £100 would be back soon enough.

    This is where things get utterly ridiculous. Upon leaving the hotel I paid the £172 for the room, which Park Inn then took from my account without releasing the hold on the £272 they'd blocked out. At this point then the money I could access in my account was £444 less than it was two days ago, for the sake of a £172 hotel room.

    Upon discovering this I phoned the hotel (it took two attempts to get someone on the front desk) and asked for the hold to be released. After initially telling me that was something I'd have to talk to my bank about (untrue; my bank had already firmly told me the hotel had to release the hold themselves), and being informed holds can take three to five days to clear (something that was not mentioned at all whilst I was at the hotel), I persuaded the woman I was talking to to contact my bank directly and have the hold removed. She said once this was done she would send me an email confirming this had happened.

    24 hours later, no email has arrived. I have had a tweet from the central Park Inn people asking if my money has been returned. I replied at 9:30am today and told them it has not, and I am awaiting a reply. The bank tells me I will have the money back by Friday if Park Inn doesn't claim it, which is of limited use since I have a major outgoing tomorrow that I need that money for.
  5. Not wanting to end this on a sour note, let's talk about my weekend highlight: the Star Trek track. I can't decide what I enjoyed more, Trek Pictionary or the panel on the future of the franchise. The former gave me the chance to flex my artistic muscles. Below is a photo of one of the clues I drew, taken at the exact point someone from the audience worked it out. Any guesses?

    I actually got to draw two clues, but the second one was I presume vastly too NSFW to be put up on the Twitter feed I got the above photo from. Fear not, though, my friends; I have broken out the virtual paintbox and replicated my triumph below.  Once again, feel free to guess away.

    The "Future of the Franchise" panel, meanwhile, was regularly interrupted (sometimes by me) by flights of absolutely wonderful fancy, starting with one panellist's strong desire to see a Trek show detailing the actuarial complications the Enterprise's voyages must surely bring. By the end of the panel we had concluded i) that the Federation stopped using money between Star Treks 3 and 4 purely because capitalism could not withstand the economic damage wrought by Kirk's insurance premiums for the Enterprise A, ii) that any new show should make it the highest priority to feature an alien race that looks utterly different to humans in every way except for their foreheads, and iii) Enterprise's last episode actually works if you assume Riker had written the holodeck program purely to kill Trip so he could get off with a mourning T'Pol, only to hastily and awfully rewrite it when his wife came in.

    So there you go. Nine Worlds. Overwhelming in the extreme, but rather useful with it, and by no means bereft of fun.

    I might even go again.
[1] It's not often we queue at bars, of course, this being apparently the only situation the British are willing to treat as a rugby scrum where pints are tossed out rather than balls,. Unless you stood at a very specific point at the bar here, though, there was literally no chance of you being served.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Translated Extract From "The Motherland Calls Collect", Memoirs Of Russian Chief Of Defensive Forces Ricsputin Crosschev (Part 2 of 3: Ears To The Ground)

Mobilising troops is always the most fun part of war. You can have all the marching around and waving of flags and brass-heavy music playing at objectionable volumes, all without risking a single soldier. Well, very occasionally someone will be run over by a tank, but absence the deafening fog of war or the need to take a principled but suicidal stand, there's not many ways you can get run over by a tank and it not be basically your fault. Tanks are loud, and they are slow, and they are huge. You're basically just supposed to know where they are.

But a few minutes into full mobilisation, something became horribly clear, something that threatened to disrupt both my fun and a significant chunk of my northern defensive lines.

I didn't know where my tanks were.

I hadn't misplaced all of them, of course. The old tech corps all reported in, uniformly delighted to be once more swivelling their gun barrels in the general direction of some Americans. But my beautiful modern corps, our only reliable weapon against alien ground troops, the only unit I had to call on that could hold its own against the best the Americans had to throw at us? Nothing.  Just a hole in the grid into which they had apparently tumbled.

As concerning as I found the sudden disappearance of the sharpest knife in my drawer, however, its absence did nothing to prevent wave of existential terror swooping across NATO. Cabinets and conclaves across the continent scheduled immediate meetings to fit in all the emergency arm-flapping necessary to process our move. In general this was highly amusing. As always, though, it was the Americans that were the problem.  Relations were already strained with them over our support of Iran, whose dabbling in nuclear power had already caused the Israelis to mobilise themselves. The irony of the Americans fanatically supporting Israel's right to threaten an independent nation whilst screaming in outrage over our refusal to sit by and allow our own territory to be encroached upon was, naturally, entirely lost on them.  I've said it before: hypocrisy is in their blood, and their blood was up.

"The Americans want an emergency meeting", our prime minister (Rachlana Mercoyan, and yes, we thought the name was suspicious too) told me when I returned to the Duma to discuss troop movements. "You've certainly got their attention. What are you planning to do with it?"
"Nothing extravagant," I assured her. "I'll stand down once the Americans pull out of Moldova."
Mercoyan looked doubtful.
"America is going to be looking for more. You've got them looking scared, and they hate looking scared. We're going to have to offer more than just the status quo ante." Prime Minister Mercoyan loved to lapse into Latin during our conversations. It was her strong opinion that of all the western European languages, the dead ones were always the best.
I had considered this already. "We can give them Iran. It was never worth our effort in the first place."
Mercoyan nodded. "America backs off from Moldova and we do the same with Iran. It might work".
I assumed Mercoyan was applying her usual varnishing of understatement here; it was I thought rather an excellent plan. Like all excellent plans, of course, it had approximately zero chance of being smiled upon by the man in charge.

"We cannot give up on Iran" the president insisted the instant he returned from that very country. "Our alliances have to mean anything if they are to continue. If we cut Iran adrift we risk losing Belarus and the Ukraine. There is also the small matter of all that red mercury we've yet to acquire."
"Have we actually got anywhere with that stuff?" I asked.
Mercoyan ignored me. "And finally, there's the small problem that our presence in Iran might be all that's stopping the Israelis from invading and killing God alone knows how many Arabs. We might be making the Americans mad, but right now we're the best hope to avoid another shooting war in the Middle East."
"What happened," I began, "To our strict policy of non-intervention in all - wait a minute." In my haste to continue the battle I had thoughtlessly charged right over something that needed more careful consideration. I guess I was a huge stereotype even before I started on the vodka.  But I still know how to pull up an advance when that was what the situation required.
"When you say 'our presence'," I said, eyes alert and narrow, "Just what is it you mean?"
President Mercoyan offered another of his the-dog-is-finally-house-trained grins he seemed to reserve just for me.
"I directed our modern tech corps to Tehran to act as peacekeepers."
In the silence that followed you could hear a pin betraying another pin by stealing all his tanks.
"What the hell are you doing ordering our strongest military force out of the country without my knowledge?" I shouted. "My remit is the protection of the Motherland; how can I do that if I don't know what I have to protect her with?"
"That's a very important-sounding remit, for sure," Mercoyan replied, unconcerned. "What's my remit again? Oh yes; to do whatever the fuck I want. Which I just did. Hooray for me."

So was the only war President Mercoyan would ever be directly involved with declared: his power and influence against my own. The ultimate result of that war would change the face of the entire planet. To this day, I am not sure he ever realised hostilities existed.

Or maybe he did. Certainly he took the unprecedented move of beginning the emergency talks with the US without a military adviser. I had been delayed in the field by a panicked call from the Spanish, desperate to talk about whether we had acted upon alien offers to abduct officials (I said we hadn't, not because I wanted to lie to our new friends but because I was genuinely losing track of what lunatic schemes we had and hadn't signed off on). I swiftly returned to Moscow only to learn the emergency meeting in Iceland had already begun.

It's amazing how quickly military aircraft can fly when they're fleeing from an incandescent general they can't actually escape because he's in the cockpit with them. I don't like to bellow at my pilots from the comfort of the cabin. If you're going to yell at someone so loud you can't tell their sweat from their tears, you really do owe it to them to do it where they can feel your spittle on their necks.

When I burst into the negotiations, I sat down without apology or introduction. The Americans knew who I was.  So did Mercoyan, or so he liked to think. But this called for subtlety. Nothing broadcasts weakness more surely than a country's leaders bickering amongst themselves. I needed to project strength. I needed to be sure our president gave nothing away without directly contradicting him or drawing too much attention to my own agenda. I resolved to practice the utmost discretion.

"We need to discuss Iran," began Hunter, the Americans' current president.
"Why the fuck would we talk about Iran?" I demanded. "This is about Europe."
"You didn't just mobilise in Europe, though, did you?" another American said. I didn't know who he was. Joint chiefs? Secretary of state? Peripatetic butler? That's the problem with Americans; always too many people, with too many titles, all fighting like dogs over the same scraps of ideas they've been drooling over since the fall of Budapest.
"We're prepared to scale down operations in Iran," Mercoyan said. I put all my effort into keeping my mouth closed and my tongue un-swallowed.
"And your western border?" Hunter asked, smelling blood.
"We'll back off there too," Mercoyan assured him.
I gave up on keeping my tongue out of my throat and move on to trying to crush the table with my bare hands. It was a good job I hadn't been allowed to bring my side-arm. I briefly flirted with the idea of tearing off faces with my teeth. It seemed like it would be difficult, but there was a principle at stake.
"And what, if I may ask," I started, clenching my teeth between each word, biting them off like sausage slices. "Will America add to these gestures of goodwill?"
Hunter smiled, wide and dead, like a great white shark asking for a girl's phone-number.
"You've made your point, General," he said. Even when his lips moved his smile seemed unwavering, static, as though he spoke without needing anything so primitive as tongue or mouth. "There will be no new incursions into Eastern Europe."
His smile, impossibly, grew still wider, then he and his companion swaggered away.
No new incursions, I thought to myself. Nothing about Moldova. Nothing about withdrawing. Just "no new incursions". It seemed to me we'd agreed to let them have what they wanted, and sacrificed our own interests to do it.
Mercoyan came over, wearing the Russian translation of Hunter's cold grin.
"That went well, I thought," he said.

Have you ever wondered what colour vodka is? Yes, it looks colourless in the bottle, but so does water, and we know that large enough concentrations of water are blue. You just need enough of it in one place for the tint to become noticeable.  If you had found me the evening after that meeting and peered past my tonsils into my stomach, you would have had the best chance in your whole life to see what shade was generated by vodka in bulk.

I was still in my hotel room, waiting for my plane to be refuelled - and doing a rather better job of pumping flammable liquids into something than my ground-crew were managing - when I heard a polite knocking.
"Come in!" I yelled, my accent thickened by tiredness and alcohol. I hoped my English was good enough to penetrate my rather sorry state. There was practically no chance I could get up and answer the door myself.

Whether they knew they had been summoned or not, the door opened, and a small, dark-skinned man stepped into my room.
"General Ricsputin," he said, glancing for a split-second at the almost-empty vodka bottle in my hand, but quickly restoring his gaze to my face as though he had noticed nothing. "Tehran sends its regards."
"Tehran?" I asked. "What - ah - what is it I can do for Tehran?"
"Might I sit?" the newcomer asked. I nodded and he sank into a nearby chair. Returning my head to its earlier position proved more difficult than I was expecting, and once that was done there proved to be some refocusing to get done. My guest patiently waited until I could plausibly maintain eye contact once more.
"Alas, General, we have heard disturbing reports from our sources. Reports that speak of the vilest and most cowardly of betrayals. Reports that suggest that on the eve of our country's darkest hour, she will find herself standing without her friends."
Good news travels fast. Bad news practically teleports.
"Sir, it is late, and I am tired," I told him. "You should never negotiate when you have an empty stomach, or they have empty heads, but I broke both those rules today. I don't have the energy to deny all the the things you absolutely know I am obviously going to deny.
"So was there anything else?"
The man settled back in his seat, eyes glinting.
"There was. When you return home so your president can lay out the plans you will deny exist for an extraction you will deny is happening, please pass on a message. The very first thing that will happen after your troops leave is the UN will send in nuclear inspectors to go through our installations with a comb so fine it could side-part the ocean. And when they do, what is it you think they will find?"
I took another sip of vodka.
"If I'm too tired for denying, what makes you think I have the energy for guessing games?"
My guest sat still and silent for a few moments. Then he shrugged slightly, and stood.
"Very well," he said, his tone disappointed. "You will give no answers, and you will accept no questions. Perhaps you can still carry a message?" He glanced at my bottle again, for longer this time, drawing the look out theatrically. "Tell Mercoyan that if we cannot keep his tanks, then we cannot keep his secret. Good evening."
Nodding curtly, he swivelled on his heels and strode from my room.  He had the grace to not slam the door, but even without the noise my head was beginning to pound. A hangover knocking early, I told myself, but it was a weak lie. I knew where the pain was coming from. I knew what my visitor had been trying to tell me.
The Iranians were experimenting with nuclear weapons. And we had given them the means to do it.
Beside me on a small table my phone began to ring, helping neither my head nor my mood. The vodka made it harder to pick up than it should have been.
"Yes?" I asked once I finally had the damned thing working.
"General, we thought you should know," my aide said through a line crackly with distance and encryption routines, "The Israelis just went to DEFCON 1".

(I refused to let my hangover stop me from another round of deafening yelling at my beleaguered pilots on the way back from Reykjavik. Another example of unshakable Russian professionalism.)

The next meeting of the Duma was not the calmest in its history. I would be lying if I said the number of people wanting a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Tel Aviv was identically equal to zero.
"Well, that's it for Iran," our president said once we were assembled. "We'll be cancelling the alliance just as quickly as we can get an agent out there to show them the finger."
"We're just going to abandon them?" I asked.
"Oh for God's sake, Crosschev", Mercoyan exploded. "Isn't that exactly what you've been counselling for months now?"
"Of course it is," I said, "And if you'd listened to me then we wouldn't have hundreds of Russians sitting around waiting to take a nuclear missile to the face. But I thought you were all about the nobility of standing loyally by our allies; of supporting the little guy whilst he's trying to build a better life for himself. And now that's inconvenient as a stance it's just gone?"
I realised I had been letting my voice build in volume, and made an effort to restrain myself.
"It's not the act I disapprove of, it's the degree to which you want to lie to yourself about it."
"We're politicians, Ricsputin," the president said with exaggerated patience. "Lying is central to what we do. And if we have to lie, we may as well lie to ourselves. We are always the easiest people for us to fool".
"Inspiring rhetoric, no doubt, Mr President," I told him, "But we still gave assurances to a country we had no intention of keeping. Did we get all the red mercury, is that it? Did we drain the place dry and decide to toss the husk to the Israelis?"
"No," Mercoyan said ruefully. "We certainly did not get all the red mercury."
"How much did we get?"
The president smiled unconvincingly. "None of it."
I blinked in astonishment. "So they were lying to you all along," I sneered. "You sent brave men and women into harm's way to chase ghosts, which I suppose given they're all about to die counts as being rather grimly ironic."
"They weren't lying to me, Ricsputin; don't be ridiculous. We forgot to send in the right mining equipment. Or build the right mining equipment. Or, you know, research or design it in any way."
I think they have a word in France for the feeling that you are literally the only sane person on the planet. That was very much how I was feeling now, though my own personal variant probably involved more barely-suppressed violence than the original French implies.
"Are you honestly telling me you made an alliance with America's sworn enemy,  you risked a third world war which might be just hours away at this point, all for a material of unknown properties or use and entirely questionable stability, and you didn't even check that we could get to it? That you did literally nothing to create a machine that could do the job"
"I wouldn't say we did nothing," Mercanyo complained. "We workshopped some names it. Actually, how did that turn out, Mr Batenin?"
Our chief scientist looked up from his Blackberry.
"They were all grotesquely offensive," he reported.
"Shame," Mercoyan said. "Probably best we didn't build it."
Somewhere in my mind, some non-trivial part of me laid down in a hole and died. This was getting me nowhere but towards a stress-related early grave.  I decided to approach this from a slightly different angle.
"There is one problem with us pulling out of Iran, actually" I said. "Once we're gone the UN is going to send in inspectors to scour everything the Iranians have within five miles of a uranium atom. Tehran has made it very clear we won't look at all good when they report back."
"Where did you get that from?" Mercoyan asked.
"Reykjavik is an interesting place. You're not denying we gave the Iranians nuclear material and apparatus, then?"
"Not at all," he replied. "The red mercury was worth any price."
"Of course."
"But we don't need to worry about the UN inspection," the president continued. "The Chinese have already promised us they'll spike it.  Nothing of ours will be found."
"That's awfully nice of them," I said. I glanced over at Kellzlov. "Did we send them more vodka?"
"We're out of vodka," Kellzlov said, looking glum.
"I loaned them a wetwork team," Meroyan explained. "From the KG - from the ex KGB."
"You gave them assassins?" I couldn't unclench my fists.
"You get so upset when I hand out tanks."
I stood and strode for the door.

There was a lot of stomping around after that. Had I not been so furious I might have worried the force of my steps might have been causing stress fractures in some fairly valuable Russian artwork. My endless ambulatory tantrum only came to an end when I found Ambassador Oxfolov blocking my way.
"General," he said, nodding.
"Ambassador," I replied. "Not wanting to be rude, would you let me past? I'm building up to ripping out someone's spine and stabbing them in the face with it, and I'd rather that not be you. I've always found you to be among the least despicable of diplomats."
"And they say a military man can never be romantic," Oxfolov returned, smiling. "Actually I'm here to try and defuse some of the fury you have rattling around. I have a message for you."
"Indeed?" Some of my anger gave way to interest. Not much of it, though.
"Absolutely." Oxfolov was wearing an expression I had never seen on his face before. "It's the Americans. They want a meeting.
"They say they're about to start dismantling their nukes."

Washington DC is surprisingly pretty in the springtime. Even so, I would recommend it more as an abject lesson than as a holiday destination. The most powerful city in the richest country on earth, a magnet for every millionaire and billionaire and baby with an eye on the levers of American power, and there are subway stations no-one dare stop at, for fear of marauding gangs that only exist due to crippling economic deprivation. It's like the best foot surgeon in the world is in a wheelchair because there are glass shards in his feet, but he won't remove them because he insists he can't walk only because of his halitosis. And those damn Muslims.

President Hunter was in rather better spirits than when we last met. It was almost difficult to believe that just months earlier we had been staring each other down in an emergency meeting that couldn't have definitely not ended in nuclear war. Not that this was mentioned. A diplomatic courtesy; the nuclear power equivalent of going to your friend's dinner party and not insisting on dining naked.
"Ambassador Oxfolov, General Cresschev," he began, nodding at us in turn, "Thank you for coming. I will not hide my surprise that your President allowed this meeting, after all that fuss over Moldova".
I made an effort to keep my face neutral. Hunter didn't know I bore more responsibility for the east Europe crisis than did Mercanyo. He also didn't know - we hoped - that our premier had not the faintest idea we were in the States, occupied as he was on the moon, being wined and dined by the alien factions and/or the Space Pope.
"These are momentous times," I said, hoping that was enough.
Hunter smiled and nodded  agreeably. If he had any suspicions, he kept them well-hidden.
"To business, then," he said, gesturing to chairs as he sat himself.
"Brass tacks?" Oxfolov said. "How many nukes are you putting on the table, and what you want in exchange?"
Hunter shared grinning glances with his aides.
"I think there's been a massive mis-communication," he said. "We're not negotiating what it will take for us to start disarming.
"We've done it already."
This time it was Oxfolov and myself exchanging glances.
"How... How many dismantled?". I was having trouble processing this.
"Around eleven percent," Hunter replied happily. He seemed to be taking a little too much pleasure in our bewilderment, but truthfully I found it hard to fault the man for it. When you decommission dozens of weapons of mass destruction, I think you should get a pass on advanced smugness. But then I would say that, wouldn't I?
 Oxfolov whistled, long and loud.
"Impressive," he allowed. "But if these nukes are in pieces already, why arrange this meeting? This was an unpleasantly long way to come just to say 'Well done'."
"Where America leads, the world should follow", he pronounced. Then, catching sight of raised eyebrows and lowered brows, he held up his hands.
"Sorry," he said. "Slipped into campaign mode there. But the sentiment is genuine. We took down those ICBMs for reasons completely independent of you, but if you were to reciprocate, our unilateral action could kick-start global disarmament. That, at the risk of getting too tuned into domestic consumption again, is the ballgame."
Global disarmament. A world safer that it had been in almost a century. The fulfilment of a promise implied when the first digger took its first bite of the Berlin Wall. The total reversal of our fathers and our fathers' fathers race toward indiscriminate omnidirectional automated murder, in our lifetimes.
And only one problem. President Mercanyo's vision of the CCCP reborn would never allow it.
Oxfolov knew it too. We needed to play for time. But there was a way to do that here and actually strengthen the foundations of what we wanted to build here at the same time.
I stood, smoothing my uniform.
"Let me speak to the Chinese."

This was a dangerous game I was playing. I had to act on the president's authority without anyone actually checking with the president. I needed to proceed through inference and suggestion, things soldiers have no talent for even when they haven't gone rogue. And all that was at stake was the future of the world. My first step after I had boarded my plane to Beijing (no shouting this time; I was much too busy) was to contact my most loyal subordinate back home and have her deconstruct a dozen nuclear weapons. Not dismantle, in the sense of pulling apart a jigsaw puzzle and putting back in the box. I wanted total dismemberment. I wanted future generations of archaeologists to dig up what was left of the weapons and assume they must be components to hair dryers. By the time I was on the ground the message had come through: a dozen of our nested birds would never fledge.

It will surprise precisely no-one that dealing with the Paramount Leader is very different to negotiations in the White House. Our status as firm allies made interactions here warmer and less outwardly tense than had been the case with the Americans, but my unannounced and unofficial visit clearly had the Chinese concerned. Perhaps they were worried we wanted our highly-trained murderers back, or worse, that we had some new insane plan involving Iran we wanted them to help us out with. Given the obvious discomfort behind the eyes of our allies, I thought it best to come to the point as quickly as possible.
 "We all know by now the Americans have dismantled part of their nuclear arsenal," I said once the necessary pleasantries were concluded.
 "Indeed", said President Kniwu."A small part."
 "A slow start is still a start," I replied. "The Russian government..." here came the Big Lie, and all the smaller lies I needed to support it. "The Russian government is considering matching the US commitment missile for missile. The problem is there are some in the Duma who are resistant to us beginning a disarmament approach without a commitment from you. Russian memories are very long, Mr President. Many still remember Damans - that is, remember Zhenbao. Such absurd harbouring of grudges does us little credit, of course, but my people are my people."
I paused to read the room. It did not read well. Kniwu seemed unconvinced, as did Buan- my Chinese counterpart. Ambassador Revyu looked downright hostile. Still, there was no going back now.
"I realise you possess fewer nuclear devices than we do, so I'm not expecting you to decommission the same absolute number as us. But any reduction would help towards achieving something extraordinary.
"So what do you think?"
The various Chinese dignitaries glanced meaningfully at each other before responding.
"General Ricsputin," Kniwu said after a few moments. "We share your desire for a safer world, naturally. But why come to us with this suggestion? Why not the English, or the French? Why not Tel Aviv, or New Delhi?"
This was a response I had anticipated.
"Two reasons, in fact. First, because we are friends-"
"A strange way to show friendship; to ask your friends to give up part of what protects them."
"-But mostly because you're next. The Americans had the largest nuclear arsenal in the world until a few days ago. Now, it's no bigger than ours.  If we start disarming it won't take us long to reach your level, and then what comes next? If America can stand parity with its old enemy, surely you can stand it with your firm friends. The European arsenals are a bad joke; a man who tells himself if he hides in his wardrobe with a revolver he is protected from the oncoming tanks. We can talk to them later, once the adults have done business."
I fixed my stare on Kniwu.
"So are we going to do business?"
Kniwu looked away from me, drummed his fingers on the table.
"What say my colleagues?" he asked at length.
"I say 'no'!" Revyu insisted immediately. "Forgive me, Mr President, but this is something you simply cannot do. The Party will not stand for us surrendering a single nuclear weapon."
"I thought the Paramount Leader could do exactly what he liked," I said, feigning confusion. It was hard to put too much into it, though; I knew even if Kniwu considered himself unchallengeable he was wrong. Mercanyo thought he was unchallengeable too, after all, and I was in Beijing in direct contravention of his orders.
Kniwu himself revealed nothing.
"Explain yourself, Revyu," he said. "Our friend is right; a world with fewer nuclear weapons is something glorious to aim for. What is it that you have which weighs against that?"
"The Indians", Reyvu said passionately. "So long as they are on our border with nukes of their own, our hands are tied. The Party will not accept the slightest move toward disarmament when New Delhi can launch its own strike against us."
"Are you serious?" I asked. "India's nuclear capability is laughable, and there is precisely zero chance any one of them will ever go off outside of Pakistan. Besides, even if you destroyed two dozen nukes you'd still have enough to utterly annihilate India. How much redundancy can you need?"
"On the contrary," Buan put in. "Our best simulations suggest even with the nuclear weapons we have we couldn't absolutely guarantee the deaths of every single Indian citizen."
"Every single - why in God's name would you ever want to do that?"
"That isn't your concern." Buan insisted.
"You're worried about not being able to slaughter a billion people; I should've thought that was everyone's concern."
 "Perhaps, Buan said, " But it is still not your business."
"Mr President," Revyu put in, "I'm sorry to say this meeting is a waste of your valuable time. Beginning disarmament is simply not possible at the present time. Unless there is something else, General?"
I found myself at a loss. I had no idea what dynamic was playing out here; why the President of China was taking his cues from a lowly ambassador, but at that moment it seemed utterly irrelevant. My mission of global disarmament had failed, and I'd bet dozens of Russian warheads on a losing hand.
As I sat there, eyes moving from one unsympathetic face to another, I was deciding whether to start composing my resignation letter before or after I started drinking myself to death.
And then fate intervened.
The doors to the room flew open, and a man I vaguely recognised stormed into the room. He was Hispanic and overweight, his dark hair slick with sweat. His face carried an expression of furious, bitter disgust.
"Heywardo?" Kniwu said, apparently too astonished for diplomatic nicety. "Shouldn't you be in Venezuela? I'm quite sure you shouldn't be here."
"Mr President, my apologies, but this cannot wait!" the man I now recognised as Heywardo bellowed. "I have been deposed! I seek sanctuary! I demand retribution!"
 Just then my phone buzzed discretely in my pocket. I wasn't supposed to have it here. It wasn't even supposed to work here. But with the whole room staring loose-jawed at the interloper - just how the hell had he got past security? - I risked a brief glance at the newly-arrived message.


Technical Difficulties

Apologies to everyone who came across the half-finished first draft of the concluding part of Crosschev's memoir. I'm not sure what happened, though suspect it involves writing parts of it yesterday sat on the floor of a moving train whilst drunk trying to punch out words on a damn Windows phone.

Whatever caused the problem, I hope to have the finished version up by tomorrow evening at the latest.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Guilty Pleasures

Here's a little something I wrote for a wee music page I'm part of on Facebook (The Dicky Crisps Radio Show). Think of it as a palate cleanser between the two sprawling parts of my Russian political epic.


One of the most fundamental rules of SquidDisc Corner is that there is no such thing as guilty pleasure.

Well, not quite. There is such a thing, it's just that it isn't remotely close to what people think of when they hear the term. For most, a 'guilty pleasure' is something one loves despite knowing how low an opinion it suffers amongst the world at large. This, obviously, is complete horse shit. The idea one's enjoyment of something should be so much as lightly caressed by the enjoyment of others is self-imposed emotional blackmail. If you can put on black lip gloss or guyliner or an inverted cross to push back against (what you perceive as) the mainstream, but you can't admit you quite like 'Agadoo', then who is it who's really holding you back?

(What is an actual guilty pleasure? It's something you like even though its politics/message/philosophy is sufficiently broken or unpleasant that you worry it says something unflattering about you that you can still draw fun from it. 'Tomb of the Cybermen' is a guilty pleasure. Game of Thrones is a guilty pleasure. 'C'est La Vie' is a fucking song.)

All of that said, though, I do have songs that I love without having any idea why. Songs that, by my own internal judgment process, I should by all rights hate. This is one of them. I've no idea why this song works for me. The over-earnest bombast is entirely too in-your-face, the lyrics are alternately obvious and gibberish, and I'm always automatically suspicious any time a bunch of white people start singing about how things were better in the old days, even if in this case the nostalgia is tempered by the sheer insane impossibility of what is being claimed 'the old days' actually were.

Despite all of that, though, I love this tune. Partially that's because of some associated memories, but I suspect the song does more to sweeten those memories than the other way round.

So how about you fine people? What songs do you have in your playlists that totally don't fit with what you'd usually describe as your type of thing?

Monday, 3 August 2015

Translated Extract From "The Motherland Calls Collect", Memoirs Of Russian Chief Of Defensive Forces Ricsputin Crosschev (Part 1 of 3: Eyes On The Skies)

They can see Russia from this hall
This is the story of our administration, swept into power after the bombing of Tokyo, and ourselves swept out following the desperate confusion of the Egypt Incident. Like all true stories, there is no real structure, no character arcs. No-one learns a lesson, unless it is in how rarely anyone learns a lesson. We arrived in chaos and we left in chaos. There is no resolution, simply an ending, albeit at least an ending no-one could see coming.

They say you should never meet your heroes. I do not recommend meeting those for whom you have no respect either. Leonidan Mercoyan had said not a word to me or my staff since our people had glanced nervously towards Japan and propelled him to power. The pressures of inauguration, he claimed, as though marshaling the military forces of a country boasting more than seventeen million square kilometres were a mere hobby. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in broad agreement: Russian sovereignty was sacrosanct, the Ukraine and Belarus were not the West's playthings, and the hardworking job-creators of Russia were to be courted, to maintain stability across our nation. Let the children squeal about "fairness"; our goal is survival. Amity with the Chinese was also a joint goal. We might no longer share the road with them in our political philosophy (though really, what did Lenin and Mao ever share but a distrust of full heads of hair?), but Russia does not quickly forget its friends. We do not quickly forgive our grudges, after all, and those who demand fidelity without offering it are nothing but feckless cowards. Or worse, Americans.

(We also agreed on one other issue; the need to guarantee ourselves sufficient compensation for the sacrifices our new jobs would entail. Nothing was said on the matter, of course. Nothing needed to be said. Like jackdaws, men of distinction can always spot when other men of distinction share certain... proclivities.)

For years after our predecessors had announced the existence of our alien visitors, it had been an open secret that our government was in contact with at least one major extra-terrestrial power. Like all open secrets, I had my doubts whether it was true, and after the destruction of Tokyo, the rumours regarding interaction quickly disappeared. This struck me as sensible. Much of the world continued to insist the Japanese capital had fallen to a retaliatory strike from the cetacean conclaves. It was a convenient story - who would question the whales' desire for vengeance, and who would think it worth talking to dolphins to learn the truth? - but necessarily incomplete. The cetaceans may have demanded the hit (though paid for it how, exactly?), but someone else pushed the button. Someone no more human than the cetaceans are. Downplaying our links with the aliens was an entirely prudent move.

Prudent though it might have been, however, it left us with a problem. We knew those we had replaced had spoken to something beyond this world, but we had no way to communicate with them directly, or even to know whether they spoke Russian, And within hours of our first meeting with the Duma, the hypothetical became real. A message from the aliens: "We want to be friends".

Friendship was our intention as well.  But the dirty little secret of diplomacy is that one's intentions ultimately count for very little, not when compared against the flow of what we call "history" when we wish to sound portentous and "chaos" when we allow ourselves to be honest. Just days after responding to the alien message ("Meet us at Volgograd" being all we could bring ourselves to say over an open channel) the skies over Europe became an unrecognisable scrawl of alien contrail lines. Giant starships hovered over France and the Iberian Peninsula, and confused messages reached our consulate in Rome about multiple infiltration attempts across Italy. And yet the skies of Eastern Europe remained clear. This thrilled a bellicose Germany, who after eighty years of contrite apologies had finally found an enemy they could make war on conscience-free, and who wanted to do so with as little threat to their own skies as possible. I lost count of the reports passed to me by subordinates of German SIF launches and their intended destinations. Idly I wondered how they had built so much so quickly, and (it shames me to admit) at a level of technology we couldn't match. But each of those missions were headed west, and my attention was closer to home. Not a single alien ship had arrived over Volgograd, or our western territories in general. We had left our St Petersberg SIFs in their silos to appear more welcoming, and this had not come without cost. Already the German defence chief had contacted me through back-channels to protest our refusal to engage alien targets over Spain, as though Russia owed western Europe so much as a single bullet.

Still, the inactivity grated. One does not save one's country from flesh-hungry, probe-happy alien monsters - or worse, Americans - by waiting. As I drummed my fingers beside a stubbornly empty radar display, a message came in from my deputy, currently in charge of our Pacific forces.
Our visitors! The aliens had somehow misinterpreted our map references and sent their diplomatic mission to the wrong side of the country, right into the teeth of those among my men who could almost look out across the Okhotsk and see the smoke rising still from where Tokyo burned.

Within seconds I had composed a communique. "DO NOT ENGAGE!". I later learned from General Crowthenko that my message had reached him at almost the exact same time the alien vessel had reached the ground, at 160kph, trailing smoke and pieces of Russian interceptor rockets. An act of war against an alien power of unknown strength and disposition. Our administration's first days could not be considered an unmitigated success.

Not that they had been a total failure either, I learned upon returning to the Duma. Agents I had deployed in Belarus and the Ukraine had acted as intermediaries for Ambassador Kellzlov and secured alliances for us in both countries. Germany had agreed to launch a Russian satellite to spread costs between our countries. China too was smiling at us, no doubt their attitude buoyed by the crate of vodka we sent to their head of state.

("From Russia With Love", each bottle was labelled. It was Kellzlov's idea, but it was unanimously approved.  It just seemed so right to greet our Chinese friends with a title ripped straight from imbecilic anti-Communist screeds featuring a quite literally glorified alcoholic. All that stopped those appalling movies from qualifying as undiluted capitalist propaganda was their need to feed the Westerner's obsession with tits.)

Soon enough, more alien messages were coming in, along with more alien craft. One of the former was from our erstwhile tentative allies ("The New Love Republic", our translators said. How did they keep a straight face? How did they keep their jobs?). Unsurprisingly, they were enraged over the loss of their craft, and demanded to know whether our intentions were hostile. But another alien force (Government? Species? To this day I do not know) had made contact as well, offering to abduct our enemies. Who had sent this? Were they serious? Did we even have any enemies, or at least any enemies we despised so much we would sell them out to aliens of unknown motives and feeding habits?

There was little time to debate the issue; by now the skies and space over our heads were alive with alien vessels. Encouraged by the ostensibly friendly overtures of our new contact, and wishing to not facilitate another tragic accident, once more the forces of Russia held back, even with alien forces in our airspace. Tensions were mounting across Europe. Italy by now was all but submerged by infiltrators and counter-infiltrators, and the German force commander had launched an air-fleet our country could not counter if we pulled in every SIF from Kaliningrad to Primorksy Krai.

Watching those alien ships tear across our skies was the longest, most uncomfortable experience of my life. I felt my thumbs itch, my shoulders spasm. Just one button and I could unleash the holy terror of my interceptors. But I waited. Far off on the Pacific Coast, Crowthenko waited. Somewhere in his central Russian bunker, President Mercoyan waited, or perhaps focused on terrestrial plotting for a while. I would not fire first. I would not begin another war that could cost millions of Russian lives. Those days were over.

Then the aliens shot down our German-launched satellite, and Europe went mad. The Germans were first to respond. "This is an act of WAR by anyone's standards!" went the press release, as though their attacks upon alien ships mere weeks earlier were acts of high-spirited comity. But hypocrisy is in the westerner's blood, and their blood was up. SIFs flew from half a dozen nations to intercept alien ships from multiple factions. The German forces and my own flew to converge on contacts near Ryazan and Penza. Only one vessel was left unchallenged, its design and iconography suggesting a link to the New Love Republic. I remember watching the bloodless abstractions of our telemetry updating and praying I had done the right thing. Then the missiles started flying and God became one more thing that would simply have to wait.

In the end our victory was almost total. One alien ship driven off, a second damaged, and a third shot down and looted. Our German allies came out of the melee almost undamaged, and my own aircraft had not so much as chipped their paintwork. The armada that had been orbiting nearby the spinning ruins of our satellite had fled. But the ship I had let pass through our air in peace left without contact, and our refusal to release the transcripts of our conversations with these aliens was raising suspicion. There was no help for it, of course. How could we admit our blunder in the East? If we admitted we shot down a UFO just weeks before alien forces destroyed one of our satellites, no-one could have failed to join the dots. We would be on our own again, abandoned by our allies, whilst we fought a war we didn't want whilst the world looked gleefully on.

No. Admitting the truth would cost us too much. But keeping silence had its price as well. Unnerved by our seemingly random refusal to strike at certain alien craft, Spain attempted an infiltration of the Kremlin. With attempts to make contact through military channels rebuffed, Ambassador Kellzlov was dispatched to make contact. There were sterner ways to discipline Spain if necessary; our carrier fleet was in the North Atlantic on pollution clean-up (we saw little sense in provoking the whales), and a slight detour into the Bay of Biscay would surely send a powerful message. For now though, the soft sell seemed prudent. General Crowthenko had reported an alien attack on his base in the Pacific theatre, and I had no desire to see Russia squeezed on two fronts. As further men and materiel were shipped to Crowthenko across Siberia, I was once more forced to wait.

The quiet did not last for long. By the time I returned to the Duma news had broken out that a number of North Korean diplomats had been abducted by unknown alien assailants. Globally speaking, that was entirely too close for comfort, and I told the President as much the moment he had time to meet with me.
"We shouldn't worry about the North Koreans" he said, his eyes locked on his phone as it updated him on the Ugandan relief effort. We hadn't offered them any money, so most of our interest was checking the Americans weren't pillorying us in the media for not caring to help non-white people. As though it is somehow superior to invade the lands of non-whites and hand out pastrami bagels to those they haven't yet murdered.
"We shouldn't?" I replied, confused. "What if they target us next? What about the Chinese? They're right next door to Pyongyang; how long is our new alliance going to stay stable if we sit and wave as half the State Council disappears into the troposphere?"
"We shouldn't worry", Mercoyan repeated. "Because it was us."
"Us?" This was intolerable. A military mission to abduct foreign politicians without my knowledge?
"Well," the President continued. "The aliens. But we asked them to do it."
Realisation dawned. "The message."
"The message." Mercoyan seemed pleased, either at his own plan or that I had finally managed to work that plan out. I felt like a puppy given credit for no longer shitting on the rug. It was not a sensation I found agreeable. "When someone offers to deal with your enemies for you, and to do it for free, only the foolish refuses."
"Foolish?" I said,  "I say prudent. We don't know what these aliens want. We can't even talk to them directly.  Did you... did you send this request on an open channel?"
"There was no other way to do it."
"So every creature, freak and monster up there in a weaponised tin can knows we ordered up two North Korean dignitaries to go? And why the hell North Korea, Mr President? What did they ever do to us? What could they ever do to us? They'd have to march through China to get to us, they'd have to do it hurling rocks and sharp sticks at us, and all their sticks are pointed at Seoul in any case. What is in this for us?"
Mercoyan at last put his phone down and looked me in the eyes,
"General Crosschev," he said, spreading his arms wide. "Always you think the man in charge is fully in charge. Those we had the aliens... relocate were malcontents. Rebels. They would have brought down the regime in Pyongyang given half a chance."
For a few seconds I remained silent, processing. "Which would have destabilised the whole region. A region with nuclear capability.  My apologies, Mr President; I believe I now understand."
If the conversation had ended there, the entire course of world history would have been quite different. Instead, Mercoyan continued.
"It is not just that, comrade." The President's emphasis on that word was deep and un-ironic, "Pyongyang has its problems, God knows, but you don't find fault with your friends when there are enemies still to deal with. We need our friends, General.  These rabble-rousers would have ended communism in North Korea." Mercoyan bared his teeth,. "And that I could not allow."
And suddenly, I knew with total certainty who and what I was dealing with here. Mercoyan had come to power as a reformer, but he came not to change but to restore. Somehow, the vicious, impenetrable parade of anti-logic that we hilariously refer to as Russian democracy had thrown up a throwback. Our new President didn't want to honour our past, he wanted to return to it.

I am not sure I had ever felt more afraid.

(As an aside, I think it was about this time that the Pope was revealed to have been defrauding Catholic charities so as to build a larger mansion. On the moon, I think it was then, at least it is difficult to keep track. Maybe the Pope was innocent, and it was all disinformation spread by those Humanity First people. I never trusted Humanity First. Any person who feels the need to insist they put people first in the title of their organisation immediately makes one suspect the opposite. Much like a steakhouse that calls itself "Not A Trace Of Cow Anus", one immediately wonders, as the English say, if the lady doth protest too much.)

In one regard, however, Mercoyan's logic was unassailable. We had enough enemies for us to worry about before we moved on to domestic issues. Only an idiot cleans out his house when it is under siege. Alien activity had slackened off in Eastern Europe after the German-led firestorm (how glad I was that we had rewarded Berlin for friendship. "From Russia with love"!) but that left us with more than our share of earthbound concerns. Our President had recently announced diplomatic talks with Iran, which had the Americans in one of their clockwork-regular existential freak-outs. Perhaps that's why one of their carrier groups appeared in European waters, a development that made Spain very publicly rather nervous.

Ah yes, Spain. That was turning into a viper's nest; all tangled tails and barely-restrained venom. No sooner had Ambassador Kellzlov returned from Madrid with assurances that Congreso de los Diputados had no interest in disrupting our internal affairs when another Spanish infiltration squad was discovered in Moscow. This called for unusual measures. The next flight Kellzlov took to Madrid had me on it too. I hate flying.  If God had intended for us to fly, he wouldn't have made it so much harder to invent the plane than he did vodka. Why fret about where else you must be when you can drink until you no longer know where you are?

Still, the trip was not without entertainment. Ambassador Kellzlov's plan was simple; what the westerner's call "Good Cop, Bad Cop". In Russia the terminology is different - because all our police officers are equally polite and who the hell are you to question that? - but the broad principles are the same. It is a role I enjoy playing enormously; done right, diplomacy is simply a battle in which one does not risk one's soldiers. And diplomacy where I get to stomp around and threaten people is definitely diplomacy done right.

Behind an ornate desk and in a simple wheelchair, Prime Minister Chamberlicueta watched us coolly as we approached, giving nothing away. I didn't care. Kellzlov was hear to ponder and to fret and to fathom. I was here for threats. I did briefly consider whether looming over a man in a wheelchair was acceptable behaviour, but I just as quickly dismissed my concerns. The man ruled almost fifty million people; he would not be intimidated easily. Threatening looming could well be essential.  Besides, I had quite simply traveled too far to not engage in threatening looming. Threatening looming was a large part of the fun.

"Mr Prime Minister" I spat, looming threateningly. "We have caught a second wave of Spanish infiltrators on our sovereign soil. If you wish for war, you need only to ask. War is what I do. It is what I enjoy. And enjoying it as I do, I have gotten very good at it."
Chamberlicueta betrayed nothing. "War with Russia is the last thing we want."
"We do not wish for war with Spain either", I assured him, "We also do not wish to be challenged to a kasha-eating contest by a three-year old child. But just because we're not interested in the contest doesn't mean we have any doubt we would win."
The Spaniard nodded slowly. "I take your point. I shall order that no further teams be sent into your territory."
"That is exactly what you promised me before, Mr Prime Minister,"  Ambassador Kellzlov asked from beside me. "I'm rather insulted that you thought it would work on me twice."
A flicker of something passed over Chamberlicueta's face. Annoyance? Confusion?
"I gave strict instructions to my generals all such activity was to cease," he said stiffly. I was sure there was something odd in his tone, but when everyone in a conversation is using a second language it can be hard to tell.
"Really?" I asked. "It seems to me that either you are lying and using your men as cover, or you have completely lost control of your military. I confess to some curiosity as to which it is, though the end result is liable to be equally calamitous for Spain."
The Prime Minister sighed.
"What would it take for you to go back to Moscow and not press big red buttons of any kind?" he asked.
"Might we not speak with your Chief of Defence Staff?" Kellzlov asked. "Clearly communication is breaking down somewhere, and communication is very much my business."

The officer in question, General Danuerra, was hastily summoned. Not quite hastily enough, though; by the time she arrived at Moncloa, Kellzlov had already been called away to deal with a crisis in Iran. (I think it was Iran, it could have been Indonesia. It could always have been Indonesia). This left me in the rather difficult position of playing "good cop" and "bad cop" simultaneously.  It was lucky someone had thought to translate The Lego Movie into Russian.

(How is it the westerners never worked out what that move was doing? How did they not realise how total a condemnation of rampant capitalism the film was? "President Business" the enemy? A rigid hierarchy where no-one can move from the position those at the top impose upon them because that's the way value - money -  can be maximised?  How could something like that possibly have enraptured so many Americans? It doesn't even have any breasts in it. I digress.)

Danuerra proved rather more forthcoming in the comparative calm of the palace than she had over our hastily patched together cross-continental communications. The degree to which this was aided by my looming is for historians to decide. What I do know is that the diplomatic corps of both our countries could learn a few tricks from a meeting of uncluttered military minds.
"What do you want?" Danuerra asked gruffly the very second we met.
"I want your people out of Russia," I replied, "And I want to know what you were doing there in the first place. An apology would also be welcome, though that at least I won't extort from you through threats of tank-shock."
Danuerra raised her eyebrows at the threat, but didn't engage.
"What we were doing there was trying to figure out why you've been so tolerant of alien ships in your airspace," she said. "Frankly if you'd treated the ETs with the same belligerent contempt you're showing us, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now."
Damn the New Love Republic. Even now, over a year since their disastrous diplomatic mission, we were still paying for their navigational incompetence. That said, I was unable to entirely stifle a laugh. I knew how to play this particular ball.
"We are still in the early stages of negotiation with the aliens," I told her. It wasn't exactly a lie; the Spanish didn't need to know we'd been trapped in the early stages for months, and that we were more likely to see bombs descending on us from space than we were to get any further with out cross-species diplomatic outreach. "When we actually get something concrete from them, we'll be glad to share it with you in exchange for information of your own." It seemed a safe enough arrangement; the Spanish would stop crossing our border, we could continue to attack or ignore alien visitors as circumstances dictated, and if we were lucky we might even get some information from the Spanish without having to give up any ourselves.
Danuerra and Chamberlicueta glanced at each other.
"Very well," the Prime Minister said, sounding relieved. I surmised he was less than convinced our fleet manoeuvres in western Europe were genuinely aimed at crushing nothing but pollution. Danuerra seemed in high spirits too as she shook my hand, but abruptly she returned to business. "Now," she said darkly. "Let's discuss the Americans."

The Americans at this point were becoming a real problem in Europe, and not just for our corner of the continent. When Spain and Russia are both concerned about regional encroachment, the region under discussion must be very big indeed. US fleets were showing up off the coast of Scandinavia, American agents were being observed moving through Western Europe, and diplomats carrying the flag of Washington were creeping rather closer to the former USSR than any of us were comfortable with. Such rapid inroads were nothing short of alarming. Surely even the Americans could not be so bellicose as to want to drag us back into the Cold War? Surely they didn't think the only problem with Iron Curtain was that it needed moving east a little?

And yet when I returned from Madrid to the Duma to discuss the latest developments, it wasn't the United States that was top of the agenda.  It was Iran.

"Our alliance with Tehran has now become official!" Mercoyan announced as our meeting got underway.  Crowthenko and I exchanged worried glances. The faces of our diplomats - Kellzlov and Oxfotov, plus our UN ambassador Creltsin - were studiously neutral; they must have known this was coming. This was just before the bombing of the Eurovision Song Contest in Spain (I myself will always regret Russia was unable to stage its up-tempo dance number "We're Sorry About Putin" due to the tragedy I'm told the dance routine alone would generate an international incident), so tensions between Iran and the rest of the world weren't quite so high as they would later become. Still though, this was no small risk.
"What does Iran matter to us?" I asked.
"Iran should matter to us all," our President responded. "A peaceful country under international pressure to not take steps it has every right to in improving its infrastructure. The Americans imagine it is in their best interests to keep Iran under-powered - in several senses of the term - so they're blocking fully legal steps by Tehran to improve their country's lot."
"And the real reason?" I asked.
Mercoyan grinned wolfishly.
"Iran is sitting on the richest skein of red mercury in the world. If we help dig it out and protect them from the Americans, we'll get the bear's share of it."
Do we even know what the red mercury could be used for?" I asked, glancing at our chief scientist. Batenin shuffled his papers and mumbled something more or less unintelligible, though I think it was "uncertainty principle".
Mercoyan was unfazed. "Even if we somehow fail to directly tap into the material's potential ourselves, the aliens will pay through their green hyper-dimensional noses for it.  It's win - win."
"Not if we get dragged in to a shooting war for it, it's not," I insisted "Afghanistan will seem like a trip to the ballet compared to a major land war to support Iran against Israel with full US backing."
The President fixed his gaze directly upon me.
"That sounds an awful lot like one of those things for you to worry about," he said.
I was about to say something desperately rash and unpopular and dangerous when God, displaying rather better timing than he is generally credited with, intervened.  An aide appeared beside me clutching a small piece of paper, which he passed to me and withdrew. I scanned the contents twice, just to be sure I had got the message.
"Gentlemen, ladies, if you'll excuse me," I said, getting to my feet. "One of things for me to worry about just reared its head.
"The Americans have taken Moldova."

I confess, that was a terrible exaggeration. They hadn't invaded it, simply forged an alliance.  But with Moldova sharing a border with our firm allies the Ukraine, even a formal treaty with our old adversary was problematic enough. And with Moldova having approximately 1% of the population of the US and a thousandth of its GDP, there was clearly no strategic benefit to a pact between the two countries other than to send us a message.  Since I seem to be in the mood for confession at this moment, here is another one; I was getting heartily sick of messages being sent to me by westerners sneaking into eastern Europe.

Choosing my next actions wisely was crucial. President Mercoyan had given me permission to handle the situation as I saw fit, whilst he concentrated on the problem in Iran and General Crowthenko tried to not murder any more alien diplomats. But how far to push my luck? With the threat of the aliens still a real concern, a shooting war with American proxies in Moldova and in the Baltic Sea was not an idea I relished. After our success in Madrid I attempted a quick piece of off-the-cuff diplomacy, sending the Americans a brief request for explanation as to why they had found such sudden interest in Chisinau.

Silence was the only response.

This was the same tactic Spain had tried when they violated our sovereign soil, twice. This was the same lack of reply we received from the aliens when asked to justify the destruction of our satellite. It suddenly became clear what was happening; the conventional wisdom had ossified. Russia was an old done force, a gigantic rotting cadaver, sprawled in rigor mortis from Volgograd to Vladivostok, a dead body to be picked apart by crows. You do not seek permission to steal from a corpse, or to destroy its possessions, or to build on its lands. You just grimace and push it aside with your boot. So pervasive had this belief become that even the interstellar visitors who swarmed above us had become convinced of its veracity.

The world - several worlds, in fact - needed to be reminded that Russia was still alive.  That Russia would fight for what was hers. That when you ignore the bear, the bear will maul you.

I mobilised the entire western Russian war machine, and Europe went mad. Again.

I enjoyed it rather more fully the second time around.