|They can see Russia from this hall|
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.
ALIEN CRAFT OVER VLADIVOSTOK. AM FOLLOWING STANDARD ORDERS AND LAUNCHING SIFS TO DESTROY.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.)
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.
TO BE CONTINUED...