|"WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW, DOLPHIN? Oh."|
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."
"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.
"ISRAEL HAS BOMBED IRAN. DOZENS DEAD.
"SOME OF THEM ARE RUSSIAN."
TO BE CONCLUDED...