The Saturday Serial: Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev, Part IV

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Part IV: Expedition To Earth

After the evening meal, Raisa and Mikhail would normally head out to the theatre or a movie, or invite a few friends round for a Pepsi. Tonight, however, they’re off to Sheremetyevo Airport to greet the winner of the U.S.-Soviet Friendship Society’s “Win a day with Mikhail Gorbachev” competition. This competition attracted over 10,000 entries, despite unfavourable comment in the U.S. media, and represents a significant propaganda victory for the Soviet Union. Contestants were required to write an essay on the subject “U.S.-Soviet Relations: Where to from here?”, and as a tie-breaker had been asked to complete, in 25 words or less, the sentence “I would like to visit the Soviet Union because… “.

Although the tie-breaker had not in fact been required, as the winner’s essay stood head and shoulders above its competition, his sentence had read “I would like to visit the Soviet Union because I have in my possession complete design drawings of the prototype Strategic Defence Initiative antimissile laser system.” This sentence contains 26 words and would, had the tiebreaker been required, undoubtedly have been disqualified.

The winner calls himself Jim Beam, and he arrives from Heathrow Airport by Aeroflot. He is met as he steps off the plane by senior officers of Soviet military intelligence, who relieve him of a folder of drawings he obligingly presents to them, and after submitting to a final search he is permitted to meet the Gorbachevs and the press. After exchanging pleasantries, the threesome return to the Kremlin for a private get-acquainted chat in Mikhail and Raisa’s apartment. “That means private”, Mikhail insists, shooing away the lurking Kremlin guards.

When the door has closed behind the last of the guards, it is Raisa who speaks. “We have been awaiting this meeting for a long time, Anatar. But why did you choose such a public method of arrival?”

The Ambassador to Earth of the Galactic Federation peels off his false head, legs and genitals, places them in a small attache case, and squats before them in its true form. “An old Earth custom, I believe – of hiding in plain sight. How could anyone so public as Mr. Jim Beam be other than what he seemed? Well, we can dispense with Mr. Beam now. How soon can you leave?”

“I’ve told my colleagues on the collective farm that I’m taking a week’s holiday – I believe that will be sufficient? I’ve packed my bags, and we recovered the atmosphere suit and other equipment from the Tunguska a week ago. The matter transmitter brought them in easily. I’m ready when you are, Anatar.”

“Very well. Mr. Gorbachev, would you like to come with us to farewell your wife?”

“I certainly would. But there’s one thing I don’t understand, Anatar: why can’t the matter transmitter take Raisa all the way to Galactic H.Q.?”

“I don’t know, General Secretary. I’m a diplomat, not a scientist. But I’ve been told that both loci of the matter transmitter need to be on the same planetary body – something to do with frames of reference, I understand.”

“Science is a wonderful thing. I must introduce you to some of our more far-sighted writers on the subject.”

“Save the books for later, Mick,” says Raisa. “It’s time to go.”

The aliens’ ship is waiting in a forest between Shar’ya and Kirov; their matter transmitter, of which an embarrassed Academician Ivanenko is still trying to provide a convincing explanation to the military, sends them through one at a time. The ship is the conventional saucer shape. A ramp extends to the ground, and between the pine trees small figures on trolleys are moving through the mist, collecting specimens.

Before Raisa puts on her atmosphere suit and goes off to the headquarters of the Galactic Federation to present the case for Earth’s admission, she and Mikhail say goodbye. They stand at the foot of the ramp, holding each other close.

“Keep everything ticking over whilst I’m away, won’t you, Mick?”

“I don’t expect any major problems. I’m sure we’ll reach a compromise on the Zils without Andrei losing face. Nothing else should be too difficult – for me. You’re the one who’s got the hard work ahead.”

“Oh, I think I’ll manage O.K. It’s a formality, really, isn’t it?… Well, Anatar is looking impatient, probably. I have to go. I love you, darling. Take care.”

“I will. You take care too. I’ll take a day off when you get back, eh?”

They hold hands as long as they can whilst Raisa seals herself into the suit. Then they separate, and she walks slowly up the ramp as the returning alien scientists whir past her. When they have all returned, the ramp is closed and the spaceship rises silently upwards. As Mikhail turns to return to Moscow, the sky fills with light and a peal of thunder echoes over the sleeping land.

“Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev” was included in Best New Zealand Fiction 4 and then collected in my second short story collection, Transported.

Transported cover

You can buy Transported online from Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad. You can also read review excerpts and find out more about Transported

The Saturday Serial: Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev, Part III

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Part III: The Politburo

The Politburo had traditionally met in a sombre, marbled room, sitting six to a side along a massive table. Mikhail felt that this arrangement wasn’t conducive to increased productivity and efficiency, so had done away with the heavy table and got everybody to sit in a circle on the ground, on cushions lovingly sewn in one of the more obscure Central Asian republics. The older Politburo members weren’t entirely happy about this arrangement, and still grumbled about it when they thought themselves unobserved. However, the younger men (for there were no female members of this most exclusive club) seemed to like the arrangement, and at the moment it was these men – Vorotnikov, Egor Ligachev, Nikolai Ryzhkov, Chebrikov, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Gorbachev himself – who called the shots.

Everyone is in their seats by 2pm sharp, and Mikhail opens the meeting by pinning a big sheet of paper to the wall and asking for agenda items. Ligachev, who has charge of the minutes of the previous meeting, reminds everyone that the Geneva summit and the forthcoming grain harvest are matters that weren’t finalised at the last meeting. New agenda items include progress on the BAM rerouting, another increase in funds for technical intelligence, and the colour scheme for the Politburo’s new Zil limousines.

The meeting opens with a sharing session, wherein each member lets the others know how they’re feeling, so their private, personal problems won’t fester unacknowledged beneath the surface of the meeting. Nikolai Tikhonov announces that he has never felt better; Chebrikov winks at Gorbachev. Andrei Gromyko, who has become slightly deaf, queries why anyone would want to feel butter. Shevardnadze, newly appointed Foreign Minister, reveals he’s had an exciting day broadening his knowledge of geography, and now knows where Africa and Australia are. Someone whistles a derisory bar or two of “Georgia On My Mind”. Generally, everyone has had a good day, although Vorotnikov claims Gorbachev has obstructed him on a couple of key points -then must hasten to explain he is talking about the lunchtime squash game rather than matters of state.

The Geneva summit (where Mikhail plans to try for a propaganda coup by challenging Reagan to see who can stay on a horse the longest), BAM, a 25% increase in funds for purchase of Western microcomputers and microengineers, and the grain harvest (about which there was general agreement that having one would be a Good Idea) are all sorted out quite simply. As everyone fears, the big clash between Gorbachev’s new guard and the remaining old-timers comes over the Zils’ paintwork.

The matter had first surfaced under Gorbachev’s predecessor Konstantin Chernenko, and in keeping with the dour Siberian’s approach the normal black colour scheme had been approved. However, Geidar Aliyev had felt even at the time that something more dynamic was called for, and was now proposing a trendy metallic red with racing stripes down the sides. A reliable source who did not wish to be named claimed that Aliyev was originally planning to include mag wheels and furry dice in the package, but decided this might lessen Politburo members’ dignity in the eyes of the Russian people.

After Aliyev has put his proposal, there is an uneasy silence in the room. When Gorbachev, who is facilitating the meeting, asks if there is any disagreement, President Andrei Gromyko rises to his feet.

“For 25 years, I was the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union. For all that time, Soviet representatives maintained the most punctilious dignity and reserve. The western imperialists seek to portray us as barbarians, but we have shown that we are the true standard-bearers of civilisation. Our sober black Zil limousines have been an important part of our image as serious, responsible world leaders. I could never agree to such a proposal.”

“Does that means you’d be prepared to block consensus on it, Andrei?”

“Yes, Mikhail, I would.”

“Well, does anyone want to try to change Andrei’s mind?”

Ligachev, who has a reputation for over-enthusiasm, rises to his feet.

“Listen, Andrei, we’re living in the 1980s now, not the 1950s. We’re talking marketing, we’re talking positioning, we’re talking selling ourselves in the marketplace. Today’s Politburo needs to project a positive, up-market image, inspiring confidence amongst our customers. Professor Lysenko over at the Soviet Institute of Psychodemographics tells me their latest survey indicates that more Great Russians in the 16-25 cohort know that Wham! recently played China than are aware that the Central Committee recently approved the latest five-year plan. Our collective name-recognition factor, with the understandable exception of Comrade Gorbachev, is less than that of Elton John’s percussionist. The citizens of Ust-Kut have recently petitioned to have the name of their main street changed from Lenin Prospekt to Lennon Prospekt! When this sort of thing is happening in Ust-Kut, need I say more?”

(The citizens of Ust-Kut, a small but bustling city in the progressive Lake Baikal region, would doubtless have protested at this implied slur on their modernity, but as it has not until now been revealed, they went about their business in happy ignorance.)

“Egor, interesting as all this is, I don’t see why it means we have to have red Zils with racing stripes down the sides.”

“Because they’re new! They’re modern! They’re positive! They project the go-ahead image we need. Personally, I’d be prepared to compromise on the racing stripes, but after all, Comrade Gromyko, red is the colour of our Union’s flag. Are you suggesting we should change it?”

Mikhail senses that tempers are rising. A good facilitator must be able to strike a balance between non-interference when a meeting is flowing smoothly, and appropriate intervention when things are going off the rails. Now is a time for the latter.

“It’s obvious we have considerable disagreement on this issue, and I don’t think we can reach a consensus at this meeting. What I suggest is that a few people who’ve got strong feelings on the issue get together and see if they can work out a compromise proposal, or a new and better one, to present to the next meeting. I won’t join that group myself, but stepping outside my role as facilitator I’d like to suggest a dual fleet, one in black for the more ceremonial occasions and one in red, with or without stripes, for trips to the movies and so forth. Are there any volunteers for the working party?”

Aliyev, Ligachev, Vorotnikov and, after some prompting, Gromyko, agree to meet soon to come up with a solution which can be presented to the next Politburo meeting. The present meeting closes with an evaluation; everyone (even Gromyko) agrees it has gone well. Under Brezhnev and Chernenko, everyone would have headed off for a few vodkas at this point, but the fate of Grigory Romanov and other victims of Gorbachev’s anti-alcoholism drive persuades them all to settle, in the public interim, for tea, coffee and Milo. After the last cup has been smashed in the fireplace, there’s just enough time for Mikhail to pick up his dufflebag from the office before heading home to cook tea.

“Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev” was included in Best New Zealand Fiction 4 and then collected in my second short story collection, Transported.

Transported cover

You can buy Transported online from Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad. You can also read review excerpts and find out more about Transported

The Saturday Serial: Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev, Part II

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Part II: Arthur C. Clarke

“Arthur C. Clarke, eh, Viktor? How do you rate him in comparison with Asimov?”, Mikhail, a subscriber to Analog, asks his security chief.

“Well, as an SF writer, I think Clarke’s got the edge. He brings a real quality of transcendence to his best work, so that it attains a numinous quality which belies his claim to be a writer of hard SF. Expedition to Earth showcases this well, I feel – stories like ‘Second Dawn’, ‘Encounter in the Dawn’, and, particularly, the title story have a haunting, evocative quality which derives in large part from the revelation of powerful contemporary motifs in unfamiliar and often ironic settings. ‘The Sentinel’ is of course of special interest as the progenitor of 2001: A Space Odyssey – have you seen the film, Mikhail?”

“I have. Almost as good as Solaris.”

“If you make allowances for its crypto-bourgeois philosophy,” Viktor said severely.

“But as for comparing Clarke with Asimov – Clarke’s a fine writer, but I can’t go past the fact that Asimov was born here.”

“True, Viktor, although I don’t think we should let national chauvinism influence our literary judgements.”

“If you say so, boss. Anyway, getting back to Expedition to Earth, there’s one story in it which appears particularly relevant in the light of Academician Ivanenko’s recent investigations. Called ‘Loophole’, it’s cast in the epistolary form – “

“Letters, right?”

“Letters, yes. It starts with an exchange of missives between the ruler of Mars and his chief scientist. The Martians have just noticed the first atomic bomb test here on Earth, and – well, perhaps you’d like to read it for yourself, Mick?”

As Mikhail Gorbachev reads of the Martians’ plans to dominate and eliminate the humans through their control of interplanetary space, and of the loophole through which the humans strike first, Viktor Chebrikov’s gaze strays to the window at the other end of the room. On the other side of that window, the Lubyanka waits to receive its unwilling guests, three faceless bodies lie just beneath the melting snows of Gorky Park, and Arkady Renko and a small group of friends sit watching a smuggled videotape of Hill St. Blues.

In the snows east of Irkutsk, workers on the Baikal-Amur Mainline take care to prevent their skin freezing to the track, and in the Tunguska the trees are again laid flat. Nude bathers are causing a stir in certain Black Sea resorts, whilst in a dacha just outside Moscow Nikolai Tikhonov gives his all in the arms of his beloved as KGB cameras record the scene for posterity.

And more coffins return through the mountain passes from Afghanistan, and Vladimir Arsenyev roams through the taiga with his friend Dersu Uzala, and Stalin’s daughter leaves and returns in pain, over and over, as the birches nod their heads in the breeze above the rich black Russian soil.

Mikhail Gorbachev finishes reading. “Hmmm, matter transmitters, eh? What a bright spark that Arthur C. Clarke is. Well, Viktor, any other news? Can my doctors be trusted?”

“Not a disloyal thought in their heads, Mick. I think you’re safe there. But I must be going. I have an ethnic minority to oppress.”

“Which one?”

“Why, the Russians, of course!”

“One of these days we’ll have to stop laughing at that joke. Well, Viktor, show that story to our good friend the Marshal. Our team at Tyuratam may be able to make something of it.”

“O.K., boss, I’m away. See you at the Politburo meeting.”

Mikhail spends the rest of the morning going through his paperwork and reading his mail; there are five circulars, two chain letters, one misdirected subscription to Krokodil and no invitations to the Vatican. At lunchtime, there’s time for a brisk game of squash with Vitaly Vorotnikov before the 2pm Politburo meeting.

“Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev” was included in Best New Zealand Fiction 4 and then collected in my second short story collection, Transported.

Transported cover

You can buy Transported online from Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad. You can also read review excerpts and find out more about Transported

Saturday Serial: Win A Day With Mikhail Gorbachev, Part I

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

I’ve posted a number of my published short-short stories on this blog, but I’ve held off from posting longer works. Then I had a bright idea: how about serialising a few stories?

So, for the next four Saturdays, I hope you’ll enjoy “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev! A Melodrama in Four Parts”, which was included in Best New Zealand Fiction 4 and then collected in my second short story collection, Transported. I’ll add links to Parts II-IV as they are published.

Part I: Off To Work

Mikhail Gorbachev’s day begins much like that of any busy western executive. After a vigorous session of sexual intercourse, Mikhail and his wife Raisa (a former student of philosophy at Moscow University who now drives a tractor in the Ukraine) enjoy a leisurely shower together before descending the central staircase of their modest Kremlin apartment to a hearty breakfast. Mikhail, trained as a lawyer, puts on the toast whilst Raisa brews up a stiff samovar of tea.

Over the breakfast table, Mick and Raisa chat about the news in the morning’s Pravda and the hot gossip amongst their circle of friends – mostly the latest titillating details of Soviet Premier Nikolai Tikhonov’s infatuation with a 22-year-old Intourist guide – before sticking the dishes in the machine and heading off to work. For Raisa, it’s now just a matter of setting the matter transmitter for the banks of the Dnieper and stepping through to the collective farm; for Mikhail, it’s a brisk walk across the back yard to his regular job as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Wednesday the 15th of May is a comparatively light day for Mikhail, who arrives at the office at 9am sharp, exchanging quips about last night’s dismal tour performance by Moscow Dynamo (they lost 1-5 to Punta Arenas F.C.) with his guards as he pushes open the swing doors of the Central Committee’s open-plan office and heads for his desk at the back. After taking a quick look at the morning’s intelligence bulletins – it appears Ronald Reagan has fallen off his horse again – he welcomes in the man ultimately responsible for preparing them, KGB Chief Viktor Chebrikov.

Viktor, who wears a terrible line in spectacles, is an affable, balding secret police professional. Today, he’s looking more than usually pleased with himself, and the reason appears to be contained in a book he’s carrying in his one good hand (the withering of the other is a legacy of the Sverdlovsk anthrax epidemic). The book, it transpires, is Arthur C. Clarke’s Expedition to Earth.

Transported cover

You can buy Transported online from Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad. You can also read review excerpts and find out more about Transported.