The Reluctant Contact

Stephen Burke

THE RELUCTANT CONTACT

For Nuala Burke

Chapter 1

LUMPS OF ICE bobbed from side to side, disturbed by the swell from the boat. Within weeks this would all be ice, and the Billefjorden would be frozen solid for the whole winter. Then there would be no easy way in or out of here, except by helicopter. This was Yuri’s favourite time of year. Others found it claustrophobic living up here, trapped in an icebox. But Yuri enjoyed being cut off from the rest of the world. It was peaceful. The only things that existed were what he could see around him. The chances of unwelcome surprises were slim.

He let the clean, glacial air enter his lungs slowly, savouring it. He felt alive, and renewed, after his trip back to Moscow. That was the city of his birth, but he returned there only when he had no choice.

Around him on the wooden deck were fifty burly miners, mostly Ukrainians and Belarusians. They had landed that morning at Longyearbyen airport on Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Numbering a hundred odd, they had split in two, with half making the journey south to Barentsburg, the other Soviet outpost here.

This would be the first time in Pyramiden for all of the men around him now, day one of a much sought-after two-year contract. Yuri was on his sixth, and if he had his way, there would be a seventh and an eighth. Pyramiden was his adopted home, one that he would not leave willingly.

There had been a flurry of excitement among the travellers a while back when they had sailed past a herd of walrus dining on a bearded seal, their long ivory tusks creating a bloody mess as they tore into their victim’s blubbery flesh. Now the men smoked and chatted, and stamped their feet to keep warm. One passed around a metal flask of vodka to grateful hands.

They were all big men, made larger by their thick overcoats and cheap fur hats. There was something about their eyes, Yuri noticed. Spending so much time working underground, they might be expected to have narrow, beady eyes. Instead, for the most part, they shone wide and bright, with colours more vivid than the average surface dweller. Stunning emeralds and opals set in rugged, dark faces that could never be completely scrubbed clean of the black coal dust.

Yuri avoided going down into the lifeless darkness of the mine shaft as much as possible. As chief engineer for the whole town, he had more than enough work to do above ground to occupy his time. If something needed fixing below, in the bowels of the mountain, he would nominate his assistant, Semyon. The little Latvian weasel had been with him a year now. Previously, all of his assistants had been incompetents, content to do whatever they were told. Semyon, unfortunately, was smart, with notions above his station in life, which did not include being subordinate to Yuri for very long. However, Yuri had designed and built most of the systems in Pyramiden, and he was not about to share all of his secrets with anyone. As intricate and idiosyncratic as his systems were, he was still wary of being away, even for short periods. His greatest fear was that some day, someone would realise they could get by just fine without him.

Yuri felt a faint shift in the wind. Then everyone looked up as a large flock of black and white dovekies appeared from nowhere and whizzed by, just above their heads. One group of miners parted and Yuri saw a young woman sitting on her own on a bench. Pale. Twenty-five, or thereabouts. Not beautiful, but not ugly either. Foreign, he guessed. Proper foreign, not one of the skinny blondes from the Balkans. Her clothes were bright, in garish colours: an orange bubble coat, a striped woollen hat with hanging bobbles, as if she were going skiing. She was looking around, taking everything in. He felt her nervous excitement. She turned in his direction and their eyes locked for a moment. She smiled briefly before their view of each other was blocked once more.

The town came into view as the inlet reached a dead end. On one side stood the sprawling mine, nestled below Pyramiden mountain. On the opposite shore, across the fjord, was the Nordenskjold glacier, stationary to the naked eye, as it caressed the water’s edge. Some of the miners pointed to an opening halfway up the mountainside. The entrance to the underworld into which they would descend each day.

Good luck with that, thought Yuri; rather you than me.

The mine was linked to the ground by a railway enclosed in a wooden tunnel, which brought the miners up and the coal down. Several times a year, a ship arrived from Russia to haul away the fruits of their labour.

Long before the boat reached the jetty, Yuri spotted his assistant standing beside Timur, the resident secret service agent. Timur was always easy to pick out, with his tightly cropped red hair and military bearing. Semyon, in contrast, was a slight man with oversized glasses and a mop of unkempt black curls. The two of them were waiting for him, no doubt. Trouble.

Theoretically, Timur was here to monitor NATO activity in this part of the Arctic Circle. In practice, he spent his days looking for ways to make the other residents’ lives miserable. He and Semyon made a fine pair.

As the boat crew tied up the mooring ropes, Yuri stepped on to land and immediately went on the offensive.

‘What have you done now?’ he barked at Semyon as the two of them made a beeline for him.

Timur gave him one of his cold stares that gave the impression of being able to discern lies from truth. ‘Semyon has made a serious accusation against you, Yuri, of sabotage.’

Some of the new miners, overhearing, turned their heads. The foreign girl looked over too. So, she speaks Russian, Yuri thought. Sabotage was the dirtiest word in the whole of the USSR, worse than capitalism, and it got the convenient blame for a litany of problems that were usually just the result of incompetence and inefficiency. Yuri feigned an outraged expression for his audience.

‘What is it I’m supposed to have done now?’

Timur turned to Semyon for the answer.

‘I don’t know what he did exactly, but he did something.’

Yuri threw his eyes up to heaven. ‘I tell you, I go away for one week, to bury my dear departed brother, and this place falls apart.’

‘He did it,’ said Semyon, ‘I know he did.’

‘Did what exactly?’ asked Yuri. ‘Would someone like to let me in on this little joke?’

‘The heating to the executive block is out,’ replied Semyon. ‘But you knew that already.’

‘You mean to say it’s broken and you don’t know how to fix it. Correct? How long has it been out?’

‘Three nights,’ said Timur.

‘Ooh, I bet the execs aren’t happy about that,’ said Yuri, with a grin.

‘No, we’re not,’ said Timur. ‘My balls have nearly fallen off. If they get any harder we can play snooker with them.’

‘It’s a good thing I came back when I did then. Come on, let’s get to work so I can fix whatever it is. You’ll really have to pay more attention, Semyon, if you’re to replace me one day.’

Yuri started to walk away, but checked over his shoulder as Semyon turned to Timur for support. The secret service man just shrugged, leaving Semyon no choice except to traipse after him.

‘What happened to your brother?’ Timur shouted after them.

‘He drank himself to death,’ replied Yuri.

Timur nodded as if this was nothing unusual.

At forty-five, Yuri had lived through the craziness of Stalin, the slightly tamer craziness of Khrushchev, and now the ‘big sleep’ of Brezhnev. Of the three, he reckoned this was definitely the best time to be alive. Brezhnev understood what the people wanted. An end to high-pressure production quotas at work, and lots of cheap vodka. He delivered both.

The threat of war with the Americans was at an all-time low. The burning question of the day was whether Brezhnev really was the most boring man alive; or if, in fact, he was alive at all and not a mannequin as some suggested. There was also some heated bar-room debate on how many more self-awarded medals he would be able to fit on his bloated chest. However, despite the new stability in the country, for Yuri the old gulag-avoidance rules still applied.

Don’t trust anyone.

Keep your head down.

Look after number one.

For the whole afternoon, Semyon followed Yuri around like a jittery hen as he attempted to decipher the problem. They rechecked the furnace, the pumps, dozens of pipe intersections and the exec block itself. After four hours Yuri threw his hands up and admitted that he was as clueless as Semyon had been. Everything seemed to be functioning, yet the hot water stubbornly refused to arrive in the executive apartment building. Semyon grudgingly parked his sabotage accusations and offered a few suggestions. Yuri humoured him by trying them out, but none delivered the desired solution.

‘We’ll have to tackle it again in the morning,’ said Yuri, as the night-time freeze made continuing their outdoor work impossible.

‘But that’ll be four nights in a row!’ protested Semyon. ‘We’ll get into deep shit. I’m already in the bad books.’

‘Look, don’t worry about them,’ said Yuri. ‘They’ve survived this long, and a little dose of hardship will do them good. Besides, they can pin all the blame on me now.’

Semyon was satisfied with the last part.< ...

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