Thursday, June 30, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter V part I - It's Treason, Then

This is a big-ass bunker complex, and each of its mega-barracks can hold a thousand men, but Lefty is still moved to the opposite side of the base from where Fourth Brigade is quartered with the rest of the garrison.  After his escorts step out, Lefty realizes that nobody asked for his weapons, but that brief amusement quickly fades into depression, and he sits down to clean his muddy boots.  Our hero is so demoralized, in fact, that it takes him a while to realize that there are other people in the room with him.

One is an unkempt youth in a dirty, disheveled uniform, the other is a fastidious major missing an arm and an eye, but both share a hopelessness about them.  The kid stays silent, so the major introduces himself as Swinburne and the lad as Mr. Carstair the Australian.  Swinburne asks... oh, for the love of...

Okay.  Major Swinburne introduces himself, and his friend, because that's what polite people do.  He asks what organization the new guy belongs to, and is impressed when our hero insists that "Until I am notified in writing and until my color bearer gives up our standard, the Fourth Brigade still exists and I am still in command."  But he never asks the lieutenant's name.  He goes through every other part of the meeting-a-new-person process except what may be the most important step.  All so Hubbard can try to build some mythology or whatever around his hero, suggesting that he's one of those legendary figures who history can't fully explain.

And if this seems ridiculous, that enough information about the lieutenant exists to know that he conversed with Major Swinburne and Mr. Carstair after being relieved of command but not enough to know the lieutenant's actual name, just you friggin' wait.

Argh.  Not that we should be surprised that people are willing to pal it up with a Hubbard Protagonist before learning their name, but still, argh.

Anyway.  After Lefty makes his defiant declaration, Carstair gives an odd laugh, a "monotonous kind of laughter" that lasts for several seconds before stopping, even though Carstair's face is still making a laughing expression.  That was interesting.  Swinburne explains that young Carstair lost every officer in his regiment before bringing the remainder to the field headquarters last year, and since that time he's been shut away in these quarters.  So I guess he can be excused for going a bit loopy.

Lefty asks how Swinburne ended up here.

Yeah, a random paragraph break.  I don't know either.  The conversation in Lefty's new quarters only goes on for another two and a half pages before there's another more logical break in the narrative as the POV shifts to Fourth Brigade.  My theory is that Hubbard thought Major Swinburne's backstory was so dramatic that it deserved its own little section in the book, except said backstory is nothing more than "I've only been here a month."  Maybe Swinburne's theory that Victor and Smythe are getting rid of all the junior officers before "setting up some sort of dukedom or some such thing" is meant to be dramatic, but we already knew that.

At any rate, we learn that twenty-one military units have returned to the field headquarters, only for their officers to be deposed, and of them all but Swinburne and Carstair here managed to leave the base in hopes of finding one of the other units that are still at large.  Lefty gives a sardonic smile at the confidence of "these Tommy-come-afters" who think they can lead a host and conquer a land for themselves without junior officers such as himself, though Swinburne warns him not to underestimate them - some served on the battlefield in Germany, plus they've gotten vaccinations against the soldier's sickness thanks to a cure developed from human blood, but which is only shared with government officials and high-ranking soldiers.

Lefty asks why Swinburne and Carstair haven't tried to escape, and the major explains that they're both loyal to their men, or what's left of them.

"And so you stick in the faint hope that you'll be given back your commands?"

"Yes," said Swinburne.

"They'll never be given back," said the lieutenant.

"What do you mean?" said both men sharply, with uneasy glances at the door.  Hope had suddenly blazed in their faces.

Of course.  Of course these guys never had mutinous thoughts, and never thought to take action against the corrupt forces that had unjustly imprisoned them, until our hero showed up.  But now that he is here, it's time for Lefty to take charge, mobilize his fellow heroic low-level officers against the villainous high-level officers, and-

The lieutenant went on about the task of cleaning his muddy boots.

Or maybe it's time to do shoe maintenance.  Huh.

Well, let's see what the others are up to.  Fourth Brigade is having trouble acclimating to their new billets, and went from making sure everything was neat and tidy for the lieutenant's return to watching the hours crawl by without any sign of their beloved commander.  They go from restless to listless, claustrophobic in their dark and damp quarters, before... really?  Wow, they actually break up some furniture to build a cooking fire in the middle of their sleeping area.  Did someone forget to add a mess hall when designing this fort, or has Fourth Brigade gone wild from so much time out in the field?

In short, their morale was slipping.  As long as they could remember, they had had the lieutenant in sight or alarm distance, and now that they did not know where he was, they felt nervous.  What if something should happen?  Of course, they know nothing could happen, but still-

Thing is, they know exactly what to do if something happens.  There's a good half-page of dialogue that follows this bit, with I guess the collective consciousness of Fourth Brigade imagining reporting different scenarios and Lefty's responses.  Their lieutenant is evidently such a good commander, and they've spent so much time with him, that these soldiers know exactly how he'd act in any given situation.  But they still need him, and of course they're all utterly loyal to him, and are now worried sick that those big bad staff officers have fed him rat poison or something.

Eventually one of the other soldiers assigned to that cavernous barracks comes over to fraternize, namely Thomas O'Thomas, formerly of Major Swinburne's Tenth Regiment.  He is mightily impressed that Fourth Brigade is cooking something, and not, say, dumbstruck that they're destroying furniture and starting a fire in their bunkroom.  He's even more awed when he sees the bulging state of Fourth Brigade's backpacks, and the fact that they actually have artillery pieces...

They just wheeled their field guns all the way down to the barracks, huh?  Not an armory or any place that might be better-suited to storing such equipment?  Oh wait, that's right, they need them to-  Anyway, back to the food.

"How do you manage it?" said Thomas O'Thomas.

"It's the leftenant," said Pollard.  "He thinks of rations and bullets and the brigade, and nothin' else."

"Blind me!  What an officer!"

His tactical skills come down to taking advantage of his enemy's incompetence and he's made some morally-questionable decisions regarding civilians, but the lieutenant stuffs his men's bellies, so obviously he's the best commander ever.

O'Thomas reveals that his regiment is all but starving, and greatly alarms Fourth Brigade by talking about how his commander got relieved of duty like all the other field officers who make the mistake of returning to this headquarters.  Or rather, they're shocked that he "let them take him away from your and never made a move to find him?"  Or horrified that other officers actually ran off to save their own lives, thus abandoning their men to the horrors of sitting in a bunker and not eating as much.  So once the other soldier leaves, all of Fourth Brigade starts talking together, terribly worried for their lieutenant, "Even the carriers, beasts of burden though they had been made of him," and...

Civilians capturing soldiers and turning them into plowing beasts?  That's a crime worth the threat of execution.  A soldier "impressing" civilians and making them haul ammo and supplies?  That earns their undying loyalty.

God dammit Hubbard.  Two summarize two pages, Fourth Brigade continues to trade food for intelligence throughout the evening, learning from other soldiers that the barracks are equipped with gas to make them puke if they get mutinous, and that General Victor betrayed England's previous dictator and handed London over to the commies, but was too distrusted by the new regime to keep around, so they kicked him over to France to depose a General Bealfeather.  And he's still pushing for those Soldiers' Committees because...

Anyway, the next morning rolls around, and Captain Malcolm shows up, heralded by a noncom's traditional cry of "Attenshun!"  He tries to make a speech to impress his new unit, commenting that "you are, of course, in very sorry shape," and "your discipline, it is plain to see, has been very slack," but luckily for them he's here to whip them into shape.  But for some reason, this doesn't go over well.

"The only orders we recognize," said the stolid Pollard, "are those that comes from the leftenant's mouth."

"Oh, now, see here, old man, I-"

"I said it and I'll stick by it.  Call this mutiny or anything you like, but you ain't going to do anything to our leftenant!"

And it just deteriorates from there.  Malcolm decides that yes, he will call this mutiny, and tells a sergeant to arrest Pollard, but then Tou-tou steps forward and dares him to try, so Malcolm has the sergeant press the button to sound the alarm, and once that racket has started he orders the sergeant to arrest both of the resisting members of Fourth Brigade.  So Hanley - who the hell is Hanley? - shoots the enemy sergeant in the gut with his revolver, and then the guards that were summoned by the alarm are stuck in the doorway "by their very anxiety," and when Malcolm tries to escape "a rifle blazed and the back of Malcolm's head came off, splattering the others in the door.  Malcolm's arms kept on beating and then froze out straight."

So, action, but not quite a Hubbard Action Sequence.  Just short, matter-of-fact sentences describing what happened, grouped into paragraphs.  Nothing exclaimed, there's no unbelievable acrobatic feats, just that unintentionally silly bit with a guy's arms flailing after his brains are blown out.

Oh yeah, Carstone has his machine gun battery with him too.  You'd think that the paranoid, rogue officers in charge of this base would want potentially-mutinous soldiers to put their rifles in storage, to say nothing of machine guns and artillery pieces and the like, but evidently not.  So Carstone builds a barricade with the corpses of those hapless fortress guards, and the regurgitant powder starts to fall from the ceiling, so Gian has his artillery guns fire inside this very confined underground area to blow out a wall...

Okay, this is getting a little ridiculous.  Not "trained assassin getting killed by a cat" ridiculous, but still ridiculous.

So Fourth Brigade, which brought all their big guns to bed with them, blasts a new exit for themselves without compromising the structural integrity of this bunker complex, and surges out into the hallway, gagging and vomiting as they... well, no destination is listed, but presumably they're looking for their lieutenant.  If only they knew that they never needed their officer to be successful, and the lieutenant was inside them the whole time.

Back to Chapter IV part II

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter IV part II - Captain Malcolm's Complete Victory

So after some undoubtedly exciting off-screen adventures, we arrive at the BEF's GHQ, a fifteen-year-old fortress that is the only thing in the ruined country that survived the last bomb swap.  On the surface it looks like one of several pockmarked hills covered in the sunken wrecks of planes and tanks, perpetually in autumn due to the effects of chemical weapons on the local flora.  But eighty feet underground lies a complex of hardened barracks and storerooms and command posts "proof against atom bombs and radioactive dust," sustained by armored air filters and six artesian wells.

In short, the place was an ideal G.H.Q.  The generals, in perfect safety, could send the army out to die.

Yeah, and it's the pencil-pushing civilian government that declares war but it's the men in uniform who actually have to fight it and yaaaawn.  Whoa, sorry, stayed up too late last night.

Fourth Brigade is able to march through the rain and mud almost onto the fortress hill itself before being challenged by guards - the minefields and "photoelectric sentries" have long since gone the way of the base's landlines.  This leads to about a page of Weasel the Scout and Bulger the Cook arguing over what exactly is wrong with these so-called soldiers.  Bulger thinks it's the feeling of safety that comes from having a nice base to sleep in that makes people sloppy, while Weasel posits that boredom and regular meals drive a man to think, and "pretty soon he's figured out that he's a Communist or a Socialist or an Individualist, and the next thing you know he shoots the officers and changes the government."

"There ain't nothin' wrong with eatin'," said Bulger, defensively.

"Not when there's fightin'.  All eat and no fight makes Tommy a politician."

In short, the best way to ensure the loyalty of your troops is to either keep them in constant danger on the battlefield, or constantly hungry as they waste away behind fortified walls.  Evidently someone at the field headquarters came to the same realization, because the sentries are all so gaunt and sunken-cheeked and hopeless that they barely lift their rifles in salute as the lieutenant leads his men into the buried base.  They probably aren't in any shape to repel an attack, but at least they won't mutiny, eh?

The brigade is met by a Major Sterling, who immediately annoys Lefty by referring to the unit as Malcolm's men, taking it for granted that our hero will be removed from his command.

The lieutenant looked at Sterling.  He did not like the fellow.  General Victor had brought rabble with him instead of a staff.  

Oh god, riffraff?!  Is there no escape?

Every bootlicker that had skulked throughout the war in the shelters of London had been ousted by the last reversal of government.  Sending a man to France since the quarantine was placed was tantamount to exiling him for life.  None of these fellows had seen real war.  They had dodged bombs and fawned upon superiors.  In the latter they had become very adept.

And what is a military hierarchy is not another kind of politics?  We should just get all the politicians and the bureaucrats and yaaawwwn.  Excuse me, guess my blood sugar's dropping.

For his part, Sterling has no idea why Lefty has decided to report in.  Eighty-seven other field officers have gone AWOL, and the twenty-one others who actually returned to HQ only did so because they were starving.  Yet here is Lefty, well-equipped and bulging with supplies, inexplicably following the orders of superiors who wish him ill and who he has no reason to respect or obey.  But I guess it wouldn't do for Lefty to just declare himself the Duke of Neo France at the start of the book, we have to meet his corrupt and ineffectual "superiors" so it'll feel justified when he goes against them.

Fourth Brigade is quartered in the north wing with the sixteen hundred soldiers garrisoning the fort, while Lefty gets to go deeper into the complex, down unlit and mossy corridors, past empty apartments that just a few years ago were filled with the bustle of officers and their minions.

It was all quiet now.  Not even a rat scuttled in the dead gloom.  These voices which should have called out a welcome were forever stilled, these faces were decomposed in some common grave out in the endless leagues of mud.  Only the ghosts were here, crying a little, naked and cold and forgotten - or was it just the wind?

And then the big twist at the end is that Lefty has dysentery and Malcolm was a hallucination the entire time.

I think the- a problem with our hero is that Hubbard is constantly contrasting him with those shiny, pompous generals higher up on the totem pole than this brilliant lieutenant, but he's still being elitist.  Lefty is affected by the loss of all those junior officers he once knew, and earlier was morose at the thought that "There are so few of us left" now.  Civilians, though?  All those millions of grunts felled on the battlefields, the nations destroyed by a senseless war?  Meh.  Oh, Lefty likes his men alright, but only because a heroic officer is supposed to.  He doesn't have much sympathy for his fellow man if they're not in his "brigade" or equal to him in rank.

Eventually Lefty reaches his quarters, full of moldy luggage and scattered mementos from its previous residents - a trampled picture of a girl in the middle of the floor, rat-eaten boots, letters to "My dearest Tim" crumpled on the desk.  The most recently-used storage box still has the name of "Forsythe, A. J., Col. Cmmdg. 4th Brigade, 2nd Div." stenciled on it, provoking a flashback of the mortally-wounded colonel telling Lefty "They're gone, son.  They're gone and I'm gone.  It is up to you now, son."  Of course it's up to Lefty.  He's the only competent officer on the whole continent, the only person whose leadership skills and vision can turn this endless war around and put his country back on the right track.

The memory of his fallen predecessor fills our hero with "a great restlessness," and he paces a bit before declaring that he's not changing out of his travel-stained clothes when Mawkey the lackey offers to get some fresher laundry out.  Then Lefty writes a concise report of Fourth Brigade's activities (it patrolled, it defeated the enemy, it "provisioned itself on the country," which is a pretty good euphemism for attacking a town) and sends it off with a runner.

Mawkey chooses this moment to, while repeatedly begging his superior's pardon, express his distaste for this whole situation, his hunch that this whole garrison is about to get up and take over some place with food, while Malcolm is probably going to take command of the brigade.  Absolutely nothing that Lefty hadn't concluded on his own, or been expressly told by Malcolm, in other words.

Ugh, this is really dragging.  If it makes you feel any better, next chapter is another fighty one.

A few hours later and Lefty gets summoned for his meeting with the generals, and so is led "down, down, down into the earth until it seemed that the staff of G.H.Q. wanted to be as close as possible to the devil."  We can thus add subtlety to the long list of amenities that this army has run out of.  These lowest offices are plated in lead and staffed by well-fed people in well-maintained uniforms.

There was something unhealthy about these fellows which the lieutenant could not immediately recognize.  He was used to men tanned by wind and sun and darkened with dirt, men who had hard faces and wasted few words or actions.  These faces were like women's, and not very reputable women at that.  They seemed to be somewhat amused by the lieutenant's appearance and, as soon as he had passed, went back to their ceaseless chattering.

Ah, it's not enough that the author is questioning the military elite's courage, loyalty, and wisdom, he's also challenging their masculinity.

An adjutant colonel named Graves eventually shows Lefty into the generals' office, and oddly enough Graves gets a good paragraph describing him.  Due to the power of names he "certainly resembled nothing more than an undertaker," a dark and morose and greasy guy whose "eyes were not honestly evil like Mawkey's; they were masked and hypocritical."  Not a bad bit of description, but as far as I can tell this Graves fellow is only in the last few pages of this chapter.  If he shows up in the next I've missed it in skimming ahead, and he certainly doesn't appear anywhere else in the book.  So I must question the logic behind spending a paragraph on this military secretary when I still don't have a good idea of what anyone looks like except our Aryan hero and the crooked but lovable Mawkey.

But we finally get our meeting.  General Victor is "a very small and dehydrated man" with an oversized head, there's also a General Smythe who I suppose looks normal, and of course Captain Malcolm.  Naturally, these pampered and pompous high-ranking (and therefore bad) officers are disdainful of this travel-stained field (and therefore good) officer, even if they can't meet the "shocking power" of his stare for long.

They ask about Lefty's some abbreviated report and why he didn't go into much detail about casualties or desertions, and our hero replies "I knew you wouldn't be interested."  Even though they obviously are interested, hence the question.  After being pressed, Lefty mentions the White Russians and their quest to find arable land in Italy.  Then he asks why some other men are standing around the conference room and is told that they represent the Soldier's Council, whatever that is.

I guess they could be an ideological institution parallel to the regular military, making sure it follows the Party or the Islamic Revolution or whatever.  Except these guys are all exiles, more or less, kicked out of Britain after the commies took London, and now they've been cut off from food and communications as well.  So why would they have a political unit breathing down their necks?  And if Victor and the other bigwigs are thinking about cutting ties and finding their own little slice of wasteland to take over, why haven't they whacked the Council representatives?

Maybe Hubbard knows, but if so he ain't telling.  The bigwigs remind Lefty that he's refused to organize a council among his own men, and that they sent a Private Farquarson to help set one up, but he seems to have disappeared.

"He was killed," said the lieutenant.

"What's this?"

"If you'd sent a soldier he might have lived a while.  But as it was, the first time we were under fire he was shot."

"You infer that-"

"I infer nothing, gentlemen.  It was not necessary to shoot the troublemaker myself.  It takes a man to live these days."  And he looked around the board, plainly not finding any. 

In other words, the meeting doesn't go well.  After a paragraph break, the officers confer, and soon announce that Lefty will be relieved of command due to his incompetence, and Fourth Brigade will be merged with the army's First Brigade and led by Captain Malcolm.  The ever-helpful Lefty offers to give what intelligence he can about the surrounding countryside since he knows the base will be relocating, but they decline, since they already have a fertile place way to the south in mind.  And just to twist the knife a bit, the brass bars Lefty from meeting or communicating with his former unit.

"This, then," said the lieutenant, "is arrest!"

Smythe shrugged.  "That is a hard name.  You do not seem to share our political views

Whatever those are.

and as such your opinions must, of course, be isolated.  Your room probably should be changed as well."

"Does it come to you that you gentlemen may regret this?"

"Come, come," said Smythe, amused.  "No threats, now.  You are excused, lieutenant."

Captain Malcolm could not help smiling over his complete victory.

And that's Final Blackout, ladies and gentlemen.  Our hero succeeds on the battlefield and has the best-fed brigade in post-apocalyptic Europe, but is ultimately undone by petty politicking, and dies a forgotten prisoner in his own headquarters, an honorable soul swallowed up by-

Oh, wait.  It would appear that this isn't the last chapter.  I was confused, I mean it said right there that the bad guy won.  I guess the 94 pages left in the story should have tipped me off.

Back to Chapter IV, part I

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter IV, part I - The Return of Captain Malcolm

Let's talk a bit about Captain Malcolm.  This character showed up in Chapter I to get the plot moving by recalling Lefty to the British field HQ, but he hasn't otherwise played a major role in the story.  If anything, Hubbard's been under-utilizing the guy.  He had his moments in Chapter I where he served as a foil to our protagonist, allowing Hubbard to develop Lefty's tactics and outlook by contrasting them against Malcolm's by-the-book approach.  But then Malcolm faded into the background, missing out the interactions between Lefty and the Russians in Chapter II, then barely being present at all when Lefty invaded a neutral village in Chapter III.

This is made all the more baffling because these are definitely situations where Malcolm should have said something.  He should have been outraged at Lefty's treatment of the "enemy," serving as the patriotic and belligerent desk officer to contrast against Lefty as an experienced and more sympathetic field officer.  Malcolm's reaction to Lefty occupying the hidden village last chapter would have told us a lot about how the British army operates these days, whether such aggression towards civilians is normal or not.  We also could have learned something about post-apocalyptic politics based on whether or not Malcolm thought Lefty should work with the French Duke - as it is, we don't know anything about England's relationship with France when the War of Books went down.

If nothing else, Malcolm should have had some reaction to the rescued British soldiers, since he was the one who got all excited about them belonging to Dixon's regiment.  But nothing came from it.  We never learned who Dixon was, or why Malcolm and Lefty got interested after learning some of his soldiers were around.  After the other British men were freed, Malcolm didn't go meet with them, he went to bed.

I think even Hubbard realized he hadn't been getting the most out of this character, and true to form, the author couldn't be bothered to go and rewrite anything, he just decided to have Malcolm belatedly react to what happened in the first part of the book... wait, this was originally published in a serialized format.  Guess how lazy the author is being depends on whether the first installment of the story ended after Chapter III.

Anyway, Chapter IV starts off with Malcolm being grumpy with the lieutenant.  He's exasperated that Lefty is moving his men in "arcs and angles" toward the headquarters, climbing over ridges and dodging opportunistic sniper fire as they spend days on a journey that Malcolm was able to complete in just 48 hours.

The captain doesn't see the point of all this circuitous hiking, and thinks to himself that "It would be very different when he had this command."  Da duh duhn.  Yes, Malcolm is coveting our protagonist's position, and intends to take Lefty's place after our hero is relieved of duty at the field HQ.

Whether Lefty can sense this ill intent is unclear, but he does pick up that Malcolm is cranky and asks what's the matter.  Rather than complaining about the journey, Malcolm decides to complain about Lefty's treatment of the villagers last chapter.  He would have shot Mayor Baguette because "Dixon was our friend," and when Lefty states that they couldn't know for certain that the villagers were the ones who killed Dixon, Malcolm counters that "I never knew you needed evidence to execute a man."  Not sure if Malcolm is being a bad guy or just cynical.

Lefty counters that he did in fact "execute" Mayor Baguette, even though the guy waved them goodbye the next day - the lieutenant had this men arm the rescued British soldiers, see, so... well, I guess they'll execute the guy later?  Or giving some former slaves 2nd Amendment rights is just as good as executing the person who enslaved them, in Lefty's mind.

But whatever, Lefty says what's done is done, there was no point in ruining the atmosphere in the hut by shooting someone once the slaves were freed and given a share in the village's leadership, and said village has now "passed under a military regime" of sorts and will be all the better now that those soldiers are more than draft animals.  Military dictatorships usually turn out well, right? 

Malcolm, being a bad guy, just doesn't get it.  He gives Lefty some uneasy looks and feels sympathetic towards Mayor Baguette, "forgetting completely that he had trapped soldiers and enslaved them."  Even after getting worked up that said soldiers belonged to a former friend's unit.  That's how a Hubbard Villain's mind works, they will do whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to have them oppose the Hubbard Hero until their inevitable destruction.

But speaking of belated reactions, Malcolm chooses this moment to point out that Lefty was respectful toward the Russian leader but scornful towards the village leader, further evidence of our hero's strange values and inconsistencies.  Lefty actually hadn't noticed this, and spends his lunch thinking in silence on the matter before giving Malcolm a little speech.

At last, he spoke.  "I suppose it was because I felt that way.  Maybe there are so few of the officers' corps left that we have a feeling we ought to preserve ourselves.  Maybe it's because all officers have been taught the necessity of exalting their rank and being as above that of the civilians.  Civilians started all this mess anyway, didn't they?  Bungling statesmanship, trade mongering, their 'let the soldier do the dirty work' philosophy, these things started it.  The Russian was a fellow craftsman.  But the leader of that village commune-  Bah!  A stupid blunderer, raised up from filth by guile, a peasant without polish or courage-  The thought revolts me."  He was silent for a while, staring out at the painted slopes.  And then: "There are so few of us left."

Sounds almost like military Marxism.  The bourgeoisie, or in this case civilians, have spent all of history oppressing, abusing and exploiting the noble proletariat, or in this case soldiers.  The jarheads of the world need to realize that they have more in common with each other than the people giving them orders, rise up against their uncaring masters, and take control of the government, ushering in a golden age of peace and equality and yadda yadda.

Malcolm, a little awed now by the quiet sadness he had drawn forth, could not venture to carry it forward.  He had been dwelling, in the main, upon this circuitous marching and had not quite the courage to speak boldly in criticism of a commander in the field.

He just spent two pages discussing why he disagrees with Lefty's actions, but suddenly the author insists that Malcolm is too timid to criticize the guy.

Well, that's enough of character building, let's get back to wandering around post-apocalyptic Europe.  Fourth Brigade crosses through a ruined industrial sector, a place that was "splattered into atoms" in the initial phases of the war, but periodically rebuilt to some extent in order to continue coal mining.  No, it's not still radioactive, that would be inconvenient.

Water tanks leaned crazily - great blobs of rust against the sky.  Buildings were heaps of rubble, overgrown with creeping vines and brown weeds.  Within a few years the place would be swallowed except for the few battered walls which made ragged patterns against the hazy dusk.  Fused glass crunched under foot and twisted chunks of metal attested the violence of thermite bombs and shells.

The place isn't quite abandoned, though.  Weasel's scouts find a gibbet made of railroad ties bearing four hanged corpses, "their necks drawn to twice their length," as well as the sign "SOLDIERS!  MOVE ON!"  Sergeant Pollard identifies the corpses as British (the monocles and top hats are a dead giveaway), Weasel says he can hear people moving down some nearby mine entrances, and then,

A bullet smashed into the truck11 of a car

If you ever write a story, and you include footnotes to define some obscure terms, don't do what Hubbard does here.  We have a tense moment punctuated by a gunshot, and then the narrative is immediately interrupted because Hubbard wanted the bullet to hit a rail car's "truck," so we have to stop reading, glance down, read the footnote that a truck is "A frame that swivels, with two or more pairs of wheels, for supporting the front end of a locomotive or each end of a railroad car," and then roll our eyes at the author's attempt to show off his vocabulary and wonder why he couldn't just say the bullet hit a railroad car instead of presuming that we were intensely worried where the bullet hit that railroad car.

and went yowling away like a broken banjo string.

Also, try not to associate an action scene with banjos.

"I think," said the lieutenant, "that this is a very good place to spend the night.  Gian!  Guns front into action!"

Worthless stuff, those guns.

Wait, did I say this was an action scene?  Because instead there's a paragraph break, and then we cut to two days later, with Malcolm fuming over the lieutenant, how years of war on the continent have turned Lefty from "a somewhat quiet, cheerful lad with only a hint of the devil in his eyes" into "a steel blade which might stab anywhere."

Oh, were you hoping to see how our military genius protagonist pacified the hostile group in the coal mines?  Too bad, Malcolm just spends a sentence remembering how "they had been terribly knocked about in the short fight," but "had calmed into quiet obedience as soon as the lieutenant confronted them with his orders."  And there was a raid on a fort that we're also skipping over, other than an assurance that "the noncom in charge had almost licked the lieutenant's boots!"  And there was also a fight to take a hill riddled with caves in which only a single man had died, "and that a carrier."

It's not a case of the author getting bored of writing action scenes, I believe - there's plenty of shooting and shouting in the rest of the story.  So I'm not entirely sure why he needed to have these incidents happen off-camera, so to speak.  Did he think it'd be better for us to hear that the lieutenant was gathering supplies and adding to his forces on the way back to HQ, rather than having him already be well-equipped from previous foraging at the story's start and then immediately go to the base, artillery in tow?

Anyway, back to Malcolm.  He's jealous that Lefty has been "successful in his campaigning - too successful to be safe," and can't understand how he could be willingly marching back to the field headquarters to be relieved of command.  He also sneers at the intense loyalty the soldiers who for their commander, and vows that when he takes over Fourth Brigade, he'll put all those "stupid brutes" in their proper place.  And other bad guy stuff.

This brigade was all wrong.  Their haversacks were stuffed.  Forty impressed carriers were lugging the guns and the carts of provisions.  It was glutting itself from the best in the countryside, poor as that best was, but it was also marching and fighting like people possessed.  What was the sense of that when a two-day march would take them across the looted soil which stood like a band around G.H.Q.?  What use did the lieutenant have for all this loot?

Gee.  I wonder why an officer with an anti-authoritarian streak and a low opinion of his superiors would want to stock up on firepower and supplies before reporting to said superiors.

The interlude ends with Malcolm feeling like he's got a real feud going with Lefty, and thanks to Malcolm's close relationship with the guy in charge of the field headquarters, it's "a quarrel which would very soon be settled."  Which is as good a cliffhanger to end this section on as any, I suppose.  Next time we'll reach the headquarters and start the settling process.

Back to Chapter III, part II

Monday, June 27, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter III part II - A Hero Without Mercy

-the pound keeps falling, and now all your pro-"independence" politicians are frantically backpedaling, like "we didn't say there wouldn't be any immigrants, just that they wouldn't be let in according to Brussels' immigration policy," or "not all of the money we would've sent to the EU will go to our health care or education systems, just some of it."  And Cornwall, which I guess is a poor part of England, voted to Leave even though it gets - got - money from EU subsidiaries for farmers, and now they want assurance that they'll get the same level of funding from the national government even as their country undergoes a financial-

When we last left our protagonist, he and his "brigade" had found an invisible settlement.  The soldiers want the settlement's food, while the settlement is not inclined to share.  Their return fire cannot harm the lieutenant thanks to his bulletproof cape, but the townspeople aren't cowed by his threats of artillery and refuse to surrender.  It would seem they're at an impasse.

These people were tougher than the lieutenant had suspected.  Usually his own careless appearance and the reports were sufficient to shake resolve.  These survivors of all that science and politics could achieve had become survivor types of a rare order.  He shrugged to himself.  Little he cared.

The scary thing is, I think Lefty and his men have dealt with this sort of situation before.  Our protagonist doesn't have to pull back and hold a conference with his officers explaining what he intends to do, no, he merely gives "a short whistle in a certain key" and his (hidden) men launch into action.  Soon there's no smoke in the clearing, while sounds can be heard coming from just beneath the earth - curses, the clanking of people trying to clear an obstruction with a pole or something, as well as coughing and "wails of despair."

Yeah, that's the problem with living underground, any enemy on the surface has control over your air supply.  And that's exactly what Lefty has had his men do, block up the hidden village's chimneys with leaves and such so they're choking on soot and smoke.  And again, he didn't have to tell them to do this, he just gave a certain whistle, and they knew what to do if they heard it.

So as a community suffocates beneath him, our hero is stretched out on the grass, stargazing while a breeze makes the treetops "bow before the majesty of the night."  Aww, what a poetic, peaceful phrase.

"My general!" sobbed the leader.  "We have seen the error of our decision.  What mercy can we expect if we come up now?"

The lieutenant counted the stars in Cepheus and began upon the Little Bear.

"My general!  For the love of Heaven, have mercy!  There are children here!  They are strangling!  What can we expect if we come up now?"

With a sigh, the lieutenant gave his attention to the Great Bear and tried to make out the Swan, part of which was hidden by the drifting smoke.

Now, we might start to feel some animosity towards our protagonist at this point.  Fourth Brigade is a foreign army on French soil, and this village has no obligation to give them food and shelter.  If civilization has indeed collapsed and there are marauding bands of former soldiers roaming across Europe, it's hard to blame these people for fortifying their settlement and trying to drive off anyone who finds them.  And here our "hero" is, choking them with their own cooking fires, and ignoring their pleas for mercy and attempts to surrender, even after hearing that there are children being threatened with a miserable death.  Surely this last fact should make his conscience twinge, if just a little?  It's pretty surprising that a "hero" wouldn't react to this.

Except it would seem that Lefty and his men have done this sort of thing before, and more to the point should expect a village to have at least some non-adults in it.  So it's not a case of our "hero" trying to smoke out some civilians and then not reacting when he learns there are children down there, it's a case of our "hero" trying to smoke out some civilians despite knowing there's a good chance that there are children down there.

Eventually there's a ripping sound and cloud of smoke as someone opens a concealed doorway, and it's only then that Lefty stands up.  His soldiers spring from concealment and herd a crowd of people into "weeping, pleading groups," snatching weapons from the few "madmen" who dared to bear arms, but of course never got a chance to shoot them because they're blind from the smoke.

"Clear the chimneys," said the lieutenant.  "Anyone who happens to have a mask, go below and clear the grates."

"I would never have surrendered," said the leader, groping toward the voice of command.  "But they were doing out down there!  For the love of Heaven, don't kill us!  We are friendly.  Truly we are friendly.  We shall show you the storehouses, give you beds, women, anything, but don't kill us!"

The lieutenant turned away from him in disgust and watched his men dropping down steps into the earth.

Oh you're disgusted.  You threaten a community with death by smoke inhalation, ignoring their pleas and attempts to surrender, and when they finally, utterly capitulate you sneer at them?  Would you have respected them more if they didn't make a fight for it, and surrendered at the mere sight of your awesome "brigade" of less than two hundred men?

Lefty has a soldier drag the village leader away, then gets a report from some sergeants that it's safe to breathe down there, and after inspecting the villagers they seem a "scrawny lot but there ain't a sick one among them."  I'm not sure whether this is a character brushing off the effects of choking on smoke, or whether they were checking for signs of plague, it's not made clear.  Lefty gives more orders and posts a ring of sentries around the hidden village, has Gian set up his "worthless stuff" on a hill with orders to bombard anything he sees, "with the exception, of course, of British troops, provided they are friendly."

Now, artillery is a long-ranged weapon, able to engage someone long before you're able to get a good look at what uniforms they're wearing, or whether or not they're smiling.  Plus, the state of the Fourth Brigade, with their "uniforms" assembled out of whatever looted scraps of cloth they can find, would mean it's even harder than usual to discern what faction a group of soldiers belong to in these trying times.

What I'm getting at is that the lieutenant may not be as much of a military genius as Hubbard thinks he is.

Lefty takes Malcolm and Mawkey into the hidden village to inspect it in person, and the whole scene is a partial success.  It's a decent reminder that these people are living in a world wracked by war, but they're still clever survivors able to adapt and improvise.  What furniture that isn't assembled from tree branches and vines has been made from military goods - the beds are bunks from a fortress, blackout curtains divide a large chamber into living sections, a piece of tank hull is supported by some one-pounder (artillery pieces?) to form a table, and train rails are used for ceiling rafters.  More than that, the villagers have liberated machine gun turrets from armored cars to make gun emplacements protecting their homes, and lined water-collecting channels with a "bright airplane alloy" and used polished metal plates as mirrors to reflect sunlight underground.

The problem is that it's all military stuff.  The villagers use a pneumatic tank from a machine gun to collect rainwater, instead of, say a barrel.  The women's clothing is made of parachute silk, not scraps of curtains or anything more common.  They even painted their roof supports a camouflage pattern!  There's no sign that there was a civilization here at some point, no bicycle wheels repurposed for spinning textiles, no old movie posters used as decorations, no battered furniture dragged out of ruined cities and lovingly restored.  Just a lot of military leftovers.

Lefty at least likes it, and smiles as he starts to relax and make himself at home.  Soon a woman requests entry, says in halting English "You are our guest, sir," and Lefty is nice enough to let her and her family spend the night in their own home after he has taken it over.  So several other young women and some children, as well as a young man and an old woman, come down into the chamber, and the old lady explains that "In payment for our lives these girls will get you a very good supper."  And that's awfully nice of them, being willing to cook the food that these brigands are stealing.

One of them is, of course, an attractive blonde.  When she accidentally drops some firewood on Lefty's boot, the old lady explains that her name is Greta, a Belgian that Pierre brought home with her one day, and "You can't really blame a Belgian."  Folks in postapocalyptic Europe not only practice polygamy, you see, but also the ancient 'drag them back to your cave' rite of matrimony.  

And I guess because watching our hero smoke out a village wasn't very climactic, there is an action scene.  First Pierre rants at his clumsy wife for trying to get them all killed and snatches her wrist, only for Greta to knock him onto his ass with a blow to the mouth and pin him down with a locker door.  This gets the other "wives" laughing that it serves the guy right for "Picking up strays," which "stretched his intelligence beyond its elasticity" ...really, Hubbard?  You've got a gift, guy.  You can always find a word that is technically correct in describing something, but is the worst of the available choices to do so.  You're like the anti-Shakespeare.

Anyway, before things can escalate Mawkey hits Pierre in the side of the head with his flail, and Lefty warns that there will be no fighting in this occupied hut.  He orders Pierre ejected while the wives scream "Don't have him killed!" and clutch at Lefty's boots.  Malcolm blinks into existence to grin at all this nonsense.

And then... okay, let me try to work this out.  So Pierre gets laid out by Mawkey's chains, then a sentry comes in and takes him by the collar and drags him toward the door.  Then, after the women and children start yelling, another guy named Pollard steps in with a drawn automatic in hand.  Then he explicitly knocks Pierre "out of the sentry's grip and down to the floor once more," even though the guy was already apprehended and being escorted out of the room.  Pierre, perhaps understandably, is not happy about this, and in a good long paragraph of an action scene, tries to strike back.  And "The room was full of flame and smoke and sound," huh?  The fireplace get blocked again?  And then Pierre, down on his hands and knees, tries to go after Pollard again, but suddenly drops, "kicking straight out with his legs with lessening force."  And when Pollard rolls him over with his foot, Pierre is dead, while his "blood-spattered remains of a face stonily regarded the beams above."

I think a soldier just murdered a prisoner.  Somehow.  Like, Pierre was knocked out of another guy's grasp, tries and fails to strike back, ends up on his hands and knees, and then I guess dies as a delayed reaction to a severe blow to the face.  Or was there some intense, inferred action in all that "flame and smoke and sounds" that has dissipated by the next paragraph?

Lefty doesn't react beyond telling Sergeant Pollard to carry on, and gesturing for him to throw the corpse out.  Then he warms his hands by the fire "and the affair drifted out of his mind."  The women who had protested on Pierre's behalf silently try to quiet a still-wailing child.  Greta starts mixing pancakes.

I think a soldier just murdered a prisoner and our "hero" doesn't care.

Lefty and Malcolm have their supper, waited upon by a quiet Greta until the old woman makes her have some food herself.  Then the old lady asks whether Lefty and his men will be taking all their stores, but is relieved to learn that they won't be burdening themselves with the village's entire food supply - "An army fights badly upon a full stomach, contrary to an old belief."  She muses that they'll be able to survive the winter after all, while Lefty grins and comments "Not unless you find some way of disposing of your smoke."  And instead of being angry that their 'guest' is joking about how he nearly suffocated them, the woman agrees and compliments him, saying "one does not always find an attack led by an officer of such talent."

So when the village leader toadies up to our hero and begs for his life, that's disgusting, but this is fine?  This sort of appeasement makes our hero relax and lean back?

Almost done.  Sergeant Pollard, who just murdered a guy, comes back and informs his commander that while taking stock of the settlement, they found thirty-one soldiers.

"Feed them, shoot them or enlist them," said the lieutenant, "but let me digest a good dinner in peace."

Our hero doesn't react when Pollard goes on to say that these soldiers are also English.  He doesn't react when Pollard says they were being held naked in a cell, and that they've used as plowhorses and whipped by their captors.  Malcolm finally says something when Pollard reports that these men say they're the remnant of the Sixty-third Lancers, and Lefty finally gets interested after Malcolm exclaims that the unit was led by "Jolly Billy Dixson," whoever that is.  Or was, he's dead now.

Lefty has Pollard bring in the village leader, another character who plays an appreciable role in the plot but still doesn't get a name, because a title is just as good, right?  Let's call him Pierre.  Wait, no, we already had one.  'kay, his name is Baguette now.

Mayor Baguette's eyes are wild with terror as he's pushed down the steps before Lefty and belatedly interrogated.  He tries to pass off the human remains in the pit traps as victims of the soldier's sickness, complains that they had "so much plowing, so few men" when Lefty brings up the prisoners, and swears that their slaves were never mistreated.  But Lefty is unimpressed, and tells Pollard to toss Baguette to those captive soldiers, and "When you take him out, parade him around a little so that this offal will know enough to respect a soldier," which sends Mayor Baguette into hysterics.

"But your excellency!  They'll tear me to pieces!  They'll gouge out my eyes-"

"Am I to blame because you failed to treat them better?"

Oh, I was wrong.  See, I thought Lefty was outraged that his countrymen had been taken prisoner and used as beasts of burden, but it sounds like he's upset that his countrymen weren't treated well after being taken prisoner and used as beasts of burden.

The old woman leaned toward the lieutenant.  "My general, have mercy."

"Mercy, said the lieutenant.  "There's been none of that I can remember where peasants and soldiers are concerned."

Just last chapter you let your 'enemies' go after taking them prisoner, and even let them keep their guns so they could defend themselves!  Or are you merciful in cases of soldiers and soldiers, but ruthless when it comes to interactions between peasants and soldiers?

"But force will be met with force," said the old woman.  "This is a good man.  Must you rob this house of both its men in one night?  What will we do for a leader?

Pick a new one.  It's not hard, even medieval peasants were able to set up pseudo-communistic local governments, and they weren't heirs to a pre-war democratic tradition.

There are only seven hundred of us in this village and only a hundred and fifty of those are men-"

At least we know why polygamy is in vogue right now.

"If he is alive by morning, let him live. You have your orders, Pollard."

Mayor Baguette tries to promise that he'll let the prisoners go and give them land rights and a voice in the town council, proposed reforms Lefty suggests he give to the prisoners directly.  There's a tense paragraph when all the women and children are quiet and still, then a commotion at the top of the stairs as a mass of people tried to "dash down and worship the officer who had set them free," lick me Hubbard, and finally everyone in the room can hear the mayor telling people, with forced goodwill, that they'll have council seats.  So the mayor has successfully talked himself out of getting torn limb from limb, and thus the crisis passes.

So a happy ending after all - the brigade got its food and a place to sleep, only one villager was killed, most of the survivors will probably make it through the winter since the brigade isn't going to completely clean out their food stores, and some slaves have been freed even if the guy who enslaved them is still in power.  Something's still missing, though...

Oh, of course.  Once all the civilians and the occupying soldiers have settled down in their bunks, someone creeps across the room to the curtained bed in which Lefty is watching the fire die.

As the snake strikes, Mawkey fastened savagely on her ankle as she would have crossed to the lieutenant.  It was Greta.

The lieutenant raised on his elbow and whispered hoarsely, "Let her go, you fool!"

Mawkey came to himself.  Her skin was soft under his hand and her fingers held no weapon.  In the soft firelight the parachute silk revealed the rondeur of a lovely body.  Mawkey shamefacedly withdrew his hands.  And when again she had her courage she stepped over him and went on toward the large bed in the deepest recesses of the room.

Apparently nothing gets a woman's motor running like seeing her previous 'husband' murdered right in front of her... wait, Pollard did that.  And it was Mawkey who brought down Pierre before he could do some spousal abuse.  So if this is about expressing her gratitude, it's a bit misplaced.  Guess she's just drawn to the Hubbard Protagonist like a fly to manure.

Mawkey drew the curtains shut as he rolled outside them.  For a little he listened to the whispers, then at last, the girl's soft rich laugh.  He smiled, pleased.

One by one the glowing coals went out.  Mawkey slept.

Hubbard's showing some restraint here, instead of having Mawkey run through the sleeping village, letting all the soldiers in the brigade know that their commanding officer is getting some tonight.  Also, not to be crass, shouldn't at least some of the regular grunts be getting some too?  If there's a gender imbalance it might help increase the population, and it would also introduce some genetic diversity in what's otherwise an isolated village.

But that's the chapter, in which our hero solves a problem in a less-than-heroic manner, but at least it turns out the people he attacked were slaveowners, and he stopped a domestic abuser by killing him.  Maybe call it a draw?

Back to Chapter III part II

Friday, June 24, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter III part I - The Sound of Potatoes

Guess now I have to work a Brexit joke into this somehow.  What the hell, England?  We spend fifty years turning Europe from a battlefield to a peaceful democratic confederation, billions of dollars rebuilding it into an economic powerhouse, and then just two years after telling Scotland that things are "better together" you go and-

Fourth Brigade spends a little over a week feasting upon the fruits of its labor, enjoying not just the Russian troops' supplies but the stuff the Russians had captured from other forces in the area.  But they're seasoned enough outdoorsmen to be able to read the signs in the honking geese and fuzzy caterpillars indicating an early winter this year, and the last one had been pretty bad to them.  They had 412 men at the start of it, now they're down to 168.  That bad.

So the grunts are all concerned and watching their commander anxiously for hints of what his orders will be, but of course they wouldn't dream of bothering him by asking directly.  So they're really shocked when some big hairy oaf in an ostentatious outfit, complete with a cloak and hat with plume and ribbon, is allowed to pass by the sentries and walk right up to their god-officer.

The man with the stupid hat introduces himself as Duke LeCroisaut of St. Hubert, a nobleman granted a title and land by none other than King Renard the First of France.  Although Renard was executed half a year ago and Lefty wants nothing to do with local politics, Croissant is trying to hire the "general" and his men to liberate his town from a deserter named Despard, and is willing to pay them in food.  Croissant makes a potentially fatal error in that he tells Lefty where this town (and food) is before the lieutenant agrees to play mercenary, but that's not what gets him killed.

"Then you wish us to take a town, set you up and- Here! What's this?"

The fellow had sunk back against the concrete wall. He had been breathing with difficulty and his hand now sought his throat. His eyes began to protrude and some flecks of blood rose to his lips. He shook.

"An old wound-" he gasped. "Gas-"

The lieutenant unlimbered his pistol and slid off the catches.

"No! No, no!" screamed the Duke. "It is not soldier's sickness, I swear it! No! For the love of God, of your king-"

Ooh, bad move, reminding Lefty that the British monarch has been deposed and the godless commies are in power.  Our hero cold-bloodedly shoots the sick man, orders his men to stay away from the corpse, and says they'll be marching within the hour.

Gian the Italian Guy asks about the artillery they captured, and is delighted when Lefty says they can bring along all of them except the big three-inch gun.  When all the "Regiment" leaders are sounding off, Gian pipes in to represent the "First Artillery," but this falls a bit flat.

But it did not come off so well.  The Fourth Brigade's First Artillery, a unit of .65-caliber field pieces, had been drowned to a man in a rising flood of the Somme while they strove to free their guns.  For an instant the people here glanced around and knew how small they were, how many were dead and all that had gone before; they felt the chill in the wind which blew down from countless miles of graveyard.

Let's put this on the wall next to our sadly few examples of Good Hubbard Paragraphs.  It's not much, but it establishes mood and adds a sense of history to these nametags in fatigues orbiting our godlike main character, and makes the backstory alluded to in the book's introduction more real.

Before anyone can really react to his faux pas beyond a little chill, Lefty bawls for everyone to get moving, and adds that Bonchamp will be bringing up the rear to "shoot all stragglers."  If he's not joking, this raises the question of why his men love him so much, and how many of the 244 soldiers who died over the past year were lost to enemy action or deprivation.  At any rate, soon there's no sign of the brigade's camp but Croissant's body left to rot, a little mystery for the next roving band of soldiers to wonder at.

Malcolm springs back into existence - remember, the captain who is trying to recall Lefty to the army's field headquarters?  He's not here to complain about how Lefty handled the Russians last chapter, or wonder why our hero is getting distracted by this sidequest to liberate a town from brigands instead of moving the story along and returning to the GHQ.  No, Malcolm wants to talk about how Lefty shot that guy, and asks if one of the brigade came down with soldier's sickness, would Lefty have shot him too?  Lefty doesn't meet his eye but admits "It has happened," briefly reminds Malcolm (for our benefit) that nobody's quite sure how the plague spreads and how all the doctors who tried to study it died, and then says to stop talking about the matter.

Well, that was informative.  The next pages are big paragraphs describing the brigade's progress through a valley containing the overgrown ruins of a city - but don't worry, Lefty knows that since there's squirrels and rabbits and birds about, "those Geiger counters of the soldier," it's not radioactive and safe to move through.  The author takes care to point out how the soldiers are advancing in a two-hundred-yard circular formation that allows them to react to an attack from any direction, and that they're moving from cover to cover and not dawdling out in the open, even though there's no sign of any enemies and they've got scouts moving ahead of the rest of the brigade.  And as the group advances, Bulger the cook and some men is roving about in search of supplies to scavenge; he's so good at this that his comrades say "he could hear a potato growing at the distance of four kilometers and could smell a tin can of beef at five."

Oh, and it goes without saying that the very best of the scavenged goods goes to the lieutenant.  Main character and all that.

Eventually they leave the city behind, move over what was an old railroad embankment, and pass a ruined mill, before... you know, I thought Hubbard was telling a joke when he said the cook could hear crops growing.  But here we have Bulger, "his hairy nostrils quivering avidly," eww, surging forward to join Weasel and the scouts, and even though Weasel can't hear anything, Bulger taps his nose and indicates that the brigade should alter course.  The word travels through the soldiers "Telepathically quiet" ...Hubbard, come on, get your vocabulary together, man.

Before long they start coming across signs of civilization - a rabbit snare, a plowed field, a woman's cap abandoned in the dirt.  Bulger even says he smells fresh earth, and "If they got energy enough to plow, they must have something to eat."  And if they have something to eat, they'll certainly be willing to share it with a bunch of guys with guns.

Lefty shows up, and if you're wondering why the brigade's officer needs to personally supervise his head scout and chief scrounger, it's so Lefty can yank Bulger back right after he triggers a buried grenade.  It's a hell of a yank, too, that sends Bulger back ten feet before the explosion makes a new crater.  Maybe that's the advantage of wearing a heavy bulletproof cape?  Like weighted clothes in some martial arts story?  Or maybe it's Lefty's Manco blood showing.  Any minute now he'll be doing standing backflips to get behind attackers. 

Our hero sarcastically asks if he'll be changing the cook's diapers next and orders him to "Drop back with your kettles, Bulger, and be careful you don't drop one on your toe and kill yourself," thus explaining why his troops are so fanatically loyal to him.  But the wind shifts, Bulger insists that he smells wood smoke, and so they press on.  One of Weasel's scouts ends up falling into a pit and injuring himself on a stake, but a bit of pitch in the wound and a bandage on top of it sets him straight.  No worries about infection or anything, especially from an injury received in a dirty depression containing bones.  There's more of these camouflaged pitfalls about, containing traps and human remains, so there's either something in the area worth protecting or someone was feeling bored and murderous one day.

Then Bulger announces he's found eighty houses and a dozen storerooms.  By which he means "a flat expanse which was even more brush-covered than the surrounding terrain," bearing no sign whatsoever of human habitation but a faint heat shimmer and a wisp of smoke from some hidden source.  Guess Bulger's nose and/or hearing can penetrate the camo and figure out which bunch of innocuous foliage is a storehouse and which is a residence.

Lefty takes a moment to carefully examine the scene, figures out what's what even without Bulger's extraordinary potato-based senses, and steps forward after wrapping his bulletproof cloak tightly around himself.  He is immediately shot by hidden gunmen, which makes him miss a step, but he still calls out in French, "Hello, the leader!"

The firing ceased and from nowhere in particular a voice rose from the flat earth.  "We have no wish to see anyone!  Go or we shall use grenades!"

"You are surrounded by the Fourth Brigade.  We have artillery!"

Worthless stuff, that artillery.

There was a long pause and then, falsely aggressive, the same voice cried: "Devil take your artillery!  We have much to answer!"

A grenade bounced from nowhere to the lieutenant's feet.  It exploded with a bright flash.  The lieutenant lifted himself from the depression some five yards beyond the place where it had gone off.

Boy, it sure is exciting when our hero is immune to bullets and can dodge explosives.

There's another burst of gunfire as the lieutenant dives into cover, but none of the brigade fires back, and the defenders eventually realize they're not accomplishing anything and stop.  Lefty gives the hidden village one last chance to give them food and shelter, and counts slowly to ten, but the villagers don't budge.

And this is a long chapter, and that seems a good place to stop.  Call it an exciting cliffhanger as an unstoppable hero meets an object he hasn't figured out how to budge just yet.  Tune in next time to see how he gets what he wants.

-even thinking this through?  Now the Scots are going to make another independence bid, Northern Ireland will want to reunify with the rest of the Emerald Isle, and Wales is probably going to get some ideas of its own.  So then Great Britain itself could break apart, and some of its components could rejoin the EU, and for what?  Because a bunch of grumpy old Britons didn't like immigrants or Brussels telling them what to do?  That's worth undoing a model for international cooperation and giving yourself an economic shock that could cause a ripple effect throughout the rest-

Back to Chapter II

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter II - Pretty Sneaky, Sis

Well that's odd.  Last chapter it looked like everyone was shredded by an artillery shell, but the book keeps going.  Huh.

In that shower of death it seemed preposterous that any of the hundred and sixty-eight could have escaped, for the trench mortar was of very large caliber.  But the fragments had barely ceased screaming when men again populated the clearing.  A swift survey showed that only a kettle and a pack had suffered and the latter but lightly.

Yeah, get used to this sort of over-hyped and low-stakes action.  Also, either this post-apocalyptic society has come up with one hell of a mortar bomb, or the author is vastly overestimating the size and destructive power of a trench mortar.  I think even a proper wheeled artillery piece is going to have trouble wiping out 150 men in a single shot.  You can only fit so many models under the blast template, after all.

Lefty surges into action, ordering "Tou-tou" the French Guy to "Take cover in that passage mouth to cover us," ugh.  Tou-tou's accent is rendered as "Yess, yess, mon lieutenant," and I have no idea why Hubbard is having the guy dragging out his S's instead of responding with a peppy "oui-oui."  Maybe the Hollywood French Accent was different back in the 1930's.

Another three-pound shell whistles down, but the soldiers all disappear as soon as they hear it coming and reappear the instant the shrapnel stops flying.  And wait a minute, three pounds?  That's the size of the explosive that the narration worries could wipe out over a hundred men at once?  Wikipedia says the Strokes trench mortar used by the Brits in World War I fired ten-pound shells.  The mortar itself had a three-inch caliber, though.  Maybe Hubbard's getting confused?

Anyway, Lefty is all "follow me!" and heads to a nearby pit leading into the buried fortress, but then immediately has to go back and help Sergeant Pollard finish dumping two hundred pounds of miscellaneous bullets onto a campfire.  In fact, it's Lefty who completes the job - he waves Pollard on underground as he gets the last bullets a-cooking.  Guess he's the only one with a bulletproof cape that can protect him when some of the cartridges start popping in the kettle.

Oh, and there's also mortar rounds and other crap coming down every other paragraph or so, but it's no big deal, everyone just takes cover when they hear one and carry on like they're not being bombarded the instant the coast is clear.  But please pretend to be excited.

Once all the spare ammunition is cooking in the fire, Lefty rejoins his men, "raised his hand in the honored signal to follow him," and leads the way into the depths of the fortress.  After two pages of "action" at the start of this chapter, we get two or three quiet pages describing the trek through the bunker complex, but more time is spent extolling our hero and his men than describing the environment, which disappoints me.  I guess the characters are more important to the story than the scenery around them, it's just that I'm not interested in these characters, while I like a good ruin.  So all that's said about the fortress is that the floor is uneven from roots forcing their way into the tunnels, which are flooded knee-deep with water in places.  The place is littered with skeletons still stretched out in bunks or sprawled on the floor where they succumbed to gas or disease or mutinies, rusted guns standing "like prehistoric monsters, forgotten by time," and the only living things down there are rats that were at one point "bold enough to attack a sleeping man and tear out his eyes before he could awake."  Dire rats, then.  With a taste for eyeball-jelly.

But as I mentioned, the author has more to say about his characters than this location, namely that they're awesome.  The soldiers of the "brigade" don't have an order of march, they're all experienced enough to know how to handle themselves, and without thinking about it move down the ruined corridors in a way that would protect them if the roof took a hit, and they've taken the hobnails out of their boots for maximum sneakiness, and so on.  Malcolm can hear the distant echoes of the ammunition going off in the campfires and realizes it's a ruse to make it sound like the campsite is still defended, but even as he appreciates Lefty's cunning, he still isn't sure what to make of this guy who checks the chalk marks left on the fortress walls with "a twinkle in his eye and a sardonic smile upon his lips, as though he was hugely enjoying this business."

It was not that the lieutenant was kind.  He merely did not care.  His men did not belong to a government but to himself; just as he belonged to them.  It seemed that all men with nerves had died of them, leaving a strange corps of beings above such things as human weakness and death, men who had evolved for themselves a special art of living.  Malcolm had no hopes for the mercies of the lieutenant; they did not exist.  And he was thinking to himself, following that cape, that the race of fighting men, while laudable in many ways, had degenerated in others.  For what better evidence could he have than this fact of the lieutenant's running away from a force because it had field pieces?

Didn't Malcolm spend last chapter worrying that Lefty was going to just sit and get shelled instead of withdrawing like a sane person?  Well, it's probably not the author being inconsistent here, this is obviously a way to establish Malcolm as a contrary twerp who just doesn't get actual soldiering.

Eventually there's daylight up ahead, and the tunnel turns out to end right on the hill that the Russians' PC ("Post Command," thank you footnote) is sitting on.  The brigade hides in an adjoining trench, and Lefty gets to show his tactical genius.  He deploys Pollard and the First Regiment... okay, I know this is still technically a brigade, but Lefty only has 168 men, and a full regiment is at least two thousand soldiers strong.  He should be thinking more in terms of companies, or even platoons.  Or maybe each man in these "regiments" counts as a platoon in himself.

Anyway, Pollard and the First go on the east slope, Tou-tou and the Second on the west, and the Third will follow Lefty up the middle.  Carstone gets to stay behind with the machine guns, while Weasel and six other scouts are sent to find the enemy baggage train.  And everyone is to use melee weapons only, no gunfire allowed, and "do not kill their commander or the staff."  Aaaaand break!

The First and Second vanish like the expert stealthers they are, while Lefty shoves a stick down into the ground to make a simple sundial, because watches are hard.  After a bit he gives the signal to advance, and the Third follows him up the ridge, dodging rabbits as they creep in and out of old craters - though someone does come across and grab a wild pig.  But the bad guys don't hear the squeals, and Mawkey comes back to report that the Russian officers and their guards are all looking south towards where they think the brigade is shooting at them.  After ordering an Italian chap named Gian to get ready to attack the enemy gun battery, and making another sundial to wait a bit longer, Lefty decides it's time.  He pulls down his visor, his men do the same and fix bayonets, snicking their guns firing mechanisms... wait, didn't Lefty just order them not to shoot anything?

Whatever, time to engage the enemy!  The brigade crawls through the tall grass much less conspicuously than a pack of Velociraptor, and when Lefty trills like a meadow lark three times, they burst into action!  Someone yelps in terror by the gun battery and an officer desperately tries to give an order as the brigade pounces on them, the thirty Russian guards only managing two or three shots before being "drowned in a sea of charging men."  One enemy leader tries to run for it only to be brought down by Mawkey, who has improvised a flail with a stick, some chain and shrapnel.

And that's it.  "It was all over before the dust had a chance to rise."  Thirty prisoners, six field guns, and the enemy baggage train have been captured, and only one of them was "slightly wounded" while the brigade suffered no casualties.  Huh.  Not even a Hubbard Action Sequence.

Lefty takes off his helmet and cape and has a chat with the Russian commander, who conveniently speaks decent English.  The enemy leader, who must be a hero of his own story since he doesn't have a name beyond "the commander," is very gracious in defeat and congratulates Lefty for outmaneuvering him.  Lefty reveals that he distracted the Russian troops with cooking ammunition and snuck past them via an old bunker tunnel, and the Russian smiles at this "trick" before admitting that his force is only here in search of food.  Lefty says there isn't any, and that his force only attacked the Russians because they have delicious horses.

When they're done with these pleasantries, the lieutenant and the commander get down to business, discussing terms.  The Russians raise a flag to recall their troops and understand that the brigade will get to confiscate all their "impersonal baggage," but they'll be able to keep their guns since after all there are unfriendly soldiers about.  Other than that, they're free to go, so long as they promise to go right home.  Lefty and Commandy also trade intelligence, and Lefty says that he knows of no fertile regions nearby worth capturing, while Commandy reveals that his force is the last of the Imperial White Russian Army kicked out of Moscow some five months back, and they were looking to try to set up some farms or something around Paris - Germany's a mess right now, no government to speak of beyond a few scattered officers, and France is starving.

And that's it.  Lefty wishes the Russians luck as they look for better foraging grounds, perhaps down in Italy, and they're gone by the afternoon, while the brigade butchers and feasts upon the poor horses, the spoils of a "battle" that was less violent than some football games.  Just goes to show how people don't really hate each other, and the universal camaraderie of junior officers in all the world's militaries will win out over any national divisions, and politicians and generals are the real bad guys, etc.

Lefty gets to preen a bit, "pleased as any commander should be when he has chosen his ground, carried through an elementary bit of strategy and tactics and found that his men still behaved well."  A strategy that basically boiled down to throwing a rock to make the enemy look one way before sneaking up behind him, a cunning stratagem that worked because the opposing sentries were all incompetent and their attack force never realized that they were being "shot" at by some campfires.  I can win a battle when I set the enemy AI to "Very Easy" too, but I'm not trying to pass myself off as a master strategist.  Just an excellent strategist.

And oddly enough Malcolm has no reaction to Lefty meeting with an enemy commander and generally chumming it up with the guy, no astonishment that the Russians are being allowed to go free, with rifles in hand no less!  Heck, he doesn't even say anything to show how impressed he is with Lefty's brilliant strategy, or-

Oh, wait.  Malcolm stuck with the machine gunners covering a potential retreat while the rest of the brigade advanced.  And nobody went to fetch him before the chapter was over.  Whoops.

Back to Chapter I

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter I - God of War

Maybe our hero is only "the lieutenant" because while he technically is in command of a brigade, it's down from six thousand men to a paltry hundred and sixty-eight.  So it's more like a company now.  Which means he ought to be "the captain" instead of a rank usually given to a captain or other senior officer's second-in-command.  But I guess that might confuse readers who wondered where this captain's ship was.

The brigade huddled about two fires in the half dawn, slowly finishing off a moldy breakfast, washing down crumbs of rotted bread with drafts of watery, synthetic tea.  About them stood the stark skeletons of a forest, through the broken branches of which crept wraiths of mist, quiet as the ghosts of thirty million fighting men.

The three hundred million dead civilians don't deserve a mention, of course.

The brigade is camped atop of an underground fortress, and several stairways leading down into the darkness are mostly hidden by underbrush.  Even though the soldiers are still half-asleep, and even though there are sentries posted on the camp's perimeter, everyone's alert for any sign of trouble, both out of long habit and because last night a patrol found that hundreds of Russian troops were up on the surrounding ridges.  The brigade is a motley bunch, clad in the scraps of twenty different uniforms and carrying so many different weapons that they all practically use different rounds.  Which seems like a bit of a liability when it comes to keeping the guns firing.  They're not even all English, and soldiers from France, Spain, Italy, Poland and even Finland have joined its ranks.  And if this is ever fully explained I don't remember it.

Regardless of where they've come from, these soldiers have one thing in common - they're "the unkillables," the soldiers whose skills and instincts have keep them alive through years of pointless fighting.

Having lost all causes and connections, having forgotten their religions, they still had one god, their lieutenant.  He was, after all, a highly satisfactory god.  He fed them, clothed them and conserved their lives - which was more than any other god could have done.

Oh, Hubbard.  If you had just held it in for a few more sentences, you could have gone all of ten pages before having your characters sink to their knees, part their lips, and lavish your hero with worship.  Obviously he learned more restraint by the time he crapped out Battlefield Earth, which only added the protagonist to peoples' pantheons at the end of the first act.

Said god is currently sitting on a sunken cart wheel, shaving himself, and bantering with the company cook, Bulger.

"Can I get the leftenant anythin' else, sir?"

"Why, yes.  A fresh shirt, an overcoat, a new pistol and some caviar."

"I would if them Russians had any, sir."

That's right, if he's a British lieutenant, shouldn't he be "the leftenant?"

It just so happens that today is Lefty's anniversary, his fifth year serving at the front.  But he has no time to celebrate, the enemy's afoot, and Weasel the scout leader thought he heard gun wheels.  This makes Pollard, a sergeant, nervously ask if Lefty just plans on staying put until the Russians attack, but even though he's twenty-three years older than our hero, he shuts up at Lefty's grin.

If you're worrying about trying to keep these characters' names straight, don't.  They're just that, names to go with roles like Scout Guy, Artillery Guy, or French Guy.  The only soldier in the brigade who comes close to being a fleshed-out character is Lefty's personal toadie, who we'll meet in a few pages.

Which isn't to say there aren't any other characters of note in this story, they're just not in the brigade of Lefty-worshipers.  One shows up after a moment of near-tension when the sentries challenge someone, only to relax when they give the signal that it's a friendly.  Lefty recognizes the newcomer as an officer named Malcolm, and I guess that's his last name because we're not given anything else to go with it.

Captain Malcolm is astonished that he was able to find the remnants of Fourth Brigade and its commander, and redundantly warns about all the Russians camped on the ridgeline.  And we get about a page of an unconcerned Lefty asking why Malcolm has come, and each time the captain gives more information he tries to bring up the matter of the imminent Russian attack only for Lefty to interrupt him with another question.  Lefty is surprised when Malcolm claims to have seen not just horses to tow the Russians' ammo carts, but a trench mortar and bazooka, which count as artillery these days.  But he isn't worried about, it just means he'll have some delicious roasted horse to go with the other supplies he plans on capturing when he engages the enemy.

No, what alarms Lefty is Malcolm's order for him - the GHQ is recalling him for "reorganization."  And here Hubbard drops the ball.  He's added a footnote for "caisson," a two-wheeled ammunition wagon, and for "dixie," a cooking pan used by soldiers, and in the introduction defined the BEF as the "British Expeditionary Force(s)."  But whoops, he forgot to tell us what GHQ stands for.  It's not much of a guess to assume "General Headquarters," but come on.  If it's not worth adding a footnote defining the acronym, might as well just call it the "headquarters."

Anyway, there's a lot of politicking going on in this crippled army fighting over the ruins of Europe.  The British Communist Party has taken over London and ordered the army to create "soldiers' councils," whatever those are, and since Lefty never bothered to do so, he assumes this is all an excuse to depose him.  But Malcolm assures him that no, General Victor back at headquarters isn't happy about the communists either, and reveals that it's been three months since the last shipment of food from England.  So since supplies are running low and the quarantine is still in effect, the upper brass is thinking about packing up and heading south in search of a fertile area to take and hold, and they might need a successful junior officer like our hero to succeed.

Lefty doesn't buy it, and knows what this is all about.  So he gives a nice long rant that sets up this story's overarching conflict.

"They're afraid," said the lieutenant.  "Afraid we'll come back and turn their government appetite over dixie."  He laughed sharply.  "Poor little shivering fools!  Why, there aren't ten thousand British troops left in the world outside of England.  Not one man where there was once a thousand.  We've battered French and German and Russian and Italian and German again until we're as few as they.

Oh?  Why?  This story was written right after World War I, where the great powers of the day had solidified into two rival alliances, and the interbellum world could be divided into democracies and fascist or communist dictatorships.  So I'm curious how things went back to a multipolar system where you might ally with a neighbor against another threat one day and go back to fighting them the next.  Even though the Concert of Europe was fairly peaceful... wait, does this mean Lefty has been recruiting from his defeated enemies?  Wonder what his bosses think of that...

First we came over to get machine tools and food.

Oh that's right, this is all post-apocalyptic "fight for the ruins of civilization" conflict.  Guess England was just attacking anyone who had wrenches and potatoes because they couldn't make or grow their own.  Even though the nukes aren't flying anymore, and all the planes are grounded, so there's nothing stopping industry and agriculture from rebuilding...

Then, with one excuse or another they began to tell us false tales of impending invasion but it has been two years since we could locate anything you could call a political entity on this continent.  We can't go home because we'll take the sickness.  And what are we here?  We're mixed up with fifty nationalities, commanded by less than a hundred officers, scattered from Egypt to Archangel.  Ten thousand men and ten million, twenty million graves.  Outcasts, men without a country.  A whole generation wiped out by shot and starvation and sickness and those that are left scarcely able to keep belly, ribs and jacket together.  And they're afraid of us in England!"

Guess Hubbard is combining the "lost generation to a pointless war" theme from World War I with Stalin's paranoia towards successful military leaders, and setting things up so that our protagonist will look justified and heroic when he goes against his supposed superiors.  So basically this will be a hypothetical scenario where an Imperial Russian officer survives the revolution and turns on Stalin before he can purge him.

Malcolm is spooked by Lefty's near-treasonous talk, and stubbornly insists that he'll get to go back to England someday, but is somewhat mollified when Lefty says he'll return to the GHQ with him.  Only to be unsettled just a few sentences later.

"They've had their way in England," said the lieutenant.  "Yes.  They've had their way."

Malcolm was troubled again.  He quickly redirected the lieutenant's line of thought.  "It will be all right when we have a new post.  We'll carve out a large section of fertile country and there'll be food enough for all."

"Yes?" said the lieutenant.

Malcolm could read nothing from that at all.

Maybe he didn't hear you and you need to speak louder.

The general staff will have to wait for later, though, we've got Ruskies to deal with first.  Our handsome, healthy hero gets up from breakfast, puts on his Italian duriron helmet, buckles his belts, and checks his automatic.  I'm not sure why our hero needs a special, less-corrosive alloy of steel for his headgear, but maybe it wouldn't do for Lefty to have just another pie pan on his head.

And then Mawkey shows up.  Despite being "a little fellow with a twisted spine and a set of diabolical eyes," he's not a bad guy, he's more or less Lefty's personal attendant.  He brings our hero the last piece of his ensemble, a Swiss-made bullet-proof cape made of "inch-thick silk" that weighs nearly thirty pounds without the added weight of the rounds lodged in it.  Because why have a humdrum flak vest when you could be running across the battlefield with thirty pounds of bulletproof material flapping behind you, getting snagged on things?

Mawkey has news, too, after doing some scouting with his "superfine eyes."  He says that the Russians will start moving into the nearby ravines when it's properly daylight, and also that the enemy officers are encamped on an exposed hill.  And that's all the intelligence our hero needs.

The last page is Malcolm reacting with astonishment to everything Lefty says and does, as well as Lefty shooting down anything Malcolm suggests.  When Malcolm asks if Lefty plans on just sitting still, our hero says it'd be stupid to charge into the enemy's artillery.  When Malcolm complains that the enemy will be able to see their campfires, Lefty orders his men to throw on green branches to make more smoke.  When Lefty orders some men to set up a rearguard, Malcolm incredulously reminds him that they're surrounded and there's nowhere to retreat to.  When Malcolm muses that it'd be nice to have artillery of their own, Lefty calls it "Worthless stuff."


"If I had an antitank rifle and a trench mortar, what would be the result?  Lord, didn't they prove that years ago?  One side cancels out the damage of the other by inflicting just as much.  Chap called Napoleon brought artillery into style, or so these French tell me.  Absolutely useless stuff except for pounding down a wall.  As useless as airplanes.  Too many casualties and grief for too little fun."


"Why not?"

And this is just bewildering.  Last chapter the author sardonically mentioned how the incompetent military commanders were the ones to insist that artillery was useless as a way to feel better after running out of shells for it, but here we have our hero agreeing with the sentiment.  Anyone with a cursory knowledge of military history, or anyone who's played a strategy game, will conclude that artillery (to say nothing of planes) is in fact a damn useful thing to have, even if you aren't trying to knock over a castle.  And later- well, you'll see.  So right now this passage just makes our hero look like an idiot, and only later will it make him a hypocrite.

But that's about it for this chapter.  The brigade is bustling efficiently, getting weapons stowed and fulfilling their god-officer's commands, most significantly the one to gather all the wrong-caliber ammunition they've collected in preparation of dumping it on the fires.  But before the pickets can report contact with the advancing Russians, Weasel the scout yells "Shell!"

An instant later everyone heard it and then they saw it.  It was a trench mortar, tumbling down the sky.

Why are you trying to spot it as it arcs toward you instead of diving for cover as soon as you heard the tell-tale shriek of a descending shell?

Somebody, having pity for a man who had never seen one, bore Malcolm backward into cover of the caisson.

Oh don't try to pass these people off as hardened veterans when they were just playing "where's the mortar?"

The bomb struck and exploded, directly in the center of the clearing.  Shrapnel screamed wickedly as it tore through the already maimed trees.

And there's our cliffhanger ending.  Guess next chapter will be a description of how everyone died in the explosion, and the remaining 150 pages in the book are just there to fool us.

Back to "The Lieutenant"