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."
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"