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

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