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

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