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

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