Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter X - The Final, Final Blackout

If you remembered that Lefty wasn't the only person in that throne room and were wondering why his junior officers didn't react to his capitulation, they were just saving it for this chapter.  Swinburne is the fiery idealist who is shocked that his hero would willingly "give up everything for which we have worked these past two years, to be swallowed up in a beehive of humanity from alien shores," while Carstair is the pragmatist who points out that the US is the most powerful nation on the planet.  Swinburne just don't care - he's furious at Lefty for handing England over to an incompetent turncoat like Victor, and thinks it would be "Better to be wiped out in a blood bath than to quit like cowards."

So basically the dilemma a lot of peoples faced when the British showed up looking for a place to plant their flag, in other words.  I'm not sure if this is conscious irony on Hubbard's part - surely he'd be pointing it out to us if it was, right?

Before Lefty can answer Swinburne's outburst, Mawkey comes in along with a Captain Thorbridge from Sheerness, who gives a report on the American battleship.  It's a six-hundred-foot-long monster, well-armored, fully-submersible, capable of running itself.  It's got a hangar bay for planes and instead of traditional cannons, has "rocket shells" that "go up out of chutes and they fire at any range up to a thousand miles."  Sort of like rockets, you could say.

A still-depressed Lieutenant uses this as further evidence that there's nothing they can do but bow to the Americans' demands.  Swinburne stops trying to argue, but continues to complain about how Victor and Smythe will "revive all the creeds and claptrap that we once had" if given power, and they should've at least tried to negotiate their surrender to American imperialism so that those two wouldn't be around to mess everything up.  And that's a fair point - Lefty could have agreed to accept the Americans' "mercy" if they handed over Victor and Smythe to be executed.  The Americans would have little reason to not accept this, since they don't really owe anything to the political exiles, and if they got the Lieutenant to go along with their plan they'd get a wildly popular puppet leader instead of some incompetents who were kicked out of England following a regime change.  They'd have to be really stupid to insist that Victor and Smythe are the only acceptable stooges.  Like, Hubbard Villain stupid.

Swinburne's still being oppositional, though, and is skeptical that the Americans will act in good faith.

"Fairly!  They're afraid to leave you here!" snapped Swinburne. 

Why?  Were they just totally awed in the one meeting they had with our hero, in which he took a firm stand against them only to crumble in the face of their threats?  Or have they been listening to Victor and Smythe on the trip over and know how terrible Lefty is, in which case we might ask why they were so surprised to see him running England?

And then he considered what he had just said and came back to the desk.  "The first duty of any officer is to his command, Lieutenant.

It really undermines the gravity of the situation when these characters can only refer to our hero by his rank/title.  Wouldn't it add an extra punch for Swinburne to finally break protocol and refer to Lefty by his first name, as a way of showing just how worried he is for his friend?

This nation is just as much your command as your brigade ever was.  I've never heard it said that you neglected that brigade.

Yeah, Lefty's obsession with cramming as much food and crap into his soldier's packs as physically possible seems to be a large part of what Hubbard thinks makes him such a great leader.  I guess his sergeant back in the National Guard didn't give him enough snacks or something.

Oh, should go back to the dialogue, Lefty's making a speech.

"You talk like that Frisman," said the Lieutenant tiredly.  He sat up a little straighter then.  "I've never neglected my command.  To do other than grant the wishes of these people would be to wipe out England completely.  They ask only for an incident to take us over for a colony.  Can't you see that?  Only if our government here behaves perfectly can we stave off becoming part of another nation.

What about this "soldier government" is particularly English, anyway?  If the Americans made it a colony, what would change?  Would they force the people to vote for senators instead of doing what a cadre of junior officers told them?  A horrifying thought.

So long as we can prove ourselves to be acting in the best interests of everyone, there will be no excuse whatever for them to assimilate us.  We must see that this government acts in good faith, that it is fairly conducted for all, that no incident will occur which will permit them to establish martial rule here.

You've already put England under martial rule.

Please," he said, slumping back, "please remember what I said."

Swinburne is still disgusted with Lefty, and says "three years of peace have turned into putty!"  Which is confusing, because I thought he said Lefty had been ruling for two years just a few pages ago.  Lefty surmises that Swinburne is going to call together a council of officers... um, this is not to be confused with a soldier's committee or anything, we all know those are bad.  Anyway, Lefty tells Carstair to tell them that "I am to have this evening.  They will have all the tomorrows."  They need to follow Victor and Smythe's orders, for the good of the country.  Carstair balks at this and exclaims that there's no way the others will do this - "We are field officers!" - and is afraid that the first order the exiles will give is for Lefty's execution.  But Lefty's still being all heroic and self-sacrificing.

"I care nothing for these things; I am only thinking of my command - for when the command is destroyed the officer also dies.  But, one way or another, an officer lives so long as his command lives.  Go now, Carstair, and tell them what I say."

This would be more meaningful if the name of Fourth Brigade's previous leader hadn't appeared exactly once in this story, on an old bit of luggage.

So Carstair is all afraid for his hero but leaves to relay his command.  After that, Mawkey shows up, "looking smaller and more twisted than usual and his eyes dull."  See, it's more meaningful when Mawkey acts like this because he's been with us for the entire book.  We never saw his relationship with the Lieutenant develop or anything because Hubbard started with the two as best buddies, and it's a pretty shallow and straightforward relationship between a lofty officer and his lowly batman (a term I learned from the Lord of the Rings DVD extras), but at least it's an established relationship rather than Carstair suddenly becoming Lefty's friend and confidant after a months-long timeskip between chapters.

Anyway, he asks Lefty to confirm the rumor that those two idiots they should have killed when they had the chance will be taking over England.  But then Mawkey reveals that he and some of the names from the first half of the book, those original members of Fourth Brigade who got sidelined after all those new guys showed up, they've come up with a plan to give Victor and Smythe a twenty-gun salute when they show up at the Tower.

"Those marines would murder the lot of you."

"Yessir.  But that's better than letting Victor execute the Lieutenant."

Ugh.  He was almost more than the hero's bootlick, he almost justified his self-sacrifice by saying it would be for the good of England, but no, it's all about the Lieutenant.

Lefty is firm in his order for Mawkey to... do what he orders, and that is, as soon as the documents for the transfer of power are signed, for him and all the other officers and soldiers to leave the Tower.  The Lieutenant will be staying, however, and Mawkey realizes that our hero "had suddenly developed a suicidal mania like so many officers had in the face of defeat."  And if this doesn't seem like a useful survival skill, well, obviously our heroic Lieutenant never faced defeat before this point.

"Remember my orders," said the Lieutenant when Mawkey had picked up the tray."

"Yessir," said Mawkey, but with difficulty for there was something wrong with his throat and his eyes smarted.

Just finish the story already, Hubbard.

At eight that evening, the American gig lands at London, and the party of marines and those two senators disembarks, joined by two British exiles.  The narration spends a good long paragraph talking about those marines in particular, how they're seasoned veterans of campaigns in Mexico and Central America and the Yellow Sea, so that "In ten years of service they had set the Stars and Stripes to float over all the Western Hemisphere and half of Asia."  So-

America controls roughly half the planet.  And it desperately needs England to colonize so its millions and millions of unemployed citizens will have something to do.  And it went there first, before continental Europe.  And this is all after America was devastated in an atomic war.  What?

I'm sure it made sense when Hubbard was writing it.  Anyway, the marines are on alert because they recognize "the feel of hostility held off with effort," even if they're a bit thrown from being up against Englishmen because "they had never fought their own race before."  The politicians and Victor and Smythe are oblivious and cheerful as they enter the Tower's fortifications and pass by all those character names we vaguely remember - Bulger, Pollard, Weasel, Tou-tou, old Chipper, Gian and Mawkey.  Also known as Guy Who Hears Potatoes, I Forget, Scout Guy, Frenchy, Who?, "Worthless Stuff" Guy and Crooked Butler.

Lefty is sitting at his desk, garbed in his bulletproof cape and gunbelts, and it's a good thing he always wears this crap or else the bad guys might get suspicious.  He and Frisman exchange pleasantries, and Lefty explains that he's prepared the terms of his withdrawal from government, but suddenly adds a condition that the new government "will keep my plan in operation."  It's a simple plan that would put in General Victor in control of the country with Colonel Smythe as his second-in-command and co-dictator, followed by the country's officer corps who will be led by Swinburne.  A straightforward military command structure, yes?  Frisman agrees without any trouble.

And then Lefty spends a full page adding other conditions, and I can't help but think that maybe Frisman should have hammered all this out before showing up to sign the documents instead of letting Lefty dictate the terms of the treaty.  Lefty wants a cap on American immigrants, no more than a hundred thousand per month, and they'll all have to purchase their land for a fair price.  All his regime's land titles will be honored, so those feudal officers he appointed will keep their estates and fiefs, and its laws will continue to be upheld.  The national police and government (as if there's a difference) will remain under British control, and all officers in the army have to be British by birth, and all its judges will be British - wait, judges?  I thought everyone just came to Lefty to settle their cases personally?

"You drive a stiff bargain."

"I am giving you a country. If you want it, you shall have to accept these conditions.

Actually, no, Frisman doesn't.  He has a battleship a few miles away that can turn London into a pancake.  He has a complement of marines that completely outclasses the soldiers of Fourth Brigade.  Lefty has jack squat to use as a bargaining chip other than the appeal that it'd be easier to take over a functional government than build a new one on its ruins.  If Frisman wants to change the terms of this transition of power, I think he'll get his way, Hubbard.

Luckily for our hero, Frisman is feeling quite agreeable, and is even willing to meet Lefty's demand that America supply advanced equipment and weapons to help England defend itself.  He's really eager to get this deal done, see.

Frisman looked the document over.  He wanted nothing better than this, for it meant that he could ease the pressure of the idle in the Americas.  Very few had any liking for the new South American States.  But the climate and soil of England was a definite lure.

Seriously?!  Friggin' Rio isn't worth living in, but everyone's salivating to build a farm in cold, wet, foggy England?

And when they had Europe, a feat for which the unemployed had been anxiously waiting, the whole thing would be solved.

Why don't they have Europe already?  Wouldn't it be even more attractive than England?  Lots more room, milder climate, plenty of land to grow mutfruit or whatever on.

Yes, this document was very carefully phrased and very binding.

And we all know how faithfully America follows the treaties it signs with people whose land it covets.

So the greasy senator signs it, Lefty announces he's relinquishing command of England, and gives his last order to his men to evacuate the tower.  All those minor characters we've come to know and... well, they all march out dejectedly.  Lefty watches them leave, puts on his helmet, turns to the invaders, and makes one last statement.  It's nothing new, just the "so long as an officer's command remains he has not failed it" sentiment expressed twice earlier, as well as a reminder that the chain of command goes from Victor to Smythe to the council of officers.

He also asks them if he's correct in saying that he no longer has anything to do with the British government, to which they nod, "a little mystified."  You can probably guess where Lefty's going with this.

"I am a civilian now," said the Lieutenant, "for I relinquish my rank, as that paper I gave you will show.  The law applies wholly to me, even though I made the law.

Oh, so does this imply that before he gave up command, Lefty enacted laws that he himself was immune to?  Wait, sorry, I'm interrupting the dramatic finale.

The British government, now under you, General Victor, is not at all responsible for my actions."

"True, true," said Smythe.

"Then," said the Lieutenant, standing before them all, "I shall do what I have to do."

His hand flashed from beneath the battle cloak.  Flame stabbed and thundered.

Victor, half his head blown off, reeled and slumped.

He's going down, in a blaze of glory, they can take him now, but they'll know the truth.  He's going down, in a blaze of glory, Lord he never drew... well, I guess Lefty did draw first.

Victor is of course killed by the headshot, Smythe is hit in the chest and drops, though Frisman at least has enough presence of mind to get behind his bodyguards.  So we end the book with a page-long action sequence, and it's not quite a Hubbard Action Sequence.  The descriptions of what happen are pretty curt, but not the one sentence exclamations we saw in Mission Earth, and the bigger difference is that the hero doesn't win.

The marines swept forward. Like a duelist the Lieutenant raised his arm and fired. A bullet ricocheted from the marine officer's breastplate and, instinctively, he fired at the source.

The bullet tore through the cloak as though it had been flame and the cloak paper. The Lieutenant staggered back and strove to lift his gun again.

The rest of the brigade tries to save our hero, bless them, and Carstone's machine guns are able to bring down two marines, but the others respond and blow his face off.  Bulger attempts to cut his way through to the Lieutenant with his bayonet, but goes down with a gut shot before he can reach him.  And so go the rest of them, all valiantly and vainly trying to save the single most important person in all the world, the person who means more to them than life itself, a person who has already been grievously wounded and so probably isn't worth this rescue effort.

Lefty tries to shout something but can't find the breath, something tugs at his shoulders and he spins to the floor,

He was falling down, down, down in a red-walled pit which had a clear brilliance at the bottom.  And then blackness swept away everything.  Blackness and nothingness - forever.

Ah, the afterlife fake-out.  You think you're going to Hell, then bam, oblivion.

Wait, could this be the Final Blackout promised in the title?

Above the Byward Gate on Tower Hill that flag still flies; the gold is so faded that only one who knows can trace the marks which once made so clear the insignia of the lieutenant, the white field is bleached and patched where furious winds have torn it.  It is the first thing men look to in the morning and the last thing men see when the sky fades out and the clear, sad notes of retreat are sounded by the British bugler on Tower Hill.

Okay, hang on.  So the author has decided to give us a downer ending, and kills off his hero and everyone else in one last suicidal effort to keep two incompetents from running England, even if it will be colonized by the evil Americans regardless.  The fact that each day ends with a called retreat suggests that England will go on as an occupied nation.  But they let them keep the flag?  The occupiers are okay with this symbol of resistance flying over the seat of power, the personal emblem of the dictator who dared to defy them?

That flag still flies,

Apparently so.  Oy.

and on the plaque below are graven the words:

When that command remains, no matter what happens to its officer, he has not failed.


Man, Hubbard's really milking that aphorism he just came up with for the final chapter for all it's worth, isn't he?

And that's it, ladies and gentleman.  The Lieutenant had some adventures in France, played a nonlethal game of war with other nations' officers, coerced food and lodging from people who just wanted to be left alone, took credit for his men's revolt and hijacked the bulk of his nation's army, then returned home and deposed England's government to institute a military regime.  He had a couple of years to rebuild his country, somehow did a good job at it and was a wildly popular leader, only for all his effort to come to naught in the face of superior American military technology.  But at least on his way out he killed those two guys he didn't kill in Chapter V before they screwed up England again.

And despite ruling a country for two or three years, despite ruling people personally and rendering judgment on their disputes, despite having a cult of personality surrounding him so that his rank became an official title no other man would dare claim, nobody felt the need to ask him his name.

Back to Chapter IX part II

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