Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

What better way to mark the passage from Earth of George McDonald Fraser
than an off-Earth tale of his greatest creation.

This is a picture of Flashman defying the bug

Flashman at Klendathu

Mike Glyer

Bugs, Mr. Flashman! Zillions of ‘em!”

My infra-red snoopers showed hundreds of crawly, loathsome monsters swarming from a sinkhole that had collapsed under the trooper the moment his powered suit touched down. He flailed around trying to reach his weapon as they stampeded over him. I nearly gave in to the urge to flee raving into the night. Then just before hitting the jets, I changed my mind. Flicking the trigger of my hand-flamer, I incinerated the nearest Bugs, searing legs and heads off others, sending gouts of flaming ichor in every direction. Other members of the squad hurried in to dispatch all the others that had run by us.

A short jump brought me beside the hole. “My God you’re a cool one, Mr. Flashman!” the trooper shouted to me gratefully over the squad’s communication circuit. “They might have done for all of us!”

Might have, if they weren’t all workers, thought I. Telling the difference was a little trick I learned on Earth from Intel. They had asked me to pass it along to the unit, which I surely would at some point.1

General Diennes, Operation Bughouse commander, jumped his suit next to us, demanding someone explain why we had no sooner landed than a ruckus broke out in his HQ’s grid square. By now the trooper had collected his blaster and clambered up beside me. General Diennes scanned the trooper’s armor, radiant with three colors of scorched bug guts, some still smoking.

“This is disgraceful. I can’t abide a slovenly soldier!” He told the company commander, “Captain Frankel, get the devil over here and clean up your trooper. Look at Major Flashman. He can go through a skirmish and still be ready for parade inspection. Let him be an example to the rest of you!”

I preened inside my two thousand pounds of armor. It had taken all my finesse to be assigned to the greatest peacock in the Mobile Infantry. Detonation of a tactical nuke could not distract General Diennes from brushing off his armor to get rid of the last flecks of peel-away shroud from the launch capsule.

For all the legends about the Mobile Infantry, so long as you remember it’s still the military you won’t be surprised to hear there are officers who think spit-and-polish is the only martial virtue. That never changes, not even in the hardest-hitting, fastest moving outfits. I’ve seen General Patton fine a Third Army tank commander $5 for not wearing his tie on the way to the Battle of the Bulge.2


By the way, if you’ve been reading these memoirs from the beginning you may need a few words of explanation about how a septuagenarian general who reportedly died in 1915 came to be on Diennes’ staff in the first place. You see, I faked my death in World War I. First, the trenches were no place for a confirmed coward like me. A man could be killed there. Second, I needed a clean break with the past anyway.

Here I was, a general with over fifty years of service, yet I still looked like I was 37 years old. And felt that way, too, which the ladies certainly appreciated. On the other hand, whenever Wolseley, Kitchener or their ilk found a healthy-looking general who wasn’t chronically suffering from some colonial plague, they were apt to keep sending him out til he caught one.3 To keep that from happening to me, I hired a barber who was an artist at touching up my muttonchop whiskers with gray, and I affected a lurid cough. This kept me out of trouble until the Great War. That’s when huge numbers of casualties forced all hands to stations. Even I was scheduled for a tour in France. I was forced to find a personal final solution.

Many years passed before my exceptional lifespan was explained. Almost needless to say, my mother was a Paget, and Pagets often intermarried with the equally noble Howard family over the centuries.

Now I have had far greater satisfaction than simply outliving the poison pen who authored Tom Brown’s School Days. I also have outlived everyone’s memory of the book itself.

Despite my fresh start, for some curious reason I have endlessly repeated the cycles of very bad luck in being present at the worst military debacles of every era and very good luck at surviving them with an undeserved reputation as a bluff and hearty hero, decorated and feted.

Does it seem strange that a natural coward like me would deliberately choose a military career over and over? It really makes perfect sense. In peacetime it’s good pay for taking exercise in a handsome uniform. In wartime it’s the safest place to be.4 Why did I choose the M.I.? The Bugs would soon be attacking high-value targets like terrestrial cities, but I knew they’d never bother training bases high in the mountains. Then, I could rest assured that at the end of training I’d be shipped far away from Earth, where I could begin working my way up the ranks into increasingly comfortable behind-the-lines assignments. Always remember -- it’s better to wave the stick than carry the big drum.

And while I’d sooner be sipping a julep back on Sanctuary, unfortunately for me the Terran Federation handed my commander, General Diennes, the supposed plum assignment of leading the invasion of Klendathu, the Arachnid homeworld. But I took comfort in the plan. Staff HQ would be landing on a quiet grid in the center of the largest force of M.I. ever assembled. Yes, there is no greater calling than for men to place themselves between me and war’s desolation. I just ought not to have forgotten Pickett’s Charge, another day I’d started comfortably amidst 15,000 armed men, and ended dry heaving with hysterical fear because the Yankees were mowing us down, firing volleys faster than they could yell “Fredricksburg” from behind their stone walls.

General Diennes had no sooner radioed his order to Captain Frankel than many more sinkholes yawned open, issuing columns of Bugs on all sides. The trooper, feeling embarrassed that he’d gotten overly excited by the last attack, immediately waded right into them. Unfortunately, these weren’t workers. He was hit with energy bolts from every direction and staggered away crackling with blue fire like Frankenstein’s monster, then fell down belching smoke from every vent in his armor.

Things went wild. The rest of the HQ staff had also been chosen more for decorative than functional purposes. Our mob of Mobile Infantry milled about, getting in each others’ lines of fire, officers transmitting nonsensical orders like, “Kill everything that has more than two legs!”

General Diennes called back the retrieval craft. When they were on the way he declared to his staff, “Stay here while I lead a diversionary attack so other troops can escape!” At the order “Follow me!” two companies of M.I. took off behind him, never to be seen again.

Unfortunately, all the other officers he left behind lacked my talent for avoiding the line of fire and promptly got themselves killed. Now the troopers were waiting for that sure voice of command while seconds trickled away. Yes, looking to me to be that voice, make decisions, give the right order… and not only the right one, but in a calm unworried tone. In that fearful instant, bordering on the hallucinatory, one thought alone came into my mind. “The square!” I shouted. “Form the British square!”

 

* * *

 

Operation Bughouse. General Diennes had said, “We’ll attack at night, the Bugs are less active then.” If he’d lived, I’m confident that his next assignment would have been planning the first manned landing on the Sun – go at night, it’s cooler then, I’ve heard. That’s all the good it did to attack the night side of Klendathu. The natives were damned active everywhere the M.I. landed, and plenty of ‘em, too. It isn’t likely Diennes’ HQ just coincidentally crashed a party at the Bugs’ favorite all-night espresso bar.

Moments after I had ordered the company to form a square, some non-com initiated an emergency command to cut the power to my suit, ending my part of Operation Bughouse. I spent the remaining minutes of the battle poised like the Statue of Liberty, one arm still raised to rally the troops.

A fleet of retrieval boats led by Captain Yvette Deladrier bravely soared through the fiery chaos. Deladrier was a snapping, black-eyed piece. Through a regrettable misunderstanding our moment had passed. In short, she hated my guts. The good Captain boarded the other survivors and left without me.

 

* * *

 

When a deadly quiet had settled over the battlefield, the Arachnids sent their workers out to scavenge everything abandoned by the M.I. Including myself. I was carried underground inside my powerless armor along with all the broken bits and pieces, certain that was the end of me up until the moment my suit was unlatched and I was taken captive. No doubt the incredible smell of what I had done inside my armor alerted them.

I was not confined once out of the armor. After all, what difference would it make if I “escaped” to the surface? I could even look around the area where I was held because instead of the pitch-black tunnel I’d expected there were light panels running the length of the ceiling. This unexpectedly homey touch was soon explained, right after I had the shock of my life.

“Hello there!” said a voice in perfect Terran. A voice that didn’t come from an Arachnid translator, but a human head occupying pride of place ordinarily given to a moose. “I’m Captain Carl Jenkins from Intelligence.”

It was another living M.I. Well, sort of. Carl had been breadboarded, his head adorning the wall, the rest of his essential organs hanging nearby, attached to life-support machinery.5 Everything there was to know about the feeding and maintenance of human captives the Arachnids had learned from Carl, who had an obvious incentive to teach them well.

“I was a casualty of a Bug raid on a research station earlier in the war,” he explained once I calmed down. He ruefully added, “I only wanted to stay in for two years and earn my franchise.”

Yes, yes, his franchise. What a bore. I’m sure the only army that ever spent more time lecturing itself about political purity belonged to my old comrade on the Long March, Mao Tse Tung. Everyone is entitled to complete two years of federal service if they’re willing to stick it out, no matter if they’re capable of soldiering. They could spend two years cleaning latrines. And that makes you qualified to help run the government? No wonder we were losing this war!

The soundness of restricting the franchise to veterans was shown by mathematical proofs, I’d been assured by some one-armed colonel named Dubois. Well, if so much could be accomplished in merely two years of federal service, I’d liked to have asked Carl to explain why all my years of military service had made me something less than a paragon of civic virtue? That argument would have to wait. Right now, he was the key to whatever faint chance I had of getting through this alive.

Carl had been exchanging information with the Arachnid brain bugs for the past two years. He had learned a lot. One time he asked, “Did you ever notice that workers become disoriented when the brain bug is concussed by an explosion?” I told him no, I’d been too busy during the entire 23 minutes I’d spent enjoying the nightlife of Klendathu to notice that. Carl explained, “The Arachnids are a hierarchical society, every Bug born into its caste – royalty, workers, warriors.” There were a lot of Bugs, but nearly all of them were controlled by the tiny minority of brains and queens. He added, “The interesting thing is, I can give them information, but they haven’t really internalized that we aren’t a hive mentality.” Not for want of effort by fellows like Dubois, I thought. “So of course, once they learned you are a higher ranking officer than I am, they naturally lost interest in me and wanted to question you as soon as possible.”

I’d seen the work they’d made of Carl. I came a little unhinged at the prospect of being interrogated.

“And remember, Flashman, the Bugs can’t be deceived,” Carl warned. They had gotten the theory of lie detecting technology from him. “The only way you can keep from telling everything you know and disgracing yourself is to promptly commit suicide.”

“I wish you’d taken that sound advice before you gave them the lie detector!” I harrumphed. And frankly, since they’d kept Carl as a specimen so long, I hoped to convince them my company was even more delightful.

As soon as the Bugs came to take me away I began to blather every damned thing I’d ever learned about soldiering. I drew them the diagram of the Q-bomb.6 I told them the Picts’ best recipe for woad. I told them how the German High Seas Fleet executed the gefechtskertwendungsteurbord.7 Anything I could think of to keep me alive. And if you’ve read my memoirs up ‘til now, you know that’s a fount of stories without end -- Scheherezade’s not in it.

A hideous Arachnid brain sat at his lie-detecting machinery, endlessly interested in my low opinion of the competence of nearly every military leader I’d known, excepting only the world’s greatest soldier, the Duke of Wellington. It hadn’t occurred to me that when I was telling them about Admiral Halsey driving his fleet into the teeth of a hurricane – two times! – or Field Marshal Haig’s knack for ordering huge artillery bombardments before losing thousands of soldiers just to advance a few hundred yards, that they weren’t hearing it as a knock on individual, but as a an indictment of whole genres of fighting technology. Technology that wasn’t part of Bug history, and after hearing me describe it, wasn’t attractive.


Yet there was just one approach to warfare that they couldn’t wait to try, because it was the only one I had ever believed in.

 

* * *

 

I was still filibustering when our fleet returned. Once the battle ended, the M.I. peeled away endless layers of Bug warrens get down to our level where the royalty were waiting to surrender. I’m sure the Arachnids wished they’d had a Wolseley to warn them about the shortcomings of tunnels.8

Federation forces, having arrived ready for a real slugging match, were surprised when that proved unnecessary. “It was the craziest thing I ever saw,” said our rescuer, Lieutenant Rico, as he described the Second Battle of Klendathu. “When the fleet orbited, our radar showed every single Bug warrior was on the surface standing at attention in identical formations. It was the easiest thing in the world to pick ‘em off.”

I didn’t need to ask the Lieutenant the shape of their formations. I knew. The Arachnids had been standing in … British squares.



1 It’s not clear what Flashman had been told. Most leading scientists agree that an M.I.’s only infallible test for distinguishing workers from warriors is whether the Bugs shoot back.

2 Here Flashman seems to have misremembered that Patton’s standard tie fine was $25, the amount, for example, paid by Lieutenant Kness of Darby’s Rangers, according to Kness’s memoirs.

3 Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, was Secretary of State for War in 1915. Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley, 1st Viscount Wolseley, who passed away in 1913, was Commander-in-Chief for five years, 1895-1901.

4 The great philosopher Harry Harrison was the first to point this out.

5 Captain Christopher Pike was the first recorded human to survive being reconstructed by untrained aliens.

6 The Q-bomb was invented by Professor Kokintz of Columbia University.

7 The World War I-era German navy could, at need, break off a fleet engagement by ordering ships in the line of battle to make a coordinated 180-degree turn.

8 Sir Garnet Wolseley deeply opposed Sir Edward Watkin’s attempt to build a Channel Tunnel, asserting that the construction might be “calamitous for England,” because “No matter what fortifications and defences were built, there would always be the peril of some continental army seizing the tunnel exit by surprise.”

 

 

[ HOME ] [ Current Issue ] [ Archives ]

Challenger is © 2003-2008 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.

Last Modified: