Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Flashman and the Gods of Mars

Explanatory Note: Flashman is an excellent series of novels. It's certainly amongst my favorites. Space 1889 is a great setting. The problem with combining Flashman and Space 1889 is that Flashman has a powerful, cynical, barbed tone that makes real social commentary and carries with it an amazing power... and Space 1889 is essentially a science fiction setting. The power of Flashman would undoubtedly be diluted by taking the real dark places of imperialism and converting them into sci-fi metaphors... but I love Flashman and I love Space 1889, so I'm gonna do it anyway, and damn the results. I hope to do George MacDonald Fraser proud.

Further Explanation: I have attempted to replicate Flashman's diction as best I can. I apologize for any offense it causes; suffice to say that the words emerge from the 19th century and are not my own.

If you can believe it, I was already sixty seven when I was called to serve the Queen for the last time. It was mostly the fault of that splendid idiot Chamberlain, of course, who felt that I was quite fit for service, what, and just the chap for the job. If I never see the inside of a Colonial Office dinner again it'll be too soon, I can tell you. When you reach a certain respectable age having seen the things I've seen—a badmash blown across a bazaar by a cannon or the cantonment at Meerut turned into a charnel house—you start to think you've already seen the worst the world and its pious fools have to offer. Then there comes along some insane American to do what they're best at: finding a whole new vista of horror. I don't know what Chamberlain thought he was going to get from Mars, by God, but he set his sights on it as soon as Edison's discovery was made public. There was liftwood, I suppose, and we had to get our hands on that so some dirty foreigner didn't, but it was more than that. The whole country was mad for "civilizing the natives" and "doing their Christian duty." You'd have thought Calvary was next to Olympus Mons for all the carping in the public squares and the pulpits. But if there's one place you should never stick your nose, it's into nigger religion.

You see, those gold-skinned niggers of Mars weren't keen on our preachers, can't think why. You've heard all about Edison and his stolen machinery, the crash-landing, the liftwood, Mars, the whole thing. Well, in '72 we landed an expedition on the Parhoon Plateau, which was fine by me. After all, I could sit back in Leicestershire and watch the fireworks as well as anyone. What was it to me if the Empire was expanding and marching into all kinds of places it shouldn't be? If I'd known what a load of trouble Mars was going to land me in, I'd have said dammit all to the Raamtabis and Wormis. Let 'em have their deserts and frozen wastelands, I don't care if they make the finest narcotics in the whole solar system. But I didn't know all that then, you see, so I clapped my hands and warmed my feet by the fire and cheered on that villain Chamberlain and all his machinations. Gladstone probably never would've let things get that far but he and Lawrence punched it out for a few years. It was standing for Home Rule in Ireland, I reckon, that did Gladstone in and gave Lawrence and Chamberlain time to do the dirty and get us insinuated in Syrtis Major.

I remember the first time I saw those god-awful Parhoon Rifles in The Times. They were the toast of the town then, but it was a little rich to see the Horse Guards saluting them as equals. Anyway, by '80 we'd gotten control of Syrtis Major and ousted Amraamtabi and all his little native weasels that'd been bleeding the common Martians dry. He was shut up in the Emerald Palace and who but Chamberlain oversaw the construction of the new British Residency. Officially, we were acting in the interests of the little boy-king of Parhoon, but everyone knew it for what it was: naked aggression, and why the hell not? We had the troops and the machinery, so why shouldn't the old beldame of Mars be under colonial rule? All the pretenses were dropped that winter when Syrtis Major was made an official Crown Colony and there was Vicky, pleased as you like, wishing the Raamtabis goodwill from her porch at Buckingham.

You all already know that the whole enterprise went belly-up in '89 when the Oenetrians did their best to kick us off the planet. There were Wormi priests everywhere, stabbing honest merchants in the dark and blackhearted colonels alike for their lunatic religion. At the time, though, everything looked stable as can be; we'd secured Syrtis Major without much in the way of a fight, locked up old Amraamtabi, and gotten our hands on the spice trade and most of the liftwood coming off Mars. Around that time the Germans were playing heavily into Venus, but I'll be damned if some big lizards and swamp gas were worth their time. So we came out handily at the top of the heap and things looked set to continue on right as rain for the empire. I didn't keep more than half an eye on the news then, but I knew things were turning out well and everyone was always going around saying what damned good work we were doing up there, turning the gold man red as the saying goes.

It was the summer of '87 when I got word that Sir Harold Paget Flashman was requested by Her Majesty's Government to come and deliver a speech to the Colonial Office clerks by way of a special entertainment for an evening. I was flattered they remembered Flashy because, to be quite honest, I felt I'd begun to fall out of vogue. Even with a VC you can only sail on without wind for so long before people begin to get tired of you and by then my fine cavalry whiskers were grey. There were always the impressionable young chaps who liked to hear all the nonsense about Jalalabad and Balaclava—it comes in handy having survived the worst and most distressing tragedies of your day—but they weren't the smart set, just the sons of wealthy grocers and things who had ideas about being in the army. They'd reformed all that purchasing of commissions that went on so much in my time, so there was a shot for a good lad to work his way into positions of real power. Not that you'd ever see a tradesman as Regent-Commissioner—except for Disraeli, and everyone has to admit that there was something not quite right about that sheeny.

I was all puffed up to think I was being called back into Society but even more excited for the little pension they were offering. Hell, thinks I, if I can land an honorary post in the Colonial Office so much the better! Let 'em pay for my port and cheroots and I'll give speeches 'till I'm blue in the face! As soon as I got off the train it became clear that I wasn't meant to be the main attraction. No, an abominable little Raamtabi named Arahshook was the big speaker of the night and I'd simply been selected from a register of noble but retired war heroes to help pad the bill! Well, another man might have been angry at that, but I don't care where my meal tickets come from. If they didn't think much of Flashman they could go straight to hell, and damn their impudence at the same time! And if they'd rather listen to the lisping lilt of a gold man, let 'em do that to their heart's content. Flashy'd be there drinking their liquor and gorging on their food all the same.

I think Lawrence wanted to do it to drum up some fervor in Russia, to be quite honest. He must've passed the buck down to Chamberlain, asking him to find the best way to make the Russians think we were moving on Mars. So with his usual Whitechapel cunning, Chamberlain up and comes up with this plan to fĂȘte a native rifleman all over London as though some grand new Parhoonian treaty was coming through. Here's Flashman in the back of the room getting nicely topped off, watching the whole thing spin out. I thought it was grand fun, even if Arahshook seemed to have had some training in the Tom Brown holiness school himself. He was an ugly Martian lad with long moustaches and a tremulous little voice that would've had him hung from the highest window back at Rugby. He droned on about what an honor it all was, and how much he loved Queen and Country, and all the same rot you'd expect. He didn't say a single thing to make me sit up, that much I remember. Which is too bad, because before you know it I'm asleep at my table and snoring fit to wake the dead. I must've knocked over my drink, for when someone shook me awake to take the podium I was half covered in it.

I must've done something right, because they laughed and cheered like all hell. I made some patriotic noises about the Queen and the superior English way of life and then staggered out to the gents to be properly sick. I hadn't taken so much on board in years and it was a damn strain on the body. They put me up somewhere that I can't recall (except for the fact that the sheets were nice and you couldn't seem to get a good tumble anywhere nearby) and then left me for the night. Things'd changed in London since the last time I'd been there and they were still changing all over the country. It hadn't seemed possible, but it seemed like everywhere was becoming even more hypocritical and tight, filled with that stupid holiness that had so permeated my youth. I suspect it was because the country was being run by bankers and store-clerks. I've never yet trusted a man who didn't drink and they seemed to be all the rage.

Still, it could've been worse. For one thing, they really did want me around to serve as a sop to the army croakers so they could be shown to have experience on their side. And Chamberlain assured me personally, his hands folded on mine, that I would have to do "No work whatsoever, what? Just show your face around London, come to the dinners, and make sure everyone knows the hero Flashman supports our venture." Well, with five guineas a week and nothing waiting for me back home, I decided there was no reason why not. After all, I could always find a good whorehouse in town. What Chamberlain's venture was I had no idea, nor did I want any. It'd never done me good to pry and in some cases I'd found actual harm in it.

There were still a few good places to get properly drunk in London. Luckily, when you're a grey-haired hero most of the bars will let you get a few off for free before they seriously look to the tab. The Cavalry Club, for instance, was excellent and I passed a good deal of time there. It helped get out the word that Flashman backed the colonial expansion on Mars, too, for on the third night of my stay Chamberlain foisted that blockhead Arahshook on me. He swore up and down that he'd never seen anything as fancy as the Crystal Palace and generally clung about me like a limpet. At first he was shocked to see British officers drinking and carousing, but he got into the swing of it damned fast. He was a natural toady, pleased as hell to tell you how fine you looked and how well your rig fit even if you were sagging at the belly. The first night I brought him out I thought to shock him with my impropriety, but he took it all in stride smiling and laughing and drinking with the best of 'em.

That was how we became friends because, of course, I can't resist the charm of someone willing to toad-eat to me. I know what it feels like to fawn to imbeciles, so there's a kind of kinship there that goes a long way for me. As I showed him the sights he described Mars to me. A damned uncomfortable place it sounded, and I loudly told him that I'd take Cambridge over Parhoon any day, just see if I wouldn't. Didn't rile him, though, didn't even so much as shake him. He just laughed and had our glasses refilled and then asked me if there were any red women he could try.

I don't generally care who sticks what in whom but there's some decorum to be observed. Not for the sake of the participants. I say let 'em at it, but when there's the chance of some public blowback I'd rather be well clear of the blast, if you get my meaning. So I told Arahshook no and no again until one night he got me quite deep into a third bottle of claret. We'd been playing a hand of cards somewhere on Pall Mall and I was up a good deal. "Come now, Flashman my friend. Certainly there is somewhere, ah, discreet...?"

"No, damn ye, and give me that back," says I, swiping for the bottle. But Arahshook dangled it overhead and waggled his big Martian eyebrows at me.

"I could, Flashman sorbash* (*Parhooni, meaning ally or companion), but I fear you are as bad with it as I am with bhutan." He reached into the pocket of those ridiculously large Martian trousers all the Parhoon Rifles wore and took out a pinch of the stuff. Bhutan spice is uncommonly powerful and I'd never tried it—nor did I ever want to, remembering what the bhang of Ko Dali's daughter had done to me (*see Flashman at the Charge). "But perhaps if you assist me on my own arlahk* (*quest, mission, holy duty) then I can help you on yours."

"Damn yer sacred oaths!" I said. I've a few true gifts in this world, and language is one of 'em. I'd been picking up bits and pieces of Parhooni since we met. "Just pass my drink back and we'll talk it over, eh?"

I had no intention of doing anything of the kind, but Arahshook didn't know me well enough to know that. Or maybe he did, for I am certain that when I swigged it again I tasted some of that damned bhutan mixed in there. It has a sort of raw cinnamon-y flavor, not unpleasant at all. Before I know it I'm watching myself stand up at the table and shouting, "We'll find you some good English quim if we have to march on the palace!" And that was how all the trouble began.

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