Story: Michael DiBaggio | Illustrations: Shell Presto
I enter the following account without hesitation, though any who should read it may think me a liar or else insensible, drunk, or delirious from facing that monstrous power that drives man toward extinction. But such awesome events as I have witnessed demand chronicling regardless of the risk to my reputation. Against such things as I have witnessed (whose very existence humbles my puny intellect and flames my weakling spirit to heights undreamt), the strength of all ridicule, mockery, and self-doubt fails. If I lie or even exaggerate, then the Devil take me, for I cannot conceive of a sin more wicked than to besmirch this miracle with the patina of falsehood. Take these words as the truth and nothing but.
It started yesterday, the twelfth, when I was roused by Jack McDonald, the inspector of track of the Severn Valley line and an old family acquaintance who had worked with my father. I had not seen him for more than a decade, and yet I recognized the same alert face and confident bearing I remembered as a youth. He reported that he had come from speaking to Mr. Palfrey and had obtained his permission, if I were willing, to take me to Arley. That beleaguered rail line had fallen under his responsibility and he was in dire need of men to replace those lost either to enemy action or cowardice, and he explained how very important it was to maintain the service with so many fleeing from the enemy’s onslaught in the north.
I assented immediately, though I was, I am ashamed to admit, sorely tempted to abandon my duties and flee for some safe harbor (presuming such a place now exists on this embattled earth). I was inspired by the courage and nobility of this stalwart gentleman, still putting the lives of others above his own even in this grim predicament, and I told him so. Mr. McDonald, being too humble a man to be comfortable with compliments, hurried onto the matter of what urgent tasks needed doing. In the course of this, he intimated the surprising extent of his manpower shortage and the great wreck of the whole valley: of more than a hundred men that he regularly supervised, fewer than a dozen were available for work. Some had definitely perished, but of others he knew nothing.
The evidence of the depopulation and ruin was only too evident as we traveled northward, and I, who had been spared the worst in the relative calm of Cheltenham, was shocked by the empty ruins of what had been vibrant towns and cities. When the wild rumor emerged that the Crown and Parliament had fled from the isles for the fastness of India, fear imposed such an eagerness to leave in her subjects that they brought only what they could carry in one trip. There were many spots along the roads where provisions and private effects had been abandoned, perhaps to make room for another desperate passenger.
And all the time we traveled northward, so the invaders drove south.
At one o’ clock this morning, I was awakened by McDonald, who informed me that an hour before, what was evidently a small scouting force of the enemy sent to probe the strength of our resistance had penetrated deep into the country and had demolished miles of track above Victoria Bridge before being driven off by artillery fire. All telegraph lines were down and no warning could be made to a train of evacuees departing Shropshire, which would derail to the doom of all unless they could be warned off.
I dressed quickly, donning my high boots and Mackintosh (for the rain was then in a downpour) and brought my signaling lantern. We hastened northwest by a rickety one-horse carriage, the only transport left to us in this devastated area. Eventually we came to a spot that would admit no passage for our vehicle, the trail ending at a rocky slope by the track which cleaved tightly to the bend of the hillside, and so dismounted. There we waited, straining our ears for the sound of the cranking wheels or the steam whistle, for our lamp shed little light on the oily night, and we dared not illuminate the electric signal beacon before the train approached for fear of attracting the attention of some distant inhuman war engine.
God knows how long we waited. In the quaking fear of our grim anticipation, either of the train’s absence or of our own fearful discovery by the alien foe, there could be no reckoning of time. The impenetrable, moonless dark seemed the timeless chaos before creation.
Whenever it was that we heard the blast of the train’s whistle in the distance, my heart leapt for joy. The train had not been destroyed! Jack shook my shoulder excitedly, evidently feeling the same sense of elation. What a profound kinship with his fellow sufferers despair engenders in man, so that even moment to moment survival seemed like a great victory, a thing almost too dear to be hoped for!
Oh, but how my heart sank when that whistle was silenced by the keening wail of the Tripod guns!
The groaning of yielding steel and the thunderous roar that I knew to be the rupture of the locomotive engine echoed down the valley, and tongues of yellow and orange flame spouted around the bend, igniting the trees on the hillside. It was in this ghastly light that the corpse of the train came into view, still barreling forward under its gigantic momentum. The hurtling wreck was pursued by a brace of the Martian war machines striding athwart the incline, their hideously pulsing, spindly legs mastering the terrain with unnatural grace.
“God save their souls! Let’s go! Let’s go! Oh, it’s too late for them!” McDonald urged me, for stout and dedicated though he was, the hopelessness of the sight unmanned him.
But I could not heed his words. It was as if my body was petrified, and I had no choice but to watch the slaughter unfold. I was beyond the reach of fear or rage. It was the sheer spectacle of the thing that held me, mute and transfixed, mesmerized by the dance of the fire light, the wall of heat, and the cacophony of death.
“What is that?” I pointed to a new source of illumination on the hillside, a roiling ball of blue-green light hovering above the flaming train. It seemed to be darting fire at the tripods, and the machines alternated their volleys between it and the slowing locomotive. The bursts were as bright as lightning, shifting the rainy night into daytime brightness with every crackling burst. The tripod on the left groaned and collapsed under this attack, its leg sheared off at the pivot as its pilot housing released great gouts of fire. The machine on the right seemed to be mortally wounded too, spewing copious amounts of smoke. Belatedly I realized that the inky cloud that oozed out was not smoke, but the lethal chemical these machines belched out to inflict the widest possible havoc on the concentrated masses of helpless city dwellers. I knew, somehow, that this was an act of desperation.
The combatants continued their duel until a swarm of buzzing, explosive bomblets burst from the remaining Tripod and overwhelmed the fighting nimbus. It crashed to earth well in front of the train, smashing the timber and rails of the track until it tumbled down the embankment. The blue-green light faded and the embers of the burning forest were hid by the veil of the Black Smoke.
“Good God, Doyle, hurry before they get us!” McDonald warned, but again I did not heed him. As I instead headed toward the carnage, toward the poisonous smoke, I heard him call to me for the last time: “Where are you going, you damned fool!”
I myself wondered what had possessed me. I admit now that it was desperation and hopelessness. I was sorely tired of running, hiding, and waiting for death, and I damned those vicious creatures to do their worst. I was enlivened by the fight that intrepid phantasm had given them. Whoever it was – for at the time I thought it was a man, some scientific promethean with the ingenuity and boldness to harness electricity into a weapon great enough to put fear into these unstoppable foes – had reminded me that I had a duty to carry out, and carry it out I should, even though it meant my death. I resolved to see to the safety of any survivors, God willing, starting with that valiant Icarus.
I, too, had electricity at my command as I soon remembered, and lifting it above my head, I ignited the electric signal beacon to give light to my steps and, in a feeble way, to challenge the Martians. How vain! How foolish! And yet this futile gesture gave me inspiration and courage.
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I followed the trail of the crash several yards down the hillside, grimly eyeing the viscous folds of the approaching cloud at the margins of my lantern as I descended. The trail of destruction ended abruptly and it seemed that there was nothing left of the wondrous flying machine and its pilot. But then I heard a voice call out; no, not in my ears, but between them. It was like a thought out loud. How else shall I describe it?
“Hasten to me!” it commanded, and I obeyed, somehow able to track this silent voice to its source.
In a pit gouged into the earth amid the scorched and smoldering leaves reposed a being not easily viewed and less easily described. It was neither man nor machine as I had suspected. Its form exceeded by far the alienness of the scrambling, spiderish bodies of the invaders – or of anything else that might conceivably arise in the wildest diversity of the natural world!
(This last observation was formed quite apart from rational evaluation. It was a truth comprehensible only to that exalted part of man’s mind not made of the rude stuff of dust and ash, but that divine organ that perceives all things in perfect clarity, and this knowledge is as terrible and majestic as the thing before which I now cowered.)
It seemed, at first, a pattern of light, like the illusion one sees on the back of his eyelids after the flashbulb, only it was not disordered, but a regular, discreet pattern, like an unfathomably complex snowflake. Nor was it monochrome, but a riot of colors, especially warm shades of amber and crimson, with splinters of the stark blue of electric arcs.
As I stared at this wonder, my whole attention and thought seemed to be drawn into it, and with this new focus I began to discern a form more definitely animate and more terrible.
Its torso was gigantic and powerfully thewed, like a colossus carved from granite, though its configuration and musculature could hardly be less human. Its smooth hide glittered with the motion of hundreds of dilating, many-hued irises, each encircling a golden pupil. Six corded arms radiated from its center, branching and re-branching until they covered a span three or four times as wide as its height, stretching a taut, gossamer membrane, burnt and punctured from the battle, between them. It had no legs, and indeed the bottom half of this giant figure seemed to have been sheared off (undoubtedly by the enemy heat rays) at an acute angle delineated by charred lines from which seeped a glistening amber ichor. The head, most startlingly, had three faces; one human, one leonine, and one with the pointed beak and broad eyes of a bird of prey. It was not connected to the thing’s body as it should have been, but instead floated inches above, rotating its faces as it addressed me in soundless words.
“Fear not! I am Eldil. I have come for your strengthening, not your chastisement,” the entity declared, its tone surpassingly and incongruously mild against its fearsome aspect.
At the creature’s command, the animal fear that threatened to unman me burned away, replaced with a wonder that could only be born of supernal grandeur.
The human head, with drooping eyes, enjoined me to bless him.
With tremulous hands, I made the sign of the cross and recited a hushed and hurried prayer. “Heavenly Father, shed your grace and mercy upon us and shield this soul in the hour of peril.”
“He hears, even on this silent world! My long watch is ended and I depart, but into your hands I pass the Azure Lens. It will fortify your body and enliven your mind with wisdom. With it, bring courage to the afflicted.”
The Lion-head followed in a roaring bellow: “Receive also the Crimson Lens; it will magnify His wrath, bringing justice to the iniquitous. Vanquish evil with it, but attempt no evil with it, or it will consume you!”
“Behold the Golden Lens!” cried the aquiline aspect. “It will amplify your senses and speed your journeys, even through the deeps of heaven and the bastions of the Walls Between.”
“Wield these in my place. Defend your people,” said the human voice.
“I will,” I affirmed, finding that no other answer was possible.
The oily haze of the lethal Martian gas reached us, dampening the light. My skin prickled where the residue touched it and the toxic vapor seared my eyes and blistered my throat and lungs as I breathed it. I hacked and wheezed, helplessly drawing in more of the deadly substance. Every nerve screamed out in pain, and I was certain that I would accompany this creature to the next world, but then the creature spoke and its three voices outsounded my death throes.
“Know neither fear, nor malice, nor despair!”
Three arms – long, sinewy human arms – spun into existence before my very eyes, each gripping a thick, convex disc alive with ordered swirls and pulses of light: azure, crimson, and gold. I saw dimly, through a haze of tears, the ephemeral limbs plunge into my chest. I heaved and shuddered, though now from a wholly different cause than the poison of the Black Smoke.
“Your soul is reforged in the crucible of the Celestial Fire, the light that warms forever!”
I fell to my hands and knees in the mud while the entity evaporated in the same manner its arms had materialized. Suddenly the whole world seemed to shift on its axis. A mighty exhale expelled the black oil from my lungs and a wreath of cerulean fire enveloped me, burning away the lethal haze.
Hand over foot, I ascended the slope, my left hand still dragging the signal lantern, though it had been transformed through some process into a new shape, its single signaling portal replaced with a triad of lenses streaming blue, red, and yellow light.
Filled with vigor and hope, I marshaled all of my determination and extended the nimbus of light that covered me to a breadth and height of many yards, lighting the surroundings like moon glow on the ocean and burning away all of the lethal fog.
I saw that the alien war machine noticed me, for its turreted head rotated its face towards me. The panels of its heat projector opened like a leering eye, gigantic and astonished. Its deadly gaze lingered on me as I strode toward it. At last, its panels glowed brilliantly and it discharged its incinerating beam.
I cannot articulate why I did not think to dodge its fire or seek cover in the ditch, I just know that I had no fear of the weapon and that I was so bent on its destruction that I did not want to delay my onset even for a second. My confidence was not misplaced, for its attack washed over the blue nimbus but did not touch me.
There was nothing left for me to do. I resolved upon its destruction and the enemy was destroyed. How can I explain the inexplicable? All of the indignation, the righteous rage provoked from the loss of all that these beasts had destroyed and all that they aimed to destroy, boiled out of the lantern in a scarlet fury, and the Tripod was no more.
I did not marvel as the death machine tumbled to the ground, but instead began searching for survivors in the wreckage of the train. I tore through great hunks of metal many times my weight to reach at bodies, many burnt, all of them lifeless. I walked upon the very air, ascending high and looking with eyes sharper than the keenest hawk, but there were no survivors, nor any trace of Jack McDonald. As he has not yet returned to his home, I can only hope, and pray, that he made good his escape.
Although I am mentally exhausted, my body is filled with an incredible stamina that will admit no rest. I can feel the Azure Lens burning inside me, urging me to the completion of my task, which is simply this: to repulse the invaders and liberate this good world. And the Lens counsels me wisely: just as this peril is not to one man alone, neither is humanity’s defense. I will require allies, mighty, stalwart, and brilliant men, empowered perhaps even as I am. The Lens knows where to find them.
God willing, our victory is at hand.
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from Population of Loss, the first volume in the Martian War Chronicles. Buy the book online or learn about the other ways you can support us.
I am assuming more of the Signalman’s adventures are on the way soon? (Hint, Hint…)
You bet! We’ll be launching a Kickstarter for Martian War Chronicles #2: Days of Wrath once we fulfill the orders for Dauntless #1.