The Lost Boy | Population of Loss (Part 2)
Previous First Impressions | After Dark (Part 2)
Story: Michael DiBaggio |Illustrations: Shell Presto
of Jamison Doyle 13
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.
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.
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.
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.
all the time we traveled northward, so the invaders drove south.
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.
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.
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
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!
but how my heart sank when that whistle was silenced by the keening
wail of the Tripod guns!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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
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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?
to me!” it commanded, and I obeyed, somehow able to track this
silent voice to its source.
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
the creature’s command, the animal fear that threatened to unman me
burned away, replaced with a wonder that could only be born of
human head, with drooping eyes, enjoined me to bless him.
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
these in my place. Defend your people,” said the human voice.
will,” I affirmed, finding that no other answer was possible.
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.
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.
soul is reforged in the crucible of the Celestial Fire, the light
that warms forever!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
for a second. My confidence was not misplaced, for its attack washed over the blue nimbus but did not touch me.
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
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.
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.