Wednesday, 10 August 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Weed

EPISODE XVIIb: THE THUNDER CHILD


It was with the greatest difficulty they managed to get Mrs Hotpants down to the beach, where presently Mycroft succeeded in attracting the attention of some men on a paddle steamer from the Thames. They sent a boat and drove a bargain for thirty-six pounds for the three. The steamer was going, these men said, to Ostend.

It was about two o'clock when my brother found himself safely aboard the steamboat with his charges. There was food aboard, albeit at extortionate prices, and the three of them contrived to steal a meal from a disabled child.

There were already forty or so passengers aboard, some of whom had expended their last money in securing a passage, but the captain remained still, picking up passengers until the decks were dangerously crowded. He would probably have remained longer had it not been for the sound of guns that began about that hour in the south. As if in answer, the ironclad seaward fired a small gun and hoisted a string of flags. A jet of smoke sprang out of her funnels.

Some of the passengers were of opinion that this firing came from Shoeburyness, until it was noticed that it was growing louder. At the same time, far away in the southeast the masts and upper-works of three ironclads rose one after the other out of the sea, like a triumvirate of erections. But my brother's attention speedily reverted to the distant firing in the south. He fancied he saw a column of smoke rising out of the distant gray haze.

The little steamer was already flapping her way eastward of the big crescent of shipping, and the low Essex coast was growing blue and hazy, when a Marsian appeared, small and faint in the remote distance, advancing along the muddy coast. At that, the captain on the bridge swore at the top of his voice with fear and anger at his own delay, and the paddles seemed infected with his terror. Every soul aboard stood at the bulwarks or on the seats of the steamer and stared at that distant shape, higher than the trees or church towers inland, and advancing with a leisurely parody of a human stride.


It was the first Marsian my brother had seen, and he stood (totally heroically, according to him), watching this Titan advancing deliberately towards the shipping, wading farther and farther into the water as the coast fell away. Then, far away beyond the Crouch, came another, striding over some stunted trees, and then yet another, still farther off, wading deeply through a shiny mud-flat that seemed to hang half-way up between sea and sky.

Glancing northwestward, my brother saw the large group of ships already terrified; one ship passing behind another, another coming round from broadside to end on, steamships whistling and giving off volumes of steam, sails being let out. He was so fascinated by this and by the creeping danger away to the left that he had no eyes for anything seaward. And then a swift movement of the steamboat (she had suddenly come round to avoid being run down) flung him headlong from the seat upon which he was standing. There was a shouting all about him, a trampling of feet (unfortunately no-one trod on him) and a cheer that seemed to be answered faintly. The steamboat lurched and rolled him over onto his face.

He sprang to his feet and saw to starboard, and not a hundred yards from their heeling, pitching boat, a vast iron bulk like the blade of a plough tearing through the water, tossing it on either side in huge waves of foam that leaped towards the steamer, flinging her paddles helplessly in the air, and then sucking her deck down almost to the water-line.

A gush of spray blinded my brother, but unfortunately only temporarily. When his eyes were clear again he saw the monster had passed and was rushing landward. Big iron upper-works rose out of this headlong structure, and from that twin funnels projected and spat a smoking blast shot with fire into the air. It was the torpedo-ram, ThunderChild steaming headlong, coming to the rescue of the threatened shipping.


Keeping his footing on the heaving deck, my brother looked past this charging boat at the Marsians again, and he saw the three of them now close together, and standing so far out to sea that their tripod supports were almost entirely submerged. Thus sunken, and seen in remote perspective, they appeared far less formidable than the ThunderChild itself. It would seem they were regarding this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, the giant was even such another as themselves. The ThunderChild fired no gun, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably her not firing that enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. They did not know what to make of her. One shell, and they would have sent her to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.

Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and discharged a canister of the Black Smoke at the ironclad. It hit her larboard side and glanced off in an inky jet that rolled away to seaward, an unfolding torrent of Black Smoke, from which the ironclad drove clear. To the watchers from the steamer, low in the water and with the sun in their eyes, it seemed as though she were already among the Marsians.

They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of the water as they retreated shore-ward, and one of them raised the camera-like generator of the Heat-Ray. He held it pointing obliquely downward, and a bank of steam sprang from the water at its touch. It must have driven through the iron of the ship's side like a white-hot iron rod through paper.

A flicker of flame went up, and then the Marsian reeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down, and a great body of water and steam shot high in the air. The guns of the ThunderChild sounded through the reek, going off one after the other, and one shot splashed the water high close by the steamer, ricochetted towards the other flying ships to the north, and smashed a smack to match-wood.


At the sight of the Marsian's collapse the captain on the bridge yelled in joy, and all the crowding passengers on the steamer's stern shouted together. And then they yelled again. And again. And again. For, surging out beyond the white tumult drove ThunderChild, the flames streaming from its middle parts, its ventilators and funnels spouting fire.

She was alive still; the steering-gear, it seems, was intact and her engines working. She headed straight for a second Marsian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Marsian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing of balsa.

"Two!" yelled the captain.

Every one was shouting. The whole steamer from end to end rang with frantic cheering that was taken up first by one and then by all in the crowding multitude of ships and boats that was driving out to sea.

The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the third fighting machine and the coast altogether. And all this time the boat was paddling steadily out to sea and away from the fight; and when, at last, the confusion cleared, the drifting bank of black vapor intervened, and nothing of the ThunderChild could be made out, nor could the third Marsian be seen. But the ironclads to seaward were now quite close and standing in towards shore past the steamboat. The little vessel continued to beat its way seaward, and the ironclads receded slowly towards the coast, which was hidden still by a marbled bank of vapor, part steam, part black gas, eddying and combining in the strangest ways.


Then suddenly out of the golden haze of the sunset came the vibration of guns, and a form of black shadows moving. Every one struggled to the rail of the steamer and peered into the blinding furnace of the west, but nothing was to be distinguished clearly. A mass of smoke rose slantingly and barred the face of the sun. The steamboat throbbed on its way through an interminable suspense.

The sun sank into gray clouds, the sky flushed and darkened, the evening star trembled into sight. It was deep twilight when the captain cried out and pointed. My brother strained his eyes. Something rushed up into the sky out of the grayness—rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the gray mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Words: Brad Harmer & H.G. Wells
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