Wednesday, 15 December 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Weed

CHAPTER V: THE HEAT-RAY

After the glimpse I had of the Marsians emerging from their cylinder, I remained standing knee-deep in the heather, gazing a gazely stare at the mound that hid them.

I did not go back towards the pit, but I was keen to take a butcher’s at what was a happening in there. I began walking in a big curve, seeking a good vantage point. Once a leash of thin black whips, like a untangled liquorice Catherine Wheel, flashed across the sunset and were immediately withdrawn. Shortly afterwards a thin pole rose up, joint by joint. At the top was a circular disk that spun with a wobbling motion. What could be going on there? Had we been invaded by a Kinder Surprise?

Most of the spectators had gathered in two groups; this suited me fine. Let them draw fire, if they wanted. One man approached me. He was, apparently, a “neighbour” of mine, though I did not know his name. My hand fastened around my Vortex Grenade.

“What ugly brutes!” he said. “Good God! What ugly brutes!” He repeated this over and over again.

“Did you see a bloke in the pit?” I asked. “Skinny fellow. Really into screaming and waving.”

My neighbour made no answer. We silently stood watching the pit for a while side by side. I shifted my position to a little knoll that gave me the advantage of a yard or more of elevation after he tried putting his hand in my back pocket.

The sunset faded to twilight before anything further happened. The crowd far away on the left seemed to grow, and I heard now a faint murmur from it. The little knot of people on the other side dispersed.

There was scarcely any movement from the pit.

This gave people courage, and I suppose new arrivals from Woking also helped. At any rate, as the dusk came on, a slow movement began. A movement that seemed to gather force as the stillness of the evening about the cylinder remained unbroken. People would advance in twos and threes, stop, watch, and advance again, spreading out as they did so in a thin irregular crescent that promised to enclose the pit in its attenuated horns. I, too, began to move towards the pit.

Some cabmen and others had walked boldly into the sand pits, and heard the clatter of hoofs and the grinding of wheels. Within thirty yards of the pit, advancing from the direction of Horsell, I noted a tiny knot of men, the foremost of whom was waving a white flag.

Brilliant. They came over here, killed a shopkeeper, and now we were going to surrender.

Apprently, there had been a hasty consultation, and since the Marsians were evidently intelligent creatures, it had been resolved to show them, by approaching them with signals, that we too were intelligent. Why the signal had to be the worldwide signal for surrender rather than, say, the cover of Moving Pictures, remained a mystery.

I spotted Humid William and Aryan Odinson as two of the three flag wavers. Suddenly there was a flash of light, and a quantity of luminous greenish smoke came out of the pit in three distinct puffs, which drove up, one after the other, straight into the still air.

This smoke was so bright that the deep blue sky overhead and common towards Chertsey seemed to darken as these puffs arose, and to remain the darker after their dispersal. At the same time a faint hissing sound became audible. I checked my python, Basil, but he seemed fine.

Beyond the pit stood the little wedge of people with the white flag at its apex, stopped momentarily by the smoke. Slowly the hissing passed into a humming, into a long, loud, droning noise. I checked my python, Basil, to see if he had taken up the bagpipes again, but he seemed fine.

Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit, and the ghost of a beam of light seemed to flicker out from it.

Forthwith flashes of flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet interrupted them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

Then, I saw them staggering and falling, and their supporters turning to run.

I cocked my Storm Bolter, not as yet realising that this was hottoastydeath leaping from man to man in that distant crowd. All I felt was that it was something very strange. An almost noiseless and blinding flash of light, and a man fell headlong and lay still; and as the unseen shaft of heat passed over them, pine trees burst into fire, and every dry furze bush became with one dull thud a mass of flames.

The Flaming Death was sweeping round swiftly and steadily. I spotted it coming towards me by the flashing bushes it touched, and was too astounded and awesomeified to stir. I heard the crackle of fire in the sand pits and the sudden squeal of a horse that was as suddenly stilled. It was as if an invisible yet intensely heated wang were drawn through the heather between me and the Marsians.

Something fell with a crash far away to the left where the road from Woking station opens out on the common. The hissing and humming ceased, and the black, dome-like object sank slowly out of sight into the pit. Basil was fine.

All this had happened with such swiftness that I had stood motionless, dazzled by the flashes of light. Had that death swept through a full circle, it must inevitably have slain me in my surprise. But it passed and spared me, adding further weight to my secret belief that I was the second coming of Christ.

The common seemed pitch black, and suddenly void of men. The stars were mustering overhead, and in the west the sky was still a pale, bright, almost greenish blue. The Marsians and their appliances were altogether invisible, save for that thin mast upon which their restless mirror wobbled. Patches of bush and isolated trees here and there smoked and glowed still, and the houses towards Woking station were sending up spires of flame into the stillness of the evening air.

The little group of black specks with the flag of white had been swept out of existence, and the stillness of the evening, so it seemed to me, had scarcely been broken.

It came to me that I was upon this dark common, helpless, unprotected, and alone. Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came — the realisation that Humid William was dead. We had never been friends, and, in many ways, I had actually hated his stupid face and horrendous body odour. And his shift pinching. And his habit of spitting bits of egg sandwich in my face whilst he talked. But it didn’t seem fair. He should have perished by my hand, dammit!

And so, I swore revenge upon the Marsians.

TO BE CONTINUED...

No comments:

Post a comment