Wednesday, 29 December 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Red Weed

EPISODE VI: THE HEAT-RAY IN THE CHOBHAM ROAD

It is still a matter of wonder, to many people, how the Marsians were able to slay men so swiftly and so silently. Many think that they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute non-conductivity. This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. But no one has absolutely proved these details. It’s all fucking guesswork really. You know these television “experts”, though. None of them have got a fucking clue what they’re talking about, but they can’t be seen to be saying “I don’t know”, so their lips just flap for half an hour or so, and everyone comes away with an amazing impression of how clever they are.

This is exactly how weathermen started.

However the Heat Ray is generated, it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light. Whatever is combustible flashes into flame at its touch, lead runs like water, it softens iron, cracks and melts glass, and when it falls upon water, incontinently that explodes into steam.

That night nearly forty people lay under the starlight about the pit, charred and distorted beyond recognition, and all night long the common from Horsell to Maybury was deserted and brightly ablaze. It was a bit like being inside a Pig Destroyer album.

The news of the massacre probably reached Chobham, Woking, and Ottershaw about the same time. In Woking the shops had closed when the tragedy happened, and a number of people, attracted by the stories they had heard, were walking over the Horsell Bridge and along the road between the hedges that runs out at last upon the common. You can imagine the teenage chavs pissed up on cheap cider with “White” and/or “Diamond” in the name, walking along to take a gander at the Marsians.

As yet, of course, few people in Woking even knew that the cylinder had opened, though a messenger on a bicycle had been sent to the post office with a special telegraph to an evening paper.

As these folks came out by twos and three, they found little knots of people talking excitedly and peering at the spinning mirror over the sand pits, and the newcomers were, no doubt, soon infected by the excitement of the occasion. After all, it isn’t every day that you get to gaze at a spinning mirror over a park full of smouldering corpses.

By half past eight, there may have been a crowd of three hundred people on the Common, besides those who had left the road to approach the Marsians nearer. There were three policemen too, one of whom was mounted (which was rather bizarre to witness, but ultimately led to a Civil Partnership, believe it or not). The coppers were doing their best to keep the people back and deter them from approaching the cylinder. There was some booing from those more thoughtless and excitable souls to whom a crowd is always an occasion for noise and horse-play. “Students”, some call them. Others, “Truncheon Practice”.

The late Humid William, anticipating some problems, had sent a message to the barracks as soon as the Marsians emerged; supposedly for a company of soldiers to protect the Marsians from violence.

The majority of people there had a far narrower escape than mine. Only the fact that a hillock of heathery sand intercepted the lower part of the Heat-Ray saved them. Had the Heat Ray Gun Type Thing been a few yards higher, all would have been destroyed in a rush of Hot Toasty Death. The crowd saw the flashes and men falling and an invisible hand, as it were, lit the bushes as it hurried towards them through the twilight. Then, with a whistling note that rose above the droning of the pit, the beam swung close over their heads, lighting the tops of the beech trees that line the road, and splitting the bricks, smashing the windows, firing the window frames, and bringing down in crumbling ruin a portion of the gable of the house nearest the corner.

It was awesome.

In the sudden thud, hiss, and glare of the igniting trees, the panic-stricken crowd seems to have swayed hesitatingly for some moments. Sparks and burning twigs began to fall into the road, and single leaves like puffs of flame. Hats and dresses caught fire.

“They’re coming!” a woman shrieked, and everyone turned and pushed at those behind, in order to clear their way to Woking again. They must have bolted as blindly as a flock of sheep.

I watched all this from my vantage point, and readied my Storm Bolter.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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