by John G. Hemry (Jack Campbell)
Sergeant-Major Richardson paused a moment after he entered the regimental headquarters building. He carefully adjusted his uniform to correct any disorder created by the hot wind blowing off the hills to the west, flicking away a few specks of dust which had been carried by that wind.
Sergeant-Major Richardson had served in every corner of the far-flung British Empire, and not jungle monsoon nor open country blizzard nor the often-barren winds of this highland region of southern Asia would be allowed to disrupt the proper appearance expected of a soldier of Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India in this year of 1898.
Uniform straightening done, Richardson turned an unruffled eye on the sergeant occupying the desk outside the colonel’s office. “I understand that Colonel Allen wishes to see me regarding a matter of some urgency.”
The sergeant, secure in his position as administrative aide to the colonel, finished writing a sentence in the report he was working on before replying. “That’s right, Sergeant-Major. Go right in.”
Richardson entered the office, coming to attention and saluting. “Sergeant-Major Richardson, reporting as ordered, sir.”
“Ah, Richardson. Good man.” Colonel Allen sat behind an impressive desk whose surface was almost completely covered by pictures and souvenirs from all over the empire. Allen had been slightly overweight when he reported as commander of this unit, but after a few bouts with the fevers and other ailments of the region he looked a bit on the thin side. “We have a problem, Sergeant-Major.”
“A problem, sir? Something to do with the men?”
“No, no.” Allen waved a dismissive hand, getting up from his desk and rattling the pages of a message held in the other hand. “Some sort of invasion.”
“Here, sir?” Richardson asked.
“Here, there, everywhere,” the colonel replied, gesturing toward the ornate map dominating one wall of his office. “It’s not just us. Apparently some chaps from Mars, of all places, have decided to invade our world.”
“Mars, sir? I’m not familiar with that country, sir.”
“It’s not a country, it’s a planet. Another planet. Quite a long ways off. You know, the red one.”
“Oh, very good, sir.”
“These chaps from Mars,” Allen continued, “are all over the place, using some sort of machines called tripods that are causing no end of trouble. One of their…” The colonel consulted the message. “Shells. They landed here in shells of some kind. Deuced peculiar way to travel, eh? Fast, I suppose, but otherwise most uncomfortable, I would think. In any event, this shell landed to the west of us. Most of the machines in that shell went south, but one is coming this way, apparently heading for the capital of this district. We have been ordered to deal with it.”
Colonel Allen frowned peevishly at the message transcript, then pointed a commanding forefinger at the map. “Whitehall believes that these people from Mars mean to attempt to conquer the world! Cheeky blighters. Don’t they know that conquering the world is the sole prerogative of Her Majesty the Queen of England? We’re well along with it, and we don’t need some damnable foreigners showing up trying to compete with the British Empire!”
Sergeant-Major Richardson nodded, an answering frown slightly furrowing his own, otherwise militarily-correct, brow. “Could it actually be the French again, sir? Pretending to be these people from Mars, I mean. They are quite devious.”
“Hmmm. Yes. It would be just like the French, and they haven’t tried attacking us for some time now.” Colonel Allen stood in deep thought for a long moment, then glanced down at the message again. “However, according to this, Paris is also being attacked.”
“Could that information be in error, sir?”
“This is an official communication, Sergeant-Major!” Having disposed of the possibility of error, the colonel glanced suspiciously at the map once more. “Now, the Americans. They could be involved. These tripod contraptions seem just the sort of thing that nation of morally deviant mechanics would produce. We were well-rid of the Yanks, Sergeant-Major. Their uncouth manners and uncivilized behaviors would have rotted the Empire from within. Well, it doesn’t really matter whether these invaders are from Mars or some equally alien realm such as…New York. We have our orders.”
Colonel Allen sat down, running one hand through his thinning hair. “Unfortunately, Sergeant-Major, the timing of this particular invasion could scarcely be more inconvenient. Your lieutenant died of the fever two weeks ago, Captain Smithers is still on medical convalescence, and I have an extremely pressing social engagement. I cannot both deal with this invasion matter and attend the Viceroy’s Ball.”
“Most unfortunate and unfair, sir.”
“Quite right. Failing to attend the Viceroy’s Ball would be an unforgivable social blunder. Yet our orders require us to act with the utmost dispatch.” Colonel Allen leaned back and smiled. “Why don’t you take care of this little matter, Sergeant-Major? Take whatever soldiers you need, trounce the Martian blighter heading in this direction, and then see about getting those bushes on the left side of my quarters replaced. The foliage there is positively patchy.”
“I will be happy to see to the matter myself, sir.”
“Very good, Sergeant-Major. Here. Take this message. It has a description of the enemy that may prove of use to you. Dismissed.”
Sergeant-Major Richardson saluted briskly, pivoted in place, then marched out.
Once the colonel’s door was closed, Sergeant-Major Richardson turned to the Colonel’s aide. “Sergeant Meadows, I have been commanded to put together an expedition which must leave without delay. I require a list of all soldiers in the regiment who are not dead, injured, sick, in hospital for undetermined ailments, on detached duty, on leave, or assigned to duties from which they cannot be spared.”
“Right.” Sergeant Meadows opened a ledger on his desk, running a careful pencil down the rows and occasionally making a notation on a sheet of paper. Completing his task, he handed the paper to Richardson. “Here you are, Sergeant-Major. That’s everyone.”
Richardson studied the list for several seconds. “This is every soldier who is available?”
“Every one,” Meadows confirmed. “How many of them do you need?”
“I shall take all of them.”
“All of them?” Sergeant Meadows echoed in surprise. “All right, then. It’s your expedition. That will be Corporal Thomas and Privates Jones, Hastings, Cooper and Smith. You’re certain that you need all five?”
“Quite certain,” Sergeant-Major Richardson said.
“They’re yours.” Meadows began making notations in his ledger. “Let me know when you’re done with them.”
“Certainly.” The Sergeant-Major left the headquarters building and walked straight to the barracks. “Corporal Thomas!” he called. Richardson had not appeared to put any special effort into the hail, but his voice boomed out at a volume which others nearby suspected could be heard far into the Indian Ocean to the south and up to the tundra in the north.
Thomas popped out of the barracks within moments, saluting smartly. “Yes, Sergeant-Major!”
“You are to accompany me on an expedition to deal with an invasion, Corporal. Collect Privates Jones, Hastings, Cooper and Smith. Assemble them on the parade ground. I will speak with the Service Corps regarding supplies.”
“Yes, Sergeant-Major!” Thomas darted back into the barracks, yelling out the names of the privates.
Richardson walked at his usual brisk pace to the supply building, where the front room was dominated by a large desk occupied by a small sergeant.
“I am in need of extra ammunition and rations for an expedition,” Sergeant-Major Richardson explained. “We are to leave as soon as possible.”
The Army Service Corps sergeant serving as Sub-Assistant Commissary extended his right hand, palm upward. “Where’s your signed requisition?”
“I have orders from Colonel Allen,” Richardson said.
“Orders. That’s fine. You have orders and I need a requisition. I can’t issue supplies without a requisition which has been properly filled out and signed by the appropriate officers.”
“Sergeant Forry,” Sergeant-Major Richardson said with great patience. “I have been ordered to meet an invasion force of people from the planet Mars. The Colonel indicated I should proceed on this mission as expeditiously as possible.”
Forry sighed heavily, shaking his head. “Every day it’s like this. Bend the rules, Sergeant Forry. Just this once, Sergeant Forry. It’s important, Sergeant Forry. But if I bent the rules every time someone had a birthday, or had an officer who fell sick, or needed something extra to impress a native girl, or had to go off and fight an invasion from another planet, then where would I be? I’d be violating the rules, is what I’d be doing, and you can be sure that I’d be called to account for it. By the book, Sergeant-Major. If you want to fight these…what are they again?”
“People from Mars.”
“If you want to fight these people from Mars, then you’ll have to do it by the book.”
Richardson could have raised his voice, could have protested further, but he knew that would be a waste of time against a determined Army Service Corps bureaucrat. Sergeant-Major Richardson never wasted time. Instead, the Sergeant-Major walked back to the headquarters building, his face impassive, passing by Corporal Thomas and the four privates lined up beside him with expressions of long-suffering fatalism.
“Sergeant Meadows,” Richardson said as he reentered headquarters, “I require a completed requisition form in order to get supplies for my expedition.”
“Certainly you do,” Meadows agreed. “Never mind the hurry. Who’s on duty? That sod Forry?”
“He’s the one. Is the colonel available to sign the form?”
“Not likely. The colonel will be indisposed by now what with his mid-morning gin-and-tonic kicking in.” Meadows opened a drawer, examined a piece of paper, then passed it to Richardson. “But, no bother. Here you are, Sergeant-Major. A supply requisition form signed by all appropriate officers. Just fill in the blanks for what you need.”
“What about this officer?” Richardson asked, pointing to a blank line.
“Him? You probably don’t need him, but, just to be safe…” Meadows took the paper back and scrawled a signature. “There you are. Looks just like his.”
“So it does. Thank you, Sergeant Meadows.”
“My pleasure, Sergeant-Major Richardson. Give Sergeant Forry a kick in the arse for me, will you?”
The Sergeant-Major paused only long enough to fill in the requisition form, then made his way once more across the parade ground and into the supply building, where Sergeant Forry regarded the requisition form dubiously. “That was quick.”
Richardson pointed to where he had written in his requirements. “It says immediately. I will be back with my men in five minutes to pick up the supplies.”
“Five minutes? Sergeant-Major, we’re short-handed here and-“
“If you look up the word immediately in the book, Sergeant Forry, you will find there is no exception for being short-handed. By the book, Sergeant Forry.”
Back into the sun, Richardson approached his expeditionary force, giving a narrow-eyed appraisal to the five men that brought all of them to stiff attention. “Right. We will be undertaking an expedition. You will all draw full rations and extra ammunition.”
“What is it we’re going off to fight, Sergeant-Major?” Private Jones asked. “Tribals again?”
“No,” Richardson said. “We are being invaded. By some sort of people from Mars.”
“Yes. That is a planet, Private Jones. One so distant that they apparently are unaware that one does not invade the British Empire. We are to inform them of the error of their ways.”
“Just the six of us, Sergeant-Major?” Private Hastings asked. “How many of these Mars people are we supposed to snooker?”
“Just the one.” Richardson consulted the message he had been given by Colonel Allen. “One machine, that is, operated by an unknown number of Mars people. The machine is about one hundred feet high, resembling a large, armored boiler which walks on three long, articulated legs which are flexible in their motion. The primary weapon is some manner of heat ray which can, at a distance, set fire to wood, melt metal and glass, and, of course, kill anything it encounters.”
The four privates, who had begun relaxing on being told they faced a single opponent, were now staring aghast at the sergeant-major. “One hundred feet tall and armor and some heat ray and all we’ve got is these rifles?” Jones stammered.
“These rifles,” Sergeant-Major Richardson said severely, “are Lee-Metford bolt-action magazine rifles, each capable of accurately firing a .30 caliber bullet at a rate of twenty rounds a minute in the hands of a trained soldier, which all of you are. But those are not our only weapons. We also have our Pattern 1888 bayonets.”
“Oh, right,” Jones said. “I forgot about the bayonets.”
“How are we going to use bayonets against a one hundred foot high machine what’s got armor on it?” Private Cooper asked.
“You just leave that to me,” Sergeant-Major Richardson replied. “Now, come along and draw your supplies. We would not want to keep Sergeant Forry waiting.”
With Sergeant-Major Richardson leading the way as they marched, the expedition maintained a good pace until just before noon on the second day. The countryside here consisted of ranks of hills interrupted by highland valleys. The hills were for the most part desolate, marked by bare rock, dirt, withered patches of grass and an occasional scattering of scrub brush. The valleys were better off, with enough topsoil and moisture to sustain villages and farms.
The expedition had passed one such village at the foot of a pass, where the road rose fairly steeply for a ways before coming over the crest and diving into the next valley beyond. As they approached the crest, Sergeant-Major Richardson heard unusual noises in the distance and ordered the expedition to halt. “Hold the men here, Corporal Thomas. I shall conduct a reconnaissance.”
He walked carefully up the remainder of the slope, pausing when he reached a point where the next valley spread out within his gaze.
Sure enough, the tripod machine operated by the people from Mars was rampaging among the farms in this valley. Richardson walked forward a few more paces, taking cover behind a boulder which had long ago fallen from the low walls of the pass to provide convenient concealment for such observers as himself.
He watched for some time as the tripod roamed across the valley, methodically smashing every farmhouse, barn and other structure while human shapes, tiny at this distance, ran frantically about. The sergeant-major noted that the people from Mars did not bother to use their heat ray, contenting themselves with employing multiple tentacles from their tripod to destroy the structures and occasionally pick up a fleeing human who was tossed away like a worthless catch. So, you are feeling rather full of yourselves, aren’t you, people from Mars?
Focusing on the movement of the tripod, Richardson took note of how the long, many-jointed legs propelled the tripod, how far they moved at each step and how they adjusted to changing terrain. The message to Colonel Allen appeared to have accurately described the general size and nature of the machine from Mars, but had not mentioned some things about the tripods, in particular the large basket mounted behind the shape on top and the way gouts of green smoke would burst at sporadic intervals from the joints in the machine’s legs.
After about twenty minutes of close observation, Sergeant-Major Richardson turned to call back. “Corporal Thomas, if you would join me. Keep low as you come up.”
Thomas appeared a moment later, crouched over as he moved to join Richardson behind the boulder. “Will you look at that?” the corporal breathed as he stared at the machine from Mars.
“I have been doing exactly that, Corporal Thomas,” Richardson replied. “Observation of the foe.” The sergeant-major nodded toward the distant tripod. “What are we seeing?”
“A very large and…very dangerous war machine,” Thomas replied hesitantly.
“Yes, of course. But what is it doing?”
“Pretty much damn all it wants as far as I can see,” Thomas said.
“Exactly.” Sergeant-Major Richardson paused as they watched the far-off tripod wade into a field of livestock and select several sheep which were seized by snake-like tendrils. The tendrils hauled their protesting burdens into the basket behind the structure on top of the tripod. The distant sound of bleating cut off, but from this distance Richardson could not tell whether the sheep had been killed or taken alive inside the armored top. The alien device came to a stop, braced on three now-rigid legs like some sort of massive chair perched incongruously in the middle of a pasture. “I would expect they have just acquired their mid-day meal.”
“But how does that help us, Sergeant-Major?”
Richardson held up his right thumb. “One, it means they will sit there for a while during their meal. We have time to prepare our plan, Corporal.” Now the sergeant-major straightened his forefinger. “Two, as you observed, they are doing whatever they want. It is apparent that they know of no opponent they cannot overcome. They will go where they want, when they want, and in general act as lords of all creation.”
Corporal Thomas gave an outraged gasp. “Do the bleeding sods think they’re British?”
“Apparently so, corporal. They think they are British. You and I know that they are not. We know that their self-assurance and sense of superiority is misplaced.” Sergeant-Major Richardson pointed toward the tripod again. “They intend coming this way, heading for the capital. If you were there, what path would you take?”
“Up the road. This road.”
“Exactly,” Sergeant-Major Richardson once more said approvingly. “With that device of theirs they could take any path, but since they believe themselves to be superior to anyone else, they will simply come along this road.”
Thomas brightened. “And we’ll be waiting for them?”
“We will be waiting for them.”
“With our rifles and bayonets,” Thomas continued, his enthusiasm waning as quickly as it had grown.
“Not those alone, Corporal.” Sergeant-Major Richardson smiled confidently and tapped the side of his head with one finger. “We have our brains as well, and even though the Army frowns upon us using our brains in most situations, I believe an exception will be warranted in this case.”
“Are your certain of that, Sergeant-Major? I wouldn’t want to get into trouble with any of our officers by doing any thinking when I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Never you mind that,” Richardson advised. “I shall be doing the thinking, not you.”
“Oh, that’s all right, then.”
“You are to remain on watch here, Corporal. Signal if the machine begins to move again.”
“Where will you be, Sergeant-Major?”
Richardson had stood up and was carefully brushing dust from his uniform. “We will require labor, Corporal. I shall take the men to the village and acquire sufficient strong arms and backs, as well as shovels.”
Sergeant-Major Richardson tapped his head again. “Thinking, Corporal. We shall out-think these people from Mars. Keep an eye out. The privates and I will be back soon.”
The villagers were not especially enthusiastic about being drafted for manual labor, but Sergeant-Major Richardson had extensive experience with motivating the under-motivated. With the help of his persuasive and inspiring words, as well as the brandishing of the five rifles wielded by the Sergeant-Major and the privates, all of the able-bodied men and boys in the village were soon on their way up the road.
Richardson halted the villagers a little ways below the crest of the road, then studied the road surface with careful calculation. Moving from one spot to another, he marked them with crosses one of his feet made in the dust. “Dig here, here, there…there…and there. That is all we shall probably have time for. Six to ten feet wide, as deep as we can get them.”
The villagers looked to their head man, who spoke rapidly in their own language, pointing to Richardson. When the head man finished, his people went to work, digging away vigorously despite the blazing sun overhead.
“What did he tell them, Sergeant-Major?” Private Cooper asked.
“While I did not understand every word,” Richardson replied, “the general nature of his statement to his people was that it did not matter whether they wanted to dig the holes, or whether they thought it made sense. They still had to do it because we were British, and what we tell people to do does not have to make sense.”
“Oh,” Cooper said. “I see. It’s like we’re officers, and they’re soldiers.”
“Very much like that, yes.”
Once through the packed surface of the road the diggers were able to make good progress, but Richardson still watched the sun’s movement across the sky with growing concern.
“Sergeant-Major!” Corporal Thomas called. “There’s more of that green smoke puffing out from that tripod machine. If it were a steam ship I’d think it were getting ready to move.”
“Let me know the moment it does,” Richardson called back. “All right, the rest of you stop digging. Get the cloths over the holes, peg down the edges with some of the rocks from the digging, and dust the tops with dirt. The rest of the dirt is to be spread over the road around the holes and leading up toward the crest. No, no. Don’t tamp it down. Leave it loose.”
The villagers clambered out of the holes, needing the assistance of their fellows to do so because of the depth, and quickly went to work camouflaging the holes and spreading the rest of the dirt. Sergeant-Major Richardson walked among the holes, directing an occasional extra spray of dirt or anchoring rock, then nodded in approval. “That is all,” he told the village head man. “Your lot might want to leave this area as quickly as possible as we intend fighting a battle here with invaders from the planet Mars in the very near future.”
As the villagers fled down the road, Richardson walked back to where Corporal Thomas remained on watch. As Thomas had said, there was a lot more green smoke puffing out from the tripod, much like steam from a boiler being pressurized. “Go back and line the men up just below the crest of the road, concealed from the Mars people in that machine,” the sergeant-major told the corporal. “I want everyone ready to fire upon command.”
“Yes, Sergeant-Major.” Thomas scrambled back to the privates while Richardson waited patiently, his eyes on the tripod.
He did not have to wait long. The tripod abruptly jerked into motion, the three legs suddenly flexible again, carrying the machine in a strange but rapid gliding walk.
Corporal Thomas had just returned, and gave a sound of dismay. “They’re not coming up the road.”
“No,” Richardson agreed. “I suspected they might not, because those who can do whatever they want will not always do what we want. They are taking a shorter though steeper path. We shall have to encourage them to come this way.” He walked back to the crest of the road, seeing the four privates shoulder to shoulder on the other side. “Take your position on the left, Corporal.”
Richardson walked to stand next to Private Hastings on the right of the line. “Six steps, forward, march!”
The six steps carried the soldiers up the hill to where they could easily see over the crest, and as easily see the tripod machine walking off to their right. “Target is machine from Mars,” Sergeant-Major Richardson announced. “Present!”
Six rifles came to six shoulders.
Six shots rang out almost as one. At this range, a hit was unlikely, but the sound of the shots reverberated through the countryside. “Reload. Fire!”
Another six shots. Richardson thought he heard the sound of a distant bullet striking metal this time.
The machine from Mars halted, the boiler-shaped structure on top pivoting. Richardson caught a glimpse of something bright, as if sunlight had reflected on a mirror turning their way. “On your bellies!” Richardson ordered.
The six soldiers dropped instantly, losing sight of the machine as they lay flat behind the crest of the road. Sergeant-Major Richardson heard a strange hissing sound just above him. He looked up, seeing a span of rock alongside the pass glowing white and melting like ice in a fire as what must be the heat ray of the machine tracked along the area where the soldiers had been standing. At the same time the surface of the road along the crest itself melted into slick slag.
The heat ray cut off. To avoid exposing himself above the crest, Richardson held up the small mirror he carried to ensure his moustache always remained properly trimmed. In the reflection, he could see the machine from Mars standing still. “They require more encouragement. On your feet, on the double. Present! Fire!”
Another volley rang out.
“On your bellies!”
The gouge melted in the rock by the first wave of the heat ray glowed white again and more stone flowed like lava.
Richardson took another look using the mirror. “Ah, that did it. Here they come. Back down the road a little ways, lads. Here, past where the holes are. Let’s see. Sixty feet. That should be about right. Corporal Thomas, take Privates Cooper and Hastings and stand next to that side of the road. Privates Smith and Jones, you will stand with me on this side.”
The soldiers hastened into position. Richardson cocked an ear, hearing the hiss and clanking that told the Mars machine was rapidly growing closer. “Bayonets,” he ordered.
All six soldiers affixed bayonets to the front of their rifles.
“Sergeant-Major,” Private Smith asked in a very worried voice, “how are we going to fight that thing when it gets here?”
“You just do as you’re told, Private. Steady, now.”
The boiler-shaped top of the tripod appeared with shocking suddenness, the machine reaching the crest of the road and starting down the other side so quickly that the soldiers could not have run if they had tried.
But the tripod wobbled as its legs slid across the smooth slag its own weapon had created on the crest of the road. Slightly off-balance, the tripod tottered onward down the slope like a running man trying to regain his equilibrium.
Unfortunately for the tripod and its operators, the loose dirt spread along the road offered little purchase for the increasingly-frantic efforts of the many-jointed legs. Even more unfortunately for the invaders, Sergeant-Major Richardson had correctly judged the size and spacing of the holes based on his earlier observations of the tripod’s movement. One leg abruptly slid into a concealed hole. It tried to stiffen to support the tripod, but the machine had been moving forward so fast with its balance already compromised that the entire device tilted forward, the other two legs scuttling over the road seeking a hold.
A second leg went into another hole within a couple of seconds of the first. Swift loss of support joined with the traps formed by the holes and the force of momentum to do their work, the entire machine slamming down to earth, the boiler-shaped structure on top crashing to the road where the soldiers waited on either side.
“At them!” Sergeant-Major Richardson shouted, leaping forward. “Find anywhere a rifle barrel can fit and fire into it!”
From a distance, the armored top of the tripod had looked distressingly solid, but as the sergeant-major had suspected up close many small apertures, vents and ports could be seen. The empty basket on the back blocked access there, but the rest of the top could be easily reached with the machine brought down. Richardson slammed his bayonet into one of the glassy ports. Whatever covered the port wasn’t glass but something much tougher, so that the bayonet only stuck part way in instead of shattering the material. Richardson fired, the bullet at point-blank range finishing the job the bayonet had started, splintering the cover of the port. He worked the bolt of his rifle rapidly, firing several more times into the top structure, hearing the bullets strike or ricochet inside.
The other soldiers were also busy doing the same, some firing down vents and others pouring shots through additional openings. Private Jones had found some sort of tubes along the top of the structure and was busy ventilating their thin metal with bayonet and bullet. Greenish fluid spurted out, steaming in the air, and Jones leaped back with a gasp as some of the fluid splashed his sleeve and instantly dissolved the fabric.
The tripod struggled to rise, but only seconds had passed and the occupants of the tripod were doubtless still stunned from the fall. However, something was reacting to the attack. Sergeant-Major Richardson spotted snake-like motion out of the corner of his eye and hastily brought his rifle up and around, parrying a cobra-like strike of one of the machine’s tentacles.
The heat ray lit off as well, boring a glowing line into the road as it pivoted over and up.
Private Cooper, nearest to the heat ray but to one side, reversed his rifle and brought the butt down on the slightly-protruding shiny object that must be the muzzle of the heat ray. A flash of light and heat tossed Cooper back, followed by a series of bangs and shudders from inside the machine.
The soldiers dropped away as the boiler-shaped top of the tripod staggered upward to just over their heads under the push of tentacles gathered under it, wavering there like a sorely-stricken creature trying to regain its feet. Another crash sounded, much larger than the others, and parts of the tripod’s armored top bulged out from the force of a large internal explosion.
The entire machine went limp, dropping to the ground again.
Sergeant-Major Richardson approached the top of the tripod gingerly, as did Corporal Thomas on the other side.
“Gawd, what a stink!” Thomas said. “Do you think we killed it, Sergeant-Major? Or killed whoever was inside?”
Richardson put one ear to the aperture he had previously fired through. He could hear hissing and popping sounds, but nothing else. “It seems we have, Corporal, on both counts.” A louder hissing sounded. “Step back, Corporal.”
They had both taken several steps backwards when another explosion took place inside the machine, rocking it and blowing out a couple of armored panels that soared skywards briefly before thudding back to earth. Green smoke fountained upward, subsiding quickly into a thin streamer that rose uncertainly into the pale sky.
Sergeant-Major Richardson walked back to the machine and looked in through the gaps produced by the blown-out armor, weaving his head back and forth a bit to try to catch glimpses of what was inside without getting too close to the green smoke drifting upward. He saw odd mechanical shapes, shards of metal and what might be broken glass, and what looked very much like parts of some kind of once-living creature. “That does it,” he announced to the others. “We have defeated the invasion of the people from Mars at this particular location. Well done. It is safe to assume from what I can see that none of the invaders are still alive and requiring medical assistance. Are there any injuries among the expedition?”
“Private Cooper is a bit scorched,” Corporal Thomas said. “Nothing serious, though.”
“My uniform blouse is damaged,” Private Jones offered, holding up his frayed sleeve.
“And yet still you stand before us despite your ordeal,” Sergeant-Major Richardson commented. “We will see about getting the blouse mended. What about you, Private Smith? A problem with your arm?”
“One of those tentacle things grabbed it, Sergeant-Major,” Smith replied. “Right before the whole thing went all knackered. My arm’s sore, but it don’t feel broken or anything.”
“Be certain to have it checked when we return. Anyone else? No?”
Private Jones scratched his chin as he looked at the wrecked tripod. “What’ll we do with that, Sergeant-Major?”
“It is broken equipment, Private Jones. That means it is the responsibility of the engineers. We shall leave it to them. Form up the men, Corporal. We shall return to our post and report our success.”
As the small column of soldiers marched down the road, Private Cooper called out another question. “Sergeant-Major, did you say there were a lot more of those things?”
“Yes, Private. All over the world. But that was the only one near us, and the only one which was our responsibility.”
“Do you think all of those other tripod machines from Mars will cause a lot of problems?”
Sergeant-Major Richardson shook his head. “I very much doubt it, Private. We handled this one without too much trouble. How much inconvenience can the rest of them be causing?”
Literary Postscript: Chapter 18 of Book One of The War of the Worlds has come to be referred to as the “lost chapter” because it was not included in the work published by H. G. Wells. The reasons why Mr. Wells chose not to include Chapter 18 in the final work, and why he destroyed all copies except the one recently discovered, cannot be determined with certainty today. The majority of scholars have concluded that Mr. Wells thought the shift of point-of-view character and location in this single chapter would have interrupted the narrative flow of the book. Others argue that Mr. Wells may have thought the events in this chapter conflicted with the otherwise universal theme of his book in which an impotent humanity is helpless before a foe with superior technology.
It must be acknowledged that a few critics have insisted that the structure, theme and style of Chapter 18 are so different from those in the rest of The War of the Worlds that it cannot have been written by Mr. Wells and instead is a recent “addition” to the book by a modern author who disagrees with the central theme of The War of the Worlds and believes that human ingenuity would not have been powerless in such a scenario. However, extensive and impartial literary critical analysis and deconstruction of Chapter 18 by the Royal Library in London has concluded that these few dissenters (who are without exception not British) have no grounds for their argument.
© Copyright 2014 by John G. Hemry. All Rights Reserved.