In the aftermath of the First Martian War, in the interim between it and what was to come later, England seemed to once again become a green and peaceful place, if one haunted by the terrible events in Surrey that had happened in those early years of the century. Although people hoped and prayed peace had come, they were wrong. Across the gulf of space, plans were being drawn for a return, but before they could bear fruit a terrible discovery was made deep in Holmburgh Wood, one that would tear a family apart and shock the world.
For Robert Holdstock
I never saw Holmburgh Wood before it was destroyed.
To help me imagine it, I have only the descriptions of Walter Jenkins, that notoriously unreliable narrator of the First Martian War, and Zena Gardner, who was at least an eyewitness to the events that led to the Wood’s burning.
Holmburgh is in Sussex, in the south of England. This is old country, older in a sense even than the rest of our venerable island nation. For, you see, it always lay beyond the reach of the glaciers. Even at the height of the Ice Ages past, these southernmost counties were spared the grinding and bedrock-scraping suffered by more northern terrains. Holmburgh Wood in modern times was a tangle of tree species, of deciduous and evergreen mixed in together, that could not, of course, have survived in that form since the last warm interval between the returns of the ice. In the frozen desert south of the glaciers, at the site of Holmburgh, there might have been a tangle of Arctic willows, their roots clinging to rocky ground, bent over by the unceasing wind. Yet the Wood itself survived – with seeds and spores, perhaps, sleeping in the ground until the warmth returned. Survived, with something of its dark character.
I never saw Holmburgh, then, but, as I have followed up this peculiar appendix to the greater tale of the War, I have visited other ancient boreal survivors of its kind: Fetch Wood, Rendlesham – Ryhope in Herefordshire too, with a place name that has some similarities of root with “Holmburgh”. These are uneasy places to visit, dense dark woods uncut and untamed, the trees growing too thickly, the ground choked by leaf litter and lichen and moss, the space itself lightless and cramped where you lose your bearings within a few yards of entering. Places always associated with dread and hauntings and mystery.
Well, Zena Gardner grew up close to Holmburgh Wood in its full, grim flowering: a survivor from prehistory, and untouched by history. The Britons feared it. The Romans drove their roads around it. The Saxons worshipped it. The Normans enclosed it in one of their vast hunting estates.
Of course, there are no woods on Mars. Yet a Martian came to Holmburgh.
As it happened, Walter Jenkins was first contacted about the modern mystery of Holmburgh Wood on October 6, 1907, exactly three months after Mars and Earth had been perfectly aligned in that year’s opposition: that is, the date on which the planets had approached each other most closely, with Earth overtaking Mars in its slower orbit. It was this close approach that had of course given the Martians the opportunity for their invasion of the earth, specifically of Surrey and London. By October 6, though, the last Martian was already dead three months – so far as we knew then – and Walter, having recovered from his own trauma – well, so far as he knew then – was beginning the research that would lead to his own glorious, notorious account of the First Martian War and his part in it.
But he was distracted from this labour by strange news from Holmburgh.
Until recently I, his sister-in-law, knew nothing of this particular incident and Walter’s own part in it. This was despite my relatively close contact with him ever since the unfolding of the Second War. It has only been in my role as his unofficial archivist since his death in August of this year that I have come across his record of the Holmburgh incident. In his house on Maybury Hill in Woking he left behind a great nest of writing. It is probably accurate to say that my brother-in-law wrote, almost every day of his adulthood – save when the conditions of the Wars made that impossible – almost to the end of his long life. And the quality was dauntingly high, if the themes were somewhat specialised. I myself am a reporter, a journalist; I can vouch that Walter Jenkins was no great war correspondent, but he was a valuable if flawed reporter on the condition of at least one human soul – his own.
And, as I said, contained within the archive is a fragmentary account of the Holmburgh events. The Martians, you see, had launched in May 1907, landed in June, and were dead in July. By early October Walter’s narrative project was already known to the public – and as a philosopher with a facility with words he had always had a profile in the newspapers.
And so Zena Gardner, when she became concerned about the Wood and in particular its influence on her brother, decided to seek him out for his advice. What follows is my imaginative reconstruction of their encounter.
As happened to so many families in southern England at the time of the First War – like my own – the Gardners’ lives had been disrupted by the Martian incursion, and struck by tragedy. Zena herself had been stuck in Paris, where she had been studying. When service was resumed after the fall of the invaders she had got on one of the first ferry ships to sail from Calais.
Zena had already known that her parents were among the many lost during those devastating days of Martian attack, a vanished horde not yet even counted by the time of her return in early August. But she felt it her duty to visit their house in Kensington, a shattered district, where they had died. To add to the distress of the survivors, the Heat-Ray left few traces of its victims, so that confirmation of death and the issuing of probate was a challenge, though the authorities were sympathetic. Zena left her details with the police, to be informed if there were any property or papers to be reclaimed – or any bodies to be identified.
Then she caught the train, the rail service itself still struggling to recover, and travelled south and west to Sussex and home. She arrived on a sultry day, the sunlight heavy; it had been a hot, oppressive, storm-laden summer throughout the few weeks of the Martian War, and still that humid heat lingered.
And she returned, she told Walter, to a house itself untouched by the War, but empty of family. Or so it seemed.
The estate itself had been established by one of the Conqueror’s robber barons, a particularly vicious example of his sort, whose line had brutalised the Saxon peasantry before dissolving in a saga of incest and murder. The Gardners who took over the bankrupt estate, despite a name indicating humble origins, themselves were a great trading family of the British Empire, dealing in sugar, coffee – and slavery. In 1907 it was not yet a century since that awful trade had been abolished in the Empire, and the Gardners were not alone in the source of their prosperity. The Gardners themselves were an unpleasant bunch, and much of their money was lost in fratricidal conflict. By the dawn of the twentieth century, though, they were still reasonably wealthy, certainly in property with their continuing ownership of the estate with its hundreds of acres of land – most of it farmed by tenants. Zena’s parents had preferred to live in their residences in London, running the stock trading businesses that in modern times had generated much of their wealth.
Zena and her only brother Nathan were both in their twenties. Zena had gone to Paris to study biology; this was a time, you see, when opportunities to pursue a career in such fields were just, barely, opening up for young women like Zena. When Zena learned the true origin of the wealth that sustained her, she was shocked. She was drawn to socialist and other forward-thinking groups and individuals – which was how she first heard Walter’s name, he being one of the country’s foremost moral philosophers before the Martian War, and notorious as its chronicler afterwards.
Nathan, it seemed, had always been rather duller in personality. A year younger than Zena, he had followed his parents to London where he had made brief forays into the world of high finance – clearly the parents had hoped he would follow in their footsteps – but he had soon returned home. He had always been an outdoors type, even as a boy. Now he tried out modern agricultural methods on the estate, to the bemusement of tenant farmers twice his age. Yet he was a romantic too, with his head turned by accounts of the great British explorers of decades past. As a boy, Zena would recall, he had played at being James Cook or Robert Falcon Scott, bravely penetrating darkest Holmburgh Wood. But he had never gone deep in there – not then.
The house itself had been shut up since the War. The family had engaged two servants, a butler and a maid. When the Martians landed in Surrey the maid had decanted to her own family in Cornwall, and Zena could not blame her for that. The man, Pierce, had volunteered for military service in the few desperate days of the War, when the meagre British Army had taken such a battering in Surrey and London, and in the provinces there had been a hasty recruitment drive. “But the war was over afore I was fitted out in the khaki, Miss,” he told her. “And so I come ’ome.” He was a burly, fatherly local man who had been with the family many years; Zena was glad to see him, and waved away his apologies for the few weeks of neglect the house had suffered.
Of her brother, Nathan, there was little trace.
He was evidently in residence, in theory if not in practice. When she ventured into the room that had been his since boyhood, she found a few clothes scattered on the bed and on the floor – rough working clothes, his city suits hung disregarded in the wardrobe – and a few enigmatic scribbles, maps and notes she could barely read. Pierce said Nathan had been away “in that Wood” for a couple of days and nights, and it wasn’t the first such expedition he had made, the man reported with unstated disapproval.
So Zena moved back into her home. She helped Pierce with getting the house in order again, and visited the tenant farmers, and made trips to the village to collect post and newspapers – those services had recovered quickly after the War, as everybody knows. She worked only slowly through correspondence relating to her parents, and the formalities regarding their deaths and legacy. There was, as Pierce reassured her in her darker moments, “no rush about them things”.
On the fourth day, Nathan showed up.
He came on foot, out of the Wood, along the trail to the house.
This was about four in the afternoon. But in what seemed to be a well-rehearsed ritual, when he saw Nathan approach, Pierce put out a kind of lunch, of cold meat, bread, fruit, red wine and chilled water, on a picnic table.
Zena ran out to meet Nathan. This was, after all, the first family member she had seen since before the War. They embraced – she was tearful, she would tell Walter – and they spoke briefly of their parents.
But Nathan was dry-eyed, and seemed distracted, even in such a moment. His clothes, a rough jacket and shirt and workman’s trousers, were grimy, scuffed. He was unshaven and smelled of damp and mould; he had been out in the Wood for some days. She thought there was dried blood on his clothes, his hands, even streaked on his face. Around his mouth. He seemed gaunt, pale – not from simple hunger, it seemed to her, more as if he was in the early stages of some wasting illness. And even as they spoke of their parents he kept glancing back at the Wood, as if he longed to return.
But he sat down. “God,” he said, tearing off handfuls of cold ham. “Hunting for your grub is harder work than you think. I’m dying for a bit of meat.”
For Zena a kind of deep relief to have him home warred with irritation. “You wouldn’t be cramming your face like that if Mother and Father were still here.”
“Perhaps not,” he said. “Sorry. But if the Martians were still here we’d all be eating like this. Stuffing ourselves when we got the chance. Feeding off scraps, or what we could hunt. Those of us who survived.”
“But the Martians aren’t still here,” Zena said.
He didn’t reply to that.
“What are you up to in that Wood, Nathan? Playing at Speke seeking the source of the Nile, as when we were children?”
He snorted. “You never played. But I am searching for – something.”
“Searching?” A sibling’s natural scepticism cut in. “The Wood is only, what, three miles across? This is Sussex, not Poland. How long do you need to search such a scrap?”
“A scrap? If you say so.”
“What something do you seek, then?”
He eyed her, and Pierce. “Neither of you were here to see it. You’ll have to take my word.”
“Your word about what?”
As he spoke, he continued to eat and drink. “You know I was here, on the estate, when the Martians landed in Surrey. On my own, after Pierce and Mary left. I thought I should stay to support the tenants, and in case you, or Mum and Dad, came home. Of course, nobody knew what was going on, once the telegraph wires were cut and the newspapers stopped. A very scary few days, that was. But I stuck it out. A few times I thought I heard guns, saw the flashes of weapons. But it’s been a stormy summer.”
“That’s true enough.”
“And then . . .”
With his usual forensic care, Walter would date what Nathan next described to the day of the Martian opposition itself: July 6. That was presumably a coincidence – but it was probably no coincidence that this was the day after Walter himself discovered the Martians in London slain by infection.
And Walter immediately knew that Nathan’s account had some plausibility. Ten Martian cylinders fell on Surrey and London in the First War, each bearing five Martians and five fighting-machines. After the War, of this deadly cargo, forty-seven Martians were accounted for (plus one infant, apparently budded on Earth, dead as the rest), and only forty-eight of their great tripods.
What, then, of the rest?
“There was a storm,” Nathan said. “Another one. In the late afternoon it got black as night, I’ll swear. I was alone in the house, watching the lightning dance over the land. Dance – yes, that’s the word. And in that uncertain illumination, I was upstairs looking out of the master bedroom over the Wood, and I thought I saw . . .”
“Movement. Something standing over the Wood. Like a towering skeleton, I thought, all bones and joints. Death, come to Holmburgh.
“Lightning struck it – or maybe it summoned the lightning from the sky. And it fell, crumpled, toppled.
“There was a kind of explosion. It seemed to blast straight up, and I saw what looked like branches and trunks, wheeling in the air. You’d think the whole Wood would catch fire, but no, it died away quick.”
Pierce put in, “I’m told a powerful enough bomb can be like that, Miss. It sort of blows out its own fire.”
“But then the lightning came again, smashing down on – well, whatever it was that had fallen in the Wood. Again and again.”
“And that’s what you have been searching for.”
“Wouldn’t you? Actually, no, you probably wouldn’t.”
She ignored that. “But again, Nathan – why haven’t you found it yet? The Wood is, what, six, seven square miles? And if this object is as big as you describe, and there were multiple lightning strikes –”
“It’s not as simple as that,” he said. He glanced at the descending sun. “Too late.”
“To go back out again today.”
She stared at him. “You can’t be serious. You’ve only just come back – look at the state of you, half starved, bloodied. You look ill, actually. Doesn’t he, Pierce?”
But Pierce, standing discreetly at his station by the door, would not reply.
“You wouldn’t understand, Zee-zee,” Nathan said.
She was growing concerned, and not a little angry. But she said, “What of Mum and Dad?”
“Look, there are papers to go through. Decisions to be made, once we get probate. I don’t think it’s right that I alone . . .”
His expression changed, from that distracted self-absorption. It was as if he saw her properly for the first time since coming home. He reached across the table and touched her hand. “I’m sorry, Zee-zee. I’m being selfish.”
She shook her head. “They left wills. But they weren’t planning to die. And without the bodies –”
“Of course. I’ll stay.”
“How long? And then? Will you go back?”
He shrugged. He didn’t need to reply.
In the end he stayed two nights, before dressing in his country clothes, and packing a bag with food, water, some basic medical supplies (at Zena’s insistence), and a Kodak (at her suggestion), and walking off, across the fields of the estate with their pale wheat and their grazing sheep, back to the Wood.
He was gone many days.
And before his next, brief return, Zena would tell Walter, the strangeness began.
An extraordinary summer gave way, in that corner of Sussex at least, to a remarkable autumn. Or, uncanny – that was the word Zena would use later, when she tried to describe all this to Walter.
Zena tried to keep herself occupied with the business of recovery, as she thought of it. Helping Pierce with mundane chores in the house and garden. The business of the Holmburgh estate had to continue, of course; too many tenants’ livelihoods depended on it. And she continued the process of untangling her parents’ affairs, and she had to make visits to London for gruesome inspections of fragments found in the slowly cleared rubble: a wedding ring, an inscribed pocket watch. There was a page from a letter that appeared to be from her father to a mistress Zena had known nothing about. She crumpled this up and destroyed it, distressed, shocked, resentful at having to confront this aspect of her parents’ own complicated lives, now cruelly cut short.
She felt isolated. She missed her life in London and Paris before the War, although that was all disrupted now anyhow. Her own future was suspended; she had for now to assume the burden of the family. But that was what survivors of disasters always had to do, she supposed. She tried to suppress the resentment she felt, at Nathan for his absences – even at her parents for being dead, an illogical feeling and unworthy.
And meanwhile, as I have said, the world, or this corner of it at least, seemed . . . strange.
For one thing there was the weather, which, even from late August, was unusually still and dark and cold, with barely a gleam of sunlight breaking through a stubborn bank of low cloud, for day after day. There was no wind to speak of either. It was as if, she mused, a permanent high pressure system had installed itself over Holmburgh – and it was only here; if you went ten miles in any direction you encountered a much more reasonable mix of seasonal weather, sun and showers, wind and still.
The air seemed to grow stagnant. When the stubble was burned, the smoke lingered for days, catching her throat.
The farmers too were unhappy, it seemed to her as she took her daily constitutional walks to different parts of the estate. Unhappy and faintly confused. The harvest was poor, the grain swollen on the stalks but dry and powdery when it was reaped. The cows were giving thin and sour milk; the sheep, soon to be tupped, were fractious and prone to panicky bolting.
The swallows and swifts and martins left weeks earlier than usual. Only the crows prospered, great clouds of them gathering unnaturally early over the shadowed Wood.
Zena saw her brother only in glimpses, during visits back to the house that became ever shorter, ever more infrequent. He would fill himself with food, grab a fresh set of clothes, sleep a night or two – he would put up with his sister’s administering to his cuts and bruises, he even let her cut his increasingly ragged hair – and then he would disappear again.
She clung to the memory that they had in fact been quite close as children, given they were only a year apart – in 1907 she was twenty-six, he twenty-five. They had always been somewhat isolated on the estate, and had never mixed with the children of the farmers. Now Zena tried not to be jealous, as she struggled with the still desolating aftermath of her parents’ deaths, while he was free to roam in his Wood as he pleased.
Except that, she increasingly felt, he wasn’t free at all.
At the beginning of October, there was a rash of allegations by the tenant farmers of “sheep rustling”.
Only a few animals had been lost, but with such relatively small flocks each animal represented a high proportion of a farmer’s annual income, and they counted every penny.
All the animals disappeared entirely, save one – and this was a carcass recovered from where it had been hung up at the edge of the Wood. The farmer, as baffled as he was angry, showed Zena how the animal had been bound and suspended by her back legs, and then the blood had run out of the slit throat, presumably into some container – you could see the dried smears on her jaw and upper fleece.
No blame was attached. Nathan’s name was not spoken. But his antics in the Wood were as well known to the farmers as they were to his sister.
Wordless, Zena paid over the value of the lost animals to each tenant. She wondered in fact if the farmers’ angry silence hid some grain of sympathy for her.
The tenants took to patrolling their fields. After a few gunshots, aimed, it seemed, at elusive shadows, the wave of rustling stopped.
It was at this point that, casting around for help, she first thought of writing to Walter. It was the connection with the War, you see: the coincidence of that first fiery phenomenon in the Wood with the ending of the War, and then Nathan’s reported glimpse of a ‘towering skeleton’, what sounded – at least to her, who had seen no Martian close to – like Martian technology, those fighting-machines tall as steeples. And Walter Jenkins was in the news: badly scarred himself from his flight through the Martian killing fields, grave, authoritative, a name she had been aware of before the War, and now reincarnated as a source of commentary and wisdom on all things Martian.
(You might imagine she could have approached the local police, or town council, before a figure like Walter. All I can say is that given my own experience of country bobbies, if she had come forward with such an ambiguous account as she had at that point, her reward would have been a patronising brush-off and a diagnosis as a hysterical woman.)
Walter, however, at the time, though he was responsive by letter, could do little to help. He offered cold comfort with a speculation that there was much about the Martians that mankind had yet to unravel. And he urged her to contact him again, by letter or telegraph, if the need arose.
Some days after that, with Nathan still absent, Zena steeled herself to go see the Wood for herself.
She donned stout outdoor clothes, sturdy boots, loaded her father’s shotgun, and set off along the trail to the Wood.
She walked as close as she could bear to that dark tangle. Near the perimeter of the Wood the ground was oddly poor, the grass giving way to stubborn moss or lichen, even bare soil in places, dirt that looked leeched of its goodness. The Wood itself, at its very edge, looked normal, with saplings pushing through the leaf debris. She recognised rowan, elder, hawthorn, among the oak. But within this outer band the trees, mostly oak, grew thick and old and tangled and dark.
She walked the perimeter – nine miles or thereabouts, it took her most of a short October day. The only sound she heard was the cry of the crows overhead, wheeling against that habitually dark sky – that and her own breathing, her uncertain footsteps. She saw no living animal, and no sign of the tenants’ lost sheep.
But, as she walked, she saw the dead.
Small animals: a fox was the largest, squirrels and stoats, even a badger. They were hung up from the low branches, suspended by bits of tendon ripped from their hind legs, so it appeared. Each of them with a crudely gashed throat; each of them apparently bled out. She did not touch these gruesome relics. When she looked deeper into the Wood, she thought she could see branches in the dense interior similarly adorned, as if with hideous fruit.
And, as she approached the end of her circuit, she thought she saw movement. A human figure. Just a shadow, deep in the Wood, somehow running despite the density of the growth.
Without thinking she pushed into the Wood herself, pressing between the crowding trees, or trying to. She soon ran into a veritable wall of tangled branches and densely growing trunks, and clinging debris under her feet. It felt, she would tell Walter, as if the Wood was deliberately excluding her. Pushing back.
She called: “Nathan! Nathan, it’s me, Zena. Zee-zee! What are you doing in there, Nathan? Come home . . . Pierce has your meal ready whenever you come back. Cold meat, as you like it . . .”
Perhaps it was that word “meat” that hooked him. She thought the running figure hesitated, just as it was on the verge of disappearing in the shadows. And it, he, looked back. A human face, pale, like a lantern in the wooded dark. Was it Nathan’s? The eyes seemed bright, restless. But then he – if it was Nathan, if anything was there at all, and not just a trick of the light or her own imagination – turned away, and ran on, and was lost.
In November the weather stayed dry, with little rain and certainly no snow, but was oppressively cold. Pierce and Zena took to huddling by the big fire in the old family room, partitioned off long ago by Zena’s father to give his wife and children somewhere cosy, in a house centuries old that could “leak like a sieve” in the wind.
Nathan came back just once that month.
He stayed only a few hours, at the end of an afternoon that was already darkling. He ate in the kitchen, almost wordless, and Pierce and Zena had to bring him his customary requirements: a change of clothes to replace jacket and shirt and trousers that were all but worn out, packs of food and medicines. He would not let Zena cut his hair this time, or his beard; the hair had grown out rough, shaggy, thick black. Again she found disturbing streaks of blood on his discarded clothes. Nathan himself seemed still more drawn, thin, pale, his eyes vivid and bloodshot in a face that was white under the dirt and the animal blood.
He was gone before the night closed in.
At the beginning of December there was a new crisis in the unhappy little community of Holmburgh, when Mervyn Chapman went missing.
Mervyn, nineteen years old, tall, gangly, not very strong, was the eldest son of one of the tenant farmers. Rab Chapman, the father, was still, silent, grave, as the police were called and the area was searched, the buildings and the fields. Not a trace was found.
The police penetrated the Wood itself. Zena watched them go in with dogs and truncheons and lanterns and torches, vivid sparks in a dull noon, swallowed by the trees. They were in there for hours, and repeated the exercise the next day. The constables emerged looking baffled if not fearful.
Once Zena overheard a detective inspector growl with frustration at the contradictory tangles that emerged when his men tried to map the routes they had taken in the Wood. She glimpsed these maps herself, and made discreet copies from memory. (Later she would show these sketches to Walter – and later than that he would compare them to mysterious sigils seen by the astronomers on Mars, and in the clouds of Venus. But that is another story.)
Two days of searching yielded nothing, not a sign of Mervyn or indeed of Nathan. The police offered possible explanations. Perhaps Mervyn had simply run away, as farmers’ children will often do. Perhaps he was in Brighton or London, looking for work or love or just excitement. If he was lying rotting in Holmburgh Wood, he wasn’t to be found.
The police presence wound down.
The farmers organised themselves into patrols; they would go out two at a time, armed with shotguns, and march around the perimeter of the wood. Children were kept indoors. Animals were carefully watched.
A few days before Christmas, Nathan came back to the Lodge.
This time he would not enter at all, though Zena tried to coax him with food.
On a December afternoon, then, already darkling at four, Nathan sat cross-legged in the driveway before the main entrance, and ripped apart cold meat with fingers like claws, stuffing it steadily in his mouth. His movements were rapid, furtive, and his eyes were watchful, apparently unblinking. He was so pale.
Pierce kept a discreet watch, intending to deflect any of the farmers who might come this way. Still it remained unspoken, but many on the estate clearly blamed “the loon out of the Lodge” for what had become of Mervyn, and the stolen animals.
“Let me look after you,” Zena said at last. “Me and Pierce. Just like before. You know it’s what they would want.”
He stared at her. “Who?”
“Mum and Dad, of course. Come home. For them, if not for me.” Under the strain of yet another confrontation, her concern easily mutated to irritation. “Or is that why you’re running away? Is this your way of dealing with the fact that they died? How easy is it for me, do you think, stuck here?”
Still he didn’t reply, though his head jerked this way and that, as if he was scouting for predators.
“Night after night you must sleep in the rough. What do you do, heap up leaves? I remember when we were small, and you used to sneak out at night . . . But it’s December, Nathan. It’s so cold.”
He laughed, around a mouthful of torn meat. “Not so cold as in there. Not so cold as it is for them. And they don’t mind.”
She was baffled. “Who’s them, Nathan? Are there others? Are you meeting somebody?”
He laughed again, but would not reply.
“It’s nearly Christmas. Why not come in just for the season? Maybe until after the New Year. We could make the tree. Get the decorations down from the loft –”
He dumped his food, stood up with one lithe movement, grabbed his goods, and was gone, just like that.
But this time Zena was prepared.
She and Pierce had the routine ready. She was already wearing outdoor clothes, a heavy sweater and trousers. Now she grabbed her hooded leather coat, and forced her feet into her stoutest boots. Meanwhile Pierce brought out the pack she had been checking every day, with battery torch, whistle, small medical pack, and food and water bottles replaced daily – and a small pot of bright yellow paint. She was ready to go in a couple of minutes.
As she loaded the pack on her back, Nathan was still in sight, hurrying along the track towards the Wood.
“I ’ope nobody takes a pot-shot at ’im,” Pierce murmured.
“I hope so too, Pierce. And indeed, I hope nobody lines me up either.”
Pierce faced her, grave, more like an uncle than a butler, she thought. “You sure about this, Miss?”
“What else can we do, Pierce? The Chapman boy was the final straw. We have to know.”
“It’s gettin’ dark.”
“It’s December. Can’t be helped.”
He shrugged. “Leave a trail, like we said. And if you aren’t back sharpish I’m comin’ in after.”
“He won’t harm me. You know that much, Pierce.”
“Mebbe. But mebbe he in’t alone in there. He wun’t answer, wud ’e?”
“I’ll watch my step. Is my pack done up? See you soon, Pierce – with, I hope, my brother.”
And with that she was off, haring along the track. She did not let herself look back, to the house glowing with light and warmth, at Pierce’s comforting bulk. Instead she faced forward, staring at the Wood that was a black mass growing in her sight as she ran, and Nathan, a small figure fleeing ahead.
From the beginning the trees seemed to resist her. She thought the thick black trunks were like a crowd of inconsiderate men, their backs turned, through which she had to force her way.
The trees themselves were heavy with age, the squat trunks weighed down by huge branches, and hollowed out by lichen and rot. Branchlets and twigs, gaunt, leafless and tangled, pulled at her coat and scratched her flesh where it was exposed, and snagged on the straps of her backpack. The ground was soft, yielding, a cake of rotting mulch and foul-smelling lichen; it seemed to suck at her feet, and the roots tripped her with malevolent purpose. She quickly tired.
It was dark too, and the last of the December daylight would not last long.
She tried to be systematic. She had brought that pot of paint; with a small brush she dabbed bright yellow splashes on the trunks she passed, every few yards. As she went on, and the dark closed in, she looked back at the line of yellow dots that receded back through the Wood, a track of her footsteps. A way out, and a guide to keep her straight as she pushed on into the Wood.
Which method of navigation worked well enough until she came to the snow.
There had been no snowfall in Holmburgh that winter, not yet. Yet here it was, a scatter of flakes on the ground at first, soon piling up into drifts that would further clog the way. Well, her boots and leggings were reasonably waterproof. She adjusted her gloves, pulled her fur-lined hood around her face, and pushed on, under a big bent branch a little like an archway into winter, and kicked her way through drifts that could be waist high. Still she marked her way with the yellow paint splashes. She knew the Wood was only three miles across – only a mile and a half to the centre. She was making slow progress, she knew, but even so she had no sense that she was nearing the heart of things, let alone emerging from the Wood’s far side. She had her watch, but her sense of time swam; she wished she had written down the precise time she had set off.
Still she pressed on, still she made her marks.
And then, quite suddenly, she came to a clearer space, where twigs and branches had been brushed aside and the snow trampled down, as if by the passage of huge hooved feet. On the trees she saw scrapes on the bark, even lengths of coarse russet hair. It was as if some immense animal, or a herd of them, had pushed through here. At least the ground here was easier to navigate. She stepped cautiously over muddy slush frozen into ridges, following the more open path. The air was colder still, a dry, sucking chill. She tucked her gloved hands under her armpits, her arms wrapped around her torso for a bit of warmth.
Then she saw brightness ahead, beyond the trees. It was as if she was nearing the edge of the Wood, as if the trees were thinning at last. But the light beyond seemed stark, pale grey or white, with none of the muddy green of the English ground that, she knew from her circumnavigations, lay beyond the forest. Not the end of the Wood, but evidently she was coming to the edge of a clearing.
And there, beyond the last trees, before the grey light, huge shadows passed. She heard a soft ripping of turf.
Instinctively cautious, she approached the open space but stayed tucked behind the final screen of trees. And she saw deer.
She thought they were deer. Tremendous animals they were, with muscular torsos and rust-brown hair, and the big males sported sculptures of antlers that must have been ten feet across, chipped and scarred. As this herd moved, slow and graceful as grounded clouds, they worked steadily at the sparse grass that grew here; that was the soft ripping sound she heard. And she smelled their rank animal presence, the dung they dropped.
She cowered back, into the trees, obeying instinct. She had never seen such animals, not in the wild in England, not in any zoo.
The herd did not take long to pass. There were only perhaps a dozen individuals, she saw, including females and a couple of infants, leggy and uncertain. But they had blocked her view of the clearing. When they passed, she expected to see a wall of trees not far beyond.
But the scrubby grass stretched away, into a dense, cold mist that obscured any far side to the clearing, any horizon. More animals were dimly visible through the mist. Great beasts like boulders, wrapped in orange-brown fur. She thought she saw a trunk curl, heard a thin trumpet. And further out, a herd of still more extraordinary animals, though as giant as the rest: massive bodies on quite fine legs, each graceful head with a single horn protruding from the nose. Like beefy unicorns, she thought, and she almost giggled.
But how could this great space be? The whole of this Wood was only a few miles across. She knew that was true. She had walked around it, more than once. Where was this?
A hare popped up, right in front of her, gazing curiously. A very ordinary animal, but pure snow white. Not all the fauna of this place was gigantic, then.
Something broke in her, some dam of composure overwhelmed at last by this flood of sensory experience. Perhaps it was the hare. Gasping, she pushed back into the forest’s shade which, clinging and sinister as it was, seemed almost a comfort after the tremendous vistas beyond the tree line. She could see her paint marks; she could simply run all the way home.
But she made herself stop, think, breathe. She checked her watch. It had stopped. Yet for all the distance she had walked, it still seemed to be early evening. She was looking for her brother, she reminded herself. She had to go on.
But to cross that clearing – even assuming she could find the far side – seemed an unwise course. If the huge deer and storybook unicorns and the rest did not trample her, then the huge cats or other predators which must feed on these archaic giants would target her in their turn.
So she cut sideways, and began to walk around the clearing while staying in the cover of the trees. She remembered how she had circumnavigated the exterior of the Wood; now here she was circling a clearing entirely contained within that same scrap of forest, following a circle that itself seemed much larger than that outer perimeter. “Best not to think about it, Zena,” she told herself, her breath a helmet of mist around her head, her hands and feet growing numb.
She walked on in this fashion until she smelled wood smoke.
She had found another clearing in the Wood, though much smaller than the plain of beasts. This one was dominated by a sandstone bluff, like a tilted block, on top of which only straggled trees had embedded their roots. She could see immediately that the south-facing wall of the bluff offered shelter from the worst of the wind.
This was where the people gathered, near the mouth of a cave, a wind-carved hollow in the rock.
Zena, still in the cover of the trees, crept closer, scarcely daring to breathe. People: they wore bundles of crudely-cut furs, all squatting on the ground, around a heap of old wood that burned fitfully, a tendril of smoke rising up into the cold air.
A slab of meat, a haunch from one of the great animals of the clearing perhaps, lay on top of the fire. More butchered meat lay in the cave, and skins, stripped but bloodied, evidently not yet treated, lay in a neat pile beyond. The sizzle of fat and the rich aroma of the meat made Zena suddenly feel hungry herself. If time was swimming here, how long did her body think it was since lunch?
And the people: she counted eight of them, six men and women, one adolescent, one infant. A small band, a family perhaps. It was hard to judge their height as they sat close together in their circle, swathed in their furs, unstitched wraps that obscured their bodies. She thought the adults were short, stocky, surely no more than five feet tall.
A woman reached over now and began to pluck at the tangled beard of one of the men, picking out bits of meat, what looked like insects. Her wrap fell away, and where her arms were exposed Zena saw how her flesh was scarred with what looked like healed cuts, and a discoloured patch like a burn. And she was muscular, her biceps bulging, like an Olympic shot-putter. The woman’s face, as she worked quite tenderly at the man’s beard and hair, was odd: the nose broad and flattened, the chin receding, the forehead shallow over a heavy brow. Yet she was somehow beautiful, Zena thought. Calm. Strong. Enduring.
Zena watched for a timeless time. They had not noticed her. Occasionally the people spoke, in what sounded like short, sharp sentences.
Then they shifted, as one man left the circle and went behind the rock bluff, perhaps to urinate. Zena was able to see now what the little circle of people had surrounded. In a shallow pit in the ground, scraped out and lined with a kind of bowl of leather, another child lay, a mere infant, unmoving, swaddled in fur. The child, no more than a year old perhaps, was evidently dead, Zena saw immediately, and she thought she could smell a whiff of decay. Yet the little pit was adorned with what looked like trophies: bits of horn and antler, and one complete skull – of a unicorn, she thought, a heavy, horse-like head with a single tusk protruding from the nose.
There was movement from beyond, in the shadows of the cave. Another figure came forward, naked, the body hairless, shivering. He stumbled out of the dark, muttering, and with his hands held out; he seemed to be asking for water. But when he opened his mouth Zena saw he had oddly long teeth – a very carnivorous mouth – a feature that distorted the jaw.
At first, despite the deformed jaw, Zena thought this must be a normal man – normal? of modern appearance, at least – slim, perhaps six feet tall, not stocky like the others but well built: like a rugby player rather than a shot-putter, perhaps. But his forehead was oddly flat, his head misshapen. He seemed injured, his bare skin bruised and scraped, and one leg dragged. Zena was astonished that, naked, he wasn’t disabled by shivering. But his eyes were dull, as if he were concussed.
The group watched him approach, considered his outstretched hands. The adults shared a glance, though no words were spoken. Zena thought she could read their unspoken message. It’s time.
Two of the women lunged at the tall outsider, and wrestled him to the ground. Struggling, he began to scream. Massive fists fell like hammers on an anvil.
And a hand was clamped over Zena’s mouth, and she was dragged back.
A face loomed over her: Nathan’s, of course, gaunt, bearded, caked with dirt and dried blood. He whispered, “If I let you go will you keep quiet?”
She just glared back.
He uncovered her mouth and stepped back cautiously. He was dressed in rags, she saw now, the remains of his clothing supplemented by scraps of fur. He wore his boots, but they had lost their laces – an odd detail. He looked gaunt, wiry, wasted. His face was pale, and seemed to shine in the shade, as if the bone were glowing within.
“Try that again,” she hissed, “and I’ll bite your finger off.”
He grinned. “Isn’t it marvellous, though?”
She longed to punch him. But she turned to look again at the people in the clearing. Nathan had dragged her a little deeper back in the trees, and she had only an occluded view of the camp site under the bluff.
“They accept me,” Nathan said now, peering out as if enviously. “I think. I bring them bits of food I’ve trapped. Hares and such. Once I fixed a spear – set the stone blade back on its shaft with a bit of gum and twine. They do make complex tools, unlike the other fellows – by complex I mean made of more than one thing, stone blade and wooden shaft stuck together, as opposed to just a wooden stick.”
“What other fellows?”
“Him. The tall chap with the bad teeth.”
“Bad teeth? Is that all it is? But the shape of his head . . . And what of these others?” Their conversation was a thing of urgent whispers. “Since when have we had savages camping out in our Wood, Nathan?”
“Savages?” He grinned, looking feral himself. His gums were bleeding, Zena saw. “Not that. Very sophisticated fellows, these, and very successful – of their time.”
Zena was no expert on prehistory, but she had visited the museums. “I think I know what you mean.”
“Neanderthals,” he whispered, as if in delight. “I think they are Neanderthals. The shape of the skull, the jaw, the squat bodies. The very fact that they are living here, in the cold climate that suits them. It all fits, you see.”
“What climate? Nathan, you know as well as I do – or perhaps you don’t, given the time you’ve spent in here – that Holmburgh hasn’t seen a flake of snow this winter.”
“Not outside,” he said easily. “But here, you see, it’s different. Look – everyone says this bit of forest is a relic of the Ice Age. Beyond the advance of the glaciers, never cleared by the farmers. Isn’t it logical that where a scrap of the Ice Age persists, its denizens might too?”
Zena scoffed. “What, in this bit of wood? And for all this time – what, thirty thousand years? Just eight or ten of them?”
“What’s the alternative? After all they could be self-sufficient in here, in this Wood, a handful of hunters. Generation after generation. You saw the herds – I saw the way you came, past the clearing. The Neanderthals were here a long time before us – three hundred thousand years, the palaeontologists say, expert hunters who roamed all over a frozen Europe. If they always lived in small, scattered bands, like this –”
“It makes no sense,” Zena said, abruptly bewildered by the impossible illogic of this place. “This Wood makes no sense. A three-mile forest that contains a clearing five miles wide, at the minimum. Where it snows only here, and nowhere else. Where relics from thirty thousand years ago live on, and nowhere else.” She looked at her brother. “And what of the storm?”
“In the summer. The tall structure you saw, the explosion – the multiple lightning strikes . . .”
But Nathan was paying no attention. He watched, fascinated, as the heavy people subdued the tall, terrified, lone man. “They’re getting ready, Zee-zee. Look, I think we’re watching a sort of funerary rite. They’re honouring the child they lost – I saw it, it got a cough in the autumn, and wasted quickly. And what they will do now – I’ve seen it before . . . Can’t you feel it? Can’t you sense the rightness of it?”
One of the Neanderthal types, a heavy-set man, was picking up a shard of bone that had been sharpened and chipped to give a kind of serrated edge, like a rough saw. The man on the ground struggled harder, if still feebly, but massive hands held him down in the littered dirt.
“You’ve seen what? What is this, Nathan? What are they going to do?”
He grabbed her arm. “You must stay quiet,” he hissed. “They accept me now. It’s taken me months to achieve that much. And this is where I want to be. Where I must be, with them. Can’t you feel it?”
The trapped man screamed, his voice high, boyish. The Neanderthal lifted his blade.
Again Nathan clamped his hand over Zena’s mouth.
The blade swept with a single rasp across the man’s throat. Blood gushed, the colour a vivid red against the pale ground. As the victim writhed on the floor, the Neanderthals stood back.
Then one heavy-set fellow grabbed the wounded man by the ankles, and lifted him up, with one hand, so he dangled upside down over the bowl where lay the corpse of the child. The man, gurgling, his neck spewing blood, thrashed and struggled still – he was like a landed fish, Zena thought, displayed for the weighing. But a sharp punch to the temple by another of the Neanderthals stilled him. Now the blood simply poured out, like wine from a bottle, into the leather bowl and over the infant corpse.
Zena broke away from her brother and ran. He pursued her, calling her name in urgent whispers, but she evaded him.
When she wrote to Walter about this episode, she omitted the details of her own terrified flight back through the Wood. One can only guess at the fearful struggle through the clinging, suffocating forest – the fragment of relief when one of her own paint marks was found on the bark of a tree, so she knew she was not lost – the tremendous release when she at last burst out of the Wood, in sight of the Lodge itself.
And the shock, which she did report to Walter, of discovering once she got back into the house that only three hours had passed since she had left it.
When Walter received her latest letter, he decided he must visit in person.
It was early March of 1908 by the time Walter freed himself sufficiently of other commitments to be able to visit Holmburgh, and Zena Gardner.
He had been staying with his brother Frank, then my fiancé, in London. And, with the rail links in the south of England still under repair, to get to Sussex he decided to take one of the German airships that at that time ran regular if expensive passenger services from London to Brighton and other destinations. Back in ’08 such journeys were still a novelty for the British, and he recorded his impressions with boyish eagerness in his daily journal.
The highlight of the trip was an entirely trivial expedition, led by one of the Hermann’s senior officers, into the interior of the great craft. Walter’s party were led first to the upper deck of the gondola, and then to a series of metal staircases that led to hatches in the ceiling. Up the party climbed. Though they had been warned to wrap up, still the cold of the upper air hit Walter immediately as they exited the heated interior of the gondola, and a couple of people turned back at that point.
Those who persisted ascended into wonderland. The craft was built around a stout metal spine that ran the length of the main envelope, and from it radial ribs supported the essentially cylindrical frame of the craft. But one only got the vaguest of impressions of this architecture, for the space was crowded with lift balloons. It was like exploring St. Paul’s, Walter thought, on a day when the dome happened to have been crammed full of hot-air balloons. The sacs were lit from inside by electric lamps, the purpose being for the crews to detect any leaks or other problems by easy visual inspection. The effect was magical, as if one were in a cloud, glowing from within.
I like to think of dear Walter, his mind as well as his body still badly scarred from his experiences of the First Martian War – he was then forty-two years old – and yet here he was clambering around the insides of an airship like a wide-eyed schoolboy.
And I like to imagine the reaction of poor Zena Gardner when his hired car brought him to Holmburgh at last: on her doorstep, the man who would narrate the most famous account of our first War of the Worlds.
It was early spring when Walter arrived at Holmburgh. Yet, he says, he immediately had a sense of something not right. It seemed too cold. The pretty flowers of late winter and early spring were nowhere in evidence. The fields were bare; the farm animals, the cattle and sheep and horses, seemed sullen, oddly perturbed. And the birds were silent too, he remembers.
Walter was made welcome at the Lodge. He says the servant, Pierce, was grave, rough-spoken but kindly, and Walter was immediately struck by his fatherly devotion to the troubled young woman who paid his wages.
When he was settled, his single bag unpacked – the plan was for him to stay at least one night – Walter and Zena sat down to a plain but nourishing afternoon tea, in a parlour whose walls were cluttered with portraits of hard-eyed ancestors. Walter, when he was less self-obsessed, could be a good listener, and it took only a little encouragement before Zena opened up to him with her account of her troubled brother and his wanderings.
“Much of your detail is quite compelling,” he told her. “During the Ice Ages there were indeed Neanderthals in Britain – in England at least, below the line of the ice sheets on which nothing can live. And though the ice came and went, and the island was depopulated and recolonised over and over, there must have been occupation by those fellows across a great depth of time.”
“But the other – the one whose blood was let – he looked more like a modern human to me, in the body at least. Which I saw naked.” She was no tender flower; Walter says she repeated this word analytically and unembarrassed.
“But the head sounds odd,” Walter said. “The sloping brow you mention. The jaw especially, the long teeth. Just last year – while we were fighting the Martians – the Germans dug up a peculiar jawbone in Heidelberg, which sounds as if it might have been a match for the feature you describe. Don’t be too impressed. Given the sketchy account in your letter, I prepared for this visit by reading the appropriate journals.” I imagine him steepling his fingers and slipping into the comfortable lecturing mode of the self-appointed expert. But he was always well informed, I’ll give him that. “It’s very easy to imagine there was more than one kind of human predecessor running around in the wilds of Europe in those days. We humans must have encountered the Neanderthals. And it’s easy to imagine interaction between the subspecies. Even cross-breeding, as one may breed domestic dogs. Or – mutual destruction.”
She nodded. “They say that chimps hunt monkeys, their cousins, for the meat.”
“That is uncomfortably true.”
“But this was different, Mr Jenkins. The Neanderthals, if that was what they were, looked like brutes killing someone – beautiful.”
He smiled. “Looks can deceive. There’s a chap, you know, I keep running into over this business of the Martians – bumptious little fellow with a damnable squeaky voice – well, a few years back he published a potboiler of a romance about travel into the future. And his hapless hero comes upon two races of devolved post-humans – not under-evolved pre-humans, as your vision suggests – in which the smarter, ugly sort similarly preyed upon the stupider but pretty sort. And the time traveller naturally sympathised with the pretty lot. Yours was an understandable reaction, Miss Gardner. But you must remember these fellows were not human, either of them, despite how they looked. As you said, one wild ape killing another – that’s closer to the scenario. Nothing but nature at work, in its mindless way.
“And speaking of wild animals, there’s lots of compelling detail too in your account of what you saw in that clearing – your scrap of Sussex savannah.”
“You’re laughing at me.”
“No! Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“But I thought I saw a unicorn!”
“You reported your impressions honestly. I think it may have been – if it was anything at all – an elasmotherium. Another beast of the Ice Age. Actually a relative of the rhino, but tall, horse-like, and with a single horn. First identified in Russia. Some archaeologists believe that historical sightings of survivors might actually have given rise to the legend of the unicorn.
“But I’ll tell you the one detail I find most authentic about your account, Miss Gardner. It’s the numbers in your herds: eight, ten, twelve beasts, you said. You see, those cold centuries favoured the growth of big animals, the megafauna, because the bigger the body the more inner heat it can retain. Less surface area per pound of flesh; an elephant can withstand a chill where a mouse will shiver to death. But their fodder is poor quality and sparse, and the land can afford to support only a few such big beasts. And so, small herds. It’s demonstrated in the modern Arctic, and in the fossil record. So what you say is very convincing. Why, the Neanderthals too lived in small, isolated groups, as you witnessed. Made them resilient in the short term, but prone to extinction when a smarter, more flexible competitor came along.”
But she seemed not to believe it herself. She shook her head. “Even now, as I sit here drinking Pierce’s weak tea, I can scarcely credit it all.”
“I believe you saw something.” I imagine him sitting forward, his gloved hands clasped – gloved to protect the scarring from his burns. If Zena had shown any reaction to his poor physical condition, his notes don’t report it. “I don’t necessarily believe that what you found was some Ice Age refugium, a domain of the Neanderthals and the giant elk – it does seem incredible that so much could have survived for so long. But then, something unusual happened to that Wood of yours before any of this started, didn’t it? Which was the reason you contacted me.”
“You mean, the coming of the Martian. If it was –”
“Well, the timing is right, if what your brother saw was a rogue fighting-machine, separated from the pack, its pilot cut off from fellows who were already dying. And as everyone remembers, the summer was plagued by thunderstorms. I sometimes wonder if the earth itself, outraged, was fighting back against the alien infection!
“Now, if the lightning did strike a fighting-machine in the Wood, then the machine could have been crippled, for its ‘musculature’ is a matter of metallic discs and sheaths controlled by electromagnetism. Crippled, and stranded there ever since. Oh, it seems quite plausible to me that a Martian might have got stuck in your Wood, like Br’er Rabbit, Miss Gardner!” He smiled now. “And as for the dioramas you saw, I fancy a Martian would have liked our Ice Age. Perhaps it dreams of the glaciers . . .
“It is the cold, after all, that drove the Martians to our Earth in the first place. Their world is doomed by the gradual cooling of the sun, just as much as ours. Lord Kelvin has proved it; our sun’s fuel is finite, and it will dim like an exhausted hearth – Flammarion says in only thirty million years. We are already in the autumn of the solar system. Now, the Martians have performed planet-scale miracles of hydrology, to bring water from the polar regions to the relative warmth of the lower latitudes – we can see their canals through the telescopes. But the secular cooling of our star has continued relentlessly, and the most ingenious of technological minds must, at last, admit defeat – on that world, at least. And, when they looked sunward, they saw our Earth, green and moist and vibrant . . .”
“But it’s too hot for them,” Zena hazarded. “Now that they are here.”
“Yes! Because they are habituated to the cold, you see. Just as to their world’s lower gravity.”
She seemed to be trying to imagine it. “So there you have this Martian, stranded, alone, uncomfortable, dreaming of cool Mars, of what he’s used to . . . But what has that to do with us, and Neanderthals?”
“Or rather visions of Neanderthals,” Walter said. “Miss Gardner, as I will describe in my forthcoming memoir, during the Martian War I observed the Martians in life as closely as anyone – yes, I still maintain it is so, despite certain critics. And I argue that the evidence I saw with my own eyes of their ability to carry through complex communal tasks, all without a word being spoken, is evidence of some kind of telepathy. A direct link, mind to mind. Why, isn’t it logical? The Martians have stripped away their bodies until they are nothing but mind. And as to how a Martian mind may contact, even influence others . . .
“Everybody knows that the Martians came to the Earth in cylinders, ten shots from the cannon on Mars. And the cylinders were cluttered with junk which they removed from the interiors after landing, to assemble into their various machines, and so forth. But, we have discovered since their demise, there are a few components that were not used for such a purpose – indeed, for which a purpose has yet to be identified.
“From the Wimbledon cylinder we retrieved a crystalline ovoid – it looks like an egg, like some eccentric antiquarian ornament – that was taken to the Royal College of Science for analysis. Crystalline and clear, and filled with elusive patterns of light, that you can see, just, if you turn it this way and that. Glimpses, of somewhere else . . . What’s it for? I’m better placed to guess than most.
“We know that the Martians use machines to replace many of the functions of their bodies: locomotion, manipulation, even feeding, it seems. Perhaps the Martians similarly have devices that can think for them – or at least that aid their own thinking, and its broadcast.
“Why not? If a Martian can speak to another Martian across a few feet, perhaps with some amplification it can reach to its fellow in a fighting-machine closing on London, or even shout back home to its companions on Mars! For the invaders must have had some way of reporting back what they found on the Earth, and we saw no sign of heliographs, or even of the remote-signalling electric devices of the kind Marconi has demonstrated. Why not mind to mind, with a little help, eh?”
Zena thought that over. “So you have a Martian alone in Holmburgh Wood –”
“Alone and desperately lonely,” Walter said. “For we have clear evidence that Martians are social beasts. I and many others saw the Martians come back for a fallen comrade, in the heat of battle. It is logical that it should be so. There can only be few of them, as individuals, and they must be loyal to each other – for they have no family. Freud, you know, speculates about the effect of their peculiar reproductive method on their psychology –”
“They bud, like polyps.”
“That’s it. No sex! No wonder old Sigmund is so intrigued.” He leaned forward. “Now, consider the picture. Of a Martian, isolated, perhaps consumed by a superhuman loneliness of an intensity we cannot imagine – and it is communicating those emotions, or trying to, by the power of the mind, with some technological enhancement. And a communication that perhaps can be picked up, if dimly, even by minds so coarse as ours. Think of it! It is as if it has built a signalling tower in that Wood of yours. Is it any wonder that humans, common beasts that we are, are dazzled by the light? Perhaps even a leakage of that intensity has blighted the feebler living things of the Earth around – the farmers’ wretched crops, their animals. And if you were wandering through a Martian’s dreams, perhaps it is no wonder you report distortions of space and time.”
She pondered this hypothesis. “And the Neanderthals and the unicorns, the Ice Age images?”
Walter shrugged. “It dreams of its own cold world. Perhaps that is stirring deep old memories of our own. Of the ice, of the lost beasts alongside which we ourselves evolved: these dreams are your brother’s, and yours, not the Martian’s. Or perhaps there are greater minds at play. Consider the Wood itself: the ancient trees never cut nor coppiced, their raddled trunks caked with moss and parasitic plants, and with that gnarling and twisting that comes only with great age. The whole somehow integrated, as if the trees were nerve cells in some hideous brain of wood and moss and vegetation. A mind, restless, oppressive, resentful! Or perhaps the truth is stranger still.
“Look – I believe that our analysis of the Martians is sometimes distracted by the obvious, by technology we can recognise if not resist. The Martians are not of this world, you know. They come from a place where things are not as they are here. And perhaps their consciousness, muddled with ours, is having effects that are stranger, and stronger, than we think.”
“Well, if it is so, what must we do?”
He smiled, a distorted expression on that heat-damaged face. “Good question, and to the point. There are times when life reduces to its essentials. I spent much of the Martian War trying to find my wife – or that’s what I thought I was doing. I got rather muddled on the way . . .”
Zena thought that over. “We must go back to the Wood and save my brother.”
“Exactly! I suggest we start first thing in the morning.”
Zena offered Walter the use of her parents’ bedroom, by far the most comfortable in the Lodge, but not yet cleared. Considerately he turned down the offer, and settled for a much smaller room, once a servant’s, but warm enough.
In the morning Pierce prepared an extensive breakfast of porridge, toast, eggs, bacon, cold meat, fruit juices, coffee. Walter tucked in with a vigour that surprised Zena. But only months before he had spent many days on the run from the Martians, and he would never forget the experience of raw hunger; he always filled his belly when he got the chance.
And they spoke of forests.
“Our fascination with the woods runs deep,” he said. “And our fear. Odd when you think that our most distant forebears may have emerged from the forests of Africa, and our closest extant cousins – according to Darwin, I mean the African apes – still live there. Gilgamesh, you know, faced the challenge of the Cedar Forest. The Caesars’ legions came to grief in the German forest, and always feared it. Julius claimed unicorns lived there! Perhaps he saw a hold-out of your elasmotheriums, do you think? And folk tales abound with forests; they are places of ogres and witches and transformations and a slipperiness about time and space.”
“But no Martians.”
He smiled. “Not until now. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a new mythos. Are you going to have any more of that ham?”
They prepared for the hike. Walter accepted Zena’s pressing to take heavy boots, a waterproof coat, hat and walking stick that had belonged to her father. Pierce made up light packs of food, water, bits of medicinal kit, and such practicalities as a torch and even an old flare gun.
Walter had no weapon. I don’t believe he ever used a gun in his life. When Zena took one of her father’s hunting rifles from the cupboard, and a packet of shells, Walter made no comment.
Thus they set off.
Compared to her previous hike, they made slow progress, even along the trail to Holmburgh Wood. From the beginning Walter, bearing his war injuries, leaned heavily on his stick, and soon grew short of breath. Zena was already mildly anxious about the shortness of the late winter day. But she told herself to be patient; perhaps, in the heart of the Wood, it wasn’t winter at all.
Walter remarked on the miserable condition of the vegetation, even given that it was midwinter: the dead grass, the spavined bushes, the absence of birds and other creatures. He speculated on nitrogen deficiency. “Harbinger of the Pasteur Institute has studied atmospheric changes associated with the Martians and their rampantly colonising red weed. Another mystery that will take years to resolve!”
The boundary of the Wood itself, the black-trunked trees thrusting out of the ground like the bars of a cage, seemed still more daunting, more excluding even than before. Walter poked at the trunks with his stick, and made no comment as Zena led him around the boundary to the place where she had entered before. Her paint splashes were still visible, though overgrown with moss and even flaps of new bark.
They pushed into the Wood. The daylight, for what it was worth, was shut out. Walter tripped on roots, and lost his footing when his boots sank into deep banks of moss and rot. But he used a battery torch to light his way, and learned to poke with his stick at uncertain ground before risking it. Their conversation, subdued, was limited to the practical, as they helped each other find a way through, and they made slow but steady progress.
At first, at least, nothing seemed to have changed. Zena saw no sign that her brother had been this way recently, or anybody else for that matter. But she found her markers of yellow paint, even if some of them had weathered more than she would have expected – almost as if the Wood were resisting her attempt to blaze a trail through it. She had brought the paint pot; she renewed the marks with defiant splashes of her brush.
Walter watched her. “I envy your determination, and clarity of thought. I myself feel – disoriented. It is as if the very light shifts around us, the shadows, turning me about. And the smells, of rot and blood, even of burning . . .”
“The Wood doesn’t want us here.”
“No, indeed! But it is going to have to put up with us. Lead on, Miss Gardner.”
At last they came to a place she thought she recognised. She held up her hand to halt Walter, and peered ahead, the shotgun heavy on her back. “Something is different.”
“This is where I came upon snow, last time.”
Walter grunted, and pushed forward beside her, inspecting the ground. “You’re sure?”
“I’ve been following my paint marks. I remember ducking under this branch, I remember it being like an archway, and struggling with the sudden drifts.”
“No sign of snow now. Or slush, or any sign it was here recently.” With his stick, he probed at the ground. “But plenty of this stuff.” He lifted fronds of wilted vegetable matter, raised on the end of his stick. The fronds were blood dark and swollen with vesicles, like blisters. “Have you seen it before? The red weed, we called it. It was all over the countryside in Surrey and London, especially the water courses.”
“Where the Martians went.”
“That’s it. And died out as they did, presumably from earthly infections.”
“It’s not long since I was here. Even if the snow cleared, could it have spread so quickly, grown so thick?”
“It’s possible. It grew mighty fast in the few days it had last year, before the blight got it. But it’s also possible that what you saw before, the snow banks, was just as valid a perception as this, the red weed. Even if the two are entirely different phenomena.” He smiled, rueful. “In my attempts to chronicle the Martian incursion, in the fragments I have published so far – articles mostly for the American journals – I have been described as an ‘unreliable narrator’. Call me an honest one, at least, even if I have had difficulty in digesting my experiences. But in here, you see, I think it’s reality that may be unreliable. Not your memory.” He shook the fronds off his stick, and pointed ahead. “We should go on. I think I see light ahead. As if the forest is ending. Do you remember –”
“There was the clearing with the animals. The megafauna. And then, the Neanderthals’ hearth. It’s not as before.”
“Something different, then. Good! Come on.”
He led the way.
It was only a little further before they came upon the valley.
That, at least, was how Zena labelled it in her head, on first glance. She and Walter, as if by instinct, quickly dropped down behind the shelter of a low bluff, and out of sight.
The dense forest had given way, quite abruptly, to a wide landscape – as expansive as the clearing where she had spotted the elasmotheriums and the giant elks – but there were no megafauna here, she saw immediately. And the ground itself, the very geology, was changed too. She and Walter were at the top of a kind of cliff, perhaps fifty feet high, overlooking a broad, straight valley. The hard, rocky ground under her feet, and the outcrops by the edge, were rust red.
Walter picked at the rock with a fingernail. “No grains,” he murmured. “Not any kind of sandstone. It could be basalt, if heavily weathered. Rusted. Are there basaltic outcrops in Sussex?”
Zena had no idea. She stared at him, and the bit of rock he studied, and back at the wall of forest from which they emerged. It looked a hundred yards away, at least, though she thought they had come only a few paces to this bluff. She was cold, too, but it was a dry, sharp cold, oddly less uncomfortable than the damp murk of an English winter.
She looked up. The sky was clear, where it had been overcast, and the sun was low. Still the morning, then. But the sun looked pale, oddly shrunken. The sky was a deep, deep blue.
And before her was this valley, where no valley had existed before.
Cautiously she leaned forward, and peered out over the bluff. A valley, yes, wide and with a flat floor, and walled by this low cliff, and by a matching parallel line on the horizon. But where the cliffs were rust red, the valley floor was mostly green or grey, for it was covered with a greyish sort of vegetation. It was difficult to see the detail at this remove, but she thought she saw low trees, and grass, or perhaps moss.
And the valley was evidently inhabited.
The main features were a single great building – like a museum, was her first thought – and a canal. It could only be that, a waterway that was much narrower than the valley that enclosed it, that ran dead straight between the rocky cliffs. The land along its banks, perhaps irrigated, was thick with the grey-green vegetation. But the water itself, flowing only sluggishly, was stained blood red.
“Just as the astronomers see,” Walter murmured. “The red waters, red oceans, and grey-green land.”
Astronomers? She tucked that word away for now.
“It looks like blood,” she said. “The water in the canal. But –”
“The red weed,” Walter said. “Or some cladistic relative. Without a doubt.”
As he spoke a shadow passed over them, crossing the sun; Zena looked up, blinking – her eyes were still adapted to the dark of the forest – but she saw nothing.
“I think we are observing generations of technology at play here, Zena. Spanning millennia – or millions of years, perhaps. The wider valley is surely too straight to be natural. I think these basaltic cliffs once contained a much wider waterway – perhaps it was more like a sea way, connecting vanished oceans. But as the great aridity tightened its hold, the way was largely abandoned – except for that canal, whose straightness, you see, follows the rectilinearity of its vanished forebear.”
She pointed to the building. “That looks like South Kensington.”
Walter laughed, surprised. “So it does.”
The single building, not far from the canal’s flow, was big, on a rectangular base, with a roof that glittered, metallic – Zena thought it might be aluminium, and if so fabulously expensive – and before its portico was a broad terrace of some pale pink stone. Masts stood on this terrace, topped with artefacts that glinted in the sun; they were like raindrops, but must be much bigger, she thought: lenses, perhaps.
This was the only building in sight.
“It is like a museum, yes,” Walter said. “Interesting perception. Previous generations would have thought of a church, or temple, or some grand classical building. Perhaps a taste for the grandiose spans the ages. Even spans the worlds.” He eyed her.
She smiled grimly. “That’s another pretty broad hint about where you think we are, Mr Jenkins.”
“Or where we seem to be, at least.”
She looked further, seeking more detail. Beyond the building’s broad terrace was a roadway, itself roughly following the line of the valley, floored by broken stone.
And on this roadway, she saw now, sat a man, alone, cross-legged.
Her heart thumped.
He sat still, apparently at peace. A small pile of belongings was heaped up next to him, and behind him was a kind of frame from which another figure dangled, inert. Zena could not make this out clearly. She later told Walter it reminded her of the articulated human skeletons hanging from a frame that you might see in a teaching hospital – but inverted, with the skull at the bottom, the feet at the top. Understandably, given what she had seen before, she felt unwilling to look more closely for now.
Again that shadow flickered across the sun. She looked up, shading her eyes.
She made out the occluding object now. At first she thought it was a monstrous bird. Around a central, spherical mass, bat-like wings spread wide, flapping and folding; where the sunlight caught them she could see the wings were translucent, and were supported by ribs, like huge, splayed fingers. No, it was too big to be a bird, she realised now, but surely smaller and more graceful than the flying machines in America and elsewhere of which she had read.
And as she watched this object seemed to be circling closer, and lower.
“Whether or not that flyer has seen us, I believe it is descending, towards him.” She pointed to the man sitting patiently on the ground.
Walter studied her. “You know where we are, don’t you?”
“I believe so. And I know who he must be. I think we should get down to him before the flyer reaches him.”
“Agreed.” Walter picked up his pack, handed Zena her shotgun, and looked around for an easy way down to the valley floor.
Where they found that the man, sitting alone, was of course Nathan Gardner.
Zena and Walter approached cautiously, Zena for one keeping an eye out for the flyer.
But she faced her brother.
Sitting cross-legged, his hands open and resting on his knees, he seemed serene, at ease. Yet he was in rags, his hair and beard unkempt, and he was gaunt, as if he hadn’t been eating. She could see the shape of his skull under the skin of his face, the eyes bright, his teeth stained from bleeding from the gums when he smiled.
The wretched creature beside him, dangling from its frame, was long dead: human or at least humanlike, male, naked, and inverted. A kind of cannula, like a tap, was fixed to its neck.
Walter, briefly and with reluctance, examined the corpse; he took care not to touch it. “This is the creature you saw in the cave of the Neanderthals.”
Zena confirmed it.
“Yes, that looks like the Heidelberg jaw, though the body would have to be dissected by a competent anatomist to be sure . . . Tall as he is, I think this fellow was young when he died. A boy.”
Nathan spoke for the first time. “He was an animal, without mind. He could not understand. His suffering was brief.” His voice was scratchy, hoarse.
Zena knelt before him. “And what about yourself? What about your suffering, Nathan? You look scarcely better than he does.”
He shook his head, his smile ghastly. “I have all I need.”
Zena looked around, at the single building, the empty valley. The solitary figure of the flyer, still slowly descending – cautious in the thin air, perhaps. “What is it you have? There is nothing here.”
“Nothing material. But they live like this, or underground. Many of them live alone, physically – there are few of them, scattered over this world – though they like to congregate. For the benefit of their young, especially.”
“They,” Walter said analytically. “You mean the Martians.”
Nathan only smiled.
“Well, it makes a certain sense.”
And Zena, apparently stranded on a slab of Mars – Mars! – stuck in the middle of the family estate, had to suppress a laugh that would have come out sounding deranged, she was sure. “Sense, Mr Jenkins? How can any of this make sense?”
Now the flying thing grounded, with surprising grace. Zena saw how the central mass, evidently a passenger, shrugged off the frame of wings, as a walker might shrug off an overcoat. The wings neatly folded themselves up, to a compact packet.
And the thing moved forward.
Zena had never seen a Martian close up, during their time on the Earth in ’07 (and nor had I). Few photographic records were made of them while alive; artists’ impressions were, according to eye witnesses, notoriously unreliable, giving no real sense of, for example, the graceful motion of their machines. Even the nearly intact specimen which would one day be pickled and put on display in the Natural History Museum had not yet been released from academic scrutiny. And besides, all the time the Martians had been on the Earth they had been oppressed by our planet’s heavy gravity, which distorted their very bodily form.
So, now, Zena had few preconceptions. She and Walter held their places as the thing scuttled closer.
It was big. Massive. The bulk of a Martian has been compared to a bear, and Zena could see that now. But it looked swollen, it was all but spherical and nearly featureless, with little of the articulation and detail of terrestrial animals. Its hairless hide was like glistening leather. It moved with surprising speed and grace, raised up on its limbs, which, sprouting from beneath the body, were more like extended hands, she thought: two clusters of long, powerful fingers, on which it scuttled like a crab. It had a mouth with a V-shaped upper lip, and large, apparently lidless eyes, almost luminous. There was no distinct face; it was as if these features were painted on a balloon. Zena – as I would, when I too came face to face with such creatures – had an odd, disorienting sense of infancy: this was like a baby’s face, hugely swollen and those lidless eyes wide with surprise.
And Zena saw now that it had a kind of plug in the side of its body, another cannula. This was its only equipment – save, Zena saw now, for a glassy object, egg-shaped, that it carried in two of its long fingers. It came to rest alongside the dangling corpse, and with a graceful flick, took the tube which hung from the body, and fixed it to its own cannula. When this arrangement was in place it gave a soft hoot, like a steam whistle, almost of satisfaction, Zena thought.
It was an unexpected, jarring sound in a world that was still and silent. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I’m so happy. Happy to be here. Happy you’ve joined me at last, Zee-zee. It’s all so perfect. Can’t you see?”
Walter stood close to Zena. “How’s your shooting?”
“My father took me hunting. I didn’t like it, but –”
“Remember I told you what they found when they cleared out one of the cylinders? A crystalline artefact . . .” He pointed to the crystal egg that nestled under the Martian.
She saw it quickly. “That is how they communicate. That is how they project their dreams.”
“And if it is destroyed, this ends. I know what to do.” She brought her gun around from its strap, cocked it, aimed.
She jerked back, shocked. She lifted the gun away. “Mr Jenkins? What is it? This was surely what you were suggesting . . .”
“Of course, of course.” He ran a gloved hand through hair that had greyed during the summer of the Martians. “But it’s just that it’s such an – amputation. Think of it! The Martians seem materially poor to us; they have no art, no luxury – none that they brought to the Earth, at least. But what need of art or sticks of furniture when you live your life in the realm of the joined mind? And imagine that deep, intimate contact suddenly curtailed. You yourself so recently lost your parents, Miss Gardner. How can we inflict such a severing?” He sighed, almost wretchedly. “I once dreamed of the perfectibility of species. But even the Martians remain an incomplete form with this terrible flaw, the ghastly business of the blood. And yet, and yet! The magnificence of the vision!”
If you have read his memoir you’ll know this was typical of Walter Jenkins. Such hesitation, such contradiction, at a moment of existential crisis – the anguish of doubt!
But Zena was made of sterner stuff. “Magnificent?” She gestured at the dangling corpse. “This? May I finish it, Mr Jenkins?”
“Do it –”
She raised the gun and fired, in a single movement, before he could object again. She saw the egg shatter.
And the world shattered in turn.
Holmburgh Wood closed around her like a clenching fist, darker than ever and still more threatening, as if in sullen reaction to her act of vandalism.
They were in a clearing in the Wood, but it was only a few yards across – not miles. The canal was gone, the valley, the great house. And Zena could see the evidence of burning: huge tree trunks lay around like tremendous matchsticks, evidently smashed by a preliminary explosion then charred by a flash fire.
The only structure here was a kind of shack, as Zena thought at first, a rough cylinder perhaps five yards across and not much taller, made of plates of some silvery, battered metal.
“It’s like a broch,” she said, wondering. “Like the monuments in Scotland.”
Walter grunted. “A broch of aluminium, it seems. Evidently laboriously constructed by the Martian, from the wreck of its fighting-machine, after the lightning strike that had smashed it . . .”
And the Martian itself was still here. Its flying wing was vanished. Compared to what she had seen before, the Martian looked to Zena as if it had been deflated, squashed, and its leathery hide was scarred and blistered from burns; it breathed heavily, making that hooting sound with its beaked mouth. It was bleeding itself, from small wounds inflicted by shards of the smashed egg. Yet still those babyish eyes were wide as if in perpetual surprise.
Similarly, the Heidelberg-jaw boy suspended from the frame was not as he had been earlier. Hanging now from a branch, not a stand, this was just a boy, lanky, clothed in rough farm gear, drained, inverted, his face looking bruised by the blood flow. Zena knew who this was: the wretched Mervyn Chapman, gone missing weeks before. She hoped that his suffering had been brief.
But she saw – a ghastly detail – that he was suspended from the tree by bootlaces, knotted around his ankles. She remembered noticing that Nathan had lost his own laces.
“None of it was real, was it? The animals. The Neanderthals.”
“None of it. Only the Martian –”
“And the blood.” She turned at last to Nathan.
He no longer sat cross-legged and in repose. He was sprawled on the cold ground, filthy, gaunt. And a cannula in his arm steadily transferred his blood through a transparent tube to the wheezing Martian. “It’s perfect, Zee-zee,” he whispered. “Perfect and eternal. Bliss, for ever. Can you not see it?”
She still had her shotgun. She cocked it and raised it at the Martian.
With a speed that belied its bulk and apparent distress, it scuttled away, diving inside its broch. The feed line snapped, and Nathan’s blood dribbled out onto the ground.
Zena would have gone after it, but Walter grabbed her arm. “No. The fighting-machine is wrecked, but see how it has welded the panels of its shelter . . . It still has the resources to harm us, and Nathan. Come. You must take your brother out of here.”
“Yes.” She focussed on Nathan, who still smiled as if in a dream. She tied off the dripping feed from his vein, swathed his arm in a bandage to protect the cannula until it could be properly removed, and tried to get him to his feet.
Walter called, “I can help if you wish. But –”
“You should bring Mervyn, if you can. The Chapmans need their son back.”
She had Nathan now, his arm draped over her shoulder. He smiled still, as he had at the side of his Martian canal. She looked around for the paint trail she had made.
Then, one step at a time, calm, determined, purposeful, she brought them all out of Holmburgh Wood.
As is the way with all things Martian, it seems to me, the story was never wrapped up to everybody’s satisfaction.
Save, possibly, for the Martian in the Wood itself, as I shall relate.
Nathan Gardner’s return from the Wood, along with the corpse of the Chapman boy, caused something of a sensation. Nathan was whisked away to hospital, with the police in hot pursuit as they began their efforts to unravel the presumed murder of Mervyn Chapman. Nathan was of course a suspect, as the only human being known to have been venturing in the Woods about the time of Chapman’s death. Indeed, as I recorded, the wretched boy had been strung up by Nathan’s own bootlaces. The fragmentary but honest accounts of Zena and Walter were taken with a copper’s healthy pinch of salt: it is ironic that Walter once again found himself classed as an unreliable narrator when it came to the goings-on of a Martian.
There was an investigation, but it was not thorough. The police and other agencies were at the time horribly stretched by the ongoing effort to recover from the Martian assault, and poor Mervyn’s was just one more ghastly death among many, if a late and unusual one. The police did strive to find evidence for themselves, by venturing once more into the Wood. The locals laughed at hearing the whistles of “another lost bobby”.
In the end it was impossible for the most ingenious prosecutor to prove that Nathan had murdered Mervyn; there was no physical evidence, no signs of a struggle or blood on Nathan’s clothes – only that ghastly detail of the bootlaces. The fact that Zena was able to send the family lawyers into battle for her brother was a big help. As for murder by a Martian, I had a sense in those days that people didn’t want to think about such scenarios; the Martians and their incursion were something to be sorted out and tidied away.
By the midsummer of ’08 the police had given up, and the case was dropped. Suicide was implied. Of course Rab Chapman was unhappy with the outcome. In the summer Zena had to move Nathan to relatives in London, for his own safety – Walter helped with that.
And life went on.
As autumn drew in, the harvest from the tenant farms was poor once again, the wheat and other produce swollen but dry and without texture, the meat of the animals stringy and flavourless, the cows’ milk sour. The year ended in another still, cold, snowless winter.
Around the solstice Zena thought she heard activity coming from the Wood, its very heart. Heard a kind of hammering. Saw a green glow, eerie and unearthly.
The spring produce grew bad once again, and it was another poor year for the lambing.
In April Rab Chapman led a number of the farmers into the Wood, in force this time. It turned out they had got hold of grenades, from some cache abandoned in Surrey during the military’s retreat from the Martians and purloined through the black market. One man came out with his hand blown off, the stump tied off with a leather belt. The Wood was unharmed.
The second anniversary of the Martian landings in Surrey came and went without incident. The farmers grumbled their way through another bad year; some drifted away for good.
That autumn brought a revived national awareness of the Martian threat. Close oppositions of Mars come in clusters and with varying distances, for obscure astronomical reasons to do with the fact that the orbits of the planets are not perfect circles – but clearly the closer the approach of the planets the easier it is to cross the gulf between them. The closest encounter of the current cluster, called a “perihelic” opposition, was not in fact ’07 when the invasion of Surrey came, but in 1909 – on September 24, in fact. As that date approached there was much speculation, irresponsible and otherwise, about whether the Martians would use the encounter to come over and have another go.
Like every other sensible person in Britain, when the day came Zena found herself watching the sky.
But her gaze was drawn to the Wood, that black mass on her horizon, and she thought of the Martian in there watching the sky as she was. Two species joined in astronomy. And joined in another way: the Martian, isolated from its fellows by the destruction of the crystal egg, was as alone as she was, in this house without a family.
She was rewarded in this vigil, but not as she had expected.
Later, Walter Jenkins explained it all to me. He is one for being wise after the event.
To cross space, a Martian, we know, needs protection and a means of propulsion. The invaders in ’07 came in cylindrical hulls, powered by expulsion from a vast cannon on the surface of Mars. Well, then, imagine constructing a smaller cylinder from the shell of a wrecked fighting-machine. Make it big enough for a single passenger, just one Martian, together with whatever supplies it needs to survive the journey. Give it a Heat-Ray engine as the basis of some propulsion system – and in the War Walter himself had seen how much energy such engines contain, when one of them, downed, had flash-boiled a long stretch of the River Thames at Shepperton, an incident that left Walter himself parboiled and scarred for life.
Give it a perihelic opposition, the closest approach of the worlds for another fifteen years –
From Zena’s point of view it was a tremendous explosion, at the very heart of the Wood, at precisely midnight. By a green glare she thought she saw trunks wheeling out, whole ancient trees uprooted, among a hail of shards and splinters and loose branches. And she saw a brilliant spot of light climb up and out of the Wood and up, up into the sky, flashing green as it went. “A meteorite in reverse,” she wrote to Walter.
On the ground, the Wood began to burn, at last.
The years have worn away since then.
The Wood was destroyed by the fire, and by the farmers. When the fire had burned out, the remnant stumps were blown out with dynamite, the ground ploughed over, the land broken up into fields. I am told the yield is poor, though, whether pastoral or arable, and workers are reluctant to stay long.
Has the Martian gone home? If it ever really existed, I find it hard to begrudge that interplanetary Crusoe a safe passage. By its lights, as Walter will explain to you, it did nothing wrong. For we are vermin to it, feedstock at best.
Zena Gardner went on to study Martian biology, in fact under Harbinger at the Pasteur. She never married. She has remained politically active. She has continued to care for her brother. Like many bereaved survivors of the Wars, she has found it hard to come to terms with the loss of her parents with no trace of their bodies ever found. She finds some comfort at the Tomb of the Vanished Soldier in London. All this I know from brief meetings when researching this account.
And she has emerged as something of a prophet. Zena is the first witness I have met who associates the Martians, not with heat, but with the cold, their true domain. “The Martians invaded the Earth in the hot summer of 1907,” she said to me in one of our talks. “I learned in the course of my studies with Professor Harbinger that we live in an interglacial period. That is, the Ice Ages are not just a thing of the past – the glaciers may come again, in the future. The forgotten enemy! And if so, perhaps then the Martians too will return, to an Earth made more like Mars.”
In fact, as everyone knows, they returned sooner than that.
Over the years I have made attempts to assemble my brother-in-law’s notes into some semblance of unity. But in the end I may have to abandon this Sisyphean task – a gift for future generations! Instead I offer the world such fragments as this, which may shed some light on a man who will always, I suspect, be a better-known chronicler of our extraordinary age than I could ever be.
For the record I am my brother-in-law’s literary executor. Walter Jenkins’ manuscript archives have been gifted to the care of the International Walter Jenkins Society, and are available for scholarly study at the University of Illinois.
—JULIE ELPHINSTONE, Paris, December 1946.
“The Martian in the Wood” copyright © 2017 by Stephen Baxter
Art copyright © 2017 by Mark Smith