Aftermath, by Stephen Sottong
Aftermath, a followup to “War of the Worlds.”
The light flickered. John Strutt, Lord Rayleigh raised his head and glowered at the 14-year-old. “Mr. Butterworth, would you please attend to your duties.” The teenager scampered back to the arc lamp and adjusted the gap of the carbon rods. “I’m sure you find this device far more fascinating than that lamp, but we each have our part and yours is to ensure we have light for our investigation.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy aimed the light at the tube next to the bronze, helmet-shaped bulk of the Martian machine.
Rayleigh shook his head and resumed his analysis. “So are we in agreement that this section of the device is magnetic in nature?”
J.J. Thomson adjusted his glasses. “That is the way I see it. Ernest?”
Rutherford nodded. “I agree. Which would mean that this section of the weapon consolidates the radiant matter and ejects it at high velocity.”
Rayleigh nodded. “And when it strikes an object, it either vaporizes it or ignites it.”
“Lord Rayleigh,” the voice of young Butterworth came from behind the lamp, “we have visitors. They look official.”
“Thank you, Mr. Butterworth. You may extinguish the lamp. Find yourself some supper while we talk.”
The boy left as the three scientists rose and put on their coats. A stout and heavily bearded man walked gingerly across the pockmarked ruins of Hyde Park and entered the makeshift tent that covered the Martian machine.
Rayleigh gave a slight bow. “Prime Minister.” He gestured to his two companions. “Lord Robert Cecil may I introduce you to my associates Professor Thomson and his gifted student Ernest Rutherford.”
They shook hands and the Prime Minister turned back to Rayleigh. “What happened to Lord Kelvin?”
“He was working, as you know, on another open machine trying to determine the power source. He disconnected what appeared to be either a hose or cable. There was a flash of light which blinded those observing at a thousand yards distance. We can only surmise his lordship perished instantly.”
“No one has checked?”
“The people who witnessed the event quickly became ill. They showed signs of being burned not only on the outside of their bodies but internally as well. They are dying — all of them. We have abandoned the area for fear of further casualties.”
The Prime Minister looked down, stroking his beard. “Did you at least find out which hose he disconnected so we don’t repeat the mistake?”
“Yes, your lordship. Lord Kelvin had established a telephone connection with his aides and was telling them precisely what he was doing. They kept thorough notes.”
“So the Martian machine the Lord Kelvin was working on is probably permanently disabled.”
Rayleigh nodded. “That would be my conclusion.”
The Prime Minister walked to the table where the Martian weapon lay, partially disassembled. “Have you determined how this works?”
Thomson moved forward. “The rear portion of the device seems to create radiant matter — a gas heated until it becomes nothing more than charged particles — of the kind Sir William Crookes first described twenty years ago. The forward part turns that radiant matter into a fast moving stream which can be aimed like a cannon.”
Cecil sighed. “Incinerating everything it touches. Can you make it work?”
“Your lordship,” Rutherford said, “the amount of power required to make this device work is unfathomable. The boilers of every battleship in the fleet would not be adequate for the job. Hidden inside this monstrous contraption is a source of power totally unknown to our science — a source of power that allowed them to crash land their vessels yet nullify the forces that should have smashed everything inside — a source of power that has already killed Lord Kelvin and his associates.”
Rayleigh went to the Prime Minister’s side. “And I have more disturbing news. Dr. Lister performed a dissection on one of the Martians and subsequently became ill as did his staff. They’ve been place in quarantine. Lister stated that he used great care in accordance with the germ theory her propounds but still was infected. Since they found no trace of bacteria on the creatures before this, he believes this may be the result of some disease organism the creature ingested as it was feeding on a human which subsequently transformed due to contact with the Martians. He stated that the cause of death of the creature was most likely from a disease it contracted from breathing our air.”
Cecil looked around to ensure no one could overhear him. “I’ve had reports of outbreaks of a new type of ague spreading through the country. That may have been what took our dear Queen. The damnable Martians may yet destroy us just as we destroyed them. But none of you are ill, I hope?”
“No, your lordship,” Rayleigh said.
“Good. Keep working on this. We need it operational.”
“Are you expecting,” Thomson asked, “another attack?”
“No. We’ve seen no further evidence of activity on the Martian surface, but King Edward is to attend a world peace conference in a few months and I want us bargaining from a position of strength. The Kaiser, it seems, sent agents into our country and retrieved sections of one of the disabled machines which they are examining with Teutonic efficiency. The French are attempting to dredge up the machine that was disabled in the channel. The Czar has been working with the Kaiser and the Americans, rumor has it, have their embassy staff on a fishing expedition throughout the countryside to retrieve anything that isn’t secured. The first nation that can make the Martian technology work will be able to dictate terms to the world, and I want that nation to be ours. This is your patriotic duty for your king and motherland. So back to your work.” Lord Cecil turned and left.
The three scientists stood watching his retreating form.
“Your lordship,” Butterworth’s said from behind the lamp, “will you be needing the light again?”
Rayleigh paused a second, still lost in thought. “Yes.” He nodded slowly. “We’ll be getting back to work.”
My story Planetary Scouts was one of the winners of the “Writers of the Future” contest in 2013. Dinner Date appeared in September 2013 on everydayfiction.com and a drabble Friends appeared in the anthology “100 Worlds”. For more information visit my website http://www.stephensottong.com.