10. Black Smoke.
Victoria, London, 1898.
Monday morning came and went in a curious calm, Dawn watched people go about their business like she expected they always had. It was as if the Martians didn’t exist; this made her smile because as far as she was concerned they never had and couldn’t possibly exist. This, in turn, made her frown.
Looking away from the window she started to get dressed, putting on her Victorian clothes slowly while she tried to puzzle out what had happened to her world. First she considered that this might be one of those ‘alternate realities’ she’d read about. This was a possibility, but if it was she’d not noticed any differences other than the Martians waiting to attack London. Although this was a big difference she felt sure she should have noticed others.
Another possibility was that this was some sort of hell dimension; she dismissed this idea for the simple reason that the world (other than the Martians) didn’t seem or feel particularly hellish. No, she thought, there had to be another explanation. Finally the idea occurred to her that this was her world, her own reality and someone had altered things so that the invasion had never happened. Whoever had done the altering had to be pretty powerful, mused Dawn. Somehow they had changed Mars from a planet capable of supporting life to a barren lump of orange rock.
Looking at herself in the mirror, Dawn sighed, she really missed her twenty-first century clothes. Victorian clothes were so heavy and quite honestly, to her anyway, they smelt! Lack of modern detergents and washing machines she supposed. Well, she sighed again, at least everyone was the same and no one would be holding their nose and pointing at her.0=0=0=0
Going downstairs Dawn found that Herbert had already gone out. Gone to see the council, or so Amy told her. None of the servants had come in today so Amy found she was in charge of the kitchen. After breakfast Dawn helped Amy clear up and tidy up around the house. Everything seemed so difficult to Dawn, it felt like she was doing everything the hardest most complicated way. Something simple like washing up, something she wouldn’t have given a second thought to was hard work here. First boil the water, next there was the harsh detergent that left Amy’s hand’s red and sore looking; there were no rubber gloves let alone dish washers here.
After changing the dressing on Dawn’s cut the two women decided to go out, another major exercise. A woman couldn’t just go out in what she was wearing now, oh no. She had to put on a jacket, even if the weather was quite warm. Put her hair up just so, then put a hat on, a respectable lady couldn’t go out without a hat and gloves, it was unthinkable.
Wearing slightly more clothes than she would have in the depths of a Cleveland winter, Dawn and Amy stepped out of the house at about eleven o’clock. As they walked along Dawn noticed that there were a lot more local shops than there would be in her own time, not for them the convenience of a supermarket. No, they had to go from one shop to the next buying meat at one, fruit and vegetables at another. Dawn was struck by the lack of choice of produce, everything was so basic compared to what she was used to.
Eventually they found themselves outside Victoria railway station. After the bustle and clamour of the Sunday today looked almost normal. Amy said there were less people around than you’d expect for a Monday morning. There were, however, more soldiers in evidence and there were notices posted up on the walls instructing all reservists to report to their local barracks. The number of police was unusual, or so Amy claimed. Plus they were walking around in twos which, again according to Amy, was very strange. After buying a newspaper from the ‘Smiths’ in the station the two women walked slowly home.0=0=0=0
On arriving home Amy took everything they’d bought down to the kitchen telling Dawn to go and sit down in the drawing room. After peeling off her jacket and disentangling her hat from her hair, Dawn daringly undid the top buttons of her blouse and went to sit down.
After fighting a losing battle with the newspaper, Dawn laid its enormous pages on the floor and knelt on the carpet and started to read. She’d only read the headlines when Amy burst into the room with a tray of tea things. The girl seemed incapable of coming through a door quietly if she was carrying something.
Sipping tea and sitting in front of the unlit fire, Dawn read the newspaper to Amy. The major story, of course, was the Martian invasion and the preparations to defeat it. There was a more detailed account of the Battle of Weybridge. It had little resemblance to the battle she’d seen, Dawn felt that whoever had written it hadn’t actually been there. It also gave the impression that the Martians had been thrown back in headlong flight. Dawn’s impression had been that the Martians had been surprised and maybe a little confused by what had happened and had retreated of their own accord.
There were several articles by learned men about what they thought the Martians were like and how they lived. It was all wild speculation as far as Dawn could see, but as she didn’t have any better information she found some of it fairly interesting. The newspaper’s editorial used the present crisis to castigate the government for dragging its feet over Army reforms. It was all well and good, pointed out the newspaper, to have the most powerful navy in the world, if the Army was too weak to defend the country once a foe had landed.0=0=0=0
The afternoon passed slowly by with Amy working out in the little gym at the back of the house, while Dawn went through Herbert’s rather limited magic library. She found little that would help. Dawn had memorised some basic portal spells from her own studies in Giles’ far more comprehensive library back home. She had, of course, several other types of spells on hand. She always had a protection spell ready this had already saved them from the heat gun once. She had a ‘fear and confusion’ spell, but she was unsure whether that would work on the Martians. For other more complex spells she would need the books to work from.
Of course she had her word power magics, this was probably her most powerful and dangerous magic. She didn’t like using it because it was so easy to use, just point and say the word; sometimes you didn’t even need to point. But because it was so easy to use it was also so easy to lose control and let the magic take over. Dawn decided that she’d only use it as a last resort.0=0=0=0
About tea time, Amy got dressed and skipped from the house running down the street to get an evening paper from the boy on the corner. Once again they sat on the floor in the drawing room and read the paper together. It didn’t tell them anything very different from the morning paper. The Martians were surrounded they had no chance of escape, as soon as they showed themselves they would be most certainly be destroyed.
A new story given by the newspaper was the location of other cylinders which had landed. From the little map printed on an inside page, Dawn could see that the cylinders had all landed in a cluster in the south east of England mainly in Surrey. No other landings had been reported anywhere else in the world. A cylinder was landing at a rate of one per twelve to twenty-four hours. Wherever possible new cylinders were being destroyed before they could open.0=0=0=0
Herbert returned home at about six o’clock, he complained loudly and bitterly that the council was run by stupid old men. They couldn’t seem to appreciate that the slayer could not fight a metal monster one hundred feet tall. To suggest that she could somehow sneak into the Martian camp and basically murder them in their beds (assuming that Martians actually slept of course) was equally foolish. However, the idea of Amy murdering them while they slept was one of the more sensible suggestions he’d heard today.
“Is the council staffed by such fools in your day, Dawn?” he asked as he slumped into an arm chair.
“Not really,” admitted Dawn, “not anymore.”
“Then you’re lucky!” resting his chin on his hand Herbert stared unseeingly at the clock over the fire place; it was several minutes before he spoke again.
“Any luck finding a way of defeating these things?” he turned slowly to look at Dawn.
“’fraid not,” Dawn shook her head sadly, “but I’m still looking.”
The clock ticked away the minutes as Dawn and Herbert sat in silence in front of the fire. Eventually Herbert excused himself saying he was going to do some work in his lab. Dawn went back to searching through the magic books for anything useful, while Amy sat and mended clothes by the light of the gas lap.
It was at about eight o’clock when they heard Herbert’s voice call down to them excitedly from somewhere upstairs. Dawn and Amy left off what they were doing and climbed up through the building, eventually they found Herbert on the roof staring into the west.
“Listen!” he ordered as the women started to ask him what he thought he was doing.
Looking off into the west Dawn saw the sun low in the sky it rays reflecting off the clouds in bands of red, yellow and orange. They certainly had some spectacular sunsets, all the pollution in the air Dawn suspected.
“There!” Herbert almost whispered, “Do you hear it?”
“Yes!” cried Amy, “Wot is it? Carnt be funder.”
“Guns!” Herbert said excitedly, “The battle has begun.”
Dawn could hear it now, a distant booming coming to them on the wind. The firing went on for about five minutes and then stopped. The three of then stood on the roof and listened. No more sounds of battle came to them.
“Odd,” Herbert scratched the back of his head, “I’d have expected the fight to go on longer…maybe the Martians are all dead.”
Both Amy and Dawn gave him a disbelieving look.
“And maybe I don’t believe it either,” Herbert continued.
Hoping to hear renewed firing they stayed on the roof until nearly nine o’clock, by which time the sun had set and they could see a red ominous flickering that reflected off the undersides of the clouds. Finally they decided that there was nothing to see and nothing they could do until tomorrow when hopefully they could find out what had happened from the papers. Oh, how Dawn wished for a TV set and modern news coverage.0=0=0=0
Dawn woke up and rolled over in her bed and wondered if she’d been dreaming.
There it was again, someone shouting out on the street, now she was fully awake she could hear the sound of running feet and someone banging frantically on doors.
This time the call was right outside, she jumped when someone pounded on the front door.“BLACK SMOKE!”
The footsteps started to recede as Dawn swung her legs out of bed and stood up, forgetting for a moment that there was no electric light to switch on she stumbled about in the darkness. There was a loud ‘BONG!’ as she stubbed her toe painfully on the chamber pot under her bed. Hopping on one foot she made her way to her door and managed to grab hold of her dressing gown.
The voice and the footsteps were receding in the distance now as she pulled open her door and struggled into her dressing gown. She almost collided with Herbert as he hurried by paraffin lamp held high.
“What is all that confounded noise?” he demanded as he made his way towards the stairs.
“’Ere!” Amy appeared from upstairs a lighted candle in a candle holder clutched in her hand, it seemed Dawn was the only one not to have brought a light, “Wots goin’ on? Carnt a girl get any sleep arahn ‘ere?”
“Someone shouting ‘Black smoke’,” volunteered Dawn.
The three of them shared a puzzled look before continuing downstairs. Once at the front door Herbert boldly pulled it open and stepped outside rapidly followed by Dawn and Amy.
“What the Dickens is going on?” Herbert looked up and down the street.
Nothing appeared to be amiss; the only odd things were the little groups of people standing about in their night clothes wondering what all the fuss was about.
“Load of fuss over nuffin’ I ‘spect,” commented Amy, she turned to go back inside and froze half way through the door, “‘ang on,” she turned back to the street.
“What’s wrong?” Dawn could feel the tension in the air like a living thing.
“People!” gasped Amy, “People runnin’ an’ comin’ this way!”
Almost before the words were out of the girl’s mouth Dawn heard them too. People crying out in fear and the sound of running feet on the cobbled streets.
“There!” called Herbert pointing up the street; he took a step down to the step nearest the pavement, “What the devil…?”
A crowd of people, maybe a hundred strong, ran headlong towards them behind the crowd loomed a great black cloud that rolled in pursuit of the fleeing fugitives. The cloud almost moved as if it was alive, it would send out fingers of inky blackness to cut off stragglers before the main body of the cloud would engulf them. Whatever this cloud was, one thing was for sure once someone disappeared into it they didn’t come out again.
Standing in horrified fascination Dawn watched as the cloud oozed towards them. It tumbled into the basement areas and swallowed up the flickering streetlamps. Watching as the Stygian cloud moved towards them at the speed of a running man, Dawn gasped as the streetlamps were overwhelmed, they flickered for a moment before going out.
The realisation of what the cloud was doing hit her with a clarity that was blinding in its intensity. Anything that entered the cloud would be stifled within seconds, she needed to warn everyone.
“Gas!” she croaked, it was like being in a horrible nightmare where you couldn’t speak or scream.
“Gas!” she said again having found her voice.
The few people left on the street were all gone now having been swallowed by the cloud. She could hear people who’d been standing at their doors further down street choking, their cries for help cut off as they were over come by the poison.“GAS!”
This time Dawn’s cry snapped Herbert and Amy out of their statue like stupor.
“INSIDE!!” Dawn pulled Amy towards the door as Herbert at last sensing the danger ran up the steps.
“Close the door!” Dawn pushed Amy towards the stairs, “Get upstairs!”
She dragged Herbert away from the closed door and pushed him up the stairs in front of her.
“What is that stuff?” he demanded from half way up the stairs.
“Its like gas,” Dawn panted, “it looks heavier than air we should be okay upstairs…”
“But…” Herbert pointed back at the door, “LOOK!”
Turning Dawn saw the gas insinuate itself under the door, it poured through the letterbox more like a liquid than a gas. It pooled on the floor as long tendrils started to seek them out.
“UP! UP!” Dawn pushed Herbert up the stairs before she turned back to face the black smoke she held up her uninjured hand, “PROTECT!” she cried.