4. The Cylinder Unscrews.
Horsell Common., 1898.
After a certain amount of argument, Herbert had left the two women to watch the pit by themselves as he went off to send a telegram to the Watchers Council in London. He also promised to bring back some food and drink as everyone was starting to feel hungry and thirsty.
This left Dawn and Amy together, the girl’s hostility was plain to see as she pointedly ignored all of Dawn’s attempts at polite conversation. Eventually Dawn gave up and an uneasy silence fell between the two of them. They sat on the ground and watched the pit; the silence stretched and stretched until Dawn couldn’t take it anymore, it was so un-natural.
“So,” Dawn began determined to make the girl talk to her, “how long have you been in love with Herbert?”
“WOT!?” screeched Amy, “I-I ain’t in love wiv ‘im! Most def-finitely not…not at all…no!”
“You don’t fool me,” Dawn continued, hiding her smile by looking out over the common towards the still smouldering fires, “I’ve seen it all before; young girl falls for an older man, father figure and all…never ends well.”
Dawn glanced at Amy and saw her comment had struck home.
“So, wot if I do…like ‘im, then?” Amy replied defensively, “Wot’s it got-ta do wiv you? You want ‘im for y’self?”
“Herbert!” laughed Dawn, “No, you’ve nothing to worry about there…when we first met I did think…well, he is quite handsome, but I’ve got to get home so there’d be no future in it.”
“Oh,” Amy visibly relaxed, “an' stop callin’ ‘im ‘erbert.”
“Why?” Dawn replied indignantly, “You do.”
“I do not!” Amy cried shocked at the very idea, “I call ‘im ‘Mr ‘erbert’ all polite an’ proper like. Any way ‘e don’t like it, ‘e said it sounded far too familiar, like you was married or sumfing.”
“Well,” Dawn moved slightly closer to where Amy sat, “what am I supposed to call him, no way am I going to call him Mr Wells.”
“’is old school friends’ call ‘im, H-G,” Amy replied after a moments thought, “you could try that…”
“How long have you been the slayer, then?”
“’bout two or free mumfs,” Amy admitted quietly.
“And you’ve been with Mr Herbert all that time?” the girl nodded, “He’s treated you alright then, you see we’ve read such horror stories about how the old Watchers used to treat their slayers.”
“Mr ‘erbert is a proper gent,” Amy replied emphatically, “looks after me right proper ‘e does, I even got me own room! An’ ‘e’s been teachin’ me to read better an’ do me sums better an’ everything!”
Reaching over Dawn squeezed Amy’s hand where it rested on the ground; she didn’t move her hand away. Sadly Dawn remembered back to what she knew about the slayers of this period. She knew that Spike had killed a slayer in China sometime in 1901. It was now August 1898, so, poor Amy had at most, maybe two years of life left. Sometimes the things Dawn read about in her job made her want to cry.
“You alright Miss?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Dawn hunted in her handbag for a handkerchief , “something must’ve blown into my eye is all.”0=0=0=0
By the time Herbert returned with sandwiches and bottles of beer for everyone the sun was starting to set. More people had come up from Woking and there were well over two hundred people standing about the common staring in the direction of the pit. The lone constable from earlier in the day had been joined by two of his colleagues, one of them mounted, and they did their best to stop people from falling into the crater.
The well dressed gentlemen from earlier had returned and were now watching the cylinder from one end of the crater where the earthen banks thrown up by the cylinder’s arrival weren’t as high. As the sun dropped lower and the sky turned a strange lemon-yellow colour the people around the pit turned to indistinct black silhouettes. Just as Herbert was discussing with Dawn whether they should wait on the common or go and find lodgings for the night and come back the next day; a loud commotion could be heard coming from the direction of the pit.
“Keep back! Keep back!” cried one of the well dressed men as he and his fellows scrambled from the pit; his cries only encouraging people to press forward.
“Come-on,” Herbert’s voice sounded excited as the noise from the crowd around the crater increased, “let’s go and see what’s going on.”
A boy came running towards them as they made their way towards the hole, he stopped and pointed back the way he’d come when Herbert asked him what was happening.
“It’s a-movin’,” he said in a trembling voice, “a-screwin’ an’ a-scrwein’ out. I don’t like it. I’m goin’ ‘ome, I am.”
Pushing their way through the crowd to the edge of the crater they saw that the cylinder was indeed unscrewing, about two feet of bright metal showed at the end of the cylinder. There was a cry of alarm from further along the pit’s edge.
“He’s fallen in!” called a voice.
“Keep back!” cried several others, things were rapidly turning to near panic as the crowd swayed back and forth.
Dawn saw a young man lying against the side of the pit, he started to try and climb out of the crater but every time he made any progress up the bank of loose earth it would give way under him and he’d fall back to the bottom. Dawn felt someone blunder into her and she found herself tittering on the edge of the abyss, a strong hand grabbed her by the arm and she smiled with relief as Amy prevented her from joining the young man down below.
“I say!” someone called in an educated voice, “Help keep these idiots back. We don’t know what’s in the confounded thing, you know!”
Just as Herbert turned to help keep people back; Dawn and Amy cried out in unison; “Look!” they pointed into the crater.
The screw must have come out because the ‘lid’ fell to the bottom of the pit with a resounding ‘BONG!’ like a huge metal saucepan being dropped onto the floor. Turning to join the two women Herbert stared into the perfectly black interior of the cylinder.
“Ooo-er!” whispered Amy.
“Freaking hell!” squeaked Dawn.
“Good grief!” muttered Herbert.0=0=0=0
Even though Dawn thought she’d know better, she was after all a twenty-first century woman, she half expected to see a human come out of the cylinder. Alright, he wouldn’t be exactly like a human of Earth, but generally she thought he (or she) would have two arms, two legs a head, all the usual bits and pieces.
Slowly she became aware of something moving within the dark depths of the cylinder; something greyish, a sort of undulating waving motion like seaweed moving in a current. There was something else like two luminous discs almost like eyes, then after a moment more something grey and snake-like appeared over the lip of the cylinder.
There was a gasp from the watchers around the edge of the crater as more tentacles waved into view. This was followed by the shriek of a woman that seemed to be the signal for people to turn and flee from the strange creature in the crater. Amy, Dawn and Herbert being more used to facing the bizarre and unusual remained on the edge of the pit to observe the creature as it slowly and painfully climbed out of the cylinder.
The little group of slayer, watcher and witch soon found themselves alone, everyone else having run off. Alone that is except for the young man who had fallen into the crater earlier.
“Shall I ‘elp ‘im out?” Amy asked starting to move towards where the young man struggled.
“No…” Herbert watched the creature as it teetered on the lip of the cylinder, “I want to see what it does.”
The Martian was a greyish rounded bulk about the size of a bear, it moved slowly and painfully in the higher gravity of Earth. It glistened like wet leather when the dying rays of the sun caught its quivering, panting form. The monster had a V-shaped mouth with a pointed beak-like upper lip, there was no chin beneath its wedge shaped lower lip. The body of the creature heaved and pulsated convulsively as drool dripped from its slavering mouth
The Gorgon like tentacles, the noisy breathing, the strange and frightening intensity of its huge eyes; there was also something fungoid about its oily grey-brown skin that helped make it appear unspeakably evil. Even as their eyes fell on the Martian their minds were overcome with disgust and dread.
With a hideous sounding grunt the Martian fell from the lip of the cylinder and landed with a soft wet ‘SPLAT!’. For a moment it seemed to just lie there gathering itself for another great effort. Herbert found himself wishing for a revolver or shotgun to shoot the vile beast, he was about to order Amy into the pit to slay the foul invader when a second creature flopped onto the ground next to the first.
The second creature was an exact match for its twin, like the first it lay still for a moment gathering its strength. Then it seemed to notice the struggling youth for the first time. Without any noticeable verbal communication between the two creatures they started to move purposefully towards the terrified young man.
As the two Martians approached the urge to run like all the others who’d congregated around the crater grew until it was irresistible. First Herbert, then Dawn and lastly Amy got up from their observation point and ran for the perceived cover of the common while the young man frantically continued to try and escape from the advancing horrors.0=0=0=0
Crouching in the cover of a gorse bush the three humans panted from a mixture of fear and their precipitous flight. Looking back towards the pit, Dawn could just make out the young man’s head as it bobbed for a moment just above the edge of the crater. For a second Dawn cheered inside that the man would escape and she wouldn’t feel so guilty about leaving him behind. Any thoughts of calibration were quickly driven from her mind as a multitude of tentacles appeared behind him, for a moment they waved in the air. Then there was a scream which was cut off in mid cry. When Dawn looked again the man and the tentacles had vanished.
“Oh Goddess,” breathed Dawn, “what have I done?”
“Not just you, Miss,” Dawn felt Amy’s hand on her arm, “we all should ‘ave stayed to ‘elp.”
Herbert said nothing but Dawn was almost sure she heard the man let out a sob of regret and self loathing.0=0=0=0
“It must have been some sort of fear spell,” Dawn commented quietly about half an hour later. “I mean, I’ve seen things worse than that when I was still Amy’s age,” even to Dawn it just sounded as if she was trying to justify her running away and leaving someone to die.
“Whatever it were, Miss,” Amy spoke out of the darkness next to her, “we did what we did an’ we’re gonna ‘ave to live wiv it.”
“Yes,” agreed Herbert, “what Amy says is correct…no use crying over spilt milk and all that.”
“But…” began Dawn only to be cut off by Amy.
“’ere,” she pointed into the night over to their right, “what’s goin’ on there?”
Although the hour was late, there was still enough star and moonlight for their night adapted eyes to see by. The lack of any manmade lights was actually a plus as it prevented them from being dazzled and losing their night vision. Turning to look Dawn could see, maybe fifty or sixty yards away a group of men walking boldly towards the crater.
Obviously someone had got over their fear and revulsion of the Martians and had decided to try and contact them. A little knot of about a dozen men marched through the heather towards the crater waving a flag from side to side as they went. They were about twenty or so yards from the edge of the crater when a great bright green flare erupted from the crater and lit up the common and brought the delegation to a sudden halt.
As the light from the flare faded, there first came a hissing noise that slowly turned into a humming sound that made Dawn’s chest vibrate in sympathy. As the humming got louder a strange humped shape appeared over the lip of the crater and rose above it on what must have been some sort of telescopic mast.
Suddenly there were screams from the men in the delegation as fire appeared to leap from one to the other as if some kind of invisible jet of flame had been played over them. The men twisted and fell onto the common in hideously contorted shapes as the heather and gorse exploded into fire all around them.
Dawn was vaguely aware of both Amy’s and Herbert’s cries of alarm as the deadly beam swept like some invisible finger towards them. Even as death raced towards her, Dawn tried to come to terms with what she was seeing; some sort of laser weapon her brain rationalised. Her mind also told her that it would be impossible to outrun this finger of death as it swept rapidly towards herself and her friends.
Muttering the words of the spell, Dawn held up her hand as if to ward off the beam just before it hit her. She could hear Amy’s and Herbert’s cries of fear and alarm as the beam engulfed them. Energy flared all around them as it beat on the barrier formed by the spell. The common burst into flame sending great clouds of smoke into the night sky and Dawn felt her strength start to fail her.
With one last titanic effort she held the magical barrier in place until she felt the beam pass over them and continue its journey across the common. At last sure that the immediate danger was past and they were surrounded only by the smouldering and blackened common, Dawn dropped her hand and stopped the spell. She felt more drained than she’d ever felt before from using magic.
She turned to see Amy and Herbert crouched on the ground looking up at her in a mixture of fear and awe, unsure whether they should cheer or run for their lives.
“Hey,” Dawn smiled as she started to sway from side to side, “if I’ve gone all like, totally black haired and vainey, you would tell me…wouldn’t you?” suddenly she felt really, really tired, “Gotta sleep…” she moaned as she keeled over and hit the surface of the blackened common.