Friday, July 10, 2009

Roughing It During the Martian Invasion

By Daniel Keys Moran And Jodi Moran

...this is a matter for thought, and for serious thought. And it is full of a grim suggestion; that we are not as important, perhaps, as we had all along supposed we were.
—Mark Twain, “Man’s Place in the Animal World.”

We were on the open sea, returning from Britain; and despite the odd shower of meteorites we had seen over the previous week, nothing in our prior experience had led us to anticipate Martians.

“By God,” the dwarf exclaimed, in an accent I had not heard him use before. “Would you look at that!”

I looked only at the dwarf, my eyebrows pulling together in a frown. We stood side by side at the forward bow of the Minnehaha; and we had been gazing, previously, at the dark smudge that would become New York City.

This is, I suppose, what comes of traveling in a ship called the Minnehaha. There had been nothing humorous about the trip and the only small thing I had encountered had been the dwarf.

“Ah.” The dwarf resumed his phony accent. “You missed it. It is gone.”

“You, sir, are a low-down dirty Cajun liar.”

The dwarf, who went by the name of Francois Maitrot, turned to me. “And you are not a liar?”

“I’m a storyteller.” I added quickly, lest the dwarf, a tricky fellow, tried to equate ‘storyteller’ with liar. “I get paid for my stories.”

Francois Maitroit’s eyes twinkled. “To tell the truth, Monsieur, I usually get paid for mine, too.”

When the dwarf said “the truth,” it came out as a flatly Louisiana Cajun “de trut,” as opposed to the lisping Parisian “ze tooth” he had been using over the course of our two week voyage from England.

I shook my head. “I’m baffled, Mr. Maitroit. Why would any man of worth choose to pass himself off as a bloody Frenchman?” I had, through much of the long ocean journey, suspected that the small man was some kind of con man—but by God, what was wrong with being an American con man?

“It’s the British.” The dwarf shrugged. “One makes far more money, dealing with the British, presenting oneself as a gentleman of noble French extraction, than one makes as a banjo-playing Louisianan dwarf—I’ve tried both routes.”

From behind us, Livy asked, “You play the banjo?”

It was typical of my wife that she had ignored every other aspect of the conversation she had overheard; Francois and I turned from the railing. “All Louisianans play the banjo,” Francois assured her.

“Of course they do.” Livy smiled at the small man.

I did not much approve of the friendship that had sprung up between the Cajun and my wife. Other men’s wives made friends with other men’s wives, but not Livy. We were traveling together, we Clemenses, Olivia and myself and our daughters, the lights of my life, Clara and Jean—and still Livy, in a spare two weeks, despite the attentions and company of our daughters, had arranged to take a liking to a four-foot tall lying card sharp of French descent.

Livy said to me, “Did you see that?”

“See what, my dear?”

“Well, it was like a spider, with very long legs, but made of metal, and it was skating across the top of the water.”

“No,” Francois answered for me. “He missed it. I told him to look, but he didn’t.”

“He’s a willful man,” Livy conceded. “Pity—it was skating quite well. Quite quickly.”

I sighed. “I did not see it, dear.”

“Oh, well.” She smiled at me. “It was headed toward New York. Perhaps we’ll get another chance to see it there.”

*

We did not get another chance to see it there; in fact we never got to New York. A week later we were in New Orleans, and—

But I am getting a large step ahead of myself. I should explain; it is what I do, and I fancy I am good at it—explaining, that is.

Doubtless you know what awaited us. In the waters off New York we were privileged, if that is the word, to witness the final battle between the United States Navy and the invading Martians. It was short, it was awful, it was to the point. When it was over one surviving battleship steamed away into deep water—and there the Martians did not follow. (We did not know at that time, of course, that they were Martians.) Once the fight was done, and only the sinking hulks of the American ships were left around them, the walkers turned back to shore—

The moment still grips me with a chill, when I think back upon it. We had thought them vessels, you see, sea-going constructs of one sort or another, though unfamiliar to us—

As they approached the shore, the walkers rose up out of the water—ten feet, twenty, forty . . . a hundred. They towered up over the skyline of New York City, and stood before it as though they owned it. Then one of the walkers swung back out toward us—

“About!” Captain Davis cried. “Hard about!”

The Minnehaha steamed south.

*

Aboard the Minnehaha a tremendous argument raged. We had gathered in the main dining room—many of the sailors, Captain Davis and his First Officer, and most of the male passengers.

“We are at war,” Francois said. “We must learn more of the situation, and to do that we must go ashore!”

Captain Davis seemed personally affronted by the whole affair—he commented that we ought to have stayed in England, where we would have been safe. Then talk turned to the issue of assigning guilt. “The Spanish, do you think?”

“No.” I lit myself a cigar, to give myself something to do—the Captain edged away slightly. I shook my head. “If you live long enough, Captain Davis, perhaps your taste in cigars will improve—why, these are forty cent cigars!” I drew on the cigar.

“Forty cents a barrel,” said Francois. “I think it’s the Germans—”

“The French,” I said around my cigar. “And they’re thirty-three cents a barrel, to come clean—that includes the barrel. I second the dwarf’s plan—let’s find a safe dock somewhere and go ashore, and find someone who knows something of these walkers.”

“Did you see the damage those walkers caused half a dozen of the Navy’s best? How can you ask me to take a commercial vessel into that? I can’t ask one of my men to go into that.”

“I’ll go,” I said. “Have some courage, man! Let’s go ashore and learn the facts.”

“Mr. Clemens, you’re sixty-five—”

“Sixty-four,” I said dryly, “and not in my dotage yet; and I daresay this dwarf has the courage to brave the shore with me—”

The First Officer, a strapping fellow name of Stephen Bradshaw, spoke up. “I’ll go ashore with them, Cap’n. We’ll get the lay of the land and report back promptly.”

“If we’re going to send anyone it ought to be some of the seamen—”

“No,” I said, shaking my head, “that will not do; for when it comes to learning the truth, and reporting it flawlessly, they have not had my training.”

*

Down around South Carolina we closed in on the shore again.

Walkers patrolled along the length of the beach. One of them turned toward us and strode out into the ocean, making a hooting noise that was eerie, indeed unearthly. Though we saw no weapon discharged toward us, the sea about us began to flash into steam, and then to bubble and simmer—

Captain Davis turned ship again and ran, with the boilers in the red.

*

At Florida we saw more of the Walkers, as we were now calling them, with the word audibly capitalized. One of the Walkers waded out into the water after us—and did not stop when its hood was at the level of the water. The hood dropped below the sea, and Captain Davis turned the ship and ran at full steam, a day and a night, into the Gulf of Mexico, before conceding we had outtrun the beast.

*

Two days later we made port at New Orleans, at the mouth of the great Mississippi river.

It was plain, entering the harbor, that things were not well; the mouth of the river was choked by some terrible red growth, a growth that gave off a vile and somewhat decayed odor; the air above the city was smoky with burning buildings. Captain Davis sent the other passengers back to their cabins—I, trading shamelessly on my fame and age, convinced the Captain to allow me to stay up top, though I sent Livy below with our daughters. Francois Maitroit simply took up position next to me, assuming, I imagine, that nobody would hustle him back to his cabin—no one did.

The harbor was empty of traffic; an astonishing sight. “I am of a mind to put back to sea,” Captain Davis muttered to me. “But we are low of fuel, and will soon be low on food.”

I watched the city. Buildings of wood were mostly burned down; the brick buildings were mostly still standing, though here and there the brick buildings looked as though they had been smashed to bits with cannon fire.

We saw no Walkers. The ship held motionless, at the mouth of the Mississippi, boilers stoked, for half a day before Captain Davis had the temerity to make shore.

*

Over Livy’s objections and the Captain’s dithering, Francois and Stephen Bradshaw and I went ashore in the French Quarter—in its original incarnation the Spanish part of the city. Bradshaw carried a rifle, and Francois a revolver; I declined a weapon.

“We’ll be back shortly,” I told the Captain. “If you see signs of trouble, cast off; you’re to take no chances with the lives of my wife and daughters.” The Captain assented—a little readily, I thought, but just as well, in the circumstances; I could not much object to a coward of a Captain, when that cowardice would protect my girls.

It was a hot day and sweltering, as sultry as only Louisiana gets at the height of summer, before we set foot on land. Our plans were not distinct; they involved finding someone still alive, and then questioning that person before he, or she, could be made otherwise by one of the Walkers.

The French Quarter stank. It always stinks, to give it its due justice, but this was a new stink, a different stink and highly improved; of decay and death, rather than the stench of perfume and rotting food. We walked down the center of the road. The wrecks of carriages were scattered here and there; the decaying bodies of dead horses were still yoked to a couple of them. The horses looked as though they had been burned—

“Fire,” said Francois. “Fire everywhere. All the wood has burned, the brick is scorched and in some places melted—the city has been attacked by fire.”

“The Germans,” I conceded finally, “I think you are right. Not that the French would be above this; it is precisely the sort of crime those malignant little soldiers delight in; but the science behind this—the skill—it reeks of German engineering.” We neared a cross street, and I slowed as we entered the intersection. For the first time we saw human corpses—fresh ones, dead no more than a day or so. Two adult men lay sprawled in the center of the intersection, one face down, the other face up. Both had been burned hideously—

The motion caught my eye, off to the north, and I turned to look.

It was the first Walker—the first Martian war machine, as we shortly learned—that we had seen up close. It walked on three metallic legs, and it was a hundred feet tall, with a hood-shaped platter atop it. It was a mile or more distant, I reckoned, and even at that distance looked huge. It hesitated briefly, then seemed to catch sight of us and turned swiftly and began lumbering down the street toward us at an amazing speed, faster than land-bound creature I had ever seen—

It gave me an energy that would have astounded and delighted me, under other circumstances; it is impressive, the things a man can do with appropriate encouragement, even an old man such as myself.

We ran like the wind.

*

The dwarf ran remarkably well; he kept up with me easily enough. We ran south, and then cut east, out of the monster’s immediate line of sight, looking for a place to hide; I knew that Francois and I could not possibly outrun that monstrosity; and Bradshaw was no longer an issue.

Bradshaw had left us, back at the intersection where we had first sighted the Walker; taken up his stance, and aimed his rifle at the approaching Walker. I glanced back over my shoulder, slowed to a halt and yelled, “Bradshaw! Don’t be—”

Something reached out and touched Stephen Bradshaw. It tore him apart and his blood sprayed twenty feet to splatter against my coat. In retrospect, sitting in the cellar with time to think about it, the moment seemed dim and blurred—the First Officer coming apart like a mouse struck by the edge of a hoe. Even today, all these years later, I can but barely remember the next few moments —— I could hear the clang of the monster’s metal feet moving down the cross-street toward us, could see the flames dancing over what was left of Stephen Bradshaw, could smell Bradshaw’s blood where it had spattered me—

“Here! In here!” Hands grabbed me and pulled us down into darkness.

*

In the darkness of the cellar I said, “Damn fool.” I was so shaken I could not think up anything witty to say, could not even manage a witticism stolen from someone else. I have seen men die before, some quantity, but not like that, not torn apart by an invisible beam.

“Shhhh!”—came a fierce whisper in my ear. “Not a sound until it passes!” In the abrupt stillness I heard the clinking steps of the Walker—louder and louder, until each step sounded like sledgehammer blows against the surface of the cobbled city street. There came a huge sound then, an explosion that rocked the cellar and sent dust sifting down from the cellar’s ceiling. An Irish-sounding voice whispered from somewhere off to my right, “Blew up the house next door, I bet,” followed by the sound of flesh smacking flesh, and another “Shhhh!”

Some interminable time later, a candle was lit. I looked about the cellar and found myself in the company of a well-dressed Negro; a barrel of a man of perhaps fifty, Irish at a guess; a boy I guessed to be that man’s son, and the source of the earlier whisper; and a beautiful dark-haired girl dressed in what I took to be Gypsy clothing.

A motley lot—I was extraordinarily grateful that I had left Livy aboard the Minnehaha—I know her, having been married all those long decades, and though she is a good woman, she would have taken to these people.

In short order the crowd had filled me in on the events of the last several weeks. The Gypsy girl started off. “First they came shooting out of the sky, crashing to the ground—one of them smashed the old St. Louis Hotel, and killed everyone in it, including a priest and a gray mare. Martians, we were told, not long after that. Then they opened up and got up on their legs and started killing people. They had set fire to the remains of the hotel, and the firemen came to put out the fire; they slaughtered the firemen first—”

“Dreadful!” I exclaimed.

“Then the police came and they slaughtered the police.”

“Indeed, indeed.”

“Then the Army came and they slaughtered the soldiers—”

“I see a drift here,” I said, “a trend.”

“Then the city government collapsed—”

“Fled,” said the Irish boy—Paddy, a redhead of about fifteen.

The elderly Negro—well, about my age, which is elderly, in most men, those lacking my energy and charm—I do not mean to sound boastful, but my reputation on these counts is well known—this Negro said with a pronounced and attractive Southern accent, “Gone, sir, the police, the soldiers, dead or gone; indeed, most of the city has fled the city; I doubt there are five hundred humans left alive in all of New Orleans.”

“The psychic pinhead,” the gypsy girl said in a profound voice, “predicted this. Back in early 1894.”

I glanced at her sourly. “What psychic pinhead?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter.” The girl waved an arm airily. “She’s dead. Died in late ’94.”

Francois and I exchanged a look—we each recognized a liar when we were speaking to one.

“This pinhead,” Francois asked. “Was she a Gypsy?”

“Oh, no, no, indeed not, Gypsies don’t have pinheaded children. We’re all especially good-looking.”

I declined to comment on that—it was true enough, in this young lady’s case; though I had known more than one ugly Gypsy, over the years. “So in 1894, this pinhead predicted that metallic monsters would take over the world at the turn of the century?”

“Well, no, she said Martians would invade at the turn of the century. The metallic monsters won’t really take over for another few decades. And they’ll come from Detroit, not Mars.”

“They’ll be rollers, not walkers.” That was Paddy again.

“I told him that,” the Gypsy girl informed us.

“Talia thinks she’s the source of all knowledge.” Paddy sneered at the girl—she was probably only a few years older than Paddy, but was acting as if she were in charge of the whole cellar.

I tried valiantly to drag the conversation back on track. “Have you any kind of plan to deal with these beasts? Or are we merely hiding out until we’re found and killed?”

“Don’t be silly, man.” The Irish father, one Mister Connor Turley, offered me a fierce look, augmented by a grandly fierce mustache—he would never have my hair or my brow, but one had to admire the facial hair. “This cellar is a hotbed of resistance,” Mr. Turley continued. “We’ve brought down three of the devils already. In Ireland I fought the English; and here in this grand city of New Orleans, I’ll fight the Martians to the death.”

As the denizens of the cellar took a moment to appreciate this declaration, Paddy added, “Their death, he means”—evidently he didn’t want anyone to think his father was contemplating either martyrhood or defeat.

“I hate the English,” Mr. Turley added.

“They’re a cheap lot,” Francois concurred.

“I despise the French,” I offered, and added, for Francois’s benefit, “Though Americans of French descent are rarely scoundrels. It’s principally a cultural villainy.” In another effort to stay on course, and to return to Livy and my daughters before some Martian fire-beamed them out of existence, I asked, “How exactly did you bring three of them down?”

“Well,” said Paddy, “the first one we had help with—this Englishman, Christopher, decent sort for an English, he come up with the idea of digging a pit to catch one of them—then we painted a man and a horse, both of them, bright green, and when the Walker caught sight of him, off it went after him and ran across the hole we dug and fell in.”

“And then a dozen more Walkers come along and slaughtered everyone was involved with that,” said the father. “We just barely got away.”

“Since then,” said the elderly Negro, in his deep, distinguished voice, “we’ve been using dynamite buried at the intersections, set off by percussion caps when the Walkers step on them—New Orleans is a dangerous place for tourists.”

I eyed him. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced yet, sir—though you sound a native of these parts, unlike the others.”

“Not quite—I was born a slave in the land of Georgia. Freed by Mr. Lincoln and given a job in the offices of this fine city.”

“You’re a clerk,” I guessed, from the man’s suit.

“I am a civil servant—Peter Grayson, at your service.” The man’s dark eyes gazed at me neutrally. “And you, sir, are Mark Twain.”

“Samuel Clemens.” I held out his hand and after a moment the other man took it. “And my companion is Francois Maitroit. We arrived by boat this morning, having crossed the Atlantic, and traveled down the coast and around Florida. Aboard the Minnehaha.”

“Ah.” Grayson smiled slightly. “Thus explaining the amusing small man.”

“There’s fewer than there was,” said Connor Turley, speaking swiftly to cut off Francois’s response. “Of the Martians, I mean. Must be some others been knocking them down as well—there was dozens of them roaming the city at one point, and now there’s only just the few.”

“I think they’re sick,” said Talia. “We’ve seen a couple staggering around, shooting at nothing—”

Francois glowered at Grayson, still smarting from the man’s joke—he made a small gesture with the revolver. “I’m liable to shoot at something.”

“I think,” I said quickly, “we should go back to the ship.”

“No! If—”

“No! We—”

“No!” said Grayson. “Not until dark, sir. Not until dark.”

*

We waited in the cellar until dark fell.

I sat quietly for the most part, sick with worry—to be sure, I had faith in Captain Davis’s cowardice, but not his competence; if one of the Martians attacked, who knew if the man would manage to get under steam in time? The Minnehaha had a pair of Gatling guns, and rifles and revolvers, but she was hardly a military ship, and I knew she wouldn’t last long in a duel with one of the Walkers.

Only Francois managed to distract me from his worrying. He took me off in a corner and spoke in a low voice:

“The Walkers aren’t the Martians themselves,” Francois said. “So Paddy tells me—the Martians are inside them; the Walkers are just transportation.”

“Of course,” I said, “plainly the Walkers are mechanisms. So?”

“So,” said Francois persuasively, “the Martians are ugly. Terribly, terribly ugly—tentacles and such—”

“Pretty bad.”

“—green skin—”

“Indeed?”

Francois hesitated. “So Paddy tells me.”

“He’s Irish,” I warned Francois. “They’re known to improve their statistics some.”

“I adjusted for that—he says Martians are more frightening than a Christian Scientist working his theology—”

“I’ve had the honor of that sight—Paddy is wrong.”

“—and uglier than a Capitalist.”

“It seems extreme,” I admitted. “Uglier than ‘Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy;’ that sounds plausible, that sounds about right. You could put in on a poster. But uglier than a Capitalist . . . there would be skepticism, Francois, healthy skepticism.”

“You know what we need?” demanded Francois. “Live specimens. If they are falling sick, if the invasion is failing—well, there’s opportunity here, if we grab it.”

“Grab a Martian, you mean. For display?” I asked doubtfully. “I doubt it would pay, Francois. We might make a million, selling it to Barnam and Bailey perhaps, and that assumes no one else has had any luck getting himself a Martian to show, and that some circus, somewhere, will pay us what a Martian is worth.” I shook his head. “The low level which commercial morality has reached in America is deplorable. We have humble God fearing Christian men among us who will stoop to do things for a million dollars that they ought not to be willing to do for less than two millions. In fact—”

“No,” hissed Francois, cutting me off, keeping his own voice low so that we would not be overheard. “Not one Martian for display—two Martians . . . a breeding pair.” Even in the dimness of the candle-lit cellar, I could detect the gleam in Francois’s eyes. “A breeding pair.”

I stared at him, a slow smile appearing below my mustache. A dwarf after my own heart, I thought.

*

I could not help thinking that it sounded like the setup for a joke, probably a poor one—what do you get when a Negro, two Irish, a Gypsy, a dwarf, and a world-famous writer go out for a nighttime stroll?

We did not stroll, in fact. We scurried. From place to place, cover to cover. My suit, my very good white suit, had been darkened with coal dust, and my long white hair blackened also. We made our way back to the docks without encountering another Martian, and my heart leapt at the sight of the Minnehaha, apparently unharmed, still tied up at the dock—

We ran down the dock, and arrived at the ship—I was out of breath from all the running and hiding, and had had about enough of it.

Only Captain Davis was up top when we arrived—the ship was darkened.

“Cast off!” I called as we crossed the boarding planks. “Cast off!”

Captain Davis sat on one of the deck chairs—he leaned forward. “Mr. Clem—Clem—Twain? Is that you, Twain?”

“Cast off, man! We’re back!”

Davis shook his head gloomily, settling back into his chair. “I can’t, sir. Can’t do it, can’t.”

I could tell from the sound of the man’s speech that he was roaring drunk, four or maybe five sheets to the wind. I looked about—

“Where are the passengers? Where are the crew?”

“Oh, the passagers,” said Davis dismissively. “They’re b’low, they’re alive, more or less.” He raised a small flask to his lips, drank from it. “The crew, now, that’s another story. Another story—”

“Where are they?”

“They fled!—the dogs.”

“You impugn the dogs”—I said automatically—“noble creatures, dogs—and perhaps the men, too. To where did they flee?”

“They headed off ’long the coast, sir. For Alabama. They took the boats.”

“You do impugn them,” I said severely. “Their flaw was merely one of judgment, not character—they assumed Alabama was preferable to death. Promptly they learn of their mistake, they’ll be back. In the meantime, we must sober you up, we’ve a project—”

*

By just the next day it was plain that the Martians had indeed fallen sick. The Walkers were seen less frequently—late that afternoon one of them staggered out onto the Mississippi, waded a ways into it, and then fell, and apparently drowned; at least it sank beneath the water and did not surface again.

The crew, having learned the truth about Alabama, returned to face the Martians the following day. Captain Davis seemed more relieved than angry, at the sight of them returning in the lifeboats. He lined them up for a speech:

“You have abandoned ship once or twice before this, most of you men. It is all right—up to now. I would have done it myself in my common-seaman days, I reckon, if I’d returned to the States to find Martians invading and the cities in flames. Now then, can you stand up to the facts? Are we rational men, manly men, men who can stand up and face hard luck and a big difficulty that has been brought about by nobody’s fault, and say live or die, survive or perish, we are in for it, for good or bad, and we’ll stand by the ship if she goes to Hell!”

The men gave up a tolerably decent cheer then, and the Captain seemed to gain a little stature again with that; and added, “And there’s a profit, too, men, Mr. Clemens swears it—”

There was a larger cheer at that.

*

The next morning we went out and captured a Walker.

That night was spent in planning—plotting and considering and devising, laying out tactics and strategies; schemes were proposed and modified and perfected, resources counted and estimated—no group of soldiers had ever gone about taking a city with more clarity of purpose than I and Francois and the Captain and Peter Grayson and the two Irishmen and the Gypsy woman went about planning for the capture and care of a Martian breeding pair. We had plenty of dynamite, we had the ship’s Gatling guns; we had twenty stout seamen who had been chastised by their failures in Alabama and were prepared to follow orders once more. The plans evolved and developed until it was clear that there were two plans with good support behind them; mine, which I supported, and Francois’s plan, which everyone else supported. I proposed they dig a pit, and lead a Walker over it—with a green man aboard a green horse, as the Englishman Christopher had done earlier; I conceded I was not above appropriating someone else’s good idea, though perhaps for variety’s sake it would be better to paint the man, or the horse, or both, red or blue rather than green, the Martians having seen a green horse at this point. Francois accused me of plagiarism and suggested that we try lassoing one of the Walkers, using one of the Minnehaha’s two anchor-chains—how the lasso was to be thrown or made tight about the Walker was a minor detail, and not worked out yet. Finally Peter Grayson proposed we put the matter to a vote, and I pointed out that it was nearly daylight, and we had lost an entire night’s pit digging; it wasn’t safe to go digging in the daytime, I said severely, it wasn’t fair to the seamen, brave fellows if a little unclear on their geography, to force them out to do hard manual labor on a sweltering Louisiana summer day—and with the threat of immolation from fire-beams on top of that, I added as it occurred to me.

The sky to the east was lightening with the first hint of morning when Francois suggested we put it to a vote. I lit a cigar to gain time—I knew a losing hand when I saw one; certainly the seamen weren’t going to vote in favor of pit digging—

About twenty minutes after dawn a Walker fell over at the West End, not far from Lake Pontchartrain.

*

By mid-afternoon, scouring the city, we had found three fallen Walkers. There appeared to be none still moving. Whatever illness had struck them down had done likewise to the red weed that had so choked the Mississippi; the river was cleansing itself; clumps of the red weed were being torn free and deposited, as the river has always cleansed itself of that which it is not pleased with, in the the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.

By evening we had cleared out a hotel on the banks of the Mississippi, and had eight living Martians behind bars—the sailors pulled them from their fallen Walkers, picked them up in canvass lifts, and transported them to the hotel in a sailor-drawn carriage, there being no horses alive that we had yet found.

It was my first sight of the Martians themselves—a thing no human who saw them, while they were still alive, is likely to forget. They were as ugly as their reputations—ugly as a Capitalist, and a sight uglier than Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy had ever been. They have been described frequently enough since then, by a variety of word scribblers; I shall not waste time on it here, except in brief; grayish-green, with two sets of tentacles beneath the mouth; each of them was somewhat larger than a man.

I will mention their eyes at somewhat greater length. They were large and expressive; they seemed somehow both mournful and calculating, as though figuring the probabilities on their situation. They were not human eyes, but there was no doubt in me that they were the eyes of sapient creatures, of creatures as intelligent as any man, including perhaps myself. When I met the eyes of the first of our captured Martians, I had the sense that I was meeting the gaze of a being wiser, and older, and colder, than any Bishop who had ever lived.

Two of the sailors returned from their searching, near evening, with a story that caused us some concern. They claimed to have seen a pair of Walkers, their walking-legs bent double beneath them, kneeling at the edge of the Mississippi; and a vessel of some sort, half-submerged beneath the river’s flow, taking on half a dozen Martians, or more, all apparently healthy—they were not specific on this subject, due to the difficulty they had had, trying to observe while fleeing in the other direction.

*

By nightfall we had seven living Martians behind bars—by midnight it was down to six.

“It’s the gravity killing them,” Francois insisted. “I’ve read on this subject, Clemens, I tell you it’s the gravity. Their world is colder than ours, and lighter.”

I shook his head. “I grant you, the heat’s not fit for man or Martian—but there’s no electricity, Francois; I doubt there’s a working ice-maker within a hundred miles of here.”

“We could put one of the Martians in the river,” Francois suggested. “Perhaps it would float, relieving the weight upon it?”

It drowned. We were down to five.

*

Two more died the following day. It left us with three.

*

I spent that night with the Martians.

The three of them looked listless.

They had trouble moving, and nothing I had arranged for them seemed to suit their appetites—they hadn’t touched the beef, or the greens, or the beer, or the fruits or vegetables or eggs. I suspected that at least one of them had drunk some of the water—I’d drowsed, sitting in the padded chair the sailors had brought from the ship, and when I awoke, the water bowl was lower than it had been.

Watching them, I knew I had been a fool to think they could be bred; my optimism had gotten the better of me. I had no more idea if any two of them could make up a breeding pair than I’d have had dealing with snails, or sharks. “For all we know,” I told Francois when Francois came by, near three that morning, “they are all three men, or women, or another sex entirely; perhaps they reproduce by division, or require ten mates—”

Francois nodded, and seated himself in the chair beside mine. We sat in a companionable silence, in the cool night air, watching the cage the three Martians had been imprisoned in. The Martians stirred occasionally, moving slowly and with evident pain.

“The sailors have ranged up the river a ways,” Francois said at length. “They’ve found a steamship, run aground about six miles upriver. It’s damaged some—”

It perked my interest. “Badly?”

“The texas deck is scarred by that weapon, they say, that heat beam, but otherwise it looks river-worthy.” Francois looked at me sideways. “That bunch of Martians that headed upriver, Sam, they were healthy. So the men said.”

“They did say that.” I withdrew a cigar from its case, offered it to Francois—the small man shuddered and refused politely. I lit it slowly, turning it for a smooth draw. I had the distinct impression that the largest of the three Martians was watching me.

“It seems a long way to come, to die in a cage,” said Francois.

I found myself gazing into the eyes of the large Martian, watching it as it died. “I would not feel too sorry for them—they are God’s creatures, no doubt, as we are; and therefore doomed and without hope. If there is a Hell, and if they have the Moral Sense humans are blessed with, they will doubtless go there for their sins here on the Earth; if there is no Hell, then death is nothing but release, and they go into a great dark.” I shrugged. “Hardly a thing to fear.”

The large Martian crept forward a bit, and drank from the water bowl as I watched.

“Man is the Reasoning Animal,” I said. “Such is the claim—I find it open to dispute, though. Any cursory reading of history will show that he is the Unreasoning Animal. It seems plain to me that whatever Man is he is not a reasoning animal. His record is the fantastic record of a maniac. These poor monsters had no chance—if the gravity and heat and disease had not killed them, we would have done it ourselves, I think.”

“A river-boat, Sam,” the dwarf said persuasively. “An empty river-boat.”

“Fifty-five or -six years ago,” I said softly, “it was my greatest ambition, as it was of all the boys in my village, to travel down the Mississippi—the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, to escape Hannibal and ride down that miles-wide ribbon of water to the sea, to New Orleans.”

“I’ve read your work,” said Francois. “Most of it, I think, at one time or another.”

I took a good drag, letting the smoke settle in my lungs. I spoke as he exhaled, and watched as the Martian drank again. “I expect they’ll be dead before morning.”

“I expect,” said Francois, not taking his eyes from me.

I turned to examine him. “You want to go up the river.”

“Yes, yes, I do,” he said in that low, intense voice. “Let’s take the guns from the Minnehaha, fix whatever’s wrong with that riverboat the men found, and go after the Martians who fled. For profit, for revenge—”

“The river is beautiful in the summer,” I said. “It’s harder going upriver than down, though; you must hug the banks to avoid the current. You’d need a pilot, a good one, navigating those shallows, and I confess, I’m a bit rusty.” I let the smoke trickle through my nostrils—though I did not like to confess it, the idea appealed to me; there was a symmetry in it. That young boy had wanted to go down the river, had wanted it more than anything; and with the world as it was, unsettled and dangerous, and I an old man, I might never have another chance to navigate its waters—

“I’ll do it,” I said finally. “Let’s follow them up the river.”

*

The last Martian died just after dawn.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

A nice piece of work!
I've often wondered how writers can collaborate, and some can do so really well. I'm usually fiercely protective when it comes to anything like that (I'm not a writer, but I day-dream as most people do, and sometimes the worlds created become more complicated than usual) so I don't think I'd have the humility to defer to someone, which I'd imagine you'd have to do at some point, unless it was someone whose judgement I trusted and whose company I enjoyed.

I read Terminal Freedom, which from memory I think you wrote with Jodi Moran as well and I enjoyed that book immensely.

Robin

Dan Moran said...

Jodi's fun to write with. We haven't gotten to do it enough over the years.

Mostly we just try to make each other laugh. If a line makes someone burst out laughing, you know you've got something. This is why comedy writers work in teams.

Thomas said...

Fantastic. You've captured the voice of a fictional Sam Clemens very well. I'm reminded of the Riverworld series from P. J. Farmer.

Here's hoping you folks can keep this up and produce something of publish-able size.

Ross said...

An excellent piece! But you're quite the tease, putting up pieces of bigger stories and not finishing them. And a note for historical accuracy: it was Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. Here's hoping there's more to come.

Dan Moran said...

I doubt this will ever go any further, but if it did, we'd take Twain to Mars in a hijacked Martian spacecraft. In this alternate history his Mars would be a sort of mixture of Barsoom and Malacandra.

I always liked the Riverworld series. The first 2-3 volumes are brilliant, though it ends badly, Farmar losing control of his story to a striking degree. And his Clemens is a good character, though not as good as Burton, and he doesn't really attempt the Twain voice. (Which is harder than it looks. Twain was, I won't say effortlessly witty, but he made it look effortless.)

Rob said...

Great story -- nice to see some of your writing again.

Proofreading, "a barrel of a man of perhaps fifty, Irish at a guest;" should probably be "Irish at a guess;"

Thanks!
Rob.

Jose said...

I also enjoyed the story. I did catch you calling Peter Grayson "Samuel Grayson" at one point...

Bob Manley said...

If we have to wait a while for the next segment of The AI War, this is a nice piece to tide us over. Thank you for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Loved it. Nice nod to the Tripods.

Dave

Doc Nebula said...

I was going to mention PJF's FABULOUS RIVERBOAT, but someone else beat me to it, so I'll just agree with you... the first two or three RIVERWORLD books are wonderful, especially FABULOUS RIVERBOAT; after that, PJF just kind of loses his mind. I do, though, enjoy the big Riverboat war and the air duel just prior to it. And the sword fight between Cyrano and Richard Burton on the sinking riverboat is tremendous.

This story is tremendous too, in a different way. I've always enjoyed Twain, both his work and his overall personality, and feel you and your collaborator did him great justice here. This also reminds me a great deal of Alan Moore's second LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN story, in which the LOEG must battle the same invasion.

Reminds me in a good way, I mean.

Excellent stuff. Now can I have more Trent? (Always assuming, of course, that I can't have more Malko and Carl, which would actually be my preference, albeit an entirely unrealistic one.)

Shawn said...

I liked this when I first read it. I can't recall if this is the one from _War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches_ that made it into Hartwell's annual "Best of," or if I read it in Global Dispatches after the Best of inspired me to buy that...

Either way, I remember thinking you were the best choice of this generation's authors to match the "voice" of Clemens.

jj sutherland said...

Very nice...you captured Twain's voice quite well. Good to see some more of your writing.

jj

p.s. You're right about PJF, Burton was definitely his success there, before everything went off the rails.

Steve Perry said...

Not bad for a white boy. And girl ...