1618 Caroline St. 3500 Words
Fredericksburg, VA 22401 Copyright 1995 by Steve Johnson
A CYLINDER ON SYRTIS COMMON
No one would have believed, in the last years of the twentieth century, that our world was being observed by intelligences not our own. That across the gulf of space our comings and goings were scrutinized by intellects vast, cool and dispassionate, as a scientist at his microscope observes the tiny lives who flourish and multiply in a hill of sand. Beings from another world, on which not one in a thousand of us suspected life could exist, who regarded our world with envious eyes, and slowly and surely laid their plans against us.
It began with an explosion upon the planet Earth, witnessed by astronomers on all parts of our own planet. I myself was present, a guest of the astronomer Fifty-Six Twenty-Nine, a friend of my uncle since boyhood, at the second eruption. Doctor Twenty-Nine adjusted his apparatus, the blob of colors sharpened, and we beheld the surface of our neighbor world, as well as we might through its corrupting atmosphere.
We saw, as promised, a vast outpouring of yellow-orange gas, tipped with a steady white point that did not shrink or waver, pointing a stupendous trail of smoke across the curious seas that dotted that world. It was a glorious and strange, but also disturbing spectacle; for although such explosions had become common upon the Earth in recent years, these few produced smoke trails that not only pointed in the same direction, but ever upward.
It was in the summer of 1976 that the first voyagers from the neighboring planet arrived on the surface of our world. Dropping from a dizzying height, bobbing beneath red and white canopies, the ship touched down in the centre of Syrtis Common, overlapping the residential district of Syrtismouth and the orchards that grew among the rocks.
In form their vessel was a cylinder, painted a brilliant ultraviolet, though its upper works pulsed and flickered continuously in all the colors of the radio spectrum. Patches of the outer hull were varicolored, formed into curious angles and curves that spelled out the enigmatic phrase UNITED STATES.
Upon touching down on four stubby legs, the cylinder began to emit such a dazzling range of radio colors, flickering around one particular tone without ever fastening upon it, as though trying as hard as mind could imagine to announce their arrival.
The first few inhabitants of our own familiar world were startled, but also intrigued. Reader, when you think on them, do not judge their actions too harshly. For they but heeded the instincts of curiosity and experiment which all our race shares, and which indeed are the reason we came to dominate this globe as completely as we do.
They huddled, then, and conferred, while the great ship continued to flash and strobe. They formed a delegation of their wisest and bravest, who advanced on the cylinder, emitting signals of welcome and peaceful intent. They waited to see what the beings from space would do.
Presently a tube extended from the cylinder, capped at the end by a ramp with a hollow top. The tube grounded and bit into the clean country soil, and the delegation strode forward, up the ramp and into the ship.
When the tube retracted into the mass of the cylinder, those onlookers present watched in apprehension for some sign of the visitor's intentions. Were they friendly, hostile, indifferent? Had our delegation made contact, or indeed had they been allowed to meet the visitors at all?
They never emerged. None who entered the ship were ever seen again.
Meantime, the ship continued to flash its ominous whirl of color, and the onlookers waited, and watched.
News of the cylinder's coming had flashed around the world in the interim, and by now a substantial gathering of forces were arrayed outside the alien vessel's beachhead. Our great minds conferred, adding their unique specialties to each other so that every angle might be considered. Naturally, the conference did not meet within sight of the disturbing, distracting blaze of light, but under a stone some few leagues away, where they could commune in relative peace.
That is, until the Ray was brought into action.
It has long been known that every form of life is composed of many sub-vital units called cells, each of which is in essence a very simple animal with enough primitive instinct to seek sunlight and reproduce itself. Each of these cells produces a radio signal as a by-product of its internal processes; when enough of them are gathered closely together, their signals modify and complicate one another, until the sum of all the signals becomes complex enough that it, the signal, becomes aware of its own existence, and of the world.
Where, in the chain from macromolecule to rational being, the mind first emerges is a question fully as mysterious today as it was to our primitive ancestors. But that the mind cannot exist without continuous communication between its cells has been known since antiquity. Indeed, before the invention of metallic weapons, the chief means of slaying enemies had been by disrupting their cellular cohesion, by means of loud and tightly directed radio-spectrum shouts.
It was something like those shouts of antiquity, though on an immeasurably vaster scale, that the cylinder from space turned on the crowd. Emerging from a circular construction atop the machine, a cone of radio emission blared forth, of blinding intensity even at the horizon. To those who stood within its area of effect, it must have been louder than the end of the world.
As indeed, for them, it was.
The beam sprayed one section of the surface, scattering lethal darts of radiation in all directions. Some of these darts bounced back and were captured by the circular contrivance, which evidently recorded the death agonies of its victims as well as the general shape and structure of the landscape. Around and around it scythed its ray, cutting down all who tried to escape, save those few who sought refuge in the shadow of the machine itself, and from whose accounts we now deduce what happened in those first terrible hours.
The Conference was notified at once, though not by direct speech. The radio environment was so shattered by the Ray's activity that runners had to be dispatched to carry the news directly into the Conference.
Once told, the Conference knitted itself ever more tightly into a single mind, the better to concentrate on the threat suddenly revealed to be mortal indeed. Its thoughts, indelibly inscribed in the memory of all of us who were parts of its whole, ran thusly:
"The creatures from space have initiated an action. But can we be certain it is an attack? Let us examine each of the effects of its Ray, and decide which of them was more likely to be the intended effect.
"The most obvious effect is the disruption of many of our citizens into their subvital units. If that was the creatures' intent, they have acted murderously and are a potential threat to our entire civilization.
"Their Ray also reflected a certain portion of its fragments back to itself. From this, the creatures can deduce the shape of the terrain. But they can only be certain to a very broad degree, to wit, the wavelength of the radio beam they are using. Objects smaller than one centimeter would be utterly lost. Since one centimeter is many millions of times larger than our largest citizens, they cannot use this Ray to see us at all, or any of our works. They can only discern the crudest, most obvious undulations of the terrain. Thus it appears unlikely that the Ray is intended as a sensing device.
"What, then? Observe that the device emitting the Ray periodically inclines itself to the zenith. We hear no radio noise at that time, but if we assume that the Ray does not shut off when it ascends, it may well be sending a message to someone or something far away. That would also explain the extraordinary brute power of the Ray; the entity being signalled must be stupendously far away.
"Where could it be? The signal appears to be strong enough to reach the moons; but the Moons are not in the heavens at the moment. Possibly the message is aimed at the planet Earth, which is now in ascension; and if that is the case, then there must logically be someone on Earth to receive the message.
"This may explain the Ray's effect on the surrounding populace. The Earth possesses a much thicker atmosphere than our world; radio speech would have to be correspondingly louder to carry clearly across its surface.
"But the Earth's land areas are so small, compared to our own dear globe's unbroken expanse of land, that the average message would be sent over very small distances relative to our own; and therefore, if everyone spoke in the same timbre as the Ray, each individual would be heard throughout a large part the Earth. Such cacaphony would prohibit the development of any intelligence, unless the entire Earth were a single entity united of all its cells.
"However, if that were the case, we should surely have heard its radio ruminations by now. We have not; only the normal background radio emission that we expect of all celestial objects, such as the planet Jupiter.
"Therefore, it is most likely that:
1) the invaders are from the Earth
2) they have used the Ray deliberately to sterilize a vast area of our planet's surface
3) this area is large enough to contain many more machines of the type that have already landed
4) Conclusion: they have cleared a staging area for additional invaders to follow when resistance has been crushed here on this beach-head."
The Conference set out to check its thesis with direct observation of the sky. Many thousands of cells who were specially sensitive were gathered together, equipped with motive and communicatory cells, and set out to scrutinize the Earth from the shelter of the stone's shadow.
On the Earth itself there was, as always, no sign of life. But a fast-moving new star crossed from east to west in view of the Conference's sensing appendage, and its color was the same flickering cacaphony of the cylinder. Clearly, there was another cylinder on its way.
Many of us, when the great Conference recessed, were doubtful of its conclusions; we could not quite remember the steps that had led us to conclude as we did. But to act independently wastes effort and resources, as everyone knows. So we had no choice but to put our trust in Ourself, as we had spoken when we were a single being.
Now and then a volunteer looked out from under the stone to see if the Ray was still blasting the landscape. It was; but our earliest lookout discovered a fact even more dire. For the fortunate few onlookers who had sought refuge beneath the cylinder's bulk were in shadow, cut off from the sun's life-giving ultraviolet; and already they were drawing together for mutual warmth, giving out the most piteous cries as starvation set in among them.
The Conference had made plain that the invaders cared nothing for our lives. Therefore, we had to act quickly to rescue our fellows, before they starved to death, for we could expect no succor from the strangers.
A small conference was held among those of us not already engaged in spreading the word across the planet. Most of us were neither imaginative, nor persuasive, nor loud-voiced, for all with those talents were already spreading the alarum. But many of us were athletic, strong and fast-moving and possessed of a certain physical courage. Our solution, then, had to capitalize on those assets, and not others.
And in this case, our assets were ideal. We could not shout louder than the Ray; we could not speak the language of the beings within, so our persuasion would be useless. But we could act.
The Ray had just completed a circuit; the ground still sparked and crackled between our stone and the ship itself. But it appeared to be repeating its pattern exactly each time; if we acted now, we would have the longest time to reach the ship before it struck again.
There was no time to hold a footrace to see who was fastest, who was strongest. We looked at each other, each of us understanding what had to be done. Then as one mind, we all leapt from concealment and sprinted across the ionized landscape, dodging around hot pebbles and avoiding sudden irruptions of potential from the sands around us.
Not all of us succeeded; not all of us survived. But I am proud to say that every last one of us tried, without hesitation.
The Ray was coming around again by the time our fellows were in view. Putting on a final burst of effort, we strained to reach the shadow as the Ray swept closer like a thunderstorm pared by a knife-edge to perfect, implacable flatness.
Some few of us made it into the shelter of the ship's shadow. Many, I grieve to say, were cut down mere steps from their goal. The Fourteen brothers were among them, jolly Sixty and taciturn Sixty-Two, as well as Nineteen Ninety-Four the athlete, old Twenty-One Eighty the dance instructor, and many others I had known since childhood.
They fell into chaos, their cells confused and disassociated, their minds flickering out in the storm. When the Ray passed, all the subtleties of tone and inflection, all the vocabularistic quirks and literary allusions of our fellows had been reduced to noise, mere animal murmurings that pounded like the rush a sandstorm, and as devoid of meaning.
They were the first martyrs of the War of the Worlds; for, although I take nothing away from the memory of those poor onlookers who were slaughtered by the Ray, or the brave souls who boarded the ship through its scoop, these who were killed while trying to reach their starving fellows knew exactly what the Ray could do to them, and faced the danger anyway. Finer souls than they cannot possibly exist anywhere. May God grant that when I, as all flesh must, finally join that great Conference that continues without end, I may have the privilege of the fellowship of that glorious band.
Those of us who remained wasted no time on the dead; or, rather, as little time as we could manage, for we were sorely shaken, as any soul would be. But Eighty-Six Fifty chirped out that he had found them, and we gathered on his voice, and there in the dark we located the survivors of the Ray.
They were in dreadful straits, deprived of sun and sustenance for hours. Their cells buzzed about, their color was poor, and they rambled without words, wasting precious energy. Clearly they were beyond rationality, gone into that twilight land between life and death that the clerics call "sleep." But this was a bourne from which the traveller could return, had he but enough ultraviolet to nourish his recovery and trusted friends to keep his cells from wandering off until he was well again.
We each slung one of the poor unfortunates over our tops, spreading wide to distribute the load. I was particularly winded from our sprint across the killing plain, so I was not too disappointed to wait a few more minutes until the Ray had completed its sweep.
Not that any of us could hope to outrun the Ray, burdened as we were! But we did not need to. We hoped to run to a small depression young Eighty-Six had spotted on the way in, to sit out the Ray's passing there, then emerge to complete our journey. Still, it was prudent to give ourselves the maximum possible time.
I had not yet recovered my strength when the Thing emerged.
It floated straight down from the far side of the cylinder, landing with a thump on the sand. As it oozed towards us, I saw that it had no shape at all, being merely amorphous jelly; it extruded a pseudopod in our direction, then filled it with more and more of its liquid bulk until it had transferred most of itself into the reaching arm. Then another arm went out, and so on.
The beasts were vaster than a Conference of Conferences. They advanced in deathly, unnatural silence.
Only Eighty-Two Ninety was armed, with a sliver of sharpened copper. He rushed at the Thing, swinging the copper wand to disrupt its cohesion. But the Thing was so tightly packed that its cells must have been actually touching; and the radio barbs struck without any visible effect at all.
Implacably, it engulfed part of Ninety and ate it; the remainder staggered off, rendered idiotic by the loss of part of his cells. The Thing easily surrounded the wounded Ninety, closed over him, and consumed him.
Here, then, was the answer to the mystery! The Earthans had come, not in quest of fellowship, but food!
"Go!" I shouted, heedless of the possibility of alerting the beast. My fellows darted off, just seconds behind the passing of the Ray, while I shouted and whistled and made static to attract the beast's attention. If everyone else escaped, I thought, it would worthwhile even if I died.
But the beast paid no attention, resuming its blind foraging across the sand. I crept closer, and then all at once it turned, extruding a blunt arm towards me.
Your humble narrator makes no claim to extraordinary bravery. I flinched backward some few paces.
The beast continued to ooze towards me. But when I stepped to one side, it followed me, apparently in some occult way aware of my presence. I ran, and it stepped up its pursuit, closing the gap between us even as sunlight beckoned.
The Ray swept by outside, blasting all life to ruin.
Behind me, the Thing oozed up to my very limits. I contracted my body, pressing as tightly to the zone of shadow as I dared. It oozed closer.
Before the Ray was wholly past I felt the Thing's touch on my surface. It was a solid electropotential mass, like a great, dead lump, but possessed of the power of movement like some reanimated corpse.
Repressing a gasp of horror, I fled out into the outer fringes of the Ray. My finer faculties were deranged to some degree by the Ray's influence, but I candidly admit I considered them superfluous. I was running, running for my life from a voracious predator, a situation in which my most primitive animal instincts were all I needed.
I was partway into the light, then, when my head cleared. The Ray was moving on. And in my panic, in my fuddlement, I had run not to the depression where my comrades lurked, but off into the open.
I had now no chance of reaching safety before the Ray came round again. Not unless I wanted to go back under the ship, where the Thing lay in wait.
But I was so tired that I could not run. I caught the eye of young Eighty-Six, hunkered down in the depression, and waved for him to go on. I would hold the Thing's attention as long as I could, and perhaps the Ray would finish it for us.
His gaze was directed behind me, first in horror, then in wonder. I turned around.
The Thing was gasping, melting, dying on the sand. It had oozed a very short distance into the light, and the hearty ultraviolet was breaking down its structure, dissolving its tissues even as it tried to inch back into the darkness. The creature gave one convulsive shudder, still in that sepulchral silence which it maintained unto death, and lay still. It liquefied in minutes, giving up its moisture to the hungry air until it was no more than a whitened wisp of protein.
And there was our hope in this unequal War of the Worlds; though the enemy possessed science beyond our imaginings, and weapons incalculable, still he could not abide the light of the Sun from whose touch, and by whose grace, all good things abide.
We drew back from the cylinder, watching intently. Those few Earthans who emerged died horribly in the light of day. And when the second cylinder landed, we withdrew from its vicinity, so that not one speck of life was endangered by its presence. We hoped that perhaps, seeing that they could harm us, but could never possess our world, the Earthans would desist, and we would have peace.
It seems to have worked; for though we watched the sky with apprehension at the next opposition of the Earth, and the next after that, the strange eruptions grew less and less frequent. Most were smaller, and without the force to reach our planet. Some few that were went awry, to Jupiter or the Sun or into the empty reaches of space.
And none, since that first fateful landing, were directed at our homes and loved ones, huddled under the vast and open skies of our fragile red world of Mars.
ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT
Dell Magazines Fiction Group
New York, NY 10036
Stanley Schmidt, editor