by David Barber
One by one, the Martian fighting machines have fallen silent and it seems common knowledge that the invasion failed because the Martians lacked our hard-won immunity to germs. Even the popular account by Mr Wells asserts this, but he is wrong.
When I say it is because the Martians are machines, you will think I confuse the towering tripods with the creatures within. But I speak from personal experience. Those creatures played a very different role in the invasion.
I do not claim a complete understanding. What I know of the natural sciences is little help explaining the technology of another world. After all, how can something mechanical think?
I have set down these events while still fresh in my mind. You must judge for yourself whether it was my actions that finally defeated the Martians.
Like the millions who fled London in those last desperate days, the Highgate Asylum staff abandoned us to save their families, or themselves. Overhearing rumours, yet never being told what was happening in the outside world, agitated and disturbed me more than the truth, so I resolved to seek out the Martians and see for myself. It was not an escape, I simply walked out the front gates and there was no one left to say otherwise.
Visible from some distance amongst the ruins of the Houses of Parliament, a machine leaned against buildings covered in red creeper, like some monstrous agricultural tool forgotten by giants.
A wary band of soldiers had surrounded the motionless tripod and would not let me pass. Their leader was a veteran sergeant from the Essex regiment. What good he thought his rifle would do if the machine rose to its feet again, I do not know.
I told him I was a famous scientist, and mentioned Oxford University. I realise now that I was confused about this, but such had been an ambition from my earliest days, which was realised only in my imagination. However I do have a clear recollection of visiting those dreaming spires in my youth.
“I need to examine the Martian creatures before they decompose further,” I told the sergeant, and pointed out crows already at work. “We must learn all we can.”
The man had fought on after his officers were killed and the proud military he belonged to had been decimated by gas and flame. He had no time for those who had run from danger and were only emboldened now that the foe seemed defeated. He looked me up and down and was not impressed.
I took him aside. “We have been lucky this time, but we must learn their secrets and how to better kill them before more Martians come.”
The urge to babble almost overwhelmed me as he considered this.
“More of them, you say?” He glanced at the towering machine.
Best if he stayed on guard, I told him when he offered to come with me.
I clambered up the rubble to where the grey bloated corpse of a Martian hung out an open hatch. The sight and stink of the thing turned my stomach, but the sergeant was watching, shading his eyes as he gazed from below. I held my breath as I squeezed into the machine.
As I peered around the circular space – something like the bridge of a ship, but curiously devoid of anything I recognised as controls – disappointment stole over me. I had expected more than this empty cupola with its dead pilot. An explorer opening an ancient Egyptian tomb and finding it bare might have felt the same. After a while I had to accept there was nothing to be learned here.
It was then that the voice began speaking to me.
At first I could not make it out, and strained to catch the occasional English word. There was certainly no place for another Martian to hide, and when the voice urged me again, but louder this time, I realised it was the machine itself, or rather, as I would discover, its guiding intelligence that spoke.
Can you imagine how I trembled with agitation and excitement, my imagination leaping ahead of what I heard, unable to contain my thoughts, everything suddenly making sense, opening up great vistas of possibility…
This is what I recall of that conversation:
We call them Martians but they were not from Mars originally, landing there only after a voyage lasting millennia. They chose Mars because the chill of that dying world, its aridity and lack of oxygen were advantages to metal beings. They shunned the hot, corrosive atmosphere of the planet that was its neighbour.
Creatures like the one in the hatchway had accompanied them, but had not fared well on the journey, nor later on Mars, and as time passed it appeared they were marked for extinction.
“Because of this they urged us to invade your world,” the machine said. “You are a young and vigorous race, and might be trained as their replacements.”
The word symbiosis came to mind – a symbiosis between creatures and machines. I did not think to ask then how we might benefit a machine.
“We wonder if there is still any reason to conquer you,” the voice added. “Our creators would have known. But now they are gone.”
There have been episodes in my life, some less lucid than others, when I have been locked away – for my own good, they told me – and have met those who suffered from an excess of melancholia and the certainty there is no point to anything. As the voice continued, I was strangely minded of those lost souls.
“Living creatures create their own meaning,” said the voices, now quiet, now loud, as if they travelled far through the aether, as if more than one crowded in on this conversation. “But we must borrow ours.”
Evolution has instilled in mankind the urge to survive. We are all descendants of those who felt this way. Yet these mechanisms seemed to have no such instinct. Their intelligence was vast and cool and unsympathetic. They remembered their first awakening, but whether existence was better than oblivion was something they had not settled.
A thought had been plaguing me, racing around my brain, as thoughts sometimes did. “But this tripod, surely it is immobilised now your pilots are dead?”
“We could set these machines in motion again if we wished. If we had reason to.”
I staggered as the tripod stirred itself, like a behemoth stretching, and saw the dead creature slide out the hatch in a tangle of limbs. Then the machine was still once more.
“We planned to wade across the narrow sea to conquer lands in the east, but we can no longer see any point to that. What if your tribe had the use of our fighting machines? Would you want to rule this world?”
All this talk had given me time to think, and I began to argue with the voices.
“You do not understand mankind if you think we would become your helpers. Your invasion is pointless. It always was. And whether you destroy us or no, what difference does that make to you?”
Increasingly, the voices made replies that made no sense to me, sounding like propositions in formal logic, as if the machines were debating amongst themselves.
Even their own creators had lost heart, I insisted. Had they considered turning themselves off? After all, did any of it matter?
There are those who will dismiss my account as the delusions of an escaped madman: hearing voices, discovering secrets, saving the world. And the only evidence I can offer is that the Martian machines never rose to their feet again. Nor can I point to something I recognise as a mechanical brain and say, here, this is the proof. As the years pass and my malady pays fresh visits, certainty eludes me.
Their science, so far ahead of our own, remains a challenge for future generations, yet if we had entered into a bargain with the machines as they had hoped, we might have learned the answers to age-old mysteries.
In the end it was mankind I did not trust. I confess that after the voices finally fell silent, I did call out to them again. Perhaps it was for the best that they did not answer.
David Barber lives and writes in the UK. His ambition is to continue doing both these things.
After millions of years, any hominids who did not see purpose in the world have fallen from the family tree. Would sentient machines find meaning without the benefit of evolution? Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, I understand, is a fun read. Also The War of the Worlds, obviously.