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WAR OF THE WORLDS (Chapte One)
Delbrook Lake, Wisconsin
I look at that day on the calendar, and realize that it all started one year ago today.
April 20. It has become a whole story, in itself, like December 7, or September 11. You don't need to attach a year to it.
Later I learned that day was Hitler's birthday. It was also the date when Tim McVeigh decided to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City, and, in a different year, when those teenage mass murderers shot up the high school in Columbine, Colorado. Last year it was my daughter's thirty-sixth birthday, though as usual I forgot to call her. This year, of course, we don't have any working telephones.
In point of fact, throughout history April 20 was mostly just another day. There was no glimmering of significance, no thought of the calendar in my mind as I decided to go outside that night. The pertinent inspiration was the first clear and balmy night of the year. (I had to settle for "balmy"; in Wisconsin, the nights don't get "warm" until June. But it was remarkably pleasant on that April 20.)
My name is Mark DeVane, and I am a retired professor of astronomy. Now I live in the country, writing articles and the occasional book, living by myself and liking that state very much. Spring fever had possessed me all day. I'd had no phone calls and no visitors, and Browne's dogs had been mercifully silent.
The sense of exhilaration didn't dissipate when the sun set. Energized, I disassembled my telescope and tripod from winter quarters in my upstairs study and put on my hiking boots and a light jacket. I started through the woods to my neighbor's pasture, relishing the lingering warmth of the day. It was a moonless night, so I carried a flashlight in my left hand while I walked the narrow trail. When I came out into the grassy field, I clicked off the light--the stars were brilliant, the dome of the sky bright with plenty of ambient light.
Plus, I didn't want Browne to see the light and know he had a trespasser in his upper pasture. My last conversation with him had been unpleasant, with good cause. His dogs had made a mess of my garbage can, and I had told him to keep the damned mutts off my property.
As for my going to his hilltop, I wasn't going to hurt anything. My boots got a little wet crossing the swale below the hill, but once I was on the slope the ground was dry and firm. It smelled like spring, a mixture of dampness, worms, and a little tentative photosynthesis left over from the sunny afternoon. The peepers were chirping like crazy in the marsh that curled around the far side of the hill.
I set up the telescope and quickly raised the lens to the southeast sky. My target, tinged that familiar red, stood out like a beacon among tea lights, surrealistically bright. Mars was unusually near to Earth then, the two planets' separate orbits approaching alignment on the same side of the sun. Here, on this grassy hilltop, I had a totally unobstructed view.
Removing my glasses I leaned over and, with a few sweeps to the right and left, located my target. The focus was close enough that a quarter turn of the knob brought the rust red disk into crisp detail.
The view of the planet was breathtaking, as fantastic as anything I have ever observed in the night sky. Transfixed, I stared in amazement. Famous features were outlined in crisp detail. The great, belt-line gash of the Valles Marineris--the largest canyon in the solar system--was a clear stripe across the rusty orb. The outlines of known craters were visible, and I even made out some shadows near the horizon, where the sun was setting on the Martian surface.
I had lectured about this view often enough, used magnified slides to try to capture the wonder for a hall full of bored underclassmen, but the tiny image in my scope was so much more entrancing than any image. The sense that this was the real thing, the actual planet before my eyes, carried a profound wonder that, even after more than a half century of life, I still found fascinating.
When my right eye began to tire I switched to the left. After another ten minutes I put on my glasses and walked around a bit, admiring the Milky Way that was even then beginning to show the promise of summer's glorious display. Only to the west was there a little blur, the light pollution from Madison forming a pale dome behind the horizon. I could still see Orion in the south, though he was nearing his seasonal disappearance. So clear was the sky that even the individual stars of Ursa Minor's tail were apparent to my casual inspection.
Even in the midst of that dazzling brilliance, Mars was the brightest object in the sky, unique as well in that little suggestion of redness in the midst of a million silver-white sparkles. Like a moth to light I was drawn back to my scope. With a minor adjustment it caught up to the planet that had orbited just beyond view of the lens. (More accurately, Earth's rotation had carried me, and the telescope, around just enough so that Mars was no longer lined up with the scope's path.) It was there again in a moment, brighter, warmer, more real than I had ever imagined. If time had frozen there, or events taken a different course, it might have remained that spectacular fantasy in my memory forever.
The flash was a jarring check against my pastoral, naïve delight. The yellow-white spark came from the equatorial canyon, the Valles Marineris. It was a brief pop of light, fading so quickly that, of course, I wondered if I had imagined it. But it had lasted too long to be some optical illusion, perhaps two seconds, maybe more. (Later, after study and analysis of the whole sequence, NASA would report that each flash lingered for somewhere between 1.8 and 2 seconds.) I stared at the planet, all but begging for a repeat of the phenomenon, for some clue that might offer an explanation. Unwilling to tear my eye away, I stared until my back grew sore and my legs started to cramp. That glorious, rust red orb taunted me with its inanimate reflectivity.
Was I going mad?
Browne's dogs started barking, and a few seconds later the coyotes replied, their yodels ringing out from every direction. A wind came up, penetrating my light jacket, reminding me that winter had not been long offstage. But still I stared, quickly shifting from one eye to the other when the strain got too great. Mars beamed back at me, red and desolate and distant.
Well, it was red, anyway.
I began to think that I was wasting my time--perhaps I could already sense that events were moving on without me. Packing up my equipment in some haste, I started back down the hill, stumbling along the woods trail even in the light of my flash. I approached my own house and, strangely enough, wished that I had left the porch lights on. Of course I hadn't, not when I was going out with the 'scope, but the dark windows, the silence as I opened the patio door, seemed unsettling. Quickly I went to my office and turned on my computer, then went around and turned on plenty of lights, before I came back to sit down at the glowing monitor.
There was the usual, interminable hissing and crackling of my modem making contact with my ISP. (I loved living far out in the country, but a patchwork web of tenuous, buried telephone lines linking me to the nearest town was a price that I had to pay. Cable hookups and DSL were for more urban people.)
I started with the official NASA Web site, but found nothing posted in the way of recent news. I went to Space.com, and there I saw my first confirmation, a news flash near the top of the page: "Anomalous flash of light observed on Mars, 10:55 EDT, April 20."
Relief was my first reaction--apparently I really had been worried that I had imagined it. At least someone else had seen it, too. Surfing now, I went to one of my favorite astronomy weblogs and was rewarded immediately.
DID YOU SEE IT? was the top thread on Starboyz.org.
EXPLOSION ON MARS! exclaimed another poster.
STRANGE FLASH. I SAW IT AT 9:55 CDT. PLEASE TELL ME SOMEONE ELS SAW IT TO! begged a spelling-impaired stargazer named Luna from Iowa.
She was rewarded by a host of eyewitness testimonials that pretty much mirrored my own experience, intermixed with a good number of skeptics accusing the posters of irresponsible falsehoods. A clear trend became apparent, however, as the number of testimonials increased dramatically over the course of ninety minutes. Also, it seemed like the skeptics were beginning to give ground. All except a few trolls--they continued to mock and declaim with increasingly vitriolic posts.
Looking over the names of the posters, I confirmed my earlier conclusion. The Starboyz site was still pretty much limited to amateurs. There were no addresses that indicated that anyone from a major observatory or university science department was weighing in on the matter. Of course, it was still the middle of the night, but there were other options.
I surfed over to CosmicCowgirl, anticipating some slightly more pithy analysis. Indeed, the Cowgirl had a good summary describing the event, and the beginnings of a thread of debate over what caused a sudden burst of light on the distant planet. I took the time to follow some of these posts and replies. Normally I'm not bothered too much by my connection speed, but I remember that on April 20 I fretted as each individual message took fifteen or twenty seconds to load.
Virtually all of the posters speculated that this was a volcanic eruption, brief but incredibly fiery. I had already raised that hypothesis in my own mind, as early as on the walk back to my house, but I was skeptical. How could it be so bright, and disappear so quickly? Wouldn't one of the Martian satellites--we Americans had two, and the Europeans had a third--have picked up some preliminary infrared or visual clues if such a massive eruption had been brewing? I had plenty of questions, lots of reasons for doubting the theory, but of course I had absolutely no idea of any other logical explanation.
It was one of the posters on CosmicCowgirl who first raised what sounded like an outlandish possibility.
Remember last fall, when Vision was still active? It started to drill and they got a few dozen meters down into the bed of the canyon. Then everything went all screwy. It was the end of the mission.
We all assumed that some technical glitch happened. But what if the Martians got pissed off about us sending all these rovers? What if they launched a rover of their own, one that's coming to get us?
I'm going to head for the hills!
Immediately the thread attracted a lot of attention, including a couple dozen flames. I shook my head at some of them--I can remember my thoughts as clearly as if it was this morning, muttering aloud that people take this stuff too damned seriously. There were a few others who saw the joke and played along, but the line of messages fizzled out pretty quickly. The people who came to the Cowgirl's site, by and large, were not looking to enhance their senses of humor.
I clicked through a few other Web sites. The AP had picked up the story and already had a banner headline blinking on my home page. (That page was set to flash me on any space- or astronomy-related news.) That sent me to the television, where I checked CNN. After a few minutes they had a mention of the flash, and for the first time I saw a picture--obviously, someone had been shooting a movie through a telescope and managed to freeze out a single frame.
The flash was, well, just that. A tiny spot of light, coming from the depths of the Valles Marineris, just where I remembered seeing it. Somehow it didn't look so shocking when I saw the picture; the impression was more like a mistake, some sort of scratch on the image that came out as a fleck of light. By then it was two hours past midnight. I glanced at the phone, tempted to give Alex a call, but of course she would be sound asleep. And given the events of the night, I expected she'd be getting up fairly early in the morning.
So I would talk to her later. I shut down the computer and turned out the lights though--unusual for me--I left the porch lights on. "You're getting old, Professor," I suggested to myself, out loud.
Then I went to bed.
WAR OF THE WORLDS Copyright © 2005 by Bill Fawcett and Associates
Posted December 11, 2005
I suppose you could watch things blow up around Tom Cruise, but you will get more intellectual satisfaction and hours more pure enjoyment out of this updating of the classic War of the Worlds tale. A page-turner with both rich military detail and rich characterization, this book stands well above many recent 'end of the world' and 'first contact' books by handling the realistic reactions to the invasion well on both a personal and global level. Highly recommended. Donald J. Bingle, Author of Forced Conversion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 25, 2012
No text was provided for this review.