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The Map of the Sky
HERBERT GEORGE WELLS WOULD HAVE PREFERRED to live in a fairer, more considerate world, a world where a kind of artistic code of ethics prevented people from exploiting others’ ideas for their own gain, one where the so-called talent of those wretches who had the effrontery to do so would dry up overnight, condemning them to a life of drudgery like ordinary men. But, unfortunately, the world he lived in was not like that. In his world everything was permissible, or at least that is what Wells thought. And not without reason, for only a few months after his book The War of the Worlds had been published, an American scribbler by the name of Garrett P. Serviss had the audacity to write a sequel to it, without so much as informing him of the fact, and even assuming he would be delighted.
That is why on a warm June day the author known as H. G. Wells was walking somewhat absentmindedly along the streets of London, the greatest and proudest city in the world. He was strolling through Soho on his way to the Crown and Anchor. Mr. Serviss, who was visiting England, had invited him there for luncheon in the sincere belief that, with the aid of beer and good food, their minds would be able to commune at the level he deemed appropriate. However, if everything went according to plan, the luncheon wouldn’t turn out the way the ingenuous Mr. Serviss had imagined, for Wells had quite a different idea, which had nothing to do with the union of like minds the American had envisaged. Not that Wells was proposing to turn what might otherwise be a pleasant meal into a council of war because he considered his novel a masterpiece whose intrinsic worth would inevitably be compromised by the appearance of a hastily written sequel. No, Wells’s real fear was that another author might make better use of his own idea. This prospect churned him up inside, causing no end of ripples in the tranquil pool to which he was fond of likening his soul.
In truth, as with all his previous novels, Wells considered The War of the Worlds an unsatisfactory work, which had once again failed in its aims. The story described how Martians possessing a technology superior to that of human beings conquered Earth. Wells had emulated the realism with which Sir George Chesney had imbued his novel The Battle of Dorking, an imaginary account of a German invasion of England, unstinting in its gory detail. Employing a similar realism bolstered by descriptions as elaborate as they were gruesome, Wells had narrated the destruction of London, which the Martians achieved with no trace of compassion, as though humans deserved no more consideration than cockroaches. Within a matter of days, our neighbors in space had trampled on the Earth dwellers’ values and self-respect with the same disdain the British showed toward the native populations in their empire. They had taken control of the entire planet, enslaving the inhabitants and transforming Earth into something resembling a spa for Martian elites. Nothing whatsoever had been able to stand in their way. Wells had intended this dark fantasy as an excoriating attack on the excessive zeal of British imperialism, which he found loathsome. But the fact was that now people believed Mars was inhabited. New, more powerful telescopes like that of the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli had revealed furrows on the planet’s red surface, which some astronomers had quickly declared, as if they had been there for a stroll, to be canals constructed by an intelligent civilization. This had instilled in people a fear of Martian invasion, exactly as Wells had described it. However, this didn’t come as much of a surprise to Wells, for something similar had happened with The Time Machine, in which the eponymous artifact had eclipsed Wells’s veiled attack on class society.
And now Serviss, who apparently enjoyed something of a reputation as a science journalist in his own country, had published a sequel to it: Edison’s Conquest of Mars. And what was Serviss’s novel about? The title fooled no one: the hero was Thomas Edison, whose innumerable inventions had made him into something of a hero in the eyes of his fellow Americans, and subsequently into the wearisome protagonist of every species of novel. In Serviss’s sequel, the ineffable Edison invented a powerful ray gun and, with the help of the world’s nations, built a flotilla of ships equipped with antigravitational engines, which set sail for Mars driven by a thirst for revenge.
When Serviss sent Wells his novel, together with a letter praising Wells’s work with nauseating fervor and almost demanding that he give the sequel his blessing, Wells had not deigned to reply. Nor had he responded to the half dozen other letters doggedly seeking Wells’s approval. Serviss even had the nerve to suggest, based upon the similarities and common interests he perceived in their works, that they write a novel together. After reading Serviss’s tale, all Wells could feel was a mixture of irritation and disgust. That utterly childish, clumsy piece of prose was a shameless insult to other writers who, like himself, did their best to fill the bookshop shelves with more or less worthy creations. However, Wells’s silence did not stanch the flow of letters, which if anything appeared to intensify. In the latest of these, the indefatigable Serviss begged Wells to be so kind as to lunch with him the following week during his two-day visit to London. Nothing, he said, would make him happier than to be able to enjoy a pleasant discussion with the esteemed author, with whom he had so much in common. And so, Wells had made up his mind to end his dissuasive silence, which had evidently done no good, and to accept Serviss’s invitation. Here was the perfect opportunity to sit down with Serviss and tell him what he really thought of his novel. So the man wanted his opinion, did he? Well, he’d give it to him, then. Wells could imagine how the luncheon would go: he would sit opposite Serviss, with unflappable composure, and in a calm voice politely masking his rage, would tell him how appalled he was that Serviss had chosen an idealized version of Edison as the hero of his novel. In Wells’s view, the inventor of the electric lightbulb was an untrustworthy, bad-tempered fellow who created his inventions at the expense of others and who had a penchant for designing lethal weapons. Wells would tell Serviss that from any point of view the novel’s complete lack of literary merit and its diabolical plot made it an unworthy successor to his own. He would tell him that the message contained in its meager, repugnant pages was diametrically opposed to his and had more in common with a jingoistic pamphlet, since its childish moral boiled down to this: it was unwise to step on the toes of Thomas Edison or of the United States of America. And furthermore he would tell him all this with the added satisfaction of knowing that after he had unburdened himself, the excoriated Serviss would be the one paying for his lunch.
The author had been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that when he returned to reality he discovered his feet had taken him into Greek Street, where he found himself standing in front of the old, forgotten theater at number twelve. But do not be taken in by the look of surprise on Wells’s face: this was no coincidence, for in his life every action had a purpose; nothing was left to chance or impulse. However much he now tried to blame his innocent feet, Wells had gone there with the precise intention of finding that very theater, whose façade he now contemplated with what could only be described as somber rage. Consider yourselves welcome, then, and prepare for a tale packed with thrills and excitement, both for those ladies of a sentimental nature who will enjoy the romantic exploits of the charming and skeptical Miss Harlow, to whom I will have the pleasure of introducing you later on, and for the more intrepid gentlemen, who will undoubtedly tremble at the weird and wonderful adventures of our characters, such as this thin little man with a birdlike face, solemnly contemplating the theater. Observe him carefully, then. Observe his thin blond mustache with which he attempts to impose a more adult appearance on his childlike features, his finely drawn mouth and bright, lively eyes, behind which it is impossible not to perceive a sparkling intellect as sharp as it is impractical. In spite of his ordinary, less-than-heroic looks, Wells will play the most important role in this tale, the exact beginning of which is difficult to pinpoint, but which for him (and for our purposes) begins on this quiet morning in 1898, an unusually glorious morning, in which, as you can see, there is nothing to suggest to the author that in less than two hours’ time, he will discover something so astonishing that it will forever alter his deepest-held beliefs.
But I will stop beating about the bush and reveal to you what you have no doubt been puzzling over for the past few minutes: why has Wells paused? Is he perhaps regretting the closure of the venue where he had spent so many nights enjoying the best stage plays of the time? Not a bit. As you will discover, Wells was not easily prone to nostalgia. He had come to a halt outside that old theater because, some years earlier, it had become home to a very special company: Murray’s Time Travel. Do the smiles playing on the lips of some of you mean the aforementioned establishment is already familiar to you? However, I must show consideration to the rest of my readers, and since, along with the knowing smiles, I noticed more than a few raised eyebrows, no doubt occasioned by the company’s curious name, I must hasten to explain to any newcomers that this extravagant enterprise had opened its doors to the public with the intention of realizing what is perhaps Man’s most ambitious dream: traveling in time. A desire that Wells himself had awoken in the public with his first novel, The Time Machine. Murray’s Time Travel’s introductory offer consisted of a trip to the future: to the twentieth of May in the year 2000, to be precise, the day when the decisive battle for the future of the world would take place, as depicted on the billboard still attached to the side of the building. This showed the brave Captain Shackleton brandishing his sword against his arch enemy Solomon, king of the automatons. It would be a century before that memorable battle took place, in which the captain would succeed in saving the human race from extinction, although, thanks to Murray’s Time Travel, almost the whole of England had already witnessed it. Regardless of the exorbitant cost of the tickets, people had thronged outside the old theater, eager to watch the battle their wretched mortal existences would have prevented them from seeing, as though it were a fashionable new opera. Wells must have been the only man on Earth who hadn’t shed a tear for that oversized braggart, in whose memory a statue had been erected in a nearby square. There he stood, on a pedestal shaped like a clock, smiling self-importantly, one huge paw tickling the air, as though conjuring a spell, the other resting on the head of Eternal, his dog, for whom Wells couldn’t help feeling a similar aversion.
And so, Wells had come to a halt there because that theater reminded him of the consequences he had already unleashed by giving someone his true opinion of his novel. For, prior to becoming the Master of Time, Gilliam Murray had been a young man with somewhat more modest pretensions: he had wanted to become a writer. That was the time when Wells had first met him, three years earlier. The future millionaire had petitioned Wells to help him publish a turgid novel he had written, but Wells had refused and, unable to help himself, had told Murray perhaps rather more bluntly than necessary what he thought of his work. Not surprisingly, his brutal sincerity had turned the two men into enemies. Wells had learned a lesson from the experience: in certain situations it was better to lie. What good had come of telling Murray what he thought? And what good would come of telling Serviss the truth? he now wondered. Lying was undoubtedly preferable. Yet while Wells was able to lie unhesitatingly in many situations, there was one thing he couldn’t help being honest about: if he didn’t like a novel, he was incapable of pretending he did. He believed taste defined who he was, and he couldn’t bear to be taken for someone whose taste was appalling enough for him to enjoy Edison’s Conquest of Mars.
• • •
LOOKING DOWN AT HIS watch, the author realized he had no time to dawdle at the theater or he would be late for his appointment. He cast a final glance at the building and made his way down Charing Cross Road, leaving Soho behind as he headed for the Strand and the pub where he was to meet Serviss. Wells had planned to keep the journalist waiting in order to make it clear from the start he despised what he had done, but if there was one thing Wells hated more than lying about his likes and dislikes, it was being late for an appointment. This was because he somehow believed that owing to a cosmic law of equilibrium, if he was punctual, he in turn would not be made to wait. However, until then he had been unable to prove that the one thing influenced the other, and more than once he had been forced to stand on a corner like a sad fool or sit like an impoverished diner in a busy restaurant. And so, Wells strode briskly across the noisy Strand, where the hurly-burly of the whole universe appeared to be concentrated, and trotted down the alleyway to the pub, enabling him to arrive at the meeting with irreproachable punctuality, if a little short of breath.
Since he had no idea what Serviss looked like, he did not waste time peering through the windows—a routine he had developed to establish whether whomever he was meeting had arrived or not: if he hadn’t, Wells would rush off down the nearest street and return a few moments later at a calm pace, thus avoiding the need to wait inside and be subjected to the pitiful looks of the other diners. As there was no point in going through this procedure today, Wells entered the pub with a look of urbane assurance, pausing in the middle of the room so that Serviss might easily spot him, and glanced with vague curiosity about the crowded room, hoping the American had already arrived and that he would be spared the need to wander round the tavern with everyone staring at him. As luck would have it, almost at once, a skinny, diminutive man of about fifty, with the look of someone to whom life has been unkind, raised his right arm to greet Wells, while beneath his bushy whiskers his lips produced a wan smile. Realizing this must be Serviss, Wells stifled a grimace of dismay. He would rather his enemy had an intimidating and arrogant appearance, incapable of arousing pity, than this destitute air of an undernourished buzzard. In order to rid himself of the inevitable feeling of pity the scrawny little fellow inspired, Wells had to remind himself of what the man had done, and he walked over to the table in an alcove where the man was waiting. Seeing Wells approach, Serviss opened his arms wide and a grotesque smile spread across his face, like that of an orphan wanting to be adopted.
“What an honor and a pleasure, Mr. Wells!” he exclaimed, performing a series of reverential gestures, stopping just short of bowing. “You don’t know how glad I am to meet you. Take a seat, won’t you. How about a pint? Waiter, another round, please; we should drink properly to this meeting of literary giants. The world would never forgive itself if our lofty reflections were allowed to run dry for lack of a drink.” After this clumsy speech, which caused the waiter, a fellow who unequivocally earned his living in the physical world, to look at them with the disdain he reserved for those working in such airy-fairy matters as the arts, Serviss gazed at Wells with his rather small eyes. “Tell me, George—I can call you George, right?—how does it feel when one of your novels makes the whole world tremble in its shoes? What’s your secret? Do you write with a pen from another planet? Ha, ha, ha . . .”
Wells did not deign to laugh at his joke. Leaning back in his chair he waited for Serviss’s shrill laughter to die out, adopting an expression more befitting a pallbearer than someone about to have lunch with an acquaintance.
“Well, well, I didn’t mean to upset you, George,” Serviss went on, pretending to be put out by Wells’s coldness. “I just can’t help showing my admiration.”
“As far as I am concerned you can save your praise,” Wells retorted, resolving to take charge of the conversation. “The fact that you have written a sequel to my latest novel speaks for itself, Mr. Ser—”
“Call me Garrett, George, please.”
“Very well, Garrett,” Wells agreed, annoyed at Serviss for forcing this familiarity on him, which was inappropriate to an ear bashing, and for the jolly air he insisted on imposing on the conversation. “As I was saying—”
“But there’s no such thing as too much praise, right, George?” the American interrupted once more. “Especially when it’s deserved, as in your case. I confess my admiration for you isn’t an overnight thing. It began . . . when? A couple of years back, at least, after I read The Time Machine, an even more extraordinary work for being your first.”
Wells nodded indifferently, taking advantage of Serviss having stopped his salesman’s patter to take a swig of beer. He had to find a way of breaking off Serviss’s incessant prattle to tell him what he thought of his novel. The longer he waited, the more awkward it would be for them both. But the American was unrelenting.
“And what a happy coincidence that just after you published your novel, someone found a way of traveling in time,” he said, bobbing his head in an exaggerated fashion, as though he were still recovering from the shock. “I guess you took a trip to the year two thousand to witness the epic battle for the future of mankind, right?”
“No, I never traveled in time.”
“You didn’t? Why ever not?” the other man asked, astonished.
Wells paused for a few moments, remembering how during the days when Murray’s Time Travel was still open for business he had been forced to maintain an impassive silence whenever someone alluded to it with an ecstatic smile on his or her face. On such occasions, which occurred with exasperating regularity, Wells invariably responded with a couple of sarcastic remarks aimed at puncturing the enthusiasm of the person addressing him, as though he himself were above reality, or one step ahead of it, but in any event unaffected by its vagaries. And wasn’t that what the hoi polloi expected of writers, to whom by default they attributed loftier interests than their own more pedestrian ones? On other occasions, when he wasn’t in the mood for sarcasm, Wells pretended to take exception to the exorbitant price of the tickets. This was the approach he decided to adopt with Serviss, who, being a writer himself, was likely to be unconvinced by the former.
“Because the future belongs to all of us, and I don’t believe the price of a ticket should deprive anyone of seeing it.”
Serviss looked at him, puzzled, then rubbed his face with a sudden gesture, as though a cobweb had stuck to it.
“Ah, of course! Forgive my tactlessness, George: the tickets were too dear for poor writers like us,” he said, misinterpreting Wells’s remark. “To be honest, I couldn’t afford one myself. Although I did begin saving up in order to be able to climb aboard the famous Cronotilus, you know? I wanted to see the battle for the future. I really did. I even planned mischievously to break away from the group once I was there, in order to shake Captain Shackleton’s hand and thank him for making sure all our prayers didn’t fall on deaf ears. For could we have carried on inventing things and producing works of art had we known that in the year two thousand no human being would be left alive on Earth to enjoy them—that because of those evil automatons, Man and everything he had ever achieved would have been wiped away as though it had never even existed?” With this, Serviss appeared to sink back into his chair, before continuing in a melancholy voice. “As it is, you and I will no longer be able to travel to the future, George. A great shame, as I expect you could more than afford it now. I guess it must have pained you as much as it did me to find out that the time travel company closed down after Mr. Murray passed away.”
“Yes, a great pity,” Wells replied sardonically.
“The newspapers said he’d been eaten alive by one of those dragons in the fourth dimension,” Serviss recalled mournfully, “in front of several of his employees, who could do nothing to save him. It must have been awful.”
Yes, thought Wells, Murray certainly engineered a dramatic death for himself.
“And how will we get into the fourth dimension now?” asked Serviss. “Do you think it will remain sealed off forever?”
“I’ve no idea,” Wells replied coldly.
“Well, perhaps we’ll witness other things. Perhaps our fate will be to travel in space, not time,” Serviss consoled himself, finishing up his pint. “The sky is a vast and infinite place. And full of surprises, isn’t that right, George?”
“Possibly,” Wells agreed, stirring uneasily in his seat, as though his buttocks were scalding. “But I’d like to talk to you about your novel, Mr. Ser—Garrett.”
Serviss suddenly sat bolt upright and stared at Wells attentively, like a beagle scenting a trail. Relieved to have finally caught the man’s attention, Wells downed the last of his beer in order to give himself the courage and composure he needed to broach the subject. His gesture did not escape Serviss’s notice.
“Waiter, another round, please, the world’s greatest living writer is thirsty!” he cried, waving his arms about frantically to catch the waiter’s eye. Then he looked back at Wells full of anticipation. “So, my friend, did you like my novel?”
Wells remained silent while the waiter placed two more tankards on the table and cast him an admiring glance. Realizing he was under scrutiny, Wells automatically sat up straight, surreptitiously puffing out his chest, as though his greatness as a writer must be evinced not only in his books but in his physical appearance.
“Well . . . ,” Wells began, once the waiter had moved away, noticing that Serviss was watching him anxiously.
“Well, what?” the other man inquired with childlike anticipation.
“Some of it is . . .” The two men’s eyes met for a moment and a cavernous silence grew between them before Wells continued: “ . . . excellent.”
“Some. Of. It. Is. Excellent,” Serviss repeated, savoring each word dreamily. “Such as what, for instance?”
Wells took another swig of his beer to buy himself time. What the devil was there of any excellence in Serviss’s novel?
“The space suits. Or the oxygen pills,” he replied, because the only salvageable thing in the novel was its paraphernalia. “They are very . . . ingenious.”
“Why, thank you, George! I knew you’d love my story,” Serviss trilled, almost in raptures. “Could it have been otherwise? I doubt it. You and I are twin souls, in a literary sense, of course. Although who knows in what other ways . . . Oh, my friend, don’t you see we’re creating something hitherto unknown? Our stories will soon move away from the common path of literature and forge a new one of their own. You and I are making History, George. We’ll be considered the fathers of a new genre. Together with Jules Verne, of course. We mustn’t forget the Frenchman. The three of us, the three of us together are changing the course of literature.”
“I have no interest in creating a new genre,” Wells interrupted, increasingly annoyed at himself for his failure to steer the conversation in the direction he wanted.
“Well, I don’t think we have much choice in the matter,” objected Serviss with finality. “Let’s talk about your latest novel, George. Those Martian ships like stingrays floating over London are so startling . . . But first I’d like to ask you something: aren’t you afraid that if, after you wrote The Time Machine, someone discovered a way of traveling in time, then the next thing will be a Martian invasion?”
Wells stared at him blankly, trying to decide whether he was in earnest or whether this was another of his crazy ideas, but Serviss waited solemnly for him to reply.
“The fact that I wrote about a Martian invasion doesn’t mean I believe in life on Mars, Garrett,” he explained frostily. “It’s a simple allegory. I chose Mars more as a metaphor, to lay emphasis on the god of war, and because of its redness.”
“Ah, the iron oxide in the volcanic basalt rock covering its surface like damned lichen and giving it that disconcerting appearance,” Serviss replied, airing his knowledge.
“My sole intention was to criticize Europe’s colonization of Africa,” Wells resumed, ignoring him, “and to warn of the perils of developing new weapons at a time when Germany is engaging in a process of militarization, which seems to me unsettling to say the least. But above all, Garrett, I wanted to warn mankind that everything around us, our science, our religion, could prove ineffectual in the face of something as unimaginable as an attack by a superior race.”
He failed to add that, while he had been at it, he had allowed himself to settle a few old scores: the first scenes of Martian destruction, such as Horsell and Addlestone, were places where he had spent his rather unhappy childhood.
“And boy, did you succeed, George!” Serviss acknowledged with gloomy admiration. “That’s why I had to write my sequel: I had to give back the hope you took away from Man.”
And that hope was Edison? Wells thought, grudgingly amused, as he felt a vague sense of well-being course through him. He couldn’t tell whether this was a result of the tankards starting to clutter the tabletop, or the little man’s delightful habit of agreeing with every word he said. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t deny he was beginning to feel at ease. He wasn’t sure how they had succeeded in discussing the subject of Serviss’s novel without incident, but they had. Although how could it have been otherwise, he asked himself, if the only word he had managed to mutter was “excellent”? Consequently, Serviss now believed this was Wells’s true opinion of his novel, and he hadn’t the energy to take issue with his own words. He didn’t want to do that to Serviss. The man might deserve some punishment for having the nerve to write a sequel to his novel, but Wells didn’t think he would derive any pleasure from exacting it. Then he recalled how the novel’s outlandish humor, which, although clearly unintentional, had brought a fleeting smile to his lips several times while he was reading it. And although on various occasions he had hurled the thing against the wall, exasperated at such exemplary inelegance and stupidity, he had always picked it up and carried on reading. He found something oddly likable about the way Serviss wrote. It was the same with his absurd letters. Wells invariably ended up throwing them on the fire, yet he couldn’t help reading them first.
“Didn’t it occur to you at some point to give the story a different ending, one in which we managed to defeat the Martians?” said Serviss, interrupting his reverie.
“What?” Wells declared. “What hope do we Earthlings have of defeating the Martian technology I described?”
Serviss shrugged, unable to reply.
“In any event, I felt it was my duty to offer an alternative, a ray of hope . . . ,” Serviss finally muttered, contemplating with a faint smile the crowd in the pub. “Like any other man here, I’d like to think that if someday we were invaded from the sky, we’d have some hope of survival.”
“Perhaps we would,” Wells said, softening. “But my mistrust of Man is too great, Garrett. If there was a way of defeating the Martians, I’m sure it would be no thanks to us. Who knows, perhaps help would come from the most unexpected quarter. Besides, why does it worry you so much? Do you really believe our neighbors from Mars are going to invade us?”
“Of course I do, George,” Serviss replied solemnly. “Although I suppose it’ll happen after the year two thousand. First we have to deal with the automatons.”
“The automatons? Oh yes, of course . . . the automatons.”
“But there’s no question in my mind that sooner or later they’ll invade,” Serviss insisted. “Don’t you believe, as Lowell maintains in his book, that the canals on Mars were built by an intelligent life-form?”
Wells had read Percival Lowell’s book Mars, in which he set out this idea; in fact he had used it to substantiate his own novel, but it was a long way from there to believing in life on Mars.
“I don’t suppose the purpose of the many millions of planets in the universe is simply to create a pretty backdrop,” replied Wells, who considered discussions about the existence of life on other planets a pointless exercise. “Nor is it unreasonable to imagine that hundreds of them probably enjoy the conditions essential for supporting life. However, if Mars is anything to go by . . .”
“And they don’t necessarily need oxygen or water,” Serviss observed excitedly. “Here on our planet we have creatures, like anaerobic bacteria, that can live without oxygen. That would already double the number of planets able to support life. There could be more than a hundred thousand civilizations out there that are more advanced than ours, George. And I’m sure generations to come will discover abundant and unexpected life on other planets, although we won’t live to see it, and they’ll come to accept with resignation that they aren’t the only intelligent, let alone the oldest, life-form in the Cosmos.”
“I agree, Garrett,” Wells conceded, “but I am also convinced that such ‘civilizations’ would have nothing in common with ours. We would be as hard put to understand them as a dog would the workings of a steam engine. For example, they may have no desire to explore space at all, while we gaze endlessly at the stars and wonder if we are alone in the universe, as Galileo himself did.”
“Yes, although he was careful not to do it too audibly, for fear of upsetting the church,” Serviss quipped.
A smile fluttered across Wells’s lips, and he discovered that the drink had relaxed his facial muscles. Serviss had extracted a smile from him fair and square, and there it must stay.
“Of course, what we can’t deny is Man’s eagerness to communicate with supposed creatures from outer space,” Serviss said, after managing to make two fresh pints brimming with beer appear on the table, as if out of nowhere. “Do you remember the attempts by that German mathematician to reflect light from the sun onto other planets with a device he invented called a heliotrope? What was the fellow’s name again? Grove?”
“Grau. Or Gauss,” Wells ventured.
“That’s it, Gauss. His name was Karl Gauss.”
“He also suggested planting an enormous right-angled triangle of pine trees on the Russian steppe, so that observers from other worlds would know there were beings on Earth capable of understanding the Pythagorean theorem,” Wells recalled.
“Yes, that’s right,” Serviss added. “He claimed no geometrical shape could be interpreted as an unintentional construction.”
“And what about that astronomer who had the bright idea of digging a circular canal in the Sahara Desert, then filling it with kerosene and lighting it at night to show our location?”
“Yes, and a perfect target!”
Wells gave a slight chuckle. Serviss responded by downing the rest of his beer and urged Wells to do the same. Wells obeyed, somewhat abashed.
“The last I heard they are going to hang reflectors on the Eiffel Tower to shine light from the Sun onto Mars,” he remarked, while Serviss ordered another round.
“Good heavens, they never give up!” Serviss exclaimed, thrusting another pint toward Wells.
“You can say that again,” Wells seconded, noticing with alarm that he was beginning to have difficulty speaking without slurring his words. “We seem to think here on Earth that beings in space will be able to see anything we come up with.”
“As if they spend all their money on telescopes!” Serviss joked.
Wells couldn’t help letting out a guffaw. Infected by his laughter, Serviss began slapping his hand on the tabletop, causing enough din to elicit a few disapproving looks from the waiter and some of the other diners. These censorious looks, however, appeared not to intimidate Serviss, who slapped the table even harder, a defiant expression on his face. Wells gazed at him contentedly, like a proud father admiring his son’s antics.
“Well, well . . . so, you don’t think anyone would go to the trouble of invading a tiny planet like ours, lost in the infinity of the Cosmos, is that it, George?” Serviss said, trying to sum up once he had managed to calm down.
“I think it unlikely. Bear in mind that things never turn out the way we imagine. It is almost a mathematical law. Accordingly, Earth will never be invaded by Martians like it was in my book, for example.”
“Never,” Wells said resolutely. “Look at all the novels currently being churned out about contact with other worlds, Garrett. Apparently, anyone can write one. If future encounters were to take place with beings from outer space identical to the ones we authors have written about, it would be a case of literary premonition, don’t you think?”
At this, he took a swig of beer, with the nagging impression that what he had just said was no more than harebrained nonsense.
“Yes,” agreed Serviss, giving no sign that he considered Wells’s disquisition outlandish. “Our naïve rulers will quite possibly end up believing that evil beings from outer space have filled our subconscious minds with these imaginings, by means of ultrasonic rays or hypnosis, perhaps in preparation for a future invasion.”
“In all likelihood!” Wells burst out laughing, at which Serviss began slapping the table once more, to the despair of the waiter and the nearest customers.
“Consequently, as I was saying,” Wells resumed after Serviss stopped making a din, “even if there is life on Mars or on some other planet in our vast solar system . . .” He made a grandiose gesture toward the sky and seemed annoyed to encounter the tavern ceiling with its plain wooden beams. He gazed at it in dismay for a few moments. “Damnation . . . what was I saying?”
“Something about Mars . . . I think,” Serviss added, looking up at the ceiling with equal misgivings.
“Oh, yes, Mars,” Wells remembered at last. “I mean, assuming there was life there, it would probably be impossible to compare it with life here, and therefore envisaging spaceships engineered by Martians is absurd.”
“All right. But what if I told you,” Serviss said, trying to keep a straight face, “that you’re mistaken?”
“Mistaken? You could not say I am mistaken, my dear Garrett.”
“Unless I was able to back it up, my dear George.”
Wells nodded, and Serviss leaned back in his seat, smiling enigmatically.
“Did you know that as a youth I was obsessed with the idea of life on other planets?” he confessed.
“You don’t say?” Wells retorted, a foolish grin on his face.
“Yes, I hunted through newspapers, treatises, and old essays looking for”—he pondered the best word to use—“signs. Did you know, for example, that in 1518 something described as ‘a kind of star’ appeared in the sky above the conquistador Juan de Grijalva’s ship, before moving away leaving a trail of fire and throwing a beam of light down to Earth?”
Wells feigned surprise: “Heavens, I had no idea!”
Serviss smiled disdainfully in response to Wells’s mockery.
“I could cite dozens of similar examples from my compilation of past sightings of flying machines from other worlds, George,” he assured him, the smile still on his lips. “But that isn’t why I’m convinced beings from the sky have already visited Earth.”
Serviss leaned across the table, lowering his voice to a whisper: “Because I’ve seen a Martian.”
“Ho, ho, ho . . . Where, at the theater perhaps? Or walking along the street? Perhaps it is the queen’s new pet dog?”
“I mean it, George,” Serviss said, straightening up and beaming at him. “I’ve seen one.”
“I’m not drunk, George! Not enough not to know what I’m talking about at any rate. And I tell you I saw a darned Martian. Right in front of my very eyes. Why, I even touched it with my own hands,” he insisted, holding them aloft.
Wells looked at him gravely for a few moments before bursting into loud peals of laughter, causing half the other customers to jump.
“You are a terribly amusing fellow, Garrett,” he declared after he had recovered. “Why, I think I might even forgive you for writing a novel in order to profit from—”
“It was about ten years ago, I forget the exact date,” Serviss said, ignoring Wells’s banter. “I was spending a few days in London at the time, carrying out some research at the Natural History Museum for a series of articles I was writing.”
Realizing that Serviss wasn’t joking, Wells sat up straight in his chair and listened attentively, while he felt the pub floor rock gently beneath him, as though they were drinking beer on a boat sailing down a river. Had this fellow really seen a Martian?
“As you know, the museum was built to house an increasingly large number of fossils and skeletons that wouldn’t fit in the British Museum,” Serviss went on dreamily. “The whole place looked new, and the exhibits were wonderfully informative, as though they really wanted to show visitors what the world was about in an orderly but entertaining fashion. I would stroll happily through the rooms and corridors, aware of the fact that numerous explorers had risked life and limb so that a handful of West End ladies could feel a thrill of excitement as they watched a procession of marabunta ants. A whole host of marvels beckoned from the display cases, stirring in me a longing for adventure, a desire to discover distant lands, which, fortunately, my affection for the comforts of civilization ended up stifling. Was it worth missing the whole theater season just to see a gibbon swinging from branch to branch? Why travel so far when others were willing to endure hammering rain, freezing temperatures, and bizarre diseases to bring back almost every exotic object under the sun? And so I contented myself with observing the varied contents of the display cases like any other philistine. Although what really interested me wasn’t exhibited in any of them.”
Wells gazed at Serviss in respectful silence, not wishing to interrupt him until he had heard the end of the story. He had experienced something similar himself on his first visit to the museum.
“On the second or third day, I began to notice that, from time to time, the head curator of the museum would discreetly lead groups of visitors down to the basement. And I have to tell you that among those groups I recognized a few eminent scientists and even the odd minister. As well as the head curator, two Scotland Yard inspectors always accompanied the visitors. As you can imagine, these strange and regular processions to the basement aroused my curiosity, so that one afternoon, I stopped what I was doing and took the risk of following them downstairs. The procession walked through a maze of corridors until it reached a locked door. When the group came to a halt, the older of the inspectors, a stout fellow with a conspicuous patch over one eye, gave a command to the other one, a mere stripling. The younger man assiduously removed a key from a chain around his neck, unlocked the door, and ushered the group inside, closing the door behind him. I questioned several museum employees and found out that no one was completely sure what was inside the room, which they dubbed the Chamber of Marvels. When I asked the head curator what it contained, his response took me aback. “Things people would never have thought existed,” he said with a self-satisfied grin, and then he suggested I carry on marveling at the plants and insects in the display cases, for there were some frontiers beyond which not everybody was ready to cross. As you will understand, his response angered me, as did the fact that he never extended me the courtesy of inviting me to join one of the groups that were so regularly given access to the unknown. Apparently I wasn’t as important as all those great men of science who deserved a guided tour. And so I swallowed my pride and got used to the idea of returning to the States having only discovered what a group of insensitive bureaucrats wanted me to know about the world. However, unlike the museum’s head curator, Fate must have considered it important for me to find out what was inside that chamber. Otherwise I can’t understand how I got in there so easily.”
“How did you get in?” Wells asked, astonished.
“On my last day in London, I happened to find myself in the elevator with the younger of the two Scotland Yard inspectors. I tried to persuade him to talk about the chamber he was guarding, but to no avail. The youth would give nothing away. He even refused my invitation to have a beer at a nearby pub, with the excuse that he only drank sarsaparilla. Well, who drinks sarsaparilla these days? Anyway, as we stepped out of the elevator, he said good-bye politely and began walking down the corridor toward the exit, oblivious to the deeply resentful look I was giving him. Then, to my astonishment, I saw him pause, his legs swaying beneath him as though he were suddenly unsure of where he was going, before collapsing like a marionette with its strings cut. I was in shock, as you can imagine. I thought he had dropped dead before my eyes, from a massive heart attack or something. I ran over and unbuttoned his shirt collar with the idea of testing his pulse, only to find to my great relief that he was still alive. He had simply fainted like a lady whose corset is too tight. Blood was streaming down his face, but I soon realized it came from a cut on his eyebrow, which must have happened when he fell.”
“Perhaps he had a sudden drop in blood pressure. Or was suffering from heat stroke,” Wells suggested.
“Possibly, possibly,” Serviss replied distractedly. “And then—”
“Or low blood sugar. Although I am inclined to think—”
“What the hell does it matter what it was, George! He fainted and that’s that!” Serviss said, irritated, keen to go on with his story.
“I’m sorry, Garrett,” said Wells, somewhat cowed. “Do carry on.”
“Good, where was I?” muttered Serviss. “Oh, yes, I was concerned. But that concern soon gave way to something more like greed when I noticed a strange gold key decorated with a pair of pretty little angel’s wings hanging from the inspector’s neck. I immediately realized that the charming key was the one he had used to open the Chamber of Marvels.”
“And you stole it from him!” Wells said, shocked.
“Well . . .” Serviss shrugged, unbuttoning his shirt collar to reveal a delicate chain from which hung the key he had just described.
“I couldn’t resist it, George,” he explained, with theatrical remorse. “It wasn’t as if I was stealing a pair of shoes from a dead man. After all, the inspector had only fainted.”
Wells shook his head in disapproval. Considering the liberal amounts of alcohol he had imbibed, this proved a perilous gesture, as his head began to spin even more, giving him the impression he was sitting on a merry-go-round horse.
Serviss went on. “That’s how I got into the room where, for many reasons, they hide away all the things they don’t want the world to know about. And, take my word for it, George, if you saw what they’ve got hidden in there, you’d never write another fantasy novel.”
Wells looked at him skeptically, straightening in his chair.
“But that’s the least of it,” Serviss went on. “What really mattered stood in the corner of the room on a pedestal. An enormous flying machine. Very strange looking. And whether or not it could actually fly was a mere suspicion in the minds of the scientists who had been privileged to examine it, as far as I could gather from reading the notebooks and papers listing all the details of the discovery, which I found lying on a nearby table. Unlike the Albatross in Verne’s Robur the Conqueror, this machine had neither wings nor propellers. And no balloon either. In fact it looked more like a plate.”
“A plate?” Wells asked in astonishment.
“Yes, a soup plate. Or to be more precise a saucer. Like the ones you Britishers use under your teacups,” Serviss added.
“In short, a flying saucer,” Wells said, eager for him to go on.
“Precisely. According to what I read in the notebooks, an expedition of some years past to the South Pole found the machine buried in the Antarctic ice. It appeared to have crashed into a mountain range inland, which is what led them to believe the thing could fly. Except they were unable to open it, because there was no hatch or anything resembling a door.”
“I see. But what made them think it came from another planet?” Wells asked. “Couldn’t it have been built in Germany? The Germans are always experimenting with—”
“No, George.” Serviss butted in forcefully. “One look was enough to see the thing had been built using technology far superior to anything the Germans, or for that matter any country on Earth, could possibly possess. For example, there’s nothing to suggest it is steam driven. But in any case, it wasn’t only its appearance that made them think it came from space.”
“Really? What then?”
Serviss paused for dramatic effect, using the opportunity to take a swig of beer.
“They found the machine not far from a vessel, the Annawan, that had set sail from New York Harbor on October 15, 1829, on an exploratory voyage from which she never returned. The ship had caught fire, and the crew had perished. The frozen bodies of the sailors lay scattered about, half buried in the ice. Most were charred, but those that weren’t still wore a look of terror on their faces, as if they had been fleeing the fire . . . or who knows what other horrors. They also found the bodies of several dogs, their limbs mysteriously torn off. The members of the expedition described the scene as gruesome. But the real discovery came a few days later, when they found the probable pilot of the machine buried in the ice nearby. And I can assure you he wasn’t German, George: I knew that as soon as I opened the casket where he’s kept.”
Serviss paused once more and gave Wells a warm, almost affectionate smile, as if to apologize for scaring him. Wells looked at him with as much trepidation as his drunkenness would allow.
“And what did he look like . . . ?” he asked in a faint voice.
“Needless to say, nothing like the Martians you describe in your novel, George. In fact, he reminded me of a darker, more sophisticated version of Spring-Heeled Jack. Have you heard of Spring-Heeled Jack, that peculiar jumping creature that terrorized London about sixty years ago?”
Wells nodded, unable to fathom what possible similarity there might be between the two.
“Yes, they said he had springs on his feet, which allowed him to take great leaps.”
“And that he would spring out of nowhere in front of young girls, and caress their bodies lasciviously before disappearing again. Many depicted him as diabolical, with pointed ears and clawed hands.”
“I suppose that was a result of the hysteria at the time,” Wells reflected. “The man was probably a circus acrobat who decided to use his skills to sate his appetites.”
“Probably, George, probably. But the thing in the museum reminded me of the monstrous version the illustrators of the more salacious newspapers and magazines produced. I saw copies of those old newspapers when I was a child, and Jack’s appearance made my blood run cold. But, yes, perhaps that similarity is only visible to me, and it comes from my deepest fears.”
“So what you are saying,” Wells said, attempting to sum up, “is that there is a Martian in the Natural History Museum?”
“Yes. Only it’s dead, of course,” Serviss replied, as though somehow that made it less appealing. “Actually, it’s little more than a dried-up kind of humanoid. The only thing that might offer some interesting revelations is the inside of the machine. Maybe it contains a clue as to the Martian’s origins, or some maps of space, or something. Who knows? And we mustn’t forget what a step forward it would be for human science if we were able to figure out how it worked. But unfortunately they can’t open it. I don’t know whether they’re still trying, or whether they’ve given up and both machine and Martian are gathering dust in the museum. Whatever happens, the fact is, my dear George, that thing didn’t come from Earth.”
“A Martian!” Wells said, finally giving free rein to his bewilderment when he realized Serviss had come to the end of his story. “Good God in Heaven!”
“That’s right, George, a Martian, a hideous, horrible Martian,” Serviss confirmed. “And this key can take us to him. Although I only saw him that one time; I haven’t used the key since. I just keep it round my neck like a lucky charm, to remind me that there are more impossible things in the world than we story writers could ever imagine.”
He unfastened the chain and handed it to Wells ceremoniously, like someone surrendering a sacred object. Wells examined it carefully with the same solemnity.
“I’m convinced the true history of our time isn’t what we read in newspapers or books,” he rambled, while Wells went on examining the key. “True history is almost invisible. It flows like an underground spring. It takes place in the shadows, and in silence, George. And only a chosen few know what that history is.”
He deftly snatched the key from Wells and placed it in his jacket pocket. Then he said with a mischievous grin: “Do you want to see the Martian?”
“Why not? I doubt you’ll have another chance, George.”
Wells looked at him uneasily. He needed time to digest what Serviss had told him. Or to be more precise, he needed a couple of hours for everything to stop spinning, for his head to clear so that he could judge the American’s story rationally. Perhaps he might then refute it, for it was true that in his present alcoholic haze it felt extremely pleasant to believe that the impossible could form part of reality. Indeed, in his current state of calm euphoria, Wells rejoiced at the thought that the world he was compelled to live in had a hidden dimension, and that the frontiers erected by Man’s reason to define its boundaries might suddenly collapse, mingling the two worlds to form a new reality, a reality where magic floated in the air and fantasy novels were simply true accounts of their authors’ experiences. Is that what Serviss was saying? Was that nondescript little man guiding him, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, to his warren, where Wells would enter a world in which anything was possible? A world ruled over by a far more imaginative God than the current one? Yet that reality did not exist, it could not exist, much as it seemed to him now the most natural thing in the world.
“Are you afraid?” Serviss inquired, surprised. “Ah, I see, perhaps this is all too much for you, George. Perhaps you prefer your monsters to stay safely within the confines of your imagination, where the most they can do is send a shiver down the spines of your readers. Perhaps you haven’t the courage to face them in reality, off the page.”
“Of course I have, Garrett,” Wells retorted, irritated at Serviss’s presumption. “It is just that—”
“Don’t worry, George. I understand, I really do.” Serviss tried to console him. “Seeing a Martian is a terrifying experience. It’s one thing to write about them, and quite another to—”
“Of course I can face them in reality, confound it!” Wells cried, leaping unsteadily to his feet. “We shall go to the museum this instant, Garrett, and you can show me your Martian!”
Serviss looked up at him with amusement, then rose to his feet with the same gusto.
“All right, George, it’s up to you!” he roared, barely able to stand up straight. “Waiter, the bill! And be quick about it, my friend and I have an appointment with a creature from the stars!”
Wells tried to dissuade him from another outburst, but Serviss had already turned toward the other tables.
“Does anyone here wish to accompany us? Does anyone else wish to see a Martian?” he declared to the astonished customers, spreading his arms. “If so, come with me, and I’ll show you a bona fide inhabitant of the planet Mars!”
“Shut your mouth, tosspot!” someone bawled from the back of the room.
“Go home and sleep it off, leave us to eat in peace!” another man suggested.
“You see, George?” Serviss said, disheartened, hurling a handful of coins onto the table and weaving his way over to the door, head held high. “Nobody wants to know, nobody. People prefer living in ignorance. Well, let them!” He paused at the door, jabbing a finger at the customers as he tried not to fall over. “Go on with your miserable lives, fools! Stay in your rotten reality!”
Wells noticed a few burly looking characters making as if to get up, with what seemed like a none-too-friendly attitude. He leapt forward and began wrestling Serviss’s skinny frame out of the pub, gesturing to the locals to keep calm. Out in the street, he stopped the first cab he saw, pushed Serviss inside, and shouted their destination to the driver. The American fell sideways onto the seat. He remained in that position for a while, his head propped against the window, grinning foolishly at Wells, who had sat down opposite him in an equally graceless posture. The jolting of the coach as it went round Green Park sobered them slightly. They began laughing over the spectacle they had created in the pub, and, still fueled by drink, spent the rest of the journey inventing crazy theories as to why beings from Mars, or from some other planet, would want to visit Earth. The carriage pulled up in the Cromwell Road in front of a magnificent Romanesque Revival structure whose façade was decorated with friezes of plants and animals. Wells and Serviss got out and tottered toward the entrance, while the driver stared after them aghast. The man’s name was Neal Hamilton, he was approximately forty years of age, and his life would never be the same again. For he had just overheard those two respectable, sophisticated-looking gentlemen confirm that life had been brought to Earth in vast flying machines by intelligent beings from outer space, whose responsibility it was to populate the universe and make it flourish. Neal cracked his whip and headed home, where a few hours later, glass in hand, he would gaze up at the starry sky and wonder for the first time in his life who he was, where he came from, and even why he had chosen to be a cabdriver.
• • •
ENVELOPED IN A THICK haze, Wells allowed Serviss to lead him through the galleries. In his current state, he was scarcely aware of what was going on. The world had taken on a surreal quality: objects had lost their meaning, and everything was at once familiar and alien. One moment he had the impression of walking through the famous whale room, filled with skeletons and life-sized models of cetaceans, and the next he was surprised to find himself kneeling beside Serviss in the midst of a group of primates to escape the watchful eye of the guards. Eventually, he found himself staggering behind Serviss along the corridors in the basement until they reached the door the American had told him about at lunch, whereupon Serviss plucked the stolen key from his pocket. Unlocking the door with a ceremonious gesture, he bowed somewhat unsteadily and ushered Wells into the realm of the impossible.
Some things I would rather see sober, Wells lamented to himself, stepping cautiously over the threshold. The Chamber of Marvels was exactly as the American had described: a vast room crammed with the most wondrous things in the world, like a vast pirate’s treasure trove. There was such an array of curiosities scattered about that Wells did not know where to look first, and the irritating little prods Serviss kept giving him to speed him along through the fantastic display did not help matters. He observed that a great deal of what was there had been labeled. One revelation succeeded another as Wells found himself gazing at a fin belonging to the Loch Ness monster, what looked like a curled-up kitten inside a glass jar marked FUR OF THE YETI, the purported skeleton of a mermaid, dozens of photographs of tiny, glowing fairies, a crown made of phoenix feathers, a giant bull’s head allegedly from a minotaur, and a hundred other marvels. The fantastical tour came to an end when, suddenly, he found himself standing before a painting of a hideously deformed old man labeled PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY.
Still recovering from the shock, he noticed some familiar objects next to him: a chemical flask containing a reddish liquid, and a small sachet of white crystals. The label on it said: “Last batch of chemicals salvaged from the warehouse of Messrs. Maw, indispensable for making Doctor Henry Jekyll’s potion.” Almost without thinking, the astonished Wells grasped the glass beaker: he needed to touch some of these wonders simply to be sure they were not a figment of his drunken imagination, inflamed by Serviss’s storytelling. He needed to know they existed outside books, tales, and myths. As he held the beaker, he could smell the sharp odor of the blood-colored liquid. What would he change into if he drank the mixture? he wondered. What would his evil side be like? Would he suddenly get smaller, would he acquire the strength of a dozen men, a brilliant mind, and an overwhelming desire for wicked pleasures, as had happened to Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll, in what he had always assumed was a made-up story?
“Hurry up, George, we haven’t got all day!” the American barked, yanking Wells’s arm and giving him such a fright that the beaker slipped from his hand and shattered on the floor. Wells watched the red liquid spread over the tiles. He knelt down to try to clean up the mess but only succeeded in cutting his hand on one of the shards of glass.
“I broke it, Garrett!” he exclaimed in dismay. “I broke Doctor Jekyll’s potion!”
“Bah! Forget about that and come with me, George,” Serviss replied, gesturing to him to follow. “These are nothing more than fanciful baubles compared to what I want to show you.”
Wells obeyed, threading his way through the hoard of objects as he tried to stanch the cut. Serviss guided him to a corner of the large room, where the flying saucer awaited. The machine rested horizontally on its stand, exactly as Serviss had described, like an enormous upside-down soup plate, tapered at the edges and crowned with a dome. Wells approached the object timidly, overawed by its sheer size and the strange shiny material it was made from, which gave it the appearance of being both solid and light. Then he noticed the peculiar carvings that dotted the surface and gave off a faint coppery glow. They reminded him of Asian characters, though more intricate. What did they symbolize?
“It doesn’t look like they’ve managed to open it yet,” Serviss remarked over his shoulder. “As you can see, there are no openings, and it doesn’t seem to have any engine either. Although it looks like it must be extremely easy to fly, and probably incredibly fast.”
Wells nodded absentmindedly. He had just noticed the large table piled high with papers beside the machine. This was where Serviss had told him he had found the files documenting the amazing discovery. He approached it, mesmerized, and began rummaging through the piles of notebooks and documents. Among them two thick albums containing photographs and newspaper clippings stood out. During his random search, Wells came across the burnt vessel’s logbook, kept by the captain, a man by the name of MacReady. The handwriting was plain, devoid of any flourishes, and suggested a man with a stern, no-nonsense character, in complete contrast to that of Jeremiah Reynolds, who had been in charge of that expedition to the South Pole, whose diary seemed much more rambling and unmethodical. Wells browsed through the numerous articles in one of the albums describing the terrible fate of what the press had nicknamed the Ill-Fated Expedition, which had set sail from New York bound for the Antarctic on October 15, 1829. With some alarm, Wells read a few of the lurid front-page headlines, accompanied by bloodcurdling photographs of the sailors’ bodies and the remains of the vessel: “Who or what slaughtered the crew of the Annawan? What horrors are buried beneath the Antarctic ice?” Yet, as far as he could make out, none of the articles mentioned the two main discoveries: the flying machine and the Martian. In the second album, however, he found several photographs of the strange machine half buried in the ice, glistening against the menacing grey sky, as if a giant had dropped a shiny coin from a great height. Next to these was a pile of scientific reports, which Wells could scarcely make sense of, and which by all appearances were secret and consequently had been kept from journalists and the public alike.
“Don’t waste time on that, George. The important thing is in there,” Serviss declared, breaking Wells’s intense concentration and walking over to what looked like a wooden trunk covered in copper rivets, to which a small refrigerator had been attached. He placed his hands solemnly on the lid, turned to Wells, and said, with a mischievous grin, “Are you ready to see a Martian?”
Needless to say Wells was not ready, but he nodded and swallowed hard. Then, with exasperating slowness and a conspiratorial air, Serviss began lifting the lid, which let out a blast of icy vapor. When at last it was open, Serviss stood back to allow Wells to look inside. With gritted teeth, Wells leaned gingerly over the edge. For a few moments, he could not understand what the devil he was seeing, for the thing in front of him resisted any known form of biological classification. Unable to describe the indescribable, in his novel Wells had placed the Martians somewhere on the spectrum between amoebas and reptiles. He had depicted them as slimy, amorphous lumps, loosely related to the octopus family and thus intelligible to the human mind. But the strange creature in the coffin defied his attempts to classify it, or to use familiar words to describe it—which, by definition, was impossible. All the same, Wells endeavored to do so, aware that however precise he aimed to be, his portrayal of that creature’s appearance would be nowhere near the truth. The Martian had a greyish hue, reminiscent of a moth, although darker in places. He must have been at least ten feet tall, and his body was long and thin, like an evening shadow. He was encased in a kind of skinlike membrane, which appeared to be part of his structure. This sprouted from his shoulders, covering his body down to the tops of his slender legs, which were made of three segments, like a praying mantis. His equally slender upper limbs also poked out from beneath the mantle, ending in what looked to Wells like a pair of sharp spikes. But the most remarkable thing of all was the Martian’s head, which seemed to be tucked inside a hood of the same textured cartilaginous skin as the mantle. Although it was scarcely visible among the enveloping folds, Wells could make out a triangular shape, devoid, of course, of any recognizable features, except for a couple of slits, possibly the eyes. The presumed face was dark and terrifying and covered in protrusions. He thought he saw a thick cluster of cilia around the creature’s jaw, from which emerged a kind of proboscis, like that of a fly, which now lay inert along his long throat. Naturally, the Martian looked nothing like how he remembered the phantasmagoric Spring-Heeled Jack, Wells thought. Unable to stop himself, he reached over and stroked one of the Martian’s arms, curious to know what the incredibly alien skin felt like. Yet he could not tell whether it was smooth or rough, moist or dry, repulsive or pleasant. Strange as it seemed, it was all those things at once. But at least he could be sure of one thing, Wells thought: judging from his expressionless face and lifeless eyes, the terrifying creature was dead.
“All right, George, it’s time for us to get out of here now,” Serviss announced, closing the casket lid. “It won’t do to stay here too long.”
Wells nodded, still a little light-headed, and took care to avoid knocking over any of the wondrous objects as he followed Serviss toward the door.
“Remember everything you’ve seen, George,” Serviss recommended, “and whether you believe these marvels are real or fake, depending on your intellectual daring, never mention this room to anyone you wouldn’t trust with your life.”
Serviss opened the door and, after making sure the coast was clear, told Wells to step outside. They walked through the interminable corridors of the basement until they finally emerged on the ground floor. There they slipped in among the crowd, unaware that beneath their unsteady feet, inside the wooden casket, the skin of the creature from the stars was absorbing the drops of blood Wells had left on its arm. Like a clay figure dissolving in the rain, his shape began to change, taking on the appearance of an extraordinarily thin, pale, youngish man with a birdlike face, identical to the one who at that very moment was leaving the museum like an ordinary visitor.
• • •
ONCE OUTSIDE, SERVISS SUGGESTED to Wells that they dine together, but Wells refused, claiming the journey back to Worcester Park was a long one and he would prefer to set off as soon as possible. He had already gathered that meals with Serviss were conspicuous by their lack of food, and he felt too inebriated to go on drinking. Besides, he was keen to be alone so that he could reflect calmly about everything he had seen. They bade each other farewell, with a vague promise of meeting again the next time Serviss was in London, and Wells flagged down the first cab he saw. Once inside, after giving the driver the address, he tried to clear his mind and reflect on the day’s astonishing events, but he was too drowsy from drink and soon fell asleep.
And as the eyes of that somnolent, light-headed Wells closed, inside a casket in the basement of the Natural History Museum, those of another Wells opened.