Stephen Baxter's The Martian in the Wood, a Tor.com Original
In the aftermath of the First Martian War, in the interim between it and what was to come later, England seemed to once again become a green and peaceful place, if one haunted by the terrible events in Surrey that had happened in those early years of the century. Although people hoped and prayed peace had come, they were wrong. Across the gulf of space, plans were being drawn for a return, but before they could bear fruit a terrible discovery was made deep in Holmburgh Wood, one that would tear a family apart and shock the world.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
STEPHEN BAXTER ("The best SF writer in Britain"--SFX) was born in Liverpool in 1957, and graduated with a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University. He is the author of Raft, Timelike Infinity, Anti-Ice, Flux, Ring, The Time Ships, Voyage, Titan, and Moonseed. All of his novels have been published in both Britain and the US, and most of them in Europe and Japan. He has won the Philip K. Dick Award, the John W. Cambell Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Lasswitz Award (in Germany) and the Seiun Award (in Japan).
Read an Excerpt
I never saw Holmburgh Wood before it was destroyed.
To help me imagine it, I have only the descriptions of Walter Jenkins, that notoriously unreliable narrator of the First Martian War, and Zena Gardner, who was at least an eyewitness to the events that led to the Wood's burning.
Holmburgh is in Sussex, in the south of England. This is old country, older in a sense even than the rest of our venerable island nation. For, you see, it always lay beyond the reach of the glaciers. Even at the height of the Ice Ages past, these southernmost counties were spared the grinding and bedrock-scraping suffered by more northern terrains. Holmburgh Wood in modern times was a tangle of tree species, of deciduous and evergreen mixed in together, that could not, of course, have survived in that form since the last warm interval between the returns of the ice. In the frozen desert south of the glaciers, at the site of Holmburgh, there might have been a tangle of Arctic willows, their roots clinging to rocky ground, bent over by the unceasing wind. Yet the Wood itself survived – with seeds and spores, perhaps, sleeping in the ground until the warmth returned. Survived, with something of its dark character.
I never saw Holmburgh, then, but, as I have followed up this peculiar appendix to the greater tale of the War, I have visited other ancient boreal survivors of its kind: Fetch Wood, Rendlesham – Ryhope in Herefordshire too, with a place name that has some similarities of root with "Holmburgh". These are uneasy places to visit, dense dark woods uncut and untamed, the trees growing too thickly, the ground choked by leaf litter and lichen and moss, the space itself lightless and cramped where you lose your bearings within a few yards of entering. Places always associated with dread and hauntings and mystery.
Well, Zena Gardner grew up close to Holmburgh Wood in its full, grim flowering: a survivor from prehistory, and untouched by history. The Britons feared it. The Romans drove their roads around it. The Saxons worshipped it. The Normans enclosed it in one of their vast hunting estates.
Of course, there are no woods on Mars. Yet a Martian came to Holmburgh.
As it happened, Walter Jenkins was first contacted about the modern mystery of Holmburgh Wood on October 6, 1907, exactly three months after Mars and Earth had been perfectly aligned in that year's opposition: that is, the date on which the planets had approached each other most closely, with Earth overtaking Mars in its slower orbit. It was this close approach that had of course given the Martians the opportunity for their invasion of the earth, specifically of Surrey and London. By October 6, though, the last Martian was already dead three months – so far as we knew then – and Walter, having recovered from his own trauma – well, so far as he knew then – was beginning the research that would lead to his own glorious, notorious account of the First Martian War and his part in it.
But he was distracted from this labour by strange news from Holmburgh.
Until recently I, his sister-in-law, knew nothing of this particular incident and Walter's own part in it. This was despite my relatively close contact with him ever since the unfolding of the Second War. It has only been in my role as his unofficial archivist since his death in August of this year that I have come across his record of the Holmburgh incident. In his house on Maybury Hill in Woking he left behind a great nest of writing. It is probably accurate to say that my brother-in-law wrote, almost every day of his adulthood – save when the conditions of the Wars made that impossible – almost to the end of his long life. And the quality was dauntingly high, if the themes were somewhat specialised. I myself am a reporter, a journalist; I can vouch that Walter Jenkins was no great war correspondent, but he was a valuable if flawed reporter on the condition of at least one human soul – his own.
And, as I said, contained within the archive is a fragmentary account of the Holmburgh events. The Martians, you see, had launched in May 1907, landed in June, and were dead in July. By early October Walter's narrative project was already known to the public – and as a philosopher with a facility with words he had always had a profile in the newspapers.
And so Zena Gardner, when she became concerned about the Wood and in particular its influence on her brother, decided to seek him out for his advice. What follows is my imaginative reconstruction of their encounter.
As happened to so many families in southern England at the time of the First War – like my own – the Gardners' lives had been disrupted by the Martian incursion, and struck by tragedy. Zena herself had been stuck in Paris, where she had been studying. When service was resumed after the fall of the invaders she had got on one of the first ferry ships to sail from Calais.
Zena had already known that her parents were among the many lost during those devastating days of Martian attack, a vanished horde not yet even counted by the time of her return in early August. But she felt it her duty to visit their house in Kensington, a shattered district, where they had died. To add to the distress of the survivors, the Heat-Ray left few traces of its victims, so that confirmation of death and the issuing of probate was a challenge, though the authorities were sympathetic. Zena left her details with the police, to be informed if there were any property or papers to be reclaimed – or any bodies to be identified.
Then she caught the train, the rail service itself still struggling to recover, and travelled south and west to Sussex and home. She arrived on a sultry day, the sunlight heavy; it had been a hot, oppressive, storm-laden summer throughout the few weeks of the Martian War, and still that humid heat lingered.
And she returned, she told Walter, to a house itself untouched by the War, but empty of family. Or so it seemed.
The estate itself had been established by one of the Conqueror's robber barons, a particularly vicious example of his sort, whose line had brutalised the Saxon peasantry before dissolving in a saga of incest and murder. The Gardners who took over the bankrupt estate, despite a name indicating humble origins, themselves were a great trading family of the British Empire, dealing in sugar, coffee – and slavery. In 1907 it was not yet a century since that awful trade had been abolished in the Empire, and the Gardners were not alone in the source of their prosperity. The Gardners themselves were an unpleasant bunch, and much of their money was lost in fratricidal conflict. By the dawn of the twentieth century, though, they were still reasonably wealthy, certainly in property with their continuing ownership of the estate with its hundreds of acres of land – most of it farmed by tenants. Zena's parents had preferred to live in their residences in London, running the stock trading businesses that in modern times had generated much of their wealth.
Zena and her only brother Nathan were both in their twenties. Zena had gone to Paris to study biology; this was a time, you see, when opportunities to pursue a career in such fields were just, barely, opening up for young women like Zena. When Zena learned the true origin of the wealth that sustained her, she was shocked. She was drawn to socialist and other forward-thinking groups and individuals – which was how she first heard Walter's name, he being one of the country's foremost moral philosophers before the Martian War, and notorious as its chronicler afterwards.
Nathan, it seemed, had always been rather duller in personality. A year younger than Zena, he had followed his parents to London where he had made brief forays into the world of high finance – clearly the parents had hoped he would follow in their footsteps – but he had soon returned home. He had always been an outdoors type, even as a boy. Now he tried out modern agricultural methods on the estate, to the bemusement of tenant farmers twice his age. Yet he was a romantic too, with his head turned by accounts of the great British explorers of decades past. As a boy, Zena would recall, he had played at being James Cook or Robert Falcon Scott, bravely penetrating darkest Holmburgh Wood. But he had never gone deep in there – not then.
The house itself had been shut up since the War. The family had engaged two servants, a butler and a maid. When the Martians landed in Surrey the maid had decanted to her own family in Cornwall, and Zena could not blame her for that. The man, Pierce, had volunteered for military service in the few desperate days of the War, when the meagre British Army had taken such a battering in Surrey and London, and in the provinces there had been a hasty recruitment drive. "But the war was over afore I was fitted out in the khaki, Miss," he told her. "And so I come 'ome." He was a burly, fatherly local man who had been with the family many years; Zena was glad to see him, and waved away his apologies for the few weeks of neglect the house had suffered.
Of her brother, Nathan, there was little trace.
He was evidently in residence, in theory if not in practice. When she ventured into the room that had been his since boyhood, she found a few clothes scattered on the bed and on the floor – rough working clothes, his city suits hung disregarded in the wardrobe – and a few enigmatic scribbles, maps and notes she could barely read. Pierce said Nathan had been away "in that Wood" for a couple of days and nights, and it wasn't the first such expedition he had made, the man reported with unstated disapproval.
So Zena moved back into her home. She helped Pierce with getting the house in order again, and visited the tenant farmers, and made trips to the village to collect post and newspapers – those services had recovered quickly after the War, as everybody knows. She worked only slowly through correspondence relating to her parents, and the formalities regarding their deaths and legacy. There was, as Pierce reassured her in her darker moments, "no rush about them things".
On the fourth day, Nathan showed up.
He came on foot, out of the Wood, along the trail to the house.
This was about four in the afternoon. But in what seemed to be a well-rehearsed ritual, when he saw Nathan approach, Pierce put out a kind of lunch, of cold meat, bread, fruit, red wine and chilled water, on a picnic table.
Zena ran out to meet Nathan. This was, after all, the first family member she had seen since before the War. They embraced – she was tearful, she would tell Walter – and they spoke briefly of their parents.
But Nathan was dry-eyed, and seemed distracted, even in such a moment. His clothes, a rough jacket and shirt and workman's trousers, were grimy, scuffed. He was unshaven and smelled of damp and mould; he had been out in the Wood for some days. She thought there was dried blood on his clothes, his hands, even streaked on his face. Around his mouth. He seemed gaunt, pale – not from simple hunger, it seemed to her, more as if he was in the early stages of some wasting illness. And even as they spoke of their parents he kept glancing back at the Wood, as if he longed to return.
But he sat down. "God," he said, tearing off handfuls of cold ham. "Hunting for your grub is harder work than you think. I'm dying for a bit of meat."
For Zena a kind of deep relief to have him home warred with irritation. "You wouldn't be cramming your face like that if Mother and Father were still here."
"Perhaps not," he said. "Sorry. But if the Martians were still here we'd all be eating like this. Stuffing ourselves when we got the chance. Feeding off scraps, or what we could hunt. Those of us who survived."
"But the Martians aren't still here," Zena said.
He didn't reply to that.
"What are you up to in that Wood, Nathan? Playing at Speke seeking the source of the Nile, as when we were children?"
He snorted. "You never played. But I am searching for – something."
"Searching?" A sibling's natural scepticism cut in. "The Wood is only, what, three miles across? This is Sussex, not Poland. How long do you need to search such a scrap?"
"A scrap? If you say so."
"What something do you seek, then?"
He eyed her, and Pierce. "Neither of you were here to see it. You'll have to take my word."
"Your word about what?"
As he spoke, he continued to eat and drink. "You know I was here, on the estate, when the Martians landed in Surrey. On my own, after Pierce and Mary left. I thought I should stay to support the tenants, and in case you, or Mum and Dad, came home. Of course, nobody knew what was going on, once the telegraph wires were cut and the newspapers stopped. A very scary few days, that was. But I stuck it out. A few times I thought I heard guns, saw the flashes of weapons. But it's been a stormy summer."
"That's true enough."
"And then ..."
With his usual forensic care, Walter would date what Nathan next described to the day of the Martian opposition itself: July 6. That was presumably a coincidence – but it was probably no coincidence that this was the day after Walter himself discovered the Martians in London slain by infection.
And Walter immediately knew that Nathan's account had some plausibility. Ten Martian cylinders fell on Surrey and London in the First War, each bearing five Martians and five fighting-machines. After the War, of this deadly cargo, forty-seven Martians were accounted for (plus one infant, apparently budded on Earth, dead as the rest), and only forty-eight of their great tripods.
What, then, of the rest?
"There was a storm," Nathan said. "Another one. In the late afternoon it got black as night, I'll swear. I was alone in the house, watching the lightning dance over the land. Dance – yes, that's the word. And in that uncertain illumination, I was upstairs looking out of the master bedroom over the Wood, and I thought I saw ..."
"Movement. Something standing over the Wood. Like a towering skeleton, I thought, all bones and joints. Death, come to Holmburgh.
"Lightning struck it – or maybe it summoned the lightning from the sky. And it fell, crumpled, toppled.
"There was a kind of explosion. It seemed to blast straight up, and I saw what looked like branches and trunks, wheeling in the air. You'd think the whole Wood would catch fire, but no, it died away quick."
Pierce put in, "I'm told a powerful enough bomb can be like that, Miss. It sort of blows out its own fire."
"But then the lightning came again, smashing down on – well, whatever it was that had fallen in the Wood. Again and again."
"And that's what you have been searching for."
"Wouldn't you? Actually, no, you probably wouldn't."
She ignored that. "But again, Nathan – why haven't you found it yet? The Wood is, what, six, seven square miles? And if this object is as big as you describe, and there were multiple lightning strikes –"
"It's not as simple as that," he said. He glanced at the descending sun. "Too late."
"To go back out again today."
She stared at him. "You can't be serious. You've only just come back – look at the state of you, half starved, bloodied. You look ill, actually. Doesn't he, Pierce?"
But Pierce, standing discreetly at his station by the door, would not reply.
"You wouldn't understand, Zee-zee," Nathan said.
She was growing concerned, and not a little angry. But she said, "What of Mum and Dad?"
"Look, there are papers to go through. Decisions to be made, once we get probate. I don't think it's right that I alone ..."
His expression changed, from that distracted self-absorption. It was as if he saw her properly for the first time since coming home. He reached across the table and touched her hand. "I'm sorry, Zee-zee. I'm being selfish."
She shook her head. "They left wills. But they weren't planning to die. And without the bodies –"
"Of course. I'll stay."
"How long? And then? Will you go back?"
He shrugged. He didn't need to reply.
In the end he stayed two nights, before dressing in his country clothes, and packing a bag with food, water, some basic medical supplies (at Zena's insistence), and a Kodak (at her suggestion), and walking off, across the fields of the estate with their pale wheat and their grazing sheep, back to the Wood.
He was gone many days.
And before his next, brief return, Zena would tell Walter, the strangeness began.
Excerpted from "The Martian in the Wood"
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Baxter.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting short story, a nice introduction to the War of the Worlds book, The Massacre of Mankind