Author: Chris Cook
September 1st, 1939
Willow breathed, finding it a sickening sensation. She fought to remain calm, as the thick liquid surrounding her flowed down her throat, into her lungs. The oxygen within it sustained her, but it was still difficult, and always had been, to ignore the urge to hold her breath against the influx of fluid. She had almost drowned once, as a toddler playing by a riverbank, or at least her parents had told her as much - she had no memory of it, but she wondered if her body somehow remembered in spite of her.
Given that she was strapped immobile into a sealed capsule, she supposed she should just consider herself lucky that she wasn't claustrophobic. She knew that, if she were, she would have been required to endure the confinement regardless, under semi-sedation if necessary.
After all, dragoons are too rare to be excused their duty to King and Empire, she thought sourly, inhaling another lungful of oxygenated fluid.
A bone-shaking impact startled her - she had forgotten to keep an eye on her mission clock. She felt as if the shape of her harness had been imprinted onto her skin permanently, but knowing what would have happened to her had she not been secured and immersed - having seen the results first-hand - she ignored the aches, and waited for her household staff to appear. They were well-trained, and in spite of having had to come out of immersion first, with no-one to help them, it took only two minutes for Willow to see her manservant outside the thick window of her capsule, and for the fluid level to begin to fall. She closed her eyes and held her breath, her lungful of liquid, as the level dropped past her head and chest, wincing as the water layer on top of the dense oxygen fluid bathed her, and finally spitting out the contents of her lungs as she felt air touch her face, and her servant's hands steady on her shoulders, holding her as she coughed and gasped for real air.
"How did we hit?" she asked, as soon as she had the wherewithal to speak.
"Only a hundred yards off-centre, ma'am," the man replied, facing respectfully to one side as he handed Willow a washcloth. "Leftenant Harris reports we're secure from impact, and has established beam signals with regimental HQ. Lord Giles's compliments, and he welcomes us to the theatre, ma'am."
"Very good," Willow nodded distractedly, concentrating on using the capsule's water sluices to rid herself of the last traces of oxygen fluid, especially her eyes. The regiment's surgeon, in a minor breach of protocol, had always made a point about warning her to wash her eyes thoroughly after a gravity session, for all that Parliament refused to acknowledge any possible risk in the procedure. Better safe than sorry, Willow had agreed with the surgeon. She blinked away the moisture, and reached out blindly for a towel, which the servant put in her hand.
"Your uniform will be laid out in just a moment ma'am," he went on. "The storage seal was not quite sufficient to the impact, but I have Mister Wells ironing out the creases."
"Good, good," Willow replied, not particularly caring.
"Oh, and there was one other message from headquarters. We are to receive an empath, at our convenience. I took the liberty of preparing the reception room."
"Thank you," Willow said, more sharply than she'd intended. You couldn't have mentioned that first? That's a bit more important than whether my blasted uniform is ironed or not. An empath could... "Have her shown in as soon as she arrives. And dispatch a signal to HQ: compliments to Lord Giles, and request the current order of battle. That'll be all."
"Thank you ma'am," the servant bowed stiffly and turned, leaving Willow to emerge from her capsule and get dressed in privacy. Having donned her uniform, fidgeting as usual with the high, tight collar, and strapped on her belt with its sabre and duelling pistol, she crossed the room and twirled the brass-plated valve to open the window. With a hiss of releasing pressure a section of the wall drew back, revealing a thick glass pane, and beyond that a vast, flat landscape of dusty soil infested with wretched, dying weeds, their blood-red turned almost black.
"Welcome to Mars," Willow murmured grimly. On the horizon were dim flashes, and the hint of explosions drifted on the thin breeze. The third War of the Worlds had begun.
I am the very model of a modern Major General I've information vegetable animal and mineral I know the Kings of England and I quote the fights historical from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical-
The fast-paced lyrics rattled through Willow's mind as she forced herself not to fidget, waiting in the ante-chamber of the habitat. Outside the three-inch-thick bay windows she could see her staff at work, lining up the Hermes machines ready for her household guard, who were no doubt still enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the mess hall. Good for them, they don't have to deal with a Political. Rank hath its privileges, Willow sneered silently. Then she caught herself, and grimaced as she realised her mind had wandered. That could prove fatal. She mentally scurried back to the safety of Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan.
The cycling of the lock sounded, and she drew herself up to her full height, such as it was, and smoothed the front of her uniform, shrugging off her valet's attempt to straighten her medals.
She was braced for the sight of the empath - they were invariably beautiful - but even so she barely kept her mind in check when the door cycled open and her butler stepped out and to one side, presenting the woman. Her cornfield-gold hair leapt out against the dark of her black leather greatcoat, and her eyes were the most stunning shade of blue Willow had ever seen. Then she felt the fleeting skitter of the woman's mind touching hers, and she clamped down on her surprise, and kept her recital running through her thoughts.
"Colonel, may I present Lady Tara of Marseilles. Milady," the butler bowed and excused himself.
"Thank you," the empath - Tara - said softly, with a quick glance at the man. Then her attention was back on Willow, and the redhead lifted her chin.
"Milady," she said impassively.
"Colonel," Tara replied, with a polite smile. "Lord Giles sends his regards. I've been confirmed to your command for the duration of the present crisis. My orders, Sir," she finished, holding out an oilskin-bound packet.
"Welcome to the command, Milady," Willow acknowledged, following Tara in sticking to protocol. She took the packet and handed it to her valet - there was no need to check them. The King's Service Special Branch never had to stoop to anything so crude as forging papers to have its operatives 'confirmed' to whichever command they liked, and any officer who seemed to doubt this only brought suspicion upon himself. Those who wanted their commands free of Politicals had to be far more subtle.
"I understand you have your order of battle?" Tara asked.
"We move within the hour," Willow nodded. "If that suits you of course, Milady."
"I'll be ready." There was a hesitant silence, during which Willow wondered whether the woman was trying to put her off-balance.
"I-I'll report to our machine," Tara said at last.
"Very well," Willow replied too quickly, finding herself indeed caught off guard. Empaths usually were far too certain and composed for comfort - seeing one hesitate was almost as unsettling as a full-on mental offensive. "The colour sergeant will show you to your suite." She glanced over her shoulder, and her valet detached himself from her side and gestured for Tara to precede him through the adjacent bulkhead door.
Tara nodded, and went without a word, leaving Willow feeling confused, and not at all reassured by the fact that, but for the first almost-expected brush, her mind had gone untouched throughout their encounter.
Willow sat uneasily in her saddle, with her fingers splayed on the touch-panels controlling the giant machine she rode in, her eyes shifting from the landscape to the silver-edged navigation-positioning dials and back again. On either side of her, her household guard advanced in line abreast, eight Hermes-class mechanised cavalry units, quadrapeds striding quickly and surely across dull the Martian terrain. They were sure machines, fast and reliable and resilient - for all that Parliament touted the accomplishments of the Hephaestus dreadnoughts, the popular opinion was that it had been the Hermes striders that had won the second War - had beaten the Martians back from the hastily-claimed beachheads of their renewed invasion, and scoured their landing sites, and the factory-shells they had arrived in.
Though Willow had been too young to fight at the time - barely six years old - the Royal Health Service had already identified her talent, and she had begun her training as a dragoon, one of the few with the aptitude to pilot true fighting machines. Willow had always imaged herself piloting a Hermes, fast and agile.
But when the decision was taken to invade Mars - the King's famous Manifest Destiny proclamation made from the ruins of the Hofburg in Vienna, declaring that peaceful cohabitation of the solar system between human and Martian was impossible - the Royal Industrial Cavalry decided that the Hermes fleet, and especially their accident-prone larger brothers the Hephaestus class, were inadequate to tackling the enemy on their home soil. Thus it was, while the Astronomer Royal was marshalling half the Royal College to master interplanetary travel, the Cavalry was developing its ultimate weapon, the Zeus class, in one of which Willow now found herself.
She contented herself that, for all that she would have felt safer in a battle-proven Hermes, her machine was steady, and surprisingly light to her touch given its mammoth size. Having three gunners was certainly nothing to scoff at, compared to the Hermes' one, though whether the new inferno cannons they were currently peering down the sights of were any better than the trusty old heat ray was a matter that was far from proven, no matter what the Board of Ordnance claimed. And as for the empath's suite mounted above the pilot's canopy, like a scorpion's sting - well, the opinion of all commissioned officers when it came to Politicals was no secret, for all that none would dare state it publicly. Willow had no idea whether, as claimed by Parliament, an empath could interfere with an enemy's conduct - she was merely glad that there was no direct line of sight - and thus, no way to make safe contact - from where she sat piloting the machine to where Tara lay in her cushioned couch, surveying the scenery.
Her reverie was rudely interrupted by a flash of movement from starboard. Suddenly what had been a flat, featureless plain was erupting, Martian fighting machines rising from hollows in the ground, red dust streaming off their carapaces in the wind as they reached their full vertiginous heights. Willow quickly brought her machine's nose down, presenting its armoured back and cannons to the largest concentration of Martians, hearing the eye-watering hiss of her gunners opening fire in the next instant.
The battle was quick and vicious. Two of Willow's guard were down in the first instant, one crashing to the ground as two of its legs warped beneath it - Willow hoped its crew would survive - and one simply exploding as Martian heat rays burrowed through its armour and reached the interior. Martian machines were skidding left and right, trying to dodge as the powerful heat cannons on Willow's machine scythed through their ranks, felling three almost as soon as they had stood up. Willow felt the shudder of heat rays skittering across her machine's armour, flash-blasting the ablative layers to vapour, but she forced herself to trust in her gunners, and devoted herself to keeping them mobile and alive. A swarm of the short-legged crab machines came scurrying forward out of some hidden burrow, and Willow dodged their attempts to get at the Zeus's legs, sidestepping the swipe of their bulky claws, and even managing to bring one of her machine's six feet down on top of one, crushing it in an instant.
"Power failure!" she heard over the internal circuit, and to her horror the sound of her machine's heat rays vanished, though thank God the motive systems seemed unaffected. She glanced about in a panic, seeing her guard too busy fighting for their lives to step in, then another Martian reared up directly in front of her, rising up to the height of Willow's canopy, as if wanting to stare its enemy in the eyes before firing. Willow ducked and retreated, but the Martian was faster than she was, and raced forwards on its three legs to keep her from bringing her armour to bear.
Willow braced herself, wondering if she would die instantly, or if there would be long enough to feel the searing pain of the heat ray. But no heat came. The Martian's weapon wavered on the end of its tapering mechanical arm, then lowered, and it simply stood still, as if there was suddenly nothing piloting the alien fighting machine. Willow stared at it, unsure of what she was seeing.
The hissing resumed, and the Martian staggered under the assault of three inferno cannons, quickly collapsing as fires broke out within its body. Willow forced her hands to move, taking her machine striding back towards the roiling melee between the survivors of her guard and the swarm of Martians.
Willow sat in her study, trying to shut out the moaning of the Martian wind blowing around the habitat's walls. She held a fountain pen in her hand, poised above a paper, unsure of what to write next.
'Dear Mr. and Mrs. Tomkinson,
It is with deep regret that I must inform you that your son David'
Gave his life for Mother England? Died a hero's death? Laid down his life in the finest traditions of the service... God damn it, he never even knew what hit him. His sergeant didn't even have time to flip the lock off his heat ray, they just... died. It didn't mean anything, this damned planet killed them, and... and why did we even come here? God damn it. God damn this.
"Have you never lost someone before?"
Willow whirled around in her chair, to find Tara at the door, gazing at her. She searched for a nursery rhyme, multiplication tables, anything, even as she realised it was too late. The empath had been standing there who knew how long - long enough to read her disloyal musings, without even the effort of pushing past repetitive recitations in her surface thoughts. Willow cursed herself for being so careless, and for endangering the others. She knew only a few names, had only dared voice her reservations about Parliament and the King to a handful of her most trusted friends... and now they'll be the ones they come for first.
"No," she shook her head, forcing herself to answer Tara's question as if nothing was amiss. Gilbert and Sullivan turned up, too late, and under their cover Willow wondered whether the empath would play along, or just arrest her now. 'In the name of the King of England, Emperor of Terra...'
"My last officer lost a man in a training exercise," Tara said, taking a pace forwards, into the room proper. "He had his staff draft the letter. He just signed it."
"They were under my command," Willow said automatically. "They were my men." For some reason she felt it was important to say it - whatever happened next, for Tara to at least know this about her.
"May I?" the empath asked, glancing at the chair beside Willow's writing desk. Curious, Willow shrugged her assent, and the blonde sat gingerly, with her hands held in her lap.
"I expect they won't be the last," she said, nodding at the two letterhead pages on the desk.
"I expect not," Willow agreed, wondering what game was being played. Oh for goodness' sake, you know I'm a dissenter, arrest me and be done with it. Are you enjoying this or something?
"Of course," Tara said carefully, "it can be necessary for soldiers to give their lives. To protect the general populace-"
"Who would otherwise bear the brunt of the enemy's assault," Willow finished, recognising the quote from the King's declaration of war.
"For instance, if the black smoke were to be released against London, or Calcutta..." Tara went on, as if thinking to herself.
Oh bugger this for a game of soldiers.
"True," Willow agreed carelessly. "Of course, that supposes that the Martians would manage to get their slimy backsides in proximity to said cities without being detected, and of course we so far have no evidence that they have the capability to launch unseen, or indeed deploy the smoke without having first - somehow - nullified the countermeasures the RHS has developed." She smiled brightly, as if she'd just said something incredibly clever, rather than simply confirming her guilt by casting the crown's views into doubt.
"Hmm," Tara nodded, as if Willow had said something most people hadn't guessed themselves. "Your butler told me that the problem with our fighting machine has been isolated?"
Our fighting machine? In what parallel world am I going to be in command of anything at the end of this conversation?
"The Corps has had similar problems today with some of the other Zeuses," Willow said to cover her unease. "Engaging all the cannons at once, heat build-up and power spikes in the electrical systems and so on. They're refitting the machines already." She wondered if she should go on, and found in light of her already-certain arrest that she was not lacking in courage. "Of course, if it were me I'd have been more inclined to test the blasted things until they ran hot before we got launched into a theatre of war, but I'm sure the Board of Ordnance had some vastly intelligent reason for not bothering."
"I suppose," Tara agreed, with was that a grin? a quirk of her lips. "In any case... I'm glad I could be of some help today."
"You held the Martian in place," Willow said. "Kept him from firing."
"Yes," Tara nodded. "For want of a better term, I suppressed its thoughts."
"I see," said Willow, who didn't really, and wasn't sure she wanted to. Curiosity, as always, got the better of her. "What's it like?"
"Making contact with them?" Tara asked. Willow nodded, leaning forward slightly. "It's a little disorienting. Quite... unpleasant, though with practice it's possible to overcome the instinctive urge to back away. Though now I know the difference between one fighting, and one that's been captured back on Earth, and has given up. They're not like us."
"Obviously," Willow said, inclined to feel flippant, but somewhat hopeful that Tara would continue in spite of her.
"They're not emotionless, the way people suppose," the blonde continued. "They don't have the same emotions as we do, but they have analogues that you can learn to recognise - like a foreign language. They're very proud, and determined. They hate failure. And they have no compassion, no... no sense of other beings as individuals. Everything is filtered through their needs. Even their own kind, I think. They're very intelligent of course, but I think that's all that drives them to cooperate with one another. If they weren't stronger together, they wouldn't be social at all."
"Sounds a miserable way to live," Willow surmised.
"I suppose," Tara shrugged. "Perhaps if it's all you've ever known, you don't know to be miserable..." She fixed Willow with a stare, and the redhead braced herself against the expected sudden psychic lance, and was baffled when none came.
"I think," Tara said instead, "that's why they attempted a second invasion, even after the first had failed so disastrously. They hated their failure, and us for being somehow the cause of it, even though they knew by then what had defeated them the first time. When their Venus colony failed, they... well, they couldn't hate a planet's natural environment, but they could hate us, for opposing them, even though it did us no good in '98. They needed a target, for their anger, for their wounded pride. So they lashed out at us, for damaging their perception of their own innate superiority. And I suppose, if we hadn't stopped them, they'd have wiped us out - whether or not they needed to, to survive. Beneath all their intellectual enlightenment, there's still an animal part of them that refuses to believe that we and they can coexist. No compassion. Quite unlike us," she finished, flashing Willow a wry, humourless smile.
Willow actually started in surprise - hearing that kind of talk from anyone in the service was rare enough, but from an empath? Unless she had mistaken the subtext of what Tara had said... but no, it was practically as plain as day. What the deuce?
"I think this present order of battle won't be the last," she said, testing very unfamiliar waters.
"Once our present objectives are achieved, new ones will be produced," Tara agreed.
"The necessary step of preventing the Martians from waging war on us could become an unnecessary one..."
"...of subjugating the species," Tara nodded.
"There's a perception in headquarters that even if lines of communications could be forced open, peace could never be achieved."
"Leaving only genocide," the empath said distastefully. She and Willow regarded each other carefully, searching for layers beneath layers in each other's eyes.
"But even if that decision were taken," Willow suggested, throwing caution to the Martian wind, "it would require the compliance of the rank and file to carry out. Headquarters can't destroy the Martian species by itself."
"If dissent were to become resistance..." Tara said quietly, "...willing to defy the crown..."
"Parliament's hoping that having participated in the defeat of the Martians," Willow leaned forward, excited despite herself, "the service will be invested enough to participate in their extermination."
Tara let out a slow breath.
"Dissent isn't the same as disloyalty," she said softly. Willow bit her lip, then took the plunge.
"There is a resistance."
"Can you help me?" Tara said after a brief pause.
"Help?" Willow asked, still unable to not be surprised.
"I have... gifts," Tara said. "So do you, your piloting, otherwise we wouldn't be here. And I'm willing to do what has to be done to protect Earth. But I'm not willing to be made a murderer to satisfy Parliament's ambition or the crown's vanity. I want to do... something. Something to keep that from happening." She fixed Willow with a pleading stare. "Can you help me do that?"
"They... the others..." Willow said slowly, "they'll be... wary. Very wary. No-one I know has ever even heard of a dissenting empath."
"I've never met another," Tara admitted, looking down at her tightly-clenched hands. "I can keep their thoughts out, but I never... felt, I could trust anyone." She looked again at Willow. "Will you help me?"
"Yes," Willow nodded, after a long moment's thought. She wasn't anyone significant in the movement, almost certainly not the kind of person who should be thinking about bringing an empath into their confidence, but... how in God's name am I supposed to say no? "Why?" she asked suddenly.
"Why?" Tara repeated.
"Why me?" Willow asked. "Why tell me, why ask me, why... me?"
Tara began to shake her head, as if she had no explanation, then she paused, and rose from her seat. She leaned forward, and to the redhead's immense shock and, even more surprising, delight, brushed her lips across Willow's. She leaned a fraction closer, actually capturing Willow's lips in a true kiss, tasting her, sucking on her bottom lip for a moment before withdrawing.
"I'm expected to report in," she whispered. "Can I... come back up, later?"
Willow nodded dumbly, completely unable to formulate even simple words. Tara gave her a quick, nervous smile, then turned and left the study. Willow sat stunned for a long while, then her gaze fell on her desk, and the letters waiting to be written there.
We won't become like them. By God we'll make this mean something.
Additional Copyright: And, of course, based on War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (accept no substitutes) - I just wanted that to be a bit of a surprise at the beginning.