Bacteriology, Part II (A Study in Scarlet/The War of the Worlds)
Author's note: You've only yourselves to blame at this point...
“This isn't a war," said the artilleryman. "It never was a war, any more than there's war between man and ants.”
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Sherlock Holmes had positioned himself in a desk chair in front of the empty fireplace, his fingers steepled, staring at the wall somewhere above my head. I had ownership of the bed still, but had propped myself up somewhat to view my companion from a vertical position.
“I had been concerning myself, Sunday last, with a case of some disappearing heirlooms. I had already supposed the cousin for the theft; his motivations were as simple as they were dull, but the method, ah! Removed from a locked chest in a locked room. I had been puzzling upon it for days in my rooms in Bloomsbury, quite to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, the first I knew of the invasion was when cries of alarm from the street began to disrupt my concentration in the early hours of Monday morning.”
“G-g-goog g-grief, man.” I croaked, in some disbelief. I chose to ignore at that moment that I had too, almost living on top of the site of the first landing, managed to let the incident pass me by for more than a day.
“My dear Captain, before Saturday I did not even know such things as Mars existed, never mind that invaders from those parts were rampaging towards us from Surrey.”
“But how c-could you have b-b-been in such ignorance?” Said I. “Surely you were t-taught the of the solar system at school? The movement of the sun and the p-p-planets?”
“Possibly,” said Holmes with an abstracted expression, “but I would have worked to have forgotten it.” He flicked a long boned hand as if to shoo something away. “I cannot concern myself with irrelevant facts, and up to a week ago the structure of the Universe outside of our own particular sphere has been of no use to me. Since then, of course, I have been giving myself an education.” He reached across to pluck a book from the writing desk. The Dynamics of an Asteroid was printed on the cover in silver foil.
“We digress.” Holmes balanced the book on one knee and once again steepled his fingers. “I was snapped out of my reverie, the locked chest in the locked room, by sounds of panic from the road outside my rooms. I ran to the window and threw it open, to see what appeared to be half of London on the move. Taking a note of the time and was surprised to see it was 3 o’clock in the morning. I put on my coat and hat and rushed from the front door, and after attempting to stop and question a few of the folk, not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, I had a piece of paper pressed into my hand by a middle-aged widower, hurrying past. I suppose you saw the notice issued by the government commanding an entire metropolis to flee?”
“Foolish. I could see the foolishness at the time and yet I did not know what we were supposed to be running from. I worked my way upstream of the crowds to the newspaper seller’s stall where I found a few abandoned papers still on the floor behind the counter. I spent possibly one of the most surreal hours of my life there, poring over hastily-written newspaper articles, gathering all the data available, hidden behind the counter from hoards of frightened Londoners streaming up Euston Road.
“I supposed, at this point, that I would have to take flight with the rest of the population. I returned to my rooms to gather the provisions I could, but upon arriving home I found my front door open. I assumed I was being pillaged, and readied myself to accost an intruder.”
Holmes laughed. “Imagine my surprise on discovering my own brother standing in the living room!”
“Your brother?” I asked, not entirely understanding the amazement he should display at the discovery that his brother had sought him out at a time of crisis.
“’For a moment I had presumed you had left’” Said Holmes in what must have been an imitation of his brother. “’But of course you are still here, as I had predicted you would be.’”
At this, Holmes pulled a sour face at me.
“You must understand that my brother is brilliant, maybe even more so than myself, but he is not easily roused into action. I should have expected a messenger rather than himself in person. Ah, but you shake your head?”
“These are extraordinary times; should we not expect extraordinary behaviour?”
“I find that in extraordinary times people will revert to type. My brother has more than enough mental capacity to manage extraordinary times but it is his way to do so with as little physical exertion as possible. Thus I deduced that whatever he had to impart to me, it was something much greater than enquiries as to my welfare.”
I nodded, following his meaning. “It was he that g-gave you the t-t-task to observe the aliens, on behalf of the g-g-g…”
“…On that day, Captain, I believe he was the British Government… ‘I assume by now you have heard of the black smoke?’” He once again affected the voice of his brother. Though I had nothing to compare it to, his voice, expression and manner in which he held himself gave the impression of a heavy, sedate man, his own manner absolutely subsumed into the portrait. It demonstrated his skill as an actor and from that I could assume his cleverness for mimicry. “‘You may not have heard that although it is rapid-moving, it rises to no more than 50 feet. The top of a relatively tall townhouse should be high enough to avoid it.’
“I did not know that, I told him. It was a piece of information withheld from most, it would appear. ‘If we had the men’, my brother said, ‘we would spread the word, of course, but Fleet Street, Scotland Yard, the Houses of Parliament, they all flee with the rest. The infrastructure of the whole city has quite fallen apart.’ He sighed as if the whole thing were a tedious misfortune. ‘I have a ship waiting on the Thames to take me to Paris where I shall attempt to rally what is left of the ruling establishment. In my absence I shall need eyes and ears in London. What a benefit it is, then, to be related to the sharpest eyes and ears in the city’.
“I quickly realised his proposition, and gave my assent that I was privileged to serve Queen and country, though to be quite honest it was more the scientific possibilities of studying the creatures that excited me.
“‘I have taken the liberty of drawing up a few instructions.’ He handed me this letter.”
Holmes the younger slipped a tattered sheaf from the pages of The Dynamics of an Asteroid and held it out to me, as his brother must have to him, then he continued: “‘Observe all you can of these creatures without, for God’s sake, getting yourself killed. Find a way of contacting me in Paris. I shall be staying at l’Hotel du Triomphe in the 8th Arrondissement, all being well. Now, if you will excuse me.’ We exchanged a few brief pleasantries and he left.
“Alone once more I checked the building to find it quite empty. I took a few provisions to the attic room, where I read the letter.” Holmes now gestured at me to read.
I have this letter with me still, one of the few things of ours which survived that time. I transcribe it herewith;
My dear Sherlock,
I would not have assigned this task to you had I not believed all of us, our lives, our very mode of existence, to be in the very gravest peril. We know little to nothing of these creatures, but I include copies of all we possess. The astronomer who reported curious explosions on the surface of Mars some months back was one of the creatures’ first victims on Horsell Common. We recovered his work but found little of use for our current predicament. That is, nothing which we could use against them.
This is where I will require your services, Sherlock. Our knowledge of these things is so scant that we cannot disregard anything as irrelevant. I therefore commission you to conduct a full observational study. If they stay in London then stay with them. If they travel then keep pace as well as you can. Leave no detail unreported.
I suggest telegraph as your most likeliest option to relay information. Do not linger in hopes of a response and do not put yourself in any danger that could be regarded as unnecessary. Please endeavour to remember your value to us alive as opposed to dead.
We must trust that Paris does not fall. If it does then I shall retreat to Moscow. I will consider the best way to contact you should this occasion arrive. Pray it does not.
I folded the letter and handed it back to Holmes.
He regarded it for a moment. “Quite patronising, but that is the right of an older brother, I suppose.” It was carefully folded and pressed once more between the pages of the book.
“Have you heard anything from P-Paris?”
Holmes shook his head. “I stay no longer than necessary. If they do reply then there is nobody at the station at this end to receive it.”
“So you have no id-d-d…idea if anyone is p-picking up your messages?”
“The whole continent could have fallen.”
Holmes nodded, perfunctorily. “One cannot give in to despairing, though. Or worry on the futility of one’s actions. The work is useful, and I shall continue with it for as long as it is required or as long as I am able. One never suffered by knowing too much about one’s enemy.”
When I next woke I found myself alone in the ticketmaster’s office, and after several aborted attempts I rose from the bed and hobbled, with the aid of the crutch, to the water closet. I was sore and stiff; my shoulder and leg cried protest at the cruel treatment. Once I had arrived I was faced with my reflection in a mirror for the first time in days and I was able to observe the changes that had been wrought upon me in less than a fortnight. I was abominably dirty and had a good growth of untrimmed beard, but looking beyond these I could see the terrible gauntness of my face and the sunkenness of my eyes. Here I could see the traces of dark and white dust along with the innumerable small scratches that Holmes had been able to read my movements from.
I ran a tap and attempted to wash my face. Although still grey in colour at least I less resembled the prehistoric horror I had before.
I next looked at my shoulder, peeling back the bandages and gauze below my collarbone to examine the exit wound. It was still inflamed from the infection, but even through that I could see the extent of the damage. I was familiar with such injuries but the incongruity of seeing one on myself took me quite by surprise, and I took a moment to sit and recover my reeling head. I covered up the wound, uncomfortable with the sight of it.
I knew what such a wound meant. My career as a surgeon required a steadiness and delicacy of touch. My role of soldier depended on my able-bodiedness. I could see that this damage to muscle and nerves would most probably rob me of both. I sat for a while further, locked in the water closet, my good hand gripping at the edge of the sink.
I still vividly remember the sweltering heat of that summer, a good part of which I spent hidden away in those airless, stifling rooms. There were small windows far above our heads, and Holmes once or twice attempted to prise them open but they had rusted themselves shut. We grew fractious and distracted in the heat.
In an attempt to assist Sherlock Holmes in his work, beyond the perfunctory role of guard dog while he disappeared into London above, I mastered the old Remington typewriter that had been shoved under the bench to make room. Sat on the floor, I one-handedly typed out my experiences from the last few days, and was satisfied to have two to three more sheafs of my recollections sat on the desk for Holmes’ return each day.
During the nights we would light candles to see by. The lightbulbs were useless; the electricity stopped working a few days after the invasion, and a fire would produce smoke and lead to our detection. Besides the weather was far too warm to even countenance it if we could. Thus it was in dim, old-fashioned candlelight that Holmes would read my efforts.
“The detail is good…” said Holmes, one evening, riffling through the sum of my work thus far. “Where I can find it. Much of the detail is superfluous. You write as if composing a penny romance, Captain.”
I flushed with embarrassment and more than a little annoyance that my efforts had been criticised in such an abrupt way. Though I would not admit it, I had written the words in the hope that he would be pleased.
“Data,” said Holmes. “Facts. If possible please try to extract them from the surrounding redundant detail.”
“The two are tied together inextricably, I’m afraid.” With a sullen look I turned back to my one-handed battering of the ill-used Remington, and out of the corner of my eye saw Sherlock Holmes shake his head despairingly.
“So be it. It is more useful to me than nothing at all, I suppose.”
This was not the end of his criticisms however; a few days later I found myself confronted again by Holmes who, on reading through my day’s typing, reeled round in his chair and fluttered them in his hand.
“Watson, your detail of the confrontation with the Martian at St Paul’s is skeletal – it is…” He stopped and scanned the papers. “…half a paragraph, at best. I must press you to re-write the episode in more detail.”
“You have the bare facts”, said I, not looking up from the Remington.
“Indeed they are bare. A blow-by-blow account of its actions would be of good use to me.”
When I did not answer, he propelled himself on his wheeled chair past the scant yard that separated us and bent forwards, casting shadow over my paper.
“You mention that the Martian creature fed on the orderly, Murray, but you do not say how.”
“I don’t remember.” I was tense, my temper already fraying. I would not discuss this.
“Watson, this is the first I have heard of the Martians seeking sustenance, and it is from a human being. Even you must understand that it is absolutely imperative that you tell me everything that you can remember. Every…”
I kicked the Remington across the floor; its impact against the fireplace grate sent out a ringing clamour.
Even while I cried out I was surprised at my own outburst, the violence of it. I have no idea what else I would have said if Sherlock Holmes had not at that moment landed upon me and clamped a hand across my mouth. “Hush”, he rasped, and in that moment I realised the depth of my own stupidity. He looked towards the ceiling, his almost cat-like senses straining to pick up on any indication that we, that I, had been heard.
My eyes followed his gaze upwards, and I, too, listened.
‘UUUU-LAAAH’ the echoes of the Martian call rolled through the station. We both flinched. Holmes twisted his head this way and that, triangulating where it had come from, how far away - half way across town? Regents’ Park? Had it been standing above us at the time of my outburst?
We were both huddled on the floor, his hand still firmly pressed against my mouth. We must have stayed like that for ten minutes or more, frozen in position. My heart thundered in my chest, loud enough that Holmes must have been able to hear.
Then, I felt his eyes turn to me once more. He raised a finger to his lips, slowly pulling his hand away from me. I barely moved while he slowly pulled himself to his feet and subtly, silently, padded to the door to glance outside.
After a couple of minutes, satisfied, he quietly closed the door and rested his forehead against it, exhaling.
The moment had passed, and we had not been detected.
I leant back against the bench and closed my eyes.
“I apologise,” Holmes said, muffled by the door.
I huffed a laugh, which sounded more small and shaken than I would have preferred. “A fine thing that I should almost d-doom us both and you ap-p-pologise for it.”
“You were distressed. I should not have pressed the matter.”
I braced my hand against the bench and pushed myself up onto my aching legs. “I should leave.”
Holmes turned to look at me, still leant against the door and looking all of a sudden as weary as I felt. “I would rather you didn’t.”
“That’s very p-p-polite…”
“It isn’t, I assure you.”
I shook my head, reached for my crutch and hobbled towards the door. Holmes, still stood in front of the door, held out a hand to block my passage.
“Please,” he said, quite honestly and I, being a coward, allowed myself to be bustled back to the bench where we sat for some hours in shaken silence. Once or twice the Martian machines would sound somewhere in the distance and I would reach out in the darkness and grip Holmes’ arm.
After that long night we returned to our routine, and things fell back to their usual pattern. A few evenings later Holmes returned with a can of peaches that he had ‘found on his travels’, which I surmised meant he had taken to breaking into abandoned houses and rummaging through larders. Indeed it was a rare find; we were becoming accustomed to hunger.
In the morning, when we had both finished breakfasting on the remains of the peaches, Holmes sifted peevishly through the collapsing piles of papers on his desk.
“What are you looking for?” I asked from my customary position on the bench.
“The Wells book,” Holmes answered, half buried in a drawer of newspapers.
I had last seen it on the back of the desk. Having an idea of its trajectory I peered into the crack between the desk and the wall, then fished out the book from its hiding place with my crutch, handing it to Holmes who immediately began to flick through its pages. “You know I rather think it may be time to invest in a filing system,” I said, nodding towards the desk, where Holmes’ papers had begun to pile up against his chemistry set like a snow bank.
“An excellent idea,” said Holmes, snapping the book shut. “Will you see to it?”
I had finished typing my recollections for Holmes the day before, and feeling a little stronger, I could not protest that the request was unreasonable. Looking upon the chaos that reigned on the desk I could not say either that it filled my heart with joy. It surprised me that a man such as Holmes, with a mind so organised and so sharp, could commit to such a disordered state of living. I conceded with a sigh: “Yes, I suppose.”
Holmes put the book down on the desk, where it slid upon some notes before coming to a rest. “I shall be heading out for the afternoon. Did you need me to change your bandages before I leave?”
I shook my head. “No, I should be able to take care of it myself, I think.” My shoulder was healing badly, and still required the occasional attention.
Holmes nodded. “How is progress?”
“Some sensation returning to the hand and the arm, however sporadic. Even with the best care in the world my chances at a full recovery would have been feeble. The infection has certainly done its share of damage.
“Still,” I mused to myself, “an infection from this country I would have had some natural immunity against. I would have supposed that if I had been injured overseas the foreign bacteria would have most likely done me in.”
Holmes furrowed his brow in thought for a moment, then turned to me. “What was that?”
“Oh, one of the first things you learn in army doctoring, old cock, the further abroad you are the more strange and dangerous the diseases. The body’s much less likely to have run across them before, and there’s more of a job of it to fight them off.”
Holmes looked electrified. “The further abroad…” He paced the room, hands steepled, which was his custom when deep in thought. “And if,” he said quietly, “for example, you were to have come from Mars…”
I nodded, slowly, following his train of thought. “Then you would be very vulnerable indeed.”
Holmes continued his pacing. “Yes, yes of course…”
I shook my head. “Holmes, their technology is years in advance to our own. It stands to rights their medical science would be as well. We can presume they would have prepared for that.”
He stopped pacing, and drummed his long hands against the desk. “Still, an interesting line of inquiry, is it not?”
It was not until that moment that I saw him grasp so vividly on such a small, elusive possibility of vulnerability that I realised how futile Holmes’ search had been for a chink in the Martians’ armour. I did not have the heart to argue with him.
“Indeed it is.”
Holmes nodded distractedly. “I shall write it up later. For now I’ll leave you to battle with my desk.” He put on his filthy jacket and, wiping up some of the grime from the floor, smeared it over his face. “How do I look?” He asked with a flourish.
“Awful,” I answered.
Holmes looked satisfied and swept out of the room.
Usually I could rely on Holmes to be gone for four hours or more on his reconnaissance trips. Thus I began in earnest my attempt to restore some kind of order to the wilderness of Holmes’ work space, believing I could make some real progress by the time he returned. Though I would keep it to myself to save us both the embarrassment, I was grateful for the opportunity to be useful to Holmes.
By late evening the papers and books had been sorted into loose piles, and I had just lit a candle with which to work by in the dimming light. It was then I heard the noise of footsteps rattling down the stairs to the station. It was so unlike Holmes’ noiseless movements that I opened the bottom drawer of the desk and grasped my revolver, suspecting an intruder.
So it was Holmes, but the distress in his voice was evident. He was running through the station at breakneck speed. It was then I realised I was hearing the footsteps of not one, but two people.
I raised myself from my chair in time to hear two shots from a handgun.
I ignored my crutch and hobbled frantically to the door, down the corridor to the entrance to the station proper. A man had followed Holmes into the station, ragged and wild-eyed in the dim light, waving a gun in the air violently to and fro. Holmes, I could see, had leapt behind a solid wooden stair banister, and quite hidden in shadow from the mad-man’s view.
“Come out. Come out you cur.” The man, middle aged and gaunt, bare-headed and wearing little more than shirtsleeves, whirled around. “You dog. I can see what you are.” He whispered.
The man spat when he talked, had completely parted with his reason. He raised his gun and let two shots off into the ceiling. He looked about him again with his red, wide eyes as the loosened plaster dust fell gently onto his bald pate.
It was far too much noise; we would attract the attention of any Martians in the surrounding areas a matter of minutes, if we had not already. He would have to be silenced quickly, and cleanly. It was impossible to tell how many bullets he had left in that small handgun so approaching him was out of the question. The realisation of what would have to be done sat heavily in my chest, and I cocked my own revolver in preparation.
He was alerted to my presence and raised his gun, though not in time to stop me firing the first shot. It was a clean shot, through the chest, though it was not the immediate kill that had been my intention. Unwilling to watch him suffer any longer than was necessary, I shot again. This time he was silenced.
Holmes peered over the top of the banister at the small pile of rags lying in the middle of the station.
“The Martians…” I whispered.
Holmes shook his head. “None of the tripods are abroad, as far as I can see.”
He walked over to the body and crouched by its side. “I had found a couple of young street-arabs crossing the Marylebone Road and was in the middle of asking what they had seen of the Martians of late when this gentleman accosted us from the Great Central Hotel. The two young urchins disappeared like smoke of course and I, considerably older and slower, made easier quarry.”
Holmes looked at me. “I am sorry to have led him to our door, but you see I knew you had the revolver. I had meant to get it myself…” He stood. “Though I would not have made as good a job of it.”
“Holmes…” I warned in quiet admonishment. I did not wish to be praised for my handiwork.
Holmes sighed. “Poor devil. He would have been a publican in his former life; note the way he rolls up his sleeves…”
I did not want to note anything of the sort. Instead I turned my back on Holmes mid-sentence, and walked, lurched away rather, towards the descending stairs.
I was unclear where I was headed, I knew merely that if I lingered in that central terminal with its grim tableau and listen to Holmes talk of the dead man in that detached tone of his then the frustration swelling in my chest would burst forth, and we would have one more madman with a gun to see to. Thus I took the next flight of stairs downwards to a platform.
Light still filtered in weakly from the high windows. The station’s stillness and quietude was quite alien to its usual characteristic of bustle. The place has been empty long enough that it had started taking on the air of abandonment.
In answer to my protesting leg I sat myself heavily on a bench on the platform, tucked away in one of the alcoves beneath a window. The melancholy atmosphere did nothing to alleviate my mood. I cursed myself for what seemed to be, once again, an uncharacteristic lack of control. Recently I had been exhibiting the hair-trigger temper of a hysteric. A nervous tension bubbled in my chest and I forced myself to bite down upon it. I closed my eyes firmly, took a long, slow breath of air and some measure of sensibility that still remained in me quelled the rising emotion. The sensation left as soon as it arrived and left in its wake instead a bone-deep weariness.
The old man had been starving, frightened and mad, and I had made the calculated decision to kill him. I wondered that I could have made that decision so calmly, and yet I had. It had all seemed so perfectly logical at the time; it was only now that doubt had started to creep in, much too late to be of any use.
I turned this over and over in my mind for some time, long after the last of the light had completely disappeared from the high windows, and I continued to come to the same unsatisfying conclusion. It was a decision that would have to be lived with
The cold began to nip at my hands. Holmes had not come to look for me; I imagined he was weary of my bad humour and grateful for the reprieve. I moved my leg to test it, to see if it would bear my weight on the long walk back up the stairs, and the leg thanked my efforts by seizing into cramp. I stretched and rubbed the offending thigh muscle, quite distracted from anything else. When the tension began to release, I noticed something that I would have been conscious to otherwise.
It was the faintest glow of a light somewhere deeper within the tunnel. In the gloom, the luminescence was striking - not the yellowish colour of a lamp but a harsh, phosphorescent white. Then, I heard a rhythmic clunk, squeal, scrape of metal upon metal, a steady rumble of motors.
My first thought was to flee, but I had no time to drag myself up the stairs, not without risk of being caught out in the open. I felt very vulnerable and foolish in that moment. I very nearly despaired. With what little sense I had left I pressed myself into the corner of the alcove, facing away from the tunnel.
I drew my gun from my trouser pocket and held it against my chest, hammer cocked. I pushed myself flat against the brick, hoping to melt into the shadows. I held myself still, so I barely even breathed. The light grew brighter, the noises louder. The shadows became more pitted and pronounced, lurching with the approach of whatever was about to appear from the tunnel.
A sheen of sweat covered my brow and top lip, but for once my hand was steady, though it clutched the gun so tightly to my chest that I could feel the metal biting into the skin of my palm. From this distance away I could hear the pistons hiss.
It emerged, and though I wanted to close my eyes (the simple instinct of a child who does not want to be seen) I forced myself to look.
It is difficult to describe to someone who has never seen these machines how alive they looked. The movements of the legs that dragged the body of the machine through the tunnel were fluid, interconnected. It dipped a little with the rise and fall of its gait, but it had a grace you associate with the natural. There was no lurching, none of the strange stopping and starting of robotic movement.
Four blueish-white spotlights rotated on its back. In a moment, I thought, one would settle on me, and I would have the chance to shoot once and probably no more than that. I stretched out my arm, aiming to what I suspected to be the cockpit. My hand did not waver.
The machine, however, proceeded, pulling itself further along the track, and the four blazing spotlights all pointed forward, illuminating the tunnel in front of it. Then it was gone. I was once again quite alone in the dark.
I lowered my arm and I was quite unable to decide what I should do next, or indeed put together a coherent thought.
It was Holmes that snapped me out of my daze, hissing at me from a location somewhere near the stair case.
I started, but could not pull my wits together to respond in kind.
“Watson.” His voice was sharp edged with something - anger or worry.
I shifted, ready to step out and make myself known to Holmes. I have mentioned before that his senses are very keen in the dark, and before I had even pushed myself away from the wall he had found me, and had wrapped a strong hand around my arm.
“Good. Excellent.” He looked me over and seemed satisfied that I had not been hurt. “Easy now, old man. Quite enough incidents for one day, don’t you think?” He sounded practically giddy. I would have cuffed him round the ear there and then if I had the strength.
As it was he looped my arm round his neck and we walked together out of the platform.
“I think from that we can surmise that the tunnels are no longer safe.” Half-way up the stairs Holmes looked over my shoulder and back down to the platform. “It seems, my dear Watson, that the walls are closing in on us.”