After the Martians
What Man Hath Wrought
It’s an alternate World War I, with Martian weapons. Young Johnny Branch seeks military adventure, but a new and different uprising needs a hero.
In 1901, the Martians attacked Earth, but tiny bacteria vanquished them. Their advanced weaponry lay everywhere—three-legged fighting machines, heat rays, and poison gas. Now, in 1917, The Great War rages across Europe but each side uses Martian technology. Join Corporal Johnny Branch, a young man from Wyoming, as he pursues his dream to fight for America. Follow magazine photographer Frank Robinson while he roams the front lines, hoping to snap a photo conveying true American valor. Perhaps they’ll discover, as the Martians did before them, that little things can change the world.
Wishing the thrill of danger and power would never end, Johnny Branch guided the huge fighting machine across a burned-out olive orchard.
“Yee-Haw!” he whooped. He remembered training on the machines back in the States, but back then he hadn’t felt this giddy anticipation of real battle.
Seated to his right in the cockpit, First Lieutenant Henry Wagner twirled one end of his wide moustache. “Just keep your eyes open, Corporal. Stay in formation.”
Other machines in Crazyhorse Troop marched abreast with Johnny’s, spaced a quarter mile apart. Each one-hundred-foot tall machine lurched in an alien, three-legged gait among the blackened tree trunks. In this sector of Alsace in eastern France, a broad, once-cultivated valley spread before them. Only a few miles ahead lay the Rhine, the border recognized by the Allies. That border was in dispute, and the Central Powers claimed this area as German territory.
“I don’t reckon my eyes have ever been more open, L-T. I’m just a little excited, I guess.”
Sixteen years earlier, in 1901, Martians had attacked Earth, and then succumbed to terrestrial diseases carried by microbes in the air and water. But their technology remained. Astronomers kept a wary eye on the red planet, but so far the Martians had not sent a second invasion force.
“Don’t you ever feel that way, sauntering along in these things?” Johnny had to control each of the machine’s hydraulic legs individually, using Martian knobs and switches. The aliens had managed with just one creature per fighting machine, and the control panel had been designed for their tentacles. But two humans were required, one for machine movement, and the other for weapons, leaving the cockpit quite cramped.
“Maybe back when I started,” Wagner answered, “but I guess I just got used—”
“Hold up, L-T. I just hit something solid.” Johnny stomped one fighting machine leg on a nondescript stretch of dirt. He heard a metallic clang. “Lemme see . . .”
Metal hatches, Johnny knew, often concealed underground bunkers. He bent the machine’s ‘knees’ to lower it and seized the controls of one of its dangling metal tentacles. He stretched the tentacle down to brush dirt off the metal plate beneath them. The use of heat rays in this war had made above-ground structures vulnerable. Each side now focused on discovering and destroying the enemy’s underground dugouts.
Without warning, a dozen German-made walkers rose from concealed underground locations, surrounding them.
“Sound the alarm.” The lieutenant spoke in a flat, professional tone, “and spin the carapace.”
Feeling his excitement grow, Johnny pulled a cord to trigger a loud series of odd, warbling sounds. “Aloo, aloo, aloo!” resounded from the klaxon, a summons for the rest of their platoon.
He caused their cockpit to rotate, while Wagner sprayed rounds from his Hotchkiss machine gun at the walkers around them.
Americans used Martian fighting machines, since the aliens had abandoned so many there, all in good working order. Germans built their own fighting machines, the walkers, with boxy carapaces and four legs. Their machines could run, and were brand new.
“Rays! Get us out of here,” the lieutenant ordered.
The walkers had trained their heat rays on the American fighting machine. The air shimmered and hissed where the beams passed. A heat ray could burn wood and kill men on contact, but had to be held steady for several seconds to melt metal.
Johnny moved their machine in evasive and unpredictable directions. He’d trained for this, and loved it. His hands moved with sinuous swiftness, like alien tentacles, over the controls.
As they moved past one walker, it tried to turn in place. Seeing it off balance, Johnny lashed out with one of his fighting machine’s long tentacles, grasped one of the walker’s legs and used his own momentum to tip the walker too far sideways. It teetered and fell, colliding with another walker and toppling it to the ground. The impact blew the Germans’ gunpowder magazines, ruptured their poison gas canisters, and broke open their fuel tanks. Each walker exploded in a massive fireball.
“Ha! Did you see that? Take that, you—”
“Pipe down, Corporal! We’re still in trouble.” Wagner kept firing from the Hotchkiss, swiveling in his seat to aim, and seeking out the few vulnerable areas of the remaining armored walkers—cockpit windows and leg joints. Already two more German machines had trouble walking and another just stood inert, out of action.
“Damn!” Wagner yelled. “Duck us down, quick!”
Johnny bent the fighting machine’s three knees. As soon as their carapace descended, a walker on their right opened fire with a large nose cannon. The projectile streaked just overhead and slammed into a walker to Johnny’s left, sending it staggering backward before it crashed to the ground.
“Wow! L-T, that was great.” Johnny grinned.
“Yeah,” the officer nodded. “Now, let’s beat it.”
Johnny stood the fighting machine back up and moved them clear of the walkers just as the rest of their platoon arrived. The number of American fighting machines now matched the German platoon. Heat rays sizzled through the air, cannon fire and Hotchkiss gun shells whizzed nearby. Smoke clouded the scene, making it difficult to see.
Reveling in the danger and excitement, Johnny weaved their machine in and out of the melee while Wagner wielded the heat ray and machine gun. Johnny kept them moving so no heat ray could be held on their machine for long. At last he was doing what he’d signed up for, what the war posters urged him to do, what President Hughes expected him to do.
In half an hour, they’d stopped the walkers and killed the pilots, losing only one American fighting machine. Johnny relocated the metal plate he’d found on the ground. He wrenched the hatch free of its hinges.
A hundred yards away, another bunker hatch opened and people streamed out, running headlong across the seared plain to the east. Johnny guided the fighting machine toward them and swiveled the carapace to give his pilot a clear view. From this height, the fleeing people looked like insects.
“L-T?” Johnny questioned after a few seconds. “Those Krauts are getting away.”
“Civilians, Corporal. If I see any wearing uniforms, I’ll cook ’em.”
Johnny realized he’d been too caught up in the moment to see the people as individuals. Wagner was right. Civilians weren’t targets. The pair watched for five more minutes as dozens more climbed out of the hole and ran away.