(So this was meant to be a short exercise to get me in the mood for my more impressive - I hope - savage Mars novel, 'Dreaming of Mars', which you'll all be able to read soon enough. As such it might seem to finish abruptly. Honestly, that is simply when the story ended.. I had no interest in what happened to the Martians, or the Englishmen, or any of that. My goal was simply to write a little about the situation. Enjoy.)
The twentieth century, it seemed, would be a hundred years of further rain. The savages weren’t panicked by the weather. It was unfortunate, however, that the test had to be further delayed by half a week. They kept practicing in the rain, and I supposed they needed the practice, a gentleman’s game like cricket as utterly alien as it was to their unruly culture.
I watched. There was a strategy, here. Can’t trust an alien to play a genuinely British match. Protected only by my coat and jacket, the storm battled around me, further sullying my mood. I knew that in a remarkably short amount of time they’d become adequate players – possibly even good players.
But we were Britain’s finest.
Earth’s premiere batsmen.
The Martians were good at batting, I knew – the four spindly, twisted arms weren’t as much of a handicap to them as I’d reasoned.
“Learn much int’resting, Cap?”
I turned, and rain lashed at my face. The voice was familiar – it was our unread, uneducated wicket-keeper, ex-Private John Smithson.
His near-Cyclopean face leered out at me from within the gloom.
“Smithson,” I said, attempting conversation with the brute, “Why do you think they continue practicing in the rain?”
“On the field, Cap?”
“Yes, on the field. It is a disturbingly dangerous activity.”
“Ball don’t spin right, Cap, sure is men’cing. P’rhaps… perhaps the blue-skinned devils aren’t like us. P’raps they’ve got tougher skins, Cap.”
“Perhaps,” I replied, and lit a cigarette.
“You can’t lose this one, Vinall. It’s rather important to the human race as a whole that you don’t let this one go.”
The Colonel’s face was obscured by smoke. The rain had stopped, but the pitch was drowned. We met at dusk, while the team drank and the Martians prayed.
There had to be a direct connection between the unsightly nature of one’s face and their role in the world, I mused. The Colonel was built like some bizarre chimera, half-cat, half-opium fiend, and half-ogre. There seemed to be no humanity within those eyes. He was a big man.
None of the government or military cads I’d had talks with had good looks or a roguish smile.
“Why is it so important? We’ll win, you know that. We’re the best. Do make yourself useful, Colonel, and worry about something else. How could we lose?”
My smile was grim, but only out of distaste. The very notion - !
“They’ve given us gifts, Vinall,” said the Colonel. “Military rifles made of glass that can shoot up to fifteen hundred paces and emit pure light. Strange foods and wines. A flying machine, for God’s sake! Their technology must be extremely advanced…”
“Ahah.” I smirked. I knew where this was going – I’d been fielding for England for far too long not to understand how this worked.
“If we win, we’re given more gifts. Greater technologies. There’s a wager, here, Colonel.”
“Isn’t there always? You’re sharp, Vinall, I’ll give you that, but only half-correct. The Martian mind, it seems, is a simple and impish thing… they enjoy a gamble, as you’d know.”
I knew. After practice and prayer, they’d often cheat my men out of all of their pounds by beating them in games of chance – even games such as Gleek or Loo, entirely native to Earth. The Martians had brought with them their own game of nok-Rasool, an alien game of cards that works almost similarly to the Persian game of Nas, with many added peculiarities. It was massively popular with much of the military and our own team, as poor as we were at actually managing with the absurd, high-blue cards.
The Colonel continued. I lit another cigarette.
“It’s more serious then you’d imagine. If we win, we’ve offered to give them one of the colonies: India, specifically, as the climate in most of the sub-continent suits their assumed preferences nicely. They’ll have it all, and, if they wish, the Indians with them.”
“That’ll close any chance they have at independence,” I remarked. “But what could convince His Majesty to offer them such a large part of the kingdom?”
“If we win, and this, you’ll find, is the extremely cunning bit,” said the Colonel, “if we win, they leave Earth, leaving a substantial amount of their scientific texts and the like with them, and they’ll give us Phobos, Hall’s moon of Mars. To colonize. The British flag will fly proudly once more, Vinall – fly above the luminiferous aether itself!”
The stakes were high.
It was obvious that the Martians – the Colonel called them the Shai’eev, but they were from Mars and that makes them bloody Martians – hadn’t quite given England the intelligence regarding inter-planetary flight, or anything at all, really, regarding that field. How we’d colonize Phobos without rocket-ships was a mystery to me, but it could have been part of the deal…
It was raining again.
I was watching the Martians.
“Our intelligence, Vinall, the intelligence suggests that Mars is hot and wet. Rains all the time there, the Shai’eev indicate. Fills up those great canals… so they’re quite happy in this kind’ve weather,” said the Colonel. We were discussing tactics. I told him our tactic was to be really clever with how we hit the ball, since they had four hands to catch us out with, and that seemed to satisfy him.
“They look like big bloody frogs,” I said, watching the droplets run down their amphibious backs. I was repulsed by their bulbous eyes, their broad backs and contrastingly thin arms, the six fingers on all four of their hands, dark red fingernails over bright blue flesh…
The Colonel laughed at my comparison.
“I wonder how they’d get along with the frogs over the English Channel,” he said, between cackles of laughter. We both knew that the French had been desperate for access to the Martians.
“They’re a funny ol’ bunch now, aren’t they, Cap?”
Johnson Smith had a particular habit where he would sight me sitting miserably, often smoking tobacco, often in the rain, and he’d think that I was lonely. So, in the spirit of friendship, he’d come and bother me.
It wasn’t raining.
The pitch was dry.
The sun was out.
“They’re giving sacrifice to their sun deity,” I said. I’d realized just how much information about the savages I’d acquired watching them play. “Asking him for blessings, victory on this day, the like…”
“Ain’t really sporting, though, is it?” asked Johnson. “Mean, there’ve gotta be rules, Laws of Cricket, y’know, Cap?”
“I know,” I sighed. “It’s not against the rules, because we don’t believe their sun deity is capable of such a feat as allowing them to beat us at a match of our own game.”
The wicket-keeper’s mouth rounded in shock. It was most displeasing. I could see the food stuck between his teeth.
“Shame, Cap, shame,” said Johnson, shaking his head. “They’d be cheating and we wouldn’t ev’n think it.”
They couldn’t be cheating.
They weren’t smart enough.
We were cheating.
“Have you ever had a Martian, Cap?”
I looked at Knowles. Summoning my greatest death-stare, I tried to obliterate him with sheer will alone. Harrison Knowles was good batsman, and a brilliant bowler, but occasionally the real Knowles would come out. The filth-loving, whore-punching pervert was the secret shame of the team, and the only reason I tolerated him was because we couldn’t find a better spinner. So I let him on, for cricket’s sake.
“They brought their women with them. We told them, told them if they wanted to stay, they need to consent to, aheh, get this, ‘biological research’. Ahah. So they’re doing these tests, right, and now they’re up to this bloody stage – you won’t believe it – where they’re trying’ta see if Martians and humans can mate, y’know, ubermensch stuff, so…”
I sipped at my scotch. There was a cigarette in my hand, but I didn’t quite feel like it. Outside, torrents of liquid smashed at the windows.
“Not interested, Knowling,” I said. “Just let me drink, mate…”
“No, seriously, y’gotta hear this,” he said, “So they need blokes who’ve, liked, who’re local and who can keep their mouth shut, y’know, and the Colonel comes to me and he’s all like, ‘Oy, there’s a good mate, yeah? Wanna bitta this?’ and shows me a photo, like, and I see the four arms and the breasts – oh god the breasts…”
“Fantastic, Knowling,” I said. “But that’s enough. Degrading, just a bit, yeah? I don’t need to know…”
“So put us in a room, yeah? Sorry mate, I mean Cap, won’t take long at all, so we’re just in this room, and the poor little blue thing looks scared – they’re much smaller than the males! So we get there and I, y’know, take everything off, and it’s really just…”
I lose my temper.
Knowles saunters away, bragging about his interspecies conquests to the rest of the men in the pub.
“The plan’s a good one,” said the Colonel.
I was wet.
I was not in the mood.
“Better than beating them fairly and playing a good match of cricket?” I asked, a little spitefully.
The savages were playing in the rain.
“Oh, yes,” said the Colonel. “Turns out the Shai’keev have many addictive substances themselves. Certain weeds, chemicals, the lot… they’ve got a whole city, you know, called Hoosk? Do you know what Hoosk means, Vinall?”
“Enlighten me,” I muttered.
“Hoosk, in their language, means, ‘City of Illusions’, or mirages, or something similar. The city’s built on a huge desert, and the desert is found atop a huge deposit of gasses. The gasses rise, sometimes slowly – sometimes quickly – and the city hallucinates.”
“What’s your point, Colonel? I mean, it’s all fascinating, but we’re never going to go there…”
“Don’t be so sure…”
“And anyway,” I said, “What does our cricket match have to do with the city of Hoosk?”
“Nothing at all,” grinned the Colonel. “But you know one thing the Shai’keev don’t have? Vinall, pay attention here: they don’t have tobacco.”
I’d had a few drinks. I wasn’t as sharp as I typically am.
“We’ll sell them tobacco and get them to throw the match?”
The Colonel laughed, the fat on his face wobbling ever so slightly as he did so.
“No, no,” he said. “They love the stuff. We’ve been giving it to them, not charging them a cent, since we twigged on that they didn’t have any…”
“The tobacco, Vinall, is laced with the isolated form of Strychnos ignatia.”
I didn’t say a word.
“And we’ve checked, young son, oh yes – Vinall, that Martian whore we shacked Knowles with? She’s dead. We tested it. Strychnine kills them, Vinall. Kills them dead.”
“It is a pretty good plan…”
It was quite cunning. The Martians would drop dead, or be too sick to play, and we’d win the match. We hadn’t been poisoning all of them, of course. They needed the technology… it was only the cricket-playing aliens who we needed to exterminate.
Clever, yes, in the finest traditions of Great Britannia. But something about it made me feel ill. I didn’t hold any sympathy for the creatures – they were anathema to my entire way of life, cold-blooded savages who spoke a strange language and made my flesh recoil every time I had to touch their amphibious flesh – but they were noble, I supposed, in their own way. My own code of honour demanded that schemes such as the Colonel’s should not be practiced upon anyone or anything – but it was out of my hands.
It wasn’t Captain Vinall running the show.