This selection is paired with The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Get NonBinary Review #21 from www.zoeticpress.com.
The Martian wandered, and it wondered.
It wondered at the artistry of this great city the humans had made; proud and tall, even under the black dust, even throttled at every bend by the tangled red weed.
On Mars, there was no pride in cities. No color, no architecture to speak of — only building after featureless, airtight building. Martians were creatures of pragmatism. They had to be.
“Ulla…” the Martian muttered. “Ulla, Ulla, Ulla…”
It wandered, and it wondered if its people would remember it. The humans surely would. What stories would they tell of the Martians? What would their histories say of this short, pointless war? Would they confess to the atrocity they had wrought on their spaceborne enemies?
Of course, the Martian reflected, picking its agonizing way through the weed-choked rubble, what place did it have to judge the humans? Had it not murdered them by the hundreds with its fire? By the thousands with its smoke?
The Martian remembered them running, their many-colored faces made ashen by poison. Their screams had been so small. There had been power in the Martian’s tentacles.
Among those fleeing Earthlings, the Martian had seen a tiny human, with a head and appendages that seemed too big for her…his…had it been male or female? It did not matter.
Two other humans, larger than the young one, had gathered the latter close. They wrapped the child in their arms and raised their faces to the War Machine.
And the Martian…it had lowered its heat ray.
“Ulla, Ulla, Ulla, Ulla…” the Martian mumbled.
Eradicate them all, the superiors had said; a simple order. That town was not to be saved for draining.
Presently, the Martian came upon yet another ruined building, a sort of long, tapered triangle. The highest tip stood nearly level with the War Machine.
More of those strange spasms, for which the Martian had no name, wracked its body. It was getting harder to see. Each movement came a little slower than the last. The Martian braced one of the War Machine’s many tentacles against the building’s spire, struggling to keep the tripod upright, but the blackened architecture crumbled away at its touch. Gone in a puff of black dust, like so much else.
The Martian had its duty.
Alone in this desolate, alien city, so unlike the Martian’s own, it wondered if the violence had been worthwhile. As it watched, one of those lithe, four-legged creatures, the ones humans domesticated, gnawed on a scrap of burned flesh, far below the Machine’s tentacles. Human or Martian, it was impossible to tell.
For the sake of all Mars, they had sung. For the sake of all Mars.
The Martian wandered on, spooking the beast away, and it wondered what that small human called itself. What did it see when the Martian’s War Machine had razed the world around it? Perhaps these humans had stories, like those the Martians told many, many centuries ago, of beings infinitely greater than they, beings of terrible power and invincible might.
“Ulla, Ulla, Ulla, Ulla…” the Martian murmured.
The human buildings shrank as the Martian stumbled through the dust. Past the tall triangle rose squat, rectangular structures. These, the Martian knew about. The superiors had been quite specific: destroy the little buildings, force their human occupants to flee.
Another Martian had already been through here. Some of the buildings still burned. Blackened bodies cowered in the blacker dust.
Even had this not been the case, the Martian could not bring itself to raise the heat ray. It hardly had the strength to move its tentacles anymore, much less use them to cause yet more destruction. More death. There had been so much death.
The spasms were worse now, coming faster and lasting longer. Was this how the humans had felt in the Martian’s smoke?
“Ulla…” the Martian moaned, when the choking finally passed. “Ulla, Ulla, Ulla…”
The Martian wondered why it was still wandering. What was the point? It would not change anything. With pained movements, the Martian brought the War Machine to a quivering stop, towering over the crumpled human homes. Light sparkled off the Machine’s metal cockpit. The Star was brighter here, huge and pale in the scarlet sky as it sank toward the horizon.
From its vantage, the Martian could see down into the nearest human structure, lit in uneven bars by the setting Star. Their living buildings were so strange; cluttered with unnecessary objects, priceless space wasted to store solid food. Now heaps of red weed tangled through their windows and up their roofs.
The Star’s light caught along the edges of a tiny square, drawing the Martian’s labored gaze deeper into the structure. It brought one twitching tentacle down into the home, sifting the larger items aside until it could reach the thing.
Extricated, the object proved to be an image, primitively preserved by way of flash powder. A different small human, its mammalian hair long and dark.
The Martian brought the glittering rectangle close to its cockpit, opening its hatch so it could see the image clearly.
The Martian had a duty. It had to leave. For the sake of all Mars.
Movement arrested the Martian’s attention. An adult human, peering at the War Machine from beneath a patch of weed. It studied the Martian with careful eyes. This one was not afraid. Perhaps it already knew.
But the Martian had little concern for the human. It looked down at the image once more. The spasms came, and they did not stop. Darkness crept over the little human child’s face. Was the Star giving way to night already? Earth days were so very short.
“Ulla…” the Martian brushed the image’s face with a tentacle. It stared at the child until night overtook the Machine. Alone in the dark, the Martian held the image close.
J. Nelson Jr.’s short horror story, “First Night’s Always Free,” was originally published in NonBinary Review Issue #19 and will soon be available on Amazon. He is currently workshopping two novel manuscripts: a steampunk western and a sci-fi thriller. More information about his work can be found at www.starkest-madness.com.