The sight of London deserted remained odd. In all the years that Sherlock Holmes had spent here, all the nights spent in solitude, there had always been a life and ethos to it. Now it seemed truly dead, a literal ghost of its former self.
Which made every noise a potential threat. Holmes flattened himself against the nearest wall, hoping to shrink into the shadows enough to elude a passing Martian war machine. Instead, he realized that the small, grinding sound belonged not to an alien engine of war but closer to earth.
“Mister Holmes?” A young man's voice called out in a faint whisper. “Mister Holmes, are you there sir?”
“I am.” Holmes took a quick glance from side to side and then stepped away out into the street. There stood near a broken shop the dirty and ruffled figured of a former member of the unusual organization Holmes himself had hoped to cultivate years earlier, the Baker Street Irregulars. The young man with stubble on his face smiled at him.
“It's good to see you, sir.”
“And you Wiggins.” Holmes stepped forward, taking another cautionary glance for the behemoths that now roamed the city. “You are here to take me to Mycroft, I presume?”
Wiggins nodded. “We'll need to be careful. Even though they seem to be sticking to the area around Primrose Hill, we still see machines wandering about the city sometimes.”
“Have you noticed any unusual activity from them?” Holmes inquired. Wiggins shrugged.
“If you can say that having Martians stomping all over a deserted London is 'usual', Mister Holmes.”
In another time, Holmes would likely have found Wiggins' remark impertinent. Under the circumstances though, it was an accurate summation of the situation they found themselves in. Holmes conceded the point and the pair made their way through the deserted streets and the rubble of a metropolis whose population had fled in panic.
After a quarter of an hour, Wiggins led Holmes out into the middle of a street. Spinning the bag around, he slung over his shoulder, the young man opened it and extracted from it a tool that he quickly applied to a manhole on the ground. Working quickly and with remarkably little strain, Wiggins had the cover removed.
Without a word, Holmes quickly moved and began to make his way down the ladder. Once he had returned the tool to his bag, Wiggins grabbed the lid and followed Holmes down. Holmes had only just reached the bottom when the lid was closed and darkness flooded in around them.
“Just a moment,” Wiggins cautioned in the dark. Holmes stood still, allowing his eyes time to adjust to the dark. To go from the overcast above to the black below was not as great a shock as, say, going from bright sunshine into the same situation yet presented the same difficulty. He suspected though that young Wiggins would have a better solution to the situation.
Holmes felt his supervisions confirmed by the sound of rattling and rustling cloth in the black. “Be careful with the lamp,” he cautioned with a voice that echoed around them. “Last thing we need is for there to be an explosion down here.”
“No need to worry.” A small light illuminated from above and Holmes gazed upwards, making out the shape of Wiggins' arms as he worked to light a small lantern. Holmes could only feel pride in that moment, seeing the lad he had known as a curious street urchin standing above him. He put that feeling aside as Wiggins climbed down the ladder and eventually stood beside him.
“I believe that we head in that direction,” Holmes paused to point. Wiggins gave a soft chuckle and pointed the lamp in that direction. Someone else might have asked how Holmes could possibly have known that but this lad had spent enough time around him to know his methods and how they were applied, to know Holmes had a good idea of how the city's sewer system was laid out and that their destination would be close to the location that the Holmes brothers were long familiar with.
“Hello, brother!” Mycroft's voice came out of the darkness to greet the pair. “You made better time than I would have expected under the circumstances.”
“That would be thanks to young master Wiggins,” Holmes offered before reaching up to loosen his tie. “His practical skill with navigating the sewers is amiable.”
“Wiggins is one of the ablest lamplighters,” Mycroft boasted, using his own term for agent. He turned and looked around the room with his brother. “What do you make of this?”
“Interesting,” he said after a moment. The room they were in was attached to the sewer system but was not a part of it, something made by both the different styling of stone work with the rooms being more similar to the tunnels used for the underground. It was lit by electric lights and then there was the matter of the ornamentation with the walls being covered with maps of the country, electrical wiring, and mechanical apparatus that were manned by those wearing the gear normally associated with telegraph communication.
The younger Holmes turned to his brother at last with a thin smile. “Your headquarters?”
“Indeed it is. You know where we are then?”
“Based on the path Wiggins brought us, I believe we are in the general vicinity of the Diogenes Club, are we not?” Mycroft nodded and his brother continued. “This would be the secret center of your operations I've heard so much about.”
“Indeed.” Mycroft seemed proud to finally be able to show this part of the world to his sibling. “We were hoping to move operations into a building in the Cambridge Circus but this business has rather put paid to those plans.”
“I see you have adapted the Marconi wireless sets to your use as well,” the younger Holmes observed. Mycroft nodded and walked over to one of the machines.
“Their electrically powered, like the lights, which can be a bother at times but it has become the most effective way to communicate with the groups around the country.”
“Does that include the government that fled to Scotland?” Sherlock asked ruefully, remembering how the politicians had fled first and only then offered evacuation as a safe route for the four million inhabitants of the city. That is those who were able to leave.
“It does,” Mycroft replied, taking no notice of his brother's ruminations. “For all intents and purposes, I am in charge of Southern England and the fight against the invaders.”
“Are you now?” He inquired of Mycroft, taking the opportunity to now tease his older sibling. He had come across an Ordnance Survey map showing the area around Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common which was marked differently from the other maps he had seen. “What, pray, is happening here?”
Mycroft Holmes' bluster seemed to fade somewhat, capped off with an “Ah.” There was a long silence before he continued speaking. “We had a young artilleryman, a survivor of the first Martian attack, stationed there after we lost the lamplighter there. He appears to have gone rogue as it were.”
“'Rogue', Mycroft?” The younger Holmes' tone was faintly mocking. “That's rather worrying to hear since we are leaving the fate of the country in the hands of such men as that.”
“To quote a popular expression: 'needs must when the devil drives'.” Mycroft stood a little firmer then and Sherlock realized that his brother had lost a considerable amount of weight in recent times, enough to make his once well-tailored clothes ill-fitting. Sherlock nodded to concede the point, realizing that lives were being lost with every moment they bantered on.
“I have spent the last five days in Baker Street awaiting a summons from you, as well as conducting some reconnaissance and observation of the enemy at work. Why have you summoned me here now?”
The brothers moved to a side room set up to be an office. The lighting in here was better, perhaps due to Mycroft needing to read documents and letters. It had all the trappings of a gentleman's study albeit with air that was stale and reeked of sweat. Mycroft sat behind the desk and ran a handkerchief over his damp forehead before beginning to speak.
“As you know, the possibility of invasion from the continent is something I have taken seriously for some time.” Mycroft began as he put the handkerchief away, stuffing it back into a pocket. “Or at the very least, I have. I put together groups across the country along with arms and supplies that would allow them, in the event of such an invasion, either aid our own forces or become a fighting force in their own right.”
“I believe I have heard whispers of such in the past.” Sherlock took on his usual pose despite the setting, his hands brought together with his fingers touching. He gazed over the top of this phalanx pyramid at his sibling. “Cases involving items of mysterious origins appearing in certain rural areas.”
“Given the number of units organized, having minor issues is not considering.”
“If you say so brother,” Sherlock huffed. “Please proceed.”
“These units were activated when I became aware of the Martian threat. The wireless sets are checked twice weekly and we sent out the message to activate them. As far as can be ascertained, most of them are active despite some members panicking and fleeing. That was something that we had come to expect of course.”
“Of course,” Sherlock agreed. “Some will want to join their families in fleeing, especially when the invader is not of this world.”
“It is perhaps surprising that so many stayed, in retrospect.” Mycroft sighed and rubbed his eyelids, stiffing a yawn. “I have largely kept these units under cover, using them for purposes of reconnaissance and observation.”
“I presume some kind of counter attack is being planned then, Mycroft?” Sherlock's fingers began to flex as he waited for a reply. “Though with the lack of success the army has had to date, I wonder what possible weapon you might have with which to defend ourselves with?”
“That I can not say at present.” The tone of Mycroft's voice was of a man wishing to hide something. Sherlock Holmes' right eyebrow raised and his fingers stopped their movement. Mycroft seemed to take no notice of this but his younger brother knew better than that being the case. “That is not why I had you come across the city to meet me here.”
Mycroft paused, his expression changing into concern. Despite being the man at the heart of the British government for years, Mycroft had never worried himself over matters. Indeed, he was often happy to be seen as incorrect then go out of his way to being proven correct in a matter. He finally spoke in a hushed tone despite the thick closed door separating them from the main space.
“Because we've had reports of something which, if confirmed, could very well mean our certain defeat.”
“As a country, you mean?”
The elder Holmes shook his head. “No, dear brother. I mean as a species upon this Earth.”
Holmes and Wiggins made their way to Baker Street in the hour immediately following their return to London above. Wiggins had not visited the rooms in years but remembered them well from his visits here as a much younger man. In his short life, he had seen much change about the city including the beginning of the shift from gas lamps to electric lights. This was a wondrous age he often heard but being on a lower rung of society he knew there was more to it than that. That was a lesson he had taken away from his time with the Irregulars, that there is more to things than usually meets the eye.
Yet for all that change, the interior of 221B Baker Street had remained much the same. The familiar layout of the room with the chairs near the fireplace, the Persian slipper Dr. Watson had made famous in his stories, all of it was still there. Maybe it was nostalgia at work upon his mind, but it felt right to be in this space again after all these years.
“You're welcome to sit down,” Holmes instructed his former protege. Wiggins removed his cap and made his way over to a chair, one that seemed to have gotten much use over the years which had the occasional spot of ink upon its surface. This must be the chair that Watson had sat in so many times. Shaking off the feeling akin to a pilgrim who fears committing sacrilege at a shrine, Wiggins sat down in the comfortable chair and sank into it.
“Where is Dr. Watson?” Wiggins found himself asking out of genuine curiosity. Holmes appeared out of his vision and walked over to the window, checking out it for any sign of pursuers of the human and inhuman variety. Certain they weren't followed, the detective slipped off his coat and sat in the chair opposite Wiggins.
“He left London with his wife and Mrs. Hudson,” he explained as he sat down. He reached into the pocket of his jacket as he continued speaking. “Their plan was to reach the coast and take a boat to France. Mycroft had asked me to stay behind so I made my excuses to stay.”
“Did they survive, you reckon?”
Holmes stared thoughtfully into the empty fireplace where once a fire would have burned. Now it sat unused to avoid alerting the invaders of its occupants. He turned to the younger fellow and stopped his attempt to extract some item from his pocket. He then did something most unexpected in Wiggins experience with him: he shrugged in an admittance of ignorance.
“I have often noted that surmising when there is a lack of evidence is corrosive to the faculties I value so highly. Therefore, Wiggins, I will not do so now.”
“I understand,” Wiggins offered though he did not. Holmes sensed this and finally extracted a hip flask from his pocket.
“It isn't much,” Holmes confessed as he unscrewed the lid. “The doctor left behind a good brandy that, I presume, he intended to be used for medical purposes. Despite the rain, with the introduction of the foreign vegetation to our shores, it seems unwise to drink much water.”
The detective removed the lid and extended his hand to offer the bottle to Wiggins. The former Irregular accepted it with a quiet 'thank you' and took a large swig from it. He held the liquid in his mouth for a moment, taking in the flavor after having learned from bitter experience that swallowing it straight down was the easiest way to feel like your insides were on fire. Finally, he swallowed it, noting that it was the best-tasting thing he had drunk in recent memory. He took another swig and then handed it back to the detective who took a swig himself.
“There's some tin food down stairs that Mrs. Hudson left behind as well if you're hungry?” Wiggins shook his head at the detective's offer despite the slight sting of hunger in his belly. That feeling had become ever present and he had learned to set it aside whenever possible. Something he suspected Holmes understood well.
“Very well then.” Holmes returned the flask to his pocket and sat back in the chair. “We'll wait then before we go out. Perhaps the cover of darkness will aid us in our endeavours this evening?”
“Perhaps.” Wiggins did not share the detective's confidence and realized too late that his voice carried that feeling. He told him to remain calm but looked at Holmes, trying to gauge his reaction. The detective smiled at him reassuringly.
“You have your doubts,” Holmes said as calmly as he might have made some comment on the weather outside. “I dare say even Watson has had his share of doubts at my side.”
“I don't doubt your abilities, Mister Holmes.” Wiggins sat forward in his chair, keeping his voice low as if it might somehow tip off the Martians to their presence. “Lord knows, I have spent enough time around you to know them.”
“Then what is it that you doubt, Wiggins?”
Wiggins remained silent. He felt his head droop and he reached up to rub his eyes. Holmes let out a soft, almost fatherly chuckle and sat forward himself. He placed a hand on the young man's left shoulder.
“You are worried that this old man might get you killed?” Wiggins gave a vigorous nod and a smile, albeit an apologetic one.
“There is no need to apologize,” Holmes reassured him, patting him on the shoulder softly. “You look tired. Get some rest in the chair and I'll wake you when the time comes.”
Wiggins began to object but the detective came him a stern look. Wiggins gave a sigh of defeat and leaned back in the chair. As the detective stood up and began to walk across the room, the former Irregular closed his eyes and was already in the arms of Morpheus.
Holmes awakened him sometime later with two cans of food for him to eat on. One tin contained a bland vegetable and the second an equally bland meat, neither of which Wiggins was able to readily identify as a result. He accepted the food happily, telling himself to be grateful to have any food at all and that it was merely giving him energy for the work ahead.
The two men then readied themselves with Holmes checking his new pistol and slipping it into an outer pocket on his coat. Wiggins kept his own pistol in the bag The two men said little before they descended the steps and stepped out into the empty Baker Street to begin their journey.
Unlike their journey to Mycroft's underground headquarters, this journey was to be done largely above ground. Despite the city having silent for a week or so, it was still unnerving. There was every expectation of seeing people and carriages, to hear the familiar sounds of the city at work and play. It was a fantasy, dangerous to indulge under the circumstances.
As if on cue to remind him, there came a loud crash. Despite the decade's age difference between them, it was Holmes who reacted first by grabbing Wiggins and pulling him into the remains of a shop. Wiggins felt glass crunch beneath his feet and pushed the revolting smell of rotten meat out that filled his nostrils out of his mind. The two of them pressed as far into the shop as they could before Holmes finally stopped and turned around.
“It's a fighting machine.” His words were a whisper at most, so faint that Wiggins young ears nearly lost them. He turned to Holmes who was intently staring out into the street from which they had just vacated.
“How do you know?”
Holmes didn't even blink or shift his eyes as he answered.
“The noise its mechanical legs make is distinctive,” he explained. “Mycroft told me there are apparently at least four types identified so far. I hope they will be as easy to recognize as these are.”
The air was filled by a shattering cry. Not a human voice calling from the desolation but a thundering howl. An unearthly noise that seemed to shred the air itself.
“Our occupiers are communicating.” The detective gave a cynical laugh and peered at his younger colleague. “They came across millions of miles of space but can not communicate across the city. How interesting...”
His voice trailed off and he began moving. He diligently retraced their steps back out towards the street, stopping at the edge of the doorway to peek out. He stopped and pulled himself back from the edge slightly. Keeping an eye out into the street, he silently waved Wiggins over to join him. The young man did so, taking great pains to watch his steps as he did so.
“See this?” Holmes said to him as he approached before moving to give Wiggins the better vantage point. Wiggins took it and turned in the direction Holmes had been moments earlier. Over the nearest row of buildings, perhaps the next street over, was a tripod machine. Wiggins had seen them in action before, having served as an observer for Mycroft on a number of occasions. He had never seen a tripod apparently unarmed, carrying neither the box like mechanism for the heat ray or the tube used to eject black smoke over large areas. Instead, it thrashed its tentacle like arms about, a loud smashing noise coming with every swing.
“It's acting like a rat catcher!” Wiggins' managed to keep the volume of his voice down while also expressing excitement. “It's tearing down houses, buildings, whatever it can get to, destroying them in the hopes that the people inside will flee.”
The detective agreed. “Darwin, Huxley, and their lot believed that deep down we human beings were nothing more than animals. It is instances like this that convinces me that might well be the case.”
Wiggins said nothing. He merely watched the tripod going about its work, crying out its otherworldly howl as the occasional piece of debris went flying high into the air. He finally turned away from the sight to Holmes.
“Should we get going, Mister Holmes?”
Wiggins repeated the act of checking each way down the street and ascertaining that the Martian machine was too busy about its work to take notice of them. He signaled the all clear to Holmes and the pair began their journey again. They would stop twice more due to spotting the war machines on apparent patrol before they reached their destination soon after night fall, arriving at the base of Primrose Hill.
In different times, Primrose Hill was an idyllic spot. Now it seemed to glow, like a lighthouse just over the horizon. It also hummed with activity, mechanical noises coming from just the other side of the hill. A tremor had been felt four days earlier and its cause had been easily surmised by Mycroft and his younger brother.
“This is where the cylinder fell,” he explained to Wiggins. Wiggins, of course, knew of Mycroft's suspicions before he had ever left to collect the detective. Perhaps Holmes himself sensed this as a moment later a look of embarrassed consternation formed on his face. Wiggins allowed himself a quiet laugh and shook his head to comfort the older man. Holmes seemed to accept this and turned back to look over the hill.
“Has my brother informed you of what he has come to believe the invaders have here?” Wiggins was honest and shook his head. He was ordered to escort Holmes but not informed of what purpose their sojourn served. “Then let us see if he is indeed correct.”
The two men began to slowly edge their way up towards the hill's peak. They had started at full height but had crawled descended as they got closer, dropping initially into a crouching position. By the time they reached the top of the hill, nearly able to look over its rim, they had flattened themselves onto the ground in a crawl. The act was uncomfortable as the red weed grew across the hillside, rubbing painfully against their faces, chests, and legs. It took all that Wiggins could do not to give out an audible cry either of stinging pain as its hit certain areas of his anatomy or annoyance. Holmes for his part remained silent, perhaps reveling in his element despite the physical hardship he was currently experiencing.
Perhaps as a result of his reveling in the situation, Holmes approached the top of the hill first. He was careful to slow down and edge his way forward slowly, trying to avoid exposing himself if at all possible. Wiggins arrived some moments later and placed himself next to the detective. The detective leaned over to him.
Wiggins rolled over onto his back slowly, allowing him to pull the bag around onto his stomach. He quickly unlatched it and reached it carefully, using the oddly bright illumination to look for the item requested. He found it after only a few moments and handed it over before closing the bag and rolling back onto his stomach.
Holmes extended the out in his hands and then lifted it up to his right eye. Wiggins scanned in the same direction, finally getting a proper look and he felt his heart seeming to become hard with gloom. For extended out before them into the park land around was a desolate landscape stripped of its natural greenery with only a few burn scarred trees serving as a testament to the beauty it once enjoyed. Now the natural world was replaced by red weed and dirt.
The Martians themselves were present, the source of both the light and noise that filled the city at night. A large cylinder like object sat in the middle of things, like the hub at the center of a wheel. There were signs of excavation done without doubt by the worm-like machine that even now was still flattening earth and expelling large amounts of dirt as it went. There more of the war machines about, none apparently active. All attention was focused near where the excavating machine was working.
“You spotted it.” The tone Holmes used did not make it clear if the sentence was an inquiry or a statement. Wiggins turned and found the old man was holding out the telescope for him to take. Wiggins silently removed it from the older man's hands and assumed that Holmes was alluding to the spot he had scouted.
Their some distance from them were Martians at work in machines that were like crustaceans in their shape and movements. Inside were the invaders themselves, allowing Wiggins to at last view the adversary of his world with a body that reminded Wiggins of a squid he had once seen on a visit to the Natural History Museum. At least that specimen had only a single eye whereas these beasts had two dark eyes which sat unblinking as focused on their task.
It was this task that caught the young man's attention. They were like factory workers, energetically going about their work. The subject of this attention was large and shaped not unlike a crescent moon in the evening sky. It was dark in color but sparks from the machines gradually allowed Wiggins the opportunity to calculate its size and potential purpose.
“That,” Holmes offered pointedly, “is why Mycroft sent us here.”
Wiggins felt his heart skip a beat and he wondered for a moment if it had given out. It began to beat again and he turned his attention back to the thing below with its odd boomerang shape. He considered the possibilities but found none that made sense to him. He finally lowered the glass and turned to the detective.
“It's a flying machine!” Holmes spoke with a sense of terrible awe, an awareness of both the positive and negative connotations of what he was saying. “These invaders have brought it with them, presumably to aid in their efforts.”
“That's years ahead of us!” A new feeling made itself apparent in Wiggins' breast. He had felt fear many times in his life and in recent weeks especially. This was a new emotion, near to despair. “We've well and truly lost.”
“Nonsense!” The older man's eyes seemed to come alight, a flame burning in them. “Think lad! Why else would my brother send us here?”
Wiggins sense of foreboding was mingled with intellectual realization, the proverbial gears turning in his mind. The two emotions were contradictory, the head and the heart at war with one another. A new thought crossed his mind and he gave an uncomprehending look in the direction of the detective. “How do we stop them, Mister Holmes?”
“Tonight, we don't. We merely confirm what is here and tomorrow,” Holmes paused to turn once more to gaze upon the enemy encampment below them. He appeared like a general might before a battle he might well win. “Tomorrow we will put paid to their plans.”
Wiggins felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. He thought perhaps it was merely a reaction to Holmes' little speech but the demeanor of his companion changed as well. At nearly the same moment, both men seemed to sense something behind and below them.
In the midst of their combined actions of turning and rolling, there came something akin to a cry. It was the voice of a woman, that much Wiggins could be sure of. In normal times such a cry would have been masked but even with the humming of alien machinery, it was carried by the sheer desolation around them.
At the bottom of the hill was the staggering figure of a young woman. Distance and the lack of illumination obscured many details but it was definitely a woman with dark hair and wearing a dark dress. She seemed to be staggering due to the weight and bulk of the object she carried close to her chest. A child perhaps? Wiggins thought to himself before realizing that the noise from the machinery below had changed subtly.
“We must get to her!” Holmes cried out in a loud whisper. In an instant, he had pushed himself up from laying on the ground to on his feet and running down the hill. Wiggins was caught surprised at the man's speed and agility, so much so that it took him several seconds to finally put himself into motion. He was not able to match the cat like grace which the detective had used to propel himself but was able to make progress though Holmes had a considerable lead on him.
Holmes reached the woman voice. At first, it was as if she took no notice of him. She had turned to walk in their direction, perhaps to the very spot on the hilltop that they themselves had occupied only moments before. As he grew closer, Wiggins could make out Holmes whispered attempts to speak to the woman.
Wiggins looked over his right shoulder, hoping not to see a tripod looming over the hilltop. Thankfully, none had yet appeared but he feared that it was only a matter of time before the enemy would be upon them.
“We must leave here!” Wiggins called through gritted teeth. Holmes agreed and tried to take the woman's arms, to pry her loose from the package that she held so close to her bosom. When the woman began to give out a loud cry, Holmes removed his hands and took a non-threatening gesture as he raised them into the air. Wiggins raised a silencing finger to his mouth and the woman's cry died in her throat.
The damage was already done. From the other side of the hill came mechanical noises that seemed to grow ever closer. Holmes and Wiggins shared an understanding between them that they had to vacate the area quickly. They each scanned the woman, her face, and her filthy dress. She merely stared past them, to the hill behind, as if unseeing yet determined.
Before either man could do anything to aid her, she took a stumbling step. Her grasp on the package gave way and both were in a state of descent. Each man acted in that moment, reaching out for the object closest to them. Holmes getting his hands around the woman's shoulders while Wiggins took hold of the package.
“Have you got it?” Holmes inquired urgently. Wiggins nodded vigorously and was in the process of coming about to face him when he heard footfalls that turned quickly into a run. “Come along!”
Wiggins did as commanded, breaking out into a sprint. He understood the woman's stumbling steps given the weight of what he was holding. It felt like it was forty, maybe fifty pounds and it was an unwieldy bulk. Whatever he was holding blocked his view of the ground and he could only hope that there was no obstacle that might likewise trip him up. All the while, he gazed over the top of the package to see Holmes, the woman now up in his arms, heading towards the nearest building.
When the detective reached it, he stopped only momentarily. At first, Wiggins believed this was for his benefit but was soon dissuaded of that notion. Still holding the woman in his arms, Holmes gave out a grunt and let forth a mighty kick of his right leg. The door of the building gave way with a crack and flew open. Holmes disappeared inside and Wiggins followed him mere moments later.
The building they had entered appeared to be a shop. A curiosity shop based on the assortment of items Wiggins found himself glancing at. The space between shelves was narrow, combining with the near black to give the entire space a claustrophobic atmosphere. Combined with the threat of Martians being in pursuit, Wiggins felt trapped and encroached upon.
“In here!” Holmes called out from somewhere near by. Wiggins turned and peaked between holes in the shelves, trying to find some sign of the detective. He kept moving, hoping to see something. “Over here, Wiggins!”
Wiggins followed the sound of the detective's voice, using it like a moth does flame. Eventually, he worked his way to the back of the store, finding Holmes standing beside the rear door of the door. He had placed the young woman on the ground beside him and seemed to be checking her in that way he did virtually everyone he met.
“Are we safe here?” He inquired of Holmes, who continued to look over the woman. He was looking at her hands when he offered a reply.
“I doubt it. Hence why I have placed us at the nearest exit away from the Martians.” He paused for a moment, turning the woman's hand over in the moonlight that came through a nearby window. “This woman is from a well-to-do family from the look of her clothes and yet has found herself in a reduced situation in recent days.”
“Haven't we all, Mister Holmes?” Wiggins spat out before quite realizing what he was saying. Instantly feeling embarrassed by what he had said, he was made even more so by Holmes stopping his examination to look up at him with those steely eyes looking into his own. He muttered an apology and slowly sunk to the floor, placing his back up against a wall. Holmes offered an understanding look.
“It was thoughtless of me to say,” he offered as an apology of his own. “This woman had come down even further in the world than most. Which reminds me, have you examined the package she was carrying?”
“No, I haven't.” Wiggins realized he was holding it to his own chest just as the woman had. He lowered it, maneuvering it into the same moonlight that Holmes was using to make his own examination. The exterior of it was a thick bag, like the ones used by sailors moving goods on and off their ships. Reaching for the top of it, Wiggins found an opening and pulled at it, looking inside to find something quite unexpected. He let out a four letter curse which made the detective turn.
“Explosives?” Wiggins said with amazement. The old man smiled at him and sat the woman's hand down. “A woman from a well to do family in my reduced circumstances in the heart of a city occupied by an otherworldly enemy and carrying a large package. What else, young Wiggins, would she be carrying?”
“As I feel certain the good doctor has said to you, 'When you say it like that...'”
The two men exchanged a chuckle between them as Holmes began to examine the explosives. He said nothing as he examined them, merely looking into the bag and turning them over in his hand occasionally. He finally sealed up the bag and set it aside before laying back with a deep sigh.
“They appear to be dynamite used mainly in construction work,” he explained to Wiggins. “The work in the underground is mostly done by hand which would suggest a quarry somewhere.”
“Or perhaps one of your brother's units?” Wiggins offered as an alternative. “It would make sense to use in any kind of effort to hinder an invading army.”
“Perhaps,” Holmes agreed. “This is not part of Mycroft's operations. Why send us here if he was planning to attack? This is part of another man's game.”
From out of the moonlight came the sound of the woman stirring. In a matter of seconds, they had increased in volume. Both men hurriedly shuffled their way over to her with Holmes trying to quieten her with soft sounds of ssh.
“You're safe.” Wiggins offered as the woman came around. He noticed for the first time a stark beauty she had, her brown hair greasy and streaked with dirt, the frightened dark eyes that considered them. She pushed herself back from them, her arms raising to her chest in a protective fashion. She stared at them, her breathing loud like an animal when cornered. The two men kept their distance.
“Who are you? Where am I?” The woman asked of them, her accent alone confirming Holmes' earlier observation of her coming from a well off family. “Well?”
“I am Sherlock Holmes madam,” Holmes spoke as gently as Wiggins had ever heard him speak, trying to be comforting. “Perhaps you have heard of me and my colleague, Dr. Watson?”
The woman nodded, turning her attention to Wiggins. “He doesn't look like a physician.”
“That would be because I am not,” Wiggins replied, trying to match the detective's tone. “My name is Wiggins. I'm assisting Mister Holmes as Dr. Watson has left the city.”
“Why didn't you leave like everyone else?” She demanded of them. Holmes moved slightly forward, the woman's eyes following him. He raised his hands to show he had no ill intentions.
“We could ask the same of you, Miss...”
“Graham.” The woman let out a long sigh, her eyes closing and her head falling to her chest. “Elizabeth Graham.”
“I have heard of your family!” Holmes declared, his hands lowering as he spoke. “A member of the cabinet, is he not?”
“He is,” Miss Graham concurred. “I believe he still is.”
“You and your father had some falling out?” Holmes inquired. Miss Graham opened her tear filled eyes to look at him with surprise. “Your choice of words says more than you expect. As does the spot on your left hand that, even in this lighting, I can see you once wore a ring. Your father did not approve of the match?”
Miss Graham gave a low, bitter laugh. “He did not. I expect that you can also surmise the rest of my situation from that fact?”
“Enough to conclude you were unable to leave the city during the great exodus and remained behind, scavenging until you fell in with a group of survivors. Am I correct?”
“You are.” There was a reluctance in her voice, a weariness. Perhaps it was the sheer memory of it all. Yet she continued to talk, perhaps glad to have met someone with whom to share the story.
“My husband went to fetch a cart, carriage, anything to convey us from the city. I waited hours, watched the seemingly endless trail of people walking by, hoping he would return, carry me to safety. That sounds absurd doesn't it?” Neither Holmes nor Wiggins replied and Miss Graham did not seem offended by that. “Eventually the people became a trickle and then none at all. I found some food in the kitchen but after days in the house, I finally had to leave. Richard wasn't coming back, that much was apparent.”
“So you went out onto the streets,” Holmes stated this as a fact. “You left your home and walked across the city. In search of what? Companionship?”
“Yes, Mister Holmes.” She sounded defensive and she shifted to indicate that she felt as much. “I saw nothing but rubble and bodies. I searched through the bodies, I wanted to find Richard. I wanted...” In the moonlight, tears began to roll down her cheeks. She let out some sobs but seemed to regain her composure rather quickly.
“You wanted to know what had become of him?” Holmes offered a handkerchief from his pocket. Miss Graham took it and dab at her eyes, pulling off some of the dirt streaked across her face in the process. She realized the fact too late and gave an apologetic look at the detective. Holmes merely smiled at her.
“Please keep it,” he told her. “It is a trifle we need not worry about.”
“Thank you, Mister Holmes.” She held the dirty handkerchief between her hands like a child might hold a beloved blanket. She continued her story. “I was coming into Wimbledon when I fell into the dirt, getting covered in it. It was then that he found me.”
“Who, Miss Graham?” Wiggins felt oddly inquisitive, invested in the woman's account. Holmes looked at him, that same curious expression on his face. Here they were, three people in the midst of what was once the Empire's greatest city, wishing to know how they had reached this point.
“An artilleryman he said he was.” At her words, Holmes turned back around and moved into a crouching position. He nimbly moved forward, beckoning Miss Graham to continue. She obliged him.
“He took me to a house he had holed up in. There were others there too. Another woman and two men. He laid out a vision, a new world that would rise like the phoenix from the ashes.”
“A society underground?” Holmes inquired with a raised eyebrow. The young woman's dark hair shifted and tumbled as she turned to look at him. “He claimed to be in the possession of supplies left in the event of an invasion?” She nodded confusedly at his knowledge.
“I understand!” Wiggins pronounced excitedly, a little louder than he meant to have. Holmes and Miss Graham turned to him and he was silenced in a moment. All three were silent, listening to the noises around them, an indication that the Martians might be about to pounce upon them. For what seemed an age, they sat there but in the end, nothing came.
“I believe we have found Mycroft's rogue unit, Wiggins.” Holmes smiled a triumphant grin. A grin that stayed as he turned his attention back to Miss Graham. “Pray, madam, tell me how you came to be across the city with these explosives?”
“The artilleryman wanted me to stay, to have children for this world of his. In different circumstances, I might have considered, given the situation. But I could not oblige him.”
“You were morally opposed?” Wiggins inquired, realizing too late the indelicate nature of his question. Holmes took no notice of the fact but Miss Graham smiled at him sadly.
“I was not, Mister Wiggins. The fact is I can not have children.”
“And thus,” Holmes spoke tenderly, “you were of no use to him.”
Miss Graham nodded, holding the handkerchief to her right cheek. “He decided that none of us were worthy of his cause. None were the type to survive in his world. But he told us there was something we could do. If we were no use in the time to come-”
“-You could be of use in this one.” Holmes interrupted. “He sent you to destroy the Martians, and you with them.”
She began to sob. It was confirmation enough for Holmes. He moved away, processing all the information. Wiggins felt sympathy for the woman and moved towards her. He put her arms around her and she leaned in to sob on his shoulder, her warm tears penetrating through his jacket and shirt. They sat there for several minutes until her tears ran out.
“We can not let you waste your life,” Holmes declared suddenly. He made his way over to the bag of explosives, opening it up and consulting its contents like a child might on Christmas morning. Wiggins could already fathom what Holmes was considering.
“The flying machine,” he whispered. Miss Higgins turned to him and Wiggins gave a quick explanation of what they had seen, though not quite explaining how they had come to be here. It seemed enough for her.
“You want me to take it?” Her question made Wiggins look at her in horror. Before he said a word, he noticed that Holmes had not stopped his examination and he turned to the detective.
“Certainly not,” he announced as if sensing Wiggins ocular indictment from across the little hallway. “On the contrary, I shall carry it.”
“You, Mister Holmes?” The thought filled Wiggins with as much dread as the idea of the young lady next to him carrying out the task. “Your brother would not forgive me if you did not come back to him, sir.”
“I suspect Mycroft would be more upset to lose his top lamplighter than his younger sibling, 'the consulting detective'.” Holmes stopped his examination and reached into the pocket of his jacket, pulling out a book of matches. “All one has to do is light it and touch the fuse. It appears to be short enough to cause a near instantaneous detention. That is what the artilleryman told you, Miss Graham, is it not?”
“It is.” Her tone was soft as if she somehow didn't catch what was being said.
Holmes shook his head, standing up next the package containing the explosives. “Mycroft's plan is almost identical to what I am about to commit to.”
Wiggins let go of the woman and rose to his feet. He moved forwards and put a hand on Holmes' shoulder, causing the detective to turn around. “I know these are dire times, Mister Holmes but-”
Wiggins words were forever silenced in that moment. The sound of footsteps came from nearby, quickly becoming the sound of a person running. The two men stood for only a moment and then turned at once to Miss Graham. Only they found the place she had occupied empty, the handkerchief left behind in her place.
“She didn't!” Wiggins yelled out. He did not see that Holmes had turned to look where he left the explosives to find that they too had vanished.
“Come on!” Holmes yelled as he moved to the shop's rear door. She had left it open and the detective had merely to push on it to be out onto the street. He inspected the scene and then moved in Wiggins direction.
“We have to stop her!” Wiggins said, grabbing Holmes. Holmes nodded angrily.
“We can head her off going out the front!”
Realizing what Holmes was doing, Wiggins let him go and the two men hurriedly made their way through the shop. The detective flung the door he had broken open aside and raced out into the night. Wiggins being younger, he raced ahead of Holmes, reaching into his bag as he went to pull out his pistol. He searched for Miss Graham but saw no sign of her around the edge of the building.
“She out ran us!” Holmes cried out before adding words that sent a chill through Wiggins a moment later. “There she is!”
Wiggins turned to see the woman in her dark dress silhouetted against the top of the hill. Wiggins cursed and ran after her, the sound of his rapid breaths almost drowned out but the rushing blood in his ears. He kept his pistol in his hands, ready to use on any of the invaders that might approach her. Or, if he had to, to stop her. Perhaps the doctor at headquarters could-
Soon after she disappeared over the top of the hill, the night was cut by the sound of a woman's cry. It was a scream ended in mid-exclamation like an interrupted thought or a candle snuffed out in the night. The source of the cry was in no doubt but it did not stop either man from racing to the top of Primrose Hill.
There they saw, down the hill towards the Martian camp, Miss Elizabeth Graham lying upon the ground. Wiggins ran forward, throwing caution to the wind. He was like Galahad off to save a maiden and nothing would stop him, not even Holmes yelling after him.
Wiggins crouched next to her, setting the pistol to one side. He rolled her over, looking at her face which was now covered again by dirt. A river of blood flowed down it, its source being a cut on her forehead. He looked down her figure at her lower chest, watching as it slowly fell and rose back up again.
“She's alive,” he muttered. He closed her eyes, feeling thankful. He heard footsteps approaching and opened them again, looking to see Holmes approaching. The detective looked not at him but at the Martian camp beyond.
“Listen,” the detective told him. Wiggins did as commanded. The noise had altered, like an engine sputtering. It stopped for a moment and then picked up again only to stop again seconds later.
“It's like a clock winding down,” Wiggins thought aloud. Holmes nodded in agreement and turned to the lad. Wiggins turned and surveyed the scene in astonishment.
It was indeed like a clock winding down. Or perhaps some great machine coming to the end of its use. The Martian machines that had been so busy at work an hour or so before now moved sluggishly and without apparent purpose. They were unfocused, unaware almost of anything but the predicament they found themselves in.
“This could be a trap,” Wiggins coughed out. Holmes smiled and shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “I think something unexpected has occurred. Something neither we nor the Martians anticipated.”
Holmes rolled onto his side towards his former underling. He considered the night sky and then turned back to Wiggins. He smiled and turned his gaze back upon the Martians.
“Something we will only understand in the coming days, I expect.” He rose to his feet, never taking his eyes off the Martians below despite exposing himself to their potential destructive powers. “We finish what we set out to do.”
It was the explosion that at last stirred Miss Graham. She realized she was in the shop she had been the night before with the two men, the detective's and his assistant. She began to dismiss it all as having been a dream but the pain in her head and limbs told her it was not the case.
She laid there a few minutes before she heard the door behind her open. She rolled and the two men approach her, both with guns in their hands. She smiled weakly at them which the younger man took notice of.
“Good morning,” he said to her as he crouched down. “You took a nasty fall.”
It feels like it.” She raised a hand to her head, feeling a bandage around it. She patted it for a moment.
“Dr. Watson usually handles wounds but I have learned from him in my time,” Holmes offered as he sat his gun down. “We'll take you to Mycroft's headquarters where you can be properly attended.”
She shook her head and tried to sit up, straining as she did so. “What was that explosion?”
The two men shared a smile. Wiggins was the one who answered “We used the explosives you brought with you. We improvised a longer fuse and sabotaged the flying machine.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “And the Martians?”
“The Martians,” Holmes said with the tone one might use to describe the weather, “seem to be dying, madam. The torment seems to be over.”
Elizabeth was confused, uncertainty wrote across her face. “Then why destroy their machine?”
“Because are not ready for it,” Holmes explained. “These are not the machines of men but of another world. My brother didn't want us just to stop the Martians from using it.”
“He wanted to make sure we didn't as well,” Wiggins added as helped Miss Graham sit up. “Will you be ready to leave soon?”
Elizabeth nodded. She offered a smile and looked out a window at the gray sky above. “Is it really over?”
“I believe so.” Holmes smiled and raised up a hip flask as if offering a toast. “To better days ahead.”