The Black Smoke

On #AnnotatedTuesdays, we will share a quoted passage from some public domain source that has informed the Ascension Epoch universe, followed by commentary on how we used it.

The Martians are able to discharge enormous clouds of a black and poisonous vapour by means of rockets. They have smothered our batteries, destroyed Richmond, Kingston, and Wimbledon, and are advancing slowly towards London, destroying everything on the way. It is impossible to stop them. There is no safety from the Black Smoke but in instant flight. –H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

Perhaps the most feared and devastating of the Martian weapons was the ‘Black Smoke’, a dense, particulate vapor that acted both as a nerve-agent and as a fuel-air explosive. The Black Smoke was the preferred way of depopulating cities and other densely peopled areas. The Black Smoke was most often dispensed from emitters on Martian tripods so that it would rain down on targets below them, especially when engaged in battle in urban areas where previous attacks failed to completely eliminate human opposition.

The Black Smoke could also be delivered at great ranges by Martian artillery, either as self-propelled missiles (typically used by Martian aircraft) or as canisters launched by vehicle mounted gauss cannons (primarily on tripods, hexapods, and other walking machines).

These canisters smashed on striking the ground—they did not explode—and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes.

However, the Black Smoke often did explode. In fact, when fired at long ranges, the weapon was more commonly used as a thermobaric explosive than a poison gas. Upon reaching the programmed distance, the canister would spray the vapor and then detonate, creating a terrific explosion on the order of a low-yield nuclear bomb. The incendiary and overpressure effects were devastating on hard and soft targets alike. Those victims who weren’t crushed or incinerated died as the firestorm-induced vacuum collapsed their lungs.

Even as a toxin, the Black Smoke did not have to be inhaled to cause harm; its deadly poison was readily absorbed through the skin. Wherever the residue remained on objects, it proved a lethal hazard for months afterward. Apparently, it was toxic to the Martians as well, as they undertook to decontaminate exposed areas using high pressure steam before disembarking:

As a rule the Martians, when it had served its purpose, cleared the air of it again by wading into it and directing a jet of steam upon it.

Humans quickly copied the Martian decontamination procedures. Crawlers (better known as ‘tanks’ in our primary world), tractors, armored trains, and other steam-driven vehicles were eventually equipped with steam hoses to neutralize gas attacks. Some human talents, especially hydrokinetics like Marin of Les Quatre Vents, also used their powers to render the Black Smoke inert. The protective field generated by the Signalman’s blue lens was known to burn away the toxic clouds without igniting them.

Liquid water also disrupted the action of the Black Smoke, transforming the aerosol into grainy sediment. The water generally remained potable, though swallowing the grains could still prove toxic:

And where it came upon water some chemical action occurred, and the surface would be instantly covered with a powdery scum that sank slowly and made way for more. The scum was absolutely insoluble, and it is a strange thing, seeing the instant effect of the gas, that one could drink without hurt the water from which it had been strained.

The most common way of avoiding the Black Smoke was to seek shelter on high ground, especially in the upper floors of buildings. The aerosol was much heavier than air, and so it sank rather quickly to ground level:

It was heavy, this vapour, heavier than the densest smoke, so that, after the first tumultuous uprush and outflow of its impact, it sank down through the air and poured over the ground in a manner rather liquid than gaseous, abandoning the hills, and streaming into the valleys and ditches and watercourses even as I have heard the carbonic-acid gas that pours from volcanic clefts is wont to do.

The exact composition of the Black Smoke has never been determined:

Save that an unknown element giving a group of four lines in the blue of the spectrum is concerned, we are still entirely ignorant of the nature of this substance.

The Promethean, one of the few scientists who was has analyzed samples of the vapor, conjectured that the unknown elements are actually synthetic, the product of Martian theoretical chemistry. The ability of the Martians to create new ‘elements’ with novel properties through the use of quantum wells and more poorly understood processes has long been suspected in the creation of the gravity-neutralizing metal called Cavorite.

This enduring mystery has, fortunately, ensured that the Black Smoke has never been duplicated either by human technology or chemosynthetic talents. All instances of humans employing the Black Smoke, such as the Nemesis terror bombings in the 1990s, relied on warheads purchased or stolen from the stockpiles of the few relict Martian populations that remain on earth.

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