Hotter than the Sun


Another day of the A-to-Z Challenge! H is for heat-ray. In The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, the Martian invaders use a heat-ray against helpless Earthlings. Heat-rays, along with death rays, ray guns, blasters, beam guns, and zappers were common in science fiction long before the real-world invention of the laser.

“What’s in here?” The kid brushed away a thick blanket of dust and heaved open the lid of the antique chest. “Wow, this stuff looks old!”

My heart skipped a beat when I saw the curved metal component in his grubby hands. “Whoa! Careful with that!” I rushed over and relieved him of his newfound treasure. “That belonged to my Granddad.”

“What is it? Taillight from a ’57 Chevy?”

I laughed. “I can see why you’d think that, from the lens assembly and the chrome. But no, you’re several decades off.”

“Sure looks like something from the Fifties. Wasn’t art deco popular back then? What is it?”

A quick glance confirmed that his sister and mother were out of earshot, at the far end of the attic. “Seems like you know a little history, kid. Have you studied the War of the Worlds?”

He frowned. “History? You mean English literature. The War of the Worlds was a book.”

“By H.G. Wells,” I confirmed. “His account was fictionalized, but pretty accurate. This device is a Martian heat-ray, salvaged from the great invasion of 1898.”

“No way.” He cocked his head skeptically. “Your Granddad would’ve been a boy in 1898.”

“Yep. One of the Martian cylinders landed near his farm on the outskirts of Altoona. When the Martians attacked, Great-Granddad got burned up along with the rest of the farmer militia, but Granddad hid with his mama and sister in the ruins of an old Amish barn.” I closed the heavy oak chest and sat down on it. “For weeks they holed up in that barn, living off jars of preserves and toasted red-weed. Then the Martians all caught colds and died, and Granddad claimed a war prize from one of their downed Tripods.”

“Baloney!” But I noticed the boy was studying the device intently, following its contours with his fingers without actually touching it. “If it were a real heat-ray, the military would’ve confiscated it or something.”

I flipped the chrome device over, careful not to aim it at anything flammable in the process. “The military had dozens of the things,” I said with a shrug. “And everyone knows that we were never able to reverse engineer the Martian technology.”

“So your Granddad just stashed it in the attic and forgot about it?”

“Of course not! My Granddad and my Dad both played with it over the years — see the electrical connectors?” I showed the boy the twin electrical leads on the underside of the device. “But the heat-ray is hotter than the surface of the sun. Too hot for practical use. Oh, my Granddad turned a few steaks into charcoal, and my Dad tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a clothes dryer. But they both ended up putting it back in this chest for safekeeping.” I patted the lid of the chest, brushing away a thick blanket of dust in the process. “You’re probably the first person to see it in twenty years.”

I stood up and opened the chest, placing the lensed device back into its resting place. As I did, two others walked up from the other side of the attic.

“Look what we found!” the boy’s little sister said with a smile, holding up a pile of clothing. “Dress-up clothes!”

“Those are my old Halloween costumes,” I said with a laugh. “Are you going to be a pirate?”

Little sister shook her head. “I’m going to be a princess!”

Looking her mother square in the eye, I said, “I swear, that one is my sister’s costume.”

She patted both children on the shoulder. “Ok, we’re done exploring the attic. You two head downstairs and get washed up for lunch.” Footsteps pitter-pattered down the stairs.

Once we were alone, I wrapped my arm around her waist. “What were you two talking about?” she asked, laying her head on my shoulder.

“Oh, guy stuff.”

“Did he find anything interesting in that chest?”

“Nah, just some parts from my Dad’s old Chevy.”

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