They say nothing ever happens in Florence, Arizona. That no one ever goes there except prisoners headed for one of its nine prisons. That the only people who stay more than a couple of hours are either inmates or guards.
They say it is a place to pass through, but by this they mean ‘pass by’.
It is a town that does not want to be seen.
It is a town that knows shame.
It is where he came from, the man who nearly got us all killed.
There are monuments, weatherworn and decrepit, but they do not celebrate him. They recall his folly. They are a civic embarrassment the townsfolk are too ashamed to remove.
And so Florence, Arizona, hides away as best it can.
The story begin somewhere else, somewhere to the south, down past Tucson. In Pima county. The Baboquivari Mountains, perhaps, or maybe the Quinlans. Somewhere high up, where the air is clear.
Young Hans was a keen amateur astronomer. Enthused by Percival Lowell’s first book about Mars, he set out to observe the red planet during the 1896 opposition. Two years earlier, several observatories reported a great light on the illuminated part of the disk. An article in Nature had identified the specific location, and he subjected it to particular scrutiny.
He reported seeing an array of peculiar markings near the site. He wrote to Lowell, at his observatory up in Flagstaff, and to the Lick Observatory in San Jose. In their archives, you can still see his cramped letters, his painstaking maps. Preserved in curatorial atonement for the fact that no one ever replied. A refusal to expunge him, or to absolve those ‘betters’ who disdained him at such a cost to us all.
When he returned to Florence, he was a changed man, haunted, as if he knew something so terrible he dare not speak it aloud. And slowly and surely he drew his plans. Counted down the 780 days until the next opposition. Started to build.
Several articles about Hans appeared in the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune over the next two years. One suggests that he sought the assistance of Nikola Tesla, who was up in Colorado Springs during 1899, although there is no record of them actually meeting. Press interest may have waxed and waned, but it never seemed to affect Hans. He was firmly uncommunicative.
There was talk of having him committed, but it came to nothing. He remained tight-lipped.
The rocket still stands where it landed upon its return from its second flight in 1934. Back in 1901, it landed about a block further south, but Florence, slowly expanding throughout the twentieth century, long ago engulfed the spot.
Nor is any trace left of the construction site, from which he launched the rocket in 1899. A couple of miles further from Main Street, it is buried beneath an undistinguished suburban tract.
All that remains of this astonishing feat is the rocket engine, tucked away at the back of the local museum, and the towering shell of the craft – an unsanctioned monument, uncared for, decaying. Its spindly legs stubbornly refuse to collapse.
You cannot get near it. A row of stores and workshops, not all of them in business any longer, block the way, and it is surrounded by a high fence – not to protect it so much as to disavow the townsfolks’ vandalic urges. Every decade or so someone suggests the council demolish it, but somehow the proposal always runs out of steam. You get the sense that the town is waiting for it to collapse of its own accord, that if they make no overt move against the rocket its unwilled destruction will free them.
In 1899, Hans disappeared. The rocket, too.
When Sheriff Nichols inspected the construction site, he found a large patch of scorched desert earth. ‘Pretty much a precise circle,’ he told the Florence Reminder & Blade-Tribune reporter. The lack of debris scotched any suspicion that Hans had just blown himself up, but that did not prevent the rumour that he had merely fired the rocket off into the desert and absconded in the night. For two years, his fate remained a topic of gossip and speculation. In the saloons and private homes of Florence, it was something to chew over when the nights were cold or the days were long.
If no one saw his departure, everyone witnessed his return. Round about lunch time, smack in the middle of town. Descending on a pillar of flame, his craft ruby red with heat.
Night fell before the hatch opened. He lowered a rope ladder he could barely climb down. Two men clambered up to his swooning figure before he could fall, and brought him the last few yards down to earth.
He was starved and dehydrated. He had lost one arm below the elbow, and the crudely cauterised stump was gangrenous. A hasty second amputation was performed before he regained consciousness. He lay in a feverish slumber for nearly a week. He would cry out in his sleep, seem to wake, utter incoherent warnings. He spoke of monstrous beings, all brain and staring eyes and tentacles. Of humanoid creatures farmed on vast estates. Of the killing pens. The thirst for blood. He described a vast cannon, a space gun he called it, and the immense shells being shipped to it on broad planet-girdling canals.
He told us they were coming.
Frankly, he raved.
And no one believed him.
Not even when the big city newspapers carried stories about ‘a huge outbreak of incandescent gas’ visible on the surface of Mars.
He tried to warn us.
And then they started to fall from the sky. In the south-east of England, around London.
On the east coast, at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and Grand Island, New York.
On the west coast, near Linda Rosa, California.
And, though it is often forgotten, one landed in the Sonora Desert, too. At dusk, as the dying sun turns the light a golden orange, a Martian cylinder punched a crater deep into the desert, cracking the air, lighting up the sky.
After a pause, a lull, noises started in the pit. An aura of dazzling light could be seen for miles. Some alien industry, hidden from human eyes.
That one, Hans insisted, was coming for him, and when the war machine, as the whole world would learn to call such alien tripods, emerged, it did indeed head directly for Florence.
All that saved Hans – and Florence – was the the thing that saved us all. The transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Infusoria. Bacteria. Or so the story goes, and it is not wrong, but there is more to it than that.
The press wasted no time in holding Hans responsible. He had, they claimed, recklessly awakened the Martians to our presence and led them here. Chronology did not seem to matter. They wanted a scapegoat, and that was that.
In those days it was much easier to disappear without a trace. Hans had friends among the Yavapai and Apache, and knew people down in Mexico. He was never heard of again, though some claim he returned to pay penance.
Early in 1934, when the rogue planet entered our solar system and came rushing in the direction of Earth, when the Moon shifted in its orbit and freak weather tore around the world, the rocket disappeared for half a year. As did a famous young polo player enjoying a desert winter at a nearby dude ranch – Flash Gordon.
Feted on his return from combatting the alien warlord of the planet Mongo, Gordon insisted that we really owed our survival to the intervention of Hans. But the press were untroubled by the facts. They wanted to present the public with an unabashed hero, the world with an American saviour. No one was interested in recuperating Hans, regardless of the sacrifice he had made.
In a dying statement, Gordon reiterated the role of his friend in defeating Ming, and added a tidbit that has been ignored for decades. According to Gordon, that was the second time Hans saved the planet. After landing on Mars in 1899, Hans discovered the plan to invade Earth and so deliberately infected the Martian population. He severed his own arm, left the flesh to rot and putrefy. He introduced the rotten remains into food and water supplies. The Martians had no immunity to terrestrial bacteria, and a recent analysis of infection rates among the invaders suggest they were sick before they landed. If so, Hans, who never put us at risk, in fact actually saved us.
Many remain sceptical about this evidence, preferring to retain the image of Hans as a monster, to demonise him. Why, they ask, did he not proclaim his innocence? Why did he not protest the defamation of his name and character? Why did he flee?
The answer, it seems to me, is simple.
Shame. A deeper and more tangible shame than Florence can ever know.
Hans did not betray us. He did something much worse.
On our behalf, he killed.
Nearly half a century before the word was even coined, to save us all Hans Zarkov committed genocide.
Note The last two times I tried to write this, my opening sentences took me in rather different directions, here and here.