The 5.00 pm shuttle disembarked from the Bradbury terminus forty miles above the Martian surface and began its steady descent to the airstrip two miles from town. Jack had bagged the window seat and whooped with delight as he felt the ship jolt free.
“Granddad, tell me again how it all started,” he said breathlessly, hardly able to contain his excitement.
Peter, the boy’s father, rolled his eyes.
“Jack, not again. You must have heard that story a hundred times.”
John Spooner, six feet tall, slim, with a deep bronze tan and smooth features that belied his sixty-three years answered his son tersely, “And I’ll tell it a hundred times more, Peter, as long as the lad wants to hear it.”
John turned to the boy bouncing and squirming in his seat, unable to sit still and recalled the fervour he himself felt back in those glorious, heady days of 2015.“Well, Jack, I must have been around your age when the first rockets took off,” he growled in a voice like honey-coated gravel. Tousling the boy’s hair affectionately with his shovel hand, he looked up to the roof deep in thought, then continued, “Yes, I must have been ‘bout twelve or thirteen. We were all sat ‘round the digivision impatiently waiting for the countdown to start. My mom and dad and I all sat on the edge of our seats.”
John glowed at the memory. “The build-up seemed to go on for weeks and now, at last, here it was, the launch of the first atomic bombs to be exploded on another planet.”
Jack and John looked at each other and smiled excitedly.
“Crazy idea if you ask me,” Peter broke in.
“The scientists of the time thought differently, son,” said John, his voice betraying his impatience. “They needed to free the water locked away in those rusty rocks somehow and that’s the way they chose to do it. Anyway, look what they found as a result.”
John felt a tug on his sleeve. “Carry on, granddad,” implored Jack.
John turned to his grandson. “Okay, Jack. Where was I? Ah, yes, finally the countdown began. Ten, nine, eight…the excitement was unbearable…seven, six, five…I hardly dared watch, but couldn’t turn away… four, three, two, one, yippee, there they go.” John hollered at the very thought of it. “Five rockets away simultaneously, spitting fire and flame in all directions.” John laughed to himself.
“Ha, ha, that old space station, Alpha, rocked and shook so much, everyone watching was sure it would break up and fall back down to Earth on top of us at any moment.”
Jack sat enthralled, totally immersed in all that his idol, this ageless sage, had to say.
“What happened next, granddad? Tell me once more. Please.”
“Well, son, nothing happened next. That is to say, nothing happened that day or the next or the day after the day after that. Oh, there were daily news reports of course, following those babies’ progress, but in those days remember, it took well over a year for rockets to reach this old girl,” John nodded towards the ever-looming planet. “So it wasn’t until the next summer, July 4, 2016, to be exact, that those five sisters took up their positions: one at top and bottom and three ‘round the middle. Lord, when those beauties went off.” He smiled to himself. “I remember it as though it were yesterday. Like every July 4, November 5 and New Year’s Eve rolled into one. Every explosion beamed back as it happened and the whole street watching and toasting each one. Man, what a day!”
John looked at the boy next to him, then idly out into space. His smile slipped a little.
“Never did any good, of course. What water there was either boiled off in the blast or sunk right back into those thirsty rocks.”
“Exactly!” the boy’s father rejoined. “A total and utter waste of time, effort and money. Not content with ruining one planet, we have to mess up another before we’ve even set foot on it!”
“Now, Pete, that’s enough. You know fine well something much greater came out of it.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Hush I said.” John stopped and leant over the boy to peer through the two-inch thick glass window at the dust-strewn atmosphere racing towards them. “Here we go, Jack, Peter. Better fasten those belts.”
Jack pressed his nose to the glass. His mouth fell open at the awesome sight as pink-tinged clouds quickly filled the window. Almost imperceptibly the shuttle began to tremble, slowly and steadily at first, then more violently. Drinks canisters danced wildly in their holders, window shutters rattled fiercely in their mountings. Passengers screamed as orange tongues of flame flicked menacingly along the fuselage. It seemed that every clip, screw, nail, joint and bracket were being shaken inexorably loose. One more second and the ship would surely disintegrate and shower the red-stained plains below with a million drops of burning metal.
Suddenly, there was silence.