The Homecoming

        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.

        Fully a minute passed before a small voice had gathered the breath to cry, “Wow.”

        “You said it, Jack.”  John mopped his brow.  “That was a bumpy one all right.  You know, you never quite get used to those re-entries.”

        Peter relaxed his grip on the arms of his seat.  “Like driving over two hundred yards of bad road, you said.  Nothing more!”

        John chuckled.

        “Well, I only hope this exhibit’s worth it.  I know we’re all expected to see it at least once in our lives, but-”

        “Don’t you worry,” John cut short his son.  “This’ll be the best trip you and Jack have ever made, you’ll see.”

        The coarse glare of the strip lighting inside the ship gave way to the diffuse rose-coloured glow of a late-summer evening on Mars.  Gracefully, serenely, effortlessly, the shuttle whispered across the darkening sky, gliding over cerise mountains, crimson sand lakes and blood-red canyons.  Ahead lay the landing site and just beyond, the revered high-domed city that harboured that relic of the far ancient past, that symbol of all that man had been searching for, that elusive truth so many countless millions had made, or would ever make, the eight-week long pilgrimage to learn.  Now the latest flock of faithful followers prepared to be enlightened as the shuttle touched down softly and coasted gently to a standstill.  The long, covered walkway telescoped out from the reception building and locked securely over the hatch.  One by one, the passengers filed out, moved along the sterile corridor, passed the guards, through the checkpoint and made their way into the city.

        “Here we are then boys.  Welcome to the Spooner residence.”  John opened the door and ushered father and son inside, much to the dismay of Jack.

        “Can’t we go and see it now, granddad?”  Jack pleaded hopefully.

        “Hardly, son, it’s past eight.  Place is all locked up.  Better to go first thing when you’re fresh as the day itself and you’re not too tired to enjoy it.”

        “Thanks for putting us up, dad.”  Peter dropped the bags he was carrying on the living room floor.  “You didn’t have to.  We’d have happily stayed in a hotel.”

        “Wouldn’t hear of it, son.  ‘Sides, every hotel and boarding house has been booked solid for years, ever since that old boy was put on show.”  John picked up two small cases and carried them over to his grandson.  “Jack, take your bags to your room.  Upstairs, first door on the left.  Better get yourself an early night.  Big day tomorrow.”

        “You bet.  ‘Night granddad, ‘night dad.”  Jack snatched the bags eagerly from his grandfather’s hands and, like a child on Christmas Eve, raced to his bed for a fitful, dream-haunted sleep in a night without end.

        “He’s really looking forward to seeing it, isn’t he?”  John poured his son a drink.

        “Jack’s talked of nothing else for weeks, ever since we started planning this trip.  Thanks, dad.”  Peter took a tumbler half full of golden liquid from his father and sat down.  “Still, he doesn’t know any better, I suppose.”

        “Jack’s a good kid, a great kid,” said John, the impatience returning to his voice.

        “I’m aware of that, but let’s get things into perspective.  All that security at the airfield, at the Plaza around the thing itself, the awe, the wonderment, the crowds flocking in adoration.  The mystery, the supposed great powers.  All for what?  Arrange a collection of bones in a familiar pattern and everyone loses their senses.  It may be old – what is it?  Two hundred million years? – but does that justify all the money that’s spent on it?”  Peter stopped and took a drink.

        “The bank would be proud of you, son.”

        “Well, don’t you think that money could be better spent.  Back home we have wars, famine, poverty, disease.  Maybe you’ve forgotten, dad, you’ve been up here so long, but no-one dare venture out after three in the afternoon when the licensed drug dealers hit the streets.  Robberies, muggings and worse every minute of every day.  Two hundred murders a week on average in all but the smallest towns and no-one seems able to do a damn thing about it.  Spend your money there on things that matter instead of worshipping petrified promises and dried up dreams.”  Peter drained his glass and sank back into his chair.

        “You’re talking like a politician, Peter.”

        “I believe-”

        “Yes, I know you do,”  John interrupted, “and I know you have more reason than most to be angry after Carrie was…well, after Carrie-”

        “It’s been two years, dad,” Peter stepped in quickly.  “Two years of agony, of fighting thin air, of wanting answers.  Two years of reliving it every single day when the popnews channels – after scrabbling over themselves, drooling, for the ‘glory’ of being first – air details of the latest victim to be rushed out of the world by a product of a diseased and decaying society.  Then, an hour later, another soul has joined them, and so it goes on.”

        Peter leapt smartly to his feet as if to confront an invisible adversary, but sensing the concern in his father’s eyes and slightly abashed at his outburst, lowered his head and walked slowly over to the window.

        Outside the confines of the dome in the freezing darkness of a summer’s night, a soft, Martian breeze drifted over the rocky desert gently gathering the fire-flashed dust and sand into small, cooling mounds against the outer wall.

        Peter turned to his father.  “I’m sorry, dad.  I suppose I should be over it by now,” he said quietly.

        “Don’t you ever apologise for grieving, for having compassion or for wanting justice,” John snapped sternly, then relenting, continued, “but at the same time, don’t write off us old sinners just yet.  There’s evil around, no doubt about it, but I believe in looking for the good in a man’s soul and up here I’ve found it, time and again.  Next time you’re back on that wonderfully warm wet planet take yourself into the countryside or the mountains, down to the beach or even the nearest park, and take a long look ‘round.  Sniff the lushness in the air, the ozone-filled sea breeze, the fresh, green aroma of newly cut grass.  Listen to the birds singing, the bees steady lulling drone, the gentle caressing of the shore by sun-warmed waves.  Feel that sun on your upturned cheek, the icy nip of a snow-coated winter’s evening, the cool dampness of the grass under your feet on a dewy summer morn.  Do those things, Peter, then ask yourself, why?  How can it be so?  How can it be that with all that, almost infinite beauty all ‘round them, folks still find the worst in their natures coming to the surface.  Violence, greed, corruption, murder, all these things aren’t new, they’ve been happening for century after century since we first appeared on that planet.” 

        John ambled over to a small table and poured some more of the golden liquid into a glass.  He turned to his son and, with the look and sound of a man sure of his argument, continued, “The fact is, son, we were lost.  Always searching for something, but never knowing where to look or even what it was we were looking for.  When you take a plant, an animal, a man out of their element, they wither and die inside.  That’s what happened on Earth, Peter.  This, dusty, dried up ball of rock may not have much going for it now, unless you like things red,” John smiled ruefully then nodded toward the vast empty plains.  “There may be nothing out there physically, but if there is one thing that that ‘collection of bones’, as you put it, has taught us, it’s that this is where we belong.  There’s no need to fight any more.  We’ve found the answer here on Mars, son.  We’re home.”

        John placed his glass, still half full, back on the table and moved to the door.  “It’s time to think about turning in, Peter.  Don’t leave it too late.”

        Peter nodded in acknowledgement, but said nothing.  He turned back to the window and gazed at the shifting sands rising and falling, rising and falling in time with the planet’s somnolent breath.  For an hour Peter stood watching, and all the while thinking.  Thinking of his dear wife, of his own words earlier that evening, of his father’s unshakeable belief in man’s long-forgotten origins.  Finally, his thoughts turned to his son, sleeping expectantly but contentedly above him, then with a long, slow exhalation he walked over to the door, flicked off the light and made his way wearily to bed.

        Peter drew up the covers around his chest and endeavoured to make himself comfortable in the hushed darkness.  The pleasant, sun-stored warmth of the still, night air enveloped him, smoothing his brow, invisibly wrapping and protecting him as if in preparation for a long, timeless journey.  He imagined himself lifted, drifting back gently through inumerable ages of this now desiccated planet.  Slowly…random images ordered themselves.  Drifting…imagination becoming reality…slowly…drifting…

       Twilight.

       Peter found himself standing by the shores of a vast lake idly watching the damselflies and water-boatmen dodge and flit across the burnished-copper water.  Behind him, a forest flamed russet and gold and the evening hissed with a billion sun-baked leaves dancing in the gently moving breeze.  He took a long, slow, deep breath.  The fresh, cool air was fragrant with the scent of lavender and wood-smoke and…what?  Something familiar, yet… Ah!  Yes, of course.  An avalanche thundered in his chest.

       “Is it true, Peter?  Is it really coming to an end?”  Carrie’s soft, velvet tones stirred the dusk.

        Peter tilted back his head and closed his eyes.  He heard himself answer, “I know it’s hard to believe on such an evening, but yes, darling, we have to leave.  We daren’t risk another winter here.”

       “But Tom and Marie, they’re staying.”

       “Yes, as part of the Monitoring Team, but they’ll leave, too, in a year or so.”

       “But, what if Jack can’t-”

       “Carrie, dear,” Peter stopped his wife and held her tightly.  For a while, he could say nothing, then he released his grip and continued softly, “Carrie, look around you.  It’s midsummer – or should be – yet autumn’s taken hold already.  The air is so thin, we’re out of breath walking the shortest of distances.  Seas and lakes are half the size they were only a few years ago and every year it gets worse.  I’m afraid we just can’t stay.”  He tried to smile. “Besides, we’ll be fine on Earth, you’ll see.  Harry and Jane and the two boys arrived there last year, Bill and Clare and their family a year before that.  They all love it there.  Okay, one or two communities report some trouble, but everything will settle down eventually.”  Peter saw his finger brush Carrie’s nose playfully.  “Don’t panic!  I’ll look after you both.  I promise.”

        Carrie’s eyes glistened in the fast-fading daylight and her mouth widened into a broad grin.  “I’m not worried, darling.  I trust you to protect us whether we’re here on Mars, or on Earth, or on any other world out there.  Wherever we are, I know there couldn’t be a better husband or father.”

       “Carrie, darling, how could I ever live without you?”

       “You’d survive, if only for Jack’s sake, but you don’t have to worry.  For if, heaven forbid, we should ever be parted, you need only to look for me here,” Carrie touched Peter’s chest.  “If ever you need me, that’s where I’ll be.”

        Peter pulled Carrie close to him once more.  Their lips met as the sun finally slipped beneath the glassy surface of the lake.

       All was darkness.

       The bedroom materialised around Peter, but it did not come into focus again that night.

       Through the clear walls of the protective skin surrounding the city, Peter watched the early morning sun sublimating the overnight frost from the exposed rocks and felt his fears melt away with it.  He put his hands on his son’s shoulders and together they looked out beyond the hundred or so people who were murmuring, laughing, chatting around them, beyond the Plaza to the outskirts of the city where stood the home they had left twenty minutes earlier and which peered after them now like an ever-watchful guardian.  Further out they looked, beyond the pale pink plains.  Out into the distant misty hills their gaze took them and washed their features with a peaceful innocence, gently peeling away the years of anger and bitterness from Peter and reinforcing the wondrous delight of a child in Jack.  John observed their faces silently and smiled.

        “Won’t be long now, Jack,” said John, gently ruffling his grandson’s hair.

        “I can’t believe it.  I’m going to see it at last,” responded Jack excitedly.

        Peter glanced at his father and with a wry grin added, “Yes, I suppose I’m quite looking forward to it myself.  In a small way, of course.”

        “Naturally, son.  Let’s not go overboard, eh,” grinned John.  The two men laughed.  “You know, Peter, when I and your mother – God rest her soul – and others like us, first set out for this planet ‘bout ten years ago now, it wasn’t to worship some fabulous prehistoric artefact – it wouldn’t be discovered for another year when the last of those nuclear bomb craters were explored.  It wasn’t out of greed – though there were many back on Earth who would have happily ripped out Mars’ innards for a quick profit.  It wasn’t even to escape the destruction we saw all ‘round us – we could have moved to less troubled places to do that.  No.  Truth is, son, we didn’t know why we wanted to be here.  Oh, the spirit of adventure was there at first, of course, but within a week or two of stepping off that shuttle, a richer, deeper spirit took over.  The spirit of hope, the spirit of optimism, the spirit of human possibility.”

        John turned to face an impressive structure of glass and steel standing imperiously in the centre of the bustling Plaza.  “And when our old friend in there turned up, he finally defined what we’d long sensed and confirmed the real reason we came and why we would stay.”  He looked intently at his son’s face once more.  It shone back relaxed and bright in the light of the still-new day.  “It’s a beautiful thing to see that spirit kindled in a person’s eyes, son,” he continued.  “Especially when those eyes have been dark for so long.”

       Two or three hundred people had gathered behind them now as they neared the Muse-flanked portal to the building with the mirror-like walls and sculptured metal skeleton that flashed and dazzled on this sharp, clear summer’s day.

       Already this morning, many a man, woman and child had walked the marble-lined hallway and disappeared through the plain wooden door marked simply ‘Exhibit 1’ that was buttressed either side by white-uniformed guards.    For two minutes, or five, or ten, or twenty they would look, ponder, pray, laugh, cry, fear, wonder, love, then finally, believe.  Believe that there was a different way, a better way, a good way to be, in every sense of that word.  A way that humans had known aeons upon aeons ago on a small, red planet and had then suppressed, displaced and lost after the migration to its neighbour.

       When, at last, the visitors were ready to re-emerge from that yellow-lighted room with its soothing tones, they did so as children, unburdened by prejudice, untainted by discrimination and freed from the bitterness and intolerance engendered by countless millennia in exile.

       “You know, dad, I like it here,” said Jack, as he, Peter and John climbed the steps to the entrance.  “Back on Earth I always feel, I don’t know, scared, always frightened.  As if something nasty is about to happen.”

       “I understand, son,” said Peter, looking to his father.

       “Here, though, I feel warm and protected and…” Jack hesitated as they approached the doorway, “…safe.”

       Peter and John nodded.

       “Can we come and live here some day, dad?  Some day soon?”

       “I don’t see why not,” said his father.  “In fact, I think that would be a very good idea.”

       Then together they entered the room that was bathed in a golden glow and filled with soft, beautiful music and each became a child again.

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