“The rocket, of course. I’m getting jumpy. The rocket.”
Michael said, “What happened, Dad, what happened?”
“Oh, we just blew up our rocket, is all,” said Timothy, trying to sound matter-of-fact. “I’ve heard rockets blown up before. Ours just blew.”
“Why did we blow up our rocket?” asked Michael. “Huh, Dad?”
“It’s part of the game, silly!” said Timothy.
“A game!” Michael and Robert loved the word.
“Dad fixed it so it would blow up and no one’d know where we landed or went! In case they ever came looking, see?”
“Oh boy, a secret!”
“Scared by my own rocket,” admitted Dad to Mom. “I am nervous. It’s silly to think there’ll ever be any more rockets. Except one, perhaps, if Edwards and his wife get through with their ship.”
He put his tiny radio to his ear again. After two minutes he dropped his hand as you would drop a rag.
“It’s over at last,” he said to Mom. “The radio just went off the atomic beam. Every other world station’s gone. They dwindled down to a couple in the last few years. Now the air’s completely silent. It’ll probably remain silent.”
“For how long?” asked Robert.
“Maybe—your great-grandchildren will hear it again,” said Dad. He just sat there, and the children were caught in the center of his awe and defeat and resignation and acceptance.
Finally he put the boat out into the canal again, and they continued in the direction in which they had originally started.
It was getting late. Already the sun was down the sky, and a series of dead cities lay ahead of them.
Dad talked very quietly and gently to his sons. Many times in the past he had been brisk, distant, removed from them, but now he patted them on the head with just a word and they felt it.
“Mike, pick a city.”
“Pick a city, Son. Any one of these cities we pass.”
“All right,” said Michael. “How do I pick?”
“Pick the one you like the most. You, too, Robert and Tim. Pick the city you like best.”
“I want a city with Martians in it,” said Michael.
“You’ll have that,” said Dad. “I promise.” His lips were for the children, but his eyes were for Mom.
They passed six cities in twenty minutes. Dad didn’t say anything more about the explosions; he seemed much more interested in having fun with his sons, keeping them happy, than anything else.
Michael liked the first city they passed, but this was vetoed because everyone doubted quick first judgments. The second city nobody liked. It was an Earth Man’s settlement, built of wood and already rotting into sawdust. Timothy liked the third city because it was large. The fourth and fifth were too small and the sixth brought acclaim from everyone, including Mother, who joined in the Gees, Goshes, and Look-at-thats!
There were fifty or sixty huge structures still standing, streets were dusty but paved, and you could see one or two old centrifugal fountains still pulsing wetly in the plazas. That was the only life—water leaping in the late sunlight.
“This is the city,” said everybody.
Steering the boat to a wharf, Dad jumped out.
“Here we are. This is ours. This is where we live from now on!”
“From now on?” Michael was incredulous. He stood up, looking, and then turned to blink back at where the rocket used to be. “What about the rocket? What about Minnesota?”
“Here,” said Dad.
He touched the small radio to Michael’s blond head. “Listen.”
“Nothing,” he said.
“That’s right. Nothing. Nothing at all any more. No more Minneapolis, no more rockets, no more Earth.”
Michael considered the lethal revelation and began to sob little dry sobs.
“Wait a moment,” said Dad the next instant. “I’m giving you a lot more in exchange, Mike!”
“What?” Michael held off the tears, curious, but quite ready to continue in case Dad’s further revelation was as disconcerting as the original.
“I’m giving you this city, Mike. It’s yours.”
“For you and Robert and Timothy, all three of you, to own for yourselves.”
Timothy bounded from the boat “Look, guys, all for us! All of that!” He was playing the game with Dad, playing it large and playing it well. Later, after it was all over and things had settled, he could go off by himself and cry for ten minutes. But now it was still a game, still a family outing, and the other kids must be kept playing.