|“October 2026: THE MILLION-YEAR PICNIC”
from Ray Bradbury’s
The Martian Chronicles
October 2026: THE MILLION-YEAR PICNIC
Somehow the idea was brought up by Mom that perhaps the whole family would enjoy a fishing trip. But they weren't Mom's words; Timothy knew that. They were Dad's words, and Mom used them for him somehow.
Dad shuffled his feet in a clutter of Martian pebbles and agreed. So immediately there was a tumult and a shouting, and very quickly the camp was tucked into capsules and containers, Mom slipped into traveling jumpers and blouse, Dad stuffed his pipe full with trembling hands, his eyes on the Martian sky, and the three boys piled yelling into the motorboat, none of them really keeping an eye on Mom and Dad, except Timothy.
Dad pushed a stud. The water boat sent a humming sound up into the sky. The water shook back and the boat nosed ahead, and the family cried, "Hurrah!"
Timothy sat in the back of the boat with Dad, his small fingers atop Dad's hairy ones, watching the canal twist, leaving the crumbled place behind where they had landed in their small family rocket all the way from Earth. He remembered the night before they left Earth, the hustling and hurrying the rocket that Dad had found somewhere, somehow, and the talk of a vacation on Mars. A long way to go for a vacation, but Timothy said nothing because of his younger brothers. They came to Mars and now, first thing, or so they said, they were going fishing.
Dad had a funny look in his eyes as the boat went up-canal. A look that Timothy couldn't figure. It was made of strong light and maybe a sort of relief. It made the deep wrinkles laugh instead of worry or cry.
So there went the cooling rocket, around a bend, gone.
"How far are we going?" Robert splashed his hand. It looked like a small crab jumping in the violet water.
Dad exhaled. "A million years."
"Gee," said Robert.
"Look, kids." Mother pointed one soft long arm. "There's a dead city."
They looked with fervent anticipation, and the dead city lay dead for them alone, drowsing in a hot silence of summer made on Mars by a Martian weatherman.
And Dad looked as if he was pleased that it was dead.
It was a futile spread of pink rocks sleeping on a rise of sand, a few tumbled pillars, one lonely shrine, and then the sweep of sand again. Nothing else for miles. A white desert around the canal and a blue desert over it.
Just then a bird flew up. Like a stone thrown across a blue pond, hitting, falling deep, and vanishing.
Dad got a frightened look when he saw it. "I thought it was a rocket."
Timothy looked at the deep ocean sky, trying to see Earth and the war and the ruined cities and the men killing each other since the day he was born. But he saw nothing. The war was as removed and far off as two flies battling to the death in the arch of a great high and silent cathedral. And just as senseless.
William Thomas wiped his forehead and felt the touch of his son's hand on his arm, like a young tarantula, thrilled. He beamed at his son. "How goes it, Timmy?"
Timothy hadn't quite figured out what was ticking inside the vast adult mechanism beside him. The man with the immense hawk nose, sunburnt, peeling--and the hot blue eyes like agate marbles you play with after school in summer back on Earth, and the long thick columnar legs in the loose riding breeches.
"What are you looking at so hard, Dad?"
"I was looking for Earthian logic, common sense, good government, peace, and responsibility."
"All that up there?"
"No. I didn't find it. It's not there any more. Maybe it'll never be there again. Maybe we fooled ourselves that it was ever there."
"See the fish," said Dad, pointing.
There rose a soprano clamor from all three boys as they rocked the boat in arching their tender necks to see. They _oohed_ and _ahed_. A silver ring fish floated by them, undulating, and closing like an iris, instantly, around food partides, to assimilate them.
Dad looked at it. His voice was deep and quiet.
"Just like war. War swims along, sees food, contracts. A moment later--Earth is gone."
"William," said Mom.
"Sorry," said Dad.
They sat still and felt the canal water rush cool, swift, and glassy. The only sound was the motor hum, the glide of water, the sun expanding the air.
"When do we see the Martians?" cried Michael.
"Quite soon, perhaps," said Father. "Maybe tonight."
"Oh, but the Martians are a dead race now," said Mom.
"No, they're not. I'll show you some Martians, all right," Dad said presently.
Timothy scowled at that but said nothing. Everything was odd now. Vacations and fishing and looks between people.
The other boys were already engaged making shelves of their small hands and peering under them toward the seven-foot stone banks of the canal, watching for Martians.
"What do they look like?" demanded Michael.
"You'll know them when you see them." Dad sort of laughed, and Timothy saw a pulse beating time in his cheek.
Mother was slender and soft, with a woven plait of spungold hair over her head in a tiara, and eyes the color of the deep cool canal water where it ran in shadow, almost purple, with flecks of amber caught in it. You could see her thoughts swimming around in her eyes, like fish--some bright, some dark, some fast, quick, some slow and easy, and sometimes, like when she looked up where Earth was, being nothing but color and nothing else. She sat in the boat's prow, one hand resting on the side lip, the other on the lap of her dark blue breeches, and a line of sunburnt soft neck showing where her blouse opened like a white flower.
She kept looking ahead to see what was there, and, not being able to see it clearly enough, she looked backward toward her husband, and through his eyes, reflected then, she saw what was ahead; and since he added part of himself to this reflection, a determined firmness, her face relaxed and she accepted it and she turned back, knowing suddenly what to look for.
Timothy looked too. But all he saw was a straight pencil line of canal going violet through a wide shallow valley penned by low, eroded hills, and on until it fell over the sky's edge. And this canal went on and on, through cities that would have rattled like beetles in a dry skull if you shook them. A hundred or two hundred cities dreaming hot summer-day dreams and cool summer-night dreams . . .
They had come millions of miles for this outing--to fish. But there had been a gun on the rocket. This was a vacation. But why all the food, more than enough to last them years and years, left hidden back there near the rocket? Vacation. Just behind the veil of the vacation was not a soft face of laughter, but something hard and bony and perhaps terrifying. Timothy could not lift the veil, and the two other boys were busy being ten and eight years old, respectively.
"No Martians yet. Nuts." Robert put his V-shaped chin on his hands and glared at the canal.
Dad had brought an atomic radio along, strapped to his wrist. It functioned on an old-fashioned principle: you held it against the bones near your ear and it vibrated singing or talking to you. Dad listened to it now. His face looked like one of those fallen Martian cities, caved in, sucked. dry, almost dead.
Then he gave it to Mom to listen. Her lips dropped open.
"What--" Timothy started to question, but never finished what he wished to say.
For at that moment there were two titanic, marrow-jolting explosions that grew upon themselves, followed by a half dozen minor concussions.
Jerking his head up, Dad notched the boat speed higher immediately. The boat leaped and jounced and spanked. This shook Robert out of his funk and elicited yelps of frightened but esctatic joy from Michael, who clung to Mom's legs and watched the water pour by his nose in a wet torrent.
Dad swerved the boat, cut speed, and ducked the craft into a little branch canal and under an ancient, crumbling stone wharf that smelled of crab flesh. The boat rammed the wharf hard enough to throw them all forward, but no one was hurt, and Dad was already twisted to see if the ripples on the canal were enough to map their route into hiding. Water lines went across, lapped the stones, and rippled back to meet each other, settling, to be dappled by the sun. It all went away.
Dad listened. So did everybody.
Dad's breathing echoed like fists beating against the cold wet wharf stones. In the shadow, Mom's cat eyes just watched Father for some clue to what next.
Dad relaxed and blew out a breath, laughing at himself.
"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 mintes 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, induding 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.
Mike jumped out with Robert. They helped Mom.
"Be careful of your sister," said Dad, and nobody knew what he meant until later.
They hurried into the great pink-stoned city, whispering among themselves, because dead cities have a way of making you want to whisper, to watch the sun go down.
"In about five days," said Dad quietly, "I'll go back down to where our rocket was and collect the food hidden in the ruins there and bring it here; and I'll hunt for Bert Edwards and his wife and daughters there."
"Daughters?" asked Timothy. "How many?"
"I can see that'll cause trouble later." Mom nodded slowly.
"Girls." Michael made a face like an ancient Martian stone image. "Girls."
"Are they coming in a rocket too?"
"Yes. If they make it. Family rockets are made for travel to the Moon, not Mars. We were lucky we got through."
"Where did you get the rocket?" whispered Timothy, for the other boys were running ahead.
"I saved it. I saved it for twenty years, Tim. I had it hidden away, hoping I'd never have to use it. I suppose I should have given it to the government for the war, but I kept thinking about Mars. . . ."
"And a picnic!"
"Right. This is between you and me. When I saw everything was finishing on Earth, after I'd waited until the last moment, I packed us up. Bert Edwards had a ship hidden, too, but we decided it would be safer to take off separately, in case anyone tried to shoot us down."
"Why'd you blow up the rocket, Dad?"
"So we can't go back, ever. And so if any of those evil men ever come to Mars they won't know we're here."
"Is that why you look up all the time?"
"Yes, it's silly. They won't follow us, ever. They haven't anything to follow with. I'm being too careful, is all."
Michael came running back. "Is this really _our_ city, Dad?"
"The whole darn planet belongs to us, kids. The whole darn planet."
They stood there, King of the Hill, Top of the Heap, Ruler of All They Surveyed, Unimpeachable Monarchs and Presidents, trying to understand what it meant to own a world and how big a world really was.
Night came quickly in the thin atmosphere, and Dad left them in the square by the pulsing fountain, went down to the boat, and came walking back carrying a stack of paper in his big hands.
He laid the papers in a clutter in an old courtyard and set them afire. To keep warm, they crouched around the blaze and laughed, and Timothy saw the little letters leap like frightened animals when the flames touched and engulfed them. The papers crinkled like an old man's skin, and the cremation surrounded innumerable words:
"GOVERNMENT BONDS; Business Graph, 1999; Religious Prejudice: An Essay; The Science of Logistics; Problems of the Pan-American Unity; Stock Report for July 3, 1998; The War Digest . . ."
Dad had insisted on bringing these papers for this purpose. He sat there and fed them into the fire, one by one, with satisfaction, and told his children what it all meant.
"It's time I told you a few things. I don't suppose it was fair, keeping so much from you. I don't know if you'll understand, but I have to talk, even if only part of it gets over to you."
He dropped a leaf in the fire.
"I'm burning a way of life, just like that way of life is being burned clean of Earth right now. Forgive me if I talk like a politician. I am, after all, a former state governor, and I was honest and they hated me for it. Life on Earth never settled down to doing anything very good. Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth. That's what the silent radio means. That's what we ran away from.
"We were lucky. There aren't any more rockets left. It's time you knew this isn't a fishing trip at all. I put off telling you. Earth is gone. Interplanetary travel won't be back for centuries, maybe never. But that way of life proved itself wrong and strangled itself with its own hands. You're young. I'll tell you this again every day until it sinks in."
He paused to feed more papers to the fire.
"Now we're alone. We and a handful of others who'll land in a few days. Enough to start over. Enough to turn away from all that back on Earth and strike out on a new line--"
The fire leaped up to emphasize his talking. And then all the papers were gone except one. All the laws and beliefs of Earth were burnt into small hot ashes which soon would be carried off inawind.
Timothy looked at the last thing that Dad tossed in the fire. It was a map of the World, and it wrinkled and distorted itself hotly and went--flimpf--and was gone like a warm, black butterfly. Timothy turned away.
"Now I'm going to show you the Martians," said Dad. "Come on, all of you. Here, Alice." He took her hand.
Michael was crying loudly, and Dad picked him up and carried him, and they walked down through the ruins toward the canal.
The canal. Where tomorrow or the next day their future wives would come up in a boat, small laughing girls now, with their father and mother.
The night came down around them, and there were stars. But Timothy couldn't find Earth. It had already set. That was something to think about.
A night bird called among the ruins as they walked. Dad said, "Your mother and I will try to teach you. Perhaps we'll fail. I hope not. We've had a good lot to see and learn from. We planned this trip years ago, before you were born. Even if there hadn't been a war we would have come to Mars, I think, to live and form our own standard of living. It would have been another century before Mars would have been really poisoned by the Earth civilization. Now, of course--"
They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night.
"I've always wanted to see a Martian," said Michael. "Where are they, Dad? You promised."
"There they are," said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.
The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.
The Martians were there--in the canal--reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad.
The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water. . . .