They watched the multiple independent re-entry vehicles approach in the night sky, illuminated by a string of bright lights along their exteriors. The AI system guided the vehicles along a predetermined trajectory towards the planet. The next succession, fired from the nearest planet’s surface, was already on its way to Exilon 5. The race wouldn’t live long enough to witness their arrival.
The multi-launch command came from the Zodiac 117B ship which hovered in the great expanse above Exilon 5. The super heavy-lift vehicles, tightly packed with as many cluster bombs as possible, contained terraforming chemicals. Solid-fuel engine rockets drove the expendable vehicles towards the atmosphere where their outer shrouds would separate away and burn up. With just one chance to get the rockets there safely, force fields protected the shrouds to prevent the payload from early destruction. The bombs would alter the atmosphere. A successful strike would result in many unavoidable deaths.
The MIRVs, specifically designed to make light work of the atmospheric layer, tore through space towards the planet. When the terraforming process was over, others could begin the next phase of the operation.
The race huddled together, unsure what the lights were or where they had originated from. Some of their young continued to chase each other, oblivious to the danger above them. Those with stronger empathic abilities picked up on the mood of the adults and clung to them for protection.
Distant rumbling filled the skies as thousands of MIRVs burned bright upon entry. They resembled stars, except they were growing in size. There was no immediate sanctuary for the race, no place for them to hide in the desolate open. So they watched and waited. Some had already sought refuge in the tunnels beneath the surface. Others remained above ground. Their silence was punctuated by the sound of heavy breathing and bare feet scuffling across the earth as their young continued to chase each other.
The AI system deactivated the force fields around each launch vehicle and the outer shrouds fell away piece by piece. A flimsy wire mesh remained to protect the payload. Shiny chemical-filled spheres jostled about inside their last housing, eager to break loose with every twist of hot metal. As the mesh cage disintegrated, several spheres broke free, clashing together and cracking open on impact. Hot liquids and inert gases leached out from their containers and quickly merged. The liquid toxins dropped to the earth like rain. The gases, slightly heavier than the atmosphere, sank more slowly. As more bombs broke free, the payload leached out of tiny fissures that had appeared in their design. A thick gas cloud lingered just below the skyline, waiting.
Few moved as the lights neared them. They sensed the immediate change in the air. The young lost their enthusiasm for the chasing game.
The first drops of acid rain hit their faces and burned their skin. The air transformed into static as the terraforming chemicals disrupted the electrons around them. The statically charged air nipped at their skin.
Dropping to their knees, they picked up handfuls of soggy earth and smeared it over their faces, their chests, their arms and legs, to lessen the effects of the static. The acid rain-sodden ground only aggravated their condition. The adults’ screams pierced the contaminated air. Hot, salty tears fell from their inflamed eyes. The young, equally afflicted, struggled to stay on their feet. Shiny spheres dropped to the earth in bundles, splitting apart and unleashing their gases just before impact. The chemicals worked silently on the races’ breathing, forcing several of them to the ground.
Broken pieces from the cluster bombs rained down as the last of the mesh cages melted away. Unbroken bombs transformed into mini projectiles, destroying anything they touched. The liquid chemicals sprayed upwards and out, falling like a gentle mist.
With heavy legs and weak bodies, they staggered towards the tunnels for protection. Some crawled with young on their backs, exhausted from the effort of breathing.
New lights appeared in the skies, brighter and bigger than the ones before. These were not MIRVs designed to break apart. These did not carry explosives. Their sole purpose was to ignite the gases and permanently alter the atmosphere. Their impact was controlled, their explosions timed. Little remained in the aftermath, and whatever had survived would not last for long.
The controllers aboard the Zodiac 117B monitored the MIRVs’ trajectory closely. They reported to unseen people about the even dispersion of gases across the sky. The liquid that had seeped into the soil would correct the pH balance so the terrain would accept plants and trees at a faster rate.
Everything had happened exactly as planned. It would be a while before they could inhabit the planet, but for now, Stage One was complete. They would make time to celebrate properly when they arrived back on Earth.