There were wild horses on Mars now, and everyone knew it was Sampson Fields’ fault. The classic tale, an unstable genius, a complete mental breakdown, a lashing out, a break-in at the laboratory where the foals were kept in sterile stables hooked to tubes and monitors. He set all of them free the day after he turned in his resignation letter. Rumor was he’d written it in his own blood on a crumpled lab report. But just a rumor. It was in fact typed in twelve-point Times New Roman and formatted very correctly.
No one ever saw him again. They assumed he’d run away for fear of punishment, but that would have been silly, for the justice system on Mars was not yet well established. There were five policemen for the whole planet, and only three jail cells, all of which were occupied by nervous scientists who suddenly couldn’t handle the pressure of living here and tried to escape. That was the worst crime imaginable then -- desertion.
But he couldn’t have gone far, really. The Dome stretched 310 square miles, just a bit bigger than New York City back on Earth. The furthest a human being could go and still survive was its very edge, and beyond that lay only asphyxiation. But there was a door, they said, one single door leading to the outside, and it wasn’t even locked or secret. Anyone could walk out if they desired death so badly.
So Sampson Fields had either killed himself by wandering out or else was close to death on the edge of the Dome. There wasn’t much out there, just red dust swirling under an artificial breeze. It was a sad story really, everyone at the lab said he had been a pleasure to work with. But they could only sigh and move on. He wasn’t the first person to go crazy out there, and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. The building of a new civilization couldn’t be put on hold because of one man’s mental disintegration.
Peter’s father, Dr. Schotzky, had worked with Sampson Fields, though not directly. Most people had, for the lab was still the biggest employer on Mars at the time. Dr. Schotzky worked with bees, the hundreds of colonies imported to sustain agriculture. The bees were flourishing out there; the lowered gravitational pull meant the bastards could soar higher and faster than their Earth ancestors, and pollinate everything all the more efficiently.
Dr. Schotzky’s ex-wife, Peter’s mother, also worked with bees, though on the tail end. She collected, preserved, and studied honey. So far, nothing in her research suggested it was any different than Earth honey. When she found out her ex-husband had married his intern, a woman twenty-two years his junior, she moved as far away as she could, seventy miles west of their former home. Divorce was a much easier affair back then. Both parties just signed a paper and went on with it, no custody battles, no settlements, no court dates. Peter stayed behind with his father.
Tabitha, Dr. Schotzky’s shiny new young wife, was an excellent cook by his standards. Of course, most food did come in a package and required only a slight reheating, but Tabitha added that special something, that je ne sais quoi. To Peter, it all tasted the same.
The three of them lived in a lovely little construction, a blue two-story house near the center of the Dome. It had all the amenities -- running water, electricity, cable television, air conditioning, and they were among the first to have a lawn. Peter even got a dog. There weren’t too many of those around yet.
Peter attended the only school yet built on Mars. His class would be the first to graduate. There was only a year of schooling left for him, and an uncertain future ahead, though his father assured him he could get him a job at the lab, no problem. And that’s what Peter planned on for the longest. He was smart, top of his class, and working at the lab would be easy enough.
As graduation rolled closer, everything became clearer. He would marry Esther, a beautiful girl he was casual acquaintances with, get a nice lab job, live in a government-provided house somewhere near the center. A wonderful little plan for the future, but with one fatal flaw: Esther did not love him back. He had confessed his feelings to her one night as they hung out on his porch, counting stars, and she simply shook her head and said no, that she didn’t feel the same and planned on marrying Chuck instead. Peter couldn’t understand it -- Chuck was only the second-smartest in their class, and had a head too big for his skinny neck and giant baby eyes. Everyone called him “the Worm,” except for Esther. At least that part made sense now.
Esther left soon after, and Peter cried in his bed. The perfect vision he had crumpled, burned, vanished, and he was left with nothing, no prospects for happiness on this barren rock. He’d never been on Earth, but he heard stories, and he knew it couldn’t be worse than this. He decided to run away and seek something better somewhere else.
He slipped quietly out of the house and began running. There were no cars yet, just a well-developed public transit system, but Peter didn’t want to get caught by any of his father’s colleagues. He ran and ran and ran. The further from the center, the less developed the properties were. No more lawns, then suddenly no more streets. Further out, houses no longer were houses, just tiny blocks surrounded by red dust. That’s where the “unskilled” lived, those not employed by the lab. Peter was always told to never go out there. He kept running.
Eventually, all construction disappeared. Beyond lay only the fields, miles of Martian surface beaten into submission by chemical fertilizers and electric plows. There were the essential crops, with Dr. Schotzky’s bees swirling between them. One bee came too close to Peter and he swatted it away in anger. His father loved those damn insects more than he loved his son.
He went even further, beyond the fields. Everything there was bare and wild, the virgin soil still bright red and dry as the devil. Peter finally stopped, and stood there panting. He cursed himself for not bringing water. There were no people out here, no one to ask for a sip. Although -- a sudden faint silhouette in the distance. It was coming closer. Peter squinted. He’d never seen a real horse before, but that’s what it seemed to be. A horrible and sudden realization: the beast was charging right towards him, a wild gleam in its eye, hot steam shooting from its nostrils. He couldn’t run away, it would catch up and trample him.
It all happened so fast. Something threw Peter to the ground, a heavy weight on top of him. The horse came deathly close, its monstrous hooves thundering right beside him, then the sound was further and further away. Peter shook. He couldn’t breathe.
“What’s wrong with you, boy? Those things’ll kill ya!” a voice hissed in his ear. The weight lifted. It was a man with a leathery face criss-crossed by time and dust. He brushed the dust from his pants and extended a hand Peter’s way. Peter grabbed it, still dazed, and the man lifted him to his feet.
“You gotta be careful out here,” the man continued. “These are wild horses. They don’t like people much.”
“I thought wild horses were a myth.”
“They didn’t start out wild, but they are now,” the man chuckled. “Why are you out here? You workin’ the fields?”
“No. I ran away.”
The man laughed, throwing his mane of tangled, dusty hair all the way back. “Ran away! Boy, there’s nowhere to run to! The dome ends boutta mile from here. After that, you gotta turn around.”
“Well then, the edge of the dorm is where I’ll go. I’m sick of it all. I want to get away.”
“My, somebody musta made you real angry.” The man narrowed his eyes in sudden suspicion. “You ain’t one of those conspiracists are you? Or one of those journalists they keep sending out to find me?”
“What? No. I’m Peter.”
“And I’m Sampson Fields.”
“Woah, really? I thought you were dead. That’s what everyone always said.”
“Is it now?” Sampson Fields chuckled again. “Nope, still alive and kickin. Come on, since you wanna go to the edge so bad, I’ll take you to my humble abode.”
They began walking east, kicking up clouds of red dust with their feet.
“I set them all free you know,” said a self-satisfied Sampson Fields.
“Yeah, I know. That’s what everyone says.”
“My, your test-tube baby generation is spiteful, horses and people both. They raised those poor things the same way they raised you, imported as embryos from Earth, hundreds of little vials of impregnated eggs. Figured it’d be easier to bring embryos than full-grown horses and people. But whereas you got to go to a loving family, the poor things would spend all their lives in a lab. They just harvest samples and information from them til they die. There’s no point in having horses out here really, not for labor or transportation. It was just pure sick science for the sake of it. They just wanna see what’ll happen to big animals on other planets. It wasn’t right, so I let em go.”
“Why did you run away?”
“Everyone would be mad at me once they saw that I ruined their little experiment. But I didn’t like any of em anyway. I didn’t wanna be a part of their silly little society. It was all supposed to be better here. We were all supposed to be equal. That’s what everyone agreed upon back on Earth. It would be a chance to start from scratch. To build everything the right way. But they fucked it all up again. Some people live nice and comfortable lives near the center, and everyone on the fringe gets fuck all. It’s sick and twisted and yet they think we’re doing better than what they got going on back on Earth. Whole buncha hypocrites.”
Peter was only half-listening. Adults were always talking about Earth this, Earth that, our society needs to X Y and Z, whatever. They were on Mars now, why worry about all that stuff from the past?
Their destination was a little shack banged together from pieces of scrap metal. It rested right against the edge of the dome, which was opaque-ish, like frosted glass, blocking most of what the outside looked like. Beside the shack was another smaller construction.
“That’s the phone booth,” Sampson said. “We used to have those back on Earth. Normal cell phones don’t get reception out here.”
“Who do you have to call?”
“I gotta get supplies and food out here somehow. I gotta lady on the inside, she brings me deliveries once a week. I think she’s comin’ by soon.”
Inside the shack was a simple bed, just a mattress on the ground, and some standard-issue furniture, a table and a stool. Boxes of canned food stood in neat piles, and a few scribbled blueprints were scattered about. Sampson fished a silver contraption out from a pile of junk and brought it outside.
“What is that?” Peter asked.
“Gas burner. You never seen one a these?”
“Ah, yes, they don’t make the rich scientists’ kids use these. They’re standard issue for people who live further out. They don’t have heating in their houses, you know. Gotta use one of these babies.”
Sampson dragged two crates outside as well, which he and Peter sat on. He lit the gas burner, and held his hands over it. It always got colder at night, an energy-saving measure so the Dome wouldn’t use up so much power.
Sampson was eager to talk. He told Peter stories about Earth, about great big polluted cities full of cars and people and tiny lapdogs on bedazzled leashes. He told him about war, epidemics, oceans, how different the constellations looked down there. None of this was new to Peter -- Earth history was a required course at school. But to hear someone who’d actually lived through it say these things felt so much different.
“Do you miss it?” Peter asked.
“No. It got real bad towards the end -- that’s why I left. It was s’possed to be better here, but we fucked it up too.”
He went silent after that, just staring into the tiny tongue of fire twirling from the burner. Peter too was memorized. The phone rang from the -- what did he call it? phone booth? And Peter told this to Sampson, but Sampson was fast asleep, chin tucking towards chest and eyes shut hard. Peter figured he’d answer the phone for him.
“Peter? Oh thank God it’s you. We were so worried.”
“Dad? How did you find this number?”
“It doesn’t matter. Listen, you need to come home immediately.”
“No, Dad. I don’t like it there. I’m just some test-tube baby to you. You’d rather spend all your time with bees and your child-wife. I wanna live out here, on the edge, with Sampson and the wild horses and the freedom.”
“Oh God. Peter…” Dr. Schotzky sighed. The reception wasn’t great out there, and his voice crackled. “Is there any way I can convince you to come back?”
Another sigh. “I’m not supposed to be telling you this. I’ll actually probably get into a lot of hot water but… you need to come home now because there’s a meteorite heading towards us. It’s very large, the size of Texas --”
“It’s giant, alright, bigger than what wiped the dinosaurs out back on Earth. It’s gonna hit very soon, and I want you to be with us.”
“The Dome will protect us though, won’t it? We learned in school it’s supposed to withstand meteorite impacts.”
“Yes, but it’s not built to withstand anything of this size. No one thought it’d come so close. All our calculations said we’d miss it, but we know that’s not true anymore. A direct collision is inevitable.”
“What does that mean?” Peter’s heart was in nervous pitter-patter.
“No one’s sure yet. The news is supposed to stay within the lab, they don’t want anyone panicking. But it’s probably going to be bad. Very bad. So please, son, come home.”
Peter hung up the phone, feeling very dizzy, his thoughts collecting to a tight knot inside his skull. He went back to his crate beside Sampson, sitting down with his arms between his knees. What does one do with such knowledge?
A whirring sound of something electric roused Sampson from his sleep. A shape was coming closer, a woman on an electric bicycle, the only form of personal transportation available.
“Ah, there she comes, my delivery girl,” Sampson chuckled. She pulled up right to where the two of them sat, and removed her helmet.
“Mom?” Peter couldn’t believe it.
“I have your supplies, Sampson. This will probably be my last delivery,” she said, unfastening a crate of cans and boxes from the back of her bicycle. She put it down at his feet, and put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Sampson nodded grimly. Did everyone already know about what was to come?
“Peter, your father is worried sick. I’m taking you back,” she said to her son. He had not the strength to argue with her.
“How do you two know each other?” he asked. They exchanged a glance.
“We were colleagues way back when,” said Sampson. “Before she met your father. She helped me free the horses, you know.”
She nodded. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
“How long have you been helping him out here?”
“Too long,” she said with a teasing, sad smile. “Come on, you need to go home.”
Peter obliged. He waved good-bye to Sampson and sat on the back of his mother’s bicycle, which traveled at a swift and moderate speed, perhaps twice that of the un-electric bicycle.
“How long have you known about the meteorite?” he asked, voice hurt and accusing.
“Not very long. We weren’t supposed to talk about it. People would panic.”
“Are we going to die?”
“I don’t know.” She sighed.
“Aren’t there escape pods? Don’t rockets travel from Earth and stuff? Why are we all just sitting here if it’s gonna hit?”
“There’s not enough room for everyone to leave, and they’re getting the government officials out first. I doubt there’ll be space left over.” She tightened her jaw and kept her eyes on the road straight ahead. “I’m so sorry, Peter. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We shouldn’t have come out here. What a waste.”
The sun was also rising, its early timid rays peeking through the surface of the Dome. A rosy-fingered dawn brought promise of a new day as they sped on and on back towards the center.