Marsha is looking out the plastic window of our habitat now. She’s looking at that permanent fog infesting the outer wall of The Dome – that relentless barrier between us and the wastelands outside. “I can’t stand it,” she says. “I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it.”
The sand, over time, has ground away at the thick plastic of The Dome so that now it’s covered over with a semi-opaque whiteness. You can walk along the plastic sidewalks, right up to that thick plastic and peer through its milky-white haze to watch soft winds blowing sand across the desert. All the while, it is 72 degrees and twenty-one percent humidity inside The Dome. Every day. Every night. Forever.
She whirls around, her chest heaving just beneath her blue jumpsuit. I wish I could see fire in her eyes. But I only see infinite wells of desperation. She yells this time. “I can’t stand it.”
The monitor embedded in the half-wall between the kitchen and bedroom hums to life. An Indian woman in a white lab coat stares out from behind the screen. Her Indian accent drowns beneath a learned British accent, but it still gasps for air.
Marsha picks up a plastic cup and hurls it at the monitor. But instead of cracking the screen, the cup bounces off harmlessly and clatters against the floor.
“Your stability index is low,” the woman says. “I’m sending over an adjusted package.”
It’s enough to send Marsha into a rage. She picks up a plastic tray this time and throws it at the image on the monitor. “Just shut the hell up.”
Then she turns back to me, her forehead creased in panic. “I can’t stand it.”
“Just wait for the package,” I say.
The woman behind the monitor drones on in the background, as if her voice might actually be soothing. They have to act as if what they’re doing is actually a solution. It’s the only way they can keep going, the only way they can hold on to their own sanity.
It’s all they have to offer.
The rest of us – we all work for The Dome now, each one of us with a responsibility to help keep it running. There is nothing else.
Sedatives work well and you think it’s going to be OK the first time. Because you don’t think you’ll ever need them again. But for some, the drugs become a way of life – the only barrier between what’s left of their humanity and the gaping maw of insanity that is waiting for all of us.
It wasn’t always like this. They used to send scientists and engineers to study the outside, to try and find something it had to offer. To try and find a way for us to live there.
Then, they finally realized Mars is just a dead planet. And it’s never coming back.
So they quit sending the scientists and engineers. And then they quit sending anybody at all.
Marsha’s screeching voice fills the entire habitat this time, a lightning bolt of despair that raises the hair on the back of my neck. “I can’t stand it.”
I see it in her eyes. Some have already done it. I shake my head, almost imperceptibly, and with every ounce of will in my being, I stare at her and think, Don’t do it.
I lunge at her, but she lurches towards the door. All I find is air as I tumble to the floor.
“Don’t do it,” I yell.
She’s running along the plastic sidewalk. I lumber after her, but then she crosses over the red line painted just in front of the air lock. Her screech fills The Dome. “I can’t stand it.”
Then, she mashes the big green button that opens the inner door of the airlock. She doesn’t even look back before she steps across the threshold. Once she’s inside, the inner door automatically slams down behind her. The clang of steel rings across The Dome. Everybody knows there is a new Runner.
I reach out with my hand, as if I can pull her back somehow.
I run to the edge of The Dome and press my cheek against its thick plastic. The outer door is open now and I can see Marsha running out into the wind.
It’s true that weather on Mars isn’t the same as it is on Earth. A hurricane on Mars is the same as a gentle summer breeze on Earth. It’s like that now – just a soft wind whirling the sand around, like fireflies that nibble endlessly at The Dome, trying to find their way inside.
Just a mile away, I can see the remains of the last ship that arrived ten years ago. The marking are gone. The skin has been worn away at certain points. An exposed fuel tank bears a soft-edged hole etched out by years of soft winds blowing sand across its surface. The ship stands crookedly on two legs now, leaning precariously to one side. The nose at the top droops to one side from the wind cutting away the structure so it droops a little more each year.
They always run for that ship. Some of them, anyway. They form a perimeter of sorts, fifty feet from the airlock. Some of them are buried by sand. Some you can still see, their blank faces turned towards the sky and their hands held up, desperately trying to hold back the suffocating winds. The very first ones – you can’t recognize them any more from the years of erosion. There are no germs on Mars.
Bodies don’t decay here.
The rest are piled next to the outer door of the airlock. Here’s why:
Most Runners change their mind.
Marsha stumbles a few steps and then turns around. Her hands go to her throat. She’s looking at me now, but I can’t see her eyes through the milky haze of plastic.
She stumbles back towards the airlock door. We’ve never heard what any of them say, but we imagine they’re trying to scream: “Let me back in.”
There’s a rule. Once you go outside, you can’t come back.
Marsha falls to her knees. And then I watch her body crumple to the ground, suddenly asleep. Never to awaken.
I pound the plastic with my fist. My voice cracks with a whimper.
Two medics are standing behind me. There is a sting. And then mind-numbing bliss. My mind retreats behind the fog, refusing to comprehend what has happened. But I know I’ll think about it later. And then forever.
For now, all I know is the one difference between Marsha and myself.
She chose where and when to die.
The rest of us choose to wait.
©2023 Michael J Lawrence
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