Three days earlier I studied all night with a girlfriend for a physics exam and afterward drove four classmates 12 hours to San Diego for spring break. The entire trip the girls giggled and cackled behind me while a Korean kid sat silent up front. I decided we scared Jae. Although, being a confused immigrant might also explain his silence. Either way, he only said thanks when I dropped him off at his house. For that matter, Cindy told me how to find it.
The rest of the trip to Oceanside I drove in a blur on autopilot. All of the lights merged into a slow motion light show and I doubt I could even tell you about the trip. I arrived at the motel, went to bed, and slept nearly all Sunday despite my mother’s pleas to come to the beach. In the morning, I drove her north to Anaheim where we rode the teacups, stood in a long line for the bobsleds, and paddled a canoe. We ate dinner on the bayou, visited the pirates, posed with Mickey Mouse, and explored the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. Overall, mom had a great time and I played the sweet son. By nightfall, the sky exploded with fireworks and we headed back south. Mom slept pressed into the window missing the nuclear power plant, the Marines, and the moonlit beach. As the tail lights on the interstate blurred into red, I again drove like a drone.
Tuesday, I left mom in the room sadly wondering why I was heading back to college. I made Spring Break last only as long as a three-day weekend with an irritating baby. At the studio I planned to make a lot of cash in the remaining days of my break.
Before I left, Cindy called to say she wanted to ride back with me to school.
Sunrise bounced through our plastic dome inching closer to my eyes on the pillow. I looked at the divergence of yellow and red light flaring through the bubble and then across the room. The sixth day of Shepard seemed it would shape up as a typical butterscotch day. I saw the sun’s reflection on the large dome of MaxPol. The sun woke me everyday, but the reflection wasn’t always there. Pioneers colonized Mars 160 years ago by surviving the solar flares in eco-domes with a limited atmosphere shielded from the neural damage of radiation. Those before me found a way to release water, and they invented calendars, fashions, and traditions. They built the central colony of MaxPol and spread out from there. I understood the privilege the pioneers gave me. Every person born last on Mars understood the sacrifice required for the next generation.
Maggie put on a white dress for the afternoon transformation ceremony. She transfixed me with her smile. I looked past her to the mirror as she added a garland of chamomile to her hair. She mirrors Aleren. In the reflection, my grey hair frames the wrinkles around my eyes. With her beauty, my life soon ends.
Maggie stood still in front of the mirror admiring her reflection. She finished up her hair and let her arms fall straight down. I stared too.
“You will make a beautiful bride.” She blushed at my comment. “After the transformation, you will meet your partner. Then you will make handsome babies.”
“And go like you,” she added.
“You must produce at least three children as a Last Born,” I reminded her. “There is no reason to rush.”
“And when those children are born, I will go.” She sighed.
“All Last Born villein must repay steerage,” I said. “And you are the last to repay.”
A generation of villein before, myself, and now my daughter Maggie all preordained to settle the debt.
“This planet requires too much,” Maggie said.
“It only seems that way because of all the work we must do.”
“No,” Maggie said. “Mars owns us until we die.”
Grandmother Viola agreed to the villein contract with the Interstellar Transport and Exploration Company in an attempt to escape Earth. She longed to reach past the stars and make her mark. With her signature, she agreed the next three generations of her brood would work as miners, scientists, and in my case, a Last Born. All Last Borns married after the transformation and raised a family. We taught the Martian traditions and prepared our children for the work. Some of our children work in the distant settlements of Mars or become apprenticed to a scientist here at MaxPol. In most cases, like my middle son Adam, we never see them again.
When Maggie reached the age of viability when the fears of death passed, roughly one sol, her mother walked out of our living pod to end her life. She birthed three children, as promised, and had nothing left to do. Aleren dressed in a white robe, weaved flowers through her hair, and slipped out of our pod onto the soil of Mars. Beyond the dome, the air was thin and Aleren had only a few precious minutes to reach the pedestal. I stood with my two boys and daughter watching her walk away. I was proud of Aleren despite the tears rolling down my cheek. When she finished walking, she raised her arms upward, and turned toward our window. Maggie rushed to the window while Adam held my leg and hid his face. Zach stood stoically next to me. She ended her life on Mars with no regrets.
Aleren dropped to her knees and her head began to swell. Seconds later, her white robe exploded upwards in the wind and she was gone. Aleren aged 16 sols, gave birth to three children, and completed her transformation.
After Aleren transformed, I continued teaching our children the Martian traditions and duties passed down by the pioneers. In time, they began to forget their mother despite the picture of her face in the hallway. When he turned 16, Zach apprenticed to a climatologist. Later, Adam went to the far colonies to work in the mines. Maggie was born last, roughly three sols after Adam, and never knew Aleren. I added two sols to my life due to Maggie’s learning difficulties. Looking at her today, you would never know she was slower than the rest. When she leaves our dome, I will have aged 27 sols, fathered three children, and will walk on the surface of Mars to join Aleren.
“Father, are you thinking?”
I shook off my melancholy. It struck me I should not upset her before the transformation ceremony.
“I was remembering your mother.”
“I only know what my brothers have told me,” Maggie paused. “Why did she leave us?”
“She realized her purpose,” I replied. “Her benediction and death allowed you to live.”
I needed Maggie to understand the gift Aleren gave her.
“I barely passed one sol,” Maggie said. “I never had a chance talk with her, learn from her, or gain her wisdom.”
“All Last Borns have one job; to ensure life goes on. She spoke to you often in your crib about the future.”
“A baby maker, you mean,” Maggie said. “Enough. It is time us breeders became naturalized freemen.”
“Your mother was very proud you would be a Last Born,” I said. “Your children will be citizens,” I paused to look her in the eyes. “The first generation of Free Martians.”
“And I will not be able to see it,” Maggie said.
I gave Maggie credit for grasping the gravity of her transformation. And it gave me pause; I would not see my family earn citizenship either. Zach and Adam would never be freemen, but at least they had the chance at a long life. I did have that comfort to fall back on. And Maggie would be the final Last Born. My grandchildren would decide the future for themselves and their children.
I placed my pressed white robe on my dressing table. After the transformation ceremony, I would come back alone and prepare for my passing. Maggie would be off to the breeder colony and will miss it. Just as well; Maggie didn’t remember Aleren’s passing and she wouldn’t remember mine.
Under the central dome, the transformation candidates stood on a transparent stage. Maggie embraced her friends and I could hear their laughter above me in my seat. All the Last Born fathers sat away from the rest. The audience cheered as the chancellery read the names of those moving on.
As a group, Maggie joined the Last Borns by holding her right hand equal to her head and reciting the vow. Each swore to build up the community, teach their children, and carry out their purpose. At the end, the chancellery invited the honored Last Borns to stand. We stood and the crowd cheered as the chancellery thanked us for completing our service.
Everyone became silent for the marriage partner epistle. Maggie gasped when the chancellery chose Charles, a tall, black-haired Last Born, for her partner. I imagined their handsome babies.
At the end of the ceremony, Maggie approached me with Charles walking a step behind dragging on her hand. She seemed assured. I tried to act casual but my happiness betrayed me. Tears welled in my eyes and I pulled her close.
“They made a good choice,” I said. “Your children will be strong.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Maggie took a furtive glance back at Charles. “He is as good as anyone.”
“I guess you two are off for your training?”
“Yes. We learn the private bits about each other,” Maggie said.
“Don’t practice too much.” I couldn’t help myself. Maggie punched my arm and Charles became scarlet.
“It looks like they want you to go.” I pushed Maggie and Charles toward the stage. “I am sure everything will be fine.”
Maggie wrapped herself around me dropping her head on my shoulder. She wept and pulled me closer. I rubbed her back and whispered, “You make me proud.”
“I love you too,” she said.
Maggie avoided an awkward goodbye. I stood with the other Last Borns watching her leave. Soon I stood alone with nothing left to do but return to my dorm.
I dressed in my transformation robe and reflected on my life. None of my children died, they each learned something from me, and there was nothing left to teach them. The last thing to do was complete my transformation. Before the ceremony, I transferred my credits to Maggie, uploaded my last words, recorded a congratulatory video for my grandchildren, and pressed my robe with an iron. I fingered the trim on the collar feeling the intricacy of the lace. Everything seemed in order.
At central day, an alarm sounded and a happy voice reminded me to proceed to my affirmation. This was it. I would perform the last part of my vow.
I climbed up to the airlock between our dorm and the outside dome. Across the complex other Last Borns also entered their airlocks. I counted as many as six other men. Not as many as in the past, but still a sizable number. I realized I had never spoken to any of them.
Over the speakers the Requiem Aeternam began to play in the airlock. I decided this was a fitting anthem for my end. I took a deep breath and let it out. The door opened and the atmosphere blew out the rupture in the dome. On Mars, I lived a total of 27 sols. On Earth, I would celebrate reaching the age of 50 years. For the first time I felt tired.
The final moment of my life I practiced sols ago with Aleren. We each let out our breath like we were coming up for a dive. We giggled when we had to breathe in. Now outside it was difficult. I felt the effects of the vacuum on my face and my lips tingled from the lack of oxygen. I failed to realize how hard it would be. Yet, I wanted to experience my death. The moisture in my eyes evaporated and my lungs started to freeze with my slow exhalation.
Aleren made roughly 40 steps before the wind scattered her across the surface and I wanted to walk as far as the platform. Yet, I had not counted on the difference in our age. My heart struggled under my exertion and I walked less than 20 steps. I managed to reach a small rise in the dirt. I climbed over it, dropped to my knees, and realized death was near. My eyes began to burn, so I closed them, and let the sun warm my face.
As I gave in to death, the ground under me opened and I dropped beneath the surface. I tumbled down and landed with a thud in a dark hole. I could see nothing but black; did somebody dig me a grave?
“Place him in the bateau and run to the compression chest,” a male voice said.
The taste of oxygen differed from the thin nitrogen and carbon dioxide of the surface. I took a shallow breath. It felt cool in my aching lungs. Around me I heard voices, but my eyes were blind. Nothing took shape.
“It may be too late,” said a female voice.
The transformation prepares us for the responsibility of ensuring life begins on Mars, I thought. Each Last Born teaches, scolds, counsels, and nurtures their children. I let out a final breathe.
“We must save him. He deserves to know the future.”
“Adam?” I thought I heard the voice of my middle son and realized it was a dream. His voice took me to my memory of all of us standing together for a portrait under the middle dome with the yellow sun shining behind us. I smiled thinking about them as my transformation ended. I knew Mars was a better place.
I once toiled as an innkeeper. But my experiences were nothing like described by John Irving.
Inspiration Comes From Experience
I am a product of the American West and my inspiration comes from those people. I take inspiration from their stories and those subjects are close to my heart.
When Tom Booker stopped at a remote four-corners somewhere between Nevada and Utah, I was there. Nicholas Evans reminded me I had been at that crossroads a few times. I understand the loneliness of a desert valley surrounded by a ring of mountains.
I have this great idea for a novel set in Paris, but I have never been there. I struggle to place my characters at a corner cafe I have never set foot in. The story lies flat because I can’t put any description into the place.
Irving wrote about the feeling he had as a child. The deeper context comes from the adult. Maclean also wrote about his family, his childhood, and the pains of adulthood. All wrapped up in these stories are bigger images, but the writers mined subjects close to their hearts to arrive at the wider story.
It is better to stick to subjects you understand and attempt to create deeper meaning. Your experiences fold together to create a grander tapestry. Would it be impossible to write the Paris story? Likely not, if I visited the Arrondissements and smelled, tasted, and wondered.
Stories come easier when the milieu can be seen by the author. Otherwise, a lot of research must be done. Inspiration comes when the writer can just tell the story. Place is easiest arranged when the writer already sits there.[plain]What do you think? Can a writer create a place they have never visited? Or, do you have to experience it first to obtain inspiration? Leave a Comment below.[/plain]