Sunrise bounced through our carbon polymer 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 MaxPol.
The sun woke me every day, but it didn’t always reflect from MaxPol’s dome. Pioneers colonized Mars 160 years ago by surviving the solar flares 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 dome of MaxPol and spread out from there.
I understood the privilege the pioneers gave me. Every person born on Mars understood the sacrifice required for the next generation.
Maggie put on a white dress for the afternoon matching ceremony. She transfixed me with her beauty. I looked past her to the mirror as she added a garland of chamomile to her hair. She resembles Aleren.
When she is matched my life soon ends.
Maggie stood still admiring her reflection. She finished up her hair and let her arms fall straight down. “You will make a beautiful bride.” She blushed and turned away.
“At ceremony you will be matched with a 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. “That is the contract.”
“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 before myself, then me, and now my daughter all expected 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. 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 wanted to make her mark and she wanted to escape the marriage her mother had arranged.
With Vi’s signature, she agreed her next three generations would work as miners, scientists, and in my case, a Last Born. We married and raised a family, taught the Martian traditions, and prepared our children for the needed work. Some of our children left MaxPol for distant settlements and some became apprenticed to a scientist. In most cases, like my middle son Adam, we never see them again.
When Maggie reached the age of viability at one sol, roughly when the fear of her dying passed, her mother walked out of our pod to end her life. Aleren birthed three children according to the contact and had nothing left to do but complete transformation.
On that day, she 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 transformation pedestal.
I stood with my two boys and cradled my daughter as Aleren walked away. I was proud of her and I kept the boys from noticing my tears. When she finished walking, Aleren raised her arms upward, and turned toward our window. Adam held my leg and hid his face, Zach stood like a soldier, and Maggie slept. Aleren ended her life on Mars as we watched.
She kneeled and her whole body began to swell. Seconds later, her white robe exploded upwards in the wind. Aleren was gone. She aged 16 sols, gave birth to three children, and in that instant completed her transformation.
After that day, I continued teaching our children the Martian traditions and duties passed down by the pioneers. In time, the children forgot their mother as the picture of her face faded 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 being the baby she never knew Aleren. She was a handfull and the elders of MaxPol let me add two sols to my life due to her difficulties.
Looking at her today, you would never know she struggled to learn. 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 matching 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 your 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 journey. 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 the freshly pressed robe on my dressing table. After the matching ceremony, I would come back alone and prepare for my transformation. Maggie would be off to her Last Born 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 of MaxPol, the matching ceremony candidates stood on a transparent stage. Maggie embraced her friends and I could hear their laughter float to my seat. All the parents sat away from the Last Born children. The audience cheered as the chancellery read the names of all of us preparing to transform.
As a group, Maggie joined the rest 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 as a Last Born. At the end, the chancellery invited the parents to stand. 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 found me. She pulled Charles behind her. She seemed assured and ready to begin her new life. 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 saved me from an awkward goodbye. I stood with the other parents watching her leave. Soon I stood alone with nothing left to do but return to my pod.
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 matching 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 transformation. This was it. I would perform the last part of my vow.
I climbed up to the airlock between our pod and the Martian sand. Across the complex, I watched as other parents also entered their airlocks. I counted as many as six other men and three women. 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 it was a fitting anthem for my last minutes on Mars. 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 50 years. For the first time I felt tired.
Aleren and I practiced this final moment of my life sols ago. We let out our breath like we were coming up for a dive. We giggled when we had to breathe in.
Now on the sand 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 this. The moisture in my eyes evaporated and my lungs started to freeze with my slow exhalation.
Aleren made it roughly 40 steps before the wind scattered her across the surface. I wanted to walk at least as far as her. Except I had not counted on the difference in our age. I struggled and my heart pounded hard in my chest. I walked less than 20 steps before 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 it, the ground under me opened and I dropped beneath the surface. I tumbled down and landed hard in a dark hole. The fall took my breath away and I could see nothing but black; did somebody dig me a grave?
“Place him in the bateau and run to the compression chamber,” 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. Each Last Born teaches, scolds, counsels, and nurtures their children. I took 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 main dome of MaxPol with the yellow sun shining behind us. I smiled thinking about my family as my transformation ended.
I knew Mars was a better place.