30-Day Flash Challenge, Day 17

Photo by NOAA on UNSPLASH.

February 28, 2195

Ultimately everyone on Magellan had to pull a tour of duty somewhere on earth. The administrators liked to pretend that it wasn’t mandatory, but it was.

During the annual lottery, Amina drew an eighteen lunar cycle stint at NorCon Station 7. Situated in Antarctica, Station 7 sat in one of the harshest climates and terrain on earth.

When she got her earthside service assignment, Amina quickly did the math, adding the 18 cycles she was required to serve with her deployment date. Then she rechecked her figures and re-added the start date and eighteen cycles again. Something was wrong. She rolled back her slick nylon sleeve (standard apparel aboard the Magellan station) to compare it to her birth tattoo.

Had someone made an error?

And, more importantly, how did Amina feel about spending her last days on earth, far away from her friends and family, the only people, the only space she’s ever known in her 17 years? She wasn’t scared about going to earth. Most people were eager to walk on the home planet, see it, touch it, smell it.

No one could remember when it began. Some rumors held that humans had always been born with the date tattoo, but this was ridiculous. There was no science to support such a crazy allegation. But neither was there a science to support why everyone on Magellan had been born with a date tattooed on their inner right forearm, indicating the day the individual would die each, as far as Amina knew, had been correct.

Some people got lucky and were born knowing they would live forty, fifty years, or more. Others were less fortunate. Amina supposed she was likely closer to belonging to the second group than the first. She had always known it; she would die less than one lunation before her nineteenth birthday.

But she had never heard of anyone having to serve on earth during their final days. What was going on?

14 Months Later

Life on Magellan had been no party, but life at NorCon 7 had been very stringent and demanding. The margins were thin. To preserve fuel, they received only quarterly supplies from Magellan. The harsh environment meant they could grow very little of their food. Margins were tight. Rations enforced, and while they assured her she wouldn’t starve, Amina estimated that here she probably consumed less than half what she did on Magellan.

Nor could anyone answer why her period of service extended beyond her ‘use-by-date.’ So, assuming it would work out, she held her memorial, said her goodbyes to her family and friends before leaving orbit. It was all very emotionally disorienting to say goodbye one day but then not die. That was not the way to do things.

She resigned herself to the fact – she would die on earth, helping the terraformers whose centuries-long project was to regenerate the earth’s atmosphere. Amina’s duty would be to service, clean, maintain the seeders and scrubbers that sat at earth’s southernmost point.

Amina steps into the decon station, disrobes, tosses her uniform into the sterilizer; she then proceeds through the seven stations that ensure she is safe to re-enter the housing/dining hub.

For dessert, she requests a piece of apple pie. She blinks away the tears. It’s been 14 months since bidding farewell to friends and family. In all that time, she’s not once contacted any of them. It would just make things confusing for them. The pie is her way to celebrate. Tomorrow she will die. She wipes her eyes and digs into the sugary dessert (one that was only honored because they knew her expiration was coming, and it was their custom to provide a dessert for one’s last meal).

When your date arrived, you passed away in your sleep. That was a relief. In school, history teachers had taught that people used to die at all times of the day, and in many different ways, some of them quite painful. With the arising of the birth tattoos, there also came an easy death. No one alive could imagine if it was harder or easier not knowing your time or knowing that your death might be profoundly painful. Medicine had wiped out every disease except death.

Her notebook alarm goes off, Amina raises herself onto one arm, silences the alarm, pushes back the heavy blankets. She starts to stand but then freezes in place.

Something seems wrong? What’s wrong, Amina? Think, girl. Think!

Then it hits her. She is not dead. She is surprised by how very not dead she is. She feels great, better than she has in months.

She slides back the sleeve of her pajama, turns her forearm upward. The tattoo is gone – a series of twelve numbers she’s worn for almost nineteen years was no longer on her arm.

Her mind begins reeling. Questions fly at her from every corner of her consciousness. She tries to stand but collapses back onto her narrow cot.

Maybe because I wasn’t ON Magellan when my date arrived? Was this what it was like before we took to space in the late 21st century? Dozens of more such questions flew at her, demanding her immediate attention and answers.

But then there was a calm. Behind it loomed the biggest question of all.

When will I die?

My date has passed, and I am here. That isn’t the way. When will I die? Will I be prosecuted for not living beyond my date?

Still, the big question loomed in her mind. When will I die?


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