The theme of this week (“I’m so cold my bones have frozen”) is appropriate, as winter temperatures seem to have temporarily snapped back for author Val Muller. She is the author of the Corgi Capers mystery series, the sci-fi romance For Whom My Heart Beats Eternal, and the supernatural chiller Faulkner’s Apprentice, and hopes that spring weather returns soon.
By Val Muller
The place is so quiet, I can’t be sure it’s real. The landscape is cold and barren. Not just inhumane. Inhuman. This was always a risk. I knew it when I signed up. We were counseled, told to expect something like this. Told what it would be like to be the last one remaining. It was never a likelihood, but it was always a possibility. They gave me a tiny capsule to swallow, but I never intended to go out that way.
Of course, it had to be me, the unlucky survivor.
I know how much they invested in me—in us—so I followed training protocol to the very last command. After landing, I launched the probes, took the readings, the pictures, the samples, sent back the communications, and launched the craft that would take the samples back to Earth. And now, according to protocol, I wait. There’s supposed to be another cohort coming. But in the meantime I’m supposed to be here colonizing. Terraforming. I’m supposed to be building a community and reporting back on the possibility of procreation.
All of these objectives are impossible with a party of one.
I haven’t gone to the settlement for three days now. I’ve been sitting up here on my cliff. I call it “Loverlook.” It’s “lover” plus “overlook” combined. When we got here, I was supposed to mate-up with one of the other astronauts. We were matched genetically, though I don’t think we would have chosen each other on Earth. Anyway, since I erected the settlement, I’ve spent more time up here than down there. I would sit up here and imagine I was back on Earth in some kind of romanticized version of life based on every 1950’s movie I’ve ever seen. I’m the beautiful, rebellious teenager, and I’ve snuck up here to “Loverlook” to be with my lover, the one my parents don’t approve of. You know, we just got back from a burger and shake at the dairy barn, and now we’re watching the stars through his open-topped convertible. I used to talk to him, my imaginary mate, but now I just keep it all in my head.
The cities I saw sparkling below as the sun set over the Martian desert—those cities exist only in my mind. But my mind has been quieting lately. I’m having trouble seeing those cities. When I first arrived, I really saw them in my mind’s eye. I saw them as our future. Not 1950, and not 2050, but maybe 2150. Maybe there would be all manner of sparkly diners and open-topped convertibles and people on roller-skates living life like it was simple again.
But those pictures have faded in my mind’s eye. I have received no more communication from Earth. They must know I’m still alive, but no one on Earth likes upsetting news. I accepted long ago that they’re ignoring me until I go away. Now, from Loverlook, I see only the rocks. The landscape reminds me of the Wild West, only more barren, if that is possible.
I expected something when I came here. The mystery of life solved, maybe, or some deep insight into the human condition.
Not emptiness. Something.
Something like—I don’t know. When I was younger, I read The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I remember the feeling of the book. There was such a striving among the characters, a desire to pick up the pieces of something lost. To continue a civilization despite past mistakes. There was one part where the main characters are looking for Martians, and they end up looking into a body of water to see them—looking into a body of water to see their own reflection. They were the things they sought.
And now I think I’ve come all the way to Mars to realize my own paradox. In this awful Martian silence, I’ve learned that the things I sought were always with me. The things I sought were always there on Earth, dispersed among me and the millions of souls with whom I used to share the human condition. It took unimaginable miles and uncountable resources to teach me that the thing I sought, I already had.
I’m enlightened now, and I think it’s time to go. I know I won’t have much time once I pull off the mask. The terraforming has hardly begun to work, and it certainly hasn’t done a thing for elevations like Loverlook. But I don’t need time—hardly any at all. I just want to see the stars shine one more time, the way they looked from Earth—through my bare eyes, the eyes of a dreamer, and not through the shield of a mask.
They twinkle. Little winks, like shared secrets they’re allowing me to hear just this one last time. They send a shiver through my body, and I feel the shiver fly faster than light to someone back on Earth, a girl not unlike me, who is lying in a grassy field looking up at the very same stars and wishing and dreaming and finding out what human means. With another shiver I fly back to Mars and return to myself, and my eyes feel strange and dry in the Martian atmosphere. Then I shudder with understanding and plaster a smile on my face before I can realize that I’m so cold, my bones are frozen with the rest of me, looking out at my eternal starscape from my lonely perch of Loverlook.
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Catherine A. MacKenzie