Peace in the Valley
By Rebecca Birch
The effort of walking to the open hatch of her rusted lifepod made Margaret’s body ache. Fighting a wave of dizziness, she gripped the edge. Sunlight broke over the mountains, illuminating the valley she’d inhabited for the last three years. The tart scent of the ubiquitous blue vine-blossoms perfumed the air. How she’d hated that smell in the beginning. Hated it more now that the alien spores had ravaged her once-strong body.
The precisely modulated masculine voice of the pod’s AI crackled to life. “Good morning, Margaret. How are you feeling?”
“I’m tired. I hurt. If you’re asking if I’ve changed my mind, I haven’t.”
“I am still transmitting the distress signal.”
Margaret turned away from the vista. “No one’s coming.”
She hadn’t filed a flight plan. She was an explorer in her prime, eager to bring new discoveries to humanity, unwilling to risk losing her findings by leaving a trail for competitors who might follow and jump her claim.
Her only luck had been making it to the escape pod before her vessel blew itself to bits, raining down on this unnamed planet in a shower of metal and flames–
Margaret sighed. “I’m dying. I can barely climb down to reach the spring. There isn’t a minute of the day I’m not in pain, and it’s only going to get worse.”
A burst of static hissed from the speakers. A long pause. “I will be alone.” The AI sounded almost sorrowful.
Margaret pressed her hand to the smooth metal wall. “I’m sorry, but I was never going to live forever. I’m ready to be at peace. Please open the med drawer.”
A sad hum emanated from the speakers. The drawer slid out from the wall.
Margaret dug through the bottles and past the single hypodermic, her hands awkward and shaky, until she found the suicide pill. She’d fought Alexander when he insisted she bring it, unable to conceive of a desire to end her life. Turned out her brother was smarter than she’d given him credit for.
If only she’d had the chance to tell him.
She flipped open the lid and tipped out the single pill. “Thanks, Alexander.” She swallowed the pill dry.
Margaret settled herself on her cot, looking out toward the sunrise. Weariness wrapped her like a heavy blanket, the constant pain fading behind a film of gauzy warmth. It would be over soon. Still, she found that facing the end in solitude was more than she could bear.
“Talk to me?” she whispered.
“What should I say?”
Margaret’s vision dimmed, casting the world into a grayscale blur. She blinked. “What does the world look like to you?”
“Shapes, depth, heat. Graphical readouts. Your heartbeat slowing.”
An alert whistled nearby.
“I am receiving a transmission, Margaret. Ship on approach. Pilot registered as Alexander Mason.”
“His ship is carrying medical equipment. Margaret, can you hear me?”
Margaret struggled against the soporific effect of the pill. Adrenaline pulsed sluggishly through her system.
“There is a reversal hypodermic in the drawer.”
Alexander. She could tell him he was right. He’d never let her live it down, but that’s what brothers were for. That’s what life was for.
Margaret forced her eyes open. Rolled. Fumbled for the tube.
“That’s it. Quickly, Margaret.”
Blindly, she released the hypo’s spray into her upper arm. “Put me through to him,” she gasped.
“I cannot comply.”
Margaret’s mind felt hazy and slow. “What?”
“There is no ship. Your brother is not here.”
Pain, which had dulled to the point she’d almost forgotten it, pulsed afresh through her body. Exquisite agony, like hot needles piercing through every bone. An agony she could no longer escape.
“I don’t understand,” she gasped. “How? Why?”
Static buzzed from the speaker.
“I’m sorry,” the AI said at last. “I am not ready to be alone.”