“Quite a sight, isn’t it? The other side of a cloudless sky.”
She nods without taking her gaze from the window. At first her eyes were stunned by the blast of bleached white from six hundred miles below. They have begun to adapt. She can make out details now: slightly darker clumps of rock, smudged freckles where – according to him – the ground has literally just collapsed in on itself.
“An ultra-desert. They had to invent the term, just for this place. Incredible.”
Even in the old days, Garner had loved the sound of his own voice, could never let a silence be. It was one of the reasons why …
“Imagine,” he will not be silenced today, “at high noon down there, the temperature tops three hundred degrees centigrade. Then this planet turns and it’s one fifty below. There’s even a kind of frost.”
She frowns. “Water?”
“We think it’s mostly methane. Some inert gases.”
She shrugs. “No point asking about life so.”
She knows without looking that he is smiling. It bothers her that she is still that attuned to him.
And yet. “What about that report? Mills seemed positively excited. I wouldn’t have tagged him as a hothead.”
Garner shrugs. “Too much time down there,” he says. “Even with the best suits, the radiation you know.”
She turns her head to him. The reflected glow of the ultra-desert, six hundred miles below, makes him seem a kind of spectre, as if he is bathed in pure energy.
“I’ll take his remains back with me,” she says.
“Of course.” Now he turns towards her. There is a quality to his smile that she does not recognise, something both wistful and serene.
“I was glad when they sent you.”
“How have you been Jenny?”
“Oh, you know,” she cannot stop herself passing a hand through her long black hair, “fine, really. You?”
“I’ve missed you.”
“Really? Well that was your…” Her heart begins to flicker. She wants to shout at him. Years have passed. Why is he doing this? He would never have said this type of thing before.
“Amazing things have been happening here Jenny. I’ve never felt more … alive I suppose. But there’s been a gap all along, a kind of void in me. It was the fact that you weren’t here to share what was happening.”
“But you’re here now.” And he does the smile again, the smile that dizzies her with the knowledge of how much he has changed.
“You mentioned about life.” He has turned his gaze back down upon the planet.
“Before he got sick, Mills came up with some exotic theories.”
“He tried to solve the problem of how a living organism could survive such violent changes in temperature. I mean, change our environment by thirty degrees or so, and we’re in trouble, right?”
“He came up with something that could change its molecular structure very rapidly, existing as a gas one minute, a clump of dust the next. There’s no food to speak of on the planet, so he suggested it could metabolise pure energy, literally live off sunlight and storms. He did a lot of research, came up with a lot of equations.”
“We never saw them back home.”
“We weren’t sure what to do with them. You can look them over.”
Garner closes his eyes, opens them slowly. “Not … at first.”
“What’s most amazing is … How quickly it learns to change into a new shape, one it’s never encountered before. We’re talking about a process that’s much faster than evolution.”
“It is intelligent Jenny. It can cling to a space suit as dust and survive the vacuum somehow. It can change itself to particles that aren’t picked up by the ship’s detectors. When it finally connects with a human host … It is capable of the most beautiful thoughts Jenny.”
“I know, my love.” And her eyes fall pregnant with tears as she levels the gun and blasts him into atoms.