Anna lay dying. The disease against which she thought she had immunity had at last eaten its way deep into a body unable to fend it off. Not long dead themselves, the colleagues she had lost had now become ghosts alongside the people whom she had left behind at home. They moonwalked the modules of the silo, and leant down to pillow level to speak quietly unsettling sentences about joining them into Anna’s pinnae. She hadn’t sufficient pep now to close the blinds, and watched the days pass double quick, two against each slow one back home. The leafy giantwoods outside cast shadows which sundialled the walls of the sleeping pod like speeded-up film. She had the sense that time was scuttling to a point, and existence likewise – the full stop following which it would not be possible to say, I think, so I am. She would not be thinking, she would be dead, although life on this odd planet would still go its seemingly infinite way. No-one was left to put Anna in a box and the box in the soil, and eulogise beside the gaping hole. But then millennia would see to it that Anna’s skeletal body was slowly compacted into a seam of fossil fuel which some subsequent colonising species might use to heat living spaces whose design she could only dimly imagine.
These thoughts came in clipped pulses, and between them – as she phased in and out of consciousness – was white space onto which the annals of Anna’s mind flashed a slideshow of images. Times past, landscapes she had walked. A balloon against a sunset. A dog and its dancing shadow as it jumped in a meadow with a deep blue sky above. A pumpkin, its jagged teeth, nose and eyes alight with menace. A headland and below it a beach, glistening wet in the sun. A cove on the same wild and wind-smashed coastline. A white sand beach and two caves; placed between them, Anna’s own walking boots. She felt the feeling of naked feet and toes in sand as she stood in one of the two caves looking out; a keyhole of light doubled at the bottom by a pool left behind as the tide ebbed. A snowscape with stone walls. A small wooden shed in a lush, sloping field; the angles of the hillsides led the eye to that little building clinging to one of them. A goat standing atop a dusty bank next to a stack of baled hay, upon which the animal was feasting. At the goat she laughed, and the sound she made, so unlike a laugh, shocked Anna into consciousness again.
Then above the wind, a sonic boom. In the last gasp of depleted faculties, Anna knew it must be the salvage mission. Salvage, because they wouldn’t be expecting to find anyone left alive. A blast of synaptic agitation emitted itself deep within a mind which had once been fine and difficult to shake. Why now, just as she was about to die? Couldn’t they have waited, have given these final moments the peace she wished them to have? She didn’t want to be found mouth open and spit hanging and with clothes which smelt of shit and piss. Would that she was instead simply a skeletal boo! She thought of the duck-billed platypus in its glass case; Anton’s find, his joy on display. Yes, that was what she now wanted to be. With Anton, back home.
The noise should have faded as the ship touched down, but instead the tail of its descent seemed to be met with the exclamation point of an explosion. It jolted Anna’s mind alive, and she had now one final chance to validate the Cogito. But it was not so much thoughts as images which began assembling. Again Anton came to mind, and without a shadow of doubt she knew he was on that flaming ship, come to save his one-time love.
Images of what they had seen hand in hand flooded Anna’s mind, as if they might be unspooling in his quaking consciousness and telepathically passed to Anna’s. Six silhouetted ponies on a beach with the tide out. Yes, that day! A boy had been unseated and the spooked pony had bolted into the town, causing havoc. If telepathy was somehow possible, then Anna could conceivably pass images back to Anton. So she sent him jumping into the Blue Lagoon, focussing especially on those pulse-heightened moments in advance of stepping off the cliff. He sent Anna an image snapped by his mind while they had stood high on the cliff above looking down on the lagoon. This was like magic! She sent him the moonscape of limestone paving they had once visited at the end of a solid day’s walking. He came back with dunes in which they had made love, the lapping sea to the east, the flat of cultivated, quiet land and a distant temple to the west. Next she gave him a mountain top, an island and the lapis lazuli in which it was set like a piece of jade. The palette of this image must have made Anton think of that peacock, defiant atop the gable of an old stone building. Then what about the peacock and peahen they had seen sitting face to face on a fence, effectively kissing? She sent him that, and saw his smiling face. Anna smiled too, but now the end was close. She wanted – needed – to see these scenes again, to have new sights to hold in common. It was so unjust; she wasn’t done yet. She wanted obstinately to live, tight to the point at which she and Anton simultaneously died.