a to z: arrival

In the video file she's everything you'd expect of an eighth-generation interstellar captain: confident, friendly, direct, able to explain complex engineering concepts in simple terms. She has a quiet voice, but it's low and strong. Even now, two hundred years after her death, after her image and words have become ingrained into every citizen since infancy, people will stop and listen if a recording of her is playing on a screen.

The image in this particular file doesn't depict the quick-thinking leader from the historical still photos. Patricia Sorensen is past ninety in it, face wrinkled, hair white. She still wore it in the severe ponytail copied by so many. She looks and acts as if, given a ship, she would absolutely pilot a group of colonists off the planet if she were assigned the task, and complete the first-generation tasks as admirably as she completed the last-generation ones on the actual voyage.

The interviewer, offscreen, asks the questions everyone has known the answers to since they were old enough to understand. She responds with absolute certainty and clarity, every time, until — and this is why this video is treasured — she is asked what it was like to work through the final landing and power-down sequence.

For the first time in the recording, in any recording of her, Patricia Sorensen hesitates, breaks eye contact with the interviewer. She glances down the camera lens like it's the gaze of a parent figure wise to her tall tales. She visibly inhales and exhales a long, steady breath.

When she speaks again she's not looking at the interviewer sitting slightly at stage left, but straight down the lens, and those enormous brown eyes of hers never fail to make the viewer feel she's looking directly into their soul.

"It didn't feel real," she says. "We'd rehearsed it so many times. Even before I was selected for the nav team, even before I was an adult... when I was a kid on the ship, we used to play 'Landing on Gaia'. We'd all say who we were going to be — I was always the science officer, never the captain — and then we'd pretend we were landing the ship. And you know, we're kids playing," she chuckles, "so most of the time we'd invent some crisis, everything from a poisonous atmosphere to giant predatory fauna attacking the ship, and usually it would end with all of us screaming our heads off, like kids do. Then some grown-up would stick their head through a hatchway and yell at us to quiet down, and we'd giggle like mad and then spend a couple of minutes lying still, pretending to be dead."

Sorensen pauses, takes another long breath. "Kids don't play that anymore. My grandkids, they play 'When We Landed on Gaia'. When they play, everyone lives, because they know everyone did live. See, on the ship, all the kids knew we were all probably going to die. No adult had ever told us, but we knew."

"So when it was time for me to actually call out the orders and push the right buttons at the right time... honestly, I think the whole bridge just concentrated on the checklist. We knew all we could do was follow procedure. It was either going to work or it wasn't. If anything went wrong, it wasn't going to be some big dramatic panic like they show in entertainment videos, because for any possible thing that could go wrong, there was a procedure for that too. It was just like being in the simulator deck. I mean, sure, a part of me knew that this time when I pushed a button on the control panel the ship was really going to respond, it wasn't just the computer, but we'd done it so many times."

"It was like a magic spell. Reality didn't snap in until we were on the ground and had run the power-down procedure. I looked down to stow away the device I'd been using for the checklist, and I saw a sunbeam on my hand for the first time." She clucks and holds up her right hand, curled with age. "You young people can't even imagine that. Seeing how beautiful human skin looks in sunlight. I was transfixed. I nearly dropped the device."

She nods at the camera. "Sunlight, and silence. It wasn't until we were landed that I realised my entire body had been vibrating my whole life with the engines. It —" she tosses her head, laughs, re-establishes eye contact "— that took months to get over, you know. How still things are when you're on a planet."

One second, two seconds, three, and on the fourth that unafraid gaze finally releases the viewer. Sorensen settles back in her chair and pays attention to the interviewer again. "So yeah. That's what it was like."