a to z: invaders

Yoko Johnson set the photography drone in the centre of the quad, stepped well back, and pulled her personal device out of a hip pocket. She tapped the Send button on the controller interface, and watched as the drone lifted off the grass and flew over a stand of poplar trees.

She paused to appreciate the weather. Outside the settlement perimeter, the native Gaian grass was turned pink for the autumn, but the Earth lawn in the quad was still green, and would stay that way until winter. Dr. Johnson looked up at the gold leaves of the poplars, and mentally awarded the Gaian grass points for being better equipped to handle seasonal fluctuations.

She took a deep breath.  The air was warm enough in the windbreak of the quad, but she could sense the crispness. Maybe it was in the slight odour of sweet rot from the marshlands to the north, where the local snicker flock nested.

She sighed and headed back to the data room. The drone should have sent back some video by now, and her mapping software marked the first few positions.

Devon, her grad student, was already making notes on the screens. 

"You were right," he said. "That day we went out to rescue those kids from the snicker flock. The anemones have moved closer."

Johnson watched the plot points appear on the terrain map. "But we haven't seen one move yet?"

Devon shook his head. "Even the holes in the ground that their tap roots leave seem to fill in more quickly than expected."

"Some other creature that's part of the ecosystem, maybe," said Dr. Johnson. "They need something from the tap-root holes, and fill them in at the same time."

"Where do they get the dirt from?"

Johnson shrugged. "The next hole, I expect." She checked the data screen and frowned. "How long can we keep a drone in the air, videoing constantly?"

"Two hours, tops. Longer if we're okay with recovering it manually from where-ever it runs out of power, as opposed to it coming home by itself when it senses that it's losing charge."

"So we'd need at least twelve, more like thirteen or fourteen drones to keep a constant feed."

Devon pursed his lips. "I see where you're going with that. What about the mappings?"

"It's designed to keep up. It can even keep up with multiple feeds from different survey areas, once we're ready to do things like that."

"Do you think you can get the drones?"

Dr. Johnson nodded. "If I take this to the security council, they'll be practically forcing me to take them." She looked away from the array of screens and closed her eyes. "You know what this means."

"Means we might need to figure out how to chop down land anemones."

"No." She wheeled around. "No. It means either the scans from Earth were inaccurate, or that something evolved between us leaving and finally arriving here." She pointed at the terrain screen. "They're moving methodically, in a pattern. That indicates some level of intelligence."

Dr. Johnson stood up, tapping at her device at the same time. "Keep an eye on things. I'm going to see about arranging a meeting with the security council. They prefer to discuss the urgent things in person, and I'd count this as urgent. I can show them what's on the terrain map so far."

Devon frowned. "Those things can't have the ability to jump or climb. They can't get over the defence perimeter."

"We don't know how they change locations," Dr. Johnson reminded him. She headed for the door.

a to z: history

What gets remembered? What gets recorded?

The people who first colonised Gaia would have said, "everything", and they would have meant it. Their entire community had been recorded for generations. Even before they left Earth, the initial crew of the ship had been recorded giving eligibility interviews, recorded performing tasks needed on the voyage, recorded teaching others so they could pass the skills on to the next generation. There are thousands and thousands of hours for each person. The colony ship's storage cubes weren't even half full when the arrival happened, so important was recording to the colonists.

That's just the audio/visual/text entries. There's also all the measuring: the routine blood samples, the ID swipe required to gain access to any toilet so that the computer could note how much of what passed, and when. All food had to be checked out personally on a per-meal basis for anyone who wasn't a nursing infant — and their meals were measured too, either in time spent nursing or volume of formula consumed. Sleep was tracked. Insomnia was tracked. The amount of time spent at physical activity, spent reading books, spent watching or listening to tellycasts was tracked.

But it doesn't take too much reflection to realise how much was not recorded. There are no recordings of anyone's first kiss. There's no good way to know how often people would order different meals and then share them amongst two or more people — a common social practice impossible to disallow, no matter how much it annoyed the medical officers by distorting the numbers.

History, like cartography, must be filtered by its nature. Just as one cannot replicate a coastline down to the last pebble, one cannot record absolutely everything about even a single person's life, never mind the lives of hundreds.

That leads to the second problem: a filter distorts. Even making things sharper or more to-the-point is a distortion. And sometimes important details get thrown away as noise or mess.

Thus the idea behind Gaia 8: A People's History. The hope is that by letting all the messiness hang out, so to speak, but presenting these little snippets, people can learn more about the history of the colony and and the voyage that led to it.

The Gaia colony celebrates its 1,000th anniversary next year. There will be celebrations, but also reflection, and political decisions. All the more reason to look back — so that we know which way to move forward.

a to z: generation ships

Earth Colony Ship 8 didn't completely shut down for years after the arrival on Gaia. It served as a machine shop, factory, laboratory, and community media hub long after the colonists had settled a village around it.

Most notably, it served as their communications array until they could mine enough ore and gather enough resources to build a planet-side one.

After Captain Sorensen's discovery of the mysterious text-based message, they'd switched to reception only for interstellar-strength messages. There had been some initial worry over "them” finding the colony. Eventually that waned, to be replaced by a new worry: that they were the only ship that had arrived safely.

There were a few different lines of thought about the warning message. There was a conspiracy theory that malevolent forces had sent the message, but this was largely dismissed. Many simply took it at its word. Some worried that “they” had found more than one ship.

Thirty-five years after arrival, the interstellar comm array was one of the few things left on the ship still being put to practical use. Several of the decks had been converted into a museum. The bridge wasn't checked at all unless an alarm went off.

And then the message reception alarm did go off, twice, within a few weeks.

Unlike the earlier message, these had both audio and text attached to them. The first was from Ship 3. They'd arrived, but their target planet was swampy, overheated, and had far too much methane in the atmosphere to allow human life to thrive. The message ended with a note saying the crew intended to try to terraform a nearby moon with a thin atmosphere, but they didn't sound optimistic.

The second message came from Ship 9, and was nearly unintelligible, because the man leaving it was sobbing. Somehow the ship’s sensors had missed a piece of debris coming at it. The hull was breached, and enough of the main engineering area destroyed that the ship was disabled. Life support and the comm array were the only two systems permitted power;  when they ran out of energy, everyone on board the ship would die.

Had died. It had taken years for the message to reach Gaia.

After much debate, a short acknowledgment message was sent to Ship 3, deliberately worded so it could be plausibly misconstrued as an automatic message, as opposed to proof of life. No response ever came back.

The Gaians slowly realised that while they may not be alone in the universe, they were probably the only living humans.

a to z: food

Most of the occupants of Earth Colony Ship 8 spent the final descent to the Gaian surface pressed up against the portholes, getting their first glimpse of a planet, any planet, up-close for the first time.

Declan Oliver spent it staring at a tomato plant.

The colony ship’s artificial gravity worked to balance out the rate of deceleration, the increasing pull of Gaia’s natural gravity, and the atmospheric friction, but there were fluctuations where the compensations ran slightly behind the data. Declan could feel his own body getting pulled towards the floor, or the slight floaty feeling when his bottom was only just in contact with the bench he was sitting on. The tomato plant's fronds reacted in kind, dropping towards the soil or reaching towards the ceiling, like it was doing a very slow ballet specially choreographed for members of the plant kingdom.

A dull roar that Declan felt more than heard announced that the retro rockets were fully engaged. He checked the watering can set on the floor between him and the garden pod. The water’s surface remained level, which most likely meant all the rockets had fired and that the ship would be able to land on its feet.

He made a mental note to empty and stow the watering can before the post-landing inspectors came around. All loose items were supposed to be secured, but he'd wanted to have some idea of what was going on while he observed his plants.

The downward force was building up. The tomato’s fronds were nearly parallel with its main stalk. Declan felt like he was rooted to the bench.

And then, just when it felt like something was wrong and it would never stop, it did. Completely. He let his ears ring in the new silence. He'd never realised how much he'd taken the growl of the great engines for granted. His skin felt strange, and he realised he'd been vibrating, however slightly, his whole life.

In a few days he'd have to add air, water, and soil analysis to his regular gardening tasks, figuring out how much work it would be to coax the vegetables into growing in Gaian soil. The initial scans from orbit had been promising — nothing a little compost and manure couldn't fix — but he and everyone else on his team wanted to check things out in person before starting any experiments. In the meantime, the solar panels on the ship's surface would be deployed, converting Gaian sunshine into something more closely adhering to conditions on Earth.

The conditions that used to be on Earth, anyhow.

The tomato plants had gone through many more generations on the ship than the humans had. A big concern in the agricultural team was that the plants had adapted a little too well to the ship's garden ecosystem, that they'd be reluctant to grow in open air again.

Declan eased himself off the bench and carefully observed the tomato plant from as many angles he could manage without touching it or the soil it stood in. He grimaced. Plants preferred to move themselves slowly, if they had to at all. The next few days would tell him and his team how resilient they were to the shock of the landing process.

“Whole new garden out there,” he said to the plant. He picked up the watering can and made his way to the sink.

a to z: earth

Sometimes they would climb to the top of a building that was still mostly standing, just to enjoy the view. Those were good days. It meant the weather was clear, that the hunt had been successful the day before, that there were enough people at the encampment to take care of everyone who was sick and more besides.

They would stand on the ruins, still populated with ancient office furniture no-one had bothered to scavenge yet, and look south to the large lakes glittering below in the sunlight.

She was the first one to notice the old shoreline, maybe the third or fourth time they climbed the cement staircase. "The three lakes," she said. "They used to be one great lake. Look." She pointed out the edges with her finger.

"It doesn't matter now," he said.

"Of course not," she said, tucking her hand under his arm. An act of contrition. It was against their ways to piece together the past. In their grandparent's day, anyone trying to "avoid living in the now" would have been stoned to death.

"Those hills," he pointed out a series of high grounds forming a crescent shape between them and the home camp, "I'd like to hunt there tomorrow."

Those used to be islands, she thought. She praised his hunting prowess and agreed they would be worth the effort to climb.

"Perhaps we should return to the encampment now and rest," she said. "So you will have lots of energy for hunting tomorrow."

"Perhaps," he said, but he pressed her arm against his ribs, and she knew he would want to have sex first.

They went to the hills at dawn the next day. He walked ahead with the weapons; she walked behind with the rest of the gear.

He was pleased to find there were even more trees than had been apparent at a distance, and more pasture too, but they found only small animals living there: mostly cats and chickens. He thought he spotted a rabbit just before it went into the bushes, but they were too far away to tell.

They only caught one chicken. Chickens were prized, but didn't have the prestige of bagging a deer or a horse.

She could tell he was working himself into a bad mood over the hunt, and suggested they explore the catacombs in the old city for a change.

The people of the encampment called them "catacombs" because they were underground and stacked with old skeletons, but it was clear that wasn't their original purpose. There were brightly-coloured hangings with markings on them, similar to what they found in the carefully stacked and bound papers. And below the hangings... she thought it looked like it was for medical aid, or even food preparation. Nothing she could mention out loud of course.

The flesh had rotted from the skeletons long ago, but sometimes bits of the clothing remained. Some of it looked like it had once been brightly coloured, like the hangings, and made of similar stuff — that weird crumbling not-glass not-stone found throughout ancient ruins.

They'd walked farther than the sunlight could penetrate. Some of the ancient material was shiny and reflected light further inside, but it was too dark to make anything.

"We should turn back," he said. "If there's anything worth eating in here, it will just be rats or raccoons, and who knows what they've been feeding on."

"Wait," she said. "There's more light up ahead. See it?"

"Well of course I see it," he said. "I just mean there's no hunting in here." He sighed. "Stay behind me."

As they moved closer, it became clear the light wasn't the pale gold of the sunlight outside, but a blue-white brightness, stronger than the daylight.

They walked into an atrium surrounded by raised pods filled with dead vegetation. The blue-white light seemed to come from high above, even though when they looked up they couldn't see the sun.

And in the centre of the floor there was a panel, also lit up, surrounded by that yellowing not-glass.

The same types of markings appears on the panel as were on the hangings, as were on the papers. But the panel was making noise, too.

"It's connected to one of those black energy panels," he said. "Old magic. We should leave."

"Wait," she said. "Is it saying something?"

"Live in the now," he growled.

"This is happening now," she said. "Listen."

It was hard to make out, the pronunciation was so odd, but she was right, it was saying something.

"Earth Colony Ship 8, reporting successful landing on Gaia. Atmosphere, water sources, temperature range all compatible. I repeat, all compatible. Ship 8 reporting arrival, safe and sound."

"So strange," she breathed.

"We leave now, or I'm telling the elders," he said.

She blinked, nodded, and followed him back down the way they'd come.

The panel repeated its message.

a to z: drift

Earth Colony Ship 4 was supposed to arrive at its new world in about twelve lifetimes. Accounting for inertial drift, getting knocked off-course by space debris, and whatever the event was, the investigators figure it got about two-thirds of the way there.

The robot probes from Gaia-8 nearly missed it, because the majority of their scans were for lifeforms, or at least carbon masses that used to be lifeforms. Colony Ship 4 has none. Not so much as a carrot stick forgotten at the bottom of a food storage unit. No humans, no livestock, no pets, no garden plants, nothing. Every last scrap of organic material has been stripped. Even items like leather shoes and cotton clothes are missing.

What's not missing is evidence. There's plenty of that. The robots were able to sample enough to confirm several things. The stains found all over the bridge, engineering, and the arboretum? The rumours are true. It's from human blood. Whatever happened, it was violent.

The story about the DNA catalogue is true as well. There's one signature that doesn't match any known species, and no-one's been able to piece out what organism owns the genes because... they're not quite genes, and the sequence isn't quite DNA. It doesn't match the genome structures of local life on Gaia 8 either.

As absolute as the removal of all organics was, the ship itself was left completely intact. Those spooky shots of Ship 4 drifting in space with all the interior lights on are not from a special effects rig. One of the robots took video of a bathroom tap left on, water endlessly running, going down the drain, and filtering through the grey-water recycling, working perfectly. You'd expect a bloodstain to be nearby, but there's not. Instead the closest one is three hatchways down, inside a utility closet. As if the sound of the running water was meant as a decoy but ultimately failed.

Elsewhere, on the residential decks, the robots found music and video players still playing. Education screens stuck on quiz question #5. Plates with all the food removed, but still in cooker modules.

Back on the bridge, a sign that some of the crew at least had had time to react. The cover of the communications panel pulled off and discarded on the floor, several bootprints visible on it. The clear shielding set over the controls. And a single, text-only message, obviously composed with the understanding that no other colony ships would receive it until they reached the end of their own voyages and sent their arrival signal:

STOP TRANSMITTING NOW OR ELSE THEY'LL FIND YOU TOO

 

a to z: communication

"It's protocol." Captain Sorensen held up her comm device, but didn't break eye contact.

Jason tried one more time. "But won't it slow down setting up the shelters and the defence —"

"It's protocol, Ensign. We've got plenty of people to help with the other things. Worse comes to worst, the ship's the best fortress we have. There's not actually any rush on anything except for trying to contact the other ships."

"Yes Captain."

"I want to get on the surface as much as you do. But we need to make sure we tidy up here. Do things right. People will need structure more than ever right now." Captain Sorensen turned away and tapped at the screen of her device.

Jason turned to the communications control panel. It had been hidden under a cover for decades, not available for use while the great generation ship 8 voyaged through space. The engineers who had built the ship back on Earth — the ancestors of everyone now on the ship — had decided to make the room to include a powerful comm array, one capable of reaching the other nine ships in the colonisation fleet. Capable even of communicating with Earth, if there was anyone left on Earth to communicate with. But the array used a lot of power, far more power than a ship on a multi-generation, interstellar flight could spare.

The panel's cover had always been used as a table, a handy empty space in a crowded bridge. Now the cover was stowed in the captain's cabin for lack of anywhere else safe to put it.

Jason studied the buttons on the panel. Unlike any other set of controls on the ship, the labels on this one had never been replaced. He squinted at the unadorned, old-fashioned printing, and hoped he wouldn't miss out on any steps in the procedure.

There wasn't anywhere to set down his own device. He decided to hold it in one hand while he pushed buttons with the other. Maybe it would help him be more accurate.

He verified the status of the ship's solar panels on the device, and the power availability. The checklist put the information right beside the procedure description, so at least he didn't need to do anything there.

The next step was to press a series of buttons to open the port that protected the dish array, and deploy the dishes. Normally it was the sort of thing that would be automated and fully under the control of the ship's computer, but the engineers had decided that since the comm array would sit dormant for over a hundred years, it made sense for a human to walk the machinery through, one step at a time. That way, if anything wrong happened, it would be easier to abort the procedure and call in a repair team. When they were finally available, thought Jason.

The parts involved had been checked during the post-landing ship inspection, but they moved slowly, stiffly. Jason remembered something from his training, something about how they'd been designed that way in case the atmosphere was denser than expected. Of course, if it were too dense he'd have been sending a distress call — which, unless at least one of the other colonies were very well settled, which never reach the Gaia 8 colonists in time.

Jason stared out the porthole over the comm panel while he waited for each step to complete. His fellow colonists were walking around in the pale red light of early evening. He was too high up in the ship to be able to see their expressions, but every once in a while a few of them would run for a few steps, or dance. He reminded himself he would be doing the same soon enough and pressed the next set of buttons in the sequence.

Finally. The array was powered up and arranged to transmit to Earth and the calculated locations of the rest of the fleet. He dialled through the selection of pre-recorded messages and chose the "arrived safely" one. He pressed the "send on repeat" button and turned on the alert for responses.

The comm panel had a second cover, a clear one that protected the controls from being pressed accidentally, but which let bridge crew see the settings and the status of the array. Jason set it down carefully and locked it with his palm print.

The Captain was on the other side of the bridge, double-checking the navigation controls were powered down correctly. She glanced up as Jason approached her. "All done?"

Jason nodded. "According to the controls everything is working and we're transmitting."

"Good." She indicated the forward viewport with her head. "Now get out there and enjoy the last of the sunshine. We'll have to lock down for the night soon."

Jason smiled, thanked her, and left the bridge. Sorensen could hear him running down the corridor towards the entrance ramp.

She walked over to the comm station. They wouldn't be expecting any responses for weeks, but given Jason's impatience she didn't think a little double-checking was out of order.

The response alert light was already blinking. She sighed. He must have missed something in the checklist. Probably the ship had responded to itself.

To her surprise the message was text-only, not the text-and-sound default. Frowning, she palmed off the lock and lifted the protective cover, then pressed the button which sent the received message to the nearest display screen.

STOP TRANSMITTING NOW OR ELSE THEY'LL FIND YOU TOO

 

 

 

a to z: beasts

When Aïsha was eleven and her brother Roger was eight, they decided they were going to capture a snicker and make it a pet. Snickers were the cat-sized, flying mammal-type species that nested near Gaia's human habitat. They nested in triples — a male, a female, and a third sex the scientists were still arguing over — and they lived on the rodent-sized, reptile-type creatures found all over Gaia. Even though they were a common species, they were wary of any creatures not of their kind, including humans, and tended to scatter if they saw anything approaching. Zoologists spent a lot of time trying to come up with a blind, or even a photography drone, that wouldn't scare them away.

Aïsha and Roger didn't care about zoology. They just wanted a snicker as a pet.

To that end, they'd come up with a way to get past the perimeter gate, decided on which gear they'd need to borrow from their parents' shed to catch and hold a snicker, and plied the communal knowledge base's search engine with questions about what snickers ate, and what they liked to sleep on.

They'd also manufactured a story about how they were researching snickers for school in case their parents asked about their search histories, but since studying snickers didn't set off any of the content control alarms, their parents never asked.

Even though the nearest snicker habitat — a marsh with several nesting triples — was to the north of the human settlement, Aïsha led Roger to the southwestern gate. There was an apple orchard near the gate, and they took photos of the trees for a few minutes.

"Mama will like the pictures of apple blossoms for her calendar screen," said Aïsha. From a distance the position of her head made it look like she was addressing Roger, but she was watching the gate scanner. "Let's go home."

"Okay!" said Roger, and he ran towards Aïsha. He pretended to trip on a tree root that wasn't there, went sprawling, and burst into tears, clutching his shin and screaming.

"Are you okay?" The scanner's blue lens stopped sweeping the area in front of the gate and angled itself in Roger's direction, trying to get a visual.

"Call a medbot!" said Aïsha. "I'm not big enough to carry him to an infirmary!"

"Just a moment," said the scanner, and its lens receded into the wall.

Aïsha helped Roger up, and they ran to the wall beside the gate. As the scanner extended from the wall again to resume gate checks, they slipped into the doorway and through the gate, behind the scanner's line of sight.

"You were telly good at that," said Aïsha. "You even scared me."

"It's nothing," said Roger, but he held his head a little straighter as he ran to catch up with his sister. "I just copy the footballers on those old videos Mum likes to watch."

They ran along the path the zoologists and botanists had established for their work. Every once in a while, a lizard-mouse would scurry across the path in front of them. On either side were tall grasses, pale pink as they lost their chlorophyll for the winter. There were giant land anemones within sight too, rooted things that swatted flying creatures out of the air and stuffed them into their open-topped trunks for digestion, but they were too far away from the path to be dangerous.

Roger froze and stared as a land anemone swiped at a particularly large salamander bat and expertly knocked it into its feeding orifice. "We should go home through the next gate."

"We'll get in trouble if we do that. There's a plan, remember?"

The salamander bat raised a paw, one wing, and its head from the anemone. The anemone shoved it down again, and the trunk undulated as it swallowed.

"Come on, Roger." Roger ran on, checking for anemones and moving to the opposite side of the path when they were parallel to one.

They reached the marsh where the snickers liked to nest. Aïsha stopped several metres away, gesturing for Roger to stay behind her. She pulled a mesh bag out of her backpack, and picked up a rock from the edge of the path. She crawled forward slowly, doing a fair imitation of their neighbour's cat when it was stalking something.

Two metres before she reached the edge of the marsh, the snickers rose in a swarm, all of them making the clicking sound that had given them their common name. Aïsha ran in a crouch, threw the mesh bag over something Roger couldn't see, then stood up and walked back to him. She held up the bag.

It had a baby snicker in it.

The snicker was struggling in the bag, making a noise like an incomplete version of its parents' call. "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-"

The snicker flock descended on them, a tornado of brown spiny flight hairs, claws, and sharp teeth. Aïsha screamed and dropped the bag, holding up her arms to protect her face. Roger fell to the ground and curled up, nose pressed into the dirt, forearms boxed around his ears.

It felt like it was going on forever, when Roger heard shouting through his slashed-at ears. The snickers stopped attacking, but he didn't get up. He heard more shouts, and, closer, the sound of his sister whimpering.

"What are you two doing out here?" A warm hand pressed onto his bleeding shoulder, and Roger peeped up to see Dr. Johnson from the university peering down at him.

Roger stared at the zoologist's face, then sat up. A man he didn't recognise was leaning over Aïsha. "This one says they wanted a pet snicker," he said to Dr. Johnson. He sighed. "I'm guessing your family has no idea you're past the gates, right?"

"You're lucky you tripped one of the outward-facing scanners," said the zoologist. She helped Roger up. "Mostly they're just to keep watch on the land anemones."

"But they're rooted," said Aïsha, A tear rolled down her cheek and dropped onto her dress, blurring the red dirt stained onto it by the path.

"They move sometimes," said Dr. Johnson, "Part of the work is to condition them to stay away from us." She noticed the baby snicker, which lay still in the mesh bag. "That poor little thing. I guess we should take it back to the lab, Devon."

Devon knelt down and scooped up the snicker in both hands. "It's breathing," he said. "It looks like it got attacked by the flock, but it's still alive, at least for now."

Aïsha started sobbing.

"Get it to a vet then," said Dr. Johnson. "I don't think we'll be able to return it to the wild, but maybe it can have a halfway decent life in captivity." She reached out and pulled Aïsha to her. "I'll take these two home to their parents."

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."