2249 words (8 minute read)

Final Approach


After releasing Dirk’s body, and repairing Janusia for a second time, Mat had performed his usual inspection of the navigational stars to determine his position. Janusia had warmed him out of cryo as intended, when the ship had reached the ordered coordinates. He confirmed he was in Cerulea’s planetary system, but by the small appearance of the system’s star, he could tell he still had some distance to go. Close by, he had identified two planets. He had actually seen them before, through the powerful space telescopes back home. The one with the beautiful rings was the sixth planet from the star. The largest one was the fifth from the star. He had found himself to be somewhere between those planets, but had not been able to quite see Cerulea at that point, assuming the planet was in its orbit on the far side of the star. He made a decision at that time to head directly towards the star, to hopefully intercept Cerulea as it circled around it.

It was now months since he had been awakened from cryo. For most of this time, he was unable to appreciate any progress by looking at the distant stars. He was traveling as fast as the tiny positional engines allowed, but 3D speed was miserably slow compared to 4D. “I only know I’m moving when I see the planets,” he said out loud. He had grown accustomed to speaking to himself, even arguing with himself, and having full conversations. Anything to keep from going insane in the solitary confinement inside the shell of Janusia. Why had he ever been concerned about having a relationship with a machine? How he missed her now. The silence and the loneliness were almost unbearable.

Janusia was not dead, he had realized. When he sat in what was once Maah’s chair, lights were turned on for his convenience, and turned off when he stepped away, and the heater would turn on for short periods of time if he was freezing. At times when Mat was feeling particularly despondent, a brief flurry of lights and sounds from Janusia would surprise him and actually cheer him up a little. No, Janusia was not dead, but she was clearly injured. Her communication was almost non-existent, and Mat had been unable to repair her.

When Mat sat in Maah’s chair, he could give Janusia a simple command, and she sometimes executed it, sometimes not. When Mat sat in any other part of the ship, Janusia would never respond to any of his commands. Mat realized Janusia’s awareness of the ship was spotty and limited.

But he could not always stay in Maah’s old chair. Maah’s screen was a casualty of the fractured bolts, irreparably damaged. Mat had to sit in his own chair to manage the systems to which he still had access, and Janusia could not help him there.

Now finally, after a long year in uncomfortable, solitary confinement, the fourth planet from the star came into close view. He knew this reddish planet was still too cold to easily harbor life. That would not be the case for the next planet, his destination! Looking out a different window, he could see the star’s light reflecting brightly off Cerulea. It appeared larger than on that glorious day he first saw it peeking around the star. Cerulea was believed to be in the same warm zone as his own planet. With each passing day as he approached Cerulea, he became more anxious about that known fact. “After all this, it better be as warm as we think. It better have water. It better have life, or my own life has been for nothing!”

Mat spent hours and days looking at the beautiful blue orb, imagining what else he might observe as he drew nearer. “The legendary Cerulea!” Mat’s face broke into smiles of true joy every time he saw it, but his joy mixed with a strong anxiety as he wondered if he could possibly make a landing in such a damaged ship. He eyed the gauges and worried about his dwindling fuel supply. “Damn you,” he said to the cold, dead main engines. “I need you now.” He thought about the three small positional engines, the only ones that remained functional. “It’s just you and me now,” he said to these inanimate objects that propelled Janusia, and that could maybe slow her down during descent.

As he finally, at long last, approached Cerulea, Mat felt sluggish. He was moving very slowly. He was weak and hungry, trying to stretch his dwindling food supply. He shivered in Janusia’s cold cabin, keeping the heaters off most of the time to preserve as much fuel as possible. “This is why I saved you,” he said to the fuel, with his tired eyes fixed on Cerulea.

He used a minimum of fuel to thrust Janusia into a path to intercept Cerulea in its orbit around the star. He made his calculations by hand, as the ship’s navigational computers were dead. It was easier to do the calculations now, as Cerulea was becoming visibly larger with each passing day. He refigured his calculations time and time again, anxious to get it right. “Let’s do this Janusia. My life depends on it, you know.”

Janusia was vaguely aware of Mat’s written calculations, with fewer than half of her cameras partially functional. At times she caught glimpses of his work. She was slightly more aware of her position in space, and of nearby objects. She was keenly aware of Cerulea, and still held to her main mission objectives which included establishing an orbit and landing. Now that she saw Mat’s calculations, Janusia became agitated and alarmed. They were not right!

As Janusia drew nearer to Cerulea, she could more accurately measure planetary and atmospheric conditions. Mat would be very pleased that the atmosphere was completely compatible with his physiology. But Cerulea itself was much more massive than what had been predicted from Torkiya, 50 light-years away. Cerulea’s gravitational pull would be much stronger. Mat was not taking that into account!

Janusia tried desperately to message Mat with an irregular series of lights and dystonic sounds. “Now what!?” Mat said. “Janusia, you are really cracking up!” Mat manually turned off the lights and sounds.

Now he was almost there! This past year had seemed interminably long. Progress had been so difficult to judge. But now Cerulea seemed to be fast approaching, even traveling at a slow, conventional speed. Against all odds he was finally arriving at his planned destination. “Cerulea, here I am,” he announced. “A frakking miracle, and nobody to witness it.” He was too tired to generate the enthusiasm this moment deserved.

On final approach, he ever-so-gently tweaked the positional engines, using as little of the precious remaining fuel as possible to achieve his first stable orbit around this alien world. He sat back in awe and wonder as views of the planet came and went through the window of the spinning ship. He stopped to consider his whirl of emotions, which to his surprise were mostly morose. ”Historic," he thought, sarcastic and miserable in his loneliness. “Dirk would have loved this.”

Despite the obvious beauty of the planet below him, Mat was overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and loss. “What’s the point if there is no one to share this with?” He cringed at the sudden memory of loosening the ties to release Dirk’s dried-up body into the darkness.

He was haunted by the memory of seeing Dirk and the others disappear silently into space. He remembered saying some ceremonial words that seemed important at the time. Mat realized now that at his own death no one would be left to say any words and to see him off. "Damn Dirk." He sighed. "Damn cheap-ass cryo beds." They hadn’t noticed the micro-cracks when they sealed themselves in that last time. The cryo fluid had leaked out. By mere chance, only Mat’s remained intact. His crew had died ages ago. “They should be here with me right now.” Mat wiped the tear meandering down his face.

He broke himself from his depressive reverie because now, at long last, here he was, floating just a few hundred miles over the legendary planet so very far away from his own. The time had come. Mat sent another “final” report to mission control, knowing the light speed radio message would now take about 50 years to be received, that is if the communications system still worked at all. “Goodbye, Torkiya,” he said, with a final salute to his old home planet, as he turned his attention completely to the job at hand. “Hello, Cerulea.”

He allowed Janusia to make several orbits around the planet, taking careful note of the lay of the land and the blue water. He was specifically looking for a place to land, imagining landing at a much faster speed than he would prefer. Thinking about the small positional engines, he said, “You can’t slow me down enough for a true landing. It will have to be in the water.”

“Large body of land, small body of water. Small body of land, large body of water.” He memorized the pattern with each passing orbit. He targeted a landing in the middle of the largest body of water. Now it was just a matter of executing it. “Yeah, right. Simple,” he said sarcastically, but now his training was starting to kick in. He had a series of maneuvers to perform and his mind started going through the preparatory routines to deorbit, descend and land. “You can do it!” he encouraged himself.

Slowly and weakly he worked the damaged controls. Truly, there was no choice. He was almost out of food. The ship was dark and cold, nearly out of fuel. He and the ship were dying. "If I’m going to die, I want to die down there," he said, looking down at Cerulea, the beautiful blue alien planet.

He calculated the exact point at which to start the process. He oriented the ship to take maximum advantage of his small positional engines and started a long burn to slow way down. When he could feel the ship starting to descend, he stopped the burn. He now oriented the engines so they could slow down the growing acceleration of descent. And shortly after that, he realized he had made a crucial miscalculation. “Janusia, what are you doing!? You’re dropping way too fast!”

With no way of knowing, Mat’s mistake had been made many times before, by the others who had come before him. Cerulea’s mass, and the gravitational pull that went along with it, were much greater than those of his own planet, so he was accelerating to the land much faster than expected. “Little engines, do your best!” he implored. He slammed the lever down to burn the engines at full throttle, trying his best to slow his rate of descent.

About half-way down, he felt the effect of the planet’s atmosphere. “Good that there is an atmosphere this high up,” he thought. “Bad that it’s heating things up so soon!” He could see Janusia’s forward hull starting to glow red hot. He briefly thought of his Father, and the family holograms. “Mat to mission control, I’m coming in hot!”

Mat then tried a series of long S-shaped curves in an effort to shed more speed. He was flying by feel. He was re-energized now, with the high stress of an extremely dangerous descent and landing. There was no time for fear. He was at full attention, trying his best to maybe survive. Then, as he looked out the windows to check his position, he was blinded by a sudden bright light. The ship had burst into flames. “Oh nooo!” He screamed.

The inside of the ship grew hotter and hotter as his descent speed continued to increase. Between the flames, he could see the rapidly approaching land. He realized with a panic, “I’m not going to reach the water at all!” He was falling to ground at an alarming rate.

Mat tried the best he could to flatten out the steep trajectory. Janusia tried to respond, but it was in vain. He was going to crash. Mat could now see the shapes and contour of the terrain as he flew by at an incredible speed. “This is it,” he thought. “It’s all over.”

In the final moments of Janusia’s flight, he could see a mountain range in the distance ahead. He hoped he could clear the highest peak, or at least fly between the highest ridges, to the flatter land that lay further ahead.

At the very last moment, Mat knew he would not clear the mountain. By instinct, he crossed his arms in front of his face and turned away in a protective gesture, preparing for impact.

The mountaintop and Janusia exploded into a million pieces.

👽

Shortly after the final moments of Mat’s historic voyage, someone in Texas reported seeing a flash of light streak across the sky. Several people in New Mexico and Arizona saw a similar flash, or heard a whooshing rumble.

The bleary-eyed people in the Las Vegas casinos were mostly oblivious. At a Blackjack table, a man thought he maybe felt a brief jolt. “What was that?” he asked, though no one cared to respond. He shrugged his shoulders and pointed to his cards, ordering the dealer to “Hit me again.”


Next Chapter: The Crash