The door leads out to the hallway.
The computer has a comprehensive library of movies, music, books and games. They have been just about the only available entertainment on the Magellan.
Kevin is my cousin. We were born a month apart, but he was born on Earth and I was born on board the Magellan millions of kilometers away. He has never been in space before.
We live on a different day rhythm so it would already be way past midnight at his home. That and my neverending questions about Earth have tired him up, so I let him sleep on my bed.
Kevin wanted to try the zero-g bed. It has a mattress and a blanket that's attached to both of the long sides which keeps you in place. My dad has told stories how he found it almost impossible to sleep in one for the first few nights, but Kevin fell asleep instantly.
It does seem very limiting that on Earth you can't just go wherever you want if there's something blocking your path. You are bound to a single direction. You can only use a single side of a room effectively, whereas here you can – and must – use every available surface to your advantage.
There was a time when I considered gravity my nemesis that kept me from going home. Then I came to realize how insane it is to hate a force of nature and directed my energy to more tangible things.
I push myself to speed and enter the hallway.
The door leads back out to the hallway.
The sick bay is Doctor Strepke's kingdom. I have no business there now, so I just stay where I am.
Dr. Strepke says my body's immune system hasn't been accustomed to Earth's bacteria and viruses. If I went down there I'd contact 'every disease known and unknown to man'. I would have to wear an airtight protective suit all the time.
'Mother Earth is much like the human body,' Dr. Strepke once said. 'It does everything in its power to protect what belongs there – and fights with all its fury against anything that doesn't.'
Needless to say I have done my best to avoid Dr. Strepke since then.
Nothing you do in weightlessness really requires any strength, so the crew of Magellan use the exercise equipment to keep their muscles from deteriorating. In addition to all the gym gadgets there's a full-body mirror.
The door leads back out to the hallway.
Mom was pregnant when we left for Epsilon Eridani. I was born when we were already far away from Earth. The Magellan has been my home and my prison ever since.
The best thing about the Epsilon Eridani system was that it was at least something new. Other than that, just some rocks and gas planets.
I have to train as well. Twice as much as the others. I use the standard equipment and the walking trainer. People living on Earth are lucky enough to have gravity train their muscles automatically. I need to exercise actively to get any kind of muscle mass.
It's of not much use, though. There is no training equipment for the heart muscle.
I have never learned to walk the natural way. Or even actually walked. There's no need for it aboard the Magellan. You just float to wherever you want to go.
The walking trainer is a treadmill that has a harness attached to vertical bars with elastic exercise bands. The bands pull you towards the treadmill, simulating gravity. Mom made me practice every day when I was younger. If I can never go to Earth anyway, why bother?
On Earth your heart has to fight against the gravity to keep blood flowing inside your body. In space it doesn't need to work nearly as hard. If you grow up in weightlessness the heart doesn't get the exercise and never grows very strong.
They say my heart would fail if I ever went to Earth, but they are wrong. My heart will break if I never get home.
The mirror is used to teach me how to walk properly. They make me look at myself while I fumble on the treadmill.[?if passport_taken ?]
Now that I look at myself, I do look a lot like Kevin.[?if.?]
Kevin wanted to try the exercise equipment and took the jacket off. It's an Earth jacket and doesn't have the magnetic strips that would keep it in place, so it's floating freely around the room.[?do passport_found = true; ?] [?if !passport_taken ?]
A passport is sticking out the front pocket.[?if.?]
I'm carrying with me Kevin's passport. It has a picture of him and his personal information on it.
They say I and Kevin look very much alike. Maybe there's something to it.[?else?]
Looks like the card is Kevin's passport. I pull it out from the pocket and take it with me.[?do passport_taken = true; ?] [?if.?]
The people who inhabit the Foucault pass me by as they go about their daily chores. The shuttle port is near the docking port that connects the starship to the space station. I could also go to the observatory.
Never before have I met a person I wouldn't have known for my entire life. Returning to Earth and meeting these new people was hard – I haven't had any practice for such situations. I still find myself shying away from social interaction with strangers.
Ever since we returned and docked to the Foucault, this has been the place I've spent most of my time. A round window several meters wide shows a magnificent view of the Earth as the station revolves around it.
The exit leads to the docking station.
I go back to the Magellan.
The Foucault Space Station is the largest of Earth-orbiting space stations. The Magellan has been docked into it since we returned two weeks ago.
There are people everywhere in the Foucault but they barely even glance at the Earth as they go by. I've seen people on their first visit up here to spend a few minutes looking at it, but the regular staff doesn't even come here unless they have to pass by to get to somewhere else. Do they really not see its beauty? Or is it possible for it to lose its wonderfulness over time? I find the idea impossible to grasp.
The Earth. The shadow of the Sun is passing by Europe and Africa. Clouds are gathering over Asia, the Indian Ocean glitters in blue. It is an awe-inspiring view, one that reveals new details every time you look at it.
It's a completely different world on the ground, of course. I've seen enough movies and videos to know that. If looking at it from a thousand kilometers away is like this, what would it be like on the ground?
I remember dad telling how complicated shuttle travel used to be before they left Earth. You'd have to go through several stages of health and security checks to make sure nothing goes wrong. Now shuttle travel is so common all you need is to buy a ticket with your passport and you're all set.
I already have a ticket.[?elif passport_taken?]
The ticket machine sells tickets to shuttles back to Earth. There's a slot where you insert your passport and it deducts the price from your account and uploads the ticket information into the card. [?else?]
The ticket machine sells tickets to shuttles back to Earth. You need a passport to buy one.
I have never had a passport, and I will never get one. Since I can't go to Earth there's no need to have one.[?if.?]
I already have a ticket.[?else?]
I push the passport into the slot. The display indicates the purchase was successful and the machine pushes the card back out again and I take it.
I could now open the airlock and enter the waiting area. My hands start shaking and sweating.[?do have_ticket = true; ?] [?if.?]
I need a ticket to enter the waiting area.[?else?]
The airlock opens and I go through. I try to look as neutral as possible as the machines scan Kevin's passport. They let me through.
The shuttle takes off and starts its descent. Soon I feel something I've never experienced before: gravity pulling me downwards to my seat.
My heart is beating fast. I don't know if it's the excitement or if something is wrong. I start to feel increasing discomfort. The shuttle touches ground and I almost pass out.
I manage to stumble out of the shuttle into the open air – and a wonderful, magnificent view of the Earth opens before me. It is everything I could have hoped for and more. A breath of air caresses my being and the Sun's warmth feels so soft. Actual atmosphere is so much gentler than Magellan's artificial environment.
'Is everything allright, young man?' I hear someone ask. 'Yes,' I manage to whisper. It's hard to speak when you have to fight the pull of gravity with all the strength you have.
A woman behind me catches me as I fall. She sounds hysterical, she's calling for the medical personnel. I see her face and the blue sky behind her.
My vision fades but I can still hear the people around me. They are saying that my heart is failing, but they are wrong. I have never felt more alive. I am home.[?do clear_links(); ?] [?if.?]