Today's Reading

Su-shun vomits. I'm surprised there's anything in his stomach to bring up. A mixture of sick and bile floats through the cabin. Not only is it an awful greenish yellow, it smells like a dead rat hidden in a wall cavity. I gag. It's all I can do not to join him.

Wen is my hero. I'm in no state to deal with this, but there are no theatrics from her. She grabs a plastic bag and a bunch of paper towels and sets to work corralling the mess as it drifts through the cabin.

"Easy," I say, floating over beside Su-shun as he buries his face in a sick bag, still dry-heaving. I rub his back.

Weightlessness is not natural. On TV it looks like fun. And sometimes it is, but being in space is a bit like sailing on rough seas. The first few days of any voyage are horrible. Vertigo is common. You'd swear the cabin is swirling around you when it's entirely stationary. The inner ear works well enough on Earth, but in space it gets lost even while moving in a straight line. Turn your head, and your ear forgets to stop turning. Being caught in the driving squalls of an Atlantic winter storm and leaning over the rails is fun by comparison.

I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. Dark bags droop beneath my eyes. My face is puffy. My hair looks like something from The Bride of Frankenstein. Thick, long strands branch out from my skull like an afro, highlighting my ghostly white face. I need to find a hair tie before I scare someone to death.

"Breathe," I say to Su-shun. "Deep breaths." Like he really needs to hear that, like he hasn't thought of that himself, like he doesn't know. Being sick in space has nothing to do with mental resolve or physique. The toughest of astronauts will bring up their breakfast. Nausea sneaks up on the best of us.

"Antiemetic?" Wen asks, floating over to join us.

"No. I'm fine." Su-shun tries to smile. Liar. Neither Wen nor I are fine, and Su-shun looks slightly green. It usually takes about a day to recover from transit, but we'll be back on Earth before then.

If all stays nominal.

Wen adjusts her microphone. "Houston, this is Herschel. Where are we?"

Where is a relative term in orbit. We're racing around the planet at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. Blink and we've covered eight or nine kilometers, over five miles. It's an insane speed, and one that makes absolutely no sense on Earth. That's like a plane flying from New York to L.A. in eight minutes.

"Herschel, perigee is 480 kilometers. Apogee is just over 700. Your orbital speed is 27,000 kph, with an orbit period of 96 minutes. Your current inclination is 37 degrees."

Pretty meaningless stuff to a rock monkey like me. Give me a fossilized microbial mat and I'll give you its age to the nearest hundred million years, but orbits are beyond me. I know enough to realize that a big difference between perigee and apogee isn't all that good. Essentially, it's like someone working a hula hoop over their hips with a wild swinging motion, really throwing themselves into it. Perigee is our closest point to Earth, while apogee is furthest away. Ideally, they should be nice and close, like 480 to 490, almost circular—a rather tame hula-hoop action. We'll need a couple of burns to bring down our orbit before we can go through reentry.

At an hour and a half per orbit, that's probably the best part of a day before we're ready to land. The inclination sounds good, though. We'll get some amazing views of Earth as we roll around most of it over the next few orbits.

If the clouds lift, it'll even be pretty.

This excerpt ends on page 12 of the hardcover edition.


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