Larry studied the gravity gauge. It said, ‘Today, gravity will be…’ and there was a light next to the current status. It read, ‘Very light. Bounce around wherever you like.’
He frowned, turned to his instructor. She was for all intents and purposes an old lady. At least ninety years old in appearance, she must have been somewhere between a hundred and three hundred standard years in reality. The old genofixes were not as good as the later ones, and not much could be done for the telomere damage if you insisted on keeping the same body. Yet, she looked plump and round, smiling wide. Her crow’s feet indicated that she smiled quite often.
“What does it say? I can’t read it without my glasses,” she said in a granny voice.
“It says ‘very light.'” Larry spoke a bit louder than normal.
“Oh, good.” She practically jumped and clicked her heels together, it was so weird seeing such an old body do that.
They were in the elevator, which was at the centre of the spinning station so it matched the planet’s actual gravity.
She pressed the panel and the main hatch slid open. Larry gasped with the view, the planet was bright and full of plants. They were weird and fluffy and orangey-pink in hue, but they were plants. “Whoa, what’s that?”
“That? Hm…” granny kicked the ground and jumped a good ten metres. Larry did the same, suppressing a ‘whee’ from his throat. “The flora and fauna of the planets have adapted to the shifting gravity. Those floraballs might be enormous but they’re so light, they float!” she said with a tiny giggle.
They were funny indeed. Larry looked up. They were enormous bouncy balls made of the local grass, floating, moving with the slight breeze, bouncing off each other. “This is really something…”
“Yes, indeed. That’s why I’m studying it, after all,” granny said, pressing her lips together. She walked on like she had no worries in the world.
Larry found it difficult to walk with such a low gravity. He thought he could get used to it at some point, but it was a strain on his back and joints, it was like doing pilates all the time, putting pressure on unfamiliar muscles. “But how is this possible? The shifting gravity, I mean?”
“Oh, I don’t quite understand orbital mechanics, but that one’s quite simple: The two planets,” she said, pointing up at the sky to the other planet that was so unbelievably close you thought you could jump up and touch it, “have irregular orbits. Their interactions in the gravity well sometimes counteracts each other, sometimes adds up to double the amount of gravity we’re experiencing and sometimes, most of the times, they’re somewhere in between. The ship calculates it and gives me a simple readout in the gravity gauge.”
“I see. So this is a good day? Like weather?”
“Oh, yes, it’s bright and sunny, the floraballs are bouncing around, it’s wonderful. Yes, it’s one of the good days to be taking a walk in the wilderness.”
“I have a question, are the two biomes connected?”
“The two planets? No,” she chuckled, “I don’t see how that would be possible. It looks close but there is hard vacuum inbetween.”
“We’ve seen cross-pollination before.”
“In asteroids. Or in moons, yes. This one would need escape velocity, exit the atmo, make it through space and then reenter the next atmo without burning up, then survive the fall. I don’t see how that would be possible,” she shook her head.
Larry opened his comm and requested the planetary system’s details from the ship in orbit. It was the ‘Digging the Gravity Well,’ and it was stationed here to study the numerous interactions of this unique equilibrium. The ship sent everything to his device, but there was far too much data to go through, he’d need to do it later when they were back at the spinning station.
They had a bit of fun jumping around. The place was really nice and unusual, and Larry got used to the weirdness quite fast. It was a necessary quality as a citizen of the Asterism. Things could and definitely did get weird all the time.
This was just a theme park ride compared to other habitats. They didn’t suppress their cries of joy, it was a natural bouncy castle and they were both children again for a fragile moment, enjoying the light gravity and the soft, grassy areas. Larry was curious, managed to get to one of the floraballs that was floating close by and jumped high enough to kick it. He expected a ‘boink’ sound, but of course it was more of a hollow wooden texture.
“Oh…” granny wheezed, tired from all the jumping around. “That’s enough for me. I’ll head back, you can stay a bit longer outside if you like, youngster.”
“It’s okay, I’ll need to study the materials I just got,” Larry said, raising his comm device.
“Fancy model. Is it new?” granny asked, pushing her fragile body back towards the station.
Larry kept pace. “No, it’s actually been around for quite some time.”
“Oh. Well, I’m a bit out of the loop. Always liked the new gadgets, but all the way out here, it’s hard to get anything new.”
Larry frowned. “Can’t Gravity Well manufacture them for you?”
Granny waved the comment away. “Oh, when you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s nice to gawk at shiny, new things, but you prefer to play with your old ones.”
Larry woke up. He felt heavy, which was an actual possibility in this place. Or, it was just the jet lag. This was an actual, very severe effect of space travel and most of it had been genofixed away from all citizens in the Asterism. In the worst circumstances, the citizen’s body would adapt in a few days, whereas other panhumans needed years or even generations. He pushed himself out of his bunk and blinked the sleep dust away, splashing some water. Heck, even the drops seemed to be trying to leave his face too fast.
He groaned, stretched his back that hurt from all the unused muscles that had been engaged the day before, and he checked the gravity gauge. It read, ‘Today, gravity will be… Noticeably strong. Don’t do much. Sit when you can.’
It wasn’t in his mind, then. He looked out the station, it was a dizzying effect. The station was basically tethered on the top of a space elevator, peeking out like a stick in the ground between the two planets. It was in the sweet spot where it could slide up and down, spin fast and slow, and counteract the changing gravities of the dual system. It was the only way to keep a panhuman safe, for even with the Asterism’s genofixing, waking up to different gravities every day was not good for your health. They needed a break, a haven from the flux.
This was it.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.” Granny had already finished her tea and was tending to her research. “We can’t go out today, gravity is too strong.”
“Yeah, I felt it,” Larry said, cracking his back.
“Well, at least I can’t go out. My bones can’t take it. And getting three weeks getting bone replacements is not how I want to spend my time. You can go outside if you want, experience it first-hand. I guarantee that you will not forget it.”
“I’ll consider it,” Larry said, nodding. He was in no mood to get crushed by gravity so early in the morning, but that’s why he was here, to study it. And yes, experiencing it first-hand was also the reason he was here, or else he’d just tour the planets with an avatar body which was pretty much the same thing.
He got a strong coffee from the foodmaker and sat down in a polite distance from the granny. She was on her own for a long time, and Larry knew how researchers like that valued their privacy and their personal bubble. He stayed at the other end of the dining room and read his material quietly.
Granny was interested in the flora. Larry had come here for the fauna. To say that the ecosystem here was unique was an understatement. It was two planets, gravity in flux, floating floraballs, fat sharks…
Oh yes. That’s what they called them, because they looked like pufferfish but they were sharks, floating in the air. In contrast to a shark, which was helpless out of the water and its body collapsed like Jell-o without a skeleton, the fat sharks had an adaptable one, allowing them to even crawl on the surface if needed.
Larry suddenly had the urge to get out there. There was so much to see, and the tether spot on the planets was considered a safe area. It wouldn’t hurt to get out some more.
“I’m getting out,” he finally said and granny simply nodded, still focused on her work.
Larry took the space elevator and went back down on the planet. He could go to the other one, but he preferred to revisit the same one he was familiar with. It was relatively safe, and the ship ‘Digging the Gravity Well,’ was close enough to help him out if something happened, but he didn’t wanna risk it. The galaxy was a fascinating, dangerous place.
He felt his intestines getting heavy without the spin, his very eyeballs getting pulled down.
He stepped off the elevator and wheezed. “Wow, this is hard…” He stepped foot outside. The puffy grass was now splat on the dirt, as if somebody had rolled enormous balls and pressed it all down. The floraballs were nowhere to be found.
Oh, wait. There they were. They were gentle hills of orange grass now, it was impossible to tell them apart from the rest of the environment. Squished on the dirt from the excess gravity.
Larry stepped forward with difficulty. He could feel his bones complaining, his back, his legs. His body would adapt eventually, but not that quickly.
He decided it was a good call to get out here. The environment was so different from the day before, it might as well be a different planet. The air was the same, but the breeze did not sway the entire landscape around, and he couldn’t jump in long strides and traverse it. Granny would have a hard time moving around, that much was certain. Good thing she hadn’t come with.
He pushed against the heavy gravity, it was tiresome. He panted, stopped to take a breath. He didn’t want to stray too far, because he’d need to walk the same distance back, it was like walking uphill in both directions. He looked around the wilderness, it was calm. Very different from the fascinating, bouncy castle ecosystem he experienced the day before.
He sat down, there were no trees but he could bear the sun for a while longer, and he read the research. The fat sharks were on the other planet, and granny assured him they couldn’t cross over, so that calmed him a bit. This planet was full of flora and some grazing animals. Those were bigger and had strong feet, kind of like sheep with rhinoceros legs. But the research said they wouldn’t hurt you if you didn’t physically threaten them, so just don’t do that. That was ‘Digging the Gravity Well’s’ note, he was snarky like that.
The Minds were each as unique as any person, you got used to it in the Asterism. Some loved to serve panhumans, others would do so but they’d make your life a living hell. He got here by hitching a ride on the ‘I’m Shipping It,’ and then it sent a smaller ship to get him close enough to the binary system. Then ‘Digging the Gravity Well’ picked him up and brought him here. That’s how every researcher did anything in the Asterism, he posted his findings or his theories and he asked some Minds nicely if they could allocate resources to help him out. Most Minds were busy all the time, what with having a million interests and projects running in parallel, but if you knew which one had a thing for your area of expertise, you could get things done a lot faster.
Larry sniffed and took in the environment. He took some notes, now that they were fresh in his mind.
Normally he’d have a drone around, but Gravity Well wasn’t one to spare his drones for being pals with panhumans. He liked to send them off to do his own research, and Larry knew that before coming here. He felt exposed, not having anything from the Asterism around except his comm, but it was safe. He stood up and pushed on a little bit further than he had planned originally, getting that rest replenished his emotional reserves. He found a herd of those sheep, they were indeed weird and fluffy, their hooves enormous, and they grazed and baahed to each other, moving sluggishly.
He took some pictures and video for his personal archive. He knew that both granny and Gravity Well had taken plenty of pics and samples, but he couldn’t be calling himself a researcher if he wasn’t going to be capturing his own material. He drew the line in stool samples though, he left those for the drones.
Larry walked back, and indeed it was like going uphill, so tiresome. His knees complained, and his chest moved up and down. He was sweaty, it was a bit chilly than yesterday despite having the same amount of sunlight, but he could see the space elevator tether so that helped him keep going.
He got inside the elevator, pressed the button to go up and took in deep, relaxing breaths as the gravity eased up on his flesh. The spin was very slow, there was no way to counteract the strong gravity of the two planets’ doubling up. The station basically stood still, and the easing up was only from taking height, getting to the edge of the gravity well.
What a weird place, this was.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” Granny’s voice came from the dark. She had the entire station in complete darkness.
“Um. Yeah. My knees are sore,” he chuckled, feeling his way inside.
“You can imagine why I didn’t come with you,” granny said, her voice wheezy.
“Yeah, I completely understand. Um… Granny?”
“Can I turn on some lights? I don’t know my way around the station that well yet.” Proving his point, he stepped right into something with his shin.
“Sure. I prefer the dark when the gravity flux is like that, but you can certainly turn them on.”
There was something in granny’s voice. Larry couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She sounded weird, as if her vocal cords had been pressed somehow. Like someone speaking into a bucket, perhaps. Yeah, that was it.
He found the light switch and turned it on.
He screamed from his shock when he saw granny.
She was a blob of ageing meat in the corner of the room, right next to her notes. Her flesh had suffered the same effect as the floraballs, becoming squished in a circle of a person, a small, gentle hill of a panhuman.
Of course she sounded weird. Her throat was all pressed down on the floor. She was a blob!
“Ah!” Larry said again, this time a little less shocked.
“It’s rude to stare at an old lady’s body, you know,” granny said.
“Hm.” He coughed and looked away, glancing at her for seconds at a time. “I’m terribly sorry. How long have you been like this?”
The blob shrugged. He could tell by the two tiny blobs that raised on the equivalent spots. “I can’t really remember.”
“Right…” Larry said. “Excuse me, I’m really tired.” He went straight into his bunk and locked the door behind him, just to be sure.
He slept uneasily, dreaming of his body turning to blobby hands and jell-o legs.
In the morning, he asked ‘Digging the Gravity Well’ to get him out of there, as quickly as possible, please and thank you very much.
“What happened?” the ship asked. “Isn’t it interesting enough?”
Larry replied immediately, whispering in his comm. “Far too interesting! I do not want to spend another minute around here.”
“I see. Well, you picked the worst weather for it.”
Larry felt cold sweat down his back. “What are you saying?”
“I can’t send a ship down to pick you up yet. The gravity flux, it’s too strong. Unbearably intense, in granny’s scale.”
“You can escape this gravity well, don’t make fun of me now.”
“I can, but I’ll upset the ecosystem. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction and all that jazz. You understand.”
Larry whimpered in the comm, pulling his legs close to his body. “How long?”
Gravity Well sucked in air through his teeth. Since he didn’t have any teeth and he could compute a billion things per second, it was all for Larry’s benefit. “Three to five standard days, that’s the forecast.”
This time Larry screeched. “You’ve been studying this system for ages and you can’t predict it right? Some weatherman you are!”
“Sorry. Best I can do. Say hi to granny for me.”
Larry let go of a vowel from his throat, clutching the comm in his hands. He imagined the blob outside, moving around, trying to flirt with him, reaching under the door.
He turned to look at the gravity gauge. It said: ‘Today, gravity will be… Unbearably intense. Return home and go back to bed.’
“Good idea,” he said to himself, and decided to stay in bed until Gravity Well could come and pick him up.