Issue 176 – May 2021

6380 words, short story

The Force Exerted on the Mass of a Body


Sifan put her exoskeleton on after breakfast. Her private space in the IG-pod was cramped, and even an act as simple as eating drained her in Wenshi’s heavy gravity. That gravity demanded so much of her body she had to eat twice as much as she wanted to.

She opened the door and stepped outside. Despite the suit supporting her head, spine, and limbs, it still felt like two people had jumped on her back and were choking her. She started up her Gagarin breathing and tackled the two steps up to ground level. This was a psychological trick designed to make you think about effort from the get-go. Sifan hated it.

She summoned the cart. It was hard for her unsupported fingers to make the micro-movements on her other wrist. Someone should design an exoskeleton for hands. And also facial muscles. A frown was demanding, a smile even more so. It was said invisible facial patches existed, developed for actors who had to perform on location in Wenshi action movies—very popular these days—but Sifan didn’t really believe that. Otherwise she could have bought some.

The cart trundled up. Sifan tried to avoid any unnecessary walking. Still, everything ached as she got into the cart and sat down. The corset to protect her organs and the special slings to protect her pelvis just weren’t doing enough. Her stomach churned. How she hated the high-calorie packages she had to squeeze down her throat.

She should stop whining. She was here for a good reason. Today she was going to visit the cork plantation where the nose covering for her revolutionary new rockets was grown. There was nothing new about the materials, but her design was going to break the speed records of space transition. She’d always been an inventor and a creator, but for this invention she’d left the university and joined a mega-dollar start-up.

The engines that brought spaceships to transition speed were standard; that wasn’t her specialty. She had optimized the helix of the rocket nose so breaking through the seventeen layers of space into the trans-luminary flow happened in microseconds instead of seconds. That meant exponentially more safety.

The materials to create the rocket only grew here on Wenshi. Organisms grew denser and more resilient here, not just her oaks, but also the titanium bees that made the honeycomb plates for her rockets. The supergravity would cost her two months of life for every year of her stay, but it was worth it.

The cart juddered along the path through the orchards. The cork orchard was up on the lower slopes of the mountain. Sifan tried to settle down in the least uncomfortable position, but she felt like the princess and the pea every time the wheels jolted over a pebble.

A man stepped out of the vineyard at the halfway point. Sifan didn’t turn her head to look. Too much effort.

“Hey! Mx. Vandervoort!”

Now she had to swivel her fifty-pound head. “Do I know you?”

“My name is Zlatopec Zhu.” He stuck his hand out, and changed it halfway through to an awkward wave.

She’d seen him before. He had the characteristic short, stocky build and massive muscles from growing up in two point seven G.

“How may I help you?” she said, her tongue heavy in her mouth.

“I read that piece on you on Weibo. I would like to discuss it with you, over dinner maybe?”

Sifan would have grimaced but didn’t want to waste the effort. “Dinner is not very joyful for me here, Mx. Zhu. Just a quick meeting in my pod later?”

Zhu grimaced, Sifan didn’t know why. “I wish we could just walk through the orchards, talk in a more natural setting.”

Sifan shrugged with her eyebrow, because it cost her so much less.

“Yes, I understand why you can’t. Would today be possible?”

Sifan thought. Would she have the energy left at the end of the day? She was pretty bored all by herself in her pod. And she couldn’t live like that for five more years. Eventually, her developing skeletal strength and muscle mass would make things easier. A little. But she couldn’t wait for that moment to start socializing.

“All right, four o’clock?”

Zhu agreed. Sifan lifted two fingers in goodbye and set the cart in motion again. She passed through other cork orchards in several stages of their existence. In this one, workers peeled off the bark in rectangles and tossed it in waiting carts. The product was so rough and organic that Sifan always marveled at the idea it could become a superfine, heat-resistant nose covering for rockets. For that, it had to be ground and pressed into shape during a lengthy factory process.

The next orchard stood bare-limbed below its greenery, the one after that looked ready to harvest. At the end was her patch, one thousand square meters of low-slung oak growth.

Only for her oaks would she make the effort of getting out of the cart and walking around. To fortify herself she took an energy drink, glucose tablets, and breathed extra oxygen. Lungs, too, had to work extra hard here to expand.

She lowered herself carefully to the earth and started walking, eyes on her feet so she wouldn’t misstep and have to correct herself. A twisted ankle or a fall were serious injuries here, even with the antigravity harness.

She reached the first gnarled oak and took a moment to rest. Her instinct was to lean her back against the tree, but it was too risky to get off-balance. Instead she rested her hand lightly on the growing bark. She felt a tingling sense of presence when touching a large old oak tree like this, thick and short and sturdy like the people of Wenshi. Did the tree sense her back? She’d read that on Old Earth trees had formed large networks with other trees and fungi, creating an arboreal intelligence. She didn’t know whether the soil of Wenshi provided the same kind of support for the trees here. She wondered if they felt alone.

She’d plotted out a course that would take her past the most trees in the least number of steps. A year ago, she wouldn’t have believed this kind of preparation. But now the course chart was a lifesaver. She visited forty-three trees before the route took her back past her cart, which was a decision point. Go on or go back.

She went back. If she wanted to meet Zhu later in the afternoon, she’d need to rest first.

For the first time, she hesitated to enter the pod. It offered relief from the relentless gravity, but the pod didn’t have a view. This little corner of Wenshi was beautiful. Gentle hills rolled into the distance, growing taller and bluer as they receded. The soil was bright orange, the trees an eye-searing green. The air smelled of moisture and sunshine and growing things. She took a couple of pictures to project on a wall in lieu of a window. She was in an actual physical place, and she shouldn’t forget that. Even a station-dweller like herself loved a planetary landscape. Enjoyment of nature seemed to be genetically programmed into humans.

For a moment she allowed herself to daydream about inventing pods with actual windows. The tensile stress on transparent material . . . she shook herself out of it. She had to focus on this project.

Sifan did her mandatory strengthening exercises after her nap and then put on the exoskeleton again. It was necessary even for the short hop to the one-G suite at the back of the pod.

Two steps before entering the suite, she received two files from Zhu. One had a long, academic title, something about communication between universe layers, the other was an op-ed piece about the Fermi paradox. Both had dozens of links to more articles. Fine, she’d probably at least skim them, but there was no way she could read them before the meeting. Why hadn’t he sent them earlier?

Zhu was already waiting for her as she entered the anteroom. She didn’t want him watching as she extracted herself from the skeleton suit with her clothes in disarray, but there was nowhere to hide.

“Hi,” she said. “Got your files, but I didn’t have time to read them.”

He smiled. “No, no, of course not, it’s just for reference later on.”

Sifan had already forgotten the subjects of the papers. But it didn’t matter, she could access them any time she wanted.

She stood stock-still a few meters before her chair. Something was different here. It set every cell of her on fire. Her neck hairs rose. She stood on the balls of her feet and curled her fingers. Her nostrils opened wide. There was a scent in the air.

The scent of a fellow human being hung in the one-G room and her adrenaline levels shot to high heaven. She wanted to scoot over and touch Zhu, sniff his neck and his wrists and even his armpits.

Sifan sat down rigidly, trying not to let these thoughts appear on her face or body. How embarrassing! Not that she was surprised about her reaction after months of isolation, but it was her problem, and it would be rude to saddle Mx. Zhu with her inner turmoil.

“So,” she said, and had to clear her throat a couple of times to unclog her voice. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

He inclined his head. “How have you been, Mx. Vandervoort? Adjusting to our gravity isn’t always easy.”

“It is hard on the body,” Sifan said. “I’d been in training for months before I landed but still, the reality, even with the suit, is pretty crushing.”

“I hope you will manage to walk around outside this facility one day,” he said. “We have much beautiful, untouched nature to be enjoyed.”

Sifan’s AI flagged the second sentence as deeply emotionally significant to him. The AI helped Sifan interpret the facial cues of a culture she didn’t know, and a physiognomy changed by the gravity. She called up the titles of the papers he’d sent. Nature. Something with untouched nature. Her hackles rose. Was he telling her something about the project?

“That sounds like a wonderful prospect. I share your hope. Sitting in a lonely pod in the middle of nowhere is quite daunting.”

Zhu smiled. “When will your colleagues arrive? You must look forward to that.”

That certainly was something to look forward to. “Sadly, they won’t be able to come until next year.”

Sifan put up her best social smile and bent slightly forward. Everything was so easy in one G. Even feeling emotions seemed lighter, now that she could smile and frown and wag her head without spraining important muscles. “Tell me about yourself and your community, Mx. Zhu. I’m looking forward very much to meeting more of you.”

“Nothing much to tell, Mx. Vandervoort. I grew up here in Wenshi, trained in forest management, worked all over the continent.”

Forest management. “You’re managing my cork, yes?”

“Not exactly. My work is with the wild environment and trying to mitigate humanity’s influence on it,” he said.

“But if it’s not about my cork, what are we meeting about?”

“I represent NatPre,” Zhu said finally.

Natural Preservation tried to prevent human settlements from ruining the ecologies of their new homes. Sifan felt that he’d already said this, wild forest management, wasn’t it? She couldn’t see what it had to do with her. She’d bought a cork harvest. If that was evil, shouldn’t his beef be with the plantation owners? Or planetary management? She was just a buyer.

“We concern ourselves not only with planetary environments, Mx. Vandervoort, but also with interplanetary environments.”

Sifan still couldn’t guess where he was going.

“There is evidence that space travel is doing permanent damage to the spatial layering of the universe. Our measurements indicate that the routes our spaceships take never heal.”

“Space is huge, how could human travel possibly damage something like that?” Sifan asked.

“Humanity has been in space for centuries, and although space is enormous, locally the damage is starting to add up.”

Sifan didn’t want to hear this. She’d dedicated her life to studying the branch of physics that applied to space travel, and it had always seemed to be a beautiful, worthy thing to her. She tried to suppress the feeling that was building in her stomach. “What evidence? What measurements?”

Zhu gestured slowly toward her. “The pop science papers I sent you. There’s links in there to more serious publications.”

Sifan wanted to bite back that she was an actual physicist and quite capable of reading real science articles, but managed to stop herself. Don’t kill the messenger.

“So, why are you telling me this?”

Zhu’s face shone earnestly. “First, we were hoping that you would be our advocate. You’re a well-known innovator, your inventions have made you famous. Your support to our cause would mean a lot.”

“You want me for PR? So it’s got nothing to do with my cork here or my new Borer design?” As soon as she’d said it, Sifan knew that it had to be. Her spiral Borer did what other space drives did, just faster and more effectively. The Borer would not just rip a hole between space layers, it would shred them. “No. No way. This is my life’s work. My money. My investors’ money. How can you ask me to stop this?” Not to mention the nine fucking months she already spent on his fucking planet, and the four more years she’d planned to.

“Mx. Vandervoort, space is not simply a void. It’s alive. It’s talking to us. We’re killing a sentient being.”

That was too much. Sifan jumped up. She misjudged the force in the light gravity and only just managed to prevent a fall, milling her arms and bumping her knees against the table. “I’m sorry, that’s nonsense. I was prepared to listen to you, but you’re going too far now.”

If only she could storm out. But no, Zhu would be able to watch her struggle into the skeleton suit in the airlock. She started to take off her outer clothes anyway. She couldn’t storm, but she could stride off with dignity.

“Please wait and listen. It’s not nonsense, it’s scientific inquiry. I wanted to invite you to come visit the physics lab.”

Sifan snorted and went on putting her legs in the skeleton suit. Its sensors clicked against the implants in her legs, locking onto the bracing network threaded throughout her body.

“Aren’t you a physicist? This is new research, new questions. How can you not be curious about something in your own field?” Zhu said.

Sifan clicked on the helmet and experienced the second of dizziness as the circuits closed and the suit’s AI came online.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said, all her muscles already tense for gravity’s onslaught, her teeth clenching. “Bye.”

She stepped outside and forced herself toward the buggy at the briskest clip she could, ignoring the scream of her suffering spine.

When Sifan returned to her pod, steaming, she turned the view to Penikett Station Concourse. The soothing grays and pinks, so different from the busy green and terracotta tones of Wenshi, calmed her at once. She’d promised herself to stay in the present to be reminded of where she was, but right now she needed soothing. That Zhu. How dare he.

She started her favorite guided meditation but could find no peace. Her anger was the kind that needed burning off instead of meditating off. The hamster wheel it would have to be. She’d already done her morning calisthenics, but she’d bear with the extra calories she’d have to eat after this.

The half hour of running did make her anger go away. She lay down on the bed for the mandated rest after and forced herself to sip the dreadful high-calorie cocktail, knowing it would leave her queasy, but also knowing she had to eat. She already didn’t recognize the Sifan in the mirror. Her body had lost all the extra fat it had ever had and bulked up instead. Her shoulders and thighs looked like a weight lifter’s. She’d never cared about sports but gaining strength in bone and muscle was absolutely necessary for her stay on Wenshi.

She might as well read Zhu’s excerpts. She was a scientist, of course she was curious. Even if he was trying to drag her into some crazy cult. Pfft.

Okay, that was an interesting paper. The authors had measured pattern resonances in the twenty-ninth layer of space, the very one that starships needed to enter for FTL travel. Sifan told herself that the human mind was made to see patterns, even where none existed, but the papers kindled a little flame of curiosity. A sentient universe. Hidden deep in the layers of space, invisible to human eyes but now, only recently, detectable by human instruments and human mathematics. It was such a tempting idea. If space was talking, what did it say? And to who?

She couldn’t help herself and looked up the location of the physics laboratory. She’d expected it to be in deep space somewhere, but it was actually situated here on Wenshi. Unmanned probes registered the waves in deep space and brought it here.

So, the lab was on Wenshi. Theoretically close, in practice a grueling six-hour three-G train journey away. No way she was going there. The daily trek to her cork trees was hard enough. No, this was one time scientific curiosity would have to take a back seat. She had gone all in on her spiral rocket project, and she had to see it through, no matter how enticing the new idea was.

She swiped the papers away and crawled into bed. Her bones ached, as always. Her stomach churned from eating too much, her intestines labored to get the food processed under the extra gravity. Sifan cued her sleeping macro and switched off.

The next day, Sifan set off for her trees again.

She wished she could walk over the lush grass, through the orchard’s shadows, unimpeded, free. But laboriously, in a suit, would have to do for now. She patted her favorite tree’s bark. It grew in a convoluted, twisted shape that in a human being or a mammal would denote agony, but all she got from the tree was contentment and quiet power. “Good tree,” she whispered. Nobody could see her being silly. “Good, thick cork.”

If the trees screamed when their bark was harvested, was that like space when her rocket tore through it? What if everything was alive and aware, trees, space, the universe?

Back in the pod, she looked up when she was due to visit her space bees. The shuttle port was halfway to the space lab. She asked the AI if it thought she could go to the space lab instead of the bee visit. The AI needed all of half a minute to think about that. The answer was yes, if she rested up for a week before the journey and snacked every hour to store up energy. That meant fat. Sivan pinched her waist. It hadn’t seen fat for months now. She sighed. Eating, more eating. Who’d have ever thought she’d balk at extra chocolate?

The mandated week of rest left Sifan feeling uncommonly fit and frisky. Maybe the AI should schedule rest periods more often. She put on the dreaded suit with anticipation and the short walk to the cart didn’t feel as arduous as usual.

People hardly looked her in the face as they helped her into the train to the physics laboratory. Did everyone hate outworlders or something?

But then she caught a glimpse of her face in a mirror and realized what signals she gave off. Downward lines around the mouth and eyes denoted misery and anger and hopelessness. She might not feel that, but the heavy gravity’s drag on her facial muscles told a different story. Great. She was doomed to live among people who disliked her on sight. And even worse, when she left here, her face might never go back to its normal state. She’d be all bunched-up jaw muscle and heavy brow ridge, and normal people would shy away from her.

The AI recommended a dose of mood lightener and for once she complied. This was already a hard day, and it would get worse. She was entitled to a little help.

The train rolled through the beautiful hilly landscape, dotted with the lavish blues and turquoises of the native flora instead of the imported Earth species. The train crested a rise and started to travel downward. Sifan spotted the building that must be the physics lab at once. It was huge. That had to be a black hole suspension station. Her vague fantasy of Wenshi being a rural, backward place had clearly been all wrong.

The head of the lab met Sifan in person. She was an elderly woman, as short and powerfully built as everybody here. She took one look at Sifan and offered to skip the planned lunch and speeches.

Sifan could have cried at the kindness but took the opportunity to skip the formalities with both hands. A wheelchair had been set out for her and the director personally pushed Sifan to the demonstration of the space resonance work.

The director wheeled her into a large room full of people hunched over workstations. A few large screens displayed data flows.

“We send out below AI-threshold drones to gather data,” the director explained, “to circumvent quantum effects, and compile and sort them here. We’ve prepared some samples for you on screen.”

The presentation flipped through the different resonances of space layers, which Sifan knew all too well. But she’d never seen them plotted onto time like this. Space layer eighteen resonated a certain pattern, repeated it for years on end. The presentation skipped to layer twenty-nine. This too, showed certain resonances, seemingly random. But then they flipped to the same resonances, although in a different register.”

“How does this compare in real time?” Sifan asked, excited.

“First layer eighteen, for almost two years, then layer twenty-nine, for several months.”

“What’s your hypothesis?” Sifan asked.

“It seems like a conversation to me, to us,” Director Pailaa said. “So we’ve built a station far away from gravity wells and space lanes to project this resonance to layers eighteen and twenty-nine.”


“We got an answer! Look at the charts. It returns the Fibonacci sequence.”

After the presentation wound up, Sifan was invited to go for drinks with the whole crew. The director rescued her from the social dilemma of refusing.

“Mx. Vandervoort has only been in our gravity for a few months, she doesn’t have the stamina yet to join us right now.”

“Rain check?” Sifan said, working her smile muscles as hard as she could, hoping they would project happiness and warmth.

“Rain check.”

Sifan fell asleep on the train journey back, something she regretted very much when she woke stiff and aching, stiffer and achier than usual, still in her skeleton suit. And she still had to trek back to her pod.

As the large, orange sun started to set, it was hard to concentrate on the road. Not just because of her tiredness, but because the graphs the physicists had shown her danced before her eyes. Sure, it was only a Fibonacci sequence, one of the most basic ways to communicate intelligence, but what if they were right? What did that mean for her?

That night, she dreamed of rainbow-colored space trees singing to each other. Even dream-Sifan sighed at the silliness of her own imagination.

The next day Sifan went out on her planned tour of the cork orchard. She didn’t override it, although her sore body and buzzing mind would have been a good excuse. But she felt the need to stick to her routine for now. She didn’t examine those feelings too closely. Not yet.

The cork orchard bathed in early morning light, everything more orange than under the Earth-normal lighting at the pod. Which was kind of silly if you thought about how long ago humanity had first left Earth, but if you had to have standardized units, it might as well be those of your planet of origin.

She flipped her vision to what the orchard would look like under the Earth sun, and for the first time, she found the cooler beiges and greens dull and chilly. Maybe she was finally getting acclimated.

She took away the filter and enjoyed the intense blue of the sky, the greenness of the grass, the warm ocher colors of the bark. Wenshi was beautiful. She wished she could walk around without the skeleton suit already. She wanted to lie down in the grass and smell the earth.

Well, she could do that. Just very carefully.

The AI showed her the kneeling sequence. It wasn’t a thing to do lightly, because her weight would be on one leg most of the time, a bent leg at that. Risky. First she had to carefully position her hand on the nearest tree, turn on extra support on that wrist, and then turn on extra support on the outer leg. Only then could she start to slowly lift the inner leg and move it backward.

The servos whined, or was that her imagination?

Freeze that position, unfreeze the wrist, move the hand downward, slowly. And repeat.

Briefly she focused on the grass. She could smell it already.

Her hand slipped, and the next thing she knew she was facedown on the earth. Her legs were in the right position, but her right hand had transferred the weight too soon onto the left hand, and that had made her torso bend down too far. And now she had a nosebleed and had probably broken her left wrist. She was in agony.

“Request to cede control,” the AI said. “Counting down from five, four, three . . . ”

“Cede!” Sifan screamed.

The medical stinger shot her full of muscle relaxant so she wouldn’t accidentally work against the suit. It repositioned itself in brief bursts to minimize the injury and prepare itself to lift Sifan back up. There was no possible help out here.

“Pain relief,” Sifan gasped.

Almost instantly the pain went away. She was such an idiot. Why hadn’t she given the AI more control?

The suit’s process of getting her upright again was nothing like the way a human would do it. Sifan had to close her eyes to keep herself from seeing the way her knees and feet were being used. Better. Now she was alone in her own head. She cut off audio as well.

But not all senses could be cut off. A sudden surge of nausea forced her to open her eyes, to discover her head was now hanging midway before her torso, her arms somewhere behind her, her legs herky-jerkying backward in something not quite like walking.

“Please put me upright,” Sifan gasped. “I’m going to throw up.”

This is the optimal position for regurgitation in this moment, the AI sent back.

Yup, there she went. Look at all those calories she would have to re-eat, puddling there on the ground. Sad.

The process was a little better with an empty stomach. Sifan managed to reach the car without further mishaps. The AI sat her down.

I advise turning audio on, the AI said.

Sifan sighed but followed the advice. Oh, that’s why it had said that. A vehicle was coming. At great speed, too. The AI wouldn’t allow her to turn her head, probably wise considering the fall, so she had to wait until it drove into her field of vision.

It was Zhu’s jeep, careening into view at hair-raising speeds. Sifan wondered at the g-forces that his body would suffer in those tight curves and the thought of them would have made her ache if her pain receptors had still been working. What was he doing?

“Zhu?” she croaked.

“Mx. Vandervoort!” Zhu jumped out of the jeep, landing with a thud on the orange soil. Sifan winced, but he seemed fine, and even bounced a little as he ran up to her vehicle.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “Don’t touch me. The AI’s got it.”

“I know I shouldn’t touch you,” he said, sounding exasperated. “I read the guidelines. But you are hurt, and I wanted to offer you my support.”

“What kind of support?” Sifan regretted that she was snapping, but the mood enhancers and pain suppressors ironed out her fine voice control.

“Emotional support? You can suppress pain, but you must feel so helpless right now. Let me go with you to your pod. You shouldn’t be alone.”

What difference would that make?

But Sifan felt something burn in her eye. Tears, for god’s sake. Suppress them, she ordered the AI. She didn’t think it could actually directly influence her tear ducts, but it did something. She was now floating on a cloud and Zhu had receded.

“Thank you,” she said with a thick voice. She wanted to be mad at her own weakness, but all she felt was gratitude.

Sifan was aware of time and landscape passing her by, but it didn’t affect her. The various orchard trees waved their branches over her head—oak, apple, quince, pear, chestnut. Then just blue sky. Then a sliver of beige at the edge of her field of vision.

For a while, she couldn’t think which tree was beige, until at last she realized it was her pod. Oh. Zhu had brought her home. How kind. She couldn’t recall what should come next. She might get very hot during the afternoon, and very cold during the night. The suit might help with that though.

And then she floated inside the pod and was lowered onto the bed. Oh, right, her vehicle had a detachable float for heavy luggage and such.

The AI was directing someone to take the skeleton suit off her. She felt some jostling, and would have laughed at Zhu’s painstakingly clumsy antics in the standard gravity, if she could have mustered sufficient oomph. But all her oomph was gone, dissolved in a cloud of painkillers. So nice.

When she opened her eyes again, the light was different. It was the next morning. Her whole body ached, but only in a pleasant way, like after a hike.

She levered herself up very carefully on her right elbow and looked down on the left arm. Yup, cast. The readout said, “Compound fracture. Cast will disintegrate in approximately four days and twelve hours.”

Great, that meant four days locked up in the pod. She’d lose so much muscle mass!

A sound.

Sifan found that she was wearing a pair of comfortable pajamas, with practical closures for the one-armed, that she didn’t remember printing or putting on. Zhu? Carefully, testing out the limits of her pain meds, she shuffled to the door.

“Yeah?” she said.

Zhu stood there in the hot sunlight. Judging by the slant, it was late afternoon. “Here to cheer up the wounded!”

Sifan didn’t feel cheered up yet. Socializing seemed daunting and exhausting.

Zhu gestured behind him. “We’re having a party, and you’re invited.”

“I can’t go out into three G for a week until the fracture is healed,” Sifan said. What an excellent excuse that was. She should break her wrist more often.

“I know,” Zhu said with a wide grin. “And that’s why the party has come to you!”

Sifan just gaped.

“Open your door, put a chair in the doorway, and you’re good.”

Sifan couldn’t think of an excuse.

She opened the door wider. It was strange and unpleasantly thrilling to do that without her skeleton suit on, even though she knew the pod would extend the gravity on for at least a meter.

The scent of hot air and grass drifted in.

People were bustling around a barbecue and a water station, others setting up chairs and tables.

“See? You don’t have to do anything. Go get your chair and enjoy!”

Sifan didn’t even enjoy parties all that much in one G, let alone in the crushing three G environment. But let’s face it, she had nothing better to do today. She might as well pig out and get drunk.

She dragged her office chair over to the doorway.

A young relative of Zhu’s brought her a plate, sticking it very carefully into the one G field. Pouring wine from three G to one G led to many spills and much laughter, but eventually Sifan could sip the rough red from her glass and relax.

People walked up to chat with her. She didn’t manage to remember any of the names, but keeping up the stream of chatter was oddly soothing. She settled deeper into the chair. Apparently, this was just what she’d needed. And Zhu had somehow divined that.

After some furious activity over the grills, children started bringing her plates with veggies and tofu.

Zhu sat down next to her. There was barely room for his wide body in the one G field, but he was painstakingly not pushing accidental elbows into the planet’s gravity. Sifan idly wondered what that would do to the body, having half of it in and half out of different gravities. Nothing good, she suspected.

A couple of kids set up their play screens at her feet. Sifan couldn’t make head or tail of the game they were playing. Their opponents seemed to have extremely variable wait times. But it made the kids squeal in delight when the answers did come through.

“What are they playing? A new kind of game?” she said. No adult who wasn’t a professional gamer could keep up with the rapidly changing fashions in gaming.

“They’re communicating with the universe. Or a universe,” Zhu said.

“What?” Sifan turned her head dangerously close to the gravity field’s limit to properly check out Zhu’s expression.

“Really. We tried communication with the universe, or universes, or layers, we don’t know yet, and at first we got responses. But after a while it dried up, and we didn’t know why. Did we do something wrong, did they die, did the circumstances changes, well, lots of variables. But then someone brilliant, not me, got the idea that maybe it had gotten bored. So we let kids use the interface. Not because we took that idea very seriously at first, but more because, why not?”

Zhu spread his hands. “And the universe answered. And kept answering! So now we have a group of kids who play with the universe.”

Fascinating! “Do you have any idea why children communicate better with the universe, or whatever it is, than adults?”

“We’re just guessing. Playfulness, unexpectedness? Who knows. It works. We’re grateful that something works.”

“What is it that you want from the universe?” Sifan asked. The two species, if you could call the universe a species, could have little in common.

“Good question. To acknowledge each other’s existence, to communicate? Are humans beings of good will? I like to think we are. So they’d want us to stop destroying their habitat, or their physical being.”

Zhu got up to get some more beautifully charred tofu, and left Sifan to stare at the giggling, shrieking children. Apparently the universe was a fun playmate. The mind boggled.

Sifan couldn’t see what the kids did on the screen, or what they reacted to, but their mood was infectious. She found herself smiling and lifting her face to the last sunshine. When had she truly relaxed or played for the last time? Well before her arrival here. Probably when she’d been experimenting with her rocket drive.

Tears pricked in her eyes when she recalled how joyful that had been. Hard work, but filled with pleasure and anticipation and the sheer exhilaration of creating something new. Why, oh why had she thought she had to be the person to not only invent the new drive, but to bring it to market as well? The weight of the investors’ fortunes dragged her down and sucked the joy out of life.

Not the gravity. Never the gravity.

Without realizing it, Sifan had brought up on her screen the name of the man who had begged for the job she was doing now. Who’d wanted to organize grants for her so she could continue doing what she did best, play and experiment and invent. And she’d been too proud and ambitious to accept that offer.

Would he still want to do it now?

Because what she really wanted to do was storm out of her one G bubble and join those kids on their screens. Already her mind was fizzing and popping with imminent ideas, tickling against the surface of her brain like champagne bubbles against glass.

The evening closed in, soft and purple, all around the picnickers and Sifan. The edges of people and trees shimmered and blurred, erasing the differences between them.

Sifan bent forward as far as she dared. “If we asked the universe to let our ships through more easily, what would it say?” she asked the children.

They giggled and shrugged, turning back to their screens.

Sifan composed the first of a string of emails in her mind. To Tarik, to take over her job. To her broker, to sell her shares in the cork rocket company. To her old university, to ask if her deferred job was open as of next month.

She couldn’t stop the production of her Borer rockets. There was too much financial and political weight behind the venture. But if she could find a kinder way to travel, her invention would become obsolete soon enough.

She sent the emails. The relief was enormous. An asteroid-sized weight slid off her shoulders.

No more dull routines and tight deadlines. She was, and always had been, an inventor. She needed to play, to be free. These children had shown her the error in her thinking. You shouldn’t need to break the universe to travel through it.

She would find another way.

Author profile

Bo Balder lives and works close to Amsterdam. Bo is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF, Clarkesworld, Analog, and other places. Her sf novel The Wan was published by Pink Narcissus Press. When not writing, she knits, reads and gardens, preferably all three at the same time.

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