By Nancy Fulda
There’s a moment that comes, the first time you step on the rim of a planet, when you suddenly realize how breakable you are. When you finally understand that despite the bone density treatments, despite the braces cradling your back and legs, despite the half-dozen hands that support your first faltering steps down the hallway, you will never be more than a hair’s breadth from disaster. A false step, an unexpected nudge, even the tilt of your own head could send you toppling. It’s worse – much worse – than you expected, and for five panicked heartbeats you consider retreating. It’s not too late to grab a flight back to the orbitals, to float again in those serene, majestic habitats. But no. There is something to be learned here; something important. Something that cannot be understood except through the eyes of a floater. And so you grit your teeth and slide your foot awkwardly forward, into this strange new existence.
It is a perilous reality, chaotic and unintuitive. Cloth leaps in strange directions. Objects zip away if you release them. Even the sounds are different. It’s like someone has erased the laws of the universe and written the equations anew.
On the next step something goes wrong and you jolt sideways. Shouts. Hands beneath your shoulders. Your arm flails outward and knocks a vase from a table. It clatters to the ground and stays there, water clinging to the tiles like a living creature.
You stare at the scattered flowers, heart thumping. Raw, unfiltered atmosphere presses into your lungs. This is real. You are not hitchhiking on neural feeds from planet dwellers. You are the feed, the first space-bred human to walk earthbound since the orbitals declared independence. And you are doing so while connected to the glittering nodes of the Vastness.
Not everyone is so brave, to broadcast each careless thought and naked emotion to anyone curious enough to join the stream. Your experience has become humanity’s experience, your thoughts inseparable from the thoughts of those who listen. Your identity is tangled up with theirs, transcendent and pulsing, part of a greater reality that cannot be edited or un-shared.
This is what you came for. You do not regret it.
But you are terrified.
“Easy now,” a voice says in your ear. “Don’t push too hard. Give your body time to adjust.”
You struggle upright and come face to face with Dr. Sung. She is focused and friendly and subtly alien. You try not to stare at her hair, which points toward the floor no matter which direction she moves her head. To distract yourself, you focus on the pressure of the ground beneath your knee, the angle of your limbs as you push upward.
“Your musculature is good,” Dr. Sung continues, still supporting your arm. “But training in orbit can only bring you so far. You still want to go through with this?”
You give a sharp nod, throat too constricted for speech. You don’t look down, don’t think about yourself or where you came from. It doesn’t matter, for the feed’s listeners, whether you are male or female. Doesn’t matter whether you are short or tall or pale or dark. You are a floater, and for this brief stretch of time, you represent all floaters. Dr. Sung claims to understand this, although you doubt she truly comprehends. Planet dwellers have never fully accepted the Vastness.
The backflow from the feed is kicking in, now. Your panic subsides, overwhelmed by an influx of enthusiasm. You are seized by the urge to do everything, feel everything. You long to jump, and let the world claw you downward. To run amidst unbalanced equilibriums. You eagerly await your first shower. You dread your first encounter with a toilet.
“So you’re, like, a journalist?” Dr. Sung’s assistant asks conversationally. He’s a tall man, heavy, with pale scruffy hair. The second attendant is shorter, leaner, and looks at you with eyes that could pierce metal. He’s the only one of the three wearing implant nodes.
You answer with a shrug. Yes, you are a journalist. And you’re not. Just like you are this man’s kin. And you’re not. It burns within you. The Question, the driving need that propelled you to leave the orbitals. Feeds and vid streams aren’t enough. The nodes of the Vastness aren’t enough. You must experience it, this place your people came from. Must stand with defiant feet on the planet that once held humanity captive.
Dr. Sung would not understand. No earth-dweller could fathom this complex, rippling compulsion. You can’t explain. You have to know:
Has the culture of the stars made us more human? Or less?
And so it begins: inch by struggling inch across the skin of a planet, to the edge of the room and back again. You reach the corner and turn, trembling, stumbling. Again, and again, and again.
An hour later, everything aches.
You sit at the edge of your bed, making constant tiny adjustments to remain upright. You would like to lie down, but aren’t sure how to get into position safely. Dr. Sung and the others have left, and you’re too stubborn to press the call button.
Your throat is raw from exertion. It scratches as you breathe. You reach for the glass of water beside your bed, ignoring complaints from your exhausted muscles. The room seems in danger of collapsing around you. The walls are squat and stunted, maimed by the oppressive fist of gravity, and the furnishings are all crammed against a single surface. You glance around, irrationally peeved. They’ve given you the best room in the hospital, but it feels primitive. Everything’s at right angles, meant to support the weight of roofs. You miss the graceful curves that suffuse your native orbital.
A breeze floats through the open window. From the bed you can see the space between buildings, curving blue atmosphere, brilliant green grass. There is a playground near the parking lot. Children hang by their knees from the jungle gym, giggle on swings and slides, play frisbee. Their play relies on things falling. You try to imagine other games. The ones you knew as a child will not work here. The balls don’t even travel in straight lines.
You tighten your grip on the glass, cupping it in both hands. The surface of the water will not stop wobbling.
What must it do to a person, living among these pressures for decades on end? Does the ceaseless tug of gravity warp the minds of the people who live in it, just as it constrains their architecture?
Your throat is dry. There’s a drinking straw on the table, but you ignore it and instead raise the glass to your mouth. The water holds position as your hand tips, just like you’ve seen in a thousand grounder movies. You wonder, for a moment, whether you should reach for the straw after all, but you do not want to become like the sad, squashed architecture of your room. You will learn to live among this world’s pressures. You will master them. Moving slowly, you lift the far end of the glass . . .
You jerk your head up, startled more by the unexpected noise than by the water which has, predictably, slopped onto your face and hands. The movement pulls you off-balance. You twist around, hampered by the braces on your back and legs. Your flailing hands find no purchase.
A strange moment follows. You hang suspended, poised to fall. Water slides from the glass, amorphous globs catching the sun. The floor moves toward you, and for a horrified instant you are certain you will shatter. Your body will crack against the tiles, splitting into a thousand sharp-edged fragments that skid into the corners of the room. Irreparable.
Time stretches. Your fingers strike the rail at edge of the bed, but it’s too late to prevent the fall. You lurch around, elbow knocking painfully against the bed frame. You hit the ground, hard, and come to a breathless stop on hands and knees. The laughter from across the room deepens. You look up with fury in your eyes.
Dr. Sung’s assistant – the short, lean one – lounges against the door frame with one hand tucked in his pocket. The Vastness glitters along the side of his head.
“Sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t sound as if he means it. “If I’d known you were going make a fool of yourself, I’d have waited.”
You struggle upward, water soaking into your clothing. It takes twenty seconds to claw your way onto the bed, but Dr. Sung’s assistant offers no help. Eyes flash, hard and frigid as the Kuiper belts, beneath the lights at his hairline.
“You know why I don’t like floaters?” he says. He takes a step forward. “It’s because you’re so damned arrogant. You come down from your orbitals, all smug about doing what mankind’s done for millennia – and looking like idiots, by the way, while you’re doing it – and then you have the gall to broadcast the whole thing. I wish you could see yourself. Spitting signals into space like some bright-eyed anthropologist visiting cave men.”
You flinch, realizing he’s hooked into your feed, sharing your thoughts. That shouldn’t surprise you. And it shouldn’t matter. After all, ten thousand strangers are sharing your every breath and heartbeat, sending emotions in return. Their backflow is carefully modulated, though. Filtered and anonymous.
You look in the man’s eyes, and feel him looking straight at your soul.
“We’re too dangerous, aren’t we?” he asks. “That’s the real reason you keep yourselves so aloof. You talk about economics and the cost of shipping goods up and down the gravity well, but the truth? The truth is, you don’t want us. We’re too raw for you. Too coarse. Most floaters won’t even jack into feeds coming from earth.”
You tense, wanting to break eye contact, but unwilling to show weakness. You don’t know what to do with this directness. No floater would spew their feedback so blatantly. Conflict in the orbitals is always routed through the Vastness. Emotions ebb and flow. Knowledge jumps from neurons to implants and back again. Consensus happens so smoothly it’s almost subconscious. Each person is unique, of course. But each experiences the aggregate emotions of all others.
And some, like you, become focal points.
“You don’t even see the irony, do you?” Sung’s assistant steps closer. “You wouldn’t exist without us, but you’ve locked us out of humanity’s future. As if we’re some kind of lesser race.” He keeps coming, hand lodged deeply in his pocket. No; not his pocket. Beneath the draping folds of his overcoat, he’s gripping something else.
Your breath speeds up. You look around for . . . something. You’re not sure what. But there’s nothing in reach.
Metal flashes. A gun swings toward you. The barrel points at your face.
You jerk forward, panicked.
The gun is cold and hard between your fingers. You stare down the barrel at the crumpled body, heart hammering. Your ears are still ringing from the sound of the shot. Your lips part in a savage grin.
You’ve done it.
The backflow kicks in, yanking around on your neurons. The hijack worked. The spacer’s feed is pulling signals from your implants, pumping them out to the orbitals. You feel the viewers’ panic – muted flickers of horror, like bees vibrating in a jar. You’re their representative now. That’s how the Vastness functions; each human being a node, each node linked to thousands of others. You’ve just stepped into the nexus. It’s disorienting, but exhilarating at the same time. Your breath comes in unsteady bursts.
You lower the gun. There’s no point in hiding it, not when the murder’s been fed, live, to the entire Coalition of Orbitals. It doesn’t matter that the viewers know your name. Doesn’t matter that you’re short, male, earthbound, and a prior felon. Your voice will finally be heard.
You could hide, of course. Cut the feed, vanish into the underworld you know so well, but that would defeat the purpose. Right now, ten thousand listeners are jacked into the feed. Watching. Too horrified to look away.
You’re halfway down the hall before the sirens arrive. They sound faded and distant, cars screeching to a halt outside the windows. Hospital staff squeak and press against the walls as you pass. They don’t know what’s happened. They see the gun and the coat and the expression on your face, and they get out of your way.
Assault teams jump from their vehicles, slamming doors and yakking into comm units. You swing into the stairwell, tapping a button as the heavy metal door thuds closed. Explosions ring from the parking lot. The idiots parked right on top of the charges.
Your backflow ripples, pinprick flickers of feedback loops disconnecting, new connections flaring to life. They’re watching now, oh yes. They understand what it means to be trampled on. The police will find you, eventually. You’ll be impounded, maybe be killed, but the floaters watching your feed will never unlearn what they’ve experienced. What it means to be hated, or even worse – disdained.
You’ve known how that feels your whole life.
The floaters have ignored earth for generations. No shipments up. No shipments down. It would have been fair . . . if the floaters hadn’t locked earth-men out of every technological advancement in the past forty years. Too expensive, they said. You have nothing to trade us, they said.
Stay locked in your little box, they said.
But that’s over now, isn’t it? You’re hitting back, and you’re hitting hard. Get this in your heads, floaters. Don’t you dare set foot on our planet, not unless you’ll treat us like equals. Not ever. There are lots more people who feel like me. You set foot on our planet, any of you, and it will end the same way. With a twitching body, and a hi-jacked feed. Over and over and over again. Until you beg for mercy.
You turn toward the stairs—
And falter with your foot above the top step. For the briefest moment, the stairwell looks like a death trap. The ground falls away, making your perch at the apex indescribably precarious. Your muscles lock. If you stumble, the gravity will suck you into the sharp, piercing edges…
You blink, shaking off the backflow.
Stupid floaters. Scared of everything. There are ten thousand of them, and only one of you, and their minds are barely compatible. You wish you could shut off the incoming ripples, but the Vastness doesn’t work that way. All connections run in both directions.
Down the stairs, out the double doors, into the empty back parking lot. More and more floaters are linking into your feed.
You reach the wall and stumble, your motions no longer entirely your own. You’re not used to this. The Vastness isn’t common on earth. It’s a toy for children, here. Undignified, and far too intimate for social interaction. The connections happen in secret, in quiet back rooms with darkened windows. You’re not sure . . . you can’t quite . . .
You didn’t expect to snare this many viewers.
You fall to one knee, gun sliding between your fingers. Shouts echo from the far side of the wall. You are dizzy, and horrified, and disgusted, and furious, and you cannot tell which of the emotions are your own.
You place a hand at your temple, struggling to disconnect the feed . . .
You sit at the edge of your bed – alone, as requested. It has been three months since the nurses traced the bloody footprints back to your hospital room. Two months since they moved you out of intensive care. Twelve days since your first trip, unaided, to a toilet.
Twenty seconds since connecting to the Vastness.
The backflow floods your senses, and you feel complete again. You didn’t dare connect earlier, not even as a spectator. The connection always goes both ways.
You push to your feet. The braces around your spine, arms and legs creak gently. The IV and fluid drains are gone. The swelling in your face has receded, but the scars and titanium bracings will remain.
The inward scars are worse.
You push aside your anger, the fury at what has been done to you. You are a floater, and while streaming to the Vastness you represent all floaters. You force your body to move, step by step, just as you’ve practiced for the past five days.
The hall outside your room is lined with candles – tall ones, squat ones, thick, thin and patterned; propped on tables and rising from the floor, in multiple colors. Notes and cards carry wishes for a speedy recovery. A single amber flame hovers above each wick, giving off warmth.
You have never seen earth candles before. They are startling and magnificent, beautiful in a way the tiny blue spheres from the orbitals could never hope to be. Your eyes water as you look at them, but not from your own emotions. The ripples from your feed have changed. You realize with astonishment that there are earthdwellers listening, thousands of them. They must have been drawn by the news coverage. Their minds are subtly alien, but their enthusiasm buoys you as you complete your trek down the hallway, one foot in front of the other, one breath of air at a time.
There are no air filters on the doors. You push the handle and step outside for the first time. Into open-ness.
The crowd surrounding the hospital shimmers like a restless beast. You try to focus on it, but the clear blue sky beyond the tops of the buildings locks your joints and sets your thoughts staggering. It is vast, stretching from one end of your vision to the other, daunting beyond anything you’ve ever seen and even though your brain knows it’s impossible, you can’t help feeling that every step, every jump, every motion might propel you into that uncorralled realm of openness, that you’ll float upward and outward, untethered. Forever.
It is a phantom terror. Illusory, like early spacewalkers who feared falling toward the hazy blue globe far below. But that doesn’t stop your heartbeat from washing through your ears.
The sky hangs overhead, unbounded and terrifying. The crowd shuffles anxiously. You moisten your lips and creep forward, ignoring the cameras and microphones, sustained by the enthusiasm on your backflow. Questions ring out from reporters: Who paid your medical bill? How long are you staying on Earth? Will you attend the trial of your attacker?
You shake your head and keep walking. Those questions don’t matter now. The divide between grounders and floaters, that’s what matters. The way gravity is yanking your species in two directions.
Bodies crowd the police barrier. Hands reach toward you. You find yourself reaching out in turn. Skin on skin, palm against fingers; you look into the eyes of your fellow humans. Hair and jewelry points stubbornly toward the concrete, but the faces no longer seem unusual. You shake hands in the grounder fashion, greeting a maladroit teenager; an old woman with cyber-piercings; a man who introduces himself as a physicist; a little girl wearing glasses . . .
Two hours later you are in a car on your way to the local capital. The world rolls past outside your window: buildings and grassy fields, solar parks and vistas. You can’t stop thinking about the crowd outside the hospital. Many of them are still with you, tapped into the Vastness. They share your thoughts, send muted responses via backflow.
The car keeps rolling. A flat, gray surface approaches, sliding across the horizon. At first you assume it’s a tarmac. Then a pair of wild ducks settles on it, and you realize that it’s water. Pure, rippling water, held in place by the collective fist of gravity.
Your breath catches in your lungs.
Gravity is the heart of everything here. It is the mighty unifier. Nothing on this planet does anything without making obeisance.
Even the orbitals, those graceful floating habitats where you spent your childhood – even there, this planet holds you. Gravity slings the habitats through their orbits, makes transport to and from the surface so expensive. It holds all of humanity in its grip. It will never let you go.
Your mind spins, muscles trembling as the car rolls to a stop and you struggle to disembark. The atmosphere presses around you, and you feel as if you are clawing your way through history, forward and backward at the same time, to the roots and branches of humanity.
More cameras wait for you outside the vehicle. More faces awaiting recognition. Your backflow ripples, floaters and grounders lending fragments of emotion. You are the focal point, the place where disparate minds come together.
You are not the answer to humanity’s problems.
But you are the beginning of the place where it can be found.
The sky flows overhead, amazing and terrifying and awe-inspiring all at once. The crowd cheers as you move forward. The elation on your backflow is overpowering.
This is who we can become, you think to the listening multitude. Who we were always meant to become. A people with the courage to look in each others’ faces, and hear each others’ voices, and seek each others’ welfare. People willing to defy the laws of the universe.
The people who will stand against gravity.
About the Author
Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Jim Baen Memorial Award recipient, and a Hugo and Nebula nominee. During her graduate work at Brigham Young University she studied artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing. In the years since, she has grappled with the far more complex process of raising four children. All these experiences sometimes infiltrate her writing.
About the Narrators
Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Uncanny, Apex, and Tor.com.
She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author.