Gravity Well

Melanie Joosten


The flyscreen door bangs shut as you thump down the steps to the garage. You haul up the roller door, the dust coming alive in the sunlight. The campervan is faded, a memory of itself; the stickers on the bumper describe things people used to care about: Keep Australia Beautiful. Be Safe, Be Sure. Give a Damn, Vote Democrat.

Squeezing into the narrow space between the wall of the garage and the van, you ease the driver’s door open and pull yourself into the seat. The vinyl is cool against your bare legs, but there’s an old beach towel handy to sit on; the seat will burn hot if the van is parked in the sun for a few hours. You don’t expect the battery to start, but when you turn the key, the engine coughs into service. Releasing the handbrake, you put the van in reverse. Throwing your left arm over the jump seat, you grab the passenger headrest and look back at the driveway. After the dark of the garage the bright sun flares, and you clench your eyes shut, put your foot to the floor. The van leaps backwards, you don’t want it to stall. Give it some more petrol and push out into the day.

And then everything stops.


It is the scorpions scuttling across her chest that wake her; her windbreaker whispers and shifts with their movements. She thinks it is rain at first, her half-asleep mind convinced by the sounds of pattering. Wary of the sharp stones digging into her elbows, Lotte props herself up, her eyes on the sky. Not a cloud in sight, just stars popping loud, multiplying in whichever direction she turns, and the moon tossing glare across the desert.

It can’t be rain; she is in one of the driest places in the world. Even during the height of what they call the Bolivian winter, no deluge has ever made its way down here, not in living memory. During the day, snow cracks light off the sides of distant mountains crowned with solemn volcanoes; just twelve kilometres away, the Pacific runs far wider than eyes can take in. There is water all around, but not in the air, not here. That noise again, delicate, sounding now like a bird hopping about in the undergrowth, and Lotte looks around, letting her eyes adjust as she waits for understanding. Watch and wait — she knows it well enough. On a nearby ridge the four squat shapes of the observatory’s main telescope are silhouetted like office blocks against the sky. The mountain has been flattened here into a platform, so the units of the Very Large Telescope can move about on their tracks; she isn’t as far from civilisation as she might like. Twenty kilometres away, at Cerro Armazones, they are building the Extremely Large Telescope — the unimaginative names never fail to make her smile. As the telescopes get bigger, language struggles to keep up: there is the Giant Magellan Telescope planned for Las Campanas, and the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope, which had proven just too overwhelming to build. Even the radio telescope being erected across the deserts of Australia and South Africa has a requisitely derivative name — the Square Kilometre Array — having, as it will, a square kilometre of collecting area. It is a constant challenge for astronomers — how to comprehend and communicate the immensity of everything they hold dear. Words are not big enough.

Lotte coughs and swallows, her lips tight and mouth dry. There is so little humidity that the air steals whatever it can, wicking away any moisture a body dares emit. It was here that Pinochet built his concentration camps, repurposing old nitrate mines deep in the Atacama Desert: low dormitories hunkering in the sun, alien in the red desert sands. She cannot fathom how anyone survived out here without the humidified enclosure of the observatory residence, though survival was not exactly what was on the Pinochet regime’s mind. Those camps sound eerily similar to the old detention centres back home — Curtin and Woomera — places so far from the lights and life of cities that they are just as ideal for holding the unwanted as they are for watching the night skies. Pinochet’s political prisoners would track and identify the constellations rolling above; dream of the freedom they might one day attain. Lotte doubts that Australia’s asylum seekers, now marooned on island prisons far from the mainland, are even allowed outside at night.

She is reaching for her water bottle when she sees them, ruby-edged in the moonlight. Almost a dozen, perched on her chest amongst the hills and valleys of her jacket, and there, further down, on her jeans, each one smaller than her hand, an army of neckless thugs. Not a single scorpion is moving now that they have her attention, seemingly indignant at their exploration being interrupted. Their tails are raised in parentheses, a synchronised swimming team of attack, and Lotte is mesmerised, impressed by their aggressive righteousness. Then, a scratch at her collar.

She scrambles to her feet, abruptly shaking the scorpions off, jiggling at the sleeves of her jacket and dancing about. Are they poisonous? They must be, why the hell else would they have tails like that, pincers at the ready? For holding hands? She stops moving, alert to any possible activity against her skin, her breath sharp in her chest. The air is thin up here. Even after almost five years she still finds herself wheezing if she walks up the road to the control room of the VLT instead of catching a ride on the shuttle. Walking isn’t strictly allowed — no one wants any kind of accident, not this far from proper medical help — but everyone understands the need to get out once in a while, to stretch your legs and pretend you have somewhere to go other than the telescope platform or base camp. There is a gym at the residence, and a swimming pool in the lobby, its water feeding the air while the surrounding palm trees sway hopefully, oblivious that the sky they are reaching towards is capped by a glass dome, and covered at night by an umbrella that unfurls to block the residence light so it doesn’t interfere with the observatory. They’d held a staff Christmas party there, paper hats and Christmas bonbons strewn about the atrium, the babble of heavily accented English and Spanish hanging in the air, the occasional outburst of laughter or exclamation in any number of languages. Her team had toasted Lotte to send her on her way; five years of service, and she had little to express but gratitude for their dedication and hard work. Promises of meeting again that would be fulfilled by circumstance of employment rather than any genuine attempt at friendship — such was the nature of the job, people coming and going from all over the world. She would miss them; she would miss the work more.

The scorpions disperse, skating camouflaged over rocks and pebbles. It is low now, the moon, skimming the horizon, and if she stays out long enough, another hour perhaps, she’ll see it burn deep orange toward the mountains. Dare she sit down, or will the little fuckers come back? Properly awake, she is alert to the sounds of the desert now — the slippery trickle of sand over rock, the hum of the wind crossing the ridge of the dune.

Lotte stamps her feet together, trying to get a little warmth into them; it always seems impossible during the mild, sunny days that it will be so cold at night, but the Atacama is a place of extremes. Especially in one regard. Lotte tips her face to the sky and drinks in the view. Millions of stars fill the vast space above the mountains. She spots the Scorpius constellation easily: riding high, its brightest star is tinged red, holding the place of the creature’s heart. Eight hundred times the size of the sun, and it looks like nothing, hundreds of light years away. It seems impossible that the desert scorpions wouldn’t know of their colossal namesake, watching over them and chasing Orion through the sky since the beginning of their existence. Its tail curls from the Milky Way, the sting marked by the paired Cat’s Eyes stars. At least ten planets have been discovered in that constellation alone, and Lotte is proud of her role in this. But it isn’t even a drop in the ocean: a conservative estimate places 160 billion planets in the Milky Way itself. There’s every chance one might prove as habitable as Earth, and no chance at all. So much work to be done. But not by her, not right now: tomorrow, Lotte will be down the mountain and taking the bus to the airport at Antofagasta; a flight to Santiago, and then another to Australia. She’d been back just once in five years, briefly, to sort things out with Vin and renew her visa. But she’d avoided almost everyone else, hadn’t even told them she was in the country. This time, though, she doesn’t know how long she will be staying. And she doesn’t think she’ll be able to do it alone.
The sky has been her constant companion over the last five years, even if she sometimes forgot it was there — her nights were spent in the fluorescent-lit control room, comparing data and plotting the following night’s observations; her days were spent sleeping in one of the comfortingly austere rooms at the residence. Odd how little time astronomers actually spend looking up at the sky — just looking, not measuring, or plotting, or reading.

Slung between two hills and buried underground, the residence building is a bunker by any other name, and if it weren’t for the internet, a person could spend months in there unaware as to whether the outside world was collapsing entirely. Since she’s been here, it feels like every time she goes online, the planet is reaching for its endgame: Ebola breaking out across Africa; airplanes disappearing or being shot down; schoolgirls being abducted en masse. Not to mention the bushfires, earthquakes, and floods, as biblical as any gospel writer could hope for. All of it happening within 40,000 kilometres, yet somehow seeming so much further away than the celestial bodies her work is concerned with.

Until recently, Lotte had spent less and less time on the internet: the voices increasingly histrionic, the world both despairing and incredulous as events seemed to spin out of control. Yet to an observer like herself, nothing substantial had changed. Like other planets, the Earth’s history could be understood in chunks of thousands of years, its current period one of unremarkable stability.

Much of her time is time spent looking at objects to confirm there has been no change, so that when there is change it can be accurately measured. Each observation holds potential significance, the possibility of a great uncovering. Over the years, her team has predicted with confidence that every red dwarf in the Milky Way hosts at least one planet, and that a quarter of these are likely to be habitable. Recently, they’d identified an Earth twin. Only slightly larger than Earth, and inhabiting the elusive ‘Goldilocks’ zone: not so close to its sun that all life would burn up, not so far away it would freeze. This discovery of a possibly liveable planet had lit up Twitter for twenty-four hours: how long might it take to get there? What would be found when we did? Fleeting dreams that promised a future once the human race had finished trashing Earth; musings about alien life forms and colonisation. It was nonsense, of course: all the team hopes to find is water, in some recognisable form. And they doubted even that was achievable, guessing early on that the planet’s makeup was most akin to that of Venus — scorching hot with a thick, soupy atmosphere. But Lotte cannot deny that she loves it when the public gets interested; when they can see, however briefly and selfishly, the worth of her work. It justifies all the hours she spends contemplating distant, barren worlds when, arguably, there are more pressing things to be doing for this world.

A fox looms out of the desert, disappearing as soon as Lotte moves her head to look at it. She turns slightly away and stares towards the ridge, relying on her peripheral vision in the dark. The fox reappears, a grey skeleton of a creature, the moonlight fraying its fur. The sound it releases is guttural — a purr almost, deep in the throat — and Lotte interprets it as a warning, taking a quick step back. What the hell is she doing out here all alone?

Gravity Well Melanie Joosten