Greg Walk­lin

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Greg Walk­lin is an at­tor­ney by day and a free­lance writer by night. Aside from writ­ing for the city news­pa­per in Lin­coln, Ne­braska, his fic­tion has ap­peared in Palooka mag­a­zine, Mid­west­ern Gothic and on­line at Lawyerist. In 2014 he was a fi­nal­ist in

Glim­mer Train’s New Writ­ers Con­test. In the vein of Arthur C Clarke and Kim Stan­ley Robin­son, ‘Space Tears Can Hurt’ does what all good sci­ence fic­tion does, and tells a poignant, hu­man story that just hap­pens to take place on a space sta­tion.

Ruth is float­ing. Through the ob­ser­va­tional port­hole of the In­ter­na­tional Or­bit­ing Space Sta­tion, she watches the Shack­le­ton —a ship al­most as big as the sta­tion it­self—draw silently closer. On the win­dow a thin caul of con­den­sa­tion has de­vel­oped. She wipes it away to get a bet­ter look. Dock­ing is a sort of breath­less process, fraught with the po­ten­tial for a myr­iad things to go wrong. In this case it is all the more dif­fi­cult as ships like the Shack­le­ton are, tech­ni­cally, never sup­posed to dock at the IOSS. Ruth’s pulse quick­ens.

“All the new de­signs are ugly,” Gio­vanni, the sta­tion’s com­man­der, says from be­hind her. “Not as ugly as the IOSS,” Ruth replies. The brand new Shack­le­ton, built specif­i­cally for its Mars mis­sion, is sleek and black and shaped like a boomerang. To­gether, she and Gio­vanni watch it spin silently to ori­ent it­self for dock­ing. Around them, the rest of the IOSS crew are now watch­ing from other port­holes. The Shack­le­ton’s ap­proach has been ir­reg­u­lar and shaky, the mark of a pi­lot not ac­cus­tomed to dock­ing. Ac­cord­ing to its log, its heat shield was

dam­aged leav­ing Deimos, and with­out it the ship can’t re-en­ter the Earth’s at­mos­phere.

“Why isn’t an­other ship com­ing to pick them up?” she asks. As the mis­sion com­man­der, Gio­vanni is al­ways in con­tact with Ground Con­trol. He is not par­tic­u­larly good about re­lay­ing in­for­ma­tion. “You know how Con­trol is. It would cost too much.” “So we’re the only ones who can help?” “We’re cer­tainly the cheap­est,” he replies. “At least we’ll fi­nally be use­ful.” Aside from some gen­eral ex­per­i­men­ta­tion in mi­cro­grav­ity, the pri­mary pur­pose of the IOSS is to mon­i­tor the sig­nif­i­cant amount of de­bris and mi­crom­e­te­oroids or­bit­ing the planet, and to col­lect, or va­por­ize, po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous ar­ti­cles. Since va­por­iza­tion comes with in­ter­na­tional pro­to­col and le­gal is­sues, it rarely hap­pens un­less there is a di­rect threat to a space­craft. Mostly they col­lect what they can. They are, es­sen­tially, space garbage col­lec­tors, but no­body on the crew will use the term. “Oh, it’s not so bad here,” Gio­vanni says. “It’s even bet­ter when it’s quiet,” she replies. The IOSS has a crew of a dozen. Ten men and two women. As vice-com­man­der and com­man­der, Ruth and Gio­vanni are usu­ally on longer stints in or­bit; from the mo­ment they were first as­signed to the IOSS, she sup­posed, given their ages and po­si­tions, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore some­thing ei­ther did or didn’t hap­pen be­tween them.

Gio­vanni has been moody since she turned him down for a date. He is too nice to let her re­fusal se­ri­ously harm their

work­ing re­la­tion­ship, but she sees a sad edge to him since their last ro­ta­tion. Like a knife that’s dulled from dis­use. She takes her eyes off the Shack­le­ton and watches him run a hand through his buzzed hair. She has al­ways known him to have a sober, vis­i­ble scalp, but she’s seen a pic­ture of him and his ex-wife in front of the Ca’ d’oro: Gio­vanni a Vene­tian youth with ras­cally, shoul­der-length locks, a dif­fer­ent gio­vane, a per­son that Gio­vanni used to be, per­haps. She knows the feel­ing. Though she liked the pic­ture, she prefers see­ing his scalp, the way it moves along with his eye­brows. “Mi fai vedere le stelle.” He’s test­ing her. You make me see stars. “È raggi cos­mici.” That’s the cos­mic rays, she dead­pans. “Ec­cezionale. Your skills are im­prov­ing.” At the sound of sev­eral re­sound­ing beeps, in­di­cat­ing the dock­ing process with the Shack­le­ton has be­gun — suc­cess­fully, mak­ing Ruth take a deep breath — he swings him­self around, so that he slowly be­gins to float away. “Un­for­tu­nately we are go­ing to have to break up our af­fair,” he says. “A tragic end­ing of two star-crossed lovers.” “I can’t com­pete.” “No­body can.” As she watches him leave, one eye be­gins to sting. Through blurry vi­sion, she pauses and plucks out an er­rant eye­lash, which was mak­ing her eyes wa­ter. In mi­cro­grav­ity, when you’re or­bit­ing the planet in space, tears stay in lit­tle salty, liq­uid balls, un­able to fall out. They sting rather than soothe. Cry­ing is not pal­lia­tive, but yet an­other dan­ger. It threat­ens to blind. Ruth blinks

and en­sures she has wiped her eye clean of any more de­bris, then fol­lows Gio­vanni down the cor­ri­dor.

Af­ter the lengthy dock­ing pro­ce­dure and pro­to­cols, the Shack­le­ton’s astros emerge from the ship clutch­ing the dock­ing bay’s handrails like novice ice skaters. Gio­vanni can’t help laugh­ing, and soon he’s joined by the gen­eral guf­faws of other crew mem­bers. Soon enough, the noobs let go of the wall and are all float­ing in place. Ruth scru­ti­nizes the com­man­der, who is surest of her­self and tries a back­flip. Em­bold­ened by her ex­am­ple, the other three be­gin swiv­el­ling and spin­ning and som­er­sault­ing around, knock­ing limbs and heads. Soon they’re laugh­ing, long af­ter the IOSS snick­ers have died down. Like ev­ery other cur­rent in­ter­plan­e­tary ves­sel, the Shack­le­ton has a com­plex ar­ti­fi­cial grav­ity sys­tem; the last time most of th­ese astros ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced such a lack of force was in train­ing. As the ship’s crew set­tles and draws closer, Ruth rec­og­nizes the com­man­der. When she’d read the log, she had held out the slim pos­si­bil­ity that the com­man­der of the Shack­le­ton might be a dif­fer­ent Luisa Shel­ley.

But see­ing her back­flip, it is now ob­vi­ous to Ruth who Luisa is: the Ex­am­ple.

The Ex­am­ple was in the very first class of the In­ter­global Space Academy. To those after­ward, from Ruth’s year and be­yond, she was “the for­mer stu­dent,” “a past stu­dent,” “one cadet” who “should be a les­son to all of you” not to “lose fo­cus,” “lose dis­ci­pline.” Though she was never named ex­plic­itly by any in­struc­tor, ev­ery stu­dent knew her real name.

In fact, the only thing that any­one knew for sure—ver­i­fied by an ISA stu­dent who had snuck a look at her per­son­nel file and plas­tered her pic­ture around the academy with the text DON’T BE LIKE ME — was that she had be­come preg­nant while she was a stu­dent. Only later, af­ter the clouds of teenage irony cleared, and more of the cadets started fuck­ing each other, did the whis­pers say some­thing else: the Ex­am­ple was a vic­tim of dou­ble stan­dards.

So why was she back now? Luisa was the fallen star, and as ev­ery astro knows, fall­ing stars are ac­tu­ally me­te­ors. Like most me­te­ors, she had burned up, and once you’ve burned there was gen­er­ally no re­turn.

The Ex­am­ple brings up the tail end of the Shack­le­ton’s pro­ces­sion into the IOSS. “Where’s the head?” she asks Ruth. Ruth points be­hind her. “You know, it takes some get­ting used to.” “Shit­ting in a bag?” Luisa asks. “I can han­dle that.” Do­ing a la­conic breast­stroke, Luisa dis­ap­pears around the cor­ner. In the in­terim, the IOSS and Shack­le­ton crews ex­change pleas­antries, dis­cuss the sam­ples the Shack­le­ton col­lected on the Mar­tian moons, and make in­nocu­ous talk of global pol­i­tics. When Luisa re­turns, she doesn’t en­gage in the float­ing cir­cle of con­ver­sa­tion, but in­stead be­gins in­spect­ing all of the wires, but­tons, switches, and com­part­ments of the IOSS. Slowly, Ruth ap­proaches. Luisa no­tices she is there with­out turn­ing around. “Th­ese old de­signs,” she says. “It feels so cramped. There’s crap ev­ery­where.”

“Ev­ery space is func­tional,” Ruth replies. “We usu­ally sleep on the ceil­ings.”

Luisa fi­nally turns around. “I can tell by the way you’re look­ing. I get it all the time, at least if the astro is old enough. By now I think they’ve found other fail­ures to high­light in class.” “I’m not sure —” “Please,” Luisa says. “You’re won­der­ing, ‘How did the Ex­am­ple get back into space?’” “I wasn’t —” “You were,” Luisa says, hold­ing up a hand. She ex­hales and looks back at the walls, the ceil­ings. “I think ev­ery­thing I’ve heard is right. This is a bit of a shit­hole, isn’t it?”

“It’s got­ten a lot of flak,” Ruth replies. “But it’s still got many good years ahead.”

Luisa’s face eases into some­thing near­ing a smile.

As they await re­pair in­struc­tions from Ground Con­trol, the Shack­le­ton crew slowly ac­cus­tom them­selves to ma­noeu­vring in the IOSS’S mi­cro­grav­ity. Most of them take long, ad­mir­ing glances out the port­holes at Earth, en­joy­ing se­rial sun­rises and sun­sets, suck­ing on pack­ets of apri­cot juice and sig­nalling to each other when a favourite lo­cus is view­able. As mis­sion as­tro­nauts, they are used to catch­ing only fleet­ing glimpses of the Earth, be­fore they’ve been blasted so far away the planet is a pale blue dot. While they’re gawk­ing, Luisa checks in with Ground Con­trol, tak­ing no no­tice of the view. While Ruth con­tin­ues to be­lieve she will even­tu­ally catch Luisa in awe of

the globe, so far the older astro hasn’t shown even a mod­icum of in­ter­est.

Over the comm, word comes from Ground Con­trol that re­pairs should be­gin as quickly as pos­si­ble; they have sent an up­dated guide for fix­ing the Shack­le­ton’s heat shields. The shields are older tech, mostly un­changed from Ruth’s ISA days, and she could fix them in her sleep. The Shack­le­ton’s en­gi­neer is hav­ing se­ri­ous stom­ach is­sues ac­cli­mat­ing to the mi­cro­grav­ity — it’s funny, Ruth heard they don’t even re­ally test for that any­more—so Ruth vol­un­teers for the spacewalk. The raised eye­brow she gets from Luisa are enough to make the work worth­while.

Soon Ruth and Luisa are suit­ing up, with the as­sis­tance of both IOSSERS and the Shack­le­ton crew.

Af­ter Ruth and Luisa are left alone in the air­lock, fas­tened and teth­ered to the space sta­tion, await­ing re­lease and all of the fi­nal level checks, Ruth says, “I have an­other ques­tion for you.” Their ra­dios haven’t been turned on yet, but will be soon. Luisa’s re­ply is sar­cas­tic. “Is it this im­por­tant?” “It’s about the ISA.” “Not my favourite topic.” “I un­der­stand that,” Ruth says. “I am just won­der­ing —” “Let me stop you there. Are you still won­der­ing how they let ‘the Ex­am­ple’ back in?” she says. “Or how ‘the Ex­am­ple’ ever got com­mand of a mis­sion? Won­der­ing who per­haps I fucked dur­ing each in­ter­view?”

“I would never …” Ruth cocks her head, not sure how to phrase the ques­tion.

“Must have re­ally had to whore my­self out, to get com­mand of a Mars mis­sion.” “That’s not what I mean.” “Well then, what do you mean?” Ruth fi­nally just says it. “Was Com­man­der Ben­son the father?” “What?” Be­fore Ruth can an­swer, the comm kicks on. “Test­ing,” Gio­vanni says. “Uno, due, tre.” “What?” “Ec­cezionale.”

Com­man­der Ho­ra­tio Ben­son was the first hu­man to walk on the sur­face of Mars. It took five years of his late 30s, nearly killed him, and per­ma­nently dam­aged his eye­sight, even be­yond the best laser re­pair. Af­ter his dra­matic splash­down, streamed to more than three bil­lion com­put­ers, he re­fused the ticker tape pa­rades and talk shows, the en­dorse­ments and the book con­tracts, and in­stead founded an academy. Within two years it be­came the global stan­dard, and soon enough ev­ery astro in space was a grad­u­ate. Ruth’s father had a framed copy of Ben­son’s of­fi­cial mis­sion por­trait hung in his home of­fice, and spoke of pride, when­ever she re­turned to Ne­braska on ISA breaks, that the fa­mous astro had been his daugh­ter’s in­struc­tor.

It was the sum­mer of Ruth’s first year when Ben­son called her into his of­fice, late June, as dusk was set­tling into night. By then his hair was moon-grey, but he’d re­mained his ex­act fly­ing weight. His of­fice’s walls were lined with fan­tas­tic pic­tures of the ris­ing

of Deimos, which looked fake, but which he him­self had taken. His blinds were drawn. Stones from Olym­pus Mons had be­come pa­per­weights on his desk. He quoted Arthur C. Clarke, Kurzweil and Hei­deg­ger to her, and of­fered anec­dotes about walk­ing on the Mar­tian sur­face, how he wanted his re­mains to be buried on the Thar­sis Plateau. He kept mov­ing about the room, un­able to stay still. She re­mem­bers the look on his face when, on the of­fice’s couch, she quit re­sist­ing. I have it now, she could see him think­ing, I bet I am the first here, too.

Even af­ter she grad­u­ated, he seemed to be eter­nally or­bit­ing her, his face plas­tered all over the ISA, a name that came up in con­ver­sa­tion daily. His ubiq­uity some­how made him eas­ier to for­get — he be­came his im­age, the pub­lic ver­sion of Com­man­der Ben­son, ex­plorer of worlds, and not the man in his of­fice with his crum­pled jumpsuit on the floor.

Aside from the comm and her own breath­ing, ev­ery­thing is silent. The back­ground hum of the IOSS, which you never re­ally no­tice un­til it’s gone, drops, and she is left imag­in­ing the sounds that don’t bounce, that can’t echo, such as the grind­ing of pan­els open­ing or the metal-on-metal clink of tools. Through the ra­dio, Ruth can speak with Luisa, but her lips won’t move in sync. It ap­pears as if some­one is trans­lat­ing, as if the au­dio is dubbed.

Set for four hours, the re­pairs pro­ceed nor­mally, with Gio­vanni pro­vid­ing in­struc­tions that nei­ther woman needs, while sweat builds over Ruth’s fore­head and con­den­sa­tion clouds the edge of

her vi­sion. Space­walks are their own marathons. You must never think that there is only a ca­ble con­nect­ing you to the world and keep­ing you from the ut­ter noth­ing­ness of space. Space­walks were the kind of thing that Ruth loved, that she had been train­ing for since she and her sis­ter Ce­cilia were lit­tle girls in her own back­yard, pre­tend­ing their tent was a land­ing mod­ule, a space sta­tion, or a satel­lite. Ce­cilia never had the pa­tience for the in­tri­cate mis­sions, of­ten leav­ing to go in­side af­ter a few min­utes, but Ruth would stay out­side un­til dark, pre­tend­ing the mis­sions hit com­pli­ca­tion af­ter com­pli­ca­tion, un­til she fell asleep with her sleep­ing bag half­way out of the tent.

The heat shield’s is­sues are big­ger than the orig­i­nal di­ag­nos­tics had pegged them, so the fixes take well be­yond four hours. Stretch­ing into hour five, with the work­arounds suc­cess­ful, they even­tu­ally com­plete the job. “That should be it,” Gio­vanni says to her over the comm. “Finito?” she replies, for Gio­vanni’s ben­e­fit. “Finito.” Ruth and Luisa ex­change waves and thumbs-up. Af­ter fold­ing their teth­ered tools back into the brief­case-like kits, they are pulled back to the sta­tion by tow ca­ble, in fits and starts, as if they were way­ward pets.

She has never wanted to en­tirely for­get Com­man­der Ben­son. That would be los­ing too much of her, she fears, as if that rushed night and the other nights were the lessons of a bad teacher, who de­spite him­self made you learn, be­cause you had to teach your­self.

Ruth knew that once they had con­quered, once the nov­elty was gone, con­querors moved to dif­fer­ent ter­ri­to­ries. Al­ways on the path to some­where else. Per­haps there con­tin­ues to be some odd com­fort that the mov­ing on wasn’t about her. She wasn’t a desti­na­tion, just a stop along the way.

But af­ter­wards, gone were the clear nights where she fell asleep look­ing up at the stars, imag­in­ing her­self among them, un­bound to the planet. Gone were the days when she pre­ferred sleep­ing out­side, when she would stare up at the sky. Ben­son had dis­pelled the magic of space, made it some­thing that she no longer dreamed of but felt re­quired to be in, and for that Ruth can never de­cide whether he did her a favour or the gravest in­jus­tice.

What hap­pens next dur­ing the spacewalk is nearly over and gone be­fore she knows it. Later, they will re­al­ize that a piece of space de­bris, some wal­let-sized piece of an old sta­tion, rup­tured Ruth’s tether. But at the mo­ment, all that is ap­par­ent at first is a lurch, and then fly­ing pieces. As she bumps into the side of the sta­tion, she knows she should let her­self con­tinue to drift back to­ward the air­lock, but she can’t help kick­ing the first solid thing she feels, push­ing her­self out and to­ward the black­ness, to­ward the globe. Her arms ex­tend re­flex­ively. Ev­ery­thing spins. Her heart speeds up. She feels like a child again, but in an es­pe­cially pa­thetic way.

Maybe they would have been able to res­cue her—even if Luisa had not man­aged to grab the sev­ered end of her tether so quickly. Maybe the sta­tion, maybe Gio­vanni, would have come up with some­thing.

But Luisa catches her, reach­ing and stretch­ing to her limit, and pulls her closer, wrap­ping the tether around her waist, knot­ting it with her own.

To­gether, Ruth’s heart still rac­ing, they are pulled back to­ward the IOSS.

Ruth hears all kinds of chat­ter over the comm. Gio­vanni, in Ital­ian, yells and shrieks, joined by a din of other voices, the dozens sound­ing like hun­dreds, and her name, over and over—but all she can con­cen­trate on is how tightly Luisa is grip­ping her, as if she is the one who al­most fell away. As if their roles are re­versed.

The crew of the Shack­le­ton stays a few hours longer than planned, un­til Ruth is med­i­cally cleared. Ruth is in and out of con­scious­ness. She’s aware mostly of her ears, which are over­whelmed by the sud­den din, the voices of the crews, as she is stripped of the suit and ex­am­ined by Xi­lai, the taiko­naut who acts as the ship’s med­i­cal of­fi­cer. She passed out, ap­par­ently, some­time in the air­lock, but came to in the med­i­cal mod­ule.

Both crews have gath­ered just out­side the door­way to the med­i­cal bay, al­though they are keep­ing their dis­tance. Luisa, how­ever, presses for­ward. “How are you?” she asks Ruth. Xi­lai floats to the other side of the bay, os­ten­si­bly to grab some­thing.

“Did you think about what I asked you?” Ruth whis­pers. “About Com­man­der Ben­son?”

Luisa’s head tilts for­ward, just slightly. “I get no grat­i­tude from sav­ing your old ass?” “You’re right,” Ruth says. “Thank you.” A long si­lence passes be­tween them. What is it that Ruth re­ally wants from Luisa? Some kind of clear­ance, some kind of as­sur­ance? Near the en­trance to the med­i­cal bay, Ruth spies Gio­vanni, whose se­ri­ous ex­pres­sion is ren­dered much graver by her lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with it. She imag­ines a date with him: de­hy­drated food and a long gaze out­side the ob­ser­va­tion win­dows, float­ing and bump­ing shoul­ders con­stantly, or maybe shar­ing head­phones while watch­ing a subti­tled Fellini on a tablet.

“That’s all I can of­fer you,” Luisa even­tu­ally says. “I hope it’s enough.”

Most hu­mans take grav­ity for granted, even though with­out it, they’d fly right off the Earth’s crust. Only those who float in mi­cro­grav­ity, who feel their own weak­ness upon re­turn­ing to the planet, who see scans with their hol­lowed-out bones com­pre­hend how an in­vis­i­ble force dic­tates ex­is­tence. Grav­ity is our pri­mary il­lu­sion of con­trol.

From the med­i­cal bay, Ruth watches as the Shack­le­ton crew read­ies them­selves to dis­em­bark. There are many dan­gers in space, even those be­yond the catas­tro­phes that can oc­cur dur­ing liftoff, dur­ing en­gine burns or dock­ings or moon land­ings, or from the bands of de­bris sail­ing along Earth’s or­bit. There are smaller dan­gers, such as the way tears dam­age your eyes. In as­tro­naut train­ing, they never just come out and say it. Don’t cry in space.

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