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.