“A Greater Good”
by Laura O’Brien
There’s nothing more terrifying than an empty to-do list. Normally, my list stretches too long for my viz to show it in full; I have to flick the projection again and again until I reach the bottom. But today, I deleted every task, except for one: board the shuttle back to Earth.
I should take one last look around the apartment but that would remind me of the hundred things I should be doing. I can’t risk it. If I don’t go today, I’ll never see Grandma again. The bag on my back, stuffed with my belongings, will be my home until I reach her apartment in San Francisco.
I breathe through my frazzled nerves and hit the unlock button. The front door opens with a swoosh, and I leave.
Our apartment door faces an abyss. A thin ring of white tiles and hip-high railings protect me from the drop to the Needle’s tip.
Mom and Dad insist on calling the space station by its proper name, the Halayna, no matter how awkward it sounds. But to everyone else, the Halayna is the Needle; a long, slim space station that tapers to a point. It orbits Mars, a planet overwhelming in its untapped potential.
I grab the railings and look up through each cavity in the sixty-one floors above me. The Needle houses two thousand people, most of which are Ridge employees developing life support systems for planets beyond Earth. The remaining dozen are their dependents, and at 16, I’m the oldest.
I thought I’d leave the Needle in two years to study physics in MIT. My parents would have waved as I stepped into the shuttle to Earth, their smiles infused with pride. But I can’t wait for that dream to come true anymore—Grandma doesn’t have that long to live.
Today, Ridge’s passenger shuttle leaves on a three-month voyage back to Earth, carrying anyone who wants to go home. All of its cabins were full until last night when someone canceled their ticket. Without thinking, without planning and obsessing and rearranging my schedule, I took that place on the shuttle. Once Ridge confirmed my booking, doubt flooded my mind. Endless hows and whys and what ifs-
Stop it. Must stick with the plan. Go to the docking bay. Go to Earth. Go to Grandma.
The elevator to the Needle’s Boulevard comes as soon as I call it. I step inside and shove in my earphones. Foxytocin’s chaotic guitar riffs bludgeon my worries to mush. On Earth, pristine pop music was my soundtrack. Up here, in a sterile space station far from humanity with no to-do list anchoring my mind, I need Foxytocin’s fury.
I wonder what Grandma will think of Foxytocin. Will she be proud I’ve embraced their rebellious spirit? I’ll find out soon. In three months, I’ll sit by her bedside and put one earphone in her ear and another in mine. I’ll watch as she experiences Foxytocin for the first time. She’ll show me the few smiles and winces she has left.
Grandma put down her viz. “Caitlyn, sweetie, I have bad news.”
“Uh-huh.” I kept my attention fixed on my math assignment. It was a few weeks before I left Earth and moved into the Needle, and I’d just figured out how to solve for X in question nine. The equation was tricky to work through. What Grandma was about to say was easy to guess.
“That was your Mom. She’s working late again, your father too.”
“Said something about an error with a deadline. Or a deadline on an error.”
A kitchen chair scraped against tile. Her hand, with rings interrupting each finger, landed on mine. “Caitlyn, is that ok? You can be honest with me.”
I looked up from my homework into Grandma’s eyes, framed with crow’s feet. Sprigs of hair shot out from her back-combed bun, a messy and elegant look that defined her. I shrugged. It didn’t matter how I felt about my parents’ absence. Their work could support millions of lives in outer space. How could my feelings compare?
Grandma lifted her hand from mine, rested her cheek on her fist, and pursed her hot-pink lips. I knew that look, the one I relished as a child but dreaded when my workload sky-rocketed throughout my teens. She was forming an idea, which I didn’t have time for. “I need to finish this math assignment, then there’s physics homework. I also have to practice for my violin recital-“
She yanked my viz out of sight, and the math assignment it projected vanished with it.
“Hey! What are you—Give it back.”
“Your work will be here when you return,” she said.
“Return from where?”
“From the beach, my dear.” She hurled my viz into a drawer. It landed with a sickening clunk. I launched myself from my chair and ran to the drawer, but Grandma dragged me out of reach.
“The weather’s perfect for a bonfire.” She wrestled my coat on me and pushed me out the front door, away from the night I had planned.
The Boulevard at the top of the Needle makes surviving in space feel like living in an airport. A white vaulted ceiling holds hundreds of fluorescent lights, scaring away the barest traces of shadow. Ridge-branded supply stores and gyms hug the walls. Cafeterias tout bland food born from the Needle’s plant chambers or shipped in dry from Earth. The offices and labs sit above these outlets, where Ridge employees spend their waking hours. This is the Needle’s only public space but there’s nothing to do except shop, work out, or work hard. Nothing to occupy me between now and the shuttle’s departure.
The closest the station has to a getaway is the floor-to-ceiling window at the end of the Boulevard. I sit at the window and watch the black of space encroach on Mars. My chair seems fragile beneath me, as though a breeze could hurl it into the void, sending me with it.
I rip my gaze from the window, take out my viz, and ask it to show me the pros-and-cons list I wrote last night. I scan through it but my gaze blurs into the white spaces between each point.
Mom and Dad should be here with me, but they’re not. They’re always working. Even when Ridge forces them to take annual leave, they sit at the kitchen table, log onto their vizes, and work all day. Not even Grandma’s cancer could change them. They hired a nurse to live with her back on Earth but they wouldn’t return to her themselves.
“By the time we arrive back on Earth, care for your grandmother, and return to the Halayna, one or two years will have passed,” Mom told me. “We could never ask Ridge to give us that much time off. We have responsibilities here—not just to Ridge, but to humanity.”
I asked if I could go to Earth alone and be with Grandma. But they lectured me about my tutor’s demanding curriculum and my MIT dreams. Life waits for no one, they said, so I must keep pace. Even after I overheard Mom stifling her sobs in the bathroom one night, my parents wouldn’t relent. They’d made their decision.
And last night, when I booked that spot on the shuttle, I made mine. At least I thought I did. But now, doubt takes root, and the pros-and-cons list does nothing to lift it. In my rush to return home, I didn’t consider my education. It’ll take months for me to reach Earth and enroll in school. That’s one hell of an absence; I’ve never even taken a sick day. Will I struggle to catch up? Or will I need to repeat the year?
Grandma would laugh if she found out that was my biggest concern but Mom and Dad would understand. We don’t tolerate time wasters–they don’t make history.
Time wasters like Grandma, who always looked after me when my parents worked late. Who soothed my concerns when I needed her. Who was patient with me when I ignored her. Who listened to me snap at her for every little thing.
I’m dropping everything to be with her, but what if she doesn’t want to see me? Why should she spend her last days with her ungrateful granddaughter?
I close the pros-and-cons list and stare at Mars in all its murk and mystery.
The sun vanished over Ocean Beach’s horizon and the sky melted into a navy blue. Cold salty wind rushed in from the sea. I huddled closer to the bonfire, holding my marshmallow-on-a-stick over the burned-out wood at the flame’s base.
Grandma pinched my stick and rotated it in my grasp. “You gotta keep twirling it or it won’t roast evenly.”
She let go, and I followed her lead as the heat scorched a golden-brown crust across the marshmallow.
“It’s ready now,” Grandma said. “Give it a try.”
I pulled the marshmallow towards me and bit into it. It was heaven—a sweet, nutty, buttery goo. I took another bite and one more, savoring the simple yet luscious pleasure.
Grandma smiled, her pink lips rendered a warm red in the bonfire’s glow. “You never did that before, did you?”
I shook my head. “Didn’t have time to.” The word ‘time’ broke the spell. I still hadn’t finished my math assignment, I hadn’t even started my physics homework, and my violin recital was looming.
I stood and brushed away the sand. “We should get back-“
“Hey, what’s the rush? Sit down.” Grandma yanked at my sleeve but I stayed standing.
“Grandma, I’ve so much to do, we have to go.” The math assignment, the physics homework, the violin recital. If Mom and Dad found out I was ignoring my work to roast marshmallows-
“It’ll all be there when you get back,” said Grandma. “Just enjoy the moment.”
“I can’t enjoy the moment, not when-“
“Sweetie, you’re so busy all the time. You need to take a breath now and then.”
“How can I breathe when you’re wasting so much of my time?”
That came out shriller than I’d intended. I saw it all over Grandma as she recoiled and dropped her jaw. My stomach twisted into a knot but I ignored it. I had work to do.
“Come on.” I trudged away from the bonfire, away from Grandma, and headed back to civilization.
The docking bay’s airlock doors, once shut tight, are now open, revealing a tunnel that links the station to the shuttle. Half a dozen people sit near the doors. There’s a couple; one is on his viz and the other stares into space, but they hold each other’s hands throughout. The rest babble with one another about how they’ll spend their first night at home with the people they love.
I set my bag on my knee and hug it.
I want to return to Grandma before she dies but am I being selfish? One good deed can’t erase all the ways I took her for granted. And it’s not like she’s alone. She has a nurse who looks after her. She has friends in her apartment building—Aggy and Joanne—who treat her with the respect she deserves.
It’s Mom, running into the docking bay, her tight ponytail holding her hair in place.
My stomach leaps, then falls back to a comfortable spot. This is a sign. Of course I should stay, I was being much too hasty. I should go back to our apartment and get ready for my tutor tomorrow. If I stay up late, I can get all my work done in time.
But first, I have to explain myself to Mom. I stand, clinging my bag to my chest. “How did you know I was here?”
“Janet took an early lunch and saw you wandering into the docking bay. I had to cancel a meeting to come get you. Why aren’t you with your tutor?”
“I’m sorry, Mom, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Her gaze darts between me and the tunnel to the shuttle. With each glance, severe lines form on her forehead.
I blush. “Just with Grandma and all…”
A little life drains from Mom’s eyes, and her shoulders crumple. “Oh Caitlyn, we’ve been over this.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
She sighs. “My heart breaks for her too but we can’t leave the Halayna. Before we left Earth, your father and I told your grandmother it wouldn’t be easy for us to return, and she understood.”
“Well, she…” Mom trails off. The comfort I felt at seeing her falters. “But she knows we’re doing important work up here. Caitlyn, I was going to tell you tonight, but we got the go-ahead to test our water supply system on Mars.”
“That’s huge,” I say, unable to fill the words with the enthusiasm Mom deserves.
“It’ll happen in a few months so we have a lot of work to do in the meantime. If we had an extra year or two, all three of us would have boarded the first shuttle to Earth to be with your grandmother. But your father and I can’t delay this project. Humanity’s future is at stake.”
I’ve heard stuff like this before. Whenever I ask them to do something that might interfere with their work, Mom and Dad pitch their latest breakthrough. I’ve accepted their arguments so many times. What does it matter if they work late, forget my birthdays, or move me to a space station? I’m just one person. My needs don’t compare to all of humanity’s.
But I’ve spent most of my teenage years ignoring my needs, and I’m tired. Tired of pushing myself to work all day and all night, as though ticks on a to-do list measure my worth. Tired of my parents assuming that because I’m a good girl, I can take care of myself. Tired of treating everyone who loves me as a distraction. Like Grandma. Anytime she spoke to me, I brushed her off and buried myself in my studies. I valued MIT more than her. No ambition is worth more than the love she showed me. I owe it to her to—no, I want to repay her kindness.
The half-dozen others queue for shuttle. I take a step towards them. “I’m sorry Mom, I can’t.”
Mom balks. She must know her pitch isn’t working this time, yet still she asks: “Can’t what?”
“I can’t make the same mistakes you did.”
“Caitlyn? Caitlyn, you can’t go.” She grasps the air and looks around the docking bay, desperate and searching. “You have that… that physics test next week and then that Spanish oral exam…”
Is that all she has? I shake my head and turn from her, but she grabs my arm and digs in her fingers. “Ow, Mom!”
“Caitlyn, please, I can’t lose you too.”
Only now do I see how pale she is. Only now do I see her eyes water.
I step through the distance between us, wrap my arms around her, and press my face into her shoulder. “You’re not gonna lose me.”
“But you won’t come back.” Her voice wobbles under the strain of suppressed emotion.
She’s right. There’d be no point returning to the Needle, not when I plan to go to college in a few years. But I say nothing, and we stay in this embrace until the shuttle crew make the last boarding call.
We part; the beginning of an unfathomable divide. Yet I’ve never felt closer to her.
The shuttle soars, and Mars shrinks to a red blotch. The Needle has long left my sight. Foxytocin’s drum solo crashes through the calm, a sharp taste of humanity in the dead of space.
I pull my gaze from the window, plonk my bag in the corner of my cabin, and sink down onto my cot.
I can’t believe I’m leaving the Needle. Leaving Mom and Dad after everything they’ve taught me about diligence and responsibility. After everything Mom said in the docking bay.
Instead, I’m facing a life of unknowns. So many questions run through my mind:
How will Grandma react when she sees me?
Will she forgive me for treating her so poorly?
Do we have enough time to reconnect?
But I hold onto one certainty: I’ll be there for Grandma. I’ll be there as her energy drains from her and she can no longer walk on the beach or roast marshmallows. I’ll be there as she lies in her bed for the final time and greets death.
In this moment, as I lie in a metal container hurtling towards my home planet, being there for her is all that matters.
Laura O’Brien is a science fiction and fantasy writer who lives in Dublin, Ireland with her cats, Mulder and Scully. Since we bought this, her first sale, her short fiction has appeared in Apparition Literary Magazine.