“It’s only for a little while.”
The words echoed in Tom’s ears as he sprung out of bed, doused in sweat. He looked around and, seeing he was alone, collapsed back against the mattress, hoping to steal a few more minutes of sleep. But the second his eyes fell shut the alarm blared, bathing his micro-apartment in flashing red light.
Groggily, he slipped off his bed and pushed it back into the wall, pulling out the sink. As he brushed his teeth he noticed just how tired he looked and couldn’t help but feel disheartened. If sleeping almost every moment he wasn’t working wasn’t going to make him feel well-rested it should have at least made him look the part, shouldn’t it?
After he’d gotten dressed and nuked a breakfast pouch, he stumbled out of his tenement and headed for the tram. The lower-ring of Maxson Station was a tumult of commuters. Office lackeys, stardock workers, even schoolchildren all rushed toward the same single point where the tram-rails ran at the center of the common chamber. Tom tried to ignore the fact that the sheer amount of people breathing in the open area was making the air thick and humid. It made him sick, remembering just how many people were crammed inside this small tube of metal and he often fantasized about what life would have been like had he been born on a planet or a moon instead.
While he was waiting for the blue line to arrive, someone tapped at his shoulder. Tom turned around to find Dax, one of his old friends from Academy, standing behind him. “Tommy Tinker-fingers! How the hell are ya?” the mop-topped man said, far too eager for so early in the morning. He wrapped his arms around Tom, who waited with seething patience for the embrace to end. “I didn’t know you were living on the lower-ring now,” Dax said, letting go. “How long you been down here?”
Tom took enough of a step back that Dax wouldn’t be able to hug him again. “Two months. Couldn’t afford the old place on my own.”
Dax’s smile faded. “Alone? But you and PJ were so good together.”
“Still are,” Tom said perhaps a bit too quickly. “She’s just doing a tour with some traders, putting those ship-smarts of hers to work. We didn’t break up or anything.”
Dax’s expression shifted, this time to disbelief. “And you didn’t go with?” Then softer, almost apologetic, “I mean, you know with all that time-dilation, even the shortest trade runs last like three years for people back at station, right?”
Just then the blue line descended the center column, a godsend. “Sorry Dax,” Tom lied. “I’ve gotta catch my line.”
“Well let’s catch up later? Maybe grab a broo or two over at Elmo’s?” Dax shouted after him. But Tom was deep enough into the crowd by that point that even though he’d heard Dax, he was able to get away with nothing more than a non-committal wave. As he boarded the train, he couldn’t recall ever being so happy being surrounded by so many people.
Work was hell.
The minutes were hours, the hours days, and every time Tom took a seat in front of his drone console in the morning it felt as though he wasn’t going to be able to get up without leaving a piece of his soul behind. But alas, the credits must flow, and after dropping out of the Academy this was it, unless he wanted to go off-station and abandon PJ. So he sent his courier drone from Maxson Station to the violet gas-giant they were orbiting and brought it back, tanks full of purple gas. Then it was rinse and repeat for twelve hours.
There was, at least, a small respite. Between the sixth and seventh hour of the collection cycle everyone in Tom’s section of cubicles was allowed a thirty minute lunch break. Tom’s co-workers took this time to roll their chairs out into the hallway and chat about the new VRs they’d gotten or the troupes that would be coming in with the next freighter run. Tom only ever joined them if politely coerced by Marge or Holmes, and even then only for as long as he had to to keep from becoming the office pariah. It wasn’t that they were bad people, it was just that lunchtime was his only opportunity to work on the Sun-Skimmer.
It was something he and PJ had designed together in their last days at Academy. A schooner-class vessel with just enough space for the two of them, a dog, and maybe a Khakian servant down the line. The two of them were going to see all the Orion Systems with it, from Usculo to Old Sol herself. They’d skate from star to star, never shackled to a moon or planet longer than they’d like, never crammed inside a metal tube with four million other people. They would be free, just like they’d always planned it.
There was the issue of money, however. It wasn’t cheap to fly, even with your own rig, but they’d known that from the start. It was why Tom dropped out, why he’d been grinding away as a miner ever since, why he lived in a six by ten box in the station’s lowest ring. Some days it felt like everything Tom did, from the second he got up until the moment he came crashing back down on his bed, was in service to the dream of the Sun-Skimmer. And most days, that wasn’t far from true.
The moment lunch began Tom would load the design file and pour over it, looking for any suitable replacements for the ambitiously expensive parts that had comprised their initial build. He’d thumb through forums and swap-meet sites on the outer-web to study markets and find what parts would be going for cheap soon. He figured, with his cost of living shrinking so fast, that he might actually get to start before PJ came home. And in the hours after lunch he daydreamed of what it would be like to guide her to a storage cell the day after her return and reveal a fully assembled wing or piloting console waiting for her inside.
The rest of the day proceeded with little incident, the only hiccup being a volatile storm that had pealed through the swath of planet that Tom had been assigned. But even that was a welcome distraction from the dull, near autonomic flight to and from the planet’s atmosphere. When his twelve hours had finished he stalked slowly back toward the tram and rode it back down to the stuffy lower-ring again. He was halfway back to his apartment when he remembered that the breakfast pouch he’d grabbed that morning had been his last and kicked himself as he turned and started to swim in the opposite direction of the multitudes, toward the grocery.
When he finally made it to the front of the checkout line with his cartful of assorted pouch-meals, the plump woman behind the counter shook her head. “These things might be cheap, but they’ll kill ya,” she told him as she passed them across the scanner. “Full of factory scraps and that twice-processed cheese. I always say, if you don’t have to keep it refrigerated you shouldn’t put it in your–”
“Then maybe you should stop selling them,” Tom interrupted. That shut her up. It was enough, even, to ensure that he didn’t get the smile and “have a nice day” she’d given the twenty or so people who’d been in line before him.
When Tom finally stumbled back across the threshold of his apartment he didn’t even bother putting the food away. He tossed the bags in a pile, slid his bed out from the wall, and flopped down on it face-first. After a long while of lying motionless, he entertained the notion of putting on his VR suit and either touring the UOS Grissom for the hundredth time or having a go at one of the handful of exotic human-hybrid women that had come in the cartridge he’d shamefully splurged on about a week after PJ left. But in the end he was too tired for either, so he dimmed the lights, pulled the covers over himself, and grabbed the long pad of paper he kept beneath his pillow and the pen that went with it.
He scratched an “X” across the day’s date, then stared at the calendar for a long time. There was a little over six months’ worth of “Xs” behind him now, and there was some relief in that. But as Tom’s eyes drifted down the pad, his mind reeled at the fact that he was only one tenth the way though the five years that lay before him. And when he saw that final day, staring at him from the inside of a bright red circle, Tom felt sick to his stomach.
He didn’t sleep well that night. He spent most of it thinking about how, to PJ, the last six months had been scarcely more than six days thanks to time-dilation. And again and again those terrible words rattled in his ears. The words she’d said just after kissing him. Just before boarding. Just before disappearing into that endless black.
“It’s only for a little while.”
Originally posted as a response to a prompt by /u/AGuyWithARaygun on reddit.com