It was like he couldn’t breathe.
For some reason, he found that funny. Once he’d have said that was hyperbole, but now he knew better. They’d all had to go through the orientation sessions before they boarded the DM Scranton, those endless VR sessions during which they’d had to train for and then endure a host of potential deep space disasters, decompression chief among them. That meant they’d all felt the neurologically-induced sensation of near-asphyxiation (rumor had it that Corporate had experimented with inducing actual asphyxiation, but that negative focus-group testing and a quick consultation with the lawyers about the applicability of various war-crimes resolutions to corporate actors had resulted in a hurried return to a less-than-total simulation). So he literally knew what it felt like to not be able to breathe.
He also knew what it felt like to have his heart crushed in his chest. Not like this, no, but physiologically he was very familiar with it, both from the simulations (both “accidental intersection with an active gravity well” and “thrusters stuck on maximum” involved pulling ridiculously high Gs in the VR room) and from the actual takeoff sequence, where he’d been strapped into the pilot’s seat in the secondary command module and felt the immense power of the DM Scranton’s engines pile-drive him into the acceleration couch behind him (or, as the immense gravitic pull of their takeoff insisted to his lizard brain during the process, beneath him). Then he’d felt every organ, not just his heart, being seized by a massive hand and squelched inside him.
Hell, he even knew what it was like to have your stomach in literal knots, if the topographic physicists were right about what happened in the middle of warp jump. He’d flunked out of n-space topography in flight school (fortunately, only astrogators needed to pass it, and he’d known from day one that was not his path) so he couldn’t follow their logic, but according to the simplified reading he’d been doing (could you believe they actually published N-Space Warp Astrogation for Dummies?) the current thinking was that during a warp the ship and everyone in it began to resemble ancient art: a cross between a Picasso painting and an M. C. Escher etching with a dash of Jackson Pollock overlaid across them both. As a result, his stomach, liver, and every other relevant organ had somehow been knotted, turned inside out, and extraneous to his internal reality for the infinite instant of the warp.
Of course, thinking about ancient art just reminded him of her, so he was currently recreating that effect (in fact, all three of those effects) on a much more personal, psychological scale. Though if anyone had dared to tell him they were “all in his head,” they’d have received a very sharp punch in the face, first because he was not in the mood for that sort of stupid cliché and second because anyone who’d gone through Corporate’s VR training knew exactly how badly things that were all in your head could hurt.
But he had no such convenient target available to vent his frustration on, so instead he just sat there in the empty secondary command module (it was only actually occupied during takeoffs and other emergencies, when the chance of damage to the primary command module was considered sufficiently great to justify the power drain of activating the secondary) and wept.
This was a bad idea.
Not because it wasn’t healthy for him to manage his emotion this way (it was) but because the unoccupied, unpowered secondary command module did not have its gravitic generator turned on, and the DM Scranton’s acceleration was insufficient to generate a pseudogravity of its own. This, in simple terms, meant that the tears didn’t go anywhere because there was no gravity to draw them away. They just accumulated on his face until he was surrounded by a simple sphere of slightly saline water.
If anyone had been watching, they’d have found it beautiful. If they were a particularly artistic someone (don’t think of her, don’t think of her) they might even have found it a metaphor for his decision to hide out in the secondary command module, wallowing in his grief instead of dealing with it, just as he let the tears surround him rather than sucking them up with his suit vacuum or even bothering to wave or wipe them away. They might have concluded that he wanted to let the sorrow wash over him, wanted to indulge his emotions for a little bit where no one else (except of course this hypothetical observer) could notice.
They would, of course, have been right.
Because Lieutenant James Halpert of the DM Scranton was finally taking the advice the ship’s inbuilt psychological evaluation routine (and its interpreter, his friend Chief Human Officer Tobias Flenderson) had doled out during their first training cruise: he was letting his real emotions show instead of deflecting them with (too much) humor.
Unfortunately, he reflected, this was not the first time he’d done just that this evening. And for all that he was currently surrounded by an ever-expanding ball of tears, he had to consider this to be the more successful of his two attempts. Not that he hadn’t let his real feelings out to play earlier in the evening. It was just that it had gone basically as badly as he could imagine it having gone—leading, of course, to his presence in the middle of the aforesaid big wet ball.
He’d made the mistake of telling Comms (Communication Officer Pamela Beesly, his best friend) that he was in love with her. Or rather—since both the psych routine and Toby kept insisting that telling her was necessary for his mental health—the mistake of hoping that when he told her, she’d respond. But, then again, he’d had awful timing, hadn’t he? Here they were, on a colony ship destined for the stars, stuck with each other as coworkers for an unnaturally extended lifespan while they tended the thousands of cryofrozen colonists in the Colony Preservation Tank (generally, and more informally, known as the Warehouse)—including her own fiancé, Specialist Second Class Roy Anderson (though what was so special about him, except for his special ability to make Pam cry, Jim had never been able to tell in all their interactions before the DM Scranton’s takeoff)—and he had taken the first opportunity he’d had when he’d gotten her alone to tell her how he felt, potentially ruining who knew how many hundred years of being forced to interact with each other professionally.
But he’d had to. The date of the first Colonist Resurrection Day was coming up, and Roy Anderson had told him (and Captain Scott, and Comms, and half the Warehouse) on the drunken Camaraderie Event they’d had a month before takeoff that he planned to marry Pam then, “so that she couldn’t back out when they got to wherever they were going.”
Damn the flight planners for building in the Resurrection Days anyway. Apparently some earlier colony ships had shown degradation in either the cryofrozen bodies of the colonists or the technology designed to wake them up over extended flight periods, especially when those periods included a warp, and so the decree had come out that all ships should periodically wake up their colonists for a day at a time in order to confirm the functionality of both plastic and flesh. And of course Roy had been scheduled for the first available date after that little declaration of his at the Camaraderie Event.
So Jim had started the journey knowing he was on a clock, and the feeling had only increased as the days ticked away and Captain Scott’s…idiosyncratic approach towards crew shift scheduling had stopped him from finding a moment alone with Comms until now, only a few weeks before the date Jim had first idly and then increasingly nervously circled on his virtual calendar. It was good that no one but him and the ship’s psych routine could access the interface through which he marked that date, because otherwise he’d never have heard the last of it from anyone, least of all his fellow lieutenant Dwight K. Schrute.
Dwight was a pain in Jim’s ass, not least because (as a graduate of flight engineer school rather than pilot school) he was Captain Scott’s designated number two in the primary command module while Jim was the captain’s backup in the secondary. This lead Dwight to refer to himself as the Assistant Captain, which bothered Jim more than he cared to admit. Not that he thought of spacefaring as a career—God no, it was just a way to get off Earth—but Dwight was Assistant to the Captain and he had vowed never to let him forget it.
And Comms—Beesly, as he called her, Pam as Captain Scott insisted on referring to her, Comms to the rest of them by ancient tradition in the same way Toby was Doc, Chief Astrogator Angela Martin was Stars, Head Engineer Creed Bratton was Guns (even though the ship didn’t have any) and Chief Cryogenic Coordinator Kelly Kapoor was Ice—had been his right-hand woman in helping keep Dwight in his place. And she was enchanting, to him at least, as she did it. The way her eyes lit up as she figured out a way to localize a minor gravitic fault to just Dwight’s station so that his screen started sliding up, or convincing him that Guns had to authorize any and all uses of electricity on the ship with a detailed form (which itself had to be filled out on a device using electricity) was sufficiently advanced technology to be magic. And he was caught in her spell.
But, as he’d found out tonight, she was apparently not caught in his.
No, rather she was, apparently, quite happy to marry a man who was literally not going to be present for the next several decades of her life—a man who had had all of their living, breathing, sentient lives together before this voyage to actually set a date and get it done, but hadn’t bothered until just before he was conveniently in cold storage in the Warehouse, unavailable to help with the wedding at all until he was magically revived and whisked to the front of the onboard chapel—a man who could spend a wedding night with her but would then be returning to the Warehouse for as long as the shipboard computers decided was necessary to keep his body preserved for the inevitable arrival at their destination—a man who would be just as warm and emotionally available down in the freezing darkness of the Warehouse as he had been before.
Most importantly, though, a man who wasn’t him.
Jim desperately wished that there were somewhere else he could go, somewhere he could be besides here in the secondary command module crying his eyes out. He’d been on the comm (ironically—good thing Beesly had been distracted by wedding planning [and that was the only time he’d call that a good thing] and hadn’t noticed his quick call) to Admiral Levinson-Gould, but apparently the only way he could transfer ships was by waiting for the end of this run and then taking the DM Stamford back to Earth. He’d put in for the transfer, of course, because he needed to get out, but it wasn’t soon enough. Nothing could be soon enough now that he’d told her. The one thing the Admiral had suggested was that, if he was really looking for an increase in responsibility (the reason he’d given for requesting a transfer: admitting his feelings for Comms to the admiral was definitely a bad idea even if he did suspect that she was sleeping with Captain Scott whenever the opportunity presented itself) she could give him authority to run command simulations in the secondary module at need, in preparation for his impending transfer. That was why his pass to the module was currently active—which had turned from a minor benefit to a major boon once Beesly had turned him down.
What had he expected from her anyway? He knew her well enough to know she didn’t act on impulse. In fact, that was her greatest asset as communications officer: she might get a little quiet when intimidated, but she didn’t act on impulse. She didn’t rattle—but she also didn’t make the kinds of intuitive leaps that he had found to be his greatest asset in pilot school. So of course she’d told him she couldn’t be with him. She wouldn’t do that to Roy, but she also simply wasn’t that kind of person. If he’d wanted her, really wanted her—as he did, but as he certainly hadn’t acted like he did—he’d have had to lay the groundwork, get her thinking about it, let her have the time to come to her own conclusions.
And sure, he’d thought he was laying the groundwork, but obviously she disagreed. And here, in the sudden clarity of his giant, slightly rotating ball of tears, he could see her point. He’d laid, maybe, the groundwork for the groundwork. He loved her; she clearly valued him. Even as she’d rejected him she’d told him that she valued their friendship, that he couldn’t know what he meant to her. Sure, a large part of him wanted to tell her to stick those words in the nearest airlock and blast them out into space, but he couldn’t afford to ignore them. She did value him. Just not the same way he valued her. And that wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t even his. It was just a fact, and one that he should have expected. His desires weren’t hers, his way of thinking wasn’t hers, and by trying to force her to think and want the way he did he’d only succeeded in pushing her away.
And that was the one thing he couldn’t afford to do. In space, once you pushed someone away you kept drifting further and further apart. He wasn’t sure he could stand it if they did that.