Birth of a Pod Pilot: Minmatar

Gita huddled quietly in the corner of the alley. She tried to sleep, but her ill-fitting cast-off clothes did little to keep the stinging rain off her. It had been like this for weeks now; not the rain, as that came and went, but the fear and hunger and lack of sleep.

Her father had left the family years ago. Her mother said he headed to the Federation to find work so he could send money back to the family. But no money ever came. There was nothing her mother could have done to look for her father, but she kept wondering. One day, she’d say, one day.

That day never came. Instead, as Gita neared her fourteenth birthday, she came home from school to find her mother lying on the floor in a pool of blood. What meager possessions they’d had were gone. When help finally came, it was too late. Gita was an orphan.

Officially, the Republic tried to find her a foster home, but it was clear that nothing would be found. Who would take in a skinny, poorly-educated, fourteen-year-old girl whose most striking memories was of her father deserting the family and her mother being murdered in a burglary? Especially when everyone was struggling to feed their own children.

Eventually, she ran off on her own. She had plans, but they were the foolish half-formed ideas of a fourteen year old who really knew nothing. She managed to reach Retara, the largest city on her home planet of Skarkon, but that was it. Once there, she couldn’t find a job or a home. She saw some other girls who had been reduced to prostitution, but she promised herself she wouldn’t stoop to that.

But as the days turned to weeks and the weeks threatened to become months, her subsistence off the refuse of society was quickly becoming untenable. She had to do something. She told herself tonight would be the last she’d spend huddled in a corner.

The next day, Gita dug through dumpsters until she found an old butcher’s knife. The wooden handle was loose and the blade had a crack in it and the edge was barely sharp enough to scratch her finger. But it looked dangerous, especially in poor light.

That night, she crouched in an alley, waiting. Groups of two or three would pass by, occasionally peering into the alley, but never too worried about a lone person. Two or three loners passed by, but Gita ignored each. She told herself it was because they looked too poor to be carrying any money.

It was nearing midnight when she finally found a target. He was wearing a suit and was by himself. He didn’t look too dangerous either - he was a short Sebiestor, barely any bigger than Gita herself. As he passed by the alley, Gita jumped out in front of him.

“Give me your money!” she yelled at him, brandishing the knife in front of her. The Sebiestor laughed at her. “What’s so funny?” she asked, holding the knife up so it glinted in the street lights.

“Nothing,” he said, though he still smiled. He reached into his pocket and in one fluid motion pulled out a pistol. He held it on Gita. “Drop the knife,” he said.

Gita did. Then, instead of running like she should have, she fell to the ground and started crying. The man kept the pistol trained on her and tapped a communicator in his ear. After a moment, he began speaking to it. “Yes, someone just tried to rob me on Pator Way by the deli. Yes, I’m fine. I’ve actually got the person held at gunpoint, so if you could send an officer… Yes, thank you.”

The man knelt down, the gun still pointed at her, and looked at her. “Pretty stupid to try and rob someone looking like me with a knife. I know this place is a bad neighborhood. Hell, the entire city is a bad neighborhood. Would I really walk around alone and unarmed? You should have got me from behind, knocked me out. Not that I’m carrying any money, but you could have probably at least stolen my suit and gun and fenced them for something good.”

Gita didn’t know why the man was talking to her, but she didn’t particularly care at this point. After a few minutes, a police car pulled up. The officers hand cuffed her, threw her into the back seat, and drove her off to the station.

Gita had admitted her guilt to the court. Since she was only fourteen, they sent her to a juvenile center. In many ways, it was worse than a prison. Prisons got lots of guards and high security, to keep the violent offenders from being even more violent or escaping. The juvenile center had only a few guards, who were underpaid.

On her first day, Gita was beaten by a pair of older girls, who apparently didn’t like how she looked. The rest of the first week was no better. She was bullied by the other girls, who would take her food and force her to do degrading things to earn it back.

She tried to make friends with a few of the girls who left her alone, maybe find some protection somewhere, but those who had ignored her suffering were even more indifferent to her attempts to be friendly. At the end of the second week, things had gotten no better. And she still had five months left of this.

It was at the end of the third week when she was called into the warden’s office. The warden was officially called the Juvenile Behavioral Adjustment Officer, but he was a warden nonetheless. She sat down in front of his desk, a black eye and a growling stomach as her first impression.

“Well, Gita, I’m glad to finally meet you,” he said. He was a Krusual with a serpent’s grin.

“I’m sure,” Gita muttered.

“You’re in her for attempted robbery. Small potatoes, really. I’ve reviewed your file. Dead mother, missing father, ran away from your group home - not that I can blame you, really. Really, what you did was an attempt to survive.”

“That’s right,” she said.

“Well, Gita, I’ve got something to tell you. Something that could help you survive and much, much more.”

Gita frowned. “What?” She wasn’t used to someone trying to help her.

“Remember that blood sample you gave before you were processed?” Gita nodded. She had. They had taken nearly an entire pint of blood; hardly a sample. She’d been light headed the rest of day. “Well, that’s part of a regular screening the Republic does. We test for any genetic abnormalities or possible diseases. Make sure you’re not pregnant. Routine health checks, you know the type.”

“And?” she asked.

“And the Republic Navy also does their own tests. You know, the Navy is disastrously understaffed. Not because people are reluctant to join up - oh no, not at all. But only because there are so few of our people available to join up. I’m sure you know all about the Amarr and the strife of our people?”

“Of course,” she said. “What’s this got to do with me?”

“The Navy is always trying to get an edge up on our enemies. They need whatever they can get. That’s where the blood tests come in. Gita, you have several of the genetic markers that indicate you may be compatible with a capsule. Do you know what that means?”

She shook her head. She’d heard stories of capsuleers, of course, but that’s all they were to her. They might as well have been stories about dragons and fairies for all the impact they had on her.

“Only a portion of the population can become a capsuleer. A bit of it is genetics, a bit of it is something else. But genetics are the only thing that can be easily tested for.”

“So? Get to the point.”

“The point, Gita, is that this is your chance out of here. The Republic will commute your sentence and pay to send you to capsuleer training with the Navy. If you accept of course.”

“Yeah, ok,” she said. What other choice did she really have?

The Navy had her shipped to Ammold to the Republic Military School’s primary campus. There, they put her through a battery of genetic screenings. They took samples from her blood, her organs, her bones, even her spine. Rarely was she afforded the luxury of proper anesthesia, mostly only getting something for the pain after the test, not the pain of taking the sample.

Each test came back clean. Genetically, they said, she was a match for the capsule. “Don’t think that makes you special,” her admissions officer said. “There’s millions of people who are like you; genetically, they’re clean of any warning signs. Most don’t make it six months before flunking out of the training; and more than a few of the people who do make it end up mind locked when everything is said and done. So don’t think you’re special.”

Gita thought nothing of the sort. She shared a room with three other people. All three were older than her; two were in their early twenties and had enlisted in the Navy after losing their factory jobs, the other was a former shuttle pilot who decided she wanted more from life. All three had tested as genetically compatible with a pod. She rarely saw them, as they were each at different levels of training, but none of them ever was aggressive or abusive toward her.

It was cramped, but she had her own warm bed, a shower to take every morning, and a fresh set of clothes every day. Meals were provided in the morning and evening.

She didn’t feel special, but she swore that she would become special.

The first six months of training were hell. She had to run five kilometers every day, often carrying heavy loads. Even though it was on a space station, they had special courses set up to simulate varying conditions. Some days, it was rainy and cold, others it was sweltering. The terrain was never easy, but there was variety in the obstacles. She did well in mud and on hills, but brambles and undergrowth gave her fits.

But after a few weeks, the runs became easy. She would complete them and still have energy left over. And she needed it.

She took regular classes, learning mathematics and history and science, just like a normal school student her age would. But it was the unusual classes, the ones designed to test her psychologically and push her to the limits mentally that wore her down.

One class had been nicknamed “The Mixer” by the students. It was a flight trainer, where students were strapped into a simulator and tasked with piloting a variety of small craft through various scenarios. The simulator was purposefully designed to make students nauseous during the course of the exercise.

The first time she’d strapped in, Gita vomited after five minutes and couldn’t complete the objective. Her instructors had yelled at her. “How do you think you’ll be a pod pilot if you can’t be a regular pilot?” the screamed. But her fellow students had been impressed. The average person made it to three minutes on their first try.

Another class involved complete sensory deprivation. She was injected with drugs that paralyzed her, then lowered into a lightless vat of warm fluid and left there for an hour. Some of her classmates - upon regaining control of their limbs - quivered and appeared horrified by the experience. She actually liked it, especially compared to the class that came immediately after it.

That class was the complete opposite. Sensory overload. Flashing lights, loud noises, rapidly adjusting temperatures, strange smells and tastes. They all flooded her at once. There was no pattern to them and each day, they came in different amounts and strengths.

She barely made it ten minutes before breaking and begging to be let out the first time, low even for newcomers. It took her nearly a month before she was able to stand the entire hour, and even then she came out trembling and harried. More than once, she broke down crying or dry heaved from the onslaught.

But as the months dragged on, she remained as she watched her fellow classmates drop out one by one. Some couldn’t handle the physical stresses they were under and became sick; others broke under the mental pressure and had to drop out or become gibbering messes. Many transferred to non-pilot classes, still dedicated to the Navy but obviously not cut out for the life of a capsuleer. Gita stayed.

At the end of the six months, the initial class of well over ten thousand had dwindled to a barely one thousand. Gita, one of the youngest there, had made it through the psychological and physical assaults.

“Congratulations,” her admissions officer told her. “Now you really face hell.”

There were no semester breaks for the Republic Military School. You finished one level of training and immediately went into another. The second level of training was still too early to receive proper pod implants. Even though 90% had been eliminated through the first round of training, more still would be found unsuitable in the second and the Republic couldn’t bother wasting resources on unsuitable candidates.

The runs were still present, but they gave Gita no great trouble. The piloting simulations evolved as well. They still resulted in nausea and other unpleasantness, but because of design limitations rather than design specification. The simulations were made to mimic pod piloting without the implants. Instead, electrodes were strapped to her. They were much more inefficient than the pod implants, so they left every student aching and exhausted after a turn on the simulator.

Gita was proud that, despite the nausea and aching, she never once got sick from the simulator. She even proved to be a competent pilot, performing slightly above average for her class.

But the pod pilot simulations didn’t end with just flying courses. They quickly moved into simulating working turrets, afterburners, and other ship systems. Each one was taught separately, with no overlap. You either flew or shot or burned, but never any together. They drilled the simulations into her until they became second nature.

At the end of the second semester, they eliminated anyone who had not become an expert at the simulations. That whittled the class down to a little under eight hundred people. Gita was still among them.

In the third semester, they added in new types of simulations. One simulation involved simply taking enemy fire and gritting through the pain. Some people whispered that actual pod pilots didn’t feel pain; that the pod implants weren’t really designed that way. Others said that the pod implants were worse, that what might feel like a pin prick on the simulator was actually a gun shot in the real thing.

Gita bore the tanking simulations the best she could. But she truly enjoyed the rest of the simulations, now that they moved on to combined exercises. She had to coordinate flying, targeting, firing, and all her subsystems all at once. Individually, each was second nature, but doing them all together was an incredible difficulty.

They gave her respect for the sensory overload courses she’d taken in her first semester. The combined simulations were even more intense, if possible. But she tackled them with relish. She wasn’t the best in her class - not by a long shot - but she picked everything up before most did.

There were only a few cuts at the end of the third semester. Those who had made it this far were good enough to make it all the way. The only thing that could stop them now were their bodies.

“Are you ready?” her admissions officer asked.

“Yes,” she answered quickly and decisively. “I’ve been training for over a year for this. It can’t come soon enough.”

The officer smiled. “Good. I wasn’t sure when you first came to us,” he admitted. “You didn’t have the look of a future capsuleer. But you’ve proven yourself. Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

They put her under. Six hours later, she woke up feeling like hell. Her entire body ached and her back throbbed in pain. She asked for more painkillers, but they told her she was already on enough to put down a queen fedo.

Despite the pain, as she reached back and touched the cold metal ports running up and down her spine and neck, she was filled with pride and joy.

A week later, she was discharged. There was still some minor aching around the ports in the morning. When she ran, they throbbed with a dull pain. But that would go away, in time, they told her. And she knew she could stand it, even if it didn’t.

Once more, she was with her admissions officer.

“Are you ready?” he asked again.

“Of course. I’ve come too far to be nervous.”

“Good luck,” he said. They hooked the pod up to her. She felt herself being lifted into the warm goo and felt all of her senses melt away.

It seemed as if she floated forever there, feeling nothing. But it was really only a few seconds before the pod began interfacing with her implants. Thirty seconds later she was in control of the pod. It was not hooked up to any ship, it was only there to let her experience being actually hooked up to a pod.

“How is everything?” the voice of the instructor asked, directly into her head.

“Everything is…” she wanted to say amazing and spectacular, “running smoothly.” Her own body was gone. The pod was in its place. She felt somewhere beyond human.

“Try to activate the thrusters,” the instructor ordered. She did so. It felt as natural as walking forward. “Good, now the warp drive.” As she did so, a warmth spread over her, a wave of ecstasy. “Good, good. Well, those are the two tests we can run with just the pod interface. But they’re the most important. We can bring you out now.”

She felt all her pod senses melt away. A few eternal seconds later, she felt the warm pod goo again. Soon, she was being lifted out and laid down on the floor. They detached the cables and plugs and withdrew the breathing apparatus.

“Gita,” her admissions officer said. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” she said blearily, as if waking from sleep.

“Can you move?” She opened her eyes and smiled. She sat up, then stood up. He smiled back at her and, in a rare moment, hugged her. She hugged him back, as tight as she could with her still-tingly arms. Then he pulled away and saluted her. “Congratulations,” he said. “You’re officially a pod pilot.”

“Yeah,” she said, still riding a high.

“Now go get cleaned up. You still have classes to attend.”

She saluted back to him and ran all the way back to her quarters, wearing a gaping grin the entire time.

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