Discovery of Truth

The three happiest days of Jerek’s life were, in the order they occurred, the day his son was born, the day he was married, and the day he was accepted into the State War Academy as a prospective pod pilot.

His son, Hahn, had been born on April 17th, when Jerek was only sixteen. His joy at the moment, of holding the tiny little boy in his arms as his mother slept quietly in the hospital bed, was only barely tainted by his worry at how he would provide. Luckily, Jerek’s parents had been supportive beyond all measure. His father had put in overtime and his mother had watched the infant while Jerek attended school.

A year later, to the day, Hahn’s mother Jalia married Jerek. The ceremony was small, even by Caldari standards, being limited to just their parents and no one else. The two of them were very much in love and very committed to raising their son in the best environment possible.

Once more, a year later to the day, Jerek received his acceptance to the State War Academy. He had dreamt of becoming a pod pilot since he was young, raised on the stories of the heroism of the capsuleers who fought in the Caldari-Gallente War. He had worked long and hard to make it; sacrificing a social life to improve his grades and keeping in shape despite his genetic predisposition to being overweight.

The day he was accepted, he threw his arms around Jalia and hugged her tight, then did the same with his parents, then took his son, lifted him up, and said, “Daddy’s gonna be able to give you everything soon.”

His first semester at the Academy was hard. He was not allowed to bring Jalia and Hahn with him. “It will weaken your resolve,” they told him. “You are here to become a soldier of the State first, a pod pilot a distant second.”

He merely saluted and agreed, even though he knew his desire could be second to nothing. His drill instructors pushed him to his limits. He was forced to run further than he ever had before. Ten kilometers in the morning, ten in the afternoon, ten in the evening. And sometimes, just because the drill instructors wanted it, ten more in the middle of the night after being woken by a blaring siren.

The running wasn’t all. The Academy stressed physical training. Push ups until his arms gave out, sit ups until he wanted to throw up, squats until he couldn’t stand. All the while, berated and insulted by his drill instructors.

It hadn’t been bad at first. But a few weeks in, one of the instructors noticed he resembled Basto, a character from a popular holo game series. Within days, the entire instructor crew had picked up on it.

“Basto! You’ve just gotten a power star!” one would yell to him. He was expected to immediately begin running around while singing the music from the game. “Basto! Cadet Kilra is Raton!” another would say, referring to the main antagonist from the games. “You’ve got your lightning sword! Go defeat him!” He’d have to run up to Kilra and pantomime attacking him with a lightning sword, while mimicking the sounds the game made.

Still, he gritted his teeth and bore it. If he even hesitated slightly to do what he was told, he was forced into more running, more push ups, more sit ups, and more squats. By the end of the first month, it was second nature to him. He reacted immediately to their orders without thinking of anything else. The instructors still found enough small flaws to force him into more exercise, which he never quite got used to, but at least he was able to make his way through it without too much difficulty.

Of course, the physical aspect of the first semester wasn’t the only difficulty for Jerek. He was, after all, training to become a pod pilot. Physical toughness was only half the equation. The other half was mental. And when his drill instructors weren’t doing their best to mold him into a killing machine for the State, the professors at the State War Academy were hammering mathematics and science into his head with the same ferocity.

The classes were difficult, much more so than what he had taken in school. Couple with the constant exhaustion he had from the physical training, he was barely able to scrape by. Most classes, he was too tired to think, much less learn. But he found a way to fit in his studies. He read his text books while he ate. While other cadets would be sleeping, he was given special permission to stay awake to finish classwork.

Sometimes, he would mutter to himself, “I’ll be a pod pilot. No matter what, I’ll be a pod pilot.”

By the end of the semester, he was a wreck. But he had passed.

His second semester started off much better. The physical training was slackened in favor of more studies. He still had plenty of running to do, but the drill instructors weren’t so intent on pounding away at him. They still did on occasion, and the Basto jokes never stopped, but they were focused on the new class of recruits.

Because he was given more time to rest and recuperate, his grades improved. They were never spectacular, but they were acceptable, and neither his instructors nor teachers had any issues with him.

But Jerek was most thankful that he was finally to see Jalia and Hahn again. He had a day off every week. He always took the two hour shuttle home, spent at least twelve hours with his wife and son, then took the two hour trip back.

“You’re looking better than ever,” Jalia told him one night as she lay with him in bed. “All your training has really gotten you into shape.”

He chuckled. “Don’t get too used to it,” he said. “Once I’m a pod pilot, I plan to let myself go.”

“Oh, you’ll be rich then, so you can afford to have some fat burning implants put in, I’m sure.”

“Do those even exist?”

“They should.”

“I’ll look into it,” he laughed.

“You know, Hahn really misses you.”

“I miss him too. Every day, I miss him,” he sighed. “But I’m doing this for him. For both of you. Once I become a pod pilot… I can make it so neither of you ever have to worry about anything ever again. It’ll be perfect.”

“I know,” she said. “And I know you want to be a pod pilot more than anything else. It’s just hard for him to understand that.”

“He’ll understand, one day. I know he will.” He sighed and rolled out of bed. “I need to get back. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Near the end of the second semester, his admissions officer called Jerek into his office. “I’ve got some bad news,” he said. Jerek braced himself. He was ready for almost anything, except what came. “Your genetic screening came back with numerous red flags. You are disqualified from becoming a pod pilot.”

Jerek sat there immobile for a long minute. “What do you mean?” he finally asked, in the calm, steady, confident voice that he’d been trained to always use.

“As you know, we run extensive testing on all prospective pod pilots in the Academy,” the officer said. “Yours came back with numerous warning signs that indicate you’ll likely suffer from complete, incurable mind lock if you are to interface with a pod.”

“There has to be some sort of mistake,” Jerek said.

The officer shook his head. “I’m afraid not. We checked and double checked numerous genetic samples. They all came back the same, Jerek. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing that can be done. You’re being removed from the pod pilot program immediately.”

“It was my dream to become a pod pilot. I have to be one.”

“You can’t, son,” the officer said firmly. “The sooner you realize that - ”

Jerek stood up. “No! I’ll do whatever I have to!” he shouted. “I have to be a pod pilot! I can’t give up! I can’t! I don’t care what the risks are, I’m going to face them! Please! You have to let me!”

The officer remained sitting behind his desk. “Look, I understand you want to become a pod pilot. But there’s nothing that can be done. It’s not a risk. It’s a certainty. There’s no way the military will let you interface with a pod.”

“Maybe if I keep training!” Jerek said frantically. “Maybe I can make it so I won’t! Maybe - ”

“Calm down, Cadet!” the officer said forcefully, bringing Jerek to a halt. “No one will let you keep training. It’s a waste of time. The State will not allow you to paralyze yourself permanently for no reason! None of the four empires would be so stupid! You need to get that through your head, understand?”

Jerek slowly sunk back into his seat, defeated. “Yes, sir. I understand, sir.”

“Good,” the officer said. “Now, there are still alternatives for you. Your instructors have good things to say about you. And you’ve already completed some of the basic officer training. If you wanted, you could easily transfer into the officer’s path and become a Navy Officer. There is no shame in that. Or you can go right into service as an enlisted man. Again, that’s a worthy calling.”

“I… I think I need to think it over, sir.”

The officer nodded. “Of course. Give it a few days. Finish up this semester. We can make a final decision later.”

Jerek limply stood and saluted, then left the room.

Jalia cried with him while Hahn slept in another room.

“It’ll be ok, Jerek,” she whispered. “You’ll find something else. You will.”

“There is nothing else,” Jerek sobbed. “I wanted to be a pod pilot. And now I’ll never have the chance. There’s nothing for me.”

“You still have me and Hahn,” she said.

“That d - ” He bit his tongue and cut himself off. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re right. I have you two. That’s what’s important.”

But he didn’t stop crying, not until he got back to his room that night and finally fell into a fitful sleep.

Eventually, Jerek decided to enter the officer’s training program. It offered more of a future and a pathway toward something at least passively like what he hoped for: command of his own ship. He would not be wired into it. He would not feel the warm embrace of pod fluid or the expansion of consciousness that exhilarated so many pod pilots. He would not feel the tension in his stomach as his ship aligned for warp. He would not feel the gentle tickle that came with flying through a gas cloud or the throbbing pain that accompanied taking heavy weapons fire.

But in the distant future, with hard work, exceptional skill, and personal drive, he would one day be on the command bridge of a regular navy ship. It was as if he could see an oasis in the desert, only there was a massive canyon between them.

He graduated and was assigned to a Navy Caracal operating along the border with Pure Blind. His first tour was uneventful. He continually went through the motions. He did what he was told, and little else. His service reports came back as solid but unimpressive. He was passed over for all promotions, remaining an Ensign until the end of the tour, when he was finally promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade.

“He’ll stick there forever,” he overheard a senior officer comment about him. “No drive, no passion for the job. He’ll stick around until he realizes he’s going nowhere, then quit.”

He said nothing to anyone about the comment. Not even to Jalia when he returned from his tour.

“I wish they would give you more leave time,” she said to him one night. “We really could use you around more often.”

“Well,” he sighed, “I doubt that’ll happen. But I think I’m only going to go on one more tour. After that, I’ll apply for a discharge.”

She sat up. “What? Why?”

“That way I can be with you and Hahn more often,” he lied. “We’ll be a real family.”

She smiled and kissed him.

His second tour started off even more uneventful as the first. They were patrolling the area near Amarrian space this time. With the Amarrians being allies, there was little to do beyond chase the odd smuggler.

But one day, a strange ship emerged through a stargate. It was covered in spikes and looked like some strange deep sea creature.

“Who are they?” the captain asked.

“It’s one of those mystery ships,” the tactical officer said. “The Amarr have been reporting them in their space. Mostly scavenging wrecks, but occasionally committing acts of piracy. Some people are saying they’re the remnants of Sansha’s Nation.”

“They aren’t responding to any hails,” the comms officer added.

“Well, we need - ” But then a laser lanced out from the ship and smashed into the ship’s shields.

“Minor damage,” the tactical officer reported. “But we won’t be able to take too many laser hits!”

“Get us range on them!” the captain ordered.

“Yes, sir!” Jerek answered, punching in commands. The ship slowly began to turn and accelerate away from the ship.

“Fire missiles!” the captain followed up.

“Missiles away,” the tactical officer said. They watched on the view screen as the propulsion of the missiles lit up and streamed toward the ship. They collided with it in a massive explosion. “Direct hit,” the tactical officer said. A second later the small ship emerged from the fireball, speeding toward them. “Only minor damage to its shields.”

“It’s rapidly approaching,” Jerek reported. “We can’t outrun it.”

“Get us out of here!” the captain said.

“Warping us to planet III. Aligning to warp,” Jerek said as he urgently punched in commands. Suddenly, the panel froze and a red warning light lit up. He shook his head. “We’re warp scrambled, captain.”

“Dammit! Keep firing missiles!” the captain ordered. “Maybe we can shake it off us.”

“Our missiles aren’t having much effect,” the tactical officer said. “It’s moving too fast. We are about to lose our shields.”

“Dammit!” the captain cursed again. “That thing must have a capsuleer aboard! There’s no way a regular ship could move that fast!”

Just then, a Crow dropped out of warp a few kilometers away. It dove straight in at the alien ship and engaged it. Within a few seconds, the attacker was destroyed.

“The Crow is hailing us,” the comms officer said.

“Well, let’s answer him,” the captain said. A moment later, the comm channel cracked to life. “I don’t know who you are, but you saved our ass,” he said.

“Just doing my job,” the Crow pilot said. “The Amarr Navy’s been tracking these ships for days. Hired me to destroy them. I’m done here, have more to find and get rid of. If you spot any more, please let me know.”

“The comm channel is closed,” the comms officer reported.

The captain shook his head. “Damn capsuleers. Get me a channel with Navy command! I need to report this.”

The Navy was very interested in the strange ships. It ordered Jerek’s ship to gather as much of the wreckage as they could for investigation. They immediately sent out full salvage crews.

Jerek was in the cargo hold as one particular piece of the ship was being brought into the hold. It looked like a tangled mass of cables and electronics. At the center was a human corpse.

“What the hell is that?” Jerek asked.

The crewman attending it shrugged. “I don’t know. The only body we found on board, though. Must have been piloting it.”

“Doesn’t look like a capsuleer,” Jerek said. “They are in pods. Not… whatever that is.”

The crewman nodded. “Yeah. It looks like he was wired directly into the ship. Some of these look like intravenous nutrient feeds.”

Jerek stared at the corpse. “Wired right into the ship?”

“Yeah,” the crewman said. “I wonder if these really are Sansha’s Nation ships? I thought Sansha was dead and his Nation destroyed.”

“That’s what they say,” Jerek muttered.

The encounter with the Sansha’s Nation ship changed Jerek. His commanding officers attributed it to the first real brush with death he’d ever had. He was dedicated, driven. He was promoted to a full lieutenant soon afterwards.

He told Jalia he was applying for a third tour. She was disappointed, but supportive. She saw the change in him too, but she didn’t think it was the brush with death. “You look like you did when you still thought you could be a capsuleer,” she said with a smile.

He nodded. “Yeah, I feel that way too.”

He began to take risks. He volunteered to lead boarding crews against pirate ships. The men he lead praised his decisiveness and bravery. Within a year, he was promoted to lieutenant commander.

When the majority of the bridge staff was killed in a fight against the Guristas, he took command and got the ship to safety. It was his recommendations that eventually led to the Navy destroying an entire Guristas command center.

Less than three years after his encounter with the Sansha ship, the Navy promoted him to Captain. They offered him a choice of commands.

“I want something safe,” he said. “Maybe command of a science vessel.” The request stunned his superiors. “I want to be able to bring my family on board,” he explained. “I miss them.”

The request was unusual, but not unheard of. Many career officers traveled with their families. Most were assigned to stations, but a few took very safe ship commands. The Navy was disappointed that Jerek wanted to take a non-combat role, but agreed anyway.

Jerek leaned over, rereading the message. He had chosen his words carefully. He wanted there to be no misunderstanding. Everything had to work perfectly.

“What are you looking at?” Jalia asked him.

Jerek quickly flicked off the screen. “Oh, nothing,” he said, turning around to face his wife. “Just reviewing a few reports from the crew.”

She smiled and leaned to kiss him on the cheek. “You work too hard,” she said. “You’re just commanding a supply ship. Why can’t you relax a little?”

He laughed. “Commanding a supply ship is relaxing. At least you and Hahn get to see me every day now.”

As if on cue, Hahn ran into the room. “Daddy, daddy!” he yelled. “Look! I put together the model you gave me!” He held up a small toy Osprey, that he’d gotten for his birthday earlier in the day.

Jerek grinned. “Did you put it together yourself?”

Hahn nodded vigorously. “I did!”

“Your mom didn’t help you?”

“Nope! I’m eight now, dad! I don’t need mom’s help!”

Jalia chuckled. “He’s right. I even asked if he wanted my help, but he said no.”

“Come here, let me see it up close,” Jerek said. Hahn ran over and placed the ship in his hands. He held it up and looked at it. He could see all the faults, all the loose seams and globs of dried glue. It was an imperfect model of an imperfect ship. “It looks great! Why don’t you go play with it some?”

He handed the model back to Hahn, who grabbed it and immediately ran out the room, holding the ship in the air and making sounds as if it were flying. “I’ll go watch him,” Jalia said. “You get back to your reports.”

“Thanks,” Jerek said. Once she left, he flipped back on the screen. He looked at the message one last time, then hit send.

Not fifteen minutes later, there was a reply. He opened it and smiled. It was exactly the response he wanted.

They were traveling to investigate a small cosmic anomaly in Sirvala. The trip was long, but quite safe. It all went through high security space and there had been no reports of attacks along the route in weeks.

“We’re entering Uedama now,” the navigation officer said.

“Roger that,” Jerek said. He gripped the arms of his chair tight.

“Sir,” the comms officer said, “we’re receiving a distress call. It’s coming from the asteroid belt around planet IX.”

“What’s the nature of the distress call?” Jerek asked. His words were slow and measured.

“It seems they’re having some sort of engine trouble. They’re wondering if they can get some assistance.”

“Warp to them,” Jerek ordered.

“Sir,” the executive officer said, “I don’t like this. It feels like a trap. Why wouldn’t they just contact one of the stations here?”

“Maybe they did,” Jerek said, “and couldn’t get any assistance.”

“They are broadcasting on an official Navy distress channel,” the comms officer said.

“So it sounds official to me,” Jerek said.

“We’re not a combat ship, sir,” the executive officer said. “We can’t risk it!”

“We’ll be fine,” Jerek said. “Warp to them.”

“Yes, sir,” the navigation officer said. “Aligning to warp… Entering warp.”

Jerek gritted his teeth. “Sir, is there something wrong?” the executive officer asked. “You seem nervous.”

Jerek forced a smile. “I’m fine, Commander. Don’t worry.”

The executive officer nodded and looked away, but didn’t seem convinced. Jerek made a note of it.

The ship then fell out of warp. There was a sharp intake of breath from the tactical officer. “I’m reading three Sansha’s Nation Phantasms out there, sir!”

“Hold steady,” Jerek ordered. “Don’t move.”

“What?” the executive officer asked. “Sir! They’ll kill us!”

“No they won’t,” Jerek said. “Hold steady.”

“Belay that order!” the executive officer said. “Get us out of here! N - ”

A gunshot rang out and the executive officer fell to the ground. The other three bridge officers stared at Jerek as he stood there. He calmly turned and shot the tactical officer, who was too stunned to react.

The navigations officer dove from his seat and scurried to hide behind a bulkhead. The comms officer slapped his console and began to shout something, but Jerek shot him before he could. “Computer, shut off all communications from the bridge,” Jerek ordered. The computer quickly affirmed his order.

“Captain!” the nav officer yelled from hiding. “What are you doing?”

“Don’t worry,” Jerek said. “If you don’t fight, nothing bad will happen to you.” He sat down in the comms chair and calmly tapped a few buttons. A channel opened to the Sansha ships.

“We are here for you,” the ghastly voice of the True Slave captain said.

“I know. The ship will not fire on you. Its bridge crew has been disabled.”

“Prepare to be boarded. The crew will be taken as slaves of Sansha’s Nation, as bargained.”

“And I will be rewarded, as bargained.” Jerek shut down the channel, then turned and shot the nav officer, who had emerged from hiding and was about to pounce at Jerek. Jerek shook his head. “You should have never listened to my order banning weapons from the bridge.”

He walked over to the elevator. Before he entered, he said, “Computer, shut off access to the bridge to anyone but me. Command code Delta-Raven-7-6-3-Alpha-Five-9.” The affirmative beep came a moment later.

Jerek got into the elevator and waited as it slowly traveled down the ship. It finally arrived at the command officers’ quarters deck. He calmly walked out and into his own room.

His wife and son were huddled together. Hahn was crying and Jalia was trying to calm him. When she saw him enter, she looked up frantically. “Jerek! What’s going on?”

“Everything will be alright,” he said. He knelt down beside her and took her and Hahn into his arms. “My dream is going to come true.”

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