This piece is called "The Life of Nina Cruse" and has been written for the Eight Thousand Suns in New Eden category. Enjoy.
“I’m so sorry, Dad.”
“Oh honey, its not your fault!”
Nina closed her good eye and turned her head to the side as tears began to swell. Her father leaned over the railing of the hospital bed and stroked her hair and brushed some locks of dark hair out of her face that had fallen over her eyes, and as he did so he once again winced at the sight of the right eye swollen shut and the split lip and felt his heart break all over again. His own eyes welled up with tears and the anger in the pit of his stomach began to churn but he pushed it down. Later, he promised himself, right now Nina needs me.
“I tried to fight him off, Daddy, but he was so strong!”
“I know, Nina, I know.” She began to sob in earnest now and she reached up to grab his hand that was stroking her hair, careful not to catch her broken finger that still ached despite the medications. It hurt other places too; her face and ribs where he hit her, her head where it struck the ground when he pushed her down… and other parts she did not want to think about.
“Honey,” her father gently spoke, “its not your fault. Sometimes bad things happen to good people,” he added as his tears began to freely flow and his throat constricted. “Sometimes they happen to the best. Its not your fault.”
They stayed there for a minute holding hands and crying, comforting each other and then he sat back in his chair and wiped his eyes. Jord Cruse had not felt this helpless in a long time and despite knowing there was nothing he could do he felt still the need to say or do something, anything, to make it all better.
“I should have done something different,” Nina muttered from the bed. “Should’ve went a different way home, wore something different… something.”
“Nina, listen to me, its not your fault. Its… its his fault.”
“I should have at least taken self defense classes, martial arts or something,” she bemoaned. “You always wanted me to! I should have listened!”
Her father sighed. It ached his soul to see her torture herself up over this tragedy but he didn’t know the words that would help. “Look sweetie,” he began gently, “Sometimes there is nothing you can do. No matter what, sometimes you just can’t win. Its not your fault,” he paused as he struggled to find the right words, “its just the way it is.”
“NO!” she shouted. “I refuse to accept that this was just bad luck, daddy! No fucking way!” She clenched the sheets with her good hand and slammed it on the bed repeatedly. Then, her anger spent for the moment, she calmed down, took a few deep breaths, and whispered, “I won’t let this happen again.”
* * * * *
“So Miss Cruse, you’re interested in joining the State War Academy, are you?”
Nina sat in the utilitarian office facing the older woman behind the desk, her hands nervously clenched in her lap of her somber skirt and jacket ensemble she borrowed from her mother. She didn’t know why she was so nervous since almost no one was denied their application into the Academy unless they had obvious debilitating defects, and right now Nina was as physically healthy as a 19 year old could be.
The recruiting officer, a semi-retired Chief Warrant Officer whose desk name plate read “A. Danersan”, perused over Nina’s school transcript for a minute before putting it down and looking intently at the young woman in front of her. “Your grades are very good, Miss Cruse. I’m surprised you are not applying for internship at the corporate offices.” She indicated Nina’s body with a wave of one hand. “Especially one of your stature,” she added frankly.
She felt a blush on her cheeks. Nina was painfully aware that at 160 centimeters and under 50 kilos she was a lightweight compared to all of the other people in the waiting room, but she was not to be dissuaded from her goal.
“Yes ma’am, I am small but my dreams are big.” She had practiced that line for days but now that she said it to someone she thought it sounded lame. She hurriedly added, “I believe I can get into the officer stream and then apply for the Capsuleer program.”
Danersan leaned back in her chair and her eyebrows raised in surprise. “The Capsuleer program?” She surveyed Nina again. “Your marks are good, but they are not exceptional. Nothing in your listed interests suggests a proclivity for commanding a starship. I did a search on the net and your page came up.” As she picked up a tablet Nina’s cheeks flushed. “You say under the section on future plans, and I quote, ‘I hope to someday help the community leading recycling and conservation efforts’, end quote.” She put the tablet down and looked across the desk at Nina again. “That was only last year. What changed, Miss Cruse? Why go from wanting to be a conservator to joining the Academy and aspiring to be a Capsuleer? Is this some flight of fancy? Because we don’t take kindly to spurious applicants,” she added darkly.
“Well,” Nina began tentatively, “I’ve had a reality check the last few months. I’ve come to realize that we, I mean, I’m in less control than I thought. Of my destiny, you know?” Danersan said nothing and continued to watch her with an unblinking stare. Nina felt flustered but forged ahead. “I just, I just want to be in control. And staying here and working at some desk job is not going to do it for me. I need more.” She met the older woman’s gaze. “I need a challenge, I need to challenge myself, I need to be stronger. I need to win,” she finished.
She felt like withering under that unflinching gaze but she didn’t. Instead, despite the rapidly beating heart and perspiring brow, she held it and said nothing more. Finally Danersan leaned forward. “Alright Miss Cruse. You’re not the usual applicant that professes a desire to become a pod pilot but I’ve seen stranger things.” She smiled and reached for some paperwork. “Let’s get you started, shall we?”
* * * * *
Nina hit the mat hard, the right hook that had slipped past her defenses and struck her temple had jarred her with enough force to see stars as she spun to the ground. As the ringing in her ears subsided she heard some cheering and some encouragement to shake it off and get back up.
She started to get back to her knees and looked at her opponent. Cadet Donna Klofed was bouncing back and forth on the balls of her bare feet with her gloved fists at the sides of her muscular frame that was about 15 centimeters taller than Nina’s and many kilos heavier. But despite being smaller Nina had gotten a lot more physically fit in the past year since joining the academy and her she was a lot faster than a lot of her bigger classmates. She had made good use of that speed advantage in matches and that made her confident she could take on almost any of the other students, but this time, however, she underestimated her opponent’s reach with those long arms.
“You want more, Cruse?” Klofed taunted. Nina didn’t know her very well as they were in different years in the academy, Donna being one year ahead. They only shared the advanced combat training course where occasionally the instructors would have the cadets put on gloves and helmets and practice some mix martial arts fighting. Nina enjoyed the feeling of exhilaration the fighting gave her but this round against the bigger and more experienced second year cadet was starting to frustrate her.
She regained her footing and got back into her fighting stance, gloves up and on the balls of her feet. Klofed put her mouth guard back in and started circling the other fighter. The rest of the class and the instructor, an asshole of a man named Lieutenant Kenned, starting cheering them on again and offering yelled advice.
Nina knew her lankier opponent’s reach was too much of an advantage and a fast left side roundhouse kick that she blocked with her elbow confirmed that. As she danced back and circled to her right to avoid the flurry of punches that followed the leading kick she decided she would have to move in to have a chance. But before she could, Klofed saw an opening and executed a perfect spinning side kick that slipped under Nina’s defenses and struck her right in the stomach, sending her backwards and on her ass. As she rolled to her side to catch her winded breath, she cursed herself for getting hit again and wondered if she should stay down this time.
“Come on, Cruse, that all you got?” yelled Kenned from the side in his usual arrogant voice. “Maybe you should stay down this time!”
Suddenly Nina had a vision of a face. It was that man who stepped out from behind the wall on that day, that fateful day when everything changed, near the end of her senior year of school. She could hear his taunting voice, feel his fists crashing into her face and body, feel the weight as he pinned her down, feel his nails scratching her skin as he ripped her clothes. But this time Instead of frightened she just felt angry and she wanted to punch him like she could not before. Her heart pounded harder in her chest as a new dose of adrenaline coursed through her veins and she got up practically shaking with fury.
She got up into her guard position and raised her gloved fists but instead of waiting for her opponent to make the first move she rushed in, slipped right past Klofed’s hasty defensive jab and bent her knees low to turn into a full rotation of a right uppercut to the midsection. She heard a satisfying grunt of a short exhale of breath from Klofed and blocked a hurried knee as her opponent stepped back. With the extra space her retreating opponent allowed, Nina straightened her knees, stepped in and followed up with a fast left hook that beat Klofed’s glove to the side of her helmet. The solid blow spun Klofed’s head around and she flew backwards and fell on the mat.
The small crowd cheered, with the notable exception being the coach Kenned who watched with a frown. Nina offered a gloved hand to Klofed as the latter started to get back up, and it was accepted with a head shake and a grin. “Good one,” Klofed slurred around her mouth guard, “Nice and fast.”
“Thanks,” Nina replied.
* * * * *
“I see here that your psych profile recommended against you being allowed into the program.”
Nina focused the cameras connected to the training pod she was in on her instructor, Lieutenant Commander Zinne. It took a second for her mind to control them properly, setting the focus of each of the three separately. “Yes sir,” she synthesized through the speakers.
“And how did you convince that old battleaxe to accept your admission regardless?” Zinne asked with amusement in her voice. The “old battleaxe” she referred to was Head of Admissions of the Capsuleer Program, Captain Kirtner, who looked like he was two hundred years old and hadn’t smiled in the past hundred of them for fear of shattering his calcified visage.
“It was not easy, sir,” Nina admitted. She thought back to that meeting, sweating under that furrowed glare and hard face, pleading for her chance and insisting it was the only thing she wanted to do. The parallel to her first meeting with the recruiting officer when she wanted to join the academy was not lost on Nina; it seemed like everyone wanted to stand in her way of becoming a pod pilot someday. Nevertheless here she was as once again her passion and determination had swung the decision in her favour despite the psychological profile report on her that suggested she was not capsuleer material. “But,” she added, “I refused to be dissuaded.”
“Well,” the senior officer continued, “your academy marks are high, best in your class in most subjects, you’re on the fast track of promotions and already a Lieutenant, and you could have your pick of assignments… why do you want to be a capsuleer and risk it all if the neural transference fails?”
Nina stretched out her pod connected senses. She looked at the training facility through three different perspectives across the electromagnetic spectrum, listened on five different microphones over frequencies beyond human hearing, tasted the various particles in the air through the electro-filters, and accessed the public profiles of the Lieutenant Commander Zinne and the two assisting techs all at the same time. “The reward is worth the risk,” she intoned. No one will ever hurt me again, she thought to herself.
“I see.” She put down the report and nodded to the technicians. “In any case, your basic initiation into the pod interface is complete. You have demonstrated all the required proficiencies of the neural interface uplink so its time for your final exam. Are you ready Lieutenant?”
Within the training pseudo-capsule Nina felt her pulse quicken. The dreaded transference test that she had heard whispered about in the dorms, the step through the gate of death that led to immortality. “Yes sir, I’m ready.”
“Then let’s begin.” She indicated to the two techs to proceed and a minute later one of them said, “Transference protocol is primed, awaiting authorization for initiation.” She nodded while replying, “Acknowledged,” and she looked straight at one of the camera lens trained intently upon her.
“Lieutenant Nina Cruse, your prime neural transference procedure is ready to begin. Do you understand what this procedure entails and the risks involved?”
“Do you waive the State of any wrongdoing in the case that something in the neural transference does not proceed as expected?”
“Lieutenant, do you agree to proceed with the neural transference?”
“Yes sir, I do.”
“Very well then,” Zinne announced, “good luck Lieutenant. Authorization of neural transference procedure given.” She pressed her thumb pad to a scanner on the console in front of her and everything in Nina’s world went blinding white.
* * * * *
The first thing Nina was aware of was her body slipping from the cloning vat with a deluge of fluid on top a flat surface where her body stopped while the fluid (the ‘incubation suspension medium’ her memory supplied her) drained around her.
“Subject 13-734CruseN decanted,” a nearby voice recited. She tried to open her eyes and turn her head to the voice but she couldn’t move. She could not move her head, her eyelids, anything. She couldn’t breathe. She became aware of a growing pain in her chest as it screamed for oxygen.
“No auto-respiration detected,” another voice reported, “I’m hooking up the ventilator.”
As fresh oxygen flowed down the tube in her throat, she felt some measure of her panic subside for the moment. “Why can’t I move?” she asked herself.
“OK, I’ve got activity in the EEG,” the first voice said, “so the transference occurred, but the readings are fluctuating wildly.” She heard the voice come close to her head. “Lieutenant, Lieutenant Cruse, can you hear me?” She felt a light slap on her cheek. “Lieutenant?”
She wanted to scream, “Yes, yes, I’m here!” but nothing would work; it felt like nothing in her body was connected to her brain.
“Attempting pain stimulus,” the other tech’s voice said. A second later Nina felt a pinch in the instep of her foot as a sharp needle was inserted. “You fucker!” she wanted to shout as the pain lanced upwards but still she could move no part of her body.
Nina felt so helpless; she hadn’t felt this helpless since that day when she walked home from the game alone, that day he stepped out from behind the building and hit her, was on top of her, hitting her more, her breath was knocked out of her, she couldn’t fight back, panic rising as her shirt was torn off, his groping hands… all she could see was his leering grin and she couldn’t move...
She felt the anger rising then, a pure white hot rage, a desire to strike out and smash his filthy face. Every ounce of her soul and emotion was poured the effort to reconnect to her body. A finger, an eyelid, a twitch, anything…
“We’ve got a spike on the EEG,” one of the tech’s reported, “Come on, Lieutenant, are you there? Nina?”
Nothing. She could not move a single muscle. She couldn’t even cry in her despair.
“EEG is dropping. We’ve got, um,” a pause while the technician checked the timer, “three minutes and no response. We got to call it.”
A sigh from the other man who was encouraging her and he said, “Alright. Subject 13-734CruseN is not responsive, neural transference has failed, and we are disconnecting life support.” She felt her fear spike as the breathing tube was disconnected and her lungs deflated and no new air could be drawn.
“I’m sorry, Daddy”, she lamented to herself as the pain in her chest returned and the edges of her consciousness started to fade to black. “You were right. Sometimes,” she finally accepted, “sometimes you just can’t win.”