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Escape

"Hey you, with the moves," shouted a crewmember. "Get yer flippy ass in a boat, will ya?"

Eva nodded before she dashed over and headed inside one. She swiftly made her way past rows of anxious passengers and secured herself in the only remaining seat up front.

Next to her was a teenaged Asian girl, probably no older than thirteen or fourteen. She was small and slender, with long, straight black hair and pale skin. The girl was also wearing the same pressure suit, which indicated that she was also possibly a player.

"Excuse me," she asked the girl, "do you play Bellum Aeterna?"

The girl's eyes widened, then nodded quickly. When she replied, there was a light accent in her voice.

"I started last month," the girl said. "I enjoyed it, although I did not fly much. But now that you mention it, it is no wonder things feel familiar to me. Similar, but not identical."

"Yeah," Eva quickly agreed. "Like how everything feels way bigger, or that stuff looks all worn out and used. I think the biggest reason why everything seems so different, at least to me, is 'coz they're tangible, you know? Like, I can feel this seat, physically. Smell it, too (but don't). You just don't get that in VR."

The girl nodded.

"And also how things work," the girl replied. "When we respawned in-game, we would get a cutscene of ourselves going out of a regen room and into a processing chamber. Then we would check our saved loadouts, pay insurance, then re-equip, yes? Here, we spawned directly inside a recovery pod, which I never even saw in-game."

Eva realized that even the lifeboat was different in a lot of ways - escape pods in the game were usually single-seaters. A few had two seats. But she just couldn't recall any lifeboats in the game, ever. 

But why? Why were things fundamentally different, but had things that were familiar…

"And now that I think about it, look at the crewmembers," the girl continued. "Every single one has been different; age, size, skin color, hair, fitness level. Even their personalities are different, and you can see it right on their pressure suits. I mean, they have that familiar TT logo and color scheme, but each one has lots of subtle differences. Stains. Loose threads. Badly fitted straps."

As the girl continued to lay out her observations, Eva realized that she had taken things for granted. Because some things reminded her of Bellum Aeterna, she automatically assumed that she had woken up in that universe. But now she wasn't so sure.

If this isn't Bellum Aeterna, does that mean I don't have infinite lives?

Concern crossed Eva’s face. The last thing she wanted to do was risk her new life by being too careless. She had to do more to protect herself, at least until she knew more about this new life of hers.

"By the way, my name is Miko," said the girl. "What is yours?"

Eva smiled warmly at her - her first friend!

"Call me Eva," she said.

Before they could chat any further, another shell struck the station. 

This time it was much louder, and the shockwave felt much sharper. It was clear to everyone that the point of impact was closer than before. 

People have always carried a massive fear of death, and having red-hot slabs of metal being propelled at them had a tendency to magnify that fear.

"Let's get it going," yelled a frightened passenger. "I'm not trying to die here!"

"Sorry! We-we're doing our best," a crewmember replied as he dashed for the pilot's seat.

He awkwardly strapped in and adjusted his posture a couple of times, unsure if he was sitting correctly. It was as though no matter how he sat, he was uncomfortable. 

The crewmember looked quite inexperienced, and even fumbled a little as he powered on the lifeboat.

A number of large Multifunction Displays around him blinked into life, of which the central one projected the frontal view of the lifeboat. 

Unlike other ships typically seen in most other sci-fi movies, anime, and games, Bellum Aeterna didn't have transparent canopies.

Even though transparent metal meshing was certainly much tougher than the strongest silica glass nanofibers, they were still significantly weaker than highly engineered opaque alloys. 

Materials that were visibly transparent were structural weaknesses that could easily be targeted and destroyed. More importantly, transparent canopies simply couldn't display data accurately, and trying to use plain eyesight amidst the darkness of infinite space was an exercise in foolishness. 

Long story short, they weren't effective or practical.

Instead, almost all ships employed multiple sensor suites and large MFDs that provided pilots with all the data they needed. Most pilots enjoyed having a pure live feed supplemented by readouts and mission-critical data. Others preferred to rely purely on instrument readouts and data, while only using live feeds in extreme cases.

Only very few pilots, typically the aces, used a balanced set of displays. They fundamentally understood that it wasn't just piloting skill that made them dangerous - it was about how much information they had, and how they used it to gain any and every advantage possible.

That said, even the most simple layouts threw out an ample amount of data. In high-stress situations, it was easy for anyone to become overwhelmed by their control deck. Those who lacked experience often descended into a panic, which was where the nervous crewmember seemed to be sinking further into. 

Eva sighed in exasperation as the crewmember flailed at his displays.

Another shell struck the station, this time it was even closer. A wave of dread washed over everyone.

"Wh-what the hell are you doing?" yelled the frightened passenger. "Why are we still docked?"

It freaked out the crewmember even further, who started to hyperventilate and began to hit all sorts of buttons in a panic. Audible errors erupted from the displays, accompanied by the crewmember's frenzied curses.

Eva unbuckled herself, walked over to the crewmember, and slapped him across the cheek. It brought him back to his senses, at least for a moment.

"Get out," she said sternly.

The crewmember quickly hopped out, his brow soaked with sweat. Hands shaking, he plopped down on Eva's old seat and fastened himself as best he could. Miko inched away slightly, disturbed by how many tries it took him to buckle himself in. 

He was a wreck.

In contrast, Eva quickly slipped into the pilot's seat and strapped in without issue, as though she had done something like it countless times before. 

She took a couple seconds and reset all the displays to a scheme that she prefered. The screens were now filled with data readouts and various views around the lifeboat.

While she oriented herself, the frightened passenger yelled, "Who're you? You're gonna fly us outta here? You're not even a part of the crew! ...Well, what are you waiting for?"

Eva completely ignored him as she quickly scanned the data presented to her, and sighed. She turned around to glare at the shaky crewmember.

"This thing's in autopilot," she chided. "How much easier could you have had it?"

"I-I'm new, okay?" said the crewmember. "Literally never even flown a ship like this ever! This is way different from the training holos!"

Eva frowned and looked back at her controls.

"No it isn't," she sighed.

Then she tapped the LAUNCH button on a display panel. The lifeboat sealed itself quickly, and the blue interior light dimmed as the boat prepped to launch.

The frightened passenger yelled, "Can we please get goi-aaAAHH!"

Before he could finish his sentence, powerful thrusters shot the lifeboat out of the ejection tube with blinding speed. Everyone was pressed into their seats as it steadily accelerated to a staggering one thousand meters per second.

Eva had only ever experienced the g-force exerted from those spinning rides at carnivals and fairs. They usually boasted that they applied up to three times earth's gravity on riders. She remembered going to so many carnivals as a kid, and she rode them every chance she got. 

She could barely lift her hand at first, but by the hundredth time she was able to resist those forces easily. It was hard work getting to that point, but it was well worth the effort. She had a ton of fun teasing all the other kids by sitting up and waving to them. 

All they could do in response was look at her with tense faces and wide eyes.

Right now, even though she definitely felt pressure, she was minimally affected by the g-forces. The readouts on the displays showed that they were experiencing six times earth's gravity, but she was able to breathe and move properly.

She carefully looked back and checked on Miko, who gave a stiff thumbs-up and a smile. The crewmember on the other hand, looked like he was getting pushed further into the seat, and was going to end up permanently fused with it. 

Eva turned back to the displays and marveled at how easily she was able to cope.

My body's pretty amazing' she thought happily, I can handle a ton of pressure! Piloting's gonna be a breeze! Wonder how long I can last at 9 g's...

The g-forces faded as the lifeboat hit terminal velocity, at which point the boat was about twenty kilometers away from the station. Retrothrusters kicked in shortly afterwards, which slowed the lifeboat down comfortably.

Some passengers exhaled audibly, relief plastered on their faces.

Blips from the other lifeboats began to pop up on display as the various sensors picked them up and validated their signals. Due to the autopilot, all of the lifeboats began to converge to the same spot. This simply helped optimize rescue operations, and was standard protocol. If all the lifeboats were in one place, it made them that much easier to pick up later.

While everyone was recovering from the disorientation of the high-g launch, Eva was staring at the monitors and out into open space. She switched out all the MFDs to just the exterior feed, and enjoyed an expansive, wide-angle view of open space. 

Out there, brilliant star clusters shone amidst luminous nebulae and violent pulsars, which kept her awed and humbled at the sight alone.

There it is; the vast wilderness of space, she thought. I'm now one step closer to a life I'd only ever dreamed of. My old life is dead. Long live my new one.

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