Now that I had a plan, my daily visits to the pod became worklike – I had a project with a deadline. Every day I went through a number of tests, and the fact that all of them were unsuccessful did not depress me as before; on the contrary, I felt anxiety and was motivated to try out as many reports as I could.
The days went by following pretty much the same routine: after breakfast I went to the docks and tried my best to move the capsule; then I had a lunch break and continued my exercises until dinner. Then, depending on the mood, I could return to the pod for “one more try”. Although other candidates in our group had a similar regime, we rarely saw each other in the cafe as all of us had different circadian rhythms. Still, every day we tried to get together after dinner in a bar where we exchanged our, mostly disappointing, experiences and at the same time encouraged each other to carry on. I was usually the first to come and had a quiet couple alone reflecting on the day’s events and waiting for others.
One evening, while I was sipping my beer and looking through the viewport at the busy traffic around the station, my reverie was interrupted by the sound of running feet after which the swinging bar doors almost exploded letting a new visitor in. It was Lenka; she was breathing heavily as if she ran all the way from the docks, but her eyes were shining. Her gaze found me in my seat and she yelled across the bar, “Vlad, I did it!” and rushed towards me.
I rose from the chair, upsetting my drink, just in time to catch her in my arms.
“I did it!” she looked into my eyes , “can you believe it?”
“Of course, I do,” said I, “Now, take a seat and tell me everything.”
“Oh, there isn’t much to tell, I just made the capsule move.”
“This is actually strange. I was going through one of the reports, trying to replicate the described experience but, as always, nothing came out of it. Then I made a little pause during which I rather involuntarily flexed my glutes, and suddenly the capsule started moving!”
“Are you sure you hadn’t accidentally activated manual controls?”
“No, my assistant has confirmed that the engine was started through brain-machine interface.”
“So, you can fly the pod now?” asked I feeling a tiny pang of envy.
“Not yet – I couldn’t repeat that today, but I think I found my way – it’s the contraction of glutes that is somehow connected to engine activation.”
I wasn’t convinced, “Are you sure it was because of muscle activity? Do you remember what you were thinking about at that time?”
Lenka blushed a little, “Actually, I was thinking about having a toilet break.”
I laughed, “I could never imagine that that kind of thought was capable of propelling spaceships.”
Lenka slapped my shoulder, “Stupid, you are just jealous of my success!”
“Yes, I am,” admitted I, “but I am also very happy for you. This will be an inspiration for all of us. In fact, tomorrow, first thing in the pod I’ll try thinking about my nether regions and see how far it will get me.”
Lenka was no stranger to off-colour jokes and now it was her turn to take the piss, “Oh, darling,” she murmured sensually, “be careful what you think about. They say that the pods are equipped with self-destruction mechanisms. Who knows what they are activated by. You may explode in more senses than one.”
I laughed again, “Touché! Anyway, let’s celebrate. You shout, lucky girl.”
“Absolutely, but not now. Prof is expecting me with full report. On the communicator he sounded even more excited than I. I better not make him wait,” said Lenka and ran away.
Although I made it sound like a joke, I was actually dead serious about trying to replicate Lenka’s success. Next day I spent a significant amount of pod time flexing glutes and nearby muscles (in the last three months all of us became expert anatomists), and also delayed my toilet break on an off-chance that nature calls might be somehow related to increased mind sensitivity to new organs. I didn’t achieve anything except reaching record levels of my bladder capacity.
There was much jubilation within the group and we all felt inspired by Lenka’s example. It is one thing to read about some unknown guys who managed to control the pod, and quite another to have a friend who did it. Every day we eagerly waited for Lenka in the bar expecting her to repeat her success and, maybe, to give us a clue to our own breakthroughs. She wasn’t able to immediately replicate the brain signal, but Professor said it was normal and it could take a few days before the neural path was activated again. Lenka was bright-eyed and chirpy, and entertained us with her future plans as a capsuleer.
As the days went by, there was no progress and Lenka became more reserved and started withdrawing from conversations. We abstained from asking her about her daily pod experiences and capsuleering plans as she didn’t enjoy talking about them anymore. Then she stopped coming to the bar, telling us she was too tired. It lasted for about three weeks and then I got a call from Professor Muhamad.
“Vlad, I need you now.”
“Sure, Prof. How can I help?”
“Vlad, Lenka is leaving.”
“What? How? I mean, why?” I was bewildered and shocked.
“She was very frustrated by the lack of progress after that episode three weeks ago, and had a nervous breakdown yesterday. She told me she gave up. Vlad, I need you to talk to her and persuade her to stay.”
“I’ll do everything I can, Prof.”
“Thank you, Vlad.”
I went to the living quarters and knocked on Lenka’s door.
“Come in,” I heard her voice and entered the room. First thing I noticed was a half-packed suitcase on the bed.
“Hi, Vlad”, said Lenka in a cheerful but glassy tone, then turned away from me and continued packing the suitcase, clearly indicating that I was to lead that conversation.
“Err, I’ve heard you’re leaving,” I started cautiously.
“I am,” she replied curtly and with exaggerated care started folding her skirt.
“You know, just leaving.”
“But, you can’t leave now!”
“Oh, I can’t!” I heard cracks in that glassy voice and her movements became quick and nervous, “I thought I was a free woman.”
“Sorry, I meant you shouldn’t. Professor Muhamad says you are on the cusp of becoming a capsuleer.”
“Ah, Professor says so. I remember everything he said. First, he said it would take a few days; next, it was a week; then, a fortnight; now he is saying a month.”
“Look, I am sorry it’s taking longer than expected, but it may happen any time now. You just need to try a bit longer.”
Lenka turned to me and I saw tears in her eyes, “How much longer? A month? A year? Maybe a lifetime?” Then the glass in her voice shattered and she collapsed on the bed, sobbing, “I will never be a capsuleer!”
I was sad; I didn’t know what to say; I just sat on the bed and hugged her. Lenka neither tried to free herself from my arm, nor did she acknowledge my soothing gesture; she was simply sitting on the bed crying her eyes out. So we sat like this for a few awkward minutes. When she calmed down, I removed my arm from her shoulder and said, “I guess, I’ll go and start packing too.”
Lenka turned to me, wiping tears with her fists, “Why?”
“Well, if you, who made the pod move at least once, don’t have any chances to do it again, what hope do I have?”
“But… but you don’t understand. The fact that I moved it only once simply made the things worse. It’s like with Spike the Stardog. You know, when I was five or six years old my Mum took me to the toy store. It was my birthday and she said I could choose whatever birthday present I liked. Imagine this – a little girl in a toy shop with carte blanche! I walked from shelf to shelf picking one toy, putting it back, then taking another one. They were all beautiful, but not perfect. Finally, I saw a walking model of Spike the Stardog with enhanced AI. It was my favourite cartoon hero. Do you remember it?”
“Mmm… no, probably before my time.”
“Hey, you are older than I. It was not before but after your time. Anyway, when I saw it I realised I had found the best present in the world. I grabbed the box and carried it to the checkout. My Mum tried to help me – the box was almost my size – but nothing could make me part with Spike at that moment. Then, when we came to the checkout Mum suddenly discovered that she left her wallet at home. She told me I had to leave Spike in the shop and pick it up later when we come back with the wallet, but I just wouldn’t let go of the box. I was kicking and screaming and it took two shop assistants to claw it back from me. Do you understand what I felt? I was on the verge of eternal bliss, I was about to get my own Spike the Stardog, I imagined how I would walk and talk with him, how he would follow my commands, how my friends would envy me, when suddenly the door to that bright and happy world was shut before my nose. And now it happened again!”
“But eventually you’d got your present, hadn’t you?”
“Yes, I had, but I was five years old. Even half a day wait was like an eternity.”
“Well, now you are a bit older, huh?”
Lenka sniffed and smiled, “Thank you for reminding me, Captain Obvious.”
“At your service, ma’am,” I smiled back.
We sat for a while in silence. Then she asked, “Are you really going to quit if I leave?”
Without hesitation I earnestly lied, “Of course, I’ll quit. What’s the point of staying here?”
“Please, don’t. You still have a chance to achieve a breakthrough.”
“And so do you.”
Lenka bit her lip. I felt that the crisis was over but she needed help to get out of it without losing her face.
“Look,” said I, “what if you stay around just for support? I’d really appreciate it, and the guys would be glad to see you again. You know, our evenings in the bar didn’t feel the same without you.”
“Well, I don’t know. If I stay, what will Prof say? He’d expect me to get back into the capsule – he made it quite clear that he wouldn’t tolerate freeloaders.”
“Leave it to me,” I winked, “I think I can handle Prof. So, what do you say? Deal?” asked I and extended my hand.
Lenka suspiciously looked into my eyes, but did not find there anything except sincere goodwill. Then she took my hand and shook it.