Escape pods are enclosed, self-contained emergency craft intended to carry evacuees off space ships and stations that are in danger of destruction. The pods are generally only large enough to house a few people at most and have limited supplies to reduce size and weight. Many modern pods are fitted with flash warp drives and beacons to facilitate their escape and rescue. Even with such measures, the use of an escape pod can be harrowing.
Lifeboats have been a standard part of a ship's equipment since the earliest days of seafaring. When travelers first ventured into space, the need for escape equipment was evident, though the first few brave explorers often entered space in little more than a life pod themselves. As the size of vessels increased, so too did the complexity of their escape pods.
The earliest escape pods on space ships were little more than enclosed bubbles designed to carry the occupant safely into an atmosphere and provide them with a survivable landing. They were often built with parachutes or other contraptions to slow their descents, but had little in the way of engines or other gear to propel them should they be sent off toward deep space.
When interplanetary distances first became traversable, escape pods often did little more than delay the inevitable. In those days it could take weeks or more to travel between planets and escape pods often did not have the resources to sustain a person for that period of time. For those unfortunate enough to be forced to abandon ship in the middle of a journey, the escape pods provided little hope. Air was generally limited to around a day's worth, with little food or water.
The addition of rocket engines only helped by a small amount; due to their size restrictions, the engines were underpowered and could only give the escape pods small pushes. This made rescue slightly more likely, if the escapee knew how to navigate, or rendered it virtually impossible if he did not. For a long while, escape pods were often nicknamed “coffin pods” or the like, as they were more likely to be found containing corpses than survivors.
The first real breakthrough that gave survivors a real chance was the introduction of cryonic technology. The escape pods became combined life boats and cryo-caskets, with evacuees entering cryonic sleep in order to preserve air and resources until they could be picked up. While plenty of things could go wrong, these cryo-pods drastically improved the chances of survival, allowing space a true peace of mind.
The rise in space combat made simple cryo-pods no longer as useful. Marauders could simply pick them off one by one, or even capture them and hold the occupants for ransom. From here, the introduction of more powerful engines allowed the pods to abandon the older cryonic sleep and move toward becoming methods of escape and survival. The escape pods would be programmed to activate their engines and scatter in various directions, meaning that while faster pirate ships could pursue them, only a small number would actually be caught.
More powerful sublight drives, and eventually warp drives, improved survival even further, as rescue teams could reach escape pods much quicker. The escape pods themselves gradually moved toward a design intended to provide quick escape from the hostile environment that had necessitated their deployment, then keeping the occupants alive long enough for rescue.
Modern escape pods are typically small, enough to hold two or three people and provide them with enough air to last for a day, perhaps slightly more. Food and water rations are typically sparse; more abundant are medical supplies to treat injuries sustained while abandoning ship.
Most pods are fitted with what is commonly known as a flash warp drive. These are small, underpowered warp drives that utilize a stored battery charge to warp a short distance before they run out of power. Usually, they only manage a few seconds of light-speed warp, enough to travel perhaps a million kilometers and little more. This is typically enough to get the escape pods out of immediate danger.
Each pod is further fitted with an emergency beacon. This beacon transmits distress signals across fluid routers, theoretically allowing rescue parties to pinpoint the exact location of the escape pod and retrieve it. These beacons can be turned off and on as necessary for the safety of the occupants.
Though space affords the luxury of escape pods taking on any possible shape, most continue to be egg-shaped in order to conserve space. A few alternate designs, such as cubes or pyramids have been utilized to varying degrees.
Escape pods are embedded throughout the hull of a ship. Most pods are on the outer layers of a vessel, typically right beneath its armor plating, as these provide the quickest and safest exit in the event of catastrophe. When an evacuation order is given, the armor plates are dislodged through pressurized bolts and the escape pods are free to eject.
However, because not every person on board a ship will be near the outer layers, larger ships have additional escape pods deeper inside the hull. These pods provide more danger, as they literally cannot be launched until the ship is disintegrating around them. This generally gives them only a few seconds to eject and they must hope to avoid being struck by debris from the ship and falling victim to whatever caused the destruction of the ship itself.
The timing of evacuation calls vary depending on the situation and the ship's commander. Some will issue an evacuation call as soon as a situation becomes untenable, providing several minutes for crew to reach the escape pods. Others may wait until the ship's hull is breached, which provides only a few seconds. Crew on board ships with such commanders often treat damage control units with a high degree of reverence.
Though escaping in a pod is usually preferable to remaining on an exploding ship, they are not without their own dangers.
Escape pods must avoid the hazard which caused the destruction of their ships in the first place. When an environmental hazard has claimed the ship, escape pods can often be caught as well. Corrosive clouds or interstellar shock waves can destroy escape pods as soon as they eject. An asteroid, comet, or other celestial body can also wind up having several pods warped directly into it as the automated engines make fatal miscalculations.
When a ship has been destroyed by the hostile actions of another ship, the escape pods are usually too small and warp too quickly to be caught. However, a ship utilizing smart bombs can destroy swaths of escape pods with a single blast. Additionally, escape pods are no more able to warp out of disruption fields than other ships. Luckily, most combatants are unconcerned with killing a few harmless crew members.
Once a pod enters warp, it is usually safe from any immediate threats. However, once it drops from warp, it is usually helpless until rescue arrives. In systems with stations, rescue is typically performed by the nearest station authorities. In systems without, rescue is usually handled by either the local sovereignty holder or CONCORD.
The major exception is in nullsec space, which is usually unclaimed, owned by often-uncaring capsuleers, or inhabited by pirates. The Sisters of EVE run rescue operations, but their ability to respond is limited. Pirates and slavers have been known to monitor rescue frequencies and swoop in, kidnapping stranded escape pods and holding the crew for ransom or pressing them into slave labor.
In the event that no one responds in time, evacuees are faced with a slow death through gradual asphyxiation.
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