This story was originally the pilot for a new low-budget sci-fi TV series called Quick Fix – sort of a mashup of Quantum Leap, Star Trek, and little bit of Where the Hell is Tesla? thrown in. What happens when two routine, simultaneous repairs aboard a starship go haywire? The TV script is in a temporary limbo right now, so I figured I’d turn it into a short story. If you like it, let me know if this is a story you’d like to see with more episodes.
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Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
“Hey. Did you hear? We won.”
Dan looked around. “Could’ve fooled me.”
He was knee-deep in cantaloupes. Cantaloupes the size of beach balls. Everywhere. The ship’s food generation system was hit hard during the battle, and unless Dan Edwards and Ray Murphy could fix the glitch in the next couple of minutes, the entire crew would be eating nothing but cantaloupe for a year.
Dan squeezed his hand through the primary output tube, past a row of colossal melons, and pushed his index finger into a little hole about halfway up. He turned his head to Ray. “Okay. I’ve got the backup kill switch. Peek into that panel, the second one there on the right, and tell me what you see on the little pad.”
Ray jiggled the little pad. “No green. No red.”
“Yeah. Already said fuck. I think we’re covered.” He ran through the wiring diagrams in his head. “Okay, hold on. Give me a sec.” The melons weren’t waiting for Dan though, they were scraping the skin off his arm as they squeezed past onto an ever-growing pile on the floor. He fumbled through his belt packs with his free hand, and found what he was looking for: a spoon.
“You gonna eat your way up there?”
“Nah. Not hungry.” He felt the tip of the spoon. Razor sharp. Good. It was amazing how often a spoon with the tip honed down to a perfect edge came in handy. He muscled his left arm up to meet the other, now both shoulder deep like he was some insane bovine obstetrician trying to shove calf octuplets back up the birth canal. The curved edge of the spoon found the circular rim around the backup kill switch and began to work it back and forth. Gentle, gentle. Come on. Here it comes.
“Okay, Ray, now take that red wire – B542N – take the exposed end of it and jam it into my thigh.”
“Explanation later. You wanna eat melon for the rest of your life? Now!”
“I don’t unders-“
Ray, momentarily startled free from rational, independent thought, instinctively followed orders and plunged the live wire into the the thick part of Dan’s leg muscle. Dan’s heart seized for a moment, confused by the sudden introduction of 46.5 volts of electricity, but remarkably decided to resume its work. As did Dan – within seconds, his electrified fingers found the leads to the kill switch coupler.
Ray hit his head on the inside of the panel. “It’s red! It’s red! You did it!”
Looking over for confirmation, Ray knew immediately what Dan’s spasming, contorted face was telling him: pull the wire, you fucking idiot.
So he pulled the wire, and Dan shuddered like a Chihuahua coming in from a cold rain. The room was silent, except for the occasional cracking of a cantaloupe under the pressure of two more above it, and a couple of inches of juice lapping against their boots. Dan stood straight, shook off the last of the willies, and put away his spoon.
Ray grinned. “That was badass.”
Dan shrugged. “That was work.” He climbed over some melons, and out to the corridor. He called back, “Now get Iris back online as soon as you can, and get this mess cleaned up. I’ll be up in the VHS.”
The Virtual Holographic Space, or VHS, was malfunctioning too. And payroll. Even teleportation. All the non-critical systems were left exposed during the latter stages of the battle to provide maximum power and shields to the critical systems – weapons, life support, and communications. The InterSystem Ship Monterey had held up admirably, and according to whoever Ray talked to, they had won. But getting things back to normal was going to be a bitch. Everywhere Dan looked he saw damage inflicted by the fleet of Cho-Poos.
He chuckled as he walked to the elevator. Whispered to himself. “Cho-Poos.” He loved the name, because it was so accurate. It wasn’t the official name, of course. Their sworn alien enemies for the past decade had some name they couldn’t even pronounce, and the brass called them the AkBennar. But the grunts called them Cho-Poos, short for Chocolate Puddings. It was perfect. The AkBennar had the exact color, texture, and consistency of chocolate pudding. Even the size, they were about the size of a cup of chocolate pudding. You’d laugh, seeing one of these things stuffed into a little spacesuit, like it should have a label on it with calorie content and an expiration date, yeah, you’d laugh until a hundred of them were chasing you with their tiny plasma guns and kicking your ass. He’d only seen them personally once, a couple of years ago during another battle when they breached the hull and swarmed the ship. Once was definitely enough. But he still liked the name.
As he entered the VHS, he scanned the walls and the floor. It was about the size of a small craft hangar, very large for an interior space, and not a scratch anywhere. Hmm.
“Iris. You here?”
“Yes, Dan. It’s good to see you.” Iris’ voice, as always, seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.
“I could’ve used your help down there with the cantaloupes.”
“I’m sorry, Dan. My connection in food generation was severed. But I believe your assistant Ray is about to reconnec- oh, my.”
“Yeah. Oh my.” His socks squished with juice as he walked. “I hope you have a lot of melon recipes handy.”
“Hmm. Let’s see… There are a total of-“
“Not now, Iris. So what’s the problem here? You’re online and the VHS looks fine.”
“I’m not sure, Dan. My diagnostics showed a haptic coprocessor malfunction, but the error I get when I try to create a virtual simulation is unrelated. Error 99423RM-k1. I wouldn’t be surprised if the AkBennar had used scammers. They’ve done it before, you know.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Scammers. Dan hated scammers. The Cho-Poos would attach a thousand of the little buggers to a torpedo, and when it hit, they’d spread as far into the system as possible. These micro-nano-whatevers weren’t smart enough to bring a system down, but were smart enough to create random damage in places that weren’t easy to spot. Last time it took a week, all hands on deck, to get rid of them. He wasn’t looking forward to the next few days: round-the-clock pest control, and cantaloupe for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Directly in the center of the VHS, a thin stalk rose from the floor. At its top, a semicircular metal plate slanted towards the operator, offering a variety of virtual buttons and knobs and inputs. The control stalk. Dan tapped and tested. Nothing looked wrong, but nothing worked. He sighed. “Okay, Iris. Pick an access panel and lets get started.”
Iris highlighted panel 8224b. Dan strided over and unscrewed it.
An hour (and thirty-two panels) later, Dan’s hands were getting tired, and he was getting nowhere. It was time to call in another team. Damn.
Wait. There. There is was. Deep in the panel. Not a scammer, he hadn’t seen any so far, thank God – but a pulsing. An energy leak. “Iris. We’ve got a leak here. Can you tell me where it’s going?”
“I’m sorry, Dan. I don’t see a leak.”
He harrumphed. It was amazing to him that the most advanced AI in the quadrant, capable of running an entire starship with a crew of three thousand, could miss something as simple as an energy leak. He tapped pads inside the open panel, followed wiring diagrams, and accessed the intuition in his puny human brain. “I think it’s the teleporter, Iris. The teleportation chamber is leeching power from here. Can you confirm a surge on that end?”
“Yes. Confirmed. That was very smart, Dan.”
“Great. Okay, so let’s see if you can reverse it without me having to get my arms all in there and start clipping wires.”
“I’m sorry, Dan. There’s a manual repair underway in Teleportation Chamber Eight. I can’t override. I should have told you.”
“Yes, you should have, Iris.” Frustrated, Dan began to part the sea of fine, colored wires and processing boards inside the access panel to find the culprit himself.
600 meters away, also on Level 14, the exact same repair, but in reverse, was taking place in Teleportation Chamber Eight.
“Iris, dear. Can you reverse the power we’re pulling from the VHS? It shouldn’t be doing that.”
“I’m sorry. There’s a manual repair underway in the Virtual Holographic Space. I can’t override. I should have told you.”
“S’all right, dear. It’ll be nice to get my hands back inside you after all this time.”
“That sounds nice. I mean, you being able to fix this manually. Oh, I should mention, if you’re hungry on your break, there’s plenty of cantaloupe down in the cafeteria.”
Hands entered Iris’ access panel, searched and searched, and found what they were looking for.
“Ah, here it is.”
Back in the VHS, at that precise moment, Dan smiled with relief. His hands had also found what they were looking for.
“Ah, here it is.”
Both sets of hands, 600 meters apart, gently grasped a microfilament wire, barely thicker than a human hair.
Yes, this would be a quick fix.
The hands tugged at the wires.
And that’s all it took.
Dan hated that feeling. He didn’t particularly like the VHS to begin with, but he really didn’t like the moment that a virtual holographic simulation started. It was like that moment, after a solid minute slowly climbing the first roller coaster hill, of reaching the top, peering over that ninety-degree drop ahead – and getting stuck. It was enough to make him vomit.
No. Not this time. He gulped back the contents of his stomach, willing his eggs and corn muffin to stay put, and tried to make sense of his morphing surroundings. They didn’t let crew in the VHS while the simulation was being formed for this exact reason. It was just too jarring. Instead, they teleported crew into a simulation after it was completed. Otherwise there would be too much puke to clean up.
The world around him was spinning. Or was that his own perception, trying to follow something that wasn’t quite there?
Oh no. He was blacking out.
Dan lurched back over to the control stalk, trying desperately to hold on to consciousness. Not because he was afraid, it was perfectly safe either way, but it would be embarrassing if the team found him passed out in a puddle of his own barf. As he tapped and turned knobs, he saw a light in the distance.
Oh shit. That can’t be good.
And the rest was black.
Dan, on his back, opened his eyes and stared up at the sky.
Two moons. Nice touch.
He eventually got to his feet – woah, take it easy, tough guy – and looked around, still clutching his stomach. The control stalk remained, as it always did in a simulation, but everything else was gone. He was on the surface of – what? A moon? – completely featureless in all directions, except for a mountain range off to what he thought might be south. A soft wind blew dust around his boots.
He walked up to the control stalk. “Iris, shut down the simulation.”
Iris’ voice emerged from somewhere. “I’m sorry, Dan. I’m not sure if this is a simulation.”
“Funny, Iris. Just shut it down, whatever it is.”
“I’m sorry, Dan. It won’t let me.”
“’It?’ You’re ‘it.’ There is no other ‘it.’ Shut it down.”
“I’m sorry, Dan. It’s-“
“Okay, first, stop saying I’m sorry, Iris. Really. It’s annoying. And second, just shut it down. And third, if you can’t shut it down, at least confirm that I’m in the VHS. What are my coordinates?”
“I’m sorr- I can’t, Dan. Your coordinates are coming up as zero.”
“Zero isn’t a coordinate, Iris.”
“I’m sor- Perhaps you should ask Dan, Dan.”
“What are you talking about, Iris? There’s no other Da-“ but as his eyes continued to scan the horizon, they spotted a tiny little figure in the distance. He squinted. A man. Another Dan.
600 meters away, the other Dan, Dan Nightingale, stood motionless at a slightly different control stalk. The teleportation chamber control stalk.
“Um, Iris, dear?”
“Where did you teleport me?”
“I’m sorry, Dan. I’m not sure if you’ve been teleported.”
“Not sure? Iris, I’m standing in the middle of nowhere. Am I on Nix310? It looks like Nix310.”
“I’m sorry, Dan. I just don’t know. Perhaps Dan can help.”
He looked out, into the distance, and squinted. And he, too, saw a tiny little man. Another Dan.
The Dans walked, tentatively, toward each other until they met, somewhere near the middle.
“Who are you?”
“Dan. Nightingale. Sixth Engineer.”
“Dan. Edwards. Fourth Engineer. Why have I never met you?”
“Oh, ah, I’m in payroll, Don’t get out much. Their systems are crap, so I’m on it 24/7, pretty much. But they were short a hand in Teleportation Chamber Eight, and I was on call. You know, there are over three thousand crew on the ship, and I’ve never met another Dan.”
Dan Nightingale looked around. “Where are we?”
“Well, I’m in the VHS. So you’re just part of the simulation.”
“Simulation?” He laughed. “Um, no. Sorry, Dan. We were teleported. I was in the teleportation chamber. This,” he pointed up to the twin moons, “is real.” Then he poked Dan Edwards lightly with the same finger. “See? Real.”
“You don’t know how the Virtual Holographic Space works, do you.” Dan Edwards poked Dan Nightingale back, a little harder. The other Dan looked a little miffed, but shook his head in agreement.
“Listen, Dan, uh, Nightingale, let’s grab that teleporter control stalk and get it over to mine. We’ll be out of this simulation in a couple of minutes. Well, I’ll be. You’ll be gone.”
“Excuse me. This is real. I’m real. Maybe Iris glitched out and you’re the simulation. So I’ll be home in a couple of minutes, and you’ll be gone.”
“Sure. Whatever you say.”
Iris was strangely silent on the matter.
The two Dans dragged the teleportation control stalk – a device clearly much heavier than it needed to be – over to the VHS control stalk. The two semicircular input plates, placed together, formed a complete circle, as if it were meant to be that way.
Dan Nightingale shifted on his feet. “Okay, now what?”
“Iris. Highlight the open panel. 9159m.”
“I’m sorr- I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dan.”
“Because, technically speaking, the panels aren’t there.” Dan Nightingale grinned, thinking he had won the simulation-vs-teleportation argument.
Dan Edwards ignored him. “She’s malfunctioning. Okay, we’ll have to look for the open panel ourselves. If we walk in concentric circles outward from here, we’ll bump into it eventually.”
And so they started out, uncomfortably close at first, walking in opposite directions, one Dan clockwise and the other Dan counterclockwise. Each time they passed, Dan Nightingale would nod politely, and Dan Edwards would grudgingly nod back, with a hint of disdain in his smile. On their third circle, Dan Nightingale stopped the other Dan as they passed. “So, if I’m not real, then why am I having emotions, like very intense emotions, like fear and desperation, and a little bit of anger at you?”
“Look. I’m not a philosopher. The VHS is just a really complicated simulation machine. Your whole brain, every single neuron, is part of the simulation. So to you, even though you’re just a temporary illusion, you have a fully functioning brain, capable of anything mine is. Everything we touch seems real. There’s only one difference.”
“And what’s that?”
“Memories. What’s your first memory, Dan?”
Dan Nightingale replied without hesitation. “Getting my tooth knocked out on the playground behind my grandmother’s house.”
Just as he was about to resume his circular path, Dan Edwards stopped. “Hmm. Interesting.” He looked over the other Dan like one might look over a broken stereo that had just sprung back to life. “What was your first grade teacher’s name?”
“Smith. No. Smythe. Always got it wrong, even back then. She hated me for it. Almost didn’t get into second grade.”
Imperceptibly, Dan Edwards’ jaw dropped just a little. He shrugged. “Whatever. Hey, do you mind if I call you something other than Dan?”
“Um, it’s my name, Dan.”
“Just humor me. In ten minutes you can go back to being Dan. How about Danno?”
“Seriously? Not even for ten minutes.”
“Mmm, sounds too much like danish. Like a cheese danish. Wait. DANE-ish. Dane. Dane, yes, I quite like that. That’ll do. Brilliant, actually. Hi, I’d like to speak with Dane, please.” Dane lowered his voice, “Yes, Dane speaking. Oh dear, double oh seven’s been killed? Yes, I’ll be right there.”
Dan resumed his circle. “Dane. Keep walking.”
“Oh. Right.” He called after Dan. “I might keep the name Dane when we get teleported back to the ship. You know, because we’re real. Not a simulation.” He was confident he’d won round two.
Again, Dan shrugged.
As their circles grew larger outward, their conversations, if you could call them that, grew shorter. Even polite nods seemed like too much effort. But on circle ten, Dane stopped Dan. “Listen. I’ve got a theory.”
“Still walking…” Dan said as he tried to slip away.
Dane grabbed his arm. “No. Listen.”
Dan looked down at Dane’s grip. He was stronger than he looked. “Okay. What’s your theory?”
“What if, now bear with me, what if, somehow in the energy swap, Iris created a third kind of thing? Something between simulation and teleportation?”
“I don’t know. What if unicorns were real?”
“Dammit, Dan. Open your mind for a second. Think.”
Dan pulled his arm out of Dane’s grasp. “Look. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a practical guy. Give me a problem, I give you a solution. Period. That’s what I’m built for. So no, I don’t go for theorizing. You’re asking me to believe our molecules have been digitized and redigitized, as in teleportation, but also sent to a place that’s not quite real, like an actual place not on the ship but at the same time somehow still on the ship.”
“Exactly!” Dane was proud of Dan for crystallizing his own thoughts and, perhaps, coming to his senses.
“Bullshit. This is a simulation. Get out of my way.” Dan pushed Dane aside and continued his walk.
Almost immediately, the ground rumbled.
Dan stopped and turned to Dane. “Did you feel that?”
“You mean that simulated earthquake?” Dane was done being polite. In fact, he was done with walking in endless concentric circles, especially when he knew that what they were looking for wasn’t there. He pivoted, stirring up a little dust cloud, and walked confidently towards the two control stalks. He was going to fix this himself.
And the ground rumbled again. And again.
Dane looked past the stalks, at a tiny puff of dust way off in the distance. The tiny puff got a little bigger as the seconds passed. Dan had resumed walking in circles, mumbling to himself about unicorns and simulations, and didn’t notice the puff of dust that kept getting bigger. But Dane was intent. Focused. Something was out there. He kept staring.
Almost before it was too late, just barely, Dane got a good look at the tiny something in the distance. No, it wasn’t tiny. It was enormous. It shook the ground with each leap. Were those six legs? Eight? Twelve? The body was long, like a centipede, but hard to fix in Dane’s mind, as it undulated back and forth, up and down. Where its eyes might have been were two monstrous antennae, thrashing through the air like hundred-meter-long whips, spitting some form of mucus acid into the air as it lumbered ahead.
It was getting bigger. Because it was coming right at them.
Dan ignored him.
Dan finally shook himself free from his thoughts and turned to Dane. “What?”
Dane couldn’t speak. He could only point.
Dan spun around and looked in the direction of Dane’s index finger. “Fuck.” It was all he could manage to say.
They ran faster than they’d ever run in their lives. Away from The Thing.
At their pace, they knew it was only a matter of time. It was ever-so-slightly faster than them. There was nowhere to hide. They had no weapons. Nothing. Just fear.
But suddenly a calm smile came over Dane’s face. He laughed.
“What the fuck are you laughing about?!” Dan screamed as they ran.
Dane laughed again and screamed back, “If it’s not real, why are you running?!”
Hmm. Dan had to think.
Was he running just out of instinct, because a simulated twenty-meter tall monster still seemed very real to the primitive reptilian part of his brain? Or was he running because there might be a chance, very small but still there, that Dane was right? That maybe this thing was real? Or at least real-ish? Real-ish enough to devour them both and settle the argument once and for all? He didn’t plan on finding out.
“Iris! Do something!”
“I’m sorry, Dan. I can’t seem to-“
They screamed together, “DO SOMETHING!!!”
And Dan and Dane both had the distinct feeling that Iris was frantically pushing whatever buttons she could reach first, out of desperation, not knowing in the least what they would do, just to rescue her crew from the clutches of The Thing.
Just as a spray of mucus acid threatened to declare their running days over,
They watched in terror as droplets of acid floated leisurely through the air, singing their suits as it made contact. Oh yes, this was real. Very real. And they were too late. Even in slow motion, they were going to die.
But then reality stuck, like at the top of a roller coaster hill, and began to morph.
And Dane threw up on Dan.
And The Thing disappeared, replaced with a swirling mass of color and shape. They were falling.
Through the churning and the falling, Dan concentrated. He was looking for something.
Through the murk, in patches, he thought he saw it: the VHS. Maybe the whole thing was just a simulation. A very fucked up, very real-feeling simulation. Or is there some third experience he was having, some unholy hybrid of simulation and teleportation, and his innards were being blasted into a real-slash-fake reality at the same time? Damn. If you couldn’t even trust what you could touch… what was real?
This time, instead of blacking out, he felt the upward rush of hard earth breaking his fall.
But not too hard. Something cushioned their fall.
He was laying in a patch of ferns. Dane was passed out beside him.
He looked around. Lush, giant leaves dripped dew on him. Gargantuan trees stood so numerous it was impossible to make out a horizon, or even what time of day it was. Unseen animals – small, harmless ones, he hoped – rustled in the underbrush.
Dane opened his eyes, groggy. “Are we dead?”
“Nope. But if you puke on me again, you might be.”
“Oh. Sorry about that.” Dane pulled himself to a kneeling position, and Dan helped him to his feet.
As Dane surveyed their surroundings, taking deep breaths, the rustling in the underbrush got louder, and its source came into view. Cho-Poos. A full squadron, maybe eighty or ninety. Little cups of chocolate pudding, stuffed into little spacesuits, some floating in midair, all with tiny plasma guns aimed right at Dan and Dane.
Dane rubbed his eyes and laughed. “Wait. Is this real?”
And they ran like hell.
©2016 Rob Dircks. All rights reserved.