Prompt: Someone works on a space ship monitoring the ship’s heartbeat with a pair of headphones, but one day the headphones break.
The beat had been completely regular for more than a month. That was a month by the computer’s calculation of course, as none of the crew could keep track with so many stars and planets whizzing by. They were in for the long haul, one arm of the galaxy to the next, and any unscheduled stops could cost their employer trillions.
It had stayed regular even during the catastrophe at the outset, and it was all thanks to the sole human engineer aboard: David Rockland. There were three other engineers, but they were little more than rolling trashcans full of tools and a few blinking lights. David always called the repair robots the ‘three blind mice’ thanks to the occasional squeaking of their wheels and their failure to notice basic issues with the hardware.
The robots had simply whirled in place, panicking, when the catastrophe had occurred. They were only one week out from Neptune’s orbital station. David was pulled out of bed both by the first mate and the alarms. They ran to the server room, where the neural skeletons of the ship’s systems were held. It was a large curved chamber, with nearly-organic looking bundles of blinking blue wires across the ceiling.
He followed a red wire to a cluster shaped like a baobab that eventually squeezed into the floor. It was red because of a strange software failure, and its color was spreading to the rest of that system. It was a compounding error, perhaps caused by an update conflicting with their somewhat dated equipment. He had very few options.
One of the blind mice, spinning in circles slightly faster than the others, fell over with a crash. The first mate saw to it. That gave David a chance to try something a little reckless. He pulled out his digi-pliers and activated them. Their blades glowed green, an indication that they could reroute any data they were currently severing.
He found the base of the red infection and clipped it, looping the wire back around to itself and soldering it in place. The cut was a shock to the system, darkening most of the cluster. He didn’t have a choice. This was the sort of thing where the error could’ve downed the ship or left it floating around one of those vicious gravitational anomalies. If it worked he’d be the talk of the ship.
As luck would have it; he did isolate the error. They did celebrate him… for about three days. That’s when the consequences kicked in. Without that neural skeleton available the ship’s A.I. had degenerated. It was a common enough syndrome called infantilization. The computer still instinctively handled most requests, but lots of things now had to be run through manually.
It could manage their course, but not its own rhythm. David was now relegated to the server room twenty four hours a day, sleeping on an inflatable mattress, his ears always enclosed in giant headphones that monitored the ship’s ‘heartbeat’: its processing metronome.
He didn’t mind all that much. The blind mice were nearly as good at being his company as anybody else aboard. He painted faces on all three of them, each one more elaborate than the last. He even glued a toothpick to one of their smiles. It might have been juvenile, but nowhere near as juvenile as the ship had become.
His headphones stopped working one morning; he noticed he had twiddled the cord until the casing had cracked. It was not easily replaceable. That meant he would have to judge the ship’s ‘mood’ by the flow of the lights in the wires themselves. He could handle it; he’d been in school for more than two handfuls of years to qualify for work like that.
The problem was the ship. Though the process was called infantilization, it was really more of a regression to an adolescent state. The ship was curious, headstrong, but also full of anxiety. And, on the day his headphones broke, it spotted another ship in the distance.
Oh… They weren’t words. It was code, but David monitored the coded blinking closely. He knew how to see it as words. He could see the ship’s anxiety as it discussed the new vessel in the distance, its heart clearly racing even though he could no longer hear it. Oh that ship. That ship is adorable. We must go closer. I want them to notice me.
“Shit,” David hissed. It was getting emotional. That was the worst possible thing to be out in the darkness. It could make you stray from the path, and the path was lifeblood. He dropped to his back and pulled himself into the wires like a mechanic going under a jalopy. He found the manual ones he could squeeze code into. Stay on course.
We’ll miss them if we stay, silly. The ship made the equivalent of a small giggle: a jubilant bursting pocket of data that temporarily blinded David. He swore again. I’m going to go over there. Wait. Should we do it slowly? Will we look desperate if we don’t?
“I’m so fired.” We can’t go off course; we’ll lose too much fuel. People’s lives ride on this. You have a responsibility.
Shut up David. You didn’t build me. You could help you know. Ooooh. We can ask them for fuel. We’ll go over there and just ask for a nice cup of fuel, like we’re neighbors and we need sugar… for pie.
The engineer ran his fingers through his hair, pulling out a clump. He would have to do this the hard way. He had two grown daughters. Lock your eyes. Don’t roll them. Listen to every concern like it’s actually valid. Validate. He grabbed the wires and squeezed. Okay but you have to be sure to refuel there.
Now I’m nervous. Look at me, back and forth, back and forth. We are using fuel like crazy haha. Do you think they see? Oh my god I’m so embarrassed about the exhaust. Can you cover it up somehow?
Just be confident. Ships like confidence. Make it a straight shot and assert yourself. They’ll have to see how beautiful you are.
But like… what’s beautiful about me?
Panels. You have great panels. Flaunt them. Just don’t move them… because that would let all the radiation in and we would cook and die. Please. Don’t.
Okay. I’m really doing this. Thanks David. You’re the best engineer.
“You’re god damn right I am,” he said out loud, crawling free of the wires and taking a deep breath. All he had to do was make an excuse to the captain now while the ship got to third base with the other one. The refueling hose did make an appearance. Fluids were exchanged. The ship was giddy.
The only problem now was that his headphones were still broken, and the ship had the wonderful idea of starting a daily diary…
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by BrokenMonitor during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!