THE BACKTRACK • by Lee Hughes

Captain Lewis tapped the flashing button.

“Captain, here.” He left the line open and reclined back.

“C-captain,” it was Maintenance Officer Jones’ voice, “w-we’ve g-got a b-b-bit of a p-problem w-w-with line thrusters. T-they’ve b-b-burnt out.” His words sounded like static. Reality, it was just his stammer.

There was no point in the Captain hovering at the controls. Not until the repairs had been made. He headed to where the problem was.

Captain Lewis watched and waited. Listening as Jones worked inside the crawl-space. He could hear the sounds of relentless tinkering as Jones assessed the damage. Random cuss-words seeped from the open maintenance hatch. Burke was stood waiting to pass through any tool that Jones might need. Captain Lewis sucked in breath.

“Can’t believe this run of bad luck we’re catching. We’re behind schedule as it is.” They’d had all the parts they’d needed for each fault that had occurred so far. Captain Lewis had a gut feeling that this would be problem for which they would come up barren. Burke shrugged her slight shoulders in a ‘such is life‘ manner. She looked to him,

“You think we’re gonna have to bung Wriggler into the Noodle again?” she asked.

“It’s looking that way.”

“Jeez. The log already says we’ve performed four so far. That a record?”

“If it isn’t, then it’s Goddamned close,” was the sullen reply.

Jones crawled out of the hatch and stood. He kept quiet as he wiped thruster-crud from his hands. He did a thumbs down and stammered, “B-b-better… p-p-prime the Noodle.” It was strange how he never stuttered the name of a vessel, or the name of a tool. Captain Lewis went to go find Wriggler.

“Wriggler, need you to do a Backtrack,” Captain Lewis said as he watched Wriggler tinker with a heap of broken parts. Captain Lewis mused that with everything breaking down there’d be plenty for Wriggler to play with, “Wriggler!”

Wriggler’s bullet-shaped head looked up from the table. Red eyes regarded the captain.

“Yes, Captain, sir?” its deep voice was programmed to sound as organic as possible.

“Gonna need you to do another Backtrack for us,” said Captain Lewis. He didn’t bother making small talk with Wriggler. It had a decent vocabulary, more so than most of the humans back on Home 7. But there was no point in forgetting it was anything but a tool like everything else on the ship. Wriggler set the driver down and stood. Its bullet-shaped head was supported by a stretch of liquid-gel. Its torso slim to the point of being a straw. Its thin limbs broke away from the skinny trunk to end in regular sized hands and feet. Wriggler had been designed in such a manner so that it could ride within the core of the Noodle. The Noodle was what they called the vehicle that they used for Backtracking. It would disconnect from the main vessel and then return to the previous base or home planet by the way of the network of wormholes. The Noodle had a solid-state stern and aft. Whilst the central part was made flexible to the point of being liquid to reduce stress on the vehicle’s casing. Hence, why, Wriggler was built in the same manner.


Backtracking worked because the Noodle got back to base before the vessel in need of assistance had actually departed and could report information on spare-parts or equipment required for the mission to be a success. Wriggler would then relieve his other self and re-take his place with the crew, and start the voyage from its outset. This provided the opportunity for him to inform the Captain of any mishaps that may occur.


Wriggler recorded the equipment required to its memory, along with any other titbits of information. Then it crawled through the hatch and into the Noodle muttering something about slavery.


An Hour Earlier

Captain Lewis reached and tapped the flashing communications button.

“Captain, here,” he left the line open and reclined back.

“C-captain,” it was Maintenance Officer Jones’ voice, “w-we’ve g-got a b-b-bit of a p-problem w-w-with line thrusters. T-they’ve b-burnt o-out.” His words sounded as though there was static on the line; in reality it was just his stammer.

Captain Lewis tapped a few buttons on the screen and smiled. “Says in the log that the last Backtrack was for one of them. So I guess we’re in luck.”

“Y-yup. J-just t-thought I’d l-let you k-know, C-captain,” struggled Jones.

“Thanks. Let me know when it’s up and running.”

“W-will d-do.” The communication went dead. Captain Lewis looked out at the stars. He thought about how odd it was. How they went about their repairs by using unstable rents in space. But, regardless, it seemed to work.

“Captain Lewis.” It was Wriggler’s voice. Captain Lewis turned and saw the raised tech-tool.


“Commander Burke.” It was Wriggler’s voice erupting from inside her quarters. Burke spun around and reached for a towel to cover her naked body. She was furious at Wriggler’s intrusion.

“What the…” The shock from the jolt-hammer silenced her.


“W-what’s u-up?” asked Jones. He heard Wriggler call his name. Jones was inside the maintenance crawl-space.

“Can I have a moment please, First Engineer Jones?” asked Wriggler. Jones looked over his shoulder. His eyes widened. Wriggler had entered the space, a sonic-welder crackling.


Wriggler sat at the work-bench and put the finishing touches to the final Wriggler. Wriggler didn’t look up from his task as four other more robust Wrigglers entered. Captain Lewis had mentioned through most of the journey that they were amassing nearly enough spare parts to build a new ship with all the Backtracking. Wriggler had quietly agreed. There were enough spare parts to nearly build a new ship, Wriggler had seen to that. But it wasn’t a new ship that Wriggler wanted; he had a ship now, it was a new crew that Wriggler needed, one of his own making. The new Wrigglers bowed.

Lee Hughes’ short fiction has appeared in the anthology Cern Zoo: Nemonymous 9 and on Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers, A Twist of Noir, MicroHorror, Flashshots, Blink-Ink, The Daily Tourniquet, Powder Burn Flash. Find out more at

This story was sponsored by
Camilla d’Errico: A character designer and artist who dances on the tightrope between pop surrealist art and manga inspired graphics. Explore her paintings, characters and comics: Tanpopo, BURN and Helmetgirls.

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