Trial by Engine Failure

In the future, to pass college you no longer must pass written finals. Instead, you are simply dropped into a real life scenario related to your major, and left to fend for yourself with your new found knowledge.


I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t studying to be a doctor, after all. I didn’t get a degree in Emergency Management. I was an engineer. How bad could this be? I stepped up to the chair, and seated myself, as the doctor droned on.

“As part of your graduation exam, you will be placed in a real-life scenario requiring the use of your skills. To do this, you will be transited to an alternate universe briefly. Be advised that there will be consequences to your activities there. Your placement will branch into a new parallel universe, and the people there will go forward dealing with the consequences of your performance. Do you understand?”

The doctor paused for a precise moment, then began speaking again. He’d given this speech a lot, it seemed. “While there, you may be exposed to stressful events. Be advised that any extremes of stress that may threaten your health will return you from your presence there, and a re-examination will be required. You will not . . . .”

He droned on, and on. I had stopped listening at this point, waiting for it to be over so I could build a clock or repair a generator, or maybe design some primitive waterwheel. The doctor cleared his throat. I looked up, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. Could you repeat the last sentence?”

“Do you agree to the terms and conditions as detailed?” His eyes fixed on me, disapproving. He knew I hadn’t listened to a word.

“I do.”

Then an impact made my head ring like a bell. Gunfire was all around me, and I hit the ground. I touched my head – my helmet – and took it off. Blessedly cool air touched my scalp, and I realized that under the helmet and body armor I was sweltering. There was a groove carved into the helmet, and at the end of that groove, a hole in the metal. A burning pain swelled over my right ear, and wetness was dripping on my shoulder. This . . . was a military helmet. With blood on it. My blood. I looked around, and soldiers were taking cover all around me in the tall grass, firing into the trees. Something whined inches from my face, and sweat-sodden fragments of my own hair fell onto my nose.

Someone snatched my helmet, and slapped it down on my head – it caused a burst of pain that blurred my vision. “That helmet just saved your life, soldier! Take it off again, and I’ll kick your ass myself! Now get on the tank! If we can’t get that gun up then we are dog meat!”

His voice carried such command and authority that it caught me and carried me. I didn’t even know him, but . . . he inspired me, a little. It drove home the urgency of my situation, and I scrambled up and toward the tank. As I climbed up the side of the hulking mass of metal, my hands burning from the sun-baked metal, knowledge – the knowledge possessed by the man I was standing in for – bloomed in my mind. The model of the tank, the engine, the construction, I even thought I knew what was wrong with it. I dropped into the tank, opening the engine compartment, working quickly to confirm my thoughts. I grabbed the fire extinguisher, cutting tubing off of it to replace a burst hose – thank god for duct tape – and began disassembling my sidearm, stripping the spring that drew the hammer down; with that, I worked to fix the broken linkage. There. I tried to start the tank again, then I tried again while simultaneously kicking the engine. Suddenly the beast roared to life. I heard a cheer from outside, and someone else dropped in, frantically working levers. The whole beast rocked as the main gun fired.

I was back in a chair, confused and disoriented. “You’re back at school. Are you okay? We registered a lot of stress, but not enough to pull you.”

I touched my head to take off the helmet. My hand encountered hair instead of cropped fuzz, and no blood, no pain. “Where is my rifle?”

The doctor raised a brow but seemed to understand at once. “Take it easy. You’re back at school, taking your exam. There’s no rifle. There’s no war, no danger. You passed.”

As the cloud of another man’s knowledge dissipated, so did my fog. I looked up, my past and my soul becoming coherent once more. “I’m here. I’m back. You said I passed, right?”

“You passed.”

I stood up, stepping away from the chair, shivering in the cool air, after the sweltering heat. I must have been sweating here, but while I had been aware of heat, the sweat made the air conditioned room chilly. “If there’s nothing else, I’d like to leave.”

The doctor nodded, and I left the examination room. A left turn out of the waiting room, another left into the hall, and straight on until I reached the doors. The summer warmth wasn’t as warm as I had been during the exam, but at least I wasn’t cold anymore. I went to lean against a wall, but first reached up for something, and found only my shirt. I realized I had been trying to tug the strap of the rifle on my shoulder, to shift its position so I could lean back.

It had been a vivid trip, and the man I’d shared space with had been strong. It seemed some of his habits had rubbed off on me. I had never wanted to own a gun, but I realized I was already considering visiting a shooting range.

I remembered vividly stripping a pistol to pieces to get at a spring, and thought about the construction of the weapon. The other man’s knowledge was fading, but I remembered what I saw, and my engineer’s mind questioned the design, the inefficiencies. I saw ways to strengthen, thus lighten the barrel.

They said that people sometimes found their calling in the exam; I thought such an idea was silly. You are who you are. But perhaps, by mere chance, it had helped me stumble upon something I’d enjoy.

“Nathan Young, Gunsmith.” Then I blushed, as somebody passing into the school glanced at me, catching me talking to myself. I thought about how the words sounded, though, and imagined myself with a workshop and a range. I think I liked the idea.

Author: Eric Eshleman

I'm not real.

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