Set Adrift

This is the beginning of a short-story I’ve been tossing about in my head this week. Let me know what you think!

An EMP blast could have taken out Old Manhattan in about 3 seconds. I wasn’t able to time how long it took to take out our circuitry amidst the sparks and flashes that sprayed from my dashboard. Almost immediately, I was floating in my seat. The gravity generators were gone.

“Genie, report!”

“Shit’s down Captain.”

“I gathered! Details.”

Genie’s fingers flew across the still smoking console.

“I can’t give you details. We were running full power when that blast hit, most of the systems I would need for a status report are out. It’s safe to say anything that was turned on when the ship went dark is fried.”

“How long until we can get the back-up generators working?”

“An hour until I can tell you if they’ll come on at all. You bought the cheap ones Captain.”

I ran my hand through my hair, leaving grease tracks I could feel on my scalp. “Damn,” I said, to both the tracks and the more serious situation of not being able to see them.

Only moments ago they’d been staring in wonder at the swirling colors of two mixing gas clouds when a pulse had shot out towards the Starfish. The whole ship sparked up and went dark. They’d been unable to determine what the clouds were and now had to sit and wonder while the ship drifted, uncontrolled, through the whole mess of it.

Might as well check in with the rest of ‘em. I unbuckled my harness and pushed off from my chair over to the hole in the floor where the ladder led down to main deck.

Spark, Jax, Max-“

“Max, Jax!”

“She outranks you Max.”

“But I’m older! You should call my name first.”

I heard a clang followed by a yelp and mumbled grumbling.

“We’re all fine down here Captain,” replied Jax, a bit of a giggle in her voice.

The twins were always arguing about something, be it the order of their names, who got to drive the shuttle, or who was taller (even though they were the exact same height). The only thing Max had ever been early to in his life was his birth, coming out two minutes before Jax. Since then, it had been the complete opposite, Jax being ready and prepared an hour before Max woke up. Hence the ranking order.

“Good. What works down there?”

“The plumbing.” Max again.

“Shut up,” Jax. “The lights are all busted but we have some flashlights and are doing alright by those. I’m working on getting the generators up, but you bought the cheap ones Captain. They’ve been in need of repair for a season or two. “

“Yea, yea, I know. Well, fix ‘em and get back to me.”

“Aye sir.”

Max piped up again. “Cap?”


“We got some sorta leak coming from a line of tubing in the ceiling. I smelled it and I think it’s oxygen.

“You smelled it? Max you idiot, that could have been anything, fumes from the exhaust, or radon gas, or who knows what!

“But it didn’t smell bad, I think it’s oxygen.”

“Yea, you know it doesn’t smell bad now but what if…ah forget it. Don’t stick your nose in cracks-“


“Shut up Max. How do you know it’s oxygen?”

“Cuz oxygen is the only gas we got on this ship that don’t smell like somethin’ died, Robert,” replied Spark.

Spark could call me Robert. He could call me Wilma if he wanted, the man was 80 years old and had seen more action than my entire crew could write about. He’d ended up homeless after the Great War, where Earth had finally done itself in and sent us lookin’ in the stars for a new home.

Spark had been wandering, hitch-hiking on freight ships when I came across him in a bar fight. Well, I was in the bar fight, drunk against a big ol’ fella who was probably part bear, when Spark came in and ended it. I don’t even know how he did it, just all of a sudden bear-face (I think I called him that and that’s what kicked off the fight) was on the ground trying to hold his knee and wrist at the same time. That was 14 years ago, and Spark had been my grandfatherly engineer ever since.

“Well if it’s oxygen, we’re in trouble. That’s the line from life support leaking, and we’ll be needing every bit of air we can get while we try to get power back up and running. Patch it.”

“Aye Captain,” said Jax.

How did that happen? I thought. EMP wouldn’t have damaged pipes. No matter, something to figure out later. First priority was power.

As I drifted back to the flight deck, I considered our options. We could try to fix the back-up generators, which may give us enough power to reboot the systems that burned out in the EMP. Problem with that was, the longer we waited, the more oxygen we used up, and suffocation’s a nasty way to go.

The second option was to try and fix the burned systems themselves, but we would’ve run into the same problem: time. I didn’t know enough about EMP damage to know where to start, or if they could be fixed at all.

The last option was the least appealing to me, firing up the shuttle and trying to find a civilized port within range of her limited thrusters. If I wanted to try to salvage my livelihood by towing the Starfish, that range became drastically more limited. Without the long-range sensors on the bigger ship, we’d be relying on the equivalent of a metal detector in space to find a habitable place to land.

I decided on a mix between options A and B, which I ingeniously called plan AB. Spark and I would do my best with the life support system onboard the Starfish while the crew worked on the back-up generators. If we could get the life support system back up, we could stay as long as the food held out and work on the rest of the ship. If not, then the back-up generators would hopefully give us enough power to run the long-range sensors and find a place to heal up.

Figuring we were conservative with our air supply (not hyperventilating or running around too much), I figured we had about 3 hours of breathable oxygen left to us. After that, our bodies would have recycled enough of the air that carbon dioxide would have filled enough of the cabin that we started losing our vision and going loopy from oxygen deprivation.

3 hours. I checked my watch. By 11pm, we would need to have a solution to our problem.

Wait…my watch? I checked it again. The digital face still flicked through the seconds, 8:01:58, 59, 8:02:00…Why did my electronic watch work after an EMP that left the whole ship decapitated?

“Genie, does your watch work?”

“My watch?” she replied, confused.

“Yea, is it working?”

She glanced at her wrist with a dismissive expression.

“Why would it be…working? Yes, it is…how is that possible?”

“My question exactly. Are there any other battery operated systems still functional?”

Genie looked around, puzzled. How was it that our watches worked perfectly when every other electronic device was fried? It didn’t make sense.

“I don’t see anything captain. Most everything up here is powered by the ships core.”

Determined to figure this out, I floated over to the deck hole and pushed down the ladder.

Jax was elbow deep in the back-up generators, her tongue sticking out slightly while she concentrated. Max was directly opposite her on his back, rolled under the generator on a trolley. I could hear the ratchets and wrenches twisting metal, a quiet shrieking that reassured me that the silent generators had some life in them to be coaxed out.

“Do either of your watches work?”

They checked and answered in unison. “Nope.”

“Where’s Spark?”

Max rolled out and looked around. “I dunno. He was here a minute ago. Probably went to see what he could do with the life support.”

Spark was good at being a step a head of me, often knowing what I would ask him to do before I knew what it was myself, a kind of intuition that only comes from years of experience in a particular field.

Jax popped her head up for a moment. “Max, grab this coil and hold it.”

I checked my mysterious watch and started towards the Low Deck. “I’m off to find Spark. Keep at it you two.”

As I ducked down the steps, I heard a buzz quickly followed by another yelp from Max. No sympathy from Jax. “Not with your hand, you idiot, the pliers!” To be fair she hadn’t made that clear, but Max was slow and Jax loved being mischievous towards her brother.

As I walked down to life support, I pondered my watch. It didn’t make sense. An EMP is a magnetic pulse that destroys electronic circuitry. Anything close enough to the blast…

Anything close enough. The words flashed again through my head. Genie and I were closest to the window observing the gases when the EMP hit us. Yet both of our watches worked, while those in the main deck were damaged.

This told me two things: that the blast had been small enough to only affect part of the ship (namely, the engine core and the central ship) and that the gases hadn’t been the source.

The source of the blast was from inside the ship.

Immediately I knew what was happening. I ran down the rest of the stairs and found Spark tinkering under the life support console.

“Spark, we got trouble.”

“Aside from drifting powerless in space with dwindling air?”

“The EMP was from inside the ship.”

Spark dropped his tools and slid out with the grace of a man 30 years younger than he was. He rolled to his feet and we both ran down the hall to the engine room, Spark somehow ahead of me.

The engine was an older model, but still had all the necessary components to be crippled by an EMP. It was a long, blocky looking hunk of metal than ran the length of the room, about 5 meters. I grabbed two pairs of meter long pliers and tossed one to Spark. He caught it on the fly and we began looking for what we already knew was there. A minute or two later, I saw what I was looking for: a small, bubble-shaped form on the underside of the engine, camouflaged to look like the rest of the machine. Slowly, I reached my pliers under the engine, lined up the grippers, and thrust forward.

Instead of grabbing the intruder, the grippers hit it at just enough of an off angle to knock it off the engine. Instantly, 6 spider-like limbs shot out from the bubble shape and knocked my pliers away before scuttling away with annoying speed and agility.

“Spark! He’s loose, coming to your side!”

Spark tried to grab it and missed as well, the spider-bot too nimble for us at such an awkward angle. It kept dodging us at just the last moment.

Fine, no subtlety.

“Knock it out my way!” I yelled, standing up and backing away.

A few seconds later I heard a clang and saw the newly dented spider-bot fly out from under the engine. As it hit the wall and righted itself, I flicked out my pistol and fired. I got it right in the spherical body. At that range, it didn’t stand a chance. It shattered, pieces spraying everywhere.

I stared at it for a few seconds before holstering my gun. I knew the thing was dead, but I hadn’t had to use my pistol in a while and it was reassuring to have it back in my hand.

Spark came around the back of the engine and saw the wreckage. “Got ‘im good.

I wasn’t relieved yet. The intruder wasn’t the real source of the problem.

For a year or two now I’d been hearing of a new threat to ships on long voyages. With the galaxy the way it was, people were getting more and more desperate for food, money, and ships. Naturally, as travel evolved from trains to cars to planes to starships, pirates evolved too.

But pirating can be messy. In the past, pirate ships have destroyed their quarry in pursuit, or had been destroyed themselves. Why risk it? Instead of attacking the prey, let the prey weaken and die on it’s own. The pirate ships would hide nearby, cloaked most likely, and send a small probe down to the victim ship. The probe would land undetected, bore a small hole in the ship, and slip inside before covering its tracks. Then, it would locate the largest source of energy on the ship, hide among its workings, and fire a small EMP, effectively crippling the ship.

Every few hours, the probe would fire another EMP to frustrate the crew’s efforts to save themselves. If the pirates were more impatient than they usually are, they’d instruct the probe to cut life support lines to expedite the process. Without power or steady air supply, the crew would drift helplessly until they suffocated, leaving the ship, cargo, and food untouched. All the pirates had to do was wait.

Which was exactly what they were doing.

And they were impatient.

3 Responses to “Set Adrift”
  1. Jax says:

    How about you finish it?!? I was just getting into the story…

  2. Maybe I will! I got the idea mid-week, and this weekend didn’t provide a lot of writing time, so I may write more come Saturday.

  3. Grant says:

    Sooo, I just read the first part.. and I’m liking it. Very Firefly-esque.

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