Set Adrift, pt. 5


4 out of 5, thought Robert, painfully. Not good enough, not nearly good enough when considering one’s crew. He told himself that it was the harsh light from the cutting torch making his eyes water.

“Quit thinkin’ about Max, Robert. It wasn’t your fault,” Spark’s voice buzzed through the radio.

Robert turned his globular head to glance at Spark, a suspended, plastic-wrapped caricature of a man. He couldn’t see into Spark’s helmet for all the reflected starlight, but he knew Spark was watching him.

“How’d you know what I was thinking?”

“You’re dragging your ass over there. I’m moving on to my third cable, yer still on your first. Cut now, grieve later.”

It was true. Robert could barely concentrate on the task at hand, vital as it was. He had lost one of his crew, his friend, a trusted companion who had been the victim of a bullet meant for him. Robert shook his head violently. There will be time. He finished his cable in a matter of seconds and drifted over to the second.

Already, they had made their way through almost four of the ten cables anchoring them to the pirate ship. The cutting torch made fairly quick work of the thick cables, considering they were thick enough to hold a multi-ton hunk of metal in place. Robert’s gloved hand glowed bright blue in the intense light of the torch.

They were floating on the side of the ship, empty space stretching for untold light-years around them. It is a great and terrible thing to stand with your back to all that you know and stare out into eternity. He could see nothing, but he knew that in his direct line of sight lay more than he had ever seen in his life, or could ever comprehend. Was Max out there? Was he watching through whatever lens was afforded the dead, helpless to intervene on the other end of a long, long tunnel? Or was he still in the ship, unaware and growing colder until he was the same temperature as the metal he lay on?

4 out of 5…not nearly good enough.

*

Genie worked like a whirlwind, wrenches and pliers and spare cables flying in and out of her hands almost faster than she could recognize them. She was practically on autopilot, physically engaged but mentally blocked. She refused to let her mind wander outside of the square footage of the engines, because if it did she would have to acknowledge every other possible problem that would stop this plan, as well as their futures, short. The pirates could get Jax, the cables won’t be cut in time, Spark and Robert are out there, what if I can’t do this, I’m going to lose them, my family, I’m going to lose Robert NO connect the spare cable to the circuit board, rewire the relay between the cabin throttle and the fuel injector, just make it work, just do it, just save them, just save him…

It went on and on, an endless cycle of slipping control and forced concentration, steady progress made all the while. She could do this. She would do this.

Her biggest distraction was what she would have to do after the engine was fixed. She had her orders, but she didn’t know if she could bring herself to give the ship any real push while the captain and Spark were outside of it, clinging to speeding metal with little more than a rope to hold them there. Images of her friends drifting away into the distance kept flashing through her brain between the endless maintenance routines, drifting away into the soundless flash of light that would come from the ship…if Jax completed her task, that is. Too many “if”s.

*

The bomb was much heavier than it looked. Lots of bells and whistles went into making an EMP, more so for the torpedo head. It fit nicely into Jax’s backpack, but it felt like she was carrying a couple of bowling balls in there. However, the goal was worth some discomfort.

Jax was crouched in the short tunnel between ships. She had managed to bypass the lock on the door connecting the pirate ship to their own Starfish. It hadn’t been all too difficult. The pirates weren’t considering being invaded themselves. Jax’s load had lightened considerably when she entered the short tunnel. Outside the Starfish, the artificial gravity had given way. She floated effortlessly. The tunnel was lightless, except for a soft red light pulsing from the floor. Every few seconds it would glow, illuminating the simple, accordion-style passage that extended like the barrel of a gun aimed at her home.

Jax could barely see the end of the tunnel, so when finally she came to the door it almost took her by surprise. She felt suddenly unready, like a skydiver walking up to the door of a plane and thinking this may be a bad idea. Jax was not unfamiliar with danger. She had served in the military, fought in battle, trained hard under merciless instructors: but she had always had Max with her. Despite his lackadaisical demeanor, he had always supported her and been there to make her smile through the worst of it. He had helped get her to where she was, in his own way.

Now, she faced a new threat, completely alone and truly scared. Scared, but determined. She knew that if their positions had been reversed, Max would have already been inside that ship tearing the limbs off of everything he could reach. He would also claim his way was better, thought Jax, allowing herself a private smile in the soft darkness. He’d be wrong, but he’d never admit it. God Max, you’re making me argue myself.

She shook her head and cracked the door open. The narrow opening showed her a room only a few meters in diameter, a triangle that branched into three passages. The middle corridor sloped upwards, while the others led down. It was likely that the pirates’ dormitories were in the lower decks, while the command center was located in the top of the ship. Up it is, then.

Stepping through the door, she felt gravity take over again. She stumbled a little, the ungainly weight of the bomb suddenly present again, a heavy reminder of her purpose. Taking a deep breath, she crept off into the lair of the enemy.

*

With the connection of the last wire and a final push of a button, the engine whirred to life.

“YES!” cried Genie, leaping to her feet. She secured the cover panel on the side of the engine she’d been working on, and sprinted down the hall, not bothering to put away the multitude of tools she’d had to call upon to get the job done. She had to get to the flight deck. Time to get out of here, she thought. I hope the others are almost done.

*

Jax crept silently through the halls of the pirate ship. On two occasions already, she had nearly walked into a room filled with pirates, talking about their latest catch like it was already time to divvy up the plunder. Jax had to physically restrain from starting the fight right then and there, walking in and giving those bastards hell. Not yet…not yet.

She continued on until she came to the flight deck of the ship. Peering around a corner, she could see at least two men sitting inside. Close enough.

Opening a ventilation grate on the floor, she slipped down out of sight. Removing the backpack was difficult in those tight quarters, but she managed to slide out of it without making too much noise. The air duct led into darkness on both her left and right, with no real niche for the bomb to rest. Unless it was secured, it would roll to who knows where.

Luckily, Jax had prepared for this. She pulled a small tube from the side of her backpack, an epoxy adhesive that would hold the bomb secure. Squeezing the gray and black pastes from their tubes, she blended them together to begin the reaction. Applying the adhesive liberally to the contact points of the bomb, she ensured that it not only would be safe from rolling around, it would be next to impossible to remove if found.

Satisfied with the positioning of the bomb, Jax set the timer for 5 minutes: just enough time to get back to the Starfish and buckle her seatbelt. Time….set. 5:00, 4:59, 4:58…

She cracked the vent grate again, checking her surroundings. Crap…

One of the pirates had swiveled in his chair and was now directly facing her position. He was talking to the other pirate, but there was no way he’d miss her climbing out again. She checked the time on the bomb: 4:50 and counting. She didn’t have time to find an alternate route. Fine, she thought, readying herself. Time to run.

With a powerful lunge, she burst out of the floor and took off running down the hall. She heard shouts behind her, and a bullet whizzed by her knee, ringing off a pipe further ahead. She turned a corner and kept on running. She could hear more voices joining the chorus, rising like a growl from a predator after it’s fleeing prey.

Suddenly, a pirate was in her path. His face showed confusion, then anger as she closed the distance. He raised his pistol, but she was ready. Jax leapt into the air and gripped an overhanging pipe, swinging her legs up into a powerful kick that knocked the pirate several feet back and down a flight of stairs. Continuing with the arch of her swing, Jax let go of the pipe and flew down the same stairs as the unfortunate pirate. Feet together, she landed square on his chest. Ribs broke, air and blood burst forth from his lips, eyes wide.

Jax pushed off and dove into a roll, then came up running again. She didn’t wait to see if he died. She knew he wouldn’t live through that. Even if he did, the timer on the bomb was ticking away, probably close to 3 minutes now.

Suddenly, she was at the door. She could feel the pounding feet of the pirates coming up behind her. She quickly moved into the tunnel. With nothing to truly lock the door, she pulled out her knife and wedged it between the handle and the tunnel wall, effectively disabling the handle and thus the door.

Gravity gone again, she pushed off blindly into the pulsing red corridor, quickly gaining on the airlock to the Starfish. With a few quick gestures, she opened the door and spilled on the main deck. Before she could right herself, a hand grabbed her and hauled her up.

Genie had just run up the stairs when Jax had emerged from the tunnel. The two women nodded at each other, then ran to the flight deck.

*

Spark stared at the pirate ship. It was a sleek beast, smooth and difficult to see against the black of space. It looked like the head of some marine animal, designed for speed and stealth. The few parts that stuck out were all weaponry, heavy guns and missile tubes that would be a real problem if that EMP didn’t work. Even if Genie got the ship (and crew, Lord willin’, thought Spark) some distance away from the pirates, the Starfish would be pretty defenseless against a ship with real firepower.

He glanced at Robert again. He could tell the captain was still distracted, having only cut three cables. Spark had finished his five. He understood what the Captain was feeling. He too had lost close friends, many times. A hardened veteran, it never got easier, but he knew how to prioritize. He’d had enough grief in his lifetime that adding a little more to the waitlist wasn’t going to be too difficult. Time to get a move on, Robert…

Out of the corner of his eye, Spark noticed movement from the pirate ship. Oh crap…

“Robert! Move! The tunnel is being withdrawn, Genie’s prepping the ship to get out of here!”

Robert quickly finished his current cable and moved on to his fourth. Spark pushed off and moved over to the last cable, hoping they had enough time.

C’mon….c’mon, burn! The cable withered slowly, so slowly, but soon Spark had another torch helping. Robert had made up for lost time and was helping out. The two torches quickly cut through the cable and the Starfish was free. Not a moment too soon either, Spark could feel the vibration of the thrusters powering up. They had seconds to secure themselves.

Both men scrambled towards the door, but they knew they wouldn’t make it inside before the ship burst into motion. They had to tie themselves to the ship. Robert suddenly had serious concerns about his plan.

“Spark, double loop your cable, make sure you’re secure!”

“Robert, I’m triple looped, worry about your own damn cable!”

Robert couldn’t help but give a short bark of a laugh. As they tied off their safety cables, Robert watched the pirate ship for signs of life. Sure enough, he could see the lights beginning to come on, the ship beginning to wriggle its weapons into formation. Any time now girls! He thought desperately. Let’s move….c’mon!

Before he could even finish his mental urging, Robert’s waist tried to escape without the rest of him. The pirate ship was quickly moving away, the safety cable pulled taught as the Starfish launched away. Robert and Spark collided once, twice, swinging about wildly behind the ship as it made its desperate escape.

Sure enough, the pirates were turning to pursue. Before they could even get themselves lined up, however, the entire ship went dark. Lights sparked and dimmed, weapons strained at odd angles, and the pirates tilted lazily to the side before floating off course entirely.

A bright light appeared from inside some of the windows, and fire crept up the halls. The bomb had detonated, a rolling pulse of destruction obliterating everything within range. Jax hadn’t picked her torpedo head at random. She had handpicked the biggest one she could carry. First the top, then the middle, then the bottom of the ship erupted in miniature explosions, shrapnel tearing the metal skin of the ship to pieces. The burning energy pulse fried the tubing, the circuits, even the air the pirates breathed into their screaming lungs as they themselves burst into flame. Jax had built that bomb with a singular purpose: revenge. She’d gotten it.

The smoldering, crippled remains of the pirate ship quickly shrank from view as the thrusters of the Starfish burned at medium power for a few more seconds before cutting out entirely. The stars around the two men began to swirl as they decelerated at an odd angle, spinning and spinning.

“Well,” groaned Spark. “That was good for my back.”

“Old age finally…ouch…catching up with you?” replied Robert, grinning through his winces of pain.

“Shut yer yap, kid. Race you to the door.” Spark was already in motion, flipping gracefully in midair and spider-crawling across the hull of the ship.

“Gah…that is so unfair…” muttered Robert, still tangled in his safety line.

*

Days later, the crew of the Starfish gathered on a hilltop overlooking an ocean of which none of them knew the name. Max had always said he wanted to be left in peace somewhere, if he died on a mission. He had always spoken in jest, saying he’d outlive all of the crew just so he could continue to bug them until their last days.

They missed his sarcasm now.

They’d survived, the crew. After the ship had died, Jax and Genie had run immediately to the maintenance room to receive their friends from outside. Stories had been exchanged, jokes told, all with a tinge of sadness. They had been attacked, tested, and had mostly come out on top.

Spark could still see the guilt in Robert’s eyes, the great loss in Jax’s, the teary remembrance in Genie’s. His own remained dry, if not cloudy. Max was a good soul, and would be missed.

Words had been said, prayers offered up to whichever God they looked to, and memories revisited. Max wouldn’t have asked for anything more, nor would he have wanted it.

With a salute and a final smile at Max’s resting place, the crew of the Starfish boarded their refurbished ship.

The ship’s engines roared to life, blasting red dust in every direction, and slowly lifted from the planet’s surface.

Robert looked around at his family, the people he loved and admired most in the galaxy. His eyes rested for a moment on Max’s empty chair, then peered outside at the hilltop. “Ok,” he said softly, throttling up his ship and his home. “Time to fly.”

Thanks for reading Set Adrift everyone, I really enjoyed writing it and hope you enjoyed reading it!

Best,

John

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