The Skeleton by J. Inglis

Alice kicked off the edge of the shuttle’s airlock, and launched herself into the blackness. Her environment suit was reading all greens, and for that she was thankful. The area was heavily restricted, and she probably wasn’t going to get another opening like this.

The Kholin-Grey Orbital Shipyard stretched over fifty kilometres of the sky above Luna; a web of criss-crossing beams, docking clamps, and small environment habitats. It all connected into the same structure in a way that, to the untrained eye, looked like a disaster. Alice, who had done her research before she’d rented the tiny shuttle she’d illegally flown into the area, knew that this was actually one of the greatest achievements in space-based engineering ever constructed. This shipyard was the single largest structure ever assembled in the vacuum by humans, and if Alice had been there over a decade ago, it would have been a hive of activity.

She’d seen the footage, naturally; a ship of some sort or another had left the facility every day. The space above Luna had been lit by a thousand new stars every second as uncountable numbers of engineers welded sheets of metal together to craft tiny bubbles of oxygen, fuel, and light in which to hurl humans across the emptiness of space. Occasionally, a supernova of light would join those pale white stars as a ship fired up its drive for the first time. The footage of Kholin-Grey as seen from the lunar surface had been entrancing, and beautiful.

It had been over fifteen years since the stars had gone out.

Alice was pretty sure that she was the only person to have come into the restricted area around the shipyards in years; she’d read about “urban explorers” on the extranet, years ago, and had been very taken with the idea ever since. Now, drifting through the ruins of the facility, she felt like she understood what it was to pick through the ruins of something that had once touched greatness.

She twisted, and a jet of RCS fuel pushed her toward the skeleton of the USS Magnus, a small, unremarkable destroyer that had been commissioned by the US Navy just a few months before Kholin-Grey had halted production entirely. She let herself drift through a gaping wound in the ship’s hull, and into the half-finished network of corridors within, clicking her heels together to activate the magnetic strips in her boots. The clang as they impacted the floor made her jump; she hadn’t heard a single sound apart from her own breathing for several minutes. Actually being inside hammered her trespassing home in a way that the wide-open space outside the ship hadn’t. She wandered the corridor for several minutes, her helmet lights barely penetrating the gloom. Finally, she found what she was looking for; the ship’s plaque, buried deep within the guts of the ship, on the bridge. USS Magnus – commissioned: 4/2/2103, completed:

The space had nothing etched into it, but an anonymous worker had vengefully scorched a single word into the plaque with a welding torch; ‘NEVER’.

Alice tapped the side of her helmet and heard a click as she recorded the image.

The rest of the ship contained nothing terribly interesting, and Alice eventually found her way onto the engineering deck, only to discover that the ship’s spinal railgun had never been sealed properly.

Hmm… well, if they haven’t noticed me by now…

She clambered inside the barrel, which ran the entire 220m length of the vessel. She was near the back, where the huge tungsten slugs would have been loaded into the weapon and magnetically accelerated to a fair percentage of the speed of light, before being launched at the enemy. Obviously, with no reactor in the ship, it wasn’t going to be accelerating anything anytime soon. Still, though…

Alice crouched at the base of the cannon, checked her thrusters, and then in a blast of white gas fired herself up the tube, piling on the speed as the open space at the prow of the ship rushed towards her.

The sound of her own laughter surprised her as she burst from the end of the Magnus and back into the shipyard proper, holding out her hands like a superhero as she flew into the space which should have housed the Magnus’ sister ships, but which lay empty. She executed a few spins and twirls, exalting in the feeling of freedom, and finally slowed herself to a stationary position.

Now that she was facing the ship, she felt a small pang of remorse. Once, it had been fearsome, mighty even. That railgun could, if not level an entire city, at least blow a good chunk of it to smithereens. And now what was it? A playground, for her.

She cast her gaze over the entire shipyard. That was what it had all become, really.

She’d never been involved in the shipbuilding; she was too young, for one thing, and for another, she’d grown up on a backwater refuelling station around Mars, too insignificant to even have a name. Too far away to ever really appreciate what this place had been. Yet she still felt a strange sense of grief at the state of it, at the loss of what could have been.

She picked a random direction, and sent herself spinning off, all while wondering how much worse the people who had worked here had felt when it had all fallen apart.

It hadn’t been all at once, of course. Production had been gradually slowing for a few decades, as the first bases on Mars grew into colonies, and then cities. A constant stream of new cargo ships to transport material, equipment, and settlers wasn’t as in-demand as it had been, and it seemed as if Kholin-Grey would just need to wind down production until the next major colonisation effort began. As late as 2102, it seemed as if things would be fine for the shipyards.

Alice found herself drifting over a science ship. Not one of the models designed to carry crew; it was small, little more than an fusion drive, sensors, and a battery of magnetic rails to launch autonomous probes. Or rather, it had been. Unlike the rest of the ships in the yard, which were merely half-finished, the hull plating had been peeled back. The state-of-the-art science vessel had been stripped for parts like a rusted old auto.

It wasn’t clear if the decision to scrap it had been motivated by necessity or vengeance. Certainly, the probe rails seemed to have been ripped apart with more ferocity than the rest of the ship. But then, Alice understood why they’d have hated the thing.

In January of 2103, a probe (of the model as the ones stocked on this ship) had been transmitting a routine mission report from Ganymede. The pictures had been largely unremarkable; the ever-present spectre of Jupiter hanging in the sky, along with rocks, rocks, and more rocks. And then, quite suddenly, a human, lazily reclining on one of those rocks in a vacuum suit, waving at the camera as it panned over her. As if being completely alone on an uninhabited moon, far outside the range of any crewed ship, were the most normal thing in the world.

Her name had been Eliza Sorrows, and besides her flair for the dramatic, her most notable characteristic was that she was a genius in the field of experimental slip space teleportation. The sort of thing that should have taken decades to become viable.

Except that it hadn’t.

Sorrows had developed a system which allowed ships to use micro-teleport jumps to break the light barrier. It cut down the travel time from Mars to Jupiter from four years, to a little under eighteen hours.

She called it the Slipstream Drive.

Across the solar system, people rejoiced. The dawn of the new century had also brought the dawn of what could only be a period of human interstellar dominance.

Alice had resumed her drifting while she thought, wandering through the shipyards, and found herself face-to-face with the reason that no celebrations had taken place on Luna that day.

A hulking, brutal, brick of a ship, just under 4 kilometres long, complete with a centrifuge drum down its middle and a set of engines each as large as the Magnus’ entire body.

Ships like this had been Kholin-Grey’s bread and butter; massive colony and cargo ships that could sustain their crews for the months of travel that moving materials across the void required.

And if you could travel between planets in the blink of an eye, they were totally obsolete.

Alice let her momentum carry her onto the craft’s bridge. Unlike the Magnus, which had layered its bridge with as many layers of armour plating as was possible, this ship (the plaque identified it as the HMS Lort Burn) kept its bridge at the bow, outside of the complicated workings of the centrifuge drum at its core.

She settled herself into the captain’s chair and looked out onto the field of stars that the Lort Burn would never cross, the gentle, pale curve of Luna dominating the upper-left hand corner of her vision.

Eliza Sorrows had invented the Slipstream Drive just as Mars had begun construction of its own orbital shipyards, and they could be built from scratch to facilitate the new technology. Small, sleek, and effortlessly fast ships equipped with Slipstream drives had been off the production line by mid-2103, and almost every contract that had been written between Kholin-Grey and the militaries, and shipping corporations of Earth and Mars, was ripped up, as everyone scrambled over one another to get a piece of the newer, faster, cheaper ships. The idea of overhauling the Lunar shipyards so that they could continue to operate was never even considered; in the short term, letting them die and importing ships from Mars was simply cheaper.

The shipyard had become a relic, functionally useless, and by 2105 the last work shifts had ended.

Alice pulled her hand terminal out of a pocket on her suit. Linking the audio to her helmet, she was able to listen to the news broadcast it was picking up, live, from Ganymede. Slipspace technology had even eliminated light delay.

“The mood is ecstatic among the citizens of Ganymede today, as the test flight of the GIR Theseus is set to commence in just a few minutes! This will be the first ship ever to use slipstream technology in an attempt to reach another solar system, and it is expected that- ”Alice muted the feed but kept watching. This was why she’d been able to get into the shipyards today; security had been pulled from all across the system to make sure this launch went off without a hitch, including from the perimeter around Kholin-Grey. Mars-based shipyards had been loudly complaining about the way they’d been sidelined in the construction process of the new wave of interstellar ships, and there had been threats of recriminations if they were forced into the undignified end that Kholin-Grey had met so many years before.

Alice pushed herself out of the chair, and a puff of gas pushed her towards the distant green dot that marked her shuttle in her helmet’s display.

History seemed fairly likely to repeat itself; Martian shipbuilding would be undercut by more advanced, more cost-effective ships from Ganymede.

The workers would leave, any half-finished ships that could be sold off for scrap would go shortly after, leaving the night sky haunted by the framework- no, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t a framework, or a lattice, or anything so inorganic and technical as that. Alice landed inside the airlock of her shuttle and took one last look at the place.

With the people stripped away, and the ships gone, it became clear what the spindly, sprawling structure of Kholin-Grey really was. It was a skeleton. The once strong and vibrant centre of a community, rotted and decayed until only the bones remained.

Alice shuddered, and wondered if she was better off being from somewhere that had never mattered and could never experience a fall like this.

She suspected she’d be wondering that the whole shuttle ride home.

About this piece

This 2000 word flash-fiction is adapted from a creative writing exercise I did during my Foundation Year, where we were asked to write something that expressed our personal feelings on the history of the North East that we’d been learning on the course. I tried to articulate the feeling of someone from outside the area coming in for the first time, and exploring the industrial decline that took place across the 20th century, by transplanting those ideas into an unfamiliar sci-fi setting, so that an outsider’s perspective would be easier to empathise with. I took heavy inspiration from James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, and Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The City and The Stars. The themes of the story are decay, alienation, and the cycle of fair-weather prosperity and subsequent suffering inflicted by boom-and-bust cycles.

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