Different site for a random picture today and at the same time a little less random. I was in a SF kind of mood (hardly unusual), so when I went to Pexels.com (my other favourite royalty-free photo site), I typed in “astronaut” and scrolled through until I found one that grabbed me, coming up with the feature image on this post.
Sliding it over to the secondary monitor, I opened up a fresh Word document and started typing. 43 minutes and 28 seconds later, I had the 975-word flash piece you find below. I’m having a really hard time sticking to the original target of 250-500 words, aren’t I? Hope you enjoy.
Stay safe and be well, everyone.
A Million Years of Salvage
“Break’s over. Time to get back into the up and out. One minute to lock change.”
Jyllan sighed, took one last deep breath of the station’s recycled air before pulling the neck of her suit up to seal with the bottom of her helmet so she could start breathing her own recycled stink again. This whole twelve on, twenty-four off routine was starting to wear thin, especially since there were no weekends and you only got fifteen minutes to sit on your ass by yourself during that twelve. Four weeks on, one week off. The pay was good. No, the pay was great. Her account would be so healthy by the end of the job, even if she just worked a cutter the whole time, she’d have enough to retire, drop down to Mars, and open up a pizza shop or something.
Something thumped in the wall behind her and the rapid hiss of the vents sucking up air instead of providing it drowned out her own echoing breathing for a moment until the air pressure in the cabin dropped too low to sustain the noise.
“Sound off!” Jyllan pressed her mouth into a thin line. Why did Allysi always have to sound so cheerful about going back to work? She wasn’t making that much more as a team lead then the rest of them.
Names chorused through the squad channel.
“Minkler, uh, green.”
“Soskavitch.” She sighed. “Green.”
“Charlie squad is green.”
“This is Control. All telemetry reads green. All feeds nominal. Charlie squad is go to resume operations. Hatches unlocking… now.” A clank above her matched that observation nicely.
“Thank you, Control. Resuming operations. Up the ladders, folks. That salvage isn’t going to break itself down.”
One hand at a time, one foot at a time, Jyllan dragged her tired ass up the metal rungs, certain she could feel the spin gravity tugging at her just a little more with each thirty-centimetre change, but the tidal force wasn’t enough to make her dizzy even if it wasn’t her imagination. At the top, she punched in her access code so the hatch would let her out and she looked away as it slid open, not wanting to see the beautiful monstrosity in stable orbit above the station.
Pulling herself through the hatch, she turned to face her loader mech instead, that battered strength-enhancing exoskeleton she’d been so excited to climb into for the first time a little over five years ago when it was a whole lot shinier and she was a whole lot fresher. Still running smoothly, it didn’t seem as exciting now. But not much did anymore, and that wasn’t just the exhaustion talking.
Slipping into the seat, she let the smart straps buckle her into place and slid her hands and feet into the manipulator sockets as her screens came to life. Through the suit, she felt more straps fix her in place at each point of contact. “Soskavitch, suited.” Other voices followed with the same message, and she didn’t understand how she’d been first, moving so slow.
“Right. We’re back to the same spot. Dorsal section A-5.” Allysi still sounded happy to be there. “Sending your computers the burn trajectory. We’ll be back on station in exactly three minutes… mark.”
The loader demagnetized its feet and Jyllan’s stomach gave that tiny adjusting-to-zero-gee lurch before the automated program kicked in to fire the maneuvering thrusters and push her away from the hull.
And then she had to look unless she wanted to close her eyes for the whole trip.
Pitted, scared, broken, and now torn apart, the bones of the million-year-old alien ship were starting to show through. Once, it had clearly been gleaming, eight wings and aerodynamic in a way that didn’t matter in space. Silver, probably. Gold, maybe. Not so much anymore. Scarred and jagged. Dirty. Breaking apart.
Found drifting just inside the Oort a two decades ago by a robot probe, the political arguments had lasted long past the half-way mark of the nine years needed to bring it to Mars orbit. Five kilometres worth of unknown alloys and ceramics moving billions of kilometres using external power was not a trivial task, and by the time it arrived at its final destination, the arguments had been solved and the inside had been thoroughly explored and gutted. Bodies, equipment, and fixtures all gone, hauled off to be examined by experts for years or decades, most of it never to be seen by public eyes again.
Which left a big orbiting hulk of useless alien ship in orbit above Mars, at least until someone had the bright idea that if they couldn’t duplicate the materials yet, they could still build new hulls out of the materials they had, couldn’t they?
That’s where the salvage crews came in. That’s where Jyllan came in, Jyllan and hundreds like her, stripping down the only piece of an alien civilization the human race had ever known to turn it into shuttles or transports that would hold up longer and need fewer repairs than human-made hulls, in spite of the materials used being five time older than the finder species.
Her boots touched down on the edge of the wing farthest from the station, and Jyllan’s eyes went to her diagnostic screen. “Soskavitch, torches are green. Ready for action.”
Again, she was the first of the squad to report in. It was week four, and they were all tired, but she shouldn’t be first.
“Looking good, crew. Standard two-metre sections for the feeder. Work hard but work smart and follow the pattern.”
Her primary screen blink to get Jyllan’s attention, showing her where to make the first cut. Sure, life sucked, but it could be a lot worse. At least she was getting paid to strip mine another species’ past.