Orbital Hulks

Ann K. Schwader

Orbital Hulks

High orbit is our hell. Confined aboard
these unprized prizes of a distant war,
we guess at our damnation from the guards
who come no more.

No locks, now — we may wander as we will
before blind cameras. What security
might equal vacuum vistas where no breath
could hope to be?

Our dreams of ransom, rescue, or exchange
have faded in this nevernight. Ship’s day
is always & relentless; sleep retreats
to palest gray.

Defiance fired us, yet some laws remain
inviolate. Unfueled, our present flight
must fail at last as orbital decay
asserts its right.

Perhaps that time is now. Crazed viewscreens show
the hull alight: not weaponry, but heat
deployed by some backwater atmosphere
seals our defeat.

     Another falling star flames out above
     the quiet field. One farmer, plowing late,
     mistakes it for an omen; wishes on
     a rebel’s fate.


Ann K. Schwader’s most recent collection of dark verse, Unquiet Stars, was published in 2021 by Weird House Press. It placed third in the SFPA’s 2022 &Elgin Awards for full-length collection. Two previous collections, Dark Energies (P’rea Press 2015) and Wild Hunt of the Stars (Sam’s Dot 2010) were Bram Stoker Award Finalists. Her poems have recently appeared in Spectral Realms, Dreams & Nightmares, Penumbra, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Haiku 2023. She was the SFPA Grand Master for 2018.

Author’s Backstory and/or Crafting: “Orbital Hulks” happened as a result of listening to a BBC History podcast episode. The episode discussed life aboard the prison hulks (damaged or otherwise nonfunctional ships) the British used to house prisoners on the Thames during the 18th-19th centuries. For some reason, my mind flashed forward into SF mode and imagined similarly nonfunctional starships left in orbit after some sort of interstellar war. I find that narrative poetry flows best for me as formal verse, and curtal quatrains turned out to be a workable form for this one.

Editor’s Comments and/or Image Credits: The rhyme scheme is ballad-like [abab] but the quatrains depart from fused couplets of iambic heptameter with the first three lines in iambic pentameter and furthermore, the ending line is in iambic dimeter. As mentioned by the author, curtal quatrains are a fascinating form of American verse [see https://www.poetrymagnumopus.com/topic/622-curtal-quatrain/ and https://poetscollective.org/poetryforms/curtal-quatrain/ for more examples].

The image shows the consequence of orbital decay: Astronauts on board the International Space Station captured this image of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft breaking up in Earth’s atmosphere in 2014. [Alex Gerst/NASA]


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