Aphelion Issue 283, Volume 27
May 2023
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The Sling

by G. A Thresh

Ronnie trucked up to high orbit on the Sagan 12. The Sagan was the cheapest piece of trash the company could sling into interstellar space. It literally was just a raft of empty cargo containers, mag-locked to a small crew carriage--which in turn was hitched to an Albercurrie sled. It moved on tiny retro thrusters attached to the crew carriage. Utter trash, utterly flimsy trash--it couldn't even get into orbit on its own power. It needed old-style rockets for that. The most expensive part of this whole rickety equation was the Albercurrie sled. Now the Albercurrie sled was a bit like the stock market really. You needed two PhDs to understand it, and even then, it was iffy. The basic principle was this: the front of it threw out a bubble of high energy space which an object could move faster than light. The back threw out an “anti-bubble” which kept the occupants of the carriage moving in a bubble of sub-relativistic speed. This ensured that time would not be accelerated by the ridiculous speed at the front of the sled. Don’t get it? Well neither did Ronnie, but to be fair, this was only his second time doing this.

All he really knew was that if the sled screwed up--things went very bad. Heck they couldn't find the ones that went horrifically bad because they had slung themselves into the far, far future... However, he really needed the money. He had a kid on the way. There was no work on Earth for a dropkick like Ronnie and he knew it. Drones took it all. So, he was up here, doing some of the most uncertain work known to man for one-point eight million Ameros a round-trip sling. It was paid out at direct cheques, no matter when he arrived. He couldn't look back down. He was facing away from the planet. If he could, he’d look down to a city on the northern shores of Lake Ontario, but instead, he was facing forward into the deep black. Here he was slinging out to Maricopa B. Pick up Rhodium ore and sling back.

He automatically piloted the ship up towards the gap between Earth and Luna, there his destination lay. It was a giant gun. Officially it was ‘Lovell Interstellar Terminal 8’ but it really was a giant hyper velocity gun generating enough kinetic force to kick the Albercurrie drive into high gear. A keen line of starships waited for their turn. Their turn to be slung into deep space and deep trouble. Most of them were drones--but the Yuca Mining Corporation preferred warm blood. They paid through the nose for it. Waiting, Waiting... Sitting in line was the worst. He could feel every bad luck scenario creeping up on him. He saw Sagan’s sister ship Gale 12 moving into the barrel ahead of him. The gun shifted and aimed for Beta Hydrae. Nothing appeared to happen. He knew it only appeared that way because what was happening was too fast for the medium of visibility. A green bulb lit up on his board. The Radio spoke ‘Sagan 12, Terminal 8 is ready’

Okay, this was it. A million Ameros in the bank, just do it, c’mon, just do it. He took the approach in slowly. The gun’s mechanism opened, and a starship sized area in the barrel was ready for him. As he drifted in on retros the gun closed back again. No going back. Don’t get scared now. The gun itself shifted in space--aiming. He felt it move underneath the ship. Two magnetic glaives on either side of the Sagan settled in. His stomach growled. His back pinched. His mouth dried. His glute muscles were rocks. He heard the interlocks attaching. It would be less than a minute now. A million Ameros straight up, that's what he was doing this for. A million Ameros straight up, c’mon man, just do it. He could hear the sled cycling up. This was gonna be the one where he got pancaked.

Sagan 12 you are clear to fire in three seconds.’ A cool woman's voice came through the intercom. Now! He smashed the button. The Gun’s magnetic drivers racked back at five times the speed of sound. It was a fat kid pulling the back of the slingshot, and he was the rock about to be slung. Simultaneously the back of the sled engaged, wrapping his compartment in a tight blanket of sub-relativistic warmth. The magnet came forward. THEEEEKEEEEEEUWWWWWW.

For a nanosecond. He could see the ship go forward. Slung out at fifty-seven times speed of sound--but he couldn't feel it, the anti-bubble kept him at one-gee. Faster and faster the Sagan went. Then the light began to bend into blackness. The front engaged and he glided into the gnarly pocket of lightspeed--He couldn't see anything outside --because he was moving faster than anything outside the bubble. The roar of the gun was still ringing in his ears. The cabin was pressurized so it carried the sound of the whole shebang. He already had tinnitus. The company didn't pay for sound dampening. You fix your ear drums with your own dime.

But he hadn't been pancaked. He exhaled to empty space--but his muscles didn’t unclench. He still had to come out the other side. A moment later a red light popped up. ‘Sagan 12 This is Maricopa control, we have you on system telescope--two light hours out, we’re ready for you to brake now.’ a bored male voice read. Two hours means he had to push the button in a moment. They had already seen his “before” image, like a hearing the sonic boom of a jetliner. Plus, there was a five-hour delay on that signal. A red light would flash any nanosecond now. It did. This was when it got real. He punched in the break vector. The entire craft shuddered; the bubbles interacted in weird ways when the ship braked. It happened last time and he was told it was normal in training. But his teeth rattled inside his skull--he didn't feel normal, the ship heaved in ways it hadn't before. The shuddering suddenly stopped. Light was bending, resolving back into lines then into stars. He was sublight. His destination glided into view. A dusty brown blob of a planet orbiting a blowtorch of a blue giant. Now to see if he arrived in good ol’ 2078. He flicked the radio.

Maricopa control, this is Sagan 12, inserting from deep space--do you copy and sync ships' time?’

Sagan 12 this is control--we confirm your time as GMT 12+ 1458 Friday February 10, 2078, your cargo vector is being sent now. Have a nice day.’ His sphincter finally unclenched.

Swinging in closer he saw the wreck that Maricopa B had become since Yuca Mining Corporation had infested it. Blasting, fraking, chewing and spitting out. Humans are termites. Shredding up other places to build up their hive. Great gashes and machine chew marks were visible from even in orbit. Swirling unnatural clouds of flaxen Sulphur obscured none of it. He came into the cargo lane and dumped the empty containers. They were soon picked up by a drone. Moments later a similar drone was hitching a lot of containers filled completely with rhodium ore. The retros grew sluggish as they dealt with the containers being full of rhodium ore. He was hauling fourteen trillion ameros worth of primo rock. He saw another gun. This again. The Maricopa gun was older. Its barrel was completely open to space--just a long iron rail--with a pair of magnetic slings on either side. There was no traffic here so the Sagan easily settled into the gun. Once he was in the gun began to move, aiming for third planet around a distant sun. He could see Sol clearly on the open rail. It stopped. His muscles clenched again. His palms strained. Sagan 12, you are clear to fire on your mark. Good Luck.’ Well crap. A million Ameros, c’mon--push the button again. Against his better judgement he did. The magnets shot back. He was cocooned again in the sub-relativistic anti-bubble. His board lit up. ‘Error, Fenyman Unit B!’ Too late. 

The magnet shot forward.

He was away.

Light bent and then curved out, too slow for the Sagan. The board was screaming. Oh Geez. Now he didn't know exactly what a Fenyman Unit was – but it controlled the bubbles. You know the things that made this Einstein-defying farce possible. He had to think fast. Every moment he spent screwing around--could be stretched into an eternity. Brake? He might be stranded in interstellar space but that might be better than being blown into the next millennium--literally. He inputted a brake--it didn't execute. ‘Error, Fenyman Unit B!” He tried again. “Error, Fenyman Unit B!’

Sagan 12 this is Houston control, we have you two light hours out. We’re ready for you to brake now.’ He was running out of time, he was gonna have to decouple the sled. He reset the magnetic couplers. With a horrifying screech he felt part of the sled detach. The force generated inside the anti-bubble was working against the couplers. He hit the decouplers again, and fired the forward retros--the sled was detaching. A final bone rattling grind later, the sled shot away. Faster than its image could possibly reach his eyes. He instantly fell out of lightspeed and the last vestiges of the anti-bubble kept him from being pancaked.

Free from the anti-bubble inertia grabbed him. He was spinning. In that brief moment-within-a-moment transitioning into sublight, and the anti-bubble shooting away: Relativity did her dark magic. A tenth of a picosecond was all it took. He passed out twice. He felt like his whole body was in a vice. When he finally got a handle of the situation he fired the retros--and promptly puked. The spinning evened enough out for him to see a giant blue gas planet looming over him. He was above a floating field of ice. For a long sick moment, he felt he was the only man in the universe. Perhaps he was. Fat, colossal thoughts took him--where was home? Where was he? When was he? Something began to seize up inside him, and it wasn't the gravity now. He’d screwed up big. Lucy, the kid unborn--hell, that kid could have lived its whole long life already. How was he to know? Sitting here unmarked in space and time. The great swirling masses of clouds on the blue planet below gave no answers.

Uhh, Unidentified vessel. Our telescope has you in a closed traffic lane. Return to your assigned grid. If you are in distress, please declare it’ A voice crackled over the radio. People, oh yes, yes! Thank God, he was not alone. Now when was he?

Uhh, this is Sagan 12--in distress, inserting from deep space--whoever this is, do you copy and sync ships time?’

This is Neptune Traffic control at Oberon Colony, uhh--we copy, but uh--we do not sync time--ah geez. Your time is off. Time is GMT+12 1308 July 8, 2094. I think you’ve had an accident. I’m really sorry.’

His sphincter completely loosened and he thanked his lucky stars--one of which he happened to be orbiting. Only sixteen years, only sixteen--he just broke out of lightspeed accident, and all it took was sixteen! He was in the solar system. He was in the same century--and he had the cargo--he was getting paid. ‘Ah no worries, man, coulda been so much worse, much worse’ he said.

Uhh, do you need a tow-ship?’ said the Neptune controller, obviously more wigged out about the situation than he was. He was in the right place at the wrong time. 

It took him another year and half to get back to Earth for he refused to use the Albercurrie sled. People said it was much safer now, but he wasn't going to take the risk. When he got back people kept asking him if losing sixteen years was a bummer. However, Ronnie was a glass half full man--he’d also gained sixteen--so it was a fair trade, plus interest. His wife, Trina didn't remarry, but there was some weirdness when he got back. Most importantly His kid was now a teenager--sometimes he regretted not being there, but regrets were better than not knowing her at all. A buncha other truckers emerged from similar accidents over the next ten years, eventually enough for a class action. He was able to get that added to what the company had paid him for the sling in 78’. Things could be much, much worse in his line of work…


2023 G. A Thresh

Bio: G. A Thresh is a student, residing in Newcastle, Australia with an interest in space travel, tiny things and sushi.

E-mail: G. A Thresh

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