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Tall Tales (Chapter Cover Art)

Story By JA Baker[]

A Slowboat To Nowhere
Author JA Baker
Series Name Tall Tales
Alternate Universe Name
Year Written September 15th, 2020
Story Era Various Era

Space is big.

No, seriously, it's big. Really, really big. Really too big for most people to truly comprehend. So big, that even with the development of the Kearny-Fuchida Drive, it can take months, if not years, to get from Point A to Point B. Unless you're rich or connected enough to have a Command Circuit set up, and that's kind of cheating.

But, before all that, there were the Slowboat colonies. Massive, multi-generation starships built around the largest fusion drives ever created. Some of the most famous examples were New London, Paraiso and Terrelibre, better known as Ross 248. Others were lost, their eventual fate unknown even to this day. They're an interesting anecdote from the early days of the diaspora, something to look back on in wonder and a certain amount of amusement.

But, what if I told you that, if you know the right, you can actually visit an inhabited, functioning Slowboat that's still in flight to this day?

It isn't easy. Even finding someone who's heard of it, let alone will admit they've heard of it, and know its course, actually getting there is easier said than done.

Okay, backstory time.

O'Neil Station

Example of a O'Neil Cylinder Habitat

Few people have ever seen an actual O'Neil Cylinder in person. They are relatively fragile things, reliant on technologies that can only be manufactured at a scant handful of locations, mostly within Sol itself. Unfortunately, most were lost during the Amaris Uprising and the subsequent First and Second Succession Wars... well, it was like taking a sledge hammer to your mother's prized china. But, for all that structural fragility, they can be surprisingly robust systems. Properly managed, they can operate with only the bare minimum of outside assistance.

Callingwood Station started out as a fairly typical Island Three type O'Neill cylinder, originally constructed in orbit of Luna. As with many of the earlier space habits, the plan was to build it closer to the resources of the Luna mines of the Luna colonies, then boost it into its intended orbit with detachable fusion boosters. However, these were the days of the Terran Alliance, and people had started to look to the stars as a possible means of escape. As such they arranged for a number of alterations to be made to the Callingwood and for additional equipment and supplies to be delivered. Then they arranged for the colony to be made as self sufficient as possible. Knowing that it could be centuries before they found a world suitable for settling on. Additional, subtle alterations were made, each one explained away as testing a new system or design that, if successful, be added to later stations.

Then came loading the station, setting up the massive 20km long by 8km diameter rings with everything the colonists might need. Farms were created and stocked, as well as a number of small lakes, connected by a network of canals. How they managed to keep everything in place before the rings started spinning is, well, it's often said that we've lost so much, we don't even have the words to describe it anymore. Last, but by no means least, came the colonists, people dedicated to a journey that they knew might not be completed for generations.

Eventually, the day came, and the colonists strapped themselves in as the oversized boosters fired, freeing the station from Luna orbit. So far, nothing out of the ordinary, until they fell away and were replaced by a second set of boosters, then a third. One all of the boosters had been used up and discarded, a massive solar sail was deployed, while the ion drive originally intended for station-keeping, powered up, slowly building up more and more speed. The other Slowboats, often built into captured asteroids, had massive, purpose built fusion drives that allowed them to accelerate long and hard, reaching a higher fraction of the speed of light. The Callingwood, with its repurposed design, was reduced to a far more sedate short acceleration and long drift.

Of course, the reaction on Terra and Luna was nothing short of pandemonium, with people struggling to work out just what had happened, even as Collingwood Station, and its quarter of a million inhabitants, disappeared off into the outer system, slowly bringing their habitation rings up to speed and settling in for their new lives. Hurried radio messages from Terra demanded that they stop, to turn around and return to Luna orbit. However that just goes to show that most people don't understand what Newton was saying all those centuries ago.

Callingwood Station was on the move, and the only way stop it was to hit it with something bigger than itself.

Years passed. Decades. And eventually, Callingwood Station drifted from memory. Even as it drafted out into the interstellar medium, her crew deploying a crude ram scoop to fuel the ion drive. Eventually, it managed to reach 0.1C, a respectable speed for anything man made, and her passengers and crew settled into their new lives. Contact with Terra, always sporadic at best, eventually ceased, and they became truly alone.

But, not everyone forgot about Callingwood, spacers remember their past. The legend of the rogue colony became a popular story, their equivalent of Atlantis or El Dorado. Several studies attempted to plot her possible location, but this was made deliberately difficult by the crew of the station periodically firing their RCS thrusters to make seemingly random course adjustments. There was occasional talk of sending out ships to find it, once the KF-drive was developed, especially after other Slowboat ships were found, but with no habitable system within the Callingwoods last known vector, there was no obvious place to start.

Then, around the end of the Third Succession War, someone had a brainwave. What if they weren't headed towards a known or at least at the time of departure, suspected system? What if they crew of the Callingwood had simply picked a direction and just went, trusting fate to deliver them from whatever they were looking to escape back on Terra?

With this in mind, a few independent ships agreed to make stops along her last known course. This was to see if they could pick up any trace of her. It took years of jumping into the interstellar void, but eventually they started to pick up very faint traces of her ion drive, which lit up the electromagnetic spectrum like a flair. Taking readings and triangulating, they gained a rough idea, and eventually a dedicated mission was sent out of Metis to try and determine the fate of Callingwood Station.

I don't know what they expected to find, but it probably wasn't a functioning city in space, still costing alone almost nine centuries after launching. Of cause, locating the station was the easy part, but given the speed it was moving at some 30,000kps, meant that any window of meaningful communication was almost non-existent. But the spacers weren't easily put-off. aStarted adapting an old DropShip for the task. Stripping out everything that wasn't 100% needed, they replaced everything else with massive fuel tanks and oversized engines. Then they had to find a crew crazy enough to undergo 6g acceleration for an extended period of time, even with the best LosTech drugs that the Belters had access to. But, they eventually had a ship and a crew that could, on paper, reach a speed sufficient to remain within radio range of the Callingwood for long enough to actually hold a conversation.

They must have been mad to try, but in 3022 the DropShip Telemachus was released ahead of the Callingwood, and started to burn hard.

I can't even begin to imagine how brutal it must have been. Enduring massively unending acceleration for days at a time. Your body pumped full of a cocktail of drugs and artificial hormones intended to keep you alive and functioning under such conditions. In and of itself, it was one for the history books, but as fast as they went, the Callingwood was soon racing up behind.

A full transcript of the conversation between the Telemachus and the Callingwood has never been released, but it has been made clear that the inhabitants of the station are alive. They have managed to maintain a reasonably comfortable standard of living, all things considered. Vast quantities of data were exchanged in highly compressed burst transmissions, as the massive station caught up with and then quickly outpaced the far smaller DropShip. No attempt was made to try and dock: they relative speeds would have made any attempt nothing short of catastrophic for both vessels. Eventually, the Callingwood passed out of range, and the Telemachus began to decelerate ahead of turn around.

Two more missions were flown, before the Telemachus was declared unsafe and scrapped. Further fly-by's have apparently taken place, but due to the extreme cost, and the stress on both ships and crew, they are extremely rare. Still, if you know the right people, have deep enough pockets and pass the medical, you too can see the last of the Slowboats for yourself.

Personally, I can think of easier and cheaper ways to get a thrill.


The End

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