Science Fiction Starships were meant to fly

Dragger’s End

By Curtis C. Chen
May 31, 2020 · 1,073 words · 4 minutes

Photo by Linus Mimietz via Unsplash.

From the author: Pioneers and plumbers


“Are you one of the draggers?”

Jacob looked around the street market for the source of the question. He found it standing behind him: a young girl, maybe twelve years old, dressed in what looked like work coveralls.

“Hello,” Jacob said. “Yes. I’m Jacob Guo. Who are you?”

The girl folded her arms across her chest. “Tanya Carr. How long’s your ship going to be here?”

“Not sure.”

“Don’t you have a schedule to keep?”

Jacob shrugged. “This was our last endpoint.”

Tanya’s eyes widened. “Like, your last ever?”

“Yup.”

“Wow.” Tanya pulled a small card out of one pocket and held it out to Jacob. “Well, I was supposed to offer your family a discount on repair services, but we also do teardown and salvage.”

Jacob took the card and looked at it: CARR ENGINEERING SOLUTIONS. “This is your family’s business?”

“Since planetfall, fifty-three years and going strong.”

“Aren’t you a little young to be working?”

Tanya gave him a look that clearly said Seriously? “Colony world, everyone works. Wasn’t it the same on your G-ship?”

“That’s a little different. Nothing much else to do on board.” Jacob raised his arms, indicating the world around them. “But you’ve got an entire planet for a playground.”

Tanya scoffed. “How old are you, Jacob Guo?”

“I’ll be eighteen next month.”

“And this is your idea of fun? Thrifting in Dandy’s Gulch?”

Jacob pointed at his own clothes, which were a size too large and three different shades of ship-printed gray. “Need a fashion refresh. I’ve been earning an actual salary for the last two years, and now I get to spend my money however I want.”

Tanya nodded. “I get that. Want to look good for your debut on Earth.”

Jacob avoided her gaze. “Not sure I’m going back.”

“What?” Tanya maneuvered herself into his eyeline, between him and a rack of colorful weatherproof jackets. “I just want to make sure I’m not confused about this. You’re the first actual dragger I’ve ever met, so you tell me if I’ve got the details wrong here?”

She raised her eyebrows, and Jacob nodded. “Sure. Go ahead.”

“Your family sailed from Earth with a cargo of teleport endpoints, each one half of a pair tethered to another pad that remained on Earth. I got it right so far?”

“Yeah. Thirty-two endpoints, plus spare parts and peripheral equipment.”

“Okay. You had a preset flight plan, and every time you landed on a colony planet, you dropped off a teleport pad. The locals turned it on, and they had an instant wormhole portal back to Earth.”

“Sometimes we left more than one pad,” Jacob said. “Planets are big. And some of them don’t have unified governments yet. But after we installed and activated an endpoint, we could check in with our client on Earth for any changes to the contract.”

“Did you see a lot of changes along the way?”

“Every other stop, it seemed like. But I guess that’s to be expected--a lot of objective time passes for us between planets. Sometimes client colonies can’t pay up when we arrive, sometimes they’re able to afford more endpoints.” Jacob didn’t mention the other times, when colonies failed completely and his family had to recover what they could from the ruins.

“Right, relativity and time dilation and all that. How fast does--did your ship go?”

“We cruised at half lightspeed. It took a few months to accelerate to that velocity after leaving each planet, and deceleration took about as long, depending on how efficient an entry trajectory we were able to plot into the next star system.”

“Sounds like a lot of math.”

“That’s why we have computers.”

Tanya snapped her fingers several times rapidly, which Jacob understood was a positive gesture on this world. “And you couldn’t have an active portal on your ship all the time because of the relativity this-and-that?”

“Yeah. Something about ‘frame dragging’?” Jacob had never liked the colloquial name for his family’s chosen business. “Basically, once a portal is turned on, it can’t be turned off or else it stops working altogether. And if you fly too fast with an active portal on board, the portal goes wonky and does bad things to the ship before it dies.”

“Like explode-y type bad things?”

“More like space-warping bad things? The portal doesn’t want to be accelerated too much while it’s on, otherwise it pulls back--and will eventually tear apart whatever generating structure it’s attached to. You can’t win a tug-of-war against the laws of physics.”

“Too bad,” Tanya said. “Would be convenient to have a portal on board your ship. Then you could resupply whenever you wanted, change out crews, go on vacation, whatever.”

“Yeah.” Jacob studied an iridescent vest with programmable embedded display panels. It was the exact sort of thing his parents would have dismissed as frivolous.

“But hey, now you can just walk through the gate!” Tanya pointed back toward the central plaza, where Jacob’s older brothers had installed and activated the portal yesterday, and where their parents had gone through this morning for a client meeting. “You still got family back on Earth?”

“Probably.” Jacob didn’t want to admit how many hours he’d spent researching this since landing. “But I’m going to be fifty years younger than any of my cousins now. Doesn’t seem like much point to trying to reconnect.”

“Wait, you have been back to Earth before, haven’t you? You haven’t just been out in space for half a century?”

“A few times,” Jacob said. “But after a while, when the time difference became noticeable and things kept changing… it just didn’t feel like home anymore.”

“Huh.” Tanya gave him a perplexed look. “You sure you want to stay here, though? I’m not saying our world is bad, but we’re still building, well, everything. Even with the portal, it’s going to be a few years before we’ve got any real civilization around here.”

Jacob winced. “Didn’t say I wanted to stay here. No offense.”

Tanya stared back for a moment, then grinned. “Well, Jacob Guo, you’ve got my card. And like I said, my family does real good work in spacecraft repair and refit. If your family’s not using that G-ship anymore…”

“Thanks. I’ll let you know.”

“Also, that vest would look great on you.” She pointed at the shimmering waistcoat.

Jacob smiled. “You think?”

Tanya shrugged and started walking away. “Only one way to find out.”


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Curtis C. Chen

Curtis writes mostly science fiction and fantasy. MOSTLY.