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featured fiction I · "Lines West X4334-W"
                          by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

Originally written for The National Fantasy Fan Federation 2002 N3F Short Story Contest, 
where it took 2nd Prize, this expanded version of my "29th century railroad story" 
was written in 2007.
 
Lines West X4334-W
by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
 
   

Tuesday 22 July 2887 A.D.

Dad, we’re coming home the note had said.

Jim Turner Solowic’s alarm went off at five-thirty, but he’d already been awake for awhile, thinking about his son. Slipping out from under the covers, he sat on the side of the bed for a minute. Staring through the screen of the open window, Nature provided a cacophony of sounds as all the birds in the great canopy of tall neighborhood trees twittered and sang. As a younger man he had found getting up before eight o’clock to be a terrible chore. He still would like to have stayed later in bed, but after twenty-seven years of marriage he felt rather obligated -- challenged even -- to get out of bed without disturbing Jill, mother of their children.

He padded softly down the steps to the downstairs bathroom, then quietly, as if on cat’s feet, made his way into the kitchen. Upon touching the panel and bringing up the overhead light, Emily’s two young real cats also seemed to magically switch on. Emily was their unexpected fifth child in a planned set of four and just turned fourteen. Her older sisters and one brother were all schooled, colleged, married and long gone from the house. The cats, Josh and Pumpkin, both eight month old ex-males, talked to Jim incessantly in tiny kitty voices as they wove a sophisticated pattern between his legs, barely short of tripping him.

“You guys are hoodlums,” he told them and reached into a lower cupboard, pulling out about four crunchies from the bag, then tossing a couple into each bowl. Apparently this was enough to ward off imminent starvation as the four crunchies disappeared instantly, followed by a short, but intense cleaning session. “Your regular serving person will be along later.” They nodded at him sagely, then hopped onto the counter and from there to the top of the refrigerator, settling down out of the way where they could observe the rest of his morning rituals.

As long as school was out and he was on his own, Jim made sure to cook a proper breakfast. He got two gelatinous cubes out of the refrigerator and put them in a pan to begin frying. He’d rather Jill spent the money and bought real eggs, including the shells, but she was on one of her kicks to save money towards their vacation, so factory-made eggs it was. They’d taste okay with the sixty-grain health toast and two zero-cal zero-fat breakfast strips.

After eating and setting the dishes aside for the autoclean bot, he dressed in a company jumpsuit -- dark blue with stripes of red and yellow -- before taking a cup of coffee up to Jill and a glass of juice to Emily. Lumps in their respective beds, one managed to say “I love you” and the other, “Thanks, Dad.”

On time, about six-thirty, Jim softly let himself out of the front door of 10334-A South Prospect and into the pleasant morning. The sun hadn’t been up long enough to make it hot here, so he’d have an easy walk. He was about to be annoyed at the empty front yard when a scoot slipped by on the street and two whitish objects went plop onto the sidewalk. Better late than never, he mused, picking up the two newspapers and tossing the Chicago Tribune onto the front porch -- he kept the Chicago Advocate & Sun-Times with him. One of the real joys about Chicago was it loyally remained a real newspaper town with your choice of the Trib or the Sun-Times -- full-size or tabloid fold respectively -- recycled daily.

He had a couple of blocks walk to the Beverly Station on the Chicago Railroad. Already about two dozen commuters lined up behind the yellow line and he could see the headlights of the 6:44 about a mile off. Just enough time to touch his copy of the Sun-Times to a newspaper box and get it updated with the late sports scores. Many of the people around him were drinking coffee or soy, but he’d drunk one cup of coffee already, and there’d be plenty more when he got on the road, so he was good for the moment.

A rail joint flexed as the 6:44 rolled over the street crossing, giving a little tang! of steel on steel, but otherwise the electric train moved very silently, stopping with merely a sigh of the hard brakes at the last moment when the regenerative braking cut out. It was bad, he knew, to think about shop, but that’s what happened when you had a little bit of knowledge in your head. Just let it go...

“Morning, morning,” the conductor smiled and waved. He wasn’t being polite. His raised palm unit was scanning all the tickets and passes those boarding held up. Jim wore his Lines West ID badge clipped to his jumpsuit and that, of course, was sufficient.

“All aboard! Getting off at 18th Street?” the conductor nodded in Jim’s direction.

“You bet,” Jim replied. He had just enough time to take a seat and make a quick scan of the Sun-Times to see what warranted more inspection later. One of the things he always checked was how the Cubs and Sox had fared -- both had won for a change. A large ad blared the day’s date -- Tuesday 22 July 2887. Then it changed to declare, It’s 4,911 days until the 30th Century. How IS your fund manager getting ready for you? Jim wanted to tell the ad geek that his fund manager was the Brotherhood of Nordamericano Railway Engineers & Firemen -- and they were doing just fine, thank you. But he supposed it was pointless to waste a breath over crummy advertising.

As the train slowed again for another station stop, he next checked on the daily update of the Enemy War -- the first and so far only interstellar and interspecies war humanity had ever gotten involved in. The Sun-Times always had a quick summary table of the facts they didn’t know, such as who this Enemy species was, where did they come from and why were they trying to kill every human they saw? The phrase “No Data” followed each point. More interesting was the zoomable projection of West Space -- a rather compact way to show all of human space, including the War Zone about a thousand light years from Earth, with the cancer of the Enemy encroachment over the last seven years.

No doubt it was the war which prompted his son to send word he was coming home. Despite everything a vibrant city like Chicago had to offer -- it had never been enough for the boy. But Jim couldn’t see Donald bravely sticking to his star traveling plans in the face of an increasingly dangerous interstellar war. The real question was, what would he as a father do about it?

They eased forward and continued on towards Chicago’s Loop. There’d be some more stops, but the train also paused once at the 18th Street Yards and Jim swung down onto the big green safety pad without waiting for the train to come to a full stop. Then he trudged west to the Office-5 module.

Frank Hsieh looked up from his crossword puzzles, or whatever he was doing instead of his company paperwork. “Morning, Jim -- you running today?”

“Is today Tuesday?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’m running.”

“Hey, I was just asking.”

“Frank, if you’d look at the wall or your databoard, you’d see my name right there. Solowic -- Extra 4334 West,” Jim read off from the wall screen which dominated the small module. “08:03 departure.”

“You’ve got fifty minutes then. You checked up on Junior yet?”

“Junior’s probably already polishing the glass desktop. And if he isn’t, he’ll soon wish he was.”

Frank laughed. “Yeah, that’ll learn ’im.”

“I’m logging in,” Jim said as he waved his Lines West ID badge at the door to the toilet.

“You bet.” Frank nodded, checking off the tab which said employee Solowic was entering the toilet for classification.

Some of the guys resented the toilet analyzers, but Jim didn’t. Not anymore. He’d had one incident on the job -- the toilet cleared him of anything funny and the security cams in the cab had shown he hadn’t done anything wrong. That had been good enough for the union and good enough for the company, which made it all right for Jim. The best thing was that the system didn’t mess around with you. Either you were healthy and legal or the screen on the inside of the door would let you know. Only once the computer cleared him, did he have access to his locker.

Jim spent a couple of minutes rigging his monitors, comm link and safety gear. Frank held out a datapack with the latest updates which Jim then downloaded to his datapad as a backup -- not everyone did that.

“7:28,” Frank reminded, tapping at his wristwatch. “Track WD-3.”

“It’s on the board, Frank -- you don’t have to be my mother,” Jim scolded him as he slipped on his safety glasses and secured his hard hat. “I’m going to work now.”

Walking about fifty meters from the Office-5 module, one of the yardman rolled by in a workcart. “Hey, Jim! Wanna ride?”

Jim waved him off. “I’m gonna be ridin’ all day. I need the exercise.”

“Suit yourself.”

It took Jim Solowic about ten minutes to make it to West Departure Track 3. The yard crew had already made up the train and it was just undergoing final checks while waiting for its crew. Jim could see a man with a long handled hammer walking alongside the freight cars, tapping and inspecting. His son Donald always criticized him for working with such ancient technology -- never understanding that if it worked efficiently and with minimum impact on the environment, there was no incentive to change -- which was why Donald had taken off to the stars as soon as he graduated from college.

So Donald was coming back, Jim pondered, with the girl they’d never met. He wasn’t sure what this was about, but he had a bad feeling he wouldn’t like it. Father and son hadn’t agreed on anything since 2876. Jim pushed away thoughts of his son and tried to concentrate on the train in front of him.

The cars consisted mainly of twenty-meter-long Unitainers and twenty-five-meter-long Fastloaders. All had speed shells fitted over their bodies which gave them a smooth sleek appearance and all had Endeavor high speed trucks and AAR Type HS-3 couplers so they could function up to 525 kph. Solowic didn’t care about the cars much. Though they were the reason for the train, he expected the crews at each inspection point to keep them in shape. His job was driving the locomotives.

The two lead units were G.E. 2850’s -- one cab and one trailer B-unit. Less than twenty years old, they were combination gas turbine and electric, generating up to 15,000 horsepower each. There’d be a third unit, a cab A-unit, on the rear of the train to smooth out the aerodynamic slipstream from the train’s passing. With 45,000 h.p. total from the refrigerated liquid hydrogen fuel, Jim would have more than enough to shove this train to high speed. Though some conventional trains still burned petrochemicals, his train’s exhaust was simple water vapor.

He came around the front, stopping to tug at the streamlined cowling which covered the front coupler and the doors that covered the M.U. cables. All were secure. Then he continued around the right side of the bullet streamlined nose and climbed up the recessed ladder to his “office”.

His first act in the cab was to reach the redline handle on the overhead console between the two cab stations and give it quick pull. Forty-two systems checks had to be noted before the train could be cleared to leave. The fireman would click each item checked, and then Jim would click his approval.

“I knew you’d do that,” Kevin said, with a grin, as the check board suddenly glowed all red.

“Do what?” Jim asked, as he took his folded up Sun-Times and stowed it in the map pocket to the right of his control stand.

“Clear the check board.”

“Of course I cleared the check board. How would I know it wasn’t left over from the last run?”

“You could trust me.”

Jim shook his head. “It has nothing to do with trust, Kev. It has everything to do with Rules. And the Rules were written for our benefit.”

“Hanson doesn’t clear the board.”

“Ivan Hanson is an idiot. If you’re smart, you’ll use one of your two Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards and take him off your ride list.”

Fireman Kevin Samples had known Jim was a stickler for Rules, but he hadn’t seemed so crotchety the two previous times they’d ridden together. “I don’t think he’s that bad, Jim.”

“Suit yourself.” Jim shrugged. “I just thought someday you wanted a right-hand seat on a full-time basis. Now click in.”

While Kevin stood and began to repeat his click ins, Jim sat down and logged into Standby Mode. He updated the route map which the computers checked against the real time data from the railroad.

“Six minutes to departure,” the computer said aloud. An exploded logarithmic map of the railroad all the way to Los Angeles appeared across the top of the glass desk and showed all sections that were clear and what every section’s status was. It was ridiculous to care what the current signal positions were at the California border at this hour, but given that the computer knew when this train was expected to get there, it was good to keep track of where trouble spots, restrictions, work crews and delays were going to happen -- and where one might be able to push it and make up any lost time. The train had 2222 miles to go and it still wasn’t even 08:03 yet.

“Unit 3’s a lemon,” Kevin spoke up.

Their first problem of the day. “How bad?”

“It’s a real yellow card,” the fireman pulled the keycard he’d been holding from his shirt pocket and logged it in. “Good news is we pick up a maintainer team in Galesburg. The mountain crews should have the unit by the time they need it.”

“Do we have it at all?”

“Online and standby.”

“Great.”

It was hard enough to maintain the schedules they were given under the best of circumstances, but to have only two of three engines working. Well, it would do.

“Hullo up there!”

Jim’s side window still stood open and turning his head he saw three young company execs in their suit coats looking up at him expectantly. With a wave, Jim called out, “Come on up!”

Behind the cab was a small compartment which contained two tables and facing seating for eight, as well as the same restroom module used in passenger trains and an automated food & beverage service. The company expected its executives and managers to remember this was a railroad, so it required many of those people to ride locomotives like the 4334 to anywhere on the system they were needed.

“Five minutes to departure.”

The young up-and-comings pleasantly nodded and said hello, then disappeared through the sliding door to their seats.

“Anyone else expected?” Jim asked.

Kevin leaned over the glass desk on his side, touched something, then shook his head. “Got three transportees listed, three aboard and... three just logged in. We’re cleared to go.”

“Good.” Satisfied, Jim stood up and began to go through the clicks on his side of the check board. The fireman reached around him and clicked the last four items on his list. With everything green, Jim pushed the redline handle fully into the console. As he sat back down at his station, a green CONFIRMED light glowed. It would go out when they actually made their departure. For now it just represented one more thing to prep.

Not for the first time he wondered what made Donald tick. Jim never believed it when his son said he was heading out to a colony world, because he couldn’t imagine Donald working so hard. But the boy was either a genius or a goof. In a colony filled with people making the farms of their dreams, Donald had gotten a job as a land agent and his wife found a gig, not as a teacher herself but as a teacher inspector. Jim loved all his children -- he just didn’t like his son very much.

The points of a switch thirty meters away shifted, lining up the train with the departure track. They were now connected to the railroad at large.

“Speed limit thirty,” the computer announced as a bell rang and his cab signal repeaters changed from red to green. “Thirty seconds to departure.”

“Tower, this is Lines West Extra 4334 West, coming up on my departure time at zero-eight-zero-three hours Central Daylight Time. West Departure Track 3, my signals are green over green.”

“Extra 4334 West, you are cleared for departure. Have a nice ride.”

Jim pressed the AutoStart button and moved the controller to Advance Slow. Unit 1’s turbine engine was surging forward past 8000 rpm and Unit 2 flickered off of StandBy and into Running.

“All brakes released,” Kevin called out, monitoring his safety systems.

“Rolling,” Jim reported. “Start the clock.”

“Zero-eight-zero-two and fifty-one seconds, TMO.”

The long bullet nose of the G.E. 2850 locomotive porpoised slightly as they undulated over the yard switches. An alarm bell rang. “Speed limited,” the computer reported as they reached 30 kph. The digital odometers both counted up their mileage and counted down to their destination and next event point.

Railroads had been a part of the country for a thousand years. For the first two hundred, it was all about mileposts. Ingrained and institutionalized in the railroad culture for so long, American railroads remained one of the few areas of commerce that operated in both Standard metric and Archaic measures. Jim grew up in a railroad family, but Kevin had not. To him, miles were just a peculiar unit of measure -- something longer than a kilometer, but not something he easily had a gut feeling for.

The automated voice spoke again, “Trailer clear. Speed limit fifty.”

CONVERT? asked the glass desktop. Jim touched the glowing blue word and felt a brief surge of acceleration before they settled at 50 kph. As they glided across one of the handful of grade crossings they would encounter in the city, Jim and Kevin both spotted the lone figure standing nearby. He wielded an expensive looking camera -- one which might even use real silver film.

“Just got our picture taken,” Kevin nodded in the man’s direction.

“I hope you remembered to smile,” Jim replied, touching the control to slide his side window down to return the man’s wave. For as long as there had been rails, there had been railfans. Even today, there was something satisfying about waiting, watching and photographing trains -- collecting personal observation rosters. Kevin gave a pair of short pulls on the low-speed horn and they both smiled as the railfan saluted them back. If only all those who paid attention to trains were as pleasant. “Maybe 4334’s a new one for him,” Jim observed.

***

They quickly sped up to ninety miles an hour -- 145 kph -- which they maintained through the sprawl of the southwestern suburbs. Pushing on through Joliet, Jim pointed out the two punks on the embankment even before the proximity alarm went off. Something smashed against the windshield. The Plexivue windows were thick and crystal clear. He wasn’t worried that anything they threw or shot would penetrate all the way through. But it was dangerous for the boys and annoying for him.

“Dispatch, Extra 4334 West. Running past milepost 38, intruders hit us with hard garbage. No damage to report. Over.”

“Extra 4334 West, we copy.” They weren’t going to say any more, so Jim clicked off the link key.

The speed limiter moved up to 165 kph and as they began to accelerate, the glass desk display began to change. The Joliet Gateway lay just three miles ahead and the restricted entrance to the High Speed Rail Net was busy negotiating with Extra 4334’s computer. Automated systems would really be running the train on the HSRN -- engineer and fireman would become mere observers and supervisors.

The punks knew not to mess with the Joliet Gateway -- there the right-of-way was monitored and patrolled. A blinking green light on the glass desk alerted Jim to the chain link fence gates, not yet opened. It wasn’t a huge deal if the gates stayed shut -- the train would cut right through -- but why bother scratching the paint? He heard a slight rumble underneath as they took the high speed switch towards the right and the speed limiter reset up to 185 kph. Jim could make out the blinking green signal by the gates and saw them opening. They’d clear the track in plenty of time.

“Control probably kept them closed for security, don’t you think?” Kevin suggested. “Maybe they’d already spotted those kids.”

“It’s a reason,” Jim agreed.

Now they were climbing the gentle concrete ramp to the first elevated section of the HSRN at a steady 185 kph, with Jim monitoring the end-of-train position. As soon as the glass desk reported that the whole train had cleared the Joliet Gateway and a row of green signals shot across the desktop, Jim mashed the two StartHSRN buttons with both thumbs and then advanced the throttles on the first two locomotives. They began accelerating up towards their supercruise speed of 400 kph. Jim waited for their speed to settle and lock in, then for Kevin to report on their engine status.

“No problems. Supercruise looks good -- all bearings are cool,” the fireman scanned his own glass desk.

“You ready to take it?”

“Sure,” Kevin said, settling in as control transferred to the left seat.

“So where are you gentlemen going?” Jim asked the three company suits in back as he went to get a cup of coffee.

“Kansas City,” two of them said. “St. Louis,” said the other.

“Hope you don’t mind that we aren’t going to St. Louis,” Jim pointed out.

“I know that,” the young man grinned. “I’ll get off in Galesburg and connect up with another train.”

“Long as you have a plan. You want off in which drop zone?”

“Middle -- number two,” the young man said, with the practiced air of one who’d done this before.

Standing behind the fireman and sipping at his coffee when he returned, Jim noted the event timer counting down. “We scheduled for a meet?”

“Yeah. Passing Extra 5254 East in ninety seconds.” Kevin nodded.

Jim glanced over towards his desk and noted the checkmark on one of his screens pointing where the two trains would pass at high speed. Nothing unusual. Though there were plenty of track sensors along the HSRN, doing a visual inspection and video playback of a passing train gave them something to do, and occasionally netted something which really was a problem.

It happened fast. With an 800 kph closing speed, Extra 5254 East traveled the last kilometer in four-and-a-half seconds. Even so, Jim and Kevin could see the white cloud whipping behind it.

“Debris,” Kevin noted off of his display.

“I’ve got it,” Jim said, taking his seat. The cab rocked slightly as the air stream of both trains met, followed by the vacuum between them. Then a clattering sound. “5254, this is Extra 4334 West -- you’ve got a plume.”

“Damn. Roger, 4334. We’ll slow down now.”

Rumbles followed and a new screen appeared on the glass desk -- CCA EVENTS -- as seven of their computer controlled axles were directed to re-stabilize wheel contact on rail and keep the train on the tracks. It was a common enough occurrence, but an irritation all the same because a crew would have to come and pick the debris from the tracks. Later someone would have to inspect all the wheel treads and flanges for nicks and cracks, all because a Fastloader car on the other train had lost a piece of its speed shell and the exposed container inside wasn’t made for 400 kph operation.

Passing off control to Kevin for a few minutes, Jim found out what ship Donald and his wife were on.

At the Galesburg East Gateway they left the HSRN and slowed down to approach the old railroad station. The platform concrete appeared old, stained and crumbling. Old industrial chic a wag had long ago nicknamed it. But here and there sections had been removed and replaced with colored safety decking. Two maintainers were standing, toolkits in hand, in the first white zone. They waved and Jim set up their access so they could climb aboard Unit 3 when it rolled by.

Meanwhile the young man getting off came forward and told Jim he was about to jump off. Jump? Did he really mean to jump? The green zone was made of the same material the military used as shock absorbing decking, so the young man probably figured he would not hurt himself.

“You’ll step off,” Jim said pointedly, reminding him of the Rules, “So I’d climb down that ladder carefully and hang on until we hit the green safety zone.”

“Right. Step off on the green,” the young man agreed, as if that was what he’d meant all along.

Jim monitored the young man via a security cam. It ended up no problem, really, as the young man climbed down the ladder and then swung off the bottom step onto the green section as easy as could be. The locomotive had an angled sweep plate deployed right after the ladder, so the young man couldn’t fall under the train even if he had somehow tripped and fallen. But jump off? From this height? It was amazing how people thought safety systems could work miracles.

After the locomotives passed, a crew stepped from an overhead platform onto the roof of the number thirteen car. Video monitors showed a piece of its speed shell broken and flapping freely -- possible damage from the debris cloud. The crew made quick work of duct taping the shell down and got off the train safely at the next overhead platform -- the repair would hold until K.C. Jim logged it and then let the train begin to speed up.

Out of Galesburg, the next section of HSRN was up at the limit of their equipment -- 500 kph. Moments before they entered the restricted right-of-way, the maintainer team in Unit 3 reported they had already found the fault. “It’s in one of the circuit boards.”

“Do you have the parts?”

“Sure. We’ve already swapped it -- you should have full power at any time.”

“Sorry I can’t drop you off then.”

“Aw, nothing to it. We’ve swapped the board, all right, but we’ve got to baby-sit it for a while, make some adjustments. Don’t worry -- we have things to do. But thanks for thinking about us.”

With all three locomotives at his command now, the train accelerated like a champ.

Jim’s comm link buzzed, but he didn’t recognize the location at first. Then he realized it was a call from orbit -- it had to be Donald calling collect.

“Donald! To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“We’re coming home, Dad. I’ve got a six-thirty shuttle to O’Hare.”

“We?”

“Me and Gina.”

“Well, if you want to come over for dinner,” Jim said. “I’m sure your mom would be happy to see you. And meet this Gina.”

“Dinner?” Donald seemed surprised. “Dad, we’re moving back home.”

Jim wasn’t surprised. “I’m not sure we offered.”

“Dad -- we’re refugees!”

“Uh-huh. I thought you were on Opal VI.”

“We were. But a couple thousand from some colony way out there got displaced by the War -- the place is crawling with extra people.”

“But Opal VI isn’t in the War Zone,” Jim pointed out. “I checked the map in the paper this morning. So you really can’t be refugees, now can you, Donald?”

“Well sure, Dad. These guys were willing to pay top dollar for what we had and so we sold -- quintupled our money. So there’s nothing for us there any more.”

“If you’ve got war profits,” Jim said, “you can afford a place to stay. You don’t even have to come to Chicago if you don’t really want to. There are thousands of other colonies available.”

“But, Dad!”

“Donald, I’m busy. I’ll talk to you later.” Disgusted, Jim disconnected his comm link.

“Everything all right?” Kevin asked.

“Oh yeah,” Jim sighed. “The prodigal son returneth is all.”

His son, who thought Jim was such a technological failure to remain on Earth and drive trains, had fleeced some real refugees from the War and sold out of his share in the Opal VI colony. At the same time, Donald was running home expecting his parents to put up him and this girl of his -- what gall. It was time the boy grew up.

At 500 kph the ride felt rougher. This was work now and not as much fun. But the duct tape held, as did Unit 3. Two more cups of coffee later and they were wending their way into Argentine Yard in Kansas at a mild 40 kph. Double-red signals ahead told Jim to bring Extra 4334 West to a stop. The next engineer, really tall and thin, stood exactly on the mark and climbed aboard.

“Morning, Jim.”

“Afternoon, Ralph.” Jim smiled with some satisfaction as the engineer reached up and pulled the redline handle on the check board.

“Twelve minutes to departure,” the computer reported.

“It’s all yours.” Jim plucked his Sun-Times from the map pocket. The tall engineer nodded in acknowledgment. And with that, Jim swung himself around and carefully climbed the recessed ladder down to the platform.

After a nice break, and a chance to finish reading his newspaper, Jim would take another train like this one back to Chicago. But for now, he had other things to do.

“Hello, Jill?” he spoke into his comm link. “It’s Jim. How’s your day so far? Might have company coming down for dinner tonight... No, just dinner... Yeah, we should go out...”

 

©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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