Volume 2, Issue 2
2nd Quarter, 2007

Standard Gauge: Chapter One

Keith Henson

This short story was submitted to Terasem’s Journal of Geoethical Nanotechnology by Keith Henson, electrical engineer, proto-transhumanist, and writer on life extension, cryonics, memetics, and evolutionary psychology.

Keith’s story brings the reader along on a journey with a post singularity family utilizing near-future technologies in their daily lives. Terasem previously published Chapter Two, "The Clinic Seed-Africa"; here are Chapters One and Three. Keith offers that the theme of this work might echo the song "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm? (After They've Seen Paree)."

June 2106

Out of the corner of his eye Ed Bledsoe saw a yearling doe jump out of the bushes straight into the path of the locomotive. The kids who were riding in the cab didn't even have a chance to scream before:

WHAM! Loud even over the roar of the two diesel engines the locomotive’s airbag inflated and enfolded the deer. Ed, in traditional stripped engineer overalls and hat, was running in real time. Even sped up to the limits of flesh he wouldn't have had time to react.

"Damn!" The airbag deployment had tripped a “penalty brake application.”

The engineer sped up as he yanked the throttle back to idle before the train control system had a chance to kill the fuel pumps. He put the steam-era #6 automatic brake control into “release” so the brake line would pump up and take the air brakes back from “skid” to just slowing the train down.

He was fast enough and the application of the brakes was slow enough that only one of the axles on the first passenger cars stopped turning. Sparks flew from the wheels for a few seconds leaving a flat spot about the size of an old style American half dollar. Ed and the train's other crew members were aware through their neural interfaces which axle had skidded even before the brakes released enough for the wheels to start turning again.

As the brake pressure came back up, Ed settled on a modest fifteen-pound reduction. After an interminable screeching of brakes (and banging from the flat spot on the #3 axle of the first passenger car) the locomotive and its six cars shuddered to a stop about a mile from where they had hit the deer.

Slowing back down to real time so he would not sound like Donald Duck on speed--

“Well kids, that’s more excitement than I expected when I said you could ride in the cab.”

Hector was fourteen; his sister Jenny had just turned thirteen. Their eyes were “big as saucers” as they tried to look out the window over the bulldog nose of the locomotive.

“Did we kill it?” Jenny asked Ed in a voice just audible over the “LUB, LUB” of the idling engines. Hector and Jenny had been watching out the left window of the locomotive.

"We'll have to see but probably not. We have to get it off though and refold the airbag.” Ed checked that the engine breaks were firmly set, opened the cab door, and started down the ladder. When his shoulders were even with the floor he said:

“You can come down and watch, but stay back and be ready to jump when we get it free. Deer bite.” (Ed by this point already knew the deer was not seriously hurt.)

Jim Brody, the conductor, and Mike DeLong, the fireman, had been riding in the first car. They were already walking up beside the locomotive. There was no doubt the deer was alive; when Hector and Jenny climbed down it was kicking in the deflating airbag sack--very unhappy about the noise, sudden acceleration knocking it off its feet and sticky bag around it.

“It’s a lucky one,” Jim said in a studied Irish brogue. Jenny and Hector looked puzzled about it being lucky to be hit by a locomotive going 50 MPH. So Mike with a big grin explained:

“It was probably just ahead of being eaten by a wolf!”

There were wolves in the Pennsylvanian countryside, lots of them, but the kids didn't know if their legs were being pulled or not. They looked at each other then decided to let it pass rather than ask questions.

"Can I touch it?" Jenny asked?

"For just a minute." Ed told them. "But stay away from the hooves." The kids each patted a patch of exposed and dusty deer. The doe quivered under their touch:

"It's scratchy, not soft like a rabbit." Jenny said. Hector was interested in the airbag as well as the deer.

Ed unlatched a compartment in the nose of the locomotive and took out a can that looked like a large saltshaker. He climbed on top of the airbag box and hung on to the grab rail next to the headlight.

"Ok, back off kids." Ed told them. They backed off.

Leaning out over the kicking deer in the deflated airbag he sprinkled a course heavy powder on the parts he could see. Mike and Jim pulled the bag off as the powder crawled like ants between the deer and the airbag--releasing the "glue" that had stuck the deer to the airbag (so it wouldn’t bounce off).

A few minutes later the doe was unstuck. Nothing seems to be broken--the airbag having been designed back in the early part of the previous century to catch people and even minimize damage to an automobile. Making no attempt to bite, the doe struggling to her feet, and more than a bit confused by the strange experience, wobbled across the other track gaining speed and vanished into the woods.

The train crew stuffed the airbag back into its box and closed the lightweight covering flaps. Mike climbed up into the cab (all three of the crew members were qualified as engineers). Ed opened the compartment, put the glue releaser shaker back and took out two wheel patches. He gave one to Jim.

The patches were about the size and shape of a California banana slug. They were even a bright yellow and soft. Someone in a moment of humor had drawn eyes on one end. Ed and Jim walked down opposite sides of the train to the axle they knew had flats on its wheels. Hector went with Ed down the left side of the train hoping to get back into the locomotive cab; Jenny went with Jim past the open door to the front passenger car, the envy of the kids the adults were keeping inside.

The flat was near the bottom of the wheel about 7 o'clock. Ed hand signaled Mike to back up the train while feeding Mike a visual picture of the wheel. Mike put the traction motors in reverse sped up the diesels a little and--watching through Ed's eyes--backed the train up about three feet, putting the flat spot near the top of the wheel.

Ed gave the patch to Hector and showed him how to place it on the flat. The patch had magnets to stick it to the wheel.

"Now pull the little tab on the tail."

Hector did and the patch started hissing, releasing steam to keep its internal workings cool. A "foot" spread out from the patch, turned an iridescent black and flowed over the flat spot and several inches beyond.

“What’s it doing?” Hector asked.

“It’s replacing the metal that was rubbed off when the wheel stopped turning.” (Ed was pleased Hector had asked the question and was delighted to answer. Fostering and rewarding curiosity in children was high on the list of things that made adults of this time happy.)

On the other side, Jim had offered to let Jenny put the patch on that wheel. Jenny declined partly because the patch looked a little too much like a banana slug.

Hector knelt down on one knee and peered under the passenger car. He could see steam curling up from where Jim had stuck his patch to the flat spot on the far wheel. He could see Jenny and Jim up to their knees.

Their ten-year-old brother Kenny managed to get a window down far enough to stick his head out on Jenny's side.

“What happened? Why are we stopped?”

“We hit a deer, it wasn’t hurt, and I petted her. We're fixing flats.” Jenny summarized.

“Trains have flats?” Kenny asked. Kenny knew the historical meaning of the word though he had never been in a car that had had a flat tire.

“Ask Hector." Jenny said.

The steam had quit hissing out of the patch Hector had put on the wheel. Being for one time use, it turned from yellow to black, used the rest of its energy store to lump itself up into a rock shape that looked like track ballast. It then fell off--leaving metal behind that was indistinguishable from the rest of the wheel surface. In fact, had you looked all the way down to the molecular level, you could not have seen where the patch had repaired the wheel.

Ed and Hector started back toward the engine while Jim swung up into the first coach. Jenny went with him; eager to tell her friends that she got to pet the deer they hit while it was still a hot topic. Kenny managed to persuade Jim that he should replace Jenny in the cab and went running over the rough track ballast toward the locomotive ladder as fast as his legs could carry him.

Ed and Hector walked at a slower pace up the left side of the train.

“Long ago, when I was a kid, they would just live with a wheel flat from a fast stop like we made. It would go BANG, BANG on the rails till they got the car to a shop and the wheels could be taken off and turned down in a lathe.” Hector knew what a lathe was from his primitive technology studies. “Nobody has turned wheels down for sixty years except in Steamtown to demonstrate the way they did it for 150 years”

"Flat spots damaged the rails and the car's suspension, but the main problem was annoying the dense population with the noise. Ed shook his head. “With only 325 of these in use,” he said patting the locomotive as they walked along the side, “and 300,000 miles of track, noise wouldn’t be a problem now.”

“How many were there?”

Ed assumed Hector was asking about locomotives since every one knew that the North American population had peaked just short of 450 million.

“Before the population crash there were about 35,000 in North America. There's a long line of mothballed locomotives on a siding in Ohio. We should see them tomorrow."

The engine Ed patted was an Electromotive Division E8 passenger locomotive. It had been built 150 years before around the middle of the 20tth century--which made it ten years older than Ed. There had been a few of them in railroad museums. This one had been running. The main parts, the two diesel engines, generators, and traction motors were original except for the brushes which had been replaced by conductive nanotube composites that would never wear out or wear the commutators [1].

The diesel engines had been upgraded by such spiffy touches as diamond coatings on the bearing surfaces, sapphire coatings in the combustion chambers and automation to meter fuel. The surfaces were actively coated so there was not a speck of rust anywhere--though the locomotive had been rebuilt almost forty-five years ago--not long after the population crash and the mothballing of virtually all high maintenance old-style technology. The airbag was an anachronism.

Hector and Ed walked round the distinctive bulldog nose of the locomotive and climbed up into the cab with Mike. Kenny was already in the cab. The boys stood in front of the left hand window and Mike moved over behind them. Soon as they were in place, Ed released the brakes and spooled up the diesels. The train accelerated smartly to 60 mph as the engineer decided to make up time at the expense of a little peanut oil.

They didn't hit any more deer.

Continue reading the previously published Chapter Two,
The Clinic Seed - Africa, or Chapter Three


[1] Commutator – n. (1880) 1: a series of bars of segments so connected to armature coils of a generator or motor that rotation of the armature in conjunction with fixed brushes result in unidirectional current output in the case of a generator and in the reversal of the current into the coils in the case of a motor.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary . Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2005: 252.

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