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Hotbox! — Complete Hard-SF Novella, 7.2K words (1 Viewer)

ehbowen

Senior Member
The following was written so long ago that I had to clean out some of the formatting artifacts from WordPerfect 4.0 for Amiga...and some may remain, so please forgive me! The story is set in a fictional lunar colony in the near future, built around the original landing site of Apollo 17 in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Being a space enthusiast and a resident of Houston I had access to some very detailed Apollo-era lunar topographic maps, and all of the physical locations mentioned here are in fact prototypical—although a real civil engineer might well choose a different routing than assaulting the steep rise of "Suicide Hill", but when I saw that physical feature on the topo map I was immediately struck with the possibilities of building a story around it.

After failing to sell the story to the major short fiction markets (I got a very nice rejection letter from Analog) I went ahead and posted this story, essentially as is, on a railfan-related web site. So first publication rights are already lost. However, I've considered expanding the concept although perhaps not including this vignette into a novel-length treatment with the help of an Internet acquaintance who is a professional civil engineer with experience in several high-speed rail projects and who has expressed interest at writing perhaps the first set of "engineering standards" for a railroad on the Moon.

Enjoy!


HOTBOX

By Eric H. Bowen


...but we've tried everything we can think of to do. Now we're out of power, and our life support is on its last legs. Maybe if we'd set out three days ago, when everything first happened, we could have walked it. No, that's just wishful thinking. And no, I don't really think we can do any better now. After three days with nothing to eat I feel like I've barely enough strength to walk to the end of the train, let alone back to Challenger. But I want you to know we tried.

Mom, Dad, I don't want you to be upset. I figure it must just be my time. If I had it to do all over again, I would. But I do wish it didn't have to end like this.

All my love, always,
"Casey" Jill


I set down the pen and sighed. Ed, behind me, had almost finished suiting up and was about to dog down his helmet. His incongruously cheerful voice snapped me out of my reverie. "Well, missy," he said. "Ready for a little hike?"

I stared out the window. Directly ahead of me, past the end of the dead-end track and across the wide and forbidding valley, lay the bulk of South Massif—and, on its far side, civilization, such as it was. Above my head, a quarter of a million miles away, the bright blue globe of Earth hung against the black velvet of infinity.

Either one might as well be as close as the other.

* * *

I guess railroading really does run in the blood. It has in my family, at least. My uncle Jeb has an old tintype of my great-great-great-great-great-grandpa standing nearby as they were driving the golden spike on the Kansas Pacific a hundred-and-sixty-some-odd-years ago. I knew the stops on a 32DL brake valve before I could ride a bicycle. To be quite honest, I can never remember seriously thinking that I might not work for the railroad.

But when I did daydream, it was about being an astronaut. I was nine years old when the first Challenger expedition—well, the second, if you want to get technical—landed at Taurus-Littrow. If I couldn't be a railroader, an astronaut would have been the next best thing.

I never expected to get the chance to do both.

From the beginning, NASA wanted to establish a self-sustaining, permanent base, in order to shield it from the vagaries of Congressional opinion which, inevitably, would someday turn against wasting "all that money" on the future of the human race. But while oxygen, iron, aluminum, and silicon were plentiful, there for the taking in any quantity you liked, many of the basic building blocks of life such as carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen were incredibly diffuse and tough to find. Processing a ton-mass of lunar topsoil might—might—yield enough hydrogen to make a single glass of water. Early attempts to process and refine materials in the field failed miserably, as each crawler-transporter-processor required a support crew which amounted to a self-propelled moonbase. The alternative was to exploit economies of scale and construct a single large, centralized processing plant, but that meant that hundreds and even thousands of tons of low-grade ore and regolith would have to be transported back and forth each and every day. How could that be done?

The bid specifications called for a lunar surface transportation system to be constructed almost entirely with in situ materials using minimal tooling and equipment. It would have to be capable of transporting any and all kinds of cargo across any and all types of terrain and be readily expandable. And, oh yes, its design must accommodate an ultimate carrying capacity in excess of a hundred thousand metric tons of cargo in any Earth-standard twenty-four hour day.

There was one bidder who met all of the conditions.

And that's how the Kansas, Pacific, and Gulf went to the Moon.

* * *

The calls never come at a convenient time. Never. It seemed like I had just laid down and closed my eyes when the telephone chirped. I wanted to ignore it, but disregarded my better judgment and put it on speaker. "Hello?" I mumbled.

It was the Weasel. We call him 'Wesley' to his face, but otherwise.... "Jill? You're 'up'."

"Uhnnng...okay, okay. What have I got?"

"The Suicide."

That woke me up! "The Suicide...?" Great. I know of no worse run on the line. The official name listed on the board is the "Vitruvius Turn," but I have yet to hear anyone except visiting big shots call it that.

"Well? 'Casey Jill'?"

It's my semiofficial nickname, but it still grates me to hear it coming from the Weasel's mouth. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could hang up on him. "All right, I'll take it. What have I got for power?"

"Looks like...113."

"One-thirteen? That rolling wreck? What else?"

"That'll do you."

"What? By itself? It'll never make the switchback!"

"The computer says it will. Hey, it's all empties going out. And coming back, it's all downhill."

Not quite. Wesley doesn't get out on the road much. But it's true, the pulls coming back are nothing like what you get heading out. Westbound, the ruling grade is two percent. Eastbound, it's three point six. And 113 is one of the original class As—it's a wonder the thing is still running—and, in my opinion, it doesn't belong anywhere except the switchyard. Or, preferably, the boneyard. "Come on, Wesley. How about letting me break in one of those nice new D2s for you?"

"Don't have any to spare." Then a pause, which strongly implied, On the other hand, if you made it worth my while.... A few years back, he might have said that aloud. He did, one time, not knowing the road foreman of engines was listening. He kept his job, somehow—the Weasel is a great one for landing on his feet—but ever since then, the propositions have been implied; never overt.

I'd sooner take dietary advice from a talking snake. "So. I see. When am I scheduled out?"

"Oh-four-thirty."

"I'll be there." Now, if I could only get three hours sleep....

* * *

The alarm woke me at three o'clock. I stepped out of bed, bleary-eyed, decided against showering, saw myself in the mirror, and changed my mind. A few minutes later I looked and felt almost human.

Like most of KP&G's permanent employees I don't actually live at Challenger. We outgrew the facilities NASA allotted us in the old base at Tortilla Flat early on and built our new shops in a set of natural lava tubes some seventeen miles to the northwest. No one ever got around to officially naming the place, and so everyone on the Moon knows it simply as The Shops. It may not be as fancy as the new Challenger Station at Bear Mountain, but it'll do. A quick detour by the crew cafeteria for breakfast, then I was off to the roundhouse.

And was involuntarily detained on the way. I was cutting through the passenger station when the varnish end of a mixed extra docked and about fifty hard-boiled miner types poured out. Most of them headed straight for the Jayhawk Lounge, but about five of them headed straight for me. New guys, no doubt. Experienced hands know better than to try anything around here. KP&G really isn't as prudish as they're made out to be, but when it comes to unsolicited liaisons they tend to redefine "paternalistic."
I tried to slide past them, ignoring the wolf whistles and comments, but soon found myself surrounded. I cast a nervous eye around. Either a company bull or a would-be boyfriend anxious to impress me with his chivalry would serve. Both are usually plentiful, but at four in the morning.... "Hi, boys," I said as cheerfully as I could muster. "Have a nice trip in?"

"It just got a whole lot better," said one. "How 'bout showing us around, beautiful?" said another.

They couldn't be serious, of course. Couldn't be. Of course, if they were new, they might not know.... Then I saw Ed headed my way and let out a sigh of relief.

"Hidy do, boys," he said, ambling over. "Just in from the mines?"

"That's right. See you later. We're talking, here."

"Way-ell," Ed drawled, "You boys ought to know that the lady works with me. And she is a lady."

"Just butt out, Gramps," the other replied. "It's none of your business."

"Mebbe you boys haven't heard," Ed replied mildly, "but we had a feller here, a few years ago, went and treated a lady ungentlemanly." He took a long puff from his pipe and exhaled in the general direction of the apparent leader. "We invited him to take a little walk. Outside." Another puff. "Never buried him, neither. Just put up a little sign next to him telling who he was and what he done. You can see him through the viewports on level B if you know where to look."

He clapped two of them on the back and pointed them towards the exit. "Now why don't you boys just follow the signs to the lounge and ask for Pru. She'll take good care of you," he said, giving them a wink. As they meekly filed out towards the exit, he gave me one as well, and I smiled. Prudence Haas, our official hostess, is a wonderful, friendly lady with a ready wit, a bubbling laugh, and a warm personality. She's also a devout Methodist with a black belt. If they wanted good company, friendly conversation, and warm hospitality Prudence would take good care of them. If they wanted more than that she would take care of them, too, and they could spend the rest of their two-week R&R period nursing the bruises.

"Thanks, Ed," I said.

"Think nothing of it, Missy. 'Bout time to get to work."

"Yeah. I wonder where they're from." The passenger cars hadn't undocked yet, and the status board was still up. "Vitruvius? But I thought we.... Oh. We must be second section."

"Yepper. Tail-end Charlie." The track up Suicide Hill--that's our name for the northeastern face of Mons Vitruvius--isn't a direct run, but seesaws up in a series of switchbacks. You run up the hill so far until the track dead-ends. Then you throw a switch and back up until it dead-ends again behind you. And so forth. The dead-end sidings only have room for fifteen cars or so, so if you need to move more than that you have to split your train up into sections. On Earth in the old days a second section would trail right behind the first, but the way Suicide Hill is laid out only one train at a time can run it without massive headaches. Now the track was clear for us.

It sounds clumsy. It is clumsy. But it's also a five-thousand foot climb from the Valley floor to the Vitruvius plateau. If we had more traffic to serve than just that one isolated mining site we might have invested the time and money to shove some more of the mountain out of the way. If we didn't need the carbon and nitrogen which that carbonaceous meteor so thoughtfully deposited in the Vitruvius crater so long ago so badly we would never have laid track up Suicide Hill in the first place. All things considered, those switchbacks make a certain amount of sense. That doesn't mean they aren't a royal pain in the you-know-what.

As we made our way through the yards I cast a wistful look at a new D2 unit resplendent in fresh blue paint with the white 'thunderbolt' logo. Six hundred fifty kilowatts, eight hundred horsepower, twenty-nine thousand pounds tractive effort, regenerative braking with onboard hydrolyzer...close your mouth and stop drooling, Jill. No use thinking about it. Instead, I looked over to see 113 sitting in forlorn isolation next to the rip track. One hundred forty kilowatts, ninety-five hundred pounds maximum tractive effort...if I get out and push, I thought to myself. Her paint was faded and the radiator panels along her flanks were pitted and scarred by years of micrometeoroid bombardment--"Ed, look at these radiators. This engine needs to be in the shop, not out on the road!"

"Actually, she is headed into the shop. Scheduled for a full overhaul jest as soon as we get back."

Great. Don't tell me that Wesley couldn't have given us a unit coming out of overhaul just as easily as this hulk which was going in. I took my time checking her out, making sure that the cryo tanks were topped off with LH2 and LOX and that the sand hopper was full. If I was going to have to pull the Suicide in this tub I wanted all the fuel and traction I could get. Once we were inside and pressurized I logged in to check the maintenance records. Overheating, high fuel consumption--great, just the thing for the mountains. S-band radio (intermittent fault), fuel cell two (control electronics failure, repaired), and a host of miscellaneous miscellany. But nothing that would justify rejecting the unit. And besides, it was nearly time to go. I've got a reputation to live up to.

The yardmaster had our train ready on track nine. I coupled old 113 at the head of it and watched as the computer polled the cars down the line. Ed cross-checked our orders against the car ID's as they scrolled across the screen. Finally, he nodded.

"Looks good." He put the train into ROAD mode, locking out any uncouple commands and activating the marker light at the rear of the last car. "We're good to go."

"I'm ready here."

The engineer runs the locomotive, but, as it's been since the old days, the conductor runs the train. Ed picked up the microphone. "Dispatch, Extra 441 East, second section, ready to proceed as per train order nine-oh-six-two-five, over."

"Copy that, 441 East." As we watched, the switch points ahead of us moved over and a signal eye changed from red to green. The Weasel's voice came back over the radio, saying, "Extra 441 East--highball."

Ed made me wait for it. He always does. I hate to wait. Finally he looked over at me and smiled. "Highball."

* * *

The mainline between the Shops and Challenger Station is the busiest twenty-six miles of track on the Moon. It's also one of the best runs. Easy grades, gentle curves, full Centralized Traffic Control with in-cab signals and automated switches, not to mention the absolutely spectacular scenery of the "Grand Canyon of the Moon." Earthside tourists cough up big bucks to ooh and ah over it from our vista-dome car. The line runs east across Fossae Littrow, bends to the south past Family Mountain, then back to the southeast into the Valley itself. It skirts the face of South Massif as far as Nansen crater, then bends back to the north descending the Scarp onto Tortilla Flat. It continues east in a big horseshoe bend past the Apollo 17 historical site to the foot of Bear Mountain and the new Challenger Base. But it's at Milepost 28, two miles past the Challenger mill siding, that the main line officially ends and things start to get interesting.

We took our time getting there, of course. Extra freights always end up with the odd jobs, and we had our share today. A cryo tanker of fuels for the spaceport at Tortilla Flat, as well as a pressurized boxcar of foodstuffs for the orbital construction shack and a tanker of He-3 headed back to Earth to help pay the bills. Pick up a box of machinery in from Earth to run over to Challenger. Also spot them an empty flatcar—they were probably planning to ship a crawler out west to Serenity for the miners. Pick up a couple more empty hoppers at Challenger to add to our string headed up the Hill.

But now the milk run was over. I stopped the train at milepost 28, just shy of the small signboard reading "END CTC" which marked the end of the mainline and the beginning of the Vitruvius Spur. Behind us were ten empty hopper cars. Ahead of us were seventy miles of the toughest mountain railroading to be found on the Moon. Ed picked up the microphone and called us in. "Four-forty-one East at mile 28. Ready for the Suicide."

The Weasel was still on duty. That’s strange; his shift was supposed to have ended twenty minutes ago. It sounded as if he was in a foul mood. "I hear you, 441. Clear track to Vitruvius. Call when you get back. Get to work."

Okay. Throttle all the way out to Run 8 for the first good pull south out of the Valley. The track skirts the base of East Massif as it climbs some six hundred and fifty feet in six miles--a comparatively gentle two percent. Then it levels out and actually dips some for a mile or so before swinging south. I used this breather to build up speed for Suicide Hill.

The first leg of the switchback is fifteen miles at three point six percent, the longest, hardest pull on our entire line. I wanted to attack it with as much momentum as I could, and so we hit the grade doing forty miles an hour. Our speed dropped to thirty-five, then thirty, then twenty-five, and finally stabilized just below twenty. I kept an anxious eye on my instrumentation. Those old radiators were letting the fuel cell temps build up a lot faster than I liked.... But after forty-five anxious minutes the first siding was in sight. I gratefully backed off the power as we came off the grade into the comparatively level haven of the dead-end switch track, slowed, then stopped. Time to put on the helmets.

The Vitruvius spur is 'dark territory.' No signals, and of course no automated switches. Ed had to go Outside, walk to the end of the train, and throw the switch behind us so that we could back up and keep going up the next leg of the Hill. The Class As don't have crew airlocks; you've got to depressurize the entire cabin to open the hatch. With the switch thrown I backed the train out of the siding, slowing down enough to let Ed swing aboard as the engine passed the switch. We continued up the hill in reverse, and I kept a close eye on my gauges. The back leg isn't so bad, though—seven miles at two and a half percent. In less than twenty minutes the train had backed onto the upper switch track for the final leg of the zigzag and Ed clambered back out to throw the switch. With the grunt work finished we resealed and repressurized the cabin, then pulled out of the hole up the final six miles at three percent onto the highland plateau.

The plateau is fairly easy running—a bit of up and down, but nothing excessive. In a little over half an hour the mining station on the north rim of the crater came in sight. There were no lights, no activity. "Place looks deserted," I remarked.

"Place is deserted. Vitruvius runs one shift. They're all back in town having fun."

"Guess we can forget about stopping for a layover."

"Do you think we need one?"

"Naaah. Let's get out of here."

Switching the empties out and hooking the string of loaded hoppers went quickly enough. I checked readings for the locomotive as we made ready to head out. Hmm. Fuel consumption was higher than expected, but we had margin to make it back. Fuel cells seemed to have settled out a bit. Everything looked okay. Ed fiddled around with his computer, closing out the paperwork for 441 East, calling up our new orders as 442 West. Time to highball.

Running westbound, there's a short two percent pull right out of Vitruvius. Not nearly as steep as the Hill, of course, but now we were loaded down and I felt every ounce of our seventeen hundred tons. Our speed fell below five miles an hour for about ten minutes, but then we were up and over and I let her out to make up time. The next twelve miles were generally downhill, and I let the speed build up past fifty to gain momentum. From there to milepost 68, the crest of Suicide Hill, the track rises again and with this load I wanted all the speed I could get. Even so, I had some anxious moments for about twenty minutes as my underpowered locomotive crawled up the last mile-and-a-half at walking speed. Fuel cells were in the red, motor temps were in the red, fuel consumption was--well, let's just say it wasn't pretty. "Come on, come on," I pleaded. Just one more mile. One more mile, and we're over the top, and it's all downhill from there. Come on... I think I can I think I can I think I can I think...

Finally milepost 68 rolled past and I let out a sigh of relief. And cut it off just as quickly. Running uphill in the mountains isn't dangerous, merely time-consuming and frustrating. Running downhill can get you killed. It certainly wouldn't do to go on a runaway here. A brake test, a quick systems check, and then I let the train coast down the hill to the first switchback.

Braking has always been the big challenge in the mountains, and it's even worse here on the Moon. It's true that you've only got one-sixth the gravity, but then again there's no air to help slow you down or, more importantly, carry away the heat generated by your brakes. And the kinetic energy in seventeen hundred tons of moving mass is just the same here as it is on Earth. The trick is to keep your downhill coast at a slow, steady speed, so that the heat being generated by the brakes just balances the heat being radiated away. I called the brake temperature readouts up on the cab display and kept an eagle eye on them as we coasted down into the valley. Brakes were okay, but--an axle temperature alarm flashed shortly after we started down the grade. I frowned. "Ed, we're showing a hotbox on number two. Check it out."

He quickly leaned over his console to check the alarm. A "hotbox"--an overheated axle bearing--is serious business. "Yep, it's heading up," he answered. "Car two, axle four, left side. Two-eighty and rising slowly."

I nodded. "Not too bad. Keep an eye on it." As we descended the sun settled behind the hill, leaving us in shadow. That bearing ought to cool quickly enough now. But no, it kept trending up. Well, we were almost at the end of the first downhill leg, and I could give it a few minutes to cool down there. It read 302 as we finally pulled onto the siding. I glanced in my mirror to make sure we were clear of the switch. My eyes had now adjusted to the shadow, and...what was that faint red glow?

"HOTBOX!"

I braked the train to an immediate stop. Ed was taken by surprise. "What?" he asked. "I'm keeping an eye on it. Everything still looks okay here," he said, indicating his console.

"Okay, hell. I can see it. Second car. Axle four. Right side. What's that showing?"

"I said, the left side's showing 302."

"Not that side. This side!"

"Why, that's.... Hmm. Nothing. Not reading at all. That's not good," he added. A classic understatement.

"We'd better get Outside and check it out."

The axle was still glowing a visible dull red when we walked up five minutes later. Ed didn't even bother with the portable thermometer. "We must have caught it just in time," he said. "If that axle had broken on the Hill...." He shook his head. "We were lucky."

"Yeah. Lucky." Well, the rule book was crystal clear on what we had to do now. Hauling a car down a steep grade when its bearings are shot is one of the less intelligent moves you can make, on Earth or on the Moon. We had to set it out, lock it down, and leave it for a repair crew to come out and handle. There was just one problem. Parked on the switchback as we were, it blocked our only way out. We needed to let the axle cool down, and then cautiously back the car out just far enough to clear the track so that we could proceed. Hot as that axle looked, it might take awhile. "Might as well go back to the cab and call this one in," I said. "Did you pack a lunch?"

"Yep."

Once we were up in the cab and unsuited, I tried to raise Dispatch on the VHF. But all I got was static. It took me a minute to realize that the nearest relay station was over on South Massif, and that here on the side of the Hill the mountain blocked our line-of-sight to it. Well. We'd just have to call in after we got down. In the meantime, we took our time eating lunch. After an hour or so I looked over at Ed. "Ready to move her?"

"Don't see why not."

"All right, then." I shifted the reverse lever to REV, moved the throttle to Run 3, then released the brakes.

Nothing happened.

Nonplussed, I increased power. Still, everything remained frozen. I pulled the throttle out one more notch. Still nothing.

Maybe something needed to be shook loose. I cut the throttle and put the reverser back over to FOR. Once again, I drew out the throttle, and still nothing happened. I increased power to Run 6, then 7—and the locomotive wheels broke free of the rails and spun uselessly.

"What's the problem, Jill?" Ed asked.

It took me a second, but then I knew. "The axle has seized. It won't turn, not at all. I don't have the power to break it loose." I sighed, then added, "Looks like we're stuck."

"That's not good."

Ed has a positive talent for understatement. I reached for the microphone and turned the transmit selector switch to "S-BAND". You should understand that train crews seldom if ever use the S-Band deep-space radios. Around the settlements we communicate with line-of-sight VHF. NASA's controllers in Houston have enough to do keeping up with the exploration parties without being bothered with our chitchat. But this was different. "Houston, this is KP&G 442. We have an emergency situation. Come in, Houston. Do you read? Any station, please respond. Any station. This is an emergency. Any station, please respond."

Nothing. Nothing at all.

I tried shifting frequencies. Still nothing. There's always some chatter somewhere on the S-band.... "Any station, please respond. We have an emergency. Any station."

Ed, meanwhile, was scrolling through his computer screen. "Better take another look at this," he said quietly.

He had called up the maintenance records I had skimmed through earlier. "BAD ORDER REPORT - Intermittent fault in S-band transceiver. Will not transmit or receive." The technician who checked it had entered, "Operation normal at this time. Recommend replacement at overhaul. Returned to service."

I used language my parents would have spanked me for. "To those of you who understood the significance of the moment, I say thank you"--to quote Gene Cernan himself following a somewhat similar escapade.

Ed clucked his tongue at me. "Now, now, missy. No need to get all hot and bothered. They know where we are. They'll come looking for us soon enough."

I nodded. He was right, of course. Of course. Of course he was right. Wasn't he?

* * *

I don't recommend sleeping in a spacesuit, even in one-sixth gee. Especially in the cab of a locomotive. Ed was already up. "Sleep well, Jill?"

"Yeah. Too well. I gotta get out of this suit." The class As don't have much in the way of amenities, but they do at least have a tiny crew john. "Anyone come for us?"

"Nope."

"Anything on the radio?"

"Nope."

"Well, they'd better be quick about it. I'm getting hungry."

* * *

When another twenty-four hours had passed I was so anxious that I forgot about being hungry. "I don't believe this! What's going on here?"

"Now, now, Jill, calm yourself down. Maybe they thought we took a layover."

"Oh, right. Like any crew in its right mind is going to spend two days in beautiful downtown Vitruvius! We're thirty-six hours overdue! Somebody has to have noticed something! An entire train can't just disappear!" But then, I hesitated. There had been six shift changes in the Dispatch office by now, and in the confusion of new business we might have been forgotten. Challenger mill might not know when these loads were scheduled in, and, even if they did, ten cars could easily be overlooked in the shuffle. The engine was headed into overhaul, so no one at the roundhouse would miss her, and the shop crews would just figure that Motive Power had changed their minds and decided to hang onto her a little longer. I was single, no boyfriend--nobody serious, at least--and Ed was a widower. Would anyone really be looking for us? Dispatch might take notice when we missed our next call to work, but then again they might not. I sighed. Well, our food was gone, but we wouldn't go thirsty. The fuel cell exhaust receivers held enough water to swim in--well, bathe, at least. And it wouldn't hurt me to drop a few pounds. "How long do you think we can hold out?" I asked Ed.

"Three days," he answered.

"What?"

"CO2. I had to change out our lithium hydroxide canister while you were asleep. We only had the one spare."

Three days. And the Vitruvius crewmen were all off for two weeks R&R. What were the chances they would send another train through here in the next three days? Not bloody likely. "We've got to get off this hill," I said.

"How?"

Good question. The suits are supposed to be good for eight to ten hours. But that depends on how hard you work and how fast you use oxygen. It was thirty-five miles to Challenger and just as far back to Vitruvius, every bit of it through rugged, mountainous terrain. Want to bet your life you can walk thirty-five miles in eight hours?

Suddenly, I had an idea. There was one loaded car between us and the car with the seized axle. "Maybe we can hammer it loose," I said. "Back the good car up to the end of track, then slam it into the train like a pile driver and see if we can knock something loose."

"Might work," Ed allowed. "Better'n anything I can think of, at least."

We suited up, and Ed went Outside and uncoupled the good car. I had perhaps three hundred feet to the end of track, and I used every last inch. Then I put the reverser over, slammed the throttle into Run 8, and braced for impact. The engine reverberated for the better part of a full minute. "Did that do any good?" I asked.

"Maybe an inch, maybe two," he said grimly. My heart sank. Still, we tried the maneuver again. And again. And again. And again. Three hours later I watched helplessly as the last of the hydrogen and oxygen sputtered through the fuel cells. Emergency batteries kicked in to sustain vital systems, but the power circuits were stone dead. We had succeeded in moving the train six feet. Only seven hundred and fifty to go. Time to concede defeat. Oh, well. It was Sunday, and the week was just getting started. Maybe they would send a train out in the next few days after all.

* * *

Monday. No.
Tuesday. No.
Wednesday....

* * *

"Well, missy, ready for a little hike?"

"Just about." I put the finishing touches on my letter to mom and dad, then sighed and picked up the microphone for one last try. "Mayday Mayday Mayday. This is KP&G 442. We are stranded and life support is running out. Mayday Mayday Mayday." Nothing.

"Better drink up. It's a long way home."

Yeah. Right. By now we were both weak from hunger. If we hadn't been able to walk it three days ago, why should we think we could make it now? This was a gesture, nothing more. We sealed up, vented the cab, and stepped Outside.

"Almost looks pretty," Ed said.

It was true. The valley was forbidding but spectacular. "You think they'll name it after us?" I asked.

"Reckon they might. Come on, we might as well get started. What do you think? Short but hard, or easy but long?"

Those were our choices. "Short but hard" meant straight down the side of the mountain. "Easy but long" meant to follow the tracks as they wound their way down the hill through the switchbacks, down, down, always down.... "Wait! I've got it!"

"Eh? What do you mean?"

"Come on!" What I had in mind broke nearly every rule in the book....

I loped back to the end of the siding and threw the switch, aligning the track for the downhill leg. Then I ran back to the last car and fumbled with the cover to the car brake controls. I tore it off and flipped the switch to "BYPASS", deactivating the built-in safety systems and releasing the electric brakes.

Ed came up behind me. "What are you up to, Jill?"

"Uncouple there! Uncouple!"

"Uncouple? Oh! I see!"

"Now push! Push!" We bent our backs to it and began to shove the cars apart by hand. I planted my feet against the fused ceramic crossties for a better purchase. Slowly, ponderously, the hundred and sixty tons of loaded hopper car began to move. We continued our pushing and shoving until the car was past the switch and began to ease onto the downgrade. "Now hop on!" I cried, "and get ready for the ride of your life!"

We swung aboard the rear of the car. At the end of a hopper car, over the wheels, is a platform that's just barely big enough for two people to climb on and ride. The car began to accelerate steadily down the grade.

Yes, we were in one-sixth gee. But keep in mind that there's no air friction and virtually no rolling friction on smooth steel railroad tracks. And from the upper switchback track to the lower is roughly a thousand feet of vertical drop, the same energy potential as a hundred and seventy feet of drop on Earth. Picture yourself on a roller coaster with a seventeen-story drop and nothing to slow you down! But we did have something to slow us down, an antiquated holdover from the nineteenth century: the hand brake. Ed and I wrestled with the big wheel to keep our descent under control and finally slow it to a stop on the lower switchback.

"Not bad, not bad at all," Ed allowed as we took a minute to rest. "This just might work."

"Next stop, Challenger station!" I said as I aligned the switch for the final leg of the descent. "Tell you what, I'll treat you to lunch at Cernan's!"

"It'll be my treat, missy. Come on, let's get her rolling."

We pushed the car to the brink of the fifteen-mile downgrade and clambered aboard. Now we rode facing forward, and the view was spectacular. The steep grade drew at the car, and we tightened down the brake wheel again and again, trying to keep our descent under control.

I suppose I should have seen it coming. After all, I'm supposed to be the expert on train handling. Had I been coming down the hill in the cab of a properly equipped locomotive, the car's onboard sensors would have flashed a brake temperature warning and I would have stopped the train in time. But I had bypassed the sensors--the onboard computer would never have let me move the car otherwise--I had no temperature readouts, and no way to judge my speed except by eye. I did see that we were starting to accelerate, so Ed and I tightened up on the brake wheel a notch or two. Then a notch more. Then a little bit more. Finally we had the wheel as tight as our muscles could turn it--and still the car accelerated.

We were on a runaway.

Ed and I just looked at each other. What else could we do? Jump? I went ahead and released the useless and half-melted brakes, hoping against hope that they might cool enough to let us use them further down the line. If we stayed on the track, that is. In one-sixth gee it doesn't take much to flip a train on its side. The track gauge is wider here--six feet--to compensate, which gives us about as much stability as you'd have on a three-foot narrow gauge line back on Earth. But even the best of the narrow-gauges, like the meter-gauge tracks in Japan, are unsafe above seventy-five miles an hour. I would judge that we were already near eighty and still picking up speed.

By the time we reached the base of Suicide Hill we were moving at well over a hundred miles an hour. There's an S-curve here, turning northeast then northwest, but it's not too sharp and I held out some hope that we could hang on. My helmet rested briefly on the steel frame of the hopper car and as it did I could clearly hear the squeal of the wheels as we came around the bend. We slowed slightly as the car rolled onto the gentle upgrade at the base of the hill, and I gave the brakes a try. That was our last, best hope. Nothing happened.

We crested the rise and began the six-mile downgrade into the Valley itself, still wildly out of control. Our car swayed and shimmied its way down that grade at a speed that could only be called maniacal. We hit the valley floor at a hundred and twenty-five miles an hour. As we did, we came out of the shadow of Suicide Hill and into radio range. I clicked on my suit radio. "Dispatch, this is Extra 442 West. What's left of it. Clear the main line. We have a runaway. I say again, we have a runaway down Suicide Hill! Clear the line!"

"What? Who is this?" It was the Weasel.

"This is Jill. Extra 442 West, remember? Did you forget about us the past five days? I'll explain later--if I live through it! We're approaching milepost 28 now. We are a runaway! Clear the main line, now!"

We shot past Challenger mill in a blur. Astonished spacesuited workers on both sides stared at us as we flashed by. Ahead of us lay Horseshoe Bend at the north end of the valley. This was the moment of truth. If we made it through there, the gentle upgrades and curves on the west end of the line would give us all the run-out room we could want. But there was no way we could make the Bend at this speed. We'd fly straight off the tracks and smear ourselves into pudding right about in the middle of Wessex Cleft. The brakes were still glowing red with accumulated heat, and there was no way that they could radiate enough of it to matter before we hit the curve. If only we had some way to cool them down! In the steam engine days they would have sprayed them with water from the tender—a fat lot of good that did us here. We didn't have any water. We couldn't have any, not in vacuum.

But... wait.

We did have a hundred and fifty tons of sand....!

Pouring sand on the brakes would tear the shoes up in seconds, but I couldn't care less about that. It would generate a whole lot of friction in a short time and might carry off some of the heat. Climbing up onto the top of the car and motioning Ed to follow, I yanked the sunshade and visor assembly off of my helmet. It made a dandy bucket. I shinnied back down the ladder with a visorfull of regolith, poured it over the wheels and brake shoes, and was rewarded with a spectacular shower of sparks. This might just work! Ed was handing his visor down to me and I tossed mine back to him. Quickly, now. It was a matter of seconds before we hit the curve. Enough time for another bucket of sand, and then another. We were definitely slowing down now, but still way too fast for the turn...time for one more bucket and hang on....!

Our unlikely steed heeled into the bend at seventy-five miles an hour. I felt the wheels on the inside of the curve begin to leave the rails. After a heart-stopping second, they settled back into place. A few seconds later, it happened again--but then the wheels finally settled onto the tracks to stay. We sped by Tortilla Flat, still doing almost seventy, but then the tracks rose along the Scarp, our speed dropped to a manageable fifty or so, and I let out my first sigh of relief. Our momentum continued to carry us down the tracks for nearly ten miles, but we finally rolled to a stop within hailing distance of the Shops. In minutes, a switch engine arrived to take us home.

The general manager made it a point to look me up as I was wolfing down my first real meal after being released from the clinic. "Have you heard about your train?" he asked.

"Uh uh," I answered between bites.

"Well," he said, "The car tinks sent a crew up the Hill to try to repair the hotbox, but the axle and bearings had fused themselves together and refused to be broken loose. They didn't have much room to work, there on the mountainside, so they ended up blasting the car off the tracks and down the hillside."
"That's something I've got to see."

"When 113 gets out of overhaul I've already told them to reassign it to permanent switchyard duty. And you and Ed are getting ten days administrative leave, with pay."

The two weeks' vacation was nice; I spent it at Challenger making eyes at the NASA pukes. And I felt even better when I heard that Wesley had been officially relieved of his duties. But he managed to talk it down to a ten-day suspension and a verbal reprimand.

The Weasel always seems to land on his feet.

Written and copyright by Eric H. Bowen
 
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