Eden on the Rails
"Governor! We have a situation that requires a decision at your level."
John Wells, the Governor of New Eden colony, was not pleased to receive this imposition. He had not long got home to his two wives, and was looking forward to a quiet evening at home with Gloria and Muriel, and their four children.
"What is the problem, and why can't it wait until tomorrow?"
"Murder, sir. We knew nothing about it until two teenage girls arrived at the Security office, screaming about their mother being hurt."
"Okay, that sounds serious. We have not had a murder before now. This is indeed worrying. Tell me more."
His informant explained, "The man, Joe Fabricci, is one of the track layers who are building the rail line to the site of the tunnel through the mountains. He is a big fellow, as they all are. It is a tough job, laying concrete sleepers for the rails, then fixing the new rails to the trackbed.
"The trouble is that there is a lot of tension that gets built up. Drop a concrete sleeper in the wrong place, and you could get a serious injury or the guy who got in the way could be the one who suffers. We don't have a proper hospital on the planet, so access to quick decent attention for a major injury is not possible. We have to ship the victim to Rehome or Earth, depending on the injury. All we can do is stabilise the patient.
"In the case of this guy, he was taking out his frustrations on his wife. From what we gather from the girls, Joe was liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, and his wife took the brunt of his anger. Several times, the girls say, she stepped in and took punishment meant for one of the girls."
John was horrified. "He tried to beat his daughters? A big man, wanting to hit little girls? Horrendous!"
"Yes, sir. It seems that yesterday the crane driver let a sleeper slip at one end, and it swung past Joe, missing him by inches before landing on the ground. He was boiling with anger at the driver, and his mates had great difficulty restraining him from attacking the driver. The driver was already terrified at what he had nearly done by accident, and was in no condition to protect himself if Joe had got to him.
"Anyway, Governor, Joe got sent home early, in the hopes of allowing him time to unwind slowly, and be back at work the next day in a better temper. It was not really a good idea: Joe got home early, still fuming, and found that his wife was relaxing, listening to music after a busy day of housework. He didn't see it that way. He assumed she had put her feet up all day, and set about her. She fell over and hit her head on the corner of a table. The corner pierced her skull, killing her almost instantaneously.
"Joe then realised what he had done, and went mad, smashing up everything within reach. The girls were upstairs, and when they saw their mother lying dead, blood pouring from her head, and their father rampaging around, they feared for their own lives. They were already scared of him. They went back to the older girl's room, to climb out of the window, wearing their outdoor clothing. They were quite clever. They tied a sheet to a bed that they dragged to the window, and the older girl climbed down outside, then dropped the rest of the way. She called to a passer-by, and he caught the younger sister in his arms as she dropped.
"They told him what they had seen. He immediately took them to the Security office, for them to tell their story to a peace officer. Security sent several officers to the family home, and with difficulty arrested Joe. They found no signs of life in his wife, so the secured the site as a crime scene.
"This was only an hour or so ago, Governor, so we have been trying to sketch out the sequence of events. We have the family at the Security office, but we are not happy about the father being anywhere close to the girls. They are scared he might harm them next.
"What we would like, sir, is for you to come and see for yourself the situation, and decided what we should do now. We are not geared up for such traumatic events; only in general terms, and mostly it comes down to: consult the Governor!"
John Wells saw that he had no options: it was his job. He called Muriel, as the elder wife, and told her he had to go to the Security office on a matter of urgency. He would get back home when he got back, he said, and asked her to tell Gloria not to worry.
He hurried out the door and across several streets of the settlement to the Security office. It was a building he was familiar with, but only as a place for getting a briefing on local crime statistics. He had often joked about making them redundant, as there was so little crime being reported. "The biggest crime here, boys, is paying you to do damn all!" he had joked. Now they were fully earning their pay.
New Eden was the second extra-solar human colony, with the active assistance of Rehome, the first colony. In line with the first one, the planet was discovered and chosen for human settlement by The Personalia, the intelligent machine race of spaceships who provided the transportation between planets through their manipulation of dark energy.
This was not to say that the colony was a simple, straightforward settlement. No colonisation effort ever seemed to be that easy. The planet on which New Eden was trying to be planted had a series of continents, all of which were populated by mega beasts: creatures of monstrous dimensions and ferocious demeanour, combined with herds of grazers which featured thick bony heads and protective actions against predation.
The fortunate discovery that one location was free of these creatures was marred by its being fenced by a ring of massive mountains, in itself the reason for its suitability as a settlement site. This mountain range kept out the mega beasts, but also kept in the human settlers. As a result, the settlement would be restricted in population size unless they could first of all get through the mountains, and secondly find some means of coping with the beasts roaming outwith the protective rocky heights.
As the first ground transportation that could efficiently move people and freight long distances, a railway network was the obvious solution for getting to the mountains, but not for surmounting the peaks. That would require tunnelling, and tunnelling through rock was slow and expensive in time and manpower. It also didn't help that ground level inside the gigantic crater – for that was what the ring of mountains was in reality - the ground level was substantially higher inside the crater than outside it, through erosion without any outlet of note. The only egress that allowed water to escape was a small lake with a runoff over a steep cliff to the lower level.
This gave the rail plan the obstacle that going straight through on the level that suited trains would bring the line out the other side, dozens of meters above ground level. Some gentle gradient had to be established, either inside the tunnel or on the outside. The solution developed by the human planners was to impart a curve to the tunnel, slowly swinging it round so that the exit was almost parallel to the cliff face, and the tunnel at that point became a cutting inside the cliff face; a line gouged out and running along the cliff as the gradient gradually brought it down to the exterior ground level. At places where the cliff extended further out, the cutting resumed life as a tunnel. At other points the cliff had eroded and the gap would have to be bridged for the rail line to continue.
So much for planning. The idea was grand, but the execution was problematic. A curved tunnel is much longer than a straight one, and then continuing it as a cutting open on one side was technically difficult to achieve. Using normal techniques, it would take many years to cut through so much solid rock. That was the first technical problem to be solved.
The second was the protection of settlers and farmers from the marauding animals out in the rest of the continent. In theory, they could all be shot and destroyed. In practice, humans had by now accepted that destroying an ecosystem by removing the top predators and the main grazers would most likely have unforeseen and disadvantageous repercussions.
Besides that, The Personalia had an ethical view of all life. They did not like any plans involving wholesale slaughter of a species, just to provide more living space for humans to expand into. Thus they would be unlikely to transport weapons for humans to destroy these species. They expected humans to come up with a more ecologically sound solution.
Once again, theoretical solutions were easily advanced. The basic premise was extremely simple: get the mega beasts to stay way from the area that the humans wished to settle. So, how do you do that?
With more "normally-sized" animals, you put up a fence, and that keeps them out. Try that with larger animals, and it becomes impractical. Trying to keep elephants out of fields of crops in Africa showed how impossible that was. Elephants simply walked through most fences as it they weren't there. The mega beasts would be similar in that way. Any postulated fence would have to be on a gigantic scale to be effective.
Around this time, The Personalia had designed, constructed and delivered to a railhead on Rehome a huge machine for laying new rail lines: placing ballast, compacting it, and installing track on top, complete with sleepers to hold the rails in place. Someone on Rehome suggested using lengths of rail track as fence posts on New Eden, delivered by The Personalia.
This ridiculous suggestion was initially dismissed, but when the proposal was expanded to have The Personalia dropping them point first from orbit, impacting into the ground sufficiently hard to make them strong uprights for a fence, linked by powered cables as an effective electric fence sufficient to repel any beast drifting into it, minds were changed.
At this stage, physics reared its head. From orbit, a section of rail line would be heated to white hot at its leading point. This might be enough to soften the metal to the point that instead of piercing the ground, the rail might puddle and rebound from the surface. An alternative proposition was to float the rails by balloon to a lower lever in the atmosphere, there to release the rails at a precise angle. The difficulties of doing this from a balloon led to its conversion to delivery from a chosen height by Landership. The Landership could release each rail at the exact angle and direction to impact a chosen spot, each the precise distance apart and in a line that would continue along the boundary that the fence was aimed to mark out.
There was some concern that the ground would vary a great deal in density. A patch of ground could be marshy, another could be solid rock, and others in between. The Personalia made a judgment as to the solidity of each landing site, and altered the selected impact accordingly, by changing the height of release.
Even with all the advance planning, this operation would require thousands of rail sections, so, in order to reduce the cost, The Personalia bought entire stretches of redundant railway line on Earth from the companies that were lifting the old track, for not more than the price of scrap metal. The surface condition of the sections of rail was of no concern. As long as the length of line was intact and suitably strong – and most of it was – it would suit the task as fence posts.
Decisions about the line of the fence turned out to be a compromise. The settlers wanted as much land as possible enclosed by the fence, but the greater the area, the longer the fence required, and the longer it would take to clear the area of beasts and then make the links between the posts to prevent the fauna from returning.
The humans of the colony had introduced another important factor into the equation: This physical barrier between the fence posts. The Personalia had explained that such physical constraints were not needed, as they could install transmitters on each fence post to project sound vibrations at frequencies which would deter any of the worrisome beasts from returning.
Humans, however, distrusted any intangible barrier. They were afraid that if power to the transmitter was lost, the invisible barrier could disappear without anyone noticing. THAT would be a threat to any farmer and his family. Not one potential farmer was willing to place his trust in a set of hundreds of transmitters. In human experience, anything mechanical or electrical has the potential to go wrong, and cause a disaster. Strong cables of thick metal wire netting might possibly give way at some point, but an electrical current along the fence should instantly show a breakage and alert everyone. To the minds of the settlers, that would give them warning, and would also allow members of the security service to come along and dispose of whatever had broken the fence wire.
It was no use The Personalia offering to install double or even treble transmitters as redundancy. Human fear would not allow them to trust something they could not see and touch. It might be irrational, but the Governor admitted that he understood this human fear, and said so to The Personalia.
So the steel fence posts had to be linked with a strong physical barrier, as well as the deterrent transmitters. It was a belt and braces solution, but it was the only solution that was acceptable to the settlers who would be going out into the wilds of the newly enclosed forest and open land.
When the Governor, John Wells, asked for volunteers to fit the new cables and heavy netting, he found that the fear extended to even be at the fence before it was completed. He took the problem to The Personalia, and once more laid out the failings of human beings.
"Sorry to have to tell you this, but I can get no-one to go to the fence posts and install the cable and netting that is required. They asked for all this heavy netting, but no-one is willing to install it. Is there any way you folks might be able to deal with this task?"
The Personalia was always willing to come up with ideas. "John, we had already assumed we would have to install the transmitters on each post, so this additional requirement merely causes the completion date to be set further into the future. We would suggest that even before we begin working on the fence, that a start be made on the tunnel."
The Governor was slightly confused by this. "I had assumed we would have to import a tunnel boring machine, in parts, and that was going to take some time to achieve."
"Oh, we were of the opinion that nano-machines would be utilised for that task," said The Personalia voice.
"Nano-machines? But this is a huge project, involving digging out many thousands of tons of rock!"
"We appreciate that, John, but a Landership is also a large and complicated project, and that is constructed by much more specialised nanomachines. What we envisage is a fairly simply rock-eating nano, similar to the ones we use for extracting metals and gases from asteroids."
"Isn't that dangerous? They might eat every rock in sight, surely?"
"Our design is for nanos that orient themselves in relation to a central pointer which determines the direction of the tunnel. They get sprayed on to the upper surface of the rock face, and each nano will attach itself to the rock and start breaking the bonds holding the rock particles together. As long as a nano is within a specified radius from the central core, it will perform efficiently, but if it falls off the face of the rock, and lands of the floor, it switches off. The same applies where it exceeds the range from the pointer.
"One of our mechanoids will be programmed to suck up all the fallen nanos, re-activate them, and re-spray them onto the rock face. The idea is that the rock face will become a slope running from top to bottom, rather than a vertical surface, making it less likely the nanos will fall. The mechanoid will be able to differentiate between the rock debris and the nanos in the debris it sucks up. It may be as simple as making the nanos magnetic and the mechanoids using a magnet to separate them. Whichever method we use, it will be simple.
"The non-nano material will be sent back via a hose to the tunnel entrance, where it can be dealt with as necessary. We anticipate that the sludge that comes from the hose will need to be treated, and we can supply another mechanoid to deal with that task. It will separate out the metals it finds, as well as items such as diamonds (these will not be destroyed by the rock nanos, because of their programming).
"What remains of the sludge can be used for laying down as paths and roadways. We expect that some might be used for filling ground depressions where the railroad track will eventually be laid. Do our ideas meet with your approval, Governor?"
John Wells was open-mouthed at the ingenuity of the proposal. "The concept is quite unexpected. I knew about using nanos to construct machines, but I did not think of them being used for tunnelling. How fast can they work, compared to a tunnel-boring machine?"
"We cannot give you an accurate determination of such a comparison, John. We would note that a machine requires constant attention, maintenance, a supply of coolant, and intermittent replacement of cutting heads. As well, the debris will be in larger sizes, with less chance of recovery of useful items.
Our nanos can work all day and all night, supervised by one mechanoid, and you should have better recovery of useful material. The rate of tunnelling is unfortunate indeterminate, as much depends on the density of the rock, its hardness, and whether the rock includes patches of breccia, conglomerate, gases and water; plus simple fractures where there is a gap in the rock. We have made a very rough estimate of the total time required, and that estimate may vary between ten months and two years: it is technically difficult to judge."
John Wells tried to be practical in his response. "Right. If we assume a rail line to the mountains, to enter a tunnel that slowly swings round to exit parallel to the outer cliff face, we need to decided on the area of ground where the line will reach ground level. That all depends on WHAT area of ground we choose. One part of the exterior land may be more forested; another more like grassland, another more rocky.
"Forest is more useful as a source of timber for buildings and furniture, whereas grassland is more directly available for planting crops. Open land is also easier to be cleared of the local beasts. What do we have available that abuts mountains that might be suitable for tunnelling; a mountain not too wide at the base, and not too much like granite?"
"We are calculating all these parameters as we speak, John. If you observe the map we are showing on your phone, the areas of land we indicate includes the waterfall that exits your crater at the crater lake. That provides a secure water supply to the land below. You will note that other streams join it as it continues to run downhill away from the crater wall, and it slowly becomes a river that reaches the sea five hundred and seventy-four kilometres distant.
"Another factor in our choice is the secondary range, of smaller hills, that makes a second arc on average fifty-three kilometres away. A fence topping that range of hills starts with the advantages of height, and almost entirely a foundation of solid rock. That allows more accurate judging of fence post placement."
"The land encompassed by the fence would thus be a mixture of forest and grassland, with forest concentrated on the higher land, and the grassland mostly on the river plain. This land would be very large in area, but at two places the fence would have to come directly back to your crater mountains, otherwise you would need an entire wheel of land enclosed. These fencing lines would be like the rim of a half wheel: your land would be the area within this rim."
John was feeling overwhelmed. "A fence round such an area would be immense. How many rail sections would be needed for the fence posts, for example?"
"If we anticipate a post every 25 metres, the total fence length would require over 7,000 of these rail sections. In theory, only 7,040 would be needed, but some are going to be failures, perhaps diverted on the way down by air pockets, or hitting harder rock than expected and bouncing off, to mention two possibilities, so we will work to obtain 7,100 rail lengths. Wire fencing between the posts would require a minimum of 176 kilometres of heavy-duty wire netting."
"Wow! That's a hellova lot. Pretty expensive to buy, as well."
The Personalia commented, "Not if WE manufacture it, using ores mined in the asteroid belts. We may be able to manufacture such netting in the fashion of knitting machines: it is a very simple pattern. In addition, instead of a loose linking of wire, as is normal practice, we can make every joint in the metal a solid one, as if the wire was a solid piece of metal throughout. This would boost the strength of the resulting netting, and making it pretty impervious to mega beasts."
"I presume you would still be charging for the netting. We cannot expect to get it for nothing."
"That is so. We do incur costs, travelling to the asteroids, searching out and finding the ores, extracting them from the asteroid matrix, transporting them to the Base ship that will manufacture the wire netting, and finally the production. The final price will still be much lower than the cost of production on Earth. We can either charge the colony directly, or we can accept a percentage fee of all exports from the colony."
"I am inclined to go for the latter option, as we do not have the financial backing for purchasing the fencing outright," said John Wells.
"In that case, we can start preparing the nanos and the mechanoids, and you, Governor, can start planning your rail line to reach the tunnel at this point", and a flashing star appeared at the site The Personalia had now chosen for starting the tunnel. "We should mention, Governor, that the tunnel can either bend to the left or to the right. We recommend the turn to the right, as this will place the track on ground level not too far from the stream. We expect you will want easy access to water."
John nodded wearily. "You are correct, as usual, so let's proceed with that selection. All I have to do now is show to my cabinet that this is all logical planning by me, and that you have agreed to it – instead of it actually being the other way round!"
That had been a couple of months ago. Events had gone as expected: arguments about the Governor overstepping his authority; then him demanding a better solution from them. Unsurprisingly, there was none, so he told them, "Gentlemen – and lady – with there being no alternative option on the table, we shall proceed as outlined. Please feel free to advise me on any matter on which you think you have a better suggestion. I will be happy to look into it."
They were at least happy about his deal with The Personalia for the fencing. Putting off paying for anything was always met with enthusiasm, and they agreed a five per cent premium on all exports to be allocated to The Personalia. This was especially welcome, as exports at present were almost nil.
Setting up the concrete plant at an earlier stage had been fraught with difficulties, as output was higher than needed at the start of the colony, and had been slow to build up. Buildings were going up faster than they could be occupied by incoming settlers. It was as expected, as families preferred to arrive when more facilities were in place, rather than before they were built.
Switching the concrete plant from producing wall and floor panels to tackling a simple and long run of track sleepers (or ties, as the Americans called them) was a welcome alteration, for these could be utilised with a steel baseplate and clip as soon as the concrete had cured. The Personalia already had a continuing contract with Rehome for new rail track, so diverting some of these supplies to New Eden was simple. As The Personalia also owned the steel plant on Earth that cast the steel and manufactured the rails, they merely increased the order and gave the company more business, making it yet more profitable.
Everything appeared to be running smoothly, until this fatal crime. He hoped that the murder investigation would not hamper the construction of the rail line.
Arriving at the Security office, the Governor walked in the front door, to be greeted by the senior Security guard on duty, Sergeant Sam Welty, better known simply by his surname. He was a burly man of medium height, his middle-age spread complemented by his balding pate. He always had a smile for visitors, and that smile went right through his body. It was a genuine liking for people, and people responded accordingly. He made a good front man.
"Wotcher, Gov'nor. How's tricks?"