by Gordon Johnson

Copyright© 2014 by Gordon Johnson

Science Fiction Story: A railway story set on the planet Rehome. The Personalia - intelligent spaceship race - solve a problem for the human colonists.

Tags: Science Fiction  

Bob Kempe got more than he expected when he hired George Prentice as Railway Development Officer. Bob was the Governor of the first human colony, sited on the planet Rehome, and George's appointment was in part a ploy to persuade his doctor wife Fiona to take on the top medical post in the colony. George had previously been a teacher, but with a keen interest in railways. He was what was known on Earth as a "railway buff", and had gained his enthusiasm from having a father who worked on a railway for most of his life.

Railways on the planet Rehome were somewhat different from Earth. To start with, the alien race who had initially colonised the planet had built their own railway lines between the six cities they had established on the coast of one continent. The rail lines were a narrower gauge than was usual on Earth, and the trains were unusual as well. The locomotives were battery powered, using batteries that were much more efficient than those of Earth, and the seating was lower than human standard seating. The settlers made and installed booster cushions to bring the seat level up to human standard, thus making the seating functional again.

The first human settlement was several hundred kilometres from the closest alien city, so when the aliens – Braalians and Lubarians, who were also allied to a machine race, dubbed Machinations by the humans - ceded the planet to the humans, the humans had to decide what to do with this windfall. The alien races had decided to evacuate the planet for their own understandable reasons – fear of the marauding machine race known as the Invaders. With the Personalia providing a space defence force for the humans, the humans were able to colonise with impunity.

The Governor decided that a rail link towards the city, to link in to the existing network, would be worthwhile. It was obvious that the planetary rail network should therefore use the established alien gauge for the lines. The first new line was built at speed across the flat plain, with eventually four teams of constructors: one at each end, and the other two starting at the middle and working towards the ends.

With the first line established, the colony found itself with four railway construction teams at a loose end, so new lines were begun as offshoots from existing tracks, leading out to sites selected for new settlements. Another line was started from the original settlement – named Homewards – towards another chosen site for a settlement. These new settlements, or villages, would primarily be agricultural hubs, because the humans found that the closest city was potentially habitable after conversion. The coastal cities were provided with electric power from the ocean, through heat pumps providing electricity for massive battery units on land. The cities had originally been designed for control by computer brains, but these machines had been removed when the aliens left. In the interim, two further planets had been found devastated by attack by the Invaders – an insane machine race intent on killing biological life. Two cities that had been destroyed were discovered to have still-functioning city minds buried deep underground. These lonely city minds, with nothing to do, appealed for help once discovered, and both were transported by the Personalia and installed in cities on Rehome. one was placed in Metropolis, the first human city, and the other in the sixth city, where the surviving remnants of the inhabitants of one planet were now refugees - courtesy of the humans and their machine spaceship allies, the Personalia.

The human colony was prospering; so much so that the administration had moved to Metropolis. There, the city was establishing important facilities: schools, a trades college, hospital with maternity unit, sports centre, community centre, and an ongoing programme of refurbishment of flats and houses for human occupancy. This was keeping a team of plumbers and joiners busy all year round. Entrepreneurs had established a range of shops, and another had set up a network of electric buses and taxis for public transport, with connections to the rail station.

George Prentice wanted to do new things immediately, but his enthusiasm had to be restrained from causing sudden alterations that might have adverse effects on the general economy. There were many costs involved, which might not be sustainable by the colony's finances. Each proposal required careful scrutiny.

Doubling single tracks throughout their length would make the network more efficient, certainly, but occasional loop tracks already did this to some extent, so full twinning was not an economic priority. Using the loops with careful timetabling allowed for a pretty effective operation in most cases. This was especially the case with freight, as freight trains could be parked in the loop to allow a passenger train to speed through to its destination. Trains designated as Expresses got priority over non-express passenger trains, which could be diverted onto a loop for a few minutes.

The priority was for new lines, the colony decided as a policy. George examined all the possible routes, the gradients involved, the type of surface to be crossed, and the obstacles such as rivers and swampy ground to be bridged, rock ridges and minor hills that might be cut through. These engineering projects would have to be dealt with before the tracks arrived. There was also the matter of materials for building the track: gravel quarries were needed, wood or concrete for sleepers, continuous supplies of steel track when required. The track was produced on Earth by a steel firm now wholly owned by the Personalia, through their human subsidiary, Machinations Ltd.

This steel company specialised in rail track production. The original track laid down by the humans on Rehome was second-hand, but in good condition. George had now instituted a forensic test of sample rail sections to establish their suitability for particular requirements. Heavy freight trains required a tough and hardwearing surface; high-speed required an exactly flat surface, and so on. The rail cross-section also differed according to use. Where a line was to accommodate a combination of traffic, the steel composition and rail design had to be specific. George wanted to replace sections of track that did not fit his new specifications with new track produced to that standard. The Governor and his Treasury chief approved the testing plan, but postponed the replacement programme for now. The rail lines required sleepers, and that work was something that local residents could do. The railway company set up a subsidiary to produce concrete sleepers: these would be needed in the thousands. This also provided a demand for a cement works, so the small unit already in operation to provide cement for building foundations was expanded.

Faced with concentrating on new rail lines, George went over the plans for new settlements, compared these with projections of population increase in Metropolis, and then related that information to the rail traffic projections for the Homewards – Metropolis line. Many arrivals were now taking place on the shore at Metropolis, skewing the traffic figures. He analysed the data, and drew his conclusions from it.

It did not make him happy.

The biggest difficulty that he could see was that there was a need for several new rail lines, but the construction capacity was nothing like enough to build these lines in the timescale envisaged.

What he really needed was a machine, mounted on a new rail line, which would pour vast quantities of stones and gravel ahead of it, sufficient to lay track on. It would compact the track bed then lay sections of track, complete with sleepers, on top of that bed. Then, it would weld the new steel rail section to the previous one. All of this would need to be done with directional steering to take the rail line in the direction intended.

He had no idea how he could achieve this.

He needed a design team well versed in railway technology, combined with an engineering outfit that could manufacture such a one-off project at a reasonable cost. George had no idea where to go with this. He moaned about it to Fiona and Jennifer, his two wives, that evening, until they both told him to shut up. Jennifer was Director of Education for the colony.

Jennifer went on, "Don't spend all your time complaining about things, George. You need to DO something about it instead. Speak to the Governor, as he holds the purse strings. If it is do-able, then he will find a way for you. Just go and ask him; but have your entire data ready, plus the full specification of your machine. The Governor is a practical man, with his head screwed on properly, so he knows about costs, deadlines, etc. Just do it, George."

Fiona added, "Advise the Governor that to do your job properly, a machine like this is essential. I have had to use that argument for expensive hospital equipment."

In the morning, George phoned to get an appointment with the Governor. He had to speak to an underling. The admin staff member wanted to know the subject to be covered, so he said to her: "A solution to the rail building problem."

She put him on hold for a minute or so, then returned to say: "Get here for 4.15 this afternoon. You have a 15 minute slot."

At that specified time, he was in the outer office, complete with all the necessary data loaded on his phone. He was ready to roll. A moment later, he was invited in. "George Prentice, our Rail Expert." Bob ushered him in, "Welcome to the Governor's lair, George".

"I only have 15 minutes, Governor, so can I flash a load of data to your office machine?" Bob nodded, pointing to the machine, and George immediately connected his phone to this computer and downloaded his full report. He next turned to Bob. "You can read it all later. For now, let me give you an overview, sir." George began pacing across the office as he spoke. "We have a technical problem in that the new lines requiring to be built, and the building capacity, do not synch. The existing capacity is nothing like what is needed to expand the network quickly. It would take years to build them with our current arrangements, which were fine for one line at a time.

For what is needed, based on the facts as we have them in the report, we require a faster way of building rail lines, and that comes down to a machine." He paused for a breath, then continued: "The machine does not exist. It will be huge, heavy, and costly, but will save us loads on money over time. It needs to be designed and built by experts, and will be expensive, as a one-off, and take time to manufacture. It will also be far too large to fit into a Landership: it will probably be as large as a Landership, in fact. That is the gist of the problem, and I don't have a solution. Perhaps you can suggest something." Bob had been flipping through screens on his office terminal, skimming through George's report as George, in the background, recounted his troubles. Now he lifted his head to reply. "George, I think you have summarised it very well. Normal techniques are too slow to get the work done timeously. I get that. This machine you propose: is there anything like it available to buy off the shelf?"

"Not really. There are a few machines similar to this in use on Earth, but they are all committed for years ahead, need to be specially manned by trained personnel, and each machine is built to order. Building it on Earth just means it is almost impossible to ship it, due to its dimensions and mass. You can't ship it in parts, as far as I am aware. Putting it together by the manufacturer is a major operation in itself."

"I see. Interesting concept, though. I can see why you want one, and we certainly could make use of one. I wonder..." Bob turned thoughtful, looking at the ceiling. George waited for a moment, then took the bull by the horns. "May I remind you sir, that I only have 15 minutes?"

"Oh, yes." Bob decided on his course of action. "George, just leave it with me for a day or two. I have an idea I want to explore with certain ... colleagues, then I'll get back to you. O.K.?"

George had no idea what the Governor was talking about, but acquiesced. "Certainly, Governor. Thanks for your time. Fiona sends her regards, she asked me to say. I hadn't realised you knew her. It was Ruth who helped us last year."

"Thanks George. I met her when my wives were having their babies: She is a lovely lady. You and Jennifer are lucky to have her, as is the colony." There was a knock at the door, and a voice declared: "Time for your next appointment, sir." George was quick to react, and exited the office with alacrity.

When his last appointment was dealt with, Bob sat back and reviewed George's data. Speaking to himself, he wondered: "Should be do-able in orbit, but how do you get it to the ground? I can but ask." He picked up his phone and keyed for the Personalia. This put him through to whichever Base ship was in orbit at the time.

"Hello, Governor. What can we do for you?"

"I'm not sure you can, in this case. Let me describe it to you, and you will see the difficulty." He went on to describe the need for a tracklaying machine. The Base ship listened carefully, making non-committal comments at first. Then Bob said, "The biggest problem is getting it down to the ground and into position. It will be a HUGE machine!"

The ship pondered for several seconds, then announced, "We could manufacture it in orbit, here. We have all the materials available in the asteroid belt, so as you say, it is all a matter of transferring it to the planet's surface. Cables ... balloons ... there are possibilities. It is an extreme mass to shift with accuracy and care."

"Can I leave you to think about it, as a team, and get back with your proposals? It might be that you can't do it at all. If that is the case, I am fine with it. I shall send you the report I have, which details what is required."

Bob next called in John Wilson, who knew everything about finance. "John, how much do you reckon it costs to buy a machine that lays a track bed, compacts the gravel, then lays the track on top, and welds the two sections together? One assumes also that it can be self-steering according to a laid down track plan. Presumably, the machine is computer-controlled. What do you think?"

John thought for a moment. "Is this a one –off, or a production model?"

"Probably a one-off."

"Oh, then that bumps the price up considerably. I would guess at several million dollars."

Bob said, "Oh, dear. That's what I was afraid of, John. George Prentice wants one for railway track laying. I thought we might go for two, to speed up laying new lines faster."

John grimaced. "That's a lot of dosh for the railways. There are so many other competing projects that could do with financing, and we have our limits. Is there any way we could recoup some of the cost?"

"Not off hand, as I don't think Earth wants to buy more of these machines. Mind you, there are the other races we have encountered – the Lubarians, Braalians, Soolans, and the Filoyarine – though the Filoyarine are perhaps not back at the stage of railways yet. We know that the Braalians have railways, as we are using the lines on this planet that they abandoned when their allies the Lubarians took fright. They might be interested in a few such machines, provided we can deliver them. Or, we can sell them the design specs instead."

John was thinking. "Perhaps you were rash in saying that Earth wouldn't want to buy these machines, because if they were a better, more improved design, able to do more work more efficiently, the manufacturers might be interested in buying a permit for using the design, especially if you can get it registered as a patent. A patent has to have something unique about it, though, not just working more effectively."

"I am asking The Personalia whether they can do the design and manufacturing as a one-off. If their design incorporates software that does things that previous machines could not do, it may have enough of the requisite uniqueness to satisfy the patents people."

"Certainly, if you – or rather the Personalia - can get a patent for the design, it would be a good earner indeed. Can an alien race take out a patent on Earth?"

"They already do, John. Or rather, their company does so. The Lownies set up a company for them, called Machinations, Limited, that deals in patents for inventions that come from The Personalia. The company applies and gets the patents, then markets the patents to the appropriate companies. The resulting income comes to Machinations Ltd; the company has to cover its costs, but pays much of the remainder into a special trust fund, and The Personalia can spend from the Trust Fund as necessary. In truth, The Personalia don't need cash as such, but they have used it to improve their P.R. on Earth - paying people to salt some favourable articles in the media. They also use it to pay Earth for many of the missiles they were given for use in combating the Invader ships."

John whistled softly. "They must have a hellova lot of cash in that fund, then. How come?"

"They sold a patent for combating influenza, a medicine that actually works. The drug companies jumped at the chance of an off-the-shelf remedy, instead of pumping billions into research that takes many years to pay off. They were very generous in buying the patents. The deal gives a small percentage to Machinations for every package sold, and the sales are in the many millions, billions eventually."

"No surprise then, that the Lownies know how to sell a patent. I presume the Lownies personally did well out of the deal?"

"They did that. You weren't here when they started on Rehome, John. They first formed and headed up the Machinations company on Earth, did the market research and the sales effort. Sye Lownie is C.E.O., Gail is Head of Sales, and Brenda is in charge of Administration. Being a family group, they work well together as a team, and have sold a fair number of patents to different sectors of the Earth economy.

When they considered the retail possibilities of our colony, they first brought to the planet a warehouse-load of furniture that they purchased cheaply from a liquidation on Earth. They quickly flogged the lot to settlers and the colony administration. Next, they set up a retail shop in Homewards. It has now expanded into a supermarket-style operation in Metropolis, and they have made another packet in that business. These girls may make a splash about being the first two to give birth on Rehome, but they have the wherewithal to employ nannies for their children so they can continue with their business activities. They may look just like pretty girls, but they are tough cookies, let me warn you; in case you have to negotiate with them."

"Is that all, sir?"

"It is for now, John. I wondered about selling a machine to New Eden, but they are restricted to that giant crater so far. They don't have access to the rest of the continent – too dangerous – so they cannot establish a long-distance rail network." Bob looked pensive. "Though, if they could get outside that crater, they would definitely be in the market for one at least – if they can lay hands on the cash for it. I wonder..."

John shrugged his shoulders. "As you say, sir. It is a matter for them to solve. I should get back to my work, sir."

Bob jerked his attention back to his colleague. "Oh, certainly, John. Please do. See you later."

What had suddenly struck Bob Kempe was the similarity between the fishery problem on Rehome, with dangerous giant sea creatures, and the dangerous land animals on New Eden. If certain sound vibrations could make the sea creatures steer clear of the fishing areas, then why not a similar solution for New Eden? This was a technical question that The Personalia delighted in. He got his phone back out and keyed The Personalia icon on his phone pad. It was soon answered.

"Hello, Governor. What can we do for you? It is a trifle early for a definite answer to your rail query."

"No, it was something else that might interest you. On the planet New Eden, our settlers are restricted to the land inside the giant crater, due to the dangerous mega beasts on the continent outside. I have had a thought that you might wish to investigate.

Here on Rehome, we were faced with giant sea creatures making the sea too dangerous to go out fishing. It turned out that our alien friends who first settled the planet had solved the problem by utilising certain frequencies of sound vibrations in the water. These vibrations scared the beasts away, and made it possible to fish the shallow waters. Now, I wondered if it might be possible to chase these land animals away from human habitations by using a similar technique. You are in a good position to test this out. All you have to do is put sound generators on the surface and establish which frequencies, if any, will deter the grazing species; and also deter the predator species. Does that sound like an interesting problem to solve?"

"Hmmm ... Sound vibrations? Any particular frequency in the water?"

"I don't know it. The unit was already installed on the heat pump array in the ocean. The Braalians had set up the equipment, and when we asked about it, they told us where to switch on the scarer mechanism. So, we just had to switch it on, without knowing the technicalities."

"Ah. We can ask the Machinations for that data. It would be interesting to test whether the same or similar frequencies worked with land animals. If not, we just run a series of tests to discover which frequencies will give the same reactions from them. Yes, leave it with us. We'll get back to you, sometime."

Bob wanted to change the subject back to the rail machine. "Any word on how things are going with the design of the rail track laying machine?"

"It progresses, Governor. We are putting together a design to achieve all the targets you have set for it. The complications are in the integration of them all; combined with an intelligent controller to set the whole thing in motion; and to direct it in the planned geographical course. These things take time."

"Of course. I would not expect you to rush things. Will the construction take a long time when the design is complete? And how would you get it to the planet's surface?"

"Details, details, Governor. Please allow us to work out the solutions. It is what we enjoy doing. The whole project is a single task, as far as we are concerned. The designing was put out as a distributed task, with each Base ship working on a particular function; with a final Person working on the integration of all the solutions, and writing the software for the controller. It is a fun activity for us, Mr Kempe. Please allow us to deal with it that way."

"Oh, I apologise. I did not intend to interfere. I am merely anxious to see the result, just as a father is when his wife is about to give birth, as my Diane is. It is a form of excitement, watching a fulfilment."

Bob came off his phone call, feeling frustrated. He did not know any more than when he first asked about it. He found himself comparing it to a small boy, waiting while his father – secreted in his workshop - built a garage for the boy's toy cars; knowing his father would produce a masterpiece, but still anxiously waiting for it to appear. Diane's first child was a masterpiece, in his view. Bob doted on his first son; not that he ignored his daughters. He loved them too.

He talked about the rail project over the dinner table. Diane was intrigued to hear how much George Prentice was involved with his job. She had been briefed by Ruth on the manoeuvring to get George to approve of Fiona's exalted appointment as head of the hospital, and Diane had been delighted with the shenanigans involved. Now George was proving himself to be exactly the kind of person that his new job required. He was dedicated to doing his best for the railway and the community; wanting the best that could be obtained for the planet's rail services.

Bob explained his attempts to get The Personalia to design and build the machine envisaged by George. "I expected they would be keen to look into it, but they appear to be utterly fascinated by the task. They are treating it almost like a hobby, and want to do it perfectly. They refused to tell me how they would get the completed machine from orbit to the tracks on the ground. It is another "hobby" task they have set themselves, and they won't accept that it cannot be done. They are positive that they will do it satisfactorily. I don't know what they are up to. It is frustrating."

Mary was amused. "It is not often that our husband is left feeling out of the loop, is it girls?" Ruth laughed in agreement. "True, Mary. He feels powerless in the situation, even though he has complete confidence in The Personalia." Diane smiled too. "Relax, darling. Be like everyone else in this colony, who has to live with the decisions you make. Lie back and accept it."

"I could say the same about you and your security team. They accept your orders, without question. My people at least advise me and question my decisions. Tom Pfeiffer put me off my referendum idea."

Diane raised her eyebrows. "Oh, yes. You went haring off, determined to call a referendum on political parties, to support our previous ban, then we heard nothing more. Was there a reason for that? I thought you had just changed your mind."

"Yeah. Tom pointed out that holding a referendum would set a precedent, and that someone might ask for a vote on the appointments as Head of Security and Head of Social Services. He suggested letting sleeping dogs lie, and I agreed with him."

Diane's mouth dropped open, as did Ruth's. Diane voiced, "Really? You thought our posts might be threatened, did you? You dear man!"

Ruth pointed out: "Technically, you have the power of appointment in this colony. There is no plebiscite for senior posts. Wait a moment: Actually, I am technically wrong. A plebiscite is officially only for policy matters, not appointments. The same applies to referendums, so technically it could not happen – unless it was a policy for senior posts to be only open to appointment by a panel, and not by the decision of the Governor. So, you probably made a wise decision there, Governor, in my humble opinion."

Bob started off glaring at her, then relaxed and finally grinned. "O.K., Ruth. Glad to hear I made a right decision."

Diane finished the conversation. "Right, Bob. Let's leave it at that. We have other duties to attend to, if my hearing is right." There was a baby's cry drifting through the house, then a second one sparked off by the first. There was an exodus by Ruth and Mary towards the bedrooms to establish which children were needing attention. The family had established a routine that a baby slept in a cot in its mother's bedroom for the first year of life, so it was important to follow the cry to the right rooms.

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