HE INVENTOR excitedly told Sam about his greatest discovery to date, a way to make things ultra-light.
“All the calculations were done the old-fashioned way,” he said, holding up his slide rule. “No fritzy electronics.” He’d made a couple small items, but with an interest in and knowledge of trains wanted to make a basic rail demo unit consisting of a light engine and car for it to pull, to demonstrate larger capabilities. Just needed an investor, he said.
After he let Sam ride a bicycle weighing just four ounces and think it over— the many possibilities, from autos to aircraft— Sam signed on as a partner.
Eighteen months later the inventor invited Sam to see the finished train. In front of the inventor’s work shed a tiny locomotive was attached to a short passenger car.
“Pretty small,” Sam said skeptically.
“Yes the engine is. But don’t rush to judgement.”
The little unpainted loco looked hastily-made, like an afterthought, and was scarcely larger than a golf cart. The cramped cab had barely room for two captains chairs, in front of which was something the size of a washtub that Sam assumed contained some kind of motor. “Surely that little thing can’t pull that car,” Sam said.
“It can and it does. Trust me— and my slide rule.”
“We’ll see soon enough.”
“Now for the pièce de résistance,” said the inventor. He took Sam back to the car. “I call it the Parlor Car.”
“Wow,” said Sam, “you outdid yourself on this one. Never expected anything like this.” While the car was the height and width of a normal passenger car, it was less than half the length. Yet it glowed in an immaculate gloss black, with ornate gold-painted decoration. Through the row of windows he could see red velvet curtains.
“Come on around back. The entrance is through the rear.”
They climbed a couple steps and went inside. “I call this the Grand Salon,” said the inventor.
The room ran almost the entire length of the short car. It was high Victorian all the way, with deep woodwork, burnished brass fixtures, and rich, padded carpets. Two matched long sofas, lavishly carved and upholstered and capable of comfortably seating three people each, faced each other from each of the side walls. This still left plenty of space for four overstuffed armchairs, equally luxurious, one in each corner of the room. “Seating for ten.”
Sam saw another door at the far end. “A powder room,” said the inventor. On each side of this door were what looked like late-Nineteenth Century oil paintings in matching heavy-gilt frames— on the left, a scene from Yosemite National Park; on the right, Yellowstone. Sam looked closely at the painted surfaces, complete with cracks and brown varnish. “Sure look real,” he said.
On each side of the entrance door were cabinets, well stocked, with a narrow counter under each. “The left side is liquor, the right side hors d’oeuvres— both self-serve.”
“Cool,” said Sam, “overall a fantastic car.”
“Thank you. There were however a few compromises that had to be made. Due to weight limitations the amount of water we carry is restricted. The sink in the powder room is slow-flow and the toilet has a limited number of flushes— after that the lid is discreetly secured with a small padlock, the hasp concealed under the front lip of the seat. A sign is then placed saying, “OUT OF ORDER— IN CASE OF EMERGENCY CONTACT THE ENGINEER.”
“Ha! We should maybe shut down the drink station then too,” Sam laughed. “But why the weight limitation on water when the car itself weighs thousands of pounds?”
“Come on back outside.” The inventor crouched behind the car on the left side of the door, facing the car, and instructed Sam to do the same on the right side of the door. “Now when I tell you to, grab the car and lift.”
“You gotta be crazy. I’m no superman.”
“Trust me. At least try.”
At signal they both lifted and raised the rear of the car several inches, then let it back down on the track. “Wow,” said Sam for the second time, “how is that possible?”
“That is the secret chemical compound I developed, very strong but lighter than foam. Everything is 95% that compound— the steel, the wood, even the paint.”
“Amazing. No telling what can be done with this.”
“How about a little test run?”
“Sure. You drive, I’ll ride shotgun.”
“Get in while I start it.” The inventor lifted the washtub-sized cowling, revealing a modest gas engine. After squeezing a red button he yanked a pull-cord a few times and it started.
“Is that motor made with the secret compound too?” asked Sam after the inventor joined him in the cab.
“No off the shelf.”
The inventor had a hundred yards of level test track and they stayed on that. “According to my slide rule, out on the main line we should be able to do fifty to sixty tops. I’m ready to do a long trip. Want to come along?”
The inventor explained that because of their light weight they could take old abandoned roadbeds no longer capable of heavier traffic. It would be scenic and they wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. He had in mind an easy two-day route up Virginia to Fredrick, Maryland, mostly on old tracks, a blue-highway trip by train. They’d pull the car but without passengers.
A few days later, after further planning and packing, they were off. They had about fifty miles to go on the main line, during which they had to watch for freights, then threw a switch and were suddenly on tracks that hadn’t been used in decades. The rails themselves were noticeably lighter than today’s rails, many bearing dates such as 1913.
They passed through countless small Virginia towns, a few with train stations and freight depots still standing albeit often abandoned, finally stopping to spend the night in Culpeper, parking the train and walking to a motel. The inventor was beginning to show signs of nervousness. “Anything wrong?” Sam asked when they were in their room.
“I should have told you this before we left, but there might be something wrong with the secret compound. Hope not though.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Last night the bicycle kicked.”
“Yeah. Softened. Had a chain reaction, went down to nothing but an oily slick. Probably in just minutes. Discovered it this morning. That wasn’t supposed to happen for at least a hundred years. The bike was just a little over a year old. I was inexperienced, maybe just made a mistake making the compound. Still to be on the safe side,” he held up his slide rule, “I’m going to recheck all my figures.”
“Well we sure don’t want that to happen to the car. You made it before the engine, right?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry though.”
But three hours later the news was bad. “I made a mistake with the slide rule. I added two digits.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the life of the compound is at least a year rather than at least a century.”
“So we could lose the car.”
“Technically yes. But what are the chances of it happening before the end of the trip? Very unlikely.”
“You realize the invention is ruined. Our money is gone.”
“Not necessarily. When we get back I’ll get right to work on fixing the problem.”
Next morning they walked back to the train. The car looked okay. “Some rough track ahead,” the inventor warned.
Within an hour they were plowing through high weeds, the tops of rails barely visible. “These are some old U-rails. They were used in the South up to and into the war. Gotta take it slow. But this is an Interstate compared with what’s next.”
They threw a rust-caked switch and the hundred-and-fifty-year-old tracks gave way to still older ones, little more than rusty strips of iron. “Wow stone ties,” said Sam. “Never seen those before.”
“Bar rails. These were probably laid around 1830 or 1840, when some of the earliest railroads were built. How’s the car doing?”
Sam glanced back. “Appears to be fine.”
They’d slowed to around ten but the stone ties had held up better than some later ones of wood so they picked up to twenty or so. Soon though dirt completely covered the rails so they couldn’t even see the track ahead, just plowing through as they went. The inventor wasn’t sure they were even on a track at all anymore, but just kept on going right through an open field.
They were headed straight for the base of a steep cliff. “Hang a left up here,” said Sam, holding a map.
“I can’t hang anything. This is a train. I don’t have steering.” He slowed to a stop a few yards in front of the wall of rock. “Let’s stretch a bit and figure out what to do,” said the inventor. They both got out.
“Something’s wrong with the car,” Sam said. Its sides were bulging out slightly, as though a giant invisible foot was pressing gently but firmly down on its roof. They could see the bulging increasing slowly but steadily, and the car was making popping sounds. The inventor hurriedly uncoupled the engine.
The settling was speeding up, and the entire car was fast bubbling into a kind of brown mud. Within minutes it was just a pool of slime, which sank into the weeds. It was as though the car never existed.
“Let me see your slide rule,” said Sam. The inventor handed over the rule. Sam broke it and gave it back. “Get a calculator.”