Monday, September 28, 2009

60. Neodymium


Retirement Day

"D'ja ever play with neodymium magnets?" the maglev engineer asked. He was the first man ever to float a magnetic-levitation train from New York to LA, many decades ago, and this was his last run.

"No," the reporter said. The train made a faint humming sound as it shot frictionless along the transcontinental monorail at fabulous speeds. He was doing a human-interest story on the engineer's last time at the controls. "Should I?"

The engineer laughed. "Best wear goggles if you do! They're powerful stuff. Two magnets can fly together with so much force they shatter into little shards. I used to play with ‘em when I was a kid. I was big into science then. Wanted to be an astronaut."

"That so?"

"It's how I ended up with this job—at the time I figured it was the next best thing. Anyway, it's the neodymium magnets that levitate the train."

"I thought it was the electromagnetic generator did that."

"Naw, it provides the motive force. The train is kept off the tracks by fixed magnets. Arranged in C-clamp configurations to either side of the rail so we don't fly off. The levitation is essentially free."

They were coming out of the Great Plains now, running 800 mph, on the hundred-mile long two-degree upgrade. Straight as a laser, it lifted almost imperceptibly upward.

"Hey!" the engineer said abruptly. "Y'wanna see how fast this baby will go?"

"This isn't fast enough?"

"Hell, no! Nobody's ever taken this baby full-out. Nobody knows its theoretical limits." He pushed the throttle to its maximum.

The reporter gasped as acceleration pushed him back into the couch. "Are you sure this is safe?"

"Ain't seen nothing yet!" The old man crowed. He yanked a switch, decoupling the locomotive from the rest of the train. They surged forward again. The reporter squeezed shut his eyes, tried to speak, could not. "Comin' ta the end of the upgrade. Gonna release the C-clamps in just four … three … two … now!"

The magnetic clamps opened at the very top of the grade. Gently the tracks leveled off again. But the locomotive kept on going, straight forward, off the rails and into the atmosphere.

"Yeee-haw!" the engineer shouted. "We have achieved escape velocity."

"You're mad!" the reporter cried. "We're both going to die! Why are you doing this?"

"Told you I always wanted to be an astronaut. Today was my last chance."

And, singing "Fly Me to the Moon," he steered the locomotive into orbit.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

No comments:

Post a Comment