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(Announcer:) Turn down the lights! You’ve tuned in to Ricochet Silent Radio, our long running theater of the mind. Last night, we began this week’s adventure, Utah Wheels and Rails, a work of fan fiction featuring actual Ricochet members in the Beehive State. And now, the second half, the conclusion.
(Voice of Jason Rudert:) A week went by. I sent the rocket booster metal X-rays to Houston, addressed to nobody special at “The NASA Archives”. I received a form letter of thanks, which was nice.
The $15,000 check that paid off old Bert’s lien cleared the bank. We even got more contract work for the anonymous new owner, sending us back out there to repair a small hydraulic lift. It all happened fast, fast, fast. Somebody was in a hurry.
Cat III Studios delivered on time, on budget. Okay, the schedule was ridiculously short, five days, and the budget absurdly large, but that was the client’s wish and the client’s problem. Cat’s crew painted and prepared a half dozen Disneyland-style automated pod cars with Plexiglas bubble tops. Six seats and an automatic sliding door, the kind you’d see at an airport, a zoo, or a world’s fair. They were each lowered onto a thick chassis the same size but built for amusement park thrill rides, with bigger wheels, electric motors and coil springs.
A final touch was unplugging the control wires from a simple circuit board. That’s where the mysterious client’s “special sauce” came in. Six black boxes, each about the size of a quart of milk, had been shipped overnight to Cat III Studios. Following terse instructions, they were placed in the ride cars and connected to the wiring harnesses. The finished cars were to be trucked to a test site.
Who was that client? No one knew, but Cat had good reason to suspect it was a famous industrialist who was moving his operations out of California. On the back wall of Cat’s workshop, he irreverently painted a rather ribald caricature of this allegedly unknown benefactor, which Cat dubbed “Elongated Muskrat”. Being a Cat creation, I don’t have to tell you which part of the muskrat was the most elongated.
Two days later we rode to what had once been old Bert’s body shop, now called “the test site”, a desolate lot crisscrossed with rusting rails, still only half-cleared of industrial debris. Various contract crews were working but nobody seemed to be in overall charge. A handful of the automated cars were already running unattended around the various spurs and sorting branches of the old tracks, finding their own paths and avoiding collisions.
I saw and heard a railyard switching locomotive in the distance. The three flatbed railroad cars loaded with rocket booster casings were being shifted to another part of the property. Someone was going to the trouble and expense of dragging their rusted wheels out of the way. Which was their right, no doubt, as the owner of the cleared property. I shrugged. We’d gotten our money. The shiny metal was of no further use.
The crumbling concrete loading dock had been spruced up and repainted, with fake but authentic-looking signage that marked it as a passenger railroad station. A small crew made shots of a corporate video while a quartet of local actors, bussed in from SLC for the day, shuffled in and out of the tiny, family-sized personal railway cars.
We left to get lunch. I was at the wheel of the truck, Cat III in the passenger seat. As we pulled out of the lot, I noticed an unusual confluence of workmen, a wire lineman, a postman, two guys with a plumbing truck. All of them had earpieces. Odd. Now I was alert.
Cat didn’t notice. “Did I listen to those preschoolers when they cried and said they didn’t care what I thought about their art skills?”
I wasn’t really listening. The bystanders each had different uniforms but they weren’t the real official thing; they were generic costume uniforms. Now they seemed to be paying attention, moving towards us with synchronized caution as we slowed to exit the lot.
“Did I bow down to the bereaved even after I found out it was a stranger’s funeral and not my uncle’s? Hah?”
“Cat, do me a favor. See those men? Don’t look at them, they’re looking at us. Open the glove compartment, would you, and hand me the revolver. Just in case”.
He looked white as a ghost, but he did it promptly. “Good”, I said as I grasped the gun.
“It’s…it’s a Colt Python!”, he said, with only a trace of fear. “Nice”.
I was nervous too. “Yes. Now hold one of those maps right up in front of your eyes. I may have to fire through the windshield”. Prudently, I lowered my side window. A moment after I did, I felt gun metal touching my head, right above my left ear. “Don’t be silly, Jason. Put it down”, the voice commanded. I complied.
“Good”. The man with a gun to my head didn’t seem terribly excited. “Just put the damn thing back in the glove compartment. I’m not a cop. You’re not under arrest”. He stepped around and lowered his gun. The “workmen” who were obviously part of his team watched warily. “So what is all this?”, I asked. He flashed an ID.
“I’m private investigator Richard Lincoln, and we are determining whether or not you have conspired to violate regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission”.
“What??” This was surreal.
“You are a subject of interest in a Federal investigation of stock fraud”.
“Just don’t leave the state. In fact, we’d appreciate it if you stayed in town”.
I drove back to work, still dazed by this weird encounter with–? Law enforcement? Sort of. Could I call in a lawyer? It didn’t seem like it, but I’d find out. I used one of the landlines at the office to call the gang, our self-styled Rick O’ Shay radio net, and ask for their help. We agreed to switch our usual frequency for virtual meetups. Cat and C.U, Douglas, being more or less in town, would meet me at the test site first thing in the morning. Thinking and Codename were eager to help, but were too far away; they’d be in the reserves.
Seven-thirty am. Bright and cold as I guided the truck to Cat’s place. Clearly, Cat did not relish greeting the day at this hour, but he did it, bringing a toolbox and a thermos of coffee.
C.U. arrived at the site at the same time and saw what we did. The parking lot was vacant. Everything and everyone was gone. I drove the truck out to the last resting place of the flatcars, the ones with the rocket booster segments. Gone, not just dragged out of the way, but off the property, vanished.
That wasn’t all. Overnight, the shiny, self-driving little bubble cars disappeared as well, moved elsewhere. The tiny office was empty, the rental equipment picked up, all other property removed. It had already fallen prey to copper wire theft, which happens when property is suddenly abandoned. Thieves follow the power company’s disconnect truck when they turn the juice off. This is a very common time to steal all the valuable copper wire and sell it for scrap.
But something was overlooked, left behind next to where the paint booth used to stand. One of the bubble cars must have still been raised on the hydraulic lift when the end came, and with electrical power gone it was just left there. I took a booster battery and an AC inverter out of my truck, and C.U. helped me lower the lift to the ground. Now it was Cat’s expertise, his turn to take charge. He used a set of Torx screwdrivers to open the sliding door lock. Then he removed a metal panel with indicator lights. The secretive black box, the one special, custom part added to Cat’s stock ride car, was still there. It was connected to a wiring harness at several places. “I’m convinced that this is important. Why, I don’t know”, I explained vaguely, “There’s some reason why this is being done. God knows what it is.”
Cat said, “Here’s where motor control is plugged in”. C.U. found some markings, tiny and almost invisible in the black finish. “Logan Manufacturing. All Rights Reserved. No User Serviceable Parts Inside”. On a paper label someone penciled “PTC 750 HSP46”.
I noticed something strange. The backlight of an LED panel suddenly lit up. It also read “PTC 750 HSP46”. As I puzzled over this, I heard a distant rumble and the horn of a diesel locomotive. A mile away, Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner, a commuter train, was swiftly passing by. The LEDs now read, MOTOR RUN. Then a red warning light: DOOR OPEN. The open door was preventing the car from starting whatever it was going to do. The long train vanished over the horizon and the light panel went dark.
It was Thinking, 45 miles away, who gave me my first answers, because the BYU library research catalog was open and he was especially friendly with one of the gals who runs it. PTC means Positive Train Control, computer control. 750 is the master routing code of the UTA FrontRunner. HSP46 was PTC’s way of ID-ing the diesel locomotive. The little bubble car was somehow “listening” and responding to the train’s commands. That was the job of the black box. Thinking also found out that Logan Manufacturing was once owned by John DeLorean, but in recent years had been sold to a mystery buyer.
It was late dusk when I drove there again. It gets cold at night along the Wasatch Range, and I dressed warmly. I had my Motorola HT, more than a walkie talkie, a real mobile handset for pro-level stuff. My phone was charged. Just in case, I had Roscoe with me; no sense leaving it in the truck. Darkness was part of my plan; I didn’t want to try the black box’s guidance in daylight.
(Network Announcer): You are listening to Ricochet Silent Radio’s presentation of Tales from the Pit. Tonight’s adventure is the second half of Utah Wheels and Rails. We pause for station identification.
(Local Announcer) This is KRCH-AM, 980 on your dial, your source for MGM Lion News in Los Angeles.
(Network Announcer:) We now return to Ricochet Silent Radio, with Chapter 4, the conclusion of Utah Wheels and Rails.
(Jason Rudert:) In darkness, I opened the ride car’s door, climbed in and slid it shut, and waited. At 6:19, I saw the train’s massive headlight beam cut through the foothills. It was coming this way. Abruptly, the 30-character LED panel lit up. “PACE”, it said.
The wheels began rolling, faster and faster. I was being carried into dense parallel freight tracks, lit only by the tiny headlights on this ride car. The tough, high-speed roller coaster underpinnings made sense now, as I began to catch up with the commuter train, especially big when you’re running next to it in a much smaller vehicle. Cat and C.U. were on that train. I switched on my earpiece and called them. “Gentlemen, good evening. I’m out your right window. Do you see me?”
“Um, not yet. Wait. Yes, we do see you. Barely”. The train and the ride car were now both moving along at a good clip. The phone signal was excellent as we rode southwards. “You okay out there?”, C.U. asked. “Actually, yes” I said, “We’re holding the track pretty well so far. I feel like the dog that catches up with the car.”
We were far from the lights of Salt Lake City now. The black sky was crystal clear with a breathtaking star field overhead through the plexiglass canopy, as if we were in space.
But as we got south of Murray, we were picking up speed uncomfortably fast. Somehow the guidance box had kept me from crossing paths with freight trains, but I didn’t want to trust it much longer. Now the LED strip lit up with a new command: “FORM TRAIN”. Eerily, I was no longer alone, racing south next to the commuter express. Behind me, the missing ride cars had materialized on side tracks when I wasn’t looking, adjusting their speed precisely to fall into line behind me, barely four feet apart from each other as we kept accelerating. “Do you see this?”, I asked over Bluetooth. “Yeah! Look at that”. It was Cat’s voice. “Suddenly, you’re a centipede. Or a roller coaster”. Just as he said that, the track undulated and the car rattled from side to side. “SPEED EXCEEDED”, it said on the LED panel. If the system had limits, it wasn’t responding to them.
The car ran roughly over a rail switching junction and this time it hurt, as it smacked my head against the unpadded bulkhead. “Jason, do you need us to…we can stop the train if you…Jason, do you hear me?” They were cutting in and out as we passed out of cell range. I was tossed around so much I was losing consciousness. With my last bit of focus, I remembered, “Intermountain Intertie”. There had to be a reason. I reached for the Motorola and squeezed the push-to-talk button. I reached an LDS emergency ham radio link. My head was swimming. “This is an emergency. I need an autopatch”. A confused rush of concerned voices in my ear. The train was reaching its design limits of 79 miles an hour. “Autopatch at once, please”.
I dimly sensed the end of the tracks rushing towards me. I was slammed again and blacked out. My last thought was I wasn’t going to make it to Provo alive.
I started to wake up. I was in a doctor’s office or a hospital. I was achy but intact. When I opened my eyes, I saw one of the people I least wanted to see, private investigator Richard Lincoln. “Hello, Jason”, he said. “How do you feel?”
I rubbed my eyes. “Okay, I guess. A little banged up. It depends. Am I under arrest?”
“No, you’ve been cleared completely. The guy who was trying to set you up turned out to be the guy we were after”.
He tapped at his phone and brought up a local TV news clip. ABC 4’s Hailey Hendricks reported, “The regents of the University of Utah have fired an administrator implicated in a stock shorting scheme. Professor John Collier, head of the mining, metallurgical and materials department, was arrested this afternoon”—it was Collier on camera, all right; police handcuffed him and led him out of the building to a patrol car—“Part of a plan targeting Northrup Grumman Corporation, parent company of local employer Thiokol. Also arraigned were several executives of prominent Salt Lake City hedge funds—”
He closed the playback. “The whole thing was basically a plan to get ahold of the booster segments you photographed.”
“But they were from, what, 1976 or ’77. How could that have any connection to now?”
“When Northrup bought Thiokol, they inherited its liabilities, even the ones nobody knew about. Forensic scientists say your X-rays can be construed as evidence that for a period of years Thiokol may have defrauded the government, and there’s no statute of limitation on that. It might open the successor company to prosecution with today’s vastly higher penalties, relevant or not. Collier went straight to the hedge funds, who expected to make a fortune short selling a stock they had advance notice would be in trouble.”
“Collier was the mastermind?”, I asked. Richard Lincoln shook his head vigorously. “Him? No, he was just a pawn, the fool who brought them the information. They would have cut him out of his share first chance they got”.
“And what about the little robot commuter cars? Was that all a fake?”
“No, that part is real. The bubble cars are really meant to replace mass transit, even commuter railroads. It’s like personal computers versus mainframes. Bondholders of government rail schemes are very worried about them. The real mastermind of the stock shorting plan was already developing them up in Logan. He shifted some of the testing here to provide a flashy distraction from grabbing those freight cars full of metal.”
“And he is…?”
Richard Lincoln held out his hands and shrugged with a crooked grin. “Your pal Cat has a pretty good idea who he is. A little irony here is all the engineers like Cat’s amusement park ride car setup. He doesn’t know it yet, but it looks like your friend could end up making a very nice business out of this.”
“It’s good to have friends”, I said.
“Your friends helped save your neck. Strictly unofficially, you’ve all got strong civil cases against the manipulators. Hire lawyers and squeeze ‘em. Anyway, that’s what I’d do”.
The next morning, the hospital released me. No broken bones. My bruises would heal.
It felt like celebration time. We had a night meetup at Thelonious’ small, classy looking jazz bar, downtown south of Temple Square. As you might guess, Salt Lake City clubs, unlike their counterparts almost anywhere else, can’t build their business models entirely relying on the sale of booze. It’s legal, but much of it is routine hospitality to outsiders. We’re not a hard drinking town.
No live music tonight, just the place’s usual genius mix, of tapes and rare vinyl, crafted by the most mysterious and hermit-like member of our group, which is really saying something. An iconic portrait of his Black namesake, jazz great Thelonious Monk, hung over the entrance. But our friend Thelonious is white. That’s not a problem in a place of genuine nonconformity.
As we sat, the first song of the night came up on the speakers, a special request of ours, the jazz standard “Muskrat Ramble”. Played by Kid Ory in 1926, then the version with the McGuire Sisters in 1956.
I was reminiscing about some of the real characters I once knew. This one was a sales manager. “He was magic with the customers and knew the business inside-out. He was charming–once rented a white horse, talked himself into a parade, and when he passed by the woman he was working on, swept her off her feet right off the sidewalk”.
Thinking, recognizing the type of man I was describing, nodded and allowed himself a wry, grim smile. “A real romantic, eh? Women just love that”.
“Evidently they do, because he went on to impregnate, in a single month, a co-worker, his next-door neighbor’s wife, and the wife of the guy who lived kitty-corner to him”.
Cat raised an indolent eyebrow. “We are enjoined to love our neighbors”.
I continued, “Years before all this, he was married to a woman whose grandmother had some money. The two of them swindled her out of it and went to court, where he very ably laid the whole thing on her. She went to prison, he got off scot free”.
“No jail time for the guilty? I hate when that happens”, said Codename. Yes, he was finally there in person. He’d taken the long drive from Gunnison to Provo and left his car at the FrontRunner station. He and Thinking rode up on the train from there. It was great to see him, but it also meant the evening had to come to an end early enough to accommodate Code’s hours-long trip home. Fortunately, as one of the more dedicated LDS guys in the group, it’s not like he was doing any drinking.
The party broke up early, as it tends to in SLC. Even the eccentrics like us obey the iron law of the passage of daylight. Construction, engineering, maintenance: we need to be on the road at the crack of dawn. Family man C.U. Douglas shook hands with us one more time, got in his SUV and headed home.
Cat III’s new ride was dramatically posed under a streetlight. It was a Jawa, the vintage Czech motorcycle, tough looking and pretty at the same time. Cat threw one leg over the chrome tank, strapped on his helmet, and began kick starting the bike. Seventeen kicks later, it started with a growl. There was a nod, an enigmatic smile, and a shrug of goodbye. Cat twisted the throttle. With a roar and a cloud of smoke, and before the lights changed on East Broadway, he was gone.
I drove Codename and Thinking west along 200 S to the train station. It was a quick ride, maybe ten minutes tops. A final round of hurried handshakes and they were off, fast walking towards the southbound commuter train that was just pulling in.
Now it was finally time for me to head home, too, through the quiet of a vast, dark city that was already headed for an early bedtime, and winding its metaphorical alarm clock. I snapped on the truck’s CB set and the mobile ham VHF receiver. Not many locals on the air this time of night; their voices, some familiar to me, murmured in the background.
North, past the golden trumpet that calls to all nations: proclaim the scriptures to every corner of the world. This funny place, my home town, is in its own stubborn and unique ways one of the most countercultural of communities. My friends are a mix of true originals I’d have been lucky to meet anywhere, in any era. While my truck merged onto I-15 towards Bountiful, I listened to two-way radio, and merged once again back into that invisible community, a fellowship of the never-really alone.
(Music crescendo and conclusion)
(Announcer:) You’ve just heard the second half, the conclusion of Utah Wheels and Rails, this week’s presentation of Ricochet Silent Radio. If you’d like to read it from the beginning, click here. Tonight’s cast featured or mentioned members included @jasonrudert, @cat iii, @cudouglas, @theroyalfamily, @ltpwfdcm and @Thelonious. The official Voice of Silent Radio is announcer @raykujawa.
RSR stories are satirical fan fiction, not an official activity of Ricochet. Dialog, attitudes, personal and family details are fictional.
Remember, three chimes mean good times when you leave your dial set to Ricochet Silent Radio. (Sound of chimes)
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