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Story Notes: The Old Railroad

Author’s Note
This post concerns plot points and characters for The Old Railroad, a sci-fi story that I tackled in 2014 for NaNoWriMo. The story is unfinished, but all five chapters are available in a separate post.

A set of forgotten railroad tracks stretches into the distance. Evidence of neglect is everywhere: the tracks are covered in dirt and debris; leaves have fallen; foliage has grown unchecked. Pieces of the track are missing. In places, the ground beneath the tracks has begun to erode. If you were to follow these tracks, where would they take you? How long has it been since anyone used them?

The notion for The Old Railroad (working title) came from walking along train tracks in downtown Tukwila and observing tracks in Kirkland on my way to work. I thought about how they were once bustling with activity and relevance; looking at them now, what purpose do they serve? Many have been pulled up so as to make room for roads. The pavers only removed the bare minimum; the severed tracks linger on either side of the road. They’re not gone, at least not completely. If they could speak, what stories could they tell?

Plenty of train tracks do still run—downtown Kent Station for example—but they’re not how most people get around. They’re mostly for cargo or express travel into the cities. If someone rides one, it’s kind of a novelty—at least on the West Coast. Trains seem more popular on the East Coast, like an alternate subway or bus system. Even so, the heyday of the train in America feels long gone.

That’s where this story lives, in the sad shadows of a once-thriving metropolitan transport system. That sense of bittersweet loss is what led me to contemplate a story revolving around transportation. Truthfully, it doesn’t strike me as an exciting story premise. I’m not terribly interested in writing fictional history for a fictional railroad. Stories are about characters.

I began thinking about a rough-and-tumble, down on his luck cargo/freighter pilot with a bucket-of-bolts spaceship. Technology in this “world” is not glamorous—it’s utilitarian, or pretty much function-orientated, similar to the “used” and “dirty” feel of technology in Star Wars. A worn-down and broken sensibility permeates much of my vision for the story. That’s not a theme strictly speaking, but it does relate to the old railroad idea: something once shiny and great that has fallen into disrepair.

That’s what’s on “one hand.” On the other hand, sleek and impressive technology has supplanted the old. It exists in a great metropolitan city or hub world. The new, the sleek, the efficient. If “broken and damaged” represents most of the universe and characters in the story, then the sleek and new represents the ruthlessly efficient government law enforcement agency.

I’m pushing toward a “police state,” a mechanical and largely-automated infrastructure for keeping peace. This isn’t a scenario in which robots are malicious and ought to be feared; rather, they’re practical and cost-efficient. They’re also not inclined to take bribes! It’s the letter of the Law—the Old Testament—carried to its logical conclusion without any consideration for the all-important “why” question. It’s truth without grace.

Again, here are the two atmospheres: the old tech and the new tech; the common folk trying to live their lives, and the inhuman, emotionless law-enforcers who remind them of how much they fall short. I want to clarify—in this story, man is not enslaved to technology. Technology will not rise up to overtake humanity. I want to use technology to highlight and contrast the flaws in our protagonists. The police state won’t be abolished by the end of the story. As Christians, we still have the Law—but we have grace now, too. We have forgiveness and we’ve been restored! These dirty, broken characters will be renewed and made whole.

Back to the railroad tracks. Once a thriving pathway of interstellar commerce, the tracks have been decommissioned and allowed to fall into disrepair. Entire stretches are missing or destroyed. A few are still in use—like the railroads of today—but they exist as more of a novelty than a practical means of human transport.

You can’t hope to get very far on the tracks for two reasons:

  1. The original relay system that boosted ships from checkpoint to checkpoint was taken offline decades ago. Consequently, switching from one track to the next is a manual process and extremely dangerous.
  2. No track has been spared the ravages of space piracy. Entire stretches of track are missing, and others have drifted beyond the margin of charting error. Skipping or “leap-frogging” along the railroad is a guaranteed way to get lost in space. It’s handy if you’re trying to shake a tail, but not so great if you ever want to visit an inhabited system.

Plot points

Once, the universe was a vast, uncharted place. Then the denizens of Earth took to the stars. Light-speed travel, off-world civilization, first contact with alien life–a new age began, and slowly the lawless wilds of space were tamed. Trade expanded until every corner of the universe became known. As a species, humankind began to look inward, experimenting on itself. Sub-species, hybrids, mutations, augmentations–the definition of humanity began to change.

In an effort to preserve humankind’s prominence and purity among the other races, so-called “pure” humans banded together. The Police State was established, and with it came order, regulation, and automation.

The State enacted zero tolerance policies on unauthorized travel, trade, and technology. Augmentations were restricted to medical applications. Artificial intelligence was deliberately stunted. All genetic experiments ceased. Any resulting lifeforms were cataloged and deported.

Miles Hopper is up to his elbows in debt. He hasn’t paid his crew in over a month. His cargo ship needs repairs. His license has expired. Worse, an old enemy from the police academy has Miles in his sights on suspicion of harboring a terrorist.

After a drunken night of gambling, Miles consorts with a prostitute named Paloma, a half-leopard, half-human woman hybrid. He passes out after lamenting about the death of his wife; Paloma steals his wallet containing his credentials because credentials are more valuable than money. With credentials, she can leave the planet. Unfortunately for her, Miles’ credentials are flagged due to his unpaid fines. Miles is skating on thin ice for having vandalized an interrogation droid, among other infractions.

Federal State Transportation & Revenue (FST&R) “Ef-star” or “fas-ter”
A planet-sized government body responsible for transportation and law enforcement.

The Final Frontier
An automated mining platform near the edge of the universe. Remote and isolated, it exists outside the reach of the Police State.

Slipstream technology
To use the slipstream, one needs a slipstream drive; folks who use it are called “slippers”


  • Richter boards a vehicle after a traffic accident
  • Miles carousing and getting drunk at a bar
  • Leopard sisters being stunned by an FST&R droid; taxes due
  • The passenger approaches Miles in the street during his hangover; she helps him away from the FST&R droid
  • Miles getting his license renewed; has double-parked fine
  • Noralee parking Hopscotch II
  • The client doesn’t have much money; Miles doesn’t want the gig initially because it’s not worth the time/distance ratio
  • The client follows Miles to a bar where he proceeds to get wasted
  • The client helps Miles when he’s in a jam, so Miles reconsiders transporting a passenger
  • Mile’s co-pilot suggests using the railroad tracks to reach the Final Frontier faster; they will need to modify the ship if they’re going to “hop”; the parts aren’t expensive, but they’ve been discontinued and finding them is difficult
  • The client has time-sensitive cargo that holds no value to most people but is nonetheless highly illegal (Miles has a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, which is why the client sought him out)


First Officer Damond Richter
A prime specimen of the human race. Trim, athletic, and muscled. Knows his law-book forward and backward. Quotes it for fun. Dark brown skin, close-cropped curly hair that he dyes gold. Although he operates on the side of justice, he does so without mercy.

Miles Hopper Dell, Driver
Driver of Hopscotch II, a planet-bound cargo vehicle. He’s stocky, overweight, drinks like a fish, and gambles whenever possible. Bronze skin, baggy eyes, jet-black hair with tapered sideburns. Stubbled face. He considers himself a failure at life. He squanders his health and wealth in an effort to forget the past.

Noralee Mink, Steward
The insect engineer or “steward” of Hopscotch II. A steel-blue color with black splotches. She is female, but both sexes of her species are capable of asexual reproduction. Reproducing in this manner is not preferable; doing so will preserve the offspring, but the host parent will die.

Laetitia, Brandy, Paloma
Leopard sisters who work the inebriated patrons of the Honky Tonk dive bar.

Manny Zardonia
Reptilian barkeep at the Honky Tonk dive bar. Not especially well-liked. Spews spittle every time he talks. He would be wise to keep his mouth shut.

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