Today we're riding the Bottomliner, the pride of the S&L Railroad, from Washington headed for points south and west. "All aboard!" cries the stationmaster. "All aboard for everywhere!" So we scramble up the steps and find our seats. Almost imperceptibly, then with a surge, we're on our way.

The loudspeaker crackles to life: "Welcome aboard the Bottomliner, ladies and gentlemen, the finest piece of unregulated rolling stock in America today. Just sit back and relax, and we'll make sure your trip is a pleasant one. In the meantime, please have your tickets out and available for collection."That's just what we do, and pretty soon Old Brady the conductor comes through the car and snaps them up. Old Brady's got an optimistic word for everyone.

"How's it going, Brady?" we ask.

"Everything's under control," Brady says.

The loudspeaker crackles to life again: "Our snack-bar car is open and ready to serve you. We've got plenty of refreshments this morning and also a variety of cakes and cookies and condos, all at popular prices."

We're too comfortable to move. Then the door at the end of our car slides open, and it's Brady again. "Tickets," he says. "All tickets, please." He gets to our seat.

"Brady," we say, "you've already taken our ticket."

"That's OK," says Brady. "You've got to pay some more."

"How much more?" we say.

"Forty billion ought to do it."

Forty billion sounds a bit high, even for the Bottomliner, but Brady seems to know what he's talking about, so we pay up.

"Is everything OK, Brady?" we ask.

"Everything's under control," Brady says.

The train makes a stop, and dozens of men in pin-striped suits climb aboard. They're laughing and joking as if they don't have a care in the world.

"Brady," we say, "who are those guys?"

"They work for the S&L," Brady says. "They used to be real high-fliers - now they take the train." You'd think they'd be more subdued, considering, but they're not.

"I need to see your ticket," says Brady.

"We've already paid twice!" we say.

"You've got to pay again."

We look at the men in the pin-striped suits. "Why don't you make them pay?"

"They don't have any money," says Brady. "You've still got some. Seventy-two billion ought to do it."

"And this is it?" we ask. "Once and for all?"

"Absolutely," Brady says. "Why don't you throw in an extra twenty-three billion, just to be safe?"

The loudspeaker again: "Great bargains in our snack-bar car, ladies and gentlemen - doughnuts and office parks at rock-bottom prices. Everything must go!"

It's not our imagination: We are picking up speed - lots of speed. "It's an emergency," we tell Brady. "We need to speak to the engineer."

"The engineer bailed out a while ago," Brady says.

"Then how are we going to stop?" we say. (We seem to be heading down an incline.)

"We'll run into something eventually," says Brady. "Let's see now - that'll be three hundred billion."

"Three hundred billion?!" we cry. "What happened to `once and for all'?"

"Interest," says Brady.

We're going faster, and faster, and ...