The Heart of the Rail

Issue #101

“What a waste. A beauty like that.” The old foreman had a face like gravel, and his mouth worked angrily on something like a dog worrying a piece of gristle.

“It is a beauty,” Henry Durant agreed. In the twelve years he had been with the company, he had lost track of the number of locomotives he had seen—three, maybe four, hundred all together. Hulking smokers who could haul a hundred cars up the steepest passes; streamlined passenger engines, shining bullets that in the blink of an eye could transport a thousand people from one city to another; proud and baroque transports who pulled the sacristies of the mobile temples; and the elegant electrics, filled with the mystery of the black batteries and the tight Tesla coils. Each had been distinct, uniquely numbered and painstakingly cataloged in the company’s records; each had a specific track it was assigned, a specific job to which it had been designed.

This one was a passenger engine, an ancient coal-burner recently converted to the clean coils, and its engineers had kept its rococo exterior intact. Henry knew how the conversions were done—coal bins replaced with batteries and coils, smoke stacks with exhaust vents, and furnaces with piston assemblies—and he was impressed by the seamlessness of this engine’s reconstruction. Its name was the Victorian Starlight, and it had been doing the coastal run—daily, to Vancouver and back—for more than seventy years. Since before the war.

The engine looked half its physical age, and it wasn’t just the careful attention to the conversion to electric power. The chrome of the shell was smooth and bright in the afternoon light, her wheels rode the trail true, and the sweeping plume of her back was unmarked by soot and rust. She had been painted recently too—in the last year was Henry’s guess, maybe less due to the constant wind and rain that plagued the west coast—and her lamps were all bright and their glass unblemished.

The foreman hawked and spat, and Henry’s examination of the grand engine was interrupted. He glanced down at the fresh stain on his shoe.

“You’re a union man,” Henry said. “You know how this works. You know what happens to engines who are no longer able to perform.” He had said the words so many times, they had lost any meaning. He no longer tried to inject sympathy into them. 

The foreman nodded. “They send fucking ghouls like you.”

Henry nodded absently. It was always the same–this grieving ritual they had to go through. He was the monster sent by the company; they were the compassionate engineers who resolutely believed the trains could be saved. She just needs a few parts. Surely the company can spare a new engine? Isn’t there a wheel assembly that could be shipped out? Couldn’t the batteries be replaced? There was always something more that could be done, some desperate measure that hadn’t been tried yet. Just a few more parts; let me work on her for a few more days.

Henry had seen it, time and again, this desire to hold on, to keep something running. It was hard to let go.

The yard was quiet. The clatter of wheels on steel, the shivering thunder of cars coupling, the birdsong of the track signals: all the regular noises of the yard were suspended, as if all attention was focused on Henry and the foreman. Some of the railway workers had seen a specialist before. Henry had read it on their knotted faces as the foreman had led him across the yard. Some of them knew.

Henry held out his hand. “Give me the key,” he said.

The foreman spat again, and Henry felt hot wetness spatter across his open palm. “Her key is in the cab,” the foreman said. “We don’t switch her off.”

Henry felt the knot in his shoulder tighten, and as calmly as he could—how many times now, this devotion to the machine, this desperate belief there was something more in the coils—he stepped close to the old foreman and wiped his hand clean on the other man’s uniform. “Well, then,” he said, letting the ache in his shoulder shape his words, “I guess it’s time to put this old bitch down.”

The lines on the old man’s face went white with tension, and Henry bunched his fist in the foreman’s uniform. “I don’t need your blessing,” he hissed. “I am here at the company’s direction. I am their tool. Like you. Like every man here. Like every engine, and this one has outlived its usefulness.”

The foreman’s jaw stopped working and an ugly smile pulled at his mouth. “Is that right?”

Henry’s hand spasmed, his knuckles standing out against his skin as the knot in his shoulder sent pulsating waves of nervous tension down his arm. With some difficulty, he let go, and he wiped his palm one last time on the foreman’s uniform.

He walked across the cold yard, the gravel crunching like small bones beneath his shoes. It was getting late in the day, the sun weak in the west, and it was going to be even colder out on the rail. Henry knew he should wait until morning before taking the locomotive out and completing the task he had been sent to do, but the mood in the yard was ugly enough that he didn’t dare wait. Once, in his first year as a specialist, he had let the engineers sway him with their passionate pleas; he had let them talk him into allowing them one final vigil for their engine. When he had arrived at the yard the next morning, he discovered that the engineers had spent the entire night welding the cab shut. He hadn’t been able to retrieve the key. The company had fined him the cost of cutting the train open—most of his salary for the remainder of the year.

He put his hand on one of her massive driver wheels and felt the warmth of the steel. He hated the way it made him shiver. Just switch it off, he thought. Do it here, in the yard. Don’t take it out on the rail. It wasn’t safe to be out on the rail, alone.

But he wasn’t that sort of company man. He wouldn’t put down a train in front of the men who cared for it. They deserved that much, at least—a show of respect for their years of service.

Steam vented from the stack at the front of the engine, and through the warm metal of the wheel, Henry felt the train moan.

The first engine Henry had retired had been a coal-burning Beregen Ulphander, a Brussels-built freight engine. Cattle, mainly, along the north-south route. The track was old, some of the rail dating back to when the route was first carved through the mountains a century and a half ago. Some of the grades were cogged and still treacherous, and for some time the company had been forced to run shorter trains along this route. Single engines only, no double-enders, with a maximum of thirty cars behind.

The trouble with single-engine trains, as Olyphant had warned him, was that they developed strong personalities. Arrogant and bullish, many would refuse to work in tandem, especially with the newer electrics.

Henry was four years into his apprenticeship with legendary specialist Pastor Olyphant when they had arrived at the yard in Denver, and his mentor had laughed at the sight of the engine they had been sent to retire. “He’s all yours, kid,” Olyphant had said.

The hauler was a black beast, filthy with soot and grime. Only one of its headlamps worked; the other was twisted back on itself, the glass gone from the frame. Its pilot was a malformed wedge, a gnarled knot of twisted metal. There was something caught between several of the plates like a piece of meat stuck between two teeth. It didn’t ride the track so much as crouch on the steel lines. Waiting for Henry to walk in front of it, waiting for him to make the mistake of thinking it was a dumb machine.

“Why is he mine?” Henry had asked. “I’m not ready.”

“You are now,” Olyphant had said, clapping a hand on Henry’s shoulder. “I just retired. That son of a bitch will shake me so hard my guts will come out my ears.”

Two hours later, after being rattled around the cab like a loose tooth for the last hundred miles, Henry had climbed down into the bar frame and—his heart in his throat the entire time—punctured the brake hoses on the left side. He fed the black beast all the remaining coal, stoked its firebox red-hot, and when they reached the peak of the next pass, he left the sanctuary of the cab and stood on the running board.

“Is that all you have?” he yelled at the train engine. He kicked its hot firebox, and its whistle screamed at him, steam shrieking from the full boiler. “That’s right!” he shouted back. “Shake me. Come on, you ugly bastard. Shake me.” 

The train, spitting a thick spume of greasy smoke, hurled itself down the far side of the mountain. Its wheels sparked and shrieked against the steel rails, and on the first curve, when Henry felt the first fluttering pulse of the engine’s brakes, he jumped off the train.

The beast realized what Henry had done, and on the next curve, it tried to compensate for its dead side. But its momentum was too great, and the engine left the track. The black beast tried to fly, but gravity pulled it out of the sky.

Long after it had hit the rocks, Henry stood on the rail, listening to the lingering echo of its coal-stoked howl.

The Victorian Starlight ran on the rails like water. Henry let her find her own pace on the track—this route was hers, after all, and she knew it better than he ever could. She had the frame of a coal-burner—a Falais-Yylmann 212 C-Class, model 43.08a, in fact—and she had been upgraded to electric. The 212s had come into service shortly before switch to full-coil, and the company—in a moment of surprising empathy—had upgraded most of the 212s instead of retiring them outright like they had the 208s.

Since she didn’t need his direction, Henry familiarized himself with the arrangement of controls and equipment in the cab. The paneling was polished walnut and the instruments were as shiny as the exterior chrome. Loved in and out, he thought, running his fingers across the warm wood of the inner wall. The train barely vibrated out of true so tight was her grip on the rails. Hard to believe she’s as old as she is.

Henry had expected to see more distress and wear on the Starlight. Many an engineer tried to hide the signs, but Henry knew all the usual tricks, and he was surprised to find the cab in not only pristine condition but handsomely refurbished. The metalwork at the back, where the coal tender had been replaced by the battery cages, was not only seamless but elegant. Whoever the welder had been, he had the steadiest hand Henry had ever seen. And this cabling, Henry thought as he lifted the access panel and looked beneath the floor of the cab, there’s no buildup. No rust. It’s like she’s been doing milk runs, and not a regular route.

He let her go for two hours, charging up the track toward Vancouver, as he crawled over every accessible inch of the engine. Looking for some sign of decay, some sign of decrepitude. Some reason why he had been sent to retire her. Finally, as the rail cut away from the coast and started to climb, he had to admit defeat. There was no flaw to be found.

She was, as the foreman had said, a rare beauty.

If the flaw wasn’t in the train, then where was it?

He peered out through the front window, but as the moon had not yet risen over the mountains in the east, visibility was limited to a half-mile of rail in a cone of light ahead of the train. He got down the chart book and, comparing the number on the trip odometer to the tiny hash marks on the map, found their position on the route.

Ahead, the map showed a winding line of a river, the Silkenskin, and two promontories of land like an index finger and thumb nearly that nearly touched. The rail bridged the gap between the two points on a high deck truss bridge. The map called it “Desolation Gap.” 

The flaw is in the track. The engine began to slow, a note of caution creeping into the song of her wheels.

His hand shaking slightly, Henry closed the chart book and put it back on the shelf. The skin of his right shoulder was prickling. Olyphant had said it would happen: eventually the trains would talk to him.

 “They’re just machines,” Henry had argued. “We make them. Out of steel and wood and wire. They may be willful, but they’re not alive.”

Olyphant nodded sagely, staring out the window of the hospital room as if he hadn’t heard. “Do you know why the company selects us? Do you think it is random?” His eyes moved restlessly. “Do you think this job is a reward?” His lips moved into a sad smile, and he glanced over at Henry.

Henry clumsily moved the cast immobilizing his right shoulder. “The company rewards proficiencies. We all advance according to our skills.” The argument sounded as hollow as he felt, but there wasn’t anything else. Nothing but the possibility that his mentor was speaking true.

Olyphant leaned over and helped Henry settle the heavy cast more comfortably. “I heard him,” he said softly, his crooked hands resting on the bed beside the cast. “We walked into the yard, and I could hear him laughing. He said he was going to kill me.”

Henry felt the flush of blood beneath the healing skin on his right shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me? If he was so dangerous, why did you let me retire him by myself?”

“Would you have believed me if I had told you?”

Henry rubbed the cast, remembering the rocks and the numbing pain of the impact against his shoulder and arm. Remembering that unholy howl that had rang in his head for hours after the train had left the tracks. Remembering the churning sensations in the pit of his stomach: elation, horror, disgust—he had just killed something.... “No,” he said. “I wouldn’t have. I don’t.”

Olyphant removed his hands from the bed. “I’m sorry, Henry,” he said, dropping his hands into his lap. “I thought you were ready. You’ve been in my shadow too long. I thought—“

“We are tools,” Henry cut him off. “And we are applied where we are needed, where we can be effective. That is why the company chooses us, and—.”

Olyphant’s face became a mask. “Henry, I—“

“—that’s why you sent me out on that train. Because you were afraid, and I was a tool you could use.”

Olyphant’s face crumbled, like rock sliding down a hillside. “That’s not true,” he whispered.

“Give me another reason then,” Henry asked, his resolve faltering. “Give me something.”

Olyphant leaned forward, his hands clasped between his legs to hide their tremors. “I’m just.... You’re right,” he said softly. “Forgive me, Henry. I made a mistake. They’re just machines. I’m an old fool.”

Henry turned away, burying his face in the pillows. He lay still until Olyphant was gone before he let the tears out.

When the grief had wrung him dry, he took what was left—the cold hard nugget of his outrage, much like a piece of coal—and buried it deep, down where he could still hear the echo of the black train’s scream, as it lay on the canyon floor with its back broken.

Like he was. A tool—easily used, easily discarded.

The wind bit through his wool coat and made the old scars on his shoulder burn. Henry flexed his fingers to keep them warm as he crawled along the track. The trusses were discolored and pitted from years of exposure to the wind and the rain; there was no protection from either out here on the open bridge.

It was old—pre-War tech, before refined steel and old-growth timber had become scarce. The ties were the color of muddy blood, darker than any Henry had seen but for some of the oldest lines between Boston and New York, and thicker than required by regulation by more than three thumbwidths. The value of all the ties on the bridge was probably more than his annual salary.

Henry crept forward slowly, running first one hand then the other along the steel, feeling for a crack, a spur, some evidence of damage in the rail.

The report that had brought him west said the train had slipped a wheel, somewhere along this bridge, and the resultant shock had nearly derailed the passenger cars. There wasn’t more than a foot of extra tie on either side of the rail. A derailment here would have pulled everything down in the gorge. While the company could absorb the loss of a freight hauler and its cargo, the loss of human life, regrettable as always, was costly.

The steel pinched his finger, and he bent closer to the track. Running his hand back and forth across the rail, he felt the break, and he repositioned himself so that her lights could better illuminate the steel. It was a thin fracture, not much wider than a woman’s hair, and if he ran his hand quickly across the track—at a speed more in keeping with that of a train engine—he didn’t even notice it. He had seen ones wider than it on other rails and they hadn’t caused the engines any grief. It was well within acceptable standards.

He glanced up at the train. “Are you that fussy?” he asked, the wind stealing his words.

The train’s lights flickered, and the bank on the left went dark, obscuring the side of the track where he crouched. The other lights remained strong, and they flickered again. Almost as if they were trying to draw his attention.

Henry slid across the railroad ties and looked at the other rail. Another break, just as fine and just as straight. A suspicion growing in his gut, Henry lined up the butt of his flashlight on the inside of the right rail, and then returned to the left rail. He crouched and looked across the rails. The thin break in the foreground lined up with the end of his flashlight.

 Henry retrieved his light and carefully played its light off the edge of the track. The massive shape of the support pier disappeared into the gloom beyond the weak beam. He couldn’t see far enough to make out any details, certainly not well enough to trace a hairline fracture in the stone pier. He sighed and went back to the engine for some rope.

It was only after he had tied it off to the track and started to climb down that he realized how stupid and exposed he was.

He climbed down a long way, chasing the crack in the column. When he reached the end of his rope, he was startled to hear the noise of the river, its current beating against the base of the pier. The crack continued on though, disappearing into the darkness, farther than his rope and his light would allow him to go.

Henry had found himself staring at the Director’s hairline while she read his report. The pale morning light from the bay windows in the office bleached her face, and he thought he could almost see a darker bump of scar tissue at top of her forehead, at the hairline of the wig she wore. The rumor was that the scar ran all the way down her back. In any other light, he would have dismissed the knot as a shadow. As a trick played by the eye and the mind.

Like the sort inspired by trauma, false memories.

The Director closed the report folio. “Mr. Olyphant is... no longer with the company,” she said. “Which leaves you without a mentor.”

Henry cleared his throat but didn’t say anything.

The Director watched him for a moment. “How is your arm?” she asked.

“Fine,” he said. The doctors had cut the cast off four days ago and the shoulder was still stiff, so he left his hand in his lap.

“What should I do, Mr. Durant? Journeymen spend six years working with a more senior specialist before they are allowed to work alone. You’re two years short.” Her fingers tapped against the folio. “Yet, the incident in Denver with the Beregen Ulphander suggests you are capable.” The corner of an eyebrow moved. “Are you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She put the folio to one side and knit her fingers together. “I don’t second-guess my specialists,” she said, evenly. “They know what needs to be done, and I give them the means and the freedom to do so. While it is unfortunate that you were unable to salvage the Beregen, it speaks of your ability that you managed to retrieve the heart. I can see why Mr. Olyphant spoke highly of you.”

“That was kind of him.”

She stared at him, and he squirmed, finding her gaze uncomfortable. “However, Mr. Olyphant also recommended that I reassign you. That I keep you here, at a desk. Away from the trains. Why is that, Mr. Durant?”

“Mr. Olyphant and I....” Henry licked his lips and considered his words. “We had a disagreement, Ms. Director. With all due respect, it was a matter of some foolishness—pride, mainly—and I’d rather not dwell on it.”

“Keeping your eyes forward?” she suggested. “Like the trains. Always looking to what comes next. Is that it?”

“Something like that,” Henry said.

She nodded. “I like to meet with the men who will be retiring my trains. I like to look upon their faces and hear their voices. Their judgment and their... discretion... is critical to the company. Do you understand this, Mr. Durant?”

“I do, ma’am.”

“I believe you do, Mr. Durant.” She lifted her hand, and Henry stood up and, hiding the twinge of pain that flitted up his arm, he reached out and took her hand. Her fingers were warmer than her eyes led him to believe they would be. “Do you know the reason Mr. Olyphant gave for your transfer?” Her grip was solid, holding him tight.

“I don’t,” Henry said, trying to hide how much she was hurting him.

“He said you didn’t have the heart for the job.”

He fought against the pain in his shoulder and squeezed her fingers. Harder than necessary. “Neither did he.”

She let go, and picked up the fountain pen on her desk. “Well spoken, Mr. Durant,” she said, opening his folio again. On the top of the pile was the silver-edged card of the specialist. “Welcome aboard,” she said as she signed beneath the printed letters of his name.

Henry rubbed his hands over the heat register in the cab, trying to rub some feeling back into them. The wind had been cruel while he had been inspecting the stone pier, biting relentlessly at his knuckles. The heat from the train was making his bones ache.

He didn’t know if the fracture line ran all the way down the foundation blocks sunk in the river, but it ran far enough. The bridge wouldn’t collapse today, probably not even in the next year, but it was only a matter of time. Every run would put pressure on the rail, and the crack would widen.

The flaw was in the track. The bridge would have to be replaced, and based on what Henry had seen, the reconstruction would be expensive. And those ties, he thought, do you think they’ll leave those if they have to pull out the bridge?

The train sighed beneath him, and Henry nodded. It’s your frame, isn’t it? The 212s were from the days when locomotives had been built by hand. You’re too heavy for the way they make bridges now, aren’t you?

It made sense now: why the company wanted to retire this regal queen; why the rail yard workers stared at him with such venom. There was nothing wrong with the train; the fault lay with everything else.

The Director knew he would do his job. That’s why she had sent him out here. He was the proper tool.

 “Why are you here?” The foreman stared at Henry with eyes smeared with smoke and alcohol, confused by Henry’s presence in the yard workers’ dark and windowless bar, and that confusion fed the still-festering anger.

“I just want a minute of your time,” Henry said, sitting down across from the hunched man, setting down the two mugs of beer he’d bought. He pushed one toward the foreman.

“Why?” the foreman snapped. “I know what you did.”

Henry’s satchel was heavy against his hip. He couldn’t sit comfortably in the old chair with it wedged against him, but he didn’t dare set it down on the floor.

The patrons of the bar—mostly railroad workers—were already staring at him. Did they know what he had in the bag? Could they feel its pulse like he did?

“You think a beer is enough?” the old foreman asked, glaring at Henry.

“No, I don’t,” Henry said. “Not after what I did.” He leaned forward. “But I have something that might help... ease your pain.” 

“What do you know about pain?” Unconsciously, the foreman’s hand drifted toward the beer.

“Very little,” Henry said. “Or maybe just enough. I’ll leave that for you to decide.” He clutched at the bag reflexively, sparing a quick glance at the room. “I don’t have much time....”

The foreman’s eyes flickered past Henry’s shoulder. “They’ll kill you if you stay too long.”

“I know,” Henry said. “Before one of them gets it into his head to come over here, can we talk? Will you listen?”

The foreman’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t say anything. His hand closed around the mug of beer.

Henry took that as a sign to stay. “There was nothing wrong with that train,” he said, and when the foreman didn’t say anything, he continued. “It was the track. The company is going to condemn the track at Desolation Pass—soon—and there won’t be any reason to rebuild the track, not when there’s no train making the run anymore. That’s what the report is going to say. She’s no good—too old and too heavy—to run anywhere else.”

The foreman leaned forward slightly. “She?”

“What?”

“You said ‘she’s no good.’”

“The train,” Henry replied. “I meant the train. It won’t be good for anything else.”

“Hmmm,” the foreman said as he picked up the mug and sipped from it slowly. “That’s the company line then?”

“That’s what will go in my report.”

”Are you going to write it?”

Henry didn’t answer.

The foreman stared at him for a long time, searching his eyes. When he found something that satisfied him, he drank from the beer again, smacking his lips as he gave some thought to what he was going to say.

“Ridership has been declining for years, and it got bad last year,” he said. “The company sent out a team of number runners and they crawled up everyone’s asshole for a month. Doing a ‘cost analysis’ of this whole hub. Part of some systemic program to save money.” His jaw worked at the invisible thing in his mouth for a moment, finding it more and more distasteful. “We’re all just little fucking cogs, you know. Doing our little part in the machine. They used a lot of fancy phrasing in their analysis: ‘cost-effectiveness curvature,’ ‘investment recirculation,’ ‘terminal declination.’ That’s what they called her run, said it was in ‘terminal declination.’ They turned her into a number. Those sons of bitches made the V-Star nothing but a fucking number. Each month she runs, she costs the company that much money. And each month, it would increase by five percent. How long do you think they were going to let that number grow?”

“Not long,” Henry said matter-of-factly. He said it without malice, because he knew it was true.

“Shorter than that,” the old foreman said. He seemed about to say something else, caught himself, and then sighed. All the bluster drained out of him, and for a moment, Henry saw someone younger in his face, a boy who had been in love once and who had chased that love for the rest of his life.

Who still wished he could chase it now.

“I need your help,” Henry said.

The foreman’s eyes focused on the bag. “What the hell for?” he asked, some of the old anger coming back to his face. “You’ve already kill—“ He didn’t finish. He couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud.

“I...” Henry started. “I am what you think I am—or rather, I was, I think—and I’ve been very good at it for a long time. But....” Henry pulled his satchel into his lap, tugging at the straps. He opened it, showing the foreman the still-warm key within. “I don’t know what to do with this.”

The foreman stared uncomprehendingly at the heart of the Victorian Starlight for a moment, and then woke himself with a shiver. Chugging half of the remaining beer in a long throat-working swallow, he pushed back from the table. “I know,” he said with a nod. “Let me show you something.”

“They sent out a company man to manage the project,” the foreman explained as they walked through the abandoned tunnel. “When the second set of milestones were missed, the city council started to get pressured for some sort of oversight.”

Henry recognized the curved shape of the incomplete track. Three rails. “I didn’t know the city was working on a subway system,” he said.

“They aren’t. Not anymore. It was badly designed, and managed by a bunch of idiot accountants who didn’t understand a thing about building a full-coil rail system. By the time the company man arrived, the project had spent all of its budget, including a discretionary fund, and had only managed to complete a quarter of the track.”

“What did the company man do?”

The foreman stopped, and peered at Henry in the dim light of his lamp. “He performed an audit and retired the project.”

Henry nodded. The company reduced it to a number, and they didn’t like what it was.

The foreman continued on, the light from his lamp blooming as they entered a larger space. There was a raised platform and the slender stalks of pillars, rising up to a domed roof.

“They weren’t very good at their skimming and record-forging,” the foreman said.  “But discovering the paper trail didn’t change the fact that the money was gone. All that was left was slip-shod work done with substandard materials.” He spat on the dusty ground. “It was more cost-effective to board it up and walk away. Forget it was ever started.” He raised his lantern. “So they did.”

In the gloom, Henry saw there was a train waiting at the station. Its lines were sleek, but the dark and the damp had given it a layer of grime and moss.

“A Vascoy-Telsa 12,” he breathed. “They’re fully coiled.”

Was fully coiled,” the foreman corrected. “They took the key, and scavengers took the rest.”

Henry’s hand strayed to his bag. He thought he felt a pulse from within, but it was most likely his own heart, leaping at the suggestion.

“Put your hand here,” Pastor Olyphant had said, tapping the ornate handle sticking out of the glass assembly. Henry’s fingers trembled as he laid his hand on the glowing crystal of the train’s key. “This is what powers the engine. This is what makes it work, what makes it breathe. This is the heart of the train, and this is the key that allows it to move.”

“It’s warm,” Henry said, feeling silly for saying something so obvious, but he didn’t know what else to say.

Olyphant tapped him on the chest. “So are you.”

“I’m not—“ Henry stopped. “It’s not the same thing,” he corrected.

Olyphant aped some surprise. “Why not?”

“We’re alive. This train isn’t.”

“Did I say it was?”

“You just said it was. You said–”

“No, I said you were warm too. Just like it is.”

Henry dropped his hands from the key. “I don’t understand.”

 “You have to be careful, Henry,” Olyphant said. “It is easy to think of them as simple machines, as constructs made from steel and wood. That it is only the coils that make them warm. But they’re more than that. They’re willful, Henry. They want to run. They want to be useful.”

Olyphant put his hand on the glowing key. “And it is your job to tell them otherwise.” With a sudden twisting movement, he pulled the key free of the assembly.

The train shuddered, and Henry stumbled into the wall of the cab. His bare hand against the metal skin of the train, he could feel the undulating vibration running through the engine, all the way from the smoke box to the end of the tender. His chest was frozen in a moment of empathy, and when the last tremor left the engine, he gasped.

The lights were out, and the firebox was dark. The flame had been snuffed out, as if smothered by a heavy blanket. Henry, shivering from the now cold touch of the wall, hastily removed his hand.

“There are two kinds of specialists,” Olyphant said, wiping some moisture from his cheek, “those who hear nothing when they do their job, and those who know how to listen. Which one are you going to be, Henry?”

“I.... I don’t know,” Henry said as truthfully as he could. Though, deep in his heart, he knew otherwise.

There was a void there, a silence not unlike the emptiness he had felt in the cab of the train.

“She has strong lines. Nice curves, too.”

Henry recognized the voice, and allowed himself a tiny smile before he straightened and leaned out of the narrow cab of the Vascoy-Telsa 12. “I thought they might send you,” he said to the man standing on the platform.

Pastor Olyphant had misplaced his hair in his retirement, either lost it entirely or proactively shorn it away. His head was smooth and tanned, and his long coat seemed new, as if it had been bought specifically for the trip to the perpetual damp of the west coast. He leaned to his left, favoring his left leg, and Henry knew the damp of the tunnels was making Olyphant’s old injury ache.

“Does she run?” Olyphant asked.

Henry nodded. “There’s only about a mile of track, but it’s a loop. I let her go a couple hours a week. Keeps the coils conditioned.”

Olyphant limped up to the edge of the platform and put his hand on the smooth side of the train. His eyes closed and a smile pulled at his mouth. “Yes,” he whispered. “I can hear you.”

Henry felt an flush rise in his flesh, and he knew it was irrational. Of course Olyphant would hear the train. Henry would have been disappointed if he hadn’t.

“I’m living down south,” Olyphant said. “Where it’s warm year round, and there’s no rails. The company is trying, of course, they want to run trains everywhere, but it’s a land of hills and mud. So hard to get a track down.” He ran his hand along the flank of the train. “It’s very peaceful.”

Henry swallowed heavily. “I’m sorry they brought you back. I had hoped they’d—“

“Forget about you?” Olyphant interrupted him. He opened his eyes and smiled at Henry. “You aren’t that naïve, Henry.”

“No, not anymore.”

“They want what is theirs, Henry. What you failed to return.”

“Why? They’ll just destroy it, won’t they? Like all the other keys we retire. Isn’t that what happens to them?”

“It’s just business, Henry. It’s what they’ve always done. It’s what we’ve always done.”

“Not me. Not anymore.”

“So you save this one. Why?” Olyphant lifted his hand from the side of the train. “Is she grateful? Does she tell you everyday how wonderful you are to have saved her? It’s just a machine, Henry. Like you said. You and me and all the rest. We’re just well-formed tools.”

Henry stared out at the track. He couldn’t see more than a hundred feet before the line curved into the darkness of the tunnel, but he knew it all in his head. Every inch of the rail that he and the others had rescued and brought down here. And beyond that, the other tunnels they had started to survey and repair. Eventually, she would run all the way from one end of the city to the other. It wasn’t the same run she had before, not nearly, but it would be enough.

She had said as much when they had repaired the electric engine and placed her key assembly in it. It was life enough.

“Maybe I was wrong about that,” Henry said.

Olyphant sighed and ran his hand along the train’s flank again. “Maybe,” he said softly.

“Are you supposed to retire me too?” Henry asked.

Olyphant shrugged, but Henry noticed he didn’t remove his hand from the train. “Maybe,” he said eventually. “Maybe not. And maybe we’ve all been wrong, about a great many things. Do you think that if we’re wrong enough times that eventually we’ll get something right?”

“It’s possible.”

Olyphant smiled. “Anything is, I suppose.”

 “They shouldn’t have sent you,” Henry said.

Olyphant nodded and raised his face to look at Henry. “No, they shouldn’t have.”

 “Will you carry a message for me?” Henry asked.

“Of course.”

“Tell the Director that I’ve done my own cost analysis. I can say, with a great deal of assurance, that it will be prohibitively expensive for them to retrieve a key they don’t know still exists. Tell them whatever else you like, my old friend, but let them know that you are my messenger. If they send anyone else, I cannot guarantee them the same safe passage.”

“I will let the Director know,” Olyphant said after a pause. He looked down the dark tunnel, his gaze softening.

Henry knew what he was hearing. The old whistling scream, the one that never quite faded, no matter how many years or miles of rail passed by. The memory of the first one never died out completely.

“Would you like to ride her?” Henry asked. “Before you go?”

Olyphant laughed. “Do you know how long it has been since I’ve ridden, just for the joy of it?”

“I do,” Henry said as his old howl faded, disappearing into the depth of his heart. “I think I do.” He leaned forward, stretching out his hand. “We’ll go as long as you want.” His shoulder didn’t ache when Olyphant clasped his arm and climbed into the cab of the train.

Beneath them, the wheels began to sing against the rail.


Read Comments on this Story (No Comments Yet)

ShareThis with Friends

Mark Teppo is the author of nearly a dozen novels that run the gamut from historical adventure fiction, eco-thrillers, urban fantasy, and experimental narrative. Recently, he was the showrunner for the Foreworld Saga, which involved a lot of world-building and collaborative writing. His latest effort at subverting genre conventions is to build his own publishing company, Resurrection House. He is a synthesist, a trouble-shooter (and -maker), a cat herder, and an idea man. His favorite Tarot card is the Moon. Visit him online at markteppo.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Leafsmith in Love” by K.J. Kabza
“The Secret of Pogopolis” by Matthew Bey

Return to Issue #101

Comments & Scrivenings

Leave a Comment on “The Heart of the Rail”