Saturday, November 29, 2008

Endless Tracks

We're out in the uninhabited parts of the Railway Regions. The mountains stretch away in every direction like a rumpled quilt made of trees. There are misty gray patches of skeleton trees, green speckles of fir and hemlock and pine, and smooth expanses of gray and brown stone. Birds fly overhead - crows, vultures, and the occasional Winter falcon. Their calls carry for miles across the empty mountains.

This is balloon country.

They're everywhere. There's always something in the sky - rarely more than one at a time, but always something. Hot-air balloons float by like brightly patterned soap bubbles. Floating cupolas hang like little cupcakes of architecture beneath their own balloons, larger than the ones with baskets, long tubes like cucumbers or stacks of balloons like abacus trees. Pedal-balloons putter by now and then. The people beneath them are visible if they get close enough, turning the rudders and propellers with bicycles rebuilt for flight. Airships of every size loom overhead, massive hulks of inflated cloth or leather or paper with tiny gondolas underneath, casting shadows like clouds on the mountains. Some spin their propellers lazily; others just drift with the wind. They're only crossing these mountains on their way to somewhere else.

The Train traveled all day without passing a single city, town, or village - not so much as a trackside cabin. Nothing but trees. The only sign that people had ever been here was, in fact, a sign, stuck on a post near the tracks. The paint was cracked and faded, but the writing was still legible. There was only one word:


It looked like it had been sitting there for years, asking its impossible question to the silent trees. I wish I had an answer for it.

Actually, that wasn't the only sign of civilization. Passengers on the Train just stop noticing the other one after a while.

After all, the tracks are always there.

The first tracks were laid by the Hill Builders. For centuries, no one was sure what they were; the long, straight pieces of metal just turned up now and then for no apparent reason. Farmers would find them beneath their fields or exposed by landslides. For some reason, the tracks were made of ordinary steel, which is why they didn't last as well as most of the Hill Builders' creations. Most of them had been buried and rusting for a long time.

After the Train was unearthed, of course, it was only a matter of time before someone noticed the shape of its wheels and realized what the tracks were. Most of the tracks were bent and rusted beyond repair by then, and there's no telling how many have never been found at all. Nearly all of the intact ones had been dug up and taken away. They obviously weren't doing any good where they were, after all. The scattered tracks show up in the strangest places. One of them is the roof-beam of a barn near Milldacken. Two others are in a circus that travels through the Railway Regions; they've been turned into stilts for a giant. A pair of tracks runs the entire length of a hallway in the Vanister Museum. They've been used as foundation pilings in Golgoolian, fence posts in the High Fields, and pillars and railings in several of the floating cities, where metal is lighter than air. According to one of my fellow passengers, one piece of track has made it all the way to the Golden Desert; a crinkle-bagel vendor in Thrass Kaffa uses it as a frying pan. Little pastries sizzle in the Desert sun, lined up in a row on top of the old steel.

As a result of all of this, when the Train was finally repaired and began running again, there was more or less no track for it. A few sections had survived, but it could have crossed all of them together in about two minutes. The Engineers had to lay their own tracks for several years.

Of course, once it became obvious that the Train was the best thing to ever happen to travel in the Railway Regions, every town and city wanted the tracks to come to it. The railroad doubled in length within the first few years.

It's fairly simple for a town to connect to the railroad. The people just add a small circle of track to their station - usually with one side hidden, so that it's not held in place by people looking at it - and within a few days, the track going through the station is just another part of the railroad. Instead of going in a circle, it continues out of the town in both directions. There is only one track in the Railway Regions. Any set of rails laid on the ground will become part of it sooner or later.

Strangely, it's continued to grow over the years. Each town only adds one or two hundred feet of track - not enough to even reach the edge of town, in most cases - but the rails still stretch across the mountains for miles.

No one puts tracks in the middle of the wilderness. They're there anyway. The railroad may have been started by hand in towns and cities, but most of it has grown all by itself.

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