Saturday, November 01, 2008

From the Train

Once again, it's November - and nearly four months since I last wrote. I apologize again. I wish I could say that I've been too busy, but the truth is that I simply forgot. I fear that I shall never be the world's best correspondent. Being one of the few travelers in the family, I really ought to keep you all better updated on where I've been. I hope to do that for at least the next month. It's that time again.

I've been on the Train more or less since I first reached it in July. It's the easiest way to travel in the Railway Regions. Walking over the mountains is difficult, even when they're not broken up by cliffs, and llamas are more in demand (and therefore harder to find) in the Regions than in most of the rest of Hamjamser. Kilopedes, of course, only go where it's warm and sunny. They only visit the Railway Regions in the Summer (though they love climbing over all the mountains when they do). Airships are expensive, the chances of a floating city passing overhead are slim, and it seems unlikely that I will grow wings anytime soon.

Besides, I like riding the Train.

Practically everyone who has lived in - or even briefly visited - the Railway Regions has been on the Train at some point. It's what makes the Railway Regions the Railway Regions instead of just a bunch of mountains. The Train itself is thousands of years old, an ancient salamander steam engine built by the Hill Builders for their own mysterious reasons. It was dug up by a farmer shortly before the invention of the airship and the rehabitation of the floating cities.

For decades, engineers on the ground had been looking wistfully at those massive heaps of metal drifting across the sky, but most couldn't reach them, and nothing they found on the ground made sense. A couple of the Hill Builders' Guardian robots had been unearthed, but their pistons and reactors and crystal brains were far beyond anyone's comprehension. No one could bring them back to life. Most just ended up in museums. The Earthmover of Cormilack seemed simple enough - for a machine the size of a mountain - but none of its joints and gears and pistons seemed to actually DO anything. (To be fair, people have been stealing the pretty metal pieces from the Earthmover since before we'd even invented machines, and its inner workings still baffle everyone who tries to make sense of them.)

The Train was the first thing to change that. A group of engineers happened to be passing by when it was unearthed, and the farmer who found it was only too happy to sell them the useless and alarmingly large hunk of metal that had been buried under his field. Its purpose was fairly obvious - it had wheels, after all - and it didn't take the engineers long to figure out how the steam engine worked. They replaced the rusted parts, filled the boiler with water and the firebox with trained salamanders, realized what the old rails all over the mountains were for, and - within a few generations - had brought the Railway Regions into existence.

Nearly every part of the engine has been replaced at some point - not surprising in a machine several thousand years old. The hypersteel boiler tank and axles will last forever, of course, but the only other original part is a glass pressure gauge lens. The engineers swore it was in the Train when they first dug it up. Their descendants, the modern Clan of Engineers, still own and run the Train (among other things). Lady Mallory, the current head of the family, practically lives in the engine.

Since the Train began running, one of the fondest dreams of any engineer has been to build a second one. (Most other Hill Builder technology can be duplicated these days, if not actually understood, and the reactors in the floating cities made perpetual motion more or less obsolete before anyone had managed it.) It seems like it should be easy. A steam engine is not impossibly complex, after all - just a bunch of moving parts. Copy them all exactly, and a second steam engine should work just as well as the first.

Apparently, that's not how it works. No other Train engine has ever moved more than a few feet. Airships have been fitted with miniature salamander engines for their propellers, and engineers in Bannarbangle have built sluggish and unreliable "steam-cycles," but every attempt to make a steam engine that can pull more than its own weight has failed miserably. There is still only one Train. No one has ever built one, at least one that worked, completely from scratch. The Train is the only Train, and the Railway Regions are the only Regions with a Railway. That doesn't look likely to change anytime soon.

Frankly, I hope it doesn't. The engine of the Train is unlike anything else in Hamjamser, an oiled leviathan of bolts and pistons and dripping black metal. It rumbles along the rails all year long, above and below ground, swathed in steam like an iron dragon on wheels. No one can ever quite seem to count the cars it pulls behind it. There are always just enough; no car is ever empty, but the Train never quite runs out of room. None of the cars really match - they're all different ages, paneled in different types of wood, papered in brown and red and gold, divided into compartments and dining rooms and the kitchen where the spider-chef grins madly as he prepares five things at once. Boxcars join and leave the Train in a constantly changing line at the towns large enough to use them. The cars swarm with engine salamanders, glowing orange along the lamp-tubes inside, pitch-black as they recharge in sunlight on the roof. The people of the Regions use Train tickets instead of coins.

In all of Hamjamser, the Railway Regions are one of the only areas without a capital city. The Mountainous Plains are largely owned by the banking city of Bannarbangle; Tetravania (the region) is ruled by Tetravania (the city); the floating cities are all dwarfed by Miggle-Meezel; even the Kennyrubin archipelago is centered on the island of Carpel Hromin. In the Railway Regions, everything is centered on the Train. It connects the Regions together, makes them what they are, and is just as much of a place of its own as Milldacken or Vanister or Tazramack. The heart of the Railway Regions is no less the heart just because it runs for miles and is no wider than a pair of steel rails.

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