In which Dodger is exposed to the impossible.
Dodger winced as he followed the professor from the cab, back out into the bright afternoon. Once they hit open air, the professor took off, all but leaving Dodger behind. Despite their difference in height, as well as width of step, it was all he could do to keep up with the older man's pace. In hurried excitement, the professor led Dodger along the length of the train, toward the engine car, delivering an explanatory speech as they moved along.
“As you can see, the Sleipnir is the top of the line in steam-driven locomotive technology. Her chassis is an array of iron and steel and cast-steel welded plate frames with a top lining of brass fittings just for fun and show. After all, everyone loves a good show, don’t they? As you have seen, there are eight cars total: the cab and the ensuing seven cars she carries. Aside from the cab, there’s the cargo car followed by the meeting car, which you have already seen. Then there are two cars for staff quarters followed by my personal car, a mobile kitchen and at the end is the caboose.”
The professor came to a stop beside the cab and pointed out various fixtures as he continued his speech.
“The whole thing is powered by a steam injected four stroke engine, maintained by a boiler with a spark arrestor and self cleaning smoke box. We employ a feedwater system to warm the water before introducing it into the main tanks in order to reduce shock as well as power loss. She takes on water through the scoop, here, and also by crane at the top of the tanks there, but there have been times—more than I care to remember—when the buckets have been employed. You aren’t apposed to a little water jerking, are you? Of course not. She’s also fitted with a partial closed loop system that captures some of the expelled steam and circulates it to areas of other needs such as extra heat.”
Dodger narrowed his eyes at this pronouncement. “Closed-loop? You mean like on a maritime vessel?”
“Ah, are we familiar with ships as well?”
“Not familiar, but I’ve been on a few in my day. I’ve never heard of a locomotive running with a closed steam loop. Partial or otherwise.”
“It’s particularly useful for us because we can filter and condensate a portion of the steam back into the tanks if there is a fear we’ll run dry before the next available water source presents itself.”
“Does that happen often?” Dodger asked, amused by the idea that something as fixed as a train would run afoul of not knowing where its next water stop would be.
“More often then we would like.”
The worry in the professor’s voice gave Dodger pause.
“Much like any free steamer,” the professor paused to give a small chuckle before he continued. "Sorry, I'm always amused by that term. The Sleipnir is the only real 'free steamer' I've ever seen. Say now, I wonder if I can patent the term?" He looked off to the distance a moment, tapping his bearded chin, distracted by his thoughts.
Dodger shifted in his stance, trying to repel the urge to tap his foot with impatience. He opted to clear his throat instead.
This seemed to draw the professor back to the moment. "But, I digress. Her axles are on a fixed circuit of four-four-two, with each car following the traditional fixtures. Save for the caboose which is … well … she’s a special piece in her own right, and I’ll get to her in a moment. But first I wanted to show you-”
“Professor Dittmeyer,” Dodger said over him.
The old man stopped his prepared speech, all the excitement leaving him as he asked, “Yes? Is there something I haven’t explained thoroughly? Should I start over?”
“No, no. Please. I think I’ve had enough of this. I may have not built the things, and it may have been a few years since I’ve stuffed a firebox, but I have been around steam locomotives long enough to know a very basic and universal truth about them.”
“And that is?”
“They need tracks to run.” Dodger looked past the professor, right to the underpinning of the line.
The professor followed his gaze and then looked again to Dodger with an amused air and a chuckle. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Carpenter. You know, Ched is always telling me I need to rework my speech to start with this. I guess he must be right, yes?”
“Start with what?”
Dittmeyer laid both palms against the skirting of the cab and pushed. The metal plates that covered the axels gave way under his hands, just a bit, accompanied by a loud click, after which the plates eased forward, much in the manner of a cabinet door. The professor grabbed the lower lip of the now-unlocked skirting and pulled it up, tucking the entire plate into the body of the train on a set of small side-mounted tracks.
And speaking of tracks, that’s precisely what lay under the Sleipnir.
Not just an array of tracks set in the ground upon which the train was seated. No. What rested beneath the Sleipnir was so much more than a simple set of tracks. So much more, in fact, that Dodger was sure it couldn’t be real. He crouched to get a closer look, but it didn’t help.
“What am I looking at?” Dodger asked.
“Boggles the mind,” the professor said. “Doesn’t it?”
“Depends on what I’m looking at.”
“What do you think you’re looking at?”
Dodger had a small idea of what he was looking at. He just couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Something I am sure is impossible.”
“Yet you’re looking at it.”
“And it is …?”
“I call it the Self-Mounting Auto-Reciprocating Track. Or SMART for short.”
What Dodger was looking at, what he was so sure couldn’t be real, was every bit as clever as its name implied.
Beneath the body of the train was indeed a set of tracks, but instead of the long ties of iron and wood traditionally associated with rail systems, the ‘track’ of the Sleipnir was divided into short chunks, each measuring the full width of the train but only a foot or so in length. Each section was linked to the section before and after it by a series of ribbed couplers, the teeth of which were aligned to a row of cogs and gears fitted between the main wheels. A slatted steel belt wound around the axles of the cab, which looped back into the gears themselves.
“As you can see, the Sleipnir possesses her own tracks.”
“How?” was all Dodger could manage.
“Most of the setup is much like those with which you are familiar. The main difference is that when the main axle pushes the entire system forward or reverse, whichever the case may be, and the car moves—again forward or backward—then the tracks move in conjunction with the wheels, laying down each truncated segment as needed. The segments remain stationary under the train as the cars move along, until it reaches the caboose. Then the track is pulled into the housing, underneath the train but above the drive wheels, where it essentially makes the same journey, only upside down, until it returns to the front of the line to start again. The gears are synched to release the track as needed, as well as keeping the track aligned on its journey.”
“So what you are saying is that this train lays her own tracks?”
Dodger stared at the couplings and track sections and gears for a moment longer, then stood again as he pronounced, “I would love to believe such a thing could work, but I just don’t see it happening.”
“You don’t see it? Why, good sir, the proof is right before you!”
“I see a whole bunch of gears and wheels and track sections all cobbled together in a very convincing way. But I don’t think it will really run. Nice try, sir.”
“You doubt my work?”
“Let’s just say that if that train really lays its own tracks, I’ll eat my hat.”
“Would ya like shalt with dat?” Ched asked.
Dodger looked up to find the bony driver standing on a small exterior platform at the back of the cab, leaning over the edge of the metal siding.
“Ah, Ched, my good man. Are we all set?”
“Almosht. Gotta uncouple the cab firsht.”
“Do you think that’s wise?”
The professor looked distraught at this idea. “I mean, what if there is trouble while we’re away?”
“Firsht of all, bobtailing will shave ush fuel. Fuel we alwaysh sheem to need theshe daysh. If we don’t need to run the whole rail, we shouldn’t. Shecondly, your Lelanea ish ash good a shot ash me. Prolly better. If theresh trouble, she’ll give ‘em enough hell ta make ‘em think twish before coming back. Dat girl got the Devil in her.”
“Can’t argue with that. Proceed, but be quick about it. I don’t want to dally here all day.” After Ched jumped down from the platform and went to do his work, the professor turned back to Dodger. “Mr. Carpenter? Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?”
“To take a run, as it were.”
Dodger pointed to the cab. “You think I am going to get on that? With y’all?” He snorted. “You’re crazier than I thought.”
“Why not? My train is harmless. It’s safer than crossing the street.”
“I'll admit I've crossed some pretty dangerous streets, but I'd rather see the back end of a shady alleyway then board that monstrosity.” Dodger watched as Ched not only disengaged the car behind the cab, but also divided a section of the track then reseated it, creating a smaller version of the train long loop. Just big enough for the cab to run alone. As if it could. Dodger suspected the most it would do was just spins its gears and wheels in place and do a lot of moaning and groaning. Either that or explode. He had seen enough properly made engines do just that. He was going to have to put his money on a very large, very loud boom. “That thing is a death trap.”
“What twaddle! Why, the very idea that it’s dangerous is just preposterous.”
“So you say. Even if that thing could run on its own tracks, then how do get around?”
“On the tracks? I thought we covered this.”
“No, I mean how do you get it from one place to another without mowing down everything in your path? It’s not like you can steer a train.”
“Why not what!”
“Why not steer it?”
“Because you don’t steer trains!” Dodger was a little hysterical now. He could feel a wave of panic rising, but couldn’t seem to stop it. “They follow the track they are set upon. That’s how they are designed. End of story.”
The professor blinked a few times before he said, “You can steer the Sleipnir. There is a navigational mechanism built in.”
Dodger didn’t expect that. Not that he expected a train that laid its own tracks, but still, this was a bit much to swallow. “You’re kidding.”
“No, I assure you I am not. Granted it isn’t as tight a radius as, say, a carriage or a cart.Still, it allows a certain amount of turning.”
“You can actually guide it?”
“Somewhat, yes. You can also brake it too, in case you’re wondering.”
“I should hope so. With all that steering, you’re going to want to stop.”
“Do I detect a note of sarcasm?” The professor grinned.
Dodger sighed. “No, you detect a note of reservation. Excuse me for seeming a bit on the flustered side, but I just can’t see this thing working the way you say it will.”
“Then we shall prove it to you. Ched! Hurry up back there!”
Dodger listened in worried silence as the professor chastised his delinquent driver. This whole thing had an uncomfortable feel to it. It no longer felt wrong, nor bad, nothing as drastic as that. There was just something about it he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
That was it; the whole thing just felt downright weird. And weird was the last thing Rodger Dodger was looking to add to his already complicated life.
“You know,” Dodger said. “I don’t think this is the right job for me. Perhaps I should be going.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure, man?”
“Maybe itsh on hish plate, beshide hish hat?” Ched asked loudly from inside the cab. Just under his voice, a soft wheeze and chuff signaled the train’s state of readiness. The thin man poked his head outside the door and shouted, “All aboard!”
The professor grasped Dodger by the arm. “I’m afraid it’s now or never, Mr. Carpenter. I shall have to ask you to trust me. Give me five minutes to prove my train’s worth.”
Dodger looked to the heavens and whispered, “Please don't let me regret this.” Turning back to the professor, he added in a louder voice, “You have your five minutes, Professor Dittmeyer. Better make ‘em count.”