Copyright 2020, Sarah Hartwell
Dream, 2020

The train ploughs its way non-stop across the snowy continent, like an immense iron caterpillar inching its way across a vast white leaf. I boarded at West Coast Terminus and would not set foot on terra firma again until East Terminus City, more than two weeks away. Our train captain was a huge bearded man, Thor Hammerskjald, who looked like a Viking from the deep past. Nothing short of the earth opening would stop the train once it left the Terminus.

We sat in a comfortable cabin on the upper deck, Flo and I, watching the passing landscape and the humped up snow cast aside by the snow-plough at the front of the train. Pine trees, weighed down by snow and icicles, bordered the tracks at a respectful distance. Our outriders, more Viking types, but this time on steam-powered motorbikes, scouted ahead of the train, chain-sawing any tree that fell across or alongside the tracks and lining up the logs so that the train’s scoops ingested them and fed the logs into its furnaces.

More outriders, these armed with guns, shot down deer or bear, or any other creature large enough to be worthwhile. They too were scooped up, fed into the conveyor belts in the belly of the train, their carcases hauled onto the production line where workers bled, skinned, gutted, boned and filleted them, and by the time they reached the kitchens they were turned into steaks, stews and soups for the passengers. Nothing was wasted, what couldn’t be eaten, or cured, or tanned, or rendered in the workshops in the bowels of the ever-moving train went into the furnaces. Beasts and fuel were fed in at one end and ash and cinders were spat out and shat out in its wake.

That steak on my plate – yesterday it had been grazing on snow-covered moss too close to the tracks. One day the trees would be too far from the tracks and the creatures would migrate too far from the hunters, then the train would be diverted to other tracks where the trees had regrown and the creatures were thriving. This was how it had been for centuries. The train never stopped, it just got diverted.

Even when we reached Terminus City it wouldn’t stop, but it would slow to a crawl. Passengers disembarked at one end of Terminus City and the train travelled a wide, wide arc, dropping off freight and taking on new cargo, taking on cleaners and dropping off garbage, crawling between warehouses and factories before returning to Terminus city where new passengers boarded the crawling leviathan. The turnaround took a whole day and the train never stopped.

Two weeks in each direction and a day’s turnaround at each end. If you missed it, you’d have to wait a month for the next train. If you caught it, you might work your passage hauling sides of meat on the lower deck, or a fireman feeding logs and branches and bones into the furnaces, or you might have the money for a private cabin or a seat in a common cabin. Once aboard, there was no getting off until the opposite terminus.

And at the front of the train, grinning wildly, was our captain, Thor Hammerskjald, who had driven this train back and forth across the snowy continent for four decades and who was rumoured to have never touched terra firma since boarding the train as an apprentice all those years ago.


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