The shed door opened with a creak, rust, dust, cobwebs, and unmentionable grime cascading from the rafters. Ivan the DE2 shunter opened an incredibly crusty eye in annoyance, light shining from the door. That shouldn’t happen, the doors should be locked.
“Aight, I think this is the place. Smaller than I thought, for a depot," a mystery figure said, standing in the shed door, taking in their surroundings. “Gilbert’s Depot, huh? Who’s Gilbert?”
“Oy!” Ivan called out.
“Agh!” The figure dropped whatever they were holding.
Papers, keys, is that a new radio? Ivan thought. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Are you a vandal?”
“Um, no,” the figure replied meekly, “I’m a new driver, and was told to come here to get my first loco?”
Well, that changes things. A new hire. A driver, no less. The company hasn't hired one in years. Something’s going on. Ivan’s face immediately brightened. “New driver, eh? I’m guessing you were sent here because they needed someone to train you on how to drive a locomotive.”
“And I’m the only locomotive around here.”
“Well let’s get to introductions. My name is Ivan, a DE2-class diesel-electric shunter, rated for a maximum 200 tonnes-ish of cargo on flat ground.”
“And I’m — “
“Nevermind your name, you’re the only soon-to-be driver around here, and it’s company policy to call our drivers Driver. Get ready cause you’re gonna get your licenses within 10 minutes if you have me here!” Ivan haughtily. “Not to brag, but the last time someone trained to be a driver with me, we broke several company records! Including the most costly crash in the company’s history…” Ivan trailed off. “Regardless! I’m guessing the head honchos in the offices filled you in on the basics of train handling, so get in!”
Nine minutes and fifty seven seconds of buffer bashing (“Ow, watch it!”), hopper rerailing (“What do you mean you can do it with a radio?”), and switch splitting (“I may be a machine but this still hurts you know.”), the sounds of a printer emanated from the depot office.
“...So this sheet of paper says that I need to go to Steel Mill next, it seems,” the newly licensed Driver pondered, “and drop off this hopper when we get there.”
“Sounds correct to me, let’s go, I’m itching to give my axles a stretch, Driver,” Ivan revved.
Driver complied, climbing into Ivan’s cab and getting ready to depart with the damaged hopper.
“According to the map, Steel Mill’s straight ahead. Let’s go,” Driver said eagerly.
Driver gently applied the throttle, rolling the small train forward, through the gates, and finally onto the mainline.
“Driver! You really need to lighten up on the throttle, if you keep doing this I’ll need replacement buffers by the time we get to the next station,” Ivan complained in annoyance. They were in the maintenance shed, some lightly damaged buffer stops behind them. “I know you’re new, but please lighten up, you and me both can feel every single bump.”
“I know, but it takes getting used to, you know? I’m still new, not even 15 minutes ago I’d never driven a locomotive before,” responded Driver. “We should head to the station office, let’s see what they have for us.”
The Steel Mill was a large yard, at least in comparison to the small depot the pair just left. They had just placed the hopper in a maintenance shed, nestled between heavy machinery and the turntable. Further along the spur were some industry tracks, for car storage, car loading, and car unloading. The loading track had a curious green box about the size of a vending machine with a disproportionately large handle on the front, labelled “UN/LOADING”.
The main yard was past a switch onto the main line away from the depot. It was massive. Twelve tracks, each filled with many different cars filled (and not filled) with various cargoes: steel plates, billets, scrap metal, iron ore, coal, wire, and more. All steel, all grime, all freight. Driver spotted the station office by one of the outside yard tracks.
They climbed down Ivan and headed inside, seeing no one, except for an incredibly muscular old man dozing at one of the office desks. He had a long, braided gray beard, and scarred arms and hands. If one glanced at him, most would think he did metalwork for most of his life.
“Um, hello, sir, Are you the yardmaster?” Driver greeted.
“Hmmm… Hngh?” The old man stirred and woke with a start, trying to locate the new voice in the room. He finally found Driver standing in the doorway. “Hey, you, you’re the one who asked that, right?”
“Yes, I’m the yardmaster. Kovash Kasun. If you’re lookin’ fer the jobs, they’re on that table over there.” The man, Kovash, pointed across the room to a table haphazardly filled with paper booklets. “When you wanna take one stick it ‘n the machine, it’ll handle the job timin’ and all that fer ya. This new technology you young’uns have these days, we used pencils and paper to mark all this down!” Kovash continued to rant about how “technology is making the young’uns lazy”, before falling asleep again.
“Erm, okay,” was all Driver could react with. “I guess I should take a booklet then?”
“ YES ,” called Ivan from the yard outside.
The table was littered with booklets, each color-coded to a particular destination, and what kind of job it was. Driver took a random one, a job hauling steel rails to Harbor, and tried putting it into the beige machine brightly labeled with “Job Validator” next to the table.
BZZT! The machine emitted a harsh buzz, printing out a piece of paper. “Job denied, license required? Am I not allowed to take this?” Thinking back to what the depot machine printed out, Driver remembered that it had given them three different licenses, only one of which matched the licenses on the job booklet.
Driver put down the booklet, and began sorting the pile of booklets on the table into two piles based on the license the jobs needed. Soon, they had a large pile of jobs on one side, and holding the only job in the pile that the machine would accept with a cheerful BEEP : a freight haul of 6 loaded flatbeds to Goods Factory.
This one it is, Driver thought, the only one left.
Walking out, Driver called, “Found a job, Ivan, looks like my first is hauling some steel parts to Goods Factory, erm,” Driver checked their map, and pointed in the direction of the depot, “That way!”
“Good, at least here’s not like Harbor, nowadays there’s way too many jobs to keep track of. Come on, let’s get started, you do know you’re being timed starting from the moment the Job Validator printed out that job booklet you’re holding, right? You get double pay if we get there fast.”
“That’s good to know. Say, do you hear that?” Quiet muttering was coming in the general direction of the yard.
“Oh, that. Looks like we’ve got sentients for this job,” Ivan replied, seemingly annoyed.
“Sentients?” Driver began setting the switches for Ivan to back into the cars.
“How have you not questioned the fact that you’ve been talking to a talking locomotive yet? With a face? For the past hour or so?”
“I dunno, it just seemed normal,” Driver replied, climbing into Ivan’s cab and throttling forward.
“Agh, anyway, whenever one of us is built, be it a locomotive, freight car, or passenger car, there’s a chance that we become sentient. Us locos get faces, the rolling stock tend to only get a voice. Unfortunately for everything that can hear, all the freight cars have the exact same voice.” Driver put on Ivan’s brakes, and buffered up to the flatcar.
As if to prove Ivan’s point, the nearest flatcar started vibrating loudly, rattling the steel bars loaded on it. “Ooooo, looks like we’ve got a new hire. You hear that guys? NEW HIRE!” A blast of rattling metal and identical, incredibly shrill, and guttural voices filled the yard.
“OY SHADDAP!” Kovash the yardmaster’s gruff voice cut across the yard, instantly silencing the clamoring cars. “I’M TAKIN’ A NAP HERE, SO SHADDAP.”
Driver quickly coupled to the now-silenced flatcar in shock. “Okay let’s get outta here.”
“You know Driver, since this is your first day here, how about some tales from back then?”
“... and we then go right here — oh, yeah, that’d be neat, Ivan,” Driver answered, somewhat distractedly, examining their map.
“So you know we’re hauling flatcars?”
Driver grunted in confirmation, ears still ringing from the Grand Choir of the Steel Mill. “Of course.”
“Years ago, they were absolute crap. Not even a metal frame, they were just wood. All wood. Wood from the platform to the frame to the wheels. Somehow the suspension and buffer springs were also wood. Never really figured out how they did that.” Driver couldn’t see Ivan’s face from the cab, but his tone had the colors of disgust somewhere in there.
“We’re gonna need to slow down a bit. Looks like we’re coming across a bridge.”
“Roger,” Ivan replied absentmindedly. “Anyway, they were crap. They didn’t have hooks for our couplings either, we had to drill holes in them ourselves to mount hooks on them. This made them very, very easy to derail, and they were derailing all the time. I’m pretty sure the wheels weren’t even circular, they derailed so much. The drivers were constantly avoiding them if they could. When they’re loaded they’re a little better, the load keeps it on the tracks. But when they’re empty, they’re the worst pieces of rolling stock we’ve ever had to work with.”
Driver spotted the wye leading into the Goods Factory, a track snaking to the right. “Wonderful story, we’re just about there. We’re at the speed limit for the switch, should be fine.”
Ivan clacked over the switch points, his wheels emitting a soft, metallic scraping against the rails. Then came the CLANG , the hiss of air, followed by the sound of metal dragging in gravel.
“Stopstopstopstop!” Ivan shouted in horror. Driver slammed on the brakes.
Both engine and Driver looked back at the flatbeds. Nothing seemed immediately broken. Driver hopped off to investigate, and heard something Driver wasn’t wanting to hear so soon.
The flatcars were screaming again. Not in pain, the cars weren’t damaged, thankfully, but rather in a “holy shit someone’s been run over by a car” kind of way. “Get ‘em off me get ‘em off me get ‘em off me,” one car was screaming. Repeatedly. Clearly this wasn’t supposed to happen.
The derail was minor, at least. The flatcar was still upright, and thankfully still on the rails. The following flatcar, on the other hand, was completely derailed, and pinned the preceding one underneath it. Its coupling to the flatcar had come loose, and its air pipe disconnected. The last two flatcars were still on the track, still coupled to the derailed flatcar.
“What’s the situation?” Ivan called out from the front of the train.
“We have some screaming flatcars, one derailed and is stuck on top of another,” Driver called back. “I think we need to pull the pinned one out.” Driver walked back to Ivan’s cab, throttling forward.
Ivan’s engine revved up, his diesel generator charging his motors. Driver pushed the throttle more, and Ivan’s engine revved more in response. Then, the beeping. A light on the dashboard flashed red, coupled with the metallic screeching outside, signalled that Ivan had wheelslip. Driver immediately throttled down to keep Ivan’s wheels from melting from the heat. They looked back at the flatcars. They hadn’t moved an inch.
“Damn,” Driver said, “I’d’ve thought that’d work.”
“Were you expecting a single shunter like me to pull a derailed car? Driver, those are hard to pull when they’re on top of something like that, it usually takes 2 of my class to just nudge it forward,” Ivan replied, implying as if it was an obvious fact that Driver didn’t know in the first place.
“So we get another locomotive, then!” Driver responded. “We’re past the switch, we should be able to pick up another DE2 from the Goods Factory yard, right?”
“Driver, there’re many of my make scattered across the valley. I’m the bog standard, run-of-the-mill shunter. We’re reliable!”
“Sure you are. Let’s get that second loco, we’re still being timed for that cash bonus.”
A hop, a skip, under a bridge, and through a tunnel later, the Goods Factory yard came into view, nestled in a valley between a hill and a mountain. Freight cars were littered around the place, some coaches sitting at a station platform. The distinctive white and orange-roofed station building was visible to the left. Beyond the passenger platforms and leading to the right was a loop track, according to the station map. Driver presumed that the main D yard was on the other side of the buildings to their right.
Ivan pulled up to the leftmost track by the station building, where a rotund old lady was standing in the door frame.
“There you are!” The woman shrieked, sounding more like a storybook witch than a person. “It has been twenty minutes, and you show up without the promised cars!?” This lady needed to chill.
“Uh,” Driver hesitated, climbing down Ivan’s cab, “yeah, about that. We derailed and —“
“Who cares if you derailed? I needed that cargo yesterday! The factory manager’s complaining about lost profits, yada yada yada, and I can’t do anything about it!” The witchy old woman continued to screech. “If you’re the new driver, hurry the hell up so I can get that damn factory worker out of my face!”
“We should go before she decides to explode again,” Ivan whispered, “I think I saw some locos on the way in by the main yard.”
Without hesitation, Driver set the switch to the main yard, climbed on Ivan, and set off, the old lady continuing to rant and screech.
“Who the hell was that?” Driver asked, once safely out of earshot.
“Haja Kasun, the Goods Factory yardmaster. She hates working here, but the pay’s good for doing nothing all day. She mostly just knits in the station office.”
“Kasun? Is she related to the old bloke we saw at Steel Mill?”
“Who, Kovash? Yeah, they’re siblings. Look, there’s the loco storage.”
The loco storage in question was empty, except for a single DE2. With a face identical to Ivan’s. That was sleeping?
“Hold up, why do you and this loco have the same face?” Driver looked between the two… Ivans?
“We’re the same model, why do you ask? Were you expecting something different?”
“Erm, no, I honestly didn’t know what I was expecting.”
“Couple up already. The bonus cash is ticking away.”
Resigned to the weirdness they had asked themselves into, Driver buffered to the duplicate Ivan, coupled up, and turned it on. The face woke, blankly staring at Driver. “Hello, I am L-dash-oh-two-three, DE2 class. I hope to be of use.”
“Okay that’s slightly creepy,” Driver said.
“You get used to it. Mr. L-023 over here I think is newly built, based on the blank stare. We gain some personality as we age. For better or for worse,” the more animated Ivan replied. “Let’s get back to the derailment.”
Passing by the station office again, the witchy yard master Haja screeched from the door frame, “You better come back with those steel parts! OR ELSE!”
“I sure hope we do,” Driver muttered.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill, the flatcars were talking amongst themselves.
“Wow, first job today and we’ve already derailed?” The front car quipped.
“Get’emoffmeget’emoffmeget’emoffme” The pinned car repeated.
“AAAAAAAAAA” The derailed one continued to scream.
“What were you expecting? New hire, first job, what, did you want to be treated like a coach?” The one behind the derailed flatbed shot back.
“No, I just wanted a job that doesn’t go wrong for once,” the front car retorted. “At least today we’re not carrying those gas containers.”
The car in front of the pinned one shuddered. “Ugh, those gas containers… Yeah I think we deserve better. It’s painful when those explode.”
Ivan and Driver returned to the sounds of idle chatter and continued screaming, with L-023 in tow.
Ivan spoke up first. “All right, shut up, you noisy fucks, we’ve got another shunter here so we can get moving again.”
Driver buffered L-023 up to the first flatcar, coupled up, and turned up its throttle. L-023’s engine began to rev nicely, energy surging into its motors.
Driver gently pushed Ivan's throttle into the first notch. Not enough, not even the slack in the chain was pulled out. Another notch, same with L-023. The slack was pulled out. Two more notches, and the soft groan of metal on metal. Another notch, more metallic groaning, and finally the consist was moving forward. Another one, and with the loud screech of metal and the sound of something falling on gravel, the pinned flatcar was finally free.
“FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM” yelled out the now-unpinned car, while the other cars still on the track cheered. The derailed one was still screaming, the reason unknown.
“Shut up you, we get it, you’re derailed,” Driver shouted at the derailed flatcar, “let me pull forward so I can get you back on the rails.”
Back in the cab, Driver eased Ivan and the still-railed flatcars forward to have space for the derailed flatcar. Back on the ground, Driver walked to the derailed flatcar with radio in hand. Cycling to the rerail function, they pointed the green indicator laser at the derailed car, then pointed it to an empty space. With the press of a button, the freight car was back on the rails, as if it never derailed. (“I still want to know how that thing works,” commented Ivan.) The flatcar finally stopped screaming, to Ivan and Driver’s relief. Two recouplings and hose-tying later, the train was off back to Goods Factory, its cargo in tow.
“Oh, you’ve finally shown up with the parts, huh!?” complained the old witchy yard mistress. “You are five! Minutes! Late!”
Driver tried to defend himself. “Well, it’s not my fault the flatcars decided to derail right there and—”
“It is one-hundred-percent your fault since you’re the only driver around here!” Haja interrupted, with an air of finality. “You were driving the train, of course it was your fault! Stick those in the D yard over there, hand in that damn job, and get out of my sight.” She sauntered off, probably to do something that doesn’t involve dealing with the yard.
In shocked silence, Driver and Ivan shunted the flatcars into the indicated track. They put L-023 back into its track, thank it for the assistance. Parking Ivan in front of the station office, Driver inserted the job booklet into the job machine. With a satisfying BEEP and the sound of cash dispensing, Driver walked out with their pay and the job summary.
“At least I got paid.”