“He’s built for speed. A regular speed demon.” Those were the first words heard and understood by steam locomotive number 9028. He considered the phrase in the steel matrix of his mind and decided Speed Demon was a good name for a streamlined locomotive.
Number 9028 did not reach this conclusion quickly. Heat has the right of way inside a steam engine. Against a background of flame and thunder, cognitive processes travel synaptic pathways wrought in steel. Thinking takes time.
Speed Demon understood time. The clock ruled his life. He also knew about fire and steam and about pistons, drivers, and speed, speed, speed.
Though slow to think and restricted in his outlook, Speed Demon came to understand many things. During a visit to the railroad shops he concluded that not all the structures he could see were of the railroad. He knew his engineers and firemen lived only partly within the railroad. He pitied them for that.
Until a trainman happened to name a river, town, or any other object, Speed Demon did not know what to call them. After three years on the line, he knew many names. Houses, gas stations, schools, churches, streets, and other trains.
One day, while pounding down the line, Speed Demon passed by the clockwork building. He had seen the building before and thought little of it. It was one of the church types, only it had clock in the tallest tower. Clockwork figures, made to look like people, were sometimes visible. The figures made odd motions as they moved across the platform. He knew the moving figures had something to do with time and he understood they were crude devices, driven by gears and pulleys not nearly as efficient and well-built as his rods and drivers.
This time, though, he saw a new figure. Clockwork Dancer.
Clockwork Dancer was different. Her movements were graceful and smooth. She danced across the opening, making precise motions with her arms. White lights glowed in her eyes. Blink, blink went the eyes as Speed Demon roared past, a speeding bullet wrapped in smoke and steam.
His thoughts coursed slow along steel pathways. Had the dancer blinked in response to the sight of his powerful headlamp? Speed Demon fell in love.
That night, in the yards, Speed Demon tried to think of a way to tell the Dancer of his love. His fiery heart pulsed slow, stoked at intervals by yard workers. At length, he knew his only recourse was to shout as he passed. Could she hear him? Surely a creature so fine as the Clockwork Dancer would hear and understand. Speed Demon despaired. In the depths of his metallic soul he knew there was no future together for them. Locomotives and churches do not mix.
Thus, whenever Speed Demon roared through the little town with the church where she danced, he shouted out his love.
The first time it happened, the engineer glanced at the fireman. “What the hell was that? I didn’t touch the whistle.”
“Beats me. We better have the yard check it.”
Speed Demon saw Dancer about once a month. When she was dancing, he cried louder and longer. The yard gang couldn’t find anything wrong with his whistle. Train crewmen came to accept his odd behavior. One or two bright sparks even noticed that the exuberant wails came when the mechanical ballet dancer was marking the hour.
A great war came and went. Speed Demon lost his streamlined side panels to a scrap drive. He went just as fast without them. Without fail he shouted his love as he passed. Did her dance sometimes change slightly? Was she answering his call?
Then Speed Demon was pulled off the line. New diesel locomotives replaced him. For a year the railroad used him as a spare engine. Only once during that year did he see Dancer. He called to her, tried to tell her what had happened, spoke of his love. She danced across the tower, oblivious to his cries.
Speed Demon was sent to the breaker’s yard. He coasted to a stop behind a line of old, cold steam locomotives. His fiery heart cooled and ceased to beat.
“What they doin’ to the church?”
The young engineer glanced out a side window. “Remodeling, I hear. Tearing out the old clock — the one with the figurines — or whatever they are.”
“Dang. Too bad. I always liked that clock.” The fireman laughed. “I think old 9028 had a thing for the ballet dancer.”
The engineer snorted. It figured that an old steam locomotive fireman would believe nonsense like that.
Speed Demon snapped awake. Heat! Blazing heat! In reflex, he pulled at his thoughts. They coalesced into a single lump. Suddenly, he could think fast — real fast. He was in a furnace of some kind. No longer a machine, he was — molten. The word popped into his consciousness.
“No it didn’t, silly. I showed it to you.”
The words floated like a neon sign in his mind. He formed a reply. “Huh?”
“It’s me. Dancer. We’re being melted down.”
A surge of pure light burst in his soul. He tried to tell her his name, ask about her real name, and wonder at their fate — all at once.
“I know who you are, Speed Demon. And I never had a name until you gave me one. Until you shouted it at me, time after time.” Her thoughts jumbled for a moment, then cleared. “Along with your love.”
“Along with my love.” He drew her close. “What will become of us?”
“It doesn’t matter. Hold me close, my love. Never let me go.”
In the blaze of the furnace, he enfolded her in the steel heart of his love.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.