This ain't no self-insert fic.

This ain't no slash fic neither.

This is Top Dog – in brief.

Well if they'd free me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd move just a little further down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away....

Hundreds of miles from the megalopolis at the mouth of the River of Angels, across the Sea of Islands, it's springtime on the Plains of Death*.

All is silent and still as the first light of day brings a faint glow to the eastern horizon; it's another quiet morning for this sleepy Kendarat town.

Nothing moves; most nocturnal animals are back in their dens by now but the dawn chorus won't begin for another half hour and it's far too early for people to be out of their beds.

But what's this?

A sound in the distance like an approaching tornado, the blaze of lights at the bend in the river; something is coming from the west, racing through the fields out of the night like a great shadowy snake, chasing break of day at two hundred miles per hour with the force of a bunker-buster bomb, and the pre-dawn stillness is ripped away by the thunder of titanic methane-burning engines running flat-out.

The strident howl of a twin-tone air horn joins that bellowing roar as the metal behemoths come, wheels hammering across rail joints as racks of headlights and ditch lamps momentarily turn first light to midday – and then the six staggeringly massive locomotives are past, rattling windows and shaking the land as they stampede headlong into the coming day with a seemingly endless stream of wagons like warehouses on wheels pounding across the level crossing behind them – it goes on and on and on, wagon after wagon whipping past – then in a streak of red from the tail lamps the seventy-thousand-ton high-speed freight train is gone, and the silence returns.

Not for long though, the next train will be here soon; at any moment there are untold trillions of tons of freight racing across prairie and through glen, via tunnel and mountain pass and causeway, spreading and flowing like veins on the back of a hand, by ship and by truck, by plane and by train.

Wherever you go and whoever you are, there is one constant; the day the freight stops rolling is the day the galaxy dies.

Nothing can be allowed to stand in it's way; there are schedules to be kept and hungry bellies to be fed, fuel and ore and machine parts, chemicals and fresh fruit, livestock and electronics, ammunition and aid for the warriors on the front lines – every second of every day, come Hell and high water, the freight must roll.

On many worlds, there are steam locomotives at the heads of the trains that pour across the land in a stream without end; on others, internal-combustion rules the roost, and in some places electricity keeps that freight rolling.

Gauges range from vast to tiny; locomotives range from dinky toy-like things to titans like aircraft carriers on rails, but they all share one simple thing in common; come Hell and high water, they're here to make the freight roll.

Across half a galaxy it's a scene any railfan on Earth would know well; the air shaking to a heavy blast-pipe beat that said railfan would find immediately familiar.

Likewise, once the metal beast heaves into sight, exhaust barking like a machine gun, said railfan would have that same striking sense of familiarity; a parallel-sided boiler, smokebox above pistons at the front, straight smokestack, firebox in back – everything in it's place, down to the six-coupled driving wheels and the four pilot wheels leading the way.

Even the interior of her cab, with firebox doors, cutoff, reverser, water gauge and regulator all in their places, would prove instantly familiar – there's a brief strobe-like glimpse of her fireman slinging another shovelfull of fuel into her fire, and then she's gone on her way, rake of wagons clattering along behind her with that timeless slam of steel on steel, leaving only a pall of smoke and some soot on the lineside scenery to mark her passage; come Hell and high water, she's making the freight roll.

It is a sight that could be seen anywhere there is sapient life; steel wheels hammer across steel rails throughout the galaxy and beyond, hauling loads of any conceivable nature, from passengers to refrigerated foods to endless ton upon ton of lumber and ore to gallon after gallon of hydrocarbons.

Half of known space over, the locomotives that keep each planet's freight rolling are not made at home; they cross the gulf between star systems, and even galaxies, aboard cargo starships, and then spend multiple human lifetimes of relentless labour on their destination world before, at long last, finding themselves a quiet corner in which to rust away, their work done; they have played their part in ensuring that, come Hell and high water, the freight has rolled.

Of course, the question most often asked is, why?

Why does a galaxy crawling in technologies so advanced as to blur Clarke's third law use just so many smoke-belching grease-dripping huffing puffing metal monsters? And why does the galaxy depend on steel wheels on steel rails instead of something fancy like magnetic levitation?

The answer is of course price.

Steel? Cheap; where there is iron you can make steel, and iron is everywhere.

Stuff to burn? Cheap; where there is vegetation you can make fuel, and there is vegetation anywhere it's worth staying.

Manpower, the great failing of the steamer on Earth? Cheapest thing in the galaxy; everyone needs to earn their daily bread, and low pay is better than no pay.

Other, cleaner, more advanced rail technologies see use throughout the galaxy, on capital worlds and on industrialised planets, but that most basic of motive power, the solid-fuelled steam locomotive, outnumbers them to a truly staggering degree.

That chug is heard day in, day out, across innumerable worlds; blood and sweat and tears keep those fiery behemoths moving, ensuring that, come Hell and high water, the freight will roll.

On many capital or industrialised worlds, internal-combustion or electric motive power is king, but on others, worlds such as Rokolushu or Ryza, diesel and electricity is something that happens to other planets, swept aside by the iconic status of the smoke-belching brutes that have hammered across the rails since the dawn of galactic history; on many worlds, there are people without count who will gladly bleed to keep the fires burning in those ancient juggernauts.

Where there is fuel there is fire; where there is fire there is steam; and where there is steam, there is ton after ton without count of any freight one could possibly imagine pounding across desert and tundra, through mountain and valley, skirting oceans and cities, racing like an adrenaline-fuelled pulse through savannah and forest alike as it bears with it the life's blood of a galaxy.

Come Hell, come high water, come war and come famine, come what may, the freight must always roll.

And roll it does – ever onwards, stretching into infinity and beyond, crossing horizons without count, from the plains of North America to the rugged hills of Kronos, along the twisting rain-soaked R'hara'tath Railroad on the banks of the River of the Storm's Tears and down the arrow-straight thousand-mile stretches once mistaken by telescope for canals across Barsoom's red sands, from the towering tunnel-juggernauts of Frognorf to the pint-sized street-railways of Norkrondoo, through the forests of Azeroth Prime and the blasted wastes of Zarquon's Cursed Earth, the rails lead on down the ages in a long unbroken line; in the verdant jungles of Dachaigh Nuadh tank components thunder from fabrication plant to assembly building and in the mountains of northern Rokolushu the wood of the mighty Juraiain ship-trees races through gorge and across pass; the rails trace their way through the grim urban canyons of Nar Shaddar, on the wide-open tundra of Fenris, amongst the manufactoriums of Ryza, between the pyramids of Krynn and amidst the ash wastes of Necromunda, and even on desolate planets like Arrakis – across a hundred billion worlds, the iron horses never sleep...

... and, amid the pre-dawn darkness in a loveless house near the tracks in that little Kendarat town, tired eyes in a too-young face stare through cheap spectacles after that mighty beast of steel, and ears prick up to catch the distant wail of the horn at the next crossing as she dreams of the soon-to-come day that those endless shining rails will carry her away from the drunken rages, the throw crockery, the fights, the screaming, the beatings, the crying, and those horrific frozen silences – forever.

AN – Well, having been playing a heavily-modded version of Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe all week and having listened to substantial quantities of Johnny Cash, I got inspired. This one's for the iron horses and for anyone who's ever been desperate to escape a place that should be home.

The owner of those eyes will return, for all she's nobody important, will never do anything important, and is nobody you know; she's just a Kenti girl from a blighted family who, for different reasons, loves trains as much as I do and will talk about them with my voice a time or two; she's the Reiana mentioned in the title.

* - Formerly known as the Plains of Plenty and formerly the breadbasket of Kendarat, this rich arable region got it's current title after being the equivalent of either WW2-Normandy or WW1-Flanders and due to having hosted multiple Third Reich-style extermination camps. It's still the most sparsely-populated non-Arctic non-desert region on the planet as that's the sort of thing that gives Kenti superstition attacks.

** - Not an exaggeration. The impact of a 70,000-ton train moving at 200mph would equal over a hundred tons of TNT; seventy thousand tons is an immense train at any speed. At 200mph? The record-holder on Earth was 34,000-ton and wasn't exactly fast.

Kendarat's trains, excepting their mountain railways, aren't just Earther terms of big – they are built to the same hulking scale as everything else on that world, and run on track nearly three times the gauge we mostly use here on Earth. A Kenti main-line locomotive would dwarf the biggest we've ever built to the point of making it look like a toy; in fact, you could put two of a typical Earther loco in a Kendarat boxcar and they'd be able to rattle around.

(That said, they're not quite as obnoxiously massive as the equipment of the Mount K'rath'han Orbital Railroad)

They got that way due to the area Kendarat's worldwide railway network spread out from being open, flat, and not needing much in the way of earthworks, never mind tunnels or bridges, but needing to transport an utter fuckload of cargo per train; the mountain lines such as the R'hara'tath Railroad are smallish Earther sized due to the need for extensive rearrangement of scenery during their construction followed by something like, my GOD man, you can't regauge the River of Thunder, that'd be destruction of a priceless historic artefact! You might as well suggest turning Coronation Park into a landfill! Get your grubby paws off our heritage, you philistine!

And, yes, I am an unashamed train nut –right along with ships, aircraft, modern medicine and the Net, they're amongst the most impressive things that people take for granted.

Doghead Out.