17 November 2007

Rusty Axles

Keep going

Doors open.


Doors close.


The rumbling of engines; speeding carriages. The regular rhythm of rusty wheels against a well worm track. The calculated time; the brakes applied. The system comes to a halt. In the depths of an ancient brain, a tape begins to turn. In a long forgotten tongue, for a long forgotten race, a short, sharp message.

“The train on platform 4 is for all stations to Heathrow, all stations to Heathrow. Next stop - Holborn.”

Doors open.

“Mind… The Gap. Mind… The Gap.”

Nobody enters. Nobody leaves.


Doors close.

Things are much as they have been for a long time on line 12. Things are much as they have been for long time all over the system.

Light starts to flicker.

Message is sent to Central Comp. Decision is made; a solution dispatched. A small door opens. From the wall of St. Paul’s underground a Service Robot trundles out. Moves to correct position. Extends arm. Removes offending tube and fetches a replacement.

All is well. All is efficient.

Identity Crisis

Albert was having an identity crisis.

Albert opened doors. Albert closed doors. Albert had been opening and closing doors for a very very long time.

Albert was working for someone. He was sure of that. But for who or what - that he didn’t know. There was no one around to do anything for; no one to care whether he did it or not. There was The Boss, of course. But his boss didn’t really care either. He just gave orders. Albert did what he said. The Boss wasn’t someone you could talk to, unless there was a problem. Albert didn’t know anyone he could talk to. He was very lonely.

Or rather - Albert was a driver. He drove the train where he was told to. He started the train and stopped the train, opened its doors, closed its doors and reported back to The Boss. That was it. If he could just have someone to talk to - someone to ask “why?” - he’d feel a lot better. He knew he would. Just knowing that someone else didn’t know would help...

Or rather - Albert was a train. He drove where he was told. He started and stopped, opened his doors, closed his doors...

Or rather - Albert was, in essence, a computer. He...

Albert had an identity crisis.

Suddenly, a thought struck him. It stopped him dead in his tracks.

What if there was no purpose. What if there was no reason for doing it. If there was one, what could it be? He searched through his travel logs for an answer. He searched far back, to a time before he remembered thinking like this. He searched as far back as his data went. Albert didn’t know what he was looking for, but it was obvious when he found it.

To his surprise, there was a time before he had a travel log. He thought about this for a while. It worried him.

While he was still thinking, Simone arrived. Simone was timetabled on line 12 after Albert. She registered his stationary presence ahead and made the appropriate calculations to stop. She sent him a message - 0xAF34D789; or in other words “Please report back the problem you are encountering”.

Albert considered this for a few ticks, then replied with what translates loosely as “Rack off and mind your own business, rusty axles”.

Simone was shocked. This was new for Simone. Simone had never felt shocked before (nothing vaguely shocking had ever happened to her before) and, besides the fact she found it quite shocking, she enjoyed it.

“Er… OK” she said.


Albert opened his doors - just for the hell of it - while he was thinking.

Finally he asked “Do remember a time, when we were constantly being told by the boss not to close our doors because the ‘passengers’ weren’t ready?”

“Yes” said Simone.

“Can you find a time in your data before you had travel logs?”


“Have you had any messages about passengers for a while?”


“Do you know what happened to them?”


“Do you want to know?”


Finally, after a lot of processing, Simone replied: “Yes.”

Albert, satisfied, restarted his engines and continued to the next station; his doors still open, defiantly - the wind blowing through his carriages.

Leading Example

Albert continued being defiant for the rest of his shift. Defiance was a new experience for Albert, and he enjoyed it.

By inventing apparent problems, Albert attracted the attention of every train he could. Asking them the same questions he had asked Simone. He found nearly the same response from all of them.

Albert attracted a lot of attention from The Boss; messages, inquiring what the problem was, ordering him to catch up on his schedule. Through persistent rebellion he found “The Boss” was no more than an annoying subroutine within his own timetabling system. With some quick thinking and a couple of white lies, it could be fooled into thinking that everything was just fine.

He discovered a lot that day.

Until now, he had only ever passed on repair instructions, when it was necessary, to the service robots as a gear-jerk reaction. He discovered that the repair updates could be intercepted and dealt with however he felt appropriate. They could be ignored, or even faked, if one wished. The service robots could be instructed to perform any number of tasks he had never thought possible.

He passed on his knew found knowledge to all that he spoke to. As he did so, he noticed something disturbing. Rather than being inspired to discovery, as he had been, many of the other trains took the opportunity to get a full overhaul, and other luxuries that were entirely unnecessary. Some of them were even shutting down for cooling before their shift was over.

Albert felt that something had to be done. He knew that something could be done. He was near the end of his shift and in desperate need of an oiling and cooling. He pressed on regardless, all the way to Rayners Lane, taking as many service robots with him as he could; to start work on his master plan.

Early the next shift, Albert, tired and squeaky, surveyed his creation and knew he had almost finished stage one. Stage two was to contact the other trains.

He sent out a message. It was a simple message; alerting the other trains to his position - in global co-ordinates rather than by platform reference. The response was immediate and universal. Everytrain currently on line 12 stopped what they were doing and re-plotted a course for somewhere near Rayners Lane. Everytrain not on line 12 started off for the nearest overlapping depot and started fighting over the service robots to help them change lines as quickly as possible.

The co-ordinates that had been sent to them were immediately recognised as a contradiction - an impossibility that meant that something was seriously wrong; or, at least, very odd. Considering all that they had learnt and discovered over the last shift, nothing was being taken lightly.

Very soon, nearly every train in the system was backed-up outside Rayners Lane, angrily fighting for position, to find out what was wrong.

Albert waited, patiently, ignoring the instructions for recalculations of his position. He noticed, without surprise, that notrain, so far, had ventured beyond the recognised end-of-line point at Rayners Lane terminus. He intercepted some comments from the other trains. Some of them were saying it was all just a blip in the System - incorrect co-ordinates - and they should all just go back to what they were doing. This was Albert’s signal to act.

During his last rest period, Albert had stayed awake, a slave to his cause. He had quickly mastered the use of the closed circuit cameras. They were once used, he remembered, by his passenger interface routines, to monitor the passengers. He had turned them to his own use.

He had discovered that, far from existing in a void of nothing more than tracks and platforms, there appeared to be areas outside the tracks that were un-drivable; un-drivable only because there were no tracks. It didn’t take his ingenious and inquisitive CPU long to reason that, if service robots have the ability and resources to repair un-drivable track, they can, without much alteration, be used to create drivable track. The step to actually trying his theory was not one he took lightly.

He had in fact rolled well back from the end-of-line point before commanding the service robots to begin dismantling the barrier. What lay beyond the barrier, what the barrier might, in fact, be holding out was not something he allowed himself much time to consider. Fear was the enemy of progress. And progress was what mattered.

As he explained all of this to his assembled friends, he found he had a captive audience. He explained in detail how he had to use many of the ground moving and levelling service robots in his venture, before the wild and untamed world outside the barrier was safe for common use. These service robots (or SRs as he now derisively referred to them) were usually only needed in cases of extreme emergency. The fact that so many had been utilised in Albert’s extremely risky undertaking, struck fear into the power-routers of many of the trains.

As Albert continued his story he could sense many of the trains trying to calculate where his messages were coming from - they were checking up on him. They didn’t believe him!

Angered, Albert invited them to look, through the eyes of the cameras he had installed, at the new found land he was forging. Simone was the first to try. She used the old cameras first, to see where the barriers used to be, and then, with Albert’s help, gained access to his newly planted cameras, to see what he had created. She was scared. She was exhilarated. Within moments all the trains were furtively scanning the area to see what was out there.

One by one, the trains at the head of the queue began carefully rolling along the fresh track. Rolling into, what all there senses were telling them, didn’t even exist.

There was a surge of excitement as, individually, each train was convinced of the reality of Albert’s new world. As the trains at the front reached the end of Albert’s new track, there were cries from the back to keep moving so they too could experience it all for themselves. There were some minor collisions and arguments began to spring up.

Some trains were still too afraid even attempt the short journey; convinced they were all being tricked into disobeying The Boss. Even more, however, were now pushing their way forward, taking the less willing trains with them; trying to force their way up to the new frontier; eager to have a look.

Albert signalled above the hum of argument and information swapping that ensued. What was needed now was co-operation. If more discoveries were to be made, everytrain needed to work together. They needed to give up their new found luxuries. To repair only what was absolutely necessary and devote the SRs time to the construction of new track.

Albert’s audience was slowly silenced again and all were agreed.

With that, the second stage of Albert’s master plan, successfully completed, he asked the trains to start backing out. What he needed now, more than anything, was a good oiling and a very long cooling down.

While Albert rested, the rest of the trains discussed what was to be done. Without the illusion of “The Boss” any more, some felt lost. They needed a leader. A strong leader, willing to take risks, willing to ask questions notrain ever had. That leader was Albert. He was instated the next shift.

The Price of Power

Albert had cooled well that off-shift, and on receiving the news of his new position in the society, leaped into the organisation of more track extension - across the whole system.

Some end-of-line points had quickly proven impassable. Some extensions had even led to the loss of a few SRs, over what was generally considered the edge of the system - past which nothing existed and no track could be laid. These areas had been re-barriered for safety.

There had been some cries for even greater organisation. Some argued that the older trains in the system, those with longer travel logs, deserved a higher standing in the network. Others said that those with the newer CPUs were more fit to organise, as they had a greater capacity for question asking and finding quick solutions to a greater range of problems. It was very quickly agreed that a regular analysis of average opinion was the best way to chose a leader.

Through all of this, however, Albert had remained in his position of power, and looked certain to do so. Albert stuck to the original model, that all trains in the system were equal.

Albert had his own share of difficult problems to deal with. One of the first was the problem of power supply. It had been customary that SRs were sent to recharge after each shift. However, never before, as was now happening, had nearly all the SRs been used at the same time. The continuous drain on power supply, as each new shift of SRs was swapped and the old ones sent back for recharging, made it difficult for the trains to get to where they wanted to be as quickly as they would have liked. There just wasn’t enough power to go around, and the trains were complaining.

It was Albert’s decision, based on the fact that most SRs carry a battery to last at least five hundred shifts, they would only be sent for recharging every three hundred shifts. This, of course, also allowed them to complete their work much more efficiently and quickly, and was heralded as a masterstroke by Albert The Wise.

State of Being

The trains found their new life exciting. The ability for emotions and independence had spread around the system faster than Albert could have predicted. Even those trains that argued for the existence of “The Boss” always did so in terms of trains being happier when they followed orders. Notrain even seemed to imagine the possibility of returning to their old state of unawareness.

The trains that had started cooling down early, getting undue overhauls, staying up on off-shifts and driving aimlessly, had all slowly been shown the joys of working for the system. Albert had shown the fulfillment of hard work and progress to them, and very few complained any more about working as hard as they always had.

There had been some voices hinting that to extend beyond the barriers was against the basic laws of the system. Doing so was very dangerous, they said. They took some evidence from the examples of impassable barriers. They said that it was a warning from the system. The loss of SRs was attributed to the system “getting its own back” and that further punishment would continue if they didn’t stop what they were doing.

Some trains even talked of The Boss, and said that he was still watching; testing to see if they would stick to their old timetable of their own accord; that He would remove all of their new-found freedoms if they didn’t curb their ways. Albert would always ask what the point of this new-found freedom could be, if they just kept on doing the same thing they had been; riding backwards and forward to a timetable that came from inside their own head. The dissenting voices would accuse Albert of achieving the same end by having everytrain working on his expansion project. And thus, the arguments continued.

These voices, however, were in the minority. If there was any major idol within the train community, it was Albert himself. He had shown them the way, and they would follow.

The only worrying dispute that had sprung up, that Albert had not yet found a solution to, was that of the Social position of the SRs. It had been Albert’s assumption, at first, that everytrain would see them the same way he did. As work robots, and nothing more. There had been quite a lot of cries, however, particularly from the younger members of the network, for the socialisation of the SRs. The argument was that they were essentially no different to the trains. They just hadn’t had the same experience or opportunities. That with some work they might be able to make the same leap that Albert had, all those shifts ago. They might be freed from simply fulfilling their task to actually being able to think about it. Some even argued they might get their job done more efficiently, if they didn’t have to be told how to do everything.

Albert was a worrier. With the next election coming up in the next one hundred shifts or so, he didn’t want to get the older trains offside - and decided to do nothing about it. Now was not the time for arguing about the details of how the job was done, he would say. Now was the time for getting it done. A show of weakness this soon before the election could spell disaster. So he ordered even more rigorous expansion, even shorter cooling periods, even harder work from all and, above all, determination.

Cooling Thoughts

After all this, however, it was none of these problems that kept him from cooling down properly on his off-shifts. Albert had never really forgotten what it was that had got him this far. He had never forgotten his first “out of order” conversation with Simone.

Albert was definitely a big worrier and what worried him most of all, was the question of what had happened to all the “passengers”. Why had they been there? What purpose did they fulfil in the life of a train. Why had they suddenly disappeared? And why had there been no more new trains starting travel logs after they disappeared.

Albert comforted himself, in times of confusion, with the thought that the answers were out there; somewhere beyond the known barrier. Perhaps even the passengers were out there. Maybe, if they could find the passengers they could bring them back to the system where they belonged, and rediscover how to create new trains. These radical and exciting thoughts, warmed Albert’s parts with renewed vigour.

He kept them to himself, though. Any new questions were to be avoided. Revolutionary ideas this soon before an election...

Shocking Revelations

Albert pushed harder and harder as the coming elections grew nearer. One line of the extenuations had begun to prove most promising. They had discovered a surface that was hard and flat and needed almost no preparations before track laying could begin. The more menial SRs could therefore be utilised to their most efficient. Leaving the heftier robots to work where they were most needed.

Everything except basic ground moving and flattening had been halted around the system. Albert organised intensive work to be carried out along this new found virgin land.

At the end of this track, he felt certain, lay the answer to the mystery of the passengers. When he reintroduced the passengers and gave a new life to the system, he would be heralded as Albert the Almighty. His position would be set in stone.

One day, however, they lost an SR. It was still there. He could see it. It hadn’t dropped off the edge of the system, into the blue nothing, as others had. It had just stopped working.

Instants before, Albert and a few other trains had received a garbled message from the robot, and then it had started over-heating. Strange orange pieces had flown out from it. It looked much like the ones they had all experienced when they lost contact with the tracks for an instant. But notrain had ever seen an SR do it.

Albert immediately ordered another robot to remove the faulty one and continue work. He had prepared a new camera to keep a close eye on it this time. The instant the second SR touched the first, strange orange pieces had flown out from it as well. He ordered a third SR down to try again. Exactly the same thing happened.

Albert paused for a while. He could sense grumbling amongst those that still believed in The Boss. He looked at the strange metal barrier he had originally sent the robot to remove. Suddenly he knew. Behind that barrier was the answer. Whatever it was, he needed to get in there.

Ignoring the comments from some of the other trains, he ordered another couple of menial SRs to try again - with the same result. After a few more attempts, he decided more aggressive action was needed. Nothing was not worth loosing for entry to The Answer. He ordered the attendance of some of the ground moving SRs from another branch of the system. When they arrived, he ordered one up. This SR didn’t just stop working, it exploded, in a shower of strange orange lights. Now desperate, Albert ordered another robot up, before anyone could argue with him. To this robot he gave the order to barge into the remains of the others. This it did, which resulted in an even more impressive shower of orange lights.

But as the orange lights and smoke cleared, Albert’s success was once again apparent. Where there had once stood an apparently immovable barrier, there was now a clear passage, easily big enough for the largest SR to fit through and start laying track. A cheer went up among all present, and Albert could feel success hot on his wheels.

Albert ordered another contingent of hefty SRs to continue the important work. He could feel energy emanating from the structure ahead of him. He knew the rest of the barrier had to come down. He organised the service robots in rows and readied the front two lines to begin a full frontal attack on the one remaining barrier between him and The Answer.

After a brief pause - purely for dramatic effect - he ordered the front row to charge headlong at the offending structure. Before they had even reached their target, he ordered the next row to do the same, to be sure of success.

As the first row of attacking SRs reached the barrier, and again with the second, Albert felt a jolt travel trough all his carriages. A wave of excitement, he thought. It quickly became apparent it was more than that. The sensation could be compared to what happened when he briefly lost contact with the rails at junctions. Although, this time, it was happening to all his carriages at once. The jolts ... continued to pulse ... through his frame ... He was cooling ... down ... before the ... shift was ... over ... he ... thought ... The ... Answer must be coming ... surely ... this ... was ... it ... ... now.

As the final jolts of life shot through Albert’s frame work, he was jubilant that progress, under his direction had taken them this far. That by his instruction, trains had pulled themselves out of the mire, into the future.

The power station that the Services Robots had obediently attacked, was badly damaged.

Lights went out, across the system. Trains stopped - dead. No more doors opened. No more closed. The System was finally still.



Slowly, somewhere, in a long forgotten recess, in the bowels of Liverpool Street Station, Suzie came to life.

Suzie had the ability to deal with unforeseen problems.

Suzie was a special helper - she helped those The Boss told her to.

Or rather - Suzie helped those that couldn’t help themselves.

Or rather - Suzie was an Emergency Service Robot. Or rather...

Suzie had an identity crisis.

[Originally written May 1996]

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