Progress Turns to Rust – a flash steampunk story

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All that remained of the mighty Black Iron Railroad was thirty feet of track and a single locomotive, rust flaking from its ancient boiler housing as it sat in the middle of Santa Vitelli’s new industrial yards. The name “Gertrude” was still visible, written across the front in peeling paint. The wooden panels of a prefabricated airship shed sat nearby, waiting to take its space.

I climbed down from our hired scrapping engine and went to stand beside Josef as he stared up at the machine. He hadn’t been wearing his goggles and so stared with red-rimmed eyes from amid a patina of brown dust.

“I remember when I first drove old Gerty here into town,” he said, his voice drifting as he peered back down the decades. “When Vitelli was a backwater longing to enter the modern world. Who’d have thought then that Gerty would one day be obsolete?”

“I could deal with her alone,” I said. “Move the scrapper into position, then use the claw, then-”

“We’ll do this together, just like the rest,” Josef said. “But let’s finish clearing the station house rubble first.”

The labourers were surprised to see us turn up in the scrapper, but no-one protested as the machine took the brunt of their work, heaving piles of old bricks into the wagons that would carry it away. Josef didn’t work the grabber as smoothly as usual, and whenever it was idle I saw his gaze shift to the rusting locomotive.

“It’s not that I don’t want her to go,” he said at last. “We need to carry on modernising. I just need to adjust to the idea.”

“Of course,” I said. “Take all the time you need.”

“We’ll do it after lunch.”

That was reassuring to hear. The scrapper was hired by the day and the town couldn’t afford to keep it around much longer. Finishing early would mean more money left for other projects.

The morning’s work took longer than usual and even when we stopped Josef seemed to have no appetite. He sat staring at the contents of his lunch pail while rubbing at the corner of one eye.

“It’s not that I don’t want to clear that space,” he said, apropos of nothing. “It’s just that old Gerty’s been here for so long. It’s a shame to throw away such a beautiful machine.”

“She’s kind of a mess, Josef,” I said. “She’s out of date, her boiler’s broken, she hasn’t even moved in ten years.”

“Maybe if we cleaned off the rust, gave her a new coat of paint…”

“There’s a reason we let her get rusty.”

He sighed and set aside an untouched sandwich.

“She was a symbol of progress,” he said. “Almost my whole working life, while we built up our industry and raised a community, she’s been there. When she goes, so do those days.”

“The town’s still growing,” I said. “This project will help.”

He sighed again.

“Maybe there’s just too many memories,” he said. “Maybe I don’t want to let her go.”

He got to his feet and strode off across the yard. I followed, a half-eaten pie in my hand.

“Over there,” he said, pointing along the new tracks towards the edge of town. “We could put the airship shed there.”

“OK,” I said. “But what about Gertie?”

“We’ll keep her here, so people can see her. A reminder of what we were.” He was excited now, smiling for the first time in days.

“What about the rust?” I asked. “She’ll fall apart if we leave her out here.”

He looked from Gerty to the wooden walls beyond.

“If we take the scrapper back early, we can afford another shed,” he said. “Put it up around her.”

“Just for Gerty?” I raised an eyebrow.

Josef’s shoulders sagged.

“You’re right,” he admitted. “I’m a sentimental fool. This town needs to keep moving forward. I’ll… Just let me do this one myself, OK?”

The sight of him trudging towards the scrapper made my heart wilt. He was weighed down with memories. Without the artifacts of the past to support him, he would have to bear that burden alone. And there were so few of those artifacts left. A few gravestones from the town’s first cemetery. The paintings in the civic hall. A few old machines like Gerty. Scattered remnants that people seldom saw.

“Wait,” I called out in a flash of excitement. “It doesn’t have to just be Gerty. This town could do with a museum.”

Josef turned to me and smiled.

“Now that’s progress,” he said.

* * *


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