Monday, March 02, 2015

The Wind Trains of Yaghan

The main mean of transportation between major fortified cities is the famous Wind Trains.

It can come as a surprise that humanity, despite being constantly harassed by hordes of murderous creatures, managed to build railroads that cover whole continents. It is a very valid question that deserves an explanation.

The first thing that is important to understand is that the major railways actually predate the arrival of morlocks and were built by the colonists that came from Earth. This important fact actually raises another question: why did a civilization that has mastered faster than light travel (actually not exactly but I will explain this later) and that has been able to colonize a planet in a different galaxy choose to build railroads as the main mean of transport instead of more sophisticated things such as planes, or helicopters, or cars on roads?

The explanation is actually quite simple and is a combination of several factors.

The first one is resilience. Trains are sturdy, quite cheap, and their maintenance is simple compared to, say, a VTOL jet. Even more important, on a single railroad, different levels of technology can coexist: you can have a steam train, a train that runs on fossil fuels, an electric one... Railroads actually enabled remote colonies that were far away from the industrial centers of the planet to still be connected to the rest of civilization: they just had to adapt the type of train they use to the resources they had. In the most extreme cases, a train could be pulled by horses. Once the railroads were built, the infrastructure became very flexible.

Speaking of building the infrastructure, it was also one of the major reasons to favor rail over roads: building roads would have meant finding oil, refining it, and producing tar... But Yaghan is quite poor in terms of fossil fuels, making its use as a power source quite a wasteful one, and the infrastructure needed to build roads is more important than the infrastructure needed to build rails: to build a railway, you just need steel, timber, and to build a stable bank (something you would have to do to build a road anyway). Then, different colonies could use different power sources: the most advanced ones used the electricity generated by the fusion reactors that were stripped from the spacecrafts, and the most remote ones could use wood. This meant that the only infrastructure needed to transport fuel was electric cables next to the railroad, instead of pipes, fuel storage and so on if roads (or aircrafts) had been chosen.

Oh, this raises the question: why not using aircrafts?

Well, again, it was a question of infrastructure: everything had to be built from the grounds up on the planet, and manufacturing planes, helicopters or VTOL jets was far more complex that building electric trains. Moreover they are much more prone to malfunction and need more maintenance, with probably more complicated parts needed in case of repairs... Not a good choice on a planet that is mostly empty. Oh, of course every major city on major continents did have planes they could use in case of emergencies, as well as shuttles able to go in orbit but these were not suited for hauling cargo and lots of passengers.

There is also a purely practical reason  to the use of trains: the first continent to be colonized was the Great Plains, and railroads were particularly easy to build there, whereas the violent storms made flying quite dangerous. Railroads also made sense in the Rainforest, the Jungle, and the Desert, where the particularly rough terrain excluded planes and all terrain vehicles. The only continent where roads would have been a practical mean of transportation was the continent now known as Callista, but since there were factories that built trains already, it did not make sense to build something that could only be used there and they also went with trains.

So, the spacers, for a variety of reasons, built railroads between their major settlements. But after the Fall, the main cities collapsed and were largely destroyed, and the main fortified cities that rose from the ashes of the Space Age were sometimes quite far away from the original ones, the ruins of the modern cities being now hellish zones teeming with morlocks... Well, yes, that is true, but even so, building small rail sections to connect a major route to a city made way more sense than building a road from scratch, even more so with the constant menace of the morlocks. Moreover, the presence of the old rail system meant that once connected to it, the workers could flee an attack using the existing rails. They basically had to build, lets say 200 miles of railroad, then could use the remaining 4000 miles.

Building those connections still proved to be quite a challenge. Hot air balloons kept watch over the construction sites and warned the workers of coming hordes, and sometimes airlifted them to safety, delaying the project for days or weeks at a time. Thankfully the morlocks never seemed to be interested in the rails or the tools and machines left by the fleeing workers: once a section was built, the morlocks did not seem to realize its utility. This led to the discovery of an interesting fact: morlocks react very strongly to things that are not natural or polluting in any shape or form. A machine that is very noisy will trigger an attack by a horde and will be dismantled in minutes, but the same exact machine, kept silent, will be ignored. Something that produces a toxic smoke will attract a horde in the same way. Another example: a barrel of water will be ignored, whereas a barrel of oil will be destroyed. The morlocks don't actually seem to realize that by spilling the oil, they pollute the land far more than by leaving it alone: they just destroy things that are not natural in a mindless frenzy.

This has two interesting consequences: the Wind Trains, that are quite respectful of the environment (they are not very noisy, far less than if propelled by engines, and they are made of wood and steel, things that occur naturally and that don't attract the morlocks), are not usually targeted by a horde. If a train crosses the path of a horde, it will be attacked, because the morlocks will smell the humans on board, but on the other hand, a train passing by under the wind, in the distance, will be watched placidly by most hordes.

The other interesting consequence is that dedicated teams could act as bait, setting a machine that produced loud noises somewhere in the plain, far from the construction site, and then stopping it and fleeing up in the air with a balloon. Wash, rinse, repeat: this method kept most hordes busy for days.

Another mean of defense that has been used in a more recent past is the Callistan psionics. Callista is the most temperate continent on Yaghan, with the interesting consequence that there is far less physical mutations there compared to places like, say, the Rainforest, where people have evolved prehensile tails to live in trees as well as a thin oily fur to protect themselves from the humidity. This has made the Callistan quite racist, they despise any physical mutations and try to preserve the "purity" of the human race at all cost, often killing babies with unusual features. This has also led them to be very suspicious of mages. On the other hand, since they need an edge against the morlocks, they have come to trusts and revere people with mental powers. They do not realize that their belief that mental powers are superior to magic actually leads reality to adjust to produce more individual with mental powers, which is exactly how magic works: a modification of reality by the beliefs of humans. One of the mental powers that is the most useful in the war against the morlocks is the ability to attract or repel them: a few very rare individuals act as beacons that can attract a horde from hundred of miles away, or repel them in a similar fashion. This cannot be used to protect a city because it is extremely tiring, but it can be used to momentarily distract hordes when travelling in the wild.

Despite all this, disaster struck several times, leading to the death of entire crews. Some morlocks defy all known patterns and are known as Abominations. They can be loners instead of being pack animals, or react differently to things that normally attract a horde, or be immune to psionic powers... They cannot be predicted, and even with the presence of Battle Mages (the only people that can fight a morlock one on one) on every construction site, sometimes a particularly vicious monster wrecked havoc on a construction site.

Nowadays, all the ancient railroads have been connected together, and more routes are being opened to reach more isolated points of the planet. The process is painfully slow, much slower than before because of the lack of infrastructure, but there is progress nonetheless. It will take decades before some points of the planet are connected to civilization, but there is hope.

A word on Wind Trains. Why using the wind to propel the trains, and not more conventional means such as fuel or steam?

The explanation is twofold. First of all, as we have seen, they attract the morlocks much less than more technological engines. But even without this, they are actually kind of a necessity: fuel sources are scarce on Yaghan, and very hard to harvest because of the menace of the morlock hordes. Wind, on the other hand, is plentiful, especially in the Great Plains. It is also quite reliable despite what you could think, thanks to the Wind Mages. There are two types of people that can manipulate the wind: normal humans that have evolved an innate ability to manipulate the winds (it is something they can do naturally, just as we can breathe or think), or True Mages, that manipulate reality to essentially achieve the same effect. The latter are much rarer but much more powerful and typically used on military convoys, such as the flagship of Gond's fleet, the Veronica (that can be seen in the novella The Law of the Plains, and that is also one of the main "characters" of the novel I'm writing).

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