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The Tank Engine

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Ishmael and Queequeg were married. This was not inherently unusual. What was unusual was that everyone aboard the Pequod seemed to know this, apart from Ishmael himself. Ahab had lost count of the number of times that Ishmael had referred to Queequeg as his ‘bedfellow’, ‘good friend’ and, worst of all, ‘roommate’. At first, Ahab had assumed that this was some joke between the two of them, but, to his horror, he and the rest of the crew had quickly realised that Ishmael was genuinely oblivious to the fact that he was married to Queequeg- and had been, now, for several months.

Ridiculous as it was, Ishmael’s ignorance of his own marital status was not Ahab’s biggest problem aboard the Pequod. Neither was the ongoing drama between the first mate Starbuck and the deck hand Costa (Ahab was fairly sure it had something to do with the oarsman Nero, but he couldn’t be sure). It was not even the fight which had broken out over whether whales were mammals or fish (Ahab personally believed that they were reptiles, but he wisely kept this opinion to himself). No, his biggest problem was blue, large and monstrous.

They called it The Tank Engine.

Tank was an appropriate word for what it was, Ahab reflected. The creature was a hulking mass of metal and fire, not quite dead, not quite alive. Ever since it had stolen his leg (which was now replaced by a pogo stick duct-taped onto the stump), Ahab had harboured a burning vendetta against the monster. Try as he might to move on, he always found his gaze drifting back to the ocean, waiting for that tell-tale spout of steam and the eerie whistle which accompanied it.

One evening, as the sun was beginning to set, and spill its molten gold across the gentle waves, the vague silhouette of another ship emerged from over the horizon. Ahab’s heart began to race, as it always did when they met a new craft, swollen with the possibility of news of The Tank Engine. Perhaps they had heard tell of it. Perhaps they had even seen it.

Quickly, he gave the order for them to pull alongside the new ship, As it neared, Ahab noted that it was beaten and battle-scarred. There were gouges in the woodwork, and a blackened patch around the bow which looked like it had been burned. And, most ominous of all, the stench of coal and oil and Peek Multi-Purpose Metal Polish Paste lingered over the decks.

Ahab would recognise that smell anywhere.

They drew up parallel to the other boat, and Ahab leant over the side to call to them.
“Have ye seen The Tank Engine?” he yelled.
“If by Tank Engine ye mean Thomas,” came the reply. Ahab looked to see who the speaker was. It turned out to be a weary-looking gentleman with a litter-picker for an arm, taped on at the shoulder.
“Aye, that servant of the devil,” Ahab returned. “Was he the one who savaged your ship?”
“He serves no devil,” the gentleman answered gravely. “I heard he obeys only The Controller. But yes, it was he who left us in such a sorry state.”
“And was it he who took your arm?”
“Aye,” said the gentleman. “I used to have such a fine arm. Such a delicately boned wrist and such a wonderful elbow. People used to say my right elbow was my best feature. ‘Boomer,’ they would say, ‘you have an unfortunate face, but my god, do you have hot elbows’. Now all I am left with is this.” He gestured limply with the litter-picker. “And all anyone says to me is ‘Boomer, you missed that wrapper’. It’s enough to make a man go mad.”
“Does it upset you, that people call you boomer?” Ahab asked, feeling sympathetic for the poor man.
“No,” the gentleman replied, confused. “It’s my name.”
“Oh. That is unfortunate,” Ahab said condolingly. “Well, if it helps, The Tank Engine took my leg. Bit it right off. The doctor promised me a robot replacement, but all I got was this pogo stick. When I tried to go back to his office to complain, I found out that he’d been arrested for performing surgeries without a license. Apparently, he thought that being ‘really good at Operation’ was a sufficient qualification.”
Captain Boomer didn’t quite know what to say to that. 
“Anyway,” Ahab continued. “Whereabouts did you see The Tank Engine?”
“In the sea,” Captain Boomer replied helpfully. “Somewhere over that way.” He pointed with his litter-picker.
“I see,” said Ahab, even though he really didn’t.
“Well,” began Captain Boomer, after a certain awkward silence. “Goodbye.”
“Bye,” said Ahab.
There was another prolonged silence as the two boats slowly drifted apart. Boomer gave a strange little wave with his litter-picker. Ahab inclined his head in response. The only noise was the lapping of the waves again the hulls of the ships.
“Bye,” Captain Boomer repeated.
“Bye,” Ahab said, tapping his pogo stick impatiently on the deck.
“Bye,” returned Boomer.
“Mm,” said Ahab. The boats continued to gradually separate.
Boomer waved again. Ahab waved back out of politeness. 
After a deeply uncomfortable length of time, Boomer’s ship had finally floated far away enough that Ahab could no longer make out the pitiful figure of the Captain, still waving with his makeshift arm.


It was several days before they picked up the trail of The Tank Engine. Starbuck was the first to spot the marks of his presence: a puddle of oil upon the ocean’s surface, a patch of sooty water, a floating piece of coal. Ahab felt increasingly on edge with every sign that the train had been there, every clue that would bring him into contact with his prey at last.

One day, it was Ishmael who was on lookout duty at the top of the mast. Ahab was not particularly confident in Ishmael’s eyesight, since he seemed unable to notice what was right in front of him (namely, that fact that he was married), but he had decided to give the man a chance. And, to his surprise, this chance appeared to have paid off, as it was not long before Ishmael cried “Train! Train off starboard side!”
“It is Thomas!” Ahab cried, his blood pressure increasing to a dangerous level. “It is The Tank Engine!”
“It is not The Tank Engine!” Ishmael called.
“How can you tell?” Ahab yelled up at him.
Ishmael peered through his telescope. “It is red,” he yelled back down.
“I know that train,” said Queequeg seriously from the deck, eyeing the plume of steam which was now visible on the horizon. “It is James.”
Another harpooner nodded in agreement. “I could recognise that whistle in my sleep. The legends say that he is vain but lots of fun.”
Said whistle then sounded, a long, clear note. 
Ahab glanced at his first mate. Starbuck looked back at him gravely.
“Do we pursue?” he asked.
“The crew are in low spirits,” Starbuck replied evenly, oblivious to Costa giving him the finger from across the deck. “A chase might help to boost morale.”
Ahab weighed what Starbuck had said. It was true. They had been after Thomas for so long that they had barely had the chance to capture any other trains. “Alright,” he said, eyes on the steadily approaching engine. “Let’s get that train!”

The chase, although violent, was brief. James turned out to be arrogant as well as vain, and had breached the surface alarmingly close to the Pequod, rearing his leering face and blowing a rather inconsiderate raspberry at the sailors. That was it for the harpooners. They attacked him with a renewed vigour, managing to secure him on a line and stab at his boiler until the metal finally pierced and the life hissed out of the engine in a rush of steam and smoke. Then came the mammoth task of winching the carcass out of the ocean and securing it for dissection. The crew all pitched in, grabbing wrenches and crowbars and peeling away at James’ armoured plating, siphoning off the still-warm water and draining him of his precious oil. Some of the sailors went to get shovels and assaulted the tender, emerging with mounds of coal, their bodies coated in a layer of black dust.
Eventually, all that was left was James’ grinning face, frozen in death, which the crew tossed back into the ocean. It floated for a moment, before slowly sinking beneath the waves.
“Tonight,” Starbuck announced to the assembled sailors, “we party!”
The crew cheered, except for Costa, who had moved on from brandishing one finger to two.
“Will you join us?” Starbuck asked Ahab quietly. Ahab shook his head.
“There will be no respite for me until I kill The Tank Engine,” he said morosely. “I will go to bed.”
“Cringe,” Starbuck said under his breath.
Ahab pretended not to hear this, and headed for his hammock. His sleep was troubled, and he dreamed of the smiling face of Thomas the Tank Engine.

When he awoke to an incredibly hungover ship, Ahab did not immediately notice anything out of the ordinary. Sure, the crew were all sporting sunglasses, and Starbuck and Costa were mysteriously avoiding each other’s gaze, but none of this was entirely uncharacteristic. Even the sea appeared calm and flat, unremarkable. And yet, there was this sense of anticipation and foreboding which hung over the deck, and nagged at Ahab.
“Have you noticed anything unusual?” he asked Pip, the ship’s boy. “Something seems off.”
Pip leaned in like a conspirator. “So you’ve felt it too,” he whispered.
Ahab glanced at him. “You sense it as well?”
Pip nodded solemnly. “Between Starbuck and Costa. Something definitely happened last night.”
Just then, Nero brushed past, looking angry.
“I think he feels left out,” Pip mouthed.
Ahab frowned. “No, not that. I was thinking of something a little more grandiose that Starbuck and Costa’s enemies-to-lovers arc.”
“Oh,” said Pip. “Well, now you mention it, I did feel a great disturbance in the balance of the universe earlier. It was as if the voices of many sailors cried out in peril, and were suddenly silenced.”
“Aha!” cried Ahab, picking Pip up and shaking him in excitement. “It is Thomas! It has to be!”
“Yay,” said Pip weakly.


Ahab kept watch personally for the rest of the day, scouring the ocean for any sign of The Tank Engine, but all was calm and still. The sun was just beginning to descend towards the horizon, and he was about to give up hope when he spotted a dark shape in the distance. 
“There’s a dark shape in the distance!” he cried. “Faster! Mush! Mush!”
This did very little to actually speed up the ship, but it made him feel better.
As they neared the shape, he realised with a mixture of horror and excitement that it was the smashed and half-sunken remains of a ship. Peering closely, he could just make out the Tank Engine-sized hole that had pierced the hull like a javelin.
“So close,” he muttered to himself. “So close.” Turning to the crew, he took in their grave, hungover faces. “This is the work of The Tank Engine,” he announced. “He will be in our grasp soon, I promise.”


They caught up to The Tank Engine by early evening. This was somewhat anticlimactic, as Thomas had not been expecting them, and was thus bobbing happily in the water, munching on a sailor that he had saved from the last ship as a cheeky post-dinner snack, when the Pequod happened upon him.
“Oh, shit,” said Thomas, the legs of the unfortunate sailor still poking out of his mouth.
“Thomas!” Ahab yelled menacingly, a wild, murderous look in his eyes. In his hand he brandished a harpoon that appeared much too pointy for Thomas’ liking. “One way or another, I’m going to get you!”
“No u,” Thomas said, exercising the best comeback he knew, and dived beneath the surface.
“Get him!” Ahab shouted, and the crew rushed to the little rowing boats, assorted weapons in hand. How Starbuck had ended up with a chainsaw was beyond him, but he wasn’t complaining.
Just then, Thomas breached the surface, grinning manically. “Bow before the might of nineteenth-century infrastructure!” he cried, launching himself at the Pequod. Several sailors screamed.
A few of the harpooners got good hits in, but their puny mortal weapons were not enough to stop the raw, untamed power of Thomas the Tank Engine. He barrelled through the hull, yelling something about steam-powered innovation. The whole ship keeled to the side, the ocean gushing in through the gaping, Thomas-shaped hole.
Ahab leapt into one of the smaller boats, harpoon clenched tightly in his fist. This was it. This was his chance. The next time Thomas surfaced, he was ready.
“This is between you and me, Thomas!” he called. “Come and face me!”
Thomas paused, confused. “Who are you, again?” he inquired.
These words cut Ahab like a knife to the heart. “You don’t… you don’t remember me?” he asked, deflated.
Thomas frowned. “Should I?”
Ahab let out a sob. “You ate my leg! Our eyes met! We promised that we would be eternal adversaries!”
“I don’t recall…” Thomas began hesitatingly.
Another moan escaped Ahab’s throat. “We had something special! How could you not remember?”
“Did you have a different hairstyle back then, or—”
A solitary tear leaked down Ahab’s cheek. “I had an eyepatch that I wore for aesthetic purposes.”
“Well,” Thomas began matter-of-factly, “I’m sorry to say, but the eyepatch did it all for me. Without it, you’re just not the same man.”
Ahab wailed.
“Aw, man,” said Thomas, feeling a little guilty. “Maybe you could just put the eyepatch back on, and we could go from there?”
The volume of Ahab’s crying increased. “I… I threw it away,” he blubbered. “I thought it looked silly.”
Thomas sighed. “Shit, man,” he said. “That’s too bad.”
There was a moment of silence, interrupted only by Ahab’s sniffles and the screams of drowning sailors.
“This is getting a little awkward,” Thomas commented, which only made Ahab cry louder. “I’m just gonna… I’m just gonna go, I think. I think that would be best. Yeah. Um. Well. Yeah. Have a great rest of your day, I guess.” He paused, eyeing up a drowned harpooner. “I’ll just… I’ll just take one for the road, if that’s okay. Y’know. In case I get hungry.” Ahab didn’t reply. “Okay…” Thomas said, a little self-consciously. “Bye then.”
“Goodbye,” whispered Ahab, as his ship sank gracefully beneath the waves behind him. “Goodbye forever… Thomas.”
“Yeah,” said Thomas. “Sure.”


Alone at last, Ahab connected his phone to the Bluetooth speaker on the boat and played All By Myself on loop for ten hours until he eventually washed up on the Island of Sodor and began a new life as a potato farmer.


THE END