“Thomas! Thomas, wake up!”
Thomas the train engine lurches into the drowsy beginnings of consciousness.
A familiar voice comes from the darkness and a few moments later a dim pendant lamp snaps on as someone pulls on its chain. Standing there, casting shadows across the room is Sir Topham Hatt, controller of all the railroads of Sodor.
“Thomas, it’s urgent! An emergency! Oh my, you’re our only hope!”
Topham Hatt flicks a stiff switch and the garage door begins to open with a metallic groan, letting in at first a blinding slit of daylight and then a flood. Thomas squints as he struggles to come fully awake.
“Thomas, I mean it. We must go! Now!” Thomas is confused. He can’t remember the last time the jovial railroad controller was actually screaming. To his astonishment, Topham Hatt himself climbs inside his cab.
Within minutes, Thomas roars at full speed from the Tidwell Sheds onto the main line across the island. Right away, he notices a smaller set of rails now alongside his own.
“The Duke and I thought it was a good idea!” blurts out the controller. “It’s a disaster. Look, there he is!”
“It’s Trillions the Trolley, Thomas!”
A small red trolley car off in the distance closes the gap in just a few minutes. As the interloper draws near, Thomas catches a glimpse of a twisted face with bloodshot, fixed, veiny eyes and a tongue that lolls out of its constantly-contorting gap-toothed mouth.
“Oh, no, he’s gone insane! Whatever shall we do?!”
At that moment, Thomas notices assorted human limbs and a couple twisted bodies caught in the slats of the trolley’s front buffer. The staring faces of the dead with their filmed-over eyes nod gently to the rhythm of the rails. Within a few more seconds, the trolley catches up with him and as it passes, he sees it is packed with as many passengers as its compartment can carry with limbs sticking out of each window. Everyone on board is screaming in terror and despair as Trillions the Trolley races past. Thomas tries to keep up but the lightning-fast trolley soon vanishes over the next hill.
“He’ll be back for another lap soon enough.” says the controller with a sigh. “You see…you may not realize it but you and your friends have been asleep for the last forty years…Well, I tried to revive Percy and Henry and the rest, but no one in Sodor makes the parts for them anymore. I’m afraid we’ve lost them, Thomas.”
Thomas throws on the brakes with all his might sending sparks flying as grief and shock overwhelms him. He nearly derails as his eyes stare in horror and his mouth hangs agape. In that moment he discovers a torture even the devil couldn’t have come up with, the feeling of trying to scream only to remember he has no lungs or larynx. Then, a keening wail and tremendous tower of steam bursts from his whistle that can be heard across the island. Thomas screeches to a halt with the tracks behind him still smoking.
Topham Hatt gets out of the cab, climbs onto the soft grass of the Sodor countryside and stands right in front of Thomas’ twitching face turned a much paler shade of grey than usual, his unfocused pupils reduced to pinpricks. The controller removes his top hat from his bald pate for the first time and somberly addresses the last of the Sudrian engines.
“Oh, Thomas. We have made a bloody mess of things. When we realized you and your friends only go forty miles per hour we imported a trolley that could go eighty miles per hour and put all of you away in your sheds. At first everyone was overjoyed but over time, they had more children and we had a couple more million people move to Sodor. Soon even Trillions the Trolley couldn’t keep up. We kept upgrading him and pushing him until now he travels at 160 miles per hour.”
“But now that’s too fast and we can’t slow him down. The commuters on board are making just enough pay to get by. They can’t afford to stop or even slow down a little bit. Now Trillions is running over anyone who gets in his way, especially the old and disabled who can’t move quickly. Now everyone is faced with sacrificing their parents and grandparents to keep working…Thomas, I need you to come out of it, I need you to listen to me.”
The little train engine’s gaze gradually refocuses and his face is now crumpled with sorrow around his big, expressive eyes.
“Thomas, we only really have two things we can do.”
“If we stop the trolley, we’ll stop people from dying right now, but even with your help not enough people will be able to get to work and the factories and the quarry will all shut down. Then people will be penniless and desperate and I am afraid, Thomas, that will be even worse in the long run.”
“If we leave the trolley alone, it all goes on as you see now and Trillions will keep going even faster. I can’t do this anymore, Thomas. There is a fork up ahead. One way leads to a switch that will divert the trolley to a dead end. The other way will take us back to Tidwell. You’ll have to make the choice. I’m…I’m so sorry.”
Topham Hatt solemnly puts his hat back on and with stooped shoulders climbs back into the cab. In moments, Thomas is moving, slowly and hesitantly at first, then starts to pick up speed. In the cab, Topham Hatt pulls out his gold pocketwatch from his coat on its delicate chain and flips it open looking for some small comfort.
Somehow Thomas can suddenly hear the relentless ticking of the watch over his engine and it grows steadily louder as time seems to slow down and the fork grows nearer. Thomas’ brow is stern and eyes fierce but his mouth writhes with agony. Tears of jet black oil begin to well up around his eyes and streak down his face. The sound of the ticking is now almost deafening. The fork is just ahead.
The camera zooms on Thomas’ face as the moment of decision approaches. “Tohhh…misss!” Topham Hatt’s voice sounds slowed and distorted.
As the train engine furrows his brow even tighter, a line of static flickers across the screen. Then again. And again. More lines of dancing snow appear, shimmer, and disappear. Suddenly there is a descending discordant orchestral glissando and atonal pizzicato strings. As the glissando bottoms out, the screen goes black…
The animator jolts awake in a cold sweat, his heart pounding. It’s an ordinary morning before another work day. He breathes deep and climbs and sits on the edge of his bed. By his bedside is a large poster of a smiling, happy Thomas, the character he helps to create for a living. Those big dinner-plate eyes have been blandly watching over him while he was sleeping. It was nothing. Just a nightmare. The animator shakes his head, gets dressed and heads out to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and to check the news on his phone. Looks like it’s going to be gray day at the beginning of Spring. It’s early March in the year 2020.