In all her time in Steam Town, Stargazer had never once been to the slums of the Undercity. She drove her machine through the crowded alleys, the buildings reaching up to support the foundations of the upper cities that were her home. People gave her machine wary looks, as she was clearly out of place so far from the top side.
Fires from incinerators flared as kindling was shoved into furnaces to boil the water into the steam that moved through the pipes to the world above, and to Stargazer this truly did feel like she had stumbled into another world. The lanterns that hung from the pipes simulated the time of day top side for the denizens of below. Urchins and laborers shuffled through in groups, the large street clocks ticking away the time between shifts. Machines meant to haul resources to and from sites pushed their way through throngs of people slowly, the blaring horns cutting through the din of the cramped spaces.
Stargazer could feel the people watching her through her machine. The people in the Undercity looked rougher, worn down from time and work or sharpened to be even more dangerous. Her eyes lingered on an urchin boy, his blue hair standing out among the dark lit buildings. He was surrounded by several others, all wearing necklaces with a symbol, likely some underground organization. His eyes never left her machine as she rolled by.
Eventually, hunger and exhaustion won out and Stargazer rolled to a spot in a side alley. Her stomach growled, but she did not know where to even start to look for food down here. “Perhaps a quick nap, just to clear my head of this fog. I’ll be able to think better after a rest…”
Stargazer got out of her machine and went to collect the Aeolipyle. She could not trust that someone wouldn’t try to steal away with it as a spare engine part while she was asleep, even if they did not know what it was they were stealing. As she took it out from the engine, her fingers brushed along the side of the sphere. She felt buttons being pressed. The indentations and the channels along the Aeolipyle’s surface started to glow as the Aeolipyle let off a burst of steam and started to open.
“Wh-what? What’s going on?”
As the Aeolipyle’s outer sphere split and opened on a hinge, Stargazer could see that several of the pieces were moving and rearranging themselves on the inside of the dome. They seemed to be forming a mask, one half brass, the other silver. Stargazer stared, trying to make sense of what she had just witnessed.
It was not the first time she had found herself surprised by an undocumented feature of the Aeolipyle. Several times in developing it, when she finished one part of the device, upon integration it would result in some weird unintended side effect. She remembered putting buttons there, as well as the mechanical gears to allow movement of the parts inside the ball, but to make a mask…it had to have been a secret left by the original creator.
Stargazer jumped. A large machine had pulled up behind her, a train engine by the look of it, and the engineer was pulling on the rope to the horn.
“Oi, what’s the big idea, blockin’ the path! Some of us are tryin’ to get off our shift!”
“Sorry, I…Sorry. I don’t really know where I am or where I’m going.”
“Eh?” The girl poked her head out the window. A gas mask covered her face, making it impossible to see what she looked like beneath. Her clothes were covered with coal dust. “You lost? This isn’t a good place for that…”
“There are good places to be lost…?”
“Well, the Undercity is the first place anyone goes to get lost, you see, so there’s a business down here of picking out the new folks from top side. Like you. Folks like me, we grew up here in the slums, so we know the ins and outs of it!” The girl said proudly, her voice distorted through the mask. “First rule of the Undercity, every one needs to work. If you aren’t working, you’re a target. Me and some of the other kids, we run the coal from the mine to the factories. Those of us who can’t drive these trains keep ‘em running. But we all work!”
“I can…help you keep the trains running,” Stargazer said, almost as a question. “You’re right, I’m not from here, but I’m trying to stay hidden. I don’t think I can go back.”
“Well, if you’re looking for the best place to get lost, you’ll want the Devil’s help,” the girl answered, as if that was obvious.
“Yeah, the Devil of Downbelow. His organization knows all the ways in and out of Steam Town. You want something from top side or something that the Cult of Steam wouldn’t allow, you ask the Devil.”
“How do I find this person?” Stargazer asked.
“Well, if you move your machine out of my way, I’ll lead you to him. You seem pretty helpless, even compared to most adults.”
Stargazer could feel her cheeks blush in embarrassment, but she couldn’t find it in herself to argue the point. “Right, thank you. I’m Stargazer by the way.”
“You can call me Little Monster. Now c’mon!”
Little Monster kept her word and led Stargazer to a different area of the Undercity, pulling up to one of the mass incinerator plants, where waste was sent to burn. The employees there seemed to recognize Little Monster, letting her coal-car pull into the compound freely. Stargazer followed behind in her smaller machine.
“Well now, Little Monster, what have you brought me today?” A man with a green mohawk curled back and a rat automaton upon his shoulder asked, stepping forward. A fur coat was draped over his shoulders as he stared out through one red-lensed covered eye. “The runaway from the Steam Judge herself?”
“Eh? What are you talkin’ about, Devil? I just found this lost topsider.”
“Oh, my dear Monster, you have found so much more than that,” He gave Stargazer a terrifying grin as the workers in the compound started to gather weaponry from whatever they could find. Stargazer looked around, sheer terror on her face. “You’ve found one of Steam Judge’s researchers, lost here in the underground. I’d recognize the brilliant Stargazer anywhere.”
The men drew slowly ever closer, much to Stargazer’s displeasure. “I am sure he would pay handsomely for your return…but you are in luck!” The Devil said, letting out a pleased chuckle. “For I hate that backstabbing cur with the fury of ten thousand angry suns. You’ve caused quite a stir top side, Miss Researcher. Judge is turning over all of his connections among the cult to get back what you stole.”
“You know the Steam Judge?” Stargazer’s mind was so overwhelmed, that she was having trouble processing all that the Devil of Downbelow had said.
“Yeah, I know the rat. We were partners, back in the day, before he stabbed me in the back. We were both going to be rich, but he cut me out. Left me down here while he went to become the baron he is today,” Devil spit at the mention.
“Then…You have to help me. I need to get out of the city. I cannot let Judge get his hands on this!” Stargazer pulled the Aeolipyle out from her bag, showing it to the Devil of Downbelow. The hinge had not fastened properly, as the sphere opened once more. At the sight of the brass and silver, the Devil’s one eye went wide. As soon as the expression appeared, however, it was gone.
“Normally, I’d charge quite a bit for such a service. But to stick it to my old friend, why, I’ll do this one for free. But we’ll need to get you hidden away in the meantime. I think I have just the place…”
Stargazer stood staring up at the marquee of an abandoned theater. ‘The Phantasmagoria’, it proclaimed, with letters faded and falling from the sign. The entire theater looked dark from the outside. The Devil had assured her that this place was safe and abandoned. His own men used it from tie to time, so he said.
Without many other options, Stargazer headed into the building. For the most part, her assumption that it would be dark held true. There was only one light that she could see and that was from the projector in the theater itself. Stargazer pushed back the curtain as she took a peak, where the magic lantern displayed its projection.
The projection was moving, changing its shape and size as it filtered through different slides. It almost looked like a human figure, as seen from behind. As Stargazer walked closer, the slides started to change faster, the shadow puppet turning its head and then its whole body. It seemed to be looking right at Stargazer. It was a woman, with wild hair and a mask, half made out of brass, the other silver.
At once, the projector’s light was cut, before the stage lights came on. Smoke and steam from unseen vents spilled onto the stage. In the light, Stargazer could swear there was a visible figure, hovering in the air, the same figure from the magic lantern, now apparated in front of her.
“Hello, child. I see you have finished my work. And brought it here for me to see!”