Stargazer was enraptured by the ‘spirit’ projecting itself onto the vapors. There could be little doubt about it, this had to be the original inventor of the Aeolipyle, the one whose notes Stargazer had used. Yet she couldn’t possibly be ‘real’ now. This had to be a trick of projection, right?”
“Oh ho ho,” the spirit laughed at Stargazer’s reaction. “I am quite real, child. In my own way. Unfortunately, there are few ways for me to speak with the living these days. Ever since my unfortunate end.”
“You’re…A ghost?” Stargazer frowned. Putting it into words made it sound even more unbelievable to the inventor.
“It is better, in many ways, to be dead than to be alive. After all, now I need not worry about the Steam Judge’s agents getting in my way, no?” The vapor ghost reached her hand out towards Stargazer. “You have learned that yourself, I gather, or else why would you be here now, child?”
“Yes. He wants to use my…our Aeolipyle to power a mechanical army!”
“Well, we can’t let that happen, can we? Oh ho ho,” The vapor ghost laughed. “No, it must not fall into his hands, child. You must get it out of the city, any way you can. You will find others who will appreciate it outside this city.” The ghost waved her hand as the steam vapors swirled beside her. A new spotlight shone down onto the steam. An image of a hatch and a set of coordinates were revealed. Stargazer still had a problem, however.
“But…how? The Steam Judge is searching for me. If I try to leave, his goons will catch me!”
“Oh ho ho, but you are not alone, child. Why look,” the ghost gestured towards the entrance to the theater. The Devil of Downbelow and Little Monster were standing there, watching.
The Devil cracked his neck as he stared out through his red eye. “Looks like I was right. The batty ghost wanted to meet you after all. Only caught the end, but it sounds like you’re riding to a fight with the Judge. I’ve waited years for this chance. Me and my men will ride with you out of this city.”
“You adults are useless in the tunnels! But we street kids are born to it; I know a way out!”
Stargazer could feel tears welling up in her eyes. She brushed them away with a gloved hand before reaching up and pulling her goggles down over her eyes. “Right! We got this. There’s no way he’ll get the Aeolipyle! Let’s drive.”
It hadn’t taken long to get an escort to join their caravan. Little Monster led them through the wide tunnels deep below the city, several of the Devil’s men riding alongside them. Stargazer stayed in the middle. These tunnels were dark and wide, but had many turns and corners. Without Little Monster’s help, she’d likely have been lost for days or even months, driving in circles. Even following her, Stargazer found it difficult to track where they had gone and where they were coming from.
“We have company!” She heard the Devil’s voice as he leaned out of his machine. “A bunch of machines, all painted with the head of an ox.”
“It’s Metal Ox’s men!” Stargazer shouted back, a shiver of fear running down her spine. She poked her head up to look at the area behind her.
Green and blue painted machines were spilling out from the tunnels, bursting through the walls in places. One of them in particular stood out from the rest. It was a large bulldozer, with a bull head built into the bucket. The helmeted warlord sat in the pilot’s seat. “That orb will be MINE.”
“Not just him,” the Devil continued. “Coming in hot ahead…”
Stargazer turned herself back around. There, lying in wait for them, was the Gatling Gun Machine of the Steam Judge. Its barrel started to whirr as it began to spin. Stargazer pulled on her wheel to swerve out of the way, as the bullets started to fire into their caravan.
“Hey! That’s my train you’re shooting!” Little Monster shouted over the gunfire. Billowing steam, the engine chugged harder as she pushed it in front of Stargazer’s path, the massive bulk taking most of the damage as she pulled the horn, letting out a loud honk. The Steam Judge was forced to cease his shooting to avoid the collision as Little Monster barreled forth.
“Alright, boys! Let’s give these mooks an Undercity welcome!” The Devil said, as a spear fired from the underside of his machine towards one of the interceptors, piercing its side, the force pulling him towards his target as he slammed into it. As the spear was pulled back, the unfortunate pilot went crashing into the side of the tunnel.
All around Stargazer, machines were flying by in vehicular combat as she did what she could to avoid crashing. Her knuckles were white as she gripped the lever, swerving around Little Monster’s train and around the Steam Judge, driving as fast as she can. In the corner of her eye, she could see the Judge turn to pursue her.
Stargazer drove through the tunnels, trying to lose her pursuer. She could hear the rotation of his gun as he fired at her, even hitting her hull though it didn’t slow her down. She was in the lead now, not having anyone to follow. She could hear the echoes of the battle from elsewhere in the battle, making it difficult to know if she was heading further away from it or closer.
Then her worst nightmare manifested before her. Stargazer hit a dead end! She reached the end of one of the tunnels and found a wall facing her. She spun her machine away, praying there was time, but it was too late. The Steam Judge had blocked off her one avenue of escape.
“There is nowhere to run. Turn over the Aeolipyle, Stargazer, and you might just be allowed to leave.” The Steam Judge said, his finger on the trigger of his gatling gun.
Before she could reply, there was the roaring of an engine. From one of the side tunnels above, the Devil of Downbelow emerged, his machine launching itself through the air. “JUDGE! We’ve got unfinished business, you and I!” The Devil said as he launched his harpoon, spearing Judge’s vehicle. He rammed into the side of Judge’s machine with a loud crunching force. “Get going, Stargazer! This one is mine!”
“Devil…I should have killed you when I had the chance.”
“You did your best, old friend, but you never could quite seal the deal without me!”
Stargazer didn’t need to be told twice as she pushed her machine to its limits, flying past the two entangled machines and driving off, leaving the sound of their conflict behind her. Just when she thought she was hopelessly lost, she heard the loud horn of the coal train behind her. Little Monster leaned over the edge.
“You adults are so helpless down here!” She pulled past Stargazer in the wide tunnel. “I think we lost ‘em. Should be clear driving here on out.”
“Then I just need to get the Aeolipyle away from here. Steam Town is simply not ready for it yet. But one day, when men like Judge are not in power, we’ll share it with everyone! For now, we must keep it safe. There’s a bunker out there waiting for it…”
At long last, after all the trials and tribulations she faced along the way, Stargazer could see she was nearing the coordinates the vapor ghost had provided. Little Monster had seen her out from the tunnels, but the coal-driving urchin had taken her leave soon after. “Even an adult can’t get lost at this point!” She had said. “It’s all open land!”
Stargazer pulled the levers to stop her machine outside the hatch. It was bigger than she had thought from the pictures. It made her think of the stadium in Steam Town, where the masses had gathered to watch tournaments as a diversion from their grueling tasks. A metal ring, as tall as a building. There was a door, and beside the door, there was an indentation, just the right shape to fit the Aeolipyle.
Removing the device from her machine, she placed it in the slot. There was a beeping sound and a red light shone, as the door swung open. Stargazer stepped inside, nervously descending the spiralling staircase towards the light coming from below, before her wonder outweighed her fear.
She had been in many different workshops over the years, but she had seen none quite like this one. Stargazer flitted from experiment to experiment, station to station, trying to understand all that was before her. A haze of steam from the vents that powered all the automatic systems filled the room. Stargazer barely noticed the figure coming from the side through it all, lost as she was in studying just one of many scientific breakthroughs.
A woman with bright red hair, dressed in green, approached. Her armor was strange, unlike anything that Stargazer had seen before, and she carried a sword by her side. Her helmet revealed her face, and sported a pair of horns in the front that curved up in a ‘v’-shape.
“Looks like baasan finally found someone to finish her last project here. Come on, follow me.” The woman gestured as she turned, heading towards the center of the workshop. Stargazer followed, before her mouth fell open in surprise.
There, in the center, was a vessel, shaped much like a projectile, that towered almost to the ceiling. The shape of it was sleek and metallic, with fins on the bottom like an arrow. “What is this thing?”
“Your ticket to safety. Baasan left it here. Said she was worried about what would happen to that thing you’re carrying if it fell into the wrong hands.”
“You’ve spoken with her? In person?”
“Many times. Baasan has a tendency to not stop talking once she starts. Before you ask, she’s…out of reach. Not in this world anymore. She sent me to wait for you and to keep an eye on this until the Aeolipyle was safe. Now, let’s get you strapped in and open this up. We don’t have that much of a window before I’ll need to recalibrate.”
The hatch to the bunker started to open, letting the sun light into the workshop below. With the red-haired woman’s guidance, Stargazer found herself aboard the vessel with the Aeolipyle. The woman’s voice reached her through the speakers in the cockpit, as she was walked through all the controls. She was going to space. Space! There was no way for Judge or even the Metal Ox to reach her that far away.
She was strapped in, the countdown starting. Stargazer could see on one of the many screens the destination of where she was being flung. Into orbit. Into the heavens where the stars themselves awaited her.
A young woman sat on the hood of her machine staring out at the sky, as she slowly awoke from her vision. The spirits spoke in strange ways, sometimes obvious and sometimes oblique. They had become more restless as of late, though the woman could not say why.
The rumbling of her machine’s engine chased away the last remnants of the vision. She slid off the hood, from behind the large skull that adorned the machine. Was the message one of vengeance? No, that did not feel right. Perhaps she was not ready for this power as that world was not ready? That didn’t fit quite right either.
The young woman stepped into her machine, grabbing hold of the wheel. She drove off through the Wastes towards a speck on the horizon. Metal City. Ever since she had found that wheel in the tree, she had driven with purpose. Her ancestors pushed her towards that goal. One in particular, Kauana, spoke with the loudest and fiercest voice among them. She could feel them racing with her like a herd of mustangs. She piloted the machine with one glowing green hand.