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Interview with a Steam Rat

Interview with a Steam Rat

Finally, I have made progress in the mystery of the wraith that escaped several days ago.

At the suggestion of Nemo, I subjected the containment vessel to a thorough investigation while I waited for a response from my confidant Dr. Welterschmidt.   Close inspection revealed a series of tiny Faeronic runes etched inside the lid of the case.  They are burned into the wood deeply, and I believe that they must have been the source of the containing power.  Mister Mortlewood’s suggestion of singing hinges unfortunately did not play out.  The hinges were of an ordinary sort, but I have made notes of these interesting contraptions he has described. I might have use of such a thing in the future. Ultimately, I believe Tylor the Lessor was correct in suggesting a connection to the old tales of spirit trapping.  I thank the three of your for your advice in this matter.  It helped very much to keep my mind focused during the wait.

The post was agonizingly slow in bringing me Dr. Welterschmidt’s response.  I had hoped that he would take a leave of absence from his position at the university and visit me in the City.  It’s been some time since we have seen one another, and with recent events, I could use his guidance in person.   Sadly, his written advice will have to do instead.   Just a day ago, his letter arrived.  He wrote:

My Dear Julius,

How ironic is it that you, a skeptic, would stumble upon such convincing evidence of the spirit world?  This would be yet another example of your confounding ability to find yourself in the middle of bizzare events.  I’ve never encountered a wraith so well formed as the one you accidentally released from its prison!  I do hope that you will find an opportunity to make more of your photonic captures for me?  I’ve already begun drafting a paper on your experience.  I’m terribly sorry that events have conspired to keep me from visiting you at this time, but I do hope that in the fall I might be able to make the journey.  The train lines have been under attack by savages, did you know?  Sounds thrilling!

But to return to the matter at hand.  Your spirit is an unusual one, and if it is malevolent as you say, your determination to recapture it is well founded.  Spirits often feed on the energy of spent emotion–fear being so easily tapped by them to grow their power.

As to its more precise nature, I am afraid I am at a loss.  It is a unique variety that I have not encountered here in cold Mordovana.  Nothing here ever takes such a distinct shape, but is usually composed of such thin whisps as to be completely invisible to photonic capture.

I believe the clue to identifying the spirit may rest in the nature of the case.  Is it not a steam rat’s tool case?  I know that you are loathe to associate with the lower classes, but I believe I saw just such a case among the belongings of a steam rat in the City while on a ghost hunting expedition in the tunnels.  My suggestion would be to find a steam rat and seek his advice.

And so that is just what I did–

I inquired with my landlady Mrs. Dowd immediately to determine if any of the other boarding guests might practice in the steam power trade.  Curse my luck, but a young woman (woman!) had recently departed who did work the steam tunnels.  I loathe to use such a crass term as “steam rat,” as I very much admire the work those brave souls do bringing power and light and warmth to the City in the depths below, among the great gears and boilers upon which the City was built.  Without their sacrifices, we would not have many of the modern amenities that make life so much more pleasant.

Mrs. Dowd luckily knew the young woman’s working area.  Her name name was Cass, simply Cass, not Miss Cass,  as Mrs. Dowd was quick to impress upon me.  “In the dark, one pair of hands is as good as another, but the men would rather not know if those hands be feminine, Dr. Roundbottom.  So be careful what you say.  Girls work the steam as well as men, you know, some are small and can squeeze into tighter spots.”  Mrs. Dowd seemed quite proud of this girl Cass, and spoke so highly of her that I made no attempt to locate a more conventional steam rat.  I determined that I should seek out the girl and show her the case.

There are six entrances to the steam tunnels within walking distance of the house.  I asked for Cass among the loiterers at all six before a grease-stained boy of perhaps thirteen years grinned with crooked teeth and offered to lead me to her, for a price of course.  No one ever does a scientist a simple favor in the City.  So I paid what coin I had in my pocket.  The boy stripped bare to his waist and led me down the steep stone steps, far beneath the streets.  At first, I stepped with no small amount of fear in the darkness.  But soon my eyes adjusted and I could make out a blue aetheric light emanating from very skin of the young boy. Now I understood why he carried no lantern.  The tunnels are notorious for pockets of noxious, flammable gases.  No steam rat in his (or perhaps her) right mind would dare to carry an open flame into the tunnels.   A few more minutes of following, and I could make out the intricate pattern of glowing tattoos.   I wondered as to the nature of the substance responsible for the glow aloud, and he merely laughed.  “This is cheap stuff, fire faery juice.  I have to get new ones every six months.  Wait to you see Cass.”

As we traveled further, the air filled with the sound of heavy machinery grinding away, the hiss of escaping steam, and a deep ever present thrum coming from below.  No one knows how deep the machinery continues. although I have read wild theories that the machinery runs all the way to the world’s molten center.   No expedition has ever found an end to it, nor has any expedition identified the machinery’s purpose.  The City’s people have tapped into it, draining away some of its power, but much of it works without a known purpose.   I find the whole lot of it unsettling, and I leave speculation to engineers and others so mechanically inclined.  The mysteries of my park are mysteries enough for a lifetime.

I could barely hear the boy by now, but his gesticulations made it clear that he would continue no further, but the object of my search was to be found very close.  Indeed, I could see a blue-white light ahead.  He turned and hurried away while I forced my feet to carry me forward towards the unusual light.

Cass–I have attached a photonic capture that I was able to persuade her into sitting for, as you may have guessed–was clearly an expert in her field.  As I approached, I watched her patch not one nor two but six holes in a venting duct.  She tightened pipe fittings instinctively. The air, at first filled with muggy steam, began to clear.  She nodded to herself in satisfaction and then turned an eye to me.  She was not pleased to see me.

“You’re that daft scientist,” she shouted above the noise.  “Dr. Fat A-”

“Yes, yes!  I am,” I shouted hastily. “Julius Roundbottom.  I was told that you could help me solve a mystery.  Is there some place quieter that we can speak?”

Her face flickered in the glow of the coldflame light that danced along her tattoos.  Such tattoos, unlike the boy’s, were for life, and thus spoke of the seriousness of her dedication to the trade.  However, for a girl who wished to be taken seriously as in a field of men, I was somewhat surprised at the scantliness of her clothing.  I supposed the two thoughts worked at odds with one another, but ultimately, she was at least tolerated by the others.

After a moment of thought, she nodded and led me down further winding tunnels until the din had faded enough that we could hear one another without shouting.

I explained as much as I could about the case and the escapee.  Not long after I began my story, her brow set to a furrow and she gave me a most unsettling scowl.  “You really are daft.  You find a case that cannot be opened, and it never occurs to you that perhaps you’re not meant to open it?”

I had no quick response to that.  Indeed, it had occurred to me.  I simply wanted to make use of the case in my work. “So you know the nature of the thing?” I asked, embarrassed.

“I do, but I’m not sure I should tell the likes of you.”

“I am trying very hard not to take offense at that statement,” I replied curtly.

“Go ahead and take offense, I won’t mind.  So.  Now that you’ve let it free, what are you looking to do?  Make a study of it?”

I shrugged.  “More, I would like to recapture the spirit so that it can no longer menace the good folk of the Burroughs.”

She laughed at that.  “I could care less about the Burroughs, but it might decide to return to its old haunts–“she waved her hands around us, indicating the tunnels.  “And that would cause more trouble than I am interested in seeing.  Things are falling apart down here, and I have my hands full just keeping them together.  I don’t have time to deal with a steam wraith stalking around frightening the boys.”

“Steam wraith?” I asked.

“Yes.  Sometimes, when a man dies down here, when a vent tears open and scalds the flesh from his bones, their spirits rise from the very steam that killed them.  They’re filled with nothing but anger for what has happened to them and they want to take revenge on those who slighted them in life, such as your “good folk” of the bloody Burroughs.”

My ears turned red at the ease of her cursing.  “But–what have they ever done to deserve haunting?” I asked, truly not understanding.

“You lot on the surface take advantage of the hard work that goes on down here, but you don’t understand it.  Without us steam rats,  the City would stop.  No more trolleys, no more Center Clock.  It would all wind down.  Homes would grow bitter cold in the winter and not more than a few of you thin-skinned softies would survive in that.”

“The Council provides ample payment for your services,” I argued. “Our taxes go to keep you and yours at work. Is that not recognition enough?”

“Of course not,” she said with a sigh.  “Do you not wish to be respected and esteemed in your work, Dr. Roundbottom?  A person wants what they do to be important, and make no mistake, what we steam rats do beneath your feet is the most important job to be done in the City.  But we get no respect.  The grease and oil that stain our clothes make you treat us like common urchins.”

This, she had a point.  Steam rats were not by any means respected members of polite society.  It was understood that their work was necessary, and indeed, they were compensated with public funds, but… it was true.  No respect was given.  I felt ashamed to realize that the hard workers below felt nothing but contempt for us above, not because we hated them, but because we hardly regarded them as worth any sentiment at all.

“I would apologize for them if I could,” I said quietly. “I had no idea the struggle of it.  You have my admiration, mi–”  I caught myself before I could say the word I had been warned against.

Her stern demeanor softened at that.  “Ignorance is no excuse, but you mean well, I can see that.  I’ll help you recapture the wraith.  I’ll take the tool case see what I can find out among the boys about it.  I haven’t seen a wraith bound up since I was a little girl.  How that case ended up on the surface and not in the deepest shaft below, I’ll never know.” She shrugged.  “Maybe a steam rat wanted you surfacers to find it and set it free.”

I agreed to part with the case in exchange for her allowing me to make several photonic captures.  I think secretly she was pleased to pose for me, but I took the photos for a purpose.  I am determined to spread the world of the importance of their work to the inhabitants of the City.   Somehow,  I must do this, if for no other reason than to prevent more steam wraiths from being created.

So now I wait for Cass’s investigations to bear fruit. Once again, I find myself unable to work or think about anything else but this case.  Incidents of encounters with the wraith are on the rise, according to Mrs. Dowd (who I have of course not told of my connection to the spirit.  I am sorry but the rent here is too reasonable and the location perfect for my work in the Park).

What might I do, dear readers, to raise awareness of the work of the steam rats?  I do not wish to take much time away from my work, but perhaps I can inspire someone else to step forward and spread the word of their good deeds.  I am afraid I am no orator, especially in matters unrelated to entomology.

Sincerely, Julius T. Roundbottom

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