Ariella opened the door of her room and snuck down the hallway. She had finished her letter back to Arona, and now needed to give the Auto-bird fog-rock for its long flight back to where it came from. Now, where was she going to get it? Back at the Junior Academy, automatons always restocked their fog boilers in a small storeroom that had rail tracks leading into it. Carts full of fog-rock traveled there on the rails from No Man's Landing. There had to be one of those rooms around here, but she doubted she'd be able to find it.
She walked through the long halls, searching aimlessly. The lights in the fancy golden sconces on the walls dimly lit the carpeted hallways and the faded damask wallpaper. The arcade of arches and thin columns that decorated the hallway was made of dark wood, as were the baseboards.
Ariella's room was on the second floor, and she could barely remember where the stairs to the first floor were located. Finally, after wandering for several minutes, she stumbled upon the spiral staircase and descended two steps at a time. The bottom of the west wing's staircase opened into an arched hallway similar to that of the upper floors except wider. Potted plants were set on tables along the walls, sadly wilted and shriveled like sea flowers exposed to too much fog.
Ariella came into a large chamber with doors along the walls. Tables, chairs, and more drooping plants lined the room. A green fire crackled in a large fireplace. This was the front lobby. Ariella had first entered the Academy Automicus through the wide double doors at the far end of the room.
Automatons also patrolled the lobby, and Ariella was careful to dodge them on her way to the science lab. The lab was the only place she could think of that might have fog-rock someplace, other than a fog-rock storeroom, which she wasn't about to go searching for. Ariella crept into the lab, dismayed to find the room brightly lit with no shadows present to lurk in. She realized that she always felt safest while hiding in shadows, where no one could see her but she could see them.
Ariella gulped and slunk into the room, her body tense with anticipation and dread. No one seemed to be present, probably because it was almost curfew time. There were cabinets and clean, white counters lining one side of the room. Tables and chalkboards lined the other side. There was a floor high above, dividing the bottom of the science lab from an observatory in the domed roof. The observatory had a telescope that looked out at the stars through the foggy skylight.
Like the rest of the Academy Automicus, golden wall sconces with lamps in them lit the room, attributing to the green glow that Ariella had observed from outside.
She approached one of the lamps and peered at it carefully. It had rectangular glass panes and flickered with emerald light, so it must have fog-rock as its fuel source. Ariella opened a small compartment in the bottom, revealing a pile of fog-rock that had yet to be burned by the lamp. She snatched out two large pieces and closed the compartment.
"You know, we have a bountiful supply of fog-rock in the laboratory," a voice said.
Ariella jumped and nearly dropped the bright green rocks. She slowly turned around, facing an older girl wearing a long grey lab coat that had accents of indigo on the hem and pockets. The girl also wore a pair of goggles on her forehead, and watched Ariella carefully.
"Who are you?" Ariella asked, straightening up and surreptitiously put the fog-rock into her pocket.
"Danria," the girl responded, a slight accent hinting her voice. "Danria Whyatov."
"I'm Ariella Newheart. Are you one of the science teachers?"
Danria laughed, tossing her long brown braid over her shoulder. "No...I'm a student just like you. You're new, aren't you?"
"Yes...I came earlier today with Ambassador Alena Darkmere. For early training," Ariella said stiffly.
"Aha! By early training I suppose you mean you came a week before your fellow Junior Academy students. Interestingly enough, my brother and I each came here for early training two years before we would have. That's a great deal longer than a week, isn't it? Anyway, why do you need fog-rock? I've got plenty over here." Danria moved to a cabinet and opened it, revealing a bin full of the rocks.
"An experiment," the other answered carefully.
"What kind? I'm doing experiments all the time, mostly to prove the influence that the Great Engineer had on Aethasia. There are traces of His power running throughout all the land--you just have to look closely enough," Danria said with a smile.
"The...Great Engineer...Mr. Jefferson talked about a Person like that," Ariella said thoughtfully.
"You know Jefferson? How is he these days? I haven't seen him for some time."
Ariella began to relax. "Ambassador Alena and I saw him on our way to the Academy Automicus. Are you the lab assistant he spoke about?"
Danria nodded in acknowledgment, closing the cabinet.
"Well, he directed us to a safer path here after the previous one began melting."
"Ah, yes," Danria sighed. "The meltdown. Principal Fairrow hopes that the meltdown won't begin to affect this building, but I fear it is inevitable. Obviously, that isn't what he wants to hear, but we will see."
"What exactly are you doing in here at this time of night?"
"I have a right to ask you the same question. What kind of experiment are you working on? Perhaps I can offer my assistance," Danria volunteered.
"One that needs fog-rock, obviously," Ariella said, trying to evade the question once again. "Now, please tell me about the Great Engineer that you mentioned. He sounds like a very important person!"
Danria sat down at a table and Ariella followed her lead. "You truly haven't heard of the Great Engineer?"
Ariella shook her head.
"Well, I want to tell you, but Emperor Lucky has strictly forbidden any mention of Him."
This piqued Ariella's interest.
Danria stole a cautious glance around the science lab, then at the clock on the wall. Fifteen minutes until curfew. "I suppose I can tell you a little. The Great Engineer was the one who made all of Aethasia! It is said that He stood at the heart of Aethasia and spoke everything into existence."
"Where is He now?"
Danria shook her head sorrowfully. "Everyone says He abandoned Aethasia 30 years ago. No one know where He has gone. Then Lucky liberated our land, bringing his fog and promising prosperity and freedom." She lowered her voice. "I don't see that freedom, though, with those automatons running all across the land."
"Isn't Lucky a Usurper?" Ariella asked in an equally low tone.
"A Usurper! If I had to guess, I'd say he is, and he usurped the Great Engineer. But we have no proof of that. As a scientist, I always prefer to have facts and proof. That's why I believe that the Great Engineer existed. I can see the proof in the way the world functions. It runs like clockwork. Everything and everyone is in its proper place, operating flawlessly. Only Someone as powerful as He could have created it so."
Ariella raised her eyebrows. "But there is proof! The fog makes people forget about the past. I know that from personal experience."
Danria looked thoughtful. "I've noticed that the fog has strange, anomalous effects on everything. Plants, animals, people. It's an interesting hypothesis that I will have to investigate, though I don't know exactly how. Gears and gaskets! Everything is immersed in fog, even the whole of the Snowmoors! There is no place in Aethasia that is unencumbered by the fog."
"It once was," Ariella murmured. "There are stories of Aethasia when there was no fog."
The clock now read five minutes until curfew. Danria noticed this and quickly shut down all the lights in the lab. She and Ariella wove through the hallways on the way to their rooms. They passed several automaton patrols, and Danria handled their questions briskly, not wanting them to cause her and Ariella to be out after curfew.
"I should like to talk to you more soon, Miss Newheart," Danria said to her as they went to their separate rooms.
Ariella smirked. "Perhaps you can help me grow sea flowers in an aquarium."
"Is that your experiment?" Danria asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Maybe, maybe not. See ya!"
Ariella hurried away just as the clocks began to chime the top of the hour. She slipped into her room and turned off her light as an automaton clunked up the hall, inspecting the rooms and making certain that each person was accounted for. She answered the knock of an automaton. It looked much like the Inspector except that it was a newer model of Pacifier with bold green markings on its chassis. It stepped away, leaving Ariella to her thoughts.
She put the two pilfered fog-rocks into the fog boiler of Arona's Airmail Auto-bird and let it fly out the window bearing her letter.