“Ow!” William barked as a thin twig slapped into his face, “Lansing! Could you at least pretend to take me into account!”
Through the brush Lansing glanced back, the brambles and haphazard sticks of the woods bent under her palms, “Sorry!” she grimaced, “I just want to get there.” and she pushed ahead, leaving William grumbling in follow.
It was autumn, and all the forest was gnarled, prickly, and damp, and not the best for hiking. But a hike through the trees and thick underbrush was the only way to reach their secret hideaway; Alexandra’s “laboratory” (as she called it), and last night both Lansing and William had received hastily scribbled notes slid under their doors:
Meet me at the workshop at sunrise.
You have to see this!
“Did she have to make us get up so early?” William bemoaned, ducking under a wet cypress branch as his shoe sank into a slop of mud. He grumbled.
“You know Alex,” Lansing said, “she doesn’t think about those things.”
“Have you ever wondered if she actually sleeps?”
“All the time.”
Both William and Lansing shrieked, Lansing stumbling backward as William pranced sideways in jitters, shouting.
“For Aels sake, Alex!”
Alex laughed momentarily, reaching out and taking Lansing’s hand to steady her, then her face fell to a grim seriousness.
“No time, come on! You have to see this!” and with that she shot off, her foot springing off the stump she had been standing upon and hurrying up to the trapdoor she had left suspended open, and stepping to the ladder she ushered her friends inside. “Come on now! Quick!”
The two swiftly followed, Lansing stepping to the ladder and scrambling down, Alex right behind her with William quickly bringing up the rear, closing the hatch and latching it with a rusty chink. The three made it down the old, rickety ladder, and there Lansing and William basked in the glow of Alex’s workshop, illuminated dimly from the candlelight, and musked in the shadows of corners and nooks unreachable by the bright, dotty flames. Books and papers were stacked anywhere they could be stacked; upon bookshelves, tables, chairs, crates, and all along the stone steps that wound around the entirety of the workshop, given it the look of a forgotten classroom, and perhaps it was. Huge sheets of greening metal stood propped up against the far wall, and piles of gears, cogs, springs, and other wiry pieces of corkscrew variety were dabbed throughout, as though Alex would just begin throwing things and a new pile would emerge. (This was the truth, and William and Lansing both knew it, as Alex’s strong suit wasn’t exactly organization.) Random hooks and racks everywhere held danglings; chains and wires and strings and straps and pendants hung, and at the very back an enormous bookcase sat erected, reaching the ceiling with short ladder propped against it, filled with the many books Alex had spent so many a night fawning over.
Her magic books.
“Okay, Alex. What’s this about?” William pressed, looking around for whatever whatsit invention Alex was eager to show them.
Alex grabbed her friends by the hands and pulled them forward eagerly, leading them to a dark corner. She stopped them abruptly, reaching over and grabbing a candle from off a shelf, and pointing down to the floor she held the flickering taper out, and there in the dusty, upswept floor sat the silhouette of a boot print.
Lansing gasped, her hand covering her mouth, but William simply raised a perplexed and slightly annoyed brow, unsure at what was being shown.
“Um, I’m not quite sure I -”
“It’s a footprint, William! A footprint!”
“Yes, Alex, I can see it’s a footprint! But I can’t quite see -”
“Someone’s been down here.” Lansing hushed, her beautiful, deep teal eyes wide as she gazed to both Alex and William, clearly aghast. “Someone’s been in the shop.”
“Oh…OH!” William proclaimed, it finally sweeping over him, “Wait, you mean that wasn’t there before!”
“Of course it wasn’t there before!” Alex barked, “I’ve been in every inch of this place I would have noticed it. It’s not something leftover it’s new! Someone’s been down here, here in my workshop! Meaning someone else knows about it. Meaning someone could be going through my books – my papers! – everything!”
“Now hold on a minute,” William backed, “we don’t know if they’ve been down here before, or several times. Maybe someone stumbled over the hatch and was just curious, like us.” He shrugged his right arm.
“But who?” Lansing looked worried. Her fingers hovered under her chin as she stared at the boot print.
“I don’t know,” Alex said, “but we know it’s a man.”
William nodded, “True,” and with that he brought his right foot over and set it gingerly inside the footprint, “this is a big foot. I mean, I’ve known some women with pretty big feet, but not like this. This could only have been made by an adult man.”
“Exactly.” Alex pressed, “And what adult would be wandering idly around in the woods? That’s something we do. Something students at the Observatories do, not the teachers! It’s why we do it! And if this strange man was, as you say, William, just curious and passing through, why are there no other footprints? I’ll tell you why! He swept them! Swept the lab! Covering up the evidence! It’s the only explanation!”
“Doesn’t want to be found out,” William said soft, as he pursed his lips in thought, his expression changing.
With that, as if it was all she needed to hear, Alex marched to her center table, slamming her hands upon the tabletop in defiance, and both William and Lansing turned to her in attention, the sudden reality weighing in. If it had been a teacher, they would have surely been confronted, as no teacher would have approved of their little secret. It wasn’t a fellow student, for the footprint was too big. The floor had been swept; whoever it was wanted their visit, or visits, to be a secret. And admittedly, what Alex was doing was taboo. No one believed in magic in the South, and people actively frowned upon magical mechanics, nor approved of the dabbling in it, even if only for experimental or scholarly purposes. Even Alex was weary and skeptical. The history of the East and the Cybernetics were enough of a reminder of why no one trusted engineering. Such work led to dark things… It was why all this was a secret.
But someone had been down here, seen her schematics, seen her library, and not said a word.
“Someone has been snooping around. Someone is nosing through my works. Someone has been in my shop. Someone has taken an interest in us.” Alex said, her eyes intense and determined, “Someone is hiding, and, as Nervuus as my witness, we’re going to find out who!”