The rest of the class was still finishing lunch when Bryony left the dining hall. She intended exploring the laboratory before afternoon classes began. Lessons were interesting enough, but she wanted a chance to make up her own mind about what to do. She wouldn’t mind experimenting with her new indicator solution. There were a few tests she definitely still needed to run. Halfway through her mental catalogue of experiments, she realised that she’d missed the staircase she should have taken.
This part of the corridor was lined with heavy wooden doors. The brass nameplate on the nearest room revealed it to be the office of Mathematician Emeritus Charles Wu. Bryony wasn’t entirely sure what a mathematician emeritus was and decided against disturbing him. She could just turn around and take the staircase when she found it.
The next staircase back was narrower than she’d remembered, with slatted steps and a narrow cast iron railing. Still, it took her one floor down, which was where she needed to be. She wasn’t entirely sure if she’d been turned around on her way down, but since there was only one route onward, she set off that way. Bryony was beginning to feel a sense of adventure about the journey. Even Chancellor Briggs had been lost trying to get to classes, hadn’t she? It was practically a rite of passage. The dim lighting in the narrow corridor gave the situation a definite ambiance. Ambiance was a good word, she decided, following the twisting passageway. Ambient was much better than creepy.
At the end of the passage was a barred door and another slatted staircase, which spiralled up around a central shaft. Partway up the staircase she stopped to catch her breath. She tried to build a mental map of where she’d been walking, but gave up almost as soon as she’d started. She knew she was somewhere in the Academy, if not exactly where she should be. She hadn’t nearly kept track of all the turns, but eventually she’d find someone to show her the way back. In the meantime, she would make the most of the opportunity to explore.
It took a long while to reach the top of the stairs and Bryony was disappointed to see that they simply ran into a wall of wooden panelling. Presently she noticed that the panelling was, in fact, adorned with a series of brass gears that might have controlled some sort of locking mechanism. The digits zero through nine were etched around the perimeters. She tried twisting them to represent the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter: π = 3.141. Technically it was 3.142 if you rounded off properly, she remembered. She nudged the last dial into place. It didn’t do much, but as she turned it, she noticed that the metal next to ‘8’ seemed slightly shinier than the rest of the dial. She twisted it to eight and inspected the other gears. Each of them had a slightly more polished spot and she chose the settings accordingly. As she dialled in the new combination, two-seven-one-eight, she felt a catch release. The wooden panelling slid away, revealing an unlit hall. She stepped in. The door slid back into place and Bryony let out a startled yelp. She took a deep breath. She’d find the light controls and then she’d make her way out. They’d be close to the door.
By the time she’d established that she couldn’t find a light controller, she’d also realised that the room wasn’t properly dark. It was even dimmer than the passage outside, but the ceiling above was casting a faint silvery light. Bryony stared up, trying to figure out the lighting system. There were a mass of twinkling silver points on black, tinier than any circuitry she could imagine. They were scattered all over the ceiling, but especially in a swathe across one corner. She spent several minutes gazing up at the glory of it and began to suspect that the lights were slowly creeping across the ceiling. Technology couldn’t create that effect.
“And what are you doing here, little girl?” The voice was unimpressed.
“I’m sorry, sir, are those stars?”
“Clearly you do not have security clearance for this laboratory.” From the other side of the hallway a tall man in a mathematician’s robe walked over. He gripped Bryony’s shoulder so hard that it hurt. “I suppose you have a class tutor.”
“Yes sir.” She concentrated on breathing evenly and not doing anything stupid.
“Bryony Adams, sir.”
The man seemed thoughtful for a moment. “No, your tutor’s name. I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with you.” He sighed.
Bryony gulped. “Class tutor is Ricardo Arcos, sir.”
“Messaging system, Ricardo Arcos to meet me in the astro lab urgently.” He fell silent and seemed to be lost in thought, although he didn’t let go of Bryony’s shoulder.
The room brightened when a much larger glowing object appeared on the ceiling — or came into view outside the ceiling, Bryony suspected. She got a better look at her captor, then: an angular man with a shaved head and pointed beard. He seemed to be tracking the progress of the object under his breath, muttering something Bryony didn’t understand about right ascension and declination.
“You wanted me, Mathematician Yasser?” Ricardo arrived out of breath and outlined by the light behind him.
“One of your children has found its way into my lab.” Mathematician Yasser waved vaguely at Bryony with his free hand. “Make her write out the safety regulations and find some appropriate punishment for her.” He pushed Bryony in Ricardo’s direction. “I have a set of calibration calculations to redo, since Khaya’s passing has gone by unutilised,” he said, glancing at the large object now well across the ceiling.
“Come on, Bryony,” Ricardo said. She was already nearly across the hall to where he was standing.
Once they were outside, in a properly lit corridor he began to speak. “What in the asteroids did you think you were doing in there?”
“I was lost.” They were walking so fast that Bryony had to gasp for breath.
“You don’t end up in Mathematician Yasser’s high security laboratory by getting lost.”
“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be in there!”
“Nobody ever told you that breaking through locked doors is wrong?”
Bryony fell silent, but only briefly. “There were stars in there, Ricardo. I saw actual stars!”
“Which you would have seen in due course without breaking into Yasser’s laboratory. Try not to behave like a three-year-old, Miss Adams.”
They walked in silence for several minutes, until they reach the teaching laboratories. “You will rejoin your class in a moment. As Mathematician Yasser has instructed, you will write out the Academy safety regulations tonight and hand them in to me at breakfast tomorrow, with your signature to indicate that you have understood the rules. You may also consider yourself excused from the next class excursion.”
“That’s not fair!”
“You can appeal to Mathematician Dustborn if you think he will be more sympathetic to your case.”
Bryony stared down at the floorboards. She didn’t have much of a case.
“Now go on and join your class. You haven’t missed enough of the lesson to make it entirely worthless.”