* * *
The workshop smelled of grease and rust. Liss paced among the trestle tables. She picked through the cogs and battered machinery heaped in dull copper piles. Dusty sunlight streamed through the casement window onto Caleb's workbench. He sat at the table, soldering rudimentary circuitry.
"Liss, if you're bored, feel free to pester someone else. I won't be offended," he called.
"I'm not bored. I'm just curious about what all this stuff is. What's it for?" Liss examined a glass tube topped with brass studs.
"I never know what something is for when I get it, I work that out later," he replied. "I don't exactly use things in the most conventional fashion."
An automaton rumbled into the workshop. The antenna at the base of its torso wagged when it saw Liss. It plunged across the room towards her. Its heavy tread made the tables shake and the junk piles wobble. Screws pattered to the floor like metal raindrops.
"Why don't you take Two for a walk?" asked Caleb. He took off his goggles and looked at her. The automaton thudded across the room to the staircase in anticipation. It pointed up to the hatch leading into the street.
"I've already taken it out today," said Liss.
The automaton lowered its arm with an audible hiss. Its round shoulders sagged. Liss looked at it. She noticed a drop of oil running down the smooth polished copper that served as a face.
"Caleb, Two's eye is leaking again," she said.
"I'll sort it out later. I want to get this soldering done first," said Caleb.
Liss turned her attention back to the table. She recognised some of the parts, like pistons or camshafts, but others were baffling in their design. She picked up a thin rectangular metal box. Glass took up a whole side, with a single round button mounted near the bottom edge. She pressed it, though nothing happened. Her finger traced the small square engraved on the button.
"Where did you get this stuff?" asked Liss. She dumped the thin box on the table.
"The Antiques Quarter. It's amazing the stuff you can find down there. Very little of it is actually antique but it's a good source of spare parts for the automatons," replied Caleb. "I get most of it in job lots. They don't know what it is any more than I do."
A flash of light on bright metal caught Liss' eye. She raked through the grimy machine parts in front of her. Her hand closed around a polished brass cog. About a handspan across, strange symbols ran alongside the teeth. An hourglass filled with red sand was suspended in the large hole in the middle of the cog.
"This is different. Any idea what it is?" she asked.
Caleb looked up.
"No. I got that in a job lot last week. I want to catalogue all this at some point, but that means sifting through the junk to get at the good bits. Right now, I don't have time."
"You mean you can't be bothered."
Liss flicked the hourglass. It flipped in a smooth arc, tipping upright. The red sand filtered down through the small neck. Liss stared at it for a moment. The movement of the grains proved hypnotic.
"What does it do?" she asked after a minute.
Caleb didn't reply. A quiet ticking filled the silence of the workshop. Liss looked around, unable to see a clock.
"Hey Caleb, what does it do?"
She looked at Caleb's back. He hunched over his bench, soldering iron and circuit board in hand. He didn't move. He didn't even twitch the way he did when he concentrated on his work. Liss turned to look at the automaton. Two stood motionless at the bottom of the stairs. The drop of oil froze on its face. She couldn't hear the hum of its motor.
"OK, this is weird," she said. Her voice sounded strange in the workshop. It echoed slightly, as if she stood at the mouth of a cave. She picked up a spanner and dropped it. It hung in the air. It only moved when she forced it to the ground with her hand.
Liss crossed the workshop and climbed onto Caleb's bench. She peered out of the casement window, at eye level with the street. She gawked at the tableaux before her. Passers-by stood frozen mid-stride. A gentleman looked furtive as he addressed a red-haired woman in a gaudy blue dress standing on the corner. Two children played hopscotch in the gutter. One of them hung in mid-hop above the squares. Three women in faded dresses clutched their shawls about them, heads thrown back in silent laughter.
Liss looked down at the cog in her hand. The sand poured through the hourglass with a faint hiss. She watched the last few grains drop through the narrow neck.
"How on earth did you cross the room so fast?" asked Caleb.
"I didn't, you were just so engrossed in what you were doing," said Liss.
Caleb shrugged and returned to his soldering. Liss stashed the cog in her pocket. It might come in very handy one day.