Antimony pulled her scarf up higher against the bitter wind. Winter break was a short affair at the Court, and it wouldn't be long until they were back among their classmates once more. She had resolved not to be a lay-about and actually do something this break, which was the main reason she was tagging along behind Kat, who was humming a tune to herself, apparently oblivious to the cold.
"Eh, Kat, I don't mean to bug, but where are we going?"
"I told you Annie, we're going to get a part for the next robot I'm building."
"I thought you could order all that through the Court?"
"Hah, I tried. This particular part is... not on the list. I doubt it's on any list, actually. That's where we're going, to see a friend of my parents."
Her curiosity partially satisfied, Antimony made the rest of the journey in silence. They were a long way from the nearest train station now, somewhere deep in the heart of the urban sprawl. Row upon row of empty buildings, some with cracked glass. Kat seemed to know where they were going, and after another left turn they were faced with an oddly out of place sight.
In the midst of the seemingly city-like atmosphere was a large warehouse, with a corrugated metal roof and rusty siding. A camera swiveled to watch them as they made their way through the gate, which lay on the ground, it's hinges long eroded. Up a set of wooden steps and to a small door, set into the side.
Kat had her knuckles inches from the wooden entrance, when she stopped and turned to Annie.
"This guy, he's been around for a long time, and I mean a loooong time. My parents met him when they were in school."
"What's his name?" Antimony inquired.
Kat shrugged. "No idea. Don't even know if he has one. We just call him The Machinist."
"The Machinist..." Antimony murmured to herself. "...what an odd title."
Kat knocked twice, and, after a long pause a metal slit in the door retracted with a squeak. A pair of mismatched eyes regarded them dispassionately. One was ice blue, the other was grey, and obviously fake, the circuitry running deep into it's orange core.
A soft voice issued from behind the door.
'Ah, Donalan and Carver, to what do I owe this unexpected visit I wonder? Come in, come in, the weather must be dreadful outside."
There were several metallic clicks and the door swung inwards, revealing a small room within. The Machinist was a tall, thin man, who, despite the grey hair and tired eyes, could not have been more than twenty. The sleeve on his right side was cut off, and Antimony could see that the arm was a prosthetic, like his eye. Bundles of wires crisscrossed hydraulic pistons that covered the surface of the limb, right down to the wrist and fingers. The whole thing was encased in a semi-transparent white plastic.
They stepped inside and the door closed behind them and at the mans gesture they followed him. Their feet scuffed on the shiny hardwood all the way down a long hall and into what looked like a workshop. There was a battered wooden table in the center surrounded by chairs. Against the walls were tables of neatly organized metal implements, and underneath the brightest light was a metal head that stirred a spark of recollection in Antimony.
"Excuse me, but is that a-"
"Yes, it is. An R-1 generation cranium. The original. If I'm not mistaken, you put one together yourself Miss Carver."
Antimony nodded but could feel a frown creasing the edge of her lips. How did he know?
"Actually, that's why we're here, Mister Machinist. I was looking for a part on a new chassis I'm building, but none of the supply catalogues carry it."
From a deep pocket of her shoulder bag, Kat pulled a roll of blue paper. The Machinist took it and spread it out on the table gently. Antimony had to admit, now that she saw what the finished product would look like, it was very impressive. The Machinist seemed to feel the same way.
"This is excellent work Miss Donlan, excellent. Not many people can lay claim to this kind of talent at you age."
Katerina blushed and played with her hair nervously. "T-thank you."
"My pleasure. Now, this part is..."
"Right here." Kat said, placing a finger on a circular ring like thing in the center of the chassis. "It's a containment ring that's supposed to conduct the ether to hold the power source in place."
The Machinist ran his real hand through his hair and stared at the drawing.
"Etheric containment... You must have a very volatile fuel for you to need a barrier that strong."
"I'm using Tritium."
"Good lord, that must have been expensive."
"Oh no, I get it from the junkyard over to the west. They're always tossing out useful things."
"I don't doubt it. Alright, come with me. I think I have one in the back. You too Auto."
Antimony turned to see who he was addressing and saw a bipedal android resting against the wall with its arms folded. Faded writing on it's chest plate read: Tarsal Automata Model Nine. At the summons the robot pushed itself upright and followed them at a respectable distance. The group filed down another long corridor that emerged into an almost completely barren room. One wall was taken up by a circular hatch with a keypad next to it.
"Auto, put us on storeroom two two nine, row six."
The robot dialed in a very long series of numbers and stood back. There was a soft hum and the hairs on Antimony's neck stood on end with static. The hum stopped abruptly with a clatter and the portal slid open with a hiss. Both Antimony and Kat gasped. It had looked so small on the outside.
Before them was a massive library, with shelf after shelf of boxes.
"Mind your step, the threshold has tripped me many times."
They walked through the portal and into the room, the two girls looking around in wonder and the high ceiling and humongous support pillars that seemed to go on forever. It was not long until The Machinist had stopped at one particular box. He pulled it from the shelf, the motors in his arm whirring gently. With one metal finger he slid the cover off. The box was empty. He sighed and replaced it on the shelf.
"I'm sorry Kat, it looks like I'm no better than the Court when it comes to stocking the right parts."
Katerina looked slightly deflated.
"Oh... Well that's a shame. Thank you for looking anyway."
The Machinist smiled.
"Oh, don't worry, we'll get your part, it's just going to take a little longer."
"But I thought you said-" Kat began.
"Yes, I don't have any more forty millimeter containment rings, but I do have the means to make them." The Machinist said with a wink. "Never fear Miss Donlan, I would never leave you in need."
They exited the round portal and it closed behind them.
"Send us to the foundry level Auto."
The robot typed another code into the keypad obligingly.
"You have a foundry? Where?" Kat asked, a note of excitement creeping into her voice.
"Right through this door."
"But I thought that was the parts roo-"
Kat was cut off in mid sentence. The circular metal door had hissed open again and the scene behind it had changed completely. A much smaller, circular room lay before them. In the dim light that filtered down from a few incandescent bulbs, Antimony could see more shelves arrayed in a circular pattern along the walls, all facing the center, where a circular forge sat, an orange light seeping out from the porthole in the side.
"That's not- That's-" Kat sputtered.
"How did you do that?" Antimony asked.
The Machinist smiled his secretive smile and placed one finger to the right of his nose.
"A magician never reveals his secrets."
Antimony stepped through into this new room in awe, staring up at the shelves. Each one was labeled with an element, a small card containing details such as melting point and charge.
"Hey look Annie, they've got you! Ha-ha!"
Antimony looked over to where Kat was holding a small cardboard box labeled "Antimony".
"Your mother named you well. Surma was always such an imaginative woman. Always finding new ways to improve."
Antimony remained silent. The Mechanist reached up to the top of one shelf and retrieved a similar small box. The label on this one had worn off, but he scooped a thin bar of silvery grey metal out of it none-the-less.
"Technetium. What a wonderful element." He said, placing the bar gently in the palm of his prosthetic hand. "Before we discovered it's etheric conductibility, it was just another boring square on the periodic table of elements."
With one swift motion he squeezed the bar with his robotic hand until it bent and crumpled into a circular tube. Antimony decided to ask a question that had been nipping at the back of her head.
"How did you get that arm, and the eye?"
Kat, ever the bastion of politeness, looked mortified.
The Machinist didn't even flinch. He gently laid the metal inside the furnace and closed the hatch.
"I used to be a student here too, you know. Chester. It happened in my fifth year. I was mixing a new recipe for motor fuel, and I was too busy checking the consistency to notice that I had just knocked a candle over. The blast nearly killed me outright."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."
The man shrugged, and for the first time, Antimony could see some of the lines return to his face.
"The pain was worse than anything you have ever felt. For the first few days it felt like my arm was still there, and burning. I built this one myself, a piezoelectric model. The Court staff provided me with the eye."
Kat flashed Antimony a scandalized look but she simply shook her head. The Machinist pressed a button on the furnace and a jet of blue flame leapt into existence, it's tendrils engulfing the diminutive little piece of metal.
For a few minutes, nothing happened, but gradually the bar changed from a dull dusky orange to a rich cherry red, growing softer all the time. After a quarter of an hour, The Machinist opened the hatch and removed the crucible with tongs. Antimony felt the ambient temperature in the room spike as he transferred the metal across the room to a stone table. There he poured it into a circular mold where it hissed and bubbled.
The metal cooled rapidly and before too long, he was turning the mold upside down on the desk. The Machinist picked up the perfectly smooth ring of metal and wrapped it in a brown paper package before handing it to Kat.
"Remember, don't touch it with your bare hands."
They moved back through the portal, Auto closing the door after them with a typed command. When they had all filled back into the study The Machinist offered them a seat and produced three mugs of coffee, which they accepted happily.
"Thank you for helping us." Kat said in between blowing on her mug.
The Machinist smiled.
"Again, it was my pleasure. I have, actually, a favor to ask of Carver."
Antimony looked up from her drink with an eyebrow raised in skepticism.
"Oh? And what might that be?"
The Machinist turned to face her and pulled a small red package, rather like a christmas present without a bow, from his pocket.
"Events in Gunnerkrigg Court move VERY slowly, at a rate almost approaching geologic time. Your arrival here has set things in motion at a speed I would not have previously believed possible. Dangerous things are being unearthed and revisited, and before this chapter of your life ends, you may make some very powerful enemies."
Antimony listened intently, but did not allow her face to betray any emotion whatsoever.
"I want you to take this." He said, sliding the package across the table to her. "Inside is a remote with a single button. Should you ever need help, simply press it, and I will send Auto here. He may not look like it, but he is quite handy in a scrape, aren't you?"
Automata swiveled it's trio of green photoreceptors towards the table and paused, dishes in hand.
"I am fully versed in all forms of modern combat, including but not limited to ranged projectiles, explosives, hand-to-hand melee-"
"Yes, yes, thank you Auto." The Machinist said, waving a hand. The robot returned to the sink and continued to wash dishes.
"I don't understand, why do you think I'm in danger?"
The Machinist stroked the stubble on his chin with one finger and looked down at his coffee pensively.
"You have disturbed an ancient status quo between the Wood and the Court. It is almost inevitable that some people would rather you simply disappear."
"That's horrible!" Kat exclaimed.
"Yes, it is." The Machinst commented simply. "You should watch out for your friend. she will need all the help you can provide."
"Never forget, Antimony, that you have many friends here, if you know where to look." He continued.
Antimony took the package and reluctantly slipped it into her pocket. If I get any more gifts she thought I will be too weighted down to move.
They drank their coffees and left with many parting thanks. Antimony looked back one last time at the door as they trudged back through the snow to their train station.
The Machinist was still standing in the doorway, watching them. After a time he went back inside and closed the door behind him.