‘The energy is rather explosive,’ he explained. ‘I can’t keep it here in case it gets hot. It could blow up the building.’
Extract from The Starlight Watchmaker
By Lauren James
Published by Barrington Stoke
Hugo picked up a tiny golden cog with his tweezers just as someone rapped hard at his door. A voice yelled, ‘Hey, watchmaker? Open up, will you?!’
Hugo jumped with surprise and dropped the cog onto the desk. It rolled away and tumbled to the floor, falling into the crack between two floorboards.
Hugo sighed. The cog was the size of a grain of sand. He would never find it again.
‘Come in,’ Hugo called out. He twisted his magnifying lens back into his eye socket, folding it out of sight so that only his smooth outer casing was on display. He did this because sometimes people were distracted when they could see Hugo’s moving parts. It was easier for them to talk to him when he looked like a biological person too. He’d been told that the metal cogs and valves inside his robotic body were disturbing.
The door of Hugo’s attic room was pushed open. It banged against the wall, and a cloud of plaster dust fell from the ceiling. A student barged in, wearing the crisp red uniform of the upper fifth year.
‘Are you the watchmaker?’ the student asked with gritted teeth.
‘That’s me,’ Hugo said, and folded his hands together on the desk. He tried to look calm. He hardly ever spoke to the students of the academy, despite working on the campus.
‘You’re an android,’ the student said, surprised. ‘I was expecting … Oh, never mind.’ The student pulled the jacket of his uniform straight. The red was very bright against his green skin.
Hugo wondered which planet he came from. The academy taught children from the richest families across the galaxy – those who could afford to send their sons and daughters to another planet for school. The students were the future leaders of their planets. At the academy, they had the chance to mix with people from other places in the galaxy and learn about their cultures. It was supposed to encourage peace and understanding between the different planets.
‘How can I help you?’ Hugo said.
‘My watch is broken, you idiot,’ the student said. ‘And my Time Travel for Beginners exam is tomorrow! You have to fix it.’
That explained why the student was so angry. But a broken watch was something that Hugo could fix. Especially a time‑travel one, which was a lot simpler than some of his other devices. Once the watch was working, this student would leave, and Hugo could be alone again. He was much happier when he was on his own.
Hugo dipped his head and said, ‘I’m so sorry about that. Do you have the watch with you now, Mr …?’
The student dropped a plain gold watch on the table. ‘I’m Duke Dorian Luther of the star system Hydrox.’
Hugo tried not to react. He hadn’t been around any nobility since his last owner, the Earl of Astea, had left him behind on this planet.
‘I’m Hugo,’ he replied, taking a closer look at the watch.
There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it on the outside. Tiny time‑travel watches such as this one looked very plain and boring, but inside they were a complicated mix of layers of cogs and gears. They were very delicate and easy to break.
Most of the students who bought these watches probably didn’t even know what was inside. They just knew that if they twisted the dial, the watch would send them back in time for a few seconds. It was apparently handy when they embarrassed themselves at a dinner party or said the wrong thing during an important political meeting.
‘I’m going to have to open the watch up,’ Hugo told the Duke. ‘Would you like to come back in an hour?’
‘I’ll wait,’ the Duke said as his antennae trembled. He was clearly annoyed. ‘I only bought it last semester. Are all your watches this poorly made?’
Hugo sighed and replied, ‘I really am very sorry. Would you like a cup of tea?’
The Duke nodded stiffly and watched as Hugo filled a battered copper kettle with water and put it on the hob to heat up.
‘Please, sit,’ Hugo said, and gestured to an armchair. It was buried under a stack of half‑finished projects. Most of Hugo’s attic workshop was filled with boxes of gears, stacked up in tottering piles along the walls.
The Duke began to clear everything off the armchair, holding up each object and looking at it carefully. A broken cleaning spider wriggled its legs as the Duke gripped it. Hugo had been meaning to fix the spider, but he had been swamped with work lately. It would soon be the end‑of‑term exams, and every student who had been putting off buying a watch for class had rushed to place orders.
The kettle sang out as it boiled. Hugo poured hot water over dried flowers in a teacup. The flowers unfolded and bloomed in the heat, turning the water a gentle pink, then green, before settling on purple.
‘I’m sorry,’ Hugo said to the Duke. ‘I don’t have any sugar. I rarely have guests.’
‘Without is fine,’ the Duke replied. He was looking at the pull‑down mattress on the wall and the piles of spare parts. The bridge of his nose wrinkled just a bit, as if he was disgusted. Hugo felt a bit embarrassed about the state of his room.
Hugo sat back down to work. He could tell that the Duke was already getting impatient by the way he was fidgeting in his seat.
But the Duke stopped fidgeting when Hugo extended a screwdriver from the end of his thumb. Hugo guessed he had never seen an android use their tool attachments before. Hugo knew that biological people didn’t have anything like that, and he thought it must be strange to have to get up and find whatever you needed to use. It was so much more handy to have the tools stored inside your body, like androids did.
Hugo focused on opening up the back of the watch, trying very hard to ignore the Duke. He loosened the screws holding the watch together. As he worked, clockwork moths hovered around Hugo’s head, glowing with light. He’d designed them to help him see inside the dark centres of the watches.
As soon as Hugo opened up the back of the watch, he saw the problem. The glowing heart of the watch was gone. There was no yellow ball – the quantum energy that powered the time travel was missing.
Hugo darted a look at the Duke. He was drinking his tea and swatting at a clockwork moth sitting on the tassels of his uniform.
There was nothing but a black space below the watch’s golden gears and cogs. Hugo removed the largest cogs, trying to pretend that everything was normal. His mind raced with questions as he tried to understand what had happened.
Maybe the quantum energy had slipped down inside the watch? It couldn’t just have vanished into thin air. Hugo had never seen anything like this before.
The Duke shifted, crossing and re‑crossing his legs. ‘Any sign of the damage?’ he asked.
‘Not yet,’ Hugo said.
Hugo unscrewed another gear. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say to the Duke, who was already furious that his watch had broken. He wouldn’t be happy if Hugo said he couldn’t fix it.
Hugo dropped a cog onto the desk and then stopped. There was something on the back of the golden cog. He pulled out his magnifying lens from his eye and bent down to look at it. It was a small curl of green metal, stuck in the teeth of a cog.
Hugo lifted the metal free with a pair of tweezers and held it up to the light. It was the shiny green wing of a clockwork beetle.
‘Ah, this is your problem,’ Hugo told the Duke. ‘It’s not broken. Someone has damaged it on purpose.’
The Duke sat bolt upright. ‘What?!’ he shouted. ‘You mean – it’s sabotage?’
Hugo beckoned the Duke closer and held out the wing. ‘Whoever did this used a bug to take out the quantum energy that powers your watch. Perhaps it was another student with a grudge against you?’
The Duke stared at Hugo, folding his arms and creasing his perfectly ironed uniform. ‘Fix it,’ the Duke said. ‘I need it for my exam.’
Hugo had known the Duke would demand this. ‘I can’t,’ he replied. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t have the parts.’
The quantum energy that made the watches work was very dangerous. Hugo wasn’t allowed to store it in his attic. He had to order the energy in for each watch he made.
‘I say, this isn’t on,’ the Duke said. ‘You have a room full of parts. How can you not have the one I need?’
Hugo folded his magnifying glass back into his eye. ‘The energy is rather explosive,’ he explained. ‘I can’t keep it here in case it gets hot. It could blow up the building. I can’t fix your watch. I really am sorry. I can give you back the money you paid for it instead?’
‘Money?!’ yelled the Duke. ‘I don’t want my money. I want to be able to take my exam!’
Hugo rubbed his brow. He hated it when people shouted. They seemed to do it so often. He liked it much better when he was left on his own to work on his watches in peace. Sometimes whole weeks could pass by where Hugo didn’t speak to anyone else, biological or android.
‘Maybe you could find the person who broke your watch and ask for the part back?’ Hugo suggested. ‘It’s a small glowing ball of yellow energy.’
The Duke’s eyes narrowed. ‘I know exactly who did this. Lady Ada de Winters. She’s been angry with me ever since I took the credit for our joint coursework project in our Hyperspace Mathematics class. Ada would love it if I failed my exam.’
Hugo nodded politely. ‘I hope she gives you back the energy,’ he replied. ‘I’d be happy to refit it if you find it – free of charge.’
‘You’re coming with me,’ the Duke said to Hugo. ‘I’ll need you to fix the watch as soon as we find the ball of energy. I don’t have time to come back out here. Why do you work on the furthest edge of campus anyway? It’s almost the wilderness.’
The attic room was all that Hugo could afford to rent, but he didn’t say that to the Duke. ‘Very well. I can come with you, if you insist, Duke.’
‘Oh, do call me Dorian,’ the Duke said.
Hugo clicked his fingers to call his clockwork moths, and put them in his pocket along with the pieces of the Duke’s watch. He stood up. ‘Lead the way then, Dorian,’ Hugo said.
The Starlight Watchmaker by Lauren James is published by Barrington Stoke, priced £7.99