Wells Bequest

The basement of the New York Circulating Material is home to the mysterious Wells Bequest – powerful objects straight out of science fiction. Robots, rockets, submarines, a shrink ray – and a very famous time machine – Leo Novikov is about to discover them all.

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2. The New York Circulating Material Repository

Before I did anything else, I had to follow Future Me’s advice. That afternoon I hunted down The Time Machine and found a nice sunny corner in the public library with a beat-up chair to sprawl in.

It’s a good book. The hero, an inventor, builds a time machine and uses it to travel to the distant future, where humans have evolved into two separate species—the happy, peaceful Eloi and the downtrodden, apelike Morlocks. The Morlocks catch him and he almost doesn’t escape. The story gets pretty exciting, but what excited me most was the time machine. The description sounded a lot like the one I’d seen.

I read it carefully, looking for hints about how to build it, but the book didn’t really give any. While I was at the library, I also checked out books about science to get ideas for my project.

On Wednesday, I found myself walking through misty drizzle to the address Ms Kang had given me. I’d finally decided to do my project on the history of robots. Maybe I could use some ideas from old technology to build a new model—that might be more fun than just writing a paper.

As long as my model didn’t go crazy and decide to kill all humans.

The building was a row house on the Upper East Side with a brass plaque beside the door that read The New York Circulating Material Repository. I pulled open the heavy doors. Inside was a big room, way wider than the house itself.

I stood in the entryway staring around me, trying to figure out how the inside could be bigger than the outside. It bothered me so much, the feeling seemed almost physical. It felt like an itch.

A girl a little older than me was sitting behind a big wooden desk reading a book. She looked up. ‘You look lost,’ she said. ‘Can I help you?’

‘I hope so,’ I said. ‘I’m doing a history-of-science project, and my teacher said there were old scientific instruments here?’ ‘You’d better ask the reference librarian. Go up to the top floor and follow the signs for the catalogue room. Elevator’s that way.’

‘Thanks.’
‘Sure.’ She went back to her book.
I took the creaky old elevator and walked down a long hallway to a door marked Catalogue Room. It opened onto a wide room with high, arched skylights. The sky was bright blue with fluffy white clouds bouncing around it—the kind of clouds angels sit on in Christmas cards.

But wait—wasn’t it raining outside? I hadn’t seen any sign of the rain letting up. Was my mind playing tricks on me— was this more evidence of Loopy Leo?

A broad beam of sunlight shot through the skylight and fell on a desk where a man was filing cards in a box. It looked almost on purpose, like a spotlight aimed at the desk.

Rows and rows of wooden drawers lined the walls, with big, thick books on shelves above them. One man had pulled out a drawer and was flicking through the cards inside it. A woman was standing on a ladder, reaching for one of the big books. I didn’t see any computers anywhere.

I paused in the doorway. Which of the people was the reference librarian?

I randomly picked the one in the sun. ‘Excuse me,’ I asked, keeping my voice down, the way librarians like. ‘Are you . . . is there a reference librarian here?’

‘That’s me,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’ He was short, with broad shoulders and crinkly eyes. He had a slight Spanish accent. He looked like he’d just finished laughing and might start again any second.

‘I’m doing a history-of-science project, and my teacher told me I could find historic robots here,’ I said.

‘Nice,’ he said. ‘Did your teacher explain about the repository?’

‘She said it was like a library, only with objects instead of books. She said you would have different robots I could compare.’

‘That’s right. We have plenty of robots.’

‘So where do you keep them?’ Clearly not in this room. The drawers were way too small.

‘Downstairs on Stack Five, mostly, but the public’s not allowed in the stacks.’

‘What are stacks?’ I asked.

The rooms where we store the objects. You have to look up your objects in the catalogue and write down the call numbers on call slips. Then you’ll give the call slips to a page in the Main Exam Room and someone will go get your items for you.’

‘Oh, OK. How do I find the call numbers? I don’t see any computers.’

‘No, we use traditional card files. Here, I’ll show you.’ He shut the box he’d been using and came out from behind his desk. As he did, the beam of sun faded away. I looked up at the skylight. It was still filled with blue sky and fluffy clouds, but the sun had gone behind one of the clouds, turning it gold at the edges.

Where was the rain? Had it stopped?

That was the obvious explanation, but as I looked up at the sky I got the distinct feeling it wasn’t the correct one. It felt almost like I was looking up at a different sky—the sky of some other world.

‘Wasn’t it raining?’ I said. ‘The sun . . .’ I stopped. I didn’t want him to think I was crazy.

The reference librarian looked at me closely. After a moment, he said, ‘The card files are this way. Come.’

I followed him to the left-hand wall of drawers.

R for “robot”—here.’ He pulled out a drawer labelled R-Rom. ‘See? Ringbolt . . . ripsaw . . . ritual object . . . road map . . . There you go.’ He flicked through the cards until he came to one labelled robot, then stood aside so I could look through the drawer myself.

‘Thanks,’ I said, sticking my finger in the spot to hold my place and flicking ahead past robot after robot.

‘Here, you’ll need these.’ The librarian handed me a bunch of small, blank forms, along with a stubby little pencil. ‘Fill out a separate call slip for each object. When you’re done, take them to the Main Exam Room and give them to the page on duty. Down the hall to the left.’ He went back to his desk. As he sat down, the sun came out from behind its cloud and fell in bright squares on his desk.

A card catalogue may not sound all that exciting, but as I flipped slowly through the robot section, my heart started to pound. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! They had working models of three Mars rovers. The deep-sea robot that found the Titanic. The first robotic vacuum cleaner. These things were robot superstars!

But everything listed under robot in the catalogue was from the twentieth century or later. For my history-of-science project, I was going to need to study earlier ones too. Where were all the older robots?

I was about to go ask the reference librarian when I noticed a card at the beginning of the section that said See also: android, automaton, cyborg.

I pulled out the A–Ap drawer. Most of the androids were fairly recent too. Then I pulled out Aq–Az and flipped to automaton. Bingo! Some of these automatons were thousands of years old.

I couldn’t believe people had invented robots so long ago— and I couldn’t believe such fragile machines had made it through all those centuries. My own stuff usually breaks in a matter of months.

Not that it matters—I can always fix it.

The earliest automaton in the repository’s collection was from ancient China, made by a man called Yan Shi. I copied out its description and call number onto one of the paper slips. I chose four others to start with: a steam-powered bird from ancient Greece, a hand-washing maidservant made by a twelfth-century Kurdish inventor, a mechanical knight designed by Leonardo da Vinci, and John Dee’s wooden flying beetle from the sixteenth century. I copied out their call numbers and info onto call slips and took them down the hall to the Main Examination Room.

Once again, I was blown away. It was like walking into a landscape made of light.

All four sides of the Main Examination Room up to the ceiling were filled with brilliant stained glass. But that doesn’t even begin to describe it. They didn’t look frilly or churchy. They hardly even looked like windows. The scenes were so vivid they seemed alive.

I turned around slowly to take it all in. On one side, the window showed a rainforest. Brightly coloured birds peeped through the branches. At least, they looked like birds—but some of them had very strange shapes, with four wings or spiky crests and skin like lizards. Not birds—maybe . . . dinosaurs!

I felt like I had one foot in a library and the other in a primordial forest. Or like I’d walked into the palaeontology room at the natural history museum and the dinosaurs had suddenly come to life. Why had I never heard of this place before?

In the next window, snow was falling across a wide white valley. A herd of shaggy mammoths with lumpy foreheads was crossing the valley. I felt a wisp of cold air, as if a distant breeze were blowing towards me from the faraway tundra.

On the third side, a horse and two foals stood on a carpet of glowing autumn leaves, frozen like deer when you startle them. I got the strangest feeling they would leap away as soon as I turned my back.

No, not horses. Horses don’t have spotted stripes, and these animals were too small. When I looked carefully, I saw they had toes.

The last window showed a rocky orange desert. There were dunes, canyons, and craters, crisscrossed by riverbeds that looked like they had been dry for aeons. Something about that landscape felt creepily alien. I stared at it, trying to decide where it was supposed to be. Arizona? Africa? It could be anywhere. . . .

Or could it? Something about it bothered me intensely. What a freaky place this library was! I stared at the window, trying to figure out why it felt so off. Was it the shadows? In the picture, the sun was setting and the moon was rising.

No, not the moon. A moon.

The scene in the window couldn’t have been anywhere on Earth. In the sky there were two moons. I was looking at a landscape on another planet.

I shook myself slightly. Come on, Leo, I told myself. It’s not an actual planet, just a picture. Why should stained- glass windows always show boring, terrestrial scenes? Why not dinosaurs and alien planets sometimes? And the horse looked pretty normal, anyway. Except for the toes.

I turned back to the horse and her foals. They were still there, frozen. But I was pretty sure the left-hand foal had had his head down, just a minute ago. Now he was looking right at me.

A shiver went straight through me, from my scalp to my own toes. This was crazy! Animals in stained-glass windows don’t move. I had to have been mistaken. I had to.

I pulled my eyes away from the glowing scenes in the windows and looked around. The rest of the room looked like any fancy library reading room, with rows of long tables and carved wooden chairs. People were sitting here and there, examining objects and writing in notebooks.

It didn’t sound like a library, though. In the background I heard a quiet whooshing, gurgling sound, like a stream. Every so often something would rustle and thump, like an animal in the bushes. Were the noises coming from the windows?

Get a grip, Leo! I told myself. The noises weren’t coming from the windows—they were coming from an area in the centre of the room, a sort of big wooden booth where a guy and a couple of girls were filing papers and handing objects to the patrons.

That must be where I was supposed to give my call slips to what the reference librarian had called ‘the page on duty’.

I went up to the big window in the front of the booth. The page on duty was a girl. Once again, I was in for a surprise. Not a girl—the girl.

Jaya, the girl from the time machine. The girl from the time machine was real!

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