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A chair scraped across the floor behind him and Mason winced. He'd had the kitchen to himself. The quiet time before the sun rose and before the unit of men camped out in Greenbank Hall swarmed the room as their shifts changed. The electrical stink pushed into the air from the technician's clothes, burning against his tongue. It was a sharp reminder of the six Armstrong-Swan cages reconstructed in the cellars and the prisoners they held.
Mason pushed down any pity. If set free, the two men and four women would kill everyone in the hall. They would do their duty.
"Mr. FrostAchilles drinks boiling hot water? For breakfast?"
The technician broke into his darkening thoughts and Mason focused on the gauge on the sterling silver teapot as it wavered just under the eighty-degrees-centigrade mark. The little pot rattled, its feet tapping against the silver breakfast tray. He fixed the rubber clamps to hold it steady before glancing over to the technician sitting at the large scrubbed table in front of range. "He does."
The manMason thought his designation was Stentorput down his mug of tea. "Do you?"
Mason frowned and turned back to the teapot. Eighty-one degrees. It was another of Agamemnon Frost's household gadgets. A teapot, wrapped in copper wires with the glitter of multicoloured lights flickering across its ornate curves, converted with the know-how that somehow came with Frost being automata. But even for so advanced a machine, it seemed a watched pot never boiled. Especially when he needed to escape the unwanted questions of a too-nosy technician.
"Do I what?"
"Have to follow his example? Drink boiling water?" Stentor's head tilted and the light from the gas lamp set beside him on the table drew his thin face in gold. "Is it a part of being automata? What about the kardax? Should it be something we have to cater to the prisoners? Or only to the men? Or deny them all?" A line creased above his nose. "I'm one of the men in charge of containing them. It's information I should have."
Eighty-two degrees. Mason held back a curse. "I don't know enough about the subject."
"But it's what you are. You were transfigured, just like Achilles, just like the prisoners." Stentor waved his fingers over his face and head. "Don't you have a list, an internal book of what you should do? How you preserve or hinder your state?"
The gauge had slid up another tiny notch. "Achilles and I are different to the prisoners."
More of the technicians shuffled into the kitchen. Mason recognised some from the night watch and others who were about to begin their day. It was time to escape before more pointed and nosy questions or, worse, enduring the sly looks as they tried to work out how his new body differed from that of a fully human man.
Not that it was visible. The Martians had designed them to blend in, after all.
He set the china cup on the tray. The clank of the kettle, the chink of mugs and the scrape of chair legs over the flagstone floor cut at Mason's newly sensitive hearing. One man with his shaved skin thick with the scent of cheap lotion and carbolic soap was bearable. A host of them, most unwashed, holding the thick dust of the cellars and the sharp stink of the cages, overwhelmed his senses.