The fragments of glass framed the moon in its unearthly beauty. Wisps of smoke and cloud danced before it, phantoms in the breeze, to a haunting melody. Jagged buildings towered ominously over narrow roads, paved with stones the colour of ash. Resounding through the silence were footsteps, quiet and soft against the wooden floors. Prising the door open gently, Leila stepped out of her room and onto the narrow landing. The floorboards creaked indignantly as she hurried down the stairs. “Ebony?” she whispered, waiting for her sister’s smiling face to appear in the hall. Instead, a figure shrouded in shadow greeted her by the door.
“I wish to make this easy for you, child. Do not lie to me.” Listening to the voice felt like falling into an endless chasm, empty, cold and threatening. She shuffled closer to the door. “Who are you?” she asked, gazing up into the mask of darkness concealing the man’s face. “Your questions will be answered in due course.” He paused, as if awaiting a response, but Leila remained silent. “Where is your sister, Ebony?” Leila frowned. “Working. Sir, it is not midnight yet. She will be home soon.”
“Will she? I have reason to believe otherwise,” he said, voice dripping with mock gentleness. “It seems your sister has been involved in criminal activity.” Criminals were as common as mice in Territoris; a nuisance, but harmless. More people earned a living by theft than by hard work. However, she doubted Ebony would discard her honour and dignity so willingly, after her constant efforts to get them food each night. “If you will excuse me,” Leila asked, “why are you here?” Terror crept into her voice, and she forced her trembling hands into her pockets.
The cold hand pressed against her throat before she could whimper, suffocating her in a deadly grasp. The man straightened, hand still clasped around her throat, and smiled. Copper teeth gleamed, and instead of a tongue, gears ground, whirring and clicking with a cruel hunger. Piercing, snakelike eyes fixed on her pale blue ones. “I serve the Head. The Head is part of me.” Leila’s eyes widened in horror. Mechanicals. Creatures built from wire and cogs, released into the world to dissolve rebellions and protests. They worked only for the Head. If Ebony had betrayed the city, she could be killed. Would be killed. There was no excuse for traitors in Territoris. “Observation 1. The Head is the righteous leader and general. Observation 5. The borders shall never be opened. Observation 9. Traitors to the city must be eradicated. Observation 11. All descendants of criminals, traitors, murderers and thieves, must be kept in Territoris.” There was a silence in which all the sounds of the world seemed to crash together, and break, leaving only a hollow, ringing echo.
“Do you understand, girl?” the voice asked.
Leila hesitated. “My sister would never betray Territoris. She and I are loyal to it.”
“You sound as though you are frightened, Leila of Territoris.” He spat the name like filth.
Leila kept quiet. Observation 16. Citizens may not interrupt a Mechanical. Speaking when a Mechanical does not allow you to is disrespect to the Head. She wouldn’t risk it.
“I have only one question for you. Why would you be frightened, if you have nothing to hide?”
The smile widened, until his porcelain features might crack. Copper spun and sparked, wires curling intricately around his wrists. The door burst open behind him, and the stranger turned and stormed into the night.
Leaving the door sighing on battered hinges, Leila tore into the moonlight, cobbled stones cold against her bare feet. Ragged shirt welcoming the chill, she wrapped her thin coat tightly around herself, shivering. The last wisps of the stranger’s coat trailed off into the darkness. Territoris taught its people well. Scavengers, murderers and thieves scurried through the streets at night, cowering under the flickering light of the torches nestled in brick walls, hiding in dark corners. Darting in and out of the shadows, she ran like smoke on the breeze, silent and graceful. Shrouded in silence, a suffocating grasp of fear stole the whispers from her tongue. Factories breathed a foul stench into the night.
She caught up with the Mechanical as he turned another corner, and while his eyes stared into the distance, he flicked his wrist back to point directly at her. She drew in a breath. Slowly, the stranger turned. “Observation 44. Do not invade in the business of a Mechanical. By doing this, you are disrespecting the Head.”
“Observation 32,” she responded, forcing her tone steady. “A Mechanical must not invade the business of a citizen, unless they have been accused of a crime. I have not been accused of a crime; therefore, you cannot harm me. You would earn yourself a Striking.” Mechanicals could not be killed; this would make them defeatable, almost Mortal. A Mechanical could not be Mortal. Instead, they were Struck. A public Striking was the most painful experience a Mechanical could endure, humiliating and torturous. Yet, the man did not seem fazed.
“As of now, you have been accused of not abiding by Observation 44. I have accused you.”
“Observation 56. A Mechanical must not accuse a citizen of a crime unless there is reason behind it, as seen by the Head.”
The Mechanical growls, a deep, grinding echo. Her heart quickened, panic pulsing through her. She was moving to the lower Observations now, insignificant in the face of a trial or a Striking.
“Your sister has been accused of traitorous protests against the Head!” he barked.
Ebony, Leila thought, what have you done?
Roughly, the man reached for her arm and dragged her across the road. “Come with me.” She decided to obey, straightening herself, brushing dirt from her trousers and tugging at the battered threads loose from the edges. Leila followed the creature through countless streets, remaining stubbornly silent. The Mechanical did not press her, merely stalking through narrow alleys and gesturing for her to follow whenever he rounded the corner. Thoughts raced through her head. Glowing eyes peered from windows, glaring down through the folds of darkness gathered around the two figures. Fragments of glass and bone littered the streets, and Leila shuddered. This was the deeper, darker part of Territoris, the place where children like her would be captured or killed, sold to thieves and murderers to commit their crimes. Observation 55, she repeated in her head. A Mechanical can never visit the Dark Regions. This rule was one she had never bothered to consider; citizens were allowed where they liked, but why would Mechanicals need to visit the Dark Regions anyway? Those here were banished from the Shadowing Regions, tossed aside to forge a new home from the ash. This place was made for the criminals who stepped over too many lines, they couldn’t imprison them within a greater prison. Still, her sister had been accused of worse than any of these people. A traitor to Territoris was a traitor to the Head.
Eventually, they reached a thin road, pavement thick with grime. Number 55 stood taller than the others, a mockery of the Observation Leila has just ingrained in her memory. Observation 55. A Mechanical can never visit the Dark Regions. Why were they here? The creature turned to face her, just outside the door. “Come in,” he said, pushing it open and stepping inside. She followed cautiously, and blinked in surprise. The gleaming wires and threads of copper and brass, woven through the man’s skin, flickered, and suddenly the light faded and died. The Mechanical smiled slightly at her incredulous expression. “We’re not the danger here, child. Follow me.” She did so, creeping cautiously along the carpeted corridors. He entered a room through a door embedded in the wall beside her. Hurriedly, she stepped in after him, to meet a crowd of people watching, waiting.
Whispers circled the room, dancing through the damp air. “Hello,” Leila started cautiously, and the man motioned her to move forward, further into the room. She took a deep breath. There was no way to escape now. Sliding a knife from her pocket, she clutched it tightly and did as he instructed.
“This is Leila. Her sister, Ebony, is one of our most dedicated members, and I believe she, too, will be of great use to us.” Leila fidgeted nervously.
“Sorry, but what am I doing here?” she asked. The man sighed, and said quickly, as though it would make it easier to hear, “We’re trying to break down the border and escape into Mystoris.”