© 2013 by Tyler F.M. Edwards.
The sound of machinery guided them.
This late, the streets of Three Gates were almost empty, and there were no other sounds to drown out the banging and clatter of the Automaton yards. It echoed through the city like distant thunder and allowed Leha and Drogin to find their way in the darkness.
Despite the chill that seeped through her jacket and nightclothes, a broad smile lit Leha’s wide face. She had been planning this for days now, and the thrill of anticipation shot through her veins.
Drogin slowed to walk beside her. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked nervously.
Leha glanced up at her brother. “What’s the worst that could happen? They send us home to Mom and Dad?” She smirked. “Besides, don’t you want to see the Automatons?” Her eight-year-old mouth struggled to pronounce the large word. “You can get close. Maybe touch them.”
His eyes sparkled with excitement, and he fell silent.
For as long as she could remember, Leha’s brother had been fascinated by machines of all kinds. Their parents had long ago learned that any remotely complex toy they gave him would soon end up disassembled.
A few days ago, their family had been shopping near the north edge of Three Gates and passed close to an Automaton on its way to patrol the borders beyond the city. The sight of the massive machine had transfixed Drogin, and he’d chattered about it for the rest of the day. Afterward, she’d had the idea to try to sneak into the yards where the city’s Automatons were kept. She was not as interested by the machines as her brother, but the thought of infiltrating a place so few adults — let alone children — were allowed to go appealed to her greatly.
The street terminated, and they came to a long wooden fence. She stared up at the barrier. Even for her age, she was short, and the fence was easily twice her height. Suddenly, sneaking in didn’t seem so easy.
With a grunt, Drogin leapt and grabbed onto the top of the fence — he was two years older and much taller. He straddled the top of the fence, glanced about, and threw a hand down. “Quick,” he said. “No one’s looking.”
Beaming at him, Leha took her brother’s hand allowed herself to be pulled over the fence.
Her feet slammed into the soil beyond, and Drogin followed a moment later.
They found themselves in a vast rectangle of cleared ground. Small structures — forges, workshops, storehouses — dotted the space, and piles of discarded metal formed dark humps in the night. In the distance, technicians banged on metal or welded with their silver wands. Automatons required near-constant maintenance, and even this late, there was work to be done. Guards patrolled the fences, but none were nearby.
At the far end of the yard, the city’s Automatons towered over all, their azure eyes staring into nothing. The machines were easily the height of Leha and Drogin’s two-story home, and their lead-plated bodies carved holes in the sky.
Leha had learned enough history to know that Automatons had changed the face of warfare. Seeing them arrayed like this, she understood why.
Breaking the spell, she glanced to the left and right. With a jolt of adrenaline, she realized one of the guards would soon be close enough to see them.
She turned to Drogin, who stared, slack-jawed, at the rows of Automatons. She tugged on his arm. “Come on.” She pointed to a pile of scrap metal where the light from yards’ braziers didn’t reach.
He nodded, and they darted into the cover the scrap provided.
They waited until the guard had passed, then he gestured toward a metal-roofed pavilion. He scurried towards it, and she followed. She pretended she was a hero from one of her father’s adventure books, deftly evading the forces of some dark lord.
Beneath the metal roof, a partially assembled Automaton lay upon a raised platform. It had no legs, and one of its arms was unfinished. It smelled of machine oil and metal. Leha didn’t understand the magic that controlled Automatons, but its eyes were dark, so she knew it wasn’t activated and couldn’t detect them.
Drogin cautiously ran his fingers across the cold surface of the machine, an awed expression on his face. “Look how big it is!” he hissed.
She nodded but made no other response. She peered into the night, watching the technicians go about their work, enjoying the feeling of going unnoticed.
A boot thudded into soil. Her heart jumped into her throat.
She ran to Drogin and tugged on his sleeve. “Someone’s coming.”
His eyes widened, and he bolted back toward the fence. She followed, pumping her short legs as hard as she could. In her haste, she flung out one of her hands and smacked it into the side of the Automaton. A hollow boom echoed in the night.
“Who’s there?” a man called. The footsteps quickened.
The pain in her hand made her eyes water, but she kept running. Drogin reached the fence and started to climb it, but a spray of green-white light blinded him, and he lost his grip. Arriving at her brother’s side, she spun about. Their pursuer, a technician, had lit his wand. Overwhelmed by the magically produced radiance, she could see nothing of his features.
Drogin made one last scramble for the wall, but the technician yanked him down. After that, the siblings knew escape would be impossible. The technician chastised them for being where they shouldn’t and led them to the officer in charge of the yards, who continued the scolding. After a few minutes under the old soldier’s scornful gaze, Drogin confessed the location of their home, and another soldier escorted them back to it.
Their parents railed at them for half an hour, stressing how dangerous and unsuitable for children the Automaton yards were.
When their parents had tired of yelling, they were sent back to their beds with warnings of what would happen if they ever repeated the stunt.
Over the next two weeks, their punishments continued. Their father took away their books and refused to read anything to Leha, and they were both subjected to a near endless array of chores.
Once the initial shock had worn off, though, Leha decided that it had been worth it. She had done something no other child had, seen things that few people were ever allowed to. Drogin said he regretted it, but she had seen the excitement in his eyes on that night, and she knew he lied.
Neither of them had the gall to suggest trying it again, but she had no regrets, and though he did not say it, she knew Drogin felt the same.