The Dark and Shadowy Places

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Twelve Mile Limit

Somehow, Samuel always managed to find himself on the inside of a prison cell. Some of the time it was his own fault. Others, he simply couldn’t remember the circumstances that landed him his free bed for the night. And most of the time it was because he was drunk.

This time he wasn’t, but it was also one of the times he couldn’t remember what had got him here. Looking around he also realized he didn’t know where ‘here’ was. This was his hometown jail. He peered through the bars at the bored looking warden that he didn’t recognize who was sitting at a small wooden desk. Samuel noticed he was the only person in the cells.

“Excuse me sir,” he said politely, for it always served you to be polite if you were in prison. “Can you tell me where I am?”

The jailer glanced up from the book he was reading with a look of disgust. “Are you really that stupid? You’re in jail.”

Samuel sighed with barely contained irritation. “Yes, I can see that. But a jail in what town? I don’t recognize it.”

The jailer smirked at him, and Samuel cringed. He hated people who smirked.

“So you’ve been in more than one, then, eh?” the man said, his smirk turning into a full smile. “I’m not surprised, seeing how you’re a bounty hunter and all. And bounty hunting is illegal here.”

Samuel sighed again, this time with defeat. He wasn’t surprised that the man had found out that he was a bounty hunter. That part was obvious, if you happened to check his arms which were encircled with thin black rings of ink. He sighed because wherever he was bounty hunting was illegal. Not that that surprised him either. It was illegal mostly everywhere in the United American Empire. Even if he was the good kind of bounty hunter. The one that hunted down technology – mostly that most irritating of technology, the mecchas – automatons, machines under the guise of humans. Pretending to be human, but not. They were devious things. Smarter than humans, and trying to make it seem like they are just there to be useful, to be used, to help the real people. But I know better, Samuel said to himself.

“What?” the man behind the desk said. “What do you know better?”

Samuel hadn’t realized he’d spoken out loud. “Nothing, never mind. Are you going to tell me where I am, or not?” He knew he shouldn’t be snippy – he was inside a cell, after all.

The guard shook his head, looking bemused. “If you don’t know where you are, boy, you’re in for more of a surprise than you’re expecting.”

Samuel laughed despite the jab at his age. He was young, but not that young. And he’d seen a lot of things as a bounty hunter and wondered what it was that the officer could tell him that would shock him, and he said so.

“Have you heard of Twelve Mile Limit?” The warden asked.

At first Samuel thought he’d misheard. “Did you say Twelve Mile Limit?”

The guard grinned widely. “Sure did.”

Suddenly Samuel didn’t feel so confident about the fact his profession was so obviously evident, being etched into his skin with ink. usually it gave him a bargaining chip to help him get out of situations just like this. When people found out what he did, he mostly won instant respect. Most people were secretly appalled or at the least slightly uncomfortable around mechanical men and women. They moved with an unnervingly smooth gait.

But if this was really Twelve Mile Limit that was not somewhere someone like Samuel wanted to be. He’d heard of it of course. But it was like a myth, a story told to children at bedtime. Not a real place. He’d heard the stories a million times as a child. It was one of the main reasons he became a bounty hunter. The idea of someplace like that, it was just…wrong.

He didn’t want to ask, but he didn’t have much choice.

The jailer was watching him with a look that made him feel like a rat in a trap. and what the man said next made his blood run cold. “We rarely get people like you come through town. And even fewer unlucky enough to find them in here. Especially someone like you,” he said, glancing at the tattooed rings around Samuel’s arm. “And I gather from the sheen of sweat I see on your brow, the type if bounty hunter you are, without even needing to look for the Emperor’s mark on you to tell me you work on behalf of the Coalition to eradicate a certain... Species shall we say?”

Samuel swallowed, his mouth dry. He didn’t want to nod, so instead asked the question he really, really didn’t want to ask. “Prove it,” he said, as he strained his ears, listening for the familiar sound, if you listened carefully enough, you could hear it. Their speech had a slight whirring sound to it. Gears and motors instead of a human voice box.

The man stood up, gracefully as if he were unfolding himself. That movement alone gave Samuel goose bumps. He was trapped. By an automaton, a mechanical man. A meccha. The things that he had sworn, and got a seal from the Emperor of the United American Empire, to destroy.

But how in the world had he found himself in Twelve Mile Limit of all places? He hadn’t even thought it was a real place. But as the jailer moved eerily smoothly towards where Samuel stood, causing him to back away instinctively. He could see the man, the things, copper coloured eyes, even as he backed himself into a far corner of his cell. The jailer smiled with perfect man-made teeth.

“You want proof?” The meccha said, with a twist of lips that looked so human. “As a bounty hunter, you don’t give your…prey, any chance to plead there case, do you? You just deactivate them, no questions asked.”

Again Samuel forced himself not to nod, but he knew the meccha knew the answer already.

“Well, today is your lucky day,” his captor said with another smile, his smooth non-organic flesh moving as he did so. “We who live in Twelve Mile Limit are nothing if not open minded.”

Samuel forced back a laugh. An entire city created and populated entirely by mechanical men and women. And, he assumed, children, though he had never seen a child automaton. Usually the New Alchemists, the inventors who created the mecchas for sale to businesses, or as personal help around the home, only ever created adult looking mechanical people.

The jailer opened his cell and stepped forward, almost gliding. “Since you’ve never been to Twelve Mile Limit before, you are certainly in for a treat,” he said, taking a pair of handcuffs and not un-forcefully pulling Samuel’s arms behind his back. Samuel cringed as the metal ratcheted tightly around his wrists. “I’ve only ever had to use these handcuffs once before,” he said. “Like I said, we rarely get people coming into Twelve Mile Limit. They’re usually smart enough to realize what it is, and give us a wide berth. Which isn’t really that hard. So it’s always surprising when we do find people from outside.”

Samuel shook his head. Twelve Mile Limit. Trust machines to come up with a name for a city as bizarre as that. But now that he’d thought about it, his curiosity was piqued. “Why do you call it Twelve Mile Limit?” he asked as he was steered through the doorway, and down a long empty hall, the heels of his boots smacking loudly against the concrete.

“It wasn’t us,” the jailer said. “It’s…” he trailed off. “Well, you’ll see in a moment when you get the official town welcome.”

Welcome? That rang alarm bells in Samuel’s head. But there wasn’t much he could do about it, seeing how he was handcuffed. But he always had some trick up one sleeve or another.

A metal door in front of them opened as they approached. Samuel stopped, but was nudged forward out onto a metal walkway. He wished his hands weren’t behind his back, that he could reach out and grab the railings on each side. His feet rang with each slow step. Far below the narrow metal path on which he inched his way forward was a stadium full of people looking upwards. He could hear the noise of chatter, like insects, as thousands of faces turned to watch his progress.

It seemed it took a lifetime to reach the end. Once they had reached the end, Samuel wished it was more than a lifetime. He stood at the edge of a platform, high above the audience. He looked down and wished he hadn’t. The only thing that met his gaze was clouds.

He didn’t need to ask how far the drop was. He already knew the answer.

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