Chapter 1:

Symphony of the Panopticon

Veils: Under the Panopticon

A defiant opposition up above. Weapons rise to a brief crescendo, then a deafening return to monotony. I push past shoulders; curiosity leads my footing. Death is an unattainable luxury. A lifeless corpse is a rare occasion.

Speakers stutter, white noise a thin veil to his suffering. It repeats, a dull addition to the cacophony. Ragged steps are a constant rhythm, industry a steady beat. Everyone takes care not to break the prevalent drum. Mismatched rattles of faulty metal will be silenced soon enough, I’m lucky enough to hear its rare melody.

Two figures break the gathering swarm, I take a few steps to safety. Black uniforms, obscured faces. Men that enforce the law of higher ears. One kicks the body on the floor. It remains lifeless, eyes a vacant stare. Another kicks, the second body coughs to life, clutching their shoulder loudly.

Blood pours, the arm hangs loosely. “An easy fix,” one says, slinging their weapon before dragging the defiant by the collar. His screams ascend the walkway, everyone else is keen to return working. I watch the corpse pulled to the dark. It will be another's warmth, however way that’ll go.

It is an experience. A tale the rest are sure to listen in awe. I make familiar turns, scratches on old iron walls make noticeable landmarks. Huddled cloaks speak whispers in alleys. The darker each turn becomes, the louder the voices become. Obscurity sparks a sense of safety; I’m no stranger to that belief. Away from black uniforms, a crude way of life may thrive.

I push past a veil of coal-ridden cloth, a sense of safety relaxing my shoulders. It was a clever idea to settle a home above steam vents. Footsteps gather from outside, throwing up the cloth to enter. He throws his pack on a table, creaking under the sudden weight. Then, he turns to me, eyes full of interest.

“Anything new?” Looking up to me, he bounces, almost excited. I shake my head.


I turn to a sudden voice past him, speaking up past the venting hiss of steam. “Good. A quiet trip is a good trip.” She makes a solid point. Whisper, everyone calls her, is always a woman of caution. A type of crowd I don't associate with in particular, but ideas are scarce, and she’s never short with them.

“Boo! Boring as always. Hyde, does she have to be here?” Smaller than I, Cass is everything but silent. A trait common among kids his age, though I never remember myself to be this unruly at his age.

I step past them, unbuckling straps on my body. The weight drops on the table with a heavy thud. Cass unfurls the leather packaging, blond hair bounces atop his head, messily kept short by a rusty pair of shears. “Leave it for later,” I warn, exiting. Whisper follows me, her footsteps drowned by distant echoing machinery and nearby chatter.

“You left without telling anyone,” She begins, her tone sharp. “I expected you to return with a finger or three missing with how you tend to be... Overly adventurous.” I turn to look. She stops me just shy of a spotlight streaking along the floor.

“Oblivious too.” A calculative finish. I laugh, brushing her arm aside.

“It's fine, see? No missing body parts.”

“No brain too, from what I can tell.”

I take a mental note to reevaluate the company I keep. “You wound me, really.” She doesn't define my choice of crowd. After all, she’s the newest addition. Her lips are tight even from the moment we met her. Only a few choice phrases and criticisms. When's she's with me? Only criticisms.

I bring our walk to a local activity that could only be described as a market. Currency is a privilege given only by those who carry it, so bartering is common. A staple. Interactions remain a hushed whisper. You keep your intentions hidden, but never suspicious. They keep watch, they always do. Leaving us a semblance of freedom to think with one hand, but a wire on the other. Tied to our throats, ready to pull at the slightest defiance.

In this, a delicate sense of society barely breathes. I guess it could be worse. Whisper watches me, rolling her eyes. “It gets worse. Where I come from, it did.”

I smile for both of us, stepping to a small alley. “That would be informative if you decide to tell me where exactly you come from.” She syncs her steps with mine. The high walls return only our echoes. Whisper says nothing else. Conversations lasting for only minutes is common with her. Again, a reevaluation of company is in order.

The way opens to a worn metal hatch. Behind it reveal steps downward. We adjust to the steam that fills the room, blinking away bright light behind grated floors. Past it is another door, closed, but unlocked. I knock before heading inside, Whisper closing the door behind me. A table takes up majority of the cramped space. Shelves, boxes, and tools. A home that’s anything but cold.

The centerpiece is missing, however. “He's not in?” I turn around. She answers with a shake of the head.

“Gone somewhere, why?”

I filter through my coat, producing rods of metal. Previously from tool handles, the bits broken off. “Thought he could sharpen these for me. To sell back.”

She quirks an eyebrow, her arms crossed. “And people buy those?”

“Yeah! Defiant individuals. Or suicidal ones.” An easy way out either way, if they succeed.

Whisper remains unconvinced at my enterprise. I can tell from her lack of interest. That's her demeanor towards most things, but there are slight differences. “If we could find ourselves done in by sharp sticks, then life would be easier.”

I shrug, concealing the rods in my coat pocket. “Doesn't mean people won't stop trying. Just today someone tried to throw themselves on a broken piece of railing. Only left a puncture.” I scratch my neck. It feels natural, at least, the most natural thing we can feel. I heard people used to be softer, but generations of consuming chemically grown food had changed us. Now, only the weapons of uniformed guards can kill us.

They never do. Body parts are replaceable, but a working person isn't. Those who defy get their complications replaced, for a lack of a better word. Hands, legs, organs, bones, pretty much anything. Our bodies coexist with metal replacements, and there's a slicker version of blood they stick in you if you lose too much. Old wives' tales, I reckon.

Metal scrapes against the table. Whisper pulls her fingers away. “Journalists came by today. Looking for interviews.” The existence of journalism is an irony. Consequences come to them if they deliver unordinary news. Watchers above much prefer that things keep to the status quo.

“What were they looking for?” I ask, rounding the table back to her.

“Job openings. Currency for service. Nothing unusual,” She answers, uninterested, gaze returning to the door. Rumors reach saying that behind the black uniforms and helmets are people. I personally think no one can discard their humanity with such serviceable efficiency against people. However, every time a Journalist comes, people disappear. Whether it was against their will or not, the rumor may hold ground after all.

Yelling and clattering metal dispel the conversation. I meet her eyes. She looks to the door. We exit the room in silence, once more our steps in perfect sync.

“You need to stop doing that. It makes me feel like I'm with a ghost,” I mutter, adjusting my breath to the metallic cold.

“Good.” Her only response. I'd roll my eyes if she could see me. A spotlight blinds the end of the alley, our sight filled with white before blinking back my vision. A guard, around him three men clutching work tools. Bystanders hide behind windows, stalls, and cloth barriers. I rush to do the same.

One man belts out a cry before rushing. Beneath his black uniform is a reflective shine. A moment later, a piercing sound. The man falls to the floor, red coating his knee. Or, what's left of it.

The other two freeze. When the guard resumed movement, they drop their makeshift weapons and scurry to dark alleys, their screams bouncing against high walls. He continues walking. Behind him is a spectacled man, surveying each direction with a device hooked on his waist. A recorder.

As soon as they disappeared behind the corner, some spring to the man on the floor, rushing him out of sight. I'll see him again. With one less foot, probably.

Syed Al Wasee
Joe Gold