Chapter 2:

Life Behind Metal and Steam

Veils: Under the Panopticon

Metal screeches against a grindstone, beneath its coating of rust lies a dangerous sheen. It almost resembles the glint of their weaponry. A convincing enough lie to throw someone off. Old man Harbour, the most decrepit body to still move, bundles the sharpened rods across his wide worktable. I toss over a bag over his way, making a soft thud.

“And to think you'd grow up to be a swindler,” he remarks with a sigh. Fogged eyes stare my way. A bold accusation. Ultimately untrue.

“They're getting its worth. It's shiny, sharp, and could probably hurt someone.”

“Yes, but they're no weaponry,” He counters. I snap, mimicking a gunshot.

“But they don't know that.”

He groans, rising from his seat to reach for his cane. Walking around the table, his steps are irregular, the clack of his cane accentuates that fact. Maybe it's because of his missing leg, but it could also very well be his age.

“You should get a replacement if you don't want to spend all day walking around that table,” I suggest for what feels like the hundredth time. “I'll pay, but you'll owe me.” He scoffs, pushing me away with his cane. Wrought iron, crude, but sturdy.

“Worry about yourself not getting killed first,” A wheeze pauses his breath. He throws open the door before continuing. “Besides, I need currency. And they know I don't need a leg to do my job. So, they won't give them to me.”

We take a short walk back to lighter floors. A chill seeps beneath gaps on my coat. The days are growing colder. Winter will bring soot from the funnels up above, desperate to keep the vents hot. Harbour calls them snow. A word from a time long before his. Where solid water would fall from the sky. Clean and free from bleach.

A myth, probably. He keeps the tale away from children as it caused an incident a year ago where a few stuck their mouths to eat the falling ash. They were sick for days.

“If you're going on a trip further down again. Bring someone with you like Orion or Whisper,” He prods his cane at my foot, scuffing the leather.

“Not Whisper. I'd like a quiet trip where I don't get talked off for simply breathing,” my justifiable response is met with a crude laughter. He bends over, clearing his throat. As someone I've known longest, Orion would be reasonable. If he wasn't so intent on holing himself up in the libraries, as sparse as its collection is. Sometimes I wonder if he rereads the same passages.

“Orion still at the same place?”

I groan, he nods his head, huffing in approval. “Smart boy. Won't get himself dismembered.” Grey eyes stare up in scrutiny. At my body that's still whole and organic.

“I could use a new hand,” my joke isn't met well, but it makes me laugh. This place needs a different warmth than just heat vents. His glare continues, unrelenting. Eventually, I groan. Despite his age, he's still as stubborn as an eight-year-old. “Fine, I'll get him. A slower trip, if it makes you happy.”

“Get me new shoes,” he says, turning to hobble off. “Won't be too hard, you only need to find one!” His laughs disappear past a corner, irritant eyes shooting towards me. All of them missing either a foot or a leg.

“It was his joke!” I ignore the looks, starting towards the library. It houses a few shelves of scribes, old books, and texts. Most of which are rules, guidelines, and written laws that uphold the standard. Anything else is banned, and if you're caught with anything raunchier than an exposed set of shoulders earn you sewn-shut eyes. They end up working as packagers, where sight is a hindrance rather than a benefit. It breeds a sense of safety when the packages are seen by no one other than the source and its destination.

A fist fight down the alley, their fists resound through the walls. Other than that, silence. A good place for a library, but that just highlights how people don't care for a library. I make my way to the door, rattling the iron bars. A few seconds later, footsteps rush from inside, carrying with it a ragged breath. A disappointed groan when eyes peer at me.

“Haven't seen you run in a while.”

“Shut up,” Orion speaks between heaved breaths, hunched over himself with hands on his knees. A book is wedged between his side and arm. He's never seen without one. Old iron creaks as the door swings open enough for me to step inside. I welcome the old, almost rotting smell of paper, sewn between hard leather to serve as covers. He did it himself, worried that winds might blow the pages away. A decision forced on by paranoia, but it makes sorting easier.

Past the door is a corner that opens to the library. High ceilings decorated with cobwebs and loose sheet paneling. A grated vent on the floor's center serves as the only heating, long tables and chairs gather around the warmth. Shelves that have seen better days line the walls, sparsely filled with books.

“I cleaned it up,” he says, tone flat. I can't tell if that was a joke. He never tends to be the humorous guy, mainly because he isn't.

A laugh escapes me, more mocking than expected. He turns to me, giving a glare. “No, no. I believe you. Like what you did with the place.” He groans, making his way to a spot on one of the tables. A stack of papers lay in front, weighed down by a rough cube. A needle beside it, balanced on top of a bottle of wet coal powder.

“Still writing?” A question with an obvious answer, but a good conversation starter.

“That's right.” He says nothing else. A good conversation starter provided he's willing to have a conversation in the first place. I sigh, it echoes up the ceiling.

“Anything in particular?”

Orion shakes his head. “No, just about what I've seen.” He lifts the weight, filing through the stack before separating its pages in half. “Stories here,” he pauses, then points to the other half. “and whatever I hear from you, Whisper, or old man Harbour.”

“Isn't that dangerous?” I ask, quirking a brow. He rolls his shoulders, sighing a laugh.

“Nobody ever reads anymore, right?” He counters, a smile growing wide.

“People with things better to do don’t, but the guys up there do.” I drag a chair beneath the table, sitting down across him. He continues his scribing; faint scratching fills the short silence. “Speaking of things better to do-”

“Not interested,” a quick refusal born from past experiences. Understandable, but I press on.

“Look, it's a short trip. In and out. No longer than two days.”

His eyes never look up from the paper as he continues to write. “There's no one else?” I shake my head in hopes to hide my desperation. As fun company Whisper is, I'd rather get shot in the foot.

Finally, he peers up, watching my every move. He sighs, relenting. “Fine. I want a cut, though.”

I smile. “Done,” standing up, I accidentally bump against the table. I look back to find him with the needle lifted away, waiting. “I'm going tomorrow. So, you might want to get ready.”

He pauses, then begins to gather his pages, stacking them in one pile for the weight to press down. He corks the bottle, and the needle bundled in a small cloth. “Where are we going?”

“Sell to some people who think they can make a difference,” I answer, watching him as he walks to a near empty shelf.

“Some pages and ink, then. Dramatics like to leave a farewell note before riding off to the big battle,” He muses, slipping out empty sheets of worn paper, folding them between sewn leather. A profitable gig among the Defiants are dangerous, but considering their ambition, they see no worth in material possession. Food being one of them.

“Meet at the same place as always?” He asks, shuffling through a box of thin metal. I confirm with a loud hum, the echo in the library a slow fade. “We could bring Whisper with us-”

“Absolutely not,” I snap, turning a shelf to find him crouched down, rifling through a box. “I'm asking you specifically because I don't want her along.”

“Harsh,” He laughs, giving a momentary glance. “Why not, though? She's quiet. That won't get you in trouble.”

I groan, “Too quiet, if you ask me.”

Orion stands up, sliding the box below the shelf with a foot. “Of course, you'd say that. She comes here to read sometimes. Just quietly reading near the heat vent.”

“So, you like her because she's the only other person around who reads these dusty books?”

He shakes his head, brushing my words with a lax wave. “I appreciate someone who can read, Hyde.” Walking past me, he returns to the table, laying everything down with an arranged precision.

“I can read.” He gives me a look, his hands never stopping. I continue, “No, honest. Give me a needle and a page, I'll write you the most moving piece of work.” I weave my hands through the air, gesturing to the grandiose epic I'm sure to conceive.

“Instead, why not move and help me out here?” He scoffs, moving away for a moment before returning with a sack with straps. He turns it over, watching an assortment of trash fall on the table. I breathe loudly, resigning myself to help.