Veils: Under the Panopticon
I tighten the straps of my pack, hugging it tighter against my back. It’s packed light with bare essentials. I keep what's important in my coat, safely tucked inside deeply sewn pockets. I exit onto the main road, where the spotlight strolls freely up and down its narrow path. People avoid it like a plague, it’s better to be unknown.
After the ball of light passes, I walk down the alleys. Each turn moves me away from the loud conversations and towards hidden whispers. Closer to the center, where the scrutiny is heavier. I stop at a corner, watching Workers haul carts bolted onto treads. It crawls along the metal floor, carrying unlabeled barrels further inside. In the distance, faint shouts, drowned out by the industrial hammering.
The screams grow louder as the intercom crackles to life, playing a monotonous voice of warning. It blocks out the discord, as if it’s purposefully played as a distraction. I turn around to the growing sound of footsteps behind me, clumsy and conspicuous. Orion turns the corner, adjusting the strap of a bag slung across his body. He approaches, eyes batting along the scenery.
“No more than two days, right?” He asks, taking tentative glances out onto the main floor.
“If you walk fast enough, yes,” I answer with a laugh. He quiets me, as if making too much noise would provoke unwanted eyes. He wouldn't be wrong in that observation, but I say it's one born from being over cautious. “Come on, while it’s early.”
I step out of the alley, Orion tails behind, pulling a hood over his head. Dusty brown hair concealed by a crudely sewn cloth. I shoot a curious look. “Why are you hiding your face?”
He returns it with an incredulous glare. “To hide from them?” Mockery taints his tone, like I just asked a stupid question.
“If anything, they'll be more suspicious if you try to hide your face,” I counter, huffing a sigh. He maintains the glare before straightening his back, throwing the hood back. “See? You're not so ugly.”
He scowls, facing to the way ahead. We separate shortly to avoid the wandering light. “It will get ugly if they find out why you're out here.”
“See, they won't if you keep things to yourself,” I reply, composed.
“I was keeping things to myself, actually. Then, you ask me to come out here,” he pushes out of gritted teeth. It's an odd sight to see someone who looks so frail put up a fight. Is this how they look at all of us? “All because you're afraid of women.” He adds, smirking.
“Trash and slander. I am not afraid of anything, and especially not women. Just, that particular one is a person I would not want to spend time with.”
Orion stifles a laugh, wiping his smile with a sleeve. “Please, if a guard approaches you, I'm almost certain you'll run away.”
I face towards him, drawing myself to full height. “Oh, is that a bet?” An unamused sigh is his response, looking away.
“Don't. I really don't want to drag you back home all by myself. Well, whatever would be left of you, that is.” A trio of Wet Workers walk by us. Slick rubber boots leave a trail of dark sludge behind them. They carry something bounded together by cloth, tied with thin wire.
I pay no attention, but one of us apparently is. “Hyde, where do you think they work from?” I follow his gaze to the same Workers as they turn at an alley, footsteps of sludge left in their wake. I shrug.
“Don't care. I'm just glad that's not us.” Morbid luck lands us in a Section with dry environments, with the job to keep things burning. It could be worse, is all I'm saying.
“Yes, but. They look better fed than any of us here. Doesn't that make you think?” He persists, the familiar look of curiosity on his face.
“Maybe whatever they're stepping in is edible. I'll cut you in more on the deal if you lick whatever's stuck in their boots.” He shudders in disgust at the thought. It even leaves a bad taste in my own mouth. “See? Better if you're not wondering.”
“So, it doesn't make you think?” He breathes out the question, staring up to a ceiling too high for any of us to see. “Like how far this road goes? Or even whoever's watching from up there?” Orion points up, past the contorted mess of catwalks and stairways to the perch of lighted glass. I swat his hand down.
“I feel a sense of joy from not thinking about it at all. How much to sell these rods? Now that's something worth thinking about.” There's a feeling of freedom from not knowing too much. I’m sure you'd get into unsavory troubles if you do. Rumors are circling around that the Journalists are looking for people with half a brain. What they do to those people is up to the imagination, but it’s not outlandish to say that they'll immediately put a bullet in your head.
“Well, that's you. I'd like to at least wonder. Makes for good conversation,” He says, rolling his shoulders back, causing a quiet rattling from inside his pack.
“Why not a conversation that might not lose you a few fingers?” I suggest. He turns to me, scoffing.
“Fine then, why don't you start us off?” I hum out to express that I do, in fact, have something in mind. We step to the side, letting a cart pass before continuing.
“So, Cass is around twelve now, right?”
“Fourteen,” he corrects in a flat tone. I reel back, surprised.
“Really? You sure didn't you miscount?” He glares at me, unamused. “Fine. Anyway, he's thinking about what to do for work.” Orion hums, stroking his chin with a hand. His eyes bounce along the sedated traffic of Workers that spring to life on occasion to avoid the wandering spotlights.
“Did he mention anything he was interested in?”
I shake my head, “Nothing. Something 'exciting,' he says.”
“I wonder who he got that from?” He makes a sideway glance, I throw back a frown. “No, really. You peddle around twigs. He must be hanging around with cooler people to want something exciting.”
“Shut up,” I punch his shoulder, laughing at his low his of pain. “It's gotten so bad he's thinking about reading up in the library for ideas.”
“Bad?” Orion repeats, quirking a brow. I nod. “What's so bad about reading?” I say nothing, but my hands gesture to his entire figure. He shoves me, but I only stagger, given the difference of size. “He's got a long life ahead of him. So, knowing what to do is good.”
“Keep out of sight and you're golden, I always say,” I ignore the pointed stare, choosing to look ahead. A heavy haze of smoke settles up ahead, obscuring the view. “Speaking of, we'll stop when we get to the Second Section. Rest, then keep going.”
“How far out is this place we're going to?” He asks demandingly. I roll my head, the memory escaping me momentarily.
“About two days,” I answer, resting my hands in coat pockets.
“What?” Though he keeps his voice down, he does not hide the anger. “And we'll be walking the whole way?” I hold back a laugh at the baffled look. As if we haven’t been walking the whole way.
“You need the exercise.” He sucks in a breath, but I put an arm in front, stopping us in our tracks.
“Look ahead.” I nod to the flood of lights. Up ahead, black uniforms gather, stopping Workers. It looks like a checkpoint, but they’ve never done anything similar before. Not on my way back.
“What do we do?” He asks, standing behind me. I shoot a look, a smile crawling on my face.
“Easy: We act natural.” Orion rolls his eyes but says nothing. I walk ahead, buttoning my coat. The light burns as it bounces along metal surfaces. Up ahead, a handful of men get dragged away. By the collar, unconscious, and on the floor.
Upon our approach, one walks to us. Taller than me, his black uniform drapes his frame. A mask obscures his face, a hat conceals his head. It is my first time seeing them up close. They even wear gloves, from head to toe, covered in shades of gray and black. The only thing that glimmers is the spotless metal of their weaponry, holstered on their belts.
I look up, my arms raised to display my innocence. “Passing through. Need more coal.” A tried and tested lie. This Section only burns for fuel. For supplies, we head out to the adjacent Sections. Harbour says it is to keep everyone moving, to displace the disorder.
A palpable silence as he watches. Eventually, he moves away, nodding before heading to a group behind us. I walk at a brisk pace, Orion's hurried steps behind my own.
“See? What did I tell you? Natural.”
He shoves me on the back, moving faster. “Can you at least say that after we're away from earshot?”