Veils: Under the Panopticon
Rust fills the air, our steps muted by the concrete floor. We enter the next Section, where no one's short of work with corroded metal. Life here is quiet, before the rust eventually weigh down your lungs. But the pay is constant and there's never a shortage of decrepit steel. Some see it as a place to make a living, some see it as a place to die.
“We're staying here for the night?” Orion steps next to me, taking cautious glances at the branching alleys. He looks to the floor when someone returns his gaze.
“That's right. We'd reach the third section after dark. This way, we won't have to deal with patrols.”
“Yet we had earlier,” he grumbles, but doesn't object to my plan. I'm sure if we had it his way, we'd be walking back home.
In an act to distract himself, he takes prolonged stares at the Workers. Ragged individuals hauling carts of blackened and red metal to workshops that have them shave the rust off its surface. He digs his chin into his chest, hiding from the heavy waft of corrosion.
“How do they breathe around here?” I turn to him, then nod to a throng of people, most wearing a cloth over their nose.
“It doesn't help much, but it keeps some of the rust out.”
He tries to speak, but coughs. He wraps part of his hood to cover his mouth and nose, glaring up at me with watery eyes. “And why spend a night here of all places?”
I motion him to follow me down another turn, the scent of metal getting stronger. “Not even the guards like it here, so we'll be safe. No break ins while we sleep.” We open up to a narrow street. Grated iron bar the windows of rooms built into the walls. There's a spotlight overhead, but the air of the section gives the light a discolored orange hue.
Weaving past the sedated pace, we approach a door I remember to borrow rooms. They barter consumables and take a particular liking to anything moist. I knock on the door, a hollow reverb of steel. At its eye level, a sliding hatch that opens a moment later. Half-lidded eyes look through, a trademark to the Workers of the Second Section.
“A room for two,” I say through the slit in the door. I undo the latches on my pack, rummaging through to produce an unlabeled can. I rattle it at the door. It makes a soft, wet noise. The eyes focus on the can before the slit closes. A brief moment passes, filled with the noise of locks being undone. Our hostess opens the door, throwing out their empty hand at me.
I hand the can to her. She gives it a short inspection, a thirst in her eyes. “First door. On the right,” She speaks in a dry voice, stepping to the side. I walk inside, Orion behind me.
We walk to a modest room with a singular desk in the center. A lobby of sorts. I turn to the right, navigating to the first door in the tight hallway. Sheets of cloth cover the windows, keeping the breeze of rust out. I open the door, stepping inside a near desolate room.
“It has a roof and walls, at least,” I remark as Orion looks around. Against the wall is a table, in front of it across to the other wall are two bed frames. On top of it is a sheet of metal and stuffed sacks. A makeshift attempt at coziness, but around here, I'll take anything.
“I hope you brought food,” he says, walking to one of the beds. He prods at the sack, watching its surface morph under his finger. A sigh, and he removes his bag, hanging it off the frame. I move to the other bed, laying down on the cold, dusty surface.
“Sure, but mainly for bartering. Not something I'd eat on a normal day.” I stare at the wall, looking idly at the light dug into the wall. Orange floods the room, providing a dim hue against the growing shadows. Orion sighs, tossing something my way, landing on my stomach.
“I figured,” he groans, taking out a cylindrical bottle, black on its bottom. He twists the cap and takes a swig. “Liquid sure hits different after you've tasted a fist full of rust.”
I laugh, picking up the tossed object. A cube of dried bread wrapped in cloth. I grimace at the overpowering smell of saccharin. “Not your favorite?” I ask, holding it up.
“Better used for fuel, in my opinion,” He answers with an offending stare at the bread. “You have anything that isn't sweet?”
I take a bite from the bread. It takes effort to break it down. I reach for my pack, rifling through my random assortment of cans. I take out one with a label scratched onto its surface. I voice out a warning and toss it at him. I watch him as he pulls off the cover, taking smaller bites out of the cube.
“Green Substitute, huh?” He shrugs, taking out a writing needle from his coat. He stabs one, bringing the green ball in his mouth, chewing quietly. “At least it's bitter.”
The sight of him eating it with a look of partial enjoyment leaves a bad taste in my tongue. I bite more of my saccharin laced food in response. “We should get some food on our way back. Winter is settling in soon.”
He sits on the bed, indulging in the spongey green. “That's why we're going out far into the Third Section?” I shoot him a look, nodding. “It doesn’t feel right that they make food right next to this place.”
I heave a breath, my jaw tired from breaking down the hard bread. “They don't. It's more of a place to package and distribute. I heard they make the food nearer to the center. Where more eyes can watch them.”
“So, they can know their food isn't poisoned?”
“Hah, I think they eat actual food that isn't mostly chemicals,” I laugh out, settling into the bed. The cold metal sheet is almost comforting, and the orange light is easier on the eyes than the striking white spotlights. “Do you have water? The bread's sticking to my teeth.”
“Here.” Orion passes over his bottle. I take a quick swig, welcoming the carbon aftertaste that washes away the violent sweetness. I screw it shut before passing it over to him, who looks to be done with eating.
“I don't know why you like that mush so much,” I remark, staring up to the ceiling.
“It's better than that block of chemical sugar,” he scoffs, rearranging his belongings. The conversation dies down, the air filled with nothing but the faint metal striking one another in his pack. The grinding of metal is distant, and the huff of steam vents are nowhere as loud as back home.
A momentary silence broken by a rising discord outside.
“Should we check?” Orion asks, standing up, tightening the string to close his pack.
I shake my head, fluttering my eyes shut. “Probably nothing.” A collection of noises grows in intensity, a striking voice rises above it all. “A Journalist.”
“What are they doing all the way in here?” He wonders out loud, walking to the door. “I'll check it out.”
“Wait,” I call out to him as he steps out. I groan, heaving myself out of the bed. It isn't the most comfortable, but it beats standing up. “I'm coming with you.”
Following behind him out the door, we enter back into the lobby where the hostess is standing, looking outside through the slit on the door.
“Black uniforms,” She mutters, her gaze never shifting. “They look. For work takers.” I move to one of the windows, rolling up the cloth to look outside. In the streets are men with aprons caked in powdered rust. In the center of the street is a Journalist, next to him are two guards, standing in silence.
“If you could stand easy,” The Journalist calls out, her hands motioning down in a vain gesture to calm the rising voices. “The job will have you compensated generously. Lodgings, warm meals, and even clean water.” She smiles to convince, but it falls on deaf ears.
“Liars!” The tallest among the men steps forward, his fists balled in anger. “You came here last time saying the same things! You tricked us! You tricked my own son! He hasn't come home even once, and not a word from him since!” The gathering all yell in agreement. They each say their piece, some are similar to his, some are heated accusations.
“I assure you, the Workers we take are doing what is required of them,” Her voice is nearly drowned out by the gathering rage, yet she keeps a composure I can only describe as artificial. “Take the offer, and you can see them too!” She's met only with shouting, and her hands drop, returning them to her sides. She turns on her heels, her sharp uniform a striking cleanliness to the street.
“Approach us once you think otherwise. We're here. We're always watching!” An eerie enthusiasm. She walks away, her guards following behind her.
“Get back here,” The tallest man yells out, taking out a rusty pipe. With a loud burst, he rushes at the Journalist. She doesn't turn around, but the next moment, a deafening blast rings out. It drums my hearing, but I hear the faint yelling as a body falls to the floor.
I look out the window, finding the crowd gone. Rattling steps down alleys, corners, and shadows tell me enough. The street is left with the man clutching his shoulder. An arm lies still close to him, pooling blood. The Journalist strolls over, peering down at his suffering.
“You can't wait to see your son.” Her smile glimmers beneath the light. She snaps her fingers, and a guard picks the man by the arm, dragging him off. He thrashes but to no avail, his blood trailing behind him.
The noise of doors unlocking tear my eyes away from the window, I turn to see the hostess leave the building, returning inside after a minute. She looks to me, holding up the dismembered arm. It trickles blood on the floor.
“Dine,” she says, her words clearer than before. “I enjoy company.”
I look behind me, Orion watches her with horror, but behind it lies a curiosity. He moves forward, nodding. “I can't say that I'll eat, but I do have questions.”
She blinks slowly, a grin crawling up her face. “Conversation. During dinner.” She turns around and heads through a door behind the desk. I grab Orion's shoulder once we're alone.
“I don't know about you, but I'm not going to eat someone's arm, Orion.” I inform sharply. Old Man Harbour shares this belief as well. Cannibalism isn't a line I'm willing to cross just yet. He takes my hand off his shoulder, a calculative look on his face.
“Relax. We won't do it. And we can pack up some to barter in the next Section,” A morbid suggestion. One I can't help but agree to.
“Won't she want us to eat it, though?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders, looking to the door behind the desk.
“Don't worry. She looks like someone who's looking for someone to talk to. Nobody's that willing to share food,” He explains, but I remain unconvinced.
“And how do you know that?”
He laughs, stifling it as he rolls his eyes. “Because I pay attention.”