Chapter 5:

Hospitality in Corrosion

Veils: Under the Panopticon

We wait for the hostess to return, spending the time debating if accepting the invitation to eat an arm is a good idea. I'm not convinced at Orion's reassurance that we don't have to, but before I could say anything more, she comes back, motioning us to follow.

“If it comes to it, you take a bite and let me know how it tastes,” I whisper to him, nudging his side. He rolls his eyes, leaning over to whisper back.

“We don't have to. Just follow my lead and be quiet.”

I give a quick glare, unconvinced. “Are you getting me back for earlier at that checkpoint?” He looks away, rolling his shoulders, saying nothing. The door opens to a modest dining room. A circular table of darkened wood, a quarter of it burnt black. Six chairs surround it. She puts metal bowls and spoons for each and places a steaming pot in the middle.

“Sit,” she looks up at us with wide eyes. “You can ask your questions.” Orion nods next to me, sitting across her on the table, that leaves me to sit slightly closer. I get a good look at her, watching for anything strange. Her face is dry and heavy with lines, but she has no replacements or injury. I can't even begin to guess her age.

“Do you know about what happened outside?” Orion asks, leaning forward on the table. The table creaks under his weight. She reaches forward, lifting the pot's cover. An eruption of steam rises to the ceiling as I peer inside.

“Help yourself.” She says slowly, picking up a ladle to start filling her bowl. It's a dark orange stew with diced cubes too drenched in the liquid to discern. Without the sight of the arm anywhere, I have a guess on what the main ingredient is.

I dart my eyes to Orion, who picks up the offered ladle and fills out his own bowl. I move to do the same after, slowly. I turn away from the steam, not wanting to catch the smell. She blows at the bowl and takes an audible sip. A satisfied sigh escapes her through parted lips.

“They were Workers. From the rust shops,” Her voice is clearer now, the stew moistening her throat. “They are angry. Hungry. Thirsty.” Her eyes never leave the bowl in front of her. She takes more sips, then takes in a small cube in her mouth, chewing softly.

“And the Journalist?” He asks, stirring the bowl of stew in front of him. She doesn't watch him, finding interest in her own meal.

“They look for work takers,” she speaks with fuller sentences now thanks to the moistened tongue. She tilts the bowl to her mouth, taking a big gulp. A sigh leaves her afterward, setting the empty vessel with a soft thud. “They've been here before. For the same reason. They took who they could. All fools.”

I listen in silence, idly stirring the spoon around my own bowl. The temptation of a hot meal is strong, but the knowledge of what's inside keeps me from holding it anywhere close to my face. Orion keeps her eyes on her, eyes furrowed. I watch his hand that holds the spoon. He lifts it up, then drips the liquid back in the bowl. Its noise reaches my ears, and it fools the hostess who's busying herself to another serving.

“Did they specify what type of work they were trying to fill?” He eases out another question. She shakes her head.

“Just work past the farthest sections. No details. Just promise of compensation,” She stops, staring down at her stew. “His son. My son. And more handful of lives. We don't hear from them. Not since.” I exchange a look with Orion, he motions me to keep quiet. I don't have anything better to say, so I nod, letting him continue.

“I'm sorry to hear that.” He looks up and meets her eyes. No tears stride down her face, there's too little liquid in her body to allow tears.

“I hear from people who stay here. There's a tale, they call the Lost Wing.” She looks away, staring off into space. Her hands have stilled, her bowl left empty.

“And what is this tale about?” He prods, curiosity bleeding into his tone.

“Entire Sections that work to manufacture weaponry. Anything that can kill,” She refills her bowl, her words become stiffer at every word. When they do, she takes a pause to take long, indulged sips.

“They trusted Workers to do that?” I find myself asking. The hostess looks to me, nodding slowly. I glance at Orion, looking at me with surprise. I roll my eyes in lieu of a verbal response.

“Once. Then, defiance.” She looks up, as if reminiscing at a memory rather than retelling a distant tale. “Black uniforms were on the ground, unmoving. Lifeless.” I look down to see myself leaning forward, listening intently. Beside me, Orion is doing the same.

“They watch in the lighted perches. Always watching everywhere. Six Outer Wings, five Sections each. One Watcher.”

“Wait,” A stammer beside me. Orion raises a hand. “There's only one person watching everything?” She doesn't nod, but there's no voice of denial either. “How does that work?”

A silence. The hostess empties her bowl for the third time. “That was all they shared. And the tale's end.”

His eyebrows raise, chewing a question on his lip. “How does it end?”

She looks up at him, then to me. Her face falls, her mouth returning to a stiff line. “Dead. They all were defiant, no repairable complication. The High Gates of the Wing are closed. Welded shut.” We fall silent, too shocked for words. She continues, “They manufacture weaponry in the Inner Wings now. The Journalists find Workers to fill that need.”

“And they cut off communications, so they don’t defy again?” Orion finishes her thoughts, and she nods slowly. Solemnly. “Thank you.”

She flickers her gaze between both of us. “Warm meal, warm conversation. It is my thanks. If you haven't finished, you can carry a portion out.” She looks down at our untouched bowls, and grimaces. I nod first, pushing the bowl out to her.

“That would be great. Thank you for your hospitality,” I say in thanks, moving to stand up from my seat. Orion does the same in a more sedated pace. She remains in her chair, looking up at us with quick, momentary glances.

“We should turn in. Let us know if something bad happens again.” I shoot a smile, walking to the door. The hostess says nothing else, and the two of us leave to the lobby, where I quickly turn down the hall and back to our room.

“Did you know anything about what she said?” Orion asks behind me. I push the door open, welcoming the cold stagnant air. A contrast to the steam of her stew.

“I think it's all just some wives' tale,” I remark, returning to my bed. Sure, I know about different Sections beyond here, but the number is something I never bothered to ask or think about. To hear of five Wings with five Sections each. It puts a constricting view on life. Is that all there is within these metal boundaries?

“Even tales and myths come from somewhere true, Hyde.” I hear a creak of metal beside me. I turn to find him sitting on the bed, rifling through his pack. He produces a page, his needle and a bottle of wet coal powder. Uncorking it, he dips the needle, bringing it to the page.

“What are you writing?” I ask. Not that I'm interested, but I figured I should keep a conversation going.

“About what she said. Now be quiet, I want to concentrate.” So much for conversation. I shrug, looking up at the ceiling. I've traveled only through the nearby Sections. I won't admit it to Orion, but there is a curiosity on the nature of work in the far Wings. Wet Workers are from one of them. It’d be interesting to try and pack as much food as I can to see how far I can get.

I hum aloud, shaking my head. With checkpoints of guards, it’s likely they'll chop my legs off and strap me to a cart. Still, I can't help but wonder. Not a thorough think, but more of a passing thought.

The silence wears heavy, and so do my eyes. I tighten the latches of my pack. Rest will be uncomfortable, but at least I won't wake up to my belongings stolen by looters. Besides, with Orion in the same room, they can steal his things instead.

With that comforting thought, I drift off to sleep, the sounds of scratching paper growing distant against my ears.