Veils: Under the Panopticon
Peering around, the cloaked men take cautious steps over to the two guards, the glint within his shadowed figure pointed up. He yells out a demand, drowned out by the joined cries of Workers around him. I look down at Orion, who is nursing the hit on his head.
“The first chance we can, we're making a run for it.” The way is beginning to clutter with the gathering crowd, carrying whatever they qualified as a weapon.
“Why don't we just run now and use the crowd as a distraction?” He suggests, looking past the corner to the arch of lights. It's a good idea. The faster we get out, the better.
“All right.” I sigh, walking out of the corner, approaching the back of the roaring crowd. Orion follows behind, keeping his eyes down on the floor. As we move to the edge, static crackles overhead, coming from the large speakers bolted on the wall. A voice blares amidst the white noise, different to the dull repetitions.
Everyone stops. Cheers die down to look up at the noises. The perch of lighted glass blinks, the wires webbed to the edges of the high walls shudder. I look closer, noticing a pattern. They heave, as if it's breathing. Only those close to this Section are moving, the recoil shaking the floor in a subtle, but constant rhythm.
The drawl puts everyone in a trance, but the sudden blast snaps everyone back to reality. One of the guard's weapon is drawn, its barrel smoking. The tallest of the cloaked men stagger backward. He falls to the floor, twitching. Overhead, the voice strings a coherent phrase. A choked warning, a cold accusation.
“Section Three. Wing Five,” Though it's a voice, the words leave the speakers with a distant mechanical tone. “Defiant. Reprimand at immediate instance.” The last words send a shiver up my spine.
The persisting vibration rings at my ears, but the sight in front of me is clear. With a swift efficiency, the guards begin firing at the cloaked men. All begin to scatter from the area, their footsteps deafened by the piercing noise of their weapons.
I grab Orion and run, pushing past the throng of Workers towards the arch. Black uniforms tower over the dispersing mass, but they bring down only the ones with cloaks. Some of them fall yelling in pain, a few fall with a hollow silence. How did they know they were fake?
Up above, the speakers stutter, and his words repeat. It joins the air filled with terrified screams, weapon fire and echoing footsteps. At least, we run past the gate without so much as a hand shot off. Underneath the blinding light of the arch, I see the look of horror at passing Workers. I find the paleness of my hand and the cold touch of Orion's wrist. Fleeing the Third Section, the adrenaline slowly dissipates, but the fear continues to weigh heavy.
Beside me, Orion heaves for breath, eyes darting frantically around him. Overhead, the large wires cease, the drowning shudder stopping. It clears my ears, and I hear the distant cries behind the separating walls of the Sections. From a distance, the road leading up to the arch is deserted, only two in black uniforms remain.
“Section Three. Wing Five: In temporary lockdown.” The speakers crackle into static after that, then click off. Workers on the road look at each other, then begin heading the other way, a dark look on their faces.
When he catches his breath, Orion stands up, looking at me with a baffled expression. I'm sure I reflect the same look. “What was that? How did they know they were faking it?”
I shake my head but keep walking down to the second Section. I gesture to hurry. “No idea, but I don't want to be around to find out.”
“It was after the wires moved that they-” I raise a hand, cutting his words.
“Look, let's get somewhere far, then you can theorize all you want.” He says nothing, I'll take it as a silent agreement. We keep our heads down, most of the people who just came from the Third Section do. As the stinging feeling return to my eyes, I look up, almost happy to see the rusted haze tint the spotlights orange, but the eyes of the Workers are different. I'm sure everyone heard the speakers above, but as I hear the shifting noises of canisters in my pack, I begin to understand their dark looks.
Without the Third Section, there's no proper place to barter for food. I look beside me and meet Orion's eyes. He nods, understanding the same epiphany.
“Winter will set in soon. What we have on us right now will be it until the Third Section opens again,” he whispers, hiding his mouth behind a hand. I roll my shoulders, looking back to the road ahead, dodging the eyes of Wet Workers that now have to take the long way around.
“I know,” sighing, I tighten the straps on my pack. “Do you think people at home heard?”
“I think everyone heard, Hyde,” It was worth suspending the inevitable truths. “Do we tell them what happened?”
I shoot him an incredulous look. “No, of course we don't,” I scoff, we part momentarily to avoid a cart that's turning itself around. “They'll think we caused it, or something.”
“But we did, in a way.”
“Sometimes you need to stop asking and shut up.” He returns my glare, but my words are out. Rolling his eyes, he faces away.
“What do we say, then? I'm sure Whisper or someone will ask since we came from there.” He asks instead, crossing his arms. He's right, they would ask, but only a handful of people know about why we went there. I take a breath, coughing slightly from the rust.
“We'll just say there were some people looking for trouble and it ended bad while we were just heading back. How does that sound?”
Orion casts a doubtful stare, but shrugs, fiddling with the sling of his bag. “Fine. We'll leave out the part where we may or may not have played a part.”
I sigh deeply, tempted to run at the nearest corner and leave him to himself. “Yeah. Sure. That's the story we're going with.” A silence follows, both of us done with conversation for now. I don't try to strike up another one, preferring to indulge in the silence and the distant sounds of industry. However now, there is an occasional ring of weapon fire, followed by a piercing scream.
I guess we're lucky to escape the Third Section alive. Most of their Workers were previously defiant. So, who knows what they'll do to them? The trudging of feet and hauled carts do little to occupy the silence between us and does nothing to distract my thoughts. I look behind me, the lights are distant, hazed over by the rusted fog. I find Orion looking at me, then to the road ahead.
“This is a problem, huh?” I breathe out, not meaning to, just thinking out loud. He doesn't face me, but the echoing sigh tells me that he shares the frustration. The spotlights are moving more erratically, some can't move fast enough to dodge it.
“They seem like they're looking for something,” Orion mutters, his head scanning overhead.
I shrug. “More like they're trying to scare us. Keep us in line, or something like that.” To make sure no one thinks of becoming defiant. If lights are enough to scare us, they wouldn't even need the black uniforms. A rattling far over our heads, hitting a ceiling too high to see. It echoes faintly, reminding us of changing winds. Winter is coming.
The taste of corrosion lessens, and I can see clearer. The edge of the Section is close, but the guards are nowhere to be seen. I say nothing as we pass, there isn't much to say, anyway. Activity in the main road lessens as Workers turn at corners and alleys. The hiss of steam vents nearby, moist air beads against my skin. The First Section. Home.
A familiar face passes by. I forget to wave. We turn at a corner, stepping away from the lighted streets. Passing whispers grow into hearty conversation as we walk deeper. But this time, there are nothing but whispers. The alleys are deserted, and only our footsteps echo up the metal walls.
“Is everyone hiding?” Orion asks as he step onto our familiar streets. No spotlights hang overhead, just the towering exhausts that expel smoke from the boilers below. With the metal shelters, warmth will be no issue every winter. No, we only have one problem, and it just became a huge problem.
“Are you going home, Hyde?” I stop, turning around to look at him. I remember his way home is the other direction, towards the library. It's a strange convenience that only fueled his obsession with reading more.
I throw my hands behind my head, rolling my shoulders. “Yeah. Seems like everyone has the same idea, right now.” He mulls it over, but nods in agreement.
“Keep what you have somewhere hidden.” With that advice, he turns and leaves. I crack a smile, calling out to him.
“I'll just hide it in the library, then.” He doesn't look back, but throws up his hand in the air, giving a rude gesture. I laugh on the way home, enjoying the feeling of something other than a frown on my face. The streets are empty all the way down and I flip open the cloth obscuring the inside, breathing in hot steam from vents on the floor. It's heavy, but it keeps me warm.
I walk to a pile of metal boxes, throwing one open and unbuckle the straps, letting the bag fall. I catch it before it makes a noise. Who knows who's listening right now? I transfer the canisters, hiding them in the shadows of the box, behind the clutter of whatever I had in there. After, I close it, then kick it under the table. For good measure, I throw over a discarded sack. I nod to myself, then remove my coat, setting it on the table before falling on the bed.
A warm stitching of sack leather on a bed frame. It's not much better than the bed we stayed in yesterday, but the warm steam makes it comfortable. Drifting off to sleep would usually be easy, but not today. Turning on the bed, the memory of the wires pulling at steel ring in my ears. The hiss of vents proves no distraction. What steals my thoughts most is the voice in the speaker. A familiar noise, but more like how you're familiarized with your favorite machine. It drew me in, but at the same time, it was cold. I'm sure everyone felt the same before the guards fired at those cloaked men.
I sigh and roll out of bed. Grabbing my coat, I check at the box I hid beneath the table before heading outside. A walk should clear my head. As I make aimless turns, the sound of my footsteps become heavier. At the third corner, I sigh, stopping.
“You need to stop that, Whisper.” Turning around, I meet her eyes. Her figure casts a shadow against the miniscule light at the end of the alley.