Veils: Under the Panopticon
Two months after that day, more guards frequented our Section. Unlike before, they'd walk with their weapons in their hand, ready to silence anyone who'd try so much as yell out a complaint. Whispers about the Third Section are little and kept beneath closed doors. With access cut off, news of their situation was as credible as rumors. Not even one was able to leave since they were put on a lockdown. Since then, the speakers have been silent, and the days dragged on as everyone continued to work.
There was a change, though. At first, life hadn't been any different. Despite the more frequent sights of black uniforms, there was nothing more of note. A major change I could mention was that I found a different kind of work. Seeking out to the other Sections for fuel to burn. While I was out there, I'd try to barter for food, keeping every interaction discreet and out of sight. It was thanks to Whisper's recommendation on that day Orion and I arrived back from the Third Section.
'People are going to get desperate,' Her words still replay in my ears. She's been more silent since then. At times, she'd disappear for days, only to return without so much as an announcement. She was like that before, but for the past two months, the disappearances were more frequent. I thought to ask, but I know I wouldn't get a straight answer, if not at all.
I tighten the straps on my pack, now lighter after unloading some of the yields of my latest exchange. The Fourth Section is far, but it's the only place to get fuel for the boilers, though my purpose wasn't to get more of that.
The can twists open with a rusty pop, I look inside to see a wax-like substance of dark gray. They said it was edible, and although the taste is enough to make me gag, its reminiscent to the murky honey packaged by the Third Section, but this one has the grainy texture like coal powder.
I step outside, a chill nipping at my exposed skin. The vents expel steam with a violent growl, serving admirably at our endeavors to not freeze to death. I close the door behind me, smiling. With things to hide now, I figured a door would be a necessary addition to my house.
Passing by alleys, Workers with thick, worn clothing weave past me. Everyone's moving, not a single person lingers in corners anymore. They're off to find food, however they can. Looking around, I notice some look better fed than others, but it comes with the detail of a missing body part. It's no guess on how those two things correlate.
I step down to Harbour's, dropping off a portion of whatever food I can. A payback for the metal rods two months back, though he sees it as the reason why there's a shortage of food in the first place. I slide the small pucks of cans over the table. He takes attention not to look at me.
“People are finding less and less substitutes,” I say, watching him screw open one of the containers. Substitutes for food substitutes, a thought that makes me laugh whenever I'm on my own.
“Winter's been for two months and will continue for another two,” he groans, running a finger through the wax and dipping past his beard. He coughs violently but forces it down his throat.
“We can't starve like we used to. It'll be weeks before we can die from it.”
“Before guards find you and stick something in to keep you alive.” He adds between rough heaves of breath. With more guards, they pick up starving Workers half dead on the street. They carry with them injections. At the base of the neck, they'll put one or two inside someone starving. Whoever receives the injections returns to work, but they say their veins feel like fire. A drug to keep us from dying.
“I try to keep myself in shape.” I say, failing to lighten the mood. There's not much point, but I don't see a reason to not try. I leave him, leaving for home. On the way, a familiar face stands near the door. She's bundled herself with more clothing, heavy around her neck, functioning much like a scarf.
“Ah, welcome back,” I greet, gesturing warmly at Whisper. “So, got a story to share after being gone for five days?” She says nothing as I walk over. After a minute, I sigh, moving to the door. “Tell me all about it inside.” Rolling my eyes, I walk in. She follows behind me, closing the door.
I drop my pack on the table, it makes a soft thud. Empty. She's silent behind me, and I wait for her to speak. A vain effort, considering that she almost always doesn't. That's why it takes me completely by surprise when she does.
“I've heard something,” she starts. I whip myself around to look at her, my mouth agape. She ignores my shock and continues. “More Journalists are walking around.”
“Aren't they always?” A way to keep monitoring us, if I had to guess. As if the guards weren't enough. Whisper shakes her head, moving over to the wall.
“They're looking for work takers. But, it's different.” I quirk a brow, urging her to go on. “They look more closely. Some say they're looking for specific people.” She bites her lip, her eyes trained on the floor. There was a short pause between her words.
“Everyone they've taken have something similar,” she finally says, meeting my eyes. I stare back in confusion.
“And what are these similarities?”
She doesn't waste a second. “People who know.” I repeat her exact words as a question. She nods, continuing. “People who know the community. Knowledgeable people. People like that.”
I think over what she said. She supplements my thoughts meanwhile. “In secret, or in public. Whether they go willingly or by force, they're looking for specific people now.”
More questions are raised in my head. What do they need them for? To know more of the Section? They hadn't cared about anything so as long we worked, so why the sudden change? Perhaps they're looking for those who helped caused the Defiant uprising in the Third Section? If that's the case, I guess laying low would be a good option, at least for a few months.
“So, you've been gone for days at a time just to find these things out?” I ask, giving her a sideways glance. She doesn't answer, and her expression is flat. I sigh. “You know, it would be great if you trusted me. Like, I tell you everything.” She raises her eyebrows pointedly at me.
“Fine. Mostly everything. Still, the point is that I don't know where you came from. And the only thing I know is what to call you.” I take a deep breath, letting out more than I would've thought. Pent up aggression? Maybe, but I'd like to see it as more of a long, overdue concern.
For the first time, I see her expression shift, though it was slight and fleeting. A moment of surprise.
“I don't need to tell you anything you don't need to know, Hyde,” She speaks, her tone slows with an odd softness. “I only need you to trust what I say.”
I scoff, placing a hand on my chest. “And do you trust me? It's a two-way deal.”
“Would I be telling you this if I didn't?” There was a rush in those last words, and it steals away whatever I had to say in return. I look down to the floor, stepping back to lean against the table.
“You're uh, you're good at that, huh?” I breathe out a laugh, rubbing my shoulder. Guilt hits my chest. I guess saying those things about her not being trusting was unfair. I look up, finding her staring at me. “Look, I'm sorry.”
She nods, breaking her gaze away to a random spot in the room. A silence grows heavy, and I string enough words to break it. “So, why are they doing this?”
Whisper shrugs her shoulders, kicking her foot lazily in the air. “I don't know.”
An anticlimactic answer, but nonetheless, I nod. “All right. Well, it could explain why there's more guards the past two months.” She hums quietly, either in thought or in agreement. “Did you hear anything about where they bring the people they take?”
I'm not one for indulging in these types of conversations. Hushed words about them are dangerous. I always prefer to think of the next day. Joining schemes to overthrow oppressors is something not on my to-do-list. Though, reviewing the past months, I guess I've been helping people with their schemes. You won't hear that from me.
“They take them away past the Outer Wings, through The High Gates.” That's the second time I've heard of those terms. Perhaps that hostess' story wasn't so crazy, after all.
I cross my arms, expelling a long sigh. “What do they have in there?” She gives another shrug. I nod, chewing the bottom of my lip. “Is there a reason why you went out to know about this?”
“Because they're searching by Section.”
“And I'm guessing we'll be the last one in here?” I ask. She responds with a firm hum, kicking off from the wall. I shoot a questioning look. “So, what? It's unlikely they'd take us away. And if we stay out of the way, they'd eventually leave.”
Whisper returns the look with a hard stare. “People were angry then. They're angrier now. If Journalists come to this Section, what do you think the people here will do?”
I purse my lips, making a quiet pop. “Good point.”
“It won't be as severe as the Third Section, but if they try anything, the guards won't have any problems with firing at them.” She finishes with a heavy tone, hiding her hands inside her cloak, the only thing visible is the upper half of her face and black hair that stop short at the base of her neck.
A question rises in my head, asking Whisper on how she knows so much and where she gets her information, but I decide to shelf it for now. She trusts me enough to tell me fragile news, so I'll trust her in return. She can tell me in her own time. Not that I'm curious, I leave the asking and knowing to Orion.
Wait. “Whisper,” I ease out slowly, turning to look at her. “They know who to look for, right?” She returns a look and nods. My hands grow cold at a thought that continues to grow. “And uh, they're looking for people who know a lot?”
“I don't like repeating myself, Hyde.” She replies coldly. I step over to her, instinctively grabbing her shoulders.
“Look. Who's someone we know who knows a lot, and likes knowing a lot?” In all my years of knowing him, he was always curious. A question for every answer. All over the Section, he'd get himself in trouble for being too nosy. Despite that, he'd ask, and scribe down everything in the library.
Whisper looks me in the eye, parting her lips to respond. Realization steals her voice away, her eyes widening. A deafening silence, then she speaks. “They'd look for him.”
I nod, taking a step back. “Yeah. Nobody would ever keep a library, and he never shuts up about it, either.” I reach into one of the boxes, rifling through for a sack of fire material. Tinder to kickstart the boilers if they went out. A single rod is enough to blow a hole in metal walls. I take out a pile of six.
“What are you going to do, blow him up?” Whisper deadpans, but I pick up the concern in her voice. I stand up, heading to the door.
“Get him out. I'll burn the library and they'll think he died in the fire.” A story unlikely to be believed, but I'm hedging my bets they won't sift through a charred hole in the wall to confirm it. She gives a conflicted look, her lips parting and sealing, mulling through her words.
I shake my head, turning to the door. “I'll give you five minutes. Get him out before then.” I step out the door, taking quickened steps in the direction of the library. At each familiar turn, I hear a gathering of noises. I start to run.
The empty alley opens to a wider path. This street is normally desolate. But in front of me are Workers, many of them gathered in a discourse of shouts. I don't need to see what they're yelling at to know. One voice rises above the cacophony, crisp and clear.
“People. Move out of the way, or there will be consequences. We only wish to seek out work takers.” A Journalist's voice says excitedly, around him are men in black uniforms, all carrying their weapons. The crowd stands between them and the library.
I move forward, keeping my head down. Accusations, pleas, and demands fill the air. The Workers growl with a hungered desperation. I try to push past some of them to the library's entrance. I'm about halfway when I hear a series of footsteps rush out of the crowd. I catch a glimpse of a few men, all carrying a rod of fire material. Their eyes are hollow, their necks blue from injections.
“NO-” A yell cries out, but it's too late. They strike the rods against the metal floor. It sparks, and my vision flashes white. I hear nothing as the explosions ring out. A blinding moment allows me to duck to a corner, my vision blurring back. My ears ring, but I hear the muffled sounds of weapons, heavy footsteps, and falling bodies.
When my hearing returns, I hear the collective and figurative explosions of Workers. Met with swift reprimand from weapon fire.