Chapter 11:

Back Boilers

Veils: Under the Panopticon

The days of my recovery was slow, uneventful, and painful. Whatever Harbour was giving me seemed to work enough to get me standing, but left a bitter, chalky taste in my mouth. For those three days, my voice sounded deeper from the powdered residue sticking to the walls of my throat. Company wasn't any better, except for the hours Cass would drop by. I asked him about his new work, to which came a vague yet excited response.

Carting fuel from the Fourth Section isn't the worst type of work. A day of travel through the Fifth Section, and each trip differs every time to keep it different from the other monotone occupations. I try to say this to him, thankful to see an enthusiastic smile in return. I haven't seen anybody light up ever since winter had started.

Three days later, I stand beside my table, tightening the straps of my pack. A step too quick would cause my body to complain, so I take a sedated pace out of the room, heaving one last breath in this musky house before opening the door. It's not much brighter, but the noises of the Section are louder, and spotlights can be seen overhead in the distance. I walk down the corner, stepping out onto the street.

My steps scatter the soot gathered on the floor. I look around, the path scarce of people. The ground rumbles gently, but constantly. Plumes of smoke obscure even the distant catwalks of the perch, and black flakes fall, layering everything in a thin coating of ash. Taking an unobscured breath is risky, so I wrap a scrap of worn clothing over my mouth and nose.

I remember Harbour saying there was work needing to be done, so I guess I'll start there. The corners are less familiar without the occasional huddled shadows, fighting pairs, and running children. All the way down the dark alleys is nothing but soot. As if everyone has vanished.

Maybe I'm dead, and this is the afterlife. I'm tempted to stick my tongue out and taste the snow to confirm Harbour's stories, but as peaceful the air is, the distant echoes of industry are a painful reminder that this is still reality. A cold, oppressive reality. One where the closest person in my life has been taken away, and I can't walk faster than a slight hurry. I heard of people living in despair before. Starved of food, options, and hope. I wonder if this is like those moments.

I find myself at the recognizable hatch, but it's open. I pay it no mind as I walk down, one step at the time. The pain is dull and sits inside, but it still stabs in a way that keeps me from moving too much. Just what was the material of their boots and weapons? I've met the business end of a metal pipe before, but those were a dull ache that would subside after sleeping it off. This, however, lingers. Like a reprimand to a child who had done bad.

“Old man, you in?” I call out, peering inside the cramped room. He sits at the worktable too large for the confined space. He catches my gaze, yelling at me to come inside. At least I can take off the cloth over my face, safe from the falling soot. “So, I'm still alive.”

“I'd be more surprised if you did die,” he groans out, returning his attention to a contraption of gears, metal, and wheels. A conveyor track for carts.

“Didn't know you can see well enough to fix parts.” I comment, walking to a spot across the table. He laughs, pushing the parts over to me.

“I can't, nut I can grind old catwalk railings to replace the broken bits,” he grabs his cane, pushing off his chair and onto a stool beside his old metal grinding wheel. I roll my eyes, already guessing where the conversation is heading. “You do the assembling. It's not like you have anything better to do, right?” I sigh. It was easy to put two and two together, considering that I'm the only one in the room with the ability to see.

I mumble out a complaint, but reach out for the empty chair, sliding it under the table to this side. I sit down, the metal creaking under my weight. “Who trusted you enough to hand you this?” I ask absently, inspecting the crude amalgamation of steel parts. Upon a closer look, it's the turning mechanism of the cart's treads. I spin the largest wheel, watching the ridged surface stop abruptly instead of turning freely.

“Something's catching the main wheel.” I give it another spin, one more it stops just shy of a full turn. Harbour looks my way. I wonder if he just sees a big blur at this point.

“Then tell me what’s wrong with it? I've been squinting all day and found nothing.” He bellows out a chuckle, I supplement my own. I look back at the mechanism, holding the main wheel. This time, I turn it slowly, watching each gear slot against each other. It's slow, but I catch the problem. One of the large gears welded to the outer shaft is chipped, the teeth deformed. I slide it out of the main cage, sliding it over the table.

“The teeth need to be fixed on this one,” I inform in a monotone. He takes the part, feeling its teeth with calloused fingers. He booms out a cry when he finds the defect, hurriedly bringing it against the grinder.

“See? I told you that even a moron like you can still do work. Proper work, this time.” I say nothing. Everything in my mind would only ruin the light mood, and these types of atmosphere is scarce. Proper work, he says. Am I expected to do this from now on? Boring, monotone labor until I die? It'd be a safe and long life, but it would barely even be called a life. If anything, I'd be like a gear turning in the big machine until I wear down.

I breathe out a laugh. These all sound like what Orion would say. How there's a bigger picture than what's in front of us. I still don't see what he saw, and now, I don't think I ever will.

My grip slackens, the turning mechanism falling to the table with a loud clang. Harbour doesn't flinch, but moves his hand from the grinder, looking over the table with furrowed brows. “What're you doing? Is it that broke or something?”

I shake my head before realizing the futility of the gesture. Yet, I'm sure to do it again somehow. “No, my hands slipped.”

“Your hands broken now too?” He mocks, a bearded grin on his face. I sigh, picking the part back up. These types of thoughts aren't my usual. Seething in my own despair is not in my daily rituals. Yet, what am I supposed to do? Whisper says he's probably been taken out of the Wing, and The High Gates are heavily guarded. I've seen it a few times during trips to the Fourth Section. Passage through the gates are closely monitored, with a harsh inspection before one is allowed through. Only Journalists and uniformed guards pass through unimpeded.

Even if I want to get him back, it'd be a suicide mission that ends before it would begin. I expel a breath, catching a coughing fit from the dry air. I take deep breaths, moistening the dry throat with spit. “Is Whisper gone again? There's a few things I wanted to ask her.”

He laughs. “No use dragging her in any of your nonsense, boy. She's too smart for that.” It seems like someone's found a new favorite. Quick to move on as always, this old man.

“You think I'd pull something again?” I push through gritted teeth, the irritation gnawing at the back of my head.

“I'm half thinking you'd carry all you can, pass through the Outer Wing and try and find Orion,” he responds, his tone dry, inviting no argument. “Only for you to get your head blown off and the rest of you made into stew.” It's an unsavory thought of seeing my remains boiled in a pot.

I grumble out, saying nothing. Returning to the machinery in my hands, I check for any other issue, thankful to find none in my minute of concentration. Metal slams on the table and I reach to pick it up, sliding it back inside the rotating cage. I spin the main wheel, relived to see it spin, the subsequent gears following the motion. I set the mechanism down on the table, sliding it out to the center.

“It's all good. Could use oil, but it should work fine.” Harbour nods, crossing his arms, shoulders drawn back.

“Cass brought that in, actually.” I snap my eyes to him, surprised at this new information.

“He's been doing work for, what, a week and the steering's already broken?”

He laughs, shaking his head. “It was a dilapidated mess to begin with. 'The only spare cart,' they told him. Bah!”

I spare a look at the turning mechanism between us. Now that he's mentioned it, the ends of the shaft are rusty. The same easily said for majority of the components. The only shine seems to be the newly ground teeth of one of the larger gears. It would spell disaster if a cart breaks down in the middle of a trip. Relying on stranger's kindness helps little. I think some wait for one to break down, just to jump and steal whatever cargo they were hauling between the Sections.

It's hard to imagine a day to fight against the guards if we're too busy squabbling over scraps to survive. It was the main reason why it's hard to see a bigger picture than this destructive cycle. The guards know this, I know they do. It's a system that needs less resources on their part. Plus, if they can see us at every given moment, we won't be able to do anything, if that is true. I'd chalk it up as scare tactics to keep us in line.

“Why're you so quiet for? Didn't hear the door open, so you're still in here,” Harbour's sudden outburst pulls me from my thoughts. He's back on the grinder, a metal rod pressed against the rapid wheel. I groan out to let him know I'm still here, though it'd be funny to see him talk to himself. “Oh. Well, while you're here, take that part to the boy! He said he'd be waiting by the unloading walls by the boilers.”

“Is that the other reason why I'm here?”

He scoffs, not bothering to look away from his work. “You have one more leg than I do, boy! Now, get going.” Before he thinks of another task to throw onto me, I stand up, settling the metal parts over my shoulder. It's not that heavy, and the boilers aren't that far. Ten, or fifteen minutes of walking considering my present condition.

“I'll be back tomorrow, I guess.” My words leave with a drawn-out sigh, walking out of the cramped workshop. He says nothing as I leave, closing the hatch behind me. I blink up to the dark haze overhead, settling the cloth up the bridge of my nose before heading down the alley.

Working for the boilers. A better job than working in the boilers. Constantly working around the searing heat while risking an explosion with fire material is a job that might draw people away. Normally that'd be the case, but with the cold winter months, more sign on to work underneath the steel flooring. Hauling fuel between the Section isn't an all boring job, but it doesn't describe the 'excitement' Cass brought up during his passing conversations. I guess someone must fill in for those who died, myself included.

What doesn't sit well with me is Whisper. She's still disappearing for days at a time, from what I could gather from Cass. Whatever job she frequents in brings back food, at least, I thought that was all it brought back. Confined on the bed, I thought about her approaching me on that day. She suddenly had information regarding what the Journalists were doing since winter started.

I peer up, avoiding the ash getting in my eyes as I look for the looming smokestacks. She knew that they were looking for people like Orion and found out that was the reason why guard patrols increased during the past two months. To be honest, her existence is an enigma. I found her in the Fourth Section whilst I was bartering for fuel and broken tool roods. She was there in the same stall and asked for directions back to the First Section.

All she said then was, 'the Section with boilers,' and this place fits that description perfectly. I wonder why I was never suspicious back then. It wasn't that I'm trustworthy, or that I was bribed, but before I knew it, she was tailing the cart behind me. Noticing, I decided to strike up a conversation, only to realize she would never want to have those. Up to now, I believe that fact hasn't changed.

I approach the boiler buildings. Steam vents hiss angrily, expelling visible puffs of white from the grates on the ground. All I know about her is that she's from outside the High Gates. I never asked for anything more, and if I did, would be met with no response. Just who is she?

“Hyde,” A voice calls out my name, his chipper mismatching the dreary environment and sharp hisses of steam. I approach him, lazily waving.

“What's good, big man?” I look down at him. He wears thicker clothing to keep the winter cold off his bones, but there are patches sewn onto the side of the arm. I check to see the indicator of Workers of the First Section. I was never one to show where I was from, but the patch helps him get better prices in the Fourth Section. That or they'd try to rip him off with unfair bartering.

“Is that the steering I sent to Old Man Harbour?” His eyes glint up at the mechanism on my shoulder. I reach out, pushing his hat to cover his face.

“Don't look up while talking. Unless you want to taste soot again,” I remind with a subdued laugh. I remembered he was one of the kids that believed Harbour's myths of snow.

“Oh, right!” Cass nods, reaching in a pocket to pull out a mask of sewn leather. He wears it easily, and I walk to the unloading walls. I'd like to get out of this ash. “Can you show me how to attach it? I'm supposed to just take it and wait for the mechanics, but they'd be impressed if I do it myself!” A laugh escapes me. We step inside wide rooms for storage built in the high metal walls. I peel off the cover on my face, taking a long breath of air free from soot.

“Keep impressing them, big man. They might even promote you.”

“Really?” Cass beams at the thought, looking up to me with bright eyes. I decide not to say I was joking. Who knows, it might happen. “What about you, Hyde? What will you be doing?”

I shrug, looking around to find a cart. “For now, I'm thinking of going to bed. Being on one for a week really gets you addicted.” I say in jest, words trailing off into a silence. “But currently, I'm finding the cart this belongs to.” I lift the mechanism on my shoulder for emphasis, my shoulders are beginning to complain at the weight.

He nods, energetic as he leads me behind tall shelfing, most filled with empty crates. It separates the unloading wall into parts, behind it hiding a loading cart. Its treads have seen better days and the flat bed has holes from the rust degrading its metal. “Instead of promotion, maybe an actual cart that isn't on the verge of falling apart?”

I wave off my laughter, setting down the steering mechanism. The front cover is removed, exposing the void where it should be. “You got any tools?” I ask, giving a pointed look.

“Tons! Let me go get them.” He rushes to the shelves, retrieving a metal box filled with an assortment of tools. Most of them are the same, and a few are broken, but they should work fine. I ask him to get closer, then I step back to lift the steering mechanism.

“All right, I'll keep it in place while you screw it in, okay?” He nods and we set to work. I hold it in place while giving instructions on how to fasten the screws. Contrary to what Old Man Harbour thinks, I worked for a year for the boilers. Before I could bring carts out to barter fuel, I was holed up here fixing them. I had a mentor that chewed me out for every little mistake, but they were valuable lessons.

Fixing parts, troubleshooting, coming up with crude short-term replacements. All he could teach, I learned. It must have been years since then. He disappeared three years back, and I was alone here to fix up the busted carts. I got fed up and said that only he could fix them. Instead of being laid off, I was surprised to be given a different work. One of the people hauling coal disappeared on the same day as that mechanic.

I never asked questions. Hell, I didn't even ask for his name, not like he'd let me. The only name he allowed was, 'Mentor.' I assumed it was the name people called him by, but I'm sure that wasn't the case. The idle job of holding the steering mechanism lets me swim in my own thoughts, and Cass follows my instructions enough so I wouldn't have to repeat. Maybe I'll teach him what I know. It's not like I have anything else to do while I recover.

Twenty-five years old and I'm both experiencing a crisis and recovering for my health. Not a life I would've imagined for myself. “That should do it.” I move my hands away. He cheers at how it didn't fall apart right then and there. I pick up the metal slating, screwing it back on with his help. We step back after, admiring our hard work. I almost forgot what satisfaction felt like.

Orion would've annoyed me to stay here and work a proper job. Mentor had a significant role, so I could think that he was compensated well. I look around the emptiness of the unloading walls. Was this the bigger picture he wanted me to see? A simple life with friends around me?

That doesn't feel right.

“Thanks,” Cass looks up at me, snapping me out of my stupor. “How do you know so much about these things, Hyde?”

I roll my shoulders, wincing at the sore feeling on my body. “An old job back when I was younger.” Words drop off my lips, no energy, no disdain. It's only been a few hours since I could finally stand up, and I'm already tired. I guess that can happen to somebody who was bedridden for more than a week.

“If you could teach me, I'd know so much!” I blink at his cheery demeanor, myself remaining pensive.

“You sure, big man? They might stick you in here just to fix up carts.” Like me back then, but I don't bring that up. Right now, he sees me as a cool, exciting figure, and I won't try to destroy that for him. Orion would’ve.

He shakes his head, determination in his eyes. “I'll just have to be really good at bartering for fuel!”

“So uh, what about being a mechanic?” My question gives him pause, stroking his chin while he thinks it through.

“I'll be good at both then!” His question was unexpected and sudden. I stare, wide-eyed at the purity in his voice. I laugh, doubling over myself to catch my breath. “Hey, what are you laughing at?”

I wave my hand, trying to contain my laughter. When I do, I draw myself to my full height, wiping tears from my eyes. A genuine laugh was what I needed. Beating myself up while I was bedridden had done nothing to help me. I look down at him, watching his bright smile.

“Sure, Cass. I'll teach you what I know. I'll talk to whoever is in charge around here.” I give my own smile, subdued in comparison. The pain in my jaw keeps me from smiling any wider.

“I can't wait! Oh, I can bring you to him right now if you want!” He puts his mask back on, running out the unloading wall. His steps kick up soot. I cover my face and follow him out at a lax pace. On the way, I wonder how things would've been if I kept to this life. I could name one major difference, but I choose to ignore it for now.

I think back to my thread of thought earlier, relying on Cass to lead me down the ash-covered street. Whisper trusted me enough to tell me that, but there's a gnawing uncertainty in my chest trying to convince me that she's keeping something from me. About Orion, about everything that has happened the past two months. I can't confront her right now. She could be anywhere, and I'd get next to warning on when she'll be back.

“Hey, Cass?” He stops, peering up at me. I push his hat down, reminding him briefly about the soot. “Do you know where Whisper went? Or if she's back?” He hums loudly, turning to face in front.

“She told me she'd be going somewhere two days ago.”

“Did she tell you where?” His head shakes. I sigh. I wasn't sure what to expect. “Does she ever tell you anything?”

“About how likely you are to lose an arm,” his response came all too quickly. She must've said that more than once. I give him a gentle shove; the mask muffles his laughs. “Oh, and she tells me not to worry where she goes. Not that I ever do, she looks like she can take care of himself!”

I smirk, a dull ache returns it to a neutral line. “Oh yeah? And what about me, big man?”

He spins on the heels of his boots, the glint of admiration beneath the brim of his hat. “You too, Hyde! You're much more exciting, and you look like you can protect anyone!”

It’s a compliment. An audible proof of admiration, but it digs a cold sting in my chest like a needle. I'm sure nobody told him. Were they waiting for me to break the news?

I hesitate to reach out, but I pat his shoulder, looking away to hide the shame in my eyes. “You'll be just like that when you grow up, Cass.”

He says something, but my hearing numbs, my thoughts swimming, only focusing on the regretful sting embedded in my chest. A regret I'll have to say to him someday. I shake my head, calling out to him to slow down.

When he's older, I'll tell him what happened to Orion. When I'm ready, I'll tell him not to admire me.