Veils: Under the Panopticon
To my surprise, the head of the unloading walls is still the same guy from years ago. Lines show his age, but the perpetual scowl embedded onto his face is a sight I remember well. A demonstration wasn't needed for my case, and I was assigned on as this boiler's mechanic. That was two days ago, and I have already come to realize a few things.
First, there are fewer carts than the last time I had been here. When I asked, he gave a vague answer, the gist of it was him needing to barter for fuel. I find that odd, because there's always an agreement between the fuel buyers and the boilers. I shelfed that topic before long. A lot has happened in these short years, and I'm not one to judge on a person's habits in bartering. Second thing I realized was most of the other carts only need routine checks, and before long I was sitting alone in this warehouse. Proximity to the boilers keep me warm, but I can only stare so much at falling soot before growing bored.
As for company, it's scarce. The Workers of this boiler are quiet, kept to themselves unless needing help with their carts. Cass left for the Fourth Section. That was yesterday, so he should be arriving today. The head of the unloading walls seems more open for conversation compared to years ago, but since I started working here, I've only seen him twice. An upside to being here is that you're paid at the end of each job. In my case, it's daily.
The pay? A container of green Substitute and dried bread at the end of each day. I can keep the bread, and Substitute is moist enough to be of value in the Second Section. Tool parts are sought after in the Fifth Section, where the tool smiths are centered. I'll hand a few to Cass for the next time he passes by on the way to barter more fuel.
I sigh, leaning back against the rusty seat. Fifth Section, an uneventful place of busy hands and darkened skin seared by the roaring fires of forges. I had never tried to walk in the inner streets. Eyewear is essential lest you want your eyes burnt away from bright lights and sparking metal. It's that reason why most of the Section's bartering stalls are set up along the main road. From their alleys, distant chimes echo. Listening to them was almost soothing, a contrast to the distant, rhythmic hammering in the distance.
Reminiscing is for old people. I need to take a walk. Standing up, I set down the spanner on a shelf, covering my nose with a mask before stepping out. Settled ash kicks up around my feet, I turn a corner, wandering over to the nearest source of noise, stepping out into a blackened street. Not from soot, but from scorch marks.
I look around idly, taking notice of bullets embedded in metal walls and dark stains dried on the ground. At the corner are hats, collecting a thin layer of ash on top. It's tradition to leave a hat of a Worker who died. A token to remember them, I suppose. Looking down the street, I see more of the hats lined up against the wall. My eyes tear away after I count twenty.
The bodies are gone. Back then, people were starving, so I don't need to think hard on where they went. I'm not one for cannibalism, but I understand why people would. Yet I wonder, if you lose that last shred of humanity to stay alive, is that worth it?
I stop in front of the library. Where the library used to be, supposed to be. Now, it's a pile of morphed metal, completely destroyed. A hat is place down at the entrance. I move forward, kicking the hat away. He's not dead, though I have no proof of that.
Pushing through to get inside proved a tricky task, managing to get inside by prying the amalgamation of door and wall steel just enough to squeeze through. The explosion blew off the roof, and most of the upper section of the library, but this is the only way inside.
As far as I can see, that is. I look around, expecting to see some semblance of debris strewn along the ground. There is none. With that many rods of fire material, a fair assumption would be that everything either melted into the ground or the walls when the spark triggered the explosion. The uneven sensation of the floor reinforces that point. So, it's all gone? Everything Orion worked for, everything he built. All for nothing. Our last conversation was an argument. We did a lot of that growing up, so it's almost poetic that our last would be an argument.
I walk over to a bookcase halfway inside a wall. The soot on the ground is thick, and my steps kick them up in the sir, obscuring my vision. Fanning away using my hand, a metal box sits on the shelfing. Scorched black, but intact. I pull it out, breaking away from the steel.
There's something inside, guessing from the slight weight. I try to remove the lid, but the two parts are nearly fused together from the intense heat. I give it a good slam against the wall, a sole clang echoing. I'll take it back to the unloading wall. There's probably a tool that can help me open this. I look around the inside for anything else, only to find nothing that can be pulled from the amalgam of metal. Slipping through the entrance, I exit the library, stepping back to the street.
An older man passes by, stopping to look at me as I push myself out, holding the box in my hands.
“Anything to work with?” He asks. I shake my head, breathing in the cold through the mask. There's nothing left here but metal and soot, I almost want to say. But I can say that about most places here.
He clicks his tongue, about to leave when something at my feet catches his eye. The hat I kicked over was upside down. His eyes glare up to mine. What comes with long traditions is the anger to those who don't respect it. Before he can say anything, though, I shrug, bending down to pick it up.
“Dropped my hat on the way out,” I lie flatly, dusting off the ash before fixing it on my head. His gaze narrows for a moment, then he continues walking, vanishing around a corner. I breathe out relief the second he's out of sight. Some people already see me as the cause of all of this, I'd be damned if I'm blamed for desecrating traditions too.
I start walking back to the boilers, hiding my eyes with the hat's brim. It's a leather flat cap, quite worn, stained with fallen soot. Whoever set it for Orion's memory sure knew about his poor choice in hats. This one is a strong similarity to the ones he'd wear. I'd call it ugly every time I saw it, and I think that only got him to wear more like it because from how I hated them. At least this can keep the ash off my hair.
I approach the unloading wall, finding a cart left inside. A closer view reveals it to be Cass'. I recognize the rust-eaten sides of the cart. When he gets older, I'm sure they'll pass down a better one. I walk past it toward the worktable, setting the box down. Retrieving a box of tools from the shelf, I set to work trying to pry the lid open.
I turn the box on its side and hit the slit with a wrench, chipping away at the scorched coating of metal. After a minute of pounding, the lid comes loose enough for me to pull it open. Setting the wrench down, I set the box down upright, looking inside.
Rolled up pages, a needle, and a bottle of coal powder. It was in a library. I shouldn't have expected anything else. Still, I pull out the pages, noticing writing on all of them. Unrolling the sheets, I count the corner of the pages. Ten sheets. Is it unfinished? He was keen on documenting everything, so this may be one of those.
My eyes find the start of the first page, reading through in silence. It's a short introduction to himself? The handwriting is cruder than what I've seen with him, so maybe this is an earlier work? I look behind my shoulder, then begin to read the first sheet.
'Orion. Twenty-one. Three months since the winter. We never have a name for anything else besides winter, that's always when the soot falls. Hyde says we never need other names, but I feel like more labels would help us understand things more. What we don't know starts with giving it a title.'
My breath stirs the pages. Was he making a journal? The top of the page before everything else has an indication of when. This was two years ago. I was probably still working in the boilers then. I shrug, returning to reading the rest of the page, removing my mask to breathe easier.
'He never sees anything past what'll happen tomorrow. I, on the other hand, think more of the future than just the next meal. Thinking of the long term will improve the short term. I believe that very much.'
Did he really believe that? To me, he didn't seem to care about anything than keeping everyone else from dying that day. My grip tightens, but I read on.
'At least he's doing work. Without it, I bet he'll be somewhere causing a mess. Hyde is at his best when he has something to think about. It's not that he gets bored, but more that he'll be half-awake without a job.'
I'm starting to understand why this was kept hidden. If I stumbled upon this, I would’ve tied him to a cart and drag him down the street. This is making me out to be some sort of dependent, and the selection of phrase makes him seem like he knows everything about me.
'You won't be hearing me say that I'm proud. I'm not his mother. Yet, he makes me want to give it a try, too. Today, I signed myself on to work in the Section's only library. I'll keep it from him and Old man Harbour until I properly start. Scribing's not my forte, but I can ask Hyde what he sees in the other Sections and write it down. I can even go with him and see it for myself.'
Something wet drops onto the page, narrowly dodging the words. I shove the sheets back inside the box, covering the lid to keep them safe. I look up, inspecting the ceiling. Piping runs along the surface, but I see nothing drip. It's not steam from vents, they're too far away. My eyes scan the wall. There's nothing, but the wet feeling rolls down my cheek. When my vision blurs, I realize where it's coming from.
What is this? It's too cold to sweat. My breaths are short, and my throat feels thick. Am I crying? Something reserved for only children and those on the verge of death? This is embarrassing. At least no one is here to see it. I pat soot off my sleeve before drying my face, sucking in a deep breath. Something catches in my throat when I try to take the pages, preventing my hands from moving farther.
What? Because I know why he worked so hard on the library I'm feeling guilty for setting an explosion off? Cheap tricks like that only work on kids. So, why? Do I regret it that much?
Footsteps approach from behind. I quickly dry my face, heaving a deep breath to calm my breathing. I turn around to see Cass, a smile on his face like always. “Hyde! You weren't here when I got back, I was wondering where you were.”
I shrug, sliding the box behind me. I swallow, finding my words. “Went on a walk. Things get boring after you spend hours by yourself.” He nods, energetic in agreement.
“That's why you should come with me! We can barter in the Fourth Section together.” I pat his shoulder, stepping past him toward his cart.
“When I'm better, big man. So, was there anything interesting?” I ask idly, reflexively checking the treads of the cart, then the engine.
“Not really, but there were these people covered in sludge I saw on the way back.”
“Wet Workers,” I say with a quiet laugh. I peer past the engine to look at him. He watches me intently, nodding silently every now and again. “Whatever you do, don't touch them. That slime sticks to your clothes for days.”
“Where do they come from?” I clear my throat, moving away from the cart.
“Somewhere not here, and that's all you need to worry, Cass. Whatever is beyond The High Gates is not our problem right now. Someday, maybe, but no use worrying now.”
He holds a conflicted look. Maybe he doesn't agree with what I say. I don't blame him, everyone can believe what they will. Though, I'd like to keep him from growing too curious. “Is the sludge edible?”
I bark out a laugh, trailing to silence in the winter air. “I ask that myself too, big man. If I find one, I'll be sure to ask.”
“I'll do that first and then I'll tell you!” He counters, beaming. I roll my shoulders, walking back to the worktable. He continues speaking while I reach to open the box. “Are you going home after?”
“Still need to rest. You know how it is.” It's not entirely a lie. I take the pages out, rolling them tight and sliding them inside my coat pocket. I'll read more of these in my house, where I'm fairly confident no one can disturb. Unless Whisper is back somewhere in the Section. “You need to get paid, too. Come on.”
He follows me out the unloading walls. I walk in the head's office, though it's more of a stock room. Shelves line three of the walls, holding boxes of payments to his Workers. I sign for the day, Cass filling out a manifest of his cargo. I sling my pack over my shoulder, putting the cube of bread and container inside. Cass walks out with a small box tucked beneath his arm. “Don't eat it all.” I say offhandedly, hiding the smirk under my mask.
“I don't! I trade the bread to Whisper whenever she's back. She always has something better to eat with her, and she's always looking for more of it.” I perform a double take his way, eyes wide in surprise.
“Whisper? She actually likes the bread?” I ask, bewildered. I would never have thought to pair her deadpanned, reserved demeanor with a cube of saccharin. To be honest, wondering what she ate never crossed my mind, if she actually did eat.
Cass nods energetically. I can see the grin behind his mask. With my worldview shaken, we turn corners towards our houses. There is no room for silence before he started more questions. I answer to the best of my ability. Frankly, I enjoy the company.
We step out into a wider street, pulling him behind me when I see black uniforms at the corner of my eye. Two of them, their weapons concealed beneath a cloak layered thinly in soot. I thought the patrols had stopped, so what are they doing here? “What's going on, Hyde?” I look past my shoulder, hovering a finger over my lips.
“There's some trouble, stay quiet.” He nods, and I look back out the corner. Their steps are unlike their patrols. Wherever they're heading to, it's deliberate. A sharp noise rings overhead, I look up to find a wire sway, shaking off the ash. The black line crosses overhead and into the high walls. A familiar sensation vibrates in my ears. Both guards stop at a door, then one kicks it open, yelling to the inside.
Amidst the sudden chaos, the distant speakers crackle to life. The familiar white noise muffles the screams of men dragged out of the building by guards, their weapons drawn. Four Workers, their eyes sunk, body frames varied. Overhead, the white noise dissipates as they lead the men away, their weapons discouraging escape. A voice speaks through, all of us compelled to listen.
“Section One. Wing Five. Defiance will not be tolerated. We watch. You Work.” The voice is a strangled breath. It’s suffering, veiled by white noise. A slow, calculative voice, but it's different than before. This voice is more human, as if it's being ordered to speak against its will.
“Failure to work obediently. Will be met with reprimand.” There was a pause in between, faint screeches of metal fade in and out of the background. Then the speakers cut to an abrupt silence. The voice digs a pit in my stomach. I realize why. The voice sounds familiar.
“Hyde, look!” Cass pulls on my coat, pointing down the road opposite the way the guards left. Her steps were different. They were more frantic, and when I find her gaze, her eyes shine an unpleasant glint of acceptance. Whisper stops in front of us. I notice the subdued worry.
“I need to tell you something.”