Veils: Under the Panopticon
“Didn’t sleep?” Whisper asks beside me, catching me try to stifle my yawn. I shake my head, looking down at the floor.
“After all those confusing things you told me? I slept like a baby,” I laugh, my breath trailing out into a tired sigh. I woke up earlier than I thought, making no sense given the fact I barely got any rest. My thoughts were too loud and searching for fire material around my house took longer than I thought. I adjust the straps of my pack, feeling the rods poke my back through the leather. “And you?”
“No issue.” Her response was quick and invited no prompt for further conversation. We walk the main road, passing by towering boilers and red vents on the ground. Soot falls from the sky, the traffic of treaded carts, Workers and guards kicking it all up to form a haze of gray. The spotlight trails overhead, but it does little to dispel the thick ash from the funnels.
“So, this is why you wanted to leave at this specific time?” I huff, impressed. The taste of ash seeps through the fabric of my mask. “Pretty clever.”
“The wonders of using your head, Hyde.” She remarks, giving a sideways glance. We walk close to make sure we don’t separate. I can’t see anything farther than a meter from all the kicked-up soot.
I return her look with a theatrical laugh, accentuating each puff of breath. Her biting remarks are nothing out of the usual, but this has been the longest we’ve ever held a conversation. It had been silent when we left from my house, but eventually I struck a question. To my surprise, she replied, though they’d be in one or two sentences.
“So, will you tell me about who’s waiting for us at the Fifth Section?” I ask instead, watching her at the corner of my eye.
“What did I say about questions, Hyde?”
“Ah, you said not to ask questions when we get there. As you can see, we’re not there yet.” I wag a finger, smiling through the mask. I can feel the scowl behind her own, rolling her eyes back to the road ahead.
“I swear,” Her words stop abruptly. My eyes continue to watch her, noticing more details. I see her so little, sometimes I forget features like the color of her eyes. Not that I actively watch for these types of details on a person, but I think you’d be at least familiar with the person you’ve known for a year.
That’s for people you know, though. Describing Whisper as a person I know is a stretch, dare I even say, false.
“The Fifth Section specializes in tools, right?” Another detail I’ve noticed is her tendency to start every conversation with a question. I used to think they’re rhetorical, but she gives a waiting look every time, only continuing after I give an answer.
“Carts frequently barter with the Second Section for tool rods and bits, yes.”
“They’re fashioning tools that can help us finally be on equal footing with the guards,” her voice is barely audible. I step closer, blocking out the noises around the veil of soot to listen. “Fifth Section is the ideal place for this. The Workers specialize with their forges, and the sparks draw away even guards from patrolling anywhere farther from the main road.”
I nod, understanding the mindset of these unknown individuals she has been associating. A place with resources to work while being out of the watchful eyes of guards. A perfect combination. But, judging from yesterday, that comfort has disappeared. “And I’m guessing with how the guards are now able to catch people trying to be defiant, the plan has changed?”
Her eyes widen, looking back at me for a moment before nodding. “That’s right,” she takes another second, her shoulders lax. “I’m impressed there’s a brain in that head of yours.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thanks for the compliment.” I groan, waving a hand dismissively.
“Anyway, it’s now important to keep moving and not just stay in a single spot. But the new project is difficult to keep moving around, so we need a new plan.” She finishes her words with a spiteful click of the tongue.
A rhythm of heavy metal grows in our direction. Whisper takes a few steps to the side, me following suit. A few moments later, a cart passed beside us, hauling fuel. “So, what is the new plan?”
Whisper shoots a quick glare. I shrug my shoulders, looking off. “Fine, all right,” the silence sits for only a seconds before another question bubbles up. “What is the tool they’re making?”
Her mask shifts, jaw moving idly in thought. She draws a sigh, her eyes darting between corners. “A drill.”
I raise my brow, confused. “Like a mining drill?” I’ve only seen one carried on the back of a cart during a bartering trip to the Fourth Section. They’re large, heavy, and conspicuous when hauling around. How were they able to keep it a secret for so long?
Whisper shakes her head. “It’s from a mining drill model, but it’s made from scratch. It was the only way to build it unnoticed in the Fifth Section.” Ah, so that’s how. Building from scratch is a challenging task. Like the carts, all other mechanical devices were given by the guards, and we did whatever possible to keep them from breaking down. Prolonging the inevitable demise of tools by replacing parts and chemicals to keep them functional.
In a way, that sounds like all of us down here. “If it’s a mining drill, how will they sneak it out from this Wing? You mentioned that you’ll leave when winter ends, so I’m guessing those two line up.”
Whisper gives a look. I grow annoyed at these impressed looks as if I’ve never said anything clever before. “We won’t sneak it out,” she responds in a matter of fact tone. “We won’t look suspicious at the gate and lie about it being a mining drill for Wing Four.”
“Wing Four?” I ask aloud, receiving a momentary glare.
“The adjacent Wing to this one,” She answers flatly, looking away. “Wing Four specializes in mining for metal below the ground. A harsh, dry place.” I nod, listening intently. I’m curious why she knows so much about it, but I shelf the question for now.
“But, what will it be used for?” A hard glare shoots my way. I raise my hands. “Not that question? Fine.” She huffs quietly, the conversation trailing off into the noise of footsteps against metal. The whistles of steam begin to fade, the hot scent of sulfur filling the air. We’re approaching the Fifth Section.
“Do you have any eyewear? Unless you want to try bumping around with our eyes closed.” She rolls her eyes, her hand slipping inside her coat.
“Do you have one for yourself?” Whisper asks, producing a set of thick-glassed eyewear, bound with dark leather.
“No, actually. I never saw the need to own one.” I answer promptly. She transfers the eyewear to her other hand, reaching inside.
“Figures,” A familiar counter takes me by surprise and I almost drop the object tossed toward me. I hold it up. A similar pair of protective eyewear, but one of the lens is cracked. “Better than nothing. Oh, and you’re welcome.”
“You shouldn’t have,” I remark, chuckling quietly. I put it on, setting it atop my head for now. Looking back at her. “Whisper, just how long have you been with these people?” I end up asking, watching her with bated breath. She mulls the question over, her brows furrowed for a quick second.
“I can’t remember, but they’re all I have. All I know.” Her tone is sharp, but not biting. It’s more like revealing an ugly truth than being displeased answering. She meets my eyes, causing me to look away. “Is it so important to know where I came from, Hyde?”
My answer catches in my throat. Is it important? Before, I thought it was dishonest of her to hide her origins. Now, what difference would it make? Would I see her in a different light? Would I hate her? If knowing where she came from elicited these types of reactions, wouldn’t it better that I don’t know?
Her stare bores a hole in my soul. I shake my head, dispelling the trance. “Not really. It’s just small talk at this point.” I say finally, a smile beneath my mask.
She blinks in silence. For a moment, I see a transparent emotion in her monotone, but it disappears before I could decipher the expression. She nods, looking back to the road ahead. “I’m not good at small talk. I like to say as little as possible.”
“Could’ve fooled me, Whisper.” She sighs as I laugh. I’d like to think I understand more about her now. At least, she knows that I trust her to an extent. She isn’t any less of an enigma, but I’m learning to worry less of the fact. Surely, it won’t end up being a bad idea.
If I can’t trust her, who can I?
The sight of bright lights past the haze of soot interrupts my thoughts. The end of the First Section lies ahead. Beneath the arched opening in the high walls are a handful of guards.
“Be quiet and just walk.” I hear her voice beside me. I roll my eyes, rolling my shoulders.
“I’ll be fine. You would’ve hated traveling with Orion if you feel the need to remind me of every little thing.” A puff of laughter escapes me. She spares a look, her eyes hidden under thick glass.
“You’re still talking.” I nod exasperatedly, pulling the eyewear down from my hair. The glass blurs my vision, the crack in one of them warping it. I walk behind Whisper, watching the haze of ash begin to dissipate gradually.
Light shines, but it isn’t blinding. The thick glass keeps out the painful reflections aside from their invented use. I stand corrected, there is a use to own a pair, after all.
We step into the light, walking silently as carts are stopped by guards. A few individuals are dragged to the side in the aftermath of a struggle. Dark blood trails behind one of the Workers. The passage is lucky as none of the guards stop either of us.
“Huh,” I hum in surprise, moving away from the light and down into the main road of the Fifth Section. Soot continues to fall, but it is scarce. Instead, gusts of sparks blow by from alleys, chimes reverberating in discorded resonance in all directions.
“I’ll follow your lead,” I say to her, stepping behind. My eyes dart around, squinting past the dirty glass to see open stalls selling tools and mechanical parts. Quality varies, some possess none. Workers barter, the most prominent being broken tool rods and water. In these work conditions, no water could spell out a slow suffering.
Whisper walks in silence. I watch her for any sudden turns. Eventually, she nears a corner, then turns. I follow behind, stealing one last glance at the road. Tall walls are reminiscent to home, the alley opening to a smaller street. Here, sparks fly freely. Open flames heat metal for blacksmithing, binding and morphing. Hammers strike against bright iron, the sharp chime rings in my ears.
I keep caution against distractions, keeping an eye to her walking in front. The road reaches a dead end, but we turn a corner before we hit it, walking deeper into the Section. Every alley opens to louder chimes of metal, the heat of their fire radiates. Unlike the steam of the First Section, this heat is a stabbing sensation.
“You’re here whenever you’re away?” I ask behind her. She looks over her shoulder at me, then faces back.
“Not every time.” Well, that’s that. At least I got some semblance of an answer, instead of a judgmental glare. I’ll remember to ask these people for answers the moment I meet them. For sure, she won’t be telling me any.
She stops abruptly, turning to an open forge in the middle of a thinner alley. Workers from the other Sections are nowhere to be found, my eyes finding only men clad in thick clothes and eyewear. I turn to Whisper, who walks to the front.
“I have your latest shipment.” She calls out to nobody. It’s the first time I’ve heard her raise her voice. The strange phrase is met with silence, but a man steps out of the corner, concealed by the shadows of the forge.
He gives a grin, nodding. “I expected a different type of metal. From where?”
“The First.” She answers, then walks over. I’m not certain, but that was some kind of password. I’ve seen Defiants use these to meet up in secret, all the while knowing who is in on the plan. This was more fluent than those I’ve encountered. They must’ve practiced.
“This is an- “ Whisper stops, looking back at me as I walk over. “An associate of mine in the First Section.” She looks back up at the man, who scrutinizes me with a hard expression.
“Does he know what he’s doing?” I meet his glare, and his face sours. Between us, Whisper takes a second to nod.
“He’s worked with Defiants across the Wing before. Long before I met him.” That was a lie, but I won’t correct that now. The man moves her aside, walking toward me. I draw to my full height, but he’s taller. Those boots might be the culprit.
“A man thinking of brighter steel, I see!” The grin returns to his face. He slaps my shoulder, causing me to wince. “Glad to know there’s more of us out there. Shame that Whisper’s keeping you to herself.” He laughs, slapping my shoulder before stepping back.
“Y-yeah. This is a surprise to me, too.” I groan, rubbing the pain. And I just started feeling better.
“Careful with handling him. The guards weren’t so nice to him the past week or two.” Whisper chides in, hiding her hands in her coat.
“He was there?” He asks with an excitable interest. She nods, and his eyes are back on me. “Lucky, or harder than you look, then!” His voice is a loud cheer, but the hammering of metal almost drowns it. I nod, unsure what to say.
“I’m called Hyde, and you?” It’s a good start as any. My words seem to take him by surprise, but he recovers with a wide smile.
“Bellow is what they call me!” A fitting name, in my opinion. He walks back to the shadowed corner, beckoning us. Whisper walks first, and I follow.
“Can we transfer the drill?” Her question echoes down the tight alley. The only source of light is the way back.
He makes a sound, I assume in thought, “Mutter is seeing if we can disassemble it first. It would be suspicious if we brought it out whole.”
Whisper, Bellow, and now someone called Mutter? I’m beginning to sense a pattern.
“Didn’t he say he good with anything mechanical?” Whisper asks. We make a turn, seeing a light at the end. Bellow hums in thought, his tone scruffy as it echoes down the alley.
“With the drill, but the issue is the cart. We tore too much out of it for parts, and he’s not sure what part goes where.” We file out into a room with high ceilings. It looks similar to an unloading wall, but one of the walls is a forge, with channels dug in the concrete floor.
In the middle of the room is a cylindrical contraption of metal, one of its ends mounts a drill bit. Metal is strewn around it, and a cannibalized cart sits nearby. One of the treads has been pulled out, the engine missing.
“Mutter is out to get new parts, but what we really need is someone who can throw enough of it to get the cart working.” Bellow finishes with a difficult sigh. I do a double take, processing his words.
“Good thing I found a mechanic.” I snap my gaze to Whisper. She glances at me, pulling her mask down, a smirk underneath.
“And one sympathetic to our cause!” He follows with a cheerful yell. Speechless, I could only stare at Whisper. Did she plan this ever since she got back? Did she trick me?
The questions must’ve shown on my face, because there is an answer.
“Why else would I let you know?” She says quietly. I scowl at the pride laced in her voice as she says it. So much for blind trust.