Veils: Under the Panopticon
Tomorrow blurred into the next week, and that week blurred with the rest of winter. The cold months were occupied with frantic sparks and machinery. I kept true to my word, improving the cart to better hold the weight of the drill. On their part, Mutter kept a distance while he worked on the drill. Conversation between us were scarcer than Whisper. At least Bellow was more open whenever he lent a hand in fixing the underside of the cart. He's strong, but I guessed that from his size. Useful around heavy machinery, and the conversation topics weren't half bad.
I didn't learn more about the plans of the drill or the purpose of the weapons stored in the Inner Wing, but he told stories of his home. From his words, the mining Sections of Wing Four are a harsh place. They live in rooms welded against the high metal walls, but their work saw them descending down unstable soil, stone, and minerals. He'd laugh at the memory of riding the pulleys up to the surface. To his credit, I enjoyed his positive outlook on the life he lived. It wasn't preferable, but preference is in the mindset.
He asked me about my own life in the First Section. In comparison, I felt that I didn't have much to say, but he enjoyed the tiniest detail. I thought that he might be like me, those who find enjoyment in talking. Not to ask questions, but to simply hear of lives other than your own. The dread of life is more bearable if you hear the right stories.
Speaking of my life, my returns to the First Section lessened the more problems I needed to fix with the cart. Whisper started handing food and water containers at the end of the day. A form of payment, as she said. I drop some off to Old Man Harbour whenever I was passing by to the Second Section for bartering gears and machine parts. The rusty smog was a stark contrast to dazzling sparks. I think my eyes are starting had grown blurry after these two months.
One night as I was finishing up installing makeshift treads on the cart, Mutter stepped in the forge with a sheet. The months had started to warm, and the mining Sections were resuming normal hours.
“Two months just like that?” I remark, emerging from the memory. Beside me, Whisper sits on the driving seat of the cart, the rest of us walking along its sides to ensure no one gets too close.
“Did you get too comfortable?” She gives a side glance. I shrug.
“Nothing wrong with a place to settle down and sleep, right?” An idle reply. Without the opportunity to ask another important question, I thought that would spell the end of conversations with her that would last longer than a minute. To my surprise, she would keep some talks up during trips to the nearby Sections. A slight difference, but certainly an improvement to the episodic conversations.
“I prefer to keep moving. Any surface soft enough is a good bed.” She says decidedly. I watch her out of the corner of my eye. She still wears the same deadpan, but I've come to notice a few tics that give away her true emotions.
A trio of Workers pass by, all holding metal crates over their shoulders. I step to the side, allowing them to pass undisturbed. The other three do the same, avoiding interaction with passersby. Soot still settles on the ground, kicked up and producing a low-laying smog. It provides a veil, which is desirable when one is transporting a drill that we want nobody to see.
“Is that why you never had a room?” I walk beside the left side of the cart, my hands kept inside my coat pockets. Every once in a while, I check the treads in case they collapse under the weight.
Whisper gives a quick glare, sighing before looking back ahead. “You've grown more talkative, Hyde.” I stare at her, barking a quick laugh.
“I could say the same for you, Whisper.”
“I'll be careful to not talk with you specifically from now on.”
I raise my hands up, stifling the laughter. “No, no. It's good. I'm knowing more about you.”
She lifts a hand off the steering bar. It's a straight road from this Section all the way to The High Gates, so there's not much point in committing so much attention in driving. “Have you now?” She leans back, giving a judging look. “Like what?”
I stroke my chin, humming out in thought. “Well, I know how much you like the bread cubes.” She sits straight, nearly slamming the breaks on the cart. Her eyes glare, but its fire doesn't distract me from the moment's embarrassment on her face.
“How did you know about that?”
I hardly contain my laughter, holding a fist against my mouth to quiet them. Her stare is felt as I collect myself, coughing slightly from the soot-ridden air. “It's something I've noticed. You didn't tell me, but I noticed.”
That is a bold-faced lie, but she doesn't need to know that.
“I feel violated finding out you've been watching me all this time.” She mutters through pressed lips. I straighten myself, looking back to the road ahead.
“Hey, the guards keep a close eye on us every day. You should get used to the feeling of being watched.”
“That's for security, this is just perversion.”
“You give yourself too much credit,” I counter with a laugh. She rolls her eyes, her head shaking in disapproval. “I wonder why you like it so much, though.”
A brief silence follows. Before I think that the conversation is over, I hear her whispering tone, barely above the conjuncture of Workers. “I like the taste.”
“That's it?” I raise a brow, looking back at her curiously. “It's not about whatever chemical is laced in it? Just the horrendous potency of sweetness?”
“It's the only sweet thing edible.” I blink at the blunt honesty. For a start she's the only person I know besides children that enjoy those things to the point that she prefers them to other edibles. Personally, I'm not a fan of it sticking in spots between teeth. The sweetness stays longer.
“Huh,” I breathe out, unsure what to say. She returns my look with a glare, daring me to comment further. I raise my hands in reassurance. “I'm not judging, Whisper. Everyone's got a preference.” Her eyes roll before looking back at the road.
Just then, an idea strikes me. “How about this, I'll give you all of the bread cubes I have if you answer another question. Deal?”
I'm met with silence, but all that means is that she's considering the option. I watch her eyes flicker to her right where Bellow is walking. She stares up at the spotlights overhead. There won't be answers up there. Finally, her gaze returns on me. A glimpse of hesitation before returning to the usual flat.
“One question.” She forces out. I swallow down another bout of laughter, nodding instead.
“It's a deal, then.” Victorious, I land my gaze back to the hazy surroundings. The white light does little in illuminating anything else beyond its gaze, and Workers still take caution in hiding. A sharp noise occurs overhead, and a long wire shivers, stretching far into the dark. I trail my gaze up its length, noticing the line go in the direction of the lighted perch.
“Whisper, what do you know about the lighted perch?” I ask quietly. In these two months, I've picked up on their habits. Quieter questions and subtle movements in open roads, to name a few. I just hope that I don't become a killjoy like Mutter.
She looks at me, then follows my gaze to the sole source of light visible between the high metal. “I don't know,” a short silence falls, but she continues. “We heard the guards watch from up there. A single sentry for all Five Sections of each Wing.”
“Do they have the same layout in Wing Four?”
A curt nod. She settles her hand on the steering bar, we follow the slight shift on the road. “It's all the same across all the Wings. Five Sections each, and a lighted perch in the middle.”
I listen in silence, but her words catch with a story that I remember a few months before. “But I heard a tale from this hostess in the Second Section of them only having one watcher for all the Wings.” Saying it now makes the story sound ridiculous, but by now, I've learned to take everything with a grain of salt but never disregard it completely.
She spares a quick glance, her lips pursed in thought. “We've heard of that story too. Information is little, but we take care not to believe in myths.”
“Are you saying it's not real?”
“I'm saying that it's impossible for that to happen.” She has a point. To be honest, I'm in that same thought myself, even when I first heard it. I would believe guards watching from the perches for each Wing, but one for everything? We're afraid of the guards, but not to the point of believing they possess godlike powers.
Yet, rumors always come from somewhere true, right? At least, that's what Orion used to say. “Wouldn't it be better if someone shuts the lights off in the perches then?” I throw out the suggestion beneath subdued breath.
She shrugs. “If you can get up there. The walkways are winding, and guards can shoot you down before you make half the distance.” Her words are heavy with an odd knowing. As if she's seen it happen before. Recalling the desperation of Defiants, I'm willing to bet she has.
The conversation trails off as the haze of soot begins to reveal an impossibly high wall of metal. It stretches far into darkness. Along the road, the lights grow brighter, piercing the thick veil of ash. Alleys on the side disappear, leaving a single road. At the end lies the only way out of the Wing. Guards litter the front of a slit in the wall. Spotlights trail the surfaces, the Workers passing through stopped without discrimination.
For some, it's where the world ends. The High Gates.
I've never had a reason to stop here. As we approach, I can't help but feel a sense of dread creep up my spine. The imposing size of the gates, the feelings of watching eyes and pointed weapons. Up ahead, a shot rings out. Security here is at its highest, and forgiveness at its lowest.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Bellow peers at me from the other side of the cart. I give a sideways glance, nodding in awe. “If you forget the reason why it exists, it's a great achievement to whoever built it.”
“But you should never forget why it exists,” Mutter chimes in from behind us. I look over my shoulder to see him tug the cloth to cover more of the drill. “A reminder that we're all kept prisoner in these walls.”
“We shouldn’t but look how high these walls are.” Though he tries to keep his voice low, the enthusiasm in Bellow's voice proves difficult to contain. He looks up, gesturing widely with large arms. “I bet they reach even up to the ceiling, wherever that is.” I look up, trailing my eyes along the wall. It disappears into the darkness above.
“You weren't this excited whenever you see the large mines in Wing Four.” Mutter scoffs. I can't imagine something lower down than the underground boilers.
“Be quiet, you two,” Whisper snaps, causing all of us to look her way. The engine groans underneath her, a warning. “Mutter. You're up.”
We all walk into stagnant light, my vision blurring from the bright intensity. Someone pushes by me, and when I adjust to the pure light, I see Mutter walk ahead of the cart. I slow my pace, keeping close to the left side as we begin to pass by Workers stopped by black uniforms.
I steal quick glances around. Wet Workers hauling manual carts begin their walk, leaving footprints of dark sludge. Under the light, it's a dark green hue. It reminds me of green Substitute when you leave it in the open for too long. Surprisingly, its preservative chemicals can only keep it edible for so long.
My eyes stare back down at the treads until it slows to a stop. I look up, seeing two guards approach the front of the cart. Bellow is behind the drill on the other side, Whisper and Mutter at the front. I button my coat in reflex. An old habit, I suppose.
“Where is this cart going?” One of the guards asks, his voice mechanical through the helmet. It covers his face, dark tinted glass where his eyes would be.
“Wing Four, Section One. A drill has finished repairs from the Fifth Section.” A clear and concise explanation from Mutter. The first time I've heard him raise his voice. He slowly reaches in his coat, producing a sheet of paper. It's the same one he had on him the night before we left the forge.
“Payment forms if you need them,” He holds the folded page to one of the guards. They watch him in silence. Then, they look at the rest of us and the covered drill mounted on the cart. One guard stares at me, and I refrain from looking away. Confidence gives them the belief one has nothing to hide.
“Keep it still,” the other commands before walking around Bellow's side of the cart. He tries to lift the cloth, but they had extensively held it down with thin wire. They try again, more aggressive, but the wire holds. One guard steps back to the front, putting one hand on the handle of his weapon. “Why are there ties?”
I feel sweat on my back. I've never been stopped at a checkpoint for this long. I look to the side, seeing other Workers being searched extensively. No room for error, huh?
“The soot destroys the motor. It's there to keep the cloth down.” Mutter responds with unbelievable calmness. I snap my eyes to him. His stance is relaxed, still holding out the sheet of paper to the guards. So, this is how he's useful to the group. I always thought they had him on as a mediocre mechanic.
Both guards stare down at us, their large stature casting a shadow from the lights behind. The world tunes out into white, but these three are calm.
A bated breath of silence, then a guard raises his hand, stepping away. “Let these through.” He turns, stepping away, the other guard approaches Whisper, handing a tag with an attached chain.
“Keep it on you, show it to the next High Gate.”
She nods, accepting the tag in silence. They walk past us, approaching a group of Workers behind the cart. They ask the same questions, but they weren't so lucky. Whisper drives the cart forward, the rest of us walking beside it in silence.
Their composure is a sight to behold. I've held myself against guards, but it had always been for a short time. Perhaps the incident from months ago has left me with a subconscious fear.
I shake my head. No, these three are used to this.
We get closer to The High Gates. The slit in the wall is larger up close. I'm sure it can fit eight carts across with space to spare. In this wide area bathed by light, the sense of scale has thrown me off.
“Still alive back there?” I hear Whisper's voice from the front. I look over, meeting her eyes. I nod in silence, and she turns back ahead. “You can talk after we pass.”
A reasonable warning. With the close proximity of guards, I don't dare to say anything lively.
Eventually, we reach the gates, passing through amidst guards, Workers, and their own carts. No words are exchanged, the air filled with nothing but the rhythm of metal treads, footsteps, and work. A familiar cacophony. A dreadful monotony.
Poetic descriptions keep me busy until we completely pass through. The air tastes different as we leave the High Gates. The dryness of soot is gone, replaced with nothing. It's not clean, but there isn't anything distinct in the air. What is this place?
“Never been here, Hyde?” Bellow speaks up from the other side. My shoulders relax when we step out of the light, moving away from the watchful eye of guards. I nod, then realizing he can't see the gesture.
“Can't say I have. Where is this?”
“We like to call it, 'The Partition.' A space between the Outer Wings and the Inner Wings.” There is a sense of wonderment in his voice, and if I was speaking, I'd be sharing that too. My eyes wander around, seeing nothing but a vast space. The high metal is nearby, but it is the only noticeable landmark. Spotlights remain overhead, but they are spaced generously. Workers walk with a distance to one another. Across the gates is a vast empty floor, another high wall at its end.
Whisper turns the cart to the right, and I walk to catch up. “It's just an empty space to keep away from the rest of us?”
“From what we could tell from the design,” Mutter adds, keeping a lax pace with the cart. I turn to him, raising a brow.
“How do guards get into the Inner Wings then?”
He says nothing but he juts a finger. I follow, my eyes seeing a structure illuminated by white light. They remind me of the arch that separates the Sections. I guess they serve a similar purpose.
“Walkways lead into those buildings. Inside are doors leading into the Inner Wings. Guarded heavily. They shoot if you so much as look suspicious,” Whisper explains, peering behind her shoulder to meet my gaze. “So, it was nice knowing you, Hyde.”
I huff out fake laughter, crossing my arms as I begin to tap repeatedly on the drill, making a dull clang. “If anything's suspicious, it's this weird thing under the cloth.”
Mutter snaps a venomous glare, his teeth grated together in sudden irritation. “They watch. They listen. What part of that makes you want to blab out everything?” I barely hear him from the repeated noise from my hands knocking on the metal. He watches my continuous movement, infuriated. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure they'll have a hard time listening,” I answer plainly with a smile. Whisper looks back, her eyes wide in surprise. I return it with a shrug. “What? I learn things, too.”
A laughter bellows on the other side of the cart. He truly does keep to his namesake. “I like this one. You're a fun time, Hyde.”
“Right back at you, Bellow. Hopefully I can say the same for these two.” Mutter rolls his eyes, groaning before facing back in front. Whisper continues to watch me, and I entertain the gesture with a quirked brow.
“Next,” She begins, her tone slow, “Learn how to keep shut.” A laugh hums out from my lips, and her glare narrows.
I roll my shoulders, giving a subdued smirk. “I'll learn from the best.” It was her turn to groan, facing back to the way ahead. I'd like to consider that my victory, and my celebration is a silent walk in the vast emptiness.
“By the way, how long is it until Wing Four?” I step away from the cart's side, my knuckles somewhat sore from the repeated knocking.
“Two days.” Whisper answers.
I look around, watching the Workers that pass by. They're different. Some wear lighter clothing, some have their lower halves coated in brown dust. The rhythmic hammering of industry is a tad louder, but it is still distant. A constant hum at the back of my mind.
Peering back to the front, I squint at the lighted structure. It has been more or less five minutes since we left The High Gates, but it hasn't grown any closer. “How far out is that building?” I ask aloud. A silence settles as none answer my question.
“That up there?” Bellow's voice finally breaks the air humming in thought. “An entire day, I think.”
I blink, looking over to where he would be. “Two days of straight walking?”
A resolute noise of confirmation. “That's right!”
I look down at myself, watching my legs step in a sedated pace. “And there's nothing in this place?”
“Welcome to The Partition, Hyde.” Whisper says. I can tell the smile in her voice. I groan quietly, stretching upward. Two days full of walking. This must be what she means with her warnings two months before.
An empty space with two days of walking. This might be the death of me.