Chapter 21:

The Mire

Veils: Under the Panopticon

Her precarious path leads us to a building at the edge of the Section. Hanging off the edge of the platforms, used for storage. Inside are two carts. One similar to the one we arrived in, but the other was built in a way I haven't seen before.

A taller body, requiring a ladder to reach the seat. I inspect the metal, curved in a manner similar to a bowl. Out the window I see a vast mire, mist veiling the faintly pulsing murk. I make out faint figures floating above the black. Workers on carts.

“This can stay above the muck?” I ask in awe, looking back at Linen. She takes a folded sheet from Mutter, skimming its contents before folding it away in her coat.

“Why, yes,” she walks over, standing next to me, eyes to a scenery that seemed to stretch forever. “But only in calmer parts. Deeper reaches of the murk possess stronger tides. Enough to swallow carts whole.”

“How big is this mire?”

A quiet laugh. She turns to me. “This entire Wing is the mire. We only learned to live above it.” So, this explains the stilted buildings. But why would this Wing exist? What are the Wet Workers searching for in the dark sludge?

“Workers here clear the murk for cleaning, Hyde.” An answer to my unspoken question. I must be wearing the confusion on my face.

“Where do you think water comes from?”

I gulp, “You're joking.” She shakes her head, a bout of laughter escaping her. I look back out the window, staring down at the tiding sludge. “It's thicker than old engine oil.”

Linen steps away, walking back to the carts. “Second and Third Section collects the clear murk and cleanses it. Clear enough to drink and distribute.” She explains, her tone soft. I swallow, fighting an ill feeling in my stomach.

“Though, Workers are impatient and drink from the mire directly.” So, that's why Wet Workers always look well-fed. I think I'm about to be sick.

I look to Mutter, hoping to hear him refute her words. He shakes his head slowly. “They do what they must to survive.”

That makes another line I refuse to cross. Cannibalism, and drinking from the dark sludge of Wing Six. From the look of it, I'm sure if I tried, the viscous liquid would choke me while it slides down my throat.

“So, do you-” I choke out, gaze snapped back to Linen. Before I could finish, she waves a hand dismissively, a dainty smile ever-present on her face.

“I am patient. Besides, those who've tasted the murk return different,” she pauses, looking off to the distance. “Workers who do find themselves diving under the black waves. Some return, working more efficiently without the clumsiness of carts, but some never surface.”

“What do you think happens to them?” I ask, hesitant. She blows a light hum, settling her gaze back on me.

“They die. The thick murk chokes them.” I was expecting a more cryptic answer, but the blunt fact is a welcoming breath of air. I stifle a chuckle, walking away from the window toward the carts.

“So. what needs fixing?” I remove my coat, resting it on the edge of a worktable. I wouldn't want to get it filthy, but then again, it's been caked in dirt and soot.

She points to one. The unusual looking cart. “We call those mire crawlers. Crawlers for short.” I glance outside, realizing the snail's pace of the shadows moving along the murk's surface. A fitting name, though normal carts aren't any faster. “The engine has grown cold. If you could fix it, my Workers would appreciate it.”

I nod, rolling my sleeves before kneeling on the side. “I'll handle that.”

“Wonderful,” She claps her hands, then moves over to Mutter, rifling around her pockets to produce a folded sheet of paper. “Mutter, return this to Discourse. I'll return his mechanic in due time.”

“What?” I stand up, staring with wide eyes. Mutter looks to me, accepting the sheet and hiding it in a pocket.

“You said you would cooperate, and The Voices need you here.” It's easy for him to say that since he isn't the one staying in a wing full of insane Workers that drink from a swamp. But, he's right. I agreed to help. Maybe I wouldn't have been so agreeing if I knew where they would send me.

With no arguments, I grumble in defeat, kneeling back in front of the cart. “Tell Discourse he's a bastard when you get back.”

He laughs, quieting quick before stepping away from Linen. He picks up a tool from a nearby shelf, striking against the frame repeatedly. “Before two months, the plan will be set.”

The noise begins to echo, rendering me unable to hear his words, but his mouth moves confidently. Linen says a reply, but again, I'm unable to hear. Their brief exchange ends with him dropping the tool back on the shelf, a final clang before the room falls into a dead silence.

My ears ring. I move back, humming under my breath to shake off the uncomfortable shriek.

“In due time, Mutter. Now, best get going.” She smiles, and he turns to walk out the wide door. Before he does, he looks over his shoulder. I meet his stare.

“I'll be taking the cart.” So, I'm truly stuck here. Despite the need to protest, I shrug my shoulders. I said that I would help, and I will do that. I just hope Linen doesn't send me out into the vast swamp for anything. I'm quite comfortable on the hard, dry metal.

Mutter's steps trail into silence, the room silent apart from the echo of rolling waves and Linen's footsteps. They stop behind me. I listen closely, busying myself by removing the metal panel that conceals the cart's engine. Immediately, I notice the issue.

“So, I found your problem,” I begin, peering up at her. “Your engine's completely coated in sludge.”

She quirks a brow, bending down to inspect the issue with her own eyes. Every cog, mechanism and gear are coating in a moist black. Clumps obscure the inner workings. It oozes out from the compartment, dripping onto the floor.

I back away, resting the panel against the cart. “How do you clean this off?” She hums quietly, backing away. A brief walk to the shelves, picking up a metal square and an unlabeled container. She returns, setting it all down on the floor. I give a curious look at strange items. “What's this?”

Linen uncaps the container, dropping crushed material inside the hollow square. The familiar scent tells me it's fuel. “Heat melts the murk. Let it melt off the metal.” She stands up, returning to the shelves.

I peer down at the fuel settled on the bottom of the metal. A minute later, she drops a pebble attached to a thin wire. I realize what it is and back away. Not a second after, a tiny, concentrated explosion blows from the top, the fuel set alight. I look back at the roaring flame housed by the crate.

“Fire can melt this thick sludge?” I ask, moving the flame closer to the engine compartment. True to her words, the viscous coating begins to drip off, rolling down the side and pooling at the floor. I get up on my feet, backing away. “What is it made of?”

“No one's sure,” she responds softly, stepping back from the growing puddle of black liquid. “In this Wing, the air is cold. It slows the Workers, and it slows the rolling murk.” Linen breathes a sigh, shrugging. “I hear they use heat to melt it like this before cleaning it.”

I can see that. Seeing it freely drip off gears makes me begin to believe that this muck would eventually become drinkable water. I guess with all their methods of cleaning, they can't seem to rid it of the gray hue.

“For how long you will have me work here?” I quirk a brow, shooting a stare her way. She returns it with an easy expression, her smile its usual.

“Your efforts here will support your cause, Hyde.” A convincing tone, but so far there's nothing that warrants my trust. I look around the desolate storage building, seeing nothing but shelves, tools, and the cold carts.

“I don't see how, though.” I remark bluntly. She laughs, waving a hand whimsically.

“Now, you don't expect me to spell it all out for you, right?” Her hand reaches out to me. “A tool, if you would.”

I nod, quickly looking around. Spotting a wrench, I walk over, picking it up and handing it over. She takes it silently, then begins striking it softly against the cart's hull. A rhythmic interval, her voice barely above the ring of metal.

“He wants my Workers to help his mission. Help us, and you will be helped.” Her words are short, and she slows the hammering to a stop. It clatters on the floor, her gaze returning on me. “Tell me, do you support his cause?”

I blink at the unexpected question. I open my mouth, but my unprepared thoughts leave nothing but a quiet gasp. She nods her head at my lack of response, her steps circling around me.

“Do you rally behind his dream of brighter steel?” I'm only helping them because it's a step toward getting Orion back. His spiel of a brighter tomorrow? A single mistake can easily spell an end to it all. His plan is nothing short of suicidal, and it would take a miracle for them to pull it off.

It's not like I don't support his cause, but I don't see any likelihood of this bright tomorrow. Perhaps the dozens of Defiants I've seen gunned down has jaded my optimism. Still, that's where I stand.

“You sound like you don't exactly think his plan's going to work.” I counter, steeling myself with a deadpan. She takes meticulous stares at my expression, so I'll prove a hindrance by showing none at all.

She laughs into her hand, facing away to the window. “I'm supportive, at least.”

I remain quiet, watching her at the corner of my eye. I slide the crate of fire away with a foot, looking back at the engine. The murk has mostly dripped off, but a thin coating still remains. Continuing to watch her, I look around the shelves for cloth.

“Have you lived here all your life?” I ask instead. Better to make light small talk than to keep on the path of being interrogated about my trust towards Discourse. She hums out, seemingly amused.

“I live here now, and that's what's needed of me.” I restrain the sigh threatening to leave. More secrets are inevitable in this line of work. For now, I won't prod further. If I'm to trust Whisper, then I'll have to trust everyone else.

Easier said than done, but as long these secrets won't lose me a leg, I'll do my work.

“Then, would whether or not I believe his cause matter?” I shoot a pointed look, kneeling back down in front of the engine. “I'm here, and that's what everyone expects me to do.”

She stares, her eyes wide. A short silence of her astonishment. Then, a laugh bubbles up.

“I suppose you have a point. I'll leave it alone for now, then,” a dismissive sentence. She walks around me, heading to the door where she stops. “But I do hope you'll join for meals.”

I quirk a suspicious brow. The last invitation involved a stew made from someone's arm. Nobody is generous, especially for food.

“I receive supplies from Wing One, don't worry.” Her reassuring words confuse me further. Before I could ask, she quickly answers. “Wing One specializes in the growth and production of food, Hyde.”

A hum of realization escapes me. Though reluctant, I agree to her offer. Linen smiles, then continues on her way out. “I'll return to check on you.”

As if being watched by guards and Orion isn't enough. I shrug it off, focusing on the engine. I begin wiping off the thin layer of black muck. It flows like water but sticks to the cloth like oil. A pungent odor keeps me looking away, but I need both eyes to keep working.