Chapter 24:

Brighter Steel

Veils: Under the Panopticon

High ceilings. Vast, spotless space. Stagnant lights blind overhead. The drill has entered to what looks like a loading bay. Similar to the loading walls of the boilers, but this holds one purpose.

“Are these all just vehicles?” I breathe out in awe. Along the wall stand various vehicles on treads. Some are similar to carts, but range in size. We pass by one as we walk. It's half-finished, the engine exposed.

A noise occurs behind us, followed by the grinding of metal. Mutter is making the hole larger. So far, the plan hasn't faltered, if not somewhat behind schedule.

“Find the treaded weapon.” Whisper orders, running down the middle.

I call out, but she doesn't stop. “What exactly am I supposed to be looking for?”

“Just shout if you think that’s it!”

Her voice echoes. It's the first time I've heard her yell that loud. Now's not the time to look surprised. I go the opposite direction, scanning each vehicle as I pass them by. From the other side of the hole, the fighting continues, muffled by metal tearing away at metal.

A weapon on treads. If I had to guess, it would look like the weapon that the guards use, but on a cart? It's hard to imagine, but it's the only reference I can go with.

I pass by three. All of which are just variants of carts. They're manufacturing ones more efficient. Workers aren't taught how to manufacture carts. We're simply given them, and we scrounge whatever we can to keep them running. They are a lifeline when traversing between the Outer Wings. Without it, there would be isolation, even between the Sections. To make one specifically for a weapon. As if they haven't invented enough ways to keep us in line.

If we manage to pull this off, then we might be finally able to have a say. A voice. Is that the meaning behind the names they call themselves?

“I found it.” Whisper's voice is faint, but the echoes carry it to my ears. I peer back down the long way, seeing her wave a hand.

I run over, passing by the hole. It's wide enough for Mutter to drive the entire thing through. Enough for me to catch a glimpse of the outside.

I force myself to look back ahead. They'll handle that much, I just need to worry about my problems. I take a breath, catching up to her. “How could you tell?”

She says nothing but gestures to the vehicle on her right. It's built similar in size to a cart, but it's longer. Instead of the flat bed behind the steering, it's encased in a rectangular metal shell. Slits on its surface with glinting barrels of weaponry showing through. I walk behind it, revealing a door at the back. Whisper follows behind me, and I swing it open.

Cramped, but I reckon it can fit four people, excluding the driver, who sits at the front. The weapons are welded to the wall, but when we try to pull them out, are able to swing through the length of the rectangular slit. Mobile and able to fire without the threat of being hit in retaliation. A disgusting, smart design.

We look at each other, worry crossing our faces. She parts her lips to speak, but the crackling of speakers forces our attention overhead. A familiar scratch of white noise followed by a familiar voice.

“Workers of Wing Four,” a choking, tight breath. What are they doing to him? “Cease all Defiant activity. Or face swift consequence.”

A loud crash down the loading bay. I walk out, seeing the drill crash against one of the carts in its path. I look back, hearing steps inside the mobile weapon.

“Drive it out.” I yell, running over to the drill. Did Mutter abandon it? He's too proud of his work to do that. The growl of engines blare behind me, tracks trailing against the floor as Whisper drive it forward.

I rush to the switch, shutting the drill off. It grinds to a stop, halfway inside the cart. Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, something falls from the driving seat, hitting the floor with a wet thud.

It takes a second to see through the pooling red. I rush over, kneeling on the dark blood. “Mutter!”

He coughs in pain, clutching at his left thigh. Nothing remains beyond that. “It's getting bad out there.” He hisses out through gritted teeth, sitting up. In front of us, the armored cart pulls to a stop. Whisper steps out from the back, running over.

“Bind his leg with something,” she says, oddly composed, but the worry is discernable in her eyes. I nod, removing my pack and removing the leather straps. “What's happening outside?”

He winces as I wrap the leather around the end of his severed leg. He nods at me, and I pull it tight. His yell trails up the walls, bounding off into silence. I step back, checking for other wounds.

“The guards-” He takes a pause, groaning out in pain. I look at the cart. A patch of red paints the left side where one would've set down his leg. “They've brought more. Wet Workers have bogged them down, but they kept firing.”

I stare in silence. I form questions in my head, but none manage to reach my voice. Whisper turns around, walking back to the cart. “Get him in the back, Hyde.”

“Someone needs to drive the drill back out.” He spits out, trying to hoist himself up to his feet. I catch him before he falls to the ground. I shoot Whisper a look. There's no argument, here.

“I'll do it.” My decision is met with silence, but they both nod. I help Mutter to the back, Whisper stepping inside first to carry him onto the floor.

“Use the weapons if you can. Keep them distracted,” I say, pointing to the weapons on the wall. He nods, dragging himself up its surface. Blood pools underneath him.

“Just bring my drill back in one piece.” He grits out. I laugh, stepping back and shutting the door. I slam my hand on the back.

“Go first.” I yell out, running to the other cart. I wipe blood off the steering, feeling the dent of the bullet's impact. He was lucky to not get hit somewhere worse.

The engine groans to life. In front of me, the armored cart drives into the hole. The top grazes against the ceiling, but it managed to go through. If we can drive it through The High Gates, then this entire mission wouldn't be for nothing. I drive the cart forward, wincing at the drill scrape itself out of the churned vehicle.

White noise muddles my hearing, dissipating slowly for a voice to speak. “Stop.”

I shake my head, ignoring it. It might be his voice, but it wouldn't be outrageous to guess that he's being controlled. This is all towards a step in breaking him out from their hold. We can suffer just for today.

I drive through the wall, barely missing its edges. A weapon cries out, slamming its fire into the side of the armored cart. It doesn't punch through.

“Defiants will be reprimanded permanently.” A sugarcoating to the word 'kill.' A vain way to put themselves on a moral high ground. No that they ever will be.

As I pass through the hole, cheers fill the air. Fires tower up, smoke masking The Partition. Black pools muddle the guards, distracted by the explosion of fire material and the exchange of weapons. Near the gates, Workers carry the weapons used to oppress them. A beautiful irony.

I look around. Bodies lie still on the ground. Nearby, a body of a guard lies beneath a pile of four Workers, their bodies charred and dismembered. A cry goes out in the air. I turn to find a Worker fall to the floor, thudding against the concrete. The guards are slowly pushing through, the inexperience of Workers with the weapons are evident with shots missing their targets.

One guard aims his weapon toward me. There's nowhere to hide. I can only stare him down, my heartbeat drumming at my head.

A shot rings, deafening my ears. Breath leaves my body. I look down. Nothing.

I look back, finding the guard staggering back before falling on the ground. A group of Workers rush out from The High Gates. Guards aim and answer with the boom of weaponry. They answer back in kind.

Among the Defiants is Bellow, grinning widely at the edge of the dust cloud. He carries a weapon on one hand. His arm bleeds heavily. A shot must've grazed him.

“Start making your way back to the gates once we're through.” Mutter's voice yells from the slit of the armored cart. One of the barrels turn, and he fires out into the guards. It misses, but it rouses a cheer from the Workers.

“This is it, brothers.” Bellow howls, marching forward. Men around him follow, relentless despite the mounting injuries. One falls to the ground, but they keep advancing. I look on, speechless.

Survival isn't their priority, but the cart getting through. I'm unlikely to get shot now, but I'm terrified. I don't know why, but the fear shakes my grip. Do they not feel the same fear?

I drive into the light, forced to pull on the eyewear as we enter the dirt winds. It obscures my vision, but it should obscure theirs. The High Gates are within sight. We're almost there.

Wires tremor overhead, shaking the ground. The speakers fill the air with white noise. With the winds, I only hear the increasing shouts and weapon fire, but the dim lights grow closer. A man crawls on the floor, leaving a trail of blood. Half his body is charred, the lower half of his legs missing.

This far should be enough. Everyone still alive can run back through the gates. I peer over my shoulder, but the drill blocks my view. I can only tell if they're alive through the yelling. My heart slams against my chest, each passing second feeling like an hour. What difference does this make? Wouldn't they just send guards to find us even if we drive it into the Wing? Discourse may have a plan, but with Orion watching everything, it becomes a task to hide something that big.

They need a distraction. Something big. An explosion would work, but fire material can only do so much. A shot strikes the side of the drill, forcing me to hide behind it.

The fading ring gives me an idea. They just need to believe that we never managed to bring the cart back. If we're lucky, it might just work.

We approach The High Gates, Bodies of guards scatter along the ground. The armored cart runs over one, crushing it under its weight. It brings a morbid satisfaction. Up ahead, the winds whip dirt against my body, it shrouds everything in brown. A thought strikes me, one that feels ridiculous enough to be true.

Whisper drives past the gates, Workers rush past the other direction, joining the fray behind me. I force down the fear and slow the cart to a stop, sitting it in the middle. I step off, running to the side of the drill.

Guards slowly force the Workers back, but the show no sign of running. Each fallen body rouses another's insanity, but black uniforms are growing in number, and they bring more expertise in killing.

I push the switch, watching the drill whir to life. It's faster with the engine still warm. But I need it hotter.

“Fire material, I need one.” I call out, spitting out the mouthful of dirt assaulting my throat. No one answers, so I look around the dead bodies for one. I turn over lifeless corpses. Too many. This is a sight unthinkable inside the Wings. In the Sections, there is reprimand. Out here, it's slaughter.

I throw myself on the floor when I spot a momentary flash and a large silhouette. They're getting closer. “I could use a rod!”

“Here!” Someone answers. I turn in the direction of the voice, seeing a Worker pull out a rod of fire material from a sack. He draws back to throw it, but a shot roars out. In an instant, he drops dead.

It's never easy, is it? I get back up on the floor, running over to the body. I ignore the rage of weapon fire around me. I just need to get this to work.

A surge of pain staggers my run, forcing me to my knees. I clutch onto my side, feeling the warm, wet feeling of blood. It grazed my body, luckily, but damn does this hurt. Being kicked in the stomach was half as painful as this, but I guess that much is obvious.

I stand back up, throwing myself onto the corpse. Noise assaults my ears, different to the usual cacophony of metal. I shake my head. I'll think about that later.

With the sack of fire material, I run back to the drill. It's close. My eyes are adjusting to the plume of smoke, and I see the few Workers that remain standing. Up ahead, the guards outnumber us.

“Blow the armored cart,” I yell out, rushing back to the drill amidst the sharp weapon fire. “Block the gates.” My voice should hopefully reach the guards before they can see up to the gates. “Don't let them get it.”

“Stop the Defiants. Retrieve the weapon.” An obscure yell through metal. Orders from the guards. As poor as a lie it is, they buy it.

I breathe heavily as I reach the drill, the pain shortens my breath. Forcing it down, I slide the metal panel, exposing the engine, shutting it off. I pull a rod from the sack and break it into pieces, sliding it into the piston cylinders.

My back pushes against the panel and I press the switch. The blast throws me to the floor, a sharp stab of pain pulses from the wound on my side.

I turn myself onto my back, my vision swimming. The echoes of explosions and weapon fire seem distant, but at the same time, nearby. It takes a moment to snap from my stupor, standing up. In front of me, the drill spins violently, smoke leaking through gaps in the metal.

Both legs hurt from the knockback, but I force myself to walk, returning to the drill. I pull out the last rod of fire material. I hope it doesn't explode right in my face.

“Good thinking, Hyde.” A pained cheer. I look over. Bellow stands in front of me, looking over with a wide grin. Blood stains one side of his body, pieces of his arm missing. Yet, he remains standing, and so do other Workers. I can get them out.

I make it to the drill, hearing itself starting to tear apart from the abuse of the engine. Once more, I break a rod into pieces, holding it over the cylinders. I hesitate. Without the panel, this could kill me and everyone around it.

“Run back through the gates, the drill will blow any minute!” I shout, looking over my shoulder. They should've heard me, but they remain in place. A shot falls another, but they don't run. “What are you all doing?”

“This isn't the fight, Hyde,” Bellow yells back, returning fire. “We did our part, and we succeeded.”

I don't believe this madness. “What's the good in that if you die doing it?”

A shot hits the ground beside him, but he doesn't flinch. He approaches me, gripping the arm that holds the pieces of fire material. “It's not about today, brother!”

I grit my teeth. At this moment, I realize the sinking feeling in my stomach. The hesitation that kept me from blowing up the drill right here and now. It's a feeling I understand, and one I put into words.

“I'm not ready to die!”

Bellow stares down at me, watching the fear evident on my face. It's pathetic for me to say that, but am I that damned for wanting to preserve my own life? What is there to look forward to if it amounts to nothing? If we die here, then it doesn't matter.

A moment stretches with bated breath. But then, he grins. Bellow takes the fire material from my hand and throws me across the floor. With his strength, I land a few meters from the drill, landing on the wound. I groan in pain, trying to stand up.

“What are you doing, Bellow?”

There's nothing on his face but a grin. “Finishing my part of the plan.”

A guard fires, the shot piercing through the loud winds. It hits Bellow on his arm, dropping the weapon on the floor. He staggers back, but keeps upright, a firm grip held over the drill's engine.

“My soul for brighter steel!” He cries out. A firm voice returned with similar chants of the few Workers. I stare, baffled.

I watch him glare to the guards, laughing confidently. They aim for him, but his hand releases, the pieces falling into the piston cylinders. He's too close to the drill.

“Get back-” White fills my vision, words gone to the loud explosion. It blows me back, slamming against the edge of The High Gates. The last thing I saw before the world went white was a bright smile, accompanied by hopeful eyes.

The ringing assaults my ears, fading as my consciousness slips away.