Chapter 25:

The Bigger Picture

Veils: Under the Panopticon

Muffled gurgles are far away. I first feel the slow heaving of my chest, feeling frigid air. My mind swims. A familiar sensation. Weight drags along my body, keeping me from mustering strength. I feel nothing below me. There is nothing but a soft cold different to the harsh touch of metal. It's welcoming, comforting.

I blink my eyes open, watching the sight of black switch to a fog of dark blue. Dim balls of white lie still in the corners. I remember seeing these before.

Something falls. I hear it sink. It's enveloped, trudging slowly through the murmuring weight. The edges of my vision are black, save for the blurry movements my head is trying to comprehend. It only dulls my sense if I do. My mind is light, my eyes heavy.

I hear a voice. It sounds far, but the gurgling approaches my side. I make out nothing, but overhead I see the ghost of a face, their mouth moving but the words are lost.

What do I remember last? A bright light, the cold metal, and the searing pain. Now, I feel nothing, but I can tell my body is here. It's as if I'm paralyzed, robbed of any movement but my thoughts. Where am I, and who is this standing over me?

My eyelids grow heavier, forcing my vision to blacken. I feel something wrap around my middle, a dull pain pulsing through my body. It reminds me that I can still feel. Both arms and legs are still present, but they refuse to move.

A dragging motion, but I don't feel myself moving anywhere. A gentle slosh drums at my ears, a numbing scent pervading my senses. Quiet murmurs are distant, but they grow closer.

Pain builds up in my chest. I realize the feeling a second later.

I'm not breathing.

The next moment, a constriction around the middle of my body, sharp pain stabbing through. I feel it pull, dragging me out from something.

Another hard pull and the muffling trance dispel as I break the surface of the muck. I take a deep breath, my chest free from the weight. My vision is partially obscured due to spots of sludge. I move my hands, ripping them from the hold of the viscous mire.

I fall back, hitting a metal slope with a dull clang. A reverberating sound fills my ears, sharp and clear. I open my mouth, taking in another gulp of air.

Cold, stagnant air. Dark, viscous sludge. With what little I can see, the area is open. Free from metal walls and the noise of Workers. An atmosphere I swore never to be in again. Wing Six.

I push up against the solid surface, pulling my lower half out from the mire. One foot, and then the other. It takes effort. My whole body feels light, as if it isn't mine.

“Awake,” a voice, once muted, is clear behind me. I turn around, looking up to a man lathered in the dark sludge. A Wet Worker. I've never seen one this close. Unfazed eyes and an even expression. A disposition of acceptance and ease.

“What is going on?” I ask, my voice cracking from the lack of use. I clear my throat, but it's dry.

He says nothing but steps back, dropping a rope on the floor. I trail down the length, noticing it wrapped around my middle. So, that's what that feeling was. I lift it off, moving myself farther from the muck.

I try to speak, but the dryness chokes my words. Another Wet Worker walks up, dropping a container. I pick it up after it lands with a dull clang. “Drink.”

The cap is already removed as he speaks. I take a long swig, sighing in relief at the brisk sensation of liquid pouring down my throat. As far as I can taste, it's normal water. Anything stickier, then I would spit it out. They watch me in silence as I drink, unmoving as I finish half the container.

I move it away, clearing my throat. A satisfying wet feeling. It felt like I haven't drunk water in years. With how this place is, that might be the case.

“How long have I been here?”

He returns the question with silence. I take this time to stand myself up, the cold water serving as a shock to wake my body up.

I watch them as I balance on the sloped surface. My boots are slick with muck, making me focus on each movement. One of them turns away, but glances over his shoulder at me.

“She's waiting. Follow,” he says, then walks, his pace sedated. The other Wet Worker follows him, and without other direction, I do the same. I have a sinking feeling I know this 'she' they're referring to. I'll get my answers there.

We walk on a strip of metal just surfacing above the vast murk. I peer over them, seeing stilts in the distance. Around me is a near silence. The echoes of hammers and the faint hum of engines are the only exception. I look around, seeing silhouettes glide along the dark sludge. There are figures within it, as well, trudging slowly.

I keep following, hesitantly walking through patches of shallow muck when the metal path sinks below. Is it shallow around this area? A thought to try stepping in crosses my mind but vanishes from the fear of sinking into the viscous murk. Without the rope, I'd imagine these two Workers would see difficultly in fishing me out a second time.

That brings me to wonder. “Why was I in the murk, anyway?” I ask to either of them. I receive no reply, only the soft sloshing of their boots against the metal. It looks like I'll be getting my answers exclusively from her, after all.

Gradually, the stilted buildings grow closer, the path ramping up to the main platforms. I take cautious steps, my boots still slick on the surface. Ahead of me, they walk slow, but without issue. I guess they would, given time to adjust. Still, they show no effort in the motion, yet do it perfectly.

The entire walk is silent. Every question is met with such, so I save my breath until we arrive. Walking through silent roads, tight corners, and narrow alleys. An eerie, but tranquil silence.

I don't know how long we've walked for, but they eventually stop. Stepping aside the doorway, one opens the door. Sludge coats the door handle. “Inside.”

I spare a quick look before entering, deciding not to ask further. I would've liked to ask about their tendency to answer with one word, but I have other pressing questions. The door leads down a short hall, opening to a lit-up room. I follow it, steam thawing the frigid numbness of the murk.

A strong scent of wax hits my nose. I step inside, laying eyes on the sole figure sitting across the table. She looks up, away from a roll of paper. “You're finally awake.”

“Linen,” her name sits uncomfortably on my tongue. I watch her closely, walking in the room. “How long have I been out?”

Tentative lips move, deciding on what to say. I glare, hopefully to convey the fact that I'm not in the mood for anything but the truth.

“They brought you here eleven days ago,” she answers, her tone flat.

“Who did?”

She nods to the direction behind me. The recent memory of both Wet Workers flash in my mind. “Workers who I sent to assist with Discourse's cause.”

I stare, everything flooding back like a shock through the body. The plan to drill through the Inner Wings, retrieving the armored cart, blowing up the drill and all the Workers that died doing it.

My mouth goes dry, voice hesitant. “How many died out there?” A question I find myself asking. A question I'm dreading the answer to.

Linen shoots a curious look, then shakes her head. “They weren't sure. The explosion in front of the gates complicated everything. The guards were forced to check if it was still passable.”

I remember the explosion and the last thing I saw before it happened. I walk to the table, resting my arms against the edge. “You brought me here. Did anyone else make it?”

Another shake of the head. “You and a handful, but they all drowned from their wounds. Even the murk can't mend wounds from weapon fire.”

“What?” I look down at myself, the sludge beginning to drip off from the heat in the room. I remember the wound on my side, feeling it with a hand. It's still there, but a dull ache compared to the near-incapacitating gash.

“What did you do to me?”

I return my gaze up, finding her attention returned to the paper on the table. “I had the Workers submerge you in the murk. You arrived here with a lick of your side missing. No missing organs, thankfully.”

“You never said that sea of sludge could do this,” I remark, gesturing to my body. She rolls her shoulder, suppressing a smile.

“We're already half artificial. It was a welcoming surprise when people of this Wing discovered different uses for the murk. It has its risks, however.”

I raise a brow. “Risks?” She nods curtly.

“You could've died.” The silence allows me to take that in. They threw me in the muck and hoped it would help me. What if it didn't? No, more importantly, why did they do it? These questions can come later. For now, I need to know what happened to everyone.

“Bellow,” I pause, remembering he was the last thing I saw before everything faded to white. I take a quiet breath, continuing. “Did the Wet Workers bring him here? Is he still alive?”

She shrugs, looking up from the table to meet my eyes. “They brought all they could. I wasn't there when it happened.”

The nonchalant response provokes a laugh out of me. “Of course you weren't there. I guess I wasn't the only one who had doubts on Discourse's plan.”

“What difference would it have made if I went?” Linen's gaze narrows. A slight difference, but enough to tell me it got through to her.

“The decency to die with your Workers instead of just sitting here with your fingers crossed,” I answer venomously, a snap that follows up with a tense silence. Her eyes widen in surprise, gawking at me across the table. However, it doesn't look to be from surprise. Far from it, and it irritates me.

“That was just a step toward a hundred more, Hyde. It would be a waste if there would be no one to take the next step.” A calm answer. I grit my teeth, subjugating the anger inside.

“So, what about everyone who died, then?” I ask. She keeps her soft stare, her eyes trailing up and down my body. A sigh leaves her lips and she stands up, walking around the table.

“Walk with me,” she says, stepping past me down the hall I entered from. It doesn't matter where she brings me, I still have the questions fresh in my mind to ask. I follow, waiting for her to speak whatever excuse she has prepared.

We step outside. I follow her lead through narrow paths leading to the edge of the stilted platform. It overlooks the vast murk, spots of silhouettes dance along the horizon of the dark, rolling sludge. I stand behind, her feet planted at the metal's edge.

“Do you hear that sound?” She tilts her head up, asking softly. I look around, listening. There's nothing discernible to pay attention toward, so I shoot a suspicious glare her way. She meets it, releasing a sigh. “Not right away, in that case. You're used to hearing it. It's even a measure of time.”

“What noise am I supposed to be hearing?” I ask abruptly, stopping her. I don't have time for more riddles. Breathing in this air is enough of a worry.

She points up. There's nothing up there but a ceiling too high to see. “The far hammering. Do you hear it?”

Ah, that. When she mentions it, my ears pay attention to the constant hammers of industry. A constant heartbeat no matter where I am. When it quiets, it tells all Workers that the hours are over. When they begin, the day has begun. No one is sure where they come from, but it has served as the symbol for Workers to keep working. A feeling of solidarity within these high metal walls.

I look back down, Linen already looking my way. Her eyes travel around my face, as if reading my thoughts like an open book. A speculation not too far off. That, or the week of incapacitation has rendered me transparent.

“It unites everyone across the Outer Wings. A silent, but constant reminder that everyone is one and the same. All Workers, but do you know where it comes from?” She quirks a brow, her eyes telling me that she knows the answer. As much as I want to give a guess, that's all it would be.

“No.” I answer plainly, returning the quizzical look with a glare. She stifles a laugh, looking out to the vast expanse.

“In Wing Six, the sounds are clearest,” she beckons me over with a hand. Despite the precarious spot on the edge, I walk over, standing beside her. “Close your eyes. Listen closely.”

I follow her eyes out to the murk and do as she says. Without the distraction of sight, I pay closer attention to my hearing. It's faint, but the constant hammering is present. An industrious beat that perpetuates the cacophony.

“It's just hammering,” I answer, opening my eyes.

She looks over, shaking her head. “Those are explosions.”

I take a moment, processing what she said. “Explosions?”

“Hammers against metal ring sharply. This one, it's numb, deep, and heavy.” She explains, looking up. I close my eyes, listening to it a second time.

I expel a long breath, drinking in every detail of the noise. It's the first time I've ever truly listened to it, and she's right. The noise reminds me of a thump rather than a precise strike with a hammer. It shakes, fading before the cycle continues.

“Explosions?” I repeat, looking back at her. “Are the guards testing out explosions somewhere in the Wings?”

Linen laughs, sending an annoying grumble up my throat. She waves a hand, dismissing my theory. From her disposition, she already knows.

“Explosions from inside Wing Two,” she takes a pause, looking back with a knowing smile. “The Lost Wing.”

I remember the words of Wain and that hostess. A tragedy of Defiants that ended with the slaughter of an entire Wing. A reminder for the other Wings not to defy. But, how can that be true if the explosions are occurring from inside?

“I heard they all died,” I muse, letting her know how much I know. She nods, humming in understanding.

“That's what the Journalist then told the Outer Wings. In truth, much more happened.” Linen starts walking along the edge, a foot gliding in front as she strolls precariously. I follow behind, a step away on solid ground.

“Then, what did happen?”

She takes a deep breath, the same noise when one prepares to tell a story. Her steps halt, and she looks back out to the mire. “If you've heard the story, then you know that it is a Wing dedicated to the manufacturing of weaponry.”

A pause. I hum a nod, prompting her to continue.

“That much is true. Reprimand from guards were frequent, deaths piled high at the slightest suspicion. It was the last time they trusted Workers with weapons, and the last time they would underestimate Defiants.”

“So, they did defy. I assume using the weapons against the guards?” She nods, collecting her breath during the moment.

“A cause that took years. Careful planning amidst abuse, death, and loss. They kept it secret, even though the slightest failure saw the loss of fellow Workers.”

I peer over, watching her expression. It's one I can't quite read. Still, I'm confused. With the disposal of an entire Wing, couldn't they start an uprising faster? More lives would've been saved in that way.

Amidst my thinking, Linen turns her gaze at me, reading the expression on my face. All my thoughts hang open, and she reads it all, if that nod of understanding means anything.

“The days of senseless murder and loss were tragic, but they were not the main fight.” There it is again. What is the main fight? Ever since I've thrown myself into this hole, I've been told nothing but a cause that takes years to set in place.

I suck in a breath, interrupting her. “What good is tomorrow if you die today? What's the point of preparing if half of you die before the execution?” Frustration bleeds into my voice. A confused, angry tone. Maybe that's why I'm angry, because I don't understand. What is to understand in the mindless death?

Linen says nothing, watching me until I fall silent. Then, she answers, her voice composed. “All who die trust those who live to carry the cause. Tomorrow isn't the objective, but their vision coming to life.”

I stare, confused further. She looks away, staring back out at nothing. “The plan was to send the guards out in one strike. Every murder saw that their cause would become reality. Those alive would mourn, but they continue. To the next plan, and then the next.”

“Why?” I ask involuntarily, unable to catch the spontaneous question rising amidst my confusion. “Aren't they afraid to die? Isn't survival in this hell most important?” I just need an answer. Something I can understand that aren't moral riddles.

She sighs. Not exasperation, but in twisted pity. “Individually, life in these metal walls are insignificant, Hyde. One Worker, or a handful of Defiants will do nothing to change life down here.”

A short intake of breath. I wait in silence.

“Real difference happens in the future. Sacrifice is permanent, but the efforts of those who do are never forgotten,” she hums out, looking down at her hands. They're clean, free of the stain of murk.

“When Wing Two finally defied, it was a united, heated assault. The guards, for the first time, were fearful of the Workers.”

Linen looks back out, her tone lowering to a slow somber. “Because of that, they closed The High Gates of the Wing. Never would that kind of defiance be seen in the other Wings. But they never stopped fighting.”

I look at her, raising a brow. “What do you mean?”

“Can't you hear? They're trapped, but they try to force the gates open in hopes that, one day, they will finish what they started.” She blinks up at the ceiling, listening to the hammers of industry. Those aren't what they are, but it's what I've called them for so long.

“Prolonged plans, excessive death, and sacrifice. All for what?”

She looks down at my question, her gaze meeting mine. A soft tone answers my question. “All for the bigger picture, Hyde.”

I stop, realizing why that answer has brought my mind to a halt. It feels like forever since we spoke. Back then, he'd give the same answer to my questions about his library. I believed in something different, then. If I could make it to tomorrow, then that would be a victory. I never stopped to consider life his way, or any other way. A future he strived toward that I never saw.

Did he see that I'd one day understand? Is that why he turned himself in that day?

“Do you get it now?”

Linen's voice brings me out from my thoughts. The realization weighs heavy, but with it brings clarity. Bellow's cheers, Whisper's blind trust, and the willingness to stick through Discourse's plans. This was it? Their dream of brighter steel?

I gape at her, nodding in ashamed silence. A soft smile plays across her face. “Now you know what Discourse and his Voices are striving toward. It never aligned with your intentions, because you never thought to think that far.”

Her blunt words stab at my chest. I did everything so I could one day break Orion out, but right now, I'm everything but selfless. This selfishness defined when I let Bellow die instead of me.

I swallow, finding my voice. It feels wrong for me to speak, after everything. Yet, I do.

“What should I do, then?”

She looks off, scanning the dark horizon. “That's up to you,” a sharp turn from the edge, facing back at the Section. “Travel through The Partition is dangerous right now. Guards are alert, and anyone entering Wing Four will be taken away at the slightest suspicion.”

There goes the idea to get back to Whisper and the others as quick as possible. I bring a hand to my chin, mulling over my options. “Discourse still has the armored cart?”

Linen shrugs her shoulders, stealing a quick glance my way. “I heard that they're still searching. So, take that as you will.”

“If they are, then it's still with them.”

She starts walking. I follow close behind, my steps more purposeful. “What are your plans, Linen?”

“Despite the claustrophobic walls, The Panopticon is a vast place, Hyde.”

“What's your point?”

Her feet suddenly stop. She turns around to look up at me. A curious look. “Your cause is different, Hyde. What do you strive for?”

The sudden question puts me on the spot, but the hesitation lasts for a moment. I now know why everyone defies, but my purpose is still clear.

“To free Orion, The Watcher.”

A smile breaks out on her face. She steps aside, clearing the path. “Now tell me, how do you plan on doing that?”

I don't know. Until now, I never had to think about that. It was all just riding at the back of Discourse's plans until he can lend support. On my own, there's not much I can work with.

That's exactly it.

“A vast place,” I muse, brows knit together in thought. I look to her, meeting her interested eyes. “How many people do you know across the Outer Wings?”

She takes a moment, her eyes darting around. “There's always more to support your cause.”

“Then, I can start from there,” I declare firmly, walking back to her building. Linen follows behind when the paths narrow, speaking louder over my shoulder.

“Allow me to assist you, in that case.”

I bark out a laugh, looking back at her. “Why? Out of pity?”

She shakes her head, smiling back. Our voices echo into the open air, the distant explosions against metal beat perpetually.

“Your cause shows purpose, Hyde.”