Chapter 27:

The Center

Veils: Under the Panopticon

A monotony all around. Metal treads against the floor. In the distance, up close, and below our feet. The engine hisses to a silence, stopping shy from the trailing light overhead. In front of us lies the lighted structures. Silhouettes blink by windows, guards stepping out down onto catwalks.

Behind me, another cart slows. Workers step off, boots echoing out into the vast space of The Partition. I look down, watching the clock tick. It's almost time.

Someone gestures over. I nod, and they drive past. Treads crawl along the ground, rolling into the light. It gathers the eyes of watching guards. “Get in place.”

I watch the cart pull to a brief stop. The driver gets off, sliding the metal panel off. Smoke covers him, rising from the internal workings. Engines rumble quietly, driving within the shadows cast by high metal.

Guards approach the sole Worker. He steps away from the smoke, signaling for help, his voice loud. None dare to go closer when men in black uniform are near. All proceeding as planned.

“It's about to spill any minute,” Whisper points out, her attention focused on the clock. I take a deep breath, appreciating the quiet cacophony of metal. I'll never hear it again.

A warning roars out from a guard, his weapon drawn. The Worker sticks close to the cart, backed away to its cargo bed. I see a hard acceptance on his face. I know him. The first man I came into contact within Wing Five, the first group who I entrusted the clock to.

The cart I'm on drives past the commotion. One by one, more guards approach the smoking vehicle stranded in the middle. I look around, watching Workers flee in silence. Amidst the scatter, men in cloaks walk closer. I never thought they'd show up, but no one can ever be right.

I shoot a glance downward. Coincidentally, it's the very moment where black liquid spill over the brim of the cylinder.

An explosion echoes somewhere down The Partition. Moments after, a rattling in the far distance ahead. The clocks worked. Without a word, the Outer Wings are in unison. The quiet monotony of industry is replaced by the mismatch of echoing blasts and far yells.

Wires shake overhead. The guards stop, suddenly alarmed. One takes aim at the Worker, but the only thing flashing is his grin. In his hand, a spark trigger.

“For the Wings!”

A shot rings out, but it drowns in the sudden explosion. I cover my ears, muffling the deafening boom. It swallows six guards that were too close to the cart, and when the smoke clears the Worker is nowhere to be found. He stood at what is now a smoldering crater.

Voices rise to an angered yell. Cloaked men rush at the remaining guards on the open space, brandishing rods of fire material. The explosion leaves some reeling in shock, unable to retaliate before they collide. Individual explosions filling the air.

Then, the shooting starts. Up above, the guards stood on catwalks rain weapon fire on Workers below. An indiscriminate volley saw more uninvolved bystanders fall dead. I nudge at the driver to slow, then I face Whisper.

“Don't miss.”

She rolls her eyes, taking aim. The shadows and worn scratches conceal the glint of her weapon. “I've had plenty of practice.”

A piercing ring cries out, the shot recoils, but experience has taught her to ride the knockback than to resist it. Her smaller frame can't do much else.

I look back, watching a guard drop from the iron walkways. His lifeless corpse is rushed at by a cloaked man, who collects the weapon. Under the light, the barrel shines dangerously. Beneath his clock, a toothed grin glimmers, and he draws it on a surviving guard on the ground merely staggered by the fire material.

In the forefront and the distance, cries, blasts, and sharp piercing fire. The speakers crack to life up above, but it's drowned out. Disarray shows on the taut wires. It's working.

Whisper takes another shot. My ears ring momentarily, but I see another guard fall. Cloaked men descending on the corpse hungrily. Only a handful remain on the catwalk, some exchanging fire with Workers down below. Too distracted to notice us in the shadows.

“We're getting close,” the driver mutters over his shoulder.

“Drive us a little faster. They can't distract the guards forever.”

I shake my head, setting a hand on Whisper's shoulder. “They will have to.”

At this distance, taking more shots will expose us. A few meters until we reach the arch below. Until then, we can't do anything but watch.

Whisper stands up, shouldering her weapon. She swats my hand away, preparing to jump off the cart. “I can't just do that now.”

She gives a quick look, then kicks off, running along the shadows before setting her eyes on guards rushing down the catwalks.

I feel the cart slow to a stop. The driver turns to me with an anticipating look. I sigh, looking away. “Keep going.”

He says nothing and after a second, the engine growls louder, driving faster. The treads clanging against the ground is masked by the ensuing firefight. I sit on the cargo bed, watching Whisper remain composed even as a shot buries deep in the concrete beside her. Flash escapes the barrel of her weapon, then another guard falls.

In the distance, the blink of explosions flash through the dark. The sounds of conflict drown Orion's voice, white noise only adding to the new cacophony of death. A sharp, frightening orchestra, but sickeningly freeing.

With luck added onto the distraction, we stop under the lighted structure, successfully weaving past the spotlights. The unavoidable ones were no issue thanks to Whisper shooting out the bright bulbs.

I step off, gathering a sack of fire material. These are for the major boilers of First Section. They're as big as my arm. The driver silences the engine, dismounting the cart. I give a look and move onward.

“How good are you with a weapon?” He asks, staying under the cover of shadows. I do the same, rounding the corner to the base of the catwalks. “It might be handy to pick one up if we ever come across a dead guard.”

I laugh, stealing a glance. “No need,” I answer, looking back out at The Partition. Smoldering carts and dead bodies. A scene similar to a year before. A few steps from me, a guard drops, lifeless. A surreal scene, almost ironic.

“But if you feel the need. That one's all yours.”

He doesn't waste a second, searching the body for his dropped weapon. It's underneath, smeared in the pooling blood. He has a name, I just can't quite remember.

“Okay, driver-

“Sheen,” he interjects. I knew I would remember, eventually.

I nod, slinging the sack over my shoulder. I take out a spark trigger, extending the metal line to coil around the fire material. “Okay, Sheen. They'll be busy at this side, so we'll take the other stairs up.” I gesture past the arch, where the layout of catwalks mimics the other. He nods, following behind as I rig the rod.

“Wait for me at the base, and make sure I don't die,” This job was supposed to be for Whisper, but she's busy with her own responsibilities at this moment. “You wrote your parting letter before we left, right?”

“Parting letter?” He repeats with a laugh, “You think I'm going to die here?”

A confident reply. I bark out a laugh, facing back ahead. “I admire the confidence. Now, make sure I can feel the same.”

“Leave it to me!”

I step into the light, heading up the stairs. Behind me, a shot rings out, dimming my vision. Looking down, Sheen takes aim, shooting at another light. This smart thinking is why the Workers recommended him as my driver.

Each landing, I watch the rest of the way up. The metal shakes, a guard rushing out to inspect the weapon fire. They yell out orders, but there is no immediate answer. The Third Section Defiants must be doing their job in distracting them on that side.

“Checking this side of I-three-four.” I hear a set of footsteps descend. His words only confirm my suspicions of The Panopticon's layout.

There are only three ways leading into the Inner Wings. Between Wings Two and Three, Four and Five, and Six and One. Everything else has been a decoy built to throw us off. To make us believe they can be anywhere.

Much like everything in these walls, there is always a veil.

I grip the trigger in one hand, holding the rod with the other, aimed at the landing above me. Heavy boots descend, clanging loudly as he approaches. As he comes into view, a shot flies near him, turning his attention down below and away from me.

Before he notices of my existence, I throw the rod at him, watching the line loosen as I hold onto the railing. When the line pulls taut, I press the trigger.

The explosion nearly sends me flying off the catwalks, but the railing keeps me on. It digs into my side, but that's better in comparison to slamming on the concrete. My vision clears, seeing no signs of the guard on the upper landing. I take careful steps, wary of the broken metal, charred from the explosion.

I look down, the smoke clearing. In my hands is the trigger, the wire leading to nowhere. On the ground is a smoldering body, lifeless. Well, these rods have more kick than I thought.

“Still alive up there?” Sheen calls from down below, stepping into view. I nod, waving a hand before stepping back up the zigzag of walkways. On the other side, the amount of weapon fire is lessening.

It's purposeful. The Defiance here need to be the least out of the other two bridges. They'll be forced to focus their numbers there, allowing this area to hold the least amount of resistance.

However, fewer Workers mean fewer bullets. I need to hurry and find the center.

I pull another rod out from the sack, rolling the line onto it. I lift my feet, quieting my ascent. As I move higher, the more flashes of light can be seen in the distance. For each one, a Worker might be dead.

This time, they'll be paying for each man with blood.

I make it up to the top. Below me are footsteps, likely belonging to Sheen. An opened door leading inside. I slip in, keeping it open for escape.

Inside is not what I expected. A long, bright hallway. To my left is an end just a few meters away. However, to my right, the hallway stretches farther than what I can see. I notice corners down the way, but the bright light and spotless walls prove surveying at a distance to be difficult.

In front of me is a door. Behind it, the frantic sounds of guards. I reach in the sack, taking out another rod. With this, I'd only have two left, but I'm stressed for time. I wedge it between the door handles. Friction against the metal should provide a spark and set it off if they try coming through. From the sounds beyond the wall, they seem to be preoccupied with the Workers down below.

I look back down the hall, then outside the door, seeing Sheen climb up the half-broken steps. “How many are in there?”

Motioning him to be quiet, I shrug, walking back inside. “No clue, but they're not the priority.”

“Then, do what you need to do.” He counters, tossing a weapon over. I barely catch it, the weight dragging me down. I shoulder it, slipping the spark trigger and rod back inside the sack.

“If I'm right, we only need to walk straight ahead.”

With a nod, we walk down the long hall. It's devoid of any concealment, so we hug close to the wall, looking past corners before moving past. Only small diverging paths and shut rooms, but no major path other than this blinding path.

That is, until we reach an intersection. Four ways of equal width. Yells echo down the walls, white noise in the distance.

“Where does it all go, you wonder?” Sheen mutters aloud, stepping out into the middle, watching the purity of the floors and walls. If I haven't seen this before when we drilled into the Inner Wing, I'd share the same reaction now.

Through that door, this feels like another world. Free from rust, soot, dirt, murk, and blood. An offending sterility to the reality of the Outer Wings.

I look up, noticing a thick metal strip along the walls. A gate to separate this hallway? I walk over, tapping the steel.

“You there,” A shout brings my attention away. Further into the hall, a guard stands, slinging a weapon off his side. Shock takes us both, and we end up scrambling to aim our own weapons.

In a confined space, the shot deafens for longer. Everyone freezes, including the guard. I look down, patting my chest with a free hand. Did he hit Sheen instead? I look over to him, but he's still standing. Finally, my eyes land on the guard, who staggers before falling lifeless on the ground.

Sheen faces around, then a smile breaks out across his face. “In the nick of time!”

No, he's looking at what's behind me. I turn around. Whisper leans against the wall, lowering her weapon. Smoke seeps from her barrel.

I rush over when she staggers, helping her stand. The ringing slowly fades off, but she was closest to the blast. “Can you hear me?”

She looks up, her eyes bloodshot. I try easing her down on the ground, but she resists, pushing me off. “I'm fine.”

“You don't look fine.”

She laughs loudly, using the wall to prop herself up. “You should see yourself, Hyde.”

I look down, only now noticing the singed portions of my clothes. I run a hand across my hair, watching ash fall. “The guards are still kept busy outside, but more might come.”

As soon as she finishes, thundering footsteps echo down the branching halls. No doubt belonging to guards. We have only one direction left to go: Forward.

“Keep up, Whisper.”

She rolls her eyes, pushing off the wall, picking up her weapon. I nod at Sheen to lead the way, following behind her. The hall up ahead is bare. They'll see us even if we run now.

“Run.” I yell, reaching in the sack slung over my back. I set the rod down, trailing the wire behind me as I catch up with both of them, listening to the growing noise of guards.

“Defiants have breached I-three-four.”

He knows. Well, if he can listen, I'll just take that away from him.

I create more distance before seeing the glimpse of black uniforms. When I do, my hands push the trigger, watching the spark trail along the metal.

Far enough where I don't die, but not far enough to be safe. The explosion knocks me to the ground, head stared up to blinking lights on the ceiling. Smoke darkens my vision and my head swims as I gather my bearings. A scream is distant, the steel below my feet shaking.

I find the wall, leaning against it for support. My weapon is somewhere, but the smoke obscures my eyes.

“You're insane,” a voice echoes amid the sharp ringing. I feel the numb sensation of a hand on my shoulder. In the smoke, I see a glare, one I begin to recognize.

Whisper pulls me from the wall, dragging me to my feet. We exit the smoke and my vision clears. The deafening ring starts to fade, and I hear our footsteps against the metal. I look to her, managing a grimace.

“I shouldn't use explosions anymore, huh?”

She scoffs, pushing me off. I catch myself, staggering to my feet. “Not if you plan to get us killed.”

“It was fun to see them all blow, though,” Sheen chimes in, tossing me my weapon. Blackened with ash, but functional. “But no, nothing to get us killed.”

I try to laugh, coughing instead. “Noted. Now, let's keep going. They know we walked through the bridge.”

We break off into a run, using the cover of smoke to mask our escape. We're lucky, as the guards head out into The Partition. With their numbers they could've split their group. They must be desperate to quell the Defiants.

“Do you think he's at the end of this hallway?” Whisper turns toward me, her weapon at the ready against her chest. I nod in confidence.

“It makes sense for him to be here. He has to be here.”

Sheen calls out behind us, “This is all based on a hunch?”

I don't answer, keeping my eyes down the hall. An empty path devoid of doors, breakaways, and corners. No windows or details on the wall. However, as we continue, the floor changes.

“What the-”

We stop, surprised at the sudden change of the hallway. A clear division of the sterile surface. An iron border separates it. Beyond it are walls, lined with wires, turning out at holes along every surface. Lights are fewer, the rest of the hall dim.

An unsettling feeling forms in my stomach. Whisper turns to me, disbelief on her face. I only nod back. “We're close.”

The wires running along the floor slow our movements, but we continue with caution. The noises grow quieter. Not from distance, but from the thickness of the walls. I feel the air grow colder, a strange hum originating from somewhere I can't discern.

“What exactly are we looking for?” Sheen asks, his weapon constantly aimed high. I haven't told many of my intentions in detail. If they knew, I feel that support would be less. I only told them what they wanted to support. A full retaliation against the guards. For what reason? That, I kept a secret.

I guess I fully understand how Whisper was back when I met her. It's ironic to think how some things come back to you in these types of ways. I'd rather things be more straightforward, but nothing is ever simple.

“Hyde, look,” Whisper breaks the silence. I look up, seeing the end of the hall. A black surface, but it reflects the dim light. Dark metal.

We walk over, careful not to touch the wires. Up close, they're different to what I imagined from below. They vary in size. Some thick, others thin in diameter. Black material that reflects light. I can only assume to be a form of metal similar to the wall.

What catches my attention is the wires themselves. They're coiled, like thin metal bundled together and wound over itself. I think to touch it, but some lines move, scraping against the floor. It produces an awful shriek, echoing against the confined space.

“What is all of this?” Sheen yells above the noise. I motion for him to keep silent, waiting for the wires to still. Every second is torture. The scraping metal burning itself into my ears.

Thankfully, they stop, the room falling into silence. I shake my head, gathering composure before walking up to the wall. Upon closer inspection, there's a slit on the surface. A door of sorts. I look around but find no switch, or control.

Whisper looks at me and I gesture to the space lined in the middle. I have one more rod of fire material, but I feel that to be the wrong call.

She steps over, pushing me aside. Her hands trail along the metal, finding the gaps. A difficult expression for a moment, then she unslings her weapon. “Stand back.”

“Wait, Whisper-” Before I could stop her, she aims the barrel in the vertical gap, firing. The shot rings out, deafening, but it lingers less this time. Maybe I'm adjusting to it. That, or I'm going deaf. Whisper moves the weapon away, inspecting the point of impact.

The bullet widened the gap, but it is small and concentrated. She doesn't wait before trying it again, filling the room with an interval of weapon fire. Sheen covers his ears and I step back, facing away back down the hall. The firefight is distant, almost inaudible. Between the shots, there is nothing. How far have we walked? Where even is this? I reach in my pocket, pulling out a copy of the plan.

If I'm right, then we should be near the center. Barriers before entering further, maybe? I look around, but I see nothing that could monitor entry. Just from the ground, this isn't a place frequently passed through by anybody. With that possibility debunked, that leaves me with one other option.

This is the center of everything. I trail my eyes along the wall, noticing the wires go through the black metal wall. All of the wires above the Outer Wings lead here. Through this door is where they keep their Watcher.

“Help me out,” Whisper grits out, jamming the weapon in the widened space in the thin gap. Sheen nods, heading over to help. They pull one way, prying the door open. I move over to do the same, careful not to trip on the bulging metal snaking along the ground.

It doesn't happen immediately, even pushing the weapon's barrel as far as it's able, but the slab moves. It's heavy and the weapon bends, rendering it unusable. It is a small sacrifice for getting the door open. We pry it enough to grip the edges, Sheen and I pulling it when we're able.

An exhausting endeavor, but we open it all the way. The door is four feet thick, same as the wall. I hand Whisper my weapon before walking inside. She's a better shot with it than I am.

The room is dark, the air suddenly cold. Our steps echo, telling me of the widened space. The hall behind us is our only source of light, beyond that is nothing.

“Stop. We don't know what's in here. We need a light-”

A sudden screech of metal drowns my words, sending me down holding my ears. An unbearable grinding of metal overhead. It's for a moment, but enough for my head to swim. I need to find a light source. Maybe using the lights from the hall would work-


A delicate voice calls out from the dark. It's everywhere. In front, behind, and to my sides. I find Whisper in the dark, but she shares the same bewilderment. It couldn't have been Sheen.

Overhead, metal starts to shift. Light flickers. blinding me before it shines in full. A sequence of lights flickering to life. I realize the high walls are circular, reaching up to where the light can't reach. I see wires, catwalks, and colored lights fade in and out of corners.

The wires hang from a pillar in the center. Light shines, revealing an amalgamation of gears, metal, and wires. My eyes trail down to the base. There, something moves, but its restrained, as if bound to the pillar. The slightest motion pulls at wires coiled around the structure.

It hunches forward, gasping, breathing in through clenched teeth. Above, a wire sings sharply, and a choked voice emanates from the darkness. Whisper walks forward, her weapon firm in her grasp. I look behind me. Sheen watches the door in case of guard patrols.

White noise cracks to life, reverberating around the room. A sharp tone, different to the drowned muffled of speakers. In here, every rise and fall is accentuated. The static fades, the voice following.

“Defiants outside Wing Three. I-two three requires response. Twenty, at once.”

The announcement brings a stop to Whisper and I. It sounds so clear, so close. His voice is a choked gasp, but without the white noise, the pain is no longer veiled.

“I found a switch,” Sheen calls out in the near darkness, trailing his hand along the wall. He flips it, the echoing crack follows with a slow hum of life around the room. The walls glow with a strip of light, illuminating the dark reaches shadowed by machinery. It's wider than I thought, and much taller than anticipated.

But our attention focuses on the lights on the floor at the pillar. At its base is a seat. I can only describe it as a seat fashioned out of metal, wires, and cogs joined to the amalgamation. Whisper gasps, but the shock takes my voice.

In front of us, his head cranes up. A sedated pace slowed by grinding metal. His arms rest on the seat, the wires snake into his skin. Every finger is laced with black steel. His legs are bound by the same metal, digging into his body underneath loose clothes.

When his head stops, an eye focuses its view. The other- No, the other side of his head is replaced with metal. A messy conjuncture of skin and steel. A dry voice passes through pale lips. His hand reaches up, pulling the wires taut. The room swims in the grinding and he sets it down, plunging everything into a deafening silence.

I find feeling in my fingers. They're cold, and so is my voice. A disbelieving tone. This is wrong. What I'm seeing is a lie. An illusion caused by the constant ringing in my head. That these mess of wires are just that, dead and still.

But a million blinks won't bring the clarity I desperately need. In front of me is reality. Whisper is first to move, shouldering her weapon and approaching the center with caution. The words fall out of my mouth.

“Orion?” The sound of that name spurs on a pained groan. He doesn't try to lift anything again, but his lips move, forcing words out in the air.

I can't hear it, or maybe I didn't want to hear it. Whatever the case may be, Whisper rushes over, her voice louder. No matter how much I wish this to be a nightmare, I force my legs to move. Towards the center of The Panopticon.

Towards the Watcher: Orion. Another call of his name brings movement, and the wires dig deeper into his skin.