Veils: Under the Panopticon
“What did they do to you?”
I stand in front of Orion, hands set on my sides. Whisper hovers her hands, unsure where to touch. One arm is obscured, many parts of him fused in the fascicle of wires.
No verbal response, but lips part mutely. I turn to Whisper, watching her face contort to a dark expression. She moves a hand on his shoulder. I hear the dull ring of steel. Under the loose shirt is more replacements. How much of him is left, in that case?
“Can you walk?” Whisper asks quietly, drawing her hand down his arm. Mangled by everything that coils around the pillar, reaching to his fingers. He manages to look up at her, but no words leave. I move away, scanning the room.
“There has to be something,” I turn my head up, noticing a black cube propped by a long arm of metal. It sits right above his head. “A switch, controls, anything.”
Both watch me. Blank, anxious eyes. I reach to the small cube, pulling it down. As soon as my hands brush its surface, white noise begins to fill the room. A familiar cracking of static before an announcement. Whatever this is transmits his voice out to the rest of the Outer Wings.
I grip it with both hands and pull. The metal protests when it finds its reach. I pull harder, coiling an arm around the cube.
“What are you doing?” A question goes out, but I don't know who. A minute's focus dulls everything around me. Another pull, and A sharp snap echoes from above. The force knocks me to the ground, releasing the severed device. It clangs to the floor, the speakers shriek violently before falling silent.
“What good did that do?” Sheen walks into view, holding out a hand. I take it, hoisting me back on my feet. A dry cough gets my attention and I turn to see Whisper dig out a small flask from her coat, twisting the cap before moving its mouth over to Orion's.
He drinks its contents, gasping from the cold liquid touching a parched throat. It drips down his chin, glistening in the collection of light. Whisper moves the bottle away when he coughs violently. A clearer voice, but it is exhausted, dying.
I move past snaking wires back in front of him. When the coughing settles, he peers up. An eye looks to me, partially hidden by unkempt brown hair. He wets his lips, but the sudden movements crack them. Despite that, he forces himself to speak.
“You two have a death wish,” he grits out, gasping for breath. Short heaves, any longer and the machines pull tight against his skin. Whisper inspects the seat, watching for any way to sever him. Even as his head moves, wiring right of his face restrict his movements, pulling back to the pillar.
“So, this is how they're able to keep watch over everything?” I ask. It's an obvious question, one met with a pained scoff.
“Actually, I'm just wall decoration.” A biting remark brings a laugh out of me. Too weary to do the same, but his lips quirk to a grimace.
“So, it was you who's been causing trouble since that drill incident,” he remarks, flickering his view to the woman beside him. “I never imagined you would join him, Whisper.”
“No. It was her who dragged me into all of this.”
She glares up at me but says nothing. Whatever skin is left on Orion's face morphs to surprise. “You never really know people, huh?”
A surreal exchange among the three of us. As if everything is back to how it was.
Down the hall, an explosion echoes. Guards must have set off the fire material I used to bar the door. “We need to go. Now.”
Whisper nods, staring back at the amalgamation of steel and skin. “How do we get you out?”
Orion turns his head right to look at her. He tries lifting a hand, the slight shift of wires above stop him. “I don't know. They walked me somewhere and knocked me out. When I woke up, I was here. My hands,” he pauses, peering down at the coiled metal on each finger. Some have dug deep, the blood long since dried. An index is replaced, a section of other fingers gone.
“I'm part of everything. Every grind of metal, every sound, I hear it. When I'm still, it's muffled. But it becomes clear when I pull the wires.”
I look down, watching each miniscule movement cause the metal to string tighter against his body. Every breath bounds him closer to the pillar.
“Do you know how it works?” Whisper asks, meeting his eye.
“I don't know,” a sharp hiss of breath. Metal around his right hand contorts, bending the remaining skin. “I can only hear everything.”
“Why do you continue to help them?” The question comes out of the blue. I never stopped to wonder why he cooperates up to now, but the glare he gives me is like I just asked another obvious question.
“To protect everyone back home.” A simple response, the only set of words spoken firmly.
I nod, finding my breath. I walk back to the door, finding the broken weapon we used to pry it open. “Then, you can come back and hear their thanks.”
Down the hall, the ring of weapon fire travels. A firefight in the bridge? The Workers must've used the explosion as an opportunity to storm inside.
“Hyde, he's tied down to the pillar. Some parts of his body are fused with the wires,” Whisper says as I walk over, holding the weapon with both hands. She shoots a wary look but says nothing.
I came here to free Orion from them. I'll see that promise through, no matter what.
“This will hurt,” I warn, drawing my arm back, finding a gap between the seat and the black pillar. He barks out dry laughter, meeting my gaze.
“Grit your teeth,” is my only warning before shoving the barrel in the gap. It clashes against the metal, but I push it deeper. When the length is halfway, I begin prying the gap wider. Around it, the wires begin pulling taut in protest. What follows is Orion's muffled voice, biting the pain down.
After a minute, I pull the barrel out. Next, I wedge it between his back and the seat. I shoot a look, waiting for him to prepare himself.
His lips part, blood trickling freely down his chin. “Get it over with, Hyde.”
I tighten my hold and begin prying him away from the wires. Those coiled around his body pull taut, but he begins to separate. His screams climb the high walls, reverberating. I spare no reprieve and do the same for his arms. A tighter resistance, but his arm tears away from the metal. Blood paints everything, but I keep going.
Whisper's voice is drowned by the growing yells of pain. He's nearly out, but the weapon is bent at a sharp angle. I toss it to the side and use my arms, wrapping a firm grip on his legs before pulling. The metal is sharp, digging into my skin when I exert enough force to break one leg out. A choked scream follows with heavy gasps. I step back, flicking blood off my hands.
“At this rate, he's going to bleed out before we pull him out!” Whisper yells, stepping between Orion and me. From behind, the chaos is still distant, but they might try and send guards to investigate. Time is short, but I must agree that if I carelessly continue, he will die.
I look at the wires, now mangled across his body. Dark red matches the black steel, trailing down over the floor lights.
An idea strikes me, peering back at Whisper. “Use your weapon on the wires,” I call out, pushing past her. She stumbles her words in bewilderment as I remove my coat.
“Break the wires. That way, we can separate him without pulling.” I meet his eyes for an instant before draping his body with the thick leather. Luckily it will block any stray metal.
“We don't have time, and I have no other ideas.”
“Think of something better,” She snaps, her voice an exasperated yell. “It's too risky.”
I peer over my shoulder, glaring. “You have a better idea with what we have?”
My words stop her. Parted lips quake in uncertainty, frantic eyes darting between Orion and the weapon slung over her shoulder. Her hands tremor, but she grips the weapon. A nervous tone, but her words are resolute.
“Hold him still.”
I follow, gripping Orion's shoulder with one hand and his arm with the other, both through the coat. She steps to the side, aiming her weapon on exposed taut wire between the seat and his arm.
“Hyde, what's she doing?” A muffled voice through the leather. A thick silence strung by tension tighter than the binding metal. His voice is nervous, almost afraid, but I'm calm. Strangely? No, I know why I'm composed.
I look up at a focused glare, staring down the glinting barrel. “What I trust her to do.”
She squeezes the trigger, my ears ring loudly as I feel the shot bury against the metal seat. Both of us stagger, reeling from the loud bang. In front of me, something shuffles under the coat. I peel it off, finding Orion groan from the noise. His free hand flails, strands of wires hanging loosely below. It worked.
Orion looks at his freed arm, to me, and then to Whisper. His eye finds my glare, and a familiar scowl buries deep, yelling. “You told her to shoot me?”
“Look, we have no time-”
“I save you from getting shot and you repay it with telling her to shoot me?” His voice cracks amidst the yells. I stand up, opening my jaw to help dissipate the ringing.
Whisper gives a look and I nod, picking up the coat. “Just your other arm and the head, Orion.”
“Please, just shoot me in that case.” Well, at least the worst-case scenario would be preferred by one of us. I nod at her, placing my hands on both sides of his head, pulling forward until the wires stretched. She takes aim and pulls the trigger.
Another scream of weapon fire assaults my ears, the proximity makes it painful, sending me on my knees. I repeat the motions of opening and closing my jaw, but the ring persists longer. My head swims, Whisper stumbling back on thick wires laid across the ground.
I hear a scream, blurring into clarity as I collect my bearings. A pained, broken scream. On the seat, Orion holds the side of his head, involuntary movements causing wires above to shift, grinding against the metal. Up on my feet, I drag myself over, stilling his movements.
“You're still alive, calm down!”
He shakes his head regardless. Delirium might've taken him, the quick succession of weapon fire could break anyone. But I'm proven wrong when I try to grip his arm, only for him to grip at the collar of my shirt.
“They know you're here. I heard them,” he spits out painfully, the sole eye dropping its gaze to the floor. “They heard me through the wires. I'm sorry.”
“Make it up to me by showing how fast you can run,” I yell back, throwing the coat over him. I raise the last bound limb, hearing a sharp wince as the machines pull taut. “Whisper, do it!”
She doesn't waste a second, the room filling once more with a loud bang. The mounting adrenaline recovers me quicker, and I tear the coat away, wearing it back over myself. Orion writhes in the seat, recoiling from the assaulting noises, but the ability to do such an action tells us that he's no longer bound to the pillar.
“Keep us from dying, I'll carry him out.” I walk over, hooking an arm underneath. “I need you to walk, Orion.”
He coughs, his movements steading. With a sense of composure, he turns to me. “I've been sitting here for who knows how long.”
I shrug, hoisting him up. He groans, dragging his feet out from the bundle of wires disentangling from those embedded in his skin. Whisper walks out first. I follow behind, Orion in tow. We step over thick wires, but he stumbled into a few. Despite that, we make our way through the door where Sheen was standing guard, his weapon pointed down the long hallway.
“Is he all good?” I spare a quick glance at Orion. Wounds still trickle out blood, but they're not wounds that can kill a man. I look back at Sheen, giving a nod. “Let's go, then.”
He leads, Whisper close behind, both with their weapons drawn. They walk a slower pace as to not leave both Orion and me behind. Each step elicits a painful wince beside me, but he grits his teeth and continues.
“I wanted to know about everything,” he whispers, breaking the silence. Around us are the soft clang of footsteps and distant defiance, his voice the only clarity. “I wanted to discover everything in these walls. I just knew there had to be more to it than that rusty library and boilers.”
I suck in a breath, humming a subdued laugh. “I never knew why you did. I always thought life was fine day to day. If tomorrow was in sight, then that would be plenty.”
His chest heaves, barking out a desperate sigh. “There has to be more than just this. Dying, oppression, and subjugation. I wanted to know, but not like this.”
He takes a pause, stumbling over his steps. I catch him, steading us before continuing on. I watch him, my gaze landing on a defeated man.
“As the Watcher, all I saw in Defiance was death. Every time saw no difference,” his breath releases. “This is all there is.”
I shrug, pulling him closer. “Is that what you've arrived at? After seeing everything there is in the Panopticon, there's no difference?”
He turns his head to look at me. The severed wires on his right scratch my face. “What, are you saying you found something I didn't?”
I bite down laughter, minimizing movement. “You could say that.”
A yell trails down the hall. I look back out, the large intersection in view. Scorch marks blacken the walls, bullets dug in the sterile surfaces. Standing among a pile of lifeless bodies, Workers in cloaks aim their weapons down the hall, lowering when they see us.
“There's no end to them, but we can hide before more show up.” One voices out, shouldering his weapon. The one in the middle steps forward, Sheen and Whisper walking faster to meet up. A few meters to the group, but I don't dare to stress our pace.
The three converse among one another, too far to hear, but the rapid movement of their mouths tell me enough. They can stay for all I care, but I'm bringing him out.
“Cowards, all of you!” The Worker spits out, glaring at Whisper. “We've laid our eyes on the Inner Wings, yet you want to hide back in dark corners?”
“This wasn't why we're out here,” she counters, her voice calmer, but dripping with venom. She steps past him, walking through the intersecting hallways. “Do what you want.”
We're at the same page, at least. Other Workers exchange glances, unsure on what to do. The same man bellows loudly, stomping on the ground. “To hell with you. We'll claim the Inner Wings ourselves.”
What he says next is drowned by the ring of weapon fire. Blood paints the floor behind him, and he falls dead on the floor. Shock roots us to the floor, Orion and I a meter away from the corners.
“Is that our Watcher making an escape?” A crisp, charismatic voice. I haven't heard from then since, but it's a voice I can't forget. “And he has friends to accompany him!”
Orion grits his teeth. I shake him, breaking the stupor. I hear guards down the two halls, the Workers in the middle aiming down them.
“Surrender yourselves, and the reprimand will not be death,” the Journalist says aloud. Nobody moves. “Oh? Then, that is truly a shame.”
I hear light footsteps. A few paces, then he speaks sharply. “Kill them all.”
The hall fills with the cacophony of weapon fire and clashing metal. In front of us, Workers fall quickly from the crossfire, but some manage to hide behind the corners before answering with their own shots. I see Whisper take aim, leaning out to fire.
Even if I try to run now, Orion isn't fast enough to dart past the intersection. Bullets hail past the hall. We're trapped.
“Hyde!” Sheen, ducked low out in the open, scrambles to his feet. He exchanges a shot down the hall and picks up a weapon off a dead Worker, sliding it to my feet. I bend down, picking it up while keeping Orion upright.
“Get back to the Outer Wings,” I yell, facing back up. Some nod, preparing to run. Workers held down by the guards could only try before a bullet catches them, their bodies limping before falling lifeless. Among them is Sheen. A shot blows through his side, living long enough just to see another connect to his chest.
Three Workers are caught on this side of the intersection. I call out to them. “Come with me.” They turn and nod, slowly walking backward, their weapons trained on the corners for black uniforms. Across the three-meter gap, they still exchange shots down the hall.
“Where are you going?” Whisper shouts across the way, stopping when she notices us on this side begin to step back the way we came.
“It's a dead end back there, Hyde,” Orion says, his feet staggering. I nod, aiming my weapon down the intersection.
“Break through,” a Worker cries out, firing down at the guards. I hear a body fall, and the quick answer rings loudly. Including Whisper, those on the other side fight instead of running away. It is a momentary exchange, the difference in number sees many of the cloaked men fall dead or wounded. Orion and I see Whisper fire a shot, riding the recoil. It's a window, and a bullet hits her on the shoulder, sending her down.
“The rest of you, get out.” I call out, turning around and dragging us down the hallway. The three Workers cover our run with weapon fire. It will slow them, but they'll turn the corner soon enough.
I look over my shoulder, watching one drag Whisper to her feet. She tries to break free, but the wound on her shoulder saps her of strength. I spare one last look of their backs fading down the hall before facing ahead. Orion watches me, gritting his teeth. “What do we do?”
A bullet hits the ground near me. I turn around, seeing the hallway fill with a line of guards. Behind them all is a Journalist clad in their usual spotless uniform. He sees Orion, pointing a confident finger. “There he is.”
“Hyde, point the weapon at me now,” he snaps, digging his bare feet on the floor. I stop, propping him upright.
“Just trust me.” I don't know his plan, but I comply, pushing the barrel of the weapon against the side of his head. I look down the hall, the Journalist raising a hand to halt the guards. Weapons die to a silence, everyone stops.
“Watcher, now think of what you're doing,” he says, stepping past the line of guards. His words are nervous, a hand reaches out hesitantly. “Your existence is invaluable to The Panopticon. Surrender, and our promise will be upheld.”
A tense silence follows. Orion says nothing, but I notice his feet begin to step back. I follow, then so do the Workers.
“Continued defiance is futile, Watcher. You know firsthand of what it means to defy.”
His teeth clench, hissing lowly at the open wounds. He bites back pain, then speaks out.
“After today, I doubt you will be easy on them all.”
The Journalist musters a quick laugh, silenced when I press the weapon against Orion's head. “If you defy here, you will die, and everyone with you.”
He gestures to me and the three Workers. I remember a phrase, one that fills me with laughter. Eyes gather on me, and it clicks on why I'm pressing a weapon against Orion's head.
“You won't do that.”
“And what makes you think that, Worker?”
I smile, matching his confident glare. “You said it yourself. His existence is invaluable. Without a Watcher, your guards will be blind.”
Orion pulls himself higher, his head kept against the barrel. Slowly, we walk back, none of the guards daring to fire in fear of losing their Watcher. But this standoff won't last. Soon, we'll reach the center. A dead end.
Heavy footsteps fill the hall. Orion trails blood along the floor, both Worker and guard training their weapons at each other. A constant fallback.
I watch Orion's expression. There's a wide grin on his face, splitting skin on his lips. Across him is the uneasy face of the Journalist. He must've been waiting for a moment to see them on the backfoot. He knows the inevitable fate of this hallway, but for now, there's a bright smile pressed against the glimmering steel of a weapon.
We continue until my feet catch the wires snaked along the ground. I stagger, losing my aim on the weapon to catch Orion. The soonest moment, the Journalist shouts.
“Retrieve our Watcher.”
The Workers shoot first, the ring of weapon fire blanketing the air in thin smoke. I scramble to my feet, dragging Orion up. Behind us is the door.
“Keep going,” he coughs out, pushing the weapon back against his neck, but the firefight has started. I quicken my pace, pulling him through the door. Two Workers follow behind in a hail of bullets, the third doesn’t.
I look around, eyes scanning up at the high walls of the room. If there's an entrance from this side, there should be two more. I think to try prying one of the entrances open, but a cry goes out, one Worker dropping to the floor, his arm hanging loosely.
“Are there controls anywhere?” I walk back to Orion, hoisting him up to his feet. “A switch for the doors. Anything?”
I hope for an answer, no matter how tedious. It's in vain as he shakes his head, swaying on light feet. “I can only control the doors when I'm attached to the wires.”
Since I knew he was here, I worked hard to free him from the guards. I promised to see it through, no matter how it ends. It's been my cause for the past year, the cause that brought me so close.
Like hell I'd lose that now.
“Can you reconnect yourself to control the doors?” I ask quickly, dragging him back to the center. He puts up little resistance until I place him back down on the seat.
“What are you planning, Hyde?” He tries to stand, but the wounds on his leg send him back down.
“Orion, you always wondered if there was anything more than this, right? If there's anything more than dying and opposing the guards?”
I aim my weapon, shooting a guard as he comes through the half-opened door. The recoil blows me back against the pillar, but he falls lifeless on the ground.
“There isn't anything!”
His yell rings clear in my ears. I lean against the metal, aiming down the trickle of guards. “Are you sure you've been listening?” I shout back, breaths short to steady myself. “The explosions of Wing Two, Defiants across all the Outer Wings joining me in freeing you. Does that mean nothing?”
Another guard pushes through, sending a shot my direction. It barely misses, and my answer sends them back to the hallway. Orion grabs my arm, forcing me to look down at him. I find a confused stare. A year ago, that was me.
“If it does mean something, then what? What does it mean to us who die, Hyde?” A desperate question. I smile, answering easily.
“It means something for those who come after us, Orion. For who live after us.”
The lapse in attention sees a weapon ring out. I feel a sharp sting in my side, throwing me against the pillar. The two Workers drop him, and the scramble of footsteps ensue past the door.
A worried voice breaks out beside me. Pain shoots through my body as I drag myself up.
“Do you understand?”
Orion falls silent, staring up at me with a painful clarity. Words hang in hesitation, but they drop in a whisper. “The bigger picture.”
He laughs, hissing through the sudden movements. I sigh, somehow relaxing against this amalgamation of metal. My eyes wander to the wound on my body. A grazing shot, but it tore a chunk out of me, my blood smearing the floor.
“You can still work cart engines, right?” Orion asks. I quirk an eyebrow, watching the glint of an idea in his eye. I nod, shuffling closer. “Tie wires that connect to my head. That's all I need.”
He's found his resolve. I smile, dragging myself against the seat. “Leave it to me.”
The two remaining Workers shoot glances my way. I look up, nodding firm. “Keep them out for as long as you can.”
They cheer, aiming their weapons down at the door. I face back down, Orion leaning against the seat. The wires vary in thickness, so it'll be easy to coil them together. I guess this is how they install each new Watcher.
Pain sends shivers to my hands, but I bite it down. Sharp ends stab at my fingers, but I coil them tightly. Each time, Orion's face contorts, letting out a hiss that grows louder.
“I never told you why I needed you on this seat, by the way,” I remark, gritting out laughter. He breathes a sigh, a hand gripping the wires near his arm.
“You don't need to. I already know.”
I scoff at the quip, peering down as I coil the last set of metal strips. “And how do you know that?”
Orion barks out a laugh. “Because I always pay attention. Don't you remember?”
When I join the last wire, his body jolts. He bites down a scream, settling after a moment. Above, a hum grows to life, the same perpetual growl from when we first entered this room.
“Why did you come here, Hyde?” His question leaves in a breathless gasp. I step back, leaning against the pillar, taking aim.
“To break you free from this place.”
A quiet hum of laughter. Noises approach the door, we answer with a quick volley of weapon fire. They do the same.
“Are you going to?”
I turn my head towards him, his eye closed, the wires creeping to life. I push off the metal, dragging myself forward. My back faces him, my eyes trained at the door.
One way or another, I resolved to see it through. “Of course.”
The door begins to open wider, allowing more guards to push through the gap. One aims in, firing into one of the Workers. He falls silent, part of his head missing.
I pull the trigger, the recoil blowing me to the floor. The sack's contents thud against my shoulder upon impact.
Each movement is torture, but I drag myself back to Orion, rising to my feet. I shrug off the sack, reaching inside for the last rod of fire material. I trail my eyes over the dull red. To think everything would end the way it started.
I step closer, but a surge of pain shocks through the center of my body, sending me to the ground. A wet feeling greets me, my body growing cold. I drag the rod and spark trigger off my body, seeing the flowing red.
“Watcher, I trust you heeded your better judgement and returned to your duties?” The Journalist's voice fills the room. Heavy footsteps follow. A shot rings out, a pained scream falls silent.
I heave myself to Orion's feet, shifting myself onto my back. I see the deep red centered on my stomach. Where my stomach used to be.
“This is where defiance sees you, Worker,” his eyes land on me. My vision begins to blur, the air growing colder. I bite my lip, the pain keeping me awake. “Before I relieve you of your misery, do tell me why you defy? It all ends the same way, so what makes you think this attempt would be different?”
I cough out, the taste of blood fresh on my tongue. I meet his gaze, breaking out a grimace.
“Because, one day it will.”
His confusion grows when the wires begin to shift overhead. The same unforgettable shriek as it pulls taut against the metal. Something heavy drags, shaking the floor. My head rests against Orion’s bloodied leg as I listen to the distant hammers of industry. The distant reminder of defiance.
Three distant thuds, and nothing after. No echo, no distant explosion, no footsteps. My vision focuses. The door to the room has clamped shut, the guards rushing to pry it open in vain.
A hand grips my shoulder. Using my elbows, I push myself up to sit on my own blood. Orion takes the rod. I suck in a breath, gripping the trigger with both hands. Around me, I hear the click of weapons aimed at us both.
“Watcher, open the doors at once! Worker, convince him or face harsh reprimand on our Outer Wings.”
Above me, I hear a short laugh. Warmth combs through my hair. I land my eyes on the Journalist. He's wearing an amusing expression of horror.
“My name is Orion,” he says. I hear the grimace in his voice. I spit out blood in my mouth, my voice shaky.
“They call me Hyde,” I raise the trigger, mustering a smile. “And these aren't your Wings. They never will be.”
“Guards, kill him!”
I see the glint of weapons behind him, my vision too blurry to see anything else. My eyelids grow heavy, the only thing I feel is the lightness of the trigger and the gentle tone of Orion's voice.
“You finally see what I meant.”
The trigger in my hand clicks. I listen to the spark race along the wire. The explosions always happen in an instant. Now, it takes its time. My vision floods to white, engulfing everything. Behind me, the warmth on my head spreads through my body. It's comforting. I sigh, satisfied.
It's almost like the steam vents back home.