Arc II: Catching Stars - Ch. 09 - Barricade 14A Chapter by Seratha
The afternoon winds bite at my exposed skin. All of our exposed skins. I see my fellow workers shuddering, as I am, in the bitterly cold weather. We are packed together tightly here, though our proximity to one another does little to divert the chilling atmosphere. All of us are dressed in the same ragged clothing: dark blue threadbare shirts and pants, just thick enough to prevent us from becoming hypothermic during our work. Most of us, at least. The man standing next to me has his shoulders curled in, his teeth chattering nonstop against his chest. Through the dense crowd I see a woman crouched down, rubbing her legs for warmth.
Like cattle corralled for the slaughter I hear a voice remark grimly. I do not know what “cattle” he refers to, but I do recognize one thing: there will be a slaughter here today, just not for us. Only two have been sentenced. Here, in the center courtyard of Barricade 14, an execution has been scheduled to take place soon.
Towering above the us, the innumerable crowd of Barricade 14 laborers, is Pillar 14. The monumental obelisk displays a digital read at the very top that flashes for twenty past two. Ten more minutes. Above it is the glowing numeral that reads “14”. Beneath the flashing time display are massive screens, one for each of the Pillar's four sides. All four screens display the same image: two people, a man and a woman, locked in a pair of metal stockades.
They look like us. Grey skin and dark, sunken eyes. Black geometrically shaped tattoos mark their faces, arms, and neck. Their clothes, weathered and torn like ours, are also singed and burned in places. Those two must have worked in the foundries, before they were caught.
The camera zooms further out to show the rest of the makeshift stage before us. A podium sits to the left of the two prisoner, and even farther left, at the edge of the stage, are three chairs. One is empty. Filling the chair next to the empty seat is the Captain of the Guard. I do not know his name. Everyone calls him “Captain”. We call him “Red”, because he always has his riot baton ignited at full power, so it glows red like a hot iron. Red often patrols the durcarbium mines, branding anyone he believes isn't working hard enough or quickly enough. Even now, his riot baton hums a white crimson. He taps it against his plated boot, causing sparks to skitter across the stage floor. Black guardsman armor covers every inch of his body. I can feel his impatient, intimidating glare through his helmet, and through the camera that is focusing on him.
To Red's right is Foreman Wildes. He scans the crowd with a glazed, almost bored, expression while drumming his fingers against his goateed chin. Periodically, he checks his wrist for the time. My eyes dart higher up Pillar 14 to check as well. Five more minutes. I return my gaze to the Foreman. He looks to be disinterested with today's events, as he often does. He only appears before us once every thirty cycles to give us a report on each"“month's”, he calls them"expected quotas. The rest of the time he remains inside the Warden's office, the lavish white building at the northern edge of Barricade 14.
If I were to look in a mirror right now, I would see myself wearing the same expression as Foreman Wildes. Truth be told, I do not know what my face looks like. I do not remember. It has been so long, and we do not own mirrors or other reflective surfaces here in Barricade 14. The others tell me I look like them, though. When I asked so many cycles ago, they told me what my face looked like. They said I have two black tattooed bands that begin over each pencil thin eyebrow that loop back over my sleek, bald head, down my neck, over my shoulders, and end just beneath my eyes in narrowed points. A thick black strip also extends from my lower lip, down my chin and neck, spreading out into rigid, geometric patterns across my chest. I see for myself that I have the same grey skin as they do, along with spiraling tattoos crawl up my lean, muscular arms to my toned shoulders. On the underside of each of my wrists is the serial number 5Y00F31 branded into my flesh. When I feel the back of my neck, I can trace the same foreign symbols with the tip of my finger.
I wear the same expression as the Foreman because I too hold little interest for today's sentencing. The scene before us is the exact same as it was the last time there was an execution. How many cycles ago was that? Too many to count. But I remember Pillar 14 calling us from our work to stand here and witness the death of one of our fellow workers. The man sentenced was one of the elders. He had stolen a mining torch, if I recall. Back then, the others whispered that he had merely forgotten to return the torch after his shift had ended, that he did not deserve his punishment.
But the circumstances did not matter. The act itself was all that mattered; the fact that someone could break the firmly held laws within the high rising stone walls of Barricade 14. A message had to be sent to all of the workers. A message that would remind us that breaking the rules would not be tolerated. And each time, the message was the same: death. The pale skinned Foreman would gather us in the courtyard, Red would call his guardsman to stand at point around us, and the round faced Warden would deliver the sentencing. This time is no different, only that the familiar pudgy outline of the Warden is absent from his place at the podium.
The Foreman checks his watch again. With a sigh, he rises from his seat and drags his feet across the stage to the empty podium. He taps the little black mic his finger. A thump, then a screech of feedback ripples out from Pillar 14. The workers closest to the Pillar cringe, covering their ears and shouting, but soon quieting down after a few threatening glares from the surrounding guards. I grimace, but I am also grateful for the noise. I prefer it over the constant chattering of teeth and quaking of knees. The grating noise of men and women rubbing their rough, ashen skin for warmth, and children stomping the cold earth to return feeling to their legs.
“Workers"” begins Wildes, only to step back after the mic delivers a residual crackle. “Workers of Barricade 14,” he starts again with his droning voice, “You are gathered here today to witness the trials of L61TU47 and 09JC2KV. Their charges, as listed on record, are as follows...”
I zone out the list of charges. I can not say any of this truly matters to me. Not this time, with the battered looking couple on stage, or last time with the elder who was caught stealing, or even the countless executions before that. I do not hold any particular bond with any of my fellow laborers. The elders say we are all of the same species, but to me, it ends at that. To me, they are as foreign as the pink skins who hold authority over us. As far as I am concerned, we all live, work, and die here in Barricade 14. Most of us are just lucky enough to go from exhaustion or starvation.
If that makes me heartless, then so be it. I showed up here in the courtyard only because it is mandatory to do so, but also because I wanted to confirm my suspicions about the executions. Everyone's eyes are glued firmly to the stage or one of the Pillar's giant screens. I try to draw as little attention as possible as I crane my neck from side to side in order to get a better view of the rest of the courtyard.
The area outside of the courtyard is empty. From here, I can see that the western and eastern gates are unmanned. The barracks that line the south wall do not have their usual guard patrols. The factories that dot the encampment remain empty. Even the gate leading to the Warden's office is without its guardsmen. Yes, I thought so. Each time there is an execution, all of the guards are taken from their posts and used to encircle us workers. After all, this is the only time we as workers are gathered together for a singular purpose. I inspect a nearby guard more closely. He holds a dark blue rectangular pane of rifeline glass at his side. Riot shields. Safety and security must be their highest priority.
Wildes seems to be winding down. I return my eyes to the screen. Still no sign of the Warden today. The Foreman wraps up the sentencing in the same monotone voice that he started it with before beckoning for someone off screen. Two guards appear at the edge of the stage, wheeling in a large vat of liquid. Smelted durcarbium. The camera is angled just enough to see the viscous blue liquid bubble and simmer at its surface.
The two guardsmen wait for Wildes' instruction, but he seems to be distracted by something at the edge of the screen. I rub my eyes to be sure I am seeing things correctly. The Warden is sitting in the previously vacant chair, his body overflowing over its tiny metal frame.
When did he get there? He wasn't there just a moment ago.
His stubby ringed fingers are crossed over his potbelly, and he gives Wildes a knowing, gold toothed grin. The Foreman looks just as surprised as I am. Red only gives him a passing glance, his helmeted gaze fixated on the figure standing just beside the Warden. I squint my eyes to see it more clearly, but the camera's edge is cutting most of it off. It seems to be a person. Given its flowing, brilliant, vermillion colored hair, it seems to be a woman of some sort. But it is not like us. Not like me. It is fair skinned, like they are.
I am brought out of my examination of this new figure by a wave of the Warden's hand to the Foreman. Wildes, having since gathered his bearings, relays the instruction to the guards on stage. They wheel the vat closer to the stockades. Droplets of the liquid metal slosh off its rim and land perilously close to the prisoners, sizzling as they hit the stage.
The cameras zoom in on pair's haggard faces. They are adults, like many of us are, but now I can see the true difference. The line that separates us from them. It is what separates us, the"what did he say? Cattle? Yes, that's it"from them, the ones awaiting slaughter. Their eyes show an emotion that we, the surviving cattle, only seldom show. We show it when the guards rain down upon us with their batons that sear the flesh off our skins. We show it when the Pillar's blaring alarm goes off, warning us of a gas leak, mine explosion, or chemical spill. But here and now, our eyes only show hunger, exhaustion, and desperation.
The man, in particular, shows it. The fear, the terror. He yelps and screams as the the guardsmen remove the locking bolt from the vat's base. The woman, on the other hand, shows only a silent dread. A creeping realization that she knows, all she has lived for, however little it may be, will be lost in mere moments. And finally, the enormous cauldron tips, and in one sweeping, breathless second, its contents pour out over the stockades and flow off the stage.
For a few minutes the only sound in Barricade 14 is the hiss and sizzle of liquid metal against flesh. The two workers bodies are quickly reduced from prostrated shapeless globs, to unrecognizable puddles of black and blue. And then, there is only silence. Silence as we take the scene in. It is the same each time, yet each time it is a reminder of our place here inside Barricade 14. I know, even without looking, that the same terror that gripped those two workers before their deaths is the same fear reverberating within each of the laborers around me. They know any of them could be next.
But not me. The next execution will not be my death, but my opportunity. My opportunity to escape Barricade 14.
© 2012 Seratha