A crippled and tarnished light fell through a row of high windows at the top of the building. These sooty pinnacles shifted slowly around us, chased and eclipsed by smoke pouring without end from the three great brick smokestacks that even here appeared impossibly tall. The light faded steadily, like truth before a well-crafted lie, so that the scene below remained in a permanent dusk. It merged with a monstrous opera, the thunder of machinery, and the roar of the furnaces and the cries of the dying.
The air held its own character as well. The stink of burning flesh, of vomit and waste joined that of singed stone and brick. They joined with the heat of three great furnaces, whose arched and gaping entrances were akin to looking into the setting sun. I lifted a hand to cover my nose and mouth, but with little effect.
Even in the murky light of the hall it was possible to discern some long abandoned order to this place, to see where Associates arrived for Reclamation. In that order it was even possible to project a sort of perverted mercifulness on the part of the Corporation. A sort of triage area where Associates were once injected lethally now stood empty and forgotten, but for exhausted and distraught Reclaimers that were scattered about and among simple slabs of stone, some exhausted, others distraught. But order and efficiency could hardly describe the scene below any longer.
Bethune and I moved closer to the ledge, looking out across this barbaric theater, the capital lie, the murderous hidden hand of the Corporation. The others remained well hidden behind us. Still we had little to fear. Bethune and I remained protected from view by those shifting talons of light.
Below the windows I spied a blue Sentinel safely confused among a flock of cooing and chattering pigeons. I left Bethune and stepped right to the edge, near enough that with hardly any effort I could have flung myself off. The cruelty and hopelessness the Reclamation Center evoked were nearly enough to compel me to do just that. Oh, Dante you could hardly have conceived of a crueller or darker hell!
Ten Reclaimers met each new group. These Reclaimers reminded me of the faces I had seen in the Low City. A glance to Bethune brought a solemn nod that confirmed that terrible truth. They were stripped to the waist, soot-stained and blood-smeared, their sinewy bodies painted and scarred by their unending task. There was a heaviness in every movement as they led each Associate to the ovens. It was the weight of a soul that has died in a body that has yet to realize the pointless end awaiting.
A single electric jolt to the neck felled each Associate into unconsciousness. Quickly they were carried forward and thrown alive into the flames. But what might have seemed at first to be a merciful, if horrifying end was instead far more nightmarish and chaotic. Most were quickly consumed. Others, as if suddenly awakened from a stupor, flailed and convulsed in the flames. Others escaped fully alight, only to meet their end and be driven back at the point of long iron pikes. A few of these human torches reached their would-be slave executioners in running, murderous battles beyond any human description. One body, so animated by vengeance, flesh curling and blackening from the flames devouring him, fended off stabbing pikes to drag a Reclaimer back into the oven, like some devil come to claim a soul.
This, this was the ultimate outcome of denying the human heart. This was the logical destination along the road of a history followed blindly. It was not that evil resided in that heart, but that it was burdened by this cursed animal flesh, for all its blind intentions. That flesh is far too short-sighted and far too selfish, conspiring to convince the heart that it is the bearer of ultimate sin. Pondering this I pulled gently at my tunic, as though I might tear that flesh away.
I moved a hand across my sorrowful heart and lamented that the will of the flesh was strong enough to turn mankind from the ultimate lessons of history. Man had instead become embroiled in the episodes of history, confusing one for another. Mankind had confused weakness with compassion, control over reason, and in the process had abandoned its own heart…