Commonwealth, II: Switching Station No. 1

Commonwealth, II: Switching Station No. 1 September 27, 2019

Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 1

[Author’s Note: This is the second installment of my new novel, Commonwealth. Read the previous part here. If you like what you see and want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon. You can sign up for as little as $1/month. —Adam]

This was as far south as the city went. Across the street, there was nothing but the seawalls: concrete barriers fifteen feet high, pitted with rust, stained with black slime and white salt. The ceaseless pounding of high tide and storm had corroded them over the years, but for now, they held firm.

And “for now” is what we get, Rae thought. Tomorrow will have to see to itself.

She joined a line of employees filtering through the massive portals of Switching Station No. 1. The line narrowed to single file as it went through a checkpoint, a metal frame flanked by guards.

As she passed the checkpoint, Rae fished her ID badge out and held it up. Red laser light flashed, there was a satisfied beep, and a screen flashed a picture of her face, the same slightly-stunned expression as on her ID photo. A chyron read: “ROBINSON, RAECHELLE.”

She studied the photo. Normal skin, normal eyes, normal hair.

Yep, still me.

Rae felt a glimmer of vanity that she looked much like the ID photo, taken almost ten years ago. Time had been less kind to some of her coworkers.

With a bored expression, the guard waved her on. Rae passed through and into a huge entrance hall. The walls soared to a distant ceiling. Sunlight streamed through high windows. Lines of workers were going through doorways around the edges of the room.

A stooped, white-haired man in gray coveralls was mopping the floor, periodically dipping and wringing out his mop in a bucket of slop water. His wrinkle-creased face brightened as she passed by.

“Morning, sunshine!” he said cheerfully.

“Morning, Pete,” Rae said with a jaunty wave.

As she walked on, she glanced up regretfully, as she did every day, at a bare patch on the wall. There had once been a mural there, a huge mosaic tiled in red and orange and brown and gold: men and women in uniforms, wielding hammers and shovels and pickaxes, advancing on the city’s sunlit skyline like the vanguard of an army, while trains surged up behind them in a wave of silver wheels and fiery headlights. It had been commissioned by the architects who’d built Switching Station No. 1 and dedicated to the workers of the MTA. It had presided over the building for decades, until it had been dismantled by the city’s emergency manager, who had deemed it “unsightly and unnecessary.”

She joined the line that went into the canteen, a narrow room tiled in yellow-gray linoleum, with trays of food beneath a plexiglass shield. She grabbed a buttered bagel and poured herself a Styrofoam cup of scalding hot coffee, which she gulped down as fast as her tongue could stand it, and crammed a granola bar into a pocket of her jeans for lunch later.

Munching on the bagel, she went down a hall and into the women’s locker room, an echoing space of ancient metal lockers and wooden benches faded to the same shade of gray as the dingy floor tiles.

She opened her locker, which held a blue coverall with “ROBINSON” on the breast pocket. She put it on along with the other accoutrements of the job: protective goggles, dust mask, reflective vest, heavy gloves. She tied back her hair and tucked it under a hard hat with an attached headlamp.

Thus attired, she took another hallway to a second checkpoint where more employees stood in line, dressed the same way as her. She waited her turn until she got to the front. A door rumbled open, revealing a cage elevator with a floor of textured sheet metal. A dozen more people squeezed in with her, the doors closed, and with a stomach-dropping lurch, they descended.

The elevator whirred down into darkness, past strata of earth and concrete.

Finally, it slowed to a stop with a definitive clunk. The doors opened, and Rae and the others stepped out.

They were in a cavern deep below New York’s streets, a vast subterranean space that dwarfed the entrance hall at ground level. The floor was packed earth; the walls and ceiling were rough natural stone clad in scaffolding. Strings of naked bulbs cast harsh white light.

In the center of the cavern, near the cage of the elevator shaft, an enormous, complex machine rose like a tree trunk. Its sides were a patchwork of metal panels, of buttons and levers and blinking lights. A forest of wires and cables plugged into it on all sides, some running along the floor like roots, others fanning out along the ceiling like spreading branches. Men were gathered around it as intently as surgeons at an operating table, watching lights and dials, splicing wires, making adjustments to open panels. Others scurried past, carrying tools and pipes, barking orders that echoed in the air.

In the far wall, a giant concrete tube bored through the stone and headed off into darkness. Other, smaller tunnels led in different directions. The other workers who had gotten off the elevator were disappearing into those tunnels.

Switching Station No. 1 was the heart of the city, and this was the heart of Switching Station No. 1. From this deep-down central nexus, a worker could reach any part of the hidden, buried infrastructure that sustained the metropolis: the labyrinth of tunnels and conduits that delivered water and heat and electricity and data, that took away wastewater and sewage, that moved people and freight.

Rae knew the subways were New York’s last redoubt. With the streets in a state of ruin, with the sky-high tolls on bridges and auto tunnels, the trains were what kept the city running. Every day, millions of people traveled throughout the five boroughs on these tracks. Every day, cargo was shipped in and trash was hauled out. Every day, the millions of small necessities that added up to the life of a city moved on these trains.

And we keep the trains moving, she thought, with a deeper and fiercer sense of pride.

She walked through the bustling work site with the confidence of experience, selecting a tunnel that branched into a side chamber where folding chairs faced a whiteboard. She wasn’t late, but – unusually for her – she was the last one to arrive (Slept late, she thought with a renewed blush). The other members of her engineering team were already assembled.

A stout, older white man with graying hair and ruddy cheeks held a clipboard and wore a supervisor’s uniform that said “O’CONNOR” on the chest. There were two middle-aged men, one burly and white whose uniform said “BUTLER,” the other slimmer and taller and slightly darker of complexion, whose coverall said “VARGAS.” The last one was a younger white man, around Rae’s age, whose coverall said “BRYAN.” He gave her a sidelong glance.

“Robinson,” the older man with the clipboard said dryly. “Glad you could join us.”

“Gerald,” she said with a nod.

She knew he was ribbing her, though there was no trace of humor in his voice. Their supervisor was an old sandhog who’d been on the job for decades. His knowledge of New York’s underground infrastructure was unsurpassed. Rae had a deep respect for him.

“Now that we’ve got a full house,” he went on, “here’s your job for today. We had reports of seawater infiltration in Tunnel 127, and there may be corrosion on the rails. They need to be checked for cracks and fatigue. We’ve diverted trains from that track and shut down power to the third rail for six hours. We need a report by end of day on what needs to be replaced. Go to it.”

The four of them set off into the tunnel. They walked along a narrow pathway next to steel rails secured by concrete ties. The air was hot and humid, and soon they were sweating in their heavy coveralls. After a short distance, they lit their headlamps to add to the meager light provided by bulbs strung along the walls.

Rae had trained as a civil engineer, with a specialization in materials. But the subways were short-staffed and had been for years, so everyone had to do a little of everything. She had taught herself programming, to talk to the ancient computers that controlled key parts of the system. She had learned how to fix electrical equipment, how to diagnose a broken engine, how to replace an air compressor or a water pump. She liked her job; it was a different challenge every day.

The tunnel got hotter as they walked deeper into the underbelly of the city. Rae noted signs of neglect with a professional eye: peeling paint, cracks in the concrete, pale stalactites of mineral deposits. Shallow puddles of foul water splashed around their boots. They walked past old, corroded metal grates and antiquated pumping equipment frozen with rust. She longed to send out a repair crew.

But it’s like this everywhere, she thought. We don’t have the budget to keep up with even essential maintenance. Every year, we fall a little further behind.

Her coworkers were the taciturn sort. Aside from occasional pauses to consult a map and agree on what turn to take, they exchanged few words. It was about a half hour later that they arrived at the work site, a segment of tunnel with “127” stenciled on the wall.

The task of checking for damage was tedious, but not difficult. They had to clean away dirt and grease, magnetize each section of rail with a portable electromagnet, then spray it with fluorescent metal powder. If there were tiny cracks from corrosion or fatigue, the powder would be attracted to them, and inspection under a black light would make them stand out. Each rail had to be inspected carefully, from several angles, to make sure the lines of magnetic force crossed every crack.

Kneeling in the hot, murky dark, they moved from one segment to the next. Bryan carried the electromagnet; Vargas sprayed the powder; Rae and Butler inspected each segment, double-checking each other’s work.

They were working on the third segment of rail when Rae heard a ping and felt a sharp blow glance off the side of her head. She rocked back, but fortunately the hard hat protected her from injury.

“What the hell was that?” she complained.

She caught sight of a heavy metal bolt, lying in the mud by her feet. She picked it up and glanced around, but there was just Bryan kneeling with his back to her, energizing another section of rail with the electromagnet.

“Must have been pulled by the magnet,” she guessed.

“Must have,” Vargas agreed.

“Watch for debris when you turn that thing on, Curt!” she called to him, and he gave an acknowledging grunt.

They resumed their work. But a few minutes later, Rae was saying “I think this one—” when her head was jolted by a second, harder blow.

“Damn it, Curt!” she yelled, spotting another grimy bolt in the dirt.

“Damn junk is everywhere,” he muttered by way of apology.

They pressed on, and no more pieces of flying metal pelted any of them. It took several hours, including a lunch break, to inspect the whole length of the tunnel. They used spray paint to mark the sections of rail that needed replacement. By the end of their shift, they were filthy, sweaty and tired, but Rae felt satisfaction at a job well done.

Another shipment of food and fuel that gets where it’s going, she thought. Another trainload of people who can get to work and school and home. Another day that New York keeps moving.

As they trudged back, she imagined that the city was one giant body, and these tunnels were its arteries and veins. Each subway train was a red blood cell, laden with people who were the oxygen of the economy, and the morning and evening rush hours were like the systole and diastole of a vast, slow heartbeat.

And I guess that makes us white blood cells, she thought, amused by the image. The repair crew that protects the system and keeps the circulation going.

They had finished on time, and once they delivered their report, Gerald dismissed them. Rae squeezed into the cage elevator with a crowd of other workers whose shifts were ending, and it bore them up to street level.

In the women’s locker room, there was a tiled chamber with a row of showerheads. Alone in the otherwise empty space, she stripped out of her greasy coveralls, hung the rest of her clothes in a locker, and stood beneath the lukewarm spray.

Once she had scrubbed the grease from under her fingernails, she toweled off, changed back into street clothes, and headed for the exit. Pete the janitor was still there in the main hall, mopping a different section of floor.

“Night, Pete!” she called to him, and he gave her a grin and a wave.

The forecast had predicted no snow again, and for once it was right. She boarded a subway that carried her uptown, disembarked, and walked past the endless parade of shimmering images on the billboards that lined every building on her street.

Tonight, the screens showed an oil tanker half-submerged, run aground on a reef. Tar-heavy black oil gushed from a rip in its hull. Waves of sludge lapped at a rocky beach.

“…and the stock market rose to record highs,” the newscaster was saying, “as investors accepted the Energy Department’s assurance that the disruption to the supply chain will be minimal. Turning now to sports…”

Rae had an errand to run before returning home. On the corner of her street, there was a small bodega on the ground floor. She pushed the door open, jingling a bell as she stepped inside.

As with most New York City convenience stores, there was barely room to stand between the counter with the cash register, the shelves crammed with packaged food, toiletries and other merchandise, and a plastic-curtained refrigerator that held milk, eggs and produce. Every window was covered with hand-lettered signs on bright posterboard that advertised prices. On a shelf behind the counter, a small golden Buddha statue smiled benevolently. Next to the Buddha, a black-and-white cat that was curled up on a pillow opened one sleepy eye at Rae’s entrance.

“Just a minute!” came a cheerful voice, and an old man emerged from the stockroom door behind the counter. He was short, balding, slightly chubby, with crow’s-feet around his eyes and an easygoing smile.

“Miss Rae!” he said, lighting up at the sight of her. “What can I do for you?”

“Hello, Mr. Song,” she said, smiling as she consulted a handwritten grocery list. “Just a few things tonight. You have long-grain rice?”

“Let me check!”

He called into the back room in Korean, and a woman’s voice replied.

“We have. She’ll get it for you!” the grocer said.

Rae had been doing her grocery shopping at the Songs’ market for as long as she had lived there. She remembered dimly, from her childhood, when there had been supermarkets: huge spaces with rows of shelves taller than she could reach the top of, even on tiptoe, and stocked with every kind of food you could imagine, no matter the season. It seemed like an impossible dream now.

She liked the elderly couple, who worked harder and longer than anyone else she knew, but remembered the names of everyone in the neighborhood and always had a smile for a customer. She was glad to support them.

And isn’t this what the government says they want? Small business? Entrepreneurs?

Mrs. Song, a little wizened lady in glasses and a flower-print blouse, came out of the back room with a sealed yellow packet. She handed it to Rae, who added it to her basket with thanks.

She gathered up the rest of her ingredients – beans and vegetable oil, salt and cornmeal – from the shelves. Mr. Song rang her up, and she set out for home feeling buoyant.

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