Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 2
[Author’s Note: This is the fifth 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 time, Rae was the first member of her team to arrive at the work site beneath Switching Station No. 1. Her boss Gerald gave her a wordless nod of approval, which, from him, was as good as a speech of praise.
Curt Bryan was late, the last of their four-person crew to show, and he gave her a sour look when he saw her. Rae knew they were supposed to be a team, not in competition, but she felt smug that she’d beaten him anyway.
“Alright, folks,” Gerald said. “Got an interesting one for you today.”
Rae felt a small jolt of adrenaline, anxiety tinged with anticipation. “Interesting” could mean many things, few of them good.
“We had a fault indicator in Junction 6B-497,” he said, checking his clipboard. “It’s one of the outflow gates. It’s likely there’s some water infiltration, but we don’t know how much. We need you to investigate, and if the machinery can be fixed, get it working again.”
Rae did some fast figuring. The MTA’s coordinate system divided the city into a grid. 6B meant east midtown, somewhere below the southeast corner of Central Park.
But an outflow gate… that must be down. Deep down.
“We’ve requisitioned a handcar to get you there faster,” Gerald said, “as this could be time-sensitive. You need to figure out the problem before high tide, or water will back up into the system. Get going!”
After consulting the map, they were on their way. Rae offered to help pump the walking beam, but her coworkers insisted on handling it themselves, so she sat with her legs dangling off the rear of the handcar as they raced down a track deep under the city.
There was more beneath Manhattan than the maze of tunnels bored by humans. There were subterranean aquifers and springs where groundwater bubbled up. There were creeks, ponds and streams that had once been above the surface, but had been covered over as the city grew around and above them. Nevertheless, water still flowed along those ancient watercourses, most of which were now sewers. Minetta Brook, buried in concrete under Greenwich Village, was one of many ghost streams that ran beneath the streets.
Last but not least, there was the sea: that relentless enemy, always besieging New York, always battering against the defenses in search of a way in. Even on a calm, sunny day, millions of gallons of water leaked into the system and had to be pumped out. If not for New York’s vast network of pumps, seawalls and gates, the tunnels would flood within hours.
Rae consulted the map as they raced onward, while Curt and Vargas took a shift pumping the handcar. They were headed towards a point of connection between the subway tunnels and the sewer system. In Manhattan’s honeycombed bedrock, there were many such places.
Junction 6B-497 had been designed almost two centuries ago by the civil engineers who had bequeathed the system to them. On one side was a drainage tunnel, designed to collect water that seeped into the subways. On the other was a branch of the sewer system, which channeled water to the stalwart pumping stations that kept the ocean from drowning the city. The two tunnels were connected by a one-way gate that made sure water flowed only in the right direction.
“We’re here,” said Curt, as they slowed to a halt. “Looks like the water’s already getting in. Can’t take the handcar any further, we’ll have to walk.”
Rae glanced around. They were in a cramped, dark tunnel, its ceiling claustrophobically low. The walls were ancient brick that glistened with slime. There was no light but their headlamps. The tracks vanished into rippling blackness as the tunnel sloped downward.
“That looks like more than ‘some’ infiltration to me,” she said with a frown. She was determined to put on a brave front, but quiet fingers of unease crawled up her spine.
“A job’s a job,” said John Butler, the oldest member of their team. “Let’s go check it out.”
Carrying their toolboxes, they hopped down from the handcar. Black water, ankle-height, lapped at their boots and soaked the legs of their coveralls. The clammy air smelled of mildew and old decay.
Even Rae, the shortest of the four, had to walk hunched over not to bang her head on the low ceiling. The rest of them had to move in an awkward, crablike crawl.
After a short distance, the tunnel opened up into a large brick chamber: the junction they had come to find. The light from their headlamps played on glistening metal, a heavy round door like a bank vault set into the far wall, its surface covered with levers and dials. It was the outflow gate that led to the sewer tunnel.
But, as they immediately realized, they had bigger problems. There was a metal grate in the ceiling, designed to collect seepage from train tunnels above – but water didn’t drip, it poured through in a foaming waterfall.
What was more, there were three other fast-moving streams of water gushing through gaps in the crumbling brick. The water was already knee-high, and rising as they watched.
“Jesus!” Curt yelled.
“The outflow gate should have opened automatically!” Rae shouted over the angry roar of the water. “Something must be wrong! We have to override it!”
She started forward, but Butler halted her with a hand on her arm.
“No, wait!” he yelled. “The outflow gate detects pressure. It won’t open if water is higher on the other side! If the sewer tunnel is flooded and we override the gate, we’ll drown down here. Vargas, check it’s safe!”
Luis Vargas, the tallest member of their team, surged ahead. Water splashed around his thighs as he waded into the deeper water.
On the wall was a pressure gauge, designed to read off the relative levels of water on both sides of the outflow gate. But it was ancient, clotted with dirt and slime. He struggled to wipe it clean so it was readable.
They waited for a tense instant, while the water level rose higher, until he shouted, “Level on the other side is good!”
“Good! Try to patch these leaks!” Butler shouted.
“I’ll override the gate cycle!” Rae said.
The water was thigh-high now, and shockingly cold. The chill hit her like a brick wall as she leaped into it, so cold it almost froze her muscles. But she gritted her teeth and plunged ahead, forcing her legs to move.
There was a heavy lever of corroded steel jutting out of the gate: the manual override. Rae grabbed it in both hands and yanked down with all her strength.
She heard a deep, shuddering whine as hydraulics whirred into life. The gate rose – half an inch.
There was a clunk and a bang, and the gate stopped dead. With a sighing hiss, it dropped back to the closed position.
“Jammed!” she shouted.
Curt came splashing up.
“Move!” he shouted, as if he hadn’t believed her.
He yanked the lever down again, but with the same result.
A flash of panic crossed his face. “What do we do?!”
“No luck plugging these leaks!” Vargas shouted.
In his toolkit, he had a tube of bentonite sealant. It was a fine powder that absorbed water on contact and swelled into a thick gel, stopping the leak like a bandage. But the ancient bricks of the junction were too old and crumbly. As fast as he got one leak stopped, a new stream sprang from another point in the wall.
“We have to get out!” Curt shouted. “We can’t stop it! Go, head for the surface while we can!”
“No!” Butler bellowed in his face. “If we abandon the job now, the water will back up and flood the subways from here to Canal Street! We’re the only chance they’ve got!”
“We can’t let that happen!” Rae snapped. “We have to diagnose the fault in the gate!”
“And you’re qualified to do that?” Curt roared at her. Water dripped in a curtain from his hard hat, sparkling in the headlight beam.
“I studied hydraulics in college!”
It was true. She had taken a hydraulics course – one course. And that had been over ten years ago. But while there was a chance, she had to try.
I won’t let the subways drown on my watch!
Fighting down the choking panic that threatened to seize her throat, she turned back to the gate. The frigid water was up to her waist, but she did her best to ignore it.
“There has to be an access panel for the machinery,” she muttered. “Here! It should be… Oh no…”
“It’s already under the water!”
There was a metal panel on the outflow gate. But the upper end was hinged. The crucial bolt that held it shut was at the bottom, beneath the water rapidly flooding the chamber.
“We’ll never get it off!” Curt said. “John, we have to go!”
Rae popped her toolbox open and selected a wrench that – she fervently hoped – was the right size. She entertained a thought of trying to open the panel from where she was, but from this angle she’d never get the leverage.
“Hold this!” she commanded, shoving her toolbox into Curt’s startled hands, keeping a death grip on the wrench.
She took a deep breath and plunged beneath the water.
The chill assailed her. Her sodden clothing hung heavy on her body. But she reached out blindly in the dark, and her numbed fingers felt the bolt. Her arms moved as sluggishly as if they were made of lead, but in a spasm of effort, she got the wrench into position, felt it grip, and heaved.
The bolt didn’t budge.
Her brain taunted her with a parade of horrible possibilities.
What if it’s rusted on? What if the wrench is the wrong size? What if I’m not strong enough?
No! I can do this!
Another desperate heave – and she felt the bolt move. Only a tiny amount, but it shifted.
Her lungs were burning for air, but she braced herself against the floor for one last effort – and other hands gripped hers, gave a heave. The wrench moved. The bolt loosened.
Rae couldn’t hold out any longer. She flung herself upward, exploding from the surface of the water with a splash and a huge gasp. She coughed, panting for air.
John Butler was there with her, as soaked and dripping as she was. He had seen what she was doing, waded in and submerged himself to help her.
“Good job!” he shouted. “But we have to fix the gate! Hurry!”
The access panel was loose now, and it came off at her touch. She yanked it away and peered into a complex nest of machinery, pistons and hoses. It was the hydraulic system that lifted the gate.
“Curt, hit the override again!” she said without looking. “I have to see what the problem is!”
She heard him yank the lever, heard the whine of the gate mechanism. Half-drowned and half-frozen, panting for breath, she tried to focus her attention, wondering if her hydraulics professor could have imagined giving an exam like this.
Come on, Rae. You solve problems. You can solve this.
The gate clunked into motion. A piston arm moved, a tube bulged and shuddered. The gate stopped. The water was lapping around their armpits.
And Rae knew what the problem was.
“Hydraulic embolism!” she screamed over the raging churn of the water. “Air bubble got into the system! I have to bleed it and refill from the reservoir!”
“Need something sharp!”
Butler slapped something into her hand. It looked like a military knife, with a stainless-steel blade and a green camouflage-colored handle.
She took a breath, tried to steady her shaking hand, and struck. There was a hiss of escaping air. Oil jetted like blood from the tube she had sliced.
“Now we need to patch it. Give me something. Quickly!”
Butler handed her something else, and despite the dread trying to smother her, she felt a grin as she recognized it.
She pulled off a strip, tore it across with her teeth, and wrapped it around the cut in the tube. She located the oil tank connected to the pipe, said a silent prayer that the last person to maintain this hadn’t forgotten to fill it, and turned the knob to open the tank.
Oil flowed. The mended tube stretched and flexed as the liquid filled it – and held.
“I’ve got it!” she shouted, as water splashed around her shoulders. “Curt, hit the override. And everybody hang on!”
Struggling to keep his head above water, Curt took a deep breath, gave a roar of effort, and slammed down the override lever. Then he let go, and – together with the rest of them – seized metal rungs cemented into the chamber wall, placed by the builders for precisely this purpose.
The hydraulics whirred. The heavy outflow gate shuddered, groaned, jerked upward. Rae felt terror seize her chest.
The whir became a long, smooth drone of mechanical effort. Slowly, the gate lifted, pivoting upward to press against the junction room ceiling, revealing another tunnel beyond.
The dead weight of water filling the chamber became a force, a current, an unstoppable rush. In a thundering cascade, it surged past them and into the sewer tunnel.
Rae and the others pressed themselves to the wall and looped their arms through the slippery metal handles. As the water roared past, they hung on with all the strength left in their tired and frozen hands, knowing they’d be tumbled away and drowned if their grip gave way.
For an instant, as the current sucked at them, Rae had the thought, And I hope the wall holds, too…
Then the force diminished, the water level dropped. It sank to their chests, to their knees, to their ankles.
With a gurgle like a giant sink drain, the last of the cascade was sucked away and raced down into the sewer tunnel.
The four of them stared at each other for a frozen instant, realizing they were alive.
Then they collapsed in exhausted laughter, not even caring that they were soaked to the skin or that they were lying in filthy muck. Water still poured from the ceiling and from cracks in the walls, but it only formed a shallow stream that drained away into the dark.
“We’ll send another repair crew,” Rae gasped, recovering herself. “Don’t think – my fix – will hold forever.”
“Not the first time duct tape saved my life,” John Butler said, breathless with laughter.
“It has a light side and a dark side and it holds the universe together!” Vargas chortled.
Rae blinked. She hadn’t expected someone younger than her parents to be a Star Wars fan.
She was expecting Curt Bryan to join in the merriment, but he was oddly silent. She glanced at him – he was sprawled against the tunnel wall, where he had slid down when he’d relaxed his grip on the handle – and thought, for just a second, that she saw a glower flicker over his face.
O’Connor was shocked when Rae and her team trudged out of the tunnel, dripping wet, filthy with mud and muck. He listened in horror as they explained how they had averted a catastrophic flood.
“Mother of God. There shouldn’t’ve been that much water down there!” he said, smacking a fist into his palm. “There must be a leak in the system higher up. I’m going to get another engineering team to that tunnel to figure out where it’s coming from. And it sounds like the entire junction chamber needs to be repointed. Thank the Lord you’re alive. I would never have sent you down there if I’d known it was this bad.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Gerald,” Rae said. “No one could have known without going down to check. We just did our jobs. Couldn’t let the subways flood.”
She mustered a weary smile.
“Be that as it may. Take the rest of the day off, all of you. I’m going to see that you get a commendation for this.”
Those words were music to Rae’s ears. She had never been so glad at the thought of a shower.
She headed up to the women’s locker room. Alone in the echoing space as usual, she threw her soaked, muddy coveralls and the rest of her clothes into a laundry cart. She turned the water up as hot as it would go and stood beneath the steaming spray. Even with a cake of the MTA’s harsh industrial soap, it took a long time to get all the grime off.
I have to bring in better soap from home, she reminded herself as she scrubbed. I do most of my showering here, I might as well use the good stuff.
When she finally felt clean, she got out of the shower and toweled off. She opened her locker, glad she had had the foresight to bring extra clothes from home.
There was a folded piece of paper in her locker, atop her clean clothes. Rae looked at it, puzzled. She didn’t recognize it as anything of hers.
She took the paper and unfolded it.
There was a message, block letters printed in an unfamiliar hand. It was just four words:
YOU DON’T BELONG HERE
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