The City: An Excerpt from Jon Chaiim McConnell’s ‘thrum’
Fiction by Jon Chaiim McConnell
The training begins right away. Beneath the downtown building is a long concrete chamber where Dr. Rahill leads Gwendy and the others from her quadrant group, all full-suited and half-anonymous, to gather around a railed platform in the center of the room. She thinks that she recognizes some of them from the orientation: maybe one of the middle-aged women, a shorter, younger girl, the guy with some sideburns. Maybe not. Rahill seems to assume that they’ve all taken it upon themselves to get acquainted, and there isn’t anywhere to put her coffee down besides the floor.
“Very few people,” Rahill says, “have seen the city reservoir. But, without goggles, even fewer see it twice. I’d like not to lose any of my recruits on day two, so,” he trails off, before miming to his own pair of goggles resting far up on his head. They all follow his instruction and set the dials on their visors to where he tells them until the entire room is tinted orange.
Once he’s double checked they file onto the platform, all 25 or so of them, and after Rahill clips them one by one to the railing with short lengths of rope he punches a code into the tablet on his belt and they begin to descend.
The smell of damp and ozone is immediate. And it is not an elevator shaft, as Gwendy was expecting, but an open array of pulleys fed down from what’s quickly revealing itself to be a vaulted, reinforced ceiling. When the woman beside her gasps Gwendy can’t help but turn to follow her look over the edge. They are dozens of feet in the air. The reservoir, as Rahill called it, is a vast cavern, crossed with steel walkways, hung with perhaps several hundred blue lanterns, and encircled by stacks of the largest piping she has ever seen.
“The entire city runs through here,” he says, as their platform comes to rest in a groove in the stone cavern floor. “And there’s always work; it never stops.”
As if on cue, a group of vaguely shaped figures emerge into the light of the nearest hanging lanterns, clipped into articulated rubber suits of armor that are draped in flaps and flecked with tiny hairs. They wave to Gwendy’s quadrant. They are introduced as City Hands. Electricians, she knows from her notes.
Gwendy and a woman named Lima are both assigned to shadow the lamp team, two Hands who now silently lead them through a gap in the rock to the natural catacombs. Currentways that have long since been diverted, the paths are high and scored with crystalline erosions and Gwendy does her best not to stare in order to keep her footing.
“Is it safe down here?” she says, before too long.
And the trailing Hand behind says, “Just about as safe as the city is.”
Which is not quite reassuring.
The leading Hand bears a wide cart before them, guiding its wheels as much as possible along the grooved tunnel bottom to minimize sparking. In the cart are about two dozen fresh bulbs. Though their receptors are capped they still react to the jostling and ambient current and brighten naturally in the spots that Gwendy can partially make out beneath the tarp, and she nudges Lima to see if she has noticed too. She has not. She recoils, even. She must be spooked, Gwendy decides, as they clatter out into an open central chamber and begin to set their things down. Lima is right away wandering the space, breathing weird, hands held high up on her waist.
The Hands have rope and awls and nubby little grease pencils. Overstuffed notebooks that have been cinched together with some kind of braided twine. The crystalline tracks seem dimmer here, but the Hands set all their tools out to one side of the chamber with confidence. Soon, when Gwendy’s eyes adjust, the next passageways are visible, two separate narrow openings in the face of the rock that the Hands approach and consider. They both need the work done. The sequence is simple: the Hands tie off the rope to a hitch at the end of the cart and wind the rest around one arm before taking a bulb in the other. Then, slowly, they sidestep their ways down a passage, disappear for a long moment while the rope slack shifts and settles in the dust, and then call out a number. There is an echo of a grinding noise and then a bloom of pale blue light. Gwendy and Lima, told to stay behind and watch, only get a fraction of it. But the Hands show them the burnt-out bulbs that they’ve replaced, one at a time, when they return. Throughout the entire cavern network they’re in charge of fixing the lights, and their brief expeditions take longer and longer as they progress toward the furthest of them.
Once they’ve finished, Gwendy examines the receptors of one of the dead retrieved bulbs as well as she can in this light and then asks what she thinks might be a stupid question. She asks, “How are they getting their current?”
And without a word the trailing Hand guides her to where the chamber ceiling slopes low enough to touch, before reaching up a gloved hand gradually closer to the rock until it finally snaps an arc to his fingers.
“This entire place,” he says, “is saturated. You don’t have to press very hard before the current seeps right out.”
Lima looks more concerned than Gwendy thinks she’s ever seen anyone look before.
The Hand, maybe noticing, touches for an arc again and then, shaking whatever pain from his fingers, offers out his glove.
“Would you like to try?” he says.
Lima freezes, hands clutched straight to her throat as if any additional breathing might bring the entire cave down on her, but Gwendy can’t help but wonder, fascinated, how with all the current right on top of them that they aren’t long dead already.
She only has one question first. She asks, “How much does it hurt?”
They are strict with the timing of their lunch break. Gwendy and Lima are led back into the main cavern chamber to find the electricians seated around a mound of loose rock that’s been shaped into a fire pit, some with hoods drooped casually down the back of their uniforms, others more disrobed. Dr. Rahill stands to one side with the rest of Gwendy’s quadrant.
“If you didn’t bring a lunch,” he says, gesturing to a set of large thermal casks, “then we’ve got oatmeal and apple water.”
“This must have taken them ages,” Gwendy says, meaning the infrastructure that she’s only beginning to grasp the scope of, before she accepts a lidful of oatmeal.
Her interest perks the professor up, as if he were looking for any chance to expound. “Less time than you might think,” he says. “Most of it is naturally formed. Are you interested in vast subterranea?”
“I don’t know if I’d put it that way.”
“There’s a grading system. Incidental up to vast. It’s my specialty.”
Lima, after her third brisk cup of apple water, lays herself down on the ground and exhales deeply, stretching one limb at a time.
“Do we have to go back in there?” she asks. “We used up all the bulbs.”
“Not down there specifically, no.”
Gwendy is feeling the relief of some space around her shoulders, too. “Are you all right? I don’t know how they stay down here so long.”
Dr. Rahill says, “Some shifts last three months.”
Urging Lima to her feet, Gwendy says, “Let’s get you somewhere proper to sit down.”
The City Hands are at their card games or their gently strummed guitars, bathing in the lamplight or lazily drawing figures in the firepit ash. Their sleeves are tied up to their shoulders with twine and their pantcuffs rolled up from their boots. Cooling off, somehow, she thinks. It’s freezing. Gwendy finds the furthest seat, looking not to bother them.
After a few minutes Lima’s breathing has returned to normal and one of the Hands takes the chance to approach them. He’s got a mustache that looks like it’s been pressed flat in some places.
“She all right?” he asks.
And Lima nods.
“Are you?” he says to Gwendy.
When she doesn’t answer right away he turns to the other Hands behind him, who barely react at all. He nods to himself, as if expecting this response.
“I’m fine,” she says. “She needed air.”
“You’re our guests, and we have a tradition for our guests.”
“I know, that’s ok, come here for a second.”
The Hand stands up a pickaxe from the ground by its handle and tries to nod Gwendy over to take it. When she looks over to Dr. Rahill he’s not even turned in the right direction.
“What’s it for?” she says, approaching now, curious.
And the Hand says, “I want you to light our fire for us, we can cook a little something maybe. Bring it over this way.”
The pickaxe is very heavy when Gwendy tries to move it, and so the Hand rushes to her side to help carry it to the charred pit in the middle of the rock formation.
“See the spot right there?” he says, meaning the blackened fissuring that occupies most of the far side of the pit. “Aim there.”
“What will happen?”
“You’ll see. Here,” he says then, helping the struggling Gwendy lift the pickaxe straight above her head just as she notices that the Hands have all turned to watch whatever it is that she’s doing. “I’ll help.”
She wants to ask him what will happen but before she can manage to she’s already swinging down, with his help, and as soon as she strikes the marked area in the rock there’s a flash and a sudden upspray of brilliant blue current that nearly sears straight to her face. Despite herself she screams, and the cheers and applause from the seated Hands are almost immediate, empty and near humiliating. While the Hand who helped her is busy bowing to his newfound audience Gwendy checks her face for scorchmarks, and is surprised to find that the light has not receded. The rocks are alight along the spray pattern, as if an oil had been spilled, and it burns consistently in its patches. Not just the ceiling is soaked through with current but the ground it seems as well, and, as the realization of how thoroughly she’s surrounded herself with near-death begins to settle, Gwendy is overcome with a shaking that she’s never had before.
“Let’s get you warmed up by the fire, yeah?” he says. “You’ve earned it. It’s all yours.”
Gwendy doesn’t go very far into detail with Kat the next day. She doesn’t want to worry her. They go to the store as they normally do on a Saturday, with the handcart, baby-free, Meryl taking whatever chance that she can to stay in her pajamas, and she tugs through the potential knots of the conversation as deliberately as she can.
“If we’re going to have this party for you,” Kat says, “and it’s still looking like tonight? Or tomorrow? Well, we’d better stock up shouldn’t we.”
“It was your idea.”
“You’re the one leaving. These little frozen pastry things?”
“I like those.”
“We’d better get a couple boxes then.”
Opposite the grocery section is the housewares and into sporting goods, and Gwendy runs through the mental list she’s put together.
“I was thinking I’d get a lunchbox too,” she says. “You should have seen what they had us eating.”
“That’s right, you had your field trip day. How was it?”
“It was very impressive, the way this city is run. I think I’ll need some fleeces too, now that I think about it. They said it will be cold, up where they’re shipping us.”
“So down there, it’s like a big pump station?”
“Kind of. Caves, these big caves that they’ve fitted out with pipes and things.”
Crossing from the food aisle, Gwendy pauses by the backpacks to tug on straps and count their pouches just as the thrum seems to build up around them from the foundation of the store, low and resonant all the way up to the exposed rafters. An overflow, she thinks, more familiar with the mechanisms now, imagining the Hands far below dwarfed beneath the soaring metal architecture that, somehow, is not enough. She shakes for a moment again, to imagine how they first must have figured it out.
“And it’s still too much to handle,” Kat says, staring after a passing teenage employee who puts some earbuds in, not plugged in to anything, just to mute the noise. “How many should I be expecting? For the party?”
“All of them, I’d think. Here, I lost the ones I used to have.”
As Gwendy picks out a new pack of the knee wraps she’s been eyeing Kat seems to take in the full inventory of the cart for the first time, and she smiles.
“It’s like I’m sending you to school or something,” Kat says. “How about that? Been feeling younger lately?”
And, thoughtful, Gwendy tells her, simply, “Yes.” Though it’s not in the same way she means it.