In the gloom of the covered truck bed, the faces of my coworkers are pale and grim. I think of the stories of the old world my mother used to tell me as the truck jostles me. She said that this time of year used to be gentle and misty and the trees turned to flames of color before the leaves fell away. I have a hard time imagining a gentle season. We call this time of year The Wrath.
I hear the tires crunch against the gravel road that leads to one of the enormous stone cisterns. All but one of them will be closed for the season, and even that one will have but one fortified pipe connected to the city supply. This year my team is responsible for the southeast one. In my history class we had learned that the ancient civilizations used to build along the rivers and the coastlines because the water gave them life. I thought my teacher was lying to us. Build along a river? Insanity. And along the coast? With the hungry ocean right there, ready to devour? What kind of bravery did those people have, to build so near water. Our closest source was at least forty-five minutes away.
The truck grinds to a halt. “Let’s go, people!” our boss, Xander, bellows from the driver’s seat. We scramble outside. The cistern is carved into the earth like an enormous, deep bowl scooped out of stone by the giant hand of a god. My ancestors helped build it, or at least the massive fortifications around it, and the years when I have the opportunity to stop and marvel at their handiwork, I feel grateful to continue their legacy. But today I just hurry to the entryway, a massive gray flat-topped wall with a long concrete tunnel leading back to the buildings that ring the cistern. Xander is already unchaining the heavy metal doors.
I think I can see the Churning in the distance, and my stomach drops. Most years we laugh and chatter amongst ourselves before scattering to our various tasks--measuring water levels, closing pipes, checking structure integrity, doing repairs. Not this year. We disperse to our tasks in strained mutual silence. The priests of our town, the meteorologists, spotted the Churning out in the east this morning. An entire month early. Weeks of preparation now have to be compressed into hours.
I nod at some of my coworkers as they hurry past and head to Control Room 1. I flick the lights on, and blinking fluorescent light illuminates the space. It always smells musty in here. The effect of the ever-present humidity, I think. I pull out the enormous binder from the door where it has always been kept and flip through the pages until I reach the level readings. I run a finger down the numbers I printed here a few weeks ago, so black and neat in their little boxes.
I look out at the cistern through the large, dusty windows. Blue sky still glistens above the scraped stone bowl of a cistern. I can barely see Control Room 2 in the building opposite. It is a tiny box perched on top of the wall around the rim, about 100 yards away. The water collected is so deep it looks as dark as oil, sloshing against the marked concrete sides of the cistern. I am just an ant peering over the side in comparison.
I check the line of gauges and meters, recording the numbers in their lines and columns. Nothing inherently concerning. I stick my thumb between the pages and flip all the way back to last year’s records and then compare the two pages. Everything is at a normal level for this time of year.
I chew the end of my pen. But this is not a normal year. We need another month for the levels to go down to Churning season levels. If the season lasts the normal length we could reach capacity. And if it lasts longer…
My comm crackles. It’s Jasper, in Control Room 2.
“Rania, are you looking at the numbers?” she asks.
Static crackles in my ears. I hear her take a breath.
“We are at normal levels for this month. Maybe a little high.”
“I’ve done the calculations already,” I say.
“A normal season could put us at capacity. But probably under.”
“This won’t be a normal season.”
I clench my teeth. I know. The Churning has only been spotted early two other times in my life. Once by a few days. Once by a week. Both were seasons to remember.
“Do we have contact with the other locations?”
There’s a silence on the line as Jasper tries to connect us.
“Hello? NWCistern here…” and then a clamor of voices. I hardly listen. I already know what they will say. Levels at normal for this month. But this is not a normal season. Not enough time to siphon off.
“North should leave drain to South open. Same for East-West. Southeast will leave all pipes half-way.” I say, interrupting some argument I didn’t hear.
Someone splutters on the other end.
“The whole season?” another whispers. “We’ll get washed.”
“I’ll set up long-distance closure. Halfway through the season we can close it from the city.”
“You can do that?” Jasper asks.
“The pipes aren’t meant to sustain that kind of current,” someone protests.
“SE pipes will.” I hope.
“Drains may be enough...water in the pipes should keep us from exceeding capacity.”
“We’ll burn off, I’ll set up long-distance closure, and we pray it is enough.”
There is silence on the lines as everyone processes the plan. In the end, they know my plan is the best way. Perhaps the only way. One by one, each cistern mumbles their assent and agreement.
I get everyone on this team on the comms and explain the plan. Xander doesn’t say anything, but I’m sure he is standing with arms crossed, shaking his head, wherever he is in this complex.
“You sure you can do that?” he says, when I’ve finished giving instructions.
“Alfie wrote the code. He taught me how to set up the devices years ago.”
They still trust him, even now that he’s gone.
“You have five hours,” Xander says, “And then we gotta get out of here. The Churning’s closing in fast.”
“Acknowledged,” I say, and I click off my comm.
Nothing much has changed for the rest, except those responsible for closing the pipes will now be running the programs I directed and rewiring the system to accept the long-distance closure devices.
I hook up my line back to just Jasper in Control 2.
“What’s up?” she says. “Everything going according to plan?” I can hear the slight panic in her voice, but she’s doing a good job at controlling herself.
“I need you to start the Burning,” I say.
“But don’t you have to manually attach the devices to the doors?” she asks.
“Underwater, yes,” I say.
“Do it,” I say. “Xander can’t accept putting anyone at risk, but I know what I’m doing. The risk is all mine.”
“...I hate you,” Jasper whispers. “There. Now you have to come back so those aren’t my last words to you. You wouldn’t want me to live with guilt for the rest of my life, now would you?”
“That’s the spirit.”
I put the binder away, check all levels and readings and settings once more, and then pull the lever for the closing. The grinding of gears echoes in the room as the metal blinds began to close over the windows. I head to the Moon Pool as the Burning alarm begins to blare overhead, red warning lights flashing. I suit up quickly in the damp, dark space, pulling the wetsuit on as fast as possible. Xander will be heading my way, ready to chew me out. He can stop me once I’m underwater though. I double-check the oxygen, making sure it’s full. And then I clamber up the ladder and out into the open.
Even with the wetsuit and the oxygen mask already fitted over my face, I can feel the early phase of the approaching churning. The air is made of grasping hands, pushing against me from the front and pulling and pinching at my sides. The fire jets are already blazing over the surface of the water. I have to be fast.
“Jasper, off in 3...2…”
“One.” The jets shut off. I dive.
I hate the water. The way it envelops me and presses against me, turning my wetsuit into a sticky second skin. I used to panic when I had to breathe using the oxygen mask, but I know how to control that now. My vision is full of murky green, joined by orange as soon as the fire jets start up again. I find the slimy, mossy sides of the cistern and feel my way towards the tethers. I hook myself up and then dive down deeper, my ears popping with the pressure, to the giant pipes. The currents immediately try to suck me in. I have to stay above them and get to the giant metal panels affixed above the openings. The water by the pipes is frenetic and more bubbly and darker. The pipes themselves look like the giant maws of some deep sea creature. The insides are studded with handholds in case an unlucky diver gets swept inside.
My muscles begin to ache as I fight against the current. I practically pull myself along the sides of the cistern, metal handhold by metal handhold. I reach the first panel, and hook my feet through the handholds so that I can shove open the panel and hook up the long distance devices to the gears inside. My brother was a genius for figuring this device out--waterproof, with as few electrical components, and a signal strong enough to communicate through the water. I’ve seen them work, and I know they will work now. I just wish he was here to see his imagination come to life. He will save us all.
I work my way around to each of the pipes. It’s slow going, especially when I get close to the pipes and can’t let the current carry me further. Attaching the devices is painstaking, as I have to awkwardly curl my body part way around the panels to protect some of the slender hooks from the current. One I almost drop, and a bolt of terror runs through me like an electric shock. I grit my teeth, feeling the ache in my jaw from where I’ve been clenching it tight this whole time. I check my oxygen levels after each one. There is no room for mistakes. No room for failure. The entirety of the town relies on me to get this right.
I can’t believe it when I reach the last one. My whole body is shaking from exhaustion and adrenaline as I finally pull myself up towards the surface. Oxygen is running a bit low. I press against the side of the mask to turn on my comms again.
“...answer…” a voice crackles through, but it isn’t Jaspers. Maybe I’m on the wrong frequency?
“Please…Rania…” It’s Xander. It’s sounds like he might be close to tears, but surely not. It must just be interference.
“Jasper, jets off,” I say. “I’m coming up.”
“Rania? Is that you? Oh thank the gods.”
“Xander,” I say in a measured voice. “I need you to turn off the Burning, just for a minute as I come up. I would really like to not burn to death today.”
I’m pretty sure he curses at me as he goes about turning off the flames. I ascend through boiling water, gritting my teeth. I’m so exhausted that I can barely pull myself up the ladder as I surface. But I have to go fast, as the metal scalds my skin right through the wetsuit. I scream into my teeth as I pull myself out rapidly. Climbing up the rest of the way is torture on my burned skin, but it matters little.
Xander meets me inside the Moon Pool, his face almost as red as mine. “It had to be done,” I say as I strip off the wetsuit. Oh stars, it feels like I’m pulling off my own skin.
“I sent the team back,” he says. “An hour ago. I gave you five hours.”
I’m trying not to cry from pain. “I went as fast as I could.”
“It’s been six and a half hours,” he said. “We have to go. The Churning is almost right on top of us.”
“You sent the truck back?”
“Emergency vehicle’s out front. Come on,” he says. I half-expect him to drag me out by my hand, but he just ushers me outside. We clamber into one of the emergency vehicles, a dented white truck. The whole thing trembles, both from a lackluster engine and from the force of the approaching monster. I look back at the cistern as Xander drives us away. Above it, the sky is a mixing bowl of ink and iron, glowering purple and sickly green. The Churning is a monster, and its growls reverberate through the earth.
Xander’s knuckles are white as he clutches the steering wheel. I bounce in my seat, the whole vehicle rattling as it tries to match the speed Xander demands of it. I hand on to the edges, grimacing as the worn leather scrapes against my tender hands. The world is eaten up by darkness.
“We’re going to make it,” I say, but Xander just stares out the windshield in silence. “We’ll be fine.”
“For a family of geniuses, you lot sure are stupid,” he finally says.
The truck shudders to the left. We are being batted about on the road. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I was just doing my best.”
“I thought I was going to have to leave you,” he said. “I thought maybe you had…”
“You should have just left me,” I say, peering out the window. In the rearview mirror I could see the beast of the Churning tearing up the ground in the distance. Chunks of earth ripped out and flung aside. And even further back, bright flashes stabbed into the gloom. The roar of the monster grew louder around us, constant now, and flaring up in sudden bursts of intensity.
“I am responsible for you,” Xander said, each word deliberately pronounced. “Leave you behind? What kind of leader do you think I am?”
Any words I might have said were drowned out by a sky that suddenly wept. The world wailed around us. The windshield wipers tried to clear off the blurry onslaught, frantic and squealing. Xander fought with the truck, trying to wrestle it in the right path.
Any reassurances would be futile now. If we weren’t fast enough, the Churning would swallow us whole and rip us apart.
I turned my gaze away from the battle outside, to Xander, eyes squinted against the sheet of water, fingers wrapped tight around the steering wheel, shoulders hunched as if he could bear the brunt of the blows on his back. And still, all I could think of was my mother’s description of the autumn season of the old world. If people were seasons, Xander would be that gentle season.
The world is so very loud now. The Churning screams at us and the sky weeps and water lashes against the car. It feels like a string is attached to back of the truck, trying to swing us this way and that. Xander does his best to keep us going straight, but I expect for us to be batted into a tailspin at any moment.
And then the real war begins. The gods hurl stones at us from above and they clatter against the metal skeleton of the truck. The sound of them striking all around us is so deafening I can barely hear my own thoughts. Bright flashes of light crack open the sky and the earth, columns of blazing fire that linger in my vision like pale scars long after they disappear.
I think I should be more afraid.
Instead, I wonder if my brother was afraid when the Churning swallowed him. And I remember myself as a child asking my mother why the Churning came every year. The sounds of the gods howling and crying overhead was muffled by our roof and the city fortifications. It was because men had tried to be gods themselves, my mother said. And was this their punishment? I had asked. No, she said. This was their reward. Men made terrible gods.
An flaming arrow from above strikes the ground just ahead of us. Xander swerves around it, even though the strike was instantaneous. But in the faded afterimage I see the gates of the city.
“Xander! The gates!” I shout at the top of my lungs, just to be overheard.
“Turn on all the lights!” he says.
I lean over to turn the headlights on bright, when a fist slams into the side of the truck. The world spins violently sideways. Metal scrapes against metal and the world shrieks louder as glass shatters. I blink water away from my eyes to see a branch punched through the window. Xander grabs my hand and hauls me across the seats. And then we are running blindly towards the city gates. It’s like running across a battlefield, invisible hands tearing at my clothes and skin, stones pelted at me from all side, the rumble of an angry beast vibrating through the ground and inside my chest. I don’t know how long it lasts. The distance feels infinite.
And then I’m being bundled inside the walls. Hands haul me inside, and then I’m just dripping onto the floor.
Xander leans back against the wall. “Never save us again,” he says.
Outside, the world churns.