by Andy K. Tytler, Features Desk
19 Esinat 7.00 RST
When veteran volitite miners Irro Tonhamgra and Ephrea Burold heard the shouting in the corridor, they assumed it was just the latest in the near-daily scuffles of that endlessly rainy winter. But then came the order from on high: lock it down.
‘We started the lockdown procedures, just going through the motions, you know, following orders,’ Tonhamgra says. ‘Didn’t realise anything was squint.’
We are sitting in Tonhamgra’s frontroom, a small but cosy space with a large picture window letting in the afternoon sun, and providing a view of the quiet street on the northeast side of Ofsoli, where Tonhamgra has lived since first starting as a packer at Undipetra Stand. Now Ofsoli is known for its trendy shops, quaint and affordable single-family detached homes, and excellent view of the stand, but back then it was just a place for the workers to live.
Burold sits on the sofa beside me, working his way through his third cherry biscuit. He lives a block away, also at the same address he was assigned when he first got the job in the laundry room on Rig 12. Each day they alternate hosting each other for lunch, then take a walk along the shore to watch the sun set over Undipetra. Both assert the daily walks and homemade meals are the secret to their longevity. He will be ninety-five this year, Tonhamgra ninety-six. Although Burold adds wryly that it might be all the cherry biscuits.
‘It wasn’t the first time we’d gone into lockdown, not by a long shot,’ Tonhamgra continues. ‘Not even the first time that winter. Everyone was on edge, what with all that sour-rain. It was the fifth week of it, and five weeks inside doesn’t suit anyone, let alone the Aviai.’
‘The whole place thrummed with it,’ Burold tells me. ‘Tempers flaring at the smallest thing, little scuffles and things breaking out a dozen times a day, accidents, sinks, mini-collapses through the roof.’
Tonhamgra nods. ‘The walls felt like they were closing in on us. There was nowhere for a moment alone, and all the time the rain, no sun, and the knowledge that you’re trapped. The whole rig was wrapped round by this crated sense of anxiety.’
She sighs and falls silent. Burold leans back wearing a pensive expression, his brow furrowed. Surrounding them on the walls of Tonhamgra’s front-room are old revolutionary posters and framed newspaper articles, including that now-iconic image of Tonhamgra at the march on the capital two months after the riot, hands up, arms trying to shield her face from the Civic Guard’s acid spray. The scarring on her left cheek, neck, and hands is gone now, long since replaced by skin grafts. Not so on her arms. She tells me when she catches me staring that she chose not to remove it. After all, she points out with a tone hovering between humour and reproach, she earned those scars, and she has nothing to hide.
After a lengthening period of silence, I prompt Tonhamgra to continue, but it’s Burold who picks up the story.
‘I was just about to put in my key so Irro could start the lockdown when we heard the cry for help, to wait, to keep the door open,’ Burold says. He’s still leaning back, his hands clasped together, and speaking without looking at me. The cherry biscuits are forgotten now. ‘We just sort of looked at each other, like “What now?” We both knew the official procedure is hermetic seals on all doors, no exceptions, but we’d also never been in a lockdown where there’s someone in the corridor begging not to leave them to die.’
Enter Tweil*, the Avia on the other side of the door.
Like most Riloans, my first visit to Undipetra Stand was for a school field trip, and I have to admit that I knew I was meant to be humbly grateful and dutifully impressed by the sacrifices of those who fought and gave their lives there, but as a thirteen-year-old first and foremost concerned with finding out how many of my friends and I had got into the same preparatory, I couldn’t muster the zeal. Mostly, I was disappointed we didn’t go any further out than Rig 2, where the visitor’s centre and main bulk of the museum are, and I wanted to see the Cataracts. I grew up on the north side of the island, in away from the coast, where we don’t even get the occasional floating pebble. So to pack onto a coach, and then a ship, and get all the way out to the most expansive stand in the archipelago–and therefore the world–but not see the largest waterrise by both height and volume while there? It was the closest thing to a travesty my thirteen-year-old mind could imagine.
Today, though, I’m seated on the top floor of the restaurant Rig 33 has become, with a perfect view of the rise, though all that rush of water is silent through the thick glass of the observatory deck. Across from me is Tweil, his ears twitching with excitement when I tell him I’ve never seen the rise from up here, looking young to my Riloan eye although I know he’s just celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. He clicks his tongue when I ask how the party went.
‘Now that I’m officially a middle-aged Avia?’ He rolls his eyes. ‘It just means everyone keeps asking me when I plan on starting a family.’
He waves away further talk of families and getting older and goes back to talking about the restaurant he’s chosen for the interview. He tells me with great confidence that it is the best view short of the rock shore on the far side of the rise, where the thick layer of ocean hovers implacably for about fifty more kilometres before tripping down a number of elevations to reach the far side of the stand, and assures me I can have one of his personal passes if I ever want to see it.
I don’t think he’s putting on a show of Aviain politeness. He was delighted by my request to interview him about that first day of the riot–as well as the days which followed–and helped connect me with other Aviai who were there that day but who, for obvious reasons, were reluctant to tell their stories before now. But with the twentieth anniversary of all the stands officially handed back to the Aviai just around the corner, there is a sense of security and stability, and perhaps yet more hopefully, prosperity, coming to the Aviai in the years ahead.
‘Everyone’s happy, everyone I talk to,’ Tweil tells me over a modest lunch of pickled sea star and crimsonberry bake. ‘The stands are finally ours again, and ok, so we had to keep fighting for twenty years after you lot won your war, but it was worth it. We’re nearly done repairing all the damage from the overharvesting of the volitite, and this next generation, they won’t ever live in fear of having their wings pinioned.’
Tweil extends his left wing to illustrate his point, where a careful eye will catch the line between the severed joint and his prosthetic. He’s just one of the over two million Aviai who were punished by the Temiten in this way, but as most Aviai will tell you, the far deeper wound was the Temitens’ policy of writing down Aviain personal names. (As most readers will already know, there’s a deeply held belief among the Aviai that writing down a personal name gives evil spirits, underworld gods, and other demonic presences the power to use it against them.) Even though all Republic of Riloa records have been expunged of Aviain personal names and replaced with the cypher equivalent according to Aviain practice, to the Aviai the damage has already been done. The names were written down, and there is no way to hide that knowledge away again. Never mind that the Temiten government has acknowledged it retains copies of most occupation-era records in its capital, including those with Aviain personal names, and yet refuses to destroy or otherwise expunge them.
Still with his wing extended, and after popping another piece of pickled sea star in his mouth, Tweil draws his longest right foreclaw along the feathers of his prosthetic. Then he refolds the jet-black wing.
‘Usually it doesn’t bother me, but every once in a while it gets to me, not feeling the way the air moves over the feathers out at the tip.’ He chuckles, but in a way I can tell he’s trying to make light of something he can’t change. ‘Sometimes I imagine I can feel it, and that almost throws me for a loop more than not feeling it. Does give me a daily reminder to be grateful, though. Those years not being able to fly were difficult, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, no matter what they did.’
I steer our conversation to that moment in the corridor, and after a few false starts Tweil begins to tell me.
‘Itleili had been grumbling for a long time,’ Tweil says of the Avia usually credited with starting the riot. ‘For years, and even in the weeks leading up she wasn’t grumbling any more than normal. But honestly if it hadn’t been Itleili it would have been someone else. But Itleili, when that Temiten foreliner ordered Oulitchi out to the vent knowing it was overharvested, that it was going to collapse and drop half a layer when it did, Itleili decided she was done.’
What follows depends on who you ask. The Temiten foreliner in question, Neran Danith, insisted from the first report to the day she died that Oulitchi volunteered, and certainly there was a policy at the time awarding additional hazard pay to the type of solitary harvests of failing vents Oulitchi attempted–and it was not the first such harvest Oulitchi had successfully completed. Tweil, along with two other survivors who were in the room that day, have always testified that Oulitchi was picked by Danith because he had reported her for ignoring safety regulations on the rig. There is no record of Oulitchi’s having made such a complaint, but given the Temitens’ hasty purging of records before their withdrawal from Undipetra, it’s impossible to know for sure.
What is certain, however, is that Oulitchi made the flight down to the vent to begin the harvesting of the still-soft volitite, and about 230,000,000 cubic metres of water fell from a height of fifteen metres above non-stand sea level when the vent collapsed, shutting off the flow to seventeen other vents and disrupting the delicate balance between the molecules of volitite suspended in the water and the flows beneath the stand floor.
The other alternating layers of ocean, air, and rock sank accordingly, condensing several in the process, and the resultant force rolled out through the stand.
In the distance through Irro Tonhamgra’s frontroom window I can see the golden light of late afternoon filtering through staggered layers of water, some kilometres wide and long, others less than a handspan, can see the light and shadow playing on water, rock, peeking through a thin slice of air here or a tremendous gap there, a dreamlike layer-cake of ever-shifting beauty. Off to the southwest, I can see the grey-blue line I know are the Cataracts, more than 20,000 cubic metres of water a second rising 804 metres to spill out onto what the Aviai call the Clouds’ Pool.
I ask Tonhamgra and Burold if they knew a layer collapse was the cause of the lockdown. Burold gives a vehement shake of his head.
‘Hadn’t the faintest. It was because of Tweil.’
‘He’s shouting and pounding on the door,’ Tonhamgra picks up the story, because Burold chokes up and can’t continue. ‘That a Temiten tech has been killed, that they’re still fighting, that the order went out for full suppression.’
‘Full suppression’ was the term the Temitens used for gassing a riot. There were eleven ‘full suppression’ incidents during the occupation, three times at Undipetra. Inevitably, given that none of the witnesses survive, it’s difficult to determine from the Temiten case reports the true causes of any of those eleven gassings.
Tonhamgra clears her throat. ‘So there it was. Let him in and then start lockdown–and have our arses handed to us when our foreliner found out–or follow procedures knowing that deck is about to be gassed.’ Her shrug is less nonchalant and more resigned. ‘We both knew we couldn’t do it. So we opened the door.’
Xophil Lingranam is wearing a Riloan flag pin when she opens the door. There is more grey than dark brown in the tight coils of her hair, worn long and loose in the revolutionary style. She thanks me for writing a story on the Undipetra Riot, laments that this newest generation doesn’t understand how hard she and others like her fought to ensure our independence.
I gently suggest that this should be a mark of success, and she waves me off with a laugh.
‘You’re too young to understand.’ Then she grins. ‘But you’re right: here’s hoping you never have to.’
Lingranam has the personality equivalent of a high-summer day. She commands the room, and brightens it in a way that can burn if you’re not careful. But her carefree conversation is like a soft morning breeze, belying the razor-sharp intellect behind her casual words.
‘It was too much rain, for too long,’ Lingranam says. ‘Every single last one of us, and the shield techs on all the other rigs–because of course we had ways of talking, even if we weren’t supposed to–we all agreed: too much. Already Rig 5’s integrity was so low stress cracking had started to creep across the shield, a bunch of rigs had pitting, flaking, spalling–we weren’t the only ones who noticed. We were just the ones who realised how bad it was, and how badly the rain needed to let up so we could replace the shielding.’
She was only in her second month on the job as a shield tech, those workers responsible for monitoring the integrity of the structure protecting them from the acidic corrosion of winter’s rains–not to mention the always-present danger of a layer collapse. I ask her what it was like, being trapped for five weeks on a job she’d just started. But she shrugs this off.
‘What’s it like for any of us in the winter? The sky gives us acid, and we deal with it. That winter was just uncharacteristically bad.’
She’s right. Never before or since has the archipelago experienced five weeks’ straight of sour-rain. Nor five weeks’ straight of sweet-rain, for that matter.
‘You just have to breathe it out again, the antsy feeling, the part of your brain clawing at you because you can’t leave.’ She scoffs. ‘But they made it worse, confining us to our decks after the second week. If they’d had any brains, they would have given us more rig access, not less. If they’d done that, the Temitens might still have control of Riloa.’
Among all the survivors I’ve spoken to there is a shared sense of surreality, even after 50 years, that they managed to take control of so many rigs that first day. By the third day after the collapse the Temitens were concentrated in just four rigs hugging the shoreline, and nobody could believe that in such a brief time they had achieved almost total control of the largest stand in the archipelago. All of a sudden, Lingranam tells me, driving the Temitens out of the islands seemed not only possible, but attainable.
‘There was always that tinder in everyone’s mind, the thoughts collecting like puffs of seed-wool,’ Lingranam explains. ‘You couldn’t help but think it, especially if you were having a bad day: “If the Temitens were gone…” But they didn’t truly catch fire until we’d taken back the stand. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t, “if the Temitens were gone,” it was “when the Temitens are gone”. It gave us momentum.’
Lingranam was one of three shield techs on Rig 12, Deck 3, the same one as Tweil. She knew Tweil, just like she knew everyone on the deck, had gotten to know all of them out of necessity and lack of anyone else to talk to.
‘Danith looks over the Aviai, points right at Oulitchi, and I can even remember the smirk on her snaky little face,’ Lingranam.
Like most of the survivors I’ve met who knew Danith, Lingranam has nothing good to say about her.
‘”You, Oulitchi, you love hazard dives,” Danith said to him, and one of the Temiten techs had the nerve to chuckle behind her, “Vent 12-5 has the highest quality today. Go and bring it up for us, will you?”‘
Lingranam clenches her fist, and I realise she’s still angry at Danith, even after all these years.
‘Itleili tried to intervene, but Oulitchi motions for her to stop,’ Lingranam tells me. ‘He looks Danith right in the eye and says he’ll do it, so of course the other shield techs and I have to open the access so he can fly down there, and the enviros have to give the all-clear on the gas level, and it’s dead silent in there for a minute so all you hear is the pop and spit of each drop of acid hitting the water outside blending together into a distant but persistent hiss, and the enviros say it’s safe for Aviai but we have to use the chamber locks because it’s too high for the rest of us.’
Lingranam lets out a long, low whistle, and she shivers.
‘To this day, I think of that moment and I can’t help but feel claustrophobic. Because there are the shield numbers, and it just hits me: if the layer collapses, the shields won’t hold. All that ocean falling down on us is going to overwhelm the rig.’
‘I was the only one who ran up the corridor to the next deck,’ Tweil tells me with a sheepish wince. ‘It’s only because that door was closest. But that’s why I heard what came through Danith’s radio when she and two other Temiten fled into the riot room. And I panicked.’
He flutters both wings, considers the last piece of sea star, decides against it.
‘Utlullu stayed behind, to try to help Itleili. She was still alive, barely. I can remember hearing a woman’s voice, who I know now, of course, had to have been Xophil shouting that the shield had broken on the roof and buckled on the top four decks on the south side of the rig, but honestly I wasn’t even thinking about drowning.’ Tweil considers a moment. ‘At least, not right then. I’d heard the response on the radio: full suppression. And I just raced out of there as fast as I could go.’
I ask Tweil what was going through his head when the door opened onto Deck 4, and he blows out a long, loud breath.
‘Just relief, honestly. Grateful I wasn’t going to get gassed, because I thought the whole thing was confined to that fight on Deck 3, that once the layers had settled everything would go back to normal.’
But it was in the room with Tonhamgra and Burold that Tweil learned the collapse was much more serious than he realised. Already the top four decks were filled with water, and as each part of the rig failed, it led to yet more structural collapse.
Meanwhile, Danith didn’t carry out the order for full suppression for fifteen long minutes, and because she’s the only one in the riot room who survived, we’ll most likely never know the reason why. She claimed in the first report that she did initiate full suppression, but that the rig failure prevented its being carried out. But when in the course of the Temitens’ inquiry it came out that she hadn’t initiated the procedure until fifteen minutes after the logs show it went through the radio, she claimed that the other Temitens had tried to prevent her from carrying out the order, not wanting to die themselves. And in a third version, in an interview she gave shortly before her death, she claimed that the other Temitens had wanted to carry out the order, and that she had fought with them to prevent it. Her explanation as to the discrepancy was that she was afraid of being punished by the enquiry supervisors for telling the truth. In that, at least, I have to admit I believe her. I’m just not sure which truth she was afraid to tell.
The failure of the rig did prevent the full gassing of Deck 3, and in an ironic twist of fate, the part of the deck which remained largely clear of gas was where the original fight had taken place. The Avia Utlullu who tried to help Itleili was unable to save her life, but by staying he saved his own. And Lingranam survived because she stayed in the room to report the catastrophic failure to stand headquarters.
‘All that relief just turned to panic again, just like that,’ Tweil says, clicking his two foreclaws together in a quick snap. ‘Just, “We’re going to drown, we’re going to drown, we’re going to drown,” just like that, over and over. But then Burold shakes his head and points up. Because Deck 5 is where the laundry room is, and he says he used to work there, years ago back when he first started, and that’s where there’ll be a whole room of spare wetsuits, the tanks, everything.’
I ask him if he was scared of the prospect of swimming up through all that water. He nods.
‘Terrified. I can water-dive as well as the next Avia, and I could swim well enough–better back then, because I hadn’t been pinioned yet–but we only ever make short, quick water dives. You end up back at the surface more because you bob up from the air trapped under your feathers than because you’re swimming for it, and I’d only worked with a tank once or twice, when gas levels were too high even for us. So the idea of making my way up through twenty metres of still-settling ocean?’ He nods again. ‘Terrified.’
Tonhamgra and Burold agree, as does Lingranam, and nearly every other Undipetra survivor I’ve spoken to: the memory of that sky sustained them through a myriad of future gruelling times. Whether they swam out or managed to get themselves into an escape capsule or, in the case of those on Rig 38, free-climbed up a tilted rock layer and shimmied along on their stomachs in the five-foot gap of air between themselves and the next rock layer above for half a kilometre before finally making it out, everyone talks about the blue sky. It was seeing that limitless blue sky after five weeks of sour-rain, and two hundred years of occupation, that made it seem like independence was possible.
On Xophil Lingranam’s doorstep before I leave, I ask if she has any advice for my generation of Riloans. She smiles in a way I can tell she’s been asked this question before, but still doesn’t mind answering it.
‘Don’t ever stop demanding a better life for yourselves,’ she tells me. ‘There’ll always be someone trying to convince you that you don’t deserve whatever they’ve got. Don’t believe them.’
A 50th-Anniversary memorial service will be held at the visitor’s centre of the Undipetra National Museum this upcoming Ner, 26 Esinat, commencing at 11.00. Admission is free, children welcome.
*All Aviai are identified by their family names, in adherence to Aviain custom and Riloan federal law.