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A burning woman stalks along the streets. Ten stories tall, naked body a whirling holocaust of fire. Terrified people on Bursary Street crumple into carbon at her passing, leaving behind only black char curled into fetal shapes. The heat she radiates is so powerful that structures burst into flame as she passes. A storm of paper, sucked out of buildings by uncontrolled drafts, spiral toward her and are consumed. Uncontrolled rivers of flame pour from her fingertips. Windows blast inward at her keening, at the eerie, nerve-scraping wail that pours from her insubstantial, fiery throat. In a city that girdles the world, all-devouring fire is the worst thing imaginable.

Aiah hears the sound first, a scream that raises the fine hairs on the back of her neck. She gazes in shock out of the office lounge and sees the woman turn the corner onto the Avenue of the Exchange; and for a moment she sees the woman tripled, multiplied by the mirror glass of the Bursary Building and the Old Intendancy, and for a horrified second gazes into three burning faces, three hollow sets of flaming eyes, three expressions of agonized torment in which she can read the woman’s last remnant of blasted humanity begging for help, for an end to pain ...

Aiah turns to run and the window blows inward with a breath of wind that sears Aiah’s neck and flings her to the floor, and at the same moment she hears the first shriek from Telia’s baby and the foolish, urgent ring of the phone—

The burning woman’s scream rises to Aiah’s throat.


143 DEAD. 2000 INJURED.



As the escalator lifts Aiah from the blue passageways of the pneuma station the liquid-silver words track across the sky, telling her things she regrets she already knows. Between the worn metal treads of the escalator steps lie drifts of ash, a percentage of which may be human. On the surface, a cold wind blows black cinders between the sluicegates of buildings.


More words, addressed in this instance to a more local audience, crawl in mirrored image up the gold glass wall of the Bursary Building. Insurance underwriters hawk their wares from hastily assembled booths on the sidewalk.

“You safe, lady?” one asks. “You probably got a bunch of kids, right?”

Right. Barkazil women are supposed to spend their lives pregnant. Aiah hunches deeper into her jacket and walks over to the new lottery seller at a new, improvised kiosk.

Both the old lottery seller and his kiosk had been turned to charcoal. Aiah had bought a ticket from him every working day for the last three years and never known his name.

A police motorcycle glides by with an efficient turbine whine. Glass crunches underfoot as Aiah walks across Exchange to the Plasm Authority Building with its jagged crown of bronze horns and its gaping windows. There are white paint circles on the pavement, each with a bit of soot in the center that marks a casualty, a human being turned into a carbonized husk. The pigeons have already scattered droppings on them.

She knows what waits in her office. Telia’s crying baby, the smell of dirty diapers, stale coffee in the stale-smelling lounge with its broken window now covered by plastic. The inevitable message cylinder on her desk, because three months ago, trying to score a few points with higher authority, she’d volunteered for Emergency Response.

And then, after the message is answered, long hours in shivering cold, far underground, searching for plasm that will never be hers.

More words track across the sky. Snap! The World Drink, followed by the green-and-white Snap logo. The resources necessary to track all that across the sky during shift change are staggering, more than she’ll make in her life.

A silent aerocar crosses the sky between Aiah and the logo, rising from the roof of the Exchange. It inverts so the driver can view the city below, enjoying a view Aiah knows she’ll never see.

In a city that girdles the world, what is the worst thing imaginable?

Not having anyplace to go.



The Plasm Authority Building is broad and high and powerful, built for the creation, storage and transmission of plasm. It stands in careful relationship to the other buildings of the financial/government district, relationships in which weight, design and core construction are carefully balanced. The carbon-steel supports form an intricate generation web insulated from the exterior by white granite. Its thorny crown of transmission horns reaches into the sky like grasping fingers. The outside bronze collection web, with its roots deep in bedrock, curls over the granite in shining arabesques, brutally functional ornamentation meant to attract, gather, and disperse any plasm threatening to endanger the building itself—break any attack into fragments, deprive it of will, then store it for use by the Authority’s own heresiarchs.

If the burning woman had touched the building with her tendrils of flame, she would have cried and trembled and vanished, her energies sucked into the building’s structure before being dispersed through the city grid.

But she hadn’t touched the building, had in whatever was left of her reasoning mind known that the bronze traceries meant danger. Instead the Jurisdiction had to divert its resources to her destruction, had snuffed her by brute force, a burst of power transmitted from the bronze transmission horns.

The building is less impressive when seen close up. Fifty other anonymous employees enter with Aiah beneath the bronze-sheathed, grime-encrusted archway mosaic that shows the Goddess of Transmission Dispensing Her Glory to the People. With twenty of the new arrivals — she doesn’t know one of them — she experiences the peculiarly liquid motion of one of the building’s hydraulic elevators.

On the tenth floor the first thing Aiah hears is the wailing of Telia’s baby. The halls are covered by brown ribbed plastic runways intended to protect crumbling floor tiles. The doors are of battered metal painted dull green. The furniture is battered metal painted dull gray. The walls are green with a gray stripe. The ceiling is tin and its holes reveal wiring. There are no windows.

Welcome to the civil service, she thinks. Welcome to a secure future.

“Hi,” Telia says. She's changing Jayme's diapers on the top of her desk.

Aiah wants to shout down to the insurance hawker: See? Jaspeeris do too have kids!

Baby stool glints greenly in the fluorescents. “Big meeting at ten,” Tella says.

“I expected.”

“How’s your neck?”

Aiah touches her scorched nape beneath pinned-up hair. “All right.”

“At least you didn’t get any glass cuts. Calla from Tabulation was looking right at her window when it blew in. She almost lost an eye.”

“Which one’s Calla?”

“Auburn hair. Married to Emtes from Billing.”

Aiah doesn’t know him either. She looks down at her desk, the computer with its glowing yellow dials, the scalar, the logbook.

Gil’s picture in its gleaming wetsilver frame.

The baby gives another shriek. Telia smiles, half-apologetic. “Healthy lungs, huh?”

Telia hadn’t wanted to leave her kid in the Authority’s creche all day, looked after by disinterested functionaries and subjected to every epidemic sweeping Jaspeer. She’d asked Aiah if she minded her keeping Jayme in the office, and Aiah had said it was all right.

She’d said it reluctantly. She had been raised in a big family, not only siblings but cousins and nephew and nieces all jammed together in tiny government apartments in a Barkazil neighborhood — it would suit her perfectly well if she was never around small children again.

No less than three message cylinders sit in her wire basket. Aiah opens them, finds they’re all about the meeting, all from different supervisors.

Evidently there is chaos at the top.

Her computer’s yellow dials glow at her.

She peels lace back from her wrist and pens a reply on each message, puts each back in its cylinder, and looks on her plastic-covered list to double-check each supervisor’s pneumatic address. She dials each address on the little gears on the end of each cylinder, then feeds them, one by one, into the pneumatic message system. Each is tugged from her fingers by the hissing suction of the tube, and she pictures them bulleting through darkness, destination as fixed as that of passengers on the trackline shuttle.


In a city as big as the world, what is the worst thing?

To be twenty-five years old, and to know exactly how one will spend the rest of one’s life.




Aiah has learned to ignore the pain the heavy black ceramic headset inflicts on her ears. At least the headset blots out the volume that comes from Jayme's healthy lungs.

“09:34 hours, Horn Twelve reorientation to degrees 112.5. Ne?” The tabulator on the other end of the line has anything but healthy lungs. There are gasps between each word,, and a dry cough punctuates each phrase. Occasionally Aiah can hear him suck on a cigaret.

“Da,” Aiah repeats. “09:34, Horn Twelve reorientation to degrees 122.5 confirmed.”

09:34 is about six minutes from now. She jots in her log as she speaks, then dials the numbers into her computer. Inside the metal matte-black console there are clicks and whirrs.

122.5 degrees. That would be Mage Towers.

“09:35, Horn Twelve transmit at 1800 mm. tfn. Ne?”

“Da. 09:35, Horn Twelve transmit at 1800 mm. Till further notice. Confirmed.”

1800 megamehrs. That was a lot of demand even for Mage Towers. Who wants so much? she wonders.

She wonders if it's Constantine.

Aiah writes the numbers into her log, and notes that column six of her transmission scalar is free. She dials column six into her computer, then slides the logarithmic scale on the scalar until it points to 1800. She pulls an insulated cable from her cable bank and plugs it through the scale into the socket behind, pinning the scalar in place and completing an electronic circuit.

There are no more calls for power until 09:34. Aiah fidgets with her lace and feels the back of her neck burn. To avoid thinking about the burning woman she looks at the picture of Gil in its frame.

09:33. Computer gears whirr. A little mechanical flag at the top of column six clicks over from white to white-and-red. Atop the building, the huge bronze transmission horn shifts slightly to 122.5 degrees.

A minute passes. The flag clicks over to all red and the electric circuit on the scalar goes live, triggering another, far bigger plasm circuit within the webbed steel skeleton of the building. Power pours from the transgression horn. Mage Towers begins reception of the colossal charge of plasm.

Tfn. Till further notice. Enough plasm to fly Mage Towers halfway to the Shield.

Aiah reaches out her hand, touches the face of the scalar, hoping to get a taste of power, light a glowing candle in her backbrain, charge her nerves with a taste of reality . . . and of course nothing happens, nothing, because the plasm isn't hers, because she lives in a building filled with the stuff and she can't have any of it.

She wonders if it’s Constantine on the other end of the circuit.

Probably not. Probably this is another sizzling salute to consumerism, a thundering display for a soft drink or a new brand of shoe.

What's the worst thing in a city that covers the world?

To live forever with the object of desire, and not to possess it.

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