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2100, CHANNEL 2

All leaves are canceled: everyone’s going to be working shifts-and-a-half. Mengene has the meeting only vaguely under control: panic’s infected everyone from the Intendant down and there’s a lot of shouting. Aiah, far too junior to shout, sits across the shining glass conference table from Niden, the only other brown Barkazil face in the room. She was hoping for comfort but it turns out he has a streaming cold, and she winces every time he coughs or sneezes, mentally willing the viruses to the nasal membranes of upper management.

Visible through the wall behind Mengene, a floating billboard drifts past. Why so tense? it asks.

Sometimes advertisers have a sense of humor.

“Oeneme thinks it has to do with the new construction of Old Parade,” Mengene says. He touches his little blond mustache. “The Unity Hospital is being demolished, there’s an office building going up one and a half radii away, and there’s an excavation for a new trackline station right in the middle of the street. The configuration is a little irregular—”

“Irregular? There’s a map, isn’t there?” Denselle booms. He’s a fat man who loves his own voice. Thick blooms of lace spill from his jacket cuffs.

“Not yet.”

“Why the hell not?”

Mengene sighs. “Because Oeneme’s office didn’t send one.”

“Couldn’t you get one yourself?”

Mengene ignores him and begins giving out assignments, work team numbers. Aiah begins to realize that her own name hasn’t been mentioned. She holds up a hand, is ignored, finally raises her voice. “Mr. Mengene!”

There is a moment of silence.

“I haven’t been given a job,:” Aiah says.

Mengene looks at her. “I know,” he says.

“Then why am I here?”

Mengene is annoyed. “I was getting to you. You’ve got a special assignment.”

Her heart leaps, but she sees daggers in others’ eyes. What right has she to a special assignment?

Mengene can see the daggers as well as anyone else, “It’s Rohder’s idea,” he says, and the others instantly lose interest. Aiah’s hope fades. Rohder is a cobwebbed relic of the old Research Division, far gone in abstruse speculation and philosophy, but with too much seniority to fire.

The others receive their briefings. The boardroom chairs are big, heavily padded, with fan-shaped backs adorned with a huge gold chrysanthemum. They make it far too easy to feel drowsy. Aiah closes her eyes, finds herself thinking of Gil, of his short-fingered, powerful hands, the way they touch her.

Mengene finishes. Aiah waits for the others to file out and for Mengene to light another cigaret. Mengene sits, blows smoke, gestures for her to join him at the head of the table. She gets out of her chair, walks up the room. Sees her reflection in the wall’s gold-plated crysanthemums, automatically pats her hair.

“It was Rohder who snuffed the flamer,” Mengene says. “He was inside Transmission Control when it happened, saw the thing coming on an exterior monitor and dropped his butt in the hot seat. He’ll get commended, but handling that much plasm at his age put him in the hospital.” He shakes a cigaret partway out of his pack, offers it to her. “Smoke?”

“No thanks.” She sits down next to him. Behind him a peregrine dives past, squab in its sights. If she’d blinked she would have missed it.

“Rohder called me an hour ago from the hospital. He says that when he dropped the shoe on our flamer, he got an impression of her sourceline. He says he got a fairly clear impression the transmission was coming from the east.”

“Old Parade is not east,” Aiah says.

“The sourceline dropped below the horizon somewhere this side of Grand City. He says he saw it.’

“From inside Transmission Control?”

Mengene looks uncomfortable. “That’s what he says.”

“On an exterior monitor?”

Mengene gazes fixedly at the tip of his cigaret. “In his mind’s eye.”

Futility wails in Aiah’s nerves. She’s going to spend days underground searching for an old man’s hallucination.

“Rohder’s good, you know,” Mengene says. “He’s solid, a real wizard. I worked with him, back when he set up Research. Bailed out before the whole department crashed. But the crash wasn’t Rohder’s fault—too much interference from above. You can’t come up with a new field-tested theory of plasm use in a few months.”

“If this is so solid,” Aiah says, “why are you sending only me on it?”

“Because I don’t work for Rohder, I work for Oeneme, and Oeneme thinks the problem’s on Old Parade.” Mengene drives his cigaret like a nail into the titanium ashtray. It spins lazily from the momentum. Aiah wonders if Mengene’s just set up Oeneme to take a fall, perhaps on behalf of the Intendant. And whose fault will it be if Mengene’s little plot doesn’t work?

The scheming Barkazil, of course. Everyone knows they’re always looking for advantage, scheming, setting up a chonah or two. Aiah knows the situation well enough to know that she has no allies.

“The credit will be entirely yours,” Mengene says.

Escaping the credit is clearly something she needs to think about.

Mengene swabs away cigaret ash with his lace cuff. “I’ve drawn you a two-man support team,” Mengene says. “They’ll be available right after midbreak. I know you’re inexperienced with source-finding, but they might be able to guide you through—”

“I’ll want an overflight with transparencies, densities, and patterns.”

“Of course. I’ll call down to Records for you.”

“Our maps aren’t always current if they’re not our district. I’ll want a map from— what’s the substation between here and Grand City? Rocketman?”

Mengene looks surprised. “I think so. I’ll call Rocketman, if that’s what you

Sometimes, she’s learned, Jaspeeris are amazed when something intelligent comes from her lips. She’s learned to cope with the phenomenon.

Still, she can’t ask any questions she truly needs the answers to.

Special assignment. What joy.


Speech is human, silence is divine

a thought-message from His Perfection, the Prophet of Ajas

A few hours later, wearing an official yellow jumpsuit and hardhat, Aiah climbs out of a trackline car at Rocketman Station. She’s followed everywhere by her two assistants: Lastene, a young kid with pimples, and Grandshuk, a grizzled man so short and squat and powerfully built that she suspects some ancestor may have had his genes twisted.

Rocketman Station, the station run by the Trackline Authority, has the same name as Rocketman Substation, the Authority plasm station. No clue as to why either is called “Rocketman” — most of the names for these neighborhoods are so old they’ve lost all meaning.

The trackline station is ancient and deep below the surface. An old mosaic on the platform, once-bright colors grimy and chipped, shows how the aboveground must have looked at one time, bright whitestone buildings shining under the gray Shield, some with odd ball-topped antennae broadcasting plasm in the form of shining gold zigzag rays.

No rockets in the mosaic, though.

The tunnel to the substation isn’t properly walled, just screened off with steel mesh. Aiah’s boots boom on temporary flooring that was probably installed decades ago. She ascends past layers of human strata, all visible through steel mesh: old brickwork, scrolled iron stanchions, water pipes, brown stone, concrete, sewer pipe glistening with condensation, gray bricks, red stone, white stone.

Everything a generator of plasm, of geomantic power.

Mass creates its own energies— for that matter is energy, albeit in another form. The disordered pile that is the world-city, the structures of iron and brick and rock and concrete, generates its own intrinsic power. The power accumulates slowly within the structures themselves, fills them like rising water entering every crevice, and lies latent unless tapped. Geomantic relationships have been shown to matter more than mass itself—the design of a building, or the relationship of buildings to one another can multiply power generation, concentrate or direct it to one place or another. The metal structures of buildings, reaching down into bedrock and up toward the Shield, gather and concentrate that power, make it available for use and broadcast.

And the power — plasm — resonates within the human mind. It is susceptible to control by the odd little particules of human will, and once controlled, can do almost anything — on the small, microcosmic end, plasm can cure illness, alter genes, halt or reverse aging, create precious metals from base matter and radioisotopes from precious metals. On the macrocosmic end plasm can create life, any kind of life a person can think of, can invade a target mind, destroy a person’s will and make him a puppet for the manipulator, can burn out nerves or turn living bones to carbon ash, turn hatred to love or love to hate, can wreak death in any number of obscene forms, can fling missiles or bombs or people anywhere in the world, all in a snap of the fingers. Can blow buildings down in a tornado wind, carry skyscrapers through the air for a thousand miles and set them down feather-light at the point of destination, create earthquakes to shiver a hundred structures to the ground, can grant earthly power beyond the wildest dreams, can do anything except punch a hole through the Shield that the Ascended Ones set between the world and whatever exists outside of it.

But you have to get the stuff first. And it’s collected, distributed, metered, taxed. There’s never enough. Governments require colossal amounts of plasm as a foundation for their own power. Complexes like Mage Towers or Grand City charge their tenants horrific sums, all because their buildings are constructed so as to concentrate and transmit plasm efficiently, and the tenants — geomancers of astounding wealth and power — live there because they can afford it. Because they can afford to call for power tfn, to let the meters run.

Never enough. But buildings are always going up, or tearing down, or going higher, or remodeling, and the configurations are always changing, mass achieving new balances with mass, producing new potentials. That’s why plasm divers burrow through the foundations of the world, through abandoned cellars and long-forgotten utility mains and rubble-filled inspection tunnels, all in hope of finding a source that’s off the circuit, that hasn’t been metered yet, a source of plasm that can be tapped or sold or used to fulfill the diver’s uttermost dreams.

And if it goes wrong, Aiah thinks, if the diver takes on more power than she’s trained to handle, maybe you have hundred-foot-tall flaming women wailing down the street, burning off a hundred years’ chance accumulation of plasm in one horrifying, burning instant.

At Rocketman Plasm Station it takes a while to establish Aiah’s credentials. Mengene never made the promised call. The archives are kept in a room below street level, and are reached through the wide Battery Room where the station’s power is contained in huge plasm accumulators and capacitors, three times human height, gleaming copper and brass layers with shining black ceramic. Controlling them is a black metal wall filled with switches, dials, and levers that monitor and control the vast power stored here, that cause it to flow and surge at the drop of a contact. In the corner, near the control bank, is an icon to Tangid, the two-faced Lord of Power. The two controllers sit in comfortable chairs in front of the control board and spend their days reading magazines. Their job is almost entirely automated, but the union insists they have to stay here in case of an emergency, and their contract even gets them hazard pay, just in case terrorists burst in the door waving machine-guns and demanding a dose of power.

Aiah is escorted to the archives. Lastene and Grandshuk follow like obedient hounds. She’s back in the Battery Room a few minutes later, she and her team carrying bundles of maps, transparencies, and updates, all wrapped in official orange Authority strapping. She sits at a table near the controllers and drags them open.

The overflight maps are chromographs taken by aircraft, jigsawed carefully together, and carefully scaled to give an idea of relationships. Transparent celluloid overlays are supposed to show what’s underneath. Some of the cels are so old that they’ve yellowed or deteriorated. Anything that can alter plasm generation is supposed to be in the overlays or the updates. It’s all a pleasant fiction.

It’s easier to let entrepreneurs do the work — that and greed. The Authority knows that the total of plasm stolen is enormous, impossible to keep up with. But if a plasm diver finds anything new, sooner or later someone will turn him in for the reward and the Authority will find the source and wire it into the circuit.

Aiah spends an hour looking at the maps. The area between the Exchange District and Grand City is vast, hundreds of square radii. She sets her dividers against the map scale and marches out the relationships between the various structures, then puts down the transparencies one by one and tries to add in their effects. The maps swim before her eyes.

It occurs to her that her job is impossible. Mengene, she decides, is up to something. Maybe he wants her to fail.

Aiah decides she wants to think about that for a while.

She looks up at her crew, who are reading the controllers’ magazines. “You can leave if you like. I’m going home.”

Grandshuk looks at his partner, then back at Aiah. “We were sort of hoping to draw some overtime.”

“I’m on salary,” Aiah says, “I don’t get overtime. But you can take yours in the bar across the street if you want. I’ll meet you here right at the beginning of work shift tomorrow.”

Grandshuk looks at his partner again, then nods. “If that’s okay with you, then.”

“Yeah, sure. Have fun.”

She looks down at the maps again, the yellowed transparencies that mark utility mains, old tubeways, the foundations of buildings long since demolished by wrecking ball or by earthquake. If she dove anywhere, anywhere, she’d probably find some plasm. Make an announcement back at the office, hey, problem solved. Get her pat on the back, go back to her yellow-eyed computer and scalar and the wails of Telia’s baby.

No, she decides. That’s the sort of thing her brother Stonn might do. He’d even think it was smart, at least until another Grade A screamer started blowing out windows on Exchange.

There has to be a way around it, she thinks. A cunning way.

A Barkazil way.

She’s one of the Cunning People, she thinks. It’s time to get those cunning genes into action.




Let Justice Be Served!

Her cousin Landro works in a hardware store in Old Shorings, the neighborhood where Aiah spent her girlhood. That’s an hour-and-a-half commute from Rocketman, and in the wrong direction from where she lives at Loeno Towers. Aiah tracklines out carrying a heavy satchel full of maps, wearing her jumpsuit and hardhat — she is feeling unlovely and unloved by the time she drags her feet up the broken escalator to the entrance tunnel, but as soon as her feet touch the sidewalk she feels her heart begin to lift.

A vocal group sings somewhere, the sound floating out of an upper window. Aiah finds herself smiling. A cold wind pours down the narrow corridor between buildings of soiled red brick, all so old they lean over the street like old women leaning on their sticks.

The street is narrow and closed to vehicle traffic. The buildings have shops on the lower floor, apartments above. Most buildings have metal scaffolding extending their fronts out over the sidewalk and into the street. Officially speaking, the scaffolding is supposed to support the old brick walls, but the scaffolds are all inhabited, divided up into cubicles where people sell clothes or gadgets or toys, lucky charms or advice or vegetables raised in roof gardens. Sometimes poor people live there, with plastic sheeting for roofs and walls. It’s all illegal, and the scaffolding and its contents will turn into missiles in the next earthquake, but nobody in this part of the Scope of Jaspeer has cared about building codes for a very long time.

Aiah did much of her growing up here, in public housing a few blocks away. Cooking smells hang heavy in the air, familiar Barkazil spices. Hawkers smile and offer homemade musical instruments, pigeon pies, incense, scarves, lucky charms, handbags, and watches with phony labels. No end of music, music everywhere, booming from amplifiers turned out the windows, slippery Barkazil rhythms competing with the boom of plastic sheeting in the wind. Children play football in the street. Old men drink beer on front stoops. Young men stand on street corners to protect the neighborhood from whatever they think is threatening it, presumably other young men.

At a scaffold shop she buys a meal of hot noodles with chiles and onions and a bit of meat for seasoning. She has to put down a five-clink deposit for the cheap ceramic cup with a chip on its rim. It’s the sort of meal her grandmother was always warning her against: the meat is supposed to be chicken grown in a vat or on someone’s roof, but it might well be sewer rat.

Aiah doesn’t care — it tastes wonderful.

A flying billboard hawking cigarets soars overhead with a siren wail. It’s illegal for plasm displays to make that much noise, but in certain neighborhoods the noise statutes never seem to be enforced.

Landro sees the yellow jumpsuit first, and he looks at Aiah a little warily until he recognizes her. At once he gives her an expansive hug, answers question about his girlfriend and various children, hers, his, theirs together.

“I thought you worked in an office now,” he says.

“I’m underground for a few weeks.”

“Have you seen your mama?”

Annoyance dances along Aiah’s nerves on little insect feet. “No,” she says, “I just got here, and —” Deep sigh. “Actually, I’m working.”

Wariness enters his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I was hoping you could give me some answers. About diving.”

Landro gives a look over his shoulder at the store manager frowning from behind a screen at the back of the store. “Why don’t I show you some samples?” he says, and takes her over to the paint section.

Upper management, Aiah thinks, is everywhere.

“I’m not looking to get anyone in trouble,” he says, and hands her a card with paint samples.

For several years Landro was a plasm diver, feeding his discoveries into local circuits through meters he’d carefully sabotaged, supplying local adepts with the amounts of plasm necessary to keep their predictions reasonably on the mark, their love spells boiling, their curses suitably calamitous. Till the Authority creepers caught him and sent him to Chonmas for a six-month stretch.

“I don’t want to arrest anybody,” Aiah assures, “I just want to find somebody’s source. I need to know what to look for in a meter that’s been cracked.”

“There must be a dozen ways.”

“Just the most common. Probably small-time stuff. Little meters, apartments, and small offices.”

Landro licks his lips and tells her what she wants. He used little magnets to retard the dials on the continuous-flow meters, and the gear-driven ones were gimmicked with special gears of slightly different sizes than the ones called for in the specifications. Aiah nags him until he tells her just where the magnets were placed, just which gears were swapped.

“Thank you,” she says, and kisses his cheek.

“See your mama,” he says.

“I’m working now,” glad for the excuse, “but I’ll see you all on Senko’s Day.”

He looks after her doubtfully as she hoists her map case off the floor and heads out. She’d like to stay in the neighborhood a little longer, but chances are she’d run into another relative, and then her mother would hear about it. Besides, considering that it’s shift change, it’s at least a two-hour ride to her new neighborhood.


Our doctor-mages can restore youth and make you beautiful!

Cosmetic or restorative surgery —

No knives or anesthesia —

Reasonable rates —


Aiah is thankful for the noodles by the time she gets home. She can’t afford to eat out in her neighborhood, and she really can’t afford to buy groceries there, either; she usually buys food one stop up the pneuma line and walks home from there.

But she doesn’t take the pneuma this time, because it doesn’t connect to Old Shorings. Instead, she has to use the trackline and transfer, Circle Line to Red Line to New Central Line — and every single car on Aiah’s journey is overdue for service on its suspension and tires. It’s a tooth-rattling ride, and by the end Aiah’s kidneys ache and her bladder is full.

She has to walk a block and a half from the trackline station to her apartment at Loeno Towers. Hydrogen-powered cars hiss by on soft polymer wheels. Black clouds cruise under the Shield like hunter-killer craft, threatening a rain strike at any moment. It’s dark enough so that some of the stormlights go on.

Loeno is a new apartment complex built on the rubble of a decayed residential district, sixteen tall black glass monoliths, housing maybe ten thousand people in all. The place is expensive and Aiah and Gil could barely afford to buy it.

Now, it turns out, they can’t afford to sell.

Well-dressed neighbors look at her with well-contained surprise as she walks to the elevators — assuming they notice her at all in the course of the day, something she doubts; they’re used to seeing her in her gray suits, heels, and white lace.

The elevator carries her briskly to the thirtieth floor; from there it’s a hundred quick steps to her apartment door.

Aiah steps inside and feels her boots sink into carpet. The first thing she notices is that the yellow message bulb on her communications array isn’t lit. The apartment is one largish room, with a counter between the living area and kitchen. There’s a small shower and toilet, a small room for a pocket garden, with grow lights and a tub of loam for vegetable cultivation. Through the black glass wall is a spectacular view, mostly of other black glass windows. It’s the largest area Aiah has ever had entirely to herself.

She throws the map case onto the bed she hasn’t bothered to convert back to its sofa configuration in weeks, sits down on the disordered sheets and unclips her boots. She rubs her feet, locates a few places that will blister if she isn’t careful. Tomorrow she’ll wear a more appropriate style of sock.

There’s something in a jumpsuit pocket that feels uncomfortable, and she unsnaps it to find the chipped ceramic cup that held her noodles. She forgot to redeem it for her five clinks. She puts it on the bedside table.

Aiah takes a shower and wraps herself in a velour bathrobe. A tune sung by the vocal group in Old Shorings plays itself faintly in her head. She looks at the message machine again, just to make sure Gil hadn’t called when she was in the shower. No luck.

An aerial advertisement shines through the black glass window, tracks its yellow light across the room. Vote No on Item Fourteen, letters snaking between the Loeno Towers. She’s never heard of Item Fourteen before.

She sits on the bed, looks first at the life-size portrait of Gil on one wall, then the icon of Karlo on the other. The two poles of her personal universe.

From the armrest control she turns on the video and lets the oval screen babble at her. It’s some kind of silly action chromo with Aldemar blowing up half a metropolis. She wishes Gil would call. She’d call him, but she never knows when he’s going to be near a phone.

There had been a time, she remembers, when she’d really wanted to be alone. Wanted to be away from her huge, anarchic family, from their oppressive high spirits and noisy poverty and hopeless irresponsibility. In a place just like this, high and remote and sealed from the world by black glass.

She and Gil had been together for a year when they’d bought the apartment on Loeno Towers, pooling their savings and still having to borrow half the down payment from his parents. They were both successful for a while, working hard, saving, allowing themselves one shift out every week, a few carefree hours when talk of finances was carefully banned.

And then Gil got his transfer, a lateral movement across department lines that led to a job two thousand radii from the Scope of Jaspeer, far out in Gerad territory. The job was supposed to be temporary, lasting no more than two months, but now it had gone eight months with no real end in sight. Gil had been home only three times. His travel bonus wasn’t enough to cover his expenses: things were expensive in Gerad and his income was garnished twice to pay two different sets of taxes — a bookkeeping problem that was supposed to have been solved by now, but somehow wasn’t.

Gil had been sending what he could, but Aiah couldn’t make up the difference on her own. Payments were falling behind, each by another day or two. Late payment penalties were piling up.

She considered acquiring a roommate, but Gil was against it. It would be, he explained, like admitting defeat. He still expected his new job to end any week now, and he didn’t want to have to evict someone who’d just settled in.

Roommates were against the Loeno protocols in any case, and she’d have to smuggle the person in.

Not but that she couldn’t. She was one of the Cunning People, after all.

And she couldn’t sell the place either. Loeno Towers had been built in expectation of a rise in demand for upper-middle-class housing and the demand hadn’t come. A third of the apartments were still vacant, and the rest were going for bargain prices. If she sold, she’d have to sell at well below what they’d paid.

Gil wouldn’t consider selling in any case. He’d say it admitted defeat.

Defeat was a stranger to Gil’s mindset, but not to Aiah’s: her whole culture, the entire nation of Cunning People, had all outsmarted themselves spectacularly three generations ago, and after that self-destruction no amount of cunning could piece together the wreckage. Even the Metropolis of Barkazi was gone, the once-sovereign commonwealth now carved into districts governed by former neighbors. Defeat and fragmentation was in the air Aiah breathed as a child. When she’d won her scholarship to the Rathene School, and then to the university, every single relative told her nothing good would come of it. They’re teaching you to betray your people, her mother insisted.

Well, maybe they were. She had been awed by the Jaspeeris, by the utter simplicity of their optimism. Infected by their certainty, she’d signed up for geomancy classes, even though her scholarship didn’t cover the plasm fees required.

The two years of theory went well, but after theory came practice, and she’d run into a stone wall: she simply couldn’t afford her own discipline. So she shifted to administration and after graduation applied to the Plasm Authority. At least the civil service hired Barkazils, and in the back of her mind she’d thought that in working for the Authority she’d at least be learning something about plasm.

When she’d met Gil, she found him the most certain man she’d ever met; for a while Aiah thought Gil and his people had somehow found the magic her own ancestors had inexplicably missed. He was pale-skinned and Jaspeeri and practiced optimism as if it were a religion.

“All Barkazil heroes are losers,” he pointed out once, after she told him a few stories from her people’s tradition. “Have you noticed that?”

No, not till he mentioned it. Then she thought of Karlo, the greatest Barkazil hero, who had been offered the Ascendancy and refused it, and who had been walled off by the Shield along with everyone else; and of Chonah, who tricked her brilliant way through life until she lost everything and threw herself off a building, and in so doing got herself promoted to immortal in charge of hustlers; and of the Metropolitan Trocco, who got involved with Thymmah the prostitute and . . .

Well. The point was made.

Gil has no loser heroes. His role models all Ascended, or became Metropolitan of some district or other, or at the very least scored a winning goal in the last seconds of the big game. He read books on how to succeed by concentrating on the proper successful thoughts, and gave her solemn instruction in how it was all supposed to work.

“The human mind generates its own plasm,” he said. “You just have to get it working for you.” It’s not what they taught her in her geomancy classes at the university, but she figured she didn’t have anything to lose by believing.

Successful thoughts. She’d thought nothing but successful thoughts for months, and the bills still arrive on the commo almost daily.

For a moment she considers asking her father for help. She’s only met him three times in her life — he’d left the family when she was two. A couple years ago, just after Aiah had started at the Authority, he’d called her, a voice on the phone she didn’t even remember, and asked if perhaps they might have dinner.

She didn’t remember the face, either: he was a middle-aged stranger, plump and fairly well-off, the half-owner of a machine shop. After leaving Aiah’s mother he’d remarried and had another family; Aiah has a pair of half-brothers she’s never met. They managed to spend a pleasant hour together in the restaurant, and have met for dinner twice since and spoken every so often on the phone.

No, she decides, she won’t ask her father for help. After all these years, she doesn’t want to feel she owes him anything.

A yellow flash lights up the room. Aiah assumes it’s another advertisement until, a few seconds later, thunder rattles her black glass wall.

On the video news, Mengene is leading a jumpsuit-clad team into some utility mains on Old Parade. Oeneme appears and makes reassuring sounds at the camera. Aiah can’t figure out why he looks different until she realizes that, for the video, he’s laced himself into a corset.

Aiah’s eyes slide from the oval screen to the little door set into the wall by the apartment entrance. The door set into the dark grained polymer paneling, the door with its little silver lock that only Authority keys will open.

Loeno Towers is set up to deliver plasm to each room, not huge amounts like Grand City, but enough to get a lot of things done. That was part of the fantasy once: when they got ahead financially, Aiah could resume her geomancy studies.

Aiah thinks about what her cunning cousin told her about meters.

She rises from the bed and drifts across the room. One lightning flash after another lights her way. As a member of the Emergency Response teams she has a passkey, just in case she has to cut off someone’s power. She opens the door, looks at the meter for a while. The Authority’s yellow-and-red seals look back at her.

Her mouth is very dry.

She could open the meter with the same key, observe the silent gears that haven’t moved since she’d bought the apartment. A couple substitutes placed just so, the gear ratio reversed, and her fortune is made. Aiah can bleed the plasm off into batteries, then sell it.

But of course she’d get caught. Sooner or later someone would notice that the seals were broken on the gearbox. Sooner or later one of her clients, perhaps even a relative, would turn her in for the reward.

And that would bring what remained of the dream to an end. The Authority would never employ anyone convicted of stealing plasm. The civil service would close, and she couldn’t imagine anyone else hiring her either. Then it would be back to her old neighborhood, to be surrounded by her family, a new child every year or so, the check from the government every two weeks . . . Her loser heritage fulfilled.

Maybe it was inevitable. At least then, one way or another, it would be over.

She closes the little door, goes back to bed, and tries to summon cunning thoughts.

None appear.





There’s a deep subsonic rumble as the pneuma’s hidden machinery inhales, a sound like the breath of a god, and then something kicks Aiah in the spine and the car is fired along its tube like a message cylinder through the Authority’s mail system.

Aiah rubs sleep from her eyes. She’s up early in hopes another look through her maps and transparencies might provide an answer.

She started with the earliest of the transparencies, one that showed a perfect rectangle of new apartment and office buildings going up four hundred years ago. And then it occurred to her to wonder what was on the site before. What was it that could have occupied that perfect six-block rectangle between 1189th and 1193rd Streets?

An old factory? A government building? Industrial park? Whatever it was, there had to be remnants, old foundations, utility connections, piers, rebar ... a lot of mass for which there was no longer any real record.

Then she checked her largest-scale map with her dividers, marching them across the jigsawed chromograph sections, and found that the site was exactly 144 radii from Bursary Street, where the flaming woman first appeared. One hundred and forty-four, twelve squared. One of the Great Squares. A flamer’s sourceline, its umbilical cord to its energy source, might have fallen into that ratio naturally. A Grand Square like 81 would have been better, a square of a square, but she couldn’t hope for everything.

The discovery set a little signal humming through her nerves. Now she’d check the archives and see if she could find out what had been on that site before the housing went up.

Her ears pop as the pneuma dives under an obstruction, a deep structure or subterranean river. On the front of the car is a video screen, a wide bright oval intended to keep the passengers tranquilized. It’s covered with a slab of bulletproof glass and fixed to the car with heavy stainless steel bolts just in case anyone has a notion to remove it.

The car’s speakers are wretched and buzz insistently. Aiah can’t hear any of the dialogue, but it doesn’t matter. She knows the story by heart. There’s the winsome blond apprentice with her white even teeth and innocent heart. There’s the old master with snowy eyebrows like pigeon’s wings, his manner gruff but his heart of purest hammered gold. The master answers the apprentice’s every naive question, imparts vaguely optimistic philosophy, explains the ways of geomancy, and offers brusque advice on the winning of the hero, who as the son of the Metropolitan is about a thousand social strata higher than the heroine but who, luckily for the apprentice, is in deep trouble.

At the story’s climax the apprentice climbs into the hot seat in some Transmission Control office, takes a copper transference grip in each hand, and screams, “No time to explain! Give me full power now!” And the next thing you know the villain is thwarted, the Metropolitan’s ass is saved once again, and the apprentice and the hero are wrapped in a clinch in his rooftop arboretum. Fade to black. The end.

Aiah’s seen the film a hundred times, and during her adolescence probably read a thousand books with a similar plot. And all she can think when she sees one now is, If only it were that easy.

If only there were really these kindly old masters to explain everything, to predict the future unerringly, and guide you through life with a few homespun maxims. If only you didn’t have to pay impossible sums for all the plasm consumed during training. If only the heart’s advice were infallible.

But the system is rigged, and now, with the voices of her Barkazil ancestors chorusing I told you so in her head, she can’t understand how she ever figured it wasn’t. Those who have access, whether to money or plasm, keep it to themselves, and so far as she can tell that’s true everywhere. Maybe the Ascended Ones are different, but they’re outside the Shield. The only way she’ll ever finish her training will be to risk prison by stealing the raw material. The only way she’ll ever find a teacher will be to pay him wads of cash she doesn’t have, or megamehrs of plasma she’d have to steal, or — maybe if she’s lucky — she’ll only have to trade him her body. And the only way she’ll ever meet the son of a Metropolitan will be if he runs over her in his flashy Bolt 79D automobile.

Maybe she can find the flaming woman’s source. Maybe it’ll get her noticed if she actually does her job well.

It’s not something anyone seems really to expect of her.

There’s a blast of air as the pneuma car brakes, then a belly-queasing wrench as it drops out of the system to the designated platform. Humming electromagnets cut velocity further. Bright station lights pour through the windows, gleam from the Pneuma Authority’s blue-tiled walls.

Time to go to work.

It’s a four-block walk from the pneuma station to the trackline leading to Rocketman, then another kidney-punching ride to Rocketman Station on a car riding on its metal rims. After a forty-five minute search through the archives, she finds an old piece of paper, one that comes apart along its creases as she unfolds it. It describes an old plastics plant at a site called Terminal, one sold for scrap so that a “mixed neighborhood” could be built on the site.

Triumph hums in her nerves.

She may be onto something here.


Two trackline stops east from Rocketman is Terminal, a station that isn’t, actually, the line’s terminal. Another one of those names come adrift from its original meaning.

From street level, Terminal is just like her old neighborhood, the leaning old brick buildings, scaffolding, the throb of music and cry of children and smells of cooking.

But the food is spiced differently, the music bounces to a different beat, and the faces are pale and Jaspeeri and suspicious. There are Jaspeeri Nation stickers in some of the shop windows. A warning trickles up her spine as the import of all this begins to penetrate her consciousness.

She concludes that her official yellow jumpsuit will protect her. But still she’s glad for the company of Lastene and Grandshuk as she begins her search over the old factory foundations.

Success, right away. She checks three buildings in a row and finds gimmicked meters in every single one. A plasm diver has been operating here.

There’s some contraband coming up from below, clear enough. Maybe not the source for the burning woman, but something.

The third building she tries is an old office structure converted to residence. The building superintendent, a broad-beamed man in green gabardine pants, agrees to let her into the basement — not that he’s got a lot of choice — and one level below the street she’s surprised to find an old blue-tiled stairway leading down. Blue, the color of the Pneuma Authority, not the yellow of the Trackline Authority. An iron-barred door bars the entrance, closed with chain and a fist-sized padlock. A battered tin sign says TERMINAL, with a fistmark pointing down.

“What’s that?” Aiah asks. She feels so close the plasm might as well be pulsing through her veins. The superintendent plucks at his suspenders.

“Entrance to an old pneuma station.”

Her mind swims as she tries to remember whether or not this was on any of her old overlays. “When did they close it off?”

A shrug. “Long before I ever got here.”

“Do you have the key?”

The superintendent only laughs.

“Do you have any bolt cutters?”


“Shouldn’t be hard to find bolt cutters in this neighborhood,” Lastene says, and the superintendent scowls.

Grandshuk just walks up to the padlock and gives it a yank. The chain rattles, and the padlock falls open. Lastene barks a surprised laugh.

Grandshuk unwraps the chain and pushes the barred door open. He looks at the superintendent.

“Somebody’s been down here,” he says.

The superintendent looks innocent. “Nobody I know. Maybe one of the tenants. Or their kids.”

Aiah switches on her headlamp and torch. “Let’s go,” she says.

Heavy boots echo on the stair as the party descends. Memories rise in Aiah: the Plasm Authority has an apprenticeship program designed to acquaint budding executives with their jurisdiction from ground level on up. After college she spent two years underground, doing the sort of jobs that Lastene and Grandshuk do every day. She’d hated it at the time, but it taught her more about the way plasm is distributed than anything she’d ever learned at the university.

There are footprints on the soiled tile steps, most of them tiny: children have been down here, and a few adults. On the second landing there’s an old bedroll, empty food tins, used fuel cells for a chemical stove, and an untidy pile of plastic liquor bottles.

Grandshuk kicks at the bedroll and Aiah’s leaping light catches a mouse as it scurries away.

“Years old,” he says. There are baby mice, Aiah sees, living in the bedroll. Her nerves wail as Grandshuk methodically crushes them all beneath his boot.

At the next landing water erosion has caused the tile wall to collapse. Aiah and Grandshuk peer into the little cavern revealed, see chunks of old concrete, brick, a leaking water main. No real plasm source.

Any footprints are now washed away by a water cascade that pours merrily down the stairs. Aiah walks carefully on the slippery tiles, keeps one gloved hand on the corroded rail. Something swims away as they approach a lake at the bottom of the stairs. The water level goes over Aiah’s ankles. It’s cold and she begins to shiver as damp soaks through her socks.

A level corridor sloshes along for about half a pitch, then divides, UPPER PLATFORM, one sign says. The sign for the other is missing. The water all pours off that way, so its level has to be lower. Aiah looks at Grandshuk. His face is yellow in the light of her lamp.

“Procedure says we don’t split up,” she says.

“That’s crap,” Grandshuk says. “We know people have been down here. Nothing’s going to cave in.”

Aiah hesitates.

“I can’t feel my feet any more,” Lastene says. “Let’s do whatever’s quickest.”

Aiah shines her light down the river. It’s the most dangerous way: if they’re to split, two people should take that route, and one the other.

She’s the leader, she thinks, the downward path should be hers.

On the other hand, she’d really like to wring out her socks.

“You two go down that way,” she says. “If it’s more than a hundred paces, come back and wait for me here. I’ll check the upper platform by myself.” They don’t seem to resent her giving herself the driest job. Grandshuk and Lastene begin wading down the corridor. Aiah watches them descend, silhouetted against their own lights, then takes the other corridor.

Within ten paces she’s on the old platform. Her bootfalls echo in the dark. Wet squelches beneath her soles.

It’s a pneuma, all right, the oval tunnel makes that clear enough, and there are runners instead of tracks at the bottom of the pit.

The ceiling is supported by a row of iron stanchions, fluted, each with clawed feet bolted to the concrete platform through a frayed old pad of asbestos insulation. Light supports hang from the ceiling, the light fixtures themselves long since scavenged away. Chunks of wall are missing where fixtures have been torn out.

Aiah wets a finger, holds it up. No obvious air currents: the pneuma line is probably sealed off farther down the track. She slowly walks the length of the platform, examining everything carefully in the light of her torch.

She stops, redirects the light. Her heart lurches.

There’s a streak of reddish dust floating down the length of one of the station’s support stanchions. She looks closer, sees that powdery rusted iron seems to have migrated to the surface of the stanchion, pooled around the clawed feet, overrunning the asbestos pad and pointing straight across the platform.

Electrolytic deposition. Sometimes this happens if there’s an electric current in an atmosphere heavy with electrolytes, but that water spilling down the stair was fresh, not salt. Hairs rise on the back of Aiah’s neck.

Connections. What is that stanchion trying to connect itself to?

She flicks the light from the stanchion across the platform, sees a doorway. The door has long been removed, and there’s a little gnomon in the doorframe where a lock was once placed. Her heart is in her throat. She walks to the doorway, flashes her light in.

It was a public toilet. The fixtures and even the pipe have been removed, leaving gaping holes in the walls and floor. There’s been a cave-in — an old L-shaped iron brace has fallen through the roof, probably in an earthquake, and now lies cantwise along the length of the room.

Aiah approaches hesitantly, pans her light along the room.

Empty eye-sockets stare back at her. Aiah’s throat clamps shut in terror and suddenly she can’t breathe. Something — pulse probably — crashes in her ears. The room swims in front of her. She leans against the doorway for support.

The burning woman. She remembers the terror-filled face, humanity consumed in flames. The plasm exploded through the woman’s mind, and though it soon had a mind of its own it retained the diver’s pattern.

She takes a long series of deep breaths and steps forward, tottering on her heavy boots. She tries to focus her mind on theory, on a scientific theory of what’s happened here. Earthquake drops brace, disrupting the plasm well. The quake probably caused enough damage to the mains and meters above so that a small amount of missing plasm wasn’t detected.

The plasm had been building for years, most likely, till one lone plasm diver found it and triggered a blowhole that exploded through her body and brain and ran amuck in the world outside.

As she approaches the beam Aiah tries to keep her eyes away from the corpse, from what the plasm has done to it. There’s probably a small amount of plasm collected here since the catastrophe, most likely a detectable amount. She unhooks the portable meter from her belt, connects an alligator clip to the brace, focuses her helmet light on the dial, and watches wide-eyed as the needle almost leaps off the logarithmic scale.

For a moment she’s aware of nothing but the pounding of her own pulse. The plasm well is brimming over and immeasurably powerful, fully capable of burning every nerve in her body if she’s careless.

It’s not a one-time thing. She’s found a glory hole, a lost well worth millions. That old plastics factory, all the iron and steel in its foundation, and who knows what that’s connected to besides the pneuma station.

With trembling hands she pulls the alligator clip off the brace, then gropes her way back to the door, trying to keep her eyes off the body. Once outside on the platform, she leans her back against one of the torn walls and tries to collect her breath, her thoughts.

The burning woman stalks through her mind. Her shrieks echo in Aiah’s ears. Some time later she hears the clump of boots, sees lights dancing in the entrance tunnel. She begins walking toward her team. A torch dazzles her, and she raises a hand to block the light.

“Anything?” Grandshuk's voice booms loud in the empty space.

Aiah takes a deep breath.

“Nothing,” she says, “I found nothing.”

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