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The lower platform, Grandshuk says, is the final station of the old eastward-bound pneuma line, hence the name Terminal. The leaking water pours across the platform into the pits where the old passenger elevators once were — apparently the old drain system works perfectly well, because the lake isn’t very deep.

Grandshuk wants to go down the tunnels, lots of old metal and brick down there, but Aiah wants to get her team off the platform as soon as possible. There are big empty spaces behind the station, where complicated machinery, salvaged long ago, once turned the pneuma cars around and shot them to the upper platform. And there have to be air shafts that fed the compressors, and other stairways to bring the passengers down.

“If the diver found a source, she’d need to get it to the surface,” Aiah says. “If we can find a connection in one of those shafts, we can track it back to the source, ne?”

She takes the other stairways up, finds they’ve been cut off by new construction. The air shafts are huge, empty, drafty things, brick planted with old iron rungs leading to the surface. The rungs are wet with leakage or condensation and covered with rough flakes of rust. Aiah insists on textbook safety procedures, the team members clipping and unclipping safety lines as they clamber up and down. Drizzle mists down on her hardhat as she climbs. Her thighs ache with the effort.

All the deliberate work takes time, and Aiah can use time to map the place thoroughly in her mind, to work out all the possible access routes to the station. She doesn’t want to keep walking down that waterfall again and again.

In the darkness, it’s very easy to close her eyes and see the burning woman pulsing on the insides of her lids.

The shift passes, then a few hours of the next shift. Finally the team drags itself back up the waterfall to the basement of the apartment building. The superintendent has long since vanished.

“I want to get in a couple hours’ research first thing tomorrow on how far those tunnels extend,” Aiah says. “We don’t want to walk for ten radii tomorrow.”

“We clock on at 08.00,” Grandshuk says.

“Fine. Clock on by all means. But you don’t have to meet me here till 10:00.”

A flash of paranoia makes her look at Grandshuk carefully, just to see if there’s a look of suspicion in his eyes, but all she can see is weariness.

Outside there’s a solid wall of black cloud under the Shield. Chill rain pours down in solid sheets. The streets are full to the gutters and black, with the emergency lighting on. But it’s no more wet under the street scaffolding than it was in Terminal Station, so Aiah stays fairly comfortable on a walk to the nearest hardware store. She gets a strange look from the man who sells her a big padlock, then notices the Jaspeeri Nation sticker only on her way out.

She returns to the Terminal Station entrance and puts the bright new padlock on the chain, then puts the key in her pocket.

A glory hole, Aiah thinks. A river of power, vast and strong and limitless. And she’s the only one who knows about it.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it yet, but she’s thinking hard. She’s one of the Cunning People, after all.


Aiah leans against the wall of the Loeno elevator. Streaks of dirt run down her face and jumpsuit. Neighbors frown at her politely: she’s leaving dirty smudges on the elevator mirror glass. When the door opens she wearily shoulders her tote bag and marches out.

It’s well past the start of third shift. She figures she’ll get about five hours’ sleep.

After she left Terminal she went back to Rocketman to do the research she’d promised to do the next day. She finds documentation that relates to the transparencies that should have been in the map file, but which disappeared or decayed or got misfiled. The old pneuma had been constructed for the purpose of bringing workers to the plastics factory from their company housing forty radii away. When the factory closed the whole pneuma had been decommissioned, its equipment salvaged but the tunnels left in place. New construction probably cut the tubes somewhere, but Aiah doesn’t bother to research the location; she figures that tomorrow she’ll lead Grandshuk and Lastene as far downtube as the next station, then switch to the other tunnel and return. A futile mission, but at least it has the virtue of keeping her team busy and away from the transphysical power well humming away on the upper platform.

Her feet ache at the thought of the long walk.

As she enters the apartment she sees the yellow bulb glowing on her communications array. Aiah drops the tote bag with a thud and walks to where the array is inset into the wall. She has a hard time focusing her eyes on the dial, which shows three messages. She presses a button and hears a whine as the etching belt begins to roll and then a grinding noise as the play head moves to the first position. She’s got to lubricate that play head soon.

One message is from Telia, informing her that there’s another meeting at end of work shift tomorrow. The second is from her mother and complains that Aiah was in Old Shorings and hasn’t paid a visit. The message, which promises to be fairly long, as usual cuts off in mid-word, either because her mother’s wall unit is faulty or because she forgot to keep her thumb on the transmit key.

The third is from Gil. When she hears his voice Aiah closes her eyes and leans her head against the grain of the polymer paneling and lets her breath slip past her lips, just lets the weariness and sorrow flow.

He’s sorry she’s not home, he says. He’d like to hear her voice. He misses her. The acquisition is looking more complicated every day but he’s working double shifts and he hopes to be back soon. He had this unexpected expense — to do with his apartment lease, something called “bed money” — and the company should reimburse him eventually; but this month’s cashgram is going to be a little short.

He wishes she were home. He loves her. Maybe she can call him early tomorrow, an hour or so before first shift. Maybe in a month or so he can get some time off and come home for a few days. Goodbye.

Aiah opens her eyes, lets the room come back into fragile focus. A plasm ball with the logo for Gulman Shoes rotates past her window. She looks down at her feet, sees her bulky tote bag, and she remembers what she’s carrying in it.

She picks up the tote, carries it to the kitchen table, opens it. Its main contents are three plasm batteries, layers of copper and brass and ceramic coated in white insulating plastic. Heavy things, miniaturized versions of the giant capacitors in the basement of Rocketman Substation.

Aiah plans to bleed off plasma from the glory hole, sell it somewhere — she doesn’t quite know where just yet, but Old Shorings is never far from her thoughts. Then, after she’s raised a little money, she’ll have to think of something else, because she can’t keep shuttling batteries around forever.

She adds to the tote a blanket, a file, some light machine oil, some cleaning rags — then, after some thought, one of her old college textbooks on plasm use. She takes a shower, thinks about drying her hair, decides not to. Shieldlight is breaking through the rainclouds overhead, so she unfolds the brushed aluminum crank from the wall, cranks the window polarizer a few times, darkens the room. She falls into bed and reaches for her alarm clock so she can set it a little early and call Gil, and then her hand freezes in mid-air.

What, she wonders, will she tell him? That she’s found a plasm source worth millions, that she’s going to tap it slowly and bleed it off, that with luck she can make a fortune but she’ll most likely end up in prison? She can also tell him the damn plasm source is so powerful it may just blow on its own, cause another catastrophe for which she’ll be responsible.

She can’t even imagine his reaction. Whatever it would be, she knows, it would be utterly reasonable. He would break the situation down, make a list of logical steps. Is it too late to turn back? he’d wonder. Probably he’d want her to find a lawyer, follow his advice. Or maybe just find a psychiatrist, who knew?

Aiah picks up the alarm clock, sets the wake-up time fifteen minutes early. She’ll tell him she’s working on proper visualization of her successful thoughts.


Aiah dreams of the burning woman, of her terrifying progress down Bursary Street, her passage leaving a river of fire. She hears the screams of the woman’s victims, cries echoed by the woman’s own wailing cry. And then the burning woman turns onto the Avenue of the Exchange, and Aiah relives the moment when she sees her standing there, flame pouring from her fingertips, the central figure mirrored and re-mirrored by the glass walls on either side of her, three views of the burning face, the hollow eyes, the lips parted in a scream that never ends . . .

The face is Aiah’s own.

The woman’s scream rises from Aiah’s throat as she wakes.

The room is silent around her. The building, its vast webbed structure built for the generation and containment of plasm, broods silently, gathering power.

The three batteries sit waiting on the table, awaiting their fate.


The connection to Gerad is bad, full of other voices, half-heard conversations that act as a chorus to Aiah’s words. But her heart aches even at a distorted version of Gil’s voice, a voice fogged with sleep and weariness, and Aiah doesn’t dare look up at the kitchen table with its tote and plasm batteries, reminders of what she’s planning.

“I’m sorry I missed you,” Aiah says. “I was working.” She tells him about the plasm blow out, the fact she’s working shifts-and-a-half underground.

“Did you catch the part of my message about the apartment lease? The bed money thing?”


“I can’t send you as much this month. I hope that’s all right.”

She can feel the anger entering her voice and can’t quite hide it. “It’s fine with me, Gil. But the people we owe money to might think otherwise.”

“Who do we owe money to?”

She can’t believe he has to ask. She gives him the short list, then hears a brief silence broken only by a stray voice, one from another conversation, saying What in the prophet’s name?

“There’s got to be something wrong,” Gil says finally.

“Yes. We could barely afford this place before you left. Now we can’t afford it at all.”

Gil’s tone was patient. “We worked out a budget.”

The heavy plastic-and-metal headset is hammering her skull, pounding places already chafed by her hardhat. “Yes, we did,” Aiah says. “Based on you sending me a certain amount every month, which you have not done.”

“You’re saying it’s my fault now? How is it my fault that I’ve had all these expenses?”

Aiah has to take a breath or two. “I’m not laying blame,” she said. “I’m just telling you how things are.”

“Things are expensive in Gerad,” Gil says. “You should see the place I’m living in — it’s pathetic, maybe three mattresses wide, but Havell got it for me and I’m stuck with it. And I’m obliged to take all these other people out, buy them drinks, and the prices are rigged in the places catering to executives, because they’re all owned by the Operation, so . . .”

“You have to take people out?”

“That’s how business is done here. It’s all done over meals and at clubs. And the company only reimburses part of it, and . ..”

“I think you need to stop doing that kind of business, Gil.”

“The quicker I get it all done, the quicker I get home.”

“We’re going bankrupt,” Aiah says.

There’s another silence. Banshug wouldn’t do that! says a voice on the phone.

“I’ll try to come home,” he says. “Soon. There’s got to be a way to work something out.”

For the first time Aiah looks up at the plasm batteries waiting in her tote bag.

“Soon,” she says. “I need you soon.”

I need you to save me from this, she thinks.


Aiah locks the pneuma station grill behind her, then walks down the old stair to where the water spill begins. She holds to the rusted iron guardrail as she carefully treads down the little series of waterfalls. She realizes her steps are slower than they really have to be.

She comes to the bottom of the stair and her shirting helmet light catches a glimpse of writhing liquid silver — a flash of belly scales, of needle teeth — of something moving in the shallow lake, and her heart gives a terrified leap.

The serpentine thing writhes away at the touch of her light. Aiah waits, one insulated glove clamped on the rail, torchlight beams stabbing at the water while her pulse drums in her skull.

Whatever the thing was, it’s gone. A kind of resonance effect generated by untapped plasm sometimes gives birth to creatures unhealthy, unnatural; or maybe someone actually built the thing, and then set it free or allowed it to escape.

She hesitates for a long time before she dares to put a foot in the water. Whatever the creature was, it doesn’t reappear.

The platform seems larger than the day before, the shadows darker, angles stranger. Aiah’s thundering heart sounds louder in her ears than the sound of her echoing boots. She remembers the dead woman’s hollow eye-sockets, remembers she’s been dead for three days now and this isn’t going to be pleasant at all. Aiah hesitates outside the door to the old toilet, sweeping her hand torch over the platform, trying to make sure nothing’s there.

She’s just delaying things, she knows. Either she’s doing this or she isn’t. She takes a breath, turns, enters the room.

The dead woman lies on a mound of broken concrete next to the canted brace. Aiah sees a dark spill of auburn hair, heavy boots, one hand dangling, the other still fiercely clamped on the brace. The mouth is open, a perfect oval of an endless scream. Her hollow eyes grow larger as Aiah moves closer. Aiah’s steps slow, then halt. She doesn’t want to get any closer.

Aiah’s nostrils twitch obsessively, but she detects no odor of decay. The woman seems curiously shrunken inside her olive-green overalls.

Aiah’s heart thunders in her chest. She takes a step closer, then another. The woman’s skin seems stiff, parchment-like, the lips shrunken, long teeth visible in shrunken gums. There are no eyes in the hollow sockets, nothing there at all.

Aiah kneels by the body, reaches out a hand that freezes in mid-air. Air spills from Aiah’s lungs in a soft hiss.

The woman is mummified, she realizes. Moisture drawn out, nerves burned away, soft organs like the eyes just gone. All consumed by the Bursary Street holocaust as surely as the lives of its other victims.

Aiah’s already wearing insulated gloves. Carefully she reaches for the woman’s arm, takes it gently, pulls the clawed hand away from the hot brace. There’s no resistance, no rigor; the arm seems to weigh nothing at all. Aiah opens her hand and lets the arm fall.

Sister, she apologizes, I’m sorry.

She takes the blanket out of her tote, lays it next to the plasm diver, and then rolls the body onto it. She picks the body up — it weighs no more than a heap of dry rags — then moves it around the fallen brace to the back of the room, where it won’t be seen in the first flash of someone’s torch.

The auburn hair is disordered. Aiah tries to arrange it about the hollow-eyed face, happy she’s wearing gloves when a fingertip scrapes across a withered cheek. Then she covers the body with the blanket.

Aiah stands, open-mouthed stare still in her mind, and feels the weight of the surface world about her, all the foundations and beams and brick and concrete, all of it inadvertently generating power, the plasm waiting in its well like water, poised in this old iron brace like a drop at the end of a faucet. . .

She has things to do, and time is passing.

Feeling a prickly psychic pressure from the corpse right behind her, Aiah moves her tote behind the brace and takes out the battery leads, then attaches the alligator clips to the fallen brace. She’s not about to touch the brace itself if she can help it. She watches in fine surprise as the batteries fill almost instantly, as the little indicator on top, reacting to the plasm field, goes from red to purple to blue, and then begins to give off an ominous, unearthly cerulean glow, one just like the pile of a high-pressure fission reactor, and potentially just about as dangerous.

She leaves the batteries in place, takes the tote, ducks under the brace, and leaves the room. She approaches the fluted iron pillar on the platform, carefully examines the electrolytic footprint, the rusty indication of iron trying to find its way to a powerful nearby circuit.

Aiah gets out oil and rags and her file and tries to scour the footprint away. Her arms and back still ache from yesterday. Her feet hurt. She finds herself panting for breath, sweat dripping from her nose, and she’s barely started.

She thinks of plasm waiting in its batteries.

Aiah returns hesitantly to the plasm source as her mind works through the idea. She hasn’t handled live plasm in four or five years, not since the one lab course at college she’d convinced herself she could afford and had to drop in mid-term.

She snaps off one of the alligator clips from a battery, takes the battery to the platform. She opens her old college textbook to one of the plasm-control diagrams she used then, the Trigram. She kneels on the platform and feels her heavy boots pressing up against her buttocks. She puts the open book in front of her and props her hand torch up so that it shines on the pages. Then she strips off one of her insulated gloves and holds the battery lead with one hand, keeping her fingers carefully on the insulated wire and not daring to touch the bare metal of the alligator clip.

Suddenly this seems the most ridiculous thing in the world. Stolen plasm, a battery, a college textbook she hasn’t looked at in years — the potential for harm is absurd.

Still. The battery shouldn’t have that much power.

She looks down at the Trigram, tries to fix it in her mind, fix the pattern of it, the balance of energies. Human will, dry lecture-voice echoing in her mind, is the modulator of plasm. Time to get her will moving, to visualize some successful thoughts.

She can’t remember any of the chants she learned in training.

I am the power. The power is mine. Idiotic, but it’s all she can think of. And the point is focus anyway, not what’s actually said.

The power is a part of me. The power responds to my will.

She closes her eyes and the Trigram glows on the inside of her lids. Carefully she inches her fingers up the battery lead, touches bare metal, and . . .

It’s like a peregrine falcon diving off a building ledge for the first time, a moment of shock, then surprise at finding herself in her natural element, the wind rustling through pinions, smoothing the feathers at the base of the neck, the airy medium itself responsive to her will, to the merest inflection of a wing. . . . It’s effortless. It’s easy. . .

The Trigram burns in her mind like fire, the same blue radiant color as the battery indicator. She can taste power on her tongue.

The weariness is banished from my body. My body is whole and well and powerful.

The energy pulse is so powerful that the words seem redundant, but she guides the Trigram on a mental journey through her body, urging the weariness away, banishing fatigue toxins, flushing tissues with energy.

Aiah opens her eyes, sees through the burning pattern of the Trigram the fluted iron pillar with its telltale upwelling of rust. She stands, one hand still clamped on the metal I clip, and she tries to remember the atomic composition of iron oxide — is it Fe2 or Fe3O2? It doesn’t matter, she decides, she should use the atomic number, but now, suddenly she can’t remember it. Six? Eight? She seems to remember eight.

She reaches to the pillar, feels the cool red dust under her fingers, then projects her power through her fingertips, another ridiculous chant running through her head, O8 out! O8 out! O8 out! and maybe the plasm knows more about atomic composition than she does, because to her amazed delight she sees the fluted rust shrink, turn dark, become iron — poor iron, spongy and brittle, but iron none the less.

She moves her hand up the pillar, plasm flowing through her body into the rust, transmitting it . . . and then the power fades, and she gives a little cry of disappointment as she feels the last of the battery’s contents drain away.

Aiah stands on the platform, mouth half-open in amazement. Power still tingles in her nerves. Her heat throbs like a turbine. She raises a hand, touches her breast, feels an aroused nipple. Her vagina is heavy with arousal. An astonished laugh escapes her throat.

The little hints of power she was permitted in school were nothing compared to the touch of this miraculous reality.

She almost dances back to the glory hole, fills the battery, returns to the platform. Brings the Trigram to her mind, connects again to the circuit, projects her power to the iron pillar. Aiah burnishes the rust away, then stands for a moment, reluctant to let the circuit drop. She puts the alligator clip carefully down on the concrete platform, then stands for a while, enjoying the power that hums through her veins.

Aiah peels back the jumpsuit’s elastic wrist, checks her watch. She doesn’t have much time left.

She glances up and down the platform again. The gaping lavatory door mars the stripped concrete wall. What if Lastene or Grandshuk decided to take a look inside? Hell — what if one of them just wanted a private place to piss and wanders in?

She fills the battery again and tries to focus the power on the doorway, on creating an illusion of an unbroken concrete wall. Her first attempt is translucent and wavery, but after she charges the battery another time she succeeds in producing a satisfactory wall, complete with the little lines of plaster that remained when the original tile was stripped away by the reclaimers. She has to put an arm through it to make absolutely certain that she didn’t produce an actual concrete wall.

She leaves the battery just inside the door, its copper contact touching the illusion, feeding it.

How long will it last? She has no idea, though it probably won’t stay there for long. Just an hour or two is all she needs.

It’s only then that Aiah realizes she forgot to use the Trigram as a focus. She was so dizzy with success that she forgot proper procedure.

Better not do that again, she admonishes herself. It could be dangerous.

It’s time to leave but she really doesn’t want to go — the whole experience has been far too glorious, too satisfying. The last thing she wants to do is play troglodyte in some damp dungeon.

She makes certain all her gear is hidden behind her illusory wall and heads for the surface. Plasm still energizes her body — she feels she could run a hundred radii without stopping to catch her breath.

When Aiah comes to the shallow little river between the platform and the stairwell she doesn’t hesitate. Any scaly monsters, she figures, had better watch out.

Grandshuk and Lastene are waiting for her outside the barred door. Lastene looks surprised as she mounts the stair. She looks down at herself, sees the wet boots, the fresh mud scars on her jumpsuit. She turns the key in the padlock, opens the door.

“I got uneasy about that cave-in and leak,” she said. “I went down to take a look at it, see if there was something we missed.”

“That violates procedure,” Lastene says. He seems suspicious, though probably only that Aiah might have cheated him out of some overtime.

“Anything there?” Grandshuk asks. He hasn’t bothered to shave today. He has to turn his broad, powerful body sideways to get through the door.

“Nothing,” Aiah says, repeating her most successful thought. She keeps wanting to laugh. “Nothing at all.”


Aiah wonders if the plasm she gives herself is like a dose of push or amphetamine, if the buoyancy she feels will wear off and leave her exhausted and hung-over. But it doesn’t. She burns the energy off over the course of the day, but by the time she returns to the Authority Building for the meeting she feels much fresher than she would have coming down off any drug.

She’s done everything possible to make the day uneventful. The illusion she’d built held up through the brief time it took to lead Grandshuk and Lastene down the upper platform, and the rest of the first half of the shift was spent in the tunnels. After the midshift break they finished exploring the old air shafts, then came up to the surface to start checking meters all over again.

She opens her locker in the Response Team assembly room and gazes in faint surprise at the gray suit, lace, and heels she’d worn three days ago, before she’d changed into the yellow jumpsuit. It seems the costume of a stranger.

Aiah goes to the changing room and puts on her suit and tries to comb her ratted hair. The sight of herself in the mirror makes her wish she’d carried a little of the plasm with her so that she’d make herself look beautiful, or at any rate presentable.

She needn’t have worried. Mengene and the others, after the better part of three days underground, barely have the energy to greet Aiah as she walks into the room. She seats herself far away from Niden’s cold and waits for the meeting to start.

Mengene’s opening address is rambling and circular, but Aiah soon realizes the point of it is to decide whether or not the Authority ought to declare victory and go on to other business. A few small plasm leaks have been discovered on Old Parade, leaks that could conceivably have built up, over time, into a big enough charge to produce the Bursary Street display.

“Any indication that any of these sources were tapped?” Aiah asks. “Any sign of plasm divers?”

The others give her weary looks. They’ve all been under Old Parade and they already know the answers. “No,” Mengene says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean these sources couldn’t have caused the conflagration. Sometimes a large enough charge of plasm will react to the massed consciousness of the population at large, there doesn’t necessarily have to be any one person to direct it.”

That’s official policy, Aiah knows, but she doesn’t know if she quite believes it. She suspects that any events attributed to collected consciousness are in fact the result of a single consciousness who left no traces.

The discussion proceeds listlessly. Nobody really wants to bring up the possibility that if the Authority announces it’s found the source and dealt with it, and then another flamer runs mad on Bursary Street, any number of careers could get torched right along with the financial district.

Eventually there’s a compromise. An announcement will be made — “in order to calm public fears,” as Mengene puts it, not to mention taking political pressure off the Authority — but the search for plasm sources will continue at a reduced scale. No more extra shifts, and people can spend alternate days at their desks. Mengene turns to Aiah.

“Have you found anything?”

“I found a promising source, one off the charts,” she says, “but there wasn’t anything in it.”

“Right. You can join us on Old Parade, then.”

Aiah tries to control her leaping exultation. No more worrying about Grandshuk or Lastene stumbling across the glory hole by accident. There’s a source of unlimited power, and only Aiah knows where it is.

One of the Cunning People should be able to take it from there.


She walks down Bursary Street, flame shooting from her fingertips. People scream and wither and die. Buildings explode outward at a wave of her arm. Glass shatters at her scream. Power roils in her bones like a lake of fire.

Her own screams wake her. Heart thundering, Aiah sits bolt upright in her bed, imprisoned in her silent tower of glass.

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