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The trackline car jolts and drives another blow up through Aiah’s legs and straight into her kidneys. Standing in the crowded end-of-shift car, she’s exhausted from working on New Parade for eight hours, but there’s still a bubble of energy in her spine, a phantom of yesterday’s plasm that keeps her on her feet.

She’s heading out to Terminal again, to pick up her batteries. Two days from now is Senko’s Day and, unless Emergency Response insists she work underground on the holiday, she hopes to spend the day with her family and maybe sell some plasm.

The trackline car jolts again and the lights flicker, then go out. The man standing behind Aiah passes the back of his hand over her thighs and buttocks. It’s normally the sort of thing she’d ignore — he’s not going to feel much through her waterproof jumpsuit anyway — but the spark of plasm dwelling in her makes her consider action, maybe a little upward jab of her elbow . . .

The lights come on again but not fully, a strange yellow half-light that reveals nothing but sallow long-nosed Jaspeeri faces, and Aiah’s suddenly aware of the fact she’s the only brown-skinned Barkazil on the train, that she’s heading into Jaspeeri Nation territory without the formidable presence of Grandshuk backing her, and that maybe getting groped in the underground is going to be the least of her worries. Maybe, she thinks, she ought to acquire some protection. One of her relations could get her a firearm.

At the next stop, when the crowd eases a bit, Aiah moves to another place. From here she can see the platform with its spread of advertising: the new Lynxoid Brothers chromoplay, the new Aldemar thriller, an ad for cigarets, others for beer, for Gulman shoes (“Meet for the Street”), and a new chromo called Lords of the New City. She’s heard some of the buzz about this last item, because it’s directed by Sandvak and is supposed to be based on the life of Constantine. The lead is played not by an actor but by the opera singer Kherzaki, who’s supposed to give the role a unique quality of grandeur.

Constantine was always in the news when she was younger. Lords of the New City isn’t the first chromo made about him and the wars in Cheloki, just the first to garner such prestige. His name and image and cause had hypnotized half the world. When she was in school she had a picture of Constantine up above her desk, and she’d read his books Power and the New City and Government and Liberty.

One of her cousins, Chavan, had even been inspired to go off and fight for Constantine — though he ended up getting arrested for petty theft in Margathan and never got as far across the world as Cheloki.

Horn Twelve transmit 1800 mm. Tfn.

She can’t imagine what Constantine is doing in Mage Towers. Jaspeer seems far too tame for him.

Maybe everyone gets old, she thinks. Maybe he’s just sitting up there using his talents to create aerial displays for Snap! or Aeroflash cars.

The trackline car lurches away from the station. Terminal is two stops up the track. It’s time for Aiah to start maneuvering through the packed commuters toward the doors. Jaspeeri Nation territory. She’ll try to be careful.

Whatever “careful” means in this situation.


As Aiah comes up she finds the building superintendent drinking on the stoop with some of his cronies, big men with beer bellies and callused hands. The superintendent looks at her sourly.

“Still got business in my basement, lady?”

“Yes.” She begins to shoulder her way through the group of men. Powerful shoulders and pendulous guts loom at her like sagging buildings. She tries not to flinch at the powerful smell of beer.

“You find anything down there?” the super asks. Aiah stops, looks at him.

“Why? You lose something?”

A couple of the men snicker into their beer. The superintendent scowls.

“I’m just looking after my building,” he said. “I don’t like having people wandering around.”

Aiah shoulders past him, steps into the building foyer, turns to face the superintendent. She knows she doesn’t dare let him gain the upper hand, that she needs to put him in his place now. “You never stopped anyone wandering around before,” Aiah says. “There were people living down there.”

The man shrugs. His friends watch in silence, their amusement gone, their eyes shifting from Aiah to the superintendent and back, charting the little shifts in power.

“You weren’t controlling access,” Aiah says, “and you’ve got gimmicked meters in your building. Maybe you know where there’s a plasm source down below. Do you?”

The superintendent looked into the street. “Those meters could’ve been cracked years ago, before I ever got this job. There hasn’t been an inspection in all the years I’ve been here.”

Aiah’s heart is racing. Maybe she should quit now, before she provokes him into doing something she won’t like, like calling her superiors to complain.

But something — instinct, maybe, or the euphoria of plasm — urges her to press on.

“The building owners are going to get fined no matter when the meters were rigged,” she says. “They won’t be happy with you. And if you want me out of your basement, you can tell me where the extra plasm was coming from.”

The superintendent stares fixedly at the street. “Don’t know nothing.”

Aiah shrugs. “I get paid no matter what,” she says, and heads down to the pneuma.

Now, she wonders, was that careful?

Not particularly, but it was necessary.

Down below, beneath the iron and brick and concrete, Aiah can hear the plasm calling, a blaze of fire in the cold wet darkness.


A charge of plasm carries Aiah, rung by rusted rung, up the old air shaft. Subterranean rain pours off the corrugated channels of her hardhat. She’s decided to use an exit that won’t compel her to carry charged plasm batteries past a collection of resentful drunks.

Aiah flexes her legs and raises a heavy iron grate she’d had Grandshuk loosen two days before. She unclips her safety line and emerges into the weak yellow light of a utility tunnel, a concrete-walled oval, below street level, lined with color-coded electricity, steam and communications pipes. A row of low-intensity bulbs, each glowing dimly in its metal cage, illuminates her crouching walk as she moves in what she calculates is the direction of the trackline station.

She hears street noises above, finds steps molded into the curved concrete wall. She plants the toes of her boots into the concave steps and hoists herself up, then cautiously nudges the manhole cover over her head. She doesn’t want to drop a truck on herself, but she can’t hear any traffic noises or vibration, and she suspects the street is for pedestrians only.

Aiah pushes up with both hands, carefully shoves the manhole cover out of its inset steel socket. Peering out of the oval crack, she sees furry socks on feet jammed into old carpet slippers. She pushes the cover a little more, sees an elderly male face peering down at her through thick bifocal lenses.

“You like some help, lady?”

“Thank you, yes.”

He’s a retiree earning a little money by renting a piece of concrete in front of a crumbling, scaffold-draped brown-stone. His wares are displayed on an old gray metal door propped up on concrete blocks — a sad collection, timeworn kitchen utensils, battered children’s toys, a few yellowed books held together by tape.

Plasm seems to flush Aiah’s muscles as she drops the manhole back into its socket.

“You’re pretty strong,” the old man says, and sits in his folding chair. “Wanna buy something?” he says hopefully.

Aiah scans the rubbish on the old steel door, sees a few cheap metal lucky charms on metal necklaces. One is in the shape of the Trigram, a useful tool transformed into worthless popular magic. “I’ll take that,” she says. The old man takes her money and she puts the charm around her neck, tucking it into the high collar of the jumpsuit. The symbol of power sits cool on her breastbone.

Aiah asks direction to the trackline station. “Just around the corner,” the old man says, and Aiah thanks the man again and heads for the station. Along the way she scents cooking smells and stops at another scaffold-stall. There’s a pink-cheeked maternal woman behind the counter who smiles at her and looks apologetic.

“Oh, sorry,” she says. “We sold out of the stew, and the new batch isn’t ready yet, and the pigeon’s been on the fire too long and has gone all dry — I’d hate to sell it to you.”

“No problem. Thanks anyway.”

Aiah sees another stall across the street and buys a bowl of soup with pasta and vegetables fresh from someone’s roof garden. It has too much comino, like most Jaspeeri food, but otherwise its warmth and its taste is gratifying to someone who’s just hoisted herself up from the underground with three heavy plasm batteries in her sack.

As Aiah stands by the stall and eats her soup she sees the pink-cheeked woman sell stew and skewered pigeon to three different passers-by.

Aiah feels her cheeks burn.

She isn’t used to being shafted by people who smile so helpfully.

She returns the empty soup bowl to the vendor and stalks toward the trackline station. A group of young Jaspeeri men stand on a streetcorner and watch her in sullen silence. Jaspeeri Nation territory, she thinks. Barkazils not served.

At least, Aiah figures, now she knows the neighborhood, and her place in it.

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