Walter Jon Williams

City on Fire


The car shoots through the InterMet tunnel, flying beneath the world-city as if propelled by the breath of a god. Drowsing on the car as it flies beneath the world, Aiah dreams of the Burning Man.

He stands tall above the neighboring buildings, a figure of fire. A whirlwind surrounds him, a spiral blur of tortured air, flying debris, swirling ash. Holocausts leap into being at his approach; buildings explode into flame merely at his passage. A torrent of fire flies from his fingertips, turning to cinders everything it touches.

Unwilling, unable to help herself, knowing somehow it is a duty, Aiah approaches the Burning Man. A scream comes from the hollow throat, a cry mixed of terror and rage, and Aiah realizes that the giant figure is a woman.

As she comes a little closer, Aiah looks full into the face of the raging figure and sees that the Burning Woman is herself.

She wakes with a start and finds herself in motion, in the pneuma car that hisses along beneath the world. Sweat plasters her collar to her neck. She swabs her throat with a handkerchief and again closes her eyes. Fire pulses on the insides of her eyelids.

The arrow-straight tunnel of the pneuma is surrounded by the eternal weight of the city… brick and stone, steel and iron and alloy, concrete and glass, rising from bedrock and stretching toward the Shield far above. The mass of it all is beyond comprehension. So is the power it creates.

All that is human is a generator—every building, every foundation, every conduit or sewer or elevated trackline. All the world-city, every frame and stone of it, produces and stores plasm, the foundation of geomantic power.

Power which, for a moment or two of brilliant comprehension, Aiah had held in her mind. She had possessed its possibilities, its glories. Felt it change her. Felt herself change the world. Felt its fires scorch her nerves.

Those certainties are gone now, replaced by confusion, hesitation, danger. If she can get the power back, she thinks, even for a moment, all will become clear.



If she can somehow get the power back.



By the time she gets to Caraqui, Aiah has almost talked herself out of it. Foolish, she’s decided, to leave her place in Jaspeer, foolish to run, foolish to think that the new government in Caraqui would give her a place. No Barkazils here—she will be even more a foreigner here than in Jaspeer. And Constantine will not give her anything —he did not love her—he had only used her for what she could give him, the keys to power, and could not possibly have any further interest in her.

But the police had been after her, the Plasm Authority creepers, and sooner or later they would have found something that would put her in prison. It was time to leave Jaspeer. In her mind she had already leaped a hundred borders—crossing them physically was almost an afterthought.

And once exiled, once that leap has been taken, where else is there to go?

Caraqui. Where the New City, consigned to ashes years ago, might undergo an unscheduled rebirth. Caraqui. Where her future waits. Assuming, of course, it waits anywhere.


Gravity tugs at Aiah’s inner ear as the InterMet brakes, drops out of the system, comes with a hum of electromagnets to a stop at the platform. A banner splashed with red letters hangs against a bright mosaic on the back of the platform.

Welcome to Free Caraq… The last letters are obscured by the banner’s dangling upper corner, come loose and fallen across the message.

And that’s it. There is no one on the platform, just the message on the banner.

Somehow Aiah had expected more.

Pneumatics hiss as the car’s doors swing open. The other two occupants disembark. Aiah rises, takes her bag from the overhead rack, and carries it out onto the platform. The bag is light—she had left all her belongings behind as she fled, and only bought a few things in Gunalaht on her way. There is only one heavy thing in her bag, a book, red plastic leatherette binding with gilt letters. Her legacy to her new home.

As she walks past the mosaic she realizes that it’s political, a noble-looking man wearing a kind of uniform and gazing off into the far distance. My father made the political revolution, it promises. / will make the economic revolution.

Covered now by the banner of the real revolution.

She doesn’t know precisely who the figure on the mosaic is supposed to be, but she knows it has to be one of the Kere-maths, the family that had ruled Caraqui for generations. The promise of economic revolution had been a lie—during their years of power the Keremaths ruled by kleptocracy, a government by gangsters bent on looting their own economy, their own people.

They were mostly dead now, the Keremaths. Constantine’s revolution had killed them, and it had been Aiah who had, against every law, given Constantine the plasm necessary to accomplish their destruction.

It is a matter of more than casual interest to discover how grateful Constantine will prove. Especially as she now has nothing to offer him, and gratitude is all she can expect.

The book in Aiah’s bag bangs against her hip as she walks down a short corridor lined with adverts—familiar posters for the new Lynxoid Brothers chromoplay, the Inter-Metropolitan Lottery, Gulman Shoes (“Meet for the Street”), all alongside more exotic promotions for Sea Mage Motor Craft and the New Theory Hydrogen Company. Then suddenly she’s out of the tunnel and into the main body of the station, and her heart leaps as she sees armored soldiers with their guns out, sets of goggled eyes gazing at her. Mercenaries, she thinks, because half of them have the black skins of the veteran Cheloki exiles who have been following Constantine for years.

The masked eyes pass over Aiah without pause. They’re not interested in arrivals. They’re clustered around the departure platforms.

They’re interested in people trying to escape.

There are counters for customs officials to interview arriving passengers, but no one is there: perhaps they haven’t shown up for work. Outside Aiah finds herself on a promenade overlooking a canal. A pair of ascetics, bearded and grimy, sit on beds of nails before their begging bowls. One of them brandishes a handmade poster about the “Uniting of the Altogether.” The canal water is bright green with algae. There is salt in the air and bobbing rubbish in the water. Caraqui, except for a strip of mainland here and there and some islands, is built across its sea on huge, ancient concrete pontoons, all linked together by bridges, cables, and anchors.

From atop the worn promenade rail allegorical bronze statues, weathered, pitted, and green, gaze down at Aiah from ruined, pop-eyed faces. She is uncomfortable under their gaze, but isn’t certain where to go from here.

She looks up as shining silver-blue letters track across the gray sky: There is no need for alarm.

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