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Posted by on December 30, 2010

I awakened to the artificial voice from the grille overhead saying, “Next stop Ashtabula. Connections to the Great Withern Line and the Ember River.” The light outside was orange and the sun was the color of raw beef as the train pulled into the station.

The station, under bluish artificial light and overly air-conditioned, felt like a dream of a walk-in refrigerator, the travelers the butchered carcasses that hadn’t stopped moving. It was supposed to be comforting, I imagined, a contrast to the heat and ruddy light outside. There were very few windows, and of course no skylights — ashfall would have kept them permanently blocked and jammed any mechanism to clear them. I imagined great scraping blades, like windshield wipers, creaking more loudly with each swing until they finally fell still.

I crossed the station, past restaurants and banks, casinos and brothels, and the great escalators to the pneumatic local trains. Everything was shiny and fresh. The perpetual boomtown could afford to replace any part of its public face that began to look shabby or dated. It could afford a lot.

That was the gift of the Ember River, a perpetual magma flow that split the Withern Lands. Fuel for a million steam turbines, it fed the longest, narrowest nation on the map the way the Nile fed Egypt. And the lure of free power had populated an unlivable land. The daughter of greed and ingenuity, Ashtabula spread underground a kilometer deep, ten wide and thirty long, a carbuncle on the Ember’s sharpest bend.

I bought my ticket to the farry and waited for the next skimmer. The Ember wouldn’t tolerate a bridge, so one crossed on a carpet of steam.

The water table of the Withern Lands had given out long ago, but the free power made importing water worthwhile. Bets had been placed — with bankers, not bookmakers — on when Ashtabula would fail. Maybe the longer ones would pay off.

The ferry gate lit up and chimed, and the huge valve of the airlock opened. A hot wind rushed out with the disembarking passengers. Pink and sweating, they lumbered towards the ices stand near the gate. I would do the same at the outbank station, even though all the drinks here tasted metallic to me. It was a standard complaint of out-of-towners, along with the hotel housekeeping, the restaurant prices, and the air conditioning in the brothels always being set for maximum chill.

On board the skimmer, as soon as the wheels left the ramp and it started gliding on steam, the air heated up. They’d pumped it full of cold station air at the gate, but it didn’t last.

No windows in the passenger compartment. There wouldn’t be much to see but clouds of ash and steam, and the flying hot mud they gave birth to.

I needed caffeine. I should have grabbed a coffee ice at the inbank station. I’d get one at the outbank gate. I had hectares of factory to tour, and I’d need my best administrative hauteur to push past the official tour and actually gather useful data.

Two weeks until I could get out of this ridiculous place. “That’s the smell of money,” the locals liked to say when an out-of-towner complained. I knew money; it smelled like polished hardwood and ice-distilled wine, and thin slices of freshly killed raw meat. Ashtabula smelled like hot metal and burning insulation and freon, and the stink of boomtown greed.

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