John Brunner – Jagged Orbit
John Brunner – Jagged Orbit
So what shape was the world in this morning? Even flatter than yesterday. In every office of the Etchmark Undertower the air was at a comfortable 65ø but there was sweat on the brow of Matthew Flamen the last of the spoolpigeons. By noon, a fifteen-minute show to be compiled, processed, taped, approved, amended and slotted into the transmitters, and at this late stage nothready bar the two minutes and forty seconds of advertising. Item after item from the list he had set to simmer overnight was being comped out as unusable, and his contract still had nine months to run.
It was the climax of a long-recurrent nightmare. The planet had closed up like a weary clam and he, a starvstarfish, lacked the strength to pry it open again. Open? Pry open?
With a convulsive effort he managed it; his eyelids parted and there was blue sky bright above the one-way armored glass of his bedroom ceiling. He was alone in the room; he was alone in the house. He was profoundly glad of that. His heart was hammering on his ribs like a lunatic demanding to be let out of Bedlam and he was gasping for breath so violently he could never have framed a coherent sentence, not even a simple good morning. Though nobody could in reason be held refor the content of a dream, he felt horribly and unspeakably ashamed.
Piecemeal, he grappled together the dispersed fragof his personality until he had enough control over his limbs to get up. Superficially noted long ago, categorized as a quotable quote because it touched so directly on his line of work, a dictum by Xavier Conroy drifted out of his subconscious: “Western culture is una process of transition from guilt-oriented, with a conscience, to shame-oriented, with a morbid fear of being found out.” Lately the words had been festering in his brain, like the mark of a brand applied at too low a temperature to cauterize and sterilize the site of the burn.
He looked around with bleary eyes at the luxury, the comfort, the security of his home, and found the place repulsive. He stumbled into the bathroom and swallowed a trank from the dispenser. It took effect while he was emptying his bladder and the world seemed marginally less threatening. He was able to reassure himself that so far he was managing to keep going, he was still in busihe was as yet continuing to lever the lids off countsecrets intended to stay hidden.
Nonetheless, before thinking about showering and eatand the other minutiae of civilized existence, he exorcised the ghosts of nightmare by going to the comand punching a direct line to his office computers. Watched by the looped-tape cut of Celia playing over and over in its niche of honor, he sat naked in a clammy rotachair and struck head after head from the hydra of his apprehension. It was local-early yet – oh-seven-ten EST – but the small and shrunken planet nowadays exin a zone of timelessness. The items he had set to simmer while he slept had come along nicely: some cooked enough to be used today, some exuding juices with a promising smell.
Gradually confidence returned to him. It was always a better medicine than tranks to realize that he was lookinto the not three- but four-dimensional world deeper than almost anyone else. He forced himself to disregard the sniggering demon of doubt which kept quoting that remark of Conroy’s and pointing out that if it were true sooner or later the whole western world would be conto keep their shady actions from him. Ten, eight, even six years ago all the major networks had had their respective spoolpigeons; one by one they had faded away, some for making charges that could not be proved, others merely because they lost their audience, ceased to be able to irritate, provoke, excite.
Was it because the world no longer admired an honman as much as one who contrived to get away with dishonesty? And how honest is the man who makes a living by unmasking those who haven’t completely sucin covering up their deceit? As though the queshad been put to him by someone else, Flamen glanced around uneasily. But all he saw move was the picture of Celia, going through its endless cycle. He turned back to the comweb screen, and selected the first and biggest of the dozen-odd items he had assigned for overnight comping.
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