“People we’d better not know about,” Lorna Treves muttered. Her husband gave a vigorous nod.
“Yes, it’s a fraught situation. Granted, it’s what we always said we were preparing for, but… Oh well; the fact that it took us by surprise is just another example of Toffler’s Law, I guess: the future arrives too soon and in the wrong order. Nick, how long before they conclude Kate’s home was empty when they bombed it?”
“Again I can’t guess. I didn’t find time on the way here to stop off at a phone and inquire.” That provoked another unison smile.
“In any case,” Ted put in, “I’ve been taking precautions. Right now, after the media showing of their press conference, Nick and Kate have about the most recognizable faces on the continent. So they’re going to be recognized. In one location after another and sometimes simultaneously. Oh, we can keep them hopping for several days.”
“Days,” Josh Treves echoed. “Well, I guess it’s all been computed.”
Brad nodded. “And, remember, we’re dipping the biggest CIMA pool in history.”
There was a pause. Kate stirred when she realized no one else was about to speak.
“Can I put a question, please?” Ted waved her an invitation.
“It seems kind of silly, but… Oh, hell! I really want to know. And I think Nick does too.”
“Whatever it is,” Nick said dryly, “I agree. I’m still operating ninety percent on guesswork.”
“You want the story of Precipice?” Ted grunted. “Okay, I’ll tell it. But the rest of us better get back to work. Among other things the crisis is overextending the resources of Hearing Aid, and if we don’t cope…”
“Brad can stay too,” Sweetwater said, rising. “He just came off shift, and I won’t have him back after the last call he handled.”
“Rough?” Nick said sympathetically. The plump librarian swallowed hard and nodded.
“See you later,” Suzy Dellinger said, and led the way out.
Leaning back with his bands on his ample paunch and gazing at the shimmering green ceiling, Brad said, “Y’know, we wouldn’t be telling you this if you’d done as Polly Ryan suggested the day you arrived.”
“What do you mean?” Kate demanded.
“Come ask for a sight of our first edition of the ‘Disasterville U.S.A.’ series. How many of the monographs did your father have?”
“Why, the full set of twenty!”
“Which, of course, looked to him, as to everybody, like a nice round number. Our edition, though, contains a twenty-first. The one that no publisher would handle, no printer would set in type—the one that finally in desperation we printed ourselves and had ready for distribution, only one night a bomb went off in the shed where we’d stored our first ten thousand copies and they burned to ash. Obviously we were fighting a losing battle. So…” He sighed.
Kate leaned forward tensely. “What was the twenty-first about?”
“It accounted with names, dates, places, photostats of canceled checks—all the necessary evidence—for half a million of the four million dollars of public money which by then had gone astray and never reached the refugees who were supposed to benefit.”
“You’re not telling the whole story,” Ted said in a brittle voice. “Kate, when you were first here you asked whether Claes College broke up because most of its members stayed at Precipice—remember?” She nodded, her face strained.
“The answer’s yes. After the night when that shed was bombed, they didn’t have a choice. Brad and I helped to bury them.” There was a long empty silence. Eventually Kate said, “This last monograph—did it have a title?”
“Yes. Prophetically enough, it was to be called Discovering the Power Base.” The next silence stretched so long, the air felt as though it were being drawn out until it threatened to snap. At last Nick uttered a gusting sigh.
“Hell, I never looked at it that way. I must be blind.”
“I won’t argue,” the sheriff said, his expression very grave. “But you were not alone. Yet in retrospect… Figure it this way. You equip the population of a whole continent with unprecedented techniques: access to information, transportation, so much credit nobody need ever be poor again—assuming, that is, that it’s properly shared. Just about at the same time, you admit there’s no point in fighting any more major wars because there’s too much to lose and not enough to win. In Porter’s famous phrase, it’s time for the brain race.