The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Rumor had it the reason might be found in the launch of Ground-to-Space’s latest orbital factory from their field westward in the cross-river state of Kansas; allegedly someone had omitted to notify the airlines of the volume and extent of the blast wave. But an inquiry was still in progress, and anyhow G2S was far too much of a Power in the Land hereabouts for any negligence charge to emerge from the hearings.

Nonetheless the outcome was a popular subject for bets on illegal short-term Delphi pools. Legal pools, naturally, were forbidden to pre-guess a court’s verdict.

The façades of the remaining towers, whether homes or offices, were as blank as ancient gravestones and as gloomy. They had mostly been erected during the shitabrick phase architecture had suffered through in the early nineties. There was a more flattering term for the style—antideco—but it was too lame to have caught on. Such structures were as dehumanized as the coffins employed to bury the victims of the Great Bay Quake, and stemmed from the same cause. The damage sustained when San Francisco, plus most of Berkeley and Oakland, collapsed overnight had come close to bankrupting the country, so that everything but everything had to be designed with the fewest possible frills.

In a desperate attempt to make a virtue of necessity, all such buildings had been made “ecofast”—in other words, they were heavily insulated, they incorporated elaborate garbage-reclamation systems, every apartment was supplied with a flat area outside that caught at least some sunlight, allegedly large enough to be hydroponically planted with sufficient vegetables and fruit to meet the requirements of an average family. The consequence had been to fix in the public mind the impression that any genuinely efficient building must be stark, ugly, undesirable and dull.

It seemed that necessity was too hateful for anybody to enjoy being virtuous.

Thanks to some smart route adjustment by his airline’s computers, his plane was a few minutes early. Ina had agreed to meet him on the main concourse, but when he emerged, tingling slightly, from the static-discharge chamber by the plane gate, she wasn’t in sight.

It would be out of character for him to waste spare minutes. Rubbing his arms, reflecting that even if electric lift for aircraft was efficient, economical and non-polluting it was damnably hard on the passengers when they had to shed their accumulated volts, he caught sight of a sign pointing the way to the public Delphi boards.

Most of his belongings, bought to fit his new identity, were on their way direct to G2S’s recruit-settlement block. But he did have a travel bag weighing nine kaygees. From under the nose of a sour woman who favored him with a string of curses he nabbed an autoporter and—after consulting the illuminated fee table on its flank—credded the minimum: $35 for an hour’s service. Rates were higher here than at Toledo, but that was to be expected; the cost of living at Trianon, a hundred kilometers away, was the second highest in the world.

From now until his credit expired the machine would carry his bag in its soft plastic jaws and follow him as faithfully as a well-trained hound, which indeed it resembled, down to the whimper it was programed to utter at the 55-minute mark, and the howl at 58.

At 60 it would drop the bag and slink away.

With it at his heels he stood surveying the high-slung display, tracking the shifting figures with the ease of much practice. He looked first at his favorite sector, social legislation, and was pleased to see he had two won bets due to be collected shortly. Despite all the pressure that had been applied, the president would not after all be able to make jail sentences mandatory for slandering his personal aides—it would cost him his majority if he tried. And Russian math-teaching methods were definitely going to be introduced here, given that money was still piling in when the odds had shortened to five-to-four. Well, if the U.S. team were ever to make a decent showing in the Mathematical Olympiads, there was no alternative.

Odds, though, were poor on that sector of the board, except ten-to-one against the adoption of the proposed new amendment to the Constitution which would redefine electoral zones in terms of professions and age groups rather than geographical location. It might make sense, but people were scarcely ready for it yet. Next generation, maybe.

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