The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

By the time he was seventeen Nickie felt he had made up for most of his childhood. He had learned affection, above all. It wasn’t just that he’d had girls—he was a presentable young man now, and a good talker, and according to what he was told an enterprising lover. More important was the fact that the permanence of Tarnover had allowed him to go beyond merely liking adults. There were many instructors to whom he had become genuinely attached. It was almost as though he had been born late into a vast extended family. He had more kinfolk, more dependable, than ninety percent of the population of the continent.

And then the day came when…

Most of the education imparted here was what you taught yourself with the help of computers and teaching machines. Logically enough. Knowledge that you wanted to acquire before you knew where to look for it sticks better than knowledge you never even suspected in advance. But now and then a problem arose where personal guidance was essential. It had been two years since he’d dug into biology at all, and in connection with a project he was planning in the psychology of communication he needed advice on the physiological aspects of sensory input.

The computer remote in his room was not the same one he had had when he arrived, but a newer and more efficient model which by way of a private joke he had baptized Roger, after Friar Bacon of the talking head.

It told him within seconds that he should call on Dr. Joel Bosch in the biology section tomorrow at 1000. He had not met Dr. Bosch, but he knew about him: a South African, an immigrant to the States seven or eight years ago, who had been accepted on the staff of Tarnover after long and thorough loyalty evaluation, and reputedly was doing excellent work.

Nickie felt doubtful. One had heard about South Africans… but on the other hand he had never met one, so he suspended judgment.

He arrived on time, and Bosch bade him enter and sit down. He obeyed more by feel than sight, for his attention had instantly been riveted by—by a thing in one corner of the light and airy office.

It had a face. It had a torso. It had one normal-looking hand set straight in at the shoulder, one withered hand on the end of an arm straw-thin and almost innocent of muscle, and no legs. It rested in a system of supports that held its overlarge head upright, and it looked at him with an expression of indescribable jealousy. It was like a thalidomide parody of a little girl.

Portly, affable, Bosch chuckled at his visitor’s reaction. “That’s Miranda,” he explained, dropping into his own chair. “Go ahead, stare all you like. She’s used to it—or if she isn’t by now, then she’s damned well going to have to get used to it.”

“What… ?” Words failed him.

“Our pride and joy. Our greatest achievement. And you’re accidentally privileged to be among the first to know about it. We’ve kept her very quiet because we didn’t know how much input she could stand, and if we’d let even the faintest hint leak out people would have been standing on line from here to the Pacific, demanding a chance to meet her. Which they will, but in due time. We’re adjusting her to the world by slow degrees, now we know she really is a conscious being. Matter of fact, she probably has at least an average IQ, but it took us a while to figure out a way of letting her talk.” Staring, hypnotized, Nickie saw that a sort of bellows mechanism was pumping slowly in and out alongside her shrunken body, and a connection ran from it to her throat.

“Of course even if she hadn’t survived this long she would still have been a milestone on the road,” Bosch pursued. “Hence her name—Miranda, ‘to be wondered at.’” He gave a broad grin. “We built her! That’s to say, we combined the gametes under controlled conditions, we selected the genes we wanted and shoved them to the right side during crossover, we brought her to term in an artificial womb—yes, we literally built her. And we’ve learned countless lessons from her already. Next time the result should be independently viable instead of relying on all that gadgetry.” An airy wave.

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Categories: John Brunner