The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Outwardly his conduct during his second five years at Tarnover was compatible with how he had previously behaved. He took tranquilizers, but they were prescribed for him as for most of his age group. He was sometimes called for counseling sessions after arguing with his instructors, but so were at least half of his peers. Having been jilted by a girl, he teetered on the verge of turning skew, but the typical emotional tempests of adolescence were magnified in this closed environment. All quite within the parameters laid down.

Once—literally once—he found he could stand the pressure no longer, and did something which, had he been found out, would have ensured his expulsion and very likely an operation to blank his memory. (It was rumored… One could never pin the rumor down.) From a public veephone at the railcar terminal linking Tarnover to the nearest town he called Hearing Aid, for the first time in years, and for one dark lonely hour poured out the secrets of his heart. It was a catharsis, a purgation. But long before he had regained his room he was shaking, haunted by the fear that Hearing Aid’s famous promise (“Only I heard that!”) might not be true. How could it be? It was absurd! From Canaveral the tendril-ears of federal computers wove through his society like mycelia. No place could possibly be immune. All night he lay awake in fear, expecting his door to be flung open and stern silent men to take him under arrest. By dawn he was half-minded to kill himself.

Miraculously, there followed no disaster, and a week later that awful impulse had receded in memory, growing vague as a dream. What he recalled all too vividly, though, was his terror.

He resolved it was the last time he’d be such a fool.

Shortly thereafter he began to concentrate on data processing techniques at the expense of his other study subjects, but about one in four of his contemporaries had by then also evinced a preference for some specialty, and this was a valuable talent. (It had been explained to him that in terms of n-value mean-path theory administering the three hundred million people of North America was a determinate problem; however, as with chess or fencing, it was no good to be told that there must be a perfect game if the universe wouldn’t last long enough for it to be found by trial and error.) He had been reserved and self-contained when he arrived. It was not inconsistent that after a gesture in the direction of greater openness he should revert to his old solitary habits. Neither his teachers nor his friends guessed that he had revised himself for a purpose. He wanted out, and there was not supposed to be an out.

The point was never labored, but there were constant reminders that to support one student at Tarnover cost the federal budget approximately three million dollars per year. What had been spent in the last century on missiles, submarines, the maintenance of forward bases overseas, was now lavished on these secret establishments. And it was known in the subtle way such things can be known that a condition of being here was that ultimately one must offer the government a return on its investment. All the graduates who came back to visit were doing so.

But the conviction had gradually grown in Nickie’s mind that something was amiss. Were these people dedicated… or insensitive? Were they patriotic… or power-hungry? Were they single-minded… or purblind?

He was determined that somehow, sooner or later, before committing himself to the lifetime repayment they were bound to demand of him, he must break loose long enough to take a detached view and make his mind up about the rights and wrongs of the brain race.

That was what set him on the trail of what he later found to be a 4GH code. He deduced from first principles that there must be a way of allowing authorized persons to drop an old identity and assume a new one, no questions asked. The nation was tightly webbed in a net of interlocking data-channels, and a time-traveler from a century ago would have been horrified by the degree to which confidential information had been rendered accessible to total strangers capable of adding two plus two. (“The machines that make it more difficult to cheat on income tax can also ensure that blood of the right group is in the ambulance which picks you up from a car crash. Well?”) Yet it was known that not merely police informers, FBI agents and counterspies continued to go about their secret business, but also commercial spies—party agents shepherding million-dollar bribes—procurers serving the carnal purposes of the hypercorps. It was still true that if you were rich enough or had the ear of the proper person, you could avoid and evade.

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