The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Riding high on the public Delphi boards right now was a prediction that the next dollar issue would be plastic with a one- or two-year life. Well, plus ça small change plus c’est biodegradable…

He tipped the coins into his smelter without counting them because only the weight of the eventual ingot mattered, and turned to the other task he was obliged to complete before he quit work for the day: analysis of the Delphi forms the congregation had filled out. There were many fewer than there had been back in April; then, he’d expected fourteen or fifteen hundred, whereas this week’s input was barely half that. Even seven hundred and some opinions, though, was a far wider spread than most individuals could hope to invoke, particularly while in the grip of acute depression or some other life-style crisis.

By definition, his congregation all had life-style crises.

The forms bore a series of bald statements each summarizing a personal problem, followed by blank spaces where any paid-up member of the church was invited to offer a solution. Today there were nine items, a sad contrast with those palmy days in the spring when he’d had to continue on the second side of the form. Now the word must be out on the mouth-to-mouth circuit: “Last time they only gave us nine things to delph, so next Sunday we’re going to…” What’s the opposite of a snowball? A thawball?

Despite the failure of his old high hopes, though, he determined to go through the proper motions. He owed it to himself, to those who regularly attended his services, and above all to those whose heart-cries of agony had been eavesdropped on today.

Item A on the list he disregarded. He had invented it as a juicy lure. There was nothing like a scandal of the kind that might eventually make the media to grab people’s attention. The bait was the vague hope that one day soon they might notice a news report and be able to tell each other, “Say, that bit where the poker got shot for messing with his daughter—remember we comped that one at church?” A link with yesterday, tenuous, but to be prized.

Wryly he re-read what he had dreamed up: I am a girl, fourteen. All the time my father is drunk and wants to plug into me but he creds so much for liquor I don’t get none to pay my piece when I go out and they repossessed my…

The responses were drearily predictable. The girl should apply to the courts and have herself declared of age, she should tell her mother at once, she should denounce her father anonymously, she should get a doc-block put on his credit, bale out of home and go live in a teener dorm—and so forth.

“Lord!” he said to the air. “If I programmed a computer to feed my confessional booth, people would get better advice than that!” Nothing about this project was working out in the least as he had hoped.

Moreover, the next item enshrined a genuine tragedy. But how could one help a woman still young, in her thirties, a trained electronics engineer, who went to orbit on a six-month contract and discovered too late that she was subject to osteochalcolysis—loss of calcium and other minerals from her skeleton in zero-gee conditions—and had to abort the job and now was in danger of breaking bones if she so much as tripped? Without chance of appeal her guild had awarded her contract-breaker status. She couldn’t sue for reinstatement unless she worked to pay the lawyer, she couldn’t work unless the guild allowed it, she… Round and round and round.

There’s a lot of brave new misery in our brave new world!

Sighing, he shook the forms together and piled them under the scanner lens of his desk computer for consolidation and a verdict. For so few it wasn’t worth renting time on the public net. To the purr of the air compressor was added the hush-hush of the paper-sorter’s plastic fingers.

The computer was secondhand and nearly obsolete, but it still worked most of the time. So, provided it didn’t have a b-d overnight, when the shy kids and the worried parents and the healthy but inexplicably unhappy middlers and the lost despairing old ‘uns came back for their ration of spiritual reassurance, each would depart clutching a paper straw, a certificate redolent of old-fashioned absolute authority: its heading printed in imitation gold leaf declaring that it was an authentic and legal Delphi assessment based on contributions from not fewer than _____* hundred consultees (* Insert number; document invalid if total fails to exceed 99) and delivered under oath/deposition in presence of adult witnesses/notary’s seal ** (** Delete as applicable) on _____ (month) __ (day) 20_____ (year).

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