The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“Should have guessed. Should say sorry, too. But she knows quite a lot of the staff, and she called up today to ask if I was doing anything this evening or could she drop by for dinner, so I said there was this party and she could ride my back.”

“So she isn’t with the corp. I thought maybe. What’s she doing with her life?”



“Oh, nothing worth mentioning. Going back next fall for another course of study. Right here at UMKC, again. And she’s twenty-two, damn it!” In a lower voice—but Sandy already knew that damaging number, no extra harm involved. “I could peg it if she wanted to go study in Australia, or even Europe, but… And she blames it all on this cat her father gave her!” At which point she caught sight of Rico Posta signaling for her to go talk with him and Dolores van Bright, and separated with a mutter of excuses.

A few seconds, and while he was still debating whether to pay another call on the autobar, Kate was at his side. The room was crowded now—fifty-odd guests were present—and last time he saw her she had been the far side of the floor.

It followed she had been watching him as keenly as Vivienne. (No, not any more. Hooray. Mental welfare was taking time out.) What do I do—run?

“How long are you going to be in KC?” Kate demanded.

“The usual. As long as G2S and I agree I should.”

“You’re claiming to be the bounce-around type?”

“It’s bounce or break,” he said, trying to make the cliché sound like what it was supposed to be: a flip substitute for a proper answer.

“You’re the first person I’ve met who can say that as though he means it,” Kate murmured. Her eyes, dark brown and very piercing, were constantly on his face. “I knew the moment you came in there was something unusual about you. Where did you bounce in from?” And, while he was hesitating, she added, “Oh, I know it’s rude to pry into people’s pasts. Ina’s been telling me since I learned to talk. Like you don’t stare, you don’t point, you don’t make personal remarks. But people do have pasts, and they’re on file at Canaveral, so why let machines know what your friends don’t?”

“Friends are out of fashion,” he said, more curtly than he had intended…and how long was it since he had been taken that much off his guard? Even pronouncing that curse on Fluckner—already the encounter felt as though it lay ages behind him—had not been as disturbing as his casual party conversation. Why? Why?

“Which doesn’t mean nonexistent,” Kate said. “You’d be a valuable friend. I can sense it. That makes you rare.”

A sudden possibility struck him. It could be that this plain, thin, unprepossessing girl had found a way to reach men who would not otherwise regard her as attractive. The offer of friendship, deeper than the commonplace acquaintanceships of the plug-in lifestyle, might well appeal to those who hungered for solid emotional fare.

He almost voiced the charge, but he seemed to taste in advance the flavor of the words. They were like ashes on his tongue. Instead, with reluctance, he said, “Thank you. I take that as a compliment though thousands wouldn’t. But right now I’m thinking more of the future than the past. I didn’t enjoy my last position too much. What about you? You’re studying. What?”

“Everything. If you can be enigmatic, so can I.” He waited.

“Oh! Last year, water ecology, medieval music and Egyptology. The year before, law, celestial mechanics and handicrafts. Next year, probably—Is something the matter?”

“Not at all. I’m just trying to look impressed.”

“Don’t bleat me. I can tell you’re not wondering why anybody should waste time on such a mishmosh. I see that look all the time on Ina’s face, and her so-called friends’ here at the company.” She paused, pondering. “Maybe…Yes, I think so. Envious?”

My God! How did she catch on so quickly? To have the chance without being fettered by the demands of Tarnover, without having it drummed into your mind nonstop that every passing year sees you three million further into the government’s debt…

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