The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“I’ve had them up since January,” was her curt reply. “They’ve furnished my mind, and that’s what counts. When you’ve drunk that, grab a paint-spray.”

He had arrived at around five P.M. A quarter of ten saw them in a freshly whitened framework, cleansed of what Kate no longer felt to be necessary, cleared of what the city scrap-and-garbage team would remove from the stoop come Monday morning and duly mark credit in respect of. There was a sense of space.

They sat in the spacefulness eating omelets and drinking the last of the real beer, which was good. Through the archway to the kitchen they could see and hear Bagheera gnawing a beefbone with old blunt teeth, uttering an occasional rrrr of contentment.

“And now,” Kate said, laying aside her empty plate, “for the explanations.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a virtual stranger. Yet you’ve spent five hours helping me shift furniture and fill garbage cans and redecorate the walls. What do you want? To plug into me by way of payment?” He sat unspeaking and immobilized.

“If that were it…” She was gazing at him with a thoughtful air. “I don’t think I’d say no. You’d be good at it, no doubt about that. But it isn’t why you came.” Silence filled the brightly whitened room, dense as the feathers in a pillow.

“I think,” she said eventually, “you must have come to calibrate me. Well, did you get me all weighed and measured?”

“No,” he said gruffly, and rose and left.

INTERIM REPORT “Bureau of Data Processing, good afternoon!”

“The Deputy Director, please. Mr. Hartz is expecting my call… Mr. Hartz, I thought you should know that I’m approaching a crisis point, and if you care to come back and—

“Oh. I see. What a pity. Then I’d better just arrange for my tapes to be copied to your office.

“Yes, naturally. By a most-secure circuit.”

IMPERMEABLE It was a nervous day, very nervous. Today they were boarding him: not just Rico and Dolores and Vivienne and the others he had met but also august remote personages from the intercontinental level. Perhaps he should not have shown a positive reaction when Ina mentioned the corp’s willingness to semi-perm him, hinted that eventually they might give him tenure.

Stability, for a while at any rate, was tempting. He had no other plans formulated, and out of this context he intended to move when he chose, not by order of some counterpart to Shad Fluckner. Yet a sense of risk grew momently more agonizing in his mind. To be focused on by people of such power and influence—what could be more dangerous? Were there not at Tarnover people charged with tracking down and dragging back in chains Nickie Haflinger on whom the government had lavished thirty millions’ worth of special training, teaching, conditioning? (By now perhaps there were other fugitives. He dared not try to link up with them. If only… !) Still, facing the interview was the least of countless evils. He was preening prior to departure, determined to perfect his conformist image to the last hair on his head, when the buzzer called him to the veephone.

The face showing on the screen belonged to Dolores van Bright, with whom he had got on well during his stay here.

“Hi, Sandy!” was her cordial greeting. “Just called to wish you luck when you meet the board. We prize you around here, you know. Think you deserve a long-term post.”

“Well, thanks,” he answered, hoping the camera wouldn’t catch the gleam of sweat he felt pearling on his skin.

“And I can strew your path with a rose or so.”

“Hm?” Instantly, all his reflexes triggered into fight-or-flight mode.

“I guess I shouldn’t, but… Well, for better or worse. Vivienne dropped a hint, and I checked up, and there’s to be an extra member on the selection board. You know Viv thinks you’ve been overlooked as kind of a major national resource? So some federal twitch is slated to join us. Don’t know who, but I believe he’s based at Tarnover. Feel honored?”

How he managed to conclude the conversation, he didn’t know. But he did, and the phone was dead, and he was…

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