The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

The adjacent channel should have been spare. It wasn’t. A Chinese pirate satellite had taken it over to try and reach midwestern American émigrés. There was a Chinese tribe near Cleveland, so he’d heard, or maybe it was Dayton. Not speaking the language, he moved on, and there were commercials. One was for a life-styling consultancy that he knew maintained private wards for those clients whose condition was worsened instead of improved by the expensive suggestions they’d been given; another was for a euphoric claimed not to be addictive but which was—the company marketing it was being sued by the FDA, only according to the mouth-to-mouth circuit they’d reached the judge, he was good and clutched, and they’d have cleared their profit and would be willing to withdraw the product voluntarily before the case actually came to trial, leaving another few hundred thousand addicts to be cared for by the underfunded, overworked Federal Health Service.

Then there was another pirate broadcast, Australian by the accents, and a girl in a costume of six strategic bubbles was saying, “Y’know, if all the people with life-style crises were laid end to end… Well, I mean, who’d be left to actually lay them?” That prompted him to a faint grin, and since it was rare to pick up an Australian show he had half-decided to stick with this for a while when a loud buzzer shrilled at him.

Someone was in the confessional booth at the main gate. And presumably at this time of night therefore desperate.

Well, being disturbed at all hours was one of the penalties he’d recognized as inescapable when he created the church. He rose, sighing, and shut off his screen.

Memo to selves: going into three-vee for a while might be a good idea. Get back in touch with the media. Or has priesthood used up the limited amount of public exposure the possessor of a 4GH can permit himself in a given span of time? If not, how much left?

Must find out. Must.

Composing his features into a benign expression, he activated the three-vee link to the confessional. He was apprehensive. It was no news to the few who kept in circuit that the Billykings and the Grailers had counted seven dead in last week’s match, and the latter had come out ahead. As one might expect; they were the more brutal. Where the Billykings were normally content to disable their captives and leave them to struggle home as best they might, the Grailers’ habit was to rope and gag them and hide them in some convenient ruin to die of thirst.

So the caller tonight might not be in need of counsel or even medication. It might be someone sussing out the church with a view to razing it. After all, in the eyes of both tribes it was a pagan shame.

But the screen showed him a girl probably too young to be inducted in either tribe: at a glance, no older than ten, her hair tousled, her eyes red-rimmed with weeping, her cheeks stained with dust down which tears had runneled. A child who had overreached her ability to imitate an adult, presumably, lost and frightened in the dark—Oh! No! Something more, and worse. For he could see she was holding a knife, and on both its blade and her green frock there were smears so red they could well be fresh blood.

“Yes, little sister?” he said in a neutral tone.

“Father, I got to make confession or I’ll be damned!” she sobbed. “I shivved my mom—cut her all to bits! I guess I must have killed her! I’m sure I did!” Time seemed to stop for a long moment. Then, with what calm he could summon, he uttered what had to be said for the benefit of the record… because, while the booth itself was sacrosanct, this veephone circuit like all such was tied into the city police-net, and thence to the tireless federal monitors at Canaveral. Or wherever. There were so many of them now, they couldn’t all be in the same place.

Memo to selves: would be worth knowing where the rest are.

His voice as gritty as a gravel road, he said, “My child”—aware as ever of the irony in the phrase—”you’re welcome to unburden your conscience by confiding in me. But I must explain that the secrecy of the confessional doesn’t apply when you’re talking to a microphone.” She gazed at his image with such intensity he fancied for a moment he could see himself from her point of view: a lean dark man with a broken nose, wearing a black jerkin and a white collar ornamented with little gilt crosses. Eventually she shook her head, as though her mind were too full of recent horror to leave room for any new shocks.

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